What is the Point?

Preached at Wycliffe Hall Chapel
26th October 2015: Morning Prayer
Ecclesiastes 1

Come, Creator Spirit, take my human words and through them sound forth the Reality of God. Open our hearts in faith that we might know Christ walking through this congregation as the Word, speaking to us and revealing in Himself the heart of the one He taught us to call Father; for it is in Christ’s name we pray. Amen.

““Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”” (Ecclesiastes 1:2)

We’re perhaps more accustomed to the traditional rendering: “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” Hebel is the Hebrew word. It means a mist, a vapour, a breath. It is Abel’s name. But you probably don’t remember Abel, do you? His life only lasted as long as a breath. We read about him for a few short verses in Genesis 4, and then that’s it, he’s gone. Snuffed out. Extinguished. And what does he have to show for his life? Nothing. All we know about him is that he offers God one sacrifice and his brother stabs him in the back for his troubles. Great. What was the point?

And what is the point of you being here now? Be honest, you were thinking it this morning, weren’t you? You looked out of the window and thought to yourself, “What’s the point of getting up on a cold, wet late October morning and cycling into college for 8.20am? What’s the point of sitting in chapel, using some stuffy liturgy and listening to some windbag of a preacher who’s still got his homiletical ‘L’ plates on?” Come on, that’s what you were thinking, isn’t it? And if not today, you have thought it at some point, haven’t you?

And what is the point of me standing preaching to you now? For crying out loud, you’re a load of theologians and training vicars, which means you’re either spotting my heresies or picking holes in my hermeneutics. If you want to know about Ecclesiastes, there’s a library full of books not 100 metres away—go find a book and read it. What original word can I bring you this morning? The gospel hasn’t changed over the weekend. Day after day, week after week, it’s the same old message in this chapel. What has been preached will be preached again. There’s nothing new under the Wycliffe chapel lights. So honestly, I ask you: what is the point?

Let me be quite clear on something, therefore: what we’re doing here is pointless… Pointless, that is, unless God shows up. Unless God shows up, all our prayers are just hollow, opaque, idle words. Unless God shows up, this sermon is just me prattling on about a vaguely religious theme. Unless God shows up, the Church is doomed and all our study is in vain. Unless God shows up, all our worship, all our being Church, all our training, is just a royal waste of time and we are to be pitied above all people for throwing our lives away on something so… pointless!

In v.3, the Teacher (Qoheleth) asks, “What does anyone gain from all their labours at which they toil under the sun?” Literally the Hebrew reads, “What profit is there to a person…?” This question is the theme, not only of the first chapter, but also of the entire book. The word for ‘gain’ (יִּתְרוֹן) is an accounting term. It refers to what’s left at the end of the day. Qoheleth’s question is an existential one: What’s the point of it all? Where’s life headed? What’s its meaning? That’s the subject of his research. And like any good essay, he establishes his methodology (vv. 12-18), but before that he tells us his answer: there is no point; life’s going nowhere; it’s all meaningless.

The sun rises, the sun sets, and pants back to the beginning ready for the next day. The wind too just blows round and round and round. The streams keep running to the sea, but the sea is never full. There’s never a point at which our eyes are satisfied with what they’ve seen, or our ears are filled with what they’ve heard. It’s all so pointless. But it’s not the circularity of it that bothers him; it’s the futility of it all. Nothing ever reaches fulfilment. Nothing ever reaches a goal. Things just keep going on and on and on with no apparent end or purpose. Where is life headed? Where is the world headed? Where is history headed? Nowhere, it seems.

The world Qoheleth describes is not a world without God. God is very much present. It’s just that He can’t be known. He’s hidden. Inscrutable. Impenetrable. It is a world without revelation, a world in which God maintains a respectable distance. The words “I” or “my” appear 12 times in vv. 12-18. That gives you a sense of the problem. Qoheleth describes a world in which we have to make the running when it comes to finding out about God. And what does Qoheleth, who speaks in the persona of wise old Solomon, discover? “There ain’t no way to get there from here.” No matter how wise we might be, God is simply not accessible to us through our own intellectual efforts.

“There is nothing new under the sun,” Qoheleth says. Clearly, he’s never heard the intrusive word of a God who says, “See, I am doing a new thing!” (Isaiah 43:19) or, “Behold, I am making all things new!” (Revelation 21:5). Clearly, he’s never encountered the Word become flesh. For, as William Willimon writes: “Every religion offers to help us finite creatures climb up to or dig deep into the infinite. Only Christianity contends that the infinite descended, taking the form of our finitude—Incarnation.” We don’t have to ascend to God. He descends to us. We don’t have to look for God. He comes looking for us.

In Christ, God reveals Himself fully, definitively and conclusively. What’s more, the resurrection shows us precisely where history is headed. Karl Barth is right: “The goal of human life is not death, but resurrection.” The resurrection lifts the veil on the God-ordained destiny of creation. It vindicates Christ’s entire life and ministry culminating at Calvary. It prevents us from looking at the crucified rabbi from Nazareth and asking, “What was the point?” Christ shows us that there is a point to a life lived with and for God, even if it leads to a Cross. When we labour under the Son, we can be sure that there is a lasting gain for our toils in the life of the world to come. For even Abel, though dead, still speaks (Hebrews 11:4).

So what’s the point of our being here? What’s the point of our worship, our preaching and our study? There is no point, none whatsoever… unless God shows up and reveals Himself to us as the bloody, crucified Lamb who sits on the throne. If our lives and our time here at Wycliffe isn’t going to be pointless, it’s only going to be because we’ve been captured, commandeered and commissioned by the revelation of a God, who has revealed His purpose to recapitulate all things in Christ (Ephesians 1:10). And since that is beyond our doing, therefore, let us learn to continually pray that ancient prayer, which expresses the utter futility of our lives apart from a God who reveals Himself as Jesus Christ: veni, creator spiritus.

Come, Creator Spirit. Amen.

Out of the Mouths of Babes

“Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger.” (Psalm 8:2)

I don’t mind confessing that I don’t really have a clue what this verse means, but it sounds good. I’ve heard these words many times. I’ve read these words many times. I’ve even spoken and prayed these words many times. Yet still, I don’t really know what they mean. Tonight, I think, I may have found out.

Every evening in our house, after bath-time and bed-time, we ask our two-and-a-half year old son Jed what he wants to say thank you to God for before we pray. Earlier today a package arrived from his Gram in the States with a new Dusty book, which we duly read (three times) tonight. It was no surprise, therefore, when he said he wanted to thank God for it. But he wasn’t done yet. He went on: “And cars. And tables. And doors. And Daddy’s church (the name he gives to my college). And butterflies…” And so it went on. And after a while, conscious that we actually wanted him to go to sleep, we thought we ought to wrap things up and say, “Amen.”

But he wasn’t finished yet. He carried on: “And books. And water. And lampposts. And chocolate. And toes. And trousers. And pineapple. And sidewalk. And sea monsters. And train set. And friends. And whales.” And there was more besides—much more than I can remember barely an hour after the fact. He just kept going for minutes. It was a veritable extravaganza of thanksgiving, a litany of blessings returned to Sender. It was simply incredible to hear. It made us smile. It made us laugh. It also made us think. Jed’s prayer has challenged me enormously.

As I reflected on bed-time, I became aware of how like Jesus’ first disciples I am—constantly missing the point. Jed was giving thanks to God for things that either it had never occurred to me to thank God for, or for things that I had simply taken for granted—like water, like toes, even lampposts. My two-and-a-half year old son had recognised that all is gift, when it had passed me by. “What do you have that you did not receive?” the apostle Paul asks (1 Corinthians 4:7). What indeed. And yet, while my son was giving thanks, I was saying, “Come on, let’s stop praying now. Time for bed.”

Remind you of anything? One time some parents brought their darling little ones to Jesus and they were rolling around in the mud and pulling each other’s hair and making noise, and the disciples asked Jesus, “Lord, send them away. We can’t hear what you’re saying because these kids are making such a racket.” And do you remember what Jesus did? He pulled over little Jimmy with the snotty nose, sat him on his lap and said, “Unless you become like little Jimmy here, you’ll never enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:13-16). I feel similarly chastened. Jesus rebuked me and said, “Don’t you dare shut him up. You could learn a thing or two about praying if only you listened to him. You’ve got to be real small to enter my kingdom.”

God uses the foolish to shame the wise, the weak to shame the strong (1 Corinthians 1:27). The prayers and praises of little children are powerful because God takes them to shut up the godless chatter of contented, self-sufficient, know-it-all ‘grown-ups’ like me. God has silenced my attempts to silence my son’s praises. The Enemy would love to stifle our prayers. But God won’t let him. He’ll raise up an army of infants to pray for toes and pineapples and train sets. Thanks be to God!

One last thing… If you’ve read this post and in any way been encouraged by it, please can I ask you to share any similar moments of insights into God/faith from little ones? Let’s join God in building this bulwark. Whatever that is…

A Call to Prayer

Yesterday evening, photographs emerged of the very real human cost of the migrant crisis gripping Europe. As I saw the chilling image of three-year-old Aylan Al-Kurdi’s lifeless body lying facedown in the sand of a beach near Bodrum in Turkey, I could only weep and cry out, “Come, Lord Jesus,” as I saw my own son of a similar age lying there. No longer just numbers in the news headlines, the desperation that would drive a family to make the perilous journey across the Mediterranean became personal. When we put a face to the refugees and the suffering they endure, suddenly it becomes a lot harder to ignore.

As I cycle ten minutes down the road to college every morning, I pass a lot of very ‘nice’ houses. Most of them must be worth upwards of £1.5 million, at least. And no doubt one of the reasons we like them is because the behind the gate, the wall and the door, we feel safe inside our own little castles, temporarily shielded from the harsh reality of life we would see if only we knew the person down the street instead of being locked up in the comforts of our own home. We mustn’t be fooled. Our wealth may wrap us in a warm blanket of self-delusion, but the fact is that our lives are just as vulnerable as those of the Syrian refugees desperate to make it to Europe.  We are a lot more like them than we often care to admit.

I can only imagine what despair would drive a parent to risk taking their young children on a small, overcrowded and flimsy boat across the Mediterranean. My life is so comfortable that if I were taking my children on a boat, I’d be wondering if I packed enough snacks and entertainment to keep them happy on the journey. Turkish news reported that Aylan and his family were refugees fleeing the advance of Islamic State (IS) on their hometown of Kobane. “Lord, have mercy,” I prayed. I prayed that God would end the violence of this brutal menace and I prayed that God might give the Church the courage to preach the gospel to those who would drive a family to take such desperate measures as resulted in Aylan’s death and I prayed for an end to the stream of people living in such fear that they’d rather risk death on the open seas than stay in their homes in the shadow of IS.

I salute the decision of The Independent to publish these most distressing of images.[i] We need to see them. This is the reality facing countless people–people who are just like you and me. No doubt in the next few days, the political discourse will centre on the need for some magnanimous gesture to take more refugees into our country, and the conversation will soon return to being about numbers—it’s safer like that. I’m not denying the value of a political response, but I want to advocate a solution that is far more revolutionary. So what is to be done in the face of such an unholy catastrophe? We must pray. We must throw up our hands, lift up our voices and shout, “Enough!”

We must let this tragedy teach us not to allow ourselves to become blasé about the sin-wrecked sickness of our world. It will be a sad day indeed when an image of a three-year-old boy lying lifeless on a beach far from his home leaves us unmoved. It’s right to be shocked. This isn’t how the world is meant to be.   This isn’t what a world under the Lordship of Christ looks like. Therefore we must trust that these words of Karl Barth are true: “To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.” Jesus says, “I am coming soon.” And all the faithful said, “Not soon enough! Come quickly, Lord Jesus! Come quickly!”

[i] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/if-these-extraordinarily-powerful-images-of-a-dead-syrian-child-washed-up-on-a-beach-dont-change-europes-attitude-to-refugees-what-will-10482757.html

Christ: Our Lover

Preached at St. Giles, Bletchingdon
30th August 2015: 13th Sunday after Trinity
Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Mark 7:1-8,14,15,21-23

Come, Holy Spirit, take my feeble human words and fill them with Your power, that through them You may reveal Jesus Christ and we may hear Him speaking to us; for His name’s sake. Amen.

Today, the lectionary affords us a rare treat: a reading from the Song of Solomon. On reading it, it appears to be a collection of the steamy erotic fantasies of two infatuated adolescents. If you’re wondering what on earth something like that is doing in the Bible, you’re not the first. Its inclusion in the canon of the Jewish Scriptures was a matter of fierce debate among the rabbis, with many thinking it little more than a lewd drinking song.

It is no wonder that the lectionary limits us to this one relatively ‘safe’ and passing glimpse at it every three years, lest it offend our sensibilities! Heaven forbid that we talk about something that arouses our passions in church! So the question is: what on earth is the Song of Solomon doing in our Bible? Why is it there? Why does the lectionary bother introducing it to us at all? Though many have been embarrassed by it over the ages, it is in the Bible because people have seen it is something almost mystical about the nature of God’s love for His people.

In the 12th century, the French monk Bernard of Clairvaux wrote 86 sermons on the Song of Solomon. What’s more, he didn’t even get past chapter two! At that rate, had he completed the book, he probably would have had a sermon for every day of the year. I’m sorry to say that my preparations haven’t been quite so thorough. Nevertheless, I’m as convinced as he was that in this celebration of sexual love between a man and a woman, we see something profound, even scandalous, about the nature of Christ’s love for His Church, Christ’s love for us.

“The voice of my beloved! Behold, he comes, leaping over the mountains, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Behold, there he stands behind our wall, gazing through the windows, looking through the lattice.” (Song of Solomon 2:8-9)

Our passage starts with the woman hailing the arrival of her athletic young lover as he comes skipping and springing towards her and stands peering in through the latticework at his housebound sweetheart. If you’re wondering why he’s at the back window, we must remember this is the ancient Middle East. This fair young maiden is watched over by her male guardians, whose job it is to defend her chastity and protect her from any unwelcome advances. She is not a free woman, and so until a dowry is paid, the lover can only stand outside looking in.

Then, in hushed tones, the beloved speaks and summons her to come out and join him, restrained though she is: “Arise, my love, my beautiful one,” he says, “and come away” (2:10). “Winter’s gone,” he says. “Springtime is here. The fields are bursting with bright flowers. The turtledoves are cooing softly in the trees. The fig trees are swelled with fat, juicy fruit ready to be eaten. The vines are exuding their sweet perfume. New life is blossoming everywhere. Surely it’s time for our romance to blossom also.” And so our reading finishes with the lover issuing that same invitation: “Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away” (2:13).

You may not realise it or ever have thought of it this way before, but we are about to share the most romantic meal you have ever eaten, or will ever eat this side of eternity. Some say it with a card. Others say it with flowers or expensive chocolate. Jesus Christ says it with His own flesh and blood. This meal tells us that God has come to us and died for love of our love. God, in Christ, has leapt over mountains and bounded over hills just to be near us. By taking our human nature with all its muck and mess upon Him, God has declared once and for all His intention to be not only God for us but also God with us.

God is infatuated with us. This meal shows us that. Here we see the extraordinary lengths to which God would go in order to win our love. This meal testifies to the clear, emphatic “Yes!” God speaks to humanity, and His firm, decisive “No!” to the way we’ve been living without Him. This meal says that God has come to us and removed the barriers keeping us apart. Christ Himself has paid the price of our freedom on the cross. And in His resurrection, He has brought to light the fertile new life of God’s eternal spring.

This meal that we call the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, is God’s great declaration of undying love towards us. Like the Song of Solomon itself, it reveals a costly, consuming, even compulsive love. In it God says, “This is how much I love you. This is how much I want us to be together.” But as I hope you all know (and if you don’t, you really ought to), the sought-after response to the words “I love you,” is not, “Thank you,” but rather (help me please): “I love you, too.” Christ invites to elope with Him into the life of God. It demands a response.

“Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away.” Christ speaks these words to us. And yet we hold ourselves back from Him. In Jesus Christ, God holds out the free gift of eternal life—life lived in harmony with God. All we have to do is open our hands and accept it, receive it, and take to heart that it’s so—that we are indeed loved with a love like that. But deep down we don’t believe we can be loved with a love like that. We don’t believe that God could know all the bits we’re too embarrassed for even our husbands or wives to see, and still love us. So we say, “It’s not spring yet. I don’t see the blossom on the trees. It’s still rainy and cold, and I wouldn’t rule out more snow on the way.”

If we want proof of God’s love for us, the meal we are about to share ought to convince us. But we hold ourselves back. We keep Jesus out of our finances, our relationships, our workplaces, and so many other areas of our lives. We keep Him at arms’ length, allowing Him to visit us on Sundays only, and then only when we’re chaperoned. But Christ will not have it. Christian life is life lived in light of Christ’s love. There can be no unreached area, no place in our lives that the reality of Christ’s love does not touch and transform. Even today, therefore, Christ stands outside at the window and pleads with us to come out and be with Him forever.

Shortly before being hung by the Nazis for his part in a plot to kill Hitler, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German minister and theologian, wrote to his friend Bethge that he had been meditating on the Song of Solomon while in prison. He wrote that he had found great comfort there, knowing that “nothing calamitous can happen” when we are loved by such an “ardent, passionate, sensual love that is portrayed there.” Even in the face of execution by the Nazis, he knew that nothing bad can happen to the one has been loved with the love God shows us in Jesus Christ.

What peace would be ours if only we embraced the love that already embraces us! But our reciprocation is not forced or coerced. As the Russian philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev said: “Love nailed upon a cross compels no one.” There is, then, the almost impossible possibility that we might spurn the unrestrained overtures of the God who would die wooing us. The voice of our Beloved is calling. Christ is calling. Will we respond? Will we accept the Cup, knowing that doing so means committing to give ourselves wholly to Him who gave Himself wholly to us?

Unworthy though we are, God has made us the objects of His fiery, jealous and unyielding love. By eating bread and drinking wine Christ invites us to taste that love and anxiously await its full consummation when we meet Him face to face. In the simple meal we are about to share, Christ would make us one with Him, taking us deeper into His very own life—a life lived out to the love, praise and glory of God. Therefore, as you come forward in a few minutes’ time, listen as He whispers to you: “Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away.”

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

Hungry for God

Preached at All Saints, Easton
9th August 2015: 10th Sunday after Trinity
1 Kings 19:4-8; Psalm 34:1-8; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35-51

Almighty and everlasting God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we thank you that you are a God who fills the hungry with good things, and who in your Son has given us a living bread from heaven to eternally satisfy the needs and longings of the whole world. Stir up within us an appetite for the life that it truly life, and send your Holy Spirit among us now that we may feed on Jesus Christ, your living Word, in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving. Amen.

“Go!” said Pharaoh. So they went. Their bread hadn’t yet had time to rise, but they couldn’t wait. They wrapped their kneading bowls in their cloaks, tossed them over their shoulders together with all the belongings they could carry, and headed off out of Egypt and into freedom. And when Pharaoh changed his mind and sent all the chariots he could muster thundering after them, God opened a way in the sea, lead them to safety and closed the waters behind them to sweep away the entire Egyptian army in one fell swoop. Moses led the singing, Miriam led the dancing, and a great party erupted in the desert.

Just three days later, and the people were already grumbling. “We can’t find anything to drink,” they complained. “The water here tastes funny—it’s too bitter.” So God showed Moses a log. He threw it into the water and the bitter water became sweet. After that they came to an oasis called Elim where there were not one, not two, but twelve freshwater springs, and seventy—yes, seventy—palm trees laden with fat, juicy dates. “Satisfied?” God must have felt like asking. But apparently not, because a little while later after leaving Elim that disorgansised gaggle of grumblers have now formed a Back to Egypt Committee (you’ll find one in every church).

“What have you brought us out here for, Moses?” they muttered. “It would have been better if God had killed us in Egypt than for us to starve to death out here. Back in Egypt, we had plenty to eat and drink. We sat by pots stuffed with meat and ate as much bread as we wanted.   Now we’re going to die of hunger in some God-forsaken desert. Thanks a lot.” (Yes, there is in every congregation a group of people who would rather the grim predictability of decline and slavery to the arduous uncertainty change and freedom.) And God responded by telling Moses, “Quit it! I’m sick of all your complaining!” No. He said, “I’m going to show you my glory. I’m going to give you so much to eat, it’s going to rain bread from heaven.”

So Moses got the word out: “Get ready, folks—I’ve spoken to the Chef, He says the food’s on its way.” And no sooner had the message been conveyed than the radiant glory of the Lord appeared in a cloud out in the wilderness, and God told Moses, “Soon you’re going to eat your fill of food and then you’ll know that I am the Lord your God.” The morning came. Dew covered the dry desert ground all around the camp and as it evaporated, it left behind a fine, mysterious, flaky substance, almost like frost. The people looked at it, then they looked at one another, and then they asked, “What is it?”

“What is it? What’s this?” Man hu, they ask in Hebrew. That’s where we get the word ‘manna’. And isn’t that just like us? God lays-on a feast in the desert and we turn our noses up and go, “What’s this? I’m not too sure about foreign food.” The bread God provides is bread like they’ve never seen or known before. It wasn’t what they expected, and in all likelihood, it wasn’t what they wanted either. “We only wanted some Kingsmill,” they insisted. But it’s not Kingsmill. It’s not Hovis either. Manna is God’s miraculous provision that we don’t get and don’t understand. It’s miracle-bread we can’t control, we can’t hoard and we can’t possess for ourselves. Those who tried to control it, to hoard it and to possess it found that it rotted under their noses. You simply have to receive it fresh every day as a gift.

Manna is the bread that teaches us that we don’t need bread as much as we need the God who provides it. We don’t trust in the bread. We trust in God. And after forty years of wandering in the wilderness, when the people of God are finally ready to cross over into the Promised Land, that is precisely what Moses reminds them: “[God] fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3). The point of the manna was to teach the people that it’s God who gives people life, not Kingsmill. God alone gives us the strength we need. God alone satisfies our every longing. God alone will last forever.

“I am the bread of life,” Jesus says; “whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). Do you understand what it is that Jesus is saying? He’s saying, “I am the flesh and blood embodiment of the God that you need to live.” He’s saying, “If you want to live, you’re going to need me.” He’s saying, “If you feed on me and take me into the very depths of your being, I will nourish you with the life of the age to come, eternal life, the life of God Himself.” Is it any surprise, therefore, that the people who heard Him didn’t get it? They didn’t understand what He was on about. They looked at Jesus and, like the Israelites in the desert, they asked, “Man hu? What’s this?” Like the manna, Jesus was not the bread they knew, not the kind of bread they wanted or were looking for.

When was the last time you were hungry? I don’t mean peckish. I mean hungry—tummy rumbling, arm-gnawing, could-eat-a-horse, hungry. Even with the use of foodbanks on the rise, most of us in this country are so comfortable we don’t know what it means to be truly hungry, and therefore we don’t get how big a deal it is for Jesus to say that if we come to Him we’ll never go hungry again. The World Food Programme estimates that there are some 795 million people in the world who do not have enough food to live a normal, active, healthy life. That’s one in nine of the world’s population. I bet if we asked them whether it was a big deal for someone to say they could forever satisfy the appetites of the whole world, they’d say yes.

Most of us don’t get that. When we hear Jesus say, “I am the bread of life,” we want to ask Him what kind of bread—plain white sliced bread from the supermarket or a hand-crafted artisan sourdough from the local organic bakery? And yet, just because we’re not hungry for bread doesn’t mean we’re not hungry. As Mother Teresa said, “Even the rich are hungry for love, for being cared for, for being wanted, for having someone to call their own.” And again, “Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat.” Our hungers are more than physical. We are hungry emotionally. We are hungry spiritually. Ultimately, we are hungry for God. And Jesus promises to meet our hunger.

“I am the bread of life.” What a claim that is! As C.S. Lewis said, to say something like this puts Him “on the level of the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell.” In other words, He’s either mad, bad, or God. And some have suggested that what Jesus means by saying He is the bread of life is that He meets our spiritual hunger, that He is our true and lasting spiritual nourishment. And while that’s true, that also makes Jesus’ claim too small. For Jesus doesn’t say, “I am the bread of spiritual life”; rather He says, “I am the bread of life,” and life includes the physical and emotional; this is life in all its fullness, embodied human life restored to the way it is meant to be. Take note: Jesus Himself is what need to live—not what He can teach us, not what He can do for us, not what He can show us. “I am the bread of life,” He says. We need Him.

Jesus is the source of a new way of life. Where all feed on Jesus, no one will go hungry—whether physically, emotionally, or spiritually. That is a picture of the life of the world to come. And we catch a glimpse of it in the book of Acts in the life of the first Christian community. Acts 4:34-35 says this: “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” It is in the Church that we see the hungry feeding on Christ and being satisfied, for Jesus is the bread who nourishes us with a life that makes us open our hand to the poor and the needy, who makes us share our bread with others (whether that bread be physical, emotional or spiritual).

When Moses told the people of Israel that “man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord,” he was telling them that the Law God gave them revealed the life He wanted them to have. Jesus, here, by saying that He is the bread of life claims to be God’s Law incarnate—the living, skin and bones personification of the life God wants for us. To see Jesus is to see what it means to live. And what does it mean to live? Paradoxically, it means to die. It means to die to ourselves: our need to get our own way, our need to be right all the time, our need to be the centre of our own little universe. This is what Jesus does. And glorious, impossible, new life emerges—resurrection. That is the meaning of the meal we are about to share.

Rob Bell writes: “When we say yes to God, when we open ourselves to Jesus’ living, giving act on the cross, we enter in to a way of life. He is the source, the strength, the example, and the assurance that this pattern of death and rebirth is the way into the only kind of life that actually sustains and inspires.” To feed on Jesus means feeding on the One who emptied Himself of all but love on our behalf. To feed on Jesus means feeding on the One who brought us life by giving Himself over to death. To feed on Jesus means feeding on the One who would bring us into the pattern of His life-giving death and resurrection. “Lose your life and find it,” Jesus says.

“I am the bread of life,” Jesus says; “whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. … And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:35, 51). The flesh and blood Word of God will give His physical life to feed a world hungry for God. As a result of Jesus’ self-giving death, a world that at present does not know the life of God will be enabled to experience it. Jesus would feed us with His flesh and make us partakers of the kind of life He has—resurrection life, death-defeating life, the life of the world to come. The bread and wine that will be put into your open, empty hands is a sign of that life. But will you make it your own?

Before Jesus declared Himself the bread of life, He fed the five thousand. When the people saw this display of power, they wanted to make Him king there and then. But Jesus wouldn’t let them. He evaded their grasp and withdrew to the mountain by himself. Later, as He was crucified an inscription in Aramaic, Greek and Latin was placed above His head reading, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” This is the kind of King Jesus is. But the people didn’t get it. That was not what they wanted or expected their king to look like. Jesus was unlike any king they’d seen or known before. They looked at Him and asked, “Man hu? What’s this?” They failed to see God’s miraculous provision right before their eyes. As we come to the Lord’s Table in just a moment, let us not do the same.

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

In Him All Things

Preached at Christ Church, Abingdon
19th July 2015: 7th Sunday after Trinity
John 15:1-17

O Lord, our glorious, loving and holy God, we thank you that you are a God who speaks and who has given us in your Son a living Word who points us to You and that reality which words cannot express: your unfathomable, great and jealous love for all that you have made. Send your Holy Spirit among us now, we pray, to reveal yourself to our hearts in the person of your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ, and by the same Spirit, unite us with Him that we may evermore dwell in Him, and He in us. Amen.

What is salvation? Salvation is one of those churchy words that we don’t really use much in everyday life, unless it’s to talk about a new football manager being appointed to a club in trouble. In this sermon series, which we’re concluding tonight, we’ve been working our way through the seven “I am” sayings of Jesus in John’s Gospel and looking at what they tell us about Jesus the Saviour and the salvation that is to be found in Him. In each, Jesus reveals a slightly different nuance of who He is and what He’s about.

Tonight we’ll be digging into Jesus’ description of Himself as the True Vine and we’ll be thinking about what that image tells us about the kind of Saviour Jesus is and what it means for us to be saved by a Saviour like Jesus. What we see emerging from this extended figure of speech that Jesus uses here in John 15 is that salvation is incorporation. And there are three elements of this that I want to draw out for us this evening:

  1. Salvation is incorporation into the Saviour; that it involves a personal relationship with Jesus.
  2. Salvation is incorporation into the Saviour’s work; that it involves us in what Jesus is about.
  3. Salvation is incorporation into the Saviour’s community; that it involves us with everyone else in relationship with Jesus.

That’s where we’re going, but before we get there I just want to step back a bit to think about what it is Jesus is actually saying when He says, “I am the true vine.” First, let’s reflect on those two small words with which Jesus begins: “I am the true vine.” Earlier on in the series, Keith called our minds back to Exodus 3 when God met with Moses in the burning bush revealed His name as: “I AM WHO I AM.” He explained how these words on Jesus’ lips are a claim to His divinity, to His unity with the Father. But I want to think about something much more mundane than that. I want to think for a moment about what it is that any of us are doing when we begin a sentence, “I am…”

As I’m sure we all learned at school, every complete sentence has two parts to it: there’s the subject (who or what the sentence is about) and there’s the predicate, which tells us about the subject (such as what it’s like or what it does). When Jose Mourinho first arrived as Chelsea manager back in 2004, he caused quite a stir when he announced to the gathered media, “I am a special one.” He himself was the subject of that sentence and what he wanted us to know was that he was special (or at least, he thought he was special—I’ll let you judge for yourselves the content of his claim!). But the important thing is this: every time we use the words “I am…” we shed light on who we are and what we’re about. If I am the subject, then the predicate always reveals something of myself to another.

In our case, then, the subject is Jesus, speaking about Himself. And in one sense, of course, that’s not particularly interesting. We speak about ourselves all the time. Yet what makes the “I am” sayings of Jesus so special is the One who is the subject of this self-disclosure. For the One who’s doing the revealing is the One whom the apostle Paul says in Colossians 1:15 is “the image of the invisible God”; the One whom the author of the letter to the Hebrews describes as “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Hebrews 1:3); the One whom the prologue to this very Gospel says makes known the God whom no one has ever seen (John 1:18).

We often come to these “I am” sayings of Jesus so flippantly, with such familiarity that we fail to recognise the riches of what’s right in front of us. This is God revealing God’s self to us. In Jesus, God condescends to make Himself the subject of our enquiry. We really ought to marvel in wonder at the grace of a God who would stoop so low as to be known by finite beings like us. And just look at how He does it. Jesus takes a simple, ordinary, everyday image like a vine to communicate His truth to us. God doesn’t stand before us and lecture us with technical, theological jargon we don’t understand. Rather, as Martin Luther once said: when God speaks to humanity, God always speaks in baby talk. God doesn’t send Jesus into a seminar room at Oxford University, He sends Him into the crèche.

Time and time again Jesus does this in the Gospels, especially when He’s telling parables about the Kingdom. He uses the mundane to illustrate the sublime, the earthly to illuminate the heavenly. And this is the nature of the man Himself, for He is the One in whom Him heaven and earth meet. This is the mystery at the heart of the Christian faith: that God has freely chosen to reveal Himself to the world in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Every “I am” saying of Jesus, therefore, is a reminder that we don’t climb up the ladder to find God, but that He in His grace scrambles down the ladder to find us. If we are to know anything about who God is and what God looks like, we are dependent on Him to show it to us, and He chooses to do that through Jesus.

“I am the true vine,” Jesus says, “I am the vine; you are the branches.” If Jesus is the subject, what does this predicate say about Him? Why a vine? Why not a pair of trousers? Well, for a start, trousers weren’t really the fashion in first century Palestine.   Vines, however, were. In the ancient Mediterranean world, the vine was one of the three most familiar trees of the region, along with the olive tree and the fig tree. Vines were grown all over Palestine, as indeed they still are today. Jesus could speak in this extended metaphor because He knew people would know what He was talking about. It was baby talk.

It’s a bit different for us here in England. When I think of vines, I think of a vineyard we visited up in Yorkshire a couple of years ago. If you’re sitting there thinking, “I didn’t think you could grow grapes up in Yorkshire,” you’d be dead right. It was a disaster. It was windy, cold and wet, but did they cancel the tour? No, of course not, because it soon became apparent that they certainly we’re making any money from wine, and most disappointing of all, there were no samples at the end of the tour. All that’s just to say that the horticultural image of the vine probably doesn’t mean as much to us here and now as it did there and then to those first disciples. But perhaps things are different here in sunny Abingdon? I don’t know.

And yet there is more to Jesus’ use of this metaphor than the familiarity of the vine in the local countryside. By speaking of Himself as a vine, Jesus was tapping into a rich vein of Old Testament imagery. In several places in the Old Testament, Israel was referred to as God’s vineyard. Psalm 80:8-11 says:
You brought a vine out of Egypt;
you drove out the nations and planted it.
You cleared the ground for it;
it took deep root and filled the land.
The mountains were covered with its shade,
the mighty cedars with its branches.
It sent out its branches to the sea
and its shoots to the River.
The vine was a symbol of the nation. It was even used on Maccabean coinage in the years before the Roman occupation. Thus for Jesus to say not only that he was the vine, but that He was the true vine, was for Him to claim that He fulfils the role of Israel, that He is the true representative of God’s people in the world.

Particularly significant (given the context of Jesus saying this as He bids farewell to His disciples), Jesus here is claiming to bear fruit through a new people of God formed in Him. The image of the vine and the branches is used to signify a certain kind of relationship. It speaks of dependence, of mutuality, of an organic union between the people of God and the God who saves them. Salvation is incorporation. And first of all, it is incorporation into the Saviour. “Remain in me, as I also remain in you,” says Jesus in v. 4. μείνατε ἐν ἐμοί. The Greek implies a sense of deep and lasting intimacy, which Eugene Peterson draws out wonderfully in The Message: “Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you.”

Salvation means incorporation into the Saviour. Jesus uses the word “abide” 11 times in these verses. He uses the words “in me” or “in my” a further 8 times. That’s significant. John Stott rightly points out that the commonest way of describing a follower of Jesus in the Bible is to say that he or she is a person “in Christ”. The apostle Paul uses the term “in Christ” (ἐν Χριστῷ) as a synonym for Christian (which itself is used only 3 times). The words “in Christ” (or their equivalent) appear 216 times in Paul’s letters. They occur a further 26 times in the Gospel and letters of John. Theologian Paul Murray claimed that, “nothing is more central or basic than union and communion with Christ.” He argued that union with Christ is “the central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation.”

We see this in Romans 6:3, for instance, when Paul says, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death?” Later on in the same passage Paul says: “Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” Through faith and baptism, we are brought into Christ; we are identified with Him and made participants of His death and resurrection. In business, a corporation is a company or group of people who are legally authorized to act as a single entity or person. Incorporation literally means to be formed or united into one body. That is what Jesus is talking about here in John 15. By calling Himself the vine, Jesus reveals a salvation that means participating in Him.

“I am the vine; you are the branches,” Jesus says in v. 5. “If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” If you’ve ever spent ages trying to figure out why some electrical device wasn’t working only to find out later that it wasn’t actually plugged in, you’ll understand what Jesus is talking about. Salvation means being plugged into the Saviour. It implies a living connection between Christ and the believer. And in vv. 7-10 we get an idea of how this living connection is to be maintained: by remaining in Christ’s word, by prayer in Christ’s name (that is, in line with what He represents), and by obedience to Christ in both. Incorporation into Christ means conformity to Christ and what Christ’s about.

Salvation is incorporation into the Saviour, but it’s also incorporation into the Saviour’s work. So that’s the next question, isn’t it? What is the Saviour’s work? Again, the image of the vine and the branches tells us all we need to know:
“He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” (v. 2)
“No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.” (v. 4)
“If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit.” (v. 5)
“This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit.” (v. 8)
“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last.” (v. 16)
You tell me: what do you think the work of Jesus the True Vine is? To bear fruit! That is why a vine exists. That is its raison d’être (perhaps its raisin d’être!). So if the mission of a vine is to produce grapes, the mission of the branches is the same. Indeed, the branches bear the vine’s fruit.

It’s no accident, I don’t think, that Jesus’ first recorded miracle (or “sign”) in John’s Gospel is turning water into wine, and that His last “I am” saying is: “I am the true vine.” In a sense, they act as bookends to Jesus’ ministry telling us what it’s all about: bringing joy and fullness of life, filling our cup till it overflows, inaugurating the end-time party to end all parties. That’s what Jesus is about. And the picture Jesus paints of the vine and the branches tells us that if we’re in Him, that’s what we should be about too. In fact, it goes further still. It says that we are to be the means by which Christ blesses the world; we are, if you like, to be the delivery mechanism.

We often have far too limited a sense of what salvation is. We tend to think of it as having our sins forgiven so that we can go to heaven when we die. But that’s not what the Bible means by salvation. That might be part of it; but it’s too self-centred, too individualistic, and frankly, far too small. A more biblical vision of salvation is our getting hooked up with God, swept up into the great tidal wave of God’s loving move towards His creation. Theologian Will Willimon writes: “Salvation isn’t just a destination; it is our vocation.” Salvation is the invitation to share the Saviour’s life, and by extension, the Saviour’s ministry. Ultimately, therefore, salvation isn’t about us; it’s about God and God’s purposes being accomplished in and through us.

The Good News of Jesus Christ is even better than we dare to imagine: we are not saved from this world for another; we are saved by Christ to be Christ’s agents of transformation of it. To be saved by Jesus means to be sent by Jesus: “I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit,” (v. 16). Friendship makes demands upon us. Friendship with Jesus is no different. Incorporation into Christ the Saviour, therefore, means incorporation into Christ the Saviour’s work. His work is our work. By the grace of God in Christ who calls us His friends, we are made, in the words of Paul, “co-workers with God” (1 Corinthians 3:9).

Once we realise that being saved by Jesus means far more than having a personal relationship with Him, we are prepared to see that salvation in Jesus Christ is social. Salvation is incorporation into the Saviour’s community. In other words, Jesus’ mission isn’t merely to bear fruit through a number of individual branches, but to bear fruit through branches that are all united one to another through the one vine. This community-forming dimension of Jesus the Saviour isn’t an optional extra; it is an intrinsic part of the salvation He came to bring. If we look at vv. 12-17, we see that Jesus’ chief concern there is with the formation of the new people of God who bring God’s blessings to the world by being a community of love.

It is in community, in the Church, that we practice salvation. This, in itself, is missional. Back in John 13:35, Jesus says: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” The church historian Tertullian imagined pagans looking at Christians and saying, “See … how they love one another; and how they are ready to die for each other.” The quality of our fruit is tied to the quality of our community. As you go to a vine to find grapes, so ought the world be able to go to the Church and find Christ. Commentator Andrew Lincoln writes: “The result of the relationship to Jesus is to be fruit-bearing and that entails his followers’ love for one another … The union between Jesus and his disciples is to result in a community of love that has its source and model in the love which Jesus demonstrates.”

As I was preparing this sermon in the week, I was struggling to find an illustration that might adequately capture what it is Jesus is saying here. Then it dawned on me. I didn’t have to find one. We already have one: it’s called Holy Communion. This simple act of meal encapsulates everything I’ve been trying to say. Jesus says earlier on in John’s Gospel: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them” (John 6:56). As we receive bread and wine, we accept Christ’s identification with us in dying on our behalf and we seek to participate in the movement of Christ’s risen life towards the Father. What’s more, as we receive bread and wine, we have to eat with anyone Christ calls to His feast; we are sat around the table with everyone else who is “in Christ”—a family we would never have chosen for ourselves.

But there’s also one final reason why the meal Jesus gave us is such a perfect sign of His salvation: because having been fed and watered, we’re sent out again on a mission to bear fruit for the world. William Barclay writes: “When a knight came to the court of King Arthur, he did not come to spend the rest of his days in knightly feasting and in knightly fellowship there. He came to the king saying: “Send me out on some great task which I can do for chivalry and for you.”” The purpose of our communion with Christ is to go into the world, but it is only through our communion with Christ and our communion with Christ through one another that we have something to offer the world. Nemo dat quod non habet. You can’t give what you don’t have. Or, as Jesus Himself says in v. 5: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”

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

Weak, But Yet Strong

Preached at Christ Church, Abingdon
5th July 2015: 5th Sunday after Trinity
2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13

Last weekend, I was in the car listening to Saturday Live on the radio and they were asking people to share their stories of when they were at their best. They read out a text from a woman named Maggie, who wrote: “I don’t want to sound too boastful, but I was at my best when I won a ‘Highly Commended’ for my potato in the Coomb Flower, Autumn Fruit and Veg Show.” Angela said she peaked in 1973 at the age of 19 when she won a competition for holding dolly pegs—she managed to hold an impressive twenty-one in just one hand. Another woman called Ros emailed in to say that her high point was graduating from university just before her 60th birthday with a Master’s degree in Death Studies, having never been to university before.

When were you really at your best? How jarring it would have been to hear the apostle Paul calling in and saying, “I was at my best when I was hungry, thirsty, cold, exposed, and worried; when I was being imprisoned, whipped, beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, and insulted; when I received a thorn in my flesh whose sharp incision bore into me with an insistent and searing pain which God refused to take away.” Paul’s got it all backwards. We boast about our achievements, about our successes, about the things that make us look good—you know the kind of thing you find in the typical, nauseating Christmas letter crowing about how their 3 year old granddaughter has just passed her Grade 8 cello exam and will be playing with the London Symphony Orchestra next month.

“I will not boast about myself,” Paul says, “except about my weaknesses. … For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:5, 10)

To most of us, this will sound ridiculous. Who would boast about their weaknesses? Can you imagine kids in the playground boasting, “My Dad’s smaller than yours” and another saying, “Yeah, well my Dad’s poorer than yours” and yet another saying, “My Dad’s smaller and poorer than both your Dads put together”? No, of course not. Paul sets before us a strange new world revealed to us in Jesus Christ in which strength and weakness are not opposites or logical incompatibilities, but rather go hand-in-hand. In Christ, through Christ, and with Christ, Paul shows us that we may be weak, but yet strong.

In Acts 18, we read that Paul spent 18 months teaching and preaching in Corinth, second only in time to Ephesus. As he usually did, he went first to the Jews in the local synagogue and then when he was driven out of there, he took the gospel to the population at large. And although he faced opposition, his message had great success in bringing many people to Jesus. But now things have gone wrong. In his absence, people had come in and preached a rival message of the gospel, opposing Paul and questioning his apostolic credentials: his truthfulness (1:15-17), his speaking ability (10:10; 11:6), his unwillingness to accept financial support (11:7-9; 12:13), and seemingly also from this passage, his failure to speak compellingly of or enable the Corinthians themselves to have amazing spiritual experiences.

So Paul writes 2 Corinthians to defend his authority as the Lord’s apostle. Yet, he does so in a most unexpected way. Tom Wright says: “In this letter, he [Paul] goes down deeper into sorrow and hurt, and what to do about it, than he does anywhere else, and he emerges with a deeper, clearer vision of what it meant that Jesus himself suffered for and with us and rose again in triumph.” Paul plunges the depths. He exposes himself. He lays himself bare. He reveals his utmost weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and says, “Judge for yourselves whether or not I am who I say I am.” In v. 6 of our passage, he says that he doesn’t want anyone thinking more of him than they can see or hear from him.

If you’ve ever heard the Radio 4 comedy, I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, you may have heard them playing a game called Swankers. It’s basically a boasting game. The teams take it in turns to be guests at a party bragging about some impressive aspect of their lives, which the next guest has to try their best to out-do. In the first half of our passage, Paul shows that in a game of Apostolic Swankers, he was more than a match for the so-called super-apostles who had so bewitched the Corinthians. “So, you think unusual spiritual experiences are evidence of spiritual stature, do you? Well, I happen to know someone who was taken up to Paradise itself, who walked in the royal garden as a companion of the heavenly King. I could say more, but if I did, I’d have to kill you.”

Paul could have boasted about himself if he wanted to, and if he did, it’s probably fair to say he’d have top trumps. Yet, he chooses not to. Instead, he tells us of a thorn in his flesh—what this is we don’t know, and though there have been lots of guesses it doesn’t really matter. Whatever it was, this thorn, Paul says, was given him as a reminder that God’s power is not the same as human power. And when he begged God three times to remove it, God simply told him: “My grace is sufficient for you.” Paradoxically, Paul realizes that the only strength that matters is weakness, because it’s in our weakness that we encounter the grace of God.

Whereas the strong want to use God, the weak want to be used by God. And that is what makes them powerful. Brother Yun, the exiled Chinese church leader and evangelist rightly says, “It is not great men who change the world, but weak men in the hands of a great God.” And the definitive example of that is Christ Himself. The cross is the ultimate demonstration of Christ’s weakness. And yet… And yet, it is through the cross that forgiveness for sins is won, that the powers of evil are destroyed, and that the power of God is revealed in resurrection. God’s power being revealed in weakness is what the meal we are about to share is all about.

Christ allows us to embrace weakness in the trust that it may become, with God, an opportunity for Him to reveal His power. As my former lecturer at Durham University, Walter Moberly, writes, “Even pain as acute as that of the thorn in the flesh can become, in Christ, a channel for the power of God which brings life to others.” I experienced that this week when I had the very great privilege of meeting Brian. I saw in him a man who was weak, but yet strong: a man who was willing to be open and vulnerable, and through whose openness and vulnerability, God showed me a thing or two about what it means to love.

We don’t need to run or hide from our weaknesses; rather, by the grace of God, we can boast in our weaknesses because He uses our weaknesses to show His power. Indeed, it’s my boast today that God has chosen a shy, timid introvert, who really doesn’t like being the centre of attention and who has a bit of a stutter under pressure, to preach and to be the vessel through which He may speak His Word to His people. I’ll boast about weakness like that. Thanks be to God!