Eighth Sunday after Pentecost – 26th July 2020

Can something big happen as a result of a small group of Christians like us?  The Gospel reading appointed for this week is Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed.  Technically, this was not the smallest of all seeds since, for example, the seed of a cypress tree was still smaller, but here Jesus is using a well-known phrase in Jewish culture at the time to highlight the smallness of something.  Jesus then goes on to explain how big the final plant grows.  It was well known that mustard plants can grow as high as twelve feet and become like a small tree.  It was also true that birds liked mustard plants because they liked eating the little black seeds produced.  Moreover, in the Old Testament, one of the commonest pictures of an empire was that of a tree where birds (subject nations) find shelter.  Jesus’ meaning is crystal clear – the Kingdom of God starts from the smallest of beginnings, but in the end many nations will be gathered in.  A Christian hermit was called to go to Rome to oppose the gladiatorial games where people were dying.  Telechamus made his way into the arena to stand between the gladiators, the crowd tried to stone him, and the Prefect ordered his death, the flash of a sword in the sunlight and Telechamus was dead.  Silence then descended across the arena.  The crowd realised they had killed a holy man.  Something profound happened in Rome following that event, because there were never any more gladiatorial games from that point on.  One man had changed the views at the centre of an empire.

In the Old Testament God used small beginnings to create a ‘chosen’ people.  It was Jacob’s marriage to Rachel from which God would establish his covenant relationship with the nation of Israel.  In Psalm 105, this is reiterated by the psalmist who points out: “O descendants of Jacob, God’s chosen one”.  God’s ultimate plan for redemption of the whole of humanity started with one family.  The point of Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed is that his 12 disciples and his followers today should not be discouraged.  Each one of us starts from a small beginning from which the Kingdom of God can grow.  It will then grow and grow until the kingdoms of the earth find their home in it.  The reason for our strength is God.  It is God, through His Holy Spirit who makes the impossible, possible.  And, in the words of the Apostle Paul: “If God is for us, who can ever be against us?”

Old Testament reading for this week: Genesis 29:15-28

Gospel reading for this week: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Epistle reading for this week: Romans 8:26-39

Psalm for this week: Psalm 105:1-11, 45b

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost – 19th July 2020

Can we ever escape from God?  In the Psalm appointed for this week, the psalmist is adamant that we can never escape from God’s Spirit.  Whether we plumb to the deepest ocean or scale the highest mountain, God’s presence is there with us.  In August 2000 the Russian submarine Kursk was stranded at the bottom of the sea cut off from the rest of the world and yet God was there with the 23 crew as they waited in vain to be rescued.  The same can be said for the Chilean miners temporarily trapped underground in August 2010 and countless others who find themselves in the remotest parts of the earth seemingly separated from everyone and everything – everyone except God!  In 1953 when Sir Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay were the first to reach the summit of Everest, God was there with them.  The psalmist is adamant that God is everywhere we go so that we can never escape from His Spirit.

In our Old Testament reading for this week we read the story of Jacob isolated and alone near Luz as he leaves his home in Beersheba.  In his apparent inaccessibility, God appears to Jacob and says, “I will be with you wherever you go.”  The Gospel account for this week is the parable of the wheat and the weeds.  Jesus is clear that all who belong to him will be rescued from whatever place they find themselves in.  In the Epistle reading for this week, the Apostle writes, “All creation anticipates the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay.”  There is nothing and nowhere within God’s created universe from which God cannot rescue us.  As the author and owner of creation, there is nowhere we can go where God has not been before and where He currently reigns.  As such, we can never escape from God’s Spirit; what a glorious thought and a great encouragement when we find ourselves in difficult places and difficult times.

Old Testament reading for this week: Genesis 28:10-19

Gospel reading for this week: Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Epistle reading for this week: Romans 8:12-25

Psalm for this week: Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost – 12th July 2020

Is someone trying to snatch your life?  Is there something that you have been working for that someone else is trying to take from you?  Is it a work colleague, a neighbour, a family member or even HMRC?  The Gospel reading for this week is the familiar story of the sower.  This is one of Jesus’ most famous parables and has been called the parable of parables.  The seed is the word of God which brings life and sustains growth.  However, we read that sometimes this life-giving seed falls on the hard path and the devil comes and snatches the seed away.  I have been given six brand new Bibles which are sitting on my desk at work.  Perhaps naively, I asked two colleagues if they would like a new hard-back Bible, for free, to take home.  Both refused.  I later reflected on this and the fact that if I offered them a new free book on gardening, cooking, philosophy or even capitalism they would probably gratefully accept, so why not a Bible?  Had this desire been ‘snatched away’ from them.

The Old Testament reading for this week is the story of Jacob and Esau.  Jacob snatched Esau’s birthright.  Jacob manipulated Esau and later deceived his father Isaac with a lie.  The words snatch, manipulation, deceit and lies are associated with the devil.  What should be our response to ensure that our lives are not snatched from us by the devil?  I will suggest two.  Firstly, cling to every guiding principle in the word of God.  The psalmist writes: “Happy are people of integrity, who FOLLOW THE LAW OF THE LORD.  Secondly, drench your lives in the Holy Spirit.  The Apostle Paul writes: “For the POWER OF THE LIFE-GIVING SPIRIT has freed you through Christ Jesus from the power of sin that leads to death.”  In this way, our lives will not be snatched from us by the devil and we will abide in eternity with the God who Himself rose from the dead by the power of this same Spirit.

Old Testament reading for this week: Genesis 25:19-34

Gospel reading for this week: Matthew 13:1-9; 18-23

Epistle reading for this week: Romans 8:1-11

Psalm for this week: Psalm 119:105-112

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost – 28th June 2020

What makes us do the right thing?  Is it fear of punishment from breaking God’s rules or is it a thirst for God’s righteousness?  In our current situation, do we ‘socially distance’ because that is the Government rule or because we don’t want to transmit the disease to someone else?  Of course, the answer is probably both and, in any case, the two are not mutually exclusive.  Nonetheless, this is precisely the dilemma that the Apostle Paul deals with in the book of Romans in our assigned reading for this week.  The early Christians were unable to break from an obsession with the Jewish law, but Paul suggests there is something better – God’s grace!  All that the law can do is highlight sin.  In this sense, focusing only on the law makes you a slave to sin.  In contrast, Paul says you are no longer subject to the law, instead you are set free by God’s grace, and slaves to righteousness.

In the Gospel passage, Jesus spells out the positive nature of discipleship.  It is not about abstaining from certain types of behaviour but, rather, demonstrating grace to everyone we come across: “And if you give even a cup of cold water to one of the least of my followers, you will surely be rewarded.”  In the Old Testament, the classic example of a man living by righteousness and not by the law was Abraham.  Abraham never lived by the law because the law didn’t exist at that time and yet Abraham’s faith in being willing to sacrifice his son Isaac was credited to him as righteousness.  The psalmist acknowledges the source of this grace.  It is God’s unfailing love, demonstrated through Jesus Christ.  It is Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension which replaces everything that the law could ever be.  Don’t misunderstand me, the law is not bad; the law is good, but God’s free gift of grace through Jesus Christ is so much better.  This is what should spur us on to do the right thing.

Old Testament reading for this week: Genesis 22:1-14

Gospel reading for this week: Matthew 10:40-42

Epistle reading for this week: Romans 6:12-23

Psalm for this week: Psalm 13

Second Sunday after Pentecost – 14th June 2020

What do we mean by endurance?  In a world of digital communication, we have become accustomed to instant responses.  Sometimes, if we have to wait more than 24 hours, we feel that the response is too slow.  In many senses this has spilled over into our church lives as well.  We expect immediate replies.  We may even come to expect immediate answers to our prayers.  Undoubtedly God can act quickly, and sometimes does, but most times He does not.  God sometimes wants to teach us endurance.  The Gospel reading this week is the story of Jesus sending out the twelve Apostles.  They were told to announce to the people that the Kingdom of Heaven is near.  They were told not to take any money or any other possessions.  No doubt they would have been met with opposition, particularly from the religious leaders of the day.  Imagine doing this today in Guildford, it would not always be easy.  Perhaps one of the greatest qualities that they (and we) would need is endurance.  Just keep going from house to house receiving rejection after rejection until one hospitable home is found.

The ability to endure is one of the hallmarks of the Christian faith.  In Genesis, Abraham and Sarah had to wait until old age before they could have a son.  That did not stop Abraham from being positive and hospitable to the three men at Mamre.  Little did he know that these three men, perhaps representing the Trinity, would inform him that within a year Sarah would have a son.  The psalmist writing Psalm 116 knows about endurance when he writes of his troubles and how he will keep praying as long as he draws breath.  In Romans, the Apostle Paul explains why God’s plan to teach us endurance is good.  Endurance, he writes, develops strength of character.  As a result of waiting, Abraham and Sarah greatly cherished God’s gift of Isaac.  As a result of enduring rejection from some people, the early Apostles came to rely on God and so grow in their faith.  As a result of enduring, we will not be disappointed by God who will use the experience to strengthen our confidence in His plan of salvation for us.

Old Testament reading for this week: Genesis 18:1-15

Gospel reading for this week: Matthew 9:35-10:8

Epistle reading for this week: Romans 5:1-8

Psalm for this week: Psalm 116:1-19

6th Sunday after Easter

What leaving gift would you give to your friends and family?  For many people they would leave something physical, some item of memorabilia.  For others they would leave them with amusing or poignant stories and happy memories of times spent together.  The Gospel story for this week is an account of what Jesus left for his followers.  No doubt Peter, James, John and all the disciples would have had many treasured memories of Jesus, but Jesus left them so much more.  The amazing truth is that this is also true for us, his latter-day disciples.  Yes, we have great stories of Jesus to read.  We have all the Scriptures to read.  We have the traditions of the church as well as faith and reason to draw us closer to Jesus, but we have much much more besides.  Jesus left us Himself, through the Holy Spirit, the Counselor.  Jesus says, “the Father will give you another Counselor, who will never leave you.  He is the Holy Spirit….He lives with you now and later will be in you.”  To understand this complex teaching, we must look at what came before and what came after.

In the Old Testament, there was an unshakable belief that God was with his people corporately and individually.  The psalmist writes, “GOD DID NOT WITHDRAW HIS UNFAILING LOVE FROM ME.”  As we journey into the book of Acts, the Apostle Paul begins to unpick what Jesus meant: “All nations should seek God and feel their way toward him….For IN HIM WE LIVE AND MOVE AND EXIST.”  In the Epistle reading for this week this is further emphasized.  Peter writes, “If people speak evil against you, they will be ashamed when they see what a good life you live BECAUSE YOU BELONG TO CHRIST.  The message of Scripture is that God is with us.  He lives in us by the power of His Spirit who constantly reveals Jesus to us.  Wow!  I am reminded of that great prayer from St Patrick’s breastplate.  Because of the gift of the Holy Spirit we can declare: Christ be with me, Christ within me; Christ behind me, Christ before me; Christ beside me, Christ to win me; Christ to comfort and restore me; Christ beneath me, Christ above me; Christ in quiet, Christ in danger; Christ in hearts of all that love me; Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.  AMEN.

New Testament reading for this week: Acts 17:22-31

Gospel reading for this week: John 14:15-21

Epistle reading for this week: 1 Peter 3:13-22

Psalm for this week: 66:8-20