A table in the presence of enemies

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Preaching in public spaces

Audio Sermon

Sermon for Sunday 25th April 2021

Transcript of Sermon based on these readings

I’m a fool. Honestly, as far as many people are concerned: I’m a fool. An honest fool maybe, but a fool, nonetheless. This is because I believe that Jesus, the son of Mary and Joseph, Jesus from Nazareth, died on the cross (crucified by the power of Rome to maintain the status quo of those in power) but that three days later, Jesus was alive again.

I have not always believed: but now I believe this because for some unexplainable reason: I have been drawn towards Jesus’ story. I believe that Jesus appeared to his friends in locked rooms after his resurrection. I believe this because of the unbelievable witness accounts of the few women and men who knew Jesus at the time, and the impact it had on their lives.

I also believe this because there is writing about Jesus and his followers from non-religious Roman historians. Writing outside the Bible.

So now, I believe in God. Because Jesus talked about God as the Creator of us all. Jesus pointed to the long history of God’s relationship with humanity played out in the story of his relationship with the Jewish people. I started to read the Bible because of God, and because of Jesus, I wanted to get to know them both better. It is because of Jesus that I started to read the Bible and it is because of Jesus that I learned about the Creator God, and the spirit of God.

I think I’m coming to understand that it is the action of the Holy Spirit that has the biggest impact on what I believe. I think it is the Holy Spirit that has helped me to get to know Jesus, get to know God the Father and learn to recognise them both in the Bible.

The way I describe my faith is changing from: What I did that led me to faith…instead it is becoming what God did that led me to faith. God has never forced a way into my life.

In a way, it is the background sense that I came to faith – I discovered God – I did it on my own terms – it is this sense of freedom that has highlighted how God has never taken away my free will. Apparently I have always had the freedom to walk away. So even though I now believe it wasn’t really ‘my will’ that led me to faith (but the Holy Spirit that led me to faith) the Holy Spirit never took away my freedom to say no.

If this is how it happened with me, is it possible that this is how it is happening with some other people too? That the Holy Spirit is gently drawing them closer to Jesus? Jesus describes himself as the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. Like a lot of Jesus parables, this really doesn’t make much sense. No shepherd will lay down their life for the sheep. They may fight like hell to defend their sheep, they may fight as though their own life depended on it. But to offer their life so that the sheep might live? No, that’s foolish talk.

And yet: Jesus talks about laying down his life. Not just for those who are already here (inside the fold, so to speak) but for those we cannot see. Others, from another place. Jesus talks about people knowing his voice, recognising him and being drawn to him. I wonder, is this how it happened to me? Was it the voice of Jesus?

I was in my early 30s when I knew I believed. I may have believed before then (I’m no longer sure) but I know I didn’t go to church, and if I was asked I said, “I don’t believe”. I got married in a Registry Office because my partner and I didn’t believe.

I remember when we first went to church together, it was my wife’s, she made me do it. Apparently they had a good mother and toddler group. We went to Christ Church in Swindon, a ‘Church of England’ Church. On that Sunday, it was an ordinary everyday ‘normal’ service and the words we said were exactly the words used in every Church of England, ‘Holy Communion’ service. We had a red book (like the one we use at St Bartholomew’s in Marsden) and the words have not changed from the words we said back then. I remember, as I said these words: I believed them.

I believed what I was saying. I didn’t understand what I believed, but I knew I believed it. I felt a curious sense of being where I was supposed to be (not Swindon specifically, not even physically in Church but) a background feeling that I had said these words, and now I was where I was supposed to be. Like coming home. Perhaps I had recognised the good shepherd’s voice.

Last week I spoke of worlds colliding:

I shared with you how the world of Jesus’ disciples had been transformed by meeting Jesus after the resurrection. How God made a mockery of common sense. Dead people stay dead. But Jesus was dead, and now Jesus is alive.

I shared with you how God disrupts people’s lives: how at the temple the lame man was healed and the crowd were in uproar. How Peter addressed them with his bold, blunt and downright rude manner.

Well today we learn that when worlds collide, those in power try to hold on to power, so the future is looking bleak for the followers of Jesus. They are now prisoners in front of rulers, elders, scribes, the high priest, and all who were of the high-priestly family. One might almost refer to them as Peter’s enemies. I wonder if he remembered these words, from the songbook of his religious tradition:

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.

He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil; for you are with me;
your rod and your staff – they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,

and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long

Psalm 23. New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, and are used by permission. All rights reserved

As Peter’s table was prepared in the presence of his enemies, the Holy Spirit filled him and he said: what he said … is what the Holy Spirit guided him to say. Peter was Peter.

Today I took some time to share my faith story with you. I witnessed to what I know. I think it is scary sometimes to talk about your innermost faith and belief. I’ll bet Peter was afraid too.

As worlds collide, in confusion some may turn to Jesus’ followers for an explanation, then I don’t doubt that you too will be afraid. But remember: the Holy Spirit is at work in them. Pray that they will recognise the voice of the good shepherd and then just tell them what you already know.