The Annual Meeting for the Election of Churchwardens took place on the 23rd April 2023 at 12.00 noon in the Church Rooms Scalby followed at 12.15 by the Annual Parochial Church Meeting.
Reports for the meeting;
St Mark`s will live-stream a service from St Marks Facebook on Sundays at 10:30am.
The Reverend Tony Hand and family
As part of the Northern Group’s teaching programme about the basics of our faith, it falls to me to begin a four week series of sermons about the Commandments – but, as happened earlier in the service, I shall omit the Eleventh of them, which – as we all know – is “Thou shalt not be found out.”
My task is to introduce the Mosaic Commandments, but leave their detailed consideration to others, and then to spend the rest of my time talking about Jesus’ summary of them, sometimes known as the Great Commandment.
As most, perhaps all of you, know, the Ten Commandments form the basis of the faith and practice which Moses brought from Mount Sinai – reputably written on two stone tablets – and which Jews and Christians share. According to the Book of Exodus, he had spent forty days alone on the mountain communing with God. How long he had really spent up there is open to question, though, for, as with Jesus in the wilderness, forty days merely signified a long time.
Having escaped from Egypt, the Jewish nation was feeling its feet as as an independent state, no longer subject to the law codes forced upon it by its previous masters. Almost all the colonial possessions of the great European powers have been given their independence since the end of the Second World War, and have felt their way towards their own codes of law and practice, so many of us can fully understand the position the Jews felt themselves to be in.
If we take the relevant parts of the first five books of the Old Testament at face value Moses seems to have tackled the whole task on his own, ending up by carrying down those two tablets, with the new law code literally carved in stone upon both sides of both of them. But straightway Moses found his ideals and plans in jeopardy because, in his absence, his people had turned away from the one true God to unseemly revelry and worshipping a golden calf.
Moses was incandescent as we can read in Exodus 32: 19 – 20:
“As soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the camp and the dancing, his anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. He took the [golden] calf that they had made, burned it with fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it.”
And, in the voice of Basil Brush, Jews and Christians alike have been taking the tablets for their spiritual and moral health ever since. Boom! Boom!
Nevertheless a second pair of inscribed tablets was soon made and Exodus tells us that, again, God himself did the writing
But as I explained earlier my task this morning is to talk about about Jesus’ very short summary of the Ten Commandments which, under pressure from the Pharisees, he boiled down to just two laws.
Jesus’ deceptively simple formula emerged when a Pharisean lawyer asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
He said to him, ” ‘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.”
And it is fair to say that those two linked commandments, sometimes called the Great Commandment., reveal the basis of true religion which starts with loving God, not in some kind of sentimental, feel-good sort of way, but in total commitment of heart, soul, and mind.
And so Jesus cites Deuteronomy 6:5 as the greatest and first commandment and that verse from Deuteronomy is part of the basic creed of Judaism.
“It means,” said the great Baptist commentator William Barclay, “that we must give total love to God, a love which dominates our emotions, a love which directs our thoughts, and a love which is the dynamic of our actions.”
The second commandment Jesus cites is from Leviticus 19:18. Only when we love our neighbour in concrete acts of justice and compassion does our love for God become real – and not merely an abstract idea. As Jesus says in Matthew 7: 16 in the Sermon on the Mount: “You will know them by their fruits.”
But it is important I emphasize the final two words of our Lord’s second Great Commandment, for the Gospel accounts do not record him as saying simply “Love your neighbour” but “Love your neighbour as yourself.”
For, in the last resort, if one doesn’t look after oneself, one cannot take one’s proper place in life, be it in the family, at work or at leisure, or in helping one’s fellow human beings wherever they might be in the world. or in helping the world at large.
To give you one example from my personal experience, I shall always value the advice I was given by Bishop Timothy of Portsmouth who ordained me Deacon on Michaelmas Day in 1987 – a very wise man who previously had been Bishop of Johannesburg, with Desmond Tutu as his Dean and once he had retired he became a monk in Alton Abbey, Hampshire. After dinner on the evening before the ordination, he ended my private talk with him by saying “I expect that after tomorrow you’re going to feel you’re fired up to conquer the world for God, but never forget that come what may – as it will – your major responsibility should not be to the world but to yourself and your family.
Without looking after yourself and looking after them, you will be ineffective and no real long term good to anyone. Advice which stipendiary clergy should take particularly to heart, but sadly – sometimes even tragically – rarely do. So it’s the duty of the rest of us to make sure they take their time off and aren’t forced to attend all the meetings they do and for the rest of us to accept that a home visit doesn’t mean that it’s always the vicar who has to call.
Now to conclude, let me offer you some final thoughts on the two commandments from St. Cyril of Alexandria, an outstanding theologian who died in the year 444.
The first Great Commandment teaches every kind of godliness. For to love God with the whole heart is the cause of every good. The second commandment includes the righteous acts we do toward other people.
The first commandment prepares the way for the second and in turn is established by the second. For the person who is grounded in the love of God clearly also loves his neighbour in all things.
So may God give you grace to obey Jesus’ two commandments in all their fulness, so that you may experience the blessings to be gained from obeying the whole ten which Moses brought down from the mountain.
Our first reading, 1 Corinthians Chapter 13. It’s probably the best known passage in the Bible these days, because of its common use at weddings. Our version though replaces the usual word ‘Love’ with the word ‘charity’ – this is because the Greek word used for love is a special one – the word ‘agape’ – which Paul was using for the special quality of love that ought to exist between Christians.
Love should be the lifeblood of the body of Christ -love should be the defining characteristic of any church. But though this passage is very familiar, it seems to me it very often ignored by Christians who insist on being divided by matters of doctrine or church practice – the very things that Paul was directly addressing.
The Christians in Corinth – as far as Paul was concerned – had a few wires crossed over what it is to be a Christian. They thought it was all about being really religious – speaking in tongues, for example – it seems many Corinthians believed that you had to speak in tongues to be a proper Christian and they looked down on those who didn’t.
But Paul says if I can speak in the tongues of men and of angels but have not love, I am nothing. Speaking in tongues is nothing. Similarly having prophetic powers, power to perform miracles and move mountains is nothing. It matters not to God. Giving away all your possessions and living as an ascetic – giving up worldly pleasures – another manifestation of religion, then as now, is nothing without love.
Understanding all mysteries and having all knowledge of spiritual matters is similarly nothing. But how many Christians insist you must believe all the right things about God and Jesus – hold a correct set of opinions in your head without doubt or deviation to be saved? Paul says this too is nothing. When it comes to God, we can know only in part, and see “as through a glass darkly”. To understand that you need to realize that 1st century glass technology was somewhat different to ours. Glass was thick and let through light, but you wouldn’t expect to see much detail through it. Such is our knowledge of God. To insist that you must believe the right things perfectly is a nonsense, and Paul says as much. You won’t get to, or be shut out of, heaven by correct or incorrect beliefs and opinions about God. Paul says as much for he says knowledge will come to an end.
What Paul is saying, pretty much, is religion will come to an end. All religions and denominations and styles of worship will come to an end. But faith, hope and love won’t. What makes a church live and grow is not its style of worship or how well organised it is, it is love. There can be any number of styles of worship. I may have my preferences but they are not important – but love is important. I personally can put up with or even enjoy any style of worship. The one thing I can’t stand is people falling out over it, and I’ve seen churches that do that and churches that don’t. I’ve seen churches where they really enjoyed swinging the incense or ringing the bells but simply laughed about it if the procession all went wrong and they got confused and tripped over each other, and I’ve come across churches where they will tear into each other for not doing the smallest things properly. The difference here is love.
No church will stand or fall by innovations in worship or by redeveloping its building or even closing it – a church will stand or fall by love and love alone. We could push down an evangelical line or a catholic line, or middle of the road – more all age services or more traditional ones – these things are significant, but, Paul would tell us, they will pass away. If our building fell down and we had to meet in a school for example, what would determine whether the church survived or not? Love and only love. If it was the building that was important to you, well you wouldn’t come any more. But if it was love for one another…? The loss of the building wouldn’t change that. Love will keep us together, or lack of love will stop us meeting. Or, conversely, we could have a wonderful well kept building and churchyard but ultimately only love will help the congregation stay together and grow. Without love we would end up with a wonderful building but have no one worshipping in it. There are lots of difficulties churches can have, but the only thing that can destroy a church is failure in love – if we have not love we are nothing – we are not a church at all.
If love for God and one another is more important than anything else, that will make us give financially to sustain our community life. Love will make us put ourselves out for one another – love will make us give of our time and energy, serve on the PCC, clean the church, make the tea, be a churchwarden, or a sidesperson, or whatever involvement might help sustain our church life. Indeed this sort of thing is what love is – love is not a feeling – it is being prepared to give of ourselves to God and one another. A thing I often quote, but it’s true – ‘How do children spell ‘Love’? T – I -M – E. No other way. How do we spell our love for one another? By being prepared to give time and effort to one another and our church life together. Paul says nothing about love being a feeling – it is an act of the will – a determination to love one another. It is not being irritable and resentful with each other – it is not insisting on our own way so far as the direction of our church is concerned – but finding a common way.
Love is the only way our church (or any church) will grow. People will not join a community where they don’t find love. People are not, by and large, starved of religion. Lack of religion may lead to a certain emptiness, but lack of love is what really does the damage. People are not looking for religion, they are looking for love. Will they find it among us?
Three things, writes St Paul, abide – they can endure forever – faith and hope and love – but the greatest of these is love. In the end neither conservative nor liberal will be proved right – no belief system will be proved right. No direction we try to go as a church will be proved right or wrong. The only thing that will be proved right in the end is love.
Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near!” – an eight word summary of his preaching! It seems the idea of repentance was at the heart of Jesus’ message. When we are baptised – when we first become Christians – one of the questions that is asked of us – or was asked of our parents and godparents – is ‘Do you repent of your sins?’ But what does it mean to repent? Also what is sin? We ask people at baptisms, ‘Do you repent of your sins?’ but most people struggle to understand what those words mean; so I’ll try to take them one by one.
First, what does repent mean? Literally it means, ‘turn around’ – particularly ‘turn your mind around’ – ‘change your mind’ – change the direction you are facing in life. The promises we make at baptism are all about turning from darkness to light. We turn away from sin and renounce evil (the promise we’re looking at next week) and turn to Christ. It’s about the direction you’re facing in life. Let me be an illustration … stand in the middle of the church and spin around and stop, facing any old direction Imagine to start with that in my life I’m facing any old direction I please, then imagine the cross on the altar is Jesus… how am I going to get closer to him? What’s the first thing I have to do? Of course the first thing I need to do is turn around to face the cross – then I can start putting one foot in front of the other to get closer to Christ. If I don’t turn first I’m not going to get there. The first thing we are asked to do as Christians is turn around. Turn away from sin, and turn to Christ. There will always be times, I guess, when we lose focus and find ourselves facing, and therefore moving, the wrong way again (do so!), which illustrates that repentance is not just a one off thing, but a lifelong journey. To repent is to turn around, away from sin and towards Christ.
But what is the sin we promise to turn away from and keep turning away from? Someone once said to me they thought sin was a wicked concept because it amounted to blaming people for all that had gone wrong in their lives. She was working with the homeless and addicts and people who had really gone off the rails, and she felt that for most of them that was because of the hand they had been dealt in life – terrible parenting, lack of love, grinding poverty, abuse and so forth and calling them ‘sinners’ was judging them for something they couldn’t help. I’d agree up to a point. Jesus warned us about judging, and we can never tell how we would have ended up, what mistakes we would have made, had we been dealt the same hand in life as people we are inclined to condemn as sinners.
The term ‘sinner’ was a term the Pharisees liked to use about those who didn’t live up to their standards and Jesus always seemed to welcome those who the so-called ‘righteous’ were inclined to judge and write off; but Jesus himself did use the term as well. He said, ‘I haven’t come to call the righteous (or those who think they are righteous) but I have come to call sinners to repentance.’ You might remember Jesus saying to the woman caught in adultery, after saving her from the mob who wanted to stone her, that he didn’t judge her, but he also said, ‘Go and sin no more.’
Actually I think sin as an idea gives us back our human dignity. Saying they can’t help it because of their upbringing or whatever actually writes them off – as if they had no choice – as if they were just ‘things’ or objects that have no choice but to pass on the badness passed on to them. To say they are ‘sinners’ actually says they are not objects that can’t help their behaviour, but human beings who have gone wrong, and they could go right again – they do have a choice – they could be so much more, and that is the tragedy of sin. When clergy are ordained, one of the things we are called to do is to try to save the lives that sin would sweep away, and it does sweep lives away.
But I do think we tend to misunderstand the concept of sin these days. If you say the word ‘sin’ in our wider society it’s usually thought to mean the pleasurable consumption of something that might be thought to be just a bit bad for you. Rachel’s mum was on a diet a few years back, that basically meant eating a lot of fairly dull stuff, but you were allowed a certain number of ‘sins’ a day – I think you were allowed 10, and she had a book that told you how many ‘sins’ were in various foodstuffs. I remember a pint of real ale weighed in at 9 sins (or was that just a half?). Basically I was a big sinner according to this diet!
Sin is usually thought to have something to do with chocolate – or of course something to do with sex. Anything pleasurable basically that might be spiced with a certain zing of naughtiness! Sin for most, then, is basically committing an offence against healthy nutrition or against some boring old idea of good taste that is considered too silly to worry about. It means indulgence or naughtiness. If you were really concerned about something you would talk of eating disorders or addictions, but you wouldn’t tend to talk of sin. Anyone talking of sin in the old biblical sense tends to be completely misunderstood, for what does more damage to human happiness – a box of Belgian chocolates or some killjoy religious fanatic denouncing them?! If I talk of sin most people out there would just write me off as bizarrely opposed to pleasure.
But when the Bible talks of sin it has very little to do with anything you might think of as yummy transgression. It is talking about the deep-rooted human tendency to muck up! The human tendency to muck things up. Not just by accident or clumsiness, but our active tendency to break stuff – including moods, promises, relationships we care about, our own well-being and other people’s well-being. And we do this mostly through self-centredness, and sometimes even through active malice and destructiveness of the happiness of others.
When I talk about sin in a school assembly – which I can’t say I’ve done very often, but I have – I ask, ‘What is the heart of sin? What is the middle letter of the word ‘sin’? It is ‘I’. It is putting myself, my own needs or desires, my own comfort or security, my own views on how things should be done, ahead of those of everybody else. It is seeing the world with myself at the centre and everyone else in orbit around me, and getting infuriated and lashing out when they don’t seem to behave as if I’m the be all and end all. Martin Luther – that great theologian of the Reformation – described the state of the sinful human being as ‘homo incurvatus se’ – Latin for ‘man turned in on himself.’ – the human heart and soul like an in-growing toenail – a condition of pain and distress for us and everyone around us.
I think where we often misunderstand sin is when we think of God being somehow furious with us all because of our sins. I think there is such a thing as the wrath of God, or judgement for sin, but that is more along the lines of the fact that bad actions have bad consequences, or sometimes that God disciplines us a bit like a parent disciplines their children. When my boys misbehave it doesn’t mean I hate them – sometimes it means I’m angry with them, but that’s often my weakness and temper rather than a good response. More often it’s just that I’m saddened by that behaviour, and I think God is saddened by our self-centredness and lack of love. In an attempt to bring my children up well I generally try to make sure there are consequences to bad behaviour that will hopefully help them to learn. In this way there are consequences when we sin.
But we should never lose sight of the fact that God loves us – though sinners we all are. There isn’t some class of righteous people and another class of sinful people. The Bible says, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” But Jesus has dealt with sin – dealt it a mortal blow, so that it need no longer control our lives. He has broken the hold of our self-centredness and enabled us to turn to God and live life as God always intended it to be. We are forgiven – everything we have ever done is forgiven, though to make it real we need to receive that forgiveness. God’s forgiveness is offered so freely that when understand it, we can be tempted to ask questions like, “Does it actually matter if I sin. God loves me anyway!” St Paul addressed that question directly in our first Bible reading. “Shall we go on sinning that grace – that is God’s free love and forgiveness – may increase?” Of course the answer is no.
Before we turn to Christ the Bible describes us as slaves to sin – slaves to our own self-centredness – slaves to our tendency to muck things up. We don’t have any choice but to obey that tendency. It’s as if we had a disease called sin – or terminally in-growing self. Sin is the disease; sins – the individual things we do wrong – are the symptoms. Our sins may be our attitudes to others, spite, grumbling, moaning, making others’ lives miserable, greed that makes us abandon our families in pursuit of wealth, lustful thoughts or actions that make us less than faithful to those we love and destroy our relationships, they may be addictive behaviours, which could include over-eating or drinking to excess, they may be angry thoughts or actions, hateful attitudes to those who are different from us – you could go on and on and on. Sin can be almost anything that lessens our lives, or the lives of others, that damages love. Jesus said the commandments of God are summed up in ‘Love God and love your neighbour as yourself.’ So anything that is less than loving towards God, towards others or less than loving towards yourself, could be defined as sin.
But the heart of sin is ‘I’ – that self-centredness. That is the disease, and if we have the disease we can hardly help displaying the symptoms, any more than you can help coughing when you have bronchitis. But what Jesus does in our lives is break the power of sin. Break its hold on us. That doesn’t mean we become perfect overnight and never sin again, but we find we have a choice. Jesus gives us back our dignity in that we are no longer slaves to our self-centredness, but we find we have the ability to live differently. He enables us, by his Holy Spirit, to turn away from sin and turn to him. But we have to want it. He won’t force us. It’s still up to us to repent – to turn our minds around and start walking in a different direction – towards Christ.
I’ll finish with an image to hold in your minds. I don’t know if you have seen the Godfather mafia films? In one of them – I think it’s the second one – the mafia Godfather is being a godfather at the baptism of a baby. The priest asks him, “Do you renounce evil?” and he says, “I renounce evil.” Then the action flashes to another part of the city where somebody is being murdered at his behest. Then he is asked, “Do you repent of your sins?” He says, “I repent of my sins.” And the action flashes to elsewhere and somebody else is being killed. The promises carry on and a purge of his enemies is occurring. It’s a powerful image of how his baptismal promises meant nothing to him. Now I don’t expect that any of you are likely to be instigating a massacre in the near future, but do those promises mean anything to you, or are they just words? Have you repented of your sins? Do you want to? If you’d like to talk further about it, do have a word with myself or another minister after.
Turn to Christ. The way to God is open and all are welcome to follow it. We just have to turn around and start putting one foot in front of the other. That’s how any journey begins.
A conversation from ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’: “‘Let’s consider your age to begin with,” said the Queen, ‘– how old are you?’ `I`m seven and a half exactly.’ said Alice. `You needn’t say “exactually,”‘ the Queen remarked: `I can believe it without that. Now I’ll give you something to believe. I’m just one hundred and one, five months and a day.’ `I can’t believe that!’ said Alice. `Can’t you?’ the Queen said in a pitying tone. `Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.’ Alice laughed. `There’s no use trying,’ she said: `one can’t believe impossible things.’ `I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. `When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.'”
When we become Christians, are we asked to try our hardest, by sheer effort, to believe impossible things? Now and for the next few weeks across the Northern Group we’re hoping to think a bit about our baptisms – if we’ve been baptised – and the promises that were made at them, or that we might make at them. It’s sort of Christian basics really.
Why? Well, who of you can remember what promises are made at baptism? Who can remember their own baptism? Not many, because most people in this country, if they’re baptised, are baptised when they are babies. But even if you can remember your baptisms can you remember the promises you made? Anyone? How about if you’ve been confirmed? If you’ve confirmed your baptism, can you remember what promises you made then? One of the reasons we’re often a bit shy about sharing our faith is that we’re not sure what it is. So I’d like, us, if possible, to think a bit about some of those first things in Christian faith.
Baptism is symbolically the start of the Christian journey. One of the first questions you’re asked before you’re baptised – or perhaps your parents were asked is this: “Do you turn to Christ?” and I believe you might have thought a bit about that with Don last week.
Today I’d like to think about the profession of faith that we’re asked to make at our baptisms. The usual baptism service asks three questions: “Do you believe and trust in God the Father?” “Do you believe and trust in his Son Jesus Christ?” “Do you believe and trust in the Holy Spirit?” To which the response is to recite the Apostles Creed in three parts. There’s a little rubric underneath that in Common Worship which says, “Where there are strong pastoral reasons the alternative profession of faith may be used”, and that alternative asks, slightly differently, “Do you believe and trust in God the Father, source of all being and life, the one for whom we exist?” “Do you believe and trust in God the Son, who took our human nature, died for us and rose again?” and “Do you believe and trust in God the Holy Spirit who gives life to the people of God, and makes Christ known in the world?” To these questions you’re then not asked to recite the Creed but simply to say, “I believe and trust in him.”
Now I don’t know what ‘strong pastoral reasons’ are supposed to be, but we nearly always use that alternative form – the ‘strong pastoral reason’ being that young couples who bring their children for baptism with little or no church background, just can’t make sense of being asked to recite a Creed! It’s like being asked to believe six impossible things before breakfast, by a sheer effort of the will. “Can’t do it? Try again! Draw a long breath, and shut your eyes!” Not that, in many ways, the alternative is any easier to swallow, it’s just less wordy. I do always sit down and explain it to couples as best as I’m able, and I’ll tell you what I tell them in a minute.
But just as an aside, I did have a strong pastoral reason to use the full version a couple of years ago, which was quite interesting. A lady wanted to be confirmed and she was very thoughtful indeed. A former Jehovah’s Witness she knew all the arguments against the Trinity you can think of, but wanted to be a Christian. She believed in Jesus as Son of God and wanted to follow him, but, because of her background, she was still wrestling with calling Jesus ‘God’. She felt she couldn’t definitely answer to the alternative, “Do you believe in God the Son?” where the normal declaration is just to answer to “Do you believe in God and in Jesus Christ his Son.” It’s interesting the Apostles Creed doesn’t say, definitely, that Jesus is God – it leaves what you might call ‘wriggle room’ – so she was happy with that.
Now you might think I did wrong, but this lady wanted to turn to Christ and follow in his way, and has carried on in that journey, and was prepared to use all the normal words of the Confirmation service and answer with the Apostles’ Creed, about which she had thought deeply, and though she had her doubts about the Nicene Creed, which goes into more detail as says Jesus is ‘true God from true God’, I felt, who am I to look into her heart and judge her here? Most of those who answer those words don’t have a clue what they’re saying and haven’t thought much about it.
But, and here’s my main point really, at baptism, and confirmation, and even when we say the Creed on a Sunday, I don’t think we’re really being asked whether we have entirely correct opinions about God. I don’t want to go in depth into the mysteries of the Trinity today, we do intend to go on with this as a series and later, after Easter, come to think about the Creed in more detail. But what I do want to think about is what we’re asked, and what we answer to, at baptism… those words, “Do you believe and trust…”
When it comes to understanding God, I think all humanity, the cleverest minds that have ever been, are all completely out of their depth. Imagine standing on the sea strand on the North Bay, looking out to sea… From there the ocean looks pretty big, and you know it extends beyond your sight, but you can’t really comprehend the scale of it. Imagine, then, standing on the castle headland and looking down at that person on the sea strand. From there you can see how tiny they look next to the massive expanse, that they just can’t see from there. You could extend that. How about someone looking down at the castle headland from a plane – a human being looks even smaller, or from space!
When it comes to understanding God we’re like that person stood on the sea strand. We simply have no idea of the sheer scale of what we are thinking about when we think about God. The idea that our tiny human minds can have correct opinions about God is laughable. I’m reminded of St Thomas Aquinas, the medieval thinker – one of the brightest minds that ever lived – he wrote volumes and volumes of systematic thought about the nature of God and our relationship to God, and there’s a lot of good in his writings, but he suddenly came to a point in his life, when he took a step back and looked at all his thinking, by this time becoming renowned throughout the world, as it was for centuries after, and he wrote, “It reminds me of a straw!” And he just gave up his great project to try to systematize thought about God.
I don’t think when we are asked, ‘Do you believe and trust in God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit?’ that we are being asked if we have, or think we have, correct opinions about God, as opposed to the supposedly wrong opinions of others. I know the Church has historically thought of it like that, with horrible consequences – excommunicating, shunning, attacking, even killing, people whose belief – by which they meant, opinions – they did not consider correct or ‘orthodox’. I think, and I think the meaning of the Greek word for ‘believe’ bears this out, that we’re not being asked whether we understand at our baptisms, because nobody does, but we’re being asked whether we’re prepared to live by this – to walk this path.
Think of it as a bit like believing in the pew you’re sitting on. I doubt many of us know how the pew is made, what wood it’s made of, what weight it can hold, whether it’s screwed down or not. But you were willing to sit on it. You believed and trusted that it would hold your weight and wouldn’t tip over. Again, think of a wooden bridge over a stream… you may not know much about structural engineering or the materials of the bridge, but you believe in the bridge, not by having accurate opinions about it, but by walking across it. Or, slightly differently, when walking in the mountains, I frequently find and follow paths that I haven’t walked before. The country can be dangerous – there could be cliffs or bogs or all sorts of hazards. I can usually only see a few hundred yards of the path, at most, but I ‘believe and trust’ that path, if I’m willing to follow it – to walk on it and see where it leads. In the early days of Christianity, Christians were not called Christians, they were called ‘followers of The Way’. They had found a path they believed in and were walking on it.
We’re not asked at baptism, I don’t think, to have exactly identical opinions about God to every other believer. Our opinions will differ. We are being asked, to some extent, to keep some sense of unity with our fellow believers though. We are being asked, I think, to think about God in a way that has been revealed to us in Scripture, handed down to us, rather than believe in an idea of God we’ve thought up for ourselves – and that can be a bit of a challenge in our society where freedom of thought and opinion is valued extremely highly. We are being asked to follow a path that’s already there, not just to wander all over the mountain!
The path we’re asked about is belief in God the Father – the idea there is a Creator – that this world is not just a cosmic accident, and that God cares about us and His creation. We share that belief with Jews and Muslims and many others but what people exactly mean by that may vary widely. But then the Christian is asked, ‘Do you believe and trust in Jesus Christ his Son?’ – who I believe is the image of God, God come to be with us. What we mean by that, again, may vary, but we seek to follow the path of Jesus. And we are also asked if we believe in the Holy Spirit – and there most of us get lost – but it’s really, I think – (again just an opinion of something I really can’t comprehend, but) I believe the Holy Spirit is that same Father and Son at work in the world and in our lives.
There is a tradition when saying the Creed that I think says more than the words we say, and that is that when saying the Creed we face in the same direction. It’s not very obvious in this church when we’re pretty much faced the same way anyway, but in other churches you might see people turn around to say those words. I think at baptism we’re not asked to take a deep breath and try our hardest to believe several things we find impossible to get our heads around, but we’re asked to say we’ll do our best to face the same direction as our brothers and sisters in Christ, despite our fallible human opinions. We’re asked, ‘Are we willing to walk this road together with others?’ We believe and trust in God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – even though we don’t understand.
Well this morning I’d like us to take a brief look into the book of Revelation; this rather mysterious part of Scripture which comes at the very end of our Bibles but which doesn’t seem to get looked at all that often. And maybe part of the reason for that is because many readers of the Bible tend to have a sort of love-hate relationship with it. And I can understand that as, at times, it can seem to be unfathomable and quite perplexing. And for those coming to it for the first time it’s not unusual to hear comments along the lines of: “I can’t understand a word of it.” And the difficulty, of course, is that it’s a book with lots of symbolism going on and so it’s not all that easy to follow. But it’s rather sad though if we neglect it – as it has a lot of valuable things to say, not only to its first readers, but also to us as well. This is what one writer says about it.
‘….to understand Revelation we must see it both as a book of vision and imagination – as a book firmly rooted in history, proclaiming Christ as Lord of history and today – perhaps more than ever – we need its eternal timeless realities. And we need its perspective.’
The book is, in fact, a series of prophetic pictures written to encourage a number of the early Christian communities in what was then known as Asia Minor around the end of the first century. And it was a really tough time for those early followers of Jesus as the Roman authorities were beginning to enforce a cult of emperor worship and those claiming Jesus as Lord and not Caesar were beginning to face some really tough persecution. And things were really hard.
There was a special day in the year when every citizen in the Roman empire was required to cast some incense on the altar fire in a local temple and repeat the words: ‘Caesar is Lord.’ But if you were are Christian believer trusting in Jesus as Lord you could not bring yourself to do it. It would be a betrayal of your faith.
And there was a growing concern as to what was what was going to happen next? What would the believers do as the persecution spread? Would they stand firm or would they buckle under pressure? Would they deny Jesus in the face of torture and public executions? And on the top of all this, there was the question as to whether the Church had any future at all. And these were the burning issues running through the mind of John, the author of Revelation, as he is being held as a prisoner on the Island of Patmos, a sort of first century concentration camp.
And when I read Revelation it makes me think of the way the Christian communities in places such as Iraq and Syria today are suffering because of their Christian testimony. And when you read some of the harrowing accounts from people such as Canon Andrew White of what is happening in those places, it makes me realise what the true cost of following Jesus can be. And I find it extremely humbling when I hear of children being told by ISIS militants to convert to Islam or be killed. And do you know how those children answered when faced with that ultimatum? “No” they said “we love Yeshua; we have always loved Yeshua.” ‘Yeshua’ was there word for Jesus. And all 4 of those children were killed by ISIS.
And I know we can feel so helpless when we hear of accounts like this but we can pray. And we need to keep praying for our brothers and sisters in Christ who are suffering so much.
And John was writing to encourage those first century Christians who were suffering from persecution. And he’s an old man now, probably in his 90’s, and says he is being held in this prison type of place for the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus. And in introducing himself he says this: “I John your brother and companion in suffering.”
And one day as he is praying, he has this vision of the risen Jesus in all his awesome majesty and the vision is so glorious that John can barely find the words to describe it. And he sees Jesus, as he is now, in all his awesome glorious majesty as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. And John says: “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead.” And when we catch a vision of the living Jesus in all his glory, the only appropriate response is to fall before him in worship.
And that word ‘worship’ means to fall or bow down in adoration. It means submitting to God’s authority and acknowledging Jesus as Lord in our own lives. And is that a reality in our own experience I wonder to know Jesus as Lord?
And one of the things we are doing in the preaching this year is looking at some foundational Christian principles. And one of those principles is enshrined in the words: ‘Do you turn to Christ’ that occurs in the baptismal liturgy. And in turning to Christ we are acknowledging Jesus as Lord and inviting him to reign in our lives. But the question is: are we allowing him to reign? Is he at the centre and on the throne of our lives or is he out there somewhere at the margins?
But returning to John and what he sees: and it is not just a vision of awesome majesty, it’s a vision of amazing mercy as Jesus places his right hand on him and says “Don’t be afraid.” And that’s amazing isn’t it. John is lying there face down in the dirt and what does Jesus do? He stoops down from heaven and places his hand upon him. And isn’t that a wonderful picture of what Jesus does for us too when we turn to him. He stoops down from the glory of heaven and, to use the words of Psalm 40: ‘he lifts us out of the mud and the mire and sets our feet upon a rock.’ And that’s the wonderful hope we have in Jesus.
And as I mentioned earlier John is writing to a people suffering for their faith and an underlying theme of Revelation is one of hope as the world grows darker. And it’s a message that despite all the trials and tribulations we face, God is working out his purposes to the time described the Old Testament prophet Amos when: ‘God’s justice will roll on like a river and his righteousness like a never-failing stream.’ A time when his light will drive back the darkness and a time when: ‘God’s kingdom will come – and his will done on earth as it is in heaven.’
And so we move into chapters 4 and 5 where we encounter another of the book’s prophetic pictures; and John says: “After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven.” And John is then transported into the very heart of heaven and into the throne room of God itself where there is this fantastic outpouring of praise and worship. And the whole scene is one of majesty, awe and wonder. In fact, it’s breath-taking; it’s overwhelming and at the centre of it all is God in all his glory on the throne. And this image of the throne becomes a dominant symbol as the vision continues to unfold in later chapters.
And it becomes a dominant symbol because – as we have already seen there was another competing authority that claimed to be on the throne and demanding allegiance. And that was the Roman Caesar. And the point John is making is that in reality there is no-one else; no other thing; no other empire occupying the throne of the cosmos other than God alone.
And it is God, revealed to us in Jesus, who alone is worthy of all our worship and allegiance. And this speaks to us on a personal level as well – as it comes back to the question of who really is on the throne of our own lives – who is at the centre of all we do and think – is it self or the Lord Jesus Christ? He alone is worthy of our worship and if there are other things that occupy that place in our lives that Jesus should have; then the Bible calls it idolatry.
And as the vision continues to unfold, John now sees in the right hand of God, a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with 7 seals. And as is often the case in Revelation, the scene is rich in symbolism. But obviously what the scroll contains is of immense importance and John’s tears begin to flow as no one is found who is worthy to open it. But then one of the elders present says to him: “Don’t weep, look, the Lion of Judah, the Root of David is able to open scroll.” And as John looks what he sees is not a Lion but a Lamb; a Lamb who is alive but bearing the marks of having been slaughtered.
Now this may all seem a bit weird to our modern ears, but what John is doing here is bringing together two streams of Old Testament prophecy and showing us that they are both fulfilled in Jesus. Not only was Jesus the coming messianic king from the line of Judah and the Royal House of David – but he was also the Lamb spoken of by Isaiah – the one who was led like a lamb to the slaughter and took the consequences of all our sin upon himself.
And so how should we respond to a scene of such awesome splendour? Well the response we see from those around the heavenly throne is one of an outpouring of fervent praise and worship. And John says: “I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten times ten thousand” and they were singing in a loud voice: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain.” And shouldn’t that be our response too when we consider all that Jesus has done for us; to give him all our heartfelt praise and worship? To give him all of our hearts and not just a part.
And so we need to be a people with a heart for worship but what we also see from Revelation is that it’s a message of hope to believers undergoing terrible suffering and persecution. And John, as a pastor, is assuring his people that their suffering is only for a season, God is still on the throne, and a day is coming when he will wipe every tear away from their eyes, a day when his kingdom will come in all its fullness and to quote the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, ‘the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.’
And hope is important as we are meant to be a people of hope. The Apostle Paul writing to the Church in Rome says this: ‘May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace, as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.’
And as followers of Jesus we are not meant to be those just clinging on to hope but those overflowing with hope, or abounding in hope as it says in some translations. And our calling is to bring this hope into situations where there is no hope – because, to quote the Apostle Paul, we have: ‘Christ within us, the hope of glory.’
And as I draw to a close let me try pulling all this together.
1. And so firstly, do we turn to Christ. Do we turn to him each day and acknowledge him as Lord and King – and I mean not just in a general and abstract sense but as a living reality allowing his presence to fill every part of our lives.
2. Secondly, do we give him our heartfelt worship – that is worship, praise and adoration that flows from deep within?
3. And finally, as followers of Jesus let us not forget that we can overflow with hope because the God we serve is the source of all hope.
Philip Newell (Reader)
Sermon preached at a service of Morning Worship at St Laurence’s on Sunday 18th January 2015