Sermon: Easter 3, 15 April 2018, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Alban’s

St.Alban’s Epping, 15th April 2018

 Rev. Paul Weaver

THE WORLD: TO LOVE OR NOT TO LOVE IT?

 (Acts 3:12-20; Psalm 4; 1 John 2:15-17; 3:1-6; Luke 24:36-48)

“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” One of the best-known verses in the scriptures: a verse which powerfully sums up the wonder of God’s love, and the power of the Gospel of Christ.

But earlier this week when I read the opening words of our reading from the First Letter of John, probably from the same author as the Gospel, I saw some very different-looking words. “Do not love the world or the things in the world.” Surely if God loves the world, we should love the world. What is John getting at as he writes these words? That question intrigued me as I looked at today’s readings, and I thought that they deserved a closer look.

Are we to love the world, as God does? Or are we not to love the world, as John tells us? It all depends on what you mean! What does it mean to “love”? And what is this “world” that we are to love – or not to love?

Let’s think first about the world. When we think about the world, we think about planet earth, and as Christians we remember that it is part of God’s creation, in a sense our part of God’s creation. Genesis tells us that it was made good, and that we have responsibility over it under God.

But especially in the New Testament, there is another way of thinking about the world. It is the world of people, and that world of people is still loved by God. The problem is that people have turned against God. They do their own thing rather than obey God. They set up their own standards and priorities, rather than living by God’s standards and priorities. Jesus refers to the world this way: it is the world in opposition to God, the world setting itself up independently of God, the world giving priority to what is physical, rather than what is spiritually and morally true and right. The world made by God is good in itself. But the world has gone wrong, and pushes God aside. This world is in opposition to God. But remember that God still loves this world of people, people who have gone wrong and who need a Saviour.

But what about love? Many of you will know that C. S. Lewis, best known for the Narnia children’s books, wrote many insightful books about the Christian faith. One of these is called “The Four Loves”. He pointed out that in the Greek of the New Testament there are a number of words that can be translated as “love”, but really have different connotations.

There is passionate sensual love, love which often wants something or someone. There is family love and devotion. There is friendship and affection. And there is God’s love, love which serves, and which sacrificially seeks the best for the one who is loved.

Of course, we know that nowadays we use the word “love” in different ways. I love an old-fashioned roast dinner, and I love the music of certain composers. But that is certainly not the same sort of love as the love I have for Sarah my wife. And even that love is not quite the same as the love which I have for my children or grandchildren, or the love I am called to have for my neighbour. And if I say that I love God or I love Jesus, I know that there is something different again.

People can use “love” in other ways too. They might say that they’d love to do certain things – good or evil. And of course, people make love: but far too often something that God designed to be beautiful becomes instead an empty or even harmful thing. So we need to think about what we mean by “love”, if we are to understand it correctly. God’s love is a genuine concern for what is best for the loved one. But it is not simply a loving feeling, not merely a theoretical thing, but something which acts when that is necessary. Love actively seeks what is best for the one who is loved. That is what God has done for us in Christ, and what he calls us to do for one another, and for our neighbour.

And there is therefore a sense in which we should indeed love the created world. We are right to appreciate the world which God has provided for us, and to enjoy its beauty and its bounty. Because we are responsible for it under God, we are also called to take care of it. Sadly too many people in positions of power seem not to love the created world in this godly way. They want to use it but not to care for it. They put a premium on the quick profits that come more easily if we ignore our responsibility to care for the created world. I think you can fill in the blanks.

Perhaps we can’t control the decisions of governments who are more interested in the next election than in the well-being of our planet and of future generations: but we might think about ways we can make our views known, if we believe this issue is important. And we might think a little bit more about what we might practically do ourselves that will reduce our own impact on the environment. Increasing the number of people who do what they can really does make a real difference.

So there is a way that is right to love the created world, acting in ways that are for the good of planet earth and its people. But of course, John was hardly aware of environmental issues in his day. He was concerned about other issues. He recognized that we can also love the world almost in the sense of being “in love with the world”, and the things it offers.

We can be more concerned about things than about people, and their welfare and their needs. We can be more concerned about pleasing ourselves than pleasing God. The things of the world and the priorities of the world can get in the way of the things of God and the priorities of God.

John talks about “the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches”. He is talking about our desire for pleasure, our desire for wealth and for more and more things, our desire to get ahead of others rather than to do them good. These unloving things are what matter to so many people. They are, in a sense, the world’s way. But that is not God’s purpose for us.

Greed, selfishness and pride: these are not God’s ways. And their value is short-term. In the long-term they have little value, and they can keep us from God and his blessings. I am reminded of the multi-millionaire who was asked how many millions he would need to get before he would have enough: his answer was “Just one more: always just one more!” The word for coveting in the New Testament means “the desire for more”. That is the way of the world.

It is wise as human beings to live in the light of the future, and that is not just the short-term future. It involves the big picture. As John says, “the world and its riches are passing away, but those who do the will of God live for ever.” Do we live in the light of our eternal future?

John goes on to say that God calls us his children, as we trust and follow Christ. As God’s children, we are called to reflect the goodness and love of our heavenly Father. And as God’s children, we have wonderful blessings promised to us in eternity. We shall see God in all his glory, his holiness, his love. And John calls us to prepare for that glorious vision here and now. Here and now we will of course not be perfect: we will continue to need to confess our sins and failures. Sin is lawlessness, says John: it is saying that I will not let God or anyone else tell me the way I am going to live. But that is not to be our approach to life. We know that Jesus shows us and has shown us the best way to live. He came to do away with sin. As his followers and as God’s children, let us then seek to live as God’s children and as Jesus’ followers.

As many of you will know, Bruce Wilson and I are shortly to present our piano concerts. Because we know the concerts are coming up we prepare for them, just as wise students prepare for their exams. And because we know that we are promised an eternal home in God’s kingdom, John calls us to seek to live as those who are preparing for that glorious future. No, we are not perfect, but we seek to live as children of God.

The created world is a wondrous gift from God. Let us appreciate its blessings, and live as God’s servants in this world. And let us live as people who love our neighbour, seeking and acting for their good, and steering away from the selfish attitudes that are so prevalent in this world. And let us not be so devoted to the things and the values of this world that they get in the way of our faithfulness to Christ.

There is a glorious future promised to us through Jesus. May we follow him in preparation for the day when we shall see him as he really is, and when we shall know him in a wondrous new way as our beloved Saviour and King.  Amen.

Paul Weaver

 

Sermon: Easter 2, 8 April 2018, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Aidan’s

St.Aidan’s West Epping, 8th April 2018

Rev. Paul Weaver

FORGIVENESS AND DISCIPLESHIP
(Acts 4:32-37; Psalm 133; 1 John 1:1-2:2; John 20:19-31)
A few weeks ago Steve Smith was known as one of the world’s best batsmen, and also the Australian cricket captain. David Warner was a top attacking batsman, perhaps rather aggressive, but another matchwinner. Cameron Bancroft was an up-and-coming batsman, with high hopes for the future.

How much things have changed for these three, arising out of one afternoon of a Test in South Africa! We know that a number of cricketers have been caught tampering with the ball in Tests over the years, but the furore this time has been extraordinary. In the past there have been fines and occasionally short suspensions. But this time the cost to these cricketers has been overwhelming: suspensions of up to a year, withdrawal of the captain’s role, and huge financial costs.

Why has there been such a strong reaction: a perhaps over-the-top reaction, not just from cricketing bodies, but from the wider Australian public? It seems that our cricketers do have a special place in our hearts: and we have certain expectations of them. They have let us down. We Aussies do not see ourselves as cheaters, and although we play hard, we do not see ourselves as crudely abusive in the way our cricketers seem to have become.

Australians seem to have taken this personally. And the sight of top cricketers accepting responsibility for their misdeeds, apologizing with tears, and now deciding not to appeal against the heavy penalties, has been very powerful. We wonder what real changes will come as a result of all this. And perhaps we wonder what will become of these three young men who have found themselves under the spotlight in all sorts of unpleasant and unexpected ways. They have certainly done the wrong thing. And I share in the general disgust. But I wonder whether the reaction has been so extreme that it will have significant personal repercussions on them. I hope they have good support as they seek to go forward in their lives.

Forgiveness. What they did was absolutely wrong, unacceptable. But was it as unforgiveable as people seem to assume?
These thoughts occurred to me as I was reflecting on the reading from the First Letter of John which we heard this morning. John begins his letter with words which reflect the opening of the Gospel of John. He refers to the word of life in Jesus: seen and heard and touched by his disciples, as this morning’s Gospel tells us. Of course there we heard that wonderful story of Thomas the realist, Thomas who would not believe that Jesus had risen from death unless he saw and touched for himself. Fair enough Thomas, I say!

John tells us that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. And John wants us to live in God’s light, and to follow that light. But how do we do that?

A vital way of doing this is in our reaction to sin in our lives. And John points us towards a healthy attitude to sin, and warns us against going the wrong way. We need to seek to truly live as obedient followers of Jesus: that is to walk in the light. If we are truly seeking to live the sort of life Jesus wants from us, we are indeed walking in God’s light, and we are assured of forgiveness through Jesus’ death for us.

But we can’t say that sin doesn’t matter and that we can live as we choose. That is to reject God and his purposes for us. Ultimately it is a lie. If we are truly God’s people, we are to be serious about living as God’s people.
But wait a moment, we might also have to say: “I’m not perfect. I still do things that I am not proud of. I still let God down at times.” And John says: this acknowledgement of our shortcomings is right, it is healthy. To deny that we are guilty of sin is to deceive ourselves: it is to deny God’s truth, and it is to reject all that Jesus has done for us for us. John insists that we need to confess our sins. If we do so, God will do what is right: he will forgive us those sins, and make us clean again.

For when we confess, we are being real with ourselves and with God. If we have wronged someone, how do we get things right again? Not by ignoring it or pretending it doesn’t matter: we need to admit the wrong we have done to the person we have wronged; we need to apologize, to ask for forgiveness, and to do whatever we can to put things right. We have all experienced the apology of someone who is only going through the motions: we know that they’re not for real. Real forgiveness breaks down the barriers: if the person in the wrong does not truly acknowledge the wrong they have done, they are not really ready to receive forgiveness.
And John sums this up by saying that if we deny that we are guilty of sin, we are in fact rejecting God’s truth. Yes, we are all sinners. We mightn’t be the worst sinners in the world: I trust that we are not! But we are guilty of sin in our thoughts and attitudes, our words and our actions, and our failures to act when we should.

Well, if we are all sinners, does it really matter? God is willing to forgive us, so surely we can sin as much as we wish, can’t we? That was an early distortion of the Gospel, but it is clearly untrue. John says to his readers: “I am writing this to you so that you may not sin.” God wants us not to sin. He wants us to live lives of goodness and love.

But he also wants us to realistic about our shortcomings. We do fall short and we will fall short. But, as he says, if we do sin, we have Jesus who died for us as our heavenly spokesperson, Jesus the righteous one, bringing us the assurance of forgiveness. He died for all people everywhere, but we need to open up to that forgiveness God offers to us all. To open up to forgiveness, we need to acknowledge our guilt.

That is what those three cricketers all did: they acknowledged the wrong they had done, they did not try to excuse it or to justify it, and they have accepted the penalties they received. I think that many people were moved by the words of Smith and Bancroft. There seems to be a desire to blame Warner more than the other two: a suspicion that he is more at fault, and that perhaps he is not as real in his contrition as the others. I don’t know: I am in no position to be judge and jury!

The important thing is to see that real confessing does not involve excusing our sins. It is acknowledging the reality, and it requires a genuine desire to change our behaviour. We must be real. And we must be repentant. Which leads me to another very current issue.

I am clearly not a Roman Catholic priest, so I am no expert in the requirements of the Catholic confessional. But it seems to me that if someone comes to me as a priest and confesses a crime, whether it be murder or robbery or abuse of children, I must make clear that repentance demands that they hand themselves over to the police and make their confession to them also. Otherwise it is an empty confession. Sin often has consequences, and when the sin is a crime, there are certainly legal consequences.
Jesus’ words to his followers on that Sunday after the resurrection when he breathed on them, offering them the Holy Spirit, was not setting up some system for grading sins or sinners. When he talked about offering or withholding forgiveness, he was empowering his followers to preach the Gospel of forgiveness through Christ. If people turn back to God and confess their sins and trust in Christ, they have the assurance of forgiveness. If they reject the Gospel of Christ, that forgiveness is closed to them because they themselves have shut the gate.

Forgiveness is bound up with so much of the Easter story. It is the result of Christ’s death for us on the cross. It opens the way to new life through the risen Christ. It is part of the blessing God offers when we trip ourselves up or stumble or wander off the path as Christ’s followers.

But forgiveness is not only something between us and God. Forgiveness is part of the way we relate to our neighbour. It is the way to good relationships. When we have done the wrong thing by each other, we need to confess our sins to each other, and to acknowledge the wrong we have done.

And when we are wronged, we need to be willing to forgive not just seven times, but seventy times seven. Mind you, if we are the ones needing forgiveness seventy times seven times, we should be asking ourselves whether our repentance is the real thing!

And that beautiful picture of the unity of God’s people in our reading from Acts, and that lovely oily picture in our Psalm reminds us that God wants us to relate to each other in love and unity. And when that love falls short, we confess and apologize and seek to do what we can to put things right, and we forgive. The church has been slow to learn. But it matters.

To walk in God’s light, to walk in Easter light, is to open up to God’s forgiveness, to be willing to forgive one another, and to be willing to confess our sins. Perfection is for the fullness of God’s kingdom. But right now, even if we sometimes wander away from the light, let us remember that God’s light is always there, and that he is always calling us back, to walk as his forgiven people in the light of true life. Amen.
Paul Weaver

Sermon: Easter Sunday, 1 April 2018, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Aidan’s

St.Aidan’s West Epping, 1st April 2018 (Easter Day)

 Rev. Paul Weaver

MARY MAGDALENE’S FIRST EASTER

 (Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118:1-2,14-24; 1 Cor 15:1-11; John 20:1-18)

Easter seems to be a popular time to get films about religious subjects into the cinemas. In the last couple of weeks the movie “Mary Magdalene” has been released to very mixed reviews. I haven’t seen it, so I can’t comment or give my own opinion of it. Some reviewers however have suggested that Mary is presented in the movie as something of a feminist figure.

What I do know is that anyone wanting to make a movie about Mary’s life has precious little reliable information to go on. Luke tells us that Jesus had driven seven evil spirits out of her. It is presumably from that time that she became a follower of Jesus, and she seems to have been one of the group of women who travelled around with Jesus and the disciples, and provided financial and practical support to them. The tradition that she was a prostitute comes from centuries after the time of Jesus, and it is based on a misreading of the Gospels. And other traditions about what she did in the years after Jesus’ resurrection seem to have very little basis. So I imagine that any film trying to tell her story is likely to be based on the writer’s imagination rather than solid evidence!

In the Gospels Mary is prominent only in the Easter story: she is there at the crucifixion, at the burial of Jesus’ body, and she is there on that first Easter morning.

That Sunday morning after the crucifixion, she was distraught. Her Lord and Master was dead, crucified, surely cursed by God. Mary had focused her life on him. He had rescued and cleansed her. He had taught and guided her. He had shown her how to live. But now he was gone, dead, condemned. Was he a fraud, a sham? Was he a martyr, overwhelmed by forces beyond his control? Mary’s mind was in turmoil as she went before dawn to that garden and that tomb where she had seen Jesus’ body buried only 36 hours earlier. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus had done what they could to give Jesus a fitting burial, but Mary and the other women wanted to give due honour to their master who had been crucified.

John tells us what happened when Mary and the others got to the tomb. The stone was rolled away, the guards had left the scene, and even in the half-light the women could see that Jesus’ body was no longer there. They left to find Peter and John, who hurried there themselves. Mary also returned, confused about what has happened and about what to do now. Who had taken the body? How would she find it now?

There she is, then, back at the tomb, alone with her thoughts. She looks in the tomb and this time sees two mysterious beings: angels in white, who ask her the most foolish question. “Woman, why are you weeping?” Perhaps she hears something behind her, for she turns around and sees a man standing there. Perhaps it’s the gardener. Perhaps he can tell her what has happened to the body, and so she asks him her desperate question. But this gardener replies with one word: “Mary!” And Mary suddenly realizes why Jesus’ body is no longer in the tomb. And she finally begins to understand some of the strange things Jesus had been trying to tell the disciples over the last few weeks.

Yes, Jesus had said that he would be put to death. But that had never made sense to this followers, and so they had never taken in the other thing he had told them: that he would rise from the dead. And that is what he has done!

Mary is catapulted from the depths of despair up to the heights of joy. “Rabboni!” she cries in excitement and wonder and relief. “My dear wonderful teacher!” She falls at his feet, and holds on as if she will never let him go. “Don’t leave me again!” is her unspoken plea. She wants to hang on to this special time: she doesn’t want it to end.

But Jesus speaks clearly. “Do not hold on to me, do not cling to me.” Oh yes, Mary must touch Jesus: she must know for sure that this really is no vision, no phantom. Yes, this is truly Jesus, the one who was crucified two days ago.

But she must not try to cling to Jesus. Why not? “I have not yet ascended to the Father”, says Jesus. Yes, Jesus is truly risen; Jesus is here. But he is soon to visibly leave and return to his throne at the Father’s side.

Jesus will no longer be with them in the way he was before. Mary and the disciples will no longer have his physical bodily presence with them when Jesus has returned to the Father. They must be assured of the resurrection. They must learn and understand many important truths they have not yet grasped. But Jesus’ presence with his followers will now be a spiritual presence, as the Holy Spirit comes to live and work in them. Jesus will no longer be alongside them visibly, but within them spiritually.

Jesus will physically leave, and Mary must not cling to him. This mountaintop experience is very real, but it is also temporary. Right now, though, Jesus has a task for Mary: she is to go to the disciples and tell them what happened and what Jesus has told her.

Mary is to be the first witness to the resurrected Christ. She is the first person to whom the risen Christ reveals himself, and the first person to tell others that Christ is risen. Indeed one writer has called her the “apostle to the apostles”. In Jewish society of that day, a woman was not regarded as a fit witness in a court of law. No doubt some who heard Mary’s testimony found it hard to accept because she was a woman. But of course, Jesus had a habit of breaking down conventional barriers. Nevertheless, the fact that a woman was the first witness to the resurrection was awkward at that time. In 1 Corinthians 15, where Paul lists a number of witnesses to the truth of the resurrection, as we heard, Mary doesn’t get a look in. Paul knows that too many people will be unlikely to take seriously the witness of a woman. The fact that the first witness to the risen Jesus was in fact a woman was not something that would have been fabricated in those days, and that it itself points to the reality of this amazing story.

As we reflect on Mary’s encounter with the risen Jesus, we can be encouraged that the resurrection is not just a story of some vague mystical experience, but a story of reality. Yes, Jesus Christ is risen indeed! We have not physically seen him for ourselves, but we can be assured of the reality and the promises of the risen Christ. And because Christ lives, we who trust and follow him are assured that we shall share with him in the fullness of eternal life.

We cannot repeat Mary’s unique experience, and for many of us, our Christian life has probably not brought us many or any really extraordinary experiences. Reality is not often extraordinary.

Yes, some Christians do seem to have amazing spiritual experiences, even miracles. But most of us Christians accept the testimony of Mary and the other witnesses, and trust that Christ is indeed risen and alive, and simply seek to live as Christ’s followers. And keep in mind that even those who have those mountaintop experiences cannot cling to them.

Believing in the truth of the Easter story, we run our race, we walk the walk, trusting that the risen Christ is quietly with us, empowering us and encouraging us, and confident that we shall indeed see him in his kingdom, as his forgiven and beloved followers. Amen.

Paul Weaver