23 JULY 2017
“God’s People in God’s place: Jacob at Bethel”
It was 5.30 am.
I was walking on a patch of grass wedged between a graffitied public convenience and the Tay rail bridge, when I knew Gods presence.
God’s unlikely servant in a most unexpected place.
We have been thinking about Gods people in Gods place over the last few weeks as we work our way through Genesis. Last week we were introduced to Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, who tricked his brother out of his birth right, the inheritance, and his father Isaac’s land. This week and for several Sundays to come the lectionary follows Jacob’s life. Jacob is a flawed character. An unlikely servant.
Today we learn Jacob is on the run. On then run from the anger of his father and brother, removed from the love of his mother, exiled from his family by his unscrupulous actions. Jacob has set out on a journey to find a wife from his grandfather’s homeland. It is a journey which he expects to return from in a few years but will in fact take him 20 years. “He is between times and places. In a limbo of his own making” writes Barbara Brown Taylor, Episcopal Priest and one of Americas best known preachers. Between places, in a limbo of his own making.
At this point he has travelled approximately 50 miles from home but his journey will cover nearly 400 miles to find a suitable bride.
I’d like to think things have moved on since Jacob’s time however I’m reminded that there are Scotsman who proudly claim with the Proclaimers:
“I would walk 500 miles
and I would walk 500 more,
just to be the man who walked a thousand miles
to fall down at her door! You can all join in now…
Da da lat da (Da da lat da) Da da lat da (Da da lat da)!”
So –we know a Scotsman would walk a thousand miles for a good Scots lass, - and Jacob’s journey was 400 miles but it would have been 400 miles without the benefit of sat nav or street lights or even streets. He is crossing uninhabited wilderness. Whether it is 50 miles or 400 miles, distance we understand is a feature of Jacobs’s story.
We find Jacob, at a wilderness point. He "is at great risk from the known behind him and the unknown before him." But it's worse than that, Jacob "an un-person in an un-place.”
God’s unknown servant in an unknown place.
The place where Jacob chooses to lay his head on a stone for a pillow might be unknown to Jacob but not to us. We recall in Genesis 12:8 when his grandfather Abraham, upon entering the Promised Land, build an altar to God here. Abraham too was once,
God’s unlikely servant in an unexpected place.
That is exactly where God comes to meet Jacob in his "unexpected place", to talk with him, and to renew the promises that have been given to his grandparents and parents before him. It is interesting to note here that this is "the eighth reiteration of the divine promise of the land to a patriarch and also the fifth and final statement of the overarching theme of blessing to the nations." This is the final time we will read of ‘the blessing to all nations’.
Our colourful history and misdeeds matter not one bit when God decides to call, or better, when God comes looking for us, perhaps even pursuing us, like Jacob, in our dreams and visions, so that we might be a blessing to all nations.
God’s unlikely people found in unexpected places.
I had been a holistic therapist for the last ten years and a retail manager for ten before that. But here I was at a conference for those exploring a call to ministry in Dundee. I had been woken by the fire alarm in my digs. No point in trying to get back to sleep I thought (esp. when the conference would start at 7am) so I took a walk. And here I was on the banks of the River Tay in the shadow of the famous rail bridge at an ungodly hour of the morning.
As I wandered the sun was already up, daylight glittered across the surface of the rippling water. The grass still damp from early dew and a breeze feathered the finger like leaves of the young rowan trees. The day was new but the world was just stirring. Far off sounds of traffic began to stir and I stood and marvelled at the vast span of the pillared rail bridge.
I was walking on a patch of grass wedged between a graffitied public convenience and the Tay rail bridge, in one of Scotland’s poorest cities. Alone and wandering early in the morning was where I experienced Gods presence, it was in the unlikeliest of places God chose to intrude, to speak to me and affirm my call to ministry, to serve Him! I was
God’s unlikely person, in an unexpected place.
This too is what Jacob sensed, the power of God, the reality of God dwelling with him, and he marks the sacred ground. Re-names this holy place. The place of his dream of heaven and earth, and the place where the voice of God reaffirms the promise to his ancestors. Jacob has sense enough to call this place what it is, "Beth-el," the house of God, the gate of heaven, an awesome place. There are more technical terms we could use but I prefer to use a term borrowed from Celtic spirituality, a "thin place."
What thin places you know?
What places are sacred to you?
Where have you found God?
We experience God in more places than church buildings, no matter how beautiful or inspiring they are. We may have a place in nature, or a quiet spot in our home, or maybe we have unexpectedly stumbled upon sacred ground in the most unexpected places, like hospital waiting rooms. These are not every day experiences even for people of deep faith.
So as people of faith we cherish these ‘thin places’, places of worship, our sacred spaces. It is only right and proper to be thankful for the ‘awesome place’, the sacred ground, our personal Bethel, the house of God where we have felt Gods presence among us.
God draws near to
Gods people in Gods place.
It is the nearness of God which catches our breath in the Old Testament. We stay still and silent hoping to hold onto that sense of presence, not wanting that moment to pass.
We are Gods people gathered in Gods place.
Thinking back to Jacob and thousands of other ancestors who wandered, who were led, who were taken in exile, who went on pilgrimage, "The rhythms of the ancestors include the rhythm of journeying and worship; their journeys are punctuated by moments of worship at specific places. Yet the place never becomes a final objective, where one settles in; it simply provides sustenance for the ongoing journey."
Our ancestors in faith were
God’s people who travelled in God’s place.
One of my favourite images for the church is that of a "base camp," Base camp is the place to stop and rest. It punctuates the journey but it is never the destination.
That is the danger in base camp or wilderness dreams or mountain top experiences like Peters, that we remain there, build our tents and never leave. Our journey comes to a halt, our overnight stop becomes a settlement and the settlement a town and our travelling ends. Ends in base camp. Because base camp marks the separation line. The separation between those who will pioneer based on Gods promise and those who will settle for his presence in this place.
In our prayer this morning I spoke of coming to the Lord, to be made strong, to wonder, to worship and to go out in love as a blessing to all nations.
So there is a tension for people of faith in our love for our places of worship, our sacred spaces. "God is not associated, ultimately, with place, but in relationship and promise.”
The Place is important but promise is better.
God’s people promised Gods presence cannot remain in Gods place.
For we hear in God's promise something more, something new. For God promises to be with Jacob wherever he goes, not just in the land of promise. God, in a sense, intrudes upon Jacobs and our lives, promises to come across the divide, and makes a home in our midst.
In those days, gods were often associated with a specific place or land, but this God of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Rebekah, and of Jacob himself, will not be limited to one place or time. It must have given Jacob great comfort to hear God promise to be with him always and to bring him back home to the land he had been promised. A narrative of comfort, meaning and hope, retold while Israel was in exile in the 5th and 6th CBC in Babylon.
In good news or bad, in joy and sorrow, we too hold fast to the sure knowledge that God is with us always, - just as God promised, - no matter where we go. Richard Pervo observes, "The claim of continuing presence in verse 15 resonates with Matthew's theme of Emmanuel (1:23; 28:20)," and Sidney Greidanus, pastor and scholar, reminds us that Jesus is talking about this story, about Jacob's dream, when he says in John 1:51, "Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man"; Christians see, in this vision, that "Jesus himself is the ladder, the stairway to heaven. He is the link between heaven and earth." God was present to the disciples in the life of Jesus Christ and God is present today offering his blessing to
Unlikely people in unexpected places.
There is no where we can flee, God is before us and God is behind us. And because of his promise we need not settle in base camp but continue pioneering for God, finding ourselves as
God’s Unlikely servants loving unlikely people in unexpected places.
Let us Pray
Holy Spirit, open the eyes of our hearts to see the holy place where we are right now. Deliver us from the temptation to remain but encourage us on our journey refreshed. Remind us that you are already standing right here with us, and that, even in the midst of whatever mess we face today, you promise to be with us, Through Jesus the heavenly ladder. Amen.
16 JULY 2017
“God’s People in God’s place: Esau and Jacob”
Do you have a family?
It’s a question I’m often asked as I meet new people. It is such a loaded question, to which as a mother of four I am reluctant to respond, because my answer is often received with,
Really? Four? Wow!
It often feels like embarrassing parental bragging. My sister who is due her first child in October has proudly claimed niece and nephew bragging rights for much longer. Some of you here are grandparents, and I’m sure you have your own stories (which you can share with me over coffee later). Tales you share with your friends about the wonder of growing generations.
As we follow the lectionary through Genesis, we move to the third generation of Abraham and Sarah’s family, the twins, Esau and Jacob- the grandchildren. There is way more at stake than simply grandparental bragging rights though.
Verse 19 reminds us how all the stories of this family are underscored and framed by a constant reminder that they take their place in this birth line that inherits the covenant instituted by the LORD with Abraham. It is, in that sense, all part of the origin story of the people of Jacob called Israel.
We note there are two versions of the story in Genesis (the other at Gen 27) but both tell us how Esau lost his birth right to his brother Jacob. In this version, Esau sells his birth right,
sells it for a bowl of red lentil soup,
sells it because he is hungry.
Esau says, “I am about to die [of hunger]; of what use is a birthright to me?”
In this narrative there can be no doubt Esau was the victim of a scam. The birth right privilege was something Jacob had his eye on. Esau gave it up, lost it in a moment of hunger and desperation. A tale of injustice and the unentitled. A story of conflict.
I want us to take a moment to think of the conflict between Jacob and Esau, the twin brothers, the blessed grandchildren of Abraham,
a conflict that began at birth as they wrestled…
[we are told the verb used is for struggle, but it is a strong one. They crush each other. ] ….in their mother’s womb,
It is a violent conflict and grew stronger as the brothers grew older.
Think too of the conflicts we face in our daily lives...
“Do you have a family?”
Many of us for a variety of reasons may want to avoid the question “do you have a family?” because behind the numbers there lies a story the world does not yet welcome. People are in a hurry to move on, to move away from conflict, division and the perceived hurt and pain.
Family, brings all sorts of heartache and joy in equal measure. We think particularly of the emotive story of little Charlie Guard and his family in the news this week; we think of the judges, the medical team and the systems of power. We think of the families who continue to risk their lives on migrant boats crossing the Mediterranean sea; of the navy, the diplomats and the aid agencies. Children orphaned and alone continuing to live in the Jungle migrant camp in Calais; we think of the French and British governments, the truck drivers and the townspeople of Calais.
We might call to mind the new generation of Chinese children to be born since the lifting of the Governments, 36 yearlong, one child policy while on yet another continent we recognise the existence of the profit driven big businesses influence over the American abortion industry.
Situations where we watch the struggle of family and the ease with which family gets caught up in the wider systemic battle for supremacy. We recognise injustice and the unentitled. These are the ways the world loves and the ways the world drives our hunger, and our desire to its own advantage.
During her pregnancy Rebekah asks (v22) the “if all is well why am I like this?”
And the Lord Answers
“Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.”
We hear of the tension: the division between the sons, two nations, two peoples.
And we hear of inversion: “the elder shall serve the younger!”
For OT scholar Walter Bruggemann there are three ways to consider the tension and inversion which the oracle has foretold.
1) a cultural tension: the tent dwellers over the hunter, v27.
2) Or the ethnic agenda that Israel the nation of Jacob will prevail over Edom the nation of his brother Esau.
3) Beyond these two is the socio-political dimension. It is the practice of primo-geniture, the privilege and entitlement of the firstborn.
The oracle however subverts that social convention and open the way for the ‘last one’ to become the ‘first one’ and the first one to become the last. A mirror of Jesus words to his followers in Matt 20:16 heard in our call to prayer.
The old, settled entitlements are now questioned;
new opportunity is legitimated for those conventionally unentitled.
It is important to note the nature of the unfettered power to invert things is God’s power. It is Yahweh’s utter freedom to make and break such conventions.
Jacob on the other hand acts by his own nerve to acquire what is not his. Esau is begging and hungry and Jacob the first born, unentitled, sees not his brothers hunger but a chance.
He wins the deal. He gets the bragging rights.
God’s family in conflict.
Bragging rights: this is the way the world loves. It is the way the world drives our hunger, and our desire to its own advantage.
God’s family is still in conflict.
We too want to have ‘enough’ so we don’t need to ask for a handout; education to get a good job to pay for a solid roof over our head and the privilege of a land in which we can trust in the emergency services to keep it secure all the while we invest in insurance policies just in case and expect the state to act when the unthinkable happens. We do not want to be needy, to be the one in need, going cap in hand, getting hand outs or being cared for and begging for a bowl of soup. We do not want to depend on the help of another.
We seek to be independent and this is in direct contrast with the life of the spirit. We see how far we have fallen from the ways of the kingdom when we see our Lord on the cross. Jesus, Mary’s infant, having taken on our humanity, in his growing took our weakness, submitted himself to God’s justice, was stripped beaten and hung by nails for us. Christ in his weakness bought our Salvation when in his father’s power he was raised from the dead. The Spirit of God who raised Christ from the dead to stand at his side, is the Holy Spirit which shapes our identity.
If it is Christ’s story that ‘defines’ what a Christian is,
our new identity,
then it is the Spirit who ‘shapes’ that new identity, ‘shapes’ our mind-set, our way of living, our response.
What does life in the Spirit look like?
Or to borrow language from John’s gospel:
What does it mean to lead a life lived in all its fullness?
How are we to allow the kingdom of God to grow in us?
Pete Grieg founder of 24-7 prayers reminds us “When God freed the Israelites from captivity in Egypt he did it literally- not just metaphorically. Similarly, when Jesus forgave the sins of the paralysed man lowered through the roof he proceeded to heal him physically too. John Wesley and William Wilberforce understood that it wasn’t enough just to help slaves believe in the right things, when their most urgent need was clearly to be freed from the physical bonds that controlled them.” (Dirty Glory p247)
Down the ages, it has always been the tendency of those who have prospered to reduce salvation to a purely spiritual experience. But we must not forget when you are hungry, you need real bread before you will consider the heavenly variety. Individuals need to be saved from their sins for sure but also the cross of Christ must be brought to bear on the systemic strongholds of sin within societies.
Esau is begging and hungry what do we see? A chance to win?
For those who find themselves caught in the injustice of the world; in hunger, thirst, in bonds or naked in the shadow of their burnt out tower block, will we let the spirit shape us?
When in our own weakness we strengthen one another, when our hating melts on the embers of our love, when our love helps conquer sadness, when we find Christ’s face in our neighbour no matter their status, race, gender or religion, it is the spirit who guides our mind-set, our living, our response. Amen.
Let us Pray
We are children of God and brothers and sisters to one another.We are a family of faith. But like the people of faith we find in the Bible, we find family life to be a complex thing: personality conflicts, disagreements, and even jealousy affect our human relationships. So we come to before God acknowledging all of our baggage, yet grateful for the gift of God’s Spirit that shapes or mind-set, our way of living and compels us to respond. Amen
9 JULY 2017
“God’s People in God’s place: Isaac and Rebekah”
A nose ring!!!
What an unexpected wedding gift.
I’m wondering if you noticed the gifts?
The first thing the servant offers to the young bride to be are gifts of gold bracelets and a ring for Rebekah’s nose!
A fascinating parental image springs to my mind; you send your young daughter to the well to fetch the evening’s water and back she comes all gold bracelets and a nose ring!!! How is a parent meant to respond to that?
One of the joys of being a mother to teenage children is that I can claim to have heard what is now popular in music.
I’m kept in the loop and relevant if you like.
But I couldn’t help thinking it might be a curse when, as I thought about this passage, I was reminded of Beyoncé…
“cause if you liked it, then you should’ve put a ring on it.
If you liked it, then you should’ve put a ring on it.
Don’t be mad when you see that he want it,
If you liked it you should’ve put a ring on it.”
A call to all the single ladies –just be glad I didn’t attempt to sing it!
That may not have been your first parental response.
But it is one of the difficulties with reading the book of Genesis- it can appear a bit alien, separate and distant.
Our reading today is the story of the search for a wife for Isaac. A servant has been despatched under oath from his master Abraham to complete the task.
God’s servant, seeking Gods promise in Gods land.
The servant met the young and beautiful Rebekah beside the spring of water, her hospitality and their exchange of words are a sign to him, from God, that she is indeed the right bride for his master. He gives her gifts, ascertains who she is, and we followed his words as he meets her family. He showers them with gifts also. The men of the family then give their permission for the marriage and give Rebekah their blessing, hoping that she would be mother to many children.
The servant however is keen to return to his master, his task completed and it is Rebekah who answers for herself “I will go”. In opting for Isaac Rebekah makes herself the instrument for the preservation of the “promise”.
Rebekah and Abraham’s servant set off immediately. Isaac went walking and meditating into the field.
God’s heir, seeking Gods peace in Gods land.
On their way back the pair meet Isaac, Abraham’s son and heir. Isaac who has been meditating in the field, sees them. He brings Rebekah into his mother Sarah’s tent; he marries her, he loves her, and she becomes an emotional replacement and comfort for him after the death of his mother.
This week we will begin the summer series of Old Testament Lectionary readings, which return to the start of the bible. A very good place to start, I find!
I’ve entitled the series “Gods people in Gods place”. Over the coming weeks we will work our way through the book of Genesis. We will be introduced to a variety of Gods people as they live in God’s land. I mentioned the challenge that this presents, we encounter new places, new people and customs we have lost touch with.
But let me reassure you what at first seems alien is less so as we unpack it a little.
For example, the nose ring. It is not unusual for the exchange of rings to be part of a Scottish Wedding ceremony, they are given and received as a sign of the covenant or promise which the couple makes.
They are God’s people, seeking Gods presence in Gods land.
The lectionary began this series three weeks ago at Chapter 12 and introduced Abraham, his wife Sarah, her servant Hagar and their children. So we will begin with Isaac and Rebekah this morning. But if this is the first time you have been introduced to the family of Patriarch Abraham or even the first time in a long time I recommend taking some time to read the earlier sections. It has a plot worthy of a modern day drama, it could teach Game of Thrones a thing or two!
The focus of our reading today is the bride Rebekah whom the servant identifies. But let me fill in a little background just to root us more firmly.
Chapter 24 of Genesis, joins Abraham after the funeral of his wife Sarah in chapter 23. The patriarch finds himself alone, his son is unmarried and the future of his family is uncertain, he wonders what happened to the great promise of God made in Genesis 12:2.
“I will make you into a great nation,
And I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
And you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”
(Genesis 12: 2)
It is a promise God affirms again after Isaac is spared the mountain top sacrifice which had been commanded of Abraham.
GOD TELLS ABRAHAM
“Because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore…………
And by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.” (Genesis 22:16)
Trusting in the promises made by God, the great father sets his servant the task of finding a wife for his son Isaac.
Abraham is the father of God’s people,
seeking Gods presence in Gods land.
What we have today is a distinctly female text- a dimension of the bible which is often overlooked. This is the story of Rebekah, the bride and her sensitive response to Gods call on her life.
This is a divinely arranged marriage. There may be some in our communities for whom arranged marriage is a familiar practice, including the need to return to their native lands to find a wedding partner. But it is unlikely they can claim such a heavenly match maker.
As with many arranged marriages this appears to be a loving one especially for Isaac who found comfort in his bride.
So the Genesis story has elements which appear to be alien to a 21st century audience. It is also at risk of becoming disconnected from our own spiritual lives.
The lectionary itself can at times appear to be a collection of unhinged narratives, divided as it is into small chunks which we need to work hard to connect back into the bigger picture of Gods plan at work in the world.
This story is a reminder of the importance of God’s promise to Abraham. A promise partly fulfilled through the marriage vows of Isaac and Rebekah. It is a narrative that points to the provision and faithfulness of God. A reminder of the connection between the people and their God, our God.
They are God’s people, seeking Gods presence in Gods land.
But it is easy to forget that the promise given to Abraham has our name on it. We are not distant from this story or from our God. Paul tells us in the letter to the Galatians 3:29
“If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”
You see? We are heirs to the promise too!
Each and every one of us.
As Abraham’s seed we are heirs to the promise of God’s blessing.
While we have done nothing extraordinary to be entitled to God’s such a blessing.
Why me or why you we might ask our neighbour.
Well why Noah, or Abraham or Rebekah?
No reason but God’s grace!
There is a mystery in that but that is the biblical revelation, the good news of the bible.
It is God’s grace which is at work.
From the beginning God has had us in his plan, as I read from the Gospel of John in our call to worship,
“In the beginning was the word and the word was with God…
…Light the darkness could not put out”
There has always been a glimmer of hope.
A beacon in our darkest times.
God was faithful to his promise to Noah, to Abraham and his son Isaac through Rebekah the bride.
They were God’s people, seeking Gods presence in Gods land.
And Paul teaches us if we belong to Christ we too can trust in God for we are heirs to Abrahams promise.
Our job as Christians is
to look for where God is at work, to seek his presence and
to love him and to praise his grace.
We are too are God’s people,
seeking Gods presence in Gods land.
Let us Pray
God of Abraham,
Help us just to love you and to accept your love in return.
Help us to come to you with no other agendas, no lists of prayer needs.
Help us first to come into your presence
To put loving you first
Because it is only as we are filled with your love
Do we have love to give away.
Help open our eyes to your presence here in your place this parish.
Soften our hearts to discern your will,
Sharpen our senses to detect those in need.
Give us courage to help others see your presence at work in their lives.
There may be many who claim not to belong
but even those who do not yet know your love
often believe in the power of prayer.
Help us to offer our faithful prayers in their service.
We thank you that our destiny is safe in your hands.
2 JULY 2017
Joshua 1:1-9; Ephes. 4:1-16.
Theme: “Sharing one another’s gifts”
Key verse in Ephes. 4: 3&4
“ You were all called to travel on the same road and in the same direction, so stay together, both outwardly and inwardly.”
You have entered a new phase in the life of the church now that you are in a vacancy and this situation can lead to uncertainty and even anxiety about the future! I have therefore departed from the Lectionary readings for this Sunday in order to focus on Paul’s letter to the Ephesians and his ideas of what being a church means.
The OT reading in Joshua has set the scene for us in that Joshua and the people of Israel are encouraged to move on after the death of Moses. They faced great challenges but God encourages Joshua and the people to “be strong and courageous.” Verses 6 & 9.
Paul’s letter to the Ephesians was written while he was a prisoner in Rome and near to the end of his life. Although the letter is entitled Ephesians, it was clearly intended to be read as a circular letter in all the churches of Asia Minor. Prof William Barclay points out that the Ephesian letter has many themes in common with the letter to the Colossians and that it is sometimes known as the “Queen of the Epistles”. The major theme of Ephesians is the centrality of Jesus Christ in all creation and that, as Jesus’ earthly ministry showed what God is like, so the church should demonstrate to the world what Jesus has done and is doing for you and me.
Saturday’s Times article on the rapid decline in church attendance and belief amongst young adults:
? Scotland is becoming a post-religious society with a clear majority of people abandoning organised faith, research has suggested.
? Findings from the country’s most authoritative survey of public attitudes has revealed that almost six out of ten Scots identify as having no religion. The figure of 58 per cent, the highest recorded, is up six points in a year and 18 points from 1999, when the figure stood at four in ten.
? Three quarters — 74 per cent — of young people said that they had no faith, compared with 34 per cent of those people over 65. The surge in secularism is also highlighted in the fact that 80 per cent of people aged 18 to 24 years old said they had been brought up in non-religious households.
A real challenge for us to be relevant!
2. In Ephesians chapter 4, Paul describes how Christians should operate in the church.
The essential characteristic of the church fellowship should be of a team working together. No team can be successful if the individual members do not pull together.
In chapt. 4 Paul highlights four features that should be seen in a church fellowship:
(i) The quality of our lives as Christians: verses 1-3.
Humility, Gentleness, Patience,
“making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love” NLT, and to be united.
(ii) What unites us? In Christ Jesus we are one family - one faith, one baptism, God is our father and we are all going in the same direction (“the walk”). God created, sustains and will put right our world and our Universe. We have a common belief and a common aim.
(iii) Jesus through the Holy Spirit, has given each one of us gifts to enhance the church fellowship. Everyone has a gift! Verse 8.
“ He gave gifts to his people”.
Every gift is important. See list in 1 Cor. 12.
(iv) What are the consequences of all of this?
That we should be mature Christians and grow in the knowledge of Christ in our lives. We cannot do this individually. As a body, we need to grow together to build ourselves up in love verse.4:
“ You were all called to travel on the same road and in the same direction, so stay together, both outwardly and inwardly.”
Hear what Dietrich Bonhoeffer said about church fellowship in his book “Life Together.”
“Christian community is like the Christian's sanctification. It is a gift of God which we cannot claim. Only God knows the real state of our fellowship, of our sanctification. What may appear weak and trifling to us may be great and glorious to God. Just as the Christian should not be constantly feeling his spiritual pulse, so, too, the Christian community has not been given to us by God for us to be constantly taking its temperature. The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more surely and steadily will fellowship increase and grow from day to day as God pleases.”
As you journey on together in this new phase in the life of your church let us consider these things and remember that St. John’s is not your church but Jesus Christ’s and that he will fulfil his purposes in and through us in the days ahead!
Rev. Dr. Roger Sturrock
18 JUNE 2017
MATTHEW 9 : 35 - 10 : 15
A MISSION STRATEGY FOR TODAY
There is today arguably as great a need for good news as ever there was. The disintegration of our common life is evidence enough, and the rampant mistrust of those in whom we have for weal or woe invested power and authority adds to the sense of foreboding about what lies ahead. The harvest is great, as Jesus might have said, but the labourers few. The former, the harvest field of possibility, a broad swathe of modern life increasingly devoid of cohesion, meaning, commitment and mutual trust and respect. While the latter, the labourers, those who can deliver what is genuinely good news in a manner which can offer transformation to people’s lives, remain thin on the ground.
The blueprint as we have it in Matthew’s Gospel, while clearly in its detail a document of its time, contains within it wisdom for all ages, all times and places and all peoples. It paints what appears to contemporary men and women a quaint picture of good-hearted and sincere disciples going out to a waiting world which if not eager to hear and receive the word of life, then at least is open to persuasion or to being passed by. Remember however that this was written in what were often difficult and tumultuous times, with perhaps a similar level of tension and simmering resentment as that which exists now between those of different faiths, or of any faith and no faith? For we know that the early Church was horrifically persecuted and its faithful adherents often martyred for their cause, and yet the blueprint was one of apparently simple mission. Hence my belief that we have more in common than not and that there is buried within this passage an important message for our time, though it requires a little interpretative updating.
Jesus told his followers to go out in pairs, a practice still followed by the few Christian denominations who stick with the literal command, and to go with no provisions for the journey, no protection from possible danger, no bags full of extra clothing, and no cheque book or ready cash for getting out of any tight corners.
Though they were by repute simple men who had little by way of the following they were to take nothing that spoke of their status, their reputation, their wealth or their past achievements in any way but were to present themselves as bearers of the good news of God’s presence.
“Go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, (those who were nominally of the faith,) and proclaim the good news that the Kingdom has come near.”
God is no longer nowhere but God is now here!
Speak the message of love and inclusion and forgiveness and peace and spend as long as it takes for the message to take hold, but if your message is thrown back in your face, then move on. Do not permit God’s word to be twisted or perverted or subverted but let well alone those who have no appetite for peace and no will to see it come about.
The initial reason for the mission on which Jesus sent his disciples, remember, was that wherever he went about his work of healing and teaching and speaking of God’s imminence, he saw the crowds who seemed to him harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. And he was moved to compassion.
I wonder if we are beginning to see any parallels with modern life here? People without leaders who really care for them and about them. People who are being treated as pawns and increasingly misdirected and who are consequently open to greater abuse and exploitation by the power-mongers. People who are in desperate need of good news about their lives, about the conditions under which they were living, of how these might be made better and of the promise and the prospect of a brighter dawn for all of them.
And the remedy?
Those who have seen in their own lives the changes which come about when making a commitment to principles of justice and righteousness for all, not just the privileged few, giving of their own time and energy to tell others. At its simplest, mission has been described as one beggar telling another where food might be found.
And the method?
Go without baggage. What a wonderful cross-over from the literal to the figurative. We are all familiar with what we mean when we speak of carrying “baggage” as we continue our life’s journey. We are all familiar with the need in terms of contemporary therapy practice of letting go and leaving behind any “baggage” - that which perpetuates any sense of guilt or failure, keeps old grudges and resentments alive, prevents us from moving on into new places of exploration and discovery, and generally weighs us down and lessens our effectiveness.
Go also without the trappings we employ to keep others at a distance, to impress them, to make sure they know who we are and what our status in society, to bolster our fragile egos in short.
Go unadorned, Jesus says, for what you have to convey is best conveyed by your sheer and transparent honesty and your devotion and openness to God and to God’s will and purpose for all people.
Go out from your safe and comfortable fortresses, go out from your reticent nature and your secure environment, go out there with nothing but your faith and your conviction of its potential to change the world and transform the lives of men and women.
Go out in peace and in trust that God will lead you and give you the words to say, in the unique and individual way that each one is given, and which are all part of the word of life, God’s word of life.
What is the Good News? What is the essence of the message we are called to take outside ourselves?
That in Christ Jesus God has revealed his purpose and his loving and forgiving nature, and that there is offered to anyone who would accept it this gift of a new life, of an unencumbered life, of a life free from one’s past failures or misdemeanours, a life in which there is release from guilt and remorse, a life which does not need the addition of piles of baggage or of layers of clothing which conceals who we really are, a life set free from the need to be worrying about how or who will provide for tomorrow.
A life which asks of us only that we be who we are in God’s sight (imagine how God might see you, through and beyond all that we acquire and with which we adorn ourselves) and that we give of our selves, that self which is known and loved by God, despite all that we might feel of inadequacy or regret about our selves or our lives. Tell and teach others that that is what God asks of them, for in acknowledging in themselves what is known and loved by God, they will begin to be able to recognise in others that which is equally knowable and loveable.
The good news is spread not by learning by rote what one might say or quote from scripture if it has not the authenticity of being truly believed by the one who teaches or preaches or tells another. Only when that loving acceptance is experienced is one qualified to pass it on for it will then have the note of conviction and the power to influence for the good the self-image of another.
When more and more people come to believe that they are indeed worthy in the sight of God, welcome and wanted in his Kingdom, and deeply loved and cherished for who they are then they are set free to be who they can be in God’s plan. Then will the harvest be gathered in and the labourers rewarded with the satisfaction as those who have brought in the goods and have proceeded to share them out among all who are in need.
Go out and give of yourselves, speak without fear or trepidation of God’s goodness, share your conviction that life should be lived to the full and that the way to gain this life has been made known in the life of a simple carpenter from Galilee.
That it comes from caring about and seeking the good of your neighbour as much as yourself, from believing that God’s word of life can be spoken in as many languages as there are people, and understood by any who have the cause of peace at heart.
And be sure of this - without experiencing at first hand and so without being able to comment on the need in other times and places, we can know that never in our time or in this place, yes, even in this place, so-called civilised Britain, has the need for the word of love and peace and hope and joy been greater.
Never in our limited experience has a people longed or cried out for Good News in the way they do now. Let us who have the faith and the assurance of God’s presence within and around and about us go out from our own lives to tell it and to touch the lives of others.
And may the grace of God go with us, to empower and to lead us and to bring us to his side.
4 JUNE 2017
ACTS 2 : 1 - 21
VOWS KEPT AND PROMISES FULFILLED
Without oversimplifying the issue and its complexity, an expert called in to comment on the wave of recent attacks in our country summarised her piece by saying that terrorism was about a message. Clearly, a message of fear and hatred and death.
What we are presented with today in the Acts account of the first Pentecost, read every year on this Sunday, is also a message. One of a different hue. One of love, of hope and of life.
In the telling of the occasion with which we are so familiar and the events by which we are inspired, we see a perfect coming-together of the promise of Jesus and the vows of faithfulness of his friends and disciples. Though baffled and confused following his death, and initially very fearful, his friends had kept the faith, and had continued to meet and to worship and to pray and to eat together, as Jesus had taught and shown them. He had assured them that they would not be left without the power they would require to continue his work, and he was as good as his word. The word of life was promised, delivered and received. The word of life - the strap-line to this year’s General Assembly, on which Robin reported earlier.
And in amongst the wonderful and surprising and exciting happenings on that day, as all were gathered together, we are told that there was a complete absence of any barriers between those who were present. To put it more positively, there was a breakthrough, symbolised by the ability of all to speak and hear and understand all that was spoken of in praise of God. In as many languages as there were people gathered.
The exquisite symbols of the Spirit set and adorn the scene - the wind, breath, fire, cloud, water, wine, and the dove so that we are prepared for the powerful and moving experience which followed and, taking centre stage, ensured that a true community was forged as all were united in mutual understanding and praise of God. All had a stake in the community, all were included and none excluded, despite the disparity of their individual identities, and the particularity of their language or culture, their creed or their status. The Spirit of God recognises no boundaries and no barriers to its reach, no differences in the people it embraces, and no limits to its work and transforming possibilities.
All are held and regarded as one before it and true to its metaphorical nature, it blows where it will, soars as it chooses, and alights where it finds a welcome.
It is such a powerful description of the ways in which the Spirit comes upon those who pray for and await its arrival, to those who practise faithfulness of solidarity in Christ, to those who seek to include and welcome others, through whose unity in diversity it finds a pathway. Coming upon them and changing their lives in an instant, so that those who were fearful grow hopeful, those timid and unsure become confident, those sceptical are converted to believing and those keeping to the margins are rendered passionate advocates of the message it brings.
The Church needs to hear this story every year, especially if at the same time we look back on the sometimes sorry history of which we are part, recalling the discrimination (and Robin has a salutary story to tell of a particular experience) and the exclusion and the judgmental attitudes of which we have been guilty. Calling to mind the arrogance with which we wielded our Bibles against other faiths, the certainty of which we were possessed with the rightness of our way over against those of others. As one commentator put it, the ways in which the church has tried to box up the wind of the spirit in doctrinal chunks, has exchanged the fire of the spirit for the ice of religious pride, the ways in which it has changed the wine back into water, and has traded the dove of peace for the predatory hawk or eagle of empire. Forced the living word of flesh and blood back onto the page as nothing more than cold hard script.
While in contrast, when as we heard happen at the same General Assembly, there is freely and unreservedly offered by the church a confession of the error of former or past exclusion of one group or another from her worship or fellowship, then what follows is a mighty rushing breath of fresh air, as the Spirit is enabled.
We need to be open to hearing the story with full attention, and to experiencing the wind blowing through the church as it did then, moving its members to new life. We need to permit the fire of compassionate concern and awakened emotions to rage in our hearts and rouse us to new expressions of our faith. We need to take for our health and well-being the wine, the water and the bread and to release the dove, the word of life that all these symbolise and of which they speak, the word that is always being translated anew for the time and the place, the word that reaches beyond all differences and barriers, the word that unites in God’s glorious praise all who have Christ’s message of inclusion and loving acceptance in their sights.
As we enter a significant week in the life of our nation and our country and are called to make a choice which may impact her common life in differing ways, as we go to cast our votes, let us consider carefully how best we can embody as a people the values and the principles of tolerance and acceptance, of inclusion and of welcome, of sharing and of caring with and for all her citizens. Let us make our politics those of welcome and inclusion, of hope and love and life, rather than those of fear and dread and hatred and a death of the spirit. Let us offer the word of life freely and willingly and openly and not keep it sewn up or stitched up, boxed up or caged, but released for the good of all, flying with the light of God’s love for all people in its wake.
Let us leave no-one with a sense of having no place here and no stake in the life for which we all long. The kind of life which embodies and expresses the Spirit deep within us and common to us all, and which can liberate and unite us when we release it from the darkness and fear of its confinement.
28 MAY 2017
Acts 1: 1-14
John 12: 1-8
Snopes.com, factcheck.org, TruthorFiction.com – these are just a few of the rapidly proliferating websites that allow us to check the accuracy or truth content of current news reports. And in recent weeks the Facebook organization has taken out full-page advertisements in the national newspapers with guidance as to how we may distinguish facts from what Donald Trump’s advisor and spokesperson, Kellyanne Conway, so notoriously popularized as “alternative facts”. Given the obtaining political climate, it is more than understandable that we have become concerned, obsessed even, with the need to establish truth on the basis of hard empirical evidence.
But this focus has perhaps lead us to ignore, forget, overlook a defining trait of the inner life of human beings, namely that truth may be conveyed, expressed, grasped through experiences not rooted in the world of hard, empirical evidence. In all forms of art, for example, - literature, music, drama, painting, dance, sculpture, architecture even – we can, and often do, find a truth that speaks to our individual needs. We do not expect a great love poem to make us fall in love, but it will let us understand and be moved by an experience of love we may never know in our own life.
And so we come to the Ascension story recorded or, perhaps rather, created by the writer of the Book of Acts in its first chapter. It is traditionally accepted that the writer of Acts was Luke and that in the opening lines he refers back to the Gospel of Luke as his first book. “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commandment through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen.” [Acts 1: 1] We should note that not one of the four Gospels makes any reference to the Ascension as described in Acts. If we take the time to re-read the closing passages of the Gospels we cannot but note that they focus their, and by extension, our attention on Christ’s commission to the disciples to go out and share his teaching with the world. And the book of Acts duly and faithfully records how that mission to the world begins and develops. Even the Gospel of St John, whose authorship is attributed in its final two verses to the disciple John as a reliable and living witness of the life and death of Jesus, makes no reference to the Ascension as depicted in the first chapter of Acts.
So, why does Luke offer such a detailed and dramatic account of the Ascension in Acts? Many of us, I imagine, may find it difficult to accept at face value the image of Christ being transported up to heaven on a cloud. But such a dramatic scenario would certainly speak meaningfully to a contemporary Mediterranean public familiar with the iconography of Roman and Greek religious beliefs, familiar also to us of course as Greek and Roman mythology where gods and humans migrate effortlessly between their respective worlds. And such a scene would certainly resonate with Jewish listeners and readers brought up on the Old Testament story in 2 Kings: 2 where a fiery chariot appears before Elijah is carried up to heaven in a whirlwind.
Luke is employing a familiar, powerful image as a narrative device to underscore an important point, a crucial, game-changing development in the disciples’ experience and in the historical and spiritual evolution of what we now know as Christianity. He reinforces this point by introducing two men in white – angels presumably, not unlike those who, according to St John, met Mary at the empty tomb on Easter morning – who ask the disciples why they are standing around looking up to heaven. [This incidentally is the scene illustrated by the image heading our order of service.] The implication is clear. The disciples can no longer rely on the fellowship, help, and guidance of the flesh-and-blood Jesus of Nazareth crucified in Jerusalem, nor of the resurrected Christ or Messiah in whatever form they may have experienced his presence. The disciples and, by extension all Christians throughout history, including those of here in St John’s-Renfield, are to draw strength and inspiration from the gift and working of the Holy Spirit. All of us, from the first to the twenty-first century, are called to be the living channels, mediators, and exemplars of the teachings of the risen Christ.
So the disciples return to Jerusalem to meet together, to wait, to pray, and no doubt to discuss the future. Luke’s description in Acts of the Ascension and the disciples’ response to it can be seen as an enacted fulfilment of the words attributed to Jesus in St John 12:8: “The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” And the truth of it is: like the disciples, we no longer have Jesus with us, but we do have the poor, and the sick, and the homeless, and the persecuted, and the lonely, and the refugee, and so many other suffering human beings, whom we as Christians led by the Holy Spirit are called to serve in a Christ-like fashion.
It seems to me that as we in St John’s-Renfield prepare to move into a vacancy with the retirement of Fiona we should draw strength and comfort from the Ascension story. It would be little short of blasphemy to draw parallels between Fiona’s departure and that of Christ from his followers: Fiona is not going to heaven, at least not yet, but just to Dundee! But as we lose an inspiring teacher, pastor, and friend in Christ, so must we all as a congregation actively seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit in shaping the future ministry of St John’s-Renfield. All of us, not just the Kirk Session and the nominating committee when it is eventually constituted, are called to be fully engaged in this undertaking. We are all called to sustain the life of St John’-Renfield in the months to come – in our worship, in the pastoral care of our members, in our social events, in our witness and service to the community of Kelvindale and the wider world at large.
But, and this is my final point this morning, how can we know what the Holy Spirit is saying and where it is leading us? I am sure that there may be numerous and very personal responses to this question, but there is at least one answer foreshadowed in the Ascension that is particularly relevant to our forthcoming vacancy: following Christ’s commandment, the disciples went back to Jerusalem to meet, pray, and talk together. In the bible discussion group “Unlocking the Word’ that has met throughout the past year one recurrent theme has been just this issue of where, how, and when do we see the promptings of the Holy Spirit. One of the recurrent conclusions, or so it seems to me, has been that when Christians, as a like-minded group of people blessed with the God-given faculty of reason, sit down together, share their honestly held, if sometimes differing views and seek to achieve a measure of consensus as to what it means to act in a Christ-like manner in any given context, there and then the Holy spirit will be at work. This is surely the very least that we as the congregation of St John’s-Renfield are called to do at this time. If we have any concern for the future of our church, we, its present congregation, must all engage actively with each other to make room for the Holy Spirit to work through us.
Roderick H Watt
21 MAY 2017
ACTS 17 : 22 - 31
JOHN 14 : 15 - 27
UNKNOWN NO LONGER
We encounter Paul in the Greek capital of Athens in our Acts reading today as he undertakes his missionary journey to bring to all the good news of Christ and his resurrection. He and his companions have been run out of town in Thessalonica and Beroea for suggesting that the man Jesus had fulfilled Messianic expectations and was the true King of the Jews.
Now, awaiting Silas and Timothy in Athens, and safe for the moment, he finds himself characteristically unable to keep silent but adopts a different approach and sets a new pattern for Christian mission. Rather than engaging his hearers immediately with his missionary purpose as before, he attempts to find common ground as he gathers the extent of their clear intellectual and spiritual curiosity and capacity. He compliments them on their obvious quest for that which is religious but seeks to draw them towards the notion that, whereas they worship an unknown God by means of idols and symbols which abound in the city, his claim to present a God who can be known in Christ is the rightful one. Rather than seeking God “out there” or in their shrines or temples, God, Paul argues, is to be found within, as he is the very ground of all being and is at the heart and origin of all creation. He is the very reality by which we have life and breath, and moreover has revealed himself in a man, one whose resurrection and new life will elicit in us a response by which we will be judged. He is no longer the unknown God but can be known in the Christ who has been raised from death.
These are not easy passages to get our heads around. Paul’s explanation to the Greeks, known for their lively debate and discussion of such matters, was not an easy one for them to get their heads around.
And so we go now to John’s Gospel to the writer’s interpretation of the way in which Jesus explained and described the life of God in our midst. This passage we heard read from John is part of what is known as the Farewell Discourses. These represent Jesus’ teaching for his disciples to help and enable them understand what his life had been about and the ways in which it revealed to them the God previously unknown. All through today’s passages we are being asked to contrast the unknown with the known God. Jesus, according to the gospel writer, knows that he will not be around much longer and is preparing his disciples for life thereafter. Concluding with the well-known verses in which he seeks to put their minds at rest about all that will take place, he unpacks for them the difficult concept of the coming of the Spirit. Whereas until now they have gathered around and have centred their focus on him, the teacher, rabbi, and leader, and have known through this common focus the unity of a seeking and searching community, in the future what will bind them will be the Spirit of God, to be released in a new way after Jesus’ death. It is the same spirit through which all creation came into being, the spirit which has been in the world always but with the passing of Jesus, it will infiltrate their lives and their being in a new and convincing way. It will guide them from within - no longer will they seek an external source of inspiration and encouragement in the way they have. They will know themselves driven and motivated and guided and encouraged by something which will make itself known to them from within and not without.
Continuing to love will be the key to this release of the spirit, and continuing to live as a community of faith will ensure its survival in their midst. They will be assured of God’s presence with them, and within them, in a new way, not through the man Jesus or by any other means external or material, but directly, intravenously, as it were. For their life and the life of the spirit are inextricably bound through Jesus and all that he has imparted to them and by their mutual love, and through their shared love for God’s creation and people.
You can see what this is leading towards in terms of the Christian church calendar as we have come from the birth of Jesus, celebrated at Christmas, through his growing in awareness of his purpose and chosen path, his active ministry, including teaching and preaching and healing, his loving back to wholeness those who are broken and hurting, up to his confrontation with the authorities, his challenge to the perversion of what God is and wills, and the inevitable death which follows. We have celebrated all that Easter represents for us in the survival of his spirit beyond his physical death and are approaching the Feast of Pentecost, when there was an out-pouring of some considerable proportions of the Spirit of which Jesus is here speaking. In a week or two, I think it coincides with our June communion, we commemorate this event in the life of the very early church. It was this great inrushing and outpouring of the Spirit which really kick-started the growth of the body of the believers. The church as we know it, which has struggled ever since in its quest to be faithful to that spirit and to her Lord.
Seeking to live in his ways and to love as he loved - that which Jesus said would guarantee the life of the spirit and the sense of true belonging, and would ensure his peace. That which would dispel fear and in its place would speak deep peace and reassurance into the hearts and minds of those who lived for something beyond themselves in the way that he had. Those who loved without limit and lived life to the fullest measure as though each day was their last. These are the ones who inherit the peace and the joy which no-one can take from them for it is part and parcel of being adopted into the family of God and of knowing him in Christ through the spirit. Needing no longer to seek the external sources of truth or guidance as it will all be resident within. The same Spirit, Jesus says to his friends, which you will know because he will abide with you and in you. Needing no longer to consult the oracles or to worship the idols of the world’s fashioning or devising, but taking the time and the opportunity to know the God who is within, implanted in our DNA, and who will steer our lives with a surer compass and a steadier hand than anything “out there”.
Revealing and uncovering the wisdom which has ever been in the mind of God, and which awaits our discovery; the way of life which has ever been modelled in the life of God, and which seeks our participation; the love which has ever flowed from the heart of God, and which invites us to welcome it and pass it on. All this made immediately and freely available through Christ Jesus and the Spirit - leading us directly to the heart of the Godhead, where they live three-in-one.
I don’t think this is Trinity Sunday but it is interesting that this is where we have been lead today. Another difficult concept. But let us keep it simple……
May we learn to love as Christ did, and thereby to live in ways which ensure the continuing survival of God’s Spirit throughout the earth.
7 MAY 2017
ACTS 2 : 42 - 47
JOHN 10 : 1 - 10
GATHERED NOT IN FEAR BUT IN JOY
In the light of the upcoming vacancy at St. John‘s Renfield, and the need to define ourselves as a congregation for the purposes of all that accompanies it, I wonder what the snapshot of the early church that we are given in the passage from Acts has to help us. It may not help us define what we are now so much as what we would wish to be as a congregation. We shall have to compile a Parish Profile, explaining to interested applicants what it is that marks us out as a worshipping community in this part of Glasgow, and furthermore, we have been informed by Glasgow Presbytery that it is our turn soon for a Local Church Review. This is the exercise formerly and quaintly known as a Quinquennial Visitation and consists of a series of visits by representatives of Presbytery who together with ourselves take the temperature and assess the health or otherwise of our church, in order to help us look at where we are headed and what we wish to achieve.
The early church had very clear distinguishing marks as it began to try and live out its calling as a community of the resurrection.
The appearances of Jesus eventually having ceased, it fell to his disciples and followers to ensure that even if he no longer appeared to them he appeared in and through them and their lives. In other words what they understood their role to be was one of keeping alive his legacy of teaching and preaching, of meeting and eating, of learning and praying. It was, we are told, an exercise they took seriously, meeting almost daily in the temple, breaking bread and sharing the fellowship meal in one another’s homes, making sure that each was provided for regarding the necessities of living, giving generously if they had the means, and continuing the worship and praise of God, sustained and fuelled by study and prayer. Those who had had experience of the living Christ taught and instructed and as a body they gathered to themselves many who saw what they were doing and liked it. They had beyond doubt a presence in the wider community and a way of life which commended itself to those who were searching for a deeper meaning to their lives and more than this were seeking the expression of God’s life in their midst.
Perhaps the people who joined the initial core group of Jesus’ close friends and associates were drawn from those who were not only seeking an alternative lifestyle, and who liked what they saw the disciples doing, but in whose hearts and minds resonated something of the voice of Jesus, so recently among them, and now gone, leaving them to make their own way as best they could. Something attractive about this charismatic figure lingered in their memories after he had been so brutally removed from among them; something which impelled them to try and continue to model something of what he had meant to them. They felt called out from the society in which they were immersed, set free to be a different kind of community within that aggressive and oppressive and punitive society. One which held to and operated on a contrasting set of values and principles. One to which people felt they truly belonged, as here they were known by name, cared for if they were in need, and not left to sink or swim, prayed for and with, taught and guided by those who had been close to Jesus. Here they were included in the strengthening and encouraging meals which were shared and were made part of the fellowship, whoever they were and whatever their status.
Here in fact was the metaphor of the sheepfold to which they felt called by the voice of shepherd made real. Here they knew themselves watched over by the gatekeeper through whom they had access to green and fertile and nourishing pastures. The living example of the image so familiar to them but not previously experienced. Here they experienced a new and distinct kind of security, not necessarily safe from the authorities and rulers but assured within themselves of their place in the flock and their role as valued and worthy members.
What can this picture and this story, this parable, convey to us as we seek to live out in totally different times and places and circumstances a similar kind of distinctly Christian lifestyle.
Is it even remotely possible that there could be indicators here for our future, that we could embody even something of that early church community, that we could have in common with that kind of focus not just for Sunday worship, but in our daily living?
Pool our resources? What would our financial advisors say? Meet daily? Overkill, surely?
Eat regularly in each other’s houses? Too much to ask?
Expect that others would want to join us and that we would welcome all-comers? Really?
Take on the mantle of leading the study of the scriptures on which many of us were raised? Who, me?
Speak openly about what our faith means to us and how it has changed our lives? That’s not our way, is it?
Express our joy in worship and in meeting, in breaking bread and in discovering as we do so that our Lord really lives? Over the top?
Unlike those first disciples, we may not have known the Jesus of flesh and blood, but many of us have known him through the gifting of the Spirit, given to all who seek it, we’re assured, if we seek it earnestly. We may not have literally sat at his feet and listened as some did, but we have heard a few passages read and sermons on them preached in our time, and have had given them some thought and consideration. Have we not?
Do we really think that the few who initially kept alight the flame of Jesus’ warmth and compassion, his teaching and his sharing, his example and his inclusive nature were any better qualified than we are?
I too have a dream, as someone once said……. That we may yet become a community of the resurrection in which each one will witness in the unique ways we can to the man we follow. That we may lose our reticence and individually and collectively own our faith, and begin to live out its radical demands, to the greater glory of God. I mean the whole church of Christ, as well as those of us here in this corner of the world, in order that others may take notice and comment and begin to be attracted again.
That on hearing the echoes of that voice many more may be unable to do other than rise up and follow where it leads. That recognising it as the voice which will lead them to where they belong and where they will know the security which nothing else can provide, they may behave like the sheep of Jesus’ parable. But, as Paul said, for people to follow the voice it has to be heard, the word has to be spoken and expressed in ways that others can understand, and maybe that is a task which now falls to more of us than ordained ministers. That the time is upon us as a church community to come of age and assume the responsibilities we have been encouraged to leave to the “experts”. The experts in this business are not those with the initials B.D. next to our names, but those whom the shepherd knows by name, to whom he speaks and calls out and by whom he is known in return.
Those he will instruct in his own way, whose faith he will deepen, whose lives he will command, and whom he will then send out from the sheepfold with the confidence to proclaim the real presence and the unerring nature of the one they have in common as their Lord and brother, and happily to do it in as many different ways of being his disciples as there are people willing to be one.
A vacancy though perhaps superficially unwelcome, is an opportunity, a time to pause and reflect, to listen and to discern, to review and renew, even to grow in confidence and to take on new roles, that our Lord may live and may appear yet to those who seek him.
Not behind closed doors, but in every place where he is needed, out there as well as in here, warming hearts, changing minds, binding up, raising those whose spirit has died, transforming lives in his wake. It can begin here though. With all of you and what you have, even now, among the people in whose midst you have been set.
30 APRIL 2017
LUKE 24 : 13 - 27
LUKE 24 : 28 - 49
THE MYSTERY CONTINUES
Biblical scholars tell us that there is no such place as Emmaus.
The story Luke tells of the events of which we heard this morning is a story for us all, for it is the story of any- or every-place, and the disciples represent anyone walking the road and seeking to make sense of the whole Easter thing.
So let us enter the story and hear how it might have been for one of them………
It was a day like no other. A day we shall never forget. A day which changed everything for ever.
It had been a warm day as we made our way home, but the warmth of the sun on our backs was as nothing to the warmth in our hearts as the stranger spoke to us of the things of God. He uncovered for us the significance of the thread running through our scriptures and opened our eyes to their true meaning. It was not the only eye-opener we were to get that day. For a new way of seeing and being was kindled within us that day.
I’ll start at the beginning though the beginning is not now easy to distinguish. When does one begin to believe on a journey that takes a whole life-time?
We had been up to Jerusalem for the Passover - always a time we looked forward to despite the trek to get there and the size of the crowds once we did. We relished the buzz that was about the place as we gathered as Jews to celebrate the Feast which commemorates our release from the threat of death and our freedom from enslavement. It strikes me that the Feast now marks another release from death and the granting of freedom from enslavement of another kind. Ah but God is good!
It was as I said a time we enjoyed, meeting old friends and making new ones and that year was especially exciting as we were with Jesus and he seemed to have about him the weight of a promise for which we had all been waiting. Provoking in our hearts and minds expectations beyond the ordinary as this man we called the Teacher carried with him many of our hopes that this occasion was to be different, though we knew not how.
He was self-contained in an especially intense way and held, it appeared to us, a secret which was shared only between God and himself. As though he had a purpose beyond the keeping of the Passover.
And so we had begun to wonder whether he might be the one who would light the flame, not only in our hearts but throughout the whole community, the flame which would ignite the start of a revolution, and would overturn the status quo, and provide Israel with her freedom once more.
Well, I don’t need to tell you how it all ended. Such disappointment at his betrayal, such anger at his trial and conviction, such confusion after the heartbreak of seeing him die on the cross when we heard from some of his close friends that his body was nowhere to be found. The women of the group had gone up that morning, the morning of that day, with spices to anoint his body and perform the usual rituals of the grave, and there was no body. The others took their story with a pinch of salt but when they went to the tomb they found they had been speaking the truth.
So it was in a state of utter confusion and something very close to despair that we were going home to Emmaus. We were not too far along the way when we were joined on the road by the stranger, who asked us what we were talking about. It seemed hard to believe that he didn’t know about all that had happened as we assumed he too had been in Jerusalem. He began to explain to us as I said earlier the meaning and the significance of the prophets and other writings and his manner was that of a teacher. I think both of us thought to ourselves that he might make a fine preacher, this stranger, and well worth hearing.
The miles passed as we walked and talked and as we came near to home we became aware that it had cooled considerably and was beginning to grow dark. Not knowing whence he had come and where he was going, we asked him if he would come in with us and share a simple supper.
We sat down at the table and as we did he took the bread and said a blessing and in an instant we recognised him and knew exactly who he was! He was the Teacher. How we failed to know it before then remains part of the wonder and the mystery of that day.
But he was gone, gone it seemed in the same way his body had gone from the tomb. Now, momentarily, we wondered whether we were the victims of some elaborate hoax, like the one played on the women at the tomb. But rather than feeling that we had been had, we felt as though we had been given something infinitely precious, and had been richly blessed by his presence and his company, and the strange warmth we had experienced in our hearts on the road returned with full force.
Of course we briefly considered whether what we had experienced had been a vision, a dream, a mirage, but a shared one since we both knew him at the same time. It didn’t seem to matter too much however just what it had been or how it had happened as we were filled with such certainty, excitement and joy, all at once.
Our eagerness to tell the others and confirm the confounding rumour that somehow he was still alive took hold of us. We hastily ate something, wrapped our cloaks around us, and headed back along the way towards Jerusalem so that we could meet the others and share with them the extraordinary news.
We found them and told them and we were all wondering what on earth to make of this powerful conviction that Jesus was alive and had appeared to us, when he came again and stood among us!
He asked for something to eat, and then he again began to teach about what was written, and all our eyes and minds were well and truly opened to take in and make sense of how he had fulfilled the prophecies. It was so that God’s truth might be demonstrated beyond any doubt and so that we might all know that what had happened was for our enlightenment, our well-being, our salvation, if that doesn’t sound too grand. That Israel might indeed be released from the threat of annihilation, and that freedom from bondage would ever be the destiny of God’s people. That we should tell others about this revelation and what we had witnessed that day.
Well I’m an old man now and looking back I can say that each of us in our own small way did what we could to spread the word and to tell of and live out the extraordinary message given to us that day. That it was all about forgiveness and the new life that had been delivered through him to us and all people. That day really did mark a change in all our lives.
My companion of that day and that journey has passed over and so I am left to remember now myself……..but, strange to tell each time I read God’s word, again I feel that warmth, as of the sunshine on a fresh spring day, start up in the region of my heart and permeate my whole being. And even stranger perhaps, so often I see in the faces of strangers on the road the face of the Lord, and many times when I have sat at table and have taken bread and have paused to give thanks to God, I have known him right there beside me.
Oh God is good indeed, that I know beyond all doubt.
23 APRIL 2017
Before I became a Christian I had real doubts about God.
If God was real: Why does he let so much suffering happen in the world?
Does God actually know me?
I had real doubts about Christianity.
But my doubt led to curiosity so I accepted an invitation to attend an Alpha course – which is a course that explores Christianity designed for people that don’t go to church and this was the start of my journey to faith.
But having faith doesn’t mean that I am now free from having doubts.
Not long after becoming a Christian I felt called to ministry but I really doubted that God was truly calling me.
I kept running away. I’m not good enough - ministry is not for me.
I don’t have the ability. I’m a women with small kids?
Surely it is being wreck-less to give up a well-paid profession to go into the ministry when I had a family to provide for? The doubts flooded in.
I had big doubts about God’s plan for me despite what I knew in my heart he was telling me to do. But in the end, I responded to the call to ministry despite the doubt and I put myself forward for assessment to become a Church of Scotland minister.
In the week that I discovered that I had been accepted to become a candidate for Word and Sacrament ministry I handed in my notice at work. In the same week I heard that people in this church had committed to sponsor me through my training, which was, really answered prayer. Also my husband’s job, which hadn’t been very secure, became secure. The path was being made clear to ministry.
You see, in our times of doubt God doesn’t walk out on us if we express our doubts openly to him. It doesn’t always mean we get the answers we expect but expressing our doubts to God is healthy because it encourages re-thinking.
I read somewhere that it is better ‘to doubt out loud than to disbelieve in silence’. And that: “Faith that counts is not the absence of doubt but the presence of action”
But Doubt is never meant to be a permanent condition - it should lead to action.
Why I’m sharing this with you today? It’s because we hear about doubt through Thomas.
For some reason Thomas had been absent when Jesus appeared for the first time after his resurrection to the disciples. We don’t know why he was absent but what we do know is he was reluctant to believe what his friends told him - that Jesus had rose from the dead.
Not one of his ten friends could change his mind.
Thomas was a doubter, so often remembered as “Doubting Thomas.”
The Disciples approached Thomas with excitement telling him “We have seen the Lord!”
But Thomas did not believe what they were saying. He said to them “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”
But can you blame Thomas? Jesus was crucified before his eyes. Now he is being told that Jesus is alive? How is that possible? People just don’t rise from the dead.
Like Thomas many people say they cannot believe in Jesus because they have not seen a definite sign or a spectacular miracle that proves of his existence. Today we live in postmodern world, a world that is searching and seeking for community and a sense of identity but a world that has given up on absolute truth claims and therefore rejects the gospel message.
This is what I was like before I became a Christian, I had many friends that told me about Jesus, but I had doubts, like Thomas I needed to see and feel things for myself.
We read that a week later the Disciples were gathered in the house again. This time, Thomas was with them. Again the doors were locked, but Jesus came and stood among them and said. “Peace be with you!” Can you imagine what was going through Thomas’ mind at that moment?
Surely it cannot be?
He saw Jesus with his own eyes, but was it truly him?
Jesus speaks to him and says “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
Thomas then said: “My Lord and my God.” By saying this Thomas is making a divine claim for Jesus. Not only is Jesus master and teacher, but he is in fact God.
What I love about this piece of Scripture is that Jesus was not hard on Thomas for his doubts. Jesus did not have to fulfill Thomas’s request. He was not obligated in the slightest. Thomas had spent three years with Jesus witnessing all His miracles and hearing His prophecies about His coming death and resurrection. That, and the testimony Thomas received from the other 10 disciples about Jesus’ return, should have been enough, but still he doubted.
But Jesus knew Thomas’s weakness.
So he came in peace, in his love and grace he came back to show Thomas the evidence he needed of his existence. He showed Thomas his wounds and he breathed the Holy Spirit onto his disciples. The spirit to help them in their ministry and to guide and strengthen them through periods of doubt and struggle.
So what’s the relevance of this to us?
Thomas had his doubts but his doubts had a purpose. He wanted to know the truth. I had doubts before I became a Christian and I too wanted to know the truth. And still today with faith I still have doubts and I’m sure many of you here will also have doubts. As there are times in life when we will all have doubts about pretty big things.
Doubt about being a good Father
Doubt about having enough energy to look after a sick spouse
Doubt about getting through a stressful period at work.
Doubt about enduring the heartbreak of losing a loved one.
Doubt about getting old and still enjoying life.
We all doubt.
But if you are experiencing doubt, take encouragement from Thomas don’t see this as sign that you are weak see it as a sign that you can call on your God to strengthen and equip you through this time. Throughout the bible we hear: Do not be afraid for I am with you.
Thomas didn’t stay in his doubt, but allowed Jesus to bring him to belief.
Take encouragement also from the fact that countless other followers of Jesus have struggled with doubts. The bible is full of them. Sarah and Abraham doubted that God would fulfill his promise to give them a child. Gideon Shied Away From God’s Call – he said: “I’m the least of the least” He did not believe that God could you use him to lead the Israelites to victory.
In each of these cases, God’s response is not anger but patience; far from punishing His doubting followers, God honors those who seek after Him with earnest questions and doubt. And in each case doubt led to a deeper faith.
Last week a friend confessed to me that she was struggling with her faith and doubting that God actually cared because someone close to her had received a terminal diagnosis at only 60-years of age. Expressing this doubt to me led us to have a lengthy conversation where I was able to remind my friend of God’s love in this midst of suffering. For he too has also suffered.
If you are struggling with doubts right now the main thing is that you don’t settle in your doubt.
I feel like I’m not a good Father so will give up trying to reach my kids.
I doubt that I can pass that interview so I won’t bother putting in my application.
I doubt God cares for me because I am physically unwell so I will turn away from church.
I’m sure we can all identify with this doubting self-talk but staying in this stare of doubt can be crippling.
I watched a video the other day that was entitled: ‘Everyone dies, but not everybody lives!’ People often regret the things they didn’t do because of doubt as doubt can cause you not to live out your life to the fullest. But in our Psalm today we hear: I know the Lord is always with me and you make known to me the path of life – God is inviting us to go to him in prayer when experiencing doubt.
Give God your concerns and doubt this is what a lot of the lament psalms are all about. People crying out to God in anger about the situations they are facing. But what we learn from the Psalms is that in speaking to God freely and honestly, people do move on from their doubt faith is strengthened and they are often given different prospective to their problems.
Ask God to help you with your doubt pray that his Spirit will be breathed afresh on you just like it was to the disciples. Having God’s Spirit within us helps us to discern what God is saying to us in the midst of difficulties or sometimes just gives us the strength to keep moving forward.
If you have an issue with your faith and are struggling with something right now speak to another Christian, speak to Fiona, or open your bible and ask God to help you with your uncertainty. Don’t stay in a state of doubt.
Last month I gave my testimony at an Alpha event and afterwards someone experiencing doubt that God was present in their suffering asked me if I’d pray for them. Prayer is a free gift from God open to all.
If I stayed in my doubting faze. I know my life would not be where it is today. I certainly won’t be standing here. I would have stayed in my confused state.
Doubt can be healthy.
Having come through his crisis of faith, Thomas went on to become one of the greatest missionaries of the early Church. The story of Thomas shows that doubt can be a growing point, a stepping-stone to a deeper understanding a stepping-stone to finding peace and a stepping-stone to coming to know Jesus in a more intimate way.
Jesus invites us to draw close to him in faith and to look at his wounds. He wants to lift us out of our doubt. All we need to do is to reach out our hands. Friends, whatever your doubts is don’t stay there! Remember: “Faith that counts is not the absence of doubt but the presence of action”.