A few moments ago, we heard St. Matthew`s account of what we call the Parable of the Sower. This parable appears in three of the four Gospels which tends to indicate that it`s rather important. In fact when you look at it in Mark`s Gospel Jesus makes this very point; he tells the disciples, ”Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables?” (Mark 4.13)

It would seem that this short parable means quite a lot to the Lord and that it`s required learning for those of us who would seek to follow him. And I want to suggest that this `importance` has on the one hand something to do with what Jesus thinks he`s doing and on the other, something to do with giving us an insight into his view of the world. So, let`s firstly remind ourselves as we do again and again, of what this teaching is about. It`s referred to twice in Matthew`s version this morning. In verse eleven the Lord speaks of `the secrets of the Kingdom` and in verse nineteen `the word of the Kingdom`.

This subject of the Kingdom (the in breaking reign of God) is the heart of his teaching. And let`s get this absolutely clear; what Jesus is doing is announcing that something that is happening. He`s declaring that in and through him and his ministry there is a material change in our circumstances. He`s ushering in what we might call `world regime change`. And he follows up his `announcing` with action. He describes but then (through his healings and encounters; his eating and drinking with all the `wrong` people) he demonstrates something of what it looks like when this new order breaks in upon us; he gives us clear examples of what it`s like to get caught up in this new way of being a world; this new way of being a human.

So, this for example, is where his great Sermon on the Mount and the parables come in. He tells us that when our Father God chooses to extend his reign he uses (to our way of thinking) the most unlikely ones; the meek, the poor in spirit, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness and so on. And then he talks about how the means by which this kingdom grows are also less assertive and spectacular than we might imagine or wish…. There`s an `under the surface` quality to the Kingdom. Jesus speaks of yeast, of seeds growing secretly, of a great treasure which has the capacity to captivate us to the extent that we will give everything for it.

Now the importance of today`s Parable lies in what it teaches us about his persistence in the face of this world which is not wired to receive or accept what he has to say. Earlier this week I was given a little picture postcard. The photograph was taken during wartime. It was the era of what was called “Dig for Victory”. And so in this picture, we see a farmer walking in the shadow of the Langdale Pikes, casting seed. It`s not the kind of thing you normally do hereabouts and the person who gave me the picture told me how the locals in Chapel Stile still marvel at the great optimism of trying to grow wheat in such wet and stony conditions; and sure enough it wasn`t very successful.

And it led me to wonder whether Jesus wasn`t perhaps beset by the same kind of `nay-saying` as he embarked on his work of proclamation in far from ideal conditions. I wonder whether he heard voices from within and without that said to him… “You`ll not make any progress with this lot!” But all the while he persists; he continues to state his case with astonishing generosity and at great cost. And THIS I think is the foundational point of this parable. Just notice for example, how the seed, this `word of the Kingdom` isn`t being delicately planted. It`s not rationed, or selectively delivered… On the contrary, it`s being scattered everywhere in the most profligate manner.

What I`m suggesting is that this parable illustrates the heart and attitude of Jesus; his generosity and persistence. It`s this same heart and attitude which needs to form and become part of us if we are to be faithful. Fired, I would suspect by passages like our Old Testament Reading this morning (Isaiah 55.10-13); full of confidence in what the Lord God will do … Like the sower, Jesus simply sows the seed of the Kingdom in a lavish and generous way. He announces God`s truth and Kingdom come what may. Which leads us to ponder how easy it is in our day, to be less than generous and confident; somewhat cowed by peoples` apparent resistance to the Kingdom. At least that`s how it can sometimes feel.

And this is where we end up when we forget that the Gospel of God is an announcement. This is where we end up when we begin to imagine instead, that that we`re in the business of persuading people. No, Jesus` model is “persistent and profligate announcement”. A generous sharing of good news which has cosmic as well as personal significance. He is our example. We bear his message about something which is happening….. independent of us….. We can have confidence that the kingdom reign of God is where the tide of history is really going. Yes, largely unseen, unacknowledged by many but nonetheless unstoppable.

Yes, it`s easy to become downcast when we encounter people who for years seem impermeable to the things of God.

But our task is simply to state … “There`s been a change of management. The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand… Turn around… you`re going the wrong way. Be Baptised… be born anew. Receive the Gift of the Holy Spirit. Become one of the People of God”.

There`s a `given-ness` about the message; a lavishness and a generosity in its delivery…… and a refusal to be daunted by the outward nature of the soil. So, how I wonder, might this picture begin to colour our sense of what we`re about?

Last Shrove Tuesday you kindly allowed Margaret and I to share stories of our journey to Nepal and you generously brought some puddings to share and made it quite a festive evening. A few days later I was stopped by someone in the supermarket who had heard about what a happy time we`d had; but what they couldn`t understand was how we could possibly put on such an evening without charging for it?

I can`t help thinking that the experience of generosity is one of the doors to the Kingdom. I think of one of the Churches not far from here which became well known for hosting a free party in the park for parishioners. Or last week I heard about another Church which recently hosted a free Barbeque… just as a way of making friends. And they did! But what was behind it all was the willingness to take the risk of being generous…

Perhaps you might like to ponder that… Think about what it`s felt like when your cup overflowed; or when someone didn`t give up on you or was kinder than you expected or deserved? Or how you felt having been generous to someone else? It seems to me that we live today with an undercurrent of `scarcity`. That somehow there isn`t enough to go around… “what`s mine is mine” and all the rest. Our fallen nature leaves us curled in on ourselves… And the Church gets into the same place when we fall into the trap of trying to persuade rather than proclaim.

When we make this mistake, we put ourselves and our own efforts front and centre… We begin to think that everything depends on us… We forget that our task (in the face of what often looks like unpromising terrain) is just generous sowing. Generous and persistent sowing… and we leave the outcome to the Lord.

Yes, again, it`s perplexing that so many simply don`t get it. And yes, that`s the basic reality to which this parable also points…. But notice, it concludes, doesn`t it, with a bountiful harvest? Because, that`s ultimately where things are going. This parable invites us not to lose heart. It calls us to become more fully `subjects` of the Kingdom ourselves and then to speak and live for Christ both persistently and generously.

One of the most frequent observations people make about this building is “What a lovely ceiling”. And what they often assume is that the work on the ceiling was done at the same time as the re-ordering; largely, I think because it`s such a good match. But I have to tell them “No, the ceiling was actually replaced following the dreadful fire we had some years before…” and I`m told that much of the credit for its design goes to the late Jack Connell, a very committed member of our Church family.

But I`m always keen to take people beyond the splendid design to what it`s there to teach us. For example, I find children are especially good at looking at the ceiling and seeing what we`re ALL invited to see… namely, the shape of a boat. You might be aware, that`s why this part of the building is known as the Nave. The reference to the Navy should be obvious; so, as we arrive this morning we come into the boat of the Church and what`s going on is that we come into a visual representation of the Gospel story we heard a moment ago. (Mark 4.35-41) “When evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was”.

Now, throughout Jesus`s ministry there is a pattern of engagement and withdrawal; activity and reflection. We see how he ministers to the people but then we see how he also knows his need to step back. And this story is one such moment. At the end of a very busy time of preaching and teaching he withdraws… and he takes the disciples with him… `leaving the crowd behind`. So, the first point I want to do is to underline the point this ceiling makes… This sitting here in the Nave is a self-conscious gathering in the presence of Jesus. Something we deliberately do. This is what the people of God do.

I`d like to make two observations about this. Firstly, what might you do … and how can we help one another really register that point as we come through that door? That we come to be with him? I`m not talking about po-faced `Shushing`.. simply the question; “How would we deport ourselves if we were more aware that this is what we`re doing?”

Secondly, there are times in the Gospels where Jesus invites his friends to come and rest a while (Mark`s Gospel is actually case in point mark case in point Mark 6.31) but the significance of this passage is not so much the `resting` as travelling with him; journeying with him.

In other words, we mustn`t confuse Worship with leisure or the kind of refreshment we gain from entertainment. No, our gathering is an illustration of Jesus`s own insistence that we `do not live by bread alone… but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Luke 4.4). No, we gather around him, we feed on him in the eucharist and by our listening to him in order to be re-shaped and re-directed. So, we gather in the presence of Jesus… But secondly, we re-affirm our trust in Jesus. Again, the boat of the Church is going somewhere. It`s sometimes said that “a boat is at its safest in a harbour… but that`s not what it`s for”.

In the same way, the boat of the Church is not one of those rather glossy Gin Palaces down on the Lake; a rather ostentatious hobby. No, the boat of the Church is like the one in the Gospel; a fishing boat. We gather around Jesus with a purpose. It`s not a retreat from the action; it`s where we sign up for the action.

So this Gospel story mirrors and illustrates what we know to be true….. that when we`re faithful to him, life for the Church, the people of God is all too frequently quite a stormy affair. It`s in the boat of the Church that we learn to accept that this goes with the territory.

This also has two sides to it. Firstly, Mark is telling us that in getting mixed up with Christ we`re in the presence of the Lord of all creation. The storms stand for the primeval chaos we hear of in the Book of Genesis. This is his way of painting the big picture; that in Christ we see a new creation coming into being. Secondly, we who occupy the boat of the Church have first hand experience that this is not plain sailing… it`s often a painful process. I mean, that the Christian life will somehow give us immunity from the storms is the lie peddled by charlatans.

I reflected a couple of weeks ago on what a mystery this is to us but it`s irrefutably true. We pray each week for our brothers and sisters who face the storms of overt and deliberate persecution. Our own storms may be for now, rather less severe; but they are no less real and frightening. Someone described our situation as “Death by papercuts”.

So, by gathering around Jesus in the boat we acknowledge the storms we face and we pray for the grace of trust. I`m reminded of a meditation by Cardinal Newman which includes the words: “I will trust Him. Whatever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, He knows what He is about”.

We gather in the Lord`s presence… we affirm our trust in him… and then thirdly we learn to live in awe of him. I don`t know about you but I don`t feel I`ve ever been very good in a crisis. At least, not compared to one of my best friends. He was so cool it really didn`t surprise me when he told me that he`d joined the Bomb Disposal squad… Not that his mum was very pleased!

No, I`m far more like one of his colleagues in the Bomb Disposal Squad. He said they`d given him the nickname `Biscuit` because he always crumbled under pressure! But, we have to wonder don`t we at the reaction of the disciples? On the face of it their sense of panic was all too understandable. After all, there was the Lord fast asleep on the cushion. Notice it says `the cushion… The Lord was resting in the equivalent of the Captain`s chair and as such they expected leadership… a bit more of him!

This is where the disciples sense of terror and their complaints echo our own confusion that whilst the Lord may not be absent… sometimes he certainly seems quiet; if not asleep on the job. Well, this Gospel story gives us permission to pray with all of this. To ask ourselves, “Where are the storms in my life and in the life of the Church just now and what do I want to say to the Lord about it all?”

Put it this way; When he says, “Why are you afraid?” How would you answer? And, then what happens when you hear him saying to our storms, “Peace! Be still!” I wonder, having gathered in his presence… Having affirmed our trust in him… Can we go our way with our vision of God enlarged… and in awe of the one who commands even with wind and the waves?


Posted by: davidmwilmot | July 2, 2017

Learning to Speak Christian: in a world of opinion polls

Last week saw the publication of the annual survey of what are referred to as `British Social attitudes`. It was an attempt to provide a snap shot of where public opinion lies on a range of social and political issues and to see if it`s possible to discern any particular trends or changes. This always provides good newspaper copy and much to talk about and I noticed that this year the media were keen to highlight some findings which seem to indicate that attitudes among Christians seem rather `liberal` particularly in regard to matters of gender and sexuality than they have been in former years.

You`ll know which hot topics I`m referring to but it`s the tone of surveys like this which fascinates me. Putting it simply, I`m intrigued by two particular assumptions which seem built in to the whole process. The first is that any serious conversation or debate is frankly, closed down because it`s always taken for granted that what the majority thinks must be right.

And secondly, it always seems like an exercise in attempting to prove a particular view of the world; namely that we are on an inexorable path towards sweeping away most if not all of the patterns by which our lives have been shaped for many generations. In short, especially where matters relating to sexuality are concerned we will they imply, inevitably become more liberal and what we used to call `permissive` and of course, they say, this is undeniably a good thing.

So, that Christians might have been caught up in this is therefore a matter encouragement to them. This would seem to prove these underlying assumptions; and reaffirms that oft heard mantra that somehow it`s the Church`s obligation to `keep up with the times`; to become more modern, progressive, open, inclusive and all the rest… We hear words like these bandied around all the time, don`t we? And they tell us by way of warning, that the consequence of our failure to `liberalize` will mean we`re on the wrong side of history…..we`ll be irrelevant.

Now, I`m not going to get into any of these specific `hot topics` about which people obsess so much these days, I simply want to make the point that just in case you haven`t noticed, this is the kind of environment in which we now have to live out our faith. You hardly need me to tell you that these, shall we call them `liberalizing` influences on our attitudes and behavior are very strong indeed; it`s easy to be swept along by pragmatic phrases like `everyone`s doing it` and `it`s just the way things are these days`, isn`t it? It`s so much more convenient to assume that the only point of reference I have is whether it feels good or right to me… and besides I`m not harming anyone else….. and so on.

So how do we live in this kind of context…? How do we remain faithful to Christ? How do we discern the difference between a pattern of living which reflects God`s way for us from one which is a selling out to the spirit of an all too adolescent and self-indulgent age? Well, the first thing I would want to say is that half the battle is recognizing that there is an issue. It helps to at least try to affirm that the Christian life is not a matter of “I did it my way”, that our scriptures warn us against letting the world squeeze us into its likeness…(Romans 12.2) and that Christ tells us that `the way to life is a narrow way.. for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it`. (Matthew 7.13).

What I mean is that every so often it`s good just to acknowledge that to be a Christian is to live in a place of tension and choice. A very pointed verse in the Book of Deuteronomy says, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live”. (30.19)

The second thing is that we need to learn to pray with this tension. The best way to do this I think is to become familiar with the Psalms. The Psalms are the Prayer Book which undoubtedly formed Jesus… We say them at Morning and Evening Prayer… The first thing I do every day is to pray one of them. And one Psalm I often return to is the one we used this morning; Psalm 73. Not least because if you were paying attention you will have realized that it deals with this very issue of living in tension with the values of the surrounding culture.

The writer begins by saying (1) `Truly God is good to the upright, to those who are pure in heart`. He knows the theory of God`s goodness and providence but looking around him he feels strangely out of sorts (2) He says, `As for me, my feet had almost stumbled; my steps had nearly slipped`.

He`s perplexed, not just by the injustices of the world but by the way those who couldn`t give `tuppence` for God go along in their own sweet way and seem to thrive and prosper… (3-5)

He says, `I was envious of the arrogant; I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For they have no pain; their bodies are sound and sleek. They are not in trouble as others are; they are not plagued like other people.

What makes matters worse is that these people revel in their good fortune-

(6-9)   `Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them like a garment. Their eyes swell out with fatness; their hearts overflow with follies. They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression.  They set their mouths against heaven, and their tongues range over the earth`.

And to cap it all they become role models… Celebrities! Everybody thinks this is the way to get on life….

Seeing no justice in the world he turns to self-pity. Verse 13 `All in vain I have kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence. For all day long I have been plagued, and am punished every morning`. He clearly thinks, there`s obviously no point in all this religion, since I don`t get anything out of it; I must have backed the wrong horse.. It`s all out – dated.

But then a change comes over him….. (15) If I had said, ‘I will talk on in this way’, I would have been untrue to the circle of your children`, he says. He realizes there`s a bigger story going on; something bigger than his life experience and that not all people of faith respond to this injustice as he does. So, he`s even more perplexed… He says in verse 16 `When I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task`. It was metaphorically `doing his head in`!

But …… what makes the difference is Worship. (17) He says `(When) I went into the sanctuary of God; then I perceived their end. This is the place of vision. And what opens his eyes, what gives him a proper perspective again, is Worship. It`s here that he sees the underlying truth of things. How fragile their lives, how transitory their popularity is, how foolish their life choices. In worship, he begins to see how silly he`s been; how lacking in perspective: (21-22) `When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart, I was stupid and ignorant; I was like a brute beast towards you`. And what turns things is one word: `Nevertheless` (23-24) `Nevertheless I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterwards you will receive me with honour`.

It`s easy to believe that Christians might find themselves swept up in a tide of liberal propaganda. It always sounds so compelling and so reasonable, especially when you employ the language of `rights` and `equality` and `the majority says..` according to our survey or opinion poll. But it really doesn`t work like that. Our moral choices are not to be determined by the outcome of social surveys or the bland emotionalism of so-called celebrities. Neither is it a matter of enforcing rules and long lists of `thou shalt nots`… The moral life is not an exercise in avoiding walking on the cracks in the pavement… that`s really not how Christian ethics works. No, this morning I`ve asked us to reflect on one of the Psalms… a Psalm which teaches us that our understanding (and our practical action in the world) is best formed not by bullying or survey but by worship… By the vision of God and of a fully human life revealed in the Scriptures.

The Duke of Wellington once famously said that the “Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.” He was basically saying that his victory depended mostly on the character of his soldiers… `Eton` represented that long period of preparation and character formation which yielded its fruit in the heat of battle. In the midst of the apparent randomness of the battlefield the men responded appropriately because their behaviors had become instinctive. The problem, as Sam Wells rightly says, is that `Ethics has become the study of the battlefield without much recognition of the training ground`. It might sound old-fashioned to talk about training in virtue but maybe that`s an indication of how formed we have been by a somewhat liberal agenda. I`m suggesting that Church, Worship… (the Psalms especially) are our training ground. It`s here that we learn to think and speak `Christian`. It`s here that we learn not to give `tuppence` for what the surveys say.

From the very beginning humankind`s greatest problem has been idolatry; wrong worship. This is what you will find at the back of most, if not all of our red hot moral dilemmas. Our Psalm highlights the importance of `right worship` (letting God be God) and provokes us to ask the question, “So, what kind of community do we need to be so that we learn to think and speak `Christian`; and form and nurture lives that will be Christ-shaped witnesses to him in the world?”

Posted by: davidmwilmot | June 25, 2017

The Gospel: An Inconvenient Truth

I look at our Gospel reading this morning (Matthew 10.24-39) and it seems that we`re faced with some pretty pointed and challenging stuff. If we`re going to be like Jesus, he seems to be saying then just as they called him `a son of the devil` then we will be in for same kind of treatment. Just as he was on the receiving end of scurrilous accusations…. Well, brace yourself!

I wonder if, like me you find this a little difficult to get hold of? My first thought was how come such a transparently nice guy like Jesus gets treated like this? And how come we have to prepare ourselves for the same? Why, for heaven`s sake would anyone want to complain or criticise … let alone kill Jesus (or his followers for that matter) simply, we might imagine, for being transparently good? But then I realised that this is just a bit naïve.

I mean, let`s put our cards on the table. If we`re honest (and that`s always part of the challenge) we know that the world isn`t a particularly nice or especially rational place. And contrary to what we like to believe and imagine; and here`s the thing….. Jesus isn`t entirely `nice` either. There`s far more to him than niceness!

So, let`s begin by noting that the things which Jesus says this morning confront us with one of those conundrums that could keep us occupied for some time. It`s something we see and hear about every day. So many of our conversations are about the fact that there is something truly inexplicable and senseless about this thing we call evil, sin and wickedness. Time and again, the latest news headlines perplexes us and defy any sense of logic.

It doesn`t matter for example, whether it`s the horrifying murder of children attending a pop concert or the returning to your car only to find someone has scratched a knife across your bonnet…. We`re left casting around for answers. And the first thing to say, I think I would want to say is that in my experience we all too often we look in the wrong place.

You see, on picking up this train of thought I thought it would be important to try to avoid descending into platitudes. Platitudes are easy when we set ourselves the task of attempting to solve matters such the presence of evil… One person`s generalised statements are, shall we say as good as another. And they`re also something of an evasion. So, I found myself turning to the Lord`s Prayer. “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us… and Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil”.

This, of course, is very familiar territory. But let`s just notice for a moment that Jesus tells us that before there`s any consideration of the wrongs we have suffered we have to ponder the great wrong God has suffered through us. To put it another way, before we start getting perplexed about the irrational and wantonly wrong behaviour of others it helps to begin with how far these tendencies manifest themselves in our own lives.

Earlier this week I was browsing some DVD`s in a charity shop and I came across a Movie that was made some years ago called “An Inconvenient Truth”. You might know, it was made some years ago and it`s quite a hard-hitting documentary about the effects of global warming and not least our contribution to it.

Now, let me come clean… I know about this movie… I haven`t seen it… and if I`m honest I really don`t want to! So, I didn`t even think of buying it. Why not? Well, because I`d have to change wouldn`t I? I find it far easier, so much more `convenient`, as the title of the movie suggests… to perhaps join in the chorus of those who call it all `fake news` and so on.

And this is what we do all the time isn`t it? Think of another example. Think for a moment about how much of our medical care… or how much medical research is currently being devoted not to make us well… but to help us maintain what are manifestly unhealthy lifestyles?

We know it`s irrational… But we say, “Give me a cure for lung cancer… but let me keep smoking”. “Give me a pill to stop me getting fat … so that I can continue eating what I want…” and so on. Rather than face the truth that I need to change my eating habits what I want is a pill to take so that I don`t have to change.

I`ve spent quite a lot of time over the past week listening to people talk about Jesus… a lot of it very interesting indeed. But after a while I became a little weary of hearing the same old mantras: “Jesus loves everyone… Jesus accepts us as we are… Jesus loves us unconditionally” and so on.

Eventually I realised that what I WASN`T hearing was anyone use the words that Jesus himself uses, such as “Repent”. Turn around…. Drop your agenda and trust me for mine. I don`t for a moment cast doubt on His `love` for us. This I would suggest is beyond doubt or dispute… But this love is not a pill we can take so as to stay as we are. No, Christians speak of the `fire` of God`s love; which is no fuzzy or vague thing. As one wise Christian said, it`s about “seeking the highest good of the other”.

And here`s the thing, it means recognising and living in the truth…. As we all know, this is a particular challenge for gentlemen when asked to give an opinion on whether your wife`s new dress really fits the bill…… ! So, why would they hate Jesus? Well, because it is a defining characteristic of love that as Paul says, it “rejoices in the truth” (1 Corinthians 13.6).

In his love Jesus brings the (inconvenient) truth of our condition to light. So, he says, “Repent… you`re going the wrong way… there`s a better way of being human”. Pardon me… “Yes, darling that suit has seen better days!” And the Holy Spirit we have received, says Jesus, will “Guide us into all truth” (John 16.13).

A young man once told me of his difficult life; of the many bad choices he has made and of the people he has hurt. And although he has been a Christian for many years, he told me that he`s managed to gloss over the fact that whilst he had often sought forgiveness, many of the same behaviours simply continued. He had come to see that she had a faith that helped her cope… but not one that led her into change… It`s so much easier that way…

What happened was that earlier this week (while in the shower, no less!) he said she had a vision of a box. As it opened he realised that it contained all these attitudes and ways of behaving that had been so destructive in his life and for the first time he saw them for what they were…. It was a vision in which he saw the truth and heard the call to repent. This inconvenient and uncomfortable encounter with the truth was an encounter with the love of God. Jesus says, “You will know the truth and the truth shall set you free….” (John 8.32)

Some accept this inconvenient truth… Others, like those who eventually killed Jesus, refuse to face the truth of who they are and what they have become and treat him with scorn. And this, is I would suggest our default setting. I mean, who among us…? Who among those around us have truly entered into the reality of our created-ness, our vulnerability, our folly and yet our blessedness? Who among us..? Who among those around us are therefore free of veneer and attempts at self-justification? Who among us…? Who among those around us would not be embarrassed were our `box` to be opened in public? There`s nowhere to hide. Jesus says, “Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known”. (Matthew 10.26). So, our Gospel this morning is an account of the inconvenient truth of our lives.

Before we sally forth into grand speculations about the irrationality of evil the Gospel Good News is an invitation to examine its roots in the depths of our own hearts and lives and know, as Jesus again says in that passage… `We have no need to fear`. (Matthew 10.26). It`s clear from John`s Gospel that Jesus feels the bitterness of sin`s `irrationality`. He found solace in one of the Psalms, which says “They hated me without a cause”. (Psalm 69.4 John 15.25)

The presence of evil in the world is a great mystery. This stuff is hard to process. But there are two threads that we can pick up on. The first is that …what I call the `irrationality` of it is most keenly felt wherever there is light and truth and goodness. There is a lashing out… It`s not very nice… but that`s how it is. And Jesus is telling us that just as he brought the truth to those around him and received such a stark response, we shouldn`t be surprised when -in living the truth- the same thing should happen to us.

Then, secondly, so as to keep us `earthed` it helps not to get lost in speculations. It helps, I think, to look into ourselves and examine the roots of all of this in the depths of our own hearts. To sin, is to miss the mark. In Christ, we know forgiveness but this is always accompanied by the call to repent… to turn around and follow him.

Many a Spiritual Director when presented with someone who`s in a bit of a quandary; having listened for a while, will often as not say, “I think you`re in a good place just now”. At this point people feel even more uncomfortable because it doesn`t feel like a very good place. Especially when what we want, what we`d much prefer is a pill, something to make it better so that we can carry on as before. The wisdom in that remark is borne of an awareness that the box is being opened… The inconvenient truth of the Gospel is being engaged with and as Jesus says: we are not to be afraid. As someone said, the Good News is that “God is always at work in the one whose desire is to know, taste, live and relish the truth of their own being and existence”.

Posted by: davidmwilmot | June 18, 2017

Don`t think too much about God: Let God happen to you

I sat by the man`s hospital bedside with a strange mixture of emotions. “You know, Vicar”, he said. “I`m not sure I really believe any of this”. The man was within days of dying and here was an invitation, you might think, to get into a theological discussion. I warmed to his honesty but he was tired, heavily medicated as the dying often are these days and (though it`s not impossible) it`s very difficult to do your religious homework at that stage in life…

But two things have stayed with me. Firstly, here was a man who had been at worship each Sunday for much of his life (though it was the “wife`s fault”, he always insisted!) and secondly, I was bothered by the way he narrowed faith down to what we might call a `zero-sum game`. Basically he had bought into the idea that faith was a matter of either there is a God or there isn`t ……..and in those last days he really wasn`t so sure.

Now, there was an awful lot going on in that conversation and I`m not reporting it in a flippant or disrespectful way. I was simply saddened that after all these years there was so much about the faith that he hadn`t embraced and that he had become so stuck. I understand why people get hung up on what we call the `God` debate; and far cleverer minds than mine engage with it all ……but it`s always struck me as the wrong way to go about things. Theological and philosophical arguments and so-called `proofs` of the existence or otherwise of the one we refer to as God always generate far more heat than light don`t they?

I`m not against using the brains we`ve been given but if this were the way we were to go about things I just find it interesting that there`s precious little sign of it for example, in the life and ministry of Jesus. I don`t see Jesus wasting his time on speculations. No his approach is to make an announcement. As we are told this morning, he `proclaims` the Good news of the Kingdom… and then asks his followers to do the same. (Matthew 9 35, 10.36)

In other words, it`s not that the questions don`t matter but Jesus doesn`t treat God (His Father) as a concept or a subject of speculation. No, he goes about his business announcing that something has happened, something is happening and something will happen and then he invites us to open our eyes. This `something` is the Kingdom reign of God. And this is why so many of the healing miracles have to do with blindness and sight. Coming to see what`s really going on. “Behold” is one of my favourite Biblical words.

And St. Paul, who wasn`t averse to the occasional theological argument adopts pretty much the same approach in our Epistle this morning. (Romans 5.1-8) In trying to build up the peoples` faith he doesn`t speculate about the existence or otherwise of God he also points to what has happened, is happening and will happen.

In that short piece from his letter to the Church in Rome Paul tells us about the material change that has come about because of the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus and he asks us to open our eyes and to see how we have been caught upon in it all. What`s happened? Well firstly, he says we have been `justified by faith` (Romans 8.1) Justification in the New Testament is about the final judgement which God will make; it`s about our being declared `in the right`.

Paul is saying that Christians can experience this sense of being justified in the here and now by our faith in Christ. Put it another way; the pressure is off. Unlike many around us, we don`t have to live out o0ur days pursuing all manner of `self-justifying activity`. There`s no need to as we say, `justify our existence` and so on. So, as a consequence, Paul goes on to say, “We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 8.1). The word `peace` here has a far richer meaning than we might appreciate. It`s much more than `Give peace a chance` or `ban the bomb`… it`s about experiencing the life of the kingdom; the age of the Messiah in the here and now… (Like we say, “a bit of heaven on earth”)

Then in verse two Paul says that through Christ we stand `under grace`. Curiously, he`s saying far more than (as we might expect) that we are the objects of His unmerited and unconditional love… No, he`s saying that we`ve entered the `sphere` of God`s grace. To put it another way, it`s as if we`ve been brought into the court of the King; and this is where we have, he says taken `our stand`. We belong in this new space, breathing this new air and this new relationship is as someone says is “not sporadic but continuous, not precarious but secure”. (John Stott) And there`s much more on the horizon. Pauls says, “We boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God” (Romans 5.2)

All of which acts not as an insulation from the troubles we face but as a way of understanding and navigating our way through them. Christian struggles are a sharing in the path taken by Christ; they form a robust faith and are often the occasion in which a window is opened onto the Lord`s providence. And these wonderful few verses are capped off by one of those lines we should all commit to memory. “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us”. (Romans 5.8) Or if you can`t manage that try, “God helps those who can`t help themselves”.

So, let`s put it this way. This morning`s readings tell us that Christ announces the presence of the Kingdom reign of God; a material change and Paul illustrates it by telling us what it means: `We are Justified, we have peace with God, we live under grace, with the hope of glory, a robust faith and as redeemed sinners`.

There`s SO much in these few verses which, as I say are a statement of what has happened, is happening and will happen. Back there at that bedside I was well aware that speculation; all that `head-work` has its place but the Psalms tells, “Taste and see that the Lord is Good” (Psalm 34.8) Open your eyes.

I remember many years ago being told: “Don`t think too much about God… let him happen to you”. The ground on which we walk is holy. Burning bushes are everywhere to be seen. The trick is making a commitment to act on the truth of what Jesus proclaims. Going about our business as part of God`s story as if this Kingdom is real. And learning to see ourselves as those who are Justified, who have peace with God, living under grace, with the hope of glory, a robust faith and as redeemed sinners`. Do this now. Don`t leave your theological homework to the end.

Taste and see. Let God happen to you.

A few years ago, one of our Bishops hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons. He had been to a lunchtime reception and had become somewhat merry. On his way home, he was restrained by the police for his somewhat erratic behaviour and when asked for his name he allegedly replied, “I`m the Bishop of Southwark. It`s what I do”. This was an unfortunate episode, though as today`s New Testament reading points out, he wasn`t the first Christian to be accused of being drunk! But as well as being both amusing and tragic, his reply is interesting. “I`m the Bishop of Southwark. It`s what I DO”.

I say this because firstly, as one of my colleagues reminded me….. when we speak of the Holy Spirit, as we do today; we`re speaking about God and we bring together these two things; who God IS and what God DOES. “I`m God, it`s what I DO”.

To put it another way it`s always seemed to me that if we`re going to say, “We believe in the Holy Spirit” then we can`t avoid speaking of him in the present tense… We`re talking `practical God`.

So, my first warning would be to take care for instance, whenever you hear people say things like, “Of course, Jesus WAS….” this that or the other. Take care when He is located as a figure from the past. Think very carefully when you hear that fashionable maxim, “What would Jesus do?”… as if he`s stepped out for a while, leaving us to get on with things under our own steam…. No, God IS as God DOES.

And what does God do? Well secondly, we need to notice that our scriptures teach us very clearly that the Holy Spirit comes to reveal and (as we say) to bear witness to Jesus. You see, when we speak of the Holy Spirit we are speaking of Jesus and we`re speaking of his continuing mission and ministry in and through the lives of his people. This gift, this active presence that we call the Holy Spirit doesn`t come apart from this task of revealing Him and drawing attention to Him. That`s why you need to have a care when you hear someone describe themselves as `spiritual`… The give-away is that invariably it`s all about THEM… rather than Jesus.

What I mean is that `Spiritual` is all too often a label people give to themselves so as to appear a bit `alternative`. And when you scratch beneath the surface their professed interest in `spiritual things`, (particularly words like the `power` of the Spirit) is all too often little more than a cover for their need to gain some kind of control over their life; or even over others. Basically, this `Spirit` (again they`ll talk in general terms rather than about Jesus) is some kind of fuel they can tap into at their own convenience.

Now, I`m not wishing to be unduly negative or cynical, I just think it needs pointing out that from the earliest days belief in the Holy Spirit has gone hand in hand with some pretty silly and dangerous notions. This is especially true today because as I`ve already hinted, the idea of some `generalised` spirit plays very well in our individualised culture. But the way we avoid this kind of pitfall is to look at the likes of our readings this morning. We could spend ages on this but let`s notice two things.

Firstly, in the Acts passage we heard about different languages; the experience of the wind and breath …….and a quotation from the Prophet Joel ……all of which point us in the direction of the Old Testament. These are the roots of our understanding of God the Holy Spirit. As ever, this is where our horizons are being expanded. We`re being reminded for example, about the Holy Spirit present both in the creation story and in the confusion of languages we learn about in the story of the Tower of Babel…. What I mean is that the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost is part of a much larger project than the sprucing up of my life; or of providing me with fuzzy or apparently holy feelings.

What`s at stake is the implementation of all that Christ did on the Cross- God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. So, what the disciples experienced… what WE experience- is a sense of being swept up in God`s recreating work. That first reading tells us that to receive the Holy Spirit (again) is to be caught up in God`s story…. His world narrative. And Jesus hammers it home in the Gospel where He tells the disciples: “As the Father sent me, so I send you”. We have a job to do. As our Gospel points out, there is a repentance (a turning around), forgiveness and reconciliation to be announced to a wayward world.

But then secondly, notice we`re not on our own. The Spirit creates the Church. God`s new humanity. Of course, it`s the Church that is the other casualty of this `fad` for being a supposedly `spiritual` person. Taking our cue from other philosophies and `isms` we define `spiritual` not just in rather ethereal and what we might call other-worldly terms… We think in individualised terms as well. So, God `however I wish to define him` becomes little more than a life-style choice; a reflection of my own need to hold things together or for a bit of peace and quiet.

In that sense, what we think of as `spiritual` has almost by definition to be set apart from our daily experience of tensions, disagreements and all the rest; and what need would I have for anyone else? Unless they are there to affirm my `spiritual` credentials!

“Body, Mind and Spirit” is the label the booksellers often use to display the vast range of writings encouraging us to adopt our own `spirituality`…. We pick and choose something that will enhance our uniqueness … “Because we`re worth it..!”

But tragically it`s all about creating illusions… and the casualties are many. Those who don`t give up (assuming they`ll never be `spiritual` enough) either persist in their isolation and their own `spiritual` trip or they`ll attempt to create their ideal `holy` club … which is frequently a conflict-free gathering of the like-minded. So how do we identify the real thing? Well, as someone said, “We come in search of a `spiritual experience` and we are perpetually surprised when we turn up here and all we are given is bread and wine and the messiness of human relationships in which for reasons we can`t fathom, God promises to be present”.

Again, because we`re surrounded by so many false and escapist notions of spirituality, that “Church” doesn`t much feel like the real thing. This is compounded by the way we associate the Spirit`s work far too much with our feelings and otherwise heightened states. But we`ve been duped. Forget these generalised notions of `spirituality`; spend some time in the company of St. John and in his Gospel you`ll hear Jesus teach you about who the Holy Spirit is and how you`ll see him at work.

Bread and wine- and the messiness of human relationships. Venture into this territory and you will see the Spirit at work… You`ll see `Jesus-shaped` things begin to happen.

So, where is the Holy Spirit? How will we recognise the Holy Spirit? Well, I say again, to speak of the Holy Spirit is to speak of God in the present tense. It means to speak (not, of fuzzy feelings) but of the continuing work and ministry of Jesus in the here and now; in and through his people. It means to speak of God`s great act of re-creating all things and bringing into being `a people for his praise`; a people called to lead creation in the worship of the creator.

So, to speak of the Holy Spirit, is to hold a great question mark over the world`s casual and general definitions of that word `spiritual` and to turn away from any attempts to use God for our purposes. Because, contrary to our many misconceptions, the Holy Spirit (the life and presence of God) is poured out `on all flesh` and into the messiness of human lives where the clear objective is to reveal a world under new management; the Kingdom of God.

Our God desires to create a community of people whose lives are distinctive; and characterised by `Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control` (Galatians 6.22-23) The things St. Paul refers to as the Fruit of the Spirit`. Yes, we learn to get used to our humility; our inability to live up to our high calling. -Each day we long to make a more consistent `Yes` to God. But we are here to let the life of Jesus shine in and through us; to bring forth the fruit of the Spirit; that the world may believe. Each day we learn to pray, `Come Holy Spirit`.

Posted by: davidmwilmot | May 28, 2017

Ascension: “I don`t know where God is anymore”

One of the most moving moments in the Gospels is that scene in the garden on Easter Day where Mary stands weeping outside the entrance to the tomb. (John 20). I say, `moving` because there are few of us who haven`t or won`t experience that same sense of loss, standing by a graveside.

But it`s a moment which succeeds in touching us on many levels. For example, it has it has a frankly `comic` side to it as well… as Mary mistakes Jesus for the Gardener! But the serious point is that the one whom she is seeking is right there in front of her. The God whom she longs for is right there with her – but she doesn`t recognise him. It`s the same Jesus but somehow… different. The tears have clouded her vision.

And then Mary says something which I think goes to the heart of this meeting with the risen Jesus. She`s asked: “Woman, why are you weeping?” She (says) “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” (John 20.13) What`s amazing is the language she uses: ‘They have taken away my Lord`. What she`s basically saying is, “They have taken my God away”. In other words, because of all she`s been through she`s saying: “I don`t know where God is anymore” ….

And this of course is another thing we find ourselves wrestling with in times of loss or grief or disappointment… It`s a question many will ask in the light of the events in Manchester last week. We simply can`t see where God is in this… We can`t see the point when the wicked can do such things….

Mary, of course, hears the Lord call her name and her eyes are opened. And then something else happens… She tries to get hold of Jesus and curiously he steps back saying, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father`. (John 20.17) What seems to be happening is that she`s being invited into a new way of seeing, recognising, and understanding Jesus. And at the heart of it is this `Ascension`…And of course, that`s the link with our first reading this morning.

You see what I want us to ponder this morning is that just as the experience of the cross and resurrection led Mary into a completely new understanding of God and his purposes for the world… so the same kind of thing is happening to the disciples. Just look again at those opening verses of the Acts of the Apostles…. We hear about a group of people who are frankly bewildered by Christ. He`s appeared to them and as he`s briefing them about the future they simply can`t get beyond the assumptions they`ve always had about him and about what God was going to do. These assumptions are, to say the least pretty earth-bound and limited. Their conception of God and what he is doing is still apparently wrapped up in a somewhat narrow and nationalistic agenda.

But this is where everything was about to change. Putting it simply; for the penny to drop they must lose sight of him. They must experience what Mary went through. They must know what it means to say: `We don`t know where God is anymore`. They must come to know him in an entirely new way. It`s not that he has literally `gone away` but now they need to learn to see him differently and interact with him differently.

Many years ago, when I was preparing for training my Director of Ordinands, as he was called was a lovely priest called Michael. He was kind and gracious and very wise. I met him some years after my ordination as he invited me to become Vicar of a parish. I said, “Hello Michael”. And then I was taken aback as he kindly said- “I think we`d better make that `Bishop Michael`”. Now, he wasn`t being po-faced.. he was quite correct. Our relationship had changed. And in a similar way at the Ascension, the disciples` vision of God is entirely re-framed. The Jesus they walked with in Galilee is now revealed as their Risen and Ascended Lord… And the point, I think, is that this is a process we all go through (perhaps many times) in our life of faith. Not least because, if we`re honest our sense of God is all too frequently far too small.

So, just think about it. A `Sunday School` faith – a childhood understanding of God- simply must grow and change and be capable of supporting an adult life lived for Christ. Far too many of us miss that opportunity for growth because the transition isn`t always comfortable. Often as not it involves some experience of death or loss; and as Mary and the disciples discovered it invariably means that he `disappears from our sight`. This is what I think we learn from those few verses at the beginning of Acts. In these days following the Ascension the church is, to some extent, in transition. They are as grief stricken, bewildered and uncomprehending as Mary was ….and as we often are…. And we need to become more adept at noticing moments such as these.

Because the problem is that in such moments of bewilderment, grief and disappointment where we don`t know where God is anymore…. The temptation is to walk away; to give up. But notice, the disciples grew because they went to pray.

So, what do they teach us? Well the first thing is that they were together. Luke goes to great length to list the names of this motley crew; these bewildered disciples. And we mustn`t underestimate the power of this simple point; this simple together-ness… Because I`ve sadly seen the faith of so many shipwrecked because in time of bewilderment they chose to isolate themselves.

Just when their sense of who the Lord God is and what he`s about needed re-shaping… they thought that prayer and worship was the LAST recourse. Whereas (as the disciples teach us) it should be the very first. Why? Well because secondly, in their prayer and worship they had the means; a framework for making the change; of coming to an enlarged vision of God. We mustn`t imagine for a minute that in their praying they were in any sense making this up. For example, we can be virtually certain that they will have been using the Psalms.

Now there are many reasons why the Psalms are important but one of the best is that they give us a grammar or a language of prayer…. Words to use when words won`t come. The Psalms both come to our help and stretch us hugely. And they give us permission to say all those things we have grown up believing we can`t or shouldn`t say in prayer: not least our questions…

Just listen to the passionate prayer that is Psalm 10

1 Why stand so far off, O Lord? Why hide yourself in time of trouble?

2 The wicked in their pride persecute the poor; let them be caught in the schemes they have devised.

3 The wicked boast of their heart’s desire; the covetous curse and revile the Lord.

4 The wicked in their arrogance say, ‘God will not avenge it’; in all their scheming God counts for nothing.

I mean, this is prayer `telling it like it is`… isn`t it? In a sense, the writer has a good old rant…. But the point is that we accompany this person (or maybe they accompany us) in not just getting these things out of our system… but in being led into a greater conception of God. That despite the bewilderment… the Lord God knows what he`s about.

Again, the writer says:

14 Surely, you behold trouble and misery; you see it and take it into your own hand.

15 The helpless commit themselves to you, for you are the helper of the orphan.

18 Lord, you will hear the desire of the poor; you will incline your ear to the fullness of their heart, (Psalm 10.14-18)

You see what`s going on here is more than trying to find a means of self-expression… (of getting things out of our system) it`s about getting in touch with the truth of who God is ….and who we are. From time to time, bewilderment just goes with the territory- because we are finite creatures. But it`s not the end of the story; and if we are wise it will be a moment of growth.

St. Paul told the Colossians: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God”. (Colossians 3.16)

Why? Not because he wanted to boost numbers at the Morning Service but because he knew that such praying forms us and keeps us in the truth especially when we`re being called to grow into a bigger vision of God. Someone said it`s rather like a trellis… such worship, such prayer provides an anchor for healthy growth.

So, in their time of bewilderment, waiting and uncertainty, the disciples pray. Firstly, they are together… and secondly, they let the Psalms, the scriptures shape their praying… and they are led into an enlarged vision of God. And this is a key point about praying and worshipping… It`s not about US… It`s not about self-expression; it`s about singing, chanting, recounting and being formed by the truth of who God is… especially when it seems that he`s been `taken from our sight` (Acts 1.9)


Posted by: davidmwilmot | May 11, 2017

Great is the mystery of faith

Jean Clarkson (1942-2017)

Today (11th May 2017) in a service at St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, we said farewell (for now) to our good friend Jean Clarkson- Churchwarden at St. Mary`s Windermere.

Following family Tributes I offered the following homily:

I realise that standing here I`m playing a little imaginative game with myself. Sunday by Sunday I would see Jean out of the corner of my eye (somewhere on my left) and today I am imagining her in the same direction… and somewhat embarrassed by all the nice things being said about her ….

Since it wouldn`t do to let us see too much evidence of that sensitive side of her nature, I imagine that this is the occasion on which she would likely as not want to `heckle` me!

It would probably go along the lines of, “Well, if you must, Vicar, make it short”… And I would likely as not reply (bearing in mind her often selective hearing) “Ah, you probably can`t hear me anyway….!”. And we would laugh…

So, let me say that keeping it short I simply want to say thank you to Jean. A personal one if I may… because Jean was extremely kind to me.

But I want (on all our behalf) to thank you Helen and Marcus- for sharing Jean with us; and especially for letting us share this time with you today. We can only imagine what her death will mean to you but we are grateful for being here because we`d like to give you some sense that you don`t bear these things alone.

I`d also like to say thank you to the people of St. Bees Priory. Those of us from St. Mary`s in Windermere are grateful for your kind welcome today.

But we want to thank you also for sharing Jean with us for these past nine or ten years. If I can put it rather bluntly, it has always been clear to me that we only ever had her `on loan`…. Because as she told me so often; this is where her heart lay.

But it`s because of this and because of what she described of her life here that I knew from the beginning what a wonderful Church Warden she would be.

It`s because of what she experienced here that she proved such a blessing to us. Because Jean understood that Church is people…. and that relationships matter, and no there`s nothing quite like a good Christmas Party especially when (as Jean did) you`ve convinced the hotel manager not to raise his prices from last year!

St. Mary`s is grateful for Jean`s humour and flirtatiousness… For the way she told the more po-faced us to `cheer up` and for all she taught us about the value of just being friends…. Because, it really isn`t `rocket science`. And yes, I`d like it known that we forgive her inability to get up on time for the ten o`clock service on a Wednesday morning!

And I suppose also, I again want to thank Jean for one little but very profound observation which I know meant a great deal to her.

You might remember, that there`s a moment in the service of Holy Communion where the president says, “Great is the mystery of faith” and we all respond, “Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again”.

Well, Jean transformed that little moment for me… and I think I`ll always associate her with it. She would say in such an animated way, “It really is a mystery isn`t it….?”

Like many of us, I suspect that when it comes to faith, Jean vacillated between on the one hand a deep sense that here was something she really couldn`t fathom (and she loved a good religious argument!) whilst on the other hand she was simply bowled over by the notion that she was in touch with something simply awesome…..

“Great is the mystery of faith… Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again”. These are three things we might for all manner of reasons also struggle to get our minds around… especially today…

But let there be no mistake; in life and in death we are in the presence of something… someONE simply awesome. The living Christ.

This is Christian living and dying. Paul tells us “Now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face”. (1 Corinthians 13.12) There is so much we don`t as yet understand… But that`s OK.

The point is that we are known, we are understood. And “Great is the mystery of faith… Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again”.

May Jean rest in peace and rise in glory.

Posted by: davidmwilmot | May 7, 2017

Living Resurrection: the Church Jesus wants

One of the things I enjoy about our children`s Workshop on Good Friday morning is sending the children out into the churchyard on their Easter Egg Hunt! As you can imagine, it`s something they rather enjoy as well…..! The more serious points behind this bit of amusement and the two things I always try to teach them is that firstly, the discovery of these eggs in unusual places is a way of reminding us what these days of Easter were rather like for the first disciples… As the Gospels tell us, there was this forty-day period in which they had repeated encounters with Jesus, often in unusual ways and places.

And then, secondly, I`ve begun to tell them that once they`ve found an egg they need to remember that their task changes… So, if they are fortunate enough to find another egg they have to give it to someone else…. and if not then the very least they must do is to help others in their search.

Now, at this point (for understandable reasons) I always anticipate a bit of a groan; I mean it`s almost a matter of instinct to avoid everyone else and either say “job done” when I`ve got my egg… or go in search of more chocolate again, entirely for myself. But the serious point behind this is my attempt to say that the events of Good Friday and Easter Day are about far more than what we might term “job done” – that`s my salvation is sorted out… and neither is it about me going in search more spiritual thrills, as it were, for my own benefit. No, if Good Friday and Easter do anything then they turn us outwards… Having been grasped by the wonder of it all we turn towards others… Putting it simply, we become the kind of people who draw others into encounter an with the risen Jesus.

It was summed up for me some years ago in the title of a book I came across. It was called `Practice Resurrection`(Eugene Peterson). In other words, what I want us to get hold of this morning is this sense that Good Friday and Easter Day have the quality of a `springboard` to them. There is a great momentum about Good Friday and Easter Day. Something incredible has been set in train. Resurrection has consequences… And this is perfectly illustrated by the first of our readings this morning, (Acts 2.42-47) where we see that one of the most important consequences of resurrection is the creation of a new community; the Church.

Just as resurrection is the announcement of God re-creating his world… so this involves the calling into being of a new model humanity… a community that demonstrates what life lived under God actually looks like. Now, we can only begin to touch on these things just now… but look again at those few verses from the Acts of the Apostles… I mean, you don`t need `A` levels to see what a distinctive and uniquely attractive community emerged in the days following the resurrection… The nature, quality and depth of their common life has been and remains an encouragement, a challenge and a rebuke to the church in our day.

So, for example, whilst we can often seem timid… bound by the patterns and social conventions of our own day; what happened among them was nothing if not revolutionary. Just consider your reaction to the way they dismantled the financial differences between them … How do you react to their decision to hold `all things in common`? This is not an aberration…. this is just one of the more obvious differences; one of the radical changes that resurrection living brought about among them. It demonstrated for everyone to see that something new had begun.

You see, I think it`s far too easy… far too convenient…. to just gloss over this incident and maybe think of it as utopian or pie in the sky; as let`s be honest, many people do. Yes. we might concede that there are practical and other reasons not to go quite so far as they did…. but let me put it another way… The extent to which we are shall we say reluctant to let other people know `how much we`re worth` is probably a fair indication of whether we get the point… It really doesn`t matter- so why do we mind?

You see to practice resurrection; to live the resurrection life means taking your bearings and your understanding of yourself using entirely different categories from the likes of wealth and all the rest. And if this strikes us as difficult or it gets under our skin a bit, then we`re probably in a good place… It`s probably because the Kingdom of God has come near….

So, practising or living resurrection has consequences… We`re drawn into a community whose orientation and values (if we`re prepared to live them out) will be regarded by many as both shocking and yet curiously attractive.

This I think is one way of understanding one of the big tensions of our day… the future of the church. The word we use is `ecclesiology`…. `Church-ology` if you like. In days when we`re seeing great change in the life of the church (and huge confusion) we take our lead from passages like this one. It`s not so that we can slavishly copy it; that’s not the point. The question is “What shape of Church do you end up with when God`s people let Christ have his way with us…. When we take resurrection living seriously?”

This is where our Gospel reading this morning helps us. (John 10.1-10) Jesus tells a story about sheep stealing; and about the safe transit of the sheep from the fold to the pasture… He describes himself as the `gate` to the sheepfold. This is apparently, a reference to the way a shepherd would lie across the entrance to the fold overnight.

And because they don`t get it Jesus explains by making (to the minds of many) some outrageously exclusive claims about himself as the one who is the gateway… the bridge between heaven and earth… The one through whom the Kingdom reign of God becomes visible, accessible and real.

What`s the connection with the first reading? Well, why did the early church become the kind of community it was? Why did it assume the kind of shape described to us by St. Luke this morning? What will make Jesus Church / St. Mary`s more closely resemble the community he wants it to be? I would suggest that what makes the difference is a group of people who won`t accept any imitation. What Jesus refers to as the `thieves and bandits` (John 10.8) It takes a group of people who are not afraid to accept the incredible and frankly mind-boggling claims which Jesus made about himself…. And say yes to them with their hearts, lives and even wallets….. A people who know that they have begun to practice resurrection. That`s when you get the church that Jesus wants.

Jesus said, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly”. (John 10.9-10) Just take him at his word. That`s when Resurrection life begins. Just like the Easter egg…. You discover it and you share it….

Back in the 1990`s, one of our right-wing politicians very controversially coined the phrase `The cricket test`. It was, he said, his way of deciding who had really integrated themselves into what he called British culture. He suggested that those who support their native countries rather than England at the sport of cricket wouldn`t really pass the test.

Now, comments like this are inflammatory to say the least, especially since we live in days when the poisonous idolatry of `nationalism` has reared its head. `Citizenship` is what we call a hot topic these days and whatever you say about it is easily misconstrued. We have to tread very carefully when talking about how far those from one culture should be expected to what we call `integrate` with another. But what we often miss, I think, is how often this language of `citizenship` is used to describe the space occupied by Christians. So, for example, in one of his letters St. Paul describes us as a `colony of heaven`(Philippians 3.20).

In these terms a colony is rather like a beachhead, an outpost, an island of one culture in the middle of another; it`s a place where distinctive values and ways of living are practiced and passed on perhaps in contradiction to the surrounding or `host` culture. And it seems to me that we`ve rather got out of the habit of using this `citizenship` language as a way of understanding ourselves and the way of Christ. This I think is partly because we are used to thinking of ourselves as very much at home thank you very much… We`ve lived for a long time with the notion that we have created a `Christian` culture… But without being cynical… I sense it`s time to realise that we`ve been fooling ourselves and this picture of being a `colony` of heaven might help.

I recently heard the story of a rabbi who said, “It`s hard to be a Jew in our town. We are forever telling our children, `That`s fine for everybody else, but it`s not fine for you. You are special. You are different. You have a different story. A different set of values. You are a Jew`”. I want to suggest this morning that if we are going to understand our current situation; and if we are going to flourish as Christian people then we are going to have to listen very carefully to this experience of our Jewish brothers and sisters.

So, let`s begin by noting that after 25 years of reporting these things, the organisation called `Open Doors` identified 2016 as what it called the “worst year yet” for the persecution of Christians. It says, “Throughout the world (we) continue to risk imprisonment, loss of home and assets, torture, beheadings, rape and even death as a result of our faith.” It is no exaggeration to say that 90,000 and more Christians die each year simply because of their continuing loyalty to Christ … Because they choose to live their difference; and have their lives, actions and attitudes shaped by him rather than the surrounding culture. They know what it is live as a `colony of heaven`.

Now, these are awful and staggering statistics and sometimes I think we don`t really know what to do with them.On the one hand, it`s easy for instance to become alarmist. All you need is for someone to suggest that, ”Well, we`ll be next” and Christians start `circling the wagons`, retreating into a ghetto of fear and paranoia. But I think on the other hand, the experience of our brothers and sisters elsewhere is best used, as a way of exposing what we can only describe as our complacency and ignorance of the fundamentals of our faith… The difference in being Christian. Let`s put it bluntly. Over many generations we have in many subtle ways re-packaged our faith so that we wouldn`t have to die for it.

If I were to sum it up I think it`s fair to say that we`ve allowed the Gospel -the news of what God has done in Christ- to become muted and privatized. We have been all too content to take our place in the market of `spiritualities` as just another means of helping bored, western materialists feel better about themselves. And again, I think we are `hobbled` by this notion that we have managed to create a `Christian` culture.

So, for example, we have allowed the name `Christian` to be `re-defined` in apparently ethical terms as meaning `generally nice`. We bend over backwards to agree with virtually every cultural whim and fancy because the aim it seems is to be `liked`… to fit in… to be acceptable… to `integrate` rather than to challenge and transform. It was summed up so well by the person who said, “The Ten Commandments have now become Ten Suggestions”. I`m sure you know the kind of thing I mean…

Perhaps I exaggerate for effect but nowadays the overriding task is to make the Christian message credible to what we call the modern world… We call it `relevance`. But what if we`ve got it the wrong way round? I mean, as we heard in our Gospel reading last Sunday …(Matthew 28.1-11) the `earthquake` that is the resurrection of Christ from the dead…. is the announcement that actually a new world has begun; a new order; one which profoundly questions the way this one is going….

You see, the message of resurrection is not, “There is life after death” (though that`s part of it). The message of resurrection is not that we are leaving here and `going to heaven` so much as `heaven (God`s space) has come to meet us`. The message of resurrection is `new creation`. God has acted to re-create all things and we the Christians, the Church are a colony of this Heaven… God`s space… We`re a beach-head.. an invasion… an alternative way of living. So, the message of resurrection is “get on board.. get with the plot…” St. Paul said, “Consider yourself as dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus”. (Romans 6.11)

Sin literally means to `miss the mark` (It`s rather like firing arrows at a target and missing). In this sense, we all `sin` we all miss the mark when it comes to being human. The message of resurrection is that on the cross there is forgiveness for all that `mark-missing` and the chance to begin anew as part of the colony of heaven… God`s invasion.

It was a bit of a cheap shot but in my teenage years it used to be asked, “If you were in court charged with being a Christian… on what evidence would they convict you?”. It`s a version of `the cricket test`. But it`s a sobering thought.

No, bearing the name Christian means that we have to take our lead, not from what the world around us finds acceptable… but from what we find in Christ. Our calling is not `integration` but transformation. C.S. Lewis once said: “Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed…and is calling us to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.”

St. Paul says: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, (Romans 12.2) Or as one translation puts it “Don`t let the world squeeze you into its mould”. This is the beginning of discipleship… the life to which we are called. And no, you`re not going to fit in.

Curiously, I think we`ll know something`s beginning to happen when you start to hear people say: “It`s hard to be a Christian in our town. We are forever telling our children, `That`s fine for everybody else, but it`s not fine for you. You are special. You are different. You have a different story. A different set of values. You are a Christian`”.

Older Posts »