Dealing with persecution

March 27, 2018

St Michael’s and St Barnabas, 25th March 2018

Readings – Psalm 69:1- 18; Mark 14:43-65

Hussein is a 68 year old believer in Uganda. He spent most of his adult life as a leader of the local Muslim community. He secretly converted to the Christian faith in 2006 but kept his faith hidden for over 10 years. Then he offered his land for the building of a church. A local mob set out to kill him, and three young men visited him, pretending to be interested in getting some Bibles. Hussein has now fled to a refugee camp, having lost everything.

Hannah grew up in North Korea. She found life there too difficult there and fled to China where she became a believer. But then she and all her family were discovered by the Chinese secret police and deported back to North Korea where they were detained in a labour camp. There Hannah’s husband was killed for his faith. Hannah managed to escape to South Korea but remains in fear of her life. Hannah is not her real name.

In India a Christian family wanted to bury their baby girl. But local Hindu extremists demanded that the child be buried outside the village. Eventually the family paid a large amount for the burial to take place on the land they owned. But the night after their girl was laid to rest, a mob attacked the family and burned their home to the ground. The mother, father and other daughter were all injured in the process.

These are just a few of the stories collected by Open Doors, a charity which seeks to support the persecuted church worldwide. This charity reports that across the world over 200 million Christians face high levels of persecution, and that this persecution is rising. Last year at least 692 churches and Christian buildings were attacked. More than 1922 Christians were detained without trial, arrested, sentenced and imprisoned. They also calculate that every month over 100 Christians are forcibly married against their will.

Now none of us have ever faced the same level of opposition because of our faith in Jesus Christ. But even so I guess we all can think of situations where people make fun of us, or single us out because we dare to call ourselves a Christian. Perhaps you live with a family member who can think of no earthly reason why you would go to church this morning. Perhaps you work in a setting where publicly expressing your faith is a disciplinary offence. Perhaps you are at a school or college where you are very much on your own as a believer. Sometimes it really is tough to follow Jesus, isn’t it?

But if we are familiar with the gospel of Mark, then we shouldn’t be surprised by our treatment. Read the rest of this entry »


The heart of prayer

March 20, 2018

St Michael’s, 18th March 2018

Readings – Psalm 22:1-11; Mark 14:36-52

It may just be me, but it seems that probably the hardest subject for Christians to talk about is prayer. Prayer is something that is intensely personal and also quite difficult to explain. Yes, we’ve all prayed at some point or other in our lives. Indeed some of us here pray quite regularly and usually appear to find the right words. But all of us at one time or another find prayer a struggle and perhaps don’t know where to start. And sharing our difficulties with one another, well, that’s a bit embarrassing or awkward. How you pray is probably very different from how I pray. I need to know you well before I open up about my questions. So I guess for most of us we muddle on in our prayers, sometimes glimpsing answers, but sometimes, if we’re honest, feeling confused about what we’re doing, or whether indeed our prayers are going to make any difference at all.

If that in any way describes your prayer life this morning, then I very much hope that our reading from Mark is for you. And particularly if you have never, ever discussed the subject of prayer with anyone else before, I want to encourage right away to have a word with me afterwards, so we can book some time to talk. If nothing else, I want you to take away the fact that God wants you to pray and that He understands your struggles more deeply than you might ever imagine.

Now over the past few weeks we have been following Jesus’ last few days as He heads towards the cross. We’ve been with Him at Bethany where an unknown lady has anointed His head with perfume. We’ve sat with Him at the Last Supper where He has shared bread and wine with His followers. We’ve looked on as Judas has quietly disappeared from the scene, hoping no-one has noticed. We’ve heard Peter’s promise never to disown His master.

What’s been extraordinary is that at every stage of the journey Jesus knows exactly what is going to happen to Him. He knows He is going to be buried in a cold, dark tomb. He knows His body is going to be broken and His blood poured out. He knows Judas will betray Him and Peter, one of His closest friends, deny Him. It is clear Jesus knows the whole story of what is going to happen to Him, including the resurrection on the third day. Read the rest of this entry »

The good news of Jesus Christ

December 11, 2017

St Michael’s, 10th December 2017

Readings: Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8

For some people, the Christian faith is bad news. Maybe they’ve had a negative experience of the church. Maybe they hold Christians responsible for all the hatred and division in the world. Maybe they find the message of the cross offensive. Whatever the reason, the message of Jesus coming into the world brings them no joy at all, and if they are to celebrate Christmas, they would prefer to make it about almost anything else other than Jesus.

For other people, the Christian faith is old news. Maybe they’ve been coming to church all their lives and they’ve heard every possible sermon on the coming of Jesus, and sung every possible carol about His birth in a stable. Maybe they used to go to Sunday school as a child, and they’ve heard all the familiar stories told time after time. So they’re not exactly hostile to the Christmas message. It’s just that it doesn’t particularly interest them. Their focus is more on who is going to win Strictly or whether Argyle are going to stay up, or indeed on making sure they actually manage to see their family this year.

But for the first Christians, there was no doubt – the message of Jesus coming into the world was good news. I don’t mean that they simply thought the Christian faith was a good idea, or they went round with a big smile on their face all day. No, I mean that the good news of Jesus was so revolutionary and life-changing that the moment they heard about it, they immediately changed their priorities, their hopes and their dreams. They left behind family, friends, jobs and businesses to become part of this extraordinary movement called the church. They embraced their fellow believers as their brothers and sisters and shared their whole lives with them. Together they willingly suffered persecution, arrest and on occasion even death. Read the rest of this entry »

Love and taxes

November 24, 2017

St Michael’s, 19th November 2017

Galatians 6:1-10; Mark 12:13-17

The religious leaders were getting worried about Jesus. For a couple of years now He had been going round Galilee teaching all this stuff about the kingdom of God, and doing irresponsible things like healing on the Sabbath, and that was bad enough. But now He had come down south to Jerusalem and He was spreading His message of repentance and forgiveness on their turf. Even worse than that, the crowds were flocking to hear Him. They had lined the streets when He came into the city on a donkey and now He was daring to teach them in the temple, right in the most sacred place of the Jewish religion. Their authority was under threat, and Jesus had even challenged them directly in His latest story. This heretic from Nazareth needed to be stopped, and soon.

But how? They had already planned to kill Him, but they were afraid of the crowd. If there’s one thing they valued as much as their authority it was their popularity. They couldn’t openly arrest Jesus when He was out and about in the temple precincts – there would be a riot. No, what they needed was a cunning plan, something to discredit Him and to bring Him down. So they went away and they thought and they plotted. And eventually they thought they’d got it.

No-one liked paying taxes to the Romans. The Romans were a foreign power who had taken over the Jewish state. They were deeply unpopular for all kinds of reasons, from their random acts of cruelty, to the money they took from the people, to the sheer fact the Jewish people couldn’t be free. So the question of paying taxes was deeply controversial.

What, the religious teachers wondered, would Jesus say on the matter? If He said you should pay taxes, they could accuse Him of siding with the hated Romans. If He said you shouldn’t pay taxes, they could report Him to the Romans for stirring up rebellion. It seemed to them like a brilliant question, and one that Jesus couldn’t get out of. So they waited for the moment. Read the rest of this entry »

God’s vineyard

November 15, 2017

St Michael’s 12th November 2017

Readings – 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Mark 12:1-12

In many ways the story we heard just now is extremely odd. Here is a man who plants a vineyard and sets up a group of farmers in business. It takes a long time to get a winery up and running so the landlord leaves them to it, while he goes off and sets up businesses elsewhere. But in the end the grapes appear on the vines, and the landlord quite rightly expects to get some return on his investment. So he sends along a few of his employees to collect his share of the harvest, expecting to get paid. But some never come back. Others return with horrific injuries and tales of how these farmers have mistreated them. All of them fail to collect a single penny, and quite apart from the appalling crimes that have been committed, the landlord is spectacularly out of pocket.

Now you might have thought that at this point the landlord would have had enough. You might have thought he would have sent in the police, had the farmers arrested and taken possession of his property. But no, the landlord does something truly extraordinary. He sends one last person to collect the rent – his only son. Surely these renegade farmers wouldn’t dare to touch the landlord’s son? But no, they treat him exactly as they treated the servants. They beat them up, they abuse him and they kill him. Somehow they have got into their heads that if they kill the son, the vineyard will be theirs.

I have to say, that seems to me an astonishing idea. After all, who would ever dream of behaving in this way when their landlord sent someone round to collect the rent? And really on a human level, this story makes absolutely no sense. I cannot think of a single example of where even the worst tenant from hell not only failed to pay, but killed anyone who came onto the property. Read the rest of this entry »

Marriage and Divorce

October 9, 2017

St Michael’s, 8th October 2017

Readings – Galatians 3:15-25 ; Mark 10:1-16

What do we do with difficult teaching in the Bible? This morning we are coming to some of the most important and yet controversial words of Jesus, all about marriage and divorce. As I have planned and prayed over this sermon, I am acutely aware of the very real situations so many people in this church face. So let me say right at the outset: the purpose of this sermon this morning is not to point a finger or to condemn. But if there are issues which God lays on your heart, please make some time to talk with me afterwards, even perhaps make an appointment. I firmly believe that just because a subject is difficult, it doesn’t mean we should simply skirt round it.

What then do we do with this particular passage? One answer – and it’s a very popular one at the moment – is to say that Jesus’ words were meant for another time and another place. All that He says about marriage and divorce doesn’t really apply today. So long as people love each other, it doesn’t matter exactly what Jesus teaches. And to a certain extent I have some sympathy with this approach. Too often the words of Jesus have been used as a big stick to condemn or punish people who fail to live up to the ideals of marriage, and the church has rightly been seen as being harsh and uncaring.

Yet at the same time there is a danger that if we go too far down this route we forget something very important, namely that the Bible is the Word of God, and we are not free simply to pick and choose those bits we happen to like. Somehow what Jesus said back then must still apply to us, and we have to work out exactly how, in a way that both honours God but also shows love and compassion to all who hear that Word. Because the whole subject of relationships, gender and identity are hot topics at the moment, particularly among young people, and if we are to reach them with the gospel, we here at St Barnacles need to know what to say to them. Read the rest of this entry »

Becoming the servant of all

September 25, 2017

St Michael’s, 24th September 2017

Readings – Galatians 3:10-14; Mark 9:30-37

Children love to argue. You know the sort thing: “I’m taller than you! No, you’re not, I am.” “I’m older than you. Yeah, but you can’t jump as far as me.” If you counted up the number of hours parents and carers spent sorting out these kinds of arguments, I am sure the total would run into weeks, if not months. Children love to compete with one another to prove that they’re better than anyone else, and winning the argument is a matter of huge satisfaction.

It would be nice to report that once we are all grown-up we stop having these sorts of arguments. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say we have more subtle ways of showing off: “I’ve managed to retire at 60!” “We’ve been on five foreign holidays this year.” “All our children have passed the eleven plus.” All of us seem to have a natural tendency to prove ourselves, to show how good or clever or successful we are, and age really has very little to do with it.

It would also be nice to report that once we become Christians, again, we stop having these sorts of arguments. But we do. “Our church has grown to 500 in a year and we have lots of young people!” “Yes, but our church serves real coffee and fresh doughnuts.” Indeed, churches, sad to say can be some of the most fertile places for competition, envy and arrogance – both between churches and among church members.

But maybe it was ever so. In our gospel reading, in verse 31, Jesus has been teaching His followers that The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men, and that they will kill Him, and after three days He will rise. But as verse 32 tells us: they did not understand what He meant and were afraid to ask Him about it.

So why weren’t the disciples listening? Well, as we saw last week, they have worked out that Jesus is the Messiah. Since then, Peter, James and John have been privileged to see Jesus transfigured on a high mountain, and they have heard a voice from heaven declaring that He is the Son of God. As far as they are concerned, Jesus is about to come in all His glory. The only thing to sort out, then, is who’s going to share top spot with Him as He sets up His kingdom here on earth.

Read the rest of this entry »