Monday, 27 May 2019

John 5:1-9 Do you want to be made well?

There are a number of things in these nine short verses which commentators and academics worry about. Some of them have spent time trying to identify which festival of the Jews it was, Weeks, Booths, Passover and so on,  others whether the pool was by the Jerusalem Sheep gate or whether it was a sheep pool somewhere else, whether the place is called Bethzatha, Bethsaida, Bethesda and a few others, and whether 38 years is a direct reference to a verse in Deuteronomy referring to the time the israelites spent wandering in the wilderness. Now it may be that if you are looking for a subject for a PhD one of these might do but what has caught my attention is Jesus’ question.

“Do you want to be made well?”

So here is a man who has been ill for a long time and since 38 years can stand for a generation maybe from birth, but in any case a long while. He has been coming to the healing pool often enough to know the mythology that you have to be one of the first in the pool once the waters are stirred up - perhaps by bubbling from underground mineral springs - and who is yet lying there. So is Jesus’ question redundant ? Why does he ask it?

Notice that the man’s answer is not straight forward. He simply says that he cannot get into the pool. Like me you may have met people who by our assessment and language seem ill and who weave their identity around that. Frequently it is something you are told early on in an acquaintance  “I suffer from X” and you are then obliged to some degree to frame your knowledge and understanding by this X. I sometimes then wonder to myself does this person want to be free of X or would that take away so much of who they are that they would be terrified?  “I am the man who has been paralysed for thirty-eight years, I am the one who lies by this pillar by this pool - this is what I do. I am brought here in the morning and I wait.”

On Any Questions that is the one on the wireless some years ago they were debating depression, when one of the panelists made what I thought was a telling point: “I used to suffer from depression badly and I only began to get better, to take the first steps after I came to believe and then imagine that I could be well.” or going back to our story  “Look, Jesus I am telling you there is no-one to take me to the pool and in any case it would be no use; for thirty eight years I have been like this, it is the way it is and it will always be.”

Jesus’ question is far from redundant for not all will answer it positively.

It is also a beautifully worded question - not “Do you want to walk?” or  Do you want to carry your mat?” but do you want to be made WELL? With all the spiritual nuance of that word.

In just a moment I will go to the altar and say this

“Hear what comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith to all who truly turn to him:
Come unto me all that travail and are heavy laden and I will refresh you.”

These are words of invitation which is how I hear Jesus’ question to the man lying by the pool: Be clear it is not the man who asks but Jesus, Jesus takes the initiative.

So the question is not only pertinent but it needs to be asked.

Please let those words of invitation that I shall say in a moment dwell in you - hold fast to them, keep hold of the thought that He will refresh us whatever our burdens. Then wonder, when thinking of those we know who could be made whole by a knowledge of God’s love what our proper  response should be.

 It is far from easy this evangelism - Jesus was able to say to an unknown man “Do you want to be healed?”  Now we do not have Jesus’ power to heal nor his confidence to minister nor his resilience should the answer be no. And it might be “no” because they do not want to be “made well” or perhaps cannot imagine what being well in this way would be like. But maybe we could in knowing that turning unto Him is the first step,maybe we could reach out to someone offer them an invitation and try to help them into the pool.


Monday, 20 May 2019

Isaiah 61 a manifesto

As far as I can understand it the newly formed Brexit party does not have a manifesto. There is a single idea, followed by a statement that we will all find out later what we have voted for.

More than 2500 years ago we discover that the prophet Isaiah had a much better approach and if I may say, a much better style. Chapter 61 is a well known poem sometimes said to be the fifth Servant Song and is quite stunning in some of its imagery. It was of course quoted by Jesus himself and we read that in the Gospel of Luke chapter 4.

“He went to the synagogue on the sabbath day as was his custom. He stood up to read and the scroll of the prophet isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it is written :

“The spirit of the Lord is upon  me
Because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and the recovery of sight to the blind
To let the oppressed go free
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

Note that this is deliberate, Jesus searched for this passage, looked for it found it and so proclaimed that He was the anointed one. “Today,” he says the scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

The full passage of isaiah 61 as we heard it divides into four sections: the first identifies the servant - and to a degree it refers to Isaiah also who is but a pale shadow of Christ.

“The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. It is clear to us, post resurrection, who Isaiah is talking about.  And then the manifesto:

To bring good news to the oppressed - that israel would be delivered from the Babylonian exile, from sin and be restored.
To bind up the broken hearted - to mend the hearts of those so broken by life that they despair of even having hope
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour - note that there is a year of favour but only a day of vengeance - the good will last much longer.
To comfort those who mourn - not simply those who have lost loved ones but those who believe their sins have doomed them.

These are the bullet points the things listed on the front page of the leaflet that dropped through your letterbox, and then turning over come the benefits and practical consequences of the coming of the Messiah.

They shall build up the ancient ruins, the city shall be rebuilt, no longer slaves their flocks and their vines shall be tended by others so freeing the Israelites to be priests once more and the coming of the anointed one inaugurates a new and everlasting covenant.

So rightly this is celebrated in the fourth section in a marvelous hymn of praise, which begins “i will greatly rejoice in the Lord” and follows with line upon line of metaphor and pictures:

For he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with jewels.

Now that is a manifesto - and in verse.


Sunday, 19 May 2019

What is God saying to us today?

Acts 11: 1-18

When your teenage child goes away on a trip with their friends the last thing they want is news of their activities to get back to you!. Somehow though this is what happened to Peter and  he returns from Joppa and Caesarea to face hostile questions from home. The believers criticised him, saying “you went into the home of uncircumcised men and ate with them.” On the conservative Catholic internet forums there are blogs which are highly critical of Pope Francis because he published a document which tentatively opens the door to the admission to Holy Communion of Catholics who had remarried after divorce. Our Anglican church is still prone to disagreements about women: a lady curate in my old deanery was left in no doubt that she was unwelcome in a conservative congregation whether in her collar or not. The common thread in these examples is a robust adherence may be I could say a rigid adherence to doctrine.

Our reading this morning is from the book of Acts, a faithful retelling of Peter’s experience on the rooftop which is told as it happened only a chapter before. “Peter went up onto the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat and while the meal was being prepared he fell into a trance.” It must have been an extreme shock to Peter to be told he must slay and eat beasts, unclean as well as clean. The books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus where the food laws are expounded were after all written by Moses. Peter’s scriptural understanding and long tradition, all he knew said “No, by no means Lord for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” But the Lord God persisted and three times, by which metaphor we understand repeatedly and strongly, the vision and command were given.
Even so Peter was unsure, as we can read in the earlier “live” edition: “While Peter was greatly perplexed about what to make of the vision, that he had seen, suddenly the men sent by Cornelius arrived.” Peter knew Jesus, had walked with him, sat at his feet and listened to him had watched him eat with sinners and yet this event in the roof, this confrontation with something new shook him. The outcome, that he did visit and did eat with Cornelius provoked criticism.

Note that Peter does not respond to his critics by saying “I think that what I did was right” or even by saying “you are wrong” but rested his case in what he and his six companions discerned what God was saying to them and to the early church.

A few weeks ago I was at a small social event when one of the gathering, not a churchgoer, spotting the new rector thought to move in over the canapes and white wine onto the subject of gay marriage. Now I am as fond of doing battle over the knives and forks as the next person but it was neither the time nor the place and in any case the question bore a note of hostility.

The real answer is that it does not matter what the ultra conservatives say about Pope Francis, nor our own anglo catholics about women bishops, nor what the rector thinks about gay marriage: It matters only what God thinks and is saying to us at this time. And like Peter we may be surprised if we really knew but of course we do not.

What I do know though is that the living God is continuing to reveal themselves to us and does have something to say to our time and our context and when we discern that, when we work out what that is,  it will allow us to develop doctrine just as the believers in Jerusalem were able to adapt and welcome gentiles to the faith. Peter was gifted a clear vision to give to the Jerusalem brothers “who when they heard it were silenced.” For us it is not so easy; discovering God’s will in our information saturated world of multiple and various opinions, needs grace and prayerfulness, most often more time than we expect, a willingness to listen, to be open, no hostile questions, and most of all love. 


Sunday, 12 May 2019

Do you believe in miracles?

As you all know Luke wrote two books - the Gospel of Luke which takes the message of jesus from Nazareth to Jerusalem and the book of Acts which take it from Jerusalem to Rome and indeed all the known world. The first half of the second book follows the very early church from the moments after the Ascension and interweaves the missions of both Paul and Peter. To adequately speak about this morning;s reading I need to go back a little to verse 32:

“Now as Peter went here and there among all the believers he came down also to the saints living in Lydda. There he found a man named Aneas who had been bedridden for eight years for he was paralyzed. Peter said to him; ‘Aneas, Jesus Christ heals you; get up and make your bed’ and he immediately got up. And all of the residents of Lydda and Sharon saw him and believed in the Lord.”

Now, Joppa was not far, about ten miles away, note by the way that Tabitha is called a disciple, so when she fell in they sent for Peter. They must have known the story of Jesus raising Jarius’ daughter and they would have heard that Peter had healed Aneas so this would have been a natural thing for them to od. We hear that Tabitha was particularly loved. Peter arrives and replicates almost exactly what Jesus did: he puts the mourners outside and then prays. In both cases the healing is not done in Peter;s name but in the power of calling on Jesus Christ, aloud in the first case and in prayer in the second.

Now the book of Acts of course is what it says on the tin. Accounts of how Jesus acted powerfully through his witnesses, the apostles, so the acts of the apostles to ensure growth of the church. The word growth or the idea of growth occurs throughout this book. “All the residents of Lydda and Sharon saw him and turned to the Lord” and “This became known throughout Joppa and many believed in the Lord” are but the two examples we have heard this morning. Jesus had risen to the Father and sent his Holy Spirit to the upper room to alight on the Apostles - the event we will celebrate at Pentecost in a few weeks time. His leaving was not the end but the  beginning at at that time the people of Palestine, Judea and farther afield  believed in Jesus because they SAW miracles.

I think it is the film “The full Monty” that has the hit song “I believe in miracles” in it and in the two stories that we have heard we are confronted with the question “Do you believe in miracles?”
And I mean real miracles - it happened that this week I was called on to review the newspapers - and I was much attracted by a headline in one of them : “Miracle at Anfield.” but it seemed it was not the story I was looking for! Over the years I have met many who tell me they do not believe in miracle and who reasonably look for rational explanations. Equally I have met others who fervently do. For example I knew a hospital chaplain who working day by day among the realities of disease, sickness and the range of happy and tragic outcomes would still encourage and take some patients to healing services and who had accounts of unexpected, surprising recoveries.

There is then a spectrum of opinion among my friends and acquaintances and I wonder does it matter? If you are inclined to analyze the accounts of witnesses, including the biblical ones, you may of course be left with doubts about specific instances. If you are lucky enough to meet someone who has experience of Christ working powerfully in their lives you will invariably be caught up in their certainties but for the most part of course we do not KNOW in the way that the apostles had seen and experienced. So what I think is important is not “Was Tabitha raised from the dead?” or “was the lady’s cancer cured by her visit to the Watford church?” for we can prove or disprove neither, but to decide whether the God you believe in and I believe in is CAPABLE of working miracles - I certainly believe that God can and does miraculous things every day -

The point is that the people of Joppa believed in Jesus because they saw miracles

I believe in miracles because I believe in the Lord.


Sunday, 5 May 2019

Hang in there

Isaiah 56:1-8

 In our reading from Isaiah we heard something unexpected. Isaiah, albeit second Isaiah is addressing his prophecies to the exiles in Babylon and of course is wholly devoted to Israel’s God At this moment he finds himself on the threshold of the fulfillment of earlier prophets’ expectations. So he is moved to say:

“Maintain justice and do what is right for my salvation is close at hand.”

Risen next door to  the Babylonian empire are the Medes who under Cyrus will become what we call the Persian empire stretching form the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean, a powerful force which would capture the city of Babylon and indeed be welcomed as a liberator. This is the main thrust and hope of Isaiah’s prophecy and he starts by telling the Israelites to “hang in there.”  For at the moment the reality of life for the exiles and for those who have started to return is harsh. Even following these simple rules though is difficult.

Maintain justice and do what is right. “Happy,” he goes on to say, “is the man who refrains from any wrongdoing.“ You will notice that I have substituted the word EVIL, which for us denotes an extreme with a softer word which I hope captures the sense of trying always  to do what is right rather than what may be considered wrong. This seems evident enough but we are not good at this; our corporations and government institutions local and national and even whole countries spend a great deal of time arguing that what they do is “what the law allows”. Which is not the same thing at all! For example:

My friend’s benefits were stopped, the benefits that they lived on. They were stopped because they had not replied to a letter asking them a question. It could have been observed that over the years my friend had always replied to letters in fact had been diligent in doing so - so something was wrong, it might have been asked were they ill? It might have been asked were they alive? It might have been asked as was the case whether the letter had ever been sent or not delivered. But the law allowed the benefits to be stopped, so stopped they were. This was not maintaining justice and doing what was right.

And the rewards for doing right are considerable: “for my salvation will come and my deliverance will be revealed.” And - here is the unexpected bit even to the foreigner and the eunuch. Now Isaiah will be familiar with Deuteronomy especially chapter 23:1 to which I draw your attention as it explains in graphic detail, too much for before the watershed, that eunuchs shall not be admitted to God’s assembly and goes on to say the same about foreigners.

Isaiah as I said was wholly devoted to Israel’s God but now he is able and moved to say that being a people of God does not depend on ancestry, which is remarkable for the Jewish nation of his day,  but depends on following the Lord, holding fast to his covenant for whoever you are if you do this you will be brought to his Holy mountain.

Isaiah speaking God’s word is prophesying both near term, that there will be deliverance for the exiles from Babylon
and long term, that the coming of the suffering servant will change everything for everybody.

And this is why we have always to seek to do what is right, to maintain justice and not to do simply what is allowed.

Hang in there.

(How much) do you love me?

 John 21

There was a moment before Nina and Rosie when I was worrying about our previous spaniel, Fidget. Now I was travelling the world and Frances was busy with boys and studying so I proposed that we should look for a dog walker to keep Fidget exercised. Patrick, who was then about eight or nine said “Oh no don’t do that, because if you do then Fidget will not have enough love left for us.”

Of course we laughed, but it does bring us to Jesus’ question: “Simon, son of John do you love me more than these?” It is unclear who the these are? Does Jesus mean do you love me more than you love these friends and companion fishermen or do you love me more than they love me? Either way it sets up the question “(How much) Do you love me?”

Peter says “Yes Lord, you know that I love you.” A second time Jesus asks “Do you love me?” and Peter replies again “Yes Lord you know that I love you.” And then the third time …..

How we feel for Peter here, he must have felt a terrible stab of pain and guilt as only a few days before he had three times denied even knowing Jesus, of ever having been with him and at that third denial he realised, he discovered, deep within himself, all the things Jesus had said. And now here is another third time and so Peter needs to declare with and from all his being that he loves the Lord. So the third time Peter  rests his affirmation not on himself but on Jesus: “Lord you know everything, you know (how much) I love you.

For Jesus’ question, the real question , is what is love?  Ever since the beginning God has been showing his love for us in creation, incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection. Each of these has a completeness, a totality of giving which is beyond us. This is much more than our feelings of spontaneous, natural affection, fondness or admiration usually described by our word “love.” Each of these, creation, incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, is an act of WILL - God intended creation to show a glimpse of beauty, perfection and wonder, meant incarnation to show his love for us despite our brokenness, crucifixion willingly surrendered to loving sacrifice and resurrection to show us the ultimate loving gift of eternal life.

Jesus showed us loving without limit and in doing so he revealed a fundamental and essential quality of God which is a model for human imitation.

Which is very scary. For we will always fall short. We will be a little like Patrick’s view of Fidget, that she has a tank of love which will run out.  It is clear that God’s immeasurable unending love for us is something we can only but poorly emulate but still we need to remember that as well, as a response, our loving  God is an act of WILL and with that will we must at least be sure to empty the tank that we have.