Sunday, May 21, 2017

Sermon: John 15: 1-17 Farewell Discourse - Connected to Jesus

I’ve brought along something that is very small, and very useful. Earphones! Now what are earphones used for? They’re for listening music. It’s great. You can be on the bus or sitting in the middle of a big crowd of people, and you can enjoy your favourite music - whether that’s One Direction or Daniel O’Donnell or anyone in between! There’s just one problem. when I put them in my ears, I can’t hear anything. What’s wrong? They’re not connected. If this end isn’t connected into the ipod, then I won’t hear any music.

Or just think of your morning routine. If you’re not quite awake, you’re trying to get ready and wondering why the hairdryer or the toaster won’t work - they need to be plugged in. They need a connection with the power source to make them work; to do what they were made to do.

That’s what Jesus was telling us in our reading tonight. But rather than talk about earphones or hairdryers, Jesus uses another picture. But before we get to that, a little quiz. What country do you identify with the thistle? (Scotland). The shamrock? (Ireland) The maple leaf? (Canada). The fern? (New Zealand). The vine?

The vine was the national symbol of Israel. In the Old Testament God sings the song of his vineyard in Isaiah 5. He’s talking about his people. But the good vineyard God had planted had turned out bad. Things weren’t going right. Now, here in John 15, Jesus says ‘I am the true vine.’

Now what grows on a vine? Tomatoes? Yes, but Jesus is talking about grapes. So I have a little bunch of grapes with me.

Now where did these grapes come from? And I don’t mean Tesco! How did they grow? They don’t have a factory making grapes like these - the branch has to be connected to the vine. It needs the sap, the power to produce the fruit. In the same way, Jesus says to his disciples: ‘Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.’ (John 15:4)

We need the power of Jesus to live as Christians. This little branch isn’t going to grow any bigger, because it’s cut off from the vine. If we’re not connected to Jesus, we won’t be able to do anything. That’s why Jesus tells us to remain in him - to rest in him, to abide in him, to be joined with him at all times. It’s only by this that we can produce fruit.

Now, here’s a spot the difference for you. What’s the difference between an apple tree and a Christmas tree? (By the way, it’s only 217 days to Christmas).

What’s the difference? A Christmas tree might look very nice with lights and baubles and tinsel and whatever else you put on a Christmas tree, but they have to be hung on it. The Christmas tree doesn’t produce all those things itself. The apple tree produces its own fruit.

But which are we like? Sometimes it can be very easy to come along to church, to look good, to seem to be a Christian with a great outward appearance, looking nice and respectable. Or are we producing the fruit of being a Christian - which we’ll see in a moment.

So that’s the basic point Jesus wants us to get today - we need to be connected to Jesus. It’s more important than being connected with 5000 friends on Facebook.

But Jesus goes on to show two ways in which being connected to him will impact our life. Here’s the first one: ‘If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.’ (John 15:7-8)

So how does that sound? Ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. Whatever you wish. It sounds a bit like a genie and a magic lamp, doesn’t it? Three friends were on a desert island when they found a lamp. The genie each gave them one wish. The first wished he was in Paris and he disappeared. The second wished he was in Hollywood and he disappeared. The third realised how lonely he was and wished his friends could come back...

So is Jesus saying that we can have whatever we want? Could we go out to the car park to find our cars have been changed into Ferraris or Porsches? But we’ve missed out the first part of the sentence. ‘If you remain in me and my words remain in you...’ It’s when we’re connected to Jesus, as his words remain in us, then we can ask whatever we wish and we’ll receive it. It’s not asking for things you want selfishly, rather, it’s about asking for the things Jesus wants because they are the things we want as well. When we’re connected to Jesus, we’ll see answered prayers.

There’s one more effect. Have you ever seen a domino display? You need a steady hand to set it up. One domino moves the next and on and on... We see something the same here as Jesus talks about love. ‘As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.’ (John 15:9) The Father loves the Son, who loves us, and who do we pass it on to? ‘Love each other as I have loved you.’

These words were said in the upper room, just hours before Jesus went to the cross. It was there that he demonstrated the greatest love of all: ‘Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ (13) It is as we receive his love - as we see just what Jesus did for us, that we are connected to him. Never wander from the love of Jesus. His love is the power that flows from him to us. His love will make us fruitful, as we become more like Jesus.

Jesus commands us to love one another. It’s not easy. We’re all different, with different preferences and personalities. It takes the love of God to overflow in our hearts to each other as the fruit of the Spirit grows.

One of the problems of buying fruit is that sometimes it goes off quickly. It isn’t all eaten, it sits in the fruit bowl and goes bad. It’s past its best. It’s only good for a compost heap. But the fruit that we produce when we’re connected to Jesus endures for ever. ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit - fruit that will last - and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love one another.’

Are you connected to Jesus? Perhaps you realise that you’re disconnected; you’re far from him. You need to be plugged in, grafted on. Come to him today. Discover at the cross his great love for you, to lay down his life for you. Make that connection today, so that his love flows to you and through you.

But maybe you are a Christian. Stay connected to Jesus. Return again to the cross, and let the love of Jesus flood your heart and overflow - as you pray like Jesus, and love like Jesus, producing spiritual fruit that will last forever.

We may be leaving, but it’s the connection with Jesus that brings life and growth - the fruit that we’ll enjoy in eternity together.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 21st May 2017. My farewell sermon as Rector of the parish before our move to St Matthew's Richhill.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Sermon: John 14: 15-31 Farewell Discourse - Parting Presence

You might have seen on the news this week that Prince Charles and Camilla visited Dromore on Wednesday. It was a beautiful day, well, the sun always shines in Dromore, but it was just the sort of day you need an ice cream. So they stopped and enjoyed some samples at Graham’s ice cream shop. I think it was Camilla who asked about the recipe, but she was told it’s a family secret. It’s something only the makers know, passed down from one generation to the next.

In our Bible reading today, Jesus is passing on a family secret. He’s in the upper room with the eleven disciples - Judas has gone to betray him by this stage. Jesus has told the disciples that he is leaving them, going away, going to prepare a dwelling place for them - by the way of the cross. The disciples just can’t take it in, that Jesus is saying farewell. Their minds are reeling with the shocking news.

And if you remember from last week, there are two questions that are asked when someone is leaving - where are you going? and how will we cope? The first question was answered last week, and today, Jesus now gets to the disciples - how they will cope, what they should do.

And John has recorded these parting words of Jesus for us, for our sake, so that we know how to live in the in between time - the time between Jesus’ departure and his return. How do we live as disciples when Jesus isn’t here in person? We’ll see what Jesus expects of us, and also the promises he gives us.

Look at verse 15. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” It’s so important to hear what Jesus is saying. You see, I was mis-reading it, reading what I thought it said, rather than what it says. I thought it was saying if you love Jesus, then you better keep his commandments. As if it was an ultimatum - if you love me, then you’d better do this, whether you want to or not.

But that’s to miss out the two words ‘you will’. You see, what Jesus is saying is that if we love him, then we will keep his commandments. The two go hand in hand, they fit together - loving Jesus and doing what he says. And you might think, but that’s not easy! I love Jesus, but it’s not easy to do what he wants. Hear again that assurance that if you love Jesus you will keep his commandments. How is this possible? Because it’s not up to you. You’re not left on your own to try to keep Jesus’ commandments. Do you see what Jesus promises?

‘And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth... you know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.’ (16-17)

The disciples were sad because Jesus was leaving them, but Jesus says that they aren’t going to be alone. Jesus promises them not just a Helper, but another Helper. What Jesus had been for the disciples, the Spirit would continue to do. Their helper (or as other versions put it, their advocate or counsellor, one who stands with, one who speaks on behalf of).

The world doesn’t receive him, doesn’t see him or know him, but disciples know him - because he dwells with us and in us. The same Holy Spirit, the another Helper, is given to us to help us to live out Jesus’ commandments, to do for us what Jesus did for the first disciples.

So that’s the first thing that Jesus promises - his first leaving present: the Holy Spirit. But as he continues, he promises even more. Look at verse 18: ‘I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.’ A while back, there was a series on BBCNI, Real Lives Reunited. One of the episodes was about a team of guys who had gone out from Nothern Ireland to Romania, to bring relief to an orphanage. What they saw was heartbreaking. Orphans, children without father or mother, totally bereft. They’d been so neglected in the orphanage that they didn’t even cry because they knew no one would come to them. No one cared.

And then the team arrived. They provided relief, care, love. They were fathers and mothers to the orphans. And now, twenty or thirty years later, the team were back, to see the difference in the orphanage. Bright airy rooms, children well cared for - and some of the original orphans now working in the orphanage.

On top of the promise of the Holy Spirit, Jesus also promises that he will not leave us as orphans; he will come to us - not physically, but spiritually. It’s in this way that we get to ‘see’ Jesus (19) - because we are in Jesus and he is in us. We’re not left on our own - we have the Spirit and we have Jesus.

And once again, the promise is connected to our Christian life. Verse 21: ‘Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.’

This time it’s the other way round. If you keep his commandments, then you show that you love Jesus. Jesus is saying that your deeds show what or who you love. So what do your deeds show about what you love? Do they show your love for someone else? Or do they show that you love Jesus? It’s as we love Jesus that we know that we are loved by the Father, and loved by Jesus, and ‘see’ Jesus as he manifests himself to us.

So that’s the second leaving present: himself. But Judas (not the betrayer, because he has already left, this is the other Judas), is prompted to ask - why are you only going to show yourself to us, and not to the world?

Do you see how Jesus answers? He begins with love! ‘If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me. These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.’

As we love Jesus and keep his word, the Father will love us, and ‘we’ - the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit - they will come to us and make our home with us. Back in verse 2, Jesus promises that in his Father’s house there are many homes, dwelling places. One day we will go to be with God. But what Jesus is saying here is that God comes to be with us. He moves in to us. He makes us his home.

Just think for a moment what that means. If you’re a Christian, then God is dwelling in you. It’s not that God is a squatter, he is the rightful owner. And just as we’ll soon be deciding where the furniture and pictures and so on will go in the rectory at Richhill, so God takes possession of us, and his presence is seen.

A part of that is, Jesus says in verse 26, that the Holy Spirit will teach all things and bring to remembrance all that Jesus has said. That can happen with us - that the Holy Spirit teaches us as we read the Bible, as we discover that we now understand what we’re reading; and as we find that we can remember bits of the Bible at just the right moment. But this promise was for the first disciples - as they lead the early church, and wrote the Bible and established the faith. The Holy Spirit taught them, and reminded them of all that Jesus taught them. That means we can trust the Bible, we learn from it, and follow their teaching.

My role as rector here has not been to make up new things, or to change things to make them more acceptable or relevant. No, my role as rector is to teach what Jesus taught to the disciples, which the Holy Spirit reminded them of, and which the disciples taught and wrote down in the New Testament. What we do with these words matters - because it shows whether we love Jesus or not.

But we’re not on our own. we have the promise of the leaving presents of Jesus, or rather, the leaving presence - of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the whole Holy Trinity coming and dwelling in us, helping us to live for him. God himself living in us, as we live for him. What more could we need? What more could we want?

And yet, Jesus promises one more present. A present that flows from God’s presence in our lives. A present that the disciples needed in that moment when their hearts were troubled; a present that we might need now and in the weeks to come. ‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.’

Jesus gives us his peace - the peace (as Paul says) which passes all understanding, can’t be explained. As Jesus left the disciples, he gives them his peace. And that peace is available to us today as well. The peace that comes from the presence of the living God, living in us.

This is the family secret, more precious than the recipe for Graham’s ice cream. And it’s for you, if you’re part of the family of God.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 14th May 2017.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Sermon: John 14: 1-14 Farewell Discourse: The Way, The Truth, and The Life

For a while, it seemed like ages away. Then, it was ‘next month’. And now, it’s coming very quickly indeed. We really are surrounded by boxes - I just about had a path to the desk in the study to sit down and write this sermon! In the time since our move was announced, there have been two main sets of questions asked. Where are you going? And what happens us?

And when you think about it, they’re the questions that are always asked when things change, when there’s a farewell, of whatever sort. It might be a family member announcing they’re emigrating to Australia; or a colleague handing in their notice; a student heading off to university; or a loved one approaching death. Where are you going - where will you be? what will things be like for you? can we keep in touch? And what happens us - how will things be different when you go? how will we cope?

Where are you going? That’s the question that drives our Bible reading today. Jesus and the disciples (apart from Judas 13:31) are together in the upper room. And suddenly, Jesus tells them that he is only with them a little while - that he is going away, but more than that, that he is going away alone - they can’t come with him (13:33, 36).

By this point, the disciples had been with Jesus for three whole years. They had spent every day with Jesus. They were always with Jesus. But now he’s talking about leaving them? Going away? So where’s he going?

I can remember when I passed my driving test and had my first car. I’d lift the keys, and straight away I’d be asked: where are you going? Answer? Out. Out where? Or away. Away where?

So it’s no surprise that Peter asks that question: ‘Lord, where are you going?’ (13:36) And Jesus doesn’t really answer the question. He says, ‘Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterwards.’ As usual, Peter jumps in feet first, and he asks why not? That he would lay down his life for Jesus. Yet Jesus says that Peter will deny him three times that very night.

Where are you going? ‘Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterwards.’ So Jesus is leaving them. Their friend, guide, master, Lord is leaving them. It’s no wonder that chapter 14 begins with those very familiar words, used at funeral services. It’s obvious that their hearts were troubled by this news; that they were nervous, worried about the future; fearful; sad. It’s why Jesus says this:

‘Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.’ Jesus says, trust me. I wonder if you’ve had anyone this week say those words to you - trust me. They give you a promise and you have to decide if you can believe them, if they’ll actually do what they say they’ll do.

So what is it that Jesus says to trust him about? In verse 2 he gives us a promise, the reason why he is going away. ‘In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.’

Now, whether you’re used to hearing about mansions (as we’ll sing about in our next hymn) or rooms, the idea is the same - lots of dwelling places, lots of space, a place prepared. This past week, we were down in Limerick, attending General Synod. The song might say that it’s a long way to Tipperary, but Limerick is even further, so we were glad to get to our hotel. It was even better to give our name, for the receptionist to tap in the details, and to say, yes, Mr McMurray, your room is ready.

A friend of ours had a quite different experience in London. The hotel had double booked his room, there was no room at the inn, so he had to traipse across London to another hotel in the same company to stay there instead!

That won’t happen to any of Jesus’ disciples. Jesus goes to prepare a place for us. He goes to make everything ready. And then he will come again, and take us to himself, to be with him. It’s the difference between the package holiday, where you get to the airport, and you’re loaded onto a bus, and taken round half the hotels on the island before you finally come to yours; and your friend, the owner of the luxury hotel flying you in his own private helicopter.

Do you see what Jesus then says in verse 4? ‘And you know the way to where I am going.’ But Thomas replies, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way.’ I wasn’t entirely sure of how to get to Limerick - I didn’t know the way, but at least I knew where I was going. But if you don’t know the where, how can you know the way?

Do you see what Jesus says in verse 6? These are well known words, and yet powerful words. How do we get to this place of promise? ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’

Jesus says I am the way. He is the route, the path, the direction of travel. Notice that he doesn’t say that he is a way, one way among several different ways. No, he is the way - as he says, No one comes to the Father except through me. Jesus is the only way to get to God.

Jesus says I am the truth. It’s not just that Jesus says true things, he is the truth. As they say in court, the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. So we can depend on what Jesus says. We can trust his words. We can trust him, believe in him.

Jesus says I am the life. Real life is found only in Jesus. He gives us life, because he is the life. Remember where Jesus is going. He is going to the cross, to die for us, to prepare the way for us to come to God. There is no other way, no other truth, no other life. Only Jesus can show us the Father. Only Jesus can reveal God to us - as John says in 1:18. ‘No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.’

Next week we’ll focus more on what Jesus’ going means for us. But this morning, make sure you know where Jesus has gone. He has gone to the cross, to prepare a place for all who trust in him. He has died and been raised again, to prove that his word is trustworthy, that we can believe him. As we trust him, we can have confidence and hope for the future - that where Jesus is, we too will be.

Jesus is the way. Ask yourself - am I going his way? Am I going with Jesus, or going my own way? Some of my colleagues were chatting so much on Thursday that they missed the way to Limerick, and ended up in Bray. They had to turn around, get back on track - do you need to do that today? To get back to Jesus, and go his way?

Jesus is the truth. Ask yourself - am I living by his truth? Or am I believing a lie? Who are you listening to? Can you really depend on anyone else to direct you?

Jesus is the life. Ask yourself - am I experiencing his abundant life? Am I certain of his everlasting life?

Jesus says: Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 7th May 2017.