In the Name of Christ

In the name of Christ is power,
In the name of Christ is peace;
His name is our strong, high tower,
His name is our sweet release.
Dying, he destroyed Death’s darkness,
Stormed the gates of Sin’s abyss;
Rising, now he leads the captives
Onward into Heaven’s bliss.

In the name of Christ we’ll glory,
In the name of Christ we’ll pray;
For we know his deathless story
One day over all shall sway;
Till that Day comes in its fullness,
We will fall upon our knees;
Asking, Lord, you lift the dullness
Of our world’s God-blind disease.

In the name of Christ we’ll labour,
In the name of Christ we’ll speak;
Loving God and loving neighbour,
And by this his new world seek;
When Christ’s Easter power fills us
We will move with energy,
Implement his rule among us,
Realise his victory.

In the name of Christ is healing,
In the name of Christ is life;
God in Christ himself revealing,
He our Groom and we his Wife;
Christ our joy, our hope, our treasure,
Christ our light, our way, our end,
Christ our Lord and King forever,
Christ to us, your Kingdom send.

Tune: Hymn to Joy

Easter is an Earthquake

Preached at Meltham Methodist Church
20th April 2014: Easter Day
Jeremiah 31:1-6; Matthew 28:1-10

It was the first day of a new week. It was dark. The sun hadn’t yet dawned. The streets were empty and silence filled the air like a thick fog. Even the dawn chorus was still fast asleep. It was that time of the morning that nobody really knows exists until they have small children: too early to get up, too late to fall back asleep. It is the notoriously-named graveyard shift, and this morning the two Marys were staffing it (literally, in their case).

No doubt, they couldn’t sleep. Who could blame them? It must have been the longest, hardest, saddest Saturday of their lives. Just two days ago, they’d seen the man they thought would change the world nailed to a cross like a common criminal. They’d given up everything for him, ministering to him from Galilee to Jerusalem. What now? Now he was dead and their hope lay dead with him. All they could do now was to pay their last respects to a departed friend, a captivating preacher and a mysterious miracle-worker for whom they’d left family and friends behind and in whose footsteps they’d lovingly followed.

Carefully they negotiated the narrow, cobbled streets of the city and went to the tomb. But as they arrived, something happened. The ground beneath their feet started to tremble. The earth shook. The whole world seemed to wobble and shake as if it was a jelly poked by a curious finger. An earthquake. It was as if the entire planet were in the throes of labour, heaving an enormous, deep, rasping sigh in order to muster the strength needed for that one final push which would bring a new world to birth. There was a scream like piercing thunder. And there was lightning too, an angelic bolt from the blue descending to roll back the heavy stone door as if was a mere child’s marble.

Never has imperial red trembled as much as the two soldiers Pilate stationed at the tomb. They stood there, lifeless, like statues fixed to ground on which they stood. Their knocking knees and chattering teeth only added to the growing cacophony of sound as their highly polished, imposing, metal armour now clinkered and clattered like a drawer of cheap cutlery. They cowered in fear from the heavenly visitor who had tossed away the stone door of the tomb so effortlessly; and like the discarded stone itself, they crumbled as the colossal tremor tore through the garden.

When we think of Easter, we like to think of it as all daffodils and lillies, hot cross buns and chocolate eggs, cute chicks, spring lambs and fluffy bunnies. But this soft, safe, domesticated scene is about as far away from the first Easter morning as it could possibly be. It is a ground-breaking, earth-shattering shift in the very running of the universe. It is an upheaval of the world order which is of the very highest magnitude on the cosmic Richter scale. Resurrection is frightening; it trespasses into our lives with an almighty crash and rumble. Easter is an earthquake.

At Easter, a new reality came into being. It’s about more than a dead person coming back to life again, miraculous though that is. It’s about God shaking the earth like a snow globe and laying out the foundations of a world transformed, restored and renewed. It’s about God pulling the rug from under our feet and opening up for us a whole new way of living, free from the stranglehold of death. The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is a truly seismic event. The earth shook. What’s more, it’s still shaking…

Oh, I know what you’re going to say: “There wasn’t really an earthquake. It’s just a metaphor, like Jesus’s resurrection is just a fancy, theological way of saying that Jesus died and went to heaven.” But it isn’t true. The earth shook. Jesus is alive. “Okay” you might say, “he’s alive and lives on in our hearts and that’s what Easter’s really all about, isn’t it?” No. It isn’t. Jesus is alive, more alive even that you or me. Now this is really important right here, this is something I really need you to understand, so I want you to help me out by turning to your neighbour and telling them, “Jesus is alive.” Go on; do it for me now.

Do you know that? Do you know that Jesus is alive? Because if you do, it will change everything. It will change the way you think. It will change the way you look at the world. It will change the way you pray, the way you make your decisions, the way you spend your money, the way you pass your time, the way you live and behave; everything. To know Jesus alive and risen from the dead is to know that our lives are no longer conditioned by death and darkness. We are made for more. As Swiss theologian Karl Barth once put it, “The goal of human life is not death but resurrection.” Easter is an earthquake because it alters the entire landscape of our lives. Nothing escapes Easter unscathed, all is changed. The simple fact is that an encounter with the living Lord Jesus will shake us to the core.

But you still don’t believe me, do you? Some of you are sitting there thinking, “I don’t feel anything. The ground under my feet feels pretty solid to me.” But let me tell you this: it’s not as solid as you’d like to believe. Mark Twain famously once said that “The only two certainties in life are death and taxes.” But now death has lost its sting, and Caesar and the powers of this world have been toppled by a landslide. Everything has changed. Those old certainties we once took for granted are now looking decidedly shaky. When God’s unstoppable, irrepressible, death-defying life becomes a reality in our lives and in our world the ground beneath our feet starts to feel decidedly less certain. Easter is an earthquake.

And so the question is: have we felt it? Have we begun to feel the earth moving beneath us? Because if we haven’t yet begun to feel it, we haven’t yet begun to experience all that Easter is about, to know resurrection for ourselves. When the apostle Paul came into contact with the risen Christ on the Damascus road it blinded him and knocked him clean out of the saddle. It shook him up. It changed him. Now, we don’t all have Damascus road experiences like Saul, but when we like him and the two Marys realise that Jesus is alive the ground beneath our feet will shake, our lives will be transformed forever. Easter, for it to truly be Easter, has got to change us. It has got to sweep us up into the bold new life of Christ, because resurrection isn’t just for Jesus; it’s for the whole planet.

Last week I was talking with someone about the Saturday before Easter and how it’s an odd kind of day—a day of waiting, a day of silence and a day living in limbo between Friday and Sunday. She described how in her faith she’d felt like she’d been stuck in Saturday for a long time. She received God’s forgiveness won for her on Good Friday, but she hadn’t yet experienced Sunday in her life, the power of Christ’s resurrection to renew us and make us new people. She told a story of how she had been at a training course in Nuneaton with YWAM, a Christian missionary organisation, how one day she was walking around the town and she had a powerful encounter with Jesus. She ran back to the base, startled and amazed, telling all her friends, “Jesus is alive! Do you know that?” And apparently, they all did. But for her, it was a dramatic discovery and afterwards her life changed completely. Sunday was a long time in coming; but when it came, it was an earthquake.

This, I’m sure, is not uncommon for a lot of people. I’ve been there myself—knowing what Friday was about, but not really sure what was so special about Sunday. The Indian Christian missionary Sadhu Sundar Singh puts his finger on the tension perfectly: “Forgiveness alone,” he says, “is not enough … Complete release only comes when we are free from the urge to sin. It is completely possible for us to receive forgiveness and still die from the consequences of our sin. The Master came … to deliver us from the disease of our sin, from its consequences and from death.” And that’s what Sunday’s all about—God infusing the life of the living Lord Jesus into us. That’s the treatment we need. That’s the power of Sunday—the power to live as new people in Christ.

Jesus came not to make good people better, but to make dead people alive. That’s why the realisation that Jesus is alive is always such a dramatic experience. We can’t come face-to-face with the crucified-but-living Jesus and go back to the kitchen sink, peeling the potatoes as if nothing had happened. When you know that life and not death has the final word, a whole new world opens up before you. You’ll start looking at the world in a very different way. You’ll be braver and more courageous. You’ll notice shoots of new life springing up in places you never could have seen or imagined them before. You’ll learn that with God, there’s no such thing as a lost cause—whether it’s a person, a relationship or a situation—because if Easter teaches us anything it is that God doesn’t believe in lost causes.

Matthew says that after the two Marys had seen the angel, they ran from the tomb “with fear and great joy”. They’d been at the epicentre of an earthquake. They were afraid, filled with awe and wonder for what Easter would mean. But at the same time, this terrifying earthquake had turned the world upside-down the right way up again; it was something wonderful, something magnificent and so it was a cause for celebration. Resurrection does that to us. Easter is an earthquake. When we meet with the crucified-but-risen Jesus, our lives will be changed. How could they remain the same?

After the resurrection, the two Marys are sent from the tomb with the call to be messengers of God’s new life breaking out in the world. And so are we. Whether it’s picking up litter in the street, whether it’s buying a Big Issue from the scruffy guy on the corner, or whether it’s popping in on an elderly neighbour who doesn’t get any visitors, what we do here and now matters. In all of life, wherever we are, whatever we’re doing, we are called to be the needle of the seismometer, telling a world waiting for resurrection that a great earthquake has struck, that Jesus is alive and that the world as we know it is being renewed.

Easter is the only solid foundation for Christian living, because if Jesus isn’t alive, if he isn’t risen from the dead, all he’s gone to prove is that love is pointless, that all the will in heaven (let alone earth) can’t make our world a better place. There’s no point giving anything away. There’s no point sacrificing anything for the sake of others because in the end, it doesn’t really make a difference. Easter, however, prevents Christians thinking like that. If Jesus is alive, everything changes. The way of suffering love and sacrifice is transfigured into the way of life and joy and peace. Because Jesus is alive, we know that the end of the story is not death but resurrection, and we are called to be couriers, agents, envoys of that new life in the way we live. Because Jesus is alive, we have work to do. And we do it in the “sure and certain hope” that each act of love, generosity, kindness, gratitude, compassion and God-inspired creativity is a participation in what a world renewed in Jesus Christ will look like.

Now that’s a massive challenge because it means that we are either working with Christ for the renewal of God’s world, or we’re working against him to keep propping up the status quo of sin and death, of alienation and estrangement from the love, power and presence of a gracious and loving God. The Good News of Easter is that Jesus is alive and is setting about bringing his new life to you, to me, to Meltham, and to the whole world. God’s new life is breaking out among us and you and I are being called, like the two Marys were, to be messengers of that new life. We are called to implement Christ’s victory over death in the world, to push back the dominion of darkness, oppression and misery and to seek to see Christ’s rule take effect in every sphere of life.

What we need, then, is the energy of Easter to be released into our lives. What we need is the God-given realisation that Jesus is actually alive, that he is actually risen and victorious over the grave. Only that can give us the indestructible hope we need to go and take God’s new life into the situations and places of the utmost death and despair. And so, that’s my prayer for us this Easter: that we’d feel the ground under our feet tremble and shake with the knowledge that Jesus is alive, that we’d know the power of his resurrection to change our lives and the lives of others, that we’d learn to pour ourselves out in love as Jesus poured himself out in love for us, knowing that because he is alive, nothing we do in him is vain.

Do you know what day it is? Do you know it’s Sunday? May God open our hearts and make it so.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Behold, Your King! Pt. 2

Preached at Holmfirth Methodist Church
18th April 2014: Good Friday
Psalm 22:1-11; John 18:1-19:42

Today we have come to the coronation ceremony for God’s chosen King. Today a crown is set on his head, a purple robe is placed over his shoulders and he is installed on high for everyone to see. On Sunday, Jesus came into Jerusalem with palm branches waving, cloaks strewn before him and shouts of joy filling the air. We were there with him. We sang hosannas with the assembled masses. We hailed him as the Son of David, the true heir to Israel’s throne. We blessed him as the one who comes in the name of the Lord. All week we’ve been waiting for him to make his move, waiting for him to rise up and wrest control of the world back from the dark forces of evil and oppression, and today, at last, our waiting is over. My job today is simple; it is, in the words of Pontius Pilate, to bid you come, “Behold, your King!”

You might be forgiven for thinking that today is about a crucifixion, not a coronation. But the truth is that they’re one and the same thing. In John’s Gospel, the throne is the Cross. When Jesus enters Jerusalem, he says to his friends, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” When he prays for his friends shortly before his arrest, he prays, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you.” We’re not meant to feel sorry for Jesus today. Today is the hour of his glory. He is no mere victim; rather, he is the Victor. Now that is profoundly challenging for us because this is not what we think victory is supposed to look like. And if this is glory, it is a very peculiar kind of glory. Never before, in fact, has strength looked so much like surrender, courage like capitulation, and triumph like tragedy. Yet such is the mystery of the day.

The Passion story, as John’s Gospel tells it, is laced with irony throughout. Inadvertently and unwittingly, it is left to Jesus’s enemies to reveal the most profound theological truths of that day and it is by their words, their deeds, that God communicates the lessons of that day to us. The soldiers weave together a crown of thorns for Jesus to wear. They put a royal robe on his back and bow down, hailing him as King. Pilate wheels the bloodied, bruised and battered body of Christ out in crown and robe to the assembled crowd and declares before them, “Behold, your King!” As if that wasn’t enough, he orders an inscription of the charge against Jesus to be written above his head on the Cross: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” What’s more, he orders it to be written in Hebrew, Latin and Greek (the three languages of Roman Judea) so that everyone could read it:
ישוע הנצרי מלך היהודים
Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudeaorum
Ἰησοῦς ὁ Ναζωραῖος ὁ Bασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων
And when the chief priests complain and demand it to be changed, Pilate says no, that it shall stand—about the only firm decision he makes all day. “What I have written I have written,” he says.

Have you got the message yet? This guy on the cross isn’t just some poor unfortunate soul who just happened to find himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. No. That is the King up there on that cross; our King. And reading the story of Christ’s Passion rightly makes us ask the question: “Who’s really in control here?” Because the more we look at it, the more we see that it’s Jesus. Everything plays exactly as he wants it to and I do mean everything.

When Jesus is arrested, for instance, he sees Judas and the soldiers coming towards him and he steps forward to hand himself over to them. At the trial, where Pilate is meant to be interrogating him, Jesus turns it around and starts asking Pilate the difficult questions, like: “What is truth?” After Jesus is flogged, mocked and humiliated, Pilate presents him to the gathered crowd as their King. As Jesus hangs dying on the tree, Pilate’s inscription translates the significance of events every language spoken in Judea. Jesus dies, but not because anyone takes his life from him; but because he gives up his spirit. Even the timing of the death is at Jesus’s prerogative, dying as he does before the soldiers have to break his legs so that he can be seen as the perfect Passover lamb without spot, blemish or defect. Be in no doubt about it: Jesus is no unsuspecting casualty here, he is the willing victim.

Jesus himself reminds Pilate: “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.” In other words, “You’re not in control here.” Or, as George Herbert in his poem ‘The Sacrifice’ puts it quite beautifully: “I him obey, who all things else command … I, who am Truth, turn into truth their deeds.” Here is truth nailed upon a cross and ultimately, this is what makes Good Friday so good: Jesus isn’t dragged off to the Cross kicking and screaming, he goes willingly for us. To quote the words of St. Augustine: “For our sake he stood to [God] as both victor and victim, and victor because victim; for us he stood to [God] as priest and sacrifice, and priest because sacrifice, making us sons and daughters to [God] instead of servants by being born of [God] to serve us.” It is the willingness of his self-sacrifice which is Christ’s glory. It is his readiness to suffer and die for love of our love which is his triumph.

Jesus could have revealed himself as King with power and authority by coming down from the Cross and proving wrong his doubters. He didn’t because if he did, we would have no choice but to believe him. We wouldn’t be wooed into loving him so much as we’d be forced into serving him. In that instant, he’d become the worst dictator imaginable. Rather, as Russian theologian Nicholai Berdyaev has said, “Truth nailed upon the cross compels nobody, oppresses no one; it must be accepted and confessed freely.” The Cross offends our sensibilities because not only does it confront us with the cost and the consequences of our sin, but because it also challenges us to re-evaluate what we mean by glory and victory. To see the Cross as anything other than an unmitigated disaster takes one heck of a paradigm shift, and that is a task that God alone can accomplish in us.

The crown of thorns Jesus wears today isn’t a substitute for some other crown made of gold and silver, adorned with expensive diamonds and sparkling rubies. Likewise the Cross on which Jesus is enthroned is no accident, nor is it simply a sick joke. No. Rather, these are the crown and throne of a King who breaks hearts with love, not fear: the King of love. It isn’t that the suffering itself is glorious, because it isn’t. It is that the suffering is glorified by love: that Christ loves us, that he hands himself over to us willingly, that he dies freely for our sins. Don’t weep today because you think Jesus is a helpless pawn in a game of imperial chess; rather, weep for the love which drove him to such desperate measures on our behalf. Jesus didn’t die because he was weak. He died because he was strong and courageous enough to embrace the path of sacrifice, to travel the road of costly self-giving, to walk the way of suffering love to the Cross that it may be for us the way of life and peace.

Truly, this is what makes him our King. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Behold, Your King! Pt. 1

Preached at Wooldale Methodist Church
13th April 2014: Palm Sunday
Matthew 21:1-11; Matthew 27:11-54

“Who is this?” they asked, for the whole city was at fever pitch, awash with excitement and confusion at the sight and sound of a man who came riding into Jerusalem seated on the back of a donkey. What an experience it must have been; crowds thronging the streets, people shouting and singing, a noisy buzz filling the air like a thick fog as those who came out to see what all the fuss was about started turning to one another and asking each other the self-same question: “Who is this?” That’s the question, isn’t it? “Who is this?” It was the question then and it’s the question now as well. “Who is this?”

The history books have recorded this event as ‘The Triumphal Entry,’ but the truth is that the Romans knew a thing or two about triumphal entries and this was nothing like it. When a successful commander returned from the field, having won some great military victory, they might throw him a triumph to celebrate the achievement. They’d crown his head with a laurel wreath. They’d throw a purple robe around his shoulders. They’d lead him in a four-horse chariot through the streets of Rome with the prisoners and spoils of war going before and his soldiers going after. All the while he’d be greeted by the roaring adulation and applause of the massed crowds. For a day, he’d treated like a king, even like a god. For life, he’d be known as the uir triumphalis—the man of triumph.

Look again at the scene when Jesus enters Jerusalem. This is no conquering military hero; victors in battle do not ride into their capital cities on an ass, they ride in on a mighty stallion of a warhorse—something which demonstrates their power and authority. There’s no army in sight, either; just a misfit group of disciples—men, women, children, tax collectors, prostitutes, former-lepers, those newly repossessed from demons. It’s an odd group, that’s for sure. As triumphs go, it’s really more of a parody. And yet still the crowds received him like a king, waving palm branches and spreading their cloaks in front of him. No wonder Jerusalem was in a stir when he entered town; everyone must have been very confused about what was going on.

“Who is this?” That’s the $64,000 question. The crowds hailed him as a king, but if he is he’s no ordinary king. This king will not triumph through force of arms. This king comes not to be served, but to serve. “This king,” theologian Stanley Hauerwas says, “triumphs not through violent revolt, but by being for Israel the one able to show it that its worship of God is its freedom.” The crowds shouted “Hosanna!”—a cry which means, “Save now!” They looked for a king who would deliver them from the distress of Roman oppression. They looked for a king who would cleanse the Temple and purify the true worship of God. They looked for a king who would bring God’s rule to earth and make the whole world a better place. What they got was Jesus. It’s hardly surprising that they pointed to the man entering Jerusalem on a donkey and asked, “Who is this?” as if to say, “He’s not who we’re looking for. We’re after a king.”

And yet it was to be acknowledged as king that Jesus came into Jerusalem. His is an unmistakeably political act insomuch as it forces us to make a decision, to answer that question that everyone in the city was asking: “Who is this?”

There’s no doubt about the claim Jesus was making for himself as he entered the city. In Zechariah 9:9, the prophet has a vision of God’s chosen king coming into Jerusalem humble and riding on a donkey. Later in the same book, the prophet declares that God will stand on the Mount of Olives to take back Jerusalem from his enemies. To this day, there are huge Jewish cemeteries on the Mount of Olives because the expectation is that when God comes to put things right, that’s where he’ll begin. And so Jesus stands on the Mount of Olives surveying the city he’s intent on capturing; not with mighty armies and weapons of war, but with a cross and with love outpoured. Jesus’s concern is not for prisoners or spoils of war, but for winning hearts back to God. As William Barclay has excellently pointed out, “It was not the kingship of the throne which he claimed it was the kingship of the heart.”

“Who is this?” If we’re after a king who will kick some serious Roman backside, we’ll be disappointed. If we’re after a king who will parade before us in the finest silk and satins, we’ll be disappointed. If we’re after a king who will make life easy for us, we’ll be disappointed. If we’re after a king who will be a kind of puppet ruler that we can tell what to do, we’ll be disappointed. If we’re after a king who acts as a kind of constitutional monarch who is little more than a figurehead and a tourist attraction and who doesn’t really get involved in our affairs, we’ll be disappointed. Jesus isn’t that sort of king and he never will be. Jesus challenges our very notions of power and kingship. If you’re singing today because you think Jesus will destroy death and evil by sheer brute force, you just wait for Friday when you see him nailed to a tree and killed like a common criminal. The truth is that it’s only on Friday that’ll we see what kind of a king Jesus really is. And when we see it, those who shouted “Hosanna!” today will be shouting “Crucify him!” then. We don’t want Jesus for our king; that’s precisely why we need him.

Soon after the Roman Empire converted to Christianity, artwork of the time depicted Christ looking like an emperor dressed in all the finery and sophistication of the imperial court. The irony is that his kingship couldn’t have been more different. Jesus didn’t come riding on a fearsome warhorse; he came riding on a donkey. And in some ways, he has more in common with the donkey or the ass—he is humble, lowly, unassuming; he is used to carrying heavy loads; he is a beast of burden who works for the benefit of humans like us. This is challenge offered by the words of the prophet Zechariah, which Matthew quotes: “Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey.” We ask ourselves again, “Who is this?” The answer bears a striking similarity to Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh! Our king not only comes riding on a donkey, but even resembles a donkey in the kind of hard, manual labour he does for us. “Behold, your King!” Matthew implores us.

“Who is this?” This week, that question won’t go away. It’s a question we will all have to grapple with and come up with an answer for. But perhaps we should wait till Friday to give our answer, once we’ve seen him betrayed, sold for thirty silver pieces; once we’ve seen him flogged, mocked and stripped naked; once we’ve seen him condemned, crucified and laid in a cold stone tomb. Then may God give us the eyes of faith to see Jesus as he really is, falling down and worshipping him as King. We read from that story now… (Matthew 27:11-54) “Who is this?” May God reveal the answer to us this Holy Week.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Value of Dry Bones: Resurrection in the Church

A Talk for the Wesley Guild, Shepley
7th April 2014, 7.30pm
Ezekiel 37:1-14

Put yourself in my shoes for a bit, won’t you? There I was, minding my own business, when this giant, invisible hand picked me up, plucked me like a grape from the vine and plonked me down in the middle of this huge, abandoned valley. I rubbed my eyes and looked around. Everywhere I looked there were bones; nothing but dry, brittle, lifeless bones. In fact, there were so many of them that it looked like a blanket of snow was covering the earth. The sun reflecting off the brilliant white carpet of the bony valley floor made me wince. And the silence, the silence was deafening. You could have heard a pin drop. I’ve never been somewhere so quiet before. It was eerie. Then, as if to make a point, God gave me a guided tour of the graveyard. He took my hand and led me around the bones so that I could get a proper look. Yep. They were dead alright. No doubt about that.

But then God asked me: “Can these bones live?” he said. Can they live? What a ridiculous question! He can’t be serious, can he? I mean, they’re bones, dry bones, very dry bones. There’s no flesh on them. The vultures picked these bones clean a long time ago. Since then they’ve just been lying there, getting bleached by the hot midday desert sun. “Can they live?” Yeah, right! Can pigs fly? Hah! I suppose they’ll be getting up in a minute doing the Macarena, won’t they? Hah! Fat chance! Wait a second, maybe it’s a trick. You know, a bit like QI. Whatever you do, don’t say the obvious answer… That’s a point. I should probably give him an answer, shouldn’t I? He’s looking at me. Quick, Ezekiel, think of something—something pious, something religious-sounding. You know the score. Well, I s’pose if these bones are going to live it certainly won’t anything to do with me, will it? So I’ll say something like that. That’s true. That’ll sound good, won’t it? Ok. And I answered: “Lord, only you know whether these bones can live.”

It feels like that in church sometimes, doesn’t it?—like God’s insulting our intelligence, pointing to someone or something that is clearly a lost cause and then going and proving us wrong by doing what we all full-well know is impossible as if just to spite us, just to make us look silly. God loves confounding our expectations. He loves breaking out of the neat little boxes we try to keep him in. God, as Easter reminds us every year, is in the business of bringing life out of death. And with a God like that, the word ‘impossible’ loses much of its meaning. So where am I going with all this? A while ago when I was exploring a feeling I had of God calling me towards ordination, someone asked me why I wanted to be ordained to serve a Church in almost constant decline. I said, “Because I believe in a God who can raise the dead, who can bring life out of death. I believe that, with God, there is value in dry bones.”

And so, that’s the title of my talk tonight: “The Value of Dry Bones: Resurrection in the Church.” We’re all very well aware, I think, that the Church in this country and many other Western countries are struggling. Attendance is falling. Average age is rising. Income from churchgoers is going down. Costs of maintaining old buildings are going up. And, despite the assertions of the honourable Secretary of State for Communities, Mr Pickles, it is abundantly clear that this is no longer a Christian country, if it indeed it could ever truly be said that it was to begin with. Although according to the 2011 census 59.3% (down from 72.1% in 2001) of UK adults call themselves Christian, what that means is actually pretty questionable. For instance, the English Church Survey found that of over 50 million people in England alone, only around 6% (3 million people) would usually go to church on a Sunday. The data also revealed that between 1998 and 2005, the Methodist Church lost 24% of regular Sunday churchgoers. These are huge numbers we’re talking about and it all seems to point back to a fairly pressing question, “Can these bones live?”

Sometimes, I think, preachers can be tempted to ask the same question. By which I don’t necessarily mean that it feels like you’re talking to a pile of dry bones, though I must confess that there have been times and places that I’ve felt like that. No. What I mean is that it’s easy to look from the front and see a smattering of mostly grey and white headed folks dotted all over the place to such an extent that you could shoot a canon through the church building and still not be in any danger of hitting anyone. It’s then that we preachers can sometimes feel like Ezekiel being led around the valley floor and being interrogated whether or not we think these bones can live. I hope so. But I’m with Ezekiel on this one: if they are going to live, it won’t be because of me; it’ll be because of some miraculous working of God’s Spirit.

What I think is so interesting about this story of the valley of dry bones is that before anything else, before prophesying to the bones and before the bones miraculously come together, God leads Ezekiel among the bones so that he can get a good look. Before new life starts to emerge, God wants Ezekiel to acknowledge and accept the reality of the death that is right in front of him. The road to new life begins with a rather blunt and sober assessment of the facts on the ground. It’s no use pretending things are fine. It’s no use trying to say that things are rosier than they are. The best thing we can do when confronted with something like this is name it for what it is. There may be shock, there may be denial, there may be anger, there may be bargaining, there may be grief—all the typical responses to a bereavement; but where God begins with Ezekiel is acceptance. The bones are dry, very dry. When it comes to thinking about Church decline, I think it’s important we try to do the same.

So let’s go with Ezekiel for a statistical walk around the dry bones. By 2020, forecasters are predicting that on present trends, church attendance will have fallen by 55% of what it was in 1980. In 2005, 65% of the population were non-churched; that is, people who just haven’t ever been to regular churchgoers. There were 26% who at one point in their lives went to church and who have since slipped away. All of which leaves just 9% of people who go to church monthly or more. Of all these, because the cross-section of the people who do go to church are generally older, the percentage of non-churched people in the population is increasing all the time. Last year it was estimated that the average age of churchgoers in the Church of England was 62. I haven’t found figures for the Methodist Church this year, but based on previous years and projections, they are at least comparable—something which seems to be backed up by anecdotal evidence.

In my last circuit there was a church with less than 15 people regularly in attendance, of whom the youngest was in their 70s. In October 2012, soon after I arrived here, I asked people in churches to help me get a feel for the place by filling in questionnaires about their church experience. Just 5% were from people under 40. 83% were from people over 55. The other day, Angie was at a playgroup with Jed and she got talking with another young mum there. In the course of the conversation, she told her that she was a Christian, that she’d come over from the States to study here and that I was about to go and train to be a Vicar in the Church of England. She automatically assumed I was American, not just because my wife is, but because she doesn’t know anybody her age in this country who is religious. This is the reality we find ourselves in.

Statistics, however, only tell part of the story. The goal is not simply more ‘bums on seats’ even though we would love to see every seat taken. When we ask the question, “Can these bones live?” we are confronted by the issue of what it means to live. The reality is that there could be a church full of people and it still to be full of dry bones. The kind of life Jesus talks about is eternal life, abundant life. He says in John’s Gospel, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” Likewise in John’s Gospel he said, “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” As far as Christians are concerned, then, life means being connected with God through Jesus. “Can these bones live?” Perhaps we also need to be asking whether what we are currently doing in our churches is really helping people to live in that deeper, fuller kind of life. Are we in our Sunday worship, in what we do during the week, helping people connect with God through Jesus? That’s a question we need to be asking.

Again, thinking back to the questionnaires people filled out around the circuit when I first arrived, when people were asked what they thought were the major issues facing their church in the future, a significant number of people said trying to recruit more people, especially younger people to come in and take over some of the jobs. That is perfectly understandable and of course, if churches are to carry on, there do need to be people willing and able to take up positions of leadership and responsibility in the life of the church. The danger, though, is that we want people to come because we want them to do the jobs we’re tired of doing and that our emphasis isn’t on wanting people to come so that they too can be connected with God in Jesus Christ. The Church isn’t the building or the institution; it’s the family of people who are serious about being followers of Jesus. It sounds obvious, but we need to remember that because if we don’t there’ll be nothing of substance there to keep new people even if they do come.

“Can these bones live?” Yes, I believe they can. First, however, I think we need to be realistic about where we are. Second, I think we need to be clear about what we mean when we talk about living. And third, I think we need to be prepared for resurrection being a rather messy business…

What strikes me straight away about Ezekiel’s experience in this story is that God asks him to do something which looks completely insane: to go out and preach to a valley full of dry old bones. It’s the Old Testament equivalent of talking to brick wall. I think we all sometimes have those experiences where we think that we’re talking to someone and they’re just completely non-responsive. Usually, however, we don’t set out to do it. Here God actually tells Ezekiel to go out and deliberately start speaking to a load of dry bones knowing full-well beforehand that they are just that—dry bones. God asks Ezekiel to do something which by all accounts might make him look a bit foolish. God asks him to take a risk. He asks him to do something which defies common sense simple because God has told him to do it. Imagine a church spending its money on something which doesn’t seem to have a hope of encouraging anyone new to come on a Sunday morning, but doing it simply because they heard God telling them it was the right thing to do. Mission is risky because you can throw all this seed out on the ground and there’s a chance that none of it will take root. Ezekiel could stand there and preach the finest sermon in the world to those dry bones, but there’s a chance that they’ll stay the same—and that’s where we need to learn to trust God because nothing will happen unless he is in it, unless his Spirit is filling those dry bones with breath. The challenge for us, then, is seeking to know and hear God’s voice well enough that we understand where God’s wind is blowing and get on board with it.

This, however, also comes with a health warning. When Ezekiel prophesies over the bones and there’s a sound and they all start rattling and coming together, that word for rattling also the word for an earthquake. Resurrection is a dangerous thing. What’s more, it’s not simply a case of new life, but of renewed life. The same dry, dead bones are taken up and transformed. There is continuity between the old and the new, but there’s also change. Those dry bones are not tossed away for God to start again from scratch; he picks them up and incorporates them into the new bodies that he’s making. Resurrection involves being changed. Perhaps in order to see renewed life in our churches, we will have to make some potentially quite painful decisions. In some instances, for example, closing a church might be a courageous way of looking for growth. A 2007 survey of Christian experience conducted by Tearfund found that churchgoing was strongest in churches of between 51 and 200 members. There seems to be a sense that a critical mass of people, resources and energy helps prepare the conditions for growth. Would a church be courageous enough to close not out of defeatism but out of the faith that with God these bones can still live in a different way and this might just be a way of cooperating with God’s work of doing that?

“Can these bones live?” Absolutely they can. If Easter teaches us anything, it’s that the word ‘impossible’ doesn’t mean much where God’s concerned. These bones can live, but are we ready for resurrection? Because the truth of the matter is that resurrection isn’t as easy as it’s cracked up to be. However, it is most certainly is worth it. As we approach Easter and the single most important celebration of the Christian calendar perhaps a question we need to be asking ourselves is what resurrection might look like in the Church, because we know that with God, no matter how bad things might seem, there is value in dry bones. “Can these bones live?” God knows they can. The real question is: do we?

Dangerous Grace

Preached at Holmfirth Methodist Church
3rd April 2014: Shoppers’ Service
Psalm 139

“O LORD, you have searched me out and known me.” Now is that good news, or bad?

Surely, it’s a wonderful thing to be searched out and known by the living God. There are times when we can feel so small, so insignificant and unimportant that we wonder whether anyone cares about us, whether anyone would notice if we didn’t exist. Psalm 139 says God would. He has searched us out and known us. God would care. God would notice.

“You have searched me,” the psalmist says. Really, it’s much stronger than that. The word has the sense of digging into or excavating something very thoroughly. It’s the word used to describe mining for precious metals and minerals. What the psalmist is saying is that God conducts a thorough investigation of us; that he is infinitely interested in us and that we are endlessly enthralling to him.

Similarly, when the psalmist says, “You have known me,” what he’s talking about is something of the utmost intimacy. The same word describes the kind of knowledge that two lovers have of one another. It means being uncovered, exposed, naked. Before God, we’re like an open book. His gaze penetrates every corner of our lives. It’s like an x-ray, looking straight through us and into our hearts—our thoughts, our feelings, our intentions. Nothing is concealed. He is the One “to whom all hearts are open, all desires known and from whom no secrets are hidden.”

God knows us through and through. He knows even the smallest things about us—our quirks, our habits, our eccentricities; he knows it all. He knows us better than we know ourselves. And that’s a good thing because sometimes we feel like we don’t know ourselves very well at all and it’s reassuring to know that God does, that he understands us. There are times when we sit down to pray and just don’t know what to say, how to begin. How comforting it is to know that’s ok because this is the same God who finishes our sentences before the words have even come into our head.

What a wonderful thing it is to be searched out and known by God!

And yet, how frightening also. A God who sees everything sees some things we’d rather not anyone see. We have skeletons in the closet—things we’re ashamed of, things we’re insecure about, things no one else knows about but us. And the fact is: we don’t want to be known quite that well. A God to whom the darkness is not dark and to whom the night is bright as the day is a God who shines a searchlight into every dark and dingy corner of our lives. The thing is, though: they’re dark and dingy for a reason; we don’t want anyone looking into them!

I’ve had the experience of being searched before and let me tell you, it’s not particularly pleasant. I’ve been to the airport to catch a flight, walked through the metal detector at security and heard that loud, persistent beep, beep, beep that no one wants to hear. I’ve been pulled over, patted down and probed in some rather personal places. I’ve had someone riffle through my bags, dumping everything out, swabbing it for traces of drugs or explosive and handing me back the jumbled pile of my possessions. And even though I had nothing to hide, you can feel the eyes of the other passengers boring into you, looking at you and thinking, “I hope he’s not on my flight…” It’s invasive. It’s humiliating. You come out feeling violated. Being searched can be a rather uncomfortable experience.

In the same way, because being known to someone is like being naked, it brings with it a high degree of vulnerability. When you share some very personal bit of information about yourself, you’re taking a risk on that person. Knowledge is power. It doesn’t take much for someone to use what they know against us if they wanted to. I’m sure that any husband or wife knows enough about the other that they could seriously embarrass them if they wanted to. To be fully known is a dangerous thing. If we’re to be fully known, we want to make sure it’s by someone we can trust.

“You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.”

You encompass me. You surround me. You besiege and beleaguer me. You press hard upon me and encircle me. You tie me up and seal me in. I look ahead of me—you’re there. I look over my shoulder—you’re there too. I can’t get away from you. You lay your hand upon me, but is it a hand gentle with blessing or a hand heavy with authority? I can’t tell. Maybe it’s both at the same time. Nevertheless, what I do know is that I don’t want you to take it from me, not even for a second. “Here I am,” I say. “Send me.”

What kind of God is this? This is the God to whom no one is anonymous. This is the God who’s like a shepherd with a hundred sheep, who when one wanders off and goes missing, leaves the other ninety-nine in the open countryside and goes off searching for it till he brings it back home safely. This is the God who’s like a woman with ten silver coins, who when one goes missing tears up the whole house up trying to find it and won’t give up till she’s got it back. This God goes after us relentlessly, won’t go away and won’t leave us alone; he pursues us until we give in, let go and surrender to his love.

What a wonderful and fearful thing it is to be searched out and known by this God!

God won’t be contained. He doesn’t want an hour of your Sunday mornings. He wants you, all of you. Every day. Every hour. Every minute. Every second. God wants it all. He wants you when you’re driving to work. He wants you when you’re doing the washing up. He wants you when you’re in the supermarket. There are no half-measures here. St. Augustine once said that because God made us for himself, our hearts are restless until they rest in him. Perhaps we should rather say that because God made us for himself, his heart is restless until ours rest in him.

This is dangerous grace. It’s dangerous because it means undergoing the discomfort of being searched. It’s grace because it’s God doing the searching. It’s dangerous because it means for us the vulnerability of being known. It’s grace because God became vulnerable to be known to us. It’s dangerous because God hems us in and encamps around us on every side. It’s grace because the call for unconditional surrender is met with unconditional love. It’s dangerous because God’s searchlight will expose the sordid depths of our sin. It’s grace because God doesn’t love us any less for seeing it. It’s dangerous because our sin will take us to the cross. But above all, it’s grace because Jesus went to the cross willingly for our sake.

“Search me out, O God, and know my heart;
try me and examine my thoughts.
See if there is any way of wickedness in me
and lead me in the way everlasting.”

May God give us the courage of sweet surrender to make this prayer our own. Amen.

Mother Church

Preached at Trinity Methodist/URC, Honley
30th March 2014: Mothering Sunday (AAW)
John 19:25-27

What is a family? Who is in your family? What does your family look like?

Someone a few years ago gave us a tea towel saying: “Friends are the family we choose for ourselves.” Friends are also part of our family. Sometimes they can even be closer to us than our real or biological family. There’s a proverb in the Bible that says the same thing: “There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” It’s possible to have friends who are more like family than family are.

It’s one of the amazing things about the story we’ve just read that even as Jesus was in terrible pain and about to die, he was thinking about other people and more worried about their problems than his own. Jesus looked down at his mother and his best friend standing next to her at the foot of his cross and in love he entrusted them to each other. There at the cross, Jesus created a new kind of family; a family where all of Jesus’ friends became brothers and sisters to one another.

There’s a story in another place in the Gospels when Jesus is told that his mother and brothers are outside looking for him and he responded by asking, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” He then pointed to his friends sat around listening to him and said that whoever lives the way God wants them to live is his brother, his sister and his mother. This is God’s family; a family of people like Mary and John who are willing to stand with Jesus to the end even through the pain of the cross.

Jesus gives us a whole new picture of what it means to be family. It is a family of all different sorts of people; people from every place and country, people from every age and ethnicity—men and women, old and young, rich and poor, black and white. This is a family of people tied together by more than genes; it is a family of people tied together by the love of Jesus and a desire to follow him in living lives that make God happy. In this kind of family, God is the Father and we are the children.

This is a family like no other. A third century Christian teacher called Cyprian once said: “You cannot have God as your Father unless you have the Church for your Mother.” And like any of the families we’re born into, you can’t choose your siblings; some you’ll get along with, some you won’t. In the Church, we are related to everyone who is a friend of Jesus. As a Methodist minister in America, Will Willimon, put it so wonderfully, “We have got to eat with anybody Jesus drags in the door.”

Like most families, the Church family can be dysfunctional at times. It too has its fair share of spats and quarrels; but what makes the Church family unique is that it always keeps coming back to sit and eat with one another around the Lord’s table. Because we are related to one another by the simple fact of being Jesus’s friends, it means that if we want to sit and eat with Jesus, we also have to sit and eat with anyone else Jesus chooses to sit and eat with. It is the love of Jesus which holds us all together, which binds us as family.

Now I want to stay with the idea of the Church as our Mother for a bit longer. I want you to think for a moment of what that means. What do our mothers do for us?

There’s a huge long list we could make: they love us, they care for us, they forgive us, they pick us up when we fall down, they change our dirty nappies when we’re babies, they feed us, they cook for us, they clean for us, they wash our clothes, they nurture us, they tell us off when we’ve done something wrong, they give us a hug when we’re feeling down, they encourage us, they spend time with us, they talk with us, they play with us, they eat with us, they laugh with us, they cry with us, they watch over us, they protect us, they give us the freedom to make mistakes, they teach us things, they show us how to do things. The list could go on, I’m sure.

Something else they do for us that we haven’t mentioned: they give birth to us. We are all here today because a mother gave birth to us; they carried us in the womb and gave birth to us. The Church is our Mother because it is the place where Christians are born, where people begin life in relationship with God. Now when I talk about ‘the Church’ I’m not talking about a building, but about people, about the Christians who come together to worship God and centre their lives on Jesus. None of us get connected with Jesus by ourselves; we come because other people show him and share him with us, we come because Jesus reveals himself to us through God’s other children, through his family. It is through the Church we learn the life of faith.

The Church is the place where Christians are born. And like the love of our heavenly Father, Mother Church loves us and accepts us just as we are; we are welcomed and cherished without doing anything to earn or deserve it, but simply for being ourselves. Sometimes, like children, we come home with a scraped knee and mud all over us and it is the Church our Mother who cleans and dresses the wound, washes and changes our clothes. It is in the family of the Church that we learn both to receive forgiveness and to give it as well. Sometimes our mothers tell us off for doing something dangerous, selfish or unkind and sometimes Mother Church will do the same. We are loved as we are; but too much to allow us to stay infants forever.

The Church, like a mother, also teaches us to speak. She shows us who we are and why we’re here. She tells us our story, our family history. She explains why we’re special, why we’re different and why we don’t behave like everyone else does. Mother Church names us as God’s children and helps us work out what it means to live as God’s children. She instructs us in what’s right and what’s wrong. She feeds us and nourishes us with the food of God’s word in the Bible and God’s presence in the bread and wine of Holy Communion. Mother Church helps us grow and flourish as the people God made us to be. She holds us in her land like a clutch of helium balloons and releases us to soar upwards into God. She rejoices when we rejoice and when we’re sad she puts her arm around us and comforts us.

This is the family Jesus creates at the cross for anyone who will be his friend. It’s not exclusive little club for holy Joes; it’s a Sunday school for children learning how to walk. Mother Church is our home away from home; it is the place we come in order to find God’s presence, power and purpose for our lives, preparing us for the day that home is here to stay. The question for us this Mothering Sunday is this: The kettle’s on and the food is in the oven; but are on our way back home to God?

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.