Saturday, 31 October 2015

All Saints Day Sunday 1st November 2015

If Christianity is vitalising that’s not why we’re in it. We’re in it for the praise and service of God. Vitalisation comes with the territory.

You’re vitalised by the friends you keep and being friends with Jesus fills your spirit with unalterable youth.

Our first two readings for All Saints Day speak of heaven using the symbol of Mount Zion the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem innumerable angels in festal gathering, and the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven (Hebrews 12:22-23 with this from 2 Esdras 2:43), In their midst was a young man of great stature, taller than any of the others, and on the head of each of them he placed a crown, but he was more exalted than they.  

In such words centring on their risen Lord Jesus early Christians spoke of communion and fellowship in the mystical body of … Christ … and the inexpressible joys … prepared for those who truly love God.

We’re a society passionate for inclusion but the inclusion we’re talking about today comes from the unalterable newness of Jesus that reaches beyond death to knit together a mystical body ignorant of mortality.

Christians don’t age or die in spirit. They’re kept young, in the prime of joy, by the most precious and meaningful and awesome reality – I mean the age and death defying Lord Jesus.

The church bell rang 33 times this morning as it does before every service because at that age death encountered the Lord Jesus. ‘Who is that young man who is placing crowns on them and putting palms in their hands?’ He answered and said to me, ‘He is the Son of God, whom they confessed in the world.’ So I began to praise those who had stood valiantly for the name of the Lord. (2 Esdras 2:46-47)

I don’t see God as an old man white a white beard sitting on a cloud – do you? I see him in the 33 year old youth and power of Jesus and in the saints. If I see God in the weak Babe of Bethlehem and the powerless figure on the Cross, in solidarity with the weak and powerless, I see him ultimately in the ring a ring of roses youthful dance of heaven where God’s joy is written large in festal gathering, and the assembly of the firstborn.

It’s the first day of November, month of holy souls, when in the northern hemisphere falling leaves are reminders of mortality. In the southern hemisphere trees are blossoming. Life on earth has such cycles and they’re pointers to a higher realm, revealed to us by Jesus Christ, recorded in Bible and creed and celebrated at the eucharist, with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. That realm runs above and counter to the joylessness of materialism, false religion and scepticism none of which come near God.

You can’t know God exists without joy and joy’s the sign you’ve come near to him. You can’t imagine heaven without joy - that is our destiny, to enjoy God forever with all the saints.

If you think about why you’re in Church this morning you won’t have to think long before identifying holy souls who’ve helped shape your active faith. They’re in our past and they’re among us now, in very surprising places. In recent weeks I’ve found quiet joy visiting church members in the harshest of circumstances. It was to people in such circumstances, theirs linked to persecution,  that the 1st century authors of Hebrews and 2 Esdras were inspired by God to write with reassurance about the world to come. Today’s liturgical celebration is given to write that reassurance large.

In the Gospel reading from Matthew Chapter 5 we have the secret of eternal youth from the lips of the Son of God. Jesus announces attitudes that pave the way to possessing unalterable joy with all the saints saying: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven… those who mourn… the meek… those who hunger and thirst for righteousness... the merciful…  pure in heart…  peacemakers and those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3-10)

These qualities aren’t so much rules or doctrines to grasp but a line by line description of how you live real. To live real you need undeceiving by the world, the flesh and the devil, by a media which at times says the very opposite to what Christ says of the triumph of humility, meekness, purity and enduring humiliation for the truth’s sake. People with these qualities are our best teachers on the route to holiness. They reveal the Lord’s reality and all we are considering today about heaven is based on that and nothing less.

Christianity’s a revelation more than it’s an explanation of what’s real. Like our spire it points beyond the pursuits of this world to what’s real, to the inexpressible joys … prepared for those who truly love God.

Do you truly love God? That’s the challenge in today’s gospel. Without setting your heart as Jesus says, with his help and for his glory, that love isn’t true. You know, it’s the sort of ‘I love me and want you God’ sort of love not found among the meek, merciful or poor in spirit.

Archbishop Robert Leighton, a pastor of great unselfishness, who in 1684 was buried here wrote If you ask, ‘how shall I do to love?’ I answer, ‘believe.’ If you ask, ‘how shall I believe?’ I answer, ‘love.’ ‘Believe, and you shall love; believe much, and you shall love much. Leighton preached in this very spot and wrote on the subject of sanctity we address on All Saints day: The journey we are engaged in is indeed great and the way uphill; but the glorious prize which is set before us, is also great, and our great and valiant Captain who has long ago ascended up on high, supplies us with strength.

Robert Leighton sensed as many Christian teachers sense today that the issue for humanity is nothing more or less than the supernatural and that the denial of the supernatural is ultimately dehumanising. In other words human beings can’t go it alone and never were meant to go it alone. We have within us our own unmaking and ageing to death in our pride, anger, lust, envy, gluttony, avarice and sloth. We can have though, also within us, if we invite him, the supernatural power of our re-making and revitalising  through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

God who is in us is greater than the evil inside of us writes St John (1 John 4:4b). Believe it! Be loosened from sin’s shackles! Let the youthful exuberance of Jesus shine forth within you to counter inner tiredness for as Isaiah prophesies those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.(Isaiah 40:31)

Saints of God, come to our aid, lend us your prayers, that we may truly love God and make God loved in this place!

At your prayers and ours may St Giles grow in faith, love and numbers into the unalterable youthfulness of Jesus, to whom be glory with the Father and the Holy Spirit now and for ever. Amen.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Bible Sunday 8am 25th October 2015

Take the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. Ephesians 6.17b

It’s Bible Sunday. This morning we have a reminder that there are really two tables at which we feast on Christ: the table of the Word of God and the table of the Blessed Sacrament.

Man shall not live on bread alone but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God our Saviour said as he was strengthened by the memory of his Father’s word in the desert. All scripture is breathed out by God, Paul says to Timothy, scripture is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. 

Christians believe in the Bible, because we believe in its ultimate authorship.  It contains the promises of God which cannot fail. We believe in the Bible out of love for its ultimate author.  The words of scripture are there because Jesus is the Word of God through whom all things were made.  The scriptures bless us. The Holy Spirit who inspired their writing can inspire us as we read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them. 

Yet, sad to say, without the Holy Spirit who leads the church forward into all truth (John 16:13) the scriptures fall on deaf ears. 

The Bible is God’s Word in our words.  It’s also the family album of the church tracing God’s action back to our first days. Christians believe in the Bible but look to the church to guide them to its truth.            
What about the factual errors and inconsistencies people say they find in the Bible?  We don’t need to defend the Bible here because we have God’s promise that it contains the truth necessary for our salvation.  This doesn’t make the Bible, for example, a science text book because it addresses the why questions more than the how questions in life. 

Approached with humility the Bible brings spiritual encouragement.  Approached with argumentative pride it presents a different picture.  Christians believe the Bible can’t be mistaken as it presents the good news of Jesus to honest seekers.     

It’s true there are difficult passages. Mark Twain said pointedly it wasn’t the passages of the bible he didn’t understand that troubled him so much as the passages he did understand! On Bible Sunday we salute God’s word and pledge to heed it more profoundly with our lives.

People mention sometimes the violence in the Bible especially parts of the Old Testament.  The church uses these passages carefully and only in the light of Christ who fulfils the Old Testament.  The sacrifices offered in the Old Testament point towards the meaning of the Cross as the fulfilment of the scriptures. 

When we say as we shall say in a moment ‘on the third day he rose again’ we add ‘in accordance with the scriptures’. Without the framework of God’s dealings with Israel in the Bible the Christ of the Gospels would be a beautiful picture but one without a frame.  His entry into history would be one unprepared and unexpected.

Through the Bible God’s people welcome this frame for all that Jesus stands for as well as the word and promises of God that bring power and direction into the life of the church.

If the Bible is to do its work in us, then the starting point is to somehow get the words of the Bible into us. Once God’s word is in our lives it can start to challenge our values and opinions, to set off the process Paul calls ‘the renewing of your mind’ so that we will not ‘conform’ ourselves to this world, but let God 'transform' us (Romans 12.2).

So what can we do to get more into the Bible and more of the Bible into us?

You could make it the basis for a daily or maybe occasional special prayer time. Dedicate a time. It needn’t be first thing in the morning or last thing at night. It could be part of your lunchtime routine, a spiritual refresher. Choose a portion for study, maybe Mark’s Gospel which takes an hour and a half in total to read for an average reader. Don’t beat yourself up about it if you miss a few days. If reading the Bible is difficult, why not buy one of the readily available CD or MP3 recording and listen to that? Or find a website to browse.

You have the texts of the Sunday readings to take away each week with the thoughts on them given by the preacher. If you miss Church on a Sunday you can check the church website for the readings and sermon. This is an opportunity to thank our new web editor Judith Bowron and her back up, Sarah Howland for work on keeping the site updated week by week.

There are some bibles in the lectern if people want to use them when they come to pray in Church. Each of us, or each family, should ideally have a bible, maybe one or two bibles in traditional and modern translations. The New Revised Standard or New International Version are in wide use. There is also a very popular American paraphrase called The Message that folk are finding helpful. Buying a new modern translation can be a helpful tool to awaken us to the meaning of the original text, the Hebrew of the Old Testament and the Greek of the New Testament.

You could subscribe to Bible study notes. I have listed some resources in the news sheet. Or you could join the new home study group on three Wednesday evenings in November on Luke’s gospel led by Deacon David at the Johnsons down Cheeleys. We also have the Thursday 1.30pm Life and Faith discussion group which does some bible study and there’ll be more group Bible study planned during the coming year especially in Lent.

In all of these ways we can develop our understanding of how to apply the teaching of God and his church in today’s world through reflecting on what the Bible says and how best to respond in our situation.

Take the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.

Let’s reflect for a few moments on what the bible is saying to us in today’s Prayer Book lectionary and what we can do to live lives more open to the word of God through our daily devotion.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Trinity 18 29th Week (B) What Jesus does for us 18 October 2015

What does Jesus do for us?

What does it mean for us as he says in today’s gospel that he came to give his life a ransom for many (Mark 10.45)?

There are three main Christian doctrines – the Trinity, the Incarnation and the Atonement. This morning the readings centre on this last doctrine, Atonement, how God and humanity are made one by what Jesus does for us.

How do we understand this making God one with us that Our Lord achieves?

More importantly how do we not only understand the doctrine but see it taking effect so that we know God not just only as our maker but as our saviour?

These are questions that spill out of all three scriptures this morning.

The Isaiah 53 passage was chosen to illuminate the text I read from Mark 10.45 at the end of today’s gospel. There Jesus makes a prediction of his coming Passion which pours cold water on the arrogance of James and John who thought their Lord was going to take worldly power and wanted part of his worldly glory. No, Our Lord says, my kingdom will be built from suffering service. The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.  

Isaiah foresaw the lonely figure on Calvary who would bear the immense burden of sin separating human beings from their maker and how that sin bearing would cost the suffering servant his life like a lamb that is led to the slaughter. The passage hints at the tomb of Jesus given by the rich man, Joseph of Arimathea, verse 9, they made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich. It concludes with a prophecy of the resurrection, verse 12. Let’s read it. Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

Jesus himself gave no explanation of how his death and rising again made atonement other than to point to this scripture. Only after his resurrection did his followers reflect more fully upon what Jesus did and does for us as Saviour.

So we can move on to the second reading by the anonymous author of the letter to the Hebrews. Here in this letter is the best source of teaching in scripture on the doctrine of the Atonement. This teaching centres on the priesthood of Christ by which Jesus takes what he did on Calvary and pleads it for all time in heaven. It’s this his pleading that we join to at the Eucharist.

Today’s small section of Hebrews is from chapter 5. We read: Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sin.

[Priests have a ministry of representing mortals to the immortal God and the immortal God to mortals. The passage goes on to outline how Christ was appointed high priest by God but with full sympathy for humanity. He is the Son of God become Son of Man. In this passage we see graphic evidence of Christ’s humanity. It’s a powerful account actually of the passion of Our Lord that begins with his tears in the Garden of Gethsemane. It provides one of the most moving evidences in the bible of how deeply Jesus engaged with our pain and sorrow.

Let’s read this account in verse 7: In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.]
What does Jesus do for us?

Jesus shows us a God who expects nothing from us he’s not prepared to go through. But he shows us much more. He shows us God’s love and holiness, our need of them both and how we can attain to both.

Our Lord brings us atonement. He makes a way for the God of love and holiness to be one with us in our dignity and frailty.

In giving himself he does so in costly love. He does so on account of the requirements of God’s holiness. He does so because only by the Cross and its pleading for ever in the heavenly sanctuary can women and men be won to glory.

When we look at the Cross we see four things.

We see the love of God fully displayed.

We see the holiness of God in his hatred of sin. The Cross shows what sin feels like to God.

We see our dignity because this act of atonement is given to rescue us for eternal glory.

We see our frailty. Where else do we see the terrible consequences of our sin?

The doctrine of the Atonement is an awesome mystery. We will never fully understand the doctrine but that won’t stop us seeing it take effect in our lives so that we know God not just as our maker but as our saviour.

How does it effect our lives?

The Cross is once and for all but Jesus lives as eternal high priest to plead its benefits.  Inasmuch as we repent of our sins and trust Jesus all that he has done for us comes into operation in our lives bringing forgiveness, healing, deliverance and freedom in the Spirit.

As verse 9 of the Hebrews Chapter 4 passage states Jesus has become the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him. What is salvation other than an eternal relationship with God sealed on his side by love and ours by the obedience of faith.

Yes all that Jesus does for us comes to us as we obey. Faith isn’t a feeling it’s obedience. It has its beginning in baptism, which is our great ‘yes’ to God and ‘no’ to self. It has its end in the vision of God face to face with the selfless adoration of all the saints.

The good news of Christianity is very simple.

God made us for friendship. Sin became a barrier to that friendship. God sent Jesus to lift away that barrier making us friends of God.

Things get between us and God so that we’re not at one. Sin, fear, sickness, bondage, anxiety, death and the devil get in the way. Jesus brings atonement – at one ment literally – because what he did in his coming, his suffering, death and resurrection has established the means to overcome these evils - if we use them. That means that the words we read today in Isaiah he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases come true when we trust his healing power. When we read he bore the sins of many that can become true in our experience when we seek his forgiveness and become one of the many who’re made one with God through Jesus.

Atonement isn’t just a doctrine it’s a way of life. It’s living one to one, heart to heart with God. 

This is what Jesus does for us. 

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Harvest Festival 8am 11th October 2015

This Sunday our theme is one of thanks for the fruits of the earth – our harvest festival.

We’re showing our gratitude to God by giving to others. As we gather round the Lord’s table this morning we do so with produce that will support families in need across Sussex and address, by financial gifts in the orange envelopes, the food shortages in East and West Africa.

Do not worry about your life says the harvest gospel reading from Matthew 6.25.

This morning on Harvest Festival the Church reminds us that our whole life, past, present and future is in God's hands. To be truly grateful is to believe that God is in control of our lives and the life of the world.

A Christian is someone who at the best of times is able to see the hand of God behind everything. We have faith to see that we come from God, belong to God, go to God.

25 years ago I served as Theological College Principal training up Amerindian priests. In the indigenous communities of Guyana parishioners live ‘around the cooking pot’.  Money is in use, but much of the economy relies on age-old barter from hunting, fishing and handicraft. Harvest festival was the main source of income for the church.

Anne and I well remember the harvest festivals in the church at Yupukari where we were married in and in which we first worshipped together. I recall one where a sheep was tethered to the altar and was slaughtered afterwards so that the village ate meat afterwards for the first time in weeks.

Do not worry about your life the Lord says.

In the deep rain forest of Guyana the natives may have less possessions but they have few worries. When I was planning a week’s trip up river to a remote mission I could ask my boatman to take me at very short notice. It took him five minutes to pack - a toothbrush, a bar of soap and a spare pair of underpants was all he needed with his hammock. I took far longer to gather my tackle - mosquito net, insect repellent, books to read, torches, toilet paper (they used leaves), tins of food, sun hat, mass kit, vestments, short wave radio for the BBC World Service..the list could go on!

The Indians tell a tale of the Amazon a few hundred miles south of Guyana. There was a shipwreck off the Brazilian Coast and some of the men managed to survive on a life raft. They drifted for two weeks by which time they were pretty well dying of thirst. Eventually they encountered a boat and were hauled aboard. The crew were surprised the men were thirsty. You see they were drifting by then across the mouth of the Amazon River, the largest fresh water source upon the earth.

Sometimes we are literally resting like those sailors upon the answer to our problems.

Do not worry about your life the Lord says.

God’s Spirit is always with us like streams of fresh water welling up within us. When worry dries us up the Holy Spirit is at hand to refresh us and here is the place above all places to welcome the Spirit through God’s word and through the body of Jesus given to us in the sacrament.

Only our unbelief stops us acting as if God were with us, just as the ignorance of those sailors kept them thirsty when they were floating on fresh water.

Let’s keep silence as we prepare at this Eucharist to entrust ourselves, our souls and bodies, as a living sacrifice through Christ to the Father.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Trinity 18 27th of Year Marriage 4th October 2015

Joe and Lydia phoned about getting married. Lydia had been married before. We spent two hours together looking at how a service of prayer and dedication after a civil marriage might fit the bill and they agreed to that as a principled way forward.

I visited Harry and Joan whose son Kevin had just come out to them as gay and wanted to get married in Church. We discussed how the love of Jesus is for us all, heterosexual or homosexual, though when it comes to institutions marriage in his and our book isn’t same-sex.

Bella and Luke are cohabiting without marriage but came to me to seek baptism for little David. They want the best for him. I explained the best for Christians involves marriage so, after a few meetings, they fix a date for David’s baptism whilst committing to marriage the next year.

Ingrid is a Christian student alarmed by the expectation at College that full sexual relations follow just brief acquaintance. In conversation with her I encourage her to hold fast to belief that sexual intercourse is a union of life-giving love and not just physical gratification and to pray for God to lead her to the right man to be her husband.

Roger shares with me his addiction to internet pornography which has severed his understanding of sex from loving commitment. I help him find God’s forgiveness and turn the page on this so he is made free to socialise and find himself a life partner of God’s choice.

I thought I’d share some pastoral encounters I've had over my 38 years as a priest, changing names, as a way of bringing sense out of  today’s scripture with its focus on the sacrament of marriage.

We read in the holy Gospel from Mark 10.7-10 that from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.” “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’

Our Lord draws his teaching from our first reading, Genesis 1.21-24 which ends with the injunction Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.

In Mark Chapter 10 Our Lord challenges this maltreatment of women and the culture of easy divorce weighted towards men. He goes out of his way to uphold marriage as first conceived in Genesis over against the easy divorce of his day as we read in the Gospel v11-12 He said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’

Marriage according to Christ is the union of man and woman for life and what a high bar it can be in a society where 2014 statistics show 34% of marriages are expected to end in divorce by the 20th wedding anniversary, an unprecedented phenomenon bringing pain to many in our close acquaintance.

My talk with Joe and Lydia involved a culture clash. They came to me expecting to repeat vows in Church as it can happen in law, and I had a task I frequently have of explaining that the law gives us the right to do many things that aren’t right. In Christian marriage we seek irrevocable love, which means the sort of love Jesus showed on the cross which can never be called back. We fall short of that love, yes, so repeating wedding vows in the lifetime of a previous spouse has to have a difference about it which, in Church, looks to a merciful Redeemer to give a new start based on being honest before God.

With Kevin I have to explain how the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act may have rewritten marriage on the UK statute books to make husband and wife gender neutral but the Church of Jesus Christ is exempted. In Christianity marriage remains a life-long faithful  commitment between a man and a woman, ordained by nature, and by God for the creation of the family and future generations. Kevin’s love for Andrew may be from God, as is all friendship, and that sort of love the Church can bless, but not a physical union that neither nature nor God in his Word or his Church in her teaching can sanction. The recent change in the law is a privatising of marriage so its content is now whatever the couple wish to construct.

Scripture says – and Mark 10:7-8 is the clearest text of all - a man shall… be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.

In same sex marriage things don’t fit together in the plain sense of marriage. Hearts do fit together though, as for Kevin and Andrew, so that my pastoral encounter, or anyone of our encounters with gay couples, is a struggle from the point of view of balancing Christian hospitality and teaching. 

Bella and Luke cohabiting without marriage were in one sense no different to Kevin and Andrew but this pastoral encounter, related to the request for David’s baptism, was more a matter of talking through how marriage in Christianity is far more than an expensive ceremony. You can get married for less than £10,000 and it was great to see them as parents publicly celebrating the love that brought David into the world as the family headed for commitment to Our Lord at his baptism.

For Ingrid, the Christian student alarmed by promiscuity at College and her own shortcomings, and Roger struggling with viewing pornography, my main task as a priest was to remind them of the high standards Our Lord expects alongside his mercy, which covers sexual sins as much as any other, complicated through a strange shame. I quote C.S.Lewis on God’s mercy. No amount of falls will really undo us if we keep picking our- selves 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 are 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.

It’s my earnest prayer that what I share from God’s Word this morning far from defeating us helps our empowerment as witnesses of humanity put into their right mind by Jesus Christ. Over the last half century contraception has given new controls to parents who in past ages saw the procreative side of marriage damaging the unitive or love side. Now we’ve turned the circle with such emphasis on the unitive side that those procreated, the children we have, fewer and more blessed materially, are for one in three families casualties of divorce.

There’s little we can do save knowing and handing on Christian teaching on the ideals of marriage and celibacy as appropriate, as well as the ways we have been helped in our own walk by the grace and the forgiving mercy of God.  

Sex outside marriage is a sin, as Christ makes clear in today’s Gospel, but context and blameworthiness is a separate issue. In today’s culture I would say having sex outside marriage is less blameworthy since folk no longer know or understand or follow the way of Christ, which is partly our fault, hence my not ducking a troublesome issue for 10am let alone 8am on a Sunday morning. 

As a Church, we’ll get nowhere unless we hold ourselves to Jesus’ teaching so our words and deed fit together. In walking the talk it’s desperately important not to make the best the enemy of the good. Our Lord sets forth the best but is forgiving to those who fall short. We should applaud openly Christian gays, bisexuals and transgender folk and look to them for guidance on how best you live close to Jesus within a sexual minority.

Many of us will know second marriages where God is evidently at work and first marriages where he needs to get in more, so to speak, or same-sex unions that seem more godly than heterosexual unions. This is the human reality but it would become so much more inhuman without the wise standard Jesus sets us. The sayings of Jesus are unlike the sayings of say the Buddha. Jesus not only gave his teaching, he gave us his life to seal it by his release of the Holy Spirit able to empower us not just to hear what he says but to do what he says and to do it cheerfully.  There is no word of God without power. Let’s believe it – however much it might cost!