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.

Words and Actions

Thinking about the Baptism of Jesus in February made me think about the way Jesus put his words into action.  He came with words of love, forgiveness and humility, as God coming alongside ordinary people, to accept their help and ministry, and to bring them salvation – from oppression, darkness and ignorance.
And here he is, the Son of God at the beginning of his mission, not standing on any airs and graces, getting in with the crowds, being ministered to by others, being washed clean alongside them – doing all that God requires.

On that day His actions spoke louder than words, and it was something he kept on doing throughout his ministry.  People listened to his teaching because they knew he was totally believable, he was living it, putting it into practice right in front of them.

Here in Crewe I’m proud of the way that the churches are working together to offer safety, hot food and a warm bed to homeless people in our town in January and February.  It's all about ‘word and deed’, helping to change the lives of the poorest people in our town through practical works of love.

One of the things I’ve noticed as we do this is the way it encourages people to get up and use their gifts and talents to make a difference.  Can you befriend somebody? Can you make a nice cup of tea? Can you cook? Do the washing-up?

At All Saints' I can see the Soup and a Smile project on Thursday lunch times doing something similar, offering a safe space for people to gather and meet up – to find friendship and fellowship.  Do please drop in for some soup and to share a smile.


More importantly, this kind of activity is all about extending the Kingdom of God in Crewe – putting the Good News of Jesus into action.  Maybe the people of this town will take more notice of our words if they can see our love in action in this way?

Advent - bringing light into the darkness

We all know the nights are drawing in, and it gets dark so quickly.  As well as the physical darkness there is moral and spiritual darkness around us too.  

We only have to see the news or the papers to see the darkness of violence and hatred in so many war-torn countries across the world.  There is the moral and ethical darkness of the rich getting richer and the poor getting into more debt and struggling make ends meet.  There is the darkness of domestic violence and abuse to vulnerable children, and the darkness of hostility to refugees and immigrants who are different to ourselves.

Advent is about bringing the Light of Jesus Christ into these dark places too - as a candle banishes the darkness around it, so the Light of Jesus banishes the darkness and evil around the world.  

As ever, this depends upon us as disciples of Jesus, the Light of the World.  Are we prepared to pray for peace and be peace-makers wherever we can?  Are we filled with righteous anger at the inequalities of the world and moved to make a stand?  Are we watchful for the vulnerable in our society, ready to stand up for them and their rights? Can we show generosity and hospitality to those who are different to ourselves?

Are we prepared to become a light in the darkness - illuminated by the the Love of God?  That is the challenge of Advent as we await the coming of the newborn King.

Values for Life

It's remembrance time again and we focus on the effects of war around the world, and those who have paid the price.  Of course, the war in Afghanistan is coming to an end with the promise of British soldiers returning home next year.  But we all know that a lot can happen in a year, and for the time being the fighting continues.

I attended a presentation from the Mercian Regiment a few weeks ago that pointed out the human cost of the war: that for every person killed in action, there are many more who are damaged, both physically and mentally.  We see much less of these casualties – for those who have lost limbs there are no processions and cheering crowds to welcome them home, it's hard to see how many there are, or what happens to them once they’re home again.

After the difficulties and dangers of battle in Afghanistan these brave young men and women have another battle to fight – the battle to walk, to have independence, to live and work in civilian life again.  Thankfully there are people to help them – beyond the doctors, nurses and physiotherapists, there are organisations like the British Legion, Help for Heroes, and a host of others who help, and support them through life, and help us all remember them.

We remember their commitment and loyalty, their courage and discipline, and values such as respect and integrity, which we see in so many ways.  These values are at the core of our armed services, and they are core values that I see as Chaplain to many of the cadet forces in Crewe.

As Chaplain I see these values in the life and death of Jesus Christ; in his teaching of service and respect, the way he lived his life for others with total integrity; the way he courageously faced evil as he went to his death on the cross.  Jesus died in our place in an act of self-sacrifice, that we may know God as our Father, and he gave us an example for life.


May we live out these Christian values on which our society is founded, and teach them to the next generations.

An Attitude of Thankfulness

Earlier we spoke about creativity and God, that God gives us the spark of imagination and creativity – something we see in the amazing and diverse world around us.  We come this month to the ArtsFest at All Saints' Church and to our Harvest Festival celebrations too.

The ArtsFest is a fantastic thing – we reach out to the community, welcoming people to come in and demonstrate their gifts and skills, to run a stall, or to come and appreciate.  There are works of art from young and old alike; some are very professional, while others are more homely.  Each one shows that divine spark of creativity. 

I was talking to someone recently who told me how a talent for painting was only discovered late in life, as a result of cancer treatment – it was only then that they found time to reflect, and the courage to have a go – and they discovered a hidden talent.  I believe we all have these hidden creative talents – if only we could bring them into the light and let them flourish.

There are so many things going on at the ArtsFest, something for all ages, so do please make an effort to get involved and see what it's all about.

Just beforehand on the 6th October we have our Harvest Festival – a chance to celebrate God’s goodness to us all, for all that we eat and drink.  Many people in our urban setting think food just comes from Tesco – but we want to stand up and celebrate all our farmers, growers, grocers and distributors who make it all possible. 

We also want to say thank you.  Now that’s a really important word that we could do with more of.  It's not just a mumbled word of thanks that we’re talking about either – it's a condition of our heart, a state of mind, an attitude of life. 


The Bible tells us it's good to be thankful – to count our blessings and thank God and other people for them.  For the glass is half-full not half-empty, and even in the midst of pain and suffering are good people, real blessings, and even creative surprises like discovering you’re an artist!