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Ascension Day 2021  

Luke 24.44-end, Acts 1.1-11

Looking up Ascension Day sermons on my computer I discovered that I’ve preached a number here, and so I’ve probably said most of what can be said about the background to the Ascension – the significance of mountains and links with OT epiphanies like those to Moses and Elijah on Sinai and Horeb,  the need to explain why the resurrection appearances of Christ ceased after a certain period of time (40 days, says Luke in Acts), providing us with a hinge event between Easter and Pentecost, preparing us for the coming of the Holy Spirit….  As Richard Croft said on Sunday, I’m preaching to the converted – you already know all that background stuff.

But last year I broke with tradition. We celebrated the Ascension on the Sunday close to the day and I borrowed Tango, a disreputable looking orange bird puppet from Chris Smith to illustrate what I wanted to say.  Lockdown was starting to get to me, I guess! I wanted to talk about learning to fly.  Tango was a fledgling and he was nervous about the whole flying business.  It seemed and still seems to me that the Ascension was what launched Jesus followers into the possibility of flying, that is to say, leaving the familiar, launching into the unknown and becoming witnesses to the resurrection as we see recorded in Acts.  It’s obviously bound up with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, but it starts before then because at the end of the Ascension, at the end of Luke’s gospel he notes that the disciples returned to Jerusalem with great joy; already the Holy Spirit was at work.

What enables birds to fly? It’s in their genes (and I’m not talking about trousers!) What is it about the Ascension that prepared the disciples for the launching out we see after Pentecost?  One way of putting it is to say that through Christ’s death and resurrection a new gene entered human DNA.  One of the early church Fathers, Irenaeus put it this way, ‘God became human so that we might become divine’.  Another image which I rather like, especially with all the talk about passports, visas, entry requirements coming up around Brexit, is that as Christians we have dual citizenship.  We are British citizens and we are citizens of heaven.  The Ascension is when that reality first started to dawn on us.  When Christ was raised from the dead it did something to our humanity; that was raised too, so much so that at the Ascension we too are caught up with Christ, right into the heart of the Trinity.  That’s where we now dwell.  That’s what heaven is about.  We are citizens of earth, but also citizens of heaven.  Jesus said to his disciples when he was preparing them for his death, ‘I am going to prepare a place for you, so that you may be where I am’. And he did and we are.

We have roots in a place other than our current context.  We have an identity other than what is in our UK passport.  We are people who are fully earthed, whilst also able to extend our range beyond what we can experience through our senses.  Our flying, as it were, might include extending the range of people whom we love, or enlarging our prayer life, or spending more time at home, or simplifying our possessions or learning a new skill or being more generous……really, whatever signals some resurrection life emerging.

Like those disciples gathered round Jesus on the mountain, let’s look up and look out for what is in store for us as we hold dual citizenship and practise flying.

 

Christine Bainbridge May 2021

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

Making connections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Christine Bainbridge

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Easter 3, 11th April 2021

John 20:19-31: Resurrection

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Jeremy Thake

St. John & St. Stephen.

 

 

Acts 2

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

 

John 20

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

New Revised Standard Version, Anglicized

 

 

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Sermon for Epiphany 1B: Baptism of Christ 10.01.21

Zoom Church St John and St Stephen’s, Reading

Acts 19:1-7

19While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the inland regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. 2He said to them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?’ They replied, ‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’ 3Then he said, ‘Into what then were you baptized?’ They answered, ‘Into John’s baptism.’ 4Paul said, ‘John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.’ 5On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied— 7altogether there were about twelve of them.

Mark 1:4-11

4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’

The Baptism of Jesus

9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

Sermon

At the beginning of this new year, it might be a good time to take stock and ask ourselves ‘where are we today?’ Well, we’re online. Again. We’re in lockdown no. 3.

We’re in January, the month in which the saddest day of the year falls in approximately 10 days’ time. We’re at the start of the third decade of the 21st century. We’re in the middle of possibly the worst stage of the coronavirus pandemic with the NHS reportedly ‘on the brink’. But we’re also at the start of a nationwide roll out of the vaccine that will get us through to the other side. And we’re in Epiphany.

 

Where is our world at the moment? There’s been a programme on radio 4 asking this question – you might like to have a listen on iPlayer. The daily 15-minute slot aired Monday – Friday each morning at 9.45 am. In each episode someone who leads in their particular field read their essay entitled “A letter to the 21st Century” on its coming of age (turning 21). I had a vested interest in tuning in as Tuesday’s essay was given by the Executive Director of the Clean Air Fund and cited climate change as the most pressing issue of our time. The essay happened to have been written by my daughter!

 

Where is our community of Newtown at the moment? Well, I walked down to the church the other day and noticed the Sun Street Community Centre all beautifully refurbished and ready, right down to the green baize grass outside, but looking suspiciously as though there was no one inside, no doubt due to the current restrictions. Meanwhile the gas tower art exhibition which we would have hosted last summer has moved online and is still attracting a lot of attention; it’s as though a community has gathered around this important landmark and we all wonder if 2021 will finally be the year when it disappears. And thirdly, also online is news of a new youth and community hub opening in Cholmeley Road, and a Facebook video of the refurbishment and where it has got to so far. That was news to me. And have you noticed how someone is painting the utility covers at the side of the roads across our parish, with interesting and uplifting words: Look. Hope. Unity.

 

In the wider community this week Reading was shattered to hear of the death by stabbing of a 13-year-old boy in Emmer Green. Three other young teenagers were taken into custody in connection with the murder. How is it in our town that 13-year-olds are wandering in a park in daylight carrying lethal weapons they intend to use? What has happened in our society with our young people to make this possible?

 

And where are you today? Tired? Hopeful? Despondent? Worried about 2021? Are you in a better place than you were last spring when all this began, or a worse one?

Are you sad or bereaved? Perhaps you’re waiting for medical intervention or recovering from some? Perhaps worship and homegroups being online has been the best thing as far as you’re concerned. Perhaps it’s been the worst. Whatever, it’s always good to take stock. So, where are we?

 

As mentioned, liturgically we’re in Epiphany. We’ve celebrated God’s light being revealed to those who were not naturally God’s people – the Magi from the East. And today we see Jesus coming for baptism. It may not be obvious what the link is, but if we stick to God’s glory being revealed in different ways to different people, we’ll be on the right track through Epiphany.

 

So where is Jesus today, in this reading? He is at the very start of his ministry.

For Mark, writing his somewhat breathless account of Jesus’ life, the nativity is dispensed with and John the Baptist opens the first chapter. Jesus is baptised within the first 9 verses – there’s no hanging around. So, Jesus is at the start of his public ministry. What else is going on?

 

He is straddling the two covenants – or two testaments – the Old and the New. And as such, his baptism is significantly different from the baptism that John had been offering to the Jews. John knew the significance of this different type of baptism; he said: ‘the one who is more powerful than me is coming after me…I have baptised you with water; but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit’ (Mark 1:7-8).

 

And the apostle Paul knew the difference too. We read in Acts that during his missionary travels he came across ‘some disciples’ who had been baptised with water, but not the Spirit. It’s a very interesting little passage. For some reason he asks them ‘did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?’ I wonder why he asked them that? Was it somehow obvious to Paul that these disciples were missing something? We don’t really know, but it’s an interesting thought. They are disciples of Jesus, but they don’t have the Spirit. It’s puzzling and also challenging. Is this a thing, to be a disciple but miss the main point; to be a disempowered disciple?

 

I’m wondering if that should make us think a little? Are there disciples in our churches who have somehow missed out on receiving the Holy Spirit? It’s always struck me how outsiders to the church assume that everyone believes everything inside the church. Sometimes there can be more evidence of God outside than in.

 

Anyway, Paul asks them his question, ‘did you receive the Holy Spirit?’ and they respond: ‘We haven’t even heard that there is a Holy Spirit’. (Which kind of makes me laugh, in a sort of desperate way; it’s like every vicar’s worst nightmare. I’m imagining a scenario where there’s a special church event which the vicar is worried no one will attend, and the vicar approaches you and asks: ‘are you coming?’ and it’s not just a ‘no, I’m not coming’, but ‘I haven’t even heard of it’!)

 

This phenomenon of disciples who’ve not heard there is a Holy Spirit or who have in some way misunderstood the faith, should encourage us that no amount of heterodoxy should debar anyone from being blessed by God.

 

Which reminds me of a somewhat uncomfortable occasion when I agreed to take a baptism of a baby at rather short notice. The mother had had a series of very difficult life events, and had fallen out with her local priest. I’d already baptised one of her children and this second time around, I think we only had one session of preparation at which I was mostly trying to remember if this was the same partner as she had had the time before, or someone different, and what surnames I should be writing in the register. As the special Sunday drew near, I fell ill, and my colleague had to step in to take the service at the last minute. Our small congregation had swollen to five times its size as the mother had invited everyone she knew, and in every sense, it was a BIG OCCASION. My colleague, who’s a bit more relaxed than me, assuming I’d done some thorough theological preparation with the family, asked the mother if she’d like to say a few words at the font. The mother duly stepped forward and announced to the whole congregation how happy she was that her child had been baptised, because when baptised children die, they automatically turn into angels.

 

When this was reported to me later, I nearly died of ministerial embarrassment. But I have to say I remember that lady as the most enthusiastic champion of infant baptism I’ve ever come across. And a natural evangelist (hence all the guests). It was obvious that God was at work in her life.

 

So back to Jesus. Here he is, standing before John the Baptist, submitting to baptism, and as he rises out of the water, we are told the heavens are torn open and the Spirit descends like a dove. Two events contrasted by their similes: the ‘tearing open’ phrase is from the Greek ‘skizomenous’ from which we get schizophrenic (split personality) and schism (an irrevocable split in the Church). And then the Spirit descends gently. It rests upon Jesus, as portrayed in many a classical painting (one of which Richard Croft led us through in his sermon this time last year). In fact, the Spirit could also be said to have ‘gone into’ Jesus if you look at the pronoun used in the Greek.

 

So here is Jesus, at the still point of receiving the Spirit before he goes into action.

Moreover, he hears the voice of God declaring ‘this is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’. At this still moment, the source of Jesus’ power is revealed as love. Being beloved. The love of the triune God that holds everything together invites me in, invites you in. And this love is offered to Jesus before he does one day of ministry. Before the teachings, before the healings, before he confronts the wilderness.

 

This is the source of all we do, too: God’s prevenient, unconditional love. Contemplating God’s love leads to action, and action leads back to love. That’s how we function as the body of Christ in our fellowship. Do you know that assurance of God’s love, that even when you’re at the end of your own resources (and especially at this point) you are still precious in his eyes. Each of us needs to hear that voice: this is my beloved son; this is my beloved daughter; this is my beloved child.

 

Where are we today? Like Jesus, we are perhaps also at a crossroads. In lockdown 1 we mourned the loss of a normal church life. In lockdown 3 we have a chance to think about our identity – personally and as a church. We are called to be, and to do, just as Jesus was. As we consider who we are and where we’re going we might take comfort from what is emerging from the political upheaval in the States this week, that many of us will have followed on TV.

 

After four years of Donald Trump ends in the violent storming of the Capitol, I am forcefully struck by the evil of White Supremacy, of how it has a strangle hold on so many people still; how it brainwashes people and makes nationalism into a god; how it is intrinsically antithetical to the Way of Jesus.

 

I encourage you to catch up on what’s been happening in the state of Georgia as two new Senators have been elected this week. In the past two years, after narrowly missing out on being elected herself, black lawyer and activist Stacy Abrams began grassroots community organising. This was to encourage people of colour who felt like it wasn’t even worth voting, to cast their vote for change. She ran a movement called Black Voters Matter and for two years she and her team encouraged black people find their voice. I suspect this went largely unnoticed by the press. Van Jones, a political commentator, lawyer and author, said this on Wednesday, after their successful campaigning had delivered two new Democrat Senators: ‘Black joy won over White rage in Georgia’. One of the new Senators, Pastor Raphael Warnock, paid tribute to his 82-year-old mother who grew up in the Jim Crow South: ‘The other day, because this is America, the 82-year-old hands that used to pick somebody else’s cotton went to the polls and picked her youngest son to be a United States senator.’

 

This is something new emerging from chaos and injustice.

 

This is where we are today: poised on the brink of racial justice emerging from an unjust world that has been brutally unmasked by Covid. And we’re poised to address climate breakdown as the clock ticks away this decade. And perhaps the Church is poised to rediscover her identity, not in prestige or power, but as ‘the beloved’.  None of this emerging renewal will come cheap. At the beginning of this new year, let’s hear again that voice that grounds us and readies us for action: ‘this is my beloved child: with them I am well pleased.’

 

 

 

pentecost

How do we imagine the Holy Spirit?

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