StJohn&StStephens-logo

cameron-smith-7OeyNx69jfs-unsplash

Sermon Trinity Sunday 30 May 2021

Romans 8.12-17, John 3.1-17

Having worked our way through Easter, Ascension Day and, last Sunday, Pentecost, we are now celebrating the Trinity. This is not another event, but the start of exploring the new dimension in which we are to live our ordinary, everyday lives, following the breath-taking events of Easter.  Appropriately enough the church calls this new season ‘Ordinary time’, taking us more or less all the way through from now until Advent.  We are given plenty of time to discover how to live in a trinitarian fashion.

Richard, my husband, used to be vicar of a church called the Good Shepherd.  Nearby was the church secondary school called Northbrook school.  Part way through Richard’s time at the church a new head arrived just when the school building needed to expand in order to accommodate increasing numbers of pupils.  After much negotiation it was completely rebuilt and the head seized the opportunity offered by the new premises to develop the school as an even more hospitable, inclusive learning community based on Christian values.  He set the ball rolling by changing the name of the school to Trinity School, with the strapline ‘A place for everyone at the table’.  The famous Rublev icon of the Trinity (on our screen today) became the school’s symbol.  It offered the visual image for the starpline and the colours in the icon became the colours of the different houses in the school which were all called after angels (Gabriel, Michael, Ariel etc), identified with the angels sitting round the table in the icon.  So, the whole school did indeed have a place at this heavenly table.

This invitation is of course there for all of us.  We all have a place at the table.  This community aspect of the Trinity resonates with our contemporary culture. We are more drawn to this than to, say, the image of Christ on the cross.  It invites us to relate, to move out of our individualism.  It also suggests diversity.

Interestingly the trinity features prominently in the writing of Julian of Norwich, the 15th century mystic and anchorite, living at a time when the image of the suffering Christ was especially popular.  Meditating on Christ on the cross opened Julian’s eyes more fully to the depths of his love for us, a love that then drew her into the heart of the Trinity which is where she realised she dwelled.  It’s this which is helpful to grasp as we consider the Trinity.  The community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit is the place where we actually dwell daily as Christians.  It’s our home base, the place from which we launch into our ordinary lives.  Like many mystics, Julian’s vision of the trinity transcends gender.  She often refers to Jesus as our mother.  The Trinity is where we are held, surrounded, nourished by a depth of love that we see poured out in Jesus’ crucifixion.

The church didn’t finally agree the doctrine of the Trinity till the fourth century.  Doctrine emerged as believers tried to make sense of what had happened with the coming of Christ.  The first big question was Who is Jesus? That inevitably involved considering his relationship with God, whom he called Abba, Father, and then the Spirit which was so evident in the growth of the church.  Pinning these things down in words became increasingly important as the gospel spread and aspects of it became distorted by what were deemed heresies. The church needed something against which to measure some of the whackier ideas about Christianity that were soon circulating.

My recollection of sermons about the Trinity in my younger days were that they were essentially about helping me get my head round the mystery of a God who is three in one.  Maths, clover leaves and candles sometimes featured! This is good exercise for the brain and was perhaps more relevant back in the day when defending what we believe may have been a priority.  Now, in our current context, we’re more faced with questions along the lines of, Does it work? Will it bring me fulfilment? Will I be welcomed? The invitation to find in the Trinity a hospitable space speaks to a culture seeking a place to belong, to be accepted, to be loved in company with others, to not be alone. We’ve been considering words that might describe our church as we design a new website.  One member came up with these 3 – connecting, accepting, embracing.  Very contemporary and very trinitarian!

The brief extract from Romans we heard earlier speaks of what it’s like to dwell in this trinitarian reality.  We call God Father, having an identity as God’s sons and daughters, we live in freedom rather than fear, we share Jesus’ glory as well as his suffering.  And we find ourselves willing to die to some of those things in our life that make us less than fully human as we share in Christ’s risen glorified humanity.  Paul isn’t making credal statements here, but describing a way of life.

You can’t pin down the Trinity with words because ultimately its mystery.  Nicodemus wants Jesus to explain, and Jesus replies in images – it’s like being born again, it involves water and the Spirit, so baptism might feature, but it’s more than that because like wind we can’t see it, only feel it, and the connections are made when we look at Christ, especially when he is on the cross.  So we’re back with Mother Julian again – the depth of God’s love demonstrated on the cross draws us through the Holy Spirit into that hospitable space where we are wrapped around with love.

There are three Greek words associated with the Trinity.  Agape – the self giving generous love characteristic of the Father, perichoresis – the harmonious movement connecting the three persons of the Trinity characteristic of the Holy Spirit, and kenosis – the emptying, pouring out of that love demonstrated in Jesus, the Son.  All are illustrated in this icon. All three characterise authentic Christian living and authentic church.

If, like me, you have sometimes held back from accepting the idea that we have a place at the table, that we are invited to dwell at the centre of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit perhaps consider why that might be.  In my case I used to think I needed to wait until I was a better person, sort of wearing the right clothes.  As if I could ever be good enough to dwell at the heart of the trinity!  The whole point is that we can only dwell there because Christ has swept our humanity, warts and all, into that close communion with the Trinity (as we celebrated at the Ascension).  It doesn’t depend on what we’ve done.  It’s the ‘being born from above’ that Jesus speaks about with Nicodemus, or recognising that we have been adopted as God’s sons and daughters to use Paul’s language in Romans.  Speaking for myself, I think it requires humility to accept this. Surely I have to do something, to erase all the flaws in my character, to stop getting things wrong in order to be welcomed? No! That’s not the starting point. We start by accepting our place with Christ in the Trinity, the Christ who has demonstrated the depths of God’s love for us on the cross (while we were still sinners, Paul says), and then gradually those things that draw us away from God release their hold on us. We’ve moved house, we’re living in a different neighbourhood, to use another image, and it’s because there really is a place for us at the table, we can live our ordinary lives differently. Praise God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit!

 

Christine Bainbridge

larm-rmah-AEaTUnvneik-unsplash

St John and St Stephen’s Church, Reading, May 9th 2021, 6th Sunday in Easter

Micah 6:1-9, John 15:9-17

Start of Christian Aid Week: The shape of the gospel

 

Being invited to preach in this church at the start of Christian Aid week feels like preaching to the converted: I’m pretty sure most people here ‘get it’ and understand why we support this particular charity. As a church, we give £2K a year to CA from our income; we also fund-raise, go on walks, show up at events and many people give personally and sacrificially. So, this isn’t going to be one of those tub-thumping, guilt-inducing, place your donations on the altar sermons, no siree. Take a breath in, breathe out, be calm. I would like to briefly reflect on why it is that we do what we do.

 

The historian Tom Holland, author of Dominion and recent guest lecturer at the University, while studying ancient Greek and Roman history, began to wonder how we got from generally accepted norms of callous disregard of human life, to measuring the quality of a society by how it deals with the weakest and poorest. What happened? And why? He found the answer here: ‘Today, even as belief in God fades across the West, the countries that were once collectively known as Christendom continue to bear the stamp of the two-millennia-old revolution that Christianity represents. It is the principal reason why, by and large, most of us who live in post-Christian societies still take for granted that it is nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering. It is why we generally assume that every human life is of equal value. In my morals and ethics, I have learned to accept that I am not Greek or Roman at all, but thoroughly and proudly Christian’[1].

 

It’s quite a statement. It made me think about a home group meeting a couple of weeks ago where we used some Bible Project material to consider the word ‘gospel’. What is the gospel? I confess I expected something like, ‘believe in Jesus and you will be saved’. (Which isn’t wrong, by the way!) But the meaning of the word ‘gospel’, in Greek euangellion, means ‘good announcement’ or ‘good proclamation’. It’s the word used of a royal decree: there is a new King on the throne, Jesus. In a nutshell, that is the good news – there is a new King that we are invited to give allegiance to, a new Kingdom we are members of, a new way of life that we are called to embrace and embody. And take a look at the place where he was named ‘King’. It was a Roman cross. Citizens of this kingdom live an upside-down way of life that honours a man who gave himself for others, who honoured the poor, the sick, the disabled, the marginalised, the unclean, the sexual transgressors. We, his followers, are to embody that same way of life, marked by trust, generosity, forgiveness, and most of all, by love as we heard in our gospel reading today. There it is! Our gospel reading. Why am I telling you this? Because Christian Aid, in what it stands for and what it does, is an authentic expression of exactly that, in providing help to those most in need, and at this time in history, to do all it can to help people counter the effects of the unfolding climate crisis. It is deeply, deeply Christ-like in its mission.

 

Then the other week, home group again, we considered generosity. We thought of how God is generous! In creation, in providing enough abundantly on land and in the sea, in astonishing diversity and complexity and beauty. Think of the generosity that the gospel records: the feeding of the 5000; the water into wine at the wedding in Cana; the great haul of fish that the disciples dragged in when someone told them to put down their net on the other side of the boat after a night of fish-less labour.

 

The pandemic, which thankfully for us is in retreat, may have made some of us shut the doors a bit, to look after number one, to develop what’s been called a ‘scarcity mindset’. Think of the hoarding of toilet rolls that went on when it all started! Jesus was no stranger to this attitude: he lived in a country occupied by an oppressive military power which could tax you, take the shirt literally off your back, make you walk the extra mile. So hunker down, look after number one. Jesus embodied a completely different way of life, which was founded on trust in the generosity and faithfulness of God. More than that, he embodied God’s generosity with attitudes of forgiveness, love, acceptance, a carefreeness. Think of the Sermon on the Mount: love your enemies; give, and don’t make a song and dance about it; do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink…your heavenly Father knows you need all these things; do not worry about tomorrow; ask and it will be given to you; do to others as you would have them do to you – and so on. Don’t those words stir our hearts? Don’t they paint a picture of a world anyone would want to live and flourish in?

 

The sad truth is that many people do not experience the sort of abundance of provision and generosity of spirit that I am describing. This is almost entirely due not to the failure of the created order to be abundant, but to humanity’s greed, violence, disregard for human life and now, all-out war on the natural order. We, who have enough, are called to embrace and embody the generosity of God, the spirit of Jesus in our lives, to help to bring about the kind of transformation that is needed.

 

I was very drawn to the prayer at the beginning of our service: ‘Faithful one, whose word is life: come with saving power to free our praise, inspire our prayer, and shape our lives for the kingdom of your Son’. Phew! What a beautiful prayer. The expression, embodiment and fulfilling of that prayer in Christian Aid and what it stands for and does is connected with this church, with us. ‘…shape our lives for the kingdom of your Son.’ I want to end by re-reading a verse from Micah 6 that was read to us in the wonderful translation that was used:  ‘You are to love kindness. You are to be generous. You are to share your resources and share them with a smile. You are to care for those in need. You are to walk humbly with God. No pretence, no bluster. You are to walk wisely and purposefully.

 

Richard Croft

 

 

[1] Tom Holland, Why I was wrong about Christianity, New Statesman, 16th September 2016 https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/religion/2016/09/tom-holland-why-i-was-wrong-about-christianity

steve-harvey-xWiXi6wRLGo-unsplash

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

tomb

Easter 3, 11th April 2021

John 20:19-31: Resurrection

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Jeremy Thake

St. John & St. Stephen.

 

 

Acts 2

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

 

John 20

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

New Revised Standard Version, Anglicized

 

 

waiting

Sunday 21st March

A year on – waiting and hope

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

WAITING

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The second area is our church’s support and fellowship

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

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

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

 

The third area is in our shared spirituality

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

 

HOPE

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Lord, as into this new year I step

My heart is heavy, my feet are cold.

I, Lord, tend to worry and to mope

Often finding it difficult to hope.

 

And yet, Lord as I turn and look back

Over the year I have just left behind

I remember your presence ever near

Faithfully through times of joy and tear.

 

Furthermore, this Lord for sure I know

You our Sovereign Lord, you alone

The Grand Weaver, you remain in control, absolutely

Weaving a tapestry of breath-taking beauty.

 

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

With my questions, fears and doubts.

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

That you hold my world in your loving hand.

 

Preethi Alice Jacob

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

 

 

Hamish Bruce

21/03/21

 

starry sky

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

Tous les êtres te célèbrent            All that lives celebrates you

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Richard Croft

 

 

 

 

 

goblets

The Wedding in Cana – Sunday 24th January, Epiphany 3

John 2 v 1-11 

 

Here we are at the beginning of John’s gospel having set the scene with John the Baptist and the calling of the first disciples. Jesus is starting with his ministry and this is, according to John, the first miraculous sign and the disciples put their faith in him.

You don’t have to look far in the Gospels to find a miracle. Now I don’t know whether you find it easy and are excited by miracles or whether you are sceptical and relegate such things to the past and treat them as stories in the past and of no relevance.

If you are the former then these passages are inspirational a treasure trove of hope. However, you have to deal with one big problem: the hope that is stirred up in the gospel is almost always dashed in people’s lives today.

Think for a moment about some of the miracles; John chapter 6 Jesus feeds the five thousand or John chapter 9 Jesus healing a man born blind; John chapter 11 Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. And this is only flicking on a few pages from our passage today.

But since those days how many people have prayed for food but none came. Many people will have prayed for healing but it did not come. Many will have grieved for people they have loved and lost without a miraculous ending. We are daily reminded of the pain, suffering and grieving that is going on around us in our country in the midst of this pandemic.

Doesn’t the possibility of miracles make the suffering worse because God could grant a miracle but doesn’t. Sometimes we in the church make it worse by suggesting there is a lack of faith.

If you are sceptical about miracles you avoid all these problems but you have another one equally as big because if you are not careful you reduce the world to something that is determined by laws and natural processes that cannot be changed or interfered with. You may judge the miracle stories as silly and childish or in Donald Trump terms “fake news”. But in banishing them and regarding them as superstition you may also be banishing meaning and hope. If you are closing yourself in then you are putting God into a small box and his existence doesn’t seem to make much difference.

Perhaps there is a third alternative that is open to us all believer and sceptic alike. Perhaps there is another way of looking at the question do miracles happen. We might ask ourselves a slightly different question; what happens to us when we imagine miracles happening? Is it not the case that the story is intended to do more than inform us about a supposed event that happened in the past? Is the story meant to shake up our normal assumptions, inspire our imagination about the present and the future and make it possible for us to see something we couldn’t see before?

If we have our imaginations stretched then can we not play our part in co-creating, being a catalyst for those we come into contact with and change their possibilities.

Let’s think a bit more about our gospel passage of today. The story begins. On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee; Jesus mother notices that the wedding host has run out of wine. So, she nudges Jesus to do something about it. Jesus resists, but Mary doubts his resistance. She tells the servants to get ready and do whatever he tells them.

Jesus points them towards some nearby stone containers – six of them used to hold water for ceremonial cleansing. They are huge containers 120 – 180 gallons so the servants get to work filling the containers and then Jesus instructs them to draw out a sample to give to the banquet master. He takes a taste and is amazed and he says you have saved the best wine until last. John says this was the first sign.

Now if we are applying and stretching our imaginations in the here and now. We might ask ourselves and reflect on the meaning of the sign.

  • Perhaps in our lives we might ask in what ways are we running out of wine, what are we running out of and why?
  • Is there something that needs transforming?
  • If we are to do as Jesus says what would that be?
  • What is it that perhaps needs cleansing?
  • What is empty and needs filling? If we were to be filled where would that lead us, what would we do?

I know for me at the moment, and probably like many others, that I am living in a kind of shadow world where day to day routine carries on but not fully. Relationships are possible but on line so full human contact is missing and because it is winter, I do not venture outside much and spend my days on my work laptop starting when it is dark and finishing when it is dark. Preparing this caused me to pause to hope and think about how I can be more courageous and better support family, friends and work colleagues.

If we look at questions like these, we are engaging with this miracle story and it is stirring us to think and imagine new ways of seeing, perhaps changing the way we act and leading us to new ways of being alive and living out our faith.

Even beyond this imagining and reflection on the miracle the story points beyond itself to the bigger story. John is starting to signpost, give clues to his readers of the things to come.  It is a real treasure trove and there are things to be explored both within the text and with the imagery.

There are hints about Jesus mission and ministry and a starting to tell us about the love and generosity of God and his plan for our salvation.

So, let’s change tack and briefly look at some of the clues contained in the passage.

I don’t know whether any of you have been involved in treasure hunts, I suspect some have. Before the pandemic and lockdown, it was a favourite thing to do in the office I work in. You would form up into teams and only be allowed a maximum of four or five in a team, you would pay your entrance fee to commit to it and you would get your clues and tasks and set off. You would not know your destination or even sometimes the route. You needed to follow the clues, answer questions and collect the objects along the way or complete the tasks. You needed to pay attention otherwise you might get lost. There was always the emergency mobile number if things got too sticky. I remember once some of the girls in the office getting very excited because they found out one of the tasks was to have your photo taken with a fireman. It didn’t do anything for me but we’ll not explore that.

Maybe we have lost some of the excitement or the wonder from this story because we know the end, we haven’t got the same perspective as the first disciples but it can still speak to us.

But let’s still go through some of the clues and maybe you might like to do your own exploring about the signs and clues over the coming week.

The first clue is right there in the first verse of the passage. Why did they come to the wedding on the third day? What is the significance of the third day? Sometimes it is always good to start your treasure hunt with a straight forward clue!

Second, why did Jesus address his mother in the way that he did? Where else do we hear Jesus use that phrase “Dear woman”. Within the gospels I believe there are only two other instances (John 19 v26 & John 20 v 15) and when you read them together it may put a different emphasis on the words used in this passage.

Jesus uses the phrase My time has not yet come. Some versions use my hour has not yet come. For us we will understand what Jesus is meaning but for the disciples they will not get the gravity of the statement neither perhaps will Jesus mother Mary. There is a lot bound up in these few words about waiting and timing and how much is shared with others and when.

Why was Jesus mother Mary to the fore and not the disciples? She was the one who told the servants “Do whatever he tells you”. Is it because Mary’s perspective was different to the disciples? It was only in the previous chapter that we hear that Jesus has called Andrew, Simon Peter, Philip and Nathaniel whereas Mary has spent 30 years with Jesus so is this why her faith is so much stronger?

Consider all the clues the sign posts she has seen over that time. Even the few recorded ones shed light and there must have been many more over the years. Think – Jesus presented at the temple (Luke 2 v 21-40 particularly v 33) – Mary marvelling at what was said about him. Or when she sought Jesus out and found him age 12 in the temple (Luke 2 v41 – 52 particularly v51) she treasured all these things in her heart.

So, Mary had joined the clues and better understood what was going on rather than the disciples who experiencing this for the first time.

As I mentioned, we have perhaps lost some of the sense of wonder of this story because we know the ending.  But we don’t know how our own stories and God moving within them will necessarily work out. Perhaps, we should take some time to think back and look at the clues and signs so far. Notice where there have been encounters what have they taught, which direction, what has been good, or bad and invite Jesus into that process to help us be more alive and live out our faith in a new way to affect both ourselves and those around us.

 

Richard Harwood

24.1.21

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?”