Saturday, April 21, 2007

Sunday 22 April 2007 - Called by God

This sermon is based on Acts 9:1-6 and John 21:1-19


‘It is the Lord!’ ‘Who are you Lord?’ The first statement is made by the disciple who Jesus loves. The second statement is made by Paul on the road to Damascus.

Each of these moments is a moment of revelation, a moment when Jesus breaks unexpectedly into the lives of human beings and changes them forever.

In the case of the disciples out fishing, this is only the third appearance of the risen Lord in John’s Gospel. The disciples have gone back to their everyday lives and the last person they expect to see is the risen Jesus. But because of this encounter with Jesus, their lives will not be as they once were. In this encounter, in this moment of revelation, there is a call: ‘feed my sheep’

And I think that it is the same thing with Paul. § Although this story is often entitled ‘the conversion of Paul’, I think that it can also be properly viewed as Paul’s calling to mission. This moment of very dramatic revelation is a life-changing experience for Paul

Called by God

I think that today’s readings are stories about ‘callings’, but in this third Sunday in the Easter season, I think that it’s good to remember that they are stories of callings set in the context of resurrection.

I wonder if any of us have ever been envious of people like Peter or Paul? In Peter’s case, he had the privilege of quite literally walking in the footsteps of Jesus for three years. Surely, for someone like Peter, faith in Jesus must have been easy? And although Paul was not a disciple of Jesus during his lifetime, he claims to have met the risen Jesus. And the Church has always supported this claim and called him an Apostle. Surely such a powerful encounter with the risen Lord must have made it easy for Paul to have faith in Jesus and to answer Jesus’ call?

In this season of Easter and of celebration of Jesus’ resurrection, I want to remind us that, as committed Christians, we have each received a call from God. Each of us will have experienced moments of revelation - resurrection moments, however fleeting - when we caught a brief glimpse of the love and the life of God in all its glory. Brief moments of really understanding in our gut that God is fully alive and without reference to death. Fleeting nanoseconds when we live fully in the resurrection. ‘Ah hah!’ moments, as some people call them.

Some people have dramatic and dazzling encounters with God, like St. Paul did. Sometimes Christians make the mistake of suggesting that such dramatic encounters are the norm - particularly with respect to conversion. I suspect that such experiences are not the norm at all, although I have spoken to people who have had some truly dramatic experiences of God in their lives.

For the vast majority of our Christian lives and for the vast majority of Christians, our encounters with God and our glimpses of the divine are a lot more like that of the fishing disciples. We are going through the daily business of our lives when somewhere, somehow we catch a glimpse of the risen Lord. This encounter with God may be unexpected and it may startle or confuse us.

Touchstone Moments

What are these experiences for? Why do we have them?

Well, you won’t be surprised to hear that I think that it is in such moments when we can hear calls to serve the risen Lord. But I also think that such moments are there to encourage us and to sustain us as well as to assure us of God’s love and forgiveness. They are touchstone moments when we catch a glimpse of God that we can use as a benchmark in times of doubt and darkness.

Peter is certainly being called into the service of God in today’s Gospel reading. At the end of today’s reading, we’re reminded that Peter will suffer martyrdom in his old age. Peter’s call to feed Jesus’ sheep is not going to prove to be an easy vocation. But it is going to be a vocation in which he is fed and sustained by the Spirit of Christ.

Jesus Feeds His Sheep

Because here at the close of John’s Gospel we have yet another story of Jesus feeding human beings with bread and fish. Imagine how incredibly special this encounter was - the disciples were eyewitnesses to Jesus’ death, yet here they are on a quiet shore early in the morning shortly after his death, eating an intimate breakfast with their friend.

I daresay that this is a touchstone event for the disciples - especially for Peter. Were Peter ever to doubt his call, he had only to look back to this morning when his risen friend commissioned him three times: ‘Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep.’

But Jesus does not just call Peter. He doesn’t tell Peter, ‘I’m leaving you in charge of my flock and I expect you to prove that you’re up to the job.’ Jesus knows that, in his own strength, Peter isn’t up to the job - none of us are. Instead, Jesus partners with Peter and the other disciples. They obey his strange order to cast their net into the sea at dawn - not the best time to catch fish - and their net comes up full to overflowing, but miraculously doesn’t break. The disciples work with Jesus and their endeavour is a success.

Jesus also forgives and heals Peter even as he calls him into service. Echoing Peter’s three-fold denial of Jesus in the courtyard over a coal fire, Jesus and Peter linger together over a coal fire as Peter has the opportunity to affirm his love of Jesus three times. I can imagine three open wounds with Jesus gently touching each one in turn and healing each wound with his forgiveness. Healed and forgiven, Peter is thus equipped and empowered to take the message of Jesus’ healing and forgiveness out into the world.

A Resurrection Call

I said earlier that this calling and commission is set in the context of the resurrection and I believe that it’s important that this scene takes place with the risen Jesus. Without the resurrection, the call to Peter, the disciples and to us would not be the call to live a New Life in a New Creation.

Following the resurrected Jesus means that the Old Order has been turned upside down. In the old order, death rips our loved ones from us, sin has the power to permanently sever our relationship with others, and evil has the power to destroy communities and entire nations. But here in the New Creation is the risen Christ, standing in loving relationship with us despite our imperfections, calling us to reconciliation with him, and entrusting to us his message of reconciliation.

Here in the New Creation, Christ is alive, hope is alive and God’s outrageous, generous love is alive. In light of this fantastic good news – news which many people still find unbelievable – we are commissioned along with the disciples to proclaim and to live the good news of God’s love to all the world.


As we come together in Holy Communion in a few minutes, I pray that each person here is fed and strengthened at the Lord’s table in the same way that the disciples were fed on that morning on the beach.

I pray that we each remember our touchstone moments when God broke into our lives and called us into his service.

I pray that we may be empowered to bring the love of the risen Christ into the world by our words and our deeds and our lives. Amen.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Sunday 8 April 2007 - Easter Sunday

This sermon is based on John 20:1-18


Introduction: In the Garden

Nobody ever expected a resurrection.

On that morning when Mary Magdalene went to the tomb, she knew what her errand was about.

Of course, we understand that she would have been in mourning. She was present at the foot of the cross when Jesus died, but events had moved swiftly and death would have seemed incomprehensibly sudden. Mary knew very well that Jesus was dead, but she was probably feeling a bit surreal, like she was present but somewhere else, not knowing what to think or what to feel.

We can imagine that this morning’s task of anointing Jesus for burial might have been a welcome one. She had one last duty to perform for her friend and it was a very practical one; there was actually one more thing that she could do for him – and this might have been a comfort to her.

Despite being in mourning and probably feeling surreal, we have no reason to believe that Mary was – as psychiatrists say – not oriented in time and space. She knew exactly what had happened, exactly where she was, and exactly what she had to do.

The world as she had known it had not changed, although it had become a sadder place for her.

What Mary found in the tomb began to change her expectations. She’d expected to anoint Jesus’ body with herbs and oils but the body had disappeared and the burial linens lay abandoned in the tomb.

She knew that she could not anoint a body that wasn’t there. What she didn’t know was that the world had changed.

Mary must have been quite shocked to see an empty tomb. Perhaps she thought that her grief had got in the way of her seeing Jesus’ body in the shade of the tomb. But when Peter and the disciple who Jesus loved came to inspect the tomb, they confirmed that the body wasn’t there.

The logical explanation must be that someone had taken the body away. Perhaps a friend, perhaps an enemy. After all, a body does not just disappear of its own accord.

But in her encounter with Jesus in the Garden, Mary began to understand that her world had changed. No-one expected a resurrection, but Mary began to suspect resurrection.

The man who Mary met in the garden that morning called her by her familiar name: Miriam. Not Maria. Not the formal name that the Gentiles used, but Miriam. Her Jewish name. The name that her family and friends used. Her real name.

It was in this intimacy, in this familiarity and love, that Mary was able to recognise her friend Jesus. It was from this point forward that Mary understood that everything had changed.

The New Creation

Everything had changed.

The Good News on that first Easter morning is the same news that we proclaim this morning: that the incarnate God is alive. God is completely alive and without reference to death. Eternal, abundant life has broken into the cosmos. And reality as we know it will never be the same again.

Everything has changed.

Jesus is risen, Christ is alive but the meaning of his resurrection is not – in my view – simply a miracle on the order of other New Testament miracles. Jesus Christ did not simply rise from the dead in order to give us some kind of supernatural sign that he was really divine.

The resurrection was somehow – and I can express it no better than “somehow” – an integral part of God’s plan for creation – for God’s New Creation.

To borrow images from John’s Gospel, the Christ event – the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ - was the event which brought light into the darkness. Yes, the resurrection proved that God is completely alive and without reference to death, but more than “proving” God’s driving force toward life, the Christ Event actually brought that life into Creation.

“What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”

Illustration: “Lazarus Laughed”

The American playwright Eugene O’Neill wrote a play about the raising of Lazarus entitled Lazarus Laughed.

You will remember that, in the story as told in the bible, Mary and Martha summon Jesus so that he can heal their brother, Lazarus, who is on his deathbed. But Jesus delays his journey to their village and, when Jesus gets there, Lazarus has already died. And so, rather than healing Lazarus, Jesus calls him forth from the tomb.

In Eugene O’Neill’s play, once Lazarus has been raised and has settled back into mortal life, all his friends and neighbours gather ‘round him and ask him what it is like being dead.

And Lazarus’ response is to laugh and to say that death is not an abyss. The story he tells them is one of God, of life, of joy.

As Lazarus tells this story to his friends and neighbours, they all start laughing too.
They are amazed at this wonderful good news and they tell their friends and neighbours.
Soon the entire village is one great big laughter factory.

But the Roman authorities hear about what has happened and they become alarmed. The Romans understand that the key to controlling people is to intimidate them with the threat of death. The Romans understand that if everyone in Judea loses their fear of death that they, the Romans, will loose their control over their conquered land.

Without fear of death, the conquered people are, in fact, free people.

The Application of Resurrection

The resurrection makes us free people.
Because of the resurrection, Christians understand that God is completely alive and without reference to death.

On Easter day, we proclaim our faith in God’s complete aliveness.

The question, I think, is whether we live as people who really believe in resurrection. To the extent that we live in fear of death, we are people who live under subjugation. The more we come to grasp the reality of resurrection, the freer we are to hope, to give thanks, to be joyful and to laugh.

What would the world be like if, because they were not afraid, those who understand God’s life-force were totally free to do what is right and what is Godly?

What would the world be like if every Christian lived as a person who was “brilliantly alive and completely without reference to death”?

What would we do if we believed in the resurrection?

Friday, April 06, 2007

Friday 6th April - Good Friday Meditation

This sermon is based on Luke 23:44-47. The Christian churches in the town have got together and there is going to be a walk of witness with each church doing a portion of the passion narrative.


“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

These are Jesus’ final words as reported in the Gospel of Luke and they echo the words of Psalm 31:5 “Into your hand I commit my spirit; You have redeemed me, oh Lord, faithful God.”

But listen to the words of Deuteronomy 21:22-23 “When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God's curse.”

In order to understand what is going on in Luke’s Gospel story, we need to understand that – from the point of view of the religious establishment – Jesus has absolutely no business at all commending himself into the hands of God at the moment of his death. A commendation into the hands of God at Jesus’ funeral should have properly been the business of a rabbi.

But the religious establishment had turned its back on Jesus and no rabbi or other religious official was present at the hour of Jesus death to offer this commendation. Jesus was a cursed man and therefore compelled to make such a prayer for himself.

The received religious tradition as expressed in Deuteronomy pronounced Jesus guilty and it was it up to an outsider – a Roman soldier – to perceive Jesus’ innocence.

Most of us are probably so used to hearing this story that we fail to hear how truly outrageous it is. And one thing that we must not do is turn this into a story about Jews and Gentiles; to do so would be both anti-Semitic and incorrect about what is going on. In this story, we are not to put ourselves in the place of the one person who saw Jesus as innocent. We – you and I – are the people who found Jesus guilty and crucified him.

So, this afternoon, let us hear clearly the scandal of cross.

Get away from this mindset that we would have known that Jesus was innocent. We would not have known that. We would have been certain – absolutely 100% certain – that Jesus was a dangerous religious fanatic.

We would have been more certain than we ever had been about anything in our lives that Jesus had to be executed as soon as possible.

Even those individuals among us who have a general inclination to mercy would have understood that it is better to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.

Let us be clear that we would have been certain that this religious fanatic, this delusional Messiah had absolutely no right whatsoever to call upon the name of our God. He had no right to commend his spirit into the hands of that God. And he most certainly had no right to call God by the name of “Father”.

But precisely what he did was to call upon God as his Father.

Before Jesus uttered these words, it appeared to everyone present they had been effective in denying him access to God. In speaking these words of commendation, Jesus shifted the entire context of his death.

This was not a man being executed for crimes he had committed. This was not a man whose life was being taken from him in the name of justice. This was a man, fully human and fully divine, who was freely giving up his life in order to forgive those who had condemned him to death. You cannot take from someone that which is freely given.

Jesus said: “Father, into your hands I commend my Spirit”. In doing so, he redefined what was going on. And everything – absolutely everything – was turned upside down.

There was darkness and there was a rip and the very fabric of creation was torn in two. For he who is at the centre of all creation died and his death changed everything. Everything old has passed away and everything has become new.

What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Thursday 5th April 2007 - Maundy Thursday

This sermon is based on John 13:1-7, 31b-35.


The Suffering Servant

It was the night before the crucifixion. The Nth hour. The last meal that Jesus would have with his closest disciples. And the disciples still didn’t get it.

For some time now, Jesus had been telling the twelve that the Messiah was going to have to die. Jesus was not going to be the conquering hero Messiah that so many people had expected. Jesus was going to be the Suffering Servant Messiah. But the disciples still didn’t get it.

On this evening, Judas would leave the company of his closest companions in order to hand Jesus over to the authorities. We don’t really know why Judas betrayed Jesus. His motives are not directly recorded in any Gospel. But I wonder if Judas had hoped to force Jesus’ hand. I wonder if Judas reckoned that, confronted with a situation where they had to fight or die, Jesus would be forced to defend himself and, in the process, become a military Messiah.

I don’t think for one moment that Judas counted on Jesus actively choosing to die.

And then there is Peter. “Never at any time will you wash my feet!” Peter said to Jesus. Peter didn’t seem to want a suffering servant for a Messiah either Or maybe this simply wasn’t even a model of Messiahship that he was able to grasp. After all, Jesus said that Peter wouldn’t actually understand the foot-washing until “later”. Until after Jesus’ resurrection.

Judas and Peter still didn’t get it.

The thing is, if you are going to have a relationship with Jesus, you have to be prepared for him to do things his way.

Servanthood, not Heroics

There are a number of ways to look at this story if you are a preacher.

The first way is to look at this story as being about how Christian leaders should be servants in their communities and then to elaborate on servant leadership. This way of reading the story comes with a time-honoured Maundy Thursday liturgy where the priest or bishop washes the feet of the congregation.

The second way to look at this story is to concentrate on the new commandment at the end of the reading. We could elaborate on how Jesus commanded us to love others as he has loved us.

But these are not new teachings and they are not unique to this last day in Jesus’ life.

Over and over in the Gospels we have heard that the last will be first and the first will be last. Over and over in the Gospels we have heard that we are to love others as God has loved us. It’s partly because I feel like I’ve bored for England over the last seven months on these two topics that I’ve chosen not to elaborate on them tonight!

For me, I think that it’s interesting that John uses the story of the foot-washing in place of the story of the Last Supper. I don’t think it’s because John does not value the story or the practise of the Lord’s Supper. After all, this is the evangelist who takes pains to tell us that Jesus is the Bread of Life and the True Vine.

My suspicion is that John tells us this story in order emphasise that Jesus’ ministry is one of servanthood and that it’s not about being a conquering hero. I think it’s because John wants to emphasise to us that following in the way of Jesus means following a path where all our worldly values are turned upside down.

If you are going to have a relationship with Jesus, you have to be prepared for him to do things his way.

Jesus' Death is Central

There is “something” about Jesus’ servanthood and his dying that is vitally important to the Good News of the Gospel. As human beings, the faithful people of the Church Universal have struggled for centuries to express this “something”: Jesus’ death paid a debt that our sin got us into, Jesus’ death was a victory over sin, Jesus’ death set a moral example, Jesus’ death was the complete and final temple sacrifice.

All these are ways of trying to express something inexpressible: that there is “something” about Jesus’ death that brought salvation into the world. There is something about his death that changed the fabric of existence for all eternity.

Jesus’ eleven closest disciples on earth would not understand – could not understand – the centrality of Jesus’ death until after his resurrection.

But however familiar we are with the concept that “Jesus died for our sins”, it is vitally important to grasp what a scandal his death was. It is vitally important to grasp what a scandal his servanthood was. It is vitally important to understand that The Way of Jesus turns reality-as-the-world-knows-it upside down.

But, if you are going to have a relationship with Jesus, you have to be prepared for him to do things his way.

There is a part of us that – like Simon Peter – does not want a servant saviour. We want a strong saviour. If not a saviour who kills his enemies, then at the very least a saviour who tells them off and punishes them. We want a God who applauds when we cut off the ear of his enemies, not a God who heals those whom our sword has wounded. We want a God who punishes his enemies and who lets us off the hook, a God who brings justice to his enemies and grace and mercy to us.

What we don’t want is a God who kneels at the feet of the both the guilty and the innocent and washes them.

But if we are going to have a relationship with Jesus, we have to be prepared for him to do things his way.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Wednesday 4 April 2007 - Wednesday of Holy Week

This is a very short meditation for based on the lectionary reading John 13:21-32. The context is a communion service with an afternoon fellowship group.


The one who is to hand Jesus over to the authorities is the one to whom Jesus gives the bread that he dipped in the dish.

Why did Judas hand Jesus over the authorities? Well, nowhere in the Gospel do we have any information about why Judas did what he did. There is some hint in scripture that perhaps he did it for money. Other people speculate that Judas wanted to force Jesus’ hand to become the political Messiah that so many people wanted. But the Gospels don’t give us any kind of a definitive answer as to Judas’ motivation.

I don’t know, but I am of the school that thinks that the reason that Judas handed Jesus over to the authorities was because he thought that he would force Jesus’ hand. I reckon that Judas thought that Jesus was being ineffectual and that Jesus’ mission needed to take on some kind of meaning. And I reckon that Judas thought that, through his action, the meaning of Jesus’ mission would be revealed.

Of course, the meaning of Jesus’ mission was revealed, but not in the way that I think Judas hoped.

I think that Judas understood that Jesus’ choice was either to stand up to the Romans or to die. The one thing that he didn’t reckon on was that Jesus would choose to die.

To see Judas as some kind of super-villain is to misunderstand who he was. Judas was nothing more than one of the group.

It’s easy to misunderstand who Judas was when we read that ‘Satan’ entered into him. It’s easy to cast Judas in the role of super-villain when we read words like that. But ‘Satan’ means ‘the accuser’. I don’t think that we are to understand here that Judas suddenly became demon-possessed and filled with some kind of extraordinary evil. I think that this was simply a man who had his own ideas and ambitions about what Jesus’ Messiahship was about. This was simply a man who thought that he knew better than God how God’s purposes were to be fulfilled.

I say ‘simply’ because, of course, we all do this.

The one who is to hand Jesus over to the authorities is the one to whom Jesus gives the bread that he dipped in the dish. But, of course, Judas was not the only disciple to whom Jesus gave the bread of friendship that night. Judas was not the only disciple whose feet Jesus washed that night.

Who is going to betray Jesus? One of us. Each of us. We are each guilty of thinking that we know better than God how his purposes are to be fulfilled. We can’t help it – this is part of our human condition. Judas is not a super-villain, he is an ordinary human being. One of us.

So where is the good news?

The good news is that Jesus chose the cross. He chose the path of forgiveness rather than the path of vengeance. And in doing so, he brought salvation into the world. In choosing the cross, he also demonstrated to us that even while we were still sinners, he died for us.

I believe firmly that Jesus’ forgiveness was available to Judas, although Judas could not see it. The good news is that no matter what we do, God’s forgiveness is always available to us. The good news is that we are forgiven sinners.