Lectionary Sermon for June 25, 2017, on Matthew 10:24-39

There are some passages in the Gospels that are just plain awkward. The first impression of today’s passage from Chapter 10 in the gospel of Matthew is that at the very least this passage hardly fits the traditional artist’s image of Gentle Jesus meek and mild. The puzzle is that the words: “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” seem so very different from Jesus’s words in the Sermon on the Mount.

After Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness and turning the other cheek, surely this not here recorded as an incitement to spread the gospel by violence in some first century equivalent of Jihad.

On the other hand if the passage is more about some real life consequences of standing up for the Gospel message, remembering that this Gospel first appeared some years after Jesus had faced crucifixion, this particular teaching passage would have had real meaning for the early converts. They would have already begun to experience the rejection. What is more, for us too, it is also a timely reminder of how modern prophets and how those who speak up as a public conscience are still likely to be received.

We should feel great sympathy for those early Christians. Converts would have to face their families with the unwelcome news that they were now in effect turning their backs on the confinement of traditional faith, challenging the teaching of powerful religious authorities, and perhaps, even inadvertently making some in the community feel guilty. In so doing the early converts were not exactly setting themselves up for a good reception.

In those first years of the Christian Church, contemporary histories tell of new converts being ostracised, many cast out from family and community, leaders of the new faith being maligned, reputations destroyed and some converts beaten or even killed.

What was it Jesus said? “Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

Relatives will turn against relatives, and friends against friends. Notice this is not so much a declaration of Jesus’ mission, but rather a statement about what will happen for those who join him (and what did happen) –in other words, the backlash.

In the decades following Jesus’ death, as the Christian faith spread, families and communities became divided – sometimes violently. We have local histories, both from Biblical and non-Biblical sources, as to what happened when one member of a family, or one family of a community, became followers of Christ. Because they were taking a radically different approach to life, and an approach informed by their faith, Christians were ostracized, abandoned, rejected and even killed by their families and communities.

All too often, those outraged were family members and former friends – people who had made the decision that the norms of the culture were so important to protect that even close family members would be rejected if they dare questioned traditional views with what the Christians thought was essential gospel teaching.

Given that it is not a phenomenon confined to ancient history, from time to time there is a need for some self reflection. How do we ourselves react when someone close to us advocates tolerance or forgiveness for someone our cultural traditions would normally reject? Could it be that we ourselves join in the rejection of our modern day prophets.

Given that in other places and at other times Jesus taught the principles of forgiveness and peace-making we may well be initially surprised to find him saying “Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” In this instance we might also note that the word being translated as “peace”, here means creating “ order or harmony or acceptance in worldly ways”.

On occasion this particular text about bringing a sword instead of peace has been lifted out of context and used as an excuse for taking up arms against those who rejected Christ.

Although much is made of the early Christians who were martyrs to the faith, it is sometimes (and perhaps conveniently?) forgotten that when Christianity was later adopted as the preferred faith of the Roman Empire with the Emperor’s support, some Church officials interpreted this as compulsory conversion and those reluctant to convert themselves became martyrs. From time to time over the centuries leaders of a variety of State Churches mined such texts to excuse wholesale genocide and also proscribe torture or execution for those daring to set up variations of mainstream faith.

Even today many can find plenty of excuse for rejection of immigrants on the basis of faith differences or in worst case scenarios, taking arms against those who are traditional opponents of Christianity. In practice many modern military incursions, no matter how they are presented, turn out to be hopelessly compromised since target states usually coincidentally have strategic or frankly commercial attractions.

Selling such invasions to a nation’s public sometimes focuses on bad behaviour of self appointed guardians of rival faiths. For example instances of suicide bombers and those who choose to use Sharia law selectively eg honour killings, make it extraordinarily easy for us to demonize our Muslim opponents, yet all too often in practice those who have oil or gas or other natural resources turn out to be disproportionately targeted.

The association between previous foreign incursions and the subsequent suicide bombing is rarely remembered and the notion that somehow the practice of our religion is better than that of our rivals overlooks inconvenient texts which we prefer to overlook such as those when Jesus specifically asked us to treat enemies as neighbours and when he directed his followers not to store up treasures on Earth. This doesn’t somehow match the unequal oil and mineral grab visited on defeated opponents.

I would like to suggest that being true to the teachings of Christ does not include lifting texts out of context. With a little thought we can begin to see why the same Christ who said blessed are the peacemakers is the same Christ who says “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword”. Telling the unvarnished truth is not a recipe for a quiet life. Imagine for a moment the reaction if we were holding our politicians to account and insisting that those attacks on ISIS in Iraq and Syria only be carried out on our behalf, if those doing the bombing took full responsibility for the civilian casualties and were prepared to take full care of the refugees and fund the rebuild of the destroyed cities and towns.

If we think for a moment about divisive issues of recent times, we can see why the message of Jesus will not always bring peace. The role of peacemaker may be good for society as a whole but when the message is taken to those engaged in activities which encourage violence they are unlikely to react well to anyone attempting to change their behaviour. Think for a moment about the policemen who steps into a domestic violence situation to protect a victim. All too often in practice it is common for both the aggressor AND the victim to turn on the policeman.

Peacekeeping forces in a mediating role in a civil war situation are often themselves subject to aggression, and I would have to say from my own observation that the same applies even as far as those attempting peace-making in local Church and family situations.

In this sense even if the warning words from today’s Gospel passage (always assuming they have been accurately reported) namely that Jesus does not come to bring peace but a sword, may have been intended as metaphor, but since we know Jesus’ teaching enraged the self appointed guardians of culture and religion in his own time, those of us less confident that we are following through his directives, have no right to expect more peace that Jesus was offered when we show what his message might mean when interpreted for our own communities.

In this country we saw evidence that this antagonism is close to the surface and when a relatively small number of pacifists tried to challenge this nation’s involvement in both the First and Second World Wars they faced severe backlash at the hands of an angry administration.

In no way does this mean that we should shut our eyes to some future Hitler – but nor should we behave with self interest if there is a moral issue at stake. For example the Holocaust with its wholesale murder of the Jews by the Nazis was indeed an outrage and the six million victims justified a military response. However when our side who were supporters of the war against Hitler are reminded that Stalin, our ally in that war, subsequently killed an estimated 30 million in his acts of genocide, we grow strangely silent.

The start of Matthew chapter 10 begins with Jesus issuing the disciples their challenge to: “proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.” But remember, Jesus also warns them what might happen to them on the way, and in case they are under any misapprehension he tells them to flee to another town when they are persecuted. Jesus reminds the disciples that because the current dominant culture is opposing Him, they should expect no less. In other words they are not above the same treatment that their teacher encounters.

And, lastly, Jesus tells the disciples what they will encounter in families and communities as they deliver the good news. The reaction to the good news of the gospel may not be good news for the messengers. One last time:……..
“Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

I think Jesus’ words might equally apply to us. The modern world offers some values that are not Jesus’ values, and we need to face our own current standards with his alternatives. It is realistic to admit that standing up for Jesus’ values may turn out to be uncomfortable and is unlikely to be trouble free. On the other hand what Jesus offered is a potential way of transforming relationships and bringing love to a loveless world. Now that is a goal worth pursuing.

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Sermon for 11 June 2017, Trinity Sunday, Year A on Matthew 28: 16-20

Occasionally trying to sort out the meaning of words and ideas somehow misses the point. Let me give you an example. Like a number of you in this room I am a grandparent. The dictionary tells me that your grandparent means whoever is a parent of your father or mother. Clear enough? Well in my experience the dictionary misses the important meaning. When my two year old grandchild Bianca comes to visit and holds up her arms to be picked up, then brushes our golden retriever with my toothbrush, eats the dog-food and tips her cup of water into the dog’s bowl before she drinks it, I know I have a grandchild. When she picks up a book then climbs onto Shirley’s knee to be read to, Shirley is reminded that she has a real grandchild. The dictionary doesn’t quite tell us what being a grandparent means.

This coming Sunday is called Trinity Sunday so I would like to start with a question. What is it about the subject of the Trinity that might make any practical difference to our real relationships or to the lives any of us here in this present worship space?

When lay people hear serious theologians discussing the Trinity with its long history of disputes, esoteric vocabulary, and at worst, its apparent disconnect with the everyday world, perhaps we should have some sympathy for those who prefer to leave the theologians to their discussion, perhaps choosing instead a game of cards or even a snooze in front of the Tele.

Some theologians might have nothing better to do than reflect on the astonishing assertion that the three persons of the Trinity are consubstantial – I hope you all know what that means because I can’t be certain that I do. Or perhaps for a good part of this last week you have been wondering why it took something like 300 years before the disputes about the emerging idea of the Trinity began to settle at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD and the Council of Constantinople in 381. Did you know Augustine made at least twenty separate attempts to make the idea plain and are you surprised that some are tempted to ask why it was worth it?

However if you turn it around for those of us anxious to make sense of a sometimes dimly understood faith, and it meaning in sometimes confusing world,surely it all depends on whether or not the Trinity opens us to some new ways of thinking and encourages us to consider whether or not the idea opens us to new relationships.

You may already be aware that the word Trinity does not appear anywhere in the Bible but it is fair to say that some of the concepts and ideas on which it is based are at least being partially shaped, particularly in the writing of Matthew and Paul and by the time the early Church got around to its formulation a good number of the early Christians found it expressing what they wanted to say.

The small scale tribal God who could be carried on their travels in a box became progressively more inadequate as the Israelites started to think about the wonders of creation. And let’s face it, this is an idea that is still developing. Should we be surprised?   Almost every time God is encountered in the Bible (He?) is presented with an air of mystery leaving far more unknown than known.

Even today, modern Physicists who admit frankly they understand little of the workings of creation, would almost certainly caution anyone from making definitive statements about the nature of creation let alone any form of creator behind the process.

Nevertheless by reminding ourselves of the metaphor that God is in creation, we might thereby be reminded we have a responsibility to think what we are doing to this creation. In the world media this last week there have been photos of huge piles of plastic being washed up on Pacific beaches. If we honestly believe that we are entrusted with the care of God’s creation here on earth, surely this affects our attitudes to waste plastic. If we care about pollution and fossil fuel burning doesn’t that also mean we should care about what our politicians do when they set up laws for this nation and support them when they want to sign up to climate control agreements.

But our developing ideas about religion also remind us, as the theologian Elizabeth Johnson explains, the Trinity emerged because the early Christians were trying to explain that they experienced God in three different ways, ie God in a threefold way.

In Elizabeth Johnson’s words:“They still believed in one God, but they experienced this one God in at least three particular ways: beyond them, with them, and within them”. The Father part was the notion that not only was there mystery in creation, they felt that there were glimpses of a caring force which they and their religious leaders likened to and personified as a loving parent.

When they talked of Jesus being the Son of God they were trying to say Jesus had grounded this notion in his own person and they felt that his being with them (demonstrating what we might these days call “his empathy”) gave a human dimension to the mysterious God which they wanted to call the Father. Once Jesus had left the scene, his followers had a strong sensation that somehow he was still with them – and was now in effect within. This they felt was a manifestation of the Holy Spirit.
The essence of what became the Trinity was then: beyond them, beside them and within them.

As a more modern generation we might argue we are now in a position to question aspects of the early Church view. Each part of the metaphor description of the Trinity is potentially moderated by knowledge gained elsewhere. Creation not only unfolds as our telescopes push back the frontiers into the depths of space, or look down though our electron scanning microscopes, but every aspect of this changing creation, great and small, is gradually unfolding year by year.

The biggest change for the Trinity is that this knowledge overwhelms our Father image with an impression of something much more unified and far less restricted to the human concerns of a single species on a relatively tiny speck floating in an unimaginably vast expanding universe populated by Galaxies of innumerable changing stars, planets and just when we think we know where it is going, a Universe now suspected to be only one of many universes.

God the Son similarly changes as more facts come to light. It is not so much that Jesus himself well be be radically different to his portrayal in the Gospels, but since we now know far more about other religious settings and far more about the history of his time than was revealed in the New Testament writing, we have to be more cautious about what we claim to know with certainty.

A key question here is to ask how much of his reported wisdom is applicable today for our changed circumstances? – and how much relevance we can expect Him to have for those born into vastly different cultures and religions?

And lastly we need to acknowledge that those mysterious feelings we have about a guiding Spirit are a little harder to interpret when we now know that many of our feelings are partially shaped by the biochemistry of the brain. To take one small example, many behaviours that in Jesus day were classified as sins, are now known to be influenced by neurotransmitters in the brain, by heredity and by environment.

Please notice that the sense of mystery and transcendence if anything is increased by modern knowledge, and it still makes perfect sense to remind ourselves that “God” is still beyond us. If we know that we ourselves find it hard to grasp what we are trying to describe as creation, we should be reluctant to pretend that we know enough to dismiss others’ attempts to put it into words. We should also check out our own religious language to make sure we are not dumbing down our image of this God of transcendence until “He” becomes what the poet William Blake once called a “Nobodaddy” as a sort of a ventriloquist dummy, somewhere “up there”in the ether, fabricated by our imaginations for the express purpose of doing what we ask for our exclusive satisfaction.

When it comes to the metaphor of God the Son highlighting the importance Jesus for us, beside us, remembering him in particular as the wisdom teacher for the practical everyday situations, we can’t have it both ways. If the flesh and blood Jesus was prepared to reinterpret the law for situations of need in front of him, we cannot pretend that this same Jesus would have us stay unable to face the unfolding situations and issues in front of us because we are frozen in our religious past. Nor are we entitled to ignore those who have chosen different faiths, particularly if one important enough to us to be described as part of the Trinity dealt with those of different faiths as neighbours to be loved.

I stress it is not just a matter of announcing to others that Jesus is the Son of God as part of the Trinity, it is more a matter of showing by our actions that this same Jesus is still beside us because we are attempting to follow the essence of his wisdom and reinterpret it for our generation. If being a grandparent is only discovered in the reality of relationships, surely claiming to follow Jesus must also be lived in our relationships.

In the last analysis, it is when we stop reading and cast within for the Spirit leading us on, that our faith might start to be transformed from something to be talked about to something that lives. Yes, new knowledge will continue to bring new insights and the last word is far from being spoken. Remember the notion of the Trinity continued to change long after the writers of the New Testament had struggled to express what they felt, simply because the situation facing the early Christians continued to change. Those changes are now accelerating. As life brings new challenges we will need to continue to adjust our thinking and no doubt the most meaningful creeds are still to be written.

Maybe the biggest adjustment in the time to come is when we realize that our greatest challenge is not to shape the right faith formula, Trinity or otherwise, but rather to seek the Trinity inspired formula that will shape us particularly in a way that we might be freed to offer something for our present community and future world.

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Lectionary Sermon for June 4, 2017, Pentecost Year A on Acts 2: 1 – 21

Born with Fire and Mystery
Just when we have almost come to terms with the strange accounts of Easter and its aftermath, and before we can reflect on much of the history of the early Church, we must first come face to face with something which some might think even more unexpected or bizarre than a resurrected Christ. While the gospels include some stories of unusual and wonderful happenings associated with Jesus, Pentecost introduces a new and some would claim a disturbing dimension.

This time the principal actors are the disciples themselves. If you had been present, just imagine being suddenly transformed in appearance with flames around your shoulders. And if the author of Acts, Luke is correct and reporting this event as it happened, wouldn’t you too be bewildered if yet another supernatural gift is visited on you and the really weird bit …you could suddenly speak in another language.

Other than the supernatural bits, the people present sound suspiciously like real live people today. Because things were getting a bit tricky for those who called themselves followers of Christ, they shut themselves away in a large room. Ring any bells? Then there were those who said, “These people are drunk”. Can you imagine a religious gathering which included judgemental types? So can I. Have you ever encountered anyone like that in the Church today? Then there were those who said “They can’t be drunk – for it is only 9 o’clock in the morning”. See, they had Methodists even then.

Leaving aside the magic bits for the moment and turning to the history that followed we can at least infer that whatever happened in that room, doubters were changed to functioning disciples and numerically at least, there is a sudden boost in number of loyal followers. What is more, apparently as another consequence of the Pentecost experience, at least some of these followers were now prepared to step out on their own to face potentially hostile crowds and to witness to what they have seen as if what had happened was utterly transformative.

To the modern educated mind, Pentecost is always going to be a hard sell. Tongues of fire, babbling in strange tongues with snatches of recognisable foreign language and talk of a mysterious Spirit…. Yet whichever way you look at it Pentecost certainly matters to the Church. A little more than half the Sundays of the Church calendar are reckoned by numbering the following Sundays as the Sundays after Pentecost. So if Pentecost is really the birthday of the Christian Church, what makes the difference? To find out why, we need to go back a little.

First the word itself: Pentecost is derived from the Greek for “fifty days” and is, for the Church, fifty days after Easter. But the initial opportunity for the Pentecost gathering was not strictly exclusively to do with Christ. The disciples and supporters of Jesus would have been able to assemble conveniently because Jews were gathering in Jerusalem at the time to celebrate another important Seder or feast, this one the Jewish festival of the Shavuot Seder, when the Jews too had a fifty day period to remember. This was, we remind ourselves, fifty days after the Passover, that occasion when Jews recalled the event of escaping from enslavement in Egypt, crossing the Red Sea by mysterious miracle first to the Sinai desert and then setting out to the Promised Land.

Shavuot and Pentecost share something else. Like Pentecost turned out to be for the Christians, Shavuot was a reminder of something that transformed their history but was not easily explained and despite our modern desire to have our explanations reconciled with logic and what we know of the natural world, open questions remain. For example if one or both accounts were written with intentional symbolism to leave impressions helpful for the basis of faith, perhaps the apparent challenge to the laws of nature might seem less important.

As always, we also need to remember that what would have been acceptable to contemporaries in the society of that day is rather different to that now expected. Regardless of our own personal views, even the most liberal commentator has to admit the parting of the Red Sea, like the foreign babbling and the tongues of fire at Pentecost, is still accepted by a good number as factual reporting. Equally we would be dishonest to claim that all commentators are agreed that this was the case. Since we can hardly expect similar miracles in our present circumstances we should as a minimum allow that the rationalists may have a point.

It doesn’t take too much experience with stories that change with repetition to understand traditional history is never entirely straightforward as people in real life shape stories for a host of reasons. This is not to say we ought to ignore anything that doesn’t fit our personal experience. Despite being a scientist and as far as my faith is concerned, one who likes to question everything, I would also have to stress that there is a place for mystery. Certainty closes off growth of thought but wonder leaves open the possibility that there is more than we currently understand. This in turn should encourage us to be more humble and even more ready to allow ourselves to listen to one another.

It also occurs to me that the mystery of the Holy Spirit described as flame is a wonderfully appropriate analogy. Flames are mysterious as they flicker and spread, at times almost appearing to flow, as they provide warmth and light with a wide range of colour and intensity. Even if we know that a flame is technically only gas heated to incandescence, before the flame appears it requires fuel and air and sufficient energy for the reaction to start. There must be something there to burn and that fuel must be subject to the source of energy and not denied oxygen. To take that analogy one step further, once we have a flame burning, in turn it can get other flames to start. Even if we, as intending followers of Jesus have the potential stored within us to be followers, we may still need activating, and we still need the oxygen of informed faith.

At this point we may need a reality check. Note that the question we need to have answered is not so much about what actually happened. In any event, that question can never be answered with absolute certainty since we can hardly replay the scene. The rather more awkward and even embarrassing question is whether we can see evidence that the same Holy Spirit is continuing to act – not just in the lives of this generation’s saints, but in our own lives.

When we look analytically at our society, we can indeed find committed individuals who are able to make room in their lives for helping those in need, for exposing injustice and for inspiring others to a more positive outlook. It seems reasonable to describe these rare individuals as reflecting the influence of some indefinable Spirit. Yet truth also forces us to admit that some others who would also be classified as Christian (if only for census purposes) do not reflect that Spirit, despite what they might otherwise claim. Church membership doesn’t somehow excuse us from the temptation of focussing on self interest or being driven by a wish to stay uninvolved.

To stay with the Pentecost image of fire, avoidance of involvement hardly qualifies as offering ourselves to be fuel for the mysterious flame. One Jewish leader, Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman, suggested that some modern persons are in danger of becoming “click vegetables,” who simply click from one data source to another with little comprehension. As the Rabbi put it, these have the attitude “If you’re bored with something, just click,” I think the Rabbi is right. If your only involvement with community is reading about it with passing clicks, this is hardly what Archbishop Desmond Tutu once called “seeing with the eyes of the heart”.

Even the so-called Pentecostal service with its ecstasy of uninhibited arm waving and the emitting of emotion charged sounds is hardly credible evidence of the Holy Spirit if it not accompanied by a subsequent change of attitude and appropriate action once the worshippers have left the security of the Church service.

So what then can we say about the Spirit at this day, Pentecost, fifty days after Easter and the marking of the birthday of the Church? Can I suggest that we respond to the birthday as we would with the birthday of anyone of us here today. The celebration matters more if the reason seems worthy..

Of course there would be some who prefer to think Pentecost is best ignored or at least quietly forgotten. On July 4, 1776, the members of the Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia signed the Declaration of Independence. With this action, the American Revolution was launched and a new nation was born. There is irony that on that very day George III, King of England, made this entry in his diary: “Nothing of any importance happened today.”

On the day of Pentecost, in the year A.D. 30, we read of perhaps 120 followers of a man named Jesus gathered together in Jerusalem. Suddenly the Spirit of God filled each one of them and illuminated and energised them with tongues of fire. On that day the Church was born. But here is the kicker. No historian of the time saw anything significant in that event.

The significance as it must do, came to lie in what those followers then decided to do with their experience. If they had done nothing I wonder if we would then have been brave enough to admit nothing was achieved. It is actually a choice that each successive generation must face for themselves. We are born, like the Church was born at Pentecost, into possibility. What we then decide to do with the motivating Spirit in our generation will determine of the significance of what that birthday potentially offers to the Church, the community…and even our world.

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A Challenge for Auckland Churches

At the recent School of Theology at Vaughan Park, the assembled Methodist Church leaders heard Professor Paul Spoonley from Massey University describe the present and substantial changes heading our way. Many of these changes are already presenting real challenges for our communities and to those who have to grapple with radically different local situations. As I listened it occurred to me that since local Church parishes are among the potential providers it becomes important that the parishes are alert to these changing populations and if they wish to continue to be relevant to their communities, a rethink will be needed.

In the next 10 years it is already clear that two out of every five New Zealanders will live in Auckland, with Asian communities on the rise and overtaking the Maori population. There will also be more in the over 65 bracket than in the 0-15 range. Two thirds of New Zealand regions will decline and there will be more marked differences between Auckland values and behaviours and those found in the declining regions.

With many immigrants from India, China and the Philippines Professor Spoonley noted the emergence of “Ethno-burbs” and ethnic precincts with more marked differences. Auckland now evidently has 40% overseas born, while 56% are currently immigrants. With most groups having declining numbers of children the main increases are currently among Maori and Pacific Island children.

Some church challenges which might affect many Parishes will include the question of how to improve communication with immigrant groups. More emphasis on helping provide hospitality and assistance to various ethnic groups with advertising in appropriate languages and the sponsoring of more by way of English as a Second Language courses may be worth considering. International evenings, cooking demonstrations and the encouragement of ethnic foods as part of regular church social events would help foreign newcomers. Another consideration is how we support the catering for the different interests of such groups.

In Auckland we already note the problems facing traditional sports in that rugby, rugby league and cricket all report declining numbers. On the other hand, golf, basketball, soccer, table tennis and badminton all report a resurgence. Perhaps there is some indication here for how the church might better cater for current youth interests.

The other significant change is of course is that in many areas there is an aging population. Simple changes like improvements to audio systems, better winter heating, the provision of more by way of ramps and hand rails are worth reviewing. However perhaps more important is how those who are unable to attend church through declining mobility or worries with health issues will continue to experience support from the Parish. Do these challenges suggest topics for discussion for the Parish council?

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Lectionary Sermon for 28 May, 2017 (Easter 7 Year A) on John 17:1-11

On Being At One
In recent days the terrorist bombing at Manchester targeting a group including children is a stark reminder of just how nasty the terrorists can get. Two thousand years after Christ walked the dusty paths of Palestine, are we really much closer to becoming one in his name?

And don’t ever assume all the faults are on the other side. I was checking through last month’s casualty figures in Syria and noted to my surprise that the UN figures for civilians killed in Syria attributed more deaths to the US led coalition of nations bombing cities and towns in Syria than was attributed to either ISIL or to the combined Government and Russian bombing raids. Should we even need to point out civilian families are civilian families in any city and children killed or maimed are mourned just as keenly in Syria as in Manchester.

And so we turn to the words of Jesus – and this week we find the account of the ascension.

At first glance with all those words about achieving glory, today we seem to find John is making Jesus sound awfully other worldly and disconnected from real life problems, yet before we get to thinking about the implications of his words we need a quick reality check.

A number of scholars I follow, suggest that here John, or at least the author responsible, is almost certainly using a standard Jewish ploy of putting last words in a respected leader’s mouth in such a way as to pick up main themes in that person’s life. I find it quite reasonable to suspect at times the New Testament writers were creatively imagining the words Jesus might have spoken, and the sort of issues he would have needed to address, to give his life perspective.

I know this would worry some who have been brought up with a literalist acceptance of the Gospel yet there are three inescapable difficulties in assuming John simply reports accurately on what it is known that Jesus said. First when the text of John is examined, when it comes to the words of Jesus there are disagreements between the Gospel writers as to what was said in the same settings, (e.g. last words on the cross) and difference in the order and sequence of events including a basic disagreement as to whether it was a one or three year ministry.

Secondly the changes in style of Greek in the gospel of John suggest evidence that some parts were added later (different authors?).

Thirdly even if these words were recounted by John “the beloved disciple” since the majority of commentators put the date of writing at more than fifty years after Jesus was off the scene, it is a tall ask to expect even a disciple to have a total recall of words spoken so long ago.

However, what we can be absolutely certain is that this passage contains some sections that are most helpful as reminders to anyone prepared to follow the teaching of Christ in a modern setting.

When for example we find his saying of his disciples that “7Now they know that everything you have given me is from you”, it is clear that anyone following the Gospel accounts would be aware that what Christ taught was consistent with his actions. He taught compassion, servant-hood and forgiveness and demonstrated that these were practical possibilities.

Now we get to the key phrase that I find resonates with my impression of Christ is when he reminds current or aspiring disciples 11And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world. In other words his gospel is definitely not claiming that Jesus is in a position to do our work on our behalf and nor should the required action be remembered or admired as another worldly action. Our required actions are something to be lived by us because we are still in the world.

Think about it. If Jesus is no longer in the world but we as his aspiring followers are in the world. In other words, an act of terrorism or even an act of bombing in retribution by our side can’t be passed off as something that Jesus will sort for us on our behalf.

Now there is a thought. How did the young man who saw himself as a terrorist doing the will of Allah know that the people of Manchester cared for him as a neighbour? Would it have been different here?

Following through John’s version of the words of inspiration we are reminded that Jesus came bring the gift and challenge of life in relationship. Because John consistently used the metaphor of God being love, we find ourselves recalling the challenge to relationship with our neighbours, and even with the concept of love itself representing our God.

Just as the Son challenged those he met into this form of duality of relationship, the implicit message is that disciple-hood means carrying the same attitudes, and the same challenges to those we meet.

Here we need to be very honest. While there is plenty of evidence that new converts are often prepared to throw themselves into the challenge of following Jesus example, his injunction to be one hasn’t worked out too well in practice. Forget for a moment our failure to accept refugees of different faith. We can talk blithely of the Ecumenical movement and of being one in Christ, but try to get mainstream Churches to accept one another’s communion, styles of worship or even the other’s ordination and it seems well nigh impossible. At low points in Church history Churches have even resorted to violence to try to force others to their particular version of what it means to be following Christ.

And what of individual Church congregations when it comes to being at one? Our local Methodist Synod asks two questions of each congregation at the start of process of matching presbyters with new parishes. Is your parish an inclusive parish. Almost invariably the answer is “yes”. Second question….. would your Parish accept a homosexual presbyter? The answer is often “no”… Not that inclusive?

Telling potential followers that they should be one as we are one deserves some inward reflection, particularly when some of our biggest denominations are traditionally reluctant to yield even a little authority. Issues like acceptance of women priests, acceptance of homosexual clergy, like recognition of authority models and even acceptance of different forms of baptism all happen to divide rather than unite, which when you think of it makes something of a nonsense of claiming to be extending love to one’s neighbour.

Perhaps reflection about how far the various branches of the Church have strayed from this part of the gospel would benefit if we were to reread such dark periods of Church history to send us back to this part of the gospel teaching with new understanding for its significance.

This is no new situation. As the early Church came into being, strong rivalries between different interpretations about what Jesus means, and which theologians to accept were common. Paul refers in several places between rifts between the rival groups and the date of John’s gospel places the writing in the very midst of these emerging struggles. It is easy to see that as the writer was recording that particular section of today’s passage that he was trying to bring his hearers back to the essence of Christ’s teaching. It is unfortunate that then – as now – there was no real understanding that the call to relationship actually matters, and its neglect risks making a nonsense of that which Christianity sets out to be.

Given that many of the troubles in a political sense occur because communities throughout the world focus on real or at times even imagined difference, if the Church has anything at all to offer, if it turns down the unity option at the very least it must be able to model how such differences can be recognised without endangering acceptance of the other.

We lose the right to offer assistance in matters of dispute if the ill-feeling between different groups merely mirrors our own inability to accept others, or for that matter when our ability to be peacemakers is hindered by our own vested interests. Arms deals do offer cash rewards to the nations involved.    One of the US coalition, Saudi Arabia have just signed up for a substantial arms deal that will make their bombing in Syria and Yemen much more effective.    Civilians will suffer.   Whether or not this is balanced by what President Trump calls “Job, Jobs, Jobs” is surely a question for US allies including our own government. It is difficult to be seen as legitimate peacemakers when our own inability to show peaceful intent to our neighbours is so often compromised.

Perhaps we should be bringing the lack of oneness even closer to home. Officially we welcome newcomers to this country. So how come new immigrants who struggle with the language are often left isolated and cut off from social contact in our neighbourhoods.

You may be uneasy about putting politics so overtly into a Bible reflection, yet surely the whole point of following Christ is that it should speak to real lives, political realities and actual relationships.

Let me quote you something from Bill Loader’s commentary on today’s passage. “Unity is not a strategy of convenience and economy here nor just a strategy for marketing …….It is not a cleverly ambiguous ecumenical declaration which papers over differences. It is rather an extension of John’s understanding of what eternal life (or salvation) means. It is not about a place or a gift or a certificate of acquittal so much as about a relationship”.
If, as Jesus is reported saying, that we should be one, and when we look at how we are doing and find we are not one, I would assume that what we do from that point is up to us.

We come Sunday by Sunday to affirm that we follow our Jesus and his teaching. We presumably see ourselves as offering compassion and our willingness to be one with one another is measured in part by the way we treat fellow followers of the faith and our treatment of political and religious neighbours. If Jesus’ injunction for oneness is a legitimate and important part of his teaching, and if honest self evaluation of what we do concludes at least in part it is not being followed, in a democratic society I would suggest we have an obligation to insist that we treat this as a challenge.

Those hearing or reading these words may be able to suggest what the next step(s) should be.

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Lectionary Sermon for 14 May 2017 (Easter 5A) on John 14:1-14

It seems to me that there is always a danger that we risk turning our faith into something that sounds so spiritual and religious that it doesn’t have much to do with real life.

For those of us who are attracted to Christianity, perhaps it goes back to the way we choose to read the Bible.

I am guessing that this reading we have this morning will be at least partly familiar to many of us here this morning.

Certainly it starts off almost implying that religion doesn’t have much to do with the sorts of lives that most of us find ourselves living. And if you read it casually it sounds as if the only thing that matters is that Jesus wants us to focus on him and he will sort out everything for us.

Let not your hearts be troubled” That is good – except that I suspect in real life sooner or later troubles seem to loom very large in most peoples’ lives. It doesn’t matter how rich you are – how much exercise you do – or how nice the family house might be – or even how many times we attend Church – sickness does eventually come to visit, loved family members or friends can and do die and if your families are anything like there are worries with the family.

Well perhaps Jesus is a Talisman. After all when Thomas says

How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

Unfortunately that bit is sometimes taken out of context and used to enlist Jesus into the gatekeeper of so called only true Church. By implication it is used to argue that the only way to be a Christian is to believe in exactly the same form of Christianity that the street evangelist of the moment happens to follow.

But did you notice Jesus is very clear that it isn’t a list of beliefs he is on about. What is it that John records:
“The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.”

Those works were anything but removed from the real world. Ministering to those in trouble – is not the same as withdrawing from the world.

Standing up to the hypocrites, spending time with the tax collectors and lepers, offering friendship and hospitality to those of little account – this doesn’t sound like avoiding reality and living a heavenly life disconnected from the world. And yet Jesus in effect says look at these works and recognise in them the nature of God.

This is actually why worship is only part of the story. Jesus’ works had much to do with the real issues of his day – and we don’t have to look too far to see that the real issues of our day also demand our attention – and not just our prayer.

What was it Jesus said: Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these……
So when we encounter one of those more dreadful periods of history, what then should we do.

If we are merely cynical we might of course throw up our hands in horror and ask in a cross or despairing voice “where is Jesus today?”

There is on the other hand a rather more constructive approach. Let me illustrate with one man’s response to trouble. I wonder if there are any flag experts amongst us today. Where is this flag from? (hold up a white flag with a Red Cross in the middle – a cardboard replica would do). No not a country – …an organisation … the Red Cross.

Let’s go back in history. One day in 1859 in Northern Italy at a place called Solferino a vicious battle was fought for 16 hours between the French and Austro Hungarian Armies. Casualties were high on both sides and at the end of the day the armies had withdrawn to regroup as best they could.

A 31 year old Swiss businessman, Henry (Henri) Dunant, passing through on a business trip, unintentionally happened upon the aftermath of the slaughter and suffering. Because it was the first battlefield he had encountered he was understandably horrified. He said later it wasn’t so much the dead bodies everywhere, it was that there was no one to care for the wounded and the dying. He wrote: “With faces that were black with flies that swarmed around their wounds, men gazed about them, wild eyed and helpless

And where was Jesus that day? Well as it happened, straight away Dunant set about mobilising and organising the people of the town nearby. Churches were used as hospitals. Young children fetched water, while women washed and dressed the wounds, and the dead were given respectful burials.

Henry Dunant was surprised at how easily ordinary people could be organised to help and were so willing to make a difference. As a consequence he wrote a book about his experiences in which he suggested nations should organise such groups of volunteers to prepare in advance to help reduce the suffering in times of war.

With the assistance of some prominent citizens in Switzerland he set up an international organisation to do just that, and so that they might be readily recognised as neutral volunteers they wore the insignia of what we now know as the Red Cross which was of course the Swiss flag with the colours reversed.

The Red Cross has had a huge influence ever since and even the Muslim countries have taken up the idea, although of course their organisation had to avoid using the Cross which had been used as the symbol of their enemies in the crusades – so instead they called their version of the same organisation, the Red Crescent. Both organisations provide proactive assistance in times of disaster, assist those beyond the borders of the organisations, and their healing and humanitarian record is impressive indeed.

It is significant that when in 1864 the twelve nations who set up the idea of the Geneva Convention to limit the behaviour of nations at war, that each of the twelve also set up branches of the Red Cross.

I am not sure how great a deed needs to be before it is what Jesus might have had in mind when he talked of deeds greater than his own. What I do know is that in 1901 the founder of the Red Cross, Henry Dunant, was one of two people to be awarded the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize and four times during its history the organisation itself has also received that same prize.

What however we can be rather more certain of is that when you think what Jesus stood for with his own healing ministry, with his encouragement that his followers should help those in need, and his insistence that his followers recognise even enemies as neighbours, surely Henry Dunant was enacting the Spirit of Jesus’ message.

Of course our works are most unlikely to match what Henry Dunant was able to achieve with the Red Cross. Nevertheless the ways we deal with the problems that come our way are also the way we reveal what drives us. We are the message. Perhaps John was onto something when he drew the attention of his readers to this aspect of Christ’s gospel.

Remember again Jesus’ words: 12Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.
Surely supporting or initiating such works is a significant part of the way we live our response to the challenge of living the gospel in the real world.

Worth thinking about surely.

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For a rich nation, I suspect the US appears to observers from most Western nations to have an in-built desire to provide a health service which caters for everyone except the sick or those at serious risk from illness.

If I have understood it correctly, prior to the Obama administration, the powerful insurance companies had been developing a system whereby the health insurers had been encouraging healthy people with few health risks into taking out insurance.    The reasoning appeared to be that this was because they would thereby increase the profits of the insurance companies.   While this had been good for the shareholders, prior to Obamacare the figures showed the premiums for the seriously ill and those most at risk had been steadily rising.

For the last few years it did appear President Obama had managed to smuggle an Affordable Care Act past the interests of at least some of those who placed profit ahead of genuine care. The Affordable Care Act in its simplest form put the sick and poor in the same pool as the healthy and wealthy – which meant the rich healthy would now be providing the subsidy safeguard for those who were most vulnerable.

It also occurs to me that even Obamacare was second best because many other nations circumvent most of the unfortunate side effects of an insurance driven  health system by providing a good proportion of the health costs from taxation.  This might well be why in nations such as my own, there are proportionately far fewer in the population depending on health insurance in the first place.

It is not at all clear that President Trump is served by advisors who are themselves informed on health care reform.   The most striking example of embarrassing ignorance was when after the recent visit of the Australian Prime Minister the President announced that the Australians had a better health system than the US.    The Australian health care system which provides heavily subsidized and almost universal coverage for its citizens just happens to be virtually the opposite of what the GOP health care proponents and Trump himself have been advocating over recent weeks.

While it is relatively easy to find advantages in the Australian system in terms of cover provided it also involves a substantial contribution from their taxation system to fund the system. This most certainly would not support the current Trump initiative to reduce taxation. That the GOP advisors have missed this obvious fact for the last seven years would not reflect well on their preparation for the current health care reform, and Bernie Sanders has seized upon the last minute change of Trump announced support for a totally different system.   Sanders is now promising to make sure the Senate is clear that Trump himself prefers an opposite scheme to the one he claims to support.

Now President Trump is officially still on course to get back to a scheme whereby a good percentage of the core supporters of the GOP (which just incidentally happens to favours the rich and healthy) would be insured separately from the pool of those at genuine risk of health issues. Because the sick and vulnerable ones would then need to be in a pool financed by their own contributions and because this is clearly much more expensive than the demands of the pool of healthy citizens, the net result is that for the pool of the health risk contributors to be able to provide sufficient funds to meet most of the health costs, their premiums would shoot up and be unaffordable for many.

By some curious jump of logic the Trump repeal version has the profits from the healthy and low risk pool providing the necessary subsidy backup – always assuming of course that shareholders and insurance company owners want to release the profits in this way!

This seems unlikely in the extreme since the impetus of the main present support for the Trump repeal comes from those who are stakeholders in the insurance schemes and therefore primarily concerned with profit. Mr Trump and his willing supporters seem oblivious to the fact that having everyone in the same pool as per the Obama Affordable Care Act would have already guaranteed that subsidy the GOP now hope will somehow eventually appear in the Trump version.  In any case, if profits from the  healthy group are transferred to the needy group sufficiently to reduce premiums to the present rates, then the repeal achieves nothing apart from an extra layer of bureaucracy which some cynics might not see as draining the swamp.

Instituting such a scheme at the same time as tax reductions would apparently remove any possibility of the Government stepping in to rescue any disadvantaged by the Trump scheme, some might think is a little unwise!

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