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Sermon 2 May 2021 Acts 8.26-40, John 15.1-8

Making connections

We’ve been considering what constitutes good news in our preaching recently, mainly focussing on our readings from Acts.  I’ll continue that today, but with some reference to our gospel.  What I want to consider is how the good news generates connection.  Connection.

Jesus says one of his ‘I am’ statements in our reading from John today – I am the vine. (image of vine with grapes) He emphasises that those following him must abide in him.  They/we have to be deeply connected. When we are, we bear fruit.  We can’t bear fruit on our own; ‘apart from me you can do nothing’, Jesus says.  The need to be connected is of course profoundly human and a need some of us have experienced more acutely during lockdowns, saying hello to people out in the street because they are more real than those we see on our screens, wanting a real exchange with a real person, and groaning when those words appear on our screen, ‘your internet connexion is unstable’.  It’s a stable connection we crave and this is what Jesus desires for us in our walk with him.

The book of Acts gives many examples of what a stable connection looks like, of what follows when we abide in Christ the vine, when we remain connected.  Acts show us the fruit, and perhaps never more so than in this encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch (image of Philip and the eunuch).

Philip was one of the 7 Greek speaking deacons chosen to assist the apostles.  In chapter 7 of Acts we read of what might be called the acts of Stephen, one of the other deacons, and his martyrdom, and now in chapter 8 we have the acts of Philip.  Just before his meeting with the Ethiopian Philip had been in Samaria sharing the good news.  Philip was what we might now call a pioneer minister.  Samaria was a challenging place for a Jew, but nevertheless many people responded to Philip’s message, so much so that HQ in Jerusalem sent Peter and John down to see what was happening, to follow up and deal with a spot of bother with Simon the sorcerer.  Having done his bit, as it were, Philip didn’t hang around.

Perhaps he felt drawn towards this desert road towards Gaza for some peace and quiet after all the excitement of Samaria. (We are now finally at verse 26 of chapter 8!).  I don’t know about you, but when I come across the word ‘desert’ in scripture my ears prick up. (image of the desert) The desert so often seems to be the place of encounter with God.  So, the people of Israel, led through the desert by Moses and Deborah, Isaiah prophesying to the people in exile that God is calling them to prepare his way in the wilderness (desert) to enable their return home; John the Baptist, a voice in the wilderness calling his contemporaries to get ready for Christ’s coming; Jesus, testing out his calling in the desert, and now Philip, taking a road through the desert in response to a prompting by the Spirit.  God is doing something!  Philip may have been appreciating some time alone, but soon comes the call to connect.  He probably saw the dust rising some way ahead signalling another traveller – ‘The Spirit told Philip, ‘Go to that chariot and stay near it.’

What follows is a truly remarkable story of connection. The eunuch had been to worship at Jerusalem.  As a eunuch he would not have been allowed in the temple, nor was he permitted to be a Jewish proselyte because his physical state meant that he couldn’t be circumcised.  He was what was called a God fearer, but that was as far as he could go.  He could never fully participate in the Jewish faith.  He was an African, gentile God fearer, wealthy enough to own part of the scriptures, well educated enough to read them for himself and travelling in what would have been an expensive vehicle for that time.  Really, how likely were you to meet someone like this in the desert?!

He and Philip obviously spoke the same language, presumably Greek, and so were able to connect.  They were also both familiar with this part of scripture – connection again.  Philip expresses curiosity about what the guy is reading – a great way to establish connection- and the traveller takes the risk of inviting him into his vehicle to continue the conversation.

I wonder if the passage he was reading stood out because it resonated with his own experience of being cut off, of having no descendants, being rejected and excluded from full participation in the faith towards which he was so clearly drawn? Philip could help him make the connection between his experience and a saviour who had suffered. This identification of our suffering with Jesus’ suffering continues to be a powerful draw for those going through their own desert.  It’s been a feature of our faith that has been highlighted during the pandemic – Jesus knows what it’s like to suffer.  An image of Christ suffering, sometimes referred to as ‘the man of sorrows’ (image of Christ) became especially popular in the 14th and 15th centuries and would sometimes be hung in a hospital as a way of reminding patients they were not alone in their sufferings. Those of course were the times when the pandemic known as the Plague was sweeping Europe.

Philip has obviously also spoken about baptism, because the eunuch has picked up that this is how to really belong, but will he be allowed to be baptised, given his physical state which so far has excluded him from belonging?  Surely something will prevent him? Here’s a test for our pioneer minster. As a former vicar I really feel for Philp at this point.  He couldn’t call the diocese to ask whether baptising a eunuch was ok, and if so what words should he use, and how would he record the baptism etc? This encounter takes place even before Peter has met with Cornelius and baptised him and his household.  The early church has hardly started on its journey of how far gentiles could be included in its fellowship. Back in Samaria Philip had been visited by Peter and John after his baptising there.  No chance of that here, in the desert, with a man on his return journey to a far away country.

(Image of the eunuch being baptised).  So, look at how Philip responds; he actually goes into the water with the man.  ‘Both of them went down into the water’, Luke says, as if to emphasise the point. This was the full Jesus baptism!  They stand together, connected, as Philip baptises him.  Then, his task apparently complete, Philip moves on and the eunuch continues his journey – ‘rejoicing’ – a word very much associated with the activity of the Spirit in Luke and Acts.

This encounter is recorded by Luke because it holds wisdom for the groups of Christians amongst whom his gospel and the book of Acts would circulate. So, I’d like to consider just two bits of wisdom it might hold for us (image of the congregation gathered in the church forecourt) Yes, this photo was taken before Covid. Look how close we are all standing!

The first is about being alert to your context and to where the Spirit might be leading, especially in those situations where difficulties arise.  So, you may remember that Philip had been called to be one of those ensuring that Greek speaking widows in the church were treated fairly in the distribution of food.  The Hebraic widows, it appears, were receiving more.  There was grumbling, resentment.  Peter, John and the other apostles had a problem which they solved by recruiting Philip and other Greek speaking converts. In so doing, probably without realising it, they expanded the membership base as it were so that there were people who could communicate well outside the immediate Aramaic church circle in Jerusalem, which is what we see Philip doing.  Facing up to challenges often seems to push the church outwards.  Our immediate challenge is emerging from a pandemic.  Might that move us outwards towards people or neighbourhoods we haven’t connected with before? What might be the desert corners of our church or of our own lives where the spirit is moving us towards making new connections?

The second piece of wisdom is to do with the roles of church members.  Some are called to provide a stable connection, like Peter, John and others in the Jerusalem church who remained there, even when persecution arose, and built a secure base, whilst others, like Philip the pioneer, move outwards. It’s good to acknowledge these roles and to support

one another in them, but also to be open to where we might be led next. The acts of Philip demonstrate that our calling can change.  Philp had a more defined and geographically limited role when he was organising the foodbank in Jerusalem.  Now, though, he is in the desert pioneering faith sharing with those traditionally seen as outside the community of faith.  Likewise our calling will change over the course of our lives and our role in the church will shift as we and others are open to the prompting of the Spirit.

The thing that doesn’t change is that whatever our role we all have good news to share and like Philip it may start when we are willing to draw closer to someone, to express interest or curiosity; ‘What’s that you’re reading?’ we ask, opening up a conversation.  And in all our encounters drawing on our own connection with Jesus the true vine, abiding in him.

 

Christine Bainbridge

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The resurrection that no one can stop

Acts 4: 5 The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, 6with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. 7When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, ‘By what power or by what name did you do this?’ 8Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, ‘Rulers of the people and elders, 9if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, 10let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. 11This Jesus is
“the stone that was rejected by you, the builders;
it has become the cornerstone.”
12There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.’

(Plus John 10:11-18)

I’m continuing to ask, as I asked on Easter Day, what is the Good News for us this morning?

So this is what we’re considering this morning. First, the fact of the resurrection: it’s happened – it’s OUT THERE and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it. Second: some people are going to come up against it. Third: What happens today when that righteous power that raised Jesus from the dead, meets injustice? Fourth: What is the challenge for us who live 2000 years after the resurrection? And Finally: What is the Good News for us?

Today we continue in Acts and we see Peter and John brought before the religious authorities after encountering a man who couldn’t walk, begging at one of the entrances to the temple. It’s always awkward to see somebody begging so close to a religious building. It makes us feel bad. One can hardly ignore it. It makes me recall a time when Chris and I were in Chartres Cathedral on Easter Morning. On the way into the cathedral, just at the door, there was a man begging and taken by surprise, I filed pas like everyone else, and did nothing.

But it played on my mind, and as we went out, overcoming my inward battle, I parted with the large slice of home-made pizza we had bought at the nearest boulangerie before the service had started.

Peter and John do something a whole lot more useful though. “Silver and gold I have none, but what I have I give you: in the name of Jesus Christ, stand up and walk!” At once the man’s feet and ankles are made strong; he jumps up and begins to walk. He enters the Temple we are told: ‘walking and leaping and praising God’. As a healed man he can now take part in Temple worship; he can get a job and make his way in the world. His begging days are over.

The power of the resurrection coupled with the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the believers is OUT THERE and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it. That’s the picture we see here this morning. It’s like something’s been let out of the bag and it cannot be put back in again.

The healing of the crippled man is the very next thing recorded after Pentecost. So, the resurrection life – the life of the Spirit is OUT THERE and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it. But some will try, and this is what we see in the reading from Acts.

Peter and John heal, in the name of Jesus, the man at the Beautiful Gate. When the people hear what’s happened, they run towards the scene utterly astonished, and Peter gives an impromptu sermon. At this moment, the priests, the captain of the Temple and the Sadducees come out ‘much annoyed’ (for this, read ‘steaming with fury’). They’re annoyed because of two things: Peter’s teaching the people and claiming that in Jesus there is resurrection. Not just Jesus’ resurrection but the possibility of resurrection for all.

So the religious authorities react in the way that people of power do when they’re threatened, which is: to use force and try and put the lid on it. They arrest Peter and John and put them in jail overnight. Meanwhile, the number of those that come to faith as a result of Peter’s sermon, is 5000. The following morning the prisoners are made to stand in front of the ruling elite, who enquire how they have done this healing. And we are talking about The Elite of the Jewish religion. We hear a lot about elites these days. Elites do whatever they want, with minimal regard for the consequences on ordinary people.

Many harmful readings of this episode in Acts have led to condemnation of the Jews as a people – but the New Testament shows that it is the powerful Elite, who claim to know God, whom Jesus stood against and who now stand against his followers. This is about a power struggle and about the powerful Elite sensing that something greater than them is afoot. It is difficult not to call to mind here the verdict against Derek Chauvin, the police officer who this week was charged with the murder of George Floyd, a black man who was arrested and forcefully pinned down until he literally expired.

Which leads us onto a question for today. What happens when the righteous power of the resurrection is out there, and no one can stop it, and that power encounters injustice? The short answer is: conflict. Nick Page, in his book Kingdom Fools, about the unlikely rise of the early church, says that ‘the resurrection is a political message. The early church preached resurrection. That is what Peter and John are saying to the temple powers: the man you killed came back from the dead’ (p.32).

The Roman Empire was built on the premise that if you dissented, you were got rid of. Some societies work like that still today – we know who they are; we often mention the people who live in societies like that in our prayers. But here are two disciples of Jesus, who are not theologically educated, preaching to rapt crowds and performing an astonishing sign, like the ones performed by Jesus. And it is seen as a direct challenge to the Elite.

The verdict against the police officer who killed George Floyd is a landmark moment. What was going on when the largely black crowds gathered outside the courtroom heard the verdict of guilty? They couldn’t help shouting and pumping the air because although the power of God is OUT THERE, the struggle against injustice is slow and often feels brutal. With regards to racism, the struggle is particularly highlighted at the moment. The world is crying out for justice.

This is where a lot of us might begin to squirm, because the Church of England has put its own hand up this week and the Archbishop of Canterbury has said the Church is ‘deeply institutionally racist’. Some of you will have watched the Panorama programme on Monday about this and heard the stories of Black and Ethnic minority priests in the Church of England and some of their depressing experiences. And this at the same time as a Government appointed commission has reported that the UK doesn’t have any institutionalised racism, apparently. I’ll leave you to decide what’s going on there.

The scenes of jubilation outside the courtroom where Derek Chauvin was convicted were not about glee at his suffering, but about a sense that justice had been done, and against the odds. The Black community is used to justice not being done, because the system has often let them down. I was caught up in those scenes of joy because justice is at the heart of God, and the resurrection declares that Jesus is Lord, and Lord over unjust white privilege and violence. To say Jesus is Lord, even Lord over death, is to say Jesus Christ has ultimate authority, not anyone or anything else. And that changes everything.

So, what are the challenges for us who live 2000 years after this initial release of resurrection power? I think we have to be honest and say that while the healing of the crippled man is an exciting story, normally we don’t see this kind of miraculous healing in our situations today. Perhaps we should be more expectant. Maybe our lack of expectancy is a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, it is more complex than that in the West. If we think of that first resurrection power spilling out and the transforming effect it had on the first century society we read about in Acts, we can trace a direct line to the kind of Christ-inspired works of charity, mercy and healing that most people now take for granted as being the hallmarks of civilised society. Universal education, healthcare and end of life care flow directly from the ongoing impulse to heal and save that Christ event propelled into the world, and which eventually flowed out of the monasteries and abbeys of Christian Europe into mainstream society.

In addition, in the 21st C we are rightly cautious about how we proclaim Christ as Lord because we need to find to ways to live in peace with our neighbours of other faiths. The kind of Christianity that aggressively defends orthodoxy, whilst dallying with unchecked temporal power led us at one point into the Crusades. Today the Far Right want to appropriate the English flag of St George to nationalistic ends that have nothing to do with Jesus Christ. So we might want to ask ourselves in this context, what does proclamation of the good news look like in a multi-faith society and how do we sit with the verse in Acts that declares ‘there is no other name under heaven, given among mortals by which we must be saved’?

So we have these challenges: we’re a long way historically from the resurrection and things are complicated because Christendom got tangled up with white privilege. In addition, we already have a sophisticated healthcare system and are unused to instant miraculous healing. And finally, although we want to affirm that Jesus is ‘the only name’, we are also called to humility in a multifaith setting.

So, if this miraculous healing feels like a long way off, what, then, is the good news? The Good News is that it’s still OUT THERE. The power of the resurrection is still reverberating through history and we are witnesses to it because Christ lives amongst us. That is the definition of a church – the gathered people of God, the body of Christ. Every time we meet in his name, he is present. He is present in bread and wine and in our worship and fellowship. He is present in our care one for the other; in our giving and protesting, as we try to make a difference in the world.

And he is still calling others to follow him – those who are ‘not yet in the sheepfold’, as he puts it in John 10. ‘My sheep hear my voice’.  We’re still living within the ramifications of the resurrection, both personally, whenever we are faced with loss or a seemingly hopeless situation, and corporately as we seek to work with God’s Spirit in the healing of the world he came to save. He is alive and we are witnesses to his life. As we are formed by his Spirit, others will know that he is alive and so we pray that God will bring us into fellowship with those others he is still calling.

Amen.

(image credit: BBC news website)

people walking

Sunday 18th April 2021

Resurrection: What might this word mean for us?

[flowers] It is true that we experience something of resurrection in the annual cycle of new life that is Spring. Around us we feel nature waking up – the saplings in my garden are putting out soft buds from stems that when I planted them looked like dead sticks; the sunrise gets earlier and the sunset later each day, so that we no longer wake up in darkness; the blankets are thrown off the beds; we feel warmer; our moods lift. The birds in our garden – which many of you have commented on enjoying hearing whilst we have been on Zoom, well they are in full voice, nesting and chirping away. This is, I guess, a kind of resurrection. And there is a gentle but altogether deep joy and pleasure in it that warms my bones.

[people walking] And then there are other kinds of resurrection that we’re currently beginning to experience. The three-month lockdown is easing. Yesterday, as I strolled along Broad Street shoppers were out, families were lounging on public benches. And thanks to that divine inspiration in humans that we call science, the vaccines that were developed at such a remarkable pace appear to be working, we are safer. We can go out again, we can meet up with others again. New life is coming back. This, too, feels like a kind of resurrection, and there is palpable relief and joy in it.

Of course, all these types of new or renewed life are true, but when we speak of resurrection it seems to me that we might be referring to other kinds of things, beyond these natural cycles, beyond what we could predict would eventually happen if we just waited long enough.

[Question] I wonder does anyone knows what the word ‘resurrection’ actually means?

[Answer] The word ‘resurrection’ means to stand back up again. God stands Jesus back up after he has been knocked down: God resurrects him.

And that standing back up again extended beyond the person of Jesus on that first Easter Sunday. What I personally find fascinating about that first Easter is that God stands Jesus’ followers back up, too.

[Crucifixion] In crucifying Jesus the Jerusalem authorities, afraid of what Jesus might bring about, afraid of the challenge that he might bring, had sought to knock down his followers down, too; to put them back in their place. They had hoped to discourage them from continuing to hold on the dream of God’s new Kingdom of justice and mercy, to the message that Jesus preached, to the habits of inclusion he practised. Peter and James, Mary and Martha, all of them, had been knocked down with Jesus. And they had retreated, cowed and fearful behind closed doors.

[Jimmy Lai] If we wonder what that looks like today, we need look no further than the city of Hong Kong, where the Chinese authorities are currently clearly picking off key individuals, like Jimmy Lai, owner of the pro-Democracy newspaper Apple Daily. By knocking him down, it is obvious that the authorities hope the little people will follow suit.

[Christ & disciples] But the story of Easter includes the story not just about God standing Jesus up again, it also tells us that the disciples were stood back up on their feet, too, and in a way which was remarkable. Instead of being frightened and demoralised, they were transformed into courageous, hopeful people. And we caught a glimpse of that in our reading from Acts as Peter boldly talks about the possibility of forgiveness.

Resurrection means after having been knocked down, to stand back up again.

[Risen Christ] And I’ll go further, by pointing out that standing back up again doesn’t just mean returning to the person he or she used to be before. No: something changes with resurrection: a new person stands up. Just as the risen Jesus obviously isn’t simply the same person he once was, but is now transformed; so, too, the disciples are new people. This isn’t just the same old Peter.

[Empty tomb] I have been thinking recently about this quality of newness – the sense that resurrection is not just about natural cycles of new life, like Spring, which return each year. Resurrection seems to involve for us transformation: for something new and unexpected, something joyful and surprising to happen. It is not just about an old life returning, it is about a new life taking place.

Many years ago I came across a three-stage model that tried to put a shape to this process and those of you who participated in last year’s online day of prayer might recall I talked about it in the context of the psalms. The three stages of this new life process go by the names of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation. If you’re not familiar with them, see if you recognise the three stages as I describe them.

[Orientation] We begin with orientation. We begin with life seeming normal, dependable, predictable. In this first stage things make sense and we are content with them: the world is right. We feel perfectly oriented, like knowing where we are on a map.

But then, sometimes, something will come along to disrupt this: some shocking news; a bereavement; a diagnosis; an accident; a confrontation; a disagreement; a crucifixion; a pandemic. [Disorientation] Something will come along that will shake up our old world so much that we are knocked over and so we enter the second stage: disorientation. Now we have lost our place on life’s map. We are confused, uncertain. Now nothing makes sense, the world doesn’t seem reliable or dependable at all. We feel vulnerable, we might lash out in anger or retreat in fear into the safety of small spaces, behind locked doors or various kinds, psychological and physical. We have entered disorientation.

[Reorientation] But then, slowly, carefully, there can come a third stage: when we learn how to stand back up again, and it can feel miraculous: re-orientation. We learn gradually to find our bearings again. We learn to trust the world once more. We find our place back on the map. But note: this third stage, this reorientation, is not like the stage we started out at first, for we are no longer the same people we once were. We cannot deny what we have been through during our time of disorientation. We cannot return to our naïve and simple lives. But we are older and wiser, we are more cautious but often we are more grateful – more aware of how precious and fragile what we once took for granted is. Sometimes we are freer, less tied to what we once thought was true or important.

I suspect each of us imagine ourselves into those stages. But to provide a concrete example, I’ll share the story of a friend who phoned me up out of the blue a while back during the first lock-down.

[Phone]  I’d not heard from him for over a year and I was somewhat taken aback to discover that he was ringing to give me the news that he was a recovering addict. Life had been going along fine for him when I last saw him: he’d been recently married and seemed happy. He was starting a new career that really excited him; he’d moved into a new home. He was orientated. And then I heard nothing. But what he told me was that during the time we’d lost contact he’d fallen into an addiction which, ultimately, had cost him his marriage and with it his home. He’d become very low and lost: he’d become disorientated. Eventually, I guess hitting rock bottom, he’d joined a twelve-step program based on the famous Alcoholics Anonymous model, and he had been working through the steps. And now, as we spoke on the phone he was in the process of putting his life back together. He was becoming reorientated. And this was a wiser, humbler man I was speaking to. He’d lost some of his swagger and his youthful arrogance. He was more self-aware, he was humbler; and having begun to embrace his vulnerabilities rather than hide them in his addiction, I dare say he was in fact a stronger man. He was being stood back up again, but as a new person. This was new life, not just a restored old life. And if you’re wondering, he really did attribute this to God: the AA fellowship is extremely candid about the total need for dependence on God. I realised I was listening to the story of a kind of resurrection. Well, there’s an example.

[3 beaches]  I wonder if you, too have ever been through those kind of stages? I wonder if you, too, have come out of the end of a period of deep lostness, powerlessness, failure, disaster, and have found yourself stood back up again? Experiencing the gratitude and wonder the return of life. I wonder if you have tasted the power of resurrection?

[Risen Christ] This power, this miracle of resurrection is revealed to us supremely in the story of the risen Christ being stood back up again, still bearing his wounds but alive in a new way. And that same divine transforming power can enter our lives, too, not just at the end our lives, but in the middle, whenever we have been knocked down. That power can break through to bring us freedom from fear; release from anxiety; courage to stand up again. That power can knock on the locked doors of our fear, whisper hope into faint hearts, breathe life into tiredness, and stand us back on our feet again with joy. Resurrection happens not just at Easter, but any day wherever it is needed.

Christ is risen – and wherever his power is needed let new life come – alleluia!

tomb

Easter 3, 11th April 2021

John 20:19-31: Resurrection

These things are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

 

Our gospel passage today starts on Easter Sunday, late in the evening of the first day of the Jewish week, two days after Jesus’ crucifixion.  The previous day had been Saturday, the Sabbath, when journeys and work were forbidden, so Jesus’ body had been left in the tomb as it was.  [Picture 1 The Resurrection, William Blake, www.christian.art.]  Then came Easter morning, Easter Sunday.  [2 The Holy Women at the Tomb, George Minne.] The women had been to the tomb early in the morning, and seen angels telling them that Jesus was risen (Mt 28:5, Mk 16:5, Lk 24:4).  Soon after Jesus had appeared to Mary Magdalene (Mt 28:9, Mk 16:9, Jn 20:10).  Then Cleopas and another disciple had seen Jesus in the afternoon on the road to Emmaus (Mk 16:12, Lk 24:13).  [3 Friends of the Humble (Supper at Emmaus), Léon-Augustin L’Hermitte.]  At the end of day, he had stopped for a meal with them, revealed to them who he was, and disappeared.  The two disciples had hurried back to Jerusalem to tell the others, to find Peter had also seen Jesus (v34, 1 Cor 15:5).  Then here Jesus appears to the disciples inside the house where they are staying (also Mk 16, Lk 24:36, 1 Cor 15:5).  (The accounts in the 4 gospels and 1 Corinthians are slightly different, though similar; I have put the references in the written version of the sermon, which will be on the church website.)

 

 

There is something different about Jesus: he appeared in a different form (Mk 16:12).  Even those who knew him well do not always recognise him –they were kept from recognising him (Luke 24:16).  And he ‘appears’, inside rooms, in different places.  Here Jesus appears inside a locked house.  But Jesus is real, a person with a body.  He lets people touch him, he eats.  In Acts it says he gave many convincing proofs that he was alive (1:3).

 

The doors to the house were locked because, although some of them had already seen Jesus, the disciples were confused, and afraid.  They wanted to believe, but were unsure.  And the Jewish authorities had just had Jesus killed, and would want to silence the disciples too.

 

So, perhaps not surprisingly, his first words are Peace be with you!  They had had their world shattered, the rabbi they had given up everything to follow, who they thought was the messiah, had been killed.  They were grieving, disappointed, thinking that they had got it all wrong, had even been misled.  No!  They had just misunderstood.  Be at peace!  Or rather, receive peace, peace from God, peace from Jesus, the peace of the Holy Spirit.  And he gives them the Holy Spirit, Receive the Holy Spirit.  Fully understood only a couple of months later, at Pentecost, but this was to be the underpinning of the church.

 

This is where the church starts: As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.  It would be this small number of disciples that took the gospel out to the world, to billions of people, so that now there are hundreds of millions of Christians, and about a third of the world are in Christian countries.

 

Jesus’ words on his appearance are part of his commission to his disciples, like the Great Commission at the end of Matthew, but in the other gospels too.  I think this is where the rather odd words about forgiveness of sins fit in: If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.  It seems out of tune with other parts of scripture to say that that God delegates his judgement to fallible humans, even the apostles, though more high-church people may say this is the basis of priestly forgiveness after confession.  There are apparently some complex tenses here (those whose sins you forgive have already been forgiven – note in NIV).  Christ’s death and resurrection is the means by which we receive forgiveness of sins, through which we can come to God.  In this resurrection appearance, Jesus is declaring that this forgiveness is available.

 

Which is why the resurrection is so important.  It shows who Jesus really was.  This is why the early Christians preached the resurrection.  In our first reading from Acts 2 it said With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.  Later on, when Paul was preaching to the Greeks, his hearers thought he was talking about multiple gods, Jesus and Anastasis (Acts 17:18 – resurrection in Greek is Anastasis, from which we get the name Anastasia).

 

[4 Doubting Thomas.]  Thomas was not there.  Doubting Thomas would not believe the others; it was too incredible.  Then, a week later, Jesus appears again, and Thomas is present this time.  I am a little surprised that Thomas does not get a ticking off for his unbelief.  The two disciples on the road to Emmaus were told How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken (Lk 24:25).  But no, Jesus gently lets Thomas see and touch him, and come to accept what he thought was too good to be true.  It is a kind response, presumably what Thomas needed.

 

[1] Resurrection.  It is the heart of the gospel.  It is in all the creeds.  Christianity is not just a philosophy, good ideas to live by.  It is God’s incarnation as a human, his death for us, attested by this as a real historical event.  Jesus’ words, teaching, his life, show us God, but faith is rooted in one event: Jesus was raised from the dead.  Through this comes forgiveness.  Through this God gives us his peace.  Through this comes the Holy Spirit to be in us and with us.  Through Jesus’ new life comes our new life.

 

These things are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

 

 

Jeremy Thake

St. John & St. Stephen.

 

 

Acts 2

32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34 that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.

 

John 20

19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

 

24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

 

26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 27 Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ 28 Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ 29 Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

 

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

 

New Revised Standard Version, Anglicized

 

 

donkey

Sermon Palm Sunday 2021

Mark 11.1-11

I couldn’t help but notice parallels between the events of Palm Sunday and our return to our church building this morning.  Just like those Jews entering Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday, eager to celebrate their most important festival, the Passover, here we are at the start of Holy Week anticipating the celebration of our most important festival.  The crowd would have been looking forward to worshipping in the temple in Jerusalem, just as we have been looking forward to being in our church again.  Perhaps, too, we may note resonances between recent events in this country around crowds meeting for public demonstrations in London and Bristol, with the arrival of a noisy and possibly disruptive crowd in the capital city of Israel. Would the authorities have viewed this crowd as causing an ‘annoyance’ to use the language of the new Police and Crime Bill?  The ‘authorities’ in Jesus’ day would have been the Sadducees who were in charge of the temple and religious business generally in the city, and the Roman governor and his soldiers.  Then there were the Pharisees, the legal experts.

All these groups, and the crowd following Jesus, and his disciples would have been viewing the events of Palm Sunday from their own particular standpoint.  I want to suggest, however, that they all had one thing in common, and that was how they understood power and authority.  I went into Boots recently to buy a face mask, and couldn’t see any.  So I asked one of the staff to show me.  Leading me right to the back of the store she pointed to a stand labelled ‘Face Masks’.  I was puzzled by the variety – some were strawberry flavoured, others melon or rose and yet another ‘Easy peel’.  Then I realized I was looking at a different kind of face mask – a beauty product! -We’d used the same words but with different meanings.

There’s something of that going on in Mark’s account of Palm Sunday and the events of Holy Week. Jesus had spoken a great deal about the kingdom of God – ‘the kingdom of God is near’ are the first words of his ministry according to Mark and the kingdom of God runs like a thread through his teaching.  Jesus tries to explain through parables and other ways that this kingdom is different from how they might usually understand the term; kingdom of God is a kind of shorthand for naming God’s way of doing things, a way that’s different from ours.  However, rather as with face masks, the word kingdom triggered a different response in the disciples and the crowd. Just before entering Jerusalem James and John had asked Jesus if they could have the top jobs in his kingdom when it finally arrived.  They were obviously anticipating some kind of political coup.  All the disciples had failed to understand when Jesus had warned them that he would suffer and die in Jerusalem. Even arriving on a donkey and so indicating that his entry was not that of a conquering hero didn’t shift this misconception.

The Sadducees and Pharisees who appear later in the week in Mark’s narrative may also have been anticipating some show of power as Jesus appears with a whole crowd of followers.  The Sadducees would have been alarmed at his presence in the temple; the heart of Jewish religious practice, this was their domain.  A symbol of God’s presence and power.  The only place where Passover could be properly celebrated.   A fanatical mob (as they might have seen it) appearing there might result in a clampdown by the Roman authorities as well as a challenge to their own position as guardians of Israel’s most sacred place.

The Pharisees were probably nervous about Jesus’ authoritative interpretation of the whole body of Jewish teaching contained in the Torah.  With his popular following he could easily undermine the control they had over what constituted orthodox belief and practice.

So, the disciples, the crowd, the Sadducees, the Pharisees – they all had a similar understanding of power, of authority and of how it was most likely to be exercised.  They had failed to grasp Jesus’ own understanding.  Nevertheless, ironically, they were right in anticipating, in the case of the crowd and the disciples, some kind of imminent victory and in the case of the Sadducees and Pharisees an overturning of traditions they were jealously guarding.

Mark conveys this irony in his tightly woven account of the Passion and events leading up to it.

He couldn’t make any clearer Jesus’ own understanding of kingdom, authority and power than in the choice of encounters he includes in the section before his account of Palm Sunday (Mark 10.13-end) – Jesus blessing children and saying ‘The Kingdom of God belongs to such as these, the words to the rich and very godly young ruler, ‘One thing you lack, go sell everything you have and come, follow me, the prediction to the twelve of his betrayal, arrest, being handed over, his death and resurrection, his quiet reproof to James and John and the others that he is a leader who has come to serve and give his life rather than lord it over others, and then finally the encounter with Bartimaeus, a beggar who knows he is blind and seeks healing; the implication being that it would be good if the  disciples could do the same and see well enough, like Bartimaeus, to follow Jesus in the Way – a way that exercises power and authority through sacrifice and service, rather than by lording it over others.  A way that is ultimately vindicated by the events of Easter morning.

When Jesus gets into the city of Jerusalem he goes straight to the temple, straight for the jugular, we might say; and of course the next day he drives out those buying and selling there.  It’s perhaps worth noting that Jesus’ harshest words are directed towards those exercising religious power, rather than political power like the Romans.

Let’s imagine for a moment Jesus entering our temple, our church here, and looking round.  What would he see? A group of people who, as Hamish pointed out last week, have entered more fully into the truth that church is much more than a holy building.  We’ve continued to be a body of believers in spite of physical separation from our sacred space and from one another.  Unlike the Sadducees, we’ve subverted any idea that the temple, the sacred building, is the only holy place where true worship can be offered.  We’ve done it through Zoom, papers through letter boxes, doorstep conversations, Facebook, phone calls, WhatsApp….  Jesus had referred to the temple being destroyed and later being raised up – meaning his own body rather than the building.  So as he looks round at us this morning I wonder what he anticipates might be raised up in us, the church as his Body in this place, as we continue through this pandemic?

I hope he might anticipate fruitfulness because we’ve had to die to whole lot of ways of doing things.  Our gospel last week was about a seed needing to fall into the ground and die before it can bear fruit.  Unless it dies, Jesus says, it remains alone, and Jesus’ own death and resurrection bears witness to that truth. As he had been explaining earlier, he was offering his life as a ransom for many.  So, for us too, whatever new life is emerging for our church is a gift not only to those within our current membership but to the many well outside it.  How might we look out for more ways of sharing that gift with others?

When Jesus cleanses the temple he says that the temple is to be a house of prayer for all nations; it’s as though Jesus breaks open those jealously guarded traditions or boundaries or habits we religious people maintain that can make joining in hard for those not in the loop.  We may be invited to sit more lightly to some of these things in order to make space for others. Sacrifices may be required.  Being a house of prayer for all nations doesn’t come easily.

Our palm crosses remind us of sacrifice.  We know, though, that sacrifice is not the last word.  After the cross comes resurrection. Jesus’ way of exercising power, his death on the cross, releases a huge source of energy leading to life in all its fulness, a life intended for the many, not just for the special few.  I invite you, as we enter Holy Week to enter more deeply into the wisdom of the cross.  Stick close to Jesus each day.  Perhaps hold your palm cross to remind you to do this.  It may help to read straight through Mark chapters 11 to 15 and then work through a short section of the same narrative each day this week, saving chapter 16 for Easter Day.  Reading aloud can help and for some people picturing whatever is happening can also deepen our understanding.

Let us pray

Lord Jesus, may we follow your way, the way of the cross, and bear fruit that will be a source of life for many.  Amen

 

Christine Bainbridge                                         28 March 2021

waiting

Sunday 21st March 2021

A year on – waiting and hope

 

I thought I would begin this morning by sharing an inspiring message from the Methuselah Tower of Prayer Baptist Church….

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AYP1mXqiwqc

 

That ‘sermon’ was actually from the American comedy series Saturday Night Live. I don’t think we have ever had as many problems as encountered there, but what a  technical journey we’ve been on as a church over this last year, haven’t we? Who would have imagined we would all have become experts in using the Zoom machine, not only in muting and unmuting microphones but also using breakout rooms, chat box, Mentimeter and so much more!

I’ve followed the advice Claire suggested last week to ‘press the pause button’ and give ourselves a moment to reflect on some of the experiences we have encountered as a church over this last year. And this will be much more of a reflection than a full-blown sermon. I am also very aware that a sizeable part of our congregation is missing from Zoom, so I do look forward to returning to church to ask them too about their experiences of this last year.

 

It was almost exactly a year ago, on March 29th to be precise, when I last preached. It was one of our first Zoom services and the sermon, based on Psalm 130, was given the title ‘How long shall we sing this song? I’d like to take two of the themes from that sermon, as we look back at our shared experience and look forward to the imminent return to our church building: the themes of waiting and hope.

 

WAITING

I wonder if you are the kind of person, like me, who loves to plan ahead and make lists –  and lists of lists? I looked back at our calendar in January 2020 and all the events we had for that month: a Scamping Rogues gig, baby shower, dental appointments, guys’ drinks, book club, our son Jonny going back to Czech Republic, and this obscure one that says ‘Lorna – sausage casserole at 5pm’. And then comparing it to this year’s calendar where we had two appointments, both of which were cancelled.

This is one of the areas I have found most difficult and painful during this year: the inability to plan ahead, of not knowing when I can see my parents and children again, of when we can meet for a cuppa or a pint in someone’s garden.

 

As Richard reminded us in his sermon last month, waiting is a frequent theme in the Bible. He recounted the story of Abraham and Sarah and the promise of God that he would bless them with a child. And even though they were of a great age, they had to wait over twenty years for this promise to be fulfilled.
Our Old Testament reading today from Jeremiah is full of hope of a new covenant and a new way of life to come, but God’s people were to wait hundreds of years for its fulfilment in Jesus.

 

I’ve often fallen into the trap of considering waiting as being passive, a bit like waiting for a bus into town – that waiting is an act of killing or wasting time between worthwhile activities. It can certainly be very painful and difficult, but it can also lead to a time of growth: of deeper understanding of ourselves, each other and of God. During this last year, the church family has helped me keep going when I have struggled and given a taste of that community that I’ve missed so much. I’d like to thank you all, particularly for three areas that I’ve valued immensely during this time, where I feel we have grown more in our own understanding of God and each other.

 

The first is our Shared creativity. We are so blessed in our church to have people who have offered their creative gifts during this year. Thinking back over the year, we’ve celebrated so much of our God-given spark of creativity. You may remember the Christian Aid and Christmas cabarets, with puppetry, poetry and music. But there have been so many other ways we’ve shared too – through gardening, cooking, acting, film criticism, Peter’s Emmaus blog, and of course the numerous photos and videos on Facebook. How can we encourage this spark of creativity to flourish in our church and community when we return to our church building?

 

The second area is our church’s support and fellowship

I don’t know about you, but I have been constantly surprised by the kindness of strangers during this year: from the warm greetings on walks, letters and messages sent to us asking if we needed support, clapping for the NHS and more.

And in church too this kindness and support has been evident in so many ways: in buying food for those who can’t go to the local shops, going for socially distanced walks together, spending time online listening and caring for others, taking round printed out sermons and notices to those who would otherwise miss out, spending hours cleaning and preparing the church, weeding the courtyard garden, or getting on your bike to deliver ashes for the Ash Wednesday service.

I’ve also valued the breakout rooms in our services. I’m naturally a shy introvert and often hide behind a musical instrument at the end of a church service. I’ve valued being able to meet and chat to so many people before and after our online services. How do we ensure in future we make these opportunities to talk to those we don’t know well, when we return to a church building without social distancing rules?

 

The third area is in our shared spirituality

Another thing I’ve valued in our Zoom services is how we have been able to pray in a different way with and for each other. I’ve found the Chat prayers to be deeply moving and helpful to read and pray during our services and to use them during the week to continue praying for our church. How can we continue this richness of prayer once we return to the church building?

 

But there have been other ways that I feel we have grown spiritually as a church. I’ve valued the sermons that have been shared with us and the way our preachers have worked so hard to engage people through this Zoom machine! We have also adapted to running children’s groups, homegroups, morning prayer and even sharing meals together online, as we will do so again on Maundy Thursday.

I wonder what has been meaningful to you over this last year in our online church worship? And what would you like to see continue as we move back to our church building?

 

This time of waiting as a church certainly hasn’t been one of standing still and killing time. Amongst all the challenges, pain and problems we have encountered this year, there is so much to be thankful for in the creativity we’ve shared, the support given and received and the growing depth in prayer and spirituality.

 

 

HOPE

Alongside the theme of waiting, the other theme from last March’s sermon was on hope.

I’m not sure if you are one of those kinds of people who keeps up to date on all the different world days and festivals, which nowadays seem to cover everything under the sun. To prove this point, this week on Thursday is the world day of waffle making in Sweden. So  if you want an excuse to indulge in a waffle, you have your opportunity! More importantly, this weekend is the celebration of one of the oldest festivals in the world, dating back over three thousand years. This is the Festival of Nowruz, the Persian New Year. It celebrates the beginning of spring, of purification and starting again. During this festival enormous eggs are painted and displayed and homes are spring cleaned in preparation for a fresh start to a new season. Both of our readings today look forward to a new hope and a new season. In Jeremiah we heard of the new covenant, the new start between God and his people. It has emerged after years of suffering, injustice and pain. And in our gospel reading, Jesus hints to his disciples of how through suffering and death there is new life and hope.

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’ The hope of Easter is just around the corner for all of us.

 

I wonder what has sustained and given you hope during this last year?  One of the things that helped me were the expertly curated poems that Stephen faithfully sent out to us for much of the year.

One of my work colleagues, Preethi Alice Jacob , runs a poetry website called Find my rest my soul (findrestmysoul.net). Her passion for writing poetry is particularly meaningful for her as it came much later in life, without any formal training. I’d like to finish this reflection by sharing a poem she originally wrote in January for a new year, but perhaps is as relevant now for us as we enter this new season.

 

Lord, as into this new year I step

My heart is heavy, my feet are cold.

I, Lord, tend to worry and to mope

Often finding it difficult to hope.

 

And yet, Lord as I turn and look back

Over the year I have just left behind

I remember your presence ever near

Faithfully through times of joy and tear.

 

Furthermore, this Lord for sure I know

You our Sovereign Lord, you alone

The Grand Weaver, you remain in control, absolutely

Weaving a tapestry of breath-taking beauty.

 

And so Lord, as into this new year I step,

With my questions, fears and doubts.

I choose to trust and, on this truth, I stand

That you hold my world in your loving hand.

 

Preethi Alice Jacob

From https://findrestmysoul.net/2021/01/01/choose-to-stand/

 

 

Hamish Bruce

21/03/21

 

wilderness 2

February 28th 2021, 2nd Sunday in Lent

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16. Mark 8:31-end

A new name for everyone

 

It’s the second Sunday in Lent. Not exactly Christmas day, is it? The ‘fun’ of Ash Wednesday is behind us, Palm Sunday is weeks away when the pace picks up again, and Easter – it’s like, years away. My Lenten resolve is just about holding up but the temptation to replace the water in this wine glass with something that comes out of a bottle with a cork in it is quite strong now.

 

I’m inspired to use our OT reading from Genesis 17 today. It’s about an elderly couple – very elderly, in their nineties! – Abram and his wife Sarai. Old people usually move quite slowly, which seems to fit the pace of Lent.  It’s all about covenant­ – that is, the promise God made to Abram and Sarai, that he would bless them, cause them to have a child despite their great age, and through them, to bless all nations of the world (Genesis 12:3). It’s a promise they had been waiting to be fulfilled for 20 odd years. We too are even included, embraced by that promise of blessing through one of his offspring, born a couple of thousand years down the road from Abram and Sarai, by the name of Jesus. And did you notice, because I didn’t at first, that everyone in this story gets a new name? Abram – exalted father – becomes Abraham – the father of many; Sarai – Princess – becomes Sarah – My Princess; and God, the Lord, is named for the first time in the Bible in verse 1 as El Shaddai – which is often translated as ‘God most high’ but might also mean ‘God of the mountains’. That’s why we sang that beautiful song, El Shaddai, after the passage was read. So, God gains a new name along with his covenant partners. It feels a bit like this… “I, El Shaddai, take you, Abraham and Sarah….”

 

Let’s stick with names for a moment. Often, names in the Bible really mean something like they did here. Abram’s new name, Abraham, father of many, contained the promise that a whole nation was going to come from him. We tend not to think so much about that nowadays, but I wonder if there is anything to discover here? Think about it: our parents gave us the names they did for a reason – however trivial it may seem! And they gave us our names in love. Did they subtly intuit what name would fit us? When we who are parents name our children, do we do that? What moved us? God’s grace is always at work. I was thinking about my own name, the other day. Richard. Never been terribly struck by the name, to be honest, and it’s not in the Bible! It means ‘strong ruler’ and of course people think of Richard the Lionheart. Not much there, I think, for me. Then I remembered while I was just daydreaming a song that my parents sometimes sang around the house, really as a bit of a joke: ‘Open the door, Richard! Open the door, Richard, and let me in!’ It’s practically a quote from that verse in Revelation 3:20, with my name in it, where Jesus says, ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice, and opens the door, I will come in’. Was that an invitation, waiting for me, hidden inside a popular song of the time? Then I remembered the famous prayer of St Richard of Chichester, immortalized in the musical Godspell: “Day by day, Dear Lord, of thee three things I pray: To see thee more clearly, Love thee more dearly, Follow thee more nearly, Day by Day.An invitation and a prayer hidden in my name: whether this is just random or a subtle God-given gift I don’t know; but it touched me and spoke to me, so what’s not to like? Perhaps you might like to reflect on your name, however much you love it or hate it. What does it say? Is it in the Bible and if so, does the person who shares your name relate to you at all? If it’s not in the Bible, like my name, then do some daydreaming and association. Maybe there’s something there. If you really hate your name, think about that: why? Does it reflect something that you don’t like about you, or you wish you were more like that? Let whatever it is speak to you. It’s just a thought. There might not be much there, but then, there might be!

 

But Abram got a new name. Not quite the name he started with. Sometimes people don’t like their names and take a new one; or choose their middle name, if they have one. If you did that, why did you choose your new name? What did it say about you? There are people who are given or receive new names when they adopt a new role. Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio took the name of Francis when he became Pope. Why? Because he wanted to signal his commitment to the poor of the world. I suspect he prayed much over this and felt that this choice was actually God’s leading. His name embodied his mission. It’s not always the case, of course. But consider this, what would you choose to change your name to, if you wanted to? Thinking about that might be a way of getting in touch with your deepest desires about yourself: who would you like to be; or more profoundly, who God wants you to be.

 

When we meet someone, and develop a relationship with them, learning their name might be the first thing we learn, but from there our relationship builds. So it was with Abraham. He had a relationship with God. In fact, God started it and called him by name. This idea of relationship with God: the ability to speak with him, hear him, walk with him, be loved by him and love him in return is central to biblical faith. Of course, it reaches its clearest expression in the gospels where real live ordinary women, men and children met with, talked with, ate with, touched, embraced, loved the human Jesus. A relationship with Jesus – as simple and straightforward as that. We are all invited into that relationship. This period of Lent can be a time to examine that relationship – how’s it doing? Holding up? In need of a reboot? There are tons of resources available to help, and some of those resources are some of us! You might like to speak to Claire if you would like to explore the possibility of meeting with someone to talk about your relationship with God. If you’re looking for something to literally plug in, the Pray as you go app is an absolute winner. You’ll find it in Google Play or the Apple App store for your phone, or on your computer. 12 minutes a day.

 

Interestingly, there’s a couple of bits in Genesis 17 that the compilers of the lectionary left out. Verses 9-14 give a graphic account of the practice of male circumcision, which was Abraham’s part of the bargain. When I was 12, in my first year at secondary school, during an RE class, a boy named Fox asked our very scary headmaster, Mr Eagling, or ‘Crip’ as he was known, “Please sir, what is circumcision?” Mr Eagling drew himself up to his full height and boomed in a voice that brooked no dissent, “It is a cut around the middle!” Which, if anything, implied something much scarier than the reality (or maybe not!). Anyway, the point I’d like to draw out here is that it was a mark on his body. The covenant was literally inscribed on Abraham’s body. There was no imposition of this on Sarah, but she is included in the covenant, signalled by the change of name.  Allow me to spool out the thought of inscription of God’s promise on the body to all of us irrespective of gender. The ‘Christian equivalent’ of circumcision is baptism – it is the sign of entry into the Kingdom, and in the case of children, a name is given – back to the original theme! And baptism is something done to the body.

 

There are many ways that our physical selves can kind of take part in and literally embody this relationship (PS – another word, a synonym for embody is incarnate – think about that!). Raising your hands in worship and dancing are often part of charismatic prayer and worship – they are great examples of bringing the body to God.  So is kneeling to pray: my own experience here is that it actually makes it easier to pray – I like to use a prayer stool. Putting your body in that position, which is one of humility, can help bring the heart and mind into the same place. The practice of crossing yourself can be quite powerful – it’s a prayer acted out by the body as we place the sign of the cross over our hearts. Perhaps sometimes it’s the only prayer we can manage. Pilgrimage is another way that our bodies can engage with God: the act of walking or moving from one place to another with holy intent. Putting ourselves into a physical journey as a way of engaging with the interior, spiritual journey. Abraham and Sarah had plenty of that, journeying around the Middle East from Ur of the Chaldees to the land of Canaan.

 

The other bit that the lectionary missed out was this: ‘I will give you a son by Sarah…then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, can a child be born to a man who is 100 years old?? (verses 15-22). Any of us might well laugh! This is about doubt. If the circumcision reading was left out to spare our blushes, was Abraham falling over with laughter left out because we’re not meant to doubt? All of us have doubts about our faith. It’s not wrong. Abraham had them! The lovely thing here is that God still blessed him. God is bigger, much bigger than our doubts.

 

Well, all of that seems quite a long way from an elderly couple who lived four or five thousand years ago but hey, join the dots, we’re connected with them. We thought about names – what our own names might mean or say to us; and then we considered what name we would choose for ourselves today, and how that might reflect our aspirations. Then we moved from names to relationship, specifically with God, and wondered about taking a rain check on how that’s going at the moment. Finally, moving swiftly on from male circumcision we thought about ways that we could honour God with our bodies, to quote St Paul (1 Corinthians 6:20). And finally we saw how Abraham really doubted what God said would happen. And still got blessed! Here’s a wild thought – we might like to chat about some of this in our breakout groups? Crazy, I know.

 

Richard Croft

 

 

indiana jones

First Sunday in Lent. 21.02.21 by Rev. Claire Jesus’s Temptations

Mark 1:9-15

How can temptation be Good News?

SERMON starts with a video Clip: ‘Only the penitent man’, from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MxPdqbmYi8U

You may have recognised the clip, from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Indiana, aka Harrison Ford, has to pass three tests that others have failed, at the cost of their lives. If he doesn’t pass these tests and get to the Holy Grail his mortally wounded father will die. The way ahead is littered with the corpses of those who have presumed to know how to find the Holy Grail. The first clue from the battered notebook is ‘only the penitent man will pass’. At the last moment, he suddenly falls to his knees and avoids the deadly slicing wheels that would’ve cut ofF his head. The penitent man is humble before God; getting to his knees has, literally, saved him.

Lent is a penitential season and today is the first Sunday in Lent. I don’t know about you but it’s beginning to feel as though we’ve been a whole year in some sort of wilderness, given that we were just into Lent when we went into lockdown last year.

At times like these I’m grateful for the shape of the liturgical year. When days and weeks merge into each other and working from home and being at home don’t feel very different, we can at least look to the church year as a framework for our worship and reflection.

The reason for liturgical seasons, is that by marking the significant events of the life of Jesus Christ, we rehearse the Christ-event over and over again and make ‘chronos’ time into ‘Kairos’ time.

By that I mean that the ordinary passing of time gains some spiritual significance as we remember and rehearse the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus. Kairos time is God’s time and it shapes us.

So, we rehearse the incarnation at Christmas and Epiphany. We recall the start of Jesus’ ministry as Epiphany leads us through his baptism and his first miraculous sign. The temptations of Jesus mark the beginning of Lent; his Passion is rehearsed in Holy Week and his resurrection at Easter. Ascension follows, and six weeks later, Pentecost – the outpouring of his Spirit on the first disciples.

So by the passing of liturgical time, we live the life of Jesus from start to finish and beyond. There’s an older liturgy in use in some places for Ash Wednesday, where the congregation pray to God to be delivered, or forgiven, or perhaps even saved. The response is good Lord, deliver us and you may even have prayed this prayer in other Ash Wednesday services.

It’s an interesting prayer because it traces a path through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, just like the liturgical year. It is in four couplets and the first says:

‘By the mystery of your holy incarnation;

By your birth, childhood and obedience;

By your baptism, fasting and temptation,

Good Lord, deliver us’.

 

I’ve always liked the prayer because it suggests that our deliverance (by which I take to mean our forgiveness, or salvation) is achieved, not just through Jesus’ death, as we often sing, but through his life as well. We’re saved as much by his life as by his death. It’s an interesting angle, and one which you might want to sit with for a bit, if it’s not so familiar with you.

 

How has Jesus brought for us salvation, healing and forgiveness? By his incarnation, birth, childhood, obedience, baptism, fasting and temptation, as well as the other, more obvious events of his death and resurrection (which the prayer goes on to mark too).

 

By all his life, we are delivered. It means that the temptation of Christ in the wilderness, which the gospel alludes to this morning (although being Mark, it’s a brief allusion) is fully part of our deliverance.

 

What does this really mean? How can Jesus’ own temptations be part of our salvation? It must have something to do with his humanity. Is it heresy to say we are as much saved by his humanity as we are by his divinity? I’m not entirely sure, but that’s the angle this morning!

 

The idea that we are saved just as much by his temptations as by his death and resurrection I find strangely comforting. His temptations are Good News! If we stay a few moments with this idea, I wonder if we can all catch hold of that comfort too? Can it really be Good News that Jesus was tempted?

 

How can Jesus’ temptations be part of our own healing? Firstly, to clarify terms, we use a lot of religious words in church and there’s often not a single meaning to any of them – they tend to carry multiple meanings. So: sin, salvation, sanctification, repentance, penitence, healing, wholeness. In Lent we traditionally use words like repentance, penitence, confession, fasting. All things that address our fallenness and signpost us towards forgiveness and holiness.

 

But sometimes these words can accuse us in ways that are not appropriate. Yes, we are sinners, and we say the confession every week (and a stiffer one in Lent) but we are also ‘in Christ’ and therefore ‘there is no condemnation’. We find it hard to imagine that even as sinners, we are also beloved children of God. How do you feel when you sit before God in silence? Do you feel his gaze of love, or do you imagine God being rather dissatisfied, or even cross with you?

 

I’ve been having an extended conversation about Christianity with a friend who has stopped going to church. They described to me the images they had picked up from Sunday worship.

 

In this set of images, God is the headmaster; the bible is the book of rules; the vicar is the teacher and the Church Wardens are the prefects. If you believe the wrong things you go to hell; if you believe the right things you go to heaven. If you go off piste to explore different ways to be a healthy human being, you are met with puzzlement.

 

My guess is that she isn’t the only person to have been put off God by an over emphasis on how sinful we all are, and unworthy and full of shame. It’s not a very healthy image to dwell on. The language of sin is difficult to use with wounded people, people who have suffered trauma and people who have mental health problems, which is a large proportion of the young (and a not insignificant number of us).

 

On the other hand, society is interested in concepts of health and wholeness. It’s here that we can meet other people who are seeking these things. Especially after the effects of lockdown become more and more apparent, we might increasingly be involved in thinking with others about health and wholeness. But as Christians we will know that sin and salvation, healing and wholeness CANNOT BE SEPARATED.

 

So what is temptation? To be tempted is to come face to face with the depths of yourself. It’s a lot more subtle than ‘can you give up chocolate for 6 weeks?’ If we fast from something over Lent just for its own sake, all that will happen is that we’ll end up with a little bit of spiritual pride that we didn’t have before (but perhaps a healthier waste line).

 

Our challenge therefore is to know, as Jesus had to, what form our temptations take. There may be several. They probably change over time. It’s much easier to say the general confession and much harder to know explicitly what your areas of wounding are. Because we all have different strengths and weaknesses.

 

It wouldn’t be so hard, for example, for me to give up chocolate for a while – as a child I competitively saved Easter eggs so that I could crow about still having some left when all my siblings had eaten theirs. I got a perverse kick out of self-denial and I wanted to win. There’s a bit of spiritual pride for you. One of my other temptations is to fend for myself – even when the Spirit is saying ‘reach out because I am generous’, I am saying ‘I don’t believe you’re generous so I’m going to hoard my resources because I’m the only person I can really trust’. That would be one of my temptations: trust only myself. There’s a bit of healing needed there.

 

 

To identify where you need healing, think: when you let the Holy Spirit lead you into your alone time with God (as Jesus did) to face the crux of who you are, what happens? Does God look on you and say ‘well, at last this sinner has come clean and realised just how bad they really are’? Or does God look on you as a loving parent would and say: ‘it’s great we’re here together; I’ve been longing to lift off that heavy thing that’s weighed you down for so long’?

 

I wonder if salvation, sanctification and healing are much closer than we imagine? Linguistically they are basically the same thing. That’s why the Good News is more than just a feel- good moment. Christ offers forgiveness when we fall, which is our ongoing sanctification. AND it feels like healing. We are saved by Christ; we are being saved (made whole) by Christ and we will finally be saved (safe) with Christ.

 

So, the Good News this morning is that Jesus faced his temptations so that we can face ours. He faced himself so we can do the same. We are loved, not condemned. And the promise of God is that he draws us into deeper fellowship, especially through Lent, and this is for our salvation and healing and for the healing of everyone we meet.

 

As Mother Julian of Norwich said: First there is the fall, and then there is the recovery from the fall. Both are the mercy of God.’

 

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

valentines

Sermon 14 February

2 Kings 2.1-12, Mark 9.2-9

Today is the last Sunday before Lent starts.  Given the rigours of lockdown and Covid I decided not to talk about giving up things or denying ourselves; just accepting that we are where we are is giving us plenty of opportunities for that this year.

This happens to be a multi tasking Sunday where celebrations are concerned; not only is it the Sunday next before Lent, but it’s Valentine’s Day, it’s the day when friends in our link diocese of Växjö in Sweden celebrate their patron saint – St Sigfrid -, it’s Racial Justice Sunday, and Green Christian would like us to mark Valentine’s Day by expressing some love for planet earth!  We marked Racial Justice Sunday towards the end of last year when Ian spoke to us, and we’ll be marking the need for climate justice on a Sunday early in March, so I won’t be specifically referring to those.  The theme on which I’d like to focus today is friendship which may touch on all these concerns anyway.  Let’s begin with Valentine’s Day (picture).

Valentines day, taking place just as Spring is starting, new life is beginning to appear, yet it’s still pretty dark and cold. Valentine’s Day is partly a distraction from winter, but also ties in with the rhythms of life here in the northern hemisphere.  As we start to emerge from winter, with spring on the horizon, our thoughts may well turn to romantic love, or lust for that matter – ‘in the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love’, as Tennyson puts it.  A young woman’s fancy might as well!  There is a reaching out for relatedness, for something that takes us out of ourselves, out of winter into Spring.  Romantic love may be a great start to a relationship but it’s often friendship that helps it to last, enabling us to see the beloved through ordinary spectacles as well as rose tinted ones.  Friendship between lovers.

Now St Sigfrid (show picture of his statue) – I’ve spoken about him before – an English monk from York who set out with a group of monks and his three nephews in the 11th century to take the gospel to Sweden. He is said to have built the first church in what is now Växjö diocese.  This statue of him stands outside Växjö cathedral in Småland.  The bonds between him and his group of monks and his nephews must have been strong to keep them together through the hardships of travel, climate and the opposition that they would have experienced.  I suspect there was real friendship there.  Friendship between colleagues.  Friendship between family members.

And now what we call the Transfiguration, offering another insight into friendship(Icon)

Our readings this morning are there to encourage us as we enter 40 days of Lent, and start to anticipate the cross.  Immediately before the transfiguration Jesus has been explaining to a group of his disciples that he must suffer death and then rise again – something they failed to understand.  Now he’s taking three of them – Peter, James and John up a mountain, a setting associated with encounters with God.  It’s as though he’s pulling back a curtain so they might see what has led to his understanding of who he is and what he is called to do.  He’s sharing this mystery with his friends.  He wants them to understand.  There’s Elijah on his left who climbed a mountain when he was running away from Queen Jezebel and who heard there the still small voice encouraging him to return and telling him what to do.  Jesus is letting his friends know that he stands in that prophetic tradition and prophets always face opposition.  Moses the law giver is on his right.  Moses, you may remember, spoke with God face to face, after which his own face would shine with light.  Moses went up a mountain to receive the 10 commandments, mediating a covenant between God and Israel.  Like Moses, Jesus will be mediating a covenant, but this will be a new kind of covenant that involves laying down his life.  The voice from heaven makes clear that although Jesus stands in the line of the prophets and of Moses he is greater than both, being God’s Beloved Son.  The dazzling light around Jesus also makes this point.  We see Peter, James and John almost literally blown away by this revelation at the bottom of the icon.  (icon goes down)

And this revelation is offered to us as we face Lent.  In Mark’s account Peter, James and John still don’t get it; not until they look back after the resurrection.  Even though Jesus probably knew that they wouldn’t get it he still shares this experience with them.  He treats them as close friends.

One of the bishops in my last diocese used to talk about the different people around Jesus.  There was the crowd – often mentioned, sometimes of considerable size, but not necessarily committed.  On the edge, as it were.  Turning up whenever Jesus appeared, but not actually following him around.  Then there was another group, a fair size, who were committed enough to follow him much of the time, but did not necessarily share a communal life with him.  They are referred to simply as ‘the disciples’. Then there were the 12 – those closest to Jesus and known to us by name, who ate with him, stayed wherever he stayed.  And then the three closest, Peter, James and John, who feature in our gospel account today.  We might say that the crowd had a passing acquaintance with Jesus, while the groups of disciples were his friends, but in varying degrees of closeness.  He would teach them, explain the parables to them, but only with his closest friends would he share glimpses of his identity as God’s son and also of his human vulnerability.  In so doing he was inviting them into his own intimate relationship with God the Father.

The gospels were written for the encouragement of those, like you and me, who want to follow Jesus.  At the start of Lent we might think of where we would place ourselves at present.  Perhaps in the crowd, an observer, not stepping forward, but drawn to Jesus, curious about him.  Or part of that large group of disciples, hanging out with Christ, following him most of the time but not necessarily sharing his life.  Or one of the 12, those closest to Jesus, with him all of the time.  Then the 3 with whom he shared the most of himself.  Might they be called his soul friends?  Wherever we are Jesus invites us to draw closer.  He wants to draw us into his friendship.  To identify more with him.  Lent can be a time to accept that invitation.  What might it be like to stick with Jesus as with a close friend during his time in the wilderness, or when he raises Jairus’ daughter or prays in Gethsemane?  What experiences of our own might we risk sharing with him as our friend during Lent?

Looking at our reading from the Old Testament we can see some risk taking in the friendship between Elisha and Elijah.  Both know that Elijah is approaching the end of his life.  Elisha is determined to face this moment with his master and follows him on a very roundabout route to do so!  He is present when Elijah dies and is taken up to heaven and as a result he receives a portion of Elijah’s spirit.  This hadn’t just been a relationship between master and servant, but perhaps between soul friends.  It’s a profound insight into how we can influence our friends for good.  As we allow our friendship to develop, sticking with each other through good times and bad, we pass on a part of our spirit to one another, enriching one another.

Jesus invites us to relate to him as our friend – to trust him with our highs and low as we would with a best friend and to allow him to trust us with his deepest experiences, both the glory as in the Transfiguration, the vulnerability as in Gethsemane and the suffering when on the cross.

Friendship with Jesus is connected to our friendship with others.  So I’m wondering if we might remember our friends particularly this Lent.  How are we keeping in touch with them?  How willing are we willing to listen to what is really going on for them, especially if it’s difficult?  Can we risk telling them what is really going on for us?  Do we go beyond the superficial in our conversations?  I was reading an interview with Tyrell Lewis, formerly involved in gang crimes in Brixton and now running the Brixton Street Gym, where he remembers Pastor Mimi on his estate, a true friend, who would ask questions like ‘How’s your heart?’ How’s your mind?’ ‘How’s your spirit?’  She was a friend who helped him turn his life around.  She passed on some of her own spirit.

Friendship between partners, lovers, friendship between colleagues, friendship with family members, friendship with church sisters and brothers, friendship with a kindred spirit (a soul friend)…how are we doing in our friendships?  and where do we stand in our friendship with Christ?

Jesus says to his disciples, ‘I have not called you servants, but friends, for everything I learned from my Father I have made known to you’.  (John 15.15)

Christine Bainbridge

starry sky

St John and St Stephen’s Zoom Church, Reading, February 7th 2021, 2nd Sunday before Lent

Proverbs 8:1,22-34; Psalm 104:26-end; Colossians 1:15-20; John 1:1-14

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free

 

When Claire invited me to preach this Sunday, she asked if I could do something a bit ‘lighter’. I fought back by reminding her of the words of the great 20th Century evangelical, JI Packer: ‘Sermonettes produce Christianettes’ . But then I thought, OK, go for it. Lighter. Then I read the readings for today and wondered if Packer had risen from his eternal rest to wag his finger at me. Today’s readings are absolutely loaded with glorious, weighty content. What do I do with all of that? How do I begin? I’m sure that Packer would have magisterially laid out the great doctrines here for us to understand and grasp. But I’m not Packer, for sure. Then I read the Psalm appointed for today, 104, and began to feel better. We read it together earlier in the service. For the Psalms are prayers. They record a person’s response to this weight of glory. It’s what we do with it all. I can relate to that.

 

Can we take a moment now, and think about this: what gives me joy? What bubbles up as you ask yourself that question? I’ll hazard a guess that for maybe for a lot of people, it has something to do with the natural world: out walking, in the garden, perhaps overlooking a natural space, birds, animals, perhaps watching a David Attenborough, the dog; and then other people – partners, children, friends, – which are of course part of the natural world too. These things have the capacity to make us joyful, to lift our hearts up. Most of us will have stood looking at mountains, at the sea and sky, at magnificent trees and amazing animals and be literally lost for words, to be struck not just with joy but also with awe and wonder. The person who wrote today’s Psalm was just like that. Let me read the first few verses of Psalm 104 which we didn’t read today, where the Psalmist praises the author of all he sees:

 

Bless the Lord, O my soul.
O Lord my God, you are very great.
You are clothed with honour and majesty,
    wrapped in light as with a garment.
You stretch out the heavens like a tent,
    you set the beams of your chambers on the waters,
you make the clouds your chariot,
you ride on the wings of the wind,
you make the winds your messengers,
fire and flame your ministers.

 

And it goes on – it’s quite a long Psalm! The thing is, the Psalmist looked at the beauty and grandeur of the creation and saw God at work. This wasn’t just an accident, a random pile of pick-up sticks. Today’s lectionary reading from Colossians (which we didn’t read) puts it like this: ‘In him all things hold together’ (Col 1:17). By him, the writer, Paul, means Christ – the eternal Christ. In today’s Proverbs reading, the author writes about wisdom, wisdom as a Person who ‘was beside Him (God) like a master craftsman, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world, and delighting in the human race’ (Prov 8:30,31). In John’s gospel we read of the Word, through whom all things were created, and who took on flesh and became one with us. All four readings refer to the eternal Person, Creator, Wisdom, Master Craftsman, Word, Christ, the One who connects the dots, the invisible thread joining and holding everything together. We know that Christ dwells within us too – unworthy though we may feel – so that when our hearts are lifted up in joy or wonder, it is His work, His gift to us. Let me just say that He is equally present when our hearts are saddened or weighed down. He is there in those moments too.

 

A couple of weeks ago I spoke on the call of Samuel and linked it to the practice of the prayer of ‘Examen’, or review of the day. In this prayer, we take time to review the last period of time and see how we were moved, and then to examine what it was that produced that movement of our spirit. And then to ask, what’s the invitation here? What’s the call? Well, the Psalmist gives us his answer in verses 33,34: ‘I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being. May my meditation be pleasing to him, for I rejoice in the Lord.The invitation for us as we rejoice in creation, in human relationships, in all good gifts, is the same. It is the work of our lives.

 

I would like to share with you a poem, and then a song, and then a suggestion for something to take away. Here’s the poem. It’s one that Stephen shared in his daily emails but it has cropped up before that and I think it’s printed inside one of our service sheets. It’s by Wendell Berry, the American poet, called ‘The peace of wild things’. In it, Wendell reflects on the power that the created order, what he calls ‘the grace of the world’, has to free him. It is the Creator’s touch.

 

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

 

The song I want to share comes, naturally enough, from Taizé. I think it’s my favourite one, and it comes with an absolutely beautiful video which I will share. I’m afraid it’s in French. Here’s the words and then the translation:

 

Ô toi, l’au-delà de tout                   You who are beyond all things

Quel esprit peut te saisir?              what mind can grasp you?

Tous les êtres te célèbrent            All that lives celebrates you

Le désir de tous aspire vers toi.   the desire of all reaches out to you.

 

This song lifts us from creation to worship. The short video takes us through a day at Taizé, from early morning, through worship, to nightfall.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r_4MQtpYC_I  or https://vimeo.com/44097516

 

Thank you for listening to that, I hope you enjoyed it and found that it lifts your heart to God. The YouTube link will be in tomorrow’s MailChimp from Tanya so you can hear it again.

 

And something to do. I invite you, perhaps later today, to find 10 minutes of quiet, perhaps somewhere where you can appreciate the natural order, even if it’s raining or snowing. Sit down and be still for a couple of minutes, appreciating what is before you, leaving behind what has been occupying you. Take your bible, turn to Psalm 104 and read the whole Psalm slowly. Out loud if there’s nobody else around! Pause, and then read it again. Savour the words and enjoy them. And take that quiet moment to thank God from your own heart.

 

Richard Croft