Tag Archives: sermon

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.


*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


What Does It Take For Us To Believe?

'This is impossible' said Alice

‘This is impossible’ said Alice

Readings for the Second Sunday of Easter: Acts 4:32-35; 1 John 1:1 – 2:2; John 20:19 – end

On the second Sunday of Easter we find out that not everyone was yet ready to believe the incredible Easter news that Jesus was alive. Some people still had their doubts, including the apostle Thomas. We also hear how another apostle, John, was persuading a group of Christians that what he had witnessed first hand was the truth. Put that alongside the growing number of believers who were learning a new way of living as a community and suddenly the question of what it would take to enable us to believe is one that we might ask; which is exactly what I did in my sermon this morning

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

If you don’t mind I’d like to start by conducting a straw poll with a show of hands. There are two main choices, but possibly an infinite number of circumstances and experiences that could fall into either of those categories.

I want you to think about your journey to faith, from when you first took an interest in Christianity to a point when you knew you believed. I wonder whether this was a sudden and datable experience or whether it was more of a gradual process, where you can perhaps remember a time when you didn’t believe and now you do but you don’t know exactly when that happened. Perhaps you’ve always believed or maybe you’re still on that journey.

None of these choices are better than the other, but it would be interesting to know, if you’re willing to share. Put your hands up [Reader, you too can join in, although remember that statistically the result will be 100% for whichever choice you raise your hand to] if your belief followed a sudden, ‘Damascus road’ type experience…… and now if your belief has been more gradual…… We’re actually quite representative of the average, which is about three-quarters describing it as gradual and a quarter as sudden.

I’d actually quite like to stop and hear from some of you about your journeys but I suppose I better carry on… because the really interesting bit might not be when it happened for those already there, but what it takes for us to believe.

The Incredulity of St Thomas blog

The Incredulity of St Thomas, Benjamin West (1738 -1820)

For Thomas it was the sheer physical proof of placing his hands on a man with whom he had spent the best part of the last three years and who he knew had been crucified, had died and had been shut up in a rock tomb and was now according to his friends and fellow disciples very much alive again; a man who was speaking to him and asking him not to doubt but to believe. This apparently indisputable proof led Thomas to publicly declare that Jesus was indeed ‘My Lord and my God’.

Where then does it leave those of us who will probably never have the opportunity to physically encounter Christ, at least not in the same way that those first disciples did? We are told that we are blessed more if we come to believe without seeing. Do we, therefore, come to belief because there are first-hand witness statements available to this event?

The First Letter of John

The First Letter of John

We don’t know for sure who the author of the first letter of John was, but from the very earliest of times it was believed to have been written by John, the fisherman and apostle of Jesus and bears striking similarities to the Gospel of John. Here is someone writing to one of the first group of Christians, who are somewhat unsure as their faith is being tested by spurious claims about whom Jesus really was; that he wasn’t actually human and didn’t really suffer on the cross; that he only ‘seemed’ human.

John writes to reassure these believers, that as a first-hand witness of Jesus’ ministry he and his friends saw and heard and touched Jesus when they became his disciples and shared his life. In this way their testimony is very convincing – they believed that Jesus was none other than the ‘Word’ of God – the source and meaning and purpose of life.

Even so, an eyewitness account is not quite the same as having concrete facts and figures, to inform our belief. Now before you get too excited I am not going to pull the ‘white rabbit’ of incontrovertible evidence out of my theological training ‘top hat’ but in amongst the minutia of historical data plenty of scholars and historian have investigated what might be myth and what could be reality.

WDITFUTB_Lament over the Dead Christ blog

Lament over the Dead Christ, Giovanni Bellini (c1432 – 1516)

We know that without a resurrection Christianity is counterfeit. As the apostle Paul tells the Corinthians, ‘If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless’ 1 Corinthians 15:17. Accordingly, since a resurrection requires death, Jesus’ death by crucifixion has to be regarded as true. This ‘fact’ is attested to by a number of ancient sources, including the non-Christian historians, Josephus and Tacitus, who were therefore not biased toward a Christian interpretation of events.

We know that the chances of surviving crucifixion were very bleak and no evidence exists that Jesus was removed whilst still alive. The unanimous professional medical opinion is that Jesus certainly died due to the rigours of crucifixion, and even if he had somehow managed to survive, it would not have resulted in the disciples’ belief that he had been resurrected.

Il Precusore,

Il Precusore, Giulio Aristide Sartorio (1860 – 1932)

What about the empty tomb? Well its location was known to Christians and non-Christians alike. So if it hadn’t been empty, why would the chief priest have devised a plan to give a large sum of hush money to the guards, telling them to say that ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep’ Matthew 28:12-13. It would also have been pretty impossible for the large group of believers to have suddenly sprung up in the same city where Jesus had been publicly executed just a few weeks before and for those same believers to have been willing to die brutal martyr’s deaths if they knew this was all a lie.

Were people hallucinating when they encountered the risen Christ? Well, usually hallucinations are something that happens in an individual’s brain and not repeatedly on separate occasions and certainly not to groups of up to 500 people! 1 Corinthians 15:6 Even if they were visions, brought on by the apostle’s grief over the death of their leader, surely the body would have still been in the tomb.

Pascal's Wager

Pascal’s Wager

Convincing facts and figures? Well maybe. Or perhaps Pascal’s Wager might be the reason why people believe. Pascal was a seventeenth-century philosopher who theorised that humans live their lives by wagering that believing in God is a good bet because if when they die he does exist then they have gained the best of everything, on the other hand if they don’t believe and then find out he does exist then they made the worst choice and will have lost everything. However if they were to discover after death that God never existed then it didn’t matter what you believed.

So by believing, you are in a win-win situation. This sort of hedging my bets is just one accusation made against Christians who assume that because they believe in the right God, they are automatically good and have a one-way ticket to everlasting life. However, it also assumes that God would always reward blind faith above living a conscious Christ-centred life and all of the obligations that that might bring.

WDITFUTB_Belief is truth blogPerhaps belief and faith are different then… that belief is something that our logical, human minds hold to be true whilst faith is something that is felt deep within our hearts. Or could it be that faith is based on belief and that is why faith alone is not possible because belief always brings about actions and reactions?

Some people might even say that faith is truth held in the mind and that belief is a fire in the heart. Perhaps we just can’t separate the mind and heart, because as we heard ‘The community of believers were of one heart and one mind’ Acts 4:32

I hope you’ve been aware that I’ve been careful to never actually define what it is exactly that we understand and count as belief. Some might say that’s a cop-out; that the church is forever allowing so much laissez-faire around declaring what it believes and stands for that it nullifies any claims it might have to the truth. Well, I’m sure that for the majority of us it will include the belief that Jesus died and was resurrected in order that we might ‘have life in his name’, but that for each of us that might mean something slightly different depending where we are on our journey of faith.

As we walk together in fellowship with each other and with God, let’s make sure that we’re not only helping each other to increase in faith, but that we are sharing our beliefs with others so that God’s joy may be complete. After all didn’t Jesus say ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe’. So let’s go and open a few more eyes to the truth of what we believe.


John 20:29

John 20:29

The Body of Christ

We are the body of Christ

We are the body of Christ

The New Testament module I have just completed was interesting in many ways. Its main focus was on several of the Pauline letters, including the epistles to the Galatians, Romans and Corinthians. New insights were gained into the background, setting and context of these letters as well as the character of Paul himself. This was particularly challenging as my natural tendency is to regard Paul with a small measure of annoyance and a gritting of teeth.

Don’t get me wrong, I have learned to love and admire St Paul; for his sheer hard work and determination in setting up the early churches, his zealousness for spreading the message of Christ and his genuineness in his beliefs. It’s just that sometimes I wonder, ‘Is that really what you meant Paul?’

One passage though, in which he explained the metaphor of ‘the body of Christ’ brooks no argument from me and we were asked to prepare a sermon on it as part of the course. Here then is a copy of that sermon, intended with my own church congregation in mind, but here delivered hopefully to an equally receptive, varied and open online congregation.

The passage it relates to is 1 Corinthians 12:12-26

As the writing on the barn wall stated, “All animals are equal…” This declaration by the animals in George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm laid down a rule which many democratic societies have upheld as a basic principle. However, if we are all equal doesn’t that mean that we all have to be the same? Not physically the same but doing the same thing, thinking the same thoughts, making everything neat and uniform, because in this way we will surely achieve unity. Won’t we? And isn’t uniformity the thing that we as a church strive for in our liturgy, church management and doctrine?

Well equality is not the same as uniformity and uniformity is actually not really helpful to true unity. As the animals later discovered when they added a codicil to the rule – “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” There is something more that needs to happen and Paul points to it in one of his clearest and least controversial statements in his first letter to the church in Corinth, when he identifies what it means to be the body of Christ

We could so easily just look at the analogy of each of the members of the church being represented as different body parts. We all have different roles to play which could equate to a particular limb or organ within a body – the choir representing the harmonious vocal chords; the sidespeople as helpful hands; ‘Jonathan’ [in my own church], who likes to disagree with every sermon, as the grumbling appendix!… Each of us creating a complete and unified metaphorical human being that is wonderfully made, but which can occasionally stumble and fall, but invariably picks itself up again.

 Still is this what Paul really means and is this the only way we can think of being one body?

For a start we are all different, and that’s great; because it would be an odd shaped body if we were all the same part. After all, like a body, we need the unique gifts offered by all of the various members. These various gifts provide diversity, a diversity that is God-given; and coming as they do from such a source they need to be used for the good of all. Paul recognises that the thing that unites us is the Holy Spirit and it is through the work of the Holy Spirit that believers become bound together into one body.

However, our diversity needs to be based on interdependency rather than independence… Just as we use different parts of our bodies to perform different tasks, we all have particular talents which make us very good at the jobs we choose to do; and sometimes we can jealously guard those jobs that we like doing, thereby preventing others from a chance of receiving equal recognition. In addition, if we perceive that these are highly skilled tasks we can begin to give them a superior status, which often leads to pride. Yet the work we perform in God’s name cannot be based on a belief of self-sufficiency – our successes are built on the grace of God and the shoulders of those that support us –this sermon would be pretty pointless if the church and its people weren’t present – and a lot has happened in the past and behind the scenes to bring everybody to this particular point in time. Just take a moment to think why and how it is you are here today?

Moreover, who are we to judge the worthiness of each role played within the church? Just as our limbs depend on muscles, and tendons; nerves and microscopic synapses to function efficiently, and would be useless without them, so we have to ensure that every role a person has is equally valued. Furthermore, we need to realise that if we are working towards a common purpose – a united body – then we have to recognise that there will be some within that ‘body’ who may be vulnerable and therefore need to be nurtured and cared for.

Often, living in a society that prizes outward signs of power and achievement, we can despise weakness and vulnerability, but Paul turns this on its head, so that as Christians we should honour those ‘less respectable members’ and instead afford them mutual respect. It could be anyone of us that fluffs their lines in the readings, or takes a long time to get up to the altar rail or forgets the milk for refreshments…If we learn to be more accepting then the church will truly function as the body of Christ

Of course there are going to be time when we do disagree with each other, but it will be how we deal with this that counts. If our disagreements are forever aired publicly, rather than quietly and with concern for the other person, then we run the risk that we lower the respect that we need to have for each other as well as the respect that others have for us. We devalue the whole

What then should the shape of the whole look like? Well, in a world that is forever dieting and primping to maintain the body beautiful, we need to put that image aside. Our body should be fluid and growing, accepting new members so that every part of the body can grow stronger. We shouldn’t pick and choose what sort of parts or people we might need more of, or reject what might be to some insignificant or worthless. We have to allow people to be what they are; love each other unconditionally and rejoice in our unity – because if we don’t then we not acting as the body of Christ; and In the words of a song by the music group Casting Crowns – “Jesus paid much too high a price for us to pick and choose who should come… and we are the body of Christ”


Lyrics from If We Are The Body – Casting Crowns

It’s crowded in worship today
As she slips in trying to fade into the faces.
The girls’ teasing laughter is carrying farther than they know
Farther than they know

A traveller is far away from home
He sheds his coat and quietly sinks into the back row.
The weight of their judgemental glances
Tells him that his chances are better out on the road

But if we are the body
Why aren’t his arms reaching?
Why aren’t his hands healing?
Why aren’t his words teaching?
And if we are the body
Why aren’t his feet going?
Why is His love not showing them there is a way?
There is a way

Jesus paid much too high a price
For us to pick and choose who should come
And we are the body of Christ

Jesus is the way

© Casting Crowns 2003

Disclaimer: Any names mentioned within this sermon have been changed to protect people’s anonymity and because I would still like to worship there. They know who they might be!