Sunday, 26 May 2013

Trinity Sunday: "Between Earth’s riot and the bottomless universe"

Christian faith started with experience - raw, dramatic experience; the experience of those who knew Jesus in the flesh and felt that they were meeting God in him; the experience of those who watched him die, but later met him him apparently alive again; the experience of those who felt God’s presence on the Day of Pentecost , a presence they called the Holy Spirit.  These experiences were utterly real – experiences always are, by definition. We might not understand them. We might find them extraordinary. We might be sceptical or downright disbelieving of the way they interpreted those experiences. But for those who were there, whatever it was that happened, really happened.

The problem with experience, though, is that it is often very hard to put into words. We can never fully describe our experiences to someone else. We have to shrink them to fit. It’s a bit like being in love. You know it when you feel it. It can change your life. But try to describe it and you’ll probably be reduced to syrupy clich├ęs, or metaphors that never quite capture the absolutely unique relationship that you’ve found.

That’s what the early Christians discovered when they tried to talk about the experiences they’d had, first in Jesus and then through the Holy Spirit. No matter how clever they were, they were never going to be able to sum it up in words – you had to have been there to know what they had known, to feel what they had felt.  

To add to their problems, they were trying to explain all this in translation, in a language that wasn’t the first language for most of them. Jesus and the first disciples spoke Aramaic, but the international language of the time, especially when it came to discussing ideas, was Greek. If you wanted to talk theology or philosophy, and be taken seriously by educated people, then this was the language you needed to use. That’s why the New Testament is written in Greek.

But translation is always imprecise. Words don’t necessarily have an exact equivalent in another tongue. And even if they seem to, people from different cultures don’t always mean the same thing by them.

The most basic theological word – God – is a case in point. The Jewish idea of God, the God we see in the Old Testament, the idea of God which Jesus and the first disciples would have had in their minds , is very different from the idea of God which  someone growing up steeped in Greek philosophy would have had. The God of the Old Testament is passionate, personal, anxious, angry, sometimes even changing his mind. Above all he is involved with the people he has created. And he loves them. Greek philosophers understood God very differently. There were many different schools of thought but the dominant idea at this point was of a perfect, serene being, detached and distant, unchangeable and unmoved,  with no particular interest in individuals at all.   So when native Israelites tried to discuss theology with native Greek speakers, there were bound to be problems. They were starting from completely different places, and that caused all sorts of confusions.

If God was an unchangeable, perfect, complete, serene being in a distant heaven, how could he be present in a carpenter from Galilee, thought the Greeks? How could he learn and grow as a child? How could he suffer and die? How could he move through the world inspiring and enthusing people? How could he be part of our messy reality at all?  And how were the experiences of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit related to each other?

And that brings us to the feast we are celebrating today, Trinity Sunday. You won’t find the word “Trinity” in the Bible at all. The first record of its use is in the late second century, in the writings of a Christian leader called Tertullian who came from the North African city of Carthage. He was one of those early theologians struggling to talk about an essentially Jewish faith in a Greek philosophical framework, and not always succeeding. You’ll probably be relieved to hear I’, going to spare you the details of his thinking, but suffice it to say that not everyone agreed with the answers he came up with, and furious arguments broke out. Those arguments rumbled on for centuries. They were often bitter and divisive - and largely pointless, because none of us can ever prove anything about God one way or another. In the end the position you took on the Trinity became more about establishing which of the warring Christian groups you were part of than it was about what you genuinely thought or believed, with all sides declaring that those who disagreed with them were heretics of course.

That’s a great pity, because ironically, the divisions that were caused by these arguments destroyed the very thing that the first Christians had wanted to celebrate when they talked about God as Trinity, God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

I began by saying that Christian faith started with experience, and the essence of that experience was the discovery of a new sense of wholeness and reconciliation. The first disciples felt that God had come close to them in Jesus. Heaven had been born on earth, and earth was lifted to heaven.  “We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” Paul proclaimed in our second reading. The things that had made them feel cut off from him – the rules and rituals which put a fence around him, their own sense of failure or guilt, the things they had done or the things that had happened to them – these were swept away. God was with them in Jesus, sharing their lives, touching those who had thought they were untouchable, who’d been told they should keep their distance, that they weren’t fit to enter God’s presence. “Nonsense!” said God, in the person of Jesus. “Look, here I am sitting down to eat with you, travelling the road with you, laughing and crying with you, sharing the good times and  the bad, enduring the worst that human beings can do to one another.”

As they took that message out into the world, they found that God was with them in one another too. “The fruit of the Spirit is love …” said Paul. They were drawn together across the divides of their society – remember all those languages they miraculously spoke on the Day of Pentecost. Jew and Gentile, men and women, slave and free were united in one body. They didn’t always get it right, but at least they tried to love each other, inspired by the Spirit, and to live as equals,  a radical thing to do in their stratified and divided world, where great gulfs separated rich from poor and powerful from powerless.

Their experience of God was all about the uniting of things and of people that had once been fragmented. “All that the Father has is mine” says Jesus in today’s Gospel reading. Elsewhere in this same conversation with his disciples he talks about the Father abiding in him and he in the Father, his followers abiding in him and he in them. He uses the image of a vine. We are all grafted into it, he says, brought together in love. Everything is held together in God’s hands, he was trying to say, no matter how we try to push away the things we would rather not own or be part of. God is woven into every person, every moment, every event – even the darkest of times and places – and yet he isn’t polluted, diminished or divided by it.

That was a compelling message then, and it’s just as compelling and important now. My guess is that fragmentation is a part of the lives of most of us here this morning. We often feel as if we are coming to pieces, only just about holding things together with string and sellotape and good luck… Our attention is divided, pulled apart by the needs of children, elderly parents, friends and neighbours, the demands of employers, the responsibilities we have taken on, or had thrust upon us. We flit from one thing to another, channel hopping on the television, checking the texts and emails, unable to concentrate for more than a few minutes, and never really feeling we can reflect or go deeply into anything.

We might find there are parts of ourselves we have deliberately tried to cut off and leave behind too – the memories of failure, pain, shame, guilt, weaknesses we can’t seem conquer. “I don’t know what got into me”, we say, as if the things we hate about ourselves are really nothing to do with us. We hope if we ignore them they’ll go away.

Many people feel they are living life in bits and pieces, and that at any moment they might come flying apart.

If ever there was an age which needed that message of wholeness which the Trinity proclaims it is this one.  If ever there were people who needed to hear that God is with us in all things and all places, woven into the whole of our lives, indivisible, gathering together all that feels so scattered, then it is surely us.

The southwest corner of Africa, from space.
Over the last month or so, you might, like me, have been following the messages which Commander ChrisHadfield has been sending from the International Space Station. Just before he came back to Earth last week he made the news with his rendition from space of a song by David Bowie. For months before that, though, he’d been sending back news of everyday life on the Space Station, and glorious pictures of the Earth from space too. People have been sending him questions as well, and one person spoke for many when he asked “what is it like to do a space walk?” Chris Hadfield’s answer, quite unwittingly, caught  the essence of the message of the Trinity. You have to imagine him, floating in space, with Earth shining below him and the blackness of space beyond, as you hear it. He said this… “It is the most magnificent experience, hanging onto all of humanity with one hand, between Earth’s riot and the bottomless universe.” Earth’s riot and the bottomless universe… That says it for me. To believe in the Trinity is to believe in a God who holds the whole of it in his hands – the riot and the bottomless universe - and who holds the whole of me in his hands, too - even the bits I’m not so sure of, and who loves it all.


And for those who want a more thorough insight into the complexities of talking about the Trinity, I can't resist putting in a link to this video...

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Pentecost: The Spirit of Truth

Pentecost 2013

I will ask the Father, says Jesus, and he will give you an Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, who will teach you everything.

When I was a child back in the 1960’s my parents used to take me and my brother to the science museum in London as a special treat from time to time. It was a glimpse into the future, with lots of buttons to press and levers to pull. There was one exhibit though, which to me was the real star of the show, completely amazing. What was it? It was an automatic door, a door that opened all by itself when you walked towards it, a door, in other words, that you could find in just about every supermarket in the country today – how the world has changed! I’ve also seen the advent of  colour television, home freezers, personal computers, mobile phones, the internet…things that would have seemed like science fiction when I was young are now just taken for granted. And I’m not that ancient…

It isn’t just technology that has changed though. There have been huge shifts in social attitudes too, an opening up of society to voices that might once have gone unheard. There is a far greater awareness and acceptance of diversity than there was when I was a child, at least officially, and that enriches us all.
But change, even for the better, can feel quite exhausting, and a more diverse society can make it seem as if we are surrounded by a welter of different opinions, coming at us from every angle, online and offline, pulling us in different directions, ” come here, go there, do this, do that”. How do we figure out what we should think, believe, do, with all these conflicting ideas
around us?

You might be wondering what all this has to do with the Feast of Pentecost, this celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit which we mark today. Well, Jesus describes the Spirit as the Spirit of Truth in today’s Gospel reading, the one who will teach us everything. If we are looking for a voice to cut through the noisy turmoil of our world and give us the guidance we long for, it sounds as if this is the one we want.

As it happens, the world in which the Christian Church was born, the first Century Roman Empire was every bit as confusing and diverse as ours is – we might think life was simpler then, but we’d be wrong. Roman roads had connected cultures from one end of the known world to the other and brought together people of many different outlooks. In any Roman city you would find people of every race and language, worshipping in temples to gods from many different faiths, debating every philosophy under the sun in the market places. The result was that it was pretty much a free-for-all, with far fewer shared cultural and moral norms than we have today. The Roman authorities were happy to tolerate all this, provide people also sacrificed to the Emperor the symbol of unity and ultimate authority. The Christians got into trouble because they refused to do that.

So if we think it was any easier for the first followers of Jesus to hear the still, small voice of God , if we think their society was any less noisy and confused, we should think again. And yet somehow they did. The picture the Acts of the Apostles gives us in our second reading is of a group of people who were filled with confidence and conviction, with a faith that was deeply rooted and utterly real.

I don’t think their confidence springs from the dramatic nature of their experience of God– the rushing wind and dancing flames. These are really just metaphors, symbols that point to the depth of the impact the Spirit of God had on them. However mysterious and extraordinary this story makes it all sound, the thing that made the difference was the transformation that happened in their real lives, a transformation that transformed those around them too. This story is not about wind and flames, but about a community of people learning to listen for the voice of God, and being so inspired by what they heard that nothing could ever be the same afterwards. Despite the impression we might get from what we have heard – out of context – this morning, it wasn’t an experience that came totally out of the blue, either.  There were things this community of believers were doing which helped them to tune into this voice which they might otherwise have not had the courage to heed, which is good news for us, because they are things which could help us too.

The first thing we find when we look at this story in its context is that these people were waiting. Jesus had told them to wait for power from on high, so they did.
What did they expect would happen? Who knows? They certainly didn’t know. But the fact that they were waiting implies that they were aware that they didn’t already have the answers they needed. When we are flummoxed by life, it is always tempting to rush in to action, scattering any old ideas or initiatives around in the hope that doing something will be better than doing nothing. The sad fact is, though, that it rarely is. The ideas we already have up our sleeve aren’t usually the ones we need the most. If they were we would have already solved our dilemmas. It is the things we haven’t thought of that really help us when we are stumped. If we are serious about hearing God’s voice, we need to have the humility and the trust to be silent and to listen for it, to give him space to get a word in edgeways. These disciples were waiting, and into that waiting came something new that swept them out into a future they could never have imagined.

Their waiting wasn’t simply passive though. While they waited they were also praying. That means, almost certainly, that they were joining in with the regular liturgical prayers of the Jewish faith, rather than just praying their own prayers. They would have been reciting the Psalms, hearing the scriptures, pondering the stories of their faith, reflecting on them to help them see their own situations better. In this, they were following the pattern of Jesus. He wasn’t uncritical of his tradition – he challenged it and reinterpreted it and as a result it became richer and more powerful. But before he did that he had to know it for himself. His followers, as they waited, did the same, praying the ancient words which would help them keep their ears open to the new words God was saying to them now.  That’s why we still do the same thing today, why I stand here and go on about ancient Rome and first century Israel, in the hopes that as we reflect on these old stories we will see the challenges we face today more clearly.

They were waiting. They were praying. But the third thing they were doing – and perhaps the most important -  was that they were gathering. When the Spirit came upon them they were all together in one place, we are told, and this was obviously a regular thing. Their awareness of God was not some private mystical experience. It came as they gathered together; gathering was an intrinsic part of it, and I think it still is. People often say that they don’t think they need to come to church to be a Christian and in a sense they are right. Of course you can hold Christian beliefs and pray on your own – sometimes you may have to do so. But these early Christians would have thought it was an odd thing to do, and that you would have a poorer, weaker faith as a result, and I’m inclined to agree. For a start, when we don’t come together it is easy to miss out on the wisdom we have to share as we learn together, but there’s another reason why I think it matters that our faith is lived out in community, and not in splendid isolation.  Coming together with others forces us to get real with our faith. Christian communities aren’t, let’s be truthful, places where everyone is always good and kind and considerate and wise. They can also be places where we are challenged, irritated, bored, fed up, exhausted... And perhaps sometimes we will be the ones doing the challenging and the irritating too. That’s life, life as it really is. Whatever other opportunities a church community provides, my experience is that it always gives you lots of practice at forgiveness – both giving and receiving it. It teaches you what it means to love – not as a pious sentiment, but in the nitty gritty practice of being there for others who needs you, and letting them be there for you too. The Spirit of God which fell upon those early Christian communities wasn’t a distraction from all the challenges of getting on with others, but an integral part of that process, helping people learn to see each other for what they really were, the precious children of God, however wounded and fallible. It is in the struggle to love, not despite it, that the Spirit of God, the Spirit of love, comes to dwell with us.

“Come Holy Spirit” we often pray and sing at Pentecost. But what is it we think will happen as a result? How will the Spirit come to us? What will the Spirit do, what difference will it make? Depending on the way we answer that, we may find we get either less or more than we expect; less, if we are hoping for some sort of spiritual high, a mystical roller coaster ride in the heavenly places, but more, much more, if what we are seeking is to learn to love more deeply and let ourselves be loved more deeply too. Rushing wind and flames of fire are all very well, but it is love that endures when the wind dies down and the fire goes out, love which sustains us, love which brings the greatest and most important changes to the world.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Easter 7: Christian Aid week - a sermon by Kevin Bright

For several years now as the Chives in my garden offer up their attractive purple flowers it makes me think that Christian Aid Week must almost be here. Several of the houses along Seal Road where I usually collect also have Chives in their borders and, probably to me alone, their flowers remind me that it’s time to do something to help those who need a hand to get going or keep going in order to provide the real basics of life.
You may have seen this year’s TV advert for Christian Aid along the lines of ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.’ There is another version which finishes ‘teach his wife to fish and the man can sit with his feet up whilst she catches as well as cooks his dinner’!
There is, of course, a serious message here that the work of Christian Aid is all about helping communities to help themselves, not just about giving one off hand outs.

The TV advert doesn’t feature actors and it isn’t a film set. It’s a real community and a real story of hope, self-sufficiency and the power of possibility. It’s about being innovative in the ways we try to give people opportunities to lift themselves out of poverty, in this case by a solar powered freezer project that allowed the fish to be frozen for delayed consumption or for commercial sale in Sierra Leone where there is lots of sunshine but not much electricity.

My son’s RE homework this week was to explain what is meant by each part of the Apostle’s Creed. We discussed how to explain in a few lines what the ‘holy catholic church’ is which we say we believe in. Most here will know that in this sense catholic means universal rather than Roman Catholic.

It’s this that Jesus is talking about when he offers the prayer we heard in today’s gospel reading. This passage is the conclusion of Jesus’ final prayer before departing for the Garden of Gethsemane and the events of the Passion. The words aren’t immediately easy for us to understand, certainly not as catchy as the Lord’s Prayer. He says’ Holy Father, I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.’ The prayer is for the disciples and any with him but it is also for all followers of every generation. It’s a moving and humbling thought that Jesus offered a prayer for each one of us here today and for those who will come after us.

He wants us to live in unity in the same way that he speaks of the unity between the father and the son. Jesus prays for a unity based upon our common humanity which overcomes national and racial barriers and which becomes a reality in the way we relate to and value each other.

It matters whether we care about people in our own community as well as people we may never meet, more than ever our lives are intertwined and interdependent. If we check the labels on our clothes there’s a good chance that we can find something that says ‘made in Bangladesh’. Hands that have made these very clothes may have touched the garments that we then hold and wear, possibly hands that belong to the 1000 plus people who died as a result of working in an unsafe building.

People united in faith can’t necessarily solve the entire world’s problems and injustices but neither is it acceptable to do nothing when there are so many well targeted projects we can support.

When we see others suffering whether in our own communities or further afield most of us instinctively want to help and projects such as those run by Christian Aid and local food banks give us easy ways in which to do so.

After what seemed a never ending winter and late spring in our own country my chives are only just forming the flower heads with none yet in full bloom. There is a sense that plants have been catching up over the last few weeks as the weather has improved but it’s been a challenging start for nurseries, farmers and gardeners alike. Many of us will now be checking the daily weather forecast ready to protect our plants from a late frost.

Christian Aid is involved in a project in Kenya which uses mobile ‘phones to help farmers with the weather and also helps the locals hair to go grey.
Kenyan farmers Justin and Truphena Ireri used to struggle to feed their family. ‘When there is erratic rain, we didn’t get enough for our family to eat, let alone to sell,’ says Truphena.
Kenya used to experience drought once every 10 years, but suffered drought in 8 of the 10 years from 2002 to 2011.
But thanks to the use of new technology and their mobile phones, things are beginning to change for farmers in the in Kenya’s Eastern Province. ‘Traditional ways of forecasting are failing us due to climate change. When we turn to scientific ways, farmers will be able to plan very well,’ Truphena explains.
Farming methods in the district have been revolutionised by the introduction of simple, targeted weather forecasts sent to farmers by text message. Previously, farmers were unsure how to plan for increasingly erratic weather patterns, and the daily reality for many families was failed crops, disappointment and hunger.
The only weather forecasts that did exist were targeted at the large towns and cities, where the climate is often different. And anyway, as most farmers in rural areas don’t have televisions, they couldn’t even see these forecasts.

Working with the Kenya Meteorological Society, Christian Aid partners take specific, scientific forecasts for the rural areas and translate them into simple language that the farmers can understand.
It then sends this information out by text message, with monthly and seasonal updates and advice on using different crop varieties and agricultural techniques to adapt to changing weather patterns.
Such innovative use of technology means that they are able to work with thousands of farmers, who would have been difficult and expensive to reach by road. More than 80 per cent of farmers in the area have a basic mobile handset, and are able to respond to the text messages by asking further questions about their own situation and getting advice over the telephone.

All this has followed from initial farming workshops held in church congregations, where trust was built with the local community by showing that it understood what it was like to try to farm in a difficult environment.
The average life expectancy is only 57 in Kenya so to be grey haired you really are one of the lucky ones, they don’t sell much hair dye or ‘just for men’ in the region!
‘When we see a plan coming into fulfilment, it brings us joy, we can watch our children grow and also see ourselves go grey – grey is wise!’ says Truphena.

A real example of helping communities where they are to make the most of the resources they have.
In our reading from Acts we heard how Paul and Silas end up in prison. The way the events are told help us to understand what God’s glory actually looks like. This earthquake could be understood as the visible manifestation of God shaking this world’s powers to their foundations. Following the earthquake Paul has the opportunity to go free proclaiming that this is what God will do to those who oppose him. However he chooses to wait quietly and demonstrate to his jailer that he doesn’t need to destroy him because the God he worships shows his glory and demonstrates his power through love and Paul’s actions make this real for him. We see that the reaction to this is that the jailer is moved to belief not through fear but by acceptance of the love shown to him.

In our reading from Revelation Jesus tells us that he will come again reminding us with his ‘Alpha and Omega’ saying that he was there at the beginning and that he will be there at the end. Jesus describes himself amongst other things as the bright Morning Star (the brightest star in the sky at dawn). He can be found by anyone who is looking for him!

We will each have our own opportunities to demonstrate Gods power through our actions this Christian Aid week. If we do what we can it could mean that someone we may never meet also gets to see Gods power demonstrated through love for each other and as they understand the motivation for this they become part of our catholic (that is all inclusive) church.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Ascension Day: Farewells

Ascension Day 2013

The picture I have given you is a typical medieval depiction of the Ascension of Jesus. It is very literal, as
many of these pictures are. Heaven is up there, above the golden dome of the sky, so that is where Jesus is going. In fact he’s nearly gone. Just his feet are still visible, and his footprints remain in the rock from which he has taken off. The disciples and Mary gaze up into the sky, as if they are determined to watch until there is nothing left to see, and we know that even at that point they won’t be able to turn away, but will stand there staring at the point where they last saw him until the angels appear to send them back to Jerusalem. Frankly this sort of picture can look a bit silly to us, but in some ways it is a very accurate picture of how it feels to say goodbye to someone we love.

We’ve probably all stood and waved off a loved one who is going away for a while, perhaps someone we’ll miss, or someone we are worried about. We’ve stood and watched till the car or train is out of sight, as if somehow just trying to take hold of that last glimpse and tuck it away in our minds for safekeeping.  

When that farewell is a more permanent one we are often even more concerned to cling to that final sight of them. When someone dies we treasure the last meeting we had with them, the last letter or phone call, the last words. We often find it hard to deal with the final farewell, the moment when the curtains close around the coffin at the crem, or when it is lowered into the ground. Occasionally I have someone who clings to the coffin, unable to walk away from it, and I can understand that – it just seems all wrong to leave the person they have loved so much there and turn away.

But goodbyes are a part of life. They are unavoidable, and if we don’t manage to deal with them we will find ourselves rooted to the spot, just as these disciples are at this point, unable to get on with the business of living. It’s not just people we struggle to say goodbye to either. Many of us struggle with de-cluttering, keeping loads of things we would be better off shedding, sometimes to the point of pathological hoarding, because we somehow can’t bear to let them go, or perhaps more accurately, can’t bear to let go of what they represent for us.

That’s why Ascension Day matters so much. A very wise priest friend of mine once said to me that it was his favourite day of all, because it’s when “Jesus gets out of the way”. The story we’ve heard tonight makes that plain. The angels who confront the disciples as they gaze into the skies tell them in no uncertain terms that they are wasting their time in doing so. They have work to do so they had better get on and do it. Fortunately they heed the angels, otherwise the message of Jesus might never have made it out of Jerusalem, never mind all the way to this cold damp corner of the earth.

I showed the children at Seal school this same picture this morning, along with some others of children waving goodbye as they went to school , or waving off loved ones at train stations. We talked about the way goodbyes can sometimes feel sad, but we also talked about what it was that helped us when we had to say goodbye. The children, talked about the love and care of those who were still there with them, of having teddy bears to hug, and of having memories to cherish too,. They offered wise words, I think, to all of us who struggle with goodbyes, and I suspect the disciples would have come up with similar advice, albeit couched in different language. They missed Jesus. Of course they did. There must have been many times when they would have loved to have him there to advise them. But they realised that they had each other, and grew to treasure the love they shared. They were strengthened too, by the stories they told – their shared memories, which became our Gospels and  by the rhythms and rituals of faith, - comforting symbols, perhaps not so very different from that teddy bear the children talked about – above all by the sharing of bread and wine. Every time you do this – and they did it often -, know that I am with you, he’d said. In all these things they sensed God’s presence through his Holy Spirit, like Jesus, yet different too, something that was with them wherever they were. None of that could have happened unless Jesus had “got out of the way”, unless they had said their goodbyes and moved on. They discovered in time that however painful it had felt at the time, nothing was really lost.

On this Ascension Day, then, let’s be aware of the goodbyes we need to say, and of God who holds all that we have and all that we are and all that we have been in his hands, all our loves, all our troubles, all our hopes and fears. As we do, let’s remember the message of this day, that it is safe to leave those things in his hands, to get up, face the future and go on.


Sunday, 5 May 2013

Easter 6: A true Sabbath

Easter 6 13

The three readings we heard from the Bible today might seem to have very little to do with each other. The first was an encounter between St Paul and Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth, a Jewish woman living in Philippi who becomes his first convert there. The second was a glorious picture of the new heaven and the new earth from the book of Revelation. The third was the miraculous healing of a paralysed man by the pool of Bethzatha in Jerusalem. Each one is full of possibilities to preach from, but they don’t sound as if they have any obvious connection to each other.

But there are two things which feature in all three readings if you look closely enough. The first is water. Paul meets Lydia by a river, where he and his companions “supposed there would be a place of prayer” according to the reading. It was common to find synagogues by rivers because worshippers had to ritually wash before prayer. The Gospel story too has a watery setting, beside a healing pool in Jerusalem. And the heavenly city in the book of Revelation has a river running right through it, of course, coming out from the throne of God and watering the land. So all three readings feature water.

The other thing that connects these readings is the Sabbath. Paul meets Lydia on the Sabbath day, and the healing of the paralysed man happens on the Sabbath too. We are told this right at the end of the reading, and I’ll come back to it later. But where’s the Sabbath in the Revelation reading? It’s not obvious so don’t think you missed something. It seems to me, though, that the images John uses here reflect what a person of the time might have thought of as the perfect Sabbath, the eternal Sabbath for which all other Sabbaths were meant to be a preparation.

The idea of the Sabbath was rooted in the Jewish Creation myth from the book of Genesis. God makes the world in six days, it says, and on the seventh he rests, not because he’s tired, but because it’s finished. It’s perfect. It’s complete. There’s nothing left to do but enjoy it. And God looked at everything he had made, says the Bible, and behold, it was very good.

It didn’t stay that way, of course, but just for a moment there, right at the beginning, the Jewish Scriptures taught that everything had been exactly as it should be. In a way the rest of the story of the Bible is the story of how they tried to reclaim that original perfection.  Perhaps it is the story of all human history – every culture has its dreams of a golden age, back in the past or far in the future . The ancient Israelites had a word for this longed-for state - Shalom – which meant peace or wholeness or completion. It wasn’t just the absence of conflict, but a state in which everything was right, in balance and harmony, reconciled and healed.

In Jewish thought to this day every Sabbath is meant to give a glimpse of that perfect peace, that Shalom. It is supposed to be a time of rejoicing, a time when people can stop their anxious striving, their worry, their busyness and just enjoy what is – their family and friends, their world with its gifts, and most of all the God who has given it all to them.
The new heaven and the new earth of the book of Revelation seem to me to echo this vision too. The final triumph of God, it says, is a world at peace, a place where there will be “no more night”, where people live in the close relationship with God he had always intended, a place of healing and joy and abundant life.

It is no accident that water is at the heart of John’s image of the perfect Sabbath. There can be no life at all without it. Everyone in the hot dry climate of the Middle East knew that. But water was also something which was mysterious. It welled up from the ground or fell from the sky and they had no idea why or how. It was pure gift. No wonder it became so important in religious ritual, and still is in the sacrament of baptism. We can’t live without it, but it can never be fully under our own control.

So, water and the Sabbath are the two things which I think connect these three readings. But so what? Why does it matter?

Let’s go back to the Gospel story, to the man lying by that healing pool at Bethzatha. People evidently came from far and wide to try to bathe in it, but they only thought it worked when the water was stirred up – perhaps it was a thermal spring where water periodically bubbled to the surface – and that meant that this man never made it into the pool in time because of the very disability that had brought him there. Presumably he is one of those described in our translation as paralysed, but actually the word John uses doesn’t quite say that. He doesn’t use the normal Greek word for paralysed– paraluticos – it uses the word “xeros” which literally means “dried up.” This man is dried up, withered by his illness according to John. No wonder he longs to get into this healing water. And there it is, right beside him. But it might as well be a million miles away. And as he lies there thirsty for its healing powers we sense that his hope is drying up too. After 38 years of illness that’s hardly surprising. Who could sustain their hope that long? Every failed attempt at finding healing makes the desert of despair inside him grow a little larger. Jesus asks if he wants to be made well, and of course he does, but perhaps they both know he is close to the moment when he will stop caring, stop trying.

The irony is that in the end he is healed without getting wet at all. It’s not the water in the pool which heals him; it is Jesus who makes him whole. In the chapter before this Jesus has met with another thirsty person, a Samaritan woman coming to draw water at her local well in the heat of the day. He has told her that he has living water to give her, water that is like a spring gushing up to eternal life. This “dried up” man discovers the truth of that for himself as he finally rises to his feet, and to a whole new life.

“Now that day was a Sabbath”, ends this reading. Indeed it was, in the truest sense of all for his man. It was the day on which he found the Shalom of God – the wholeness he had thirsted for, the new creation he really needed. If every Sabbath was meant to be a day of rejoicing, surely this Sabbath should have been the best of all, not just for him, but for all who witnessed his healing too. Who could fail to be glad for him?

But that’s not how it worked out. There is a sting in the tail of this story. The reason John tells us that this was the Sabbath wasn’t to signal the outbreak of joy in this community, but to warn us that a world of trouble was about to erupt. Jesus had told this man to take up his mat and carry it home, and he had done so. But carrying things was regarded as work according to Jewish Law, and work was forbidden on the Sabbath day. The religious authorities are incensed, both with him and with Jesus.  Never mind the miracle of his healing. Never mind all the good things he can now look forward to. Never mind giving thanks to God for this great gift of life he has been given. All they can see is that this man has broken the rules; it would be better for him, they think, still to be lying paralysed on the ground than that. It is the start in John’s Gospel of the opposition which will eventually lead to Jesus’ crucifixion.

How can it be that such a moment of joy turns so sour so quickly? It might seem incomprehensible to us that anyone would nit-pick like this when this man has just been given his life back, but it is surprisingly easy for us to look good news in the face and fail to recognise it. We often prefer to focus on rules and traditions rather than seeing the real lives of real people. It is simpler and neater. We don’t have the bother of thinking things through, or the challenge of having to change our minds. We may have the best of intentions, as the Jewish authorities in this story probably did, but we lose sight of what is actually in front of us.

Often it is only when real life situations, close to home, challenge the rulebook we’ve inherited or developed that we start to see things differently. What seemed obvious to us in the abstract becomes far more complicated when it affects us or someone we know. We might pontificate about “strivers and skivers” but when someone close to us is struggling to find a job and having to rely on benefits, we suddenly see why that language is so damaging. When divorce touches us or our own families we realise that our often rather smug pronouncements on the secrets of happy family life can harm rather than helping. And carefully worked out theologies condemning homosexuality often crumble to dust when it is our son or daughter, brother or sister who comes out as gay. This is about real people, people we care about.

“In the beginning, was the Word.” says John earlier. But what sort of word? Again and again, in stories like this one, we discover that it’s not the kind of word you find in a book of rules; it’s the Word made flesh in the person of Jesus, a real person meeting with real people, in real and often messy encounters that challenge and sometimes offend those around him. He honours love where he finds it. He meets need where he finds it, and as a result people are healed and blessed and changed. And he calls us to do the same, so that every day can be a Sabbath day, when God’s Shalom - his perfect peace - breaks into the world, bringing the  water of life to all who are dried up and thirsting for it.