Reading the Acts of the Apostles

This teenager has just got his driving licence. He asks his father, who is a vicar, if they can discuss his use of the car. His father says to him, “I’ll make a deal with you. You do better at college, study your Bible a little, and get your hair cut, then we will talk about it.”

A month later the boy comes back and again asks his father if they can discuss his use of the car. His father replies, “Son, I’m really proud of you. You have done much better at college, you’ve studied your Bible diligently, but you didn’t get your hair cut!” The young man waits a moment and replies, “You know Dad, I’ve been thinking about that. You know Samson had long hair, Moses had long hair, Noah had long hair, and even Jesus had long hair.”

 “yes” His father replies, “ and they walked everywhere they went!”

Teenagers! We were all teenagers once. Maybe you can remember the spots, the awkwardness and that feeling that you could do anything – if only your parents would let you. The teenage years are all about separation – kids asserting their right to think differently, dress differently and smell differently to the parents. Do religions have a teenage phase too?

This week, if you’ve been doing the CBE, we’ve been reading the Acts of the Apostles, and Paul’s letters to Thessalonica. How did you find it?

The story of Acts is really the story of how Christianity came to separate from Judaism, and it is virtually the story of one man: Saul of Tarsus. Of course, Peter, James, Philip and Barnabas play a part, but Paul is the focus. Part of that is because Luke, who wrote Acts and the Gospel, was one of Paul’s travelling companions, and partly because Paul is just such a giant, and his pioneering ministry to non-Jews created the church which later decided which books got into the New Testament.

What struck me as I read Acts is the sheer courage of Paul, but also the utter self assurance and relentlessness of the man. He is unstoppable: mostly in a good way, but I wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of him.

But I’d like us to dig behind the human story of this gifted man, because the story of Acts is really the story of the Holy Spirit. Have you noticed just how many times Luke tells us that Peter, Paul and other apostles and preachers performed healing miracles? Some people think that Jesus performed healings because he was the son of God, but that Christians today shouldn’t expect them. But that is not the way it seems in the book of Acts. Lots of people are performing healings, and even people who are not Christians are using the name of Jesus to have a go at healing and deliverance. Think about that strange reading about the sons of Sceva in Acts. These men are Jewish, not even real believers in Jesus, yet they realise there is power in the name of Jesus, and they are able to use that power up to a point.

It makes you wonder, doesn’t it? What power are we missing out on? Why do the Pentecostal churches preach about and practice healing all the time, and we Anglicans are so wary and quiet about it?

Sometimes it is because we know that healing doesn’t always come. We don’t want to raise people’s hopes, in case they are hurt if they are not healed. But what I see in Acts, is that life is a lot more chaotic than that: Peter is set free from prison by an angel, but just days earlier James has been killed after being in the same prison; Paul is spared from death in a ship wreck, but he is stoned, lashed, beaten with rods and almost lynched so many times that he appears to have 9 lives; lots of people get healed, but Ananias and Sapphira drop dead in front of Peter, just for lying. Miracles happen throughout the pages of Acts, but still there is a lot of suffering. It’s not like the apostles have a charmed existence. They live quite close to death all the time.

We would perhaps like a much neater picture, but the Holy Spirit seems to weave a much more complex web. It is the Spirit who blocks Paul from mission in one part of Turkey, only to send him to Greece. It is a prophet who warns Paul that he will be imprisoned if he goes to Jerusalem, and yet Paul still goes ahead and goes there. There is this weaving of divine intervention and human will: God and us working in partnership, usually reasonably harmoniously, but certainly not always. We have to get good at hearing God.

So one question that occurs to me is: when did you last sense that God wanted you to do something other than what you had already decided to do? Surely this is the difference between a religion and a philosophy: philosophy is about living life by certain principles, like love, non-violence, honesty; religion has similar principles, but it is open to the sovereign voice of God. So when did God last speak to you, or prompt you to do something?

And how does God speak to us? We have in Acts examples of some different ways: visions, often accompanied by words (like Peter’s vision of a sheet full of animals); prophecies (like Agabus’ prophecy over Paul); the whole church in debate (like the Council in Jerusalem); and the whole church at prayer (like when the Church in Antioch sent out Paul and Barnabas); and then there are times when we are not told how the message came. And I guess that the underlying message here is that we should certainly expect God to speak to us, individually and together. Quite often God will speak as we still ourselves in prayer – do you dismiss those thoughts that come whilst you are praying, or might they be the voice of God? God may also speak through others, but we should expect to find a certain inner witness, when that happens.

And that leads me onto another thing: how do we know what is the voice and will of God, and what is not? This is an issue that will come back time and again in our next weeks of reading, as we look at the letters. You see, the letters are often written because a church has taken a wrong move: they have thought something or done something that is leading them away from Jesus.

But presumably those Christians thought that what they were doing was okay. So in Thessalonica, some Christians had given up work and were living off their brothers and sisters because they were convinced that the end of the world and the return of our Lord Jesus was coming soon. Other Christians were worried that Jesus had already come back and that this present, tough life was all that there was to expect.

Paul writes 1 and 2 Thessalonians into this mix. He asserts that Jesus has not come back yet, but we should live in preparation for that moment. There is a clear sense in which Paul and other early Christians expected Jesus to come back in glory within those middle years of the first century. And they were wrong. Jesus is yet to come back.

So in what sense should we trust what Paul, Peter, Luke and others write? There are no easy answers to that, but it comes back to Jesus. We follow a particular man, who was somehow more than a man; he was the Son of God. He was such a catalyst of God’s power, that even his name alone has power. His disciples heal people in his name. we too speak healing in his name.

The power of God flows through the teaching and lifestyle of Jesus. Loving enemies; giving away our money; sharing everything; living a life of prayer; practising holiness – these habits are like magnets to the power of God. God shows up where we practice these things: churches are made, ill people are healed, hungry people are fed and there is good news for those who want it.

But these things also attract negative energy too. People who are following the teaching of Jesus and seeking to love God as Jesus taught, find themselves being attacked by those who don’t agree. Giving away stuff challenges those who want to sell stuff; in Ephesus the merchants lead the riot. Sharing everything challenges those who want people to stay separate; Jews keep attacking Paul for relaxing the barriers around their religion. Practising holiness challenges those who want a hedonistic lifestyle; you’ve all experienced how threatened people get when you won’t join in with the highly sexualised, alcohol driven, anxiety fuelled lifestyle all around us. Persecution and opposition somehow go with the life of Jesus. So don’t be surprised when it happens to you.

Through it all, we keep coming back to Jesus. Paul is driven by this passion to make Jesus known amongst people who haven’t yet heard. 2000 years later, we live amongst a people who still have not heard much about Jesus. I’ve told you before about the survey that reported that 40% of adults did not know that Jesus was a real person. This same survey reported that 57% of adults didn’t believe in the resurrection.

That’s all a little depressing after nearly 2000 years, don’t you think? But there is good news too: 67% of people in this country know somebody who is a practising Christian, and when they are asked to describe the Christians they know, they usually think of them more highly than their non-Christian friends. Get that! People like you! The most commonly used words were: friendly, caring and good humoured.

So the question is: when did you last talk to somebody who isn’t a Christian about Jesus? 2% of Christians said that they had never done so. 33% said that they had done so within the last week. What about you?

The research also explored how non-Christians felt about Christians talking about Jesus: 20% said they wanted to know more; Nearly 60% said that they were still waiting for their Christian friend to talk to them about Jesus.

How do you read a Gospel?

So this Jewish man is riding on the subway reading an Arab newspaper. A friend of his, who happens to be riding in the same subway car, notices this strange phenomenon. Very upset, he approaches the newspaper reader.

“Moshe, have you lost your mind? Why are you reading an Arab newspaper?”
Moshe replies, “I used to read the Jewish newspaper, but what did I find? Jews being persecuted, Israel being attacked, Jews disappearing through assimilation and intermarriage, Jews living in poverty. So I switched to the Arab newspaper. Now what do I find? Jews own all the banks, Jews control the media, Jews are all rich and powerful, Jews rule the world. The news is so much better!”

Do you ever feel that way? We were having a discussion in our house after we had been listening to a Labour MP get savaged by the BBC interviewer. Somebody was saying: “Why can’t the media just give us the facts, and not get into all this point scoring?” I’m a bit more cynical about the existence of facts. I want my interviewers to grill people, because my belief is that facts need a narrative to make any sense, and that narrative needs exposing because there are no such thing as unbiased facts.

Let’s take an example: Hurricane Matthew has recently torn through Haiti, the Bahamas and Florida. It killed nearly 900 people in Haiti and 4 in Florida. That is a fact. But here’s 2 possible narratives: 1) Matthew killed 900 people in Haiti because the government there were not properly prepared for a storm like that. 2) Matthew killed so many people in Haiti because this chronically poor country cannot afford to protect its citizens.

2 narratives: one blames the government of Haiti, the other blames the rest of the world which allows Haiti to subsist in such poverty. Which is true? And what has this got to do with the bible?

This week you’ve been reading Luke’s gospel. How are you getting on? What has struck you? What has puzzled you?

Now for most of you, Luke’s Gospel is not a new book. You’ve read most of it lots of times. What I’m suggesting is that you need to remember that Luke is giving a narrative, a story which attempts to explain the facts about Jesus.

What are the facts? Jesus was born somewhere around the year 0. He lives for about 30 years in obscurity, then he spends about 3 years travelling around preaching and healing people and performing other miracles. His message is that God is at work and people should return to the ways of God: mercy, generosity, justice and welcome. He is killed by the Romans in Jerusalem, but after 3 days his friends start to see him again. And they start to spread his message across the Roman world.

I’m not saying that those are the only facts, there are lots more details. Some of the facts would be disputed by different people. But these ones are fairly easy to prove, and accepted by the majority, even today.

What Luke does is provide a story that makes sense of these facts. In particular, Luke wants to explain what Jesus thinks the ways of God should look like. Because this is the important thing. Yes, Jesus was raised from the dead – fact. But what does that fact mean? It means that God has passed judgement that what Jesus stood for gets his stamp of approval.

But what does Jesus stand for? This is the key question, both for Luke and for us. It’s all very well saying: I’m a Christian, a follower of Jesus. But what you need to know is – what is the message of Jesus? You can’t be a follower of Jesus and ignore his message.

So the aim of Luke in writing both his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles is to answer the question: what is Jesus’ key message?

And Luke has a particular slant on that, that is different from Matthew, Mark and John, the other Gospel writers. He wants to explain why Jesus, who was a Jew and spent almost all his life in the Jewish homeland, yet has a message that speaks to people across the whole world. You see, Luke himself is not Jewish, and neither are the people he writes for. And in those days, Jewish people often kept themselves to themselves, so Luke has to explain why the message of Jesus is for non-Jews too.

As you read Luke’s gospel you may have noticed that so many of his stories show Jesus reaching out beyond the boundaries of Judaism. Today we have him healing 10 Samaritan lepers – this is one story that only Luke reports. You see, Luke is super sensitive to stories that indicate that Jesus always intended his church to include people like you and me, non-Jews. So as he picks which facts, which stories to tell and how to tell them, he loves to bring out the angle that shows Jesus including people whom strict Jews wouldn’t include.

Luke tells us the story of Zacchaeus the tax collector, he tells us the story of the lost sheep, he tells us the story of the Good Samaritan, he tells us about a faith of the Roman Soldiers. All these stories make Luke’s point that Jesus always wanted his teaching to go world-wide. And of course, the Acts of the Apostles, which you will read next week, takes that story the next step. But note, as you read, how hard it was for the Jews – Saul and Peter and James – to take that step of including non-Jews.

Reading between the lines, God had to intervene quite a lot to make sure that the first disciples didn’t keep the message of Jesus to themselves. And this is a question for us today: how much do we keep the message to ourselves? Do we assume that because somebody is Muslim or Jewish, they don’t need to hear about Jesus? Do we assume that because somebody is gay, and happily gay, the message of Jesus is not for them?

And what is the message of Jesus? This is the real question. I’ve summarised it as “God is at work, you need to return to the ways of God, so he can bless you”. But that requires some explanation: what does Luke think the ways of God are?

You are going to have to do your work here, but let me suggest what I think the message of Jesus is, according to Luke: firstly it is about your attitude to Jesus himself – the thief on the cross is pardoned there and then, just because he adopts a positive stance towards Jesus. Secondly, it is about grace and forgiveness – being loved by God demands an attitude of mercy towards others. Non-Jews are included because this is the nature of God, seen in Jesus- tax collectors, Samaritans, prostitutes, Roman soldiers, all are included because mercy is more important than sacrifice, grace is more important than getting the rules right. Thirdly, it is about generosity, especially with money. Luke is really interested in how we use money, because it is a symptom of where our heart is – we have been given so much by God, how can we not be generous? So when Zacchaeus is shown grace by Jesus, what does he do? Gives away shed loads of money. Grace calls out generosity.

Fourthly, the message of Jesus is that God actively seeks to help lost people. He is a shepherd who rather carelessly leaves 99 sheep on the hills to go and find one lost sheep. He is a father who forgives his son who has wasted half of the family wealth. He is a missionary God, sending out 72 disciples to reach the lost of Israel, and then grasping Saul of tarsus by the scruff of the neck to make him the messenger to the Non-Jews, who make up the majority of the world’s population.

These are just some of Luke’s emphases, and you may think they are not very controversial, but you’d be wrong. You see, some people want to make the message of Jesus a message about God, in rather vague terms. But it isn’t a message about a vague God: God looks like Jesus; Jesus is God. The old revelation about God in the Jewish Scriptures is only true in so far as it is seen in Jesus. If Jesus and the Old Testament disagree, which do you follow? Jesus. Jesus is central. Any modern ideas about God must be run through the character of Jesus. So for instance, we have a debate going on at the moment about whether Down’s Syndrome foetuses should be automatically aborted. It’s not something that Jesus says anything about, but the question we have to ask is: how likely do you think it is that Jesus would advocate abortion on those grounds? Or say you get offered a job which involves charging poor people more for basic goods than rich people: is this the kind of job that Jesus would do? This is what it means to say Jesus is God. He becomes the definition of goodness, of right and wrong.

So too when it comes to money. Mrs Thatcher used to say that the bible’s teaching is: Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can. She was wrong on 2 out of 3 counts. In Luke’s gospel Jesus says a lot about money. And his consistent message is that money is a dangerous thing – it can easily get a grip on your heart, so give as much away as possible. Don’t save it. Don’t try to earn more than you need. Just give away as much as you can.

And what about Jesus message that God is a missionary God? And that God is a hugely gracious God, who keeps pushing back the boundaries of who is welcome – what does that say about the current debate about gay people being welcome in church? Think about it. Isn’t it great to read this stuff yourself and not to have to trust my reading of it? You decide what Jesus wanted.

Your money isn’t yours: Luke 16.1-13

A local charity had never received a donation from the town’s banker, so the director made a phone call.

“Our records show you make half a million pounds a year, yet you haven’t given a penny to charity,” the director began. “Wouldn’t you like to help the community?”

The banker replied, “Did your research show that my mother is in a nursing home, with extremely expensive bills?”

“Um, no,” mumbled the director.

“Or that my brother is blind and unemployed? Or that my sister’s husband died, leaving her broke with four kids?”

“I … I … I had no idea,” stammers the director embarrassed beyond words.

“So,” said the banker, “if I don’t give them any money, why would I give any to you?”

Money is the great taboo, especially in this country. I borrowed that joke from America – it would never happen in this country. We are so private about our income, that i suspect even our spouses often don’t know what we make.

Our gospel reading today is about money, and specifically about some very dishonest use of money. In fact, the parable that Jesus tells in Luke 16 is such a shocking story that Luke is the only gospel writer to record it. Recall the details with me:

An accountant has been dishonest, and his boss is onto him and about to give him the sack. So he calls up all his boss’s debtors, and slices off about half of their debt, just like that. He does it, not to get them to pay up, not even to get them to think well of his boss. He does it just to buy favour with them, so that when he is unemployed, they will owe him a favour. It’s a story of cheating; it’s a story of buying friends with somebody else’s money; there is nothing in the accountant’s behaviour that seems worthy of praise. Yet at the end, Jesus says: you can learn something from this cheat. But what?

What are you meant to learn?

I think the message is quite clear: you don’t own what you think you own, so use money to win friends and influence people. Your money isn’t your money.

Religious people, good people, tend to be careful people. We have this idea that God has given us money, skills, qualities and time and we should use those things conscientiously for his glory. Most of us, manage our money well. We try to give some to church and some to other charities. We take modest holidays. We buy fairly basic clothes and not flashy cars. Our lives would probably be best described as sober, measured and sensible. And underlying it all is this idea that we have earned our money, we owe some to God and good causes, but most of it we intend to use ourselves or pass onto our kids.

But Jesus has a radically different perspective, and that’s why he tells this shocking story and commends the swindler at the centre. Jesus’ perspective seems to be: you don’t own money; it’s not yours; in fact, if you think you own it, it probably owns you; you didn’t earn it, it is just lent to you to manage for a few years; you may have a lot or a little, but you brought none of it into the world and you’ll take none out, so you should use whatever comes into your hands on to make friends, to advance the Kingdom of God and change lives.

If you doubt that this was Jesus’ perspective then remember these things: he spends the first few years of his life as a refugee; he and his disciples have a common pot – they share all their money; when Peter needs to pay a tax, Jesus sends him to pull a fish out of the sea with a coin in its mouth; when 5000 people need feeding, he just sets out to do it with almost nothing in his hands; when a woman pours her whole life’s savings over his head in costly oil, he simply accepts it as a gift and praises her actions; when he sees rich people putting lots in the collection box, he says that a poor woman’s two pence is worth more than all their bags of money; when he dies, he is naked and penniless, but by his poverty, we have all become rich – loved, forgiven and free. Jesus lives quite independent of money or status. He seems quite content when he is living in the desert on nothing, or when thousands of pounds are being lavished upon him.

He simply cares less about money. He cares instead about God – the money changers get tipped out of the temple – and he cares about people. People always get the best of Jesus: the best of his time, the best of his teaching, the best of his energy. The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.

So this parable challenges us pretty deeply: do you think of your money as owned or lent? Do you use every penny for God or just a small amount? Is your heart in heaven or in the bank?

I know that that sounds all very extreme, and you might even be thinking: I don’t like the sound of all this! Is he going to ask for all my money next?

So let’s be clear: I don’t want your money. The church doesn’t want your money. This is not a give us your money sermon. Nowhere does Jesus say “Give your money to the church or temple”. Yes, the bible talks about giving money to the poor, and tithing to God.

The Jewish law in the Old testament required most Jews to give quite a lot to the temple in money or gifts of animals. The 11 tribes were meant to support the whole of the tribe of Levi from their offerings. Observant Jews probably gave between 10 and 30% of their income to synagogue or temple or relief of the poor.

But Jesus and the other New testament writers never tell people to give 5% or 10% or 25% to God or the church. Instead they tell people to give 100% to God, to give all they are, all they possess, their whole life to God. Or to give it Jesus’ perspective: to recognise that all you have and are is on loan from God.

My own perspective is that you should give as little to church as you can and as much to people in need as you can. That’s why I say: I don’t want your money. The church doesn’t want your money. God doesn’t need your money – he owns everything. What he wants is for you to use the money he has loaned you to make the biggest difference for good: to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to help the refugee, to get those who have come out of prison back on their feet. This is what money is for. Your question shouldn’t be: how much money shall I give away, but how much should I keep for myself?

And the church should have the same attitude: how much do we need for ourself? Well that depends.

As a church we decide how much we need to keep, and we should delight to give the rest away. You have decided to have a vicar, like me. You don’t have to have a vicar – you could separate from the Church of England, meet in the Memorial Hall and not have a vicar. That would save you about £43,000 a year.

As I say, you could move out of this church, and hire a hall. That would save you shed loads: building maintenance, insurance, heat and light. If you only use this building for an hour a week, it is a terrible waste of money. God is not bothered about what building you use to meet in: he can be worshipped at home or in the open air. The church is you – the people of God, not a building.

But you have chosen to employ me, and to own this building, and St Luke’s and St Peter’s and the hall next door. Why? Maybe you’ve never thought about it. Maybe you love this building, and you think that it is better to have the devil you know, than the one you don’t. and so before you know it we have overheads that amount to about £80,000 a year. And that is spread between about 90 people who worship here at least once a month. We have an income from letting out the hall of about 9,000, and income from weddings and funerals of about 16, 000, some bank interest, but it still leaves about £50,000 that needs to come from people’s giving.

Of that £50,000 we give away a certain amount. We give £1,000 to support David and Amy, who are our CMS Partners. We give about £2,500 to other charities in one way or another. So our overheads just to do church the way we do are £46,500. Split between about 90 people who worship here or at St Luke’s at least once a month that’s just over £500 per head per year, about £10 a week each.

We cover most of that cost by people’s regular giving. But there are a couple of extra costs coming up that I’d like you to consider giving some money towards next Sunday, when we have our gift day for harvest: we’ve decided to buy some chairs so that we can sit in more comfort and be more flexible – we don’t need those chairs – you could sit on the floor or stick with the pews, but we believe chairs will help those who move the pews for Messy Church and we’d like to do Cafe Church too soon; we’d also like to put some money into employing an administrator across the 3 parishes, which we have no budget for; and if neither of those appeal we’d invite you to give to David and Amy.

So this is a church gift day alongside our Harvest offering next Sunday. But please hear me: we don’t want your money. You must decide where God wants you to use the money that he has loaned you. We want to keep our church costs as low as possible, so that you can give as much away as possible.

If you feel that you want to contribute regularly to our church overheads, then sign up for the Parish Giving Scheme. If you want to gift aid your gift, please put it in an envelope. If you want to give to another charity, but make your gift part of your harvest offering next week, why not write that on a piece of paper?

Remember the words of St Paul: Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. As it is written:

“They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor;     their righteousness endures forever.”[

Whose will be done?

So these two guys are walking through a field one day when they spot a bull, head down charging at them. Instantly they start to sprint towards the nearest fence, the storming bull following in hot pursuit. And it is soon apparent they wouldn’t make it. Terrified, one shouts to the other, “Send up a prayer, John. We’re in for it!”

John answered, “I can’t. I’ve never prayed aloud in my life.”

“But you must!” pleads his companion. “The bull is going to get us.”

“All right,” panted John, “I’ll say the only prayer I know, the one my father used to repeat at the table: ‘O Lord, for what we are about to receive, make us truly thankful.’”

I wonder how many prayers you know by heart? I’m not a great fan of other people’s prayers, as you may have guessed by the way I leave quite a few out of our traditional services. I tend to think that prayer should be a conversation between me and God, and frankly I want to use my own words. However, I recognise that there are times when a prayer that we all know helps us to join together.

Sometimes a prayer that somebody else has written just puts it better than we can. Take a prayer like the Alcoholics Anonymous prayer: Give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. That expresses a truth beautifully succinctly.

It is also probably true that a prayer that somebody else has written might help us to reach a higher point of surrender than our own faltering attempts to yield ourselves to God. Take the prayer of self abandonment of Charles de Foucault:

Father, I abandon myself into your hands; do with me what you will. Whatever you may do, I thank you: I am ready for all, I accept all.

Let only your will be done in me, and in all your creatures – I wish no more than this, O Lord.

Into your hands I commend my soul: I offer it to you with all the love of my heart, for I love you, Lord, and so need to give myself, to surrender myself into your hands without reserve, and with boundless confidence, for you are my Father.

Now that prayer is way beyond what i could express myself, and quite often it is way beyond what I feel I want to express, but I aspire to be able to say that prayer and to mean it. Prayer should stretch us out beyond where we have got to. Prayers which are only “Lord, please help so and so” are fine, but they don’t really change us.

Jesus told us to pray for our enemies. Now, why do you think he told us to do that? To change them? To make them behave better? Maybe. But I suspect that praying for your enemies is most potent, because it changes us. It’s a little like the counselling technique where you place an empty chair opposite somebody who is in a bad relationship, and get them to talk to their enemy as if they were in the empty chair (the enemy is usually a family member or their boss – enemies usually are). Then after a while, you get them to swap seats, and try to talk back from their enemy’s perspective.

After doing this, many people come to see their enemy differently, and almost miraculously their arguments often dissolve too. So prayer changes us: it changes our perspective; it draws us into greater dependence on God; it actually makes God more real to us. This is a fact of the way that our brains work: the more you speak to somebody you cannot see, the more your brain accepts that they are real. So if you are having doubts about God, just praying can help you. Some of the best prayers begin: Lord, I’m not sure if I believe in you, but…..

There is one prayer that we all know. The prayer that Jesus taught us. And you may feel that we are over familiar with this prayer, and sometimes it has just become a set of words that we mumble our way through, like when I say this prayer at funerals, and I wonder if anybody else there actually has a clue what we are asking God for, and if they did, whether they would agree with it.

So what does this prayer mean? Why is it perhaps the greatest prayer ever written?

To begin with it addresses God as Our Father. Do you realise how radical that form of address is: That we dare to call God, the immortal Creator and Judge, our Father? In the ancient world, people were used to the idea that the gods were the fathers of kings and heroes. But this prayer is not for kings and heroes, it is for ordinary Joes like you and me. Jesus models for us that we are the children of God: loved, cherished, forgiven, disciplined- we are family.

Those 2 words – Our Father –  make possible the prayer of abandonment of Charles de Foucault that i mentioned earlier. We can abandon ourselves to God, because he is The Good Father of us all. And he inhabits heaven, which is not somewhere above the clouds, but everywhere, all around us. It is everywhere except where evil reigns, so heaven can be inside you or outside of you, depending on whether God or evil reigns in you.

Yes, God is an eternal, living, relentless force/ spirit that is pure love and holiness. He yearns to fill us and all creation, but in his love he gives us freedom to choose whether we will allow his life to fill us. And so we pray for his Kingdom to come and his will to be done – where? First of all, in us.

We are saying to God: I want to do your will, my Father. “Not my will, but yours be done”, prayed Jesus in the garden the night before he died, and we pray the same, knowing that the result may be the same: death and new life. But that request for God’s will to be done is the last of 3 requests: Hallowed be your name, your Kingdom come, your will be done.

Why does it come last? Because frankly, we need some help before we can do the will of God – or at least I do. I think i’d like to do the will of God, but most of the time I’m too wrapped up in my kingdom, my dreams, my family, my career. I can’t break out of my small minded, self obsessed world without the in-breaking of God – his holy character, his life changing kingdom. Yes, in the end it comes down to me expressing the will of God, but it has to start with God. I can’t do it without him first acting.

For a start I need to feel love; my heart is dry much of the time, but if i’m to do the will of God, I need his love. I need wisdom, because God’s will is not always obvious. I need courage, O Lord, I need courage, because the will of God is not a picnic. So I pray: Hallowed be your Name, Your Kingdom come – I need to know and see you, God, so that I can know and do your will.

And then I need resources and help to deliver. I need daily bread; I need forgiveness; I need protection. Daily bread is not just bread, of course; it is all the practical stuff that i need to stay alive and have enough to share. As St Paul writes to the Corinthians: 10 Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. 11 You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God. (2 Corinthians 9).

I need practical stuff, but I also need a peaceful heart, a heart free of guilt and bitterness. I need to forgive and be forgiven. I need both, and frankly I need to be free of bitterness more than i need to be free of guilt. That is why Jesus makes God’s forgiveness of us dependent on us forgiving others. How can I do the will of God, if I am angry and bitter? I might be able to do it with a little bit of guilt, but not with anger or bitterness. So we forgive; we forgive because we need to forgive; we don’t do it for the sake of the person we are forgiving; we don’t do it because they deserve it; we do it because bitterness is like a cancer that eats you up; we forgive for our sake, so we are free to love God and others again.

And i need protection: lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Life is dangerous. Evil is all around, just ask the people of Nice, Baghdad, or Istanbul. But evil is closer than that too. Evil is anything that is opposed to the goodness, love and justice of God. Evil sits in my heart; it sits in our TV sets; it sits on our supermarket shelves; it stalks our schools, parks and businesses.

Half the time I don’t even spot it: that the clothes I am buying have been made by a child in appalling conditions; that my pension comes from the rape of the whole countries or the fracking of the earth’s fragile crust; that my TV programmes are paid for by the over priced products that they want me to buy; that my football team is just one big money making machine….

I need God to protect me from getting sucked into evil: supporting things that shouldn’t be supported; buying things that shouldn’t be bought; watching things that shouldn’t be watched; profiting from things that should never have been started, let alone turned into a business.

I am weaker and more vulnerable than I think. I need God’s protection if I am to do something better than simply fit in with this world system. If I am going to stand up for justice for migrants, feed homeless people, or do some good work with youth, then I need help. Everybody who wants to do good in this world will have to cope with a lot of stuff.

But don’t despair, because God has the kingdom, the power and the Glory for ever and ever. Good will win. Love will triumph. Love wins. Love wins because God is God, and He is love, and he outlives, outlasts and out-gives the opposition. He has the resources that they lack. He has the wisdom that they lack. His is the Kingdom, the power and the Glory.

And you and I, we are His children. We have His spirit inside us. We are ready to do his will, or at least to try to do His will, or at least to want to try to do his will and so we pray: Our Father in heaven….

Are you an addict?

A drunk wanders into a Baptism service on a Sunday afternoon down by the river. He proceeds to stumble into the water and stands next to the Minister. 

The Minister turns, notices the old drunk and says, “Mister, are you ready to find Jesus?” The drunk looks back and says, “Yes sir, I am.”

The Minister then dunks the fellow under the water and pulls him right back up. “Have you found Jesus?” the Minister asked.” No, I didn’t!” said the drunk. The Minister then dunks him under for quite a bit longer, brings him up and says, “Now brother, have you found Jesus?” “No, I did not!” said the drunk again. 

Disgruntled, the Minister holds the man under for at least 30 seconds this time, brings him up and demands, “For the grace of God, have you found Jesus yet?!” The old drunk wipes his eyes and pleads, “Are you sure this is where he fell in?”

I want to talk to you about addiction today. And you may think that is an odd subject given the readings, so let me explain how I got there: we read the story of Mary and Martha and Jesus, and I don’t know about you, but I have a lot of sympathy with Martha. She is my kind of woman, if that is a decent thing to say when your wife is away.

She is hard working. She has prioritised her guests. She is doing what her culture expected of her. She is being hospitable, helpful and wise. I like her already. But she gets told off by Jesus, who commends her sister, Mary, for sitting at his feet and listening to what he has to say.

“Mary has chosen what is best, and it will not be taken away from her,” he says. And a big part of me wants to say: “That’s not fair! Why shouldn’t Mary share the chores? Why can’t they both muck in and then sit down later? And what’s so wrong with being the practical one?”

So who is your sympathy with in this story? Martha or Mary? Why do you think that Jesus sides with Mary?

Let me put forward an idea, and you can weigh it up: what if Jesus is defending Mary’s ability to choose what she does, not a habitual attitude of opting out of the housework? What if Martha’s problem is not that she has chosen to get the house ready for the guests who always turn up with Jesus, but that she cannot choose to do anything other than be busy? What if Martha is addicted to busyness?

You may know somebody who is addicted to busyness: they can’t sit still even when there is nothing to do; they create work that doesn’t need doing; they never listen very well because their mind is always onto the next thing they have to do; they are usually tired, harassed and a little angry. Do you know anybody like that?

I must confess that I easily slip into that mode. I like being busy. I like nothing more than doing something until I sweat. One of my highest values is hard work, which all sounds well and good. But the downside is that I can value achievements over relationships. I can find it hard to stop. There is a slightly addictive nature to my working. It meets a need in me to be seen as a hard worker and to achieve the kind of successes that hard work brings.

But there are things that hard work cannot achieve: peace of mind; depth of relationships; awareness; joy; happiness and contentment – to name but a few. Mary has chosen to invest her time in these things – the pursuit of God, our greatest good; the attention to Jesus that leads to peace and deep change; the gift of her full attention to the One who is the source of life. No wonder Jesus says that it won’t be taken away from her.

Martha has chosen badly. She is unable to see that her deepest needs will be met better by stopping than by hard work, on this occasion. Not that hard work is never called for. Mary is quite capable of that, as we see in later stories in the Gospels. It is Mary, not Martha who takes centre stage then.

Kayla and I have been facilitating a book group over the last few months. We’ve been studying “The Reason for God” together and meeting every 2 weeks to discuss. Last week we discussed a chapter entitled: The Problem of sin. And quite a few of the group were surprised when the author described sin as simply: making something other than God into the most important thing in your life.

Somebody pointed out that that is not how sin has been defined in most churches, where sin is described as doing something wrong, usually something you know to be wrong. But the author was right. In the bible the Greek word for sin means “missing the mark”, like when an archer fires an arrow and misses the target. He has sinned – missed the mark, fallen short.

I think people’s first reaction to this new understanding was one of dismay, as if they had realised that they are a sinner, no matter how hard they try to be good. Which, of course, is what the bible says: all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom 3.23). But then comes this realisation that everybody else is a sinner too, and we are all struggling to put God first, even those who love God are. So i’m a sinner too, which I guess made them feel better.

So why is sin a problem, if everybody is doing it? Well, because we end up addicted to whatever we make our number one priority. If alcohol is your number one priority, you are addicted. If being loved is your number one, you are addicted. If success or busyness or your work or your family or your happiness are number one, then you are addicted. And the trouble with addiction is that it produces some nasty fruits: for starter you can never get enough – just ask any celebrity, most were happier before they became famous, yet fame was what they wanted; just ask somebody who is addicted to work – are they satisfied? They never are.

Secondly addiction produces anger and self justification. Stop an addict getting their daily fix and you will see their anger. In our story today, Martha is angry. She is angry that her sister doesn’t share her addiction. Addicts are miserable people. And we are all addicted to something, we have told ourselves that we need something to be happy – that is our fix.

So what is yours? What have you told yourself you can’t live without? What do you simply have to have to have any chance of happiness? This, my friends, is your number one sin, even if it is a sin that everybody else thinks is a virtue – like hard work, or your family.

Sins that are disguised as virtues are particularly hard to break. Breaking an addiction to alcohol or gambling is tough enough, but most people will applaud you. Breaking an addiction to work or pleasing everybody is well nigh impossible, and nobody will applaud you, apart from Jesus and maybe your spouse, if you are lucky.

Let me tell you that I am addicted to work. I love my work. I give it the best of me. I look to it to satisfy me. Kayla tells me that i am an addict and she is right, but it is such a difficult addiction to break. You lot don’t help! You say to me something like, “Richard, you are doing a great job; you’ve really moved us on.” And I love your praise, but it doesn’t satisfy. To be fair, some of you say to me, “Richard, we worry about you working too hard”, so I’m not asking for your pity. I’m just saying that it is really hard to break your addictions; and nobody else can do it for you.

So what is the answer? Well, it has to be to choose the place of Mary – sitting at Jesus’ feet, spending time with him, listening to him, just being with him. He alone satisfies. He is the head of all creation, as our other reading reminded us; he has all the fullness of God in him. He is the answer to all our cravings.

So what does that mean? How do we take the place of Mary? Well, to begin with we make a choice that Jesus is going to be our main aim in life: the pursuit of God, obedience to the teaching of Jesus is going to be our number one passion. Usually we make that choice quite unconsciously, we just fall in love with Jesus – he excites us, he enthrals us, he captivates us. But we have to go with the process and stay with it.

Secondly, we need to feed our addiction to Jesus. If you were addicted to Jesus, would you just come to church once a week? You wouldn’t, would you? You’d read about Jesus. You’d try to copy him. You’d become his number one fan. And if you think that is all a bit immature, then you are still addicted to something else.

In the next few months we are going to read through the new Testament together. We will start in September or October and we’ll read through the whole of the story of Jesus. We are doing that for 2 reasons: partly so you get to understand the whole bible better, but mostly so that we invite you to feed your addiction to Jesus. It is the only addiction that satisfies, as you will discover, if you don’t already know it.

Is God good?

So this country gent buys a gun dog and spends rather more on it than he planned. He takes it duck shooting for the first time, and after hitting his first duck, which falls into the water, he sends the dog to retrieve it. The dog runs across the top of the water, and doesn’t even get its feet wet. It picks up the duck and brings it back.

The man is quietly astounded. He shoots another duck and the same thing happens. In fact it happens throughout the morning, until the hunter has a bag full of duck. So he heads for home. On his way, he passes a lone fisherman, doing whatever fishermen do by the river. Just at that moment, a lone duck flies overhead, the hunter reloads and shoots it.

The dog runs across the water and brings it back, just like he has done all morning. The hunter puts the duck in his bag, and neither man says a word. Finally the hunter says: “I just bought him. Paid rather more than I intended, actually.”

“you were robbed” says the fisherman. “the dog can’t even swim.”

Did you know that God is dog spelt backwards? And today I want to talk about God. It’s Trinity Sunday, the Sunday when we traditionally reflect on the nature of God, who is revealed to us as Trinity- one God in 3 persons.

Now, frankly, that is a pretty strange idea. How can God be both one and 3 at the same time? I don’t really want to focus on that, however. I want to start somewhere else, and ask a much tougher question: how can God be good?

Let’s begin by asking: if you were god for a day, what would you do?

End the wars in Syria and Iraq? Turn back global warming? Eradicate malaria?

But what would you have to do to achieve those things?

To end the war in Syria, firstly you’d need to decide which side you want to win. So which side would you choose? President Assad’s forces have killed 10 times as many civilians as ISIS. So who would you give victory to?

So maybe you don’t want either side to win, you are just going to make them live at peace. How would you do that? You’d have to wipe their memories and magically rebuild their cities…you’d have to make sure they forgave – force them to forgive, or just kill anybody who tried to kill somebody else. In other words, you could only impose peace by fear or mind control; there is no other way of making peace quickly. Would God do that?

Let’s take another situation, one that is not human made: malaria. Why doesn’t God just get rid of malaria, or measles, or the menopause? These diseases and problems cause untold suffering. Malaria kills more people and ruins more lives every year than all the wars and terrorist attacks so far this century. Why doesn’t God just end it?

I don’t know, but let’s remind ourselves: we have a cure for malaria and we have a vaccination for measles. But people still suffer and die of both. Why? Because we humans are not willing to share our resources. It is the same with hunger: the world grows enough food to feed everybody well, but we just don’t share it.

And what this suggests to me is that if God stopped malaria and measles, people would still die of some avoidable illness or starvation, simply because we are not willing to accept a lower standard of living in the West, so that people elsewhere might simply live.

So maybe this world is the best world that we could possibly have without  changing human nature. And that is why God does just that. He becomes human, in Jesus. He calls first 12, then through them all the world, to become like Jesus, to change their nature. He gives us a small part of himself, his spirit to enable us to change. But it is always by invitation, and never by coercion or magic.

So what does this say about God?

You see, many people have a weird idea of what God is like. If you had to draw a picture of god, what would you draw?

Now you may think that drawing God is a very childish thing: God is invisible so you can’t draw him. Instead we use words to describe God: love, light, Father, creator, friend, redeemer. But actually words are just complicated pictures. If I say the word light – what do you see? You see a light.

If I say the word invisible – what do you see? You see something, don’t you? Even though the word means ‘not see-able’, you see something in your imagination, or you feel something. The word evokes an image or feeling. Like love, it evokes a picture or a feeling, doesn’t it?

So God evokes either a picture or a feeling inside you, and that picture or feeling could be expressed as art: as a drawing, or as music, or as dance.

So what picture, music or dance does the idea of God evoke in you? It’s going to be different for each one of us. Your images of God are going to be beautiful, multi layered and strange. You may have several images of god, because God is such a big idea that one image probably won’t do.

So we have this amazing set of images of God, but we want the answer to a simple question: why is there so much suffering in the world? So for a moment, hold the image or feeling or dance that you have of God in your mind, and then ask God that question – why is there so much suffering?

What happens? How does your image of God change? Now try to put that into words. Why does god allow suffering? How can your god be good, when there is so much suffering in the world?

Interestingly the second of the 10 commandments is what? Do not make for yourself any graven image or idol (Exod 20.4). You are to have no images of God. Why would that be important? Why is it there alongside: Do not murder, do not steal etc.?

Have I just made you break the second commandment? No, not really. The commandment is firstly about not having statues as foci of worship. And the reason for that is that any statue makes God too small. It’s like the ark of the covenant, where the Israelites put the tablets of stone on which the commandments were written. What did they do with them? They sent them out to battle. Even though they were doing wrong, they thought that the tablets of stone would save them. And what happened? They lost. And the ark was captured by the Philistines, but not for long. God will not allow us to reduce him to a statue or a box that we can use for our own ends.

So the commandment not to make idols, is partly about us not making God too small, so we think we can use god to bless what we want to do. God is not our poodle, or gundog. It is not his job to clean up our mess – even when our mess might destroy human life on this planet, as with global warming. We have to rid our minds of some idea that God is here to serve our needs, or even to make sure our species survives. Why should he? He loves us, but doesn’t he also love all the species we have made extinct?

But there is another aspect to the commandment about not making idols. Not only is an idol too small to depict God. An idol is also too static, too fixed to depict God. The Jews and we Christians were forbidden from making statues, but given a book of words, the Bible. And the reason for that is that the bible describes God by his actions. Very rarely does the bible say: God is like this and that. It does, occasionally. But mostly the bible says: God said, God did, God sent …and so on. And when God is asked his name, by Moses in the desert, God says his name is “I am” a verb, and verbs are doing words.

And the point here is that God is only knowable by us through his actions. God is as God does. We know God as creator, because we live in his creation. We know God as redeemer, because God sent Moses to redeem the Israelites from the slavery of Egypt and he came to us in Jesus to redeem us from the slavery of sin. We know God as Holy Spirit, because God works in us to love, forgive, heal and pray.

We only know God as God works. God doesn’t go around saying: “Look, here I am. Look at me. I’m here to answer all your questions and allay all your doubts”. Instead he says, “Trust me, and we will do this thing together.” “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls.” God is not an object to be studied, but an energy to be lived and loved and known but not with your rational mind alone.

So what does this mean for us?

1. It means that you will learn more about God by doing stuff than by reading, thinking or praying. I’m not against reading, thinking and praying, we need to do those things. But they are not an alternative to doing stuff in humble dependence on God. You will get to know more of God by helping the poor or listening to an old drunk in the name of Jesus, than you will by singing songs or reading books, even reading the bible.

Please don’t misunderstand me. There is great value in reading the bible. It tells you what God has done in the past. It tells you what God is like. But you only get to know God as you put your hand into the hand of god, and go and do something together.

So it’s no good praying, “God please help the poor or the refugees”, if you don’t do something about it. Words are cheap. God is not your servant. Your prayer should be, not “God please help them”, but “God please show me the best way to help them”. Everything else is just words.

2. it means that every event in your life, everything that happens to you, could be God trying to communicate with you. God is ceaselessly active, constantly loving, pure holy love and energy. God is ceaselessly trying to redeem, renew and save you. He is working in every event, every conversation, every sound to bring you and him into closer alignment.

So when you get to the end of the day, and maybe a few times during the day, stop and say, “God what are you trying to tell me now”. “God what was going on there?” “God show me where you were at work then”. I know I said that you will get to know God more by doing than thinking, but the truth is that there has to be a balance. If you rarely stop to think, you may head off down all sorts of wrong paths. Martin Luther, the great Reformer of the Catholic church, said, “I’ve got so much to do today, that i need to pray for 2 hours before I start.” Plato, who of course was not a Jew or Christian, said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

All action, without reflection, is likely to go nowhere useful. All thinking, without doing, is learning nothing.

So what is God like? What does God look like? God looks more like a dance than a statue. God looks more like a person than a thing. Jesus said that you are his body – you are the body of Christ. God looks like you. You are the best representation of God that our generation is going to see.

You are God’s angels. You are God’s apostles. You are the body of Jesus. “Now you know this, go and do likewise” said Jesus to the lawyer, after he had told him the story of the Good Samaritan. “Go and do likewise” if you would know God.

The men don’t get it.

A husband was trying to prove to his wife that women talk more than men. He showed her a study which indicated that men use about 10,000 words per day, whereas women use 20,000 words per day. His wife thought about this for a while. She then told her husband that women use twice as many words as men because they have to repeat everything they say. Her husband looked stunned. He said “What?”

The difference between men and women: A man is driving up a steep, narrow mountain road. A woman is driving down the same road. As they pass each other, the woman leans out the window and yells, “PIG!” The man immediately leans out his window and replies, “Stupid!” They each continue on their way, and as the man rounds the next corner he slams into a pig in the middle of the road.

I know it’s not fair to have a go at men on Easter day; it’s probably never ok to have a go at men – we are a fragile species! The point I want to make is that men don’t emerge too well from the Easter story. The bible is usually criticised for being a bit anti-women, but today it is the women who appear to come off best; and the men not so well.

To be fair, this idea that men get a better deal in the bible has been overstated, certainly by the time of Jesus. Peter gets a roasting. His 3 fold denial of Jesus is painted warts and all. His blushes are not spared. The other disciples fare little better: their weakness, cowardice and jockeying for position may help us to identify with them, but it hardly makes them seem like heroes.

By contrast, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James look like the first people ever to get Jesus. They seem able to make that mental jump from Jesus as dead teacher to risen Lord of all in a few seconds. They arrive at the tomb expecting to find a smelly corpse, instead they find angels.

Here there is the echo of another Mary who met another angel 30 years earlier, and immediately accepted her role as mother of the Christ, Jesus. What is it about these women that they accept the complete overturn of their lives with such speed and grace?

Of course, it is tempting to think that most of us would change if we saw an angel. But the disciples have had Jesus, who is higher than the angels for 3 years, and they have seen him raise the dead and shine like lightning, and still they can’t believe.

So the angels tell the women that Jesus is alive. And the women immediately go and tell the disciples. These troubled women have become the first evangelists. …. and the disciples don’t believe them. They have to go and see for themselves, but of course all they see is an empty tomb. The angels haven’t hung around for the slow to believe. So the men are left puzzled for the rest of the day. In the end, Jesus puts them out of their misery by showing up after nightfall. Even then they can’t believe, they think he is a ghost. Even then he has to eat fish to persuade them.

Why is the resurrection so hard to believe? Why do the women in the story seem to adjust so much quicker than the men?

You’ve probably got your own theories. Maybe men’s brains are different. I read somewhere that men see a much smaller range of colours than women. It explains our dress sense. Kayla says she knows when I have dressed myself, because either everything matches, or everything is wrong. I can’t do that thing where you wear blue and brown and it works. Apparently it is my brain that simply can’t tell the difference between brown and ochre. Maybe women just see a bit more clearly.

And the resurrection is a matter of sight for those first disciples. It isn’t about belief, but sight. The man Jesus actually comes together in a new body. He isn’t a ghost, or an idea. He is physically reconstituted, given a new body. It is a totally unprecedented event, but it is one that sets a precedent. From now on, everybody who belongs to Jesus will experience the same thing. This is the good news: if you live the life of Jesus, even if your body is mangled in death, or you get it wrong half the time, your soul will be given a new body – a spiritual body, something like the angels, but better.

Can you believe that? It doesn’t matter if you die at 18 or 80. It doesn’t matter if you follow Jesus for a day or a lifetime, your reward will be to become like him. I don’t have to explain how this happens. I can’t explain how this happens. But it does happen. How do I know?

Because the resurrected Son of God says that it will happen, and so far nobody has disproved him. I know it is a puzzle. I know that the stakes are high. I know that lots of people think it is pie in the sky when you die, and therefore a way of manipulating gullible people. But as Blaise Pascal used to say: which is more foolish? To live the life of love and sacrifice that Jesus calls us to, and to die, and maybe find you were wrong and all you had was this life; or to live a self centred existence and die and find that you were wrong, and now you have an eternity of separation from God?

Even if there is no resurrection, isn’t the life of Jesus a better life? If there is a resurrection, you win twice over. So why wouldn’t you choose Jesus?

Which brings me back to men – why don’t many men choose Jesus these days? Is it because men are wiser? What would be a good test of wisdom?

Think of something really stupid and ask who does it more: driving whilst uninsured – that’s stupid. Men do it 3 times more than women.

Reckless driving, that’s even more foolish: men do it 3.5 times more than women. Driving in such a way that you cause a death: men do it twice as much, especially if they are under 30.

Now maybe you think I’m being unfair to men, so here’s a statistic to balance it out. What is the male to female ratio of Mensa members? 2:1. 66% of Mensa members are men. On the other hand, what do you think is the ratio of men to women who are members of street gangs? 11:1. Just 8% of gang members are women.

So what does this all prove? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. In the end it boils down to our personal responsibility: do you believe or not? Is the evidence for the resurrection compelling enough to persuade you, or not? Whether you are male or female, you alone can answer that question.

And the second question follows: if you have decided that you will believe that Jesus rose from the dead, what are you going to do about it?

You see, this is not one of those questions which doesn’t matter: like do you prefer beer or lager? Or do you want to go to church or not? Those are trivial questions. They are not life changing. Yes, your beer drinking habits might alter the orders at the Calleva Arms, and we would miss you here, if you chose not to come to church. But these are not ultimate destiny questions.

Whereas what you do about the resurrection of Jesus is. If you believe it is true, then you have an obligation to tell others, like the women did. Keeping silent would be like finding a cure for cancer, and keeping it to yourself.

If you believe it is true, you also have an obligation to pray. It is stupid to believe that Jesus is alive, and yet ignore him. You also have an obligation to live differently. You see, if Jesus is alive, then you know that his way of life is the way to eternal life; doing things like forgiving enemies, feeding the poor, and living a life of radical generosity and trust – these are the only safe way to live. Everything else is like playing Russian roulette: selfishness, storing up treasures on earth, holding grudges, ignoring the poor – each of these are like bullets in the chamber. Why would you risk them?

It staggers me when I find in church people who behave as if Jesus didn’t really mean what he said. You know: people who won’t be even civil to their neighbours, let alone kind to them; people who care more about buildings than the people in them; people who say charity begins at home, whilst the world is in ruins. These people either don’t believe the resurrection occurred, or they haven’t thought it through.

Ladies and gentlemen, you look like an intelligent lot to me. I think you’re here because you believe that Jesus actually rose from the dead. I think you’ve seen enough evidence to make you believe. So together let’s work out what that means here in Silchester, or wherever you live.

Let’s do that here on Sundays, or in your home groups. Let’s do that round your lunch table, and let’s live as if we believe it.