How To Fill The Time In Between

Questions

The First Sunday of Christmas is what I call the in-between time. It sits between the great festivals of Christmas and Epiphany and doesn’t seem able to muster up its own special liturgy after all the awe and wonder  of the Saviour’s birth and the star lit revelations of the Wise Men. We also leap from cradle to the teenage years and then back to a toddler in the space of two weeks marking three of the four biblical appearances of Jesus as a child, which still leaves us with a lot of questions. Who, where, why and how? But as with all questions, if we ask the right ones we should get the right answers and learn something.

Based on Colossians 3:12-17 and Luke 2:41-52

I suspect that we all have stories of our childhood, some which show us in lots of different lights – the early achiever ‘Yes, she was walking and talking before her first birthday’; the dexterous enabler, ‘Oh he could put together all of the Star Wars’ Lego models by the age of two!’; the future celebrity, ‘I think she came out of the womb singing and dancing, we LOVE all the ‘shows’ she creates for us to watch’; but also the innate rascals, ‘every tree, every wall, every supermarket aisle shelf would need to be climbed – I think he’s going to be a mountaineer.’

Of course, we don’t always remember the things that we did from a very early age but have to rely on stories that are passed down to us and which become part of our family’s history. No doubt for Jesus, there were also stories from his childhood, that his parents, aunts, uncles and cousins would remind him of as he grew up, but we don’t get to hear about these, despite his later ‘fame’. Nothing comes out of the woodwork to show us the times when he wasn’t so obedient or got into scrapes with other children or indeed did anything out of the ordinary.

We have to be content with four brief episodes to tell us something about the child that grew into the man who was God, his extraordinary birth, his presentation in the temple, that he had some special visitors when he was a toddler, and that by the age of twelve he was displaying wisdom and knowledge beyond his years, astonishing his elders whilst at the same time being utterly respectful and freely submitting to his parent’s authority.

Yes, we could look for other remarkable stories of the child and youth Jesus, offering healing and miracles, that were recorded in the Infancy Gospels of Thomas and others, but these were gnostic texts, written some two centuries after his birth and we have no way of knowing whether any of ‘these’ stories are true and reliable and they were certainly not accepted into the canon of the bible

In our gospel today, the gap between the twelve year old on the cusp of becoming a nominal adult through his bar mitzvah and the man Jesus beginning his ministry following his baptism, is covered in one brief sentence, that he grew ‘in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour

Perhaps this is all God determined that we needed to know, but it’s obvious that these were the years in which he would have been able to experience humanity to its fullest extent before living the last three years of his life in a fishbowl. If we recall the verse that Luke give us immediately beforehand (v40), ‘the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him,’ it indicates a normal childhood and early adulthood. We can imagine Jesus learning his trade as a carpenter from Joseph, his adoptive father; being a pleasant and hardworking individual, inquisitive and innately knowledgeable beyond his years, which amazed some who saw him as an uneducated handy man; growing physically, spiritually and mentally under the cover of God’s grace.

As devout Jews, his parents would each year travel to Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover, they would have travelled together with a large group of family and friends, and at twelve, Jesus would not have been expected to stay with them. So, the fact that they would not have noticed he wasn’t among the returning celebrants, would not have been negligence on their parts, and with men and women generally travelling in separate groups, it wouldn’t have been until the end of the day, when they came together that they might notice that he was missing. You can imagine the conversation of Mary asking Joseph, ‘Have you seen Jesus since this morning?’ and Joseph replying, ‘No, I thought he was with you’.

No doubt they were worried and spent the next few hours increasingly frantic, asking all their friends and relatives whether they’d seen him, before setting off back to Jerusalem, and finally the relief of finding him after a three day search, calming sitting among the teachers, asking questions, not quite oblivious to the apparent distress he has caused them, as indicated by their understandable reaction, ‘Why have you put us through this anguish’ but reassurance that why would they think he would be anywhere else but in his Father’s house, not Joseph’s house, but God’s house.

‘Why were you searching for me?
Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’
Luke 49

For Mary and Joseph, there was still no full understanding of who Jesus was and what his work would entail, but Mary would once more reflect carefully on these events and would add them to her treasured memories of Jesus’ life. So, we hear that Jesus, returned with his family and as far as we know caused them no further upset, accepting their authority of parenthood, and at the same time growing and maturing into perfect manhood.

Now I don’t know about you, but I did not have a perfect childhood, mainly because I was not the perfect child! I can remember that I was not always obedient to my parents and would often find myself in trouble. However, I do know that I was loved, and any discipline metered out was undoubtedly for my own good. But that’s another story!

Let’s, therefore, get back to this morning’s story. We know that Jesus’ calling was to follow the will of God, so for him to spend time in the temple, the centre of Jewish worship, was an opportunity to discuss theology with experts, develop his own understanding and challenge people on their concepts of God. He was able to do this because of the personal relationship that he had with God

We too are called to develop a personal relationship with God in order for us to better understand his will for our lives. However, for many people the sense of being drawn closer into the story through the events leading up to and celebrated at Christmas is already dissipating. ‘Phew, I’m glad that’s over and done with, let’s pack the baby Jesus away with the rest of the nativity set and get back to some kind of normality’. Of course, they don’t really mean it like that, what they do mean is they’re glad the frantic shopping has ended, no more stressing about whether the presents you bought are appreciated and family member and other guests are finally heading home… and even though you love them and have been glad to spend time with them, there is the relief of getting back to your regular routine.

Relationships can be pretty tricky; there was an article I read the other day that asked people if they had argued more over the Christmas period and what had they argued about? Most people said, ‘Yes’ they had had a row and that it was about petty things like the tree decorations, how the turkey was cooked and what they wanted to watch on television. An expert commented that this was perfectly understandable as when people in families are thrown together for a time, tensions can be unearthed and expectations can be different.

Just like Jesus’ parents were stressed, there was probably some tension between Jesus’ true identity, what his mission is and his relationship with his parents. I am sure that they didn’t expect to find him discussing theology in the temple, otherwise they’d have gone straight there and not spent three days searching.

Why Jesus

But Jesus was setting the foundations for a new understanding of family. One that would be built on a relationship with God the father though his son, Jesus and which would be founded on love, forgiveness, peace and thanksgiving. A family not sharing a bloodline or DNA but linked together through the Holy Spirit.

Our reading from Colossians sets this out in more details. It’s a reading that a lot of wedding couples choose for their reading as they too set out on a new relationship. It starts by reminding us that we are all part of God’s family, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved. Many people feel unloved and some are damaged psychologically. Yet no-one is unloved. God loves each and every person so much he sent his son Jesus to die in their place on the cross.

It is a wonderful, unconditional, free love and we are called to live lives that reflect this. To clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. To bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances we may have against one another.

Above all, clothe yourselves with love,
which binds everything together in perfect harmony
Colossians 3:14

Showing compassion that comes from within, concerned about meeting people’s most basic needs; kindness that is gracious and humble; a gentleness that is not weakness, but a willingness to suffer injury rather than inflict it and patience that forgoes anger and resentment and does not seek revenge.

Of course, we all have our own faults, but God has forgiven us and so, who are we, who have been forgiven, to withhold forgiveness from someone else? This is based on God’s choice and love for us and is completely undeserved and helps put into perspective any problems that really are no more serious than a Christmas tree or a turkey!

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t attempt to correct any conduct that is not part of God’s will, we are Christ’s ambassadors, we bear his name and we should reflect his kingdom values in everything that we do.

Many people came to church this year, and we hope that they would have felt loved, welcomed and accepted. But let’s not be complacent, instead let’s make sure that we continue to reach out to show even more compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. In that way we will all grow in wisdom and in both human and divine favour

Amen

colossians k3

Ambitious for God

Big Ambitions

When your ambition is big then your efforts should be even bigger – Anon

Evening reflection based on Romans 15:14-29

When you were younger, what were your ambitions, your hopes and dreams? I know I spent hours riding my imaginary horse around our garden, over gymkhana fences of upturned buckets and bamboo canes, dreaming that I was appearing on the Horse of the Year show (the one programme in the year I was allowed to stay up late for) as a famous show jumper.

We recently ran a series of School Prayer Spaces at St James’ school and one of the spaces, Tardis Prayers, was a chance to wonder what we might be doing in 10, 20 or even 40 years’ time. The concept of such a huge time scale was daunting for some, but all of the children gave a bit of thought to what they hoped for.

I was expecting a lot of desires for becoming famous celebrities, and we did get our share of that – the famous footballers, dancers, singers, rappers and You Tubers (you’ll have to look that up if you’re not sure what it involves) and of course there were plenty of the more traditional careers of becoming a teacher, policeman, lawyers, engineers or vets. Then there were the more unusual and unlikely roles – to be the President of America or the Queen, and my particular favourite, to be a parrot trainer and to own a parrot.

However, there were others that thought more about the type of people they wanted to be – a person who helps homeless people, to help end world hunger and all wars, to be caring and loving – summed up in one request, ‘To God. I love the world. Please help us to be kind and in peace and together.’ We even had one potential Missionary named Chloe. She said, ‘When I am older I would like to travel around the world to poor countries like Haiti. I would like to go and help them and do church sessions. I would really like to see Daphne, my sponsored child’.

What all of this did show was that even our youngest members of society have ambitions and I think it’s true that most people regardless of their age, want to know what their purpose is in life and how they are going to achieve it. In his letter to the people of Rome, Paul is explaining that he has found just that and he lays out a path for others to discover theirs.

Paul had huge ambitions for mission. He knew very clearly that his mission was to the Gentiles, the non-Jewish sections of society, and the wider groups of people out of that small area in the Middle East. A mission that stretched across the Mediterranean region as far as we know to Spain. The edges of the known world to some extent

To personally take the gospel where people had never heard it, where Christ had never been named and it was not the same one given to everyone. Paul was called to stay in Jerusalem, Apollos was a build on other’s foundations kind of disciple, a bit like one of our Tardis prayers which was to take Bill Gates place to own Microsoft. In addition this was a new development for Paul, to go to these new uninformed people and places because at the beginning he had spent a lot of time in Jewish synagogues, teaching church leader, but now, at this point in his life he had narrowed his ambition down to a specific ministry focus, like a funnel that had started broad.

How though, do you know specifically what God’s purpose is for us? Well we should notice that Paul grounds his purpose in what God has declared as his own purpose through the Scriptures,

Thus I make it my ambition to proclaim the good news, not where Christ has already been named, but as it is written,

‘Those who have never been told of him shall see,
and those who have never heard of him shall understand.

Many people though whilst trying to figure out the will of God for their own lives, haven’t stopped to ask what God’s purpose is in the world. We could be the best teacher, the best lawyer, the best volunteer in the world, all great ambitions, but are their agendas the same as God’s agenda? We can be very sensitive to the needs of the world, wanting to make a difference, to relieve suffering, and that is a good ambition, but the greatest need in the world is for people to hear about Jesus, because eternal suffering would be an even greater form of suffering.

What Paul was being called to do may not be what we are called to do, but we can try to identify what it is by sensing the gifts of the Holy Spirit within us, and whatever the gifts are that we have to interpret them in the light of the bigger picture of God’s purposes stated in his word – to get the gospel to the ends of the earth!

So let’s do all we can to be ready to say, ‘Yes, Here I am Lord, let my ambitions be your ambitions, your purpose be my purpose. Reveal to me the specific calling you have for me to further your kingdom and whatever I’m good at, whatever gifts I’ve been given, and help me to use them well for your glory’.

Amen

Making Space for Prayer

 

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Flowers for Peace

Last week we ran a series of School Prayer Spaces at Saint James’ Church of England Primary School, West End, Southampton. This involved creating interactive activities which the whole school, both children and adults could take part in and gave them a chance to explore life questions and experience a sense of spirituality and stillness in their busy lives.

These activities included:

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The Gathering

The Gathering – It was important that everyone was gathered both at the beginning and the end of the session. This helped as a reminder that it was important to move about the space in a quiet, thoughtful manner. The filmy voile also helped to create an air of mystery of what was to come.

IMG_0419Be Still Pods – Here was a reminder that God calls us to be still from time to time, to help us to learn more about ourselves and God. Simple pop up tents provided a space to do that, each furnished with a cushion, a focus lamp and ‘stillness’ image.

It’s amazing that even Reception class children (aged 4 to 5 years) could manage this brief time of stillness, and what was even more amazing was that the Year 6 children (aged 10 to 11 years), despite our concerns that they would be too tall or to ‘cool’ to give it a go, managed to squeeze themselves into the space willingly.

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Be still and know that I am God

Tardis Prayers – Here was an opportunity to think about the future. With a Tardis weIMG_0421 could travel forward and see ourselves in 10, 20, 40 years time. Some of the smaller children found the concept of forty years a little difficult to imagine, but they all came up with a suggestion of what they might be doing, what type of person they might be, expressing their hopes and dreams.

 

 

IMG_0422In amongst the usual ‘celebrity’ footballers, singers and dancers were the more traditional dreams of becoming a teacher, doctor, lawyer or policeman. The more altruistic souls saw themselves as solving world hunger and peace, as well as being kind and caring to those around them.

Certainly there was no limits to their ambitions with perhaps a future President of the United States or Queen of England here amongst us

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My Time Lord is the Lord of Time

IMG_0423Calm Jars – We all know that life, including school, can be stressful. When we are trying to juggle the demands of people, relationships, expectations and pressures, our minds can feel busy and restless and then we start to worry. A Swedish proverbs puts this into perspective, ‘Worry gives small things a big shadow’. In the Bible, however, God often reminds people to be still, to wait and to stay calm whatever the situation.

By gently shaking the jars and watching the glitter swirl and settle they could think about those things in their lives settling down and becoming calmer.

Stress Less – In a similar vein, the ‘stress less’ activity helped to consider the things that stress us out and how to let them go.

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Brightly coloured aqua beads (or frogs’ spawn as some referred to it) were the perfect medium to allow everyone the sense of worries and stresses literally falling away or through our fingers.

Quoting from Peter’s first letter, ‘Cast all your worries on God, because he cares for you’ (1 Peter 5:7) helped with the concept that our worries may not automatically disappear, but by sharing them it can make them easier to deal with.

 

Pray for the World – Our final activity within the prayer space was a chance to think about praying for those people around the world who we were never likely to meet or know anything about, and yet they were undoubtedly just like us.

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Using a simple map of the world we explored the differences between people, such as languages, skin colours, religions and beliefs and cultures, but also the fact that we all had one thing in common – we were all human, and therefore had the same needs – the desire to be safe, cared for and loved.

IMG_0418By the end of the week we had managed to cover almost every single country in the world in prayer pebbles, representing the simple prayer we said for the people living there.

If you look closely don’t be concerned that we might not have said a prayer for England – this did have pebbles placed on it, but I kept having to move them slightly so that we could compare the size of our country to others around the world.

 

One additional activity was our Peace Flowers, which we invited everyone to come back to after school. Here people were invited to create a flower and on the stem write the name of a place, person or situation that they felt needed peace. As you can see it was very popular

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Altogether a very enjoyable week, with lots of positive feedback from both the participants and the helpers who led the activities. It’s incredible how spiritual young children can be when we give them the opportunity and space to express this – and it doesn’t do the adults any harm either to be able to do so.

If you want to find out more about Prayer Spaces in School you can visit their website or read more about the Research Project they carried out

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God’s Attitude Should Be Ours

 

Rainbow Through the Trees

Our attitudes to God and each other should be the same as his attitude to us. A sermon for Evensong based on Jeremiah 7:1-16 and Romans 9:14-26

May I speak and may you hear though the grace of our Lord, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

I want us to reflect this evening on our attitude to God and our attitude to each other as Christians. How our differences can be a stumbling block not only to our relationship with God but also to those who see us a stumbling block to any sort of belief in God or the Christian Faith. By ‘us’ I am not necessarily referring to individual Christians here at St James’ church, but a more general broader identity, but it does us no harm to consider what our own attitudes might be in some of these situations.

First though, we have to go back to the pre-Christian ‘church’ where Jeremiah’s radical and hard hitting words proclaim God’s judgement on a nation that believed they were unassailable in their right to God’s protection and salvation. Their interpretation of the scriptures, the laws that protected their faith and their judgement of others was predestined and incontestable. However, they were in for a shock – there was no way that God was going to let them treat the temple in a mindless, shallow way by assuming that forgiveness was automatic simply by walking through the doors.

As Jeremiah stresses quite forcibly – ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord’ – a triple, Trinitarian reminder, that even though Christ was yet to live on earth, that here was Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Here was the simple statement that if you want to be true believers then you have to stop abusing foreigners and the weakest members of society, the easy targets. Neither could you disregard the most basic of commandments nor cherry pick those that have more in common with your way of thinking or lifestyle. If you mistreat your holy places, turning them in to a ‘den of robbers’ – a sentiment echoed by Jesus in Matthew’s gospel – then you should know that God will not protect them, they will be abandoned and eventually destroyed – there was and is no automatic security of God being with you… A self-righteous attitude will not save you.

The people’s disobedience of God’s commandments, brings what would appear be a harsh response and directive to Jeremiah, ‘do not pray for this people, do not raise a cry or prayer on their behalf, and do not intercede with me, for I will not hear you.’

For the people in Rome, whom Paul was addressing, they were struggling with their identity, attempting to understand what the term ‘Israel’ meant in regard to being chosen people. Paul explains that God hasn’t broken his covenant to original people of Israel, as this was never intended to just apply to the race who shared Abraham’s blood group, but, as he states earlier in his letter as well, those who shared in his faith. Moreover, here was a God who would not be contained by people’s views and attitudes, here was a God who sprung surprises even on the most faithful, choosing Jacob over Esau, demonstrating his sovereign right to do so. Hardening Pharaoh’s heart to highlight his greater power

God does what he wants, as evidenced in the metaphor of the potter’s right to create from the same lump of clay whatever objects he chooses. He has a purpose for of his creations, and the fact that some are chosen and some are not is not the same as pre-destination, this is amazing grace.

God's Amazing Grace

The belief in the omnipotence of the one true God may lead to the conviction that God exerts control over every human action, but God is not only powerful but just.  It is not an injustice to be merciful, to apparently treat some people better than they deserve. To be chosen by God is a gracious gift, not an achievable reward. He can be trusted because he had done what he promised, calling people regardless of their faith; their gender, their sexuality.

We may question why, as Paul says, ‘Will what is moulded say to the one who moulds it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’’. That conversation though is between God and us as individuals, others have no right to ask the same of a person.

There is an arrogant complacency within the Church of England that breaks my heart for it as an institution. An arrogance among Christians today who feed their own theologies into the media, which then labels divisive and exclusive views as representative of all Christians. It is not our job to decide who is unworthy and it certainly isn’t for us to link unworthiness to those who disagree with our theology based on limited fragments of scripture.

John Barton in his commentary, describes God as ‘an untamed deity, a wild thing not reducible to theological formulae.’

As Paul quotes from the prophet Hosea, ‘Those who were not my people I will call “my people”, and her who was not beloved I will call “beloved”. ’ ‘And in the very place where it was said to them, “You are not my people”, there they shall be called children of the living God.’

As Christians, representative of the one, true God we do well to make this our own attitude. Amen

 

Treasure in Clay Jars

 

Jars of clay

What is it that makes us special? Thoughts from this morning’s sermon focussing on the reading 2 Corinthians 4:5-12

May I speak and may you hear through the grace of our Lord, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen

I am nobody special. I will never become a worldwide known church leader. I will probably never become a diocesan-wide known church leader, but that’s okay. I will never be troubled by celebrity and stardom. I may appear from time to time in some charming local newspaper article about fetes or fundraising, but the paparazzi will not be camped outside of my door; that’s not a problem. My name will never be immortalized with a monument set up by the local community, although perhaps for a generation there will be some who will speak fondly of me, it won’t matter.

A remnant of my thoughts may continue to exist somewhere in the ether of the world-wide web, but it will probably be something that people accidentally come across whilst searching for something else, an amusing diversion, but quickly clicked away from – and that will be absolutely fine.

This isn’t an attempt at false modesty or to deny that any gifts or talents that I may have aren’t being put to good use. It isn’t to say that my existence is worthless or that I haven’t loved and been loved. It’s just that I am not special in my own right. But then very few people are. In the bible, those whom God chose to make known his message, were very often the most ordinary of people, they did not seek to proclaim themselves, in fact they were often reluctant to do so. But they trusted that God would give them the words to say, the actions to do and the courage to keep on trusting even when things looked like it would come to nothing.

Take for example Mary, the mother of Jesus, a young girl chosen not for her status, for we hear in the Magnificat, her song of praise to God when she visits her cousin Elizabeth, that ‘God has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant’. Nor for her connections, betrothed as she was to a humble carpenter; but someone who was a woman of great humility and whose strength came from her knowing that she had achieved nothing except what God had enabled her to do, ‘for the Mighty One has done great things for me’.

Or perhaps we can think of Peter, a simple fisherman, whose enthusiasm often overtook his reasoning, whose bluntness many times led him to say exactly what he thought rather than reflect on what he was being taught. Tender hearted and inconsolable when he realised that he had thought only of himself when challenged about his relationship with Jesus, but who, when filled with the Holy Spirit was bold and fearless in proclaiming the gospel, ‘But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them’.

And of course there are many more from inarticulate Moses; through ‘I know best’ Jonah; to womanizing David, all unlikely choices to participate in God’s mission, all fragile human beings in their own right, but they were given the power to be something special… Like humble clay pots they contained a treasure.

Now if you’re going to place a valuable thing in some sort of vessel would you choose a clay jar? Yet, it really is the most appropriate material.

I wonder how many of you saw the series, The Great British Pottery Throw Down, a bit like the Great British Bake Off, but baking of another sort, in which contestants were given various types of clay and challenged to make things from simple drinking pots to whole toilet systems. Workhorse utilities to elaborate designs and functions yet fashioned from that most basic commodity, a lump of earth.

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Pottery Toilet from the Great British Pottery Throw Down

When Paul is referring to jars of clay, he is referring to humankind itself – that we are the clay jars, a metaphor that takes us back to the description in Genesis, of God forming humans from the dust of the earth. However, we are called to hold within us the shining treasure, ‘the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’. But the fact remains that vessels made of clay are not very sturdy. If you tip over or drop a piece of pottery it is easily broken, but Paul says there is a reason for God trusting us to hold within us this treasure. We are reminded that on our own we have no power, no special strengths or talents, we are as fragile as a jar of clay, but God’s all-surpassing power ensures that this clay can sustain all sorts of pressures so that his divine treasure is taken care of.

Paul reminds us that even as fragile, human beings, easily broken it is not only Christ’s life, but also his death that has made a change in us. He goes on to describe it in his letter to the Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me”(Galatians 2:20); Reminding us again that as jars of clay, we can’t depend on our own power and strength.

And the overriding purpose for this is ‘so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies’. As Christians we are called to act as guiding lights and at other times flash warning signs; we need to seek out those in darkness and draw people into the light. We are called to live our lives as beacons of hope to those around us. Each of us will do this in different ways, some of us will become blazing flares that light up the whole sky around us, whilst others will be the constant inextinguishable glow of embers providing warmth and comfort.

Like an ordinary lump of clay, God forms each and every one of us into something that is useful and beautiful; like a potter he fires us in the kiln of life to give us extra strength, and he places within us the light of Christ so that we can shine out of the darkness.

As I said at the beginning, I nor anybody else is special if we live in our own right, but when we become the bearers of Christ’s light then that makes us special beyond measure.

Amen

The Potter's Hands

A Heart of Stone?

Heart of Stone

Evensong Message for Pentecost 2018 – Reading Ezekiel 36:22-28 and Acts 2:22-38

Today we celebrate Pentecost – an outpouring of the Holy Spirit – sent just as Jesus had promised – enabling and transforming those who were willing to receive it, with physical signs of flames and wind and a universal understanding of the truth being spoken to those listening and watching this in amazement. Just as Ezekiel had prophesied here was a gathering of the nations to hear the Word that would then spread out like wildfire from Jesus’ own land to ignite the flame that would become a global phenomenon – the birth of Christianity, with its message of faith, hope and love.

Here was something new then – or was it?

Surely people had had faith before? Jesus himself was a Jew, part of a well organised and structured faith; and whilst there were not necessarily a large number of organised religions as we would think of them today, there were many faith traditions. The Roman and Greek pantheon for example, Norse and Celtic traditions, many of which were Polytheistic, and often had an emphasis on communal public worship, and sacrifice (either of animals or humans) as an offering to the Gods; going right back to simple sun worship and pantheism.

 Hope is perhaps a little bit more difficult to measure prior to Christianity. What is it people were hoping for? For many it did centre on there being more to life than our brief span of three score years and ten – four score at a push. For the Greeks, a favoured few, were considered to have been physically immortalized and brought to live forever in places like Elysium. For others it was the ability to be reincarnated and to have the chance to live again, back on earth, albeit in a different way; but for most people, at the moment of death there was, however, no hope of anything but continued existence as a disembodied soul, endlessly swirling around in a cosmic soup.

And of course there was love, whether it was a strong feeling of affection and concern arising from kinship or close friendship or accompanied by sexual attraction. We all know that the Greek and Roman gods indulged in love with a relish, both among themselves and mere mortals, but rarely was it considered a love that was for all peoples, a love that begged relationship and which sought reconciliation as its ultimate goal.

Christianity though was and is different. Faith was not just something you did, it is how you live; hope was not limited, it is tangible and everlasting and love was not exclusive, it is mutual and unconditional. This wasn’t some distant deity dandling human beings like puppets, this is a God who lives right alongside us.

In order to love one has to engage with our minds and our hearts. The two organs in a human body that not only sustain life but which enable us to understand what life is all about. But it is our hearts that pump blood around our bodies to every other organ which enable us to think, to feel, to touch, to sense and which have become universal symbols of love; and a heart that does not love can be said to be as lifeless and useless as a heart of stone.

A heart of stone does not allow our ears to hear the cries of those in need or our eyes to see injustice being done. A heart of stone does not allow us to feel emotions of compassion or joy, it does not permit our arms and hands to reach out to hug or be hugged or comforted.

 A heart of stone does not allow us the desire to know God and to become followers of Christ, because a heart of stone cannot love either itself or others. Even so, God is able to reach out to the most hard-hearted individuals and to use them for his glory.

 ‘A new heart I will give you,
and a new spirit I will put within you;
and I will remove from your body
the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh’.

However, having a heart of flesh is not an easy thing to live with. A heart of flesh can feel the keenest of suffering, the deepest of sorrows and the innermost pain. There are times when it is almost unbearable to experience these things, but our hearts do not give up

The fact is that the heart it is the hardest working muscle in the body – the first organ to form during development of the body, and the last to shut down in death. But that’s just physiology. The difference is the presence of the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit in the form of love that enables us to ‘bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things.’

 When Peter stood up on the day of Pentecost, it was the Spirit that enabled him to declare so boldly that despite what the people had done to Jesus, there was no power on earth that could have held him down and he used the scriptures to back up this declaration.

Quoting from Psalm 16, the Michtam of David, or the Golden Psalm, he spelt our very clearly the faith, the hope and the love Jesus knew was his in God,

“I saw the Lord always before me,
for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken;
therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced;
moreover, my flesh will live in hope.
For you will not abandon my soul to Hades,
or let your Holy One experience corruption.
You have made known to me the ways of life;
you will make me full of gladness with your presence.”

 It was the witness of the disciples through the power of the Holy Spirit that persuaded others that indeed, Jesus was both Lord and Messiah. As it says, ‘they were cut to the heart’. To the very centre of their being.

 When we are filled with the Holy Spirit, there is nothing that we cannot accomplish, whether it is showing compassion, sharing joy, or seeking peace. When our hearts beat to the same rhythm as God’s then nothing will be the same and everything will be transformed by love

Love of the Holy Spirit

 

Love One Another…

Love One Another Blog

The end of the Easter season is fast approaching and we will pack away our Alleluia responses for another year (liturgically and in theory). So before we do so here is a reminder that that our praise of God comes not just in liturgical form but in practical acts of loving one another as well.

Based on the following readings: John 15:9-17 and Acts 10:44-48

May I speak and may you hear through the grace of our Lord; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen

Who’s still excited that it’s still Easter? Perhaps our Alleluia’s that we waited so long to hear after Lent as little more subdued, not quite so resounding? Well, we’ve come to the Sixth Sunday of Easter and we should be excited because the Easter season is building to its climax. Over these past weeks we have been celebrating the joy of the resurrections and the presence of the risen Christ appearing to his first disciples and being among us still. And yet on Thursday it will be Ascension Day when we remember Jesus’ departure from his disciples and his return to be with his heavenly Father for all eternity. We are therefore, liturgically at least, reaching a turning point.

In the weeks leading up to his death, Jesus had been preparing his apprehensive disciples for the shock when he is taken away from them; wanting to give them reassurance of his continuing love and presence with them afterwards, and giving them instructions for how the church (with a small c) should live. Of course, as disciples today, we can never get back behind Easter, because we hear Jesus’ reassurances in the light of our Easter experience, knowing that he rose from the dead to be with them and with us. So his warnings of his imminent departure and the coming of the Holy Spirit as a guide, resonate in our experience as we look toward Ascension Day and Pentecost, soon to come.

So, here today we hear Jesus continuing to give his disciples ‘commandments’, underlying all of which is the commandment given by God to Moses, the imperative that people should show by their lives what their God is like, which Jesus has fulfilled utterly. The example that Jesus gives, of his own willingness to die for his friends, is not a comforting one. Is that, then, to be the measure of love?

Well the gospel suggests that sometimes it is, and we know that nearly all of Jesus’ original disciples were called to do that in one way or another and those who followed after them were often martyred for their faith. However, the verses that follow this commandment suggest that there are other interim measures too.

One such measure is the role that we play, ‘I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. This sharing between Father and Son is extended to us. We are not simply issued with instructions that we must follow without needing to understand them. Instead we are invited to God’s table, to eat and discuss and share his great plan for the world.

Therefore, it naturally follows that one mark of our ‘love’ for one another and God will be our willingness to extend this invitation to others. Not to be an introverted, cozy warm church where we are all having a wonderful time, but ‘Come and join us at God’s table, come and help us to work out with God what to do next’. I wonder if you can remember when you received that invitation? Not simply an invitation to come to church, but the sense that God was calling you, through Jesus, come and find out more; a sense that you had been chosen to be part of the whole Christian way of life and love. As Jesus tells his disciples that they didn’t chose him, but he chose them. In the same way it is not we who chose God, but God who, in his grace, approached us with a call and an offer made out of his love.

This is certainly the experience of Peter and his companions as they watch Cornelius and his household respond to the love of God. They hear these strangers praising God long before they have gone through all the rules and regulations of what you’ll need to do be a proper Christian! Even so everyone needs guidance and God has this in hand when he gives us our different gifts and talents, both academic and practical.

The thing about guidance though it that it should be more about learning than teaching.  We learn better when we engage with our whole bodies – as I spoke about a few weeks ago, we need to love with all our mind, our body and our soul… I know that I have learned more about loving one another from people who have demonstrated this unconditional love of Christ, people who show love and compassion to loved ones with dementia, never getting annoyed or frustrated. People who give their time to serve others without any thought of reward or recompense. People who do things cheerfully and willingly, who never moan that it’s always them left to do something, when others have walked away oblivious to the fact that they might have shared a task.

It is deeply challenging and amplifying to see the word of God at work in the lives of others, and to see that before me and my feeble attempts at love got anywhere near a situation, that God’s love was already at work. I’m standing here talking to you this morning about love, but who remembers anything I or anyone else has said, if all you hear is someone ‘telling’ you? In fact, research shows that within just one hour, if nothing is done with new information, most people will have forgotten about 50% of what they learned. After 24 hours, this will be 70%, and if a week passes without that information being used, up to 90% of it could be lost.

Maybe then, I need to get us to do something a bit more practical to try to help us learn, and I’ve put this in the middle of my talk to see who’s still listening up to this point! Something that will help us think about being called to love one another whoever that might be. So when it comes to exchange the peace this morning, rather than simply shake someone’s hand, then look past them for the next hand to shake – as you take that person’s hand, briefly look them in the eye, offer them the words of peace, but let this thought go through your mind each time you do…. ‘This is someone I am called to love – how might I do that?’ Remember no need for fuss, just simply use that thought each time, ‘This is someone I am called to love – how might I do that?’

That’s something then to help us to share love between like-minded people, but we are also chosen in love and for love, and are sent out into the world to love one another. So that’s a thought we should have in our head every time we meet other people as well. Because, sometimes we live as if we were sent into the world to compete with one another, or to dispute with one another, or even to quarrel with one another. Many tell people to love each other when their whole lives are a demonstration that that is the last thing they do themselves. That is not the way of love.

However, we can become confused about being ‘commanded’ to love – perhaps our natural instinct is to say, ‘well actually I don’t think I can love in the same way that you did Jesus’. When Jesus talks about commanding, this is not a peremptory legalistic order, neither is it quite an instructional encouragement, it’s more a necessary requirement. The fact is that you cannot legislate for love, but God, through Jesus, can command us to love and discovering the difference between the two is one of the great arts of being human. The ‘command’ to love is given by one who has himself done everything that love can do. When mothers and fathers love their child, they create a context in which the child is free to love them in return. When a ruler really does love his or her subjects, and when this becomes clear by generous and warm-hearted actions, he or she creates a context in which the subjects can and will love them in return.

So when Jesus issues the command that we are to love one another, we do so because he has acted out and will act out the greatest thing that love can do. He has made us more human, not less because we do this in freedom and joy. So that we can bear fruit that will last, whether in terms of a single life changed because we loved somebody as Jesus loved us, or in terms of a single decision that we had to take, … or a single task we had to perform… through which, though we couldn’t see it at the time, the world became a different place.

So let’s enjoy these last few days of the Easter season. Alleluia, Christ is risen!…. he is risen indeed, alleluia!

He Has Risen