Sunday, 15 May 2022

All Things New

 A sermon preached at Liverpool Cathedral, Sunday 15th May 2022.

See, says God. Look. I am making all things new.

Sometimes we might wish that God would make the message we’re meant to hear a bit more obvious. Write it in letters of fire across the sky, spell it out in fireworks, put it up in neon lights.  Working out what God is saying to us can be a frustrating exercise. But the cumulative effect of todays’ readings feels a bit like God has indeed written ‘See – I am making all things new’ in neon lights for us.

A new commandment. A new heaven, a new earth. A new sweeping away of distinctions between what is holy and what is profane,  a new sweeping away of distinctions between who’s in and who’s out.

Newness sounds lovely, but it isn’t all spring blossom and skipping lambs. It can be scary and challenging, upsetting deeply held beliefs and cherished traditions. I tend to imagine the sheet full of animals as rather like an illustration from a children’s Noah’s Ark story, because to me animals, reptiles and birds are lovely things. We can perhaps get closer to a sense of the original shock of this story if we instead try to imagine that sheet filled with the kind of things we might see in a horror film. To Peter, this vision is one of a sheet filled with all the things that he’s been taught to find disgusting being offered to him. His reaction is one of disgust – which scientists tell us is the strongest,  most universally recognisable human emotion.

And the result isn’t that Peter is summoned to a friendly meeting on his holidays. He’s there in Jerusalem being criticised. He’s being told that he has crossed a line. It wasn’t even a controversial line – the sort of thing that people might reasonably have different opinions about, or accept there were grey areas on. Everyone knew that you didn’t eat with the uncircumcised. It would have been self-evident to everyone in that room that it was wrong. It wasn’t just ‘common sense’ , it wasn’t even just hallowed religious tradition. It was disgusting. So they ask Peter – what do you think you’re playing at?

And Peter tells them this extraordinary story of the vision he had of something like a sheet being let down from heaven, full of all the things that it was against hallowed religious tradition to eat, against centuries of religious law to eat. In his vision he is three times invited to eat them, and faithfully resists. Then comes the twist – the startling declaration of newness. ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane’. And then, lest Peter simply think that that was an interesting prayer experience of great theoretical interest, there immediately comes a knock on the door and the invitation to put this startling new approach into practice. And from there comes the summons to Jerusalem to explain himself.

Our 3 readings this morning give us 3 snapshots from different stages of the question of what it means to live out the new commandment that Jesus gives the disciples. In the gospel, the commandment itself – now, at this turning point, as we’re about to move into the next stage of the story – a new commandment. Love one another. In Revelation, a vision of what that might ultimately look like – a new heaven, a new earth, no more crying, no more pain, the old things have passed utterly away. And in Acts – the messy, complex business of trying to work out what all this means in practice in the world we live in for now. That’s very much still the stage we find ourselves in. As Rowan Williams enjoys reminding us, on a cosmic timeline we are almost certainly still the early church.

That might be why this story of a turning point in understanding what it means to live out this new commandment was so important in the story of the early church that the book of Acts tells it three times over! The version we heard this morning from chapter 11; and then the whole of chapter 10 is taken up first with the telling of this story as it happened in the first place, and then with a recap as Paul tells it to Cornelius and as Cornelius recounts his side of the story. Three times in as many columns in my Bible, we are told that these deeply held beliefs and long cherished traditions can be overturned on an instant, because God is doing something new.

One of the most important threads through this whole story – and through all our readings this morning – is the emphasis that this newness is God’s initiative. ‘See: I am making all things new’. ‘A new commandment I give to you’. In the two dramatic visions in our readings from Acts and Revelation, this divine initiative is emphasised visually, with the new thing being seen as if its physically ‘coming down’ or being let down ‘from heaven’.

I’m reminded of another story of Peter being startled by God doing something new and unexpected. Our gospel reading this morning comes at the end of chapter 13, which tells the story of the last supper. In John’s gospel, that meal is framed by two ‘newnesses’. Here at the end, when Judas has gone out to betray Jesus, Jesus gives effectively his last wish – now, now that we are moving into a new stage of things, I give you a new commandment – love one another. That’s like the close brackets, the second quotation marks, that mark out this chapter.

The open brackets, the opening quotation marks, the opposite bookend to today’s reading, is Jesus washing the disciples feet. And the person we see there being the one who is horrified by things not being done properly, by protocol not being observed, by religious and cultural conventions being ignored or overturned – is Peter. Peter is the one who when Jesus takes the slaves role and washes the disciples feet isn’t having any of it. You might remember the story from Maundy Thursday. Peter is the one who says ‘Are you serious, Jesus? You’re really planning to wash my feet?’ And when Jesus says patiently ‘look, you can’t understand what I’m doing now, but later you will understand’, Peter is adamant – ‘No way! You will never wash my feet.’ Its only when Jesus insists – unless I wash you, you have no part in me – that Peter changes his mind, and characteristically throws himself fully into this new experience – ‘then not just my feet, but my hands and my head too!’.

Peter is often the disciple that I most identify with. He’s outspoken, he can be bolshy, he can be impetuous, he argues with Jesus – but when he’s in, he’s in body and soul. He has been deeply formed by the teaching and traditions of his upbringing – he argues and resists what he sees as inappropriate innovations, even dangerous temptations – but once he has seen that God is behind these new things, he throws his full weight and passion and life behind them.

It can be a difficult and confusing task, to discern what in the newness and change that is pressed in on us from all sides is of God’s initiative. We’re rarely given a vision quite as clear and compelling as Peter’s vision of a sheet full of all the things he’s been taught to find disgusting being offered to him by God. But what we are told, again and again in the Bible, is to expect the unexpected.

God – the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the One who bookends the whole of creation – might be unchanging and unchangeable. But what God asks of us, what God calls us to do, can change radically from generation to generation.

And whilst we rarely get so clear a vision of what we’re called to do now as Acts presents us with, what this story also shows us is the simple ways in which Peter comes to trust this unexpected declaration of newness. What is first discerned in prayer is confirmed in an invitation from an unexpected person. Accepting that invitation and telling his story, Peter finds confirmation in the  story the other tells him in return. Further discernment takes place even in the acrimonius atmosphere of criticism and debate that takes place in Jerusalem.

There is a message here for us today, I think, about not being afraid to tell our stories of what new things we feel God is calling us to do and to be and to say; about not being afraid to hear the stories of other people, even other people who we have been taught to think of as other; and perhaps most challengingly,  not being afraid of criticism and debate.

But the big message that today’s readings seem to be putting up in neon lights for us today is a challenge to us to remember that God never promises not to overturn our most preciously held religious beliefs, habits and cultural taboos.

On the contrary, it seems to me that God promises exactly the opposite – that we should learn to live with the expectation and awareness that God is always re-creating the world, that God will at any moment present us with new ways to more fully live out that new commandment to love one another.

We’re invited to explore together what that might mean, not just with people like us but with the most unexpected people that God puts in our path, telling our stories and hearing theirs, and being open to what God might now – here – today – be making new.

Amen.

 

 

Tuesday, 15 March 2022

How to Read the Bible: A five session online course to accompany the book How To Eat Bread: 21 Nourishing Ways to Read the Bible

 


I'm absolutely delighted to have written this book over lockdown, with the help of the fabulous people from St Bride's and around the country who joined me online to read and study to the Bible together. 

It seemed to me that there was no book out there that set out, in an accessible way, the riches of all the many strands of Bible reading in the Christian tradition. What could you give to someone who asked you why they should bother reading the Bible - or who said that they didn't think liberals believed in the Bible?

I hope this book is the answer!

Several people have asked for a Lent course based on it, and so I'm uploading 5 videos to our church YouTube channel over Lent. These are all based on the first section of the book which looks at ways that the Bible itself uses other bits of the Bible. Maybe I'll do another section next year!

The videos are each about 20-25 minutes long and are uploaded at the beginning of each week. Feel free to use them either for your own personal study, or to share them in a group setting - you don't need to ask permission to stream them or use them in a church or group.

You can find the playlist here - subscribe to it to get notified when the next video is uploaded!

And you can buy the book from the bookshop of your choice or via the links here on the publishers page.



 

Monday, 27 September 2021

Poem: At the Bridge

 I went for a walk and wrote this poem/thought experiment:


At the Bridge

A dog dashes under the stile

Splashes into the stream

And bounds high through the water

Scattering spray wildly in the sun.

Tail helicoptering madly, she strains to see

If her slower human nears -

Gives a few short, sharp barks, to call him here.


I wonder what it would be like to follow God like this?

Not hold myself back, walking obediently at his heel,

But to run joyfully ahead, feeling the joy of my body and freedom -

Turning to call him to share in my delight -

Straining to see him approach -

Knowing he won't be far behind.

Monday, 6 September 2021

Hymn: River of Life

 

We've just restarted Sunday worship at St Bride's Church. At St Bride's we tend to have monthly themes, and the team putting September together decided to work with the idea of a river - from Genesis 2 to Revelation 22. I've written these hymn words to go with a well known tune, for this September series. 

You're welcome to use it, just acknowledge authorship.


River of Life (to the tune Immortal Invisible)

 

The river of faith flows from cradle to grave

From bubbling fountain to great crashing wave.

From Eden, the source of the stories we tell,

To visions of cities where all shall be well.

 

Faith shape-shifts like water, in cloud, rain and sea,

It filters through rock and will always burst free.

The truth that we need will spring up from the earth

Pure life-giving water for all those who thirst.

 

The flood of the Spirit sweeps habit away

Exposing the comforting lies that we say;

Disturbing complacency, greening dry lands

And buoying us up as we float in God’s hands.

 

From Eden, the source of the stories we tell,

To visions of cities where all shall be well;

The river of faith may be winding and slow

Yet waters all soils for all love to grow.

Wednesday, 16 June 2021

Annual Appraisal: Indicators of Esteem. A Poem

 

Having just published my latest book, of which I am very proud (How to Eat Bread: 21 Nourishing Ways to Read the Bible ), I found myself revisiting this poem I wrote several years ago. I was working at Durham University, and one of the sections on my annual appraisal form was headed 'Indicators of Esteem'. That's where you put invitations to give keynote lectures, to be an external examiner, and so on. It made me think, as you can see, about how we value ourselves. Enjoy!


Annual Appraisal: Indicators of Esteem


The box in which I am to volunteer my worth

Expands as I type.

 

But can it expand enough to include

That moment, at the tail-end of winter,

When I took my tantruming toddler for a walk in the woods?

 

When, on our way to the stream,

She jumped down a log step

And grinned, gleeful with triumph:

'BIG step!'

 

And I smiled back,

Thankful for the distraction,

And complicit in her joy.

 

It wasn't a big step, really.

 

But for a moment it seemed that I was she,

And God was I,

And all my achievements - 'Look, a book!' -

Like an infant proudly presenting her nursery paintings.

 

And as she smiled back at me,

Truly delighting with me

In both the big step, and in my pleasure in it

 

For that moment I understood

Esteem.