Sermon: Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (B) – 2nd August 2015

St Aidan’s Anglican Church, West Epping  8.30am

Readings:   2 Samuel 12-13; Psalm 51; Ephesians 4:1-16; John 6:24-35

“WHAT KIND OF RECTOR?”

We have been praying for some months now for our Parish Nominators, and for the appointment of a new Rector. I guess most of us have been wondering how long we will have to wait, and who it will be, and what he will be like. Meanwhile we keep praying, and no doubt many of us are keeping our ears open for any news, or even hints of news.

A Rector is literally a ruler: the word implies power or authority. Once upon a time a rector directly received the people’s tithes, whereas that was not the case with a vicar. However, nowadays the diocese has its own rules to ensure that its appointed clergy are provided with an appropriate stipend to provide for their financial needs: the aim is that they can focus on their ministry, rather than have to run around trying to get enough money to live on.

Any person in a position of leadership has some form of power or authority. It may be some official appointment, or something much more informal where you have a recognized role: it might even just be your role as a parent, or your place in the family. But power has its dangers.

We have been hearing about King David, a great hero of the Bible, but a man who certainly had feet of clay like the rest of us. David had power, success, wealth, and no doubt popularity. He had a palace and a harem. And then he saw Bathsheba bathing. “I’m king. I can do what I want! I can have her. So what if she’s married? I’m king: I don’t owe anything to her husband.” We know it well as a sense of entitlement. And what did David do afterwards when Bathsheba reported that she was pregnant, and he realized that he might be found out? He had her husband killed! “I’m king: I can do it.” But he was still answerable to God. And it took Nathan the prophet’s message to get him to admit the evil he had done: Psalm 51 with its heavy words presents David’s expression of shame and repentance, and reminds us that we too are people in need of God’s forgiveness, which comes to us through Jesus, who is the bread of life. Sin and evil bring death, but reconciliation and eternal life come through Jesus Christ.

Of course, we are not unfamiliar with the idea of people in power having a sense of entitlement. Our politicians have recently been given something of a serve, particularly over travel allowances. “I’m an MP, I’m the Speaker: of course I can have this, of course I can do this! Of course the rules allow it – more or less!” And although Bronwyn Bishop has been getting most of the attention, it seems pretty clear that the attitude is not uncommon. No wonder both major parties keep very quiet when it is suggested that the rules on travel allowances should be tightened, or even clarified!

However, that same sense of entitlement – or a separation from moral realities – has also been evident with leaders of the church. Over the centuries, many Popes behaved in ways which had nothing to do with the moral standards taught in the scriptures. They used violence to achieve power or to strengthen their power, and, in the name of the Gospel, they used violence and torture supposedly to persuade people to join the church or to admit their heresy – whether or not it was heresy! Of course, the Protestants weren’t much better! And more recently we have seen clergy use their power to abuse children, or to manipulate parishioners into inappropriate sexual relations, and then somehow to justify their actions or to excuse such actions.

Parish clergy can also use their power to put people down, rather than to build them up, because of an inflated sense of their knowledge and wisdom. Too often I have heard of clergy who come into churches, convince themselves that major surgery is needed, and try to remake the church in their own image. They put little effort into knowing their people, listening to them, understanding them, and instead they ride roughshod over them. Anyone who disagrees with the Rector is clearly resisting the work of God, and the church is supposedly better off without them. So they are pushed out.

People are badly hurt, many leave, and often the church suffers. I am reminded of the famous words of an American officer during the Vietnam War, who explained: “We had to destroy the village to save it.” A church, no doubt with its own set of problems, goes down: sometimes a new church might replace it, but is the human cost worth it? And is this the way of Christ, who came to serve, not to be served?

Paul has some significant things to say about ministry in our reading from Ephesians. He describes what he sees as a life “worthy of our calling”: a life which involves humility, gentleness, patience, love, seeking peaceable relationships. These qualities ought to characterize our lives – they certainly did with Christ’s life – but they also are to be reflected in the life of the church.

In Ephesians, Paul says some wonderful things about the significance of the church. He makes it clear that to be a Christian believer, a follower of Christ, means that we are members of his family, members of his body the church. And while we express that membership as members of a particular church, we are also members of God’s universal church, and ultimately of the church as it will be in his kingdom. Church exists here and now, right here at St.Aidan’s, but what we are here is an expression of something much bigger, something wonderful, of which we are also part.

There are many churches: congregations, parishes and denominations. There are many church structures and traditions and styles, but all followers of Christ are ultimately part of the one church. With all our differences, we are still one family: those differences should enrich us, rather than be excuses for division. Of course at that level too we are to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”.

Paul writes here about God’s gifts to the church. When he does this in a famous passage in 1 Corinthians 12, he talks of things that people can do, enabled by the Spirit, and the ways they can contribute to the life of the church. But here in Ephesians 4, Paul thinks of people themselves as God’s gifts to the church: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.

These people are used by the Spirit to enable people to hear and understand the message of Christ, and to come to grips with what it means and how it is to be lived out. Pastors and teachers in many ways have a similar role in the life of the church to our rectors and clergy today: they in particular communicate and explain God’s message, and they seek to guide and lead people along the path of the Christian life.

One word that is sometimes used to describe local church leaders or clergy is that they are “ministers”. Of course they are, but Paul sees one other aspect of their roles. They are to “equip the saints for the work of ministry”. In other words, we are all called to be ministers, serving in our different ways. And one of the things that our clergy are called to do is help and encourage us all to fulfil our ministries within the church and beyond. As we all play our part in the life of God’s church, the church will work more effectively and fulfil God’s purposes.

One of Fr John’s strengths was his trust in parishioners to fulfil their ministries: he gave people space to do things, and encouraged them to try things if they had an idea or a vision. And he was willing for people to be themselves, not demanding that they see things exactly the same way as him or do things exactly the same way. Another strength of Fr John was his recognition of the need to express that unity of the church in relationships between our various local churches, and his encouragement of ecumenical contacts and events. I must admit that part of my hope and prayer is that our new Rector will follow in his footsteps in these areas.

A Rector is there to lead, but not to dominate or to use people for his own purposes. He is a servant: a servant of Christ, a servant of Christ’s people. Our new Rector will not be perfect, but our prayer is that he will be the person of God’s choice. Keep praying for the nominators and the process. Keep praying for our Rector when he starts and long after.

But watch out: I hope he will value all that is good in our parish. But he will inevitably see things that will need to be examined and reviewed, and no doubt he will see things that may need to change. Let be ready to think and work together, and especially to see ourselves as ministers making our own contribution to the healthy life of our Parish. And let’s be ready to receive the challenges that will no doubt come as we go forward led by our new Rector, and to share and serve together as fellow-members of Christ’s family and fellow-servants of Christ. Amen.

Reverend Paul Weaver

Sermon: Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (B) – 26th July 2015

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping  7am, 8am and 10am

Readings:   2 Samuel 11:1-15; Psalm 14; Ephesians 3:14-21; John 6:1-21

One of my hobbies is going to the movies. Some films have the ability to transport you to a whole new place – a whole new world – even if it is Mad Max – Fury road. But in a concentrated time span you can experience so much, you can learn so much and hopefully feel you got your money’s worth. It doesn’t always happen. But it is good when it does.

But this is also what we find when we come to John’s gospel. Using just a few word pictures John tells us so much. With the confirmees the other week we looked at John 3 where Jesus was explaining his mission. Then suddenly Jesus said, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness so the Son of Man will be lifted up.” And there in a few words we have that wonderful story from Numbers 21 of Moses rescuing the Israelites, and Jesus used that as a metaphor for his work of atonement on the cross. All of this in just a few words. And all of this fits into Jesus big task of explaining to Israel who he is and why he has come.

Over and over we see Jesus taking us back to the Old Testament and repeating the miracles we see there. This is how Jesus demonstrates in a practical way that he truly is the Son of God. He behaves like God behaves. In his actions he bears the family likeness. We mustn’t conclude that the actions of Jesus are purely arbitrary. They are to convince us that Jesus truly is God’s Son, that he truly is the promised Messiah.

So we come to our reading today. Jesus had been preaching by the Lake of Galilee. A large crowd had come to hear him and particularly they had come because of the miracles. John adds that this is around the time of the Passover. Passover, of course, was the most important date in the Jewish calendar. Three times in John’s gospel John tells us that the events that took place occurred at the time of the Passover. John’s point is that these events have a particular significance in the life of Jesus.

The first time this happens was when Jesus cleared the Temple at the beginning of John’s gospel. John is making the point that what Jesus was doing was a significant act of the Messiah – symbolic of re-establishing true worship in Jerusalem. The second time is in today’s reading with the feeding of the five thousand. The third time is when Jesus arrived at Jerusalem for his arrest and trial and crucifixion. The Passover acts as a marker so that we will take particular attention of Jesus’ behaviour at the time of each Passover.

So here we have a large crowd who had gathered to hear the teaching of Jesus. But it was in an isolated place – far from any villages. It was the end of the day and people were hungry. Jesus’ disciples had been through the crowd searching for food and all they came up with was five barley loaves and two fish. Recent scholars have tried to argue away this miracle by claiming that when the boy offered his food he shamed the crowd and they than brought out the food they were secretly carrying.

Well that argument doesn’t fit the facts. The disciples had already been through the crowds searching for some food. No doubt their hunger was a greater motivation to find food than these scholars desire to argue away a miracle of Jesus.

So what they had was five barley loaves and two fish. This was not good. The kind of food described here was not appetising. We mustn’t think of soft fresh, crusty loaves. This type of bread was tough and hard – the kind of bread you could break your teeth on. This kind of bread could last for many days – bouncing about in the bottom of your pocket and it would never go off. The fish was dried fish – again, the kind of fish that could last for many days. It too, was tough and dry and almost tasteless. This was all Jesus had for a crowd of Five Thousand. No wonder the disciples were anxious. What could they do now? What they had found was virtually useless.

Then notice how John describes this miracle. Notice the detail.Jesus had the people sit down. He gave thanks for the barley loaves and then distributed them among the people. Then he did the same with the dried fish. Then two comments are made. The people were permitted to eat as much as they wanted. Then it says, they ate until they were satisfied. They ate until they were satisfied. Then to underline the point. They gathered up twelve baskets of left-overs. This was no small meal. It is a picture of an abundance of food. Five thousand people. Each one eating as much as they wanted. Each one eating until they were satisfied. And then there were a stack of left overs. And notice the number – 12. Twelve tribes of Israel. 12 Disciples. 12 baskets of left-overs.12 indicates completion, the full compliment.

These events in themselves are symbolic of enough. But no one on that day would have missed the deeper significance of the event. Moses had fed Israel with the bread from heaven. Here was Jesus repeating that same miracle . That is why for the next few chapters, the teaching is all about the true bread that comes down from heaven for the salvation of the world.

And notice how this section ends. The crowds understood what was going on and it is no wonder they responded the way they did. Jesus had to withdraw quickly because the crowd were about to seize him and make him king. He had revealed his glory to the crowd through this miracle -he revealed his Messiahship so it was not surprising they wanted to make him king.

And then we have our second story. The disciples left Jesus and they travelled by boat across the lake towards Capernaum. But the worst of storms blew up – the kind of storm this lake was famous for. They had been rowing and rowing in a desperate attempt to get across. And then to make matters worse they began to hallucinate – at least they thought they were. They could clearly see the form of Jesus walking across the water, through the storm towards their boat. No doubt they thought they were seeing ghosts who would take them to their watery grave – they were terrified.

And then they heard a voice across the water. “Its me! Don’t be afraid.” They took him into the boat and almost immediately they were at their destination. Again, this miracle takes back to the days of Moses when Moses led all Israel through the waters of the Red Sea to safety on the other side. This was a story of rescue, where God was taking Israel out of slavery into the promised land.

Jesus time was limited. He had a big story to tell. He had to get across to Israel that he was more than a teacher, he was more than a prophet. These two miracles are intended to show us quickly who Jesus truly is so that we come to the right conclusions about him.

And these miracles work in the same way today. When we share the message of Jesus what are we trying to tell people – that Jesus was a good man? That his message of loving your neighbour is a good one? That Jesus gives us good advice about how to live the good life. Sure, he can do all that for us but is that ever enough? Jesus message is the message of the Son of God coming into the world to defeat all that destroys and perverts our humanity and ultimately to destroy death itself. Who could possibly do all that but God alone? And that is what Jesus does for us in these miracles – he shows us he truly is the Son of God.

And that should be the impact upon us as we read these words. We come to church week by week. We read these stories and then we reflect upon them. And then we go home to live our lives and most of the time they are good times. But the day comes when everything falls apart, when the world we knew so well – disappears, when those things we were so sure of are no longer there. And it is at those times we really need a God who hears and understands us, a God of the impossible, a God who truly can defeat our great enemy – death itself. And as we read these stories of Jesus we see it is all there. The God we need, the God we long for has truly come into the world to do his work of rescue for each one of us.

 

Reverend Ross Weaver

 

Sermon: Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (B) – 19th July 2015

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping  7am and 8am

Readings:   2 Samuel 7:1-14; Psalm 89:21-38; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Throughout the history of the church there has always been a strong link between the church and healing. The hospital movement we know today grew out of the churches’ practice of offering hospitality to travellers and strangers looking for shelter and asylum. And that tradition goes all the way back to Jesus himself. Jesus was well known as a healer and we see that in our gospel reading today that wherever Jesus went the crowds gathered around him and demanded healing.

We need to remember that this was an age where medicine was fairly primitive. Much medical practice seemed closer to the dark arts. It was for a good reason that Hippocrates included in his oath a promise to do no harm, such was the state of primitive medicine.

Consequently, chronic disease was everywhere. Go to any third world country today and one of the first impressions you get is how sick the people are. That was life in Jesus’ day. Sickness was the common experience of men and women. All sorts of techniques were tried to attempt a cure but rarely were they effective. Good health is our normal experience of life. But we live in a unique age. This is not the normal experience of human kind throughout the ages.

So you can imagine the impact of the arrival of a healer who could actually make people better. Not only that, we have recorded for us healings that even today cannot be achieved. The lame walk, the deaf hear, the blind receive their sight. We are not told of Jesus curing the common cold, or reducing someone’s back pain even though those would be nice. Each gospel writer goes out of their way to record for us healings that are extraordinary by any standards.

Jesus goes into the Synagogue and there is a man with a withered arm. “Stretch it out!” says Jesus. Stretching it out is the one thing this man had been trying to do all of his life. Of all people he knew stretching it out was the one thing he could not do. And yet, in obedience to Jesus’ command he stretched it out and he was healed – he was made whole.

Scholars normally attribute the events in today’s gospel reading with the first year of Jesus’ ministry which they call the year of Jesus’ popularity. We have two pictures of Jesus here. The first is of Jesus the teacher with large crowds coming to hear what he had to say. His teaching was nothing like what they had heard before – what was being discussed in the synagogues.

The second is Jesus the healer as large crowds gathered to bring to him all who were unwell. In each picture we can assume the people were gathering in their thousands. But notice, those who put this lectionary together have left out the middle of this chapter. They have left out two other miracles of Jesus – the feeding of the five thousand and the story of Jesus walking on the water. Now this is where the modern thinker wants to part company with Jesus. We have the two sides of Jesus – the teacher and the miracle worker. People like some of Jesus’ teaching and are prepared to accept that. But they draw the line at the miracles. Rationalism just wont let them go there. How could Jesus heal the blind and the lame? How could Jesus feed five thousand? How could he walk on water? There is no rational answer to that.

Some have responded to this dilemma by attempting to remove the miraculous from the Bible in an attempt to find the historical Jesus but when you do that the whole story collapses. None of it makes any sense.

We also need to consider that the teaching of Jesus is so integrated into the healing of Jesus. Jesus’ message is the message of the coming of the Kingdom of God, the restoration of all creation. And that it demonstrated for us by the rolling back of sickness and disease, the power over life and death and the climax of the story with Jesus’ own death and resurrection. If any miracle is irrational it is the miracle of rising from the dead. The miraculous is at the very heart of the Jesus story.

Or we could consider how this chapter is constructed. Our reading begins with the crowds coming to Jesus to hear more of his teaching. The chapter goes on with the dilemma of how to feed all of these people which is solved with the feeding miracle, and then Jesus escapes their presence and we have him walking on the water and then we return to our reading with the crowds demanding more healing. Mark overlaps event after event, never drawing a line between the teaching and the healing. It is all part of the one package.

All of these events take us beyond the realm of the rational and we are challenged by that. But that is the nature of the story of Jesus. It is the story of the creator of the universe becoming a part of his own creation. This is the incarnation, the message of God in the flesh. This is not a rational argument. But it all depends upon our starting point. If we are not convinced there is a God of the universe then nothing of the message of Jesus will help us. However, if we are prepared to keep an open mind then the message of Jesus follows its own logic. If Jesus is the son of God then we would expect him to do the miraculous. If he is the creator of the universe then it makes sense he could heal the eyes of the blind man. If he is the origin of life itself then we are not surprised he can bring back to life a twelve year old girl who has died.

But our own Christian living also has its own irrational elements. When we go to prayer it is an activity that cannot be proved in any scientific sense. It is a belief that there is a God out there who hears our prayers and who in his own unique and enigmatic ways answers our prayers.

This has always been an area of tension for me between me and God. There have been times of crisis in my life when I have prayed to God with an overwhelming sense of knowing what I think the answer to my prayer should be. So I have prayed not only for God to answer my prayer but to answer it in the very specific way I think it should be answered. I have spelt it out to him. I have made it plain. I thought my solutions were good ones. Yet at no time have my prayers have ever been answered in the ways I specified – not once.I have been very disappointed with that. I have felt that God has not listened to me. That God was ignoring me. And yet the outcome has been very different. In each of those cases if God had answered those prayers in the ways I outlined it would have been a disaster. Without fail, it would have been awful. To rub it in, in each of those cases the actual answer to my prayer was much better than anything I could have thought of or anticipated. Prayer is an irrational thing and I am not very good at it. One great theologian once said he couldn’t explain prayer at all, all he knew was that things were better when he did it. Things happened when he did it. And that was all he could say.

We can feel embarrassed when we read stories of Jesus that don’t seem scientific, don’t seem rational, but it is not a criterion we apply to every area of our lives. Marriage is not based on rational thought. We don’t make our friends that way either. The message of the Jesus is the message of God’s love for our broken and lost world. It is the message of God sending his son into the world to draw it back to himself, to rebuild it, to renew it. It is the message of Jesus who sees the crowd who appear to be lost and he responds with compassion for them. It is Jesus who sees the sick and the lame and responds with healing for each one.

Perhaps this is why we can find it difficult to speak about our faith because it is so personal, it touches upon the intimate – God’s love and our love for him.

So our reading today tells of two crowds, each one rushing to Jesus, one group longing to hear his teaching and the other to receive his healing. Each group in their own way was expressing their faith in him, trusting he had the words of eternal life, trusting he could relieve their suffering and pain. And he did. This is the God of love, who reveals himself to each of us in these ancient stories, who reveals himself to us through our prayers, and who comes to us each day by his spirit.

Reverend Ross Weaver

Sermon: Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (B) – 19th July 2015

St Aidan’s Anglican Church, West Epping  8.30am

Readings:   2 Samuel 7:1-14; Psalm 89:21-38; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-56

“BUILDING THE HOUSE OF GOD”

A few days ago, Sarah and I returned from a wonderful five weeks in Europe: we sailed down the Rhine and Danube from Amsterdam to Budapest, we spent a week in the ecumenical community of Taizé in France, and we enjoyed a week exploring the beauty of Provence.

It will not surprise you that we visited a number of churches and cathedrals. Many of them were vast and imposing, most of them were beautiful and inspiring, quite a few were over-the-top in their decoration! We saw grand altars and reredoses, statues and carvings, paintings, mosaics and frescos. We saw amazing stonework and marble, jewels and gold. Often I was drawn to the beauty and splendor; sometimes I saw something that surprised and interested me, presented in an unexpected way; and on occasion, I was challenged about whether God was truly pleased and honoured by the amount of money and resources that must have been spent in making the places so spectacular.

We know that often there were mixed reasons for making these buildings so huge and impressive. Sometimes it was to give status to a city or to establish the standing of the local nobles. Sometimes it was to keep the local people humble: for often these buildings had an educative purpose, in days when very few people could read. The stained glass and frescos told people or reminded them of the stories of the Bible or of the saints of old.

And I was struck when a guide explained that the spectacular use of gold and marble and precious stones in a particular abbey was meant to point people to the glories of heaven. Life on earth was tough, but when you came to church you were reminded that God’s kingdom is beautiful and glorious.

Was it all worth it? When vast amounts of money were spent, money which might have made the lives of people much better had it been spent in helping the needy, was this pleasing to God? When taxes were levied or great demands were made on ordinary people to build something unnecessarily huge or expensive, was this what God wanted?

Could it perhaps be said that the generation of work, and therefore income, for the large numbers of people who were employed in building these great edifices made it worthwhile?

I don’t have the answers to those questions, although some things don’t seem to change: I have no doubt that the grand and beautiful church of my previous parish was deliberately planned to dwarf its two neighbouring churches. I also remember the challenge of fund-raising to cover costs of maintaining this wonderful building, which was at risk of collapsing if expensive work was not carried out. By comparison, St.Aidan’s is not a grand church building, but with its simplicity and beautiful features, it is a lovely place to gather for worship with a congregation of our size.

In our reading from 2 Samuel, King David wanted to build a house of God, a temple. He was settled in Jerusalem, and had built himself a substantial palace. It seemed wrong that the ark of the covenant, the symbol of God’s presence with his people, was still located in a mere tent. How could God be glorified by that? Surely it sent the wrong message to the people of Israel, not to mention the nations beyond.

It seemed right to build a temple for the Lord: even Nathan the prophet thought so, until he got a new message from the Lord. No! said God. This was not a task for David to carry out. God had travelled from Egypt to Canaan symbolically in a tent with his people, and things had continued that way during the time of Joshua and the Judges and even King Saul. The Lord did not actually need more than that! The tabernacle or tent reminded people that he is a God who is not to be tied down to one place: a God who is on the move. He doesn’t actually need a grand house.

However, says God, a temple will be built for him. David’s son Solomon will do this, not David himself. In fact, God will build a house for David: he will build not just a family for him, but a dynasty. This family will last. The dynasty would in fact last for 400 years, until the leadership became so corrupt and the people so far away from God’s ways, that judgement in the form of exile became necessary.

In fact, when a temple was built, it was not all good. People thought that God was only to be found there. They became superstitious about the power of the temple. They took for granted that because of the temple, God would always look after Jerusalem, no matter how disobedient they were to his laws. And when exile came, they assumed that God was no longer with them, because they were far from Jerusalem and its destroyed temple. Even today, people can have superstitious attitudes towards church buildings, as if they are some sort of container for God!

During and after the time of exile, there was no longer a functioning king of Israel. Furthermore, the temple of Solomon was a pile of rubble. But it was not the end of the royal house of David: for 1000 years after David, a descendant of David was born in David’s own town of Bethlehem, a descendant called Jesus, who would be the new Messiah, the eternal king and Saviour of God’s people.

By the time of Jesus, a new magnificent temple was being built under King Herod, whose motives were certainly questionable. Jesus himself does not seem to have been over-impressed by this new temple. He was angry about many of the commercial and indeed questionable activities which took place there, and he warned that the temple itself would have a limited life before it became once again a heap of rubble. This happened in AD70, when the Romans, sick of Jewish resistance and rebellion, overran Jerusalem and destroyed the temple.

The temple expressed the presence of God amongst his people, but now in the person of Jesus, God had come in a new way. Jesus himself indicated that he was in a real way God’s temple, fully expressing the reality of God’s presence with his people. And when people had crucified Jesus, apparently disproving his outrageous claims, Jesus rose again, conquering death and bringing new life to his people. Furthermore, he made it clear that God was to be found in his people, through the Holy Spirit, and amongst his people when they gathered in his name, even if it was only two or three of them.

God’s presence doesn’t depend on any particular building: it is based on the promises of Christ, whom we trust and follow. He is with us in the person of the Holy Spirit as we live and follow Jesus day by day. But he is also with us in a special way as we gather for worship and as we pray together in his name.

Church buildings have their value: they provide us with special places where people can focus on the presence of God, particularly as we worship and pray. But as it has been said, their value is ultimately to keep out the rain when we gather together. God doesn’t need churches, but we can find them very helpful indeed as we gather for worship. And of course we do appreciate our churches in this parish, and indeed we rightly appreciate all that points us to the beauty of holiness.

But ultimately we find the presence of God, not necessarily in church buildings, but in the one who is building his temple, and calls us to be stones within his eternal temple, written about by Paul in our reading from Ephesians: the community of followers of Jesus Christ, from all backgrounds and classes, male and female, slave and free, with all our different personalities and stories and insights. Christ brings us together in his eternal presence and into his kingdom of glory, where no longer will we need to imagine that glory or to picture it, for we shall see him face to face in all his wonder and love. Amen.

Reverend Paul Weaver

Sermon: Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (B) – 5th July 2015

End of the Ministry of the Reverend John Cornish

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping  9:30 am

Readings:   2 Samuel 5:1-15, 9-10;  Psalm 48;  2 Corinthians 12:2-10;  Mark 6:1-13

I have come to the end of my time here. It has been good for me, I hope for you too, and now it is time for us all to move on into the next part of our life journeys into God’s closer presence. This mornings reading are helpful for all of us as we plot the next step in our journeys.

In the first reading we hear of the appointing David as the new king after King Saul. David, as we know, was not perfect. He was a hero, a great king, a distant relative of Jesus, but just the same he had many dropped stitches in the fabric of his being. We all know his failings. He was just like all of us here. None of us are perfect. As you go about choosing your new rector and allowing him, I am sorry that he can’t be a her, my request of you is that you welcome him into this wonderful community in the manner that you have done for my family and me. Do not expect him to be anything other than a fellow child of God made of the same stuff as you and me.

David is appointed king, God’s king. This is God’s church and the new rector will be appointed by God to lead you into unknown territory through the agency of your nominators. His power as rector will be in shepherding and covenant making. As with David, the appointment of the next rector will be governed by his and your care and mutuality. From the 23rd Psalm to Jesus’ declaration of his own death, “I am the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep” the image of the shepherd has been a central expression of the church’s vision of leadership in the service of God’s kingdom.

Covenant has always been central to the proper understanding of Israel and the church. Leadership never functions apart from a mutual community of shared needs and responsibilities. This is the how the body of Christ, the priesthood of all believers, in this community and every Christian community, should function. The future of this parish community is in an intimate relationship between priest and people. It can be no other way.

At the heart of this morning’s Gospel passage is Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth, and his observation that “Prophets are not without honour, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house”. At issue here is another kind of question of power, weakness, and grace. By the time Jesus comes to Nazareth, he has acquired a growing reputation as an authoritative teacher and an effectual healer; many, many people in the region are moved by him and attracted to the Way he teaches. The next rector will come with a reputation.

Not everyone is so impressed by Jesus. Jesus’ own family are bemused by this sudden strange behaviour of their son and sibling, they think he’s gone out of his mind, and they try to get him to come home quietly and stop embarrassing them. The townsfolk who knew Jesus before his baptism and beginning of his public ministry have a similar reaction. “Where did this man get all this?” they say. “We know him,” they say, “We know his family, we know his origins, we know that he is one of us, not some prophet or healer or Messiah”. And, they take offense at him, as if they were saying, “Who does he think he is, passing himself off as some sort of teacher, as someone who is better than us?”

Instead of being welcomed as a “hometown boy made good”, they react to Jesus as a “hometown boy putting on airs”. They are so convinced that they already know everything about Jesus that is important to know, that they are incapable of recognizing in his “wisdom” and “mighty acts” the new thing that God is doing. They are so bound in the power of their preconceptions that they cannot admit to the seeming weakness of having something new to learn about Jesus, about God and about themselves.

In not admitting their weakness, they make themselves incapable of receiving the grace of God Jesus would share with them. Without accepting that you, collectively, do not have all the answers the ministry of the new rector will be hamstrung. You will also be hamstrung if he thinks that he has all the answers. He needs to be a person who is open to learn from you about what means to be a member of the body of Christ in this community.

Mark notes Jesus “could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them”. Only those who recognized the weakness of their sickness were able to set aside the power of pride and open themselves enough to receive creating and re-creating grace. New periods of ministry require everyone to be open to new ways of doing things. The Spirit moves in mysterious ways beyond our understanding.

Perhaps in response to this failure in Nazareth, Jesus now expands his mission, not only preaching by himself, but by sending the Twelve to proclaim his message and enact his mission. Like Jesus, the Twelve call people to repentance, metanoia, conversion, transformation. They demonstrate the reality of such transformation by casting out demons, unclean spirits, and allowing more wholesome spirits to enter the healed and make them strong. It is our calling wherever we are to be Jesus to those we meet.

As I said in my farewell Rector’s letter in the Parish Magazine, quoting Teresa of Avila,

“Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

 

Jesus also warns his disciples, and that includes us, that not all will accept our message and ministry. As Jesus faced personal rejection at Nazareth, so there are those who would reject the message on less personal grounds: Pharisees, scribes, Temple authorities, among others. Those so called experts who know the aims and ideals of God as already given in Torah and tradition. Those people who are so convinced of their knowledge that they cannot let themselves be “weak” enough to accept that God is doing something graciously new in the mission of Jesus and his disciples.

In your case it maybe your acceptance of difference. In my time here this has been an inclusive community. We may not agree with everyone and each other but we allow others to have a different point of view and that is very confronting to many people. The world views of these people are built on preconceived ideas and any difference can cause the fortress within which they live to crumble, or so they think.

Nevertheless, and though they and we are sometimes likely to be rejected, it is important that we do as Jesus does, embodying the aims and ideals of God as given them. The people to whom the Twelve and you go will know that God has been at work among you. Whether these people can have the responsive grace to admit their weakness and make room for God’s new thing will be up to them.

Prior to this story, in last weeks Gospel reading, Jesus had just come from such an event where people had grabbed at him, pushing and shoving to get closer, pulling his robe, wanting to just touch him. He was famous. One might wonder what would amaze Jesus? Every once in a while Jesus would marvel at someone’s simple act of faith. He went to his hometown synagogue on the Sabbath. Everyone would be gathered for worship that day of the week. He spoke to his hometown friends and neighbours in that congregation. He is amazed that his own people, those he grew up with and regularly enquired of Mary how her son was doing, eyed him now as a stranger. “Yes, it is him, but what arrogance to speak to us like this.”

Jesus taught in the synagogue and they were offended. He wonders out loud “Prophets are not without honour, except in their hometown, among their own kin, and in their own house”. Yet, even in his own house, his brothers and sisters and his mother and father were baffled.

He was amazed that his own people choose to be offended because he was, shall we say, uppity? Familiarity breeds contempt in this case. They think that they know everything. They do not know everything about Jesus.

God does not know the future in the same way that God knows the past. The past is settled and the future is open. God provides possibilities to each unfolding event and then waits for the decisions we make and responds by offering more possibilities appropriate to the next unfolding moment. The future is radically open. If God was not involved in this way, then each event would simply repeat the previous event and there would be no change. Monotony would prevail. God provides truly new possibilities that, if chosen, lead to new outcomes and new exciting adventures, especially for this parish.

We see this divine behaviour many times in biblical stories. God responds to the characters in a dynamic give-and-take. Moses argued with God and got concessions. God is the only character in the Noah story that changes. If God’s power is expressed as creative and transformative, then the biblical stories become unpredictable.

This points to two aspects of God’s nature. There is one aspect of the divine nature that does not change. God’s power is creative transformation and will always be working in any and all events to creatively transform. God is always love. God always looks in love upon us and the rest of creation.

The other aspect of the divine nature is that God is continually making adjustments depending upon our decisions. In this way, God is dynamically involved with the unfolding of life, continually adjusting and responding to its unfolding by providing relevant possibilities to each moment.

God calls you and me out of our known present into an unknown future. God is the one who calls us into our own unknown future.

Be brave. Have courage and take that existential step into the wonderful future that confronts you. God will be there. Have no fear.

“Finally, brothers and sisters farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.”[1]

(2 Corinthians 13:11-13)

[1] This sermon created using material from The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol II, Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1998, and www.processandfaith.org/resources/lectionary-commentary/yearb prepared by Rick Marshall and Paul Namcarrow.

 

The Reverend John Cornish

Sermon: Pentecost (B) – 24th May 2015

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 7am, 8am and 10am

Readings:   Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104: 26-36; Romans 8:22-27; John 15:26- 16:15

There are so many ways to approach the Pentecost readings: birth of the church, gifts of the Spirit, the coming of the Comforter. We’ve got tongues of fire, sighs too deep for words and a Guide to the truth. The overarching theme that runs through all these centre on relationship, relationship between God and us and between each one of us.

The Spirit is inclusive; it leaves no one out. The Spirit brings the power of expression, speech, language: it assumes a speaker, a listener. Communication by definition requires more than one. Speech requires breath the gift of life itself from a God who needs a world to fully express the reality of God’s own nature.

Just a sampling of details from these stories illustrates the theme. The people are gathered in one place and a wind from heaven fills the room, leaving no one out. Each person speaks in another language, unknown to the speaker but understandable to other speakers of that language. Again, no one is left out. All hear the same message; namely, God’s deeds of power. God’s power, as the Bible says repeatedly, is not the power of empire. God’s power is in God’s omnipresence and invitation. If the power of empire is domination, income disparity, marginalization, then God’s power is equity, diversity, inclusivity.

The great theme of inclusivity speaks through the diversity of language and geography, child and adult, male and female, slave and free. Pentecost is both a discreet historical event and one that is always everywhere happening. Any person, any assembly, any moment in history, can experience this transformation. It is an ever present invitation.

The Psalm is a beautiful reminder that God permeates and sustains all of creation. In eloquent language, it also reinforces the idea that the Spirit, which filled the disciples on Pentecost, may be experienced in new ways, but is not in itself new. The spirit or breath of God is as ancient as God breathing life into Adam. In the words of the Psalm, all creatures of the earth acknowledge their origin in and dependence upon God: “When you send forth your spirit; they are created”, and “When you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust”. The only appropriate response to this to rejoice and sing praise.

In his letter to the Romans Paul uses the illustration of childbirth first metaphorically, with the Earth and its fruits, by which he invokes in our minds the literal experience of human childbirth. Just as the infant cannot see what is on the other side of its mother’s belly, we cannot see what is on the other side of this life. The Spirit is present on both sides, however, and acts as a midwife, assuring us that even as the mother is present to her child both before and after its birth, God is present for us in this life and in whatever is to come.

God’s incarnation is mutual and unfolding: in every moment God is received or born into us, and we, in turn, are received or reborn into God. The rest really is too deep for words.

For the early church, the Spirit is the assurance not only of God but also of the truth of Jesus’ message and ministry. In a pluralistic world then although an experience of Jesus may be unique to us, the spirit of truth is not limited to one person, in one place, in one time. It moves. It lights on first this person, then that one. The Spirit is inclusive. It speaks in different languages, so that people in the language that they know can understand it. Its message is God’s power, which by virtue of its being God’s is differentiated from worldly power. It is deeply relational, desiring both to be known and to bring people together. It rested, for a time, in Jesus, but did not depart with him. Pentecost is more than the birth of the church; it is the assurance of God’s presence in the world.

The readings, especially the one from Acts, describe the arrival of the Spirit as though it is a new thing. In John, the arrival of the Advocate is contingent on the death of Jesus, further reinforcing the idea of an event occurring consequentially, in time.

One way to approach this is to view the event as a new awareness that burst forth from those gathered that day, an awareness emerging uniquely from their experience of Jesus as the Christ. Moreover, if we take this approach, there is a question embedded in it: what new behaviour emerges from new understanding? What does one do with an experience of the Spirit?

The spirit of God is variously symbolized as water, fire, wind, a dove. Except for the last one, these are things without shape. Water fills and follows the shape of its container. Fire is limited or fed by available fuel. Wind is invisible, seen only in its effects. A dove, from the days of Noah, serves as a messenger signifying a new world, a fresh start. All of these images are evocative ways to understand a God who fills us, whose flame burns as brightly as the fuel of our being provides, who moves in us invisibly, nudging us in different directions, and who calls us to new worlds of understanding and activity. All of these images can be expressed, in their interaction with us, as hope not seen, but they can nevertheless be trusted.

With phrases like inward groaning, sighs too deep for words, and intercession, we are taken from whatever old habits and behaviours we wish to leave behind into the hope of a new day. In a reversal of the Acts text, which is filled with words pouring out the disciples’ mouths in a multiplicity of languages, here we have mute weakness, an uncertain silence that is given into God’s understanding through the mediation of the Spirit. Whether our speech is flowing or frustrated, the part of our being that is always in prayer is carried to God by the Spirit, whether it be vocal prayer, the prayer said in our minds, the unvoiced longing rising from our hearts, the many voices of which we are not conscious but which cry out fluently. A God who searches our hearts and receives the intercessions of the Spirit always hears such prayer.

In the section from the farewell discourse of John’s Gospel, Jesus prepares his disciples for the imminent time when he will be no longer with them. This is a crucial concern for anyone who has spent his or her life as a teacher. Will the teaching perish with the teacher or is there a way keep it alive? Jesus is specific that the disciples will continue his work, but they will not do it alone. The Spirit of God will testify with them. There is a lovely implication that truth is not contingent on one person but the spirit moves through the community, empowering all in their witness.

In specifying that the Advocate cannot come unless Jesus goes away, the writer of John’s Gospel deals explicitly with the issue of transmission of the faith in the physical absence of its founder. It is not so much that the Advocate cannot come while Jesus is still with the disciples, but that the Advocate must come when he is gone to ensure the ongoing experience of Christ and the transforming effect it has on believers. Not only that, but the disciples must carry on the work of Jesus. The new consciousness includes the imperative to act, with the assurance that a divine presence will direct those actions toward justice and truth.

In Acts, what emerges is a respect for diversity and a reaffirmation of inclusivity. Including everyone does not mean we all have to be the same. Part of the wonder contained in the story is the sheer delight in individuality: the way the names of languages, countries and peoples are so specifically listed. It can also be noted that the ancient category of slave and free might be seen through the more contemporary categories of gay and straight, or racial differences. The text can also suggest that in the last days of our old understanding, we behaved in certain way. In the days to come, with our new awareness, we may dream dreams, see visions, of an alternative based on a more conscious effort to live according to Jesus’ teaching.

If we say that Pentecost is the disciples’ experience of a new understanding bursting forth in them in the days following Jesus’ crucifixion, then what was the nature of that understanding? Was it that Jesus was somehow still alive and with them? Was it that they still felt him as close as if he were alive in their being? Was it that everything he taught didn’t suddenly become meaningless, but was in fact something still worth giving one’s life to? Was it that one way to keep Jesus alive to generations who would never meet him physically was to witness to his life and ministry? Was it that one way to talk about all of this was in the imagery of a spirit that fills us, that lights us up, that moves through us, urging us onward, that takes us to new worlds of understanding on the wings of a dove?

If we look carefully into this story, we see something more than tongues of flame lighting upon a group of disciples in a house in Galilee. We hear our own language among those spoken that day. We see tongues of flame above our own heads. We see the reach of the story through time all the way to us. The concern of the disciples was that this remarkable experience is shared, that it continues as a living experience long past the reach of the disciples themselves. Then, when new understanding breaks in on us, it is we who must ask: how shall we then live? How shall we witness? Who are today’s excluded that we must embrace and include? What new dreams shall we dream? To where does the spirit of truth draw us today?

I conclude with this famous Roman Catholic prayer.

“Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created. And you shall renew the face of the earth.
O, God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit, did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may be truly wise and ever enjoy his consolations, through Christ Our Lord, Amen.”[1]

 Reverend John Cornish

 

[1] This sermon based upon material written by the Reverend Dr Jeanyne Slettom, found at http://processandfaith.org/resources/lectionary-commentary/yearb

Sermon: The Sixth Sunday of Easter (B) – 10th May 2015

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 8am and 10am

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

“Love one another, as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Some of Jesus most famous words. I often suggest today’s Gospel passage as a reading for commemorations such as Anzac Day, and but also in a very different context as a possible wedding reading. And today we hear them as our Gospel reading.

And yet when I saw that it was our Gospel reading I was a bit disappointed. Not because I don’t think the words are important, but I wished we could have started the reading at the beginning of the chapter. The extra eight verses would have made for a fairly long Gospel reading, so I understand the decision: but I think those verses at the beginning of John 15 give a background or context that helps us to see more of the significance of these familiar words of Jesus.

Now I guess that some of you are mentally scratching your heads trying to remember what comes at the beginning of John 15, while others are assuming they’re about to be told. And no doubt some of you are quietly congratulating yourselves because you know.

Well, what does Jesus say at the beginning of John 15? “I am the true vine and my father is the vinedresser.” Actually, if we hadn’t celebrated Philip and James last week, we would have heard those first eight verses as our Gospel for that day. Perhaps I would have been thinking at the end of the reading: “No, you can’t stop there – you’ve got to go on!”

Well, here we are. And I guess what I want us to see is that these great words about sacrificial love grow out of this image of Jesus as the true vine. In the Old Testament, the picture of a vine or a vineyard is used as an image to describe God’s people. And what is the purpose of a vine or a vineyard? To produce fruit, fruit that will bring refreshment to people, and of course will provide income to the owner.

And Jesus uses this picture from the Old Testament to describe his relationship with his followers: the removal of branches that bear no fruit, the process of pruning which enables more fruit to be produced, the necessity of branches to be properly attached to the vine if they are to be fruitful.

And out of this picture come those other famous words: “Abide in me”. It is vital for us to stay properly connected to Jesus. Only that way will we bear fruit for Jesus, and demonstrate that we truly are his disciples. It is a powerful image, and it brings us many challenges.

If we are followers of Christ, we need to be connected to Christ. But how do we do that? Jesus doesn’t give a neat and tidy answer, and I think that is actually helpful. We are not just connected to Jesus: we are in relationship with Jesus, we are his family. And how do we develop that relationship, how do we express its reality? If we are loved by Jesus, how do we respond to that love?

Like members of a normal family, we as Christians are not identical: we are different in many ways, and our experiences and our insights will be different. For some Christians, their relationship with Jesus is expressed in prayer or in meditation or the study of scripture or perhaps ecstatic tongues. It may be expressed in the service of others or in miraculous or mystical experiences or in personal devotion or particular types of worship. For most of us, a number of these will be involved as we express our relationship with Jesus.

Jesus is challenging us not to take our relationship with him for granted, but to see it as important, to work at it. And in passing, perhaps we can beware of the temptation to assume that those whose experience is not the same as ours has got it wrong! The important thing is to be serious about staying connected to Jesus, maintaining that relationship with him. And if we do that Jesus says that we will bear fruit for him. But what is this fruit?

Once again, the answer is open. In the rest of scripture, we see that the church bore fruit as it reached out with the Gospel: many turned to Jesus and the church grew. So it is that as we bear witness to God’s love in our actions and words, fruit is developing and growing.

From a different angle, fruit is also written about by the apostle Paul: the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience and those other beautiful specimens of spiritual fruit which adorn the life of people who are clearly connected to Jesus. Christian character then is part of the fruit which Jesus hopes to see in us; and because it is the fruit of the Spirit it will have a lot to do with whether we stay connected to the vine, who is Jesus himself, and who is after all the giver of the Spirit. Ultimately the fruit that Jesus seeks from us is our loving service of God and of each other, and indeed of our neighbour – who of course may be any person to whom we are in a position to show active love.

The close connection between the vinedresser, the vine and the branches can be described in a different way. “As the Father loves me,” says Jesus, “so have I loved you. Abide in my love.” We accept Jesus’ love as we trust in him and his gracious love.

And how do we abide in his love? “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love,” says the Saviour. And what is the central commandment? “Love one another as I have loved you.”

As Jesus’ followers, it is quite appropriate to think of ourselves as his servants. But Jesus honours us: he calls us his friends, and the word he uses for friend is a form of an ordinary word for love. We are his beloved friends.

No doubt a number of you are familiar with Downton Abbey. A significant aspect of life at Downton Abbey is the difference between upstairs and downstairs. The family love each other, with the inevitable ups and downs in their relationships to keep the drama going. And the family members generally treat the servants in the right way: but the servants are still servants. And indeed, when servants get too close to the family or even marry into the family, life is difficult. There is a difference.

But though we serve Jesus, the Lord Jesus, Jesus sees us as his friends, beloved friends. For Christianity is not simply a list of rules to be obeyed, or even a way of life: at its heart, it is a relationship – a relationship with Jesus, which puts us in relationship with each other.

What Jesus’ image of the vine does is to show us how these different sides of our lives link up together. We trust in Jesus for forgiveness and life, and become branches on the vine: connected to Jesus, dependent on him for life and for strength to serve. But also connected to each other. We express our response by seeking to obey Jesus’ will, and above all by loving service of others. And these things will not only bring honour to our Saviour and blessing to others: it will encourage us in our faith. Faith, obedience and love.

In the First Letter of John, from which we have been having readings over the past weeks, the writer wants to encourage his readers in their faith, and challenge them to be real about their faith. He picks our three important aspects of the Christian life: guess what they are!

Faith: he wants us to be sure that it is the real thing, and that our faith is centred on Jesus the Saviour. Obedience: if our faith is for real, he says, it will be expressed in a way of life where we seek to genuinely obey and please God. And love: we express our obedience above all in a life characterized by love, and loving actions and relationships. Of course, this is love which doesn’t use and manipulate people, but genuinely seeks their welfare. In 1 John, what sort of life does God seek from us? A life of faith and obedience and love.

And in Jesus’ words from John 15, what does Jesus seek from us? He seeks faith that keeps us connected to him who is the source of our life. He seeks obedience, by which we show that we are truly his people, his friends. And he seeks love: love as we actively seek to care for and reach out to others, both members of the Christian family, as well as others.

Faith, obedience, love: that’s a daunting challenge. And of course we continue to fall short. But in faith, we receive Jesus’ forgiveness, and know that we loves us, he understands us, he forgives, and he encourages us to keep going along the path of faith, obedience and love. He first loved us: what a privilege to be his beloved friends! What a blessing to be part of his family! What a privilege to have him with us and for us as we seek to bear fruit for him! Amen.

Reverend Paul Weaver

Sermon: The Fifth Sunday of Easter (B) – 3rd May 2015

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 7am, 8am and 10am

Readings:   Isaiah 30:18-21; Psalm 19:1-6; 1 Corinthians 15:1-8;John 14:6-14

When I was a teenager we used to read the stories of the martyrs, not the ancient church martyrs, rather, the modern ones those who went to remote tribes in South America or Indonesia and who were killed for their faith. We believed there could be no better proof of your faith than to die as a martyr. And then we tried being martyrs amongst our friends and family, forcing them into conversations about their faith and where they thought they would go when they died. In the end, our desire for martyrdom just became another way of being obnoxious. We were trying out our Christian faith but we weren’t doing it in a very Christian way.

Sadly, this simply turns into a perversion of religion and we see that sort of perversion going on all over the world today. It is too tempting to take verses like John 14 verse 6 and use them in ways that were never intended. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the father except through me.” This obviously is a very exclusive claim. But it is just too easy to take a verse like that and use it in very unchristian ways.

For example, it can be used as an excuse not to be loving. “Because I know the truth about Jesus I have the right to force my beliefs on anyone else.” “If others don’t believe exactly what I believe then I have the right to exclude them from the church.” People are capable of the most unloving acts when they believe they know it all. Or because Jesus calls himself people have assumed that that means all truth. They think that the only book they need on the shelf is the Bible, because the Bible can tell them everything they need to know in life.

Thus they rule out the vast amount of research and learning that is now available to us. They live in the most appalling ignorance because they will read only one book. This is not a criticism of the Bible, it is a criticism of this awful narrowness that can arise from religious fanaticism. I heard one war correspondent say one of the biggest problems the world faces today is TB. But he didn’t mean the disease. By TB he meant “True Believer”. The True Believer today is the one who reaches for the gun, the one that says its my way or its no way. Surely, Jesus never meant his words to be read like that?

But then I don’t want to go to the other extreme to say all religions are basically the same. Even a superficial reading of them makes it clear that every religion is not the same. Its true that they all have some profound insights, there are things we can learn from each one of them, there is value in studying other religions but that doesn’t mean they are saying the same thing.

So what do we do with this claim that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life? Or to speak more broadly what do we do with the exclusive claims of Jesus? Perhaps, we need to start with the uniqueness of Jesus himself. Jesus never claimed to be a prophet of God, never saw himself as part of Israel’s prophetic movement. Rather, he invented his own language to talk about himself, he is the Son of Man, or in John’s gospel, he is the good Shepherd, or he is the door, or he is the vine or a range of other illustrations. Then there were the unique things that he did. Apart from the miracles it is only Jesus who dies and then rises again on the third day. What we read about Jesus here you don’t read anywhere else, resurrection is not found in any other religion.

In the early church they grappled over the issue of whether Christianity was a branch of Judaism or was it something else, something different. In the end, it was agreed that Christianity sees itself as the fulfilment of the promises found in Judaism while in Judaism they believed those promises were yet to be fulfilled.

Surely, it is a truism to say that most adherents to every religion believe that what they believe is right while everyone else is wrong. But the question is, how will we live with that? And what do we think faith is? For some, faith is little more than a blind acceptance that a particular belief system is absolute truth – the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.

But surely we can to better than that. Interestingly, it is Jesus who provides us with an answer. Philip came to Jesus and asked him to show him the Father. It is an interesting question. What I think Philip means is that he wanted some absolute proof that Jesus really was the Son of God, he wanted absolute proof that Jesus really was the way to God. I think we all crave that sort of certainty from time to time.

One comedian used to say that it would be nice if every now and again God would part the clouds and give us a bit of a wave and say, “Hello, believe in me, I’m God.” That way this whole question might be settled once and for all.

But look and the answer Jesus gave to this question. Firstly, Jesus wondered that it wasn’t enough that he and Philip had just spent three years together. You would think that that length of time spent with Jesus might be enough to convince someone of the true nature of Jesus. Then Jesus suggested that if that wasn’t enough then Philip should consider the teaching that Jesus had given. Jesus claimed his words were not his own. Rather, they had come from the Father. Many people throughout history have been convinced of the claims of Jesus simply by studying the quality of the message Jesus taught. Having read those words they were prepared to commit their lives.

But then Jesus gave Philip another alternate. Philip should consider the miracles Jesus had performed. After all, Philip had been an eye-witness to all these events. He had the evidence, so what decision would he come to about Jesus. I find it fascinating that when Philip raised this question of certainty Jesus did not give him an easy answer. Rather, he gave Philip a list of alternatives. Jesus is showing us that matters of faith are complex, it is not simple, it is not simplistic. Rather, faith will be an issue we wrestle with all our lives. Sometimes some things are helpful, sometimes help comes from a completely different source. But what is important is that we do not give up. As we read elsewhere, those who endure to the end will be saved.

What Jesus gives us is a great hope for the future, a great blessing in his promise to bring us to the Father. In our trusting in his words, we need to do it without arrogance, without intolerance, but in love and compassion as we each persist in the task of working out our own salvation. I love that image of Jesus washing the disciples feet. If, in our life of faith, we move away from such a life of humility, then how can we be sure there is much Christianity in any of us?

Reverend Ross Weaver

Sermon: The Fifth Sunday of Easter (B) – 3rd May 2015

St Aidan’s Anglican Church, West Epping  8.30am

Readings:   Isaiah 30:18-21; Psalm 19:1-6; 1 Corinthians 15:1-8; John 14:6-14

 Today is the feast day of two apostles: St.Philip and St.James, and I thought I would begin with a quick quiz about them. You don’t have to write down answers or even call them out. Just see which questions you know the answer to.

Firstly Philip. Which Gospel tells us most about Philip? In the Book of Acts, to whom did Philip speak on a road in the desert?

And then there’s James. What was the name of James’ father, and his brother? Which Gospel tells us most about James? And which book of the New Testament did he write?

I have to confess that these are trick questions. For there are actually three or four James in the New Testament, and there is a similar number of Philips. There is James the son of Zebedee and brother of the apostle John, both of them amongst the closest of Jesus’ apostles. And there is James the brother of Jesus, who became a great leader of the early church in Jerusalem, and was probably the author of the letter of James. And there is James the younger or James the Less, who is referred to in Mark 15 as a son of someone called Mary. This may be the James we are thinking of today. We don’t know for sure.

Apart from that, we just find James’ name in the lists of apostles in Matthew, Mark, Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. This James is almost an anonymous apostle, an also-ran.

In Matthew, Mark and Luke, you would have to say the same for Philip: quite a different person from Philip the deacon in the Acts of the Apostles. This Philip is simply one of the apostles, undistinguished beyond that.

But in the Gospel of John, he turns up on a few occasions.

In Chapter 1, Jesus calls Philip to come and follow him. Philip finds his friend Nathanael and brings him to meet Jesus. Before the feeding of the five thousand in John 6, Philip informs Jesus that six months’ wages would not be sufficient to feed the huge crowd. Jesus however seems to have that under control! In John 11, some Greeks come to Philip asking to see Jesus. Philip checks this out with Andrew, and only then do they take these Gentiles to see the Master.

And then we have our Gospel reading for today, from John 14. Jesus has said those famous words: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” He goes on to say: “If you know me, you will know my Father also.”

Philip is a bit baffled by this. I think he has worked out that Jesus is saying that God is his Father in a special way. But he still doesn’t get it. “Lord,” he says, “show us the Father, and then it will all make sense to us.”

Jesus is obviously disappointed how spiritually slow Philip and no doubt the others seem to be. “I’ve been with you all this time, and you still don’t really know me! To see me is to see the Father. I am in the Father and the Father is in me. What I say is what the Father says. What I do is what the Father does. To pray to me is to pray to the Father.”

Philip seems to be earnest and devoted, but he also seems not to be quickest on the update amongst the apostles. In fact we would have to say that nothing that we know about Philip and James suggests that they were outstanding apostles. Perhaps we are not surprised that they don’t get their own feast day each: they share this day with each other!

But I’m glad that there are people like Philip and James amongst the apostles. I suspect that most of us are more like Philip and James than Peter or John or the other James! We are ordinary followers of Jesus, not outstanding leaders. We struggle and get it wrong and misunderstand: Jesus often has to be patient with us. But he continues to love us and to stick with us. And let’s remember of course that even the outstanding apostles had feet of clay – we know that.

However, there are also traditions indicating that both Philip and James proved to be faithful and effective witnesses for the risen Jesus. Stories suggest that Philip served in Greece, Syria and Turkey, and was martyred for his faith in Hierapolis, a city near Colossae and Laodicea which we may be familiar with from other parts of the New Testament. Similarly there is a tradition that James served the church in Egypt and was executed in that land for his faith. Each of the apostles had their own stories: some of these we know, and many of them we do not know.

The important thing to keep in mind is that we are all different. Some followers of Christ do great things: they lead great churches, they do outstanding missionary work, they become respected public figures, they achieve great things as they serve people in need. But by definition, most of us are not outstanding. We just trust in Jesus. We seek to follow him in our own circumstances – to help others, and to bear witness to Jesus in our own way. We don’t claim to be particularly special. We don’t try to compete with those who are outstanding. If we’re wise, we are thankful for these people rather than resentful if they attract more attention than we do.

After all, we need to keep a healthy perspective. Our significance, our real value doesn’t depend on how outstanding we are. We all matter. We are all made in God’s image; we all have the Holy Spirit at work in us. We all can serve Jesus in our own way, and Jesus is happy to do his work in the world through us, and people like us. We don’t have to be outstanding before Jesus can use us for his glory, and for the blessing of others.

It is good to give thanks for those of whom we read in the scriptures, and for those who have brought blessing to many as outstanding servants of Christ. As Anglicans, we remember those who are traditionally described as Saints, but we also remember that according to the scriptures, every follower of Christ is a saint – one of God’s special people. We honour the great saints of old, and we appreciate what they did, and we seek to learn from their faithful and effective examples. But we remember that they are only saints, just as we are.

We don’t pray to them, because we can pray freely to God our Father through our Lord Jesus Christ his Son. We don’t devote ourselves to them, or put our faith in them, because it is Jesus who is our Saviour, and theirs. They are fellow members of Jesus’ family, but it is Christ whom we trust and serve and follow.

We might learn from them, and obviously do learn from those saints who were authors of the scriptures. But what we learn points us not to them, but to God our Father and Creator, to Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour, and to the work of the Holy Spirit, God with us and at work in us day by day.

In our reading from Isaiah, we read of the teacher who will truly show us the way, and call us to walk that way. Ultimately Isaiah points not to himself as God’s messenger, but to Jesus who is the way, the truth and the life, the one who truly reveals God to us.

In our Psalm, we look at the created universe, and especially the heavens and the sun, and acknowledge how they speak to us of God the powerful and wonderful Creator. If we continued through the rest of the Psalm, we would see how the Psalmist points to the law and teaching of Moses, and to the scriptures, as telling us more about God and his purposes for us. And again, ultimately they point us to Jesus, who reveals God to us uniquely in his very being and life.

In our reading from 1 Corinthians, we are reminded of those who were witnesses to the resurrection. Here James is mentioned amongst those who saw the risen Lord, but this is probably James the brother of the Lord – fairly sceptical about Jesus’ claims during his ministry, but convinced by the resurrection that Jesus is indeed Lord.

And then in today’s Gospel, we see Jesus as the one who reveals God to us, and indeed opens up the way to God for us. We have not had the chance to see Jesus face to face, but through the Holy Spirit, we have God’s presence with us always.

Let’s appreciate the apostles, and learn from their example and their message. But let’s focus on Jesus who is truly Lord and Saviour. Let us faithfully respond to his call to trust and follow him. And let us rejoice in hope, looking forward to that day when we too shall see Jesus and his Father face to face, and share fully in the life and love of his eternal kingdom. Amen.

Reverend Paul Weaver

Sermon: Centenary of Gallipoli – Evensong – 26th April 2015

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 6pm

Readings: 2 Sam 22:2-20; Psalm 46; John 10:1-21

Beside tonight’s service on the preaching roster is a note saying “emphasis on Anzac Day”. As the day approached, I realised that on the centenary of the disastrous Gallipoli landing, there would not be a sermon preached in Australia that did not focus to some extent on this momentous and defining event. Indeed, to do otherwise would be to ignore the whole herd of elephants in the room. Australia was a nation only 14 years old at the outbreak of WWI and the new national government was keen to establish its reputation among the nations of the world. Our troops formed part of the allied expedition that set out to capture the Gallipoli Peninsula to open the way to the Black Sea for the allied navies.   It came about five weeks after the Turks had chased away the initial heavy attacking force, an armada of British and French ships off what is now Anzac Cove. The plan was to capture Constantinople the capital of the Ottoman Empire, and an ally of Germany.

It has been described by one commentator as tragically naïve and probably poorly conceived as a strategy. General Sir Peter Cosgrove has said publically that by any analysis, war is an extremely stupid way of doing things. History has shown us the ambiguity of causes once thought heroic. The matter becomes even more complex when after the event, we no longer sense that a particular war was heroic and we find veterans left hanging as it were, and finding little meaning in their involvement as has happened with a lot of our Vietnam veterans. We know that what the public was told was the war to end all wars, in fact sowed the seeds that grew and blossomed into the next war. It has been suggested that there can be a range of interpretations of the Anzac story and its application. Perhaps it is even still too soon to analyse accurately.

Troops training in Egypt, together with Australians at home, celebrated the first anniversary of Gallipoli in 1916. Rev’d Arthur Ernest White, a Church of England clergyman and padre, had sailed in November 1914 with troops from Albany. Before embarkation, he conducted a service at 4 in the morning for all the men of his battalion. On 25th April, 1923, as rector, he led a party of friends in a dawn parade at Albany. A man in a small dinghy cast a wreath into the King George Sound while White, with a band of about 20 men gathered around him on the summit of Mount Clarence, watched the wreath float out to sea and quietly recited the words “As the sun rises and goeth down, we will remember them.”.   Word spread about this deeply moving ceremony and various returned service communities Australia-wide began to emulate it.

This weekend, there will have been widespread questioning of what we have learnt since the disaster of 25th April, 1915, if anything much and just what we are commemorating. While there will have been focus on Australia and Australians, we need to remember too all those brought into the conflict whose lives were impacted. It is interesting to note that the students of St Spirydon’s (Greek Orthodox) College in Sydney have not only visited Gallipoli, but more recently have forged links electronically with students from a high school on the Greek Island of Lemnos, where Australians spent some time early in 1915 practising beach landings and generally preparing for the attack on Gallipoli. After the initial attack, many men who were gravely injured were evacuated to Lemnos for hospital care and sadly, 148 Australians are buried in the cemeteries there at Moudros Bay. These Greek youngsters reflect with pride on the hospitality and refuge extended by their forebears to the Anzacs, some at the cost of their own lives.

This weekend there will have been much mention made of the Australian character: heroism, selflessness, loyalty, patriotism, comradeship and the like. There will have been mention too of the horror of war, its futility and the hopeless position those original Anzacs found themselves in. Under the extreme pressure and in the totally unfamiliar circumstances, there will have been some exceptional behaviour elicited too, both heroic and cowardly. Let me move further now into the human dimension of that terrible time of battle at Anzac Cove. Many of you will know Albert Facey’s quite extraordinary book, “A Fortunate Life”. As a 20 year old, Bert went to Gallipoli. The picture he paints of the journey to the front is not one to inspire confidence in the military! On disembarkation, his group had to march five miles from Cairo to their base, but the many who had got drunk had to be transported on donkey lorries. There was no one in charge and no provision for food. Their sargeant had been given an order for supplies but had got drunk, lost the order and disappeared, meaning it was some three days before the group’s plight became known and some command and food were organised.

On transfer to Gallipoli, the young Bert had to be shaken awake to land. From the troopship, the men shinned down a rope net onto the deck of a destroyer which took them in closer to shore. They were then met by a motor boat, towing them in small rowing boats with sailors to row them the final stage to the beach itself. They were told to get ashore as best they could and then to line up on the beach and to await further instructions. Bert says the men were keyed up, expecting to tear right through the Turks and keep going to Constantinople which nowadays is about a 5 hour coach trip away. It had been a bold plan to knock Turkey out of the war quickly, but as we know, it turned into an eight month stalemate with appalling losses of life on both sides. But back at the shore, heavy shelling and shrapnel fired into the rowing boats even before they landed on Turkish soil, killed many of the men. 30 metres from the beach, they had to get out into the shoulder deep water and wade as best they could towards the shore, with machine guns sweeping the strip of landing beach. Bodies were all around as the men landed and the injured were screaming for help. Bert reports having to run for their lives, over the strip of beach and into the scrub and bush, stumbling blind over the fallen and the falling. Some Turkish soldiers, dressed in green and standing still and silent among the large bushes, easily picked the arriving Australians off, sniping from above and behind. Bert says simply “I am sure there wouldn’t have been one of us left if we had obeyed that damn fool order to line up on the beach.”. About eight days later, they moved to trench warfare and contended apart from the fighting, with the lice that crawled in profusion all over their bodies and the hunger, barely satisfied by the salted meat and rock hard biscuits that were their only supplies. At the brief armistice on 24th May called to allow both sides to bury their dead, Bert says that there were a few hours of uncharacteristic quiet, apart from the sound of shovels and the padres reading the burial service, while men amazingly exchanged greetings and cigarettes with their enemies. Some days later, a British commander asked about the stench near the trenches and was told that it was from the rotting bodies that could not be buried because of incessant gun fire. Bert was appalled when the officer instructed them to go ahead and retrieve and bury the bodies, saying “What is the loss of a few men?”.

Injured by shrapnel, Bert lost 4 teeth, had others loosened and had the shrapnel cut out from where it was embedded in his jaw and the roof of his mouth. He was back at the front line in two weeks.   His brother Roy was killed by a shell that exploded and blew him up. Bert helped put him back together as best they could to bury him and he reports having carried one of Roy’s legs. Another brother was bayonetted 7 times when his mate abandoned him, when they were on duty at a guard post. A second time, Bert was injured, shot in the shoulder and being pinned under sandbags that were blasted onto him, resulting in internal bleeding, a ruptured spleen and a crushed leg, all of which continued to affect his daily life and health on his evacuation after four months of hell on earth and his return to Australia.

How do we now as a nation conceptualise the Anzac event and tradition, and how do we as individuals respond to them? What have we learnt? What should we learn to take forward?

One of the important things is probably to disentangle the identification of military deaths, which certainly can be seen as sacrifice, from the sacrifice of Christ. The most common Bible verse, or rather, part of a Bible verse, on Australian war memorials is “Greater love hath no man than this …” and we are left to fill in the end of this verse. An interesting insight as to how Australians have immortalised Anzac is given by theologian Ben Myers, who sometimes worships with us here at St Alban’s. He says: “The theological mythology of Anzac Day is especially vivid if you look at some of the country’s war memorials. Sydney’s Anzac War Memorial is designed like an ancient Greek temple. Inside it features Rayner Hoff’s stunning 1934 bronze sculpture, Sacrifice, which depicts the body of a soldier held aloft on the altar of his shield, his arms draped across a sword in a posture of crucifixion, while the whole form rises like a phoenix from the flames below. It is a majestic image, a portrayal of worship, devotion and sacrifice. It’s hard to imagine a more vivid representation of the cult of war that lies at the heart of the modern nation-state. Interestingly though, Hoff made two other bronze sculptures for the memorial, but only Sacrifice was included. One of the other sculptures, the crucifixion of Civilisation, would have challenged this central image- and it might have challenged the romanticism of war that has become so prevalent in Australia today. In this sculpture, the form of a young naked woman (symbolising Peace) is crucified atop a pile of corpses, limbs, weapons and other wreckages of war. She is crucified on the weapons of Mars, the Roman god of war. The huge helmet of Mars gapes over her like some monstrous ravening mouth. From a distance, the whole hideous scene forms a traditional symbol of victory. Hoff himself described the sculpture like this: “Adolescent Peace is depicted crucified on the armaments of the ravisher, the war god, Mars.   The Greek helmet like an animal, gapes over the head of expiring Peace, the body armour hard and brutal in contrast to her lithe woman’s body”. Ben goes on to say “It’s a shame this piece is absent from the Anzac War Memorial. It’s surely worth asking to whom these devotions are offered year after year – the father of Jesus or an insatiable pagan god of war”. It makes me wonder too if we have ever got beyond Peace being just an adolescent in our thinking and living. We need to look for a deeper peace, a real peace that is positive for all, rather than a protection of the space in which some powers pursue their interests. The notion of some sort of blood sacrifice being a necessary rite of passage in the birth of a nation was apparently common in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods and some felt that in the daunting task of storming the Gallipoli Peninsula, the Anzacs created an event which would help shape the new Australia.

Most often in these Anzac Day services, there has not been a clear underpinning theology. Rather, as William Loader puts it, it was more just the cry, the naïve and childlike cry to God from people in pain as they remembered. He sees pain in the community at large and pain in the community of war veterans, whose wounds of war have not healed who need story-telling and ritual because it cannot all be dealt with by reason. He further believes that the social change in our community over recent years that has unlocked male emotions has allowed them to find expression. Earlier I quoted Ben Myers where he insists we disentangle military deaths from the sacrifice of Christ. Yesterday at the Dawn Service in Sydney, the governor said we need to “maintain the relevance of the Anzac legend and build on it for the future”. How do we, as people of faith, interpret the Anzac legend and connect it to our faith? How do we as people of faith connect with those in our community who place almost a religious emphasis on the sacrifice of our soldiers, but perhaps on little else?

One sermon I read called “Honouring the Fallen”, points out that while we are followers of one who was slain, we are not followers of one who took up arms to fight the enemy. Jesus called on his followers to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. When his enemies came against him with military force, he did not resort to violence to defend himself or his cause. Offering himself as the Prince of Peace, rather than as the Holy Warrior, he allowed the machinery of might and power to add him to its list of sacrificial victims. Jesus gave us no endorsement and no precedent for taking up arms and his teachings point overwhelmingly towards an active renunciation of waging war. How then, do we honour the fallen while being consistent with the gospel teaching? We need to do it in a way that resists the manipulation of the commemoration into a support for a system that supports killing.

As the Anzac events recede further into the mists of time we are bound to lose our connection to the historical reality, but we can develop a connection with a deeper abiding reality. The passion of Christ that we have so recently celebrated becomes an invitation to solidarity with all who are violated or who suffer and an opportunity for redemption and renewed life.

Our John 10 reading tonight first has Jesus implying to his friends, who do not understand, that he is the shepherd who leads them. He first says “I am the gate for the sheep.”, the one who protects them and who has come to give them life and to ensure it is not taken from them. He then spells out that he is the good shepherd who is prepared to lay down his life for the sheep. He says “No-one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.”. William Loader says that soldiers’ deaths might come from hatred and aggression towards a perceived enemy, from a naïve analysis of good and bad, from a blind submission to authorities, whereas Jesus’ sacrifice comes from the violation of one who refused hatred and lived and died love. Is this a point where we can facilitate bringing into dialogue Christ’s death and the Gallipoli story? Informed by the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Gallipoli story must not become for us a celebration of war or of solidarity in adolescent behaviour as the unfruitful response to the stress of loneliness and fear. We can honour the fallen and acknowledge their sacrifice without approving or supporting the system that sacrificed them.   It is easy to unthinkingly allow our honouring of the fallen morph into a worshipping of the victims of war and as the victims become inseparably linked to symbols such as the flag, democracy and our borders and freedom, our worship can then morph further into an endorsement of the need to defend such things with violent military force.

As we strive for a deeper, abiding Anzac reality, we in the church need to take that opportunity to be present where many people are, when the community celebrates Anzac Day. Loader says that the early church “learnt to baptise the myths of its age”, that is, the stories to live by, learnt to embrace and incorporate them, as for example has happened with Harvest Festival. How do we go forward, connecting with our community, paying proper respect and gratitude but not glorifying war? We need to honour the fallen by allowing their memory to raise urgent questions about the powers that sacrificed them and the kind of national leadership we need today. Do we press our secular leaders to follow the lead of Jesus, themselves striving to be the door of our sheepfold, and as the shepherds of us, their sheep? Do we press them to show a servant leadership towards us and in their decision making on our behalf?

Perhaps as we begin by joining in the confession of solidarity with the community “We will remember them”, we will treat it as a matter of pressing responsibility to bring Jesus’ sacrifice to bear on all aspects of our life as individuals. Then in our community and civic life, we can seek to honour the fallen in the long term by ensuring that we weave into the fabric of our society, values that are expressed in seeking the common good, in integrity of personal and public life and a deep commitment to peace. This can be how we remember and honour them best.

Dr Ruth Shatford