Tag Archives: heaven

Creation matters

You might wonder why Christians bother with thoughts of Creation. If so, it may help to think about alternatives to the story we have heard (in Genesis 2:4b-9 and 15-25):

  • many now seem to think the universe is an accident explained by science. It has no purpose, people have no significance, and there is no basis for love or justice unless we pretend to find one.
  • Others don’t care about causes. They just believe that “Might is Right”, and what matters is to be on top of the pile, not the bottom
  • and some think that if there is Fate or god, it is no friend, and may even be out to catch them our or get them!

So: part of the Good News we have to share is about God, who in love creates. Though we have done some damage, the universe was well and beautifully made. It shows God to be wise, powerful, and to understand and plan in ways quite beyond our little minds!

Of course, there is an element of threat in this. It means this is not my world – it does not revolve around me, my wants, my ambitions . . God the creator owns it all. Even “my” possessions. Even “my” life. That makes quite a difference to the way we see things. You may notice in John’s vision of heaven, Revelation 4, that it is not all about family reunions and eternal holiday – the throne of God is central, and worship is what is happening.

Similarly, the God who chooses to make man and woman in his own image dignifies every human – even the poor, disabled, refugee, handicapped, criminal . . It is not for us to change his priorities.

So I hope you are beginning to see that Creation – the Christian understanding of a God of power and love who chooses to make us and our surroundings – is important. We have to come to terms with not being in control, with not having owner’s rights. Yet, this is Good News, just as the disciples in the boat that stormy day (Luke 8:2-25) discovered it was wonderful to be with Jesus, who understood their panic, and was able to put things right. Just as Adam and Eve found out, when even after their rebellion (Genesis 3: “We don’t have to be told what to do by Him!”) God acts in love to provide first, clothing, and a future salvation.

Belief in a Creator God does not mean we don’t have to bother about the way we treat the Earth and leave it for future generations. The knowledge that we are managers, or stewards – of the universe, as well as our lives and possessions – puts us in a good place. We have a responsible job, and excellent support!

Starting – and then

(There is a short dialogue sketch on this gospel, John 1:43-51, which you can find here.)

Do you find it hard to get started? In this Epiphany season we are talking about how Jesus got started, and others started with him. Clearly today we are talking about disciples. (John 1:43-51).  Already Andrew and Simon (John 1:35-42), and presumably James and John (Mark 1:16-20) have been called. Andrew at least was a disciple of John the Baptist, and had to face leaving the old master, good though he was, for a new. The others seem to have been fishermen, and faced issues of leaving their jobs and families, at least for a time. It can be difficult to get started on discipleship.

Then Jesus calls Phillip, and there is a quick response as he goes and finds Nathanael, and speaks of Jesus in glowing terms. The rest of the reading is about Nathanael (who is probably the same person as Bartholomew – which is a “surname”, used by the other gospel writers).

Nathanael is not impressed by someone from Nazareth. It is not that it was a  specially bad place, but [non-starter] – it never even gets a mention in the Old Testament! Prejudice if you like; it could stop him even starting. But Phillip is a quick learner, though. He doesn’t argue, just says “Come and see!”, – and Nathanael does.

John has been pointing out how Jesus knew people. Not in the “networking” sense, but in being able to weigh up their character and motives. As Nathanael comes, he comments, here is a man with no hidden agenda, no deceit! Nathanael is surprised; how is he known? Jesus says, “I saw you when you were under the fig tree before Philip called you”, and we don’t know why that is so important. Did Nathanael offer a prayer there, or was some question nagging his mind which Jesus has shown he knows about? At any rate, Jesus is right – Nathanael has no hesitation in changing his tune, and is loud in his acceptance of Jesus. (He has now gone beyond Phillip’s recommendation to his own evaluation).

That’s not all. Jesus doesn’t comment on the titles Nathanael has used, but continues the reference to Jacob – the sly, deceitful son of Isaac, who eventually became Israel, father of the nation (his story is told in Genesis, from chapter 25). Jacob had a vision, as he ran from the danger of death at home (Genesis 28:10-28). He saw a ladder to heaven, with angels going up and down. When he woke, he made a promise to God – the beginning of his change. Jesus says to Nathanael, do you believe because I told you that? You will see a way opened to heaven, not with a ladder, but with the Son of Man (the title he preferred to use for himself). Nathanael has started his discipleship with Jesus.

It is quite an opening. John tells us how Jesus ministry started, with ordinary people, but special happenings and promises. I think he is also telling us about how our discipleship, or the next stage of it, must start. We may have to leave behind some old things, even good ones, like the ministry of John the Baptist. You can’t do everything, and compared to the best, even the good is a distraction.

We may have to deal with prejudice. “I can’t learn anything from someone like that!”,  “I don’t want my religion to be like this”, or “my life to be like that . .” To be a disciple is to learn, and learning often means change.

These new disciples are just starting. (next week we come to John 2:11, “and his disciples believed in him”). But for now, the importance of Jesus, and of following him, is what they need.

Judged – for what?

Sometimes it really helps to understand Jesus words when we know what he is referring to.  This week we read Matthew 25:31-46, but it may be easier to first read the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel 34:11-24, which is also a reading for this Sunday which we call Christ the King.

When Ezekiel, prophet of the exile in the 6C BC, spoke of God shepherding his people, it was a direct and forthright criticism of the leaders of the nation. Read the rest of chapter 34, and you will find no excuses for the abuse of power by the powerful.  But the prophet has more to say than to denounce the leaders of the time. First, he makes clear that God is concerned – concerned not just with punishing the abuse and removing the abusers, but with stepping in to care for his victimised people.

But there is more. In verse 17 he says “I myself will judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats”.  And in verse 23,“I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them:”

Jesus clearly finds several points of contact with Ezekiel’s prophecy. Yes, like it or not, Jesus is talking about judgement, and about a judgement which divides people into just 2 groups. In the context of his day, the criticism of the leaders of the people is very clear. They have opposed him, refused to hear his message or to recognise his God given status.

The basis of the judgement is not “Have you been nice to people?”, despite what so many seem to think. It is not even “have you been religious?”. Jesus says “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me”. Earlier in the gospel (chapter 12:48f) he has made it clear that his “family” are not the blood relations, but those who followed him. It seems that here he is saying that our support of, and identifying with, poor Christians is critical.

You will understand why we read this today, on the the feast of Christ the King, last Sunday before Advent. The promised King Messiah, descendant of King David, has arrived. He will assume the role of shepherding leadership of the people, and will be judge of all.

But what are we supposed to learn, and – perhaps more important – do? We know that we are not saved by being good enough – because we are never up to God’s standard. Our hope is that faith in Jesus, and the forgiveness he offers, brings us to new life now and after this life.

The punch line is that it has to be real. Christian faith is not about mental acrobatics, or sophisticated pretending. Our faith is a trust which has to work through and show in every part of our life. There is an old joke which says, “If you were arrested and charged with being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” Would you, perhaps, be able to pass it off – I didn’t really mean it, just went along with some friends, it didn’t change the way I worked, or spent money, or who I socialised with. . . .

We won’t frighten people into heaven with talk of judgement, but as Christians we dare not be unprepared to face our Judge. Is my faith more than words and vague good intentions? Am I prepared to support and stand with Christians, even poor, vulnerable and needy Christians against their sophisticated and rich critics? Both sheep and goats seem surprised at the judgement – but neither argue the truth of it.

Forgive – again, and again

(The passage Matthew 18:21-25 is featured in the “Giving in Grace” programme: see http://www.givingingrace.org/Preach-Matthew! and the preaching notes http://www.givingingrace.org/userfiles/files/Design/preaching_notes_matthew.pdf as well as Dr Jane Williams Sermon Reflections at http://www.givingingrace.org/userfiles/files/Design/reflections_matthew.pdf )

Peter is a good man; in Matthew 18:21-35 he has listened to Jesus, he is committed to him as his disciple, and he realises that forgiveness is important. But he wants to get it right, so he asks a question – a good idea!  He doesn’t ask “Do I have to?”, but he knows its difficult and – he wonders “How many times?” Jesus would be generous about things like that – make a suggestion – make it big. Seven? bit much, but a perfect number – surely that’s enough?

“Lord, if my brother keeps on sinning against me, how many times do I have to forgive him? Seven times?”
“No, not seven times,” answered Jesus, “but seventy times seven,”
but don’t get this wrong, Peter, you’ve got to see it like this. And so Jesus tells the story. The story is about a man who owes millions, and his helpless plight draws the pity of his creditor, who lets him off. [Note, by the way, that this is not pretending he wasn’t in debt – he admits it]

What about you – do you have anything that needs forgiving?
Let me see – I did lose my temper last week, and I was late taking my library book back, and I was a bit greedy ..
Get real!
I asked if you had anything that needed forgiving, and that’s not it!
You’re selfish. The one thing you’ll protect at all costs – is you. You’re cruel – maybe you wouldn’t hurt a fly, but what you’ve said about people, what you imagined doing to the bully, the way you’ve treated your rivals.
God made you, gave you life, – and you feel good if you give him a thought for an hour or two a month; you’re not even that fit.

OK, enough, this isn’t meant to make you feel bad – and you need to provide your own answers. But take it from me, you have plenty that needs forgiving, and it isn’t the trivia, it’s the real things you prefer not to think about – great scars of anger, resentment, and refusal to serve & obey.

Where were we? Oh yes, “Do I have to forgive?”
Jesus story makes us annoyed with the man, forgiven so much, who can’t pass on the blessing. Perhaps he’s shaken by the experience, perhaps he want’s to pretend it didn’t really happen.
Do you know people like that? “I know I’m not perfect, of course, but (BUT), compared with them, or them, or the people you read about . .

Get real! Don’t ever go there!
What Jesus explains to Peter is that forgiveness is not about the irritation of people who annoy us, rather it is about seeing other people as God sees us. We’re hopeless, but he won’t give up.  We’re stuck in a selfish, violent, self-pitying hell, until he opens the way to heaven and helps us on the way.  We are foul (if disguised) until he starts cleaning.  We depend on a God who knows all this, and loves and acts to help.

OK! Peter, Andrew, anyone else listening – how should a person like that deal with other people they find less than perfect? Don’t count to 491 and let them have it.  Count to heaven, and let them have that.

Direction

It helps to know where you are going – whether on a walk, or a career or retirement plan. Stephen as he dies ( Acts 7:55-60 ) has a vision of Jesus in heaven, and knows that he is going to join him (which infuriates his opponents and seals his fate).

In John 14:1-14, Jesus speaks of going to prepare a place for his followers, but Thomas seems confused – and I imagine he is not the only one.  Do you ever think of a door in heaven with your name on it? Think about it for a moment. Your place, ready and waiting. What do you think about that, what do you want to do as a result?

Thomas hasn’t yet understood what is going to happen to Jesus – why he must die and rise from the dead. Jesus will not push him faster than he can absorb it, but makes clear that he is central to everything, and Thomas needs to keep following.  (We know that he does, and gets there in the end – see John 20:24-29 ).

Phillip is is danger of going off at a tangent. He would like to see God. Perhaps he has some idea of being like Moses on Mt Sinai, glimpsing God passing by.  But Jesus is more important than Phillip has realised – Jesus shows God to us. Father and Son (and Spirit) work so closely together that to know one is to know the other.  Not only do you have your room in heaven, you work for God!

“those who believe in me will do what I do – yes, they will do even greater things” John 14:12. We are invited to see where we are going – how Jesus, at the centre of everything, not only gives us a place in heaven, but also involves us in his work on earth. We are told to ask. What are we meant to be doing, what is most important, what comes first?

Alongside that, What is God’s purpose for me, individually, – or for you? How does that fit in with the aim for my congregation and wider Church?  Perhaps we should be asking for particular gifts to use there in His service, or for openings to use the ones we know we already have. Perhaps we need the courage to offer them, or the energy to do it!

It helps to know where you are going – and heaven can’t be bad, and you won’t get lost by accident. Stephen knows where he’s going, but Thomas and Phillip are finding out – perhaps like us. Let’s make sure that we keep Jesus at the centre of everything, and work on realising his aims for us as individuals, and our church as his working group.