(on the occasion of my final service at that church before moving on to a new role in Devon)
Colossians 1.11-20, Luke 23.33-43
In one of his letters to one of the churches in his care Paul says that he feels a bit of a fraud, because when he turns up to speak to the people in the church he's quiet and timid and not very forceful or inspiring at all, whereas in his letters he comes across as a strong, powerful leader, very clear in his thinking and able to argue his point convincingly and to discipline wrongdoers effectively. He's a different man on paper than he is in the flesh.
I can relate to Paul in that, as I've always found it easier to express myself in writing better than in person, and I'm aware that if I had been as strong and clear in my performance as a leader in the flesh, as I have been on the pages of the parish magazine or the website or in various letters and emails over the years, then things would have been quite different for us all here.
But we are who we are: complicated characters with our strengths and our flaws, and who I am I hope has come across in the odd mixture you've had presented to you week in, week out for the past three hundred and forty four weeks - which is how long it's been since I arrived here as a rookie priest-in-charge just in time for our centenary celebrations in March 2004.
I hope more than anything that what has come across in my sermons has been the thing which is central to my Christian beliefs and motivation - a focus on Jesus as the key to everything else, in life, in death, in resurrection faith.
I hope that my being here has helped you to see more clearly that there's nothing complicated about Christianity - though we have a tendency to overcomplicate it and the church (any church) with its rules and rigmaroles is often in danger of obscuring it - Christianity is just about you, me and Jesus, and how we get on together.
But who is this Jesus who I follow, and hope to encourage others to follow too?
Jesus is a man in history - I was convinced of this from childhood through the faithful teaching I received in Sunday School and Youth Group. A man in history - someone whose existence is not in doubt, and whose life and work and witness was well recorded by numerous reliable writers of his day and time.
And Jesus is a God in person - I was convinced early of this too. That somehow (don't ask me exactly how) God the Father put his son on earth, to show himself to us and to show us The Way to live - The Way to LIFE - through that very human Jesus - the man in history, the God in person, the wonderful mystery.
More than all of this, Jesus is alive and with us. I was convinced of this in my teenage years, through starting to know people who firmly believed that Jesus was with them, day by day, hour by hour, who had let him into their lives and who let their whole lives be determined by that very special relationship. It took years of preparation and questioning and months of soul-searching, but eventually it only took a prayer for me to start to walk with Jesus and begin to look for the signs which would help me to follow his way.
And so, years on, and as a preacher, I hope that something of the man - God - companion Jesus has come across through me to you. His stories, and what they say about how we should live. His life story and how it affects us all, for eternity. It's why I'm so keen to preach from the gospels so often, and while I don't use this expression very often, to ask in all sorts of different ways, in every situation the gospels present to us, 'What would Jesus do?'
Today the gospel shows us Jesus hanging on a cross, his treatment at the hands of those who put him there and his interaction with the two other condemned men at his side. Shutting his ears to the mocking voices all around him Jesus listened to the one hanging beside him who had seen the innocence of Jesus and was convinced of the injustice of his execution.
While other voices all around mocked him about his claim to be the Messiah of God, Jesus heard the other condemned man say to him, 'Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom'. And his reply was full of the love and grace we who know him have come to expect of Jesus: 'Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise'.
On a day which seemed to be all about endings for him and for the other condemned man, terrible, bloodletting brutal endings, Jesus offered this man the promise of a wonderful new beginning. The hope of resurrection. The gift of being re-created, a new person in a new place with Jesus.
It is a story which shows us who have the eyes to see, or the heart to want to understand, that what Jesus offered that man he offers us all. On each and every day which seems to be all about endings, about loss and failure and giving up and letting go, Jesus offers us the promise of a wonderful new beginning. The hope of resurrection. The gift of being re-created, a new person in a new place with Jesus.
Jesus, the man in history, did this for the other condemned man because he saw how the man understood him and because of that he loved him.
Jesus, the God in person, can do this for us because he loves us.
Jesus, who is alive and with us, can do this for us because he is God.
Paul grasped all this wonderfully and his response was one of the richest and most passionate descriptions of Jesus anywhere in scripture. Listen again to what he writes:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers - all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.On leaving here today I am grateful to those of you here who have helped me understand more about this Jesus through sharing our lives together.
And I hope that you will continue to embrace him, to walk with him in the way you behave towards each other in the church and the way you live towards others outside the church.
I hope that you will always thirst to know more about Jesus, the man in history.
I hope that of all the images that flash before your eyes minute by minute it is Jesus, the image of the invisible God, Jesus, the God in person, which you keep most in your mind's eye.
I hope that you will always let him be the head of the body, the church, I hope that you will always let your own agendas be tried and tested by others in communion with Jesus, who is alive and with us and whose Way we follow.
Today marks an ending, but let us more than anything else make it a new beginning. A day of starting over again with Jesus.
As we have said together so often as we have prepared to share a meal around his table,
The Lord is here: his Spirit is with us!Thank God that he is so. In this place, and everywhere we go, may he always be so.
This was the last sermon I preached at The Church of the Good Shepherd, West Derby, the day before my move to Devon.