Trinity XIII

Well, after a blog absence of over a year (!) you must be wondering what on earth is going on here.  I’m back again writing?!  Who I am kidding – noone is actually reading but I am actually writing.

One thing I am really feeling in my life at the moment is the need to preach again.  I used to preach quite a bit at our old church, but since leaving there around a year ago I haven’t preached once.  The opportunity has not really arisen at our new church.  Also, being an Anglican church those who preach are essentially all clergy or at least Lay Readers.  (What I need to do to preach in church is another thing, of course…)  We’re also blessed with a lot of clergy in the parish (although no incumbent or priest in charge) and Lay Readers so there are plenty of people to preach.

So, no pulpit…or lectern from which to preach.  However, I can use my blog to collect my thoughts as I would for a sermon, and I hope you’ll indulge me in doing so!  It really is a written reflection, rather than exactly what I might say, but the thoughts are probably the same.  As seems fitting, I thought I would use the weekly lectionary texts as the basis for my thoughts.  Much easier than having to choose a text each week, and much less danger of just choosing favourite passages.

Despite my best intentions, it is now 2330 on Saturday evening, so if I were a jobbing priest or preacher this would really be very last minute for a Sunday morning sermon.  But, it’s been a hectic week.  I also gain a certain degree of perverse pleasure thinking about the number of others also writing their sermons at the last minute on a Sunday evening!  This will really be a collection of random thoughts I’ve had about the passage(s) this week rather than anything rounded at all, so do forgive me in advance.

The texts for Trinity XIII are Deuteronomy 4.1-2 & 6-9; Psalm 15; James 1.17-27; and Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23.  I only really have time to consider the gospel passage, although I think the pairing with the Deuteronomy passage and that particular Psalm is a little ironic.  The prohibition of lending money at interest in Psalm 15 should also be food for thought for, well, just about anybody.  Every had a credit card?  Ever had a mortgage?  Work in the financial industry?  How do you deal with Psalm 15?  Really not enough time!  (Now 2335…and I must hit the sack at midnight).

So, the gospel…
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’ He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
“This people honours me with their lips,
   but their hearts are far from me; 
 in vain do they worship me,
   teaching human precepts as doctrines.” 
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’
Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’
[…]For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’A slightly odd chopping up of Mark 7, but that is what has been put in the lectionary!

What is all this business about excessive hand- and pot-washing all about?  Yet again Jesus and the strict set of the scribes and Pharisees seem to come into conflict with one another, and again over something which seems fairly trivial on the surface.  Yes, washing your hands before eating is the hygienic thing to do, but not worth arguing about surely?!  Well, it goes a little bit deeper than that I think.

Firstly, it’s worth noting that Jesus did not attack the practices of the Pharisees directly.  It only became an issue for him when they (the Pharisees) started questioning the behaviour of Jesus’ disciples.  Through that they were really having a go at Jesus himself.  “If the pupils are doing this or that, it must have come from the instruction or example of the master…”  It is when the Pharisees in effect ask why the disciples are not behaving like good people of God that Jesus’ anger is provoked.  He calls out the Pharisees’ obsession with external cleanliness as a mere human tradition which pays lip service to God but shows how empty their hearts are of true affection for God or his people.

The issue with washing of hands and vessels goes way beyond simply wanting to be clean, and to avoid food poisoning!  Whole swathes of the Old Testament are devoted to discussions of what sort of things make a person unclean, how long it makes them unclean for, and how to ritually wash to make oneself clean again.  Unclean things include pigs, lepers, dead bodies, menstruating women, bodily discharges etc.  The Law in the Torah clearly demarks who is “clean” and who is “unclean” and therefore “untouchable”.  Those outside and those inside the lines of acceptability.  The Pharisees in Jesus’ time would have been washing themselves ritually to decontaminate themselves after having touched the wrong sort of people.

Jesus in this passage, and in his behaviour throughout his ministry recorded in the gospels roundly criticises this.  Think Jesus touching lepers, touching dead bodies or at least being in close proximity to them (Lazarus, Jairus’s daughter), being touched by the woman who had been bleeding for years.  Jesus says that no more should people be made untouchable outcasts.  Yet again the message of Jesus is a radically inclusive one.  You might have read in the Scriptures that to touch a leper makes you unclean, but look this Jesus character is happy to touch a leper and then pronounce that they are healed and their sins forgiven.  Who does he think he is?!  Who is he?!  What gives him the right to do this for God’s sake?!

It sometimes feels that the church hasn’t moved on very far from the attitudes of the Pharisees in this story.  People don’t tend to worry so much about ritual washing and cleanliness, but there are some groups of people that the church is very uncomfortable associating with – drug addicts, alcoholics, the gay community and others deemed to be sexually “other”.  There are those within the church who worry that other’s perceived sin might rub off on them if they get too close.  They need to stay clean.  They cannot be contaminated.

There is another sense in which the church indulges in this sort of Pharasaism.  That is in terms of what beliefs are and aren’t acceptable.  The church is hugely fond of saying to others “Why do you not behave in accordance with our tradition?”  “Why do you not do what it clearly states in the bible?”  Laying aside questions of exactly what IS part of tradition, and exactly what the bible DOES say, this sort of behaviour looks very questionable in view of this passage from Mark.

Any time the church says “Why are you not like us?  Why do you not believe what we do?  You must be like us and do what we do in order to be a Christian, or to be a good Christian” it is falling into an ages old trap.  This is not the time and place to discuss right beliefs or practices (and at 2358 I must go to bed!), but there is something inherently problematic in an attitude which looks at others and asks them to justify themselves.  This applies to all: conservatives, liberals, progressives, evangelicals, progressives, whoever.

It seems far more consistent with the message of Jesus that we should be looking at ourselves and asking difficult questions of ourselves instead.  What do you think?

[And at midnight I’m calling it a day, or night, or whatever, without quite getting round to the next bits of the passage]

The deadly sin of pride

Here are the notes from the sermon I preached a couple of weeks ago. (My first attempt at not reading from a script, so you may not be able to get the whole gist of it…


1 Seven deadly sins

2 Pride

3 Childhood

• “Take pride in your appearance”. School: “take pride in your work”. Handwriting…
• Not the same as the sin of pride. Opposite of carelessness.
• Confusing as word can refer to a virtue or a vice.
• Actually originates from a Latin word meaning to be useful. We’re not concerned today with the virtuous meaning.
• Maybe also to recognise that when we were children we thought as children, but now it is time to lay aside our childish ways.

4 Pride manifests itself in many ways

• Pride in physical appearance. Classical view. Vanity. Vainglory. Not too concerned.
• Pride in possessions. Defining yourself by what you own. c/f Greed, so leave for another day. What does our Church have pride in? Buildings? Heard this morning about the level of poverty in the world. Only when we have nothing can we realise that God is everything.
• Pride in own abilities. More interesting. Western world is so well educated, so able to fend for itself that reliance on God is lost.
• Pride in own views and opinions. What I’m really thinking of as the sin of pride. Otherwise called Spiritual Pride.
o Pride that says “I know best, not my parents” “I know best, not my wife” “I know best, not my Minister” “I know best, not my God”
o We value our own opinions so highly, can never see others’ points of view.
o End up valuing our own position and view over God’s. Denominations fighting.
o STORY – Richard Rugg on gap year.
o This is the accusation we must make against the proud: “Just because you’re you, it doesn’t mean that you are right”
o This is the form of pride which means we never back down from our positions in arguments.
o Don’t want to lose face.
o [Dare I say that this is the form of pride which says “We have made a decision, and now we are going to make it right…”]

5 Pride extremely dangerous – 1

• Constant reverence of own opinions, beliefs and abilities naturally leads to SELF WORSHIP.
• Danger of this cannot be emphasized.
• This is idolatry! The most heinous sin for the Jewish people, and hence Jesus.
• The first two of the ten commandments from Exodus 20:
o “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

• These idols include us!
• Danger for those in the church. STORY from Tony Campolo (p.79, 3rd para)

6 Pride extremely dangerous – 2

• Pride also extremely dangerous, as it leads to delusion. Delusion that we don’t sin and delusion that we don’t need to repent.
• STORY of Spurgeon.
• We are all slothful, lustful, quick to anger, envious, gluttonous and greedy, but unless we can recognize that we are also proud, we can never conquer those sins.
• Again, the danger cannot be emphasized.
• From John’s first letter:

o “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”

7 What to do?

• The way to conquer pride is humility.
• Recognize that the only thing that makes us wonderful is not how clever we are, how much money we earn, what sort of clothes we wear, but how much God loves us. Wonderful Richard Rohr quote “God loves us, not because we are good, but because he is good!”
• Nothing we can do to make God love us any more than he already does.
• Follow the example of Christ. Bible reading last week about Christ humbling himself as a slave and suffering death, even death on a cross.
• What about Jesus’ baptism? The one who doesn’t need to repent of any sins undergoes baptism. John objects. But Jesus, as our representative shows us what we need to do.
• Even if we THINK we don’t need to repent of our sins, we do, because the One who was without sin went ahead of us and showed us the way to go through the waters of Baptism.


• Luke talked last week about the process of sanctification, the process of allowing God’s Holiness to somehow rub off on us, infecting us with his Holiness.
• Orthodox church: threefold path of sanctification.
• First step is catharsis. A clearing away of things standing between us and God, so that we may grow in His light.
• What we might call repentance.
• Step even before this is overcoming our pride and recognizing we have a need for catharsis, a need for repentance.
• Are we prepared to be honest with ourselves?

Last night’s sermon

Here’s my text for last night’s sermon. The subject was “Visions of the Temple”. I think I was more worried about this than any other I’d preached before, because it’s a topic I find very interesting, and I was concerned that other people wouldn’t be at all interested. There was a bit more of me invested in this sermon than others perhaps. I wasn’t sure it had come across particularly well, but a number of people afterwards said they’d found it interesting. I’m glad my fears were groundless. Onwards…

Visions of the temple


This evening series, the Road to Emmaus has been looking at some of the broad themes running through the Bible and thinking about how we might encounter Jesus through the whole narrative of the Bible, and in our walk through life.

How do these slightly bizarre visions we’ve heard read relate to each other, and how do they relate to Jesus’ place in the Biblical narrative?

The Temple (in Jerusalem or elsewhere) is not something we think of very often in our lives today, and probably quite rarely in connection with Christian theology.

Think of the temple mount in Jerusalem, far more likely to think about conflict between Jews and Muslims.

The two passages describing visions of the temple both need some understanding of the temple background of the text. This temple worldview would have been very familiar to the first disciples of Christ, who would have worshipped there with Jesus when he was alive and listened to Him teaching there every day. We also read that the disciples continued worshipping there after Jesus’ death both at the end of Luke’s gospel and the beginning of Acts.

What is the temple?


So, what is a temple and what was done there? The references to the temple are not simply to “a” temple, to any old temple dedicated to any god, but to “the” temple, the principle Hebrew place of worship of YHWH the God of Israel.

Not strictly “one” temple structure, there have been several.

– First temple “structure” was the tabernacle built by Moses according to a design received in a vision from God. Moveable with nomadic people.
– Then the First Temple of Solomon, whose design was given to David in a vision. People had homeland and permanent temple.
– First temple then destroyed around the time of the exile in Babylon.
– During the exile in Babylon, Ezekiel has his vision of a new temple.
– A Second Temple was built after the return from the exile (although not specifically to the design envisioned by Ezekiel).
– Second temple destroyed by the Romans around AD70.
– Then in Revelation we get allusions to the temple. Although John says “I saw no temple in the city”, it’s not quite as simple as that, and we’ll revisit that later.

What was the purpose of the temple?


From the tabernacle, through the first and second temples and in the temple in Ezekiel’s vision it’s clear that the temple was the place where JHWH, the LORD dwelt on earth – we heard that in the third Ezekiel passage. Not that GOD was limited to the temple, but it was where the cloud and fire rested, it was where the glory of the LORD was, it was a special place of GOD’s presence.


The temple was divided into several parts, and the innermost part, the Holy of Holies, was a central room as tall as it was wide and as high as it was wide – a perfect cube covered entirely with gold. And it was in this innermost place, the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant and the Throne that the LORD was believed to reside. This central part was separated from the rest of the temple by doors, or a veil of fabric. So the glory of the LORD was hidden to some extent by this veil.


The temple was the place where sacrifices were offered by the priests. These sacrifices in some way got rid of the uncleanness and sin which damaged the covenant between God and the people of Israel. The most important day of sacrifice was Yom Kippur, the day of atonement where atonement was made for the nation’s sins. On that most important day of sacrifice, the day of atonement, the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies, into what was believed to be GOD’s very presence. There the High Priest would make a sacrifice, then bring the blood through the veil between the Holy of Holies and the rest of the temple to sprinkle about the temple. This atonement would bring healing for the damage done to the convenant between God and Israel.

This idea of sacrificial blood coming forth from the Holy of Holies and being sprinkled to restore the covenant bond with GOD points so strongly to the work of Christ on the cross, it can’t be ignored. Revisit this later.

What are these visions about?

Having thought about the temple context behind these passages, let’s look more specifically at them.


Ezekiel’s vision of the restored temple would have taken place during the exile in Babylon. Solomon’s first temple had been destroyed, and the Jewish people forcibly removed from their homeland. Those two most important tangible possessions of the Jewish people, land and the temple, had gone. Ezekiel’s vision is one of restoration for the people in exile, with God at the heart of it. This vision is not limited to the temple itself, but goes on to map out the whole nation of Israel restored, but with the temple and God at the very heart.


The Revelation passage comes right at the end of that book. Again, it is a very hopeful vision after some of the scenes that have come before. The book was written at a time of great persecution of the early Christian community, and again the vision promises restoration and the triumph of God.

Both of these visions are hopeful visions.

Visions for God’s plan on earth


I think in both visions we see that the plans God has for us are on the earth. The new temple in Ezekiel appears on earth. And in Revelation, the New Jerusalem comes down from heaven to earth. It is not a case of God’s chosen people being whisked away to paradise and the earth being abandoned by God.

As we heard in one of Luke’s talks earlier in this series, the message of Jesus is that the Kingdom of God is near, near to you here on earth. Jesus’ message was not that we should put all our hope in being spared the horrors of this earth when we die, but that God’s Kingdom is here amongst us, and that we have work to do in it. These passages tell us that God has not given up on the earth, he has plans for the earth.

So often the book of Revelation is read in a way that would encourage us to abandon the earth. If the world is about to end, why care about the environment? If God is planning to destroy the earth why care about poverty or climate change or justice? If things are only going to get worse and worse until all ends in a cosmic conflict between the forces of Darkness and Light, why waste effort on peace-making, diplomacy, dialogue? This passage of Revelation surely tells us that destruction is not God’s intention, but renewal, liberation and new creation for the earth.

Timeless visions


Both passages seem to be referring to a point in the future – to a future restoration of the Temple in Ezekiel, and to the end of the world in Revelation. And of course, in a way that is true – we do believe that God’s work begun in Christ is heading to a point of fulfilment.

However, I think that it can be too limiting only reading these passages in the light of the future. We are often restricted by our own understandings of the working of time that we can’t see that God might be beyond the dimension of time, God is not limited by the forward flow of time we experience. In God’s realm, the concept of past, present and future is meaningless as all are One in Him.

In Revelation 21, for example, the voice from the throne says “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.” It sounds like this is referring to some point in the future when God will dwell with us… But, as we approach the season of Advent and Christmas, surely we must think that God has dwelt with us in the form of Jesus. Emmanuel, God with us. And thinking of Pentecost and the Holy Spirit, we believe that God is still with us by His Spirit. And yes, we do believe that God will finally work His purposes out and “Christ will come again”.

So as well as promising future hope, these passages can also apply to the past and present, telling us that God has been working his purposes out from the beginning of Creation, and continues to work them out today.

Why no temple in the later vision?



Hopefully the similarities between the Ezekiel passage and the Revelation passage were obvious from the way they were interspersed – both visions, both guided by angels with measuring reeds, both describe cities and temples, the LORD is present there, and streams of water flow from the temple/city.

The key departure in Revelation from Ezekiel is that John “saw no temple in the city” of New Jerusalem. This doesn’t mean that there was no temple at all, but John says there was no temple building located in the city itself. The New Jerusalem was described as having length, height and width all equal – a perfect cube. The city is made of pure gold. This takes us right back to the temple – the perfect cube covered in gold, the Holy of Holies, the dwelling place of God! God and the Lamb are present in the Holy City, and the temple is where God dwells, so the holy city is itself the temple. In this vision, God is no longer confined to a part of a temple for the service of one people, but the light of God and the lamb fill the New Jerusalem, the new creation, providing light for the nations. As well as a foretelling of the final times, again this points to our present: Christ revealed as the light to lighten the Gentiles, not restricted to the Jewish people.

Why has the vision of the new restored city developed from Ezekiel to John?


A fundamental change has occurred in the 600 or so years between Ezekiel’s vision and John’s. That change is the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Christ. And Christ’s life and death can also be viewed in terms of the Temple, and probably would have been by his disciples. St Paul takes this view even further, likening the early church itself as the temple in which the Spirit of God resides.

Jesus in the Gospels identifies himself very strongly with the temple, God’s dwelling place on earth. In John’s Gospel, just after driving the money lenders from the Temple in Jerusalem, Jesus is asked for a sign. He answers them “’Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days? But he was speaking of the temple of his body”

Just as the glory of the LORD in the Temple was veiled in the Holy of Holies, so Christ was also veiled in his human bodily form. You might think about this when you’re singing Christmas carols in a few weeks’ time – one particular line in Hark the Herald Angels Sing “Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see, Hail th’Incarnate Deity”.

In the manner of Christ’s death, we also see images of temple sacrifice leading to atonement of sins, with Christ as both perfect sacrifice and perfect High Priest fulfilling the rite of atonement in the temple of his body once and for all. The covenant with God is restored in Christ’s blood. At the moment of Christ’s death, the temple veil is torn in two, the Holy of Holies in the temple is revealed – confirming Christ was indeed God’s dwelling place on earth, and that the Kingdom of God is amongst us and cannot be contained.

God’s plans involve healing


I’ve already mentioned that these visions in Ezekiel and Revelation are hopeful visions of renewal. They are also visions of healing from God.

In both passages there is a river flowing from the temple or the city. Beside the river in the Ezekiel vision are all kinds of trees whose fruit is for food, and whose leaves are for healing. In the Revelation vision, growing by the river is the tree of life producing twelve types of fruit, and whose leaves are for the healing of the nations. God’s ultimate plan is for the healing of all nations.

There is judgement along the way (as we read elsewhere in Revelation), but that judgement is not the same as condemnation. It is part of a process of reconciliation, making things right, healing and recreation.

The image of the tree draws us back again to the crucifixion. It is by that tree, the cross, that healing can be brought to the nations. It is by that tree, and the atonement sacrifice made on it that atonement or healing can be brought to the world. And the river of water flowing from the city and temple might remind us of the water flowing from Christ’s side pierced with the spear. Jesus, who also described himself as the living waters.

So what I would emphasize is that the future (as well as the past and the present) in God’s grand plan is bright. It is hopeful. The theologian Brian Mclaren puts it beautifully when he says that the Book of Revelation shows that the “future is undoomed – it is undoomed to eventual healing and joy, undoomed to ultimate liberation, resurrection and (in the fullest sense of the word) salvation, because the living God will never foresake or forget this beloved creation”


Sermon from Sunday 22 #



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This is my Sermon from last Sunday…

Salt and Light – Character and Calling


Passage in context

SLIDE?  Che Guevara


I wonder what you would do if you were starting a revolution?  Perhaps you would attempt to seize control of the centres of power – police stations, military bases, command centres.  Or perhaps you would hijack key pieces of infrastructure – set up roadblocks on key roads, take over newspaper companies and television and radio broadcasting centres. 


What about standing up on a hillside and telling people the way it really was?  The way the world really operated, the Truth?  Simply telling people what your agenda for change was, without any show of force, any pomp, or any well thought out propaganda?


Well, you don’t hear about too many revolutions starting that way nowadays.  In fact you don’t hear about much happening nowadays without propaganda, spin, or media coverage, but this is exactly how Christ’s ministry begins here in St Matthew’s account of the Gospel.


SLIDE?  Christ as Che


And it is no exaggeration to call this beginning revolutionary.  The passage from St Matthew’s gospel we heard earlier follows immediately after the Beatitudes, some of the best known and best loved sayings of Jesus.  But they are also some of the most controversial and revolutionary.  And what makes them so revolutionary is that they are so unexpected.  The Jews in Jesus’ time were a people suffering under Roman occupation, eagerly awaiting the long-foretold Messiah who would throw off the shackles of oppression and drive the Romans from the promised land.


But instead of a call to arms we are met with “Blessed are the meek”, “Blessed are the merciful”, “Blessed are the peacemakers”.  This turns upside down the views of the Jews expecting a warrior Messiah who would come with a sharp sword in his hand, not a sharp word from his mouth.


This account of Christ’s first public ministry in Matthew closely mirrors that in Luke, where Jesus reads from the scroll of Isaiah in the temple:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. “.

Both of these beginnings have strong themes of justice running through them.  They turn the world upside down from the way the world wants to be.  For surely we still see this today?  We do not live in a world that favours the poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed.  Rather, the world loves money, greed, pride, doing as well for yourself as you can without concern for others.  And what about the Beatitudes?  The meek, the peacemakers, the merciful, the poor in Spirit?  No, the world favours strong characters, who never doubt themselves, who are strong enough to defend themselves.  The world thrives on the proceeds of war, we live in what we are told is a competitive market – everyone competing for themselves, often without thought of who they have to tread on to get there!


How wary we as Christians need to be of heeding those Beatitudes today.

Christ’s mission for his disciples

SLIDE?  Christ sending out disciples?


The verses we have heard about salt and light are direct words of Christ to his first disciples (as well as to the larger gathered crowd).  These verses, together with those that precede and follow them set out Christ’s plans for them, and in much more detail than the often-quoted Great Commission verses.  This sermon on the mount is a very practical, hands on piece of preaching. 


Matthew Henry’s commentary says this:  “It is a practical discourse; there is not much of the credenda of Christianity in it – the things to be believed, but it is wholly taken up with the agenda – the things to be done.”


Throughout the sermon Christ sets out how operate in God’s Kingdom.  Who is blessed in God’s kingdom, what roles the disciples will play, how the Law and the prophets should be regarded in the kingdom, how we should love in the kingdom, how we should share our wealth in the kingdom, how we should pray in the form of the Lord’s prayer.  There is very little doctrine in the sermon: no expounding the Trinity, for example; no discussion of the place of faith or grace.  Not that these things aren’t important – they are – but they are not discussed here in Christ’s first sermon – his agenda, his manifesto if you like.


SLIDE?  Picture of “ordinary” people?


And of course Christ’s plans for his first disciples are his plans for us too.  The baton of discipleship has been passed down for almost two millenia, and these words of Christ in Matthew 5: 16-18 (and the whole of the Sermon on the Mount) hold as much meaning for us now as they did for the first disciples. 


It must have been humbling for those first disciples, simple fishermen being called by the Son of God to change the world with him!  However insignificant we may feel we are, how humbling that Christ wants us to join him in changing the world now.


Mission in the world

SLIDE?  Picture of the earth from space?


Before turning to look in more detail at the themes of salt and light, it is worth thinking about the scope of Christ’s mission.  The earth, the world.  The WHOLE WORLD – this is not some local movement confined only to Judea, or to any particular “religious” class of people.  No, Christ’s call on us as salt and light is to be the salt of the earth, and the light of the world.  Not just the light of Elm Road, or Beckenham, or Christianity, but the world.


The Sermon on the Mount makes it clear throughout that God and Christ have a plan for this world.  Every time we say the Lord’s Prayer we say the words “may thy kingdom come, may thy will be done ON EARTH as it is in heaven”.  Christ’s message to his disciples is not that they should mourn this world and eagerly await their deaths when they will be whisked away to paradise.  No, the Sermon on the Mount is a very earthy message concerned with this life, and this world.  And I think this is what Jim and Julia mean when they talk about their vision of this church as a church that looks outward, rather than a church that looks inward.


We must also remember that what we have from Christ is not for our benefit alone – we are meant to be in the world, and to fundamentally change the world by being there.  One of my favourite passages of the Bible is Genesis 12 where God blesses Abraham to be a blessing.  That is, to be a blessing to others.  Christ, the servant King’s primary call on our lives is to serve.


So in what manner are we supposed to serve?  This brings us back to salt and light.

Salt of the earth

 SLIDE?  Salt?


“You are the salt of the earth…”


When we describe someone now as being the “salt of the earth” the English phrase has come to mean someone having good character.   It is no different when Christ uses the phrase to describe his disciples (and us).  But what character is being described?


It is certainly a passage which requires some interpretation.  If anyone tells you that no interpretation of the Bible is required, perhaps you can challenge them to tell you what this passage means without interpretation! 


There are many different possible interpretations for the salt of the earth.  Let’s look at three of them, all drawn from the Hebrew Bible, what we would now call the Old Testament.  These texts, or texts like them, would have been known to Jesus and his listeners and the understanding of salt for his disciples could have originated from these sacred texts.



CLICK – bulletpoint


Leviticus 2:13 requires salt to be offered with all grain-offerings to the Lord.  This passage also refers to the salt as the salt of the covenant, as does Numbers 18:19.  Again in 2 Chronicles 13:5 the covenant between the Lord and David was described as a covenant of salt.  So a first possible meaning of salt is one of endurance.  The covenants between God and his people were everlasting, enduring covenants.


So, the first disciples were called to have an enduring character, as are we.  It’s not too hard to see why an enduring spirit might be needed to join Christ’s mission to liberate the captives, feed the hungry, and see the merciful, the meek, and the peacemakers blessed.  Nearly 2000 years after Christ made that proclamation from the scroll of Isaiah we still live in a world that is crippled with injustice.  Millions are suffering from the Pakistani floods, in Africa, every 45 seconds a child dies of malaria, wars still rage around the world filling the coffers of arms manufacturers, banks speculate wildly with  money they don’t have to lose, and people are still discriminated against because of their race, creed, sex, or sexuality.


The world can look bleak, but there is good news!  Again from the Beatitudes, blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they will be filled.  Christ’s promise is that yes, some day justice will be done in the world.  And 2000 years on we as Christians still yearn and work for that righteousness and justice.



CLICK – bulletpoint


In 2 Kings 2:20-22 salt is used by Elisha to purify a spring of water.  So being the salt of the earth can refer to Christ’s disciples as those sent to purify the world.


Now this particular interpretation has been a great favourite of Protestant preachers in the past.  The salt of Christian disciples salting, cleansing and purifying the filth, corruption and putrefaction of the material world.  There is of course a serious point here behind some of the puritanical rhetoric – there is corruption in the world, filthy things do happen, we are allowing the planet to putrefy before our very eyes.  And we as Christ’s agents must act as that purifying salt if we are to ever to see the Beatitudes fulfilled.



CLICK – bulletpoint


In Job 6:6, Job says “Can that which is tasteless be eaten without salt?”.  Salt gives taste.  And verse 13 of the passage from Matthew talks about the taste of salt.


Do we as Christians bring something unique to the world, that makes that the world a better place?  Do we bring hope where there is no hope?  Do we give meaning where there is no meaning?  I hope we do!


So there are several ways of interpreting what Jesus means by the salt of the earth – these are only three and there are more.  I hope you can see that they all point back to the Beatitudes and what Christ wants us to be doing in the world RIGHT NOW.


Light of the world

SLIDE?-Jesus light of the world?


And on into light…


I think we are probably on easier territory with light since light is one of the recurring themes in the New Testament.


Firstly, and most obviously, Christ calls himself the Light of the World (John 8:12).  The fact that Christ refers to himself as the light of the world, and also refers to his disciples as such gives us an important piece of information.  Whatever character we might possess, the character of salt and light, ultimately comes from God.  Light that we possess is that light which has been kindled in us by Christ.  We have work to do for God, but everything we need to do that work comes directly from God Himself.


But why light?  Darkness is used in the Bible as more than simply an absence of light.  There is normally a sense of evil and chaos associated with darkness.  We think of the dark, chaotic void before God created light.


John’s gospel, which is full of references to light and darkness, says this in 3:19-20: “And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.  For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.  But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”  So light is linked with God, and darkness with evil.


In the transfiguration of Jesus, He becomes intensely bright as do his garments, blindingly resplendent with divine brightness.  Again linking light with the presence of the Almighty.


In our lives today we are called to be God’s lights shining into the darkest places, exposing evil for what it is, and leading those who have been dwelling in the darkness into God’s marvellous light.  The reading from Isaiah we heard this morning also directly links the theme of light with God’s way of justice: “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness”.


And we know the light wins, don’t we?!  From John 1: “The light (that is Christ) shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it!”


In verse 14, Jesus develops the image of light even further.  “A city built on a hill cannot be hidden”.  Here we are given an image of each disciple of Christ elevated and shining out into the world.  I think there is a cautionary tale in this verse.  When you profess to be a Christian, you will be put on show, you become exposed and vulnerable, and people will look at you!  Let us hope they look at us for the right reasons!


SLIDE? Hill of calvary


Of course, this reference to a city built on a hill also points us to the hill of calvary.  Could this be an early foretelling of the crucifixion?


The city on the hill, Jerusalem, had at its highest point the temple, the location of the Holy of Holies, the place where Yahweh dwelt.  Christ’s body, broken on the cross on the hill of Golgotha, is the new temple.  Christ is revealed as the Holy of Holies, Yahweh, the great unchangeable I AM open to the world.  The light shines from the cross into the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome this light!  And this light is the light of all people, the light of the world.


Two warnings

SLIDE?  Single candle?


Hiding the light


As a final point, I think there are two warnings in this passage that we should not ignore.  Firstly, there are the words from verse 13 “but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?  It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.”  Also from verse 15 “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.”


Both of these verses, I think, are telling us not to extinguish the flame that has been kindled in us by Christ.  We must not run away from our calling as disciples of Christ, we must not be ashamed of that calling.  Nor must we lose that unique flavour, enduring spirit and purifying action that we bring to the world.


[This idea is similar to the parable of the talents, where the wicked slave who hid his talent of money in a hole in the ground was reprimanded by his master, and even that one talent was taken from him.  We have been given gifts and callings by God, and we should not keep them to ourselves for fear of what awaits us in the big, wide world.  I think the message of that parable is clear – use it or lose it!


And for the two other slaves who wisely invested the talents – they were praised by their master, and the talent of the wicked slave was given to them as further reward.  Those slaves invested the blessings they had been given by their master to be blessings to others, and further blessings flowed.]


And my final point is from verse 16: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”  There is a warning inherent in this verse that all we do for the furtherment of God’s kingdom must be His glory alone, and not for our own glory.  What a contrary view to the way the world works!  If we do good works in the world, the world wants to congratulate us and reward us for our own sake.  As Christians, we must not look for that congratulation, but should point people to God, the source of all blessings.


SLIDE?  Cross made out of candles?


Dietrich Bonhoeffer said this: “Our good works that are to be seen by others, and that will bring glory to God, are those done under the shadow of the cross.  Our desire is that in our good works they will see only the cross of Christ and be drawn to him and not drawn to us or be impressed by us.”




So as we think on this passage, let us remember that we are called to be salt and light, God’s agents in the world, God’s world changers.  We are called to act, to welcome in the Kingdom of God on earth with its upside down Beatitude values.  We are called to be in the world, yet not worldy.  We are called to be salt to purify the evil in the world, to endure for God, and to bring taste and hope where there is none.  We are called to shine light into the dark places of this world, exposing injustice wherever it occurs, reflecting the light of that true light of the world Jesus Christ, whose light is the life of all people.  And finally as salt and light we pray that God’s kingdom will come, and His will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Amen.

Sermon on Acts 15: 1-5

Here are the (verbose) notes for the sermon I preached on Sunday.  This was the first time I had ever preached, I enjoyed the prep and delivery greatly and hope to be asked to do it again!

The slides shown were simply pictures to illustrate that part of the talk, so hopefully not too much is lost by not including them here.

Going places with God [16] Acts 15:1-5, Making a Stand



         By way of introduction…this incident comes at the end of Paul’s first journey.  We’ve traced Paul from the stoning of Steven, to his conversion on the road to Damascus, his return to the embryonic church in Jerusalem, and his journey via Caesarea to his home town of Tarsus, then the ministry to the church at Antioch, and from there a sweeping missionary journey through Asia Minor taking in Cyprus, Perga, Pysidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, Derbe, and then Paul returns to his home church at Syrian Antioch, and tells them of his travels.

         Paul has been busy, and Paul has been successful.  His preaching of the Gospel has fallen on largely receptive ears.  There have been problems, of course: being almost stoned to death; being worshipped as Hermes, but Paul’s first missionary journey has been a success.

Success followed by controversy

         SLIDE – ST PAUL

         Unfortunately, Paul’s success seems to have attracted the attention of others with differing views to his own, and the result is the first major controversy of the Christian Church (and goodness knows they are ongoing…)

         READ VERSE 1: “Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’

         Compounded in VERSE 5: “But some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, “It is necessary for them [the gentile Christians] to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses”  The implication is that the whole law of Moses must be kept.

         Certain individuals come from Judea [possibly posing as having authority from the older Jerusalem church? In Galatians (2:4) Paul describes them, or others like them, as “false believers secretly brought in, who slipped in to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might enslave us.”

         Notice the strength of what the Judeans are saying: not simply you ought to be circumcised as a sign of your faith, or as something pleasing to God.  NO, they say you must be circumcised in order to be saved, in order to be a member of God’s family.

Why circumcision?


         Why would they say that?

         Circumcision of males aged 8 days old was encoded in the Law of Moses in Leviticus 12:3.  If these Judeans were part of the Pharisee grouping, they would have been experts in the Law.  The law of Moses was presented as the authority for the Pharisees’ argument in verse 5.


         As we heard in our first reading, the Jewish tradition of circumcision goes all the way back to Abraham as the physical sign of the covenant between God and Abraham.  Covenant=promise or contract, although in a religious context usually a sense of relationship.

         God’s part of the contract was that Abraham’s descendants (or descendant singular?) would be numerous, as numerous as the stars, that God would be Abraham’s God and the God of his descendants, and that Abraham’s descendants would inherit the land of Canaan.

         Abraham’s part of the deal was that he would circumcise himself and his offspring, any slaves etc.  Like any legal contract, both sides have a part to play in the bargain.

         The result of not being circumcised was serious: you were cut off from Abraham’s people (Genesis 17:14).  You were not in God’s family, you were not saved.

         To Jews, then, the physical sign of circumcision could be seen as the only indication of a relationship with God, of membership of God’s family.  Without that physical sign, you were not a member of God’s family.

         Clearly and simply defines those who are “in” and those who are “out”, the members of the Jewish tribe who were “in”, and all the others: Gentiles/Greeks who were “out”.

         Can be determined from physical inspection! (of men.  Women would be considered as being “in” by their association (daughter or wife) of a circumcised man – so Paul’s opposition to them could be seen as very anti discrimination!)

         This makes for an easy, closed tribal religion, where outsiders/aliens/gentiles can be easily identified and excluded.


         But the Abraham story and Leviticus passage don’t tell the whole story of the Law.  And it’s interesting that in Acts 15:5 the Pharisees in Jerusalem insist on circumcision and the whole Law.

         In Deuteronomy, circumcision is revisited: Deuteronomy 10:16 “Circumcise your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer”.  Deuteronomy 30:6 “[…] the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you might live.”

         This is the Law referring to circumcision, the sign of God’s everlasting covenant as no mere physical sign any more, but a sign of a much deeper relationship, a spiritual sign indicative of a spiritual relationship.

         A sign we might say of faith?

Why not circumcision?


         This idea of circumcision of the heart takes us right back to the beginning of our journey with St Paul, to the stoning of Stephen.  Some of Stephen’s last words before he is stoned to death are these in Acts 7:51 “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.”

         I wonder whether Paul, elated after his successful missionary journey, and continuing ministry at Antioch was brought crashing down to earth on hearing the Judeans’ insistence on circumcision.  Those memories of Stephen professing his faith in Christ and then immediately receiving a brutal and undeserved death – and Paul doing nothing about it, Paul approving of it.  Is this why he is making such a strong stand here?


         READ VERSE 2: “And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them…”

         “No small dissension and debate” – wonderful use of understatement here!  Paul is clearly not simply engaging in academic debate with the Judeans but is outraged and scandalised.

         But why are the Judeans wrong in Paul’s mind?  Why should they be wrong in our minds?  This is all set out in Paul’s letter to the Galatians.  It is a short letter (6 chapters) and well worth reading (if you’ve not already done so!)  What can we learn from this?

         Try to keep this to three key points.



         Paul’s overarching narrative throughout his epistles is one of faith (hope and love) in Christ providing the key to membership in God’s family, and salvation/life eternal/life of the age/life in all its fullness (whatever you call it).

         What the circumcision lobby are effectively saying is “Look, these Gentiles have come to believe in Jesus, but that’s not quite enough.  Don’t worry, though, we can fix this problem with a minor operation!” 

         What they claim, therefore, is that membership of God’s family comes from physical human intervention, rather than God’s generosity and grace. 

         As St Paul puts it in Galations 5:2 “Listen! I Paul am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you.”

         As the theologian Matthew Henry puts it “They are saying that salvation itself cannot save them. “


         We know from the whole Gospel narrative that it is by Christ we are welcomed into a relationship with God.

         John’s gospel, Chapter 1: “He [that is, Christ] was in the world and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.  He came to what was his own [the Jewish nation], and his own people did not accept him.  But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”

         God’s family is established by God through Christ and not through blood and flesh. 

         Not through who our parents are – we do not inherit our membership of God’s family from our own blood family.

         And not through the bloody, fleshly ritual of circumcision.  We cannot enter into God’s family simply through human decision.

         No, our entry into God’s family comes as a free gift, a free invitation from God.

         What we should take from this is a God and Christ centred faith, not a human-centred religion.

         Our assurance of membership in God’s family comes in the form of our faith, that blessed assurance.  We must not forget that faith comes from God.  It is God’s gift as a reassurance.  It does not come simply by our own will of mind – of course our own response is required, but faith comes from God.

         This should be a consideration in all areas of our faith.  When we worship God with music, that is our expression of our God-given faith as an offering back to God. 

         When we read from the scriptures (publically and privately), we should always remain open to God speaking to us through those texts.

         When we come together to share in the Lord’s Supper we must always remember that it is Christ’s table to which we are invited.  Christ himself reaches out to us.

         We are all invited to the Lord’s marriage supper.  We will take Him up on that invitation?



         We heard a few weeks ago about the signs and wonders seen in those embryonic churches founded by Paul and Barnabas.

         Paul had seen the clear evidence of the Holy Spirit working amongst Gentiles. 

         We have also heard of both Jews and Gentiles responding by the action of the Holy Spirit to Paul’s preaching of the gospel.

         So when such a response has been seen, when the action of the Holy Spirit has been seen, how can God’s action be denied?  How can the membership of those believers in God’s family be questioned?

         That, of course, is exactly what the Judeans were trying to do.

         This sets us such a great challenge. 

         We must avoid the prevalence to make our opinion and practice a rule and a law to everybody else, and to judge others by our own standards. 

         For example, where do we see the Spirit working today?  Is it always in church?  What if we can sense the Spirit at work in Christians of other denominations, people of other faiths, or people of no faith?  Is it possible for the Spirit to be at work in people who aren’t even aware of it?  These are just questions…NOT ANSWERS!

         Paul gives us tests for the evidence of the Holy Spirit.  Again from Galatians 5:22 “[…] the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  There is no law against such things”.

         If we see the Spirit at work, we should certainly not oppose Her!



         We see in these early days of the church that a partisan tribal religion has had the doors thrown open, has had the doors broken down forever by the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ, by his revolutionary teaching, his undeserved death and glorious resurrection. 

         Nothing would ever be the same again.  The way is now open to anyone who would follow it.

         There is a new covenant in Christ, which fulfils the old covenant made with Abraham.  Paul’s view espoused in Galatians is that Christ is Abraham’s “seed” or “descendant” referred to in the first reading we heard earlier.  So the covenant with Abraham is fulfilled, not replaced. 

         This new covenant in Christ, this new life in Christ is that which was prophesied in Isaiah 43:18-19, our church motto text for this year: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.  I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? ”  Do we perceive it?  Do we perceive the fresh shoots of Christ in our own lives?

         The new covenant in Christ, the new life in Christ which was announced by Simeon as “the light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of God’s people Israel.”  We are those gentiles, and Christ is our light.

         It is this new covenant in Christ, this relationship we have with Christ which frees us from the Pharaseeical way of thinking shown by the Judeans in this passage. 

         As Paul puts it, again from Galatians 5:13 “For you were called to freedom brothers and sisters”

         But then comes a warning,”only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.”

         Our calling is the freedom to serve one another.  Our calling is not to consider ourselves superior to others, as special, as picked out.  Our calling, our election is to serve!

         We are freed to serve, we are saved to serve.


         How should we respond to this freedom in Christ?

         We should heed Christ’s own invitations, to take up our cross, to put on Christ’s easy yoke [as he shares with us in bearing our cross], and to love one another as Christ loved us.

         As Christ loved us!  That love of Christ which ended with him laying down his own life for us.  In taking the path of weakness, in adopting the position of shame, crucified even for sinners like us.

         Do we really live and love as Christ did?  Do we even want to? Or do we in fact live as the Judean faction did, holding to their old ways and creating stumbling blocks for believers who were beginning to trust in Christ?

         Do we live in the freedom of Christ by clinging to his cross?  Or do we instead stay clinging to the law, the law of Moses [or our own created laws] clinging to their certainty, and not perceiving the new things of God?


    Dear God,

    Heal our paralysis, that we may have faith to overcome barriers.

    Help us befriend those outside the Law of Moses, beyond our comfort zones,

        open our hearts to those we see as different to ourselves

        and make us all bearers of reconciliation.

    Help us to enter right relationships with You and each other,

    that together we may work for love and peace.


    Where we have sinned against You and our fellows,

    God forgive us.

    Where we have forced others to leave our communities,

    God forgive us.

    Where we need light and knowledge,

    God enlighten us.


    Where new visions are needed,

    God help us to dream.

    Where love is needed,

    make us Your instruments of grace,

    In the name of Jesus, we pray.  Amen.