Sunday, June 28, 2020

The Third Sunday of Trinity

Here is the transcription of my sermon for the Third Sunday of Trinity on Sunday, June 28, 2020.

The Third Sunday of Trinity

Reading:

• Romans 6:12-23

‘What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?’ (Romans 6:15-16) 

For our second reading over the Summer, we are reading through the letter of St Paul to the Romans. It is a letter that people approach and understand in many different ways. You will find arguments over the meaning of just about every passage in it. Faced with this bewildering variety of approaches, it is tempting to give up and just cherry-pick those verses that fit our own outlook and understanding of the Christian faith. 

So, for example, we all quite like Romans 5:5 where St Paul tells us that ‘God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us’, but we are less keen on Romans 2:5 where he tells us that by our ‘hard and impenitent hearts’ we are ‘storing up wrath for ourselves on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed’. 

I am afraid that scholars are not free from this selective approach, though they perhaps disguise it better. They will often divide Romans into sections, and then decide which section they think is more central to St Paul’s theology. So, for example, it used to be the case that Romans 9-11, which discusses the place of ethnic Israel in the plan and purpose of God, was considered as something of an unimportant diversion in St Paul’s argument, and which could, therefore, be safely be ignored. Nowadays, it tends to be Romans 1:18-4 that gets this treatment. One scholar I was reading this week labels it a ‘digression’. 

Despite this disagreement, all are agreed, however, that Romans was clearly an important letter for St Paul. It is one letter in which he actually indicates his reasons for writing it. It is also one he wrote in freedom, comfort, and at leisure, over a period of a few months, while being materially provided for by close friends. In addition, he had trusted co-workers with him when he wrote and the services of a professional scribe. Given all this, we should expect what he wrote to be what St Paul specifically wanted to write and that what he wrote to have been carefully thought out beforehand. It was too important to him for it not to be. 

Rather, then, than despairing or resorting simply to quoting our favourite verses from the letter, we should step back and try to follow his argument through the whole of the letter. We should try to resist the temptation to ignore those parts that we don’t like, or which don’t fit our own ideas and beliefs. 

I have suggested that the way to begin our journey through the letter is by focusing on what St Paul himself tells us is the historical context of the letter. This is provided by the mission he is planning to Spain, using Rome as a base. The problem St Paul had was that Rome was not a Church he had founded or had even visited, so he could not simply assume that the Roman believers would support him. What is more, he was only too aware of the suspicion and opposition in certain sections of the wider Church to his understanding of the Gospel and to him personally. 

Immediately before arriving in Corinth, he had had to deal with those who had visited Corinth and had rubbished him. Rubbished, that is, both him personally and what he preached. His opponents, for their part, had promoted an understanding of the Gospel that placed emphasis on the ongoing role of the (Old Testament) Law and on their own status and standing as Jewish believers. So great was the general distrust of St Paul that he feared that the substantial amount of money he had collected and was taking as a gift to the Jerusalem Church before he went to Rome would not even be accepted by the Church there (Romans 15:31). 

St Paul was right to be fearful, and his reception by the Church in Jerusalem was at best mixed. Upon meeting the elders in Jerusalem, St Luke writes: 

‘After greeting them, he related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry.’ (Acts 21:19) 

You would think that the elders would be pleased. They are, to an extent, but they go on to explain the problem. They say to him: 

‘You see, brother, how many thousands of believers there are among the Jews, and they are all zealous for the law. They have been told about you that you teach all the Jews living among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, and that you tell them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs.’ (Acts 21:20-21) 

The Church, some years before this, had reached an uneasy agreement over what the Gentiles should be asked to do if they became believers. St James’ proposal that Gentiles should not be required to be circumcised, if male, or keep the Law in the ways Jews kept it had been accepted by all parties. The understanding being that Jewish believers would go on observing the Law as before. St Paul was accused of breaking this agreement. To many, his view of the Law was highly suspect. 

It was this suspicion, and the opposition that it gave rise to, that St Paul had had to contend with at Corinth. St Paul would have known that his reputation would have reached Rome and would have made some of the Church there hesitant, at the very least, about supporting him. 

We have to remember that it was not just Jewish believers who felt the Law was important. Many Gentile believers had previously been attracted to Judaism before their conversion precisely because of their respect for the Law, and now it was St Paul, himself a Jew, who seemed to be calling that respect into question. 

In introducing himself, then, St Paul has to explain his understanding of the Gospel, particularly in the light of his mission to the Gentiles, and, specifically, what his understanding of it means for how believers should now view the Law and its requirements.

St Paul begins by championing the equality of Jew and Gentile. Nowadays, we champion equality using the language of human rights and the idea of the basic goodness of every individual. St Paul does it using the language of sin and by establishing the intrinsic wickedness of everyone. 

All are equal in sin, he writes, there is ‘none that is righteous, no not one’ (Romans 3:9-10). Everyone as a consequence faces the judgement and wrath of God. All equally need saving, and to be saved the unrighteous need to become the righteous. In chapters 1-4, St Paul explains all this and describes how the unrighteous can be made righteous. The word St Paul uses for this is the Greek verb for ‘righteousing’, which unhelpfully is normally translated into English as ‘justify’. This translation obscures the connection with what St Paul has been writing about our ‘unrighteousness’ and the ‘righteousness of God’. We are ‘righteoused’ (justified) not on account of anything we are or do, but by faith in Christ and what he has done for us. 

Amazingly, writes St Paul in chapter 5, we are ‘righteoused’ (justified) by Jesus dying for us. Incredibly, this was an event that took place while we were still God’s enemies. Even though we were separated from God, sinners, who had chosen to reject him, God loved us so much that he gave his Son to die for us. 

‘For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.’ (Romans 5:10)
 
St Paul continues to explain how the life of Christ is given to those who are in Christ. In the same way being born human means we will die, so receiving life in Christ means we will all live. The life and death St Paul describes isn’t just physical life and death in this world, but eternal life in the world to come. God’s grace, his undeserved and abundant love, offers forgiveness and eternal life as a gift. It is a gift that was given to us who have faith in Christ even while we were still disobedient sinners trapped in sin and death. The greater have been our sins, the greater has been God’s grace. 

It is a fantastic message, but it raises the question of what happens next and of where God’s Law and commandments now fit in to all this. St Paul in the next three chapters tries to answer these questions. They come down to two questions about how believers should behave now they have experienced the grace of God in Christ and are counted righteous. They are questions that arise naturally from what St Paul has written so far in his letter. The first question St Paul states in Romans 6:1 and the second in Romans 6:15. 

1. ‘What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?’ 

2. ‘What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace?’ 

It could be argued that if God’s grace has abounded where sin has abounded, then why not continue sinning so that there might be more grace? If sin leads to grace, let’s keep sinning, so that we might get more grace! And if we didn’t need the Law to experience God’s grace, why do we need it now? Why not just do whatever we like since we know we already have God’s grace? 

It seems that some suggested that this was exactly what St Paul taught. It was what some people in Corinth itself, where St Paul was now staying, had argued. ‘All things are lawful to me’ was their slogan, and they used this to justify visiting prostitutes and taking part in idolatrous meals at pagan temples. Romans chapters 6-7 are not an aside or a digression, but are questions about his teaching that St Paul has to answer if he is to have any credibility at all with the Roman Church. 

His answer is a shocking one. He uses a metaphor drawn from the life and experience of many of his converts. It is something that is much in the news at the moment: slavery. 

The fact that all are equal in sin and that all equally sin has been St Paul’s argument for why all equally need the grace of God in Christ. The consequence of this equality, however, is that we are all slaves to sin. There is no such thing as free-will. We have no choice but to be obedient to sin as our master. We are not only sinners because we sin, we sin because we are sinners and have no option. That’s what it means to be a slave. 

All this sounds very theological and theoretical, and for many who call themselves Christians that is all it is. However, for those of us who wish to have a Biblically based worldview and want to respond to events in the world in a Biblical way, it is both fundamental and intensely practical. 

As I was preparing this sermon, I read a long article in the New York Times supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. The writer had little difficulty demonstrating that the United States has been a deeply unequal, racist society that has oppressed and exploited black people not only individually, but systemically and systematically. 

For a believer, this comes as no surprise. It’s what humans do and always have done. The consequence of being a slave to sin is that we not only sin as individuals, but also make societies in our own image that reflect our sin. This is to be seen in the way we organize them and in the structures and institutions we create. 

As individuals, we prioritize our ambition and making money. We respect fame and power. We despise the weak and vulnerable. It’s no surprise, then, when power, position, privilege, and prosperity become the priorities, values, and attitudes of society as a whole. What’s there to be surprised about? Recognizing and understanding this doesn’t, of course, excuse it, but it does help to explain it. 

The problem with the BLM movement and with the article I was reading in the New York Times wasn’t the sin and injustice it identified (injustice is another way of translating the word in Greek that St Paul uses for ‘unrighteousness’). While the writer’s analysis was too black and white, if you will forgive me putting it that way, the main problem with it lay in the assumption that there are goodies as well as baddies in this narrative. 

The social justice activists want to tear down, physically and metaphorically, the structures of the past and replace them with a new order and structures that are just and equitable. They, of course, will decide what these are to be and they too will be the ones to police them. And make no mistake, police them they will. Already it is becoming a thought crime to question anything they say. 

This has been tried before. The language the BLM movement is using about ‘white privilege and terror’ is exactly the language used by the Communist revolutionaries in early twentieth century Russia and which became the norm in the political discourse of the Soviet Union. It is the language used by Hitler and the Nazis in the Third Reich and by many other revolutionaries in many other places before and since. 

As George Orwell graphically illustrated, however, it is never long before the animals who take over the farm behave in the same way as those they take over from. It’s what we sinners do. We can’t help ourselves.

This doesn’t mean that in a sinful world enslaved to sin, we shouldn’t seek to limit the effects and consequences of sin. We should, however, as followers of Christ, realize that there can be no such thing as a just society, only a less unjust one. Furthermore, in this world, there are no righteous rulers, only unrighteous ones. Ones whose unrighteousness, if we are fortunate, is restrained. 

This is the understanding reflected in the language of the Collects and prayers of the Book of Common Prayer, which is a foundational text of Anglicanism. Sadly, it is not the understanding of most Anglicans today, who are more likely to be using new age language with its stress on the ability of us all to fulfil our potential, achieve our ambitions, and realize our dreams if only we are set free from the shackles of patriarchy and prejudice. 

We are encouraged now to take pride in who we are and affirm our identity as human beings. whoever we are, wherever we have come from, and however we may identify. Those who take the Bible seriously will have none of this. We know that, as humans, we have no room for pride, only shame. 

In our reading this morning, St Paul referring to the life we led before we came to Christ, asks the question: 

‘So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed?’ (Romans 6:21)

What we can boast about and take pride in is our new identity in Christ, which is ours not because of anything we are naturally or because of anything we have done, but which we receive solely as a free gift of God through the death of Christ. 

Jesus said that anyone who sins is a ‘slave to sin’ (John 8:34). But, he went on to say that ‘if the Son shall set you free, you shall be free indeed’ (John 8:36). St Paul writes that those who have faith in Christ have died with Christ and in dying with Christ have died to sin and been set free from it (Romans 6:6-7). As he makes plain, this doesn’t mean that we can’t sin, but that we are freed from sin as a power that enslaves us. Not free to do what we like, but free to become God’s slaves instead and slaves to the righteousness that is ours in Christ. 

Next week, we will look more closely at what this means for us as individuals, but for this week, there remains a challenge to each of us: whose slave will we be? A slave of sin which leads to death or a slave of God which leads to life? 

The big difference is, as the Collect for Peace in Book of Common Prayer puts it, for those who are slaves of God his ‘service is perfect freedom’, and it is this freedom that we are offered in Christ. 

‘O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord,
in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life,
whose service is perfect freedom;
defend us thy humble servants in all assaults of our enemies;
that we, surely trusting in thy defence,
may not fear the power of any adversaries;
through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord.’

Amen.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

The First Sunday of Trinity

Here is the transcription of my sermon for the First Sunday of Trinity on Sunday, June 14, 2020.

The First Sunday of Trinity


Readings:

• Genesis 18:1-15 (page 12)
• Romans 5:1-8 (page 917)
• Matthew 9:35-10:8 (page 790)

For our second reading for the next 14 Sundays, we are going to be reading from St Paul’s letter to the Romans. This letter has been the most influential single piece of writing in the history of the Church. Its importance cannot be overstated. We are beginning today at chapter 5. Well, you have to begin somewhere, but you will notice that chapter 5 begins, ‘Therefore’. Our passage this morning is a conclusion to what St Paul has written so far in the letter. We need to have a bit of an idea, then, as to what he has said in the first four chapters.

Before looking at that, we need to step back and ask what motivated St Paul to write Romans in the first place. It’s the winter, probably of AD 57. St Paul is in Corinth (Acts 20:1-3), where he is preparing to go to Jerusalem with a financial collection he has organized in support of the Church there. His mind, however, is on two other journeys he hopes to make after his journey Jerusalem. The first is to Rome itself (Romans 1:11; 15:23), and then, secondly, beyond it to Spain (Romans 15:24).

St Paul had not been to Rome before, even though it had a Church there (Romans 1:13; 15:23). This is a good reminder that St Paul, contrary to what is often said about him, was not the real founder of Christianity nor was he even the second. There was much going on in the growth and spread of the Church apart from what was going on in the work of St Paul, important though that was.

While Rome had a Church, Spain did not. No-one had made it yet to Spain with the Gospel, and St Paul wanted to go and preach the Gospel there. He hoped the Church in Rome would help and support him in this mission. Although St Paul hadn’t been to Rome, he, nevertheless, had many friends and associates there. He greets some of them at the end of the letter in chapter 16. Others in Rome, however, while not knowing St Paul, would have heard of him, and not all that they had heard would have been good.

Amazingly, St Paul tells the Romans that even though he is taking a large sum of money to the Church in Jerusalem, he is not sure they will accept it (Romans 15:31). Such was the dislike and antipathy towards him. What was the problem?

We need now to re-orientate ourselves. We are used to thinking of the Church as a universal religion distinct from Judaism. This distinction would have made no sense to anyone in the early Church. Jesus had come as the Messiah to the people of God who were the Jews. In our first reading, we have heard how God chose the people of Israel to be his ‘treasured possession out of all the peoples’ (Exodus 19:5). In our Gospel reading, we see how, during his earthly ministry, Jesus told his disciples that, like him, they are to only go to the ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Matthew 9:6). The Church initially saw its job as continuing Jesus’ mission in this way to God’s people. 

It began to become plain to them, however, that God now wanted Gentiles to be welcomed and included as well. Unfortunately, Jesus had not left them any guidelines or instructions as to how this was to happen, so the Church had to work it out for themselves. Most in the Church just assumed that Gentiles should be welcomed and included as full members of the Church on the same basis as they themselves were and by doing what they did. This meant that, like them, Gentiles who believed in Jesus and wanted to join the Church should keep God’s Law as God himself had revealed it to his people and had explained it in the ministry of Jesus. No more and no less.

The reason people were suspicious of St Paul was that he disagreed with this and, worse still, seemed to be undermining how they lived as good Jews. When St Paul got to Jerusalem after his winter in Corinth, St James and the leaders of the Church there said this to him:

‘You see, brother, how many thousands of believers there are among the Jews, and they are all zealous for the law. They have been told about you that you teach all the Jews living among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, and that you tell them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs.’ (Acts 21:20-21)

Instead of telling Gentile believers that they should keep God’s Law, St Paul instead had the reputation of telling Jewish believers that they should not! This was at the heart of the problem. 

By the winter of AD57, St Paul had been actively engaged in ministry for about 25 years. For the past ten or so of these years, he had been working in the Aegean region, that is, Greece and Turkey today. As he prepares to seek the Church in Rome’s support for the next phase of his ministry, St Paul wants to introduce himself to the Church at Rome and deal with any misunderstandings they might have about him. He seeks to explain just what he does believe and teach about the Law and tries to answer in advance any questions that they might have.

Romans isn’t a general statement of Christian theology or a systematic statement of the Gospel - as many wrongly think. There is much that St Paul doesn’t discuss, quite simply, because he didn’t need to. There was agreement in the Church and between the Churches, including St Paul, over everything that mattered. It was just this one area that caused all the trouble, but it was a highly emotional and controversial area, and St Paul was at the centre of it.

In Romans 1-4, St Paul begins by explaining how Jew and Gentile are equal. He recognizes that in the plan and purposes of God the Jewish people have priority. The Gospel, he writes, is the power of God to salvation to the Jew first. But, he continues, it is also to the Greek, that is, the Gentiles (Romans 1:16). He spends quite a bit of time explaining the equality of Jew and Gentile. Both alike, he writes, are equal in their sin, and they will be judged by God equally because of it.

This calls for a further reorientation in our thinking. We begin today when talking about how people are all equal by focusing on how all people are created equal in God’s sight and on how God loves all people equally. St Paul focuses on how all people are equally sinners in God’s sight and on how angry God is with all people equally. After his initial introduction to the letter, St Paul begins by writing:

‘For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of those who by their unrighteousnessness suppress the truth.’ (Romans 1:18)

He sums up his argument about human equality in these words:

‘There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God …’ (Romans 3:23)

All are equally in sin and all will judged equally for it. He writes:

‘For God shows no partiality. All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.’ (Romans 2:9-12)

This idea of human equality is a key point in St Paul’s argument. We are all equally bad and all equally facing the wrath and judgement of God. To put it another way: we are all enemies of God who are going die. There can be no peace for us until this war with God, which we insisted on starting and are determined to continue fighting, comes to an end.

St Paul describes how, however, God himself has opened up a way for us to find peace by sending his Son to die for us. We can now be ‘justified by his blood’, that is, by Jesus’ death (Romans 5:9).

The word ‘justified’ as a translation into English of the word St Paul uses misses the connection with what St Paul has been saying. It belongs to the same group of words as the word ‘righteous’. It would be better translated as ‘righteoused’. Some translations have translated it ‘made righteous’ or ‘declared righteous’. We need to be ‘righteoused’ because the wrath of God is coming equally to those who are unrighteous and that, as St Paul has explained, is all of us. God, though, has taken the initiative to make peace possible. There was nothing we could do; we were too lost, weak, and helpless for that. But God has done in it for us, and all we have to do is to receive it as a gift. We receive it, St Paul has just told the Romans, in the verses before our reading, ‘by faith’.

We cease to be ‘unrighteous’ and become ‘righteous’ by faith in Christ through his death for us.

And so, St Paul begins our second reading:

‘Therefore having been justified (righteoused) by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.’ (Romans 5:1)

St Paul is blown away by this. He can’t get over how God showed his love for us by sending Christ to die for us ‘while we were yet sinners’; while we were people still at war with God, demonstrating and protesting against him. What is more this love of God for us has now been ‘poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit whom God has given us’ (Romans 5:5).

For some reason, our reading this morning stops in the middle of what St Paul is saying. He, in fact, finishes this conclusion to the first four chapters of the letter by telling the Romans:

‘Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.’ (Romans 5:9)

The wrath of God is not behind us once we have come to faith in Christ; it is still ahead of us. But we will be saved from it if we have faith in Christ. If while we were still his enemies, God has reconciled us to himself, St Paul goes on to write, much more surely now we are reconciled will we be saved (Romans 5:10). We can now face the future with hope.

St Paul is going to continue in his letter to the Romans to build on the foundation of what he has written in chapters 1-4. He will explain what its implications are for how we think about sin, the Law, the new life in the Spirit, and the Israel. He will look at what it means practically for believers in their daily lives as they live as those who are reconciled to God. What he has to say is radical, exciting, and challenging. 

Immediately after the leaders of the Church in Jerusalem told St Paul what was being said about him, he was arrested and prevented from being able to explain himself and his Gospel. Thankfully, he had first sent his explanation to the Church in Rome by Phoebe, a trusted associate of his from the Church in Corinth, before journeying to Jerusalem. It means we, too, can read it if we want to. Sadly, most people don’t. And those who do, often find what St Paul writes far too radical, exciting, and challenging. And so, they manufacture a Gospel that they find more palatable and which enables them to keep control. They did it then; they are doing it now.

St Paul finishes his letter to the Romans by writing:

‘I urge you, brothers and sisters, to keep an eye on those who cause dissensions and offenses, in opposition to the teaching that you have learned; avoid them. For such people do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the simple-minded.’ (Romans 16:17-18)

In my sermons over the next 14 weeks and in the Facebook Group, I will be endeavouring to keep an eye on those who doing what St Paul warned against and ask what teaching today is in opposition to what we learn in Romans.

To close today, briefly, three things we can learn from what St Paul has written so far in Romans:

1. Equality doesn’t bring peace

I am not talking in the first place about peace on earth, although it is true of that as well. I am thinking of the far more serious issue of peace with God and the peace that comes from knowing him. In God’s sight, we are already equal. The wrath of God has been revealed and it has shown us for what we are. People who have rebelled against their Creator and who have messed up God’s creation in the process. St Paul describes this in Romans chapter one, but I don’t need to give examples, do I? Not only that, we have messed up our own lives too. Again, no examples are needed.

2. Working for equality won’t bring salvation

If equality won’t bring peace, neither will working for equality bring salvation. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t want to end exploitation and oppression. And certainly, in the Church, there should be no room for discrimination and prejudice. But you can work as hard as you like for all people to be treated the same in this world; you can seek whatever earthly utopia you may dream of; it won’t save you.

No, of course, we don’t want to hear that. We don’t want to be told that we, who have so much righteous anger against others, are as unrighteous and helpless as they are. We don’t want to hear that what we condemn in others, we are guilty of ourselves. Oh, and this is St Paul’s argument in chapter two. He writes:

‘Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.’ (Romans 2:1)

We are equal in sin and equal in the condemnation sin brings.

3. Only Christ can bring peace and salvation

Precisely because we are spiritual beings made in the image of God and not just social and political beings, social justice and political ideologies are not sufficient to save us. Not least because none of us is capable of the righteousness that is needed to create a just and fair society on earth. This is what St Paul observes at the beginning of chapter three as he says bluntly: ‘there is no-one who is righteous, not even one’ (Romans 3:10). 

Or, as St James, our Lord’s brother, puts it: ‘the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God’ (James 1:20). We need not the justice that comes from human campaigns and protests, but the justice that comes from God in Christ. We need to be ‘justified by his blood’ (Romans 5:9). It is only when we are justified by faith that we have peace with God.

Again, this doesn’t mean that we should not do what we can to limit the amount of injustice and unfairness on earth, but no matter how well we do, we still will not be addressing the need that is in each of us for peace and reconciliation with God and the life and salvation that can be ours in Christ. 


Conclusion 

All our problems began, St Paul explains at the very beginning of the letter when we as humans decided we didn’t want to know the true God and we exchanged the glory of God for gods of our own. In Christ, we have the opportunity to regain that glory. That is our hope. ‘We boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God’ (Romans 5:2), writes St Paul.

May that be our hope too today.

Amen.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Trinity Sunday

Here is the transcription of my sermon for Trinity Sunday on Sunday, June 7, 2020.

Trinity Sunday

Readings:

• Isaiah 40:12-17, 27-end (page 582)
• 2 Corinthians 13:11-end (page 944)
• Matthew 28:16-end (page 812)

For the past six months, we have been celebrating the major festivals of the Church. These mainly focus on what God has done for us in the life of our Lord and, in the case of Advent with which we began the Church’s year, on what he will do for us when Jesus comes again. Last week at Pentecost, we celebrated his giving of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is given to us to empower us to tell people the good news about Jesus. As the Father sent him, so now he sends us.

Today’s festival, then, can seem like something of an after-thought, and it is not immediately obvious where it fits in. Today is Trinity Sunday, and, unusually, instead of thinking about what God has done or will do, we are thinking about who God is. It is not a popular festival. I can’t imagine that many came to Church this morning excited that we were going to be thinking about the Holy Trinity!

Part of the problem is that we simply don’t understand what is meant by the Holy Trinity. The language used to explain this doctrine of our faith is often obscure and alien to us. The concepts are hard to grasp. Its relevance to our lives is not immediately obvious. Why not, then, just concentrate on what we can understand and on those things that are useful to us in living our lives. After all, this is hard enough, but at least with the festivals we have been celebrating, we know what it is we are talking about. But the Trinity?

The Church, however, didn’t come up with the doctrine of the Holy Trinity because it loved obscure philosophical reflection. The Church, as it reflected on the life of our Lord and endeavoured to serve him in their own, found itself forced to ask questions, and it was these questions that lead the Church to its understanding of the Holy Trinity whom we celebrate and worship today.

So what were the questions?

Well, let’s try to put ourselves in the place of the first disciples. They were, remember, devout Jews who believed absolutely in the oneness of God. The words, ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one,’ were part of what they prayed every day. Then when Jesus appeared, they became his disciples because they believed he was the Messiah, sent by God, whom they had been waiting for. Although Jesus turned out to be a different kind of Messiah to what they had been expecting, nevertheless after the events of Easter, they were sure that this was indeed who he was. So sure, in fact, that what began as a title, became his name. He was the Christ, whom we know now as Jesus Christ.

They had been expecting a Messiah who would deliver them from their enemies, which was precisely what Jesus did, except it turned out that the enemies he delivered them from were not the Romans and pagan oppressors, but sin, the devil, and all their works. This was the good news that Jesus gave his disciples the task of telling people.

Knowing they wouldn’t be able to do this on their own, Jesus told them he would ask the Father, and the Father would send them the Holy Spirit. The ‘Promise of the Father’ would give them the power and ability they needed; he would not only be with them, but in them, as they sought to testify to Christ. The Holy Spirit for the first believers wasn’t simply an item of faith, but an everyday experience in their lives.

As people responded to the good news of Jesus, the disciples baptized them ‘in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’, as we still do today. In their prayers, those who were baptized prayed to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as St Paul does in the prayer in our second reading, which we know as the ‘Grace’.

In teaching people about God, the Church taught that it was God who had created the world and everything in it. Jesus taught his disciples to call God, ‘Father’. The Church explained that Jesus was God’s Son, who revealed who God is and what he is like. Jesus didn’t just do this by what he taught, but in who he was. It was the Holy Spirit, who was by sent by the Father and the Son, who enabled the Church to understand all this. The Holy Spirit made it possible for believers to worship God as he should be worshipped: ‘in spirit and in truth’ (John 4:24).

The language the Church used of God and what it taught about God made it inevitable that it would at some point have to explain the relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But there was another reason the Church had to try to explain their relationship, and that was because people began to come up with explanations of their own. These explanations served only to undermine what the Church taught and thought about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The biggest challenge came from what some people were saying about Jesus himself. Ironically, they weren’t saying that Jesus was just an ordinary human being like us, which is what tends to be said today, but that he only appeared to be an ordinary human being like us. Faced with this sort of teaching, the Church, firstly, asserted that Jesus indeed showed us what God was like, so that whoever had seen him had seen had seen the Father, as Jesus himself puts it in St John’s Gospel. But, secondly, he was, nevertheless, also completely and truly human just like us, only without sin.

They based much of their thinking on the words that St John famously begins his Gospel with:

‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.’ (John 1:1-3)

He goes on to tell his readers:

‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us …’ (John 1:14)

St John is writing this, remember, about Jesus. The man from Nazareth.

The questions the leaders of the Church faced, then, and which they were forced to answer, were all to do with Jesus and just who they thought he was. The moment they said he was more than just a human Messiah, the debates, discussions, and disagreements, which resulted in their formulation of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, became inevitable.

Was Jesus a man and just a man? Or was he a man, but not just a man? Was he something more? And if something more, then what did that something more mean for how they thought about the God whom they believed was One?

The early church fathers, the leaders of the Church who gave us our understanding of the Holy Trinity, weren’t engaging in abstract thought and argument for the fun of it. They were trying to answer very real questions that affected what they believed and how they lived. For what you believe about God doesn’t just affect how you pray and worship, it affects how you see your own life in this world.

There is always a great danger when trying to explain the Church’s faith in the Holy Trinity of getting it wrong out of a desire to make it understandable. I don’t think it is simplifying too much, however, to say that the argument eventually came down to an argument between those, on the one hand, who thought that the Son was God and had always been God and those, on the other, who thought that while Jesus could now be thought of as God, there was a time when not simply was he not God, but rather when he was not. 

Some in the Church believed that like the Father, the Son had always existed, and there was never when he did not exist. Others in the Church, however, while regarding Jesus with the utmost seriousness and devotion, did not believe he was God in the way the Father was God. Indeed, some believed, the Son had only come into being because the Father had created him and brought him into being. He was thus a creature. The greatest of God’s creations, but a creation, nevertheless.

The first thing I would say about this is that it is very different to the sort of arguments that take place in the Church today. All sides in the argument in the early Church were agreed on the greatness and divinity of our Lord. There was no question about the facts of his earthly life or in what he had done for us in dying for us and rising again. 

Our arguments today don’t so much concern the way in which Jesus is God, but whether he is God. We might not put it as plainly as that, but what we want most of all is not a Saviour who is divine and like God, but one who is human and like us. And we are quite happy to sacrifice his divinity to get it. It is to the credit of the early church fathers that they were not.

Secondly, those in the early Church who thought the Son of God was not fully God and that there had been a time when he was not, nearly won the day. The phrase ‘contra mundum’, against the world, was used to describe one of the fathers of the Church, Saint Athanasius. St Athanasius held out against any suggestion that there was a time when the Son did not exist. This was at great personal cost. 

Eventually, however, the Church came to see that St Athanasius was right and that the only way of thinking about God that did justice to God’s own revelation of himself and of Jesus’ own teaching about himself was the doctrine that we now know as the Holy Trinity. The belief that God is three and God is one; three persons in one God, one God in three persons.

As I have suggested, many church members today can’t be bothered with all this, and they think of this belief as something of no practical use and of interest only to the theologians of the Church. This attitude, I am sorry to say, is typical of many clergy too. It contrasts greatly with how we view the work of scientists. Very few of us understand, for example, the theory of relativity or even how the devices work that we spend so much of our time using. We would never suggest, however, that understanding them is unimportant or that we shouldn’t at least try to understand how the world around us works.

Scientists reflect on the nature of the world and the physical universe in which we live. Their work and their conclusions are important. It is their understanding and the application of their discoveries that is behind most of the technology and inventions that we rely on in our daily lives.

Although the work of scientists is important, it is incomplete and inadequate because of the limitations they set themselves. Scientists deliberately limit themselves to the physical universe. As St Paul pointed out in his speech at Athens, however, it is God ‘in whom we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28). Fundamental to our faith is the belief that God made us, and not just us, but everything in the physical world around us. And yet while we think it vitally important that we should study the physical world, we take the attitude that it doesn’t really matter when it comes to how we think about God.

What fools we are! What is more important, the One who created the world or the world he created? For many, including, sadly, Christians, the answer is the world he created. And that is exactly what idolatry is and why we, despite all our sophistication, are so prone to it.

If the Bible is right that God did create all that there is; that Jesus is not only the one who reveals God, but is God himself; and that our eternal well-being depends on our relationship with him, then getting right what we believe about him becomes not an exercise of philosophical reflection, but of survival. And you don’t get more practical than that.

Jesus said, when tested in the wilderness, that we do not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God; that we should not put the Lord our God to the test; and that we should worship the Lord our God and serve only him (Matthew 4:1-11). In other words that our response to God should be not one of apathy and indifference, but of dependence and worship.

The writer to the Hebrews wrote:

‘ … let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.’ (Hebrews 12:28-29)

As I stand here today, beneath the Cross of Christ and in front of the altar where we will remember and proclaim his death and receive his body and his blood, my first thought is not whether I am going to catch a virus from you. I hope I don’t, and I certainly hope you don’t catch one from me. And we have various precautions in place to make sure no-one catches anything from anyone. But the purpose of all these precautions is to enable us to worship God together. And it should be worship that is uppermost in our mind.

The health crisis we are still living through has been described as unprecedented. It isn’t, of course. The world has had plagues since the world began. Before penicillin, the world lived with disease and infection as a constant reality. What is unprecedented is that in previous plagues the last thing to be cancelled were church services. The belief being that there was no more essential service than our service of God. This time, church services were often amongst the first gatherings to be cancelled.

As I have said in the introduction to each Broadcast Service during the past weeks, worship is about ‘participation not performance’. We are not called to watch worship, but to engage in it. 

But here’s the thing: we have graciously turned up here this morning to worship God together, and it is good that we have. We have turned up, but has God? Why do we just assume that God will be here waiting for us to turn up when we feel like it? When St Peter saw that Jesus was no ordinary person, he said to Jesus:

‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.’ (Luke 5:8)

Well, what if he has departed from us? What if our Lord has got fed up with how casual we are in our attitude towards him? What if he is tired of waiting for us to take an interest in him?

The good news is that God is ‘always more ready to hear than we to pray’, but if we want our prayers to be heard, we need to start taking God seriously. And for those of us who take God seriously and want to know more about him, the Holy Trinity tells us who the God is who invites us to come to know him and whom to know is eternal life.

The last thing that Jesus spoke with his disciples about before his arrest and crucifixion was the most Holy Trinity. He told his disciples that he and the Father would come and make their home in the believer by the Holy Spirit whom he would send from the Father. Our experience of God is unambiguously Trinitarian, and if it isn’t, it isn’t an experience of God.

A frequent criticism is that all this seems a long way from the simple teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. ‘We want the teaching of Jesus without all this complicated theology,’ is something often heard and said in and out of the Church. 

What those who say this mean is that we should focus on what Jesus said about being nice to one another. But Jesus said a lot else besides telling people they should be nice to one another. 

The Holy Trinity may not be a simple concept to grasp, but it is part of the teaching of Jesus, and it is because it is that the Church spent so much time trying to understand it and to put it in words.

Rather, then, than criticizing them for the language they used and the way they did it, we should thank God for them and for his revelation of himself to us through them. We should pray that we may understand more so that we can worship more, and by worshipping the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, experience them more in our lives.

Today we come to the Father through the Son in the power of the Spirit.

In the words of the Collect for today:

‘by the confession of a true faith,’ 
we ‘acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity’
‘and in the power of the divine majesty’ we ‘worship the Unity’.

Amen.

Wednesday, June 03, 2020

Pentecost

Here is the transcription of my sermon for Pentecost on May 31, 2020.

Pentecost

Readings:

• Acts 2.1-21
• 1 Corinthians 12.3b-13
• John 7.37-39a

Sermon:

We are celebrating the Feast of Pentecost.  The day when, as Jesus had promised, the Holy Spirit came on the disciples to give them the power they needed to be his witnesses.  Immediately before he ascended to heaven to return to his Father, Jesus told them that they should wait in Jerusalem for the ‘promise of the Father’, which they had heard about from him (Acts 1:4).

The Feast of Pentecost was one of the big three feasts of Judaism.  These were pilgrimage feasts, that is, when Jews from all over Palestine and the world came to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple.  It is at another of these three feasts that Jesus, in John’s Gospel, first promises to give the Holy Spirit to those who believe in him.  It is this promise that we read about in our Gospel reading for this week.

Significantly, this promise is made at the Feast of Tabernacles.  The Feast of Tabernacles, also known as the Feast of Booths, was a popular feast and one that was full of joy and celebration.  It still is amongst Jews today.  It lasted for seven days with an eighth day added at the end to bring things to a conclusion.  This year, the Feast of Tabernacles begins on October 2.

The Feast of Tabernacles marked the end of the harvest, and, like our Harvest Festival today, which is held at about the same time, it was a time of thanksgiving.  It also remembered Israel’s time in the wilderness when the people of Israel lived in temporary accommodation such as tents.  Jews, at the time of Jesus, as they do now, built ‘booths’ outdoors, which they lived in during the Feast to reenact this time in the wilderness.  As they celebrated the harvest of the year just past, they also looked forward to the year ahead and prayed for rain, something particularly important in a hot, dry climate.

It was not just physical water to renew the ground that they looked forward to, however, but the living water that God would provide when he visited and renewed his people as the prophets had promised.  The book of Zechariah was popular at this Feast.  Not least these verses from Zechariah chapter 14:

‘On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea; it shall continue in summer as in winter.  And the Lord will become king over all the earth; on that day the Lord will be one and his name one.’ (Zechariah 14:8-9)

For the Jews, Jerusalem was the ‘belly’, that is, the navel or centre of the world, and it would be from Jerusalem that God’s Spirit would flow out to all the world.  The ceremonies that took place during the Feast were full of symbolism.  Each day, for example, the priests would process down from the Temple to the Pool of Siloam and fill a golden pitcher with water from it.  They would then process back to the Temple to the sound of music and the singing of the ‘Hallel’ Psalms, Psalms 113-118.

At the Temple, they would circle the altar and the water would be poured over the it, symbolizing the day when the Spirit would flow from the Temple and as a prayer for rain in the months ahead.  They were reminded of how God had provided water for his people from the rock in the desert, and they looked forward to the day when he would do so again.  As it said in Psalm 118, God is the God:

‘who turns the rock into a pool of water,
the flint into a spring of water.’ (Psalm 114:8)

On the last day, instead of circling the altar just once, the priests circled it seven times. This was the ‘last great day of the feast’. It was on this day that Jesus ‘cried out’:

‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let him drink.’ (John 7:37)

Jesus continued his cry with the words:

‘…the one who believes in me just as the scripture said, ‘Out of his belly will flow rivers of living water.’ (John 7:38)

Grammatically, this verse may mean either that rivers of living water will flow out of the one who believes in Jesus or out of Jesus himself.  This ambiguity is reflected in the different translations.  Whichever way it is translated, on their own, it is not clear exactly what Jesus means.  So, St John adds an explanation for us:

‘Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive …’ (John 7:39)

St John’s explanation helps, I think, to decide which translation we should prefer of Jesus’ words.  Jesus is telling those at the Feast that the water that they looked forward to flowing from the belly of Jerusalem would now flow out from Jesus himself to all who believed in him.  God’s promises, remembered so vividly at the Feast, would be fulfilled in the person of Jesus himself.

While St John’s explanation helps us to understand the words of Jesus, his full explanation of Jesus’ words is quite shocking.  This is, perhaps, why it has been left out of the Gospel reading for today by those who selected the readings.  St John, however, continues his explanation with the words, which when translated literally are:

‘ … for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.’ (John 7:39)

It is worth reading St John’s explanation again in full:

‘Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.’ (John 7:39)

This is so shocking that the translators of some versions translate the final part of St John’s explanation as: ‘for as yet the Holy Spirit had not been given’.  This may be what Jesus meant, it is not, however, what he says!  What Jesus is saying is that the difference that the Holy Spirit is going to make to believers when they receive him is going to be so great that it is as if the Holy Spirit didn’t exist beforehand.

What is so shocking for us today is that, for many present-day believers, the Holy Spirit may as well not exist for all the difference he seems to make in their lives.  What would be different if the Holy Spirit did not exist?  How would it change how believers thought about God and Jesus and lived their lives?  Not a lot is the answer.

The obvious question then is: what difference should it make?

The reason that St John gives for the Holy Spirit not existing for the disciples was that Jesus had not yet been glorified.  It is when our Lord knows that the hour for him to be glorified has arrived that he tells the disciples in more detail what difference the Holy Spirit will make. 

It is in his Farewell Discourse in the Upper Room during the Last Supper that Jesus speaks to them about the ‘promise of the Father’.  And this is what Jesus is referring to when he tells them to wait in Jerusalem before he ascends to his Father.

In the past few weeks, we have been thinking about some of what Jesus said to his disciples during this Last Meal with them (John 13:33).  He told them that he was going away and that they could not follow him.  This, understandably, troubled them.  Jesus comforted them by promising he wouldn’t be leaving them for long, but would come again to them in a ‘little while’ with his Father to make his and the Father’s home in them (John 14:19).  They were to be one with him and the Father as he and the Father were one (John 14:21).

Although this would bring comfort and peace, it would not be an end to their trouble and suffering.  The world, Jesus told them, would hate them as it had hated him (John 15:18), and they could expect persecution as a result.  The world would be their enemy, and in the same way that it had refused to believe Jesus, so too it would not believe them (John 15:20).  Jesus is telling them in advance to prepare them for when it happens (John 16:1).  Real though their trouble and suffering will be Jesus gives them peace that the world cannot give (John 14:27).  The world will oppose them and do all it can to destroy them, but they are to be courageous, for Jesus has conquered the world (John 16:33).

But what has all this to do with the Holy Spirit and the difference he makes?

Jesus makes it plain that the way he is going to come and make his home with those who believe in him and be with them in all the trouble and suffering they face in the world is through the Holy Spirit. 

Jesus is returning to the Father, but, he tells them, he will ask the Father and the Father will give them the ‘Spirit of truth’ (John 14:15-17).  The world cannot receive the Spirit; only those who believe in him are able to receive the Spirit.  The Spirit is already ‘with them’, but now he shall be ‘in them’ (John 14:18).  Later, in his final words to them, Jesus tells them that it is he himself who sends the Spirit of truth to them (John 15:26; 16:7), although, Jesus says, it is from the Father that the Spirit comes (John 15:26).  Jesus can say that both he and the Father send the Spirit because he and the Father are one (John 17:22). 

We have, I am sorry to say, a rather ‘take it or leave it’ attitude to these words of Jesus, and we don’t take them very seriously.  Just how seriously Jesus took them, however, can be seen from how Jesus says that it is good for them that he is going away, otherwise the Holy Spirit would not come to them (John 16:7).  If they loved him, they would rejoice at this news (John 14:28).

So, let me ask as we celebrate Pentecost, are we rejoicing?  Do we think it is good that Jesus has gone?  Not really, I think is the honest answer.  Most of us, if we were honest, would much prefer for Jesus to be physically here on earth; anywhere on earth.  What Jesus is saying is that by sending the Spirit to them, he can be in everyone who believes in him, who loves him and keeps his commandments, and not just be confined to one physical location.  We, however, would much prefer him to be somewhere in this world, perhaps conducting YouTube interviews and sending out tweets and pictures on social media.  That would be infinitely preferable to all this vague talk about the Spirit.

So, did Jesus get it wrong?  We would never say that, of course, but deep down it is what we think.  The reason we think like this is that, for most Christians, either Jesus is physically with us or he is not.  Clearly, he is not with us physically, so, by definition, he is not with us.  We may be able to pray to him, read his words, and look forward to being with him one day, but, in the meantime, we have to cope without his actual presence. 

The whole point of the Farewell Discourse, however, is that Jesus is trying to convince his followers, who thought exactly like us, that there is another way.  Yes, he is going to the Father, but he isn’t leaving them.  He is just changing his mode of being with them by being in them and by making his home in and with them.

This helps us to understand something that continues to puzzle commentators on John’s Gospel.  In the Farewell Discourse, Jesus uses a word to describe the Holy Spirit that translators find hard to translate.  Jesus uses the Greek word, parakletos, which is usually rendered into English as ‘paraclete’.  This word occurs 4 times in St John’s Gospel (John 14:16; 14:26; 15:26; 16:7).

It has been variously translated as: advocate, comforter, companion, counsellor, friend, helper, intercessor, and patron.  Despairing of ever finding the right way of translating it, some just leave it as ‘paraclete’.  This may be honest, but it doesn’t really mean very much!  To make matters worse, the Greek word is only used one other time in the New Testament and that is by St John himself in his first letter.  So, we really don’t have a lot to go on.  The problem isn’t just finding the right word to translate ‘paraclete’; it is also understanding what Jesus is seeking to convey by it.

The word itself is used in Greek outside the New Testament with a variety of meanings, hence the problem in discovering its meaning here.  Its basic meaning is: ‘one who speaks for someone in the presence of another’. 

For example, ‘paraclete’ can be used of an advocate speaking on behalf of someone in a court of law.  This is why ‘advocate’ is one of the more popular translations.  St John often uses legal imagery, so ‘advocate’ as a translation fits, but it feels inadequate.  It doesn’t seem to capture all that Jesus is saying about the Spirit in his words to the disciples.

The word ‘paraclete’ can also be used of someone who offers help and assistance, and this explains why some translations use the word ‘helper’.  After all, elsewhere in the New Testament, the Holy Spirit is certainly said to help us, but is that all he does and is that what Jesus is saying here in John’s Gospel?

Jesus, I think, gives us a clue as to how he is using the word, a clue that is often missed by those seeking to understand what Jesus is saying.  In John 14:16, in his first use of the word, Jesus says:

‘And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Paraclete …’ (John 14:26

For the Spirit to be another Paraclete, there must be an original Paraclete.  Who, then, is the original Paraclete?  Obviously, it is Jesus himself.  In fact, in the only other use in the New Testament of the word, it is used by St John of Jesus.  He writes:

‘My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have a Paraclete with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous …’ (1 John 2:1)

Jesus was the Paraclete on earth before he became our Paraclete in heaven.  But, and this is a very important question, whose Paraclete was he when he was on earth?  If we take the basic meaning of the word as ‘one who speaks for someone in the presence of another’, then the answer is clear.  Jesus was the Father’s Paraclete: Jesus spoke for the Father in presence of the world and his disciples.  This shouldn’t come as a surprise.  Jesus tells people, including his disciples, that this is what he is often enough, even if he doesn’t use the word ‘paraclete’ itself.

Jesus was sent by the Father (John 7:28-29; 8:42; 12:44-45; 13:20; 16:5; 17:3).  The words he speaks are the words the Father who sent him gave him to speak (John 8:28; 8:40; 12:49-50; 14:24; 17:8).  The works he does, he does for the Father (John 5:19; 5:36; 10:37; 14:10).  His overriding concern with his disciples before he leaves them is that they should believe that the Father sent him and that he came from God (John 16:29-30; 17:8).  Jesus has come to speak and to do what the Father sent him to do.  He is his Father’s representative.  Anyone who believes in him is believing in the Father who sent him (John 12:44).  He is the Father’s Paraclete in the fullest sense of the word.  In the same way as he now speaks to the Father on our behalf, so while on earth he spoke to the disciples on the Father’s behalf.

The Holy Spirit is now ‘another paraclete’ in that he takes over the role that Jesus had while he was physically with the disciples.  His primary role is not to comfort, counsel, help, speak on our behalf, or even act as our advocate.  He is sent by the Father and the Son to work for the Father and the Son and be their authorised representative.  He is given to us in their place, to be them for us.

In this role, Jesus tells the disciples, the Spirit will teach us everything that the Father wants us to know and remind us of all Jesus said (John 14:25-26).  He will testify on Jesus’ behalf (John 15:26-27).  We often take this to mean that he will testify through the disciples, but Jesus says they also will testify.  The Spirit’s testifying is something else apart from this.  Who does the Spirit testify of on Jesus’ behalf?  Why the Father, of course, and not to the world but first to the disciples, and then through the disciples to the world.  The Spirit will expose how wrong the world is in not believing in Jesus, in its thinking about Jesus, and in siding with the devil (John 16:7-11).

The Spirit will guide the disciples into all truth, for he will not speak on his own account, but only what he hears (John 15:12-15).  In other words, he will be a ‘paraclete’ in its most basic meaning!  He acts as both the Father and the Son’s spokesperson.  They will communicate with us through him.  The Holy Spirit is their mouthpiece.

Once we see that the Spirit is acting on behalf of Jesus in the way that Jesus was acting on behalf of the Father, it all becomes much clearer.  Even though we may still struggle for a precise word to describe what he does.  At least, we now know what it is we are talking about!

In his prayer to the Father, Jesus says:

‘ … for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.’ (John 17:8)

Now the Father and the Son have given the role that Jesus had to another, and it is now His job to reveal the Father and Son to us in the way that Jesus revealed the Father.  The disciples had to wait in Jerusalem for the ‘promise of the Father’ before getting on with the work that Jesus had given them because it is impossible for anyone who believes in him to live for him unless he first lives in us through the Spirit.

We began Lent with the words:

‘Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.
Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.’

But how are we, who are weak sinful creatures of dust, to be faithful to Christ?  How are we to be his witnesses in a world of darkness that hates us as it hated him?

In telling them to wait for the ‘Promise of the Father’, Jesus said:

‘This is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’ (Acts 1:4-5)

We too are called today to be Pentecost people.  People baptized in the Spirit, full of the Spirit, living in the Spirit, empowered by the Spirit, lead by the Spirit, and used by the Spirit.  Used, that is, to do the work that Jesus has given us to do: to testify to the world of him.

Pentecost is not a PS, an after-thought of a Festival, added at the end to round off this part of the Church’s year.  In celebrating the giving of the Holy Spirit, we are celebrating the beginning of what Jesus came to make possible.  The living waters are flowing.  Eternal life is now offered to those who believe in him.  Even now, here in this world, we can know the Father through the Son by the Spirit.  The Father and the Son can live in us and not just with us.

And so, on this Feast of Pentecost, we pray:

Veni, Sancte Spiritus
Come, Holy Spirit.

Amen.

Monday, May 25, 2020

The Seventh Sunday of Easter

This is the transcription of my sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter on May 24, 2020.

The Seventh Sunday of Easter

Readings:

• Acts 1:6-14
• 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5.6-11
• John 17:1-11

Sermon:

We have been looking at our Lord’s Farewell Discourse in the past two weeks. The Farewell Discourse is Jesus’ last words to his disciples on the night he was arrested. This week’s Gospel reading is the opening prayer of our Lord after he has finished speaking these words to his disciples. We often refer to the prayer beginning, ‘Our Father in heaven,’ as the Lord’s Prayer. However, what we now know as the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ was, in fact, a prayer that our Lord taught his disciples to pray. Here, in John chapter 17, is the prayer that really deserves the title, the ‘Lord’s Prayer’.

The disciples have responded to all that Jesus has had to tell them by saying:

‘Now we know that you know all things, and do not need to have anyone question you; by this we believe that you came from God.’ (John 16:30)

Jesus’ last words to them before he prays for them and for us who will believe through their words are:

‘In the world you have trouble and suffering. But take courage; I have overcome the world!’ (John 16:33)

When we read Jesus’ prayer in chapter 17, we are struck by how Jesus prays that his followers will all be one as he and the Father are one. Something we miss in the prayer, however, is what Jesus specifically says he is not praying for: 

‘I am praying on their behalf; I am not praying on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours.’ (John 17:9)

These words come as something of a shock. Jesus goes on to say that while he is no longer in the world, his disciples are in the world (John 17:11). The world has hated them, Jesus says, because they are not of the world, even as he is not of the world (John 17:14). Jesus does not pray for the Father to take them out of the world, but to protect them from the ‘evil one’ (John 17:15). He has sent them into the world as the Father sent him into the world (John 17:18).

Jesus prays for us who follow him now not only that we too may be one with each other as He and the Father are one, but that we also may be one in the Father and in him (John 17:21). This is so that the world may believe that that the Father sent him. His desire is that we whom the Father has given him may see his glory, for his Father loved him before the foundation of the world (John 17:24). The world has not known the Father, but Jesus has known him, and we know that the Father sent him (John 17:25).

Jesus, then, does not pray for the world, but he does have quite a lot to say about it. While we mostly pass over these words of our Lord about the world, which we are in but not of, they were clearly about something that was important to him. It is not the first time either that Jesus has spoken like this. Why is it so important to him and why won’t he pray for the world?

Earlier in the Farewell Discourse, one of his disciples, Judas, (not Iscariot) has been shocked by what Jesus says about the world, and asks Jesus directly about his attitude to the world:

‘Lord, what has happened that you are going to reveal yourself to us and not to the world? (John 14:22)

It is a good question and you can sense Judas’ surprise. Notice how Judas assumes something must have happened and that there has been a change of plan. Surely the whole point of Jesus’ life and ministry has been to reveal himself to the world. After all, wasn’t this why Jesus came? What is different now? Judas’ question is one that we too need to ask and take seriously. 

Much of our thinking as Christians today is based on the assumption that Jesus does still want to reveal himself to the world. In fact, we go further and assume that Jesus is revealing himself to the world, and that our mission and purpose as the Church and as his followers is for us, by our life and teaching, to reveal Jesus to the world. Jesus’ refusal to reveal himself to the world or even to pray for the world before he dies for the sin of the world challenges us to rethink what it means to follow him today.

We need to start the beginning and, very briefly, ask what is meant by the ‘world’ in John’s Gospel.

St John began his Gospel by telling us that the world was made through Jesus (John 1:3; 1:10). However, something fundamental had clearly gone wrong very early on in the history of the world because despite Jesus being the one through whom the world came into being, St John tells us, the world did not know him (John 1:10). St John gives us a clue as to what it was that had gone wrong. The first words said by anyone in his Gospel about Jesus are the words of John the Baptist. John the Baptist says when he sees Jesus:

‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’ (John 1:29)

St John does not tell us how it happened, but he makes clear that the world has fallen into sin and darkness. Although the world deserves to be judged, God did not send his Son to judge the world, but to save the world through him (John 3:17; 12:47). Jesus is the Light of the world who saves anyone who comes to the Light and who believes in him and follows him (John 8:12; 12:46). 

Tragically, though, most people do not believe in Jesus, and refuse to come to the Light. They love darkness because what they do is evil, and they don’t want their evil lifestyle to be exposed (John 3:19-20). In refusing to come to the Light, St John writes, they pass judgement on themselves. In his last words in public before he is crucified, Jesus says:

‘I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge …’ (John 12:47-48)

This helps explain apparently contradictory words of Jesus. After healing the man born blind, Jesus says to the Pharisees:

‘I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’ (John 9:39)

Jesus didn’t come to judge the world, but because of how they react to him, people in the world bring judgement upon themselves.

The world in St John’s Gospel, then, is, firstly, both the physical world in which we live and all those who live in it and, secondly, the society and structures that those who live in it create. It is a world which is in sin and darkness. 

St John also tells us something else that it is crucial for us to know about the world. Its ruler is the devil himself. Jesus refers to him specifically as the ‘ruler of the world’ (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11) and shockingly tells those who do not believe in him that they are of their ‘father, the devil’ (John 8:44).

This is all too brief; however, it is, I hope, enough to help us understand why Jesus won’t reveal himself to the world and why he won’t even pray for it. In his answer to Judas, Jesus makes plain that he will now only reveal himself to those who love him and who keep his word: to those, in other words, who believe in him. Jesus has given the world every chance to believe in him, but the world has rejected him and made plain what it thought of him by crucifying him. There can now be no further revelation to the world.

What does this have to say to us today?

1. Judgement is a reality

The idea of judgment, that is, that there will one day be a day of reckoning when everyone will have to give an account of their life and how they have lived it, is one that has been an integral part of Christian faith and teaching since the ministry of our Lord himself. In St John’s Gospel, Jesus describes this day of reckoning as the ‘Last Day’. Throughout his ministry, Jesus warned that there would be consequences for our actions and, in fact, spoke of judgement more than anyone else in the New Testament.

There may have been times in the Church’s history when the Church majored too much on the theme of judgement, and medieval depictions of hell can certainly be graphic, but they are based firmly on the teaching of our Lord and the New Testament writers in general. The Church simply took this over, and there was never any question of whether there would be a Day of Judgement, only the basis on which judgement would take place. It was this question that was to be a cause of contention at the time of the European Reformation. 

It is only in comparatively recent times that the idea of judgement was first challenged and is now largely abandoned by the Church. Even the Pope has been quoted as saying that while he believed in the existence of hell, he didn’t think there was anyone in it. Whether the Pope actually said it or not, it is what most Christian leaders now believe.

But if Jesus came to save people, the question that arises is: ‘Save them from what?’ Most people in our Churches don’t think they need saving. What they look for in the Church is not salvation but affirmation. They want to be told how much God loves them, and accepts them regardless of the barriers and boundaries that people create between themselves. The idea that God might hold us to account and even reject us with the words, ‘Depart from me I never knew you (Matthew 7:23),’ to quote our Lord, is not even something we are willing to consider.

Jesus, however, came not to be our life coach to tell us how wonderful we are; he came to be our Saviour on account of how awful we are. We need to rediscover the doctrine of judgement if we are to understand the words of Jesus that alone can save us. Otherwise, the words of Jesus will be our judge, in the way that he said they would.

2. Separation is a requirement

St John, in his first letter, draws out the practical application of Jesus’ teaching about the world. He writes:

‘Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world - the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches - comes not from the Father but from the world. And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live for ever.’ (1 John 2:15-17)

St James the brother of our Lord wrote:

‘Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.’ (James 4:4)

The New Testament writers all got it. Why can’t we?

In the past, not being worldly was defined not simply as avoiding doing wrong, but also as avoiding doing anything that could be considered unspiritual. When I first became a Christian as a teenager, for example, we were encouraged not to drink, dance, or do anything that everyone else our age did. TV, films, and non-Christian music and literature were mostly avoided. 

But this was all changing and a new emphasis was coming in that saw involvement with the world as preferable to separation from it. The doctrine of the incarnation was used as the basis for encouraging Christians to become fully engaged in the world. With the result now that now Christians are indistinguishable from the world around them.

In our desire to become friends with the world, we didn’t stop to ask whether the world wanted to be friends with us. It turns out that it didn’t and having forgotten God, we find ourselves alone and comfortless in the world.

We have allowed ourselves to be completely compromised by the world. In our desperation to get the world to like us, we apply the promises of the Bible to society in general and offer people reassurance, regardless of whether they are believers or not, using words and promises that were spoken specifically to God’s people in the past. 

In mission, it is common to hear Christians talk of how God is ‘for the city’ meaning that God wants the places we live in to thrive and prosper with the implication that Christians should be involved in the life and politics of the city working as citizens for its good. But in the book of Revelation, for example, God is not ‘for the city’, he is actively against the city.

‘In the world you will have trouble and suffering,’ said Jesus. ‘If they hated me, they will hate you,’ he warned them. Of course, the world will not hate us if we tell it what it wants to hear. It will not bother us if we fall in with its philosophy and outlook and amend our message, worship, and lifestyle to accommodate it. It will leave us alone if we pose no challenge to its priorities, attitudes, and values. But if we fail to listen to it or in any way challenge it, then the wrath of the beast will be kindled against us as it was against the first Christians.

This explains why Jesus is so concerned that his disciples should love one another. It is a command that he repeats throughout the Farewell Discourse. Jesus’ emphasis on his followers loving each other is something that has been much commented on. It sounds exclusive, as though we are to love one another and ignore everyone else. That, of course, is not what Jesus means. Jesus does know, however, that the world will not want his followers love and will hate them as it did him. They believe in Jesus, and because they believe in him, they cease to belong to the world. Jesus tells them:

‘If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world - therefore the world hates you.’ (John 15:19)

Their love for one another is to give them strength to face the hatred of the world and the trouble and suffering that they will have in it. Jesus wants us, his followers, to build an alternative community. He wants ‘a home’ he can live in with us. A place where we are one with the Father and the Son and one with each other. A home where his words are listened to and his commands obeyed, and which serves both as a witness to the world and against the world.

3. Going is a responsibility

Separation from the world does not mean that we have no responsibility to the world. The Risen Christ said to his disciples that as the Father sent him so he sent them (John 20:19). But he sends them and us with a warning:

‘Remember the word that I said to you, ‘Servants are not greater than their master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also.’ (John 15:20)

What does it mean, then, to be sent as the Father sent Jesus? There is one verse about the world in St John’s Gospel that I have not referred to. It is, in fact, one of the most well-known verses not just in St John’s Gospel, but in the Bible. We have heard it already in our service:

‘For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.’ (John 3:16)

Understandably, we focus on the opening words, which we mistranslate as ‘God so loved the world’. He did, of course, love it very much, but St John is not trying to write a Valentine’s Day style of greeting. St John wants to bring home to us how God has loved the world and why. How he loved us was by giving us his one and only Son. Why he loved us in this way was so that we would not perish if we believed in his Son. We stop at the fact of God’s love and miss its purpose.

Our task is to tell it as it is so that people might come to believe that the Father sent Jesus into the world and come to believe in him. We are so casual about this. The reason people need to believe in Christ is so that they won’t perish. But we need to remember that if they don’t believe, they will perish. 

St John’s Gospel is written with the express purpose of bringing us to faith in Jesus. St John writes:

‘But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.’ (John 20:31)

As we too are sent by Jesus, we his followers, who believe in his name, are given the authority to forgive sins and to retain them (John 20:23). Jesus has made sin central to the Church’s mission because it is sin that is the problem, and to die for our sin was the reason why Jesus came, why he was sent. 

'Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’ The sin, that is, that traps and destroys people and keeps them in darkness. The sin that makes them blind. The sin that is used by the Devil to keep people in his power and prevent them experiencing the life of God.

As Jesus’ followers, offering forgiveness of sin in Jesus’ name to those who believe is, or should be, central to what we go to do. It is our responsibility.

And so, as we are sent into the world by Jesus, we are sent as those who have been chosen by God from the world and have been given eternal life by him. In the world we will have trouble, but even as we are rejected, hated, and persecuted we know he is not only with us but in us. 

We go, but we do not go alone.

Amen.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Ascension Day

This is the transcription of my sermon for Ascension Day on May 21, 2020.

The Sixth Sunday of Easter

Readings:

• Acts 1:1-11
• Ephesians 1:15-23
• Luke 24:44-53

Sermon:

Today is Ascension Day.  Ascension is the lost festival of the Church; not simply this year, for obvious reasons, but more generally.  For the past few weeks, we have been celebrating our Lord’s resurrection and his triumph over death.  What more is there to say?  We sort of celebrate Pentecost because that is about what the Lord gives to us, but Ascension?  We are not sure quite what to make of it.

It is St Luke who gives us the most detailed description of the event we are celebrating today.  He describes it in both his Gospel and the book of Acts.  St Luke tells us in our first reading from Acts that it was 40 days after the resurrection that the ascension took place.  Jesus had risen from the dead, but he had not yet risen to his Father.  He made use of this interval of 40 days, St Luke tells us, to present himself as ‘alive by many convincing proofs’ and to speak to his disciples about the Kingdom of God (Acts 1:3).

It is interesting (to me at least) to compare St Luke’s account in Acts with his account in his Gospel.  In the Gospel, he records three appearances of our Lord to the disciples on the same day as the resurrection itself.  Having written about the third appearance, St Luke immediately describes Jesus as leading the disciples as far as Bethany on the Mount of Olives where he takes his leave of them and ascends to heaven.  

We now discover, however, that there were, in fact, 40 days in between the two events and that there was much that had happened in them.  In his Gospel, St Luke deliberately passes over this period of 40 days only to tell us about it in our reading from the first chapter of Acts.

It is a reminder to us that neither the Gospel writers nor St Luke in the book of Acts tell us everything that happened in either the life of our Lord or at the beginning of the Church.  The writers are highly and deliberately selective, as St John tells us he is being in his Gospel (John 21:25).  There is so much more we would like to know.  It is, however, sufficient for us to know that we have enough information to come to faith in Christ (John 20:30-31).

The fact, however, that St Luke includes the ascension in both his Gospel and the book of Acts shows that it is important.  But in what way is it important?

You may have seen the drawings depicting the ascension in children’s books.  They generally show our Lord standing on a cloud going up in the sky.  Very often people make fun of this sort of Sunday School depiction, but what it is doing is attempting to put in visual form something that is hard to express fully in words.

With that limitation in mind, there are three aspects of the ascension that I want to highlight for Ascension Day:

The ascension, firstly, is about the return of our Lord to the Father.  There is an image of Jesus that sees him as a highly gifted teacher whom God raised from the dead (in some sense, at least).  His ‘going to heaven’ shows us what will happen to us too, if we but live the sort of life that Jesus told us we should.

The Bible’s understanding of Jesus, however, is not of a human teacher who somehow becomes divine, but of a divine person who becomes human.  This coming Sunday, we will be looking at Jesus’ prayer in John chapter 17 immediately before his arrest.  Jesus prays:

‘So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.’ (John 17:5)

Jesus is now returning to where he belongs.  We express this in the language of ‘going up’ to show that it is about his return to heaven, heaven being the home of his Father.  But, and this is important, in the same way that Jesus was God become man dwelling among us, Jesus is now man dwelling with God.  He ascends bodily into his Father’s presence.  In this sense, the Sunday School pictures are not so far from the reality.  While in this world, Jesus was God with humanity, now, in heaven, Jesus is humanity with God.

And he is humanity with God as one who experienced what it was like to be exactly like us ‘yet without sin’, as the writer of the letter to the Hebrews puts it (Hebrews 4:15).  Again, as the writer of Hebrews expresses it, Jesus suffered like us and learnt obedience through that suffering (Hebrews 5:8-9).  

Not only does Jesus give us an example of how we too should live.  He takes the memory of that experience and suffering with him into heaven itself and into the presence of God.  He understands what we are going through because he has been through it himself.

Secondly, though, the ascension is about more than Jesus returning to his Father, important though that is.  It is about Jesus ascending to the throne of his Father and sitting at his right hand, having been given ‘all authority in heaven and on earth’, as St Matthew puts it (Matthew 28:18).  Or, as St Paul puts it in our second reading, Jesus is now:

‘ … far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.’ (Ephesians 1:21)

Jesus doesn’t just go and forget about us.  He now reigns as the world’s leader.  He is supreme over all things.

One of the amazing things about the early Church is just how quickly the first believers came to worship Jesus as the one who reigns over all things.  Devout Jews, who were taught to worship the Lord their God and serve only him, now shared their loyalty to God and their worship of him with Jesus, and saw no contradiction in doing so.

John the Baptist said of Jesus, ‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29).  St John, in the book of Revelation, has a vision of a Lamb looking as if it had been slain.  This is how St John describes the scene:

‘Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice,

'Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!'

And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying,

'To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!'

And the four living creatures said, 'Amen!' and the elders fell down and worshiped.’ (Revelation 5:11-14)


Our worship in this world, as Jesus’ followers, is joined with the worship of all of heaven.  When we meet together as a Church, then, our focus should be on the ‘Lamb who was slain’ just as he is the focus of worship in heaven.

Sadly, though, all too often it is not.  We have shifted the focus of our services from the worship of the Lamb to ourselves.  It is now what we want from church services that matters most to us.  So, we talk about what sort of liturgy, music, or sermons we like.  We judge a service by its effect on us and what we get out of it, rather than on him who died for us and whose death, in every Eucharist we celebrate, we are proclaiming until he comes (1 Corinthians 11:26).

The worship of the Lamb and the proclamation of his death in it should, then, be our number one priority.  The early Christians went to their death rather than worship anything or anyone else.  

For some weeks now, we have not been meeting together for worship because of a modern-day plague.  Plague, however, is nothing new in the history of the world.  What is different in this one, however, is that in previous plagues the last thing to be cancelled were church services.  This time, they were amongst the first.

(For the avoidance of any doubt.  I am not saying that they should not have been cancelled.)

What I am saying is that perhaps the reason we found it so very easy to cancel our services was because our priority in church services has become ourselves.  As long as we could get some of what we wanted by other means, then what was the problem?  Did we stop, however, and ask how God might feel about the cancellation of his worship?

And no, virtual services or sermons online are not a substitute for physically worshipping together as the body of Christ.  Why?  Precisely because Jesus was raised physically, ascended physically, and left us with a Meal to remember him by that we eat and drink physically.  

So, I am sorry, Christian, your safety is not the number one priority in all this, God is.  And if your response is, ‘God wouldn’t want me to do anything that might cause me any harm, would he?’  You haven’t been listening to the Easter message.

Thirdly, there is, however, a problem with all of this.  While it is great to think of our Lord reigning over all things and being worshipped by ‘every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them’.  The reality on earth appears very different to what St John saw in heaven.  People do not worship God, and not only are they indifferent to him, they reject him outright and question his very existence.  They pour scorn, or worse, on those who believe.  And it certainly doesn’t feel as if Jesus has all authority in heaven and on earth or that all things are under his control.

What we say and sing about in our worship doesn’t seem to match the reality of what we see in the world around us.  We see wars, hatred, and violence; we see suffering, sickness, and death; we see poverty, injustice, and oppression.  In our own lives, as those who believe in Christ, we know difficulty and tragedy firsthand.  We cry out in pain.  And in our pain, we question our faith.

Suffering is only too real in our world and a full answer will only be provided for it when our Lord returns.  There are, however, a few things we can say in the meantime.

Most importantly, Jesus warned us that this was how it was going to be.  This doesn’t make the suffering we see and experience any the less painful, but it does mean it is not a surprise.  Jesus warned of the ‘wars and rumours of wars’ that would take place before he came again.  He told them:

‘For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places.’ (Matthew 24:7)

While, in his vision, St John saw our Lord reigning and being worshipped, he also saw visions of hunger, plague, disaster, and war.  Jesus explained that these things would continue until he came again, and this is one of the reasons we long for his coming.

Sometimes, as believers, we offer a false optimism to people.  I wrote this sermon shortly before taking a funeral of an old lady.  Christians, at times of death, understandably turn to our Lord’s resurrection to find hope and comfort.  In funeral services, the words of St Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 are often read:

‘Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?’ (1 Corinthians 15:54-55)


We miss, however, the context of these words.  St Paul has just written of how at the end of this age the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised.  ‘Then shall come to pass,’ he writes, ‘the saying that is written, ‘Death is swallowed up in victory …’’

But that day is not yet.  Again, as St Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 15:

‘For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.’ (1 Corinthians 15:25-26)

We do see him reigning, but we do not yet see all his enemies under his feet (Hebrews 2:8).  We do still suffer and die; we weep and mourn.  But we do not do so as people who have no hope.  The knowledge that Christ is ascended and reigning gives us confidence and hope as it did those for whom St John wrote down his vision of heaven.

It may seem as if the powers of darkness are in control, but the follower of Christ knows that the reality is very different.

Until we see all Christ’s enemies defeated, our role as his followers is to ‘proclaim his death until he comes’.  We are to be his witnesses in this world, telling people that not only is Jesus risen and alive, but that he has ascended to his Father’s presence where he reigns and is worshipped.  It is from here that he comes to us who believe in him to be with us as we seek to serve him.  In his last words to his disciples, our Lord said to them:

‘In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.’ (John 16:33)

The Lord has ascended, but he has not left us.  He is coming, as St John saw, at the end to right all wrongs and end all suffering.  Then every eye shall see him and every knee shall bow.  But he is coming before that to those who believe in him, who love him and keep his commandments.  Coming, that is, with his Father to make his home with us and in us.  

As, then, today we celebrate his ascension, we now await the ‘promise of the Father’ that Jesus told us about while he was still with us and which was given on the Day of Pentecost, 10 days from now.  And we await with hope that Day when our Lord will come again and when the kingdom of the world will be become the Kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ (Revelation 11:15).

‘Amen, come Lord Jesus.’ (Revelation 22:20)

Amen.