Sermon: Easter 6, 6 May 2018, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Aidan’s

St.Aidan’s West Epping, 6th May 2018

“FAITH THAT IS REAL”

Rev. Paul Weaver

(Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98; 1 John 5:1-12; John 15:9-17)

Over the past few weeks we have heard a number of passages from the First Letter of John. There are verses in this letter that would be familiar to many of us, including that wonderful statement that “God is Love” from Chapter 4 that we heard last week. But the letter as a whole is not really a well-known part of the New Testament.  It is traditionally believed that the book was written by the Apostle John as an old man in the closing years of the first century. And there are good reasons for believing that the tradition is true, although the letter itself does not mention the name of the writer. In many ways, it seems more like a sermon than a letter like those of Paul.

Some people might think that it sounds rather like the message of an old man. As I said a couple of weeks ago, Paul’s letters are clearly organized. There is a clear flow to his argument, and specific subjects are covered in particular sections of his letters. But John’s First Letter is not like that. It can seem to go round in circles. What John does is to take a number of themes and reflect on them and relate them to one another.

Themes like light: for this is where we find the great statement that “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all”. And then there are themes like life, faith, truth, and witness. And of course, love.

If you haven’t already done so, let me encourage you to read through the whole letter yourself: it’s only five chapters, a few pages. We will actually have one more reading from the letter next week, although for some strange reason the five verses of next week’s reading include four verses from today’s reading! I’m not sure what that’s about: I wonder whether we will recognize them when we hear them again at St.Alban’s!

What is the letter about? John is aware of some ideas in the church which are causing confusion. He writes about Jesus Christ and who he really is. He writes about Christian faith and what it involves. He writes about Christian living and how it works. John wants to direct people to the truth of the Gospel, not just for the sake of having correct doctrine, but because what we believe is always worked out in how we live, and what we say and do.

It is true when you think about it. For instance, if you believe that infidels are God’s enemies and deserve to be wiped out, and that you will receive a heavenly reward if you help to do that, you will be able to justify becoming a suicide bomber. If you believe that God actually hates homosexual people, you will feel it is OK to act abusively towards them. If you believe that everyone who doesn’t hold exactly the doctrine you do will go to a terrible eternal hell, you might feel compelled to pressure people into your kind of faith. Our beliefs in all sorts of ways have a significant impact on our lives.

To help us think about the reality of our Christian faith, John indicates three things that are vital in our relationship with God through Jesus. One writer has described them as “the tests of faith”. I mentioned them a couple of weeks ago. There is the test of belief: and John insists that what we believe really matters, for otherwise we will take the path of falsehood and confusion. There is the test of obedience: John calls us to live lives of obedience to God and his laws, not in order to make ourselves acceptable to him or to win his approval, but rather as an expression of our relationship to him, and as a response to his goodness to us.

It is not enough for the child to say to mother “I love you”, if that child never listens, never helps, never obeys, never shows respect. So it is in our relationship with God. Of course we are far from perfect, but John calls us to ask ourselves: does obeying and pleasing God matter to me? Do I seek to take that path as I live my life?

And then, along with belief and obedience, there is the test of love. We heard Jesus’ powerful words in today’s Gospel, calling his followers to abide in his love. And we heard his message that love is uniquely demonstrated by the one who lays down his life for those he loves. Of course, the very next day after saying this Jesus himself would lay down his life on the cross, not simply as a victim or a martyr, but in order to deal with the problem of human sin and evil, and to restore us to full fellowship with God and bring us the fullness of salvation. Jesus did not just teach about love: he lived it out.

And here in Chapter 5 of his letter, John says some important things about Jesus, and some important things about the Christian life. True Christian faith means trusting in Jesus who is the Christ, the Messiah, the promised Saviour and King.

Faith means trusting in Jesus who is the unique Son of God: not just a special man, but one who shares the very nature of God, as a human child shares in the human nature of its parents. John wants us to know that in Jesus, God has come to us in person, sharing our human life and existence. And John insists that we can have confidence that this is true because of the witness that has been provided: not just human witness, but the very witness of God himself. We might find the three witnesses to Jesus mentioned by John rather strange, but John wants us to see that they have God’s authority.

These witnesses are the Spirit, the water and the blood. What is John getting at? The Spirit is the Holy Spirit, God present with us, to encourage us in the truth and to strengthen us in our faith. The experts are somewhat divided about what John describes as “the water and the blood”. Some people think John is referring to what happened when the soldier pierced Jesus’ dead body on the cross, and blood and water came out from his side. I think it is more likely that John is referring to the witness of God connected with Jesus’ baptism and his crucifixion.

You will remember that God spoke at Jesus’ baptism, acknowledging that Jesus was his Son, and that he was well-pleased with him. But then God’s witness to Jesus is also borne not simply in the awesome darkness of Good Friday, but in its sequel: the defeat of death in Jesus’ resurrection. How can salvation be assured, says John, if Jesus is not the Son of God, if he does not in himself bring together the holiness of God and the frailty of humanity? Salvation is found in him: and so John brings out the importance of believing the truth about Jesus.

But John is not just interested in what we believe. He is interested in how we live. Does having our doctrine right make us a real Christian? John makes clear that there is more to it than that. Does trying to obey God make us a real Christian? According to John there is more to it than that. We only have to look at the Pharisees to see how a serious attempt to live a godly life can be distorted intro legalism and judgementalism.

Well, does being a loving person make us a real Christian? We know sadly how often the idea of love is corrupted into sentimentality or into lust and greed: something far away from the love God seeks from us.

John wants us to see that it does matter what we believe. It does matter that we are serious about obeying God. It does matter that we love our neighbour. If our faith is the real thing, we shall love God, we shall love our neighbour, and we shall seek to obey God. True obedience is expressed in a loving life: as Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “if you love me, you will obey my commands”. And so a true love for God will be expressed in love for our neighbour.

Faith, obedience and love: you can’t really have one without the other. They are all characteristic of the true Christian life. And so John challenges us. If these are characteristic of the true Christian life, how are we going? John is not calling us to judge others. Nor is he calling us to despair because we don’t measure up to how we think we should be going. The whole point of the Gospel is that we receive forgiveness of all our sins through Christ. But John is asking us: what road am I on? Is this the direction of my life? Am I trusting in Jesus, even with my doubts and questions? Am I seeking to obey him, even though I fall short, and continue to need his forgiveness? And am I seeking to show love in my life, doing what I can to serve and care for the one who needs my love?

We are not saved by correct doctrine, or by some NAPLAN score for obedience and love. We are saved by God’s grace, through his love shown to us in Christ. But as we respond to that love shown in Christ, let’s ask him to help us follow him as his people in faith, along that path of deepening obedience and love. Amen.

            Paul Weaver

 

Sermon: Easter 5, 29 April 2018, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Aidan’s

St.Aidan’s West Epping, 29th April 2018

 Rev. Paul Weaver

THE GOSPEL FOR THE OUTSIDER

 (Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 22:26-32; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8)

Last week I pointed out that since Easter our Lectionary has been taking us through the First Letter of John. But it has also been bringing us some highlights from the first half of the Acts of the Apostles.

Acts begins with Jesus talking to his disciples before his Ascension. He assures them that the Holy Spirit will come to them and give them power to bear witness to him: not only in Jerusalem, but also in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. And in a sense, this book by Luke shows us how that great promise began to be fulfilled. On the day of Pentecost, thousands were converted, and Luke makes it clear that many who heard the message of Jesus that day came from different parts of the world.

In Chapter 8, which we heard the last part of this morning, the focus is on Philip, one of seven people appointed to look after the needs of Christians who were poor, so that the apostles could focus on preaching the Gospel. But like Stephen, another of these seven, who became the first Christian martyr, Philip’s gifts were not just administrative! He also was a gifted communicator, and indeed had a very effective ministry to the Samaritans, seeing many of them healed and led to Christ. Another step forward for the Gospel, as Jesus had indicated!

But suddenly Philip received a divine command to go around 100 kilometres south, to the old Gaza road used by traders and travellers going to Egypt and Africa. And so, instead of preaching to crowds of enthusiastic people in Samaria, Philip found himself talking to one solitary fellow from Ethiopia. His country was probably a bit north of the fascinating country we know as Ethiopia today: probably closer to the Sudan. This man was a top-ranking official in the government, assisting the queen, who was the effective ruler of Ethiopia, while the king concentrated on trying to be the semi-divine son of the sun! The man was probably black, very unlikely to be a Jew. But many Jews lived in North Africa, and like many local people, no doubt this man had found that the idea of a single Creator God, a God who is righteous and who calls people to be righteous, made far more sense to him that the local pagan traditions and practices.

This man had made the trip to Jerusalem to worship the God of the Jews, and to learn more about him. He was someone who wanted to understand more about the living God. But he faced barriers. He was a eunuch, which made him officially unable to be admitted as a full Jewish convert or proselyte. He would be called a “God-fearer”, but he would never be able to go beyond the outer court of the temple, or share fully in worship.

It was probably while he was in Jerusalem that he had got hold of one or more scrolls of the Jewish scriptures, probably in the Greek translation which was becoming more widely used. As Philip drew near to the chariot, which may well have been part of a caravan of travellers, he heard the Ethiopian reading aloud: in fact it was so loud that Philip could recognize the passage he was reading. And before getting too condescending, we need to keep in mind that silent reading has really only been normal in the last few centuries!

The Ethiopian was reading what is to Christians a very famous passage: Isaiah Chapter 53, about the Suffering Servant. Perhaps he had already read some earlier chapters about this Servant of the Lord, who had been raised up to bring healing to God’s people, to preach God’s message, and to bring light to the nations; a servant who would face discouragement, rejection and suffering. According to this passage, the servant would not only suffer: he would die. His death would be unjust, and yet the servant would accept it without complaint. But somehow this death would also bring forgiveness of sins to others, and indeed it would lead to the servant’s ultimate triumph, all in accordance with God’s will and purpose.

Now that’s a lot to take in, especially if you were not brought up learning about the Old Testament, and if you have just heard some vague stories about Jesus the teacher and healer, executed in Jerusalem some time ago. Philip asked the right question as he came up to the chariot: “Do you understand what you are reading?” “How can I understand unless someone guides me?” asks the Ethiopian. And of course Philip is more than happy to do just that. “Who is this all about?” asks the Ethiopian. That was the big issue of this passage, and it mystified many able Jewish teachers. But Jesus himself had pointed his followers towards a deep understanding this chapter, and when the disciples reflected on his death and resurrection, it had suddenly made real sense, and taken on a new and wonderful significance for them.

Jesus was the one who was led to death without complaint, like a sheep or lamb. He was the one who was denied justice, humiliated and crucified; whose life was taken from the earth. But Philip was not only able to tell the Ethiopian that Jesus was the one to whom this passage pointed: he was able to explain how Jesus’ death on the cross was God’s way of dealing with human sin and evil. God himself was in Jesus the Suffering Servant, the promised Messiah, bearing the curse of sin, its penalty, its alienation. He bore our sin and triumphed over evil. His death brings us healing, spiritual wholeness, and it reconciles us to God.

Philip would have explained all this, showing how Jesus fulfilled the great promises of the Old Testament. He showed the Ethiopian that Jesus had come to bring light and salvation to all the world. He had not come only for Jews, but for all people. Philip told this outsider the Good News, the wonderful News of Jesus. What this man needed to do was to see that Jesus had come and lived and died and risen for him, as he has for all of us. What he now needed to do was to accept by faith God’s tremendous gift of forgiveness and life, depending on God’s wonderful love in Jesus the promised King and Saviour.

And that’s what this Ethiopian official did. He decided to put his faith in Jesus as his Saviour, and to seek to live out that faith, following Jesus as his Master and King. And to express that commitment, to express that decision to become Christ’s follower, he asked to be baptized when they came to a stream or pool near the road. And so Philip baptized him: and that is the end of the story as we have it. Next thing we know, Philip is preaching the Gospel in the old Philistine town of Ashdod. And the Ethiopian is on his way home rejoicing.

Was there already a Christian church in Ethiopia for him to link up with? We don’t know. Certainly there were no follow-up classes to join in, or correspondence or internet courses to enrol in. Not even any specifically Christian literature to study. What he had was his scroll or scrolls of the Old Testament, and his understanding of them as Philip had explained them. And he now also had the Holy Spirit at work in him, strengthening and encouraging and guiding him along the path of faith and discipleship.

Well, was it worthwhile for Phillip to be sent all that way to speak to this one man? In the plan of God it was. Philip continued up the coast and continued what seems to have been a very effective ministry pointing people to Christ and building up the church. And we know that the ancient church of Ethiopia looks back to this man and sees him as the founder of that church which has survived over the centuries.

The Ethiopian certainly was glad that Philip had been sent to show him the way of salvation. And after all, the Lord is like the good shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep in a safe place, so that he can go looking for the one who is lost. It was not only the Ethiopian who rejoiced that day. It was the angels of heaven and the Lord himself who rejoiced to see this unlikely man enter the family of God, and find his place in the kingdom of heaven.

And Luke who recorded this story wants us to see God’s plan for the Gospel going forward, as the Gospel reaches into Africa and as outsiders find their place in the family of God. Of course if Philip had not been open to the leading of God’s Spirit directing him on his long journey, this would never have happened. But Philip was abiding in Jesus, the vine, the source of life and growth. He was ready to bear fruit because he stayed connected to Jesus. On this Harvest Festival, let us remember that Jesus wants us to bear fruit for him: the fruit of a truly Christian life and a truly Christian character, but also the fruit that comes when we are ready to bear our own witness for Jesus. We mightn’t see ourselves as great evangelists like Philip – or for that matter like Billy Graham who died earlier this year, and whose ministry touched so many lives – but in our own way, by our own words and actions, we can point people towards Jesus.

But we must beware, for we can point people away from him by our unkindness, our lovelessness, our judgementalism, our arrogance. Let us stay connected to Jesus the true vine, and allow Jesus’ challenge to bear fruit in our own lives. We never know whom we might influence to look more closely at Jesus. May our light shine before others, that they may see our good works, and hear our gracious and helpful words, and give glory to our Father in heaven, drawing close to our Saviour Jesus Christ, the true vine and bringer of life. Amen.

Paul Weaver

 

Sermon: Easter 4, 22 April 2018, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Aidan’s

St.Aidan’s West Epping, 22nd April 2018

 Rev. Paul Weaver

THE POWER OF SACRIFICIAL LOVE

(Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18)

“There is no greater love than this: that a person lays down their life for those they love.” Famous words that naturally come to mind as Anzac Day draws near. And in Australia, where we have so many of the good things of life, we are right to be thankful, and to honour the memory of those who served and who risked their lives for our country. So many of them came back injured or changed, and so many died in the service of our country and its allies. Let us never forget, or take for granted, those who have served us at such great cost.

Of course those famous words I quoted come from Jesus, as he spoke to his followers the night before his death for us on the cross. Jesus, the good shepherd, as we heard in our Gospel just a moment ago. The true shepherd, the one who really cares for the sheep, is not just a hired hand who simply wants to get through the day without trouble and get his pay at the end of the day. If danger comes, the hired hand isn’t going to risk his life. The sheep don’t matter that much!

But the good shepherd is not only ready to risk his life for the sheep: he is willing to give his life for the sheep. Surely that is beyond the call of duty!

And yet the good shepherd does it willingly. He does it not because he is forced to, but because that is what is needed. We joined together this morning in perhaps the best-known and most-loved of all the Psalms: Psalm 23 – “the Lord’s my shepherd”. God our shepherd cares for us: he provides for our needs, he is with us when life is tough, and as his people we are assured that we shall always be at home in his presence.

Jesus the Good Shepherd adds another dimension to that beautiful picture. No longer is our loving shepherd the unseen God, for God has come among us in person to demonstrate his love. Jesus is the Lord, the Good Shepherd, whose sacrificial love brings us salvation, and who has saved us from our spiritual enemies of sin and evil and death. The good shepherd shows us divine sacrificial love. The good shepherd also guides us along the path of life, as Psalm 23 reminds us. And the path of life is also the path of love.

In his first letter, John wanted to help his readers to stay on the right path. He knew that his readers – and us too – so easily stray off the track, and go off in the wrong direction.

Reading this letter, as our lectionary has us doing these Sundays after Easter, we find a number of ideas that keep on reappearing. It’s a lovely and interesting letter, but to some people it must be a bit frustrating. It’s not a neatly organized letter, like those of Paul for example. It has important things to say, but seems to keep going round in circles.

In the letter John has some themes that he keeps coming back to. We can think of them as right belief or faith, real obedience and genuine love.

Belief, obedience and love. John points out that they all matter, and they have much more to do with each other than people might think. Indeed they are all mentioned in today’s reading, and they are all essential parts of a true Christian life.

John wants us to belong to the truth: trusting in Jesus the Messiah, the fulfilment of God’s wonderful promises, the great Saviour and King, and indeed God incarnate: God coming among us to live – and to die for us. John is concerned that if we invent our own version of Jesus, we will indeed wander off the track and turn away from the blessings that come because of who Jesus is and because of what he has done for us. We need to hold onto the truth about Jesus.

But John wants us also to be serious about obedience to God’s commands. It is disobedience to God that got us into our human mess in the first place. In his commandments God showed us the way to live. By rejecting God’s call and setting our own standards, we separated ourselves from God’s blessings and God’s promises.

But God did not give up on us: coming amongst us in the person of Jesus, he again showed us how to live; but more than that, he took care of our moral and spiritual debt, so that he could forgive us without trivializing our sinfulness and without compromising his standards of righteousness. As forgiven people we have not yet spiritually or morally arrived, as we were reminded a couple of weeks ago when John emphasized the importance of admitting and confessing our sins. But confession is not merely about setting the count at zero so that we can start sinning again.

I guess we are right now concerned that all these confessions from bank executives mean nothing – unless there is a real determination to change their banks’ dishonest ways. So it is to be with us. As John says, we open up to God’s blessings as we seek to obey God’s commandments and do what pleases him. It is not about perfection here and now, but it is about the direction of our lives.

Right belief and true obedience, and then genuine love. We receive the blessings of God’s love, and he commands us to reflect that love in our lives. As John writes: “this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another just as he has commanded us”. And love is not just a matter of nice feelings: love is active. We see someone in need, and we are in a position to help. Love is not just about feeling sorry for them or even saying a prayer for them: it means actually doing what we can to help. God did not just feel sad that we had turned away from him: he acted in love to deal with our problem of sin. That is what love does: it does.

And love can be costly: it can involve effort, generosity, inconvenience, and it can involve overcoming our feelings. There are people whom we find it easy to love, but sometimes God calls us to show love to people whom we find it hard to love: it may be something about their appearance or background or manner, it may be something they have done which has put up barriers between us. As John puts it: “let us love, not in words and speech, but in truth and action.”

Obeying God and loving others may not be something which puts our life at risk here in Australia, but it certainly can have its costs. In our reading from Acts, Peter had healed a man lame from birth. He and John had found themselves under arrest and under questioning by the local authorities, who obviously realized their connection with Jesus, and who also would have been aware of claims that he has risen from the dead.

It would be natural for Peter and John to soft-pedal and try to keep themselves out of further trouble. But Peter – being Peter of course – went straight to the point. A wonderful healing had indeed taken place. How? It was “in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead…and there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name….by which we must be saved.”

For Peter, being open about Jesus and the message of Jesus was part of his obedience; it was an expression of his faith and of his love for Jesus. And it expressed his love for other people, for he wanted others to receive the salvation which he had received, and which is offered to all who trust in Jesus.

Many of you will be aware of the Christian footballer Israel Falou, who has got into a good deal of trouble for his comments on homosexuality on Instagram. His comments have been seen as homophobic and have been widely condemned, but he believes that he was being true to his Christian faith and to the message of the scriptures. He also believes that he was being loving to the person who contacted him on the web about the subject, by explaining the implications of the Gospel message.

I think I see where he is coming from, although I am not sure that he has been wise. Giving simple answers on social media is not the same as having a personal conversation with someone. Difficult issues have to be handled with sensitivity and understanding, and generally they are best addressed personally, not through the megaphone of social media. And I also think there are aspects of scripture that he has missed in trying to give a clear answer to the questioner. But I do have to acknowledge that he is following in Peter’s footsteps in being open about the message of Jesus as he understands it. And his experience reminds us that the Christian message for all sorts of reasons does not have the social acceptance that it once had.

It is a message of grace and love, but it is also a message of clarity, which is not a popular thing today. People want religion to be warm and fuzzy and vague, and preferably undemanding. To challenge this misunderstanding is to risk unpopularity!

This week then we remember those who have made great sacrifices. Those who have served our nation and people in time of war. And our Saviour Jesus who gave his life to bring us forgiveness and hope. And we also remember those who have given their lives or made other great sacrifices in faithfulness to Jesus.

The demands of faith are not always easy: right belief, real obedience and genuine love can be very demanding. But our true shepherd has shown us the way, and when it is hard, he is with us – even in the darkest valley, that valley of the shadow of death. Amen.                                       Paul Weaver

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

 

Sermon: Lent 4, 11 March 2018, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Aidan’s

St. Aidan’s West Epping, 11th March 2018

AMAZING GRACE

(Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 103; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:16-21)

“The church is full of hypocrites!” It’s a criticism that has been around for a long time, and not without reason. Sadly the widely reported child abuse and apparent toleration of sexual abuse within the church has reinforced this impression. How do we respond to a criticism like that, especially when we have heard so much about the church to justify the accusation?

I suppose that a clever response is to say: “No, the church is not full of hypocrites. There’s always room for one more. You’re welcome to join us.” I doubt however that that would work brilliantly!

Why do people make these criticisms of the church? Why do they seem to have higher expectations of the church than other organizations and groups? One reason perhaps is that they think that Christianity and the church’s message is all about “being good”. Perhaps they get the impression that Christians see themselves as better than other people – and as we are regularly being reminded, we far too often don’t seem to measure up.

Of course, Christians ought to live good honest decent lives. Our character ought to be godly. We ought to be known as people who love their neighbour. But we Christians certainly have our faults, sometimes glaring ones. It would be nice to think that the faults of Christians are less than they might be if they were not Christians: but you can’t prove that one way or another! And you certainly can’t say that Christians are free from hypocrisy.

Most of us have sides that we try not to display too obviously, things about ourselves that we’re not too proud of. If we were totally open before people, we would sometimes show a different face. I guess you could describe that as a form of hypocrisy: play-acting, which is the literal meaning of the word. I’m certainly guilty of that. I know of nothing I’ve done that would cause a front-page scandal, but there is a certain image that I prefer people to have of me, and it feels good if people think of me as better than I really am. And my guess is that many of us would have to admit something similar.

I am well and truly imperfect, and so are the rest of us. And that is part of the essence of being a Christian. Every Christian acknowledges that he or she is definitely an imperfect person. So if you’re not perfect, church is the right place to be. In fact a significant part of this service is the confession, as we acknowledge our failures before God. We are encouraged to be honest enough to own up to our sinfulness and our disobedience to God.

For the heart of Christianity is not how good we are. And Paul makes that clear in our reading from Ephesians 2. He gets to the heart of the Christian faith as he explains what we are all like, and what God has done to help us.

Paul uses pretty graphic language to describe our human failings. Phrases like “dead through your transgressions and sins”, “following the ways of the world”, “gratifying the passions of the flesh and following its desires and thoughts”. He says that by nature, we are deserving of God’s wrath or judgement.

Very dramatic! No wonder people think that Paul got hung up on sin! But we need to understand his point. We are not too far from the truth if we think of sin as self-centredness. It is the attitude “I want what I want”, “I will do what I want”. It is setting ourselves up as the one in charge of our lives, rather than acknowledging God, our Creator and Ruler, as rightly having first place. It is doing what I want, even if it is not what God wants, even if it is not loving towards others.

Sin is going our way, rather than going God’s way. And that means that far too often our neighbour is hurt, or at least left out. It means that we keep God at a distance, so that he doesn’t get in the way. And sadly, by cutting ourselves off from God, we cut ourselves off from his life and from his kingdom.

The natural result of this is all the evil we see in the world: it is seen in the lives of people everywhere, from all nations and backgrounds, from religious and irreligious alike. We are all sinners: far too consistently we choose our way rather than God’s. That’s what Paul says we are all like. And if we are honest with ourselves, we know he’s right.

And if that were all Paul had to say on the subject, we might indeed say that he was “hung up” on sin. However, in verse 4 of our ten verses there is a very important word: the word “but”! I remember a lecturer at Moore College saying that when you see the word “but” in the Bible, look closely because something significant is being said!

And that’s certainly the case here. For having talked about the human problem of sin, Paul gets on to what God has done about it! He goes from the bad news to the good news.

What has God done? He has brought us from death to life. He has raised us from the darkness of sin and given us a seat in the kingdom of heaven. And he has done it through Jesus Christ: above all through his death and resurrection.

Despite our sin, God has forgiven us. Despite our spiritual deadness, God has raised us to life. Despite our alienation from him, God has restored us to fellowship and given us a place in his kingdom. Despite our inability to get ourselves out of the mess, God has rescued us. And he has done it in the person of Jesus Christ: God himself, coming to share our human life – living, dying and rising for our sakes.

As those famous words we heard from John’s Gospel say: “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Yes, God did it because of his love, because of his great mercy, because of his amazing grace.

Today is Mothering Sunday. We know what we expect mothers to be like. We expect them to love their children. Yes, we hope than they will guide and discipline their children in a loving way. But mothers don’t stop loving their children because they have been disobedient, or haven’t done well enough at their examinations, or don’t tidy their rooms, or put on a tantrum. Many children test out their mother’s love, but it takes a lot for any real mother to actually stop loving their children. Sadly, however, for all sorts of reasons of course, it does sometimes happen.

But what about God? God loves us humans even when we reject his love. God loves us even though we don’t deserve it. Paul refers to God’s grace and that’s what grace is all about: God’s kindness, which reaches out to us even though we don’t deserve it. God doesn’t love us because we’re good or moral or religious: he loves us because that’s the sort of God he is. He is a God of love. We can never earn God’s grace. We can’t pay for God’s grace. It is a gift, an infinitely generous gift, an expression of his infinite love.

And how do we respond when a gift is offered to us? Surely the best thing is to accept it with thankfulness. Not to ignore it. Not to refuse it. Certainly not to try to pay for it!

We simply and thankfully accept God’s gift. And that is what faith is all about. Opening up to God’s grace: accepting God’s forgiveness, God’s gift of salvation.

Paul in our passage is saying that in our sinfulness we are spiritually lost and blind. But through Christ we find God’s welcome and see God’s light.

In faith we open up to God’s wonderful love, his amazing grace. We place ourselves in his loving hands with all our faults and failings and weaknesses, and we open up to his Spirit to lead us through life.

Faith then is opening up to God and his amazing grace. And it’s the heart of being a Christian. Not being good or moral or kind or religious. But simply trusting the God who loves and welcomes us through Christ.

And that’s is why true Christianity can set us free from hypocrisy. We don’t have to pretend to be better than we are. We don’t pretend that we’re perfect. Certainly not that we’re better than other people. We take sin seriously but we don’t need to be obsessed by it, for God has graciously dealt with it through Christ.

But remember that God’s grace reaches out with a purpose in mind. Paul says that we are created, created anew, in Christ Jesus, “to do good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life”. God has good things for us to do: acts of kindness and love, deeds of generosity and service, decisions based on wisdom and honesty and righteousness and generosity, words and actions that bear witness to the love and goodness of God. Our faith doesn’t make us superior, but if it is for real, it certainly makes a difference in our lives.

Christians certainly aren’t perfect. But by God’s grace we accept in faith his gift of forgiveness and salvation, and we seek to consistently follow Jesus who shows us the way to life, and the way of life. Amen.

Paul Weaver

 

Sermon: Lent 3, 4 March 2018, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Alban’s

St.Alban’s Epping, 4th March 2018

 Rev. Paul Weaver

RESPONDING TO THE VOICE OF GOD

 (Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22)

Many of us will have looked at a breathtaking view, perhaps a beautiful scene of natural beauty, perhaps taking in the night sky away from the city lights; and we have thought, “Isn’t God’s creation wonderful!” If we have done that, we are following in the footsteps of the writer of Psalm 19, which we joined in this morning.

“The heavens declare the glory of God”, proclaims the Psalmist, and he goes on to describe in pictorial terms the passage of the sun across the sky day by day. Its light and heat are wonderful, and it, along with everything else, was made by God the Creator of all things. How great indeed is God!

Of course not everyone came to that conclusion then, and not all come to that conclusion now. In the days of the Old Testament, there were many gods worshipped by different nations. Large numbers of people were not aware of the one great Creator: they might worship gods of the hills and mountains, gods of the winds, gods of the rain, and so on. These people could not recognize the wonderful reality the Psalmist was describing.

And today so many people still scoff at the idea of a Creator. Of course, it is not the role of science to answer the question of whether the world was created: it can certainly investigate questions of how and when and what, but it cannot answer questions about who made it happen or why. And it was sad for me to hear the comment from two well-known atheists in a TV discussion when they agreed that “even if there is a God, he must be pretty stingy!” I guess you can look at all the problems in the world and come to that conclusion. However when you look at all the wonderful things in the world, and consider how many of the problems in the world are result of human failings, I think it makes sense to join the Psalmist and praise our Creator!

But the Psalmist doesn’t leave it there. There is more to God than we can discover just by looking at the world. God speaks in other ways. And in the following verses our Psalmist begins to focus on what we would call the scriptures.

“The Law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul,” he says. He began by using the general term God, but now he talks about the Lord, using the name by which God revealed himself to Moses. The Torah of the Lord is perfect, or complete: it says all that it needs to say.

The Hebrew word Torah is usually translated as “Law”, but more accurately it means “instruction”: the Torah, those first five books of the Bible, the books of Moses, provides teaching or instruction for God’s people about the Lord, the God of Israel, the God who brought his people out of bondage in Egypt, who made a wonderful covenant with them, and who brought them into the promised land.

This Psalm was written in a time before most of the books of the Old Testament were written: the books of prophecy were yet to come, and of course the Psalms and Proverbs and the other books were not yet compiled. When the Psalmist wrote these words he was thinking about the scriptures that he knew. He says that the message of the scriptures gives life to the soul, our inner being. The scriptures, with their commands and precepts and instructions, show us the way to live. We are blessed if we take in their message: we are even more blessed if we put into practice what we learn. And so it is not surprising to find that the Psalmist continues with a prayer that the Lord will protect him from serious sin, and bring him spiritual cleansing and forgiveness. The Psalm concludes with that famous prayer used by so many preachers over the years, which I used myself this morning.

That prayer was probably familiar to many of you, and you may have memories of clergy who regularly used it. But there is another piece of scripture we heard this morning which many of you will remember hearing much more often than we do nowadays. In the old Book of Common Prayer, the service of Holy Communion began with two prayers and then we had the Ten Commandments. After each of the commandments, there was a response we became very familiar with: “Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.” Sometimes the longer commandments would be abbreviated, and sometimes the two great commandments would be read instead of the ten. And that was fair enough, for those words from Jesus sum up the message of the Ten Commandments.

But how appropriate that response was! “Lord have mercy”, recognizing

our need of forgiveness, and then a plea for God to help us obey his commandments.

Of course once upon a time, part of our Confirmation preparation was learning those Ten Commandments: I promise not to test you on the way up to communion this morning!

And those commandments are still so powerful and relevant today: I remember preaching a series working through the Ten Commandments, about one a month, when I was at the Cathedral. There is still much to be learned from them, and they still present us with plenty of challenges.

Today let me just make a few brief observations on the Ten Commandments. Firstly the commandments make clear that our response to God is demonstrated not only by our religious activity, but also by the way we treat our neighbour. Loving God and loving our neighbour go together.

Secondly, they are not as negative as they may seem. Yes, they may have lots of  “thou shalt nots”, but these set vital boundaries: they are like the fence that is put up to stop people falling over the dangerous cliff-face. There is still plenty of freedom for people to admire the view, to take a walk, to have a picnic, to play games, to enjoy the place. But no human freedom is absolute, despite what the American gun lobby would have people believe. Yes, those “thou shalt nots” set the boundaries, but they still give us all plenty of freedom to live positive lives.

Thirdly, the commandments remind us that God is interested in all of our lives: seven days and not just one day a week, and he is concerned not just for what we might call the spiritual side of life, but all that makes it up.

And the fourth thing these commandments remind us is that God is concerned not just about our actions, but about our thoughts and attitudes: we are reminded of this by that tenth commandment which forbids the unhealthy attitude of covetousness. Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount brings this out even more strongly where he warns not just against murder and adultery, but against those harmful attitudes like hatred and lust.

There is one other thing I want to point out about the commandments. They were given to God’s people when he had rescued them from bondage and made them his people. They were given to explain how to live as God’s people. They are not a stepladder we have to climb in order to reach God; they are not an HSC examination we have to pass before God will care about us. We don’t try to obey the commandments in order to get God to love us: we seek to obey them in response to God’s great love for us. They express the practical side of our privileged relationship with the God who loves us and graciously welcomes us through Christ.

So God reveals himself to us through his wonderful creation, and through the written scriptures. But above all he has revealed himself to us in his son Jesus Christ. Jesus revealed his divine authority in different ways: through the healing of suffering people, through his unique teaching about God and about life, and in today’s Gospel, by cleansing the temple which had been turned into a place of commerce and chaos instead of a true place of worship. The problem with Jesus was that he didn’t overwhelm people with his power, and force people to believe in him. And people were looking for a different kind of Saviour, a military and political Saviour, not a suffering Servant of God, and so they rejected Jesus and his message. How could anyone crucified by the Romans could be taken seriously as a Saviour? Despite his resurrection, which was attested to by hundreds of people, Jews regarded the claims of Jesus as offensive, while educated Greeks and other Gentiles regarded them as nonsense. And even now, many people find it hard to come to terms with the claims of a crucified and risen Lord. In Jesus, God takes us by surprise: but what a wonderful surprise! God’s foolishness is indeed wiser than human wisdom!

Today then, let’s remember that God doesn’t force himself on us. He reveals himself if we are ready to take notice. If some of you can’t get out to enjoy the beauty of creation any longer, perhaps those beautiful TV documentaries might remind you again of the wonders of God’s creation. And all of us can reflect regularly on the message of the scriptures, not only the books of the Old Testament, but the grace revealed in Jesus Christ and the message of the New Testament. Let us read and learn and live it out with the help of God’s Holy Spirit. And let us above all keep learning about Jesus our Saviour, and trust and follow him throughout our lives. Amen.                                                                                                 Paul Weaver

Sermon: Lent 2, 25 February 2018, Dr Ruth Shatford, St Alban’s

ST ALBAN’S EPPING.  2nd SUNDAY IN LENT, 25th FEBRUARY 2018

Genesis 17:1-7 & 15-16;   Psalm 22: 24—32;  Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38

This is the year of Mark.  In his introduction to the gospel last week, Fr Paul pointed out that Mark, the shortest gospel, doesn’t touch on Jesus’ early life, but dives straight into the narrative of his ministry.  In a little prayer guide to St Mark’s gospel, the Jesuit writer Mark Link quotes:  “Mark’s gospel is the shortest and most action-packed… The absence of many words leaves us freer to enjoy the person and action of Jesus.”  He goes on to say that we should stop after each event and ask ourselves   “What does Jesus do?”.  Then we should ask ourselves “How do the words of Jesus clarify the meaning of his action – or how do they help us to discover the meaning for ourselves?”.

Our gospel reading today is located virtually right in the middle of Mark’s gospel.  For seven plus chapters, Mark has recounted episodes in Jesus’ ministry.  The title “Christ” has not appeared, “Christ” being the Greek rendering of the Hebrew title – not a name, but a title – “Messiah”.  Some astute readers may have seen a foreshadowing of the death that awaits Jesus, when they look at his baptism, the opposition that springs up here and there against him and John the Baptist’s grisly execution.  But overall, there has been no clear indication of the death that is to come.

Earlier in chapter 8, there is a most extraordinary exchange between Jesus and his disciples. It occurs in a pretty out of the way place, near Caesarea Philippi, that is, the Caesarea in Philip’s jurisdiction rather than Herod’s, once the outer limit of Israel’s northern district.  It was a long way from the Galilee region that was mainly the territory in which Jesus moved around teaching.  It was a town whose earlier name indicated it had been a great centre of the worship of the pagan god Baal- a name forbidden to God’s people.  It was commonly believed that up a nearby hill in a cave, was born Pan, the Greek god of nature and that this was also the source of the Jordan River.  A little further up, but within view, was a gleaming white marble temple, built on the order of Philip, in honour of Caesar, the Roman Emperor, the ruler of the world, regarded as a god.  There, against a background of so many religions, Jesus had suddenly, surprisingly, asked his friends “Who do people say that I am?”.

The answers were not surprising- “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah and still others, one of the prophets.”.    Many people believed that Elijah, who had been “taken up” from their forebears in a fiery chariot, and had not passed through death, would return to herald the coming of the Messiah.  Others thought perhaps this Jesus was one of the prophets, or John the Baptist come back to life and returned among them.  In view of the traditions, these were all quite understandable, sensible answers.

Then the question got harder…”but who do you say that I am?”  Peter, without hesitation says “You are the Christ.”   The Jews had dreamt for generations of a messiah who would arise, another king of David’s line, who would make the nation great in righteousness and power. The sacred texts from between the Old and New Testaments that mention the Christ, do not paint a very Jesus-like picture of the one who was to come.  The Jews had constantly faced humiliation and defeat.  First, the ten tribes had been carried off to Assyria, lost to them forever.  Then the Babylonians had conquered Jerusalem and carried the Jews away captive.  Then came the Persians, followed by the Greeks and now, the Romans to subjugate them.  For centuries, they had not known freedom or independence, let alone supremacy and dominion.

These intertestamental books were meant to be tellings of the future.  Collectively, some of these writings are called the Apocrypha, meaning “unveilings”.  They foreshadowed that the physical and moral order would first collapse.  Then when the messiah came, he would be the most destructive conqueror in history, smashing his enemies into extinction.  The Jews who were dispersed would be gathered together in the New Jerusalem.   From this grim picture over which the Jews would rejoice, it was expected there would follow a new age of peace and goodness that would last forever.

The one who was to come is portrayed as the uniquely anointed, divinely authorised deliverer who was expected to purify the Jewish society, re-establish Israel’s pre-eminence among the nations and usher in a new era of peace and holiness.

It was against this background understanding, against the mindset that the disciples had grown up with, that Peter answered Jesus’ closer-to-home question “But who do you say I am?”..

In full view of the splendid palace on the hill that declared Caesar to be a god, Peter answers Jesus, “You are God’s anointed one.”.

It is indeed a dramatic moment and a powerful assertion.
How confusing then for Peter and the other disciples to be told not to reveal this to anyone.  How shattered they must have been where our gospel reading begins today, to be told by Jesus what his fate was to be.  Now this man, this messiah, is foretelling his own death.  Peter must be struggling to reconcile the majestic, powerful figure that was in his mind from the time he could first remember learning the faith, with his friend, the itinerant preacher, whom Peter had just recognised or we could even say “revealed” as the messiah.  A little further on in this gospel, there are other occasions when Jesus speaks about himself as the suffering Son of Man.  In chapter 9, he tells them that the Son of Man is going to be betrayed and killed and after three days will rise again.  The disciples did not understand and were afraid to ask.  Then in chapter 10, Jesus says to them that he would be betrayed, condemned to death, mocked, spat on, flogged and killed before rising again after three days.   And still the disciples become preoccupied with something quite different.  In the first episode, they fall into an argument as to which of them would be the greatest.  In the second, James and John approach him and say they want Jesus to do for them whatever they asked.  And then they specified that they wanted to sit one either side of him in glory.  They just did not get it!

In our reading today, Jesus must have appalled his friends by saying so bluntly that the Son of Man must suffer many things, be rejected by all the people of power and influence and must be killed.  And he was very emphatic about it – the gospel writer emphasises that Jesus taught this to his friends and says he kept saying it plainly.

Almost seeming to forget who Jesus is, Peter “took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him”.  And it was not just a quiet word in Jesus’ ear! The word used for rebuked is a very strong word.  Jesus really shuts Peter down using the word that is used elsewhere in Mark to silence unclean spirits and savage forces.  Everything that Jesus describes in verse 31, his suffering, rejection and being put to death, would appear to disqualify him from being the Messiah that Peter knows about, and Peter wants to straighten him out.

Peter had the title for Jesus right, but had the meaning wrong. 

Peter has to learn that not only does Jesus’ identity include being the Messiah, a different kind of messiah, but it includes his eventual death and resurrection.   And Jesus’ identity will finally, and for all time, and into eternity, be defined by those events.

So Jesus embarks on recasting who the Christ is and what he will do. Jesus is calling his followers to an alternative model of being.   We are being challenged to want something different – to be generous, giving of ourselves, even when it means suffering.  We are called to merge our being and will with God’s being and will, caring for others in the way of discipleship.  Many of us will have wrestled with what it means to deny ourselves.  I remember as a young person finding it helpful when a preacher pointed out that the call is not to deny ourselves something that, dare I say, could be quite trivial, such as chocolate in Lent.  It is to deny ourselves.  Self-denial is not self-annihilation, but self-redefinition.  We may have in the past denied or ignored the life of the Spirit within that seeks to manifest itself through us in compassion and generosity of being.  We are called on to let God rework us so that we more closely conform to God’s image.

Rather than speaking abstractly about this, when Jesus speaks about his fate, he starts making public statements to people at large about following him.   He addresses not only his disciples, but also the crowd, inviting any who want, to follow him.  Jesus is not so much about gathering pupils and making sure that everyone understands him fully.  Rather he is calling followers to join him and grow in his way.  He calls us to separate ourselves from what has defined us unhelpfully– what we have allowed to define us – and to embrace new understandings of our identity, just as Peter had to learn a new understanding around the identity of Jesus.   “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever will save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.”

After I had completed the first draft of this sermon and tried to wrestle with this concept, I went to the funeral of a friend at St James’ Kings St, a most beautiful and comforting liturgy.  After the Christian symbols were placed on the coffin, instead of their being read, a small choir sang the funeral sentences set to music at the beginning of the 18thcentury by William Croft.  “He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet, shall he live.”, from John’s gospel chapter 2.  And from Job 19, “After my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God.”.

It suddenly struck me that these two verses were also conundrums of our faith- riddles that cannot easily be solved.  How can you be dead and yet live?  How can you see God in your flesh when worms have destroyed your body?   While we catch some fleeting sense of what this might mean, we need to ride with the mystery of our faith and trust in God for both the present and the future, to live with the ambiguity and the tension that we cannot fully understand or resolve.  I say again, we are called to merge our being and will into God’s.   As followers of Jesus, we join a community where members are defined by our association with Jesus, our following of him.  Self-denial is not self-annihilation but rather self-redefinition.  We are called on as we follow Jesus, to take on an identity and a way of living that will pose threats to the world’s corrosive and loveless ideologies and idolatries and we do so, knowing  the consequences will not always necessarily be comfortable.

Jesus was helping his disciples to begin to understand that his thoughts are not our thoughts, nor our ways his ways.  It was imperative that they understand this so that they did not miss the point of Jesus’ ministry, that he took on our flesh ultimately to give his life for our salvation.  Jesus came to serve, not to be served.  While his ways are not our ways, he invites us to follow him and learn his ways, to give ourselves to our ways becoming his ways.  In our redefinition, our priorities need to be re-ordered to be in harmony with the two great commandments, love God and love our neighbour.

In our reading from Genesis this morning, our father Abraham is bidden to walk before the Lord and be blameless.  God says “I will confirm my covenant between me and you.  I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant.”

Paul in our reading from Romans 4, picks up again the promise to Abraham and to all who are of the faith of Abraham, that because of our faith, God will credit us with righteousness.  The gift of faith is given to us and then in God’s immense love and generosity, we are credited with righteousness.  We are thus enabled to deny ourselves, and losing our life for the gospel, will save it.

And in Psalm 22 read this morning, more familiar to our Good Friday ears, we hear “he has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one.”  Rather, God has honoured that suffering unto death and raised Jesus again.

The faith we are called on to exercise in our following of Jesus, is a way of being that will make itself evident in the way we live our lives.  It involves cognitive belief and understanding, but also and perhaps moreso, a commitment to an on-going relationship with God, expressed in involvement in the life and work of God in the world.  As we join in following Jesus, we are committed to taking our stand on the side of God, not of human ways of thinking.  As we do this, we come to realise that nothing in this world is worth exchanging for our very centre, the self claimed by the gospel and accountable to God.

Jesus says to us,” Who do you say that I am?”  And if, with Peter, we say “The Christ!”, we move on from here, denying ourselves, following Jesus and letting him redefine and reshape us as we die to self and live to him.

Sermon: Lent 1, 18 February 2018, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Alban’s

St.Alban’s Epping, 18th February 2018

 Rev. Paul Weaver

BEGINNING A UNIQUE MINISTRY

 (Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-10; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15)

Most of our Gospel readings this year will come from Mark, the shortest of the four Gospels. Matthew, Mark and Luke present broadly parallel accounts of the life of Jesus: they share many of the stories, although they each put their own touch on them, and they each have their own interests. John takes his own distinctive approach.

Matthew presents great blocks of teaching, almost as if Jesus were the new Moses: we are particularly familiar with the Sermon on the Mount. Luke has a particular interest in the outsider, the unexpected follower of Jesus, and he also includes the largest number of parables. Mark takes us directly through his narrative, almost with a sense that we must keep going to take in this story of Jesus. All of them, as well as John, give a great deal of attention to the week from Palm Sunday through to Good Friday and Easter Day. In fact, around a third of each of the Gospels is focused on this one climatic week. Each year in turn, we take most of our Gospel readings from one of these three Gospels, along with some selections from John.

So here we are in Mark’s Gospel as Mark tells us about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. In Matthew and Luke, we don’t reach these events until Chapters 3 and 4. Those two Gospels give great attention to Jesus’ birth and associated events, but Mark never touches Jesus’ birth and earlier life at all. Here in this short passage, only a few verses into Mark’s Gospel, we cover the baptism of Jesus, his temptation in the wilderness, and the beginning of his ministry. You will find much more detail in Matthew and Luke, but Mark includes those things that he wants us to be aware of.

What happens nowadays when someone is to take up a new ministry, or perhaps to be ordained? There is a service of commissioning or ordination. There is often a retreat or time of reflection. And of course, there is a new task to undertake. In a sense, that’s what Mark describes in these few verses.

John the Baptists’s base was the River Jordan, near the wilderness area north-east of the Dead Sea. Jesus’ home town of Nazareth was further north-west, in Galilee. John had been calling people to repent and be baptized, and he had also been telling them of someone who was coming soon, for whom they must be ready. John baptized with water, but this great one would baptize with the Holy Spirit.

Jesus is baptized by John. He identifies himself with those repentant sinners who responded to his message, and he also identifies himself with John’s message about the coming kingdom of God. As he does this, Jesus also foreshadows his task of bearing the sin of the world and bringing forgiveness to sinners everywhere. But this baptism is not just an act of Jesus and John: for God himself breaks into the event. The heavens are torn open, and the Holy Spirit comes down on Jesus as a dove. We think of the dove as a beautiful symbol of peace. The sending out of a dove by Noah after the rains have stopped points not only to the restoration of peace to the world, but also to the establishment of new life in God’s creation. It echoes the opening of Genesis 1, where the Spirit of God hovers over the chaos like a dove as the creation story begins.

The Spirit comes down on Jesus to empower him for his ministry, but there is also a heavenly voice. “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” We heard similar words from the cloud at the Transfiguration in last Sunday’s Gospel. But here is the divine Father honouring his Son Jesus as he commences his public ministry. Whatever Mark’s readers believe about Jesus, here is God himself identifying Jesus as the Son of God – in fact, the Son of God, the unique Son of God.

These words are echoes of words in Psalm 2, which speaks of God’s chosen king as God’s Son, who will rule over the nations and establish justice. And they also link up with words in Isaiah 42, where God acknowledges his chosen and beloved servant. Jesus’ ministry is foreshadowed in the Old Testament scriptures. They point to a ministry of faithfulness, suffering and triumph. And so this baptism of Jesus is also a commissioning for service.

But then comes something unexpected. The Spirit who has come down upon Jesus drives Jesus into the wilderness for forty days. This is not a quiet time of reflection and meditative prayer. It is a time of intense temptation by Satan. Mark doesn’t tell us those famous stories found in Matthew and Luke. He just wants us to know that Jesus went through hard testing.

Mark does tell us that Jesus was “with the wild animals”. Is he simply pointing out that Jesus had no human company at all? Or is he pointing out that the wilderness was full of danger? Or is he perhaps reminding us of the garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve were comfortable with the animals before they were evicted from the garden. Perhaps this is a hint that through Jesus there will one day be a new creation where all creatures as well as people will live together in harmony once again.

But why is Jesus tempted this way at this point? Because temptation will keep coming back to him. We know that the tempter is already questioning him. “If you really are the Son of God, why don’t you make that power you are supposed to have work for you? Don’t take the hard way. Take the popular way, the way that works, the way that feels good.” Jesus resists the temptation then, as he will continue to resist it. He confirms who he is as the faithful Son of God. He determines right from the beginning that he will go that difficult way chosen for him, and not take the way that seems easier. In a sense, this is a time of spiritual training, of spiritual preparation. And as the Spirit has come upon him at his baptism, so Jesus also has the help of God’s angels ministering to him.

Well, Jesus has been commissioned, and he has gone almost through a spiritual “boot camp”. Soon afterwards it is time to commence his public ministry. In John’s Gospel there is the indication that he has already done some preaching and healing by now, but for Mark this is the real beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. The event which starts it off is the arrest of John for denouncing Herod’s gross immorality. The forerunner is now in prison. Now the one who fulfils John’s promise must take up his role. And so he does, although it is in his home territory of Galilee.

And his message, his exhortation is essentially the same as John’s: “Repent and believe in the good news”. But he no longer needs to say that there is someone coming: now “the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near.”

In Jesus, God is acting in a new way; in Jesus, God is fulfilling his promises. God is asserting his kingship in a new way – through his Son, Jesus the promised one. “It’s time!” says Jesus.

And of course, Jesus’ challenge is familiar. “Repent”, he calls. “Change your mind, your outlook, your direction in life. Turn back and start drawing closer to God rather than keeping him at a distance.”

Now in a profound way, that is what we all do as we become true Christians. But there is also a sense in which we must keep doing it as Christians. We mightn’t be in the wilderness, worrying about the wild animals. But we all face temptations – our natural desires, our comfortable lifestyle, our tongue which is not always well controlled, our quick temper, our selfishness, our prejudice. As we keep on having to confess our sins, so we need to keep on repenting.

We can get distracted from the demands of faith, or let other things get in the way. And so we need to keep turning to Jesus with our questions or our uncertainties or our weaknesses and telling him: “Lord I believe. Help my unbelief.”

If we have challenges to face as we follow Jesus, we also like Jesus have the Holy Spirit poured out on us. We mightn’t have seen that dove, but as we open up to God’s forgiveness, so we open up also to God’s empowering through the Holy Spirit within us.

Jesus was commissioned and tested, and he faithfully did whatever it took to fulfil God’s purposes and sacrificially serve his people. In baptism and by faith, we are not only forgiven, but we too are commissioned to serve Christ and to serve his people. May this Lent be a time in which we renew that commitment to take up our cross and follow Jesus. Amen.

Paul Weaver