Tag Archives: Sermons

Three Questions…

Acts 8:26-40 (CEV)
Philip and an Ethiopian Official

The Lord’s angel said to Philip, “Go south along the desert road that leads from Jerusalem to Gaza.” So Philip left.

An important Ethiopian official happened to be going along that road in his chariot. He was the chief treasurer for Candace, the Queen of Ethiopia. The official had gone to Jerusalem to worship and was now on his way home. He was sitting in his chariot, reading the book of the prophet Isaiah.

The Spirit told Philip to catch up with the chariot. Philip ran up close and heard the man reading aloud from the book of Isaiah. Philip asked him, “Do you understand what you are reading?”

The official answered, “How can I understand unless someone helps me?” He then invited Philip to come up and sit beside him.

The man was reading the passage that said,

“He was led like a sheep on its way to be killed.
He was silent as a lamb whose wool is being cut off, and he did not say a word.
He was treated like a nobody and did not receive a fair trial.
How can he have children, if his life is snatched away?”

The official said to Philip, “Tell me, was the prophet talking about himself or about someone else?” So Philip began at this place in the Scriptures and explained the good news about Jesus.

As they were going along the road, they came to a place where there was some water. The official said, “Look! Here is some water. Why can’t I be baptized?” He ordered the chariot to stop. Then they both went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.

After they had come out of the water, the Lord’s Spirit took Philip away. The official never saw him again, but he was very happy as he went on his way.

Philip later appeared in Azotus. He went from town to town, all the way to Caesarea, telling people about Jesus.

Three questions…

“How can I understand unless someone helps me?”

“Tell me, was the prophet talking about himself or about someone else?”

“Look!  Here is some water. Why can’t I be baptised?”

This Ethiopian official is sitting in his carriage reading Isaiah from a scroll – aloud!  Commentators tell me that was the norm back then – and that what we consider to be the norm (reading to yourself) only became the norm when monasteries required silence!  Still – it was handy because it meant Philip could hear what he was reading.

He’s reading Isaiah 53:7-8.  He’s on his way home from a pilgrimage to worship in Jerusalem, maybe he bought the scroll while in Jerusalem and is eager to get to grips with it.

Philip is courageous enough to start the conversation.  Trotting alongside the still-moving carriage – Philip asks – “Do you understand what you are reading?”  “How can I understand unless someone helps me?”

Or as other translators put it: “How can I understand without a guide?”

In our reformed tradition we are fond of saying that our sole source of authority is Scripture.  Sometimes people quote the phrase “sola scriptura” – “scripture alone”.  People sometimes mistake the “alone” to mean that we need nothing else.  Yet “sola scriptura” is only one of the five “solas” of reformation theology:

  • Sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”): The Bible alone is our highest authority.
  • Sola Fide (“faith alone”): We are saved through faith alone in Jesus Christ.
  • Sola Gratia (“grace alone”): We are saved by the grace of God alone.
  • Solus Christus (“Christ alone”): Jesus Christ alone is our Lord, Savior, and King.
  • Soli Deo Gloria (“to the glory of God alone”): We live for the glory of God alone.

And yet more, this Ethiopian official has the scriptures in his hands – in his carriage.  For him, merely having the words of scripture in his hands is not enough – merely reading the words for himself is not enough – he has no idea what he is reading.

“How can I understand unless someone helps me?”

The URC in its statement of Nature, Faith & Order says that “the highest authority for what we believe and do is God’s Word in the Bible, (so far that sounds like “sola scriptura”) alive for his people today through the help of the Spirit.”

This Ethiopian official needs the help of the Holy Spirit.  How does the Holy Spirit help him?  The Spirit sends Philip as guide.

The Spirit is the driving force in this whole passage.  The Spirit sends Philip to the carriage – the Spirit drives Philip to get involved – but on the surface – to the eyes of the world – Philip is doing the work; Philip is running alongside the carriage; Philip is being the guide; Philip is explaining the scriptures – starting with the bit that the Ethiopian is reading.

Philip starts in the place where the Ethiopian official IS – he takes his current questions and situation seriously – and uses that as the starting point for explaining the Gospel.  He doesn’t say – jot down your email address and I’ll send you a tract – he gets in the carriage and explains what the Gospel is – starting with Isaiah – and ending with Jesus.  

This is what the Ethiopian Official needs – he needs someone who not only knows scripture, but also knows the God of scripture; someone who reads scripture but also LIVES scripture; someone to guide him who has felt the embrace of God; someone who can read the cold ink on the page in the warm light of God’s Spirit.  He needs a Philip!

Kingsteignton folk are not short of scripture or access to scripture – Bibles are free online or on your phone!  What they ARE short of are Philips – people who know scripture and also know the God of scripture.  You know what’s coming next, don’t you!  On any given day of this coming week – you might be in a position to be a Philip for someone else…

The second question…

“Tell me, was the prophet talking about himself or about someone else?”

The Ethiopian Official is on his way home from a pilgrimage to worship in Jerusalem.  He is described as a Eunuch.  If that’s what he was then he would not have been allowed far inside the Temple, he would have been denied access, left outside the inner courts, made to feel less than whole – probably shamed.  It is an act of great faith and humility that he even went if he knew that’s how he would be treated.

And he’s reading these words:  

“He was led like a sheep on its way to be killed.
He was silent as a lamb whose wool is being cut off, and he did not say a word.
He was treated like a nobody and did not receive a fair trial.
How can he have children, if his life is snatched away?”

You might imagine that he identifies with these words…  “shorn”, “treated like a nobody”, “treated unfairly”, the chance of children snatched away…

“Tell me, was the prophet talking about himself or about someone else?”

In other words, “is this only about Isaiah and his situation back then, or is this about me too?”

Philip might have said – the Bible is never only about “back then” – it is always a word to us, today, in our circumstances.  Maybe Philip went on the explain that just a couple of turns later on in that scroll Isaiah says that the days are coming when Eunuchs who worship God will always be welcome in the house of God and will receive a name better than sons and daughters.  But Philip certainly explains that not only is this about him – that God knows him – but that God understands all of his suffering and humiliation and shame because Jesus walked the way of the cross.  And Philip explains that when the Eunuch’s story of being outcast and made to feel shame and humiliation is grafted into God’d story and refracted through the story of the cross and the resurrection – it becomes a story transformed, it becomes a story of redemption, restoration and hope.

The third question…

“Look!  Here is some water. Why can’t I be baptised?”

What’s to stop me being baptised here and now? 

Without the guidance of the Spirit, Philip might have had several answers…

You don’t live in Israel; you serve a foreign queen; you’re a eunuch – you’re not whole;

you live in the wrong place; you have the wrong job; your sexuality is suspect.

what if someone asked you in Tescos – “here’s an aisle full of bottled water – can you baptise me right now?”

you might say…  errrr…  I don’t have the authority… I’ll call Phil…  you need to go on a course first… errr….

But it is God’s Spirit who is the driving force here – barriers and objections are bulldozed out of the way – and he is baptised there and then.  He needs to be welcomed and accepted NOW.  Walls of prejudice and prohibition that had stood for generations came tumbling down, blown over by the breath of God’s Holy Spirit, and another man who had felt lost and humiliated was found and restored in the wideness of God’s Grace in Jesus Christ.  AMEN!


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Easter Day Sermon. Noli Me Tangere!

(Noli Me Tangere, Paulo Veronese, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Grenoble.)

John 20:17 (King James Version)

Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: 

but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, 
and your Father; and to my God, and your God. 
 “Noli me tangere” – “touch me not”.  It has been a popular subject for artists, and many early examples show Mary Magdelene stretching out to touch Jesus whilst Jesus performs a very impressive side-stepping swerve manoeuvre with an accompanying “BACK OFF!” hand gesture.
It seems harsh, doesn’t it, for Jesus to behave like this towards Mary Magdalene of all people.  She had seen him cruelly crucified; she thought she had lost the only one who helped her make sense of life; she was in the depths of grief over a man she had loved and lost.  And here he is standing before her, close to the tomb where she thought his cold, dead body lay – and she reaches out to touch him to check that he is real, that this is not a dream or a mirage.  Perhaps her tears are making the world a bit blurry and she cannot entirely trust what she sees; perhaps she worries that her lack of sleep and her stress and anxiety and worry have made her prone to hallucination; perhaps, having lost him for ever, she just wants the reassurance of feeling his warm, human, compassionate, solid presence.  Whatever, it matters not, she instinctively reaches out her hand to touch…
Maybe it reminds us of our childhood and those dusty old-fashioned museums where every single exhibit, that was not encased in glass and barrier-ed off with rope, had a sign on it that declared “Do not touch!”  Museums are different now!  Kids of today are positively encouraged to touch exhibits and engage with them.
I recently went on a 25th anniversary reunion of the people I trained for the Ministry with.  We went to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. They have a fabulous geological display of fantastic crystal and rock samples – huge slabs.  One is moon rock.  It is on a plinth – and you are positively encouraged to touch it.  It is fantastic! 
But that is not my memory of childhood – and I suspect it isn’t yours either!
 It seems at odds to hear Jesus saying this to Mary Magdalene, doesn’t it?
Where there is a mystery, there are people willing to explain it!
The internet is a fabulous place – but not a place for the unwary!  All of the following I have found from the keyboards of preachers and christian apologists from around the world.
  1. Jesus tells Mary not to touch because he is still a bit sore after the crucifixion.
  2. Jesus tells Mary not to touch because he has just risen from the dead and left his grave-clothes folded in the tomb and he is naked.  Any touching would be impure and inappropriate at this point.
  3. Jesus tells Mary not to touch because he now has a resurrection body that is different to an ordinary body and can’t be touched.
This is not an OUCH! do not touch!

This is not an OOOH THAT’S EMBARASSING! do not touch!

This is not an IT’LL BE A BIT WEIRD! do not touch!
This is Mary!  Not long before this she was kneeling, wiping her tears from his feet with her hair and anointing him with perfume.  Jesus is not afraid of physical intimacy with Mary.  
This is Jesus! The same Jesus who later on INVITES or CHALLENGES Thomas to touch.
So, there must be something else here.  Of course there is!
It may not surprise you to hear that the King James Version is perhaps not the best translation of these words.  Scholars would encourage us to hear this nowadays not like a forbidding command, like DO NOT WALK ON THE GRASS! – “don’t touch!” – but as “Don’t cling onto me.”  It’s not a one off gesture – but an ongoing gesture – don’t keep holding onto me – don’t cling onto me.
Jesus saith unto her, don’t stay here clinging onto me; 
for I am not yet ascended to my Father: 
but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, 
and your Father; and to my God, and your God.
Mary has work to do – Jesus wants her to go and tell the disciples – the first evangelist was a woman, the first witnesses were women.  The men won’t believe her and will have to come and check for themselves – but still that is her task – to go and tell the good news.  In one way it is a bit like the disciples on top of the mount of transfiguration.  “Shall we build shelters and stay up here in your presence longer?”  No, says Jesus – don’t cling to this place, don’t cling to this moment, don’t cling to me here – we need to go back down the mountain to a hungry and thirsty world.
If anything it reminds me of those moments at nursery or the primary school gate at the start of a new intake – toddlers clinging to a parent’s leg, parent desperately trying to persuade them that they need to let go – that there is a world beyond the clinging relationship they have now – parent will still be there – parents will assure toddlers that they will always be there – but don’t cling on – you’re growing up, there is more to discover.
But I think it is more than Jesus telling Mary she has a job to do.
It’s also about Jesus wanting Mary to see that what she has so far experienced of Jesus has only been a tiny taster of what is to come – there is MORE.  Jesus wants her to grow and expand and spread her wings and discover everything she needs to discover. So far she has only experienced the earthly Jesus – and great as that has been, Jesus is telling her that he is going to ASCEND!  The Spirit will be poured out – there is so much more to come.  CLINGING on to this limited experience of Jesus – wanting to stay there – wanting it all to be as it was before – that will stop you really being set free.  And all that is condensed into “Don’t cling onto me now, Mary”
I imagine that Mary and the risen Jesus DID embrace – of course they did!!  This isn’t about not touching.  And she understood, even if the King James Version didn’t!
But all of us CLING ON to a limited experience of Jesus.
We might be clinging on to a Sunday School faith that reassures us but doesn’t really help us deal with the complicated issues and decisions that confront us in our adult lives;
We might be clinging on to an expression of our faith that moulded church life in the 1950s or 60s or 70s, but doesn’t see to resonate in 2018;
We might be clinging on to attitudes that were once seen as embodying christian principles, but now have been shown to be oppressive and damaging to human life;
All of us CLING ON to a limited experience of Jesus.
and Jesus is ALWAYS telling us NOT TO CLING ON!
There is ALWAYS more truth and light for us to discover if we will only do as Jesus commanded Mary – “go to my brethren and tell them!” – or as Jesus told the disciples on the mount of transfiguration “we’re going down the mountain and heading for Jerusalem.”
There is MORE to come!
Analogies are never perfect – so take it as it is – but at this moment, it is almost as if Jesus is telling Mary that what she knows of him is a bit like this party-popper.  What she has seen so far is something new and exciting – full of potential.  Wrapped up in this human life – walking, talking, touching, living, breathing is something explosive that will change the world.  She knows that – she has felt that – and she wants to hang on to that – she wants to keep the party popper.
But Jesus says – there is MORE!  Go and tell the disciples – for in a few days time I am going to pull that string and you have no idea what will be unleashed!  Just wait and see what happens at Pentecost!  What you are clinging onto now is just the beginning.
so – don’t cling to me – GO! – run and tell everyone!
(set off popper)   AMEN!

Sermon: Torn Apart and Remembered…

Remembrance Sunday is a hard day. It is a day when we choose to remember. As individuals, as a nation we make a conscious effort to keep a memory alive. Yet, so many of those memories are painful memories. They bring back to mind people and places and events that most of the time we want to keep hidden away because they bring back feelings of sadness, of hurt, of loss, of bitterness, of anger even. It is not easy to control memory and remembrance, we cannot select the bits we want to bring to mind.
If that is true, then why is it that every year we make this conscious effort to remember? Why do we insist on dragging up the past, year after year, reopening old wounds, reliving past nightmares? Many voices urge us to live for the moment, or look to the future – leave the past behind. Why don’t we listen to them?
Think back to the first reading that we had, the story of Moses leading the people of Israel out of captivity and into the desert. The people had been living a nightmare. They had been welcome in the land of Egypt, but a new king perceived them as a threat. They were growing in number and strength. Something had to be done. His plan was this – to put them into forced labour, labour that was so hard that the people of Israel cried out to their God. But that was not enough. Pharoah also decreed that every male Hebrew child be thrown into the Nile, I think we might call it ethnic cleansing today.
And out of all of this came Moses, and he led them out of the nightmare and into safety, and together they made elaborate plans to help them remember. They instituted a meal called the Passover meal. Each part of the meal was to be significant. They would eat unleavened bread to remind them of the haste in which they left Egypt – not enough time to cook the bread for the next day. They ate bitter herbs, to remind them of those days of pain and suffering at the hands of the Egyptian task-masters. They remembered not just the joy of liberation, but also the pain that had gone before. Moses promised to lead them through the wilderness and into a land flowing with milk and honey. When they arrived I’m sure there must have been voices raised saying, “Let’s put the past behind us now. Let’s make a new start, a clean page. Why continue this feast of remembrance, there’s no-one alive now who was actually there.”
And yet, to this day, Jewish families and communities observe the feast of the Passover every year. It was during the feast of the passover that Jesus made plans to remember with his disciples – to remember as all Jewish families did with a meal, to remember how God saved his people through Moses. Both Moses and Jesus were born in times of great human pain and cruelty. As Moses was born, the midwives had been commanded to throw all hebrew babies in the river. As Jesus was born, Herod’s soldiers were ordered to kill all new-born babies. Both Moses and Jesus escaped death where thousands did not and their lives were used to bring liberation, liberation from Egypt, liberation from sin and from death itself.
And so at the heart of their faith, the Jews and the Christians have meals of remembrance – the Passover meal and the Lord’s Supper. Jews and Christians are remembering in two ways. On the one hand, they are remembering and honouring the great heroes of the faith – Moses and Jesus, and many others who have given their lives in the service of God. But on the other hand, they are doing something much deeper – they are presenting their history as a story of God’s involvement with humankind.
Remembering in this sense is re-membering – a putting back together of all the various parts of the past, an attempt to make sense of what has happened, what has gone before. The Passover meal and the Last Supper both make sense of the past by showing God intimately and passionately involved in the lives of his people – even through those times of extreme horror and human cruelty that we would often like to forget. And what’s more, they show a God who brings liberation and life through all of the pain and the suffering, through all the horror and the cruelty.
This day, Remembrance Sunday, like the Passover meal and the Lord’s Supper is meant to be a day to remember. Like those meals, it brings to mind human acts of great human cruelty. Wherever you look – be it the great wars or any of the smaller conflicts that have been fought right across the world, part of our remembrance will be in regret and penitence for the outrages that have been committed in our name and for our failure to find other ways to settle our disputes.
Like the Passover meal and the Lord’s Supper, today’s acts of remembrance are a celebration of the bravery of individuals. The selfless way in which people risk their lives to save others.
Like the Passover meal and the Lord’s supper, today’s acts of remembrance will be times of personal mourning. As Mary wept for the loss of her son Jesus, as Rachel wept when the soldiers killed her bairns, as the Hebrew women wept when their healthy baby sons were thrown into the Nile, so many will shed a tear today for loved ones lost through wars and conflicts all around the world.
In this place, a community of God’s people, together at Brixham URC, our remembrance will be all of that, but it will be much more. For our remembrance today should also a re-membering, a putting together of the past, making sense of the past as we put it alongside our Christian Faith.
Like the passover meal, like the last supper, this day of remembrance is an opportunity to affirm our faith in our God who chooses not to be distant and unapproachable, but who chooses to be intimately involved in all that we do. God is not only with us in the fine architecture of our church buildings, or in peaceful monments of quiet reflection. Our God is with us even in the blood and dust and mud of human conflict. And it is our human conflict that tears God apart.
God suffered with the troops in the trenches, God was blown out of the sky in the Battle of Britain. 
God stood nervously on the street corner with the soldier in Northern Ireland. 
God was torn apart between Serb and Bosnian as they glared at one another with hatred. 
God is also with the U.N. soldier, who doesn’t really understand the conflict he is part of, and is longing to be home with his family. 
God weeps with the mother and child as they are told that daddy has been killed on exercise on the other side of the world, he won’t be coming home anymore.
You see, God does not take sides, he is there on both sides, weeping with those who weep, sharing the fear of those who are in danger, feeling the pain of those who are wounded, knowing the anxiety of those who have to make painful decisions, offering to bring healing and peace to those who know they have done wrong.
Our remembrance reminds us that our God chooses to do all of that, to be torn apart by our weakness and failure, to go through it all with us, because he is a loving God, because he is our Father God, because he counts each one of us as His children. He will always be there to help us pick up the pieces.
And our remembrance will be one more thing. It will not be a mere recounting of the past, it will not be a passing glance at fading photographs and lists of half-forgotten names and deeds, it will be a remembrance with faith and hope for the future. If we know where we have come from, we know who we are. If we can see the paths that our past has taken, we can choose wisely paths for the future. But most of all, when we have seen our God sticking with us, despite everything, then what better foundation can we hope for to build our future together?
Let us pray…
Loving God, we remember today with regret, the evils of war;
we remember today with thanksgiving, the selfless bravery of so many;
we remember today with pain, all of the people war and conflict have taken from us;
we remember today with faith, how you have been there with us through it all;
we remember today with hope, for you have proved your promise that there is nothing that can
separate us from your love in Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

Taxis for Jesus!

That’s a denarius featuring Tiberius. The inscription on the other side reads Ti[berivs] Caesar Divi Avg[vsti] F[ilivs] Avgvstvs (“Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus”).  It’s a coin with a picture of Caesar on it describing him as the son of God.  That’s the coin that the People of Israel have to pay their annual poll tax to the Romans with (you can see why it seems like a blasphemous slap in the face to them!)
The tax was started after a census taken around A.D.6 – quite probably the one organised by Quirinius that Luke weaves his birth narrative for Jesus around.  The Jews can remember the census – it was designed to determine their wealth and resources so that such a tax could be imposed.  For Luke to set this as the backdrop to the story of Jesus’ birth is quite a political statement!  But maybe that’s a story for another day…  (Christmas is just a few shopping days away!)
The Jews resented the tax and they resented having to pay it with this particular blasphemous coin.
Soon after the tax was established, Judas of Galilee led a revolt against it – it’s mentioned as a cautionary tale in the book of Acts:
Later, when the people of our nation were being counted, Judas from Galilee showed up. A lot of people followed him, but he was killed, and all his followers were scattered.  (Acts 5:37)

It is a dangerous thing to challenge the Roman poll tax.  It is a life-or-death thing.

So – we have this encounter between Jesus and a strange alliance of Herodians and Pharisees:

The Pharisees got together and planned how they could trick Jesus into saying something wrong. They sent some of their followers and some of Herod’s followers to say to him, “Teacher, we know that you are honest. You teach the truth about what God wants people to do. And you treat everyone with the same respect, no matter who they are. Tell us what you think! Should we pay taxes to the Emperor or not?”
Jesus knew their evil thoughts and said, “Why are you trying to test me? You show-offs! Let me see one of the coins used for paying taxes.” They brought him a silver coin, and he asked, “Whose picture and name are on it?”
“The Emperor’s,” they answered.
Then Jesus told them, “Give the Emperor what belongs to him and give God what belongs to God.” His answer surprised them so much that they walked away.  (Matthew 22:15-22)

They start with flattery…  ha!  how pathetically obvious is that!   

“Teacher, we know that you are honest. You teach the truth about what God wants people to do. And you treat everyone with the same respect, no matter who they are.”

If Jesus wasn’t on his guard before, he certainly is now!   Flattery is like chewing gum. Enjoy it but don’t swallow it!

He’d probably also have been on his guard because this is an odd alliance – Herodians and Pharisees.  The Herodians were a pro-tax party – the Pharisees were rabidly anti-tax, they had to be – the coin itself is blaspemous!  To see them approach Jesus together to ask about this tax and this coin of all things would have seemed very odd – perhaps an early example of a common enemy uniting enemies?  My enemy’s enemy is my friend?

So here we have odd bedfellows approaching Jesus with cringeworthily cheesy and patently insincere flattery pretending to ask Jesus to settle a question about the Roman poll tax.


But Jesus isn’t deceived by the cheese!

He sees the trap.  If he says “Yeah – always pay the tax, it is your civic duty” then the Pharisees will stoke up the Jews (who hate the tax) against him… but if he says “No – it is an oppressors tax – you should refuse to pay it” – then the Herodians will run off and tell the authorites and he’ll be dragged off in chains like Judas of Galilee…  it’s a neat trap!

I’d imagine there was a bit of a pause – a bit like when they dragged that woman caught in adultery before Jesus and asked if they should get on and stone her to death – Jesus scratched about in the dirt for a bit.  It’s no bad thing to pause – measure your words – maybe build a little expectation!

And then he blindsides them.

Let me see one of the coins used for paying taxes.” They brought him a silver coin…”

Doh!  They had one!!  they had one of the hated coins!!  Why did they have one?  It certainly shoots the Pharisees’ fox!  Jesus doesn’t even need to make a big deal of it – he has already shown them up as hypocrites – they are already trading in this hated coin – they are already paying Caesar – they are fully bought in to Caesar – what grounds have they now to challenge him.

The crowd is loving this – they move in closer, perhaps trapping the Pharisees and the Herodians – they can’t escape or beat a hasty retreat and Jesus isn’t finished with them yet!

“Whose picture and name are on this coin you have given me?”
“The Emperor’s,” they answered.
Then Jesus told them, “Give the Emperor what belongs to him and give God what belongs to God.” His answer surprised them so much that they walked away.

 And there it is – he has turned it back on them and they have no answer – they slink off.

Incidentally, don’t think this is over.  It isn’t.  You can see every day in our own democracy, politicians repeating things that they KNOW to be lies – things which have been proven and shown to be lies – but they repeat them anyway – and the more they are repeated, the more they are believed as truth.  Conservative politicians – every week still – repeat the lie that Jeremy Corbyn promised in the election campaign to scrap all student debt.  We know he didn’t – it has been proved he didn’t – they know he didn’t – yet every single week they repeat it with the result that journalists have got tired of challenging it as they did at the start and they just let it go – and it then becomes accepted truth.

The same thing happened with Jesus.  During his trial at the Sanhedrin:

“They started accusing him and said, “We caught this man trying to get our people to riot and to stop paying taxes to the Emperor.”  (Luke 23:2)

That’s nonsense!  But you can imagine that it has been said and repeated so many times that Jesus is fed up of trying to deny it.  A lie becomes accepted truth.  Nothing changes, eh?

The Pharisees and the Herodians slink off – but their lies return to dog his steps.  But what are we left with?

Jesus’ answer is clever – it gets him out of a trap – but it is more than that.

“Give the Emperor what belongs to him and give God what belongs to God.”

People have taken this away and interpreted in wildly divergent ways!

There are those who have taken this to mean that there are two kingdoms – Caesar’s Kingdom (the world) and God’s Kingdom (some other-worldly concept) and that the two do not intersect.  We have responsibilities in both – we owe stuff to Caesar and we owe stuff to God – simple – our faith and the rest of our life are separate things to be treated separately.  We live a kind of double life as citizens in two places but that’s fine because they are separate.

Now that’s exaggerating and oversimplifying the idea for effect – of course it is – there is more nuance than that, but you get the idea!  There are people in the world who say that Jesus has instructed us to obey the civic authorities – pretty much without question – and they can be heard saying “render to Caesar” every time someone suggests opposing the goverment as if “Render to Caesar” means we must always obey government.

That, of course is patent nonsense.  If you are a member here – or soon to become one – then this is very real to you.  The URC Statement of Nature, Faith and Order which is read at membership services says this:

We believe that
Christ gives his Church a government
distinct from the government of the state.
In things that affect obedience to God
the Church is not subordinate to the state,
but must serve the Lord Jesus Christ,
its only Ruler and Head.
Civil authorities are called
to serve God’s will of justice and peace for all humankind,
and to respect the rights of conscience and belief.
While we ourselves
are servants in the world
as citizens of God’s eternal kingdom.


That’s just a much more long-winded way of saying “Give the Emperor what belongs to him and give God what belongs to God.”

We do not live lives where for some things we are in God’s Kingdom and for other things we are in Caesar’s Kingdom – the whole of life – every tiny part of it is within God’s Kingdom – there is nothing you say or do or are involved in that God is not interested in – even if it’s model trains!

We live lives where there are claims made on us by the world and by God.

The coin that Jesus borrows from his accusers has Tiberias’ image stamped on it.  By stamping his image on that coin he has laid a claim to parts of your life – and he backs that up with force, with the power of the law, with penal consequences.

Yet you know that there is already an image stamped on your life.  You are made in the image of God.  God has already staked his claim to your life.  And he backs that up with love that took flesh and blood and walked all the way to the cross and beyond.

That’s the world we live in – a world with competing claims on our lives – and Jesus will have us choose.  Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s.

So – should I pay my taxes, Phil?  I’m not going to tell you anymore than Jesus did!  Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.  Jesus wants you to wrestle with this and think it through and make serious choices about your life and whose it is – whose claims on your life you acknowledge.

But I will say this..

  • When you unthinkingly allow the Daily Mail or any other newspaper to determine your view on just about any political issue – then you are rendering your mind to Caesar;
  • When you follow the crowd or the mob or a few popular peers into mistreating or abusing or freezing out or dehumanising another person in order to keep your place – then you are rendering your heart to Caesar;
  • When you find yourself spending more and more on stuff and gadgets and shiney new toys, when you insist on having the very latest car or laptop or iphone and find you have less and less to spare for the hungriest people in the world – then you are rendering your wallet to Caesar;
  • When you vote for a political party primarily because you think that it will benefit you, that you will be better off even if many others are not – then your are rendering your choices to Caesar;
  • When you use other people in relationships or in friendships primarily for your benefit or your advancement or your pleasure rather than for theirs – then you are rendering your soul to Caesar;
  • If you fail to stand up and speak up when injustice reigns, if you fail to act in the face of oppression and prejudice, if you shut the door and hide away when the poor and the lonely and the grieving come calling – then you have rendered your conscience to Caesar;
  • If you come to church to be entertained and to be fed a comforting spiritual takeaway and to complain when it is not to your taste; if you have become a consumer of church rather than a servant of Christ – never getting your hands dirty and offering your life as a living sacrifice to be a blessing to others – then you have rendered your church to Caesar.

Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s – but render unto God what is God’s.

Amen, let it be.

Sermon about your loins

 Exodus 12:1-11 (NRSVA)

The First Passover Instituted

12 The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbour in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. 10 You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. 11 This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord.

Going into action
So, you are now all up to speed on how to gird up your loins.  It might not be what you think you came for – but knowledge is always a good thing, and you never know!
With your loins girded, you are ready for action.
But what kind of action?
Warriers would gird up their loins and charge into battle.  Though the church has been very fond of battle-imagery and soldier-metaphors – soldiers, armies, battle-cries often appear in hymns – I’ve never been that keen on it.
Soldiers are not the only ones who would have girded up their loins.
The farmer who went out to sow in jesus’ parable would have girded his loins
The fishermen who went out to fish would have girded their loins…
The loving father who spotted his prodigal son coming home would have girded his loins before running down the road to greet him…
Keep that last picture in mind – the father whose son had run off with the family silver – abandoned them – keeps a daily lookout, desperate for a glimpse of his return – and when he sees him – still far off – girds up his loins and runs down the road…
He’s geared up – he readies himself for action – and that action is to act in love!
Remember the words we heard from Romans:  
 “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.  The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbour as yourself.”  Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
Or..  from the Message translation:
“Don’t run up debts, except for the huge debt of love you owe each other. When you love others, you complete what the law has been after all along. The law code—don’t sleep with another person’s spouse, don’t take someone’s life, don’t take what isn’t yours, don’t always be wanting what you don’t have, and any other “don’t” you can think of—finally adds up to this: Love other people as well as you do yourself. You can’t go wrong when you love others. When you add up everything in the law code, the sum total is love.”
Jesus uses the imagery too…  remember his story about the bridesmaids and their lamps?

“Let your loins be girded about, and your lights burning”
Christ commands us to gird up our loins and be ready to act in love.
To gird up your loins, to roll up your sleeves, to take of your jacket – to put down your phone (that REALLY shows you mean business!) – and be ready to act in love.
Are you confused or worried about how to do that?  Who/where/what/how to love my neighbour? 
You wouldn’t be the first to ask… 
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 26 He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ 27 He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ 28 And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’
29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’
And you all know what comes next…
If you’re still puzzled and confused, I have a tip for you.  It’s 100% guaranteed.  Not many tips are as good as this one – this is the best I have!
Sit down tonight – or in the morning and pray this simple prayer:
“Lord, show me clearly an opportunity I have to love my neighbour.”
And keep praying it, and meaning it.  If you do – then you won’t lack for opportunities – you will see them all around you.
So…  are you ready?
I wonder if we shouldn’t make far more of the end of our services…
Maybe they should be a bit more like the instructions for that Passover meal.  Maybe our communion meals should be more like that – after all – at least part of the roots of our communion meal are in precisely that Passover meal…
Sometimes the end of a church service feels like it is the end of the week’s work (I confess it sometimes literally does for me!) – rather than the beginning of the week’s work.
The instructions are stark – that Passover meal was not to be a leisurely 4-course affair with the men retiring for brandy and cigars in the drawing room whilst the ladies retire to do whatever ladies did when they retired to the other room!
It was to be eaten hurriedly whilst fully dressed for action.  You didn’t take your coat off or put your umbrella in the umbrella stand.  You didn’t take off your sandals and have your feet washed – you kept them on – ready to go.
I once attended a church in Scotland where the minister pronounced the blessing, and me and my holidaying family bowed our heads politely at the end (as you do) – and when we looked up – everyone was gone!
I almost wonder if at the end of the service I should do the blessing  – GO in peace! – and you all leap up and run out into Bideford all ready to love the town and the people in it and beyond it – lights left on, coffee undrunk, doors left ajar – because you were so eager to get out there now that you had been fed with God’s Word and built up by the power of God’s People worshipping together that you just could not wait to get out there and make a start at loving your neighbour again this week.
Peter – we think of him as the impetuous man of action from among the disciples, don’t we?  I his first letter, he takes on this same theme…
1 Peter chapter 1 (Message version)
So gird up your loins, roll up your sleeves, put your mind in gear, be totally ready to receive the gift that’s coming when Jesus arrives. Don’t lazily slip back into those old grooves of evil, doing just what you feel like doing. You didn’t know any better then; you do now. As obedient children, let yourselves be pulled into a way of life shaped by God’s life, a life energetic and blazing with holiness. God said, “I am holy; you be holy.”
I think that’s a great phrase – let yourselves be pulled into a way of life shaped by God’s life, a life energetic and blazing with holiness.
That’s it!   Go in peace!  Amen! 

Sermon: 18th November 2012

Samuel’s mother found sanctuary at Shiloh – a simple place of pilgrimage where she could pour out her grief and open her heart to God.  Being childless she was seen by her community as one of the lowest of the low – yet at Shiloh (though it was far from perfect – Eli was more than clumsy and rude with her!) – she DID find sanctuary there.  Many years later, the disciples marvel at the fine dressed stonework of the Jerusalem Temple.  Which is closer to what God would have us build today?

Bible: 1 Samuel 1:4-20; Mark 13:1-8