Sunday, April 27, 2008

A Sure and Certain Hope! Acts 17:22-31

We're not in the Holy Land this week ... we have travelled to Athens for a change! Though there may still be some surprises in store!

Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said,

I took it with me on the Orient Express … and I made sure I had it with me on my visit to the Holy Land this time too. My Bible.

And in situ it was exciting to read then. Just as it was exciting to read now.

"Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.

It is not just the Jewish people who are extremely religious, but the Greeks, the Gentiles too … the Roman Empire as well.

Something of that religion we shall see on our visit to the British Museum. The Elgin marbles in all their splendour once adorned the Parthenon, that Temple on the hill top holy place in Athens.
Standing on the Areopagus and wandering through any great city of the Roman Empire one couldn’t help but sense how religious they were.

You sense it here too.

The shrine in Chedworth. The shrine where the water comes in at Witcombe. From Chedworth take the path back to the road, down the lane, and then through the private estate on a public right of way and the path follows the little stream to your left and to your right after a while – an impressive mound on which was a Temple.

Over to Lydney. A remarkable Temple. On a hill top marvellous architecture, staggering views of the Severn and the Cotswolds beyond. And most fascinating of all as again over the other side of the River Severn Uley. See it at its best in the British Museum! Wonderful artefacts.

23For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, 'To an unknown god.'

We’ll also be seeing some of the wonderful Vindalanda letters, constructed in just the same way as the epistles in the New Testament – and dating from only thirty or forty years later. Every settlement and fort has its temple shrines, sometimes in profusion. A wonderful temple to Mithras towards the Newcastle end of the wall. And at Vindalanda … just as you go into the site a temple shrine.

And an innocent enough sign. To an unknown God.

What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth,

Athens is a city surrounded by hills … and now covered with smog.

But then as clear as could be – high mountains in one direction – the harbour and the Mediterranean in the other.

And on that site it is breathtaking.

No less breathtaking in Lydney … or for that matter at Uley.

Make no mistake about it these temple shrines were impressive. In Athens more impressive than anywhere.


The pinnacle of human achievement.

And as nothing compared to the wonder of God’s creation!

24The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands,

What a remarkable truth.

The wonder of God of creation.

No matter human ingenuity, the wonder of God is greater.

24The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.

I love that expression. Since he himself gives to all people life and breath and all things.
Life, breath and all things. Ta panta – the universe. A guide to science. Should science phase you? Not a bit of it. It captures the remarkable wonder of God in all his greatness.

26From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live,

There’s a solidarity here for all of humanity. And also a particularness that values different cultures.

I should have gone to Hy-Way last Wednesday, after all I went to the Friendship Group on St David’s Day. Sue did her bit for England and celebrated St George.

I did my bit this afternoon too and celebrated St George at the Scouts Parade. We brought out the century old flag once more. I recalled the international nature of the Jamboree. And a remarkable quote from Baden Powell in which he suggests that true patriotism takes pride in one's own country while at the same time respecting and treasuring other countries too.

This year has seen the re-discovery of St George's day and the flag of St George.

Maybe it's a flag worth re-claiming. It's a flag that can become a symbol of something very special for all of us who live in England whether we are English or not.

Legend has it that he was born in Turkey of a Turkish father and a Palestinian mother and grew up around Bethlehem in Palestine. And I was a there in Bethlehem a fortnight ago! I visited the Church of the Nativity where the Peace Light is lit each Christmas and brought by the Scouts of Palestine and then Israel to Austria and all over the world – and here to Cheltenham as well.

As I was leaving I passed a wonderful sculpture to St George.

The Palestinian Christians made him their won centuries before he was adopted by England. He became a soldier in the Roman Empire. A soldier who had the courage to say ‘no’.

One day a stranger passed his way – he went out of his way to help him. And he discovered the teachings of Jesus – welcome a stranger and you welcome me … Jesus said. The teaching caught St George and his life was turned inside out. Love for your neighbour. Love for your enemy. What a difference that made.

And then came the order. It was a new Emperor. The order came to capture these Christians, to torture them and to execute them. And St George said ‘no’. He put down his arms. And he decided he would travel many hundreds of miles to confront the Emperor. He did just that.

He was put on trial. Tortured. And executed in the most awful way. On the 23rd April. But the ideas he had lived on. Care for others. Meet their needs.

In the next town to Bethlehem in Bet Jela there is a shrine to St George. And there is something special about that shrine. Christians go to it; Muslims regard it as a holy place too; and Jewish people do as well.

The Shrine of St George is a place where religions too often now in conflict meet together. Scouting is a place where that happens too. For it is only by becoming friends with people who are different from you that there is a hope for peace. And that hope for peace is what world-wide Scouting is all about.

If we make friends with our neighbours around the world … we shan’t want to fight … and that is by far the best way of making sure of lasting peace. Baden Powell

But we must come back to Athens. Forgive me, I couldn’t but include one reference to the Holy Land!

Paul suggests that humanity has something in common. And that something in common is God-given. Part of God’s creation of humanity and part of God’s purpose for humanity.

26From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 7so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us.

I love that phrase. A seeking for God. A groping for him. And a finding of him.
Science and the quest for life and an understanding. The Queen of Sciences – the quest for God and an understanding.

Father Prem, the Roman Catholic Priest from Warwick … a PhD in Mathematics from Downing College Cambridge.


The coach may have been driving through fascinating countryside. But I couldn’t resist the opportunity to turn the conversation to mathematics.

We turned to John Polkinghorne’s account of his belief in God.

The language of mathematics is a construct or a discovery of the human mind.

The language of mathematics is capable of describing life, the universe and everything

The human mind is capable of describing life, the universe and everything.

That accords with the Christian view that the God who created life, the universe and everything created human beings in his own image and so the human mind bears the imprint of the creator God and is capable of understanding life, the universe and everything.

Not a proof of the existence of God. But a description of the existence of God that accords with the evidence of science.

The language of poetry that Paul chooses to use is far more powerful.

As human beings we are made to search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us, and this is where the wonderful poetry locks in …
For 'In him we live and move and have our being'; as even some of your own poets have said, 'For we too are his offspring.'

All of that impacts on how we understand God and then on what we do.

First, it impacts on how we understand God. Again, remember the scene. Magnificent architecture, the greatest achievement of humanit’s mathematical minds, together with sculpture the like of which the world has never seen – magnificent. But as nothing to the magnificence of God’s creation. Not simply the world out there and its beauty. But the wonderful beauty of each one of us as ‘in him we live and move and have our being’.

29Since we are God's offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.

God is far beyond anything we can picture, anything we can begin to imagine or understand.
That is humbling.

It pricks the bubble of our human arrogance that imagines we can solve all the problems of the world. As much as we think we know, we still are remarkably ignorant.

But God knows us as we are. He knows us in our humility. And he looks on us with love and kindness.

30While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness

We will face the consequences of the things we have done in this world and with this world and to this world.

And when measured by that righteousness, that justice that is God’s.

But the sting of Paul’s message is in the tail.

This God in all his wonder, whose imprint is within our mind, has disclosed himself, revealed himself through someone just like us … his teaching of selfless love is the measure by which we are to measure ourselves and the measure by which we are to be measured.

The life he lived is measure enough; the death he died has disclosed the depths to which God will go in order to bring forgiveness to people’s hearts. Not even death itself could contain him.

The measure of that righteousness comes to us ...

by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead."

What a note to finish on!

A sure and certain of the resurrection to eternal life!

The resurrection authenticates all that God has done through this man – and gives us the assurance that this is the way of God for us. The resurrection provides us with a vision, a wonderful vision of the world that is to be. Hold on to the vision of the world that is to be and that will shape the life we live here and now.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Ask ... seek ... knock - the way to 'do' discipleship - Matthew 7

I knew it was big. But not that big!

When Herod the Great did a building project he thought big. Very big!

The Temple in Jerusalem is a case in point. The finishing touches were still being added by the time Jesus was taken to the temple when he was twelve years old. But it was as good as finished and it really was impressive.

The Temple had originally been built on the rocky hill top at the head of the city of Jerusalem by Solomon, King David’s successor who when given the opportunity to ask God for anything, asked for wisdom not riches and ever since has been regarded as the Great Wise King, being associated with the Book of Proverbs.

It was the place where more than any other God’s presence touched earth in the Holiest of Holy Places.

That temple had been destroyed by the Babylonians four hundred years later and then rebuilt in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah.

But Herod the Great felt it was not grand enough. And so he set about virtually rebuilding it. By now the city had spread considerably: but the hill top the temple stood on was still as prominent as could be.

The Temple building would remain where it always had been. But, and this was Herod’s brilliant idea, he would flatten the hill top by building a massive stone box effectively extending the hill top and creating an enormous plaza. An open air courtyard the size of several football pitches. In the middle of this, now flat area the temple stood in all its splendour.

When the Romans forty years after the time of Christ destroyed the Temple, what they destroyed was the temple in the middle of the Plaza. They left the plaza intact. In due course it was the Roman Emperor Hadrian who built a temple to Jupiter on that spot.

When Constantine adopted Christianity and Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, the temple to Jupiter fell into disrepair and was demolished, but the plaza remained. It had not significance in itself and became the city’s rubbish dump.

Constantine’s mother, Helen, identified another stony hill top that had been just outside the city, with tomb caves just underneath, and identified that as the place of Christ’s crucifixion and burial. So it was that Constantine had an enormous church with a big dome built over the hill of calvary and the site of the tomb. The temple site had no significance for Christians. More significant now was the place of crucifixion and resurrection.

Three hundred years later the Dome of the Rock was erected in the first generation after the death of Mohammed. It marked the spot where Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac and shortly after became associated with the place from which Mohammed ascended to heaven before returning to earth. That was the rocky outcrop that had been the site of the Jewish temple in the middle of that plaza on what had been the Temple Mount.

Out of respect for the prophet Jesus, second only to Mohammed in Islam, the Christian church marking the place of the Holy Sepulchre was left untouched. The dome of the Rock was made just a metre bigger … and constructed from gold.

For Muslims the Dome of the Rock is the second only to Meccas as a place of pilgrimage and as a holy shrine. Jewish people want to get as close to the holy of holies, at the western end of the Temple as possible and so they pray at what they used to call the wailing wall, but since taking over control in Jerusalem they now call the Western wall – that’s the wall of the box that holds the plaza as close to where the temple used to be as possible.

This is the nearest Jewish people can get to the location where God’s presence has been located and felt more than any other.

I came to see the significance in Constantine choosing to mark the hill outside the city wall where Jesus was crucified and buried … but it perturbed me to see that Christians have made that place into a ‘holy place’.

It seems to me to miss the point. For Christians it is a different story. The place, the location does not have the same kind of significance.

At the southern end of the Temple Mount excavations have revealed the steps that originally led up to the only tunnel-like gateways that were the only access point up on to Herod’s phenomenally big plaza and so to the Temple itself.

To walk up those steps is to walk up the very steps Jesus would have walked whenever he visited the Temple, not least on that first occasion he would be able to remember when he was just twelve years old. Maybe he was just like the family we saw marking their son’s Bar Mitzvah, his coming of age.

What did Jesus do on that occasion? When our group was asked that question, we had to rack our brains … Jesus was lost by his parents who eventually found him up on that Temple Mount, on that plaza, maybe under one of the colonnaded areas that provided shade … and our memory suggested he was discussing with some of the teachers who would regularly gather there.

That’s not quite what the text says.

Luke tells us in 2:46 that After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.

That’s what caught my eye.

Listening and asking questions.

That’s something Jesus was to do for the rest of his life. The Gospels are full of questions Jesus asked. So often when asked a question, Jesus would ask another question in return. Later on our journey as we sat in the synagogue on the site of the earlier synagogue where Jesus spent so much time in the city of Capernaum which he used as a base for most of his teaching ministry, we shared what would happen in that synagogue. It was a place of listening. But also a place of asking questions.

This was the way of learning for Jewish rabbis. It is through listening and asking questions that you learn, not just about God and his word … you learn of God, you learn of God’s presence in the world, in your life and in all that you do.

When Matthew tells us in 4:23 that Jesus went throughout Galilee teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every sickness and disease, the kind of teaching Jesus engaged in there in the synagogue would have involved listening and asking questions.

Our time in the synagogue over, we went up the mountain, just as Jesus had done. And there as we walked down towards the sea of Galilee we stopped in the shade of olive trees and heard the opening words of Jesus’s sermon on the mount.

This was his proclamation of the good news of the kingdom.

As he comes to the end of his sermon, he begins to wrap things up in chapter 7. The first six verses seem to be all about what you do with what you learn, and about how you learn of God. Don’t judge others. Don’t pick faults in others, attend to your own faults first, don’t throw your teaching away.

Then it is that he comes to words I have always tended to see in quite a different light. I have always thought they were to do with prayer and asking for things from God.

But having walked up the very steps Jesus walked up to the Temple where he ‘listened and asked questions’, having sat on the site of the synagogue where his teaching would have followed that pattern of listening and asking questions, I saw these verses in quite a different light.

Ask …

This is the key not just to learning about God, but it is the key to discovering the presence of God. Ask, seek, knock: For then you will receive, you will find, the door will be opened for you.

This is how to do discipleship.

But asking, seeking, learning is not enough.

The learning, the sense of the presence of God, must be matched by action.

In everything ‘do’.

For Jesus, listening and asking questions, important though that is, is never enough. That must lead on to action.

On the way into our seminar room, was a poster with the golden rule in many different faiths, not least Christianity.

Do to others …

This is the heart of the matter.

That involves putting yourself in other people’s shoes. Seeing as other people see. Doing to others as you would have others do to you.

Then we come to the climax of all this teaching.

For many in Jesus day the presence of God had a very specific location. It was in the holy of holies in the temple on the temple mount. Jewish people still regard it as the holiest of holy places. Muslims have come to regard it as a shrine second only to Mecca.

But for Christians … location is not all important.

Jesus comes to the end of his magnificent sermon and he has a story to tell. How we trivialise it! It’s the story of a wise man and a foolish man. Anyone who knows their Hebrew Scriptures as all those folk would have done would instantly have thought of the first nine chapters of the Book of Proverbs – that book of Solomon’s wisdom. They contrast the wise and the foolish.

Anyone who hears these words of mine, says Jesus, and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.

The presence of God itself, is located, not on that rocky outcrop on the Temple Mount where once stood the Temple, and in the holiest of holy places. The presence of God itself is located wherever anyone, us included hears the words of Christ and acts on them.

Listen and ask questions – that’s for all of us to do, not least Becky as you join us in your work as pastoral assistant.

Do to others as you would have others do to you – that’s for all of us to heed, not least Becky as you join us in your work as pastoral assistant.

Hear these words of Christ and act on them … for in doing that you will be the place where God’s presence is located on earth

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Seeing through the eyes of others ... seeing through the eyes of Jesus

A sermon preached at Highbury immediately following a fortnight in the Holy Land on 'A Journey of Reconciliation' at the Tantur Institute in Jerusalem and in Galilee

To sit in silence together is very moving.

To sit in silence together in a boat with the sound of the water lapping at its sides links you to nature in a very special way.

To sit in silence together in a boat on the Sea of Galilee as I did only three days ago moved me in a way I did not expect.

Everyone who has visited the Holy Land and sat maybe in that boat as the engines were turned off has told me how moving it is.

I don’t think I quite believed them.

I do now.

It was intensely moving in a way before experiencing it I couldn’t begin to believe possible.

The silence was preceded with a reading from Matthew 14. That chapter contains three stories. Those three stories captured for me something at the heart of all that we have shared in this last couple of weeks.

The first was the story of the beheading of John the Baptist. It wasn’t the story so much, or its location far from anywhere we visited. It was its brutality that registered with me.

The bulk of our time in the Holy Land was spent at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute. Tantur simply means ‘Hill Top’ and its location on a hill top overlooking the check point through which you have to pass to get from one side of the wall that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem … unless of course you are an Israeli Citizen or a Palestinian who lives and works in Bethlehem and the West Bank in which case you are not permitted to pass through the check point.

That was the most frightening and brutalising thing of all. To meet Palestinians who are not allowed to meet and talk with Israelis, and with Israelis who are not allowed to meet and talk with Palestinians living in the West Bank.

I saw through Israeli eyes as our Israeli Jewish guides took us on wonderfully informative tours of the old city of Jerusalem with its historic sites, the bustle of the Arab quarter and the quiet of the Jewish quarter. The pride they took, albeit critically, of the Knesset, the Supreme Court and the institutions of state.

I saw through Palestinian eyes as I stood on the roof-top of a house built on the site of the tents his parents had been moved to when their land was taken from them in 1948 and looked to nearby Jerusalem to be told he was not permitted to go there. After service in their basement church I sat with a family in the room where the 70 year old parents had been kept for 7 hours by Israeli soldiers with no access to a toilet as they smashed all the windows on the top floor to fire at nearby houses: I saw all that remains of that room now with no windows.

I saw through Jewish eyes as we heard powerful talks about the situation from a leading Jewish rabbi and another Jewish theologian. We heard of the majority of Israelis and Jews who want to share the land with their Palestinian neighbours. I heard secular Jewish people passionately denounce the settlements that are still being built now two months after the Annapolis agreement said they should cease deep within the Palestinian territories.

I saw through Christian eyes joining a good friend of Eric Burton, my predecessor here in Highbury, with the Christain Peace Maker teams in Hebron. Were they right to be accompanying the children we met in an orphanage that is in danger of being closed by the Israeli militia? Our group were divided. Were they right in insisting we walk through the road block, past the Jewish settlers in that ancient Palestinian town deep inside the Palestinian territories. It was scary. The soldiers with their machine guns were so young. How vital the role those Christian Peacemaker teams play we were told in simply being a presence for peace in one of the most volatile parts of the Holy Land.

I saw through Jewish eyes as slowly I made my way through Yad Vashen, the museum and memorial to the people who died in the Holocaust and forced myself to look at images of people I found so difficult to look at, and forced myself to hear the stories of people I would rather not have heard.

Those haunting words at the entrance to the final breathtakingly enormous gallery where rows of ring binders are carefully arranged hoping eventually to contain the stories of all those 6,000,000 people. …

Remember only that I was innocent
and, just like you, mortal
On that day I too had a face
marked by rage, pity and joy,
quite simply a human face.

I saw through Jesus’ eyes as we rounded that bend on the road down from the Mount of Olives and saw the ancient city of Jerusalem with the Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock. As he came near, Luke tells us, and saw the city he wept over it, saying, If you , even you had only recognised on the this day the things that make for peace!

I could understand those tears.

That brutality. And worst of all the lack of hope on the faces of so many people.

A confusion of thoughts tumbling around in the shared silence of that boat on the sea of Galilee. It was good to be there. Thinking. In the quiet.

The question that Matthew 14 addresses is not What would Jesus do? It is rather, the much more interesting, and much more powerful, What did Jesus do?

The brutality of John the Baptist’s death shook those who heard of it, not least Jesus.

“Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.”

After the turmoil of thinking, talking, visiting, listening, seeing that we had done in the melting pot of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, it was so good to come into the quiet place of Galilee.

It was so beautiful, the sea so calm, the hills and mountains so golden and green. We had just walked through beautiful cornfields, recently harvested.

And yet all is not as it seemed.

Galilee was a bustling place in the tame of Jesus, unlike Jerusalem and Bethlehem, it was on a major international thoroughfare. The crowds were there as well. And they sought Jesus out. They wanted to share in what Jesus had to say and in what Jesus had to do.

Jesus taught. Jesus proclaimed the kingdom. And Jesus healed.

They tracked him down. When he landed, they came in great numbers. We read, he had compassion for them and cured their sick. The second story of Matthew 14 is the feeding of the 5000.

We were well fed wherever we went. Delightful salads, wonderful meat dishes, tasty deserts. The calendar of Jewish festivals informed us that now is the time of the Citrus harvest. We had broken bread in a communion service in the East Jerusalem Baptist church last Sunday morning and then had refreshments in the shade of heavy-laden orange trees. The oranges were so juicy.

We were such a mixed group – Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Anglican, Methodist, Baptist, Salvation Army, URC, Congregational, House Church, Charismatic. There’s something special about eating together. I found it special to share in each other’s times of communion, Eucharist or mass, as we were able.

An Orthodox priest explained the significance of the wonderful icons we were seeing, and the symbolic splendour of an Orthodox church.

At the ruined synagogue in Capernaum, the town Jesus used as his base in Galilee, I had shared my excitement that while the splendour of Orthodox and Catholic liturgy, vestments and ornamentation finds its roots in the Temple we had been learning so much about, and charismatic churches find their roots in the charismatic church of Corinth, we in our tradition find our roots in the Synagogues of Jesus’ day. How wonderful for us each to affirm the other and celebrate that ‘diversity’ that is ours.
I couldn't resist the temptation to get one friend, Lisa to take a photograph of two friends and myself sitting on the bench in the Synagogue at Capernaum. Closest to us is Fr Ian, Orthodox Priest in Oxford, I am in the centre, Congregational Minister in Cheltenham, Matthew is furthest from us, member of a community church in South Wales.

It rained a little in Galilee and the winds began to blow. We could see how sudden storms could indeed rage on that lake with tragic consequences. The third of those stories then followed – the sharing done, Jesus withdrew to pray. The disciples got back in the boat when a storm arose and the waves battered the side of the boat. In the silence even the gentle swell resulted in a battering sound on the boat we were in. They were fearful and felt very much alone.

Then it was that Jesus came to them, walking on the water. They were terrified at what they saw. Jesus spoke to them, Take heart; it is I; do not be afraid.

My thoughts went back to the point in our week when we had touched the brutality most. Hebron. In the company of the Christian Peace Makers. What a difference simply the presence of those Christian Peace Makers meant in such a volatile situation.

“It is I; do not be afraid.”

Those are the words I want to take with me from the Holy Land.
The reality of the fear so many people expressed and we could not help but share.

But over against that the reality of the presence of Jesus.

That came home to me so powerfully.

Here, in this location then. But also, here in this location now.

Wherever we are, whatever we may be doing, whatever the anxieties we face, these are the words to hear from the risen Christ.

“It is I; do not be afraid.”

The time of silence in that boat came to an end. We made our way back across to the shore. And one of the crew of the boat played his drum in a song that was a prayer for peace. Maybe it was the moment, but I found the tears in my eyes as I had done two or three times before.

Shalom, salem, Peace. Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God. Called to be ambassadors of Christ, in Paul’s words our call is to be ambassadors for reconciliation.

So much to pass on at Highbury

If you give a little love you can get a little love of your own

A blessing shared at Highbury

Now and the Future at Highbury

Dreaming Dreams Sharing Visions at Highbury

Dreaming Dreams Sharing Visions

Darkness into Light