Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Fellowship of Christian Magicians

This year I spoke at the morning prayer and worship meeting for the first time, on 25th February 2009.

I was conscious of being a woman, an Anglican, and therefore not an easy person for some of the, mostly men, to listen to. I've never spoken to so many smiling encouraging faces, which was heartwarming. This is what I said to the assembled magicians.

Good morning. I’m Helen. Ron and John have already indicated that this gathered community represents many denominations and styles of churchmanship and worship. I’m an Anglican, and that’s the tradition that I’m speaking from this morning.

Let us pray: Loving God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, open my mouth to speak, and our hearts to receive your word. May your love sink deep into our hearts and may each one of us be nourished by your message for us so that we may live to your glory. Amen

In my church today we celebrate Ash Wednesday; the start of Lent, and a period of self-examination and getting real before God; a time when we identify with Jesus’ testing in the desert. In 46 days it will be Easter, the most important occasion in our church year, and we look forward to celebrating Christ’s resurrection, and our salvation. The good news doesn’t get much better than that.

But for all of us there is a journey that we undertake on our way to claim the reality of the resurrection promise, and today I want to look at how our journey is like that of one character that we all think we know - Peter.

Not my husband Peter, but his predecessor in faith; the first of the disciples that Jesus called (Matthew 4:18, Mark 3:16, Luke 6:14); the man who was so committed and enthusiastic a friend and follower of Jesus that he was the first to get out of the boat (Matthew 14:30) to walk on the water; the man who recognised Jesus as the Christ in (Matthew 16:16), and the man who said to Jesus (Matthew 26:33) “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.” (Mark 14:29)

And yet… as we hear those words, knowing they were sincerely meant, we also know they were not yet true at that time. Peter loved Jesus, but he went on to betray his friend by denying him. Peter wanted to be strong, to be loyal, to be faithful, but he couldn’t do it in his own strength. His strength was an illusion.

We know that, for all his enthusiasms, Peter was a fearful man. Think of him walking on the water, what happened? His fear over-rode his faith, and when that happened, he began to sink.

In the garden of Gethsemane Jesus asked his friends to keep watch. Peter fell asleep three times (Mark 14:41, Matthew 26:40). Then he denied Jesus three times.

We read about a man who believes himself to be fully committed, solid, reliable, a rock. And we watch as he discovers his all-too-frail humanity – a humanity that we all share. When Peter finally recognises the reality of his own weakness, we are told, “he went outside and wept bitterly”, (Matthew 26:75)

Peter had come face to face with the person that he really was, the person that Jesus knew he was when he chose him to be a disciple.

Aren’t we all like that when God chooses us? Is there anyone here whose life was perfect before they met Jesus, who hasn’t been confronted with their own weakness, and changed on that journey into an ever deepening reality of faith? I have.

Peter’s weaknesses are our weaknesses, told honestly, and that’s why I think his story is such an encouragement to us. Because God takes the illusion and turns it into reality.

We can only guess what Peter felt as he watched his friend, the man who he knew to be God’s son (Mark 8:29)- the Messiah - tortured and crucified, and to know that he had also betrayed him – the man he had seen transfigured on the mountain, talking with Elijah and Moses (Mark 9:5); the man to whom he had declared, "Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you." (Mark 14:31) What must it have felt like to be Peter then?

We know that Peter saw the empty tomb (John 20:6), that he was in the upper room when Jesus appeared to the disciples, and therefore, that he knew Jesus was alive.
We do, however have another story of Peter out fishing.

If you remember how Peter was called to be a disciple as told in Luke Chapter 5, you will recall that Jesus instructed the fishermen to let down the nets and they brought back up a huge catch of fish, so many that their nets began to break, and the boats began to sink. In John 21 we read a reprise of story, as once again the men are struggling to catch anything until Jesus tells them where to fish. And once again, they catch so many fish that they can’t haul the nets in.

Jesus re-enacts his call to Peter, and Peter is so enthusiastic to reach Jesus that he jumps into the water – he can’t wait for the boats to come in. I love the simple message, “Come and have breakfast”.

But this isn’t simply the story of a barbecue on the beach.

If this were a magic trick, it would be the reveal, as the Peter who answers ‘yes’ three times to the question, “Do you love me?” is one who understands the road he must tread, and who now has the faith and God-given strength to accept the command to “Follow me”.

Somewhere along the line there has been a transformation.

Between the betrayal and the breakfast something significant had happened - something that affects every one of us – the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, our Saviour and our Lord.

It is that event that differentiates the illusion of so many inward-looking pic’n’mix religious beliefs – rooted in self-interest, from the reality of our outward-facing faith in the risen Christ – rooted in Jesus.

I mentioned earlier that my church is celebrating Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent. All the churches will be suspending normal house-groups and mixing everyone up, across the town and the various churches, to study ecumenically – Roman Catholics, Baptists, Free Church, even Anglicans, all studying God;s world together.

I am running a course based on the film Chocolat, which has raised some eyebrows because so many of us think of Lent only as a time for self-denial, penitence and sacrifice, and chocolate doesn’t fit well with that idea.

But for me, Lent is actually about encountering God in a new and real way, about finding new reserves within ourselves to enable us to give out, to get wise, to get real before God, to grow up and acknowledge who we are and where we need God’s help in our lives. Just like Peter.

At the end of the film Chocolat, the young priest speaks without notes, but from his heart, about the humanity of Jesus, and the need to measure goodness, not, as he puts it, “By what we deny ourselves... what we resist and who we exclude” but “by what we embrace... what we create... and who we include.”

Isn’t that what this community here is about?

God chose me, and God chose you to follow him. If each of us had to measure up to “someone else’s” view of what it means to be suitable or good enough to be chosen to share his love and glory with others, I don’t think there’s a person in this room who would measure up. Not in our own strength. I wouldn’t. Like Peter we are fallible, fallen human beings. With Jesus we are saved, without Jesus we are lost.

It’s that simple.

In many magic tricks there is a turning point, a moment of distraction when the trick actually happens, often before something that appears to be one thing is changed to something else.

I’d like you to think about a question. When did Peter change from a man who tried to follow Jesus in his own strength to a man who followed Jesus in God’s strength?

Was it when the cock crowed; when he saw the empty tomb; in the upper room; when his nets filled with fish? Or when Jesus gave him bread and fish to eat on the beach?

Like all the best magic tricks, I’m not sure of the moment when the transformation happened for Peter, but I think I have experienced similar moments of realisation.

Realisation that God created me as the person I am, that God doesn’t make mistakes, that God loves me, that God died for me in the person of Jesus, and that God forgives me and has called me to show that same love and forgiveness to others, and to use my gifts to God’s glory. And what I believe for myself, I also believe for you.

Brothers and sisters: The illusion that we see in the world is that we can live in our own strength, putting our own needs first, and control our world.

The reality is that when we give control back to God and move closer to God in worship and prayer, when we share God’s love and show compassion and care to each other, we find ourselves transformed, and we really do become light and salt to each other and the world.

If you are carrying a heavy burden today, of anxiety, guilt, pain, sorrow, dread – bring it to God in prayer. Let the one who walks alongside us offer you comfort, strength and peace


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