Saturday, 30 June 2007

Following Jesus

Mark 1:14-20

I wonder who or what we follow?

Most of the time we are following things or ideas or people without realising it.

We follow the crowd. We do things in a particular way because that was how we were brought up or because ‘everybody’ lives this way. And if we start to be different, we begin to worry: ‘am I a freak’?

Sometimes we consciously follow something. It might be a team or a hobby or a career; fashion – the girl dressed up in the Goth gear is making a statement: she is saying – ‘I’m not following you - I’m following an alternative society’. Or we follow a cause: cats, the environment, anti-war. I had an eccentric uncle who waged a one man campaign against the putting of fluorine in water.
And sometimes we follow a person: a parent, an anti-parent (someone who is not like our parent), a celebrity, a boss, a friend, a religious leader or a political leader

A journalist, a man called William Allen White, wrote of his first meeting with President Theodore Roosevelt in 1897:

“He sounded in my heart the first trumpet call of the new time that was to be.… I had never known such a man as he, and never shall again. He overcame me. And in the hour or two we spent that day at lunch, he poured into my heart such vision, such ideals, such hopes, such a new attitude toward life and patriotism and the meaning of things, as I had never dreamed men had.… After that, I was his man”.


In our reading Jesus comes up to Simon and Andrew and calls them to ‘follow me’. It is an invitation that comes to them, and it is an invitation that comes to each one of us

1. IT IS AN INVITATION TO FOLLOW A PERSON

The Christian life is about a relationship with Jesus Christ.

In verse 15, Jesus declares: "The time has come," he said. "The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!"

That is the theology. In verse 16 we come to the practice: Jesus comes to Simon and Andrew and says: "Come, follow me and I will make you fishers of men." And later, he sees James and John. “Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him”.

In other words, Jesus is the good news.
Believing the good news is the same as following Jesus.
We can know all the stuff that we need to know, but if we are not willing to follow Jesus it counts for nothing.

For Peter, Andrew, James and John it really was a call to literally follow Jesus on a journey. To be his companions. It was not an unusual call: many rabbis would have their own travelling disciples.

But it was more than the call to become an itinerant rabbi’s companions.

The call to follow Jesus was and is a call to listen to him, to do what he does, to love the way he loves, to pray the way he prays, to go where he leads

It is the call to trust him.

“The story is told that a national magazine assigned a photographer to take pictures of a forest fire. They told him a small plane would be waiting at the airport to fly him over the fire.
The photographer arrived at the airstrip just an hour before sundown. Sure enough, a small Cessna airplane stood waiting. He jumped in with his equipment and shouted, "Let's go!" The pilot, a tense-looking man, turned the plane into the wind, and soon they were in the air, though flying erratically.
"Fly over the north side of the fire," said the photographer, "and make several low-level passes."
"Why?" asked the nervous pilot.
"Because I’m going to take pictures!" yelled the photographer. "I'm a photographer, and photographers take pictures."
The pilot replied, "You mean you’re not the flight instructor?"

The call to follow Jesus is not to go with a pilot who doesn’t know what he is doing. But it is the call to come on the most astonishing journey.

Following Jesus for the first Christians was awesome and gloriously unpredictable. One day he was wrecking a funeral: bringing the person back from the dead; the next he commands a storm to be still; he then takes them to meet a violent lunatic who nobody can control; he asks them to feed 5000 people with a few loaves and fishes, and provides wine out of water. He sends them out to preach the kingdom, heal the sick and cast out demons. He is overwhelmed by people wanting him to heal their sick, but is constantly on the move preaching the Kingdom of God. He resolutely sets out to go to Jerusalem even though they are going to kill him there. And when they thought he was dead and that the journey was over, he explodes back to life again and tells them that his Spirit will live in them.

The call to believe the Good News is the call to follow a person
It is not primarily about subscribing to a set of beliefs
It is not about obeying a moral code
It is not even about doing certain ‘religious’ things
It is about putting our trust in Jesus Christ and letting him lead us.

2. THERE IS A COST TO THIS CALL

Jesus says, “Repent and believe the Good News”.
Repentance is about a mental U-turn. It is about realising that the Kingdom of God, heaven, the ultimate, ‘the meaning of life, the universe and everything’ is not to be found by following the crowd, by pursuing money or career, or power. It is not to be found in seeking to satisfy our very human desires. It is not to be found in finding another person. It is to be found in Jesus

That meant for James and John that they left their father and their father’s business

And yes, following Jesus is about putting our hand in his hand. It is about intimacy and comfort and reassurance and hope. But it is more than that. If we follow Jesus he will lead us out of our comfort zones, he will take us through the hedges that we grow to separate us from other people, and there will be times when we need to risk everything to follow him.

But even though there was and is a cost, it is worth it.

There was something about Jesus Christ that was so magnetic, that Simon and Andrew stopped what they were doing and followed him.
There was something about his call that made James and John leave the family business and follow him. They wanted in on this.
There is something about his call that has made countless men and women, including people here, change the whole direction of their life and follow him.

Following Jesus is about following someone who loves us. It is about following someone who desires to lead us to our true identity, purpose and destiny. It is about living the God stuff: preaching the Kingdom, healing the sick, loving people; confronting, in Jesus name, the demons that trap us in order to destroy us and others. It is about following someone who desires that we find fulfilment and freedom: a life that can be controlled not by the crowd or by what others think I should be doing or by guilt or fear, but by love and by God.

It is worth it


3. IT IS A CALL TO BECOME

Jesus says to Simon and Andrew, ‘Come follow me and I will make you fishers of men’

If we respond to the call to follow Jesus then we are responding to a call to change, to be changed.

If you are not willing to be changed, then do not come to Jesus

Jesus is in effect saying to Simon and Andrew, ‘Come follow me and I will make you such attractive people that you will draw other people to me’.

Jesus is saying to them: ‘Let me make you beautiful – not on the outside (that will happen in heaven), but on the inside. Let me make you so loving, so gracious, so gentle, so peace-making, so giving, so full of life, so different – that people will see me in you’

And the call is not just to them. Jesus’ call comes to each one of us. It comes to us whatever we do, whoever we are. It is the call to let God change you, to become the person God would make you to be.

It is important to realise that. We think that we need to be perfect to follow Jesus. No, Simon Peter wasn’t perfect before Jesus called him. He wasn’t perfect after Jesus called him. And you won’t be perfect before Jesus calls you, and you won’t be perfect after he’s called you.

But Simon Peter was on a journey (we’re going to be looking at that over the next few weeks), and you will be on a journey. I do not know where he will take you: that really is between you and him.

But I do know that the one who calls us can be trusted and that the call to follow Jesus is exciting. It is liberating. It is about getting involved in God’s purposes for his world today; it is about living life the way God made it to be lived. It is about becoming the sort of people who God made us to be.

Saturday, 2 June 2007

The icon of the Trinity

ROMANS 5:1-5

Today is Trinity Sunday

I suspect that many of us have been brought up to think of the Trinity as a problem to be solved: a mathematical conundrum. How can 3 be 1 and 1 be 3.

And so we have heard the Trinity described as a venn diagram, or as ice-water-steam, or as one person in three roles.

May I very apologetically suggest that you forget them. They are actually about as useful as Robbie Coultrane in Nuns on the Run.

The Trinity is not a problem to be solved. The Trinity is about a life to be lived.

For me, one of the most helpful ways for understanding the Trinity is Rublev's icon of the Trinity


Three figures seated around a table. They’re the three angels who appear to Abraham at Mamre – when they tell him that he is going to have a child. Christian tradition very quickly identified them with the three persons of the Trinity.

Notice how, although there are three figures, there is a unity about them.

Ø They are the same age (they have been from before time began, from the beginning of eternity, together)
Ø They have the same face (Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is ‘the exact representation of the being of the Father’ – according to Hebrews: there is no vengeful brooding Father hidden behind a loving Son: what we see in Jesus (his love, his mercy, his passion for righteousness, his anger at sin and his judgement) is what we get in God the Father;

Ø They have the same naff hairstyle (I can’t read any theological significance into that!)
Ø They are all dressed in royal blue, and hold a sceptre of authority. The Father is God; the Son is God; the Holy Spirit is God. What the Son speaks, the Father speaks; what the Spirit does, the Father does; When I bow before the Son, I bow before the Father: if I turn my back on the Spirit, I turn my back on the Son and on the Father.

But although there is a unity about them, there is also a uniqueness about each of the figures.

We look at the Father.

The Father wears the gold. And the heads of the other two are inclined towards him.

The Father is the main man of the Trinity (although that is probably the wrong word because God is bigger than, beyond sexuality). Behind the Father is a house. Heaven and earth are the Father’s house. Jesus talks of ‘my Father’s house’.

It is also from the Father that the other two come. The Son is ‘eternally begotten’ of the Father. The Spirit proceeds, ‘goes out of’ (John 15:26) the Father.

And in Romans 5, Paul talks about ‘peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ’. Ultimately the Christian life is about peace with Father God. The God who we worship is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. We pray to ‘Our Father in heaven’. We live, as Jesus lived, for the glory of our Father in heaven.

And Romans 5 verse 2 hints at our destiny. It is tied up with Father God: “We rejoice in our hope of the glory of God”.

The glory of God, Irenaeus said, is a human being fully alive. And we can only be fully alive when we are in relationship with God, at peace with God.

And we are invited to come into this relationship, into the intimacy that is shared by Father, Son and Holy Spirit. If you look at the icon, you can see that there are two movements within the circle. There is the movement of the head, a movement of submission before the Father from whom all things come and to whom all things will return (1 Corinthians 15:28); and a movement of the fingers, out from the Father, a movement of blessing, of life and love.

And we, you and me, are invited to join into this movement, into this circle of submission: by the Spirit, through the Son to the Father. But we are also invited, through the act of submission, to join into the movement of blessing and life, that flows from the Father, through the Son by the Holy Spirit, out to us.

This circle is open to all people. Everyone is invited to join in this company, this fellowship. Everyone is invited to sit and eat with the Father, and to share in this love.

And that is to be reflected in our communities. I believe that St John’s still uses a logo of people, centred on the cross, but in a circle reaching out to others.


We look at the Son
The Son wears the garment of the priest. Behind him is the tree. In front of him is the communion cup. And the table around which they meet is the stone on which the dead body would have been laid. But the body is not there.

Romans 5 tells us that it is through the Son that we have access to the Father. It is because he gave himself for us, because he died for us. The cross is the demonstration of the love of God. How do I know that God loves me, when later verses talk of the wrath of God against sin, and all the things that happen in my life seem to point to the contrary? Very simply: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us”

Please, my brothers and sisters, this is so important. We have peace with God not because we’re good or righteous or holy. We have peace with God because, in love, he sent his Son to die for us.

And that is good news, because we are all messed up people; we all have dark places in our lives (and if they came out into the open we would die of shame); we all live lies to different degrees (whether hidden lives or the masks that we all wear); and our motives are all pretty mixed up and some of them are quite murky.

If it was down to us, there is no way that we could have peace with God. How could we have peace with God when we are so often not at peace with ourselves, let alone our neighbours.

But the good news is that it is not up to us. It is God’s gift. God in his mercy and love has reached out to us. Through Jesus, he has invited us to come to him; and through Jesus he has made it possible to come to him.

Notice that as we come to receive the cup, we begin to share the life of the Trinity. But also notice that the shape of the Father and the Spirit also make a cup, and as we come to Jesus, so we begin to share in the life of the Trinity.


We look at the Spirit
The Holy Spirit wears green. He is the life giver. But behind him is this thing that looks like a wave. It is in fact a rock, a symbol of the wilderness.

So often the place of meeting with God is the desert place. So often the place where God works with us most powerfully is in the place where humanly we feel totally abandoned and deserted.

It was true for Abraham (costly obedience), for Moses (40 years in the wilderness), for Hannah (tormented by her rival and crying out to God for a baby), for David (running for his life), for Paul (inner turmoil), for Peter (having let down Jesus and the other disciples). It was even true for Jesus.

That is why Paul in Romans 5 can talk of rejoicing in our suffering. Why? Because suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us.

It is all very well having a great faith when things are going well, when prayers are being answered as we would have them answered, when God feels close. But usually all that does is make us feel that we can take on the world. The real character formation takes place when we are out of our depth, when things are going badly, when it seems that God has walked out on us. That is the point when we need to persevere, to stand firm.

Notice again the double movement in the icon. The movement of submission and the movement of blessing. They go together. It was because Jesus “humbled himself and became obedient even to death on a cross”, that “God has given him the name that is above all other names”.

But the Spirit is also the one who is on the edge of this circle, in the sense that the movement of blessing comes out from him; and that the movement of submission begins with him.

He is the one who touches our hearts and minds: who convinces us of our sin and our need for God, who persuades us that the things of this world are provisional, and who points us to the things of God (that is a very loose translation of John 16:8-11). It is the Holy Spirit who comforts us and gives us hope. It is the Holy Spirit who brings his Word alive, and speaks to our heart and mind. And it is the Holy Spirit who begins to pour into us the love of God, that enables us, that gives us the confidence to submit to the one who loves us, even when it seems that he does not.


So today, as we draw near to receive communion, try and imagine that we are not simply being invited to come to the table to receive bread and wine to remember Jesus death. You are being invited by the Spirit to join into this communion, to receive Jesus, to submit to the Father who loves you, to rest in his presence, and to join in the movement of blessing that comes out from Him.