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June 2014

THAT ALL OF THEM MAY BE ONE; Surmising Jesus Prayer

That they may be one

There is something in the spiritual DNA of the human being that divides, pushes away, sets up barriers. Our natural inclination seems to be sectarian.Perhaps Fredrick Buechner put it well, “The power of sin is centrifugal. When at work in a human life, it tends to push everything out toward the periphery. Bits and pieces go flying off until only the core is left. Eventually bits and pieces of the core itself go flying off until in the end nothing at all is left. "The wages of sin is death" is Saint Paul's way of saying the same thing.

We experience this consequence of our human weakness in every area of society. From the fanaticism of sports teams to political parties to races to religions to Christian denominations we push each other out, we create others and them. I find myself doing it so easily in my own life. I put distance between myself and other individuals. I become loyal to certain groupings to the point of being prejudiced against other individuals and groups. 

In recent weeks I have been surmising the words of Jesus in John 17; “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” When I preached on this chapter recently my sermon concentrated on the words, “I have given them the glory that you gave me…”  It is a remarkable phrase. What has lingered with me though has been the reason why Jesus gives his followers his glory - “that they may be as one as we are one…”

Jesus redemption has a powerful reversal effect on our pushing others away. Paul speaks of this in Ephesians 2For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.” Putting to death hostility was one of the resurrection victories of the cross!

I surmise all this because somehow it is not common thinking in the Christianity I have been nurtured in. Instead of revealing this powerful work of Christ’s death and resurrection we in Christendom seem to have negated Christ’s impact. Christian missional organisations seem to be hesitant rather than eager to work together. Local Churches tend to be ignore one another and at times seem competitive rather than collaborative partners and this is even rife within the same denominations.

In my own spiritual nurture, ecumenism was literally a bad word. I can remember the situation I was in when I first heard the word in a positive context and it like the feeling of culture shock; strange and unsettling. As I surmised John 17 this past while I have been much more unsettled. I am looking for evidence that this intention and command of Jesus is not being ignored and flagrant disobedience. 

Now, I am not talking about one big feely weely Church that dilutes what everyone believes and in some limp hippy way says we are all the same. Indeed, I don’t think that that is why Jesus prayed the prayer. He knew we would be different, coming at Scripture and the outworking of his words in different ways. He knew we would all find faith in different cultural situations and concentrate on different aspects of the faith as a result. He was not praying that we would give up our differences but that we would learn to live with them and love each other as one big family as a result. So I am asking in what ways are we open to oneness with our Christian brothers and sisters? Surely this is something that should be being revealed in our personal relationships, in local Church communities, across our denominations and between denominations.

Now, we might think that the reason Jesus would give his people his glory would be for missional purposes, not ecumenical ones. Well, actually the end result of our unity will be just that; “Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” It is a slight variance on Jesus words in this same section of John when in chapter 13 he tells his disciples “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

I have heard time and time again how Northern Ireland is one of the biggest hindrances to world evangelism. Our divisions is a declaration across the world that Christianity doesn’t work. John 17 is a clear Biblical exposition as to why. If Northern Irish Christians across our divides took this pivotal prayer of Jesus seriously and began to answer it by breaking down the barriers of our hostility then Jesus tells us, “Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”


Flaunt It

This is an old poem, written at a Summer Madness festival, back in the day. The idea of those flaunting not having it - unlike the old TV ad - had been rattling around my brain for sometime. There must have been a few flaunters about at Madness that year! 

If you have to flaunt it
Then I think that you don't have it
And maybe the jokes less funny
The more you have to laugh at it
And we all push so hard
And pull so strong
We all want to be the singer
Of this song
And we all are boiling over
In our heated attempts at cool
We all want to be the High Court judge
Who makes the rules
If you have to flaunt it
Then I think that you ain't got it
Maybe once we knew the tune
But somehow we forgot it. 

But love
Love makes all the changes
And love
Love can come to rearrange us
Love gives peace to walk undaunted
With love, you never need to flaunt it.



Fitzroy Front

Tomorrow morning (11am) in Fitzroy we will be looking at Peter and Pilate and their role in the run up to Jesus crucifixion. We have been following John's account of Jesus life and we are between Gethsemane and Calvary. What has intrigued me as a pastor in John 18 is the pressures on Peter and Pilate from the forces around them. Who we are, what we do and what we feel about ourselves can be more about the people around us than who we ourselves are or want to be. I will look at these issues and what we can learn from these scenes and characters... with Jesus modeling something else in the midst of it all.

In the evening (7pm) Jonathan Abernethy- Barkley will be ghelping us give John's Gospel flesh. As John 1 declares that Jesus is the word moving into the neighbourhood, so will we with a prayer walk around the area to pray for people and places.


Summer Madness

I wrote this at Summer Madness many many years ago. I might have been reading Walter Brueggeman's Finally Comes The Poet which talks alot about the real spiritual goodness of sabbaths. Festivals are Sabbaths. Sabbaths are times when all are equal and all are free to be who they are.

And freedom from
The rest of our time
Spent striving
Conniving to be someone
Freedom to
Be you
In what you do
Authentically true.

And freedom from
The rest of our time
To find
What's mine
My cruel and kind
Freedom to
The someone
That doesn't have to run.

Freedom from
The rest of our time
And carelessly forsaking
Freedom to
Dynamically create
An alternative Kingdom state.

Freedom from
The rest of our time.



Do Not be Afraid

The most repeated command in the Bible is "do not be afraid." Interesting! God knew that the world would throw all kinds of fearful events our way. The words are often spoken in Scripture at times when something very frightening has happened. It could almost always be followed by a faltering, "are you having a laugh... I'm petrified!" Yet, that is the point. At times when the very earth seems to be shaking we are to trust in a God who promises to be with us.

I wrote this for a Communal prayer time in Fitzroy heavily influenced by Isaiah 43 which I used alot in pastoral visitation. Many of us have a part of our world shaking... let us hear God's words...


Do not be afraid

Even when you are struck dumb by God

Even when an angel sits down beside you

Even when you are told you will have a child without ever being with a man

Even when the pitch black night is ripped to shreds by blinding light

Do not be afraid


Do not be afraid

When you pass through the waters

When you walk through the fire

Though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, 

Though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.

Do not be afraid


Do not be afraid

When the wages don’t meet the bills

When your children cause you concern

When a loved one is taken suddenly ill

When you stand at the grave of your partner, parent or friend

Do not be afraid


Do not be afraid

Because you have found favour with God

Because you are precious and honoured in His sight

Because God is our refuge and strength

Because God will always be with you

Do not be afraid.


U2 Grace

(part 2 of a series of blog size sermons from a series I did in The Cathedral Of The Advent in Birmingham, Alabama during Lent 2014 and repeated in McCracken Memorial, Belfast - you can listen to it at the bottom of the blog)

In Part 1 of this series we looked at Bono’s idea of interruptions of grace and how Jesus birth in Bethlehem was a grace interruption in the history of the world. In part 2 we see how Grace for Bono is an interruption of his very own life. 

That interruption is as a result of Jesus actions on the cross that first Good Friday. Bono has been singing about it for years. On 1981’s October album in a song called With A Shout (Jerusalem) - 

“I want to go, to the foot of Mount Zion
To the foot of He who made me see
To the side of a hill blood was spilt
We were filled with a love”

And again on 1987’s Joshua Tree in the song I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For - 

“You broke the bonds
And you loosed the chains
Carried the cross
Of my shame
Oh my shame
You know I believe it”

Then on 2001’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind there is a song actually called Grace -


She takes the blame

She covers the shame

Removes the stain”

The cross of Christ is crucial to Bono’s belief about himself. This is where grace actually interrupts his own life. As he sings on that song Grace “she travels outside of karma.” To Michka Assayas Bono said,  “I really believe we’ve moved out of the realm of Karma and into one of Grace…You see at the centre of the all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics – in physical laws – every action is met by an equal or opposite one. It’s clear to me that Karma is at the every heart of the Universe. I’m absolutely sure of it. And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that, “as you sow, so will you reap” stuff. Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is every good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff…I’d be in big trouble if Karma was finally going to be my judge.

I’d be in deep shit. It doesn’t excuse my mistakes, but I’m holding out for Grace. I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don’t have to depend on my own religiosity.”

That realisation that he shouldn’t depend on his own religiosity is identical to the apostle Paul’s understanding of himself and his need of a grace interruption. Philippians 3 particularly comes to mind - 

But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in[a] Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

Paul like Bono came to trust God’s interruption of grace to make his relationship with God right again. Another rock star theologian, Marcus Mumford, has put this radical idea of grace succinctly in his song Roll Away Your Stone - 

“It seems that all my bridges have been burned,
But you say that’s exactly how this grace thing works
It’s not the long walk home that will change this heart,
But the welcome I receive with the restart”

Grace is not something you earn but something you are gifted by God.

There is more. Let us stay in this Philippians 3 passage and compare it to I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For. In that song after a succinct definition of redemption - 

“You broke the bonds
And you loosed the chains
Carried the cross
Of my shame
Oh my shame
You know I believe it”

Bono goes on - 

“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”

That was a controversial phrase when Joshua Tree was released. How could a Christian claim he hadn’t found what he was looking for. Well a closer look at that Philippians 3 will tell you - 

12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

Christians believe that Grace interrupts at the cross. It interrupts the Karma. It immediately changes our standing before God. We are welcomed at the restart. But it is only the restart. Grace interrupts our positional place before a Holy God. Grace also fuels the practical turning around of our lives. Grace then becomes the very constitution of the news Kingdom. 

“What once was hurt
What once was friction
What left a mark
No longer stings
Because Grace makes beauty
Out of ugly things.”

Listen to the sermon here...



Bono on Grace

(part 1 of a series of blog size sermons from a series I did in The Cathedral Of The Advent in Birmingham, Alabama during Lent 2014 and repeated in McCracken Memorial, Belfast.)

Readers to this blog will know that I wrote a book on U2 (Walk On; The Spiritual Journey of U2 and have been quoting the band, and particularly their lead singer Bono, for thirty years! There is a resigned raised eyebrow every time I do! I used to apologise for such actions but more recently have come to acknowledge that I no longer quote Bono to grab attention but because he is a fine theologian; perhaps an amateur theologian but a theologian all the same.

I have become particularly fondness of his idea that grace interrupts. The poet or the songwriter have that way with words that can often just open up a concept in ways that are so insightful. In a book Bono In Conversation With Michka Assayas Bono says, “Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which is in my case very good news indeed.” I want to connect that phrase with three big moments in the Gospels, three of the biggest moments in history in my opinion, and develop Bono’s phrase. 

In the first three chapters of Genesis we read an explanation for the default position of our world. The story goes that humans reached to be more than they are… and ended up less than they were created to be. They thought they could be God and ended up less than the fullness of their humanity. They lost their place, their purpose and their intimate relationship with God. 

Bono unpacks the implications of this event known in Christian theology as “the fall” by saying, “the idea that God says: ‘Look, you cretins, there are certain results to the way we are, to selfishness, and there’s mortality as part of the sinful nature, and, let’s face it, you’re not living a very good life, are you? There are consequences to actions.’”

History goes on with such implications and then grace interrupts. Bono tells a story about being back from a tour and going to a Carol Service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. In his tiredness he focuses on the events of the nativity in order to keep himself awake and gets a fresh perspective on this interruption of grace. He says, “The idea that God, if there is a force of Logic and Love in the universe, that it would seek to explain itself is amazing enough. That it would seek to explain itself and describe itself by becoming a child born in straw poverty, in shit and straw…a child… I just thought: “Wow!” Just the poetry … Unknowable love, unknowable power, describes itself as the most vulnerable. There it was. I was sitting there, and it’s not that it hadn’t struck me before, but tears came streaming down my face, and I saw the genius of this, utter genius of picking a particular point in time and deciding to turn on this.”

The word advent comes from the Latin word adventus, meaning "coming". It seems to me that Bono’s translation of the Greek as “interrupting” works! I have two images of that coming that describes the deeply felt impact at the core of the world when the baby hits the straw. The gentle meek bundle of baby arrives having flown across two terrains. 

The first is the hurtle through history. From a hint in Genesis chapter 3 that something would happen down the line The Word has been rocketing through all the millennia of history to become flesh. The second is that idea that in Graham Kendrick’s hymn, “from heaven you came helpless babe”. From somewhere way far out there God arrives in skin and bone like a heavenly meteorite hurtling!    

When the God of all the universe landed wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying softly on a bed of animal straw we should not be fooled by the gentleness of his arrival. In that moment the world shuddered. It was as if the God who filled the entire Universe squeezed his vastness into a tiny little piece of semtex explosive and hurtled it from the far end of the Universe like a meteorite that crashed into planet earth knocking it from the way things were to a hopefulness of the new way that it could be. 

Here, in the nativity we see this absurd almost crazy revolution; King of the Universe in some backstreet manger; the humility of God becoming a servant of his creation; a God of justice loving and welcoming in those whom he was at enmity with; the blessedness of the poor. 

The King of the day felt the tremor and sent his death squads to kill it at birth but on and on down through history this explosive thud has drawn people to turn the way things are on their heads and attempt to interrupt the status quo of the first being first and the last being last with a strange concept called grace. Suddenly there arrives this insane notion that no matter who we are or what we have done we are like the shepherds and Magi, welcomed, forgiven, redeemed, adopted, loved. It seems crazy but this grace interruption to history is our only hope! Remember the way Bono put it, “Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which is in my case very good news indeed.”

Listen to the sermon here


THE JESUS WE DON'T YET KNOW (a Reflection by Ruth Patterson)

Mary at tomb

(On Sunday night, at the Licensing Service of Susan Moore at McCracken, Rev Dr Ruth Patterson preached the passage  on the Mary meeting Jesus after his resurrection in John 20. At one stage she opened us up to engaging with the Jesus we don’t yet know. It struck a deep chord with me and I thought I would share Ruth’s words on Soul Surmise)     

“In such resurrection moments there comes a new and deeper awareness of who Jesus is 

And we realise that the real challenge is not what we do with the Jesus we already know 

But, rather, how we begin to relate to the Jesus we don’t yet know, 

The Jesus who continually beckons us out further where it is deeper, 

The Jesus who makes himself little and vulnerable when we think he should be showing his power and authority, 

The Jesus who is silent when we feel he should be shouting from the rooftops, 

The Jesus who, when we seek to mould him into our image and likeness, (such a subtle form of idolatry,) shocks us again and again by his diversity, 

The Jesus who re-commissions us and who reveals to us, as he did to Mary, that nothing less than infinite love has the power to name who we really are.”

                 - Rev Dr Ruth Patterson



(the story of Hosea... the story of God...)

It wasn’t vows you’ve broken

But my soft and tender heart

Oh the ache of the shredded rip

Of my insides being torn apart

And into the dark black night

That’s where my love went

I drowned here in a flood of tears

That my heart spent


How can I give you up

How can I let you go

When Grace is who I am

And forgiving all I know


I’m not a tablet of stone

I breathe and feel deep down

Like nails hammered into flesh

The vile thud of adultery’s sound

Maybe no one hears the cry

When emotions are left paralysed

Sticks and stones don’t hurt me

Like a lovers lies


How can I give you up

How can I let you go

When Grace is who I am

And forgiving all I know


I’ll romance you back to life

You’ll know me once again

Whatever it takes to take you

To the story of love’s end.


Coldplay Sky

There is something transcendent about Sky Full of Stars on Coldplay’s album Ghost Dance. It is the most Coldplay track and yet it is co-written Avicii, who we sadly lost earlier this year. Chris Martin has confessed his fascination with a sense of awe and beauty about the world, Well, it is central to me, 'cause otherwise, without hope, what is there? Without wonder, without awe?” In another interview having been asked about Coldplay covering What A Wonderful World in concert and his faith in God, Martin comes back to this theme of transcendence, "I went through a weird patch, starting when I was about sixteen to twenty-two, of getting God and religion and superstition and judgment all confused. I think a lot of our music comes out of that. I definitely believe in God. How can you look at anything and not be overwhelmed by the miraculousness of it? Everything from that carpet to your nose…” 

That sense of wonder is certainly right there at the centre of Sky Full Of Stars. I am not so convinced that Martin would have been thinking about the Bible story of Abraham when he wrote it but the song draws me to think about Abraham and the wild theological concept that Abraham’s sky full of stars is somehow connected with me some thousands of years on. 

One evening God took Abraham out and made him look up at the sky. He then asked him to count the stars. Count them? Not much chance! God then went on to tell Abraham that his descendants would number the stars. Come on! Abraham didn’t even have a child at the time. Yet, through Abraham God fathered a nation and through that nation the Messiah entered the world. The apostle Paul pointed out that those who followed Jesus and became members of the new redeemed community Jesus launched were the seed of Abraham. My late friend Rich Mullins put it wonderfully in his song Sometimes By Step when he sang, “Sometimes I think of Abraham/How one star he saw had been lit for me.”

I am always encouraged by that line. On a clear night when the sky is full of stars, I gaze up into the transcendent and think that one of those stars represents me, offspring of Abraham, member of God’s alternative community, child of God. And now Coldplay provokes a similar soul surmise…

“You're a sky, you're a sky full of stars

Such a heavenly view

You're such a heavenly view”