What does Jesus think about climate change?

These are real complaints received by Thomas Cook the travel agents:

“On my holiday to Goa in India, I was disgusted to find that almost every restaurant served curry. I don’t like spicy food.”

“They should not allow topless sunbathing on the beach. It was very distracting for my husband who just wanted to relax.”

“The beach was too sandy. We had to clean everything when we returned to our room.”

“We found the sand was not like the sand in the brochure. Your brochure shows the sand as white but it was more yellow.”

“No-one told us there would be fish in the water. The children were scared.”

“Although the brochure said that there was a fully equipped kitchen, there was no egg-slicer in the drawers.”

“I think it should be explained in the brochure that the local convenience store does not sell proper biscuits like custard creams or ginger nuts.”

“The roads were uneven and bumpy, so we could not read the local guide book during the bus ride to the resort. Because of this, we were unaware of many things that would have made our holiday more fun.”

“It took us nine hours to fly home from Jamaica to England. It took the Americans only three hours to get home. This seems unfair.”

“I compared the size of our one-bedroom suite to our friends’ three-bedroom and ours was significantly smaller.”

“The brochure stated: ‘No hairdressers at the resort.’ We’re trainee hairdressers and we think they knew and made us wait longer for service.”

“When we were in Spain, there were too many Spanish people there. The receptionist spoke Spanish, the food was Spanish. No one told us that there would be so many foreigners.”

“I was bitten by a mosquito. The brochure did not mention mosquitoes.”

“My fiancée and I requested twin-beds when we booked, but instead we were placed in a room with a king bed. We now hold you responsible and want to be re-reimbursed for the fact that I became pregnant. This would not have happened if you had put us in the room that we booked.”

We are an ungrateful lot! Most of us would once have been happy just to get a foreign holiday, but now we are not satisfied with that. It has to be more.

I want to talk to you today about the biggest threat to world security of our times, and I don’t mean the Trump. I’m talking about a threat that affects every occupant of this planet, from the Arctic to the Sahara, from Carlisle to London. That threat is the unprecedented change of our climate caused by human activity.

Now you may be tempted to think that firstly this is not a subject for church, and secondly it is not that serious for us, or perhaps not even proven. So let’s examine those ideas, in case they are here.

  1. It’s not a subject for church? Why not? The New York Times carried this report in 2014:

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations group that periodically summarizes climate science, concluded that ice caps are melting, sea ice in the Arctic is collapsing, water supplies are coming under stress, heat waves and heavy rains are intensifying, coral reefs are dying, and fish and many other creatures are migrating toward the poles or in some cases going extinct.

The oceans are rising at a pace that threatens coastal communities and are becoming more acidic as they absorb some of the carbon dioxide given off by cars and power plants, which is killing some creatures or stunting their growth, the report found.

It continues: “Throughout the 21st century, climate-change impacts are projected to slow down economic growth, make poverty reduction more difficult, further erode food security, and prolong existing and create new poverty traps, the latter particularly in urban areas and emerging hot spots of hunger,” the report declared.

The report also cited the possibility of violent conflict over land, water or other resources, to which climate change might contribute indirectly “by exacerbating well-established drivers of these conflicts such as poverty and economic shocks.”

And in case you think that this report is produced by some fringe lefty group, this same group was awarded the Nobel prize in 2007, for its work on climate change. So that is their conclusion: climate change is going to make it harder to eliminate poverty, make wars more likely, and make more species extinct. Poverty, war and avoidable death – aren’t these the things that we pray about every Sunday in church? Why not talk about the cause?

But you may say, the cause is human greed. Yes, of course, and ignorance. Greed and ignorance drive climate change. It is not a natural phenomenon. It is caused by greedy, ignorant people.

But what does the bible have to say about this? Of course, the bible has much to say about poverty, war and death, but the science of climate change is something more recent. Nonetheless, a reading like today’s from Matt 5.13-20 has ramifications in this respect.

“You are the salt of the earth”, says Jesus, “but if salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again?” I used to think Jesus was talking about table salt, NaCl, which of course cannot stop being salty. But then I read that the word can also mean saltpeter, a form of fertiliser, which can lose its efficacy. The active ingredient can leach away, so that it becomes useless, inert, barren, and unable to act as fertiliser. Like soil that has been overused it has no life in it. It is useless. The link with climate change is clear enough, as deserts expand due to deforestation and lack of rainfall. But that is not the main point of the analogy.

Jesus says that his followers should be like fertiliser, or in the next verse, like a light on a stand or a city on a hill. In other words they should speak out, shine out and stand out. They should stand up for what they believe to be true. They should infect society. They should make it fruitful again. They should turn the wastelands and deserts into fields, both metaphorically and literally. It’s not an optional extra for Christians to get involved in politics and feeding the hungry. It is their raison d’être. Our raison d’être.

But maybe you think I have sold out the spiritual meaning of the Gospel to a social gospel. You may think that what I am spouting is just worldly wisdom, not the wisdom of God. Isn’t this what St Paul talks about in our other reading?

I think not. Worldly wisdom is self serving cleverness, like when somebody finds some reason to question to scientific consensus just because they want to make money from fossil fuels or let themselves off the hook for taking that holiday in Goa. Worldly wisdom is when we use our intellect to avoid our moral responsibility, when we justify short term gains and long term losses. It is worldly, not because the world is bad or science is not to be trusted, but because it is too human, too individualistic, too narrow, too selfish. Whereas the cross of Jesus is the opposite: divine, universal and selfless.

So that brings me onto the other point: perhaps we ignore climate change because we think it won’t affect us here in North Hampshire – after all, who wouldn’t like a few hotter summers? We wouldn’t need to fly to Goa if we had Goa-like temperatures here, would we?

Tell that to the residents of Carlisle, who last year were flooded out of their homes by unprecedented rainfall. Say that to the residents of London and most other big cities, who are more likely to die by air pollution than we are here – but how many of us work in the big smoke? Tell that to the residents of Kent, who are only too aware of the numbers of people trying to reach this country due to violence or economic failure. Imagine if that trickle became a flood, as it would if climate change displaced millions.

We might joke about a warmer July (although wetter is more likely) but in fact climate change is no joke, and is already perhaps responsible for some of the global insecurity that we are witnessing.

So what are we to do? You’ve probably already changed your light-bulbs for low energy ones. And if not, why not?

Here are some ideas from David Suzuki, a climate change activist in Canada:

  1. Get involved

Take a few minutes to contact your political representatives and the media to tell them you want immediate action on climate change. Remind them that reducing greenhouse gas emissions will also build healthier communities, spur economic innovation and create new jobs. And next time you’re at the polls, vote for politicians who support effective climate policies.

  1. Be energy efficient

Unplug computers, TVs and other electronics when not in use. Wash clothes in cold or warm (not hot) water. Dryers are energy hogs, so hang dry when you can. Install a programmable thermostat. Look for the Energy Star® label when buying new appliances. And a home energy audit is cheaper than you think — book one today to find even more ways to save energy.

  1. Choose renewable power

Ask your utility to switch your account to clean, renewable power, such as from wind farms. If it doesn’t offer this option yet, ask it to.

  1. Eat wisely

Buy organic and locally grown foods. Avoid processed items. Grow some of your own food. And eat low on the food chain — at least one meat-free meal a day — since 18 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions come from meat and dairy production. Food writer Michael Pollan sums it up best: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

  1. Trim your waste

Garbage buried in landfills produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Keep stuff out of landfills by composting kitchen scraps and garden trimmings, and recycling paper, plastic, metal and glass. Let store managers and manufacturers know you want products with minimal or recyclable packaging.

  1. Let polluters pay

Carbon taxes make polluting activities more expensive and green solutions more affordable, allowing energy-efficient businesses and households to save money. They are one of the most effective ways to reduce the country’s climate impact. If your country doesn’t have a carbon tax, ask your prime minister and MP to implement one.

  1. Fly less

Air travel leaves behind a huge carbon footprint. Before you book your next airline ticket, consider greener options such as buses or trains, or try holidaying closer to home. You can also stay in touch with people by videoconferencing, which saves time as well as travel and accommodation costs.

  1. Get informed

Follow the latest news about climate change. Join our community.

  1. Green your commute

Transportation causes about 25 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, so walk, cycle or take transit whenever you can. You’ll save money and get into better shape! If you can’t go car-free, try carpooling or car sharing, and use the smallest, most fuel-efficient vehicle possible.

 

There is a great biblical word for what he proposes, it’s called repentance – changing our lifestyle.

Christian Unity – more or less.

This joke was voted the best religious joke of all time, so I hope you like it:

Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it!” He said, “Nobody loves me.” I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”

He said, “Yes.” I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?” He said, “A Christian.” I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?” He said, “Protestant.” I said, “Me, too! What denomination?” He said, “Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?” He said, “Northern Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.” I said, “Me, too!”

“Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.” I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.

So maybe it’s not that funny, after all suicide is hardly a laughing matter. And, of course, we Brits are not quite as prone to schisms as our American cousins. Did you know that there are 46,000 different Christian denominations at the last count?

Anyhow, what’s that got to do with the Parable of the Lost Son, or maybe you call it the parable of the prodigal son, or perhaps the Parable of the Forgiving Father? I’d like to suggest to you that all of those names are wrong, and it should be called the Parable of the grumpy brother, or if we are going to get theological: the story of the brother who didn’t want grace.

You see, I think the story is really about the older brother. Because when you are a master story-teller like Jesus, you end your story at the climax, not with some trivial extra bit. Stories build. The son who wastes his wealth is part of the build up, he’s not the main point. The main point is that his brother cannot accept what his father has just done.

You don’t need me to point out just how generous the father is. His younger son has humiliated him in an honour based culture. He deserves to be rejected, humiliated and disowned. But he is not. He is welcomed, honoured and given back everything. And it is too much for his older brother.

Now the thing is that the older brother suffered real loss when the father decided to get all magnanimous. When the younger brother left, he lost nothing, except that little whiny voice that he knew too well.

Okay, so the spoilt, little twerp gets given his share of the estate, but he would have got that anyway. And, yes, the dad and older son have a smaller estate to farm, so there are less profits, but they have got by; and sooner or later, the older son is going to inherit it all…..The younger son going was humiliating for the Father, but the older brother hardly felt it.

But when he comes back, that is when it hurts. You see, if he came back as a hired hand, like he asked, that would have been okay. But as soon as the Father puts his ring on the younger son and adopts him back into the family, then all of a sudden the older son stands to lose half his inheritance.

Do you see that? Father and one son means the whole estate goes to him. Father and 2 sons means the maths gets more complex: if he has truly been forgiven then the younger son needs an inheritance, and there is only one place that can come from. So when the Father says to his older son, “All that I have is yours”, he is pouring oil on troubled waters, but it is unclear how he can fulfill his promise to both sons. And that is what bugs the older son.

He stands to lose a lot, up to half his inheritance. So he’s angry and in no mood to celebrate the return of the Prodigal. And this is why Jesus tells the story to his Pharisee audience. They don’t like Jesus welcoming tax collectors and half castes and women and other misfits (sorry Ladies) into his company. They think they stand to lose, and they are right. They stand to lose a lot: their status, their ability to decide who is in and who is out, their purity and their control, above all their control. If anybody can be a friend of God, then all their hard work is pointless. They stand to lose a lot, if Jesus gets his way.

Come with me now back to the year: 1662. The place: St Peter’s Church, Tadley. It is 2 years after the  end of years of the English Civil war (or as historians now call it, the war of 3 kingdoms: England, Ireland and Scotland). The crown has just been given back to the son of the executed King. Charles 2nd has been crowned and the reign of Parliament has come to an end.

Parliament was controlled by the Puritans, who liked their religion pure. Thomas Cromwell famously banned Christmas, because it was too bawdy. Sabbath observance was mandatory. High Church Anglican priests had been kicked out of their pulpits, and Tadley had been taken from the care of the Bishop of Winchester, and Thomas Kentish, a puritan preacher, had been acting as minister since 1650.

But in 1662 that changes and St Peter’s is given back to the old Church of England hierarchy, but not without a fight which ends up in a court of law. Nonetheless, Thomas Kentish and his Puritan followers are ejected, and they begin to meet in private houses until in 1712 they build the church we now know as Old Meeting.

Why am I taking you back there? Because I wonder what view you would have taken back then: would you have taken the view that the church is the church and even if you don’t agree with the minister, you should stay, because Christian unity is more important than theological differences? Or would you have gone with Kentish, because in religion we must follow the truth as we believe God has revealed it, even if that means division?

Or let’s put it another way, if we look at it from the perspective of the parable we read earlier: were the Puritan dissenters the older brother who wouldn’t accept the return of the lax younger brother, the old Anglican priest, and they wouldn’t come into the party? Or were the Puritan leavers the younger brother, shaking the dust off his feet as he wanders off into the sunset as the older brother smiles glibly to himself?

Do you see where I am coming from? If we think about our separate denominations through the lens of the Parable of the son who doesn’t want grace, what does it tell us? ………It tells me this:

Firstly, there will be no coming back together until a famine is experienced. The younger son isn’t coming home until his belly is empty and he can’t even feed himself with pig swill. Nothing else will persuade him to go home. He has to be broken. He has to grow up, to find out that there is something more important than getting his way.

This is the effect of suffering, or it can be. Once we have experienced powerlessness, absolute inability to solve a problem ourselves, then we enter into what Richard Rohr, a Franciscan writer, calls the second half of life. People who are in the first half of life are trying to make a name for themself; they are trying to succeed; they are building an empire; they are building a reputation. They are in competition, and they intend to win.

But after enough suffering something changes, and we become second half of life people: we don’t need to win, because winning isn’t important; we don’t need a reputation; we don’t need success. We value something deeper than our ego – it might be our family, it might be the kingdom of God, it might be our integrity, whatever it is, it is something that doesn’t make us look good. Second half of life people don’t care much about appearances. They don’t post much on facebook.

The younger son is going home, not to get his name or his robe or his family. He’s going home just to survive. He’s going home because humiliation has already happened and he can’t get any more broken. He’s going home to live.

So here’s my first lesson from this parable – there will be no home coming amongst the churches until we have entered the second half of life, until we don’t have to win any longer. We can make Churches Together and respect each other from a position of strength. But we can only make church unity when we know how to lose, when we don’t care about losing. And it is only when we don’t care about winning or losing that we will actually live; as long as we want to win, we will experience lack.

We see this in the older son. He has it all. He’s never left the father’s side, but what is his experience? “All these years I have laboured for you, and you’ve not even given me a kid to celebrate with my friends”. His experience is of labour and lack. Hard work but little pleasure. Does that sound familiar? So that’s my second point: first half of life thinking is toil and disappointment, no joy.

Anyhow, back to the parable: it ends on a cliffhanger – we don’t know how it ends. Does the older brother soften and get to boogie with his younger brother? Or does he stomp off and leave the father heart-broken again?

Little aside here: if we ever do get to boogie together as the Church of Jesus in Tadley, you have to promise not to watch me dance. Dad dancing is something I’d be quite happy with. Kayla says I dance to my own beat.

The theme of our service today is reconciliation, and reconciliation is a two way street. Both parties have to want it, in order for it to happen. Yes, it’s necessary for one party to have achieved second half of life thinking for reconciliation to be even a remote possibility, but if the other side still wants to win, then reconciliation will be one sided, and crushing. There will be peace, but there will be no dancing.

If the older brother doesn’t forgive his broken brother, then the atmosphere in that house is going to be caustic. Nobody will be able to relax. Both sons and the father will be drawing lines around what is their’s. And one day it will bust apart again.

So will the older brother accept his loss? Will he accept his father’s desire to have his family back together? Will he decide to look for the peace that could be his, if he can reconcile with his brother? This is how the story ends, as Jesus puts it out there for his critics to contemplate.

And it’s out there for us too: do you want to dance or win? When we do stuff together, as we do so well in CTAT, whether it is Messy Church, or Holiday club or March of witness, do we secretly want to win? Do we want anybody new to join our church? Would we secretly like to see our church thrive, whilst the others can languish? …..Or is it just me that gets tempted that way?

So here’s where it gets ugly. I love CTAT stuff. I love it that Kay gets gunged, and Greg gets to practice drums on a chutney jar and Ruth sings so well. I love this stuff, but deep down I’m wanting people to join my church – any of my churches. This is me getting vulnerable with you. I’d like to be second half of life thinking, but deep down I want to win. And that means that I am not ready for Christian Unity. Not really. I’m sorry.

This is my confession. I like to think I am right. Not in everything, of course. I fully accept that other churches do worship, evangelism, prayer, and pastoral care better than we Anglicans. But deep down I want to win. I think ‘I’ rather than ‘we’. And that is toxic. God help me.

When I was a priest in Newark, Nottinghamshire, we had a little independent Pentecostal fellowship that met in a Community Centre in the parish. I got to know them and like them, and then one day they said to me, “We’ve decided to close our church. We’re tired. We’re not growing. We’d like to join your church.” And so they did, and we did our best to welcome them and get them as fully integrated as possible. This old Pentecostal preacher got to speak in our services. Our prayer meeting took on a new passion. One of the church members became an elder immediately. It was tough for us to accept them. It must have been 100 times tougher for them to join us.

I left that church about a year after they joined. 10 years on from then I went back. I think only one of the 20 or so who joined my church was still there. Frankly I don’t think we were ready for unity. Unity requires brokenness on both sides.

Friends when I look at Tadley with its 10 churches which are all struggling to run a really good kids ministry, and who can only do really good outreach when we work together, but then we go back to our separate fellowships, and we secretly hope that anybody new will follow us. But in reality we can’t carry off something as good as messy church or the Holiday club every week, because we are worried about the wheels falling off our own wagon. When I look at this, I think we need unity. We need less churches and more Christianity. But I know that I need to be broken some more before that can happen. I need to enter the second half of life. I need to die to myself, my success, my church, my reputation. I need to be willing to fail in the eyes of my Diocese and my denomination so that we can party like people who don’t care any longer. Those are the best parties, aren’t they? When nobody cares how they look any longer and we are together for the first time.

Later this year we are going to ask the people of Tadley and Pamber heath and Silchester “what hurts the most?” as together we engage in Who cares? It’s going to be hard work but we have an opportunity to really hear the pain of the people who live around us. I hope we can do this together, because if we as the church are not interested in what hurts our neighbours, then what are we doing? And how do we know what hurts most, unless we ask?

But My question is this: how will we respond if we are not in unity? How much time will we waste keeping the wheels on our wagon, when we should be working together for God’s Kingdom? If we respond to people’s deepest pain with projects designed to grow our church, and not to meet their need, then we will lack integrity. But how can we truly respond to needs if we are focused too much on self preservation? Like the older son, welcoming the lost back home means that we suffer loss ourselves. Somebody has to pay for grace. The cross doesn’t mean that there is no more price to be paid; the cross is the model and archetype of how people are saved – at great personal cost.

We worship a saviour who paid it all for us, a saviour who was totally prepared for loss, ill repute and failure. Isn’t it perhaps time that we stopped trying to win, and embraced loss for the sake of the lost? I preach to myself as much as any of you.

Jesus’ economic policy (Jn.1-11)

A man and his wife are sitting at a table at their high school reunion, and he keeps staring at a drunken woman swigging her drink, as she sits alone at a nearby table.

His wife asks, “Do you know her?”

“Yes,” he sighs. “She’s my old girlfriend. I understand she started drinking right after we split up those many years ago, and I hear she hasn’t been sober since.

“My God!” says the wife. “Who would think a person could go on celebrating that long?”

So, there really are two ways to look at everything…which brings me onto the story of Jesus turning water into wine (John 2.1-11). Let’s consider some of the different ways of seeing this story:

1. you can see it as a straight forward account of Jesus’ first miracle, a simple story of a family wedding where the couple embarrassingly run out of wine. Jesus steps in to help after pleas from his mother. It’s not exactly what he wanted to do, or maybe even the best use of his powers, but it expresses the love of God for the simple pleasures of life: weddings, families, love.

So at this level it is just the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, a life affirming, love affirming, hope giving insight into the heart of God – a God who cares about the little things as well as the big picture.

2. you could see it as something much more like a parable, than a real event, after all John is quite creative in the ways that he depicts Jesus. So this event could be more like a commentary on the words that Jesus says elsewhere (in Matthew) that his teaching is like new wine that cannot be held in the old wineskins. Or a development of the theme that John will develop of how Jesus surpasses some of the old ways of Judaism.

In this way of seeing, Jesus replaces the ritual washing of Judaism (and indeed of the baptism of John) with the gift of the Holy Spirit. Old Judaism is then depicted as sober, basic, or as old wine, which runs out, only to be replaced by the abundance of the best wine that Jesus magicks out of simple water.

If you read John’s Gospel through with us last year, you’ll know that John weaves a powerful story and loves to play with themes, so my money is on the 2nd way of reading the story. This doesn’t mean that John fabricated the story. He’s more sophisticated than that. But I’m not sure that the story happened exactly as recorded by John.

This brings me onto a really quite important topic: how important is the historical Jesus? Does it matter if everything didn’t happen quite as it is described in the new Testament?

I’m going to argue that it doesn’t, just as it doesn’t matter that any history happened exactly as recorded. There are always 2 ways of seeing anything, at the very least. If you doubt that, ask whoever shares a house with you to give you a blow by blow account of yesterday.

Everybody who tells a story wants to make a point. The point might be “It wasn’t my fault”, or it might be “You would be better off if I was in charge”. Every story is told to make a point, even the BBC news.

The point of John’s story of Jesus is to open our eyes to a life changing story. So much of life is about limits – our wine is always running out. The story of contemporary society is a story of scarcity: we can’t let immigrants in because they will take our jobs, as if there was a finite number of jobs or money; we can’t educate everybody to tertiary level without making them pay, because they might not pay it back; we must all work harder, longer and for less pay because there won’t be enough to go round otherwise.

The irony here is that we have more of everything than we have ever had in the whole of human history, we even have longer lives than people have lived before, yet we all live in fear. Fear that the money will run out; fear that the NHS will go bankrupt; fear that the lights will go out; fear that we will die too young. We live in a world that is constantly in fear of the wine running out.

And Jesus explodes this right open. He overturns this kind of economics. Once you turn water into wine, then wine becomes as cheap as water, and water becomes all that you need. Water into wine is a powerful metaphor for the change our thinking needs: we no longer live in a world of scarcity and competition.

Now it doesn’t matter whose wedding is better. Now it doesn’t matter who grows the best grapes and produces the best wine. Now It doesn’t matter who is rich and who is poor, because anybody can have enough.

Of course, you want to say: “that’s all very well for Jesus, but it isn’t the way that life works”. But this is the point of the story. We decide how life works. We make up the rules. If life doesn’t work that way, that is because the people who write history have told another story: a story where nothing grows on trees, especially not money, a story where work is done by the sweat of your brow, and you have to slave for every cent that you earn.

But is that true? How much of what you own did you actually produce? And how much came to you because you relied on other people’s work? Isn’t our wealth a co-operative venture, where everybody sinks or swims together? Isn’t that how economies work, they are a group effort that depends on co-operation not competition? And co-operation requires grace.

It’s Epiphany today, when the church celebrates the revelation of Jesus to the Gentiles, starting with the wise men. Now the point here is that Jesus comes with the whole Jewish heritage, which was a heritage of God’s overturning the idea of scarcity: he gives a childless old man a family tree that is innumerable; he gives a nation of slaves a land flowing with milk and honey; he gives a defeated people the promise of a city paved with gold.

The whole story of the old Testament is of God lifting up the lowly and casting down the mighty. It is a story of generosity, of grace, of freedom. Jesus simply makes this story accessible to the rest of us. It was a Jewish story, and now it is the story of every man and woman.

But it’s just a story, unless we choose to believe it and act on it. If you ignore the story, then it is just a fairy tale. If you choose to live like it, then you get to see if it is true or not.

So this is the challenge of 2017: would you like to live a different story? A story where there is enough for everybody? Where those who gather too much find it goes rotten in their pots, and those who gather too little have enough, as with the manna in the wilderness? Does it really matter how much money you have when you die?

So the story of Jesus changing water into wine speaks to us of a different sort of economy – an economy of grace, an economy of sufficiency. What might this look like in practice?

It looks like an economy where we view our charitable giving as at least as important as our holidays, where we give away the same amount as we spend on holidays, and maybe give away the same amount of time as we spend on holiday. After all, when there are people starving in other countries and going without holidays in this country, shouldn’t we even it up a bit?

It looks like an economy where paying taxes is a moral duty, not an inconvenience. And if duty seems a bit cold, then maybe privilege is a better word – it is a privilege to live in safety and peace – worth paying for.

It looks like an economy where we all get to rest from the endless cycle of consumption at least once a week; a day off for everybody. It used to be called a Sabbath.

It looks like an economy where everybody who works gets paid a living wage and there are limits to how much wealth individuals are allowed to accumulate.

It looks like an economy where we learn to practice contentment ourselves and say enough is enough, because then we have much more room in our hearts for generosity. And where we don’t use up all the earth’s resources in our relentless drive to get rich quick.

You may never have thought that Jesus’ gift to the world was an economic policy, but how can he save the world without saving real people in the reality of life that we call our economy?

 

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.