Sunday, 15 January 2012

Preacher: Veronica


Luke 24:13-27
Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 18Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” 25Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

Hebrews 1:1-4
1Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, 2but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. 3He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.


As a writer I get quite a few letters from readers, sometimes nice, sometimes not so nice. There’s one in particular who writes to me every few months and sends me copies of letters he’s sent to the Bible Society and other organizations. I call him the Marcionite. Long ago in the second century, there was a heretic called Marcion who rejected the Old Testament completely. He believed that the God of Israel, Yahweh, was a lesser God, full of anger and prone to punish people, and that God had been replaced by the all-forgiving Father of Jesus. And my letter writer believes something similar: he thinks that because of all the violence and wrath in the Old Testament , which has been used to justify war and genocide, we should only read and publish the New Testament.

Like all Mennonites I believe Jesus taught us that all violence, including war, is against the will of God. So I can understand Marcion’s problems with the Old Testament. But there are a number of problems with this approach:
First of all, the Old Testament is the Bible that Jesus and his disciples read or listened to - the events of theGospels and Epistles had not even happened yet, let alone been written down. And both Jesus and later Paul quoted frequently and creatively from the the Jewish Scriptures, which we call the OT. Can we really reject the Bible Jesus used and from which he drew his message?

Secondly, the New Testament relies heavily on the Old in explaining what it means to belong to Jesus. Without the Old Testament, we would be totally at sea in the New Testament . We wouldn’t know the stories Jesus and Paul were quoting, we wouldn’t know the Ten Commandments or the rest of the Law which Jesus reinterprets and which Paul talks about a great deal. We wouldn’t understand the meaning of sacrifice in the Old Testament which gives the background to how we understand the cross of Jesus. We really couldn’t make head or tail of the New Testament at all.
Thirdly, the Old Testament doesn’t just show us a God who is angry and who punishes sinners. It is also full of a compassionate, loving God who forgives freely and who longs for his people to walk with him and receive his blessings. Consider this prophecy from Hosea:

‘How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.’

If there weren’t passagas like this in the OT, how Jesus could draw from it the loving, self- giving Father God that he proclaimed? He said himself quite clearly that his teaching was not in contradiction to the Jewish scriptures, but fulfilled them.

You may be wondering what all this has to do with the passages we heard read. Well, I’ll try to explain. First, the story of the walk to Emmaus. We heard the whole story, but the last verse is the one I want to focus on:

‘Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.’ 

Books hadn’t been invented and Jesus couldn’t have carried all the scrolls of the Old Testament with him, so he’s working here from all the Scripture he has learned in the past. Yet the risen Jesus can explain to these two disciples exactly how all the Old Testament scripture points to him and his death and resurrection.

Wouldn’t you love to have been there on that seven kilometre walk? I’d give a lot to know how Jesus interpreted that very difficult book of Joshua, which is full of wholesale slaughter carried out in God’s name, and showed them how it pointed to him. I had to write Bible reading notes on Joshua a few years back and it was a big struggle for someone who believes that the Prince of Peace calls us to be peacemakers too. It would have been very handy to have Jesus there explaining it to me.

But of course in a sense I did have Jesus there. He promised that his Holy Spirit would be, not just beside us, but within us, leading us into all truth. And that verse from Luke about Jesus interpreting the Scriptures in relation to himself, was my other guide. I never read any part of Scripture without testing it against what Jesus said and did. So in thinking about Joshua, I had to say something like: this is a part of the Scriptures, we have to take it seriously. However we can’t accept its picture of God the warmonger as our final word on the character of God, because Jesus reveals God as the God of peace. As followers of Jesus, we can no longer read the Old Testament separately from the New, and take it as our standard for life. We have been called to something new.

Mennonites and other Anabaptists tend to express this principle as ‘Jesus is the hermeneutical key to the whole of the Scriptures’. Sorry for the academic language, but hermeneutics simply means interpretation. It means that whatever part of Scripture we’re studying, we have to read it in the light of Jesus, of his life and death and resurrection. Sometimes this will be easier, say if we’re reading Isaiah’s Servant prophecies like Isaiah 53, which so puzzled the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts, and which Philip explained to him in the light of Jesus. Sometimes it will be a lot harder, as with the book of Joshua. But we have each other, and a lot of good Bible scholarship, to help us come to the truth. And of course, we have the Holy Spirit in us. If we are listening well, the Spirit will not lead us into anything which contradicts the teaching and life of Jesus.

Inevitably this mean may we see some parts of Scripture as more important than other parts, because they are more Jesus-like. And Jesus’ own teaching is going to be at the top of the pyramid. But I think we can justify this from the second reading we heard, which I’m now turning to, especially the first half of the first verse:

‘Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, 2but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.’

This suggests two things to me. First of all, God speaks in many and various ways through the Scriptures. The Old Testament does not have a single point of view. One part thinks that kings are mostly a good thing, another thinks that kings are mostly a bad thing. The writer of Ecclesiastes is pretty cynical about life, the writer of Proverbs is quite positive about it. Some prophets tell us that suffering is a result of disobeying God, the book of Job tells us that it isn’t. Yet they all speak to us from God, at different times and in different ways. We have to take them all together as a witness to who God is. And this frees us from trying to make every little verse mean the same thing.

Secondly, God’s final word to us is in Jesus. The writer of Hebrews says ‘in these last days’ because he or she believed they wer in the last days. Well we’re still here two thousand years later. But in a sense we’re all in the last days - we’re in the Jesus era, the era of the Spirit, where anyone can have a relationship with God through Christ. And it is through Christ that we have to read what went before.

It’s not spelled out here, but I believe Hebrews 1 affirms the modern idea of ‘progressive revelation’. This means that in ancient history, God revealed to people as much of the truth as they could understand at the time, in terms that they could understand. So if Joshua won a battle and gained some of the Promised Land, the people interpreted it as God giving them the victory. And this is part of the truth, because God does give victory to God’s people - but not through killing other ethnic groups. God’s victory cannot come about through war, because war is one of the evils that Jesus came to destroy. We know this because we know the teaching and life of Jesus. So we are not free to follow Joshua into military conquest.
Hebrews 1 goes on to outline how much greater Jesus is than angels, and by implication, how much greater his revelation of God is than those that went before. So I think we can fairly say that the Bible is the story of God gradually revealing God’s nature, over thousands of years, till God could be revealed fully in Jesus, ‘when the time was fulfilled’.
Of course the idea of Jesus as God’s final word doesn’t mean God has stopped speaking to us. God continues to speak through the Spirit within and among us. But we have to make sure that what we think we hear is genuinely in the spirit of Jesus.

So here are two principles for understanding the Bible, which the Bible itself gives us:

First, it all points to Jesus. If when we interpret Scripture, it seems to tell us something that contradicts what Jesus said and did, then we are probably reading it wrong.

Secondly, God’s word is given gradually, in various ways, over a long period of time, and it is only in Jesus that we can understand the full nature of God. So we can’t just take, say, the Ten Commandments and think they tell us everything we need to know. But because they are a revelation from God, we can’t dismiss them either. Which is why, to return to the beginning, I am not a Marcionite.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Covenant Service

Preacher: Sue 

It feels to me as though as a church we spent much of last year in the teeth of a storm.  It was a storm above all of loss and grief, as we said goodbye to Lesley and to the London Mennonite Centre, both its physical incarnation in Shepherds Hill and our previous certainties about that relationship.  For some the storm was personal too – illness, especially depression, moving house, seeing organisations through upheaval and change.
That feeling of having passed through a storm felt very vivid and I’d like to linger over it a little longer. 
Please pass round this picture – which you’re welcome to keep if you’d like.
In a moment we’ll hear a few verses from Luke ch 8 and I’ll invite you to look at this picture and imagine yourselves into the thick of that storm, whether on the sea of Galilee or some other stretch of water you are more familiar with.  Perhaps the storm is exhilarating and surviving it leaves a sense of triumph or at least relief – “we made it!”.  Or perhaps the storm is so violent that it is just plain scary, loud and wet, leaving us exhausted, battered and bruised, like Jonah spat out and limp on the beach.  Maybe it feels lonely out there, far from the shore, or maybe there’s a rich sense of being in it together, clinging to others for safety, literally in the same boat.  Perhaps there’s frustration at being kept from our plans, blown way off.


Luke 8:22-23

One day he got into a boat with his disciples, and he said to them, "Let us go across to the other side of the lake." So they put out, and while they were sailing he fell asleep. A windstorm swept down on the lake, and the boat was filling with water, and they were in danger. 

Let’s have a moment’s silence to bring before God the storms of the past year…

So where is Jesus in the midst of this storm?  Maybe some of have asked us that over the course of this past year: “Where is God when we need him?”.  If I’d been in that boat I think I’d have been infuriated and incredulous and disappointed with Jesus’ inaction: he’s fast asleep for goodness sake!  I wonder if I hear that in the words of the disciples as the story continues.  As we listen I invite you to take this second card and picture yourselves into the drenched wind-tossed boat and the terror of the storm:

Luke 8:24
They went to him and woke him up, shouting, "Master, Master, we are perishing!" And he woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm.

Let’s pause again to remember the ways in which we saw God come to the rescue over the past year, whether spectacularly or in the quiet realisation that God was with us, had been with us all along…
And before we leave that image of the storm let’s hear the end of our story and another story of being almost overwhelmed by a storm on the lake immediately after the feeding of the five thousand.

Luke 8:25-26

He said to them, "Where is your faith?" They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, "Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?"  Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 

Matthew 14:22-34                                                                                       
Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.  And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.  And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea.  But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, "It is a ghost!" And they cried out in fear.  But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid."  Peter answered him, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water."  He said, "Come." So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.  But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, "Lord, save me!"  Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, "You of little faith, why did you doubt?"  When they got into the boat, the wind ceased.  And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, "Truly you are the the Son of God."  When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret. 

So in the end, in both stories, the boat lands safely. 
But I’m not sure we are quite there yet.  We are, I trust, in calmer shallower waters but I’m not sure we’ve landed quite yet.  At the vision day we began to look at who and where we are, where we have come from and where we are going, but found it hard to dream concretely for the future.  I used the image of Noah’s dove looking in vain for a twig to land on or even to break off, and eventually having to return to the ark empty-handed – or empty-beaked.  I don’t think we are empty-handed ourselves – we are trying new ways of being together and of opening ourselves more to others and we have the prospect of Lena’s work with us, our plans for walking church and working with the findings and recommendations of our mission audit.  But I don’t think we’ve quite found a branch to settle on yet or a beach to land on.
I guess that could feel frustrating.  And I think it is important that we keep up the momentum and maintain a sense of urgency – our small numbers and our bedraggled finances will force some decisions on us soon.  But I think we also need to pray and trust and be patient.  I’m not a particular fan of the theology of Teilhard de Chardin but I think his spirituality may have something to offer, at least in the shape of this poem inviting us to trust in the slow work of God:

Teilhard de Chardin                                                                                  
Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We would like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet, it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability -
and that it may take a very long time.
And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually – let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time,
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming in you will be.
Give our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.
There is real wisdom I think in this commendation of being willing to live with a degree of instability, anxiety, suspense and incompleteness and of giving our ideas time to shape themselves, allowing a new spirit form within us.  I hope that for some of us that is where the vision day left us, with a willingness to let that happen. 
And I think there is wisdom too in Alan Kreider’s recommendation that we follow the GPS.  I had my first brush with a dedicated GPS gadget over Christmas when my brother took us out into the woods geocaching.  But Alan’s GPS is an acronym for “Gifts, Passion, Service”.  I’d like to suggest that as part of letting our ideas mature gradually, letting a new spirit form in us, we spend a few minutes thinking about – and writing down – what we think are our gifts and passions as a congregation, gifts and passions which continue to be part of our DNA after many year and gifts and passions which are only in embryo.  If we look inside our church where do we see our corporate heart leap and our corporate eyes light up?  Where do we sense that God’s hand is leading us? 

I’ll keep whatever we write.  I hope I can pass it on to Phil in connection with the mission audit or that it can be useful preparation for future conversations based on the report from the mission audit and as we think about where to go from there.
So the questions to reflect on are
"What gifts do I think are well represented in our congregation?” and
"What passions do I have which I believe are shared by the congregation generally?"
I suggest that you take a little while to think quietly on your own, then write them up on the sheets at the front, them spend some time looking at what others have written and let that feed your own reflection.  Add what you need to as new thoughts come to mind.
(If you don’t want to keep your pictures please pass them back to the front now and if you do please put them somewhere safe where they won’t be trampled as we do this exercise together.)

[interactive activity]

As we prepare to read the covenant together, I’d like to take us back briefly to where we’ve been.  We started in the storms that the past year brought us and remembered where and how God had come to us in the midst of fear and towering waves.  Then I wondered whether we were already safely on the shore or still looking around for a beach to land on or a branch to settle on.  And now as we look to the future we have looked inside our congregation and asked God to light up to us the things we care about the most and the gifts we can offer so that this can guide us as we seek our way forward.
Let’s give our Lord the benefit of believing that God’s hand is leading us, and accept the anxiety of feeling ourselves in suspense and incomplete.  As we face into this year together and with God, as we hope and pray for growing clarity about our calling, let’s trust in Jesus to meet us in the storm and accompany us to the shore, and let’s trust in the slow work of God.