The way, the truth and the life: 30 Nov 2014 (John 14:6)

I am the truth, says Jesus, I am the way, the truth and the life.

Last week in my sermon here I said that I believe that our salvation IS that we are enable to do God’s will, that to be saved is to be in God and to have God in us, to be saved is not only something that has happened in Christ’s death and resurrection, is not only something that will happen when we are raised into glory but is also something that is happening right here and now. To be saved is to be remade through him into the living image of God, is to equipped to do God’s work and show God’s love. To be saved, brothers and sisters, to be saved is to be made like Jesus, to live like Jesus, to be adopted as children of God and to represent God as human beings are created to do.

What I want to talk about this week is what that actually looks like as we go about our daily lives. How does a Christian look, what does a Christian do, in South Hertfordshire in 2014? When people meet Jesus in the gospels many of them know straight away that they’re come across someone special, someone they want to know and to follow. How can we shine with God’s presence like that? What does Jesus want from us?

Let’s begin by thinking again about the kind of thing Jesus gets up to, what he does. I think, really, that Jesus’ ministry comes down to a few simple elements: first of all he announces God’s kingdom, God’s rule, the living presence of God in this world; second he teaches about what this living God wants from us and for us; third he heals those in need of healing. There’s more than that, of course, but I want you to think for a little while about these three: the proclaiming of God’s power and God’s coming; the teaching about human responsibility; healing.

The first of these, the news about God, is Jesus the truth. He is himself the coming of God, this is news about himself. God’s kingdom comes in Christ. The second, the teaching about human life, is Jesus the way. To live as God intends is to live in his way. The third, the healing, is Jesus the life. In him there is abundant life, he conquers death in his ministry, as he heals, cures and restores and he completes that conquest in his resurrection.

We who follow him are called to enact all these, not in our own power and authority, as he did, but in his. In and through Christ we can proclaim, teach and heal as he did. We can say that God has come in Jesus, that he dwells among us and that in him God’s rule is known and is available. That all can submit themselves to him and become part of that wonderful kingdom in which peace and justice are the principles and guides of power. We proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God in Christ.

We can teach the simple commandments that Jesus gave. Love God and love your neighbour. Act on that love by putting the needs of others before your own desires. Be unselfish; serve those around you without looking for reward. Be humble and trust in God. Turn away from violence and anger, be peaceful and generous, even to the point where you put yourself in danger. Be gentle and merciful. These Christian virtues, of service and sacrifice, of peacefulness and love, are consistently and uncompromisingly taught by Jesus as the way pleasing to God. He taught them in words and he also exemplified them in his actions.

To follow him, to show him to the world, we must do likewise. We have to remember and repeat these lessons and we also have to live by them. To be Christians in the true sense we have to be generous, we have to be forgiving, we have to be charitable. We have to refuse to judge those in need, we have to ignore calculations of who deserves what, who has a right to what. We have to look for need and respond to it. In this way we can present to the world around us an image of God’s love, of which we are the blessed beneficiaries. Thank God that he does not deal with us according to what we have a right to be according to what his merciful concern grants us. Thank him for that and try to do likewise.

As we engage others in this Christlike way we will become instruments of God’s healing. We aren’t Jesus and we can’t expect that the sick will leap from their beds at our word or touch but we can be agents of well being. There are many who suffer from a feeling of abandonment, of worthlessness, of isolation and despair. There are many who are lonely and who feel cut off from other human beings. Each and every one of us here has the power to bring healing to this sickness, which is at root a symptom of being separated from God’s love. The simplest gesture or word of genuine concern can be more valuable than anything and a miracle of healing.

I am the way, the truth and the life, says Jesus. To be his Church, his people, his body today is to follow his way, proclaim his truth, spread his life-giving love. This can be dramatic and extraordinary, can involve great sacrifices and complete changes in lives and those able to live completely for Christ should be admired and celebrated by us all. I heard a pastor from Brixton on the radio this week describe how she brought a group of young men back from life in street gangs by inviting them into her home to cook and eat with her. Along the way she had shootings and other violence to contend with around her house but eventually her willingness to see the good in these boys and to take the risk of allowing them to be with her transformed, healed, them, so that they are now themselves working to save others.

For most of us this Christian attitude of affirmation and hope will be less extreme. We will, perhaps, just be a friendly face in an uncaring world, someone who strangely refuses to respond to provocation but is consistently forgiving and welcoming. We will always think the best of people, act as if they can be trusted and respected. We will extend hospitality and be willing to help. As we do these simple things we will be Jesus for somebody.

As we proclaim his truth we will share good news in a world full of bad news. This doesn’t mean that we will hide from the horrors or pretend things are other than they are. It does mean that we will be hopeful and trusting in God’s power and God’s love. When we say that God’s kingdom has come in Jesus and that he has saved us we say that this age is passing away and that the age to come is one where the rule of sin and death is past. We say that love and life will conquer and the hate and death will be defeated. Our news is good and it is joyful.

Finally we will be life, as our master is life. To be a Christian here and now is above all to be someone who lives life fully, glorying in every God-given moment. We can only represent him if we are full of happy faith in his love for us and for others and if that radiates from us.

To be a Christian here and now is, as it has always been, to be gloriously and resplendently filled with celebration of God’s gifts. The mark of the true Christian is carefree joy. So as we go into this Advent season let’s be happy, let’s smile and laugh, let’s give generously, care deeply, exultantly praise our Saviour and selflessly love his creatures. Praise be to God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

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Sermon for Remembrance Sunday 2014

Jesus tells us to love our enemies. He also says which should not resist the evil person but rather to allow them to strike us again on our other cheek. If someone asks us for a loan we should give them a gift. If we are sued we are not to contest the matter. Such is Christ’s teaching.

Some few try to live like this, unprotected and vulnerable to all, but they are few indeed. For most of us it seems impossible and we are tempted to interpret the words to mean something easier, more reasonable, something we would find it possible actually to live by. We should resist that temptation. If we look to Jesus’ own example I don’t believe we can conclude anything other than that he meant exactly what he said. He really thought and taught that we should manage without possessions, without family, without protecting ourselves from the evil others would do us. That’s how he lived.

To do so would mean giving up all responsibility as parents or as citizens. To live like Jesus, to do as Jesus commands makes playing a normal social role impossible and his own closest followers accepted that. They had no homes and nothing to call their own. They depended on others and placed their trust solely in God. None of us live like that.

Today, of all days, we are reminded of that. Remembrance Day is a national day that recalls and accepts war, that most un-Christ-like of human activities. In war violence is made systematic and calculated, people become mere instruments, tools to be used to achieve objectives demanded by the attempt to make one’s will prevail by force.

When we come up against a situation where there seems to be no better option then to go to war, and I believe that such situations exist, then we are confronted in a very stark way with the impossibility of living in this world without sin. Most of you will have heard of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great German theologian and church leader.

He was a pacifist, someone who insisted on taking Christ’s teaching on violence seriously. He was also a leader of the Confessing Church, the body of Christians in Germany who refused the Nazi demand that the Church conform to their ideology. Bonhoeffer was drawn into the circle of those trying, during the War, to kill Hitler and make peace with the allies and was executed for his part in the plot.

What seems clear is that even as he accepted the necessity of resorting to violence to bring the horrors of war and genocide to an end he remained convinced that this was sinful. He thought himself compelled to do what he still thought was wrong. He didn’t re-interpret Jesus to give himself a clear conscience. He repented of his intended actions even before he tried to carry them out.

This seems to me the proper attitude for Christians to take. We make the best decisions we can while accepting that they involve us in the sins of a sinful world. We do not try to absolve ourselves of the guilt we take on in doing so but we do have faith that God’s mercy will prevail and that we are not lost to evil even when we are compelled to do what is wrong. We pray that the Holy Spirit will guide and sanctify us and hope that we will be shown the way towards a closer conformity with God’s will.

That is one reason why I’m not sure any Christian can ever, in the end, be a real nationalist. Nations and the states that embody them, are always actually or potentially in conflict. States are, among other things, instruments of war. As human beings in the world as it is we need to belong to them and they need to be ready to use violence. This makes them and us sinful. Among the things we need to repent of and to pray for release from is our nationhood and our patriotism, inescapable as these are. The Christian never ultimately belongs to a nation because we recognise only one Lord, Jesus, only one Sovereign, God his Father.

And yet, and yet, God’s Kingdom has come near but we are still waiting for its full realisation. We live between the times, when the old age is passing away but the birth pangs of the new, of which Paul writes in Romans, continue. In this time between the times we cannot escape the old, we cannot throw off our belonging to the nations. We have to stand ready to answer the nation’s call because we have responsibilities to others we just can’t ignore.

One aspect of Remembrance day is to call to mind those who did answer that call and whose lives were lost in doing so. Those who discharged their responsibilities and who paid the price. In honouring them, as we should, we have also to remember that it was sinful that they had to die and that as members of the nation for which they died we are called to repent. We are called to repent of the sinfulness of the world we live in and that we make, the sinfulness that lay behind the deaths of so many.

Another aspect, alongside and as part of that, is that we have to hold onto the truth that when people become our enemies due to our belonging to a nation and their conflict with it we are not released from our obligation to love them. Even as we fight we have to love those we, or those acting on our behalf, are bound to hurt and to kill. Today that means even loving those who call themselves Islamic State. They want to harm us, they strain every nerve and muscle to injure us and we have no choice but to protect ourselves and those who depend on us. But as we do so Jesus’ words, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”, should be sounding in our ears.

Finally, even as we strive to be true both to the realities of our world and the evils that come with it, we have also to remain true to our faith in our risen Lord, who died for us and was returned to life. In this faith our response to the death of those we cherish is a twofold one. On the one hand, we mourn, we weep, we rage against that death which is the great enemy of life and love. We are right to do so, death is an outrage and a scandal, is the end of all that is good and right. On the other hand we know ourselves conquerors and more than conquerors as we participate in Jesus’ resurrection.

Even as we mourn we give thanks for God’s great gift of life and look forward in joyful anticipation to eternal life to come, to the raising of all the dead to participate in Christ’s victory.

Freedom! Scottish independence and eternal life (Romans 6:22-23)

It’s only natural that the Scottish referendum is the subject of some conversation in the manse at the moment. I’m married to a Scot and lived there most of the time between 1990 and coming here two years ago. Two of our three children were born in Scotland and the other one still lives there. We own a flat in Edinburgh and have friends and family all over that beautiful country. This weekend we’ve had a visitor who has the vote that we gave up when we moved South.

I think it’s easy for the English to miss the extent to which the Scottish desire for independence is not about the English, as it can sometimes seem to be, but about a fairly basic wish to make decisions for oneself. There are more than 50 million English people and only around 5 million Scots. In the United Kingdom it is only under exceptional circumstances that Scotland’s votes make a difference.

I heard on the radio the other day that the only general election in which the result would have been different without Scotland was the inconclusive first election in February 1974, when instead of Labour being the largest party in a hung parliament the Conservatives would have been the largest party in a hung parliament. In every other case the government formed has been the government the English elected.

If Scotland is a distinct and different nation, which having lived there I would say it is, then it is unsurprising that the sense that another country appoints its government could sometimes arise and feel wrong. It’s rather as if a person having reached adulthood were to be told that every important decision about their life had to be agreed by an older and perhaps richer cousin.

I say this not because I favour Scottish independence. As an English minister in an English church I feel that I can say that I would, if I were still entitled to vote, vote “No” on Thursday, something I would feel very unwilling to say from the pulpit of a Scottish church, since feelings are running high on both sides North of the border and I would not wish to be identified with either side in case it caused damage to my ministry.

I have reflected on why Scots might reasonably want independence because our theme here over the next two weeks is “Freedom” and that is clearly one important aspect of the question at stake for the United Kingdom this week. Beyond all the important questions about economics, defence policy, border controls and so on is the big question: “Can Scotland, as a small country, be really free in a political union with England, which has ten times its population?” If the answer were clearly that this is not possible then I think most Scots would want to be independent, and I think most Scots believe it is not possible. They then have to decide whether there are other factors that lead them to conclude that delaying or foregoing some freedom is a price worth paying.

Most of the time, for most of us, freedom is like this. It is not an all-or-nothing question. We have degrees of freedom over ourselves and our lives. We accept and even welcome some limitations and restrictions because they protect us from ourselves and from others. Indeed we know that absolute freedom, in which we could do anything that occurred to us is impossible, since we will all want some things that are beyond any plausible human capability.

When we hear the Bible talk about freedom we should remember that in its world and its language and thought, in the eyes, therefore, of God, things are more clear cut. The word freedom is not a vague and abstract thing. It is not a matter of degree. Freedom is paired with slavery. Slavery was an ever-present and threatening reality and danger for the people who wrote all the books we find in our Bible. In the Old Testament national subjugation to aggressive empires was not only a possibility it was something that happened to the people of Israel more than once. When the Bible talks about freedom it doesn’t mean a little bit more or little bit less space to make decisions. It means having any degree of autonomy, it means not being subject to arbitrary and total power, even over life and death.

When Isaiah writes about God raising Cyrus of Persia to free the exile people he is talking about their very ability to live in Jerusalem and worship their God. Before Cyrus you could not be an Israelite and live where your religion required you to live and worship as your religion required you to worship. The aspect of your identity most fundamental to you was denied and forbidden.

We modern Christians can sometimes fall into the modern habit of seeing all of life as matters of degree, of shades of grey, of balancing things against one another on a continuous and subtle range of value. That’s not the way the Bible sees things, not what Jesus taught, not what Christian tradition teaches. There are some things best dealt with using the world’s way of judgement, things that are essentially worldly. I would regard the Scottish referendum in that light. I’m confident that neither a “Yes” nor a “No” vote on Thursday is a matter of eternal significance, determining salvation.

People will come to their own judgements about the relative importance of different factors and those judgements will be added up in counting stations and the nation of Scotland will decide. Over the days, weeks, months and years to come all involved will deal with the consequences of that decision and life will go on.

There are other questions, though, that do have such eternal significance, and for them the shades of grey are invisible to the eye of faith and their contours stand out in black and white. Hear again the words of the Apostle Paul from his letter to the church in Rome:

you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the return you get is sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord

We can sometimes slide into imagining that there are no absolutes, everything is a matter of degree, in the end anything can be compared and measured against everything else on a sliding scale. All of this collapses when we confront death. When we stand in face of this reality we recall that there is an absolute and total difference, with no intermediate positions between being alive, being a human being, and being dead.

What the eye of faith discerns, which is invisible to the hopelessly deluded eye of unbelief, is that this difference fills the whole of our lives, is made constantly and continuously. At every moment we are either slaves of sin, lost to God and to ourselves, in the grip of death, or we are free from sin through our commitment to God and we have eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

August 31 2014: Why pray? (Luke 11:1-13)

Anyone who has brought up children and anyone who has been brought up, if they’re honest, will know that parents are a big problem to their adolescent offspring. Most teenagers wish their parents gone, perhaps permanently, intensely and often, and many of them say so in clear and hurtful terms. “I hate you, I wish you were dead!” are words thought and perhaps said by confused and angry young people to those who love them the most and whom, we all know, they themselves love deeply, as part of the ordinary drama growing up.

Typically this will be in the context of the refusal of some unreasonably, impossible, or dangerous demand. “Buy me this!” “Take me here!” “Allow me to do that!”

Remembering this kind of intense and passionate but also everyday and even banal confrontation will help us in making sense of what we might think is a puzzling and hard to accept teaching of Jesus. Talking about prayer he says to his disciples: “ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened”. He seems to guarantee that if we pray, if we make requests to God, we will receive, we will get what we ask for.

That sounds like an easy promise to test. Is what Jesus says true? Are our prayers answered in this way? The question answers itself. No they are not. The Church has prayed for peace and the world is beset by war. Many many millions have prayed that they and those whom they love might be spared from disease, pain and death and seen terrible suffering continue and premature death come. Uncounted and untold prayers have been made and the things prayed for not come, the things prayed against go on. People have asked and not received, have sought and not found, have knocked and seen no door open.

Should we conclude that Jesus was either wrong or dishonest, that prayer is futile, that asking, seeking, knocking are a waste of time? Should we conclude that this passage gives us the opportunity and the permission to test God in our prayers and that this test has been failed, again and again?

This very familiar promise sits between two other, more difficult to interpret sections of a single passage Jesus’ teaching that follows and supplements his teaching of the great exemplary prayer that we know as the Our Father or the Lord’s Prayer. He first gives the peculiar parable about the man who knocks on his friend’s door at night demanding bread to share with a visitor and whose very shamelessness, his going beyond what is reasonable will mean that his demand will be met, even when friendship itself will not. Then he compares our requests to those made to a father by his child, requests that the father will meet with fish and eggs, not with scorpions and snakes.

How does this help us with the problem that Jesus’ guarantee about prayer seems not to hold good?

The first word of the Lord’s Prayer, in Luke’s version, is “Father”. This is not a prayer addressed to some impersonal force, or to an alien or totally mysterious being. Our prayer is an address to a person, a member of our family, to our Father. This profoundly intimate and familiar character of our prayer is what defines it, what makes all ideas of testing and experiment beside the point.

When we pray to our Father in heaven he already knows us, knows us well, knows us better than we can know ourselves. A parent can accept and forgive the hurtful words of their child because he or she knows that child as well as anyone can know another, can love another, he or she hears the words as coming from a place of hurt and confusion, knows that the very fact that they’re said to them is a sign of how completely the child trusts and relies on them.

When our children ask for or demand things we don’t refuse them because we don’t want to make them happy, so long as our relationship hasn’t gone wrong. When we refuse them things we do for all sorts of reasons: because we can’t get them; because we think they’re things they shouldn’t have, because we don’t want to spoil them. We have our reasons, sometimes good and sometimes in retrospect less good but we always have our reasons, reasons that we can’t always make understood.

Is it like that with God? Jesus tells the disciples: “If you then, who are evil know how to give your children what is good for them, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

If God is good and if God is present in the world then when we ask God for what is good he will give us what is good when he can. That’s what Jesus tells us. In the same way that a parent doesn’t wait to be asked to give their child what is needed, so God doesn’t wait to be asked. In the same way that a parent doesn’t give what is asked for if giving it isn’t good, so God doesn’t give what is harmful. And, we must conclude, the bad things that happen, the disasters that befall us, do so not by the will of God.

One might conclude from this that we shouldn’t, or needn’t, pray. Some Christians and some Christian thinkers do reach this conclusion, at least in regard to prayers of request. I don’t think they’re right. Among the requests in the Lord’s Prayer are “thy kingdom come”, “give us each day our daily bread”, and “forgive us our sins”. In these three are summarised a lot of what we pray for day by day, week by week. God’s kingdom is one where absolute peace and absolute justice hold sway. Being given our daily bread is a basic statement of the plea that our needs are met. Forgiveness of sins is a precondition of salvation, of being made right with God.

Our faith teaches us that we are dependent on God’s grace for eternal life. It teaches that we are to trust God’s love to grant us that grace. If we are dependent on somebody who loves us for everything then wanting something must lead directly to asking for it, even if we trust that person to know and to do what’s best for us.

If we don’t pray then it seems to me that we’re saying either that we don’t really trust God and accept our dependence on him or we’re saying that there’s nothing we really want, that we’ve given up on any possibility of happiness and well being. Either way we’re not living as Christians.

Prayer is the great expression of our faith. Pray, pray, and pray some more, and God will grant you the very greatest gift of them all, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit which gives tranquillity, goodness and holiness, strength to endure and love to illumine our lives.

August 24: What should I do to inherit eternal life? (Luke 10:25-42)

When the lawyer in our story comes to test Jesus he does what anyone has to do when they test another. He asks a question that he knows the answer to, after all, if you don’t already know the rights answer how will you know if the test has been passed?

“Teacher,” he says, “what should I do to inherit eternal life?” We’ve heard the story so we know he knows the answer: love God, love your neighbour. We know he knows because Jesus refuses to even take this test. Instead of answering the question Jesus turns it back. What do the books of the law say? How do you read them? Jesus doesn’t submit to this examination, he doesn’t recognise the lawyer’s authority. Jesus takes control of the conversation, turning the test back on the tester and telling him he’s passed, or at least passed the theoretical part. “You have answered right; do this, and you will live.”

Is this good news or bad news for this learned man? To learn that not only does he know what he needs to do but that Jesus knows that he knows? To find out that he isn’t the one setting the test but the one taking it? Is this good news; that he’s passed a test he thought he was setting? It doesn’t seem as if feels like good news to him. He doesn’t thank Jesus, doesn’t go quietly back to trying to live up to the two great commandments he’s quoted.

Instead he presses on with trying to test Jesus, but now, one suspects, he isn’t so sure of the right answer. “Who is my neighbour?” he asks. Once again Jesus refuses to answer. He tells a story and asks a question. This time, though, he does something more as well. He doesn’t just turn the test back on the lawyer, he changes it. Instead of asking “who is the neighbour I should love?”, which is what is the question put to him, he asks “who acts like a loving neighbour?”. When the lawyer’s question comes back to him it has shifted from looking out at people the questioner might help to looking for people who might help him.

“Which of these three proved neighbour to the man who fell among thieves?” Jesus asks. “Go and do likewise”, he says. The one to whom we are to be a neighbour is the one who needs us. We are commanded to love, to help, whoever we are put in a position to help. We can’t predict who that will be and what they will be like. We will come across them, lying by the road and we are to be ready, ready to see them, ready to act. We shouldn’t worry about whether we’ll be able to tell who they are. Their need will tell us. We don”t need to go looking for them. They will be lying in the ditch we pass. That’s what Jesus tells our lawyer.

He knows what he has to do, he has to love God and help his neighbour. He will know who his neighbour; they will be the person lying by his road, in need of his help. It’s all very simple. It doesn’t need great learning or expertise. What’s more it’s all so simple there’s no need of tests and Jesus won’t take any. He doesn’t need, doesn’t want, to prove himself to anyone. He is who he is and if you don’t have eyes to see or ears to hear then there’s nothing he can do about it.

What this conversation doesn’t cover, as a consequence, is what it means to love God, to love God with all our hearts, souls, minds and strength. Why the lawyer didn’t press on with this as he did with the second isn’t explained. If he really wanted help with inheriting eternal life this would seem a more difficult matter, it seems to me. As Jesus shows him he already knows what love of neighbour means. Does he know about love of God?

Loving our neighbour means helping them, as the Samaritan does. What does loving God mean? Is it just a feeling inside? Is it a matter of sacrifice and prayer? Is it about going to the Temple, the Synagogue or for the Church?

It’s to answer this question that Luke goes on to tell the story about Martha and Mary. Mary does nothing, she says nothing. She sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. That’s all we’re told. She sat at his feet and listened. She didn’t ask any questions. She didn’t express her acceptance or her love. She didn’t leap up and start proclaiming the gospel nor did she search for neighbours who were in need of love. She didn’t even help with making Jesus comfortable, let alone washing his feet with her tears or anointing his head with precious oils. Mary sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching.

When Martha complained Jesus replied that there is only one thing that is needed and that Mary has chosen the better part. Sitting and listening. It seems to me that this is the answer we’re given to the question the lawyer didn’t ask: “how shall I love the God I can’t see and who doesn’t need my help?” This is actually much more difficult than loving our neighbour, which is hard enough itself, which is why nobody comes right out and asks. We’re afraid to ask in case we seem stupid or lacking in faith and in case the answer tells us to do something we can’t begin to attempt and in some ways we’re right to be worried because the answer is rather like that to the question about the neighbour.

The Samaritan acted as a neighbour not because he knew the answer to the question about who his neighbour was but because he was able to recognise the time to act when it came. Mary chose the better part not because she was an expert in theology but because she recognised the time and the place to sit and listen. When Jesus came to her house she knew that the right thing was to pay attention to him not to get busy in the kitchen. When Jesus comes to us, as we’re told he does, do we have the sense to be still? Do we know to be quiet? Do we sit and listen?

What should we do to inherit eternal life? Pick the broken people up from the ditches along our way and sit and listen when Jesus comes to call. It’s that simple, it really is.

Brookmans Park 3 March 2013 (Luke 13:1-9, “Repent

Trying to help and advise people whose behaviour is self-destructive is horrible. Those locked into patterns of feeling and action which hurt them and those around them are so hard to reach and to change. One can see the ways in which they are doing themselves harm and sometimes some of the reasons why. One can see the often quite simple changes that would release them from their situation and make them into the happy and successful individuals one would like them to be. But the solution can only be reached through change in them that no-one else can bring about. They have to alter themselves and to do so they have already to be different people.

This bind, where those who need to change can’t do what needs to be done, no matter how clearly others can see it, is very painful and is the situation Jesus faces in our gospel passage this morning. He says: “unless you repent, you too will all perish”, he says that if you don’t “think again” or “change your mind” (the meaning of the word translated here as “repent”) you will be destroyed (a more literal translation of the word given as “perish”). “If you don’t change you will be destroyed”: how many parents, spouses, friends have said that? If you carry on as you are it will end badly.

Jesus is saying to those around him, he is saying to us: “The course you are following will end in disaster! Change your mind! Change your ways!”

So what kind of self-destructive pattern is Jesus trying to save us from and what is the disaster that looms for us?

He starts from two disasters, the killing of the Galileans as they make their sacrifices and the collapse of the tower in Jerusalem. One of these is the act of the Roman occupying power and the other is an accident, an “act of God”. Jesus doesn’t deny that those who suffered in them were sinners but he insists that they were no worse than anyone else. Their particular sins can’t be the cause of the what happened because otherwise we would all be overwhelmed in the same way.

Jesus tries to turn us away from looking for a reason for these events that would reassure us that we are secure. Instead he tells us that we are in danger of meeting the same fate. “Unless you repent, you too will all perish”.

We often think of repentance in terms of confession and guilt. We repent of something. This doesn’t quite catch what Jesus is saying here.

To repent is to change your mind, to change yourself, to become different. It is the kind of thing we want an alcoholic or a drug addict to do. Put aside these things, break with this life, start afresh, turn over a new leaf. That’s what Jesus is saying to us. Begin again! Begin differently.

The big change Jesus wants us to make is in our attitude to ourselves and to God. What he is urging us to do is to put God at the centre of our lives instead of ourselves. Elsewhere in Luke’s gospel we hear him say: “ whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it.” He is telling us that our patterns of self-centred and anxious looking after ourselves is the kind of thing that will bring us to destruction. Repent! Change your ways! Lose your self to God, then you will be released into life.

To repent is to turn yourself around so that instead of looking at the world and at God from the viewpoint of what’s good for me you look at yourself as belonging to God. That’s what loving God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind is like.

It seems odd that losing yourself like this is what can save you from destruction. Lose your life to gain it. This seems odd until you repent, until you recognise the true relationship between us and God, our total dependence on a God we can and should trust.

Our sinfulness, the state we repent out of, is more than anything else our refusal to trust God, to have faith, which is mostly trust. We strive to be independent, in so many ways. We try to be the judges of what is right, to rule our lives, to be the ones who know and measure and assess. That’s what sin is. When Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they said that they weren’t content to let God be God and to be God’s creatures. They wanted to be like God, they wanted to be independent.

But that isn’t possible. We aren’t God. We can’t know nor can we act like God. To try is to cut ourselves off from the source of life and of goodness. Our perishing, our destruction, isn’t some vengeful act of spite on God’s part. It’s more like the withering of a plant which has lost its roots. It follows from not being nourished. We aren’t self-sufficient, we do depend on God and if we isolate ourselves from God by rejecting his love and not trusting his care we will perish.

Repent! Says Jesus. Turn! Turn to God! Trust God’s love, accept God’s care, stop pretending you can manage your life without God. Surrender yourself to God, recognise that you are God’s creature, connect to the source of life. If you don’t then you will destroy yourself.

God loves us, God wants what’s good for us, but we have to be ready to accept that love, to follow God’s way. That’s what Jesus is calling us to do. Can we hear? Can we change? Can we stay changed? With God’s help we can and we will.

Praise be to God.

Greyfriars Edinburgh 1 July 2012

[2 Corinthians 8:7-15]

Paul writes: You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.

Do we know what Paul says these Corinthian Christians know? Do we know the grace of Jesus and that he has made us rich through his poverty?

I don’t think any of us can be aware of this grace all the time. Grace here means openness, generosity and the ability to make things good. When Paul refers to  the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ he is speaking about the giving of something precious, something that makes the Corinthians rich and about the cost of that gift, that makes Jesus poor, The knowing of it is the grateful awareness of what has been received, the feeling of real and immediate gratitude. To know the grace of Jesus, as Paul writes of it here, is to feel what has been done for us.

In the seven months or so I have been here at Greyfriars I’ve been privileged, though, to be allowed to share the awareness of this grace, these riches, this poverty, with some of you. I have seen some of the ways Christ’s gifts are accepted and appreciated in this place. There are some similarities between this church and that in Corinth, actually. Like them you are more than usually blessed in the resources you have. The Corinthian church was one of the richer of Paul’s new congregations and this place has, as parish churches go, a large budget, a magnificent building, a strong position.

During my time with you one of my main interests has been tracing the work this congregation has done over the last 30 years with the marginal and excluded through its involvement with the Grassmarket Mission, the parish meals, and now the Grassmarket Community Project. In this work the riches of the Kirk have been put to work to offer hospitality, refuge, friendship and opportunity to those who most need them.

Talking to the people who made all this happen I found that they all saw what they had done as a gift to them. They all spoke movingly and powerfully about what they had received more than about what they had given. They talked about friends made, people met, fun had, about times and places and events where they had found what they needed. Although they didn’t speak directly in these terms they spoke to me about knowing the grace of Christ, who became poor so that they could become rich.

This isn’t the only way I’ve seen this here, though. This magnificent building is one of the great gifts Jesus has given you, and through you has given to this city. One of the things I will take from here into my own ministry is the example of openness this church sets. Your historic building is made available to those who wish to visit it and while I’ve been here the opening of the new room to tell its story and the educational project to take it into schools have been part of what I’ve been able to observe. This is part of the work of this church and is a way you share your riches. Its use as a concert venue also opens it up and shares it. The new porch, with its expanses of glass symbolises very well the way in which this is a building where the church and the world can and do meet. And of course your own music is a great gift from God to you. The worship here gains a special dimension from the way in which the music and the space work together.

So I see Christ’s grace in all the various riches that Greyfriars enjoys and I see awareness of that grace in the life of the congregation.

So let’s turn back to Paul’s letter and see why he wants remind the Corinthians of the gifts they enjoy and the source of those gifts. This letter has a quite specific occasion and purpose that reminds us why these gifts are given, what the church is and what it is for, what we are called to do with what Christ gives us.

Paul is writing to the Corinthians because he’s worried they’re not contributing as they could to the collection he’s organising for the church in Jerusalem. Not many years before a council of the church had agreed that gentiles could be baptised without first becoming Jews, with Paul the main sponsor of this new practice.

He convinced the other leaders that this didn’t mean that the link to the ancient God of the Jews, to the covenants with Abraham, Moses and David would be forgotten. These new gentile Christians would remember that their baptism into Christ was a baptism into the new covenant with the one God. As a symbol of this he promised to bring to Jerusalem a great collection from his new gentile churches. The money would symbolise the link between the old, Jewish, followers of Jesus and these new ones.

He would explain that the bringing into the people of God of these new communities was an act of grace and made possible by the selfless obedience and sacrifice of Christ, who made himself poor that others might be rich.

When Paul reminds the Corinthians of their prosperity and of what they owe Jesus it is part of this plea to them to make good on the promise to Jerusalem and in so doing to recall that the great privilege of being God’s representatives wasn’t won by them but given to them.

To be a member of the church is a gift and one I have seen richly appreciated here. But like all gifts it is not right to accept it without recognising the obligation it puts one under. Each of us has been chosen and called into the church and each of us has been made responsible as we responded to that call. The fabulous riches we have been given aren’t ours to hoard and treasure but ours to spend and use. Each of us and each of our communities has its work to do.

You are richly blessed and I have seen that you recognise that this means that you have to share your riches. I hope and pray that as you move forward together into the exciting new phase of your life marked by the completion of the new development at the Kirk House and the completion of the renovation of this building new riches will be Christ’s gracious gift to you. I pray too that I will find those among whom I am going will be as grateful and as gracious as you are.