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A slow Epiphany

Given by: 

David Teall

Date given: 

25th January 2015

Book: 

Acts

Chapter: 

9

Conversion of Paul – Acts 9: 1-22

David Teall

 

During January each year we celebrate the season of Epiphany – the manifestation or revelation of Christ to the Gentiles.  The season begins by celebrating the visit of a group of important Gentiles of unknown origin, the Magi, and ends with the Presentation of Christ in the Temple when Simeon declares Jesus to be ‘a light for revelation to the Gentiles.’

 

Today, as the 25th January falls on a Sunday, we celebrate the Conversion of Paul, surely one of the greatest Epiphanies of them all.  Here was a man, a devout Jew, a Pharisee, on a mission to seek out and arrest followers of Jesus and return them to the High Priests in Jerusalem.  ‘Suddenly,’ the bible tells us, ‘a light from heaven flashed around him’ and he heard the voice of Jesus speaking directly to him.  Within less than a week he was preaching in the synagogue proclaiming Jesus as ‘the Son of God.’

There are several interesting points to note about this conversion:  Paul did not see Jesus, he only heard him; he went through three days of torment before the scales finally fell from his eyes and, even then, they only did so with help from a previous convert.  We shall return to some of these points later on but, for the moment, let’s not be picky:  by any standards this was a remarkably rapid and complete transformation in which Paul came to understand that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, the son of God.

For most of us the revelation of God is much less dramatic than that of Paul on the road to Damascus and it is rarely complete within three days.  Each of us has our own story to tell, but my own journey to faith has been more like doing a jigsaw puzzle – a slow process rather than a sudden Epiphany.

Is there anyone here who enjoys doing jigsaw puzzles?  I’ve brought one along with me today.  Does anyone fancy having a go at this one?

Show empty jigsaw box with no lid, no picture and no pieces.

Oh yes, I forgot to say.  It has no lid, so there is no picture to help you.  And yes, you’re right, there are no pieces either!  So what sort of jigsaw is that?  Well, that was the jigsaw I started with in my 20s as I sought for God:  no picture, no pieces, just an empty box.  So how and where did I start?  To explain that I would like to tell you three little stories.

The first is about coffee time in the Teall household at Blatherwycke which takes place around 10.30 every morning.  Come rain or shine we take our coffee through to our conservatory where we can sit in comfort and look out across our garden towards the park.  Or, to be more accurate, I can look out across our garden towards the park; Pat’s view is at a slightly different angle so she sees a different part of the garden and the woods beyond.  This difference in viewpoint can lead to the sort of difficulties we had one day earlier this month:  “Look, look” cried Pat, “there’s a woodpecker on the trellis”.  Now, I can’t see the trellis from my seat and, if I moved a muscle, it would fly away so I didn’t get to see the woodpecker that day.  However, I can describe it to you because Pat described it to me in real time as she watched it and I trust her not to have been making it up.  Her vision has given me a firm insight into what a woodpecker is like, even though I did not see it myself.

When I started out on my search for God with my empty jigsaw box my first glimpses of him were seen, not through my own eyes, but through the eyes of previous converts who were able to see him from their different perspectives. By trusting in their vision and judgement I was able to collect the first few tentative pieces of my jigsaw.  Like Paul, I could never have done this on my own but, with help, I now had a few pieces in my box to encourage me on my way.

To help explain the next stage of my journey I would like to tell you about a news item I read recently on the BBC website.  Apparently some of the major plane manufacturers are in the early stages of designing a passenger plane that has no windows.  Windows, it would seem, are expensive to put in, they weaken the structure of the fuselage and they create drag and increase fuel consumption.  From a carrier’s point of view they are lose, lose all the way, but how could they persuade the travelling public to accept them?  Their answer is to install television screens where the windows would have been, all fed a picture from a camera on their side of the plane.  Passengers would be able to see where they were going and, what is more, if something really interesting came up on, say, the port side it could be temporarily switched to the starboard side as well so that no one would miss it!

Are you convinced?  No, nor me.  I can’t help but wonder, if I saw the Houses of Parliament or the Taj Mahal on a screen, would I really feel that I had seen it with my own eyes or would there always be that nagging suspicion that I was seeing an image created by animators from the World of Disney?

Some of the pieces of the jigsaw in my personal box have been a bit like this.  I have seen a glimpse of God, but not been entirely convinced that it was real.  Perhaps what I was seeing was not what it seemed and was not really God at all.

Such doubts must have gone through Paul’s mind during those three days he spent in darkness, unable to see anything.  Doubting is part of the human condition.  It is uncomfortable and we all wish it didn’t happen, but for most of us it does from time to time.  Fortunately, there is a further process that can help to dispel our doubts as I hope my third and last little story will show.

A couple of years ago Pat and I travelled from Fort William to Inverness by boat along the Caledonian Canal and Loch Ness.  The first part of the journey passed Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the United Kingdom at 4409 feet or 1344 metres if you prefer.  Or so we were told!  Now you need to know that Pat and I had been to Scotland before on no less than 6 occasions and, being constantly enveloped by low cloud, had never actually seen any land above 500 feet.  We were beginning to wonder whether the mountains were an invention of the Scottish Tourist Board that did not really exist at all.

As we started our journey along the Caledonian Canal we were hopeful that we might see some mountains and, if we were very lucky, we might even see the top of Ben Nevis.  To start with it was heavy cloud but gradually the sky started to lighten.  The lower slopes came into view and it looked as if, just round the corner when we got a better angle, we might finally see the summit.  We rounded the corner, the sky looked promising but then, all of a sudden, there were trees in the way.  Did we see the top or didn’t we?  We weren’t quite sure but, then, just for a moment, there was a stretch with no trees and we saw it: clear and unmistakable, the summit of Ben Nevis, but only for a few seconds before the cloud rolled back once more.

Searching for God can be very much like this.  We see tantalising glimpses for fleeting moments, but we have seen them with our own eyes and they are real.  These glimpses are the pieces in the jigsaw that we need to recognise and to treasure so that, as we go through life, our picture and knowledge of God becomes more and more complete.  Eventually, as we put together the pieces we have gathered on our journey, the picture will become clear, the scales will fall from our eyes and our Epiphany will be complete.  It may not have been as rapid as Paul’s, but it will be no less real for that.  Amen.

Words: 1,410

Difficult Questions

Given by: 

David Teall

Date given: 

26th October 2014

Book: 

Matthew

Chapter: 

22

Matthew 22: 34-46

David Teall

Much of the news in September and October each year is dominated by the Party Conference Season.  One by one the Party Leaders appear on our screens making promises of what they will do to make this country a better place, and one by one the political commentators and the leaders of the other parties do their best to trip them up with difficult questions. 

Challenging others by asking difficult questions is a recurring theme in chapters 21 to 22 of Matthew’s gospel which we have been listening to over the last four weeks.  Following the description of the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem at the beginning of Chapter 21, the gospel records several difficult questions, some addressed to Jesus and some by Jesus to others.

In Chapter 21 verse 23 the chief priests and elders asked Jesus: ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’  Jesus dealt with this by a ploy that any politician today would be proud of:  he asked them a question about an unrelated subject that they simply could not answer.

Following this neat deflection Jesus posed a number of difficult questions through his favoured device of telling stories to which his listeners could relate in the parables of the Two Sons, the Wicked Tenants and the Wedding Banquet.  He also fended off a question on tax with that memorable line: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”  When reading these verses I can’t help but wonder how Jeremy Paxman would have coped with Jesus if time had not separated them by 2000 years!

The opening line of today’s Gospel reading refers to the one difficult question in chapter 22 that is not included in the table of Lectionary readings, a complex question about resurrection posed by the Sadducees to Jesus.  The Sadducees were the aristocracy of Judaism who traced their origins back to the family of Zadok, David’s High Priest.  Tom Wright describes them as the ‘let’s keep things as they are party’ who felt threatened by the Pharisees, an unofficial but powerful pressure group of Jewish legal experts who were intent on imposing their very precise interpretation of ‘The Law’ on the whole of Israel.

It is against this background that a group of Pharisees challenged Jesus with the question:  “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

So, how difficult a question is that?  How many commandments were there in the Hebrew Bible for Jesus to choose from?  Any offers?

It makes a good Quiz question this as it all depends upon how we define the word ‘commandment.’  If we consider any time that God speaks and says either ‘do this’ or ‘don’t do that’ to be a commandment then there really are quite a lot.  Even with this broad definition there are still plenty of debates to be had about what is a commandment and what is not so there is no absolute answer to the question.  However, many Jews consider the answer to be 613 of which 248 are positive (thou shalt) and 365 are negative (thou shalt not).

What we know as the Ten Commandments actually account for 14 of the 613 commandments.  The total comes to 14 rather than 10 because the statement about not worshipping idols includes 4 separate commandments: not to worship other gods, not to make images of them, not to bow down to them and not to serve them.  Similarly, the statement about the Sabbath includes 2 separate commandments: one to keep the Sabbath holy and the other not to work on it.

So, after that little diversion, back to the Gospel reading:  how did Jesus answer the question “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”  This time there was no side-stepping: he gave the perfect Jewish answer that not even the Pharisees could question:

‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it:  “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”   On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

We hear these words expressed as a Summary of the Law every week as we prepare to make our confession.  We tend to think of them as the words of Jesus but they are not, for he was quoting from the Hebrew Bible.  The first, or Great Commandment is taken from Deuteronomy 6: 4-5 and the second, sometimes called the Golden Rule, from Leviticus 19: 18.  Taken together they neatly summarise the Ten Commandments each one of which is an example of one of these two commandments put into practice.

The importance of the Great Commandment 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 (in Mark) 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 if any of us here 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 Great Commandment.

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 Great Commandment is in its exclusivity, the importance of the Golden Rule 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 the Great Commandment and the Golden Rule is translated from the Greek word agape, the unconditional, self-sacrificing love that God has for us.  It is with this same love that we are commanded to love both God and our neighbours.  Furthermore, as if the command to love our neighbours with this type of love were not demanding enough, the Golden Rule goes much further for it includes the phrase: ‘as yourself.’

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 is an emphatic Yes and is most clearly demonstrated by the Saints whom we rightly revere and celebrate today / next week.  We can also see demonstrations of agape love at times of disaster when people such as Alan Henning, who would describe themselves as very ordinary, often do quite extraordinary things.  From their actions we know that such love is possible, but what can we do to help ourselves show this sort of love in our everyday lives?

One possible answer can be found in the First Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians from which we heard this morning:

We had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition.  Though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.  So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you, not only the gospel of God, but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.

“To be as gentle to others as a nurse caring for her own children.”  Can we do that for all our neighbours ... ... ...
or is that too difficult a question?

Amen.

Words: 1,532

Dealing with Doubt

Given by: 

David Teall

Date given: 

27th April 2014

Book: 

John

Chapter: 

20

Easter 2  John 20: 19-31

David Teall

In my days as a teacher, if you were feeling mischievous and you felt the need to liven things up a little in the staff room, one of the best ways of doing so would be to announce that you thought all teaching next school year in, let us say, Year 6 or Year 7, should be topic based.  The world of education contains within its vaults examples of some extremely effective topic-based teaching schemes and not a few unmitigated disasters.  You will be pleased to know that I am not going to dwell on this subject for too long but I would like to draw from its debate the difference between two distinct approaches to teaching and learning: nibbling round an apple and serving slices of cake.

Nibbling round an apple involves revolving it five or six times biting just a little deeper each time.  By the time you reach the core you have covered the same ground many times, but you have never been asked to bite off more than you can chew.  Serving slices of cake, by contrast, involves dividing the material to be devoured into slices each one of which includes material from every level from the outside to the centre.  To eat the whole cake you only need to go round it once, but some of the slices can look daunting indeed when placed in front of you on a plate.

The truth is, each of these approaches has its advantages and disadvantages.  Some subjects lend themselves more to one approach; some to the other.  What inspires one class may leave another cold and what works for one teacher may not work for another.  Good teachers in good schools learn what works for them and adapt it day by day to suit the children entrusted to their care.  Failure strikes when well-intentioned enthusiasts try to impose what worked in one set of circumstances upon an entirely different scenario.

Much the same applies to our learning about God and developing our Christian faith.  We are all different.  What works for me may not work for you.  Indeed, what works for you or me today may not necessarily work for either of us tomorrow.  What we each need to do is to learn what works for us and have the confidence to know that God will walk with us as we travel the journey, no matter how convoluted our personal path may be.

At this time of year in particular it is important to remember that we do not have to understand and accept and believe everything all in one go.  Some of the concepts we are confronted with at Easter are difficult so we do not need to despair if we find them so.  We do not need to devour the whole slice of cake at one sitting; we can nibble around the apple a little at a time taking as long as we need to reach the centre.  On some issues that may take a lifetime.

For me, our reading from Acts this morning comes very much into this category.  Listen to a couple of phrases from it again:

This man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.

And later, in the quote from Psalm 16:

“He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh experience corruption.”

I still struggle with both of these verses, so how do I deal with that?  How do any of us deal with verses in the Bible or aspects of our faith that we find difficult?  Do we hide our doubts lest they somehow betray us as a lesser Christian?  Or do we just ignore the bits that we don’t like and cherry-pick our way through the Bible accepting the bits that we understand and simply disregarding the rest?

Whilst both of these approaches may offer a way out of an immediate problem, neither of them will increase our knowledge or understanding of God.  Like Thomas in our Gospel reading, we need to confront our doubts for, in doing so, we give God the opportunity to reassure us.  There are various ways in which we can do this.  If we are gregarious by nature we can discuss our doubts with others, maybe over coffee after church or by attending a course or by joining one of our Home Groups.  If we don’t feel comfortable in a group situation we can approach a trusted person and discuss the issue on a more personal basis.  And, whoever we are, we can talk to God in prayer taking our lead from Thomas who was never afraid to ask questions of the Lord.  God understands our doubts and frailties so we need never be afraid to lay them before him.

But what if we do all of these things and we still have doubts?  What then?  I would suggest that this is the time to remember that we do not need to devour the whole slice of cake at one sitting; we can nibble around the apple a little at a time taking as long as we need to reach the centre.  Furthermore, if the going gets tough, we can turn the apple around and nibble at it from the opposite direction.  This is an approach I have personally found helpful in dealing with doubts about the resurrection.  Rather than dwell on the account of the resurrection in the Bible
I start with the here and now:  I know for certain that Jesus Christ is alive today because I have a relationship with him.  If he is alive today something very special must have happened after his death on the cross to make that possible.  I don’t need to understand the precise details of what that was: it is the reality of his presence in my life that is important.

If our doubts persist we need to find a way to set them aside for a while, not, I would like to suggest, by placing them in a box labelled Impossible or Ignore but in one labelled In God’s care.  Over the years, as we continue to pray and nibble around the apple, new insights will hopefully enable us to remove previous doubts from God’s care and place them firmly in the box we label as our Faith.  As Paul put it in his first letter to the Corinthians:

For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.  Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.

Amen.

Words: 1,098

Come change our love from a spark to a flame

Given by: 

David Teall

Date given: 

23rd March 2014

Book: 

John

Chapter: 

4

David Teall

In September 1972 I started my new job as Head of Biology at King’s School, Peterborough.  For a while I commuted from Stamford but, the following year, Pat and I moved into our newly-purchased property in Huntley Grove, about a hundred yards away from the back door to the science labs at King’s.  The house needed a lot of work to turn it into our vision for a home which we couldn’t afford to have done, but were confident that we could do ourselves.  So it was that, on the day we received the keys at about 4 o’clock one afternoon, we set about pulling down an old lath and plaster partition wall to enlarge the kitchen.  We were soon completely absorbed in what we were doing for it was something that we had planned for what felt a very long time.  Eventually, when the wall was down and we had swept out the room, we decided to have a bonfire in our back garden and burn the old laths.  Being thin and very dry they burnt a treat with flames climbing high into the night sky.  The fire seemed a fitting finale to our evening of work.  Then, to our surprise and horror, we found ourselves confronted by a very angry neighbour who was not in the least impressed by our fire.  “What sort of time do you call this to have a bonfire?” he yelled.  We looked at each other with not the slightest idea of the time between us.  “About 10 o’clock” I replied hesitantly.  “10 o’clock! You must be joking!” retorted the neighbour.  “It’s 2 o’clock in the morning!”  We hastily snuffed out what remained of the fire, made profuse apologies and drove back to Stamford reflecting upon our first evening in our new home and how we had managed to keep going until 2.00am without our evening meal and without noticing just how late it had become.

Some 35 years later I found myself engaged in another first, though this was in the morning, not the evening.  It was the 24th February 2008 and I was here at this lectern delivering my very first sermon.  Many of you were here.  Easter was at its very earliest that year and it is at almost its latest this year, so then as now, it was the Third Sunday of Lent and the Gospel reading was John’s story of the Samaritan woman at the well.  A brief two sentence reminder then, of what I had to say then:

There are several gems within the conversation which I could expand upon but they are all eclipsed by what is arguably the most dramatic scene described in the New Testament:

Jesus volunteers the information that he is the Messiah:   ‘I am he,’  he said  ‘the one who is speaking to you.’

For me, that remains the most important sentence in the reading. but it was only the beginning of a remarkable story.  Immediately after Jesus had made this revelation the disciples returned and his conversation with the Samaritan woman ended.  Its repercussions, however, were only just beginning.  The woman rushed back into town, so enthralled by her conversation with Jesus that she forgot the original purpose of her journey and left her water jar by the well.  When she arrived she told the people about her encounter with the Messiah and persuaded them to go out to the well to meet him themselves.

What an amazing transformation!  Here was a woman who was ostracised by her own people because of her immoral way of life.  So afraid of their taunts she had come out to the well in the heat of the day, rather than the cool of morning or evening, just to avoid making contact with them.  Now, here she was, rushing back into the town to address them and tell them of her encounter at the well.  Jesus had chosen to reveal that he was the Messiah, not to his Jewish friends, the disciples, but to a Samaritan woman.  She, in response, had become the first Evangelist, spreading the word of Jesus to all whom she met.

The Samaritan woman was not the only one who was deeply affected by the encounter:  Jesus too was excited.  As the towns’ people came out to see him his disciples urged him to eat, but he would not.  He knew that his mission was to spread the good news of the Kingdom of God to all people, not just to the Jews. He had spent 30 years preparing for this moment, and now it was happening.  Of course he was excited, so excited in fact that he stayed in the town for two days to continue his conversations and, as John tells us, “because of his words many more became believers.”

Two days, of course, is a long time.  Talk for much more than 10 minutes here at the Lectern and you can guarantee at least one person will be taking a sneaky look at their watch!  What on earth did Jesus talk about for two days?  John does not tell us, but he does tell us the result:  “Now that we have heard for ourselves,” the Samaritans said, “we know that this man really is the Saviour of the World.”

The Title “Saviour of the World” would have been well known to the Samaritans for it was claimed by the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus for himself.  Now, after two days in the company of this itinerant Jewish preacher who had first appeared in their midst begging for water from a woman of ill repute, they were ready to proclaim him as the Messiah, the true Saviour of the World.  Not just the Saviour of the Jews, but the Saviour of the World including, of course, the Samaritans, and you, and me.

In contemplating the enormity of this it is interesting to note that the Samaritans were expecting a teaching Messiah, like a second Moses, rather than the Jewish hope of a conquering Messiah, like a second David.  Perhaps that helped them to recognise and accept Jesus as their Saviour.

Week by week, as we come to church, we hear the words of Jesus that were recorded by the Gospel writers specifically to enable future generations to hear what had excited them so much.  We hear them, yes, but are we excited by them?  Do they have such an impact upon us that we forget what we had planned and rush off after the service to repeat them to our family, friends and neighbours like the Samaritan woman?  Are we ever so excited by the prospect of building the Kingdom of God that we cannot eat because we feel compelled to continue the work, just as Jesus did after his encounter at the well?

We Brits are not terribly good at being excited are we?  Apart from certain sporting events and the occasional pop concert we prefer to keep our emotions under wraps.  I recall a swimming gala at the all-girls school where I taught in Sussex when the Headmistress stopped the proceedings to admonish the girls for cheering and whistling which she considered unladylike.  “You may clap” she conceded, “and you may say Hurrah – once.”

The message of today’s Gospel reading is clear.  We should be excited about the Good News of Jesus Christ.  We need to stop hiding the light of Christ under a bushel or a dirty old bucket and stop being apologetic about our faith.  In the words of our Gradual hymn, we need to change our love for Christ and for one another from a spark to a flame.  And if that flame leaps up so high that our neighbours can see it from the next street then let us say Hurrah for that – but only once, of course!

Note:  The Gradual Hymn was Beauty for brokenness by Graham Kendrick which includes the chorus:

God of the poor,
Friend of the weak,
Give us compassion we pray,
Melt our cold hearts,
Let tears fall like rain.
Come, change our love
From a spark to a flame.

Will you come and follow me?

Given by: 

David Teall

Date given: 

26th January 2014

Book: 

Matthew

Chapter: 

4

David Teall

Matthew 4: 12-23

As you enter the ruins of the ancient town of Capernaum on the shore of Lake Galilee you are greeted by a notice which declares, in English with appropriate graphics: Holy Place:  No dogs, cigarettes, guns or short clothing.  Whether or not this accurately portrays the four things in life that are most offensive to God it surely represents at least an attempt to maintain something of the Kingdom of God within the boundaries of the town where Jesus began his public ministry.

 

Today’s reading contains three of the recurrent themes found in Matthew’s Gospel:  The fulfilment of Scripture  in verses 14 to 16, the salvation of the Gentiles in verse 15 and the announcement of the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven in verse 17.  Matthew’s use of the expression ‘The Kingdom of Heaven’ contrasts with the expression ‘The Kingdom of God’ favoured by Mark and Luke.  There are many theories about this difference but the most likely stems from the fact that the author of Matthew was a Jewish Christian who had yet to throw off the Jewish practice of avoiding saying or writing down YHWH, the word for God.  This left him with no option but to use a different word to express the same concept which has nothing whatsoever to do with the afterlife but rather a world in which all people obey the will of God. 

Obedience is not something we humans are very good at though, is it?  Going all the way back to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden it is something we have found a bit of a struggle.  Even when God’s will is clear we can always find a very good reason why it doesn’t apply to us or why it would be perfectly reasonable to delay doing anything about it until tomorrow.

That thought brings me to the most startling part of today’s reading.  It’s not the fact that Jesus chose four lowly fishermen to be his first disciples, though I shall have more to say about that later, but that they followed him ‘immediately.’  Not the next morning when they had talked it over which each other and with their parents; not at the end of the month after they had had time to sort their affairs out a little and make arrangements for someone to look after their animals; not in a few years’ time when ‘things will be a little different’ or some such phrase but immediately.

So what are we to make of that?  Did Jesus really demand that these four working men walk away from their responsibilities without so much as even a goodbye to their friends and family?  There are, of course, those who take every word in the Bible literally who would condemn me for even asking the question but for me such arguments run the risk of missing the really important message contained within the passage:  The Kingdom of God is to be built by ordinary men and women like you and me, and the need to get on with the work is urgent.

Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John were all called to follow Jesus in a literal sense as he travelled from place to place healing the sick and teaching all those who came to listen to him.  But what of us?  What does it mean to follow Christ in the 21st century?  Just what is involved in ‘Building the Kingdom?’

Our Gradual Hymn today [Will you come and follow me] gives us a few pointers to help answer this all-important question.  I would be grateful if you would find it again. This hymn was written in 1987 by John Bell, a Church of Scotland Minister and a member of the Iona Community.  Like all his work it is rooted firmly in the Bible.  The first four verses between them contain twenty one questions addressed by Jesus to each one of us beginning with “Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?” The fifth verse gives a suggested response.

The twenty one questions are an interesting mix reflecting both the demands of following the teaching of Jesus and the difficulties faced by anyone who chooses to answer his call.  It would take too long to go through all twenty one questions so I have chosen one from each of the first four verses that I find particularly challenging.

In the first verse I have chosen the question: “Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same.”  That has to be the scariest question of all doesn’t it, and surely the one that was racing through the minds of Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John after Jesus approached them in Capernaum.  It is one thing to respond to a clear specific request like “could you call into the doctors’ and pick up my prescription”, but quite another to answer a call that could take you absolutely anywhere.

We are all creatures of habit.  We know what we like and don’t like.  We have our comfort zones and we like to stay within them.  Answering the call from Jesus means putting your trust in him entirely and going wherever he leads, just as his disciples did on the shores of Lake Galilee.

It will not have escaped your notice that the second part of this question is the same in all five verses: “and never be the same.”  That sounds scary too, for we don’t like change any more than stepping out of our comfort zone, but actually it is a positive thing.  When I look back to my own life before I answered the first call from Jesus at my confirmation I needed to change - Lord how I needed to change.  And, of course, I still need to change because the process is continuous and never ending, at least not here on earth.  I was reminded of that by a story posted on Facebook by one of my daughters last week:  Following the death of a much loved pet a family were pondering the fact that dogs have a much shorter life than humans.  After the adults had failed to come up with a convincing explanation the six-year old, who had obviously been listening at Sunday School, produced his answer:  “Humans need a long time to learn how to love each other and be nice all the time.  Dogs know that already so they don’t have to live so long.”  I’m not entirely convinced that applies to every dog I have ever encountered, but the bit about humans needing a long time is spot on!

In verse two I have gone for the question: “Will you risk the hostile stare should your life attract or scare.”  This can apply at many different levels: In more than 40 Nations on earth today, including Afghanistan, Syria and parts of the Palestinian Territories on the West Bank, Christians have to risk far more than a hostile stare to profess their faith.  Indeed, in some of these countries it is illegal to own a Bible, to share your faith or teach your children about Jesus and in others there is the real danger of physical abuse or even death.

Here in our green and pleasant land we have the legal freedom to profess our faith but, in our increasingly secular society, we certainly can and do encounter the occasional hostile stare.  Even within the structures of our church, speaking out can engender such hostility: Prophets have never been universally loved.

My challenging line in verse 3 is “and do such as this unseen?”  By force of brevity this statement tells only half the story for all things are seen by God and that, of course, is all that really matters. The problem is, we humans have what can be an overwhelming need for approval.  Knowing that our good deed has met with God’s approval is not always enough: we need a parent or our spouse or maybe our boss to tell us how wonderful we are too.  Saint Ignatius of Loyola recognised this problem in that wonderful prayer of his:

Teach us, good Lord, to serve you as you deserve,
to give and not to count the cost,
to fight and not to heed the wounds,
to toil and not to seek for rest,
to labour and not to ask for any reward,
save that of knowing that we do your will.

I pray it often, but I still find it a struggle at times.

For my final selection I have chosen “Will you use the faith you’ve found to reshape the world around.”  That is a real challenge for it demands both action and humility which are not comfortable bedfellows.  Reshaping is not a passive act but demands rolling your sleeves up and getting involved in the thick of things and, by its nature, making changes which will not always be popular.  The humility is needed when trying to discern the will of God in the situation under question and ensuring that you are not pushing forward your own personal prejudices disguised under the banner of Christ.

So that has faced up to the challenges, but what of the final verse: I can’t really finish without looking at that.  Here, it is the first line that demands my attention every time I read it: “Lord, your summons echoes true.”  There are many times when I wish it didn’t but I cannot escape the central message of today’s Gospel reading:  The Kingdom of God is to be built by ordinary men and women like you and me, and the need to get on with the work is urgent.  Let us go from this place renewed in our resolve and get on with the job!

Who? Me? Surely not!

Given by: 

David Teall

Date given: 

27th October 2013

Book: 

Luke

Chapter: 

18

Luke 18: 9-14

David Teall

When Pat and I were first married and living in Peterborough one of our favourite days out was to go to Cambridge.  We would maybe hire a punt for an hour, have a wander around the grounds of one or two of the Colleges that were open to the public and do a little window shopping.  We didn’t have the money to buy very much in those days but something that I did usually manage to find the money for was one or two post cards to add to my collection.  These were not picture postcards of the sites of Cambridge but a series of cards called Pot Shots, each one printed with some little gem of home-spun philosophy.  I’ve still got many of them and they still bring a smile to my face as I read through them.  I’ll read you one or two:

My stack of Pot Shots used to be much larger but over my years as a teacher I ended up giving many of them away to teenagers in my care whilst attempting to help them move successfully from the life of a child to the life of an adult.  I remember very clearly showing one such card to a teenage boy who was making himself unpopular by constantly bragging that he knew far more than anyone else in his class.  The card said:  “People who think they know everything are very annoying to those of us who do.”  Sadly the young man had not yet learnt about the finer points of satire for he looked me straight in the face and said very seriously: “Yes, they are very annoying aren’t they?”

Jesus understood the dangers of believing that we know it all, particularly with respect to our relationship with God.  Today’s gospel is a glorious example of him using his skill as a story-teller to shock his audience into thinking hard about this problem.

To help us understand the story, let us first consider the scene.  Jesus was talking to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt”.  We are not told who they were nor the context in which Jesus was speaking to them.  Were they Pharisees, members of that Jewish Sect that gets singled out in the story that follows?  Jesus was bold, but he was not foolish, so probably not.  Were they a group of his disciples who were getting a bit too full of their own importance?  That would seem more likely, but the truth is we don’t know.

Though we know little of the audience, we do know quite a bit about the two main characters in the story, the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.

The Pharisees were a group of Jews who were very devout and believed in rigorous observance of the Law as laid down in scripture.  They are given a hard time in many of the gospel stories but this probably reflects the conflict between them and the emerging Church at the time the gospels were written (around 70AD) rather than the way in which they were perceived at the time of Jesus.  As readers of the Bible, we have picked up on that later prejudice but, to the audience that Jesus addressed, the Pharisee in our Gospel story would have been pictured as a devout Jew: the goody in the story, not the baddy. 

By contrast, the Tax Collector was undoubtedly the baddy.  Once again, as readers of the Bible, we have learnt that Jesus often favoured those who were marginalised so we have a tendency to cheat as we listen to the story and identify ourselves with the character we have learnt comes out on top in the end.  That would not have happened when Jesus first told the story.  Tax Collectors were genuinely hated.

They were hired by the Romans, the occupying force, to collect taxes on behalf of the Emperor.  And, as if that were not bad enough, their usual practice was to add on a further percentage to keep for themselves as a result of which they became very wealthy.  They were regarded by the people as criminal and corrupt, the clear villains in any story.

So, with these thoughts in mind, let us now try to picture the scene painted by Jesus in the way that his listeners may well have pictured it.

The two men are in the Court of Israel, the Inner Court of the Temple.  The Pharisee is standing well forward in the middle of the courtyard where he can be seen with his arms held open speaking his prayer out loud.  It is a confident and pious prayer of thanksgiving beginning “God, I thank you” or, in the original Greek, eucharisteo – that word Karen told us about two weeks ago.  There is no petition and no confession but it is not a bad prayer.

The Tax Collector, by contrast, is sitting or kneeling somewhere near the edge of the courtyard out of public view and very probably facing the wall.   His prayer is one of penitence.

There can be no doubt that those who first heard this story would have identified with the Pharisee with an expectation that Jesus would reassure them that he, the Pharisee, would be the one who was justified.  But he didn’t.  As a master of the story-tellers’ art, Jesus turned their expectations upside down and shocked them as he declared that it was the Tax Collector who was justified.  Why did he do that?  To make them think.

Before I go on to look at this story in today’s context, an aside about the word ‘justify’ as it appears in today’s Gospel.  Many a book has been written about the meaning of this seemingly simple word but in this story it means the restoration of the relationship between an individual and God. 

So, with these thoughts in mind, let us imagine that Jesus was here amongst us in 21st century England telling this story today.  Who might he portray as the devout follower of the Law and who as the sinner?  You might like to talk about that after the service but, given that nationally only about 5% of the population regularly go to church, then he might well portray “A member of the congregation of the Parish Church” as the devout follower.  That’s you and me folks!  And what about the penitent sinner?  Who could that be?  I have no doubt the popular press could give him some suggestions; a Banker perhaps or a Benefit Cheat depending upon the colour of the Masthead; but as this version of the story is entirely in your imagination you can pick your own villain!  Just keep in mind the fact that in the story that follows, Jesus turns our expectations on their head and it is the penitent sinner that is justified and has his relationship with God restored.

However it is told, this parable is an invitation to us all:  an invitation to reflect upon our own claims to righteousness and the extent to which we recognise and repent of our own sinfulness.  It carries a clear message about the danger of becoming complacent and failing to recognise our own shortcomings.  Do we understand that message and accept the fact that it applies to us or, like the boy to whom I gave my Pot Shot card all those years ago, do we think the message is just for others?   Amen.

Words:  1,237

The Good Samaritan

Given by: 

David Teall

Date given: 

14th July 2013

Book: 

Luke

Chapter: 

10

David Teall

When I type out my sermons I am usually sitting at my workstation on the landing at home but, on this occasion, I was sitting on our Narrowboat Second Chance whilst moored just above Earls Barton lock on the River Nene on a very wet day last month.  We were coming to the end of a very enjoyable six-week cruise which had taken us on eight rivers in six counties.  We began on the Grand Union Canal near Market Harborough in Leicestershire and headed north-west through Leicester and onto the River Soar.  Once on the river, the number of fishermen increased presumably reflecting the improvement in the quality of water as we left the canal behind us.  We always give a cheery wave to fishermen when we pass.  Most respond with a wave back but a few diligently study the grass around them and refuse to catch our eye.

North of Leicester the Soar runs into the Trent where we turned north-east to take us through Nottingham and Newark and, leaving the Trent at Torksey, along the Fossdyke Navigation to Lincoln.  Part of the Fossdyke follows the course of an original canal built by the Romans and is consequently very straight like their roads.  Just beyond Lincoln we turned south-east towards Boston on the River Witham taking us deep into the Fens where it is said that the locals all have webbed feet!  From Boston we crossed the Wash in a convoy of five Narrowboats with a professional Pilot entering the River Nene at Wisbech.  We very much enjoyed our brief trip out to sea which brought back pleasant memories of the seven years we spent as liveaboard yachties when we first retired.

From Wisbech we made a side trip to Ely on the Great Ouse and then completed our trip up the Nene to Northampton from where a flight of 17 locks returned us to the Grand Union Canal at Gayton, just a few days from our home base.

Before setting off on our cruise I printed off the readings for today and took with me a few of my favourite commentaries.  When I first realised that the Gospel reading was the Good Samaritan I breathed a sigh of relief thinking to myself – well at least I know what it is about.  It is arguably the best known parable in the Bible and through it the word ‘Samaritan’ has come into everyday use,  The term ‘Good Samaritan’ is often used to describe someone who has been particularly helpful and the name ‘Samaritans’ has been adopted by the world-wide charity dedicated to helping people in the depths of despair.

What a contrast to the reason Jesus chose to make a Samaritan the hero of his story.  At the time he told it there had been friction between the Jews and the Samaritans for hundreds of years.  There are several disputed stories about their origins but the Biblical evidence comes from the Second Book of Kings, Chapter 17.  From this text we learn that, in about 722 BC, the King of Assyria captured Samaria, deported most of the Israelites and brought in many settlers from foreign lands.  Other versions of the story suggest that some of the Jews who escaped deportation to Assyria remained and inter-married with the tribes who were brought in.  Whether this is true or not, aided by a priest appointed by the King, the Samaritans developed a religion based on the first five books of the Old Testament and they claimed that they were the true successors of the Law of Moses, not the Jews.

Needless to say, this did not make them popular with the Jews, a situation made even worse by an incident when Jesus was a young child when some Samaritans crept into the Jerusalem Temple and scattered human bones in it, an act of desecration.  By making a Samaritan the hero Jesus increased the challenge of his story to the maximum.

So what is the challenge of this, the best known of all the parables?  There are several.  First and foremost it is a restatement of the commandment to love our neighbours as ourselves, a difficult enough challenge at the best of times, but it is much more than just that.  Through this story Jesus confronts two of the most common excuses we use not to offer help even when we can see that it clearly needed.

The first of these is to find some very good, compelling reason why we can’t help on this particular occasion:  we would love to, of course, but it just isn’t possible.  The Priest and the Levite were both Temple workers governed by strict rules of cleanliness.  The man who had been beaten up might be dead, and to touch a dead body would make them unclean demanding a long ritual to cleanse themselves again.  Their slavish adherence to complex laws led them to disobey God’s fundamental law of love.

Many of the excuses we use today for not helping a neighbour come into this category.  We would love to help, but we are just too busy;   it wouldn’t be appropriate for us to get involved, whatever that might mean;   things like this are better left to the authorities;   it would be against Health and Safety rules or our Insurance Policy.  Occasionally such reasons might be valid in a specific case, but more often than not they are just excuses.

The second excuse strikes at the heart of the central problem that has caused most of the wars in our history: our basic instinct of tribalism.  The Samaritans were a detested tribe who, in the eyes of the Jews of the time, could do no good.  Like all such tribal typecasting, the reality that there is good and bad in us all had been replaced by the self-supporting lie that the Jews were all good and the Samaritans were all bad.  By making the hero of the story a Samaritan, Jesus confronted this prejudice head on.

So, have we learnt to control this basic tribal instinct in the 2000 years since Jesus told this story?  Hardly.  The instinct to categorise people into tribal groups is as strong as ever – we do it all the time.  Fishermen who will not wave to boaters, the stereotype of Romans building everything straight, the folk-story of Fenlanders having webbed feet and terms such as ‘liveaboard yachties’ all involve categorising people into groups and associating a fixed set of attributes with each group.

The examples from our recent cruise may be relatively trivial, but others are not.  In the Holy Land, Jews still prefer to travel from Galilee to Jerusalem via the Jordan Valley but now it is to avoid the Palestinians rather than the Samaritans.  Extremist Muslims and Christians each denounce the other as enemies of God.  Sensation-seeking newspapers run stories about ‘Immigrants’ or ‘Eastern Europeans’ condemning whole groups with a single stroke of the pen.  The need to confront such tribalism remains as strong today as when Jesus confronted the lawyer who was trying to entrap him.  There are 7 billion of God’s children living on the earth today and they are all our neighbours.  Let us pray for God’s help to treat them as such.

Words: 1,206

Enough Food for Everyone, If

Given by: 

David Teall

Date given: 

24th February, 2013

Book: 

None

Chapter: 

None

David Teall

In the tradition of our Church, Lent is a period for penitence, self-examination, self-denial, study, almsgiving and preparation for Easter.  According to an analysis of Tweets on Twitter, the most popular thing to give up in Lent 2012, apart from Twitter itself, was chocolate.  No real surprise there then!  What the analysis did not reveal, though, was whether or not this act of self-denial was accompanied by some related act of benefit to others.  Simply giving up chocolate is only of benefit to the penitent.  Giving up chocolate and giving the money saved to charity, however, is of much greater value to society and therefore, I would suggest, more pleasing to God.

Giving up chocolate, or smoking or alcohol can certainly be a hard thing to do, but there is something else that most of us find more difficult still – giving up long-held, cherished ideas and opinions, particularly when they appear to be supported by popular public opinion.

I was faced with this problem when I first read the details of the ‘Enough Food for Everyone, If’ campaign launched this year by 100 organisations, including The Church of England and Christian Aid.  The campaign focuses on the continuing problem of global hunger and asserts:

“The world produces enough food for everyone, but more than two million children die every year because they can’t get enough to eat.  The food system is broken.  In 2013, we need our leaders to do four important things to fix it.  IF they take these steps, it will change the future for millions of children.”

Those four issues are:

Aid:  Give aid to stop children dying from hunger.  Help the poorest have enough food to live.

Land:  Stop poor farmers being forced off their land.  Grow crops to provide food, not fuel.

Tax:  Stop companies dodging taxes in poor countries so millions can be freed from hunger.

Transparency:  Governments and companies must be honest about their role in the food system.

Most of these statements are self-evident, but the one about growing crops instead of fuel caught my attention, not least because of my background in Agriculture and Biology.

Using renewable energy sources has always seemed sensible to me as, whether we accept that burning fossil fuels is creating global warming or not, we are going to run out of them in the not too distant future.  Using wind and water power are not new ideas, of course, and neither is using land to grow biofuels.  For millennia, human populations have coppiced trees for firewood and grown grass and made hay to feed horses or other beasts of burden to provide motive power on their land.  Why then, has the ‘Enough Food for Everyone, If’ campaign chosen to target using land to provide food, not fuel?  A little history may help to explain.

Examination of a typical medieval village and its surrounding area would show areas of land set aside for coppicing wood for fuel, but it would generally be land that was not really suitable for growing crops for food.

Perhaps it was too steep or too stony, or perhaps it was in a position where it could double up its use by providing shelter from the prevailing winds.  Similarly, fields used to grow hay were often meadows prone to flooding which grass can withstand better than any other crop.  The best land was always reserved for growing food.

At this scale, using some of the land available to grow crops for fuel was sustainable and did not have any impact upon the supply of food.  Sadly that is not the case in our modern global economy.  Let us look at some examples.

When I was a boy growing up in Nassington the arable farms in this area grew mostly wheat and barley with break-crops of potatoes, sugar beet and occasionally peas.  All of these ended up either directly for human consumption or for feeding animals which were eaten a year or so down the line.  Today it is very different with many farms growing only wheat and oil-seed rape, a fact of which we shall be reminded in a few months’ time when huge swathes of our countryside once again turn yellow as the rape comes into flower.

So what’s wrong with growing rape?  Up to a point, nothing.  It makes a very good break crop and rape-seed oil is one of the highest quality vegetable oils.  It is low in saturated fat and can be used in mayonnaise, salads, margarine and a multitude of other prepared or processed foods.

The problem we now have in the EU is that we have long-since passed the point of providing 100% of our need for oil-seed rape for human and animal food and we are continuing to grow more and more to satisfy the demand for bio-diesel.

In 2010/11 an estimated 66% of rape-seed oil produced in the European Union was used for biodiesel production.  Why is that a problem?  It’s simple economics.  When we use good agricultural land to grow crops for energy we grow less for food.  If we grow less food, the cost of that food goes up right across the world and guess who suffers?  Not the comfortably well off for whom food is a relatively small proportion of their expenditure, but the poor, especially in the third world.  The ‘Enough for everyone, If’ campaign has calculated that the land used for growing biofuels in the UK alone would be enough to feed 10 million people.

So, whose problem is this?  Is it just down to the farmers?  Absolutely not: they have problems enough dealing with the vagaries of the weather.  This is a problem that has to be tackled at a global level through the agricultural policies of individual countries and, in our case, through the European Union.  If the law of the market place is to be distorted for the benefit of the poor, which it needs to be, then the cost of doing that must be borne by the whole population, not just the farmers.

Moving away from the specific example of oil-seed rape, targets to boost biofuel production are creating other problems for the poor.  Multinational companies have seen the opportunity to make money by buying up land in the developing world for bio-fuel production.  Once again, removing land currently used for food production and turning it over to the production of biofuel is pushing up the local price for food and forcing some of the world’s poorest people yet further into poverty.  An area the size of London is being bought up in the developing world every six days, depriving poor farmers of land to grow food.

So what about the arguments in favour of growing biofuels?  The principal proposition used to support the use of biofuel is based upon the need to reduce our carbon emissions to mitigate the problem of global warming.  Until I started to look into this proposition last month I accepted it without question.  However, to my surprise, I discovered that the arguments for and against the proposition are not as simple as they first appear.  Researchers from the University of Leeds have recently compared the amount of carbon that is removed from the atmosphere by forests with the amount that is saved by using biofuel instead of diesel.  They found that forests remove between two and nine times as much carbon over 30 years than is saved by using the same area of land to produce biofuels.

They concluded that, if the point of biofuels policies is to limit global warming, “policy makers may be better advised in the short term to focus on increasing the efficiency of fossil fuel use, to conserve existing forests and savannahs, and to restore natural forest and grassland habitats on cropland that is not needed for food.”

I don’t pretend to have all the answers to this complex question but I would like to suggest that we should all spend some of our devotional time during this period of Lent giving some serious thought to these and similar issues with an open mind that is willing to give up long-held or cherished opinions.  We may decide at the end of the period that our original conclusions were correct, but we may find that we need to revise them for the sake of others.  Should that be the case, I pray that God will give us the strength and humility to do so.

The Legacy of Jesus

Given by: 

David Teall

Date given: 

25th December 2012

Book: 

Luke

Chapter: 

2

David Teall


One of the reasons the UK was successful in its bid to host the 2012 Olympics was the detailed planning for what Lord Coe described as the legacy of the games: what would remain when all the glitz and excitement had faded.  A couple of years after that successful bid the media was full of articles about what Tony Blair’s legacy would be as he stepped down from his position as prime minister.  One hundred years earlier Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, left the bulk of his estate to establish the Nobel Prizes because he wanted a better legacy than being remembered as the man who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before.


Legacy is important.  It was right for Lord Coe to include plans for the legacy of the Olympics as part of this country’s bid to hold them.  It is right for politicians and scientists and, indeed, for all of us, to consider the legacy of our time here on earth, however large or small that might be.

As we gather here in the early hours of Christmas Day to celebrate the birth of a child born 2000 years ago, it is both interesting and helpful to consider his legacy.  Listen to these words written by Dr James Allan Francis in 1926 taken from a meditation entitled One Solitary Life:

Here is a man who was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman.  He grew up in another village.  He worked in a Carpenter’s shop until he was thirty and then for three years he was a travelling preacher.

He never wrote a book.  He never held public office.  He never went to college.  He never owned a house.  He never had a family.  He never set foot in what we would call a big city.  He never travelled even two hundred miles from the place he was born.  He never did one of the things that usually accompany greatness.  He had no credentials but himself.

Two thousand years have come and gone, and today he is the central figure of the human race.  I am far within the mark when I say that all the armies that ever marched; all the navies that were ever built; all the parliaments that ever sat and all the monarchs that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of people upon this earth as powerfully as has that one solitary life.

Despite the attempts of the militant atheists to convince us that religion has no place in twenty-first century life, that powerful influence continues today, even for many who are not regular church goers.

It is expected that some 22 million people in this country will have attended a church service over this Christmas period.  Despite the rush of modern life and the over commercialisation of the season, one in three of our population will have left the comfort of their homes to come and hear again and to be part of the Christmas Story.  Why is that?

One of the reasons is that the story of the birth of Jesus works for us all, no matter what our concept of God may be.  Whether we believe in God as the creator of all things or, at the other end of the scale, we believe in him as the sum total of all that is good in the world, the Christmas story allows us to picture him in terms that we can understand - as a baby child.  The picture of Shepherds, tough manual workers, leaving their sheep to go and see a new-born baby confirms that this is an event for everyone to celebrate.

The onward march of science and technology has taught us to ask questions about everything.  That can only be good, but it is important to ask the right questions.  Historical investigations questioning whether or not Emperor Augustus really ordered a census or scientific investigations questioning the appearance of a very bright star in 7 BC are all very interesting, but they fail to understand the true legacy of the man whose birth we celebrate today.  The questions we should ask are things like:

  • Can learning more about the life of Jesus help me to live a better life here today?  or
  • Can reading the stories that Jesus told help me to solve my day to day problems?

The answer to these questions is most assuredly yes.

The true and continuing legacy of this child, this man, is that he can indeed help us to live a better life and, in so doing, to radically change for the better the legacy that each of us will eventually leave behind us.  All we have to do is to let him into our lives.

What is your image of Jesus?

Given by: 

David Teall

Date given: 

25th November 2012

Book: 

John

Chapter: 

18

David Teall

 

This, the final Sunday of the Church’s year, seems somewhat schizophrenic being known by at least three names.  You can choose the purely descriptive but rather boring ‘Sunday next before Advent’ or perhaps you prefer the more interesting sounding ‘Stir-up Sunday’.  This name is derived from the Collect for the day in the Book of Common Prayer which begins: ‘Stir up, we beseech thee O Lord’.  We shall use this today as a Post-Communion Prayer after which I’m sure you will all rush home to take part in the traditional activity for Stir up Sunday – stirring up and steaming your Christmas Puddings!

 

Ever since the Church of England adopted the Revised Common Lectionary in the 1990s we have left these two names aside and celebrated this Sunday as the Festival of Christ the King.  The Book of Common Worship introduces the Festival saying:  “The annual cycle of the Church’s year now ends with the Feast of Christ the King. The year that begins with the hope of the coming Messiah ends with the proclamation of his universal sovereignty.  The ascension of Christ has revealed him to be Lord of earth and heaven.”

This Festival has a relatively short history in the Church having been introduced into the Roman Catholic Church by Pope Pius the 11th in 1925, three years after Mussolini became Prime Minister of Italy and his fascist government came to power.  In introducing the new Festival Pope Pius reflected: “As long as individuals and states refuse to submit to the rule of our Saviour, there will be no really hopeful prospect of a lasting peace among nations.  Men must look for the peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ.”  As we consider the problems the world faces today it is clear that that statement is as valid today as it was in 1925.

And so, our Church year now ends with the proclamation of Jesus Christ as King.  The image is clear enough, but how comfortable are you with it?  When you think of Jesus, what image do you conjure up for him?  Do you picture him as a King, or do you perhaps prefer some other image that is more to your liking?

Those of you who are familiar with Holy Trinity Church in Blatherwycke may be able to recall a very fine stained glass window picturing Christ as a Shepherd holding a lamb in his arms.  That’s a comforting image isn’t it, the image that is portrayed in the 23rd Psalm of which we are all so fond.

Or perhaps you are one of the many who like to picture Jesus surrounded by children as described in Mark 10:13-16

People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.  I tell you the truth; anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them.

Or maybe you like to think of Jesus as a brother or as a friend; someone who walks the journey of life with you; someone you can talk to and share your problems with.  Would you do these things with a King?  Probably not, so it is an image we tend to shy away from.

So does this mean that there is something wrong with our preferred images of Jesus?  Have we allowed ourselves to get too familiar with the one to whom we should show respect?

Not at all:  Jesus can most certainly be our friend or our brother and there is no doubt that he cares for us as a Shepherd cares for his sheep.  The mistake we do make, though, is to forget what it really means to be a true friend or brother.  Yes, of course, it means always being there and always being prepared to listen and Jesus gives us these things in abundance.  But it also means telling us when we get things wrong.  Listen again to the answer Jesus gave to Pilate in today’s gospel:

You say that I am a king.  For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.

When we come close to Jesus, when we share our problems with him as a friend or brother, he listens to us, supports us and comforts us, but he also ‘testifies to the truth’.  When we have gone wrong, he tells us that we have gone wrong and what we need to do to put things right.  The problem is, all too often we choose not to hear.  We are happy to accept his support and protection but reluctant to accept his correction and guidance.

If we find the concept of Christ as our King rather difficult, how do we fare with the concept of helping to build his kingdom?  We recite the familiar words ‘thy kingdom come’ week by week but do we fully take on board what we mean by that, or understand what we need to do to help bring it about?  The kingdom which Jesus described is one in which the meek come before the mighty, the hungry are fed, the sick are made well, the oppressed are set free and in which all people live together in harmony and share the love and peace of God.  All this he showed us, not through decree, nor by imposition nor by the use of power, but by example, both in the way in which he lived his life and in the way he died.

When Jesus spoke of the kingdom it is likely that he used the Aramaic word malkutha which refers to the activity of a king; the way he behaves, rather than the territory he rules over.  Jesus was concerned about the quality of human life and the relationship of men and women with God and with each other.  In Luke 17: 20-21 he told the Pharisees: “The kingdom of God does not come in such a way as to be seen … because the kingdom of God is among you.”

So there we have it, in the words of Jesus himself.  “The kingdom of God is among you”.  It is not a territory, nor is it a thing of the past which has since been lost, nor is it a thing of the future that has not yet arrived.  It is present here on earth today in the lives of those who have committed themselves to God’s direction or, to put that another way, to be subject to his kingship.

So that’s all right then isn’t it?  We’re back to something nice and cosy again that’s not too demanding.  If the kingdom of God is here already we can just keep calm and carry on and enjoy it can’t we?  Not a bit of it.  The kingdom of God is not like the family silver that is kept locked in a cabinet in the front room only to be seen briefly on Sundays.  It is much too important to keep to ourselves.  Our knowledge of the love of God compels us to continually build the kingdom so that all may enjoy the richness of the life he longs for us to lead.  In the words of the hymn with which we began our service:

One day ev’ry tongue will confess You are God
One day ev’ry knee will bow
Together we will learn to build your kingdom
Here on earth we vow.

By all means keep calm and carry on – but keep on building!

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