Life of St. Paul and the Holy Spirit – The End of the Journey?

Reading:      Acts 28.23-31

Introduction

And so we get to the end of our series on the work of the Holy Spirit through the life of St. Paul.  Lets just remember what we have done.

The Journey so far

We started just on Pentecost Sunday looking at who the Holy Spirit is – that this is God working in our world today by his Spirit living in each one of us. 
After that we reflected on how we each respond to the Holy Spirit.  We reflected on how sometimes we respond with fear and ignorance – not understanding the Holy Spirit.  That’s certainly how St. Paul reacted to the early Christian movement – by persecuting them. 
We wondered how much we also react against the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, fearful of what God might want us to become.
Next we looked at Paul on the Damascus Road and his dramatic encounter with the Holy Spirit.  Paul was one stubborn, zealous man, and it took something really blinding for God to get his attention. 
We reflected on how sometimes we are so set on our own ways, that we completely miss what God is trying to tell us.  But the good news is that the Holy Spirit is always working within us, helping us to listen to his voice, and urging us to turn around and go in the right direction.
That was just the beginning for Paul and the Holy Spirit.  We looked at the way both Jesus and Paul needed to take time out with God.  They both went out into the wilderness as part of their spiritual journeys.  The Holy Spirit was telling them both that they needed time for God to work in them, time for formation, to get their head’s thinking in God’s way – and so God gave them time out in the desert with the Holy Spirit.
We reflected on the fact that if Jesus and Paul needed time out with God the Holy Spirit so do we.  Do we take time regularly to allow the Holy Spirit to help us think right – to think as God thinks?
Its interesting to see the way the Holy Spirit urged Paul and his friends to talk about their faith.  They just naturally talked about Jesus and what he meant to them all.  They didn’t have to have a manual on how to talk – they just shared what they knew about Jesus – that’s what the Holy Spirit does, point to Jesus.
Filled with this desire to talk about Jesus Paul and his friends went on their Missionary journeys.  They met lots of different people and talked about Jesus.  They learned new things as they went too – learning to trust God and listen to the Holy Spirit prompting them where and when to move.
That’s something we need to remember too – that we too are on a journey with the Holy Spirit.  I believe the Holy Spirit is talking to us, prompting us to meet people and encouraging us to share our faith.  The big question is whether we’re listening and whether we’ll do what God is asking us to do.
We heard about Paul in Athens – meeting new people and having to think things through – and we reflected on how the Holy Spirit transforms our minds and thinking so that we can be heard in a noisy world filled with so many competing voices and opinions.
Finally we heard about Paul’s arrest and his shipwreck – and how they all got through alive.  We learned that being a Christian and following the way of the Holy Spirit through life doesn’t necessarily mean it'll all be plane sailing, that everything will go swimmingly.

The end of the journey?

So now we get to the end of the journey. 
The book of Acts leaves us with Paul under arrest in Rome and still trying to share his faith with the people there.  His journeys have never been easy – he had tough times all the way through, and it is the same again now.
We looked at the book of Philippians a while ago and heard some challenging thoughts from Paul.
When thinking about his own death he told his readers that to live is Christ and to die is gain!  That life is all about Jesus – and that death will bring him even closer to Jesus. 
What a challenging thing to say to his readers – and how inspiring.
We know that Paul in prison had lost almost everything – he was unable to move around freely, he was separated from all his old friends, and he was facing the greatest loss of all – his own life.
But this does not worry him.  He knows that despite all our efforts to cling on to things, the truth is that everything we have in life is only temporary.  Ultimately we lose everything – our friends and family, our health and independence.  We gain all these things, but in the end we will lose them. 
Paul has learned that there is only one thing in this world that is permanent – and that is the love of God we have in Christ Jesus.
This truth has given him a wonderful freedom from the attachments of this world, and helped him to enjoy the simple things of life.  He tells his readers to rejoice in all things – especially in their relationship with Jesus.
He thinks of himself as a long distance runner – keeping going and pressing on towards the finishing line.  He doesn’t want to give up, but to win the prize.
Sometimes I think that as I get to the end of the journey I’ll just want to look forward to a quiet life – to put my feet up and relax.  But I hope that the Holy Spirit will encourage me to keep on being open to all that God wants for me, and the example of St. Paul will inspire me.

Conclusion

And remember, this is not the end of the journey – for two reasons:  Number one we know we have the promise of eternal life – so for St. Paul, and for us we know that St. Paul lives on with God and one day we will get to meet him – won't that be exciting?
The other reason the journey goes on is that the Holy Spirit is alive and active here and now just as he was 2000 years ago.
I think for me the key message of these last seven weeks is the way the Holy Spirit transformed this person Paul.
He started off being a narrow, bigoted zealout, proud of his Jewish pedigree and his pure heritage. He was ready to use violence to further his aims without mercy. 
But we have seen how the Holy Spirit has worked in his life over the years.  He turned away from violence. He embraced love and grace, and long suffering patience.  He became passionate about knowing Jesus and what he really wanted about all was for other people to know him too.
What a huge transformation – he has become more and more like Jesus.  And that is what the Holy Spirit does – it transforms you and me - in our thinking and in our heart, so we become more and more like Jesus – and that has got to be a good thing hasn’t it?
I’ll end with a prayer that St. Paul had for the Church at Ephesus:

I pray that Christ will make his home in your hearts through faith. I pray that you may have your roots and foundation in love, so that you, together with all God's people, may have the power to understand how broad and long, how high and deep, is Christ's love -- and so be completely filled with the very nature of God. Amen.

Life of St. Paul and the Holy Spirit – Being heard in a noisy world

Reading:      Acts 17.22-31

Introduction

Does it ever feel to you that you’re speaking a different language to everyone else around you?  And I don’t mean Polish – although we can hear some of that on our streets don’t we.
Sometimes when you’re out on the streets, going shopping or just in a queue – and we can wonder how different things have become in the last 20 years.
I wonder how that makes you feel?  You can see a reaction to all that in politics today across Europe and in this country, with alarmist voices calling for an end to immigration and to reassert our Christian heritage. 
And it isn’t just about foreign people in the country – it seems that young people are speaking another language too.  Almost everyone is on a mobile phone, chatting away for ages – or sending texts, or sending a tweet.  I was listening to a group of young people as I drove them back from sailing, and after chatting on the minibus they couldn’t wait to get back home and onto social media sites, sharing ideas, gossip, videos and music.
It's as if we are in a huge market place, where there is so much being exchanged – not just fruit and vegetables, but ideas, thoughts and words.  I don’t know if there ever was an age when everyone in this country thought and believed the same thing – but if it ever existed, it’s long gone. 
Even the church is changing – with modern songs and new liturgies – and now we’re going to be getting women bishops!  What is the world coming to? 
How does that make you feel?  We can feel bemused and retreat from the world into a comfortable nostalgia - and remember the good old days and wonderful vicars from the past who knew how to be a proper priest.  Or we can try and engage with things as they are now, with all its changes.

Sent to all the world

In our gospel reading Jesus spoke to his disciples and gives them the great commission to go to all nations and tell them the good news.  And he promises to be with them always – through the presence of the Holy Spirit – helping them to remember Jesus’ words to them, and to going out to tell others.
And that’s what happened.  The first Christians, ordinary men and women, with no theological training or presentation skills, went out, led by the Holy Spirit, and spoke to all kinds of people, telling them about Jesus Christ and how he had changed their lives.
These men and women were mostly Jews who believed in Jesus the Messiah.  To begin with they kept in the synagogues, meeting on a Sabbath, and they told their brothers and sisters about The Messiah.  Some believed, but others would not.
You can see the story unfolding in the Acts of the Apostles.  First with St. Peter and then with St. Paul, they found opposition and rejection with Jewish people, but an openness and acceptance among non-Jews.
Despite centuries of prejudice, believing that God was only for the Jews, they now found God blessing non-Jews as well – and filling them with his Holy Spirit – just like them.
And as we heard last week The Holy Spirit prompted Paul to go on three missionary journeys far across the Roman Empire to spread the word to Jews and non-Jews alike – and in our reading today we find him on European soil in Athens.

Adapting the message

He found a city full of ideas of science, philosophy and debate. He found a people who were open to all sorts of ideas and religions – and loved to argue about it with one another.  They were open to all things, they believed in everything – which meant, of course, that they truly believed in nothing.
Paul was used to speaking in small towns, going first to synagogues, and then perhaps to anyone else who would listen.  If people responded he would set up a little church fellowship – appoint a few elders and leave them to it – writing some letters to them for guidance and visiting them when he could.
But now he's in a big cosmopolitan city!  How do you begin to tell the Christian message to a people who think they know everything, who have heard it all before, who have such a variety of beliefs and superstitions on offer all around them?
I think it's fascinating to see what Paul does, and how he adapts his message for the situation.  For Jewish listeners he would preach from the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, and tells them about the promised Messiah who has come, Jesus Christ.
Now, in Athens, Paul has to think again.  He takes his time - he studies the environment – gets to see how the people think and what God is doing among them. He looks at the religious beliefs, looks around their temples, reads up their poets and authors – and he uses this as a way to start a conversation.
As we heard - he praises them for what they have. “Men and Women of Athens – I see that you are really religious – you worship all kinds of Gods – even one called an unknown God.  Well - he is the God I serve – let me tell you more about him”.
And from there he starts to show them how the unknown God has come to make himself known to all people, through Jesus Christ.
Brilliant.  He understood the barriers those Greek people had to his message, and made an effort to bridge the gap.  Some made fun of him, but others wanted to know more.

Application

We are in a very similar position now.  In previous generations people may have known the Christian story, its symbols, and its language.  Church buildings were more familiar, and held in more respect.  But in the last 50 years that’s been lost.
Today Britain is a market place of religious beliefs, superstition and points of view – where everything is equal.  People are open to everything, and so tend to believe in nothing.
The Christian message is being drowned out in the noise and clamour of the market. And when it is heard, it sounds so dated and irrelevant that it isn’t being accepted.
Like St. Paul we too have to change our message, and the way we do things.  We too need the Holy Spirit to show us the ways to change so that we can be heard in our society today.
The people around us still have the same needs.  They still need to know that God loves them, that they were created for a purpose, and that God wants them to have a close relationship with him and enjoy his presence for all eternity.
They still need the Holy Spirit to be their comforter in times of trouble. They will still be hit by tragedy and loss and need to know that God offers them eternal life now and beyond the grave.
It won't be easy for us to engage with this society.  Many of the arguments within the church are rooted in this issue of how to adapt and change.  But we do need to change to overcome the barriers between us and society – to become more welcoming, to help people to belong to God and to each other, to believe the Christian message, and to behave as God wants us to.

As we have seen, Saint Paul and the early Church had to adapt and change, and so do we.  May the Holy Spirit bring us wisdom, guidance and courage to change and to grow.  Amen.

Life of St. Paul and the Holy Spirit – In the Desert

Readings:      Galatians 1.11–20; Mark 1.9–13

Introduction

We continue our exploration of the life of St. Paul and the work of the Holy Spirit in his life.
Last time Saul the violent religious extremist met Jesus in a transforming experience on the Damascus Road.
Today we’re thinking about what happened after that event.  Paul describes it like this:
“God in his grace chose me even before I was born, and called me to serve him. And when he decided to reveal his Son to me, so that I might preach the Good News about him to the Gentiles, I did not go to anyone for advice, nor did I go to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before me.  Instead, I went at once to Arabia, and then I returned to Damascus.”
Why Arabia? Some think it was a time of solitary meditation, in preparation for the Gentile mission; others, that it was Paul’s first attempt at Gentile evangelism.  Where was “Arabia,” anyway, at that time?
Most agree that the main point Paul is making in the passage is that he did not go to Jerusalem. But the question of Arabia is still a puzzle.  Today we’re going to look at what he was doing there.

Paul the Zealous Man

Paul indicates in 1:14 that he belonged, before his conversion, to the tradition of “zeal for the law.” – that he was something of a zealot. This zeal led him not just into zealous study and prayer but into violent action.
Zeal of this sort was part of a long tradition within Judaism – you just need to think of Phinehas in the book of Numbers, the great prophet Elijah in 1 Kings and Mattathias the rebel leader just before Jesus was born.
I guess Elijah is best known to us all.  Elijah, too, was clearly a man of “zeal.” “I have been very zealous for the Lord” (1 Kgs 19:14). His zeal, of course, had consisted precisely in slaying the prophets of Baal, as recounted in the previous chapter.
But he had been stopped in his tracks, confronted by Ahab and Jezebel with a threat to his life (19:1-2); and he had run away “to Mount Sinai, the Holy mountain” (19:8), apparently to give up – to resign from being a prophet.
There, in the famous story, he was met by earthquake, wind, and fire, but the Lord was in none of them. Finally he heard “a still small voice,” inquiring why he was there. His explanation, as we just saw: great zeal, and now great disappointment. “I alone am left, and they seek my life,” he complains miserably.
God listens to his complaints, then he gives Elijah a new mission, he sends him back to Damascus to start again.
For Elijah going up that mountain was a chance to cry out to God – but God used it as a time to change his mind.
It’s interesting to see that Paul follows in the footsteps of Elijah – faced with a crisis in his faith, and struggling with his calling – he goes to Arabia – to Mount Sinai, and cries out to God.
Maybe he was complaining that he is not up to the work he had been assigned. Maybe he heard a still small voice of God telling him about what God was doing through Jesus in the world.
His zeal was now redirected. God then sends him back to Damascus with a new mission – as Apostle to Non-Jews - the herald of the new king.

Paul needed to change

I think that must have been a real struggle for Paul.  He was having to realise that his former life of violence was wrong.  He was realising that God accepts not just Jewish people, but all people. He came to see that evil isn’t defeated by killing other people, but by the death of Jesus Christ.  Realising that the battle had already been won – by Jesus.
Paul was in “Arabia” and then Damascus for three years – it can't have been easy listening to God, wrestling with these issues and thinking things through – but through it all Paul’s faith grew stronger and he emerged a transformed man.  Later in his letter to the Roman Christians he said:
Do not conform yourselves to the standards of this world, but let God transform you inwardly by a complete change of your mind. Then you will be able to know the will of God---what is good and is pleasing to him and is perfect.
The Holy Spirit had transformed his mind – his thinking – and he was now ready to go out and work for God in a new way.

Conclusion

It isn’t easy to stop and think our faith through – to allow the Holy Spirit to transform our minds.  It isn’t easy to think about the issues facing us today in our technological world, with fanaticism on one side and atheism on the other, while we use and abuse our fragile environment without a care for tomorrow.
We tend to like instant solutions rather than work through things with the Holy Spirit.  We may be tempted to think that being a Christian is just about being baptised when we were little.  That we just need to stop thinking and learning and growing, and just keep coming to Church.
Well I'm impressed by the example of St. Paul.  He didn’t rush on with life, thinking that was all God had for him. 
Paul showed the mark of a true disciple – he stopped, he took time to think, time to listen to God, and time to let the Holy Spirit wrestle within him – working out his salvation – and what it means to be a Christian.
It’s a process he continued throughout his life – and it’s a pattern we should all follow too.
The truth is we’re never finished learning and growing in our faith – as Paul said ‘I do not claim that I have already succeeded or have already become perfect. I keep striving to win the prize for which Christ Jesus has already won me to himself.’

I hope and pray that we will do the same throughout our lives too. Amen.

Life of St. Paul and the Holy Spirit – The Beginning

Reading:      Acts 7.54 – 8.1a
This is the start of a short series on the Holy Spirit – looking especially through the eyes of St. Paul.  As we journey through Paul’s life we will see how the Holy Spirit worked in him, helping him to work for God and to transform him to become all that he could be.  And we know that God wants us all to do the same for each one of us.
Sadly the Church has often misunderstood the Holy Spirit.  The Bible tells us that the Holy Spirit is the very presence of God himself in all the world, that we all need his presence within us. 
Many people are fearful of the ‘Holy Ghost’, thinking it is all much too ‘spiritual’ and strange – not at all Anglican.  I remember some time ago talking about the work of the Holy Spirit, and how he is God within us, and I asked people what they thought of the idea.  Quite a few people said it sounded frightening! 
Maybe you’re sitting there thinking the same thing.  For many of us, growing up in the established church, going about our daily lives to school or to work, being in control of our time and money, there isn’t much need or room in our lives for the Holy Spirit. 
We like to be in control of our lives, and the thought of allowing God to be in your life through his Holy Spirit, to help you, guide and direct you may be a disturbing idea. 
But remember, this is the same God who loves you and gave up everything for you – and he wants the very best for you – so you can trust that even the difficult experiences we go through can be used in God's overall plan for good. And nothing can separate us from the love of God.
We first hear about Paul, or rather Saul, in the story of Stephen in the book of Acts.

The Story of Stephen

We know that for those first believers before the Holy Spirit came along that life was flat, dull and monotonous.  Jesus had ascended to heaven and they were waiting - without Jesus there is no fire to light up their lives; No love burning in their hearts; No imagination and inspiration in their minds.
They hid away in small rooms waiting, praying and fearful of what was going to happen to them.  Afraid of being dragged before the crowds outside the door, and before the Jewish authorities, who had executed Jesus.
Stephen was one of them.  An ordinary man who became a follower of Jesus.  And then the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost, and everything was different.  The followers of Jesus were now filled with new life, new power and new confidence.
If life seemed flat, dull and monotonous before – now there was the excitement of new life, new power and new vision for the disciples.  If Jesus’ teaching seemed impossible to do before – now they had the Holy Spirit – God given help and encouragement that was always with them.
Without Jesus there was no fire to light up their lives – now it was as if tongues of fire lit up their lives, touching them with the holiness of God.  His love burning in their hearts, setting them on fire for the Lord, filling their minds with imagination and inspiration.
They went out with confidence and courage to share the good news with others around them.  Thousands were added to their numbers, they shared their money and possessions for the benefit of the Church and the community.  They organised themselves to care for the poor and elderly. And Stephen was one of them.
We are told in Acts chapter 6 that Stephen was full of the Holy Spirit and was brave and wise – but in the arguments between those first Christians and the Jews Stephen was seized. 
They accused him of speaking against the Temple and the Law of Moses.  Stephen might have kept quiet and got let off – but instead he is filled with courage and tells them: "How stubborn you are!" Stephen went on to say: "How heathen your hearts, how deaf you are to God's message! You are just like your ancestors: you too have always resisted the Holy Spirit!”
They are so angry with him that they rush out and stone him to death – the first Christian Martyr.  And a young man called Saul was there approving of his murder.  I wonder what impact this had on him – I think he was impressed by the boldness of these Christians and he goes on to help hunt them down.  We will hear more of what Saul does next and how he became Paul the Apostle next week.

Application

Now you may be thinking that the story of Stephen is not a great advert for being a Christian and being empowered by the Holy Spirit!  And you’re right of course, I'm not encouraging you to go out and become martyrs for the Christian faith.
But I am impressed by the difference that God brought about in these first Christians through the Holy Spirit.  They were transformed and inspired because of God’s spirit within them.
My friends, this is what Christianity is all about – not struggling on our own to live up to a set of rules and trying to be nice to people.  We are called to day by day relationship with the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit – and we can only do this by living in harmony with the Holy Spirit.
Jesus said it was better that he goes away, so the Holy Spirit can come to live with us.  According to Saint Seraphim of Sarov, the whole aim of the incarnation is the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  What higher aim can there be than to have God the Holy Spirit surround you and be part of your life?
Too often we ignore the Holy Spirit – perhaps afraid of all this talk of spirits, fire, wind, and different kinds of tongues!  So, we hide away from the Holy Spirit, keeping God at arms distance, where he can't do anything for us.
That’s really sad, because the Holy Spirit is a gift from God for everyone who wants to be real with God. 
We know that God loves us, don’t we?  So is his Holy Spirit going to be good for us or bad for us?  The Spirit of God only wants our very best – to comfort us in despair, to help us in trouble, to power us to achieve our best, to fill us with love for those around us.

Conclusion

If we look again at our worship services, our hymns, and our sacraments – these are all shot-through with the Holy Spirit – just have a look.  But the question today is this - How about our own lives – are we shot through with the Holy Spirit?
Perhaps this series on the life of St. Paul is a good opportunity to think some more about the Holy Spirit, to open our hearts, our lives, to welcome God to come in and amaze us.
There is nothing to fear – God loves us and respects our freedom – but he longs that we be more open to God and his Holy Spirit - to invite him to have more of our lives and to make us more like Jesus.
Let us pray:
Father God we confess that we often ignore your Holy Spirit, and we prefer to be tightly in control of our lives rather than be moved by your spirit. 

Help us Lord - take away our fear, fill us with your Holy Spirit to bring us courage, strength and confidence in you.  Amen.

EASTER - A Life changing encounter

Readings:      Matthew 28.1-10

Introduction

After the long Sabbath, the rest in the cold tomb - and now, still in the darkness, the first day of the week. The new week. The new creation. The eighth day.
Eyes red from weeping and sleepless Sabbath nights. Women at the tomb; perhaps to bring more spices, perhaps just to weep, perhaps just to be there, because there was nowhere else to be, nothing else to do, nothing else that mattered, that would ever matter.
The men are nowhere to be seen at this hour, it is the faithful women who have the devotion and the courage to be out this early.  Mary Magdalene, with the other Marys; who stood at the foot of the cross, forcing herself to witness everything.  Now these women become the first witnesses to the Resurrection. Now they will be the first apostles, the apostles to the apostles: the first to bring the news that the tomb was empty and the first to see, to meet, to speak with the risen master himself.

Who can move the stone?

As they arrive they would have expected to see the soldiers guarding the tomb and have to persuade them to move the stone for them so they can pay their respects to the body of Jesus.  It won't be an easy or pleasant task.
But then something totally unexpected. “Suddenly there was a violent earthquake; an angel of the Lord came down from heaven, rolled the stone away, and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow.  The guards were so afraid that they trembled and became like dead men.”
Somehow they manage to stop themselves running away – this sight is enough to floor even strapping well-trained soldiers.  The Angel speaks tenderly to them: "You must not be afraid," he said. "I know you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has been raised, just as he said. Come here and see the place where he was lying.”
They peer inside and see that tomb is empty. From the other Gospel accounts we know that they will have seen the linen cloths lying there. Someone has not only taken the body away; they have first gone to the trouble of unwrapping it.
Matthew tells us that they don’t stop to think about such details – instead they do what the Angel has told them: “Go quickly now, and tell his disciples, 'He has been raised from death, and now he is going to Galilee ahead of you; there you will see him!' Remember what I have told you."
So they left the tomb in a hurry, afraid and yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples.  I’m so impressed by Mary’s courage and dedication – with such emotions running through them: afraid and yet joyful.  Joyful.  Perhaps filled with a wild delight at God's creative power; perhaps it felt a bit like sunrise after a long dark night; maybe a bit like the sound of rain at the end of a long drought.  Afraid and yet Joyful, they tumble away from the tomb eager to tell the others.
And that’s when they run straight into Jesus.  Matthew tells us: “Suddenly Jesus met them and said, "Peace be with you." They came up to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him.  "Do not be afraid," Jesus said to them. "Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me."
That must have been even more shocking – seeing their beloved Jesus standing right there in front of them in the flesh.  This is no mere ghost – nothing ghost like about him here – they hold on to him in love and worship. 
He’s not the same battered and bloody body they last saw – here is Jesus filled with new life, glowing with health, but recognisably the same Jesus they have known and loved all these years. 
And he is pointing them to a new future – go and tell the others that he is alive and everything is now different.  Bless them; they go as he asks them.

New Purpose and Hope in Life

Over the next few weeks we will be seeing the difference this encounter makes for all the disciples.  They are changed from being fearful, uncertain, broken and confused men and women into men and women with a new quality of life.
They had witnessed Jesus’ agony of the cross, seeing him bearing the sin of the whole world – taking on himself their sins and guilt – and your sins and my sins too.  The message of that Good Friday is that because of Jesus we have been saved FROM separation from God, saved FROM our sinful nature and FROM the judgement that brings.
And now those disciples meet the risen Jesus and know that they have been saved FOR a future with God, FOR a new purpose, FOR a life lived in harmony with God.  And we can know that too.
Jesus’ resurrection is OUR present strength and our future hope, it's the guarantee of our own resurrection, a future that isn’t just for when we die – but starts right now, if we accept Jesus Christ as our own personal Lord and Saviour.
This new quality of life begins when we let Jesus come into our lives, renewing our minds, filling us with his Holy Spirit, and re-creating us from the inside out.  This is what Jesus calls abundant life – and it's what he promised to all who believe and trust in him.

Conclusion

It started with some loving and dedicated women, who braved the darkness and the Roman soldiers to visit the tomb.  They found the risen Christ – that he was there for them, banishing sadness, betrayal and fear.  The risen Jesus changed their whole lives.
This is the moment of new creation. This is the first day of God's new week. The darkness has gone, and the sun is shining. 
This is the whole point of the resurrection: that we can meet Jesus today – through the Spirit and by faith.  And the encounter can be no less life changing.
Triumphant over death, he is alive for ever.  He still comes to transform broken, sorrowing and fearful lives with the sheer uninhibited gladness of discovering him, alive and with us.
So, on this holy day, let us celebrate.

Amen....

Unlikely people

Reading: John 4.5-42

Introduction

I guess we all have an image in our minds of a Christian.  For many it's a middle-aged, middle-class person dressed in Sunday best.  For others in society it may be someone who is a bit barmy believing in God isn’t exactly fashionable. 
I wonder how you would react to a ‘Hell’s Angel’ coming to church, or a prostitute? I expect we would be a bit surprised – an unlikely turn of events.  Well this is a story of an unlikely Disciple for Jesus.
The story begins with Jesus on his way to Galilee. He comes to a town called Sychar and decides to stop for a rest. He sits down for a rest beside a well. He’s probably wishing he had a bucket so he could draw some water to drink. The disciples have gone off into this Samaritan village to buy some food and then a woman arrives in the normal course of her day to fetch water. In other words, this is an everyday encounter. 
There are problems though - the woman comes in the heat of the day - could there be some reason why she doesn’t come in the evening with the other women? 
In any case she’s a Samaritan woman and Jesus is a Jewish man. They should, by all rights, ignore each other. 
But what does Jesus do? He starts up a conversation. And there are couple of things about the way he does it. First of all he begins at a very down to earth, pragmatic level. "Give me a drink." There’s nothing intimidating or threatening about the way he begins. In fact it’s a very natural conversation starter isn’t it? 
What’s more, although he knows something about her, as we discover later in the conversation, he doesn’t treat her as someone who might be despised by an upright Jew.
In fact he puts her in a position of power relative to him doesn’t he? He’s asking her for a favour. 
But he’s doing more than that. He’s taking the opportunity that God has given him to make a connection with this woman so he can tell her the good news. He takes an ordinary situation, an ordinary conversation and he turns it around to a conversation about eternal life. And the conversation is with a very ordinary woman, someone you would never pick as a potential convert to his new movement, let alone an evangelist herself. Yet that’s what she becomes. 

Sharing the good news

Let’s see what Jesus does.  Well, Jesus begins the conversation with a request for a drink of water, but he quickly moves on from his material needs to her spiritual needs. The Bible is full of imagery of water bringing life, and of God’s spirit being living water that brings healing and eternal life.
So it’s a natural connection for Jesus to make between this well of still water and the living water that God provides to those who ask it of him. Well, surprise, surprise, the woman hears and responds.
Far from being a lost cause, or stony ground, she wants what Jesus is offering. She may not quite understand it but she knows this is something important that she needs. 
But Jesus knows that God wants us all to be honest with him.  He knows that this woman needs to be honest with him, to recognise what she is truly like – to see her true state before God.
So Jesus tells the woman to go and call her husband. He knows what her answer will be. He’s already discerned her true situation. But he needs her to acknowledge her standing before God so she can ask for forgiveness. 
And how does she respond? Well, she tries to change the subject doesn’t she? She throws in your classic red herring. "That’s OK for you but we Samaritans believe different things from you Jews." She tries to divert the conversation away from the uncomfortable truth of her own history to the much safer ground of the history of the Jews and the Samaritans. 
Ah, but Jesus doesn’t let her divert him - this is a matter of life and death. This woman can go on relying on the dead water of her religious traditions or she can drink of the living water of the gospel. So Jesus pushes a bit harder.
He says "Let’s not argue about how we worship in this world. A time is coming when true worshippers will worship God in spirit and in truth. In fact that’s the only way to worship him. So you’d better get on board now, while you have the chance." 
And then we have the wonderful moment when the penny drops. She realises that this man is something special. In fact she says he reminds her of the one who was promised, the Messiah. "Yes," says Jesus, "You’ve got it. I am he." 

God transforms even outcasts

Isn’t it amazing how God can take someone who’s obviously lived a fairly disreputable life and completely turn them around?
So many people think that Christianity is for good people – those who have got it all sorted out, who are nice and polite and good.  Of course that’s not right – Jesus went to the outcasts, those who have messed it all up, and who need his acceptance and love.
I have met people who have lived fairly heathen lives, perhaps into crime or drug addiction, maybe they’ve been a total disappointment to their family. Yet somehow, even at rock bottom, they discover the good news of Jesus and become a Christian. And then, like this woman they are so filled with the forgiveness and life of Jesus they couldn’t help but tell others about him. 
She races off to the village, so excited that she forgets she’s a social outcast and begins to tell everyone about what’s happened.
"Could this be the Messiah?" she asks. And the whole village follow her out to where Jesus is waiting with his disciples who have returned by now with lunch. 

Conclusion

Finally, notice that Jesus spends the time while he’s waiting, encouraging his disciples to have confidence in his message, in the gospel. He says "Just look around. The fields are white for harvest."
What he’s done isn’t anything outstanding or unusual. He’s just shared the good news with someone who’s thirsty for the news that God is at work in the world, bringing salvation to lost people.
The picture is of a field where the fruit is almost falling of the trees, where the wheat is standing up tall ready to be cut. In other words there’s no magic formula needed to harvest. You just need to share your experience of Jesus with people – just as this disreputable Samaritan woman does. And the result: "Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ’He told me everything I have ever done.’" 
Like Jesus we can have conversations with people and respond to the questions they ask - and sharing what we know of the Bible with them.
Or we can do what the Samaritan woman did. We can tell people what Jesus has done for us and then we can bring them to church or to someone who can tell them more. 
Let me encourage you, either way, to have your eyes open for opportunities in your everyday life to share the good news of Jesus with people, to offer them living water, invite them to come to church with you, so they too can worship God in spirit and in truth. 

Amen.

Born from Above

Reading: John 3.1-17

Introduction - Religion doesn’t work

I have to tell you that religion doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter that you’ve been to church all your life, that you come from a family of believers, that you have the right connections, do good to your neighbour – its not enough – you have to be born from above.
That’s what Jesus tells Nicodemus in our reading from John’s Gospel.  You can almost hear Nicodemus wince when he heard those words.
If you ask anyone what sort of people God really likes, they’ll probably say its those who are really righteous, always behave well, prays lots, know their Bible – well Nicodemus was one of those people.  He was a Pharisee, who always strived to keep the law, he gave away a tenth of his money, and he even prayed seven times each day – that’s more than I ever do!
Nicodemus is an established Rabbi and teacher and he is a member of the Jewish ruling council.  This righteous man, Nicodemus, comes to see Jesus.  Maybe he was coming to talk about the kingdom of God that Jesus was always proclaiming.  Nicodemus wanted to see the kingdom of God arrive too – but sadly he was going about it all wrong. 
Jesus says "I tell you for certain that you must born from above before you can see God’s kingdom".  That word above in Greek is ‘anothen’ – which means above, and can also mean again.
Poor old Nicodemus gets confused and Jesus has to explain it to him.  It’s no wonder, because it goes against all our religious teaching – but it’s very important that we understand this.

Born from above

What is it that makes us a Christian?  Is it doing good things, helping our neighbours, coming to Church, reading our Bible or praying?  Jesus tells us No – Religious activity like this is good, but it’s not the most important thing.  According to Jesus we need to have a living faith, and be born from above. 
So how do we do that?  Jesus talks of being born of water and the Spirit.  It brings to mind our physical births and our baptism in water.
Being born again by the Spirit is something that God does in our lives when we believe in Jesus and invite him live into our lives. 
If we are open to him, and want to live for Jesus, then I believe he will give us his Holy Spirit, and we will be born from above.  This is the work of God, and I think it’s always a miracle – a time when God reaches out and touches us.
But this is not some special thing that is reserved for a special class of people – we all need to be born from above!  We may not be able to put our finger on the moment it occurred, but we know that we are spiritually alive. 
To have the Holy Spirit in your life is to see as Jesus sees, it is to love as Jesus loves, it is to hurt as Jesus hurts, it is to have the strength and courage that he has.
If in your heart you want to live for Jesus, if you are moved by hearing his word and are moved to acts of love and compassion – these are signs of the Holy Spirit already working in your life. 
~~~~~~~
So you may recognise how the Holy Spirit has been working in your life already as a Christian, you may be aware of spiritual gifts and fruit in your life.  Other people see these things in us better than we do, so its important to tell each other what God is doing.
However, you may find that talk of being born from above leaves you feeling empty and in need.  You may be longing to know the Holy Spirit, or you may be just confused just like Nicodemus did when Jesus spoke to him. 
Either way, the answer is the same.  We ALL need to come to God, to be open to his new life from above.  We all need to be filled with the Holy Spirit, again and again.

God’s priority

Jesus said that God so loved the people of the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who has faith in him will have eternal life and never really die. 
This is a wonderful promise from God, and it shows us God’s priorities.  The most important thing for God is to save us from a meaningless life and separation from Him. 
He wants above everything to save us, to give us abundant life, to be reconciled to us.  I think that’s such a wonderful word, to be reconciled to God and to each other, and its God’s top priority.
God wants us to do the right thing, but its much more important to him that we have a life lived open to God, a life of faith and daily dependence on the living God. 
If you have this living faith, then everything else will follow – we will want to live for God and please him by loving God and loving our neighbours as ourselves.
But the cost to God was enormous.  He had to give up everything and be born as a baby on earth in dangerous times.  He had to live an uncertain life, he gave up so much for us during his life on earth, and ultimately he gave his life for us all on the cross.  That took courage, grit, determination, tough love and above all perseverance – and it demands the same from each of us.

Eternal life starts here and now

Is this life of faith worth it?  I think it is.  The promise is that we will never really die, we will have eternal life.  Jesus is the only one who has gone up to heaven and he came down again to show us the way.  We can trust his promise that God has a place for us there -- so we’re just passing through this life on earth.
As one of my favourite hymns puts it:
No guilt in life, no fear in death,
This is the pow’r of Christ in me;
From life’s first cry to final breath,
Jesus commands my destiny.
No pow’r of hell, no scheme of man
Can ever pluck me from His hand;
‘Till He returns or calls me home,
here in the pow’r of Christ I’ll stand!
For those with faith in Christ, eternal life starts now and goes on and on.  Eternal life is an ever growing and deepening experience that will never be exhausted – that’s what we can live now, and its what we have to look forward to on earth and in heaven.