Tracey Emin at her exhibition "Tracey Emin ‘My Bed’/JMW Turner" at Turner Contemporary, Margate. 13 October 2017 - 14 January 2018. Photo: Stephen White, Turner Contemporary

‘Deny’ … the challenge of giving up the idea of a challenge.

Mark 8:31-38, Genesis 17:1-7 , 15-16

Lent is the season which is all about denial of the self and the mystery of God.

When it comes to the mystery in this challenging text I’m reminded of Mark Twain who said, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”
Before we begin let’s set the stage…. ‘lets talk about the Gospel of Mark’ –

Having been side-lined for a long time, more recently there has been a resurgence of interest in Mark’s gospel. What it lacks in detail it gains in intensity. Most scholars put the writing of Mark at or around 60-70 AD/CE, about the time of the Judean revolution (important!) and acknowledge it as the first of the synoptic gospels. Mark’s writing is spare, urgent, and dramatic. Its narrative pacing of ‘straightway’ and ‘immediately’ link one event to another, everyone ‘runs’, ‘shouts’, is ‘amazed’, inflaming Christ’s mission with a dazzling urgency. Mark ‘was not concerned to produce a detailed report of the proceedings but to sketch a course of events significant for the salvation of humankind’. The emphasis of Mark’s text seems to be upon action and discipleship; he makes claims upon his audience, his Jesus leaps from the page – evoking transformation.

Mark’s writing could be described as a narrative of death.. a dramatic story and unfolding drama.. heading to a final moment of destiny. Mark cleverly puts together stories which lead the reader into rising tension.. he knows where the story will end.

An inversion of the world, radical (and open to misinterpretation).

Mark’s gospel is about re-interpreting the world.. his vision is truly apocalyptic – a revelation – that God’s kingdom is coming/has come and everything can change. But can his followers grasp this… can we still grasp this today? Mark is radical, revolutionary and subversive; Mark heralds a gospel of non-violent resistance to the forces of military, economic and religious oppression that the people of Judea were experiencing. (CM)

Blindness. Three predictions. Take up your cross. Blindness

It’s worth noting that this passage is the first of three predictions about Jesus own death…  Mark is a clever writer, piecing together short anecdotes to create a compelling whole story; the three predictions are book-ended by two stories of blindness.. is this an accident or is Mark making a point about how it’s so easy to misunderstand/not-see the good news, how the shift in consciousness (a battle of cultures if you like) is so alien to what we are used to?

What makes sense to us is not what makes sense to God. Mystery.

So Jesus lets the cat out of the bag about his bleak ending, and is ‘rebuked’ (epitiman, ‘shut up’) by Peter, (‘don’t be so foolish Jesus’). In response, Jesus publicly rebukes Peter, (epitemesen ‘shut up’, usually used against demons) the argument is strong and vehement…

God’s kingdom is the inversion of the world; what makes sense to us, self-preservation etc is not the same here. The love and life of God which Jesus speaks of is liberating, risky, going beyond our comfort zones – it relocates our identity with ‘the other’, and the (absurd) logic of this is beginning to loom disturbingly in the disciples minds. Despite the fact that the crowds are following and they are seeing many signs and miracles, the kingdom of Jesus is not like other kingdoms.. the reign of God wont see Jesus enthroned as a new leader (as they might have expected)… instead he announces his own killing? Something is really wrong.. Maybe Jesus is mistaken?

 Life as self (psyche)… a shift in priorities. The other is our life. Humans. Relating.

Today’s sermon is supposed to be about ‘realistic Christianity’, yet the challenge in the next section, (as Jesus draws all his listeners in) is even more bewildering and seems far from realistic.. We are suddenly confronted with talk of giving up your life to find it… this feels like too much, you can imagine the heat rising in the back of the neck, the discomfort, ‘now we are all too deeply involved… is there still a way to get out?’

Whilst it is certainly true that many people have, (and still do today) lose their lives for the sake of the gospel.. and we may remember them in our prayers this morning. But I don’t think this is the first thing Jesus is thinking of…

‘Life’ (psyche) also means soul or self.. what we might see is that Jesus is saying we must give up our selfhood.. our self-reliance, our self-madeness, our strong exterior.. our hope of control.

And if we did dare let go – where do we find ourselves? With ‘the other’.? with other people? with God..? This is about vulnerability and realising it is not us who hold even our own lives together.. we are not islands.. with live in relation .. we become human by being together.. (this church bears witness to such a community) the Eucharist reminds us weekly that we give ourselves away – yet receive our self back as a gift.

Living beyond ourselves. Not masochism.

And as in Judea in 1st century so today there is a clash of cultures between those who perpetuate the dream of self-reliance, protectionism and closed borders – of all kinds; and those who choose to live openly, with the risk of the other and the unknown. We see this from the success-filled messages of social media to politicians who are not allowed to show any weakness etc.. Thank God for the antidote of poets and artists who reveal more subtle images of humankind.

Selfhood and Service

So let us hear this passage afresh… not an injunction to become a masochist, to invite pain or even death.. nor to think we can do things for God. Instead it is about shifting out priorities away from purely ourselves and recognising that we only become ourselves by virtue of others around us; even the stranger… it is from this vulnerable openness that our humanity properly flourishes, the human self becomes a we-self; identity found through intimacy… and it’s from that place of com/passion that all kinds of giving will occur.

The tragic shooting in Florida last week gave us the story of the gym coach Aaron Feis who ran towards the sound of gunfire to protect children and in so doing he lost his own life. He wasn’t seeking to die, he would happily have remained alive if he had the choice.. but his deep instinct was that the children’s lives were of value, and that he naturally, humanly, responded as he did. (There is much more to say of this sordid affair and the sordid response from men in power in American who are already silencing the voices of the voiceless… and yes please do read everything you want to into this!)

Jesus is reminding his followers that the gospel affects everything; upturning our understanding of politics economics education science art and people.

Faith not as construct but as gift.. beyond understanding, towards mystery.

So the kingdom of God is not contained, it defies usual logic, it shifts our priorities. Jesus could not be contained in Mark’s gospel.. and he cannot be contained today, even despite our best attempts to pin him down in theology and worship. Faith today is often neatly packaged.. “Jesus is the answer”, we may have heard, yet Mark shows over and over again that Jesus is far more the question, than the answer…

Scholar Ched Myers echoes the crowds at Golgotha; ‘If only Jesus would come down from the cross so we might believe (15:32)! Who of us’, he asks, ‘is really prepared to accept that by remaining there he shows the way to liberation, to acknowledge that in this moment [of redemptive suffering] the powers are overthrown and the kingdom [of God] is come in power and glory’ [cf. Mk. 13:26] …
Too often our religion appears to reduce this radical message to something neat and contained.. something polite and sanitised, whilst Mark is busily stirring up a revolution!

Embraced in grace. No presentation of good self, but our whole/broken self.

But that doesn’t make this inaccessible… in fact the opposite is true. The point of all this dialogue is that by ‘letting go’ of the self, our self-reliance.. and by letting go of the idea that Christianity is a task to maintain… we instead find ourselves held and loved. The illusion of distance from God becomes apparent. It is those who live openly who will live fully; and those who shore up defences who will shut down their own lives and others around them.

(Funny too that Abraham and Sarah were both deeply flawed people who, yet, still received a blessing; they allowed themselves to be open to a wild notion – though it took a lifetime to learn)

This apocalyptic good news is that God breaks into our worlds with love and grace. We don’t need to pretend.. we don’t need to present only our good self to God… we don’t need to do anything for God, we don’t need to make ourselves out to be something we’re not.. we need instead to let go of the ego, and realise – as difficult as it is – that we are wholly understood and totally loved; we are welcomed, warts and all – unmade bed and all, to feast on Christ, to share supper with him… and within that grace, (not prior to it) we may yet find ourselves – and our world – transformed with hope.

“It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”

Yes. It’s in this strange, terrifying world-shattering presence that we are finally disarmed, and instead find ourselves held in love, grace and a peace which surpasses all understanding. And that might be just fine!


Picture Credit – Tracey Emin at her exhibition “Tracey Emin ‘My Bed’/JMW Turner” at Turner Contemporary, Margate. 13 October 2017 – 14 January 2018. Photo: Stephen White, courtesy Turner Contemporary.
Mark 1vv9-15 180218 Repent

Repent – Lent 1

Lent 1 – Mark 19-15: Repent

It was the festival of St Valentine Day on Wednesday, but also Ash Wednesday.  St. Valentinus appears to have had no special connection to romantic love, but Chaucer connected his saint’s day on 14th February with birds mating in Spring, and it all seems to have gone from there.  Having Valentine’s Day coincide with the start of Lent is fortunately rare (the last time was 1945), given the incongruity between lavishing chocolate and flowers on your partner and giving things up to enter a season of penance.  It will probably not surprise you to hear that I am going to be talking more about repentance than romance.  (It certainly will not surprise Rachel.)

In our gospel reading today in Mark, we have Jesus baptised by John, his temptation in the wilderness, and the start of his ministry; all in seven terse verses.  But these stories also appear in the other synoptic gospels, Matthew and Luke, so we have quite a bit more detail.  In Matthew, John tries not to baptise Jesus, saying that Jesus should baptise him.  Matthew and Luke both describe the tempter’s attempts to lead Jesus astray: turning stones into bread, throwing himself of the temple, worshipping the devil.  John’s gospel has Jesus coming to John, and the Spirit descending on him, but does not mention the baptism, or the temptation.  But John’s gospel is different.

Note, in passing, the reference to the Trinity after the baptism.  The Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove, the Father speaks to Jesus as his Son.

John the Baptist’s reservations over baptising Jesus seem entirely reasonable.  John had told the crowds After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.  I baptise you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit (17-8).  John’s ministry was preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (14).  The church has always understood that Jesus was without sin (see Heb. 4, 2 Cor. 521, 1 Pet. 222), tempted as we are, but without giving in.  So why did Jesus need to be baptised?

It is firstly a public anointing for his ministry.  This is what John the Baptist was for.  From his miraculous conception, to the events around his birth, his austere lifestyle, and his ministry of baptism all led up to this moment.  Prepare the way of the Lord.  After this, Jesus took over.  A little later, Jesus quotes Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth, The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me (Lk 418).  The Spirit descending in the form of a dove signifies Jesus gentleness, purity, innocence.

It is secondly a sign, to John, to those who would be his followers (there were no disciples yet, that came later), and to the world generally, that Jesus was chosen by God.  And an encouragement for Jesus too?  We do not know whether Jesus was so sure of his calling, so sure of his relationship with the Father, that he did not need encouragement.  But if he shared our humanity, with its doubts and uncertainties, you would think he might.  I think of the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus clearly did need support.  The last time I gave a sermon here it was about the Transfiguration, and I thought then that part of the purpose of that event was to strengthen Jesus as he prepared for the cross.  So perhaps the voice from heaven was for Jesus too.

Thirdly, in accepting this ceremony, Jesus identified with man’s sin and failure.  Without sin, but knowing what it was to be tempted, to have weakness, to live in a society with sin around him.  Baptism was for cleansing, a declaration of purity, resolve to be better.  Jesus emerged clean, and pure, and ready to deal with sin.

Lent is a season of reflection, of penance, of preparation for Easter.  What does penance make you think of?  [3] [4]  We were in Canterbury last week, hearing again the story of Thomas à Becket.  Childhood friend and close ally of Henry II, made Chancellor of England, he was appointed by Henry Archbishop of Canterbury to subdue the church.  But he changed, saying he was no longer the king’s man, but God’s.  He would wear a horse-hair shirt to mortify the flesh and bring himself closer to God.  It is a sort of penance we are not familiar with, nor do we generally think it a healthy sort of spirituality.  People do give things up for Lent, take on extra prayer or meditation or study.

Repentance has always been fundamental to Christian faith.  In the Book of Common prayer, you would start a service with the General Confession: …We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep.  We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.  We have offended against thy holy laws.  We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us.  More evangelical churches still introduce people to faith with the ABC:  Admit your sin, Believe in Jesus, Confess him as your saviour.  More recently it is not something we like to put so much stress on.  Even the words are somewhat old-fashioned.  Sin is not really a concept that is in regular use.  I actually prefer selfishness, which I think is the nearest word that is in use.  Thinking of yourself first, whether before others or God.  A temptation is used more about chocolate or having a piece of cake than the stark choice between right and wrong.

There are good reasons for avoiding talking about repentance.  It can be pretty off-putting if, entering a church, among the first things you hear are that you are miserable sinner.  It is not the most attractive advertisement for Christianity to have to admit your failings before you can go any further.

But it is still fundamental, however uncomfortable.  It is actually freeing.  It may not be the start of faith, which is often to do with coming to understand about the love of God, of his unconditional care for you.  That Jesus went on from his baptism to proclaim the gospel, the Good News of God’s Kingdom.  He took his unselfishness to the point of dying for us, becoming the ultimate sacrifice, the Lamb of God, as in this extraordinary painting, Agnus Dei by Francisco Zubaray.  It is a poetic way of showing what Jesus did for us

So we are invited to come to God in repentance knowing that God will still accept us, whatever.  His love, like that of the best parent, is totally unconditional.  Whatever it is we have done, whoever we have become, whatever we are like, we are loved.  You can get over it.  You can change.  God wants you to come back to him and allow him to change you.

Picture credit – Temptation of Christ on the Mountain, Duccio Di Buoninsegna



Deliver us from evil

Epiphany 4, Deuteronomy 18:15-20, Mark 1:21-28

This morning we read in the gospel of an encounter between Jesus and a man gripped by evil. How will that speak to us? The first chapter of Mark’s gospel throws us headlong into the beginning of the three years of Jesus’ ministry, three years that literally changed the world. From his baptism by John, where the heavens are ‘torn apart’ (10), the Spirit ‘drove him out into the wilderness’ (12) where he was tempted by Satan, on to choosing his first disciples, then into a synagogue where he encounters a man with an ‘unclean spirit’.

I want to open this passage up, loose it from the corner of Mark’s gospel it is hiding in. Because it is echoing, if we have ears to hear, the early chapters of the first book of the Bible, Genesis, and it has a surprising message for us today. First, back to Genesis. It’s just worth saying that the first few chapters of the Bible are essential reading for understanding the rest of it. Here goes. The first 3 chapters of Genesis give an account of the creation of the earth, the sun, moon and stars, and all the orders of plants and animals including humanity in the form of Adam and Eve. Just so you know, I’m not inclined to treat these chapters as literal, historical truth but I am inclined to say that what they tell us about God, the world and humanity are profoundly true: that is, they are full of meaning. In Genesis 2, God places the first couple in a beautiful garden and tells them, pretty much, that they can do and eat anything they like but don’t eat from that tree – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In Genesis 3, the serpent, representing the powers of evil, Satan or the devil, worms his way into Eve’s confidence, questions what God has said, then lies to her and convinces her to try the fruit of exactly that tree. She does, and shares it with her husband, Adam. Suddenly their eyes are opened. They know that they are naked, and are immediately ashamed of their new knowledge, of what they have done. They hide, hide from God, or try to. But their nakedness is much more than physical, it is spiritual. Before, they had nothing to hide from God, now they have disobedience to hide, now they know evil as well as good where before they did not, they are confused and shamed. In the next few chapters of Genesis there is a steady degeneration into more and more evil as almost everyone chooses not the path of the good, but the path of the bad. The word for devil in Greek is diabolos, from where we get the word ‘double’. Double paths. A choice. Adam and Eve took the wrong path, the double path, the diabolos path, and it didn’t turn out well. Almost all the time, humanity has followed the same path, full of the knowledge of good and evil. It leads to violence, death, deceit, hiding. Unfortunately, it is all too true.


It’s often said of Jesus that he was ‘sinless’. I find that a bit of a sterile word, even boring, and anyway, defining someone by a negative – he was ‘without sin’ is odd. Better, and truer, to say that here was a man who took the right path, who lived the life intended by God, who lived life in all its fullness, who was true in the sense that he was straight, and right, and good. When Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness, he resisted the temptations and emerged the victor. Where Adam and Eve failed the test, took the other way, the double path, Jesus did not. Boring, sterile – never. The opposite. Full of life. A man who turned water into wine at a wedding party when everyone was drunk already. A man who healed the sick. A man who was angry enough to drive the money-lenders out of the temple. A man who told stories so powerful that we still talk about them today. A man unafraid to call out injustice. A man who wouldn’t countenance evil. A man everyone wanted to know. Good isn’t boring. The devil doesn’t have all of the best tunes.


And then, in Mark 1:21, he walks into a synagogue in Capernaum and teaches. And everyone is astonished. But this man is unlike any other. He is, as we have already said, walking straight and true, he has already faced down the powers of evil and declined the invitation to walk the path paved with what we might call ‘alternative facts’, the lies and half-truths that, if attended to, would have led him to failure and ultimately, to evil. And in the synagogue, the place of worship and prayer, of scripture reading, of community (in other words, a lot like church!) a man with an unclean spirit, seeing and hearing him, cries out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ (24). I was wondering what provoked the outburst, and I thought that perhaps Jesus, in his teaching in the synagogue, opened up the particular evil the man was gripped by – he named it. We don’t know what the particular form of evil the man was engaged in, but you can imagine that if you’re hiding something terrible, you might blurt out the truth if someone put his finger on it.


What is happening here? How can we understand this? One way of doing so, which is probably the literal way of understanding, is that the man was possessed by an unclean, or evil spirit. If we were living in parts of the world outside of the so-called enlightened West, that is exactly how it would be understood. Certainly, when we lived in Bangladesh, there was strong belief in evil spirits and their powers amongst all the religious communities – Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Animist. That may be the way some of us here would understand it, or some might struggle with that view. So I would like to say, this man was possessed by evil. In some way, he had given in to evil, to the double path, in such a way that it had eaten him up, he was overcome by it. The non-Western way of understanding this would be to say that he had opened himself to evil so much that a spirit of evil, a demon had entered him so that he no longer had any power at all to resist. He was in the grip of evil. I’m afraid that all of us are infected by evil in some way, we all have the capacity to do wrong, to hurt or destroy – and we sometimes do – but this man was in a special category. What is evil? It’s whatever destroys or diminishes life or the creation.


One of they really important things to notice here is that this man was in the synagogue. In whatever way his particular involvement with evil was expressed, he sought and found cover within his religious community. This has the ring of truth. Religious communities – including the Christian church of course – have often given cover for evil and there’s a long history of that right up to the present day. We only have to think of the sexual scandals that have been uncovered in the last few decades within the church, and the ruined lives of the victims that have resulted.


Again, this man’s evil was hidden within the synagogue, the religious community. Evil is often hidden, covered up. Think of the way that the horrible sex scandals in the church had been hidden from view. There is another echo here of the Adam and Eve story, where they both tried to hide from God after their disobedience, their eating of the fruit of the tree of good and evil. But this man, or if you like the spirit of evil within him, recognised in Jesus someone who was profoundly good, deeply and truly un-evil so that when he encountered him, as he heard his teaching he couldn’t help himself from shouting and in fact outing Jesus as the person that he truly was: the Holy One of God. In fact, the evil came out of hiding because it could not hide from this man. Once the evil was revealed, its hold over the man was lost and Jesus was able to expel it and restore the man.


Phew. This has been a tough sermon to prepare and hard to deliver. Am I coming up against evil within me that doesn’t want to be exposed? I don’t know. But the question is now, what do we do with it? I’m not proposing that we begin hunting down evil within our church or start rehearsing scenes from the Exorcist. And we’re none of us Jesus. But, we take his name and we are his followers. There’s a lovely verse in Hebrews that says ‘Jesus is not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters’ (Heb 2:11). We too will encounter evil. There is plenty of it loose in the world. There is the institutional evil of big corporations that exploit both the environment and communities simply for profit. There is massive social injustice across the world and in our own country, suppression of human rights, discrimination against all sorts of people based on nothing more than ethnic origin, religion, educational levels, gender and sexuality. There is wholescale war going on against the environment, the created order. There is large-scale sexual abuse against women and children: trafficking, endemic rape in some cultures, the sexual abuse of children. That may seem a long way from that synagogue in Capernaum but really, it’s individual evil writ large: greed, lust, contempt for human life, treating the world like it’s a shop with a broken window waiting to be raided. It’s what happens when individual evil goes unchecked. Then there’s evil closer to home. Women and men, made in the image of God, sleeping rough in Broad Street. And then there’s individual evil. I have met a couple of people in my life who literally made my flesh creep, whose cold disdain of humanity and greed for personal gain was like a negative spiritual force field around them. These are people who have gone far down that ‘other way’, that double path, people who have chosen lives that in some way deny the fullness of life to others and ruined their own souls too.


What I have tried to do in this sermon is to talk about what we don’t often talk about in church, of evil. To take it out of hiding, to try and understand where it comes from and what it does. Our following of Jesus will mean both that we will become more aware of evil, and also that evil will become aware of us, just as the man in the synagogue recognised Jesus for who he was. We probably won’t be loved much for standing up for some of the things I have mentioned, for calling out evil when we encounter it. But that shouldn’t stop us doing it. In the Lord’s prayer we pray, ‘Deliver us from evil’ and that is our prayer.






Advent 2 – The dark night of John the Baptist

Advent 2 – Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8

John the Baptist

John the Baptist bursts blazing onto the scene as recorded in the first few verses of the gospel of Mark. ‘A shout goes up in the desert: Make way for the Lord! Clear a straight path for him!’ (v3). He’s like an old-time fire-and-brimstone revivalist, strong on sin and repentance, confident in his message, calling sinners forward for baptism and the start of a new life. Here’s a sample to get us in the mood: ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?’ (Matt 3:7) He was effective, too: we read that the whole of Judaea, and everyone who lived in Jerusalem went out to him – it was revival, a mass movement on a grand scale. A clear message, certainty is so compelling, it has a hypnotic power. People – including us – will do anything for certainty, anything to keep the uncertainties and doubts away. Dressed in camel-hair clothes, feeding on locusts and honey he had an appearance and a way of life that matched well his uncompromising, strident message. But along with the call to repent and begin again was another message, the message of advent: someone else is coming who is much greater than I am. Look, I baptise with water: but he will baptise with the Holy Spirit. John the Baptist was the messenger, the forerunner, the herald of the coming Messiah, Jesus. Get ready!


There’s a key word buried in the gospel reading that’s strongly associated with John and in fact with many prophets and strong preachers. It’s this: repent. I wonder what that word does for you? Anything? Leave behind a life of sin? Do you find it a rather heavy word, loaded with guilt? Does that actually help you? I’m guessing no. I received a lightbulb moment this week when someone pointed out that the ‘pent’ part of the word means ‘think’. This will be obvious to anyone speaking a Romance language: in French, to think is penser, in Spanish pensar, in Italian pensare. In English we get our word ‘pensive’ meaning thoughtful, from this root. ‘Repent’ means to ‘re-think’, to think again. That sense of the word reflects well the word in Greek lying behind it, metanoia – which broadly means this: go beyond the mind you have. John called people to think again. Think again about how you are living your lives, yes: but think again about how history is panning out before your very eyes. One is coming who is going to up-end all your thoughts about God, about life: I am not worthy to squat down and undo his sandals, he is so great. I baptised you with water; but he will baptise you with the Spirit of God.


This is all great stuff, energising and full of hope. I suspect that John, like many of his compatriots, thought that the coming of Jesus the Messiah would herald in such an age of renewal that the old order would be overturned – the occupying Romans turned out, the kingdom restored, a return to the golden days of David the King with their enemies on the run. As is often the case, it didn’t turn out like that. Jesus was a teacher like none other. He did not seek power in any human way – by political or military means. He healed the sick, taught about making peace with the Romans, turning the other cheek, non-violence, reaching out to lepers and the dead. Meanwhile, John carried on with his message of black-and-white certainty, calling out the ruler, Herod, for taking his brother’s wife, Herodias. Was it any surprise that he got banged up in prison? Not at all. And in prison, deprived of his wilderness pulpit, in silence, confronted with his own thoughts he found that doubt, uncertainty was gnawing inside him. Had he got this right? Jesus wasn’t turning out to be the Messiah he had thought. And why was he, John, the prophet sent before him, in prison? Had he got it all wrong? Was God in this at all? And so he sent a messenger to Jesus to ask him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ (Matt 11:2,3). Jesus answered him by telling him, through the messenger, what he was doing and to compare it with what he knew from the scriptures about the coming Messiah. Jesus invited John to re-think, to change his mind, to repent, to go beyond his ideas of what Messiah should be. It was exactly what John had been telling people to do as he started his ministry, proclaiming a baptism of re-thinking.


I have struggled with understanding John as I came to prepare this sermon. As I read the gospel passage I only saw the strident, certain prophet. But as I reflected more on his life, I came to see a more human figure. One whose hopes – the certainty that he preached with – did not work out in the way he expected. Whose fearless preaching got him into trouble, where perhaps more circumspection would have avoided it. One who doubted, who had to ask the question that was plaguing him: ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’


I was very fortunate that when I came to faith as a teenage schoolboy, I was influenced and taught by some remarkable people at the church I attended. I owe a great debt to them. But I remember one time talking about doubt with one of the clergy. He remarked, holding an open Bible, ‘I used to have doubts, but I don’t any more’. That stuck with me as an ideal I should aspire to, so that when doubts about my faith did surface during my years at university, I felt doubly bad. Since then I have learned to live with doubt, to acknowledge it and recognise it as an essential part of my faith journey. Fast forward to this year, while walking in Portugal Rosemary and I met two women, friends, one Scottish and one English. I fell in to talking with the Scot and we shared stories about our families and our faith. She confessed to finding it hard to keep believing in God’s goodness when she experienced a personal tragedy but felt she had to just ignore her doubts and keep believing, wasn’t that what we were supposed to do? I gently pushed that back, speaking about doubt as something we all have, that it’s not wrong. That ‘certainty’ can actually be a bad thing because when we’re certain, we can’t listen. We can’t listen to ourselves, or other people, or in fact to what God Himself is speaking to us. So much pain in our world comes from people who are ‘certain’. I’m putting inverted commas around ‘certain’ to indicate that there will always be a shadow side of doubt there, whose unacknowledged presence will make us shout all the louder. That when we are ‘certain’, there is no room for faith – it is just not necessary. Anne Lamott, the author writes that: ‘The opposite of faith is not doubt: it is certainty’. I gave that quote with the Scottish lady. It gave her permission to leave behind her false certainty, which wasn’t certainty anyway and realise that we can’t know everything. It lifted a burden from her.


Doubts, or questions, may take many shapes and forms. We may have doubts at a very basic level about our faith: is it really true? Does God actually exist? How can God be good when there is such pain in the world? How can God be good when someone I love just died? We may have doubts at a more personal level: doubts about ourselves, fears that we are not who we seem, doubts that anyone can love me, let alone God. And there’s a temptation, in the face of messages planted deep within us, to ignore the questions and the doubts, pretending they are not there. It’s like trying to bury something that’s alive. It may indeed have been like that for John the Baptist, even as he was calling people to repentance and pointing to Jesus as ‘the One who is to come’.


It’s possible to see that John the Baptist was on a kind of spiritual journey as he travelled from that blinding certainty at the outset of his ministry down to a different man a few years later, stripped of his role as preacher, stripped of everything, pretty much, facing an uncertain future and facing too the internal doubts and questions about his mission: have I got it right? Have I made a huge mistake? The Franciscan teacher Richard Rohr speaks of the two halves of the spiritual life. The first half when we build our containers, build the framework of our lives, often with rules, certainties, confidence. Then something happens to us, often in middle age but can be at any time, when tragedy, crisis or illness strikes and the container breaks, the certainties are gone (which is what happened to John when he found himself arrested and in prison). And then what you’re left with is what was in the container and you learn to live with that without the false reassurance of so-called certainty. We might call that process repentance –that is, re-thinking, going beyond the old mindset. What emerges then is faith.


You will notice that I haven’t actually answered any doubts. That’s not the point. There is actually no such thing about complete certainty about anything. We may find some doubts can be addressed and answered: some can’t. Again, the space between our doubts and our convictions (to use a different word) is where faith lives. Or maybe a better word is trust.


So as we journey through the season of Advent, let us reflect on John the Baptist as he points us to Christ, as we wait for His coming into the world. Let us see and hear John, the powerful and charismatic preacher, calling men and women to re-think their lives, signalling the coming of Christ and himself baptising him in the Jordan river. But let’s not just see him as a two-dimensional figure, locked into the image of the fierce and certain preacher. His certainties were, in time, broken open and he had to go through his own repentance, his re-thinking as the Messiah he imagined turned out to be the wrong one, as he had to re-form his mind. Perhaps this is a time to face our own doubts and fears, to re-think our faith. John’s expression of his own certainties and doubts is contained within the gospel story: the gospel, the good news has space to hold them.

Richard Croft

Sermon given 19th July by Christine Bainbridge

Sermon 19 July 2015 Mark 6. 30-34, 53-56

I wonder how you are today? What kind of week have you had? As always there’s been a lot going on internationally – Greece, a possible nuclear deal with Iran, closer to home concerns about the future of the BBC. Then our own circumstances – what’s been happening at work or home. Decisions we need to take. Health concerns. All these surround us as we come to our readings from scripture this morning. This is our context. How might our faith address it?

If you were here last week you may remember hearing about king Herod, a particularly unpleasant ruler. Both our readings today look at how people with power and authority exercise it – the rulers of Israel in our OT reading from Jeremiah and Jesus and his disciples in our gospel passage. So, the focus I want us to have as we consider these extracts from scripture this morning is leadership; what insights might we gain about leadership from scripture and how might these help us in our particular context?

Today we’re hearing about a group of our members going to Taize. They have leaders! I’d like to ask those of you in the group what qualities you most want to see in your leaders. Wait for response. Take microphone round. Repeat some of the qualities.

It sounds as though you will all flourish under good leadership whilst at Taize.

Let’s look at how the prophet Jeremiah describes bad leaders:
They don’t take care of their people
They scatter them and drive them away
They make them afraid and terrified.
I was very struck by this reference to bad leaders scattering people and terrifying them; I guess that’s partly what lies behind the great movement of refugees from different parts of the world at present. Like the Israelites thousands of these people are being scattered. Jeremiah looks forward to a time when his people will live in their land in peace, feeling safe, with a ruler who cares for them. He dreams of God gathering his people and leading them himself.

Hold up an empty picture frame. Our gospel today is a bit odd. It’s like this empty picture frame. The missing picture is the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 which we will hear next week. Our reading from Mark is just the frame around this miracle – some verses before and some verses after it. Perhaps our lectionary is being influenced by post modern art, showing more interest in the space around something than in the thing itself? I don’t know! What I do know is that the frame helps us see the kind of leadership exercised by Jesus and the disciples – a leadership that makes possible the picture in the frame – the feeding of the 5,000. The frame holds that picture and enables us to see it better. So let’s look at the frame and see what it tells us about Jesus’ leadership.

Jesus is someone who gathers people rather than scatters them. We see him here gathering his 12 closest followers after they have been out on the road doing the same things as him. This also reminds us that he’s the kind of leader who trusts colleagues with whatever is his central task. He’s now gathering them for a debrief and a rest. Next we see him gathering the crowd that has followed them – he begins to teach them many things. Further round the frame Mark gives us a glimpse of the gathering that would happen wherever he went. Rather than wanting to run away people wanted to draw as close to him as possible. He regularly welcomes this (people bringing children to him, Zacchaeus, Bartimaeus, the woman with the issue of blood….)

He cares for people – he sees his disciples need a rest and tries to arrange this, he can see that the crowd are ‘like sheep without a shepherd’ and, crucially, he has pity on them. (‘When Jesus saw the crowd he was filled with pity because they were like sheep without a shepherd’). A better word might be ‘compassion’ because ‘pity’ more conveys feeling sorry for someone. The Greek word means to experience deep feeling that spills over into action – in Jesus’ case, beginning to teach the crowd. This word is only used of Jesus in the NT and in 3 parables with close reference to himself. Matthew and Luke also refer to Jesus having compassion on a crowd. Compassion is a key ingredient in Jesus’ leadership. He seriously loves these people. Mark’s picture frame demonstrates how attractive this is – people are drawn to him.
So, on our leadership checklist –
Drawing others to you
Trusting them with your mission
Caring for them
Caring for those to whom your mission is directed and with whom you have no ties at all (‘the crowd’)
Exercising compassion

It’s this kind of compassion that I imagine motivated Brother Roger to found Taize; seeing the brokenness in Europe after the 2nd world war he wanted to offer a place where bridges might be built, relationships mended; or Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche deeply moved by the loneliness of men with learning difficulties, or Mother Theresa being drawn out of her peaceful convent with its beautiful garden towards the poor of Calcutta. Or whoever started Reading food bank or RE Inspired or Communicare or Mission to Nepal.

Each of these individuals was rooted in a church. The church is like the frame around the picture of Taize or Communicare etc. It’s what holds it. We are all that frame. We are all called to draw others rather than scatter them, to generate trust rather than fear, to care for each other and for those in the different places where we are during week. More than anything, as Christ’s body, we are bearers of compassion, that deeply felt emotion that results in loving action. This compassion is a characteristic of God himself; Jeremiah imagines God viewing his scattered people with compassion, and preparing to appoint a ruler who will gather them to himself. Our gospel writer Mark sees in Jesus just that kind of leader. After his resurrection Jesus entrusted that leadership to his church – that’s us. We are his Body here in this place today. We’re that compassionate frame. We have a special calling to lead in the field of compassion.

As individuals we are unlikely to found a community like Taize or set up an organisation like Communicare, but as you’ll see if you read on and look at the picture in this frame (feeding 5,000) that’s not what’s asked of us. Jesus asks each of us to offer the little drop of compassion we have and that’s hard because we don’t think it will make any difference. What’s even harder is that we are asked to do this on a daily basis. How hard is that?! As we all do this we build a frame that enables miracles to happen.

Richard and I lived in Peckham for a number of years. You may have heard of Kids Company, a charity in Peckham that helps seriously troubled children. They’ve been in the news recently following accusations of mismanagement. Whether or not these are founded it remains to be seen. It’s clear that Kids Company does remarkable therapeutic work with children and young people. Their stated aim is to demonstrate to the children that they love and care for them. It’s that compassion/pity word associated with Jesus. They do this in a very particular way, offering one to one support that continues for months and, if necessary, years. A young woman who has been supported by Kids Company for some years (seeing a counsellor, having a mentor) says this of her key worker, ‘When I saw her at the beginning she said, there’s nothing you can say to me, nothing you can do, you can swear at me, you can tell me to go away, but nothing will make me like you less or care about you any less’. Within that frame of active compassion the young woman had received the healing necessary for her to move forward.

The church too can be that frame of active compassion. If we return to the context we considered at the beginning – Greece, Iran, decisions facing you, issues at work or home, health concerns – how do these look when viewed with the eyes of compassion? How do we see Greece when we set it in that frame of compassion? How do we see ourselves? Our children? That issue at work?

I’ve been trying this out myself this week – don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk, I said to myself as I prepared this sermon!

Following the custom of silence at Taize there will now be 2 minutes silence. In that time I invite you to consider something or someone that has been on your radar this week and then try putting that situation/person within the frame of compassion that Mark offers us in his gospel. What do you see?

Christine Bainbridge

Remembrance Sunday – sermon given on 8th November 2015 by Richard Croft

Weirdly, today’s OT and NT readings are connected by, amongst other things, fish. The book of Jonah is the story of a man who was swallowed by a gigantic fish; and the gospel in Mark is about 4 fishermen who caught fish for a living. I just want to get that out of the way, don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere else with that.

The challenge today for us is to try and understand what our readings says to the theme of Remembrance. That is, as we hear scripture, and in our gospel reading of today we hear the words of the man who himself was and is the Word of God, we consider how that informs and shapes our thoughts and actions as we remember. As we remember servicemen and women, and ordinary men, women and children as well who have died in zones of conflict, and the grim reality of war which still blights our world.

Just to recap, the reading in Jonah tells the story of a reluctant prophet. Jonah was told by God to go and preach to the city of Nineveh to save it from destruction. Jonah didn’t like the idea so he got on a ship and sailed in the opposite direction. There was a huge storm at sea which Jonah understood to be a result of his disobedience to God, so the sailors threw him into the sea, where a giant fish swallowed him. In the belly of the fish Jonah found a moment of ‘quiet contemplation’ where he repented, and the fish vomited him out. This chastened and probably bleached man then preached a message from God to Nineveh, ‘that great city’ (3:1). The king, his subjects and even the animals fasted and repented and the city was saved from destruction. In the gospel today, we find the first words of Jesus as recorded by Mark: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is near; repent and believe in the good news!’ (1:15). Next, walking along by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus comes across 4 fishermen: Simon and his brother Andrew, and James and his brother John. He commissions them to follow him with these words: ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people’ (1:17). They are to share in his task of calling people to repentance and belief in the good news of the Kingdom of God. And there’s the connection with Jonah, that was what he did too. How does this speak to Remembrance?

War is all around us. From this week’s Guardian: “Last week the heads of the UN and the Red Cross made what they called an ‘unprecedented joint warning’ for states to stop conflicts, respect international law and aid refugees. ‘In the face of blatant inhumanity, the world has responded with disturbing paralysis’ they said. The UN is struggling with an unprecedented array of conflicts and crises, with 60 million people made homeless, record demand for humanitarian aid, and little signs of peace talks bringing an end to wars in Libya, Syria or Yemen. ‘These violations have become so routine there is a risk people will think that the deliberate bombing of civilians, the targeting of humanitarian and healthcare workers, and attacks on schools, hospitals and places of worship are an inevitable result of conflict. Enough is enough. Even war has rules. It is time to enforce them.’ said Ban Ki-Moon, the UN Secretary-General.”

War is all around us. Today marks in particular the end of WW1 and the sacrifice of so many in that conflict. But the day, this moment, also gathers up all who are affected by conflict: soldiers, sailors and airmen certainly but also those civilians, ordinary people who didn’t ask to be involved.

The words of Jesus speak of something completely different – the Kingdom of God. The gospel gradually spells out the its meaning. It is not a Kingdom like our country is a Kingdom with borders and a monarch; it is rather a community of people connected through space and time, focussed on the teachings, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We can read in places like the Sermon on the Mount some of its principles: love for enemies, giving, being peacemakers: and the life of Jesus tells us about forgiveness, reconciliation, healing, peace, and self-giving. That commission given to the first disciples, the one about becoming fishing for people to come into the Kingdom, comes down to us: we are invited to call people too. Let me link that to what we are doing here this morning – to confession, to turning away from evil to good, to forgiveness in the absolution, to worship, to hearing God’s word, to the sharing of the peace, to sharing the family meal, to the sending out again. What we are engaging in now is a microcosm, a parable of the Kingdom in itself. But not only a parable; also the reality.

So here’s the thing. What does it mean to be fish for people, to proclaim the Kingdom on Remembrance Sunday? To allow this gospel imperative to engage with sacrifice, duty and war? I think in a church like ours, with its culture of peace and justice, and dare I say it? being a bit lefty, some of us find Remembrance Sunday a slight embarrassment and there’s even quite a bit of aversion to wearing poppies. Let me say straight away I know exactly how that feels. But let’s also think: we might prefer it otherwise, but war has been, is now, and unfortunately always will be with us. There have been, are now, and will be men and women who will go and fight for our country, who will take up arms and put themselves in the line of fire, often with tragic consequences. It is right that we should remember them and reach out to those affected. It is right also that we should remember with compassion all who are affected by war. That’s not to be militaristic; it’s to be realistic and to be compassionate. Our church is part of our parish, part of our town, part of our country, part of all that happens and we are linked together by shared humanity. There are people in this church this morning, and in our parish and our town who are directly or indirectly connected with our armed forces or who have been affected by war.

What we do is this: we reach out. Our role is not to be political here – it is to be pastoral. We are to be fishers of people. We are to care for people affected by war. In doing this we, as a community of faith, stand for a different way of doing things. We hate war and conflict. It is the absolute opposite of all that Jesus stands for, all that the Kingdom of God is. But it happens. Organisations like the British Legion and Hope for Heroes, which help servicemen and women who have been affected by war, do a great job. So does the Red Cross in its work with all people affected by conflict, whatever side they are on. Back in 1982, during the Falklands war, Rosemary’s brother Peter was on board HMS Coventry when it was bombed and sunk. He spent several hours in the water before being rescued. At that time Rosemary was a junior doctor working at Wexham Park Hospital in Slough. Somehow, the information was relayed to the hospital Chaplain who sought her out to tell her the news personally, and offer support and prayer. At that time it was not known whether Peter was alive or dead. She really appreciated that human contact and care. The Chaplain was doing his job as a ‘fisher of people’. Three days later the ship’s commander telephoned Rosemary’s parents to tell them that Peter had been fished out of the sea and was alive and well.

Part of what we as a church do is to offer moments like this one, in church, with a bit of ceremony, with readings, prayers and silence that enable us – and especially anyone here who is personally affected by war, or who has a relation who is a serviceman or woman – to gather our thoughts and emotions together and find somewhere to put them. There can be great power in ritual acts, in well crafted liturgy and prayers. We call our special prayer of each Sunday a ‘Collect’ because it does precisely that – it collects us, draws us together in common prayer.

To fish for people, called to proclaim the Kingdom of God. I wonder how far the net is cast. To servicemen and women and their families, certainly. To those affected by war? Yes. To refugees? Yes. To our enemies?

Richard Croft

The Rich Young Ruler – 11th October 2015 Rev. Vincent Gardner

Rev. Vincent Gardner Rich young ruler 11/10/15

Do you know what one of my fantasies is? To be able to look out from a balcony window on the Amalifi coast in Italy with a glass of red Barolo wine in hand, good company, sun on my face… while lying on a bed of hard cash….Gorgeous. Money is one of the life’s pleasures. It has never done any ‘evil’ too me.
Money is great! Having loads of money must be brilliant! So before we start today, that’s where I am coming from. And I am no fool.
On April 1st 1976 British astronomer Patrick Moore made an announcement on BBC Radio 2: “At 9:47 a.m. today there will be a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ astronomical event occurring.” The planet Pluto would pass behind Jupiter, he said, temporarily causing a gravitational alignment that would counteract and lessen the Earth’s own gravity. Astronomer Patrick Moore explained that if people were to jump in the air at the exact moment that this planetary alignment occurred, they would experience a strange floating sensation.
When 9:47 AM arrived, BBC Radio 2 began to receive 100s of phone calls from listeners claiming to have felt the sensation. One woman even reported that she and her 11 friends had risen from their chairs and floated around the room….It was an April Fool’s joke.

Then (2005) April 1st the media reported that NASA had discovered water on Mars and that they had actual pictures on the official NASA website. Those who went to the website to check it out, saw this picture: (picture of a glass of water balanced on a chocolate Mars bar) April Fools! Now, what is it that makes an April Fool joke funny? (Someone shouted out “fools”, which is technically correct, I guess) It’s when someone can be fooled into believing something that’s not true.

In the incidences I just cited (about Jupiter/Pluto and about Mars) people were made to believe something about the HEAVENS that wasn’t true. And in our story today, we encounter a young man who believed something about HEAVEN that wasn’t true. Now, before we get to what he believed that was NOT true, let’s first understand what he believed that WAS true.

Notice what this man does “As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him” (vs. 17) He RUNS up to Jesus. Why does he do that?

Well, when was the last time you ran? If you’re like me, you ran because you were in a hurry. You needed to do something/get somewhere and you needed to run. This man RAN to Jesus because he needed to get somewhere… to Jesus. And he needed to get something – something he was sure Jesus had. But what was it that Jesus had that this man needed so badly?

Well, look at his first question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” verse 17. Now, that’s kind of a bizarre question for him to ask. I mean – think about it. This man would seem to be a shoe-in for salvation.
• He’s young, rich and professional. He’s not a near-do-well. He doesn’t live off others. He may very well, be handsome, and likable and an accomplished businessman. In my eyes ‘Ryan Gosling’.• But he’s HUMBLE (he kneels before Jesus). • And he’s EAGER to know what he needs to do to please God. • On top of that he’s a highly MORAL man. He strives to keep the 10 commandments. In fact he believes he’s kept those commandments ever since he was a boy. Even Jesus likes him. Mark 10:21
This rich young ruler is so impressive that when Jesus says: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
They ask: “Who then can be saved?”

I mean – if this guy can’t do it, who can????

But this rich young ruler BELIEVED all the right stuff
1. He believed that he was lost (He doubted he had eternal life).
2. He believed that he needed to DO something to please God (“what must I DO?).
3. And he believed that Jesus could give him the answers he so desperately sought.

But his problem was – he was a FOOL. He walked away from the only one who could answer his question.
And he walked away because he believed something about Heaven that was not true. What he believed was that he could get into heaven while putting his money before God. But he was seriously and foolishly wrong about that.

“I always point out that the man’s sin was not that he had money, but rather that money had him. In a sense his god was wealth. He was self sufficient.” (Paul Humphrey)
How do we know money was his god?
Because Jesus pointed it out to him (and to us) in a very clever way.

Jesus says to this young man “You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.’” Mark 10:19
19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’ ”

You can almost sense the relief in the young ruler’s response
“Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” Mark 10:20
20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

He’s thinking to himself “Hey this is a shoe-in. I’ve got it made. I’ve studied for this test – and I’ve passed!”
But in his sudden excitement, he missed the one commandment Jesus had left out.
Do you know which one it was? “Thou shalt not COVET” Exodus 20:17 17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

This rich young ruler was a covetous man. His money and his possessions were important to him. And they were SO important they were robbing him of his closeness to God. Money can blind you to God.

No one can serve both God and money! Why not? Well, there are two basic reasons that is true:
1st – God won’t stand still for it. The very idea of placing anything between yourself and your loyalty to God is something He will not tolerate. To love your money (or anything else) more than you love Him is idolatry.
2nd – The love of money will enslave you and rob you of God’s peace.

But we have to be careful Jesus wasn’t criticizing the man for being rich, lots of Jesus followers would have been regarded as wealthy or at least comfortable. Jesus himself was probably from a comfortable situation. Nicodemus. We might class some people as poor within our community/country but wouldn’t be in another country/situation. What we might perceive as rich another group wouldn’t. Jesus was comfortable around rich people and partied with them. No being rich itself wasn’t the issue, being controlled by it rather than God was the issue.

A friend mentioned ‘I was in Hollywood, Florida… on the so-called “gold coast” of Florida. Every morning I taught the Scriptures to a crowd of five hundred or more. These people, I was told, represented well over a billion dollars’ worth of accumulated wealth. I had the opportunity to talk with many of them individually. I found that most of these, by their own testimony, though they had all the money to buy anything they wanted, had arrived at the place where they were suffering from what someone has so aptly called “Destination sickness” – the malady of having everything that you want, but not wanting anything you have, and being sick and empty.’
Truth is universal, but Jesus was unique. He taught with authority, which amazed His followers. Something about the way in which He taught was distinctly different from that of anyone else they had ever heard. Maybe it was a bit like hearing an author read his own poetry aloud – it is quite different from having a friend read it to you! Jesus had a moral authority.
Some of the parallels between his teachings and that of the rabbis of his day are quite subtle, yet revolutionary. For example, Hillel said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour” (Shabbat 31a). Jesus said, “Whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them” (Matthew 7:12). The difference is subtle yet profound.
When you leave this morning and you speak to the clergy on the door and you say. ‘Good Morning Vicar, another wonderful sermon’ etc. Don’t be surprised if you receive the reply ‘tell me three things why this morning is good?.’ This is not another grumpy response but just the vicar demonstrating Rabbinical teaching practice.

Who do you say I am? 13th September 2015

St John’s and St Stephen’s Church, Reading, 13th September 2015, Creation 2
Isaiah 50:9-11, Mark 8:27-38
Who do you say I am?

I cannot remember a time when a leadership election for a political party has generated such interest and, whatever we might think of the outcome, it has re-ignited an interest in politics for many people. A rank outsider, left wing, the worst-dressed and most rebellious Labour MP is suddenly the leader of Her Majesty’s loyal opposition. The mention of Her Majesty reminds us that Queen Elizabeth in the last week became the longest serving monarch in British history. The Queen is widely respected, admired and loved and has, I think, a key role as a focal, and steady, point for our nation. Leaders matter! On the other side of the Atlantic, there is much excitement, interest and also horror as Donald Trump leads the pack of nominees for the Republican presidential nomination. The prospect of ‘the Donald’ becoming the most powerful man on the planet…..

There is something instinctive in us that wants to place hope and faith in a leader. We want them to succeed, not to disappoint, to lead us to a better place. It doesn’t always work, of course. But unless we just become cynical, we continue to want to believe in a leader. So when Jesus asked Peter, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ he was taking the temperature of public opinion about himself before focusing on Peter himself with the question, ‘Who do you say I am?’ What thoughts went through Peter’s mind? Was it a spur of the moment decision to say, ‘You are the Christ!’ or had he reflected long and hard on all he had seen and experienced? I’m inclined to think it was the spur of the moment, actually, but let’s just rehearse some of the qualities he had seen in his leader, his Rabbi, his friend.

Jesus was a powerful, charismatic preacher. Wherever he went, his words stirred the crowds and they flocked to him to listen to his stories and parables, his message of welcome into the kingdom of God. Once he preached from a boat, there were so many people on the beach who wanted to hear him. He denounced injustice and hypocrisy wherever he found it, making him few friends with the powers that be, but firmly on the side of the poor and downtrodden. He was a healer of bodies and minds, of people with fevers, epilepsy, leprosy, paralysis, blindness, deafness: even the dead. And he did more than that: he changed relationships, lifted up those who were struggling with life, he forgave sins, he made things whole. He was an exorcist and had power over evil, sending a whole legion of evil powers into a herd of pigs tumbling over a cliff. He was a brilliant and inspired wisdom teacher – no country bumpkin was he! His parables and sayings come down to us over the millennia: the good Samaritan, the sower, the prodigal son, the sermon on the mount; ‘go the extra mile’; ‘let him who is without sin cast the first stone’; ‘give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s’ and so on. He was an extraordinary worker of miracles – think of the feeding of the 5000, the stilling of the storm, the walking on the water. He was a ‘mystic’, praying for hours in solitary places, and carrying with him always a strong sense of the presence of God. He was the most amazing and extraordinary man who has ever walked the face of the earth. It was not a difficult step for Peter to declare him to be ‘the Christ’, the anointed one, the Messiah, the one who was coming, who would save the Jewish nation.

But at that point the mood changes. Coming, as it does, at the mid-point of the gospel of Mark, Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ is a watershed for the tone immediately changes. ‘Yes, Peter, you are right: but you only have half of the story. Here is the other bit’ – ‘the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again’ (31). Thant was not what Peter expected or wanted to hear! Peter then actually rebuked Jesus for saying that – but Jesus rebuked him in turn with the stinging, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ (33) and reinforces his solemn message by telling him that if anyone wants to follow me, that will be their path as well (34-38)

What was it that brought Jesus to think and say that? Why didn’t he talk about leading the nation to triumph? In a sense there was an inevitability about it. It is sadly an almost universal truth that inspirational, great and good leaders who do the right thing meet a sticky end. In the 20th century the two great examples are Gandhi and Martin Luther King, but history is littered with men and women who have got in the face of corruption and injustice and paid the ultimate price. But there was a deeper truth here, a distant voice that Jesus had heard and understood. Buried in the book of the prophet Isaiah, 700 years old at the time of Jesus, was a message about a mysterious Servant who would arise, who would have God’s Spirit on him, who would point not only the Jewish nation but all nations back to God, who would care for the broken and downtrodden but who would also pay a heavy price. The Servant would be a Suffering Servant, one who would face suffering and rejection and an unjust death before his final vindication by God himself. You can find these four ‘Servant’ passages in Isaiah 42:1-4, 49:1-7, 50:4-9 (today’s OT reading) and famously, 52:13-53:12. The picture painted of Jesus by Mark in his gospel is one of exactly the Suffering Servant and the imprint of Isaiah is strong on the text of the gospel, and never more clear than at this point where the Christ faced suffering and rejection: Jesus identified himself with the Suffering Servant and knows this must happen. Peter had not realized this: like all of us, he only wanted the good bits! So Jesus got right in his face and pushed back Peter’s false hope with brutal reality.

Let’s hear today’s OT reading, Isaiah 50:4-9 again, with that in mind:
‘The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens me — wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backwards. I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty? All of them will wear out like a garment; the moth will eat them up.’

I think it is possible to see how Jesus’ life was modeled on this ancient voice. Listening carefully to God, the intimacy with God, that he may know how to sustain the weary – it’s a very tender image. But facing suffering with courage too, knowing that in the end this would be vindicated.

What do we do with all of this? Where does the rubber hit the road? First of all I have tried to explain – to understand why it is that Peter was able to identify Jesus as the Christ. (Just as an aside, the word ‘Christ’ means ‘anointed or chosen one, Messiah’ – it’s not Jesus’ surname!! We should probably not call him ‘Jesus Christ’ but ‘Jesus the Christ’ or ‘Christ Jesus’ to make that clearer). Also, to see that to be ‘the Christ’ meant not only to be preacher, healer, wisdom teacher and all those other things we talked about but also to be prepared to face inevitable suffering with courage and faith; and to understand that this pattern of life was rooted in the Suffering Servant passages of Isaiah.

At this point I want to stand up and open another window onto the question of who Jesus was or is. It’s not something we hear much about: the idea of Jesus as our brother. You can find this in Hebrews: ‘It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, saying, ‘I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you’ (Heb 2:10-12)

How do you like the idea of Jesus as your elder brother, of us as his sisters and brothers? There’s a strong focus in our worship to place Jesus the Christ as beyond our reach: up there, out there, way beyond us, to put so much stress on his divinity that we forget that he was a human being. He walked a path – the path of suffering – that many, many people are familiar with: which qualified him to be the pioneer of our salvation, of our healing. This passage in Hebrews, which actually once again picks up the image of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant tells us that Jesus is ‘not ashamed’ to call us brothers and sisters. It is a lovely, warm image. Keep it in front of you!

There is a beautiful icon that I first saw at Taizé and have in my study: It is called simply ‘Jesus and his friend’. I love it! Jesus is on the right as you look at it, with his arm around his friend’s shoulder. Jesus is slightly bigger than his friend but not much – the emphasis is on equality, not superiority. His friend is pointing at Jesus – ‘He de man!’ and looks a bit like he can’t believe it is true! But it is true. Jesus the Christ is our friend, our elder brother. We are his sisters, his brothers. We are called, extending this family imagery, to be ‘little Christs’. For we too are anointed by the Spirit, we too are in the family

What would it mean to be, ‘little Christs’? None of us are going to have everything that Jesus did, but in each of this there will be some family likeness, some way that we express our relationship with Him. Maybe in welcome, in caring, in bringing healing to a difficult situation, in wisdom, in speaking, in encouraging, in giving, in facing down injustice, in standing up for the poor. Vince challenged us last week in his sermon to be ready to move out of our comfort zone. I don’t know what that might mean for you or for me but we should be aware that Christ calls us forward. We do this, we follow the family tradition, knowing that it may well bring pain as well – we are not above our elder brother. Let me pick up one thing from the Isaiah passage we read: ‘Morning by morning he wakens me — wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backwards’ Let us listen to the voice of God to us: through the scriptures, through our friends – our sisters and brothers – in silence, in prayer. And move forward – with our elder brother.

Richard Croft

Beginnings – Sunday 22nd February 2015


Genesis 9:8-17, Mark 1:9-15



In the year 445, St Patrick baptized King Aengus of Munster in Ireland. St Patrick had in his hand a sharp-pointed staff and by mistake, without noticing, he stabbed the King in his foot while he was conducting the baptism. The King made no mention of this, and St Patrick only noticed what he had done when the baptism was over. ‘Why didn’t you tell me what had happened?’ he asked. The King replied, ‘I thought it was part of the ritual’.


The gospel reading for this first Sunday in Lent is a very compact 7 verse section of Mark. The 7 verses neatly cover three key events right at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry: his baptism, temptation in the wilderness, and the start of his work of preaching and teaching. Over the next 6 weeks we will travel with Jesus to the cross and then on Easter day to the empty tomb. But today, it’s all about beginnings. Some of you will remember that our previous Vicar, Tony Vigars, encouraged us to follow a series of studies called, ‘His story, our story’. It was based on the idea that somehow, in the story of Jesus, we find our own story. That the story of our life, and that of Jesus’ life, somehow match or mirror each other. Let’s see how we get on as we explore that idea with today’s short passage in Mark.


The wilderness experience is at the heart of the gospel reading, framed by the baptism and the start of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. That theme of wilderness is perhaps what Lent is most about. Lent is a period of 40 days – that’s not counting the Sundays – which is the same as the length of time that Jesus spent in the wilderness, being tempted and tested. Why 40? It’s a day for every year that the Israelites spent in the wilderness as they wandered from Egypt to the promised land – read about it in Exodus. That number 40 then connects us with Jesus in the wilderness and then right back to the book of Exodus, and 40 years spent in the wilderness. The word Lent, just in passing, simply means ‘spring’. We start Lent in the cold days of late winter and it takes us into the heart of spring with the re-emergence of the created living order in the bright spring sun. There’s another journey.


Before we get to the wilderness, let’s pause at the Baptism. As Jesus arrives on the scene – and in Mark’s gospel he just appears as if from nowhere – he submits to the baptism of John the revivalist preacher, aligning himself with the new movement of repentance and turning back to God. As he comes up from the waters of the Jordan, a dove flies down and lands on him, symbolizing the coming of the Spirit and a voice is heard: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’ (11). Those words and the presence of the Spirit are gifts to Jesus as he faces testing and trial and the start of his ministry. What more did he need? What more could God the Father give than his love, his assurance, and his very presence through the Spirit? Brothers and sisters, that assurance comes to us also. Here is where these events recorded on paper come alive for us and mirror our own experience. Most of us probably can’t even remember our own baptism – some will be able to – but we too can allow ourselves to hear those same words spoken to us: ‘You are my Daughter or Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’. Let those words rest on you, let them settle on you, like a, I don’t know, a dove. Let that assurance touch you, allow the Spirit to take that right into your heart: know that you are beloved.  The baptismal font is at the door of almost all churches and cathedrals because baptism is the sign of entry into the fellowship of Jesus. There’s a tradition of sprinkling yourself with a few drops of water from it as a reminder, and echo of your baptism and a few weeks ago Christine encouraged us to do that here at St John’s as part of the service. Do it again! Do anything you can to remind yourself of your baptism, and of those words of assurance and love.


You might think that after that high point Jesus would go on in triumph to conquer the hearts of his people and perhaps duff up the Romans while he’s at it. Counter-intuitively, the Spirit himself ‘immediately drove him out into the wilderness’ (12). There had to be a testing of Jesus’ calling and commission. He went out into a literal wilderness, a wild place, an empty place in order to confront his demons – the short-cuts to fame and success that would avoid the cross. The temptations of the flesh and and heart which could side-track him from his mission. The account in Mark is literally one verse only – we don’t get the detail that we do in Matthew and Luke. I’m not going to go to the detail, I want to use the barrenness of Mark’s words to reflect a bit around this theme. Firstly, there’s a very real sense in which the testing was necessary, to prove himself. How do any of us know we can do anything until we’ve been tested? Jesus’ mission was a spiritual one, so he faced spiritual testing.


Just as we too have been baptized, have received the Spirit and the assurance of God’s love, so too will we have wilderness experiences, times of trial and testing. That doesn’t mean something has gone wrong!  Wilderness times come to all of us – they can come from bereavement, loss of a job, retirement, the pain of mental or physical illness. Anywhere where we feel rootless, emotionally or spiritually alone. Strong temptations can come on us in those times – temptations to kick over the traces, to find solace from somewhere else or someone else. Where is your weak point? How well do you know yourself? We used to talk about temptation coming from the world, the flesh and the devil. Let me bring that up to date and then you’ll know what I mean – money, sex and power. They are, I believe, the root temptations for all of us – the places we are most likely to compromise. Richard Foster wrote a book called exactly that, ‘Money, sex and power’. We studied it in home group several years ago – it’s an excellent book. I bet that if you think about your weak spot, your Achilles heel, it’ll involve at least one of those, if not all three. We should guard ourselves and fight the temptation to succumb, to give in when we are at a low point. That will make us stronger, more ready for what we are called to.


For many Christians in the world today, the wilderness experience has a much sharper edge than what I have described. We heard last week of the terrible murder of 21 Coptic Orthodox Christians in Libya who were executed for no other crime than that they were Christians. When I heard about it I texted my friend and work partner George, who is himself a Coptic Christian. ‘My dear friend’ he texted back, ‘The whole world has gone to the devil. Kyrie Eleison, Lord have mercy’. The church in the Middle East and North Africa is facing terrible hardship at this time. Some of us heard Mona Siddiqui at the University comment a couple of weeks ago that the West seems to have forgotten about the existence of the historical Christian communities in those places. Perhaps during Lent we can remember the wilderness times that they are passing through and pray for them.


There’s a silly story about a man who had two dogs, a black one and a white one. Whenever his friend visited, he noticed that the two dogs were fighting. Sometimes the black one was winning, and sometimes the white. He asked them man, ‘why is it that one week the black one is winning, and the next week the white?’ The man replied, ‘It depends which one I feed the most’.


Lent provides us with an opportunity to draw on resources to build ourselves up, to feed ourselves. I’m going to suggest a few practical ways we can do that. Personally, I’m using the ‘Daily Prayer’ app on my iPad. It’s brilliant! It gives you prayers and readings for every day for morning, evening and night. I’ve only been using the morning ones but I am finding it really, really good. Then there’s ‘Pray as you go’ – these are 10 minutes of music, reading, reflection and prayer that you can get on your computer, tablet or mobile. You can use earphones and listen while you travel to work on the bus or train, or put it on speaker in the car. Lots of great books – Rosemary and I are getting so much from ‘Finding Sanctuary’ by Abbott Christopher Jamison. Rowan Williams’ book, ‘Finding God in Mark’ has daily readings from the gospel through Lent. And lots more, of course. Carpe diem – seize the day! Take the opportunities that are out there.


So Jesus passed the test. After the baptism, the testing; after the testing, the mission. Jesus started his public ministry of teaching, preaching, healing which in three short years would lead to the cross. The phases of calling, assurance and trial were necessary.


In the year 445, St Patrick baptized King Aengus of Munster in Ireland. St Patrick had in his hand a sharp-pointed staff and by mistake, without noticing, he stabbed the King in his foot while he was conducting the baptism. The King made no mention of this, and St Patrick only noticed what he had done when the baptism was over. ‘Why didn’t you tell me what had happened?’ he asked. The King replied, ‘I thought it was part of the ritual’.


He was right.


Richard Croft

Baptism of Christ

Genesis 1.1-5, Mark 1.4-11

Today is the Sunday when we remember Jesus’ baptism by John in the river Jordan. I want us to consider Jesus’ baptism, but also our own baptism. Baptism is a big topic. Both Jesus’ baptism and ours are rich in symbolic meaning. I can only touch on some aspects of baptism this morning. I hope you might want to make your own journey of discovery and uncover more layers for yourself.

We were enjoying a post Christmas break in Devon when news broke about the ship carrying Syrian refugees being abandoned by their crew in the Mediterranean and then towed to safety by the Italians. A ship crammed with needy, desperate people. I found myself wondering what it would it be like for us if instead of watching at a distance via the TV in our comfortable room we were suddenly air lifted into the midst of all those people; we were there on the boat with them, sharing their dangerous journey. What would that be like? Or suppose the refugees’ leaky, worn boat becomes a metaphor for our planet at present, ever more fragile as we burn more fossil fuel and destroy our ancient rainforests, accelerating global warming. What would it be like for us to find ourselves in a village in Bangladesh flooded as sea levels rise because of global warming?

On the whole we human beings are programmed quite sensibly to live within our comfort zones; so we would be unlikely to choose to do either of the above.

But as we turn our attention to Jesus’ baptism we discover that this is exactly what God does. Let’s picture the scene; we know from Mark’s account which has just been read to us that there were many people around – they had come from Jerusalem and the whole of Judaea. These were not individual baptisms as we do them in church, but an invitation to all those listening to enter the water when they were ready as a sign that they wanted to be washed of all wrongdoing and so be ready for God doing something. Paintings of Jesus baptism usually focus on the moment when he hears God speaking to him so he is seen just with John the Baptist and perhaps an angel or two. There would however have been lots of other people in the river with him at that moment. He would have gone down into the water with everyone else, going under the water and then coming up again and climbing out of the river with everyone else. It’s a clear picture of Jesus identifying with his people, with us; jumping into our leaky boat if you like, becoming one of us. There may be another subtle indication of this immersion in our life in what happens immediately after his baptism – Mark says that the spirit drove (GNB translation ‘made’ doesn’t convey the force of the Greek ekballo lit ‘threw out’) Jesus into the wilderness. Are there perhaps echoes of Adam and Eve being thrown out of the Garden of Eden after the Fall? After an ecstatic experience of intense union with God as his beloved son, Jesus is driven into the wilderness, experiencing that separation or alienation/lostness that is a feature of being human.

So, one of the layers of meaning in Jesus baptism is that he is joining us, he is one of us.

Another is in what is happening when Jesus comes up out of the water. And the clue to this lies in our reading from Genesis. There we heard that at the very beginning before anything was created, when there was just a watery chaos, the Spirit was moving over the water. As it did so the process of creation began. Life began. Here at Jesus’ baptism there is water again and the spirit too. Mark uses quite a violent word to describe the spirit coming upon Jesus. He says, literally, the heavens were ‘torn apart’, as the spirit descended on Jesus. Almost as though heaven is breaking into earth. A new creation is beginning with Jesus’ arrival. Earth will not be the same again.

So, two layers of meaning – baptism signifying Jesus’ identification with us and then the start of a new world order. Heaven is touching earth.

What about our baptism, Christian baptism?

It’s different from John’s baptism. John only offered baptism as a sign of repentance and being washed from what was wrong in our lives. We know it’s different from an incident in the book of Acts (Acts 19.1-7). Paul was in Ephesus where he meets some believers and asks them whether they had received the Holy Spirit. They say they have never heard of the Holy Spirit, so Paul asks them what kind of baptism they have received. The baptism of John, they reply. So Paul places his hands on them and they receive the Holy Spirit (note that they are not baptized again – baptism only happens once). They then speak in tongues and prophesy.

So, Christian baptism involves the Holy Spirit; and this is very clear in the account of Jesus’ baptism. John says that the one coming after him will baptize people with the Holy Spirit. We then see what that meant for Jesus himself – the heavens are torn apart, the Spirit descends, and – this is the crucial part – Jesus hears a voice telling him that he is God’s beloved son and that he is pleased with him. This identity as God’s beloved son or daughter is what we inherit through baptism. It is what has been won for us through Jesus’ identification with us at his baptism and though all that follows in his life, death and resurrection. Through baptism we are re created as God’s beloved son or daughter and he tells us he is ‘well-pleased’ (I love this South London way of expressing it!) with us. Everything in our Christian life stems from this relationship. It is our bedrock. Like any relationship it has its ups and downs and it develops over time. Our awareness of God’s delight in us and in others can take time to develop. it will be challenged. We may find ourselves living quite often from a very different place in ourselves. but essentially the work of the Holy Spirit is to do with establishing that new relationship and living from it. It’s about being first of all, being in a relationship.

From that stems the other major aspect of baptism – we have a call to live out that relationship in the particular circumstances of our lives. when Paul places his hands on the believers in Ephesus they speak in tongues and then they declare God’s message (they ‘prophesy’). They speak into the specific context in which they ar eliving – not a sort of abstract quoting from the bible addressed to no one in particular. They are good news and they speak good news and it will relate to what is going on around them.

We may not be airlifted on to one of those boats carrying refuges, nor find ourselves in a flooded village in Bangladesh; none of us, I guess, witnessed in person the terrible events in Paris this week. However, our sharing in Christ’s baptism means that we are drawn into his identification with the suffering of humanity and the fragile earth on which our life depends. We are part of it. And we don’t despair. And we don’t despair when we face challenges in our own lives. We are hope bearers. We know that new creation is possible. We know this because we ourselves are being re created; through baptism we have a new and growing identity as God’s beloved son or daughter.

Invitation As you leave church this morning splash some water from the font on to your forehead as reminder of baptism and take a slip of paper containing God’s promise to you. Carry this out into whatever lies ahead of you this week.


Christine Bainbridge