Saturday, 3 December 2016

A talk for St Nicholas' Day

Yesterday I was on retreat at an Orthodox monastery, and I was speaking with one of the monks. I told him I was struggling with a talk for St Nicholas’ Day, trying to put together his story and the passage for the day. But I then said that I had noticed that I had been put in a room with not one but two icons of St Nicholas. He said – slightly mischievously because he knows the tradition I come from - that perhaps I should pray to St Nicholas. Well I did pray: to the one to whom St Nicholas prays.

We know very little about St Nicholas. He was bishop of Myra around the beginning of the C4th. But over time stories have been told about him.

The stories speak of a passionate defender of the faith of scripture. It is said that he went to the Council of Nicaea and that he got so annoyed with Arius who was denying the full divinity of Christ, that he smacked him around the face. Well he gets full marks for zeal for the truth, but it is not the sort of behaviour I encourage in the PCC. Sadly, there is no record in the official documents that Nicholas did ever attend the Council of Nicaea.

And the stories tell of his deep devotion to Christ, from an early age. He was brought up in a wealthy home, but on the death of his parents, he heard Jesus’ call to sell everything and give to the poor.

And they tell of his deep love for his people. Probably the most well known story is of the widow with three daughters. There was no money and the girls were about to be sold to traffickers. It was the only future that they could see. So Nicholas walked past their home and he threw three bags through an open window – with enough money for a dowry for each of the girls. And that is how he has come to be associated with the giving of gifts to children.

And there are the stories of the things that happened around him. In the Orthodox church he is known as St Nicholas the wonder worker. There are the healings, people saved from drowning (many naval churches are dedicated to St Nicholas) and even stories of how the dead were raised. I don’t know what to make of the stories, but I do know that when a person is devoted to Jesus and when they sacrificially love, quite remarkable things happen.

Our reading from 1 John 4 speaks of how we are to love one another. Three times we are told that. And John is speaking here not of love for everyone – the bible very clearly tells us that we are to love our neighbour (to do them good and seek their welfare) irrespective of who they are – but here he is specifically speaking of love for those who are our Christian brothers and sisters.

And he gives us three reasons.

1.      We’ll love them because of the Spirit of God in us. If we are born again, if the Spirit of God has come into us and given us life, then like John the Baptist in the womb of Elizabeth, our hearts will leap when we meet Christ in another person. So John writes, “Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God” (v7). We will delight in them, we will long that they might become the people who God called them to be, and we will be drawn to them. And if we don’t, he says, we need to question whether we have been born of God and we need to ask him for his Spirit to come and give us life.

2.      We will love our Christian brothers and sisters because we have begun to grasp just how much God loves them.
“Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (v11). The key word here is ‘us’.
Because God so loved us, he sent his one and only Son into this world, to live with us and to die for us.
That is why it is so important that – with St Nicholas - we confess that Jesus is fully the eternal Son of God. At Christmas, God did not create a super charged special angel and send him down here. God sent part of his very self, who had been with him before time began, to come and live among us. Jesus was Immanuel, God with us.
And at Easter, when Jesus gave his life for us on the cross, it was not one created being taking onto itself the wrath of God on behalf of another created being. It was God himself in his Son, taking onto himself the penalty for and the consequences of our sin, so that we might have life. Listen, says John, and this is the point of what he is saying, if that is the extent that God will go in his love for us, who am I to reject you.

3.      We love our brothers and sisters because when we do, we all become complete. “If we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (v12).
We were made for each other! If I am to become the person who God means me to become, I need my Christian brothers and sisters. And if you are to become the person who God means you to be, you need your Christian brothers and sisters.

I think that is one of the reasons that St Nicholas is so attractive. He was very ordinary. He didn’t write anything. He didn’t die a martyrs’ death. But he lived these verses. And the stories portray one who is very complete. He was a leader of God’s people who was sold out for Jesus Christ the Son of God, who sacrificially loved God’s people and who saw God do great stuff.

So returning to the monastery! The icon of St Nicholas that was in my room shows him standing surrounded by scenes depicting events in his life. With his right hand he blesses. But what is unusual is that in his left hand he holds a bible, the Word of God, and together with it he holds a towel, the symbol of service.

My prayer for each of us is that we will be like St Nicholas: people who bless others in the name of Jesus, wherever we find ourselves to be, and that we will do that by being a people who hold in one hand the bible and in the other hand the towel.  

Sunday, 13 November 2016

When will the Church of England be disestablished?

What is an established church?
A Church that is officially recognized as a national institution
Erastianism: The faith of the ruler is the faith of the people.

State (Roman Empire) – State religion (worship of the emperor and tolerance of local practice).
The small Christian communion was sometimes tolerated and sometimes persecuted

Pliny, Letters 10.96-97,
Pliny to the Emperor Trajan
It is my practice, my lord, to refer to you all matters concerning which I am in doubt. For who can better give guidance to my hesitation or inform my ignorance? I have never participated in trials of Christians. I therefore do not know what offenses it is the practice to punish or investigate, and to what extent. And I have been not a little hesitant as to whether there should be any distinction on account of age or no difference between the very young and the more mature; whether pardon is to be granted for repentance, or, if a man has once been a Christian, it does him no good to have ceased to be one; whether the name itself, even without offenses, or only the offenses associated with the name are to be punished.
Soon accusations spread, as usually happens, because of the proceedings going on, and several incidents occurred. An anonymous document was published containing the names of many persons. Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ--none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do--these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.
I therefore postponed the investigation and hastened to consult you. For the matter seemed to me to warrant consulting you, especially because of the number involved. For many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms. But it seems possible to check and cure it. It is certainly quite clear that the temples, which had been almost deserted, have begun to be frequented, that the established religious rites, long neglected, are being resumed, and that from everywhere sacrificial animals are coming, for which until now very few purchasers could be found. Hence it is easy to imagine what a multitude of people can be reformed if an opportunity for repentance is afforded.

Trajan to Pliny
You observed proper procedure, my dear Pliny, in sifting the cases of those who had been denounced to you as Christians. For it is not possible to lay down any general rule to serve as a kind of fixed standard. They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it--that is, by worshiping our gods--even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance. But anonymously posted accusations ought to have no place in any prosecution. For this is both a dangerous kind of precedent and out of keeping with the spirit of our age.

Constantine (312 Battle of Milvian Bridge)
Old Testament theocracy,  King - Priests (prophets), seen as model for relationship between the Emperor - Bishops.

Conflicts between Church and State
1.      Morality. Bishop Ambrose and Theodosius. Following massacre of Thessalonica (390AD). 7000 people killed. Ambrose refused to celebrate communion in Emperor’s presence, until Theodosius repented and agreed to introduce a law which required a 30 day delay from the passing of a death sentence to its execution.

2.      Doctrine and worship. The emperors presided over the councils of the Bishops
-          Arian controversy
-          Iconoclasm
If someone was guilty of ‘heresy’, it meant that they were guilty of treason.
So, for instance, Maximus refused to recant of his teaching that Christ had both a divine will and a human will. He was initially exiled, and then had his right hand and his tongue cut out.

3.      Appointments. Papal conflicts with rulers about who has the right to appoint Bishops and Abbots.
1353 The Statute of Praemunire prohibited the assertion or maintenance of papal jurisdiction, imperial or foreign, or some other alien jurisdiction or claim of supremacy in England, against the supremacy of the monarch.

Henry VIII, Cranmer and all that
Henry wanted a divorce. The pope could not give him one. So Henry, encouraged by Cranmer – who saw in this situation an opportunity for the Reformation to gain a foothold in England - adopted an Erastian position: that the ruler of the nation has the right to choose the religion of the nation.

Erastianism is named after C16th Swiss philosopher and Zwinglian theologian, Thomas Erastus – although Erastus only argued that the state had both the right and the duty to punish all offences, ecclesiastical as well as civil, wherever all citizens adhered to a single religion.

Erastianism says that the needs of the church and of the state had become fused within the
overarching concept of the Christian Commonwealth. A view held by most reformers.
-          Developed notion of the godly prince, divinely appointed and who had to be obeyed.
-          Rediscovery of Patristics and Constantine
The needs of both Church and State could be provided by the Prince alone:

Cranmer writes, “All Christian princes have committed unto them immediately of God the whole cure of all their subjects, as well concerning the administration of God’s word for the cure of souls, as concerning the ministration of things political and civil governance.”
But he writes to Mary: “But I fear me that there be contradictions in your oaths [to the Pope and to the Crown] and that those which should have informed your grace thoroughly, did not their duties therein. And if your majesty ponder the two oaths diligently, I think you shall perceive you were deceived; and then your highness may use the matter as God shall put in your heart”.
Cranmer’s dream of two kings contending with each other for his soul. One was Henry and the other was Jesus

·         To be accused of heresy was to be accused of treason
·         Baptism was not only admission into the church, but admission into citizenship.

1.      Appointments. Henry took to himself the right to appoint Bishops.

The Ecclesiastical Appointments Act 1534 (still stands today).
Before the Act, the dean and chapter of a cathedral held an election for a new bishop and customarily chose the candidate supported by the King. The Act bound the cathedral chapter to elect the candidate whom the King selected in his "letter missive". If the dean and chapter declined to make the election accordingly, or if the bishops of the church refused to consecrate the King's candidate, then they would be punished. The Act therefore established royal domination of the election of bishops as an enforceable legal right with a heavy penalty.

“Your Grace, I exhibit my proxy for the College of Canons and make myself a party for them. I present to you the Letters Patent of Our Sovereign Lady The Queen issued under the Great Seal of the Realm requiring the Confirmation of the Election of the Right Reverend Justin Portal Welby, Bishop of Durham to be Archbishop and Pastor of the Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of Christ Canterbury.”

The Act still stands today, although penalties for chapters who went against the will of the crown were only abolished in 1967. 

2.      Allegiance of Bishops and clergy to the crown

I, A B, do swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, her heirs and successors, according to law: So help me God.

When James II was run off the throne, 7 bishops were unable to swear an oath of allegiance to William and Mary (because they had declared their oath of allegiance to Charles). Called Non-Jurors

Defender of the Establishment: Richard Hooker (1554-1600)
Argued for scripture (absolute authority when it spoke plainly and unequivocally), Church tradition and Reason (when scripture and tradition were not clear).
The core of his thinking on church and state was his emphasis on unity. He argued that the Puritans adopted an impossible position when they claimed to be loyal to the Queen while repudiating her church. By law and reason the people of England must be Anglican, pledged to serve Elizabeth as supreme magistrate of country and supreme governor of the church.

Church government
Convocations of Canterbury and York go back to 733. Synods composed entirely of bishops, but in C13th more clergy were cited. Their purpose was to approve canonical legilstaling and discuss amount of tax to be paid to the crown because the clergy were taxed independently of Parliament.
1534: convocations subject to control of crown.
1603/4 they approved consolidation of laws into the Canon law of the CoE
1661 – approved text of BCP before it was submitted to parliament
1665 – agreed to surrender right of clergy to tax themselves
After 1717, meetings limited to formal sessions required at beginning of  a new parliament.
Effectively Parliament became the legislative body for the CoE


1. Synodical government
If the state = the church, then every person in the parish is a member of the church. So everyone can choose the churchwarden. ‘Vestry’ meeting.
1894: establishment of parish councils which took over the secular responsibilities of the vestry meeting.
In 1919, the enabling act, gave the CoE a new national assembly and a new pattern of self-government.
Question of who would represent the church at lay level? Need for electoral roll from whom and by whom requisite elections could be made.
Two views
a)      Henson (Bp of Durham 1920-39). Opposed any move to distance CoE from State. He resisted idea of electoral rolls and two tiers of members. ‘The voluntarily enrolled would have pretensions to be the Church and would therefore ‘unchurch’ the merely passive parishioners.’
b)      Gore (Bp of Oxford). Anglo-Catholic background. Alarmed by minimal inclusion requirements to go on electoral roll (baptism). Wanted to ensure that the roll only included people who had been confirmed and were communicants.

2. Conflict with Parliament over the Prayer Book.
1926-27 The new synod introduced a revised version of the BCP. Rejected by Parliament (twice), because it was perceived to be too ‘catholic’.
The 1928 Prayer book was never fully authorised, but bishops could give ‘dispensation’ for those parishes which wished to use it.
Worship and Doctrine measure (1974). Parliament gives up its right to legislate on matters of worship and doctrine – allowing synod to introduce new forms of worship.
Parliament gives away right to divide up dioceses (1978)

3. The appointment of Bishops
Gordon Brown (2007) stated that he would only receive one name nominated by the Crown Nominations Commission for bishops (up to this point the PM could choose between two names)

Colin Buchanan in his Cut the Connection (1994) argues for disestablishment.
1.      There is no justification for establishment. Decline in numbers of people who would profess to be members of the CoE. Fewer come to the church for occasional offices (less than 30% of funerals are conducted by CoE churches or ministers. 2016: number of people attending Sunday services is 752460.
2.      Return to NT church: ‘An international society which sits within Roman Empire, ready to normally obey laws, pay taxes and honour authorities. But for the life of its ecclesial society it makes its choices, sends out missionaries, arranges priorities, appoints ministers and views itself as accountable to God’. It is not ‘owned or directed by the state’.
3.      Establishment leads to a confused theology of baptism and membership. Who is a member?
The establishment model says that everyone is a member, unless they choose to opt out. But many would reject the idea that they are ‘Christians’ unless they have opted out. 
Many still see baptism as an entry point to becoming a good citizen, which also includes admission into the church. People do not perceive a need for faith, or for regular worship.
4.      State interference in Church affairs. Some legislation passed by Synod needs ratification by parliament
5.      It hinders mission – if everyone is a member of the church, to whom is the mission directed?
6.      It hinders ecumenism – because of the CoE’s favoured status.
7.      Power corrupts the Church
8.      It puts a future monarch in a potentially impossible situation – as head of a church of a faith in which he or she does not believe. The 1688 Act of Settlement requires the monarch to be a Protestant, although the 2013 Succession to the Crown Act permits the monarch to marry a Roman Catholic.
The monarch swears, ‘to maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline and government thereof, as by law established in England’

1.      The Church does not now need disestablishment. It effectively has full autonomy. De facto if not de jure the state has ‘cut the connection’. The state can interfere in the life of the CoE (eg women bishops, gay marriage, prevent strategy), but only in the same way that it might interfere with any voluntary group.
2.      Bishops in the House of Lords. ​Lord Hennessy described the Archbishop's speech to the House of Lord's following BREXIT as one of the best speeches that he has ever heard in the Lord's.
3.      It can be an instrument of patriotism and a licensed critic of government policy
4.      We punch above our weight, and can bring people together.
5.      Involvement of Church in education
6.      Many other faith groups and churches welcome an established church, because it gives them a voice they would not have if they were treated like any other voluntary body. Tariq Madood, ‘the minimal nature of an Anglican establishment, its proven openness to other denominations and faiths seeking public space, and the fact that its very existence is an ongoing acknowledgement of the public character of religion, are all reasons why it may seem far less intimidating to the minority faiths than a triumphal secularism’. It is a position that can be used for the benefit of all
7.      Maintains a link between a (currently) popular monarchy and church
8.      It enhances mission. There are still many who have no faith who see the Church of England as their church – and therefore it offers tremendous opportunities for evangelism. There are places where civic/mayoral services still offer benefits for the proclamation of the gospel.
9.      Legally it would be very difficult to do (think how hard it has been to reform the Lords)
10.  The nation needs to be reminded that the origins of much of our legal system is Christianity.

Disestablishment would be the nation formally repudiating its Christian heritage.
Frank Field: ‘It keeps the rumour, that mystery of God alive’
Michael Allison: ‘The state in all Western societies now is becoming increasingly secularized, increasingly the victim of pressure groups of every sort from every side. I think the state needs the support and interaction with the church more than ever before in our history’.

The danger of establishment for the Church
1.      Power can corrupt the Church
2.      The Church may be compelled to buy into the State’s overriding agenda for unity and inclusiveness – to the extent that we could be forced to abandon ‘exclusivist’ doctrines about the uniqueness of Christ.

The Church is not financially dependent on the State (in contrast to many established churches in Europe)

If de jure disestablishment does come, it will probably be before a coronation. But I suspect the legal and constitutional issues will be too complicated, and I wonder whether there will ever be a legal divorce. The state wants to be free of the church so that it can have multiple partners; but because divorce is too costly, it will settle for separation. The church wants a good relationship with the state because it still loves the state, feels it can help keep the state from foolish over-indulgence, and for the sake of the children.

Cut the Connection, Colin Buchanan, DLT 1994
The Established Church, Ed Mark Chapman, Judith Maltby, William Whyte, T&T Clark International

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Thank you. Remembrance Sunday 2016

In 5 days time, 100 years ago, the guns were finally silenced on one of the bloodiest battles in human history.

It was not, of course, the end of the war. But by the end of what we know as the battle of the Somme, more than 1 million men were wounded and 300000 were killed. There were, on the first day alone, 57470 casualties, making it the worst day in the history of the British army.

Since then another battle has raged: the argument about whether that sort of loss of life was necessary. Field Marshall Douglas Haig has been in turn praised (it is estimated that more people turned out for his funeral than did for the funeral of Princess Diana), ignored, damned and it is only now that that judgement is again being reassessed. 

But today is not the day for asking whether what was asked of the men at the Somme was right or wrong, wicked idiocy or an evil necessity.
Today is the day when we remember the astonishing sacrifices that were made by those who served then, in more recent conflicts and those who serve now.

It is a time to remember and it is time to say thank you.

Millions of men, young and old, heard the call from their country. We remember the Kitchener poster, Your country needs you. And they signed up. Perhaps the first few thought that they were signing up for a quick victory and glory. But as the war dragged on, as news came back from the front of nightmarish trenches, gas attacks and mass casualties, people knew that this was going to be no picnic.

Ive read a couple of books which are basically the letters of two men who served at the front. The first are the letters of a man called Sydney Baxter (his real name was Reginald Davis). He enlisted in the London Territorial Regiment. He survived but was seriously injured in the battle of the Somme, losing his eye and having part of his brain blown out.

He was a clerk and he writes of hearing the call:
It was well into October (1914) before I realised the Call to Arms was a personal one .. The treatment of the Belgians hit me very hard, and, but for my home circumstances, I should have donned khaki straight away. My position was just this. My father had died some few months before, and left to my care my mother and my sister. Their protection was my solemn charge there was no doubt about it in my mind. And yet, what was my duty? To fight or to stay and look after our little home? It is a problem that thousands of us young men have had to wrestle with, and for several days I wrestled with it alone.

There was real sacrifice demanded of so many when they heard the call to enlist. Many, like Sydney, will have wrestled with their sense of duty. Some will have struggled with their conscience and we need to recognise that those who refused to serve on the grounds of conscientious objection also paid a very high price.

The second are the letters of a man called Harold Chapin. He was an actor and playwright, married to Calypo with a small boy, called Vally. He served with the 6th London Field Ambulance. He never returned home.

He writes of what it cost him to go to war. In November 1914, he writes to his wife, Heaps of love to you both and everybody. Explain to my boy that I must be away from him for a while. Willson and I went to the Abbey last night and there was a dear little choir boy just like Vally with such a sweet childish little voice. I nearly howled. God bless you sweetheart - keep smiling.

And he describes some of the awful things that they had to go through.

In May 1915 he writes, I gave a hand with my party of six and between us we carried down two: you have no idea of the physical fatigue entailed in carrying a twelve-stone wounded man a thousand odd yards across muddy fields. Oh this cruel mud! Back in " ----- " we hate it (the poor fellows come in absolutely clayed up), but out here, it is infernal.

The whole front just now is one Hell of mud and weariness, such as I never conceived possible, and heroic medical officers sorting the dead from the living and struggling, struggling, struggling, against chaos. There isn't a regimental medical officer upon this sector who doesn't deserve to live in comfort at the country's expense for the rest of his life (V.C.'s be damned).

In July, Harold writes,
I can't tell you how I long to sit in a room again - a room with a door that will shut out people. Most of the "horrors of war" are entertainments just a shade - or a lot - too exciting or painful to appreciate till they are over; but the absolute lack of privacy for hours, days, weeks, months, accumulating and piling one on another is a source of real misery, far exceeding the physical discomforts of sleeping under an overcoat on a waterproof sheet on a stone floor or going without an occasional meal or night's sleep.

And on Sunday 26 September 1915, in the Battle of Loos, in which many Suffolks died, Harold went over the trenches to recover casualties. He was shot in the foot, appears to have carried on, and was then shot in the head.

Two simple stories out of the countless stories of the men and women who we remember; men and women who heard the call of their country and answered that call.
And they served the first world war, in the second world way, in many subsequent conflicts. And they serve today.

We remember today those who have heard the call and were prepared to serve their country even if it meant that they would suffer dreadfully and die.
We honour them, and we say thank you.

But it is not just they who made the sacrifice. There is also the sacrifice that their families made. The sacrifice of wives like Calypo, who give up their husbands; Children like Vally who gave up their fathers; Mothers and sisters who gave up their sons and brothers.
And I think today of the families who give up the ones they love into the armed forces.
For them it can be hard, particularly when those they love are deployed. They dont have the excitement and the adventure. All they have is the waiting and the praying and the fear.

And I do ask those of you who serve to not forget the sacrifice of your families.
And to the rest of us: yes, support and honour those who fight for their country but also recognise and support their families; particularly those who have given up sons and daughters, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers and who have lost them.

We think of those sacrifices and we say thank you.

Paul writes in our reading today, Finally, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is admirable if anything is excellent or praiseworthy think about such things (Philippians 4.8)

It is important for us to think about such things.
We must never forget it when others make sacrifices on our behalf.
We must not take it for granted and assume that it is our right.
We must not forget to say thank you.

When we say thank you we become bigger people.
It means that I have noticed what another person has done.
It means that I have taken myself out of myself and put myself in their shoes; I recognise that what they have done has cost them.
And I begin to realise that what I have is not what I deserve but is a gift.

Saying thank you at any level is so important.
It affects our marriages, our work places. They can be divided into thank you places and thank not places places where you are appreciated or places where you are taken for granted.
It affects our whole attitude to life.

Denzel Washington, at a speech to church leaders, said, Give thanks for blessings every day. Every day. Embrace gratitude. Encourage others. It is impossible to be grateful and hateful at the same time. I pray that you put your slippers way under your bed at night, so that when you wake in the morning you have to start on your knees to find them. And while you're down there, say "thank you." A bad attitude is like a flat tire. Until you change it, you're not going anywhere."

Please do not be people who take others for granted, especially when they have made such big sacrifices for us.
Please do not be people who for that matter take God for granted.

We remember sacrifice today. And we say thank you.

Every time you walk into this church you walk in under the symbol of supreme sacrifice. It is the image of Jesus Christ on the cross. Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, loved us so much that he left heaven and came to this earth to die. It wasnt just that he died for us. It wasnt just that he went through agony and shame for us. It was that he chose to go through the mud of hell for you. He died and he rose from the dead. And he says, If you follow me, if you live for me and if you die for me, you may face agony and shame and you will die. But I will be with you. I will come and live in you. I will never leave you. And I will take you through death to life so that you can be with me for ever.

And all we need to do is to say Thank you.

One of the things that surprised me in these two sets of letters was how much God and prayer gets a look in. I genuinely was not looking for it. But maybe, when you face living in hell, there is no other place to turn.

So Harold writes 4 months before he dies to his grandmother (by the way, grandparents, dont underestimate your significance in passing on the faith)  

Of course I have no objection to your teaching Vallie a prayer. Why should I have? Only please teach him one thing: that his prayer may not be answered and that if it isn't, he must not think that God is cruel or unmindful. "Thy will be done" is the safety valve in all prayer and a believer in God must surely think - if they do not say - those words as a part of every prayer. In the case of a child I think they should be said. If I don't come home you may - I mean: Please will you - teach him the Sermon on the Mount and "The Lord is my Shepherd" etc., but I have always looked forward to teaching him these myself and still hope to do so - this coming winter too.

And when Sydney Baxters close friend George is killed in battle, he receives a letter from Georges stepfather.

We did not know how constantly and continually we could petition the Great Father till you lads went away. We will not cease because one needs them no more. Rather we will be more constant, and perhaps that may be one of the results of this war. Think what a power the prayers of a whole world would have with God! If only they were for the one thingthat His Kingdom would come, it would be accomplished at once! May the knowledge of His all-pervading love dwell more and more in the hearts of the people of the world, so that wars and all kindred evils may cease and the hearts of the people be taken up with the one task of living for God and His Kingdom.

So thank you Father for sending Jesus.
And thank you Jesus for giving your life for us.
Thank you for the purpose and the peace and you give us and for your presence with us.
And thank you to those of you here for the service that you have given and you do give your country.
And thank you to the ones who are not here. We will remember them.

And George's stepfather, after the death of his son, completes his letter to Sydney with these words, May God be ever present with you, watching over and blessing you, and may He come into your heart more and more, helping and sustaining you in your hard task, and blessing you in all your endeavours to be His true son and servant."

Saturday, 5 November 2016

The resurrection is for real

This week we are thinking a little more about the resurrection.

The Sadducees, as we see here, did not believe in the resurrection. They believed in God; they believed in the first five books of the Old Testament – the Mosaic law. And they believed that death was the end.

I’ve got a lot of time for the Sadducees. They are serious, thoughtful, hard-nosed rationalists. They are going to face up to death with no sugar-coated pill. They would not have been willing to buy into the half-baked sentimentalist claptrap about people dying and going up there to sit on clouds and be with those we have loved for ever.

So they challenge Jesus about the resurrection. They say to Jesus, ‘OK, if there is resurrection, when we are there who will we be with?’ They tell of this unfortunate woman who marries an even more unfortunate man. He dies before they have children. The law of Moses said that she needed to marry his brother. It makes sense. First, it ensured that she as a childless widow was looked after and second, and this was very important – especially if you didn’t believe in a resurrection – the first child born to the widow was to take the name of the dead brother. His name would live on. Unfortunately, the second brother dies. So does the third and the fourth. The fifth, sixth and the seventh brothers are now seriously worried. There is a story in the apocrypha about a girl who has been cursed by a demon, so that every man she marries dies on their wedding night before their marriage is consummated. In the same way here all the brothers do die; she dies. So, say the Sadducees to Jesus, who is she going to be with? Whose cloud is she going to sit on? The first brother’s, the second and so on?

It might seem very artificial, but they are making a point. It might even be something that some of you who have been happily married to more than one man or woman are asking – which one will I be with in heaven?

But Jesus challenges the Sadducees. In Matthew’s version of this reading, he tells them that they are wrong because they do not know the scriptures or the power of God (Matthew 22.29). And he speaks about the reality of the resurrection, the grounds for the resurrection and the shape of the resurrection.

One of the biggest needs for the church in our generation is to rediscover a practical belief in the resurrection.

We speak of the resurrection, but we live as if there is no resurrection.

We live for this world. Our hope is to be comfortable and successful in this world. We make sacrifices, but we do so for a this-worldly reward. The swimmer is at the pool morning after morning, putting themselves through hell, to win the medal and to get the honour. At a lesser level we go on our runs or do our exercises, even when it hurts, in order to become fit and strong, in order to be healthier and live longer! And we try to seek immortality in this world – whether that is through continuing our name or our genes. That is why the story of the woman and the 7 brothers is so important to people who do not believe in the resurrection (although it is very male centric); or by building monuments and proving to the world that we matter.

And if it is all about this world, why should I go to that place where I am prepared to face my poverty in spirit? Why should I not just party, especially in the face of death and tragedy? Why should I think of other people as better than myself? Why should I pursue righteousness, especially if it gives such little material reward? Why should I show mercy to people who have treated me as scum? Why should I be a peacemaker? It just means that it is my head that will get shot off. Why should I stand up for Jesus if it means that I will be mocked and rejected? And if it is all about this world, why should I deny myself, take up my cross and follow Jesus.

Without the resurrection, it is idiocy to live the Jesus way.

But Jesus speaks of the resurrection as a reality. And he lived it as a reality. He was willing to give up everything, even his life so that those who were his enemies in this age might, in the new age, in the resurrection, become his friends for eternity. He went through the pain and the shame of the cross for, Hebrews tells us, ‘the joy set before him’.

2. And Jesus speaks here of

Jesus does not argue the resurrection from what would be called natural theology. He doesn’t look at the cycle of Spring and Autumn, life and death and rebirth.
He does not argue for the resurrection based on personal experience. He doesn’t say the resurrection happens because so and so had a near death experience, and this is what they encountered. No doubt, God uses books like ‘Heaven is for real’, but it is not the argument Jesus uses.

Instead notice how Jesus places his deep conviction for the reality of the resurrection on the Word of God. He is radically word-centred, bible-centred. He argues that the reason we can be sure that there is a resurrection is because God has revealed himself, in his Word, through Moses, as ‘the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’ (v37).  And Jesus says God cannot be the God of anything dead. If God touches anything, if God knows anyone, it will be alive.

You may, in your more philosophical moments, have wondered whether something exists if nobody is looking at it or thinking of it. If you shut your eyes and blocked your ears and stopped thinking about me, would the preacher cease to exist?
Sadly, I’m not going to go away that easily!

But with God it is different. If God knows something it exists. God declares himself the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and so they exist, even if they have physically died.
And if God does not know something or someone, it may by the grace of God have a shadow existence, but it does not really exist.
That is why the words on the day of judgement, when God says to some ‘I never knew you’ are so devastating. And that is why those words at the end of 1 Corinthians 13 are so reassuring: when we are told that in the age to come, ‘we will know [him] as we have been fully known’.

Jesus is radically bible-centred, word-centred. That is liberating because it cuts through all the uncertainties of our human knowledge. I was helped when I read Karl Barth’s argument for the existence of creation. He said, ‘I do not believe that there is a creation out there because I can sense it. My senses could be all wrong. It could be one big dream. No. I believe that there is a world outside of my head because my a-priori, my base assumption, the thing that I will live for and the thing that I will die for, is a God who has revealed himself in his Word. And because God has spoken and has told us that he has created a world, then there must be a world.

Of course, for us as Christians who live after the death and resurrection of Jesus, there is an additional reason to believe in the resurrection. Jesus has been there and has done it. He has gone into death and he has come out the other side. And people saw him, their lives were changed and history was changed. And you can read about it here.

3. And Jesus speaks of

He speaks of the reality of the age to come.
He gives us a glimpse through the window into the resurrection age.

We will be like angels. (v36)
Some of the early commentators speak of how angels are beyond sexual desire and so there is no marriage. But Matthew’s version of this incident (Matthew 22.23-32) seems to imply that as angels there will be no marriage because we will be beyond male and female. And Luke seems to be saying that the key thing about angels is that they do not die, and so there is no need for marriage or procreation to preserve our name or our genes.

And we will be God’s children (v36).
Of course, if we have fallen on our knees in recognition of the astounding fact that to be worthy of this age (v35) means that we receive this age as a gift, we are God’s children now. But John writes of how, on the day of resurrection, we will be revealed as children of God. And he goes on, ‘But we know that when Christ appears we shall be like him for we shall see him as he is’ (1 John 3.1-3)

Of course it is really difficult to speak of what it will be like in the resurrection. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 says to those who ask, ‘What kind of bodies will we have in the resurrection?’  ‘You fool! Can an acorn under the ground even begin to imagine its future glory as an oak tree? Of course not. We cannot begin to imagine it.’

But we do know that our hope and our destiny is glorious.

CS Lewis speaks of how on that day, when we see each other, we will be a bit shy and a bit afraid of the other. Because we will see the other in their glory and radiance, as God intended them to be. It will be like being in the presence of a mega celebrity, of royalty.

Joni Earickson, who as a teenager was paralysed from the neck down in a diving accident, and who has written several books about her Christian faith, writes, “I have hope in the future. The Bible speaks about bodies being glorified. I know the meaning of that now. It's the time after my death here when I, the quadriplegic, will be on my feet dancing”.

Psalm 16, another passage in the Old Testament which points to the resurrection, speaks of how, in the presence of God, there will be fullness of joy (Ps 16.11). At Friday prayers, both John and Ann were saying how relatives had had that verse engraved into their headstones.

We need to ask God to give us a renewed conviction not only in the reality of the resurrection but in the awareness that it is all about the resurrection.
Because it is the conviction of the resurrection that will transform God’s church and liberate us to live for God here on earth.

The story is told about Basil Hume, the former cardinal of Westminster, who went to see his great friend, the abbot of Ampleforth. He told him that the doctors had given him only 6 months to live. ‘Oh Basil’, came the reply, ‘I am so pleased for you’. 

Sunday, 16 October 2016

The pit and the Presence

(To listen to an audio version of this talk, click the arrow above)

The story of the crossing of the Red Sea is one of great stories of the Bible
It is in most of the children’s bibles!
But it is more than a great story

It is one of the key stories in Israel’s memory

Genesis 12.1-11, which you looked at last week, was critical to how the people of God understood their call to be the people of God.
But the event we read about today shaped their understanding of what it means to live as the people of God.

So let’s look at the story.

Abrahams’ descendants have been living in Egypt as a slave people. But God has rescued them and now they are leaving Egypt. The ruler of Egypt, Pharaoh, has let them go. But he has changed his mind – a sort of post-Brexit panic when he realises that if he lets the migrants go, nobody will be left to do the dirty work. So he sends his army after them.

And now we come to the odd bit. Because God, in 14.2 commands Moses to turn the people around and rather than walk away to freedom to walk towards the sea.  
Nobody really knows exactly where this sea is. What our bibles translate as Red Sea should be more accurately translated as Sea of Reeds, and because the water level is very different to what it was 3000 years ago, it is possible that this sea is no longer there.
Anyway, Pharaoh follows them with his army, and the people of Israel are trapped. The sea is here – Pharaoh’s army is here – and they are the filling in the sandwich.

The people panic. I guess that is not surprising. They cry out to God in fear.
And then they turn on their leader. It is very predictable.
But Moses answers them:
-          Don’t be afraid
-          Stand firm, and you will see the deliverance of God. And he repeats the word ‘see’. The Egyptians you see today, you will never see again.
-          Be still and let God fight for you.

On the surface he was calm. But inside he must have been screaming. Because, although we are not told that he cried out to God, in v15 God says to Moses, ‘Why do you cry out to me?’ The early commentators make much of this, saying that God hears the cries of our hearts even when they are unspoken.

And then God tells Moses to do something that is even more crazy than leading the Israelites to the edge of the sea. He tells him to order them to walk into the sea. It is suicide.

But the people have nothing to lose. The pillar of cloud that has been leading the people now goes behind the people. It separates them from the Egyptians. Moses raises his staff; overnight a wind blows and the sea separates with a wall of water on either side

The people go into the sea. They cross over on dry land. The Egyptians follow. Their chariots get clogged up in the mud. They panic. Moses again stretches his hand out over the water, and it closes in over the Egyptians.

What is going on here?

1.      God delivers us not by taking away the thing that we fear, but by changing us so that we learn to fear him more.

It is God who makes the situation far worse before it gets better.
God takes his people down into the sea before he brings them deliverance.

God could have simply wiped out the Egyptian army. In 2 Chr 20.17, we are told that Jahaziel uses the same words that Moses spoke to the Israelites, when he says to Jehoshaphat when the Moabites and Ammonites threaten to overwhelm the people of Israel, ‘stand firm and see the deliverance the Lord will give you’. And the Ammonites turn on the Moabites and the Moabites turn on the Ammonites and they wipe each other out. And when Jehoshaphat comes out to meet them in battle he discovers nothing but dead men. God could have done that here.

But God did not wish simply to deliver his people from the Egyptians.
He wanted to change them.
He wanted them to understand that he is bigger than all their fears.

And we are told at the end ‘So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses’ (Ex 14.31).

At the beginning of this story they fear the Egyptians. At the end of the story they know that there is one who is far bigger than the Egyptians or any army, for that matter. And they believe in him.

I don’t know what you fear. I foolishly asked that question in St James when it was there and was told by the year 7 boys that they were frightened of nothing. But assuming you are not year 7 St James boys, I suspect that there are a few things that you do fear. Violence, pain, violence, growing older, being shamed or humiliated, abandonment, death – whether of those we love or of ourselves

What the story of the Red Sea tells us is that God will not necessarily protect us from going through those things.
He may at times take us into those very things that we fear.
But he will work in us and change us so that we come to fear him even more – and when we fear him first, and we believe him, then those other things begin to lose their terror.

2.      God walks with us when we go through the pit

When the people of Israel went down into the water, the pillar of cloud went with them. That pillar represents the presence of God.

You see the God we believe in is the God who comes and stands with us in the pit.
He stood with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego when they were thrown into the fiery furnace
He was the God who was with Daniel in the den of lions.
And he is the God who became one of us, who lived among us, who experienced the fears that we face, who was subject to violence and pain, who was shamed and humiliated, abandoned and who did go into the pit of death.

I’ve spoken before of Michael facing one of the illnesses that we probably dread. He is paralysed now up to the neck. And he was telling me of the God who is with him and who does 24/7
I have an irrational fear not of death, but of being in the box. And then realising that when I am there, he has been there and he will be there.

Some of you are going through deep pits at the moment. He has taken you down into the sea. The walls are on either side. You are being driven by fear. But I hope this story is an encouragement. Because he stands in between you and the thing that you fear. He is with you.

3.      God uses what brings life to one to bring death to the other

One of the fascinating things about this story is that it teaches that the thing that can bring light to one, brings darkness to the other. The cloud brought light to the Israelites but darkness to the Egyptians.
And the thing that can bring salvation to one brings destruction to the other. The water saved the Israelites but brought destruction to the Egyptians.

It is the reason, Jesus says, why he speaks in parables. Some will hear the stories and understand; others will only hear the stories. They will be life to one, and death to the other.
Paul in 2 Cor 2.15 teaches that the preachers of the gospel to some are the aroma of life, and to others are the stench of death. It is the same gospel – but some will hear the message of how Jesus in his love died for our sins, for our forgiveness in order to bring us into eternal friendship with God, and they will hate it. And others will hear the message and receive it with joy.
And the New Testament teaches that some will look at the cross of Jesus and they will mock. [Early Roman graffito: ‘Alexamenos worships his god’] And others will look at the cross and they will worship.

What I note here, and it is a mystery and a warning to us, is that God saves his people by making their enemies hate them.

It is what God does. In v8 God hardens the heart of Pharoah. In v17 God says, and literally the passage says this, ‘and look, behold, I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians’.
God takes the arrogance of a people who assume that they are the master race and that the Israelites are a slave race fit only to serve them, and he takes their desire for their own material comfort – and he allows that sin to grow so that it becomes a blind hatred and desire for revenge. If the Egyptians had shown any compassion for the fleeing Israelites, then they would have not entered the sea and they would not have been destroyed.

It is a pattern we see repeated. It is the person who abuses another, and then begins to blame his or her victim for being the victim, and hates them for being the abused. They become colder and less likely to repent. God hardens their heart. The sin increases and on the day of judgement God’s justice will be shown to be absolutely fair.

There is a great mystery here – but we need to pray that God never hardens our heart. Can I ask you to think very carefully about who it is that you are sinning against, who do you think is there to serve you? And are you beginning to despise or hate them? We need to repent now, to ask God to give us compassion for them, before God hardens our heart.

And the prayer asking God to give us compassion is a prayer that he will always answer.

4.      God brings his people out of the pit

After the cross comes the resurrection.
The people come out of the sea; they see the judgement of God and the destruction of the Egyptians; they fear God, they believe him and they believe Moses (for the time being anyway!). And they praise God (Exodus 15.1-18)

The people of Israel look back to this event as the incident which shows them what it is like to live with God as their God.
And they have come to realise that the God of Abraham will not protect them from the sea, but he will walk with them through the sea. And he will use the sea to change them so that they trusted him more, to bring his right judgement, and to bring glory to his name.
As Ps 66.11-12 says, ‘You brought us into the net; you laid burdens on our backs; you let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us out to a spacious place’.

And for us as people of the New Testament, this event shapes our understanding of what it means to for us to live with God as our God. The writers of the NT look at this incident as an example of God’s guidance for his people (Acts 7.36), an example of faith (Hebrews 11.29) and also as a model for baptism.

1 Cor 10.2 ‘They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea’.

The cloud and the sea. The presence of God in the pit. And baptism, particularly when we think of baptism by immersion, is a very clear picture of what it means for us to live as believers. It is the template, the pattern for our everyday Christian life. We go with Jesus into the waters. We meet with him there, we die to ourselves and we come up as new people.



The crossing of the Red Sea spoken of by Joshua in his final speech to the Israelites, when he calls them to serve God faithfully (Joshua 24.6-7)
The Psalmists speak of the event in 7 different Psalms (Ps 66.6; Ps 74.13; Ps 77.19; Ps 78.13; Ps 106.6-12; Ps 114.5; Ps 136.13-15)
David in a song praising God for the way that he rescues his people, declares: ‘Then the channels of the sea were seen, the foundations of the world were laid bare’ (2 Sam 22.16)
The book of Isaiah speaks 7 times of the events of Exodus 14 (Is 10.26; Is 11.15; Is 43.16-19; Is 44.27; Is 50.2; Is 51.10; Is 63.11-13)
The prophet Nahum speaks of how God ‘rebukes the sea and dries it up’. (Nahum 1.4)
And the prophet Ezekiel declares that the future destruction of Egypt will be like its past destruction (Ezekiel 32.15)
And, after the people have returned from exile and Ezra prays in their presence, he addresses God as the one who ‘divided the sea before them …’ and who ‘led them by day with a pillar of cloud, and by night with a pillar of fire, to give them light on the way in which they should go.’ (Neh 9.11-12)
References in the Psalms
Ps 66.6 He turned the sea into dry land, they passed through the waters on foot
Ps 74.13  It was you who split open the sea by your power
Ps 77.19 Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen
Ps 78.13 ‘He divided the sea and led them through; he made the water stand up like a wall’
Ps 106.9 ‘He rebuked the Red Sea and it dried up; he led them through the depths as through a desert. (Ps 106.6-12)
Ps 114.5 ‘Why was it, sea, that you fled?’
Ps 136.13 -15 to him who divided the red sea asunder

References in Isaiah
Is 10.26  The Lord Almighty .. will raise his staff over the waters, as he did in Egypt’
Is 11.15  The Lord will dry up the gulf of the Egyptian sea; with a scorching wind he will sweep his hand over the Euphrates river. He will break it up into seven streams so that anyone can cross over in sandals’
Is 43.16-19  ‘he who made a way through the sea,  a path through the mighty waters, who drew out the chariots and horses, .. and they lay there, never to rise again .. Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! .. I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.
Is 44.27 who says to the watery deep, ‘be dry, and I will dry up your streams,’
Is 50.2 by a mere rebuke I dry up the sea
Is 51.10  was it not you who dried up the sea, the waters of the great dep, who made a road in the depths of the sea so that the redeemed might cross over?
Is 63.11-13  where is he who brought them through the sea .. Who divided the waters before them to gain for himself everlasting renown, who led them through the depths?

References in the NT
Acts 7.36 He led them out having performed wonders and signs in Egypt, at the Red Sea and for forty years in the wilderness
1 Cor 10.2 They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.
Heb 11.29 By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned.

The crossing the sea motif is repeated:
Joshua and the Israelites crossing the Jordan (Joshua 3)

Elijah (and then Elisha) strike the water with his cloak and it divided to the right and left, ‘The valleys of the sea were exposed’ (2 Kings 2.8)