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Welcoming – Matthew 10:40-42: Trinity 3, 28th June 2020

We have been looking at Matthew 10 for a few weeks now.  It is Jesus’ commission to the twelve disciples before he sent them out.  He tells them to preach that the kingdom of heaven is near, to heal the sick, to raise the dead, to drive out demons.  It quite some apprenticeship and, I imagine, a somewhat terrifying prospect for the disciples.

 

And it is not made easier by Jesus’ words.  This is no pep talk to the team before a match, or a rousing speech to send the troops into battle.  Jesus starts by giving them instructions on who to go to, what to say, how to behave.  But most of chapter 10 is Jesus telling the disciples how tough it is going to be.  They will experience opposition from the powerful, be arrested, be brought before kings and governors.  Relationships will be broken by the message, brother against brother, children against parents…  “All men will hate you because of me.”  When you are persecuted in one place, move to another.

 

So, off you go, then.  (Some of this clearly looking forward to the time after Jesus ascension, because we do not know of serious opposition to the disciples during Jesus’ ministry.)  There is some comfort from Jesus, with promises that the Spirit will give them the words to say, that God the Father knows them and values them, that with God on their side, they have nothing to fear from men.

 

Then we come to today’s three verses.  “Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me”.  And those who did welcome them, in however small a way, would be rewarded.

 

We get the impression that disciples were a somewhat ragged crew.  We know remarkably little about most of them.  We do know that four or five of them were fishermen, one was a tax collector; we do not know about the rest.  The gospels are remarkably honest about their failings, but do not say a lot that is positive.  We know of their arguments, of Jesus chiding them for their lack of understanding, of them sleeping when Jesus needed them most, or them running away after Jesus’ arrest, of Peter’s denial.  This cannot be the whole story.

 

Jesus chose the disciples, relied on them enough to send them out in his name.  Relied on them enough, humanly speaking, to put the whole spread of the gospel in their hands.  During Jesus ministry they did go out and preach “everywhere”.  Without them, there would be no church; we would not be meeting this morning.  He saw in them goodness, faithfulness, character that he could work with.  They stayed with Jesus for three years, got to know him well, and he also got to know them well.  They were, it seems, normal people, without privileged or promising backgrounds.  Yet they became friends with the Son of God, and he trusted them.

 

What was the message they preached?  “The kingdom of God is here”, but then what did they say?  Luke says they were preaching the gospel [9v6], which does not help much either.  It is tantalising.  I wish Matthew had written down a bit more.  Like Jesus’ conversation on the road to Emmaus; I would really appreciate it if Luke had it verbatim.  I suppose the disciples’ message would have been based on Jesus’ preaching, some of which we do have recorded.  But it would have been good to know more.

 

So, back to our three verses.  “Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous.”  It was Jewish tradition that you treated an emissary as if they were the person they represent.  There was apparently a saying that “He who receives a learned man, or an elder, into his house, is the same as if he had received the glory of God.”

 

Jesus is sharing his authority with them.  It is a good example of delegation.  No micro-management here.  They go off in all directions, without Jesus to check on them.  This is trust, and Jesus’ reliance on the Spirit to be working in them too.  It is a message to us to allow people to do things, to take responsibility.  Jesus gave them plenty of time with him to learn, both from what he told them but also from being with him.  But then he let them go.  It is a message to us, too, to be open to doing things for God.  I very much doubt the disciples would have felt confident, ready, qualified, or able, but they went.

 

The last verse is “if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward” (using the NIV version as it is a bit clearer).  Calling the disciples “little ones” may sound a bit pejorative to our ears, but it seems to be a term of endearment.  These were not, at least at this stage, great prophets, well known righteous men.  They were humble people with open hearts.

 

Doing something as simple as giving those serving God a drink of water will not be forgotten.  While the disciples could expect opposition, they could also expect support.  There would be those who would recognise what they were doing, recognise God in them and respond.  God will recognise even that small response.

 

Jesus’ words reflect the generosity of God.  Not judgemental, demanding total perfection from us before we are accepted.  Any movement toward him is welcome.  Of course, he wants more, our full hearts given to him, but any movement towards him is graciously accepted.

 

Jesus’ words here remind me of some more later in Matthew.  The chosen stand before Jesus at the end of time and say ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’  He replies, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these [little ones] who are members of my family, you did it to me.’  [Matt. 25vv37-40].

 

So, be welcoming to those doing God’s work, to those who you see doing what is right, to those who need it.  In a time of coronavirus, this may not mean opening your home, but a welcome may be a kindness, words of support, a gift, a meal given, even a thought.

 

Do it out of love, and the God of love will love you for it.

 

 

 

Jeremy Thake,

St. John & St. Stephen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Matthew 10:40-42 (NRSV)

 

40 “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; 42 and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

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Love Actually – June 21st, 2020, Trinity 2

Matthew 10:24-39

‘Love, actually’

 We are living through tumultuous and difficult times. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, racial justice protests gripping the world, poverty, the climate emergency, and just in the last 24 hours, here in Reading, 3 people killed while they enjoyed an afternoon sitting with friends in the sun. Suddenly Reading doesn’t feel so safe any more. The world is a dangerous place on so many levels. I mention all of this because, in today’s gospel reading, there is a focus specifically on the troubles that Christians may face as a result of our commitment to Jesus, and I want to honour this. It’s important, too, because how we live, what makes us tick, what makes us the people we are will colour our reaction to all of these problems that face us.

I found it interesting to just review where we are in Matthew’s gospel to help us understand the reading we heard today. The gospel starts with Jesus’ genealogy, his heritage; then goes on to his birth, the flight to Egypt and his return; John the Baptist; Jesus’ temptation by Satan, and then the beginning of his ministry. It starts with the Sermon on the Mount with Jesus’ grand manifesto of the Kingdom of God – how to live, how to love, how to pray. Then there are a series of stories about some of the things Jesus did. I’ll run them past you, notice the sort of people he chose to love and to heal and to call: a leper, a Roman soldier’s servant, Peter’s mother-in-law, two fierce men possessed by evil spirits, a paralysed man, Matthew himself, the despised tax collector, a dead girl and a woman with a haemorrhage that made her untouchable, two blind men, and a man who was mute. Then, in Matthew 10, Jesus turns around to his disciples and tells them, ‘Now it’s your turn. But don’t imagine it will be easy! The disciple is not above his master!’. At the time the gospel was written, towards the end of the 1st century, indeed it was not easy at all to be a follower of Jesus. Matthew 10 is split roughly speaking in 3 parts: go and do what I am doing (1-15), it is going to be tough (16-25), but don’t fear (26-42). There’s always an edge in Matthew, he doesn’t let us off the hook: you will be flogged, dragged before governors, betrayed and hated. Then the message of don’t fear: even the hairs on your head are counted, you are worth more than many sparrows.

Well, thankfully I don’t think any of us have to face that kind of reckoning today, in this country. But the followers of Jesus really did face exactly what is described here for the first 300 years, until the Emperor Constantine made Christianity an approved state religion. Many people in the world today face persecution for their faith. The question that faces us is this: why then, would anyone follow Jesus if it means that much trouble??

I am risking a return to Narnia to try and find an answer. In Prince Caspian, Peter, Susan, Edmund, Lucy and Trumpkin the Dwarf are on a mission to confront the evil powers who have taken over Narnia, put Prince Caspian on the throne. They have all got lost on the way, but Lucy, the youngest, meets Aslan in an enchanted wood while the others are asleep. ‘Aslan said, “If you go back to the others now, and wake them up; and tell them you have seen me again; and that you must get up at once and follow me – what will happen? There is only one way of finding out.” “Do you mean that is what you want me to do?” gasped Lucy. “Yes, little one,” said Aslan. “Will the others see you too?’ asked Lucy. “Certainly not at first,” said Aslan. “Later on, it depends.” “But they won’t believe me!” said Lucy. “It doesn’t matter,” said Aslan. “Oh dear, oh dear,” said Lucy. “And I was so pleased at finding you again. And I thought you’d let me stay. And I thought you’d come roaring in and frighten all the enemies away – like last time. And now everything is going to be horrid.” “It is hard for you, little one,” said Aslan…Lucy buried her head in his mane to hide from his face. But there must have been magic in his mane. She could feel lion-strength going into her. Quite suddenly she sat up. “I’m sorry, Aslan,” she said. “I’m ready now.” “Now you are a lioness,” said Aslan. “And now all Narnia will be renewed.”’

 Why was Lucy prepared to do what was very difficult for her? Simply, because she loved and trusted Aslan, despite her fears. It was the same for those early Christians that Matthew wrote his gospel for: they loved and trusted Jesus. In those first 9 chapters of his gospel, before he gets to the tough bit, Matthew tells the story of the Jesus that he himself fell in love with as he sat at his table collecting taxes and Jesus came into the room, looked at him and just said, ‘Follow me’ (9:9). And he did. 30 years later, writing his gospel after Jesus had ended his ministry on a Roman cross, as Matthew was facing the end of his own life, he makes sure that we understand why we love Jesus, but at the same time what the cost of that love is going to be.

Christianity is, above everything else, a religion, a way of life, founded on and expressed in love. When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, he replied, ‘”You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind”. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”’ (Matthew 22:34-39). St Paul, speaking of his own life of faith, put it like this, ‘The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me’ (Galatians 2:20). Love is at the root, the heart of our faith. Love of God for us; our love of God; and the overflow of that love to our fellow human beings and indeed to all of creation.

The passage we are looking at today in Matthew 10 does express this, and puts it pretty bluntly at the end: ‘Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.’ (10:37). Again, Matthew is writing against a background of persecution and hardship. Without love of Jesus, you simply won’t be able to face the hardships. Why would you?

I think some of us struggle a bit with the idea of love of God as a command. How does that work? What kind of love is that, if I’m ordered to do it? I kind of feel that command is the last reason we should love God; perhaps it’s put like that as a statement of last resort so we can’t say we didn’t know! In fact, most of us love God or Jesus not because he insists on it, but because if we catch the faintest glimpse of God, we cannot help ourselves. We praise and love him in as instinctive a way as we would love a human being who impressed us by their beauty or skill, reverence him as we would reverence a person who is shiningly good, serve him because we feel driven to it, because we want to, because it is a pleasure. It is like rising to our feet and clapping like mad because the orchestra has taken wings. It is only that that will give us the energy, the persistence to face the hard times that may come as a result of our decision to love and serve God. Incidentally, this is why Paul faced such troubles which led to his sufferings, that Claire referred to last week. He chose that way to live because of his love for Jesus. His sufferings were a badge of honour for him, which is why he boasted of them – but I admit, it’s still an odd thing to boast of.

We know this is true because we all know what love is. Even those of us who have been through great struggles and pain in human relationships will know the power of love, both given and received. Love motivates us and gives us energy, a reason for living, for giving, for facing hardship, like nothing else. Since God is love (1 John 4:8), all love springs from him anyway.

Many years ago, when I became a Christian, one of the illustrations of the life of faith was that it was a bit like a train with an engine and two coaches. The engine was called ‘fact’, the first carriage was called ‘faith’, and the last carriage was called ‘feeling’. It’s all about the facts! Get them straight and faith and feeling will follow along! Sounds a bit like a spot of DIY – measure everything and get it straight, the shelf will stay on the wall – nowadays, I take a different view about the train of faith. Without the love of Jesus to fill our hearts, what we’re left with is duty and obligation, and somehow that doesn’t have enough energy to base your life on when difficulty faces us. Seems to me that the love of Jesus, which comes from the heart, is what makes the engine go. It’s not to say that facts aren’t important, they are, but they don’t really have the motive power that love does.

How do we cause our love of God to grow, to blossom in us? We need to give time and space first of all to receive that love, to dwell with it. The other week in our home group meeting, we started using an ancient practice of reading scripture called ‘Lectio divina’. A passage is read slowly 3 times, with a period of silence in the middle (we did 7 minutes) to allow it to soak in. In the passage we read in John 15, Jesus addresses us as friends, and tells us that we do not choose him, rather, he chooses us. And we let that sink down inside us in silence. As people shared their reflections afterwards, it was clear that the privilege of being Jesus’ friends, of knowing we are chosen, was indeed touching our hearts. It was a lovely moment.

‘Lucy buried her head in his mane to hide from Aslan’s face. But there must have been magic in his mane. She could feel lion-strength going into her. Quite suddenly she sat up. “I’m sorry, Aslan,” she said. “I’m ready now.” “Now you are a lioness,” said Aslan. “And now all Narnia will be renewed.”’

Richard Croft

Results of Justification

Sermon for Zoom Church, June 14, 2020, St John and St Stephen, Reading.

Romans 5:1-8

 

5Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.

Matthew 9:35-10:8

The Harvest Is Great, the Labourers Few

35 Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. 36When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; 38therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.’

The Twelve Apostles

10Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. 2These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; 3Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax-collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.

The Mission of the Twelve

5 These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” 8Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.

 

Recently my husband lent me a book about listening. Now, I don’t quite know what I should make of that – is he trying to tell me something?! I don’t know if you’ve thought much about listening recently? The book is called “You’re not Listening”, subtitled: “what you’re missing and why it matters”.

I wonder if you can think of a time when you had to listen to somebody. There are some relationships, aren’t there, where you always find yourself as the listening one. In other relationships perhaps you’re the talker. In any mutual relationship one might hope for a balance of listening and talking.

People often talk about their troubles to a minister, which is fine; that’s what we’re here for. People talk about the ways in which life has been tough for them. And life is often tough. Sometimes they talk about how suffering has prevented them from believing in a loving God.

How can there be a God in a world where there’s so much suffering? This is often a question put to Christian people.

And it’s a very good question. A lot of Ministers are asking themselves that at the moment (I’m guessing).

Our sense of suffering has without doubt heightened in the global pandemic. I have had to limit my uptake of news stories because they have been so very painful. There’s only so much we can take. We can indeed feel ‘harassed and helpless’, as Jesus says of the crowds in today’s gospel.

No one likes thinking about suffering, but, surprisingly in our reading today, St Paul wants not only to remember his sufferings, but to boast in them.

To boast in his sufferings? It seems like a bizarre concept, doesn’t it? He writes about boasting of the hope we have of sharing in the glory of God (that’s a bit more understandable) but to boast in his sufferings?

I can understand boasting about hope: ‘We’re going to be grandparents!!!!’ (that’s not actually true of us, I hasten to add). ‘I can go on holiday this summer after all!!!’ (I’d like to boast of that hope but I’m not sure if I can yet).

We all boast of our hopes, but why would anyone want to boast of their sufferings? Normally people either hide their sufferings, offload them onto a good listener, or try to forget them. In our society sadly too, we self medicate to numb our sufferings, in addiction to alcohol, or in digital addiction, the late night mindless scrolling to try and forget the present or past suffering.

So in this short passage in Romans we are faced with an unusual concept – boasting in one’s sufferings. It’s not something we have done in this country during the Covid-19 pandemic either. We have reported our sufferings, in endless graphs of outbreaks and deaths; we have cried over our sufferings and the sufferings of others dear to us; we have been ashamed of our sufferings in our high number of deaths, and bemoaned the fact that they could’ve been lower if we’d done things differently.

But we have not boasted of our sufferings. At Church level, we have panicked about the surge in funerals, panicked over the bleak financial outlook, and moaned over the closing of church buildings, and now we’re stressing about their re-opening. But we haven’t boasted about our sufferings.

As far as we know, as a society we hide or repress our sufferings. I don’t know if you watched the programme where Prince William met some men who’d started a special football team for dads who’d lost children at or around the time of birth. It was on the back of statistics about the death of men age 16-45, where the biggest single killer is suicide. When we don’t share our sufferings because we are ashamed, or can’t think of who to turn to, they can drag us right down.

But I still don’t know anyone who boasts of their sufferings.

Why does Paul do this? Is he, as I’ve often suspected, just in a different league to us more banal Christians?

Well, on the plus side, he writes about suffering in a way that is eventually hopeful. Suffering, he says, produces endurance (that’s the first link in the chain). We know this to be true, even if we resist it. I have wanted to strongly resist the idea that the suffering I’ve experienced due to the lockdown will produce endurance. I don’t really want suffering; I don’t want to be told I can’t go to work, or that work re-starting will never feel the same again and will be full of risk and confusion.

I mean I like the sound of endurance, but unfortunately you can’t buy it and stick it on you like a plaster; to get it you have to suffer. Endurance means I become resilient despite suffering. Most days, if I’m honest, I’d just rather not have either, because suffering is hard and everything in me wants to resist it, even if it does bring a gift in its wake.

But Paul ploughs on. Endurance produces character. Deep down, we know this to be true. When you’ve come through something hard, or are learning ways to live with something hard, you are often in a position to become more patient, more grounded, more humble, and more able to receive help from others.

These are all Christ like qualities and tend not to develop when we’re rushing through life from one successful enterprise to another without a backward look. I’ve noticed in church life that it’s often the people who have endured the most suffering that are the most sensitive to others’ suffering and the ones who intercede for others meaningfully. They have a depth and a steadiness about them that is most attractive.

So, suffering produces endurance; endurance produces character; and character, according to Paul, produces hope. It’s less clear to me how this one works: character produces hope. It must be something perhaps to do with how we’re being changed into the likeness of God. If we’re becoming more like God, we are heading towards God, and will be fully united with him eventually. The hope in our hearts is poured in first by God, Paul says, and so we are sustained in our suffering because God has taken the initiative.

God doesn’t just save us from our sins (although he obviously does that) but he saves us for himself. This is the theological concept of theosis, or divinisation. By grace, we human become like God. We are made in God’s image, but we must grow into his likeness. God made us for himself and that’s to do with so much more than saving us from our sin. In fact the NRSV in this Romans passage seems to use ‘sinners’ and ‘weak’ interchangeably which is interesting. ‘While we were still weak at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly’ (verse 6).

I’ve often felt in our liturgy that we beat ourselves up too much about sin. There, I’ve said it now. We are always getting it wrong, of course, but that is often because we are weak, not BAD. Some of us are bad, of course, but in my experience generally, Church people are trying pretty hard to be good.

As salvation and wholeness and healing are the same word in Greek, it seems we are in danger of putting people off when we over stress the sin bit, because it’s just as true that we’re people who need healing. We need forgiveness AND healing! We need saving in order to be made into the likeness of God. That’s a two-fold process.

Whenever people cut it off at the ‘thank God I’m saved, I can do what I like’ side, and don’t progress to the much harder work of becoming holy – the world knows that’s phony. (My mind is drawn to footage of a world leader scowling and brandishing a bible on camera for no apparent reason while behind him police fire rubber bullets into a crowd peacefully protesting about racial injustice). Nobody is going to buy that. It’s about the worst advert for the Christian faith you could possibly imagine.

I don’t know what this last three months of extraordinary living has brought you in the way of suffering. I don’t know if I’ve yet got to boasting about my disturbed nights, general fatigue and occasional anxiety. I don’t know if you could boast about yours either

But as we try and make sense of Paul’s extraordinary thesis about how suffering brings endurance, character and thence hope, I pray we can be strengthened today and have the assurance that we have obtained access to ‘this grace in which we stand’.

Amen.

 

 

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Perspective is everything

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

Gentiles Hear the Good News

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

Matthew 28:1-10

The Resurrection of Jesus

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Suffering and joy in perfect balance

Matthew 17:1-9

The Transfiguration

17Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ 5While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ 6When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ 8And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, ‘Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’

Suffering and Joy in perfect balance.

I wonder what things made you sad this week, and what things brought joy?

I was struck by the tragic story of 40 year old Caroline Flack, a former presenter of the reality show Love Island and one time winner of Strictly Come Dancing. She took her own life on 15 February in her London flat as she awaited trial for an alleged assault on her boyfriend.

The story reveals a hurting person who appeared to be the life and soul of the party but who struggled with insecurity and who was under relentless attack from the media. It reveals too a world in which kindness is sometimes in short supply, a world where we still advertise excitement and glitter and smiles and good looks as something to aim for, but forget about how that manufactured life consistently falls short of offering any real happiness.

How did Jesus face the darkness of the world that he saw coming towards him as he entered the final phase of his ministry? And how did he prepare his disciples for suffering?

We get a glimpse into the answers to these questions, as we encounter the story of the Transfiguration, on this last Sunday before Lent (look at the liturgical wheel picture).

As we are poised before Lent, similarly the disciples were about to enter their own wilderness as they discovered what Jesus had been trying to tell them; that before the Messiah could enter his glory, he would have to suffer and die.

With hindsight, we perhaps accept this concept, of suffering and glory, better than they could. We know that Peter has, in the previous chapter, been swinging on a pendulum between getting it completely right and getting it completely wrong. He has declared that Jesus is the Chosen One – and that as such he must be protected from the cross. From “you are Peter the Rock…” to “get behind me, Satan”.

Peter’s conundrum is the human conundrum – we don’t know how to square suffering with an all-powerful, loving God. Someone has said that the problem of suffering is the only really important question of apologetics. We still can’t get our head around the idea of a suffering God and we are wary of divine weakness. In our lives in the world we want to skirt around the negative in order to forge ahead with the positive, but Lent teaches us to wait in the difficult places in between, in the wilderness of not knowing ‘what the plan is’; of not having things neatly resolved.

So what was happening on the mount of Transfiguration? Jesus appears very deliberately to choose the inner circle of Peter, James and John and he leads them up the mountain, where Luke’s account says he is going to pray – a small detail omitted in Matthew and Mark.

At any rate, up the mountain they go and things start to get very mysterious, as you would expect up a mountain. Chris sent me pictures this week of him standing at the top of a mountain in Norway called Gaustatoppen, looking out over the brilliant white Hardangervidda, the sun piercing the blinding blue sky as far as the eye could see. He called it ‘utterly jaw dropping’ and it certainly looked it. Even if you’re not a religious person, there’s something about the top of a mountain that is ethereal, even spiritual. The immensity reminds us of our own smallness.

I felt something like that when we took a Canadian holiday in 2014 and although we only got to the edge of the Rockies, about two hours drive north of Vancouver, I felt incredibly over awed at what I was witnessing, very small in significance, and almost nervous just looking up at the mountains.

And that was before my family persuaded me to swallow my fears and get in a cable car named the Sea to Sky Gondola, that swung precariously upwards (it seemed to me) in an almost vertical trajectory towards the summit, at the end of which you hopped off casually and actually walked around on a platform up in amongst some of those awe-inspiring mountains. When I look at photos, I remember how mildly terrifying I found the whole experience. And I can’t say anyone had any kind of transfiguration up there, unless you count my sad realisation that I was probably the least physically brave of all the members of my family, which was a rather humbling experience.

So Jesus takes Peter, James and John into the rarefied atmosphere of Mount Tabor, or possibly Mount Hermon, which is much taller. Whichever mountain it was (and scholars are not sure) we can almost sense the unveiling of Jesus as the glorified Messiah of God as the clouds blow over and it appears that Moses and Elijah are suddenly there talking with him.

And before we look on in doubt, with our scientific mind-set, just take the opportunity, if you’re ever able to, to listen to someone who has lost a loved one, recount the strongly felt presence of that person, even thought they are not with us any more….

…This sense of the thin veil between us and something ‘beyond’ is, by its very nature, very difficult to put into words. But maybe someone will describe how, they felt the presence of their relative or friend when, for instance, their favourite bird suddenly alighted near them in the garden, or when a butterfly flew right onto their hand…

…or when the exact perfume of the deceased wafted towards them during the burial; or when their iPhone randomly chose the exact track they were looking for that spoke of their loved one; or when the clock stopped working the moment their loved one died; or when the Christian doctor witnessed, in a very dark room, the dying patient asking everyone to turn the lights off because it was so bright (all real scenarios I have personally experienced or listened to others recount).

This is just to illustrate that more things go on between the land of the living and the land of the ‘dead’ than we will ever know.

And this is something akin to the disciples’ experience on the mountain top: Moses and Elijah – very much not dead – but having fellowship with their longed-for Messiah just like we declare that we have when we speak of ‘the Communion of Saints’ in the words of the Creed. And Moses and Elijah are actually having fellowship with Jesus because they’re talking together.

Much has been made of poor Peter’s attempt to offer a monument to the moment – his three shelters idea – and how ridiculous it was, but it merely illustrates how out of our depth we are in the face of real mystery. But when they hear God speaking from the cloud the disciples react as normal human beings who encounter the living God; that is, they are terrified.

In that moment, we see divinity and humanity woven into the one experience. They pass out on the ground: Jesus offers them his simple touch and says don’t be afraid. They look up and he is alone; no more Old Testament greats, no dazzling light, no billowing cloud; just a human being offering them kindness.

Of course, they are asked not to tell of their experience until the right time – the right time being after the resurrection of Jesus. Why might this have been? Perhaps because the disciples’ mountain top experience only really makes sense within a framework of resurrection, of life that goes on after death, because The Life cannot be extinguished.

So here we are, about to begin Lent, a liturgical opportunity to examine our lives and be honest with ourselves and with others and God. Honest in a way that hopefully feeds into a world where it shouldn’t be possible for someone to have to pretend everything is fine when it is so not fine that they take their own life in tragic isolation.

The Transfiguration shows us a God who is glorious but who took flesh to face suffering on our behalf and to face ours alongside us. The Transfiguration is a gospel pivot between the life and the death of Jesus. It speaks to the theological puzzle of bringing together the so-called historical Jesus and what Richard Rohr calls the Universal Christ.

As we live our lives of joy and sorrow mixed; as we grapple with suffering whist being assured of resurrection, we enter into the mystery of this story and this reality, this God of suffering AND joy. May this final quotation be an encouragement to us and give us a fresh vision of the God who journeys with us through Lent towards to Cross; and towards final, hopeful resurrection:

‘We cannot escape God, Immanuel among us. God will find us in our homes and in our work places. God will find us when our hearts are broken and when we discover joy. God will find us when we run away from God and when we are sitting in the middle of what seems like hell. “So, get up and do not be afraid”’ (Maryetta Anschutz, in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1: p.456).

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Mission

Sermon 3rd before Lent, year A, 09.02.20.

Matthew 5:13-20

Salt and Light

13 ‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

14 ‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

The Law and the Prophets

17 ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

I set myself the rather daunting task of thinking about the subject of mission for this Sunday and I hope that it may be part of our ongoing conversation about what we are called to be and to do as a church.

 

Mission is such a large word – and that’s part of the problem. If you start to think holistically about mission, and I think we do need to, it soon encompasses care for creation, the nurture of disciples, and making a difference in the world through social action, as well as a more traditionally ‘evangelical’ notion of ‘evangelism’.

 

The concepts of mission, church and kingdom are linked, but it’s not always clear how. Added to that, as a national Institution the Church of England, like any institution, appears often to be concerned with its own survival, so that subtly, national strategies like Reform and Renewal (the one we’re currently in) can look and feel like little more than shoring up our own structures. We can scoff, but we’d be disingenuous if we didn’t sometimes think about the long-term health of our own congregation. And at National, Diocesan and Deanery level, the Church is similarly concerned, especially as the number of people coming forward for ordination is simply not able to keep up with the percentage of Baby Boomers currently retiring from ministry. In this Deanery alone, 25% of Incumbent posts are unfilled.

 

‘Mission’ means to send and we should probably go back even further than Jesus when we think about its origin. God has a mission, or rather, God is mission. ‘The missio dei’ is a phrase that denotes the mission of God; the idea that mission is a part of who God is, rather than an activity of the Church. It’s not so much that God has a mission for his Church; rather, God has a Church for his mission in the world.

 

Karl Barth was one of the first theologians to articulate mission as a characteristic of God himself. Mission is also implied in Trinitarian theology in that the Father sends the Son, the Son sends the Spirit, and finally, the Church is sent: ‘As the Father sends me, so I am sending you’ (John 20:21). I wonder if you asked all church members to articulate what Jesus’ mission was, whether there would be unanimity.

 

To seek and to save the lost?

To announce the Good News of the kingdom?

To make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit?

A radical inclusive message of love….

These are all slightly different answers you might hear, depending on who you asked.

 

But back to us. If God is already active in the world, mission becomes a case of discerning where God is and joining in. This is the main theme of the Partnership for Missional Church process that many of the Berkshire churches have been involved in. It involves listening to the Word and the world and sensing where God is active in the community. Where is the energy? Luke 10 is a key text – the sending out of the disciples to all the towns and villages where Jesus himself was planning to go – and the instruction to stay in one place when welcomed and wipe the dust off when not.

 

In Whitchurch as we went through the process we practised dwelling in the Word together in all our meetings, and we carried out listening exercises with church members and people from the community to see what made us all tick. Only then did we start to make a plan, which was around the phenomenon of social isolation – and we were hoping to link up with others in the community who also cared about social isolation. Because there are ‘people of peace’ out there who also want to make a difference in the world. In that respect ‘mission’ (in its widest sense) is not the sole prerogative of Christians.

 

So eventually, mission plans may be a good idea. And it might be that having a ‘strap line’ is a good idea too – but the problem with straplines is that they risk ending up being entirely bland, saying little and sounding a lot like all the other church straplines. More on this later.

 

These are all, I hope, good starter questions to help us engage with what God is calling us to be and to do.

 

Does God even have a specific calling for each church though? That’s another question. The book of Revelation seems to suggest that he does. The seven churches and their specific messages in the first chapters of Revelation are very much tailored to individual congregations. Jesus has a living message that is vital to their health and John’s revelation records each one, sometimes pointedly: “you are lukewarm”; “buy salve for your eyes”; and then, more positively: “you hate that stuff like I do”; “well done, you’ve been faithful”.

 

I think God does give specific messages and sometimes pictures as we pray for guidance for our church. But messages and images need to be weighed and discerned, not just unquestioningly accepted, or rejected.

 

An impression of our church that I gained through praying (and I offer this in humility and openness to further discernment) was of a ship that had been somewhat tossed about from one side to another, and that didn’t need pulling any more in either one direction or another (for now at least) but that just needed steadying. When not being tossed and turned, a ship will find its own equilibrium without too much intervention.

 

‘Steadying’ may sound rather unimpressive as a mission strategy, but it takes seriously the need for being as well as doing amongst God’s people. We can’t do unless we can first be: be at peace, be joyful, be present; be imaginative. Steadying can happen very naturally through love, acceptance and generally not being uptight. “It’s okay” is a calming message God says more frequently than perhaps we realise, and I often need to hear that message.

 

Another image that has emerged through prayer is of the Japanese art of ‘kintsugi’. Take a bowl, for instance, that’s been cracked: our inclination is to mend it so you cannot see the cracks, but in kintsugi, the item is mended by glue and resin mixed with precious metals, including gold, which incorporates the damage into the aesthetic of the restored item, making it part of the object’s history. After the restoration the bowl has the capacity to be stronger and more beautiful than the original, and it will be able to hold more than it could before.

 

Hold more depth in worship, perhaps; hold more pain on behalf of others; hold more diversity…these are just suggestions but that may a helpful image to ponder.

 

We are not alone in seeking a way forward for our church. The Diocese has been engaged for three years in forming a Common Vision and even before Bishop Stephen’s arrival mission was always on the cards. We had “Living Faith” under Bishop John and something or other under Richard Harries (before my time). For sure, Diocesan vision is shaped a lot by getting a new leader who perhaps needs to be seen to shape the organization as well as listening to what people are saying.

 

How collaborative are mission strategies, is also a question. My feeling is that all good mission strategies emerge collectively over time and go off in directions that no one was anticipating. Think of the Acts of the Apostles, perhaps better named: the Acts of the Holy Spirit.

 

There is national pressure on Dioceses to have a common vision. There is an upside and a downside to tying yourself to a vision; we can be hopeful or we can be cynical when we read vision statements.

 

It’s a well-documented fact that under the incisive leadership of the former Bishop of London, who championed the “London 2020” vision, decline was halted and London Diocese emerged as a ‘can do’ place where churches were growing and spirits were rising.

 

It’s just that if you begin to collect Diocesan strap lines (and I’m sure no normal human actually being does this) you can start to feel a bit jaded. One blogger I enjoy has in fact done just this and he comments: “As you will be aware one of the major tasks facing the dioceses of the Church of England is to ensure that they have the correct three word strapline or slogan. If we can only get that right then surely the kingdom will arrive”.

 

He goes on to say: “However some of you may be nervous that you are serving in a Diocese whose strapline is rubbish”.

 

He then puts the words from the collective strap lines into a Wordle and summarises:

 

“…If you belong to a Diocese where they say: ‘God transforming communities’, you could not be in a better place. If you are ‘empowering diverse worship’ you need to look for a move” (Justin Lewis Anthony).

 

http://3minutetheologian.org.uk/blog/2012/12/04/getting-the-diocesan-strapline-right/

 

So I hope you know that we serve in a Diocese where we are seeking ‘to be a more Christ-like Church for the sake of the world’, a church that is ‘contemplative, compassionate and courageous’.

 

Which, in a sense, says it all. As this is worked out, priorities around discipleship care for creation, and schools and young people have emerged, among others. So if we’re already seeking to be contemplative, compassionate and courageous, is it appropriate to have a church tag line in addition? It might be. “To know Christ and make him known” appears on some of our literature, though you have to burrow down a bit to find it. It’s a great tag line, but what church doesn’t want to know Christ and make him known? Is it specific enough for us? Or is it too definitive, or is it just plain out of date?

 

Sometimes you come across something that really speaks about the identity of a place or a product, or a company and it actually appears to work: “Sky: Believe in Better”; “Tesco: Every Little Helps”.

 

I couldn’t think of any local church straplines that have been memorable for me, except amusing ones, like the sign outside Stonebridge Church of God, Ohio, situated on a busy main road, that reads: “Honk if you love Jesus. Text while driving if you want to meet him”.

 

Another way to come at it, is to ask what are our values? When asked this question last year, in an imaginative exercise about what might be presented at the 2024 APCM, the priorities that emerged strongest were children and young people; a strong school church relationship; increasing relationships with the other churches and faith centres, and work with teenagers, e.g. them leading services.

 

Under “what we’d like to be known for”, the top starred words were: Welcoming, Caring and Involved.

 

As a relative outsider, who read and re-read the parish profile, I also noted certain words which appeared to describe the flavour of the church here: engagement, generosity, creativity, authenticity, diversity. And being Green.

 

So we already have quite a lot to go on as we talk about our mission. We also have a really great logo – the Spirit hovering above the cross. We could unpack all sorts of important things about that and what it says about us, and our character – who we are – and therefore our mission: what we feel called like to do.

 

And as we talk together about this we can celebrate what is happening already. And important amongst the things happening already is the daily witness of ordinary Christians being salt and light in their contexts.

 

One authentic model for mission is Mark Greene’s from the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, and it fits our reading well. He points out that the average church-goer who is still in work probably spends up to 95% of their time in a working environment where they are already salt and light. They don’t have time to engage with mission projects the church is putting on and they don’t need to because they are in their ‘mission field’ at work. Not that it is their job to go around converting people – their calling is that they are salt. The job of the church is to celebrate and encourage them in this, not bemoan the fact they’re not joining rotas and teams to ‘do mission’ to the people of the parish.

 

As more and more people become disconnected from any form of churchgoing, that Christian alongside whom they work in the firm, on the ward, in the boardroom, in the small charity, in the school, or at a neighbour’s sharing child care, may be the only Christian they know. That’s a sacred calling: to be a good human being in touch with the divine on behalf of others. This is likely to be the primary calling of many of us here in church. And retirees also have natural contexts where they are salt and light to neighbours and people they spend time with.

 

The thing about salt is that it is not the main substance; it is not the meat. It is the seasoning. This suggests that what goes on around us is the main event (i.e. life) and our calling is that we are the salt (not, try and be salt; you are salt). However, salt can use its saltiness, and then it’s frankly a bit useless. Let the listener take note! On the other hand, salt that is doing its job, seasons the whole, and in a time before refrigeration, would be the main agent in preserving the integrity of meat and fish.

 

So we’ve had a whistle stop tour of mission. Beginning in the very character of God, thinking about Jesus being sent and us being sent. Thinking about our Diocese and our church; those who are salt and light at work, and those who have more capacity to think about our immediate environment of Newtown, where we are the parish church.

 

I’d like to end with some bullet points which I feel are already important for us, some of the things that are already proving opportunities for us to be salt and light.

 

 

  • The school as a place where a distinctive Christian ethos is fertile ground for children to grow in wonder, trust and love.
  • The café, a space where there’s more than just physical refreshment.
  • NEWT magazine – salt and light into every home in our parish.
  • Celebrating the causes and charities that so many people here are already involved with, that are making a difference in the world: you know what these are and we give money accordingly as part of our mission commitment.

 

 

And finally some bullet points that we might be able to grow further in:

 

  • Sunday worship that is missional – worship that genuinely touches and refreshes and changes us and says to our neighbourhood: God is really in that place.
  • A growing prayer ministry of some description: Morning Prayer for interceding together; maybe a gathering before the service to seek God’s face and ask him to touch us afresh through the worship? A chance to have anointing for healing during the Eucharist?
  • An new expectation that God is at work and active in Newtown and that there are people out there who we can link up with in local projects to bless the neighbourhood. Residents of the parish – you have a vital role here. “Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works and glorify your father in heaven”.

 

So, worship, prayer, being salt in Newtown.

 

And the last bullet point breaks down even further: three possibilities have come across my radar just in the last week, as I’ve begun to meet people locally: a walk of witness on Palm Sunday with our neighbours at Wycliffe; an art exhibition to celebrate and say goodbye to the gas tower, and Newtown street party training. These are all possibilities; who knows if the Spirit will kindle any of them into life?

 

And what happens as a result of all these dreams and plans is entirely unknown as yet – and entirely up to God. But be encouraged! You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.

 

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Jesus calls fishermen

Sermon 26 January 2020                                                                       Isaiah 9.1-4, Matthew 4.12-23

This week the Davos summit has been in the news, as well of course, as the adventures of Harry and Meghan! I was picking up from the Davos summit that we’re at a kind of tipping point globally, mainly around climate change, but also about how we can manage and regulate an increasingly digital world. There seem to be so many conflicting interests. How far can governments take the lead? What part can big companies play? What, if anything, are we called to do at a local level?

Tipping points are key moments in history. Being alert to signs of the times, as the bible calls them, is part of our calling as we follow Christ. In our gospel reading today we see Jesus’ own alertness.

I wonder if you’ve ever had the experience of waiting at the start of an event, perhaps a race of some kind, waiting for the starting pistol, nearly starting too soon, but knowing you can’t start till the pistol goes off? Then, and only then, do you move. In Matthew and Mark’s gospel the starting pistol for Jesus’ ministry is the arrest and imprisonment of JB. That was the tipping point for him. Reading the signs of the times he senses that this may be the trigger to a whole series of events resulting eventually in the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. He seizes a window of opportunity – or ‘a favourable time’ (kairos) to use bible language. He moves quickly, with an urgency and a clarity of purpose. His strapline is short, urgent, and identical to John’s; ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near’. In our OT reading Isaiah recalls an earlier favourable time when Israel had defeated the Midianites, an event leading him to anticipate a similar experience in the future. Matthew is doing the same as he quotes Isaiah’s prophetic hope, but he sees the favourable time as NOW! This is God’s timing. Jesus can now get on and do what he has been anointed to do, and he goes for it!

Matthew further underlines this in the call of the first disciples. Usually pupils chose the rabbi they wanted to follow and then the rabbi would decide whether or not they were suitable pupils. Here Jesus makes the choice; he wastes no time waiting to be chosen. He has spent long days in the desert pondering his call at his baptism, considering what lies ahead and almost certainly considering who might join him. In the light of this he calls these fishermen to follow him.

Following a rabbi was a whole way of life. You lived with them, ate with them, learned with them. The aim was to become exactly like them and do what they did. We see Andrew and the others being invited into this way of life. They couldn’t continue in the family fishing business and be pupils, if you like, of Jesus, though it’s likely that they did some fishing here and there during their time with Jesus.

Why fishermen? Why choose fishermen for those closest to you, those who would ultimately lead the Jesus movement? Why not carpenters, or shepherds, or farmers? As far as I know there are no references in the OT to fishermen being called to anything exalted, or anything at all for that matter. Is this the first sign of God’s upside down kingdom with rather unlikely people holding positions of authority? That may indeed be part of the picture. If so, it’s a reminder that those who might seem unlikely candidates to us can turn out to be a good fit for the calling in question. So, why fishermen?

It’s quite likely that some of them were already followers of John B; in our reading from John’s gospel last Sunday Andrew and Peter were being directed by John B to Jesus. So we might assume that these two anyway were already in sympathy with the announcement about the coming kingdom.

They would have been more available than farmers tied to the land during seasons of sowing and reaping, or shepherds needing to watch over their sheep. They had what we might call transferable skills. Their trading in fish would have brought them into contact with a wider range of people. (There were certainly people from Arabia, Phoenicia and Egypt living in Galilee during Jesus’ time). They were more mobile, and their form of transport – boats – would be very useful in enabling Jesus to move around.

There are also other characteristics of fishermen; they would have been used to working as a team – being attentive to one another, relying on each other, drawing on each other’s strengths, noting when one of them needed help. Their work involved lengthy periods of silent watching and waiting together, punctuated by great physical activity. They had stamina, resilience, patience. They could read the weather.

Now Jesus is calling them to draw on these strengths, but with a different catch in view. How do we feel about Jesus calling them to fish for people? They used nets rather than hooks! Nets catch more fish than hook and line. The time has come, people will be responding to Jesus’ message; perhaps he’s thinking that if these men are used to handling nets full of fish they’ll be ok with crowds?!

So, they may be unlikely in terms of the usual choice of rabbis looking for disciples, but they are a good fit for what Jesus sees lying ahead.

As well as all these reasons for Jesus calling fishermen there is this basic prerequisite of repentance. This message, ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is near’ is referred to as good news (v23). Repentance is good news?! This may sound a little odd to us. (Picture of Justin Welby in Amritsar prostrating himself as a sign of repentance for the massacre carried out by the British in the 19th century). However, the NT understanding of repentance carries with it the idea of turning away from something and towards something/someone else and this is clear in the gospel accounts of those Jesus called – Matthew, Levi, the rich young man, Zacchaeus. There is a physical turning away from, a way of life, a set of habits, so that they are now facing Jesus. They might have had all the right qualifications for being a disciple, but without this radical turnaround they were nowhere. They could not begin the journey. And it was a journey. They did not become model disciples overnight, if ever. As we read the gospels we watch them, not understanding at times, lacking faith, asking dim questions, and then running away when Jesus needs them most.

And even before repentance there was something else. At his baptism Jesus heard the words ‘You are my son, the Beloved’. When Mark records in his gospel Jesus’ conversation with the rich young man he notes that ‘Jesus looked at him and loved him’ (Mark 10.21). I suspect Jesus did the same when he called the first disciples. That look of love he had received, he passed on to his followers. He looked on them and loved them. It’s that gaze of love that draws us towards Jesus and away from patterns of behaviour that diminish our humanity. They could see that he was good news. I wonder if we see Jesus like that?

The disciples were called not only as individuals but also as a working group. It’s the same for us. Individually we turn away from those things, habits maybe or activities or thought patterns that draw us away from God, and consciously turn our faces towards God’s. For most of us this will be a daily activity. We are also called to do this as a group of disciples, as a church. We may want to consider what activities, habits, patterns of thought our church may be invited to turn away from in order to follow Christ more faithfully at this tipping point in our history. What might become less important as we are turned more and more towards Christ? Then, as we remember those strengths Jesus saw in his first disciples we might consider the extent to which we are able to work together. What’s our team work like? Do we work together with some degree of shared consciousness, knowing each other’s gifts, aware of each other’s weak points, attentive to what each of us is doing as our part in a shared undertaking? What is our stamina/resilience like? How good are we at watching and waiting? What resources do we have that may shape what we can offer? What’s our equivalent of the fishermen’s boat? What might be our metaphorical net? How willing are we to share our resources? How flexible are we if, for example, we are faced with a challenge? (eg the disciples faced with 5,000 people needing a meal miles from nowhere!)

Our calling, whether individually or as a church changes over time. The skills, experience, resources we can offer when we are 20 are different from those we might offer at 60. Churches change too as they adjust to changes in their neighbourhood and increasingly now, to global challenges. In his chaplaincy lecture on Monday at the university Neil McGregor asked us what we thought the church should be and do today. He expressed alarm about some of our iconic churches like Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s being major tourist attractions for which a hefty entrance fee is demanded. Who is the church for? he asked. Interestingly, there is a similar question being asked at Davos about the global economy and digital revolution; who are they for? And by climate activists about the earth. Who is it for?

Flexibility would seem to be an important feature of discipleship, or going with the wind of the spirit to use bible language. Reading the signs of the times will demand a variety of responses, some of them rapid, some requiring watching and waiting. Are we ready to keep turning towards Jesus, towards the light, to receive his gaze of love and then to respond to his invitation, ‘Follow me’? And, like him move with clarity of purpose? And, will we be able to do that together as a church?

Christine Bainbridge

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Holy Innocents

Matthew 2vv13-23, Holy Innocents

Christmas 1, 29th December 2019

The last three days have been church festivals. The first two were our church’s patronal festivals. The 26th December is St. Stephen’s day, Stephen Deacon and First Martyr (Acts 6-7). The 27th is St. John’s day, for John the Apostle and Evangelist (St. John’s gospel). We hardly ever get around to celebrating St. John and St. Stephen because they are so close to Christmas. And please excuse me for not talking about them either. Because yesterday, 28th December, is Holy Innocents Day, and our gospel reading is the same as that for Holy Innocents.

 

That reading follows immediately after the Wise Men have visited the Jesus. Our Christmas narrative is a composite of Matthew and Luke: Gabriel appears to Mary in Luke, but the angel comes to Joseph in Matthew; only Luke has the shepherds, and the Magi are only in Matthew. Luke has Caesar Augustus’ ruling the Roman Empire, Matthew has Herod ruling Judea (the Great, 73-4BC, king 37-4BC). Our traditional nativities also have a lot of later material woven into them, and has drifted away somewhat from the plain text of Matthew and Luke. Mary and Joseph were likely from somewhere not far from Bethlehem (Mary was able to go quickly to see John the Baptist’s mother Elizabeth), Josephs family was from Bethlehem, the City of David (because he went back there for the census), and he was a descendants of King David. They would have had relatives there, and the ‘inn’ that was full is more likely the guest room of a relative’s house (the NIV says ‘guest room’ instead of the KJV ‘inn’). This was already occupied, so Mary gave birth in the room at the end of the house used for keeping the animals. They would almost certainly have arrived some time before the birth, not that same evening. (See Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes by Kenneth E. Bailey.) The Magi probably came quite some time later, maybe a year or so after the birth.

 

We generally think of Christmas as a joyful positive festival. Peace on earth, good news to all men. Jesus come down to be with us, Immanuel – God with us, to show us God. It is a fun time with everything looking pretty with Christmas lights and decoration, festivities, carols, lots of good food, presents, a holiday, time with family. We have beautiful music, carols which speak of a Jesus being born, the adoration of the angels, the wise men, and the shepherds. We went with Maya, our granddaughter, to a service at Emmanuel church, Woodley, that contained a brilliant puppet show with a muppet-type nativity song. It was lovely. Maya has been going round the house saying ‘more Jesus’ ever since. (We think it came from the carol line The little more Jesus laid down his sweet head). The only things that mar the mar the traditional Christmas story are the lack of accommodation in Bethlehem (“no crib for a bed”), and the cold weather (“in the bleak mid-winter”).

 

But some carols reminds us of darker events. Unto us a boy is bornHerod then with fear was filled, “A prince”, he said, “in Jewry!”. All the little boys he killed at Bethlehem in his fury. The Coventry CarolHerod, the king, in his raging, charged he hath this day, his men of might, in his own sight, all young children to slay. And these are the events behind Holy Innocents, as in our reading, and only appear in Matthew.

 

Herod was a tyrant, an absolute ruler, able to do whatever he wanted, with no law above him in his kingdom. But he was brilliant but paranoid, infamous for killing those he suspected of plotting against him, including his family and his sons. He was ethnically an arab, who was culturally Greek, politically a Roman, and he had been raised a Jew. He takes seriously the prophecy in Micah about the Messiah being born in Bethlehem (Mt 2v6). He pretends to the Magi that he wants to worship the Christ, gets as much information off them as he can, tells them to come back to Jerusalem when they have found the baby to let him know where he is. But he is racked by jealousy, and prepared to murder any infant that could possibly rise to be king. And it was needless, as Herod only had a couple of years to live anyway, dying of an illness (in 4BC, which is why we generally date Jesus birth as 6BC, the 0BC in the Gregorian calendar being wrong).

 

It is a dark story, and one that does not fit well in a nativity play. How could such a thing be allowed to happen? How could the peace brought by Jesus result in this? Where was God in this massacre?

 

Well, he was on the way to Egypt, entrusted to the care of a normal working young couple. His mother would have been a very young mother, his father a craftsman. He was born into a violent world, and humanly speaking, his safety was precarious.

 

It is not easy to introduce the story of an atrocity into Christmas; it is not uplifting or encouraging. It would rather spoil the atmosphere of the primary school nativity play. But the story is unfortunately realistic, and modern. The world still contains tyrants, violence, poverty, disease.

 

In our country, and generally in the West, we do not currently have to fear war. We are protected by laws, we have a society that cares for us when we are in need – even if it does so imperfectly. This peace is a huge blessing, invisible to us normally, only recognised when we come across the appalling conditions in other countries.

 

Christian peace, though, is not only seen in an absence of conflict. It is not isolating ourselves from difficult situations, shutting our eyes to need, avoiding seeing poverty or illness or distress. It is the strength from God to be a source of hope and help to those in need.

 

I came across an article just a few days ago, I found Christmas the loneliest time of year. Then I started working at Crisis www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/dec/24/christmas-loneliest-crisis-charity. The title is a good summary of the content. It is not written from a religious perspective, but it does express the joy found in helping others.

 

The gift of God to us at Christmas is an encouragement to us to give, to care as God cares. Not to spare ourselves, but to engage ourselves. And Jesus, Emmanuel, will be with us.

 

 

I would like to finish with prayers from the Common Worship liturgy for Holy Innocents Day.

 

Righteous God, your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ dwelt among us and shared our grief and our pain. We pray for the children of our world, that they may grow up knowing love and security.

Silence is kept.

 

We pray for all children who suffer physical or mental abuse.

Silence is kept.

 

We pray for all communities in our world who live with the memories of massacre and gross cruelty.

Silence is kept.

 

We pray for all who are corrupted by power and who regard human life as cheap.

Silence is kept.

 

We pray for parents who have suffered the death of a child.

Silence is kept.

 

We pray for parents and guardians, that they may be given grace to care for the children entrusted to them.

Silence is kept.

 

As we celebrate the coming of the Christ-child, we rejoice in the fellowship of the Holy Innocents and commit the children of this community, our nation and our world to you, our righteous God.

 

 

 

 

Jeremy Thake,

St. John & St. Stephen

Isaiah 63

I will tell of the kindnesses of the Lord,

the deeds for which he is to be praised,

according to all the Lord has done for us—

yes, the many good things

he has done for Israel,

according to his compassion and many kindnesses.

8 He said, “Surely they are my people,

children who will be true to me”;

and so he became their Saviour.

9 In all their distress he too was distressed,

and the angel of his presence saved them.

In his love and mercy he redeemed them;

he lifted them up and carried them

all the days of old.

 

 

Matthew 2v13

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

 

14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

 

16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

 

18 “A voice is heard in Ramah,

weeping and great mourning,

Rachel weeping for her children

and refusing to be comforted,

because they are no more.”

 

19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”

 

21 So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, 23 and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.

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Baptism of Christ

St John & St Stephen’s Church, Reading, Epiphany 2, Sunday 12th January 2020

Isaiah 42:1-9, Matthew 3:13-end.

The Baptism of Christ

 

Today, in the church’s year, we celebrate the baptism of Christ. It may be that it’s not specially on our radar…it’s not Easter and it’s not Christmas, it’s not even Epiphany which was last Sunday. But I love the way that the lectionary, the order of readings set by the church that we have every Sunday, takes us each year to places we wouldn’t necessarily go to and bids us have a look again. And look is exactly what I invite us to do. 3 weeks ago I shared a beautiful picture of the Annunciation – the moment when the Archangel Gabriel announced to Mary that she was to be the mother of our Lord; today I would like to use another painting as a way of literally seeing this moment in our faith history. This painting, by Giovanni di Paolo, was made in 1454 and it hangs in the National Gallery in London. I went to see it this week. It’s small, only 30 x 45cm, 12 x 18 inches. The painting shines with all that gold, and it’s really detailed. I got quite close to it with my reading glasses on and could admire the fine brushwork. It’s one of a sequence of 4 paintings on the life of John the Baptist and formed a predella, pictures set low down in front of the altar.

 

This is not a life-like picture! It’s not like a photo of the event. The artist had clearly understood something of the profound significance and mystery of this moment but instead of writing about it, he painted it. Despite being nearly 700 years old, this picture may help us to encounter this sacred moment, and hopefully to even touch us. We need what we do and say and see and experience here on a Sunday morning – the truths and the beauties – get to our hearts, our emotions and sensibilities to deeply affect us, not just to remain ‘out there’, but to inhabit a space ‘in here’, in our hearts and even our bodies as well as our minds. What do we see? Take a moment now to just look at the picture.

 

So, there are lots of angels surrounding the two central figures with gorgeous robes and golden haloes. The upper tier seem to be in heaven, mostly looking towards the figure of God the Father at the top in the middle, but one at the top left maybe even looking at us. At the bottom left are two people standing chatting – they look pretty glorious though! May be they are wondering what all this means? Which is exactly what we are doing, so we can think of these two as placing us in the scene. In the centre, in the lower half, we can see Jesus standing in the river Jordan, with John the Baptist on the right, pouring water on his head – that is, baptising him. The image of a bird, a dove, hovers over his head, in that space between heaven and earth.

 

Now lets’s plunge into what all this means. Do you see those silver spindles in the top half of the picture? A bit like flying fish? They are meant to be tears, rents, rips, slashes – the heavens, the realm of God and angels, is open! We are seeing heaven and earth in one view. This is a sensational moment. Mark, in his gospel, puts it like this: ‘Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart(Mk 1:10). As a result, in the picture, we see a representation of God the Father. In the gospel reading of course, we don’t see but we hear him. What do we hear? ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’ (Mt 3:17). These words are for us to hear as well as Jesus, firstly so that we can know who Jesus is – the Beloved Son of God, but also so that we can know that within the Godhead, within the mystery of the Trinity, between Father, Son and Spirit, there is love and delight. In the sending of the Son, Jesus, that love bursts out into humanity. We know those words, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…’ (Jn 3:16). I think the artist tries to capture that in the loving gaze of the Father to the Son – and perhaps also we can see that the right hand of the Father is held in blessing – and is mirrored in the right hand of Jesus.

 

These words for Jesus were a declaration of who he is. Jesus the man, the carpenter, the son of Mary, adopted son of Joseph, brother to his siblings, friend and neighbour, refugee, soon-to-be itinerant preacher and healer was (and is) at his deepest, truest level, the Son of God, the Beloved. And his baptism at John’s hand was the declaration of that. Jesus’ baptism did not stand for repentance, it was in a profound sense, his naming.

 

In between the Father and the Son is the dove, the symbol of the Spirit. She hovers between them, caught between them in that force-field of love. In fact, in all 4 gospels, it says that the Spirit of God descended ‘like a dove’ or even ‘in a dove-like manner’ – that is, not exactly looking like a dove but quiet and gentle, not loud and forceful. But it’s OK to stay with the dove! In the first two verses of the Bible, in Genesis 1, it says, ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.’ At that moment, the Spirit, hovering over a formless void, was the agent of creation; this time, hovering over a human being, we are pointed to God’s intention to transform humanity.

 

Finally, we come to Jesus. Of course, the most outstanding thing is that he is naked. Look at the angels in their glorious robes, even John the Baptist with something respectable covering his camel’s hair garments. But Jesus, the Beloved Son of God, is unclothed, naked. His nakedness connects him again with the book of beginnings, to Genesis, to the mythical story of Adam and Eve – both naked as they were made ‘in the image of God’ (Gen 1:26,27). The artist captures Jesus’ vulnerability, his humility, even his aloneness as he stands strangely apart from the clamour of angels around him. He is even separated from John. This is our Saviour and Lord. His nakedness takes us to two other events in his life, one which we just celebrated at Christmas: his birth. It is how he came into the world; it is of course how we too come into the world, naked and vulnerable. And we think of his death on the cross: he was naked then too. Naked and vulnerable, unresisting to all the insults, goading, beating and violence.

 

And He is looking at us. Looking at me, Looking at you. There are lots of eyes in this painting, the Father looking at Jesus, most of the angels looking at God, one looking at Jesus, one just looking up, John the Baptist looking at Jesus, the two on the left looking at each other, but Jesus, naked, vulnerable Jesus, alone looking straight at us. His face is serious. What will you do with me?

 

Probably almost all of us here have been baptised. For some of us, that’s something we cannot remember since it happened to us when we were small babies. Others will have experienced the joy of adult baptism. For infants, baptism coincides with our naming. But I want to say, that beyond our receiving of a name – Richard, Elizabeth, Stephen, Mary – baptism is also a declaration, an affirmation of who we are at our deepest, truest level: a beloved daughter or son of God. We are baptised into the Name of the Trinity: that infinite, wonderful, eternal dance of love between Father, Son and Spirit. That love which was expressed out loud at the baptism of our elder brother, Jesus; and expressed through and in him in his life, death and resurrection. In fact, everything, from creation right through salvation history is to do with love! Our identity as beloved sons and daughters of God is in reality our truest self. Can you hear those words come to you? You too are the beloved daughter, the beloved son? I’m just wondering if that nakedness of Jesus in our picture expresses something else: we see him as he really is, a human being, beloved of God. He was simply a naked man, and then God declared him to be his Beloved Son. The pearl beyond price. Our clothes are part of our identity, aren’t they? They tell something. Rich, poor, office worker, manual worker, policeman, nurse, soldier, priest, lay reader: but strip that away and we are simply human beings. We get down to who we really are. At a still deeper level, transcending skin and bones is our heart, our soul, what Thomas Merton calls our ‘True self’. It is our True self that knows it is deeply loved by God, that we came from God and dwell in Him all of our days. But we need to hear the words, to understand the symbols in order for us to awaken to that wonderful, eternal reality. ‘Thou hast made us for thyself, O God, and our hearts can find no rest until they find their rest in thee’.

 

So much here. Perhaps when you’re at home, having a wash, a shower, a bath, you can use that moment with water to remember your baptism: what it means, that inner truth that you are a beloved child of God. Many churches have a stoup or bowl of water at the door, and people coming in can, if they wish, simply splash a little water on their forehead as a physical reminder of their baptism. It can be quite a powerful gesture, as other physical gestures such as kneeling, putting your hand over your heart, crossing yourself, receiving the laying on hands, being anointed with oil, eating bread and wine, sharing the peace. Try it! Christine and Claire have placed the font, full of blessed water, at the door of the church. So you are invited this morning, if you wish, to do just that. And as you do, pause, open your heart and hear those words: You too are my beloved.

 

Richard Croft

 

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‘The child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit’

Advent 4, Sunday 22nd December 2019

Isaiah 7:10-16, Matthew 1:18-end

‘The child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit’

 

‘The child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.’ I want to use those words as a sort of launch pad into a reflection on the moment of conception of the Christ-child in Mary. I invite you to see the beautiful fresco by Fra Angelico, entitled ‘The Annunciation’, as a lens through which which shows the moment, as the artist imagined it, of the Angel Gabriel coming to Mary and telling her she will conceive and bear a son whose name will be Jesus. The visual sense is a way of getting inside stories in a different way from just using words. This picture fills out that moment which ends with the words of Mary: ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word’. (Luke 1:38). For this moment is so sacred, mysterious and full of love that we need all of our senses to apprehend it.

 

Of all the many things that I could draw out I will mention just three. First, the simplicity of the painting. Its very emptiness draws us to focus on the two subjects, Gabriel and Mary. Secondly, it would be more true to say that it what is happening between them that is the centre as Mary listens to Gabriel’s unbelievable words, words full of love and grace as God reaches out to humanity with the promise of the Saviour, and Mary gives her consent: ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word’. Thirdly, look at their hands, crossed over their hearts. This speaks to me of something that is happening at the level of the heart: literally, heart to heart. It speaks too to mutual respect and of love. The pattern made by the hands of a cross speaks of the cross, which one day the child, grown to a man, will be led to. But look again at the shape the hands make. Does is remind you of the wings of a bird? Usually in paintings like this, where the Holy Spirit is mentioned, the artist puts a dove in somewhere. In this picture, it seems that the dove’s shape is made by hands of Mary and Gabriel. Here we have, beautifully captured, this profound encounter between a young woman of maybe 14 – Pathfinder age! – and the Archangel Gabriel. Although we cannot see Him, it is the Spirit of God that fills the space between the two subjects as they lean into each other. Could we say this is a picture of the Spirit?

 

Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word’. Can Mary have known where this would lead? She probably didn’t, but something within her wanted to say yes, wanted to give herself, wanted to trust the heavenly messenger. There is a beauty, a loveliness, an irresistibility to God that can make our hearts long for Him. Did Mary know that in her heart, her mind, her body? Did her heart beat faster, her pupils dilate, as she was literally, physically moved? Was it like falling in love? As all this took place, the ‘word’, the Spirit and her consent literally caused Christ to be conceived in her. Deep within Mary, such an overpowering movement of the Spirit took place that she conceived. Do you notice the dual action of the word – that is, in that moment, the spoken word of God through Gabriel, working together with the Spirit to bring about something completely new, fresh and wonderful. The DNA of humanity joined­­­­­ with the DNA of God. In time, she gave birth to a human child, a boy, named Jesus, literally the body of Christ, the flesh and blood home of the eternal Word of God which was in the beginning with God, to reference John’s gospel, chapter 1.

 

 

Outside of the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, not so much is made of Mary and yet, she stands as a bridge between God and humanity. She was not, like her son, an incarnation of God; and yet she bore him, it was her ‘yes’ that enabled it all to happen. It should be no surprise that she has been and is honoured. In Greek she is known as the ‘Theotokos’, the God-bearer. We owe her a great deal. We should also listen carefully to her words as they have been recorded. Because we are now the body of Christ. Listen to St Paul, writing to the Corinthian church: ‘You are the body of Christ and individually members of it’ (1 Corinthians 12:27). Mary was quite literally the mother of the human Jesus, the body of the eternal Christ. We now, with all of our brothers and sisters across the world, form that body. In that sense, if this isn’t a bridge too far for any of us, Mary is our mother too. I am trying here to join the dots between God, Mary, Jesus and us. A thick line joins those dots. At Christmas, we celebrate the coming of Christ into the world. But let’s not just see this as something that happened ‘out there’ and ‘back then’ but something that happens ‘in here’ and ‘right now’ too. Let us too be Christ-bearers. What a gift that will be to the world.

 

Let me finish by reflecting on the words she spoke. Those words are there for us too. They can be a prayer for each of us as we embrace our own destiny as the body of Christ, Christ-bearers.

‘Here am I’. Mary was present. Present in that moment. Can we be present with God? With the churning, restlessness of our minds laid to one side for a time just to be present; present with ourselves for who we are, and present for God? It’s not an easy thing at all but it is within us to be that person.

‘The servant of the Lord’. Mary was present with God, and she knew who she was. She knew that the world didn’t revolve around her; she was the servant, the handmaid as some translations have it, of the Lord. It is the best that any of us can be. ‘Let it be with me according to your word’. Yes, I am ready. Let it happen as You want, because you know best.

 

I’m going to finish by playing a piece of choral music that some of you heard at the Chorate concert 2 weeks ago. It’s entitled ‘Dixit Maria’ by the German composer Hassler. Here are the words in Latin and English: ‘Dixit Maria ad angelum, ecce ancilla Domini. Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum. Mary said the the angel, Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word’. I invite you, as you hear the music, to see again the picture, to reflect on it, and perhaps to make the words your own prayer. But be careful. You don’t know what will happen!

Richard Croft