Sunday, December 13, 2015

The greatest gift of all ... life in all its fullness

It’s the greatest gift of all
and yet it’s so fragile.
It’s the gift we all share
and yet it’s easy to squander.
It begins as a cell divides
and yet it began so much earlier.
It ends with a last breath
and yet begins all over again.
It’s full of meaning
and yet so difficult to understand
In him was life
and the life was the light of all people
He came as the way, the truth and the life
He came as the resurrection and the life
He came that we might have life,
Life in all its richness,
Life in all its glory,
Life in all its fullness.
Abundant life.
And he spoke the word of life
Through believing we may have life in his name.

I think we’ve had a good week!  It was great to see so many people at the Christmas Fair yesterday and to welcome so many different groups from the community around the church, not least the Word of Mouth choir as they finished the afternoon with carols!

Our week got off to a good start too – thank you for all your prayers for the future of our course.  I travelled up to Nottingham for a day of meetings on Monday.  A panel of five that included some key figures from York St John University responsible for quality assurance and two external representatives from Aberdeen University and Coventry University who were specialists in theology, and especially the kind of practical theology that’s roote din the life of the church.  After interviewing our Director of Studies, looking around our study facilities and meeting all the staff, they met first with our students and then with us as tutors putting us on the spot.  At the end of the day they were full of commendation for the course and for our students … and have agreed to enter into partnership with us.  That’s wonderful news for our course and its future – thank you for your prayers – and now for your prayers as we make the transition.

We plan to host a GIFT course here, Growing in Faith Together, from the Autumn next year to help us strengthen the work we do at church in faith together for the kingdom of God – watch this space!

While I was in Nottingham, Felicity had a day with her Mum in Leicester and I went over to join them on Monday evening.  On Tuesday I had a meeting with someone at Leicester University following up the project I embarked on in my sabbatical which was great.

It was as I was leaving the Archaeology and Ancient History that I noticed a big banner advertising a the Leicester Faith Trail – a 3 and a half mile walk through Leicester that takes you to eight different Faith centres.  It looks a very interesting and great initiative and good to catch a glimpse of what the University is doing in seeking to build understanding across the faiths.

There’s one page in the booklet for each of the eight faiths.  There are going to be massive limitations to any venture like that.  A pen portrait of a faith will only go so far.  In such a publication one of the things I do to gauge its value is to look at the section on Christianity.

In many ways its fair enough in its three very brief sections – Christianity: an overview; Christianity in Leicester and then a focus on one particular church, St Mary de Castro.

As I reflected further, however, I became dis-satisfied with that entry more and more.  My dis-satisfaction had to do with one little word that is the one word that is at the heart of our reflections for this third Sunday in Advent.

I wonder whether you have spotted what that one word is?

I do hope you can join us for our Nativity next Sunday morning … as we tell not only the story of the Nativity but the back-story behind the nativity and then what happened next in the life and teaching, the death and resurrection of Jesus.

It’s no good just sticking with the beginning of the story – you have to see how the story ends to get the message of the story.  That’s what prompted me to turn to the two Gospels that include the nativity story, Matthew and Luke and see how the end of the story in each Gospel throws light on what happens in the beginning.  We began at the beginning Luke’s gospel in the temple where the presence of God is felt and we saw how the gospel ends in the temple in the presence of God … but the end is not the end, it is a new beginning as we stand on the threshold of the start of something remarkable as witness is given to the risen Christ from Jerusalem, through Judea and Samaria to the ends of the world.

We went on to look at Matthew’s gospel.  And we saw how in the genealogy at the beginning Matthew effectively gives the whole of the back-story of the Old Testament, seeing it as three ages – the age from Abraham to David leading up to the establishment of a Kingdom in Israel, the age of the Kingdom or rather sadly as it split in two of the Kingdoms from David to the collapse of the kingdom in exile, the deportation to Babylon.  And then the age after the kingdom when the people were in subjection to the Persians, the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Syrians and finally the Romans.  And now as the Gospel begins the age of the Kingdom of Heaven is ushered in … a new age in which  God’s predsence is made real in Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God with us, and the Gospel finishes with that wonderful promise – I will be with you each and every day to the end of the age, the age of the Kingdom of God, the rule of God that we are now in.

And today we come to John’s Gospel.

There are lots of wonderful words in the opening verses of John’s Gospel.  It’s not a nativity reading … but it is one of those great readings that so often, this year included, we read on Christmas Day.  In these few verses there are a number of wonderful words, each of which is rich with meaning.  But there’s one word in particular that caught my eye reading these words afresh.

The reason it caught my eye is to be found not in the opening verses of John’s gospel but in the closing verses.

John’s gospel works like a modern book in some ways.  One of the things you can do if you are spoilt for choice in a library or a bookshop trying to decide whether to give a book a go is to read the opening sentence.  Does it catch your imagination?

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.  Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice.

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. —George Orwell, 1984 (1949)

And my favourite …

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. —Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

John’s Gospel works in the same way – In the beginning was the Word.

The next thing to do is to look at the blurb on the back cover.

Well that’s not so easy with John’s Gospel – but you can look at the last verse – not so recommended with a novel!  But I think the last verse is a bit like the blurb on the back cover – it tells you what the book is about.

This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.  John 21:24-25.

That’s not the only bit of blurb at the end of John’s gospel!

You get the feeling John thought he had finished at the end of chapter 20 … and then he added some more as well.  This is the quote I would extract from the book and put on the back cover!

John 20:30-31

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples,
which are not written in this book.
But these are written so that you may come to believe
that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God,
and that through believing you may have life in his name. 

That’s what John’s gospel is all about!

That’s the word to look out for.

That’s what the gospel is all about.


Let’s go back to the beginning of John’s Gospel and read those opening 14 verses – look out for this word – but listen carefully: it’s easy to miss!

John 1:1-14

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came into being through him,
and without him not one thing came into being.
What has come into being in him was life,
and the life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it.

 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
He came as a witness to testify to the light,
so that all might believe through him.
He himself was not the light,
but he came to testify to the light.
The true light,
which enlightens everyone,
was coming into the world.

He was in the world,
and the world came into being through him;
yet the world did not know him.
He came to what was his own,
and his own people did not accept him.
But to all who received him,
who believed in his name,
he gave power to become children of God,
who were born,
not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man,
but of God.

And the Word became flesh
and lived among us,
and we have seen his glory,
the glory as of a father’s only son,
 full of grace and truth.

What has come into being in him was life,
and the life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it.

It’s nothing less than life – this is what it is all about.

And this is my bone of contention with the Leicester Faith Trail – it’s not that what they say is wrong, but it gives a misleading impression that misses the mark completely when it comes to John’s gospel.

“There are many different groups of Christians throughout the world.  Typically, Christians believe in life after death …”

Well, yes, all right.  If you ask me the question, do I believe in life after death – yes I do.  But if that’s the focus it so easily becomes a caricature of what Christianity is about.  It is so very easy to give the impression that the Christian Gospel is about getting to heaven when you die.  But that’s not the language used in the Gospels.  It’s not the language I want to use.

The life that John’s Gospel is all about, the life that Jesus has come to bring to us is not just a life that begins the other side of dying.  It’s a life that begins here and now.

It’s a theme that runs through the gospel.

I am the light of the world; those who follow me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life.

Following Jesus brings light into the darkness that we are aware of here and now in our world – and brings life to life now – it brings light into the darkness of our lives.

I am the way, the truth and the life – to be followed her and now.

I am the bread of life – life sustaining here and now.

I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly, I came that they may have life in all its fullness.

This life is the rich life that gives colour and warmth and light to people’s lives in the here and now.

And the wonderful thing is that it has no boundary, it does not come to an end and finish, all over, at death.  It is a life that begins here and now and is lived to the full through life on earth and is not bounded by death.

One highlight of the week was carol singing at Sainsbury’s yesterday morning – always great to see the response people make – well over £100 in an hour and with all the supermarkets it’s the best part of £2000 – great.  And all for the work of Christian Aid.

They have a slogan they use from time to time.

We believe in life before death.

That’s the difference it makes – a commitment to bringing life to people at every level.

That’s my other gripe with the Leicester faith trail.  The church building it takes you to is a 12th century church in the grounds of the Norman castle – the church of St Mary de Castro – the opening times don’t include Sunday services and very limited.  The building is notable for its ‘grotesque heads’ that ‘envelop the exterior of the church, whilst the large churchyard is the oldest continuously used open space in the city centre.”

Wow! Impressive building.  And it is a great part of the city to visit.

But all the other faith buildings are vibrant centres of a community of faith. Why not choose a church to visit that’s got a vibrant snese of community as a worshipping people?  Maybe one of the lively churches with a sense of community – if you want a historic church as well, the Cathedral is just a stone’s throw away with a vibrant sense of community all around and its pattern of worshipping life.

Let’s capture a love of life, a commitment to live life to the full … and see how there is something very special that our faith in Jesus Christ can release into us as we put our faith in him. 

Let’s read the words of the Gospel and take them to heart – for

But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

How can we witness to this life in all its richness? 

In our individual lives – recognising that putting our faith in Jesus as the one who demands our allegiance provides us with a framework for the living of our lives that’s founded on love for God, love for neighbour love for enemy, that has at its core the kind of praying that is encapsulated in the Lord’s prayer, and involves living our lives in the service of other people.

In the worship and the community we share with other people who share our faith in the life of our church family too.  Let’s make sure that what we do as a church is filled with life, life in all its fullness.

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