Tuesday 29 April 2014

Easter Jubilation!

Here's a picture of St Michael's Easter Garden, isn't it gorgeous?

Big thanks to my friend Colin Townsend who came round for a visit and took this photo. Bigger thanks to the hardworking people at St Michael's who created the Easter garden in the first place (those rocks took some shifting!) And biggest of all to everyone at Horton and Wraysbury who gave Elisa and me such a great first Easter with you all.

Hallelujah, the Lord is risen!

Monday 21 April 2014

Easter reflections - Jesus takes over!

Last Sunday was Palm Sunday. We saw Jesus riding into Jerusalem and taking over the Holy City: He's the Son of David, the King. 

Then we saw him striding into the Temple, chucking out all the stuff He didn't like. He's taking over - He's the great high priest. He sits down in the priests' seat and takes over their authority to teach the people.

Then on Good Friday He comes to the place of judgment, sin and condemnation. But he's come to take over there too - to destroy sin and make an end of our condemnation. 

And on Easter Sunday we see Him bursting from the tomb. He has entered the darkness of death – and taken over! He's not having it any more! He is saying to death, "Your reign is over! I may let you exist a bit longer, but you are not in charge any more. I'm the boss here now."

So here are four reasons to be joyful this Easter Sunday, now that Jesus has taken over:

·        Death is not the end. We are no longer lost in an aimless wandering. Our life is no longer random. We are on a journey to the heart of God, that's our destiny, and because of Easter Sunday, nothing whatsoever, not even death, is going to stand in our way. So we can live lives of passion, commitment, purpose. Eternal life starts now and changes us now in the presence of the Risen One! So be joyful.

·        You can get through any darkness – consider Mary. The risen Jesus knows you personally and says your name as He said hers. I don't know what you are going through… I know all this talk about joy will seem really glib to many people  – "Colin, how dare you tell me that my sorrows are so easily left behind… You have no idea what I have to bear right now." All I can say is – the Cross. Jesus gave it everything. This is not a cheap victory. But it is still a great victory. So be joyful.

·        You can face any challenge – consider the disciples. They are given a job: "Be my witnesses." It's not an easy job, lots of people aren't going to like it. But they can do it because Jesus is with them! Life is an adventure with the risen Lord. So be joyful.

·         You will have peace. The first words of the risen Jesus in next bit of John – "peace be with you." So be joyful.

Wishing everyone a joyful Easter Season, 

Reflection for Easter Saturday - the Burial of Jesus

It's very hard to talk about the burial of Jesus - you hardly hear it preached about. The very nature of the event means that in some ways there's nothing to be said. The situation is beyond all words. The worst has happened and nothing we can do or say will ever be able to retrieve it.

Those who have been bereaved will recognise the appalling numbness that sets in. All the sorrow we have spent, every tear wrung out of us, has changed nothing. The terrible fact is still there, the unimaginable disaster has happened, the person who meant the world to us has gone. Other people don't know what to say to us - what words could possibly be adequate? We speak of the silence of the grave. Our hollow words drop into it and vanish without trace.

And yet this very finality reflects the vital importance of Jesus' burial. So important is it that the manner of it was prophesied 600 years beforehand by Isaiah, who said the Messiah's body would be placed in a rich man's tomb. God wasn't play acting when Jesus died for us. If there had been no space between the cross and the resurrection it would have trivialised the sacrifice of Jesus. He didn't bounce back like a jack-in-the-box. What He came back from was death in its full enormity and finality. 

The silence of the tomb would also have had an unmistakable resonance for Jewish readers of the Gospel, because of course Jesus lay in the tomb during Shabbat - Saturday, the Sabbath. This was the day when the whole of Israel went quiet, when no work was done, when no-one was about because no journey over 1,000 paces was permitted. The Jews did this because they believed that God created the world in 6 days, then rested on the seventh. It was part of a primordial pattern of the way things are, a music beating in time with the rhythm of God and his creation.

There are some remarkable links between the creation story and the last week of Jesus' life. On the first day of the week, God begins creation. On the first day of His last week - Palm Sunday - Jesus enters Jerusalem. On days two to five, according to Genesis, God continues to work, creating and then populating his creation. In the same way Jesus continues His ministry of teaching and healing in the Temple, the place that spoke most powerfully to the covenant people of God's presence on earth. On the sixth day God completes his work by creating the first Adam, the expression of his love, hope and purpose. But on His sixth day, the second Adam, Jesus, who as Son of Man is the fullest expression of God's hopes for humanity, is cut off, abandoned and destroyed. 

Finally, on the seventh day, the Sabbath, God rests from the creation. And Jesus too spends the holiest Shabbat in the calendar resting in the stillness of the tomb. His rest is not from the work of creating the world, but from the work of redeeming it. The implication is clear: it is a restatement of the primordial rhythm of work and rest. The God who created everything rested from his labours on the seventh day. the Lord who redeems everything rested from his dreadful labours on the seventh day. The world has been re-created, nothing less, through what Jesus has done.

Old Testament scholars will recall though that there are two traditions about the Shabbat rest in Scripture. The Exodus 20 version goes back to Genesis and the pattern of creation work and rest, but the Deuteronomy 5 version goes back to Exodus. It tells us that the reason for Shabbat rest is because you were once slaves in Egypt, but now you rest to demonstrate that you are no longer under slavery. The Shabbat resting of Jesus in the tomb shows us that our slavery to sin is over. Its power is broken and its hold on us has been destroyed.

The book of Hebrews teaches in chapter 4 that this Sabbath rest is something that all Christians enter into by virtue of being in Christ. True Sabbath rest is therefore found in Christ, through His death and burial, not in outward observances. The great acts of salvation which Jesus carried out for us are at work in every Christian because we belong to Him. We are probably used to thinking about the crucifixion in this way - "We have been crucified with Christ" says Galatians - and about the resurrection - "We have been raised with Him" says Ephesians. But it also appears that we should consider ourselves dead and buried with Him:
  • Romans 6:3-4 says: Don't you know that all of you who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into His death? We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death.
  • Colossians 3:3 says: For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.
  • Romans 6 again: Count yourselves therefore dead to sin, but alive to God.
It all sounds a bit grim, doesn't it? We're supposed to be the walking dead! But there is an up side.
  • A dead person can no longer be condemned or punished. They have already paid the ultimate price. We too, as those who have died with Christ, are no longer under any condemnation.
  • A dead person no longer has worries about how they look or what people think of them. If we die with Christ we are freed from the anxieties brought on by our insecure egos.
  • A dead person has nothing left to lose because his possessions no longer mean anything to him. If we have died with Christ then we have surrendered everything into His hands. Nothing can hold us back. We are free.
  • A dead person is at peace, no longer troubled by the world.
But the best part of all in being dead with Christ is that through it we are alive to God! We can drink in His presence and His love as never before! All the things that stood between us have been done away with - they've been put to death!

The trouble is, if you're like me, you know you're supposed to be dead, but you're still kicking! Perhaps it would help us to spend some more time thinking of Jesus, and resting with Him in His quiet tomb. Let's do that for a few minutes today.

Friday 18 April 2014

What do we make of Jesus?

Good Friday reflection at St Michael's Horton today.

What do we make of Jesus on this Good Friday? Let's stand with 3 people who had to make up their minds about him on that first Good Friday: Caiaphas the Chief Priest, Pontius Pilate the Roman Governor, and Herod King of Galilee…

Caiaphas says:

What am I to make of you Jesus? You are a threat! You come marching into my city as if you own the place! Saying you're David's Son – It was David's Son Solomon who founded my Temple! So sure enough, you march into my Temple too. You throw out the money changers – that's my livelihood you are messing with there. You sit down and teach the people – teaching them is our job, not yours! You couldn't make it plainer that you are taking over – you even say it's "Your Father's House." Well I'm telling you it's ours, we're in charge here. And then you insult us, call us hypocrites, in front of everybody. Well, what did you expect? You're a threat! I have no choice but to get rid of you.

So what about us?

What do we make of Jesus? Are we threatened when he asserts his sovereignty? To be our Master and Lord? To be our judge? To take charge of our lives? To demand that we take up our cross? Is Jesus a threat to us?

Pilate says:

What am I to make of you Jesus? You are an embarrassment! Why don't you realise what an impossible situation you've put me in? I don't want to kill you – my wife had a terrible dream about you, and I have a horrible suspicion in my heart that you might just be who you say you are. But I have so many people to please. I can't upset the priests – without their influence Jerusalem would be ungovernable. I can't risk the crowds rioting either – they all seem to want you for their King – or do they? And I certainly can't upset my bosses in Rome. If law and order break down here, that's the end of my career. Which lot do I please? You are an embarrassment Jesus!

So what about us?

What do we make of Jesus? Is he an embarrassment? Would we sooner our friends didn't know we follow him? Will they think I'm a fool? Or weak, needing a crutch? Are we caught between one world, where Jesus reigns, and another? Wanting to follow, but frightened to be seen to follow? Keep him somewhere safe! Lock him up in church all week where no-one can see and just fetch him out on Sundays. Is Jesus an embarrassment to us?

Herod says:

What am I to make of you Jesus? I expected some entertainment from you. I've heard about your miracles – so when it came down to it, why won't you do one for me? You could at least have had a cosy theological chat with me, like the ones I had with your cousin John – pity about him. Then again, come to think of it, he was a bit on the dull side. But you – you won't even say anything! Where's your amazing teaching suddenly got to? Well I'm bored. As far as I am concerned Pilate and the priests can do what they like with you.

So what about us?

What do we make of Jesus? Is he just there for our entertainment? To make us feel better when the enormous questions about life, death and eternity come too close for comfort? Have we got used to him, picking out the bits we like and ignoring the inconvenient bits? Is he just one more experience among many - and after a bit we move on to the next experience? What about our worship – is he at the centre? Or are we just entertaining ourselves with the hymn tunes we like, the preacher who says what we want to hear, the people who we feel are our sort? Is Jesus really just there for our entertainment?

But the central person, as ever in the Gospel story, is Jesus.

What do you make of us, Lord Jesus?

As you stand there quietly, head bowed, we desperately try to fill the silence with our volume of empty words: "Don't threaten my way of life! Don't challenge me! Don't embarrass me in front of my friends! Don't ask me to take up my cross! Don't bore me! Gave me a safe, comfortable easy life…"

And I wonder as our words come rattling out before you, who is judging who? Our words tumble fruitless into the vast serenity of your silence. They seem so petty before your nobility, your compassion, your patient suffering, your amazing gift of love.

What do you make of us, Lord Jesus?

Thursday 10 April 2014

We had a great time!

Wraysbury Beavers came round to St Andrew's last week and we had a lot of fun together. What a lively, thoughtful, intelligent and curious bunch they are. Parents, you should be very proud of them!

They wanted to investigate the church, learn about the Easter story, find out what I do as a vicar and think about a story featuring good and bad for their faith badge - a tall order for just one hour, but we managed it. We had a good look around the church. We thought about sad things I do, like when someone we care about dies, and happy things too, like weddings and christenings...

Just like that... 

We told the Easter story by thinking about what we use crosses for. I got asked some really deep questions, like "just how did Jesus rise from the dead?" And we sang a song about Easter together, with actions! 

Our God is a Great Big God - and He holds us in his hands

That was fun! Finally we needed a story where we could ask what people did that was good, and what they did that was bad, so we had the parable of the Good Shrekmaritan:

So there was this OGRE...

I hope that helped with your faith badges, Beavers, and you are welcome back any time!

All photos used with parental consent in accordance with Child Protection Guidelines

Tuesday 8 April 2014

Not more on the floods!

It's been hard to speak about the recent floods. Any high-sounding phrases I use are going to sound glib to people who were trapped in, who were frightened, who in so many cases lost their possessions, were washed out of their homes and had their families and working lives disrupted. For us up at the vicarage the floods were an inconvenience – a couple of feet of water in the garden and some trouble with the septic tank, but little more. It's hard then to get preachy at people who have lost everything.

On the other hand, to say nothing is tantamount to accepting that Gospel is not relevant to people at times of great crisis. That would fall seriously short of my calling as a minister of God's words. So here goes… Let's start with a Bible passage where Jesus mentions floods. This is from Matthew Chapter 7:

24 "Anyone who listens to my teaching and obeys me is wise, like a person who builds a house on solid rock. 25 Though the rain comes in torrents and the floodwaters rise and the winds beat against that house, it won't collapse, because it is built on rock. 26 But anyone who hears my teaching and ignores it is foolish, like a person who builds a house on sand. 27 When the rains and floods come and the winds beat against that house, it will fall with a mighty crash." 28 After Jesus finished speaking, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, 29 for he taught as one who had real authority -- quite unlike the teachers of religious law.

Now I'd love it if Jesus said that when we follow him we'll escape it all. The rains will fall on distant hills, the floods will rise on other rivers, and we'll be safe and sound. Unfortunately the Bible never promises this. In the story, the rain falls and the floods rise for the wise person and the foolish person alike. Some people talk as if it were God's job description to make sure nothing bad ever happens to anyone – wouldn't that be great! But we all know that life just isn't like that. The rains will fall, the floods will rise, for the good and bad, the believers and the unbelievers, just the same.

So what's the point? The point is that we can be better prepared for the storms that are bound to come. I picture the foolish man building a house on the beach: great sea views, lovely to be able to run straight out into the sand and the surf and enjoy the sunshine – but the trouble is it will soon wash away.  If we build our lives purely on the pleasures of the moment there'll be nothing left after the next high tide. In fact sooner or later we have to let go of every earthly thing – possessions, relationships, achievements, fame – all soon pass away, as we ourselves will have to when our time comes.

But Jesus says he can show us how to build our lives on things that cannot be washed away. The cornerstone of the Sermon of the Mount, of which this story forms the climax, is our relationship with God as children of our loving heavenly Father. And in that relationship is eternity, invulnerable from the storms and tides and floods and rains of time. From it flow more eternal things – peace that passes understanding, joy inexpressible, love beyond limit. These things can never be swept away because they are in God.

So will it still sound glib when I try to say these things to people whose lives have been overwhelmed in the flooding? If I say, the floods are God's reminders that our possessions aren't everything? That they are pointers to the fact that, as far as this life goes, we are just passing through? That they show us our need to let go of what we cannot keep in order to take hold of what we can never lose? I expect it probably would, because good advice never works unless the advisers have been there themselves.

And that's the great thing about Jesus. He has been there. Through his birth and upbringing, his job as a carpenter, his rejection, suffering and death, He has passed through the deepest waters. By rising again He has come out the other side and shown us once and for all that our hope cannot be swept away, not even by death. That's what we are going to be celebrating very soon at Easter time.