Sunday, 31 May 2015

Enjoying the Trinity (31 May 2015)

TRINITY SUNDAY 2015 (Romans 8.12-17; John 3.1-17)
If I was sitting where you are today I wouldn’t want yet another sermon attempting to demonstrate the reasonableness of one God in 3 persons. Over the years I’ve sat through bewildering explanations involving ice cubes, water trays and steaming kettles, cans of 3 in 1 oil, jaffa cakes and the good old clover leaf. I’m not sure any of them made me much wiser or more secure in my faith.

Detailed sermons on the doctrine of the Trinity can be just as baffling. The proverbial choir boy reciting the Athanasian Creed which says: ‘the Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, the Holy Spirit incomprehensible’, whispers to his mate that: ‘if you ask me the whole blooming thing is incomprehensible!’ Many will sympathize with him. Why a doctrine in the first place?

The doctrine arose because of the need to identify the God that the early Christians were proclaiming. The question was being asked ‘is this the same God as the Jews are worshipping?’ In the second century Gnosticism became a rival to Christianity. On the surface much of it looked the same, but was it really the same God?

Today, I'm not going to delve into doctrine or attempt clever demonstrations of its reasonableness but reflection on the Christian experience that has led to the doctrine. C.S. Lewis writes about the Christian experience of prayer:‘An ordinary simple Christian kneels down to say his prayers. He is trying to get into touch with God. But if he is a Christian he knows that what is prompting him to pray is also God: God so to speak, inside him. But he also knows that all real knowledge of God comes through Christ, the Man who was God - that Christ is standing beside him, helping him to pray, praying for him. You see what is happening. God is the thing to which he is praying - the goal he is trying to reach. God is also the thing inside him which is pushing him on - the motive power. God is also the road or bridge along which he is being pushed to that goal. The whole 3-fold life of the 3-personal Being is actually going on in that ordinary act of prayer.’

This morning we have been dropped into six verses of one of the great and complex passages in scripture – Romans 8. It doesn’t give us a schematic diagram of God but it does give us another description of our experience. There is something/someone (we call the Spirit) inside us urging us not to live by the flesh and its sinful ways. This is the same One who helps us relate to God as our Father and to see ourselves now as adopted sons of God and therefore brothers of Christ, and co-heirs with him. We are no longer slaves to sin but adopted sons of God.

All this relies heavily on our understanding of Roman households and slaves within them. Slaves were stripped of all family ties; they had no identity of their own. Their only identity came through the head of the household. On the other hand to be a ‘son’ was to have status within Roman society; it gave you the ability to be your Father’s heir. The same went for adopted sons. 

 If you know the story of Ben-Hur you’ll remember a perfect example of what adoption means in this context.Ben-Hur (played by Charlton Heston) has become a slave on a galley ship. When it is sunk he saves the life of a prominent Roman citizen Arrius (played by Jack Hawkins). Back in Rome at a party for all his friends Arrius, whose own son has died, makes Ben-Hur his adopted son (and names him Arrius).  Before the assembled company he says: ‘The formalities of adoption have been completed. Young Arrius is now the legal bearer of my name and the heir to my property.’ Arrius gives Ben-Hur the ring from his finger. Ben-Hur then says: ‘I shall always try to wear this ring as a son of Arrius should – with gratitude, affection and with honour.’

I think the Spirit of God is a bit like that ring. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has given us his Spirit as a pledge to show who we are. The Spirit of the Triune God is our adoption certificate that proves our sonship. We are welcomed into the family of God; children of God and co-heirs with Christ of all that God has for us in heaven.

Trinity Sunday is a day when we are in danger of focusing solely on a doctrine. The doctrine is there to define who God and also to interpret our common Christian experience, maybe especially our experience of the Spirit.

Poor Nicodemus – he was doing his best but he couldn’t quite grasp what Jesus was getting at. It was just an intellectual conundrum. He needed to experience the wind of the Spirit in his life. The Spirit that draws us into communion with the God who is, in his very being, persons in relationship with each other. 

Let's not allow the Trinity to become an intellectual conundrum for us to solve.  But let's enter into the life of the Trinity and enjoy the experience, discovering more of the richness of our inheritance in Christ.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

The One who comes alongside us (24 May)

Acts 2.1-21
The Pentecost story may seem very weird – with its exotic sounding place names, violent winds, tongues of fire, and the speaking of many languages.  We read it every year and perhaps we scratch our heads wondering quite what it’s about, possibly relieved that nothing like that has ever happened to us. Or again perhaps wistfully hoping that it did.

Pentecost Sunday comes and goes, the events we celebrate all happened a long time ago, and we move on. But wait a minute...  The spectacular phenomena recorded in Acts 2 may not be our experience but central to our Christian profession is the belief that the Holy Spirit is at work in all our lives.  We may consider ourselves to be Anglican but we are all, in a biblical sense, thoroughly Pentecostal too. 

Let’s remind ourselves of some of the basics.  In John’s gospel we have read this morning these words of Jesus to his disciples:  When the Counsellor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me.  (15.26) 

Other translations say: when the Advocate comes or when the Comforter comes or when the Helper comes.  Advocate, comforter, helper, counsellor are all different attempts to translate the Greek word: paráklētos (paraclete).

Literally, paráklētos means ‘one who comes alongside’ to guide or comfort, to encourage or refresh, or one who intercedes on our behalf as an advocate does for their client in a court of law.  But who is this mysterious figure?  We know it’s the Holy Spirit – but what or who is the Holy Spirit?

For four weeks now we have been dipping into the words of Jesus from John’s gospel as he prepares his friends for his arrest and departure.  In chapter 14 he says: I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counsellor [advocate, helper...] to be with you for ever – the Spirit of truth. 

Who was the first Counsellor?  Jesus was the first paráklētos, the first to come alongside to be with us:  the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  So who is the Spirit?  When it says: another Counsellor the Greek means another of exactly the same kind. Jesus is not promising an inferior deputy to replace him but one of the same kind – a second paráklētos – i.e. another expression of the presence of God in our midst, the Spirit of Jesus/God.

The disciples might have found it hard to believe it when Jesus said: But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away.  I suspect we do too.  But Jesus said: Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.  Jesus could only be in one place at a time when he was with his disciples.  Now, by his Spirit he is with us all, two billion Christians across the world today.

Sadly, not all of us may be aware of quite what Jesus has promised to all who put their faith in him – the gift of his presence, of his power with us on a daily basis.

The disciples had their thinking turned upside down by the totally unexpected fact of the resurrection.  They witnessed an event we call the ascension. They reconstituted the 12 Apostles after the loss of Judas, and then they just waited. They waited not knowing what would happen.  They didn’t know what to expect, yet (having experienced the resurrection) they now realized that anything was possible.

When the Holy Spirit did come at Pentecost, how it happen was wholly unexpected.  Those in the street who heard the commotion and saw the Spirit filled disciples were, we are told, bewildered (v6), utterly amazed and astonished (v7), and amazed and perplexed (v12).

My guess is that prior to this moment Jesus’ words of promise of another helper had not made much sense to the disciples.  Their calling now was to make sense of what had happened to them and learn to live it out.  Peter, becomes their spokesman and it’s pretty amazing what he makes of it all in the short time he’s had to reflect on it (i.e. no time)   
He draws on the words of the prophet Joel and says, in effect: ‘Today the Spirit has made us into a community, a community of prophets’ – are you ready for that here?!

I hazard a guess that most of us have not had their kind of Pentecostal experience.  However, if we are Christians, then, for certain, we have received the gift of the Holy Spirit; God’s transforming presence alongside us. Or as St. Paul says: Christ in you, the hope of glory. (Col 1.27)

If that is the case then, whatever our past experience may have been, anything can happen.  For Christ is risen from the dead and by his Spirit, the paráklētos, he is alongside us now as our counsellor, advocate, comforter, helper and guide. Pentecost isn’t about one day in our year but every day.


God of wind and fire, bring to us today the surprises of your Spirit. 

As we’ve gather on this special day (the birthday of your Church) we may be, like so many others, feeling shy or sluggish, tired or timid, and without expectation of a new birth.

So come among us, burn up our fears in the heat of your love; blow through our minds with the joyous freedom of your Spirit.  Make this church a crucible of love and joy, where your kingdom is coming.

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on us.
Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on us;
break us, melt us, mould us, fill us.
Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on us.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Bishop Stephen's Easter video blog 2015

God is in the room (10 May 2015)

Acts 10.44-48 (John 15.9-17) 
If you were with us last week you may remember that we looked at what it means to remain in or to abide in Jesus, the true vine. In today’s gospel reading Jesus now speaks of us remaining in his love. If you keep my commands, you will remain (abide) in my love… And Jesus’ command here is that we love one another. He says this on the eve of his arrest and crucifixion, when he’ll show the extent of his love for us. The simple test of our abiding in his love then is that we love those around us; that we are kind, compassionate and hospitable to others, especially those different to ourselves.

The Book of Acts gives us an insight into the life of the early Church as it began to share the good news of Christ’s love and his resurrection. Peter was the great spokesman of the Jerusalem Church in those days and his preaching took him across the country – for instance to Joppa, on the coast. Now, further up the coast in the Roman town of Caesarea lived a centurion by the name of Cornelius. He was not a Jew (as all Christians were at this stage) but a gentile. However, he is said to be God-fearing which means that he was not circumcised, he didn’t keep the Jewish law and its dietary restrictions but he did pray to the God of Israel.

He has a vision – send to Joppa for a man named Peter and hear what he has to say. At the same time Peter has a vision too – a great sale-cloth let down from heaven with all kinds of animals, reptiles and birds in it. He is invited to kill and eat but being a good observant Jew Peter says ‘Surely not Lord! I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.’ To which the reply comes: ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’ This happens three times. When the centurion’s servants come for Peter he has misgivings about going with them, about entering under the roof of a gentile and accepting hospitality – for it was against the Jewish law. But the Spirit reassures Peter and he goes.

When he gets to the house it’s big, and inside is a large gathering of people. They share their visions and everyone settles down to hear what Peter has to say. In effect Peter says to them ‘Well, I didn’t want to come here but God has shown me that I shouldn’t call anyone impure or unclean – so here is the gospel message that I’ve been sharing with my fellow Jews.’ But as Peter is preaching his sermon he is rudely interrupted by the Holy Spirit – O that we should all be so lucky! He was just getting going. 44 While Peter was still speaking … the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. It was just like the original disciples’ own Pentecost experience in the upper room in Jerusalem. The Holy Spirit was pour out on these uncircumcised gentiles – they spoke in tongues and praised. It was undeniable. God was in the room. What else could Peter do than say: ‘Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptised with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.’ It was totally unexpected but true.

Do you remember that moment at 10 o’clock last Thursday evening when the Exit Poll was announced? It was just so totally unexpected wasn’t it - by all parties and the BBC. Paddy Ashdon said he would eat his hat if it were true. Well, it turned out to be so and more – quite extraordinary. The Holy Spirit coming on the gentiles in Cornelius’ house was that kind of moment: The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. And what can Peter do but order that they be baptised. Acts records that this wasn’t his own bright idea; it was the inevitable result of something initiated entirely by God. And Acts charts how the church was left to figure out the consequences of what had just happened. That banal sounding verse: they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days no doubt covers some hard thinking that went on about quite what he was going to say to the all Jewish Church in Jerusalem when he got back – poor man.

But it was undeniable. Peter could defend his actions by saying: ‘Look, God set up the meeting between me and Cornelius. And God was in the room as I was preaching. And the Spirit didn’t even wait for me to finish but fell on them as on us. The Spirit couldn’t wait - what else could I do?’ Read on in the Acts of the Apostles and you’ll see how the church responded, recognising that the Spirit had gone ahead of them. As a body they discerned how to proceed, making room for gentile converts and learning to love one another and remain in God’s love.

So, what about us? How shall we respond this morning to this portion of scripture? The Spirit still goes ahead of us; are we aware that there are sometimes divine appointments for us to keep? Might we be in danger of limiting our own experience of God by a lack of imagination on our own part? Are we aware that God may wish to use us in some small way to help other? Perhaps by crossing a barrier or a boundary we have been careful to avoid in the past? Will we allow for the possibility that God is in the room and able to do far more that we think or imagine? Might that not be a helpful mantra for us to adopt – God is in the room. Are we prepared to have our carefully planned schemes interrupted by God’s Holy Spirit?

Thursday, 7 May 2015

The True Vine (2 May 2015)

John 15.1-8
 ‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener’ says Jesus to his disciples on the eve of his arrest and crucifixion.  To this point in the bible the vine has always been associated with Israel, the covenant people of God.  And all the OT texts chastise the nation for not bearing fruit as God expects.

Jesus is the true vine.  Just as sap runs through the vine and into the branches to produce grapes, so all life flows through him and then through us, the little branches, in order to bear fruit.  Well, that should be what happens.

 ‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.  He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.’  I’m no gardener but I get the need for pruning.

You lop off branches that are unproductive and just waste energy.  You try to produce a plant that is open to the light and not tangled in on itself.  The gardener lovingly cleans the vine in order to produce the best possible grapes.

Jesus said to the disciples: ‘You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.’  No doubt there was more pruning to do but at that stage certain things had already been cut away –some goals, some wrong ambitions perhaps.

‘Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.’  Here I prefer the AV or the new English Standard Version: ‘Abide in me, and I in you.’

‘Remain’ is too thin, too static.  It feels like ‘stay put’ or ‘hang around’.  Whilst to ‘abide’ means to ‘make our home’ in Jesus and to let Jesus make his home in us. It’s more dynamic

I think ‘abiding’ has more the sense of a full, personal commitment.  Like Ben Quash's thought that the best description comes in the Book of Ruth where she expresses her loyalty to her mother-in-law Naomi:   ‘Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.’

Remain in me, abide in me, is to make our home in Jesus and to let Jesus make his home in us; it’s a place of presence and rest, of mutual friendship, a source of life and creativity.

‘I am the vine; you are the branches.’ This is a call to radical discipleship.  ‘If you remain in me (abide in me) and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.’

Jesus asks us to surrender our own will and to recognise our dependence upon him.  He asks us to relinquish control of our lives and let him live in us.  The US theologian Stanley Hauerwas says that the Christian life ought always to be a ‘life lived out of control’.  Quite what that would mean for you I leave you to ponder; my point here is that abiding is not just about our own efforts.

Also let’s be aware that the ‘you’ here is a plural ‘you’ in the Greek.  ‘You lot are the branches.’  So, it’s not just about us as individual Christians but us as a church.  We have fruit to bear together, as a body – what does it look like?
Branches that decide to go it alone, that try living without the life-giving sap of the vine, soon wither and die, they are good for nothing.  ‘If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.’

The message should be clear.  We are all to remain in the body, in the community that loves, worships and serves Jesus as Lord.  You can’t go it alone.   And we must be people of prayer and worship, in touch, in tune with Jesus, knowing him and being known by him.

That sharp warning of the futility of life without him is now accompanied with the most extraordinary promise:  If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.’  If you’re like me you’ll look at a promise like that and conclude ‘I don’t yet know the first thing about abiding!’  That is not my experience of prayer. My only deduction is – there is an awful lot of pruning that needs to be done before I’ve let go and let God take control.

Finally Jesus says: ‘This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.’ Jesus offers these words to his disciples on the eve of his arrest and execution.  In the terrible hours ahead and in the confusions of the days to come they will be words of great hope. In spite of everything the disciples will flourish.  John will record these words in his gospel for a church that may feel abandoned – thrown out of the synagogues and scattered.  They are experiencing savage cuts but they will produce much fruit.  These are words of great hope.

What about us today?  We may be feeling cut down or severely pruned – as we experience life’s tragedies, great and small.  The personal disappointments and losses, the terrible reports of death and destruction and abuse that fill our news reports…

We may not be able to sense or believe that such afflictions have happened for a purpose or that they herald a bright future but we can hold on to Jesus’ promise that we can still flourish, we can still be fruitful branches united to the vine.

His life can still flow from him and into us and through us, for the good of others.  No matter what happens Jesus’ promise remains:  ‘YOU LOT - If you abide in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit.’

The Good Shepherd (27 April 2015)

John 10.11-18
You may remember years ago the true story of a young man named Alan Anderson who was a passenger in a light aircraft when the pilot had a heart attack and died at the controls.  Anderson, who was 28, had no flying experience and was left alone, and in mortal danger, 2,500 feet about South Wales.

He managed to make a May Day call which was picked up by Mr. Robert Legg, a flying instructor, who was already in the air.  He caught up with Alan’s aircraft, flew alongside him, and managed to talk him down safely into Cardiff airport.

Quite by chance a radio ham picked up the conversation between Anderson and Legg.  Here’s just a flavour of it:

A:I can see you.
L: OK.  Just listen to my instructions.  Take the throttle and pull it slightly until the RPM drops down to about 2,300.
A: Well, which is the throttle?
L: There should be a black lever in the centre of the panel.  That’s fine.  Let the aircraft fly itself.
A:I wish it would!
L: Read the airspeed.
A:The airspeed is 105!
L: Look I’m on your RHS – just relax.
A: We’re going down are we?
L: We are shortly, yes.  Bank gently to the right.  We’re aiming for the white tarmac airstrip to the right of the red and white lights.  Can you see it?
A: Affirmative.
L: Reduce the power slightly now. What’s your airspeed?
L: Pull back very gently on the control column.  Close the throttle.  Just hold it there.  Pull gently back and hold it there.  Hold it.  Hold it. Hold It. Hold the control column back.  Relax. OK.  [the aircraft touches down]
On the rudder pedals press the top of the rudder pedals, you’ll find the brakes.  Press both rudder pedals together, you’ll find the brakes.
A: I can’t find the brakes!
L: Don’t worry.  The emergency vehicles are coming up behind you.  Just sit in the aircraft.  Leave the engine rumbling.  Turn the key to OFF and take them out – the engine should then stop.
Has the engine stopped?
A: The keys are out.  Just stopping now. THANK GOD!
L: You’re welcome.  It’s all in a days work.

Both men were praised by the coroner at the inquest into the pilot’s death - for their bravery and professionalism.

Robert Legg had guided Alan Anderson to a near perfect landing.  Anderson had recognized Legg’s authoritative voice and that voice had led him to safety. 

Jesus could have said: ‘I am the good pilot’ but nobody would have understood him.  Instead he said: ‘I am the good shepherd.’  When he said that there was already anything up to a thousand years of biblical reflection on that concept of the good shepherd - from the 23rd Psalm through to Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Zechariah.  In each case the good shepherd is always identified as God.
Jesus says: ‘The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.’  When the sheep are in danger a hireling drops his staff and runs away, but the good shepherd lays down his life for them – of his own accord, by his own authority.

The purpose in laying down his life is that his sheep may be gathered from far and wide to form one flock, under one shepherd.  They are brought to safety when they listen to his authoritative voice, like Alan Anderson listened to Robert Legg’s.  The good pilot, the good shepherd is central to the Christian gospel message.

Take a trip around any churchyard or cemetery and the most common Christian symbol you will see is, of course, the cross or a crucifix, or perhaps a dove.  But if you go to the catacombs in Rome (which date from the 2nd and 3rd Century) the most common symbols or pictures are the Good Shepherd, the Fish, and the Vine. 

More about the Vine next week, but it seems that the early Church took the greatest delight in knowing that Christ is the good shepherd who brings home his lost sheep.

Why do we read this text at Easter-time?  17 I lay down my life – only to take it up again.’ At the cross evil is confronted, suffering is endured, costly love is demonstrated and victory is won.  The shepherd dies but in the process sin and death are overcome.  Through his resurrection ultimate evil is defeated and redeemed.

And at the heart of all this is the eternal love that binds the Father and Son together, and overflows into the world.

Our other Eastertide text this morning has been all about powers and authorities.  Certain important people have been named:

The rulers, the elders and the teachers of the law who met in Jerusalem; Annas the high priest; Caiaphas, John, Alexander and others of the high priest’s family.  Very important people

Then, by contrast, there are Peter and John, uneducated Galilean fishermen brought in for questioning. ‘By what power or what name did you do this?’ [i.e. heal a lame man]

Peter, full of the Holy Spirit, says to them: ‘…it is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed.’

Throughout Acts we will see that real power is not located in those named dignitaries or in their positions but is the name of Jesus:
At Ephesus some Jewish exorcists will try to use the name of Jesus in their incantations, to their cost
People will be baptised in the name of Jesus and the apostles will explain that the things they do are not done through their own power but through the name of Jesus

The post-Easter message being that Jesus’ power, the power of the Holy Spirit, or resurrection power, still exists - it is still active, and there is much more at issue than just healing –
12 Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.’

It has to do with salvation, our ultimate happy landing!