What kind of beast? Reading Revelation

The world is going to end in three days, so God calls the three most important leaders on the planet to help him break the news to the masses: Barak Obama, President Putin and Teresa May.

Barak Obama goes back to America and tells Congress that he has bad news and good news. “The bad news is the world is going to end in three days, the good news is that Donald Trump won’t get to be president.”

President Putin goes back to the Kremlin and tells nobody, because knowledge is power and the masses don’t need to know, and in the meantime he organises a new offensive in Syria and the Ukraine, and attacks Turkey.

Teresa May goes back to Parliament and says she has good news, really good news and amazingly good news: “The good news is God thinks I am a world leader, the really good news is that all those problems with Brexit won’t exist in three days and the amazingly good news is that I won’t have to put up with that annoying Boris Johnson any longer.”

So it’s a joke, alright? The world isn’t going to end in 3 days, but as for what happens after Trump becomes president, I can’t make any promises.

The serious point is that we assume that God might end the world sometime, and the reason we think that is mostly because of one book – the book of Revelation, at the end of our bible. If that book wasn’t there, would you assume that God was going to end the world some time?

You wouldn’t. the rest of the bible is quite clear, that God isn’t going to end the world – he’s coming to complete it, to judge it, yes, but fundamentally to complete it and make it good. Jesus will return and the world will achieve the perfection for which God made it. Isn’t this the teaching of the rest of the bible?

Romans 8.21: Paul says: the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. Do you understand that? No more decay, no more death, the creation free to be like the children of God. That doesn’t sound like the end of the world, does it?

2 Peter 3. 12: That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. 13 But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells. Okay so this sounds a bit painful and quite hot, but the point is that the fire is there to purify, and what is coming is a new earth – purified, God’s kingdom.

I could go on, but you get the drift: the eradication of evil and the creation of a new, redeemed, perfected earth – this is what we look forward to. And if you manage to hold onto the big picture in Revelation, this book that many of you have been reading, that is what we see there too: suffering, yes, terrible beasts and weird beings, but in the end, a new heaven and new earth, a new city shining like gold – peace and righteousness.

So why all the weird stuff – like we have read about in Revelation 16: bowls of wrath, plagues and stuff? Consider the context in which John, who wrote the book, is writing. The date is uncertain, but what is not in doubt is that Rome has started to persecute Christians. The first major persecution was under the Emperor Nero in 65AD, 30 years after the Resurrection of Jesus. 5 years later the Romans brutally suppress the first Jewish rebellion and kill many Christians in Israel, who are also Jews. And there were plenty of other periods of persecution to follow. Under Nero, Christians were crucified and set on fire; others were used to feed the lions in the Coliseum. The persecution and later war were brutal and merciless. The Romans were efficient killers.

Imagine you are a Christian at that time. You are scared for your life. You are bemused, because up til then the Roman Empire has been fairly neutral about you. You wonder what God is up to – why he has allowed Peter and Paul to be killed by Nero? This is the kind of context that John writes in.

But he cannot write a book that says clearly what he wants to say; there is no such thing as a free press and freedom of speech. He has to write in code. So he talks about Babylon or a prostitute, instead of Rome; he talks about a beast, instead of the Roman Emperor; he talks about angels and demons and a great dragon to describe the forces of good and evil that drive the cruelty and lust of the Empire, and the inevitable judgement that awaits it.

And this is John’s point – that Rome will be judged for its evil. The Empire will fall, like every other Empire that has oppressed God’s people and others. John evokes some of the stories from his Jewish history to tell the story. In ch16 we have the story of the plagues that God sent against Egypt evoked, except the 12 plagues have become 7 bowls of wrath.

John likes the number 7 -it evokes the 7 days of creation. It is a number symbolising completeness. But 6 is not. 666 is the number of the beast. 6 is an unstable, incomplete number. It cannot last. It’s John’s way of telling us that Rome cannot last. It will be destroyed.

There are other messages hidden in the text: there are the 24 elders, 12 symbolising the 12 tribes of Israel, and 12 symbolising the church, led by 12 apostles. John pictures Christian and Jew united in worship in heaven. Gone is the time when Jews were the major threat to Christians; now all who keep God’s commandments are equally under attack.

Another message is the call to remain faithful under persecution. This is, after all, the reason for writing the book. John tells us that there will be martyrs – but they will go straight to heaven, their blood precious in God’s sight. He tells us that the ordeal will be horrible for the rest of us – we will have to endure plagues and destruction, war and famine, but in the end God will triumph and bring about new heavens and a new earth.

The whole book is a call to remain faithful, when you want to give up. And that is what makes it timeless. It is a code book, which would have been passed round the churches, but if it fell into Roman hands, you would be unlikely to be killed for having it. You can’t imagine a Roman official understanding it any more than most people who pick it up today.

When I used to work in psychiatric hospitals, it was the book I most wished had never made it into the new testament. You can imagine how the demons and dragons went down with people who already had schizophrenia! They would take me on one side and tell me that some other patient had the mark of the beast on them, or that they had set their room on fire to purge it of demons.

But it isn’t just people with serious mental illness who are misled by this book. There are Christians who think that global warming is God’s plan to punish us, and that every time there is a serious earth quake it is the beginning of the “end times”. This is another misunderstanding.

The End Times began the moment Jesus rose from the dead and the Holy Spirit was poured out 50 days later. We have been in the end times for 2000 years. The era of the church and the gospel is the end times, and in some ways nothing has changed for Christians in the 2000 years since Peter, Paul and John.

That’s why this book is still relevant. Not as a Nostradamus, but as a story of resistance. The message is that you and I can and must resist the beast, the global culture that opposes God and Jesus.

Rome has gone. Less than 250 years after this book was written the Roman Emperor Constantine became a Christian. After that, for centuries, Christianity was the dominant religion in Europe. But the beast and the dragon never went away. The Empire tore itself apart as Christian fought Christian. Even when everybody was a Christian, some Christians were burning others at the stake. The so-called Christian continent of Europe launched the Crusades and massacred thousands of Muslims, men, women and children. Jews were never safe, and long before the Holocaust, thousands died in pogroms and persecution.

You see, Babylon stands for rampant militarism: the Russian invasion of Crimea, the US invasion of Iraq, ISIS, the British Empire – all these are manifestations of empire, the lust for power and control. Our greed drives us to take from others. Our vanity makes us think we have the right to do so. And often that right is backed up by religion. The Roman Empire worshipped its Emperors. But too often Christian priests have blessed armies as they have marched off to build or defend empires. And that’s why there are 2 beasts in Revelation – the beast of empire and the beast of religion.

Remember that religion is not all good; just like love of country is not all good. And the message in Revelation is that what matters is loyalty to the Lamb, who was slain. Loyalty to the weak Jesus, who turns out to be the winner. Loyalty to love, when the world screams war. Loyalty to Jesus, when the world screams “My country first. Let’s be independent.”

So why did some Christians vote for Donald Trump and Brexit? Maybe because they hadn’t understood this book. Donald Trump is your classic beast: a liar, a bully, an empire builder. Americans voted for him, even though they knew his bad character, because they want him to make them great again. This is always the claim of the beast: I will make you great, I will give you your independence. It’s always a lie, of course, because every empire tramples the poor and makes the rich richer still.

I understand that some people voted for Brexit because they wanted to escape what they saw as the empire of Europe. They saw how Europe treated Greece and they wanted out. I see that. But Europe was never an empire. It had no ruling elite, no emperor, no vision of expansion by force. The EU never killed anybody. Christians who thought that once 10 or 12 countries had entered Europe it had become Babylon, just hadn’t done their homework. Europe had very few of the marks of the beast.

So coming out of Europe means that we must be very careful. We could easily go down the route of becoming either the beast ourselves, or its prey. There are plenty of beasts out there still: Russia, China, quite possibly India soon, and who knows what will become of the USA?

Separated from the pack of Europe, we might well become the easy food for the beast. Revelation makes no promises that things will go well on this earth for the children of God. The question is: will we stay faithful? Will we continue to practise generosity or will we cut our giving and our Overseas Aid budget? Will we care for refugees, or say that they are not our problem? Will we look after  the most vulnerable members of our society, or kill off the poor as our money runs out? Will we educate students from across the world, or accuse them of only wanting to steal our knowledge? Will we keep an open, tolerant society, or resort to militant secularism or fundamentalist religion?

You see, faithfulness to God isn’t just about saying your prayers and reading your bible – it is about how we love our neighbour. Jesus was absolutely clear about this. The people who he attacks most vehemently were not the Romans or the Resistance Fighters, of whom there were many, but the religious people – the Pharisees and Scribes – who claimed to love God, but didn’t love their neighbour.

Christian faithfulness is not measured by how long you spend on your knees, but by how open your heart is to the poor, the refugee, the alien and the widow and the orphan. Will we be faithful as the world burns around us?

A pain in the toe (bereavement)

I did something stupid a few months ago: it was one of those hot summer days during the school holidays and our grandkids had come to stay. I know I don’t look old enough to have grandkids, but believe me, I am.

I took the 2 little boys, who are aged 5 & 6 over to the Green to play football and go on the swings. We ended up playing football, and like a fool I had decided that the best shoes to wear to play football were my sandals. Don’t ask me why I hadn’t thought some more about that, but that’s just the way it is sometimes.

So I’m kicking the ball to the kids, and somehow I manage to catch my large toenail on my other sandal and ripe it most of the way off. That horrible kind of pain that I can’t describe shoots up your leg, and I did what most of us would do in that situation and held my breath.

We do that, don’t we, when pain gets us unaware? Do you know why we hold our breath, when we are in pain? Because it keeps the pain where it is. Holding your breath keeps the pain in my toe, and stops my whole body doing what I want to do, which is shout very loudly and hop around waving my arms in the air. Because I’m with 2 little boys, and I don’t want to scare them, or set them off. It’s bad enough being in pain without scaring 2 little boys rigid.

So as the blood starts to pump out of my toe, I’m trying to keep as brave a face and cool a voice as I can, and say to them: “Let’s go home now. I’ve hurt my toe”. And so we walk the 400 yards or so back to my house; I say walk, but it’s actually a rather painful limp. Don’t ask me why losing the part of a toe nail makes it impossible to put weight on that foot, but that’s the way it was.

“Why are we going home now, Grumps?” asks Zach, the youngest.

“Because I’ve hurt my toe.” I reply.    “Can I see?” he responds.

“No” I say, but it makes no difference, because by now they are both looking. “It’s bleeding” Says Sam, the older one. “Does it hurt?”

“Yes” I reply as matter of factly as I can. “Shall we put a plaster on it, when we get home?” says Sam. “That’s a good idea” I say, thinking to myself – i think it might need more than that.

When we finally get home – it’s only 400 yards but it feels much longer, because I’m still holding my breath – my wife greets us: “You’re home soon” she says. “Yes” I say, “we had a little accident.” Pointing at my toe, hoping for that outpouring of sympathy that the little boys haven’t quite managed to achieve.

“O dear” she says “what were you doing playing football in sandals? That was a silly thing to do, wasn’t it?” I’ll leave you to imagine the rest of the conversation. I was probably exaggerating a bit about the amount to toe nail that got ripped off – but it felt like most of the toe nail at the time.

So why tell you that story? Apart, of course, from the hope that you might give me some sympathy? I want to talk about the difference between our private pain and how we manage that in public.

I mentioned how I instinctively held my breath when the pain first started. I wonder if you have noticed yourself doing the same thing? We all do it. It’s our body’s way of keeping the pain in one place. When you hold your breath, your body goes rigid and your muscles keep the pain where you first felt it.

Bereavement is a very particular and acute pain. You feel it maybe in your heart, or perhaps in your belly. And our first instinct is to tighten up all our muscles. Some people say bereavement makes them feel breathless. Others say they lose their appetite, or simply can’t relax. This is your body doing what it always does, when you are in pain: tightening, tensing, trying to keep the pain small, contained.

It’s an entirely natural and healthy thing to do. Bereavement is an unbearable pain. Part of us wants to stop the world and give into that all consuming pain. Another part of us wants to get on and try to keep everything together. And so we battle the urge to sit in dust and ashes, we hold our breath and try to keep going, building for ourselves a new routine without our loved one. But somehow everything seems tasteless. The pain is still there, being managed by our not breathing, and so we can’t experience pleasure the same either. We eat but don’t taste. We laugh but don’t enjoy. The pain is held.

Why do we do that? Partly because of the other people around us: the children and grandchildren – we don’t want to frighten them. We want them to be okay, or at least not affected by the pain inside us, which would be too much for them. So we pretend. We put on a brave face. We say, “I’m alright”, partly because we have no words adequate to describe the pain, and partly because we don’t want to burden them with our pain.

And then there are our friends, the lovely friends who mean so well, but frankly what can they do? They can’t bring back the one who has died. And we don’t want to scare them off, because we need them to help us. So we only tell them a little of what it is like, or we just smile and say, “It’s hard but I’m okay”.

And we know that we are sort of lying to them, but then we are sort of lying to ourselves too. We don’t know whether to give into the pain or to keep holding our breath in the hope that it will pass soon. And in reality we are feeling not just pain, but a host of other emotions.

Bereavement comes with a range of emotions. Some of these you will experience, some you may not. There is anger: anger at the doctors, anger at the brothers and sisters who didn’t visit, anger even at the person who has died, anger perhaps at ourselves. Then there is guilt; don’t ask me why, but most bereaved people feel some guilt, even if it is only that they are still alive. There’s sadness, of course, but sometimes also relief, if it has been a long battle. There’s loneliness. There’s tiredness. There’s aches and pains that have no explanation – they are just physical expressions of the grief.

Frankly how do you put any or all of these feelings into words? No wonder we say, “I’m okay”, even if we don’t feel okay. We are holding our breath, hoping to get through, but not quite sure where “through” leads to.

My toenail is fine, now. It took a couple of months to grow out. The little toe that I ran over with a wheelie bin full of water is taking rather longer, but I won’t bore you with that story. The death of a spouse, a parent, a brother or sister or child is much, much bigger than a little toe. It probably feels like half of you has been ripped off, without any anaesthetic. It’s going to take a long time to heal.

Toenails grow again. God made our bodies that way. Legs don’t grow again. Neither do people. Even when the pain heals, your life is never the same. It’s like walking again after a leg has been amputated. You will never walk the same, let alone run as fast, unless you’re a Para Olympian.

You’ve come here to remember loved ones, not to listen to advice. But please let me offer one thought. Here it is: learn to breathe again. Don’t hold the pain inside all the time.

Go to the graveyard and talk and cry and shout if you need to do so. Join a bereavement group and listen to other’s stories so that you develop the language to speak out your feelings. Talk to a bereavement counsellor. Light a candle here in church every month – we have a side chapel here.

I hate tears – not your tears, my tears. I hate crying. It makes me feel wretched. But tears are absolutely necessary, and valuable. It’s like they lubricate the pain and shift it a bit. Every time we cry, the pain moves a little, until one day we sense that it has gone, and we are just left with a scar, and a gap.

The Bible reading today is from John’s Gospel. It tells the story of Jesus coming to his disciples after they have seen him die. He has a resurrection body: it can appear and disappear at will, it’s not a ghost; it’s more like an angel. His body is our promise that death is not the end. His body says to us: look, there is more to come; death is not the end; I’m waiting for you, just round the corner, all is well.

But observe what Jesus does: he breathes on them. “Receive the Holy Spirit” he says. You could also read it: “Receive the Holy Breath”. Breathe, says Jesus. Breathe in, you can’t breathe out unless you breathe in. His disciples were just like you: bereaved, angry, hurt, holding their breath to contain the pain. Breathe says Jesus. Let it out. It’s okay.

That’s what I want to say: breathe in, breathe out. It’s okay. The pain is huge, but it won’t kill you. You may not be able to share it with the grandkids, but there are others who will listen, if you want to talk. God has not abandoned you. You are not alone. Breathe and trust. It will be okay.

Reading Matthew

So It’s rubbish collection day and a homeowner hears his doorbell ring 3 times. Outside is a man in reflective clothing: “Where’s your bin, man?” he asks.

The homeowner is from Asia and responds: “It none of your business where I bin”. “No, mate,” answers the bin man, “where’s your dustbin?”

“I tell you,” says the householder,”where I dust bin none of your business.”

The bin man tuts, “One last time”, he says, “where’s your wheelie bin?”

The Oriental man gives him a hard stare: “Ok, ok,” he says, “I tell you where I wheelie bin, but it no business of yours. I bin in bed with my wife.”

So this man gets a text from his wife on a cold morning: “windows frozen”

He texts back: “pour lukewarm water on them”

Next text from wife: “now smoke coming out, computer wrecked”.

Miscommunication! It makes people look so stupid, but in fact it takes 2 to mis-communicate. If somebody misunderstands you, it is as much your fault as theirs? Yes?

This week, we’ve been reading Matthew’s Gospel in our romp through the NT. I wonder if you are keeping up? One of the things that struck me this week is the sheer number of times that people seem to misunderstand Jesus, and when I say people, I mean everybody from his closest disciples to his worst enemies.

Take today’s text from Chapter 17: Jesus has just been transfigured on the mountain; his eternal glory has shone through and now, at last, 3 of his disciples have seen who he is. It’s a moment of high drama. But then he comes down the mountain and at the bottom the other 9 disciples are in trouble: they have been trying to heal a boy with epilepsy, but they seem to be making him worse rather than better. The boy’s dad is upset and implores Jesus to step in, which he does, and heals the boy, but not before he has said: “O unbelieving and perverse generation, how long shall I put up with you”. It seems a pretty harsh judgement to pass on whoever he is talking to – is it the dad or the disciples?

Anyhow  a little later, when the disciples get Jesus alone and ask him why they were unable to heal the boy, he tells them: “It’s because you have so little faith”. Wow! Don’t pull any punches will you, Jesus? And then he goes on with perhaps the most abused and misunderstood saying he ever makes: “if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain ‘move’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

I don’t know about you, but at this point I have every sympathy with the disciples. But to be honest, it’s not just at this point that I have sympathy for them. From the moment Jesus first starts to teach he is pretty enigmatic, in Matthew’s gospel. His first sermon, delivered from a mountain, begins: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” And so on.

Now I’ve read a lot of commentaries, and virtually every one understands those verses differently. They are enigmatic and yet strangely hopeful verses. The fact that we don’t really understand them in some ways makes them just as powerful as if Jesus had just said: “You, you lot here, you are the people I love most in the world”.

But He doesn’t say that, and if you are somebody who likes to understand everything, then that can make him really puzzling and frustrating. Alternatively you could understand a lot of what Jesus says as like a Japanese koan, a saying that is meant to puzzle you, but which nevertheless takes you to a deeper level of self awareness and awareness of truth.

At one level Jesus says things that are absolutely straight forward: “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”, “do to others what you would have them do to you”, “freely you have received, freely give”. These all sound pretty clear and straightforward, not easy, but understandable.

But then he wrecks it all with “the first will be last and the last first” – what does that mean?-, “be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees”, and my personal favourite, “Be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect”. As if! Now you may think that I am being obtuse, that Matthew’s gospel is basically fairly straight forward: it is Jesus telling everybody that he is the Jewish Messiah, and they are taking years to get it. It is basically simple.

That is true: Matthew’s gospel is a beautiful composition. Only 2 weeks ago somebody was pointing out to me it’s beautiful symmetry: it starts with Jesus being called Immanuel – God with us- and it ends with Jesus saying, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the Age.” It starts with Jesus tracing his ancestry back to Abraham, who was promised by God that he would be a blessing to all nations, and it ends with Jesus sending out his disciples to do what? Be a blessing to all nations, as they go and make disciples and baptise.

So Matthew’s gospel may be written for Jews, but it was meant to go to all nations, or rather they were, just as Abraham’s promise was. I see this. I’ve been helped too by the little introductions in our CBE book, but still i want to remind you how it ends: “When the disciples saw him (the resurrected Jesus), they worshipped him” – and so they should, but here comes the crunch – “but some doubted.” But what? Some doubted? How did that get in there?

How can these 11 men who have lived with Jesus for 3 years, who have seen him feed 5000 people with 5 bread rolls, who have seen him heal lepers, cure blindness, and raise the dead, and after all that have seen him alive after they watched him die, how can they doubt?

What a way to end the gospel! Tell us all about how Jesus is so amazing, but then ruin it all by saying that even some of Jesus’ closest friends doubted? At one level it rather ruins the effect, doesn’t it?

So why does Matthew do it? Is it perhaps for the same reason that he tells us that Jesus was constantly telling the disciples stuff that they didn’t understand? Or is it for our sake? So that when we read and we think: that’s hard to believe, we know we are not alone? Or is it even trying to say to us: Jesus is something of an enigma, he is, after all, unique, the Son of God. You are going to find yourself in unfamiliar territory, if you follow him?

This is my fantasy, and I may be completely wrong: that Matthew wants us to feel out of our depth with Jesus. He wants us to be in the same place as those first disciples, where Jesus excites but also mystifies and sometimes annoys us. He wants us to have to puzzle away at what the parable of the weeds means, or the parable of the fish in the net. And the reason he wants us to puzzle is because following Jesus isn’t just a case of learning the creed.

You can’t just say that because I believe Jesus rose from the dead, therefore I am a Christian. Christianity isn’t a case of just believing certain things are true. It is a case of loyalty to Jesus, of love for Jesus, of being caught up in the band of brothers and sisters, that are his followers. It is a case of getting to know Jesus, who is in the deepest place in our hearts.

You see, Jesus isn’t just a historical person. He isn’t even just a heavenly being, or a spiritual presence. He is at the centre of each of us. He is your maker and mine; he is your best friend; he exists in the depth of your being. And that makes it really hard to talk about him. He is quite simply too deep for words.

So when he says: be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect. At one level that is a total impossibility, but if you conclude that and stop there, then you are lost. You are like the seed that bounces off the hard path and gets eaten by the birds. But if you take that saying and meditate on it for a week or a year or perhaps a life time, then it will keep giving you more. This is the power of the words of Jesus: a child can paddle in them, an adult can swim in them for a lifetime and still not reach the end.

But that is not all. Jesus is not just a teacher. We don’t know who he is cross with when the disciples fail to heal the boy with epilepsy and he calls them an unbelieving and perverse generation; is he speaking to the crowds or the disciples? The point here is that he expects the disciples to be able to do something that even modern science can’t do. They are continually taken out of their comfort zone. And what that suggests to me is that we should expect the same; that faith in Jesus, following Jesus will take us right out of our comfort zone, day after day after day. And that we will do that not full of faith, but in that grey zone where we sometimes believe, and sometimes doubt.

This is the challenge of Matthew’s Gospel: will you become a disciple of this man, Jesus? Will you let him take you on the journey of a lifetime, where your old ways of doing things will be constantly changed?

Let me close with some examples:

You are sat on the bus or in Sainsburys cafe, and a stranger tells you about the terrible pain in their back. Will you just empathise, or will you say to them: would you mind if I pray for your back here? I believe God wants to heal you. After reading this Gospel, which do you think Jesus would have you do?

Another example: your neighbour puts up a new fence and steals a bit of your land. Will you have an angry exchange over the fence? Or will you take a cake round and invite yourself in for tea, and when the issue of the fence comes up say something like: “you can have that bit of land, it was only ever loaned me by God, so if you need it more than me, have it”?

Or when your wife or husband tries to divorce you, will you plead with them to forgive you or rush to find a lawyer?

Being a Christian is absolutely about what you do in those circumstances. I’m not saying that there is only one way to approach those problems, but what I am saying is that Jesus calls us to be different from everybody else. It’s tough but it’s right.

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….