Sermons

By default this View shows all Sermons in our database. However, you can select which Sermons are shown as follows:

By Parish: In the left-hand drop-down box, select the Parish of your choice and then click on Apply.

By Book and Chapter: Make your selection in the appropriate boxes and click on Apply.

By Preacher: Type the name of the preacher in the 'Given by' box and then click on Apply. Please note that the name, including Title, must match that recorded on the uploaded sermons exactly.

The Great Commission

Given by: 

David Teall

Date given: 

15th April, 2012 - Easter 2

Book: 

John

Chapter: 

20

David Teall

The Second Sunday of Easter is one of relatively few Sundays where the same Gospel reading is specified every year, whether we are in Lectionary year A, B or C.  For this reason we hear it more often than most readings and so we know it quite well. It’s all about Doubting Thomas isn’t it? But is that all it is about? Listen again to the opening words of verse 19:

“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week … …”

Where have we heard reference to the evening of the first day of the week before?  Listen to the opening words of the Bible from Genesis 1:

 

In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.  Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.  And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.  God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.  And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

In Chapter 22 of today’s reading we heard:

‘When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”’

In Genesis 2 verse 7 we hear how ‘the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life’ and in Genesis 3, Adam and Eve ‘heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze.’

These similarities are no accident, for the author of John’s Gospel is very deliberately portraying the resurrection of Jesus as the new creation.  This was not the end of God’s work here on earth; it was the beginning – a new beginning, a new creation.

And the purpose of this new creation?  We have been talking about it throughout Lent.  It was to establish the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God, inaugurated by Jesus and continued by … … continued by … … well, continued by whom?  That’s a pretty important question, so let’s go back to the text at verse 21:

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

As the Father has sent me, so I send you.  The ‘you’ in this context were the disciples: the ten who were in the room at the time, Thomas who wasn’t, Matthias who replaced Judas Iscariot and, if we accept his claims, Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles.  This verse, so often passed over when eyes and ears are fixed on the story of Thomas, tells us of what is known as The Great Commission of the disciples, and, through them, the church.  No wonder the Lectionary ensures that we hear it every year.

The Great Commission can be said to mark the point when the disciples became Apostles.  The word disciple comes from the Latin discipulus, meaning ‘one who learns by following another’.  The word Apostle, by contrast, comes from the Greek apóstolos, meaning ‘one who is sent away to convey a message to others’.

In a few minutes time, whilst saying the Nicene Creed, we shall profess our belief in what are sometimes known as the Four Marks of the Church: one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.

For some Christians, the term apostolic refers to the apostolic succession of Bishops stretching from the Apostles in an unbroken line to the Bishops of today.  In the second chapter of Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy, Paul says:  “What you have heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will be able to teach others as well.”  In this verse Paul is referring to the first three generations of the apostolic succession, the first being himself, the second Timothy and the third ‘the faithful people who will be able to teach others as well.’

This very specific view of the term apostolic is rejected by many Protestant denominations that prefer a wider definition of a Church that is built upon the teaching of the Apostles.  It is an interesting, but sometimes contentious debate.  Should you ever find yourself at an Ecumenical Meeting, it would be better to avoid the word apostolic in the same way as you would be well advised to avoid bringing up the subject of Europe at a meeting of the local Conservative Association.

So, going back to my question about whose job it is to continue the work of building the Kingdom of God, does this idea of apostolic succession lay the whole burden on the Bishops and let us off the hook?  Not a bit of it.  Admittedly, today’s account of the Great Commission from John gives little detail of what the Apostles were to do other than to forgive (or not forgive) sins, but the account in Matthew tells us rather more:

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.  And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations … teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”  That makes it pretty clear what our role is doesn’t it?  To become disciples of Jesus and to obey everything that he commanded.

Just as the disciples graduated to become Apostles, or teachers, so we have become the disciples; the learners; the followers of Jesus.  Our role in building the Kingdom of God is to be obedient to the word of God, just as Jesus was throughout his life here on earth, even to death on the cross.  Often it will be hard and often we shall fail, but Jesus understood that.  That is why he assured us:   “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  That is the reality, the comfort and the joy of the resurrection that we shall celebrate throughout this Easter period.

Words: 1,082

A single word that changed the world

Given by: 

David Teall

Date given: 

Easter Sunday 8th April 2012

Book: 

John

Chapter: 

20

David Teall

Easter Sunday 2012   John 20: 1-18

As most of you know, I was brought up in Nassington and went to school in Yarwell and then Stamford.  My job as a teacher took me to Grimsby and later to Battle in East Sussex.  I returned to these parts 8 years ago when Pat and I retired in order to be closer to my mother whose health was failing.  One of the interesting consequencies of that return was meeting up again with people to whom I had not spoken for over 20 years.  Like me, every one of them had changed, of course, some beyond recognition, except for one thing – their voice.  No matter how much their physical appearance had changed, their voice was still instantly recognisable.

That ability to remember and recognise voices is at the heart of today’s Gospel reading.

Mary Magdalene knew that Jesus was dead: she had stood at the foot of the cross and watched him die.  It was she who first discovered that the stone had been rolled back and his body was not there.  After fetching Simon Peter and John and waiting for them to leave again, she looked into the tomb and saw two angels who spoke to her.  Then she saw Jesus, but she did not recognise him – until he spoke her name.

‘Mary!’ he said, a single word that changed the world.  From that moment she understood and she believed.  The prophesies had been fulfilled.  Jesus had risen from the dead and she was the one who could say for certain that it was true, because she had heard him speak her name.  Mary.  What a wonderful thing it is for us to have this first-hand evidence of what happened on that day encapsulated in a single word.  Mary.

When I was a boy growing up in Nassington we lived in a large house on the edge of the village.  I remember one of my Aunts, a towny who lived in the suburbs of London, asking if I ever felt frightened living there.  ‘Of course not’, I said, ‘why should I be frightened.  Mummy is always here.’  ‘What if she is in another room or outside and you can’t see her?,’ my Aunt continued, no doubt expressing her own anxieties, ‘aren’t you frightened then?’
‘No,’ I said, ‘Even if I can’t see her, I still know she’s here.’

Fortunately someone else came into the room at that point otherwise my Aunt might well have asked me how I knew.  I’m not sure how I would have answered then, but my experience of life since then has confirmed for me that there are some things that cannot be explained in any simple way – they are just things that we know and that’s it.  We know them to be true.

My belief in the resurrection of Jesus comes into that category.  Unlike Mary Magdalene, I do not have the advantage of being able to recognise his voice, but just as I knew my mother was close at hand when I was a child, so I now know with equal certainty that Jesus is alive today.  How do I know?  Because I have a relationship with him.  I speak to him in my prayers and he speaks to me, even though, all too often, I do not listen.  And how do I know that this person with whom I have a relationship is Jesus?  I can’t answer that in words – I just know, and I hope you all know it for yourselves too.  In the words of our opening hymn “Jesus Christ is risen today, Alleluia.”  So let us all repeat that glorious acclamation with which we began our service:

Alleluia. Christ is risen.

He is risen indeed.  Alleluia.

Is that thunder I hear?

Given by: 

David Teall

Date given: 

25th March 2012

Book: 

John

Chapter: 

12

David Teall

 

John 12: 20-33  Year B Lent 5

 

Today, the fifth Sunday of Lent, marks the beginning of Passiontide, the last two weeks of Lent, when we turn our attention towards the suffering, or passion of Christ as he made his final journey to the cross.

 

When I spoke to you two months ago the Gospel reading was from John Chapter 2 in which we heard of the Wedding at Cana at which Jesus turned water into wine.  In that reading, in response to a comment made by his mother, we heard Jesus say “My hour has not yet come.”  Today, all that has changed.  When Andrew and Philip went to tell Jesus that some Greeks wished to see him they must have thought they had walked into the first century equivalent of the Two Ronnies’ ‘Crossed Lines’ sketch.  Rather than going back with them to chat to his visitors, as they might have expected, Jesus launched into a long and somewhat melancholic monologue about seeds and fruit, life and death and service and servants beginning with the words: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”

We cannot be sure from the text why the Greeks wanted to see Jesus, or whether or not they heard this monologue, so we have to make some assumptions.  At the time of Jesus, Greek was the lingua franca of the Eastern Mediterranean and it is likely that the term ‘Greeks’ was therefore used by the author of the Gospel to mean non‑Jews or Gentiles.  This being the case they may have wanted to ask him whether the things of which he spoke were for them as well as for Jews.  If so, even though they had to wait for it, they did eventually get their answer when Jesus said:

“When I am lifted up from the earth I will draw all people to myself.”   “I will draw all people to myself.”   That’s pretty important for us too isn’t it – not just to the Greeks who wanted to see him on that day.

For me there is one other verse in today’s reading that is particularly important to my faith – verse 26:

Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.  Whoever serves me the Father will honour.

It is interesting to contrast this verse with the words of Matthew 18 verse 20:

Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.

This verse forms the basis of the Prayer of St Chrysostom which is prescribed for the ending of both Morning and Evening Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer.  It conjures up a picture of Jesus keeping a look out for groups of two or three gathering together in his name and, when he spots one, nipping down quickly to join them.  Today’s verse shows how wrong that picture is:

Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.

When we serve Christ, we go where he leads and, because he is the master and we are the servant, he goes before us.  When we arrive and begin to serve him, begin to act in his name, he is already there.  We do not summon him to come to a place - he summons us.

When I go to Laxton this evening to lead Evening Prayer, I won’t be taking God with me in my big black bag – he is already there.

When, for example, you go into Peterborough to visit a friend in Hospital, you don’t need to pray for God to be with you – he is already there.

Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.

To follow Christ, of course, we first have to hear his call, and that can be fraught with problems.  Sadly, we often don’t recognise the call when it comes, at least not at first.  Listen again to part of verses 28 and 29 from today’s reading:

Then a voice came from heaven. … … The crowd standing there heard it, and said that it was thunder.

Even though God’s voice was clear to Jesus, the crowd failed to recognise it and dismissed it from their minds as nothing more than thunder.  How often do we do the same?  And when we do, is it because we really don’t recognise God’s voice and what he is saying or is it that we do recognise it, but we don’t like what he is saying?

There is a very close link between recognising when God is calling us and the work of building the Kingdom of God that we have been considering throughout Lent this year.  When God calls us it is always to do something that in some way will help to build his Kingdom.  Those who have learnt to recognise his call often describe it as a prod to do something; others talk of a voice that they hear.  I prefer to visualise a beckoning finger from up ahead rather than a prod from behind but the words we use to describe the sensation – for it is something that we sense – do not matter.  What is important is that we recognise that the call is from God, and don’t just dismiss it as thunder.

Most often the call is for us to do something that we know full well we ought to do but, whether through idleness or fear, we keep putting off.  Perhaps it is to make the effort to go and see Aunty Mable even though we know she will spend most of the visit telling us off for not coming since Christmas.

Maybe it is to finally fill out the form to make a regular donation to that charity we admire but somehow have never quite got round to supporting.  Maybe it is to accept an invitation to sit on a committee that we fear may become very time consuming.  Or perhaps it is to apologise to a person or persons that we have upset or offended.

It is this sort of guidance in our daily lives that the author of Psalm 23 must have had in mind when he wrote:

He leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.  He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.

Sometimes the call from God can involve a much larger change in our lives than giving up the occasional Sunday afternoon to go and see Aunty Mable.  Some hear the call to travel abroad to help the poor and hungry in places like Somalia.  Some hear the call to work with drug addicts in our Inner Cities.  Some hear the call to help those who are sick or those who are disabled, or the very old or the very young.

When I was working at Battle Abbey School in Sussex I invited a man to speak to our sixth form whose call had been to set up a school in a village in Africa.  I was very moved by his account and I remember saying to him afterwards that looking after the children of rich westerners who could afford to send them to boarding school seemed inconsequential by comparison with the work he was doing.  “Don’t ever feel that” he said sternly.  “The children at this school are still children of God and they still need caring for.  Your calling from God is every bit as valid and valuable as mine.”

I felt, and still feel, that that was a very generous response from a very generous man but, of course, he was right.  We are all called by God to do different things.  What is important is that we recognise his call and that we follow wherever he leads us, just as Jesus did in those final days of his passion.

The Kingdom of God

Given by: 

David Teall

Date given: 

26th February 2012

Book: 

Mark

Chapter: 

1

David Teall

Every year, at around this time, an event takes place known as World Book Day, a celebration of books and reading marked in over 100 countries across the world.  A few years ago the organizers conducted a poll which revealed that two out of three people admitted to lying about reading a particular book in order to impress someone.  George Orwell’s 1984 and Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace turned out to be the books people were the most likely to have lied about.  A little further down the list came the Bible which 24% of respondents admitted to have lied about reading.  Of course, it would have been rather better if that particularly quarter of the population had actually picked up a Bible to read but I actually take heart from the fact that such a high proportion felt the need to pretend that they had.

Looked at that way, it is rather better than the paltry 6% who had pretended to have read The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins.

In the same survey, 41% of respondents confessed to turning to the back of a book to read the end before finishing the story or, in some cases, before even starting.  Some said that they found reading to be a more enjoyable and relaxing experience if they knew what was going to happen.  Knowing the outcome, they claimed, helped them to appreciate the subtlety of the plot as the story unfolded.

I can’t say I am convinced, but, up to a point, I can see their point.  However, I can also see a great danger in this approach.  If you already know the ending there must be a great tendency to either ignore any of the facts that do not lead towards the eventual known outcome, or to distort them so that they do.

Our Gospel reading this morning is a typical short and punchy passage from Mark.  Let me remind you of the final sentence:

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’

There are two very important phrases in that seemingly simple sentence:

  • The Good News, which appears twice and
  • The Kingdom of God.

I say ‘seemingly simple’ because nothing in this sentence brought me to a halt when I first read the passage through a couple of weeks ago.  Even on re-reading it felt quite comfortable using words with which I was very familiar.  I didn’t question either phrase because I knew what they meant – or at least – I thought I did!

In Isaiah chapter 40 we hear of the Good News of the coming to an end of the period of Exile in Babylon.  “Zion is to proclaim Good News to the cities of Judah: ‘God is here!’  God will come to his people with majestic strength and goodness and care for his people like a shepherd.”

In our Gospel reading today we heard that ‘Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the Good News of God.’  Clearly he was not still looking forward to the end of the Exile in Babylon as Isaiah was, so what was the Good News that he was proclaiming?

In the letters of Paul we hear repeatedly of the Good News that all people can be reconciled with God through faith in the risen Christ alone.  For Paul, the Good News was Christ himself, Christ, the Messiah, who died to save us from our sins.

Ask many a Christian today to define the term Good News and this is the answer you will hear: Christ died to save us from our sins.  It is a valid answer, and one of which Paul would certainly approve, but it is an answer that is only possible if you have read the end of the book.  In today’s reading from Mark, Jesus has only just begun his ministry.  If we allow our interpretation of the passage to be coloured entirely by our knowledge of what comes later, we will miss the point.  We shall have time to talk of the importance of the resurrection in the weeks following Easter, but today is only the first Sunday of Lent.  Let us then have another look at the final sentence of today’s reading from Mark:

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’

For Jesus, the Good News was the coming of the Kingdom of God or, to use the phrase favoured by Matthew, the Kingdom of Heaven.  But what exactly did he mean by the Kingdom of God and when was he suggesting that it was going to come?

These questions have been the subject of debate and disagreement since the very early days of the Christian faith.  For some the coming of the Kingdom of God has yet to occur but, for others, it happened 2000 years ago when Jesus walked upon this earth.  In between these two theories lies a third known as ‘inaugurated eschatology’ which fortunately is much easier to understand than it is to either pronounce or spell!  In this view of events, the building of the Kingdom of God is work in progress, begun by Jesus and continued down the ages into the present day by those who follow his teaching.  

As we who have read the end of the book well know, the Kingdom of God that Jesus revealed did not, as so many at the time had hoped, take the form of an insurrection that toppled the tyranny of Rome.  Rather, it was a loving community of believers whose primary allegiance was to God himself.

Today is the first Sunday of Lent.  In the western church today, Lent is the period of 40 days (excluding Sundays) starting from Ash Wednesday and leading up to Easter Day.  In the very early days of the church it may have followed Epiphany, just as the time Jesus spent in the wilderness followed immediately after his baptism.  However, it soon became firmly attached to Easter as the principal occasion for baptism and for the reconciliation of those who had been excommunicated.    This explains the characteristics that we now associate with Lent: – self-examination, penitence, self-denial, study, and preparation for Easter, to which almsgiving has long-since been added.

As the candidates for baptism were instructed in Christian faith, and as penitents prepared themselves, through fasting and penance, to be re-admitted to communion, the whole Christian community was invited to join them in the process of study and repentance, the extension of which over forty days would remind them of the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, being tested by the Devil.

We have not organised a specific Lent course this year but we hope to examine further what we mean by The Kingdom of God through the medium of our Home Groups.  You will find the dates and times when these groups will be meeting during Lent listed on today’s Pew Sheet and in the March edition of the Gazette which has just been published.

You are all invited to attend one or more of these meetings, whether or not you are a regular member of the group, and with no obligation at all to continue to attend after Easter.  Do please come along if you possibly can and join in the fellowship and the discussion.  You will be warmly welcomed.

The Naming of Jesus

Given by: 

David Teall

Date given: 

1st January, 2012

Book: 

Luke

Chapter: 

2

David Teall

A Happy New Year to you all.

From your Pew Sheet you will observe that today, the 1st January, we celebrate the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus.  The Gospel reading we have just heard tells us, in just one verse, all that we know about this important event:

After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

 

At the time of Jesus it was traditional, as it still is for devout Jews, for baby boys to be circumcised and named on the eighth day after their birth.  The circumcision is in obedience to the covenant between Abraham and God described in Genesis 17:

1When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said: ‘I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless.  2And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.’  8And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.’
10This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised as a sign of the covenant between me and you.  12Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old.

Taking Jesus to be circumcised and named at the ceremony of brit milah was therefore a very normal and traditional thing for Mary and Joseph to do, though the name that they gave him was not.  If they had followed tradition and named him after one of his ancestors he might have been called Jacob after Joseph’s father, or Amos, or Josiah or any other of the 41 names of his ancestors listed at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel.  But he wasn’t.  He was named Yeshua in Hebrew, translated via Greek and Latin into Jesus in English, as decreed by the Angel Gabriel in the annunciation described in Luke Chapter 1.

31You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.  32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.  33He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’

The ceremony of brit milah thus gave Jesus two things that are very important to all who walk upon this earth: a name and an identity.  The name Yeshua, or Jesus meaning ‘God Saves’ and an identity as a Jew descended from a King.

When I was thinking about the importance of having both a name and an identity I was reminded of two occasions in my past where one or the other has been an issue.  In my last few years as Headmaster of Battle Abbey in East Sussex we took over a Preparatory School in nearby Bexhill.  My wife Pat took charge of this new department but I went over every so often to take an assembly.

On one such occasion I was a few minutes into my talk when a new girl on the front row – I guess she was no more than three – turned to her teacher and said in a very loud voice: “who is that man?”  That put me firmly in my place for it was a very good question.  Until she knew both my name and my identity she was unable to properly process and store away the information I was giving her.  Even at the age of three, such knowledge about the people we meet is vital.

The second occasion is much more recent.  At the beginning of December Philip, Karin and I went on a three-day residential course for all Ministers within the Diocese of Peterborough.  Prior to the course Bishop Donald wrote to ask us all to wear casual dress throughout the conference including clergy who were specifically asked not to wear clerical collars.  When we arrived we were all given a label to hang around our necks on which was typed our name and our Deanery.  Sitting amongst new faces there was thus no way of knowing whether one was talking to a Bishop, Arch Deacon, Canon, Dean, Priest or Reader which was, of course, the Bishop’s intention.

It was an excellent idea and well received by all but it was interesting to observe what happened when we were in small groups.  As is usual in such gatherings we were asked to introduce ourselves at the beginning of each session.  In doing so almost everyone gave not just their name, but also, in one form or another, their identity.  My name is David and I’m a Reader.  After two or three in a row it did occasionally tend to sound like the start of one of those sessions of Alcoholics Anonymous you see on television:  My name is Oedipus and I’m an alcoholic.  Two very different situations but both with the same need – to let others know both our name and our identity – or at least that part of our identity we perceive to be relevant to the situation.

So what about Jesus?  He had been given his identity as a Jew at his brit milah but who or what else did he consider himself to be?  Did he think he was the Messiah?  Did he think he was the Son of God?

There are several accounts in the New Testament where we learn that Jesus clearly understood that he was the Messiah, but only one account in which he said so directly.  In Matthew, Mark and Luke Jesus affirms Peter’s statement that he is the Messiah and the Son of God, but he does not utter the words himself.  Later in the same three gospels, Jesus admits to the High Priest that he is the Messiah, but only in response to a question.  It was in conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well that he volunteered the information at a point when he could easily have remained silent.   ‘I am he,’  he said  ‘the one who is speaking to you.’

The words ‘I am’ spoken by Jesus appear again in the seven great ‘I am’ sayings in John’s Gospel the best known of which are:

  • I am the light of the world.
  • I am the resurrection and the life.
  • I am the way, the truth and the life.

These sayings are all bold statements of identity by Jesus as is the similar statement in John 8: 58:  “Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.’”

To realise just how bold these statements were, as is so often the case, you have to know your Old Testament.  The words I am come from Exodus Chapter 3 and the story of Moses at the Burning Bush in which God said to Moses:

‘I am who I am.’   ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I am has sent me to you.” ’ 

By using the words I am in this context Jesus was deliberately equating himself with God.  He was saying that the God who was at work revealing himself to the Israelites in the Exodus, was the same God who was now revealing himself through him.

So, if Jesus was clear about his identity, what about you?  Who do you think you are?  Imagine yourself, for a moment, at a function where you are asked to introduce yourself.  Not a church function like the conference I went to last month, but perhaps some form of village gathering.  The Chairman starts off by saying “My name is Roger and I’m an accountant” and he’s quickly followed by the Secretary who says “My name is Michelle and I’m a carer.”  It’s going to be your turn in just a few seconds.  What are you going to say? 

I won’t ask for all your answers now but I would love to hear some of them over coffee after the service.  In particular, I shall be interested to hear if anyone thought that they might introduce themselves by giving their name and saying ‘I am a Christian’ or even just ‘I am a vaguely practising Christian’ as David Cameron did recently.

Is being a Christian part of our identity and, if it is, where does it fit amongst all the other things that contribute to that identity?  Is it something that we are happy to proclaim to all around us no matter what the circumstances or is it something that we prefer to admit to only within the safety of these four walls?  Is being a Christian something that is reserved for Sunday mornings or does it permeate our entire life and influence our day-to-day decisions?

These are questions that we all need to ask ourselves from time to time, and what better time than on the first day of a new year whilst there is still time to make an appropriate resolution.  Why not make 2012 the year in which we make it clear to all that being a Christian is at the central core of our identity?

Jesus turns our world upside down

Given by: 

David Teall

Date given: 

28th August 2011

Book: 

Matthew

Chapter: 

16

David Teall

‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild’ wrote Charles Wesley in Hymns and Sacred Poems in 1742, a sentiment popular in many hymns and carols, especially those written for children.  I doubt if this would be a description recognized by Peter when he reflected on the events described in today’s Gospel.  Only days ago, as we heard in last week’s reading, Peter had identified Jesus as ‘the Messiah, the Son of the living God’.  Jesus had blessed him and described him as the rock on which he would build his church.  Even though Jesus had sworn him to secrecy, Peter now understood what was to happen, for every Jew of that time knew the role of the Messiah.  Somehow Jesus would ride into Jerusalem, overthrow the Romans and be crowned King, just like his ancestor David, and his people would once again be free.

It would have not been a surprise then, when Jesus started talking about the need to go to Jerusalem.  But imagine Peter’s shock when Jesus said that he must ‘undergo great suffering … and be killed, and on the third day be raised’.  I doubt he even heard that last phrase and, even if he did, he would not have understood it.  Here was the man he had identified as the Messiah talking about being put to death.  No wonder he took Jesus aside and said ‘Lord, this must never happen to you.’  Already in shock, how must he have felt when Jesus rounded on him saying ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block for me.’  Gentle Jesus, meek and mild?  I don’t think so.

In the course of this story, told by Matthew in just seven verses, Peter had his whole world turned upside down.  All that he had ever known about the role of the Messiah had been turned on its head.  He would certainly have understood what Paul later described as ‘puzzling reflections in a mirror’.  And the puzzle continued when Jesus went on to say: ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’ 

This particular puzzling reflection is not, as it might at first sound, about martyrdom, but about giving up our old ways of thinking to follow the example and the teaching of Jesus, and doing so with total commitment.  Or, to put it another way, allowing Jesus to turn our world upside down.

Without doubt, the most important lesson that Jesus both taught and demonstrated was the centrality of love to God’s Kingdom.  In the chapters leading up to today’s Gospel Jesus took a blind man by the hand and restored his sight,  fed a crowd with loaves and fish,  helped a deaf and mute man find his voice again and acted when a Gentile woman begged him to heal her daughter of demons.

At the beginning of this month, in the reading from 1 Corinthians 13, we heard Paul’s masterful description of the unconditional, self-sacrificing love (agape in Greek) with which God loves us and with which we are commanded to love our neighbours.  Today we have heard his less-well-known treatise on the subject from his letter to the Romans.

Paul’s letter to the Romans is regarded by many as his supreme work.  Evidence from the text suggests it was written in Corinth during his final visit there in the mid 50s AD.  This makes it one of his final letters, possibly the very last, and, as such, it is a mature reflection of his theology following two decades of travelling, preaching, teaching and writing.  It had, and continues to have a profound influence on the Reformation vision of true religion as the reception of God’s grace through faith alone.

As with the Gospel, today’s reading from Romans contains a number of commands that turn our thoughts upside down although it starts simply enough with ‘Let love be genuine’.  The Greek word for love used by Paul in this verse is once again, agape, just as it is throughout 1 Corinthians 13.  However, in verse two he uses both philadelphia (brotherly love) and philostorgia (family love) which, being less demanding, I find quite reassuring.  He also talks later of philozenia (love of strangers) a word unfortunately less well known to us than its antonym, zenophobia or fear of strangers.

The challenging, upside down verses include the commands to ‘bless those who persecute you’, ‘associate with the lowly’, do not repay evil for evil’, ‘never avenge yourselves’, and ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink’.  Mankind has had 2000 years to contemplate those commands yet we are little if any better at obeying them than were Peter and the other disciples when they first heard them.  That is why, when it does happen, the results are so striking.

When I turned on the television for the news on 23rd July, the morning following the dreadful mass shooting in Norway, it was part way through an interview with a man standing close to the site of the bomb blast in Oslo.  A chill went down my spine as I heard him say the words: “we want to punish the man who has done this.”  One verse from today’s reading came immediately to mind: ‘do not repay anyone evil for evil’.  Evil repaid is evil multiplied.  Surely this could not be happening.  I need not have worried.  Anders Breivik, the bomber and gunman, had stated that he wanted to punish indigenous Europeans, whom he accused of betraying their heritage.  The man in the interview had turned this statement, and Breivik’s hatred and intolerance, on their head.  His full statement was:  “we want to punish the man who has done this, so there will be more love, more tolerance and more understanding”.  That evening, in what has become known as the Rose March, tens, probably hundreds of thousands of fellow Norwegians converged on the centre of Oslo each carrying a single rose.  There was no talk of revenge: they sang songs of peace.  If ever there was a demonstration of the upside-down commands of Jesus being put into action, here it was on a massive scale in front of the eyes of the world.

So what can we learn from this?  Would we, either as individuals or as a society, act in the same way in similar circumstances?  What is our attitude towards those who persecute us?  What, for example, do we feel about those who rioted and looted on the streets of our cities earlier this month and what would Jesus have to say about them?  Are we willing to extend hospitality to strangers, such as Eastern European migrant workers, or do we silently wish they would all go home?  How do we live up to the command to live peaceably with all?

Gentle Jesus, meek and mild?  What do you think?

The Great Commandments

Given by: 

David Teall

Date given: 

7th August, 2011

Book: 

Mark

Chapter: 

12

David Teall

 

Thirty years ago, almost to the day, I attended an interview that changed my life.  I had been Deputy Head at Battle Abbey School in East Sussex for a year and the interview was for the Headship.  I was successful, but I did not take up the post for a further twelve months giving me a whole academic year working alongside my predecessor to plan for the future.  It did not turn out to be the easiest year of my teaching career but it was extremely valuable as it gave me the time to reflect carefully upon what was good in the school and needed keeping, and what needed to be changed.

 

One of the greatest bones of contention amongst the pupils was this little green Rule Book.  It contained Rules on every aspect of school life, a few of which could rightly be called oppressive, a few more that were pointless but most of which were actually quite sensible.  Attempts by the School Council to negotiate changes had been rejected and, as a result, the book was reviled.  It had become the focus for discontent and, as a result, the very many sensible rules for successful community living that it contained were not given the respect they deserved.

I thought and prayed about the problem for many hours and finally came up with a plan.  At my very first assembly as Head I took a copy of the Rule Book and tore it up in front of the whole school to tumultuous applause.  I explained that in the future there would be only two School Rules:  Love the Lord your God and Love your neighbour as yourself.  There would still be a code of conduct, but every part of that code would be an example of one of the two School Rules put into practice.  I then went on to promise that if School Council could successfully argue that any part of the code of conduct was not an example of one of the two School Rules put into practice then I would remove it which, indeed, I did.  The result was a code of conduct that was understood and respected with a much greater appreciation of why it was necessary.

The two new School Rules were, of course, not new at all being no less than the two Great Commandments.  We hear them in our Order of Service for Holy Communion in the following form:

Our Lord Jesus Christ said:  The first commandment is this:  ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength.’  The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’  There is no other commandment greater than these.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

The words used in the service are taken from Mark 12: 28-34 in which Jesus is answering a question from a scribe.  They were not new even then, for Jesus was quoting from the Hebrew Bible.  The first commandment is taken from Deuteronomy 6: 4-5 and the second from Leviticus 19: 18.  Taken together they neatly summarise the Ten Commandments each one of which is an example of one of the two Great Commandments put into practice.

The importance of the first of the Great Commandments is in its exclusivity.  We are to worship the one God to the exclusion of all others and we are to worship Him with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind and with all our strength.  When this was first written in Deuteronomy there were regular problems caused by the worship of other Gods, often known as Baal, but we should not think that this is just a problem of the past.  To worship something as a God means to allow that thing to rule our lives.  In our modern 21st century lives there are all too many candidates for this type of worship: money, personal possessions, fashion, drugs and alcohol to name but a few.  Not all of these are necessarily evil in themselves for few of us here, for example, could exist without money or personal possessions at all.  It is only when our love for these things starts to direct our decisions and so rule our lives that we have broken the first of the Great Commandments.

One of the great benefits that comes from recognising and worshipping God as our Father is that it helps us to know and to understand our place in his universe as one of his children.  Without this knowledge there is a danger that we might start to believe that we are masters of the universe and so become arrogant and self-centred.  Or, by contrast, we might look at the vastness of time and space and feel utterly insignificant and unimportant.  By recognising ourselves as one of God’s children, known by name and loved by him, we can avoid both of these pitfalls.  We are all children of the same God, equal in his sight and all with a rightful place here on earth to do his will: no more and no less.

Whereas the importance of the first of the Great Commandments is in its exclusivity, the importance of the second is in its inclusivity.  When we are commanded to love our neighbour as ourselves that command includes every one of our fellow human beings regardless of race, colour, creed, nationality or place of residence.  We cannot pick or choose those whom we love for everyone is our neighbour.

The word ‘love’ in both of the Great Commandments as written in Mark’s Gospel is translated from the Greek word agape.  Just as the Icelandic language has many different words for snow, in Greek there are several different words for love.  These include philia for friendship or brotherly love, eros for romantic or passionate love and agape for the love that God has for us.  It is with this unconditional, self-sacrificing love that we are commanded to love our neighbours.  What that means in practice is described with great poetic beauty in the reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 13 that is so popular at both weddings and funerals and which we heard again today.  A reminder of four of the most important verses:

Love – agape love - is patient; love is kind and envies no one.   Love is never boastful, nor conceited, nor rude; never selfish, not quick to take offence.  Love keeps no score of wrongs; does not gloat over other’s sins, but delights in the truth.   There is nothing love cannot face; there is no limit to its faith, its hope, and its endurance.

You might be feeling that the command to love our neighbours with this type of love is demanding enough, but the second of the Great Commandments goes much further for it includes the phrase: ‘as ourselves.’  This means that whatever we might wish for ourselves we must wish for our neighbours.  Whatever we value for our own use we must be willing to share.  Whatever we might fight to protect ourselves from we must protect our neighbours from too.

So is any of this possible or is it just a theoretical exercise?  Are human beings ever able to show the agape form of love towards God and towards each other?  The answer to that is an emphatic Yes and is most clearly demonstrated by the Saints whom we rightly revere.  We also see demonstrations of agape love at times of disaster when people who would describe themselves as very ordinary often do quite extraordinary things so we know that it is possible.  But what can we do to help ourselves show this sort of love in our everyday lives?  The answer is to have faith, the effect of which was clearly shown in the second of the miracles in today’s Gospel reading.  The first, and most often quoted miracle, which is also included in the Gospels of Mark and John, is Jesus walking on water.  The second, and to me the most important miracle, appears only in Matthew: it is Peter walking on water.  He only managed it for a while before the going got tough and his faith wavered, but whilst that faith was strong he performed exactly the same miracle as Jesus himself.  With the same faith in Jesus, we too can perform miracles.  If we will walk with him, he will walk with us and together we can show his love to all we meet.  Amen.

The Kingdom of Heaven

Given by: 

David Teall

Date given: 

24th July, 2011

Book: 

Matthew

Chapter: 

13

David Teall

 

Pat and I have recently returned from an extended trip on the canals on board our Narrowboat, Second Chance.  Arguably the most important quality needed to enjoy boating on the canals is not canal craft or boat-handling skill, though these certainly help, but a completely different sense of the passage of time that I like to call canal mode.  You know that you have made the necessary adjustment when a passer-by asks you what time it is and you scratch your head and answer: “I think it’s July.”

 

One of the joys of changing gear into canal mode is the chance to catch up on some of the reading that one really meant to do but never quite found the time.  I took a bible, of course, a rather weighty copy with lots of footnotes which help to explain the meaning of the text.  One day as I was struggling with a passage from one of Paul’s letters – a fairly common experience I have to admit, I found myself asking:  “Lord, there are three quarters of a million words in this your Holy Book and there are so many that I shall never understand.  All I really want to know is - what do you want us to do to be good Christians?”  I’m sorry to say there was no blinding flash of light and I heard no simple answer to that question at the time I asked it, but, a few days ago, as I studied the text for this week, an answer came to me in the form of a phrase that contained only five words.  Can you imagine that?  God’s purpose for us condensed into just five words.  I will leave you thinking about that and return to what they are a little later.

As well as my bible I took with me three copies of The Reader – a national quarterly journal for Readers that I had skim-read but kept to read again more thoroughly.

One edition in particular interested me as it was subtitled: The wonder of creation, a subject close to my heart.  I would like to read a passage from it by Katherine Smith, a Reader in the diocese of Bath and Wells.

Lord, it’s an amazing thought that you could take delight in me; that you could rejoice in me just being me, even though I’m sometimes in such a muddle and at odds with you.  I hardly dare let that mustard seed of belief settle down in my mind and heart and begin to grow.  If I did then it would surely take over my life completely because what else could possibly be more important?  But sometimes I do dare to believe it.  Sometimes I catch a glimpse of a kingdom where we walk together in the cool of the evening and talk about everything and anything.  Laughing, enjoying each other’s company and just being together because that’s how it’s meant to be.

And sometimes I see something in this world you have made and given to us which makes me stop and wonder at its extravagant beauty.  There was that sunset one December afternoon – one of those dramatic fiery red ones that you get at that time of the year and which colour everything beneath it.  There was that walk by a playing field early one spring morning.  The birds were singing their hearts out and the heavy dew on the fields made it look as if someone had scattered millions of diamonds on the grass and they were sparkling in the sunlight.

I wanted to share that beauty and awe with someone, but I was alone.  Then I had a sense of you beside me, enjoying it with me, saying: ‘Look at what I made – isn’t it wonderful – it’s great to share it with you’.   I look around but no-one’s there, no-one I can see anyway.

And then I start wondering what it’s like for you to have created this astounding world and given it to us to look after only to find that we don’t want to share it with you.  You delight in us and so you must long for us to be one with you and it must hurt you that we are distanced from you.

Your delight in us and your longing were so strong that you came to live among us, to draw us to you in Jesus.   In Jesus we see what you are like, concerned about the details of people’s lives and welfare, willing to forgive and heal, always ready to offer a new start with new possibilities opening before us - as it was in the beginning.

Help us to say yes to your offer of forgiveness, healing and new starts.  Give us the power to become the people we are meant to be.  Help us to remember that you want more than anything else for us to delight and rejoice in you, in each other and in all of your creation.  Help us to reach out to receive all that you long to give us.  You delight in us:  there is no darkness that can overcome that light.

 This beautifully written personal reflection captures the essence of today’s Gospel reading perfectly.  We heard that The Kingdom of Heaven is of such immense worth that the land-owner was prepared to sell all that he had in order to be a part of it.

It is of such extravagant beauty that the merchant was prepared to sell all that he had for a share in it.   If we are to be true followers of Christ, we must, as Katherine wrote:  ‘allow the mustard seed of belief to grow until it takes over our life completely.’   There can be no half measures.

So what is the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’?  In the other synoptic Gospels the term used is the ‘Kingdom of God’ but Matthew, typical of Jewish writers of his time, is reluctant to use the divine name and so uses the word ‘Heaven’ in its place.   Kingdom of Heaven – Kingdom of God – or just The Kingdom – whatever we may call it - What is it?  Where is it?  When is it?

In many ways it is easier to say what it isn’t.   Despite the use of treasure and pearls as metaphors in the parables, it is not a possession: it cannot be bought and it cannot be owned.  Nor is it a reference to the realm of the departed or any form of passport to get there.   It is the Universal Reign of God here on earth.

Now there’s a phrase to conjure with: The Universal Reign of God here on earth.  The ‘Reign of God’ because, in The Kingdom, God’s word is accepted as law and ‘Universal’ because it includes all people at all times.  The place is here on earth but what about the time?  Did The Kingdom exist at some time in the past, does it exist now or will it only exist at some time in the future?

This question of time is a very human one to ask for time is very important to us.  We are temporal beings, but God is not.  If we struggle to make the adjustment to canal mode, how much more will we struggle to shift our minds into God mode in which time has no meaning at all?

If your mind is beginning to boggle a bit at this stage, worry not, for help is at hand.  Jesus gives us an important clue to the nature of The Kingdom in the parable of the yeast.  A very small quantity of yeast, a microscopically small organism invisible to the naked eye, grows silently until it has spread throughout the dough and raised it up into bread.  In the same way, The Kingdom, although still very small, is here, on earth, today.  It is most certainly not yet Universal but it is possible, as Katharine explained in her reflection, to get occasional glimpses of what it looks like.  And that brings me back to my promise to express God’s purpose for us condensed into just five words.  And what are they?

Help to build the Kingdom.

That is our task here on earth.  It’s not someone else’s job – it is ours - today, tomorrow and every day.  It is not just something for us to do here in church – it is something for us to do at home and at work.  It must be visible.  It must affect our personal and our business lives and relationships.  Every word that we speak and every act that we perform must leave the world a better place than it would have been had we not been there.

And so, I would like to finish with a challenge to us all, me included.  Over the next week, whatever we are doing, let us ask ourselves this question:  “Is what I am doing or saying helping to build The Kingdom?  If the answer is Yes, then clearly we should keep doing it, but if the answer is No I suggest that we need to take the situation to God in prayer and ask for his help in the full and certain knowledge that it will be given.  Amen.

Nicodemus, the first ‘born again’ Christian

Given by: 

David Teall

Date given: 

20th March 2011

Book: 

John

Chapter: 

3

David Teall

 

There was a severe storm on 25 January 1990 that is sometimes known as the Burns Day Storm.  You may remember it as the day on which Gordon Kaye, the actor who played René in Allo Allo, suffered serious head injuries in a car accident when he was struck by a falling advertising hording.  For a while it was thought that he would not survive, but he did, and he went on to star in three more series of the programme.  His remarkable recovery was very appropriate for the name René means ‘born again’, the subject of today’s Gospel reading.

 

The reading is a report of a lengthy discussion between Jesus and Nicodemus, an interesting character with whom many people, including me, find it easy to relate.  He appears only in St John’s Gospel, and on only three occasions, of which this is the first.  We are told that he was a Pharisee and ‘a ruler of the Jews’.  This is taken by many commentators to mean that he was a member of the Sanhedrin, the legal Assembly consisting of the Chief Priests, The Elders and the Scribes.  He had clearly heard about Jesus and wanted to find out more about him so he made a night-time visit (possibly to avoid being seen by others) to ask him some questions.  It is clear by his responses that he was not immediately convinced by the answers Jesus gave.  He cross‑questioned Jesus on the concept of being ‘born again’ and, when Jesus explained further he answered: “ How can these things be?”

Nicodemus next appears after Jesus has been preaching in the Temple during the Festival of the Tabernacle, a week-long Harvest Festival celebrated in October.  There is consternation about some of the things that Jesus says and the police are sent to arrest him.  However, they return to the Pharisees empty handed saying: “never has anyone spoken like this.”  This angers the Pharisees except for Nicodemus who speaks up on behalf of Jesus arguing that they should at least listen to him first.

The final appearance of Nicodemus follows the crucifixion when he assists Joseph of Arimathea to prepare the body of Jesus for burial.  He brought with him 100 pounds of spices – a huge weight that would normally only be used for the burial of a King.  In contrast to his first night-time visit to see Jesus, this final act of homage and devotion was performed in broad daylight as it had to be completed before dusk and the start of the Sabbath.  The author of the Gospel has used this symbolism to show how Nicodemus finally came out of the darkness and into the light of Christ.

We heard the Gospel this morning read from the King James Bible, known by many as the Authorised Version.  If we had been in King’s Cliffe we would have heard it read from the New Revised Standard Version in which the phrase ‘born again’ does not appear.  In this more modern version the Greek word anothen is translated as ‘from above’ rather than ‘again.’  This translation makes nonsense of the follow-up question from Nicodemus: “can anyone enter a second time into his mother’s womb” and destroys the symbolism upon which the whole ‘born again Christian’ movement is based.  It really is remarkable just how much difference the translation of just one word can make.

You will be pleased to know that I am not about to launch into a long argument about the merits of this translation or that.  Rather, I would like to take a step back and look at the reading as a whole.  In so doing it is the final two verses that tell us what this reading is all about:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.  For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.

‘That the world through him might be saved.’  Saving or Salvation – that is what this reading is all about – what we must do in order to obtain salvation.

To Jews like Nicodemus, a prime requisite for salvation was their birth – their biological birth as sons of Abraham.  We were reminded of this in our Old Testament reading:

The Lord said to Abram: ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you.’

Jesus is saying very clearly that this is not enough.  To enter the new Kingdom it is necessary to be born a second time (the King James translation), this time from above (the NRSV translation). 

And, as if that were not radical enough:

And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up:  That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.

Salvation, Jesus is saying, is now available to anyone, whether they be sons of Abraham or not, provided only that they believe in him.

This is all pretty heavy stuff as, indeed, is much of St John’s Gospel.  It is certainly not Level One Christianity.  So what are we to make of it all and how can it change the way in which we live our lives.  Fortunately, there is a simple example to follow woven through the story: the example of Nicodemus.

Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a member of the ruling Sanhedrin who we must presume had studied ‘The Law’ for much of his life.  His journey to salvation started by listening to what people told him about what Jesus had to say.  Interested, he visited him in secret in order to find out more for himself.  Later, he defended him against unfair and baseless criticism determined to give him a proper hearing.  Finally, openly in front of his peers, he performed the intensely personal service of preparing his body for burial.  By this act his life was changed for ever: he was truly ‘born again.’

Being ‘born again’, ‘born from above’ or ‘born of the spirit’, or however you wish to describe it, is, of course, a spiritual experience.  However, it is not the experience itself that is important: it is how that experience is translated into action.  If we are to be truly ‘born again’ then, like Nicodemus, we must be prepared to turn our backs on the world we once knew and give our whole lives to the service of Christ.

Amen.

Is it ready yet?

Given by: 

David Teall

Date given: 

27th February 2011

Book: 

Matthew

Chapter: 

6

David Teall

The banner at the top of our Pew Sheet tells us that this is the Second Sunday before Lent, the point in the Lectionary when we get back to the sequence of Sundays that occur every year, no matter how early or late Easter may be.  However, that is not the only description that could be given to this day.  For many of you it might be more meaningful to describe it as the First Sunday post Panto, the day of the long-promised return to normality.  For others, it might be described as the Last Sunday of half term.  As I look around I see bleary-eyed grand-parents with a tired but happy smile on their faces, partly because of happy memories of exciting games with their grand-children and partly because they have got their houses back to themselves at last.

I can relate to both of these descriptions.  I enjoyed the panto very much, more especially as I didn’t have to do anything other than attend, and I have had the joys of grand-children coming to stay over half-term.  Oliver, one of my grandsons, aged 10, is particularly partial to Pat’s home-made Chocolate Cake.  This time it didn’t get made before he arrived so he had to go into the kitchen and ‘help’.  Under Pat’s watchful eye he assembled the ingredients:  Chocolate, Butter, Caster Sugar, Eggs, Milk and Flour.  Then the first exciting bit: creaming the butter and sugar.  Just as he was about to switch on the mixer his brother Josh rushed in (he’s seven – he doesn’t do anything slowly) and shouted (he’s seven – he doesn’t do anything quietly) “Is it ready yet Grandma?”  Aaah!  The joys of being a grand-parent!

I shall return to the Curious Tale of the Half-Term Chocolate Cake a little later and hopefully explain how it relates to my main topic for this morning: reading the Bible.

Philip has spoken to us over the last few weeks about the dangers of forming an opinion by interpreting a single passage of scripture in isolation.  Today’s Gospel is a very good example of a passage that can very easily be misinterpreted:  at first sight it appears to be a Hippy’s charter:

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.   Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?  Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.   and a little later:  Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?”

That’s all pretty clear isn’t it?  Don’t bother with all that sowing and reaping stuff: sit around and enjoy yourself and God will provide.  Don’t worry about what clothes you wear.  You’re beautiful!  Peace and Love!  Peace and Love!

For a baby boomer like me, who spent his teenage years in the 60’s this could all sound very attractive.  “do not worry about tomorrow” the reading goes on, “for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.   Today’s trouble is enough for today.”  And it’s all here – in the Bible – so it’s the Word of God isn’t it?

If only it were that simple.  The Bible does indeed contain the Word of God, but it is written in the words of men.

To hear God speaking to us through those words requires a much deeper study than that made so far by my inner Hippy looking for an excuse to do nothing all day.

Most scholars today believe that The Gospel of Matthew was written at sometime between 80 and 90 A.D.  The author is unknown but analysis of the text suggests that he was a Greek-speaking Jewish Christian, possibly a scribe.  Similar analysis suggests that he used the earlier Gospel of Mark as one of his sources alongside a collection of stories about Jesus that was in circulation at the time often referred to as ‘Q’ and some other unknown sources of his own.  It was some time later that the Gospel was attributed to the disciple Matthew.

The Sermon on the Mount, from which today’s reading is taken, is a compilation of sayings of Jesus, not a word-for-word transcript of a particular sermon given at a particular place on a particular day.  The author has grouped them together in order to form the first of five major discourses in his Gospel, all of which end with the words: “and when Jesus had finished saying these things … …”or similar.  

Some scholars suggest that these five discourses reflect the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, which were traditionally written by Moses.  The author, speaking to a largely Jewish audience, wanted to portray Jesus as the new Moses who fulfilled the prophesies of the old and superseded them.  Thus, by presenting the sayings of Jesus as a single sermon on the law of the New Kingdom delivered from a mountain, the author is reflecting the story of Moses receiving the 10 Commandments on Mount Sinai, a symbolism that would have been instantly recognised by his audience, just as you recognised my references to the Panto and to half-term.  By this means he retained ownership of the fundamental story from his Jewish roots but moved it on to proclaim the New Kingdom of Jesus Christ.

Some of you may find this sort of analysis rather harsh and disturbing.  If Jesus didn’t really preach the Sermon on the Mount in the way described in Matthew’s Gospel;   if the author put stories together in order to put his particular ‘spin’ on events, then what are we to believe?  To hopefully help you to understand that, I have a confession to make, or maybe it is not so much a confession – more an explanation.

Oliver and Josh did, indeed, come to stay with us over half-term but it was not in the week just ended as was implied in my story: it was the week before as they go to school in Staffordshire where the holiday pattern is different.  We did many things with them but on this occasion Pat didn’t actually make a chocolate cake though she has done so on many previous occasions.  Joshua, like most seven year-olds, is always asking ‘is it ready yet?’ though whether he did so the last time a cake was baked I can’t be sure as that was a while ago and memories of one visit can easily merge with another.

So was my story true?  In a strictly historical sense it was not.  I linked it to the half-term just ended because, knowing my audience, I knew that many of you would relate to that and it would help me gain your attention.  The story gave you an accurate description of Oliver (he like his food) and Joshua (he is aged seven, impatient and noisy) and it gave an accurate description of family life in the twenty first century that would be of interest to historians in 2000 years’ time.  In one sense it was not ‘the truth’ but it contained a great deal of truth.  The Bible, for very similar reasons, is much the same.

So finally, with these thoughts in mind, let’s go back and have another look at today’s reading.  Is it really the Hippy charter that it appears to be?  To answer that we need to understand that Jesus and his disciples, and the people to whom he spoke and the author of the Gospel of Matthew were all Jews and were all very familiar with the stories in Genesis, one of which we heard as our Old Testament reading today.

In this story of the creation God said:  ‘See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.’  He didn’t say: ‘Behold, I shall give you a ready-made freshly-baked Pizza every day.’  We know too from other stories about Jesus that he had a great respect for and affinity with those who worked in the fields and those who looked after the animals: many of his parables were about them.  There is no way in which he would denigrate the hard work put in by such people nor deny its importance.  We need to keep looking.

Now that we know what the passage does not mean we can look at it with fresh eyes.  It is towards the end that we find the final clue:  “your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

The story is not about whether or not we spend our time working in the fields to turn God’s gifts into food for the table or clothes for our back: Jesus has assumed that we will do that.  It is about the priority we give that work.  If our first priority is to eat good food and wear fine clothes then we are failing to give the necessary priority to building the kingdom of God.  By contrast, if we make building the kingdom our first priority, the material things of life, such as we need, will follow.  Far from suggesting an easy path through life, what Jesus is asking of us is to put the needs of others first, for that is the key to building the kingdom.  Building the Kingdom is a hard task that faithful Christians have been working on for the last 2000 years.  Like Joshua I’m tempted to ask: “is it ready yet?” but I know I would get the same answer as he did:  No – the work has only just begun and, now that you are here, you can do your share.

Pages