16th May

On the evening of the first Easter Day, Jesus appeared to his disciples who were gathered together behind locked doors. He said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’

Jesus meets us again today, and again he says, ’Peace be with you.’

Let us worship God, and thank Jesus for the peace we enjoy in him, as we sing our first hymn

Hymn: My lips shall praise you, my great Redeemer (Singing the Faith 430)

[Chorus]

My lips shall praise you,
my great Redeemer;
my heart will worship
almighty Saviour.

 

1. You take all my guilt away,
turn the darkest night to brightest day,
you are the restorer of my soul.

2. Love that conquers every fear,
in the midst of trouble you draw near,
you are the restorer of my soul.

 

3. You're the source of happiness,
bringing peace when I am in distress,
you are the restorer of my soul.

 

Noël Richards (b. 1955) &

Tricia Richards (b. 1960)

Prayer

Risen Lord, we thank you for the peace you bring to us. We thank you that ‘Peace be with you’ was the first thing you said on the evening of your resurrection to the gathered disciples. Peace is your message to the world, and it is your message to us this morning – that we might have peace with God, peace with each other, and peace within ourselves. And your gift is not only peace for us, but peace in the world where there is little peace.

Lord, we thank you especially because of the price you paid. You went to the cross. You took on yourself the sin of the world and carried it with arms outstretched until the weight of sin took your life from you. You suffered and died that we might receive the gift of eternal life, that we might be part of the fellowship of your kingdom. Lord, we thank you, and today we come together to worship you.

We acknowledge our unworthiness

Loving God, we have sinned against you in what we have thought, said and done. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbours as ourselves. We are truly sorry and turn away from what is wrong. Forgive us for the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

 

Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.

 

This is his gracious word: ‘Your sins are forgiven’

 

Amen. Thanks be to God.

 

The Lord’s prayer

Our Father who art in heaven,

hallowed be thy name,

thy kingdom come,

thy will be done on Earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread,

and forgive us our trespasses

as we forgive those who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from evil.

For thine is the kingdom,

the power and the glory,

for ever and ever.

Amen

 

The cetti warbler

We go out for a walk most days. One of our favourite places is Dinton Pastures. For those of you who don’t know, it’s close to Woodley on the outskirts of Reading. There are a number of lakes at Dinton. They were made when gravel was extracted to build the M4 motorway.

Dinton Pastures is now a country park. We go in the back entrance where there are fewer people and more wildlife. We regularly hear a woodpecker. And in the last few weeks we’ve heard a cuckoo. We don’t just hear the birds, we see them and sometimes get close up to them. Once we walked round a corner to find a heron stood on the path in front of us – and it didn’t move. It just stood there, and we stood there not wanting to frighten it. After what seemed a long time, it extended its broad wings and flew off across the lake.

 

The bird that has caught our interest recently is one that doesn’t look dramatic, but has the most fantastic song. We heard it first, then we caught sight of it in a bush singing away. We didn’t recognise it so we later asked some birdwatchers what it might be. They offered us a few pictures on their tablet until they showed us a cetti warbler. But they said it couldn’t be a cetti warbler because they always hide – so they told us. We looked again at the pictures when we got home – and that’s what it was.

If you search on the internet for ‘Cetti Warbler Dinton’ you’ll find a you-tube video of a cetti warbler actually filmed at Dinton Pastures this year. I’ve included a link to it so you can watch it. You might like to watch it as part of worship, now or at the end of the service – it only lasts 90 seconds, www.youtube.com/watch?v=YkYMYKDPHnk

The cetti warbler says to me – listen out for hidden beautiful things. In the video, you can hear the M4 motorway in the background, and you can hear lots of other birds singing away, but then the cetti warbler looks to the sky and bursts into full-throated song.

The story in the Bible of Jesus talking with Nicodemus is well known. Jesus tells Nicodemus, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

If instead Jesus had met Nicodemus at Dinton Pastures, he might have said, “The Spirit is like the cetti warbler. You might not know where it is, but just occasionally you hear its beautiful song, and you might actually get to see it.

Notice the last bit of what Jesus said: “So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” We are not just called to hear the Spirit. We are called to be people in whom the Spirit lives and moves. We are called not just to hear the cetti warbler, but to be like the the cetti warbler through whom the Spirit sings.

Prayer

Thank you Lord for the beauty of nature, for the birds that fill the air with song, for the heron that meets us on the path, for the cetti warbler that hides from view. All these speak of your creativity, your love for what you have made. We also are your creation and you want to live in us through your Spirit. May the wind of your Spirit blow though us. May your Spirit sing in us - carrying your peace and love into the world. In the name of Jesus we pray. Amen.

Hymn: Be still and know that I am God (Singing the Faith 18)

1. Be still and know that I am God.
Be still and know that I am God.
Be still and know that I am God.

 

2. I am the Lord who saves and heals.
I am the Lord who saves and heals.
I am the Lord who saves and heals.

 

3. In you, O Lord, I put my trust.
In you, O Lord, I put my trust.
In you, O Lord, I put my trust.

 

Anonymous, Based on Psalm 46: 10 - 11

Introduction to the readings

 

Probably the most famous verse in the Bible is:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

 

It comes from John 3 where Nicodemus goes to see Jesus by night. It’s packed with famous quotes. It’s in this passage that Jesus speaks of being born again.

 

When I talked about the cetti warbler I referred to other words Jesus said to Nicodemus about the Spirit being the wind blowing where it will. The essence of being born again is that we not only hear the wind, but the blows into us and through us. Jesus said,

‘Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, “You must be born again.” The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.

 

These verses are unique to John’s gospel, but similar ideas appear elsewhere in the Bible.

I’ve already quote much of Jesus’s conversation with Nicodemus, so we won’t have that as our reading. Instead, we’re going to hear what Paul writes to the church in Corinth. It says something very similar, but uses different metaphors. Paul’s version of being born again is that we are a new creation. Paul’s version of the Spirit entering us is instead of us being ‘in Christ’.  Paul goes on to speak of the consequences it has for our mission as followers of Christ.

We’ll then hear the gospel reading – also from John like the Nicodemus passage, but this time from the end of the gospel instead of the beginning. It is set on the evening following the resurrection. Jesus appears to the disciples behind locked doors. It is often known as John’s Pentecost. Jesus breathes the Spirit into the disciples and calls them to mission. I’ll talk about this in a few minutes.

 

Readings

2 Corinthians 5: 16 - 21

16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

 

John 20: 19 - 23

19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. 21 Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.’

 

Hymn: Empty, broken, here I stand, Kyrie eleison (Singing the Faith 421)

Note: ‘Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison’ is Greek for ‘Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy.’

1. Empty, broken, here I stand,
Kyrie eleison.
Touch me with your healing hand,
Kyrie eleison.
Take my arrogance and pride,
Kyrie eleison.
Wash me in your mercy’s tide,
Kyrie eleison.
Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison.

 

2. When my faith has all but gone,
Kyrie eleison,
give me strength to carry on,
Kyrie eleison.
When my dreams have turned to dust,
Kyrie eleison,
in you, O Lord, I put my trust,
Kyrie eleison.
Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison.

 

3. When my heart is cold as ice,
Kyrie eleison,
your love speaks of sacrifice,
Kyrie eleison,
love that sets the captives free,
Kyrie eleison.
O pour compassion down on me,
Kyrie eleison.
Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison.

4. You’re the voice that calms my fears,
Kyrie eleison,
you’re the laughter, dries my tears,
Kyrie eleison,
you’re my music, my refrain,
Kyrie eleison,
help me sing your song again,
Kyrie eleison.
Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison.

5. Humble heart of holiness,
Kyrie eleison,
kiss me with your tenderness,
Kyrie eleison.
Jesus, faithful friend and true,
Kyrie eleison,
all I am I give to you.
Kyrie eleison.
Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison.

Nick Haigh and Anita Haigh

Sermon: Where the wind blows

Earlier I mentioned Dinton Pastures as a favourite place to go for our exercise. Another favourite is the Ridgeway near Didcot – just off the A34 between Newbury and Oxford. We love it for the beautiful view. The view northwards for 20 miles from the Ridgeway is stunning - extending over the Thames valley to Oxford and beyond.

Being high up and exposed on the Ridgeway, the wind gets pretty strong. Last week we drove up there, had our usual cup of coffee – and then returned home for fear of losing hold of the car door.

Winds are not always gentle.  And the same applies to the Spirit. The wind of the Spirit can be gentle, or it can be overwhelming.

When Elijah was on Mount Horeb, God was not in the earthquake or the powerful wind, but in the whisper of a breeze that followed.

 

In contrast, when Moses went up Mount Sinai, there was thunder and lightning and thick cloud.

In the all-age address I gave you a gentle picture of the wind as the singing of a cetti warbler, but Jesus did not say to Nicodemus that the wind of the Spirit would always be gentle.

 

The wind of the Spirit was far from gentle on the day of Pentecost:

 

‘Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.’

 

The wind has a life of its own, and so does the Spirit. You cannot tell where it comes from, or where it goes. And neither can we know where the Spirit will lead us. One thing we know is that without exposure to the wind of the Spirit we go nowhere. We cannot stay in the car hiding from the wind.

 

According to Luke’s gospel, on the day Jesus ascended, he looked forward to Pentecost saying to the disciples,

 

‘This is what is written: the Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’

 

The disciples were to preach repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And to do this they would need to wait to be filled with the power of the Spirit.

 

John’s gospel tells a similar but different story of the giving of the Spirit for mission. In contrast to what Luke writes in Acts, it happened before the ascension when the disciples were gathered behind locked doors on the evening of Easter Day.

We read,

 

Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’  And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.’

 

These are difficult words. Jesus commissions the disciples to actually do the forgiving – not just spread the message that God will forgive.

What I find even more challenging is that the disciples were told they could withhold forgiveness. But then, if they were continuing the mission of Jesus, we should remember that Jesus did not automatically forgive everyone. His words to the pharisees were harsh and unforgiving.

These instructions to the disciples were not out of line with the other gospels

Jesus says something similar to Peter in Matthew 16:19 when he gives him the keys to the kingdom of heaven – and also to all the disciples as a whole two chapters later (Matt 18:18).

In his letter to Corinth, as we heard, St Paul writes something similar but expresses it more comfortably in terms of reconciliation instead of forgiveness. Paul doesn’t use the word forgiveness in this passage but instead writes of people’s sins not being counted against them – which is the same thing. Paul might not be saying directly that Christians are called to forgive and not forgive, but he says pretty much the same in different words. The sense is the same.

In John’s gospel, the plain sense of Jesus’s instructions is that the disciples were called to pronounce forgiveness, just as Jesus himself had done, in continuance of Jesus’s ministry. We read many times over in the gospels that Jesus forgave people – and the pharisees were shocked, because only God could forgive. Now, on the day of the resurrection, Jesus was telling his disciples to forgive and not forgive.

Some churches take this literally. They have prayers and liturgies in which the priest says, ‘I absolve you from your sins.’ The Methodist Worship Book stops short of this – quite rightly I think. Ultimately, forgiveness is God’s prerogative.

The closest you’ll find in the Methodist Worship Book is in the service for Repentance and Reconciliation, with the minister saying ‘I declare that your sins are forgiven.’ These words leave it open who is doing the forgiving – whether it is God or the minister. For the more usual morning and evening services, the leader of worship pronounces forgiveness as clearly coming from Jesus by saying,

 

‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. This is his gracious word: ‘Your sins are forgiven’.

These are the words I included on the service sheet. I feel comfortable with these. They pronounce absolution as a gracious word from Christ himself – not the minister or preacher. But still these words recognise forgiveness and reconciliation as an important part of the church’s mission.

Just two months ago, two members of my close family passed away, seventeen days apart. Their funerals brought home to me how important it is in the end that there should be forgiveness and reconciliation, not only for one who died but for those who live on. Reconciliation and acceptance by God need to be pronounced over the deceased and offered to the congregation.

This was particularly powerful in my father’s funeral. It was held in the Anglican church he attended and led by the vicar, now retired, who knew him well. The vicar’s experience in leading funerals shone through, but there was much more going on. The vicar wasn’t excessive in what he said. Apart from a short sermon, he simply said the words of the liturgy. There was no doubt that the Holy Spirit was with us that day. The power of the service was in the presence of the Spirit – not in the competence or holiness of the minister or the congregation or the deceased.

This is the key point. The ministry of reconciliation and forgiveness is the work of the Spirit. Jesus gave the disciples the ministry of forgiveness immediately after he breathed the Spirit into them. The two went together – the Spirit and the mission to forgive. To read again the words of Jesus,

‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.’

Even in churches where the priest can say, ‘I absolve you from your sins’, the words of absolution are wrapped around and preceded with the recognition that authority to do this comes from God and through the church. It is not the priest speaking from his or her own authority.

Most of us are not in a position where we pronounce the words of absolution in a church service. However, every one of us is called to the ministry of reconciliation and forgiveness. We do this at all times and at all places, whether at work or at home or when socialising. As we say in the Lord’s prayer, ‘Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.’ We are called to forgive others, to be reconciled with others, and to work for reconciliation between others. And this is made effective by the work of the Spirit.

We are also called to help people find forgiveness and reconciliation within themselves. There are many people, I would even dare to say most, who do not forgive themselves for something they have done, possibly many things – people who are not reconciled to themselves and at ease with who they are. When God forgives us, he also calls us to forgive ourselves. What right have we not to forgive ourselves when God has forgiven us?

It’s noticeable that immediately before Jesus breathed the Spirit on the disciples and commissioned them to forgive, he said ‘Peace be with you.’ If you look again at the passage, you’ll see it actually reads, ‘Again Jesus said, peace be with you.’ For, Jesus had already said ‘Peace be with you’ when he came to stand among them on that day of resurrection. Peace and forgiveness and reconciliation go together. Where forgiveness is lacking, there is no reconciliation, and any peace is superficial.

Forgiveness is not the prerogative of Christians. People of all faiths and none can work for forgiveness, reconciliation and peace – I believe the Spirit works through them as well – the world would be a sad place if it were not so. But as followers of Christ we hear a particular call to bring peace and reconciliation through forgiveness, and we respond to this call fully recognising our own weakness. I know that the good I try to do is naturally tainted by my sinfulness – St Paul emphatically said the same of himself - and I guess it is true of us all.

Fortunately, reconciliation is not just our own work, but the work of the Spirit. The less it is our work, and the more it is the Spirit’s work, the more fruitful it is – and the more it brings peace that is deep and long-lasting. Our best service to God comes in the moments when it goes beyond our personal decision and our personal efforts – when the Spirit inhabits our words and actions. In Jesus’s words to Nicodemus, these moments are when the wind blows. We know not where it comes from or where it goes – but at that moment the wind blows through us.

Jesus said: ‘so it is with everyone born of the Spirit’. The call to forgiveness and reconciliation was made not only to the first disciples. It comes to us as a call to a deep work – as the essence of what we are about as followers of Christ. For our mission to be real and effective we need to be immersed, baptized and born again in the Spirit. We need to be aware of this and not think we can or should do it by ourselves. The first priority, above all, is that Christ through his Spirit should be born within us.

Hymn: God forgave my sin in Jesus’ name. I’ve been born again… (Singing the Faith 424)

1. God forgave my sin in Jesus' name;
I've been born again in Jesus' name,
and in Jesus' name I come to you
to share his love as he told me to.

 

[Chorus]
He said:
Freely, freely you have received,
freely, freely give;
go in my name and because you believe,
others will know that I live.'

2. All power is given in Jesus' name
in earth and heaven in Jesus' name;
and in Jesus' name I come to you
to share his power as he told me to.
 

Carol Owens (b. 1931)

Prayer

You Lord are the Prince of Peace. Send us peace. Send peace to the world.

Lord, we hold before you the many places in the world where there is no peace - where there is war or oppression. May there be reconciliation and forgiveness built upon justice. May opposing parties set aside their differences, find mutual understanding, and build justice for all. May the strong use their strength for the benefit of the weak. We pray especially for children caught up in fighting, where their homes are destroyed and they live in fear. We thank you for those who give their lives to support, protect and heal others.

We pray for countries where the Covid virus is causing real problems. We hold before you the desperation of people searching for oxygen cylinders to save loved ones, and those left grieving the death of loved ones.

We pray for peace in our communities – thankful for a settled society in which we can vote for our government – and thankful for those who give their time to serving others. May those with power and influence always strive to defend the weak.

We pray for peace in our homes. We thank you for the happiness close relationships bring us. We thank you for the personal growth we find in loving and being loved. We recognise that relationships are not always easy. May we always be ready to listen, and where necessary say sorry and forgive. We pray for those trapped in abusive relationships and the children who carry scars throughout their lives.

Lord, we pray for peace in ourselves. May peace, reconciliation and forgiveness rule in our hearts. May we learn to accept that you forgive us when we repent. May we learn to live with our own inadequacies, knowing that you love us as we are. Jesus died for us and carried our sins in his body. We can never be worthy of your gift of grace, but we can offer ourselves to you in service that we may learn to love as you love us.

Lord, we pray for your church. You entrusted the disciples with the message and mission of reconciliation – and your call to mission continues today. Teach us how to follow you. Above all, send your promised Spirit into our hearts that we may serve you, not in our own strength, but in the strength of your Spirit. May your Spirit blow through us, sometimes as a gentle breeze, sometimes as a violent wind. May we not stand safely by while your wind blows elsewhere. Give us courage.

And so, we pray for peace in the world, and we offer ourselves to be filled and moved by your Spirit that the kingdom of God may grow on Earth.

We make these prayers in the name of Jesus who is our Lord and Redeemer of the world. Amen

Hymn: We have a gospel to proclaim (Singing the Faith 418)

1. We have a gospel to proclaim,
good news for all throughout the earth;
the gospel of a Saviour's name:
we sing his glory, tell his worth.

2. Tell of his birth at Bethlehem —
not in a royal house or hall,
but in a stable dark and dim,
the Word made flesh, a light for all.

 

3. Tell of his death at Calvary:
hated by those he came to save,
in lonely suffering on the cross,
for all he loved his life he gave.

4. Tell of that glorious Easter morn:
empty the tomb, for he was free.
He broke the power of death and hell
that we might share his victory.

 

5. Tell of his reign at God's right hand,
by all creation glorified.
He sends his Spirit on his Church
to live for him, the Lamb who died.

 

6. Now we rejoice to name him King:
Jesus is Lord of all the earth.
This gospel-message we proclaim:
we sing his glory, tell his worth.

 

Edward Joseph Burns (b. 1938)

Blessing

May the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

 

And may the blessing of God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – be with us now and remain with us always. Amen