Sunday, 31 March 2013

Easter Day all age eucharist 31st March 2013

This morning we reach the last of our series on the Apostles’ Creed as we look at belief ‘in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting’. All through Lent we’ve been looking at the Creed in Church and in school collective worship as a build up to what happens on Easter Day.

What happens today? You can see on p5 that we renew our baptismal vows. This includes being asked whether we really believe in the Christian creed and whether we really turn to Christ, repent of our sins and renounce evil. We’re invited to say the equivalent of ‘yes we do’ and get a special sprinkling with holy water to wake us up to being baptised Christians that are really alive.

Turn back though for now to the front page of the service booklet and Mrs Mowforth is going to explain why on Easter Sunday, of all days, we’ve got a picture of a train!

HM to summon the children forward to explain the way the Bluebell railway has ‘risen again’ through the opening of the northern extension. The children continue quietly playing with the train set after making it up.

The history of Bluebell Railway was its creation 150 years ago, partial closure 55 years ago and full re-opening at Easter 2013.  In the same way the history of the world is its creation 14 billion years ago, partial spoiling by the evolution of human life a million years ago and its being redeemed by God’s coming 2000 years ago.

The Christian interpretation of world history is less agreed than that Heidi gave of the Bluebell Railway but the most brilliant human being, Albert Einstein said for someone to say life on earth evolved without the help of a greater being than ourselves is equivalent to saying a dictionary was the product of a print shop explosion! Faced with the 3 billion components of the human genome, how can people be so blind to the obvious evidence for divine intelligence?

Just as the reopening of the Bluebell was achieved by years of planning, fund raising and hard work removing the tip so Christianity’s greatest achievement at Easter was made possible by God’s forward planning and bitterly hard work in sending his Son Jesus Christ to remove the barriers of sin, doubt, fear, death and the devil.

At the heart of Christianity is no theory or doctrine but a happening – Christ’s resurrection. This happening is moreover a first instalment for made like him like him we rise. The whole point of Christian faith is an opening of humanity to a dimension of life beyond this world that’ll be finally revealed in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

It’s beyond our imagining but not beyond our believing. Centuries of critical scholarship by historians have brought no evidence to undermine the resurrection of Jesus. Some would say this happening is the more confirmed by this process of enquiry. And then – a big ‘then’ - if the resurrection of Christ is true it can’t be separated from the promises of Christ which include resurrection for his followers.

Forty years ago I submitted a Doctoral thesis on ‘the molecular dynamics of polythene and Teflon by neutron scattering spectroscopy’. My thesis involved testing theories about the forces between the chains in both polymers by seeing how these forces affected a flow of neutrons I blasted them with at Harwell’s then nuclear reactor. Testing theories by Japanese theoreticians gave me insight into how our life as Christians tests God’s faithfulness and into belief in ‘the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting’.

In my research I tested calculated theories such as this smooth so-called dispersion curve with experimental measurements on samples such as these put under a neutron beam that are put on the curve with their error margins. I was able to extrapolate from my experiments to the best theory.

The faithfulness of God in Jesus Christ is something we can experience on earth through answered prayer, guidance given, healing received and so on. These experimental observations, if you like, test the bible and the creed. We can measure answered prayer, guidance and so on but we can’t evaluate our future resurrection nor the life everlasting before we attain to it. Belief in the last sentence of the creed is built on a promise from a God who’s delivered on promises to the human race for 14 billion years and to you and I for one, two, three or four score years. It’s an extrapolation of our experience of his faithfulness to hold faith with him to provide for us, as his beloved children, when our earthly bodies expire. 

Our Lord’s resurrection is the first fruits of a great harvest to come.  ‘Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone,’ Jesus says, ‘but if it dies, it bears much fruit’ (John 12v24).  Jesus is that grain.  The righteous will be his harvest.  ‘Christ has been raised from the dead’, St Paul affirms, ‘the first fruits of those who have died’ (1 Corinthians 15v20).

Christianity centres on the body of Christ. Believers are part of that body. They are incorporated by baptism and in an ongoing manner through Holy Communion. The resurrection body is a fulfilment of this incorporation. Jesus promises that ‘those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day’ (John 6v54). In the same way Paul teaches that ‘if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you’ (Romans 8v11).

The joy the Lord gives to our spirit is destined to expand and fill the universe in the resurrection of the dead at his return.  Jesus spoke of joy in heaven over every soul that opens itself to him.  The Easter liturgy resounds with joy as an anticipation of what is to come, as we have sung:

‘Now let the heavens be joyful! Let earth the song begin!
Let the round world keep triumph, and all that is therein!
Let all things seen and unseen their notes in gladness blend,
for Christ the Lord hath risen, our joy that hath no end’.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Palm Sunday 24th March 2013: I believe in the forgiveness of sins

Like Muslims it could be said that Christians have five pillars that support their faith: The Bible, The Creed, The Sacraments, The Commandments and The Lord’s Prayer. During Lent we’ve been refreshing our grasp of one of these pillars - The Apostles Creed during the renewal of baptismal vows. Though it has twelve articles of belief we’ve split it into five. 

On the first three Sundays of Lent we looked at belief in God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit and the Church. Next Sunday we’ll look appropriately at the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. This morning’s article is the forgiveness of sins so I want us to consider these four questions: What is sin? What is forgiveness? Why do we believe in the forgiveness of sins? How do we receive the forgiveness of sins?

What is sin?
·         Something young people do not know or care about (Survey of the beliefs of "generation Y" (15-to-25-year-olds)) shows they don't have any real sense of sin.

·         Sin is as alien to the contemporary mind as fetching water from a well or darning your socks  (Guardian)

·         Alas so is the sense of a personal God which defines sin – a failure in our relationship with God. A culture that doesn't even care about sin has truly cut itself off from God's grace and is therefore sinful in the most profound sense.

·         Sin, as defined in the Bible, means "to miss the mark." The mark, in this case, is the standard of perfection established by God and evidenced by Jesus. Viewed in that light, it is clear that we are all sinners. The Apostle Paul says in Romans 3:23: "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." 
·         PALE gas is a mnemonic for the seven deadly sins – pride, anger, lust, envy, gluttony, avarice, sloth which miss the mark of seven God-like qualities: humility, patience, chastity, love, temperance, generosity, diligence.

·         In his Divine Comedy Dante ranks sins that damage the community such as pride, violence and fraud as more damaging than sins of the flesh.

·         Culpability for sin links to how seriously an action was intended

What is forgiveness 
Letting go of the need for revenge and releasing negative thoughts of bitterness and resentment. 

In January of 1990 after the fall of the Berlin wall Erich Honecker, the brutal and hated dictator of East Germany, found himself sick and homeless. So despised was he that no one could be found to provide him shelter. They contacted Pastor Uwe Holmer who directed a church-run convalescent center in the village of Lobetal. Pastor Holmer had bitter memories of Honecker and his regime. Honecker had personally presided over the building of the wall, the wall that separated Holmer's family and kept him from attending his own father's funeral. He had even greater reason to resent Honecker's wife, who ran the East German ministry of education. Holmer's ten children had been denied admission to any university because of their faith. It would be easy for Pastor Holmer to turn Honecker away because the church's retirement home was full and had a long waiting list. But because Honecker's need was urgent, Pastor Holmer decided he had no choice but to shelter the couple under his own roof! Pastor Holmer's charity was not shared by the rest of the country. Hate mail poured in. Some members of his own church threatened to leave or cut back their giving. Pastor Holmer defended his actions in a letter to the newspaper. "In Lobetal," he wrote, "there is a sculpture of Jesus inviting people to himself and crying out, 'Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.' We have been commanded by our Lord Jesus to follow him and to receive all those who are weary and heavy laden, in spirit and in body, but especially the homeless… What Jesus asked his disciples to do is equally binding on us."

 Why do Christians believe in the forgiveness of sins?
·         To believe in Christianity is to believe in new starts.  The Resurrection of Jesus is the greatest new start ever given to humanity and the forgiveness of sins flows from this.  

·         The interpretation in scripture of Christ’s death and resurrection: If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.1 John 1.9 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Acts 2.38

·         The Apostle's Creed associates faith in the forgiveness of sins with faith in the Holy Spirit, the Church and in the communion of saints. This is because Our Lord gave the Holy Spirit to his apostles it came with authority to forgive sins: "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."

·         Is God fair to forgive? People can react very unfavourably to talk of Christian forgiveness, especially in the case of very hurtful sin.  The God and Father of Jesus has holiness that is affronted by wrong. That holiness which is above us is coupled to a love that is beyond us. Jesus came to give us what we need before he came to give us what we deserve.  If God is fair He goes beyond fairness. He treats us as really much better than we are.  His holiness and mercy came together on the Cross of Jesus.                       

How do Christians receive the forgiveness of sins?
·         By facing up to and not excusing our sins. C.S. Lewis: The trouble is that what we call "asking God's forgiveness" very often really consists in asking God to accept our excuses. What leads us into this mistake is the fact that there usually is some amount of excuse, some "extenuating circumstances." We are so very anxious to point these things out to God (and to ourselves) that we are apt to forget the very important thing; that is, the bit left over, the bit which excuses don't cover, the bit which is inexcusable but not, thank God, unforgivable.. What we have got to take to Him is the inexcusable bit, the sin. We are only wasting our time talking about all the parts which can (we think) be excused. When you go to a Dr. you show him the bit of you that is wrong - say, a broken arm. It would be a mere waste of time to keep on explaining that your legs and throat and eyes are all right. You may be mistaken in thinking so, and anyway, if they are really right, the doctor will know that.
·         Christianity is not guilt-ridden because it encourages people to do something about sin. It is in fact guilt-ridding

·         Through the church Christ offers forgiveness. The church does this supremely in baptism and then through prayer, scripture promises and sacramental ministry. 

·         In sacramental confession the priest acts for Christ in welcoming sinners who wish to confess aloud.  This rite echoes Christ’s story of the prodigal son who returned to his father’s embrace. The whole point of sacraments is to give outward and visible signs of inward and invisible gifts from God. The inward gift of forgiveness is brought with visible assurance for many by their coming to the priest, as God’s representative, to receive an individual word of forgiveness. For other Christians it is more a matter of taking God at his word in scripture. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins (1 John 1v9).

There is a condition for being granted forgiveness: penitence, being truly sorry for your sins.  You cannot be truly sorry without resolving to put right the damage you’ve done as far as it can be put right.  There is one other condition for receiving forgiveness: the readiness to forgive others.
 To believe in the forgiveness of sins is to believe in a God who is more ready to give us what we need than he is to give us what we deserve. He treats us as really much better than we are and challenges us to do the same by being ourselves generous to those who are in our debt.  

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Mothering Sunday 8am 10th March 2013

It is a strange paradox that this year’s Gospel for Mothering Sunday is that of the Father’s love.

It’s not deliberate, just that we’re in the year of Luke and no Lucan passage is more Lent suited than that of the Prodigal Son! The fact Lent 4 is Mothering Sunday is secondary so far as the Lectionary goes. It’s a universal Lectionary and many countries don’t keep Mother’s Day today.

In the story of the Prodigal Son we have a beautiful demonstration of
what Lent is all about – the healing joy of repentance.

At its centre is the welcome home of the prodigal. I love the King James Bible version of this story with its rich cadences:
But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. 21 And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. 22 But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: 23 And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry. Luke 15.23-27
What wonderful words! They serve as no other words to give us invitation to seek God as our Father.
That paragraph provides the heart of the story involving three characters each of which we may find ourselves identifying with.
First the openness of the prodigal - how ready am I to admit my mistakes? As Christians we believe we are sinners in need of grace. What is so surprising about a sinner sinning? 

Yet many of us are slow to seek forgiveness from God or neighbour.
Our slowness links to the judgmentalism around typified by the elder brother in the parable whose attitude is far from forgiving!

Lent is a time to challenge that judgmental ‘elder brother’ within each one of us. It’s a time to challenge the habitual sins that get on top of us. C.S.Lewis once wrote a caution about despairing over our habitual sins:

I know all about the despair of overcoming chronic temptation.  It is not serious, provided self-offended petulance, annoyance at breaking records, impatience, etc. don't get the upper hand. No amount of falls will really undo us if we keep on picking ourselves up each time.  We shall of course be very muddy and tattered children by the time we reach home.  But the bathrooms are all ready, the towels put out, and the clean clothes in the airing cupboard.  The only fatal thing is to lose one's temper and give it up.  It is when we notice the dirt that God is most present in us: it is the very sign of His presence.  Daily Readings p122-3

The main figure in the Parable is the loving Father who represents God. Jesus teaches God is always helpfully present to us in his holiness and ready to show us the dirt and dysfunction in our lives.  He makes himself present in practical love to remedy our situation - the bathrooms are all ready, the towels put out, and the clean clothes in the airing cupboard.

Our Lord cleanses us of sin and guilt by practical demonstrations geared to our humanity. That’s particularly true of the sacrament of reconciliation also known as sacramental confession in which we play the part of the prodigal in a re-enactment of Luke 15. There is great freedom to be attained through celebrating this sacrament so misunderstood in Anglican circles. We have set times for this sacrament in St Giles nearer Easter or you can make an appointment.

The father may represent God but he is also an example of the love a parent, father or mother, is called to show his or her children. Lack of affirmation by parents, lack of generous reconciliation in family life, is the root of much domestic misery.

In Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son the author speaks of his being inspired by Rembrandt’s famous painting of that title. The gnarled yet welcoming hands of the Father in Rembrandt’s picture symbolise God’s hands stretched out for us upon the Cross.  They challenge us to pay the price ourselves for a more affirming attitude to those falling short around us.

The great inspiration of this book is the Christian call to a ministry of affirmation.

Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate as Jesus said elsewhere.

As we come to the altar this morning on behalf of ourselves or those on our hearts we come as the prodigal son knowing our need of forgiveness. We come repenting of the ‘elder brother’ in us and all that critical spirit that subtracts from the joy God wants in our hearts. We come finally for grace to be like our Father, capable of love for sinners.

The bathrooms are all ready, the towels put out, and the clean clothes in the airing cupboard.

Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.