Last August, just before we went on holiday in Cornwall, I noticed that an old friend of mine, Steve Wild, the Chair of the Cornwall Methodist District, would be taking a service in the Methodist church in Looe, the town where we would be staying while we were there. Steve is one of the warmest, most positive Christians I have ever had the pleasure to know. And what’s more, he often turns up at services with puppets – most notably Clarence the Frog. So I contacted him and asked whether Clarence would be accompanying him to the service in Looe.
We went as a whole family to the service, and met Steve outside the chapel, where he greeted us in his customary enthusiastic manner. Inside, he led half an hour of community hymn singing before the service proper began. He desperately wanted our two children to pick something, but the church was still on the 1936 Methodist Hymn Book, and our two even find 1983’s Hymns And Psalms far too ancient. He hadn’t brought along Clarence the Frog, but he had brought one of Clarence’s friends, and he let Bex and Mark play with the puppet during the service. Also, at one point, noticing how difficult the service was for them, he conducted a commando raid on the refreshments during the middle of a hymn and came back with a supply of Jaffa Cakes for them.
All in all, Steve is good news. He embodies the good news that he has preached throughout his life as an evangelist, a lecturer, a local minister, and television presenter. And I consider it good news of another kind to hear this week that he has been elected to be next year’s President of the Methodist Conference.
Good news is our theme this morning. Not the good news of Steve, but the Good News of Jesus (whom Steve proclaims). We come to this reading on the back of the fact that both Peter and Cornelius are facing the challenge to change. Cornelius is a good man, a devout religious man, even, but his vision of a man in dazzling clothes (verse 30ff) has shown him he needs more. Peter is being challenged to move outside his Jewish comfort zone, as well. And the reason for both these challenges to change is the Good News of Jesus. We’re going to spend some time this morning thinking about that Good News.
Firstly, who hears the Good News? Listen again to what Peter says when he introduces himself, having disabused Cornelius of the idea that he is anything more than mortal:
You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. (Verse 28)
Never mind the notions of who’s in and who’s out, ‘Unlawful’ is a rather strong translation of a word that here should probably be taken to mean ‘taboo’. All his social conventions and cultural pressure pointed against him having anything to do with Cornelius. But Peter says: ‘God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.’
Now that is potent. Social taboos tell us who the goodies are and who the baddies are. They tell us who is clean, and who is dirty. They wield great power, and tend to come with considerable pressure. Yet Peter resists the taboos, because God has told him otherwise. No-one is subject to God’s taboos when it comes to the Gospel.
What might that mean for us? It’s easy to draw up lists and examples of the social taboos we endorse today. Gypsies and travellers are often not welcome in an area, because they are all deemed to make a mess, but are they taboo to God? Evidently not, given the spiritual revival that has happened among them in recent years, and we have some evidence of that not far from here in the existence of a travellers’ church.
Or what about this week when we have seen two high-profile people in our society sent to prison? As a nation we have been disgusted by the phone hacking scandal that has been exposed in recent years, and it is only right that Andy Coulson, the convicted News of the World editor, has been jailed for eighteen months this week. What terrible things he authorised for victims such as Milly Dowler’s family. But has God declared him beyond the bounds of the Gospel? Was the judge right to declare these crimes ‘unforgivable’? Not at all. In fact, he desperately needs the Good News, and this would be a good time to pray for our prison chaplains.
Similarly, Rolf Harris. Many have been shocked to see his arrest, conviction and imprisonment for various sexual assaults, some upon minors. People are now queuing up to tell him to rot in prison and die there, but again – is he beyond the possibilities of God’s grace? By no means. In his twilight years, could he become like the repentant thief on the cross next to Jesus? Absolutely.
Of course, we don’t minimise the serious and deep repentance that will be needed by anyone who responds to the Good News of Jesus, but neither do we as believers in that Gospel deny people the opportunity to hear it and meet Christ.
And not only that, some of our taboos are not even about people who have done wrong. There are still taboos against people for the colour of their skin. There are various ways in which we exclude people because they are ‘not one of us’. But if God does not treat them as ‘profane or unclean’, then what right do we have to exclude them from the offer of God’s love? How can we? The heart of the Good News is a message of mercy and grace for all – including us, because we need that as much as anybody.
Secondly, what is the Good News? Many years ago, I read a Christian magazine article where famous church leaders were asked to define the Gospel in fifty words or less. One or two of them said it wasn’t possible, and implicitly they were derided for complicating a simple message.
Well, the Good News is simple, but it is also huge. Whole books have been written about it, and we can only scratch the surface by looking at how Peter described it to Cornelius before the Holy Spirit interrupted his sermon.
Some Christians will read the account of Peter’s address and major on the ‘simple’ message beginning with peace through Jesus Christ (verse 36) and ending with the forgiveness of sins (verse 43). It’s what many of us are tuned in to hear – that Jesus died for our sins and through his sacrifice we can be forgiven.
Now in what I am about to say I do not want anyone to think that I deny that message. I don’t. I believe it, and it is central to my faith, too. But I want you to notice that it is only one thing among many that Peter says – and he doesn’t even get as far as linking forgiveness to the Cross! And the broad context is that Peter gives a brief account of the story of Jesus. Yes, the message starts with peace and ends with forgiveness, but that is all part of an invitation to enter into the story of Jesus.
The danger with only emphasising the message of forgiveness is that we gain the impression that Christianity is simply a ticket into heaven when we die. But the call is not only to be at peace with God and discover forgiveness through Jesus Christ, it is also to be part of the Jesus story. It is to live a Jesus life that is made possible by God’s peace and forgiveness. It is to know that the Resurrection doesn’t simply mean we have the hope of heaven, but that Jesus
is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. (Verse 42)
‘Judge’ may not sound like good news, but this is the Jesus who has already been described as ‘doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil’ (verse 38).
The message, then, is about receiving God’s forgiveness and peace, but going on from there as a disciple of Jesus, one who learns by seeking to copy his life. Yes, there is the hope of heaven, but before then there is the call as a disciple to build for the kingdom of God and make a difference in this world. This is what Peter calls Cornelius to embrace. This is what we are called to believe and live if we call ourselves Christians. And this is the message we are to take to the world.
Thirdly and finally, how is the Good News lived? It all happens when Peter’s sermon is interrupted. How on earth anyone can come up with the popular cliché that the Holy Spirit is a gentleman when that very Spirit decides that Peter has said enough and it’s time for action is beyond me. But he falls on the listeners ‘while Peter was still speaking’ (verse 44). The Gentiles get the same beginning – ‘speaking in tongues and extolling God’ (verse 46) – that the first disciples had had at Pentecost. The ‘taboo’ people – those thought ‘profane or unclean’ until God’s intervention are most definitely nothing of the sort.
I wonder whether we have ever seen God pour out his favour upon someone of whom we disapproved? Because that’s what Peter and his team witness here. And it is so decisive that Peter orders the immediate baptism of Cornelius and his household. There is all the evidence he needs to know that these are people who have converted to the Good News of Jesus.
And now, the two groups that were previously hostile to each other are united in Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. Here is a powerful sign of God’s ministry of reconciliation. The Gospel again is not simply about my personal forgiveness of sins. We are not only reconciled to God, we are reconciled to each other and called to live a life where we are at peace with God and one another.
Yes, living as a disciple starts right now as God unites us in Christ with people we wouldn’t otherwise choose to be our companions. The old adage that you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family is just as true of our spiritual family. But if we are serious about seeing the healing of the nations as we work for the kingdom of God, then we need to start by being an example of a healing community right here.
What does that mean? Well, by the power of the Holy Spirit it means I am not going to ignore that person I don’t like. I am instead going to see whether reconciliation is achievable. It means I am not going to keep poisoning our community by indulging in cheap criticism of people, especially when I do it from a perspective that sounds like I think I am superior, I have got everything together, and I am the better disciple of Jesus. It means I am not going to start complaining at the drop of a hat. I do not come to church to be a consumer, and expect that the purpose of church is for everything to be according to my taste, and that I can therefore rattle off my moans when it isn’t exactly how I want it to be. No, I come to my church community to be part of God’s work of reconciliation and healing. I come on Sundays and other days to live out Jesus Christ’s vision of peace – peace with God, peace with one another, and peace for the world.
In short, as I embrace in Jesus’ name those who are socially under a taboo, and seek to lives as disciples of Jesus alongside them, I am committed to a life whose very actions speak the Good News that Christ brought.
Nothing less than that is Christian faith and Christian church.
I want to tell you about a book I have just finished reading. It is one of the best I have read in many a year. It isn’t one of the academic theological books I read. It’s one I want to recommend to my congregations. Unfortunately, I can’t wave my copy in front of you, because I read an electronic version on my Kindle. I could wave my Kindle at you, but that wouldn’t make much sense.
The book is called ‘Resurrection Year’, and it is by an Australian author called Sheridan Voysey. He is a successful radio presenter who has achieved his dream of broadcasting a talk show about life and faith across his native land. But his wife Merryn, a medical statistician, longs to start a family. It is their unfulfilled dream. The opening chapters of the book are a journal of ten years in their marriage when they hope to have a child. They are told they are exceptionally good prospects as adoptive parents, but no phone call about a child to adopt ever comes. When they tell the adoption authorities they want to try IVF again, they are told they cannot remain as potential adopters.
Several rounds of IVF fail. They take one last chance, and all the tests indicate that Merryn is pregnant. They tell their friends and family that a baby is on the way. But it’s one last false dawn. Yes, a gestational sac is growing, but there is no foetus. They have to let their dream of having children die.
The rest of the book chronicles their questions and struggles in faith. God never answers their ‘why’ questions. It also tells how they rebuilt their lives with new hopes – their ‘resurrection’.
For many of us – perhaps most, possibly even all of us – the life of faith bumps up at one or more times in our lives with broken dreams. We hoped for something big. It never happened, or it did but it was taken away from us. Since Mum’s death six weeks ago, our daughter has been asking question after question about why God couldn’t have done things differently for Nanny, or why we will have to wait so long before being reunited with her in Heaven.
I am sure you can add your own examples. In some cases, I know what they will include. For others of you, I do not necessarily know.
But of this I am sure: the Bible knows of this very dilemma, and we do so in today’s Gospel reading as Jesus approaches Jerusalem. The death of Lazarus is a broken dream. And Jesus just seems to make it worse. He knows Lazarus is ill, and he stays away. Not much of a pastoral visitor, was he? Lazarus is a friend. Mary and Martha are friends (verse 5). But still – in a culture where medicine was so primitive – he stays away two more days (verse 6).
So the first thing I want us to appreciate this morning is a painful, yet hopeful truth: Jesus is involved in our broken dreams. Broken dreams do not mean the absence of God, even if they do mean a loss of hopes. We do not understand why Jesus’ work in our broken dreams is what it is – Mary and Martha don’t really receive much of an explanation – but that doesn’t change the fact that he is still here.
It’s rather like the Book of Job. Lots of people are under the misapprehension that the story of Job gives us an explanation for the existence of suffering and of a good God. But it doesn’t. Job only answers one question: ‘Is there such a thing as innocent suffering?’ Its answer is ‘Yes’. When Job finally comes before God towards the end of the book with his questions, God doesn’t answer them. In fact, God more or less says, ‘Where were you when I created the world?’
If Jesus is still involved in our lives when he doesn’t answer our prayers for the fulfilment of our dreams, then what is our response? In one respect, our response is simple, but probably not what we want to do. We simply hang on to him in the disappointment.
That can be tough. But if it is, then remember these things. When we are screaming at God for not bringing to pass the things we have cherished in our hearts, we are not complaining from a position of unbelief. Rather, we are like the child beating their fists against their father’s chest, all the while being held in his arms. God is still holding us in our pain. He may not be answering us for reasons that are inscrutable to us, but he is still holding us.
And moreover this: when God is holding us, his grip on us is stronger than our grip on him. When our world has fallen apart, we may well feel like we cannot hang onto God. But he is stronger than us. As we cry out in our agony, he does not intend to let go of us. He wants to hold us close to him, even if that does mean we punch him in the chest. Remember how many of the Psalms are written by people calling out to God when life is dark. Like Jesus using Psalm 22 on the cross, saying, ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’, we have that sense of abandonment but we can still call the Lord ‘my God’.
And this links with the second thing I would like to say from the passage: the faith we exercise is faith in Jesus. I know, I know: this is another of those times when I say the obvious in a sermon. But that’s what happens for Mary and Martha: when Jesus finally arrives in Bethany, called by some ‘God’s favourite place on earth’, he hears them both say, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died’ (verses 21, 32).
But there is a difference in their responses. Mary, who is held up as the paragon of faith in Luke’s Gospel for sitting at Jesus’ feet and learning from him, is not the faith-filled one here. Martha, whom Luke depicts as distracted and frantic, is the one who shows glimmers of faith in this story. Mary doesn’t say any more – although we should note that Jesus is not judgemental about this, he is moved by her tears (verse 33).
But Martha does. Listen again to her exchange with Jesus:
20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.22But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”23Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
She still believes Jesus can do something for her. Her faith is still at one level that of a typical devout Jew, believing that the resurrection of the dead will happen ‘on the last day’. You know and I know that her faith is about to be elasticated, but there is basic faith in God and in Jesus going on here.
And sometimes that’s all we need. That is the raw material God uses to make something beautiful that we had never imagined.
It all puts me in mind of Rolf Harris. It may be contentious to mention him now, given the criminal charges he is facing, but his many talents were a large part of my childhood. An LP of his greatest hits was the first record I bought with my own money (actually a Sunday School prize), and we always watched his television shows. I am sure you recall his catchphrase when he was painting something: ‘Can you guess what it is yet?’ What looked like a few random brush strokes was the beginning of a work of art.
When our dreams are broken, the only faith we may be able to offer Jesus might be just a few random brush strokes, just some basic faith. But God too is able to work with that and create something beautiful.
And that leads on to the third and final strand of what I want to say this morning. Jesus can transform our broken dreams. Mary and Martha wanted their brother Lazarus healed. It didn’t happen. When he died, Martha could still at least believe God would answer Jesus, and that her brother would be raised at the last day. But what Jesus actually did was far more than they could ever have imagined. He goes to the tomb, has the stone rolled away, defies the retching stench, and says, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ (verse 43) He has promised Martha she will see the glory of God (verse 40), and in this miraculous sign she does. He told her he was the Resurrection and the life (verse 25), and now she knows he is.
But the thing about resurrection is that it comes after a death. For Jesus himself to be the resurrection and the life will have to follow his crucifixion.
Yet this does at least mean that if our dreams have died, then the stage is set for new life. Death is not the end for us. It is the end of one act and the curtain closes, preparing us for the next.
Sheridan and Merryn Voysey never did get to have children. And their ‘resurrection’ involved not only the death of that dream, but the burial of Sheridan’s radio career in Australia. They came to the UK, where Merryn was offered a job at Oxford University, and new opportunities began to present themselves to Sheridan in writing and speaking – but not yet in radio again, I believe.
In my own life, I could think about some of the dreams I had for ministry when I set out that have never been fulfilled. Ordination has never opened up doors to the new vistas I hoped it would. Early in my ministry, I was a seminar speaker at two big Christian conferences, but that side of my calling has never taken off. Sometimes ministry has been less about my dreams and more about my nightmares. But at the same time, I have found myself doing other things that I never imagined I would. Things that I never thought would bring me contentment and fulfilment do indeed bring those blessings.
So I want to encourage you this morning if you have broken dreams in your life. Consider today an invitation – an invitation to bring those broken dreams to the altar of God. Remember that an altar is a place where living things are placed in order to be sacrificed. I dare to invite you to lay down your dreams to die, to place what questioning faith you have in Jesus, and enter into your grieving.
But wait for God to bring new life from the tomb. It is what he promises, and it is what he does. You may be tempted by the thought that laying down your unfulfilled dreams on the altar will lead only to a future filled with regret, but we believe in the God who makes dry bones live, the God who brings life out of a cave used as a tomb.
In short, we believe in a God whose Son said, “I am the resurrection and the life.”
I thought you’d like this. I was surfing Amazon, looking for Val Doonican CDs for a relative. Well, OK, it was for Debbie. Her taste and mine, well … although she says she wants this in order to introduce such gems as ‘Paddy McGinty’s Goat’
to the children. That’s her line, anyway.
Now I don’t worry too much about the relevance of what Amazon suggests you might be interested in as a result of your searches and purchases, but I thought this was good: one of the suggestions for those looking at Val Doonican was …
So given that Val has in the past covered Simon and Garfunkel (59th Street Bridge Song – Feelin’ Groovy), The Commodores (Three Times A Lady), Tim Hardin (If I Were A Carpenter), Bette Midler (Wind Beneath My Wings) and so on, perhaps we can now await his versions of The Drugs Don’t Work or Bittersweet Symphony.
Which made me think: can you suggest any other unlikely cover versions you’d like to hear? After all, if Rolf Harris can do Stairway To Heaven …