Posts tagged ‘Church’

July 23, 2015

Up to Down (and Antrim)

At the end of June, we took a week off to go camping up at Castle Ward in Co. Down. Actually it was more like ‘Glamping’, as we stayed in a wooden camping pod, which compared to a tent is the height of luxury! Highlights of the week including climbing Slieve Donard, visiting the Giant’s Causeway and the traversing the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. Below are some of the many photos we came back with…

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Slieve Donard – looking back towards Newcastle, Co. Down.

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On the way down…

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A beautiful Beach tree avenue, popularly known as “The Dark Hedges”, Stranocum, Co. Antrim.

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Ballintoy, Co. Antrim

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An Inquisitive local…

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Giant’s Causeway panorama, including the “Chimney Stacks”.

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Castle Ward, Co. Down.

(All Photos taken using a Nikon D7000 and 18-55mm lens.)

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September 26, 2014

Persecution, humility and a perfect example…

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(Photo: Sunset over Crozon, Brittany, August 2013)

Sermon for Sunday 28th September 2014.

Philippians 2:1-13

A few days ago during an early morning time of prayer and Bible reading, I was struck by the stark difference there is in being a Christian here and being a Christian in say Syria, Northern Iraq, Nigeria or many other places at this time. We can sit and read our Bible in peace and safety, not worrying for a moment that we are in any danger – a deranged sword-wielding Jihadist is unlikely to bang on the door.  Yet daily we are hearing reports of our brothers and sisters in Christ suffering unimaginable persecution; men are being crucified, women and children are being beheaded and worse.  Why?  Because they are Christians who live in the path of a great swathe of evil the type of which the world has never before seen.

Of course we do have persecution of sorts here, (though it is so different from what I have just described that the same word hardly seems appropriate). In Ireland the Christian who does not readily agree and go along with societies views on divisive issues such as the life of the unborn child, fair economic policy, marriage or the importance of the family in bringing up children, is scorned and ridiculed.  When we gently quote scripture and talk not only of grace and love but right and wrong, eyebrows are raised and eyes roll as if we are some quaint and old-fashioned sideshow.

I don’t know if we will ever suffer persecution here in the same way that our brothers and sisters in Africa and the Middle East are going through right now, but we can be sure that if we stand up for Christ even here then we are going to be increasingly in for rough treatment in the years that lie ahead.

It is with all this in our minds that we turn to the Epistle reading for today. The Apostle Paul is writing to the small group of believers in the Roman city of Philippi.  Paul himself is writing the letter from prison and he writes as one who has endured much for the cause of Christ.  He writes to a church that has undergone and continues to undergo much in the way of persecution.  He knows that they have suffered much and so he seeks to encourage them.  In so doing, we are left with these wonderful and Spirit-filled words of truth and beauty, which are a wonderful encouragement to us today, whether we are a Christian in Ireland mocked and gossiped about by her work colleagues for being a follower of Jesus or whether we are a Christian living in Africa or Asia who daily wonders whether this will be their last day on earth.

Paul starts off his encouragement by saying that they must as a Church be united. A church is united when Christ is the focus and the centre of everything that happens and when it is His love that is the driving force behind all that is said and done.   When things are done because of selfish ambition or conceit then the church is in trouble.  Sadly we see it far too often that people in the church do things for the wrong reasons; to promote their own views, or to get everyone noticing how important or humble or holy they are.  When as the church we take our eyes off the Lord Jesus, we start to disintegrate as a body.  He must always be the focus of everything that we do, and everything that we do must be done with the aim of giving glory to Him. Paul says that humility is the key ingredient. He says that we must consider others better than ourselves.  Let’s just think about this for a moment, how can we genuinely consider others better than ourselves?  Well if we are a Christian it is easy – we only need to consider the extent and the stench of our sin and of the enormity of God’s grace to us through the cross of Christ.  If we remember that we are forgiven sinners it will soon stop us from strutting around like a Christian Peacock going ‘look at me aren’t I holy’!!  As well as being aware of our sin, if we remember that other people, especially those who we dislike and extra-especially those who dislike us, are wonderful creations of God, made by Him in His own image, then we will have a much better perspective on reality and it will help us to be genuinely humble.  It is the soil of genuine humility, with everybody looking to Christ, that provides the only environment in which the Church will grow and thrive.

A woman was sitting in the waiting room for her first appointment with a new dentist. She noticed his diploma on the wall, which bore his full name. Suddenly, she remembered that a tall, handsome, dark-haired boy with the same name had been in her high school class so many years ago. Could this be the same guy she wondered? She quickly discarded any such thought when she met the balding, grey-haired man with the deeply-lined face. He’s way too old to have been my classmate, she thought to herself. Still, after he had finished examining her teeth, she asked, “Did you happen to attend Morgan Park High School?” “Yes I did”, he said, smiling with the recollection. “When did you graduate?” she asked. “1980,” he replied. “Why do you ask?” “You were in my class!” she exclaimed. “Really?” he said, looking at her closely. “What did you teach?”[i]

Sometimes we all need a bit of help to be humble, but it is important that we are. Have you ever heard Nicky Gumbel (Vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton and author of the Alpha Course) speak?  Compared to most Christians, he could be excused for patting himself on the back a little, but even though God has used Nicky to reach thousands, if not millions of people with the Gospel, he always credits other people and most of all Christ when he speaks – perhaps that is why God is able to use him so effectively – because he is genuinely humble.

The Apostle Paul shows us that the best example of humility is that of Christ Himself.  Verses 6 – 11 are thought to be words of an early hymn and if so what a hymn it is!  Jesus willingly and out of love for His Father and out of love for us gave up the glory of heaven.  As a member of the Trinity He gave up all the power and knowledge that went with His deity.  He emptied Himself and was born as a tiny, helpless human baby.  As we know, He lived a perfect life, never committing sin (1 Peter 2:22) and He was totally obedient to His Father in heaven.  He obediently went to the Cross and to the unimaginable pain and suffering that He bore for us there.  Look how the words change going into verse 9; from utter humility, dead on a Roman cross, He is resurrected from the dead, God highly exalts Him from the lowest of the low to the highest of the high.  The day will come when every knee will bow to Him, “in heaven and on earth and under the earth” and “every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (v.10,11).  This is referring to the Day when Christ shall return, known as the “Second Coming” or the “Day of Judgement”.  Talking about such things today will get people rolling their eyes at us, even sadly sometimes amongst people who go to Church.  But we make no apologies for Scripture; we are plainly told by Christ in the Gospels (for example in Matthew 24) and in many other places as well (see Acts 1:11, 1 Corinthians 11:26, 1 Thessalonians 5:23, James 5:7-9, Revelation 3:11 etc.), that Christ will return and on that day, people in heaven will bow their knees before Christ and those who are left on earth at the time of His coming will bow their knees to Christ, and those who are ‘under the earth’, (referring to those in hell) will also bow their knees to Christ.  Not only will all knees bow (willingly or unwillingly) at the mention of His Name, but every tongue will also (willingly or unwillingly) confess that “Jesus Christ is Lord”.

What about us? Do we confess that Jesus Christ is Lord?  Do we bow before Him in humility, worship and wonder?  One day everyone who has ever lived will together bow their knees before Him.  The question we must ask of ourselves today is – Will I do so willingly or unwillingly?[ii]  Let us pray … Amen.

[i] http://www.preachingtoday.com/illustrations/2007/july/8073007.html (Altered)

[ii] Question adapted from: Bentley, Michael. “Shining in the Darkness”, Philippians simply explained. Welwyn Commentary Series, Durham. Evangelical Press 1997, p.80

August 25, 2014

“But who do you say that I am?”

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(Photo: Statue of Christ in the Gothic Memorial Church, Kylemore Abbey, Co. Galway.  July 2014)

Sermon for Sunday 24th August.  Text – Matthew 16:13-20

13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ 14 And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ 15 He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’

Sooner or later we all have to deal with the Great Question. The great question is one that Jesus asked of His disciples and it is a question which each of us must give an answer to also. The question Jesus asks is: “But who do you say that I am?’ (Repeat).

Those who have grown up in the church and can recite the creeds in their sleep are perhaps most in danger. We are so used to the liturgy and the prayers that we go through a church service on autopilot, without ever actually really engaging with what we are (or should be) doing. We might answer the question from our head saying that, “Yes, Jesus is of course the Son of God our Saviour who died for us upon the cross and rose again on the third day etc. etc.” And we can say all this (and even sound convincing when we say it), but the reality is that even though our heads know the right thing to say, in actual fact our hardened hearts are far from Him. We need to let go of our protective wall of hardness because not only does it keep people out, it keeps Christ out too.

In the previous chapter (15), in verse 8, Jesus, speaking about the religious church-going folk of the day said: “This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”

I don’t like saying it, but that is a warning for us. We are guilty. We honour God with our lips when we are in church, but our hearts are far from Him. What do we need to do?

First of all we need to repent. We need to acknowledge our sin to God. We need to say sorry for just going through the motions of Christianity. We need to say sorry for coming to church merely out of a sense of duty. We need to say sorry for busying ourselves with all the activity of church and parish life and thinking that that is enough to make God like us.

Secondly we need to be thankful. God has provided the means for us to be right with Him. Jesus Christ, the Son of God took upon Himself our sins upon the cross. When we repent, when we say “sorry”, He will forgive us and He will cleanse us from our sins. Because of Jesus, God the Father sees us as spotless and without any blemish when we allow Jesus to be our Lord and Saviour. Let us fully take on board what God has done for us and let the roof of this place be lifted off with the power and strength and passion of our thankful praise and worship.

Thirdly we need to invite God to come into our hearts and dwell there. Perhaps we have been going to church all our lives and yet we have never unlocked the door of our hearts and let Him in. Maybe we let Him in years ago but over the time since the weeds have grown up and we have become closed to His working in our lives; we have built up barriers of resistance to the Spirit and we no longer know His power or His leading in and of our lives.

Fourthly, we need to get serious about serving Him. Let’s get this straight, turning up at church is not serving God. We can only truly serve God once we have got to know Him and we can only get to know Him once we have acknowledged Him as Lord and Saviour and invited Him into our hearts.   Once we have a relationship with God, He will then lead us and show us how, when and where He wants us to serve Him. This is a big obstacle for many people because we don’t want to be told what to do. We want to be in charge and we want to make our own decisions. But it is impossible to be a Christian and be our own boss. It is impossible to serve Christ and only go where we want to go and do what we want to do. It just doesn’t work like that. He has to be in charge, He has to be number one. If we look at our lives and wonder why God has never really used us, the answer most certainly is that it is because we have not let Him! To begin with, when we were a young Christian, God tried to gently lead us, but every step of the way we thought we knew best, and now look at us, we no longer know God’s leading and our life for Him is but a pale shadow of what it could have been. But don’t despair, whether we are 18 or 80 it is not too late. All we have to do is acknowledge our sin and rededicate our lives to God, to allow Him to come into our hearts and lives and then when He asks us to do something we do it! He will never ask us to do something without helping us and giving us the power to do it. Yes it will mean leaving our comfort zones but He is with us and as St. Paul said “If God is for us who can ever be against us?” (Rom. 8:31b).

Where is our Passion? Where is our commitment?

Benjamin Kwashi, a Christian leader from Jos, Nigeria, tells the following story of how the gospel came to his part of the country:

Missionaries came to my home area of Nigeria in 1907. One of them was a man named Reverend Fox. Reverend Fox was a professor at Cambridge University, and when he arrived his walk with Christ was so deep that he led many people to Christ. He founded a church and moved about 10 kilometers away to Amper, my own hometown, and founded the church there too. How a first-class [scholar] from the University of Cambridge was communicating to illiterates, I don’t know, but God suddenly gave him favour and people were turning to Jesus Christ. So many people came to Christ that he wrote to his younger brother, who was a physician also in Cambridge, and asked him to come and help him because medical practice was needed. As his brother started the journey from England, Reverend Fox fell ill and died. Soon after his brother arrived, he also fell ill and died.

The Church Mission Society wrote to their father, who was also a pastor. When they told him he had lost two sons, he and his wife [mourned deeply], but then in their grief they did something astounding. They sold their land and property, took the proceeds to the mission society, and said, “As much as we grieve the death of our two sons, we will only be consoled if the purpose for which they died continues.” They gave that money and walked away.

Recently I looked through the profile of those two missionaries who came to my hometown. They both had first-class educations and degrees from the best universities. They died as young men—the oldest was only 32. They gave up everything to serve Jesus and bring the gospel to my country. Were they crazy? No, they had heard what Jesus had said, they believed it, and they were willing to stake their whole lives on the truth of Jesus’ words. These men wanted to end their lives well. No matter how long or short their life, it wasn’t going to be wasted, but they would invest it for eternity.[1]

Will we give up everything to serve Jesus? Are we willing to stake our whole life on the truth of Jesus’ words? Today, right now He looks us in the eye and He says “What about you, who do you say that I am?” Will we give up everything to serve Him? Today is our opportunity to say enough is enough and to stop our old selfish and insecure way of living. Today is the day to invite Him into our hearts and say ‘here I am Lord, I am Yours, I will serve You from now on for the rest of my life. You are number One.’

Let us pray together: Dear Lord Jesus, I am so sorry for my sin, for going my own way and being my own boss. I acknowledge my sin before You now … Thank you Lord that You died for me, in my place upon the cross. I give my life to You now and I invite You to come into my life, into my heart. Please use me Lord to serve you in whatever way You wish. Please lead me and guide me in Your ways, because You are the way the truth and the life. Lord I ask all this in Your precious and Holy Name … Amen.

[1] http://www.preachingtoday.com/illustrations/2014/august/3081814.html

January 18, 2013

A holy enchantment

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Nikon D7000, 35mm f1.8 G DX,  (1/250 sec, f8, ISO 400) Processed in Instagram.

It was Sunday morning.  As usual I was in a hurry to get myself ready and get out of the door, into the car and on my way to church to make it in time for the 9.00am service.  To make matters worse when I did get to the car it was coated in ice!  I quickly dashed back inside and filled a large jug with warm water to defrost the windows.  I was really running late now (or so I thought).  I drove reasonably quickly whilst taking care to be on the lookout for patches of ice on the road.  The sun was just coming over the low hills on the Eastern horizon, it was spectacular.  I had the camera in my bag and I started to think about how I would find the time to take a photo.

Much to my surprise I arrived in Timoleague in good time, I was early.  At the entrance to the village I pulled over and got out with my camera to try to get a picture of the Abbey ruins with the sun rising behind it, but there was a problem – I only had a 35mm lens, which meant that the Abbey was too far away and there would have been too much junk in the foreground of the picture – I really needed 150mm or more to get the right shot.  A voice in my head said ‘drive on, keep going’.  I got back in the car and drove to just beside the Abbey, facing the estuary, the tide was high.  I got out of the car and walked over to the water’s edge.  As I was lifting the camera to my eye I heard a flapping noise to my left; my presence had alerted a duck and he was now flying low across the water.  He came into the viewfinder and I waited until he was in just the right spot and then I pressed the shutter release.  I had my photo, but much more importantly I was now relaxed and ready for worship, my stress had gone.  Somehow in that moment by the water’s edge I connected with God, with His Creation as a means, a platform for holy enchantment.

April 30, 2012

Random Light No.7

Often the only camera I have with me is the one on my mobile phone.  Here are a few recent ‘phone’ pictures:

Something about the shadow cast by the tree with the yellow and the blue in the warm evening light caught my attention here.  Also the shadow on the lower right hand side balances the blue in the top left (or something).

After I had taken the first picture I turned around and noticed the same warm evening light glowing in the stonework of the Church.  The blue sky, fluffy clouds and crescent moon all came together and shouted ‘take my picture!’

Rows of plastic with Maize (Corn) growing underneath.  The plastic protects the young crop from the frost and then degrades gradually as the crop (which will be harvested probably in October) grows.  If you look closely at the picture, you will just see some of the new green shoots poking through the plastic.  For more info. see this link.

As a general rule in this part of the world, if it’s not raining, then it’s about to!  The view from Duneen strand, near, well not that near anywhere really…

Colourful rocks at Duneen Strand, with tufts of Sea Thrift  clinging on here and there.

April 15, 2012

Unity

Leaving a mark...

Today’s Sermon.  Text: Psalm 133.

Parents, Aunts, Uncles, Grandparents and teachers love it when the children they are looking after are getting on together. It makes life so much easier doesn’t it? When we see children sharing and caring, when they remember to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ when they use their knife and fork rather than shoveling the food into their mouths with their hands (or something they have found in the garden), it makes us happy and realise that all the hard work in trying to bring them up was actually worth it. Of course the reality is that often children are selfish and rude and forget how to behave towards each other and to grown-ups and it can often be very difficult for those who have responsibility for them.

One of the greatest privileges for those who are parents is that the actual experience of bringing up children gives them a deep insight into the relationship we all have with our heavenly Father. When confronted with a stubborn child stamping their foot and shouting ‘NO’, we hopefully realise that we too have done this sort of thing with our heavenly Parent, God! We might not have actually stamped our foot and stuck out our bottom lip, but we have been just as defiant in wanting our way rather than the right way.

As we look at the church, we remember that we are all God’s children and as such we ought to admit that we are not particularly obedient children at that; we are always bickering about this that and the other thing (and that is even within our denomination, let alone between different Christian traditions). Every way that we can let our Heavenly Father down we have and every way we could have hindered Christ’s mission, we have. Have you ever been in the supermarket and seen and heard a child screaming at their poor mother of father? Perhaps the child is lying on the floor, clutching a bag of sweets they are not allowed to have and the red-faced parent is trying in vain to be in charge. In looking at so much of the debate and dissension in the church today, are we not just like that child in the supermarket? We shout out ‘I am right, my way is best’!  Worse still, we mock our brothers and sisters who disagree with us, if not face to face, then in hushed conversation with others in the church car park, or on the pages of the Gazette or on Facebook or Twitter. Sometimes it is just heartbreaking, that whether it be between members of our own church congregation, or between different churches or between clergy there always seems to be some issue that threatens to divide and break up any kind of fellowship that we have. What does God think of all this I wonder? Perhaps our Psalm for today, Psalm 133 will help us:

How very good and pleasant it is to dwell in unity.

When we walk into a house where everyone is at each other, arguing and fighting, we can sense the atmosphere almost immediately. On the other hand, when we walk into a house where the occupants are together and at peace with one another, what a difference it makes! Isn’t it lovely to walk into a peaceful and unified home, a genuine pleasure? The context of today’s Psalm could have originated in a number of different places – perhaps it refers to the relationship between Abram and Lot in Genesis chapter 13:8, where Abram said:

Let there be no strife between you and me … for we are kindred.

Perhaps this verse refers back to tensions between the tribes of Israel or perhaps even between the sons of King David, but I don’t suppose any of that matters to us too much because it is as wonderful today when people live together in unity as it always was.

The next couple of lines are interesting, we read:

It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, Even on Aaron’s beard, running down upon the collar of his clothing.

Interesting it might be, but what on earth is it saying? You may remember the character of Aaron, as Moses’ brother, Israel’s spokesman to Pharaoh and the first high priest in Israel’s history. When Aaron was made priest, special and expensive oil was used to anoint him (and all those after him too). The oil was consecrated, which means dedicated, devoted and set apart for God. A generous amount of oil was used, hence the fact that it ran down over his beard and the collar of his robes. So how then is living together in unity like this oil? The idea is that when God’s people are unified then it is a community of people that are genuinely set apart for Him and carrying out their calling in the world. Unity, like the sacred oil, is a precious thing.

When we as brothers and sisters are living in disunity then we are set apart from God, but when we are together then we are set apart for God.

I think that there are few things that give the devil more pleasure than infighting between God’s children; it is a gift to him and a gift that we should at all costs avoid giving to him! But when we are together, when (as it were) we are all singing from the same hymn sheet, all pulling in the same direction, all playing for the same team, then wow, look at what God can do!

Next in our Psalm we read:

It is like the dew of Hermon running down upon the hills of Zion. For there the Lord has promised his blessing: even life for evermore.

Mount Hermon is a high snow-capped mountain in the north of the land. Today the region is between Syria and Lebanon. We might not think too much of dew in our green and wet climate, but if you are a farmer in an arid climate then the morning dew is crucial for the survival of vegetation during the dry season. The dew ran down the sides of the mountain and gave life to the plants round about. This then is a picture of what unity does amongst God’s people, it brings life and blessing to the church, it brings growth and a harvest. Without the water from the mountain, the plants would wither and die; without unity the church withers and dies and there is no blessing, no harvest and no future.

It is very exciting to see God at work in this Parish; I could not even begin to list the many great things He has done, they are too many to mention here. Someone recently had the idea of writing a book of people’s stories and I think that would be an excellent idea. We must not be complacent though because the enemy is constantly trying to sow seeds of disunity amongst us.  We must fiercely and jealously guard our unity. We need to pray for each other and we need to look out for each other. When someone comes at you with some gossip, ‘Did you know, so-and-so did this, and they didn’t do that,’ remember this: gossip is not harmless fun, it is evil, it destroys. Every time we say an unkind word we destroy a little bit of that person’s character and the devil gets very excited about it.

Sadly I hear a lot of gossip and I have to tell you that I hate it. I have never seen any good come from gossip, it destroys friendships and trust and unity, it is an evil thing that has no place in the life of the church where we are to dwell together in unity. We have to learn to fight each others corner, to stand up for each other, we are family! If someone or something attacks one of us, then we are all attacked, if one of us is gossiped about then all of us are gossiped about – we are one body – does a body fight itself? No! All the parts of one body work together to fight off the common enemy, and that is how we as the body of Christ should be, fighting off all that comes against us with God’s strength, which is there for us when we live together in unity. God loves it when we get on together and He will continue to bless us so long as we are.

Let us pray … Amen.

March 26, 2012

Random Light No.6

Clonakilty St. Patrick's Day 2

This is a great little shop in Clonakilty, with floor to ceiling shelves stocked with plastic things made in China!
Field sprayed with a herbicide

The field behind our house a few days after being sprayed with ‘weed killer’.  Our water supply comes from the reservoir you can see as a green mound behind the tree in the field :-(

Chocolates in English Market

Chocolates for sale in the English Market, Cork.

Church of the Immaculate Conception, Clonakilty

Church of the Immaculate Conception, Clonakilty
Cats like to read too!

Jasper the cat was interested in one of the books that the boys brought home from the library…
Moon and star

The Moon and Venus taken last night.
Lady Bird

Greenfly be very afraid!

January 12, 2012

“… so that our church does not die out with us.”

Overgrown church building

Below you will find the sermon from last Sunday as I had it printed out, (I think it came out a bit differently but anyway there was some interest in it so I thought I would post it here).  The picture above was taken at the ruins of Lislee church, near Courtmacsherry.

Text: Mark 1.4-11

A happy New Year to you all!  One thing I love about a New Year is that it is a reminder to us that God is a God of ‘new beginnings’ and that it is never too late (while there is breath in our body) to have a new start.  But of course it is not just at New Year, but all the year round that God works and He is always doing new and exciting things.

Recently I was listening to a talk by Nicky Gumbel (the man who started the Alpha course), about the church where he serves in London.  He reminisced about when he first started going there as a parishioner and how in those days there was a very small congregation and they were mostly elderly.  At their equivalent to a vestry meeting they said to the Vicar, (a chap called Sandy Miller), ‘Yes, we like traditional church services and the old language, but please do whatever you need to do so that our church does not die out with us.’  So, many changes were gradually made and one of them was to take the pews out of the church and replace them with chairs, so they could do more things with the large space.  Nicky Gumbel loves the chairs and now twenty or so years later he finds himself in a similar position to the older folk when he was young and that is to the young people of today, chairs are a hindrance and just so old-fashioned; they just want an empty floor!   The thing about chairs is that you are stuck in them and the young people love to be able to move around freely, sit in groups get up and go over to another group and so on.  So Gumbel says that even though he loves the chairs and finds it difficult when they are not there, he is willing to not have them at some of the church services for the sake of generation who are growing up in the church.

Why am I going on about this?  One reason is that I want us to start thinking a bit more about the future of the parish but mainly it is because I believe that there is a connection with our reading from Mark’s Gospel.  The Jewish people were very traditional and very stuck in their ways and it was John the Baptist’s job to wake them up.  Have you ever had someone throw a glass of cold water on your face?  Well, that is what John came to do, as Tom Wright puts it:

“John’s ministry burst in upon the surprised Jewish world.  Many had been looking for a sign from God, but they hadn’t expected it to look like this.  Many had wanted a Messiah to lead them against the Romans, but they weren’t anticipating a prophet telling them to repent”. (From Mark for Everyone, SPCK)

What did John want the people to do to be ready for Jesus?  He called them to ‘repent’, to turn around and start walking in the right direction, to wake up to God’s reality.  John wanted people to be ready for the new thing that God was doing.

While the other gospel writers give us more detail on the Lord’s baptism, Mark gets directly to the point, he tells us:

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptised by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ (v.9-11)

One striking thing here is the words of the Father, which in one translations reads:

‘You are my wonderful son; you make me very glad.‘

I don’t know what it is, but in our part of the world the relationship that fathers have with their sons is such that it is not unusual for sons to never hear things such as ‘my dear child’ or ‘I’m very pleased with you’, or even simply ‘I love you’.  I believe that these words of the Father to Jesus, the Son should be an encouragement to all of us Fathers who have sons, to follow the example given to us, to tell our sons that we love them, that we are pleased with them and how much joy they give to us and how proud we are of them.  As a father, it might be one of the most important things we ever do.

The account of Jesus’ baptism is very important not just for the relationship that we see between the Father and the Son but also their relationship with the Holy Spirit.  Now sometimes our lectionary readings come together remarkably well and today is one of them.  All of the readings show God at work doing new things by the Person, work and power of the Holy Spirit.  In the reading from Genesis chapter 1, it is the Spirit of God that broods over the chaos of the deep and breathes God’s creative life into it.  As Jesus is baptised God’s Spirit settles on Him, affirming His identity and mission.  In the reading from Acts we hear how a group of new believers break into a whole new dimension of faith as they are baptised with both water and the Holy Spirit and yes if we engage with this reading it is a bit like a wake up call, like a glass of cold water being thrown in our face.

There are of course many people today who think that Jesus was a great teacher, who gave us an important moral code and ethical guidelines as ideals to strive for, but then they leave it at that.  Jesus though is not past tense, He is alive today working with the Father and the Spirit as He always has and always will.  The option to see Him as just a good moral teacher is not enough.  He wants to do new things in us and through us.  He wants to indwell us by His Spirit so that the words of the Father to Jesus that day become the same words that He says to us.  “He sees us, not as we are in ourselves, but as we are in Jesus Christ.  It sometimes seems impossible, especially to people who have never had this kind of support from their earthly parents, but it’s true:  God looks at us, and says, ‘You are my dear, dear child; I’m delighted with you.’” (Tom Wright, Mark For Everyone)

Your Heavenly Father loves you so very much, believe it.

In a similar way to that in which the Holy Spirit brooded over the face of the deep at the dawn of Creation, so He broods over us.  God wants to breathe His new life and love into the darkened chaos of our doubts, fears and sin.  He strongly desires to cleanse us with the blood of His Son and for us to let Him in, let Him work, let Him act in us and through us.

Change is something that typically the older we get the more difficult we can find to accept, whether it be the change that God wants to work in us as individuals or change that He wants to happen in the Church.  Over the past while as I have been driving around different parts of the country I have noticed more clearly than I ever have before the number of closed church buildings there are.  Now of course we can argue that church buildings are closed because of changes in population, emigration, intermarriage, Ne Temere and so on but I think the overwhelmingly greatest reason for church closure is the refusal to pass on the gospel to the generations to come in a way that is relevant to their language and culture.  Thankfully there are many churches and parishes that have successfully passed on the gospel message to the new generations and as you know this is something that we try (with limited success to do here) but I think no one would disagree that we need to be a lot braver and less tentative about it.  God wants to do new things in you and me and I believe he wants to do new things in this church and in this parish because He does not want this church to die out with the generations represented here today.  Remember that God is a God not of endings, but of new beginnings!  Let us pray… Amen.

January 23, 2011

Unity

Light and Shadow
Today’s Sermon.  Text: 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, (Epiphany 3, Year A)

The couple of us here that are older than thirty, do you remember where you were and what you were doing in 1989 when you heard the news of the Berlin wall coming down?  I remember listening to my radio late into the night as news reporters standing by the wall described the events as they unfolded, the emotion, the sheer joy that was all around.  As sledgehammers were taken to the wall and big chunks of the graffiti-clad concrete crumbled, interviews were taking place with people who were so excited and overjoyed at the prospect of being reunited with family and friends from whom they had been separated for decades.  There was a time when the collapse of Communism in Europe seemed an impossibility; the ‘Cold War’ seemed as if it would go on for ever and yet, the impossible happened…

Look at the church today.  There are more divisions than we could number, divisions between East and West, between North and South, divisions that are new and many that are old, and every single one is because of human greed and power struggles and that rather unfashionable word, sin.

People are the same today as they always were, that is why we can look at the church in Corinth in AD 55 and learn from their mistakes, because exactly the same mistakes are being made today.  The church in Corinth resembled the society in which she lived.  Corinth was a divided city: there were rich and poor, slave and free, educated and uneducated, Jew and Gentile.  The church should have been different, a place where every one of these different groups could come together, with Christ as the common ground between them, but this was not the case.  The Christians had taken their eyes off Christ and had instead become obsessed with the differences that there were between them.[1]

So in today’s reading from 1 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul writes:

Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose. (10)

He appeals to them, he pleads with them, he calls them his brothers and sisters in Christ.  They are all part of the same family – for heaven’s sake!

Division is a tragedy.  At the time I was writing this sermon I was also following on the news the unravelling of our government.  In some ways, watching and listening to all the infighting and power struggles has been so ridiculous it has been almost funny, like a pantomime – perhaps it would be more funny if it were not so serious, these are the people we have elected!  Yet it is not only our politicians who are sometimes a laughing stock, how many times has the church been in the spotlight of the cold eye of ridicule “look at those Christians fighting with each other, I thought they were supposed to be full of love!”  Because of the kind of world we live in we can be absolutely sure that news will travel far and fast when we fall out with each other, the world loves to make fun of Christians and yet time after time it is our own fault that we are seen as weak hypocrites.  It was the same in Corinth.  Paul was in Ephesus, hundreds of kilometres away across the Aegean Sea and yet long before the days of Telephones, T.V. or Twitter, news got to him about what was happening in Corinth.  Look at verse 11:

For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters.

Bad news travels fast.  The Apostle Paul had spent eighteen months in Corinth, but since he had left the church had split up into various groups.  One group were loyal to Paul, another group were followers of a preacher called Apollos, another group were followers of Cephas (the Apostle Peter) and another group thought they were superior to the rest saying that they followed Christ.  Paul goes on to tell them how completely absurd and foolish this is:

Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (13)

Christ died so that all who believe in Him might not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).  There is only one Christ, not one Christ for Protestants and another Christ for Roman Catholics, not one Christ for Eastern Orthodox and another for Pentecostals, not one Christ for the Church of Ireland and another for every Community Church, Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Quaker and Mennonite!  There is only one Christ, so the logical conclusion is this: there is only one church.  That’s right, there is only one church.  Every Christian in Corinth, despite their differences had one thing in common.  Every Christian today, despite our differences, has one thing (or rather One Person) in common.  Christ.  How can division be allowed to remain when we all belong to the same Christ?  How can we have doctrine and theology, laws, articles and canons that divide God’s people up, putting the sheep in different pens?  Not only is it crazy, it is sinful and how God must hate and detest the barriers that we have put up.  We have lost sight of Christ and we have focused on our differences and that is the reason why so much of the church today is dead or dying.  What did Jesus say?

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.  If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned…” (John 15:5,6, NIV)

In this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity[2], Christians all around the world “become aware of the great diversity of ways of adoring God. Hearts are touched, and people realize that their neighbours’ ways are not so strange.”  When we take our eyes off those things that divide us and together focus on Christ, it is something very profound, special and exciting.  I hope that as time goes on we will be able to do more and more together with our brothers and sisters in Christ that worship elsewhere within this Parish and that in time the differences between us will diminish to the point that we can no longer remember what they were!  When we look back a generation or two and see how far we have come, there is much to give us hope for the future.

At first glance it seems a bit strange that verse 18 is tacked onto the end of today’s reading because it clearly belongs to the next section.  But with church Unity in mind, it is the perfect verse to end with.  Here’s what it says:

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

As far as the Apostle Paul is concerned, there is only one dividing line between people, the cross of Christ.  Many of us like to sit on the fence about different things; about politics, about religion or sport.  But there is no sitting on the fence when it comes to the cross of Christ, either we are with Christ or we are against Him (Mark 9:40).  The Corinthians were supposed to be in agreement about the cross, and if they were then all the other human-made differences would have melted away.  The same is true of the church today, the cross should be the only dividing line between those who put their faith and trust in Christ and those who do not.

Being much concerned about the rise of denominations in the church, John Wesley told of a dream he had. In the dream, he was ushered to the gates of Hell. There he asked, “Are there any Presbyterians here?” “Yes!” came the answer. Then he asked, “Are there any Baptists? Any Anglicans? Any Methodists?” The answer was Yes! each time. Much distressed, Wesley was then ushered to the gates of Heaven. There he asked the same question, and the answer was No! “No?” To this, Wesley asked, “Who then is inside?” The answer came back, “There are only Christians here.”[3]

Wouldn’t it be great if one day someone would say to us, “Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when the walls of division within the church came down, the day when we finally realised that we were one in Christ?” One day it will happen … Amen.


[1] Roger Ellsworth, ‘The message of 1 Corinthians’, Evangelical Press, 1995, p.22

[2] http://tinyurl.com/6zdbabb

January 16, 2011

Corinth, a perfect Church?

"The Split Rock" Easkey, Co. Sligo Sermon from 1 Corinthians 1:1-9

Probably all of us have been frustrated with the church at one time or another.  It may well be that the God-given gifts which we have are not being given the opportunity to be used.  Maybe someone has said something to us that hurts or maybe we are feeling ignored and left out of things.  There is no such thing in this life as the ‘perfect church’, every church has its faults and problems because it is made up of imperfect people – forgiven and redeemed people yes, but nevertheless far from perfect.

As we sigh and get frustrated with the fact that we are part of an imperfect church we can draw much support and encouragement from the Scriptures, especially the letters written to the early churches, and there was perhaps no church in need of more help than the one in the city of Corinth.

This ancient city was a major centre for trade in its day and it was a mix of many different people, religions and cultures.  The Apostle Paul had been there around about 50 AD during his second missionary journey and with the help of Priscilla and Aquilla had set up the church there over eighteen months or so, (quite an achievement given the type of place it was).  Perhaps not surprisingly the young church had its fair share of problems, which Paul deals with in the letters we have today of 1 and 2 Corinthians.  Divisions appeared in the church between the stronger and weaker members, those with money and power in society and those without, those that had great oratory skill and those that were less well educated.  There were problems too with sexual immorality and social snobbery.  On top of all this, they had little understanding of Christian marriage and their worship services were lacking in order and discipline.

You would have thought that with the church in such a mess, the Apostle Paul would get immediately stuck in, but he doesn’t, he actually starts off with a lovely greeting and then for the rest of today’s reading he tells them just how thankful to God he is for these Corinthian Christians.

Look at verse two.  Paul writes:

To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints…

To be ‘Sanctified’ means to be cleansed and set apart for God.  This is done through the Lord Jesus, for there is no cleansing apart from Him.  Yes the people had been sanctified by the blood of Christ but they were still not living their lives for Christ as they ought.  The church is supposed to be a physician, there to help heal the sickness of society, but what can a doctor do if he or she is suffering from the same sickness as those they are trying to cure?[1] This was the case with the Corinthians – they hadn’t yet been able to be fully free from their previous way of living and this was killing off their ability to act as effective witnesses for Christ.  Remember that the Lord called his disciples to be salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16); salt to arrest the contamination of the world around us and light to shine God’s truth and love to dispel the darkness of this world.  But just like the church today, the Corinthians were swept away by the twin tides of contamination and confusion.  Just like so much of the church today the Corinthians were paralysed by moral laxity and doctrinal uncertainty.  This is why the Apostle Paul was writing to them and that is why this letter is perfectly preserved, because we need it just as much in the church today.

In the nine verses that make up our reading, the Lord Jesus’ name is mentioned nine times – why?  Simple, because He is the answer to the problem.  To use a sporting metaphor, the Corinthians had taken their eye off the ball, meaning they had taken their eyes off Christ, and to do so is to fail and fall.  We need to keep our eyes fixed on Christ, He should be our first thought in the morning and our last at night and his name should be continually on our lips and for ever present in our minds.  He is the way the truth and the life, He should be everything to us because without him there is no hope for us, we are totally reliant and dependent upon Him for our salvation and without Him we are nothing.  So in verse two we see that He sanctifies His followers, then we see that His followers are called to be saints.  Saints are not just super-Christians, the heroes of the faith, Saints is a similar word to Sanctified in the Greek, it means ‘holy people’.  Anyone who has invited Jesus into their life has been set aside by God as a holy person, and because they are a holy person they need to reflect their masters holiness.

There is a word in verses 3 and 4 which helps all this to make sense.  First of all though think about this; have you ever heard the phrase ‘that’s not very Christian’?  It is usually directed at someone who claims to be a follower of Jesus that has done something wrong.  I’ve had it said to me a few times, especially when I was a new believer and I was constantly talking about what Jesus had done in my life and annoying a few people as a result!  They would look for every opportunity to show me up as a hypocrite, which was an easy task!  None of us are perfect, none of us deserve the love that God shows us through Christ, none of us has any right at all to think of ourselves as better than anyone else.  What’s that word I was talking about, sure you know it:

GRACE

There are lots of definitions of grace, one of my favourite is by Bono,[2]

“Grace makes beauty out of ugly things”

Because of our sin, we are ‘ugly things’ but the beautiful thing that Christ has done has changed us and will go on changing us more and more into the likeness of his image (2 Cor. 3:18)

By ourselves, none of us are very ‘Christian’ because all of us have fallen short of God’s standard (Rom.3:23) so that is why Christ came and that is why the Apostle Paul mentions Christ’s name so much because Christ died and Christ rose again for the Corinthians and for you and for me.

We were heading for death, but Christ has given us life.  The very second you gave your life to Christ (if indeed you have done so) God set you apart and made you holy.  God has fulfilled His side of the bargain, He has declared us to be Holy, through the Person and work of Christ, now we have to act Holy, we have to live our lives set apart, Holy lives; not cut off from the world, but in the world, as salt and as light.  We are holy in God’s eyes already, so we need to be what we already are![3]

[4]For 11 years a lady by the name of Mary Leonard has dealt with polymyositis, a rare inflammatory tissue disease that invades the muscles. There is no known cause or cure.

Mary’s case turned deadly when the disease invaded her heart. In fact, last March, Mary was told by doctors that she had 24-48 hours to live. But after 20 days in a hospice centre, another 51 days in rehab, and a number of days at home, Mary is still alive. She’s now reflecting on the changes that take place when you learn your time is short.

“I call myself an average Christian,” Mary says. “I don’t know exactly why God has done this for me, but I do know that life looks different now.”

Mary offers five life lessons she learned through the ordeal:

1. Know that prayer is powerful.

2. Mend fences now.  [Mend your relationships as best you can]

3. Release the reins of life to God.

4.  Know that God is able—more than able.

5.  Put your focus on what really matters.

All of us could benefit by being told that we had just two days left to live.  Imagine if everyone in the church was told the same – oh how those problems would just melt away!  Denominations – who would care? Theological differences, what would they matter?  When death is staring you in the face there is only one thing, or rather one Person that matters. Jesus.  If we could live like that all the time, the church would very different, and so would we… Amen.


[1] Metaphor from Roger Ellsworth, ‘The message of 1 Corinthians’, Evangelical Press, 1995, p.11

[3] ‘Closer to God’ Bible notes vol. 13, p.57 Scripture Union, 2002