Thursday, September 17, 2020

Amazing Grace

 1 Corinthians 15.1–11 & Luke 7.36–end

This morning’s readings are intended to inspire awe in us.  Awe, because the focus of both readings is on the amazing grace of God.

In the first reason, while reminding his readers of the basic story of Jesus’ sacrificial death and resurrection, Paul confesses that he was a dastardly sinner.  He reminds his readers that he was a persecutor of Christians – which, in his day, means that he was no doubt responsible for death of many.  From the book of Acts, we know that he stood by watching, with approval, the stoning of Stephen – the first Christian martyr.  Paul had been a bad man – one whose religious zealotry was so certain, and so passionate, that he could approve of the public lynching of a man who spoke only of God’s love.

But as we know from Paul’s story, Jesus reached out to him, via a vision on the Damascus road.  He calls Paul to follow a new path.  He gracefully uses one of the fledgling Christianity’s most ardent opponents, and he offers him new life and new purpose.  Without a word of repentance being said by Paul, God reaches out through Jesus and saves him.

In the second story, a woman whose name we do not know, is described as ‘a sinner’.  Readers of the time would have understood that to mean that she was probably what we would call a sex worker.  (It says a lot about the morality of the time that a sinner is someone so desperately poor that they are forced to sell their body and their dignity to a succession of sweaty men).  This so-called ‘sinful’ woman falls before Jesus, and bathes his feet with her tears and then with ointment.  Jesus, again, acts gracefully towards her.  Without a word of repentance being said by the woman, Jesus offers her complete forgiveness of all her sins.

What might we notice about both these stories?  For me, both stories talk to me about how God reaches out to us.  That’s what Amazing Grace is like.  It’s why John Newton, the hymn-writer, was inspired to coin the phrase.  As you probably know, Newton had been a slave-ship captain.  Like the sinful woman who washed Jesus’ feet, and like Paul who tortured Christians, Newton couldn’t get over the fact that God’s grace was powerful enough, strong enough, loving enough to forgive even a ‘wretch’ like him.

Have you ever wondered what the difference is between ‘grace’ and ‘mercy’ – two of the most powerful descriptions of God?  Well, ‘mercy’ is when God withholds punishment that we deserve.  ‘Grace’ on the other hand, is when God gives us gifts that we don’t deserve.  (Let me say that again!).

In other words, mercy always precedes grace.  By rights, because of the way we all sin, and all fail, God would be within his rights to punish us.  But he doesn’t.  By his mercy, he withholds that punishment, and he instead pours out his grace.

What does this mean for us? How do these stories impact on us?

For me, the message is clear.  It doesn’t matter who we are, or what kind of life we have led.  Society may have labelled us a sinner.  Our lives may have been driven by hatred, or zealotry, intolerance or extremism.  We may have been selfish, or arrogant, or lazy or greedy.  Whatever our sin, God offers mercy, and amazing grace.  God invites each one of us, just as did for Paul, the chance to take a new road, and to co-operate with him.  He frees us from our past, and offers us a new future as one of his beloved children, invited to take his hand and walk towards to the light.

And that’s pretty amazing.


Sunday, September 13, 2020


Readings: Genesis 50. 15-21 and Matthew 18. 21-35

You have to take your hat off to Joseph, don’t you?  He had been his Father’s favourite son. He was given a coat of many colours (I know you can all hear the song in your head!).  But then, he gets sold into slavery by his own brothers.  He spends years in an Egyptian prison, but then with God’s help, rises to the second most powerful position in the land.  His brothers, now penniless and starving come to him for help.  What a chance he had!  What an opportunity to get revenge on those who had treated him so cruelly!  But what does Joseph do?  He forgives.  He forgives his brothers, and promises to take care of them.

In so many ways, Joseph represents God in this story.  He lives out the very heart and nature of a God who freely offers forgiveness to ALL his children.   

As a priest, who has heard many a confession or life-story, I know that forgiveness is one of the hardest callings of the Christian faith.  How can someone be expected to forgive another who has abused them, or stolen from them, or falsely accused them, or hurt them in a myriad of ways?  Or how can we, as a society, forgive the bombers of 9-11, 19 years ago, or of Manchester?

And yet Jesus calls us to forgive those who trespass against us…as much as seventy times seven, he says metaphorically to Peter.  

As always, context is everything.  Peter and Jesus are talking, on this occasion, in the context of a church fellowship.  Note that Peter’s original question is ‘if a member of the church sins against me, how many times should I forgive him?’.  The original word here is ‘brother’ (not ‘member of the church’ – but inclusive language is highly valued these days.  But the discussion is focused on how a lack of forgiveness can completely wreck a church fellowship.  

And I guess we’ve all at least known people who have been affected by an inability to forgive in churches, as well as other social institutions.  The classic conflict often seems to arise between flower artists and vicars, resulting in the classic joke, often repeated in vicaring circles, ‘what’s the difference between a flower artist and a terrorist?  (Answer:  you can negotiate with a terrorist!).  I have to say that our flower artists are nothing like that!

But the reality is that sometimes, an inability to forgive some slight, or careless action by another member of the church can so often, sadly, lead to long-term pain and a continuing and deep sense of hurt.  But Jesus suggests a radical alternative….

To forgive someone is, quite literally, to give up one’s right to feel aggrieved or hurt by another.  When we do that, we actually deny the person who has wronged us any power over our own emotions.  We take away their ability to hurt us, or damage us in the longer term. Altogether.

In fact, true forgiveness means giving up the right to feel hurt before the hurt even has a chance to take root in one’s soul.  To forgive is to give up the hurt before it can take hold.  

But does this mean that the person being forgiven gets away with whatever they have done wrong?  Well, perhaps – especially for the little things…the annoying word, the careless insult.  By forgiving someone for that, we recognise them for what they are…symptoms only of that most common of diseases…the disease of being a failing human being.  Just like us.

But what about the really big things…the systematic abusers, the scammers, the murderers, the suicide bombers?  Well, for such people, Jesus offers further advice. In Matthew chapter 10 he advises that we need to be ‘as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves’.  If I know that someone has the potential to cause great harm to another, I have a duty and a responsibility to do all I can to prevent that harm.  So it is only right that I must, and should, involve the appropriate authorities in stopping them.  But never out of revenge.  The gentle dove releases the hatred.  But the wise serpent makes sure – as sure as they can – that the wrongdoer is prevented from causing further harm to anyone else, and suitably punished for the wrongdoing they’ve already wrought.

This is why we have a justice system, after all.  Having forgiven the wrong-doer, so that they no longer have the power to hurt us, we hand over the responsibility for punishment and correction to the society in which we live.  There, appropriate punishment is meted out, without passion, without hatred.  A just punishment is handed down, hopefully, but not by the person who was harmed.  Not least so that the harmed person is not further damaged by committing some act of violence or retribution themselves.

So, may you find the strength to let go of the hurt that others have done to you. As Joseph did, and as Peter was encouraged to do, may you release your heart from the resentments it holds onto, so that your heart may fly free, and straight into the heart of the forgiving God of Love.  

Father, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.  


Thursday, September 10, 2020

Love your enemies? Really?

Luke 6.27-38

Love your enemies.  Love your enemies?  It’s one of the more apparently batty statements that Jesus made, isn’t it?  I mean, surely we should batter our enemies?  When an enemy comes at you with an army, or a suicide bomb, or a nuclear missile, loving him isn’t going to be much of a defence is it?

It’s just this kind of namby-pamby rhetoric from Jesus that gives religion a bad name, isn’t it?  Christians are so easily dismissed by a population who lived through the rise of Nazism, or who watched the Twin Towers fall.  People say to themselves ‘why on earth would I follow a religion which has such an impractical message at its core.  Love your enemies?  Preposterous!

But to dismiss Jesus’ teaching so contemptuously would be unwise.  History is full of examples in which conflict has ultimately been solved by Love.  The history of Europe is just such an example.

After the First World War, the Allies imposed punitive sanctions on Germany.  War reparations were demanded from the German people, and as a result, their economy went into freefall.  The Allies effectively continued to ‘hate’ their enemy, even after the Armistice was signed.  The result of this hate-filled demand for retribution led directly to the rise of Adolf Hitler.  He was able to tap into the poverty of the German people, and their festering resentment against the Allies, to promise a rise to greatness.  He promised to ‘make his country great again’ (where have we heard that phrase recently?). 

After the Second World War, the victorious Allies realised that punishing Germany again – continuing the hate – would not achieve the aim of lasting peace.  Instead, the Marshall Plan was devised – by which the United States donated the equivalent of 5% of its gross domestic product to the rebuilding of the shattered cities and lives of Europe – including what was then West Germany.  Whilst other political issues were also at play – such as the pushing back of communism – essentially the Marshall Plan was a practical attempt to ‘love enemies’, and to ‘do good to those that have hurt us’.  The end result was the creation of NATO, and ultimately the European Union, which has preserved peace and fostered co-operation for over half a century.

Perhaps Jesus wasn’t such a crackpot after all?

And Jesus’ advice works on an individual level too.  How often do we hear stories of neighbour going to war with neighbour?  It’s usually over some trivial matter – at least at first.  I know people who have fallen out over paint colours, or the mis-placing of a boundary marker, or the cutting down of a tree.  Hatred and enmity builds in these circumstances, as each side justifies their own bad behaviour towards the other.  Whole families can get drawn into such disputes…and sometimes whole communities.

Into such arguments, the voice of Jesus cries out. ‘Love your enemy!’ he pleads.  For he knows that the ONLY answer to the healing of such disputes is love.  

But let no-one imagine that this is namby-pamby easy stuff to do.  It’s often much easier to roll with the hate…however much stress that induces.  It’s in our human nature to be compelled by conflict, motivated by it, energised by it.  Anyone who has ever found themselves in the middle of a legal case will know exactly what I mean.  Seeking the defeat of one’s enemy is both stressful and exhilarating – all at the same time.

But it takes a truly courageous person to choose the path of love.  The Loving path doesn’t seek to win.  In the words of St Paul from 1 Corinthians 13, the path of love is patient and kind.  It doesn’t keep a record of wrongs.  It always hopes.  It always perseveres.  It always seeks the good of the other.  And it’s hard work.

Which is why we should all pray, constantly, for the strength, the wisdom, the fortitude and the commitment to Love our enemies.


Sunday, September 6, 2020

In the name of Jesus?

Matthew 18.15-20 (compare with John 14.13-14)

What’s in a name?

In the name of Jesus.  In the NAME of Jesus.  In some churches, you’ll hear that phrase used over and over again – all through the prayers they say.  It’s a kind of magic phrase which some have come to believe will make real whatever the prayer is about.  ‘Father God we pray for wealth and health, in the NAME of Jesus.  Abracadabra!’

But is this what Jesus meant for us to do when he taught, in John’s Gospel, that whatever you ask in his name he will do.  Or, as we heard in today’s Gospel, ‘whenever two or three gather IN MY NAME I am there with them.

What does it mean to pray, or gather, in the name of Jesus?

In western culture, names are thrown around without a great deal of thought.  We tend to give names to children because we like the sound of them, or because they are the name of a much loved family member.  (Or in the case of the Brombley family, apparently, because girls names start with ‘s’, and boys names start with ‘f’.  That’s right, isn’t it, Sarah, Summer, Sky.  And Freddie and Frankie?!)

In older times, parents would choose names which they hoped would be worked out in the behaviour of the child as it grew.  So, names like Grace, Chastity or Patience were especially popular in Victorian times.  The stained glass windows in our choir stalls have three lovely ladies in them, called Faith, Hope and Charity.

A few years ago, I was accosted in the churchyard by a dear lady of somewhat dubious mental health.  She harangued me for quite a while about the fact that we don’t, in fact, call Jesus by his proper name.  Actually, she was right.  The name he was given was in fact ‘Yeshua’ – which is anglicised to Joshua.  Over time, through translations from Aramaic into Greek then into English, the consonants and vowels got changed – leaving us with the modern rendering of his name: Jesus. Yeshua is what Jesus would have heard when his mother called him for his dinner.  And it means ‘God saves’.

Which makes Jesus an extraordinary name for a child to be given, because there was an expectation that he would live up to the name he was given and go on to genuinely save people from their sins.

There’s no mention in the bible of Jesus having a surname, but that isn’t hugely surprising. At the time Jesus lived, an individual would be known by their given name, and then perhaps the place they were from. Jesus of Nazareth would be good example. Perhaps their occupation - like Matthew the Tax Collector; or maybe who their father was, like James son of Zebedee.  What is certain is that Jesus’ surname wasn’t ‘Christ’.  No-one approaching him in the street would have said ‘Good morning, Mr Christ’.  That wasn’t his surname – but rather it is a Title…a word which means ‘saviour’.  So, if you like, you can call Jesus Christ ‘Yeshua Saviour’.  Certainly the old lady in the churchyard would be much happier if you did!

Giving people a title is another way of renaming them, to describe something about them.  Ken Dodd, of blessed memory, sometimes referred to himself as the ‘Chief Tickler of Britain’.  And then there are the plan daft titles which are creeping into the world of work.  Recently I heard of someone called the ‘Chief Wizard of Light Bulb Moments’.  Turns out he was a Marketing Director.  And I rather like the title of ‘Grand Master of Underlings’…which turns out to be a Deputy Manager! 

There is one title, however, that we can all aspire to because of Yeshua Saviour – Jesus Christ.  The whole point of Jesus living among us was to show us what God is like.  Jesus wanted us to see God differently than how he has been viewed in the past.  Jesus showed us that God wasn’t a distant deity, perched on a mountain-top or a cloud, viewing the world from a distance.  Instead, Jesus gave God a new title – the title of Father…or, actually, the title ‘Abba’ – which means ‘Daddy’.  Jesus, born as a child himself, invites us to view God as a parental figure…the Daddy, or the Mummy, who cares about their children.  And so, we are offered a new title – the title of Child of God.

I’ve had many names and titles throughout my life – Tom, Dad, Grandad, Rector, Reverend, Canon.  Idiot.  But the one which matters most to me is the simplest of all, the one modelled by the baby in the manger…child of God.

I am Tom, child of God.

And Sandra is a child of God.

And Lucas is a child of God.

And everyone here…we are all children of God.

That title is one which every member of the human race can claim.  We are all God’s children.  The only choice we have to make is whether we choose to be part of the family of God as well.

And if we do, if we choose to bind our self to the names of God, and especially to the name of Jesus Christ, then we will surely desire to live and to pray in the ways that he lived and prayed.  To pray, or to gather, in the NAME of Jesus, means to align ourselves to Jesus’ will for the world – revealed to us in the Scriptures.  

What was his will?  We see it worked out in his prayers, and in his teaching.  We willed that we should Love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.  He willed that we should love our neighbours as ourselves.  He willed that all his followers should be one, and that the hungry would be fed, the prisoners cared for, the sick healed.  He willed that the whole community of people who call themselves after Christ – the Christians – would bear his light to the world.  By our actions, by our generosity, by our commitment to our community, by our prayers…all of us bent towards the transformation of the world in which we live.

Now that’s a prayer for which we can pray, and for which we can gather, in the name of Jesus!