We live in a world that likes facts, or is it that we live in a world that likes facts so long as they support what we already think? In the recent European Referendum people were heard complaining long and hard that they weren't being given the facts. Modern secular atheists often argue their case based on the fact that God cannot be factually proved. However, many scientists, some of them atheists are also highly critical of the misuse of science to answer what they regard as a non-scientific question.

'Doubting Thomas' often gets it in the neck for refusing to believe until he sees the hands, feet and wound of Jesus. But, is he so very different from many in our generation; all he wants is facts! He simply wants empirical evidence that Jesus has indeed risen, and he wants to see it for himself. He has heard the evidence of the other apostles, who lets remember have already seen Jesus, and he is simply not prepared to take their word for it. What he really wants is his own encounter and experience. What is so unreasonable about that? Nothing, for surely we want each and every person who enters our church, whether in private or through an act of worship, to encounter Christ, don't we? Wouldn't it be great if many, many people who entered into this building left having said Thomas' immortal words: 'My Lord and My God?'

If this is true the only real question remains how? How do we help others encounter Jesus, on their – not our - terms?

Let's go back to the text. One of the important points, and I think a point often missed, because of the focus on the encounter between Thomas and Jesus, is the importance of the other Apostles, who had already had their encounter with the risen Jesus. They very explicitly told Thomas so. We should never be ashamed of talking about our own Christian experience; even though we know that many folk will not be persuaded on the basis of personal experience alone.

They could have treated Thomas as a second class citizen, and outsider to their elite club. They could have dismissed his 'I will not believe' quips  and used them against him, counting him unworthy to be part of their community because of his unorthodox beliefs.

But they didn't.

They basically took the view that Thomas remained one of them, that this 'unbeliever' remained a friend, that he was welcome to sit and dine with them. They didn't gloat about their superior knowledge and, they didn't dismiss Thomas' doubts. No, they demonstrated two of the most important characteristics of Christian community: hospitality and humility.

And, by the way they had faith.

They had faith. They had faith that if Thomas hung around long enough he would encounter Jesus. Jesus is perfectly capable of revealing Himself.

 

So the story of 'Doubting Thomas' leaves us with three challenges:

To be prepared to talk about our own experience of God – as the Apostles did

To welcome the modern day Thomas' a spirit of true hospitality and humility – as the Apostles did

To trust that Jesus will reveal himself through community – again just as the Apostles did.

Amen.

 

Rev. Andrew Lightbown

Lets cast our minds back a few years to the summer of 2012 and the London Olympics. It was of course a great summer for British Athletes – I hope Rio this summer is just as good. Team GB did really, really well, in London.

But what I found really interesting and uplifting was that behind many of the gold medals were real tales of trial and tribulation; heartache even. For me Katherine Granger the rower was the epitome of someone who had given their very all and kept going until she received the greatest of Olympic prizes, the gold medal. In Olympic terms she 'fought the good fight and finished the race.'

Those organising the London Olympics spoke time and again about the importance of creating a lasting legacy. Legacy goes beyond individual glory, but is dependent on role models inspiring others to give it a real go. There can, in my mind, be little doubt that very large numbers of people have taken up cycling because they were inspired by the likes of Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome.

Jesus appointed a group of men and women to create a legacy. And because we are here just over 2000 years later in church today, I think it is fair to say they succeeded. The legacy they created is built on one simple article of faith summed up in the words of St Peter: 'You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.' It is this belief that will lead us to the ultimate glory, our destiny, that St. Paul refers to when we, in the words of St Paul,  'finish the race.'

But in the meantime, we need to build on the work of the apostles, we do after all affirm that 'we believe in one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church,' to ensure that the legacy continues. We need to 'fight the good fight.' We need to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, we need to strive to be a blessing for all, and to pursue all that leads to 'justice, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.' We like Peter have been given the 'keys to the kingdom,' and need to unlock something of the kingdom 'here on earth as in heaven.'

And, I think that after this weeks referendum we need to really think about what this means. There is no doubt that this nation is deeply and bitterly divided. There can be no doubt that feelings of anger, resentment and bitterness persist. People are worried, and they are also scornful. Many feel let down and disfranchised. Society is in many ways polarised and divided; and this is sad.

As the Church we need to emerge ourselves with reality as it presents itself, we can do no less. We need to work for justice and the common good, we need to take the concepts of charity and hospitality, which are divine concepts seriously, we need to redouble our efforts to do the 'dirty work of holiness,' just like Peter and Paul, just like our patron saint St. Laurence.  We need to be people of reconciliation and forgiveness, we need to be humble, we need to be as Christ, for that is what it really means to stand in the Apostolic Tradition.

And, we need to be inspired by the likes of Peter and Paul. We need to be inspired yes by their heroism leading to their martyrdom, but above all we need to be inspired and encouraged by their sheer human fallibility. God shows his strength when we allow ourselves to be weak and when we own our fallibility. Its when we regard ourselves as strong that we become a problem to God.

They didn't always get it right, they weren't perfect, far from it, we know that from Scripture.  But they had faith and they kept going to the end. So can we and we must if we want to stand in the apostolic tradition and play our role in growing the legacy, so that with St. Paul we too can say 'to him be the glory for ever and ever,' Amen.

 

Faith, community and humanity

Sometimes, as a preacher, I look at the lectionary readings and my first thought is err, what have these readings got in common? This happened this week. The reading from the epistle at first glance looks to have little, or nothing, in common with the Gospel.

But, maybe it does.

I also think the epistle and gospel readings also have real significance post the horrific and homophobic murders in Orlando, and the appalling murder of MP Jo Cox. Jo's husband Brendan said on Thursday 'hate doesn't have a creed, race or religion, it is poisonous.'

The epistle  is possibly one of the most quoted, most loved passages from St. Paul. It is Paul at his theologically most radical; it is Paul seeking to make sure that he hammers home the message that 'in Christ' there is no room for hatred based on any aspect of our humanity. It is Paul saying that as long as we are focused on Christ, through faith, there is room for plurality of ideas, so long as they conform to the standards demanded by grace and mercy. It is Paul saying that it is not legitimate to impose our thoughts, sub doctrines, ideology and preferences on others.

It is important to remember that Paul writes as a Jew, but for the Gentiles. Paul inhabited a world where the law, and the micro details wrapped up in the law, counted for everything. In Paul's world there was little room for diversity and inclusivity; hospitality even. Who you were and how you behaved counted for everything and, especially your salvation. If you were deemed through the law to be an outsider in this world your lot would continue into the next.

And yet, Paul stresses  that faith and not the law is the universal route to salvation. Paul it should be noted is not suggesting that faith means throwing away the law, and collapsing into the worst excesses of moral relativism, but he is saying that faith and its implications come first. It is our faith that unites us with Christ and allows us, the Body of Christ, to be a blessing in and for humanity; to be a blessing to and for the world is our religious vocation. Yours and mine.

Faith, for Paul, changes everything. Without faith all we are left with is technique, a long and impossible list of does but more importantly don'ts. Without faith we are, like the demonic, trapped. The Demonic, who the religious community deemed to be the ultimate outsider, shows us that no one, no one at all, stands outside of God's radical hospitality and grace. 

Faith changes our very conception of God; 'therefore now faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian.' Grace and mercy now become the watchwords. Through faith we receive God's grace and His mercy. That is the good news.

It is the good news that set the demonic free, for the demonic, in stark contrast to the religious elite, with their insistence on the law and human rankings, recognised that Jesus is the 'Son of the Most High God.' Belief in Jesus sets us free; all of us, without exception.

But free to what end? Free, again like the formerly demon possessed man, to proclaim the gospel, to 'declare how much God has done,' to be a blessing to all. Free to fulfil our true vocation.

Faith, and faith alone, is our entry ticket into the communion of saints, God's holy family. You, and I, are members of God's family simply because we are believers, because we have faith. Faith it seems goes hand in glove with inclusivity and acceptance. Faith and faith alone bring us back to the hospitality of God. And such radical hospitality is open to all, irrespective of human and temporal identity markers.

'There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And, if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise.'

The problem is that so often the world, and the religious world in particular, doesn't want to believe this, preferring tribal identities leading to schisms.  We sometimes prefer the minutiae of the law to  faith, the consequence of which is mercy, grace, inclusivity and the radical  hospitality of God, first made available through us in the here and now. That is our vocation as people of faith.

Legalistic thinking can be far easier to deal with, offering fixed points of artificial certainty whereas the consequences of faith grace, mercy, inclusion, hospitality are ever fluid, ever progressive, ever challenging and, ever disquieting. Faith cannot leave us securely in one place, instead it leads us on eroding all certainties save one.

All faith gives us is the one great certainty; Jesus. And, we know that Jesus disbarred no-one from his love, mercy and grace. The story of the demonic tells us so.

The concept of 'there is no….' is open to misuse. Some suggest that because 'all of you are one in Christ Jesus,' we need no longer own or claim or temporal identity markers. For me this is a cruel and depersonalising theology, one which refuses to accept that all of our differences are held together in one larger family, the family of faith, even the family of humanity. Paul never ceased to own his own Jewish background, neither did Jesus. No one should be forced to disown their basic core identity.

As people of faith we need to ask ourselves what it means to celebrate – not merely accommodate or tolerate -  diversity and, to exercise radical  hospitality. St. Paul was writing to a highly polarised community in Galatia. He was keen to stress that Jews, Greeks, male, female, slave and free were all to be afforded the hospitality of God. Paul was addressing the big issues of his day, for in his world Gentiles, females and slaves were all regarded as second, even third, class citizens.

Paul's basic point is simply this: before God there is no such thing as a second, or even third, class citizen. Each and every one of us is first class: 'in Christ there is no….'

So our contemporary challenge , and I think it is a global challenge, is to identify those groups who some, mistakenly and catastrophically, deem to be outside the hospitality of God, and then to challenge ourselves: 'are we still acting as disciplinarians, asking people to live under the force of man made and depersonalising laws?'

For our role, calling and vocation, as people of faith is to be agents of grace, mercy and the radical hospitality of God, extending his love and blessing to all, for that is what it means to live as a person of faith. That is what it means to be the Church.

 

Amen.