Monday, 31 May 2010

Trinity Sunday: Sacred Ordinariness

Proverbs 8.1-4,22-31, Romans 5.1-5, John 16.12-15

Those of you who work in schools or with children may know of a Christmas story called Papa Panov. It is actually an adaptation of a tale by Leo Tolstoy, but his hero is called Martin AvdĂ©iteh and Tolstoy’s original story is subtly different. It’s Tolstoy’s version I want to tell you today.

Martin was a poor man, a cobbler, who had lost his wife and all his children one by one to disease. Now, in old age, he lived alone in a basement room. His misfortunes had made him bitter and lonely. He felt he had nothing to enjoy, nothing to hope for. One day, though, a traveller suggested to him that he should read the Bible. Perhaps in that there would be something which would help him. So Martin began to read the Gospels. He read of Jesus’ love for others the poor, the sick, the lonely like himself. He read of his teaching that the last should be first, and that we should forgive as God forgave us. Gradually Martin’s heart softened. If only he could meet this Jesus! Martin read too about those who refused to welcome Christ, those who ill treated him. He wouldn’t have treated him so!

Then one night in the depths of winter he had a dream. He dreamed that Christ spoke to him. “Tomorrow, Martin, I will come to visit you.”
The next day Martin tried to convince himself it was just a dream, but nonetheless, he couldn’t help peering out of his basement window hopefully. All he could see, though, was an old street sweeper, Stephanitch. Stephanitch was even poorer than Martin. On this winter’s day Martin could see that Stephanitch was freezing cold and bone-weary. He called out to him to come inside. “The samovar is boiling – come and have some tea!” The street sweeper came in and gratefully drank several cups of hot tea, but he noticed that Martin kept looking out of the window. “Are you expecting someone, Martin?” Martin told him of his dream. “I know it is foolish, but perhaps it might happen as I dreamed.” Stephanitch shrugged – who can say what might happen in life if God wills it…? He went back out into the snow, thanking Martin for his kindness.

A little later Martin noticed a stranger standing outside his window. Was this Jesus? But no, it was just a young woman carrying a baby. Then Martin noticed, though, that her clothes were threadbare and she wore no cloak against the cold. The baby too, looked half-frozen. He went out and brought her in, gave her some soup and bread he had prepared for his own lunch, and listened to her story. Her soldier husband had died, leaving her penniless. She had no money, no food for herself and her child, and nothing left to pawn. As she rose up to go Martin gave her a little money, and an old cloak. He wished he could do more, but she was very grateful to him, and went on her way rejoicing.

But Martin still hadn’t had the visitor he longed for. As he gazed sorrowfully out of the window, suddenly a small drama began to unfold. There was an old woman selling apples from a basket on the other side of the street. She was laden down, not only with the apples, but with the bundle of firewood she was planning to take home with her. As Martin watched a hungry looking young boy came past her, snatched an apple from the basket and made to run off. But the old woman was too fast for him, and grabbed hold of him before he could start running. “You miserable thief” she shouted. “You will be punished for this!” She started to beat him severely. Martin ran outside. “Stop this! The boy has only taken an apple, one apple, and that because he is hungry – of course he has done wrong, but there is no need to punish him so brutally. If God were to punish us for our sins as you punish this boy – who could survive it?” The old woman looked at the boy and she thought of her own children, now grown – this could have easily been one of them and straight away forgave him. The boy apologised and seeing her struggle to lift her bundle of wood, he picked it up and carried it to her home for her. Martin watched as the two of them went off down the street happily together.

Martin was pleased to see peace restored, but he was still sad that Christ hadn’t come. He went back to his basement room as darkness fell, feeling a little foolish for having trusted in a dream. He opened his Bible to read again. But as he read he heard a voice behind him. “Martin, Martin, don’t you know me?”
“Who is it? “ Martin asked, peering round into the darkness.
“It is I” said the voice, and out of the corner of the room stepped the figure of Stephanitch, who smiled and vanished.
“It is I” said the voice again, and the woman with the baby came towards him and vanished.
“It is I” said the voice a third time, and the apple seller and boy emerged from the shadows before vanishing.
And Martin looked down at the Bible in his hands. “As you did it for one of the least of my brothers and sisters you did it for me”, the words before him read. And Martin knew that Christ had indeed come to him that day, and that he, Martin had welcomed and cared for him just as he’d longed to.

And that is Tolstoy’s story of Martin the Cobbler.
As I said, it is subtly different from the tale of Papa Panov. For a start, Papa Panov is set at Christmas time, but Tolstoy simply says that these events take place on a cold snowy day, one among many in the long, dark Russian winter. It is a significant detail. Christmas is a special time; perhaps a time when we can all believe miracles might happen, when God might show up, when love and peace could suddenly break out. Get to the middle of February, though, and the world seems far more humdrum, far less hopeful. Tolstoy called his story “Where Love is, God is” and the point he was trying to make was that it is in the everyday acts of love, the ones that happen on ordinary days and don’t seem special at all – that God truly longs to be revealed and known. The other difference from Papa Panov is that it isn’t just the kindly street sweeper and the poor mother and baby who help Martin to see God in his midst. It is also the bad tempered apple-seller and the thieving child. Love doesn’t always look soft and gentle. It is also seen when we act courageously to set straight what is crooked in the world. That is something we might shy away from; who are we to interfere? But if we stand by while people treat each other unjustly this story tells us that we are missing God in our midst, missing the chance to be part of his work of reconciliation.

Today is Trinity Sunday, and you might be wondering what this story has to do with the theme of the day by now. Perhaps you think I’m just telling you a story to avoid having to deal with the confusing idea of God being Three and God being One. But actually, however much I might be tempted to do that, that’s not what I am up to. There is a link here. The doctrine of the Trinity was the early Church’s attempt at expressing their experience of God. They’d inherited the Jewish belief in him as a loving Creator, whose work could be seen all around them in nature. The Psalm we read today reminded us of that. They had come to believe that they saw him in Jesus. His love for those around him was just like the love of his Father. And then, when Jesus left them they discovered that through his Spirit he was actually with them still. They felt him to be close just as he had been before. It was their experience that formed their ideas about God, not something they’d read in a book, or heard in a sermon.
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now…” said Jesus in today’s Gospel, speaking on the eve of his death. His point was that there were things they would only discover as they lived the life he’d called them to. There was no instant download of wisdom to be had. There were no shortcuts. We learn the way of Christ by living it.

God who is known in Creation. God who is known in Jesus. God who is known in the here and now by his Spirit. The doctrine of the Trinity reminds us that the God we worship is both seated in majesty but also near at hand, present in eternity but present too in the here and now, this moment, the things we struggle with in our daily lives, the person next door, our workmates, the person in front of us in the traffic jam. Depending on how we regard them and treat them we will either see God in them, or not – and they will see God in us or not. The doctrine of the Trinity might seem like the most obscure and mysterious idea in the world, but actually it reminds us of the God who wants most of all to be known to us in the ordinariness of our daily lives.

Trinity Sunday marks the end of a long cycle of special stories. We have come through Advent and Christmas, the joy and the vulnerability of Jesus’ birth. We have come through the drama of his arrest, his death, his resurrection, his ascension. Special stories, special times, but it is in the ordinary times of our lives that their message begins to come home to us.

I encountered a phrase this week which seemed to sum all this up. It was the concept of “sacred ordinariness”, the idea that we need to regard each moment, each place, each person, each event, however dull or unlikely, as one in which we can meet with God. We should have our eyes open for him, and expect to meet with him there. I pray that, like Martin the cobbler, we will find that “sacred ordinariness” individually and together in the ordinary days that lie ahead.
Amen. - Lectionary essay for May 30th 2010

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Pentecost: Transforming Fire

Pentecost 2010
Acts 2.1-21

I hope you like the fiery pew ends we made at Messy Church last week. We finger painted the red and yellow paint onto them and I can tell you, we really managed put the “mess” into Messy Church in the process! It’s not just accident that we made fiery decorations for today, of course. It is because fire is one of the symbols of the Holy Spirit, who we think about especially on this feast of Pentecost.

The association of fire with the Holy Spirit comes from that first reading we heard today, from the book of Acts. As the disciples gather in Jerusalem after Jesus’ ascension, they seem paralysed, unsure what to do next. Jesus told them to wait for power from on high, but for how long, and what is this power they are waiting for? Their minds are full of questions. How can they possibly hope to fulfil the task he gave them? Go into all the world… Proclaim the good news… These are fishermen from Galilee, not famous preachers, or great philosophers, or international statesmen. And they can’t forget what happened to Jesus when he preached that same Good News. He was put to death on a cross. The Resurrection may have changed the way they understood that, but it didn’t cancel out the memory of the pain and humiliation.
Who wouldn’t feel daunted by this?

But then, according to the story, they experience something which they can’t really describe – the rushing wind and those tongues of flame. It’s a familiar story, but as we splodged about in the red and yellow paint last week, making our own flames for today I started to wonder– why fire? Why this symbol? What does this tell us about the Holy Spirit? What might all this have meant to those first disciples? On one level it seems obvious. Fire is exciting, it’s powerful – we talk about being all fired up, and those first disciples certainly were after their Pentecost experience. But I suspect there’s a deeper message here too, one which we might easily miss.

In the ancient world fire wasn’t just about excitement – bonfires and campfires and fireworks. It wasn’t just a useful thing either, something you needed for cooking and heating. It also spoke of mystery, because it was a mystery, beyond the comprehension of the people who used it. According to the ancient Greeks, Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to humanity as a gift. The gods punished him severely for it, because they didn’t want humans getting hold of something so special. Other cultures tell similar stories, emphasizing how precious fire is. To make it yourself takes skill and effort, however easy Ray Mears makes it look. Before people found out how to rub two sticks together or strike a spark from a flint, they’d have only experienced fire when lightning struck or a volcano erupted. That’s why people thought it was the property of the gods. It wasn’t like water, earth or air, there around you all the time. It came apparently out of nowhere and vanished as mysteriously as it had arrived.

The people of the Old Testament shared this belief in fire’s mystery. In fact they went further. For them fire was in some sense part of God’s essence. When God turns up there’s nearly always fire around too – for good or for ill. God speaks to Moses out of a burning bush. He guides the people of Israel across the desert to the Promised Land in a pillar of fire. He descends on Mount Sinai to give Moses the Ten Commandments in clouds of smoke and fire. The prophet Ezekiel had a vision of God seated in a chariot of fire, looking “like glowing amber, something like fire enclosed all around” he says. (Ezek 1.27) Fire said “God” to ancient people.

Fire was divine not just because it was powerful but also because it could change things in ways that people knew they couldn’t. A forest could be reduced to a pile of silvery-grey ash and blackened stumps by fire. How did that happen? Where had all that wood gone? Early metal workers discovered that fire could make precious metal flow out of solid rock. Even now when we understand the science far better it is still pretty amazing what fire can do. My father was a scientific glassblower. He made all those mysterious looking tubes and bottles which you see full of bubbling liquids in laboratories. Sometimes I watched him at work, taking a tube of cool clear, apparently totally solid glass and holding it over a flame until it glowed red hot and melted into whatever shape he wanted to make it into. And if that wasn’t magical enough, I knew that the glass he was working with had originally been made by heating sand until it melted. Sand – the stuff we played with on the seashore. How could that be? Sand doesn’t look like glass at all. It’s easy to see how ancient people would have regarded fire as miraculous, a sign of God at work.

So, to go back to the question I started with, what would those first disciples have been thinking when they saw flames dancing on each other’s heads?
I’d like to suggest two things.

Firstly, the flames of Pentecost wouldn’t just have been a sign that they were excited or empowered. Those flames told them that they were being changed by God’s presence in them, transformed just as fire transforms what it touches; from rock to precious metal, from sand to glass. Perhaps the story also hints that there are some things in their lives which will be reduced to ashes too, burnt away as they walked in the way Jesus had shown them.

When Luke wrote his account of the Day of Pentecost, he was writing for people who knew about change from personal, sometimes painful, experience. The early Church wasn’t perfect – far from it – but the decision those early Christians made to follow Christ made a radical difference to their lives. Many of them left their native lands and their old occupations, the communities they had grown up in. As they did so, people they might once have regarded as enemies became friends, family even. This meant that they had to change inwardly too. They had to confront and conquer old prejudices, learn to love where once they had hated and discover courage they didn’t know they had. This led to genuine and deep transformation in their thinking and in their behaviour. “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation” said St Paul (2 Cor 5.17)

The second thing which the flames of Pentecost would have told them was that this transformation wasn’t wholly or even mainly their work, though; it was the work of God in them. Fire, as I’ve said, was something which people saw as a divine gift. The disciples had a part to play. Wait, watch, pray, expect, Jesus had said. But they didn’t have to earn it or deserve God’s presence. Their new found confidence came from realising that God was with them through his choice, not their effort. That meant that there was nothing fragile, uncertain or provisional about it.

So where does that leave us? Perhaps it depends on where we feel we are starting from today.
This story can be a wonderful encouragement to us as it was to the first Christians. “The Lord is here/ His Spirit is with us” we say every time we come together, and it is true. We may not see flames dancing through our midst, but if we open our eyes we can see God at work around us and in us too. As I look around this church I see people loving one another, and loving those around them, caring for each other, supporting each other. I see people growing in faith, asking questions, struggling to live what they believe. I see people getting angry at the injustices of the world, and finding the strength to do something about it. Some of you traipsed the streets collecting for Christian Aid the other week, for example. Some of you turned out to the recent meeting in Sevenoaks to discuss ways we can respond to the need for a local refuge for those suffering domestic abuse. St Paul described the fruits of the Spirit as “Love, joy, peace patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control.” I see all those fruits here in our midst – not perfectly of course, but present nonetheless. “The Lord is here/ his Spirit is with us”.

But of course this story also reminds us of the changes that still need to happen in our lives and in our church. It calls us to continue to be open to that transforming fire of God, to allow ourselves to be touched and changed. To live is to change. If we are alive in God, close to him, then we can’t expect to stay the same. Sometimes we might look to faith to provide a comforting glow of warmth, sometimes we might look to it to bring us moments of excitement, a diversion from the mundane realities of their day to day existence, but if that is as far as it goes, if we go out from worship the same as we came in, then we are missing something. Faith is meant to be a fire that changes us and keeps on changing us throughout our lives.

So the challenge for us this Pentecost is to open our eyes – to see and honour the work that God is already doing, the flames of love that already dance around us and in us, but also to see and acknowledge those places which still need to be touched by God’s fire. Places where there is sin that needs to be turned to ash, silver hidden in the rock, sand that waits to be melted into pure glass through which others can see God’s love.

Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on us.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Easter 7: On things going wrong (Breathing Space Sermon)

Acts 16.16-34

“Life is what happens to you while you’re making other plans” said John Lennon. It’s trite, but it is also true. It’s only human to want to know and control what happens in our lives, but I think most of us can look back and see that many of the really significant moments in our lives weren’t the ones we had planned, but the ones that came about apparently by accident. A chance meeting might have resulted in a lifelong marriage or friendship. A stray comment from someone might have propelled us into a career we’d never have thought of for ourselves. The future often hinges on things which at the time seem unimportant, inconvenient, or even disastrous.

In the first reading we heard today that was certainly the case.
St Paul was in Philippi with Silas, his preaching companion. It was all going well. He’d already made a convert – Lydia, a wealthy dye trader. A new church was starting to form.

But then, as we heard, it started to go pear-shaped. A slave-girl who had what is described as a spirit of divination crosses their path. Her job was to listen for messages from the gods, so perhaps its no surprise that she recognises something divine in Silas and Paul. However it happens, there is no shutting her up as she shouts it from the roof-tops. Paul is “very much annoyed”. This isn’t how he imagined things would be. He’s trying to advance sophisticated philosophical arguments for following Jesus; some wild woman shrieking out prophecies doesn’t fit with the image he’s trying to project at all. Since he can’t shut her up any other way, he casts the demon out of her, much more out of irritation than compassion.

But now there’s another problem. No sooner has peace descended, than the slave girl’s owners’ show up, and they’re not happy at all. She was a good little earner for them. There will always be people who want their fortunes telling.

So they have Paul and Silas thrown into prison.
But even here events spiral out of control. An earthquake strikes in the middle of the night, and the doors fly open. The jailer, terrified of the retribution of his Roman bosses, is about to kill himself when Paul and Silas call out that they are still in their cells. He is so astonished at their reactions to what has happened, and at the peace and joy they have displayed in the face of their troubles, that he announces that whatever they have, he wants too, and by the time the sun rises on the new day he and his household have all been baptised.

Who knows what Paul and Silas had expected from the preceding 24 hours, but it probably wasn’t all this. And yet, in the midst of all this chaos, despite all their plans going haywire, people have found transformation and freedom that they could never have imagined. The slave-girl is freed from whatever it was that had taken possession of her, whether you want to call it a spiritual ailment or a neurological or psychological one. The jailer, who almost killed himself, finds life that is richer than he had ever known. Everything is changed.

And maybe even Paul and Silas have found some freedom they didn’t expect too. The freedom to trust God’s judgement over their own, to believe that truly, as Paul says in one of his letters, “all things work together for good for those that love God”. That doesn’t mean that everything is easy; happy ever after. How will the slave girl earn her keep now? Will the jailer be able to keep his job? Paul and Silas will face further persecution and death. But they all find the freedom which comes from knowing that whatever happens, God is with us, we are loved, and nothing can destroy that love.

As we ponder this story in the silence now, perhaps we can look back over our own lives. Are there times when we felt as if everything had gone wrong, when all our plans crumbled to dust, but in retrospect we found gifts we wouldn’t have known otherwise? And as we face the future perhaps this story might remind us that if the things we are anxiously planning don’t turn out as we expect, all will not be lost. Perhaps we can put our anxieties into God’s hands and let him show us the true freedom that comes from trusting him.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Easter 6: Thirst for Change

A sermon by Kevin Bright

Acts16. 9-15, Revelation 21.10, 22,-22. 5, John 5.1-9

We spent some time in Somerset in the week after Easter and visited the Roman Baths at Bath.

Can you imagine in the time of the Celts and later the Romans finding a location where hot water gushes out at a rate producing 257,000 gallons a day? It’s an amazing sight now but the availability of endless hot water must have seemed nothing short of miraculous all those centuries ago.

No wonder many early Celtic Religious ceremonies were organised around natural water sources.

I thought about those poor Roman soldiers leaving Rome in the balmy late summer to arrive in England for the first time in their tunic and sandals, it’s bad enough when you fly back from Spain in your shorts to arrive on a wet and windy day at Gatwick sometimes but at least you can put the heating on in your car.

It’s no wonder then that the Romans built a temple to Minerva Sulis a hybrid deity, Sulis is the Celtic goddess of healing and sacred waters and Minerva the Roman goddess of wisdom. This was followed by the construction of an elaborate bathing complex where you could have oil massages followed by a good scraping of every bodily surface to remove dirt and dead skin then take hot, tepid or cold baths.

In John’s Gospel we hear of a pool in Jerusalem named Bethzatha, regarded by both pagans and Jews as a sacred site which could bring healing. It was said that when the waters bubbled up periodically the first person in would be healed.

There seems to be a question mark over just how effective the healing qualities of these waters were. Perhaps the site became more of a place of congregation and mutual support for the lame, blind and paralyzed we heard of laying in the five porticoes. Clearly the man Jesus identifies had made his way of life around the healing pools so Jesus seems harsh with his question ‘Do you want to be made well?’

Is that like one of those questions your parents used to ask, do you want a slap your legs, or do you want to lose your pocket money?

The answer is not quite as obvious as it appears. Perhaps it’s a question a bit more like do you really want to get fitter and healthier, yes seems the obvious answer but are we prepared to cut down on fatty foods and do more exercise. Do you want to speak a foreign language, of course but are we prepared to study all the nuances of a new language and do our verb drills?

'Do you want to be made well' or perhaps Jesus meant do you really want the fullness of life which you can only find in me. Are you brave enough to really seek this and want it or shall I leave you in your old ways so you can carry on moaning about how lucky other people are.

Does the man want to rely on Pagan myth and legend, as he has done for the last 38 years, or does he want to place his faith in the son of the one true God? A bit of a no brainer when you ask it like that you might say and surely that's the mans sentiment exactly or he wouldn't have followed Jesus command to 'stand up, take your mat and walk'.

This mans life was changed forever, at first it may have seemed a lot harder for him as he had to find new ways of life and work, other peoples expectations of him would have changed too.

We’ve heard a lot about change for the better from our political parties over recent weeks through their slogans:-

Vote for change
A future fair for all
Change that works for you, building a fairer Britain

While we wait for the politicians to do whatever they can to form a government they believe is in our best interest we may worry a little bit less when we remind ourselves that God remains in control, even Lord Mandelson still answers to him!

In the meantime that doesn’t mean that we should accept things as they are and sit back and moan about injustice in our world expecting whoever is ultimately in power to do it all for us. In fact 22,000 churches will be doing exactly the opposite this Christian Aid week, huge numbers will be getting off their backsides and plodding the streets to help some of the poorest people in our world.

For one week starting today each one of us has the opportunity to bring healing waters to the people of Kenya. We will be doing what we can to help fund the basic dignity of toilets and showers to people living in the slums of Kenya, not far from their capital city of Nairobi.

Here’s a few words from Christian Aid volunteers who have been out to Kenya and seen the work we are trying to raise funds for first hand.

‘We've travelled around Nairobi and we've seen all sorts of different areas: quite a contrast. Sixty per cent of the population – more than 2 million people – live in informal settlements. I was quite shocked.

‘The first things we saw when we arrived in Matopeni were the results of the flying toilets. There’s not a single working toilet here, so people go, put it in a bag, and throw it over the wall. And there is no official tap or clean running water. People have managed to access the water pipes below the ground – but the water is really filthy and carries typhoid.

‘By contrast, the people in Kiambiu are almost living a normal life. With the help of the water and development programme Christian Aid is supporting, they
have built five toilet and shower blocks and they've employed people from the local community to clean and maintain them. They charge people a nominal fee to use them and invest the money back into the community, for example to fund the building of more toilet blocks or emergency healthcare for families. They've also got clean drinking water now.

I’m sure that in common with many Christian Aid collectors I hate knocking on peoples doors asking for money and the weathers turning colder and wetter this week also. But we know that we can get home and have a hot shower at the end of it and it would be wonderful if the same became true for many in the Kenyan slums.

We bring our sometimes parched, barren lives and ask God to bless our efforts, so that Kenyan lives currently stalled will be germinated because his river flows. Change is possible and we shouldn’t underestimate the difference that we can make.

If you are ever feeling a bit despondent about what can be achieved it may help to remember how optimistic some of the poorest people in the world remain. A lady called Catherine who lives in the Matopeni slums exudes hope when she states’ ‘one day this slum will never be the same again. We will have beautiful houses, we will live a beautiful life. ‘

Whether giving or collecting think of it as our way of diverting a little of God’s life giving waters which we heard of in our revelation reading to our less fortunate neighbours, brothers and sisters in Kenya.

Christian Aid week is, unsurprisingly, for a week. For every day this week I’d like to urge all of us to keep the people in Kenya without clean water in our prayers.

We always get lots of Christian Aid stickers but I mostly end up giving them back at the end of the week. So this year I’m going to stick one on the wall above the tap in my bathroom and every time I wash my hands, brush my teeth, wash and shave I shall thank God for the gift of life giving water both now and for eternity. I shall also pray for the sanitation projects in Kenya and the efforts of all who support Christian Aid. I’ve got plenty more if you would like to do the same.

Maybe we should have our own slogan for the week ahead:-

Seal Church, people with a thirst for change!


Monday, 3 May 2010

Easter 5: New Worlds

Easter 5 10

Acts 11.1-8, Rev 21.1-6, John 13.31-35

Earlier this week, the physicist Stephen Hawking was quoted as saying that the search for aliens in outer space worried him a bit. Maybe it wasn’t wise to try to attract attention. "We only have to look at ourselves” , he said,” to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn't want to meet. If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn't turn out very well for the American Indians."
Perhaps he was being a bit cynical and overly cautious, but he’s got a point. When those early explorers found what was to them the new world of the Americas it didn’t take them long to start exploiting its riches and oppressing its people. They might have found a new world, but they brought all the faults and failings of the old world to it. It’s not an edifying story but it’s one which reminds us that though new worlds can seem attractive, living in them is not always as simple as it seems.

There are new worlds in all our readings today, in one way or another.

John, in the book of Revelation sees “a new heaven and a new earth.”

This is John‘s new world – a place where God wipes every tear away, and death is no more, and it is just around the corner. If ever there was someone who needed a new world to look forward to it was surely John. He was in exile on the island of Patmos, just off the coast of what is now Turkey. He was the leader of a collection of Christian communities on the mainland, but the Roman emperor Domitian had initiated a wave of persecution against the Christians and John had been caught up in it. Patmos was a dry, dusty island –no wonder John sees springs bubbling up in his visions. But the physical hardships he endured weren’t the worst thing. It was the separation from those he cared about, and those who cared about him which hurt the most.

His book begins with letters to the seven churches he had left behind, seven groups of people who were like family to him. They were ordinary people, but they were living in extraordinary and dangerous times, facing death on a daily basis. Sometimes they rose to the challenges; sometimes it is clear from what John writes that they didn’t. According to him, the church in Thyatira was riven with internal disputes. The church in Sardis was half-asleep, not taking seriously the threats facing it. The church in Laodicea was lukewarm, complacent. The churches in Smyrna and Pergamum were struggling to find the courage they needed to stick to their faith. For many of the, as for him, time was short and they knew it. The end of the world really was nigh – or at least the end of their individual worlds in this bloodbath of martyrdom they were going through.

But John’s tells them that these disasters that threaten them aren’t the end; far from it, they are a sign of a new beginning, a new world, a new age in which Rome won’t have the last word, and God’s rule will be clear to see – the kingdom of God in all its fullness.

That’s John’s vision, John’s new world. In the book of Acts it is Peter who is seeing things. His vision is very different, but in its way it is also about a new world. This one isn’t in the future though – however near that future is - it is already here and now if Peter can only open his eyes to see it. And it’s not a kingdom that will be come through cosmic battles, but through the nitty-gritty of everyday life being transformed by God’s presence within it.

Peter is praying on the flat roof of the house in Joppa where he is staying. As he does so, he falls into a trance, and something like a sheet is lowered down from the sky towards him. In it, he sees all sorts of animals, animals which the Jewish law says are unclean, which are forbidden as food – pigs, shellfish, reptiles. Peter doesn’t need to look up the list to check whether they are kosher. He’s been brought up not to eat them, and even thinking of it makes him feel ill, just as many English people might feel if presented with a plate of dog or cat or witchetty grubs…

It isn’t just the food that disgusts Peter. His revulsion extends to those who are prepared to eat these things, the Gentiles. They are as unclean to him as the food they eat, and to associate with them will make Peter unclean too.

As he struggles with this visceral distaste, he hears the voice of God, “Get up Peter, kill and eat!” “I can’t “says Peter. “Why not?” says God. “Because you have forbidden it”. “So, I can unforbid it too, can’t I?” answers God. “I am God, after all”. I paraphrase slightly, but that is the sense of it. Three times God asks him to eat these animals, then the vision vanishes, and Peter is left to puzzle out what it means. While he’s thinking, visitors arrive from Caesarea. They ask him to go with them to the house of a Gentile. Peter hesitates – but suddenly the vision he has had makes sense. If God says something is clean, how can he call it unclean? If that is true of food, it is true of those who eat it too. And the rest is history; Peter goes, and the message of God begins to spread through the Gentile world, which is just as well for us, because if it hadn’t, we’d probably never have heard it.

This isn’t a grand story or a dramatic story. It is a story of one man conquering his fears and prejudices, changing his deeply held beliefs. It is a new world to him, a world in which Gentiles are included, in which the old barriers are swept away and it is just as strange to him as the Americas were to Columbus. It may not seem like much to us, but for Peter, and for the Christian movement, this moment changes everything.

So, two stories about new worlds in the books of Acts and Revelation. But they set me thinking about the new worlds that we encounter, and how we cope with them. I don’t mean geographical ones but spiritual and emotional new worlds. You don’t have to be Columbus to discover those, they are all around us. In a sense every step into the future is a step into a new world.

Sometimes these new worlds are as welcome as John’s vision of the golden throne and the water of life; I think of the couples who have stood at these chancel steps to enter the new world of marriage. Sometimes we’d do anything to avoid them; those who are bereaved hoped never to set eyes on the new world they face.
New worlds can arrive in an instant. A diagnosis of serious illness, or the news of a sudden death can make us feel that everything has changed in the blink of an eye.
But new worlds can creep up on us gradually too – we look around and realise that the scenery is unfamiliar, that somehow things have moved on while we weren’t looking. What happened to the world we knew? Society has changed, and we don’t know what to make of it any more.
This week, whoever wins the General Election, we’ll find ourselves in a new political world, one which even the pundits seem to be having trouble predicting.

It can all be very unsettling, and we can easily react just as destructively to change as those early American explorers did. It is natural to fear what we don’t know. Often we will try to reduce the strangeness of a new situation, by behaving as is we can carry on with business as usual, or by beating a hasty retreat. Marriages fail because the individuals in them still want to behave as single people, footloose and fancy free – they retreat from the commitment they’ve made before they have had a chance to discover the blessings it brings. People become stuck at the point of bereavement, unable to grieve and move on because they are terrified of the world which lies ahead. The gap left in their lives can’t be filled, but life may yet have joys to offer. We cling to old prejudices and refuse even to consider new ideas because the old ones are comforting and familiar – better the devil you know.

In the Gospel, though, Jesus tells us that even if the whole world changes there is one thing that remains the same, and if we hold onto that, we have all we need. “Where I am going, you cannot come”, he tells his followers as he faces the new world of death and resurrection, and they face a new world where he won’t be present in the sense that he has been up till now. But he goes on "Love one another as I have loved you." If they love one another he seems confident that they will be able to build communities that will be brave enough not only to face the obviously terriifying prospect of violent death, but also to change and grow, to see themselves differently, to see others differently. That can be just as terrifying as death in its way. Jesus’ words are true for us too. . I have seen people who do cope with the uncharted territory of bereavement, and couples who do adjust to the new commitments of marriage. I have seen people keep going through unimaginable pressures and worries. Nearly always they say that it is love that gives them the courage they need. God’s love and the love of others. Love tells them that they matter, and that it is worth keeping going.

I don’t know what new worlds you will face. I don’t know what new worlds I will face either. But I trust Jesus’ words here because they make sense to me. If we sink our roots deep into the love of God, if we work to strengthen the bonds of love we have with others, no land will be too strange for us to feel at home in.