What makes a life complete? Simeon at the Temple (Luke 2:22-35)

The Temple in Jerusalem was one of the most impressive buildings in the Roman Empire. It was a huge complex in magnificent stone and decorated with gold. It was the centre of Jewish life and a site of pilgrimage from all over the known world. To this amazing place came the Holy Family. Imagine them, if you can. A couple of modest means from an obscure village in the north. The mother is very young, her husband a little older. They carry their humble sacrifices as they come to perform the rituals required by Law. She carries her baby as the walk, perhaps a little hesitantly, into the imposing courtyards of the Temple. The priests, with their robes and headdresses, stand out and direct them towards the right place.

Meanwhile someone else has also come. Simeon, an old man notable for his piety and righteousness, has been brought in the Holy Spirit to the Temple that day. His life is marked by the intensity of his yearning for “the consolation of Israel”. He is devout and has a special relationship with God. “The Holy Spirit was upon him” we are told. This special relationship even extends to God speaking to him, telling him he is going to see the Lord’s anointed one, the Messiah or Christ, before he dies and today is the day of that seeing.

And so this meeting comes about: Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus walk into the Temple precincts and there they encounter Simeon, this righteous and devout man looking for the consolation of Israel. This is a moment of very high drama. In this most important and holy location this devout and holy man takes the infant from his mother and holds him in his arms. God’s promise to him is fulfilled. He has seen the Lord’s Christ. An old man’s dream has come to realisation, the consolation for which he has looked has arrived and he has seen it.

Hear again the words with which he praises God, known in the tradition as the Nunc Dimittis:

“Master, now let your slave go in peace

according to your spoken word

for my eyes have seen your salvation

which you prepared before the face of all the peoples

a light of revelation for the Gentiles

and glory of your people, Israel”

“Let your slave go in peace”, says Simeon, “for my eyes have seen your salvation”.

From a man who has been promised a sight of the Messiah before he dies this can only mean one thing. His life has been completed and he is ready to give it up.

I wonder what, if anything, means that much to us. Is there anything that could happen that would make us think that our lives are fulfilled so that we can depart in peace? Is there anything we look for as intensely as Simeon looked for the consolation of Israel?

This being a sermon there is, I suppose, no surprise in my saying that Christ can and should be for us what he was for this devout and righteous man. Our best chance for the kind of contentment and completion that Simeon found is in the same encounter that he had. If we were blessed by the Holy Spirit in being put where Jesus was, if we were filled with that same Spirit as he was filled, if we yearned for the consolation and redemption of the world as he did, then we could find the same release that he found.

It is important to realise that Simeon doesn’t wish for death in our passage. When he says that he’s ready that doesn’t mean that he’s eager. It is just that now the one thing he needed has come and all is right for him. His life has been a looking for God’s salvation and now he is holding it in his arms, holding the baby who is the Christ, whom God has been preparing and has now put into Simeon’s grasp.

Hear the words he uses about what he has now seen: “consolation”, “salvation”, “revelation” and “glory”. Jesus is all these things: he brings comfort to the distressed, he saves those in trouble, he reveals God to all peoples in in doing so he glorifies those from whom he came. Simeon can see this because he has been prepared. This baby looks like just another child to most of those passing through the courtyards that day but the one who is looking for him knows what has happened.

For each of us the case is the same whenever we are brought by the Spirit to the place of meeting. We have been brought here this morning, to this room in this building in this village. This is the Temple precinct for you. God’s salvation is here and if you’re ready you will meet him. This isn’t your only opportunity but you are being offered the chance, as Simeon was. Jesus is here and your life can reach its highest fulfilment right now, if the Spirit enables you to recognise him.

In a few minutes we are going to share the Lord’s Supper and as we do so we are all invited into the very presence of the salvation God has prepared, the revelation he has made. The Christ, the one sent by God to redeem us all, will be coming among us. Whatever else matters in life, and many other things do really matter, Simeon is right when he says that nothing else matters as much.

I pray on behalf of us all that his prayer or song is one that we are all able to affirm:

“Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word;

for mine eyes have seen your salvation

which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,

a light for revelation to the gentiles

and for glory to your people Israel”

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Waiting … (Advent 3 2014, Lamentations 3:22-27, James 5:7-11, Matthew 24:42-44)

There are different kinds of waiting.

The farmer waits for the crop to be ready but this doesn’t mean just sitting around until the grain walks up to the door. The farmer will be in the fields, looking for problems and trying to deal with them, checking for ripeness, paying attention to the weather forecast. When the moment comes he or she will move fast, getting the harvest in as quickly as possible. This is a waiting that is hopeful and also anxious, that is active and which needs to seize the right moment when it comes. This is one of the images of waiting for God’s action that James offers us.

The moment of harvest stands for the moment of God’s judgement. The judge is standing at the door. We have to be ready. As the farmer makes sure that everything is prepared for the time so must we. This is waiting that works.

In Lamentations we find something else altogether. “It is good to wait quietly”, it says, “The Lord is my portion therefore I will wait for him”. While we wait for the return of one we love, one whose love means everything to us, on whom we depend. Perhaps we might think of Odysseus’ wife Penelope, or of a child waiting patiently for the return of their mother. The waiting itself is just waiting and depends more than anything else on trust in the one who is coming. They will arrive in their own time and nothing we do will make a difference to that. Our patience is important because it will affect the quality of the welcome we give. The more we trust the more open-hearted we can be.

This is a waiting that simply holds itself ready.

So what about the waiting that Jesus talks about in our Gospel reading? Waiting to catch a thief in the night. The householder knows that they are under threat, that sometime during the night somebody is going to try to break in. They sit quietly and anxiously, nervous and alert, keeping watch so that when the time comes they will be ready to react. This, Jesus says, is also what it can be like to wait for God, to wait the coming of the Son of Man.

Three vivid Biblical images for what we are doing, during Advent, during our lives as faithful Christians. We wait, wait for Christ’s return in glory, wait for the coming of the Son of Man, wait for the fulfilment of God’s promise of salvation.

This waiting is a careful and active preparation. A making ready of what is growing, a looking for the time of readiness. It is the waiting of the farmer.

It is also the quiet patient anticipation of the arrival of somebody much loved. We look forward to greeting them, long for their presence. We try not to be too eager, to be ready to be properly happy when they come.

It is also a fearful watching, full of anxiety that we might miss the moment, fail to react as we need to, might lose all we have by not being ready.

The Bible gives us all these images and what they have in common, what we are called to remember at Advent, is the sense of a an expected future event that is at once something that will happen whatever we do or don’t do and also an opportunity we might miss. The crop will ripen, the loved one will return, the thief will break in. The farmer, though, can neglect to gather it so that it rots in the field. The waiting spouse or lover can give up, become resentful of the delay, turn to others. The watcher can be distracted or fall asleep so that the thief can steal away with the contents of the house.

After all this time, these many centuries of waiting, we Christians may find it difficult to continue to believe that this moment of opportunity and danger lies ahead of us. Scripture tells us that it does. Our encounter with our Lord is in the future for each and every one of us, at a time that no-one can know or predict.

The quality of our waiting is, perhaps, the most important thing about us. We await the time of our salvation, we are waiting for salvation, for the fulfilment of God’s plan for us and for all creation. As we wait we uphold, before all the world, the hope and expectation that things will be as they are meant to be.

An image for waiting not used in our passages is that of waiting for the birth of a child, an image never far from our minds during Advent. Many of us have had that experience in our own lives. We remember the mixture of joyful anticipation, fear of some disaster, and anxiety about the arrival itself. We remember the wondering and the dreaming about the future beyond the birth.

As we wait for Jesus we might do well to remember that, too. The coming of the Son of Man of which he speaks is not a peaceful idyll like the nativity stories we tell. It is a time of trouble and of danger. But it does usher in the time when peace and justice, plenty and love will be the order of the day and war, oppression, want and hatred will be banished. We can dream of that future and we can prepare ourselves to be part of it. We can wait patiently for God.

Oct 25: Jesus loves me, this I know … (Romans 8:35-38)

Jesus loves me, this I know, because the Bible tells me so.

Jesus loves me.

We know what God’s love for us is like by contemplating Christ’s life and above all his death. The love Jesus showed in life was a healing love, a sustaining love, a life-giving love. Those who were broken and in pain, those possessed by demons, those with disfiguring diseases and disabling illnesses came to him believing in his power and thy were restored. Those in grief, devastated by the death of those they loved came to him and renewed life was granted. This was a love that wanted nothing from those loved but which sought their well-being, their inclusion in the glorious life of God’s Kingdom.

The full depth of that love is seen on the cross, though. Jesus died on the cross for us, for love of us. It isn’t easy to understand the meaning of that dreadful death, the way in which it was necessary, the way in which it restores humanity’s relationship with God, but it was and it does. What matters here and now is that this is a way that shows us what the love of God in Christ Jesus is like. It’s a love that not only wants our good, our healing, our life, but which is prepared to go to the cross. That’s a love indeed.

What’s more this is a love, we are told, that isn’t an abstract and general love of the human race. It’s a personal and particular love of each one of us. Immediately before the passage we have heard this morning the apostle Paul wrote these words: “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.” God calls those he foreknew. Each of us comes to God in response to an individual and personal calling from God. We are known and loved as the particular individuals we are. God loves you. You personally.

So God’s love for us is a love that is prepared to suffer crucifiction and a love that knows us as individuals. That’s what we’re told. But the dramatic and powerful signs that we’ve been talking about aren’t easily discernible in our everyday lives. We hear about Christ’s death but we don’t see it. We hear about Jesus’ healing but we don’t experience it. Many of us suffer from health problems and yearn for release from them. We would touch the hem of Christ’s robe if we could and feel his power course through us, but we can’t. Many of us have lost loved ones and wish for their restoration to us, but they remain dead. Given all that God’s love might seem distant and unreal.

We can try to convince ourselves that God’s love is manifest in the good gifts of life, and of course that’s true. But these gifts are neither particularly given to those in Christ nor are they unmixed with the bitter fruits of suffering. Indeed Jesus warns us that the way of discipleship is a hard road: “take up your cross and follow me”. When things go wrong for us this doesn’t mean that God has turned his back, just so when things go well this does not mean that God has noticed us or has come to love us better.

We don’t know that God loves us because he showers us with good things. We know God loves us because he tells us he does and because his word is to be trusted.

When we are sick or in pain. When we are plunged into grief by the loss of someone precious. When loneliness eats at us. When sadness or a sense of futility robs us of the will to live. When those around us seem not to notice our needs. At all those moments God loves us.

When money is short and a constant worry. When we feel oppressed by the world. God loves us still.

How do we know? Because God tells us so, in the Bible and through the Church.

I sometimes wonder and worry about what I was called into ministry to do, what will justify all the trouble and expense the Church has gone to in order to put me here. And then I remember. I have been ordained as a minister of Word and Sacraments and what the Word and the Sacraments do is, most of all I think, transmit God’s wonderful assurance of his unbroken and unbreakable love. I am here to tell you, and myself, that God loves you, loves me; to open the Bible as we have today and say, “look, it’s there, God loves you, has always loved you, will always love you, it says so in this Book”.

I know that sometimes it can be hard really to know, really to feel that love, so complete, so generous, so sure. But isn’t it the case that even the love of those closest to us is mysterious sometimes? At any rate all I can do is to point at the words of the Bible, to represent the thousands of years of continuous worship and teaching as I stand here, appointed by the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church and say: hear, hear and believe what the apostle wrote:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:

For your sake we face death all day long;

we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Do not let your hearts be troubled: John 13:31-37, 14:1-7

“Where I am going you cannot follow me now; but you shall follow afterward.”

As Jesus prepares his disciples for the difficult times to come it is hard to know whether to hear this saying of his as promise or as warning. The way he is about to follow passes through his suffering and death on the cross; “you shall follow afterward”.

These passages from John’s gospel are probably most familiar to us from their use at funerals. “In my father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”

When Jesus speaks at the Last Supper and we read or hear his words the thought of death, of the death of our saviour and of our own death, can never be far away. In fact my feeling is that, despite ourselves, the thought of death is never very far from us. We are all afraid of death, of our own dying and of the dying of those we love.

Death is the great enemy for us. It cuts us off from one another and from all that we value. When we die all that we have achieved, all that we have meant, all that we have valued, all of it will fall away. When those we love die we can remember them but we know that to be no real substitute for encountering them in life, being surprised by them, being amazed by them, being comforted or being accompanied by them.

So the disciples must have felt about the man Jesus, for whom they had abandoned homes and families, whose presence had meant everything to them. In following him they were seeking the final answers to all the most important questions. They hoped for knowledge of, for relationship with, God himself, they sought the final salvation in which everything would be as it should be, all suffering ended, all disease healed, all sin forgiven and all brokenness mended. They had no more idea than we do of what that would really be like but it was what they expected from Jesus, this man who was more than a man, this teacher whose authority was more than human, this healer who could even restore the dead to life.

So when he says to them; “Let not your hearts be troubled, trust in God, trust also in me.” He is saying this in the most difficult circumstances imaginable. Facing what is about to come, his arrest, trial and public execution, the end of their dreams, the breaking of their movement, their loss of the one to whom they have given all they have, they are to be untroubled.

How would we feel when, overcome by grief, by anxiety or by fear, someone were to say to us: “be untroubled”. Many of us have faced the prospect of this kind of loss. We have sat by the bedside of one dear to us as their life drew to a close, or we have sat at home consumed by worry about their whereabouts and well being. At these moments the advice or command “let not your heart be troubled” wouldn’t help, in fact it would be more likely to enrage. One cannot help worrying, it is impossible to stop and telling somebody to is insensitive and stupid.

So what about Jesus? “Trust in God”, he says, “trust also in me”.

His command not to worry, given here and elsewhere, rests on this other, more basic command: “trust in God”, which is the heart of his teaching as it was the heart of the teaching of Moses and the prophets. “Trust in God”. It is extended and amplified by “trust also in me”.

He doesn’t tell us not to worry because of some vague assurance that “it will be all right”, or the equally unhelpful, “worrying won’t do any good”. He tells us not to worry because God can be trusted.

It would be hard for those who heard him on that evening to follow this instruction. Peter would draw a sword, try to stand between Christ and his destiny when they came to arrest him. Peter would, as predicted, deny him during his trial. Mary would stand weeping outside the empty tomb. They would hide inside a locked room, fearful of what might happen next. They thought themselves abandoned and alone. They thought that Jesus’ mission and their lives were a failure.

What saved them, what restored them, what founded the Church through them and made them the most important group of people in the history of the world, was not anything about them. It wasn’t exceptional determination or even exceptional faith. It wasn’t great strength of character or extraordinary intelligence. It wasn’t a deeper love than we know or profound spiritual depths and holiness. What saved them, what lifted them up, what made them victorious over all the befell them was the action of God.

As he promised Jesus came back to them. God raised him from death and he came and found them. God acted, he raised Christ. Jesus acted, he came among the confused and hurting disciples and showed them that death was nothing to be afraid of because God could be trusted and had power over this greatest of enemies. He showed them that he could be trusted, that even death could not stand in the way of his promise to return.

It’s no easier for us to believe in this promise than it was for the disciples. We have the millennia of the Church to vindicate it but then we have never encountered the living Christ face to face. We hear the promise across thousands of years, not across a supper table. But it’s no harder for us than it was for them. What were they to make of it, that evening? They were bewildered and confused, they wanted to trust but they didn’t even really know what they were to trust in.

When we pray, when we hope, when we yearn for the restoration to us of all that we have lost; of those we have loved who are passed from our lives, of our youth and strength and hope, of our health and our enthusiasm, when we yearn for these things we have only these reported words to go by. “Let not your hearts be troubled, trust in God, trust also in me.”

Potters Bar 20 July 2014 – Sermon on the Lord’s Prayer (Luke 11:1-4)

I spoke last week about why we should pray. I suggested that not to ask God for the things we think we need is to fail to express our faith that God will, ultimately, take care of us. Our prayer is not an attempt to persuade, still less to manipulate, God. It is an expression of our trust that God loves us and has the power to provide for us, a trust that is the innermost meaning of the faith to which we are summoned.

This week I move from the “why” of prayer to the “how” and the “what”. Given that we are to pray I want to look at why we should pray together, in public, not only privately and alone. I want to think about why we offer prayers of petition and intercession, not only prayers of praise, confession and thanksgiving and finally I want to hear what Jesus has to say to us about what things we should ask for in these prayers.

The use of “us”, “we” and “our” in the prayer Jesus teaches in this passage shows that he is not instructing each of his disciples, each of us, to pray alone. He tells us to pray as one, as the people of God, gathered together in his name with whom he can be present. As Christians we come to God through our connection with Jesus and to Jesus through his Church. The Church is not an added extra to a faith that we have individually. The Church is the indispensable and necessary location of our encounter with Jesus and of our incorporation into him. We approach God in prayer boldly expecting to be heard because we are joined to Christ in the Church which is his body. That is why it is proper and right for us to pray as a collective, as “us”.

This is further indicated and emphasised in the way we address the one to whom we pray when we begin with the simple word “Father”. This way of speaking to God is specific to Jesus as the Son of God. When we use it we do so because in our membership of the Church we have been joined to him. The apostle Paul is particularly insistent on this, saying that bodies are parts of Christ, that we were joined with him in baptism, that by being joined to him we are a new creation. Our prayer, thought Jesus, is conversation of God with God. When we pray we address the Father because we approach him in and as the Son. Whenever we say this we recall our transformation in Christ.

So our prayer is offered confidently because it is not ours alone but ours communally and in communion with our saviour, Jesus the Christ, God the Son. But what should we pray for?

Hear again the petitions Jesus tells us to make:

“hallowed be your name”;

“your kingdom come”;

“give us each day our daily bread”;

“forgive us our sins”;

“do not lead us into temptation”.

When asked how we should pray Jesus sets out five deceptively simple requests. Let’s pause over each of them in turn.

“Hallowed be your name”. This seems a strange place to start, doesn’t it? To hallow is to make holy, to sanctify, to set apart for divine use. Why, we might well wonder, sanctify the name? Indeed what name is this? Not the name of Jesus, since it is not him to whom we pray here but the Father. We are not given a personal name for God anywhere in the New Testament, although occasionally we do use a version of his Old Testament name, usually “Jehovah”. What would it mean for this name to be hallowed? It is hard to be sure because Jesus doesn’t often speak about God’s name. Other than in this passage it’s only really referred to in the prayer with which he ends the Last Supper as reported in John’s gospel. We can be sure only that he means that people will have a real sense of how daring and incredible a thing they are doing when they turn to speak directly to God, and that’s something we should always pray for. We should pray that the Church, the body of people who speak to the creator on behalf of all creation, will always have a grasp of the huge responsibility and the huge privilege this is. When we pray, let’s pray that we do it right.

Having made that appeal, that we should approach God in the right way, the first actual request has to do, it would appear, with God rather than with us. “Your kingdom come” we are told to say. We are asking God to bring in his rule, asking him to reign over all that is, over us. This rule is hard to speak about, Jesus usually spoke about it in parables, but I suspect we all know, really, what we’re asking for when we ask for this. A world that ran according to God’s will and no other would be very different from this one. God is love, after all, God cares for us, God is good.

In a world where God’s rule was fully realised then all would obey God’s law. Apart from the full hallowing of his name, the realisation of the first commandment of love, the love of God, there would also be universal love of neighbour. None of us would ignore the plight of those we encountered, none would put their own interests first. All would ensure that all were taken care of, the way of the Good Samaritan would be the everyday reality of living in society. When we ask for the coming of the Kingdom of God we ask for an end to selfishness, to war, to injustice.

“Give us each day our daily bread”: what a deceptively simple request. The meeting of our material needs day by day, without fear and with covetousness, without scheming and without anxiety. What a different world that would be, where none were hungry, where nobody felt the need to do down, trick, exploit or guard themselves from anybody else. Where there was plenty for all and the assurance of continuing prosperity. A homely, worldly, honest prayer, Lord, feed us, feed us all, every day.

Forgive us our sins. I need hardly dwell on this. All of us, I’m sure, have things of which we’re ashamed, thing done, recently or long ago, things we’re afraid we may do. Things we are doing. Sometimes, for some people, this burden can seem too much to carry, the weight of our sins, of things done and things left undone; the wrongs we’ve committed, the help we’ve withheld. In this prayer we ask God to lift that burden, to make the slate clean, to give us a fresh start.

And we end by pleading that we be freed from the wrong we have yet to do, the occasions for sin that continually present themselves.

Jesus teaches us how to pray and his lessons are straightforward: pray together, pray in him, pray to the Father. Pray for faith and holiness, pray for God’s rule. Pray for the things of this world, for sustenance. Pray for right relationship with God, pray for forgiveness and a clear path.

In giving us his example Jesus shows us that we don’t need to use a lot of words, still less beautifully crafted, clever and intricate words. We need to speak directly, honestly and faithfully. We need to trust God, to put our faith in him, and we need above all to rely on Christ’s intercession on our behalf.

We pray as one people, joined together in the Church, joined in Jesus. We pray together, together in our saviour.

Potters Bar 13 July 2014: How can we pray when so many prayers are unanswered? (Matt 7:7-11)

We are commanded to pray and told that what we ask for in prayer will be given to us. Sickness will be healed and good things will be given. “Ask and it shall be given unto you”, says Jesus, “seek and you will find.” For some of us these statements, and others like them, are a barrier to prayer, they stand between us and God and we turn to him with our hearts full of longing, our minds brimming with things we would see changed, healed, transformed.

 

We know that often people ask for what they need and are disappointed, that people of faith pray fervently and still see their loved ones die, their families collapse, their children stray. We suspect, furthermore, that the idea of a God who could make things better but doesn’t because he isn’t asked in the right way conflicts with our conception of a loving God who reaches out graciously and generously.

 

I remember vividly the first time I was asked whether I would lead the prayers of intercession in our church in Edinburgh. I had no hesitation at all in refusing. “I’m sorry”, I said, “but that form of prayer makes no sense to me, I couldn’t do it and mean it, although I sometimes find hearing it moving and helpful.” This remained an issue for me as I entered my education for ministry. I knew that it must make sense, since it is so central to our faith and our tradition, but I couldn’t work out how. I knew I needed to find the way and I put my trust in the God who had called me to lead me into it.

 

The key moment for me was reading an article, I don’t remember where or who it was by, that argued that when we pray we are, more than anything else, expressing our faith and trust in God. When we ask for the things we most want and need we’re not really trying to tell God anything he doesn’t know, after all he can read the innermost secrets of our hearts, is familiar with things about us that we hide even from ourselves. Nor are we trying to persuade or manipulate him, such an attempt would be futile and ridiculous. No, we are expressing our belief that all that comes to us comes to us from God and our hope that his grace will grant that we get what we want and want what we get. We are not making the hopeless effort to impose our wills on God but reaching out, yearning, for a full alignment of our will with his and, thus, his with ours, we are praying that all will be as we want it to be.

 

What’s more this work of ours, this striving to express ourselves fully to God in hopeful expectation that his will be done and our wills fulfilled, is one of the most important things we do, on behalf of God. Remember that for the core Christian tradition the innermost meaning of human being is its representation of God, we are made to be his image, that created entity that is his likeness in creation. Part of this is also that we represent creation to him, we stand in the midst of what God has made as that which most profoundly connects it to him, as we turn to heaven in prayer. This special kind of speech, this address to the creator, to the King of Heaven, isn’t a simple selfish seeking of favour, it is central to being what God intends us to be. Without fervent and heartfelt prayer we fail really to be human.

 

So, if prayer is both indispensable to faith and at the heart of human being, if a faith that doesn’t trust God to hear and respond is not faith at all and if a person who doesn’t pray is not yet a human being as God intends him or her to be, what do we do with the painful reality of things prayed for and not received? How can we sincerely and trustingly pray when we are so often disappointed? All those prayers for peace and all this war! So many pleas for healing and so much sickness! So much yearning for life and death everywhere!

 

There is no easy and complete answer to this question, this question that is so impossible to avoid. My own answer, which I offer to you only as a starting point, since I am no paragon of prayer but find myself in this pulpit responsible before God for speaking of him and even, perhaps, for him, comes in two parts.

First, faith, to be faith, trusts God even when all seems lost and God appears to have turned away. The great exemplars of faith include Abraham, preparing himself to sacrifice Isaac while believing still in God’s goodness and his promises, include Job, angry at God and demanding to know why he is suffering but never losing his faith that an encounter with him is possible and will give relief, include Christ, praying in agony at Gethsemane, pleading for the cup of suffering to be taken from him but concluding, not my will but yours.

 

Secondly these stories of faith and of encounter all end happily. Isaac is spared and Israel founded. God comes to Job in the whirlwind and restores all that is lost. Above all Christ is raised from the tomb into eternal life.

 

When our prayers appear to go unanswered we are called to keep faith with God, to believe in his promise of resurrection and new creation, to believe that, in the fullness of time, all will be well, all ills mended, all losses restored. Ultimately our prayers express our trust that the one to whom we pray will be true to his word, will make all things right.

Brookmans Park 26 May – The sending of the Spirit (John 14:15-21)

“I will not leave you desolate”, says Jesus, “I will come to you. Yet a little while, and the world will see me no more, but you will see me; because I live, you will live also. In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”

 

These words come from John’s report of Jesus’ last speech to his disciples, at their final meal together. He is preparing them for his imminent arrest and death and for what will come after, his resurrection and then ascension, the coming of the Spirit and the birth of the Church.

 

Those events took place nearly 2,000 years ago. In the Spring of a year in the early 30s AD. They took place in a room in the city of Jerusalem, in a province of the Roman Empire. They happened long ago and far away. At the time of his death it is unlikely that more than a few thousand people had ever heard of Jesus of Nazareth and those who followed him were probably numbered in the scores rather than in the hundreds. The earliest “Christians”, those who believed in him at his death, would almost certainly have been able to get into this room (if we were relaxed about fire regulations).

 

Today, two millennia later, there are over 2 billion Christians in the world. 100 years ago two thirds of the world’s Christians lived in Europe, today Europeans make up only about a quarter of Christians. In that time, the last century, the total number of Christians in the world has quadrupled. I don’t know how many of those 2.2 billion people will be in church today but I think we can be sure that as we gather here we join hundreds of millions of people in every corner of the world and speaking every language.

 

During Jesus’ life and at his death he and his friends had very little, they certainly had no buildings, no bank accounts, no complicated organisations. Today, in the UK alone, there are something over 30,000 church buildings and around the world there are structures like St Peter’s in Rome which has a volume of over 1 million cubic meters and the building of the Full Gospel church, completed in 1973 in Seoul, South Korea which seats 26,000 people.

 

From those small beginnings to the incredible power, diversity and dynamism of a worldwide Church in which there are now thought to be more than 30 million churches and over 60,000 denominations.

 

How this happened, how this movement within Judaism, this new message proclaimed by someone from an obscure corner of the Holy Land, came to be the largest and most vibrant religious movement in the world, both the biggest and the fastest growing, might seem mysterious. Why didn’t this movement collapse and disappear like so many others, apparently similar? Why did the followers of Jesus win new converts in great numbers, develop an ever more complete set of ideas about him and his significance and all sorts of practices and forms of behaviour with which they celebrated their relationship with him? Why didn’t his name disappear into the obscurity of historical specialism, like other claimants to the title of Messiah? After all who now remembers Simon of Peraea, or Athronges, or Menahem ben Judah?

 

As Christians we say that the answer to this question is that Jesus of Nazareth is unique and incomparable, we say that he is not simply a man but is also God, that God is one in three and three in one and that in Jesus the world has seen God, God the Son, second person of the Trinity. What is more we say that this Jesus, this man who is God, this union in a single person of human being and transcendent God, is not dead but lives, having died. His living presence with us and in us, as he says in today’s gospel reading, is what accounts for the vigour and strength of his Church, all these years after his execution on a cross. He speaks to the Church when he say: “because I live, you will live also”.

 

He has been as good as his word. Through all the years, centuries and millennia since his death and resurrection he has been present to us, in the Word and in the Sacraments. He has enlivened and sustained his people through their hearing and believing the stories and the beliefs about him and what he has done for us and by joining himself to them in a real and powerful way in the eating and drinking of the bread and wine of communion.

 

In all of this he has been joined and enabled by the third person of the Trinity, of the triune God, by the Holy Spirit, as he promised he would be. “I will pray the Father and he will give you another Counsellor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, who the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you”.

 

The Spirit dwells with us and is in us. It is this relationship between Jesus, the Spirit and the Church that accounts for the amazing story of our communal life since Jesus returned in glory to the Father. The vitality and vibrancy of our communion, from the Spirit empowered apostles we read about in the Book of Acts, through the persecutions, arguments, and spread throughout the Empire of their successors, through the conversion of the Empire itself, its collapse and the birth of the new nations of Europe, through renaissance and Reformation, through the missionary activities of the European churches and on into the extraordinary present, where a Latin American Pope presides over the Roman Catholic Church and Pentecostalism, born only 100 years ago, is now the biggest successor to the “Protestant” break from Rome.

 

The development of the Church has always been surprising, always taken unexpected turns and today it looks very different from what was expected by the enthusiasts for unification of the denominations that merged to create the United Reformed Church in the early 1970s. There are more, not less, separate denominations and groupings of churches and the divisions within denominations, over issues like homosexuality or the ministry of women, are more bitter than the divisions between denominations.

 

The good news is that the Spirit is still dwelling with us, still in us, the good news is that Jesus, in that same Spirit, is still in us, as he is still in the Father. The good news is that the Church, despite its divisions and despite the decline of some older denominations, like the URC, continues to grow and to change, driven onwards by the work of that same Spirit.

 

So as we prepare to eat and drink, to be brought into the living presence of Christ himself in the Sacrament of Holy Communion, I invite you all to be still for a moment with me and in silent prayer ask that God grant us a full knowledge of his dwelling with us and in us.