Sunday, September 07, 2014

Living together as sinners

A Sermon for Trinity 12.

Let me start with a little quiz.  It’s very easy, simply try and tell whether these statements are true or false. 
1.     Christianity is about following the teaching of Jesus.
2.     Christianity is based on God’s love for us, seen in Jesus, overflowing into how we treat other people.
3.     For the whole history of Christianity, Christians have never disagreed with one another.
I’m glad you laughed!

Christians do, in fact, disagree.  They have done since the very beginning of the Church.  The first major disagreement comes at the beginning of the sixth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, although there are lies creeping already at the beginning of the fifth chapter.  And of course, there are many stories in the Gospels of the 12 disciples, the pillars of the church, disagreeing with one another (normally about who will get to sit in the best seats once the Kingdom of God comes!).

Our Gospel reading this morning takes it for granted that Christians will disagree, and even takes it for granted that Christians will hurt and sin against each other.  It has happened, it does happen and it will happen.  The Gospel is for sinners, it’s hardly a surprise when we sin.  But what happens next?  Jesus teaches us in the Gospel this morning that what happens next is what is really important.  We should not be surprised when we sin or are sinned against.  What is of Gospel importance is how we react to this.

And how do we react to this?  How are we to deal with our differences with our fellow Christians, and the hurts and sins that we inflict upon each other.  The first thing that Jesus tells us to do is to go and tell the person who hurt us that that is what they have done.  Talk face to face.  There is no rocket science in this.  We need to speak to one another.

That’s not as simple as it sounds, however.  It takes courage to face someone that has hurt you.  It takes honesty to admit that you have been hurt.  We have to admit to the way in which things aren’t perfect, to admit that we have differences, to admit that we hurt one another.  There’s no political spin on making the church look perfect.  Rather we deal with its imperfections.  And it is done in private, at least at first.  It is not something that we do by telling everyone what a brave and honest person we are; nor do we look for safety in numbers.  Rather quietly, and privately, we seek out the person who has hurt us and we tell them what they have done.

Can you imagine the difference it would make if Christians actually behaved like this?
There would be less of an attempt to make the church appear to be a place of uniformity and niceness.  Rather, the church would be a place where hard truths were confronted and dealt with; and where people could grow as people, and in respect for those with whom they differed.  The Gospel does not give us the recipe for an easy life.  Rather it gives us the path to take for a life that is real, truthful and life-giving.  It’s a hard path, but it is the way to life. 

The passage goes on and leads to listening, speaking in a larger group and finally, if the other refuses to stop sinning against you, to a form of excommunication.  It could sound like a legalistic path for entrenching Christian disagreement and hurt.  But this is not the path of legalistic enforcement of an arbitrary discipline.  But put yourself within this series of events.  You have been hurt, sinned against. You go to see the other and tell them what they have done.  That is not the end.  Because you have chosen to speak honestly and privately with them, they have the chance to apologise, to explain what they meant, and to tell you how you hurt them.  As the conversation goes on, there is the chance to involve others so that more of the Christian community can support and help you both.  The final sanction only comes with a refusal to listen to the whole church.  That kind of unanimity is rare, I suspect we all know.  But even if the whole community does agree to discipline the offender, Jesus tells is that we need to treat such a person as “a Gentile and a tax collector”.  And we don’t need to read too far into the Gospels to see Jesus healing Gentiles, eating with tax collectors and describing both as close to the kingdom of God!  Immediately prior to this passage comes the parable of the Lost Sheep. This is not about throwing people out, it is about how hard we work to keep them in!

This is not a new legal system for Christians.  It is a reminder that we are to be truthful, honest, brave and clear sighted in our dealings with one another.  It is when we gather together that Jesus is present amongst us.  That is so when we gather for worship.  It is also so as we meet in other ways, and perhaps especially when we have these difficult but honest and courageous conversations about how we hurt one another.  Our worship and the quality of life we have together are very closely linked.  In a few moments, we will share the peace together.  That whole part of our service comes from the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus tells his disciples that “when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister and then come and offer your gift” (Matt. 5.23-24).  As we share the peace, the most important people to greet are not those who we like, our friends and the easy people.  If we are to be true to Jesus’ commands, we should most of all be greeting the people we find difficult, and the people who find us difficult.

The Christian life is not the path of least resistance.  But it is a difficult and hard path of honesty and truthfulness with one another.  And in there, we will find Jesus is with us. Those who devote their lives to living in Christian community as monks and nuns have much to teach us.  The earliest Christian teacher who lived as a monk was St Anthony the Great.  He said that, “Our life and our death is with our neighbour.  If we win our brother, we win God.  If we cause our brother to stumble, we have sinned against Christ”.  We win our brothers and sisters by keeping our neighbours before us, and by doing all we can to help them see God.  The Christian life is not one in which we seek to win, beating those around us, being proved right or in which we are shown to have been the victim.  The Christian life is one in which we travel with our brothers and sisters, with all the hurt and difficulties that brings.  We come to life only with our fellow travellers. We win them, by remaining with them in the presence of God.  We win them by not allowing them to carry with them what hurts us and is an occasion of sin.  They win us in precisely the same way – by showing us what we do that hurts others and is an occasion of our sin.

I want to end with a story from the desert monks of the 4th Century.  This is a story of Abba Moses (father Moses):  “There was a brother at Scetis who had committed a fault.  So they called a meeting and invited Abba Moses. He refused to go. The priest send someone to say to him, ‘They’re all waiting for you.’  So Moses got up and set off; he took a leaky jug and filled it with water and took it with him. The others came out to meet him and said, ‘What is this Father?’ The old man said to them, ‘My sins run out behind me and I cannot see them, yet here I cam coming to sit in judgment on the mistakes of someone else.’  When they heard this, they called off the meeting.”

We are a community of sinners.  We gather together this morning to worship God and to share together in the life of his son, Jesus Christ our Lord.  He is present as we gather, as we are honest about our own nature as sinners, as we seek to win one another for Christ, and as together we seek to walk the difficult way of living truthfully as brothers and sisters in Christ.  Amen.

Originally given at St Thomas A Becket, Chapel-en-le-Frith. 7.9.14.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Prayers for Pentecost

This afternoon saw a Pilgrimage from St Alkmund's church in Derby to Derby Cathedral via St Alkmund's Well.

Here are three new prayers I wrote for evensong at the end of the festivities:

Holy Spirit of God,

who in the beginning did brood over the face of the waters,

and bring all things to birth;

we thank you for the gift of water,

to sustain us, to refresh us and to make us clean.

We pray for all those who lack access to clean water,

and ask that your gifts would be shared throughout your world.

O Spirit of life, O Spirit of justice,

bring your life and justice to the whole of this your world. Amen.

Spirit of God,

stir up we pray in the hearts of all who live in this city of Derby,

a desire to know and love you,

a determination to serve our neighbours,

and a commitment to the common good of all. 

We join our prayers with those of Alkmund,

who found in this city a place of sanctuary,

and we pray in the name of Jesus Christ our saviour. Amen.

Spirit of God,

bringer of life and love,

be with those who we have named before you;

bring light into darkness,

comfort to the sorrowful,

guidance to the confused,

and life out of death.

Spirit of God,

bringer of life and love,

come to those who need your touch. Amen.

EDIT: 22.6.14  Blogger only seems to have published this today.  Not sure why.

God for Everyone

A sermon for Trinity 1.

Meet Jeremiah.  Jeremiah comes from Jerusalem and he is a prophet.  He was called as a prophet when he was a boy, or at least a young man.  As his calling, Jeremiah speaks God’s word to the people of Israel, whether they want to hear it or not.  Mostly they don’t.  That’s probably because mostly Jeremiah’s message is one of doom and destruction.  He warns the people that they need to change their ways and return to God’s ways, and if they don’t then God will bring destruction on Jerusalem.  Jeremiah is not popular.  And today, Jeremiah is fed up.  He knows that he is hated.  He doesn’t particularly like speaking words of destruction and doom.  So today Jeremiah is fed up, perhaps a little depressed – after all, speaking doom and destruction at all times has to have some effect?  This is the effect of his calling.

Jeremiah’s calling is causing him distress.  If he were to go to a therapist, or a life coach, or even one of his friends, he would be told to change his job.  ‘Don’t do it if you can’t enjoy it’, they would tell him.  And that would sound like good advice.  But Jeremiah can’t change his calling, perhaps because it is a calling.  Perhaps he has tried.  But he failed.  It actually makes him more unhappy!

What is going on here?  Jeremiah’s dilemma can be seen in the lives of Christians and in Jesus’ teaching on the calling of a disciple.  What Jesus promises in this passage is being maligned by those in authority, death, division, a cross and losing our lives.  Not perhaps the most obvious advertisement for being a Christian.  Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel reading this morning contradicts much that is often understood about Christianity and being a Christian.  Christianity is sometimes thought of as a respectable way of life, and in the Church of England (and dare I say especially in its Cathedrals), respectability has been elevated to a position of great importance.  And yet here we see Jesus telling his disciples that people will malign them and when they do, the disciples are to carry on regardless.  Christianity is often said to be a religion of peace, promoting reconciliation and eschewing violence.  And yet here we have Jesus saying that he has not come to bring peace, but rather a sword.  Family values is often seen as a vitally important plank of Christian teaching; respect for parents, and love for children being especially important.  And yet here Jesus speaks of dividing families, son against father, daughter against mother.  He even goes on to say that his disciples must love him more than they love their parents or their children. This is a difficult passage but a very important one.  It is important because it tells us about the nature of God, about the demands of God, and about the life of God.  The nature of God, the demands of God, the life of God.

We learn from our readings about the nature of God, and we learn that God is the God of the whole world.  That is to say that God does not belong to anyone, not to the powerful, not to the religious and not even to Christians.  Joseph Heller’s book Catch 22 includes a scene in which the Colonel is shocked when the chaplain suggests that the enlisted men should be included in a gathering for prayer as they pray to the same God as the officers.  But God does not belong to the officers, or to the powerful.  God is God for everyone.  Sometimes the Bible speaks of God being a jealous God.  Sometimes the Bible speaks of God being one God.  Both of these are ways of saying that God is God for everyone, for the rich and the poor, for the powerful and the weak, for those we know and those we don’t, for those we like and those we don’t.  God is not our special property.  God is God, and we do not control God.  That means that God cannot be held within our own divisions and groups.  God is God for the Church of England, but also for the Church of Rome.  God is God for the British, but also for the Iraqis and the Syrians.  God is God for those of us who gather here this morning.  But God is also God for all those others who don’t.  God is the God of the whole world.  God is not ours.

So we learn that the nature of God is that God is the God of the whole world.  And we learn that God makes demands.  The God of the whole world makes demands on people, and they are demands that cut across everything else.  Jesus tells us that they cut across the demands of family, and that can be a hard truth to grasp.  Pope Francis was yesterday in Calabria, where he condemned the mafia’s operations.  The mafia are family institutions, but ones where the demands of family are clearly contrary to the demands of God.  I don’t think that Jesus is condemning family life, but he is saying that there are more important things and that the demands of God can run contrary to family life.  As Jesus goes on, we learn that there are times when the demands of God run contrary to the demands of staying alive.  That too is all too apparent in our world.  Think of Father Frans van der Lugt, killed in Syria because he refused to treat Christian and Muslim differently.

The God of the whole world makes demands on us that we should live in his ways, ways that mean justice for the whole world and not just for ourselves or our country or our party.  Ways that mean treating everyone as human and valuable.  Not just those who look like us or who take our side in conflict.  The demands of God follow from his nature as the God of the whole world – and they mean that we will come into conflict with those who want to claim that God belongs to them.  But, remembering that God is their God as well, Christians have died in witness to the God of the whole world and in obedience to the demands of that God.

God is the God of the whole world, and he demands that we live in the ways of the God of the whole world.  That can, warn Jesus and Jeremiah, lead to death.  But in fact it leads to life.  Those who hold onto life, and so give up on the demands of the God of the whole world, will lose it, warns Jesus.  They will not know the true meaning of life.  Those who follow the demands of the God of the whole world will truly live, even though they might die.  Jeremiah is more of a poet, he puts it this way: “O Lord, you have enticed me and I was enticed; you have overpowered me and you have prevailed”.  This is love poetry.  For Jeremiah, the God of the whole world makes demands like the demands of a lover.  It is not difficult to follow them, rather it is more difficult not to.  “If I say ‘I will not mention him or speak any more in his name’, then within me there is a fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot” says Jeremiah.  The God of the whole world comes to us intimately, as a lover.  To know the God of the whole world, and to follow his demands is to fall in love, it is to know true life.  It is to truly be ourselves, the people we were made to be.  This is something to proclaim from the housetops, something to tell in the light.

God is the God of the whole world, he demands that we live in his ways – the ways of the God of the whole world.  He does so because this is where our true love and true life will be found. That is the Good News found in these difficult passages.  But let me leave you with a question to challenge you.  What is it that the God of the whole world demands of you today, this week, or for the whole of your life?  What is it that will be like a fire in your bones, will entice you, overpower you and put you in touch with true life?  There is no other question that can be as important.  Amen.

Given at Derby Cathedral. 22.6.14.

Monday, May 26, 2014

10 Lessons from the Elections

     1. The BNP no longer have any MEPs

But with far right gains across Europe, there is still much pause for thought.

     2. Nearly 2/3s of the electorate didn't vote

This is the really troubling factor.  In both the local and the European elections, most people didn't bother to show up and vote.  Voting is a right that was hard won, but which now seems an irrelevance to most people.  This is not a sudden phenomenon, unique to these elections.  It will need patient, long-term hard work to re-engage people with politics.  Unless and until this work is done, politics is dangerously becoming a minority sport.

     3. The European Parliament has a democratic deficit

I am instinctively pro-European, I believe in working with others.  I am a reasonably intelligent and fairly well-informed person.  But I still don't know how the European Parliament works, nor what it's real function is.  Is there any wonder that people don't vote or vote against it?  When a Parliament is located in a different country, then it needs to work harder than ever to explain what it does and how it does it.  There is currently no evidence of this, despite the election results this weekend or in previous years.

     4. It's politics Jim, but not as we know it

With the rise of UKIP, and a Lib Dem wipe-out, appeals to what 'normally' happens ("Parties in government do badly"; "The opposition should be making more gains at this point of the electoral cycle") smack of lazy commentary or excuses made by politicians who are making it up as they go along.  They do not help our understanding.  Any journalist trying this approach should be placed in the stocks.

     5. The Green Party has steadily grown

The Greens were the UKIP of 1989, taking 15% of the vote and shocking the major parties.  However, the voting system meant that they achieved no MEPs.  Their steady progress in more recent years, with an MP in Westminster and growing numbers of councillors and MEPs is one of the untold stories of these elections.

     6. UKIP

Love them or loathe them, UKIP are a real electoral force.  They have two policies - restrict immigration and leave the EU.  Everything else they make up as they go along.  That allows them to be flexible on local issues, but makes the concept of a UKIP manifesto rather difficult.  But to criticise UKIP for this is to miss the point.  They are a mixture of protest party, the Plague-On-All-Your-Houses Party, and single issue campaign.  It's very effective.  How long they can continue to manage to be all things to all people remains to be seen.  I suspect they'll be a force in the General Election next year.  Should they ever come to run a local Council, that might be the undoing of them!  They attract some fairly unsavoury people as their candidates on occasion.  Hence the racist, homophobic and generally loathesome comments that have been highlighted in the press.  Farage is getting better at party discipline, but needs to be careful that he is attracting such people.  There's also the question of the lack of attendance but full expenses claims that UKIP MEPs make.  But unless and until they settle into being a proper political party none of this matters, much to the annoyance of some.

     7. The Lib Dems and the dangers of coalition

The Lib Dems seem to be carrying the full weight of public disapproval for the government, which is hardly fair given that it did seem in the interest of the country to enter the coalition in 2010.  In part, this is because a good quantity of Lib Dem voters gave them their vote in order that they could keep the Tories out.  When the Lib Dems let the Tories in, those votes are withdrawn.  There are many in this position.  There have also been some spectacular failures in coalition: the tuition fees u-turn, especially given the prominence given to the pledge in campaigning; and the AV fiasco, campaigning badly for a voting system they didn't even want and setting back reform to the voting system by a generation.  But it also reflects changes in politics.  Gone are the days when Labour and the Tories traded huge majorities (1983-2010) that didn't reflect those who voted for them, allowing space for a third party.  It has all got closer, and the Lib Dems are a casualty of this.  Add to that the reforms of the Labour Party since 1992, and the reasons for the 'Dem' in Lib Dem (dating back to the SDP leaving Labour) have gone.  Do we need the Lib Dems anymore?

     8. The BBC's reporting

This has not been as bad as some of its critics make out.  UKIP are the story of the moment and so get a lot of press.  Much of the reporting has been due to the scrutiny asked for by UKIP's opponents, and the BBC has asked the hard questions as well as the easy ones.  It does, however, seem to write the story early and then make the results fit.  That has largely meant that few hard questions have been asked of Conservative Party.  It has also woefully ignored the Greens and the non-voters.  There has been little European questionning of candidates for the European Parliament, and that against a background of EU-Russian tension that makes it even more important.  There has equally been little local questionning of candidates for local elections.  Both sets of elections have been seen as variations on Westminster politics.  That's not good enough. Not for the pre-eminent news service and not for local and European government.  There are just too many holes in the BBC's reporting at present.

     9. What's not being talked about?

There's been nothing on the political agenda about how to restructure a financial system that brought us close to ruin.  Nothing about how to make paying tax a duty on all, and not something the rich and multi-national companies can avoid.  Nothing about how to deal with the climate crisis that continues even if no-one is talking about it.

     10.  Our Democracy is in need

Politics is removed from most people.  The Westminster bubble is very real and seems also to include the media (perhaps especially the BBC, or is it just that I'm most disappointed in them).  That contributes to the lack of voting, the death of membership in political parties, funding scandals and so on.  Our politicians are professionals, and have known little else in their working lives.  But politics is far too important to be left to the politicians.  We need a politics that is rooted more in communities, with all the tensions and blind-spots that they have.  UKIP, by working outside of the Westminster establishment, could be part of the solution here.  But by definition they cannot be the whole of it.  Democracy requires debate and that needs more than one party.  We need a vision of democracy that is more than just around elections but that requires democratic effort all year round.  The Red Tory and Blue Labour movements are the only things connected with the mainstream parties that have shown any sign of offering such a vision.  David Cameron flirted with Red Tory, but seemed to drop it when it got hard.  Ed Miliband seems still to be in touch with Blue Labour, but much Labour policy remains to be written.  It does beg the question of what kind of a community vision the Lib Dems can offer.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Leading from the Second Chair

Review of Mike Bonem and Roger Patterson, Leading from the Second Chair: Serving your Church, Fulfilling your Role, and Realizing your Dreams (Jossey-Bass, 2005).

I had heard much about this book before I read it, and it did not disappoint.  This is a common sense and helpful approach to being a leader when you are not in the position of power and control in an institution.  As an account of leadership, it recognises the leadership of an individual, is responsible in terms of the needs of the organisation and intentional in helping people to own what they are doing.  As a second chair leader in two different roles within the Church, and as a former first chair leader, I found this helpful.  As someone responsible for the development of clergy, I will often turn to this as a resource.

Bonem and Patterson organise their reflections around three paradoxes.  Each reflects some of the tension of being a leader but not being in charge.  The first hits this head on; it is the paradox of ‘Subordinate – Leader’.  Here they point to the importance of the relationship between the first-chair and second chair leaders.  Trust and respect are important.  Time spent (by both first and second chair leaders) in building this relationship is important.  The other feature of this paradox is that of living with ‘the line’.  ‘The line’ is how responsibilities and authority are defined in the relationship between first and second chairs.  It needs to be found, because it is not simply written in a role description.  It should not be crossed, and when it is there is an erosion of trust between first and second chair.  The line can be moved, but only with time and trust.  ‘The line’ is essential the boundaries of the relationship between first and second chair.  Some of this is based on role, but much is based on the personal needs of the individuals.

The second paradox is that of ‘deep – wide’.  It defines the nature of a second chair leader.  Those in the second chair need to be spread widely through the organisation, offering leadership throughout.  But they (unlike the first chair) will have specific areas that they need to know in depth.  This is, simply, hard work.  It means seeing the big picture and always working in that light.  It means detailed attention to specific areas for which the second chair leader is responsible.  Priority must be given to supporting the first chair leader and to thinking of the whole organisation ahead of any specific tasks.  Bonem and Patterson offer some concrete examples of how to be deep and wide.  They suggest building teams and valuing diversity is important.  The second chair leader needs to be able to speak into the whole organisation.  That means building relationships across the team, not to impose authority but to support, help and affirm.  Four practices are at the heart of working in this paradox: taking the pulse of the organisation; amplifying the vision of the first chair leader; identifying and recruiting new leaders; and filling gaps.  As I said, hard work!

Finally, second chair leaders must work with the paradox of contentment and dreaming.  This speaks to the internal struggles of second chair leaders.  They need to hold contentment in where they are and what they are doing together with their aspirations about what might come in the future.  Rather than a romantic and unreal picture of contentment, Bonem and Patterson speak of contentment as “your choice to stay and grow and excel, for a season, regardless of current circumstances” (p. 124).  Recognising that some situations are unbearable and call for resignation or departure, they nonetheless see contentment in owning the decision to occupy a particular role (or chair).  There is a vocational aspect to this paradox, a calling to the current role and a calling that need not end at the current role.

Alongside these three paradoxes, Bonem and Patterson weave two things.  One is immensely helpful – a series of ‘words to first chairs’ on each of the paradoxes.  These encourage first chair leaders to work with their second chairs to enable them to develop and grow.  They helpfully identify points of tension between the chairs and remind first chairs that they too have been and are second chair leaders.  These are really valuable sections.  Less valuable is the use of the story of Joseph (Genesis 37-50) which is referred to throughout the book.  This is offered as a Biblical grounding of a second chair leader.  It feels a bit bolted on, and the story made to fit the conclusions.  I was particularly worried by the way Joseph taking Egyptians into slavery for Pharaoh ( Genesis 47.51) is offered as an example of Joseph turning the famine into “a tremendous opportunity for Pharaoh” (p. 68).  Perhaps an example of leadership losing its moral compass would have been better drawn from this!

One of the best features of this book is the way that it all seems so obvious.  The best works on leadership, it seems to me, are not technical but rather articulate with clarity something that has not been seen before but once pointed out are easily observed.  This is a great gift and requires a lot of hard work.  Well written, helpful and hitting all its targets, this is a book I will return to and highly commend.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Sin and an adult faith

A sermon for Easter 2.

John 20.19-31

Easter can seem a bit like a fairy story sometimes.  We have angels, soldiers who fall asleep at all the right moments, Jesus who is missing, the disciple look here and there for him only for him to appear in disguise as a gardener, or through locked doors.  It can make you want to call out to them, ‘He’s behind you’.  The fairy story has become a pantomime.  (Perhaps Thomas is the Buttons of this pantomime – missing out when the others see the vital piece of the plot and then acting slightly dim.)  But of course, fairy tales and pantomimes are distinguished by the fact that they have a happy ending.  And the resurrection is nothing if not that – Jesus is risen, all is well with the world, we can now all live happily ever after.  End of story, curtain down, time to go home.

There is much in this that we should not dismiss too easily.  Easter is a time of great joy, and I think we should enjoy the humour of the Easter stories along with the theology.  But there is a danger of allowing our understanding Easter to remain at this level.  The danger is that fairy stories and pantomimes can leave our faith in a very childish mode, waiting for Jesus or God to appear when we need him (and, of course, to leave us alone when we’d rather he wasn’t there).  In this mode, God revolves around our needs.  He appears to comfort and protect us, to forgive us (that’s his job, as someone once said), and to gee us up when we feel a bit low.  God may also appear to punish us when we’re naughty, or tell us what to do when we’re confused.  The key is that God here is doing what we need him to do.  God revolves around our needs, picking up our mess, sorting out our lives.
And in all of this there is a great deal of truth.  God does care about each one of us, about our needs and our hopes and our fears.  God does comfort us, protect us, forgive us, guide us, even punish us.  God does all this for our sake, but that is not the end of the story.  We cannot simply get our fix of God and then put him back in his box until the next time we feel a bit sad or bad.  

In our Gospel reading this morning Jesus does deal with the disciples’ needs.  They are afraid, fearing the authorities might want to deal with them as they did with Jesus.  They may also be afraid of Jesus, since they all deserted him (or worse) when he was arrested.  Jesus reassures them, ‘Peace be with you’.  But this is far from the end of the story.  The disciples are then sent out, and charged to forgive and retain the sins of the world.  We are a long way from fairy stories now – sent to take part in the very serious business of forgiving and retaining sins.  Jesus meets the disciples’ needs, but they are not left to themselves once he has done so. 

Now I confess that at this point I am tempted, very tempted, to try to wriggle out of Jesus’ commission.  I can cope with the stuff about forgiving sins – that seems very clear, even straightforward.  But retaining sins seems a completely different matter.  It’s not something that I do a great deal, and it can even seem to run counter to my understanding of the Christian message.  But here it is, very clear, ‘If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’  There is not a great deal of wriggle-room here.

What makes this such a difficult charge is that forgiving sins is God’s work, not ours.  It is God who judges, God who forgives, God who retains sins.  And God gives this work to us.  We are called to do God’s work.  More than that, it is through us that God’s work will be done if it is done at all.  I think that we’re allowed to take a moment to gulp and to feel that it’s rather more than we can cope with.  But once we’ve taken our gulp, we still need to think about what this means for us. 

We will only understand what the forgiving and retaining of sins involves if we look at all that Jesus says to his disciples.  The first thing that Jesus says is ‘Peace be with you.’  This is not something to be afraid of.   

The next thing that Jesus says is ‘As the Father sends me, so I send you.’  We are called to take part in the mission of God.  We are sent by Jesus, as Jesus was sent by the Father.  And our mission to do the work of God is just like the mission that Jesus was sent to do.  It is to be in the midst of the world, not hidden away in church.  It is to speak of God to the world; it is to enact the love of God to the world.  It is to celebrate, teach, mourn, suffer and feast just as Jesus celebrated, taught, mourned, suffered and feasted alongside his contemporaries.  Jesus was sent by the Father to be human being in the world.  This has been the theme of the Gospel right from the start: ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us’.  And we are to truly live, to really experience the joys and sorrows that being a human being entails.  We are offered ‘life in his name’ says the Gospel writer, and we are to live that life in the world.  This story, at the very end of John’s Gospel, is the beginning of the new creation that John has spoken about from the first words of the gospel: ‘in the beginning’.  We are called to be the new creation, to live this new life, to live our lives in full as human beings in the world. 

The third thing that Jesus says is ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’, and he breathes on his disciples.  Just as in the first creation, God breathed into human beings to give them life, so here Jesus breathes on his disciples and gives them the Holy Spirit.  This is a wonderful image.  We are to be filled with the Spirit as we are filled with breath.  An on-going, gentle but vital interaction.  We breathe in, and then out.  Taking from the Spirit, but never exhausting what the Spirit has to give us.  It is the Spirit that gives us what we need for this awesome mission that Jesus has given us.  The Spirit gives and sustains our new life.  It is as we breathe deeply of the Spirit that we are enabled to live fully, to be the people that we were created to be.  

The mission that Jesus calls us and sends us to do is about living fully in the world, living the new life that is given to us in Christ.  He gives us the Holy Spirit to sustain us and to fill us with that life.  And it is in this light that we can begin to understand what Jesus says about forgiving and retaining sins.  As we live in our world, we become all too aware that this is not a fairy story.  There is much pain and suffering, there are wars, viruses, criminals, oppression, violence and a great deal that takes life away, that is the opposite of the gift of life that we receive from God.  The Spirit that Jesus gives to us is also the Spirit of truth, and in truth we must encounter this for what it is – sin.  It is not willed by God, indeed it is our mission to transform the world in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Sin is not an insuperable barrier to God, there can be forgiveness of sin.  But it is not something we can or should ignore.  Retaining sins, I think, is at the very least recognising sin for what it is and refusing to hide from it.  We retain sins if we are able to name sin for what it is and not to brush it under the carpet.  Sins can be forgiven, but until they are recognised and confessed they must actually be retained.

Forgiving and retaining sins is, therefore, an essential part of the mission Jesus gives us.  It is about living truthfully and without pretence in the midst of the world; living fully the new life that is ours in Jesus Christ.  It calls for an adult faith that has moved beyond fairy stories.  It turns out, you see, that the happy ending that is Easter is not an ending at all.  Instead it is the point of the story where the characters change.  Instead of Jesus sent by the Father, we are sent by Jesus.  The mission is the same; the same Holy Spirit is what gives us new life.  But the mission is now ours to share.  It is the mission to bring God’s new life to our world.

Let us pray that the Holy Spirit will sustain us in this task.  Amen.

Given at Derby Cathedral 27.4.14.