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pentecost

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

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)

 

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 6 ‘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?”

 

 

 

 

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Perspective is everything

Easter Day 12 April 2020 (via Zoom) Acts 10:34-43

Gentiles Hear the Good News

34 Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. 37That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’

Matthew 28:1-10

The Resurrection of Jesus

28After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” This is my message for you.’ 8So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’

 

So here we are on Easter Morning, having an Easter unlike any of us has probably ever experienced. Being a church-going child, this could well be the first Easter morning I’ve not been in church, ever, and it might be the same for you.

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about perspective. Perspective is something we don’t fully have the luxury of at the moment, as far as the corona virus goes, because we’re still very much in the middle of it. But I have been challenged to keep a healthy perspective on how it’s been affecting me every day. We’d be mere automata, and not human beings if we hadn’t felt we were losing our perspective at some point during the last three weeks of lockdown – I know I have lost it on several occasions. And I admit I’ve felt overwhelmed at times, with the fear of what might happen to people I love, to myself and my health, to the livelihoods of people I know.

 

Our world is a much more fragile place than we in the West like to admit and it takes a global pandemic to get back to a godly perspective on what is important and just Who has the whole world in Whose hands, as the song goes!

 

Being in the middle of a global pandemic and not having come out the end of it yet, gives us some cognitive dissonance, I think, particularly at this time of year. We’ve been, whether more or less than usual, travelling with Jesus on the Way of the Cross and, to a greater or lesser degree, we’ve accompanied him on his journey of waiting and suffering, which has now ended, whilst ours continues. There’s not the usual feeling of arrival, of resurrection and conclusion, that we might normally experience this morning, had we been gathered physically in our churches.

 

But that doesn’t mean we cannot enjoy the resurrection! In many ways, every Sunday is resurrection morning, so perhaps this year more than ever, we can hold onto the universal hope of resurrection that Christ has provided, because we know that the Spirit of the risen Christ is not limited to buildings. We have proven over the last few Sundays that fellowship in the Spirit is happening online and within our fellowship as we seek to keep everyone in touch Sunday by Sunday.

 

In their infinite wisdom the compliers of the lectionary have pointed us to Acts 10 this morning, coupled with the resurrection account from Matthew. What do these readings tell us about perspective?

 

What often happens when we have an Epistle preceding a gospel is that we see played out the ramifications of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, before we zoom (excuse the pun) back into the actual life of Jesus as we read the gospel.

 

When you have an OT reading first, you get the zoom in the other direction! In fact the word zoom, applying to a camera lens, is a great image for what happens when we juxtapose readings. From Acts this morning we see Peter standing before Cornelius and the Gentiles that have gathered as a result of the vision of unclean animals being lowered from the sky, and we see him realise the enormous implications of the resurrection of Christ, for the whole world.

 

The as-yet unbaptized God-fearers, members of Cornelius’s household and family, have gathered and are waiting on Peter’s verdict: will he be able to grasp the scope of what has happened in the Christ event, or will he fudge it? Will he see the universal salvation offered, or stay with the safe, tribal version?

 

‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.’ He gets it! At the same time, he goes onto say, ‘he is Lord of all’. Those two things we hold in tension.

 

It’s an important message for us as we live alongside people of other faiths in the parish of St John and St Stephen. When the lockdown was starting I messaged someone who’s been involved in the gas tower exhibition planning and asked her what sort of relief effort was underway, if any, for people who were isolated and vulnerable in Newtown. She said the Muslim community had put messages through doors offering help and a phone number to call. I felt humbled. The power of love that is active in the world, still flows out from the intercessory heart of the risen Christ, on behalf of the world he died to save.

 

Back to Acts, and Peter goes on: ‘They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead’. That is the beauty of perspective. Less than four decades after the resurrection, Peter is able to perceive the much wider range of God’s salvation than was possible to perceive at the time.

 

And he reminds his hearers that the resurrection gives perspective to the Old Testament too when he says ‘All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name’ (v. 43). That means the resurrection of Christ zooms back into the heart of the Hebrew Scriptures until they too are bathed in the light of that first Easter sunrise. Our fellowship is not just with each other this morning but with the whole company of God’s people going right back to the beginning of our faith story. And we’re united through the resurrection.

 

So having had the perspective of Acts, the lens of scripture zooms back, back in time, back in ambience, back into the immediacy of the garden tomb on that first day of the week, after the Sabbath rest, after the death of Jesus.

 

I don’t know if you have your favourite accounts of the resurrection; obviously there are four to choose from and they have significant crossovers as well as significant differences. Interestingly, I felt rather disappointed that it wasn’t John this year; I seem to have preached more Easter sermons on John’s account of tentative Mary Magdalene weeping and wondering if it was the gardener, than on any other of the gospels. I thought tentative and weeping might fit our times more.

 

Instead we have Matthew, the most definitive account of Divine fiat when it comes to resurrection. You might enjoy one year sitting down and comparing the four accounts and pondering what angle they emphasize and what kind of God they portray. Why do I feel least comfortable with Matthew’s account, I had to ask myself. Probably because it highlights the kingly, victorious nature of Christ and during the last three weeks of lockdown I haven’t really felt very victorious; rather, full of uncertainty.

 

Matthew’s is the only account with an earthquake, and a single angelic messenger, who is described as descending from heaven (in case you were in any doubt) and who actively rolls away the stone, there and then, and sits on it. In other accounts, there are young men wearing white, and the stone is always described as having been rolled away already, by the time the women arrive (passive voice).

 

Incidentally, Matthew’s account of the crucifixion also has an earthquake and tells us that ‘tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many’ (Matt. 27:51b-53). So Matthew’s crucifixion and resurrection accounts appear almost as one whole narrative of disruptive, conclusive, even military, victory over death.

 

Because only Matthew includes the material about the soldiers becoming like dead men as the angel overwhelms them with his presence. So you have a dead man coming out the tomb alive and living men becoming as dead at the entrance of the tomb. And the angel addresses the women with the words: “Don’t you be afraid” (implication: you can do better than them!).

 

Only Matthew has the extra material about how the soldiers went off and told their story and were given hush money to spread a rumour that the disciples had come and stolen the body.

 

So in these times of anxiety, maybe we did need Matthew’s definitive account after all. I’ve found my prayer life has been shifting from a settled, rather philosophical, intellectual, not-getting-your-hopes-up-too-much kind of prayer life – where we’re dealing with a God who doesn’t really intervene quite like he used to – and has morphed into a you-have-got-to-hear-our-prayers-please-I-beg-you-keep-me-safe-and-deliver-the-Prime-Minister-and-smash-the-virus-God!’ kind of prayer life.

 

It’s surprising what a national emergency can do to your images of God. I’ve decided after all that I do want a God of the breakthrough…and am praying accordingly!

 

When you’re going through hardship, suffering never makes any sense at the time. This has never been truer than for the women who entered that garden to anoint the body of their defeated friend, and found instead he was no longer in the tomb and was going ahead of them, as he said he would. And it’s probably true of us right now. But we will get perspective eventually and meanwhile God is very near to the broken hearted and the crushed in spirit.

 

At this Eastertide|||||| as we stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives together, may we be given grace to hold on faithfully until we can gain some perspective on our world and on our collective faith. But until then, the fact of a risen and triumphant saviour changes everything.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ascension-Image

Ascension

Acts 1.1-11, Luke 24.44-end

On Sunday Gary spoke about prayer being like a pause, that moment when everything is suddenly still, as if holding its breath.  I want to suggest that the ascension is this sort of pause – a kind of still point between the resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Some words from the bible that help me understand the Ascension are Paul writing to the Ephesians and wanting them to know, ‘The immeasurable greatness of his power at work in us who believe, according to the working of his great might which he accomplished in Christ when he raised him from the dead and made him sit at his right hand in the heavenly places’.  And Jesus saying to his disciples as the time of his death drew near, ‘I am going to prepare a place for you that you may be where I am’.  So, in this pause that is the Ascension there is something about Jesus getting us a place in the heavenly realms, in the presence of God himself.  The picture he gives is of a house with many rooms, one of them being prepared for us.  Then there is something about the power that gets us there, the power that raised Christ from the dead, a power with its roots in the cross.  For Luke those disciples who witnessed these things now have to let others know – witnesses to the ends of the earth.

Next year the diocese of Vaxjo in Sweden with which we are twinned celebrates the anniversary of its founding 850 years ago.  One Sunday I told the story of St Sigfrid setting out from England to Sweden with some companions, preaching the gospel and building what was reckoned to be the first church there.  Our link committee is considering ways of marking this special anniversary.  One of the more what I thought was fun ideas was chartering a boat and sailing from here to Gothenburg, recreating in some way the journey taken by those forbears in the faith.  One of our nephews is an experienced sailor who has crewed private chartered boats in other parts of the world so I emailed him for advice.  It would be an amazing trip, he said, taking at least 5 days, depending on the weather, which could be rough, and the time of year.  In view of the length of the voyage we’d probably want to rest up in a harbour on one or two nights on the way.  We would need a crew, including a cook and deck hands, and so on.  In other words it would not be like doing a day trip from Dover to Calais.  I was already picturing heaving seas, mounting costs, acute sea sickness and so on.  Yet in the 11th century and for many centuries before that, if the history of Christianity is anything to go by, groups of monks like Sigfrid and his friends made these sea journeys without satellite navigation, on board kitchen or travel insurance because like those disciples we read about this evening, they were responding to Christ’s sending them out as witnesses, not just in York or Winchester (some confusion as to where Sigfrid came from), but to the ends of the earth.  So they went.  They went as witnesses.

And we know that Peter, John, Thomas, all of them went.  Something happened after the resurrection that meant they didn’t think about heaving seas (Paul on his missionary journeys) or robber infested roads (Philip).  They went.

For Luke the key to what happened starts with the Ascension.  Someone once said to me that writers are artists.  I find that helpful when considering Luke’s narrative.  He is attempting to put into words something that is beyond words – a mystery – and he does it by using visual shorthand to describe this pause, this turning point, this transition– the resurrection appearances coming to an end and that wondering looking up and then that explosive going out as witnesses that happens soon after.

Luke uses words that tap into moments of revelation in the Hebrew scriptures (all of them vivid pictures) – We Daniel’s vision of a heavenly court where God sits enthroned and where the Son of Man has a place, the prophet Elijah being taken up to heaven after leaving behind a portion of his spirit for his disciple Elisha; the reference to a cloud, the way that the disciples are on a hill (Mount Olivet)…

When the disciples are on a hill or mountain they are in a place of revelation, a holy place eg Moses, Elijah, a place of conversion, of commissioning.  The cloud is shorthand for God’s presence, his glory, too intense by far for us to see in all its fullness.

Jesus has been with them for 40 days before this – bible shorthand for a period of formation.  He’s been preparing them.

I think I felt mildly surprised that as Jesus disappeared (in our gospel account) the disciples returned to Jerusalem with great joy.  He’s left them.  Isn’t joy a strange reaction to this? I thought.  But what the joy of the disciples implies is that if Jesus is covered with the cloud of God’s glorious presence and swept up to be at his right hand, then far from being left behind they are caught up with him.  Christ has assumed our humanity.  He doesn’t leave it behind when he is covered by the cloud, so nor are we left behind.  To use the language of John’s gospel we can now be where he (Christ) is, right now, sitting at the table with God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  There is nothing we have done, are doing or will do that will get our name removed from the guest list.  To quote Rowan Williams – ‘Our humanity in all it variety, all its vulnerability has been taken by Jesus into the heart of the divine life…the humanity that we all know to be stained, wounded, imprisoned in various ways; this humanity – yours and mine – is still capable of being embraced by God, shot through with God’s glory, received and welcomed into the burning heart of reality itself’.

Isn’t this what lies at the heart of the repentance and forgiveness of sins that the disciples are to proclaim in their witness?  Peter, John and all the others found themselves at home with God in a totally new way as they were caught up with Christ in his Ascension.  That same power that had been at work in him was now at work in them.  Of course they were joyful.  Secure in their being at home with God, ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven, abiding in him, resting in his presence, Sigfrid and his companions and countless others set out as witnesses to this reality.  What about us?  Christ’s words are for us too – ‘You shall be my witnesses…’ What might that mean for us?

 

Christine Bainbridge

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Prayer and the Story of Ignatius

Ascension. Acts 1.15-17, 21-26, John 17.6-19

In our church year we are in an in between time – between the Ascension (last Thursday) and Pentecost (next Sunday).  Traditionally in the church this is marked as a time of waiting in prayer for the coming of the Holy Spirit.

There are many different kinds of prayer and in our readings today we encounter just two of them; in the gospel reading Jesus’ prayer for his disciples where his focus is on their relationship with God, with him and with each other.  This prayer is the expression of Jesus’ longing that his friends might know that same oneness with God that is central to his own identity – v11 and v 21 onwards.  The other kind of prayer, in our reading from Acts, is where discernment is being sought.  Who do we chose to take Judas’ place as one of the 12?  How can we tell who is the right person?

Keep these two kinds of prayer in mind as I talk to you this morning.  This is the second of three sermons where Mark, Ali and myself alert you to the week of Accompanied Prayer (WAP) that is being held here at St Johns 10-15 June.

There are times in our lives when the pieces of the personal jigsaw that make up who we think we are get thrown up in the air and we don’t know quite how they will fit together, if at all, when they land.  We may experience this kind of thing during adolescence or, if we are parents, when our first child appears, or in mid life, or retirement.  Whenever we face major change.  Sometimes that includes loss, or dealing with a crisis such as serious illness in a loved one.  At these times our skin is a bit thinner, so to speak, and we may find ourselves asking questions about what you might call the bigger picture of human life.

For me it was mid life.  I felt stuck in some way.  It was as though I could only ever get so far and then there I was in the same groove.  I have inherited a worry gene.  I can even point to exactly where I feel it.  Over the years I have found it helpful to befriend it, but back then that little gremlin could morph into a monster of fear causing acute anxiety and occasionally panic attacks.  In mid life I suddenly found I couldn’t travel on the Tube – really inconvenient as we lived in London then.  So I prayed about it.  What will help? I prayed, and the answer always was ‘prayer’.  This really puzzled me.  I belonged to a church that prayed on Sundays and had a prayer group.  I would say a prayer when I read my bible.  What more was there?  Anxiety is a powerful driver so I set off on my personal quest to learn more about prayer and see if I could shake off the gremlin.

What I am discovering over the years is that prayer is as much about being as doing.  I was used to the action of praying for people, for things, for freedom from my gremlin, but I had little awareness of prayer as being drawn into an ever deeper relationship with God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  As I explored this new aspect of prayer my gremlin sent out strong alarm signals.  Some sort of divine invitation to let go was on offer, a surrender to this mysterious Other.  ‘But you might get overwhelmed, you might sort of disintegrate, it will all be too much, and who knows where it might lead’, shrieked my gremlin.

I read books about prayer, and attended talks, but would have found it most helpful if there had been someone with whom I could talk about these things.  It wasn’t till some time later that I discovered that there were people called spiritual directors (an old fashioned title, but no one seems to have come up with anything better) with whom you could have this kind of one to one conversation.  And that you didn’t need to be a priest (which I wasn’t then) in order to do so.  Then it wasn’t till about 4 years ago that I heard about weeks of accompanied prayer where you can have this kind of one to one conversation for just a week, for half an hour each day, in your own church, and find out for yourself if this is something you find helpful.

Behind the Week of Accompanied Prayer lies the wisdom of what are known as the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, a 16th century Spanish soldier.  The time for him when all the pieces of his life were thrown up in the air was in his 20s after he was wounded in battle and had to spend weeks convalescing.  During this period about the only thing he could do was read.  There was a limited choice of books.  One was about lives of the saints.  He found this very energising, more so than a book about courtly romance which was very popular in those days.  He felt drawn towards a career change.  He decided he wanted to lead the same kind of adventurous, costly life as those saints.  But how would he do it?  What might his path be?  He prayed for guidance.

For many saints the call to a life of adventure for Christ had started with giving away possessions and spending a period alone in a desert place.  So this is what Ignatius did.  He came from a fairly wealthy family which meant he had a 16th century Porsche – a horse – which he gave away, good clothes and an excellent sword.  Leaving all this behind he went off on foot to find a lonely place where he could listen to where God might be leading him. This place was a cave near Manresa.

Although aspects of this were good he soon became dangerously caught up in his own inner world, neglecting himself (long hair, nails, little food) and not surprisingly had some strange visions.  He also became obsessively worried about whether or not he had been forgiven for his sins. Nor was he any clearer about where his path lay.  He didn’t feel drawn towards the monastic life, nor at that time towards being a priest, (in those days the main ways open to those wanting to take their faith more seriously).  How could he find the way forward?  Where might God be leading him?  He began writing down what was happening to him.  He found someone whom he could talk to about his struggles – a wise priest who helped him look outwards and assured him, finally, of God’s forgiveness.  He emerged from the cave.

He set off walking, still not knowing the way ahead, and he kept writing.  The walking is really important.  Perhaps, like me, you can identify with how when we are walking creative thinking is triggered in a way that doesn’t necessarily happen with other kinds of exercise.  This happened with Ignatius, but for him walking was his means of getting from one place to another, it also reflected a way of life that was about being on the move.  Whether or not he realised it he was searching for a way of relating to God that would suit the life of someone like him who would be mobile for much of the time, sniffing the wind, as it were, to see which direction to take.  The kind of prayer routines that worked for monks or nuns, or for parish priests relied on buildings, books and bells.  They were not portable enough.  Ignatius needed to travel light.  He walked with a limp because of his war injury.  That too, reminded him of the need for flexibility.  Like him, most of us have some sort of thorn in the flesh that affects our walk with God.

So he continued writing and it seemed that the walking and the writing were the main things he was called to do at that time.  How did he know that?  Well, he noted the effect on him of different activities and how some seemed to give him more of a sense of being drawn towards what was good and true and loving – towards God – than others and that these feelings were more energising and led to more creative action than others – they spurred him on to further adventuring in Christ.  So he noted that down.  He also noted that it required a little reflection to get in touch with how certain activities had impacted on him.  So he noted that down.  He would go over events in the gospels in his imagination and then note what he saw, heard, experienced as he did so.  He would reflect on that and note that down.  He also noticed what held him back; he learnt to spot his gremlins, to name them and in so doing reduce their power over him.  And all the time he was developing what he called friendship with Christ.  He discovered that having a conversation out loud with Christ as though with a friend after he had prayed and reflected also helped.  He was doing all this whilst walking, and in those stops along the way when he stayed in a place, and worked in a local hospital for lepers or taught children to read and write.  Whatever the activity he discovered that by being attentive to it and reflecting on it he discovered more about who God is and how he is at work in us and in the world.  So he wrote that down.

Out of all this writing emerged the Spiritual Exercises.  Later on, when Ignatius was joined by companions (he seems to have had a gift for friendship) he would take them one by one through the exercises, enabling them to carry deep within themselves their own prayer app, if you like, as they continued on whatever path they felt called to follow.

The spiritual exercises have become more popular and more widely available over the last 30 years or so.  You can go to a retreat house for a month to do them, seeing a prayer guide daily during that period, or you can see a guide weekly whilst living at home to do them, and you can get a good flavour of them by doing a WAP where you meet with your prayer guide for 30 minutes each day for a week and commit to praying at home for half an hour every day during that period.  The one to one approach of the spiritual exercises is at the heart of the WAP and is a main reason for my recommending it to you.  If you’re feeling a bit stuck, as I was, or you sense there is something more but you don’t know what, or you’re dealing with a gremlin or two, or facing decisions of some kind, it can be a real help to talk to someone who listens attentively.  Through it, too, you may acquire ways of developing more inner resources for your journey as you follow the suggestions made by your prayer guide.  You gradually build your own inner prayer app.

Going back to those 2 kinds of prayer I mentioned at the beginning, Ignatius prayed for guidance as he walked, just like those disciples in Jerusalem.  He so wanted to know he was on the right lines.  As he went on, though, it became clearer to him that what was most important to him was a deepening friendship with Christ.  He longed for that union with Christ that Jesus prayed for his friends.  And really, that’s the gift within the exercises, within the WAP – Christ answering that prayer of his for us, within us.  What is happening is his work, not ours or the guide’s.

Just some details – the guides are experienced spiritual directors who are coming from outside our church, except for Ali.  You’ll be paired up with someone you don’t know, unless you specifically ask to see someone you already know.  You’ll be meeting your guide in this building at a time convenient to you both.  We ask for a donation of £20 for the week.  If that’s difficult please speak to one of us and we’ll sort something out.

For many of you there will be good reasons why you can’t do the WAP this year.  If I come up to you enthusiastically waving a flier just tell me to back off!  However, perhaps you can hold the week in your prayers.  Or you might try the Pray as you Go app which draws on Ignatian wisdom.  Or you might like to attend one of the workshops that will be taking place in the evenings.  These are free and you don’t have to take part in the WAP to come along.  It may be that home groups would like to attend the Thursday workshop instead of having their group that evening.  If you do want to sign up for the week please give your details to Mark afterwards.  If you want to know more, ask questions or discuss what I’ve said, do join in the sermon discussion group after the service over coffee.

I’d like you to imagine it’s one of those nights we occasionally have in Reading when you are outside and, looking up, see the sky full of stars.  A vast, starry expanse, infinite space, galaxy after galaxy, a universe stretching far beyond the bounds of your mind or imagination.  Glittering, mysteriously beautiful and somehow ‘other’.  Then you go inside your home and start putting together the packed lunch for school tomorrow, catching up on your emails, peeling potatoes, or whatever.

Being human is a disconcerting mixture of the sublime and the mundane and our Christian faith calls us to dwell fully in this mix.  We acknowledge the divine heritage we have through Jesus Christ our Saviour and we live out that heritage amongst the potato peelings and emails of our everyday lives.  Ignatius understood this.  He loved the night sky and when he was an old man living in a stuffy room in Rome dealing with the tedious task of revising the guidelines for the Society of the Friends of Jesus he would go out on to the roof at night and gaze at the stars as if to remind himself of the heavenly beauty that can light up even the most humdrum features of our live.  Everything, he would say, can be for the greater glory of God.

 

Christine Bainbridge

13 May 2018

How is your Theology, Ali ?

I was 18, a medical student at a party in London, glass of wine in hand, and the student pastor Greg sidled up to me and asked, “ How is your theology Ali?”

I was studying medicine, not theology and I suspect what he really wanted to know was how was my relationship with God, in a new place, away from home for the first time,

It was the wrong question on so many counts at the wrong time and in the wrong place, I spluttered something as I choked on my wine and quickly fled to find a safer conversation

Thankfully I do not think anyone has asked me that since. But sometimes it is hardest to talk about the things that matter most to us, I wonder how your relationship with God is just now, are you best friends? Do you talk occasionally? Are you mad with God, disappointed, feel let down or maybe God just feels irrelevant to life? . For many many years I prayed to God calling God Father, a cosy safe relationship, felt like I climbed onto his lap and poured out my heart. In more recent years Pete and I tried to refer to God as She in our prayers, and over time it made a huge difference to how I felt about prayer, I have spoken before about how simply changing the title led to a deepening in my understanding of this sacrament of communion, where Jesus offers us himself, in a way like I did as I breast fed 4 children. In the last couple of years I have moved to calling the divine simply God, leaving for a while the safe intimate relationship of parent to child I feel as if I have become more of an adult in the relationship and am certainly more aware of the mystery, the otherness of God, God is not a tame pet to do my bidding but I am invited into the mystery with less certainty about where that might take me.

Winter-A-Time-of-Roots-Growing-Below-the-Soil-1

I hope you picked up a picture of a tree as you came into church, I want you to look at the picture now for a few minutes and consider whether it can teach you anything about your life and God at the minute, are there ways in which it reflects how you feel, or is perhaps the opposite of where you are just now, what attracted you to this photo instead of all the others? Could this picture be saying anything about who or how you are now?

Nicholas  Mermon was born in the Lorraine in France in 1614, into a poor family. Fighting as a soldier, lonely and despairing, in the cold snows of winter he looked at a tree, branches bare, stripped of leaves and fruit, apparently dead . Gazing at the tree and remembering spring and summers of his childhood he began to grasp the extravagance OF God’s grace and , the promise that the turn of the seasons would bring fullness. He writes that ” leafless tree first flashed upon my soul the fact of God”

An injury forced his retirement from the army, he entered a Carmelite monastery, sadly with no  education  he was  assigned to work in the kitchens for the rest of his life, there amidst the tedious chores of cooking and cleaning at the constant bid of his superiors he developed a way of life. He writes about the simplicity of coming to God, finding God in the ordinary, in  turning out a cake, in preparing vegetables, he speaks of it being enough to sweep up the floor for love of God. He cooked meals and scrubbed pots and wrote ”the time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayers and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen while several persons are at the same time calling for different things I possess God in as great tranquillity as if I were upon my knees receiving the blessed sacrament. He was no good at set prayers, though he tried for 3 hours a day but resolved to give himself to God moment by moment through his busy day, found that he wanted to maintain an ongoing conversation with God no matter what he was doing. “ I make it my business to rest in his holy presence”…the good brother found God everywhere.

We know this man today as Brother Lawrence, author of Practising the presence of God

I had a meaningful encounter with a tree at my ordination retreat,a chestnut tree ,  a  rather poor photo I took of it. A line of trees had been felled by the storms of the mid nineties, the farmer had cleared most of them away but this one, on the edge of field was stripped of useful branches and wood, the stump left fallen on the ground, but now a few years on new life was sprouting amazingly, now 20 feet tall. I had had to give up the career I had been trained for, I could not cope with the demands, I felt dried up and useless, logs on a wood pile  but this tree promised new life , new direction, there were still a few roots deep into the ground, something new could happen

The Ethiopian in our reading from Acts this morning was looking for something, searching scripture and  Philip asked if he understood. He replies How can I without someone to guide me. We all need help. If Eli had not been around Samuel might still be sleeping, without Ananias bravely opening his heart to the blind Saul along the road to Damascus we might never have had the wisdom of Paul. If the stranger had walked on by minding his own business or keen to reach his destination then the two people along the Emmaus road might still be wandering, lost in their grief and misunderstanding.. we all need help along the way, Jesus longed for company in Gethsemane but the disciples did not quite get it and fell asleep. WE know little of Mary but in the midst of that confusing pregnancy she chose to go to her cousin Elizabeth to work together toward understanding and acceptance.

In the muddle of 4 children under 6 Pete gave me a life changing present, 48 hours retreat in the convent of ST Mary’s in Wantage. I sat with the delightful fun loving twinkle in her eyes rotund nun, sister Ann Julian and said I don’t think this spiritual life is for me. The only way I had been taught to pray was on my knees, first thing in the morning, for at least half an hour with a list of people and situations that I needed to inform God about. If I set my alarm to wake up it simply woke all 6 of us, made the day longer and everyone more grouchy.

Of course I know that that way of prayer works for some people, my dad prayed on his knees by his bed every night, read his bible notes, BRF ones I know because I watched him when we all slept in a small caravan for holidays.  I hate daily bible notes, I feel such a failure when within the first week I am a day or two behind, I feel incredibly judged by those little letters and numbers of a date at the top of each page. But AJ nonplussed asked if there was ever a time when I was aware of God, without hesitation I responded yes, when I walk through the woods…could I go for a walk more regularly she asked. I got home, it still felt very selfish to take myself off for a walk, not too much achieved by a walk in the woods but we had children who regularly asked for a puppy, we got KEs , a golden retriever pup and suddenly I had to take a walk every day. Years later training for ordination we were invited to take in a symbol of our relationship with God, I took in the by then two dogs, my prayer partners. And yes these days I still enjoy walking and talking with God but I have also learned to be still and mostly quiet with God often in the early morning.

It is often a struggle to  come to God, it is often a struggle to face myself but the gentle wisdom of that nun encouraged, sometimes challenged me to keep trying. She gave me ideas of new ways of approach, questions lead me to different understanding. She inspired me so much that during a really tough period of my life, off work, in turmoil that I trained in that same ministry of spiritual direction, except that is such a misnomer, the guide does not direct but sits with, offers a safe hospitable space to explore my relationship with God. And that is what is on offer in June this year, here in the parish, for just one week we will have a variety of guides or accompaniers if you would like to give a little attention to how you and God are getting on at the minute. No answers guaranteed but a deep belief that God longs for us to relate to him/her, to ourselves and to one another, to be in community.

There are a few metaphors for this that I enjoy, the first is that I, your guide can be a midwife, a midwife does not make you pregnant but has sat with so many people who are giving birth that they can offer support and suggestions about how you might best live through this that is happening to you. The second is to pan for gold, it is an opportunity to put all the mess and mud of life into a sieve, and allow the Spirit of God to gently wash through then together we will look for the nuggets of gold, the things in our lives that we most value, that we want to hang onto, give space for

If you would like to work with some of these questions, then sign up for the week of accompanied prayer, no qualifications or experience necessary, you will be offered half an hour each day to talk over your life in God with an experienced guide or companion. They will make suggestions for things for you to do, they will listen and together you will seek God in amongst the complexity or your life.

Tomorrow Pete and I are off on the Eurostar to  see daughter Jo, she lives in Paris. We will catch the train at St Pancras station so we will see for ourselves the new art installation by Tracey Emin, you might have a copy of it on the front of your service sheet, as we look toward the clock we will see the huge pink fluorescent writing that says I want my time with you. So many of us struggle to use time in a way that is true to our deepest desires, yet that is where God can be found. The monk  Thomas Merton captures this well, as Lucy WInkett quoted in thought for the day this week, reflecting on this art work, If you want to know me, ask me not where I live or what I like to eat or how I do my hair but ask me what I am living for and what is keeping me from living fully for the things I want to live for….if I am not spending my time with who I want to spend it with, why aren’t I? what is stopping me?

RC-shape of water

The Shape of Everything

Acts 3:13-19, Luke 24:36-48

If you have seen the film, ‘The Shape of Water’, you may have wondered about the title. The movie takes its name from Plato’s idea that in its purest form, water takes the shape of an icosahedron, a 20-sided polyhedron, evoking the idea that beauty has many faces. It’s a lovely, unlikely film where Sally Hawkins falls in love with a humanoid sea-creature, ugly to our eyes but beautiful to hers. The shape of water.

Luke is the author of the gospel passage we read this morning, or, as I am coming to like to call it, the Jesus story. In those few verses, right at the end of his account, Luke gives us a summary: ‘the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations’. These few words have a particular shape, containing as they do suffering and death – crucifixion – on the one hand and new life – resurrection – on the other. The cross-resurrection message, Luke goes on to tell us, is at the heart of the message of forgiveness for the world. I want to look at this in a particular way that I hope we will find enlarges our understanding and our faith, using the metaphor of shape.

Firstly, I want to say that this book, the Scriptures, has itself the shape of death and life, cross and resurrection. Jesus tells us that “’…everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled. Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day.’” (Lk 24:44-46) What he is saying is that his death and resurrection were clearly foreshadowed in the Scriptures: that is, the OT. Let me illustrate briefly with three examples. If you’re not familiar with the stories, I will reference everything and you can look it up later. It’s important to understand that Jesus’ death and resurrection didn’t come out of the blue: there was a shape to much of the OT – the shape of death to life. First, there is the grand movement of the Exodus: the captivity and slavery of the Hebrews in Egypt and their escape (Exodus 1-14) – from captivity to freedom, the shape of death to life. Then within that story is another story with the same shape, just so we don’t miss the point – the death of the Passover lamb and the horrible death of the firstborn in Egypt (Exodus 12) which led to Pharaoh driving them out of his country. Again, death to life. Secondly, there are many individual figures in the OT with this shape. The clearest is Joseph, poor boastful Joseph, literally thrown into a pit by his brothers, then sold into slavery, then unjustly accused by Potiphar’s wife, and thrown into prison. But God reveals dreams to him which he interprets to Pharaoh and he becomes ruler of Egypt. Slavery to redemption. Death to life, crucifixion to resurrection (Genesis 37-47). Finally there are the prophets. I will mention only one, the 53rd chapter of Isaiah, written around 700 years before Jesus’ birth, speaking of someone who is to come, a suffering servant: ‘Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed…yet he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the Lord shall prosper. Out of his anguish he shall see light.’ (Isaiah 53:4,5,10,11). This remarkable chapter in Isaiah prefigures the coming of the Messiah, a servant who will mysteriously suffer in order to give us life, who will die, but will see new life. It traces the shape of the One who was to come, and in the person of Jesus the dots are joined together. Scripture is Jesus-shaped.

I’ve made a bit of a meal about the shape of scripture for two reasons. Firstly, Jesus does himself. No argument there! Secondly, because if we believe anything, if we say that we believe that Jesus, in his life and death and resurrection achieved our salvation, that is, our healing; and if we say that in Jesus, God himself was dwelling, and if we say, look, this didn’t happen out if the blue, it’s actually prefigured in the OT, then get this: not only is scripture Jesus-shaped, God is Jesus-shaped. I don’t know what picture of God you carry in your mind – an old man with a beard sitting on a cloud? A kindly uncle? A kindly aunt? Put those images away. God has the shape of Jesus. And as we reflect on his death and resurrection, it’s a blood-and-guts picture as well as one of new life, of victory – even if his hands and feet and side still carry the marks of the nails and the spear (John 20:27). Paul tells us in his letter to the Colossians that ‘He is the image of the invisible God’ (1:15) – an image which includes all the suffering of the cross, death and resurrection. I am certain that when Ascension day comes, Vince will remind us that what the ascension tells us, is that all of this is taken up into the Godhead, into the Person of God himself.

This is treasure beyond price. But I want to widen the field still further. In speaking of Scripture having the shape of Jesus, the shape of cross and resurrection, and then of God Himself having that same shape, we are still being sort-of ‘churchy’. I came to faith some 40-odd years ago with the idea of ‘personal salvation’, that it was all about me somehow. And I had a message to tell people about admitting sin, coming to Christ, receiving his forgiveness through the cross and then the promise of eternal life through his resurrection. And all of that is true, and absolutely right for me and for many people at the time. The trouble is it was too small. It’s not only that Scripture is Jesus-shaped, or that God is Jesus-shaped – thinking particularly of cross and resurrection – it’s that everything is Jesus-shaped! We don’t have to look very hard to see the same shape spread across not only humanity, not only the world, but the whole universe. The animal and plant kingdoms have been following a cycle of death and new life for billions of years. Paul himself, in his first letter to the church at Corinth, in Greece, writes about the resurrection. He uses the illustration of a seed which first has to die – that is, to be put into the ground, before it comes to life again (1 Corinthians 15:35-57). The universe itself is full of stars dying and being born again. It’s like this: from the smallest microbe to the biggest galaxy, in the Scriptures, in our own lives there is the shape of death and life: the shape of Jesus, the shape of God himself, the shape of everything. Have we got it yet?

In our human existence we experience death and new life – quite literally, but also within our own lives as we face pain and suffering and then sometimes, new life as well. I deliberately say ‘sometimes’. We will not always see the reality of resurrection, of new life and hope. We can reflect that in the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, there really wasn’t much hope, maybe none at all. With one or two exceptions, the story of Jesus’ death reads like it’s the end. We tend to view the cross through the lens of the resurrection, but the reason the resurrection reads like a surprise is because it was a surprise! Who really knew that would happen? For the disciples and everyone around the cross, it looked exactly  like the end – it was a public execution. Did even Jesus know the resurrection was coming? He had some hope – ‘today you will be with me in paradise’, said to one of the two thieves crucified with him (Luke 23:43) but coming back and eating fish on a lakeside (John 21)? Maybe not! ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Matthew 27:46) doesn’t sound full of hope, does it? ‘It is finished’ (John 19:30) sounds, well, like an ending.

I say that because sometimes it can feel like there is no hope at all. Yet the Jesus story contains even hopelessness (which, weirdly, can give us hope). We can draw a line between the bleakness and futility of the torture and death of an innocent man on a Roman cross and our own experiences of bleakness and futility. Many years ago I spent 6 weeks on a training course in India, became friends with a German doctor, Dirk, on the same course. We had a lot of fun together, and I stoically endured the merciless teasing about warm, flat British beer with gritted teeth and a plastic smile. We talked often about faith – he wasn’t a believer – and one time he asked me, what do you say about suffering? I began to talk about the cross, the suffering of Jesus. After a few minutes he said, ‘Stop! It’s enough for me to know that you have somewhere to go with it!’

Some of you know that Rosemary and I have recently got back from a visit to Myanmar where our son and daughter-in-law are working for a few months. While we were that side of the world, we took the opportunity to visit Cambodia with Jon and Alexia. On our last day we visited the Genocide museum and Killing fields in Phnom Penh, the capital. Some 2 million people – that’s a quarter of the country’s population – almost all completely innocent, were tortured and killed in around 200 centres around the country in the years 1974-1979 at the hands of the Khmer Rouge under their paranoid leader, Pol Pot. It is the most sobering and depressing place I have ever been to, yet it is part of our global history. Before we went Rosemary and I prayed together and read verses from Isaiah 53: ‘He was despised and rejected, a man of suffering and acquainted with grief’ (v.3). Those words are so poignant, connecting like an electric circuit with the horrors of what happened at Tuol Sleng prison and I wept. In her prayer, Rosemary thanked God for the resurrection of the country, much in evidence now. And there it is again. Crucifixion and resurrection. Look for that pattern, that shape. It is everywhere.

‘Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations’ (Luke 24:47) comes near the end of our gospel reading. I have said before that I the word ‘repentance’ quite problematic. It seems to me, at least, to have too narrow a focus: ‘what have you been up to, then? – you had better repent of that!’ I much prefer to break the word down into two halves – ‘re’ meaning ‘again’ and ‘pent’ from the French penser, ‘to think’. Rethink your life! No so much what have you done wrong today (although there may be profit in that!) but what direction is my life taking? How does my life line up with the Jesus story? And rethink the cross and resurrection – not just isolated events in history, but fulfilling the shape of Scripture written hundreds of years in advance; somehow revealing not only the shape of God Himself but the shape of everything. And you are forgiven! Again, I find the word ‘forgiven’ a bit narrow although it’s true, but it’s not enough – not only forgiven, you are loved, accepted, welcomed. If Jesus could forgive the men who nailed him to the cross – and he did – he can surely accept you!

Richard Croft

 

https://ronaldraab.com/2017/04/22/the-second-sunday-of-easter-2017-painting-of-jesus-and-thomas/

Living with the Resurrection; doubts, hopes and all.

+ May I speak …

Quote from Les Miserables: “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

It’s been a week, a long week.. and a lot can happen in a week. I wonder how your weeks have been since we last were together celebrating the wonder of Easter’s resurrection… have you lived in the bright glow of hope, or the grey everyday, or under darker clouds of oppression, stress or grief..

One week on.. has Easter made a difference?

One week on… lets be honest, what difference did we expect it to make?

As the excitement of the festival dims, It’s hard to know what difference it actually makes to our lives… is it a marker, a signpost, a symbol of hope built into the everyday?

During last weeks (joyfully chaotic) homily, I spoke of the abrupt mid-sentence ending of Mark; of how the story is left unfinished. How the wordlessness and fear of the visiting women might be the only appropriate and fitting response.

+Andrew asked me several years ago what it means to say ‘Christ is Risen’ before a church; I answered (controversially?) that I wasn’t really interested in trying to get back to what happened 2000 years ago, I was interested in what that meant now; how in people come to church and say ‘yes’ to this impossible claim, that it becomes the very basis of this church and of the lives of its people … how can we say ‘yes’ to a testimony which claims the God has made life come from places of death? How and when does it happen? And how do we celebrate that hope realistically?

Perhaps the clues are found in this week’s connected readings; both rich with layers of meaning.

We have two scenes portrayed; first, the book of Acts, (interesting that the lectionary this year gives it as a post-resurrection narrative, not  the usual post-Pentecost narrative). We get a snapshot of a life totally transformed, people and community transformed, living together and sharing in ways that they could never have imagined before now… a radical, (even today) vision of a re-setting of prime values and priorities..

Why is this a post-resurrection reading? How does this speak of new life, unexpected life coming from places (or habits) of death?

32 The group of believers was one in mind and heart. None of them said that any of their belongings were their own, but they all shared with one another everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and God poured rich blessings on them all.

Hold on… ‘great power’, ‘rich blessings’, these are words associated with the Spirit.. by enacting community are they embodying something of the resurrection drama?

It’s a reminder that our whole service this morning makes up the Eucharistic Drama… when we share The Peace we are doing more than simply saying ‘hello’, (and slightly embarrassing ourselves); we are participating in a symbol which is rooted in exactly this resurrection change – a moment of sacramental remembering.

I said last week that the Mark’s resurrection is a story which needs telling again and again, it never ends.. As we greet one another, we confer a blessing to each other , and as we do we re-hearse, re-tell, re-story the endless story. The Acts passage invites us to imagine such moments as defining rather than accidental. The Peace provokes and rehearses our own works of mercy and justice.

“To love another person is to see the face of God.”

The second scene is told by John… is the familiar visitation to the disciples, and the special encounter with Thomas… We hear the story of the disciples locked away, afraid; fearful of the Jewish authorities, (note – ‘Jews’ means authorities, priests, not all Jews; Jesus was a Jew – as were his followers, and John himself!). Other commentators have wondered, were they afraid of Jesus? Maybe they didn’t want to believe the testimony of the women … afraid that it was all too real?

But Jesus appears.. we imagine the shock, the awe… We see the physical interaction; body, wound, touch, seeing, restoration. (Whatever resurrection has done – it has not removed the wounding).

But we also witness the Spirit being given… as breath, and the words ‘Peace be with you’..

This following section was not given in the sermon…

And then this strange line about forgiving.. most strange. or is it…

If you forgive people’s sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

There are two halves to this sentence; the first concerns this strange word ‘sin’.. but I’m not talking about that today. It’s easy to imagine the second half of the sentence follows the same subject… which means if you do not forgive sin, they are not forgiven..

But that’s not what is being said… let’s be honest, Jesus has just died for or with the sin/(brokenness) of the whole world.. why on earth is he saying then that sins can be left unforgiven? That makes a mockery of the whole Easter event!

Let’s look another way and consider it talking about the people who commit sin, who carry and embody brokenness.. (and yes – that’s all of us!).

if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.

… But if you do, if you forgive the person, hold the person, embrace and welcome the person, the ‘other’– they are held, they are restored, they become like you.

Jesus meets the doubt of his followers; holds them, gives them the Spirit of peace, gives them the ability to share that peace with each other and with the world. So peace, spirit, resurrection, others .. again. The resurrection story becomes a little clearer… it is lived out with others…

“To love another person is to see the face of God.”

And finally we have the story of badly-typecast Thomas. To be honest.. he doesn’t even really ‘doubt’.. it’s more like when someone tells you about a great movie, a great song or a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavour.. hearing about it isn’t enough.. you want to see it or hear or taste it yourself.

That’s not even doubt in my book! .. I can tell you a few things about real doubt.. (but you’d be bored!)… Doubt is not the opposite of faith, but instead it’s part of it. Real doubt is good, necessary sometimes, and once again embraced by the one who cares enough to meet us in doubt.

And I would push further and say that doubt isn’t an in/out thing… we all live questioning; both believing and simultaneously denying all this stuff – all the time! Those whose doubts prevent them from entering church have a gift for us… cause us to be realistic. (Camino program, ‘I’m not sure if I believe’). In the crucible of doubt we lose certainties but are left with faith.

Thomas is where we are.. one week on.. when the glow of celebration subsides and reality knocks at the door. He wasn’t with the first disciples.. (who also didn’t believe what they were told)..  he’s probably had a terrible week.. I think we can give him that.. Maybe he didn’t doubt at all.. Maybe he grieved.. “how can anything be real anymore, how do I even begin to carry on with life?” Maybe we can all share something of that.. when something so devastating rips the ceiling off our lives… tears our worlds apart… Perhaps Thomas is like the psalmists pleading for God’s existence amid our groans, watching for God in the land parched with doubt but no water, looking for the God who bears the marks of our weary world in his own body. * The Psalms juxtapose extravagant faith claims alongside deep doubts.. The tension of now/not-yet. And if we are to be realistic about the resurrection then maybe we can doubt it as much as celebrate it!

Maybe, like Thomas and the Psalmists, we wait – allowing time to pass… we have to – we have no choice. We find ourselves held by others.. exploring silence and then (sometimes) unexpectedly surprised.

Jesus greets Thomas one week on.. offers the same blessing of peace, the same breath of the Spirit.. the same physical interaction. It is a beautiful intimate moment.

 “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

John finishes his story here…. (most scholars believe the other chapter is a later addition)

The story told ‘that you might believe’, is always being told, always without an ending; it requires time, patience understanding and love.. it requires others to help us tell the story, to listen, to share and to grow.

It asks that we dare to imagine something different.. something different to what we face now…

It asks that we embody a future full of wild, unknown and hopeful possibilities.

It asks that we understand that doubt is an inevitable part of that journey.. we cannot love the impossible until we first realise that it is truly impossible.

Yet in the face of death.. even the death of a crucified God .. a gift seems to emerge in our lives and offer something new.. life still overcoming death – over and over again. A new blessing, a new grace.. The Peace we share in this Eucharist reminds us that Easter transforms our lives and will keep on transforming…  always in process, always in hope, always in the face of an/other.

Peace be with you …

 

Featured Image : “My Lord and God” Jesus and Thomas, Painting by: Ronald Raab, CSC
https://ronaldraab.com/2017/04/22/the-second-sunday-of-easter-2017-painting-of-jesus-and-thomas/

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Thomas and Philip and the Way, the Truth and the Life

Thomas and Philip and the Way, the Truth and the Life

Acts 7:55-end, John 14:1-14

 

Many years ago, when I was a student, there was a fashion for thinking about Jesus like this: ‘Is he mad, bad, or God?’ The question was meant to be a way of focussing your mind on the incredible claims that Jesus made about himself and saying, well, who on earth is he then? A fraud, or who he says he is? I suppose the very fact I can remember that says something. But if you’ve been coming to church and been hearing about Jesus for some time, we tend to take it all a bit for granted. We’re used to the formula Jesus = God. It was definitely not like that for the disciples, certainly not in the time before His death and resurrection. Jesus was, after all, a human being, a man. They knew Him as their master, their teacher, yes – but also as their companion, their friend. This morning I want to try and get inside of that, to look at Jesus from the disciples’ point of view, specifically that of Thomas and Philip. So I am going to try and speak to them. Perhaps you can imagine yourself as one of the other disciples, sitting, listening, overhearing Jesus’ words or perhaps you can become Thomas or Philip and hear the words directly. Because what Jesus says, His words that we heard read in the gospel, were spoken in relationship. And they are really only true in relationship. Our Christian faith isn’t a set of rules and regulations that you follow. It begins and ends with the person of Jesus. It’s all about Him.

Before we get there though, let’s be clear of the context. Jesus didn’t say what He did out of the blue. He was on his way to Jerusalem, it was the last week of his life on earth. He had already told them that He wouldn’t be around much longer: “I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you: ‘Where I am going you cannot come.’” (Jn 13:33) So this was a period of uncertainty, of fear for the disciples. The party was ending. From the position of fear and uncertainty, Thomas poses his question: ‘Where is it you are going? How can we know the way?’ (Jn 14:5)

‘Thomas, how long have we known each other? Is it really three years? We know each other now, don’t we? I know you so well, always a bit sceptical, a bit unconvinced, but still you’re here, still you are with me. I love you for the way you voice your doubts and questions, you don’t keep them buttoned up. And don’t you know me? Don’t you know me well enough to believe me when I say that even though the worst may happen to me, to you, to any of us, in my Father’s house there are many rooms? Look, I am going there to prepare a place for you – yes, you Thomas – as well as all of you, too. That part is settled. I know that there are dark days ahead of us and that you are worried and fearful. I want you to step over your fears – as I have to – yes, I too am fearful of what may come in the next few days – but hold on to what you know, what you have seen and heard.

‘So, you are wondering about the way we are going, what is the way. Haven’t I become the way for you over these last years? Haven’t you been with me in all the things I have done and said? I have literally been ‘the way’ for you – you have, after all followed me – but haven’t I become like a way of life for you as well? Not only that, haven’t I become the way to the Father for you as well? Did you imagine it could be anything like how it has been? And hasn’t it been exciting, fun even? Think of some of the things we’ve been up to! Look around you to start with, at this bunch of misfits and ask yourself how it is that we are all here? You’re not exactly the top class, are you? Yet I chose you! Look at Peter the fisherman with his size 13 wellies, always ready to rush in where angels fear to tread! And James and John, the sons of thunder I call them (Mk 3:17), after they wanted to call down lightning from heaven in judgement! Matthew, dear Matthew, the tax collector, the collaborator, the traitor – gave it all up, all his money so he could be here with me, with us (Mk 2:13-14). Would you have been friends with any of them? But look, here we are! Isn’t this life? Isn’t this living? Think of some of the other people we’ve come across, invited to join us, people who are ‘nobodies’? Ordinary men and women and children, shopkeepers, bakers, fishermen, builders – and then the sex workers, the crazy – what about the man who spent his life naked, raving among the tombstones, remember that? How we sent the spirits that plagued him into a herd of pigs that rushed off a cliff and left him clothed and in his right mind? Didn’t we give him his life back? (Mk 5:1-17) Even more than that, think of Lazarus, our dear friend, Mary and Martha’s brother, who died. You wept, I wept, we all wept at their sorrow. And yet, what happened? he’s unwrapping his bandages and stepping out of the tomb (Jn 11:1-44). Thomas, I am the way, I am the life. I am the truth, too. Not that horrible kind of truth that condemns a man because he’s on the wrong side of it, but truth that is full of life, truth that says, ‘this is right, this is true and good’ – and it gives life. Because the truth about those ‘nobodies’, about you, and all the others that are just ‘ordinary’ is that you’re not ordinary. In fact, my Father loves you, Thomas the doubter, and the crazy guy in the tombs, and the whores, and the collaborators, as well as the people at the top. Yes, He loves them too.

‘Do you remember when we got accused of being drunkards? (Mt 11:19) Maybe they were thinking of when I changed the water into wine at the wedding in Cana so the party could go on (Jn 2:1-11). Hasn’t it been a bit like a party in these years? Hasn’t it felt like that? But that’s what being in the kingdom of my Father is like – it’s not some drab, stiff, sober place where nobody laughs or cracks a joke or maybe has a bit too much to drink – it’s exactly the opposite. It’s a place where we celebrate, enjoy each other’s company where we can be who we are, happy to know we are loved by the Father.

‘And think about the cages we’ve rattled? That’s part of it, too. We rattled cages when we stood up for what is right and true and some people – people with vested interests, people who have been blinded by possessions or power haven’t liked it at all. I called them out. The Pharisees who teach you can leave your parents dirt poor if your money is offered to God (Mk7:9-13). Who load people with burdens, stuff to do to make them really ‘religious’ but don’t help them to do it . The people who are offended because I care for the poor, the outcast, the sick, lepers, even the dead. Those ways of living – not that it’s really living – have to be called out for what they are, even though there’s a price to pay. In fact, and you know it, the price is soon going to be paid. I am the truth, the truth about my Father.

‘But Thomas, you should know that the way, the way I live, includes pain. Yes, I am the way to the Father and you have seen how much joy there is in that, how there is welcome, how it’s true life and how that is literally what I have given to people. But there will always be resistance, there will always be pain. This is a way where we go out towards others, towards people who are suffering, towards the unloved and the unlovely, a way where we do what is true and right even though it costs us. What is about to happen to me is part of the way too.

‘Philip, I have heard your question too. ‘Show us the Father’. Philip, haven’t you understood yet? Look at me. Look at the things I have done and said. Think about what I’ve just said to Thomas. Think of what kind of person I am. Think about why you wanted to follow me. The truth is, I am in the Father and the Father is in me. When you look at me, you are looking at the Father.

I hope that in some way that has helped us to get behind perhaps what Jesus had in mind when he said of himself. ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’ (Jn 14:6) It is this Jesus that we honour in our worship and in our lives, who is Himself the way to the Father, who shapes our way of life – a way that is full of celebration, friendship across all barriers, brings healing and reconciliation but also self-giving; who is the truth, the truth about God Himself who reaches out in love to all; and the life – the life of God.

 

Richard Croft