1 Thessalonians 1

Today we begin a short series on the letter to the Thessalonians.

Thessaloniki, Greece Image, Pixabay

Collect

God of truth,

help us to keep your law of love

and to walk in ways of wisdom,

that we may find true life

in Jesus Christ your Son.

Bible Reading: 1 Thessalonians 1

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,

To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:

Grace to you and peace.

We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of people we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place where your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. For the people of those regions[b] report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.

Sermon

Brothers and sisters, although the majority of the world is aware of the Christian religion, few are aware of faith.  You may ask is one not the same as the other?  Well, we are not living in the times of the first believers, witnessing Christ and his miracles firsthand.  Instead, we are living according to Hebrews 11 verse 1; we’re living the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen.  We haven’t seen God in Christ as a human being, but we know of his existence and we believe in Him.

We are living in this time, 2000 years later.  A time where at the touch of a few buttons we can access information about almost anything through Google and view a video about how to access, work, or create it via YouTube.  We live in a country and in a time where people believe in what they can see, hear, and touch.  Faith isn’t typically required as everything is present and at the tip of our fingers.  Things happen in our everyday lives, but unlike the past where word of mouth and writing on tablets was the main way of passing on information, we share stories through in a variety of ways and can do so instantly through social media.  You might say, there are no miracles in my life or at least none worth sharing.  No one has been raised from the dead or regained their sight after being blind.  But, you’re wrong. 

A miracle by definition is an extraordinary and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore attributed to a divine agency.  In other words, it could not be explained by reason and thus must have been a gift from God.  The very miracle of life is something to celebrate every day.  My own daughter was born with a limp arm that barely moved.  The doctors said that there were no broken bones, no fractures, and after various body and head scans, they couldn’t identify the issue.  My family prayed for her for 3 days.  We had faith that though the doctors could place no reason for why her arm was deformed, that God could and would heal her.  On the third day her arm was miraculously healed.  There’s something about that third day.  There’s something about the name of Jesus!  Amen? 

When she attended her physiotherapy, the therapist said he couldn’t identify any abnormalities, but due to her age scheduled a follow-up visit.  After seeing her 6 months later, she was discharged.  This is one of many stories I share as a part of my overall testimony.  What is your testimony?  What have you had to believe and trust God for, what strengthened your faith and gave you hope?  What is your story?

Recently, I attended a diocesan course on evangelism where we were asked about how we talk to others and share our faith.  Interestingly, many shared their discomfort about how to do this.  Although, many had been Christians for majority of their lives and were church goers, they struggled in this area.  We see in the first Thessalonians 1, that these followers of Christ lived by faith and led the example of how to live.   Their actions spoke to those around them and others were drawn in because they witness their major life changes and saw the fruit from it.  In verse 5 it said the gospel came in not only word, but in full conviction.  We know that Jesus is the word and gave us the perfect example on how to live.  Being convicted is being firm in what we believe, having faith without a doubt that all our blessings come from God.

You might ask how do I live so that others might see?  How do I share my convictions and my story with others?  And, how do I do it during covid, when we have to be socially distanced?  The answer is easy.  You must be guided by the Holy Spirit.  Now, that answer might sound cliché, but the reality is only you know your story.  Jesus gave us two commandments to follow: to love God above all else and to love our neighbours as ourselves.   Ecclesiastes 3 verse 1 says there is a time and season for everything.  There will be moments where you can share the love of Christ with others.  This could be sharing something small like whilst leaving the till at the supermarket saying, “God bless you.”  Or it could be sharing something a bit more personal when chatting to a stranger whilst waiting for the bus, or a video blog on your Facebook page.  The great commission comes in various forms.  In Matthew it says to make disciples and baptise them.  In Mark it says to preach the gospel to all creation.  However, and whatever form the Holy Spirit is directing you, do as the Thessalonians, be bold…share your story with power and conviction.  Know that no matter what, our invisible God has not been invisible in your life and sharing your story of faith might be the miracle that someone else has been waiting for.

Final Hymn, To God be the Glory

Trinity Sunday

Collect Prayer

Holy God,
faithful and unchanging:
enlarge our minds with the knowledge of your truth,
and draw us more deeply into the mystery of your love,
that we may truly worship you,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Amen.

Reading: John 3:1-17 (NLT)

There was a man named Nicodemus, a Jewish religious leader who was a Pharisee. After dark one evening, he came to speak with Jesus. “Rabbi,” he said, “we all know that God has sent you to teach us. Your miraculous signs are evidence that God is with you.”

Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again,[a] you cannot see the Kingdom of God.”

“What do you mean?” exclaimed Nicodemus. “How can an old man go back into his mother’s womb and be born again?”

Jesus replied, “I assure you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit.[b] Humans can reproduce only human life, but the Holy Spirit gives birth to spiritual life.[c] So don’t be surprised when I say, ‘You[d] must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it wants. Just as you can hear the wind but can’t tell where it comes from or where it is going, so you can’t explain how people are born of the Spirit.”

“How are these things possible?” Nicodemus asked.

10 Jesus replied, “You are a respected Jewish teacher, and yet you don’t understand these things? 11 I assure you, we tell you what we know and have seen, and yet you won’t believe our testimony. 12 But if you don’t believe me when I tell you about earthly things, how can you possibly believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone to heaven and returned. But the Son of Man[e] has come down from heaven. 14 And as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.[f]

16 “For this is how God loved the world: He gave[g] his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. 17 God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him.

Sermon by Rev’d Jo Joyce

Today is Trinity Sunday. A day where training incumbents the world over like to give the sermon to their curates to see if they stumble over any of the ancient heresies of the Trinity! Because of course trying to describe the Trinity without slipping down one of these holes is nigh on impossible, as soon as we start to use an analogy or metaphor, we are almost certainly going to end up doing this. The problem is that God is by nature mysterious, Holy and indescribable.

In Rabbinic Judaism there are seven names of God that are so holy that once written they shouldn’t be erased or spoken. I am not going to list them here as I would not like to offend any of our Jewish brothers or sisters, but in English they are translated variously to God, the Almighty, the Lord of Hosts and so on, the holy name of God that may never be spoken is translated in our bibles as LORD, in capitals. After these names there are other names that describe attributes of God, but all refer to just one God, and that of course was the distinction between ancient Judaism and the religions of all the surrounding peoples, which had many different gods for different things – think of the myths and gods of ancient Babylon, Greece, Rome, Egypt. Having one God was what made the Israelites stand out.

Christianity is no different, we believe in one God – the Lord almighty, but we understand God as three distinct persons Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Something which has been the case ever since the ancient church councils set it out in writing, and which is evident from the beliefs of the first Christians as they worshipped Jesus and were filled with the Holy Spirit.

The problem is, this is where the heresy comes in, because as soon as we start to try and describe or explain it, we can easily slip into describing something wrong. So, let’s first look at a few heresies – what the Trinity isn’t!

Modalism – this is the idea that the Trinity is not three distinct persons but three modes by which God reveals himself. Modalism teaches that God changes form over the course of time, a bit like a transformer, that God is one thing or the next. But we know from scripture that God is all three simultaneously – think of the transfiguration at Jesus’s baptism where the Spirit descends like a dove from heaven and the voice of the Almighty says ‘this is my Son.’

Arianism – is another ancient heresy. This teaches that Jesus was created by God the Father – in other words there was a time when Jesus did not exist. Yet we know from the start of John’s Gospel that in the beginning was the word (Jesus) and that the word was with God and the word was God. Jehovah’s witnesses today follow Arius in their understanding of God, Jesus is not divine and God is not known as Trinity.

Tritheism – this suggests that there are three God’s rather than one. We can slip into this if we start to see each person as distinct rather than united. This is rarely taught but easily implied, we can see it in the way we pray or act or worship if we over emphasise one of the persons of the Trinity and forget the others.

There are then, a whole load of others about the Person of Jesus Christ and how we understand his humanity and divine nature. It is to be fair a bit of a mine field!

So back to the Trinity. There are lots of analogies – God as Trinity is like a triangle or a clover leaf – all three parts are identical and linked and without the others are no longer the whole – so a triangle with two corners is just a line! But the problem is for me this is too static, none describes what we essentially know of God to be relational. Or perhaps we can think of water which can be also ice and steam, but this for me come too close to modalism, as it is rarely all three together distinctly and all of the time.

So, what are we left with? Well, we understand God as relational, so perhaps Rublev’s famous icon of the Trinity is something that can help. A famous icon, it’s also known as ‘The Hospitality of Abraham’ you may remember the story where Abraham greets three mysterious strangers, taken to be angels, but often understood in the Christian context as a manifestation of the Trinity. The important thing in the picture is the relationship between the figures. The central figure has his hand in blessing, the other two point their feet to each other their gaze looks from one to the other, they are seated to create a circle, and missing from this ancient piece of religious art is the mirror originally in the centre of the piece drawing us into this relationship. Rublev was trying to draw a depiction of the Trinity that captures the dynamism and relationship between God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, three distinct yet united as one God. Both mysterious and Holy.

But what is the point of tying ourselves in knots? Does how we understand God as Trinity really matter? Well yes it does and I think relationship is the best way to describe why…

If we understand and relate to God mainly or wholly as God the Father – almighty God – the creator, awesome and unknowable – as the hymn would put it immortal, invisible, what is that relationship really like? Is it about God as an angry old man with a long white beard – irrelevant, angry, unapproachable, or a benevolent Father, a kind of Santa like figure for whom judgement and justice are frankly impossible, or a creator so awesome and remote that we cannot possibly relate to God or he to us? If we see God in this light, we deny the other persons of God and loose out a great deal on our understanding both of Jesus and of the work of God in the person of the Holy Spirit.

Ok so how about we relate to God as Jesus, surely as Christians that’s good? But again, if we relate purely to the humanity of Christ, we begin to deny his divinity, and that’s important, not just to understand, as we have heard, that he was there at creation, but that his death and resurrection transcends death, he is both God, and yet was indeed fully human – and here we have to be careful of all the heresies around how we understand Jesus – which are many! But, if my prayer life and understanding of God focusses purely on Jesus then I have of course missed so much of what the Christian understanding of who God is, and indeed how Jesus relates to God the Father during his life on earth, and the role of the Holy Spirit in our lives. I live in the danger of making God only human and relatable, and of forgetting the transcendence of God.

What then about the Holy Spirit? What if this is the person of the Trinity I most relate to. Well, there is danger here too. Perhaps we become too focussed on how things feel, we fail to recognise that God is present not just in the moments we find holy or spiritual, such as receiving communion or in prayer or worship, but that God is present at all times, including those moments when we least feel the presence of God. When we only relate to God in the Holy moments, we deny God with us at other times, and we heap burdens on those faithful who never feel a sense of God near and as a result wonder if they are faithful enough.

The Christian understanding of God as Trinity is heavily rooted in the bible, and in the experience of God’s faithful people throughout time. With a balanced understanding of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit we have a balanced faith that is relatable, that sees the power of God the creator, the compassion and humanity of God the Son and the beauty and power of God the Holy Spirit at work in the world. We are relational as a Christian community and as human beings because God first was relational.

The Trinity is one of those concepts we don’t think about very much but is something that has been wrestled with by Christians down the ages as they tried to work out and explain what God was like. The creeds that we read each service are the result of that wrangling. Sometimes I think its easier that rather than talk about the Trinity, to say do you believe in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit? Because that of course is how we know, understand and experience God.

Intercessions

We come boldly to the throne of grace,
praying to the almighty God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
for mercy and grace.
We plead before your throne in heaven.

Father of heaven, whose love profound
a ransom for our souls has found:
We pray for the world, created by your love,
for its nations and governments …

Extend to them your peace, pardoning love, mercy and grace.
We plead before your throne in heaven.

Almighty Son, incarnate Word,
our Prophet, Priest, Redeemer, Lord:
We pray for the Church, created for your glory,
for its ministry to reflect those works of yours …

Extend to us your salvation, growth, mercy and grace.
We plead before your throne in heaven.

Eternal Spirit, by whose breath
the soul is raised from sin and death:
We pray for families and individuals, created in your image,
for the lonely, the bereaved, the sick and the dying …

Breathe on them the breath of life
and bring them to your mercy and grace.
We plead before your throne in heaven.

Thrice holy! Father, Spirit, Son,
Mysterious Godhead, Three in One:
We pray for ourselves,
for your Church, for all whom we remember before you …

Bring us all to bow before your throne in heaven,
to receive life and pardon, mercy and grace for all eternity,
as we worship you, saying,
Holy, holy, holy Lord,
God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest. Amen.

Closing Worship

Pentecost – A Spirit-Filled Community

Collect Prayer

Holy Spirit,
sent by the Father,
ignite in us your holy fire;
strengthen your children with the gift of faith,
revive your Church with the breath of love,
and renew the face of the earth,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.

Reading

A reading from the Acts of the Apostles (2.1-13)

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs – in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’

Homily by Nigel Blease

Today is my first sermon, it just happens to be Pentecost which was also St Peters first sermon, and we are having the service outdoors. What could possibly go wrong and no pressure then.

Joel prophesised “I will pour out my Spirit on all”.

We certainly can see and feel this in todays reading, the power of God, described as a hard gale or the blowing of a violent wind. In Hebrew the word Ruach means breath or wind, and in the old testament Ruach is used to describe the Holy Spirit or Spirit of God.

In John 14:15 Jesus promised the Holy spirit “If you love Me, you will keep My commandment. And I will ask the Father and He will give another advocate to be with you forever-the Spirit of the truth”. In the King James version “advocate “ is described as “ comforter” , I prefer this thought of the Holy Spirit as a comforter which is always there for us.

We also are told there were tongues of fire, fire from God, these are an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual reality. They represent the power purity and passion of God. If we experience the Holy Spirit, She brings a new fire and passion to our life.

In this room on the day of Pentecost, where all of this is being witnessed by the early followers of Jesus along with fellow Jews from all the regions around the Mediterranean and beyond.  They witness the tongues of fire descending from heaven, the Holy Spirit precipitates another miraculous event. The disciples begin proclaiming the good news in different languages so their fellow Jews may hear the message in their own language.

This is often interpreted as a reversal of the chaos and disunity of Babel described in “Genesis 11:1-9”. But I think the meaning is more than this, God is not speaking to us in His language but in multiple languages. God is speaking in Greek, Aramaic, and other ancient languages. This is God showing us that in our diversity we are united, despite our differences we are the same. The good news must be taken to all the peoples of the world speaking all their different languages. We must remember we are all born in the image of God, and follow the commandment to love our neighnbour. This is the mission set out for the disciples and all the early followers of Jesus. This would prove to be a great challenge which would be extremely dangerous and would ultimately topple empires. The disciples are being asked to pick up their cross and follow in the footsteps of Christ, some would be martyred for this mission.

Sometimes the Church has not been successful in this. In an interview Justin Brierley who hosts Unbelievable on Premier Christian radio was speaking with a Pastor from Uganda. The pastor was telling how in the time of Idi Amin in the 1970’s the percentage of Christians in the country dropped to only 15%. But since the fall of Amin there has been a miraculous revival in Uganda and now 85% of the country claim to be Christian. What really saddened me was that early missionaries would not allow the tribal drums in worship claiming they were evil and pagan. This did more harm than good, who is to say what is the correct way to worship God and it should be a joyous event. This may also be the case of people who attend more Charismatic churches, how would we react if someone in our congregation started speaking in tongues and was intoxicated with the Holy Spirit. Would we also be guilty of missing these miraculous signs. Christianity is very diverse; it has been estimated that there exists 31000 different denominations. What we share is so much more important than our differences.

There were three reactions to the events that unfolded in that room;

  1. Amazement
  2. Perplexity
  3. Ridicule: as humans is this not a significant flaw that even when witnessing something miraculous, we are blind to it. Things we do not understand we ridicule in our ignorance.

People mocked saying that they were filled with wine and at this point Peter starts his first sermon with an explanation of what people had witnessed. This was not intoxication with wine but sober intoxication of the Holy Spirit.  Peter full of the Holy Spirit goes back to the Old Testament, consider the quote from Joel that I started with. The Holy Spirit is the author of the word of God. The Holy Spirit brings a Hunger for the word of God.

Whilst filled with the Holy Spirit, Peter is setting out the message for the early Christians.

In a part of Acts 2 ver 22-24 after our reading:

“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs which God did through, him in your midst as you yourselves know- this Jesus delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God , you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. But God raised him up, having loosed the pangs of death because it was not possible for him to be held by it”.

Is this not wonderful, this would have been part of the Early Christian creed that he would have shared with Paul when they met.  He is affirming the miracles of Jesus, Jesus was crucified and he conquered death and this was all part of Gods plan. Is this not truly a wonderous message for us to share with others. Peter also states in a later part of the passage that I witnessed this I confirm this is the truth.

So how can the Holy Spirit help us ; we can call on the Holy Spirit in prayer, we may approach the Holy Spirit in quiet meditation, we need to listen and trust in the Holy Spirit.  In one of the ten minute talks you will see a video on dealing with Stress. I was fortunate to do a short course with Michael on this topic and I found it really helpful in stressful situations at work . Michael encourage us to Lament to God and the Holy Spirit, share you burdens with them. I found this really therapeutic it centred me, days you anticipated as being fearful became manageable and enjoyable. I often now prey for wisdom, the courage to face difficult situations and the words to deal compassionately and truthfully with my colleagues.

Another example of the Holy Spirit at work in us I would give would be when our small group ran the service last year. Some were quite nervous about speaking or taking part in the service. Everyone took part and supported each other but I would say after everyone felt exhilarated in the experience.

A Challenge for All

At Pentecost we celebrate the disciples being given authority from God to go and spread the Good News to the ends of the earth. They were given the gifts of healing, prophesy and tongues.

Like them le us today use Pentecost as our own platform to share the good news of Christ.

 Acts 2 verse 32-36

This Jesus, God raised up , and of that we are all witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit he has poured out this which you see and hear. For David did not ascend into the heavens; but he himself says. “The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, till I make thy enemies a stool for thy feet”. Let all the house of Israel therefore know assuredly that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

This is our message to share we can do this in many ways; Messy Church, Job Club, SPOGS, our Online Services, Ten Minute Talks, how we lead our lives but also as simply as talking about our faith.

It is also important that we do so respectfully and compassionately, respecting people of different faiths or of no faith. We can still work at sharing the message, planting the seeds, and letting God do his work.

I recently attended an online Christian Conference; at which Tom Wright, the ex- bishop of Durham and Historian spoke. A lot of talk centred around attracting young people to Church. Part of this was about Western Christianity had watered down Christ message and thus it was no longer appealing to young people also we need to engage with young people on their own territory ie Social Media and also we should trust young people in our Church and give them challenging tasks. This seems even more pressing now post Covid.

Tom Wright emphasised that our message should be more in line with what the early Christians believed; Christ died for our sins but our aim is to create heaven on earth. Heaven Is not a distant place up in the sky but we can create it on earth by living our lives committed to Christ.

Amen

Prayers

We pray for God to fill us with his Spirit.
Generous God,
we thank you for the power of your Holy Spirit.
We ask that we may be strengthened to serve you better.
Lord, come to bless us
All   and fill us with your Spirit.

We thank you for the wisdom of your Holy Spirit.
We ask you to make us wise to understand your will.
Lord, come to bless us
All   and fill us with your Spirit.

We thank you for the peace of your Holy Spirit.
We ask you to keep us confident of your love wherever you call us.
Lord, come to bless us
All   and fill us with your Spirit.

We thank you for the healing of your Holy Spirit.
We ask you to bring reconciliation and wholeness
where there is division, sickness and sorrow.
Lord, come to bless us
All   and fill us with your Spirit.

We thank you for the gifts of your Holy Spirit.
We ask you to equip us for the work which you have given us.
Lord, come to bless us
All   and fill us with your Spirit.

We thank you for the fruit of your Holy Spirit.
We ask you to reveal in our lives the love of Jesus.
Lord, come to bless us
All   and fill us with your Spirit.

We thank you for the breath of your Holy Spirit,
given us by the risen Lord.
We ask you to keep the whole Church, living and departed,
in the joy of eternal life.
Lord, come to bless us
All   and fill us with your Spirit.

Generous God,
you sent your Holy Spirit upon your Messiah at the river Jordan,
and upon the disciples in the upper room:
in your mercy fill us with your Spirit,
All   hear our prayer,
and make us one in heart and mind
to serve you with joy for ever. Amen.

Closing Worship

Christian Aid Week – A Community for Justice

Prayer

Love incarnate,

fountain of mercy and justice
in a world of inequity and pain
may our actions be our prayer.
Let the Spirit of Truth guide us.
Let the Spirit of Love free us.
Give us the courage, compassion and resolve
to become the light we seek
that many may see their life and dignity restored.
Inspire us to embody a world without injustice and prejudice.
Form us into channels of your love and peace.
Let the river of justice and mercy flood our imperfect world,
quenching the thirst of parched souls and parched lands.
Abide in us, O Liberator, that we may become the Word,
so that the world may have Life, in all its abundance.
Amen.

Prayer by the Rev’d Dr Anderson Jeremiah from the book “Rage and Hope: 75 Prayers for a Better World” edited by Chine MacDonald and Wendy Lloyd to celebrate 75 years of Christian Aid.  If you would be interested in buying a copy of this book, you can order it here: https://stclaresatthecathedral.org/product/rage-and-hope-75-prayers-for-a-better-world/ or at most booksellers.

Reading: Micah 6:1-8 (NLT)

Listen to what the Lord is saying:

“Stand up and state your case against me.
    Let the mountains and hills be called to witness your complaints.
And now, O mountains,
    listen to the Lord’s complaint!
He has a case against his people.
    He will bring charges against Israel.

“O my people, what have I done to you?
    What have I done to make you tired of me?
    Answer me!
For I brought you out of Egypt
    and redeemed you from slavery.
    I sent Moses, Aaron, and Miriam to help you.
Don’t you remember, my people,
    how King Balak of Moab tried to have you cursed
    and how Balaam son of Beor blessed you instead?
And remember your journey from Acacia Grove to Gilgal,
    when I, the Lord, did everything I could
    to teach you about my faithfulness.”

What can we bring to the Lord?
    Should we bring him burnt offerings?
Should we bow before God Most High
    with offerings of yearling calves?
Should we offer him thousands of rams
    and ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Should we sacrifice our firstborn children
    to pay for our sins?

No, O people, the Lord has told you what is good,
    and this is what he requires of you:
to do what is right, to love mercy,
    and to walk humbly with your God.

Homily

The slogan for this year’s Christian Aid Week, which I now know thanks to Colin and Jane’s excellent quiz last night (sadly, I didn’t know it before the quiz or my team might have done slightly better) is Real People, Real Change – 75 Years of Hope. And Christian Aid is a profoundly hopeful organisations. We have been hearing some challenging messages this morning, as we recognise how our misuse of creation is resulting in suffering for the most vulnerable communities around the globe, and this can feel rather depressing and hope-less. But the task of the prophets – like Micah, but also like Gloria and Katalina and our Christian Aid family around the world – is to inspire our imaginations. To give us a vision of a how the world might be different – a vision compelling enough that we have the courage to live it into reality.

Now Micah was writing a few thousand years before greenhouse gases were a thing – what might he have to say into this very modern crisis of climate change? Well, the crisis might change, but people haven’t, and so the prophet’s words are as fresh and incisive as ever. Micah begins with a message that climate change campaigners have been giving us for years: LISTEN. Don’t bury your head in the ground. Hope and healing is never to be found by ignoring the problem and hoping it will go away. We have to face up to the problems of climate change, recognise our part in it, hear the effect it is having on other human families around the world – because only then will we be able to imagine a different world and begin to live into it. So we have to listen, pay attention, to what our modern day prophets and creation itself are saying to us.

Micah, then, speaking what he feels God has called him to say asks creation to bear witness on the peoples’ sin, and asks the people to remember all God has done for them. Creation does indeed bear witness to the consequences of our choices. A few years ago I remember going to a beautiful little beach in a remote part of Skye and finding it utterly ruined by plastic waste that had been washed up by the currents. I can still feel now the frustration and disappointment in my stomach at the despoilation of that beautiful corner of God’s world. And this is a small tragedy in comparison to so much that is happening. God has given us such a beautiful abundant world – let us remember that gift with gratitude and do our best to protect it.

Finally, Micah calls on the people to act – not with grand gestures, but with values and attitudes that inspire everyday choices. Real people making real changes leading to real hope. Do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God, Micah says – a compelling vision for human life that speaks down through the ages and inspires us today.

So how might we, as a community of justice, work for climate justice and the wellbeing of all creation.

Firstly, we must not underestimate the task – either in changing the world, or changing ourselves. Our first step is prayer, and if you need inspiration a good place to start is the Christian Aid 75th Anniversary book “Rage and Hope” which we used for our opening prayer. It contains not just 75 beautiful, inspiring and challenging prayers, but some wonderful explanations of the work of Christian Aid and the issues that are affecting its partners around the world.

Then we can give. Things are far from hopeless. The money we have raised this week WILL make a difference. It could buy the parts to create a community dam providing water security for a community affected by climate change. It could pay for trees to reverse deforestation and improve the land. Real people, real change, real hope – please be as generous as you can!

Lastly, we must ACT on climate injustice as individuals and together. As individuals, we might look at how we choose to travel, or invest, or power our homes or the amount of plastic we buy. We can make sure our local government representatives and the businesses we support know that climate justice matters to us and encourage them to make good decisions and show just leadership. As a group, we might want to work towards our Silver or Gold Eco Church Award.

So pray for change in both ourselves and our world. Give and support Christian Aid partners making a real differences in communities affected by the climate crisis, and act, act now, to reduce our consumption and burden on creation. Be hopeful, and hold to a vision of a world sustained by love of neighbour and not growing GDP figures. It doesn’t have to be this way – let us pray, give, act and live our way into a different future.

Amen

Prayers by Emili Lowery

We come before the Lord thankful for all that He has done and continues to do in our lives. Knowing that He always listens to our prayers we bring before Him all our intentions.  That all our lives may be sanctified in the truth, let us pray to the Lord.  We pray that your Church may be committed to the needs of the world, but never conformed to those worldly practices that fail to reveal your love and light.   We pray that those you have called to your service may be strong in the faith of Christ and given power to reveal his love.

Lord in your mercy All: Hear our prayer.

Be with all who must make decisions that will affect the lives of others.  Lord, give wisdom to those who appoint and elect others to positions of authority.    And, for all those who serve in authority in our country, the Prime minister, the queen, ministers of parliament, bishops and leaders in our church, inspire them to speak the truth and guide them with your Holy Spirit to seek the common good.

Lord in your mercy All: Hear our prayer.

Bless us, our families, friends and colleagues in our decision-making, both small and great, which we must make in our daily lives.  We also pray for godly wisdom in how to better love the beauty of your creation.  Show us how to do our part to make this world a better place for ourselves and others.  We ask you to transform us in your image and help us to become the people you have called us to be.

Lord in your mercy All: Hear our prayer.

Have mercy on any who have broken faith, betraying those who trusted them.  And, forgive us for all the times we’ve betrayed you by not trusting in you.  Restore all in your mercy to the life of love that has been forsaken and bring relief to those who have lost their direction through the distress of misplaced trust.

Lord in your mercy All: Hear our prayer.

We pray for all of those who have been victims of violence abroad, in our home country and in local communities. We pray especially for families who have had to deal with the heart break of losing loved ones because of anger and hate.   We ask you Lord to open the minds and hearts of those who show prejudice against them and we pray that we will not show prejudice against others.  We pray for godly wisdom that gives others both space and support, that encourages and guides, that knows when to speak and when to listen.  Help us to hear your still quiet voice, but also be stirred by the holy spirit to speak out against injustice and against the spirit of the enemy that would want to steal, kill, and destroy all that is around us.

Lord in your mercy All: Hear our prayer.

Grant to the faithful departed the eternal life promised through Jesus Christ.  May his saving love avail for those who have passed through this world and into the world beyond.  May they receive their eternal reward with you in Heaven.  We pray for the godly wisdom that sees time in the context of eternity, and death as the gateway to heaven in the presence of God.   Lord God bring comfort to those leaving this earth and give peace to those returning home to heaven.  We also remember the families who’ve lost people they love, give your peace to them and their upcoming funerals.  May those who have passed, be at rest and rise in your glory.  

Lord in your mercy All: Hear our prayer.

Wise and Holy God, we pray for your wisdom that encourages our hearts to live simply and thankfully, rejoicing in all that you are and all that you do.  Let us remember to love you in all things including the gift of life every day.  As our joy is made complete in Christ, we pray with confidence in his name, saying together…

All: Merciful Father, accept these prayers for the sake of your

Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Closing Worship

Acts – An Inclusive Community

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Collect Prayer

Risen Christ,
by the lakeside you renewed your call to your disciples:
help your Church to obey your command
and draw the nations to the fire of your love,
to the glory of God the Father.
Amen

Reading

44 Even as Peter was saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who were listening to the message. 45 The Jewish believers[e] who came with Peter were amazed that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles, too. 46 For they heard them speaking in other tongues[f] and praising God.

Then Peter asked, 47 “Can anyone object to their being baptized, now that they have received the Holy Spirit just as we did?” 48 So he gave orders for them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Afterward Cornelius asked him to stay with them for several days.

Acts 10:44-end (NLT)

Homily by the Rev’d Jo Joyce

This account in Acts of the gentiles – non Jewish believers, receiving the Holy Spirit is a little different to the account of Pentecost. When the Holy Spirit came then, those who were filled were all Jewish believers or Gentiles who had converted to Judaism. This account comes a little later when Peter is speaking to Gentiles who have not converted. First, he had an encounter with Cornelius, a roman centurion, a captain of the Italian Regiment and as he reflects on this he realises that God’s message is for all, not just those who have converted to the Jewish faith – Christianity at that point remined a small sect of Judaism. Peter’s speech, the revelation of the Holy Spirit and a vision convincing him that new believers no longer needed to follow Jewish food laws led him to open the message of Jesus to all comers, without putting barriers in the way of conversion to Judaism and all of its laws.

As we move then to our part of the story it’s worth looking closer. Often, I think when we are reading in the bible about the gift of tongues we are a bit sceptical, or maybe even anxious. Unlike more obvious gifts such as healing, it doesn’t seem to have much purpose. At Pentecost others heard them speaking their language and believed, so it was missional, but it doesn’t seem to happen here, rather the gift of tongues seems to be used in worship to praise God with no other obvious purpose. There is no clarity as to why it happened or whether it happened again to that group of people. Add this to it being one of those gifts which in the modern church can end up being divisive – “they are one of those born again people” – where there is genuine fear about people being manipulated or making it up, and where some church leaders have made it into a badge of their particular type of church – either you’re in or out, it can be sadly dismissed.

Yet all of this, whether it is making it a requirement of belonging, or something of which to be afraid somewhat misses the point. The early believers didn’t ask for it it, it just happened, it was a kind of spontaneous worship, as natural as breaking into song, or dropping to their knees to pray. And for Peter it was a sign that what he was coming to believe – that God saw all people as equal, was right. And remember for him that was a radical cultural shift.

Later in the letter to the Corinthians St Paul talks of love as being more important than the gift of tongues, while in the letter to the Galatians he talks about the fruit of the spirit – love, joy peace gentleness etc. These are the ways that we know if something is of God. My guess is that the day that Peter preached the atmosphere would have been full of that peace, filled with the presence of God. He is not afraid of what God is doing, even if it doesn’t look like how he would think of worship, but he sees similarities in his own experience, and opens his mind to the fact that God might be doing something radically new, including people who until now had been, not just outside but religiously unclean.

So how might we see this today, well firstly, I think the key message is that God includes those we least expect. The Holy Spirit doesn’t put barriers on who can be included. As I read this it’s easy to get blasé and think but of course God is like that, but we too can be like Peter. I wonder who we think God would never include? Who are the outsiders who make us feel a bit different? What are the experiences of worship that we shy away from or deny are of God? When we see others experience God differently to us how does it make us feel?

Peter was on a journey – it took him a while to come to terms with allowing others in and enabling them to worship in a different way to him, but it’s a journey we all have to go on at some point. As we pass the faith on, we realise that God doesn’t always work in others the ways God works in us. That worship can be different from ours but just as holy. That sometimes God challenges us to step outside our comfort zone and realise that he is doing a new thing. The work of the Holy Spirit in bringing others to faith might sometimes challenge us, but if we are not being challenged to see and think about faith in new ways then maybe we need to question how open we are to the work of the Spirit.

Prayer

May the Lord God Bless you each step of Life’s way.
May you learn each day to open yourself to love and the blessings of love.
May you find a stick to lean on when the road is hard- and not use the stick to beat
yourself.
May you be blessed with life’s abundance and blessed in poor days too, learning again
what really matters, what lasts. May you never give in to despair or the lie that
nothing can change.
May you find ways of life and walk them with courage, knowing that every step is
within the heart of Christ who holds all our days in love.
© Revd Dr Christopher Jenkins

Closing Worship

Acts – A Discipling Community

Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay

Collect Prayer

Risen Christ,
your wounds declare your love for the world
and the wonder of your risen life:
give us compassion and courage
to risk ourselves for those we serve,
to the glory of God the Father.
Amen.

Readings

Acts 8:26-end (NLT)

26 As for Philip, an angel of the Lord said to him, “Go south down the desert road that runs from Jerusalem to Gaza.” 27 So he started out, and he met the treasurer of Ethiopia, a eunuch of great authority under the Kandake, the queen of Ethiopia. The eunuch had gone to Jerusalem to worship, 28 and he was now returning. Seated in his carriage, he was reading aloud from the book of the prophet Isaiah.

29 The Holy Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and walk along beside the carriage.”

30 Philip ran over and heard the man reading from the prophet Isaiah. Philip asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?”

31 The man replied, “How can I, unless someone instructs me?” And he urged Philip to come up into the carriage and sit with him.

32 The passage of Scripture he had been reading was this:

“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter.
    And as a lamb is silent before the shearers,
    he did not open his mouth.
33 He was humiliated and received no justice.
    Who can speak of his descendants?
    For his life was taken from the earth.”

34 The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, was the prophet talking about himself or someone else?” 35 So beginning with this same Scripture, Philip told him the Good News about Jesus.

36 As they rode along, they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “Look! There’s some water! Why can’t I be baptized?” 38 He ordered the carriage to stop, and they went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.

39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away. The eunuch never saw him again but went on his way rejoicing. 40 Meanwhile, Philip found himself farther north at the town of Azotus. He preached the Good News there and in every town along the way until he came to Caesarea.

Homily by Colin Udall Lay Reader

Many centuries ago, long before the birth of Jesus, the prophet Isaiah foresaw the suffering of “the Servant of the LORD” in dramatic language which hid nothing of the horror and the power of the vision which was disclosed to him. This same prophecy has been quoted many times in the New Testament, and one such occasion was the story we’ve just heard when the Evangelist Philip was enabled to explain the words to the Ethiopian Ambassador, who was returning from a pilgrimage in Jerusalem.

As was customary, the Ethiopian was reading out loud on the long chariot journey which would take him back to Africa. The Scripture which he read was Isaiah 53:7-8. “He was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer was silent, so he did not open his mouth.  In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.  Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.”

Drawing near to the chariot, Philip asked if the reader understood what he was reading. But how could he, without an interpreter? So the traveller asked Philip to join him on the chariot, making the most of the opportunity to tap into the preacher’s expertise. This encounter changed the life of the Ethiopian forever – he heard of Christ, His mission, His sacrifice, the gift of salvation to all nations, not just Israel.

Jesus is to be found in all the Scriptures – the Old Testament and the New Testament. It was from the Old Testament that Jesus taught two disciples on a journey on the road to Emmaus: “beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, he expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” (Luke 24:27).

A disciple is a follower.  The disciples went from being followers to evangelists – apostles. What is the sign of a disciple of Jesus? They go to church. They may go to church every time the door is open. They get involved. They give. They serve, pray, witness, evangelize. All these and perhaps more indicate you are disciple of Jesus.

Someone said: “I go to church, so I am a Christian.” But that’s like saying if you go to McDonald’s that makes you a Quarter Pounder.

If someone were to ask, “Are you a Christian?” and you responded “Yes, I am!” they might say, “Funny, you don’t look like a Christian.”

Sometimes we don’t resemble a disciple of Jesus, BUT WE SHOULD! There should be a difference in us from other people because we are Christians. We are His disciples and we should be interested in making more disciples

HOW DO WE MAKE DISCIPLES? We invite them in or else go out to get them. However, to invite them in we must have something to draw them.

What makes us a discipling church, a discipling community?  I think it is about being noticed for who we are and what we stand for.  Our banners outside and our noticeboards tell passers-by something of this.  Because of the pandemic, we have substantially increased our online activities and this has increased people’s awareness of what we do and what we stand for.  We have involved the community in our various activities such as the Advent windows, the Easter Egg trails.  We have continued our Messy Church activities and people have put time and a great deal of effort into making this an attractive family event online, with a discipling message for those who take part.  We have our services online and I for one hope this continues, even after the pandemic and the lockdowns have finished.  We have online audiences for our services and prayers that include people who may never come to church, but they are hearing about Jesus, the Bible stories that found our faith and those things that we do that say we are fulfilling Jesus’ call on us to love our neighbours wherever they may be – local, national or international.  Foodbank, Christian Aid, Job Club and so on.

The pandemic has meant that we are not the hub of community in this church that we were before the lockdowns.  You may describe us as more scattered, through the online presence we now have.  But that’s ok, Acts 8:4 tells us that “Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.” Wherever we scatter, we must preach. They scattered because of persecution. We scatter for other reasons, however.

People say to me that they can’t talk about their faith because they don’t know what to say. Paul charged young Timothy to charge the people in his preaching of the Word. Be strong. Be straight. Be sincere.  In other words, just be yourself and tell the truth.  Keep it simple.  Where I now work, a couple of people who knew me from when I worked there before call me “The Vicar”.  That just came out of a conversation where I said that I didn’t mind working on Sundays when I was rostered to, but I would never volunteer for overtime on a Sunday because I wanted to go to church whenever I could.  These people don’t make fun of me, they understand what I want to do, even if it’s not what they want to do, but it has led to other conversations about what I believe and where I stand on certain subjects.  And I am not the only Christian person at work.  I have met others who have shared with me their beliefs and also I have got into a van where the previous driver had been listening to a Christian radio station.

The early Christians were a discipling community.  They must have been, otherwise the Christian faith would not have grown in the way it did.  Studies have shown that this was not just through preaching and teaching, but practical action – helping one another, treating people as equals (remember Paul admonishes a church where they did not wait for the slaves before they started the services) sharing with each other and with those outside of their church community.

We need to be a discipling community too, continuing to serve Jesus by sharing his good news and continuing to share His love with one another and those in the communities around us.

Amen

Prayers

Living God,
long ago, faithful women
proclaimed the good news
of Jesus’ resurrection,
and the world was changed forever.
Teach us to keep faith with them,
that our witness may be as bold,
our love as deep,
and our faith as true. Amen.

Closing Worship

Acts – A Courageous Community

Image by ❤️A life without animals is not worth living❤️ from Pixabay

Collect

Risen Christ,
faithful shepherd of your Father’s sheep:
teach us to hear your voice
and to follow your command,
that all your people may be gathered into one flock,
to the glory of God the Father.

Reading: Acts 4:5-12 (NLT)

The next day the council of all the rulers and elders and teachers of religious law met in Jerusalem. Annas the high priest was there, along with Caiaphas, John, Alexander, and other relatives of the high priest. They brought in the two disciples and demanded, “By what power, or in whose name, have you done this?”

Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers and elders of our people, are we being questioned today because we’ve done a good deed for a crippled man? Do you want to know how he was healed? 10 Let me clearly state to all of you and to all the people of Israel that he was healed by the powerful name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, the man you crucified but whom God raised from the dead. 11 For Jesus is the one referred to in the Scriptures, where it says,

‘The stone that you builders rejected
    has now become the cornerstone.’

12 There is salvation in no one else! God has given no other name under heaven by which we must be saved.”

Homily

Last Saturday, I was at a conference called Dismantling Whiteness.  It was a collection of theologians, clergy and activists who wanted to look at the problem of racism from the perspective of being white.  It wasn’t about being negative about white people at all.  And it wasn’t about saying that all white people are racists.  Rather it was about what we do about a world which for too long has assumed – sometimes explicitly and sometimes without thinking about it – that white people are better than black and brown people and has organised itself in such a way that reflects that.  This heresy – for all humanity bears the divine image of God and to suggest otherwise is an offensive lie – has led to racial injustice which carries on throughout generations and still affects our sisters and brothers today.  The conference was about recognising that this problem of racism and injustice isn’t a problem that we should expect our black and brown friends and neighbours to solve.  It is actually a problem which to a large extent has been created and continued (whether we mean to or not) by white people. White people have a part to play in dismantling whiteness as a form of oppression and working with our black and brown friends to reimagine our whiteness in such a way that all of us – black, white, brown or whatever – can all live in healthy, loving, equal relationship.

Sounds quite positive, doesn’t it?  Perhaps like something God might want us to do.  However, our conference attracted some attention on social media and many of the participants, in one case myself, were recipients of a concerted campaign of unpleasant messages from people who accused us of being racist against white people, being woke, bleeding heart liberals, deluded and part of a cult and so much more.  Now I have never been much of a believer in the saying “sticks and stone break my bones, but names will never hurt me”.  Words can really hurt and intimidate, and I found the experience of being a group under attack in this way rather scary. 

In our reading from Acts today, we find Peter and John held prisoner by the authorities for firstly healing a man and then for sharing the good news of Jesus.  In his commentary on this part of the book of Acts, the African American theologian, Willie James James Jennings writes this:

Speaking holy words has serious consequences.  These are not words that simply speak of God.  There is nothing inherently serious, holy or dangerous in God-talk.  The holy words that bring consequences are words tied to the concrete liberating actions of God for broken people.  Such holy words bring the speakers into direct confrontation with those in power.

In the case of my colleagues and I at the conference, the concrete liberating action was saying that racism is unacceptable and white people have to look at themselves as part of dismantling racism.  Those words brought us into conflict with people for whom whiteness is a form of power and superiority.  However, for Peter and John, their words had even greater peril – they were arrested and held prisoner by those with religious and spiritual power.  Peter and Johns’ message of new life and freedom in Jesus threatened the religious and political status quo and those who benefitted from things as they were did not like that at all.

However, Jennings continues:

Jesus not only spoke such words, but he was such a word.  He was predestined to challenge those in power and confront the powers, spiritual and human.  The disciples knew this confrontation – the confrontation we see in this reading – was coming.  The struggle against those in power that marked the life and death of Jesus was coming for them as well.  The great illusion of followers of Jesus, especially those who imagine themselves leaders, is that they could live a path different from Jesus and his disciples.  They believe somehow that they can be loved, or at least liked or at least tolerated or even ignored by those with real power in the world.

And that is the reality – we are not here to be liked.  As a good-news-proclaiming community, as Jo encouraged us to be last week, we will find ourselves speaking out against all sort of status quos that are unhealthy and unjust.  If the gospel, which literally means good news, is to BE good news for those who need it, we will find ourselves challenging poverty, racism, unjust trade, the climate emergency, consumerism, cronyism and so much more.  And if we do it well, if we really begin to have an impact, we will upset people who benefit from keeping things just the way they are.  People will try and shout us down or discredit us, and it won’t be fun.  But we need to do it.

When I was, in my small way, getting some flak last weekend for my participation in the Dismantling Whiteness conference, one of the things that really helped was being part of a community.  Jennings, commenting on Peter’s courage to keep speaking, even in the face of opposition, says:

Peter speaks boldly, but this boldness is not the result of character refinement or moral formation – e.g. Peter isn’t brave because he has learned to be brave – Peter has not become the great man who stares down his enemies with epic courage, the kind that creates an odyssey or a heroic tale.  Indeed, there is no such thing as individual boldness for the followers of Jesus.  Of course, each disciple can and must be bold, but their boldness is always a together boldness, a joined boldness, a boldness born of intimacy.  The modern lie of individualism is most powerful when we imagine that boldness comes from within.  It does not.  It comes from without, from the Spirit of God.

The theme of my sermon today is the courageous community, but the community is just as important as the courageous.  It is being part of a community, of people who love the same God, and who share the same gospel values, that gives us courage to stand up to the unjust powers of our world. We are not expected to do it ourselves.  We don’t need to fight all the time – sometimes we are the ones who speak out, sometimes we let others take a turn and we encourage and pray for them.  And most importantly, we are a community formed and enabled and enlivened by God’s Spirit of Love, which encourages us – literally gives us courage – to say those holy words that the world needs to hear.

So, what does that mean for us here, for St Paul’s Stockingford?  Well, you have a long history of speaking out and then acting on your convictions.  You have supported Christian Aid for many years.  You have been a Fairtrade church.  You were one of the first churches to welcome ordained women. You have made choices with your re-ordering project to consider the climate and to be responsible in your choices.  You have hosted job clubs and credit unions and family summer lunch clubs to support people facing difficulties of different sorts.  The first thing I want to say is that these activities were never optional extras in the life of the church – they are a core part of living the gospel, of speaking holy words to the powers who keep our world unfair and unjust.  Keep doing this, and if you are newer to this church family, get involved! The second thing is that as we emerge from lockdown and as we try to grow our church, whatever that new future looks like, we need to ensure we keep that holy truth telling, that speaking which might land us in trouble, at the centre of who we are.  And we need to do it together.

And I would encourage us to ensure racism is one of the things about which we are prepared to speak truthful, holy words. A few days ago, on Stephen Lawrence Day, the Archbishop’s Anti-Racism Task Force produced a report on how we can work for racial justice in the Church of England.  For too long the Church of England has not been a welcoming and supportive place for black and brown Christians.  The report is breath-taking in its scope and ambition, and if implemented fully -which I hope it is – will go a long way to changing the culture in the structures of the Church of England.  But the real Church of England is here (indicating the heart) and unless in the hearts of the community which is the church, both here in Stockingford and across the nation, are willing to learn, change and love, things will not change enough.

My final point is that sometimes the holy words need to be spoken to ourselves.  I will confess that understanding how racism has impacted black and brown friends in the church has not been comfortable.  It is never easy to hear how the world has benefited me and been unfair to another on something as basic as the melanin in our skin.  But sometimes the greatest courage is not in changing the world, but in being willing to change ourselves.  And, that is where the Gospel comes in again – Christ died that we might be saved.  Our ignorance and complicity in the brokenness of the world do not define us and need never be the end of the story.  There is new life now, new chances to live the lives we should be living and build the communities and repair the hurts and rebalance injustices now.  All we need is a little courage.

So, by the grace of God, in faith in the redeeming work of Jesus, in the strength and equipping of the Holy Spirit, may we be a courageous community. Amen.

Prayers

Love incarnate,
Fountain of Mercy and Justice
In a world of inequity and pain
May our actions be our prayer. 
We cry out for Shalom, fullness of life to all.
Let the Spirit of Truth guide us.
Let the Spirit of Love free us. 
Give us the compassion, courage and resolve
to become the light, we seek
that many may see life and their dignity restored
Inspire us to embody a world without injustice and prejudice  
Form us into channels of your love and peace 
Let the river of justice and mercy flood our imperfect world  
Quenching the thirst of parched souls and lands.
Abide in us o Liberator that we become the Word 
so that the world may have Life, Life in all its abundance.
Amen 

Taken from the book Christian Aid book Rage & Hope: 75 Prayers for a Better World’,  Edited by Chine McDonald.

Good News

Phone, Mobile Phone, Smartphone
Image Pixabay

Collect

Risen Christ,

you filled your disciples with boldness and fresh hope:

strengthen us to proclaim your risen life

and fill us with your peace,

to the glory of God the Father.

Acts 3:12-19

12 Peter saw his opportunity and addressed the crowd. “People of Israel,” he said, “what is so surprising about this? And why stare at us as though we had made this man walk by our own power or godliness? 13 For it is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—the God of all our ancestors—who has brought glory to his servant Jesus by doing this. This is the same Jesus whom you handed over and rejected before Pilate, despite Pilate’s decision to release him. 14 You rejected this holy, righteous one and instead demanded the release of a murderer. 15 You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. And we are witnesses of this fact!

16 “Through faith in the name of Jesus, this man was healed—and you know how crippled he was before. Faith in Jesus’ name has healed him before your very eyes.

17 “Friends,[c] I realize that what you and your leaders did to Jesus was done in ignorance. 18 But God was fulfilling what all the prophets had foretold about the Messiah—that he must suffer these things. 19 Now repent of your sins and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped away. 

Homily

The title for today is: ‘A good news proclaiming community’ but what exactly is that? How can we be that? Community suggests all of us, but if we are honest that’s a bit scary. I am reminded of a question someone asked me some years ago…

“What is God?” My colleague asked me one day. She was here on placement for a year from Japan, we had been talking about her culture and she had been asking me about church and Easter. What would you say? How do we proclaim our faith when our frame of reference is so different to that of the person we are talking to? What does it mean to tell others the good news? The challenge we face today is not too different to Peter’s in our reading.

Our acts reading today is a little strange, because unfortunately the lectionary cuts off the first part of the story. Following on from the filling of the disciples and others with the holy spirit at Pentecost, Peter has just healed a man who had been crippled by praying in the name of Jesus. This had, not unsurprisingly, created a massive commotion and everyone had come to see what the fuss was about. And its here that our reading begins…

Peter seeing their astonishment and the man clinging to him explains. It is not he or the other disciples who are special. It is God who has healed the man, the God of their ancestors, the God whom they know. He goes on to explain how God had sent Jesus who had been killed and raised to life and it is faith in Jesus that has enabled this miracle to happen. He acknowledges that they did not mean to kill Jesus, that they did not understand who he was (something I think is really important to note especially when we read some of the gospels which can, if not read and understood properly, sound antisemitic).  And he encourages them to repent, literally turn around from their sins to seek God. There is a new start.

I think several things are helpful to note from the story. Peter was not intending to heal that day, neither was he intending to proclaim the gospel. Both happened because he was prayerfully listening to God and observing the world as he went about his daily life and listening and being obedient to what God was asking him to do. We don’t have to plan big speeches, be a practiced evangelist or public speaker, all of this happened spontaneously.

Remember, this is Peter who just shortly before all this, at the crucifixion, had denied he even knew Jesus. We don’t have to be brilliant all the time. We can make mistakes and God will still use us. But what Peter is prepared to do is give an explanation for what has happened. We don’t have to have all the answers, he doesn’t explain how the healing happened, he just encourages people to believe and understand who Jesus is and encourages them to change their lives and believe. He doesn’t insist on this, he leaves the rest to God. Its up to them how they respond.

How we listen to the Sprit and proclaim the good news is up to each of us. We won’t all be called to pray for supernatural healing and explain it. But we might be asked why we go to church, or what we believe about life after death, especially when the death of some one prominent such as the Duke of Edinburgh occurs, or who we think Jesus is. In those moments I think it’s important we are authentic. We are not responsible for telling them everything, all we need to do is explain our own story, to proclaim our little bit of gospel. How has faith affected our lives, what do we believe about God? Don’t worry if there is stuff you don’t know or things you can’t answer, be real, talk about the great things about faith and the hard things too. The good news is as much your story to tell as it is Peter’s, and its that encounter with real living faith that changes people’s lives.

Intercessions

In joy and hope let us pray to the Father.

That our risen Saviour may fill us [and …] with the joy of his

glorious and life-giving resurrection …

we pray to the Father.

Hear our prayer.

That isolated and persecuted churches

may find fresh strength in the good news of Easter …

we pray to the Father.

Hear our prayer.

That God may grant us humility

to be subject to one another in Christian love …

we pray to the Father.

Hear our prayer.

That he may provide for those who lack food, work or shelter …

we pray to the Father.

Hear our prayer.

That by his power war and famine may cease through all the world …

we pray to the Father.

Hear our prayer.

That he may reveal the light of his presence to the sick,

the weak and the dying,

to comfort and strengthen them …

we pray to the Father.

Hear our prayer.

That, according to his promises,

all who have died in the faith of the resurrection

may be raised on the last day …

we pray to the Father.

Hear our prayer.

That he may send the fire of the Holy Spirit upon his people,

so that we may bear faithful witness to his resurrection,

we pray to the Father.

Hear our prayer.

Heavenly Father,

you have delivered us from the power of darkness

and brought us into the kingdom of your Son:

grant that, as his death has recalled us to life,

so his continual presence in us may raise us to eternal joy;

through Christ our Lord.

Amen.

Second Sunday of Easter

Image by John Hain from Pixabay

Collect

Risen Christ,
for whom no door is locked, no entrance barred:
open the doors of our hearts,
that we may seek the good of others
and walk the joyful road of sacrifice and peace,
to the praise of God the Father. Amen.

Reading

32 All the believers were united in heart and mind. And they felt that what they owned was not their own, so they shared everything they had. 33 The apostles testified powerfully to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and God’s great blessing was upon them all. 34 There were no needy people among them, because those who owned land or houses would sell them 35 and bring the money to the apostles to give to those in need.

36 For instance, there was Joseph, the one the apostles nicknamed Barnabas (which means “Son of Encouragement”). He was from the tribe of Levi and came from the island of Cyprus. 37 He sold a field he owned and brought the money to the apostles.

Acts 4:32-35 (NLT)

Sermon

It always rather bemuses me why the church insists on reading the Book of Acts immediately after Easter.  Surely there is enough else going on between Thomas and his doubts, the friends travelling to Emmaus and Peter getting reinstated after his earlier epic fail?  Surely we don’t need this breathless, hotch-potch of early church adventures added to the mix? But no, the Church is adamant. The reading from Acts MUST be used, my lectionary book says in uncompromising italics.  And being a mainly well-behaved sort, I do.

But, of course, there is a good reason why the Church insists we read Acts during the Easter season.  It is our annual reminder of what Easter means in the life of ordinary people like you and me.  It shows us what a community of Easter people looks like.  It takes us back to what it means to be the church.  And this year, more than ever, as we carefully emerge from lockdown, perhaps it is good to remind ourselves what it means to be Church, what it means to be Christ’s body here in Stockingford today. So, over the coming weeks, Jo, Colin, Nigel and I are going to focus on these Acts readings and see what they meant to the people at the time, but also what they might be saying to us today as we try to be God’s people, sharing God’s love in our community.

Our Acts reading today is only a few lines long, but it is full!  We are told that the believers were of one heart and soul; that they shared everything they had; that those who had experienced the risen Christ told what they had seen with great power; that no one went without and that Joseph was amongst those who shared all he had earning himself the nickname Barnabas which means “Son of Encouragement”.  It is a challenging but inspiring vision of what true Christian community is like.

I want to draw out a few themes from this short punchy reading.  The first is that this early Christian community was united.  Now, first century Palestine was a very diverse place.  The Jewish community itself was divided into different traditions.  As in any community there would be the haves and the have nots.  There would be men and women, young and old.  The earlier chapters of Acts tell us that this early Christian community began at the feast of Pentecost when pilgrims from across the Mediterranean world flocked to Jerusalem, so there would be people of different races and tongues.  But they were one in Christ Jesus, one in heart and soul – at the very core of their being they were family.  No one was better than anyone else.  No one mattered more than anyone else.  All were sinners saved by grace, and rejoicing in the new life Jesus offered.

Our congregation today is no less diverse.  In our church, we have those with plenty and those who struggle.  We have different ages and races and church backgrounds.  Some of us have been coming to St Paul’s for generations.  Others are new.  We are divided on politics.  We include Monarchists and Republicans, Remainers and Leavers, and we support a wide range of football and rugby teams.  Some of us worship in the building, others worship online.  But we unite around this one truth – that God loves us and came to us in Jesus.

This is something that I am sure we will have no trouble remembering as we emerge from this pandemic year when we have missed one another so much.  But it is something to hold on to as hopefully we welcome more people to our church as part of our 200 by 200 journey.  No one is better than anyone else.  No one matters more.  We are each God’s gift to one another in all our wonderful differences and we are united in our trust in Jesus.

The second thing is that the new church community were generous and shared what they had.  Now, that early church community expected Jesus’ return almost immediately, so they had no need for fields or belongings.  Their experience of communal living might not entirely work in today’s church, but that same spirit of generosity and of care for one another is key.  We cannot be indifferent to one another’s needs and struggles.  And it is always worth pausing from time to time and reflecting on whether we are using what God has given us for good – be that a skill or a talent, be that free time, a nice home or a welcoming garden, be that a healthy income…  All things come from you and of your own do we give you is a well known offertory prayer.  So let’s stay grateful and generous with whatever God has given us, and do our best to meet one another’s needs when we can.

Lastly, the early church community was one of encouragement.  The apostles encouraged the other believers by sharing the truth of our faith.  And Joseph encouraged the apostles so much that they nicknamed him the Son of Encouragement!  Oh what a joy to be part of an encouraging church.  That has certainly been my experience of being vicar here at St Paul’s and I do hope I have to some extent returned the favour and encouraged you in your faith.  Because encouragement is so wonderful in church communities.  Every time you thank one of the tech team, or celebrate the skills of the sewing circle, or mention to the person leading prayers how much their words meant to you, or enjoy the beautiful flowers in church or notice some act of care or service in our church life, you are encouraging that person that they – and what they can do – matters and is a valued part of our shared life.  There is so much going on in our church life that no one can notice it all, so encouragement has to be a whole church activity.  It has to be a culture.  I think we have that culture here, but never lose it because it is an incredible gift.

So the early church community was a community that was united, generous and encouraging, and I hope at our best we are that too.  Of course we will mess up and miss the mark sometimes – nowhere is perfect – but I love serving a church that mainly has those values at its heart.  Not just because it makes for a wonderful experience as your vicar, but because they are essential for the sharing of the Gospel.  We could have the best preacher in the Diocese, the snazziest technology, the slickest outreach programme, but as St Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians, all those things are clanging gongs without love.  Unless people meet the love of God in the way we treat them and one another, nothing else will work.  In a world saturated in fake news and hard sells, people want something authentic and real.  We need to talk about God’s love and hope and then have to bloomin’ live it!

After this snappy little reading, there is one of the most troubling tales in the New Testament – the story of Ananias and Sapphira, a couple who, like Barnabas, sell their field, but keep some of the proceeds back and lie about it.  The outcome is that both drop dead.  It is a terrifying tale.  But it illustrates how deadly inauthenticity is to the community of faith.  I don’t think that their decision to retain some of the money was as much of a problem as their inability to be real and honest with their fellow believers.  Deceit and dishonesty utterly undermined this little community’s core values.

Because the authentic early church community – united, generous and encouraging as it was – was a powerful thing.  As chapter 5 v14 of Acts says “Yet more than ever believers were added to the Lord, great numbers of both men and women…”

So, as we travel through the book of Acts, learning more of what it means to be a community of resurrection faith, let’s be authentic, united across our glorious differences, generous with whatever God has given us and encouraging to one another.  May people encounter God’s love among us and may that draw them to the risen Jesus.

Prayers

Eternal God, our heavenly Father, we bless your holy name for all that you have
given us in and through the life of Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.

We give you thanks:
for his long and full life;
for his strength of character;
and for his devotion and service to family, nation and Commonwealth.

We praise you for:
his generosity;
the many contributions he made to our national life;
and the encouragement he gave to so many, especially to the young.

All God of mercy,
entrusting into your hands all that you have made
and rejoicing in our communion with all your
faithful people,
we make our prayers through Jesus Christ our Saviour.
Amen.

Closing Worship

Easter Sunday

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed! ALLELUIA!

Collect

Lord of all life and power,
who through the mighty resurrection of your Son
overcame the old order of sin and death
to make all things new in him:
grant that we, being dead to sin
and alive to you in Jesus Christ,
may reign with him in glory;
to whom with you and the Holy Spirit
be praise and honour, glory and might,
now and in all eternity.

Reading

Early on Sunday morning, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and found that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance. She ran and found Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved. She said, “They have taken the Lord’s body out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”

Peter and the other disciple started out for the tomb. They were both running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He stooped and looked in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he didn’t go in. Then Simon Peter arrived and went inside. He also noticed the linen wrappings lying there, while the cloth that had covered Jesus’ head was folded up and lying apart from the other wrappings. Then the disciple who had reached the tomb first also went in, and he saw and believed— for until then they still hadn’t understood the Scriptures that said Jesus must rise from the dead. 10 Then they went home.

11 Mary was standing outside the tomb crying, and as she wept, she stooped and looked in. 12 She saw two white-robed angels, one sitting at the head and the other at the foot of the place where the body of Jesus had been lying. 13 “Dear woman, why are you crying?” the angels asked her.

“Because they have taken away my Lord,” she replied, “and I don’t know where they have put him.”

14 She turned to leave and saw someone standing there. It was Jesus, but she didn’t recognize him. 15 “Dear woman, why are you crying?” Jesus asked her. “Who are you looking for?”

She thought he was the gardener. “Sir,” she said, “if you have taken him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will go and get him.”

16 “Mary!” Jesus said.

She turned to him and cried out, “Rabboni!” (which is Hebrew for “Teacher”).

17 “Don’t cling to me,” Jesus said, “for I haven’t yet ascended to the Father. But go find my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

18 Mary Magdalene found the disciples and told them, “I have seen the Lord!” Then she gave them his message.

John 20:1-18 (NLT)

Guest Sermon from the Rev’d Sherine Angus

This Easter, as we hear the readings and encounter again the familiar story we come afresh carrying all that has happened in the past year.  We come today after a year that has, in many ways felt like an extended period of Lent and wilderness.  I suspect we share some of the feelings that the women and disciples had.  Whilst they had heard from Jesus his many promises, the promises that his death wouldn’t be the end but the beginning, promises that he would be with them forever.  In the reality of his death, in the confrontation of the empty tomb I suspect they wondered just for a moment whether those promises were true, before reminding themselves that people don’t rise from the dead, that the darkness will continue.

And we remember that there have been times during this pandemic, and even now as restrictions are reducing that we wonder if it will be true, if we can believe the promises, if we won’t be plunged back into the darkness of another lockdown.

Yet, in the midst of all the confusion and grief, there is an encounter in a garden.  An encounter that marks a new beginning, new hope, new life.

And we remember that this year, that encounter in the garden seems so poignant after months of not being able to see people or chat to friends in person we too can now meet in a garden and enjoy that precious contact once again.

You might have expected Jesus to approach Mary and say look it’s me!  But instead he says, ‘woman why are you weeping?’ and after a year of so many tears, so much loss, so much grief we can understand those tears of exquisite pain, Mary had come to do the last act of care for Jesus, to prepare his body and found that she couldn’t do that, the body had gone. 

And again, we remember the thousands of people who died alone during this pandemic, without family and friends, without them being able to carry out that final act of care for their loved ones and the intensity of their pain.

The first thing that Jesus did was recognise the pain and grief that Mary was experiencing, he didn’t say, look everything is fine, pull yourself together, get over it, I’m here. He knew that time needs to be taken to allow us to deal with trauma, to process all that those he loved had gone through as they witnessed his death on the cross.

And we remember, the loss that we all carry, lost love ones, lost livelihoods, lost connection with family and friends, lost life events such as weddings and funerals, anniversaries and leaving schooling. And we know that we will need time to recognise that loss in order to move forwards, that we can’t just ‘get over it’ and move on as if nothing has happened.

Jesus then said to Mary, who are you looking for?  A question that resonates with meaning and significance, what is it that we look for, where is the meaning without God, what is it that she was searching for? her love, her teacher, her sense of purpose.

And we remember that so many have turned to prayer during this year as we’ve realised that exotic holidays, shopping trips, meals out, expensive cars are not what we are looking for, as we have searched for something to making meaning and give hope in this time of pandemic.  Realising that seeking God, finding solace in prayer is our only source of sustaining hope.

Finally Jesus says ‘Mary’, and in the confusion and muddle of grief that turned her world upside down, that consumed everything and seeped into every part of her life, through that one word, the calling of her name, she knew it to be true.  As Jesus called her name, Mary knew that the source of all love was calling her, that even through the darkness of despair she could hear the voice of Jesus breaking through the pain.  The realisation that all that had gone before, the pain, the loss, the death was healed by a God who knows us each by name. 

That by his resurrection everything that we know to be true has been transformed the normal order of things has passed away. Death now leads to new life, pain to transformation, suffering to hope.  And this is why we are all here today, and in fact why we have kept worshipping either online or in person throughout the pandemic and every week to come.  We are here because we believe that whatever darkness we encounter at the cross, beyond it the transforming power of Jesus brings new life when all seems lost, brings light into darkness and above all else he calls each of us by name.  We believe that the tomb is empty and that God dwells amongst us and within us, we believe that by his death on the cross we are redeemed, forgiven and transformed to new life.

Take a moment to close your eyes now, to hear the voice of Jesus, the voice of love calling you by name……

He is speaking into the depths of your heart, ready to transform and renew, to heal and restore as we carry on our journey as Easter people in the knowledge that whatever we encounter He is there with us..

Christ is Risen, He is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Prayers

In joy and hope let us pray to the Father.

That our risen Saviour may fill us with the joy of his
glorious and life-giving resurrection …
we pray to the Father.
Hear our prayer.

That isolated and persecuted churches
may find fresh strength in the good news of Easter …
we pray to the Father.
Hear our prayer.

That God may grant us humility
to be subject to one another in Christian love …
we pray to the Father.
Hear our prayer.

That he may provide for those who lack food, work or shelter …
we pray to the Father.
Hear our prayer.

That by his power war and famine may cease through all the world …
we pray to the Father.
Hear our prayer.

That he may reveal the light of his presence to the sick,
the weak and the dying,
to comfort and strengthen them …
we pray to the Father.
Hear our prayer.

That, according to his promises,
all who have died in the faith of the resurrection
may be raised on the last day …
we pray to the Father.
Hear our prayer.

That he may send the fire of the Holy Spirit upon his people,
so that we may bear faithful witness to his resurrection,
we pray to the Father.
Hear our prayer.

Heavenly Father,
you have delivered us from the power of darkness
and brought us into the kingdom of your Son:
grant that, as his death has recalled us to life,
so his continual presence in us may raise us to eternal joy;
through Christ our Lord.
Amen.

Closing Worship