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Welcoming – Matthew 10:40-42: Trinity 3, 28th June 2020

We have been looking at Matthew 10 for a few weeks now.  It is Jesus’ commission to the twelve disciples before he sent them out.  He tells them to preach that the kingdom of heaven is near, to heal the sick, to raise the dead, to drive out demons.  It quite some apprenticeship and, I imagine, a somewhat terrifying prospect for the disciples.

 

And it is not made easier by Jesus’ words.  This is no pep talk to the team before a match, or a rousing speech to send the troops into battle.  Jesus starts by giving them instructions on who to go to, what to say, how to behave.  But most of chapter 10 is Jesus telling the disciples how tough it is going to be.  They will experience opposition from the powerful, be arrested, be brought before kings and governors.  Relationships will be broken by the message, brother against brother, children against parents…  “All men will hate you because of me.”  When you are persecuted in one place, move to another.

 

So, off you go, then.  (Some of this clearly looking forward to the time after Jesus ascension, because we do not know of serious opposition to the disciples during Jesus’ ministry.)  There is some comfort from Jesus, with promises that the Spirit will give them the words to say, that God the Father knows them and values them, that with God on their side, they have nothing to fear from men.

 

Then we come to today’s three verses.  “Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me”.  And those who did welcome them, in however small a way, would be rewarded.

 

We get the impression that disciples were a somewhat ragged crew.  We know remarkably little about most of them.  We do know that four or five of them were fishermen, one was a tax collector; we do not know about the rest.  The gospels are remarkably honest about their failings, but do not say a lot that is positive.  We know of their arguments, of Jesus chiding them for their lack of understanding, of them sleeping when Jesus needed them most, or them running away after Jesus’ arrest, of Peter’s denial.  This cannot be the whole story.

 

Jesus chose the disciples, relied on them enough to send them out in his name.  Relied on them enough, humanly speaking, to put the whole spread of the gospel in their hands.  During Jesus ministry they did go out and preach “everywhere”.  Without them, there would be no church; we would not be meeting this morning.  He saw in them goodness, faithfulness, character that he could work with.  They stayed with Jesus for three years, got to know him well, and he also got to know them well.  They were, it seems, normal people, without privileged or promising backgrounds.  Yet they became friends with the Son of God, and he trusted them.

 

What was the message they preached?  “The kingdom of God is here”, but then what did they say?  Luke says they were preaching the gospel [9v6], which does not help much either.  It is tantalising.  I wish Matthew had written down a bit more.  Like Jesus’ conversation on the road to Emmaus; I would really appreciate it if Luke had it verbatim.  I suppose the disciples’ message would have been based on Jesus’ preaching, some of which we do have recorded.  But it would have been good to know more.

 

So, back to our three verses.  “Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous.”  It was Jewish tradition that you treated an emissary as if they were the person they represent.  There was apparently a saying that “He who receives a learned man, or an elder, into his house, is the same as if he had received the glory of God.”

 

Jesus is sharing his authority with them.  It is a good example of delegation.  No micro-management here.  They go off in all directions, without Jesus to check on them.  This is trust, and Jesus’ reliance on the Spirit to be working in them too.  It is a message to us to allow people to do things, to take responsibility.  Jesus gave them plenty of time with him to learn, both from what he told them but also from being with him.  But then he let them go.  It is a message to us, too, to be open to doing things for God.  I very much doubt the disciples would have felt confident, ready, qualified, or able, but they went.

 

The last verse is “if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward” (using the NIV version as it is a bit clearer).  Calling the disciples “little ones” may sound a bit pejorative to our ears, but it seems to be a term of endearment.  These were not, at least at this stage, great prophets, well known righteous men.  They were humble people with open hearts.

 

Doing something as simple as giving those serving God a drink of water will not be forgotten.  While the disciples could expect opposition, they could also expect support.  There would be those who would recognise what they were doing, recognise God in them and respond.  God will recognise even that small response.

 

Jesus’ words reflect the generosity of God.  Not judgemental, demanding total perfection from us before we are accepted.  Any movement toward him is welcome.  Of course, he wants more, our full hearts given to him, but any movement towards him is graciously accepted.

 

Jesus’ words here remind me of some more later in Matthew.  The chosen stand before Jesus at the end of time and say ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’  He replies, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these [little ones] who are members of my family, you did it to me.’  [Matt. 25vv37-40].

 

So, be welcoming to those doing God’s work, to those who you see doing what is right, to those who need it.  In a time of coronavirus, this may not mean opening your home, but a welcome may be a kindness, words of support, a gift, a meal given, even a thought.

 

Do it out of love, and the God of love will love you for it.

 

 

 

Jeremy Thake,

St. John & St. Stephen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Matthew 10:40-42 (NRSV)

 

40 “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; 42 and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

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Love Actually – June 21st, 2020, Trinity 2

Matthew 10:24-39

‘Love, actually’

 We are living through tumultuous and difficult times. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, racial justice protests gripping the world, poverty, the climate emergency, and just in the last 24 hours, here in Reading, 3 people killed while they enjoyed an afternoon sitting with friends in the sun. Suddenly Reading doesn’t feel so safe any more. The world is a dangerous place on so many levels. I mention all of this because, in today’s gospel reading, there is a focus specifically on the troubles that Christians may face as a result of our commitment to Jesus, and I want to honour this. It’s important, too, because how we live, what makes us tick, what makes us the people we are will colour our reaction to all of these problems that face us.

 

I found it interesting to just review where we are in Matthew’s gospel to help us understand the reading we heard today. The gospel starts with Jesus’ genealogy, his heritage; then goes on to his birth, the flight to Egypt and his return; John the Baptist; Jesus’ temptation by Satan, and then the beginning of his ministry. It starts with the Sermon on the Mount with Jesus’ grand manifesto of the Kingdom of God – how to live, how to love, how to pray. Then there are a series of stories about some of the things Jesus did. I’ll run them past you, notice the sort of people he chose to love and to heal and to call: a leper, a Roman soldier’s servant, Peter’s mother-in-law, two fierce men possessed by evil spirits, a paralysed man, Matthew himself, the despised tax collector, a dead girl and a woman with a haemorrhage that made her untouchable, two blind men, and a man who was mute. Then, in Matthew 10, Jesus turns around to his disciples and tells them, ‘Now it’s your turn. But don’t imagine it will be easy! The disciple is not above his master!’. At the time the gospel was written, towards the end of the 1st century, indeed it was not easy at all to be a follower of Jesus. Matthew 10 is split roughly speaking in 3 parts: go and do what I am doing (1-15), it is going to be tough (16-25), but don’t fear (26-42). There’s always an edge in Matthew, he doesn’t let us off the hook: you will be flogged, dragged before governors, betrayed and hated. Then the message of don’t fear: even the hairs on your head are counted, you are worth more than many sparrows.

 

Well, thankfully I don’t think any of us have to face that kind of reckoning today, in this country. But the followers of Jesus really did face exactly what is described here for the first 300 years, until the Emperor Constantine made Christianity an approved state religion. Many people in the world today face persecution for their faith. The question that faces us is this: why then, would anyone follow Jesus if it means that much trouble??

 

I am risking a return to Narnia to try and find an answer. In Prince Caspian, Peter, Susan, Edmund, Lucy and Trumpkin the Dwarf are on a mission to confront the evil powers who have taken over Narnia, put Prince Caspian on the throne. They have all got lost on the way, but Lucy, the youngest, meets Aslan in an enchanted wood while the others are asleep. ‘Aslan said, “If you go back to the others now, and wake them up; and tell them you have seen me again; and that you must get up at once and follow me – what will happen? There is only one way of finding out.” “Do you mean that is what you want me to do?” gasped Lucy. “Yes, little one,” said Aslan. “Will the others see you too?’ asked Lucy. “Certainly not at first,” said Aslan. “Later on, it depends.” “But they won’t believe me!” said Lucy. “It doesn’t matter,” said Aslan. “Oh dear, oh dear,” said Lucy. “And I was so pleased at finding you again. And I thought you’d let me stay. And I thought you’d come roaring in and frighten all the enemies away – like last time. And now everything is going to be horrid.” “It is hard for you, little one,” said Aslan…Lucy buried her head in his mane to hide from his face. But there must have been magic in his mane. She could feel lion-strength going into her. Quite suddenly she sat up. “I’m sorry, Aslan,” she said. “I’m ready now.” “Now you are a lioness,” said Aslan. “And now all Narnia will be renewed.”’

 

Why was Lucy prepared to do what was very difficult for her? Simply, because she loved and trusted Aslan, despite her fears. It was the same for those early Christians that Matthew wrote his gospel for: they loved and trusted Jesus. In those first 9 chapters of his gospel, before he gets to the tough bit, Matthew tells the story of the Jesus that he himself fell in love with as he sat at his table collecting taxes and Jesus came into the room, looked at him and just said, ‘Follow me’ (9:9). And he did. 30 years later, writing his gospel after Jesus had ended his ministry on a Roman cross, as Matthew was facing the end of his own life, he makes sure that we understand why we love Jesus, but at the same time what the cost of that love is going to be.

 

Christianity is, above everything else, a religion, a way of life, founded on and expressed in love. When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, he replied, ‘”You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind”. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”’ (Matthew 22:34-39). St Paul, speaking of his own life of faith, put it like this, ‘The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me’ (Galatians 2:20). Love is at the root, the heart of our faith. Love of God for us; our love of God; and the overflow of that love to our fellow human beings and indeed to all of creation.

 

The passage we are looking at today in Matthew 10 does express this, and puts it pretty bluntly at the end: ‘Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.’ (10:37). Again, Matthew is writing against a background of persecution and hardship. Without love of Jesus, you simply won’t be able to face the hardships. Why would you?

 

I think some of us struggle a bit with the idea of love of God as a command. How does that work? What kind of love is that, if I’m ordered to do it? I kind of feel that command is the last reason we should love God; perhaps it’s put like that as a statement of last resort so we can’t say we didn’t know! In fact, most of us love God or Jesus not because he insists on it, but because if we catch the faintest glimpse of God, we cannot help ourselves. We praise and love him in as instinctive a way as we would love a human being who impressed us by their beauty or skill, reverence him as we would reverence a person who is shiningly good, serve him because we feel driven to it, because we want to, because it is a pleasure. It is like rising to our feet and clapping like mad because the orchestra has taken wings. It is only that that will give us the energy, the persistence to face the hard times that may come as a result of our decision to love and serve God. Incidentally, this is why Paul faced such troubles which led to his sufferings, that Claire referred to last week. He chose that way to live because of his love for Jesus. His sufferings were a badge of honour for him, which is why he boasted of them – but I admit, it’s still an odd thing to boast of.

 

We know this is true because we all know what love is. Even those of us who have been through great struggles and pain in human relationships will know the power of love, both given and received. Love motivates us and gives us energy, a reason for living, for giving, for facing hardship, like nothing else. Since God is love (1 John 4:8), all love springs from him anyway.

 

Many years ago, when I became a Christian, one of the illustrations of the life of faith was that it was a bit like a train with an engine and two coaches. The engine was called ‘fact’, the first carriage was called ‘faith’, and the last carriage was called ‘feeling’. It’s all about the facts! Get them straight and faith and feeling will follow along! Sounds a bit like a spot of DIY – measure everything and get it straight, the shelf will stay on the wall – nowadays, I take a different view about the train of faith. Without the love of Jesus to fill our hearts, what we’re left with is duty and obligation, and somehow that doesn’t have enough energy to base your life on when difficulty faces us. Seems to me that the love of Jesus, which comes from the heart, is what makes the engine go. It’s not to say that facts aren’t important, they are, but they don’t really have the motive power that love does.

 

How do we cause our love of God to grow, to blossom in us? We need to give time and space first of all to receive that love, to dwell with it. The other week in our home group meeting, we started using an ancient practice of reading scripture called ‘Lectio divina’. A passage is read slowly 3 times, with a period of silence in the middle (we did 7 minutes) to allow it to soak in. In the passage we read in John 15, Jesus addresses us as friends, and tells us that we do not choose him, rather, he chooses us. And we let that sink down inside us in silence. As people shared their reflections afterwards, it was clear that the privilege of being Jesus’ friends, of knowing we are chosen, was indeed touching our hearts. It was a lovely moment.

 

‘Lucy buried her head in his mane to hide from Aslan’s face. But there must have been magic in his mane. She could feel lion-strength going into her. Quite suddenly she sat up. “I’m sorry, Aslan,” she said. “I’m ready now.” “Now you are a lioness,” said Aslan. “And now all Narnia will be renewed.”’

 

Richard Croft

headphones

Results of Justification

Sermon for Zoom Church, June 14, 2020, St John and St Stephen, Reading.

Romans 5:1-8

5Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.

Matthew 9:35-10:8

The Harvest Is Great, the Labourers Few

35 Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. 36When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; 38therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.’

The Twelve Apostles

10Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. 2These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; 3Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax-collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.

The Mission of the Twelve

5 These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” 8Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.

 

Recently my husband lent me a book about listening. Now, I don’t quite know what I should make of that – is he trying to tell me something?! I don’t know if you’ve thought much about listening recently? The book is called “You’re not Listening”, subtitled: “what you’re missing and why it matters”.

I wonder if you can think of a time when you had to listen to somebody. There are some relationships, aren’t there, where you always find yourself as the listening one. In other relationships perhaps you’re the talker. In any mutual relationship one might hope for a balance of listening and talking.

People often talk about their troubles to a minister, which is fine; that’s what we’re here for. People talk about the ways in which life has been tough for them. And life is often tough. Sometimes they talk about how suffering has prevented them from believing in a loving God.

How can there be a God in a world where there’s so much suffering? This is often a question put to Christian people.

And it’s a very good question. A lot of Ministers are asking themselves that at the moment (I’m guessing).

Our sense of suffering has without doubt heightened in the global pandemic. I have had to limit my uptake of news stories because they have been so very painful. There’s only so much we can take. We can indeed feel ‘harassed and helpless’, as Jesus says of the crowds in today’s gospel.

No one likes thinking about suffering, but, surprisingly in our reading today, St Paul wants not only to remember his sufferings, but to boast in them.

To boast in his sufferings? It seems like a bizarre concept, doesn’t it? He writes about boasting of the hope we have of sharing in the glory of God (that’s a bit more understandable) but to boast in his sufferings?

I can understand boasting about hope: ‘We’re going to be grandparents!!!!’ (that’s not actually true of us, I hasten to add). ‘I can go on holiday this summer after all!!!’ (I’d like to boast of that hope but I’m not sure if I can yet).

We all boast of our hopes, but why would anyone want to boast of their sufferings? Normally people either hide their sufferings, offload them onto a good listener, or try to forget them. In our society sadly too, we self medicate to numb our sufferings, in addiction to alcohol, or in digital addiction, the late night mindless scrolling to try and forget the present or past suffering.

So in this short passage in Romans we are faced with an unusual concept – boasting in one’s sufferings. It’s not something we have done in this country during the Covid-19 pandemic either. We have reported our sufferings, in endless graphs of outbreaks and deaths; we have cried over our sufferings and the sufferings of others dear to us; we have been ashamed of our sufferings in our high number of deaths, and bemoaned the fact that they could’ve been lower if we’d done things differently.

But we have not boasted of our sufferings. At Church level, we have panicked about the surge in funerals, panicked over the bleak financial outlook, and moaned over the closing of church buildings, and now we’re stressing about their re-opening. But we haven’t boasted about our sufferings.

As far as we know, as a society we hide or repress our sufferings. I don’t know if you watched the programme where Prince William met some men who’d started a special football team for dads who’d lost children at or around the time of birth. It was on the back of statistics about the death of men age 16-45, where the biggest single killer is suicide. When we don’t share our sufferings because we are ashamed, or can’t think of who to turn to, they can drag us right down.

But I still don’t know anyone who boasts of their sufferings.

Why does Paul do this? Is he, as I’ve often suspected, just in a different league to us more banal Christians?

Well, on the plus side, he writes about suffering in a way that is eventually hopeful. Suffering, he says, produces endurance (that’s the first link in the chain). We know this to be true, even if we resist it. I have wanted to strongly resist the idea that the suffering I’ve experienced due to the lockdown will produce endurance. I don’t really want suffering; I don’t want to be told I can’t go to work, or that work re-starting will never feel the same again and will be full of risk and confusion.

I mean I like the sound of endurance, but unfortunately you can’t buy it and stick it on you like a plaster; to get it you have to suffer. Endurance means I become resilient despite suffering. Most days, if I’m honest, I’d just rather not have either, because suffering is hard and everything in me wants to resist it, even if it does bring a gift in its wake.

But Paul ploughs on. Endurance produces character. Deep down, we know this to be true. When you’ve come through something hard, or are learning ways to live with something hard, you are often in a position to become more patient, more grounded, more humble, and more able to receive help from others.

These are all Christ like qualities and tend not to develop when we’re rushing through life from one successful enterprise to another without a backward look. I’ve noticed in church life that it’s often the people who have endured the most suffering that are the most sensitive to others’ suffering and the ones who intercede for others meaningfully. They have a depth and a steadiness about them that is most attractive.

So, suffering produces endurance; endurance produces character; and character, according to Paul, produces hope. It’s less clear to me how this one works: character produces hope. It must be something perhaps to do with how we’re being changed into the likeness of God. If we’re becoming more like God, we are heading towards God, and will be fully united with him eventually. The hope in our hearts is poured in first by God, Paul says, and so we are sustained in our suffering because God has taken the initiative.

God doesn’t just save us from our sins (although he obviously does that) but he saves us for himself. This is the theological concept of theosis, or divinisation. By grace, we human become like God. We are made in God’s image, but we must grow into his likeness. God made us for himself and that’s to do with so much more than saving us from our sin. In fact the NRSV in this Romans passage seems to use ‘sinners’ and ‘weak’ interchangeably which is interesting. ‘While we were still weak at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly’ (verse 6).

I’ve often felt in our liturgy that we beat ourselves up too much about sin. There, I’ve said it now. We are always getting it wrong, of course, but that is often because we are weak, not BAD. Some of us are bad, of course, but in my experience generally, Church people are trying pretty hard to be good.

As salvation and wholeness and healing are the same word in Greek, it seems we are in danger of putting people off when we over stress the sin bit, because it’s just as true that we’re people who need healing. We need forgiveness AND healing! We need saving in order to be made into the likeness of God. That’s a two-fold process.

Whenever people cut it off at the ‘thank God I’m saved, I can do what I like’ side, and don’t progress to the much harder work of becoming holy – the world knows that’s phony. (My mind is drawn to footage of a world leader scowling and brandishing a bible on camera for no apparent reason while behind him police fire rubber bullets into a crowd peacefully protesting about racial injustice). Nobody is going to buy that. It’s about the worst advert for the Christian faith you could possibly imagine.

I don’t know what this last three months of extraordinary living has brought you in the way of suffering. I don’t know if I’ve yet got to boasting about my disturbed nights, general fatigue and occasional anxiety. I don’t know if you could boast about yours either

But as we try and make sense of Paul’s extraordinary thesis about how suffering brings endurance, character and thence hope, I pray we can be strengthened today and have the assurance that we have obtained access to ‘this grace in which we stand’.

Amen.

 

 

pentecost

Sermon for Pentecost: St John and St Stephen’s Zoom Church May 31 2020.

pentecost sermon slides

AND so we come to Pentecost – the Feast that the Jews kept to celebrate the final coming in of the harvest. In the book of Acts Luke writes that the disciples were gathered in one place awaiting the gift of the Holy Spirit.

It’s doubtful they even had an inkling of what to expect when the Spirit came, but they were at least being obedient – Jesus had said ‘stay in Jerusalem until you are clothed with power from on high’, and that’s what they were doing.

By this stage some commentators think there were about 120 disciples. Although Peter addresses the ‘men of Galilee’ in his subsequent speech we know that apart from the Twelve, there were several women, including Mary his mother and others who had supported Jesus from their own resources, plus those to whom Jesus had appeared after his resurrection.

Paul mentions a collective resurrection appearance to at least 50, so as we imagine the upper room at Pentecost we can probably feel free to imagine a few more than the 11 who’d followed Jesus closely to the end.

I asked for images of the Holy Spirit, and was grateful that so many people responded – thank you. In this Acts account, as the followers of Jesus experienced the Spirit in a new way, they heard the sound of rushing wind, they saw what looked like fire appearing amongst them and they spoke in new languages, which seemed to be represented by the way that each had a fiery tongue rest upon them.

So that’s three images or experiences already – a rushing wind, fire and tongues, or new languages, that enabled other people to hear messages from God in their own language as the disciples spilled out into the open spaces where so many had gathered for the festival.

The crowd included Jews from all over the known world: from Greece, from Arabia, from Rome, from Africa and from Asia.

When I asked for images of the Holy Spirit, the question was, really, what is God the Spirit like for you? Which is really the question, what is God like, for you?

It’s a very important question: maybe the most important question about you: how do you imagine God?

How we see God may determine how we see a lot of other things as well.

One of our problems is that we have imbibed all sorts of unhelpful images of God, which can lead to unfruitful spiritual lives.

We cannot just make up what God is like – nor can we hope to pin down entirely what God is like (that wouldn’t be a very transcendent God) but we can try and piece together some pointers from the bible and from the life of Jesus and from our own lives as we explore what God is like (or what God the Spirit is like).

One intellectual blockage to a healthy God-image is the sacred-secular divide.

At some point in the 18th Century, during a period ironically named The Enlightenment, we separated out the sacred and the secular in a way that is never apparent in the bible, and relegated God to the side-lines.

Everything that could be empirically proven we labelled ‘objective’ knowledge and everything else, including religion, was seen as ‘subjective’ and pertaining only to the narrow field of ‘what happens for a small number of people in church plus some other odd beliefs’.

This was handy, because it meant you could decide that God didn’t exist.

Making God an object (that you might or might not believe in the existence of) is a category mistake. God is primarily relational; God can only be known in relationship. God is personal and God is relationship. You cannot know God unless you are saying yes to God.

Saying ‘God is relationship’ may sound rather peculiar to us, but we are Westerners who have become attuned to a high degree of individualism that is unknown in the fellowship of God’s followers wherever we read about them in the bible.

Western individualism with its competitiveness and disconnectedness means it’s hard for us to imagine God as a community of persons who love and serve each other, but this is what modern Trinitarian theology (which is actually not that modern, but Patristic) is increasingly discovering.

SLIDE 1. This is Rublev’s icon – shared by Richard Bainbridge. In it we have an imaginative representation of God in three persons. Left to right we see Father, Son and Spirit. They are gentle, still, contemplative and seem to be deferential to each other in the stance of their bodies. It is also perhaps evocative of the OT story where Abraham and Sarah receive three angelic visitors and offer them hospitality. Or were they in fact visited by God?

In the icon, the cup of the Eucharist is recalled and in the centre of the image, a space, where we are welcomed in to join the fellowship. The Trinity offers us relationship.

It’s an expansive image that has many layers but it’s perhaps a helpful one to start with.

Richard Rohr, in The Divine Dance, suggests that starting with the One (One God) and trying to get to the Three (three persons) is problematic when thinking about the Trinity.

Rather, if we begin with the biblical evidence for the three ‘persons’ it may be easier to then unify them to find The One.

We have a lot of scriptural evidence to suggest God is community: Jesus referred to himself as being in relationship with God, as a father is with his son. Furthermore the Scriptures tell of the Spirit of God who hovered over creation, and was given at Pentecost, who indwells God’s people and empowers them to share the Good News.

With three persons (Father, Son and Spirit) but only one God, we can now say God is Three-in-One. But in what kind of relationship are the persons of the Trinity? Is it equal or hierarchical, and where do we fit in? This too is an important question that our church architecture often answers by suggesting there’s a boss (God) and He’s pretty far away from us most of the time.

However at St John and St Stephen’s we’re lucky – we’re in the round! I like to imagine our circle at the Eucharist as like the circle of the Trinity where God the Father, Son and Spirit serve and love each other and open up to let us in too, whenever we say our halting yes.

So it turns out it’s rather difficult to ask ‘what is the Holy Spirit like?’ without asking the question ‘what is God like?’ (Apologies for straying a bit into next Sunday’s theme of the Trinity).

Thinking about the icon that Rublev painted is a far cry, I’m sure you’ll agree, from the sort of Old Man in the Sky images of God that some of us have had to shed (or maybe we haven’t yet been able to?)

Healthy ideas of God were radically warped through the course of history by, among other things: Monarchy, Patriarchy and Empire. This kind of God was modelled on an absolute Monarch who dishes out rules and punishes those who break them.

“History has so long operated with a static and imperial image of God – as a supreme Monarch who is mostly living in splendid isolation from what he – and God is always and exclusively envisioned as male in this model – created (Rohr and Morrell, The Divine Dance, pp.35-6).

If God is a monad (not a triad) then God is self-sufficient and there’s no room in God for me or anything else from creation.

‘The principle of one is lonely; the principle of two is oppositional; the principle of three is inherently moving, dynamic and generative’ (as before, p. 42).

So our images of God are terribly important. Even the idea of God as Father is very problematic in our days because of absent or abusive fathers. Father images need to be balanced by the female metaphors of God as giving birth to a people; nurturing a people, feeding a people and even missing a people but always remembering them.

Some of the contributions sent to me underlined this – God perceived of as feminine was thought of as very positive, if surprising: ‘that’s the part of God I can feel at ease and safe with’ (like a kindly grandma who always watched over you). Sue Oates.

 

Powerful images of God as overwhelming us, needed to be re-imagined as not macho, but full of an energy that animates, and gives us the strength to carry on in life situations which are tough and for the log haul: ‘it’s the power to endure, to suffer for others, to keep going however hard the road, not to become hard and bitter but continue to love – these are the ways the spirit speaks to my heart’ (Liz B.)

What are some other images that have been shared?

I wonder if any will resonate with you?

SEE SLIDES for contributions from others: the Holy Spirit as the inspiration for different types of praise in the bible: (slide 2)

Hullah – to rave about God

Yahah – to worship with open hands

Barak – the privilege of blessing the Lord

Tehillah – sing to the Lord

Toddah and Shabach – to shout, or address with a loud voice, confident that all is well before victory comes

Zamah – to pluck the strings of an instrument in praise of God

Hallelujah – spontaneous cry from one who is excited about God (from Judy)

 

  1. A painting of Hannah at prayer, the shaft of light coming from the top left, God hearing our distress and mounting a cherubim and soaring across the sky (Psalm 18) – imagining the pray-er as her sister who went through a difficult time some years ago (from Julie).

 

  1. The infinite nature, peace, welcoming, protection, love, wonder and more that the HS brings to us (plus image – Alan D.)

 

  1. The Holy Spirit brings us together (Taize picture, Cathy)

 

  1. ‘Perplexing’ and ‘elusive’ – Genesis: the Spirit of God moved over the face of the waters; empowering key OT individuals and hovering over Jesus at his baptism, then sending him out to the wilderness. Offering ‘life in al its fullness’ (John 10) Richard B.

 

  1. The dove at Jesus’ baptism (Richard B.)

 

Looking at other images and experiences that were shared by St John’s people: they roughly fall into the following categories:

 

A.The Spirit as experienced like the elements, e.g. fire, wind, water

 

E.g. A candle, giving light, comfort and peace, glory and splendour, warmth and peace. ‘It shines inside and helps me to trust, and gives me hope. I wait for the Lord and he gives me his Holy Spirit. It is enough’ (Carol M.)

 

During a difficult time, one evening the Spirit was perhaps in ‘the billowing of curtains, and an invitation to ‘reach out towards whatever it was’ (Chris Jupp).

 

Like a mighty wind that you cannot see but you can see the effects of it on others – in changed lives, fruits of the Spirit and people using their gifts (Chris A).

Relaxing on the patio with a beer, nothing urgent to do, being at one with nature, attending to creation, the Holy Spirit in the air, always at work (Spence).

 

Like water going through a colander – we’re the colander and we keep close to God the water (the Holy Spirit) continually passes through us, washing, cleansing, reviving. There’s a need to be fully immersed all the time – so the colander needs to be in flowing water so to speak (Paul Oates).

 

  1. The Spirit affecting people and encounters, calling us into relationship: e.g. the Holy Spirit as a friend, Helper and Comforter; also the AA Milne poem about “Binker” – ‘Binker is the reason why I never feel alone’: Sue Bruce.

 

Encounters brought about by the Spirit – the ‘coincidences’ that happen, the joy in worship of a new believer and the joy exhibited by Yemeni Christian refugees, despite going through real hardships (Peter C.)

 

  1. Other images for the Spirit: ‘The Divine artist deep inside you. “We’re called to paint our life’s picture in the image of Christ” quote from video clip: “A Prayer Video for Pentecost” featuring Patrick Van der Voorst) shared by Rachel T.

 

The Holy Spirit is a person, not an ‘It’, otherwise it wouldn’t be trinitarianism, it would be binitarianism’ (Kit Alcock).

 

Thoughts on planting out seedlings. ‘My prayers are like seedlings. I don’t have to find the energy and ideas to will them to grow and develop. I can just plant them and leave the rest to him/her’ (Chris M.)

 

And lastly we have the beautiful, peaceful image of Jesus simply breathing on his disciples when they were in the room where the door locked for fear of the Jews which we had as the gospel today (this is going back in time to a few weeks before Pentecost). He says ‘receive the Holy Spirit’ and he gives them his peace (the word for breath and spirit being the same in Hebrew).

 

There are of course an infinite variety of images and experiences of the Spirit, of God, because we are all so varied in our understanding and our character, our life experiences and God knows what we need, how we best hear God’s voice.

 

It is interesting at this time of year when we have a chance to focus on the third person of the Trinity, to ponder how our own images of God might be changing and developing, perhaps even to ditch some unhelpful ones and embrace new ones.

 

As we have seen, our images of God tend to direct our spiritual lives and in fact our entire life in the world. They affect how we see others, how we relate to the environment, and how we relate in this world of extreme conflict, in how we deal with ‘the other’ – the person who is different from me.

 

The trinity shows us how diversity can thrive within unity, how there is room for all, a message we badly need to hear in this week when we have all been appalled at another needless death of an African American at the hands of a white American police officer who showed no mercy. Is it so hard for us to relate to each other mercifully, as God has related to us in Jesus?

 

How will the pandemic change our view of God? Will we, I wonder, find a new emphasis on the ‘weakness’ of a divine Saviour who didn’t count equality with God something to be grasped, but who emptied himself and was obedient to death, even the death of the cross?

 

Will we find a God who is willing to be divested of power because of the ultimate importance of waiting for a beloved world to turn back, a God who knows just how impossible it is to force love?

 

Conscious of the huge amount of suffering in the world, I have felt perhaps a new tenderness in God, which has gone hand in hand with being tender towards myself when I have been, not strong and faithful, but weak, fearful, feeling a bit hopeless and being tired a lot of the time!

 

An image of God that I will share, finally, comes from a Big Sing meeting that John Bell led in about 2004 or 5, in a big evangelical church in Reading. I took a friend from Shiplake who was really musical and we both loved it nbecause we both loved singing.

 

Standing up on the dais to address the 100s of people there, John Bell began by announcing ‘let us pray’. Everyone’s heads went down, and we went onto auto pilot (you know how this can happen in church…) and then John, in his very Scottish and deliberately provocative way, addressed God loudly as ‘Midwife of change’.

 

You could have heard a pin drop! I was thinking about ordination at the time, and I felt a huge shiver go down my spine at that very moment: the Holy Spirit?

 

If your images of God are shifting, that could be a sign that you’re growing spiritually, or are entering a new season in your walk with God. Are your images shifting?

 

My prayer this Pentecost, is that we all experience something new in the air when it comes to the Holy Spirit, and may we as a church fellowship have the courage to proclaim by word and deed, that God is community, and therefore we are community and in this ever growing, ever changing community, there is indeed room for all.

 

 

PRAY TO END:

 

Lord, immerse us in the ocean of your love

Bathe us in your cleansing rivers

Soak us in your healing waters

Drench us in your powerful downfalls

Cool us in your bracing baths

Refresh us in your sparkling streams

Master us in your mighty seas

Calm us by your quiet pools.

Amen.

 

(from Sue Bruce, from The Community of Aidan and Hilda)

Additional slides for Claire’s sermon can be found here

tango

Sermon – Sunday 24th May, Easter 7

My sermon on Sunday was interrupted by a young macaw called Tango, stuck in our garden during lockdown (usually to be found in Chris Smith’s props box.  Thank you, Chris!)

Hello.  The Lord be with you.  I want to talk about the ascension this morning.  (Tango arrives, scattering nesting material everywhere.  What follows is my side of the conversation))

Oops, sorry about that.

Tango!  What’s all this about?!  You’ll have to speak in English.  I don’t understand Spanish.  What emergency?  You’ve run out of sunflower seeds?  What kind of emergency is that when we’re in the middle of a pandemic?!

You’ll just have to wait till I’ve finished my sermon.  No, it won’t be too long.

This is Tango.  She’s a young, rather rare orange macaw from Latin America and of course not able to get back there at present so she’s in lockdown with us.

You’re being watched by about 50 people, Tango.

Some of us haven’t had a haircut for 2 months.  You’re not looking very tidy, yourself.

I don’t need to know who is picking their nose!

You need to go back in the garden until I’ve finished my sermon.  No, I won’t tell them about the bedroom floor incident and who stepped in it.  Nor about the Easter eggs, though really by now I’d have thought you’d know what would happen if you sit on chocolate eggs when you feel broody. (Tango disappears)

So, back to the Ascension.  Perhaps Tango’s interruption was helpful.  Tango can only fly in a very confined space during lockdown.  Once we’re through this, though she’ll be able to fly high and free.  She’ll be able to fly home.  That’s rather like the disciples after the resurrection.  They were still earth bound.  Delighted but also puzzled in seeing Jesus risen, continuing meeting together, in some cases fishing together, and often a little fearful about their own futures.  Some of them had begun to move back to their own villages and away from Jerusalem.  Back to their old way of life.  They were in a kind of lockdown.  Then the ascension happens.

Luke describes Jesus’ ascension twice – at the end of his gospel, and as here today, at the beginning of Acts.  It’s his means of preparing his readers (us) for Pentecost.  Luke’s second book, the book of Acts, has sometimes been called the Acts of the Holy Spirit.  The Ascension lays the ground for the extraordinary events of Pentecost.  It helps explain all that follows afterwards in the book of Acts.

The account of the Ascension has some similarities with the description in the Old Testament of the prophet Elijah being swept up to heaven, leaving a portion of his spirit for his disciple Elisha.  After the Ascension Jesus’ appearances stopped.  His followers no longer saw his resurrection body.  But it’s clear at Pentecost that they received more than a portion of his spirit and were then able to do some of the things he had done.  There was a spectacular outpouring of his spirit.  More of that next week.

However, something even more profound took place at the Ascension which isn’t captured in traditional paintings of the event, but which John in his gospel, and in the passage today tries to convey using the language of glory.  After the Ascension something changed inside Jesus’ followers which burst out at Pentecost.  Strangely, they felt closer to him than before.  It was as though they were inside him, or was it that he was inside them?  To use John’s language, they were at one with him.  If that was the case, then they were at one with God the Father too because as Jesus says many times in John’s gospel, he and the Father are one.  Jesus’ glory is to do with his perfectly expressing what God is like and his disciples were those who, however imperfectly, had recognized that glory.  So, here’s the thing; if Jesus had ascended to heaven, then so too had his followers.  They were now at home with God in a new way.  If Jesus had flown home, then so had they.  They had entered fully into their true human identity, made possible by Christ’s death and resurrection  – their identity as sons and daughters of the living God, brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ.  They, we, are still creatures of earth, yet we have this hidden, heavenly identity as well.

Once lockdown is over Tango will be able to fly back home.  I’m just hoping she remembers how to fly!  All she’s done here is flutter.  I think we may be a bit like that sometimes.  We were given wings at our baptism, but we may not use them much or at all.  We limit our flying to the occasional nervous flutter!  As we look ahead to Pentecost let’s ask that we might enter more deeply into that identity we now share with Christ as a beloved son or daughter of God.  He is us and we in him.  Let’s fly!

Now, I’d better find those sunflower seeds for Tango.

 

Christine Bainbridge

 

lion

May 17th 2020, Easter ‘In him we live and move and have our being’

In CS Lewis’s ‘Narnia’ books, four children – Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy explore a different world called Narnia, and encounter Aslan, the giant Lion who stands, in Lewis’s stories, for Christ. In ‘The Dawn Treader’, Lucy and Edmund have been stranded on a strange island. There’s a moment where Lucy, the youngest, is waiting for the Magician to arrive. She has just read out a magic spell to make hidden things visible. ‘At that moment she heard soft, heavy footfalls coming along the corridor behind her; and of course, she remembered what she had been told about the Magician walking in his bare feet and making no more noise than a cat. It is always better to turn round than to have anything creeping up behind your back. Lucy did so. Then her face lit up…and she ran forward with a little cry of delight with her arms stretched out. For what stood in the doorway was Aslan himself, The Lion, the highest of all the High Kings. And he was solid and real and warm, and he let her kiss him and bury herself in his shining mane. And from the low, earthquake-like sound that came from inside him, Lucy even dared to think that he was purring.

“Oh, Aslan,” said she, “it was kind of you to come.”

“I have been here all the time,” said he, “but you have just made me visible.”

“Aslan!” said Lucy almost a little reproachfully. “Don’t make fun of me. As if anything I could do would make you visible!”

“It did,” said Aslan. “Do you think I wouldn’t obey my own rules?”

 

All of us have a group of people with whom we are completely familiar. Maybe more than one group! Maybe family, or a friendship group, home group, church even!, a club, a neighbourhood. Take a moment just to think who it is you are completely familiar with, at ease with, yourself with. For some of us, at this time, that’s a bit of a distant memory, of course.

 

That universal experience of familiarity was shared by the group of men and women who became the intimate friends of the man Jesus, especially for the inner circle of 12 disciples who literally lived with him for 3 unforgettable years. They were his friends, his companions. They shared the same space, ate with him, talked with him, got grumpy with him, had arguments amongst themselves, said the wrong thing, said the right thing, jostled with him in crowds, woke up in the morning in his company and had their first cup of tea with him. In so many ways it was completely ordinary. Jesus in many ways was completely ordinary: he was a human being who walked, talked, ate, slept, was born, lived and died. Of course, he was also magnetic, controversial, a riveting public speaker, insightful, wise, a healer. I have one friend who is on the world stage in his field, gets to meet with people of global importance. He is clever, original, a thinker, an entrepreneur. But when we meet, he’s just my friend: it’s what happens when you know people really well: no matter how important they are, to you, they’re your friend. Jesus even said to his disciples, ‘I have called you friends’ (John 15:15). In another place, we get to know that he calls us his ‘brothers and sisters’ (Hebrews 2:12). After the death, resurrection and ascension, Jesus’ friends came to know the other side of Him: that he was in some way so closely bound up with God that He was actually one with Him. In fact, he actually said that earlier on, ‘The Father and I are one’, (John 10:30). But that wasn’t how it all started for them. He was, and remained, their friend.

 

In todays’ gospel reading, Jesus begins to broach the painful subject of his coming departure, his death. But look, he says, when that happens I will send you someone else who will be with you for ever. This will be the Spirit. Then the language gets really mixed up – quite deliberately – as he talks about himself, and the Father coming to make their home with the disciples (v.23). Because God, Father, Son and Spirit are so intertwined with each other, so inseparable, you can’t have One without the Others. But how painful this must have been for the disciples. To realise that their wonderful 3 years was going to end, they were going to lose this most amazing friend. His words promising the Spirit must have seemed like pie-in-the-sky, empty promises, maybe even madness. But as we know, it came true. His awful, cruel, public death took place, and the horror of a world, a life, without Jesus any more became their new reality. But not for long. 3 days later the literally unbelievable happened as Jesus was spotted in a garden, in an upper room, on a road, by a lake, and 6 weeks later the Spirit came sweeping through and they found their strength again as this unseen reality, the Spirit of God, the Presence of God, Jesus’ other self, came to inhabit them in such a profound way that they were prepared to take the good news to the ends of the earth even if it cost them their lives. As for many of them, it did. In fact, although Jesus wasn’t with them in the way he had been – physically that is – he was with them. He was in them, among them, and between them.

 

Last week I had the privilege of taking part in the University annual retreat, acting myself as a spiritual guide to 3 people – all done virtually by Zoom of course! Each of the total of 24 retreatants committed to a half-hour of prayer a day, as well as another half-hour with their guide and at the end, all of us were invited to share something of our experience. It was just wonderful to listen to expressions of joy, surprise, wonder because, in one way or another, God showed up for everyone. This is the Holy Spirit’s work, and it is exactly what Jesus promised. We can draw a straight line from Jesus’ words to his disciples – ‘I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth.’ (Jn 15:16,17) – and this was the experience of every one of the retreatants, and, I can confidently say, of the guides too. For some of the people doing the retreat, this was pretty much the first time they had ever prayed on their own. We don’t have to wait, like too-devout Anglicans, for the day of Pentecost to come in the liturgical calendar, because the real Pentecost has already happened and the doors are open. The Spirit is here.  And you know what? She, the Spirit of God (who IS God), had always been present for each one of us. Yes! But maybe not realised, not encountered. The prayer, the time given, the waiting was what brought the felt sense of God to the surface. In prayer, we can speak to Jesus exactly as ‘one friend to another’. (This is the advice that Ignatius gives).

 

There’s a wonderful connection between all of this, the gospel reading in John, and the reading we heard in Acts 17. Paul was in Athens, preaching to Greeks – that is, non-Jews who did not know about God from the Bible. Paul was able to reference God by quoting not the scriptures, but a Greek poet, known to them, Aratus: ‘In him we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28). Paul was able to quote that, not only so that he could connect with his Greek audience, but because also it’s true. The Bible is full of references to the fact that God is everywhere to be found: ‘Where can I go from your spirit?’ asks David of God in Psalm 139; ‘Do I not fill heaven and earth? says the Lord’ (Jeremiah 23:24); ‘The whole earth is full of his glory’, (Isaiah 6:3) and so on. We do, quite literally, live and move and have our being in God, whether we know it or not, even in these strange days we are passing through. And when we make the space in our lives for him, we will find him.

 

‘At that moment she heard soft, heavy footfalls coming along the corridor behind her; and of course, she remembered what she had been told about the Magician walking in his bare feet and making no more noise than a cat. It is always better to turn round than to have anything creeping up behind your back. Lucy did so. Then her face lit up…and she ran forward with a little cry of delight with her arms stretched out. For what stood in the doorway was Aslan himself, The Lion, the highest of all the High Kings. And he was solid and real and warm, and he let her kiss him and bury herself in his shining mane. And from the low, earthquake-like sound that came from inside him, Lucy even dared to think that he was purring.

“Oh, Aslan,” said she, “it was kind of you to come.”

“I have been here all the time,” said he, “but you have just made me visible.”

“Aslan!” said Lucy almost a little reproachfully. “Don’t make fun of me. As if anything I could do would make you visible!”

“It did,” said Aslan. “Do you think I wouldn’t obey my own rules?”

 

 

 

 

road

Emmaus – Sermon Sunday 26th April 2020

Sermon Luke 24.13-35

One night last week we had to call out an emergency plumber because we had a leak in our kitchen.  He arrived, a big man with no hair and a mask over his face and set to work, mumbling to us occasionally through the mask while his head was under our kitchen sink.  We all kept our distance!  Then, when the job was done, and as he was leaving, he took off the mask to say goodbye.  He had a kind, smiling face.  It was a moment of revelation, not because we knew him, but because we recognized him as a fellow human being, and a friendly one at that.  Up till that point he had been a stranger.  It was a bit of an Emmaus moment.

Lately I’ve found myself experiencing a sort of cabin fever.  How long is this going on, I wonder.  Get me out of here!  I know this isn’t the case for everyone – there’s a whole range of ways we react, many of them changing daily!  One thing I’ve come to realize, though, is that on the whole I’ve viewed my home as a kind of launch pad to life outside.  It’s there for me as a refuge, a resource, a place to relax, to pray, and, yes, work, but work that is to do with activity outside the home.  So, I’ve struggled on and off with the feeling of being stuck on the launch pad with no immediate prospect launching into the outside world where real life is happening.

So, I needed help.  I have partly found it in re reading some of the Winnie the Pooh stories.  I wasn’t brought up on these.  In fact it wasn’t until after our marriage that two Christopher Robin books surfaced among the worldly goods that Richard was endowing me with!  Now, in our enforced isolation they have become bedtime reading.  They offer an escape, a distraction.  So I read again about kanga giving Roo ‘Strengthening Medicine’, which of course he didn’t like (though it turned out to be Tigger’s favourite food).  That led me to wondering what strengthening medicine might look like for me, for us, during this strange time.

I was asking that question as I turned to our gospel passage for today – the road to Emmaus.  Here are two people who obviously knew each other well, and who had been in Jerusalem during the events of Good Friday. Perhaps they were friends, siblings, or a married couple, or business partners.  Luke doesn’t tell us.  We can assume that they were followers of Jesus because later in the story we see that they knew the others well enough to want to tell them about what had happened.  But, anyway, they were mulling over the events of the past few days and it was making them miserable.  Mmm, I could connect with that as I connect with friends and family about our current situation.  Then a stranger draws near and joins in the conversation and gradually their whole narrative starts to change.  There’s pain and sadness, but through the eyes of the stranger they begin to see that behind all this lies something infinitely brighter and more hopeful.  Nevertheless they didn’t realize it was Jesus who was talking with them until he accepted their invitation to eat with them in their home.  Then the penny dropped and they couldn’t wait to rush back to Jerusalem to share this life-giving twist to their old, sad narrative with the other disciples.  They really had received strengthening medicine!  It’s a very long walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus and there they were, doing it all over again!  Strengthening indeed!

Luke powerfully conveys the difference between meeting Jesus before the resurrection and after.  For those hearing his gospel years after the events themselves he conveys where and how we are most likely to meet with the risen Christ.  Most of us, I guess, will be familiar with these, so I’ll just run through them briefly:

through conversations with other believers, in church, home groups, over coffee etc

through sharing meals, and particularly the bread and wine together

through reading scripture together, with the Holy Spirit revealing Christ’s presence there

through hospitality – they invited Jesus into their home

through being together on what followers of Jesus would soon call ‘The Way’

Yes, I thought, this is all strengthening medicine, and we’re doing most, if not all of this, virtually, one way or another, and it’s good, though requiring new behaviour and skills which makes it harder sometimes; still, we’re discovering new ways of being church together aren’t we?.  But there’s a closeness, an intimacy Luke conveys about those disciples encountering Jesus which is lacking when we do everything virtually.  It made me think of a child in hospital, missing their favourite cuddly toy and a parent bringing not the cuddly itself, but a photograph of it, and saying, ‘Here, darling, hold this, it will remind you of teddy, or panda, or Ellie’.  It’s just not the same.

Luke, I said to myself, I need something more strengthening.  Then something rather obvious dawned on me.  Those two disciples had invited Jesus into their home.  Luke, writing his gospel 80 or more years after the events he describes, had probably never met Jesus in the flesh.  Yet, he’s saying that it’s possible to encounter him in our home right here and now.  It was a light bulb moment!  After all I’m spending nearly the whole time inside my home and here was Luke saying that was exactly where I might be meeting Christ.  And that’s because of the resurrection.  It’s the risen Christ I can meet.

One of my favourite verses in John’s gospel is in John 14 where Jesus is preparing his disciples for what lies ahead as they move towards Jerusalem where he knows he will die.  He is offering some comfort, knowing that, as John puts it, ‘their hearts will be troubled’.  He tells them that he is going to prepare a place for them so that ‘you also may be where I am’.  I once spent some time sitting with those words and imagining Jesus saying those words to me.  Where are you?  I asked.  There are some wonderfully rich theological responses to that question, but on that particular day what came to me was a picture of Jesus standing in the doorway of our home and beckoning me inside. It was a startling reversal of my launch pad.  Going inside my own home was where I would be meeting the risen Christ.  Suppose that when Jesus says to me that he wants me to be where he is, he means in my home?

Now that is strengthening medicine, I thought.

Christ is risen .  He is risen indeed.  Alleluiah.  Amen.

waiting picture

MARCH 29th – Psalm 30: How long to sing this song?

As you have read or listened to Psalm 130 – what word or phrase speaks strongly to you right now? What rings true to how you feel, or to your own situation?

 

I’d like to share some brief thoughts on three of the words or phrases in this psalm and how they might speak to us in the times we live in. In almost all societies around the world you’ll find three kinds of songs – there are lullabies, songs for weddings and laments. Today we are going to look at Psalm 130, one of the so-called Psalms of Lament. These songs have been used for hundreds of years to help people navigate through personal or national suffering. I hope you will find these thoughts helpful as we navigate our own unique situation.

 

Out of the depths

The first is the extraordinary phrase we read at the beginning of the psalm: ‘Out of the depths’ – ‘Out of the depths I cry to you’. It comes from the Latin phrase ‘De Profundis’ and is from where we get our English word profound. Many poets from Lord Tennyson and Christina Rossetti to Federico Garcia Lorca have been inspired by these words and written poems entitled De Profundis. For some of us, we might be feeling (or might later feel) a profound sense of loss, despair and anguish. For me it’s the basic things that I took for granted that I miss and long for: being able to hug my sons and my parents, playing music with my friends, sharing the peace and communion with my church family.

The laments remind us that we can be honest in how we feel, to God and with each other. It’s a cry out to God as we struggle to live with unanswered questions and unexplained suffering. I find it soothing that within the Bible we are given words that can be shockingly brutal and brutally honest in expressing how we feel to God.

 

I’ve recently been reading a book on the psalms called ‘It’s ok to be not ok’. It’s written by a Philippine Christian who was caught up in 2009 in Tropical Storm Ondoy, where over 700 lost their lives. He speaks of how he went to church the next Sunday and was struck by how the church had no songs to help express the grief the congregation were feeling. There were many ‘happy’ songs of praise and thanksgiving sung, but he went away with the question ‘Why is there nothing in our worship about what we have experienced?’ The theologian Walter Brueggemann in his book The Psalm & The Life of Faith calls it ‘the costly loss of lament’. If we are not allowed to lament, then all we have in times of trouble is an empty celebration of joy and well-being, completely disconnected from our present reality. The lament states that things are not right, that they should not be as they are now, and that there is a longing and hope they won’t remain so forever. They are a plea to God for help in a time of intense trial. They also suggest perhaps controversially, it is God’s obligation to change things.  ‘Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord: O Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.’

 

Waiting

The second word that stood out for me is the word ‘wait’. It’s perhaps not surprising, as it’s repeated five times in just two sentences: ‘I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I put my hope. My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning.’

There is one question that is repeated time and time again in the lament psalms: How long? How long must this go on?’ In this psalm there’s a sense of yearning and longing that you can see in how the psalmist repeats that phrase ‘more than watchmen wait for the morning’. A longing we may feel as we yearn for an end to this isolation.

You might have read a Facebook post by our vicar Claire on Wednesday, celebrating the feast of the Annunciation – when the angel Gabriel told Mary that she was to be with child and to give birth to a son, called Jesus. Alongside the painting of Botticelli’s Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, Claire posted these words:

‘Today the Church marks the Annunciation by the angel to the Blessed Virgin Mary – I guess because today is exactly 9 months till Christmas Day and that’s the length of a pregnancy. The planting of a seed, in silence and obscurity, that will bear the most amazing fruit later. I’m wondering today about how this could be a message of hope for us in these weird and difficult times when we just want it all to be over as soon as possible. But it’s always in the waiting that we grow, and then always (and only) through great love and great suffering, such as Mary underwent.

It’s always in the waiting that we grow, and then always (and only) through great love and great suffering, such as Mary underwent.

 

Hope

The third word that stood out for me in this psalm is ‘hope’.

You might have noticed this word appears twice in the psalm.

‘I wait for the Lord, my soul waits and in his word I put my hope.’

And then the focus at the end of the psalm in the words:

‘O Israel, put your hope in the Lord, for with the Lord is unfailing love and with him is full redemption.’

I don’t know about you, but I’ve found myself often waking up early in the morning, just before dawn and being amazed by the sound of the birds heralding in the new dawn. There are signs of hope around us, in the natural world, in the kindness of friends and strangers, in the amazing work of our NHS and front-line services. But, of course, the greatest hope we have is in our Lord that we serve. In our gospel reading we heard the story of the raising of Lazarus. I was particularly struck in reading this next to Psalm 130 how Jesus embodies the answer to the lament – that Jesus experienced the sorrow and pain of loss and the longing for it all to change. In him, God has come alongside us. In him there is hope through this pain and the hope of a resurrection of our world from our present sorrows.

 

I pray for all of us that we would encounter this living God of hope in whatever we encounter in these coming weeks – in the depths, in the waiting and in the hope that is to come.

Keep us, good Lord,

under the shadow of your mercy

in this time of uncertainty and distress.

Sustain and support the anxious and fearful,

and lift up all who are brought low;

that we may rejoice in your comfort

knowing that nothing can separate us from your love

in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Amen.

 

Hamish Bruce – Sunday March 29th 2020

covid

Our Response to COVID-19 Restrictions

IMPORTANT NOTICE

 

For the time being our church building is closed.  We are unable to offer public worship on Sundays. All our usual weekday activities are also suspended.

We are meeting for worship on Mondays at 9.30 for Morning Prayer and on Sundays at 11.30, via Zoom, if you would like to join us, please email office@stjohnandststephen.org.uk and we will send you the Zoom link and password.

Additionally, you can join the Diocesan weekly Sunday service using this link

https://www.oxford.anglican.org/coronavirus-covid-19/livestream/

 

We can also, we can connect in other ways:

  • You can request prayer
  • You can ask to speak to one of the clergy
  • You can receive weekly updates

Leave a message on the church answerphone on 0118 926 3633,

or email office@stjohnandststephen.org.uk

 

Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible!