Saturday, 25 October 2014

This is the word of the Lord

Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me. What nonsense! The bruises and cuts of my childhood are long since healed, and yet it has taken most of my life so far to get over the hurt of some of the words that were said to me. Words wield so much power, don't they? We are surrounded by the words of journalists and politicians, of dramatists and novelists. Small phrases carry the weight of big meaning. Today on the whatsapp group used by my wider family (whatsapp is a way of keeping in touch at almost no cost, useful when part of a family is overseas), the phrase that will appear repeatedly is 'happy birthday', because today my eldest neice is 11 years old, and also my eldest daughter is 21 years old. Those happy birthday messages carry wishes of joy, reminders of love and family commitment. The words will make a difference to the quality of the birthday for those two people today.

Words hurt or heal, bring hope and encouragement, or frustration and trouble. The phrase that most makes me sink inside is 'can I have a word?' Somehow such a word is never good! I've listened to, and unfortunately had to say, such hard words this week. Sometimes hard things must be said, but in such cases the challenge is to use them in a way that becomes life giving- to take the hard situation and speak into it a better way. This week we also celebrated the marriage of Roger and Alice. Their marriage was made official by the speaking of words: good, loving and committed words. When times are hard, they will be able to remember those words and take strength and determination from them.

The first phrase I learned in New Testament Greek was ἐν {en} ἀρχή {ar-khay'} ἦν {ane} ὁ {ho} λόγος {log'-os}. 'In the beginning was the word', the opening phrase of John's gospel. John was writing of the creative force of God, speaking words - 'let there be...' - that brought our world into being. God's creative use of the word is of course more powerful than any human speaking- none of us can make something physical merely by saying the word! Nevertheless, our words make worshippers of us, and make covenants between us. They make rules that protect or inhibit, and they can make learning happen. At our best, we use words creatively by listening to The Word, to Our Lord Jesus Christ, and learning from Him.

In our reading from Nehemiah we see a people who have followed their own selfish ways instead of obeying God, and who have suffered the consequences. Finding a copy of the scriptures, unread for generations, the people are challenged to change and to live better lives, following God, not the false deities set up by local rulers. They are challenged to live in a way that is loving and respectful to all- not exploiting others for work, sex or money, but seeing all people as children of God. This lesson is at the heart of the law, summarised by the exhortation to love God first, and then to love our neighbours as ourselves. This is the word of the Lord, the creative word that gives life and value to every human being. The people of Judah were transformed on that day by God's word. Jesus reminds us that God's word is eternal and unchanging. It remains as vital and life giving for us as it was for Nehemiah and Ezra, for John and the early church.

Today, Bible Sunday, I urge you to keep up the habit of regularly reading God's word- or to start a new habit, beginning perhaps with Mark's gospel. Don't just read though- allow God's creative word to challenge you and change you; to draw you into worship and into action. Words make a difference. Just as saying 'happy birthday' or 'I love you ' or 'well done!' makes a positive difference to certain people every day, so God's word, when it is truly heard, changes hearts and minds and attitudes. The Bible remains a living word, because our God uses it to speak creatively to us. Let us be open to be challenged and changed by the Logos- by Jesus- and then use our own words carefully too, to bring life and love to all who hear us.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Faith, love and patient hope

Sunday 19th October 2014.  Trinity 18.  

Last Sunday I went to Mass at a church in Pretoria. As people arrived and the music group tuned up, I prayed for you in the services that you were celebrating in each of the Living Brook churches. The parish priest, Fr Bogdan, was celebrating his first Sunday masses after returning from a holiday visiting family in Poland, and spoke of how he had prayed for his church in his absence too. And during the service he baptised a little girl - while he was baptising baby Kesia, I was thinking and praying about Aidan, who I have the privilege of baptising on my first Sunday back from holiday too. I prayed for Aidan, and for all of Living Brook, that you will grow in faith and love and hope.

Fr Bogdan and I, in praying for our people when we are away from them, followed the example of St Paul. In our reading from Paul's letter to the Thessalonians this morning, Paul (who was probably writing form Corinth), wrote that he was praying for the people there, and his prayer was 'constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ'.

For the Thessalonians, the work of faith and love and steadfast, or patient, hope, was lived out in a society that didn't support a life following Jesus Christ. In the Roman Empire many gods were venerated, and the message of Paul that there was one God and Jesus is his son was subversive. Giving up all the other gods was going way against the grain. It was like asking a businessman to give up his car and his laptop, or a teenager to give up snapchat. And there was an even bigger problem. Among the gods was Augustus, predecessor to emperor Tiberius. The emperor was revered as the son of god, and effectively worshipped as a god in his own right. Jesus was being put in the divine place of the emperor - a very dangerous thing to own up to in public. This new Jewish God, and his son Jesus were claiming to be senior to the gods of Rome. Jesus himself had established that he was senior to the emperor when he was asked in the temple about taxes. Give to the emperor what is the emperors, he had said, and to God what is Gods. If we believe that God really is the creator of all, then what is Gods includes what is the emperors! The emperor himself, as a human being, belongs to God, and anything paid to him is owed in turn to God. This message was dangerous in Jerusalem, and even more so in Greece. No wonder Paul needed to pray for the faithful people of Thessalonica. There was a lot of pressure not to follow Jesus.

The same is true for us. Following Jesus is hard. Our society does not support the way of faith, love and hope. Britain hasn't always been a Christian country, and sometimes it seems that the priorities of our culture more reflect its pagan roots than Christian ones. In the northern Kingdom of Bernicia, where Northumbria is now, the faith was first proclaimed by an Irish monk from the Iona monastery called Aidan. The King, Oswald, made Aidan bishop and abbot of Lindisfarne - the founder of a new monastery there. Aidan, like Paul had in Greece, travelled and proclaimed a controversial message: one God, whose son died to bring us hope and eternal life. Aidan founded churches. He freed Anglo-Saxon slave boys and educated them for the church. He taught ordinary people how to pray, fast, and meditate on the scriptures. St Bede tells us that he was respected for his love of prayer, study, peace, purity and humility, and for his care for the sick and the poor. On one famous occasion, Aidan was riding home on a horse given to him by King Oswin of Deira, when he met a poor man - and gave the man his horse. To imagine what a gift that was, compare it to this: if you had a really lovely car, an expensive 4x4, say, would you be willing to hand over the keys to a poor person you saw at the side of the road? It would be the equivalent action. Aidan lived without riches (apart from his brief horse ownership), though he could easily have had them, because he wanted to live the way of Jesus. It wasn't the way society did things then, and it isn't now. Praying, living in faith, loving God and neighbour, persevering in patient hope, these qualities go against those of our power hungry, wealth dependant society.

My prayer today for our Aidan, and for everyone in Living Brook remains the same: that you will be strong in faith in God our Father, and his Son Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit; that your love for God and for each other will grow and be a sign to others of the truth of the gospel; and that you will always persevere in patient hope, no matter what opposition you have to face.