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.”

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Brookmans Park 27 July 2014 – the Church and the people of Israel (Genesis Chapters 29-32)

In our faith it is claimed that God chooses to enter into relationship with his creatures, with us, in special ways and at special times, with particular people. It is told that he made a covenant with one man, Abraham, and from that man he made his special people. From them came the man Jesus of Nazareth, the man who is the presence of God himself in creation, the Word incarnate, a man descended from Abraham through Isaac, through Jacob who became Israel, and through Judah, the son of Jacob and Leah and ancestor of King David.

That’s the story the Bible tells: that God is at the same time the creator of everything that exists and also the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; that God is at once utterly different from anything created and also fully present in one man, Jesus.

The Bible also tells us that history, the whole story of everything, has a beginning and will have an end. It tells us that our little stories, our lives, our births, our relationships, our deaths, fit into a single great pattern that is much more than the simple series of one generation after another. It tells us both that the great movement from Genesis to Revelation, is a movement from creation, through the fall, to redemption, and it tells us that each of us individually is infinitely and absolutely valuable in the eyes of God.

We are taught to look for meaning and purpose in our own stories and to do so by understanding how they fit into the big story, to take our narratives of family, of work, of community and to relate them to the sacred history of God’s dealings with the world. At the same time we are to look for the coming of the Kingdom and to respond to the gospel, the good news about Jesus by acting as its representatives. We are to accept the lives God gives us and to make them into acts of service to him.

This can be hard. The succession of days and years, the frustrations and also the joys, can be hard to connect to the Biblical claims. The love we hope for from God, the love we may or may not feel, might sometimes seem distant from the love we feel for the people in our lives, less real or less immediate. The part of our life to do with God can become separate from the rest of it, something for Sunday, or for when we turn deliberately to prayer.

A story like that of Jacob, his wives and his sons, can help us to see that this is not so. Jacob, Leah, Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah are absolutely essential to the narrative that our scriptures tell. It is through Jacob that the promise made to Abraham, of the founding of a holy people, is realised. Jacob’s twelve sons found the twelve tribes of Israel, the covenant goes through them and through nobody else.

Their story, though, is a lurid one. A man in love with a beautiful woman tricked into marrying her plain older sister. That older sister nursing disappointment and pain over his lack of interest in her. The younger sister driven to despair by her childlessness offering her husband another woman to bear sons for him in her name. The rivalry between the sisters souring relationships throughout the family.

Neither of the sisters seems to be happy and fulfilled. Leah, with her six sons yearns for Jacob’s love while Rachel, his beloved, mourns her inability to conceive a child. God gives Leah sons in compensation for Jacob’s indifference. Rachel believes that without children she will die, while Jacob angrily responds that only God has the power to change her situation, as in the end God is moved to do.

Reading it we have no sense that any of the characters know that their lives are of the kind of cosmic importance the Bible gives them. This is a family drama where, from the point of view of Jacob, Rachel and Leah, God acts only to fulfil or to thwart their plans and ambitions, their hopes and dreams. Leah wants Jacob’s love, Rachel wants children, Jacob wants Rachel, wants sons, wants flocks, wants to be reconciled with his brother Esau and wants to see his mother Rebecca again.

From our point of view we can see that this drama is a moment in God’s long relationship with his people. Here the twelve tribes are founded, here the name of Israel is given, here the covenant is renewed and Joseph, who will take the people to Egypt is born.

Jacob, Rachel, Leah and all their sons die, as we all must die. The place of their scheming, competing and striving, their loving and sacrificing, their happiness and their sorrow, in the salvation of humankind is unknown to them. They know nothing of the culmination of the story of their family, their nation, in the birth of Christ is outside their conception.

They don’t know that Jesus will call a group of twelve apostles to take his message out and establish a living community of disciples that will last thousands of years; they don’t hear this echo of their twelve sons in twelve messengers who are the origins of what we call the Church. They know none of this and yet it is the inner meaning of their lives and they know, somehow, that those lives find their significance in God, which is why Leah’s fourth son is called Judah, for her praise of the Lord, her fifth Issachar, acknowledging him to be a reward from God and she greets her sixth and last with the words “God has rewarded me”.

In all the mess, pain and disappointment of their marriages and their lives Jacob, Rachel and Leah hold fast to the presence and the trustworthiness of God. They believe that what unfolds for them and what they feel about it matters, matters not only to them but matters ultimately, even when it seems senseless, when the meaning they seek in the love of their spouse or the lives of their children fails them.

We who belong, through the Church, to that same people of God have lives that are full of ordinary joys and ordinary sorrows as those of Jacob and his family were. For them the key thing was to have children and to occupy the land of the promise, those were the terms of God’s promises to them. The situation is different for us. The Church is not a family or a people in the same sense. It gathers people from their families and their nations into one universal communion. What is the same is that our stories, and the stories of our communities, will only be understood from the end of the narrative of salvation. Only at the end will we know what we’ve contributed and how we’ve mattered. What we can know, right now, is that we do contribute and that it matters, because that knowing is what faith in God demands from us.

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.

Jesus is God (Potters Bar 9 Mar: Phil 2:511 and John 1:1-18)

Sometimes, when people say they don’t believe in God, the right response is to ask them to tell you about the God they don’t believe in. When they do you may find you don’t believe in that God either. It’s important for those of us who proclaim or rely upon faith in God to remember that God is not the same thing as our idea of God. The being we imagine or project isn’t the same as the being that the word “God” or the name “Jehovah” names.

 

I have sometimes thought that I’d like to start using God’s name more in worship and in preaching, to remind us that the Lord we meet in the Bible and in our life as the Church isn’t an abstract idea, an entity known only by deduction from what he does, but a person, a someONE who chooses to enter into relationship with his people. But then I remember that we do use his name, we use it a lot. God’s name is Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Christ, the messiah, the one anointed. Jesus, the orthodox and historical Christian faith says, is God.

 

The classic statements are from the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD and the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD, which are the first full council of the Church on the one hand and the last one recognised by most Protestants on the other. The Church was being torn apart by arguments about who and what Jesus was, how his followers should understand him. So in 325 AD all 1800 bishops in the Church were invited to Nicaea to decide whether Jesus was of the same kind, the same nature, as God the Father, or had been created by him as he created everything and everybody else, which was the position of a popular teacher called Arius. Arius held that while Jesus was greater than all other creatures, was the Son of God, unique and supreme, he was other and less than God the Father. Arianism denied that Jesus was God and asserted that there was only one true God. At Nicaea this position was decisively rejected and the full divinity of Jesus affirmed.

 

This caused no end of subsequent difficulty, though, since it was also agreed that Jesus was fully and completely human. He wasn’t just God in disguise as a human being he actually was a human being. At the Council of Chalcedon 126 years later in 451 AD the bishops were assembled again, for the fifth time in fact, to decide how we should make sense of Jesus being both human and divine. Various positions that were felt to allow one of these natures to be lost were rejected and a formula agreed that would keep them both.

 

Nicaea said that Jesus was God in the same way as God the Father and Chalcedon added that he was also human in exactly the same way as you and me. For many people this remains a puzzle and a stumbling block. What can it mean to say that a particular man and nobody else is God? This seems absurd and ridiculous. If we arrive at acceptance of the existence of a God of some kind this God will probably be something quite different from us, all present, all seeing, all powerful, unchanging and perhaps rather distant, at any rate not much like a fragile, limited, mortal, human being.

 

For me the importance of the Nicene-Chalcedonian teaching on Jesus isn’t first of all what it tells us about him, although that is important. It’s what it tells us about God and about our ideas of God. It tells us that our ideas about a distant God who is separate from us are wrong, that God is not a distant and indifferent, super-rational and remote being above and beyond our concerns and our problems.

 

If we want to know about God we shouldn’t start from a set of abstract thoughts inside our own heads, we should accept that God has always cared about human beings, has tried and tried to establish the relationship with them that he wants, that we are made for, that we need if we are to realise ourselves and be happy as we should be happy. The story of human being is the story of a covenant, almost of a marriage. At every stage God is reaching out to us and if we want to know about him we need to pay attention to what’s revealed.

 

This is true from Adam, through Noah, to Abraham, through the people of Israel to Jesus, through the apostles to the Church, with its councils and structures, to this place here and now. God is striving to find and to form us, his people, to show us his love and his way and to shape humanity to represent and relate to him in creation.

 

The climax of this effort is God actually coming to meet us, to become one of us, the Word made flesh, Jesus. In Jesus God shows us what God is, fully reveals the divine. It isn’t that we should try to work out how we can make the divinity of Jesus fit with our idea of what the Father is, it is that we should try to work out what God’s telling us about himself and about us and about how we stand in regard of one another by being Jesus. What must God be like if God is like Jesus?

 

Well first of all God must really care about us a lot. If God is willing to suffer our fate, even death on a cross, as the letter to the Philippians says, in order to help us out he must feel that we matter.

 

Secondly God must be involved with the history of the world and struggling to make it come out right. The God who comes in Jesus simply can’t be the almighty sovereign who pre-ordains everything. Jesus doesn’t look like that at all. God must be a healer and peace maker who wants justice and abhors war. God must be passionate and vulnerable, feeling pain and hurt by the suffering of others. God must be prone to outbursts of anger, to periods of doubt, to sorrow that leads to tears. In the Bible we see all of this in Jesus and Jesus is God.

 

Thirdly God must have the power, still, to overcome failure, suffering, even death. In the resurrection we see that God can take a human being past death into new and transformed life, into triumph and glory. It isn’t that at the end of the story Jesus sheds his human form and returns to being God. The resurrected Jesus, to be Jesus, must still be human. In him we see what God can do and will do for us.

 

Fourthly we see that God has now given us a way to be united with him in a real and very complete way. Through the life of the Church, through baptism and the communion meal, we can be united to Christ, can be in him and he in us. The God who is present in history didn’t go away when Jesus ascended to heaven (whatever that might mean to us, a subject for another day). Through the Holy Spirit Jesus promised still to be with us and so he is.

 

All of this is hard to reconcile with our usual picture of God, but there it is, that’s how he is revealed to us in Christ. That’s what Paul meant when he wrote to the Philippians:

 

Christ Jesus: being in very natureGod,

did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;

rather, he made himself nothing

by taking the very natureof a servant,

being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man,

he humbled himself

by becoming obedient to death—

even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place

and gave him the name that is above every name,

that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.

 

Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Matthew 17:1-9, 2 Mar 2014, Brookmans Park)

We’ve all been frightened, I imagine. Maybe some of us have been in situations where we were in real fear for our lives. It’s strange how hard it is to remember what that kind of terror is like. I have been really frightened a few times and when I think back those moments seem very clear and calm, as if they happened to somebody else. I know I did feel fear but I can’t recall what that was like.

 

This is one of the things that makes it hard to really imagine the scene we’ve heard described in Matthew’s gospel. We’re told that the Peter, James and John were terrified but being that scared is one of those things that you have to be in the place and time to know about. Even when we’ve been terrified ourselves we can’t imagine it afterwards. Fear is immediate and beyond language and thought, it is a thing of the body.

But what is it that the disciples are so frightened of, in this story? Why does the voice they hear cause terror? After all its message is hardly one you would expect to have this affect on them. “This is my son, the beloved, with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” Since these three have been following Jesus everywhere and hanging on his every word, have given up everything to do so, you would have thought these would be words they were delighted to hear. Listening to Jesus has become their life, hearing that God is pleased with him should delight them, surely.

The reason they respond as they do is that they know that “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”, they know that this fear is well founded, that direct contact with God is deadly, that to see his face is to die. Fear of God is the beginning of wisdom because God is the most dangerous being there is. They are not terrified because of what the voice says but because of who it belongs to. They are terrified of God.

We might think that this is wrong, after all God is love, we say, and love isn’t scary, but I’m not sure. If we’re serious about God, then perhaps we should be frightened of an encounter with him. After all if we meet God then we will be faced with the truth about ourselves and I wonder how ready we are to face that. Face to face with God there is nowhere to hide and nowhere to run. He, after all, knows us better than we know ourselves and knows all the ways in which we fall short of the perfection he demands of us. To look into God’s face would be to look into a mirror that doesn’t lie and reveals everything, under the clearest and least forgiving of lights. That is something to be frightened of.

Those poor men’s terror isn’t the end of the story, though. Jesus comes to them, touches them, says: “Get up, do not be afraid”. They rise to their feet. It is over. They have been in presence of God, faced the moment of trial. They have not been destroyed, they live to go on. Jesus is with them and he takes care of them.

In this story, of the ordeal of Jesus’ three closest disciples, we have an image of what Christ is for us. He enables us to come into the presence of God and survive. It is possible, with him, for us to hear the voice of God, which tells us to listen to him. We can encounter the innermost truth of what the world is and what we are and go on in it.

Underlying all our fears, I believe, is a fear that we and everything else, are worthless and meaningless. Even the human fear of death is most of all a fear of futility, of failure, of finding that all our efforts, our feelings, our strivings, are without value. We try to find reassurance in our relationships with other human beings, but if we have no value then surely so do they. It is this fear that comes to its conclusion in the meeting with God. If it is true, and I say it is, that everything that has value has value because God gives it value, then meeting God is the ultimate test. There is no delaying the reckoning then. Do I matter? Am I important? Is there any point?

The great danger is that in that moment the answer will be “no”, because it really might. If we have failed to be what God created us to be, God’s own image, his representatives in creation, then there really isn’t any point to us. God made us for something, as something, and if we’re not that then we’re no more use anything else that can’t serve its purpose. That’s why human beings are right to be afraid of God, why that fear is the beginning of wisdom.

The good news from this story is that in Jesus God has decided to solve the problem on our behalf. Listen to Jesus, God says, and what Jesus says is “Get up, do not be afraid”. In Jesus humanity is perfected, the image of God brought to completion. In him, whose face shines like the sun, God’s image illuminates all our kind. Through him we are all made ready to face the Lord.

In my twenties, while I was beginning to grope my way towards Christian faith, I experienced numerous periods of extreme anxiety. During them I would be afraid of fear. I felt that I might become so afraid at any moment that I wouldn’t be able to stand it. Then one evening, when I was alone in my flat, I experienced the intense and overwhelming fear that I had been so afraid of. It didn’t last long and at the end of it I was still there. I never felt afraid of fear again.

In its small way that was a little like what the disciples went through on top of that mountain. They were terrified that to meet God would be to be destroyed. Then, with Jesus as their guide, they were brought into God’s presence and at the end they were still standing, still walking, still talking, above all still listening to their master, the son, the beloved.

The fear of God is the fear of a fate worse than death, of coming to a knowledge of ourselves that exposes our total failure, our absolute lack of worth, our turning away from the purpose God has given us, a knowledge that must plunge us into despair. This fear is one all sinful human beings are bound to feel, even if most of the time we repress and avoid it. That is why the Old Testament can say that fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. In the events on the mountain top, though, we see that Jesus gives us a way through and past that fear. In following him, listening to him, being touched by him we can see our humanity raised up to perfection and God’s hand reaching out us in love. “Get up”, Jesus says, “and do not be afraid”.

Brookmans Park 23 Feb 2104 – Be Perfect

In today’s gospel reading Jesus gives a simple and rather stunning command: “Be perfect”. This is a passage that it’s very tempting to skirt around or dismiss. After all we all know that “nobody’s perfect” and when we think about ourselves I don’t suppose many of us have perfection as our ambition. If you asked somebody what their New Year’s resolutions were and they answered by saying, “I’ve resolved to be perfect” you’d think either that they had gone mad or that they were pulling your leg. Perfection is out of reach and we all just try to be as good as we can without expecting to reach that impossible standard.

 

And yet here, near the centre of the Sermon on the Mount we have Jesus baldly telling us: “be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect”. As Christians we have to take that seriously, it seems to me, and when I do I find its challenge inescapable. For myself I can’t see a way to dodge it, nor can I find a way to meet it. But let’s think about it together for a while.

 

The first thing we need to get a handle on is what perfection is. The word “perfect” comes to us from Latin, ultimately from the verb meaning “to finish”. It has a lot of other elements but at its root it derives from the idea of completing something, getting it to a point where no change will make it better, which is the same basic idea as the Greek word “teleios” which is used in Matthew’s gospel. This, too, derives from the idea of something reaching its proper end or goal.

 

Let’s stay with that for a bit. Perfection is, let’s say, first of all the state of being finished or complete. For a human being that thought is bound to bring with it the shadow of death. When we think of a “perfect” human being we think first, I suspect, of someone at the peak of their physical capabilities. We picture perhaps the extraordinary scenes we’ve been seeing from Sochi over the last weeks. I’ve been particularly impressed by the speed-skaters with their incredible control as they round those corners in close competition. Their strength, balance and technique come together to enable them to do things very few could contemplate.

 

When one sees people doing things like that it’s very hard not to include this honing and training of the body as part of what it is to be perfect. But do we imagine them to be more complete human beings than somebody like Stephen Hawking? The last time I saw him he was appearing on the American situation comedy “Big Bang Theory” as himself and I’ve also seen him on “The Simpsons”. I read his book A Brief History of Time and have read about him and even eaten lunch at the next table to him in a restaurant.

 

His contributions both to the science of physics and to its wider understanding and it interpretation have been immense and ground-breaking while at the same time he has coped with the progress of a motor neurone disease that has almost completely paralysed him. His courage and perseverance in the face of this is astonishing and he has continued to work at the very highest level of scientific achievement, to live a full family life and to think and speak about a range of religious and political matters.

 

Here is someone whose body has obvious and terrible imperfections but whose life demonstrates abilities and virtues of a very high order indeed. Is he less perfect than the skaters or than us? He has taken what he was given, both the incredible intellectual gifts and the terrible physical problems and he has made a life that it is impossible not to admire. How does he stand in relation to Jesus’ command to be perfect?

 

Our starting point has to be that each of us is created by God as a unique individual with the potential to become what we were intended by God to be. Each of us is born in one time and place, into a family and a society. We don’t choose where we begin or what we begin with. Only one person can be the fastest runner in the world, only a few can be at the cutting edge of science. To be perfect can’t mean to be the most beautiful or the most elegant, the strongest or the cleverest, or else Jesus couldn’t have given that command to each and every one of us, as I believe he has.

 

To be perfect is to play the role you personally have been given in the best way you personally are capable of. Each of us will find, if we examine our lives, that there are things we can do that nobody else can or will do. There are people we can help, acts we can carry out, most of all love we can feel and show that need us and no-one else. To be perfect isn’t to strive to stand out from everyone else but to be ourselves.

 

The most important thing about this, as Jesus tells us, is to love. The reason he talks about loving our enemies particularly, rather than loving all, or elsewhere about loving our neighbours, is that these are the people we have been given to love.

 

The command to be perfect doesn’t demand that we compare ourselves to others nor that we try to be more or different than the way we are and can be. It means to seek to be what we are meant to be.

 

The key thing here is love. Elsewhere Jesus tells us that the Law can be summarised in the two commands: love God and love your neighbour. Here he makes clear that the neighbours we are to love include our enemies. To be perfect is to respond to every situation and every person with love. It is to put the well being of others first. Nobody has to deserve our love, any more than anybody earns the sun or the rain, as Jesus says.

 

To be perfect is to be loving, to the righteous and the unrighteous, even to those who persecute you. This is still a tough command, we all struggle to love those who behave badly, those who don’t love us, the ungrateful, the selfish, the violent and all the unlovely. To be perfectly loving is difficult indeed, but it isn’t utterly impossible.

 

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.

Potters Bar 09 Feb 2014 – Christ is image of God (Col 1:15-20)

We have been talking and thinking a lot about the future of the Church recently, about the future of this congregation, about the future of our denomination. Most of our talk has been about declining numbers. When we’ve talked about growth we’ve often talked about the need to find more people so that the life of the Church as we’ve known it can be sustained. We have had in mind the church’s need for members.

 

I have come feel that this is getting things the wrong way round. If Christianity is to continue to be a force for good in our world it must be because people need it, not because it needs people. If we are to grow we have to have, and to believe that we have, something that others need. In order to grow the church has to offer a solution not an additional problem for those who come into it.

 

Today’s reading from Colossians reminds us what it is that we offer, what it is that we seek when we come here. Jesus, it says, is the image of the invisible God. In him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell and through him to reconcile all things to God, making peace by the blood of his cross. Through Jesus, the letter says, come reconciliation and peace.

 

Describing Jesus as the image of God reminds us that Genesis tells us we are created as this image. We are made to be the image of God and Jesus shows us what that means. In him comes a renewed relationship with everything that exists through a repaired communion with God. In joining ourselves to Christ, the man who is God, God who is the Son of Man, we put right all the things that make us less than we are meant to be. That’s what the Church offers; the opportunity to become fully, properly human, through unity with the one whom humanity is made to represent.

 

Our faith in God has at its heart the idea that the universe makes sense, has a meaning and a purpose, and that human beings have a central place in that purpose. That’s the core of what the creation story says to us. All this stuff around us, from the dirt under our feet to the stardust at the ends of the cosmos, from the massive nuclear reactor that is our sun to the cold empty spaces between galaxies, from the floors of the ocean to the inside of our skulls, all of it is joined together and celebrated in God’s seeing at the end of the sixth day that it was very good.

 

And, Colossians says of Jesus, “he is before all things and in him all things hold together. He is the head of his body, the church.” So Jesus brings everything to peace, he holds everything together, he is the image of God, he is the head of the church. In all of this he is the image of the invisible God, and as such he is the prototype of the completed human race, he is, to quote again, “the first born of the dead”.

 

What we have to offer is Christ, is union with him through baptism and communion and through participation in his body, the church. What we have to offer is the chance to grow into the destiny human beings are made for, the representation of God, as God’s image.

 

When we think about what we need, what human beings need, we shouldn’t start from what we want but from how we can be, how we can do, how we can feel the best that we could; what can make us what completes creation and transforms it from good to very good. This final stage in the making of all things is the placing in it of an image of its creator, someone to represent God in and to it.

 

At this moment we are not, not yet, that perfect image. But we do have a way both of knowing what that image is and of becoming more like it. That way is Jesus. He is the perfected image, he is humankind as we are meant to be. That’s what the letter means when it says he is the image of the invisible God; Jesus is what we are meant to be. What’s more Jesus is not simply a distant memory. He is still present in the world in his body the church, of which, as the letters says, he is the head. When we come into the church we not only meet our risen and ascended Lord, we are joined to him.

 

Now that’s a big claim: “come into the Church and become part of the body of Christ, Lord and Saviour, God the Son”. It is, though, a central part of Christian teaching, as today’s reading shows. It is also both exciting and inspiring, if we take it seriously. Jesus is the one who brings peace and reconciliation, who holds all things together, and through the Church anyone can both receive that peace and the love that motivates it and become part of the wonderful work of redemption and salvation.

What’s more if these claims are true, that all of this is the fulfilment of the deepest and profoundest reality of what it means to be a human being, then those who are not part of the community of God’s people in the Church are missing out on something that they need to be truly and properly themselves, and I think deep down everybody feels that lack.

The offer we make is the chance to become a human being in the most complete sense. How this works itself out in the life of each person will be unique to them, after all nobody can be replaced by anybody else. In coming to know and to live out the limitless and inexhaustible love that comes to us through Jesus every person will be transformed, each will be raised to new and fuller life in communion with him and with their brothers and sisters in Christ.

For most of us most of the time this will be undramatic. It will be expressed through the peace we find in prayer, the uplift we get from singing something that expresses our faith, the comfort we gain from the words of the Bible. It will be experienced in the feeling of fellowship in our gatherings, in the simple acts of kindness we offer and are offered. All of these moments and actions are ways that God touches our lives and guides us towards our true destiny in the body of Christ, as those who make the divine love known. For the Christian, though, these undramatic and everyday works of love are part of the way the holy touches us.

That’s the gospel, the good news, that the Church proclaims. The Kingdom of Heaven has come near, anybody who hears the news can come into it, can become part of the people that God is sending throughout the world to bring peace and reconciliation. “For in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace through the blood of his cross”.