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2014 Trinity 11 - Take up your cross

Trinity 11. 31 August 2014   ‘Take up your cross’.

Just before I went away on holiday, I went to the barbers to get my hair cut. I went in after evening prayer, still wearing my clerical shirt and dog collar.

The young lady who cut my hair was very friendly and started chatting. Noticing my dog collar she asked, ‘So are you a vicar then?’ I explained that I was a curate, a sort of trainee vicar if you like.

She was interested about the rules that we have live by – she seemed to think that we weren’t allowed to do various things, like drinking alcohol. I quickly put her right on that one!

I was explaining to her that rather than ‘rules’ as such, all Christians tried to live by certain values.

This seemed to trigger something in her mind, maybe a memory from a school assembly or something – I don’t know - but she suddenly said, “I couldn’t do that because I would really struggle with the whole thing about loving your neighbour. I hate my neighbour. Is that a really bad thing to say?!”

Well it was very honest if nothing else! But it did make me think about just how hard it is to be a true disciple of Jesus Christ.

It can be very hard to love one’s neighbour. In the case of the young lady who cut my hair, she was probably referring literally to her next door neighbour, but as we all know from the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus extends ‘neighbour’ to mean much more than just who we physically live near to.

Discipleship can be very difficult.

I use the term ‘discipleship’ rather than ‘being a Christian’, because for many people, myself included until relatively recently, being a Christian means simply someone who believes in Jesus Christ.

Being a Christian tells someone what you believe; being a disciple shows someone what that belief actually means.

The word ‘disciple’ is translated from the Greek word ‘mathetes’ meaning a pupil or an apprentice. Our English word ‘disciple’ comes from the Latin word ‘discipulus’ meaning a learner.

We are all disciples of Jesus Christ, and as such we are all pupils or learners.

But it doesn’t stop there.

It isn’t enough just to be a learner or a pupil.

There is no point in learning from the teacher if we don’t then put into practice what we are taught.

No lesson that has ever been taught in any school or university has ever been taught simply for the purpose of learning itself. Learning is nothing if we are not changed by that learning, if we do not understand or act or behave differently because of it.

As we come to church, week by week, month by month, and listen to the scriptures being read, to the teaching that they contain, to the sermons that are preached, and yet we are not challenged to see things differently;

if we do not in some small way think differently; if we don’t allow our perspectives to shift, if we don’t act in some way on what we have learned, then are we truly doing what we are called to do as disciples, as pupils, as learners of Jesus Christ?

Being a Christian tells someone what you believe; being a disciple shows someone what that belief actually means.

And we will get it wrong. Just look at Peter.

By the time of our gospel reading today, Peter and the other disciples have been following Jesus for many weeks and months; they have sat at his feet and listened as he taught them; they have witnessed his extraordinary powers at close quarters.

Peter himself has just declared that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God – he has recognised and understood who Jesus really is, and has received Jesus’ blessing for his faith, asserting that he will be the rock on whom Jesus will build his entire church.

Surely the pinnacle of achievement for Peter as a disciple.

But within the space of a few sentences, no more than 2 or three verses in Matthew’s gospel, Peter goes from hero to zero.

No sooner is he praised and blessed by Jesus, than Peter is on the receiving end of a sharp and painful rebuke from Jesus.

As Jesus foretells his death and the manner of his suffering to come, Peter takes Jesus aside and insists that such a painful death, such suffering must never happen to him.

He simply won’t allow his teacher, the one who he has recognised as the messiah, to suffer and die in this way.

But Jesus knows what must come.

He understands God’s plan, and knows that the only way for him to bring about the salvation that he has come to give, is for him to suffer, and to be hung on a cross to die.

The impetuous Peter, out of his love for Jesus, refuses to accept that it has to be this way, and in doing so, stands in the way of God’s plan for salvation.

As a result, he receives that shocking rebuke from Jesus, “Get behind me, Satan!”

Even Jesus’ closest disciples got it wrong.

‘Satan’ literally means ‘Adversary’, someone who is acting against the will of God.

In referring to Peter as Satan, Jesus is using dramatic language to try and get Peter to understand that in trying to protect Jesus, he is standing in the way of God himself.

But as well as referring to Peter as Satan, there is also a clear instruction in Jesus’ rebuke.

“Get behind me, Satan.”

He is saying to Peter, “your place is behind me, not in front of me. It is your place to follow me in the way I choose, not to try to lead me in the way you would like to go.”

It is all too tempting sometimes to try to control Jesus in our lives.

It’s all too easy to ignore Jesus’ teachings when it suits us, when the call to love our neighbour as ourselves is too hard.

But we cannot follow Jesus if we put ourselves in front of him. We cannot be disciples of Jesus unless we constantly seek to learn from him and to follow him.

Having reminded Peter in no uncertain terms of his place to follow Jesus from behind, he then reminds all his disciples, including you and me, what we must do to follow him; what it really means to get behind Jesus and to follow his lead.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Here we have a clear 3 point plan of what is required of us if we want to follow Jesus Christ:

1: We are to deny ourselves.

To deny ourselves is not to give up chocolate for lent, or to resist the temptation of buying another nice pair of shoes or the latest gadget.

That’s not what Jesus meant.

Instead, it means to say no to self, and yes to God.

It means to put God at the centre of our lives and not ourselves.

2: We are to take up our cross.

Being a disciple and following Jesus is costly.

To our 21st century ears, the call to take up our cross is heard just as some flowery metaphor. To first century ears, though, it would have been heard in the context of the pain, the suffering, the harshness of the favoured means of torture and execution of the day.

Jesus pulls no punches here. He is warning us that we too, as his disciples, must share in the suffering and sacrifice that he must endure.

The Christian life is a life of sacrificial service. Not great moments of sacrifice like Jesus did, but to live daily a life in constant awareness of the demands of God and the needs of others.

3: We are to follow Jesus.

To follow Jesus means a constant obedience to him in how we think, in what we say, and in our actions.

It doesn’t just mean random acts of kindness. It doesn’t just mean doing our bit to help.

Good though those things are in themselves, they are not enough.

To follow Jesus means to leave behind our old ways; to leave behind our old understandings; to leave behind our old perspectives, and to follow instead the new life in Jesus Christ.

1: We are to deny ourselves;

2: We are to take up our cross;

and 3: We are to follow Jesus.

Jesus knew that what he was asking was not easy. He knew that his disciples would stumble and make mistakes.

Despite Peter’s impetuous nature and his tendency to get it wrong, Jesus chose him to form the rock on which his church would be built.

Despite our own weaknesses; despite our own inability to live up to the demands of true discipleship, Jesus still works in and through us.

And it is the Eucharist which sustains as we seek to live and grow as his disciples.

In the Eucharist we meet the risen Lord Jesus, and it is in his strength and in his power that we are able to strive to be his disciples.

At the end of this service we will say the words of thanksgiving for being fed with the body and blood of his Son Jesus Christ. We then go on to pray these words:

Through him we offer you our souls and bodies to be a living sacrifice. Send us out in the power of your Spirit, to live and work to your praise and glory.”

Let us pray:

Lord Jesus, may we truly offer you our souls and our bodies as a living sacrifice, as we seek to deny ourselves and take up our cross; and may we go from here as true disciples to follow you; to live and to work to your praise and glory. Amen.

2014 Trinity 8 - Evensong sermon

Trinity 8: Evensong – Acts 14: 8-20

As you came in this evening, hopefully you were given a piece of paper with a picture of an old lady on it. If I can ask you to find it and have a look at the picture please.

We should all have a picture of an old lady with a big nose and a jutting out chin, a shawl over her head, and wearing a thick fur coat.

Now look again. Can you see anything else?

If I told you that I can see a beautiful, elegant woman, would you think I was mad?

Look again.

Can you see what I see?

The elegant woman is looking away from us, her chin is where the old lady’s nose it, and her necklace is the old lady’s mouth. She has a small nose, and her left ear is where the old lady’s left eye is. She is wearing an elegant headdress with a feather at the front.

Now do you see what I see?

Well the purpose of that exercise was to demonstrate that we all see things based on our own expectations. We all interpret things based on what we know from our previous experiences. As human beings, everything we have ever learned in our lives we have had to make sense of based on our previous experiences.

There is a story of a young girl who was shown a lizard for the first time in a bucket. As she peered into the bucket, she gasped and exclaimed, “It’s an alligator”.

That little girl had never seen a lizard before, but her alphabet book began with A for Alligator, with a picture of an alligator next to the letter. When she saw the lizard, as far as she was concerned she had just seen her first real life alligator.

She interpreted what she saw based on her previous experiences – that is all any of us have to go on.

Well the story we heard from the Acts of the Apostles is also all about understanding (or misunderstanding) based on previous experiences and knowledge.

Let’s just briefly explore some of the background to the story.

The story is set in the town of Lystra, in what is modern day central southern Turkey. Lystra at that time was a pagan town with no synagogue, and the native tongue was Lycaonian, not Greek.

There was a well-known legend in Lystra at the time that once upon a time, their pagan gods Zeus and Hermes had come down to Earth in disguise. Legend has it that no one welcomed them or gave them any hospitality, until eventually two old peasants took them in.

As a result, the entire population was destroyed by the gods, except, that is, for these two peasants, who were made guardians of a wonderful temple, and were turned into two great trees when they died.

So when Paul and Barnabas arrive in this non-Greek speaking pagan land, they find themselves in unfamiliar territory. Their previous modus operandi had been to go to the local synagogue, and teach the Jews there about the good news of Jesus Christ.

But there were no Jews in Lystra, and no synagogue. The native tongue of the townsfolk was Lycaonian, a language that Paul and Barnabas didn’t speak.

But God works through Paul regardless of these barriers. Instead of bringing the reality of the good news of Jesus Christ through teaching, it is Paul’s miraculous curing of the crippled man that does the talking here.

Language and culture is no barrier for God – if Paul can’t teach in a synagogue, then let the people see the reality of who Jesus is in an amazing, physical demonstration of his healing power.

The people of Lystra witness the healing of a man who has been unable to walk since birth. They respond, shouting in their native tongue, excited and amazed at what they have seen before them.

Paul and Barnabas look on – they don’t understand the language, so they don’t realise that there has been a huge misunderstanding.

Unbeknown to Paul and Barnabas at this stage, the townsfolk have remembered the local legend of Zeus and Hermes coming in disguise, and they remember what happened to all the population apart from those two peasants.

They are convinced that the miracle they have just witnessed can only be the work of their gods; that Zeus and Hermes have once again come down to Earth. And the people are determined not to make the same mistake twice!

Desperate to show their gods due reverence, they rush out to the temple of Zeus just outside the city, and hurriedly bring their priest of Zeus to make a sacrifice in honour of their unexpected guests.

Suddenly the penny drops for Paul and Barnabas.

They realise to their horror what has happened.

Instead of understanding the miraculous healing that they have just witnessed as a demonstration of the love and power of Jesus Christ, the people of Lystra have instead interpreted what they have seen based on their previous experiences.

Paul immediately tries to put things right, and desperately tries to convince the crowd that they are mere human beings; that far from being the pagan gods they have been mistaken for, they are there to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to the people.

And yet, despite Paul’s best efforts, we are told that it’s all the two men can do to stop the people from offering a sacrifice to them.

Like the little girl with the lizard, the people of Lystra have used their previous experiences and understanding and jumped to the wrong conclusion.

How often do we do that ourselves? I wonder how often we fail to understand fully because of our own experiences and our own points of reference.

Like the people of Lystra, we use our previous experiences to help us make sense of something new that we haven’t seen before.

The townsfolk of Lystra had a totally different worldview from that of Paul and Barnabas, and when those two worlds collided it resulted in confusion, misunderstanding and mistaken identity on a grand scale.

It’s the same for us today as we try to make sense of the actions or behaviours of other people or cultures.

It happens when we come across people day to day who see things differently; whose opinions differ radically from our own because their reference points, their history, their experiences are different from our own.

And how do we respond when we encounter opinions; beliefs; ways of doing things that are dramatically different from our own? How good are we at recognising that both parties might be right within their own given context? I suspect that most of us are probably not very good at this actually.

I remember at College I had to do a placement in a church which, it’s fair to say did things quite differently from what I was used to. The sermons were at least half an hour long (don’t worry – this won’t be!); the Eucharist was bolted on to the end of a time of worship rather than being the climax of the worship; and hands would be lifted high in the air as the worship songs were sung, verse after verse, chorus after chorus.

It was a whole new experience for me. I tried to engage and understand it based on my previous experiences and understanding of worship but without much success. With hindsight, what I needed to do was to recognise that they had a different understanding, a different world-view from me. They weren’t wrong to worship in the way they did – they just experienced God in a different way.

God is not one dimensional. He is not limited to any one particular way of making himself known to others. Just because we might experience God’s presence most effectively in one particular way, doesn’t mean to say that others don’t genuinely experience it in other, very different ways just as powerfully, however strange it may seem or uncomfortable it may make us feel.

It is only through the Holy Spirit working in us that we can interpret and understand these new experiences.

And it is that same Holy Spirit who is alive in our churches, too, and in the world.

What looks like a new thing which might scare and alarm us is but another way of knowing Jesus. For Jesus comes to us in new ways, in every generation and in every culture.

Like Paul and Barnabas, we too are to be filled with the Holy Spirit as we share the gospel afresh in our own culture, and in our own towns and villages.

Jesus will appear in new ways, but the fruits of his presence will be the same: love, joy, peace, forgiveness, healing and reconciliation. We are, each one of us, the messengers of that gospel which transcends and speaks to every generation and every place.

As we share the reality of who Jesus is with others, which we are all called to do, we will sometimes be met with misunderstanding or misinterpretation;

but we must remember that just as some people see only the old lady in the picture and are unable to see the young, elegant woman; so too there are those who will receive and embrace the gospel and accept it in their lives, and there are others who may need longer to see the truth, who may need to experience Jesus in a different way in order to recognise him and accept him.

Our job, as disciples of Jesus, is to help those around us and those we meet to know the truth of who Jesus is; to help people to see things from a different perspective; and to remember that ours is not the only way to know and to experience Jesus.


2014 Trinity 7 - Feeding the 5000

Year A – Trinity 7 – 3rd August 2014

A few years ago, before going off to Theological College, I did a course at Worth Abbey on Personal & Spiritual Growth. At the first session we had a time of silent prayer and reflection, during which I had a very clear image in my mind of a child at a sweet shop window, nose pressed up to the glass, standing outside in the freezing cold, staring longingly at all the wonderful things that lay beyond the glass, the warm yellow light of the shop spilling out onto the snow-covered pavement outside. It was like one of those Victorian scenes on a biscuit tin.

As I reflected on this image, it spoke to me of standing on the threshold of a newly-discovered faith as I was at that time, looking through the window at all the treasure that lay ahead. I felt like the small child outside in the cold, transfixed by the sight of all the wonders that waited for me inside the shop; that all I had to do was to open the door and step inside to the warmth of the shop, and breath in that sweet, sticky smell of delicious treats.

As I read the wonderful passage from Isaiah that we heard just now, I was immediately transported back to that shop window, with the promises of wine and milk without money or price, of water for the thirsty and rich food for the hungry. The invitation in the first line of the Isaiah passage is not restricted to Jews or Gentiles, but to all who thirst, to all who have no money.

Like the invitation of the sweets to the child on the snowy pavement, so Isaiah tells of the invitation to all who thirst and are hungry. This is an invitation to all to come and share in the bounty of the new covenant, not just those who can afford to, but to those who have nothing; ‘Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price’. It is an invitation to come and to listen, and to live life in its full vitality.

That invitation is manifested in Jesus Christ. In Jesus, all are invited to come and listen, to eat the good food that he has to offer. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is seeking rest and solitude for himself, a space to be alone and reflect on the news of the murder of his cousin John the Baptist.

But the crowds spot him and word gets out – people gather from the towns and villages to get a glimpse of this extraordinary man, whose healing powers they so desperately seek. Jesus sees the crowd and responds with compassion, going among them, healing the sick and tending their needs.

As evening falls, the disciples come to Jesus, suggesting that he send the crowds away, back to the villages and towns to buy food.

Now, if you’re feeling generous, you might say they were trying to be kind and thoughtful, recognising the needs of the crowd for food. But Jesus has other plans. He knows and understands the needs of the crowd, and he knows that with God, the hungry can come with empty purses and buy rich food and wine with no money.

Jesus is the manifestation of God’s glorious invitation to all who hunger and thirst. All who come to God and trust in Him through Jesus will be fed and have fullness of life.

And so he turns the tables on the Disciples and says to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’

The Disciples don’t understand. They don’t have anything like enough food to feed the thousands that have gathered. All they have is five loaves and two fish. But Jesus isn’t phased by this response, instructing the Disciples to bring what little food there is to him.

Imagine what must have been going through the minds of the Disciples as they gathered in the humble picnic:

“How on earth are we supposed to feed all these people with so little?”

“How can we possibly do what Jesus is asking of us? We won’t get past the first fifty with this tiny amount, let alone 100 times that number.”

It must have been an incredibly daunting task.

But Jesus takes the humble offering of bread and fish, and looking up to his Father in heaven, blesses and breaks the bread. Yes there may be overtones of the Eucharist here, but the real focus for me is on God’s extraordinary abundance.

Jesus gives the food to the disciples and they in turn give the food to the thousands gathered on the grass. From the meagre pickings, they were able to feed the whole crowd, not just a tiny portion each, but enough that there was food left over to fill twelve baskets.

It is truly miraculous that so many people were fed so plentifully from such small pickings. But as well as this wonderful miracle by Jesus, there is another strand worth drawing out from this story.

A few years ago when my two sons were much younger, I remember one of them asking the vicar at the church where we worshipped why it was that God didn’t do something about the fact that some people in the world have lots and lots of food, and yet there are millions of people in the world who don’t have any food at all.

The vicar replied with a question of his own. “Who fed the five thousand in the story we heard earlier?”

“Jesus did” came the reply. “No he didn’t” said the vicar; “The disciples did. Jesus gave the food to the disciples and they fed the crowd.”

He went on to explain that in the same way that the disciples used the food that was given to them by Jesus to feed the gathered crowd, so too we as disciples of Christ today are called to use what has been given to us, to share it with others, to feed the hungry and the poor.

I remember standing there, transfixed by this answer. Yes, it might have been a slightly complicated answer to give to a child, but for me it was the first time I had ever made a connection between what the disciples did with those loaves and fishes, and my own, personal responsibility as a steward of God’s abundant gifts. I realised there and then that there is no point in laying any of the blame for hunger in the world at God’s door.

We need to trust in God and in his astonishing abundance. When Jesus turned the tables on the disciples and said to them, “You give them something to eat”, it must have been an incredibly daunting prospect for them.

They were practical men of the sea; they knew through their own experience as seasoned fishermen how much fish was needed to feed a family. They knew just how long and hard they had to labour to haul in a decent catch of fish, enough to sell at the market place and to make a living. Two fish and a few loaves of bread must have seemed a ridiculous prospect when faced with hoards of hungry people gathered around them. And yet we are told that the disciples obediently began to give the food to the crowd.

Imagine the growing excitement and wonder of the disciples as they began to feed the crowd. Expecting the food only to stretch to a fraction of the hungry crowd, imagine what they must have thought when they had given food to the first 20, the first 50, the first 100.

At some point they must have realised that there was enough food for the next person, and the next, and the next. That however much food they gave out, there was still more provided. Imagine the wonder and amazement that the disciples must have felt. There must have been a growing excitement and realisation that something quite extraordinary was happening in their midst.

They must have felt a tingle down their spines as the enormity of what they were achieving sank in.

And all this from such small and humble beginnings.

You feed them.” That was the command from Jesus to the disciples 2,000 years ago, and that is his command to all of us today.

In the same way that the disciples must have been daunted by this command when faced with so little food to work with, so too it can be daunting for us as we see images of suffering in our world; of emaciated children barely conscious through lack of food or basic hygiene; of families displaced from their homes through war and violence.

It is so easy for us to feel helpless in the face of such wide scale suffering. How can I possibly make a difference? What could I possibly do with the little that I have to help those in need?

You feed them” is only daunting if we don’t trust in the generosity of God.

This miracle story of the loaves and fishes shows us what part each one of us might play in God’s miracles. Jesus made the miracle happen, but the disciples fed the crowd.

A boy shared a humble picnic of bread and fish; so too our own humble gifts can be used by God to make amazing things happen.

We need to trust in the generosity of God. We need to be reminded just what God can achieve from our own, small, apparently insignificant gifts. Whether it be donations to famine relief charities; gifts of food for the local foodbank; gifts of time in the local volunteer centre (gifts of money for the church restoration appeal), we need to trust in the generosity of God.

“Come and buy,” Isaiah shouts. Like the small boy at the sweet shop window, we too must marvel at God’s generosity and abundance.

And in the same way that sense of wonder must have energised and spurred on the disciples as they realised the miracle playing out before them, so too I pray that we may be energised and motivated as we trust in the generosity of God, and offer all that we can, however humble, to feed the hungry, to help those in need, to relieve the suffering of others (or even to restore a much loved place of worship). Amen