Monday, June 18, 2007

Sunday 17 June - Storm at Sea

This sermon is based on: Mark 4:35-41



Mark 4:37: ‘Suddenly a strong wind blew up, and the waves began to spill over into the boat, so that it was about to fill with water.’

A couple of years ago a friend of mine became pregnant. Sarah – which is not her real name – was a convert to Judaism. And so, as a baby-gift I gave her a book called ‘How to be a Jewish Parent’

Some time later Sarah remarked to me that the book had revealed to her something she didn’t know. That was the three things that Rabbinic law (4th century) requires a Jewish parent to teach their child.

The first thing is religious, it’s something we share with the Jewish people and it’s pretty easy to guess. The Torah – the first five books of the Old Testament

The second thing is quite a bit more difficult to guess. It’s not religious. It’s very practical. And it’s something people need in order to make a living. Under Rabbinic law, Jewish parents have to teach their children a trade

The third thing is very difficult to guess. And, indeed, you might even think it’s a very odd thing. Jewish parents have to teach their children how to swim.

Here is what a modern rabbi had to say about the requirement to teach one’s children to swim:
Learning how to swim is about basic life skills. It is parents' obligation to teach their children how to recognize danger and how to avoid or overcome it. This may include conversations about not putting your hand on the stove, and continues with how to have a successful and respectful argument. "Learning to swim" is teaching about vision and limits and risk taking. It also includes lessons on knowing where the shore is and how to return to a place of safety in order to venture out again on another day.*

What I think is interesting about this requirement to teach your children to swim is the fact that, in the tradition of the early Jewish people, the sea represented unrestrained chaos. The sea represented the powers of evil and the powers of darkness.

This would have been the way that the Evangelist Mark and the Jewish readers of his Gospel would have regarded the sea – as something dangerous, as the home territory of the forces of evil and destruction. But Mark’s Jewish readers would most likely have pictured hell as the sea at night: cold, dark, unpredictably dangerous and able to overwhelm a small fishing boat at a moment’s notice.

So when we consider the story of Jesus calming the storm, we can begin to see that this scene is very troubling. First, it is troubling from the point of view of what happens in the story. Second, it is troubling from the point of view of the disciples’ faith.

The Trouble with the Story

So what is troubling about the story itself? Remember first of all that some of the disciples were fishermen who were used to handling boats. They knew the Sea of Galilee intimately and they could handle an every-day rough sea.

But the storm in this story is no every-day rough sea. The disciples who were experienced boatmen were afraid for their lives. They were more than afraid, they were in a panic.

We also know that it was no every-day rough sea because it was a storm at night. Night-time storms are highly unusual on the Sea of Galilee – dare we say unnatural. Because it is the wind conditions that are caused by the heating of the atmosphere during the day time that are the usual causes of a storm on Galilee.

So, this unnatural storm whips up out of no-where, in the middle of the night when a storm should not be happening and professional sailors are terrified for their very lives

Since we now know that the sea represents the forces of evil and the forces of darkness to Mark and his readers, we can see that this is a situation where Jesus and the disciples are being viciously attacked by the forces of evil and the disciples are pretty convinced that the forces of evil are about to win!

‘Have you still no faith?’

And then, miracle of miracles, Jesus wakes and with one word – it’s one word in the Greek text – the storm ceases at his command. And how do the disciples react? Now they are scared of Jesus!

‘Have you still no faith?’

So, I think the story line itself is very troubling: First, the forces of chaos have reared their ugly heads with full force. Secondly, when Jesus shows that even the forces of chaos bow to his command, the disciples regard him as an object of fear.

The Trouble with the Disciples’ Faith

So what’s the trouble with the disciples’ faith?

That seems to be the theme of Mark’s Gospel, where the question ‘Have you still no faith?’ happens over and over again throughout the Gospel. No matter how long they have walked with Jesus as his disciples, no matter what Jesus has said to them, no matter what manner of miracle he performs, Mark portrays the disciples as never quite ‘getting it’ about Jesus.

And, truth be told, that’s one of the things I actually like about Mark’s Gospel – that the twelve men who were closest to Jesus during his lifetime never quite ‘got it’ until – as Luke tells us in the Acts of the Apostles – they received the Holy Spirit after Jesus’ ascension.

Because being a Christian – having Christian faith – isn’t primarily about ‘getting it’ about Jesus. Being a Christian – Christian faith – is primarily about trust in God. It’s about trust in the Father, trust in the Son and trust in the Holy Spirit.

I often say that Christian faith is the faith to throw yourself out of the window of a burning building knowing that your beloved will catch you. But you could also say that Christian faith is the faith to remain in the fishing boat with your beloved asleep whilst the forces of death and evil rage around you.

Once you throw yourself out of a burning building, once you are in the middle of a stormy sea in a small fishing boat – you are committed. There ain’t gonna be no changing your mind in either of those situations. This is a faith where your actions speak for themselves – louder than words. This is real trust.

But the disciples’ faith is still in the beginning stages – and that’s OK, by the way – because everyone has to start at the beginning. The disciples, who are professionals with respect to the sea, want Jesus to display the same sense of urgency that they have about the sea.

In our story, the Mark says that a great wind blew up and then later, when Jesus calmed the storm that there was a great calm. The disciples wanted Jesus to have great urgency, but Jesus was actually inviting them to have great calm. Through faith, the Triune God who created the sea out of chaos, invites us to have a great calm, he invites us to have a peace that passes all human understanding through faith in his power and his purposes

But many times, we don’t want to have God’s great peace. Many times, we want God to have our great urgency.

It seems to me that this was what the disciples were doing: Jesus is the Lord of heaven and earth. Jesus, as he demonstrates in this story, has authority over the very fabric of creation and he has authority over the forces of evil. But the disciples were not content with Jesus’ mere presence among them. The disciples were in a great panic and they wanted Jesus up and panicking too. Instead, they could have traded their great panic for the great peace that deep faith can offer.

The disciples accuse Jesus of not caring about their fate. I wonder if you recognise this attitude too. I know I do: ‘God, I’m beginning to wonder if you care about the problems I have because I think if you did that you’d do things my way.’

Sigh. ‘Have you still no faith?’


This story is difficult. I think it presents us with questions and hard challenges.

The story doesn’t even attempt to give an answer as to why God permits the forces of evil and chaos to rise up in our lives, the story only assures us that, through the life, death and resurrection of Christ, that the Triune God has dominion over the forces of evil.

The story challenges us to trust deeply in God, even if he doesn’t seem to be acting in a way that we would like him to act. The story gives us no reasons for the storm, it only gives us the assurance that God is in control.

The story also tells us that the twelve men who were closest to Jesus during his lifetime faced the same challenges of faith that we do. So it’s OK to come into God’s presence with our doubts and it’s OK to pray loudly to God when we are in a panic.

But if we are looking for an answer, don’t expect God’s answer to be ‘OK, I’ll join you in your great fear.’ Expect God’s answer to be ‘I offer you my great peace’.

Have faith in God, have Faith in God’s peace.

Let us pray:
O living Christ, rescue us from foolish passion and still the storms of our self-will; and, as you are our anchor in this life, so bring us to the haven you have prepared for us; for your mercy’s sake. Amen **

* From
** From Common Worship Daily Prayer:

Sunday 17 June - Law, Faith and Grace

This sermon is based on: Galatians 2:15-21 and Luke 7:36 – 50.



I once met a woman named Grace. We didn't spend a lot of time together, only a few hours. But even after those few hours, I could tell that she had been well named.

For one thing, Grace was a good listener. She wasn't the kind of person who, when listening to you, appears to be thinking about what they are going to say next. Furthermore she listened with goodwill. She wasn't the sort of person who assumed the worst motivations in what you said, but rather she seemed to be assuming the best motivations.

Grace was the sort of person who you could immediately warm to. You just instinctively knew that you were safe - that she wouldn’t gossip or try to make you look bad in the eyes of others. You felt that you could admit to not being perfect and she would be patient rather than petulant.

I wonder if you know anyone like that? I wonder how many of us think that God is like that?

Grace versus Law

In Galatians 2:16, the apostle Paul writes: ' And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by works of the law.'

The letter to the Galatians is a letter about grace versus the law, or at least this is one legitimate interpretation of it and this interpretation has certainly been important to Protestants since the reformation. But as a friend of mine once admitted 'I'm not always certain that I know what justification by grace through faith means.' Alleluia! Someone else has finally admitted that this idea is not actually a very easy teaching to understand.

I want to think, first of all this morning, about the idea of getting right with God through the law. In today’s Gospel story, Simon the Pharisee was a person who was trying to get right with God by obeying God’s law.

We might look at Simon and say to ourselves 'Poor deluded fellow, he had Jesus right in front of him, and he had a fantastic witness of thankfulness right in front of him, and all he could think about was his purity codes, instead of learning from this woman's testimony of extravagant thankfulness, all he could think about was his disapproval that Jesus had had anything to do with her in the first place.'

But I think that we need to be careful about criticising Simon too harshly. We might be tempted to view him as the antagonist in a pantomime, but if we’re honest with ourselves, we may very well have acted the same way in the same situation.

The Negotiator god

Why do we react this way? When we invoke the law and when we label people as sinners in the eyes of the law, we are seeing God in the image of what one theologian calls ‘the negotiator god’.

‘The negotiator god’ is a god of rules and regulations, in other words, the god of law. The negotiator god can seem comfortable to us on the one hand precisely because we can negotiate with him: ‘Look god, here’s the deal. I’ll say my prayers, go to church every Sunday, keep your commandments and, in return, I ask that you bless my life to be reasonably healthy and happy.’

Of course, this is the god who we also often think has let us down when we think that he hasn’t fulfilled his end of the bargain; ‘the bargain’ being the conditions that we set when we told him what it was that we were prepared to do in exchange for his favour.

But there is an even scarier side to this negotiator god. Because when I break my side of the bargain – when I break one of his laws – the negotiator god must punish me. As Paul writes in the 3rd Chapter of Galatians: ‘For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law”’.

The negotiator god is a god to be afraid of. Because anyone who is the least bit honest with themself, knows that they cannot keep all of God’s laws. So if we think that the God of the bible is a negotiator god, then we do need to be afraid of him. And I think that this is the image of God that Simon had in his head. Because with a negotiator god, we dare not make a mistake, break the law or get things wrong.

The God of Grace

But what’s the alternative to a god of Law? The biblical alternative to a god of Law is the God of grace.

The God of grace is not a permissive god who simply looks the other way when we sin and pretends that sin didn’t happen. If that were the case, there would be no way of knowing right from wrong.

No, the God of grace is a God who names our wrong-doings, who asks us to repent and asks us not to do wrong again, but who has promised us through his Son that his forgiveness is always available and will never be withdrawn.

So, unlike the negotiator god, we do not need to be afraid to approach the Triune God in an attitude of repentance. In our Gospel story, Jesus personifies the God of grace. The woman has been forgiven her sins. No-one in the story is pretending that she didn’t sin. Jesus forgave her sins and her gratitude at being forgiven is wildly extravagant. She is so thankful that she weeps, she humbles and debases herself by washing Jesus’ feet with her hair. And the ointment she uses is outrageously expensive.

But Simon, in his fear, doesn’t understand the difference between forgiveness and permissiveness. He simply sees Jesus’ forgiveness as overlooking the woman’s sins.

But the character of the God who we are shown by Jesus is a lot like the woman named Grace who I mentioned at the beginning of my sermon. We can go to God knowing that, because of the life, death and resurrection of his Son, that God offers us forgiveness even before we ask for it.

We can go to God in repentance knowing that he will treat us kindly and with mercy. We can go to him in repentance knowing that he will never refuse our request to be forgiven. We can have faith – indeed, we depend on the fact – that God will never say to us: ‘That was the last straw. You’ve asked for forgiveness too many times and this time I refuse you forgiveness.’

Faith in the God of Grace

But how can we know that God is like this? How can we know that God is gracious? This is where faith comes in. Despite the witness of scripture and tradition, it does take faith to believe that God is gracious and merciful and forgives us our sins.

As CS Lewis famously said, ‘grace’ is the doctrine that is unique to Christianity. Grace – this message that we are free to repent because our sins are already forgiven – is a scandal in the eyes of the world. And, if we are being honest with ourselves, Christians too often act as if grace is a scandal.

I said earlier that my friend finds it had to understand precisely what is meant by ‘being saved by grace through faith’. She acknowledges Jesus as her Lord and Saviour and she acknowledges that she cannot save herself, but I think that she also points out a truth when she says that the doctrine of salvation by faith is not always easy to understand.

I’d like to read a quotation from a commentary on Galatians about the nature of saving faith.
Faith in Christ is the offering of a glad word of thanksgiving for God's goodness focussed in the gift of his Son. It is the standing ovation we give when we have caught only a fleeting glimpse of or have been thoroughly gripped by the drama of Good Friday and Easter. With people crowded row on row in front and behind we find ourselves a part of an audience on its feet with applause, whistles, and shouts of 'Bravo!' Then, in a strange way, almost as if in a dream, we are transformed from isolated spectators into a company of participants, no longer looking on but actually on stage. A moment comes when, moving about from scene to scene, we realize that we are not intruders in someone else's play. We belong here, this is our place, our part. The cross and the resurrection are not only Jesus' but ours. Faith becomes obedience - not the superficial, formalised adherence to the demands of the law, but conformity to the prime figure in the drama, following him about as he moves among the mass of humanity declaring good news to the poor and release to the captives, binding the brokenhearted, giving garlands instead of ashes, and above all announcing the year of the Lord's favour.*

The image of God as revealed to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the image of a God of who never stops offering us his forgiveness.

The Triune God is the God life, of new creation and new beginnings. The Triune God is not to be feared, but is to be trusted with our repentance and with our secret and not-so-secret sins. The Gospel is a message of good news to the poor, release to the captives and healing of the brokenhearted.

The biblical God is the God of outrageous generosity and grace. In God we can have faith. In God there is forgiveness and salvation.

And so it is my prayer this morning that we may each grow in the knowledge and the love of our Lord Jesus Christ, that we may each be set free into grace and forgiveness and that, like the woman who washed Jesus’ feet, our hearts may be filled with inexpressible thanksgiving to the God who richly pardons us all.


* Galatians: Interpretation, a bible commentary for teaching and preaching by Charles B. Cousar. John Knox Press, Louisville, 1982. p. 55.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Sunday 3 June 2007 - Trinity Sunday

The sermon below is a mediation on how Christians experience a Trinitarian God. We read the assigned lectionary readings for the day, but this sermon is thematic.



Today is Trinity Sunday. Trinity Sunday is an unusual celebration in the life of the Church because it is the only celebration that we have which observes a doctrine rather than an event.

The concept of God as ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ is in the bible, but no-where does the bible actually use the word ‘Trinity’ or ‘Triune’. In fact, the doctrine of the Trinity – this whole idea of God being three persons in one divine being – wasn’t ratified as an official belief of the Christian Church until the Council of Nicea in 325. To make matters worse, it’s a doctrine that’s not terribly easy to understand or to express. Almost any attempt to talk about the Trinity results some sort of technical heresy.

Here’s a quotation, from John Wesley speaking about The Trinity: ‘Bring me a worm that can comprehend a man, and then I will show you a man that can comprehend the triune God!’

Wesley says something that I suspect that most of us agree with: that no matter what scripture tells us, what the church tells us or even what our own experience of God tells us, we are aware that, as human beings, we will never fully grasp all that God is until we meet with him face to face.

So this morning, rather than talking about doctrines and ideas, I simply want to meditate on how God’s faithful people experience him. And I want to suggest that the doctrine of the Trinity has something to do with relationships being at the very core of who God is.

God the Creator

First of all, I want to think about the fact that God the Creator, the first person of the Trinity, created us to be in relationship with him and with other people.

If you go back to Genesis, the biblical stories of human creation tell us that the first human beings lived not only in relationship with each other, but also in direct relationship with God and with the natural world.

We are told that God made human beings in his own image. What does this mean? We have the ability to think, to reason, to tell right from wrong as well as the ability to choose to do what is right.

As part of our ability to choose to do what is right, we have been given the ability to love other people. This is how God the Creator, the first person of the Trinity, made us: to be creatures who are in relationship with each other and with God.

I don’t think it’s surprising that we call the first person of the Trinity ‘Father’, and there are even a handful of maternal images of God as mother in the bible. In the same way that the parents give life to a new-born baby, so too are we dependant on God for our very existence. In a very real sense, God is our Father and our Mother.

And parental love is most often experienced as a love that is both determined and unconditional. Like a good parent, the love of God our Father and creator is offered to us no matter what we do. We have the freedom to reject God’s love but, like the Father of the prodigal, God will never withdraw his offer of love from us.

The first person of the Trinity will never stop being our Father or our Mother. As the relational creator God, the Father may correct us, the Father may let us experience the consequences of our actions, but he will always seek to guide us so that we learn from our mistakes and grow into more mature human beings.

God the Redeemer

Of course, it’s not always easy being a human being. And the God who Christians worship is not just a God who is ‘out there’ and who is completely unknowable.

Indeed, God’s desire for us to know him and what he is like was such that he came to live among us. The second person of the Trinity became human and as Christians we have heard all the stories: the stories of his birth, his mission and his death.

Jesus Christ came among us. He trusted himself as a helpless baby to two young inexperienced parents. He placed himself in human hands and made himself vulnerable in relationship with human beings in many ways.

Jesus also said that if we have seen him, we have seen the Father. Jesus showed us God’s way to live, but he taught by example as well as by words.

Jesus didn’t just call us to be agents of healing in our relationships, he went around healing people. He didn’t just tell us that the last shall be first, he went into the homes of prostitutes and extortionists and he accepted their hospitality. He didn’t just say ‘blessed are the peacemakers’, he refused to be the revolutionary, conquering hero Messiah that the people wanted.

Jesus didn’t just command us to forgive. He forgave those who he encountered during his ministry and he forgave all of those who nailed him to the cross. He didn’t just proclaim the resurrection, he rose from the dead and appeared to his disciples after his resurrection.

At the end of the day, the vast majority of people who come to the Lord come to know him because of a relationship they form with other Christians. The Apostles and Jesus’ wider group of followers and disciples were privileged to know him first hand, and the universal Church of believers passes down the knowledge of the love of God to other people through their relationships and by the example of the way they live.

God the Sustainer

But, important as relationships are with our fellow Christians, human interaction is not the only way in which we are born in faith and by which we grow in faith.

The Spirit of God, the Third person of the Trinity, lives in the lives of all who are born again. Jesus himself said that he had to go away in order for the Holy Spirit to come among us. If the Father is ‘God beyond us’ and the Jesus ‘God among us’, the Spirit is ‘God within us’.

We are told that the Holy Spirit dwells inside us as believers. The Spirit dwells within individuals believers, but is also active and present in the universal Church of God.

I don’t know about you, but I think the Holy Spirit is probably the most difficult person of the Trinity to describe in words, yet the Spirit is also the person of the Trinity who we most directly experience. The Holy Spirit is not an abstract thing like the prevailing mood or atmosphere of a party or gathering. For those of us who did not have the opportunity to know Jesus personally, the Spirit is God’s real and ongoing relationship with humankind.

God promises that the Spirit dwells within all of us who confess Jesus Christ as Lord and this is a trustworthy fact, a promise that we can hold on to even during the times of our lives when we don’t think we can feel the Spirit. But the working of Spirit, like all that God does, is not confined to believers. Because of our own ongoing relationship with God through prayer and study enabled by Spirit, we can learn to recognise God’s movements in the world and discern where he is working.


Today is Trinity Sunday. A Sunday that is devoted to the celebration of a doctrine.

But, properly speaking, I think it’s a Sunday devoted to mediation on our relationship with God and God’s relationship with us.

It is not doctrine that brings to us faith but relationship and experience, with God and with other Christians.

I’d like to close my meditation this morning by reading to you from Ephesians, Chapter 3:14-21. Close your eyes, if you’d like to, and listen to these words from Holy Scripture.

Ephesians 3:14-21

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.