Monday, April 14, 2008

Sunday 13 April 2008 - The Good Shepherd Leads Us

This sermon uses the lectionary readings for Easter 4 in conjunction with the observance of 'Vocations Sunday'. I was a visiting preacher, but the sermon was also preached in the context of an on-going circuit review. Readings are: Psalm 23 and John 10:1-10.


Today’s scripture readings offer to us the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd.

Now, I don’t know about you, but when the image of Jesus as a good shepherd is mentioned, what springs into my mind is a picture that looks something like this

Isn’t this classic? An idyllic country scene, with a beautiful sunset in the background and a flock of sheep obediently following Jesus. And Jesus is lovingly cuddling a little lamb in his arm.

This idyllic picture of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is a beautiful image. It’s a picture that we use with our children, both literally and figuratively. I couldn’t find the picture, but there is also picture that has been used in Sunday Schools of Jesus the Good Shepherd protecting human children as well as sheep and lambs.

A Foundation of Trust and Love

This is an entirely appropriate picture to use for our children. It is important to communicate to them that both God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ love them as fiercely as do their own parents. We want our children to learn that, no matter what happens in life, that the Good Shepherd is right there among his sheep and that his guidance and protection are to be absolutely trusted.

And this very same picture of the Good Shepherd is very often invoked at a funeral service. When we mourn, we especially need to be reminded of the fact that we are commending those who we love into the hands of a loving God who is, above all things, to be trusted. He is the good shepherd who protects his children from evil when they walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

And it is not just at the beginning and at the end of life that we need to be reminded of the goodness of God. Within the history of Christianity, all traditions of spiritual discipline ask their students to ground their spiritual growth and their discipleship on the firm foundation of God’s love and of his providential care for us.

Knowing oneself to be both lovable and loved are the basic requirements for human beings to grow into the people that God intends us to be.

This is the Good News in today’s Scripture readings from John and from the Psalms: Jesus is the Good Shepherd. God loves you and me and he knows us by name. God cherishes each one of us individually and he walks with us in our journey through life.

We are not Sheep Safely Grazing

Are you waiting for me to say ‘but’? OK, here comes the ‘but’.

The image of the shepherd and the sheep has its limits. And the image of Christian disciples as sheep is especially limited and limiting. I don’t think we really want to characterise the Christian life as being the life of an obedient sheep. Good sheep meekly follow wherever they are led. They always comply. They stay safe. They are not animals known for exploring or exposing themselves to risk.

The problem is that, as human beings, we need to be able to take risks from time to time in order to grow.

As I mentioned earlier, today is ‘Vocations Sunday’ and I believe that fundamental to the concept of ‘vocation’ is that it involves a journey of change and transformation. Who are we and who are we being called to be? Both as individuals and also as a Christian community? There is an image in verse 3 of today’s reading of Christian disciples as being called out: ‘He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.’

Being a Christian is not just about finding and remaining in a safe place. If we see God’s love as a safe place that we don’t grow beyond, then Christianity becomes something that is just for children but has very little to offer to adults. Several weeks ago, a young woman in her early twenties said this to me in so many words: ‘I went to Sunday School and to the youth club when I was a child, but church is for children, it’s something that you grow out of.’

If all that Christianity has to offer is a safe place with no transformation and no growth, then it doesn’t offer humanity very much. To be human is to be on a journey of transformation and change. We need to go on this journey in our work lives, in our emotional lives, in our family lives and in our spiritual lives.

So, while it’s very important and appropriate that Church should be the place where we touch base on a regular basis to remind ourselves of the love of God and of his presence here among us… It’s also important that our church and our faith help us grow and others to growth and that our faith doesn’t hinder us or cause us to stagnate.

Expect Transformation

So, how do we embark on a journey of transformation and change?

I think that we have to expect change and transformation and, dare I say it, we even have to pray for it and ask God to guide us in the process of change. Change is always somewhat difficult and sometimes it’s even downright painful.

Since church communities are often called upon to be pastoral to those in pain, I think that we sometimes assume that if a change is painful that it must not be of God. And I think that there is also a wider assumption in society that since God does not change that the church should not change either.

I’m not suggesting that our core doctrines should be altered, but beyond these, individuals and congregations might be called upon at different times to make changes that might feel painful.

Not just the obvious changes that people tend to grumble about like pews versus chairs or old hymns versus new worship songs, but God may call us to take up activities that we don’t feel entirely comfortable with. And he may ask us to give up prized activities that we are comfortable with which are no longer serving his purposes.

I’m a visiting preacher this morning. I have no idea what sort of transformation God is calling you to, either on an individual level or a congregational level. That is something that only you can discern through prayer, by looking at where your gifts and talents lie and by discerning the needs of those around you.

What I do know is that growth and transformation require change. And I do not believe that God has called the church to be unchanging (although you are always free to disagree with me).

Conclusion and Good News

The Good News in all of this is that the Good Shepherd is trustworthy and he wants to lead us.

Human beings were made for growth and for transformation and, just as certainly as the Good Shepherd is with us at the beginning and at the end of our lives, so too is he with us in the journey, even when that journey is difficult or confusing or downright painful.

So my prayer this morning is that we may each hear the voice of the Good Shepherd more clearly as he calls us and leads us in the journey of transformation. Amen

Sunday 6 April 2008 - Baptism

This was a sermon for a baptism. Readings were 1 John 4:6-16 and Matthew 19:13-15


We have come here this morning as we do every Sunday morning to worship God as a Christian community, to praise God, to pray together and to sustain and support each other in our Christian life.

And this morning we are especially blessed to welcome the family of L who has just been baptised and, through his baptism, welcomed into the world-wide Church of Christ.

This morning’s reading from the first letter of John gives us a very good summary of the core beliefs of the Christian faith: That God loves each and every one of us because he made us. That God showed his love for us through Jesus. And that God lives in us and that he calls us to be agents of his love in the world.

So, I want to think about each of these things very briefly this morning in light of L’s baptism.

God loves us because he made us

First of all: God loves us because he made each and every one of us.

The baptism service that we witnesses this morning is a wonderful sign of God’s love for each and every one of us. In the service, we heard that everything that God has done for L – and for us, of course – was done before he (or we) could even know anything about it.

The offer of God’s love never depends on anything that we do, it is simply there, like the love of a good parent. God’s love doesn’t depend on our good behaviour; it doesn’t depend us loving God back; it doesn’t depend on anything. God simply loves us because he created us. And God loves everything that he created.

Just like a good parent wouldn’t say: ‘I’m not going to love you until you clean up your room’, God doesn’t make his love dependent on our good behaviour. God simply loves us because he created us.

We heard in this morning’s short reading from Matthew that God wants to give his love to little children, but he also wants to give his love to adults, even those who might think that they are no longer loveable.

God Showed his Love for Us Through Jesus

Secondly: God showed his love for us through Jesus.

On the one hand, this is a simple statement, on the other hand, there is an awful lot in it. There is enough material here for many sermons and we only have a few minutes.

In Jesus, God was born into the world as a small baby, and, like L here today, he was dependent on human beings in order to grow into an adult. Not only did Jesus come to teach us, but in some sense he also learned from us and was dependant on us.

But Jesus did also come here to teach us. He was a healer and someone who forgave sins.

Imagine what the world would be like if every single person imitated Jesus and devoted their life to healing rather than harming and to forgiving rather than holding grudges.

But human beings didn’t embrace Jesus’ message of healing and forgiveness. Instead, we rebelled against who he was and we killed him.

And there is something about that death of Jesus that brought hope into the world. We killed God, we thought that we killed healing and forgiveness and hope, but God had the final word at Easter. The resurrection is God’s demonstration that healing and hope and forgiveness will always be his final word to humankind.

And so today we have baptised L into God’s world of healing and hope and forgiveness.

We are Called to Live As Christ Lived

And finally, we are called to live as Christ lived.

When an adult is baptised, he or she receives confirmation directly after the baptism according to the ancient pattern. This confirmation is the adult person’s declaration that they intend, with God’s help, to try to live the sort of life that Jesus lived.

L, of course, can’t make that decision for himself and so today is he has been baptised into the sign and symbol of God’s love. As a baby, L’s ‘job’ right now is to be loved and cherished and to grow up surrounded by the love of God and of family.

And so baptism is a fitting sacrament in light of L’s age and L’s ‘job’.

But it is the hope and prayer of the church that, as he grows up, he will learn about the love of God and that he will want to be confirmed and to make a public commitment as a follower of Christ.

Because Christianity isn’t just for babies and children. As we grow older, we wrestle with life issues that are complex and don’t always have easy answers. Things like uncertainty, fear, disappointment, and health issues. As Christians, we believe that we have guidelines by which to negotiate difficult life situations.

Life doesn’t always provide easy answers in these situations, but not only do we have our brothers and sisters in Christ with whom we can share our burdens and struggles, but we also believe that we have the help and power of the Holy Spirit through prayer and fellowship.


So this morning we have participated in L’s baptism as a Christian community and we have welcomed him into the house of God via the sacrament of Baptism.

This sacrament expresses the love of God, freely given to all of us before we even knew anything of it.

In a few minutes we will celebrate another sacrament: the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper is also a place where human beings are freely invited into the love and forgiveness of God. This God’s celebration banquet where all are welcome. With God, there is no such thing as an invited guest or an uninvited guest, but all are welcomed provided that it is their intention to meet with Christ and accept the hospitality of his table.

So it is my prayer this morning that, just as L has met with God in the sacrament of Baptism, that the rest of us may also meet with Christ in this service of worship and at the Lord’s Table. As God’s family, we come to his meal, we celebrate his presence and his love among us, and we welcome our brother L and his family into the presence of the living God.

Sunday 23 March 2008 - The Good News of the Resurrection

This is a sermon for Easter Sunday based on the resurrection story in Matthew 10:1-8


During Friday’s episode of the BBC’s production of The Passion, there is an interesting scene in which Mary the Mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and John run to tell the rest of the disciples that Jesus has been crucified.

The disciples express disbelief at first and then when the reality hits them, they seem at a loss as to what to do. One disciple says that he is going to go back to Galilee and resume his former life with his family and his trade. Another protests, ‘No! We promised to be Jesus’ disciples and to spread his good news to the whole world and that’s what we have to keep doing!’

The reply comes back ‘What Good News? Follow Jesus and be crucified?’

Whilst the above scene is based on some information from scripture, it’s not actually a story that the bible itself tells, but it struck me that this was a very good question indeed: ‘What Good News? Follow Jesus and be crucified?’

Because Christianity often gives the impression that the Good News of Christianity is that Jesus died for us. True enough, but only half a truth.

Also, given the fact that the BBC production was written by writers who are not, for the most part, followers of Christ, it made me wonder about what message the non-Christian world has about the Good News of the gospel.

Because I think we’ve been really good at communicating the message of Jesus’ crucifixion. And I think that we’ve been absolutely terrible at communicating the message of Jesus’ resurrection.

And I suspect that I know why that might be. ‘Jesus died in order that you might be reconciled with God’ is an idea that everyone can understand. People might not agree with it, people might not like it, but it has some grounding in our own experience.

We can understand the idea of a third party making a large sacrifice to reconcile us with someone with whom we have been estranged. That idea isn’t too far outside of human experience.

And, although I’ve met a handful of people in my life who claimed that they don’t believe that Jesus ever lived, by and large if you tell an unbeliever that Jesus was born, had a ministry and was crucified, it’s likely that most of them will agree with you.

But try proclaiming to an unbeliever: ‘Jesus has risen from the dead!’ From the point of view of the world, it’s just ludicrous. ‘You don’t really believe that, do you?’ At best you’ll be seen as superstitious and a bit dim, at worst you might be regarded as someone with a shaky grasp on reality.

Resurrection is Key

My claim to you on this wonderful Easter morning is that ‘Jesus has risen from the dead!’ is a vitally important part of the Good News of Jesus Christ. It’s as important as the message that ‘Jesus died to reconcile us to God’. The two ideas are part of one message and they should not be separated.

I guess that you could argue that without the crucifixion there would be no resurrection and that would, of course, be true. But death is a normal expectation of human experience. How many people expect resurrection?

St. Paul said it best: ‘If Christ be not raised, then our faith is in vain.’ Go back in your imagination to that earlier scene between the disciples just an hour or two after Jesus’ crucifixion and picture again one disciple asking the other ‘What good news?’

Sure, there is good news (small letters) in Jesus’ preaching: God loves you and forgives your sins, with God’s forgiveness a new start is possible. Take care of each other as you would have others take care of you and love one another as Jesus loved you.

Nice ideas – inspiring ideas even – but without the resurrection they aren’t Good News (capital letters), they aren’t anything more than inspiring ideas.

Jesus didn’t just give us inspiring ideas: he brought those inspiring ideas to life.

Or perhaps a better way of putting it is that he breathed the breath of life into these inspiring ideas.

Because without resurrection, death has the final word. A world without resurrection is a world where cynicism, cruelty and despair have the final word and where hope, self-giving love, and morals will all ultimately die.

In a world without resurrection, the question ‘What good news?’ makes absolute sense. In fact, before the resurrection, it is the only question that makes sense.

But, after the resurrection, in a world where life has the last word, it is only self-giving love and hope that make sense. The resurrection demonstrates the authority of Jesus and the resurrection causes something to happen in the cosmic reality that brings love and hope into their full, everlasting, potential.

The resurrection demonstrates unmistakably that the God who we worship is first and foremost a God of life. He is not a God of death or destruction or even a God of pointless despair.

But a God whose ultimate purpose and desire is to weave all things together for good. God’s desire is not to give us any old life, but abundant life, life as it was meant to be. In a post-resurrection world, the answer to the question: ‘What good news?’ is that Christ has risen so that the world might have life in all its fullness. Individuals as well as all creation.

But there is more Good News, although we mustn’t jump ahead too far into the story. Because Jesus is alive and not dead, he can be with us.

There is another scene in The Passion, where Jesus tells his disciples that he is going away and that they will not be able to follow him where he is going. This scene depicts a well-known passage in the Gospel of John that is often read at funerals.

But BBC production uses different words than we are used to in the Gospel of John. And the disciple says ‘But you can’t go away. We need you here with us to help us find God.’

The joyful thing about the resurrection is that Jesus is here with us to help us find God. We don’t have to try find God on our own – something that is impossible anyway – because Jesus is here to help us.

As is made clear in the Gospel of John, after the resurrection, Jesus’ Holy Spirit is here with us, guiding us every day. Helping us find God.


The Christian Faith proclaims the Good News not only of Jesus’ death but of his resurrection.

We proclaim the good news that not only are love and hope alive but that, by the power and sustenance of God, they will live forever.

And we proclaim the Good News that our brother Jesus has risen and that we too will rise again into a New Creation.

Brothers and sisters, Christ has risen.
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!