Sermon: Remembrance Sunday, 12 November 2017, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Aidan’s

St.Aidan’s West Epping, 12th November 2017

 Rev. Paul Weaver

REMEMBRANCE AND HOPE

 (Joshua 24:1-25; Ps 78:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 4:9-18; Matthew 25:1-13)

Today is Remembrance Sunday, the Sunday closest to Remembrance Day: a day of thanksgiving for those who served our nation in time of war, and especially for those who gave their lives; a day to pray for peace and justice in our world, and to pray for those who serve in our armed forces, particularly in places of danger; a day to reflect on the foolishness and waste and harm that war and violence involves, and the cost involved in bringing about genuine peace in our troubled world. For some people it is a day of grief and tears, as the memory of loved ones who have died in time of war still opens deep wounds.

Yet as Christians we believe that one day good will triumph, war will end, and suffering and pain and tears and death will be no more. That amazing assurance is bound up with the promised return in glory of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the inauguration of the new heaven and the new earth. Our belief in the second coming of Jesus is bound up with our belief in the resurrection of Jesus. And arising out of Jesus’ resurrection is the assurance that we as his people shall also share in the resurrection of the dead.

The Christians of Thessalonica believed in the second coming of Jesus, as we usually call it. Paul had clearly taught them about this climactic event, and told them that they should live in readiness for that great day. Many of the Thessalonians probably assumed that this wondrous event would happen during their lifetime on earth. Perhaps even Paul held that expectation, although his basic message was that no one knew when it would happen.

But weeks had passed, perhaps even months: members of the young congregation had died, and this raised new questions and new concerns for the other members. In particular, there was a real concern that those who had died would miss out on everything that was going to happen. And this was causing a new kind of grief for the new Christians.

So in his letter, Paul seeks to clarify things and to encourage them. Yes, of course we grieve when a loved one dies: tears and sorrow are part of our human makeup, and it is never helpful to tell a grieving person that they should be strong and not weep. Stifling our feelings is not a healthy thing to do. We need time and acceptance as we go through bereavement.

What Paul wants the Thessalonians to do is not to grieve as people without hope. For there is hope, and Paul explains why.

When I worked at the Cathedral, I was present at a number of funerals conducted by Canon Mel Newth, the former Head of the Cathedral School. He had a favourite saying, which he often used at these services: “Death is not the end of the road: it’s a bend in the road.” Some people probably thought it a bit corny, but it actually said something quite significant. Death seems like the end, but the resurrection of Jesus guarantees that there is something wonderful beyond that we cannot yet see.

Archeologists have found various writings which help us to see the contrast between the pagan world of the time and the Christian church in their understanding of death. There is a letter written in time of bereavement by a lady called Irene: “I was as sorry and wept over the departed one as I wept for Didymas. And all those things which were fitting I did. But nevertheless, against such things one can do nothing. Therefore comfort one another.” Irene knew there was nothing she could do about the death of her loved one: no hope. You needed to comfort one another, but there was no hope to share, no basis for real comfort.

From about the same time comes a description of what happened when a Christian died. “If any righteous person among them passes from this world, they rejoice and offer thanks to God; and they escort the body as if he were setting out from one place to another.” No doubt there was sadness for the loss, but there was a recognition that death was not the end of the road, but a bend in the road.

In our passage Paul gives a description of the Christian hope. He writes of the Lord Jesus returning in glory. There is a cry of command, the archangel’s call, and the sound of God’s trumpet. No doubt this is pictorial language, but the point is clear: no one is going to sleep through it! When Jesus returns everyone will know. There will be no missing out!

And Paul emphasizes that on that great day Jesus will bring those who sleep in him: believers who have died will be very much involved in that great day. “Sleep” is a term used a number of times in the scriptures as a description of death, especially of those who die trusting in Christ. Literally a cemetery is a “sleeping place”. And of course, sleep means rest, but it also means the expectation of waking again. Remember how Jesus told Martha and Mary that Lazarus was sleeping, but that he was going to wake him up.

So those who have died are certainly not going to miss out. But neither are those who are still alive when Jesus returns. There will be a great gathering of all Christ’s people on that day. And as Paul says, “we will be with the Lord forever.” All those uncertainties will be cleared up, all those barriers will be gone, death and tears and pain will be no more. And we shall see the Lord in all his glory, and be with him in his kingdom for eternity.

And it won’t be just part of us, labeled our “soul”, that will take part. As Ross pointed out at the All Souls’ service, resurrection is bodily: but our bodies will be transformed, spiritual bodies, fitted for eternity. We do not know all the details yet: but it will be wonderful beyond our earthly understanding.

The Thessalonians were concerned that there was a delay in Jesus’ return, and in the reading for next week, Paul answers the question of when it will all happen. His answer actually fits in with much of the point of our Gospel, with its story of the ten bridesmaids waiting for the bridegroom. Five of them weren’t ready when they needed to be: they didn’t know exactly when he would come, and they didn’t make adequate preparations. And so they missed out on the blessings. Jesus’ point is that we should always be ready. We need to live in consistent readiness for his coming.

In many ways the Thessalonians were indeed prepared. Their trust was in Jesus. They were showing Christian love in their lives, as we heard. But there was a problem. Some members had got so excited by the idea of Jesus’ return that they had given up work, and were doing nothing but presumably praying and reflecting and meditating, and perhaps sometimes making nuisances of themselves with the time they now had available.

And of course, the other Christians now had to look after them: to ensure they were fed and had their daily needs. These people probably thought they were being spiritual: but as the Pharisees reminded us last week, people can think they are spiritual and be anything but really spiritual.

What does Paul think of this? Paul had learned a trade as all Jewish boys of his time did, and he used it to support himself in his ministry. He didn’t want make himself unnecessarily dependent on others. And he tells these people to live quietly and mind their own business, and not to make a nuisance of themselves. They are to get a job: to work and get themselves an income, so that they are not sponging off others, when they really don’t need to. They are to live lives that will earn the respect of outsiders, which will bear positive witness to the value of Christian faith.

How do we prepare for the day of Jesus’ return, or the day of our death? We don’t actually know which will come first, but the implications are really the same. We are to hold fast our faith in Jesus. And we are to simply get on with the job of living faithful loving Christian lives. For many people in many churches that will still include working conscientiously in their jobs, earning a living, and fulfilling the responsibilities they have to family and community and church. Most of us here this morning are past the stage of being earners in that sense, but we all still have our lives to live in our particular situations, and things that we can do.

We live in assured hope: as we trust and follow Jesus, we will not miss out on his eternal blessings. But right now we have our earthly lives to live. Perhaps our own lives are simpler and quieter than they once were. But in our own way, we still can live as Christ’s followers. We can still live in faith and hope. We can still show love to others in ways that are appropriate for us. We can still make sure that we are indeed ready for that great day. Amen.

Paul Weaver

 

Sermon: Pentecost 22, 5 November 2017, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Aidan’s

St.Aidan’s West Epping, 5th November 2017

 Rev. Paul Weaver

LEARNING FROM THE PHARISEES

 (Joshua 3:7-17; Ps 107:1-7,33-37; 1 Thess 3:5-13; Matthew 23:1-12)

Why was Jesus so hard on the Pharisees? They had been around as a recognizable group for a couple of centuries before the time of Jesus, and were devoted to putting into practice the Law of Moses. They believed that God’s blessing had been withheld because of Israel’s failure to keep the law. If at least some faithful people truly kept the Law of Moses, surely the Lord would again pour out blessing on his people!

The scribes were the legal experts, and they had made it their task to explain the implications of the law. Many of Moses’ commands were so general that they clearly needed to be spelt out in more detail. It’s one thing to say that people are not to work on the Sabbath Day: but what does that mean in practical terms? What food can you prepare? How far can you walk? How much weight can you carry? These kinds of questions were the focus of the scribes. And exactly what did you have to tithe? These and many questions were given extraordinarily detailed answers by the scribes, and the Pharisees lived to put them all into practice. Of course ordinary people would not even know all these details, let alone find it possible to obey them.

There were around 6000 Pharisees in Jesus’ time. They generally belonged to the wealthier classes, and were in a much better position than most to learn the details of the Law, as the scribes understood it, and were better able to find ways to make obedience practical for people like them.

The Pharisees were devoted and devout, and in many ways they would have been theologically in agreement with Jesus: with Jesus they acknowledged the message of the prophets and they shared a belief in the resurrection. And yet, Jesus always seemed to speak harshly about them and their ways. Why was he so critical of them, when in so many ways they genuinely tried to be good faithful people?

Well, Jesus wasn’t the only one who was critical of the Pharisees. Jewish writings of the era described seven types of Pharisees. There were the Shoulder Pharisees, who wore their good deeds on their shoulders, so that others would see how devoted they were. There were the Wait-a-Little Pharisees, who could always find a good reason why they couldn’t do a good deed just now. There were the Bruised or Bleeding Pharisees who felt it was so wrong to look at a woman on the streets that they shut their eyes and kept bumping into things. Of course their bruises and injuries were testament to their obvious piety.

And then there were the Hump-Backed (or perhaps hunch-backed) Pharisees who bent over as they walked, to demonstrate how humble they were. There were the Ever-Reckoning Pharisees who were constantly adding up all their good deeds to try to put themselves in credit with God. There were the Fearful Pharisees who were obsessed with every little detail of behaviour and ritual in case God saw a shortcoming, and condemned them in the judgement.

And finally there were the God-Fearing Pharisees who truly sought to live in obedience to the Law of God, and wanted to please the Lord above all things! The fact that only one of the seven categories of Pharisee is really described in a positive way indicates that, however much people admired their piety, many did not have a high regard for them.

And we can see that many of them fell into the same sorts of traps as religious people fall into today: using religion as a bargaining chip with God, trying to impress others with your piety, teaching one thing and doing another, being arrogant and judgemental against those who don’t share your doctrine or piety.

In this 23rd chapter of Matthew, Jesus speaks very critically of the Scribes and Pharisees. If you think that he is severe in these opening verses of the chapter, you might be brave enough to look at the rest of the chapter later on, and see where he gets really scathing indeed.

So once again, I ask, why is Jesus so hard on these people, who are so serious about trying to obey the Law of the Lord? Jesus had said that much is expected of those who are given much. That applies in many areas of life, and it certainly applies in spiritual terms. The scribes and Pharisees had so much knowledge of the scriptures, and so much opportunity not only to learn them but to apply them. People inevitably must have looked to them as examples of godly living. And yet they got it so wrong! And the problem was not their basic doctrine: it was their outlook on life and their attitude to other people.

Jesus acknowledges that the scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat: they have genuine knowledge of the Law of Moses. It is right to obey them when they teach that Law truly. But don’t follow their example, says Jesus: they do not practise what they preach! Their lives are not consistent with their words. They are guilty of hypocrisy.

The scribes had worked out an approach to the Law of Moses which worked for them, but was not possible for many other people. But they were not interested in the needs of others, even those who really did want to honour and serve the Lord. As far as they were concerned, they knew the way to please God: it was their way, or no way. Elsewhere, Jesus castigates the Pharisees for their attention to detail, generally detail worked out by their scribes, when the central call to trust and love the Lord God, and the call to love their neighbour as themselves, the real issues, got swamped and ultimately ignored in favour of those petty details.

Apart from their hypocrisy, Jesus also points to the Pharisees’ pride and arrogance. Here again, they love to make a show of their religion not to honour God, but to impress others. They pick up imagery from the books of Moses, and turn it into something else. They wear phylacteries on their foreheads and their left wrists: phylacteries are small leather cases holding small portions of the scriptures. Many people wore them, but the Pharisees made sure that theirs were bigger and more obvious.

Similarly with the tassels that people wore on the corners of their robes, in obedience to Moses’ call to wear them, to remind themselves of the commandments of God. The tassels wore by the Pharisees were specially large, once again as a show of piety rather than really helping them to remember the law of God.

Jesus observed how they used their piety as a vehicle for getting respect and honour from other people. He also pointed out how they loved being treated as important people: being called Rabbi, “great one”, or Father, or Leader. The Pharisees used these titles to feed their pride. They loved being in prominent positions at banquets and at the synagogue: it fed their egos.

Now of course someone usually needs to sit up the front at events and services, and we are used to particular titles being given to leaders within the church, and robes are worn by clergy and others, as part of our tradition. Are we any different from the Pharisees?

We may not be different enough, but we certainly need to beware of the traps. I and other clergy especially need to beware of the traps of authority and leadership. Some parishioners may feel more comfortable calling me “Father”, and that is OK, but I need always to remember that first and foremost I am your brother in Christ. And I need to remember that I am called to serve in ministry, not to focus on any importance I might think I have. We need to sit lightly on the traditions and practices that can easily make us think that we might be better or more important than others.

And when we become aware of the weaknesses or mistakes or shortcomings of others, we need to remember that we all fall short, and that none of us is entitled to be judge of others. We are all in the same boat, and we are called to love, not to judge.

What then can we learn from the Pharisees? We can learn from their devotion to the scriptures. We can learn from them that it is important to seek to live lives that genuinely please God.

But we can also learn from their shortcomings. We need to beware of hypocrisy in our lives: presenting ourselves as better than we really are, presenting others with an image of ourselves that is less than honest. We need to beware of thinking of ourselves as better than others. Yes, other people’s faults will sometimes be evident to us, but do we not have our own shortcomings and failings? We need to beware of pride and arrogance. Yes, we all need love and respect: so let’s give it to our neighbours, knowing that God loves us and counts us as precious in his sight. Let’s help each other humbly along the Christian path, reaching out to those we can help.

And let’s keep in mind that the greatest human who ever lived is the one who became our servant, sacrificially giving his life so that we might have life. Whatever we learn from the Pharisees, we have the perfect Rabbi and teacher and leader, Jesus Christ our loving Saviour. He truly shows us how to live and love and serve. Amen.

Paul Weaver

 

Sermon: Reformation Sunday, 29 October 2017, Bishop Ross Nicholson

Reformation Sunday- Mark 4:30-34

-I’m sure we’ve all heard Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody’s song ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’.

-It’s a protest song based on the story of the Gurindji Strike in 1966,

-When 200 Gurindji stockmen walked off the Wave Hill cattle station in the Northern Territory,

-In what became an eight year strike and the birth of the land rights movement.

-Public opinion began turning as the strike continued,

-And in 1967 over 90% of Australians supported the referendum to give the federal government power to make indigenous laws.

-In 1975 the Whitlam government handed back to the Gurindji a portion of their land,

-And in June 1992,

-The High Court upheld Eddie Mabo’s Murray Islander claim to native title in the Torres Strait.

-From little things big things grow.

 

-I doubt that Kelly and Carmody got it from Jesus,

-But his parable of the mustard seed makes the exact same point;

“What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. 32 Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.” Mark 4:30-32

-It’s a parable I’m sure we’re all familiar with.

-The mustard seed was the smallest seed in Palestine,

-That could be seen with the naked eye.

-Yet when it matured it was the largest of garden plants.

-It’s this contrast that Jesus has in mind between this tiny little seed,

-Which grows and grows to the point that it can support birds perching in its branches.

-As we sit here nearly two thousand years since Jesus told that parable,

-We know the reality of those words.

-There are around 2.3 billion Christians in the world,

-31% of the world’s population.

-Not bad from a start of just twelve.

 

-But there’s something else in this parable that’s often overlooked.

-I’m sure we’re all familiar with Jesus’ use of horticultural illustrations to describe the kingdom of God or the Christian’s life;

 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” John 15:5

-Jesus is the vine in whom all his followers are grafted.

-He’s the source of life,

-And as we abide in him,

-Live our life following and obeying him,

-We’ll bear the fruit of a changed and changing life.

-Similarly, people will bear fruit that indicates what sort of relationship they have with Jesus;

“Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.” Matthew 7:17-1

-If you’re a follower of Jesus,

-Your outer life will reflect your inner relationship with Jesus.

 

-The apostle Paul obviously picked up on the power of the metaphor,

-Because he wrote about the Gentiles’ relationship to the kingdom of God saying;

“But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree, 18 do not vaunt yourselves over the branches.”

-Paul obviously sees Jesus as the root of the tree that brings nourishment to the branches.

-And just as branches can be cut off if they’re unfruitful,

-So other branches can be grafted in to receive the same nourishment,

-And that is all by grace alone.

 

-Back in the Old Testament there were other stories that bear the same allusions.

-And maybe Jesus had these stories in mind when he used that parable.

-In the book of Daniel,

-You might remember Nebuchadnezzar had a dream where he saw a tree at the centre of the earth.

“The tree grew great and strong, its top reached to heaven, and it was visible to the ends of the whole earth.12 Its foliage was beautiful, its fruit abundant, and it provided food for all. The animals of the field found shade under it . . .” Daniel 4:11-12

-Now here’s the clincher;

“. . . the birds of the air nested in its branches, and from it all living beings were fed.” Daniel 4:12

-Daniel interprets the tree as being King Nebuchadnezzar,

-Whose empire stretched right across the known world,

-And encompassed all the various nations under his rule.

-Commentators believe Jesus has something similar in mind when he speaks of the grown mustard seed having;

“. . . such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.” Mark 4:32

-The birds are the Gentiles,

-All the other nations of the world.

 

-Can you see now what Jesus is saying about the kingdom of God?

-The kingdom starts off as this tiny little seed that grows and grows until it covers the earth,

-And it’s not only those within the kingdom,

-The branches that are abiding in Christ,

-That benefit from the kingdom,

-It’s the whole world that will be blessed by the kingdom.

-I love this parable because it speaks not only of the blessings of salvation that the disciple of Jesus receives,

-But it alludes to the blessings that the gospel brings to the whole world,

-Even to those who don’t know of Jesus or even believe in him.

-Even these ‘birds of the air’ gain the benefit of the shade of its branches,

-And a place to nest.

 

-Well you might by now be thinking,

-‘That’s all well and good Ross but this is a Reformation Day commemoration,

-‘What’s this parable got to do with the Reformation,

-‘Where’s our Martin Luther story?’

-On October 31 1517 the monk and university professor Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of the castle church at Wittenberg.

-From that little thing big things grew.

-From what was basically a theological notice stuck on a church door along with notices for the school fete and the Wittenberg Mother’s Union,

-A revolution was born that would not only change the theological and ecclesiastical landscape for the next hundred years,

-But would ripple out and impact the lives of almost every human being that has lived in the last 500 years.

 

-This revolution began with Luther rediscovering the Bible.

-It was the Word of God that changed Martin’s life,

-Not his monastic disciplines,

-Not the superstitious repetition of the sacraments of the church,

-Not all the efforts he put in to appeasing an angry and judging God,

-And certainly not the diabolical indulgences being sold to assuage the fears of a credulous populace.

-It was the Scriptures alone that spoke peace into the troubled heart,

-And for Luther it was those words of Paul to the Romans;

“For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed – a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’” Romans 1:17

-Faith alone.

-And Luther knew that if people where to understand this truth,

-Of faith in Christ alone for salvation,

-Then they’d need to be able to read it for themselves.

-So over a period of 11 weeks he translated the Bible into vernacular German.

 

-If you think that was a small thing you’re right.

-But listen to this quote from the historian and economist David Landes;

“Christendom was headed for break up. In the decades that followed, Protestants in several countries . . . translated the Bible into the vernacular. People read and started thinking for themselves.” ‘The Book That Made Your World’, Vishal Mangalwadi, p,86

-Until the sixteenth century superstition was rife.

-But as people started to read the bible these superstitions started to disappear.

-People started questioning and judging every tradition and judgement of the church and their rulers,

-And testing them by the Bible.

-This biblical revival not only led to spiritual awakening but an intellectual one.

-Modern education began with Martin Luther’s call for a complete overhaul of medieval education.

-And of course it’s been through education that our Western civilisation has been built.

-Knowing there is a God of order who created an ordered universe,

-Freed science to explore this world,

-To think God’s thoughts after him.

-As faith in Christ grew,

-As people read and acted upon the Word,

-The kingdom of God expanded and the birds of the air perched in the shade of its branches.

-From little things big things grow.

 

-The last verse of that song says;

“That was the story of Vincent Lingiari,

But this is the story of something much more,

How power and privilege can not move a people,

Who know where they stand and stand in the law.”

-Martin Luther’s last words at his trial at the Diet of Worms were;

“I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise. Here I stand. May God help me. Amen”

-‘Here I stand.’

-Martin Luther didn’t stand in the law,

-It was law that he knew had him bound in fear and superstition,

-No, he took his stand in the grace of a merciful God,

-A grace that was opened up to him through the Word of God.

-It was through the scriptures being opened for all to read that empowered the Reformation.

-Because of our biblical heritage our lives are very different to what they would have been,

-If the Bible had remained chained to an incomprehensible language, a priestly hierarchy and a superstitious church.

-Because of the biblical heritage of the Reformation the world is very different,

-The birds of the air can perch in the Kingdom’s branches and enjoy its blessings.

 

-But within Luther’s ‘Disputation Against the Power of Indulgences’ or the 95 Theses as we know it,

-Lies a warning.

-It comes in Thesis 62;

“The true treasure of the church is the Holy gospel of the glory and the grace of God.”

-The Bible is not some abstract book that makes life better,

-It’s the story of our merciful God whose glory is shown in creation and redemption.

-Luther lived and worked for the glory of God.

-If there has been great benefits that have blessed our world because of the spread of the gospel,

-If unbelievers have enjoyed the blessings of the Kingdom’s expansion,

-Then they have been because of the mercy and generosity of God,

-Not human endeavour.

-All these benefits have come about as an act of God’s grace in Christ.

-Let me remind you of those words of Paul to the Ephesians;

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Ephesians 2:8-10

-But as our world slips further and further from the gospel that Luther rediscovered,

-As God’s people fail to live and proclaim that good news,

-Then the shade of the Kingdom will turn to the darkness of death.

-It was not without reason that Jesus called his disciples to be light in the world.

-That light is God’s glory reflected in us.

-And like Luther we too need to take our stand on the grace of Jesus,

-And for the glory of God.