Easter 7: Acts 1, 15-17 &21 -end, Psalm 1 & John 17, 6-19
Have you ever asked yourself ‘what is the point?’ It's a question that the disciples must have asked time and time again. The Messiah has been crucified and then resurrected. He has spent time with them through the post resurrection encounters and now, just when they were beginning to understand things, he is gone again. They must have been confused and they must have repeatedly asked ‘what is the point.’ But as well as having an existential crisis they must also have felt afraid. It must by this time have started to occur to them that following Jesus is a risky and deeply unpredictable experience. And yet, at the very deepest level, they also know that the story must not end, that it needs to go on.
The church’s mandate is a timeless mandate: we exist primarily to spread the word and proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. Telling the good news of Jesus Christ, offering to people a different, more compelling, and life giving story through which to live their lives is not for the faint hearted. It takes courage and it takes commitment, for when we tell the Jesus story we challenge all manner of assumptions. In a very real sense we risk incurring the world’s cynicism and wrath. But, tell the story we must.
But here is the good news: we are not asked to tell the story by ourselves alone but as part of a community. This is why the apostles chose Matthias to replace Judas. This is why the church continues to raise up men and women for vocational ministry. Spreading the word is not however just the job of professional clergy. It is a shared responsibility; yours and mine.
Jesus, above all others, knew the risk of spreading his Father’s word. He paid the ultimate price for telling salvation’s story. Jesus also told his disciples that they were not capable of telling salvation’s story in their own strength. Jesus knew that they only real way that they could be strengthened to keep going, unafraid of the cynicism, criticism and yes, crucifixions, they would face was through prayer. The gospel reading we have just heard is, after all, John’s account of Jesus’ Gethsemane prayer.
In our reading from the Acts of the Apostles we hear that ‘Peter stood up amongst the believers’ and suggested that either Barsabbas or Matthias should be commissioned to replace Judas and ‘then they prayed.’ Finally, the believers seem to understand that prayer is the point. They seem to have understood that the church must always be ‘rooted in and routed from prayer.’ If this was true for the early church, it's true for us today. Above all else we - you and me - must be people of prayer. It is through prayer that we are empowered to tell the Jesus story. How people respond is up to them of course. Our responsibility is to pray so that we can, in the words of the hymn, ‘go forth and tell.’
Prayer is not simply the means by which we gain the necessary courage to tell salvation’s song, for it is also the means through which we grow in holiness. Through prayer we are changed, transformed, authenticated. Through prayer we become the sort of people who in the words of the psalm ‘yield fruit.’
The Archbishops of Canterbury and York have asked for a renewal in the prayer life of the church. They are right to do so, because prayer really does change all manner of things. Through prayer we become more confidently Christ-like. Through prayer we become more compassionate, and through prayer we become more courageous. Prayer is the point!
Can I ask you all this week, in the run up to Pentecost to join in with the ‘thy kingdom come’ initiative? This evening, at evensong, I will be preaching on this one stanza from the Lord’s Prayer. I will also be leading midday prayer on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday and of course we also have the midday Eucharist on Wednesday. Please do come along to these services as we pray for the breaking in of God’s kingdom ‘here on earth as in heaven.’ If you can’t come please do pray the Lord’s Prayer two or three times a day.
I strongly believe, alongside the Psalmist, the early believers, Jesus and the Archbishops that we must be rooted in and routed from prayer, and that it's through prayer that we begin to understand the point of it all and gain the confidence to spread the good news of Jesus Christ. This week let us recommit ourselves to being people of prayer,
Easter 5: Acts 8, 26-end & John 15, 1-8
I wonder what you might say if I asked you what were you were doing this afternoon? Going for a walk, watching sport on TV, gardening, visiting family or friends or maybe having a snooze perhaps? I doubt that many of you would say, ‘do you know what Andrew, I think I will do a bit of abiding.’
Yet the gospel reading is clear: Christians are supposed to spend some considerable time abiding. The trouble is that abiding is a funny old word. It is one of those words that in many ways is to difficult to define, so I would want to suggest three qualitative characteristics: Firstly, a sense of rest or even contemplation; resting in God and thinking about God. Secondly, a commitment to being bound up or caught up in, even luxuriating in, God’s story, hence the metaphor of the vine and thirdly, an openness to change; positive change. The consequence of all this abiding should be ‘that you bear much fruit and become my (Jesus’) disciples.’
I have already mentioned the word commitment, let me briefly return to it for abiding, it seems to me, must become an ongoing pattern of life. In other words it requires commitment. It requires a commitment to reading the bible, prayer, and sharing in the sacraments of the church. These are the nutrients by which we are fed as we live our lives, as it were, on the vine.
The fruit of our abiding is discipleship; lives lived demonstrably as people shaped and nurtured by the Jesus of the gospels; people who love God and love neighbour and, yes, people who behave in sometimes interesting ways.
A flavour of this is provided in the first couple of verses from the first reading: ‘Get up and go towards the south to the road that goes from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ The apostle Philip, as a result of his abiding in Jesus (remember the post resurrection meals) is, it seems, attuned to the voice of God and his calling on his life. What happens then is extraordinary. Philip meets an Ethiopian Eunuch, explains the scriptures to him, and baptises him. In doing so he breaks all religious protocol. The Ethiopian Eunuch has two problems: he is foreign, Ethiopian, and he is a eunuch. But Philip does far more than break the odd protocol or tradition, he actually contravenes the Law, for in Deuteronomy 23 verse 1 we read the bible’s funniest verse: ‘No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.’ For Christians entering the assembly of the Lord, joining the church, being grafted into the vine takes place through the sacrament of baptism. So Philip disregards, totally and utterly, the word of the law and simply admits the Eunuch into the assembly of the law. Philip’s actions stand as a testimony to those who read the bible overly literally, fundamentally even.
I am sure that the pre-abiding Philip would never have baptised an Ethiopian, let alone an Ethiopian Eunuch. So my point is this : that all this abiding, or the fruit of the abiding that Jesus promises, might lead you to take risks, to take meet new people, maybe even scandalous people and play your part in grafting them into the vine. Abiding will refresh you, but it will refresh you to take risks. Abiding will nurture you, but only through cutting away some of your preferences, biases and walls of defence. At least that has been my experience, just as it was Philip’s experience.
Learning the art of abiding, luxuriating in and waiting on God, through prayer, reading the bible and partaking in the sacraments of the church will change you for the better. It will make you the sort of bears ‘good fruit,’ but it might also take you to some weird and wacky places; our equivalent of the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. So my invitation or challenge to you is simple. Will you, as we seek to build God’s kingdom here in this place, in the words of the hymn, Abide with me?’
Easter 4: Good Shepherd Sunday: John 10, 11-18
Some years ago, when I was training for ordination at Cuddesdon, one of our tutors Joanna Collicutt (who, by the way, is preaching at May’s evensong) led a discussion on the notion of Jesus describing himself as the Good Shepherd, and whether it was a metaphor that was still fit for purpose. As befits a group of folk who are just about to be ordained it was an intense and serious discussion. Several members of the group felt that as a modern day metaphor the notion of the Good Shepherd as extremely limited. They argued that the good midwife and such like might be more suitable. Now, to be fair, some of them were going into urban ministry and Call the Midwife had just become a hit series. However, there was also a feeling that the Good Shepherd evoked images of a bygone age characterised by real ale, morris dancing, romantic poetry and never-ending spring sunshine. As a somewhat intense student with some understanding, albeit a second hand understanding, of shepherding I argued with some passion that the Good Shepherd remains a fitting metaphor and that my highly earnest colleagues simply failed to understand the reality of shepherding. In a spirit of true humility, I would still maintain that I was right!
My second hand understanding derived from the fact that my father-in-law was a shepherd: a good one, an award winning one. During our courtship and the early years of our marriage I was privileged to observe the art of shepherding and, it was a real eye opener. A good shepherd is of course concerned for the good of the whole flock. In fact each and every year through the lambing process they renew and refresh the flock. As a priest, a pastor, one of my concerns must be to constantly refresh and renew the church. The goal of any good shepherd must be to have a healthy and good flock. It is the quality of the flock that says most about the shepherd; it is the overall quality of the local church that says most about the church. Are we a healthy and vibrant flock? I hope so.
Being concerned about the overall quality of the flock doesn’t mean not caring about each and every person on an individual basis. The flock, congregation, church, community is made up of individuals. One of the things that absolutely amazed me about my father-in-law was that he was able to recognize each and every sheep. He knew all about their life story, their birth, any problems they might have with their feet, tails and so forth. I found this amazing for surely all sheep look the same. But, for a good shepherd, and indeed for the Good Shepherd all members of the flock are to be regarded as individuals in community. As Jesus says ‘I know my own sheep.’ But, Jesus in fact goes further, not only does he know his own sheep but he ‘cares for his sheep,’ and is prepared to ‘lay down his life for his sheep.’ Good shepherds care. They care deeply. I saw this in the lambing sheds: the effort to fight to save the life of just one lamb that my father-in-law and the rest of the family – for good shepherding is always a shared activity - would go to was extraordinary. They would deliver lambs by hand, mouth-to-mouth resuscitate them, incubate them in the Aga, bottle feed them and, then graft them back into the flock. Shouldn’t we be a bit like this in our pastoral work, or shepherding? You see we too are called on to be good shepherds. Jesus when he affirms Peter stresses that he must ‘feed my sheep.’ We, as members of the one Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, must become good shepherds. Our Christian vocation – yours as well as mine – is to seek out for care, resuscitate, incubate and graft back into community the weak, lost and in need. In doing so we need to take risks, lay down our own interests, priorities and prejudice. We need to be courageous. Jean Varnier puts it like this:
‘It (good shepherding) can mean giving oneself to another in total trust and love. It can also mean risking my life by throwing myself into the raging waters to save someone who is drowning.’
Jean Varnier, in his reflection on toady’s gospel passage insists that we reflect on the qualitative difference between good shepherds and bad, or false, shepherds. He accuses, rightly I think, false shepherds as being ‘more concerned about their salary, their reputation, about structures, administration and success of the group than about people and their inner growth and freedom. They use people because of their need to have power and control over them, and to prove they are superior. They seem frightened of personal contact and hide behind rules and regulations. They prevent others from growing to freedom and from taking initiatives. They are hard on weaker people and lack compassion. They do not seek to understand people but tend to judge and condemn others. In the face of conflict they leave people lost and alone, not knowing what to do. They are closed up in their own needs.’
All of us face a choice: whether to follow the Good Shepherd which implies letting Jesus take hold of us and truly convert us, or whether to be false shepherds. Just being a member of the church doesn’t settle the issue for it is a qualitative issue. We don’t become good shepherds simply through coming to church. You don’t need me to tell you that self-interest, which is the definition of false shepherding, can be prevalent in the life of the church. My hope and prayer is that as individuals and as a community we will seek to act as good shepherds. If we do we will move a long way towards meeting one of our three aspirations: holiness.
Will you join with me in seeking to build a church community that seeks to model itself on the life of The Good Shepherd Jesus? If we do so we will grow together in both holiness and probably number, and surely this should be the hope of each and every Christian flock? Amen.
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