Sunday, May 9, 2021

The cost of being a disciple...

 John 15.9-17

To watch this sermon, please click here: 

Last week, we heard the first 8 verses of John 15, where the focus was on abiding in and with Jesus, so that we can be well-grafted onto the Vine of faith.  You’ll recall, I hope, that I suggested this requires a bit of effort on our part.  ‘Pray more, worship more and give more’, was the strapline I proposed.  This week, we move on to the next section of this really important bit of teaching from Jesus.

Abiding in Christ remains a focus, but now Jesus expands on his theme to include the topic of love.  He says, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love…”.  He goes on to encourage his disciples to ‘love one another as he has loved them’, and goes still further to say that he no longer thinks of his disciples as servants, but rather as his friends.

Wow!  Let’s just pause and think about that for a moment.  Jesus, the Lord of the Universe through whom all things were made wants to call you and me his ‘friends’!  Isn’t that mind-blowing?  What’s more, he wants to introduce us to his Father!

These concepts are SO far beyond what believers of the time were taught to believe.  They would have struggled to even grasp the concept.  For the vast majority of religious people at the time of Jesus, God, any god, was a remote, distant, unknowable mystery.  The Jewish understanding of God placed him at a marked distance from human beings – either up a mountain, or behind a great curtain, living in the Holy of Holies – a place which even the High Priest could only enter once a year.  And now, here was Jesus, God’s son, saying that he sought not just servants, but friends.

But here we need to sound a note of caution.  This is God, through Jesus saying he wants to be our friend – but there are some conditions to that friendship.  “You are my friends,” he says, “if you do what I command you”. 

There is a tendency in some quarters of Christianity to regard Jesus in rather familiar terms.   Some of the worship songs of the last century have, in my view, a rather mawkish, almost romantic quality to them, as indeed do some of our most familiar Victorian hymns: “What a friend we have in Jesus”, for example.  Such songs almost (and in some cases actually) sound more like love songs between two human beings.  They are passionate, loving or pleading in tone.  They lay on with a trowel the concept of love between creator and creature – leading some commentators to cheekily refer to them as ‘Jesus is my boyfriend songs’.

But we must not over-sentimentalise what Jesus is offering to his disciples in this passage.  Friendship with Jesus arises out of his gracious offer of friendship.  He, gracefully, mercifully, initiates a relationship of friendship.  Despite all the ways we fall short of his standards and teaching, the Lord of the Universe reaches down to his creatures, and offers us his hand.  But, it is a steel hand, in a velvet glove.  There is a condition attached – the condition of obedience to his commandments.    Jesus offers us his friendship, but we have a stark choice to make.  We can only be his friends if we keep his commandments.

This means, of course, taking Jesus seriously – which is something of what I meant last week when I talked about praying more, worshipping more and giving more.  In some Christian circles, it is possible to get so caught up in adoration, love and worship of the God who offers us friendship, and fills us with his Spirit, that we forget his friendship comes with conditions. 

Because, you see, how we live our lives matters.   If we live with hatred or unforgiveness in our hearts, we are failing to keep Jesus’ commandments.  If we live with greed or avarice, jealousy or infidelity, we fall far short of the standards that Jesus requires of those he calls friends.  If we fail to care for the poor, and the broken hearted, we cannot call ourselves Jesus’ friends.

But, lest anyone should think that I’m saying we can earn our place in the Kingdom by our own efforts, let me be clear.  None of us can ever do that.  None of us, not even the saintliest among us, can hope to be good enough to earn Jesus’ friendship.  Jesus offers his friendship despite our failings, out of his love and his grace.  But, if we accept that friendship, we also accept the obligations that his friendship places upon us.  It’s simply not good enough to say ‘I’m a friend of Jesus’, but then to fail to make any significant changes in the way we live our life.  Jesus may have indeed paid the price, but there is still a cost to being a disciple.  We may even be called upon to lay down our lives, as did our patron, Saint Faith and most of the first disciples.  For "no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends".

The good news, of course, is that Jesus never stops reaching out his hand of friendship, even if the velvet glove conceals a steel hand.  He is always willing to forgive his friends, whenever we fall.  He always keeps his hand held out, for us to grasp and be drawn upwards.  Jesus offers us his love, and his friendship.  He initiates that relationship, by his Divine grace and mercy.  All he asks of us is that we follow him, live like him, and obey his life-giving, world-changing commandments. Amen

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Are traditions stifling us?

To watch this sermon, please click here:

Today’s Gospel essentially centres on the theme of abiding in Christ, which I dealt with in some depth on Sunday.  So, if you’d like to explore what ‘abiding’ really means, I encourage you to read that sermon in this week’s Chronicle, out today.

Instead, let’s focus on the first reading we heard, from chapter 15 of the Acts of the Apostles.  The reading was part of the record of the first Council of Church leaders, in Jerusalem.  We don’t know the exact date of this important conference, but it took place somewhere between 15 to 25 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus.  By this time, as the Acts of the Apostles tells, the Good News about Jesus had spread to many countries outside of Israel and Judea.  Paul and Barnabas had been especially determined to spread the Good News – travelling into Syria, and over to Cyprus, for example. 

As a result, a lot of non-Jews, known as ‘Gentiles’ had become converted to faith in Jesus.  They had become followers of The Way, and the title ‘Christ-ian’ was beginning to be used, at first as an insult by the enemies of Jesus’ followers.  But all these new converts were being brought into what was still regarded (in most quarters) as a Jewish sect (following the famous Jewish Rabbi called Jesus of Nazareth).   Some of the early Christians present at the Council of Jerusalem were also Pharisees.  Under any normal rules of Jewish sects, any man who wished to become a Jew had to go through circumcision – which had always been regarded as a sign of God’s Covenant with the Jews and Israelites.  The Pharisees were especially keen on this rule – as Pharisees tended to be!

Of course, for Jews this rather painful procedure was carried out soon after birth, and completely forgotten.  But for an adult convert, it was another matter altogether!  The early church was discovering, unsurprisingly, that there was a fair amount of resistance to the idea of circumcision, from potential converts!

So the Council of church leaders was called to work out how this difficult situation could be resolved.  In all likelihood, this was one of the most important decisions that the early church would ever make, if the Good News of Jesus Christ was to travel to the ends of the earth. 

St Peter had already had to confront the issue of whether or not to include Gentiles in the faith.  God had given him a vision of ritually clean and unclean food, and commanded him to eat them all, while God said to Peter, effectively, ‘who are you to decide who is in or out of the Kingdom of God?’.  So Peter was already convinced that Gentiles needed to be included in the Kingdom.  He therefore searched the Scriptures for evidence that this was indeed God’s plan too.  In the writings of the prophet Amos, he found these words:

After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent.

Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord,  even all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord, who does these things’

This was a promise from God through Amos, that David’s Tent (a metaphor for Jerusalem), rebuilt after the Exile, would be a place for all peoples, Jews and Gentiles, to seek the Lord.  At the Council of Jerusalem, Peter used this passage of Scripture to underpin what God had already shown him:  that the Kingdom of God was for all people, not just the Jews.

Of course, Peter also had his own direct experience of Jesus’s ministry to underpin his argument.  He had witnessed how Jesus opened his arms to everyone.  Jesus had spoken lovingly to a Samaritan woman at the well.  He had preached all around the non-Jewish areas of Tyre and Sidon.  He had healed the child of a Roman Centurion, and commended his faith.  By his lived-example, Jesus showed, again and again, that the new Kingdom of God embraced everyone!

Thankfully, for our sakes (especially for the men among us!) Peter won the day at the first church council at Jerusalem.  Peter had the grace to recognise and argue that Jesus’ Kingdom was meant for the whole earth, not just the chosen nation of Israel and Judea.  Thankfully, he was able to persuade the rest of the Council of his view – and the rest, as they say, is history.  Followers of the Way, Christians, began springing up all over the known world, drawn by the promise and the message of new Kingdom of God, being established. 

And so ends our history lesson for today!  The question for us is whether there are aspects of our rules, our traditions, which stand in the way of new Followers of the Way being invited into the church of today.  That’s a question with which church leaders of today constantly wrestle.  Could it be that robes and cassocks are a barrier to new people joining us?  Could it be that our choice of music is too ‘out-of-date’?  Perhaps our use of 17th century English at this Thursday service is just too much for some people to stomach?

I wrestle with these questions a lot.  Take music, for example.  Some of you will know that I have a history of playing rock and roll, blues and soul music in my spare time.  Personally, I love music played on electric guitars and with a heavy drum-beat.  But if I were to start playing such music on a Sunday morning, while ditching our traditional hymns, would it really bring a lot more people into the church?  What if I were to stop wearing robes, and stand here in jeans and a T-shirt instead?  It’s a question I often ask – and frankly, I’m not sure what the answer is.  During my ministry, I’ve led small churches which use drums and guitars, as well as large ones which use traditional music.  It’s never an easy decision to make.

The best, I think, that we can do is to always stay alert.  We must always ask ourselves whether anything we do could be a stumbling block to the growth of the Kingdom of God here in Havant.  I believe that we must keep asking that question, just as the first Council of Jerusalem did.  And we must remain genuinely open to hearing God’s answer.  Amen.


Sunday, May 2, 2021

"Pray more, worship more and give more!"

 John 15.1-8

To watch this sermon, please click here:

“Abide”.  It’s a lovely word, isn’t it?  A quick search of the etymological dictionary tells me that is rooted in an old English word – abiden or gebiden – which meant to remain, or to wait.  My New Testament Greek isn’t good enough to parse the meaning of the original word used by Jesus, which we translate as ‘abide’.  But translators over the centuries have routinely stuck with ‘abide’ as the best rendering of what Jesus meant.  ‘Abide in me’.  Or deeper still, ‘abide in me as I abide in you’. 

Incidentally, it’s not the word which Sydney Carter chose when writing the Lord of the Dance – as we shall see when we sing it shortly.  Carter went for ‘I’ll live in you if you’ll live in me’ – but probably because that fitted the line of his poetry.  But ‘abiding’ is a much more complex idea.

There’s a richness to the word, which goes beyond simply ‘staying’ with Jesus, of hanging around with him.  The word ‘abide’ is linked with ‘abode’ in Old English (which meant a place to stay, to remain).  If we are abiding in Jesus, and Jesus abides in us, then, we are doing much more than hanging out with the Messiah.  We are living with him, staying with him, waiting for him, remaining with him – as he does with us.  There’s a deep closeness to the relationship.  Indeed, like grapes on a Vine, we are connected to him.  We draw our very life, energy and sustenance from him.

I wonder how many of you have experienced the Taizé style of worship which we offer from time to time in the evenings.  Taizé is a method of praying through song, in which a short phrase is repeated, and repeated, until it sinks into your very soul.  There’s one Taizé chant which always challenges me.  It is centred around Jesus’ rebuke to his disciples who fall asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane:

“Stay with me.  Remain here with me.  Watching and praying.  Watching and praying’. 

I say that this chant challenges me because whenever I sing it, I feel guilty for finishing it and moving on to something else!  The chant, and Jesus’ word, encourage me to remain, to abide, and not to go off searching for the next experience, or the next bit of sensory input.  In many ways, this one chant should be enough, in a whole Taizé service, to teach us to abide.

Because, let’s face it, we’re not very good at abiding, are we?  I wonder how many of us have a to-do list in our heads of all the things we need to get done immediately after today’s service.  For example, I understand that quite a few of you can be found wandering the halls of Waitrose after church – I’m told it’s like a post-church social club over there!  No doubt most of us will be thinking about what to cook for Sunday lunch.  Then there will be the need to do a bit of gardening, or to go for that walk, or meet up with those friends.  Then there will be some absolutely vital episodes of Line of Duty to catch up with.  But there won’t be much abiding going on, will there?

Please don’t think I’m being critical….my own to-do list after this service will be just as crammed.  I’ll spend some time on the ol’ interweb, uploading this sermon, and responding to comments and queries on our web-pages.  I’ll no doubt have an inbox of emails to answer, I’ll have some diary-planning to accomplish, I’ll have next week’s sermons to start researching.  I won’t be doing much abiding, either, if I’m honest.

So what shall we do, friends?  How shall we abide in Jesus – so that we can be so grafted on to him that when we pray, we will seek only what he wills for the world, and then see our prayers answered?  How shall we do this?

There’s an old adage which I learned 20 years ago in my training for the priesthood.  A wise old tutor at my college said that all preachers need to be wary of settling into a predictable pattern.  He said that there’s a real danger that all sermons can be boiled down into three points, which are ‘pray more, worship more, and give more – preferably to the church!’.   My wise old tutor encouraged us to think more widely, to embrace poetry, philosophy, and theology in our sermons – because our listeners will pretty soon give up listening if all they hear is a constant nagging to ‘pray more, worship more, and give more’!   The task of the preacher has to be to encourage, enlighten and build up their listeners…not to weigh them down with guilt about what they are not managing to achieve.  It was good advice, and its advice which I hope you’ll agree I generally follow.  But….

…at the end of the day, doing more of what we already do, in varying degrees of depth and commitment, is really the only way that any of us can ever truly abide in Jesus. 

·       If the only attention we pay to God is the one hour we devote on a Sunday morning, then we will never really know the deep joy of abiding in him. 

·       If the only time we pray is when we cry out for favours from God in times of crisis, we’ll never know the joy of uniting our wills to God’s will:  we will miss the joy of praying with him, and through him, and in him, for the things that delight God’s heart.

·       If the only money we ever give is the minimum we think we can ‘get away with’, then we’ll never know the real joy of giving sacrificially, and seeing God’s kingdom come powerfully to pass amongst us. 

In other words, truly ‘abiding’ in Jesus takes time.  We are in charge of how we use our time:  God has given us that gift, and that ability.  If we are to remain grafted to the Vine, if we want to truly abide in Christ, then how we choose to use our time, and indeed our money, is critical. 

‘Pray more, worship more, and give more’!  My old tutor was right to warn me against over-using that concept.  But from time to time, perhaps we all need a little encouragement:  to take the next step of commitment towards the goal of truly abiding in Christ.  Amen