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The Bread of Life

Today’s gospel reading is part of a series on five consecutive Sundays from John 6.  Richard began last week with vv1-21, the feeding of the 5,000 and one of the stories of Jesus walking on water.  We then skip a couple of verses (22-23), and continue on today.  We should have stopped at verse 35, but we continue on to verse 40 to get the complete passage.  The next three weeks have recursive, overlapping readings, starting with today’s last verse and going on v69.

Clearly those who composed our lectionary think John 6 is important.

After the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus had gone up on the Golan Heights on the east of the Sea of Galilee to pray and to escape from the people – who wanted to make him king, and the disciples had, rather strangely, set off by themselves back across the lake by boat to Capernaum on the Northwest corner of Galilee.  Presumably Jesus had told them not to wait for him, but this is not recorded.  Jesus then catches up with them, walking across the lake.  Our reading starts next morning when the crowd realises Jesus and the disciples have left.

The first part of John 6 sets the scene for the rest of the chapter.  Jesus has performed the miracle of multiplying bread and fish, and this leads on to todays theme: I am the bread of life.

Jesus ignores the crowd’s question about when he arrived (they had not seen him leave), and he confronts them, saying that they are not even following him because of miracles, but simply because he had fed them.  When we were looking at children’s services here a few years back, I remember one parent saying that all you needed to keep kids engaged in worship was food, so perhaps we are not that different.  But the crowd with Jesus were, at least, adults.

Jesus has been trying to engage with them spiritually.  Work for food that lasts for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.  When they ask what that means, Jesus replies, What God wants you to do is to believe in the one he sent.  Surprisingly, the crowd then says, What miracle will you perform so that we may see it and believe you? What will you do?  Our ancestors ate manna in the desert, just as the scripture says, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.  It seems that they had forgotten what happened the day before.

But, there is more going on here.  Jesus is claiming that he can give eternal life, something no-one before him, not the prophets or the kings, had claimed before.  The Jews were waiting for a Messiah as God promised Moses Deuteronomy 1815: I will send them a prophet like you from among their own people.  Like Moses, they expected the Messiah both to lead and provide for them.  What Jesus had done in multiplying food was small beer compared with Moses, who had fed the people from nothing in a desert for 40 years.  If Jesus was claiming to be the greater than Moses, the people wanted a sign.

Which Jesus does not give them.  Manna came from God, not Moses, but now the people have the true bread from heaven.  For the bread that God gives is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.

So the people ask for this bread, still probably thinking in terms of their stomachs.  Jesus replies with the famous verse, I am the bread of life, those who come to me will never be hungry; those who believe in me will never be thirsty.  And, like a cliff hanger at the end of a television episode, you will have to wait till next week to find out what else he said.  (Or pick up a Bible.)

I have long been puzzled by John 6.  Jesus seems deliberately to antagonise, first the crowd, then the wider group of his followers.  It ends with lots of his followers leaving him, at the end of Chapter 6 (not the 12 disciples, of course).  If only he would say, look, this is a metaphor; I am not really talking about bread, it might have solved the problem.  But he does not.

Why is he being obtuse?  From all we know of Jesus, from the Bible, from personal experience, from the experience of others, you cannot just say he was having an off day, that he had lost patience with people, and he might have said it differently if he had had a good night’s sleep and a good breakfast.  This must be what he meant.

So we need to see spiritually to come to God.  Those who are intent purely on the physical, who do not lift their eyes above this world to the wonder and meaning and love behind it will not hear the message.  Jesus hints at this: All those that the Father gives me will come to me (v37), and later People cannot come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them to me (v44).  This seems strange to us, as from other passages we take it that God’s acceptance is open to anyone who comes to him.  But there do seem to be times when people are blind, where no amount of reasoning will help them see, when they are closed off in themselves.  There is an element to conversion that relies on the Spirit’s touch, and without that we can do nothing.  Which is disturbing in some ways, and freeing in others.

Just this week, I saw something that struck me in Prayer Notes for INF, International Nepal Fellowship, the organisation the Galpins worked with, for August/September: “It has been estimated that three-quarters of Nepalis who have become Christians have done so as a result of witnessing healing or another form of miracle.”  It reminded me of a time in our church homegroup in Butwal, Nepal, when people shared how they had become Christians.  For by far the majority, it was because they had seen someone healed.  And in their cases, they had not just seen the physical healing, but had been pointed by it to Jesus.

What is on offer from Jesus in John 6 is extraordinary.  Six times in the chapter, Jesus says that he had come down from heaven.  It is the first of the I AM passages in John, I am the bread of life, in which Jesus links himself to the name I AM WHO I AM that God used of himself to Moses.  He claims that he will give eternal life to those who believe in him, that those who believe in him will never hunger or thirst; he will satisfy all your spiritual needs.  He will never turn anyone away, nor will he lose them.

Jeremy Thake

St. John & St. Stephen

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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

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The True Vine

 John 15.1-8

 

Introduction – On the 4th of March 2016 four gunmen entered a home for the elderly, abandoned and fragile run by the Missionary Sisters of Charity (Mother Teresa Sisters) located in a poor suburb of Yemen’s port city, Aden. They killed twelve people, included a local, young lady doctor, a Muslim, who went there regularly as a volunteer and whose young children on the day in question had asked eagerly to accompany her. It was a place of hopefulness, of coughs and groans, strange shouts and noises, smells too, but also laughter and joy. It was a place we too loved to visit when we lived there.

The gunmen also killed four of the five nuns who ran the centre. They were from India, Kenya and Rwanda. Yemen’s press are not squeamish. The front pages of the nation’s newspapers showed the bodies of the Sisters with their aprons on, lying in pools of blood. Said our son on seeing them, “What nobler way to die than serving breakfast to the city’s abandoned and forgotten.” In a city inured to brutality and sudden death, this particular act of savagery provoked widespread grief and indignation for the Sisters and their work were held there in the greatest affection and esteem.

I recount this incident not to shock, though I should do all I can to make Yemen’s shameful and most pitiful plight more widely known, but because the Sisters’ lives so vividly illustrate the import of Jesus’ teaching in our Gospel for today – his insistence on the necessity of abiding, and on the inevitability of good fruit in the lives who submit to his pruning and live in his love. Mother Teresa once wrote, ‘The more we receive in our silent prayer, the more we can give in our active life.’ We shared as often as we could in their prayer and observed with delight and wonder their active lives of cheerful, compassionate service.

The setting, context and background of today’s Gospel – The teaching before us, which includes the last of Jesus’ great I AM sayings, was given on the evening of his betrayal and arrest, perhaps on a rooftop beside the Upper Room beneath a spreading vine. His disciples would have been familiar with the cultivation of vines and with the imagery of the vine in their faith. Israel is described in Psalm 80 as a transplanted vine brought out of Egypt, as a luxuriant vine in Hosea (10.1) and tragically, as a degenerate vine in the 5th chapter of Isaiah. There God speaks of the care he had lavished upon the vine and of his expectation to find on it sweet, full and luscious grapes only to find bitter grapes, wild ones of oppression, bribery, brutality and falsehood. It is against this background that Jesus presents himself as the genuine vine, his followers, (ourselves included) as the branches from whom the Father, the vinedresser, has every expectation of good fruit.

Two further points in this overly long introduction! Firstly ,the introduction imagery of the vine at this point in Jesus life is so poignantly apt. A vine does not have the lofty grandeur of an oak tree nor, I believe, the spring blossom of the cherry. It is a funny, straggly, insignificant thing, but what fruit! It lives to give and when it has, it’s cut right down. As Jesus spoke these words, the tramp of the feet of those sent to take him are almost audible.

Secondly, in the teaching immediately before this, Jesus has taken much time to reassure his anxious disciples that despite all that is to come, he will be with them. Here, Jesus is keen to remind them, through the vine allegory, that proximity even integration with him carries responsibility to go, to live, to be for him. Privilege carries responsibility – to bear fruit. ‘The gracious indwelling of God for his people is not an invitation to settle down and forget the world it is a summons to mission.’ ( Leslie Newbegin )

The fruit God looks for – What then is the fruit God desires and expects? The prophet Isaiah in the passage already referred to told us what it is not – namely cruelty, greed and lying, the opposite of which is surely kindness, generosity and integrity, two if not all three of which are amongst the nine fruits of the Spirit listed by St Paul towards the end of this letter to the Galatians.

As a young undergraduate, I remember being told that being fruitful meant, ‘bringing friends to Christ’. I felt guilty because as far as I was aware I wasn’t doing a lot of that, though I did sincerely wish they shared the faith I held.

In preparation for today, I came across this simple yet comprehensive definition of what it means to be fruitful. ‘It is the life of Jesus himself reproduced in the lives of his followers.’

The life of Jesus expressed indignation in the face of hypocrisy, anger in the face of wickedness, compassion in the face of suffering, lonely obedience to the will of his Father when easier paths beckoned, joy in the Spirit and a ready telling of the good and loving purposes of God for his children.

Illustration – At the home run by the Sisters, a Sister from Tanzania asked me concernedly over a cool bottle of Fanta whether I knew of any Muslims in the city becoming Christians? “Yes,” I replied, truthfully and readily. Her eyes lit up. “Do you know, I pray every day that the people here may come to see the beauty of Jesus.” I was moved. Such passion and love !

Fruit production! – If that be the fruit, how then is it produced?   1) Abiding, or staying in the vine. That’s obvious but essential, and Jesus is extraordinarily blunt about it – ‘Without me you can do nothing.’ Of course, hundreds of millions of us do do lots without him. We do so frequently. We pursue careers, go to Aldi or Waitrose, book holidays, redecorate homes and extend the patio. We can do all that but life lived removed from the vine cannot, Jesus says, produce fruit, the fruit that God looks for. And the opening of this passage carries a sombre warning of the fate of those who professing to be Christians produce no fruit. What then does ‘staying in the vine’ entail?

It will include what we are about today – worship, meditation on the life of Christ – prayer. It also, in the words of a former Bishop of Liverpool – someone of whom a rough working man said once on hearing him preach, “Yon man’s no bishop. I can understand him well”! – means, ‘cling to me, stick fast to me, live the life of close and intimate communion with me, put your whole weight on me . . . never let go your hold for a moment.’ It’s a reciprocal relationship, put well in the lines of a simple hymn, ‘I’ll live in you if you live in me. I am the Lord of the Dance, said he.’

2)  Pruning – Two weeks ago we were visiting an elderly friend in Durham, in the north of England, where we admired the neat pruning of her crab apple tree and just the beginning of new buds breaking out. I recall some time ago walking past vineyards where the vines had been cut back and pruned after harvest. They really looked savaged. They were though the vines of a very good winery. A good vine won’t be left to grow rampant, nor, suggests Jesus, faithful Christians.

On the subject of pruning, here are some gleanings from guidelines drawn up for the care of vines in the Champagne region of France in 1938. ‘Pruning is the most fundamental of vineyard tasks. It’s purpose is to encourage the sap to flow towards the fruit-bearing buds – the main pruning season for grape vines is early winter but they need regular pruning throughout the growing season. Regular pruning is essential for producing quality fruit yields.And what is essential for vines, Jesus taught, is an inevitable and necessary part of the course for his followers, and in his purposes and for our pruning God can use sickness, bereavement, shattered hopes and thwarted ambition, heartbreak, dark long days of depression and helplessness.

Illustration – We once had living with us a delightful young man called, Nicholas, who while living with us learned that he’d failed to gain entrance into Cambridge, something his family members had not  done for generations. His parents were appalled and he, upset, but some months later he said wistfully over breakfast, “I think it’s as well I didn’t get into Cambridge, I would have been such a prick.” (Pardon the language!) I refrained from saying, “Amen, Nicholas.” He had been given bless him, grace to see in his disappointment, the gracious hand of God at work in his life and he has had many opportunities to see it since, both in joy and at moments,of acute suffering. I dare to suggest that sometimes where the pruning has seemed most savage, the resulting fruit has been the most beautiful.

Farshad Fathi, is a young Iranian Christian. He was sentenced to six years in prison for his involvement with the growing Christian congregations that met in homes across his town. He wrote from prison, a poem entitled, ‘My Wilderness’. In conclusion, I quote a few lines.

My wilderness is painful but lovely . . .
My wilderness is like an endless road, but short compared to eternity
My wilderness seems like a lonely trip but I’m not alone
My beloved is on me . . .
My wilderness is dangerous but safe because I dwell between his shoulders
So I love my wilderness because it takes me to the deeper part of you, Lord,
and no one can separate me from your arms, ever.

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How is your Theology, Ali ?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living with the Resurrection; doubts, hopes and all.

+ May I speak …

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

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

One week on.. has Easter made a difference?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This following section was not given in the sermon…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace be with you …

 

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

mothering sunday2

Myth and Motherhood

1 Samuel 1.20-28 . Gospel  John 19.25-27

May I speak in the name of the One who is Source of all being, eternal Word and Spirit of truth.

“Remember me?”

She stands before Eli the priest, I came every year, and then I stopped.  Does she look him in the eye? Does she come marching up?  Does she toss her head a little? Remember me? Did she imagine tapping him on the shoulder, watching him turn, waiting for the recognition in his eye hey, Eli, remember me?

It has been a while now, 4 years probably, the memory of that last time stands clear for her. She remembers, and now she has come, she has come to seek him out, this priest O Eli do you remember me?

Does he? Does Eli remember her?

Does he remember this woman standing – there, just there, was it really 4 years ago? he remembers he went over to remonstrate with her, what a spectacle she was making of herself, pull yourself together he said, what shocking behaviour he said, and here she is again, standing before him.

Hannah remembers. Hannah, taunted by her husband’s other wife, desperate and longing for children, went into the temple, that day, and stood before God, opened her heart, perhaps for the first time, let go of all the pretence, and poured it all out, she surprised herself really – the power of saying those words out loud, they had been spinning round in her head for so long, and then, then of course she had almost been thrown out she catches Eli’s eye – and there passes a moment, O yes she has been remembered.

And look who I have with me; look who is peeping round my skirts, wide eyed and curious, ready to emerge into the world, this is my pride and joy, my son, my beautiful, precious boy, who I nurtured, and protected, who was given to my care for a little while, and who now I lend to God.

There is no neutral way to talk about this story.   Where do you place yourself?  The weeping Hannah longing for children? The rather plaintive cry of her husband back in verse 8 ‘why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than 10 sons?’  The image of Hannah, shutting herself away for those precious years before she returns to the temple. Perhaps you are drawn to the child, 3 or 4 years old uprooted from home and sent to live in the temple?

Perhaps you feel excluded from this story altogether?

And then? If you happened to have your Bible open at that page, you would see, Hannah immediately launches into song

O I do love Hannah, the two things we know she does in church; uncontrollable weeping and spontaneous singing.

And what about that song?  Just like Mary’s Magnificat,

Both songs, both women, both mothers sing a song not that their individual specific child would be healthy, happy, prosperous, whatever, but something in the act of creating this new life has inspired in them to a vision of the world they long for; of wrongs being made right redressing the balance, a world of peace and justice.

This story of Hannah, written by a displaced people who longed for a God who would remember them, forging their identity in exile by reaching back into the memory of the golden age of the monarchy.  They were surrounded by Babylonian myths of kings with divine powers, of warring gods indifferent to the fate of humans, instead their stories grew around a Divinity who is deeply and intrinsically rooted in human interests, rooted and grounded in love.

Now of course you don’t have to be pregnant to discover that the world is crying out in anguish for justice and mercy, for the hungry to be filled and the lowly to be lifted up, but it is a powerful metaphor nonetheless, as new life stirs and grows within, to listen to what our hearts are yearning for, the call to participate in the flourishing of all creation.

Which brings us to today, Mothering Sunday, a day which invites us to remember Mothering as a verb, rather than a noun.

And how might we describe this verb of mothering? Might we use words like protecting, nurturing, sustaining?

These are words of growth, of journeying, We might use words like challenging, transforming, flourishing.

Are these words to describe all those who mother? – I am sure many of you, like me, know fathers who mother, sisters who mother, grandmas who mother, those who take on being a mother, mothers who also father, second mothers, mothers without their children.

Let me tell you about Phylis, or Phyl, as she would have us call her. As it happens when Phyl was young the country was at war with Germany.  Now where she lived, in Northampton, there was a camp, an internment camp for German prisoners of war. Now as you can imagine, these young German men were not especially welcomed, indeed they were generally treated with great suspicion, fear, perhaps even hatred, people perhaps saw it as their duty to shun them, turn away, to treat them as the enemy.

Phyl’s mother however, saw things differently.  She only saw young, vulnerable men, far from home, young men in need of mothering.  So Phyl’s mum reached out, and invited one of the men, called Zip into their home.  Zip became a regular visitor, drawn into the family, as Phyl’s mother became a mother to Zip as well.

Do you wonder how Phyl felt as her mother brought this man into their home? Do you wonder if she had to endure the criticism of people who were shocked that she could do such a thing, the accusations of people who called them disloyal – or worse, Or, perhaps do you wonder if Phyl was proud of her mother, proud to be the daughter of a woman who could see past the enemy soldier and see the young man who needed a mother?

Over the years of the war, Zip did become part of that family, a son to Phyl’s mother, a brother to Phyl and her sisters, and when he returned home to Germany after the war the two families of course stayed in touch, visiting each other, becoming part of each other’s story of family, the story remembered and handed down to Phyl’s daughter and granddaughter, and now handed on to you.  Now this isn’t a grand story, just a simple quiet domestic story, just one of many family stories of those who reach out, across boundaries, forging new relationships. Stories of love and understanding, of how we are to be in the world, how we are to make the world we long to see.

Perhaps we can see how wonderful, how liberating that we can find the depth and richness of mothering in all those forms. And how the richness of this allows us to understand the mothering of God, the strength, the depth, the enduring power of divine love.

this is the love which sustains us in the journey of our growth, of our deepest connection, bringing us to the point of wholeness, to become all we were meant to be.

Our Gospel story this morning reminds us, as if we needed it, that mothering is not limited to biology – that the beloved disciple and the mother of Jesus were, at the cross, in their mutual grief and loss, brought into a new relationship, the beloved disciple found a mother, and Mary became a mother to another son

Perhaps the mothering of God is the wholehearted embracing of life in all its fulness, to struggle, to weep, to celebrate, to laugh, to wonder, imagine the world as it could be.

As we respond to Christ’s invitation this morning, we come together as sisters and brothers of one family, who share in the body and blood of Christ; we stand in the presence of God, to mother and to be mothered, to remember and be remembered,

May we know that each of us is called to nurture, to protect, to sustain, to participate in the flourishing of all creation, and share in the outpouring of love

April Beckerleg
(Our Guest speaker. April is curate at St Edbergs, Bicester)

March 2018

My prayers are prayers of earth’s own clumsily striving

(finding and losing and laughing and crying)children

Whose any sadness or joy is my grief or gladness

(e e cummings)

 

Screen Shot 2017-06-05 at 01.23.42

The Power of a Name.

John 17:1-11

 

+ may I speak in the name of the one whose name cannot be contained by words…

Theodoret of Cyrus (Cyrrhus in Syria), The Ecclesiastical History 
Book V, Chapter XXVI: Of Honorius the Emperor and Telemachus the monk. 

“Honorius, who inherited the empire of Europe, put a stop to the gladitorial combats which had long been held at Rome.  The occasion of his doing so arose from the following circumstance.  A certain man of the name of Telemachus had embraced the ascetic life.  He had set out from the East and for this reason had repaired to Rome.  There, when the abominable spectacle was being exhibited, he went himself into the stadium, and stepping down into the arena, endeavoured to stop the men who were wielding their weapons against one another.
“In the Name of Christ Stop!”
The spectators of the slaughter were indignant, and inspired by the triad fury of the demon who delights in those bloody deeds, stoned the peacemaker to death.

When the admirable emperor was informed of this he numbered Telemachus in the number of victorious martyrs, and put an end to that impious spectacle.”

The story of Telemachus reveals how invoking a name, the name, brings about unexpected outcomes… answers to prayer – but not as we imagined… in the name.

And this week we have witnessed a most terrible tragedy in Manchester.

Killing in the name…

Yet also Loving in the name….

And loving too, but not in any name other than basic decent common humanity….

 

What does it mean to act in a name?

Todays reading is a rich and complex passage, which many scholars suggest is written after the event, trying to make sense of the growing and differing theologies of what Jesus was actually all about!

In the account Jesus seems most vulnerable. Just prior to his betrayal and arrest in Gethsemane, the text carries the weight of impending tragedy. Jesus prayer is a beguiling combination of what seems like uncertainty and yet faith at the same time, (and we will return to this…). A tender, fractured prayer is offered, a prayer of love and compassion and hope. Even when everything will soon be taken away; a strange aroma drifts through the text, an aroma—strangely—of hope.

Not a hope in something even, not a hope that something will happen.. but hope of the kind that simply says ‘I must go on’. The kind of hope embodied by patients in hospital, or those going through marriage break-down, or those facing tragic events; the simple, un-heroic, unwelcome, ‘I go to bed, I wake up the next day’, hope.

The sort of thing that 21st century Anglicanism may be all about. Jesus prays for his disciples because he truly cares about them-they have been his life. Before glooming skies, his prayer is earnest; he knows who he is praying about, women, men, probably children too… The prayer emerges from his experience as a human being, it is contextual; small, weak, vulnerable. It is like whenever a parent prays for their child, we know that the prayer is deep and primal.

And how many of us have prayed for children these last few days?

This week we have seen the most vulnerable sections of our society, and sadly in other parts of the world too, deliberately and malicious targeted by the opposite of this love—hated, fear and vengeance. We might well want to ask how Jesus prayer fits with our very real, painfully real, world; what does ‘The Name’ reveal?

We are here today as struggling human beings, trying our best to discover and follow the teachings of Jesus. His words may entice us, infuriate us, inspire and provoke us; but there is something about his vision of a world which manages to yet inspire us; something so alternative to the world we live in. He promotes love and compassion in the face of fear and hatred, he puts people before profit, God before ourselves. Is this what he has given this to his disciples; a way to see the world differently, and the wisdom to make it so, (in the Name of….??)

Jesus, we at are told, speaks of the Name;

“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.” Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; […] Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.

“I have made your name known”…

This week we celebrated Ascension – when Jesus and God are united in glory and wonder; the local moment of Jesus walking in a small part of Palestine give way to the Christ who walks among the stars, dances on the edge of the seas of creation, who spans all time, all place. The God of all time and space and people – who cannot be contained by any imagination, religion or Name.

Yet we only recently celebrated Christmas… and the story of the (Kenotic) God who shed the God-clothes in order to embrace and affirm humanity, to participate in human endeavour and human pain.

So we are caught in a tension between the Glory of Ascension and the Dirt of the Incarnation… or is it a tension? Fr.Vincent suggested earlier this week that in the Ascension Jesus took that broken humanity into the Godhead.. that the Godhead was forever changed… now there’s a thought to chew on… the weakness of Christ, the weakness of God….

So what then, is this Name Jesus is referring too?

It won’t surprise you to hear my suspicion of ‘the name’; of words that we give when we try to name God, words which contain, control, build borders and barriers. The name of God is so easily used; sentimentally, glibly, aggressively, and we were reminded this week; dangerously. A bomb to maim and to kill… “ in the Name… ”

Yet, when Jesus spoke his teachings were simple really; love God and love one another…. And maybe by repeating this simple mantra he was trying to connect the two together.. where we might often think they are distinct; God and others… but what if he was saying they are the means by which we discover each of the other? Loving God reveals people, loving people reveals God. Is this the passion of Jesus’ prayer?
So what power, then, is contained in The Name – and is it power at all?

Maybe we should ask God, think back to the first time that God names Godself… in the guise of a burning bush, (of course!), before a startled, wide-eyed Moses….

אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה‎, ehyeh ašer ehyeh, “I am, who I am”

I am, I exist, I am being, I will be.

The Hebrew tradition is informative here. Their understanding is that God cannot—must not—be named… it is why the ‘I am’, according to most scholars then translates into YHVH, the unpronounceable name of God, which was later turned into both Yahweh and Jehovah. But for many Jews the word Adonai, (“the Lord”) or HaShem, (‘the name’) is still used… God cannot be named, wonder cannot be contained.

So can we say therefore that the name of God is no Name at all! It is a state of being instead… not a noun, but a verb..? Recently some writes have begun to suggest how much our faith might change if we think of our word ‘God’ as a verb, not a noun… allow yourself to dwell on that for a moment….

The ‘I am’, being…

The event, not the name,

The impossible, not the visible.

What is a name… what does a name mean, or refer to?… is the name the same as the thing it describe? Does ‘Gary’ encapsulate all that I am… does it tell my story? Does it reveal anything about me? (Apparently Gary’s are a dying breed!)

We all face the same question… who are we under our names? Maybe we feel that our names are wholly inappropriate and do not describe us in any way? Some of us may feel subconsciously constricted by a name; (think of the stereotypes conjured by names).

What then, if we look at God and ‘the name’ of God? What event is harboured by that name? What is hidden in the name ‘God’? Does the name God, fit the one we worship. Does God feel misrepresented by ‘his’ name?

We walk a fuzzy line, maybe. The philosopher John Caputo, speaks of the Name being the harbour to the Event of the possibility of God… this might be worth repeating!

The Name contains the event of God (possibly-but not always), yet sometimes the event of God exists beyond the name.. in people who want nothing to do with religion, yet still see the world in the light of hope and love and compassion.

It is not the name we desire, but the event of love that goes beyond The Name.

What are we to do.. how do we fit this together?… how do we love God and one another in times of terror and fear…. well I hope we can see a few signposts from Telemachus, through today and beyond; the path to love in the name of God is to let go of the name of God and to simply love. To let go of any expectation we may have in that name, and to discover God beyond the name. This is where the connection between uncertainty and faith come together, they hold each other’s hand in a delicate dance.

Jesus asks a lot from us, but that’s exactly why he prays.

Jesus prays… he still prays.. he invites us still to revel in the mystery, the wonderful beautiful magnetic mystery. Jesus is the ultimate deconstructor… the one that still turn ours expectations on their heads, our religions, our ideas, our ambitions. Love God, love one another, he says; still says, find God in the other, find the Other in God…

we learn, we grow, we fail, we lose… we must.

in the end we do not hold the name at all.. we cannot, we dare not,

the name hold us; dazzled, enthralled, amazed;

the name hold us.

series-g

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Richard Croft

 

 

 

 

 

Resurrection JT2

It was late…

Easter 2 – John 20:19-29

It was late that Sunday evening. Two days after Good Friday. If the Friday of the crucifixion was Day 1, Day 2 was Saturday, and this was “on the third day” as we have just said in the creed. Jesus appears to the disciples.

Today is the second Sunday in Easter, and we are celebrating the resurrection of Jesus. Easter is peculiar festival. We have two Bank Holiday days, the same as Christmas, to show its importance. But generally among the people it is a more confused festival. Christmas has fixed traditions: cards, office parties, stockings, presents, turkey dinners, nativity plays and a well known and heart-warming story. Easter is, well, a bit more confused: bunnies, chocolate, daffodils, Spring generally, and a story that, at least to begin with, is rather gruesome. Good news for Christians, probably, but we are not sure why.

Resurrection JT Is the resurrection important? It was certainly important for the early church. In Athens, the crowds thought Paul was preaching about two gods, Jesus and Anastasia – the Greek word for resurrection (Acts 1718). In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul says that if Christ was not raised from the dead, we have nothing to preach, and you have nothing to believe… If Christ has not been raised, then your faith is a delusion and you are still lost in your sins. Last week the choir sang This Joyful Eastertide: Had Christ that once was slain, ne’er burst his three day prison, our faith had been in vain.

Our reading in John has one of Jesus’ post resurrection appearances. There are, of course, others, but while there is a lot in common between the various accounts in the Bible, they are not the same… There are about eight occasions recorded.

Resurrection JT2The first is in the garden by Jesus’ tomb. In John and Matthew Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene; Mark says it was Mary Magdalene and ‘the other Mary’, whereas Luke just has the angels appearing to the women.

Then in Mark and Luke, Jesus appears to two disciples on the road. Luke says it was the road to Emmaus, Mark just says the disciples were ‘on their way to the country’. In Mark, Luke, 1 Corinthians, and here in John, Jesus appears to the disciples together; ‘while they were eating’ says Mark. John, and Paul in Corinthians has a further appearance to the disciples in Jerusalem later. Matthew and John tell of the post-resurrection appearance in Galilee. Paul (1 Corinthians 15) talks of an appearance to more than five hundred, and Acts talks of appearances over 40 days.

Jesus did not walk down the street in Jerusalem; the appearances were all to his followers. So we are relying on reports from believers. But it certainly made a difference to believers: our New Testament reading was from Pentecost in Acts. The disciples were no longer hiding in fear of the Jewish authorities, but here is Peter proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah as prophesied by David.

So why is the resurrection important. Clearly, it was out of the ordinary; people do not come back to life. But it is not just a spectacular, inexplicable event, a miracle. It is the significance that matters. Look what Jesus says when he appears to the eleven in the locked room.

After the women had met Jesus in the garden, and the two disciples had met Jesus on the road, the rest of the disciples would have been exited but doubtful, confused, unsure. Then there is Jesus, among them. He says four things to them:

  • Peace be with you
  • As the Father sent me, so I send you
  • Receive the Holy Spirit
  • If you forgive people’s sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.

Peace is what they needed. They had seen their world overthrown. All they had worked for and believed in for the previous few years had been destroyed in Jesus death. Their faith was shaken. Now Jesus reappears and helps them to rebuild those lives.

A large part of that comfort, that peace, is the giving of the Holy Spirit: God-with-them and in them for the work they had to do. And that work was to be sent out on Jesus’ behalf. As Jesus had been sent to a small bit of the Middle East by the Father, to influence maybe thousands of people, the disciples were to be the start of a movement to the whole world, to millions.

Finally, the message is forgiveness. What Jesus achieved was release from sin for all. He had put us right with God and given us a fresh start. We do not know quite how this works – there are lots of theories and metaphors – but the Bible is quite clear that it happened.

Do we need forgiveness? If you are an optimistic humanist, surely you can think that people are basically alright. Perhaps a few people are bad, or maybe disturbed, or with a bad upbringing, but generally we are not all depraved. Well, of course not. We are made in God’s image, and there is a lot of good in the world, and in people. But not enough. You can see in God’s dealings with Israel, from Abraham onwards, him bringing them to understand that their disobedience and selfishness did create a barrier between them and Him.

We also know that it does not take much to destroy a relationship. How many families do you come across who do not talk to each other. Thoughtless actions can be difficult to overcome. Lack of communication leads to drifting apart that can make it very hard to get back together. How much worse is it between us and God. God our creator, our Father and Mother, who never gives up on us, but who is always good and pure and true, and cannot tolerate selfishness, and evil, and indifference.

And somehow, Jesus has bridged that barrier. We are forgiven. We receive peace, and the Spirit. We can approach God as if nothing had happened, and know that we will be welcome. It is pretty amazing, and good for an Easter Celebration. This is why Good Friday is good.

One thing in this reading puzzled me as I was preparing this. The language Jesus uses is a bit perplexing. He says to the disciples that they can forgive people’s sins, or not forgive them. The first bit is OK, but when would they ever refuse forgiveness? It sounds a bit as if Jesus is delegating authority to the disciples, and saying God will go along with whatever they decide. This surely cannot be true. We, all Christians, are frail humans, and we sometimes get things wrong, sometimes right. It is surely not possible that, if we (even if ‘we’ was just the apostles, or their successors), through misunderstanding, or dislike, condemn someone wrongly, that God would feel bound to do the same.

It is an exercise in interpretation: what do you do with a passage you do not seem to agree with? I do want to take the Bible seriously, inspired by God, as the church has understood it through its history. So I have been asking people about John 2023 over the last week or so, and reading around it a bit.

It is a general principle that we take the Bible as a whole, and a difficult passage has to be taken in the overall context of others. The general theme of God giving forgiveness to those who ask him for it is so embedded in Scripture it is not disturbed by this.

This saying by Jesus does sound like some others where he commissions the disciples, notably Matthew 1818, where Jesus says whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose in earth will be loosed in heaven, which sounds similarly improbable. But binding and loosing were technical terms in Judaism which would have been understood by the disciples, and mean forbidding or permitting. It is more about the application of God’s will than dictating it. In English, judges bind people over to keep the peace, applying the laws of the country. Jesus statement about not forgiving seems to be a similar sort of binding, forbidding people to carry on as if there were no consequences to their actions. But the disciples also forgive, loosing, declaring that God does and will wipe away sins as if they had not happened. Jesus is passing on his commission from God to the disciples, to make Gods will known.

The passage finishes with Doubting Thomas. The resurrection was hard to believe, and he did not believe it, even when all his friends told him it was true. But forgiveness was for him too, and Jesus appears a second time, when he is there, and helps him to see the truth. There is room even for doubt on the way to faith. Jesus says again, Peace be with you.

Jeremy Thake

St. John and St. Stephens.

 

Post- Resurrection Appearances

  • Matthew 28: Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary”, then disciples in Galilee
  • Mark 16 (later addition): Mary Magdalene, two disciples “on their way to the country”, 11 disciples while they were eating
  • Luke 24: two disciples on road to Emmaus (one was Cleopas), 11 disciples together
  • John 20-21: only to Mary Magdalene outside the tomb, then to the disciples in the locked room, then in Galilee
  • Acts 1: over 40 days, Ascension
  • 1 Corinthians 15: Peter, the 12, 500, James, all the apostles, Paul
  • Garden
  • Road to Emmaus
  • Peter/Cephas
  • Locked room
  • James
  • A week later
  • Over 40 days
  • 500
  • Galilee
  • Paul

John 2019-25

Jesus Appears to His Disciples

19 It was late that Sunday evening, and the disciples were gathered together behind locked doors, because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities. Then Jesus came and stood among them. “Peace be with you,” he said. 20 After saying this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples were filled with joy at seeing the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I send you.” 22 Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive people’s sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

Jesus and Thomas

24 One of the twelve disciples, Thomas (called the Twin), was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

Thomas said to them, “Unless I see the scars of the nails in his hands and put my finger on those scars and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

26 A week later the disciples were together again indoors, and Thomas was with them. The doors were locked, but Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and look at my hands; then reach out your hand and put it in my side. Stop your doubting, and believe!”

28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”

29 Jesus said to him, “Do you believe because you see me? How happy are those who believe without seeing me!”

Acts 214a, 22-32

Peter’s Message

14 Then Peter stood up with the other eleven apostles and in a loud voice began to speak to the crowd:

22 “Listen to these words, fellow Israelites! Jesus of Nazareth was a man whose divine authority was clearly proven to you by all the miracles and wonders which God performed through him. You yourselves know this, for it happened here among you. 23 In accordance with his own plan God had already decided that Jesus would be handed over to you; and you killed him by letting sinful men crucify him. 24 But God raised him from death, setting him free from its power, because it was impossible that death should hold him prisoner. 25 For David said about him,

‘I saw the Lord before me at all times;

he is near me, and I will not be troubled.

26 And so I am filled with gladness,

and my words are full of joy.

And I, mortal though I am,

will rest assured in hope,

27 because you will not abandon me in the world of the dead;

you will not allow your faithful servant to rot in the grave.

28 You have shown me the paths that lead to life,

and your presence will fill me with joy.’

29 “My friends, I must speak to you plainly about our famous ancestor King David. He died and was buried, and his grave is here with us to this very day. 30 He was a prophet, and he knew what God had promised him: God had made a vow that he would make one of David’s descendants a king, just as David was. 31 David saw what God was going to do in the future, and so he spoke about the resurrection of the Messiah when he said,

‘He was not abandoned in the world of the dead;

his body did not rot in the grave.’

32 God has raised this very Jesus from death, and we are all witnesses to this fact.

OneBornEveryMinute

One Born Every Minute

Lent 2 – John 31-17

 

Today’s gospel reading is one of the best known passages in the Bible, which presents a challenge for talking about it. But it is well know because it has so much in it, and is so significant.

This is early on in John’s gospel. We have had Jesus’ baptism, the calling of the disciples, the wedding at Cana, and Jesus clearing the temple. But John is probably more interested in the meaning of the events rather than the correct order, and this passage sets out Jesus’ message.

Nicodemus is a Pharisee. They were pious Jews, not necessarily the official leaders, but an influential religious movement that had been around for ~150 years, with about 6,000 members throughout Palestine. (The population was only a million or so.) The name ‘Pharisees’ means ‘separated ones’, and their belief could be summed up in saying that God’s grace only extended to those who kept the law. They tended to be quite certain about the truth, which often brought them into conflict with Jesus later.

Yet something in Jesus’ had attracted Nicodemus. He came at night, which might mean he did not want to be seen, but might just be because he wanted time to talk to Jesus without the crowds around.

Nicodemus starts by complimenting Jesus and saying that he recognises that he comes from God, but he has barely got started before Jesus lobs a googly at him. “I am telling you the truth: no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again.” Which is not quite the obvious reply. But it does make Nicodemus think. Born again, or born from above, the Greek can mean either.

Nicodemus stalls by saying, obviously, that going back to being a baby is not possible. No, says Jesus, the kingdom of God is spiritual. It involves being touched by the Spirit. The Spirit gives birth to the spirit.

How? asks Nicodemus. Again, Jesus does not really answer the question, but turns it around to make another point. He has a little dig at Nicodemus who, as a teacher of the Law, does not know something so basic, but goes on to say that he, Jesus, the Son of Man, knows because he has come from heaven.

It is a comprehensive statement of Jesus theology in a few very short sentences. For God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not die but have eternal life. We know this verse so well, but it is striking. It always makes me think of the music from Stainer’s Crufixion, which is quite a good way of remembering verses.

Jesus looks forward to his crucifixion, in verse 14: As Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the desert, in the same way the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.

And then he points to the love of God, contrasting it with what Nicodemus might have expected, his judgement: For God did not send his Son into the world to be its judge, but to be its saviour.

As I said, this comes early in this gospel, and allows John to set down Jesus’ purpose. How he is seeking to bring people in to the Kingdom of God, how this is the work of the Spirit, how it will be made possible by Jesus death, and how it is God the Father’s love that is behind all. So we have this very rich passage of Gods promises and purpose.

Nicodemus’ background was one of obedience to laws, earning your place with God. Jesus says that it is not your actions that let you see God, but the Spirit working within your spirit. We still tend towards thinking we earn God’s love. It is part of the human condition that people’s response to us tends to be based on how we are to them. To an extent, we earn love. It is refreshing and life changing when people love us anyway. When parents keep loving difficult children through hard times. When partners give forgiveness. When strangers show love. These are illustrations of God’s way. Love that continually welcomes us back, never gives up. It is not judgement of what we do wrong, but acceptance of us as His children. It is demonstrated supremely in God’s sending of Jesus into the world for us, so that everyone who believes in him will be saved.

One Born Every Minute is not a title I chose. It initially seemed unhelpful, as it is usually used to imply stupidly: there’s one born every minute. Taken literally, in terms of the number of people converting to Christianity in the world, it is a massive underestimation. One a minute is about half a million a year, and it is estimated that about 5 times that, 2.7 million people, are converting to Christianity per year worldwide, not including population growth among Christian communities. God’s love for the world is still reaching people.

There is a link to what Jesus says here in our Old Testament reading. It is God’s promise to Abram when he calls him to leave his home. Through you I will bless all nations. Years ago I read a book by Stuart Blanch, who was the archbishop of York at the time. It was about the Old Testament, started in Ecclesiastes and ended in Genesis, which was delightfully perverse, but it was a very good introduction. The title of the book was from this verse, in a different translation: the blessing to Abraham would be For All Mankind.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

 

Jeremy Thake

St. John and St. Stephens.