Author: Michael Hopkins

The Spirit of Reconciliation

When I was a child, our local cathedral was Coventry Cathedral. We weren’t Church of England and we didn’t go there all the time, but it was the local cathedral, and it was where we went from time to time. The cathedral was consecrated on 25 May 1962, so this the anniversary week. What you see is a modern building full of light, Graham Sutherland’s tapestry of Christ in Glory behind the high altar, on your right a kaleidoscopic baptistery window of hundreds of colours surrounding a font which is an enormous rock from Bethlehem, and much of the cathedral has a jet-black polished marble floor.

Coventry is, of course, one cathedral in two buildings. Next to the next cathedral stands the shell of the old cathedral bombed in 1940, as eloquent as any ruins in England. It speaks poignantly of ‘war and the pity of war’, Wilfred Owen’s words quoted by Benjamin Britten in the War Requiem, commissioned for the Cathedral and first performed there. But the ruins don’t only speak of sacrifice and death. They speak powerfully of life. At open-air communion services in the early morning on Easter Day and Pentecost, it can be as if the skeleton of that beautiful 15th century church reaches for the sky, a striking metaphor of resurrection as if we were in some great empty tomb. Ezekiel’s dry bones: arid, dead, lifeless things which the Spirit brings back to life again.

The focus of Coventry Cathedral’s ministry ever since the war has been reconciliation. Beginning with the rebuilding of friendship with Germany, this work has spread to many places of conflict across the world. The most recent partner who joined only a few days ago is Crookham United Reformed Church in Northumberland, who have developed a peace and reconciliation centre as they are close to the site of the Battle of Flodden Field where the English and Scots laid into one another in 1513.

Pentecost is all about reconciliation. We heard from Genesis the story of the tower of Babel. I don’t think this a story about building a tower. It’s nothing to do with buildings at all – it’s about the consequences of people not being reconciled with one another. Because people fell out with each other, they ended up speaking different languages, not understanding one another. And we find the response to this story in part of the story of the first day of Pentecost from Acts. Here there were many languages being spoken, and suddenly the disciples could understand them all. What I think this has to say to us is that an important part of the story of Pentecost is that the Holy Spirit is about reconciliation.

Indeed, Pentecost promises the transformation of the whole of life, even in its darkest, most broken passages. The face of Christ in that Graham Sutherland tapestry in Coventry has a gaze that seems to know you in a profound way, draw you upwards, put to you God’s questions, speak compellingly about grace and truth. Above him a shaft of light streams down on his head as if he were being baptised by a glow that pours over him from a window in the sky. And right at the top is the origin of that light: a dove. She is descending on that sunbeam towards Christ and towards us: the Holy Spirit of Christ the risen Head who animates the body of his church, the community of the baptised, the faithful of every age and the faithful of today. Us.

In 1990 Coventry marked the 50th anniversary of the Luftwaffe air-raids codenamed ‘Moonlight Sonata’, when incendiaries rained down on the city and burned its heart out, destroying the cathedral with it. The story is told that one day an elderly man came into the ruins, and walked slowly up the length of the nave to the stone altar in the apse, tentative as though he was not sure if he should be there. He stood for a long time gazing at the charred cross and at the inscription on the wall behind it, ‘Father, forgive’. And then he began to sob: not in a self-dramatizing way, but with the honesty of a child who has been confronted with some personal truth that is too overwhelming for words. The Provost embraced him and they held on to each other for some considerable time. That man had been a Luftwaffe pilot on that terrible bombing raid of 14 November. In 50 years he had never been able to bring himself to visit the city. But now he wanted to come before he died, and face the truth of what he and his comrades had done so many years before, the truth of ‘war and the pity of war’. It felt like a moment of life-changing forgiveness and reconciliation.

At Pentecost, we should ask ourselves if we are genuinely open to the Holy Spirit. Not that we speak with tongues, or prophesy, or understand mysteries, or give away all that we own or even have faith to move mountains. Paul tells us that there is one first-fruit of the Spirit’s harvest that we must covet above all others. Love is that fruit. Love is the only thing that matters: love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, love that never ends. It is love inspired by the Spirit, brought back to life by the Spirit, which enables us to join in God’s mission to bring reconciliation to his world. The dove descending on that sunbeam on the tapestry reminds me why I am here: to learn how to see in a new way, and then to act on what I see. And then I know that in the power of God’s risen Son and his life-giving Spirit, anything is possible.

Letting the air in

Ezekiel 37:1-14
Acts 2:1-21

It’s very easy to make three serious mistakes about Pentecost.

The first is to assume that it doesn’t really apply in churches like this. We’re a middle-of-the-road church, people say. We’re not extreme. We’re not what is derogatively referred to as happy-clappy. We don’t all have our hands in the air for every hymn, nor clap to each one. While we all have our own preferences about worship, and our own views about changes we’d like to make, the centre of gravity in the worship of both our churches is undeniably rather more traditional than some. Now the point of mentioning this is that it’s very easy to find oneself thinking that Pentecost and the Holy Spirit isn’t so very relevant. That’s for the Vineyard Church or the Jubilee Church or such like. But that is a very serious mistakes. Our worship, perhaps our personalities, may be more reserved than some churches. However, it is a very serious mistake to underestimate the importance of the Holy Spirit, and our need of the Holy Spirit. We may be quieter than some, but the Spirit is still as important.

The second mistake we can make is to realise that the Holy Spirit is important, but to think that we’ve somehow failed we because our worship is not livelier, or because all manner of exotic things don’t happen on a regular basis. The concerns of the 21st century, running buildings and managing an organisation are a world away from what the first disciples were living and doing in Jerusalem, because we are in a different time and place. We haven’t failed because we are not different from who we are.

And the third serious mistake is to ignore or forget the Holy Spirit. In the United Reformed Church, and it’s true of all churches although perhaps the URC makes it more explicit than some, in the United Reformed Church we are not a democracy. There is no place for democracy, because we a theocracy, seeking what is that God wants. Not what we want, but what we think that God wants. And the Holy Spirit is the very essence of this. If we ignore the Holy Spirit, we soon lose track of keeping in touch with God, and drift into our own personal views. If we ignore or forget the Holy Spirit, then everything goes wrong.

So, I thought that the best thing that I could do was to tell you a little story. The story doesn’t actually mention the Holy Spirit by name, but it’s there throughout the story on many levels.

A new family moved into an old house and they did a lot of work on it. Lots of trips to Homebase for all manner of bits and pieces. A new kitchen for Jack – who was a dedicated Bake Off fan. Updated central heating. Lots of decorating: bright colours for the children’s bedrooms. And a fabulous new bathroom with beautiful tiles from that posh shop opposite the William Cobbett that Karen loved. There was only one room left to tackle, the attic room, up a set of narrow stairs.

It was a rather nasty little room; dingy, with yellowy-green wallpaper and sloping ceilings. So far, they’d used it as a junk room; all sorts of stuff from the move had been dumped up there, and now it was time to sort it out. It was hot and stuffy up there. And it was getting hotter and stuffier as the afternoon wore on. It was hard work sorting through the boxes and Karen really felt the need for some fresh air, but the window was stuck. Someone had painted it shut, and no matter how hard she tried she couldn’t get it open. By the end of the afternoon she’d made good progress, but she was in a foul mood. Hot, bothered and headachy.

‘What are we going to do with the room when it’s sorted?’ Jack asked, ‘Another spare bedroom?’

‘I’ve no idea,’ Karen said. ‘The more time I spend in it the more I dislike it. It’s a horrible poky place. I’m beginning to think I should have just left it as a junk room.’

But she’d started the job, so she was determined to finish it, although she was in no rush to do that. It was mid-summer and the sun on the roof made the attic room stifling. She really needed to get that window open. So the next time she went up there she went with a Stanley knife, some turps, a hammer, and a chisel.

‘Right then, window,’ she muttered, ‘resistance is futile.’ And she worked at it until at long last the blessed thing opened. And didn’t the summer air feel wonderful as it drifted in under the eaves. It smelled of the garden and it brought birdsong with it. Karen stood there and just breathed.

Then she turned back into the room and saw the breeze teasing a scrap of torn wallpaper. Underneath the nasty green stuff she could see other paper, something old fashioned with rosebuds on it, not her sort of thing, but a lovely colour. This room had been prettier once. And it could be again. Now that she could actually breathe properly up here and the mustiness was gone, she felt better about the whole project. And she liked the view from the little window. Maybe she’d put a table there. This could be a workroom, or a study for the children to do their homework. Maybe Jack and the children could use it for model-making…the ideas were coming thick and fast. She reached across, took hold of the torn wallpaper and pulled a great chunk of it off the wall. ‘Yes,’ she thought. ‘When I’ve sorted it out, this will be fabulous.’

Working with Christ

Acts 1:1-11
Luke 24:44-53

Is the ascension a fictional story of something that couldn’t have happened, written by people in an age when they still thought the earth was flat, of no relevance to us today? Or is it – although impossible to explain in modern rational and scientific terms – a literal truth?

The trouble with both those positions – while held by many – is that it all seems irrelevant to most people’s lives, and the ordinary, and difficult, situations and problems affecting us; our hopes, our fears, and our concerns do not even feature, let alone find an answer or a response.

I’d like to suggest a middle way somewhere between the two extreme points of view, which is to look for what truths the story has to tell us, rather than insulting our intelligence or rubbishing the Bible. Does the ascension have anything to say to thinking Christians, with the concerns of the 21st century on their shoulders.

The author of the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, they are one and the same person, vividly describes the ascension of Jesus. The disciples have forty days with the Risen Christ and then he departs, he ascends into heaven. The Gospel of Luke records that they were filled with joy and spent all their time in the Temple giving thanks to God. But I wonder if there is room for a serious theological message in the departure of the Jesus?

The story of the ascension cannot be just literal history, because heaven is not physically up in the sky. Ever since Copernicus and Galileo revolutionised our understanding of the cosmos, it’s been impossible to think of heaven as up in the sky and hell underground. If our concept of heaven wasn’t challenged already, it certainly was with the advent of space travel. As one communist cosmonaut once remarked sarcastically, he couldn’t see God out of his spaceship window. By contrast, the late Billy Graham said that heaven is ‘as real as Los Angeles, London, Algiers or Boston,’ and that it is a place which is ‘1600 miles long, 1600 miles wide and 1600 miles high.’ Billy Graham may have found that a helpful way to think of heaven, but I do not, and I suspect many of you do not either.

In 1999, Pope John Paul II upset some Christians when he said: In the context of Revelation, we know that the ‘heaven’ or ‘happiness’ in which we will find ourselves is neither an abstraction nor a physical place in the clouds, but a living, personal relationship with the Holy Trinity. Heaven, said the late pope, is not an abstraction, but neither is it a place. This story of the ascension, then, is a story of faith, skilfully crafted to convey a significant message. That message is simple, and it is no wonder that the gospel records that the disciples were full of joy. Ascension is the lifting up of the human Christ into the Being of God, into the consciousness of God, into God as he is in himself. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German theologian, said of the Church, “They wander on earth and live in heaven. They are poor and yet they have all they want”. The simple message of the Ascension is that we are destined, eventually, for personal union and communion with the Mystery we call God.

Even so, the departure of Jesus might have left the disciples feeling bereaved. Often joys have a sting that comes with them. What greater cause for a sting than the departure of Jesus: had Jesus not brought the disciples more joy than they could possibly imagine?

German theologian Karl Rahner described the Feast of the Ascension as ‘the festival of holy pain.’ He said, ‘He has departed from us. It is frightening that we feel so little pain about this….we should be inconsolable at the fact of his remoteness from us.’ At the outset of his ministry, Jesus said: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has chosen me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty of the captives and recovery of sight to the blind; to set free the oppressed and announce that the time has come when the Lord will save his people. In his ministry in Galilee, Jerusalem, and other places that is what Jesus did. But that isn’t the world we live in or, at the very least, there are only glimpses of it. In one sense, Jesus is not with us. Ascension is the festival of holy pain.

We live in a God-starved world. Despite what Jesus said at the beginning of his ministry, there are far too many people oppressed and broken-hearted, living as captives, mourning in ruin and devastation. The poor are still with us in great, even greater, numbers. Many of the lame, whether their limbs have been ravaged by disease or land mines or bullets, cannot walk. Many of the blind cannot see. And millions of children starve to death every year. The prophecy which Jesus read out in his local synagogue two thousand years ago has not come true, at least not yet.

I know that the Church is the Body of Christ. I know that next week we will be celebrating the coming of the Holy Spirit. Today I want to celebrate with great joy the message of Ascension that our humanity is taken up into the consciousness of God: we are made for a personal relationship with the Eternal, the Infinite, the Mystery, that we call God. We wander on earth and we live in heaven, but we are not there yet. Waiting for heaven, though, is not an excuse for staying on the sidelines.

Our choice is to remain on the sidelines or to live as Jesus lived, but there is really only one choice for us to make. At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of Christ, God with us. At Easter, we celebrate the Risen Christ in our midst. It is right for us to do that. But the Ascension affords us the opportunity not to wallow in the presence of God, the presence of Jesus, but to reflect on his absence. We live between the beginning and the end, when the prophecy of Jesus has not yet come true but can do so. Jesus’ absence is a call to decision, to action, and away from the sidelines. Do we stand idly looking up to heaven or do we set about the work of Jesus? In Matthew’s gospel Jesus asks each one of us if we have fed the hungry, visited the sick, and welcomed the strangers. In a sense, Jesus is not here. Now is our chance.

Love is the touch

There was once a grumpy old man, who said that: “There are some people to whom I couldn’t warm to even if I were cremated with them!”

Before we go any further, I ought to make it clear that Christians are not called to like everyone. The goes “They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love,” and not, “They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Likes and Dislikes.” If there are people to whom you do not warm, that does not diminish your faith. We are not called to like, but we are called, to love. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you,” said Jesus.

We often talk about Christian love in church as if it’s both a revered panacea and an underemployed practice. To say that the answer to the world’s problems is for people to love each other more is both right and banal at the same time. It sounds wonderful and grand, who could argue with that? But when you sit eyeball to eyeball with someone, especially someone cantankerous, obnoxious, difficult, unlovely, and seemingly unlovable, it’s anything but an easy task.

Christians love because it’s what Jesus told us to do, and it’s something that we learn from Jesus. We know something about love because we have first been loved by God. But when you think about it, all love is because we’ve learned about from receiving it. The love of a parent, or grandparent, or friend, or fellow believer are all ways in which we first learn what it’s like to be loved. Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote that:
The face of all the world is changed, I think,
Since first I heard the footsteps of thy soul
Move still, oh, still beside me; as they stole
Betwixt me and the dreadful outer brink
Of obvious death, where I who thought to sink
Was caught up into love and taught the whole
Of life in a new rhythm.

For Christians how we experience “the whole of life in a new rhythm” is God’s love for us, simply because that’s what God is, not because of what we try to earn or deserve, as we have come to know it in Jesus. We live in a culture that loves to quantify. We weigh, measure, time, photograph, and generally assess just about anything we can get our hands on. What’s more, I’m not sure we much like that which we can’t quantify and therefore control. Maybe that’s why it is so hard for us to grasp the love of God: it is both uncontrollable and immeasurable.

A young boy once asked for the autograph of a young lady. She obliged and wrote the following: “Yours till the ocean wears rubber pants to keep its bottom dry.” The love of God is love of that duration and it’s not our task to understand nor comprehend that love, but instead our joy to share in it.

Because God’s love for us is this peculiar and unfathomable love, we’d do well to remember a wise person who said that:
All other love, whether humanly speaking it withers early and is altered or lovingly preserves itself for a round of time — such love is still transient; it merely blossoms. This is precisely its weakness and tragedy, whether it blossoms for an hour or for seventy years — it merely blossoms; but Christian love is eternal…Christian love abides and for that very reason is Christian love. For what perishes blossoms and what blossoms perishes, but that which has being cannot be sung about – it must be believed and it must be lived.

Sketching out what makes Christian love distinctive and special, it looks like this.

Christian love sees through walls and around corners. Following God means also we’re also challenged to love others by looking through the walls they place in our way, and around the corners where they’re hiding. This isn’t always, or even very often, fun, but it is what the gospel calls us to do. It is the work of love. When we try to love difficult people, our imagination can provide the transportation beyond those walls and around those corners. What must it feel like for Mabel to believe she must erect a wall? What must it be like for Bert to seem so afraid, and hide behind a corner? How can I gain Mabel’s and Bert’s confidence so that they will take down the wall or emerge fully around the corner?

Christian love is also patient. Waiting for the Mabels and Berts to take down walls and turn corners doesn’t happen overnight. It may take months, sometimes years. But consistent patience eventually pays off. In a culture that blindly salutes doing, and worships acceleration, patience can seem anachronistic. But the speed we demand of our machines, and by implication our people, is neither always healthy nor realistic. To be patient and honour another’s timetable is a manifestation of Christian love.

Christian love has bifocals. It sees the people we would love in two ways: It sees them close up (the way they are right now) and it sees them way down the line (at a place where we would eventually like them to be). Those who teach treat their students not only as students, but also as though they were already in that field for which they are training. Those who raise children, are not only nurturing them now, but leading them into the people they will became. If we lower the bar and expect less than we should, we will raise the probability of future failure.

Christian love, while offered unconditionally, is at the same time intolerant of love’s enemies in the lives of those whom we would love. Unconditional love does not equate to a blanket acceptance of all behaviour. An older gentleman paid regular visits to his doctor, but between visits was not always good at following his doctor’s advice. At times the doctor would become exasperated and say to the man: “Larry, I love you, but you’ve got to stop doing that!” Christian love is just like that. Fred, I love you, but you’ve got to stop riding roughshod over people’s feelings; think before you speak. Carol, I love you, but you’ve got to stop your carping, because it’s driving a big wedge between you and your children. Mary, I love you, but you’ve got to stop behaving like a doormat; there are more important things than being liked by everybody on the face of the planet.

Christian love is a tall order. It’s not easy work. But we worship, and are called to love, by one whose enacted love for us is seen in the suffering love of the crucified Jesus, who has become for us the Lord of life.

Poet Jennifer Woodruff has penned some poignant words that speak to our exertions in love. They come under the title “With the Drawing of this Love and the Voice of this Calling”:
Not only what we thought we could afford,
Not only what we have the strength to give
is asked of us; the grace that makes us live
calls for a death, and all we are is poured
Onto an altar we did not design
and yet which holds us in his perfect will
And in both flames and darkness keeps us still
and is the strength, the pillar, and the sign

Of all that never fails, though we are weak,
of he who calls, and asks us to embrace
our weakness, and our cross, to see his face —
and, made most strong in weakness, he will speak.

We are witnesses

John 15: 1-8
Acts 8:26-40

Who inspired you in your Christian faith? Who nurtured you in being a Christian? Whose fault is it that you are here?

When people are asked questions like that, the answer is very rarely clergy, but usually ordinary people like all of you. Over the years, many people in this village have told they were inspired by the late Pam Chandler.

I want to suggest to you that God has chosen to work through ordinary people to invite others into a relationship with him. It has been said that Churches don’t need sophisticated resources to grow; they need high quality relationships.

Our readings this morning talk about the importance of relationships – our relationship with God and with others, and good relationships enable growth – our spiritual growth and the growth of the kingdom of God.

Today we heard a really good Bible story about that: Philip and the Ethiopian Enoch. Philip was a layperson. He wasn’t a famous preacher like Peter, who went and preached a grand sermon and three thousand people were converted in one day. He wasn’t like the famous missionary, like the Apostle Paul, who went with the Gospel of Jesus from nation to nation throughout his world. Today is the story of Philip, a deacon appointed to look after the widows and poor, and how God’s Spirit came down on Philip and empowered him to talk to someone about Jesus Christ and his love for all people.

Philip was with other Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. They didn’t want to go out into the countryside, or out into other villages or out into other nations with the Gospel; these first Christians wanted to remain just in Jerusalem for their own safety.

But the inner voice of God said to Philip, “Get up and go, Philip. Get up and go to Samaria.” Now Samaritans and the Jewish people didn’t get on with each other. It’s a bit like telling Nigel Farage he’s got to spend his life being nice to Brussels. Not only did God call Philip to go to Samaria, but to Gaza and the Wilderness Road, so he was called out of a place of safety in more than one way.

And there Philip encountered an Ethiopian eunuch. God said to Philip, “Go and talk to that Ethiopian eunuch.”

Jewish scripture says eunuchs are not allowed to be part of the Kingdom of God. And while the Ethiopian was a man holding office as a eunuch, he would always be an outsider. But there was something about the Jewish faith which attracted him, so he made his way to Jerusalem to worship and on his return, with access to scriptures, was reading them. It wasn’t in the place of worship that he found God, but in the desert.

Philip listened to the voice of God and went over to the man in the chariot and asked him, “What are you reading?” The man said he was reading from the Jewish scripture, Isaiah 53, which said the lamb was to be led to the slaughter. Philip asked him, “Do you understand what you are reading?” “No.” “Let me explain.

We don’t have the details of this speech, just as we don’t know just how Jesus opened the scriptures to his friends on the Emmaus road. We aren’t told how he would have traced the people’s history, the ongoing relationship between God and people, the feelings of promise and sanctuary and provocation. But I suspect he told him his story which broke into the court official’s heart.

It has been said that storytellers are heart teachers. They unfold roads before us and behind us. They show us where the rough places are and where we might find good water. They accompany us as we walk through our own stories. Philip was following in the footsteps of Christ, and told the story of faith to one who longed to make it part of his road. The act of telling then became part of his journey, and ours too.

People I talk to often seem to be under the misapprehension that you have to be qualified to share the good news of the Gospel and that we have to have the right words, but all we need to do is share our story, our story of faith. What God means to us and how we have known his love in our lives. We and others are richer when we can tell the stories of our faith.

Philip told the story of faith to the stranger, and finally the man asked, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Can wealth, race, sexuality, gender, or understanding prevent me from being baptized? And so he was baptized into Jesus Christ by Philip, who from his childhood had been taught to be well prejudiced against gentiles and eunuchs.

The story of Philip is one of an ordinary man, who was abiding in God, and by abiding in God he not only listened to God, but had the courage to respond. In doing so, the kingdom grew and the word of God bore fruit. It grew in a way which was symbolic of the kingdom of God, inclusive to those often excluded. In fact the story of the book of the Acts of the Apostles is the story about the Holy Spirit and how, when people abide in God, the Holy Spirit guides them in their daily decisions to bear fruit.

The story of Philip is about a man who listened to the inner guiding voice of God inside of him. It wasn’t merely his conscience. It wasn’t an angel with wings; it wasn’t a voice that he could hear aloud; it wasn’t a dream or a nightmare. It was the inner guiding voice of God, the Spirit of Jesus.

Acts 8:26, says “an angel spoke to me” and in the verse 29 of the same chapter, it says, “the Spirit spoke to me.” The word angel, means messenger; a spiritual messenger. An angel, that inner guiding Spirit of Jesus inside of you, who is a messenger from God.

And so we, like Philip, should learn to listen to the inner guiding voice, as God talks with us about our lives and decisions. What we need to learn is to listen to the voice of God inside us as we approach our daily decisions. And the more time we spend reading our bibles, the more time we spend praying, the easier it will become for us to understand what God is saying to us, the more time we remain in the vine the easier it is to hear the voice of our loving heavenly Father.

The story of Philip is about a lay person who shared his faith with a stranger. Abiding in God not only helps us to hear God but it also helps us to have courage for God, which means not only sharing ourselves, our faith, and God’s love with those we are the same as, or get on with, but also with those who are different to us, the stranger and those who we may be culturally prejudice against.

We are called to get up and go to others and share our faith in Christ, what we know and have experienced with Jesus, one on one. We go not because we have been set a growth target by the United Reformed Church, but because we have something worth sharing and because God longs to be in a relationship with people.

We all need to be like Philip, sharing our story of faith with others, some of whom we may find in the wilderness and we will find this much easier if we remain rooted in God.

Let us become story tellers of our faith and pray that rooted in God it can bear fruit. May God make us like Philip.

How God empowers us

Psalm 23

We probably all feel that we know Psalm 23 off by heart. It’s often read or sung at funerals, and used to be popular at weddings because the Queen chose it for her wedding. It’s a psalm that is an affirmation that God will provide for us during our life – it’s for while we’re living, not just when we’re dead.

It’s a psalm that’s is very personal. There is no “we” or “us” or “they,” but only “my” and “me” and “I” and “he” and “you.” It is a psalm that comforts us, but at the same time it also empowers us.

What I want to say tonight that this psalm tells us of six different ways that God empowers us, and they all begin with “P”.

1. Provision

“The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I lack.”

The psalm reminds us that God provides for us. God gives us all that we need. Not all that we want, or all that we desire, but all that we need. Enough to make it through life.

Psalm 23 tells us that the Lord is our Shepherd, so we shall not lack. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus pointed to the birds and the flowers and noted that if God feeds and clothes them, won’t God do the same for his very own children?

2. Peace

“He lets me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters.”

The psalm reminds us that God also empowers us by giving us peace. God continues to lead us, and his leadership provides peace. Peace doesn’t just mean calm, or lack of fighting. In Christian terms, God’s peace is more about coming to a point where we understand that we don’t have to worry. God is going to take care of it, so we can have peace about it. It can be very challenging to accept, but it’s about God giving us peace along the journey.

And it’s personal. God wants to direct us safely to our journey’s end. God’s guidance is practical and patient, directing us in every area, under all circumstances, although it can be very tricky to discern it sometimes, although we can often see it afterwards much easier than we can at the time.

3. Providence

“He renews my life; he leads me along the right paths for his name’s sake.”

If you’ve ever been in a large crowd when you think your child is lost, and you’re calling for them, it’s amazing how the child knows their parent’s voice, even in a crowd. I think we can tune often tune our ears when we’re in danger or confusion, able to know that there is someone we can understand and trust. We know that if we follow Mum or Dad’s voice, it will bring us to safety. We follow for Mum and Dad’s sake because they know the right path, the way home.

Have you ever been in a situation that seemed confusing? Where you looked at the situation and wondered: “How am I going to get through this? I don’t see a clear path.” God empowers you by bringing you along the right path. He leads you for His purposes, because He knows what is good for you.

Perhaps we can find ourselves confused sometimes because there’s so much noise drowning out God’s voice in our lives. Perhaps all the gadgets and noise can distract us. Perhaps we can have a hard time distinguishing what God wants because there’s so much noise in our world, more noise than there’s ever been. So many voices competing for our attention. But I don’t think that is so with God, who leads us along the right paths for his name’s sake.

4. Presence

“Even when I go through the darkest valley, I fear no danger, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff —they comfort me.”

The rod was a heavy club the shepherd used to kill predators, and the staff, a long pole with a crook in one end, used to round-up the sheep and to guide them along.

It’s important to notice the reference to god changes from “he” to “you”. When the author comes to the valley of death, he drops the ‘he’ in favour of ‘you’. Perhaps the author was able to look to the prospect of death with peace and tranquillity because he knew that it would mean meeting his glorious shepherd face to face.

It’s easy to talk about God when we’re in the green pasture, but do we tend to cry out to God when we enter some fearful ravine? The psalm reminds us that God’s presence is always with us.

5. Protection

“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”

Is it not one of the hardest times to sense that God is there, even in the presence of my enemies? Yet, God protects us.

6. Paradise

“Only goodness and faithful love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord as long as I live.”

The house of the Lord doesn’t mean church, of course, heaven forbid this as good as it gets, but rather that we have a place in heaven with God, safe in his love, forever.

In Psalm 23 we read that God will be our shepherd in the midst of crises. God will accompany us through the valley of the shadow of death. God will protect us when life’s uncertainties and difficulties surround us.

Jesus said that he wanted us to experience what he can do as our Good Shepherd. He wants to lead us, guide us, and protect us. He will give us direction, accompany us through life’s transitions, and comfort us during life’s hard knocks. As sheep know their shepherd’s voice and he knows their every need, so Jesus wants to be recognised by us as the one who knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows how we feel and what we’re going through. He remains close, even during those times when the darkness consumes our soul. He is a faithful provider who promises to meet our needs and even commands us to trust him for our daily bread. For a sheep, nothing conveys greater comfort than to hear the Good Shepherd say, “I am with you always.”

Peace

Luke 24:36b-48
Acts 3:12-19

Imagine what it was like in that upstairs room. The disciples were startled, frightened, terrified even, and Jesus appears there, with a word of peace. He has to tell them twice that he really is the person standing in front of them. He shows them his hands and his feet, invites them to touch him and when this doesn’t seem to quell their fear and dispel their disbelief he asks for some of the fish they obviously were sharing when he appeared so unexpectedly among them. He ate it in their presence, all to convince them that they really were seeing Jesus in the flesh. Ghost don’t eat, especially not fish.

I think that Luke is struggling to express the fact that Jesus really is present to his disciples. Don’t we still struggle and search for words to describe this incredible truth? Jesus’ first words were “Peace be with you”, it’s as though the silence of death has been broken with these wonderful words of peace.

If you had died and rose again, what do you think would be the first thing you would say to family and friends when you saw them together for the first time?

Perhaps you’d have to say something personal just to prove to them that it really was you. Maybe you would have to answer their likely questions about the whole experience of death and what had really happened to you. Yet what did Jesus say after he rose from the dead? Words of peace, not words about himself, but words for others, like he always did. Words of peace as carolled by the angels at his birth.

I heard it expressed like this:
“God had to go the whole way, become one of us (one of us!) in Jesus, the Anointed One, suffer our rejection, die, and be raised from death, restored to the fullness of human life (and our human life is restored in him) ………to finally convince us that God loves us beyond all measure, beyond all limits, beyond death itself. Is there any possible response to such a manifestation of love but a combination of fear, joy, awe and disbelief.”

There is a craving deep within us, I believe, for the “peace that passes all understanding”. Such a peace can neither be earned nor deserved because it’s a gift flowing from knowing oneself as cherished and loved by God.

That word of peace which Jesus uttered encapsulates the deepest sense of joy, well-being and harmony – harmony with God through Jesus himself, harmony with one another and so importantly in this day and age, harmony with creation.

Jesus doesn’t simply speak or deliver peace or promise peace. He is peace. He gives us this gift of inner peace, a spiritual state marked by freedom from fears and anxieties. The reality for most of us, however, is that our lives swing like pendulums between this inner peace and the pressures of our outward daily living. Watching television, reading newspapers, highlight the fact that there are so many people today who lack any sense of peace within them. Lives are a constant struggle for many people each and every day, at the most serious end, trying to stay alive when surrounded by the violence of war; or in refugee camps where food, water, and justice are severely lacking. Closer to home, people without jobs or homes, or enough money to exist, as well as those who fear a future of sickness and all the frailty of advancing age. How can these words of peace spoken by Jesus penetrate their lives so that there can be any hope of transformation for the better?

This peace that Jesus speaks to the frightened disciples and to us is the peace spoken of by the psalmist centuries before: where ‘steadfast love and faithfulness meet and justice and peace embrace.’ (Psalm 85: v.10)

This is surely the peace which Jesus embodied and challenges us to embody also. Justice and peace so entwined that they not only nourish acts of love and faithfulness, but open our eyes to where injustices have taken root within society.

There can be no separation between faith and life. God expects a response from those who hear the good news, God wants our faith to be active in love. If we consider ourselves as followers of Jesus, Prince of Peace, then our lives, like his, will result in relationships that are just, equitable, and which reflect God’s love.

God enabled Jesus to cross the boundary separating death from life, an act which changed lives forever. We all have boundaries in our lives that we hesitate to cross, places patrolled by fear, or prejudice, or ignorance, or apathy. They may be external and visible borders, or invisible and interior. In any case, justice requires us to cross those thresholds that separate us from the poor, the sick, the friendless, the needy, to follow Jesus.

The final words of today’s gospel speak about being witnesses of this peace day by day. Surely learning and growing as Christians is the fruit of peace for each of us. Jesus sends us and leads us to share whatever gifts we have received with those in need, so that love and faithfulness meet, and justice and peace become reality through our words and actions. When that happens, the silence of death is broken once more with the word of peace, Jesus’ words spoken and lived through each one of us.

I’m going to end with some words from A Prayer for Peace by William Sloane Coffin:
Strengthen our resolve to see fulfilled in the world around us and in our time, all hopes for justice so long deferred, and keep us on the stony, long and lonely road that leads to peace. May we think for peace, struggle for peace, suffer for peace. Fill our hearts with courage that we not give in to bitterness and self-pity, but learn rather to count pain and disappointment, humiliation and setback, as but straws on the tide of life. So may we run and not grow weary, walk and not faint, until that day when…..love will be all in all in this wonderful, terrible, beautiful world. Amen.

You are witnesses

Luke 24:36b-48
Acts 3:12-19

Touching can be as routine as a handshake, or for the younger generations as simple as a high five or a fist bump, or it might be threatening and abusive. Touch is important to us, it nurtures us. Before we were born we were enfolded in our mother’s womb, then consoled by a parent’s shoulder, then congratulated with a hug or pat on the back, so all of life’s milestones are marked by touch. When we are hurt we are comforted by touch, it alleviates peoples fear, and it’s healing and reassuring.

And in this story of the risen Jesus in the days after Easter, Luke proclaims that it’s touch whereby Jesus chooses to make himself known, by touch doubt is confronted. Jesus had appeared on the road to Emmaus. The two disciples hurried back to Jerusalem, they had locked themselves in a room afraid of the authorities. Then Jesus suddenly appears to them and they’re petrified! Wouldn’t we all be! They must have been concerned for Jesus’ reaction to their actions over the last few days, and with a range of beliefs in the resurrection they must have been confused. Jesus understood them and says ‘peace be with you’, then he shows them his hands and his feet and says, “Touch me and see that it is I myself; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”

So often our faith or doubt is conditional. In the story of Thomas, Thomas asked to see with his own eyes and to touch Jesus’ wounds, “Unless I see it with my own eyes, and touch it with my own hands, I will not believe.”

So often we want to look for proof, we want explanations, and unless they are forthcoming we have a reluctance to believe. Our doubts are often a personal thing, and we find ourselves wrapped up in the middle of the struggle. We wrestle with our objections, our doubts, and our questions. We want to touch and see.

But given the opportunity, none of the disciples did touch Jesus, and while the writer of Luke’s gospel is keen for our faith not to be conditional on touch, touch is central to God’s relationship with us. In the beginning, as you can see in Michelangelo’s famous Sistine Chapel masterpiece portrays it, God touched humanity into being.

In Jesus, God became human, able to touch humanity. In Jesus’ ministry the little ones climbed up into his lap. The lepers, made outcasts by their disease, were restored by his healing touch. The woman outcast because of her blood disorder was made whole by touch.

Touch also gets through when nothing else does. Touch reconciles. In Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, the waiting father doesn’t hold back, but rather gives an overwhelming hug of reconciling love. Touch that surmounts every barrier. There’s a magic moment near the end of the film Driving Miss Daisy when the black chauffeur and the white patrician lady wordlessly clasp their hands in a simple yet profoundly moving gesture. Such moments point to the wonder of reconciliation, and the touch of Jesus is about reconciliation for all.

Touch speaks of a love strong enough to bear a cross and to say with authority to frightened disciples, “Touch me and see.” Through the open arms of forgiven and forgiving people, the deepest wounds are set upon a path of healing. Touch also points us to the future. The risen Lord’s invitation to touch and see, points to what is yet to come for our bodies. We long for that fulfilment, to embrace the Christ and those long gone from us. And now the work of God in raising Jesus is about touch, it enables the disciples to declare later “that which we have seen with our eyes and touched with our hands”.

We’re also called to bring the nurturing touch into our present, to reach out and touch, to reach out to the hungry, imprisoned, naked, sick, and all those whom Jesus longs to touch through us. And maybe it’s here that we have to move from the event of the resurrection, wanting a rational explanation to explain it, to experiencing the resurrection, becoming witnesses to these things.

To be witnesses to Christ is a challenge; we live in times when people either know nothing about the risen Jesus or who do not know the need for him in their lives. In these post-Christian days, we’re as much in a mission context as were the first disciples.

The late Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie once said that the only thing worse than being talked about, is not being talked about. It can seem to others that we are indeed worshipping merely a ghost. How we deal with this is how Jesus dealt with the doubt of the disciples: he shows them that he was real, through practical examples, by touching. We’re called to experience the resurrection and live active lives as disciples, touching others and allowing them to touch Christ in our actions. Touching lives, concerns, hopes, fears and joys. This is why the church needs to be involved in society, involved in the political life, involved in real issues like injustice and inequality, involved in the lives of people who need God’s love.

We already do this, of course. Christians contribute disproportionally to charitable and voluntary activities in both the poorest parts of Britain and the world. We should not under-estimate the impact of the church’s practical actions in the world. Touching the world is attractive and infectious. If people see us living lives like this they become interested, and they begin to discover that the Christian life is indeed a life worth living and not the ghostly life of power, or the acquisition of wealth, or simply the next big thing.

So never take touch for granted. Acceptance, encouragement, trust, and hope come through in the touch of hand upon hands, as the risen Lord touches us through others. From every side and in the most unexpected ways, Christ meets us in the call to touch lives, and we should remember that such a small act can mean so much. God reached out and touched humanity through Jesus, and we are invited to touch and see that the Lord is good; we are invited to reach out as Christ’s hands and touch others.

“You are witnesses of these things,” he says to us. Tell it. Live it. Become it. The resurrected life is ours, let us be witnesses.

Emmaus

The Orkney poet George Mackay Brown cast the story of the road to Emmaus into verse, in a poem written in the voice of ‘A Landlady in Emmaus.’ Her lodgers are ordinary working people called Tom and Ed, and they’d taken up with a travelling preacher who was accused of being a terrorist and was put to death. A few days after the execution, Tom and Ed invite a stranger to join them at home for dinner. It’s a man they’d met on the road – and they ask him to say grace before they eat. The landlady says:
I didn’t like it, a stranger
They’d given a lift to on the dark road.
You never know who’s a spy or informer
Nowadays, and the man’s head was hooded ….
Tom said, ‘You’re welcome. Break the bread.’
The words of blessing
Came like the first and the last music.
He stretched out a wounded hand
To the loaf on the plate.
The hood of his cloak falls back and in what the Landlady sees, she recognises the Holy of Holies: ‘I saw then,’ she says, ‘The crusted ore and rubies at the temple.’

Part of what makes the Emmaus story powerful is its irony. Not only are the disciples speaking to Jesus without knowing it’s him, they are speaking about him, telling him his own story, at least as much as they know of it. Shakespeare sets up scenes like this. In Henry V, on the night before the Battle of Agincourt, the King goes cloaked and unrecognised, talking with his troops. They don’t know it’s him, but they are talking to the King and talking about him. The same again in Measure for Measure: the Duke is going around disguised as a Friar, and he ends up in a conversation about himself, with Lucio, a character who has no idea that it’s the Duke he’s talking to. There, the result is absurd and comical; in Luke’s Gospel the result is absurd and transformational.

The disciples are joined by this stranger, who asks what they are talking about. But the arrival in Jerusalem of Jesus, and his crucifixion, is the biggest news story of the moment. They are amazed that the stranger has to ask. Is he that ignorant?
‘Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who doesn’t know the things that have happened there?’
Then a restrained, minimalist reply from Jesus. ‘What things?’
In response to that question they launch off into the whole story, telling Jesus about his own ministry, his condemnation to death, his crucifixion, and their bitter disappointment, because they had expected him to be the liberator of Israel. Then the bizarre news of that same day, that his body, wherever it might be, is not in the tomb; and the even more bizarre report that some women who went to the tomb that morning had seen a vision, telling them he was alive. The reality of his death they are sure of. Likewise the emptiness of the tomb. But the rumour of life and hope hasn’t really convinced them. Maybe they wouldn’t join the dots themselves if they could: it was doubtless too good to be true, and they had seen too much horror to be foolishly optimistic.

This is where the stranger comes into his own, and he explains the story of Jesus to them, unlike the disciples we know he’s explaining his own story, telling them what it means, showing that what seems too good to be true is real. They persuade him to stop with them at Emmaus, where the rumour of life is confirmed in their own presence. At supper the stranger says the blessing, breaks the bread, gives it to them: ‘And their eyes were opened and they recognised him; and he vanished from their sight.’

To us it may seem like one of those bittersweet dreams in which we are face to face with a loved one who has died. There they are before us, alive and well again, looking at us, so real, but it turns out not to be real. The vision fades; we wake to find it was only a dream. The disciples’ experience here is quite different from that. They have been walking with this man on the road, probably for hours; he’s just been with them at a real table breaking real bread for their dinner. He has vanished from their sight but they are still at that table themselves, and each has seen what the other has seen. Now they join the dots, to the prophecies of Scripture, and to those wild assertions that Christ is alive, that God is stronger than death. They know it now. They have seen him, after that brutal killing by crucifixion, alive again.

And they don’t grieve that he’s vanished from their sight; they have stopped looking backwards now. Their reaction is to forget all about whatever need they had to be in Emmaus, to forget about sleep, to get their things together at that moment and set off again, on the seven-mile return journey back to Jerusalem, to tell the others that their liberator is alive.

The enemy he has defeated is not, of course, the occupying power by whose agents he was put to death. What he has defeated is the power of death itself. And with it:
the power of every negation of true hope;
the power not only of crucifixion but of every form of brutality meant to break and destroy the human spirit;
the power not just of Judas’s betrayal, but of every betrayal of love and trust, from the beginning of history till its end;
the power of all human sin, including our own – in the past, present, or future.

Christ’s victory does not mean these things cease to exist, nor that their effect is no longer damaging or wicked. But his victory does mean that we need not be afraid, because in him God has faced down evil at its worst; God has faced down death itself; and his resurrection proclaims that in all things, however cruel or tragic, the last word belongs, not to death, but
to life. Christ’s victory sets us free; and in breaking bread with him, as we will in this service, we celebrate that freedom, today and always. Alleluia! Christ is risen!

White Easter

I suppose we’re lucky not to have snow again this weekend. It’s a wintry Easter that we’re celebrating this year. I don’t know about you, but it’s no comfort to me to be told that Easter is statistically more likely to be white than Christmas! The psychological and emotional effect of this cold and wet is all the more potent because we don’t expect it when the days became longer than the nights. This winter has been harsh. Ask the people who live in upland Britain. Ask the elderly. Ask the farmers.

Lent is an old English word for spring, and how we have ached for spring, for its luminous duck-egg skies, its birdsong, its fresh colours and flowers. We would love to see cumulus cloud bubble up again borne on a southerly zephyr letting loose sharp showers to wash the landscape. We would love to feel the gentle warmth of the strengthening sun as it climbs towards the zenith. When spring truly comes, it will never have been more welcomed.

Of course whether it is white or green, Easter is always a bursting forth of light and colour and life. In this church, and in every church in the land, and in the hearts of all who feel the slightest pull of spiritual reality, it is springtime today. As George Herbert wrote:
Rise heart, thy Lord is risen.
Sing his praise without delays…
I got me flowers to straw thy way;
I got me boughs off many a tree:
But thou wast up by break of day,
And brought’st thy sweets along with thee.

But perhaps this prolonged winter brought a gift with it: to help us to enter into an aspect of the Easter story that we might not have felt in quite this way before. What I mean is the complex emotions of those who loved Jesus and who on Good Friday experienced the most terrible sense of bafflement, confusion, and loss. For them, the aftermath of Golgotha would have been nothing less than a winter of the soul. As RS Thomas wrote:
There are times
When a black frost is upon
One’s whole being, and the heart
In its bone belfry hangs and is dumb.

In her cycle of radio plays about gospel story, The Man Born to be King, Dorothy L. Sayers has John discover a pair of old sandals that Jesus had worn. He hides them from Peter because of what memories charged with sight and feel and smell would do to him ‘like a sick animal that has crawled home to die. He can’t eat. He can’t sleep.’ One of the normal symptoms of bereavement is aching for the presence of the loved-one, and an instinct to search that will not go away. Who is to say what brought the women to the garden at dawn on Easter morning? They went to anoint a body with spices, but what else drove them there? Surely the need to see him again, feel the tender skin, remember his voice, his touch, his scent. Perhaps this year we have glimpsed this in a closer way by our sense of the cold, our own wintry longing for Easter, for springtime, for warmth.

Easter answers our longings and desires. It does this by both changing how things were, and transforming our view of them. We would not be here if we didn’t believe that something infinitely life-changing took place on Easter morning when the women went to the tomb and found the stone rolled away and the grave space empty. There’s no getting away from this miracle in history. ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here’ say the two men in the garden. A real absence, indeed, but a vacuum that gives the women what they most need: to dare to entertain the possibility that all was not as it seemed, that they were in the presence of the most profound of mysteries that nevertheless had the capacity to turn round despair. ‘He is risen. Remember how he told you.’ Here is where fantasy meets reality, where longing is transmuted into hope. The women begin to see reality differently. We begin to. The world is a different place. The garden has flowers. There is blue sky above our heads. The earth begins to warm. At last it is spring. Everything changes.

Of course, all this is to collapse a long disclosure and its realisation into a few moments. The disciples did not believe the women at first. They needed to make an inward journey of the soul to bring springtime to their bleakness, coax their frozen spirits back into life. The important thing is: there is a new world. Winter has fled, and with it its gloomy shadows and oppressive captivity. He is risen.

St Augustine wrote a beautiful passage where he speaks about our human longings and hungers: ‘Give me a lover: a lover will feel what I am speaking of; give me one who longs, who hungers, who is a thirsty pilgrim in this wilderness, sighing for the springs of his eternal homeland; give me such a person, for they will know what I mean.’ He might have added: give me one who is longing for spring, yearning to be rid of burdens, tired of this endless Narnian winter, weary in themselves, weary for our globe that strives to find some hope as it struggles under the weight of unhealed conflict, sorrow, and pain.

If any of this this echoes any of your experience, then come to the risen Lord today. Sit down at his Easter feast. Eat bread and drink wine. Find your healing and refreshment in him; be glad that he is among us as our beloved brother who was lost in his death but found in his resurrection, who opens up the way home for all people, and welcomes us to celebrate here in his Father’s house. For here, at least, the winter is past, the flowers appear on the earth, and the time of singing has come. Alleluia! Christ is risen!