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.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

The Sixth Sunday of Easter

This is the transcription of my sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter on May 17, 2020.

The Sixth Sunday of Easter

Readings:

• Acts 17:22-31
• 1 Peter 3:13-22
• John 14:15-21

Sermon:

Last week, we saw how Jesus told his disciples that one of them would betray him, that another would deny him, and that he would be going away and leaving them. Understandably, they are ‘troubled’ by all this, and for the rest of what we know as the Farewell Discourse, he seeks to offer them comfort and reassurance. Jesus may be going, but, he tells them, he is going to prepare a place for them in his Father’s presence, and will come again and take them to himself so that where he is there they may be also.

Jesus has spoken previously to his disciples of how he will one day return in judgement on the ‘last day’, and the New Testament writers look forward to this day when Jesus will return. This is not, however, the return that Jesus is talking to them about here. The ‘return’ he is speaking of is one that he tells them will occur in just a ‘little while’ from the time when he is talking to them (John 16:16). This return will be about his presence with them during the time before he comes again on the ‘last day’.

In this more immediate return, he will come to them with the Father to make his and the Father’s home in the life of each of his followers. Throughout his ministry, Jesus has promised eternal life to all who follow him. He has done this using a variety of different images, ‘figures of speech’, he calls them. Now, at last, in his final moments with them before his crucifixion, he explains what eternal life is. In his prayer to the Father in John chapter 17, Jesus says:

‘And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.’ (John 17:3)

Eternal life means many things, but, at its heart, it is knowing the only true God. No wonder, then, that Philip, one of his followers, says to him:

‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ (John 14:8)

If eternal life is dependent on whether we know the Father or not, it is vital that we know the way to knowing the Father. There is only one way to the Father, Jesus tells them, and they are looking at it. He is the way to the Father. No-one comes to the Father except through him. Indeed, anyone who has seen him has seen the Father. If they want to know the Father, they must believe in him.

This is why the first thing Jesus says to them in John chapter 14 is:

‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me.’ (John 14:1)

You will see in the footnotes to this verse in your Bibles that there are various ways to translate Jesus’ words. The phrase, ‘You believe in God,’ can also be translated as a command: ‘Believe in God’. The disciples, however, did not need to be told to believe in God. As good Jews looking forward to when God would send his Messiah to establish his Kingdom, they already believed in God, and the reason they were following Jesus was because they hoped he was the Messiah sent by God.

What Jesus tells them is that not only must they believe in God, they must now also believe in him. This has been the major theme in Jesus’ teaching throughout his ministry. We have seen how it has been his message to Nicodemus, to the woman at the well in Samaria, to those in the synagogue at Capernaum after he had fed the 5,000, to the man born blind in Jerusalem, and to Martha and Mary when he raised Lazarus from the dead.

Now, before he leaves them for a ‘little while’, he tells them one more time to believe in him. Those who believe in him, he says, will become one with him and his Father. He and the Father will be in the believer and the believer in them.

All this is quite amazing, but it seems straightforward enough. By believing in Jesus, his followers will come to know the Father through him. Unfortunately, there is all sorts of confusion over what it means to ‘believe’ in Jesus.

The confusion is largely due to the division that occurred in the Church at the time of the European Reformation in the sixteenth century. To cut a very long story short, many in the time leading up to the Reformation had come to believe that the only way to be ‘saved’, which was understood as getting into heaven when they died, was by what they did, that is, by their ‘works’. Getting into heaven was effectively a reward for good behaviour.

The Reformers challenged this and insisted instead that salvation was by God’s grace through faith. It is by believing in Christ, they argued, that we are saved, and not by works. This was a message that needed to be heard at the time. The Reformers’ teaching, however, was to drive a wedge between ‘faith’ and ‘works’.

One of the slogans of the Reformation was ‘sola fide’, ‘faith alone’. As a result, many Protestants since the Reformation have not been sure what to do with works, while Roman Catholics, on the other hand, have insisted on their necessity. This is an argument that continues to divide those who follow Christ today, and divide them quite bitterly.

It is because we now come to the New Testament with these arguments and disputes in mind that we run into all sorts of trouble. In chapter 14, after Jesus has told his disciples to ‘believe’ in him, he goes on to tell them in verse 21:

‘They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.’ (John 14:21)

And then in verse 23:

‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.’ (John 14:23)

So, which is it? Do the Father and the Son come to us because we believe in Jesus or because we love Jesus and keep his commandments? Is it by believing in Jesus or by keeping his commandments that we receive eternal life?

The problem all has to do with what we mean by ‘believe’. There are two ways of believing. We can ‘believe about’ or we can ‘believe in’.

We ‘believe about’ all sorts of things in every area of our lives.

There are a whole set of things in the realm of human knowledge, we believe about the world in which we live. In science, we believe various theories and hypotheses about the physical world around us. In our relationships, we believe various things about our friends. For example, who they are, where they come from, and what they are like.

We ‘believe in’ something or someone, however, when we act on what we know about the thing or person in question.

For example, in an election, say for the President of a country, we learn lots of things about each candidate. We will share various beliefs about each candidate with other voters, regardless of which one we eventually decide to vote for. We will, however, only go on to vote for the candidate we believe in. Our decision of which we choose to believe in will be influenced by what we believe about them, but it is different. We can believe a lot about someone, both good and bad, without believing in them.

To take another example: Imagine finding yourself lost and in great danger. You meet someone who says to you that they can get you out of the danger. What you have to do, they tell you, is follow them and do as they tell you. You then have to make a decision as to whether you believe that the stranger can get you out of danger. You may decide that you do, but you will only ‘believe in’ the stranger when you follow the stranger as he leads you and when you do what the stranger tells you to do.

You could instead decide that the best way out of the danger is to pursue your own path, and do it your own way, regardless of what you believe about the stranger. If, however, you follow the stranger and do what the stranger tells you, it’s not you that has saved yourself from the danger, but the stranger. When you get to safety, you don’t pat yourself on the back and tell everyone how clever you have been, you thank the stranger and tell everyone how wonderful he is and how he has saved you from a great danger.

Many don’t think they need Christ even if they do think there is an afterlife. They just assume that God is bound to reward them if they live a relatively good life. Others see following Christ as a form of weakness, and faith as an emotional and spiritual crutch for the weak and inadequate. They don’t need anyone to help them; they can save themselves.

Christ’s followers, however, know they have ‘no power of themselves to help themselves’. They know themselves to be in great danger and know that they cannot escape that danger on their own. They know it is only by believing in Christ that they can get to safety. But believing in Christ means them doing what Christ tells them to do. It means trusting him and keeping his commandments.

There are many who see Christ merely as one religious teacher amongst many. Isaac Newton famously discovered the law of gravity, supposedly while sitting under an apple tree. He was the one who then taught it to others. But the law of gravity exists independently of Newton, and if he had not discovered it, someone else would. Furthermore, we accept the truth of the law of gravity regardless of what we think about Newton. That is how some see Christ. Christ may be someone who shows the way to live a good, full, and rewarding life. He is not, however, the only one who can show it to us, and his way may not be the best way for everyone.

For Christ’s followers, however, Christ is not simply the one who shows them the way or a way; he is the way, the only way. His commandments do not exist independently of him. He is not just one guide amongst many; he is the only guide. He is the only one God has authorized to lead people to his house and show them around - to use Jesus’ own ‘figure of speech’.

Believing Jesus to be the Guide, even the only Guide, however, is not the same as believing in him as our own Guide. Believing in him, means we personally and individually have to follow Jesus and do whatever he tells us. Believing in Jesus, then, means believing what he tells us, loving him whatever happens to us, and keeping the commandments he has given us. All of his commandments, that is, and not just those that we like the sound of.

Believing about Jesus is not without its difficulties. Like Thomas we have our doubts. Perhaps like Thomas we have doubts about whether Jesus is alive or about the claims made about him in the Bible. It is, however, in principle, not hard to understand what it is we are being asked to believe about him.

Believing in Jesus and keeping his commandments, however, is hard, as Jesus himself warned us it would be. Believing in Jesus means walking a narrow path and submitting our will, our wants and our desires to his. It means, ultimately, being willing to suffer and die for him.

It is, however, not a path he expects us to walk on our own. He doesn’t say, ‘Great, you believe in me and want to keep my commandments, there’s the path now get walking.’ He not only walks with us and beside us, he walks in us. Everything that we experience and everything that happens to us, happens to him.

I really don’t think we appreciate the significance of what Jesus is saying here in the Farewell Discourse for what it means to believe in him and to follow him.

I have already alluded to some of the ways that people understand what it means to be Christian today. For some, it amounts to no more than thinking that Jesus had some good things to say. But even amongst those who take Jesus seriously and can legitimately be described as Christians, there are different emphases in how they understand what being a Christian means. There are four broad approaches:

1. Educational

For some, the emphasis in being a Christian falls firmly on what we believe and think about God. For these Christians, doctrine and theology are very important, and it matters that you get what you believe right. Some take this to an extreme and will only associate with those who think like them. But even if they are more tolerant of those with whom they disagree, they see educating Christians in the doctrines of the faith as of first importance.

Christians who think like this place a great value on preaching, teaching, and Bible Study. They devise and promote courses to help other Christians learn more about God. They are supporters of programmes to enable Christians to become more theologically aware and knowledgeable about their faith.

2. Ethical

For others, the emphasis falls on the ethical and moral teaching of Jesus. They are drawn to the places in the Bible where Jesus teaches his disciples how they should behave and live their lives. The Sermon on the Mount is a great favourite of theirs. They will quote with approval the so-called golden rule:

‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.’ (John 7:12)

They point to places in the Gospel where Jesus says he came to bring good news to the poor and to those in need (see, for example, Luke 4:18).

Christians who think like this place a great value on welfare and charitable enterprises. Increasingly, Christians who take this approach are stressing the need for the Churches to be working for what they see as ‘social justice’ in our world and equate this with mission. They are at the forefront of campaigns against oppression and what they see as unfair structures in our world.

3. Experiential

For others still, what matters is experience and what they feel. This approach has become particularly popular as a consequence of the charismatic movement of the last century. In many ways, this movement was, at the time, a revolt against what those in the movement felt was an over-emphasis on doctrine. Many of those in the movement felt that too great an emphasis on doctrine had led to a dry and cerebral type of Christianity that left people’s emotions and feelings out of the picture.

Christians who think like this place a great value on lively and vibrant worship, and church services are often sensory experiences with bands, modern music, and even sound and light shows. They are often attracted to churches that encourage the use of the so-called ‘spiritual gifts’ such as prophecy, speaking in tongues, and healing. When it comes to Christian teaching, what matters is whether it speaks directly to them and their own personal concerns.

4. Ecclesial

For those who take this approach, what matters is the church itself. They appreciate the sense of belonging that comes from being a part of a local church community as well as the part they can play in the wider church organization. They are concerned with how the church is run and governed and often take an interest in Church politics. They will often be its most committed members.

Christians who think like this, place a great value on making sure that the church is well-supported. They will join the committees and involve themselves in fund-raising for various church projects. They are often the ones who keep the church going and who can be relied on to volunteer when work needs doing.

I have simplified to make the distinction between the different approaches. Clearly, they are not mutually exclusive, and it is more about emphasis than black and white differences. All would agree you have to believe something, that the way you live your life matters, that how you feel is important, and that belonging to a Church is useful. But the difference in emphasis amongst Christians is noticeable, and it gives rise to significant differences in how people see being a Christian, differences that cut across the various denominational divisions.

Each approach can appeal to the Bible and to the teaching of Jesus for support. Jesus taught his disciples at length about God and himself. He clearly was concerned with how people behaved toward one another. He was a person who was not afraid to show his feelings whether of happiness, anger, or sadness. And he gathered a group of people around himself that he expected would continue his work after his death.

I want to suggest, however, that while each of these approaches is important and captures an aspect of Jesus’ teaching, they all miss the heart of Jesus’ teaching when it comes to understanding what it means believe in him and to be his follower.

So, what does it mean to believe in Jesus today?

All these different approaches go wrong because they all begin in the wrong place. They begin with and focus on us: our thinking, doing, experiencing, and belonging. Becoming and being a follower of Jesus, however, begins with and comes from God. Jesus in his final prayer to the Father will say:

‘I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me …’ (John 17:6)

Jesus will tell his disciples:

‘You did not choose me but I chose you.’ (John 15:6)

Being a follower of Jesus does not begin with our choice of Jesus, but with God’s choice of us. Being a follower of Jesus is relational. It’s all about knowing God and Jesus Christ whom he has sent. It is a relationship that began for God when he chose us in Christ. It begins for us when we are born again, as Jesus told Nicodemus we must be, from above. It is a relationship in which the Father and the Son make their home in us. And, as Jesus says:

‘On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.’ (John 14:20)

We begin our relationship with God by believing in Jesus as the way, the only way, to the Father. And we live out our relationship with Jesus by believing in him alone, keeping his commandments and loving him alone, knowing that all our good comes from him alone, and that any good we do, we do through him alone.

As our hymn for this week expresses it:

Thee will I love, my strength, my tower;
thee will I love, my joy, my crown;
thee will I love with all my power,
in all thy works, and thee alone:
thee will I love, till sacred fire
fill my whole soul with pure desire.

Amen.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Ross Royden YouTube

During the suspension of services at Christ Church here in Hong Kong.  We have been recording a Broadcast Service each week.  The recordings are available on my YouTube channel.

This is the link:

Ross Royden YouTube

Saturday, May 09, 2020

The Fifth Sunday of Easter

This is the transcription of my sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter on May 10, 2020.

The Fifth Sunday of Easter

Readings:

• Acts 7:55-60
• 1 Peter 2:2-10
• John 14:1-14

Sermon:

The Gospel reading for this week and next is from John chapter 14.  We will read verses 1-14 this week and then 15-21 next week.  John 14 is part of what is commonly known as the ‘Farewell Discourse’.  These are our Lord’s final words to his disciples before he is crucified.
[This week’s sermon is really the first part of a two-part sermon; the second part will be next week.  This week, I want to look at the context of the Farewell Discourse and the opening few verses.  Next week, I will look more closely at the message of both readings to us.]

The passage for our reading this week is one I know well.  When I was first ordained, I was a curate in a large parish on Merseyside.  I was responsible for taking many funerals during my time there, and regularly took three or more a week.  The opening verses of this week’s Gospel reading was one of the recommended readings for the service and the one chosen the most often.  It is often still chosen at funerals I take in the present.  It is understandable that it should be used.  Jesus is about to be crucified, and he offers comfort to his disciples beforehand.  In his ‘Father’s house’ are ‘many rooms’, he tells his disciples.  He is going to ‘prepare place for them’.

This is normally taken to mean that there is a room waiting for us after we have died in heaven prepared by Jesus himself.  Of course, it is always imagined as a room in a heavenly luxury resort described in palatial terms.  This image was encouraged by the translation in the King James Version, which instead of ‘rooms’ has ‘mansions’, the word ‘mansion’ having had a different meaning when the King James version was translated to how we think of it now.  But the thought of our loved one going to a mansion in the sky, a heavenly Downtown Abbey, is an image we are happy with, and it offers comfort at a time when it is needed.

I am sorry to spoil it for you, but I have to say that this is not at all Jesus’ meaning in the passage.  There are plenty of passages about our hope as believers of life after death, and which provide much reassurance for those who have faith, but this passage is addressing different matters altogether.

To understand it, we need to return to the original context of Jesus’ words.  The setting for his final words to his disciples is the Last Supper in the Upper Room.  A few days before, Jesus and his disciples had come to Jerusalem for the Passover.  Jesus, you will remember, had rode into Jerusalem on a donkey on what we now know as Palm Sunday.  The crowds had gone wild with excitement, proclaiming him their King.  This was what the disciples had been hoping for since they became his disciples.  Now it seemed the moment had come for Jesus to set up his Kingdom on earth and overthrow the Romans at the same time.  St Luke, in his Gospel (Luke 22:24-27), tells us that at the Meal they were even discussing who would be the greatest in the Kingdom when it came!

At Passover, which celebrated Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt, Jerusalem was packed with pilgrims. It would be the ideal time for Jesus to establish his Kingdom.  We can imagine the excitement then as the disciples gathered to eat the Passover Meal with Jesus.  Things, however, don’t go quite as they expected.  As they gather for the Meal, Jesus gets up and starts to wash their feet.  This was the action of a slave, not a King about to begin his reign.  Peter is understandably horrified, but Jesus insists.

Things go from bad to worse for the disciples, however.  During the Meal as they are eating, Jesus becomes troubled and tells them that one of them is going to betray him.  Satan enters the heart of Judas and he leaves to get on with doing just that.  St John writes simply and symbolically: ‘And it was night.’

Yet again the chapter and verse divisions confuse us.  For it is at this point that what we call the Farewell Discourse should begin.  After Judas has gone, Jesus says dramatically:

‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.’ (John 13:31)

But he won’t be glorified in the way the disciples are expecting.  He won’t be glorified with an uprising and being made King, instead Jesus tells them, ‘Where I am going you cannot come (John 13:33).’  Peter understandably asks, ‘Lord, where are you going (John 13:34)?’

Jesus tells Peter that while he cannot follow him now, he will follow later.  You can imagine how they must have felt.  They have been told they have a traitor in their midst and that Jesus is leaving them and won’t allow them to follow him.  What is going on?  Peter tries to hold on to the dream.  He tells Jesus he will lay down his life for Jesus, then comes the final blow.  Jesus answers him:

‘Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.’ (John 13:38)

One moment they think they are having a meal with the future King of Israel, the next thing they know he is acting strangely, talking of treachery and denial, and telling them he is leaving them.

This, then, is the background to our reading this week.  Seeing their distress, Jesus says, ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled.’  They must have been very troubled by now.  John chapter 14 is Jesus’ attempt to offer them hope and reassurance.

He tells them that they believe in God, they should believe also in him.  In answer to their question about where he is going, Jesus tells them that he is going to his Father’s house, which has many rooms in it, to prepare a place for them.  And that’s where we stop.  There’s a place waiting for us and our loved ones in heaven when we die!  That’s all we need to know.  But it is not where Jesus stops.  He tells them that if he goes, he will ‘come again’ and take them to himself, so that where he is there they may be also.

What does Jesus mean by ‘coming again’?  Again, most people don’t care as long as they get their ‘mansion in the sky when they die’.  Those who do care, not unnaturally, think that Jesus is talking here about his ‘second coming’ when he returns to earth.  Jesus will, of course, return to earth, and he talks about his return on several occasions.  He is not, however, talking about it here.

The coming Jesus is talking of is an entirely different ‘second coming’, and it is one of the main themes of the Farewell Discourse.  Jesus says later in this chapter:

‘I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.’ (John 14:18)

Before Jesus returns to this earth at the Last Judgement, he will, he says, ‘come again’ with his Father to make his home in the life of those who have faith in him, who love him and keep his commandments.  ‘On that day,’ Jesus tells his disciples, ‘you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you’ (John 14:20).

The Farewell Discourse is all about how Jesus’ disciples can know the Father.  His going will make knowing the Father a possibility for those who are his.

Not surprisingly, the disciples find all this hard to grasp, as we do today.  They say to one another:

‘What does he mean by saying to us, ‘A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me’; and ‘Because I am going to the Father’?’ They said, ‘What does he mean by this ‘a little while’? We do not know what he is talking about.’ (John 16:17-18)

Jesus understands their frustration and says to them:

‘I have said these things to you in figures of speech. The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures, but will tell you plainly of the Father.’ (John 16:25)

And so, we come back to our Gospel reading for this week.  The Father’s House, the many rooms, and the place prepared for us by Jesus are ‘figures of speech’ like the images of the Gate and the Shepherd and the sheep last week.  Jesus uses them to describe the relationship that his death, resurrection, and ascension make possible for the believer with God the Father.  It will be a relationship that they will enjoy when he comes again to them.

They should rejoice that he is going away, Jesus tells them, because of what it will mean for them.  He will see them again in just a ‘little while’.  On that day, says Jesus, they will ‘rejoice’ (John 16:22).

We read in the Gospel reading for the First Sunday of Easter how Jesus appeared in the evening after his resurrection to the disciples and showed them his hands and his side.  St John writes:

‘Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.’ (John 20:20)

The very next thing that happens is that Jesus sends them as the Father sent him and breathes on them that they may receive the Spirit.  What he described just ‘a little while’ earlier, three days ago to be precise, in the Farewell Discourse, is taking place.

For the way that Jesus ‘comes again’ to the disciples after he has gone back to the Father is in the person of the Spirit.  This Jesus tells them about in advance in the Farewell Discourse.  It is through the Spirit, who Jesus describes as another ‘helper’, that both the Father and the Son make their home in the believer.

But that will be the subject for the sermon next week.

What Jesus is talking about in the Gospel reading for this week, then, is not about how we can go to heaven when we die, but how we can come into the Father’s presence and enter a relationship with him now.  It is a relationship that begins here in the present and will continue forever.  The only way this relationship is possible, says Jesus, is through him.  He is the ‘Way, the Truth, and the Life’.

Jesus doesn’t continue by saying that no-one can get to heaven except through him, but that no-one can come to the Father except through him.  This is why last week’s image of Jesus as the Gate is so important.  We are drawn to him as the Good Shepherd, but he is also the Gate that he leads his sheep through.  And it is only through him as the Gate that we his sheep find eternal life and come to the Father.

The disciples understand that this is what Jesus is saying hence Philip’s response to what Jesus says:

‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ (John 14:8)

To which Jesus responds with an amazing statement:

‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.’ (John 14:9)

Next week, we will see how Jesus makes it possible for us to know the Father.  For now, two important lessons from this week’s reading:

1. Jesus reveals the Father

I remember the first real conversation I had about God.  I was a teenager at School in Liverpool in the UK.  For lunch, I used to take a packed lunch, which I ate with others who also brought packed lunches.  As I was sitting in a classroom eating my lunch, a teacher came in and started talking to me about being a Christian.  He told me that being a Christian was about knowing God and asked me whether I knew God.  I am here today because of that conversation.

Christianity is a complicated religion.  There are so many different branches of it and aspects to it.  It is all too easy amidst all the complexity to miss what Jesus came to tell us and to do.  Jesus tells his disciples to believe in him.

Believing in him is not about believing in him as a religious teacher, prophet, or life coach.  Yes, Jesus does teach us how to live.  He shows us what is right and wrong.  He enables us to make the most of the lives we have.  But that is not why he came.  It is not why he was sent.

We have seen how throughout St John’s Gospel Jesus has been talking about and promising those who believe in him that he will give them eternal life.  He said to Nicodemus that the Son of Man would be lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness that all who believed in him would receive eternal life (John 3:15).  God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).  To receive this eternal life Nicodemus needed to be ‘born again from above’ (John 3:3).

Jesus told the woman at the well in Samaria that those who drank the water that he gave would never be thirsty, but that it would be like a spring within them gushing up within them to eternal life (John 4:14).  Jesus had come, he told the Pharisees, that his followers might have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10).

We, however, are born blind and like the man born blind in John chapter 9, we need to be healed.  Jesus is the One who has come to heal us to take away our blindness, to give us new birth from above, to provide us with the water of life so we may never be thirsty.  As he said to Martha, he is the ‘resurrection and the life’ (John 11:25).  Those who believe in him, he says, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in him will never die (John 11:25-26).

But this life isn’t simply or even primarily about what happens to us when we die.  Again, Jesus himself, in his final words, tells us what it is:

‘And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.’ (John 17:3)

The life that Jesus gives to those who believe in him is about a relationship with the Father through Jesus whom the Father sent for this very reason.  Being a follower of Jesus isn’t about what we do, what we believe, or even where we go.  It’s about who we know.  Yes, how we live our lives is important, what we believe matters, and going to Church isn’t optional.  But these all come out of a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

Jesus came to reveal God to us and make it possible for us to enter a relationship with him.  Not God in an abstract, theoretical, or philosophical sense, but with the God who is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and who wants to be our Father too.

2. Only Jesus reveals the Father

This all sounds positive and while we may not act on it and may never come to know the Father for ourselves, we are happy with the idea that in Jesus a relationship with God is at least possible.  What we don’t like to hear is that it is only possible in Jesus.  We don’t like the suggestion that other philosophies and religions are wrong and false paths.  We don’t like the implication that we aren’t able to choose our own way and pursue our own interests, choices, and lifestyles.  We want the freedom to choose.

Satan entered the heart of Judas in the Upper Room.  And he enters our hearts too.

Following Jesus and being in a relationship with him is exclusive.  We have to follow him his way and that means rejecting the other ways.  We don’t want that sort of limitation and that exclusivity.  We want the freedom to explore other ways as well.  We want following Jesus to be inclusive.  The ‘exclusive Jesus’ offends our professed love of tolerance, inclusivity, and diversity.  We try to silence his words and filter them out.  He won’t be silenced:

‘No-one comes to the Father but by me.’ (John 14:6)

Jesus is not a way; he is the way.  He is the only way.  He is the way to his Father’s house, to the place where his Father lives.  He is the One who prepares a place for us in his Father’s presence.  He is the One who invites us into his Father’s house and who introduces us to his Father.  He is the one who shows us the Father.

And the amazing discovery we make when we meet the Father is that it was the Father who sent the Son to find us.  The Father knew we were lost, blind, and alone; he knew we were trapped in sin and darkness, weak and powerless to help ourselves.  It was the Father who gave his Son that we who were dead might live and that we who were in darkness might see.

And now having been invited into his house and having met the Father, both the Father and the Son make an incredible offer.  How would we like to live with them and spend eternity with them?  They have plenty of rooms.  One of them can be ours.

And that is the offer that Jesus makes to us today.  He says to us what he said in the Upper Room to the troubled disciples:

‘In my Father’s house there are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ (John 14:1-4)

He is the Way.  The only question now is: will we take it?

Amen.

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

The Fourth Sunday of Easter

This is the transcription of my sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter on May 3, 2020.

The Fourth Sunday of Easter

Readings:

• Acts 2:42-47
• 1 Peter 2:19-25
• John 10:1-10

Our Gospel reading this week is part of a chapter in St John’s Gospel that has given us one of the most popular images of Jesus: that of the Good Shepherd. We have all seen pictures of our Lord surrounded by little lambs or even carrying a cuddly sheep on his shoulders. I completely understand why this image is a popular one. We all like the idea of a Lord who cares for and looks after us. And frolicking lambs in fields appeals to the sentimental side of our nature.

This way of approaching what Jesus says here, however, is not as helpful as it might be in getting to the heart of what this passage about.

Chapter 10 of John’s Gospel, or at least the first 21 verses of it, has puzzled interpreters. They feel these verses are somehow out of place and don’t fit well with what is written before and after them. Indeed, some have even suggested that, at a very early stage in the Gospel’s history, they were not originally at this place in the Gospel and have suggested alternative places in the Gospel where they are a better fit. Given there is no evidence that they were ever other than here, I am glad to say that there are very few who think this like nowadays.

The problem, as often is the case in understanding Bible passages, is the chapter and verse divisions. As we know, but all too often forget, chapters and verses were added to the Bible hundreds of years after it was written. They are useful in helping us to find a reference, but the chapter divisions particularly often break up the text in a way it was never intended to be broken up by the original author. We have a clear example of this in our Gospel reading this week.

We looked at what happened immediately before our reading this week on the Fourth Sunday in Lent. It is the story of the healing of the man born blind. The man who has his sight restored by Jesus is thrown out of the synagogue because, when questioned by those in authority, he defends the action of Jesus in healing him on the Sabbath day. For the Pharisees, healing someone on the Sabbath is work, and they consider any form of work done on the Sabbath as unacceptable and wrong.

Jesus on hearing that the man has been thrown out of the synagogue seeks him out, and finding him challenges the man born blind to believe in him. The man comes to faith and worships Jesus. Jesus comments ironically:

‘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)

Some of the Pharisees hearing Jesus say this ask whether Jesus thinks they are blind? Jesus replies somewhat enigmatically:

‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.’ (John 9:41)

And there we normally stop reading just as the Gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday in Lent did. John chapter 10, it is thought, begins a new unconnected topic and, after that, comes John chapter 11 and the raising of Lazarus, which we also looked at on the Fifth Sunday in Lent. But this is not how St John stops his story of Jesus and the man born blind. This morning’s reading is not a new topic disconnected from what went before, but a continuation of Jesus’ reply to the Pharisees’ question about what Jesus thinks of them. Notice how Jesus says in verse 6 of chapter 10:

‘This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them’.

The opening 5 verses of chapter 10, then, are still part of Jesus’ reply to the Pharisees’ question about whether Jesus thinks they are blind. When they don’t understand what Jesus has said, Jesus has to try to explain what he means to them. St John writes in verse 7: ‘So Jesus again said to them …’. 

All that we go on to read about the Shepherd and the sheep is addressed not to those like the blind man who believe in Jesus, but to those like the Pharisees who do not.

St John describes what Jesus says in verses 1-5 as a ‘figure of speech’. What Jesus actually says using this figure of speech is simple enough. 

In these verses, Jesus describes a scene that everyone at the time would have been very familiar with. It is of a sheepfold. This was where shepherds put their sheep at night for safe keeping. The sheepfold could be out in the fields, but it could also be a courtyard between houses and shared by sheep owners. At night, the sheep would be put in it, and there would be someone employed as a night porter to keep watch over them. Obviously, if someone came and tried to climb in over the wall, it would be clear that they were up to no good. The shepherd himself comes to the gate to get his sheep and the porter lets him in.

The shepherd once admitted calls his sheep to him and leads them out, separating them in the process from the sheep who belong to others. The sheep belonging to the shepherd will only follow him. They won’t follow a stranger.

In an urban setting such as ours, this scene is not one we are familiar with and when we do see sheep being rounded up, it is often by a shepherd using a sheep dog. But the image of a shepherd leading his sheep, who can call his sheep by name, and whose sheep respond to his voice would have been commonplace in Jesus’ time, as it still is in some parts of the world.

Which is all very well and good, but we can perhaps begin to sympathize with the Pharisees and wonder what all this has to do with them. So, Jesus then explains the meaning of what he has described to them. His explanation is in two parts. Firstly, Jesus explains, in the scene he has described, that the gate represents him: ‘I am the gate for the sheep,’ Jesus says. Only secondly, in fact, does Jesus explain in verse 11 that the shepherd also represents him. ‘I am the good shepherd,’ Jesus says.

The first thing that people ask at this point is how Jesus can be both the ‘gate’ and the ‘shepherd’, and often come up with imaginative suggestions. The answer, however, is more straightforward without the need for clever explanations. It is that this is a single illustration that serves to explain two different aspects of who Jesus is. It is as if Jesus tells it twice and, after telling it the first time, says, ‘In this scene, I am the gate for the sheep.’ Then, after telling it again a second time, says, ‘This time in the scene I have described, I am the shepherd.’ There are two metaphors at work in the same story. One to show that Jesus is like a gate and the other to show he is also like a shepherd.

He is not literally a shepherd any more than he is literally a gate. Both are, as St John says, a ‘figure of speech’. How, though, does what Jesus say, in either part of the explanation, answer the Pharisees’ original question, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’

In the scene, as Jesus describes it, not only is there a shepherd who leads his sheep through the gate. There are thieves and bandits. ‘The thief,’ says Jesus, ‘comes only to steal and kill and destroy.’ Jesus is not simply explaining to the Pharisees who he is and what he is like, he is commenting on who they are and what they are like. They have driven the blind man out of the synagogue and behaved in a way that was all too typical of them. They don’t care for the ‘sheep’ any more than the ‘thieves and bandits’ care for them.

Anyone reading St John’s Gospel who had also read St Matthew’s Gospel would have known how on one occasion, when Jesus is told that he had offended the Pharisees, he replied:

‘Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.’ (Matthew 15:14)

Jesus’ criticisms of the Pharisees and the religious establishment in general are well-known. They had not behaved as shepherds of God’s people should behave. Jesus, however, had sought for the blind man after he had been thrown out of the synagogue and brought him home. Jesus has come to ‘seek and to save the lost’ (Luke 19:10).

The background to all this is in Ezekiel 34. In the book of Ezekiel, God, speaking through the prophet Ezekiel, condemns the leaders of Israel who fail in their care of and responsibility for God’s people. God himself is compared to a shepherd and his people to the sheep who have been badly let down and badly treated by those who should have cared for and looked after them. God will punish the leaders who have let down his sheep and made them prone to danger. God says:

‘I will rescue my flock; they shall no longer be a prey. And I will judge between sheep and sheep. And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. I am the Lord; I have spoken.’ (Ezekiel 34:22-24)

The two images that Jesus uses in chapter 10 describe how he fulfils Ezekiel’s prophecy. Firstly, by being the ‘gate’ for the sheep and then, secondly, by acting as a ‘good shepherd’ to them. In our reading for this week, we only have one part of Jesus’ explanation of the figure of speech he uses, and it is the part we don’t normally focus on. We tend to be drawn to the second use of this scene by Jesus in which he describes himself as the Good Shepherd and pass over the first, but the first is of equal importance, and it is an important theme running through St John’s Gospel.

There is Jesus tells the Pharisees only one way in and out of the sheepfold and that is through the gate. Only those who enter by him who is the gate will be saved and only those who are part of his flock will find abundant life.

What then does this say to us today?

1. It challenges those who are leaders of the Church.

St John’s Gospel closes with Jesus telling St Peter to ‘feed his sheep’ (John 21:15-17). This pastoral role of ‘caring for the sheep’ is a ministry entrusted to all those in formal ministry in the Church. Some Churches call their ministers, ‘pastors’, a word which comes from the Latin for shepherd.

Are we who are pastors - and I direct this question as much to myself as anyone - blind in the way the Pharisees were? Have we allowed ourselves to be distracted from the ministry we have been given and become focused on other things instead?

And do we who are members of Christ’s Church support our pastors in their ministry? Support them, that is, not by simply agreeing with them or telling them they are wonderful all the time (although perhaps some of the time might be nice!), but by encouraging them to do the job that God has called them to do. Insisting that they do it by being faithful to Christ and without being distracted by other things.

I got an email recently from someone who works for the Church in England saying that they hoped I was enjoying all the relaxation time I now had as a result of the coronavirus. The temptation to react when someone says this sort of thing is very great, and I don’t intend to now. Suffice it to say that it hasn’t been like that.

What I would say, though, is that given the present crisis there has been a need to focus more on what I was originally ordained to do. Sadly, now that there is some light at the end of the tunnel, events, meetings and activities are already being arranged that will once again take pastors away from what God wants us to do. The tragedy is that many of them are being arranged by the pastors themselves!

St Paul, knowing he was not going to see the leaders of the Church at Ephesus again, said in his last words to them:

‘Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son. I know that after I have gone, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Some even from your own group will come distorting the truth in order to entice the disciples to follow them. Therefore be alert …’ (Acts 2:28-31)

The Pharisees that Jesus is speaking to in our reading were highly thought of by the people. They were the synagogue equivalent of bishops and priests, pastors and ministers. Some were simply bad people; others had allowed their service of God to become more about what they wanted rather than what God wanted; some were more worried about what people thought of them instead of what God thought of them. It’s not that they didn’t work hard just that they didn’t work hard for the right thing. They even devoted themselves to mission and gaining new members. The trouble was, Jesus said, that when they succeeded in making a new member, they also made him or her twice the child of hell they were (Matthew 23:15).

We take Jesus words about being the ‘gate’ and the ‘shepherd’ as offering reassurance and comfort, but, originally, they were spoken as criticism and condemnation of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day who offered a false path and who failed those in their care. 

Our Lord’s words, then, are a serious challenge to us all.

2. It affirms that Jesus is the only way to eternal life.

We are terrified of what people will think and say if we teach the uniqueness of Christ. The inevitable questions are asked. What about those who belong to other faiths? What about those who are not religious at all? What about those who live good lives without having faith? (We will return to these questions when we look at the Gospel reading for next week.)

We are not told all the answers to these questions. But we cannot escape the responsibility to preach what we are told. When Jesus says he is the gate, he is telling us how we may get on the path that leads to life and to salvation. In the book of Acts, the early Church described themselves as the ‘Way’. The only way on to the Way is through Jesus the Gate. 

Jesus likens many of the religious leaders of his day to the thief who comes only to ‘steal and kill and destroy’. Jesus came that we might ‘have life and have it abundantly’.

At last we breathe a sigh of relief, it’s all been so negative so far. Warning leaders and limiting salvation to those who believe in Christ. At last we can talk of the life that Jesus offers, but the abundant life that Jesus offers isn’t abundant life as the world understands it but as Jesus understands it. 

Sadly, we fail to tell people the truth about the nature of this life and what going through the Gate onto the Way will involve. This is not because we want to lie but because we don’t want to put them off! We want to bring them to Christ, well to Church at least.

So, we talk of the positives, of which there are many, and leave out anything that sounds negative. Is it any wonder, then, that people are surprised, having committed to faith in Christ, to discover that the Way is hard and demanding, involving sacrifice and suffering.

Jesus himself was uncompromisingly honest about what following him meant, and people stopped following him because of it. He himself warned that people would drop off when they realized just how hard being his follower really was.

Sad though it is to say, what is on offer in our Churches is not what Jesus offered his followers. The sheep are indeed led by Jesus to green pastures, but they also have to walk through dark valleys.

Jesus does give us abundant life, but it is not the abundant life that this world offers. In the verses following our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus goes on to talk about how he is the good Shepherd, as opposed to those he is talking to who have been bad shepherds. The first thing Jesus says about what it means to be the Good Shepherd comes as a shock. Jesus says:

‘The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.’ (John 10:11)

Having said that he came that those who are his sheep may have abundant life, he tells us that this abundant life will be at the cost of his own. In the next paragraph, consisting of just 8 verses, Jesus says he lays down his life for the sheep SIX times. Our life came through his death.

The first words spoken about Jesus in St John’s Gospel are spoken by John the Baptist. He says:

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

Many of the sheep in Jesus’ time were reared for the sacrifices in the Temple. A sheep was offered twice a day every day. And then on Passover thousands of lambs were sacrificed during the Festival. John the Baptist tells us that the One who is the Gate for the Sheep to go through to find life and the One who is the Good Shepherd who knows his sheep by name is himself the Lamb who is slain as a sacrificial offering for their sin.

The Gate to life is covered in blood, the blood of the Shepherd who leads his sheep through it and who offers them his body and blood as their food and drink.

Earlier this week, we remembered the poet Christina Rossetti. Shortly before her death she wrote this:

'None other Lamb; none other name,
none other hope in heaven or earth or sea,
none other hiding-place from guilt and shame,
none beside Thee.

My faith burns low, my hope burns low,
only my heart's desire cries out in me,
by the deep thunder of its want and woe,
cries out to Thee.

Lord, Thou art life, though I be dead,
love's fire Thou art, however cold I be:
nor heaven have I, nor place to lay my head,
nor Home, but Thee.'

None other Lamb; none other name.

May we enter by him who is the Gate, follow him who is our Shepherd, and experience the abundant life given to those who worship the Lamb who has died, but is alive and reigns, now and forever.

Amen.