Potters Bar (with Brookmans Park) 20120129

Teachers can make a big difference, they can open our eyes to new things, inspire us with enthusiasm, change our lives. This can happen at school or at university, at work, anywhere. Many of us, I’m sure, remember somebody from our churches who brought us to understand our faith in a more powerful way; a Sunday School teacher, a youth group leader, a preacher or a minister.

A very significant part in my story was played by Gillian Rose who supervised my doctoral research. During the time she taught me she travelled from critical Marxism through engagement with her Jewish heritage to Christianity. Discussion with her through this journey was enormously important for my own conversion. This influence was enabled by the sense all her students had that her thought and her life were a single thing. What she wrote and how she conducted herself were inseparable.

I bring this experience of what a teacher can be to my reading of today’s gospel passage. A fascinating aspect of Mark’s gospel  is that while it gives great emphasis to Jesus’ teaching role it gives much less of the content of that teaching than the other gospels. In today’s passage we are told that it is new and authoritative but nothing is said about what is taught.

A few verses earlier we are given this a summary statement: “The time has come, the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news”. What he taught in that synagogue in Capernaum must have been this: the nearness of the kingdom and that it is good news, the necessity for belief and for repentance. This is must be the new teaching; but what does it mean to say that he “teaches as one with authority, not as the scribes”? And why do an exorcism during the lesson?

Let’s assume that at least some of the scribes  were good at teaching, that they knew what they were talking about and how to explain it. The difference between Jesus them isn’t that between a good teacher and a bad teacher but between teachers of two fundamentally different kinds. Jesus has an authority not even the best of teachers, the most brilliant, most authentic, the most committed can have.

Nor is this authority really about the content of hat he taught. His proclamation of God’s coming rule, of the necessity of repentance, of the fulfilment of the time, was not unique. In many ways it was the same as the teaching of John the Baptist, from whose ministry in the desert Jesus had just returned. His wonderful moral teaching, too, has been shown to be mostly compatible with that of the best of the Pharisees.

What was really special about Jesus’ teaching was him, was Jesus himself and his unique relationship with God. This is what the unclean spirit recognises when it calls him the Holy One of God.

It would be quite possible to preach a whole month of sermons on this phrase and its meaning and I can’t possibly do it justice here but it’s worth pausing over it for just a moment. The Holy One of God. The word “holy” means, at root, something set apart, something dedicated to God. Jesus is the One set apart, the one dedicated to God. Jesus authority has to do with his holiness, his being the person in whom God can and does dwell.

In coming face-to-face with Jesus the worshippers in the synagogue met God.

This was what was new about his teaching. God was no longer speaking to us from beyond our human existence or even inspiring a human being to speak God’s word. God was there, with them in the room. God’s kingdom, God’s rule, had come very near, it had stepped into their space and touched them. And in doing so it healed those possessed of unclean spirits; of fear, hatred, greed and despair.

Jesus could speak with authority about God because Jesus was God.

This doesn’t mean that anyone in recognised why Jesus was special that day. Even the first four disciples, Peter, Andrew, James and John, local men who were with him in their own synagogue, would take time to understand his nature. This is one of the central themes of Mark’s gospel, the difficulty people had with understanding who Jesus really was. But they could still sense that something special was going on. A new teaching with authority.

It might seem that this causes a problem for us contemporary Christians. If you have to meet Jesus to understand Christianity then where does that leave us? The resurrection appearances, after all, end with Christ’s ascension.

“Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am with them”, Jesus said. He is here. We have the chance to hear his teaching and see his healing action, just like they did, because as we come together and hear the story it becomes more than a story, it becomes the way Jesus teaches us, it is how he exercises the authority he has been given.

The Holy Spirit, the third person of the Christian trinity, is vital, literally, it gives life. In the reading and interpretation of the Bible and in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper the Spirit works in the community gathered together to bring each of us into the very presence of Jesus.

The resurrected Christ lives on and in the Spirit each and every one of us can meet him and feel the authority of his teaching.

The kingdom of God has come near. God rules and the devil is vanquished, sin and death are overthrown and love and life have conquered. He brings good news; we have nothing to fear, God’s gracious mercy and justice reign! This teaching was hard to believe 2000 years ago in Palestine and it’s no easier in Britain today. We look around us and the world doesn’t look like one where the kingdom of God is near.

But if we have faith, if we trust that God loves us and rules, our lives are transformed. We go through our days with hope and joy in our hearts and become agents of God’s rule. The only way to come to that faith is through our experience of Christ’s authority and the only way to that is through encounter with him.

That encounter is what this thing we do, this Church, is. It is Christ who authorises us, Christ who enlivens us, Christ who calls us here and meets us when we come. The Spirit brings us into his presence and enables us to hear his good news. He drives out uncleanliness and heals us so that we can live in his glorious kingdom.

‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news’.

In the name of the risen Christ, our Lord and Saviour


Greyfriars, Tolbooth and Highland Kirk, 15/01/2012 – John 1:43-51

John 1:43-51

Why do we come to church? I wonder what you would answer if someone asked you that question. There are so many different approaches one can take. Perhaps you could tell the story of your involvement with Christianity beginning with childhood baptism and Sunday School or with some kind of conversion experience; or you could describe spiritual or emotional needs the church meets for you; perhaps you have a sense of duty, of obligation to the history of the Kirk or to the society around you that you discharge by coming here. Some of us might talk in more traditionally theological terms about the worship, praise and thanks we owe our God and of course some of us are paid to be here.


This question is more pointed than it would once have been since church-going has become a clearly voluntary and minority activity. The honest answer for many might once have been that we attend church because it’s the “done thing”, expected of one, but that is no longer really the case. The people who turn up on a Sunday must have reasons for doing so and understanding them is part of the task of the minister who wants to grow his or her church.


What I’d like us to reflect on as we look at our passage from John’s gospel this morning is how our reasons for being here fit with God’s intention for us. How what we think we’re doing relates to what God wants us to do and to be.


To begin to open up these issues it might help a bit of we pause to look at two key words: Church and Israel. I’ve raised the church but that’s a word you won’t find anywhere in John’s gospel. What you will find there and in our reading this morning is the word “Israel”. Nathaniel is described by Jesus as an “Israelite without deception” and Nathaniel calls Jesus “the King of Israel”. Before that Philip said that Jesus is “the one Moses wrote about in the law, and about whom the prophets also wrote”.


Jesus, here and throughout the New Testament, is presented as the one who comes out of and brings to a climax the story of God’s dealings with his chosen people, Israel. The five books of Moses and the writings of the prophets are seen as pointing to and being completed by Jesus the Christ, the anointed one of God. I want to suggest to you that without understanding this story and this completion we can’t grasp who Christ is.


This means, too, that in being joined to Christ in baptism, becoming part of the Church as the body of Christ, we also become part of, we continue, the story of Israel. Again this is a theme throughout the New Testament, this idea that the story of Israel is given a decisive new turn in the incarnation, in the Word becoming flesh, in the unforgettable words of the prologue to John’s gospel, but that it isn’t brought to an end. The God of Israel is our God, too, revealed in a new and more decisive way in Christ.


When we come to Church we are, in some way, carrying on with the task that God gave to the people of Israel, but with a transformed and renewed content and a radically different form.


How can this thought illuminate for us the conversation we overhear in our text between Nathaniel and Jesus? First I want us to imagine ourselves in Nathaniel’s place. We can, I hope, see ourselves as “Israelites without deception”. We become part of the new Israel through our baptism. We are, I hope, sincere in our desire to follow Jesus, to become part of his redeeming work. When we gather we do so in the hope that our participation in the life and worship of the Church will advance the cause of the Kingdom. We mean what we say when we pray: “your Kingdom come, your will be done”. As members of the Church each of us stands where Nathaniel stood.

And this should give us pause. We will recognise in Nathaniel’s confession of faith words that we too could say: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.” Teacher and Son of God; these two titles capture a great deal of what the Church is used to affirming about Jesus Christ, our Lord and saviour. We strive to understand and to follow Christ’s teaching and we assert that he is, uniquely, the Son of God.


It’s worth turning back to what we know about the Judaism of Jesus’ and Nathaniel’s time to get a clearer idea of what would have been meant by these phrases. In the books of the “former prophets” the great cycle of historic writings about Israel’s origins and its kings a prominent place is occupied by David, founder of the dynasty that ruled in Jerusalem for more than 400 years. It was thought that God had entered into a special covenant with David that established him and his family as God’s political representatives on earth and bound the fate of Israel to them. The title “Son of God” is associated with this special status of the King as in the great coronation song of Psalm 2 where God says “I have installed my king on Zion, my holy hill” “You are my son, today I have become your father”.


After the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple and the ending of Davidic rule in 586 it seemed that God’s back had been turned on God’s people. At the time of Jesus many were looking for a renewal of Israel that would restore the Davidic covenant and usher in a new age of divinely ordained rule. The new Israel would be the old Israel come again but bigger and better, with God’s chosen people recognised by all the nations.


Those called by God to serve can all too often bring with them ideas of what that means drawn from the past, rather than from a perception of God’s will for the future.


Recall how Jesus responds to Nathaniel’s enthusiastic acclamation. He tells him that he will see greater things than he has seen; “you shall see the heavens open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man”.


The Son of Man is a title with some precedent in the traditions of Judaism, although Biblical scholars have come to no consensus at all on how these precedents relate to Jesus’ own use of it. Where they are agreed is that the evidence of the gospels is that it is a preferred title of Jesus himself as he is presented there. In John’s version it is used only by Jesus, no-one else applies it to him.


This occasion is typical of these uses in that it carries with it a sense of Jesus as bridging the realms of heaven and earth, of allowing communication of a new and immediate kind between God and created being. Jesus responds to the titles Son of God and King if Israel by claiming another and different title “Son of Man” and proclaiming that he will create a new link between heaven and earth.


Nathaniel came to Jesus seeking a King but he met someone different and greater, he came face to face with God the Son, the Word made flesh. We don’t meet Nathaniel again, at least under this name, until the last episode of John’s gospel when he is one of the seven disciples present at the resurrected Jesus’ appearance by the Sea of Tiberias. What a journey Nathaniel had been on by then.


The “call” narratives in the gospel all show ordinary men and women brought from their lives into the adventure of discipleship not out of any decision or from any need of their own. They are pulled by Jesus. They may not understand what is happening until later but the stories leave little doubt that Jesus takes the initiative. What I’d like to suggest to you is that you are here this morning by God’s will rather than your own and that what God has in mind for you can only be discovered through encounter with God in Christ. What is to come for the Church and for each and every one of us will be different from the what we know and expect, even if we can’t recognise it as the heavens opening and angels descending and ascending on the Son of Man.