Monday, 28 September 2015

Our Teacher - Sunday 27th September 2015

When Jesus started out on his second career, as a religious leader, he chose to be a teacher. He wasn’t a priest; he didn’t lead people in prayer or in worship; and he didn’t present himself as the object of their prayer or worship. He was a teacher.
This was the role he chose.
When Jesus taught people, he didn’t teach about religion, or scriptures, or morality, or law; he taught about God. His teaching focussed on the loving, forgiving nature of God, and the need for us to be loving and forgiving in return.
The other religious teachers of Jesus’ day centred their teaching around the study of scripture, interpretation of religious law, and implementation God-given morality. Jesus did not. When teaching in public, all Jesus did was to tell entertaining stories, rooted in every day life, which inspired and challenged peoples hearts with a fresh understanding of God.
If we follow Jesus’ lead, our task is not to persuade people to adopt our religion, or our morality. Our task is to use every day images to reassure people of God’s love and mercy.

Monday, 21 September 2015

Disciples - Sunday 20th September 2015

In Christianity, the word ‘disciple’ has become a synonym for ‘Christian’. In Jesus’ day, however, there was a flourishing movement of disciples and rabbis. Disciples were young men who were training to become rabbis. Jesus and his disciples were a part of that movement, and at least half of Jesus’ “Twelve” were already disciples - of John the Baptist - before they met Jesus.
The usual custom was for prospective disciples to choose a rabbi, and move to the place where that rabbi was teaching. Jesus did the opposite. He picked out the people he wanted, and then moved his home to live near them. Jesus’ wasn’t calling people out of their ordinary lives; he was calling them to live God’s kingdom within their ordinary lives.
This down-to-earth teaching was hugely popular, and that brought Jesus a problem. He had far too many would-be disciples. So he selected just 12, made up of the men from Capernaum he had chosen in the first place, and focussed his attention on them.
In our church today, all of us are called to live out God’s kingdom by loving our neighbours in our daily lives. That is the highest calling. And there are a few who, like Jesus’ disciples, are called to train to become leaders and ministers, to pass on Jesus’ teaching.
These are both godly callings. Which one is God calling you to?

Monday, 14 September 2015

Life's relay - Sunday 13th September 2015

Imagine life as a relay race. John the Baptist was the person who ran the leg before Jesus, and handed the proverbial baton on to him.
John took the well established Jewish ritual of baptism and reimagined it. In traditional Judaism, baptism is a routine purification ritual that is required before a ritually unclean person can return to society and worship. John re-presented baptism as a public expression of turning back to God, with a commitment to live a caring, honest and generous life. John's ultra-simple version of Judaism was hugely popular.
Jesus saw this and decided it was time he moved from his obscure life in Nazareth. By being baptised by John, Jesus endorsed John’s teaching. He taught alongside John for a while, taking on some of John’s disciples. Then, when John was put in prison, Jesus picked up the baton and proclaimed a very similar message.
Jesus made some changes to John’s message. His teaching was even more simple. He dropped the baptism ritual completely, and carefully avoided any teaching that might be interpreted as religious law.
Three years later, Jesus handed the baton over to his disciples. It was their turn. Interestingly, they reintroduced the baptism ritual, merging Jesus’ teaching with John's.
As Christians, we all take a turn with this proverbial baton. For some of us, it is time to take the baton over and run our leg of the race. For others it is time to hand it over to the next generation. As Jesus did things differently from John, and Jesus’ disciples did things differently from him, God leaves it to us to decide how we will run our leg.

Monday, 7 September 2015

Ordinariness - Sunday 6th September 2015

When Jesus was 12 years old he decided to stay in Jerusalem to join the rabbis in the temple and train to become a rabbi. He made an impressive start, but then his mum turned up. She insisted that he return home to Nazareth and train, instead, to be a builder - like Joseph. That one story tells us a lot about why God chose Mary to be Jesus’ mother. In choosing Mary, God chose ordinariness. The Son of God did not come to be special; he came to be ordinary.
This ordinariness can also be seen in the Biblical accounts of Jesus’ birth. Forget the stable, the kindly landlord, Mary's melodramatic ride on a donkey while in labour, and the remarkably bright and moving star. These are mythical additions from centuries of european tradition. What the Bible actually tells us is that Jesus was born in Joseph’s family home, where Joseph and Mary had decided to settle and stay. The only catch was that the guest room was already taken, leaving Mary and Jesus in the cellar where the sheep were kept during the winter.
Jesus’ actual birth was so unremarkably ordinary that two of the Gospels don’t mention it at all, and Matthew only makes a passing reference.
In this ordinariness we see the choice of God. Ordinariness is good!

Thursday, 3 September 2015

What matters - Sunday 30th August 2015

God does not measure us by our beliefs, or by our religious practices. He measures us by the quality of our lives and, in particular, our love.
Religious people have an age-old tendency to get tangled up beliefs and traditions and become distracted from the primary call to love God and neighbour. At worst we use our beliefs and traditions as reasons to behave unlovingly.
In Jesus’ day, religious Jews were very diligent about their traditions relating to ritual purity. They had a wide raft of rules and customs that were designed to keep them pure. But Jesus’ disciples were not keeping to these traditions, and the other religious leaders were concerned that Jesus was undermining their faith.
Jesus pointed out that the dirt that goes into our mouths (from unwashed hands) isn’t the main issue. The real problem is the dirt that comes out of our mouths (what we say, and how we treat other people).
As Christian people we hope that God values our faith and our worship. He does. But he is far more interested in the way that we live out our everyday lives. Faith needs to bring the fruit of a good, honest, caring, generous life, or it is of no value to God.

Which God? - Sunday 23rd August 2015

Which God do you believe in?
The easy answer is to say there is only one God. It wasn’t so simple in the days of the Bible. Then people believed there were lots of gods. The ancient Jews called their God Yahweh, and introduced the idea that Yahweh was the only real god, the creator of everything. (Wherever your English Old Testament says "the LORD”, the Jewish Scriptures have God’s name, Yahweh.)
But what is this one and only God (Yahweh) like?
The I.S. extremists also believe in only one God - the god of Adam, Abraham, David and Jesus, as we do - but their understanding of God is very different from ours. As we see on the news, if our understanding of God doesn’t match what God is really like, we can get into all sorts of trouble.
So, how does your own understanding of God match up with the real creator? Most of us carry round a muddled cocktail of traditional misunderstandings and personal fears & fantasies, mixed in with the universal reality God.
In Christianity we have a clear reference point against which we can check our personal version of God. Jesus. Jesus is God expressed in human terms.
Check your personal understanding of God against the life and message of Jesus. Where it doesn’t clearly match, you need to rethink.

Music - Sunday 16th August 2015

Music is a deep and fundamental part of our human nature. We remember songs and music with remarkable clarity, even from early childhood. Music informs, inspires and alters our feelings. Songs bring together our emotions and our intellects, our hearts and our minds.
For all these reasons, songs have played an important part in human religion throughout the ages. Moses composed a song as he was crossing the parted waters of the Reed (not Red!) Sea. King David was an accomplished musician and songwriter. Isaiah delivered his prophesies as songs. Jesus does not seem to have used music much in his ministry, but St Paul was a keen singer, and may have composed some songs. In his letter to the Christians in Ephesus, Paul urged them to use of music in their meetings.
Singing together - be it in a church or a football stadium - unites and energises people. It is also an excellent way to learn important things. So, in our Christian worship, singing together is a valuable activity in itself.
Finally, because music is so powerful, we would do well to choose carefully the music that we play at home, in the car, or on the bus. Good music, with good words will feed our souls. Bad music with careless words can do the opposite.

A subtle God - Sunday 9th August 2015

There are various things around us that we cannot see or touch or smell or hear, but which are undoubtedly real, and which play an important part in our lives. Electricity and radio waves are two examples. Gravity is another. God seems to work in our lives in a similar way: we can’t see God with our eyes, hear God with our ears, or touch God with our hands. And yet, we know that God is there, playing a real and important part in our lives.
We sometimes want God to do something dramatic. We think we would be encouraged by a miracle. But God consistently chooses to work with the subtlety and quietness of gravity. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day wanted him to do a dramatic miracle, like Moses had done. But Jesus chose to live an ordinary life in an ordinary town, surrounded by ordinary people. “This,” he told them, “is the kingdom of God.”
As we seek to do God’s work in the community around us, it is a task of quiet consistency. Just as gravity quietly and consistently keeps our feet on the ground, so our task as Christians is to quietly and consistently draw people to the welcoming and forgiving love of God.

Who cares? - Sunday 12th July 2015

Jesus rarely got into specific details in his teaching. He left that for us to work out. For example, when he taught people to make sure they chose the right path, he didn't define that path. It seems that he was saying, “It’s not complicated. You can work that bit out for yourself.”
But in the last few days of his life, he did get down to specifics.
He said: 'God will say to the righteous, “Come and share in eternity. When I was hungry, you fed me. When I was cold, you gave me clothes. When I was ill, you visited me.” But the righteous people will say, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or cold or ill?” And God will reply, “Whenever you saw the least of all these people in need, and cared for them, you cared for me.”’ (from Matthew 25:35f)
So here we have it. This is what God expects of us. There is no mention of rituals or religious observance; there is no mention of personal morality or religious law.
It all boils down to one factor: did we care for those who needed our care when we had an opportunity to care for them?

God's business - Sunday 5th July 2015

Jesus likened God’s judgement to a wealthy businessman who took a long break from work, leaving different parts of his business in the care of three trusted employees. Two of them expanded their part of the business, doubling it’s value, but the third did nothing other than keep things exactly as they were. When the boss returned from his travels, he called the three employees in to report. The first said, “You trusted me with a £5 million business, it is now worth £10 million.” The second said, “You trusted me with £2 million, now you have £4 million.” The boss commended them both, offering promotions and increased responsibilities.
The third said to his boss, “I knew you are a harsh man who punishes failure, so I have kept things as they were. Here is your business, just as you left it.” The boss was angry. “So you thought that I’m a harsh man who punishes failure, and still you did nothing! Throw him out, and give his part of the business to the first man.” (Matthew 25:14-30)
God has entrusted his earthly business to us. He expects us to make something of it. If we don’t even try, he will indeed be angry.

Generosity - Sunday 28th June 2015

God is generous. He loves to be generous. He doesn’t carefully measure out the minimum he can get away with; he wants all of us to receive everything that we need.
God is like an employer who agrees a living wage for their full-time employees, and then decides to pay exactly the same salary to the part time staff, and even the occasional staff. God is like that. He loves to be generous.
However, God’s generosity can leave us feeling grumpy. Imagine an employer did agree to pay a living wage for their full-time employees, and then paid exactly the same salary to their part time staff, and even their occasional staff. Some would be working long hours, some short hours, and some hardly any hours at all - yet they would all take home the same pay at the end of the week. The full timers would quickly start complaining. They did in Jesus’ story, “The Workers in the Vineyard”. (Matthew 20:1-16)
God’s idea of equality and fairness is quite different from our own. He works on the principles of generosity and need (not of cost and reward). God loves to be generous, and he wants us to be generous too.

Lost & Found - Sunday 21st June 2015

Religious people have a habit of criticising those whose lives did not live up to their high standards. Jesus told three stories to demonstrate how deeply and dearly God cares for people who go off the traditional rails.
A Palestinian shepherd who lost a sheep would have to let it go; his responsibility was to stay with the rest of the flock. But the shepherd in Jesus’ story abandons all his other sheep to find the one that had wandered off. That’s what God is like.
Anyone who loses a valuable coin might search their house until they find it. But the woman in Jesus’ story continues her search through the night, and then calls her friends round for a party to celebrate finding it. That’s what God is like.
And then there is the story of the forgiving father, who’s younger son fritters away half the family’s ancestral heritage. When he finally returns home, penniless and starving, the father welcomes him like a victorious hero. That’s what God is like. Then, when the disapproving older brother refuses to join the celebrations, his father pleads with him to reconsider, pointing out that he loves them both.
Jesus’ portrait of God is undignified, unjudgmental and ready for a party whenever someone who was lost is finally found.
That’s what God is like.

Parables of Growth - Sunday 14th June

Jesus’ parables about growth all have unexpected endings. The sower, who would expect an 8 to 10 fold return on his seed, gets a return that is 60 to 100 fold. The mustard seed, that would normally grow into a spindly waist-high plant, grows into a great tree. In God’s realm things are far more vibrant than we would dare to expect.
The parable of the wheat and the weeds also has a twist. Any normal farmer or gardener gets rid of the weeds in order to maximise their crop. But Jesus’ ‘Kingdom of God’ farmer, astounds his workers by insisting that the weeds be left until harvest time. This would have been agricultural madness, but the parable is not about farming methods; it is about God.
We want, and expect, God to sort out society and to get rid of the violence, injustice and corruption. But Jesus’ is showing us that God sees things differently. God had decided to leave the weeds in the world for now. He will deal with them, but in his own time. So, when we look around our world and see all manner of bad things, we need to understand that God has chosen to let it be so for the present. He is working to a longer vision. So when we pray for the suffering in our world, we need to seek God’s perspective and not simply tell God what we think he should be doing.

Trinity - Sunday 31st May 2015

God is unexplainable, but that’s no great surprise. Lots of things in the world around us are unexplainable. Light - with which you are reading this - exists as a continuous wave and as a steam of particles at the same time, and science cannot explain how. So, for God to be the creator of the universe, and Jesus, and the spirit living within us is no more unexplainable than lots of other features of the world around us.
We experience God in a variety of different ways, and many of those experiences are unexplainable. We needn’t panic if we cant explain it. The important thing is that we are open to God as he informs us, challenges us, inspires us, comforts us, corrects us, inspires us…. the list could go on for ever!

Pentecost - Sunday 24th May 2015

When God’s Spirit made his move on Jesus’ disciples, it wasn’t neat and tidy in the way that we like our lives to be organised. God caused an explosion of activity and communication which sent different people in different directions, speaking different languages. God specialises in diversity - creation itself shows us that. When God’s Spirit moves among us, he will do so uniquely for each one of us. He will inspire and empower each of us to do what we alone can do. Like the undergrowth in a woodland, the work of God’s Spirit may look chaotic, but it will become vibrant and fruitful…if we each play our part.

Ascension - Sunday 17th May

It is normal and natural for us humans to want everything to be neatly resolved. The Ascension Day narrative of Jesus safely returned to his throne in heaven has been enduringly popular, but that is not the narrative the New Testament gives us. The New Testament only tells us of Jesus’ bewildered disciples staring into heaven, and then casting lots to select a new apostle to replace Judas - just in case it was important.
What we learn is that God has chosen to put his mission into our hands. He trusts us, even though he knows that our understanding is limited. There is little point in sitting around waiting for an ‘act of God’ because God is waiting for us to act. It is for us to work out what sort of christians we need to be.

Simply Love - Sunday 10th May 2015

Jesus - at the Last Supper - reduced all his teaching down to one ‘new’ commandment: “Love one another”.
This is what it means to be Jesus’ disciples. It is not possible to worship God without actively and explicitly loving and caring for one another. This is the heart and soul of Jesus’ message. So it is not only important, but essential, that we talk to each other, and listen to each other, and support each other.
Looked at from this perspective, “The Peace” and the cup of coffee at the end - which are relatively new developments - are the most important features of our worship. And in the more traditional features of the service like the music and the prayers, we can’t just pray to God, we need to pray together; and we can’t just sing to God, we need to sing together.
As Jesus said: “by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another."

Good fruit - Sunday 3rd May

Jesus told his disciples that, like a vine is planted to produce grapes, he chose them to ‘bear fruit’. Typically, Jesus leaves it to us to work out what that fruit might be. He went on to say that as a gardener prunes and trims a vine to increase its yield, so God helps us to be as fruitful as possible.
As individuals, we need to consider what parts of our lives are fruitful and what are not. We need to be prepared to prune and trim the unfruitful areas so the fruitful ones can flourish. This does not come as a punishment from God. He wants us to be the best that we can be.

Suffering - 26th April 2015

When we reflect on Jesus’ death and resurrection, our understanding of suffering is challenged. By default, we think of suffering as being the result of something or someone going wrong. But Jesus chose to suffer, and presents his suffering as a good thing, not a bad thing. In Jesus we see suffering, not as a disaster, but as an act of love. In Jesus’ day, all suffering was considered to be a consequence of sin. Jesus challenged that belief. He offers us a new perspective: suffering is an opportunity to love, and love is the stuff of God.
When there are disasters on the news, we naturally look at images of devastation and conclude that something has gone horribly wrong. Jesus, however, looks at it as an opportunity for human beings to demonstrate their capacity to love one another. You can see it on the faces on the news coverage. At desperate times, the very best of humanity reveals itself. And that is the stuff of God.

Forgiveness - 19th April, 2015

As we explore Jesus’ resurrection, we discover ‘forgiveness’ to be the central theme. This is what Jesus talked about when he first met his disciples, and this was Peter’s central message a few weeks later. God doesn’t just wipe away our sins, he completely obliterates them. The message for us in this is that God is far more interested in our lovingness than in our failings. As we play our part in the world around us, we need to be people who point out opportunities for love and care; and we need to not be people who point out failings and mistakes.