Saturday, 12 May 2018

Jesus prays for his disciples

John 17: 6-19   

This is a passage to give you neck-ache if you imagine the conversation between Jesus, the Father and the disciples. For example, sentences like “All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them…”
Jesus refers 20 times to himself ‘I’
And 22 times to they or them – meaning the disciples.

This Passage is at least as much about the disciples as it is about Jesus.
Jesus constantly refers to himself in relation to the Father, but then says ‘as it is for me, so it is for them (the disciples)’ or ‘as you have done for me so do for them’.

Jesus talks about the name of God; the fact that he is sent by God the Father; and the truth that the disciples also belong to God. He then prays that the Father protects them once he is no longer with them.
Then comes this final, rather puzzling sentence;
“As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.”
Jesus is sent by the Father into the world – John’s gospel makes that clear from the start “God so loved the world he sent his only Son…”. We know that Jesus is praying here at the end of his time on earth with the disciples. According to John’s gospel they have seen him turn water into wine, heal the paralytic at the pool of Bethesda, feed the 5,000, and raise Lazarus from death, as well as teaching Nicodemeus and the woman at the well.
Jesus has come to do God’s will and to show the arrival of God’s kingdom with all that that means for the suffering and the needy.
But now Jesus speaks of sanctifying himself. To sanctify something means to set it apart, make it holy and consecrated, being used by God.
Surely Jesus is already holy? Hasn’t everything he has done and said so far showed the disciples that he is the holy Son of God?
But Jesus is speaking just before his death – in this self-giving, this act of laying down his life this sacrifice, he is setting his life down for God – making his life a holy offering for the world.

But remember, this passage is as much about the disciples as it is about Jesus.
Jesus prays “I sancitify myself so that they may be sanctified.”
Jesus lays down his life for the holy purposes of God – to show the amazing extent of God’s love – so that his disciples can also learn to lay down their lives as an offering to God, for the world.

What does this mean for us?
We are disciples of Jesus Christ, sent into the world to do the will of God the Father as he was.
Sent into the world to do what?
At a gathering of URC ministers the week before last we were hearing some amazing stories of faithful, radical disciples of Jesus – Maria Skobstova, Dorothy Day, & Madeleine Delbrel. If those names don’t ring a bell, perhaps you will be more impressed when I tell you that the person telling us the stories was Rowan Williams (former Archbishop of Canterbury).

All three women that Rowan talked about gave up comfort and home and family to serve the poorest people, making themselves available to help others almost 24 hours a day and often giving away their own possessions for the sake of others. It seemed a bit daunting to try to be like them, but this is what discipleship looks like – refusing to hold onto your own life and your own possessions, for the sake of the kingdom of God.
Jesus gave up everything – even his life-blood; and so we should ask what it is that we should give up, as his disciples.

Rowan Williams suggested that the first thing we should be ready to give up is the church. Not give up coming to church, or caring about the fellowship of people here, but recognise that this is not our church. This is God’s church – it needs to be holy and sanctified, set apart to be used by God for the sake of the world.

Today we start a new chapter in the life of this church as we ordain Marius as an Elder, in preparation for him beginning to lead this church. Some things may change – Marius will bring new ideas about the life of the church, about what your life together looks like and about how you serve your community. But one thing will not change – this will not become Marius’s church: it will remain God’s church, and you will all continue to be set apart as Jesus’ holy followers.

How does this happen?
It is not a matter of determination. You do not achieve holiness by trying really hard, or achieve sanctification by saying the right words. Jesus prays that his followers will be sanctified, and his prayer is answered when the Holy Spirit comes to fill their lives with a knowledge of God’s presence and power.

As we ordain Marius to eldership, we pray for that same spirit to come and strengthen him in his discipleship of Christ.
Being sanctified and set apart as a leader on the church can sound quite grand, until we remember that this is not our church, but God’s and that we are not following our own plans, but seeking to follow Christ. Jesus was sanctified not for greatness but for service.
What is true for Jesus is true for the disciples.
The disciples – and us – all Jesus’ disciples - are not chosen for greatness and sanctified to a place of honour; we are chosen to follow and are sanctified for service to the world in God’s name. Marius is called to serve here – as we are all called to serve God in God’s church.

As we set apart this bread and wine for communion, we make it holy – holy things for God’s holy people. As we take the break and break it, and pour out the wine, we remember how Jesus’ body was broken to be offered to all the world. Strengthened for service by him, and filled with the Holy Spirit, we pray that God will use us in his service and for his glory. Amen.

Friday, 27 April 2018

Fruitful (Easter 5)

John 15: 1-8, Acts 8: 26-40

Perhaps, like me, you were brought up with the song “he is the vine & we are the branches..”.
I think of it whenever I hear that reading from John’s gospel – where Jeus says “I am the vine..”. 
And yet actually what Jesus says next is not ‘You are the branches, but “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.”.

So it seems that Jesus is wanting to explain to his disciples how they are connected to him, live in him, rely on him.
But that is not an end in itself: as disciples we are the branches, joined to Jesus, abiding in Jesus – but for the purpose of bearing fruit.

So what does ‘fruitfulness’ look like?

What does fruitfulness look like in the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch?

The Ethiopian eunuch (we are never told his name) is a person of great importance – he is in charge of the treasury of the queen of Ethiopia – but he also a person of great faith. He has had to make the decision to travel all the way to Jerusalem to worship, many hundreds of miles. He must have been a very determined and loyal pilgrim, because when he reached the temple in Jerusalem, as a foreigner and as a eunuch he would not be permitted further than the very outer court.
And he is wrestling with the Hebrew scriptures, reading from the book of Isaiah – perhaps from a scroll he has bought in Jerusalem – as he travels home in his chariot.
He has to be prepared to listen to Philip, to become enthused by what Philip tells him, and to give up his dignity to be baptised, there in the desert.

Meanwhile Philip has to listen to prompting of Spirit to be in the right place. He has to get alongside the Ethiopian – literally! – catching up with the chariot.
He has to listen to what the Ethipiopian is reading, then he has to respond to the invitation to climb up into the chariot and share what he knows about Jesus.
He helps the  Ethiopian to respond to the good news he has told him – by responding to his request by offering him baptism.
And then he has to leave the Ethiopian & his joy & go where God wants him to go next.

This week our Synod ‘Ministries’ committee met – we encourage and support worship leaders, elders, local church leaders, ministers and others.
We started our meeting by listening to the story of Philip and the Ethiopian and asking what “ministries” we saw there. We came up with quite a long list – persistence, evangelism, teaching, learning, discerning, helping, breaking open the word, listening, baptising, encouraging, developing, leaving to get on with it…
It seemed to us that in everything Philip did he was showing God’s love in Christ in action – it certainly produced fruit – and brought the Ethiopian, who was faithful and attentive -  to faith in Jesus.
The eunuch travels off, out of the story of Acts, and yet we are told he goes on his way with great joy. Some legends say that he reported his conversation with Philip to his queen and that she too became a Christian, and that in due course Ethiopia became the first Christian nation. From the Ethiopian’s pilgrimage and Philip’s service of Christ, stirred by the Spirit, come great fruit indeed.

But what about us? How can we be fruitful?

One of our smaller churches in the Synod, in Muddiford in North Devon, have been asking themselves that question using the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity course “Fruitfulness on the front line”.
They have produced a great little video of what they have learnt – you can find it on Youtube if you look up "Fruitfulness on the frontline at Muddiford URC" .

The course taught them that the ways to be fruitful were to remember the 6 Ms:
Modelling Godly Character – showing the fruits of the Spirit day-by-day
Making Good Work – seeing how our tasks and work can be done with and for God
Ministering Grace and Love –those we interact with on our frontlines
Moulding Culture –helping other people flourish more
Being a Mouthpiece for Truth and Justice –speaking up when necessary
And Being a Messenger of the Gospel –growing in confidence in talking about Jesus with people we meet.

They concluded that the places they were called to be fruitful – their ‘frontlines’ were the places they were in their normal week:
At work in the school kitchen
Volunteering in a national trust property
Doing the garden for people
Just drinking coffee with neighbours.

Where are you going next week? Where can you be fruitful for God? Where can you communicate God’s grace to others? Where can you speak of the love, truth and justice of Jesus Christ?
And where are you going to find the courage and eloquence and grace to do those things?

A few years ago I lived in a house with a vine growing up the back of it. It was a South facing garden and the vine grew really well.  Just before one harvest festival I went into the church as the flower-arrangers were finishing their work of decorating the church. It looked great, but I noticed that the pulpit looked rather bare. I had a great idea – I nipped home and snipped off some of the branches from my vine, and then I went back to the church and wove them around the top of the pulpit – it looked great!
The next morning when I arrived at church I was seriously disappointed: overnight all the vine leaves had wilted and shriveled. Now I knew just what Jesus meant when he said “I am the vine – you are the branches – apart from me you can do nothing”.

If you’re going to be fruitful, people of God, you need to stay joined to Jesus Christ the true vine – “apart from me you can nothing”.

I pray that this time of worship has helped us, like Philip, to be aware of the Spirit’s prompting, and that filled with Christ’s grace, we might be united in him abide in him and go out to share the good news of God’s love.
To God’s praise and glory

Saturday, 31 March 2018

Easter - the light dawns.

Easter Day          Mark 16: 1-8, 1 Corinthians 15: 1-11
Very early, on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, the women came to the tomb.

I imagine some of you might be morning people – you like to be up early, or maybe work means you need to be up early, or maybe you have a small child who has not yet learnt the meaning of the term “lie-in” (in my experience it takes about 13 years..).
So you may be very well acquainted with the dawn.
Others of you might be like me and only see the dawn on very rare occasions. Apparently today the sunrise was officially at 6.49 – but of course dawn starts before that, as the darkness of the night starts to give way to the first streaks of light and colour in the sky.

For those without too much direct experience, here is a beautiful description someone recently shared with me, by Virginia Woolf in her novel The Waves. This begins in the dim moments of gathering light that proceed daybreak. The sun had not yet risen.

“The sea was indistinguishable from the sky, except that the sea was slightly creased as if a cloth had wrinkles in it. Gradually as the sky whitened a dark line lay on the horizon dividing the sea from the sky and the grey cloth became barred with thick strokes moving, one after another, beneath the surface, following each other, pursuing each other, perpetually..”

Dawn is beautiful, gradual, mysterious – yet over time the light grows, and day begins.

No wonder we use the term things ‘dawn on us’ as a way of describing a slow recognition of truth: sometimes reality ‘dawns on us’, compared to those times we have a ‘lightbulb moment’ when we suddenly grasp something.

The first witnesses come to the empty tomb at dawn – and I think it dawns on them only slowly what has really happened.
Who will move the stone, huge as it is?
Here it is – rolled back!
Who is the young man in a white robe sitting in the tomb?
What is he saying? “Jesus has been raised. Go and tell the disciples”

No wonder they are described as ‘dumbfounded’ and Mark writes “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid”. Some manuscripts of Mark’s gospel even end there. But of course if they had never got over this initial shock there would be no resurrection story at all.
Slowly, light dawns, the truth dawns, their terror subsides and they go with the joyful message to the disciples.

Even then – the dawning of the truth of Christ’s resurrection is slow.
Luke tells us the disciples thought, at first, that what the women had to say was ‘idle gossip’;
Luke also tells us the story of the encounter on the road to Emmaus, where Jesus is not recognised at first;
Meanwhile John singles out Thomas as the one who doubts the accounts of others until he sees for himself.

Slowly, gradually, but surely, reality dawns. Jesus is risen from the dead – he is alive – death has been conquered.

We heard a passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, probably written about 20 years after the resurrection.
Paul seems very sure of exactly what happened as he ‘reminds them’ of the gospel:
“Christ died.. was buried…he was raised to life on the third day.”
Paul is the one from whose story we get our phrase ‘Damascus moment’ to explain a sudden grasp of the truth and the turn around it can produce. But even Paul, whose encounter with the risen Jesus was – literally – a blinding flash, takes time to explain how Jesus gradually appears to more and more people
“he appeared to Cephas, and afterwards to the twelve. Then he appeared to over 500 of our brothers.”

We don’t know whose account Paul had heard – remember the gospels weren’t written down for another 20 or 30 years after Paul’s letters – but he is summarising for the church at Corinth that their faith is that Jesus is risen and that the truth of his risen life is spreading gradually across the world, like the rising sun.

In the last six months I have seen my parents gently decline and die – into their nineties, full of years and full of faith. In a sense it has felt like a story of the sun gently setting, rather than a story of dawn.
And yet reflecting on their lives, I realise that although neither of them was an out-front, gregarious evangelical – you know the type who talks to strangers on the bus about Jesus – their lives witnessed to a faith which grew gently through the years and which illuminated their lives.
They were both brought up going to church, and brought up all of us, their children, in the life of the church too. They served as elders, my dad often involved with money and buildings, and my mum as a faithful Sunday school teacher and youth group leader.
They loved and supported many ministers, including, as my life unfolded, me.
They were both unafraid of death, not because they were whistling in the dark, but because they were longing to see what the true light of God’s presence would be like. As the light of their physical energy waned, the light of Christ within them just grew stronger. And when at last they were ‘promoted to glory’, as my lovely Salvation Army friends say, and people have said ‘I’m sorry to hear about their deaths’ my honest response has been “I’m not”.
The good news is that those of us who try to walk in the light of Christ, in the end go to live in the unending love and light Christ promises.

I wonder what good news you need to hear this morning?

Perhaps you’re ready for Paul’s blinding flash to illuminate your darkness.
Perhaps having held back your Alleluias all through Lent you are ready to let your joy burst out in a huge explosion.
Or perhaps like the women going to the tomb, you are only just feeling your way in the darkness, hoping for a glimmer, trusting that the light will dawn on you as time passes.

The truth of Easter is that just as the sun inexorably shines more strongly as dawn come, so the light of the risen Christ breaks upon us.

Whether we are aware of the first trickles of the light of truth in our darkness; or appreciating the growing strength and certainty of daylight; or basking in the full glare of noonday – the light of the love of God shines on us.

That love is greater than death.
That love raised Jesus from the tomb.
That love will shine on us, in us and through us.
The dawn breaks and Christ is risen indeed – alleluia. Amen.