Sunday, 25 June 2017

Patronal Festival: Being an apostle



Today is a special day, as you know. It’s special for two reasons. First, because it is our Patronal Festival, the feast of St Peter and St Paul, and secondl, because we are all aware that today we are saying thank you and farewell to the Harvey family, sending them out on their journey to the distant shores of Hadlow. Well, it’s not all that distant, of course, but it will be a new start for them, after many years here, as Nicky prepares her ordination as a deacon and then a priest. 

And if you are sending people out, there’s no better day to do it than the feast day of two of the churches most important apostles, because that word, “apostle”, means someone who is sent out. In a sense, the Harvey family are apostles today – sent out from this congregation - and we pray that those who receive them will be nourished and enriched by their gifts as we have been.

They are following, as I’ve said, in illustrious footsteps. We heard a bit about the apostles Peter and Paul in our readings today. Peter is commissioned – sent out – by Jesus himself, given the “keys of the kingdom of heaven”. He will have authority in the new community of Jesus’ followers to open doors that seem closed, to set people free, and to bind things that need binding.  That’s an awesome power to have, though in some sense we all have it – we can make or mar the lives of others very easily, and it’s important that we know that, so that we can choose to be a force for good in the world.

Paul, the second saint to whom this church is dedicated, didn’t know Jesus during his earthly ministry. His “sending out” came in a very different way to Peter’s. He was on the road to Damascus, on a mission to destroy the followers of Jesus, because he was convinced that they had got it all wrong, and that Jesus had perverted God’s message. It was only when he heard Jesus’ voice calling to him from heaven, a place where he thought he could never be, that he realised his mistake. As he sat, blinded and confused, in a house in Damascus, a Christian called Ananias came to him there. He’d been sent by God to pray for his healing, and God had told Ananias that Paul would be “an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel…” And that’s why Paul claims to be an apostle at the beginning of our first reading today. He had been sent out by God too, just as Peter had.

Peter and Paul, two apostles, two men who are sent out and who become the most important leaders of the early church, and it’s easy to see how they exercised their apostolate, what they were “sent out” to do. Peter and Paul both travelled extensively, founded Christian communities, and both, according to Christian tradition, ended up being martyred in Rome because of the message they preached and lived.

But they aren’t the only apostles in the readings we’ve heard today, and thinking about the others in these readings might broaden our view on what it means to be sent by God and used by God. Who are these others who are “sent out”? They both feature in that first reading, the letter Paul wrote.

First there’s Timothy. Timothy, was a regular travelling companion of Paul’s. We don’t know much about him for sure, except that he came from Lystra and had a Jewish mother and a Greek father, but we do know that he was immensely important to Paul. He refers to him often, and always with great affection. Again and again, Paul talks about being glad of his company, or looking forward to seeing him. He’s described as a beloved child, as well as a brother. Paul obviously felt protective of him, but he also knew that he needed him. Timothy supported him practically, travelling on missions for Paul, and he supported him emotionally too, sticking with him when he was in trouble. That sort of supportive role is vital, often far more important than those who perform it realise. I know that many people here have supported Nicky through her training, first as a Pastoral Assistant and then in her ordination training, praying for her, giving her feedback on sermons, taking an interest in what she’s been doing, and many more will support her and Mike and their family in her future ministry, and they will also be vital. Ministry is not something you do alone. You rapidly realise that when you are ordained. It is something you do as part of a community, and without that community, you can’t do anything at all. The Timothys of this world have an apostolic job too, something they are sent by God to do. It’s to walk alongside others, and they are just as important as the Peters and Pauls. 

Peter and Paul are big Christian heroes, and you might have heard of Timothy before too, because there are letters to him in the New Testament. My guess is, though, that the fourth “apostle” I want to think about today is one most of us have never noticed at all. It is Epaphras. Who?  Epaphras. He’s mentioned in passing just twice in Colossians, and once more in the letter to Philemon. A bit of detective work, though, uncovers some interesting things about him. He seems to have been with Paul, who was in prison, when he wrote to the Colossians, but a bit later on in the letter Paul describes him as “one of you” . Epaphras is from Colossae, a leader, and possibly the founder, of the Christian community there. He’s come to Paul with news of the Colossians.  Some things are going well, “He has made known to us your love in the Spirit”, says Paul. Others aren’t – we hear of some of the struggles and arguments in the church later on in the letter. He wants Paul’s advice and help.

It seems likely that he originally met Paul in Ephesus, and became a Christian through Paul’s ministry. But Paul never went to Colossae himself, so it must have been Epaphras who took the good news there. That’s why I want to call Epaphras an apostle. He was sent, just as much as Peter, Paul, and Timothy were. But he was sent home, sent to what is often the hardest place to minister, the place where everyone already knows you!  In every generation there are Peters and Pauls, people who travel with the gospel of Christ to new places, as Nicky and Mike will do, and as I have done in my ministry. But for many others throughout history, their calling is to stay put, to bloom where they are planted, to transform their own backyards, their own communities, their own workplaces, to stick at it even when the grass looks greener elsewhere. Epaphras was an apostle to his own people, in his own place, just as many – perhaps most – Christians are called to be. That might not always feel very exciting, but without those local apostles, the church will soon wither and die. So if that is your calling, then live it!

In a moment, the choir are going to sing a setting of the Magnificat in G Major by Sumsion, that song of Mary which reminds us that God, in Jesus, is transforming the world.  He is putting down the mighty from their seat, exalting the humble and meek, filling the hungry with good things, and sending the rich away empty, challenged to change their lives. It’s a song that’s all about God’s mission, and Mary’s astonishment that it is happening through her.  At the end of this Eucharist, as we send Nicky, Mike and the family out with our love, our blessing and our prayer, we need also to remember that God sends us out too, into our own apostolate, wherever that is.

Each of us is called. Each of us is sent. God has a purpose for each of us, something that we, and only we can do. It might be far away, or it might be right here. We might be a Peter or Paul, a Timothy or an Epaphras, called to travel, or called to stay put, called to lead, or called to encourage, but each of us matters and can make a difference. Paul’s prayer for the Colossians is that each of them will bear fruit, grow in wisdom, build his kingdom. That’s my prayer for Nicky and Mike and their family, and I am sure that it is their prayer for us too as they leave us today.

Amen




Sunday, 11 June 2017

Trinity Sunday: Remember, I am with you...




Today is Trinity Sunday, the day when I am supposed to explain to you the mystery of how God can be three and one at the same time, probably using dodgy analogies of ice, water and steam or images of shamrocks or long theological words like perichoresis.  You’ll probably be quite glad to hear that I’m not going to do any of that.

But that doesn’t mean that I think the idea of the Trinity doesn’t matter. It’s just that it seems to me it is something to explore, not explain, to wonder at, not to dissect. The idea of the Trinity started with the experience of the early Christians, and it’s when we let it speak to our experience that it really starts to make a difference to us.

In particular, it grew out of their experience of the truth of the words Jesus spoke to them at the end of his ministry, the words we heard in our Gospel reading just now. “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” says Jesus. So if we want to start exploring the Trinity, this is a good place to begin. To do so, though, we need to take a step back and think more generally about the Gospels.

We have four Gospels in the New Testament. They all tell the story of Jesus in different ways.  The authors choose to shape their stories in different ways, pulling together memories of those who had been with Jesus and stories that circulated around the early Church. They were written a generation after Jesus, between the 60’s and 90’s AD, soon enough to capture those first hand memories, but as far as we know, none of the Gospel writers had been with Jesus in his ministry. They were written for different audiences too, who needed to hear messages for their own context, messages that would help them to deal with the challenges that they faced and the questions they were asking.

So, although the Gospels have a common core, each one tells the story in a slightly different way. You may know that only two have stories of Jesus’ birth, and that we can’t really mash them together without doing violence to one or the other, not that that stops us trying in our Nativity plays. The same is true of the Easter stories, the stories of Jesus’ resurrection, and, especially the stories which come after that, of Jesus’ appearances to his disciples.  If I were to ask you how Jesus’ earthly ministry ends, my guess is that most of you would say, “With the Ascension, that story of Jesus rising up into heaven through the clouds, from the Mount of Olives outside Jerusalem  ”. It’s there in the creed that we’ll say in a minute. But in fact that story only comes in the Gospel of Luke, and the Acts of the Apostles, which was written by the same author. The other three Gospels end quite differently. Mark ends with the women who have come to the tomb finding it empty and running away terrified. John ends it with a lakeside breakfast and some words addressed to Peter giving him the task of leading the church. And Matthew, as we have seen today, ends it on a mountain in Galilee, with what is called the Great Commission, and those reassuring words “I am with you always”. After that, nothing. Matthew doesn’t say a word about what happened to Jesus’ physical body after that. There is no going up, no “exit stage left”. Matthew doesn’t seem to be at all bothered that he hasn’t explained where or how Jesus went, or why he stopped appearing to his followers.

Why is this? It could be that Matthew doesn’t know the story Luke tells – their Gospels were written around the same time. But I think it’s more likely that Matthew is simply making a different point. Luke emphasizes that Jesus is going away at this point. The disciples stand gawping up into space until angels appear to tell them go back to Jerusalem and wait for the Holy Spirit.  But Matthew wants to emphasize the fact that though they may no longer see Jesus, he has not, in a sense, gone anywhere at all. “Remember, I am with you always”. His story isn’t about absence; it is about presence.

And it has been so right from the beginning of his Gospel. He is the one who describes an angel appearing to Joseph telling him that Mary will bear a child who will be called Emmanuel – he is quoting from the prophet Isaiah. And what does Emmanuel mean? It means “God is with us”. Matthew is the one, also, who tells us that when we do anything to help the least and last in the world, we do it for Christ; he is present in the hungry and thirsty and homeless. If we ignore them, we miss seeing him too. He compares the Kingdom of Heaven to yeast, hidden in the dough, indistinguishable from it, and yet transforming it from a solid lump to good bread.
“The kingdom of Heaven has come near” says Matthew again and again. (Mt. 3.2, 4.17, 10.7)

And that brings me back to the Trinity. I haven’t forgotten about the Trinity!

The early Christians were convinced that God was Father, Son and Holy Spirit because that was their experience. It wasn’t  a dry and complicated doctrine, but a living reality for them.  They knew of God as creator and loving parent from their Scriptures. That was foundational to Jewish belief. When they met Jesus they had the sense that they were meeting someone who showed them what God was like, who bore God’s likeness, the family likeness. And when Jesus was no longer physically present, they sensed him through the Holy Spirit, who came to them in prayer, and in the new communities they formed, and in the people they reached out to, people who they might once have shunned as unclean outsiders, different from themselves.

“Nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus” said Paul to the Romans (Romans 8.39). They realised that God wasn’t – and had never been – hiding in a distant heaven in untouchable perfection. He was all around them and within them.
That doesn’t meant that they thought there was no heavenly realm beyond their earthly experience. They knew that they hadn’t seen heaven in all its fullness yet, but they discovered that it all started here and now. There was no separation between humanity and God. In Christ, and in the Holy Spirit, God was where they were, going through what they went through. And that changed them utterly.

Just imagine what a difference it would make if we fully understood this ourselves, if we truly realised that God was present in us, and in each other. How would that change the way we treated each other, and ourselves?
Just imagine what a difference it would make if we fully understood that God was present in our homes and workplaces. Save him a desk in the office, or a seat at the dinner table, and see how that affects the decisions we make at work and at home.
Just imagine what a difference it would make if we truly believed that God was present in every part of his creation. Wouldn’t we care for the world rather better than we do now?

It was the sense of God’s presence with them, first in Jesus, then in his Holy Spirit, known in prayer, known in the communities they formed, known in the people they reached out to, which transformed those early Christians and made them so excited that their message spread to the ends of the earth.

But it took practice to learn this – it didn’t happen by magic, and that’s something we need to take note of if we want to know the presence of God. It’s obvious from our second reading, in which Paul tells the Corinthians to “put things in order” and “live in peace with one another”  that they weren’t doing that. It is only as they do that they will become aware of the “God of love and peace” being with them, says Paul.

Perhaps that’s why Jesus doesn’t just say “I am with you always”. He says remember, I am with you always” or, to translate it more accurately, behold, I am with you always”. The Greek word is “idou” and it means “look”. If we want to see God’s presence, we have to look for it, and doing that will shape the way we live.  

If we never pray, how can we know the one we never pray to? If we never come together how can we know the one who dwells in our brothers and sisters? If we never reach out beyond ourselves, how can we discover the God who is out there on the margins ?

Until I was in my twenties I knew nothing about gardening, and I wasn’t very interested. Gardens were full of green things, indistinguishable to me from any other green things. A leaf was a leaf was a leaf. It was only when I started gardening myself, that I started really to look. I needed to differentiate the seedling I wanted to nurture from the weed I needed to pull out. It’s the same with God. He doesn’t usually shout at us. He doesn’t write in golden letters in the sky. He doesn’t force himself on us if we don’t want him, but if we open our eyes to him, we learn to find him. And eventually, if we keep our eyes open, we discover that he is at work in all people and places, in all times and seasons, in sorrow as well as in joy. And that discovery changes us, as it changed those first disciples, like that yeast that leavens the dough.

“Remember – behold – look - I am with you always,” says Jesus. The good news that Matthew proclaims from beginning to end in his Gospel is that God has never abandoned us and will never abandon us. He is Emmanuel, God with us; Father, Son and Holy Spirit, a trinity of love, woven inextricably through the life of the world. He calls us to see him and know him, to trust him and work with him. Let’s pray for the grace to open our eyes to his presence.

Amen


Sunday, 4 June 2017

Pentecost


John 20.19-23, 1 Corinthians 12.3-13 & Acts 2.1-21

When horrendous acts are perpetrated such as those last night in London Bridge and Borough not everyone is in the mood to hear of the Holy Spirit or anything much to be honest. We are saddened, sickened, angry, even the morning sunshine doesn’t lift the feeling that a dark cloud hangs over us.

Deep down as mature Christians we know that nothing has changed in our relationship with God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, yet we feel for all affected, particularly those who have lost people they love, for them everything has changed and life can never be as good again.

I’m sure many of us haven’t slept much, praying through the night for all who would oppose this evil, from the police who had to make the decision to kill the attackers, medics trying to save lives and many brave and kind people who did all they could to help.

If your thoughts drift away to the victims in the next few minutes I understand and I’m sure God willingly receives them.

We heard in our Acts reading how the Holy Spirit came as wind and fire to the disciples also bringing new powers of speech but there isn’t much time to dwell upon this as the main focus moves quickly to the work they are to do and suddenly we find ourselves in the middle of a busy crowd hearing of their amazement at the clarity with which they could hear God’s message.

Perhaps that’s a helpful starting point as we consider the facets of the Holy Spirit, one element is its ability to cut through confusion, pomposity and religious complexity.

Peter is able to do this as he takes the words of the prophet Joel but instead of interpreting them as horrendous condemnation he is there for the people to show that God is offering salvation and hope for the future.

If we are open to allowing the Spirit to come alongside us the result is that we will become more alive, more aware of what we can do to play our part in God’s kingdom. Just as the Spirit shows all who would have Jesus crucified as a sinner that we are the sinners we start to see and understand things anew.

 As we do God’s work and run into barriers and challenges then we will be pleased to have a comforter in the way that a reliable friend or loved one can support us through difficult times and an advocate in the way of someone seeking the best outcome for us.

Perhaps the spirit weaves her way through our lives in more ways than we care to think, perhaps it’s not all such a remote concept when our minds are open.

But what about all those languages? Those much cleverer than me know that the peoples referred to starting with the Parthians to the east in Iran, Pontus to the north in Turkey, Cyrene to the west in Libya and the Egyptians and Arabs to the south either side of the Red Sea together with all the other references radiate out in all directions from Jerusalem.



We hear that the God of Pentecost can be understood by people in their own language, he is multilingual to the point that there is no one he struggles to communicate with, a reminder to us that he loves his entire creation and is not constrained by our man made borders. This is a really challenging thought when we consider how much difference those borders make to people’s life chances. The Holy Spirit cannot be contained by race, borders, sects or religions she is everywhere.

One aspect of the Spirit I read described her as ‘the windswept protest of a borderless God, standing against humanity’s misguided preference for the empty language of the powerful.’ This is as true today as it was when it was applied to those who wanted to confine God within the walls of their temples, coming alongside the powerful and apparently respectable.

The disciples had gathered in Jerusalem during the festival of Shavuot, Hebrew for weeks, coming 7 weeks after the Passover and then a Jewish harvest festival. Pilgrims from around the known world had gathered for the celebration when suddenly the disciples burst forth into the packed streets. From the mouths of a bunch of uncouth, uneducated, disreputable Galileans comes a multilingual message of all the magnificent works of God.

It became clear that God wouldn’t be found only in a temple or a church but on any street near you. It became clear that you don’t have to be posh, ordained, or wear funny clothes to tell people about God and his love for them, anyone can do it. God was as happy for the occupying Romans to tell of his love in their imperial Latin as he was for it to be told in any language whatsoever by rich or poor, powerful or powerless.

As you are probably aware, many here at Seal have taken part in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s prayer initiative ‘Thy Kingdom come’. If you look on the dedicated website you can see parts of the globe lit up in locations where people have taken the time to pledge their prayer. The names of places on the map have changed a bit since the day of Pentecost but many lights still shine brightly across the Middle East from those taking part, even if the number of pledges is greater across Britain, Europe and North America.

It’s a beautiful thought that so many have been united through prayer , in so many languages, each seeking a perfect translation of God’s message through the Spirit.  We pray that we and all humanity might know the love of Jesus and that we may understand that the way we live our lives themselves are prayer.

In church many have written prayers and created focal points for prayer and I’m certain that God can even decipher the thoughts behind the writing which is incomprehensible to the human eye! Even more he discerns our deepest thoughts and emotions this morning.

In our prayers we are helped by the spirit, we often pray in the power of the spirit and in union with Christ. We may find Paul’s words from his letter to the Romans helpful this morning as we struggle to articulate our feelings, he wrote ‘we do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.’ In plain English the Spirit helps us to pray when words simply are not enough, going far deeper, opening us up to God.

Certain disciplines and exercises may help our daily prayer, many find God in nature, in stillness, meditation, study and imagination. Involuntary prayer occurs when we receive news be it good or bad.

If we’re honest we sometimes find prayer hard and may often only think of it in formal terms but being open to the Spirit is prayer in itself. Devoting work and the proceeds of all types work to God are prayer. Stepping outside our comfort zone to do stuff that pleases God is prayer.

Using words can often feel difficult, clumsy, inadequate, ask anyone who ever leads prayers publicly, doing so can make the person feel exposed, what if people think my prayers are stupid, offensive, too short, too long, I hope no one imagines that just because I’m prepared to have a go that I think I’m Holy or devout or more able to pray than they are. This can only ever be one small part of each person’s prayer life and it would be a mistake to think ‘that’s me done for another week’.

Then we have to try and avoid the selfish prayers, I remember the story of a man returning home to his village after a day at work and he sees smoke billowing over the hill, ‘O Lord please don’t let it be my house that is on fire’ he instinctively prays.

Sometimes when different generations use evolving language it can be difficult to keep up, how many of us would have thought that if something is ‘absolutely sick’ that the person means ‘it’s great.’ Hey God the trees look absolutely sick at the moment, we don’t need to worry whether they look fantastic or are diseased, God will know what we mean.

We sometimes hear a techy person using terms we can’t relate to, we wonder are they speaking English and it’s clear that even in our common language there’s plenty of problems understanding each other.

It can be the same when some people hear about generosity, trust, compassion, sacrifice and God’s unconditional love. It’s no good them being told about or reading of this if they never experience it. The experience is the point of crystal clear translation, which is where we come in, where we can make the Holy Spirit a reality for others. What a great revelation it must be to those who come to know what these things really mean for the first time, finally someone is speaking their language.

In considering our written prayers over the last few days amongst many others they seek compassion for the bereaved, life with God for the dead, mending of broken relationships, peace, healing and support for physical and mental health challenges, continued joy from the support of community, family and friends. To prayers for those suffering from the Manchester attacks we add all affected in London last night.

As we look around our congregation and beyond to the wider community it is evident that the Spirit is alive in the varied gifts we have among us and the way that people employ them. We collectively possess Spiritual Gifts that can work towards a great deal of what people have prayed for, our prayers can be answered at least in part by the way we serve each other and we may discover that much of what we pray for can be found very close to home.

May our response to evil be inspiration to live lives that make God’s love a reality.

Amen

Kevin Bright

4th June 2017