Wednesday, April 30, 2008

1 Peter 3: 13-22 Last Encouragements

There are some strong traditions in the Bible of religious leaders making grand farewell speeches just before their departure. Moses famously gathered the Children of Israel, and read them the words of the Law before dying in the land of Moab. Joshua wrote statutes and ordinances in a book of the Law, and then set up a large stone in the sanctuary of the Lord, before he died at the age of 110. David gave some final advice to Solomon, before 'sleeping with his ancestors', as the 1st Book of Kings puts it. And of course Jesus gave some final words of command to his followers before he ascended into heaven.

Fortunately, I am not dying and I'm not expecting to ascend into heaven at any moment either. I'm just moving on to a new parish, and to new challenges. For those who haven't quite caught up with the detail, you might like to know that I'm off to North End, in Portsmouth, where I will take up the post of Team Rector. I shall be given charge of three churches, in one parish: St Mark's, St Francis' and St Nicholas. I shall have a team of three priests to work with - two Team Vicars, and a Curate. All of them, incidentally, happen to be women...which is going to make for an interesting dynamic! I'm sure they'll knock me into shape in pretty short order! (Incidentally, there was a fascinating item on the radio last week. Women callers were invited to ring into Chris Evans' show on Radio Two with what they considered to be messages that all men needed to hear from all women. My favourite was the one that went: "Men should realise that every week on the same day, the dustbins are collected ...and they shouldn't need reminding to put the rubbish out!")

So, there is a sense of finality about today, for me at least. This is the last Holy Communion service that I expect to preside at here at Warblington - and the last sermon I shall preach to an 8am congregation in this parish. So I've been contemplating what I might say to you, before I leave. What thoughts would I like to leave with you?

As it happens, our epistle reading for this morning - which comes straight out of the lectionary - is a fairly good place to start. The 1st letter of Peter is a letter which still has a lot of resonance for us. It is a letter to Christians who are suffering from all kinds of persecution, and one that encourages its readers to be steadfast in their faith...whatever the circumstances. It is a letter that can be read by Christians in all kinds of today's circumstances. Churches in developing countries or Muslim lands, where they are often a persecuted minority - they find that 1 Peter's readers were just like them...bearing witness to faith in the midst of suffering, and mis-understanding, and bullying, and even death. And for churches in the West, 1 Peter contains many clues as to how to live faithfully while Christendom fades, and while Christians begin to again feel like sojourners and aliens - foreigners in their own lands.

So let's look at what this letter of Peter has to say to all of us...especially those of us who are citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, as well as residents of Warblington and Emsworth. The first sentence that strikes me out of the passage we read just now, is the statement "Do not fear what they fear" (1 Peter 3:14). Peter is saying to his readers, don't be sucked in by the fears of the people who have no faith, or who do not share yours. Don't be sucked in by the things that our society think are worth fearing...instead, by "sanctifiying Christ as Lord" (verse 15) make sure that you keep your heavenly perspective on things.

Our society is very good at fear...and at driving us down all sorts of blind alleys in a relentless quest to put things right. And as a result, society tends to throw out the baby with the bathwater time after time. Let me explain what I way of a few examples.

The chances of you or me being blown up by a terrorist bomb is infinitesimally small...a billion times less likely than the chance that we will die of a disease like cancer. And yet, as a society, we seem to be quite content for our Governments to spend billions and billions of pounds in a fruitless quest to 'root out the terrorists' - instead of spending our taxes on finding cures for the diseases that will kill us. Our society's obsession with terrorism teaches us to regard every one with a different skin tone, or accent, as a potential terrorist...and stops us making friends of the strangers we encounter.

Here's another example: the chances of any of our children being abducted, are, statistically speaking, infinitesimally small. If anything, less children are routinely abjucted now than at any time in our past. But our fear of the possibility of abduction means that our children are prevented from playing in the woods, or along the sea-shore, as we used to at their age.

I could go on. In almost all the areas of fear that our society has - fear of the stranger, fear of excessive immigration, fear of crime, fear of teenagers, fear of being poor, fear of the almost every area, the Bible offers us a completely different way of looking at things. Peter says, "Do not fear what they fear" - and in doing so echoes the much earlier writings of the prophet Isaiah. Here are his words, from hundreds of years before Peter: "...the Lord spoke thus to me...and warned me not to walk in the way of this people saying: Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what it fears, or be in dread. But the Lord of hosts, him you shall regard as holy."

We are encouraged by this letter to stop taking our cue from public opinion, but to take our lead from Jesus. We are encouraged to follow in the footsteps of the Lord who, as Peter says in verse 18, "was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit" and who, in verse 22, "has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God". This is the same Jesus, now risen and glorified, who reached out to Samaritans and Romans - who were the enemies of the Jews, and the immigrants of his day. This is the Jesus who was unafraid to touch the sick and the poor; who did not fear what society feared.

So this is my final sermon to you - the final encouragement I would offer: never forget whose children you are. Never forget who purchased your salvation by his blood. Never forget that you are citizens of heaven, who also happen to live on earth. To quote St Paul, from his letter to the Romans, "Do not be conformed to the standards of this world. Rather, be transformed by the renewing of your mind."

The call of Jesus, which I shall try to follow in North End, and which I hope you will try to follow here after I'm gone, is to go on, continuously, being transformed and transforming. You have been called to be a son or daughter of God - and brother or sister of Christ. He offers you an entirely different way of looking at the world...and he calls you to be part of the world's be salt and light to the world.

Jesus offers us a way of trust, instead of fear. He offers us the security of eternity with him, rather than the transient security of owning stuff here on earth. He offers us the way of peace, instead of war. He offers us the way of love, instead of hate. He offers us the way of forgiveness instead of resentment and bitterness. He offers us the way of life instead of death.

This, as I've often said from this pulpit, is the heart of the topsy-turvy Kingdom of God. We serve a King who rides on a donkey. A Lord who was born in a stable, the dead-man who came to life. Just about anything that our world considers normal and desirable...wealth, fame, safety, are all shown up by the light of the topsy turvy gospel to be the hollow shams that they are. He who seeks wealth will lose it. It will be taken from him on the day he dies. She who seeks fame will be destroyed by it...hounded from morning until night by public opinion. He who seeks safety will end up closing himself off from every other human being behind gated communities and security cameras - and will grow in bitter resentment towards every one, every nation, every foreigner who he sees as a threat to his illusion of safety.

But she who seeks love, will find it - in Jesus, and among his people. He who seeks to give things away, will receive a hundredfold in return in terms of the sense of peace and fulfillment that can only come when we hold onto things lightly. She who seeks to give herself to others will receive back friendship and companionship that will last for eternity.

So that's it - my parting shot. Do not fear what they fear. Be transformed, and be transforming.

And may God bless you all, richly and without measure. For ever.


Wednesday, April 02, 2008

The Emmaus Road (Luke 24:13-35)

Have you heard the story of the mother who asked her small child whether he knew the name of God's son?
"Yes," said the boy, "its Andy".
"Andy?" replied the Mother. "Where did you get that idea?".
"From the son they taught us in Sunday School" replied the boy. "He lives, He Lives, Christ Jesus lives today, Andy walks with me, Andy talks with me along life's narrow way"

I wonder how many of you remember that song. It was certainly popular when I was a lad - I think we sang it at every beach mission I ever attended down at Western Super Mud, where I was born. And I used to get dragged along to various Summer playschemes at Baptist churches - where it was rather popular too.

But that declaration of 'He Lives!" was something that the two disciples on the road to Emmaus were not yet able to say. Their state of mind was rather different - to say the least. They had just witnessed the most dramatic week of Jesus' life - a week which had started with so much promise, as Jesus road into Jerusalem on a donkey, hailed as the coming Messiah. But just a week later, Jesus was dead. All the hopes of these two disciples were dashed. I wonder how they felt. Confused? Hopeless?

I wonder how we feel when things don't go according to our plans?

Another question that this story raises is 'Why were the disciples heading off to Emmaus at all?' After all, the rest of Jesus' disciples were staying in the city, confused and afraid, hiding from the authorities. Why weren't these two followers of Jesus with the rest of his disciples?

Actually, we don't know much about these two. We know, from the story, that one of them is called Clopas - but we are not given a clue as to who the other was. Perhaps he was actually a she - Mrs Clopas perhaps. But why were they traveling? Escape, perhaps. The American theologian Frederick Buechner interprets Emmaus as,

'...the place we go in order to escape - a bar, a movie, wherever it is we throw up our hands and say "Let the whole...thing go hang. It makes no difference anyway." Emmaus might be buying a new suit, or a new car, or smoking more cigarettes than you really want, or reading a second rate novel or even writing one...Emmaus is whatever we do or wherever we go to make ourselves forget that the world holds nothing sacred: that even the wisest and bravest and loveliest decay and die; that even the noblest ideas that men have had - ideas about love and freedom and justice - have always in time been twisted out of shape by selfish men for selfish ends.' (Buechner, quoted in New Interpreter's Bible, Vol IX, page 482)

I wonder if we feel a bit like that sometimes too. Especially when we watch the news, and we hear of the latest manouvres of the politicians, or the latest terrorist outrage, or the latest arrest of a paeodophile, or the new violence on the streets of Baghdad, or even the graffiti and drunkeness on our own streets. It makes us want to escape doesn't it? To throw up our hands with Frederick Buechner and say "Let the whole thing go hang!". It makes us want to close the front door, pull up the draw-bridge, put on a movie, dig the garden, go on holiday, turn the music up loud - anything to shut out the world that we feel we can do nothing about.

Into that sort of despair, the despair of the disciples on the road and our despair too, Jesus comes.

To the Emmaus disciples, Jesus begins to unravel the story for them. Calling on the ancient Hebrew scriptures, he reminds them of all the promises of what we call the Old Testament - about how necessary is was "that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory" (v.26). As any of us who have tried to study it know, the Old Testament is a curious set of documents. There are many aspects of it that are hard to grasp - or which appear to paint a rather different picture of God than the one that Jesus definitively showed us. But whatever the difficulties, there is a clear message running through the whole thing - a message which another of the Church's older hymns speaks of: "God is working his purpose out, as year succeeds to year."

This then is the God who comes alongside us. He doesn't impose himself on us, but he walks with us, teaching us, encouraging us - pointing out to us how much he is in evidence in the world (how much of history is His Story). But he doesn't force himself on us. He awaits our invitation to enter. "Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice, and opens the door, I will enter in and eat with him" (Rev. 3:20). This is not the God of Islam - who demands submission from his creatures. Neither is it the God of some of the more strange parts of the Old Testament (the Jewish Bible) - who demands obedience. This is the God who waits for our invitation - and then, when our hearts are ready to receive him, willingly comes alongside us.

The other thing that Jesus did on the Road to Emmaus is to demonstrate, very graphically - for all time - how he operates. Notice, if you will, how Jesus appears on the road, walking alongside the disciples, but he is initially not recognised by them. Quite why he is not recognised, the Bible doesn't tell us - except with the words "their eyes were kept from recognising him". But something is going on here. Throughout the while of their encounter with Jesus, he slowly reveals himself to the disciples. First he walks along with them, then he discusses events with them. Then he interprets those events. Then he eats with them. And only finally, in the breaking of the bread, is he recognised. Then he disappears.

This then is also the God who is not easily recognised, and whose actual felt-presence can be fleeting. Jesus warned his own disciples, prior to his death, that they should be very careful about trying to pin him down. He warned them that many people would have their own very human ideas of what Jesus would be like. In Matthew 24 he tells them not to believe those people who say "Look, here he is!". "
So if anyone tells you, 'There he is, out in the desert,' do not go out; or, 'Here he is, in the inner rooms,' do not believe it". (Matt 24:26).

The Emmaus disciples had some pretty wrong ideas about Jesus. They expected him to be a Messiah who would lead the Jewish nation in an uprising against the Romans. They say to Jesus (in verse 21) "...we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel". They had their own very particular ideas of what Jesus should be like and what he should do.

And I wonder if we do that sometimes too? I wonder if we are guilty of making God in our own image. But the Emmaus story teaches us that just when we think we've got God all nicely sewn up - when we are content with how things are, and the way we worship him, and what we think he thinks about every topic... then we must expect to be surprised by Jesus. He will come into situations when we least expect him. He will appear sometimes fleetingly - just touching our lives. Perhaps through Scripture, or through a sermon, or through a time of prayer, or through another person. Prompting us to move on, or to keep going. When, as Frederick Buechner suggests, we are tempted to hide from the world, to escape the awfulness - we should not be surprised to find Jesus drawing us out, back into the world, to become his hands and feet to a dying planet.

So, the Emmaus story, perhaps above all, is a story of what God, in Jesus, is like. He is not the God who forces us to do anything. Not the God of submission and obedience - but the God of invitation and love. He doesn't manipulate the world around us. Everything that happens is not the 'Will of God' - or Allah. There is much in this world which is obviously and definitely contrary to the will of God. His is a story of a God who creates human beings with free will - the free will to even nail their God to a tree. But also the free will to respond to the creator's love with love of our own. And the free will to stand up and say "I will not be defeated by the powers of evil. I will not seek the escape of the Emmaus road...I will not bury my head in the sand. But I will stand up, inspired by God, driven by the example of Christ, strengthened by the Spirit, and I will make a difference in the world."

Let us in conclusion, remember the words of two great thinkers, Edmund Burke and St Ignatious Loyola (1491-1556). First Burke, who said "The only thing necessary for triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing". And finally, Ignatious, whose famous prayer you may like to pray with me in closing...

"Teach me to serve you as you deserve;
To give and not to count the cost,
To fight and not to heed the wounds,
To toil and not to seek for rest,
To labour and not to ask for any reward,
Save that of knowing that I do your will"