The Story of Deliverance (a sermon on Psalm 111)

I think we often don’t realize how powerfully our stories shape us as people and as nations.

For example, in British military history the idea of the brave few who win a glorious victory over the many has been a recurrent theme. I think it goes back to Shakespeare, to Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt, where the King says ‘We few – we happy few – we band of brothers’. Admiral Nelson took this up during the Napoleonic Wars, talking about his ship captains as a ‘band of brothers’ fighting against the superior numbers of the Spanish and French. And Churchill tapped into it in his famous Battle of Britain speech: “Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few”. These stories reinforced in the British psyche the idea that it doesn’t matter if British forces are outnumbered, because they have a history of coming from behind to win.

I think in the Church we have to be very careful that we don’t get coopted by stories in the culture that are antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus. Two of the most powerful are the myth of redemptive violence and the myth of the American dream. Redemptive violence tells us that violence is usually the answer: the way to defeat an enormous evil empire is for Luke Skywalker to wield his light sabre or fly his X-wing fighter to destroy the Death Star. The American Dream tells us that the key to success in life is ever-increasing wealth; to get richer means making progress and getting ahead, but not to do that is failure. These are powerful stories in our culture and they shape us in ways we often don’t notice. Unless we challenge them – and then the culture pours down scorn on our heads.

Psalm 111 reminds Israel of its founding story – the story of how God rescued a slave people from Egypt, led them safely through the desert, fed them with manna, gave them laws to shape their life together as God’s people, and then led them into their home, the promised land. Year by year by year, this story was told in the liturgy of Israel, especially at Passover time, and as the people heard it they understood once again who they were as a people, why God had called them, what God had called them to be. This story shaped their lives, which is why it was so important for them to come back to it again and again.

As Christians, as we read this psalm, we’re going to ask ourselves the question: What is our equivalent of the Exodus story? How does the Jesus story shape us like the Exodus story shaped Israel? What practices do we follow to allow it to shape us? And are we being faithful in those practices, or are we neglecting them?

The heart of the psalm is verses 5-9. Let me read them to you again from the NRSV:

‘He provides food for those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant. He has shown his people the power of his works, in giving them the heritage of the nations. The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy. They are established forever and ever, to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness. He sent redemption to his people; he has commanded his covenant forever. Holy and awesome is his name’.

Three incidents in the Old Testament story of the Exodus from Egypt are recalled here. First, in verse 5 the people remember how God fed them in the desert: ‘He provides food for those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant’. Exodus tells the story of how the people came to Moses grumbling that there was no food for them to eat, and there were many thousands of them, all in danger of starvation. So God sent them ‘manna from heaven’, little flakes of a bread-like substance that fell on the camp every morning. The tradition in Exodus is that this food came to them every day for the forty years of their desert wanderings, until the day they crossed the River Jordan and entered the Promised Land: then it stopped. So God in his power and mercy kept them alive through the desert, and all through the years they celebrated this memory.

Second, in verse 6 the people remember how God led their armies into Canaan, drove out the Canaanites before them and gave them the land for themselves. ‘He has shown his people the power of his works, in giving them the heritage of the nations’. The biblical story is a little unclear as to how this happened; Joshua gives the impression that it was sudden and decisive, while Judges seems to suggest it was longer and messier. But it was the universal belief of Israel that it wasn’t their own military prowess that had won this victory for them; rather, God had provided them with a safe home to live in.

Third, in verses 7-8 the people remember how God gave them his ‘Torah’, his laws or instruction, on Mount Sinai. ‘The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy. They are established for ever and ever, to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness’. God didn’t give the Torah to Moses as a way of earning his love; he had already poured his love out on them freely when he rescued them from Egypt. But he wanted to shape them into a people who would shine his light for all the world around them, and the Torah was going to help them do that.

This psalm doesn’t specifically mention the coming out of Egypt itself, of course, or the crossing of the Red Sea; it assumes that story, which is retold poetically three psalms later, in Psalm 114. But if we take these four incidents in order, here is the story that shaped Israel: First, God rescue them from slavery in Egypt. Second, God provided supernatural food for them to eat in the desert so they wouldn’t starve (he also made water flow supernaturally for them). Third, God gave them the Torah to shape their lives as obedient people. Fourth, God led them into Canaan and gave it to them as their Promised Land.

I want to make two more comments before applying this story to us today as Christians. First, for Israel this story spelled out to them the character of their God: verse 4 says ‘the Lord is gracious and merciful’, or as another, more literal translation has it, ‘showing favour and merciful is the Lord’. In other words, the God of Israel is a loving and generous God. The book of Deuteronomy underlines several times that this love wasn’t something they had done anything to deserve: it was the free choice of God to make them his people and shower his love on them. The New Testament word is ‘grace’: love you don’t have to earn or deserve – it comes to you from God as a free gift, not because you are lovable but because God is love.

My second comment is to remind you that Israel reminded themselves of this story year after year. Where is this psalm recited? Verse 1 says ‘I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation’. In other words, the people of God are gathered together to worship God, and in that gathering this story is retold, to remind the people of who God is and who they are.

Verse 4 in our NRSV says ‘He has gained renown by his powerful deeds’, but many other translations say something like ‘He has caused his wondrous deeds to be remembered’, or ‘a memorial he has made of his wondrous acts’. The book of Exodus tells the story of how God commanded that year by year the people celebrate the Passover Festival as a memorial of their deliverance from Egypt. For thousands of years now Jewish people have been doing just that.

What about us as Christians? What story shapes us, and how do we celebrate it? Our story, of course, is the story of Jesus. If we were using the same categories as the Old Testament people, we might tell the story in four acts:

What is our deliverance from slavery? It’s Easter weekend: the cross and the resurrection, the story of how Jesus reconciled us to God by his death and gave us victory over evil by his resurrection. By Jesus’ death and resurrection we’re set free from guilt and fear. We find a new connection with God a new strength to do God’s will, and a new hope for the future. Easter weekend is Jesus’ great victory over the armies of Pharaoh. No wonder we celebrate it year by year.

What is our story of being sustained in the desert by manna from heaven and water from the rock? In 1 Corinthians Paul applies these stories to Christ, who is our nourishment on our desert journey through life. The Eucharist, of course, is a graphic picture of this: we ‘feed on him in our hearts by faith, with thanksgiving’. Jesus says, “I am the bread of life; those who come to me will never be hungry, and those who believe in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35). So we celebrate the continuing presence of Jesus with us to sustain us on our journey, and especially his presence in the Eucharist.

What is our story of God giving us his Torah, his instruction, to shape our life as an obedient people? Surely this is Jesus coming among us as our teacher, by his actions and his words. Jesus gives us our clearest picture of what God is like and what God wants for us. His Sermon on the Mount and his other teachings spell out for us what it looks like to be a people who love God with all their heart and soul and mind and strength and love their neighbour as themselves. The New Testament letter to the Hebrews says, ‘Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son…He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being’ (Hebrews 1:1-3). In other words, the word God has spoken to us in Jesus is the highest and clearest word we have ever received, and it’s meant to shape us as a people.

What is our story of God leading his people into the promised land? We need to be careful about this one, because one of the discontinuities between Old and New Testaments is the place of violence. Jesus never commands his followers to carry out their mission by war and conquest. And we don’t have an earthly ‘promised land’; if we have such a place, it’s in the life to come. But where he is leading us is out into the world in mission for him. Jesus doesn’t send his soldiers out to conquer; he sends his missionaries out, armed with nothing but the gospel on their lips and the love of God in their hearts. As we share the Gospel and call others to follow Jesus, the whole world in a sense becomes God’s promised land.

How do we Christians respond to this story? Two final things: we retell it over and over again, and we live in awe of the God it reveals to us.

We Christians understand that it’s hard for us humans to concentrate on the whole story all the time. We need to go through it stage by stage, over and over again, giving our attention to different parts of it. As we tell it and retell it, it sinks into our subconscious and shapes us as God’s special people.

We’ve just gone through one of those special times – the story of Christmas. Once again we heard the story of how God came to live among us as one of us in Jesus. Luke told us of the manger in Bethlehem and the shepherds telling the story of peace on earth, good will to all. Matthew told us of the wise men and their star. John told us what it all means for us: the Word became flesh and lived among us.

Ahead for us soon is the other major festival in our story: Holy Week and Easter. We’ll focus again on the story of Jesus’ Cross and Resurrection. We’ll enter into Jerusalem with him on Palm Sunday. We’ll sit in the Upper Room as he washes his disciples’ feet and gives them bread and wine to proclaim his death until he comes again. We’ll go with him to Golgotha on Good Friday and watch the nails pounded into his body and hear him cry out: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and we’ll go to the empty tomb on Easter Sunday morning, and join in the amazement of those first witnesses in the Upper Room as the Risen Lord appears to them.

But there’s a problem. Years ago, working people only got one day off at these high and holy days. Travel was difficult and no one went away. Nowadays, not so much. Many Christian people skip these central celebrations of our faith altogether. They go away to the sun, and the last thing they think about when they’re enjoying their holiday is going to church.

What does this mean? It means that year by year we miss out on focussing on these central stories that shape us as a community. Some people say, “But I can read them in the Bible any time I like”. To which I respond, “Yes, but do you?” It’s easier to get Bibles at this point in time than it has ever been, but I suspect that the Bible is actually read less and less. And anyway, it’s not the same as coming together as a community and focussing together on these central stories of our faith. So please don’t cheat yourself of this vital discipline. Even if you go away for the holidays, make sure your holiday time includes joining in worship with other Christians to celebrate the story of our salvation.

Lastly, we walk in ‘the fear of the Lord’. ‘Fear’ is perhaps not such a good translation these days; the idea of fear is usually connected in our minds with the basic human instincts to run, defend, or retaliate. The Hebrew word includes a larger range of meanings: ‘awe, reverent respect, honour’. The writer of the psalm sees no contradiction between talking about the grace and mercy of God in verse 4 and the fear of the Lord in verse 10, so the ‘fear of the Lord’ obviously doesn’t mean terror; rather, he says, it’s ‘the beginning of wisdom’.

In other words, if we have a proper attitude of awe and wonder and respect toward God, we will be in a better position to know how to live. Day by day, as life presents us with difficult situations, we’ll find that we know how to respond to them. Knowing this story – the story of God, of God’s love and God’s power – will give us a proper view of what life is all about.

I find this to be profoundly true: the light of the gospel doesn’t just illuminate God for us – it illuminates everything else as well. Things that were dark and murky become clearer and brighter. We see God as God is; we see ourselves as God sees us, and we see the world as God sees it. And seeing those things, we know what our next step on the journey ought to be. In the end, that’s what wisdom is all about.

‘A Time to Mend’ Chapter 14

Link back to Chapter 13

Emma and I went out to Northwood on the evening of the 22nd, and Becca came out to join us as soon as the clinic closed on the afternoon of Christmas Eve. The three of us went to the village church that night at seven; the pews were almost full, and Claire Lucas preached a thoughtful sermon which seemed to hold even my sister’s attention. Becca had usually accompanied us to our church on her visits to Meadowvale, but I knew that she rarely attended when she was home in England.

After the service was over we walked back to my parents’ house through the cold night air. Becca grinned at us; “That was a bit different from your usual service at Meadowvale Mennonite Church”.

“A little”, I replied, “but we like it alright. The people here are getting to know us, and we get to see George and Eleanor”.

“And Claire’s started to recognize us, too”, Emma added; “I had a nice conversation with her last time we were here”.

“You two are so easy to get along with! Surely you must miss your own church just a little bit on Christmas Eve?”

“Oh yeah”, Emma replied softly; “I miss a lot of things about home”.

“Who’s going to be at Will and Sally’s for dinner tomorrow?”

“Uncle Joe and Auntie Krista and their families for sure, and I think David and Anna will probably be there too”.

“How many’s that?”

“Twelve, I think”.

Becca grinned at me; “I think that for once we might have a bigger group here!”

“Uncle Arthur and Uncle Bill are coming, aren’t they?”

“Yes – and their wives, and Ann and Mark and their family, and Auntie Brenda, and all of us: that makes nineteen”.

“Do you know why Auntie Sarah’s not coming?”

“I think Uncle Graham’s pretty frail; they don’t stray too far away from home these days”.

“Auntie Sarah’s Grandpa’s sister, right?” asked Emma.

“Yes”, I replied. “Grandpa’s the oldest, and the others are Arthur, Sarah, and Bill”.

“Which family does Ann come from?”

“She’s the oldest daughter of Uncle Bill and Auntie Joan. Her husband is Mark Fogerty, and Caitlin and Molly are their kids; they’re seven and four”.

“They’re the ones that live in Oxford?”

“Yes. Ann’s actually the only one of my cousins who’s kept in touch with me through the years”.

“Have I ever met her?”

“Last time we were here she and Mark and Caitlin drove over from Cambridge to see us; Caitlin would have been a baby at the time. You probably wouldn’t remember it, though”.

“Actually I think I do; she was kind of tall, with long blond hair. Her husband was a little shorter than her, and his hair was really black and curly”.

“Yes, that’s them”.

Becca took my arm. “It’s a long time since anyone from Dad’s family came for dinner on Christmas Day”.

“Well, there’s a bit more of a sense of urgency this year, isn’t there?”

“I would think so”.

******

I was up early as usual on Christmas morning, and I went for my walk while it was still dark; there was a sharp frost in the air, and I knew that when the daylight came the bare fields would look spectacular with their thin white covering, different and somehow colder than the snow I was used to from my prairie home. Praying while walking had been a habit for me for many years, but on this, my third Christmas without Kelly, I found that there wasn’t a great deal that I wanted to say. It seemed to be enough just to walk quietly, breathing a few prayers of thanksgiving for Christmases past, and asking God to watch over the many loved ones who were far away from us this year.

When I got back to the house my mother was already up and working in the kitchen in her bathrobe and slippers, stuffing the Christmas turkey. We chatted for a few minutes while I made tea; I promised to come down and give her a hand, but she shook her head and said, “Becca’s just getting up, and we’ve got a good system between us. You take Emma her tea and then the two of you just enjoy yourselves for a while; we’ll be alright”.

“Are you sure?”

“Oh yes”.

“Okay then; thanks, Mum”.

I poured two mugs of tea, kissed her on the cheek and went up to Emma’s room. She was already awake, with the debris from her stocking spread over her bed; she greeted me with a smile and a hug and held up the paperback I had wrapped for her a couple of days before. “Adam Bede”, she said; “I’d been thinking about getting this one for myself”.

“Aren’t you glad you didn’t?”

“I know the rules about December shopping. Did you look at your stocking yet?”

“Not yet; I’m going to drink my tea and grab a quick shower, and I’ll probably do it after that”.

“Are you going to play us some carols today?”

“Would you like me to?”

“I love it when you play carols; it brings back lots of happy memories. I heard you and Grandma practising on Saturday”.

“You could even join us if you wanted”.

“I don’t play them as well as you do”.

“Your voice is lovely, though”.

“Thanks. Is Grandma already up?”

“Yes – she’s stuffing the turkey”.

“I’d better get up and give her a hand”.

“I already offered, and she told me she and Becca have a pretty good system”.

“What time are the guests arriving?”

“I think dinner’s at one-thirty. I expect Rick and the family will be here before noon; I’m not sure about everyone else”.

“Is it a ‘dress for dinner’ kind of day?”

“It was when we were here back in ‘94”.

“Oh yeah – I remember Mom coming down in her jeans and then running back up to put a dress on!”

“Did you bring a dress?”

“I brought a skirt and a nice sweater; I hope that’s okay”.

“I’m sure Grandma would be happy for you to come in jeans if you wanted to”.

“Well, it’s a denim skirt, you see!”

I laughed; “Very nice!”

“Thanks; it’s the warmest skirt I own, too!”

******

Auntie Brenda arrived at around eleven-thirty; she greeted us with smiles and hugs, went into the living room to put a few gifts under the tree, and then joined my mother and Becca in the kitchen to help put the finishing touches on Christmas dinner.

Rick and his family made their appearance just before noon; we met them in the hallway, exchanging hugs and handshakes and wishing each other ‘Merry Christmas’. Emma had been hanging a few extra decorations in the dining room when they arrived, and Sarah and Anna immediately joined her there, while Rick talked cheerfully with me as I helped him bring in a few presents and place them under the Christmas tree. Afterwards my mother served coffee from a silver coffee pot in the living room; I knew she only brought this pot out on special occasions, and Emma had helped her polish it the previous afternoon.

A few minutes later my father’s two younger brothers, Arthur and Bill, arrived with their wives; they had come together in Uncle Bill’s car. They were all dressed formally, my uncles in jackets and ties and my aunts in elegant dresses, pearls, and brooches. Emma sat down with them almost immediately and began to ask them questions about their homes and their families in her usual quiet way. By now she had changed into her denim skirt and sweater, and I had put on my jacket and tie in deference to the unspoken dress code.

My cousin Ann and her family were the last to arrive, and she apologized profusely to my mother for their lateness. “The girls were enjoying their Christmas presents”, she said; “They weren’t very impressed when we told them it was time to leave them behind to come to Northwood!”.

“Did you bring a few of the presents with you?” I asked, pointing to the backpack she was carrying over her shoulder.

“I did actually!” she replied with a smile; “How are you, Tom? It’s lovely to see you!”

We greeted each other with a hug and a kiss, and I bent over to introduce myself to Caitlin and Molly, but they were obviously wary of strangers, and four-year old Molly hid behind her mother’s leg. Emma laughed and said “Way to go, Dad!”

“Do you remember me, Emma?” asked Ann.

“I do – I remember you coming over to visit us last time we were here. I also remember you sending us a lovely card and note after my mom died; Dad and I really appreciated that”.

“Yes, we did”, I agreed.

“Do you want me to take that backpack?” Emma asked Ann. “Maybe if I have the toys I might be able to interest the children in playing with me”.

Ann smiled at her; “You are your mother’s daughter, aren’t you? I remember her taking Caitlin from me almost as soon as I walked in the door”.

******

As Becca had said there were nineteen of us sitting down for Christmas dinner. We had put two long dining tables together end to end and dressed them with festive tablecloths and decorative candlesticks, and the meal was served on my mother’s best china with silver cutlery and crystal glassware. The turkey had been cooking since early morning; it came with all the trimmings, along with the appropriate vegetables, and afterwards we had Christmas pudding and a selection of pies and cakes to choose from.

“When was the last time you had this many people around your table for Christmas dinner, Grandma?” Emma asked.

“I honestly don’t remember”, my mother replied with a smile. “There would have been eleven of us last time you were here for Christmas; that’s probably the most we’ve ever had until today”.

“Wasn’t there a time when Tom and I were little when we had all the aunts and uncles at once?” Rick asked.

“I’d forgotten about that”, my mother replied.

“We set up the tables in the music room, didn’t we?” I said.

“Yes, we did”.

“How long ago was that?” Emma asked.

“Before my time”, Becca replied.

“Maybe not”, I said; “I think you were a baby. You were born about the same time we moved here, and I definitely remember us eating in the music room, in this house”.

My mother nodded; “I think Tom’s right”.

“Thirty-three years ago, then”, said Rick; “It’s hard to believe we’re all that old”.

Rick was wearing a jacket and tie like the other men, but I noticed that for once he was not continually checking his Blackberry. I grinned at Becca; “I think there’s something missing from our brother’s personal accessories today”.

“Something small and noisy, maybe?”

“We’re not hearing any chimes or alert sounds. I wonder where that cheeky little Blackberry  is today?”

Alyson laughed; “I insisted he leave it at home; if anyone rings him on Christmas Day they deserve to be ignored!”

“I’ll check my messages when I get home!” said Rick.

“You are definitely an addict!”, I replied.

He shook his head; “It’s the world of modern business, I’m afraid”.

Emma tactfully changed the subject; “Grandma, are you going to play some music for us a little later?”

My mother smiled; “We’ll see how the afternoon goes”.

“Don’t let her get away with that excuse!” Auntie Brenda said with a smile; “I’m her sister but you’d be amazed how rarely I get to hear her play!”

“We’ve got lots of other musicians here, too”, my mother said; “Tom, Emma, Eric…”

“Do you play Christmas songs, Tom?” asked Ann.

“Does he play Christmas songs?” Becca exclaimed with a laugh.

Emma grinned at me; “Dad loves playing Christmas songs! I know for a fact that he and Grandma were practising on Saturday”.

I grinned at my mother; “I think we’ve just been smoked out of hiding!”

Emma looked across the table at Eric; “Did you bring your guitar?”

“I did, but I don’t really know any Christmas songs. I’ll be happy to play along, though”.

******

When the meal was over and the Christmas crackers had all been pulled, we took our coffee into the living room, where we spent a while retrieving gifts from under the tree and opening them. When we were done, Emma smiled at my mother and said, “Well, is it music time, Grandma?”

“If you insist”. She glanced at my Masefield relatives and said, “I know you’ll be wanting to get on the road soon; don’t feel you have to stay for this unless you really want to”.

“We’ll need to be getting these two home before too long”, Ann said apologetically, “but we’ll stay and listen to a couple of tunes if you don’t mind?”

“No, of course not”.

“We should get going before too long as well”, my Uncle Bill said, glancing at his watch; “We don’t want to be driving in the dark for too long”.

“Perhaps we could stay until Ann leaves”, my Auntie Joan suggested.

“If that’s what you want, dear”.

So we went back to the music room, carrying a few hard-backed chairs with us; my father apologized for taking the only armchair in there, but his brother Arthur said, “Don’t you worry, Frank – you make yourself comfortable”. My mother went over to a bookshelf in the corner where she kept a few music books; she selected an old red hardback with a faded cover, smiled at me, and said, “The Oxford Book of Carols?

“Sure. Why don’t you play some of the least guitar-friendly ones first, and then I’ll go get our guitars and we can play along with a few of the others?”

******

My Masefield relatives said their farewells at around four o’clock but the rest of us stayed in the music room for another half hour or so. My mother had played three carols and then insisted that we join in, so Emma and I accompanied her for a few of the old traditional carols I liked and Eric did his best to play along with us. Later on Emma and her cousins went out for a walk, and Becca and I told my mother to sit tight while we cleared up from dinner and washed the dishes.

Rick and Alyson ended up staying into the early evening; their children were obviously enjoying spending time with Emma, and when Alyson announced at about five o’clock that it was time for them to think about heading for home, all three of them protested. “Can’t we stay a bit longer, Mum?” asked Sarah.

“I don’t think Grandma was anticipating feeding us again today”, Alyson replied.

“Oh, nonsense!” said my mother; “The house is full of food, and anyway I’ll be surprised if anyone’s really all that hungry”.

“I’m certainly not!” I said.

“Nor me”, Becca agreed.

So my mother put some cheese and crackers out, with a few cakes and a bit of Christmas baking, and we continued nibbling in the living room while the children played board games and the adults carried on their quiet conversations. After a while Emma smiled at me and asked my mother if she had a Scrabble set anywhere; my mother quickly produced one from the sideboard, and Emma, Alyson, Sarah and I played a game for a while with a few of the others watching. I wasn’t surprised when my daughter won, although in the end the scores were quite close.

“Staying out here for a few days, then?” Rick asked me as Emma and Sarah were putting the game away.

“We don’t really have a time frame; I expect we’ll be here ’til Sunday morning anyway. Owen and his family are coming out tomorrow to spend a few days with his parents; I expect we’ll get together at some point”.

“I foresee more music in your future”.

“Maybe. How about you – straight back to work?”

“The office is closed ’til Monday but I’ll be working at home for a few hours tomorrow”.

“That’s too bad”

“Can’t be helped; we’ve got a big trial coming up in the new year and I’m a long way from being ready for it”.

“What sort of trial?”

“It’s a tax case; I can’t say much about it apart from that”.

“Corporate law then?”

He nodded; “That’s almost all I do. I used to do criminal law but now I leave that to a couple of the other partners who’ve made a specialty of it”.

“Are you going to see Alyson’s family over the holidays?”

“We’re going to make a quick trip to Edinburgh over New Year’s”.

“Do you have any commitments this Sunday evening?”

He shook his head; “I don’t think so”.

“Come for supper, if you like?”

He grinned; “You think you can squeeze us all in?”

“We’ll squeeze you in just fine. Do you like Indian food?”

“We do actually”.

“We’ll cook a nice hot curry, shall we?” I said to Emma.

“For sure”, she replied with a smile.

Rick glanced at Alyson; “What do you think?”

“Sounds lovely; can we bring anything, Tom?”

“How about if you bring the wine? Your husband seems to have a pretty discerning palate for it”.

“Yes, he does!” she agreed.

******

Rick and his family left at about nine o’clock, and a few minutes later Auntie Brenda said her goodbyes. As we stood on the front step waving to her, I could feel the damp chill in the air. “It’s going to be a cool one tonight”, I said to Becca.

She glanced up at the darkened sky. “I think we might get some rain; I can’t see any stars up there, and I can feel the moisture”.

“Maybe even snow”, Emma said with a smile; “I don’t think I’ve ever seen snow in England!”

“The children love it but the adults don’t; we’re not set up for it the way you are in Canada. The roads get slick and the trains get cancelled and everything gets chaotic”.

“Well, it’s a holiday, so it’s a good day for it”.

“Except that there’ll be thousands of holidaymakers on the roads tomorrow”.

“I guess; I didn’t think of that”.

My father was pale with exhaustion by then, and my mother and Emma helped him up to bed while Becca and I cleared up the debris from the living room, put the leftover food away, and washed and dried the dishes. My mother came back downstairs after about half an hour; she came into the kitchen, kissed me on the cheek and said “Thank you”.

I smiled at her; “You’re welcome”, I replied. “That was a wonderful dinner today. Is Dad okay?”

“He’s fine; he’s just very tired. Apparently Emma is too; she asked me to tell you she’s going to go to bed with her new book and she was wondering if you’d bring her up a mug of hot chocolate?”

“I’ll do that. Are you going to stay up for a while?”

“Do you mind if I don’t? I’m rather tired too”.

“You’re entitled, Mum”, Becca replied; “You did an amazing job today; you’re a wonderful hostess”.

“Yes, you are”, I agreed.

“Thank you both”, she said; “Are you two going to carry on your hot-chocolate-by-the-Christmas-tree tradition tonight?”

I glanced at Becca; “What do you think?”

“I wouldn’t miss it!”

“I’ll put the kettle on”, I said to my mother. “Shall I bring you up a mug when it’s ready?”

“That would be lovely”.

“How about Dad; shall I bring one for him too?”

She shook her head. “He was barely able to stay awake to change into his pyjamas; I’m sure he’s already fast asleep”.

So while my mother went upstairs again to get ready for bed I boiled a kettle and made the hot chocolate. I took a cup up to my mother, dropped another one off with Emma, and then came back down the stairs to join my sister in the darkened living room. I turned on the Christmas tree lights and stoked up the fire, and we sat side by side on the chesterfield. Becca kicked off her shoes, drew her legs up underneath her and cradled her mug in her hands. “You didn’t get any calls from Meadowvale today”, she said.

“No; we told them we’d be tied up with a family gathering this afternoon and evening. We talked to Joe and Ellie and the kids yesterday, and Will and Sally. We’ll probably call Krista and Steve tomorrow, and Beth”.

She took a sip of her hot chocolate. “Our brother did rather well at being present in the present today, didn’t he?”

“He did; I can’t believe he went for a whole day without his Blackberry”.

“Well, he didn’t have much of a choice, did he? Alyson made him leave it at home”.

“One day out of three hundred and sixty-five”.

“What do you want to bet he’s on it right now, furiously checking messages and answering emails?”

I laughed; “Probably! His kids were sure having a good time with Emma today, weren’t they?”

“She’s good for them”.

“They’re good for her, too”.

“It was nice to see Ann and Mark”.

“It was, and Dad didn’t do too badly with their kids either”.

“No, he didn’t. It helped that they were at the other end of the table from him”.

We lapsed into silence, and for a few minutes the only sounds were the crackle of the wood fire and the ticking of the old clock on the mantlepiece. Eventually she sighed and said, “You and I haven’t had too many Christmases together in the past twenty years”.

“No”.

“The last one would have been here, nine years ago”.

“Three years ago you missed it by one day, when you came out to us on Boxing Day”.

She nodded slowly; “The Christmas before Kelly died. I was so frantic, and she was so serene”.

“She was”.

“How are you and Emma doing this year, Tommy? Really, I mean?”.

“Okay for the most part”. I took a long drink of my hot chocolate and then set it down on the coffee table in front of us. “It’s been a different sort of Christmas for us so far, but mostly good”.

“How’s Emma feeling now about being in England? She doesn’t talk about it much with me”.

“She doesn’t talk about it much with me either. I know she still really misses home; she and Jenna talk a lot, and Jake too of course”.

“Jenna must really miss her”.

“I think so”.

“She’s been making some new friends here, though”.

“She has, and she’s really enjoying her cousins and grandparents”.

“Has Dad said any more about paying her fees?”

“No – I think he’s dropped the subject”.

“So telling him about the life insurance was a good idea?”

“Yes, but I should have done it a lot sooner”.

She was quiet for a moment, staring thoughtfully into the fire, and then she looked at me with a smile; “Do you remember the first year we came down here during the night?”

“You were eight, and I was home from university”.

“I couldn’t sleep with excitement about Christmas, and I came to your room and woke you up…”.

“I seem to remember I wasn’t very happy about being woken up”.

“But you were so nice about it! We talked for a while and then we snuck down here, and you turned on the Christmas tree lights just like this, and we sat and watched them for a while”.

“Actually we sat and watched them ’til you fell asleep, Small One, and I carried you back up to your bed”.

“Did you? I don’t remember that!”

We both laughed softly, and she drained her mug and set it down on the coffee table. “It was always such a comfort to me when you came home from university for Christmas. That’s how it feels this year too; just having you and Emma here makes it so much better for me”.

I smiled at her; “You’re in a pensive mood tonight”.

“I am, aren’t I? Maybe it was the churchgoing last night; it’s been a few years since I’ve gone to the Christmas Eve service”.

“You used to go with Mum sometimes”.

“Yes I did, and I was glad to go with you last night. Whenever I came home from visiting you and Kelly and Emma I always resolved to go more, but then my life seemed to swallow me up again and my resolutions seemed to evaporate into thin air”.

“The busy life of a doctor”.

“It’s crazy, isn’t it? You’d have thought losing Mike would be a wake-up call for me but I don’t seem to have learned much from the experience”.

“You’ve been slowing down a bit since we came back”.

“I’ve been trying to, but I still can’t escape that sense of being driven”.

“It’s a Masefield family disease”.

“You’ve found the cure for it somehow, though”. She stifled a yawn; “Well, I think it’s about time for me to find my bed”.

“Yes, I think I’ll find mine too”. As she got to her feet I took her hand and said “Listen, Becs – about church”.

“Yes?”

“If you’d like to go from time to time, you’d be very welcome to come with Emma and me”.

“To Banbury Road, you mean? Is it like your church in Meadowvale?”

“In some ways it is, but there are some differences; there are more university students, and there’s more of an ethnic mix”.

“Well, I’ll think about it; you know I still have lots of questions. I know you found faith but it still seems to be really difficult for me”.

I got to my feet, and we made our way quietly up the spiral staircase. At the door of my room, she kissed me on the cheek and said, “Goodnight, Tommy”.

“Goodnight, Becs; see you in the morning”.

******

Link to Chapter 15

Happy birthday, John Donne (1572-1631)

A Hymn to God the Father

Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun,
         Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
         And do run still, though still I do deplore?
                When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
                        For I have more.


Wilt thou forgive that sin which I have won
         Others to sin, and made my sin their door?
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun
         A year or two, but wallow’d in, a score?
                When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
                        For I have more.


I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
         My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son
         Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
                And, having done that, thou hast done;
                        I fear no more.

God our Refuge (a sermon on Psalm 62)

I wonder what you think about when you hear the word ‘refuge’?

A few years ago, Marci and I were up in Jasper and we decided to ride the tramway up Whistler’s Mountain. For those of you who haven’t been there, the tramway takes you about 80% of the way to the top. There are great views from the upper tramway station and if all you’re looking for is a good photo opportunity and a chance for a coffee in a restaurant near the top of a mountain, you’ll probably be happy with that!

But if you want to, you can also hike up from the station to the actual summit of the mountain; it takes me about an hour, although of course some people are faster than me. On this particular occasion the weather up there was a little iffy; the clouds kept coming down and then lifting again, and those clouds had snow in them. At one point the snow began to fly furiously and the wind was wickedly cold, and Marci and I decided to take shelter until the weather blew over. We found a nice big rock and hunkered down on the lee side of it, where we sat and munched on granola bars for a few minutes until the clouds lifted and the sun came out again!

‘Refuge’. That rock was a place of refuge for us. Move away from the rock, and we were subject to the battering of the wind and the cold. Move into the shelter of the rock, and we experienced protection. In the words of today’s psalm, it was ‘our mighty rock, our refuge’ (see Psalm 62:7b).

The theme of Psalm 62 is trust in God. And not just ‘trust in God’ in general – trust in God when the wind blows and the snow flies and life gets hard. Trust in God when you need shelter, when you need protection. In other words, this wasn’t just an academic exercise for the psalmist. When he wrote these words, he wasn’t just taking part in a poetry exercise. He was going through a battering of some kind, and he had discovered from his own personal experience that God was a place of refuge for him in times of trouble.

Before we go any further, let me remind you of a couple of things about the psalms.

First – and I say this because some of us here are very new to church and may not know this – the psalms that we read together each week as part of our service are very old. They were originally written in Hebrew and are included in what we call the Old Testament or Hebrew scriptures. We don’t know for sure who wrote them or when they were written, although some of them may go back to the time of King David, about a thousand years before Christ. Many of them are probably not be that old, but all of them come from well before the time of Christ. They were collected and used as the prayer book and hymn book of the Jewish people, and Jesus would have been very familiar with them – indeed, he probably had many of them memorized, just like some of you have favourite hymns and songs memorized. So when we pray the psalms together, we’re actually joining in the prayers of the Old Testament people and of Jesus himself.

Second, the psalms are different from the rest of the Bible. In the rest of the Bible what we often get is God speaking to his people – and through them, to us today. But the psalms don’t speak to us – they speak for us. First and foremost, they’re prayers, and very honest prayers too. So we don’t read them in the same way we would read a letter of Paul or a prophecy of Isaiah. The best way to use the psalms is to pray them – and as we pray them, we’ll learn to understand them better.

Third, the psalms are poetry. Poetry isn’t meant to be understood literally – it uses imagery and metaphor to draw us into its world of feeling and experience. When philosophy tries to describe God, it uses words like ‘omniscient’ (he knows everything), or ‘omnipresent’ (he’s present everywhere), or ‘almighty’ (he can do anything). But the psalms don’t tend to use philosophical language for God; they call God ‘my shepherd’, ‘my rock’, ‘my fortress’, ‘my refuge’. These aren’t literal statements – they’re powerful metaphors to help us enter into an experience of God.

So let’s look for a few minutes at Psalm 62. As I said the psalms were written in ancient Hebrew, and sometimes it’s a tricky language to translate into modern English. Archeologists have discovered quite a lot of ancient manuscripts, and sometimes there are differences between them. If you look at different English translations like the New Revised Standard Version or the New International Version, you’re going to see some differences. I’m going to base my thoughts today on the NRSV, which is a little different from the version we read a few minutes ago in our Book of Alternative Services.

As I said, the theme of this psalm is trusting in God in the time of trouble. The first thing I want you to notice is the structure of the psalm; it jumps back and forth from God, to people, to God, to people, and finally to God again. Turn to it in your pew Bible and look at it on the page. Notice that there are basically five sections. Verses 1-2 are about trusting God. Verses 3-4 are about the actions of the enemies. Verses 5-8 are about trusting God again. Verses 9-10 are about the attributes of humans. And finally, verses 11-12 return to the theme of trusting God. Neat, isn’t it?

So why does the psalmist write this prayer? Apparently, because he was being assailed in some way by people who were out to get him. Look at verses 3-4:

‘How long will you assail a person, will you batter your victim, all of you, as you would a leaning wall, a tottering fence? Their only plan is to bring down a person of prominence. They take pleasure in falsehood; they bless with their mouths, but inwardly they curse’.

I love that image of the wall: ‘How long will you assail a person, will you batter a victim, all of you, as you would a leaning wall, a tottering fence?’ We can imagine a rickety old wall, in such poor shape that a little gust of wind could bring it down! And we get the point right away: the writer of the psalm is feeling fragile, because he’s being persecuted.

It doesn’t sound to me as if the persecution is imprisonment or torture or danger of death – at least, not yet. What seems to be happening is that people are spreading lies about him. To his face, they’re being nice to him: “Well, hello there, my friend! How are you doing these days! It’s so good to see you!” But he’s not deceived by these greetings, because he’s heard rumours about what they’re saying behind his back. ‘Their only plan is to bring down a person of prominence. They take pleasure in falsehood’ (v.4) – or, as the B.A.S. version says, ‘lies are their chief delight’.

I’ve got a couple of things to say about this. First of all, this is a form of persecution most of us can identify with. Most of us here haven’t been imprisoned or tortured for our faith. Most of us haven’t had to flee our homes as refugees. But all of us, from time to time, have been the victims of gossip campaigns. We’ve all experienced those who greeted us warmly but whose greetings made our skin crawl, because we knew what they were saying about us behind our backs.

Second, let’s not minimize this form of persecution as if it wasn’t serious. Sometimes it can be devastating. A person’s reputation – and their entire life – can be destroyed by a false story. Sometimes it doesn’t even have to be a story; sometimes it can just be a question raised about their character or their history. It doesn’t matter – the damage is done. A lie once told can’t be recalled. Even if it’s later disproved, the victim will still be affected by it.

So what do we do about this situation? What does the psalmist recommend?

Negatively, we’re not to be surprised by it. People are not saints. People are complicated. We’re a bag of contradictions: joys and fears, loves and resentments, strengths and weaknesses. Good people do bad things sometimes; none of us is completely without our skeletons in the closet. The psalmist has a lovely poetic way of describing the human condition: look at verse 9:

‘Those of low estate are but a breath, those of high estate are a delusion; in the balances they go up; they are together lighter than a breath’.

I love the way the New Living Translation puts this verse:

‘Common people are as worthless as a puff of wind, and the powerful are not what they appear to be. If you weigh them on the scales, together they are lighter than a breath of air’.

So human beings might be able to give us a little help, the writer says, but in the end they’re strictly limited. Even the powerful, the rich, the movers and shakers, are ‘a delusion’. All their grandeur and their wealth and their fine clothes can’t change the fact that underneath, they’re just fallible human brings with the same weaknesses and frailties as the rest of us. They make mistakes, their projects fail, and one day – like everyone else – they die.

No, the psalmist tells us – trust in God. In the long run, God is the one who can be trusted.

Look at these poetic images the psalmist uses for God: ‘He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall never be shaken’ (v.2) – ‘My mighty rock, my refuge is in God’ (v.7) – ‘God is a refuge for us’ (v.8) – ‘Once God has spoken, twice have I heard this: that power belongs to God, and steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord’ (vv.11-12a). We get the message: when the wind is blowing on the top of the mountain, threatening to freeze your bones, God is the rock you can get behind for shelter. “Rock of ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee”.

How does that work? What do we actually do to take refuge in God? The psalmist offers us two insights that seem at first to be contradicting each other.

First, he seems to counsel silence. Verse 1 says ‘For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation’. Verse 5 returns to the theme: ‘For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him’. The idea seems to be ‘Wait for God to help you, and while you’re waiting, keep your mouth shut!’

But this can’t be what the verse means, because verse 8 goes on to counsel speaking! ‘Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us’. This makes sense to us; as someone once said, ‘A problem shared is a problem halved’ How many of us have had the experience of carrying around a heavy load on our hearts, and then finally being able to tell someone about it. The load was lifted! The problem hadn’t gone away, but just the fact that we could pour out our hearts to someone else made us feel better! We weren’t alone any more!

How do we resolve this contradiction?

As I mentioned at the beginning, the psalms were written in ancient Hebrew, and it isn’t always easy to translate into English. Many words don’t have exact English equivalents. With some words, scholars aren’t completely sure what they mean. And sometimes archeologists have found many manuscript copies of a particular passage, and they aren’t exactly the same – a copyist has made an error and transmitted it to others.

So ‘waiting on God in silence’ might not be the best translation of what the author originally wrote in verses 1 and 7. One of the commentaries I read suggests this translation: ‘Truly my soul is at rest in God; from him is my salvation’. I love that! I get the picture of someone who has cultivated a close relationship with God: they’ve spent time with God in prayer, speaking and listening. They’ve learned from God’s commandments and God’s teachings and tried to shape their lives by what God says. And the result is this feeling of restfulness. Couples with good marriages know what this is about! It’s not that you don’t try to please each other; of course you do! But you’re not anxious about it; you’ve been together for a long time and you feel totally secure in each other’s love. That’s the way the psalmist is in his relationship with God. ‘Truly my soul is at rest in God; from him is my salvation’.

Our NRSV translates verse 7 in exactly the same way, but some other ancient versions put it slightly differently: ‘Truly, my soul, take rest in God’. In verse 1 his soul is at rest in God, but in verse 7 he’s encouraging himself to stay there. He’s just had this huge shock of discovering this awful gossip campaign that his friend has started against him; he feels like a leaning wall, a tottering fence, as if his life is shaken to the foundations. But then he stops, takes a deep breath, remembers his experience of the love of God, and says to himself, ‘Truly, my soul take rest in God’.

When we understand the verses in this way, verse 8 flows right along: ‘Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us’. This is part of resting in God: sharing with him what’s on our hearts. Sometimes that’s an experience of joy, sometimes it’s an experience of anguish. Whatever is on our hearts, we’re encouraged to ‘pour it out to God’.

I experienced this for myself in a powerful way a few years ago when my friend Joe Walker died. Some of you knew Joe; he was forty-seven when he died of cancer; he left behind a wife and four children under the age of twelve. He was a great priest, a great evangelist, a thoughtful and genuine Christian. And I was mightily annoyed at God when he died.

I found it difficult to pray. I couldn’t make all the usual affirmations about God’s goodness and love. They rang hollow for me. I would go for my morning walk around Blue Quill park, and the only thing I could do was yell at God. I told him that if he’d wanted a list of people to snuff out, I could have given him one, but Joe definitely wouldn’t have been on it. I asked him what sort of loving care it was for Joe’s kids to do this to them. It wasn’t rational; it was visceral. But it was honest; it was how I felt.

The funny thing was: it helped. When I came back from those walks, I felt better. More than better: I had the sense that God was with me much more than when I tried to mouth platitudes I couldn’t bring myself to believe. I was pouring out my heart to God, and God heard my prayer. I didn’t get answers, but I did get God.

So this is the experience the psalmist is inviting us into this morning. Have you experienced it?

We all go through blizzards of one kind or another. Relationships are tough and sometimes people let us down; sometimes they hurt us badly. The good news is: God can be a place of refuge for us. God can be a fortress, a mighty rock.

But it doesn’t happen instantly; it takes time to cultivate that sort of relationship with God. ‘Truly my soul is at rest in God…Truly, my soul, take rest in God’. This is a daily decision: to turn to God, to listen to God, to be quiet in God’s presence, to listen for God’s word, to trust in God. This is a lifetime’s journey, but it begins tonight, or tomorrow morning, when you make the decision to open your Bible and read, and to say your prayers.

And say your prayers honestly. ‘Pour out your heart before him’. There’s no point in trying to deceive God; he knows what’s in your heart! So be the real ‘you’ when you pray. Tell God the truth, warts and all. He can take it! Martin Luther apparently once said ‘It’s better to shake your fist at God than turn your back on God’. So let’s turn to God, pour out our hearts to him, and find rest in him, so that we can learn to say from our own experience, ‘Truly my soul is at rest in God; from him is my salvation’.

Sermon at the Commissioning of Lay Evangelists at All Saints’ Cathedral, Edmonton – January 14th 2018

Tonight our Lord Jesus Christ has given a wonderful gift to his church. He has given us the gift of Alison Hurlburt, Corinna Kubos, and Jenny Stuart to be sent out as evangelists, to spread the good news and to help make new disciples for Jesus. These are the three lay evangelists we are commissioning tonight. But I want to say right from the start that there are more people involved than just these three. Sandra Arbeau has been with us through the whole process of formation; she has recently been ordained as a deacon so will not be licensed as a ‘lay’ evangelist, but she is very much a part of our community of evangelists in this diocese. Also in that community – and here tonight with us – are Richard King and Steve London who have been with us as participants, teachers and learners together with the others.

So these evangelists are the wonderful gift God is giving to his church tonight. I’m using this language of ‘gift’ intentionally, and I use it knowing very well that not everyone would see an evangelist as a gift! Some people see evangelists as a nuisance, or an embarrassment, or a theological anachronism. Some people would see them as fitting in more easily in a Pentecostal or Evangelical setting, and wonder why we’re doing this tonight in an Anglican cathedral!

But we’re here tonight because we don’t see it that way. We’re here because we’re enormously grateful to our Lord Jesus Christ for giving us the gift of these evangelists. We’re here to receive that gift with joy and celebrate it together, and to pray for them, and to ask God to bless them and guide them as they continue in the ministries to which God has called them.

Why am I using this language of ‘gift’? Because it’s the language used in our reading from Ephesians tonight. Look at Ephesians 4:11-13:

‘The gifts he (that is, Christ) gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ’ (NRSV).

In the NIV it’s even more clear:

‘So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ’.

The fullness of Christ – that’s what this is all about. The job God has given to the Church is to live out the fullness of Christ before the world. But it’s not possible for each of us to do that as individuals. I by myself am not the Body of Christ, and neither are you. The Church – the whole Christian community together – is the Body of Christ, and together we live out the fullness of Christ in the sight of the world.

What is the fullness of Christ? Paul doesn’t use the word ‘love’ here, because he’s already rung the changes on that word many times in the first three chapters of Ephesians. But we really can’t start with anything else but love. What do the most famous verses in the Bible tell us?

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him’ (John 3:16-17).

Behind the coming of the Son – behind his ministry to people in his own time and down to the present through the Church – behind all of that is the mighty ocean of the love of God – God’s steadfast, unconditional, stubborn love.

And how does God demonstrate that love? Some modern translations say “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son” – which is not a wrong idea, but leaves out an important nuance in the original. “God so loved” doesn’t just mean “God loved the world so much”; it also means “God loved the world in this way”. In other words, the specific act of love the author has in mind is the gift of the Son. God loved the world by giving the gift of his Son, who would leave his place of safety and take the risk of coming among us as one of us, to save us from all that binds us and destroys us, and to give us the gift of eternal life.

So the central fact of the character of Jesus is this outgoing, risk-taking love of God. How does the Church live out the fullness of this love? Paul says that we do it by receiving the gifts he gives us – the gifts of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. We can’t live out the fullness of his character if one of those gifts is missing, or (even worse) if we refuse one of those gifts. All of those gifts are necessary to build up the Church so that we live out the fullness of Christ before the world God loves.

In the Anglican Church in recent years we’ve been a little hesitant to receive Christ’s gift of ‘evangelists’. We’ve been happy to receive the gifts that express love and pastoral care for those inside the church. We’ve been happy to receive the gifts of service and practical care for those on the outside. But the evangelist – the one who announces the good news of Jesus – the one who shares it with others and invites them to become followers of Jesus – we haven’t always received that gift quite as enthusiastically! But tonight, we’re redressing that balance. Tonight we’re celebrating this gift, and the way it helps us live out the fullness of Christ.

And I want to underline for you – going back for a moment to those verses from the Gospel of John – that evangelism is all about love. If it’s not all about love, then it really isn’t evangelism! We Christians believe that God’s gift of Jesus to the world is the greatest expression of the love of God the world has ever seen. The fact that God would come among us himself in the person of his Son, to live and die and rise again to reconcile us to himself – if that’s true, it’s the most important event in the history of this planet. It can’t be just an incidental detail. It can’t be just one item among many in the smorgasbord of religious resources.

No – the news that the God of all creation loved us in this way –  by coming among us as one of us, and by calling people to follow him – is news that needs to be shared with others. Because if it’s true, then – as the Archbishop of Canterbury’s evangelism adviser said a few years ago – the best decision a human being can ever make is to follow Jesus. ‘No one has ever seen God’, says John; ‘It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known’ (John 1:18). So with love and joy in our hearts we’re called to share the good news of God’s Son with the world he came to save.

And that’s what Alison and Corinna and Jenny are going to help us to do. That’s why we’re commissioning them tonight as lay evangelists in the Church of Jesus Christ.

I can tell you, because I’ve had the privilege of getting to know them very well, that each of them – along with the others who have been part of our learning community – each of them has a wonderful story to tell of how God has been at work in their lives, helping them know Christ and follow him. God isn’t just a theory to them; God is a living reality, and for each of them, the great passion of their lives is to know God better and live out his love for others. And especially to – as my daughter likes to say to her little kids – ‘Use your words!’ These three people are not afraid to ‘use their words’ to share the love of God! In fact, when they get together, we often have the opposite problem! They have so much to say that we have a hard time getting through the agenda for the day!

I can also tell you that these three evangelists are not ashamed of living as Christians outside the walls of the church. It’s important to say this, because I think a lot of Christians are shy about that. They don’t mind being identified with Christ on Sunday mornings when they gather together with other Christians, but during the week they’d rather keep quiet about it. Sometimes that’s understandable; we know that not everyone who names the name of Christ right now is necessarily bringing credit to that name, and it would be easier for us not to be associated with those folks. I know these three feel that way sometimes too. But I also know that out in the working world, and in their daily lives with their families and friends, each of them has taken the step of somehow – not aggressively, but firmly – identifying themselves as followers of Jesus. And each of them is finding ways of effectively engaging the world they live in every day, for the sake of Jesus and his gospel.

So what do we hope our evangelists will do?

First, we hope they’ll carry on doing what they’re already doing – following Jesus and sharing his love with the people around them, by action and also by word. We hope they’ll keep growing in the skills they’ve been learning to help them do that. We hope that through their witness people who are not yet followers of Jesus will fall in love with him and begin to follow him.

Second, we hope they’ll teach and mentor others to be effective witnesses too. I find it interesting that in the reading from Ephesians the evangelists are included among the list of gifts Christ has given to the Church, to build up the Church’s life. That’s because all Christians, not just evangelists, are called to be faithful witnesses for Christ. But most of us are scared to do this.

And this is where lay evangelists can help us. I think most of us have had the experience of going to an expert for help and then finding that he or she is so far advanced that they can’t remember what it was like to be as confused as we are! I’m conscious of the fact that some clergy are like that – we use words like ‘ecclesiastical’ and ‘soteriology’ and ‘salvation history’ and ‘epistemology’, to which a lot of people respond with a blank stare and a ‘huh?’ And most clergy don’t have to live their faith in the context of a largely unbelieving or apathetic community, so it’s hard for them to relate to the struggles ordinary people have as they try to be faithful witnesses for Jesus.

But these three lay evangelists know all about those struggles! Jenny’s a property manager, and Corinna works in a penitentiary, and Ali works in student services at a university. So they are well placed to help us learn to be effective witnesses in our daily lives in the world, because that’s where they live day by day.

So we hope our evangelists will continue to share their faith and make new disciples for Jesus, and we hope they’ll teach and mentor others in their churches to do the same thing. Thirdly, we hope they’ll be leaders in helping their churches connect with the world around them. Years ago, all kinds of people used to wander into churches in times of crisis, or family occasions like baptism and weddings and funerals. Nowadays, a lot less people do that. We can’t wait for people to connect with us any more; we have to find new and creative ways of connecting with them.

This is nothing new, of course! After all, in the great commission Jesus did not say “Wait for people to come to you and then make them my disciples”! He said “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). It’s up to us to make those connections, and I know these three lay evangelists will be helping their parishes find creative ways of doing that.

I want to close by saying that it’s been an enormous privilege and joy for me to work with these three, along with Sandra and Richard and Steve, as we’ve gone through the formation process together. I’m not exaggerating when I say that sometimes I’ve gone to our Saturday sessions stressed out and discouraged by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but I’ve always – always – come away encouraged and revived and renewed in my joy in the Gospel, because of their enthusiasm and their joy. This is the gift they’ve given me, and it’s a gift I look forward to continuing to receive and share with them in the years ahead as we work to spread the Gospel together.

‘A Time to Mend’ Chapter 12

Link back to Chapter 11

Wendy and Owen and I got together to play music at our house on the first Saturday in December.

After we had met Wendy at my school back in October, Emma had checked her other books out of the library and read them both. She had been hoping for an opportunity to meet her again soon; in this respect, however, she was to be disappointed. A couple of weeks after our first meeting I emailed Wendy, asking if she would like to come over to play some music with Owen and me. She replied immediately, saying that she would be interested at some point but she was especially busy right then and would get back to me later. After that I heard nothing from her, and gradually I came to the conclusion that even though our meeting at the school had been enjoyable, she was not really interested in renewing our old friendship.

It was Owen who pointed out to me that there might be another explanation. “She might just be genuinely busy, you know”, he said.

“You think so?”

“Well, it’s term time right now, isn’t it?”

“I suppose so”.

He grinned at me. “You’ve forgotten when Oxford university terms run, haven’t you?”

I smiled sheepishly at him; “I guess I have”.

“Michaelmas term lasts from mid October to the end of the first week in December, and if you remember, it’s rather intense. And Wendy’s a single mother with a teenage boy still at home”.

I nodded; “She takes him to a lot of sports events, too”.

“Give her a chance; she probably hasn’t got a minute to call her own”.

“I never thought of that”.

******

Wendy called me after supper on the last Sunday in November; I was working at my desk up in my den when the phone rang. “Tom?” she said; “It’s me – Wendy”.

“Hello there – I was wondering when I would hear from you!”

“Yes, I’m sorry – I don’t get many moments to call my own once term starts. What about you – have I caught you at a bad time?”

“No, not at all; I’m just doing a bit of prep work for tomorrow”.

“Do you want me to ring you back in an hour or so?”

“No – this is fine. So how’s your term been?”

“It’s always busy – tutorials and lectures and individual conferences with students, and I do some curriculum work too”.

“Are you doing any more writing?”

“I’ve been exploring some ideas but I haven’t got anything in process at the moment”.

“Will you write about George Eliot again?”

“I don’t think so; I think I’ve said everything I’ve got to say about her. No – I’ve been doing some lectures on 18th and 19th century poetry and I’m toying with the idea of working them up into a book”.

“That would be excellent!”

“Yes, you always were a lover of poetry, weren’t you?”

“I still am”.

“I think you might enjoy some of my lectures. One of them concentrates on George Crabbe and John Clare; you were a big fan of Clare, weren’t you?”

“I still really like him”.

“You were the one who first got me interested in him; I’d never really paid much attention to him before you and I met”.

“I didn’t know that”.

“You thought I spent a lot of time ignoring you, didn’t you?”

I laughed softly; “You had pretty strong opinions. Wendy”.

“I know – I’m sorry about that”.

“I wasn’t complaining; I always enjoyed our conversations”.

“Me too. How’s Emma?”

“She’s well. She’s been reading your earlier books, actually; I think she’d love to ask you about them”.

“I would enjoy that”.

“Apart from that, she’s still busy volunteering at Marston Court, and spending time with family and friends”.

“She’s made some friends, then?”

“We’ve started going to a little Baptist church in north Oxford; she’s gotten to know some of the young people there”.

“I didn’t know you were a churchgoer”.

“Yeah, that’s something that happened since I moved to Canada. I married into a Mennonite family and it kind of rubbed off”.

“I’ve gone back to church over the last few years too”.

“Oh yeah?”

“Yes – it happened after we moved back to Oxford”.

“It would be fun to compare notes”.

“I’d like that”.

“So are you interested in a visit with Owen and me?”

“Yes I am, but I want to make sure you both understand that I haven’t sung any of our old songs for a long time”.

“That’s fine, Wendy. Like I said the other week – singing or not, it would be good just to have a visit”.

“Yes, it would”.

“So when were you thinking?”

“Would next weekend work for you?”

“Saturday would work. Sunday we’re kind of tied up – it’s Emma’s eighteenth birthday”.

“Well I certainly don’t want to interrupt that! We can wait a bit longer if you want?”

“No, I think it would be fine. We’re having a family party at Owen and Lorraine’s place on Sunday evening. My sister and Emma are cooking jambalaya and I’m baking the cake, and that’s about the limit of my responsibilities”.

“Did you tell me Owen and his wife had children?”

“Yes – Andrew and Katie. They’re quite a bit younger than Emma but they get on really well with her”.

“Is that why the party’s over there?”

“No – it’s because there are going to be sixteen of us, and their house is bigger”.

“Are you sure you don’t want to wait a few more days for our visit?”

“Let me talk to Owen – I think he might enjoy a couple of hours on Saturday”.

******

She came over to my house on Saturday afternoon, dressed casually in faded jeans and an Aran sweater, her hair hanging loose to her shoulders. Owen and his family had come for lunch earlier, and then Lorraine had taken the children and Emma out for the afternoon; I had told Emma I thought Wendy would be less self-conscious about singing with us if there was no one else around.

Owen and Wendy greeted each other warmly; I made tea, and then we sat around the living room for a couple of hours, singing our old songs. Wendy asked Owen and me to sing a few by ourselves at first, but eventually she began to join in, and it quickly became clear that even though she hadn’t sung the songs for a long time she still remembered them very well.

“Nothing wrong with your memory!” Owen said mischievously after we finished one of our old favourites.

“I’ve always liked ‘Reynardine’”, she replied with a grin.

“I remember”.

“What about some newer stuff? Surely you boys haven’t stopped learning songs since we last saw each other. Do you still play in public, Owen?”

He nodded. “I’ve got a band, actually; we call ourselves ‘The Oxford Ferrymen’”.

“Is that your band?” she exclaimed with a smile; “I’ve seen posters around town from time to time”.

“Yes, we do gigs at the ‘Plough’ and a few other places; occasionally we go a bit further afield”.

“What sort of music do you play?”

“Mainly Celtic stuff; I’ve learned to play bouzouki and cittern since the last time you and I saw each other”.

“You didn’t bring them with you today, though?”

He shook his head; “Hopefully there’ll be another chance”.

We sang a few more songs, including some that Owen and I had learned in the years after we had lost touch with Wendy, and then I made another pot of tea and we talked. Wendy was sitting in Emma’s easy chair by the hearth with her feet up on a footstool; “This has been really good”, she said softly. “Thank you both”.

“It’s really great to see you”, Owen replied.

“You too, Owen. Have you always worked in Oxford?”

“Yeah – I joined a little practice after I finished my training and eventually I became one of the senior partners. Tom’s sister Becca works at our practice”.

“As a doctor?”

“Yes”.

“I didn’t know she was a doctor. Actually, I didn’t really know much about her at all; the last time I saw her I think she was about eleven. Didn’t she come to that concert we did for your mum’s music society, Tom?”

“Yes, I think she did”.

She glanced at Owen again. “You’ve got a family too, I hear?”

“Yes – I’m married to Lorraine and we’ve got two children; Andrew’s twelve and Katie’s nine. It took us a while to get going on the reproduction business”.

Wendy laughed again. “Did you already know Lorraine when we were here together?”

“No, I met her not long after you two left – in church, actually; she showed up there one Sunday in September of ’82”.

“Are you still a churchgoing family?”

“We are”.

“I’ve gone back to church myself in the last few years”.

“Tom told me that”.

“My dad’s pleased, of course”.

“Where do you go?”

“When I first started I just went to Merton Chapel, which is where I was confirmed, but it only has regular Sunday services during term time and they’re in the evenings, which isn’t very convenient for family meals. So after a couple of years I started going to St. Michael and All Angels here in New Marston; I sometimes sing in the choir and I get on pretty well with the vicar. I’m still involved in some Merton Chapel activities though, and now and again during the week I sing in their choir too, so I suppose you could say my church life is a bit schizophrenic. What about you?”

“We go to St. Clement’s; I was going there through most of my student years”.

“I went there once or twice but it was a bit too charismatic for me; I like something more traditional”.

“We three have really got the Christian spectrum covered!” Owen observed.

Wendy nodded, looking across at me; “You said you’d started going to a Baptist church?”

“Yes, but Emma and I are actually Mennonites”.

“Right – you told me your wife’s family were Mennonite”.

“Yeah – I guess I sort of married into it”.

“I expect there was a bit more to it than that”.

I nodded; “There was”.

“Do you mind me asking about it?”

“Not at all. Kelly’s dad Will Reimer was the principal of my school in Meadowvale and he and his wife were very helpful to me in my first few months there. They were pretty strong in their faith, but Kelly had strayed away from it for a while as a teenager. When I got to know her she was just finding her way back. She and I talked about it, and I also had some really good conversations with her brother Joe; he and I became really good friends. And of course I’d been getting interested in spirituality for a while; Owen and I had been talking about it before I left England”.

Owen nodded; “We exchanged a few letters about it after you moved, too”.

“We did”.

“Kelly came back to her faith, then?” said Wendy.

“She did; we made that journey together, and eventually we were both baptized on the same day”.

“An adult believer’s baptism, you mean?”

“Yes; that’s the Mennonite tradition”.

“Mennonites are pacifists, aren’t they?”

“They are”.

“So you’re not cheering for Bush and Blair and their war with Iraq?”

“No we’re not; peace and justice are a very important part of our faith for Emma and me”.

“Emma’s a practising Christian too?”

“Yes – it’s very real and personal for her”.

“That’s brilliant; I wish I could find a way to help my two make that connection”. She frowned thoughtfully; “What was it you found attractive about the Mennonite faith? I mean, I came back to the church I was raised in, but you moved to something completely different”.

I shrugged; “I didn’t really know very much about different denominations; it wasn’t as if I was evaluating all the local churches to see which one I liked the best. Kelly and her family were all Mennonites and their pastor, Rob Neufeld, had been one of the people who guided me on my way into Christian faith. So it just seemed natural that after I became a Christian I would stay with the people who had helped me find faith”. I grinned; “Rob was sneaky, actually; he invited me to play music in their church before I became a Christian. Kelly’s dad played guitar and Joe’s wife Ellie played the fiddle, and we worked up some gospel songs together, and before we knew it the people liked us and they wouldn’t let us stop!”

Wendy laughed, and Owen said, “They’re wonderful people, all of them”.

“You’ve been out there, then?” Wendy asked him.

“Oh yes – several times. Lorraine and I really loved Kelly, and of course we were kind of fond of this bloke too”.

“It was mutual”, I replied softly.

“Lorraine had difficulty conceiving when we first got married”, said Owen; “We tried for a few years and nothing seemed to work. She got really upset and angry about it, and then one time when we were out at Tom and Kelly’s on holiday Kelly spent a lot of time with her, just listening to her and loving her. She was a remarkable human being; I don’t know if I’ve ever met anyone else with such a gift for sympathy and love”.

“She’d had struggles of her own, of course”, I said.

“With her cancer, you mean?” asked Wendy.

“Yes. After her first go around with it she lost both her ovaries, which meant she couldn’t have any more children. That was a real heartbreaker for her”.

“I can imagine”.

We were quiet for a moment, sipping thoughtfully at our tea, and then Owen smiled and said “So what about you, Wendy Howard; what have you been doing all these years?”

“Oh, well, my life’s not exactly been a smooth ride, I’m afraid!” She looked down at the floor, gathering her thoughts, and then said “I went to London, as you know. Mickey and I were able to work things out and we moved in together”.

“That was a big surprise for me”, I said; “You seemed so keen on staying in Oxford for your doctorate, and I was pretty sure you and Mickey were past history”.

“It might have been better if we had been. Anyway, my daughter Lisa was born about a year after we moved in together, and we got married not long after that. I worked on my doctorate at UCL, and Mickey did well in photo-journalism and set up his own business. He got to travel to all kinds of exotic locations to take photographs for magazines, and later on he got a name for going to dangerous places on assignment”.

“That must have been stressful”, I said.

“Yes. Anyway, by the time Colin was born I had my doctorate, and a couple of years later I got a job teaching at UCL. The rest you know. I wrote some books, and I got a chance about six years ago to move back to Oxford and get a fellowship at Merton. The time was right because Mickey and I had just broken up”. She paused, and then said, “He got quite violent, and the children and I were just too afraid to stay with him any more. I actually had him charged when I left; he was convicted, and he spent some time in jail. He’s out now, but he’s supposed to stay away from us. Most of the time, he does”.

Owen and I were both suddenly silent; I was amazed by the matter-of-factness with which she had summed up what had obviously been a horrific experience for her. I was just opening my mouth to speak when we heard the front door open, and after a moment Emma came into the living room with Becca behind her, both of them still wearing their coats, with shopping bags over their shoulders. “Look who we found in the covered market!” she said with a triumphant smile.

“I was shopping for ingredients for jambalaya”, said Becca, “because someone told me she’d like to have it for her birthday”. She glanced at the three of us; “Sorry – I didn’t mean to interrupt”.

“Not at all”, I replied, getting to my feet. “Becs, you probably don’t remember Wendy Howard? Wendy, this is my sister Becca”.

“Actually, I do remember you”, said Becca as Wendy got up to greet her; “I think I must have been about ten or eleven the last time I heard the three of you play together”.

“Did you hear us more than once?” asked Wendy; “I thought perhaps it had only been that one time we played for your mum’s music society”.

“You came to the house to practice a couple of times; I remember you using Mum’s music room”.

“So we did!” Wendy held out her hand, and Becca took it with a smile. “Are you going to sing some more?” she asked.

“Oh, I don’t know; I should be going soon”.

“Do one song for us, at least”, Emma asked eagerly; “I’ve heard so much about the three of you and I’d love to hear you play together”.

I glanced quizzically at my two partners; Wendy shrugged, and Owen grinned and said, “Take your coats off, then, while we try to think of something that won’t embarrass us too badly!”

“Is there tea in the pot?” Emma asked.

“I think there is”.

So Becca and Emma hung up their coats, Emma poured tea for them both and then they sat down with us. Owen glanced at Wendy; “What do you think?”

“What about ‘The Recruited Collier?’”

“Good choice!” Owen looked across at me; “Key of E Flat?”

“I’m on it”.

The song was not one of the pieces we had played earlier, but it had been one of our favourites years ago. Owen and I began to play a slow introduction, and after a moment Wendy took a deep breath, closed her eyes and began to sing:

“What’s the matter with you my lass, and where’s your dashing Jimmy?
Them soldier boys have picked him up, and taken him far from me.
Last pay day he went into town, and them red-coated fellows
Enticed him in and made him drunk, and he’d better have gone to the gallows”.

For the second verse of the song, I sang harmony with her:

“The very sight of his cockade it sets us all a-crying,
And me I nearly fainted twice; I thought that I was dying.
My father would have paid the smart and he ran for the golden guinea,
But the sergeant swore he’d kissed the book so now they’ve got young Jimmy”.

“When Jimmy talks about the wars, it’s worse than death to hear him.
I must go out and hide my tears, because I cannot bear him.
A brigadier or a grenadier he says they’re sure to make him,
and still he jibes and cracks his jokes, and bids me not forsake him”.

Emma was sitting on the floor, her legs stretched out in front of her and her back resting against the front of the sofa, a smile of pure pleasure on her face; Becca was sitting forward in her chair, her legs crossed, obviously captivated by the music. Wendy and Owen and I sang the last verse together:

“As I walk o’er yon stubble field, below where runs the seam;
I think on Jimmy hewing there, but it was all a dream.
He hewed the very coals we burn and when the fire I’m lighting,
To think the lumps were in his hands, it sets my heart a-beating.
So break my heart and then it’s o’er, oh break my heart my dearie;
And I lie in this cold, green ground, for of single life I’m weary”.

When the last chord died down there was a brief silence in the room, and then Becca shook her head and said, “My God – that was absolutely gorgeous!”

Emma nodded; “Beautiful!” she said softly. “I had no idea…”

Wendy coloured slightly; “You’re both very kind”.

“Will you do another one?” Emma asked.

“Oh, I don’t know”, Wendy replied; “I should be going soon. My daughter’s joining us for supper tonight, and I need to get something ready”.

“Speaking of families”, said Owen, “Did you lose mine somewhere along the way, Em?”

Emma laughed; “Lorraine told me she had a couple of other things she needed to get, so she sent me home with Becca”.

Owen gave her a knowing grin; “I see how it is!”

“That’s what I thought!”

“Are they coming back here to get me, then?”

“I think that’s the plan; Lorraine told me to tell you if there was any change you should call her on her mobile”.

“Right”.

Wendy smiled at Owen and me; “I really should be going”, she said.

We all got to our feet, and the next thing we knew, the three of us were gripping each other tight in a three-way hug. For a long moment we held each other, and when we stepped back, Wendy’s eyes were shining. “Thank you both”, she said quietly; “I really enjoyed myself”.

“So did we”, Owen replied; “Let’s do it again soon”.

“Absolutely”. Wendy turned to Emma; “Happy birthday tomorrow”, she said.

“Thanks!”

“I hear you’d like to talk about my books some time”.

Emma gave her a delighted smile; “I really would!”

“Well, we can make that happen. Get my e-mail address from your dad”.

“Thank you – I would love that!”

I followed Wendy out into the narrow hallway, took her coat down from the peg and helped her on with it. “That was very thoughtful of you”, I said; “You must be really busy”.

“Term’s over now; I’ve got a bit more free time”. She wound her scarf around her neck, zipped up her coat, and turned to face me. “Tom, I wonder if you and Emma would like to come over to Merton for a special Christmas event?”

“What sort of event?”

“I mentioned my daughter Lisa; she’s up at Christchurch reading Modern Languages, but she also sings in a chamber choir called the Radcliffe Singers, and they’re doing a Christmas carol concert at Merton Chapel on the Sunday before Christmas. It’ll be an evening event, of course”.

“A Christmas carol concert?”

“Yes. The university’s down so there aren’t many people around, but they usually get a good turnout for their concerts; if you want to come I should get tickets for you fairly soon. They’ve arranged to have a reception in hall afterwards, if you’d like to stay”.

I smiled; “I’m actually rather fond of Christmas carols”.

“They’ll probably do a few of the less well-known ones”.

“All the more interesting. Put me down for sure, and I’ll talk to Emma and see if she’s interested, too. How much are the tickets?”

She shook her head; “Come as my guests”.

“Are you sure?”

“Of course”.

“All right, then; I’ll talk to Emma and get back to you as quickly as possible”.

“Good”. She held out her hand, and I shook it rather formally. Then, a little impulsively, she leaned forward and kissed me lightly on the cheek. “This was a really good afternoon”, she said; “Thank you”.

“I’m glad you could come, and I know Owen is too”.

“I hope you have a wonderful party with Emma tomorrow”.

“I’m sure we will”.

******

Link to Chapter 13

Baptism in the Holy Spirit (a sermon on Acts 19:1-7 & Mark 1:4-11)

Today I want to talk to you about Baptism in the Holy Spirit.

I’m guessing some of you might be puzzled by this phrase. I can almost hear you thinking, “What the heck is ‘Baptism in the Holy Spirit’?” We all understand baptism in water – we’ve seen it lots of times. Sometimes it happens when adults come to faith in Jesus and then step forward to be baptized to seal their commitment to Christ. But most often it happens to babies, when parents present them to be baptized, or ‘christened’ as it’s still often called. But what on earth is ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’?

If you feel confused about this, you’re in good company! In our reading from Acts today we heard that when Paul was traveling through what is now Turkey, he came to Ephesus and found some people who claimed to be Christian disciples. But when he asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” they replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit” (Acts 19:2).

Christian people today often share their confusion. We understand about God the Father who created the world and everything in it. We understand about Jesus the Son of God who lived and died and rose again to save us. But we find it hard to understand or even imagine the Holy Spirit. This third person of the Trinity seems shadowy and vague, and perhaps it seems appropriate to us that we once called him ‘The Holy Ghost’! And as for the idea that you can somehow be ‘baptized’ in the Holy Spirit in the same way we’re baptized in water – well, that sounds really strange to a lot of people. But in fact it ‘s clearly taught in the Gospels and the Book of Acts.

So let’s think for a few minutes about water baptism and baptism in the Holy Spirit.

Baptism in water is something we got from Jesus himself; Jesus teaches us that it’s part of the process of becoming his disciples. He says in Matthew 28 “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (18b-19). The early Christian missionaries enthusiastically obeyed this command; they traveled all over the known world preaching the good news of Jesus. People heard their message, and some believed it and wanted to commit their lives to Jesus and become his followers. So they were baptized and they joined the Christian community where they learned to put his commands into practice.

At first all those who were baptized were adults. Later on, many Christians came to believe it was right and good for children of Christian parents to be received into the Christian community by baptism, so that families could be united as followers of Jesus. But whether adult or infant, from the beginning baptism has been a missionary act. The Christian message goes out and those who believe and want to practice it are baptized – along with their children – as a sign of being reborn into the new life in Christ. It’s part of the process of becoming a Christian.

One of the difficulties about reading the Bible is that the different books were written by different people, and they don’t always use words in the same way. This is true with this phrase, ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’: it’s used by Paul in one sense, and the gospel writers in another. Paul only uses it once, in 1 Corinthians 12:13, and it’s clear that he means exactly what we’ve just been talking about – the experience of becoming a Christian. He says, ‘For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit’.

He’s talking about the experience of becoming a Christian: you put your faith in Jesus, you’re baptized, and you receive the Holy Spirit – in whatever order those things come for you! We’re all alike in this, Paul says – all of us Christians have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit.

We should never take this incredible gift for granted. In Advent we were thinking about Mary becoming pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit, and carrying the Son of God in her womb for nine months. She was literally a human temple – a place where God lives. But what was true of Mary in a physical sense is also true of you and me in a spiritual sense: as Paul says in another place, our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. This is what Paul means by being ‘baptized by one Spirit into one Body’ – we put our faith in Jesus, we are baptized, we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

So a baptism service isn’t just about parents and godparents standing up and making promises. And an adult conversion – when a person turns from unbelief and commits themselves to becoming a Christian – isn’t just a human process either. It’s not just about human reasoning, human decision, or human willpower. No – the Holy Spirit is at work, coming to live in you, marking you as belonging to God, connecting you with God, giving you the power to follow Christ. It’s actually quite miraculous! So please – let’s not take it for granted! Let’s thank God every day that we’ve been given the gift of the Holy Spirit, and let’s learn to recognise his presence and follow his leading.

And this leads me to ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’ in the second sense – the sense in which the gospel writers and the Book of Acts use the phrase. In our gospel for today we heard about John the Baptist and his preaching of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. People came to him from all over the place and were baptized by him in the River Jordan, confessing their sins for all the world to hear. It was a powerful religious revival and it had some people wondering whether John was the Messiah that they’d all been waiting for. But he said ‘no’. Look at Mark 1:7:

‘He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit”’.

The Greek word ‘baptizo’ means to be totally immersed, to be surrounded and filled with water, like a sunken ship sitting quietly on the bottom of the ocean – or to be overwhelmed, like a house swept away by a flood. This, says John, is what the Messiah is going to do for you. Baptism with water may seem pretty exciting, but it’s pretty tame compared to what you’re going to experience when the Messiah comes! You’re going to be totally flooded, overwhelmed, immersed, and filled to overflowing with the power of God’s Spirit!

In the Book of Acts, after Jesus’ resurrection, he himself confirmed this promise to his disciples. He told them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for ‘the promise of the Father. “This”, he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now”’ (Acts 1:4-5). And so it was; a few days later we read that the early Christians were all together in one place, when ‘suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability’ (Acts 2:2-4). People heard the noise, and a crowd gathered, marveling because they could each hear the Christians speaking in their own language. Eventually Peter got up to speak, and the Holy Spirit used his words so powerfully that three thousand people decided to become Christians that day. They saw that God wasn’t just a theory or a theological symbol: there was a real God who did real things in the real lives of real people. They had seen it in the newly Spirit-filled Christians, and they wanted it for themselves.

And by the way, this wasn’t just a one-off thing in the lives of these early Christians – they had a similar experience in Acts 4, after they’d been persecuted for the first time by the religious establishment. We read that they gathered together and prayed, and when they were finished ‘the place where they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness’ (v.31).

Experiences like these seem to be just part of normal Christian life in the New Testament. In our reading from Acts this morning Paul notices immediately when the Spirit seems to be missing. “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” he asks, and they reply, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit”. On further inquiry he discovers that they haven’t actually received Christian baptism yet, only the baptism of John, so he baptizes them. Afterwards we read that ‘When Paul laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied’ (Acts 19:1-7).

So in the New Testament there’s this strongly experiential element to Christianity. It’s not just about belonging to an institution called the church, and going to its services on Sundays. It’s not just about reading the Bible and believing the creeds and the doctrines of the Christian faith. It’s not just about trying to put the teaching of Jesus into practice in your daily life.

No – New Testament Christianity is also an experience – an experience of knowing God. It’s an experience that makes absolutely no sense unless there’s a real God who does real things in the lives of real people. It’s about my life and your life being touched by the hand of God. It’s about God coming to live in us in a spiritual sense, so that we become temples of the Holy Spirit – places where God lives.

Some Anglicans are afraid of this kind of talk because it sounds rather Pentecostal to them. They think “That’s not why I go to an Anglican church; if I wanted that kind of thing I’d go down to Millwoods Pentecostal!” So let’s address this for a minute: is this sort of spirituality only for Pentecostals, or is it for us too?

The thing about reading the stories of the earliest Christians is that they weren’t Roman Catholics or Baptists or Anglicans or Pentecostals – they were just Christians. Their Christianity had a strong sacramental flavour to it – they had a very high view of sacraments like baptism and Holy Communion – something we associate today with the catholic traditions. They also had a high view of scripture and the importance of teaching, like modern evangelicals. They took the teaching of Jesus seriously and tried to put it into practice in their daily lives, loving their enemies and living simple lives with few possessions – something we associate today with Mennonite and Anabaptist traditions. And they also had a strongly experiential element – they expected the Holy Spirit to touch them and do remarkable things in their lives – just like modern Pentecostals.

Nowadays we’ve split up these emphases and made different denominations out of them, but the Holy Spirit won’t go along with that. The Holy Spirit doesn’t have many churches, he has one Church, the Body of Christ. All of these truths are part of the universal Christian faith, meant for all people in all places. We Anglicans are happy to share our gifts of liturgy and sacraments with other Christians. And we also need to be open to receiving from the treasures other Christians have been given.

I’m not going to describe for you this morning what an experience of baptism in the Holy Spirit is like, because there isn’t just one experience. God works in many different ways in the lives of many different people. Some people have experienced something very dramatic – an overpowering feeling of the love of God, maybe accompanied by something like the speaking in tongues described in our Acts reading. For other people it’s been something much more quiet and gradual, perhaps deepened as they’ve given more time to silent prayer on a regular basis.

But I do want to say something about the fear factor. I can understand it, because I’ve felt that fear myself. I like a form of Christianity where everything’s under control, where everything’s predictable. I can preach a pretty good sermon and do a half decent job of running a parish all by myself, thank you very much, without having to call on God for help! God’s so unpredictable; if I pray for the Spirit to come, he might and he might not, and I’m going to look pretty foolish if he doesn’t. So I’d rather just avoid the whole thing.

But I don’t think avoiding it is normal Christianity. Read through the New Testament, especially the Book of Acts, and see the place of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the early Christians. See how Jesus promises this gift to his followers, and how he reminds us that the heavenly Father gives good gifts to those who ask him. Ask yourself, “If I pray to be filed with the Holy Spirit, would God give me something bad in response?” And if you decide – as I’ve decided – that this is meant for us today too, then pray, and keep on praying, trusting the Father who loves you, until you also experience baptism in the Holy Spirit, as the early Christians experienced it and as Christians down through the centuries have experienced it.

Let me close with this thought. In Psalm 34:8 the writer says, ‘O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him’. He doesn’t say, ‘Think about eating’ or ‘Do a study on eating’, or ‘listen to the experiences of others who have eaten’. He says, ‘taste’. In other words, for this Old Testament writer the experience of the presence and power of God was as tangible as the taste of his food.

Now whether you’ve experienced that for yourself or not, I think you can agree that it would be a life-changing experience. So let me encourage you to cultivate your hunger for God. Don’t be satisfied with anything less than the touch of his Spirit. Ask, and seek, and knock, and keep on asking, seeking, and knocking until the Lord answers your prayer – and then come back and tell your brothers and sisters in Christ what the Lord has done for you.