Sermons from Rev Canon Dr Ian Davies
Sunday 17th May
Note: 'Ian wishes to attribute much of the substance of his sermon to Tom Wright - with quotations taken from 'Simply Good News: Why the Gospel is news and what makes it good' - (2015) - London:SPCK
We had a lovely celebration of Ascension on Thursday and this 7th week of our Easter Season allows us to take stock of all that has happened; all we’ve been celebrating and thinking about – about what is the exact nature of the Good News that Jesus is alive – about the Gospel we’re here to proclaim in what we say & how we live – in word & deed.
You’ve been having some cracking teaching from Julie these past weeks – as she’s been helping establish what is the ‘good’ news – what is world transforming about Jesus “who died...was...buried...and who was raised to life on the third day...in accordance with the Scriptures” (as we say together as we affirm our faith in the words of the 8.30 Creed). “This we received...and this we believe....” (we go on to say) but what does it mean in our lives. That’s what we’re going to think about.
Now some of our congregation are going to be way ahead of us soon because they’ve ordered Tom Wright’s ‘’For Everyone’ guides to the books of the New Testament – and as your clerics Julie and I make no bones about quoting people like him and Jane Williams –because they have the skill & the deep biblical knowledge to say things way better than we could.
So what I’m going to do for the next few minutes is (hopefully) and with Tom Wright’s help - to clarify what the essence of the Christian message is – (as I say) using statements which aren’t mine, but which I’ve been mining (& feasting on) during my time in Israel if not when physically walking the land that God visited and made his home in the Person of Jesus, his Son – certainly on our Nazareth Tours bus.
‘I wonder whether Jesus’ prayer for his disciples that we have in John’s gospel matches our expectations?’ Jane Williams asks about today’s gospel reading. What would we want him to pray for us? At the heart of this discourse is his love for his disciples – & by implication for us – and his desire?... is for us to be ‘as one’. There was little evidence of a united humanity and definitely not a unified church in Israel and Palestine where nations and denominations compete with each other. I still have the bruises from being jostled at one of the sacred sites by people obsessed with doing their own religious veneration thing – even if it meant physically treading on people and pushing them down steps – is that what Jesus was praying for? – and is that what Christianity is all about?
Or is it all about getting people to heaven and teaching them to behave along the way? If it were so then what I’d be doing preaching this morning would be just a bit of moralizing and giving good advice. – Nah! I love Tom Wright’s statement that all of this is a gross distortion: we tend to pick and choose little jigsaw pieces that were meant to fit into a far bigger and beautiful picture – often getting them wrong because they’re on their own, isolated – and not making any sense. In reality the Hebrew Scriptures the Apostle Paul was reading and that Jesus knew so well – the Old Testament by the way – made up a single great story that had its ending in the coming of the Messiah – who died was buried and rose again for us. It was a story about how God who had created the world, called a single people, Israel, to be his own people – but not for their own sake. He called them to be special so that through then he could save the world – the human race and the whole of creation – rescue them from the appalling mess that had come about.
So when Paul says to the Corinthians “The Messiah – Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures (which we get the words of our Creed from) the news he is announcing is about the One true God who at last has accomplished what Paul and others believed had to be done for the world to be put right.
Today is the Sunday after Ascension – and we need to realise that the heaven to which Jesus ascends – heaven basically means God’s space – which in biblical cosmology intersects with earth (which is our space) – heaven is the control room (if you like): the place from which everything is now run. So we pray: Thy will be done....?”on earth as it is in heaven”.
(are you with Tom so far?!)
So with this in mind the main point of the resurrection is that it is the beginning of God’s new world – and by believing in Jesus’ resurrection we can make sense of God, of the world, and of ourselves.
The good news is that the one true God has now taken charge of the world in and through Jesus – and that we humans, every single one of us, whoever we are, can be caught up in that transformation, here and now. This is the Christian gospel, Wright says; “Do not allow yourself to be fobbed off with anything less.”!
Now the version I was bought up on as a young Christian (& I’m sure this is familiar to others) goes like this: “There is a God, and this God is angry with humans because of their sin. This God has the right, the duty and the desire to punish us all. If we did but know it we are all heading for an eternal torment in hell. But this angry God has decided to vent his fury on someone else instead – someone who happens to be completely innocent. Indeed it is his very own son. His wrath is therefore quenched and we no longer face that terrible destiny. All we have to do is to believe this story and we will be safe.”
Now it may not be completely wrong – but as it stands it is “deeply misleading”. It distorts the very message it is trying to communicate. Why? Well we should have an inkling by now. God the Creator – the One to whom the whole world belongs – and who longs to put his world right – is a God who keeps his formal pledges – his Covenant – and we see this through the Jewish history of rescuing Israel from slavery and bringing them into the promised land, guiding them through trials and troubles. “The God who masterminds both Creation and Covenant is a God of love – utter, self-giving, merciful, reconciling, healing, restorative love.” (& now you know why we quote him!). But you’d never know this from listening to the story of a petulant and capricious God (a God who acts on a whim) and is determined to punish someone and who just happens to pick on his own son. ‘God so loved the world that he sent his only son...’ Not, please note, ‘God so hated the world.’ If we give the wrong impression, we distort the whole picture.
The problem is not “Oh dear, humans have sinned, so they will now go to hell.’ The problem is ‘Humans have sinned, so the whole creation will fail to attain its proper goal’. (Wright says that perhaps that failure, if not dealt with, is part of what we should mean by ‘hell’ – because it totally separates us from the God of love).
The good news, therefore, is that when humans are put right, God’s desired project can get back on track – As Julie preached: Emmanuel – God is with us..
(& just a quick aside: what do you think he’s doing with us as a community here in his Meadow? To have a healthy functioning church that is able to pay its Parish Share without struggling and that is a nice, cosy oasis from the nasty world outside, where we can come and do what we’ve been doing for centuries in language that’s no longer familiar or understandable? Or is he saying that through the cross and resurrection he completes his work of covenant renewal, the forgiveness of sins - so that we can freely pick up our role as truly human beings and discover our particular calling within God’s purposes for his world – I think the second version sounds way more exciting don’t you?)
“There are, sadly, some people for whom the good news, as they have been taught it, leaves them with a vacuum. “Now that I’ve believed this good news!”, they think, “now that I know I will go to heaven one day – what is there to do in the meantime?” “Those who find themselves thinking that ought to go back to whoever taught them the good news and, metaphorically speaking, demand their money back.” You’ve only been given one part of the gospel. The good news is bigger, better, fuller, than you ever imagined.” (& you’ll know I’m quoting again).
Got this now? The resurrection of Jesus is the launching of God’s new world. The resurrection is presented, together with Jesus’ crucifixion, as the climax of the entire biblical story – and that’s why we say ‘We are an Easter people and Hallelujah is our song”
So let’s take stock. There are distortions of the Christian message out there which are caricatures: shrunken and misshapen and inadequate versions (God’s out to get you because you’re sinful and useless). Some are just downright wrong – like the so-called prosperity gospel that says come to Jesus and you won’t ever be sick, and you’ll never suffer - and you’ll be rich and successful. All these stem from the failure to grasp how the gospel works as good news – and all detract from a God who has revealed himself as utter self-giving, lavish and generous love.
The church needs to recover its nerve and talk about good news once more as good news, not (as Julie reminded us) good advice.
Most people today have wrong ideas. In short they assume that the word God refers to a dull, distant and perhaps even dangerous being. Most of those who think like that try hard, not surprisingly, to believe that this being doesn’t exist. “I don’t believe in God” said the novelist Kingsley Amis, “and I hate him”! – and they’re right – because that dull, distant, dangerous being – does not exist. Or Woody Allen from one of his films ‘Love and Death who has one of his characters saying: “You know, if it turns out that there is a God, I don't think that he's evil. I think that the worst you can say about him is that basically he's an underachiever.”
Some of the more horrible versions rely on a caricature of an old bully in the sky (who made a come-back in the church of the Middle Ages), threatening people with hell or at least purgatory and demanding to have his hideous wrath appeased.
Today’s sermon is largely taken from a book about one who does exist! Tom Wright’s ‘Simply Good News’. And his reflections are solidly Bible-based as we pray our teaching always is as we seek to rightly divide the word of truth – and preach the gospel.
So as I finish: the good news is...that God – the generous loving God – is being honoured, will be honoured, has been utterly and supremely honoured in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
And we’re here so that people get to discover this love of God in Jesus Christ.
Tom Wright finishes his ‘Simply Good News) saying this: