Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Mustard Seed Story And Community Organisers

Ezekiel 17.22-24
Matthew 13.31-34

All Age Version
The story of the enormous turnip is about a tiny seed that grew so big that it was able to feed an old man and his wife, a boy and his sister, a cat and a dog, and even a mouse. The mustard that seed Jesus describes in his story isn’t the sort of mustard we eat in mustard and cress sandwiches. It’s a plant called ‘black mustard’ which starts out as a teeny tiny seed but quickly grows to almost three metres high. Birds can nest in its branches and it grows larger than any other garden plant.

When we turn to the other example, baking bread, a tiny amount of yeast mixed with flour and water makes a loaf that’s three times bigger than all the ingredients on their own.

Actually, in the time of Jesus a baker didn’t use yeast but - more usually - sourdough, which is a quarter or so of yesterday’s bread dough kept overnight in a warm place and then mixed with today’s dough. The sourdough is sometimes called ‘the mother dough’ because it makes the whole mixture rise. One part mother dough and three parts flour and water mixed together make today’s bread.

Jewish people start a new mother dough once a year, because during the festival of unleavened bread they have to remove all the yeast and sourdough from their homes and shops. So every year they get a reminder of how special yeast or sourdough is, and what a big difference it makes to bread.

A couple of weeks ago I went away to find out about a new government project called ‘community organisers’. A community organiser is a person who goes out into their community and starts knocking on doors, to try to find out what people really love about the place where they live and what really concerns them about it. The community organiser has to gather around them a network of 1,500 people who then work together to make the neighbourhood a better place to live. And the other people in the network then encourage their own family and friends to join. From a small beginning - just one person knocking on doors - the movement soon becomes thousands strong.

When people hear about this they think it’s a wonderful new idea. Hundreds of community organisers are being recruited around the country and we’re thinking of having some on the Portobello Estate near here. But actually the idea is thousands of years old. This is what Jesus was thinking about when he told his friends about yeast and mustard seed.

Jesus’ friends are supposed to be like a group of people who meet together for Bible study, prayer and worship and then go out into their community to make a difference.

Version for Grown-Ups
The mustard that Jesus describes in his story isn’t the sort of mustard we eat in mustard and cress sandwiches. It’s a plant called ‘black mustard’ which grows in the countries around the Mediterranean Sea. It starts out as a tiny seed but, within a few months, it grows to almost three metres in height, or about nine feet tall. Birds can nest in its branches. It’s larger than any other garden plant of Jesus’ day, though today Japanese Knotweed would surely be bigger and more vigorous.

When we turn to Jesus’ other example, baking bread, an ounce of yeast mixed with a pound of flour and ten fluid ounces of water makes a standard loaf of bread. That’s twenty times more flour than yeast, and with dried yeast the contrast is even more striking, but - of course - without the tiny amount of yeast the bread won’t rise.

Actually, in the time of Jesus a baker didn’t use yeast but - more usually - sourdough, which is a quarter or so of yesterday’s bread dough kept overnight in a warm place and then mixed with today’s dough to make it rise. The first batch of sourdough is called the ‘mother dough’ and it’s made by mixing flour and water and keeping it for up to a week until natural yeasts develop in the dough and give it a distinctive sour taste. Bakers will often keep their mother dough going for years, taking it with them if they have to move from place to place. One part sourdough and three parts flour and water are then mixed together to make today’s batch of bread.

Jewish people start a new mother dough once a year because, during the festival of unleavened bread, they have to remove all the yeast and sourdough from their homes and shops. So every year they get a reminder of how special yeast or sourdough is, and what a big difference it makes to bread.

A couple of weeks ago I went away to an overnight conference to find out about a new government project called ‘Community Organisers’. A community organiser is a person who goes out into their community and starts knocking on doors, to try to find out what people love about the place where they live and also what concerns them about it. The community organiser has to collect the contact details of 1,500 local people and build a network that can be contacted when anything important happens. They also have to gather around them a team of ten volunteers who must help them set up three or four little projects that will help to make the neighbourhood a better place to live.

Then - rather like the disciples being sent out in pairs by Jesus to carry on his work throughout the Land - the volunteers go out and recruit their own family and friends into the network and start getting together a team of volunteers of their own. And all the while the number of people in touch with one another and working together in the network grows and grows. From a small beginning - just one person knocking on doors - the movement becomes thousands strong.

When people hear about this they think it’s an exciting new idea. Hundreds of community organisers are being recruited around the country and we’re thinking of having some in Darnall and also on the Portobello Estate. But actually the idea is thousands of years old. They’re an example of putting into practice Jesus’ teaching about yeast and mustard seed .

This is what the Church is supposed to be like - a group of people meeting together for Bible study, prayer and worship who then go out into their community to make a difference. Just as the community organiser knocks on doors to try to sow the seeds of change we are supposed to go out and sow the Gospel message in words and actions until we bring in the harvest of God’s Kingdom.

Of course, if community organisers take their real inspiration from the stories of Jesus - even when they don’t recognise the connection - so Jesus himself was inspired by earlier stories too. Ezekiel tells how the Lord has promised to take a ‘slip’ - which is just a horticultural term for a  soft stemmed cutting - from the lofty crown of a mighty cedar tree and plant it in the ground on a high mountain, the highest for miles around, where it will slowly grow into a new cedar tree, just as noble as the original, and birds of every kind will be able to roost in it.

The stories of Jesus and Ezekiel, and the modern example of the Community Organisers’ Programme, all remind us that there are two ways of growing and developing a network. One way is for a single pioneer to start from scratch, going out and knocking on doors. Other members of the new network then do the same thing in their turn, going out to extend the network into new territory. That’s the mustard seed approach.

But there is another way of growing a network, and that is to split it in two, or send a part of the network out to form a new group around which different people can coalesce. That’s like taking part of today’s bread dough and keeping it to be tomorrow’s mother dough when you’re making sourdough bread, or like taking a cutting from an established plant to cultivate a new one.

Both ways of engaging in mission demand great courage and perseverance. The first approach requires courage from the individual pioneer who goes out to do cold calling. The second approach requires a willingness to leave the comfort and protection of a large group in order to form a small group that will try to replicate what the original community has already achieved.

As Christians we’re challenged to think about both approaches. The Community Organisers’ Programme demonstrates how, in any case, they are not always so very different. While the community organiser goes out to knock on doors, they are soon encouraged to gather a small group of activists around them, as well as to build a wider network of supporters.

This is how the Methodist Church grew, of course, with travelling and local preachers going out to start new communities in towns and villages which hadn’t been visited before, and then nurturing small groups or classes which could encourage one another and then go on to draw in more people into the Methodist Connexion.

We tend to think of all this activity as ancient history. ‘The world has moved on,’ we tell ourselves. ‘We need to find new ways now of building and developing the network of people who believe and trust in Jesus.’ But if community organisers can still succeed using these tried and tested methods, what does that have to say to us?

The Diamond Jubilee

Micah 6.6-8
1 Peter 2.9-10
Matthew 5.1-16

I suppose the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee is really a celebration of the kind of country we should like to live in, and the kind of values we would like to live by in that perfect country. It would be a country where the ultimate ideal is to observe what is good in God’s eyes, which is to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.

Matthew Parris said on Radio 4 yesterday morning that the best thing about the Queen is that she didn’t really want to be queen. She only became queen out of a sense of duty. Later in the same programme someone else accused Matthew Parris, quite rightly, of presuming to know what the Queen is thinking. But it’s certainly true that greatness was thrust upon her family. They didn’t expect to be all that special.

When she was a little girl the Queen and her parents expected to be minor royals all their lives long. When she grew up she could therefore have looked forward, perhaps, to being the patron of one or two charities and to marrying an earl or a duke. But it would have been a life of relative obscurity.

Instead the abdication of her uncle thrust them all into the limelight, and the premature death of her father propelled the Queen onto the throne. She never gave the appearance of wanting to do the job - at least not so soon. Most people accept that she undertook the task only out of a sense of God-given obligation

The Duke of Edinburgh recently remarked that, given the amount of adulation she received in the early days of her reign, she could easily have become conceited and proud. But, instead, she refused to let herself be affected. She has tried, instead, to walk humbly with her God.

Of course, if Matthew Parris is right, and the best qualification for becoming sovereign is that you don’t really want the job, where does that leave Prince Charles? Would Matthew Parris become a republican if Prince Charles ascended the throne?

Who knows. We are where we are! And, unless the Diamond Jubilee is just going to be reduced to the celebration of a record breaking run, I think we have to attempt to make something more of it than just a celebration of the Queen’s longevity and good fortune. I think it has to be a celebration of the fact that we live in a country where justice, kindness and humility are still just about seen as important values. And if a lot of younger people seem to be losing touch with those values, and accepting a crueler more self-centered version of reality, that change of mindset certainly can’t be laid at the door of the Queen. Whether or not she always manages - any more than the rest of us - to practice them in private, she clearly remains a champion of, and a believer in, those essential Christian values. Justice, kindness and humility - which of us would want to find ourselves living in a society where these things weren’t central to our shared image of how things ought to be?

There have been societies which haven’t held fast to those things. Humility sometimes seems to be dangerously absent in America, and its health and welfare system is neither just nor kind. Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia were both founded on the absolute denial of all these values. And if France has got there in the end, things certainly started very badly after the Revolution. I think, at least until now, Britain has - almost accidentally - evolved in a way which has allowed justice, kindness and humility to remain important civic values, even when sometimes they were under attack.

Of course, there’s a particularly pompous version of Anglicanism which  would maintain that the words of 1 Peter do in fact apply to the English nation, if not to the whole of Britain. We are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, called out of darkness into his marvellous light in order that we may proclaim his mighty acts and perform mighty acts of our own. The British Empire was more or less founded on this sort of nonsense.

The real chosen race, of course, is not the English or British people but the people of God - those who submit and pledge fealty to his will above all other things. It is after all the meek, not the British Empire, who shall inherit the earth. It is those who hunger and thirst for righteousness whose destiny will be fulfilled, not the narrow interests of any single nation. It is those who are peacemakers, who are merciful and whose motives are pure and free from self-interest who are really proclaiming God’s mighty acts and who are the salt of the earth and the light of the world - in conscious imitation of Jesus

The testimony given before the Leveson Enquiry reminds us of the constant need to remain vigilant. If celebrating the Diamond Jubilee is part of that eternal vigilance then it is an important way of affirming our way of life and our version of democracy, as well as celebrating the length of the Queen’s reign.

If she seems like the sort of person who, for all the trappings of power, is really - underneath it all - someone who is the salt of the earth and a beacon shining before others then we are most fortunate and that has more to do with her own character and upbringing, and her personal faith, than with monarchy or Britishness as such. All of us are called, in our own sphere, to be salt and light too. Then we shall be part of that royal priest and that holy nation of which 1 Peter speaks.


Romans 8.14-17
I was listening to the Today programme on Radio 4 while I was driving to work one day the other week and I was intrigued to hear two back-to-back interviews which had been recorded the previous day, so the participants couldn’t have heard one another, and yet they both talked about being connected. One of the interviewees talked about it as a bad thing. The other talked about it as a good thing.

The first interview was about European banks. ‘The problem,’ said the financial expert who was being interviewed, ‘Is that all the banks are inter-connected. To use a nerdy expression,’ he went on, ‘the problem is their connectivity.’

What he meant was that if a Spanish bank goes bust that might not seem to be a problem for people in Britain. Spain’s quite a long way away and most of us don’t invest our money in Spanish banks or keep our savings in them. Even Santander in the UK is separate from its Spanish parent company. But, he went on, there is a hidden connection between our banks and the Spanish ones; French banks have lent lots of money to the Spanish banks, and British banks have lent lots of money to French banks, so if one bank goes bust they could all go bust. That’s why he thought the connectedness between banks was a worrying thing.

The second interviewee was an artist called Sir Howard Hodgkin. Sometimes, he said, he painted on his own in his studio. But, although he enjoyed it, that was quite lonely if you did it all the time. So he also liked making prints because he said lots of people have to be involved in making a print. You get to meet them and talk to them. You feel connected, he said. So for him being connected was a good thing. It was about working together, sharing, collaborating, finding companionship and friendship, or - to use a word from the Bible - fellowship with other people.

I thought what a coincidence it was that two people should be talking, one after another, about connectedness. And then, yesterday, someone said that the good thing about having a Queen is that she connects people from very different backgrounds, she is a living symbol of our connectedness.

The trouble with the Trinity is that it isn’t mentioned in the Bible. ‘God the creator and sustainer of the universe’ is mentioned, ‘God the Spirit present in all things’ is mentioned and Jesus being ‘God with the human race’ is mentioned, but the Bible never puts these three ways of talking about God together under the heading ‘The Trinity’. Instead it just takes for granted that these three distinct ideas are all part of what it means for God to be God as Christians understand him.

What we can say, however, is that the Trinity is about connectedness or inter-connectedness. The idea of God as creator and sustainer of our universe is inter-connected with the idea of God as Spirit, present in all things, and both of these ideas are inter-connected with the idea of God coming in a unique way to be with the human race in Jesus. So, for instance, Jesus can talk about the Spirit being sent by God and - when it comes to us - telling us what Jesus himself is thinking. All three - God, Spirit and Jesus - are totally inter-connected.

If we’re made in God’s likeness that means we need to be connected too - connected with God and Jesus by the Spirit, and connected with one another because of our shared love for God, our shared commitment to follow Jesus, and our shared access to the Spirit.

St Paul said that God’s Spirit helps us to know we are connected to God, like children connected to their father or mother, and that - together with Jesus - we will be given what God has promises. So we are all connected to one another, one happy family. The Queen may be a symbol of our connectedness as a nation, but only because her inspiration and example - like ours - comes from God.

Engelbert Humperdink And The Holy Spirit

Ezekiel 37.1-14
Acts 2.1-21

Recently I was watching the Eurovision Song Contest and the UK contestant, Engelbert Humperdink, put me in mind of this passage from Ezekiel. I thought he was dead until it was announced that he was going to represent us in this year’s competition. Of course, he isn’t dead, but on the other hand he didn’t look very lively either. At one point, during the interval when people were supposed to be voting, the presenter went up to him and said, ‘How are you, Engelbert?’ to which he replied, ‘Pardon?’ And if he didn’t seem quite with it in the interval, he didn’t seem quite with it during the performance, either. He looked a bit like dry bones that have had life breathed back into them so that they can have one last go at reliving their former glory. But this is not the 1960s and Engelbert is no longer at the top of his form.

In the prophecy, God says to Ezekiel, ‘Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely...” But I say, “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.”’

The valley of the dry bones evokes memories of some of the worst disasters of Israel’s history, and in particular the Battle of Megiddo when the good king Josiah bravely took his Judean army and blocked the pass at the head of the Jezreel Valley near the city of Megiddo to prevent the Egyptian army from going to the assistance of the Assyrians. It was a foolhardy miscalculation. Josiah was shot full of arrows and was taken back by his bodyguards to Jerusalem to die while his hapless soldiers doubtless fled - or tried to flee - into the valley, only to be cut down and their bones left to bleach in the sun. It was a national disaster from which the tiny kingdom of Judah never really recovered. Twenty years later Jerusalem was besieged and destroyed and her citizens taken away into exile like Ezekiel, or forced to flee like Jeremiah and become refugees.

What if the clock could be turned back, however? What if the army sacrificed in that foolish engagement could be made to live again? Would history have turned out differently? The prophets thought it would because they always argued that the kings of Judah and Israel had relied too much on their own wits, and on human measures of success, instead of turning to God for guidance and relying on his grace.

But Ezekiel is not just talking about soldiers cut down in their prime. He is thinking about a nation which has lost its way and given up hope, which has been drained of spiritual life and substance, which has become like the living dead. And so he imagines God breathing new life into the nation in a vivid re-enactment of the creation story, where God breathed life into the very first human beings.

Does this prophecy also have something to say to the Methodist Church, and to our church? Does it sometimes feel as though our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost, and we are cut off completely; or, at least, that our influence is waning and our numbers are decreasing, and young people - especially - are choosing to turn away from us and seek life and inspiration elsewhere?

If so, then perhaps Pentecost Sunday is the right time to remind ourselves that the Battle of Meggido and the fall of Jerusalem were not the end of the story. Ezekiel’s peculiar prophecies made it into our Bible because his words were borne out by events. God did seem to bring the nation up from the grave and put a new spirit within her.The people did live again in the Promised Land and worship God in Jerusalem. Ezekiel’s prophecies came true!

Can God breathe new life into us when we feel tired and dispirited? You bet he can! And that’s certainly what happened on the Day of Pentecost, when Jesus’ dispirited followers - who were still in hiding for fear of the Temple authorities after the death of their leader - were transformed and filled with new life and energy,just like the dry bones. They felt God’s reviving breath come upon them like a mighty wind, as hot and intense as tongues of burning flame.

Actually, what happened next reminds me once again of the Eurovision Song Contest. Just as the gift of the Spirit enabled the apostles to speak to people in their own native language so the gift if music is supposed to bring people from different nations together in a shared appreciation of excellence.

How far from that ideal the modern competition has come! Today, instead of uniting the people of Europe in shared enjoyment and appreciation of two or three excellent songs, which then battle it out for first place, the contest has degenerated into a game of ‘you rub my back and I’ll scratch yours’ in which neighbouring countries, or countries with a shared heritage, simply vote for one another and it’s hard for any particular song to stand out.

A reasonably good song, like the Italian entry, can get very few votes because the Italians have few friends, and a very bad song - like the Albanian one - can do quite well because people in lots of Balkan countries, and Albanian exiles in Italy and elsewhere, were willing to vote for it. And virtually any entry from the UK - regardless of what it is - is guaranteed to get almost no votes, because we have hardly any friends at all. For a long time last night only plucky little Belgium had voted for us, and they had only given us one vote.

This divisive approach to the Eurovision Song Contest is deeply disappointing. The show was always tacky. There were always daft entries and mutual misunderstandings like the Moldovan song, supposedly performed last night in English but which proclaimed that the singer’s sweetheart was his trumpet! In recent years, however, the show has degenerated into the worst kind of nationalism instead of celebrating the power of music, and even light music at that, to bring people together and overcome our differences.

The story of Pentecost reminds that something far more substantial is needed if we really want to be able to make a difference to our world and overcome the differences in our world. And that something is the coming of the Spirit which Joel had foretold, and which Peter says was made manifest at 9 o’clock that morning.

If we want our Church to live again - locally and nationally - we need to open ourselves to that same Spirit, and we need to be prepared for, and open to, the difference that the Spirit will make. Young people and odd people will share a common vision and people from different cultures and races will understand one another, because all will be united in their love and devotion to Jesus. And, as John’s Gospel reminded us this morning and the Acts of the Apostles have reminded us tonight, God’s Spirit will come not just to give us a warm feeling inside, or to look after us and make us stronger, but to give us the words and to inspire the actions that we will need if we are to testify for God and Jesus in a hostile and alien world. Our sweetheart may not be a trumpet, but we can become sounding boards for God.

Looking Forward To The Birth

Romans 8.22-27
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

If you’re waiting for a baby to be born it’s very hard to imagine what he or she will look like when the time comes and you finally get to hold them in your arms. That’s part of the miracle of parenthood; getting to hold a tiny, fully formed human being who, a few minutes before, it was impossible to picture in any but the vaguest and most general way.

Before Matthew was born we were invited to attend the 12 week scan at the hospital. ‘Bring your older children with you,’ the midwife advised, ‘They will love being able to see the baby inside you. It will help them to relate better to what’s going to happen because the baby will seem more real to them.’

So we all went along, expecting to see a clear picture on the monitor of Matthew lying inside Helen’s womb. But no such luck. We were living in Wigan at the time, and the hospital seemed to be operating with secondhand ultrasound equipment passed down by a hospital that had now got more up-to-date kit. The monitor was black and white, and extremely fuzzy and none of us could make out anything at all.

‘Look! That’s the baby’s head,’ said the radiographer, pointing to an indistinct blob. But none of us were convinced.

In contrast, when our daughter Jenny went to have her 12 week scan for Erin, my elder granddaughter, the picture was so sharp and clear that we could even count the fingers when she posted the photograph of the scan on Facebook. Admittedly Erin looked more like a miniature version of The Jolly Roger, but everyone could see that there was definitely a baby growing inside Jenny and that she had arms and legs, and so on, and was apparently sucking he thumb.

We no longer have to wait until the mother is groaning in labour pains before we get to see who’s coming. Mothers and fathers still have to hope the baby will be all right, but in these days of scans and tests we can see the baby before he or she arrives and, as Paul remarks, ‘hope that is seen is not hope’.

Nonetheless, in Paul’s day the analogy held good. An expectant mother was someone who was hoping everything would be all right. Likewise, says Paul, the Spirit helps us where imagination fails. When we can’t put our most deeply felt prayers into words, the Spirit intercedes for us. Perhaps the sighs of the Spirit here are not just an echo of the groans of a woman in labour but also a reference to speaking in tongues. Be that as it may, when we can’t even give any shape to our unconscious fears and aspirations, the Spirit searches our hearts and knows what we are feeling. We, and indeed the whole of creation, have not yet become what we are intended to be because we are still waiting to realise our true potential when we are adopted into God’s being, presumably beyond death or at the end of time, but in the meantime the Spirit is there to help us.

When we think of the Spirit as an advocate, I guess we usually think - like St Paul - of the Spirit advocating our cause before God. As we saw in the dramatic reading earlier, the word ‘advocate’ suggests that the Spirit might be like a defence lawyer pleading for a suspended sentence, or a fundraiser advocating a project to a charitable trust and trying to get a big grant to keep it going in hard times, or a passionate campaigner promoting something close to their heart, like peace or justice or an end to hunting baby seals.

But John thinks of the Advocate coming to us from God to keep us in touch with Jesus, to keep reminding us of his call to us in the way that Jesus was able to do himself when he met people during his earthly life. It’s a bit like having a voice in our head constantly saying to us, ‘What would Jesus want me to do?’ So, it is the Spirit of Jesus at least in the sense that it pleads his cause. The Spirit will not speak on its own, but will speak the words that Jesus would want it to say to us.

But the Spirit does not come to advocate for Jesus so that we will have a nice warm feeling inside or know what to do when we’re in a tight corner. It comes to give us the words to say when we testify for him in a hostile and alien world.

The coming of the Spirit confirms three truths which Jesus says we might not otherwise have understood: that sin is not about what we do but about what we believe, that being put right with God - or made righteous - is about putting our trust in the saving power of Jesus’ death, and that Jesus’ death turns upside down the values of the world. The forces that seem to rule our world - greed, naked self-interest and hedonism - have already been overcome, despite every appearance to the contrary. This inner and unshakable conviction is ours because we have the Spirit of Truth to guide us into all the truth, and this truth is what can inspire us to keep on testifying for Jesus in our own words and actions every day.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Are You Calling Me A Liar?

John 17.6-19
1 John 5.9-13

The writer of John’s Gospel and the Epistles of John says this at the end of his first letter, in chapter 5 verse 10: ‘Those who do not believe in God have made him a liar by not believing in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son.’

This sentence put me uncomfortably in mind of an incident that happened in Darnall last week. A man came into the office complaining because he had been in trouble for missing an appointment with his employment adviser. He insisted that when he told me he was taking his little daughter to hospital, so that the doctors could look at a rash all over her body, I had said: ‘I don’t care about your daughter.’ When I denied this, of course, he stood right in front of my face and started shouting, ‘Are you calling me a liar?’ I wasn’t calling him a liar, but I did end up calling the police.

If I wasn’t calling him a liar, what was I doing? Well, I felt I was just refusing to agree with his version of events. And that, surely, is what people who don’t believe in God are doing. They’re not calling God a liar, they’re just refusing to believe that he exists.

I think what John is really getting at, though, is something rather different from what he actually says. If we do believe in God, but we don’t believe in Jesus, or at least if we don’t believe in God’s testimony about Jesus, then we’re making God out to be a liar.

John complains that some of his adversaries are perfectly ready to believe what human witnesses say happened in this or that situation, but they’re not ready to believe what God is telling us about Jesus, or indeed what God is telling us in Jesus.

Elsewhere John tells us his version of what God has testified about Jesus. At Jesus’ baptism God told the Baptist that Jesus would be the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. And just before Jesus’ death a voice from heaven, which John clearly identifies as the voice of God or one of his messengers, tells the crowd, ‘I have glorified the name of Jesus and I will glorify it again.’ And what I mean by saying that God tells us things in Jesus as well as about him is that John believes Jesus’ death on the cross is clear and compelling testimony of God’s love for humankind. All the people who call God a liar, or who refuse to believe in God, are calling Jesus’ ministry a fraud and his cross a defeat. So they’re not quite calling God a liar, but they are challenging what Jesus is supposed to have achieved in his name.

But things are never quite as clear-cut as John suggests, are they? When the man came into my office and demanded to know whether I was calling him a liar I pointed out to him that we didn’t need to have this argument because he had advised me that he already had a recording of the phone conversation in which I had allegedly said I didn’t care about his daughter. So if he had a recording, all he had to do was take it to the Department of Work and Pensions and play it to them, and then it would be me - not him - who was in trouble.

I guess that’s the real reason why he got upset. I hadn’t called him a liar, but I had called his bluff. Without the evidence of my actual words, how was he going to make his case?

I was on the receiving end of the same dilemma yesterday. I put £3.40 into a parking meter but - unbeknown to me - one of the pound coins fell straight through the machine and was rejected. Of course, if I had looked more closely at the ticket I would have seen that, although I had paid more than the tariff for a one hour stay, I was still only entitled to park for one hour. However, all unawares, I went off with Helen to have lunch with my father only to return to find a parking ticket sticking to the windscreen. I can try complaining to the local authority that I actually did put the correct fee in the meter, but where’s my evidence? Who’s going to believe me?

And that is John’s dilemma too, in the end. For it is only by faith that we are able to confirm the evidence for Jesus. God’s message at his baptism was only relayed to us - in John’s account at least - by the Baptist. And the voice from heaven which said that Jesus was being glorified by God was mistaken by most people for thunder. So John acknowledges that it’s only when we choose to believe his message, when we internalise it to use a bit of modern psycho-babble, that we can know it is true; because then we have God’s testimony available to us in our hearts through the presence of his Advocate, the Holy Spirit.

This ambiguity about the evidence for Jesus is the reason, of course, why believers find themselves in the world but not of the world. We know that everything Jesus has given us is from God, we know that in truth Jesus came from God, but only because we have believed the evidence that we have been shown by John and by other Christians.

In the Gospel reading Jesus asks God to protect the believers and keep them united. He fears that evil forces - personified in the figure of the Evil One - will conspire against them. But he doesn’t asked for his followers to be taken out of the world, to be beamed up to the mother ship; instead, he sends his friends into the world.

This week we’ve had two very tangible reminders of what that means for us today. Jesus prayed that we might be one so that none of us, and none of the good work that we do, might be lost, and in our Church Family Committee we heard how St Helen’s are appealing for the help, especially the financial help, of neighbouring churches so that the work on the Portobello Estate might not be lost. If we remain together in this, united with one another as God and Jesus are united, we will be able to go out into the world - and onto the Portobello Estate - in Jesus’ name, just as he prayed.

The other reminder comes from a bit further away, in Sierra Leone. At the end of Christian Aid Week I thought it might be nice for you to see the kind of project to which the money we collect goes after it’s been counted.

Again, we see Christians who are set apart from the world going out to serve God in the world, reclaiming barren land left untilled by the failure of a very worldly, big commercial project - the kind of thing which was intended to suck money out of the local economy and which we might think was part of the work of the Evil One. But that land has been brought back into use by the villagers, using their simple but effective hoes, and they are also using the profits from the seeds they grow to do things like mill their own cassava and lobby the local authorities for new school buildings.

The project in the film is an example of local people working together, but it’s also an example of Christians working together from across the world to support the Methodists of Sierra Leone.

I think these two examples, from Sandal and from Sierra Leone, show us how today Jesus’ prayer is still being lived out. In 2012 we are still being sent out into the world.