A word from the vicar
The Third Sunday of Epiphany 24 Jan 2021
Today is the third Sunday of Epiphany. ‘Epiphany’ is a Greek word and means ‘a moment of revelation or realisation’, and I want to speak about that today.
A few months ago, when there was a particularly big roll over prize on the national lottery, I bought a ticket. Because of the stay-at-home order I bought it online and was required to set up an account. Of course, since then every week they remind me that I have an account, trying their best to tempt me back. This Thursday their temptation reached new heights as they paid £2.50 into this account so I could have a free flutter. So, I found myself using this free ‘top up’ to purchase a ticket on the Friday Euro millions draw – I received an e-mail this morning telling me I had won £4.70. None of this tempts me to start gambling with my own money.
It does though remind me of the time about 25 years ago, when I was staying overnight, with three priests in Liverpool. It was the early days of the National Lottery - remember those days when everyone thought it was only a matter of time before they would win. After tea we all sat down to watch television, waiting for the balls to be drawn out of one of the three randomly selected machines. If you remember, in the early days, they used to build a whole show around this. I wonder if anyone remembers Mystic Meg.
A strange thing happened though. Just as they prepared to release the balls, the three priests, in turn, all got up, excused themselves, and went to their bedrooms leaving me alone to watch the results. I wondered if they were demonstrating their disapproval of gambling through this act. In the morning I asked one of the fathers what had happened. He told me that each of them had bought a lottery ticket but none of the three would want to be there in the presence of the other two if one were to win. I had this image of two of the fathers waking up on Sunday morning to find that Father Jack had jetted off to the Bahamas leaving a note requesting that they cover his 10:30 Mass at St. Mary’s. As a young, rather naïve lay person, the fact that priests bought lottery tickets and dreamt of winning every week, just as I did, was something of a revelation to me. You might say it was an epiphany.
Life is full of such epiphany moments. I had one a couple of years later when I reflected on how deflated I would feel at 9pm on a Saturday night when my numbers had failed to be drawn out once again. The epiphany was the realisation that life was hard enough without setting myself up to be fail every Saturday night. I also realised that the odds of me winning the jackpot must have been similar to those of me being struck with lightning (actually, I am five times more likely to be struck by lightning) or run over by a bus. Further research told me: I would have been 500 times more likely to date a supermodel, twice as likely to be made a saint by the Pope on my death, 4000 times more likely to win an Oscar and sixty-four times more likely to be crushed by a meteor. Was I tempting fate? Hadn’t God blessed me enough. That was a moment of grace in my life.
I remember then acknowledging to myself that I had in fact already won a lottery in so many other ways. I had an abundance of riches freely given to me that others could not even dream of – being born in a rich, peaceful and stable country, receiving a free education, having loving parents and good health. That second epiphany was a recognition that I had already been given so much more than I could ever deserve. I had been granted an abundance through the grace of God. It wasn’t something I’d earned or deserved. Another moment of grace.
John’s gospel links the presence of Jesus with abundance. It invites us to recognise God at work in the world. Today we heard the story of Jesus’ first miracle where he produces an abundance of wine. Later in John we hear how Jesus causes the nets of the fishing disciples to be so full that they could hardly pull them back into the boats: an abundance of fish. And in that famous phrase from John, chapter 10 verse 10, Jesus says that he has come so that people might have life and have it in abundance.
The presence of Jesus, of God, in our lives can be summed up in the phrase at the start of John’s Gospel, ‘From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.’ In this season of Epiphany, we are being invited to recognise the times in our life when we have received grace upon grace. Do we recognise those epiphany moments when we see the abundant blessing of God on our lives? Do they move us, change us?
I am of course not suggesting that we ignore the real difficulties each of us faces. Neither am I glibly implying that we should simply count our blessings. We should rather look out for the moments of realisation, those mini-epiphanies, which reorientate us to the source of our being. We should be on the lookout for those signs which put our lives back in focus.
So much around us merely reminds us of what we lack. Magazines, television and the internet present us so often with what could have been. They have the potential to blur our understanding of own God-given beauty and the recognition of our abundant blessings. As followers of Jesus, we have another way clearly set out before us. Mary, in today’s gospel reading tells the stewards to ‘Do whatever he tells you’. She had faith that somehow, in some way, Jesus had the answer. So let us pray for the grace to have the faith to ‘do as he tells us’ in those epiphany moments of our lives. Then we will experience the grace upon grace that has always been there.
The Baptism of Jesus 10th Jan 2021
The reading we use from Luke at each baptism in our churches also has the line found in today’s reading from Mark, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ (it is also found in Matthew’s account).
I always comment to the parents of the child being baptised, that God is saying the same thing at that very moment concerning their child (this is my son/daughter with you I am well pleased). I don’t say it just to make them feel good. Nevertheless, it usually raises a smile especially when the child in question is wriggling in their arms or crying at full throttle.
I say it because I believe it to be true. In fact, I believe that God is well pleased with each one of us. How could God not be? We are made in God’s image! We are each a good and essential part of God’s creation. That is not to ignore the fact that, at times, each one of us fails to live up to our God given potential. We all stray from the path God invites us to follow.
I have the image in my mind’s eye of a beautiful well-made mid-range family car being driven mercilessly ‘off road’ or being used to keep chickens in. The car is still the car it was made to be but unless a change is made it will either end up with ruined suspension or badly damaged upholstery and internal trim. In the long term it will cease to be the car it was made to be. And that is where repentance comes in.
Repentance is the recognition that we are going in the wrong direction in our lives or not using our gifts as God intended. That is sin. This Sunday we commemorate the Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. It is, as we read, the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. What sins did Jesus have to repent of? Was he in fact just humouring John?
Well, we may never know the full story this side of eternity. What we are told is that Jesus had been tempted to ‘drive off road’ when he was in the desert -to become a worldly King with power and wealth and to show off his God given power in hedonist pursuits. Perhaps he comes to John with that fresh in his mind. As an adult, Jesus was in a position to promise to live his life the way God intended. Living a life of loving service and self-sacrifice. A life committed to seeking justice and righteousness for all people.
Let us then join Jesus today as we recommit ourselves to God. Let’s get ourselves off the gravel and back onto the beautiful tarmac of God’s road. Let’s chase out the chickens which peck away at us, open the windows and let God’s Spirit refresh us.
22 November 2020 - Christ The King Sunday
Someone once asked me, in a very polite way I should add, ‘What’s the deal with Christ the King Sunday?’ I think what they wanted to know was: why do we mark this day once a year when we believe Christ to be our King every day of the year. I can’t remember whether or not I gave a useful answer at the time. Upon reflection though, I’d have to say that we mark ‘Christ The King Sunday’ as one day in the year when we can take stock. It’s a day when we reaffirm that God’s Empire includes kingdoms (not just governments, but also laws, customs, businesses etc.) which do not ‘thirst for righteousness’ and that our task is to continually strive to address this situation. It’s a day, at the end of the Church year, when we can take an audit of our past corporate and individual efforts to bring about God’s Kingdom and then look forward to what we are being called to do in the coming year.
In the Lord’s Prayer we pray ‘Thy Kingdom Come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven’. Jesus describes Heaven to us in the beatitudes. Heaven on earth would be a world where peace reigns, where we all mourn injustice and then fight it, where mercy is given and received, a world where there are no hidden agendas and power struggles, a world where everyone seeks righteousness. Then we will experience Heaven here on earth.
In today’s Gospel reading, such heavenly attitudes (blessed attitudes=beatitudes) are described by Jesus for the people of his time. If we were to translate these into 2020/1 it might be feeding the hungry (supporting foodbanks), welcoming and helping the vulnerable and those without family and friends to help them, enabling people to live with dignity through support of a robust welfare state, fair wages and decent pensions (clothing the naked according to Jesus), protecting and supporting our NHS and Care sector and doing whatever we can to combat the imprisonment of loneliness and isolation. I’m sure you could add your own examples to my short list. What we can do will be different for each of us.
Of course, as we take stock of our performance over the last year, it’s quite possible we will be harsh on ourselves as we see that there’s so much we didn’t do that perhaps we could have done. From donating money, through giving our time and through speaking out for justice. We might consider ourselves to be firmly on the left in this parable, a goat and not a sheep.
Jesus, to make his point, makes a clear distinction between those who answer the call of those in need and those who don’t. The sheep answer the call and belong to the shepherd while the goats are aware of what they could do and choose to do nothing. In reality most of us are goats struggling to be sheep or, putting it more positively, ‘would be’ sheep who just can’t maintain the effort or keep enough focus and therefore tend to goatishness. Perhaps we are sheepish goats.
If we look at how we did in the last year, we will probably grade ourselves somewhere in the middle, as my English teacher used to write on my essays ‘B-, could do better’. Or even ‘Try Harder’.
Finally, we can see God’s Kingdom all around us. It is not something separate existing in parallel to earthly kingdoms, no, it encompasses these Kingdoms. We are all part of God’s Kingdom. As the song goes ‘He’s got the whole world in his hands’. Our role as people of faith is to bring forth more and more of the reality of this Heavenly Kingdom. We get snapshots of God’s Kingdom when we see acts of kindness, compassion, selfless giving, forgiveness and mercy – these acts are like the particles of dust which show us sunbeams. The Kingdom, like the sunbeam, is always there - we just don’t always see it.
As we look forward to Advent, and commemorate the event which saw God coming down to earth to live among us 2000 years ago, let’s reaffirm our commitment to making God’s love something real and tangible that is shared among all people in 2021. Amen
28th June 2020
In today’s readings we hear both St. Paul and Jesus speaking of righteousness. What is a righteous person like? Have we ever met one? Are we one ourselves?
I remember as a child at Roman Catholic primary school that the parish priest’s garden had a gate leading into the schoolyard. As we played in the yard, we often chatted to him over this gate. I remember one day saying to him that it must be great knowing that you're definitely going to heaven. He asked me to explain what I meant by that and I remember telling him that all priests would go straight to heaven; they wouldn't even have to pass through Purgatory. Purgatory for Roman Catholics is the place where you wait in order to get to heaven, the more you sin in your life the longer you spend in Purgatory. I remember the priest smiling and saying well it wasn't as simple as that. I thought that he was being unduly humble, because to my young mind he was the very definition of a truly righteous person.
Another person I thought of as being righteous was my grandmother. I remember spending a lot of time with my grandmother as she became more and more housebound. I knew her as a woman of deep faith. She prayed the rosary daily, went to mass as often as she was able, had been president of the Mothers’ Union, she sang in the church choir, organised pilgrimages to Walsingham and Lourdes, and had raised five relatively well-adjusted children.
However, my grandmother was always rather hesitant about assuming that she would get to heaven, saying that she hoped God would have a place for her but she wasn’t sure. Again, as with the priest, I just couldn't understand this because, to me, here was a truly righteous person who could never have displeased God.
Of course, now as an adult, I realise that both my parish priest and my grandmother were very aware of their own faults and failings in a way that I could never appreciate as a child and young adult. They didn't see themselves as righteous.
But what are these standards of righteousness we are trying to live up to?
The problem with the reading we had from Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans is that we could be tempted to think there is a clear choice between a life characterised by sin and a life characterised by saintliness or righteousness. We are either slaves of sin or we are enslaved to God and therefore sanctified. We are made saints. And if we are sanctified then, as Paul tells us, the end is indeed eternal life, our just reward.
The language that Paul uses would have been very understandable to the people of his day. The people of Israel had once been enslaved in Egypt, but with God’s grace, they passed through the waters of the Red Sea and were brought to the Promised Land. But we know that once they had escaped from Egypt they didn't change their ways. They still complained, they still fought with one another, they still occasionally worshipped other gods and even suggested that perhaps life would have been better had their remained in Egypt as slaves rather than wandering through the desert for what turned out to be 40 years.
Paul is suggesting to the adults that had been baptised in Rome, (generally only adults were baptised in the early church), that through their own baptism they have passed through the baptismal waters similar to the Red Sea, from slavery to a new promised land.
However, just like the people of Israel their liberation didn’t magically make them perfect; what had changed though is the general direction of their lives. As they struggled to follow the one true God, we too struggle to follow where God leads us.
Nevertheless, they eventually reached the promised land. I believe Paul is suggesting here to the church in Rome, and to us today, that through our baptism and through our continued membership of the Christian church, we have been and continue to be liberated from what he would call a life of sin, a life not directed towards God. Turning away from sin and facing God is a change of direction. And it is that willingness to change direction that is righteousness.
Living a righteous life is not to live a life that is faultless and without sin. For Paul, righteousness is a desire to follow God, a willingness to pick ourselves up when we fail, a willingness to accept that we are all human and made in the image of God. He is not asking the members of the church in Rome to be perfect, he is asking them to re-orientate themselves away from a life characterised by sin, and towards a life characterised by love of God and neighbour.
And we will be rewarded for living a life orientated towards obeying God’s law. It is the Christian hope that our reward will be eternal life in Heaven. We just have to have the humility to accept that God exercises justice in a way that we can't understand. You might remember the parable of the workers in the garden, where the people that come late in the afternoon to work are paid the same as the people who have been working all day. We are not expected to understand how God calculates the wages at the end of the day. Instead we are asked to accept this free gift as a reward for following God by loving and serving neighbour.
The theme of reward is taken up in the Gospel reading we heard today. Jesus tells his disciples that God will reward a simple act of kindness such as giving a cup of cold water to a neighbour. The kindness we offer our neighbour is kindness to God. Following God, Jesus tells us, is not characterised by strict obedience to a complex set of rules and regulations. Neither is it characterised by sweeping actions which have a global impact; few of us are in a position to do much about world poverty and social injustice for example. All that Jesus asks of us is that we do what we can, we offer a cup of cold water, we give a tin of beans to the food bank, we offer a smile and a kind word to someone who is troubled, we welcome the stranger in our midst, we are quick to forgive when wronged.
We are invited to walk in the same direction as God, to have the humility to accept that God is big enough to deal with our faults, and our failings to offer simple acts of justice and love towards others. There’s a hymn that some of you might know, based on passage from the prophet Micah which sums it up very well:
“ This is what Yahweh asks of you, only this, to act justly, love tenderly and to walk humbly with your God". And that is my prayer for each one of us here today, that we act justly and walk humbly with God. None of us, not even priests and Grandmothers are perfect. And that’s OK.
14th June 2020: Music Sunday
Plumbing for Jesus
A few days ago, I was tasked with fixing the hot water tap in our bathroom sink. Plumbing jobs always strike me with fear and foreboding. Nevertheless, bravely armed with a multi-head screwdriver, adjustable spanner, and a new tap ‘inside thingy’, I succeeded in pretty quick time to resolve the matter and the family were able to get on with their morning ablutions. This quick success isn’t always the case, last time I tried to fix a faulty part on a toilet cistern we ended up having to buy a new bathroom suite and redecorate the bathroom.
I always gain a great sense of satisfaction when I actually succeed in fixing something – another recent highlight, during lockdown, was replacing the failing hard disk drive on my laptop with a solid state one . Mercifully, it still works and is a task much more in my comfort zone than plumbing.
Frustratingly however, God constantly calls us to move out of our comfort zones. As the saying goes ‘A ship in harbour is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.’ And this leads me on to Matthew’s Gospel…
The Kingdom of God has come near
Sometimes, our work as disciples of Jesus has more in common with my plumbing exploits than we would like to think. The task Jesus sets out in today’s Gospel seems clear; ‘Proclaim the good news that the Kingdom of heaven is near’. We have some tools to get the job done (our words and actions) but we might feel they are insufficient. Also, I suspect, our levels of enthusiasm and sense of foreboding might be similar to the twelve disciples as they are sent out by Jesus. Of course, Jesus knows that there will be times when it just all goes horribly wrong, despite our best intentions and efforts- and we need to shake the dust off our feet and move on.
The job those twelve were given must have required real faith to accept – no small task to cast out unclean spirits, cure every disease and raise the dead. They are given a ministry of healing and helping which IS the Good News.
One writer reflects
‘When the disciples are sent out by Jesus their message that the kingdom has come near is inextricably interwoven with this ministry of healing and helping, just as Jesus' own identity is revealed as much by his compassion as it is by his power or his words. Even if we do not raise the dead or cast out demons, we do have the power to act in ways that make the compassion of Christ known in the world, so that when we then talk of the kingdom it sounds like good news’.
Sent out two by two
The naming of the disciples in six pairs suggests that they were sent out in pairs. This reminds us that ‘where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them’. Bringing the good news of Jesus is not supposed to be a solitary task for any of us, it is best done in the company of other believers. And finally, we are commissioned to become one with our communities, not to operate in isolation. This will be one of our challenges as we emerge from lockdown.
6th June 2020
I trust this finds you and your loved ones well. This Sunday is Trinity Sunday and I have included a reflection below which I hope you’ll find helpful.
A day at the seaside
Sixteen hundred years ago, St. Augustine of Hippo was walking along the beach when he saw a child carrying water in a seashell and pouring it into a hole in the sand. He asked her what she was doing, and she told him that she was going to put all the sea into this hole. Augustine smiled at her childlike understanding of the world. As he walked away though something began to nag at him. He had written books about God, tried to define what God was and how God worked, however he realised that his attempt to confine the infinite God into the human brain was just the same as the child’s attempts to transport the sea into her hole using a seashell. What he understood of God was no more than a shell-full of seawater. What he still didn’t understand about the depth of God’s being was as great as the sea.
On this Trinity Sunday, we could spend ages trying to define God the way St Augustine tried before he came to his senses. We could struggle to understand how one God is made up of three persons. But where would it get us? Wouldn’t it be a little like promising children a seaside experience and then sitting them down to read about it in a book or looking at a live webcam of Bridlington south beach? Surely letting them get sand between their toes and feel the waves lap at their feet is better! In a similar fashion, the best thing to do is to reflect on the experience of God rather than the theory of God and that is what St. Paul does in first of today's readings.
Grace, love and unity
Paul ends his letter to the Christian community in Corinth with words that have become very familiar to us. He says, ‘The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.’
It is this trinity, the trinity of grace, love, and fellowship that I want to explore. I want to talk about the grace of Jesus, the love of God the Father and the gift of fellowship or community that the Holy Spirit creates.
Grace - When we talk about the experience of the grace of Jesus I find it helpful to think about people I know who seem to reflect something of the grace of the Jesus I read about in the Bible. I guess that most of us know someone like this, we might even be such a person. The person who is always patient and kind, who does not engage in gossip or speak ill of others, the person who is forgiving and long suffering, the kind of person who seems comfortable in their own skin, at ease with their own faults and failings, not out to impress anyone– the kind of person many of us would want to be like. It’s the kind of person I wake up every morning and try to be- with varying degrees of success.
Love - And what about the love of God? Well we hear throughout the Bible that God loves us as a parent, as a father and as a mother. God wants the best for us, God is infinitely patient and forgiving. God is the Shepherd who will leave 99 sheep to go and look for the one sheep that is lost and return it to the fold. God is the parent who celebrates the return of a wayward and wasteful child. This is the God that we are invited to form a relationship with, not some detached judgemental father figure but a mother who hides her chicks under her wings. God loves us for who we are, warts and all.
Unity - And finally, God’s Spirit is the glue that holds us together in community, and fellowship. It is the driving force that sends us out into the world just like those apostles on the first Pentecost. Paul sees the need to express our love for each other as brother and sister in practical ways. The need to look our neighbour in the eye and say ‘peace be with you’ and really mean it. How do we offer peace to our neighbour? Perhaps it begins with remembering that we are all Children of God. With acknowledging that we are all struggling to come to terms with ourselves and the world. And it begins with accepting that our love for ourselves and our neighbour should be as unconditional as God’s love for us.
Go and make disciples of all nations
In today’s Gospel Jesus gives the disciples a job. He commissions them to go and make disciples of all nations ‘in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’. We might be tempted to think this is the job of priests, members of the Church Army and people who have been licensed. We might think it is about just converting people to Christianity. However, as disciples, each of us through our baptism has a share in a wider task. It is a task of demonstrating to a sceptical but needy world, the Grace of Jesus, the unconditional love of God and the community of the Holy Spirit which binds each human being together on this planet with the whole of God’s creation.
And finally, a prayer for these difficult times …Keep us, good Lord, under the shadow of your mercy in this time of uncertainty and distress. Sustain and support the anxious and fearful and lift up all who are brought low; that we may rejoice in your comfort knowing that nothing can separate us from your love in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
Sunday’s Readings Trinity Sunday
Isaiah 40.12-17,27-end; 2 Corinthians 13.11-end; Psalm 8; Matthew 28.16-20
31th May - Pentecost
<span style="font-size: 1rem;">We are so used to considering Pentecost as the day when the Holy Spirit came down on the disciples and the church as we know it was born, that we can lose sight of the fact that it was a Jewish festival long before it became a Christian one. The first line of the reading from Acts reminds us of this.</span>
Pentecost was the Greek name for the Jewish ‘Feast of Harvest’. (Remember ‘Acts’ was written in Greek). It was the celebration of the beginning of the early weeks of harvest. In Palestine there were two harvests each year. The early harvest came during the months of May and June; the final harvest came in the Autumn. Pentecost was the celebration of the beginning of the early wheat harvest, which meant that Pentecost always fell sometime during the middle of the month of May or sometimes in early June.
There were several festivals, celebrations, or observances that took place before Pentecost. Another marked the beginning of the barley harvest and was called ‘First fruits’ and Pentecost was always 50 days after ‘First fruits’. It’s a reminder, that our faith has roots which go back to the beginning of human consciousness.
‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you’
The account of the coming of the Holy Spirit onto the disciples is expressed in two different ways. In the book of Acts, it is through a wind and tongues of fire, which occurs after Jesus has returned to the Father. In the Gospel of John, it occurs before Jesus leaves them. The risen Jesus breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’. It is in John’s account where Jesus gives his disciples (and therefore us) a ‘great commission’. We are to be sent out into the world as the Jesus was sent into the world. We are to be Jesus to all those we meet.
‘Peace be with you’
Jesus says ‘Peace be with you’ twice in this passage. We long for peace and it is something we often pray for. But this peace is the Hebrew, ‘shalom’. As one writer put it ‘It is not peace in the political or economic sense’. We only have to look at the lives, and sometimes untimely deaths, of the disciples to recognise that. The peace that Jesus wishes his disciples is a ‘peace of forgiveness and wholeness’. It is the peace we attain when we stop trying to control and take on a servant nature. It is the peace of Christ who washes his disciples’ feet.
Our current experience with Covid-19 has highlighted the value of this servant posture more than ever. We see true service in our key workers as they serve through performing their jobs with commitment and diligence in the most difficult and dangerous of circumstances. We offer service when we ring a neighbour or someone we know to be isolated and vulnerable. We serve by not flocking to the seaside on a sunny day.
‘Breath on me breath of God’
In the Gospel passage the disciples receive the Holy Spirit through Jesus breathing over them. This reminds of the breath of God that moved over the waters at the creation. Both bring forth new life. The disciples are emboldened and go out into the world to love and serve as Jesus did. They go out to bring people in. In this sense we are back where we started. Pentecost as a festival of harvest, God’s harvest.
17 May 2020
Back to work?
You may or may not know that clergy were asked by the two Archbishops not to enter their churches once the lockdown had begun. It was meant as an act of solidarity with people who were forced to work from home. As a result, services could only be streamed over the internet (or in my case recorded) at home. Many of us mourned the fact that we couldn’t conduct services in church and the vicar’s study seemed a very poor substitute.
That request has now been lifted and we are allowed back into church buildings. But it’s not the same without other people and I find myself preferring to continue recording in the vicarage and sending out this weekly reflection in place of a sermon.
It has been a pointed reminder to me that ‘Church’ is not a building, it is movement of people. Church cannot exist without people following Jesus together, and trying to live and love as he did.
I know that many of us have found new ways to keep in contact with one another as well as our wider group of family and friends. We use our phone more and I now know what ‘Zoom’ is. Neighbours are talking to neighbours more than they ever did, we are shopping for members of our communities who are in isolation, and generally keeping an eye out for each other. (A few nights ago, my neighbour chased away some likely lads who had jumped over the vicarage wall and were in the process of trying the doors of my car, I don’t know what they expected to find in an eight year old Nissan Micra, but I’m guessing they were disappointed!)
The greatest commandment - love God, love neighbour
I have found myself of late talking more and more about how Christians love. How their love of God is made real through loving acts of service. I’ve spoken about how Christian love is not a warm fuzzy feeling (not at all the same as what we might term ‘romantic love’). Christian love is an action.
When asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus said
‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two. Matthew 22:36-40
Perhaps we have ‘bigged’ up the word ‘love’ so much that we sometimes have difficulty in accepting that our own actions and the actions of others are in fact love in action. We might not be the kind of person who is comfortable with expressing our actions as love. Whether or not we are able to conjure up warm and positive feelings toward someone we serve is unimportant if our actions are based on service – to our community and ultimately in the end to our own benefit. The world doesn’t always see that, but Jesus tells us his followers will.
What is love?
A neighbour protecting my property, an adult child buying their parents an ‘Alexa’ so they can share family moments, neighbours asking someone who is isolated if they need something from the shops, phoning an old friend out of the blue, listening to someone without feeling the need to offload our own messiness, sending the vicar some stamps to help with the weekly post (thank you!) - are all authentic expressions of love. They encapsulate the ‘spirit of truth’ that Jesus speaks of to his disciples.
As one writer put it, ‘True life springs from love, given, received and communicated.’
Many of you will have seen the 2003 film ‘Love Actually’. (If you have not, I recommend it). While I recognise that it may not be a cinematic milestone or have any particularly outstanding artistic merit, I think it manages to sum up quite well what love is. Life is difficult to varying levels and at different times in the experience of each one of us, and we need the love of others to carry us through.
One of my favourite books on wellbeing, begins with these words;
Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. (Scott Peck; ‘The Road Less Travelled’)
God loves though us: we cannot separate love of God and love of neighbour. Jesus promised to send the Spirit of truth to his disciples, recognising that life is indeed difficult, and we cannot manage to live as Christians along and without support.
10 May 2020
This Sunday’s Gospel Reading: John Chapter 14 vs 1-14
• In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places
The first half of Sunday’s Gospel is often read at funeral services as it is where Jesus promises that he goes ahead of us to prepare a way for us. He also tells his disciples ‘In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places’. This I take to mean that God is a God for all people, and we should trust in the divine even though we might remain unsure about what exactly lies ahead of us in life and ultimately in death. I find this hopeful. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu said: ‘We may be surprised at the people we find in heaven. God has a soft spot for sinners. His standards are quite low.’
• No one comes to the Father except through me.
Thank goodness for Thomas, he has a habit of asking the questions which you and I might want to ask. Often known as ‘doubting Thomas’, we could just as well call him ‘honest Thomas’. He questioned Jesus when Jesus said, ‘And you know the way to the place I am going’. Thomas said ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’
Jesus replies with those often-quoted words ‘I am the way, and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’ It is the second sentence of that quote which has been at the heart of so much human conflict and allowed manipulative Governments (sometimes with the cooperation of the Church) to convince their citizens that God was on their side as they waged war. It also given as a pretext for people to be ‘converted’ to a particular brand of Christianity against their will and even burnt at the stake. Of course, we misunderstand and abuse that statement when we take it out of context and attempt to use it for our personal and tribal aggrandisement.
Whoever has seen me has seen the Father
Thank goodness for Philip, asking Jesus to show him the Father; Jesus tells him, ‘Whoever has seen me has seen the Father’. This reminds us of the context. As we read about Jesus, hear his teaching and see how he loves, we are given a model of how to live a fully human and fully divine life. To live and love like Jesus should be the aspiration of everyone who calls themselves a Christian. That is how we come to know the Father, the Source of Our Being.
Nothing in the life of Jesus tells me to oppress, to take up arms, to condemn or exclude others. Jesus gives us a model of acceptance, of forgiveness, of someone who embraces difference, of unconditional love and service. When we are willing to accept this as the truth, as the way to live our life then we will have found the place that Jesus has prepared for us – in this life and beyond. God will dwell in us and we will dwell in God.
If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.
I am resisting the temptation, as I write, to use a bible commentary or even Google to find a nice tidy explanation of this sentence. On the face of it, it so clearly fails to describe the reality of being a person of faith. My heart tells me that once we have fully accepted living a life based on the teaching of Jesus we will somehow be conditioned only to ask for those things that build God’s Kingdom here on earth. And yet, we ask for an end to poverty, to war, we ask for healing for others… and nothing appears to happen. Nevertheless, we know people are working to bring about peace, working to find cures for cancer and Covid-19, working to staff foodbanks and shop for isolated neighbours. God is at work in our world and we are invited to join in. When we do it, the God that dwells within us is at work. If we ask for something from a ‘Jesus’ perspective then God will answer as we become people of action - as we volunteer, donate, support and love.
And finally, a prayer for these difficult times …Keep us, good Lord, under the shadow of your mercy in this time of uncertainty and distress. Sustain and support the anxious and fearful and lift up all who are brought low; that we may rejoice in your comfort knowing that nothing can separate us from your love in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
Sunday’s Readings 5th Sunday of Easter
Genesis 8. 1-9; Acts 7. 55-end; Psalm 31; John 14.1-14
30 April 2020
I would like this week, to reflect on the Gospel reading, where Jesus uses several sheep and shepherd related analogies.
All we like sheep have gone astray (Isaiah 53.6)
There was a time when I used to mishear this phrase which appears in Handel’s Messiah as ‘Are we like sheep?’ It never seemed strange to me to think of myself as a sheep. As a child growing up in a traditional Catholic Church setting, we were indeed encouraged to compare ourselves with sheep recognising Jesus as the ‘Good Shepherd’. Many Christians now recognise that this metaphor can be dangerously misunderstood. Sheep, rightly or wrongly, are characterised as simple-minded creatures who are easily led without the need to think. None of us, I imagine, wants to be labelled with that tag.
But we can all slip into this mindset inadvertently. The other week I e-mailed the following reflection on Luke 12, ‘people who are connected to the God in some way do not need to steer their own life and agenda. They know that it is being done for them in a much better way than they ever could’. Quite rightly, more than one person questioned this as it seemed to jar with the general thrust of what they heard in Church. We are not passive sheep, neither are we merely passengers on the Jesus bus.
In response I expanded on what I had written. I believe that if you are 'connected' with God then action will come out of your contemplation and prayer. If we are reflective people, then the hope is that we will put our own agenda aside and do what is right, rather than what is expedient or most beneficial to us personally.
The sheep follow him because they know his voice -John 10.4
So, though such activities as prayer and contemplation of scripture, we hear the call of Jesus and because we recognise it as life giving, we may choose to follow.
In Sunday’s Gospel reading, Jesus tells his disciples ‘I came that they might have life and have it abundantly’. What an extraordinary promise. Many people have done their best to expand on what life in abundance might be. For some, it could mean that following Jesus will bring material rewards, uninterrupted happiness and copious blessings – this understanding is bound to bring disappointment for the majority of us and can be a reason given for ‘giving up on God’.
For me, an abundant life relates to living life and living it well through the highs, the lows and the plateaus. Following Jesus, for me, is not some way of escaping the difficult moments in life. Following Jesus is about facing life head on as Jesus did- with hope, with care and with love for others.
Hearing ‘the call’- a chosen people
Following God, being a ‘chosen’ people, like the Israelites in the desert, and people of faith today can be both exhausting, confusing and demoralizing at times. As Tevye (the father) sings to God in ‘Fiddler on the roof
I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can't You choose someone else?
And that leads me to the another point I would like to explore – that only those who follow Jesus are saved or ‘chosen’. We don’t have a monopoly on that notion, as the above quote indicates. Jesus tells us as much in a few verses after this Sunday’s reading ends when he tells his disciples:
‘I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd’ John 10:16
As the children’s song goes, ‘Our God is a great big God’
From Old Testament times through to the time of the early church and the 20th Century, humans have attempted to define who God calls. We are the chosen people, you are not. It has led to inquisitions, some of the worst excesses of colonisation, prejudice, exclusion and wars. As soon as we try and ‘define’ God we diminish God in our own minds.
The invitation of Jesus is to hear the call of God. God’s word, we are told, is life giving and life enhancing.
‘...Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint’. Isaiah 40:31
I am the gate John 10.9
Many of us today feel as if we live on a threshold of faith, tentative about commitment because we are too full of questions or unease about what we may be getting ourselves into. In this verse, Jesus implies that, far from being a constricting route to a place where we have to surrender our integrity, to follow him means to ‘come in and go out and find pasture’. He opens up the way to a place of safety and rest, a sheepfold, where in all our confused hustle and bustle, it is the presence of the shepherd that reassures and makes life worthy of our trust. He has not come to close down the complexity of living but to enrich it and make it abundant.
23 April 2020
I hope this finds you and your loved ones well. As you read this, we will be starting the second week of the renewed three-week period of lockdown. Thank God there is some tentative news that all this social isolation and lockdown is paying off. It is perhaps worth noting that Sunday 26th April marks the 66th anniversary of the start of trials for the polio vaccine. This week, I want to focus on how we experience faith in our homes as that is where we are spending most if not all of our time.
Tea with Jesus
Our Gospel reading for this Sunday is one of my all-time favourites. It describes how two disciples are joined by the risen Jesus as they walk to Emmaus. They do not recognise Jesus until he breaks bread with them in their own home. As the realisation of who has been walking and talking with them all day suddenly dawns on them, Jesus disappears. It is in sitting down to an ordinary meal that they encounter the divine.
During these unusual days, where churches and other places of worship are closed, we have lost most of the objects, actions, sounds and sights which have traditionally been there to make us more aware of the presence of God. When I was a boy, we were taught that the church was God’s house, and therefore a special place where we could encounter the divine. As I grew older and came across more liberal and imaginative priests and teachers, I was encouraged to look for signs of God outside of the church in the world around us, where we ‘live, move and have our being.’
God is not far from any of us
From the earliest days, Christians recognised that God cannot be contained within a building. In the book of Acts, which describes the activities of what we now call the ‘early church’, St. Paul tells the people of Athens:
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands… [He] made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being’.
Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill.”
The so called ‘early church’ was quite different from the religious organisations we see today…no buildings, no churchwardens, no vicars! The earliest followers of ‘The Way’ (Christians) met in one another’s homes to pray and read the letters of teachers such as St. Paul which were passed from home to home.
This was the great encouragement of Paul to the Athenians, that the one true God could be experienced anywhere since all creation was filled with the wonder of God. Early Christians discussed their faith in their homes, in the marketplace and at work. Faith was not some private matter which was separate from their lives – it was their life. By that, I do not mean that they spent the whole day trying to bring ‘God talk’ into the ordinary humdrumness of their everyday life. Quite the contrary, they recognised the very humdrumness as the arena for their faith: where they lived out their faith, where they found God.
Back to basics?
Two thousand years later, with some exceptions, we have as an institutional Church rather drifted away from this early understanding of where we meet God. Now, however, is perhaps a new opportunity to experience again living out our faith outside of the temple.
• Last week, I spoke of how we were in fact offering a song of praise as we clapped our key workers – as eloquent as any psalm.
• A note of thanks and encouragement on the dustbin or letter box may be appreciated in the same way as Paul’s letter of thanks to the Philippians who were helping him during his confinement.
• ‘Breaking bread’ or eating a meal together if you are at home with family, savouring the time of sharing.
• Rejoice at seeing the face of Jesus in those you love on Zoom, Whatsapp or Facetime.
• Sit back and relax into a good old chin wag on the phone – open-up and delight in stories of faith in the ordinary humdrumness of life.
• Read scripture and appreciate the time you have to reflect on it, letting it inhabit your being…as you fall asleep on the sofa (or is that just me?)
I was glad when they said to me,
‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’ (Psalm 122)
I can’t wait for the day when we all meet again in Church. However, as we reintroduce ourselves to the more formal practice of our faith, let’s think about ways in which we can free it from the constraints of the building so that more may come to know, in the words of Bishop Tom Wright, the ‘new creation ... born in human lives, creating love, trust and hope.</span>16th April 2020
I hope this finds you and your loved ones well. Thank you to all who fed back on the online Easter Services, it’s nice to know they were watched. I know that those without access to the internet are also finding many ways to worship on a Sunday – even if it was watching the Archbishop of Canterbury lead communion from his kitchen!
Now we have more time on our hands we have started to discover new programmes on TV. Who would have thought that watching other people watch TV in their sitting room would be a hit? Yet we are mysteriously hooked on Gogglebox! Perhaps it is because it reminds us of our common humanity. Recently, it was heartening watching the viewers react, with affection and respect, to the Queen’s broadcast and, with what seemed like genuine concern, to the news of Boris Johnson’s admission to Intensive Care. It is good to see that so many others feel what we feel and share our experience. Goodness, kindness and care are qualities shown by many many people out there, and haven’t we seen that so poignantly over the past few weeks?
This Sunday’s Psalm is Psalm 16. The first two verses remind me of this fundamental truth.
Preserve me, O God, for in you have I taken refuge;
I have said to the Lord, ‘You are my lord,
all my good depends on you.’
All my delight is upon the godly that are in the land,
upon those who are noble in heart.
The presence of God is real and observable through the actions of noble people. Human beings are driven to do good through a desire to serve their neighbour, a recognition of our common humanity: that for me is God at work.
Look at my ‘hindquarters’
While we might not be able to see God, we can see the actions of God all around us. The Old Testament reading for this Sunday is taken from the book of Exodus. Later in the same book, Moses asks to see God face to face. God says no, it will kill Moses. So, as a compromise, God suggests that Moses hides his face as God passes by and then observes his ‘hindquarters’ as he moves away.
The writer is pointing to a deep truth here. As one Anglican Bishop wrote “Mortal men and women can never see who God is but only where God has been. We see God’s tracks. We visualise and experience God’s effects, not God’s being.” We can see God in other people if we only know where to look.
God was here
And where has God been this week? In the world and in your own life…
• In a Bedfordshire garden as a 99-year Army Captain walked 100 laps of his garden and raised (to date) £13 Million for the NHS
• God worked in our hospitals as NHS staff continued to work in the most difficult of circumstances
• The Risen Christ, served us in the supermarket, delivered our food and fuel and emptied our bins
• A friend who called you on the telephone, or who brought groceries to your door
• The Cherry Blossom and birdsong we are now able to hear so much better.
On Easter Sunday, Rio de Janeiro's Christ the Redeemer statue was lit up in doctor’s clothes. It was a starkly moving image. A powerful reminder that the Risen Lord is at work in the loving care of health workers who put themselves at risk to try to save the lives of others.
I don't believe in an interventionist God,
but I know, darling, that you do
But I believe in Love, and I know that you do, too (Nick Cave -Into my arms)
This song is quoted by Bishop James Jones in his 10th April Thought for the Day on Radio 4 (worth a listen if you have a moment). We can be so busy looking for a God who intervenes in human affairs (usually on our side e.g. this Sunday’s reading about the Israelites escaping through the Red Sea while the Egyptians are drowned) that we risk failing to see God’s tracks. Tracks of love.
I guess all of us at some stage have wanted to God to intervene for us, and it is right that we should continue to ask for help from God. However, let’s rejoice that the Risen Christ is with us working in ways we can’t imagine. In Matthew 28:20, Jesus tells us ‘remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ Let’s hold on to that and be thankful when we see the Risen Christ working in and through the people around us.
April 2020 -Palm Sunday and Holy Week
I hope this finds you and your loved ones well. As I write this, I have received a ‘news alert’ on my mobile from the BBC informing me that there has been a sharp rise in the number of deaths from coronavirus. We have been warned to brace ourselves for more as the increases seem set to continue for some time to come. We’re also hearing of lots of companies and charities, big and small, who do not expect to survive. And yet, in the face of this we are called to be people of hope, people of the light.
A few years ago, I visited the German city of Dresden. The city was heavily bombed toward the end of the second world war and it’s estimated that, in just two days, close to 25,000 people lost their lives. The city’s buildings were flattened; among them one of its major churches, the Lutheran ‘Church of Our Lady’ (in German ‘Frauenkirche’). Following the decision of the Communist East German leaders, the remaining ruins were left for 50 years lying on the ground.
Remarkably, the church was rebuilt after the reunification of Germany in the early 90s. Walking around it, it is easy to spot the old blacked stones of the original construction mixed with new stones put in to fill the gaps of the missing ones. The building is, I believe, a memorial to both destruction and resurrection. Its full beauty and majesty have been restored even as it continues to bear its scars. None of us knows when we will emerge from the current siege and what our world will look like when we do. Like the people of Dresden, we look on, hopeful, but unable to do much more than wait. Only when the dust settles, can we be participants in rebuilding our communities, mixing the old ways with new ways of being community.
The Earth Shook
In the gospel reading from Matthew set for Palm Sunday we read that, after Jesus dies on the cross, ‘The earth shook, and the rocks were split’. That might equally describe the unprecedented situation we are in now. It does feel as though the foundations of our world have been shaken The ‘certainties’ we had come to rely on such as freedom of movement and association, shops and entertainment, education for the children in our families etc… now seem to have vanished.
We read that the soldiers who witnessed the earthquake and the death of Jesus were terrified. Standing near them however were ‘Many women…looking on from a distance’ who had ‘followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him.’ These women, loyal followers of Jesus who have remained invisible in the Gospel account until now, must have been scared, and yet there they were. Their certainties had been destroyed in one week. They entered Jerusalem with Jesus, full of hope as He is recognised and proclaimed a saviour, and then, just a handful of days later, they look on as He is declared an enemy of the state and is crucified as a criminal. Perhaps our state of shock at the rapidly changing situation is not too dissimilar to theirs.
But, among these ‘many women’ are the same ones, who discover the Risen Jesus on the first Easter Sunday. They are the same women who proclaim the Good News themselves, the ones who support the missionary work of the apostles and the ones who comfort Mary, the mother of Jesus. And we too, women and men of faith, are called to accompany, comfort, witness, rebuild and proclaim.
Sustain the weary with a word
The first reading set for this Sunday comes from Isaiah. I’m so happy that we are all talking to one another and I know that you’ll all be speaking to people going through difficult situations. Please remember that the following verse applies to you all as people of faith “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a Word.” Isaiah 50. 4
Last week I directed you to the psalms and the one set for this Sunday could in itself form the basis for a prayer. “Have mercy on me, Lord for I am in trouble, my eye is consumed with sorrow, my soul and my body also…You are my God …my times are in your hand” Psalm 31
And finally, a prayer for these difficult times …
Keep us, good Lord, under the shadow of your mercy in this time of uncertainty and distress. Sustain and support the anxious and fearful, and lift up all who are brought low; that we may rejoice in your comfort knowing that nothing can separate us from your love
in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
Sunday’s Readings - Palm Sunday
Liturgy of the Palms: Matthew 21.1-11; Psalm 118,1-2,19-29
Liturgy of the Passion: Isaiah 50.4-9a; Psalm 31.9-16; Phil. 2.5-11; Matt. 26.14 - 27.66
This year the whole of March is taken up by the season of Lent. This runs from Ash Wednesday on the 26th of February to Easter Sunday on the 12th April, that is, 40 days not including Sundays.
Traditionally, the six Sundays that fall in Lent are not considered to be days on which Christians are ‘required’ to observe the fasting and abstinence of the Lenten period. They are supposed to be days of joy and days on which we rest from the rigours of our Lenten observance. Even as we toil, we are invited to stop and refresh ourselves along the way. According to the book of Genesis, God rested on the sabbath and we are invited to do the same.
Fasting and abstinence are not practices which many 21st century people easily relate to. Nowadays the focus of most Christians has shifted onto doing more to benefit others and hopefully making ourselves better followers of Jesus in the process. No one is suggesting that we refrain from recycling on Sundays, for example, but perhaps we can and should balance our service of others and efforts to be better Christians with the need to care for ourselves. As we serve, we also need to re-create.
Recently I have been thinking about inner balance. Some consider each person to be made up of three centres. The mind, the body and the heart. Or, put another way, thinking, moving and emotions. Its suggested that when all of these are given equal attention then we become the more fully rounded and happy people God created us to be.
This lent, in addition to our acts of self-denial, service and prayer, we could take time (perhaps on a Sunday) to stop and look at how balanced our lives are. If we have spent the week stretching our minds with problems at school or work then maybe Sunday is the day to move, to go for a walk or even dance! If our week has been focussed on manual labour then we could stir up our emotions and redress the balance with music, poetry or art. If the week has drained you emotionally then come and find rest and peace in our weekly service of Evensong.
So many worries and problems rob us of our peace – and all too often our sleep. The life affirming message of Jesus has the power to redress this balance if we take time to consider and apply it. As Jesus said, ‘The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.’ Mind, body and spirit.