Tag Archives: John

From Alpha to Omega

 

Easter Sunday Evensong brought to a close an amazing day of celebrations and the end of the journey we had been on throughout Holy Week. From the highs of Palm Sunday, with it’s joyous branch waving, through the sharing of a Seder meal and watch on Maundy Thursday via the reflective solemnity of Good Friday to the bursting alleluias of Easter Sunday. Now in this more formal choral service there was room for one more talk,  and it took us to the very end of the story. Based on Revelation 1:12-18 here were my thoughts.

This morning we were at the very beginning of the amazing story of the resurrection of Christ and this evening we are taken to the end times through the apocalyptic writing of John, a ‘servant’ of Jesus.

Jewish apocalypses were generally written at times of crisis and we know that the early Christian church regularly faced persecution from the Roman authorities and that many Christians had already been martyred, and that the writer John had himself been imprisoned and exiled on the Greek island of Patmos, because he had been spreading the word about Jesus.

The first Christians lived in eager anticipation of Christ’s return, but some 60 years after his death it had still not occurred. They needed something to inspire them to stand firm; to remind them that God is in control, no matter how things may look and these revelations are trying to encourage the reader, both then and now, to look at the ‘big picture’ of human history.

It is as though a veil is being drawn aside and future events and scenes of heaven are ‘revealed’. Through Christ, God is bringing history to its climax and close, and the need to focus on the end of the world when God will reign supreme in justice and peace.  Christ speaks to his Church through John, to encourage and guide his people. He urges them to persevere through times of darkness and great stress, for after this life they will live with God in a glorious new world.

John describes his visions in the extraordinary picture language first used in the Book of Daniel. He has a vision of Jesus ‘like a Son of Man’. This had been Daniel’s vision – a human being who fully represents the human race, appearing in clouds and great glory, to be given God’s power and authority to reign over all things.  However, John’s vision has far more detail than that of Daniel’s. I tried to find an image that I could give you to look at whilst we though about this passage, but I couldn’t find an artistic interpretation that did justice to this extraordinary vision, you are going to have formulate your own picture in your head.

We can imagine his long robe is dazzling white and the golden sash reflects and bounces that light back to us. This Son of Man has the same pure white hair as Daniel’s God, the Ancient of Days, the bright white of pristine snow that glints in sunlight, almost too painful to look at.

We cannot tell what colour his eyes are because they are eyes that blaze with the fire of holiness, and his feet  glow with the strength of burnished bronze. His voice has the fluid melodious sound of rushing water and his mouth speaks truth with power and precision. His face is brilliant like the sun in a cloudless summer sky,

This glorious Christ stands among seven golden lampstands. These are his churches, which give his light to the world. He also holds in his hand seven stars – the angels that care for each local church. I wonder if we ever imagine our own church with its own guardian angel?

In the world, the churches are like lampstands, and Jesus gave the same picture to his disciples. They are not to hide the truth, like putting a light under a bowl. The are to lift it high, where it can give light to everyone. This then is our calling as a church and as individuals, to life the name of Jesus up so all may enter in the warmth and brightness of his presence. A presence that is fearsome but not frightening, as John found out when he fell at his feet as though dead. For Jesus is the first and the last, the alpha and omega. This morning and every morning our exclamation should be ‘Alleluiah, Christ is risen! Because as Jesus reveals to John ‘I am the living one, I was dead, and see, I am alive for ever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades’.

John is in exile, perhaps sentenced to hard labour; his body may be in prison but his spirit is free. Christ’s revelation of himself to his disciples, to the world and to us, means that we too are free and that our future is secure.

Alleluia, Christ is risen
He is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Amen.

Servanthood – A Call To Serve

Based on Readings: Acts 11:27-12:2; Matthew 20:20-28

Your first sermon in a new church is always a tricky affair. How will the congregation react? What’s it like up in the pulpit? Is your style of preaching appropriate? Although you may have preached many times before, when you have been doing so in one particular church, in one particular place, to one particular group of people, you know that you have built up a relationship and a rapport over many years. Suddenly, the people looking back at you from your new viewpoint are strangers and this is the first time they have heard your thoughts and are eager to see what the new Curate has to say.

Add to all of that the fact that it’s the church’s Patronal Festival, when the life and character of the particular saint that the church is dedicated to has probably been discussed, dissected and generally mulled over for many years and you feel you have to come up with something new?

Sunday 26th July 2015 saw me climbing up into the pulpit at St James, West End, Southampton, to do just that. Here then is an abridged version of my talk.

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

Today we are here to celebrate the patronal festival of St James. James the fisherman, not to be confused with James brother of Jesus or James the author of an epistle. He is one of the closest companions of Jesus, alongside Peter and John, and together with them he is one apostle about whom we know quite a lot about his background and character. We know his father was Zebedee, a Galilean fisherman from whose boat James and his brother John answered Jesus’ call, and biblical scholars have reasoned that their mother was Salome, about whom we’ll hear more about in a minute.

I wanted to find out some interesting facts about James, but I suspect that you may have heard them all before… however, they are all new to me and here are a few I found especially interesting.

St James 'Son of Thunder'

St James ‘Son of Thunder’

 James has a nickname… ‘Son of Thunder!’ Whoa, that’s great… ‘Son of Thunder!’ …makes him sound like he should be in an Avengers movie. Apparently he got this after John and he asked Jesus if they should ‘call down fire from heaven’ to destroy a village and its inhabitants who had been less than welcoming. Needless to say his offer was declined.

You may have also wondered why there is a scallop shell on the church logo. Well, I hope that today you will all be going home to dine on Coquilles St Jacques à la Provençale…no?

This delicious dish of scallops, white wine and mushrooms is traditionally eaten on St James’ feast day, a reference to the saint’s appearance at the battle of Clavijo in the 9th century, riding on a white horse and adorned in scallop shells. On that occasion the Christians were able to defeat the Moors and the rallying cry of the Spanish troops, from that time became ‘Santiago!’

In our New Testament reading, we hear of James’ violent death at the hands of Herod Agrippa. He was the first of the apostles to suffer martyrdom, just over a decade after Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. However, the Spanish have a special place for St Iago, as James is translated, as they believe that his remains were buried in Compostela, having been transported there in a stone boat by angels, a place that has become the third greatest place of Christian pilgrimage after Jerusalem and Rome.

Some really interesting facts and stories; speaking of a man of great loyalty, fiery of spirit but willing to serve Christ to the point of offering up his life. However, in our gospel reading he and his brother have to stand by and watch as their mother tries to secure a favourable position for her boys in the new earthly kingdom she believes Jesus is bringing about. In Mark’s gospel this incident sees the brothers themselves asking for this advantageous position, but Matthew, writing some 25 years later, distances the disciples from this overly ambitious request and chooses their mother to press their case. Interestingly, it’s possible that this was because of their family relationship, as Salome is identified by the gospel writer John, as Jesus’ mother’s sister, making her his aunt and the brothers his full cousins.

What it shows is that the disciples were still thinking about personal reward and distinction without personal sacrifice. Jesus, however, knows that the kingdom he is to bring about is not about earthly values, and that whilst he doesn’t doubt their faith and commitment, it will be the Father’s decision as to what that looks like in the long run. You can imagine what the other apostles, said to James and John afterwards, perhaps some of them chastised them that their mother had spoken out in such a way or they were annoyed that the brothers were trying to gain extra favour. Whatever, it was they were angry about, Jesus points out that being one of his followers is not about human leadership values but instead true greatness comes through servanthood.

I wonder though what we think of when we are called to become servants or even as Paul puts it slaves. I suspect we could have a vision of Downton Abbey and life downstairs, although this particular portrayal is certainly a rosier picture than what it was actually like for many servants. But it’s not really about being powerless at the mercy of others. Instead, we should think about what servants do… they serve… Only three weeks ago at my ordination service the role of serving was emphasised time and again throughout the service. Let me read just one bit from the declarations that we had to make – first the bishop read out the job description.

They are to serve the community in which they are set, bringing to the church the needs and hopes of all the people. They are to work with their fellow members in searching out the poor and weak, the sick and lonely, and those who are oppressed and powerless, reaching into the forgotten corners of the world, so that the love of God may be made visible.

This then is the role of a deacon, to be a servant and what my title is for this first year. However, I don’t stop being a deacon after the year’s up, in fact you never stop being a deacon. Thomas is still a deacon; Bishop Tim is still a deacon and Archbishop Justin is still a deacon*. Once a deacon always a deacon, but despite it being a clerical title every one of you here could also be called deacons.

We are all called to serve in a variety of ways. We are called to serve in the worship life within this church building, whether as ministers or choir members; as servers or sidespeople; as cleaners or flower arrangers for example – everyone offering their gifts and time to build up the church community. But we are also called to serve and to be available to our wider community finding out ways in which the church as a body can meet their needs and be a beacon of hope. The great thing is that we are not called to do it alone as individuals, but to work with and support each other, being proactive as well as reactive. Then, as we serve we will become the visible signs of God’s love to all his people.

Deacons scarf blogOne of the visible symbols of being a clerical deacon is that I wear my stole slightly different to Thomas, who has been priested and I know some of you wondered why. Again it is to do with servanthood. During the Last Supper Jesus removed his outer robe and tied a towel around his waist in order to wash his disciples’ feet. In the ordination service it was the bishop or in my case the abbot who did just that to me.

For Christ it was a way of showing the extent to which he was prepared to humble himself to take on the form of a servant. He was demonstrating to us that we have to set the needs of others before our own. When we remove our outer pride and clothe ourselves in humility then we too can bow down in readiness to serve others

To some people in our society nowadays that seems like an alien concept, where self-satisfaction counts for more than self-giving. Surely by becoming a servant we also make ourselves vulnerable to abuse – we become doormats rather than open doors. I would disagree – if we are serving God and actively seeking how we can bring about justice and mercy for the vulnerable then we will have opened the doors to Christ’s kingdom.

Perhaps we should all consider how we can become more like those visible signs of Christ to those around us. Are we prepared to offer everything so that God’s kingdom can be brought about both on earth and in the future? It’s certainly a challenge and not an easy one. Jesus knew this, but he had trust in his followers. He never doubted that James and John would maintain their loyalty; he knew they had ambitions and their faults, but they didn’t turn away from him – they were prepared to give their all. In the same way he has trust in all of us.

For those of us who were here on my first Sunday, we sang the words ‘Brother, sister, let me serve you; let me be as Christ to you; pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too’. We have all been called to serve in this place. God has placed us here for a purpose; to serve him and to serve one another. Unquestionably, in doing that we cannot fail to become those visible signs of Christ’s love.

Amen

*Reverend Thomas Wharton (Priest in Charge, St James, West End); Tim Dakin (The Right Reverend The Lord Bishop of Winchester) and Justin Welby (His Grace The Lord Archbishop of Canterbury)

©The image used at the top of this blog is copyright and permission to use it has been sought from and granted by the artist. For details of how you can purchase a copy of this or of any of Debbie’s other artworks please visit https://www.etsy.com/uk/shop/DebbieSaenz

 

A Life In Books

A life in books

A life in books

I was recently asked to list ten book that had had an influence on my life. It’s not as easy as you might think, in fact rather than simply being able to dash off a list each one I chose needed to be balanced against another book, another memory, another situation or point in my life. For each one you discard another three or four could easily take its place.

The final ten are therefore not finite and may not necessarily signify every stage of my life in which a book has featured or even the most important; but they are a representation and compiling the list itself was an exercise in discovering how important literature and reading is in my life and no doubt in many other lives as well.

So here is my list, in no particular order, with a brief explanation as to why it made the final ten.

The Classics

The Classics

Here are the classics, the books I studied at school for my English A Level, but also the ones that I continue to read today

1. Aeneid – Virgil
The legendary epic poem telling the story of Aeneas as he travels from Troy to Rome. It appealed to my sense of adventure and love of history, myths and legends.

2. Selected Poetry of William Blake (and John Keats)
Blake’s poetry and artwork really entered my soul and spoke volumes to me, in particular his Songs of Innocence and Experience, but I had to cheat with the addition of John Keats as his was the first poetry that I wanted to memorise.

3. Anthony and Cleopatra/Macbeth – William Shakespeare
These two Shakespeare plays have become for me just two examples of how words, when beautifully written and composed can be understood by any age. A project to study, create and produce a filmed version of Macbeth using the original language with a bunch of 9 year olds proved that.

Reading as children

Reading as children

First reading books certainly can claim an influence on your life. I could so easily have include the Janet and John books which were my first readers; and the memorable time of being on holiday as a five-year old, sharing the same story with a young fellow vacationer – ‘Look, John, look. See tha’ boats’.

Still it is children’s books that appeal to adults as well that remain timeless.

4. Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame
The world of Mole, Ratty, Badger and the irascible Toad spoke of an idyllic vision of the countryside, punctuated by ill-tempered weasels and the disastrous adventures of an annoying amphibian. This descriptive way of writing was only equalled later by Laurie Lee’s ‘Cider with Rosie’,

5. The Blue Balloon – Mick Inkpen
The well-worn copy of this book is testament to just how loved it was by my children. At two and half, my daughter Lizzie could ‘read’ it from cover to cover; every word perfect, every nuance expressed. It was a sharing book and just one of the reasons that I ordered a new copy so that it may be shared with future generations as well

Love of knowledge

Love of knowledge

6. Encyclopaedias
My thirst for knowledge was slaked by the two sets of encyclopedias we owned. One was a series of volumes printed sometime in the early part of the 20th century – the other set from the 50’s. However, both were put to full use, prior to the invention of Encarta and the internet.

Their use nowadays is somewhat limited, but where else could you find Jade, Jam and Jaguars all on the same page!

Strengthening faith

Strengthening faith

My studies have provided me with enough reading material to keep me busy for many a year to come. Whole new bookshelves have had to be created to hold it all, but the basis for it all is found in just one book – The Bible and in particular my 7th choice

7. The Four Gospels
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John have become essential authors as I follow my vocation, but many years ago they also inspired me to help form my character and outlook on life.

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.
Psalm 119:105

8. Making God Possible – Alan Billings
Theology books don’t often make me excited, but it was whilst I was exploring what my vocation might be that I read this book. I suspect is it a bit of specialist, niche book, but it made me want to say – ‘Yes, that’s it, that’s what it’s all about.’

9. The Strength to Love – Martin Luther King Jr
Combine the history and struggle of black, African slaves and 20th century segregation with the teachings of a non-violent pastor and you get insights into a world which I can only imagine and yet have a huge amount of empathy with. These were the subjects of my thoughts about justice and equality as I grew up. MLK’s writings are world-famous, and yet they still speak into so many situations that we still face today

Bero Cookbook blog10. The Be-Ro Cookbook
My final book is actually the 3rd edition of the book I have owned. Despite its dubious sexist cover photos; its dog-eared and bespattered pages tell the story of several decades of cooking favourite recipes. It is also a fact that in spite of those decades, I still need to refer to it each time when making scones for the exact quantities. Why is that I wonder?

So that is the ten that made the list – no mention of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Geoffrey Chaucer, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas Hardy, Harper Lee, Homer…..

Just outside the list

Or the many others that fill my bookcase…

Bookcase blog

Why not have a go yourself and see what your list might contain?

Changing Doubts Into Hope

Baptism with water and the Holy Spirit

Baptised with water and the Holy Spirit

It’s not often that you start a talk in church with a piece of music. However last Sunday, the second of Easter (yes we are still celebrating Easter long after the chocolate eggs have been eaten and the hot-cross buns finally toasted) I decided to see if the congregation were up for a bit of ‘Name that Tune’ The piece in question was the theme tune from Star Wars, Episode 4, ‘A New Hope’

We were celebrating a Eucharist, made all the more special because it was to include a baptism. Our readings included the story of Thomas meeting the resurrected Jesus and it was, looking to the future we are being offered, that we hopefully were to discover that morning

First though I want to ask you a question… Is it just me?? Or do we all have moments of doubts? Doubts about whether we are capable of doing something – if we have the ability or the strength? Doubts about whether we can trust others to carry out the things they have promised to do. Doubts about what the right thing to do is? Doubts about what our purpose in life is? Doubts about where God is in our lives? Is it just me??

Everyone doubted that Noah could build an ark – and yet he went on to achieve this incredible feat of engineering; Sarah doubted that she would ever have children and even laughed in God’s face and yet she went on to be the co-founder of a great nation Moses doubted that he had the articulate skills to face up to Pharaoh, yet with the help of his brother Aaron he went on to bring the Israelites out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. Elijah doubted that God was with him when he fled in fear for his life to Mount Horeb and yet it was there that he encountered him in that ‘still, small, voice’ guiding him as to what to do; Peter doubted when he walked on the water and yet there he was at Pentecost speaking out boldly and clearly, and of course the eponymous Thomas

So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’ John 20:25

So it certainly seems that God has no problem with us having doubts from time to time, after all we’re only human and we’re very often not in a position to see the bigger picture or what the future holds for each of us. What is it that we need to turn those doubts into belief I wonder? What proof will be good enough? For Thomas it was physical proof that the man he had been following and believed in had truly risen from the dead and was very much alive and standing in front of him. Maybe the only proof we’ll accept is when something we’ve doubted would happen has actually happened then we’ll believe it, or maybe if something didn’t happen when we feared it might. Good concrete evidence is often what we seek to allay our doubts and fears

Doubt often comes about because of a fear of failure; fear that we will let people down; fear that what we desire won’t come about. And maybe it won’t – not in the way we think or hope it will… and that I think is the key. The need to change our outlook from negative to positive, changing our doubts into hopes, putting our faith in God not in ourselves. All the while we hold on to our doubts then we are stopping ourselves from believing that things are possible.

Psalm 16 is sometimes translated with the subtitle ‘the hope of the faithful, a prayer of trust and security in God’ and it’s a beautiful lament from David which contains the following lines,

I praise you, Lord, for being my guide. Even in the darkest night, your teachings fill my mind. I will always look to you, as you stand beside me and protect me from fear. With all my heart, I will celebrate, and I can safely rest. I am your chosen one. You won’t leave me in the grave or let my body decay. You have shown me the path to life, and you make me glad by being near to me.’

Appropriate words as we celebrate Christ’s resurrection, but also appropriate for our own lives, as Peter in his first letter tells us, ‘By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead’ – a living, breathing hope that has been placed in all of us.

Font blog

The waters of baptism in the font at St John the Evangelist, Hedge End

And this morning we witnessed that hope being placed into a young child, Noah; whose baptism symbolised a new birth, not of water but of the Spirit. A hope that will be new and vibrant, a hope that will be reflected in the love and example that he receives from his parents, grandparents and godparents; a hope that Noah will need to have reaffirmed from time to time not only by his family, but by the whole family of Christ.

Because it’s all our responsibility to look to the hope that has already been placed in our own lives and to remain steadfast in trusting that God knows what he’s doing and all will be well.

Regrettably, as we’ve already seen, there may still be creeping moments of doubt. Again as Peter puts it, ‘even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials.’ And let’s be honest, all of us have and may be having to face various trials, some more than others, some harder to bear than others. Maybe our faith has been tested to the limits, but, if through it all, we don’t lose hope and believe that we will be given the strength to endure it, then just like metal that when it is tempered by fire is made stronger, so our faith will emerge with genuine hope for whatever the future may bring; and just like Thomas we will be able to declare, ‘My Lord and my King

Jesus tells his disciples, standing there right next to him, that they are blessed because they have seen for themselves with their own eyes and have no reason to doubt only to believe. How foolish we must seem to others to believe in something we’ve never seen, yet we have all come to or are coming to faith in so many different ways. What is it that convinces us that we should believe? Is it a personal encounter with Jesus; is it the love shown to us by those around us; is it an example of a friend, or was it that we just couldn’t believe that our lives are nothing more that this brief span of time. Whatever it was that started you on your journey of faith, be hopeful and hold on to it and remember how blessed you are.

The promises we make to the newly baptised, to support them in prayer, example and teaching we should also make to each other. We should push all of our doubts to one side as we are welcomed into the fellowship of faith and remember instead the one hope to which we are all called

Let’s celebrate that hope, and as always, may Christ’s peace rest in you…Amen

Expect the unexpected in our font!

Always expect the unexpected in our font!

The Empty Tomb

The Empty Cross

The Empty Cross

Alleluia! Christ is risen
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

It was with this greeting and response; as we sat down to share our evening meal that a new term began at college. It was only two days beforehand that I had sat next to the Easter cross in my home church, celebrating Easter Sunday and here I was, back to my studies but with new tasks to complete and new challenges. It seemed the same, but then again it also seemed different

I suspect it was the like that for the women, who approached the tomb on the first day of the week. Yes, a dreadful thing had happened and yes, they were probably a bit disorientated and shaken, but they were coming to do what they would always have done if someone died – that at least was normal, but what happened next was very different

Each Gospel gives a slightly different version of accounts. In Mark there are several women together to who arrive to anoint the body, only to find that the stone sealing the tomb had been rolled back and inside was a young white-robed man telling them not to be afraid, but that the body wasn’t there. Despite his call for calm, they are terrified and flee from the tomb, too afraid to tell anyone what they have seen

In Matthew, it is two Marys who go to look at the tomb, only to experience an earthquake, caused by an angel’s descent from heaven; who puts the guards into a stupor and then shows them that Jesus is not in the tomb. He sends them fearfully, yet joyfully, to deliver a message to the disciples that they are to return to Galilee, only for them to meet Jesus himself who confirms what they must do.

In Luke we again hear about a group of women, who meet two dazzlingly dressed men and after being reminded of what Jesus had previously told them, return to the disciples only to be accused of idle talk until Peter runs to look for himself.

Finally, in John, it is Mary Magdalene who, on seeing that the stone has been removed, runs back to tell this to Simon Peter and the beloved disciple, who both then set off towards the tomb, the latter outrunning Peter to reach the tomb, but respectfully waiting for Peter to enter it first, only to be met by discarded linen wrappings. However, it is after this that Mary in a bitter-sweet moment encounters Jesus and can report this back to all the disciples.

All of these accounts add to the story of what happened, but the one fact that they all substantiate is that the tomb was empty.

‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.
He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.’ Matthew 28:5-6

I often wonder if it shouldn’t be the tomb that is used more as an image of Christ’s resurrection, a permanent reminder of the defeat of death – but equally it is the empty cross that is a powerful and iconic symbol of transformation to which we are drawn.

This is his blood which he shed for you

This is his blood which he shed for you

The truth is that in a way this transformation is what was happening on Sunday, as I watched people, coming forward to place a flower around the cross. The blooms themselves were fresh and vibrant, and everyone placed them as carefully as they could, trying not to bruise the petals. However, some found it difficult to push  them into the ‘ground’, while others knew exactly the spot they wanted in relation to the position of the cross. One flower in particular caught my attention – a beautiful cream tulip, streaked with red, that was placed right in the centre  at the very foot – which looked this morning as if its cup had opened up to catch the blood that would have fallen from Jesus’ body

Yet, as beautiful as this display had become, each single representative bloom was already dying; just as we are called to die to Christ in order to be transformed and given new life. This truly is the joy of the Easter message and yet not everyone chooses to respond to it. That, no doubt, is the greatest regret as far as God is concerned as he tries, in love, to reconcile all of his creation. However, it still doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try and do our part by sharing the Good News

Alleluia! Christ is risen
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

He is risen as he said

He is risen as he said