Great expectations Matthew 20:1-16

We have to remember something about Matthew, ex-tax collector as he was, he knew a thing or two about money. His gospel reflects this: hidden treasure, a pearl, and last week we were shocked by a debtor cleared of millions who was just beastly to some one who owed him only five months wages. We learnt something about a God who doesn't want us to live with unforgiveness. He wants us to be as lavish as he has been in setting us debtors free with the life of his very Son. He wants us to live free. Unforgiveness, even psychologists will tell you isn't healthy; isn't good. As Nicky Gumble reminds us in the Alpha course - “It's like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” We learnt something last week of the power of the Spirit as experienced by Corrie Ten Boom who had watched Nazis murder her sisters and go on to forgive one who became a Christian as he asked for her to forgive him, how it wouldn't have been something she could have done, unless the power of the Holy Spirit had not in that moment come over her and run like a current through her arm, causing her to reach out her hand to shake hands with him.

This week, then, workers called in shifts – first thing, at nine, at noon, at three, and five but the latest to work (working the shortest of time) given exactly the same salary packet as those labouring first thing. Page 22 in your Bibles (New Revised Standard Anglicised version NRSV), please. “The first is last and the last is first! at chapter 19, verse 30.

What is Matthew trying to tell us, here, about God?
How can it be that those clocking up such little time are paid the same as those who do so much?
Well, you might already have had a good go at working this out.

Let's look at the simplest reading.

To an extent it is about those who came later to a living faith in God? The Gentiles would be as loved and provided for as those Jews who had always known the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and then come to Christ in full faith. Applicable today? Yes. The church does not ordain, licence or give responsibility to its members on the basis of the years they have clocked up. You can be in church for decades and only later invest in your own discipling. Yet, the newest converts can turn around their whole lives for Christ.

Let's look at another simple reading - you work harder for God than someone else but receive the same reward as them from the Lord of the vineyard. Is God unfair? No – he's just all grace.

This parable does teach us something about “works” and efforts and how righteousness isn't ours because somehow we have earned it or tried so hard. The Gospel, instead, tells us Jesus earned salvation for us through his work – his work on the cross to clear our debt (wiping our slates clean with his blood) so that God sees you and I perfect before him. There is nothing we can do to make God love us any more. There is nothing we can do to make God love us any less. So this parable is a reminder that we do not earn God's love. Those first labourers aggrieved and in rumbling complaint would have boasted of their hard work in the scorching sun – wasn't there something more that they deserved and they thought it was, mistakenly, all about them.

So we learn God loves the new people just as much as the old.

We learn I cannot clock up brownie points with a Christian God.

But learning this there are some dangers. If the first will be last and the last will be first, I can delay my discipleship and perhaps instead give my life to God in the last ten minutes of my life, we might be tempted to think.

Or alternatively – if there's nothing I can do to make God love me any more or any less and Jesus earned my salvation – well, perhaps then I will just live as I wish.

No. This parable squarely confronts these temptations in our thinking.

Let's look to the context on page 22 (one of the reasons for the bibles in your pews). You see, Peter wonders why giving up everything doesn't earn him salvation – “Who then who can be saved- we've left everything for you?” The parable was always Jesus' way of answering that question. It's never about what I must or mustn't do. Peter is asking entirely the wrong question. And very often it's the question we ask too.

Peter is in as lamentable a place as the Rich young man who went quietly away before him (Chapter 19:vs16-26) because he was asked to give up his wealth and realised he had so much.
So - the rich man “What must I do? – I can't give it all away.”
and the poor man Peter: “What must I do – hey, I gave it all up!”
These are the responses from which Jesus comes to shake us free.

Jesus wants you to know that it is all about living with a different set of expectations about the goodness of God! It was never about you!

The first workers in that vineyard needed to have their perspective shifted because unfortunately like Peter and just like the rich young man, they had worked it all out beforehand with God, set the terms, brokered a deal and were 'all control': - “I will give you a full day's work and expect a danarius in return.” 'He made an agreement with them for their usual daily wage,' at verse 2.

We can be like this in our discipleship:

“I put in some hours for you God, I came to church, I listened and paid attention but left without what I had hoped for; it didn't meet me, didn't feed me, you didn't answer my prayers.”

This is what God challenges this morning and it is tough. Vicars are just as guilty. We think there might be something we have done or failed to do to create the right conditions for you to meet with God. We put in certain efforts and expect certain results when instead we must just trust you in your love for God and let God be God.

The later workers in the vineyard simply trusted God would do what was right at verse 4 “I will pay you whatever is right.”. This is the alternative put before us. When we let God be God and trust him and know him, he gives to us in far more abundance than our limited imaginings could have asked for. These later labourers in the vineyard just trusted in the Master's generosity – knew so much better the character of God – trusted the master to do what was right and 'this right' by our lavish God's standards was paying the workers far more than they actually deserved because this is the nature of an audacious God who redeems us with everything he has – even the life of his own Son Jesus Christ.

Those first workers with their smaller expectations are made to stand in line and simply watch... as the last workers are paid the same danarius. We are left with the image of the first workers' grumbling complaint.

Now God in his mercy still loves you even when you complain – 'the hymns aren't like they used to be, I expected to meet with God but that last one was a funny song,' (say gently with a smile, Rach!)

They all received a danarius but how much greater has been the experience of the later workers, not because they had less work to do but because they live as we are to live, as we can not help but live if Jesus lives in us – they live so overblown and so thoroughly surprised by the overwhelming love of an audaciously lavish and generous God.

When God is at work in your life, you don't just expect the ordinary, you expect the extra-ordinary lavish love of God to be at work in your life and the people around you – you see the world in new ways, you come to worship him with a different grace.

Those who expect less of God and less of other people; who only expect something right in their own eyes will receive exactly what they expect.
Those who trust instead in the goodness of God, though receiving just the same, seem to receive so much more. They know how great God is and how small they are, that he will give the Holy Spirit to them if they ask; that it is only through such a baptism in the Holy Spirit's power that we can receive at all (Luke 13:11b).

The rich young man seems to think faith has so much more to do with 'man': “Teacher, what good thing must I do in order that I might have eternal life?” Jesus responds, “Why do you inquire concerning the good thing? Only one is the Good One” (19:16, 17). It is Jesus and his Holy Spirit we are to pursue: God the Good one.

It is an openness to the one who came to baptise you in the Spirit which will open up your life with God and as a result impute to you a genuine love for everyone else. (see Matthew 3:11; Ephesians 5:18; John 3:5; Acts 2:4; Acts 19:2; Acts 1:8, Acts 11:16; Luke 3:16, Luke 24:49; Acts 19:6; Acts 19:1-6, Acts 2:1-4; Acts 4:31; Mark 1:8; John 1:33; Acts 10:44; John 20:22; Romans 8:26; Acts 1:4-5; Acts 10:44-46; Luke 11:9; Luke 11:13; Acts 11:15-16; John 14:16-17.)

Jesus teaches us through this parable, then, to set our sights so much higher, to bring the whole of ourselves to worship and to sacrifice what pleases us for the sake of one another.

God will meet us as our hearts become full of him, it's not in the music or a warm and floaty feeling, where you understood the sermon or found it more encouraging – it's in your openness to him and to one another; letting God be God. It's in your expectation. 

So in many ways then, yes, it is the very hardest thing of all he asks of us. It's got more to do with our surrender and our letting God be God; not working it all out beforehand and setting limits on our reward. A simple trusting receptivity to the sheer goodness of God is what this parable teaches: –

“I trust you God to do what is right and that I am not to control that ... and as we learn else where from scripture and Ephesians verse 20 of chapter 3: He can do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine!


On "Vulnerability" & "Resilience" - my talk to Deans of Women in the Church of England

Jack is three and came to my house last weekend for baptism prep. He brought mum and dad and a sister and brother. He also brought cake!

Mum and Jack explored with me their journey to the 'big cake bake,' the dessert they provided for after our Sunday Roast together. Jack had broken 6 eggs. At three years old this was no traumatic thing. Just an interesting thing. And he enjoyed telling me. 
They dropped on the floor. 
They broke on the floor. 
Mummy was cross.

The cake we ate together was huge and delicious. 
The thing is mum had broken eggs too, she had broken 6 eggs – big cake! So I guess this proves that it is what we do with our brokenness that counts because our brokenness, our vulnerability is unavoidable if we're going to risk being transformed, which is what God would have for us. 

We are told by the world that we should bounce back but I will tell you there are a couple of problems with bouncing back. Rubber eggs bounce. But there's nothing good inside of them. They are just tough. And in their tough irregularity they are unpredictable, bouncing off in all directions. We become increasingly unpredictable if all we ever do is reactively bounce back, not dealing with the things that have broken us, causing stasis to descend, freezing all that potentially good stuff inside and fixing it still. 

In reading Brene Brown on vulnerability, I was most struck by her conclusion that in our numbing our pain, we numb too our capacity for joy. We are to stay porous then, keep processing the stuff inside and allowing light in through the unavoidable cracks.  

Thinking about resilience, my mind is drawn to my garden, in which I sat with Jack during baptism preparation eating that cake. (The trampoline engages little baptism candidates as I fill out paper work with guardians about godparents.) My trampoline has resilience, Jack loved bouncing. I have less resilience. My body feels heavier now than it did when I was younger even if it isn't literally heavier, although it probably is. I am more fragile, on the inside, for all sorts of reasons that those amongst you who have had children can relate to. The trampoline floor flexes, my floor does not. I just don't bounce like I used to. I just should not bounce like I used to!

Bouncing back, then, dips as life makes its marks upon us and it can afford to as we learn lessons along the way and apply these lessons to the new situations we face. Locating the present moment in the experiences of the past and the promises of the future keeps perspective, which serves in its own way to bolster resilience. Life only makes sense backwards. Past difficulties serve a redemptive purpose for present realities if through them we have learned anything about God, other people and ourselves.  

Kristine Culp in her book on Vulnerability (2010, Vulnerability and Glory: A Theological Account, Westminster John Knox Press) describes this prior learning as my already having been both harmed and transformed. Like eggs or as St Paul puts it, like earthen vessels, we are susceptible both to being broken and revealing treasure inside. This being harmed and this being transformed is surely part of the human condition. Jack watched harmed eggs become transformed eggs. We ate them, messily, at my house. 

Fragile like an egg, can I learn to be okay about my own brokenness; my vulnerability? 
I believe that in its brokenness the egg can become something that can go on to nourish others. 
This incredibly creative stuff can be released and apply the right kind of heat and environment to it and somehow suddenly, or perhaps in about three minutes, depending on how you like them, there are all these different kinds of eggs. 

What kind of resilience do I need to cultivate?
A resilience that is not about bouncing back - we just aren't built for constant bouncing. 
Instead I have to know the kind of egg I was formed to be (self-aware, individuated). 
I have to trust in God's redemptive plans for all humanity and that in our brokenness we can nourish others in sharing our vulnerability: our life experiences, weaknesses, our very messy humanity. God means for us to be vulnerable, we share his image built this way (more on that later). Trusting in God helps me to hold on to the belief that if I know myself and my identity in Christ, I can be broken but not totally shattered and my being broken can serve my own life and the lives of others redemptively. 

It's not about being tough
Kristine Culp in her theological account of Vulnerability1 believes vulnerability is our 'susceptibility to being changed, for good and for ill.' 'Human creatures remain open to being damaged and open to being transformed because they remain susceptible to being changed by others...'2 

The Latin root of vulnerability points to wounds or wounding. 

It's about contending, anyway, with community. Zechariah knows well, the 'wounds we gather in a house of friends (Zech 13:6).' We are not to resist community because of wounding, we are to navigate it, learn to love, be loved and live through the wounding which is never undone completely in the transforming. 
Look at Jacob, transformed but limping.
Look at Christ raised and yet punctured through his hands and side. 
Therein behold the Glory. 

Kristine Culp will not pair vulnerability with resilience, she pairs Vulnerability with Glory. She explains that we are to become attuned to the vulnerable baby-God in a manger [who] moves to glory rather than resilience.

Perhaps resilience carries too many connotations of the bouncing back that I have rejected.3  Glory better conveys the transformation possible through vulnerability. We will never bounce back into the shape we were, the shape is transformed, if through the difficulties and crises we have learned anything along the way. Even in those who seem to wound us carelessly we are to find nuggets of truth from which we can learn and transform. Finding the yolk, the good stuff gives hope the last word, turns the last word to encouragement. 

An article in Psychology Today 4 called: 'I scream, you scream, we all scream for self – esteem,' describes an experiment where samples of people to whom encouraging words had been spoken over a long period of time were then exposed to small electric shocks (don't try this at home) – fried eggs!). Those nurtured in encouragement were far less susceptible to the pain than those who had not had encouragement spoken over them. By continuing to soak ourselves and others in the words God speaks over us in his love for us in our broken moments; by becoming agents ourselves of his encouraging love, we are better preparing people to bare the unavoidable shocks of life, to have the being broken become transformative. When human beings wound us, we are to hear again the reassurance of a wounded God who loves us, knows us and can transform us. 

I made a commitment to myself, after experiences of being trained for secondary teaching, observing staff and the power of their words over students, and again, after reading the Alban Institute's 'Never call them Jerks' that I was going to hold myself to healthy responses to those who wound. Speak well of others because when there's not a lot I can control, I can control at least my own response.5 When the wounding comes, which inevitably it will in any form of corporate life, be not left also with a me I love less by not holding myself to this. This is all a part of the process of remaining self-individuated and not wounding those who wound you. 

Maintain vision, love for God, love for His Story and love for others and His vision for my identity because it is often your very identity that is being measured by those same members of that community you have been called to love. They each have their own recipe card and ideas for what you're supposed to be. It would be completely impossible to conform yourself to everyone's taste and you would lose yourself in trying to be.  

Be the egg you are supposed to be: know yourself
The interesting thing about eggs is that they are best cared for in a shape that fits them. Put into a shape too hard to adapt to and shaken around always, the egg will not last, the creative stuff will become so mixed up with the broken stuff that there will not be a lot that you can do with either. Eggs have rope-like strings called chalazae which act to anchor the yolk to the centre of the white. 

Even if we do not break completely, if we find ourselves in environments where the centre just can no longer hold, whether that be our belief in who we are or in who God is, if these become so shattered and set adrift, it is time to get out of the box.

When the centre holds, you can go on to hold that delicate and messy collection of unique people as a Christian leader. It takes time and not everyone is going to hang in there as you work out the shape of the container, its contours, weak points and strong sides.  

All the eggs in the box have their own lives and stories of how they came into being. Shell and yolk; some with centres anchored and some just hanging in there. Let time take care of the collection of eggs. Separating broken stuff from good stuff is not our job as scripture tells us elsewhere with wheat and tares, take away the broken bits and we lose something of the egg too. 'Tis always so when I pick bits out of the mixture at home! God has all the time in the world.   

Know more about who God is
In all our explorations of vulnerability and resilience we say something about God.
Does a theology of God being affected, being malleable and affected; does a theology of God being vulnerable lend itself better to a theology of our own vulnerability as those made in his image?

Elizabeth Gandolfo in her book The Power and Vulnerability of Love - captures our preoccupation with the need for a God who suffers with us, with her paraphrase: “How can a loving God remain unaffected by or invulnerably controlling a history' shot through with human suffering?6 She builds, in answer, a case for the invulnerability of God as offering vulnerable humans a necessary stability of identity.

An invulnerable God can maintain that unchanging love from which we draw in the face of life events that would otherwise break us. He's our chalazae.What human beings need from God, says Gandolfo, is not just compassion and responsiveness but a God invulnerable to the very horrors we suffer. 

With a developed theology of the Trinity we can suffer this God who doesn't suffer, because the second person of the Trinity condescends to mix himself up with the very egg of a woman, Mary, to be born in blood and pain, to be born and to die in vulnerability: Christ. The second person of the Trinity is vulnerable enough for us. 

Gandolfo explores how the Christian God comes to earth the way the rest of us do - “The bloodiness of [Mary’s] labor (sic) could have ended differently. Love incarnate did not pass into the world through Mary’s womb like a ray of light.” If ministry is also about our being perpetually born anew to the wonders of God and bringing others to birth in a similar way, why would we think that it is similarly not going to be experienced through some suffering and pain. Moses' desire had been for an encounter with the Glory of God, when that Glory comes fully it comes in the fullness of Christ in his vulnerability on a cross.

God’s invulnerability can hold within it the incarnate Lord’s necessary vulnerability. Christian resilience is found then in drawing strength from the unchanging essence of an eternally loving God, vulnerably experiencing my wounds in the woundedness of Jesus Christ. Perhaps capturing a sense of this Trinitarian invulnerable but 'oh so vulnerable' God is found in a letter written to the editor of Christian Century.

'Both the manger birth and the cross express that truth... that the "essence of God is power directed by vulnerable love....The danger of our modern… culture is the division between those who see God as loveless power, which has given us… 9/11 [and atrocities ever since] and those who see God as powerless love, which has given us a rapidly shrinking... church. The God of the New Testament is hardly powerless, as the story of the resurrection proclaims. [We have a] God whose essence is power directed by vulnerable love to wipe away every tear. A powerless God cannot do that.7

Over the years, reading the scriptures, I become more attuned to my own naïve idealism and how this is not supported in the scriptures by the stories of human dealings. Christian resilience is bolstered too in meditating on the stories of the human condition in the Gospel, the sheer grittiness, the simple displays of human weakness and error and God's faithful and loving pursuit of such unendearing beings. Conflict is very much at the heart of scripture's converting and transforming narrative and peace is not the absence of trouble but the presence of God. An over-realised eschatology might not serve me or others well. The Kingdom is really not here yet and there's much work to be done – God has work to do in me. Kristine Culp says 'Christian' (and I would say human) 'communities are necessarily ambiguous mixtures of creativity and destruction, holy and demonic, good and ill, true and false.' 

Egg shell and yolk.

'Faith emboldens us to resist diminishment and to persevere against fear, to enjoy and share life as a gift of God, to dare and dwell in a sturdier justice and a widening love. Forgiveness releases the burden of failures and faults, enabling us to straighten our backs, as it were... Love lifts us, binding us to God and one another, to the well-being of neighbors (sic) and strangers; it turns us around in reverence...'8 

And so the bible tells us: But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed and you know the rest (2 Cor 4 vv. 7-12).

Developing self and other awareness, praying more keenly for relationship with an invulnerable but oh so vulnerable God can prepare us for a life poised somewhere between vulnerability and resilience as we 'are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory (2 Cor 3:18).

1 Kristine A. Culp, 2010, Vulnerability and Glory: A Theological Account, Westminster John Knox Press.
2 Kristine A. Culp, 2010, Vulnerability and Glory: A Theological Account, Westminster John Knox Press, p.120
3 Culp supports my wonderings here proposing that in much of the literature in the field 'definitions of vulnerability point to the risk of harm from hazards, epidemics, and disasters; [and] the contrasting term is resilience. In other words, damage has a force of inevitability, and the main questions are how to prevent it and, if and when hazards are met, whether persons, communities, and environments will be able to resist and rebound from it. p.2
4 Psychology Today. Mar/Apr 93, Vol. 26 Issue 2, p22. 2p.
5 Never Call Them Jerks: Healthy Responses to Difficult Behaviour by AP Boers, Alban Institute, 2000
6 Elizabeth O’Donnell Gandolfo, The Power and Vulnerability of Love: A Theological Anthropology, Fortress. p.188
7 Kristine A. Culp, 2010, Vulnerability and Glory: A Theological Account, Westminster John Knox Press.
8 Kristine A. Culp, 2010, Vulnerability and Glory p.104 - 120


Vocation and the Church of England

The day when the Church of England takes down an advert advertising for a Young Vocations Adviser from any belief background, Willesden clergy, on Inset, listen to Jane Williams on vocations. Surely, a Vocations Officer for Christian Vocations needs to be a Christian. They have since created a new advert. 

Vocation at the beginning

Jane asks that we see the church as carrying the human vocation: we are made in God's image. Being made in God's image is an unusual word to apply to the whole of humanity. Ancient near Eastern literature might have held this as possible only for kings etc. 

Genesis paints a picture of the human shaping of the potential hidden in the earth. We are to work with God to bear fruit, to promote flourishing. Interdependence is written into the story of creation in that the productivity of one day is grounded in what has come before. Human beings are an extension of God's care of the universe and are to respond to God as they 'image' God. 

We are the descendants even of the heavens and earth with the same word being used here to describe generational relationality. 

Genesis 2 builds on the big picture of Genesis 1 and takes a closer focus on humanity. Differences are now seen, God speaks everything into existence but human beings are made out of God's breath and out of something that already exists: the dust; the earth. We are earthly and heavenly; a bridge. 

Genesis 2:15 tells us we are to til and keep the earth. Earth is not in a state of perfection, it is dependent upon our care. Til and keep are those farming words also extended to our care of the temple in later scriptures. They are vocational activities. Holy work and daily work interconnect. Tilling and keeping is at this point, a joy. Only after rebellion does it become a challenge. 

The animals are brought to the human creature to be named. The human creature is naming and more importantly defining the creatures, exercising dominion, helping to create the creatures' reality. 

The human creature becomes two human creatures. No return to the dust but an act of recreation to form Eve, coming forth from Adam there is that sense of dependency again: connectedness. (Jane does not use the names Adam and Eve, she uses instead 'human creature, human being from which come two beings.)

"One creature broken into two to make a partner."

This is a theology of interconnectedness. The Fall breaks connectedness. All things were able to delight in their interdependence but after this 'relationship' breaks. This brokenness manifests itself in idolatry. 

'Turning created existence into an ultimate point of reference, is the form that the fall takes, but what lies behind it is that man refuses to refer created being to communion with God. In other words, viewed from the point of view of ontology, the fall consists in the refusal to make being dependent on communion.' (J Ziziolas Being as Communion p.102). 

Disconnected from God we become discouraged with one another. The fall is that state of broken relationships.

At the Fall we have the cunning and uppity animal (the snake). People in the image of God should not be told what to do by an uppity animal! They named it and therefore made it what it is. Now it exerts dominion over them. The order is cascading into reversal and now the God who calls the human creatures to walk with him in the communal walk through the garden, hide from him. They notice now their differences from one another which were once perfect in complementarity. The differences between them are now so frightening they are to be hidden. Tilling is now not delighted in, neither is procreation. "This is not God's punishment or curse." It's the story of the reversal of the good order; a descent into ignoring that we are 'gift' to one another, out of God's gift of communion. Babel highlights a mass disordering of peoples; a mass disordering which Pentecost comesto undo, setting us into good order again through the power of the Holy Spirit. 

Vocation through family

God calls Abraham. 

God begins to restore human relationships. Abraham has to return to dependence on God who will create Abraham's new reality. Abraham had created a reality for himself and that is sacrificed now and given over to God. The word for land is 'earth' - synedochal. Abraham is 'type.' Here we have scripture working on its figurative and literal levels. 

Moses has to take people into dependence again on God. It took 40 years to have this people become community and depend on Him again. 

We now have to be told in the ten commandments how to live with each other because we've lost the original vocation through the Fall. The prophets then call people back to their original imaging in God. 

Our truthfulness in terms of our identity is inseparable from our loving one another and our attention to those weaker members amongst us. This is holiness. God renames people as he reconfigures them. It's God's invitation. You are to take your time over it. Human calling is to relate all things to God through our own relationship to God. 

Vocation through the Church

The church, as we hear in Ephesians, is to be the new humanity. To be those who know ourselves to be gift and to gift ourselves to others is the purpose of Church.  Jesus' vocation is to demonstrate utter dependence on the Father, he is the beginning of the new creation, this is what the 'Our Father' prayer makes us  - brothers and sisters and children. "Church is a school for the new humanity." it's hard work because we have to til and keep our relationships, community is hard work because community is broken.

Jesus is always going to insist on his relatedness to the Father. The disciples are encouraged to find their relatedness to the Father. Jesus is the true human being so that even the miracles show that order is coming back again, a right interrelatedness begins to break in through him (the Kingdom). Through human vocation (and divine intent) the miracles occur, nature cooperates again with humanity.

Vocation through the Spirit

The vocation Christ gives to us through the Spirit is that reversal of Babel: community. We are chosen before the foundation of the world and destined for adoption. The mystery is revealed: the intent to gather everything together in Jesus, restoring interconnectedness. There is the bringing together of all peoples. How we are to be family needs instruction (one of Paul's aims in his letters). Building the bond of peace through the unity of the Spirit is essential God-work because unity is not natural to us any more.

The Spirit calls us to be brothers and sisters. He prays in us, adopts us.

"The Holy Spirit makes you a connecting place for the people of God, to restore human beings into relationship with one another and with God."

The Church is to help people discern vocation. We accidentally assume that vocation is built in church but it is to be nurtured in the spaces God places people. People crave connection and community, but are often passive about it, this is problematic - why? Because we were built to til and to keep - this is our great purpose. 

"The ordained vocation is to serve this greater calling of helping others find their vocations."

Churches are to be places where we learn how to be 'gift' to others and to the world.
We are to delight then, offering praise, proclaiming the Gospel. We are to delight in the beauty of the church. "Creation was quite weird too!"

We are to sustain others through the ministry of Word and Sacrament.
"Not your flesh but Christ's flesh."
"Not your words, but God's words," (else you exhaust yourself).
We are to always point away from ourselves.
By this too may we be sustained. Amen.



I don't know which operating system you run on, and yes, perhaps I mean that technologically and metaphorically but Henryk and I are not Windows people or Applemac people, we are Ubuntu people. 

There is a community of people who write software just for the fun of it. 
We download it free. 
Their joy is in the creating. 
Ours in the receiving.

Ubuntu is an ancient African word for community. It means 'I am what I am because of who we all are'. Desmond Tutu speaks on Ubuntu Theology and how we only know who we truly are in relationship with others.

There is no commonly recognized Hebrew word for 'self'. In the Bible 'self' is conveyed instead with words like לב (heart/mind), נפשׁ (soul), and רוח (spirit). The Bible is more interested in communal life not individual life, in communal salvation not individual salvation. It is not possible to truly know yourself devoid of the nexus of people who remind you who you are. 

In John 17 (23) Jesus' prayer explores community: ‘I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.’
Next Sunday we read about Philip. As we know Jesus has been appearing to his disciples over these weeks between his rising and his ascending: in a garden to Mary, in a room to Thomas, at the beach for Peter, on a certain road called Emmaus.

Whilst Jesus was still with them, Philip, whom we don't know so well, only that he had wondered if anything good could ever come out of Nazareth, said to Jesus, ‘Show us the Father and we shall be satisfied’.
Jesus says exasperated: ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. (John 14.8-10).

Christians know God the Father. We know God. 
Is that an arrogant claim? 
It can seem so in a post-modern world where it is fashionable for everything to be uncertain.
The scriptures tell us we know who the Father is because the Son has revealed him to us. We have seen the Father through the relationship lived between the Father and the Son attested to in the scriptures. We know who God the Father is, as we see him in relationship with his Son.

Similarly, we only know who we are in relationship with others.  At the beginning of the Bible we hear that it is (Genesis 2.18) not good for man [humankind] to be alone.

We need one another to know who we each are. In a network of relationships we love one another into shape.
As the saying goes, if you want to know how a man will treat you, just look at how he treats his mother. This is a little cliched but what it scratches at is some truth about how we reveal who we are through the way we live our closest relationships.

In Christ's high priestly prayer, he takes this a step further. He tells us that in our seeing the relationship lived out between the Father and his Son, we see God.

Jesus will go on to say – love one another because that is how people will know you are my disciples.

Ubuntu: I only know who I am in relationship to you. 

Holy Ubuntu: I only know who God is in the relationship he lives out with his Son.
So church? 
Why should church not just be another community venture? 
Ubuntu: community is good, right? 
Why is our strapline here at All Saints: Expressing the love of God in our community?

Why is it not just Expressing love in our community.

Well, because belonging to a God-centred, Jesus worshipping, Spirit filled community as we are, not only do we better come to understand who we are. We better come to understand WHOSE we are.

We are in horizontal relationship with one another and a vertical relationship with God.

G K Chesterton describes people who live in a small church community and how they actually live in a much larger world than those in large communities who can afford to join themselves to people just like them. That will only ever form, at best, a clique, or a club. In small communities, like this one, our companions are chosen for us.
So church – more than Ubuntu.

Church - also a body of people who study the scriptures to know God; to see there the relationship between the Father and the Son.

But Ascension and Pentecost challenge us, also, to be more than this.

Just as Philip demanded: Show us the Father and then we will be satisfied. It is often so for us. We read about Jesus, we read about God, we come to love one another with a godly love, we come to know ourselves, both 'who' and 'whose' we are in community together.
We might similarly cry: Show us the Father, show us Jesus and then we will be satisfied!! 

Well, the godhead has. 

Today we think more over about how Jesus has ascended to the Father. The early church is in a period of waiting for the coming of the Spirit.  

Come Holy Spirit is the most important invocation of the church. It is only because of his arrival at Pentecost that the ascension can be any good news at all. 

For if the Son has returned to the Father then what are we to do?

We are to receive the Holy Spirit whom they send in their place.

It is through the power of the Spirit that we are brought into all truth. 

It is through the power of the Spirit that when we doubt who we are, he can gently remind us again.

It is through the power of the Spirit that we can love those who are hard to love in a community where companions are chosen for us.

Tertullian quotes the pagans and their reaction to early Christians: their common shocked response was ‘See how these Christians love one another.’ They were amazed but had no frame of reference for this power of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit makes Christians Christian – makes Christians distinctive more distinctive than other bodies of good people gathered with intentions philanthropic.

This love is love 'so the world may believe' as we hear in this morning's Gospel. Pagans became Christians so intrigued were they by this love. Richard Burridge, Dean of King's College London, scholar of John's Gospel, says ‘In the End, we love each other not for our own sakes, nor even so that the world may believe, but because this is how we share the very life of God and come to be with him and in him for ever and ever.' (Burridge, R. (1998, 2008) John: The People’s Commentary, Abingdon: The Bible Reading Fellowship, p202). The Ascension is good news because we were given the Holy Spirit, the Spirit brings even our ascension too into the community of God. We ascend as we share in the very life of God: ‘I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one. Holy Ubuntu indeed! Amen.


I am

Acts 8.1b-8That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison. Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them. The crowds with one accord listened eagerly to what was said by Philip, hearing and seeing the signs that he did, for unclean spirits, crying with loud shrieks, came out of many who were possessed; and many others who were paralysed or lame were cured. So there was great joy in that city.
The Gospel is written in the book of John 6.35-40 Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.’

I am the bread of life.

We are told by John that after Jesus has said this many of his disciples turn away and no longer walk with him. But Jesus says to them and perhaps to us all, “Do you want to go away as well?” Peter replies, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life...”

Where else do we go? There are so many worldviews, religions and ideologies competing for our attention these days – but Christianity offers not a world view or an ideology, neither moral system nor life-improvement plan – Christianity offers us a person – Jesus, to live in us by his Spirit and to guide us by his example. Jesus offers us himself.

We could so easily be those who eat loaves and fishes forever and who do church because of what it gives us: comfort, company, places at a good school, morality, purpose and it could be that God has attracted you to himself with those things – this is just his clever way of getting your attention – what he really wants to give us is the gift of himself. We are challenged to leave the feast with Jesus after he has fed us. Five thousand watch him leave for the other side of the lake. Just as the manna ran out in the wilderness, we can not sit to simply be fed – Jesus asks that we follow him to the other side and be about his mission to the world beyond us, he doesn't give us security, he is our security and he asks us to join him in securing it not for ourselves but for others.

He says to those who sit in the grass and love him because he sorts things: you are looking for me ... because you ate your fill of the loaves. He knows this can be our tendency – to look to him for what he can do for us rather than to be in Him because of what he can be in us and through us. Jesus is an end in himself. Jesus doesn't just give bread, well, he does for a while but the people love him for that and not for him in himself and he is on to that. Jesus doesn't therefore say he will continue to give bread, he says instead that he is bread. Jesus says I am the bread of life. He says Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.

Like him our mission too must be to the other side, to pick up our cross know that He is enough. When we have been fed with him at the table we are to leave the feast nourished and become bread for the world. I first met Jesus at the Eucharist when I was seven years old with the words 'We are not worthy so much as to gather the crumbs from under your table' – I didn't understand then what I understand now – I had to journey into the painful but liberating truth that there is nothing I can do to make me worthy of God, that it is all his action – that he makes me worthy by becoming my living bread, by inviting me into relationship with him, to believe that he died for me, to believe that when God looks at me he sees me covered in Christ because of Christ's work on the cross for me and therefore pleasing in his sight – that I can not gather up the crumbs of my life and present them worthy to him but that he can gather up the crumbs of my life and present them worthy to the Father because he, Jesus, is worthy.

Following Jesus, this living bread – being Christian – being in Christ, is to know him in the joys and to know him in his sufferings, it is to leave for the other side of the lake and follow. It is in this following that we then hear him say I am the living bread. I am your enough. It is not about what I can do for you, it is about my being in you by my Spirit. This living bread is Jesus himself. And so what now – we are those who are fed and if this is so we are to go on to feed others, our God is always a missional God, leaving the comfort of the sun and green grass to travel a lake to the other side, to face the authorities and have them take offence at him, to push boundaries and to shake things up a bit, to bring challenge. Here we are gathered just a few, a sunny day, grass outside and not really one of us hungry – how are we to be like him - bread for the world – let's continue to pray in God's renewal through us. Amen.

Risen Christ, you filled your disciples with boldness and fresh hope: strengthen us to proclaim your risen life and fill us with your peace, to the glory of God the Father.


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A little background reading so we might mutually flourish when there are different opinions