20th September 16th after Trinity
How hard a thing it is to teach! People have a great many ideas about it. What the best methods are, what to do with pupils who refuse to learn or seem unable to, how to make the subject more interesting etc etc. I must say when I was at school I always found that by far the most interesting teachers were one or two who didn’t keep strictly to the point but who were prepared to digress.
Well Jesus didn’t always find teaching easy either.
In today’s gospel he passes through Galilee with his disciples, intending to teach them. He hoped no one would notice them and that they would get some peace and quiet. But what about the subject he had to teach?
What Jesus told them was first not only dreadful but second unbelievable. The son of man, he tells them, would be killed. And three days afterwards he would rise again.
How often it happens when someone’s trying to explain something – especially in a class or group – that you don’t understand and are afraid to ask, for fear of being shown up: the dim-wit, the only one who hasn’t got it. And there is the fear of being laughed at.
In the same way here, we are told that the disciples ‘didn’t understand and were afraid to ask.’ Instead of asking Jesus to explain, the level of discussion dropped a notch or two. It turned into – you can’t help thinking rather childish argument – about who was the greatest among the disciples. When they reached the house in Capernaum, Jesus (probably knowing the answer to his question full well) asks them, all the same, what they had been arguing about.
Understandably they fall silent, ashamed, if not deeply embarrassed.
Instead of expressing his disappointment in them, Jesus – wise teacher that he was – accepts the topic of greatness and – as it were – runs with it. ‘If you want to talk about greatness – then let’s talk about it.’ And as so often happens he turns the subject on its head. ‘The first must be last and servant of all’ – Jesus then takes a child in his arms, as an illustration of his words – NOT as an example of a sweet little innocent, but the child as one who has no rights or legal status and is therefore helpless.
What was the connection between a child and a servant? They were both dependant on others. In Aramaic the word ‘talya’ can mean either servant or child. By embracing the child, Jesus shows his complete acceptance of a social nonentity, but in his eyes and God’s is worthy of respect and love.
Then comes his real lesson: ‘whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’
It’s like a chain of command.
‘In my name’ -in other words, with me in mind, with my character: with no reservation. And so, rather as the chain of command in the Army reaches from the Commanding Officer to the one of lowest rank, so the chain goes back from God himself to one of the followers of Jesus: God, Jesus, Man – there is a direct link back to who will act for God, who will be his missioner, his ambassador, his representative: whoever accepts the unaccepted, the by-passed, those who are usually rejected and without hope: those are the ones.
In his life on earth Jesus was the one who broke the cycle of despair in people’s lives: month after month, year after year the despair of acceptance of a disability that prevented full life. Breaking the cycle – what does this mean? Many of the people Jesus helped or healed had suffered their affliction for years, sometimes for their whole life. A man waiting by the pool at Bethsaida had been waiting 38 years to be healed in its waters. Then he met Jesus. A blind beggar who had been blind since birth – had waited all his life. .. Then he met Jesus.
This is surely what Christians are called on to do: to break the cycle of what blocks a person living a full life: to meet them half way and lighten their load. This is a question of imagination: there’s not a single route to service: to be alert to the needs of other people may lead you down unexpected alleyways. As someone said on radio this morning – compassion speaks many languages: not only those of the refugee, the poor, the sick, the environment of the land we live in: but also to what is important to a person in his or her particular life and it may not be the obvious.
A friend of mine had a parrot which had lived with him all his adult life. A few weeks ago it died and he was deeply distressed. He said of all his friends only one person had written to him a letter of condolence about the parrot’s death. Only one person had had the sympathy and imagination to do this. Most people would think ‘oh well it’s only a parrot’ but to him it was an essential part of his life.
A Christian may not have great teaching powers or powers of healing – like Jesus: but everyone has human gifts: the chief of these is themselves, their time and attention – and imagination.
On the way to Capernaum that day Jesus, attempted to tell the disciples about his future death and resurrection. But prompted by them, he found himself teaching about service. But if you think about it these lessons point to the same end.
16th August 2015 Eleventh Sunday after Trinity
I met Ellen McGeary here yesterday. She is 100 years old — born in 1915. She was married in St Andrew’s in August 1942 in the middle of the war and I found her entry in the marriage register and was able to give her a copy much to her delight.
My mother is 93, about the same age as Arthur and only a few years ahead of John. Tessa went down to Kent to see her yesterday as she was unwell — now recovered, I am glad to say.
But Ellen and my mother are in the last years of their present life. God willing, they will have more time with us yet, but we know that there is a limit beyond which our physical bodies do not continue. Of course the end of this life comes not only in old age, but all too often at any age from accident, illness or violence.
Meeting Ellen yesterday and thinking of my mother, brought once again to my mind, the perpetual question about what happens next. And at the same time I was reading today’s Gospel in which Jesus speaks of living for ever, of eternal life
In the Gospel we pick up again on the theme of bread — living bread — which has been with us these past two Sundays. The living bread, the bread of life, is the person of Jesus and to have the bread of life is to have something of the way of life of Jesus as a part of our fabric, the spiritual DNA of our lives.
In today’s Gospel of Jesus takes the idea a step further, speaking not only of living bread, but of his own flesh and blood. It’s an even more powerful way of saying that we can become one with him. To be of someone’s flesh and blood is to be related closely to them physically. Our parents, our brothers and sisters are our own flesh and blood; Jesus is using that concept to speak not of a physical relationship with him, but of a spiritual relationship. We are offered a close family relationship, a relationship of love which cannot be broken, just as our physical relationship with our flesh and blood brothers or sisters cannot be undone — except by death.
And that is what Jesus says is different about flesh and blood spiritual relationship with him. It is not broken or ended by death. He says in today’s Gospel — and in many other places: “whoever eats this bread will live for ever”; and also “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life”; and again: “the one who eats this bread will live for ever.”
“Will live for ever”; will be raised up at the last day”; “we’ll have eternal life”. These are strange words and are promises of a high order which speak of a relationship begun in this life, but which continues on into another life. It is a perpetual relationship of love — the love of God for us and our response to that love. “God is love and those who live in love live in God and God lives in them”. This is the kind of love that never ends, because God is love and God is beyond the limitations of time.
We of course live this life within Time — yesterday, today and tomorrow — and so it is hard perhaps impossible, for us to imagine what a relationship might be like which continues beyond time.
But that is what is on offer and is at the heart of our faith — that this life, this world, this kind of existence is not the whole story. There is more and we refer to it as resurrection. The creed that we shall shortly say ends with these words: “I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting”.
Down the centuries, Christians have struggled to find ways of describing what this life everlasting might be like. The key elements are that it begins in this life as a relationship of love — love of God, love of neighbour and love of self; and secondly that what is to come is not completely different from what we experience now. This world and this life are a foretaste of the resurrection world and life. The same but different — different because in the words of the last book of the Bible, Revelation: “I saw a new heaven and a new earth. God will dwell with people and will wipe away all the tears from their eyes; there shall be no more death, neither shall there be any more sorrow nor crying nor pain, for the former things have passed away”.
St Paul tried to say what he thought about the relationship between this life and the resurrection life. Here’s what he says in the letter to the church at Corinth. He starts with the resurrection of Jesus — whose earthly and resurrection bodies were the same — he was recognisably the same person — but also very different. He says: “someone will ask sceptically How resurrection works, what does a resurrection body look like?” And he answers along these lines: “well we don’t have a diagram, a blueprint, but we have a parallel experience in gardening. We plant what looks like a dead inert seed and soon there is a flourishing plant. There is no visual likeness between seed and plant, but they are related, one comes from the other. When the body is put into the ground, buried, it seems to have no future. But it has a future as a resurrection body. Just as a seed and plant are the same but different, so the buried body and the resurrection body are the same but different.
John Bunyan in the 17th century wrote the Pilgrims Progress about the journey through life of a pilgrim. The pilgrim whom he names Christian, comes finally to a river that he must cross. He does so and describes the other side: “in that place you must wear crowns of gold and enjoy the perpetual sight and vision of the holy one; for there you shall see him as he is. There your eyes shall be delighted with seeing and your ears with hearing, the pleasant voice of the holy one. There you shall enjoy your friends again that are gone thither before you. And there you shall with joy receive even everyone that follows into the holy place after you”.
CS Lewis also had a go at describing what it would be like in the last book of the Narnia series — “The Last Battle”. He writes: “it is hard to explain how this sunlit land, the new Narnia, was different from the old Narnia. The new one was a deeper country every rock and flower and blade of grass looked as if it meant more. I can’t describe it better than that. It was the unicorn who summed up what everyone was feeling: “I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life though I never knew it till now. The reason why we love the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this”. And the last sentences of the book are these: “for the children of the Narnia stories, all their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and title page: now at last they were beginning chapter 1 of the great story which no one on earth has read. Which goes on for ever; and in which every chapter is better than the one before.
9th August 2015 Tenth Sunday after Trinity
Our news these past weeks has been dominated by stories about migrant people at Calais and others arriving from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and so many places of war, persecution and violence, on the shores of the Mediterranean islands and coasts.
The images we have seen have been of families arriving in small boats, dinghies, exhausted and bewildered but relieved at not having drowned like so many others.
And above all we have seen images of young men and women with children at Calais, trying desperately to get to this country — risking their lives to do so.
The storylines, the headlines and the words that have gone with these images, have been the ones of fear, of rejection and of complaint. One image in particular, though, has stayed with me and I have put it on the front of the newsletter today. It is of a church built by Christian migrants at Calais from scraps of wood and polythene. If you look on our website you will see pictures of the Christians at prayer and worship in that church. They will at this moment be doing what we are doing — gathering to receive the bread of life. They are, quite literally, our companions — the word is from two words in Latin with and bread – cum and panio. Companions are ones who share bread.
So I came today to the Bible readings with all of those images and stories in my mind. And not only the images and stories, but also aware of the complexity of the issues, of the people, politicians and others, who struggle to know what is best to do.
I have tried to get inside the stories of the people who come. I have watched an extraordinary film called “Adrift”, which follows a group of men and women from their lives of poverty and violence across the sea in a small boat. And as I have looked and read and thought about all this, I have become more aware of these people as fellow human beings, many of them followers of the same Jesus Christ as I try to follow.
And so I came to the Bible readings. They speak of physical hunger, emotional and spiritual hunger, bread, bread of life, attitudes to others in word and deed, and of complaining and grumbling.
In the Old Testament reading, Elijah is exhausted physically and emotionally and spiritually. He has just escaped from a violent contest with the prophets of Baal and the authorities — Jezebel — after him to kill him. He is a religious minority and persecuted. He is a refugee and is starving. He is ready to give up and accept that death is the only way out for him. But it isn’t the end of his story. An angel provides him with physical food to restore him physically. But more than that, the angel provides him with emotional and spiritual support — with hope and the motivation to continue his journey and his life.
Who is the angel? The word ‘angel’ simply means one who is sent by the God who is love and compassion. Each one of us can be an angel, a messenger of compassion from God to others.
The Gospel picks up on the theme of hunger and of bread. But this time it is bread of a kind that can satisfy them in a particular kind of hunger — the hunger for meaning, for dignity, for worthwhileness. The bread on offer is bread that will satisfy the emptiness and pointlessness of lives. Whether these are lives of poverty in Africa, persecution in the Middle East or empty affluence in Europe — it is the bread of life.
The bread of life is the person of Jesus, whose way of life becomes our way of life. Jesus said’ I am the way the truth and the life’ and he says ‘I am the bread of life’. Two ways of saying the same thing When we take the communion bread we are re-enacting the taking of his life into ours.
The bread that is blessed becomes for us, by faith, his life force and as we take and eat it, that life becomes something that dwells within our hearts and minds, urging us to live the lives of love and compassion that Jesus lived and lives.
Some of those who hear him are contemptuous — as they are still today. Partly this is because he grew up amongst them and partly because they confused physical bread with spiritual bread. They are only interested in ordinary bread — even though, like shopping for things we don’t need, it only satisfies for a short time.
If the bread of life is the way of life of Jesus; and if that bread, that way, is what we take into our lives, then what actually happens or should happen? What should be expected of those who have eaten the bread of life?
The answers are given in the letter from Paul for the church in Ephesus: “put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice; and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven you. Live in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us”
“be kind to one another, tenderhearted”
Who is it that we should be kind to, tenderhearted to? Family members, fellow Christians in the church, anyone we come across? It has to be the last — anyone we come across, and if so how much more must we be kind and tenderhearted to our fellow Christians. As an early Christian said, quoting the words of a non-Christian: “see how these Christians love one another”
So what about the makeshift church at Calais? What about the migrant Christians from Iraq, Syria, Somalia, places of poverty and persecution by Isis, Al Shebab, Boko Haram, Al Qaeda, Jezebels all, what about those people who worship the same Jesus and receive the same bread of life as we do?
In a short while Lesley, as presider at the Eucharist and representing Christ at the altartable, will say: “we break this bread to share in the body of Christ”. And we will all reply: “though we are many, we are one body because we all share in one bread”.
That “all”, that “we” who share together in the one bread includes not just everyone here, but all who share the bread of life, including those in the church in Calais.
As we read that story of Elijah, fleeing, persecuted, exhausted and at the end of his tether, so surely we cannot avoid thinking of those migrants and the Calais church and even more so of those in the Greek and other islands. They too are at the end of their tether and look to the God of Elijah and to Jesus to give them strength, food and courage for the journey.
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted says Paul”, how might we do and be that?
21st June: Sermon at the ordination of priests
Are we, can we be visionaries? Can we have and hold a vision for ourselves and for others? We seem to be in the midst of a world where every day, every hour, we are shown some further atrocious violence, or degradation of the human spirit or image of physical and spiritual poverty. In such a world can we retain our grip on the vision which Christians know as the Kingdom of God. And a vision not just of some future heavenly paradise, but a vision of something beautiful in the midst of ordinary daily life?
In a tired and weary world prone to cynicism, it is so called realists and pragmatists who hold sway. To be a realist it seems, is to be saying that we have seen it all before, everyone is motivated by their own interests, nothing is permanent, there is no meaning to anything. A visionary by contrast, one who is sustained by a hope which is rooted in promise borne out by experience, is regarded as naïve and disingenuous, in essence an impractical fool.
But we who live in the light of the resurrection see things differently. We know that there is meaning, there is love, there is justice because we know something of the nature of the living God.
In the readings we have heard today we are offered three perspectives on a vision of the world and its people as under God it can and should be.
We have Jeremiah’s vision of a new covenant under which the law of the Lord will be written on people’s hearts – “the days are surely coming says the Lord when I will be their God and they shall be my people. They shall all know me from the least of them to the greatest”. Jeremiah speaks of a future not yet come to pass but when all will be reconciled to God. He speaks of the heart as the place where the vision is to be held. Not on stone tablets or in the form of a set of laws and commandments visible to the eye but not held in the heart. Rather, he speaks of an indwelling and abiding presence.
It is a vision of a personal relationship with the God who is love, a relationship in which we are known by name and can know God as Abba, Father .
And we have Paul’s vision: everything old and outworn has passed away, see everything has become new. Now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation. Paul speaks of the here and now and offers us the vision of a reconciled world, reconciled to each other and reconciled to God through the work of Christ on the cross.
It is a vision of a world in which harks back to the freshness of the first creation and speaks of the way in which in Christ the consequences of the fall are dealt with. In that vision we see the created world in a new way, through the eyes of faith
And then in the gospel we have the vision given to us in Jesus’ words by St John: ‘Peace be with you. Receive the Holy Spirit. As the Father has sent me, so I send you’. Jesus speaks both to the here and now and to the future. The vision he offers us is one of his presence in the midst of the world bringing peace or shalom, not just the absence of conflict, but the active work of the Holy Spirit
These are the components of the vision that God in Christ and through the Holy Spirit ofers to us: a personal relationship with Christ, driven by the heart not by external power; a reconciled world – of people in right relationship with each other, with God and with the creation; and the peaceful shalom presence of Christ in the midst of the world.
Is this a vision that we can commit to, give our lives to, hold on to through all the realities of daily life? Those who are with us today to be ordained in the Church of God are committing themselves to this vision, not as some abstract and theoretical thing, but as one to which they will give their lives, the best that they have. It’s a vision that grips the heart and mind
Today these 16 people will publicly commit themselves to this vision of the world; and the Church will commission them in the name of Jesus Christ to hold the vision up for all to see; and to be at the centre of those who work for the fulfilment of that vision. It is a vision that God holds out to each generation as the alternative way of life, alternative to the life of power seeking, self centredness and pride. God calls us to participate in the work of bringing the vision to be in the lives of all people.
Between Thursday and yesterday we – those to be ordained today – stayed in the retreat house of St Cuthman in Sussex. A most beautiful place with gardens in full flourish of June; a lake in front of us with herons, geese and all manner of creatures; a house of venerable age steeped in prayer and the worship of the Lord of creation. It is a place for refreshment and for the renewal and sustaining of vision, of how things should be.
During our time at the retreat we focussed on how as priests, those to be ordained here today can be instruments, agents of that vision amongst the people they will serve. How will the vision that you have been given be sustained and shared with the Church and the world?
We began by reflecting on two characteristics that I associate with priestly ministry in the Church of God: saying yes and living at the boundary.
To have yes as the default perspective is to emulate our yes saying God. God takes the risk of saying yes to creation, to incarnation, to crucifixion and to resurrection. God says yes to forgiveness redemption and reconciliation. God says yes to justice and to abundant life for all. Yes is the primary instinct of love which is the primary characteristic of God: God is love and love’s instinct is not to control from outside but to seek a response of love from within, from the heart. When no has to be said, it is said reluctantly and only from the love that wants the best for the other.
Living at the boundary is uncomfortable, but is the place where Jesus was most at home. He was and never is fully at ease at the centre of one circle and is always gravitating to the edge, to the place where one circle intersects and overlaps with another. Never owned by any one group and at the service of all equally. Priests are to hold something of that liminal quality, never owned by a congregation and always moving outwards away from the centre to the edges.
We continued with the way in which at the start of the service of Holy Communion we put ourselves under the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Priests are public property whether we like it or not – we are visible and expected to be so. The world knows that we are spokespeople not just for the Church, but for God. We seek to represent truthfully the one in whose name we speak and act and to do that we must spend time with the one whose spokesperson we are. Only by spending time together with them can we know instinctively their way of thinking and respond truthfully. And we must spend time with others who are also under the authority of the name if there is to be a consistency in the way God is presented and spoken of.
The service of Holy Communion continues with words of confession and repentance and with forgiveness and reconciliation. These are at the heart of our vision of what our society needs and yet is resistant to. Priests are there to model what it might be to confess and repent and to receive forgiveness – for themselves and for those who come to them. Priests have particular temptations about power over others, preferment, disillusion and cynicism and we are in need of confession and forgiveness certainly no less than others.
And then the word – scripture and preaching – the ways in which we can communicate the gospel message in this generation against all the competing messages of commerce, spiritualities and those who in the words of 2 Timothy “having itching ears will accumulate teachers to suit their own desires”
And so to the privilege and responsibility that the Church gives only to priests – to take bread and wine, to give thanks and bless, to break and to share, all in the name of Jesus Christ, showing forth his death on the cross and his resurrection. These are not simply liturgical actions, but ones which speak of priestly ministry in the world: taking ordinary people and their lives; giving thanks and blessing, aware of the world’s brokenness and working for its healing; and above all sharing the living bread which is Jesus Christ with all.
Jesus says to you as to his first disciples: ‘peace be with you. Receive the Holy Spirit. As the Father has sent me, so I send you’. He sends you and us out into the world to hold out and live out his vision of a world reconciled to him
21st June 3rd Sunday of Trinity
Two great stories, one from the Old Testament and the other from the gospel. David and Goliath and Jesus and the disciples in the storm on the lake of Galilee.
The David and Goliath story was given to us in its entirety by Humphrey and Letty. So often our readings from the bible are snippets whose full impact can only be had by reading about the setting. But here we have in great detail one of the classic stories not only of the bible, but of our language and culture. It is the story of the way in which the great and powerful are brought down by the weak and the ordinary; the proud and bullying one is brought low by the humble and simple one. It is echoed in Mary’s Magnificat: he has put down the mighty from their seat and has exalted the humble and meek. It is even, one might say, the story of Jesus who put aside the power and might of God to take on the vulnerability of a human being against the Goliaths of the world, the powers of established religion, of the Roman empire and the consequences of sin in the world.
It is a story which is counter cultural. It goes against the idea that might is right and that the powerful will always prevail. Governments, corporations and institutions do not always prevail over the individual human being. In the eyes of God it is the baby in the manger who triumphs against all that the world can throw against him.
So it is a story which is intended to give us hope because it is not just a story from the past; and not just a story about the little hero against the wicked giant. It is a story about our deepest fears and anxieties, the ones which keep us awake in the night, the fears which can torment us during the day.
These may be the fears of daily life: loss of our job, inability to keep our home; the fear of illness or disability. And deeper still, the fear of death and what lies beyond it. Goliath is for each of us the thing that we most fear. The event that grows in our minds to the point where it seems impossible to overcome, impossible to deal with.
His height was six cubits and a span. He had a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armoured with a coat of mail; the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of bronze. He had greaves of bronze on his legs and a javelin of bronze slung between his shoulders. The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron; and his shield-bearer went before him.
It’s a description that is intended to build a picture in our minds of what we most fear and which we cannot deal with. It is too much for us and like the Israelites we are “dismayed and greatly afraid”.
And in response we try to big ourselves up. To make ourselves strong and to imagine that we have the same weaponry as Goliath. That we can deal with the fearful thing ourselves in our own strength and using the very weapons that are arrayed against us.
Saul clothed David with his armour; he put a bronze helmet on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail. David strapped Saul’s sword over the armour.
But we know that this is not going to work because it is not really who we are. We are not Goliath because Goliath is a work of our imagination, our fears. The David in us knows this and accepts that we are who we are and that to defeat the fear requires other weapons than those of Goliath
What defeats the Goliaths that rise up in us is trust. Not a blind and naïve trust which is no more than foolhardiness dressed up; not a trust which pretends that there is no Goliath. It is a trust which looks the fears in the eye and recognises it for what it is: the fearful thing which could overwhelm us. Trust is not some abstract emotion conjured up to deal with our Goliaths: It is trust in God, and trust which grows from the experience of trusting.
David said to Saul: The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.
We know that Jesus faced the fearful Goliaths in his life on earth: in the desert temptations; in the demons whom he confronted; in the Garden of Gethsemane and supremely on the Cross. He trusted in God the Father who stood alongside him and showed the Goliaths for what they ultimately are: fears and terrors of the night able to be vanquished by the God who stands with us at all times.
Our second story, from the gospel, has Jesus in a boat on the Sea of Galilee with his disciples. In the boat they are close to Jesus. Outside the boat is the sea which represents the world we live in with all its risks and uncertainties and with hidden terrors in its dark depths.
All is well until a storm suddenly erupts – just as in our lives storms arise from events beyond our control: accidents, illnesses, broken relationships and above all again, the storm of fears that grows so large in our minds and threatens to overwhelm us and drown us in the depths of chaos and disaster.
A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped
The disciples are paralysed by their fear and seem to be unaware that Jesus all the while is with them in the boat and in the storm, calmly sleeping. In the extremity of their fears they wake him with the words: ‘do you not care that we are perishing’. It’s a panicky question and one which reveals their lack of trust and that they have let Goliath overwhelm them.
But Jesus is as ever with them and having turned to him, their trust, little as it is, is vindicated and the storm abates
Jesus chides them gently: Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith? He encourages them and us to build on the positive experiences of trust that we have had. Trust grows with trusting. The more trust we have the more we shall be able to look our Goliaths in the eye and say to them: I know you and I know in whom I trust. And the one in whom we trust will cut our Goliaths down to size and will still the storm of our fears
7th June 2015: 1st Sunday after Trinity
Next Sunday eight people – five young people and three adults – will be confirmed. They join the 35 adults and young people who have been confirmed at St Andrew’s in the past three years. 43 people who have decided that the Christian faith, faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, is what they wish to commit to.
Of course we must be realistic. I was confirmed some 50 years ago as one of my year group at a boarding school – I still have the little prayer book that I was given on the occasion. I can remember little or nothing of the preparation sessions which led to it and equally, little or nothing of the confirmation itself
Does that mean that it didn’t mean much to me? Did I understand what I was committing to? I rather doubt it. More importantly, did it change my life? Well, I can only think about that in retrospect, looking back on the fifty years that have followed. Certainly something was going on, working away in the back of my mind and in my life, keeping me from straying too far. But it took another 20 years before I began to realise the full implications of my confirmation commitment.
But who knows how the Holy Spirit works in our lives, nudging us into the right path, the path that God has in mind for us whether we are conscious of it or not; and whether we acknowledge his nudging or not. Of course we can’t be complacent and think to ourselves that when young people go astray: ‘oh they’ll come back in due course. Some do, but the evidence is that without active witnessing by those around them, they will resist that nudging and go astray, and because God loves us, the Holy Spirit allows us to make our own decisions, even bad ones
So what is confirmation? It is confirming for ourselves the promises that were made for us at our baptism as babies or children – for those of us for whom that was the case. At that time we played no part in the decision to be baptised, we were reliant on our parents or others doing for us what they thought was best for us.
But baptism is a decision to be made consciously and knowingly and there must come a time when the promises made on our behalf are taken on and confirmed by each Christian for themselves. The normal New Testament understanding is that baptism is the consequence of a decision to follow Christ, taken by adults. It is the case that whole households including children were baptised together and as the Christian faith spread more widely across the populations, the baptism of children gradually became normal.
But as in the past century Christianity has receded and large numbers of people have not been baptised as children and have grown up knowing little or nothing of the Christian faith, so the practice of adult baptism has become common again, even normal. Now we have both the baptism of children from Christian families; and we have adult baptism for those who come to faith as adults. We have seen this pattern developing here at St Andrew’s and I expect that we shall see adult baptism becoming increasingly the norm in future years.
That does not mean that confirmation will fall away. It simply means that we shall increasingly see baptism and confirmation coming together again as a single foundational event in the life of local churches.
For the Church of England, confirmation has normally marked the moment when we begin to receive the bread and wine of the Holy Communion. That has been seen, and still is, as the central act of the Christian life, commanded by our Lord – do this in remembrance of me – and so has been closely linked to an adult decision to follow Christ.
That has not been the case for other churches though. In the Orthodox churches infants will receive communion from the moment of baptism; in the Roman Catholic Church children will receive their first communion before confirmation, perhaps at age seven or eight with confirmation following later. In the Church of England there has been a move in recent decades for children to receive communion before confirmation along Roman Catholic lines.
In Baptist and other free churches, the core New Testament model is followed, with adult baptism and confirmation together being the only approach.
So we have a range of different approaches across the Christian world, but at heart we all have the same core understanding which is that baptism and confirmation, whether held together or separated, involve the use of water and the laying on of hands with prayer in a once only event.
Water, whether in our small font or by immersion in a pool or a river – and I believe that Latoya will be baptised this week in the river Jordan where Jesus was baptised – water signifies the end of one life and the beginning of another. It marks the washing away of sin – self centredness – and the commitment to a God centred and neighbourcentred way of life; the words of the baptism speak of a death of the old personality and the resurrection to new life that follows. It is the pattern of crucifixion and resurrection given to us by our Lord in his life and death and resurrection
But what about the laying on of hands with prayer? This is the central act of the confirmation service and has to do with the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is the prayer that the bishop will pray over those to be confirmed:
Almighty and ever-living God,
you have given these your servants new birth
in baptism by water and the Spirit,
and have forgiven them all their sins.
Let your Holy Spirit rest upon them:
the Spirit of wisdom and understanding;
the Spirit of counsel and inward strength;
the Spirit of knowledge and true godliness;
and let their delight be in the fear of the Lord.
He will then place his hands on the head of each candidate and pray for the Holy Spirit in their lives and as a sign of the Holy Spirit, will anoint them with blessed oil saying:
‘Be sealed with the gift of the Spirit’
So are the rest of us little more than observers, onlookers rather than participants? Of course we are much more than observers. Baptism and confirmation together with the receiving of the bread and wine, are the central events that create church – the body of Christ. We are in it together and baptism and confirmation are occasions for great joy and celebration, for solidarity and congratulation because they mark the growth of the body, its strengthening and renewal.
And each one of us has a crucial part to play in baptism and confirmation services. Before the baptism we are asked to make a make a commitment to those being baptised: “will you welcome these candidates and uphold them in their life in Christ?”
And at confirmation, we are all asked to pray for the candidates:
Defend, O Lord, these your servants with your heavenly grace,
that they may continue yours for ever,
and daily increase in your Holy Spirit more and more
until they come to your everlasting kingdom. Amen.
And then we and the candidates are all asked four questions:
Will you continue in the breaking of bread and in the prayers?
Will you persevere in resisting evil?
Will you proclaim the good news of God in Christ?
Will you love your neighbour as yourself?
In other words, we are in this together with the candidates: “There is one body and one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
So I hope and expect that next Sunday we shall all make every effort to be here to be of one body with those to be baptised and confirmed, to rejoice with them, to pray with them. But more, to use the occasion to examine our own lives; and to renew our commitment to live out and speak of our faith in Christ and his gospel in such ways that others will want to know more about it and may by the Holy Spirit come to baptism and confirmation themselves
24th May 2015 Pentecost
Today is Pentecost, the festival of the Holy Spirit, a day which ranks with Christmas and Easter in its significance for Christians around the world.
It marks 50 days after Easter and is the culmination of the journey from Christmas: the journey via the Cross and resurrection at Easter and through the Ascension, the transition from the earthly presence of Jesus with all its human limitations, to his unlimited spiritual presence through all time and space – always and everywhere.
Pentecost is often known as the birthday of the Church because it was, as we read just now, the day on which a diverse crowd of ordinary people from many different countries were drawn together by the Holy Spirit to become a dynamic movement, the Church, the body of Christ in the world.
Birthday, day of birth, is a good way of thinking about Pentecost, because birth, new life, new beginning, is what the Holy Spirit is about. We say in the creed each week that ‘we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life’. And it is life, new life that the Holy Spirit brings and has brought since the beginning of creation.
The very opening words of Genesis, the first book of the bible are: ‘in the beginning God created the universe and the earth; and the Spirit of God moved on the face of the waters’. The Holy Spirit of God was there when nothingness became something – the universe that we are part of. The Holy Spirit was involved in the beginning of beginnings.
The very word for spirit used in the Hebrew language of the bible could equally well be translated as breath. Our first breath gives us life. Breathing is what defines the existence of life in each one of us. To be breathing is the sign that we are alive. And so we might say that a church which is alive is filled with the breath which is the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is there at all the great moments of the story of God, the moments of new beginnings. Mary, the mother of Jesus is told by Gabriel that the Holy Spirit will come upon her and that the child to be born will be holy. It is the start of something new which will change the course not only of Mary’s life, but the course of the world. The Holy Spirit is in at the beginning of Jesus’ earthly life and throughout his life supporting, encouraging and communicating with Jesus and the Father.
And so to Pentecost, when again, the Holy Spirit is in at the beginning, doing a new thing, making something happen which will change people’s lives and change the world. The Church is born, that diverse body of people, that body of Christ in the world. That is us here today, the body of Christ called into existence by the Holy Spirit at the first Pentecost, that same Holy Spirit who called the universe into being, who brought Jesus into human form, has also brought the Church into being.
But the Holy Spirit is not just about beginnings; the Holy Spirit is not just the spark which starts a fire, the Holy Spirit is the fire. We say in this service: ‘come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful people and kindle in them the fire of your love’. The church today is full of the symbols of fire: we came in through the flames; the altar is a mass of orange, red and yellow, the colours of fire; above the font are tongues of fire. Fire changes and transforms what it touches. We use the word fire to speak of the way in which we can be ‘fired up’, our hearts can be warmed up, no longer cold hearted.
The Holy Spirit is not just about the beginning of life, the Holy Spirit is about life itself, about liveliness and about all the things that are characteristic of a fired up life: growth and change; energy and creativity; movement and activity. Without these characteristics, without the Holy Spirit, a church is lifeless, has not breath and cannot set fire to anything. It is as the prophet Ezekiel say in his vision, just dry bones without breath. In that vision the dry and lifeless bones of Israel were brought to life by God who said: ‘I will put my Spirit within you and you shall live’.
So what does an alive church look like? What should we expect to find in a church which is full of the Holy Spirit, the breath of God?
We should find a body of people who are both ordinary and extraordinary; a body of people of all kinds and from many different backgrounds just as on the Day of Pentecost; but a diverse body of people able to speak a common language, the language of love for God and for neighbour. A body of people who are united in knowing themselves to have one Lord, Jesus Christ who comes to them in the bread and wine
We should expect to find this variety of people having a variety of gifts, gifts of the Spirit that are put to the service of other people. We should expect to find what St Paul in his letter to the church in Galatia calls fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These are the characteristics of a spirit breathed church.
A Spirit filled church is one which has a desire and a willingness to seek out where the Holy Spirit is calling it to new things. Such a Church values its past and its present, but is not afraid of the future, not afraid of change and is open to new beginnings.
And finally, a Spirit filled church, a church which has life, is one which in all its diversity of gifts and opinions, expresses its unity in the Eucharist, in the sharing of the bread of life and the cup of healing. In the Eucharistic prayer, we ask God to ’send your Holy Spirit, that broken bread and wine outpoured may be for us the body and blood of Jesus – his very life in us. Week by week we are fed and strengthened and resourced by the Holy Spirit opening our eyes to the presence of Jesus amongst us.
So I hope that as we continue to breathe in the oxygen that gives us physical life, so we shall continue to breathe in the Holy Spirit, the breath of God, giving us spiritual life and energy and firing us up to new beginnings
May 17th 2015: Sunday after Ascension
For nearly six months now, we have been following, indeed living out, what might be called the story of god’s adventure, God’s initiative, even God’s experiment of love
Adventure, initiative or experiment are all words which imply risk – a step into the unknown and a willingness to let go of control. They are the ways in which love reveals its true character — that it is willing for the sake of a loved one, to sacrifice something of itself.
The willingness to make the sacrifice is driven by the hope that the loved one will respond in love, freely and gladly
The story of this experiment of love began at Christmas when God in the person of Jesus comes amongst us in human form. God takes on all the limitations of being human, of being born a vulnerable infant, of growing from childhood and adolescence to adulthood.
The experiment of love gives us an insight into what a life of love might look like: a life which is concerned with loving God and loving neighbour, with healing and reconciliation, with generosity and compassion.
The story of God’s experiment of love in Jesus continued at Easter, first with Good Friday and then with resurrection.
On Good Friday the experiment of love reaches a dead end. The risk that has been taken in the hope of a loving response has failed and human beings have responded in the way we so often do, with violence and killing. Taking on human life has resulted only in taking on the ultimate human limitation, that of death and extinction
But on Easter Day, the Day of Resurrection, the experiment of love shows that God never gives up on his — Love never ends, and that death can be a doorway to more and fuller life, a life which has none of the physical limitations of ordinary human existence.
But the experiment of love does not end there. It is not just an intervention, not just God in Jesus coming for a while amongst us at a point in history and then departing to let us get on with it as best we can.
That might be what Ascension looks like, the Ascension Day that we have just celebrated. The Ascension story is found at the end of the Gospels which record Jesus as disappearing from the disciples’ sight and in the beginning of the second book, the Acts of the Apostles, the story of the early Church, Jesus is said to have been lifted up, a cloud taking him from their sight. Two men in white robes, perhaps angels, say to the watching disciples that Jesus, who has been taken up into heaven will come again in the same way as you saw him go
That sounds like a departure, someone leaving to go somewhere else. It sounds like the experiment of love has now ended and that Jesus has returned to the safety of God, that the risky business of love is now over. God continues to love us, but from a safe distance, the distance of heaven to earth.
And if you look at the language and especially at the images of the Ascension, that is what it sounds and looks like. The pictures on Google images are almost all of Jesus going up, up and away.
But that is not what the Ascension is about. The language and image of going up simply illustrate the difficulty we have of finding words to describe what is happening when the spiritual intersects, overlaps, coincides with the physical. Our language, all the words we use, are built from our physical experience.
So if the Ascension is not about going up or going away, what is it about and how can we speak of it? Perhaps three other words could be helpful: first transition. The Ascension is about the way in which God changes how he is present amongst us. It describes a transition from a physical presence to a spiritual presence. No less really present, but present in a different way. And at the heart of this different way is the overcoming of the limitations that we as human beings experience. We can only be in one place at a time. The Ascension is about the way in which Jesus can be present with us at all times and in all places. In the fifth century Leo, a pope and saint said: “our Lord’s visible presence has passed into the sacraments.” He means for example that Christ is present now whenever the bread and wine is blessed, broken and shared in his name. Or whenever someone is baptised or confirmed; or no doubt in prayer or in meeting people’s needs for justice and freedom.
So Ascension is not about ascending but about transcending. Transcending is about overcoming limitations. Indeed we speak about rising above our limitations, difficulties and challenges. We don’t mean that we go up physically, we mean that we do not let those things tie us down. The Ascension says the God in Jesus rises above, transcends the limits of physical human beings to be available to everyone everywhere who calls upon him.
And a third way of thinking about the Ascension as transition from one state of being to another, came to my mind when on Thursday evening during the Ascension service, we extinguished the paschal candle. The flame is put out, it disappears from our sight and the smoke goes up and gradually that too disappears. Or does it? Actually it doesn’t just disappear it disperses, it takes on a different form, a form which though invisible to us, is present throughout the building in the atmosphere, breathed in by us and becoming part of us.
And, back to the experiment of love, those experiments not only in Jesus with us, but in the Holy Spirit with us. Next Sunday is Pentecost, the festival of the Holy Spirit. It marks the final and permanent last part of the experiment of love, it marks the completion of the story of Christmas, Easter and Ascension. Pentecost says that this was no intervention, no coming and then departing. This is the story of how God becomes permanently close each one of us through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. Pentecost is the fulfilment of the promise: “I am with you always to the end of time”
May 10th Christian Aid Sunday
We are going to watch a short film by Christian Aid about two women, Adi and Loko, who live in Ethiopia.
Ethiopia is one of the oldest Christian countries in the world going back to the very earliest days after Jesus’ life on earth. Think of the story in the Acts of the Apostles when Philip encounters an Ethiopian who is reading an extract from the book of the prophet Isaiah – Miles read it to us last Sunday:.
“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
Who can speak of his descendants?
For his life was taken from the earth.”
The Ethiopian wants to know who is Isaiah referring to and Philip explains that the prophet is speaking of Jesus who is to come. Philip explains about Jesus to him and the Ethiopian then asks for baptism – it is the beginning of Christianity in Ethiopia, a country which has suffered much in recent decades.
Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in the world – for many there it’s not austerity and there are no foodbanks. Rather it’s about survival, about life or death
Let’s watch the film in which two women, Adi and Loko, speak for themselves. And whilst watching it, look for the signs of faith in God and for the life of prayer that Loko in particular shows
Our gospel reading for today offers us the eleventh commandment – Jesus gives us a new commandment: that you/we love one another. It’s not a request or a suggestion, but a direct commandment which Jesus repeats twice – at the beginning of the passage and then again at the end: “I am giving you these commands that you may love one another”
Who are the ‘you’ that Jesus refers to when he gives the command: “that you love one another?”
Is it us here in this church this morning? Or is it the worldwide church? Or is it our neighbour – anyone in need who comes to our attention.
Who is my neighbour? Jesus was asked. And in answering it he told the story of the Good Samaritan. At the end of the story Jesus asks the questioner: “who then was neighbour to the man who fell among theives? To which the answer is given – “the one who showed him mercy, who had compassion, who came to his aid”. Go and do likewise Jesus says to him – and of course to us.
In the film Loko prays, prays frequently.
She prays to God:
“please clear these thorny plants;
please open the ways in front of me;
God, improve the lives of my children;
Change my life and lead me out of this”
Yesterday in the confirmation group we talked about prayer and about how God responds to our prayers. I think that when we ask God for something, as Loko does, Our Father God asks gently, why do you ask for this? And the implication of the question is ‘is this for you only, is it for others, is it to the glory of the God of love and justice
And the response is something like – how shall we do it together? And by ‘we’ God does not just mean just Loko and the Holy Spirit. The “we” includes all who know about Loko and others like her. Christian Aid knows about her and this week millions around the country will come to know Loko. And now we know her and she has become our neighbour. She has become one of us
Jesus said: “This is my commandment, that you love one another”.
How much do we love Loko and others like her? Are we going to be part of God’s answer to her prayer?
March 22nd Passion Sunday
‘Sir we would see Jesus.’
I wonder if you have ever had the experience of meeting a famous person and after shaking their hand and looking into their face and even speaking to them, thinking Oh, they’re quite different from how I imagined them.
It’s quite possible that this might have happened to the Greeks in today’s Gospel. Before they met Jesus the Greeks seemed to be quite sure of their ground. ‘Sir, they said to Philip’- ‘We wish to see Jesus.’ He was the person they were after.Clearly they’d heard of him, of his teaching and preaching and miracles of healing.But there was nothing like personal experience: seeing for themselves.
These Greeks – Gentiles, (not Jews) were confident, polite and questing which made them characteristic of the Greek nation, at the time one of the greatest if not the outstanding civilization of the world, seeking after truth and knowledge and prepared to go to great lengths to find it. A contemporary said of them, ‘You Greeks are always young in your souls.’ – young in the sense of being open-minded – flexible towards new ideas.
But when Philip together with Andrew bring them to Jesus their meeting was hardly reassuring. In fact they couldn’t have expected the answer they got.
There is no greeting, ‘Shalom’ or ‘Peace be with you’ – or indeed any acknowledgement by Jesus of these visitors. Instead he reaches the point almost at once: ‘unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains all by itself alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’ His word-picture or metaphor of the grain of wheat which, after falling into the ground and dying, is not only about producing much fruit. It’s also a picture of isolation turned into plentiful company.
This Sunday Passiontide begins, the last fortnight before the Resurrection and a time specially to engage with. Lent is a tough time – it’s meant to be, a time to use and not to waste – although it’s easy enough to side-step Lent. Begin, promisingly enough perhaps, with Ash Wednesday and then suddenly realise it’s almost Good Friday – but what has happened to Lent? Has it been used, engaged with – or – wasted?
There’s no substitute for getting to grips with demons which afflict us – just as Jesus did in the wilderness. His demons were about power: to jump from the pinnacle of the Temple, to turn stones into bread – and others. The devil’s voice appears as a string of natural ideas that come into his head. They matched his life: one of hidden power. But Jesus resisted the devil: he always resisted the temptation to make an impression. Each person’s temptations are unique to him or her. Everyone will be tested at the point in their particular life which is most vulnerable. To distinguish: the voice of God from the attractive lies that the devil suggests: that is the thing.
A priest, Daniel O’Leary, says that we grow by dying, If you can face the darkness in yourself you can face it in other people. But don’t turn a blind eye to it, don’t side-step the challenges of Lent or disregard the demons who live in you: or in the world: face them.
There’s a story of a man who died and went to heaven. The angel who met him said, ‘Show me your wounds.’ The man replied, ‘Wounds? I haven’t got any.’ The angel then asked,’Did you never think that anything was worth fighting for?’
Throughout his life Jesus took risks, in particular risks with the Jewish authorities. He dares, not only to question their authority but to tell them what he thinks of them. He dares to get involved. And this is surely the duty of a Christian – not to stand on the sidelines or to walk on past. The former Archbishop Rowan Williams, once said, that the only thing worse than taking up your cross is not taking it up.
Jesus came to be with us – not above us. Emmanuel – ‘God with us’ is his name.
Before his crucifixion ‘all the disciples left him and fled’. What stark awful words! The disciples kept their lives – they were physically safe – they still existed, but they lost their true lives. Fortunately this was only for a time – because that was not the end of the story.
‘We better not get involved because we might get hurt’: that’s the temptation. But to evade responsibility is to evade the cross. Evasion of the cross, in whatever form, exacts a terrible price as Peter was to learn to his bitter misery and self-reproach.
In a few weeks’ time the Church celebrates the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer – April 9th -who says ‘when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.’ There are different kinds of dying but Jesus’ words about the grain of wheat say the same thing. The grain of wheat that dies bears much fruit.’ From the Cross we look to the resurrection. That is our sure hope and faith.
What happened to the Greeks after Jesus had made his explanation to them is not recorded. It would have been interesting to know. But from the accounts of others in the New Testament who met Jesus.
Afterwards, life was never the same again.
March 15th: Mothering Sunday
Mothering Sunday. 15th March 2015
On the front cover of the newsletter today are the names of some of the women who played a part, often a crucial part, in the story of God given in the bible.
Often they are not well known or acknowledged, much less celebrated, but we do well, nevertheless, to pay as much attention to them as we do to the often better known men who feature in the great stories of the bible.
Of course, behind the stories of every King David or Solomon, every prophet Isaiah or Jeremiah and every hero – Samson or Joshua, is a mother who gave birth to them, fed them and cared for them and shaped who they came to be. It’s rather a good and humbling thing for every man to remember that they once had to have their nappies changed by their mothers!
Four women are celebrated in the bible readings today, Mothering Sunday, Three are from the Old Testament story of the birth and saving of Moses; and one, the mother of our Lord, Mary, from the gospel.
Both stories are about events surrounding the birth of the two figures who are central to Judaism and Christianity: Moses and Jesus. Moses, the figure at the heart of the first Covenant; Jesus the figure at the heart of the new Covenant, fulfilling and completing the covenant of God with Moses.
The three women in the story of the birth and saving of Moses are not given names in the passage we heard.
There is the mother of Moses, referred to only as a Levite woman. A Levite, from the tribe of Levi, one of the 12 sons of Jacob, and the tribe from whom the priests of Israel were drawn.
Although she is not named here, Jewish tradition identifies her as Jochebed from a reference to her elsewhere in the book of Exodus.
Then there is the sister of Moses, whose quick-witted intervention saved her brother’s life. She is named later as Miriam and has a part to play in the later story of the escape from Egypt and the time in the desert.
And the third woman in the story is Pharoah’s daughter, again given no name here, but identified as Bithiah later in the bible. In Hebrew Bithia means ‘daughter of God’.
Three women, Jochebed, Miriam and Bithia, who by their actions, enabled God’s plan to bring into being his people Israel, from whom by the Holy Spirit, Jesus was born, through the obedience of another woman, Mary.
Three women, not even given names in this story, who by their compassion and their willingness to riak everything for a child, enabled us to be here where we are in this church today. Our spiritual ancestry lies with these women.
Jochebed, Moses mother, who, having given birth to Miriam and now Moses and later Aaron, thn risks her life and his by disobeying Pharoah’s command to have him killed.
Miriam, Moses’ sister, risking her life for her brother and by her courage and quick-wittedness was the one who changed the story from having an abrupt end to one of a continuing story down to the present time.
And Bithia, daughter of Pharoah, risking death herself by disobeying openly her father’s edict and showing how compassion overcomes fear and crosses the boundaries of race an class
Giving birth, compassion and risk taking: three qualities that are at the heart of what it is to be human; three qualities at the heart of what mothering is about. And three qualities that are at the heart of love. And three qualities that are at the heart of the God who is love.
Mothering, therefore, is at the heart of God and because all human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, there is in each of us something of the qualities of mothering that waits to be brought to its full potential
Julian of Norwich, the great 14th century English mystic spoke of God almighty as our natural father and God all wisdom as our natural mother. She aslo said: “Jesus Christ who overcame evil with good, is our true mother. We received our being from him and this is where his maternity starts. And with it comes the gentle protectionand gusrad of love which never ceases to surround us. Just as God is our Father, so God is also our Mother”.
From his love, God gives birth to the creation and we have the potential, each of us, to give birth to something new and world changing. Our mothers give birth to us, but each of us can give birth to an action, a decision, an idea which can make for a better world.
From his love God shows compassion – the very word means to be willing to suffer with. Those three women had compassion and were willing to suffer alongside the baby Moses. And in the gospel we heard of Mary’s willingness to suffer with her son, Jesus. In Simeon’s words: “this child is destined to be a sign that will be opposed… and a sword will pierce your own soul too”. And so it was at the foot of the cross.
And from his love, God constantly takes riskes. From the beginning God has taken the risk of handing control back to each one of u. He gives us free will, the ability to decide in our lives for good or ill. That is what love does – it allows freedom even though it knows that this may lead to pain and suffering as well as to joy and healing.
How much on this Mothering Sunday we can draw from these four women: Jochebed the mother of Moses; Miriam the sister of Moses and Bithia the daughter of Pharoah and Mary the mother of Jesus.
Their mothering qualities of giving birth, of compassion and of risk taking illustrate for us the mothering quality of God’s love
It is a mothering quality in each one of us, there to heal and reconcile and make possible God’s new creation
February 22nd: First Sunday of Lent
Do you remember the ‘Where’s Wally?’ books? Each page had a vast crowd scene painted with great detail, and the task was to search amongst the colours for the familiar ‘Wally’ figure – I think he has round glasses and a red + white stripey hat.
I wonder if it feels a bit like that on Sundays these days – where’s the sermon? You sit down with your service booklet and flick through it to spot where the sermon is lurking today!
As Fr Guy explained last week, we’ve embarked on a series of sermons to help us understand what the service is all about. So the sermon is popping up at different points in our service to help us focus on what we’re doing. Last week Fr Guy looked at the beginning – the greeting, confession, absolution and Gloria. This week we look at the readings and the sermon.
Most Sundays we read four sizeable pieces of Scripture but have you ever wondered how are they chosen? Or even why we read them?
In common with many Anglican churches throughout the world, at St Andrew’s we follow the Lectionary. These are suggested readings for every service in the year and follow a three-yearly cycle, which means that in the space of three years we will have read through the whole Bible.
Often there’s a theme running through the readings – sometimes easier to discern than others…
Perhaps a challenge to you each Sunday morning could be that as you listen to the passages being read, see if you can pick out a theme or common thread running through.
So why do we read so much of the Bible in our services?
In Psalm 119 the Psalmist says that God’s word is a light to his path and a lamp to his feet. The Bible is one of the most important ways in which God speaks to us – to guide, comfort, challenge, inspire, teach us. But in order to hear God speaking to us we need to be open, inquisitive, questioning, attentive. It’s easy to allow the readings to wash over us, and not to engage. But if we ask God to speak to us as we listen to the passages being read, and if we are open to hearing, then indeed God will respond and reveal himself to us.
Could you perhaps take a few moments just before the service begins, to look ahead to one of the readings, read it slowly and prayerfully, asking God to highlight a verse or a phrase that speaks into your life at that particular moment?
So we have these four chunks of reading – Old and New Testament, Psalm and a passage from the Gospels. Do they all have equal weight and importance?
As I’m sure most of you are aware, the Bible isn’t one single book but rather a library of books, a compilation of many different types of literature. There’s history, poetry, law, narrative, prophecy, love songs, pithy proverbs and much more. The different types of literature have different purposes.
Firstly, throughout the Old Testament we read accounts of the formation and the journeys of God’s people – the people of Israel – that helps us to understand something of Gods purposes and to see how God was and is at work in the world.
Secondly, in the Psalms we have the outpouring of the Psalmists inner thoughts – his sheer delight in God, his struggles when God seems to be silent and far off, his desperation when everything seems to be going wrong. So much of our human experience is to be found in the psalms.
Thirdly, we usually have a passage from one of the letters in the New Testament, perhaps written by Paul or someone else. These were originally written to some of the earliest young churches or to individuals, and contain early Christian teaching as relevant and challenging to us now as it was then – although sometimes it may seem rather obscure and difficult to understand!
And then finally there is the Gospel reading. To this, as you’ll be aware, we give a greater emphasis. We treat the Gospel differently. We hold it high to be seen by all. We stand in the midst of the congregation to read it, not apart at the front. We cense it before reading it (except during advent and lent). Sometimes the person who reads it will cross themselves on forehead, lips and heart.
This is all because when we read the Gospels we are not simply reading about Jesus as a historical figure, or even as a great teacher. When we read the Gospels in a very special way we are meeting with the living Lord, the Word made flesh. One of the great mysteries of our faith is that Jesus is present here amongst us in the word as he is in the bread and wine we share together.
That’s why our gathering together is so much more than a social event or a club. Much as its great to meet together and enjoy each other’s company, we really come here to meet with the risen Lord Jesus, to be changed by him, to go out of this place as renewed, transformed human beings, becoming (hopefully!) just a teeny bit more like Jesus every day.
So that’s about the readings. Then there’s the sermon.
In the church where I was brought up the beginning of the sermon was marked by the lights being switched off, other than on the pulpit – giving the perfect opportunity for the congregation to nod off to sleep! I’m very glad to say I’ve never seen that happen here!
In some ways the sermon should raise more questions for you than it gives answers. That would be good! Perhaps you could chat to someone over coffee and share a question you have, or one thing that has struck you? Or perhaps you’d like the opportunity to quiz the person who was preaching? In the coming weeks we’ll be offering an open invitation to anyone who’d like to have a chance for some feedback to bring your coffee back into church and spend a few minutes chatting about the Bible readings and the sermon.
There are all sorts of ways to engage with the Bible readings and the sermon. Perhaps you could make it your Lenten challenge to take the service booklet home with you and find a quiet moment through the coming week to reread the Bible readings.
So, having found Wally for this week and reflected on the readings and sermon, let me leave you with a question for today, as we continue with the Gospel reading:
What might God be saying to you, through the reading of his word, today?
February 15th: Sunday before Lent
What are we doing? Why are we doing it? It’s so easy for us just to go through the motions each Sunday. So over the next four Sundays we shall stop at different points in the service to have a look at what we are doing and why
Christians call what we are doing the Holy Communion, the Mass, the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper, each referring to different aspects. Holy Communion expresses our co-unity, our community with each other and with Christ; The Mass refers to our being sent out into the world – it’s just the Latin for being sent out; the Eucharist speaks of the way in which we give thanks for this great privilege; and the Last Supper to the sharing of bread and wine in remembrance of Our Lord’s last supper with his friends
Whatever we call it, it is a great wonder, and an extraordinary moment when heaven comes close and opens a doorway to our earthly existence; when, as we are promised, Jesus is present to us by the Holy Spirit; when we bring ourselves, our souls and bodies with all our imperfections into the presence of God.
To what other experience can we compare it? More than forty years ago Tessa and I were married. I can remember my feelings the day before of joyful yearning, of looking forward to the day and the years that would follow, but mixed with a touch of trepidation at what it would be like
Some years later I worked for a very senior civil servant. He was a Christian and someone whom I admired and respected both professionally and personally. I made a big mistake in some of my work which caused him real difficulty. I had to go and explain myself to him and I still remember the mix of feelings of anxiety, embarrassment and regret at what I had done. But in all of that I knew that I would be treated fairly and with love.
Perhaps these are some of the feelings that we come with to our time of worship on Sunday – perhaps others
And so we come on Sunday mornings to this place with all that has happened to us in the past week, the good and the difficult things; the busyness and the aloneness. This morning perhaps we woke early or late, or wondered whether to come; but we organised ourselves, our children and we came. We are here whether we know it or not because we are responding to a call, a call which is from the Holy Spirit of God to come together into the presence, the presence of God.
How do we prepare ourselves in the light of that call? How do we respond to that warning of St Paul in the letter to the Church in Corinth that those ‘who eat and drink the body of Christ unworthily, eat and drink judgment on themselves’?
Perhaps we might have time before we come to stop for a moment and say a word of prayer perhaps as simple as ‘thank you Lord, help me to be open to you, help me to be more loving to others’.
And when we have arrived and said hello and greeted friends – and perhaps sat down in a different place than usual and said hello to the person next to us – then perhaps we can remind ourselves what we are here for and pause for a moment until Mary rings the bell
The choir and the children and the clergy have gathered in the Lady Chapel, we have prayed and we wait in anticipation for those first notes. The hymn is the way in which we start our worship – it is a signal that we move into an hour which is different from normal. We come not just as individuals each with our own particular stories, strengths and weaknesses; we come together as a body, a community, a family with all our differences, but held together as the Body of Christ, the Church. We are Church and we are different from any other gathering. We are not a business, nor a charity; we are not a political party; we are not a pressure group. We are Church, held together by a sense that in Jesus we find the best way to live our lives and to offer hope to the wider world
Before the end of the hymn the priest censes the altar. Incense is an ancient biblical tradition, an essential part of the worship of God in the temple. Using incense is a way of saying that something or someone is being dedicated to God. So the altar which is the focal point of our worship, is censed and as the smoke rises we can imagine our prayers rising to God
After the hymn our first act is to acknowledge that we meet in the presence of God in the uniquely Christian way: God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We say
In the name of the Father,
and of the Son,
and of the Holy Spirit
And we can cross ourselves as a symbolic and emotional way of taking the name of God into our hearts. When we were baptised we were signed with the cross and so this can be a reminder of our baptism promises
And then we come to that most important moment – the greeting and response:
Grace, mercy, and peace
from God our Father
and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
And also with you
In the greeting we use the same words with which the earliest churches of the bible greeted each other. It is a way of saying that we want for each other the gifts of God: grace – unearned overflowing generosity of heart; mercy – unending compassion; and peace – not just the absence of conflict, but that sense of being at ease with ourselves and others.
And that leads us to the prayer of preparation which we say all together. There are different forms but the same intention to do what it says on the tin: to prepare ourselves – to put ourselves into the right frame of mind and to acknowledge that we are the creature, God is the Creator. Everything comes to us from God as an act of unearned generosity and we need that generosity to enable us to come into the presence of God
God of wonder and of joy:
grace comes from you,
and you alone are the source of life and love.
Without you, we cannot please you;
without your love, our deeds are worth nothing.
Send your Holy Spirit,
and pour into our hearts
that most excellent gift of love,
that we may worship you now
with thankful hearts
and serve you always with willing minds;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
It follows then that, realising that we are not fit for purpose – for coming into the presence of God with our dirty clothes – we must acknowledge this and ask for a new set of clothes, to be cleaned up by the washing machine of God’s love – to say sorry. So we do something which is an essential start to our worship – we say our confession together. It means that we throw into the machine the dirty clothes of all that has gone wrong in recent days – we acknowledge and confess that we have acted selfishly – sinfully – and say – and mean it – that we will seek to act differently in future. These are not just words, but a throwing of ourselves on the compassion of God’s love. It is those selfish sins which brought and still brings Jesus to the cross, our sins are not costless – they involve costs for others and pain for God. Jesus says Father forgive them – just as he did on the cross
And we can rely on the assurance that God gives us, that if when we confess we do really want to be forgiven, then we will be. The God of love will not hold back but wants to set us on the path from which we have strayed. And so the Church gives to the priest the authority to say just that. The absolution is the moment when we are reassured that we are back in the right relationships with God and with each other and we can move on in worship and in our lives. Again we might cross ourselves as a sign of that forgiveness that comes from the cross
And because we are forgiven and ready to move on in our lives, we thank God by singing the Gloria
Glory be to God on high; Glory to God in the highest
peace to his people, peace on earth.
And now we move on to hear the Scriptures, the story of God’s interaction with human beings through the centuries and down to today
February 8th: Second Sunday before Lent
Through just yesterday and today, there will have been about 400 individual people in this building
Yesterday morning at the homeless project there were about 70 guests and perhaps twenty team and other individuals. There was Adam who was so drunk that he fell asleep on the floor and only with the greatest difficulty could Serge his friend, a Russian, get him up and out; and Amelia an engineer with a doctorate in physics who leads the cooking team; there was John who wanted a shave and Pietro a young Italian lad who is part of the team; and – I could go on, Roxana, Aniko from Hungary, homeless young women surviving through the churches’ night shelters, foodbanks and the generosity of Christian and other people.
And in the afternoon a change of scene and more people in the service of prayer and dedication after the civil marriage of George and Hannah, led by Alex Barrow, a curate from Grimsby. There were about 140 guests at the service in great variety, including a French couple living in Luxemburg and just here for the weekend.
And then, this morning, there’s us lot, another 100 or so individuals in all our variety – and what a varied lot we are too in all our backgrounds, personalities and characters
Why am I telling you about all these people? Because I was struck by the first bible reading today which ends with this:
then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the human race.
The ‘I’ in the phrase is the Son of God whom we know as Jesus; and the ‘him’ is God the Father, together with the Holy Spirit at the beginning of all things, creating something to be rejoiced in, delighting in the human race in all its variety. God delights in these 400 people who have been yesterday and today here in this church and if God delights in them, how can we not?
It brought to mind that description of humanity by Shakespeare in Hamlet and which was put into a song in my younger days in the shock musical ‘Hair’:
“what a piece of work is man; how noble in reason; how infinite in faculties;
in form and moving how express and admirable; in action how like an angel;
in apprehension how like a god”
The creation story speak of people – us – as being created in the image and likeness of God; it means that we are capable, like God, of loving, creating, relating, forgiving. Capable certainly, but always falling away into unloving, destructive and unforgiving behaviours.
That is why we have needed, and continue to need, one who is the image of God; not like us part of creation, but one who is at one with the Creator, the one whom Paul in the second bible reading speaks of as ‘the image of the invisible God’; the one in whom ’the fullness of God was pleased to dwell’, the one through whom God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things by making peace through the blood of the cross’
This is the one we know as Jesus who shows us what God is really like because he is the one who was part with of God from the beginning, beside God like a master worker, the very image of God.
St John in the opening of his gospel that we heard this morning puts it into those famous words we associate with Christmas: ‘in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God’. The Word of God is the one we know as Jesus, the one who makes it possible to know what God is like by living, dying and rising in our midst, being present to us in bread and wine, responding to us in prayer.
At Christmas we celebrate the birth of Jesus, born as a human baby, surrounded by parents, shepherds, kings, Herod – all those individuals – the good and the bad in all their diversity, who make up the human race in whose creation God rejoiced and delighted. The risk for us is that in knowing Jesus as one of us, sharing our experiences, we lose sight of who he also is: Paul reminds us in that second bible reading:
‘Christ is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together’
It is this understanding that makes the crucifixion so utterly extraordinary; makes us see it in a new light; makes us astonished and humbled at the very notion that the one who is the master builder, who is the Word of God, who was with God at the beginning of all things, who is the very image of God, should die at the hands of those whom he has created and delighted in – us.
But it is also this understanding of the one we know as Jesus that helps us to understand how the resurrection is possible – not the bringing to life of a dead human body, but the impact of the loving and indestructible energy of the Creator bursting the constraints of the fallen human life.
And there’s one more thing in all this. This one we know as Jesus who is the master builder and the Word of God, is as Paul says:
‘the head of the body, the Church’.
We say that we, the Church, are the Body of Christ. Paul adds that the Head of that Body is Christ. The Church and the human race are not the same thing. The Church is there to do what its Head has done and is doing: to show to the world what God is like. And to do that we have to show the world what Jesus is like, because to know what Jesus is like is to know what God is like. That’s the pity of Stephen Fry’s recent outburst against a god who is not the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, but some strange fearsome entity who is the creation of his own mind.
The Church is not just another human organisation for all that we have all the faults and weaknesses of the human race. But our distinctiveness lies in the uniqueness of Christ who is the Head of the Church, the Word of God, the master builder, the very image of God.
We therefore are called to delight in the human race and rejoice in the created world; and to be glad that we have so many opportunities to demonstrate what Christ the Head of the Church is doing in the world that he delights in.
January 18th, 2015 2nd Sunday of Epiphany
John 1 v. 43-51
This Gospel finds Jesus collecting more disciples. But how different are their responses! To his ‘Follow me’, Philip responds immediately. Like any good disciple he becomes missionary and finds Nathaneal. He tells him, it seems with great enthusiasm, that they have found Jesus of Nazareth: he who is already known in the works written by Moses and the prophets. But Nathaneal is not at all sure. He voices his doubts: ‘Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?’ he asks it seems rather gloomily. Philip doesn’t try to persuade him by words or argument. Instead he says sensibly: ‘Come and see.’ There’s nothing like personal experience. One thing leads to another.
Nathanael had doubts that Philip’s news that they ‘had found Jesus about whom Moses and the prophets had written’ could be true. How could it when tradition and previous history had brought nothing good out of Nazareth? But even though he’s not persuaded, he does agree to accompany Philip and meet Jesus – who gives him rather a cheerful and complimentary greeting.
‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ (unlike his ancestor Jacob!)
Jesus’ words about Nathanael are very Jewish. When he says,
He has in mind Jacob of the Old Testament, who was very deceitful in getting what he wanted. He had tricked his brother Esau out of his birthright and out of his father’s blessing. He was the ultimate trickster.
But Nathanael is different. When Jesus tells him he saw him under the fig tree before Philip called him, Nathaneal is DEEPLY impressed and exclaims,
‘Master, you are the Son of God, the King of Israel.’ He gives him his full Messianic title.
But for Jesus it’s more than just the physical sight of Nathanael. The fig tree was a symbol of meditation and peace, also of working things out, where inner struggles could take place.
Under the roof of branches it would afford shade – a shelter of calm where you could wrestle with difficulties and with effort, resolve them.
So Nathanael, had doubts: not only in believing that nothing good could come out of Nazareth. Precisely what the doubts were, probably only Jesus knew: an inner spiritual struggle which he alone saw into the heart of.
Nathaneal’s ancestor Jacob, long ago had wrestled with God too, in close physical and mental combat. Now here was ANOTHER Israelite, cleansed of deceit and treachery whose doubtful state of mind Jesus knew. ‘While you were under the fig tree I knew your inner struggles and dilemmas.’
You can almost imagine Jesus’ giving Nathaneal a wry smile when he queries,
‘Was it because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree that you believed?’
This reminds us of Jesus’ appearance to Thomas after the resurrection: when he appears to him and invites him to touch his hands and his side, Thomas who had before told the other disciples that he would not believe unless he could do this, then exclaims: ‘My Lord and my God.’ There’s little difference between ‘My Lord and My God’ of Thomas and Nathaneal’s ‘Master you are the Son of God, the King of Israel!’
At different times scales fell from both pairs of eyes.
The reading today from Samuel also shows one who doubts. The boy Samuel doubts he should tell Eli the priest what God has revealed to him because it shows up Eli in a bad light. It takes Eli himself to persuade the boy, despite what he hears about himself being deeply troubling and unpleasant. No harm however comes to Samuel.
And once Nathanael meets Jesus, face to face, his doubts fall away.
Most people – in fact almost everyone has doubts, about all kinds of things but perhaps especially about faith, about God. How can we know? Well of course although we do know on one level, but we are not able to prove it: therein is the essence of faith. As St Paul puts it in his Letter to the Hebrews:
‘Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.’
It’s an inner truth, not something visible that anyone can check out.
Last week I went to Westminster Abbey to see the new memorial stone for the Christian writer, CS Lewis. Like many converts his memorial suggested he was very sure of his ground. Round the edge of it these words were engraved:
‘I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen. Not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else.’ Not many can speak with such certainty.
Remember that the devil uses everyone’s doubts as levers to prize us away from intentions of following the Lord. As with Nathaneal under the fig tree faith is a STRUGGLE. But as with Nathaneal the Lord is there and waiting to help us.
It is certainly tempting to give up on prayer – (dialogue with Jesus). But once you do this you may give up on hope too – although our Lord never gives up on us.He waits.
I remember once trying to explain to a priest that – really – what was the use of trying to pray and so on because the then, present situation was so bleak and so black. He replied,
‘Don’t give up – just DO it.’ He was right! And to add: never allow a bad mood to sway your intentions. On the other hand it’s possible to attend church every Sunday but neglect the living out of the Gospel week after week. In his Letter to Timothy St paul wrote: ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.’ This means struggling. If Nathaneal was amazed when Jesus told him that he knew him even before Philip had called him he must have been even more amazed when Our Lord told him that he would see ‘greater things still: the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’ What did he mean by this?’ In the Old Testament Jacob saw a ladder stretching from earth to Heaven and “the angels of God ascending and descending on it.” They carried the needs and prayers of men to the Lord “who stood above it” and returned with his blessing and judgement. Though God was far off, his messengers went to and fro. But now, “You shall see the heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” No ladder now: Jesus himself is the meeting point of human need and divine healing or blessing or judgement. ‘He ever liveth to make intercession for us.’
11th January 2015 Baptism of Christ
(and baptism at St Andrew’s of Rachel Harvey)
Beginnings and endings are always bound up together. The beginning of one thing is necessarily the ending of what went before. The ending of something in our lives requires something to take its place – a beginning. Our lives are largely the story of our ability – or not – to make an end and to make a beginning.
The gospel we heard today is all about beginnings: it is the beginning of Mark’s story of Jesus: he opens his story with the words: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” and in doing so he echoes the opening words of the bible itself from the book of Genesis: “in the beginning God created..”. And coming out of Christmas there is the lingering echo of John’s gospel: ‘in the beginning was the Word”.
What were the endings that gave way to these beginnings? For Genesis it was the ending of chaos or nothingness, giving way to the beginning of order and meaning.
For Mark his beginning was the bursting onto the human scene of Jesus, the new way in which God would make his presence felt. The ending was of the old world of the invisible and far away God giving way to the visible and very present Jesus.
We are in the season of epiphany – a season when we focus on endings and beginnings – the ending of the way in which we usually see the world; and the beginning of our ability to see the world in a new way. Last week, the three kings no longer seeing just a baby in a cradle – the ending of that way of seeing; and the beginning of seeing the baby as the king of the universe worthy of gifts of gold for a king, frankincense for a God and myrrh for resurrection.
This week, we have the baptism of Jesus by John: the ending of seeing Jesus as just another young man in the queue for baptism in the river Jordan; and the beginning of seeing him as the beloved of God: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Our lives are made up of endings and beginning, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously. It is the extent to which we are able to make a conscious decision to make a new beginning, that enables us to grow and flourish. If we cannot put an end to aspects of our lives, then we will not be able to take advantage of the new beginnings that are always available to us. If we cannot give up old habits or soured relationships, then we shall lose hope.
It is the virtues of faith, hope and love which draw us on to the future and encourage us to leave behind the failures and disappointments of the past. We are called by faith to look hopefully to a future where we act in and from love.
Sunday by Sunday we come here precisely to bring our endings and to look for new beginnings. At the start of our time together, we bring forward the things that have gone wrong in our lives – we repent, we say sorry. And we do so in the expectation that we will be forgiven and offered the opportunity for a new beginning. That is what forgiveness is and does. We are always invited to accept what is constantly on offer by God – the opportunity for a new future in matters small and great.
And when in a little while we are invited to come forward for a blessing or to receive the bread and wine, we are being offered an encounter with the one who embodies love and gives hope.
And today we encounter and share in one of most fundamental of endings and new beginnings, a baptism, the baptism of Rachel. Lincoln and Tereza with Rachel’s sisters, have this morning entrusted Rachel to us the Church, to bring her to an ending and a beginning.
Rachel has had her first beginnings as a human person at her conception and birth. Now she comes to a new birth. Her unbaptised life ends and her baptised life begins. Now she begins a new status, a newly arrived member of the Body of Christ, the Church.
Her parents and Godparents will be asked on her behalf, whether they turn away from – put an end to – the things of darkness; and whether they turn towards a new future, one with Christ through the companionship of the Holy Spirit.
In baptism we are accepting a standing invitation. It is the invitation which is always on offer, to have the Holy Spirit journey with us through our lives, bringing the gifts of imagination, encouragement, creativity and inspiration. This is the invitation which will be made and accepted this morning on Rachel’s behalf. It is irrevocable and is available to help us to make good endings and new beginnings through our lives.
New beginnings are occasions for joy and celebration. We celebrate this new beginning in Rachel’s life because we know that she is being given the best new start that any of us can have. It is a gift that will help her to be faithful, to be hopeful and to live a life of love for God, for other people and for herself.
As she receives this gift, so we are encouraged to recall our own baptism and to renew our commitment to put an end to those things which are preventing us from making a new beginning. And for those not yet baptised, know that the invitation from the Holy Spirit has long since been posted through the door of our lives
4th January 2015 Epiphany
Today we celebrate the story of the three kings coming to Jesus at Bethlehem, following a star.
Observant people will have noticed that they have not been in the crib, but have been far away on the window sill over in the south aisle. They have been travelling whilst we have been celebrating Christmas
And this morning we brought them in procession to the stable to bring their gifts to the Christ child
And in the gospel, we heard Matthew’s story of the three kings – more of that in a bit
And after the service there will be Epiphany cake for all to share and the person gets the piece with the nut in it, gets to be crowned king
Why all this fuss about one story? We don’t do the same thing for the shepherds so why for the kings. Why do we not only have Epiphany Sunday, but also a whole January month of Sundays after Epiphany, a month which includes – next Sunday – the baptism of Jesus and after that the miracle of the water turned into wine at the wedding in Cana in Galilee – surely a bit of an oddity to introduce events that happened when Jesus was thirty.
And anyway, why is it called Epiphany – a very obscure word that most of us would not use in a month of Sundays? If someone asked what is an epiphany, which of us could give a one sentence answer which would be meaningful to the man or woman on the street?
Lots of questions. What about some answers and anyway, does it matter to us today?
First the story which only Matthew gives us – none of the other gospels include it.
Wise men from the east come to Herod in Jerusalem. There’s nothing about there being three or about their being kings. In fact they are magi, astronomers of their time, scholarly and learned – but perhaps not necessarily men. They are not Jewish, but Gentiles, people of other religions but familiar with the Jewish bible, our Old Testament
They have been following a new star, which signified for them the birth of a king, the king of the Jews. Naturally they have come to the king’s palace, Herod’s palace, to find out about this king.
Herod, that old fox as John the Baptist called him, checks with the theologians what they have to say about a king and they confirm that the Messiah, the ruler of Israel, is to be born in Bethlehem as foretold by the prophet Micah
And so, as we know, Herod sends them on their way to find the birth place and to let him know so that he too can worship him – not very likely as we know from his subsequent actions in murdering the children. They are not fooled and go home a different way
The wise men follow the star which comes to rest over the stable and they bring their three gifts of gold – for a king, incense for a God and myrrh for anointing a dead body. And there is a human baby, but they see more than a baby and they worship him
It’s a story that we all know from many Christmas tellings and from the carols – ‘we three kings of Orient are’ and perhaps from TS Eliot’s poem ‘the journey of the magi’
It’s a compelling story which is part of what we have in common, an essential element of the Christmas story. Sometimes people spend much effort on trying to work out what was the star – was it a supernova or comet; or on where the wise men came from – Arabia. Iraq, even China; or their names – Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, what do they mean? All these, interesting though they are, miss the point and distract from the heart of the story
Because like everything in the bible, there is the story and then there is the meaning of the story for us in our own time and place. The bible stories are yes, about history, but they are also about here and now, our own times and places
What then if we unwrap the story of the wise men, the magi? Here is a line of thought for further reflection:
During the season of epiphany we have not only this story of the wise men, but also the story of Jesus’ baptism and the story of the water turned by Jesus into wine at the wedding in Cana. What is it that connects them, makes them stories with the same meaning?
Epiphany means the moment when by the grace of God we see something extraordinary in something ordinary: the creator of the world – extraordinary – in a human baby – ordinary; one baptism amongst many in a river – ordinary – revealing the one who is the beloved Son of God, extraordinary; the ordinary plain water of our lives becoming extraordinary rich wine as our lives can be.
These each point us to the way in which just beneath the surface of the ordinary, even rather dull material world, lies another layer, another reality, which can break through for us to see. It is the world of the spirit – of beauty, love, truth, loyalty, compassion, friendship and much more. It is the ordinary bread and wine which is so much more, so extraordinary, the body and blood, the life, of Jesus placed in our hands.
These are moments when we see a new reality, something more than we have been used to seeing. It might be about ourselves: we suddenly realise that we have been self centred when we had liked to think of ourselves as generous, or that we have allowed our troubles to make us into victims, or that we have deceived someone when we had been used to thinking of ourselves as basically honest.
Or it might be about someone else: someone we have taken for granted who we suddenly see as someone to whom we owe everything; someone whom we have thought of as of no account whose value we for the first time appreciate.
In the newsletter is a picture. It is of black and white spaces until you see it differently – when you see it as a traditional face of Jesus.
These are epiphanies, moments of revelation, light bulb moments when we see with the eyes of the heart. And when we do, nothing is the same again – we will always see ourselves or the other person differently. These are conversion moments when who we have been is permanently changed. That is what we seek as Christians – to allow ourselves to be converted by the Holy Spirit so that we see the world around us differently, to see it with the eyes of Jesus, the eyes of love.
That is what happened to the wise men. They came from afar to find a king, and found him not in finery but as an ordinary human child. The extraordinary in the ordinary changed their lives – they were converted by the experience and returned to their own countries seeing the world in a different light.
May our eyes be opened and our hearts converted to see in others the face of Jesus Christ, the extraordinary in the ordinary