Lent and Easter thoughts

Homilies from 4th Sunday of Lent to Pentecost

by Rev. David Shaw

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Pentecost

Readings: Numbers 11, 24-30, Acts 2, 1-211, 6-14, 1 Corinthians 12, 3b-23 and 5, 6-11, John 20, 19-23

Being brought up in an agricultural community, the month of May in general, and Whitsun in particular, was a very important time.  It was the time of the May fairs!  For a whole month there were simple joys from coconut shies to dodgem cars available to us all in one place or another.  But traditionally they were far more than that, they were “hiring  fairs”, providing a place for farmers to take on prospective workers for the coming year.  This practice was certainly active until the 1960’s in the part of Wales where farms and villages were remote, and  where this was the only contact point between such people.

Traditionally it all happened in Whit week locally which was designated from medieval times as one of the two vacation weeks and as such was a pause in the agricultural year. Its basis however, stemmed from religion and the name was probably derived from that religious origin.  Whitsunday probably originated in White Sunday, a day when a significant amount of baptisms took place.  The people who would be baptised, the catechumens, would be clothed in white.  The high spot for many in my generation was Whit Monday, then still a public holiday, when most events took place.  Each area had their own traditions, and it was good to see, that even in these days of social isolation Gloucestershire still had the rolling of the cheese.  In the South Wales valleys it was the Whit Monday walk and picnic, when people from all of the churches joined together on the walk, followed by a  picnic. Whitsun was a very significant time, a new beginning. A time of hope and joy.

In 1971 Whitsun lost the last of its influence when the public holiday was moved to the last Monday in May. Christianity reverted to its Jewish origins by renaming it Pentecost.  Pentecost was a significant Jewish festival, the festival of Weeks (Shavout) to give thanks for the first fruits of the wheat harvest. This followed a week of weeks (hence 50 days) after the celebration of the Passover. It was a pilgrim festival which would explain the great number and variety of peoples in Jerusalem at the time of our Acts reading.

Pentecost has maintained the concept of the first fruits, in the sense that it heralds a new beginning. Indeed it is increasingly referred to as the birthday of the church, the beginning of the church. There the apostles are anointed by God’s Spirit as tongues of fire rested on each one, and so the liturgical colour is now red, not white.  It has taken on its own character, one of joy. In our present time congregations come to services adorned in red and orange to represent those tongues of God’s Spirit touching those early disciples and those that followed them. It is a day of joy, a day of hope.

There is a further significance, which is the celebration of all God’s people.  They each heard in their own tongue, they each understood in their own way, everyone was party to it.  Yet the difficulty of any idea can be one of ownership, of exclusiveness, and the Holy Spirit is often no exception.  Indeed in their different approaches Christian subgroups  have probably tried to own  the Holy Spirit which  has proved to be controversial over the subsequent centuries. But here as Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, speaks there is no separation, no ownership as each hear as they can or wish..  From Jesus  the parakletos enters into the world to make us all aware of God and bring us  closer to God.  If we wish to see what God is like we are encouraged to look towards Jesus.  In him no one was excluded.

In reading through John’s Gospel account we see an extraordinary gift being given, that of forgiveness.  This was an awesome gift, the power to forgive or retain, a gift which has absolute responsibility at its heart. Could they, can anyone, carry such awesome responsibility?.  Yet as we look more closely at the actual group of people on that first Pentecost, we see people who had failed him dismally at the time of his greatest need, a people who knew failure at its greatest depth. Surely these people, knowing just how much they had received would hold nothing back from those who sought the same thing from them.

In the letter to the Corinthians we see that extra-ordinary gift being extended to future generations of believers, and crucially upon us.  No wonder, then, that we look upon this day with great  excitement upon the  hope that we have been given.  Yet, we also, must look more closely and see its awesome responsibilities, just as those early apostles must have done. Those gifts distributed to individuals take on their fullness when we use them collectively and for the good of all.  They are given for God’s world and God’s purpose. Failure to encompass this vision is so aptly described in the account of the Tower of Babel, aptly predicting even our present situation.

In the reading from Acts we see Peter using traditional words from the Old Testament, “In the last days ,” says God”, I will pour out my Spirit on all mankind””. This prophecy is taken from one of the minor prophets, Joel.  Interestingly for us, Joel’s prophecy came at a time of terrible disaster for Judah, when everything was overrun by a severe drought and swarms of locusts devouring all that was left.  Everything was lost but in response to God’s promise of blessing to everyone, to greatest and to least, the people were to change.  In our present coronavirus situation we may feel similarly. Many people have spoken of the need to change life styles and expectations. The real breakthrough for the world is whether we can hold on to that vision, or will it soon return to the individualism that so typically defined our situation.

So as we recall and share the wonders of the first Christian Pentecost, as its first fruits emerged from those glorious tongues of fire to alight on the people who would carry hope forward, let us also  do so with joy in our words and in our hearts.  As we celebrate the Holy Spirit in our human existence we do so by recognising God’s purpose for her and for us, whether we recognise it in tongues of fire, or as the Holy dove.  It bears our gift from God, God’s gift to the world, not to us individually.  Our only responsibility is to use it wisely!

Notes

  1. In Israel there are two harvests  the early wheat harvest and the general harvest later in the year.
  2. The Book of Joel is difficult to date, but the separate kingdoms would suggest 735BC to 537 B.C.
  3. The tower of Babel is a story encountered in Genesis 11, dealing with the world becoming individualistic and the tower crashing down.

Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire
And lighten with celestial fire;
Thou the anointing Spirit art,
Who dost thy sevenfold gifts impart.

Pentecost
by John Bennett

So free, so bright and fair,
the Holy Dove descends the earthly air:
in startling joyance come
from its immortal home,
it bears the Glory that all mankind may share.

Through ancient space and newest time, it brings
transcendent reason to a world  of things:
it shows each mind and heart
how to assume its part
in dances born of God’s imaginings.

On wings of subtlest flame, the Holy Dove
flies through the world and offers love:
it teaches Heart and Mind
how to transcend their kind
and praise God who lets all things move.

So free, so bright, so beautiful and fair,
the Holy Dove flies through the mortal air:
always there ascending,
it brings the Glory that all mankind may share.

God’s Springtime
by Joyce Huggett

May my resting result in a beholding
My beholding give rise to adoration
My adoration give rise to heartfelt praise and adoration.
My praise and adoration give rise to a love like Yours.


Sunday after Ascension Day

Readings: Acts 1, 6-14, 1 Peter 4, 12-14 and 5, 6-11, John 17, 1-11

It was in 1996 that Mair and I joined a group from the church where we had worshipped for 20 years, to visit the Holy Land.  It turned out to be a wonderful week with people we had known for all those years, but many of whom we had not seen for several subsequent years as my ministry began.  But it was not without its difficulties.  Just a week prior to our departure, a peace agreement had been made between Israel and Palestine which to many seemed very promising.  What had been overlooked, however, was that there were many on both sides in complete disagreement with any such agreement, certainly this one.  Tensions were high even before we started, and much of the schedule that had been planned couldn’t go ahead as planned because of security matters, travel and times were severely restricted.

On the evening we arrived we barely had time to have something to eat before a visit became available at one of the sights we were to have seen later on.  It was to the Mount of the Ascension.  We were beginning at the end.  Arriving there with our expectations at their highest, and our knowledge of the local situation at its lowest, most of us returned feeling very underwhelmed and even disappointed.  A priest I worked with later summed it up, as footprint of Christ (the right one, the left having being taken to a mosque somewhere) was more like someone doing a triple jump!  It seemed that all we would see was tourism.  The reading we had on this site was this, one from Acts, which we have today, but it seemed very hollow.  “Why are you standing there looking up into the sky”, or around the chapel, seemed a very reasonable response.  It hadn’t start well, and some of us were fearful that this would be the tone of the whole trip.  Luckily, we couldn’t have been more wrong.

One of the difficulties in my mind was where this Ascension occurred.  Two of the gospels have it in Galilee, one in Jerusalem and one has nothing beyond the crucifixion, in its original form.  The distance apart certainly wouldn’t have been a problem for God, but I am not so sure when it comes to the disciples.  To be faced with such a spectacle at the summit of the Mount of Olives to be venerated because it was the last place that Jesus touched the earth, just didn’t seem to me to fit. It was as if the place just sort of fitted the story on offer.

Since then I have preached on a good number of Ascension Day services, and the Sunday after Easter when the Acts reading always figured. Remembering that visit made these days quite difficult for me, and still does.  Reading so much of the gospels is so often a journey into the ultimate mystery of God, yet this account, or what we have made of it, just seems about human beings trying to take control of everything, man trying to lever God into something we can handle.  My sermons for this time have been probably much more considered than many others, but sadly never full of the conviction I get when preaching from other aspects of the gospels.  But I will do my best.

So I want to begin today by recounting a traditional folk story.  This concerns a man who was searching for the real gifts of life, something we might well have thought quite a bit about during this Coronavirus isolation.  He was advised that if he genuinely wanted to find those secrets it would entail a very long journey in hazardous territory.  Such was his desire that he had no hesitation in setting out.  The journey was indeed very long and very hazardous, with the man’s life being in real danger on more than one occasion.  Finally, as predicted, he arrived at the village where he would find the answers to those burning questions that had been bothering him for so long.  It looked a very unlikely place to find all he had come for and the only hope seemed to be a little shop with people coming and going.  It seemed like the only place to start, so our intrepid traveller went in, and explained his search.  It was indeed the right place to come, everything could be bought here.  Immediately the traveller poured out his desires, the need for peace in his life and in the world around them, to have healing for all those who were sick, to find comfort to those who were lonely, for the hungry to be fed.  So much poured out from his heart. “I want this world to be a place of love, and so much beside”, he said.

Gently the shopkeeper broke in.  I understand that these things are so important to you, and indeed you have come to the right place, but I am sorry to tell you that we don’t supply the fruits here.  We only supply the seeds!

To me the wonder of the gospels is that they supply the seeds. From them the fruits develop through the apostles, through the early church, through the church of every age even into our own time.  The wonder of it is that the seeds go on growing.  My disappointment at the Mount of the Ascension was simply that mankind was trying to show the conclusion, the final answer.  Jesus never did leave us with that message. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus prays with a deep heart for his disciples.  They are going into a world where there will face many difficulties, many hardships as they grow the seeds he has planted in them.  There will be no certainties, no guaranteed good endings.  The only thing we may be sure of is that we are part of growing the seed that Jesus planted for ourselves and for others.

Throughout my ministry the way in which people, ordinary people have kept on going, tending those seeds of love and hope, sometimes in seemingly impossible situations, has been an inspiration to me personally and also to many others.  They have indeed cherished the seeds that Jesus supplied, often completely unknowingly, and through them those seeds have grown ten-fold, even an hundred fold.  To Philip who just wanted straight forward answers, to see the fruits of all this struggle, Jesus says, “Whoever believes in me will do even greater things than I do”.  The reason is that we will be doing God’s will and for that he will supply all the help we need, even the manure!  All we need is faith, the rest will come from him.

The certainty of a good ending can never compare with the joy of our continual growth towards him and in him.  Something that that man’s need of certainty had, I felt, much of that was lost at the Mount of the Ascension.  In trying to explain we had lost sight of what we wanted to explain.  So let us, instead, take heart in the mystery of God, share that mystery of God, as it enfolds in the very world we live in and in ourselves.   It is a joyful and wondrous journey towards a wonderful and continuing realisation.  Without the search, and sometimes the struggle we may never know when we have found it or realised the gem that it is.

Prayer by Pam March

Lord, it’s hard
to be open to
the full extent of your love.

We want to cage our understanding of you
in the limitations
of our own experience,
fumbling
and stumbling with the words
to articulate
the wonder of your love.

It’s like
trying to hold a snowflake
in our hand,
or keep a rainbow in the sky,
or catch a bubble
for eternity.

We know it can’t be done,
but still we like to try.

Forgive us when we wrestle
with the concepts of your greatness,
and try to measure it
in yardsticks
of our human understanding.

Help us instead, Lord
to trust
and simply let you love us
into wholeness.


6th Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 17, 22-31, 1 Peter 3, 13 – end,  John 14, 15-21

There are a number of ideas and truths which divide the general Christian community, and one of these is the concept of the Holy Spirit.  The difficulty seems to stem from the various ways in which the Holy Spirit has been viewed, and thus translated, over the centuries. Within the Greek, i.e. the original written version the word parakletos was used but through the development of time this has been translated in numerous ways, perhaps because the idea of the Holy Spirit was never completely grasped, or in an attempt to give it meaning at a particular time when the translation was being used.  The trouble with using words of one era in another is that meaning can change as time goes by, and sadly the fullness of what was being sought can be lost.

John Wyclif, who ended his days at nearby Lutterworth, was the first to use the word Comforter to explain the Holy Spirit. This has been modified in more recent translations to helper, advocate and other suggestions, all no doubt to suit the situation of their day.  Wyclif saw the need to restrict the control of the church and the clerics, by providing the people with direct access, with a bible they could read for themselves, a bible they could interpret for themselves.  He began in 1382 and obtained the assistance of like-minded people in the task, but it is a generally held fact that Wyclif himself translated the gospels.  It was thus Wyclif, in his translation of John’s Gospel, who introduced the translation of the comforter, no doubt to suit the very situation that he was translating the bible for.

Part of the problem is, however, is that parakletos has no direct translation.  It is encompasses all those various translations that have used in the course of time, but it is far more.  Generally speaking, parakletos is the person who is called in, someone who travels the journey with us and someone who comes in to be with us in the situation and to enable us to know and speak of God’s world, not ours.  It encompasses all those ideas already discussed in the various translations but would also include such things as expert advice, motivation even, and behind each variation was the concept of courage that we could not muster within ourselves.  The parakletos then needs to be at the heart of what we should be doing, and certainly where we cannot do it in our own strength.

Paul was certainly full of the parakletos.  Finding himself in Athens whilst awaiting Silas and Timothy, Paul lost no time in looking around this great city state and understanding something about its people.  They were certainly not an irreligious people.  Around the city there were numerous shrines and altars but often put up just in case!  The Athenians were also a people who were not shy, or afraid, to discuss religion, and Paul was soon onto the task.  After a few forays into general discussion he was invited to speak in their main council gathering.

A task no doubt which would have proved daunting for anyone, even for Paul.  But for Paul and the Parakletos, the Spirit of God, there was no problem and Paul soon warmed to the task.  Taking as his focus one of the altars he had seen on his journeys around the city, Paul launched into his explanation. I have seen you have an altar with the inscription to an unknown God, but now let me tell you something about that unknown God which you honour, which at the moment is beyond your understanding.  Let me tell you something about Him.

It is indeed the God you have some knowledge of, some memory of, in your living and learning, but one which you find difficult to cope with in all the conflicting demands and knowledge of present life. It is not new to you, but somewhere where you need to know more.  That God which you seek is not one you can predict by human standards.  He is not one who can be won over by shrines or altars, he cannot even be bought by your worship.  This God you seek requires your heart only, a heart of love.  A repentance of where and what and when, we have not loved.  Nothing more than that, and he began to tell them of Jesus, the actions of one who deeply knew God, the same Jesus who was crucified and rose again.

It was there that they stopped him, “We will hear you again on these matters”.  He had challenged them, a challenge that some could take no more of.  Yet they all would have left feeling that challenge, feeling that need to look more deeply in whatever way was right for them.  No one went home the same as they arrived, and some immediately understood what Paul was saying, and joined him.

So, what is our church view of Paul in Athens, was it a triumph of evangelism, or a disaster?  How as a church do we engage with our world, with the situations of that present world?  Are we prepared to be led by God’s Spirit, or do we prefer the safer translations of the parakletos?  In a fast-changing world, we must be prepared to be challenged as well as affirmed.  It is there that the early church found its place and its meaning.  As the centuries have rolled by, has our desire to affirm left us short?  Growing up under a different influence I remember preachers even burning playing cards in the pulpit, of all of us being deeply challenged for our actions, sometimes deeply offended.  But it was the challenge that was important and we came back again.  As we lament the emptiness of our churches is it because we leave our congregations to go home unchallenged?  The final words of my ordination retreat still ring out to me, “You may inspire, you may offend but your only failure will be if you fail to challenge, if your congregation leave as they arrived”.

The world will become a darker place in the absence of opposition and of challenge, perhaps our 75thanniversary of VE day should remind us of that. The closeness of the empty bell ringing out near Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam haunted me when we were there, and we should never forget it. Sometimes it is our place to speak out. It is our duty to speak out, to challenge and that is as important inside the church as out of it.

We will need God’s help to stand firm, and in the parakletos he has provided that help. A parakletos to come in to lead, to inspire and to challenge.

A challenge, a poem, a prayer for our churches in our times

from R.S.Thomas, Everyman’s Poetry. (To some an inspired religious poet, to others a grumpy old man!)

The Country Clergy

I see them working in old rectories
by sunlight, by candlelight,
venerable old men, their black cloth
a little dusty, a little green
with holy mildew.  And yet their skulls,
ripening over so many prayers.  They left no books,
memorials to their lonely thought
in grey parishes; rather they wrote
on men’s hearts and in the minds
of young children sublime words
too soon forgotten.  God in his time
or out of time will correct this.

The Empty Church

They laid this stone trap
for him, enticing him with candles,
as though he would come as some huge moth
out of the darkness to beat there.
Ah, he had burned himself
before in the human flame
and escaped, leaving the reason
torn.  He will not come any more

to our lure.  Why, then, do I kneel, still
striking my prayers on a stone heart?  Is it in hope one
of them will ignite yet and throw
on its illuminated walls a shadow
of someone greater than I can understand?

The Chapel

A little aside from the main road,
becalmed in a last-century greyness,
there is a chapel, ugly, without the appeal
to the tourist to stop his car
and visit it.  The traffic goes by
and the river goes by, and quick shadows
of clouds, too, and the chapel sinks
a little lower in the grass.

But here once, on an evening like this,
in the darkness that was about
his hearers, a preacher caught fire
and burned steadily before them
with a strange light, so they saw
the splendour of the barren mountains
about them and sang their amens
fiercely, narrow but saved
in a way that men are not now.

And perhaps as an antidote to R. S. Thomas

Why are you so afraid?
From Whispers of Love by Pam Marsh

Why are you
so afraid?

Have you, my child, so little faith
in him who would still the raging sea?

Cannot the one who calls you for his work
not calm the inner fears in thee?

Come, you who long to say your, “yes”;
leave all the details in his hand,
for when he knocked and called your name,
to help you through, was what he planned.


Fifth Sunday of Easter

Readings:  Acts 7, 55-60, 1 Peter 2, 2-10, John 14, 1-14.

How are you coping with this period of social isolation?  Whatever your situation, spare a thought for others whose situation may be more difficult than our own.  I heard of a family recently where the both parents were homeworking and dividing their ‘non-working’ time to look after their 4 boys, ranging in age between 6 and 12!  There was affair amount of friction from time to time, as you can imagine, and the parents were often at their wits end to find activities not only to occupy the youngsters, but to do so in a way which actually brought them together in some way.

Dad thought he had found it, well something at least!  As he beavered away late into the night down-loading a map of the world, then emptying a cornflake package and carefully sticking the map onto the opened-up cardboard.  We will be alright tomorrow, he assured his wife, this will take hours to do.  He cut up the map of the world to make a jigsaw of it.

Next day the boys took to the task of the jig-saw with gusto, well with relative gusto in respect of the way they usually tackled such daily activities.  Mum and Dad went to make a cup of tea, fully expecting from the intricate way that they had cut-up the jig-saw, that it would be a good hour or so of peace!  The calm before the storm!   Before the tea had brewed the boys burst through the doorway with the map of the world complete and absolutely accurate.  How on earth did they do that so quickly, they pondered?  It didn’t take long to work out that Dad had stuck the map onto the plain side of the box, and the boys had quickly worked out that there was little chance of doing the jig-saw from that side.  So they simply turned it over, made the jig-saw of the external part of the cornflake packet, which they knew well and was far less intricate, and then simply turned the whole thing over!  Job done!

They had simply looked at the other side, and the task made simple.  Well, that was so often the way of Jesus’s teaching, to get people to see it from the other perspective.  Think of all his actions and his teachings, they were radical in that he looked at them from a different perspective, from the other side. Our gospel reading today sums up that approach. He realises what the impact of his arrest and crucifixion will have on them, and in this discourse, he is preparing them to cope with it.  Do as I have always taught, is his theme. Look at it from the other side.  True to form Thomas is the dissenter, the person who struggles if everything is not clear-cut in front of him.  How on earth are we to know the way if we do not know where you are going?  The cry of all of us at some stages of our life no doubt.  The increasing cry during this our present period of social isolation perhaps, how will it end?  Thank goodness for Thomas, thank God for Thomas.  Thomas is the centre of much of our humanity, certainly our struggles.  But let us never forget that it was in the last and deepest of his struggles when Thomas would accept no other consideration if he could not touch those scars of Jesus, it was even in those depths that God sought him.  It was in Thomas, in all of his struggles against it that Thomas finally looked at it from a different perspective, and he grasped it fully proclaiming “My Lord and my God”.  The final realisation, which had eluded them all up to this point, is that all they had to do to understand the ways of God, was to understand the ways of Jesus.  To have courage to turn the puzzle over and see it in the ways Jesus saw it.

Turning aside to the general picture of the resurrection appearances of Jesus, it is worth noting that they never found Jesus, he always found them.  (If you have time it may be worth just checking the gospel accounts, and always it is Jesus finding them, often in surprising ways).  That is no coincidence, for if we are searching so desperately for God there is no doubt that we will, inevitably, end up finding the God we want to find, often far removed from the God who actually is.  But turn the card over and there is the reassurance that God will always find you, and when he does it will put everything else into perspective.  Many of us have no doubt been through such desperate situations that we desperately needed God, but a God who answered that need.  Yet as we journey on God comes in His way, and when that happens there is a peace far beyond anything that we might have hoped or wished for.  Even in this struggle with Covid 19. Even amongst the 30,000+ who have not survived, even amongst the desperation of loved ones who would have wanted it to end so differently, and in their way, there is still hope, the promise that what we see is not the end, something far greater awaits.  In my father’s house has had so many human interpretations, yet perhaps it is worth just resting on that promise without trying to analyse or come to grips with it.

That was certainly there in the experience of Stephen in our Acts reading for today. In one sense the most terrible thing was happening, but Stephen could see it in a different way, in a deeper perspective.  Even here he could see Jesus, and in seeing Jesus he could see God.  Peter’s letter (in our other reading) is to a very diverse group of people, diverse in backgrounds and faith. They are facing so much hardship, but Peter’s message is the same to them.  Turn over the card, keep your eyes fixed on God through Jesus Christ, and reach out, not for what you have at present, but what God will give you in plenty.

Most of all, if we can just turn that card over, it is not only our lives that will find a new perspective, but the lives of those around us as well.  I have had a number of conversations (over the fence of my allotment, I might add) and the prevailing thought is not about when it will end, but about what we shall be, what our world shall be when it does end.  There is little doubt in the people I have spoken to that all will be changed in some way, that we will not return to the old ways.  Perhaps this is the time for us to focus our mind beyond ourselves and look to God in Jesus Christ.

An adaption of an Eddie Askew meditation from ‘A Silence and a Shouting’

Lord, wouldn’t it all be better
iIf things were organised and predictable?
If I knew the results of my actions beforehand.
If I could work on the interest of my investment
before I made it.
If I could always plant in neat little rows
and watch the seedlings grow exactly right.

I don’t know if it would be better.it would certainly be safer, and more comfortable.
Tidy.
I could work out my plans,
build my dreams, organise my life.
My plans, my life?

Lord, I think that is the point.
I’m looking at the world,
and the work I have to do,
as though they were mine.
But it is your world
and the only long-term are yours.
I  can build my own ideas,
I can do what I think best and wise,
But the wind of the Spirit is yours too.
And as it blows through my life,
help me to see it beyond my own perspective.

Lord, help me to realise
that your ways are beyond knowing,
some things beyond my understanding.
Help me to trust.
When things are beyond my grasp,
Help me to look towards all that Jesus was,
 In him see what you are, you always are.
That in you there is a different way,
different from my own perspective,
a different way, uncluttered by our limitation of time.

Help me to look to Him,
and looking to Him, have the courage to look into the wind of life,
Always knowing that when I am facing Him
Then I am facing you.

The Elixir by George Herber

Teach me, my God and King,
In all things thee to see,
And what I do in anything,
To do it as for thee.

This is the famous stone
That turneth all to gold;
For that which God doth touch and own
Cannot for less be sold.

From  our Gospel reading

“Set your troubled hearts at rest.  Trust in God always; trust also in me.”

 “ I am the way, the truth and the life”

God is the way, the truth and the life”

 


Fourth Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 2, 42-47, 1 Peter 2, 19-25 , John 10, 1-10

We have been brought up hearing the stories, the parables and the actions of Jesus against a background of what he really was and is.  When his followers heard and saw these things, they initially did so from a position of hope and a position of faith.  Suddenly in this Easter season they need to re-assess all their individual and collective memories of what they shared with Jesus in a new light, an understanding of who and what he is. I am sure new light was shed on the memories in view of the momentous events that they and others witnessed.  It would have brought back some cherished moments that they had shared with Jesus, and would certainly have put them into a new light.  It would bring back to mind things they had found it difficult to understand at the time, and brought back memories which had even begun to fade.  It was here that the gospels began to take root, or at least the great traditions which eventually became the heart of the good news.

Amongst their reminiscences there would be moments of clear vision, and I am sure times in the discussions where realisation of things they felt they should have known at the time.  Today’s gospel reading features one of those, sheep.  Sheep and shepherds had always figured largely in Jewish religious writings, especially in the words and actions of the prophets.  Perhaps, even the story of Samuel who eventually located David looking after the sheep, and actually realising that he was indeed the one to be God’s anointed (1 Samuel16), was a story that resonated with them as they began to put together this new picture of Jesus.  The later references of Ezekiel in Chapter 34 would have suddenly become all important as their new understanding of Jesus emerged as the shepherd who came to search for, and to tend the scattered and neglected flock.

The sayings of Jesus in relation to sheep and shepherds certainly resonated with John.  Chapter 10 is a culmination of this image that John has of Jesus. Reading them, especially the section today, can prove to be a little enigmatic though, caused by the fact that these are probably a collection of such events over the period of Jesus’s ministry. Indeed our reading today, seems to me, to be a combination of at least two such events, the idea of the sheepfold. The first 6 verses seem to reflect the idea of a fixed pen where the carefully guarded gate keeps out all dangers and attacks.  This certainly reflects the ‘home or village fold’, but whether it reflects what Jesus had been encouraging them to hear, is another matter.  Unfortunately that is the message of the developing church through the ages, seeing faith as a place of safety.

Yet as we journey into the second part of this gospel reading we see a different fold, a ‘mountain fold’.  Here it is simply stones arranged to form an enclosure with an entrance but no gate.  It is in this sort of fold that the flock would have been, and still are, gathered for shepherding, for caring for their needs and perhaps to rest the flock for the night.  The only gate is the shepherd himself.  The gate can only be used fleetingly to stop danger getting in. It is a place through which the sheep will move in their search for more abundant pasture.  Do our churches live up to that image of the gateway to more abundant life?  Do we enable our faith to be used as a launch place for abundant life?

Sheep certainly never want to be locked up in the fold. At first opportunity they are out on the mountainside looking for new and richer pasture.  Even today, when we have the sophistication of lambing sheds, the farmer will tell you that there is never a desire to keep sheep folded for long.  It certainly makes lambing, and tending the flock from time to time easier, but the sheep will only thrive on the open land.  So if we are to take the analogy further perhaps the style of what our churches are, needs to change significantly.

As the disciples were discovering during this first Easter, Jesus was not a person of ’penning in’ but one of ‘leading out’ to new and exciting life.   The authorities who challenged him were the ones doing the penning in.  In all of Jesus’s actions or teachings we see the fullness of life as the place he is leading us all, from the sick to the sinner.  Leave it behind, reach out into the wonder of life that is before you, is his message always.  Don’t let regrets, mistakes, or even wrong directions stop you.

There is a further important bit of Jewish theology tucked away in this passage, but so subtly that it can easily be missed.  The phrase ‘go in and go out’ is synonymous with freedom.  The person who is free to go in and go out unimpeded, is indeed a free person, a person with peace at their centre.  There are a number of references to it in the Bible, and we hear it quoted from Psalm 121, “God will keep us in our going out, and our coming in from this time onwards”.  That is what Jesus was offering, not something to restrict us, but instead something to fulfil our deepest needs. This account of John’s is not about sheep folds, not about walls but about doorways to life.

“I have come that they may have life, and have it more abundantly”, were the words that echoed in the minds of his first followers.  There was no place in hiding away, or running away, that life could only be achieved through living that risky, dangerous, truth-giving life of Jesus, and they were ready to take it, as day by day new people were drawn to it.  As we continue to live from our “lock-in” or social isolation I have heard many hopes that this will be a new beginning, hopes that we must not return to our old ways.  The churches have attempted to do new things.  But what will happen when it does end?  Will we return to the fold into which others might want to “pen us”, for whatever reasons, or will we look to the door of the sheepfold and know that through Him we have the chance of life in all its abundance.

A Meditation from Eddie Askew, Breaking the Rules

Lord, give me the courage
to be myself today.
To live life as it comes,
welcoming it,
and saying yes to all it offers.

You made me Lord,
and made me human,
so being human can’t be bad.
Nothing to be ashamed of.
And if you made me different
from everyone else,
it has to be because
You want me to be different.
There must be, in me,
something you want the world to see,
something that only I can give,
some colour to enrich life’s palette.

But sometimes,
caution mixes all the colours into grey,
mutes them to monochrome.
I narrow my mind
conform to some picture of safety or responsibility,
endlessly repeated,
leaving me faded, dull.

Lord, teach me to live today.
help me to see
that love and holiness have dirty feet
through dancing about the earth,
hands joined in yours.
That life with you is whole and holy.
That everything I do
can bare your imprint,
be coloured by your love.

Teach me that fear is for Pharisees,
not for the free
That I am free in you
to paint my picture
as I will.
my brush may paint, as long as it is true,
You will be satisfied.

Prayer

Lord help us to see that walls, all walls in the end, will restrict us.  It is doors that lead us out into the wonder of life.  During this time when using those physical doors is impossible, help us to open up the doors of ourselves, to find where you are leading us.  In places where we feel entrapped by walls, lead us to search for the doorway which, in the end, will lead us out to the fullness of life which you have for us. Help us to see that life is not impenetrable walls, not problems but wonderful opportunities.


Third Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 2, 14a and 36-41, 1 Peter 1, 17-23, Luke 24, 13-35

What a difference a spelling mistake can make!  We read in Luke 24,18 of two people leaving Jerusalem immediately after the crucifixion of Jesus, or at least after the Sabbath was over, and one of these people was specifically called ‘Cleopas’.  Luke had built this account around a person whom he named, yet in all the other parts of the gospel that name never appears.  What a strange thing to do, to tell of such an incredible event make these two people at its heart , and then choose to name this man but not his companion?  Who was this man?  The gospels lend themselves to such wonderful accounts that it is so easy to read them at one level and then be left to our own the conclusions without any understanding of the context or the people. In this approach we lose much of what the writer was hoping to communicate.  If the details are not that important why was the name there at all?  It all points to an error somewhere, perhaps even by one of those first monks who hand copied all these texts.

So who is this person Cleopas, what is his significance?  I think the story has to hinge around the knowledge of who he is.  By missing a letter from that name, or by adding a  letter in other versions of the Bible we come to either Clopas or Cleophas (depending upon which present day version of the Bible you are reading) one indeed may be a shortened version of the other and even then we only come across this person once.  Yet in this one meeting real significance is added.  We actually do not meet him directly, we meet his wife (In this village I am often greeted as Mair’s husband!).  In John 19.25 we meet her with Mary, Jesus’s mother, and Mary Magdalene at the foot of the cross as Jesus was crucified.  That was her significance to Jesus, and that, I believe, is the significance of adding Clopas’s name to this incredible resurrection account and the chances are that his companion was his wife, who was certainly in the closest circle of Jesus. Clopas and his wife were not just random people, they were important people and not just in this resurrection event.

The next thing to ponder is what they were doing.  It has often been proclaimed (even by me, before I had sufficient time to think about it a little more deeply!) that they were just getting away from Jerusalem, getting away from the trouble.  But as you take time to read, and re-read, this account the events don’t fit that context.  To start with they meet up with the stranger, and very freely enter into a conversation about Jesus with him.  Would you do that if you were running away?  Then, when they got to the village where they were going they invited him in! Now that’s another strange thing for someone terrified and on the run.  It doesn’t stop there. They even invited him to share and break bread with them.  There has to be some other explanation as to why they were on that journey, and that, to me, was simply that they were going home!  After the terrible events and the terrible disappointments and disaster of that time, they were doing what we all do from time to time, we head, for a place of safety  and so often this is something we associate with home.

In his poem, “The West Wind”, John Masefield focussed on his call and need of home as he recalled his Shropshire beginnings,

It’s a warm wind, the west wind, full of birds’ cries:
I never hear the west wind but tears are in my eyes.
For it come from the west lands, the old brown hills
And April’s in the west wind, and daffodils.

It is that great memory of home, that safe place,

Will ye not come home brother/you have been long away

And later,

I have balm for bruised hearts, brother, sleep for aching eyes.

Home, the place of certainty and safety , that is the place where Clopas and his wife were going, to pour balm over their sadness, to rub oil into their wounds of disappointment.

Then as the stranger broke bread it was as if their eyes had been opened and they recognised Him.  This was indeed the Jesus whom they mourned. Why, on that part of the journey, when had they shared with him as he recounted, the collective history of the Jewish people, had they not recognised Him?   Then……….. before they could take it in, he was gone.

Here we come across the most incredible phenomenon of it all.  In this and all of the resurrection appearances the people concerned never recognise the risen Lord immediately.  They always recognise Him through something which is special to them, their name, the breaking of bread, fishing on the lake, and even with his “Peace be with you”.  It is as if the Risen Lord is caught up in

Them,  and us.  These appearances are not meant as pieces of history, nor justification or proclamation, they are there as reassurances to the people who seek Him.  He is our ultimate safe place , the greatest home of all.  It is in Him that all things will be well, all manner of things will be well.  It is that very message which He had been telling them in the whole of their time together, their only real home was God.  I have balm for bruised heart, brother, sister, sleep for aching eyes.

Armed with this knowledge what could they do?  No bruised hearts, now, or aching eyes.  They have found all that they needed. Nothing now could hurt or defeat, the risen Lord had found them.  So straight way they headed back to Jerusalem to share it with His disciples, their friends, only to find that he had appeared to them as well.  What a re-union it must have been, and, thereby, creating a life-changing need to tell that great news to all.  What a powerful moment to set out on their incredible journey. One thing is for certain is that no danger nor threats would put them down again. They have found their home again in Jesus, nothing the world would throw at them could ever change that.  His very presence, his risen presence showed them their link to God and although that future may still have much uncertainty and even difficulty and disasters, they know that they, with us, can face it with absolute hope.

Prayers and poetry

The call
An anonymous 17th Century prayer from Christian Poetry Collection

My blood so red
For thee was shed,
Come home again, come home again:
My own sweet heart, come home again!
You’ve gone astray
Out of your way,
Come home again, come home again.

From The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

And he said,
Shall the day of parting be the day of gathering?
And shall it be said that the day of my eve was in truth my dawn?
And what shall I give to him who has left his plough in mid-furrow, or to him who has stopped his winepress?
Shall my heart become a tree heavy- laden with fruit that I may give to them?
And shall my desires flow like a fountain that I may fill their cups?
Am I a harp that the hand of the Almighty may touch me, or a flute that his breath may pass through me?A seeker of silences am I, and what treasure have I found in silences that I may dispense them with confidence.

Fragility
from Whispers of Love by Pat Marsh

My child,
my precious child….
I love you so.

I have my arms around you now.
I feel the fragile, tender,
all-consuming pain within.I am so close:
and only I
know all that you are feeling.

This moment is a precious holy moment,
for I am here:
you and I are together here.
And though you may perceive that you are alone,
yet you are not, I am here. 

Rest awhile, within my arms,
And I will hold you through,
for I have strength enough for both of us.

Let yourself relax
into the wonder of my peace.

Take courage, child,
for I am here,

and all
shall be well.

Yes,
all shall be well.


Second Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 2, vv.14 & 22-32, 1 Peter 1, 3-9, John 20, 19-end

Any of the accounts following the resurrection of Jesus are just joyous to read, and John 20 is no exception.  The picture John builds of the disciples in a locked room begins the story, the room probably being the very room where Jesus had celebrated the Passover with his disciples.  As an aside some people contacted me regarding the fact that the “last supper” is not recorded in John.  The reason for this is straightforward in that John regards this event, and the arrest of Jesus took place a day earlier than the Synoptic recording, so the meal would be an ordinary meal with his disciples, hence no “Elijah’s cup” to upset Iscariot.  But now there they hide in that locked room, terrified, fearing for their lives and certainly with each one very critical of their own betrayal of Jesus.  You can almost feel the tension as John recounts the event, so much so that, I suspect, it was too much for Thomas to take…in other records in the gospels he is not acknowledged for his patience or long suffering!

Then suddenly Jesus is there, miraculously in the midst of them, even though the door would have been securely locked and guarded.  “Peace be with you”, he says to them.  Now there is the first bit of the reading that needs a bit of pondering.  We have come to regard “Peace be with you” in church situations as a sort of holy moment, indeed re-enacted in the sharing of the peace.  In the event it was nothing of the sort, it was the normal everyday greeting.  Yet in this normal everyday greeting so much more was transmitted to all, to the people of the time it really was saying “May God give you every good thing”.  I suppose our Good afternoon, or whatever, has a similar deeper hope behind it.  Yet in this context, where something miraculous has happened, something far beyond any of their understanding, we still see Jesus greeting them in the usual way, as friends and as human beings.  It is sometimes an area where perhaps our church has lost its common touch, or to quote one ex-nun, now an Anglican Priest, we can become so heavenly minded that we are of no earthly use. But here in the Gospel account it is simply the forgiveness of Jesus reigning supreme, no matter how badly they have fared in the past.

With the formalities over he breathes on them and gives them the Holy Spirit.  What a wonder, what a joy….but is it?  With that wonderful gift came a demand, a demand that many of them, and us, recoil at.  Here is the person they had betrayed so badly, forgiving them without even a word of recrimination.  All He required is that they should do the same to others, all that he requires of us is that we should do the same.  That perhaps we could possibly adapt to suit ourselves, but he leaves us no room for manoeuvre, “The sins you forgive will be forgive, the sins you retain will be retained.”  What an awesome responsibility, perhaps one as individuals and as a church we haven’t coped with very well at all.  Then, with that he was gone!

Nothing further happens for eight days, when the whole thing is repeated.  But this time Thomas is present.  In the intervening period, true to form Thomas would have none of their excitement, none of their hysteria.  If balderdash had been in the Aramaic language I can well hear Thomas saying it!  His actual words were simple, “Unless I see the print of the nails in his hands, and unless I put my finger into his side, I will not believe.”  Then just as suddenly as before Jesus is there in their midst.

(Interesting speculation, had Thomas been missing for eight days and this was the first time he was back with them?  It wouldn’t surprise me from the little bits we know of Thomas, he was certainly not a person to do something until he was good and ready.)

But now here was Jesus in their midst and inviting him to do the very things that Thomas had insisted on.  We already know something of the loyalty of Thomas.  Despite the references as “doubting Thomas” we see something of his loyalty too.  In John 11, v16 when Jesus said that he was going to Lazarus who had died, the disciples were very uneasy about it for they knew the dangers.  It was Thomas who put all those doubts to one side, his loyalty to Jesus rang out as he proclaimed, “Let us also go and die with him.”  Jesus knew the qualities of this man, knew what he had to do.  And there as he touched those wounds Thomas cried out, “My Lord and my God”.  There, the very first to acknowledge it, the first to speak it, with no room for manoeuvre.  Thomas sees it and grasps it, and acknowledges the deity of the man he had previously and sometimes reluctantly followed.  This is surely one of the most inspiring moments in the whole Bible.  Sadly John attributes a further comment to Jesus which takes away some of the impetus of the moment.   In the statement about believing with or without seeing, we sadly lose sight of that wonderful revelation of Thomas, his great contribution to the journey of faith most of us travel.

There it ends.  Indeed as you read the next two verses you will come to the end of the original Gospel of John.  Your eyes will tell you there is another chapter but this would have been added later for some reason, either by John or someone else.  Next week we may find out why.  But for now, let us end with the words of Thomas ringing in our ears,         

“My Lord and my God”

Okay God
by Pamela Marsh, Whispers of Love

Okay God,
you’ve got my attention now.

It took a little while, I know.
Lesser folk would have given up on me.
But giving up on people
is not in your style,
and all the time
you were quietly there,
knocking,
knocking on the door of my dreams.

You called my name so many times.
yet so many times I questioned you,
responded with
Who, …….me?

Come on, you’ve got to be joking Lord.
But what about…….
What if………
Who…….ME
This feels just crazy, Lord.

So many times I doubted, reasoned, questioned
had the audacity
to think you had got it wrong!

But finally,
at last,
I’m listening, God.
Yes, yes okay God
you’ve got my attention now.
My ears have heard your call,
my eyes have seen your signs,
my hands have touched your wounds,
and finally, wonderfully,
you have touched my heart.

Some further notes on Thomas……..just for those who want them!  Please don’t read on unless you feel a need.

Thomas appears 12 times in the Bible, once in each of the Synoptic Gospels in a list of the disciples, a further eight in the Gospel of John, and finally once in Acts.  Thomas certainly appeals to something in John.  But each of the three events when he is referred to, Thomas is always used in a somewhat demeaning way.  There has been much speculation from theologians about this relationship between John and Thomas, did they not get on, or was there a sort of irony going on in the writings of John whenever Thomas was on the scene?  It is perhaps worth noting that whilst Thomas only appears in a periphery way, even in John, prior to today’s momentous proclamation, he then becomes a central player being at the lakeside in Galilee with Peter and then again in Acts with Peter.

Thomas is certainly more than the few situations we see of him in the gospels.  In the Apocrypha to the New Testament we find “The Acts of Thomas”.  A further separate document, “The gospel of Thomas” was found at Nag Hammadi as part of the Dead Sea Scrolls.  This fact that it was found with Gnostic material has tended to put Thomas into the Gnostic camp, but the writings of Thomas fit more closely into the orthodox view.  The contents of these documents are simply the sayings of Jesus, with no attempt at putting any context or chronology to them.  In many ways they are similar in style to John’s gospel, preferring to search out meaning rather than report on basic factual details.  The dating of Thomas’s gospel eludes the theologians, with one school of thought suggesting it was written before any of the canonical gospels, whist others put it later some even to the 2 century.  Whatever the answer to this it does not preclude the high importance of Thomas in the early Christian movement, with these texts if not coming directly from him, to at least coming from traditions handed down from Thomas.  (In a previous homily explanation I wrote of at least one secondary document which we no longer have, but was used by Matthew and Luke in compiling their gospels.  This document was probably in a style similar to Thomas’s gospels, and possibly Thomas sayings could have been part of these extra sources.)

The documents of Thomas could have come from India.  There is evidence that Thomas undertook 2 missions to India, and, even to this day, Thomas is venerated in those Indian Christian communities and churches.  Coming from this distinct source might well explain the difference of style that Thomas has used.

On a personal note, during my training for the ministry, one of our lecturers, Suggi, was from one of such Indian  church community and who taught us never to accept what had been said or written by others, but to read what was written originally  and listen to what it said to you individually. His style still reminiscent of Thomas yet he inspired in us a great love of the gospels which has remained with me through my whole ministry and is still as strong to this day. I am eternally grateful for that questioning and somewhat unorthodox approach he inspired in me and the joy that has given me over the years.

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Easter Day

Readings: Jeremiah 31,1-6, Colossians 3,1-4, John 20,1-18

In the midst of our present crisis it is good to remind ourselves of the great Easter proclamation:

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

With so much going on, with so much change and concern for life, with so many uncertainties it is so easy to lose sight of this great hope of Easter. It is so easy to let the situations we find ourselves in to become the focus of all our thoughts, that everything else is put to one side.

For us as Christians Easter cannot be put aside, it is the place and the time that all things will find their meaning. Even in difficult or desperate times Easter remains our hope. When all other things fail, when things seem to be going backwards, or sliding increasingly out of control, Easter has a message, Easter brings hope.

That hope today begins with Mary Magdalene, surprisingly for the Gospel of John. Whilst we know a lot about Magdala from the Synoptic Gospels, we do not meet her until she is there at the foot of the cross with Mary, his mother, and Mary the wife of Clopas. There, in the most open and dangerous place to be, we meet her for the first time as Mary, his mother, requested the body of Jesus (details in the notes) for the body which Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus had laid in a tomb. The Sabbath was approaching and the all would have gone away since it was not lawful for a Jew to do anything on that day.

We know nothing about this time, other than the great struggles and the great fears they must have been going through. So great was the anguish for Magdala that she could wait no longer, she broke the rules of the Sabbath and somewhere in the fourth watch (between 3am and 6am) she had to return to the tomb to anoint her beloved Lord. The Gospel account gives a dramatic and heart-felt account of what then happened, but the message is clear. although she desperately sought out his body as she involved others in her distress. By her own efforts she could not find Him. It was Jesus who found her! How beautifully John records that moment when Jesus says ‘Mary’ and in an instant all she seeks is found, that wonderfully compassionate moment when only our name will do.

I am sure many of you, most of you, have been in situations when you desperately sought out the Lord. For some there were times, that no matter how hard you tried, you could not find him, could not feel his redeeming presence. During these last 4 months with our son-in-law being so seriously ill, and his family so devastated we tried so hard to find God’s presence. In my case I got to the stage I could not find the thoughts or the words to even reach out, yet in the seemingly emptiness, he found me. When all I could do was light a candle by Paul’s photograph, yet hope came. When all I could do was to carve a holding cross, again hope came. God found me! Even when I could not find Him, even when all I had to offer was my desolation he found me.

This is as it has to be! The more we search for God the greater danger there is that we create an idea of what we think God should be, rather than what actually God is. The greater the danger is that we create a God whom we want, rather than a God who wants us all. But, as Magdala found, in God’s way he finds us, not as we would like it to be always, but beyond all, we are redeemed by Him.

In the conversation between Jesus and Mary this theme emerges again. “Do not hold on to me” Jesus says to her. This has often been a difficult passage to understand for those studying the gospels. Here he is saying to Mary not to do something, yet not long after he is inviting the Disciples to put their fingers into his wounds. The difference is in the word used, I think. Do not hold on to me, do not grasp me all seem to indicate a feeling of not trying to own me. Later in this Gospel Jesus invites Thomas, and the disciples, to feel those wounds (as also recorded in Matthew and Luke) . The difference, it seems to me, is in the use of the words “hold” and “touch”. Reach out and touch me for whatever reassurance you may need, but do not grasp me, do not hold on to me, for there can be no growth in that for you, seems to be the message. We can only move in what God is, rather than what we want him to be.

The whole account seems to point to something beyond understanding in human terms. It reaches far beyond the recently read account of Lazarus. For Lazarus simply came back to the old world, Jesus had moved into a new world. Lazarus was raised in the old world, Jesus is the resurrected Lord, as such a new level of vision, a new way of being.

Perhaps that is something we can relate to in our own times as we struggle with Covid-19. People are doing immensely well in general, coping with difficult situations and helping others to cope. But the question will not be how well we coped with what is now, but rather what our future will it be. Will it be a return to our old ways, simply seeing this as a blip as we move forward again in the same old ways, or will it will be moving on to a new world. Already we have seen that the structures we have built up in the past are redundant and those who were regarded as less crucial, have now become the most important. The last shall be first certainly springs to mind. Perhaps the new world will be one not based on self-centredness but on a way in which we can love our neighbours, near and far, just as much as we love ourselves. There the resurrection will move forward; a new world awaits.

Early Scottish Prayer

God guide us with thy wisdom,   God chasten us with thy justice,

God help us with thy mercy, God protect us with thy strength,

God shield us with thy shield,  God fill us with thy grace,

For the sake of your anointed Son.

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Notes for any who might want them

  1. Jewish funeral matters in time of Jesus: there were two burials. The first would have been as a body laid out on a slab for a period of a year. At the end of this time the bones would have been put in an ossurary, a box, and stacked in the back of the tomb. A new tomb would have no ossuraries.
  2. The bodies of condemned people: Some sceptics make a point that since Jesus, as a condemned man, could not have been placed in a tomb. From later information in a non-Christian publication, Digenta, and a non-Christian writer Josephus, we learn something of the etiquette of bodies relating to convicted people in 1st and 2nd centuries. It was not as the Apologetics suggested that they could not be buried, but that permission had to be sought by a family member from the Roman authorities for bodies to be buried and granted. Permission would not be granted for those convicted of High Treason against the Roman Empire or its rulers. The reference in my article to Mary his mother emphasises the important part the family would have needed to play in the burial of Jesus.  Joseph and Nicodemus would not have been able to take his body without her, or another family member, seeking and receiving permission from the Roman authorities for this happen. Hence the gospel accounts are fully conversant with the Roman Law of the time.

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The Liturgy of the Palms

Readings: Psalm 118, 1-2, 19-24, Matthew 21, 1-11

The Palm Sunday journey begins, and the intriguing events which led up to Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It is worth noting that in Matthew we see Jesus and his disciples reaching Bethphage and his request for them to collect a donkey. This is the only time in the Bible that Bethphage is mentioned so it cannot in itself be of much significance. The thing that makes it significant is its situation, being close to Bethany when the readings of last week centred, the raising of Lazarus. It is probably to Bethany, where Jesus was known, that the disciples went to collect the donkey and foal.
(Mark’s gospel makes it more clear of the people he knew there.)

The Gospel of Matthew gives a vivid account of the fervour of the city as Passover approaches, made up of Jews from around Jerusalem and many on the required pilgrimages from all over the world where they had dispersed as the northern kingdom disappeared. The full understanding of the event can best be found from a census taken some 30 years later by a Roman Governor (circa 60 AD) which estimated that 250,000 lambs had been slain at that Passover. If you then combine this figure with the Passover regulation that a lamb was to be shared between 10 people, an idea of the total number emerges. Between 2 and 3 million people in a very small city. No wonder excitement, religious and political fervour are running high.

Jesus certainly knew how to choose his time!

But…but….how did they know about him, know about the things he had done, to create such a stir? The premise of the Synoptic Gospels is that this was the first visit of Jesus to Jerusalem, that his ministry had been focussed in Galilee. A little geographical knowledge enables us to see that Galilee and Jerusalem are separated by Samaria. Samaria had been part of Israel lost to the Samaritans, and there was certainly no love lost between the Jews and them. The Samaritans had even taken over some of the most holy Jewish sites and made them their own. The Jews tried to avoid going through Samaria at any cost and any travel between Jerusalem and Galilee meant a drawn out and tortuous route avoiding Samaria. Added to this the people of Jerusalem had always regarded the Galileans as a bit of a difficult people, so there would not have been much connection between them.

So, we are left with the question concerning the excitement that surrounded Jesus’s triumphal entry. It could only be explained if something very significant had happened, and probably in the near past. I won’t draw your attention again to the raising of Lazarus but it must have been something at the least on this scale, to explain the rapturous response to Jesus as he entered Jerusalem.

And Jesus fully entered into the drama!

Jesus entered on a donkey! Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey but they did not see it, or if they did, they certainly did not recognise the significance of it. Perhaps their minds were too full of their own hopes and expectations of him, going back to the stories from their recent history of how the Maccabees had some 200 years previously cleansed Jerusalem and the Temple. The picture for them was Simon Maccabeus riding into Jerusalem, as their King and priest, having just won a semi-freedom for Jerusalem. That is what they wanted for Jesus, so much so that they forgot he was riding on a donkey, their picture they saw was of Simon Maccabeus riding on a white charger.

But Jesus entered not in conflict                        but in peace

Jesus came not to destroy                                  but to build up

Jesus came not to condemn                               but to heal

Jesus came not in the might of power              but in the hope of love

But they didn’t, or wouldn’t, see it as it was. They saw only what they wanted to see. They had found the person with the power to throw out the Romans, to rid themselves of everything they did not want. So “Hosanna” they shouted, as they strew branches and garments in his way, much as they would have remembered from their history as they vainly pictured him entering as King, as Jehu had done many centuries before, and as Simon Maccabeus had done just 160 years before.

“Hosanna” they cried

Now hosanna is a word much changed in meaning from that time. In our time it is a statement of reverence and worship or a call of awe or acclamation, but not to the people of Jerusalem in the time of Jesus.

Hosanna to them was a plea meaning                ‘save now’

Hosanna,           save us now

Their excitement was that they had found the one who could return everything to what it should be or to what they thought it should be. Jerusalem would be free from all imperial powers. They had found the Messiah, or at least the Messiah that they longed for. Nothing was more important than that. But there is no such thing as ‘their Messiah’ or even ‘Our Messiah’. When they realised that, the cries of ‘Hosanna’ soon became cries of ‘Crucify him’. What a pity they put self before what God was offering.

Before we criticise too much, we as a church have done such similar things over the centuries and even now it is so easy to fall into that same trap. Perhaps as we approach this end of Lent and, taken with our enforced isolation, it will enable us to see where we too have failed God and substituted our need of God instead of what God actually is. Perhaps, if we had, one outcome well might indeed be a more Christian world and a more Christian church full of Christ like people. It is perhaps interesting that our “virus” struggles and the enforced time we spend alone, has not been nearly as difficult as we might have imagined. We have found space and time to see what is really about. That cannot be a bad thing for the events of Palm Sunday blatantly remind us of the perils of putting our own needs and our own expectations above anything and everything else. For me it has been a time when I could reflect and listen to God, rather than to myself or even to those who keep telling me what I should do. I hope it has been for you also.

As on this day we keep the special memory of our redeemer’s entry into the city, so grant, O Lord, that now and ever he may triumph in our hearts. Let the king of grace and glory enter in, and let us lay ourselves and all that we are in full and joyful homage before him, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
H.C.G. Moule, SPCK Book of Christian Prayer

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Fifth Sunday of Lent

Before you start, ponder this:    What is the most important statement in the New Testament?

Readings: Ezekiel 37, 1-14, Romans 8.6-11, John 11, 1-45

The raising of Lazarus

There is a story that St. Francis once attempted to preach on this account of the raising of Lazarus but looking at the expectant faces waiting for him to speak, he could not find the words. “God has not given me anything to say to you” he said as he blessed and left the disappointed crowd! As I sit at my computer I know something of how he felt. Indeed I am suddenly pleased that for the latter 10 years of my full-time ministry, on this Passion Sunday we did not have a sermon, but it was replaced by a long reading of the Passion!  This long account in the Gospel of John is indeed a difficult one.

Firstly, it is difficult to grasp, that although this story is such a large part of John’s Gospel it does not appear in any other gospel account. How can such a manifestly important happening not be included? Various reasons have been given, but one prominent theory for that is that the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke were in part based upon the memories of Peter, and for whatever reason, Peter does not appear at all in the Gospel of John. Was he not there at this time? Even if he wasn’t there this would surely have been such a miraculously powerful event that it would have been much discussed among the disciples. Others have suggested that this in some way an allegory to John’s overwhelming desire to portray Jesus as the light of the world, and uses some incident, perhaps the raising of Jairus’ daughter as a basis. But why Lazarus, Mary and Martha?

The inclusion of them leads to another powerful theory, one which perhaps has a much more of a meaningful answer in it, or at least where they lived did.   Bethany was very close to Jerusalem and with this comes a very political problem. This event was probably the very start of the major problems that led to the crucifixion of Jesus. Up to this time there had been lesser problems between Jesus and the Pharisees, but with this event, which we shall see in a moment there was a major challenge to them, things changed. The fact that it changed everything, we see in the next Sunday’s readings, Palm Sunday. What on earth had changed so that so many people cheered and welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem? It had to be a major event, what more major than the raising of a dead man? The Synoptic Gospels are very anxious to convey that Jesus only went to Jerusalem once, when the descriptions of major festivals indicate that he was there more than once. The gospels all arose from oral traditions, and there was probably a very wise decision taken early on, that following the crucifixion of Jesus, those early accounts tried to draw a distance between them and Jerusalem. John, being the last gospel to be written, in about 80AD, had more opportunity to refer more safely back to events which showed the inner knowledge of the new community, which by this time was less threatening. John certainly thought so, making it to be the significant account of the ministry of Jesus.

So, what is it in this account which the Pharisees found so threatening, which formed the basis of such a catastrophic event as the crucifixion? Probably summed up by two words directly from the Gospel account, “Jesus wept”. From time immemorial God would only have been understood if God was devoid of emotion. Once emotion enters any situation basic tenants of truth are compromised. From the Greeks onwards, we see any reference of emotion to a higher authority, either human or spiritual, removed. We have seen in the readings which have been used for Lent many people sensing the radical teaching and preaching of Jesus, from the Pharisees themselves to the Samaritans In a sense they were intrigued by it or at the very least happy to go along with it. But the raising of Lazarus, and especially when Jesus wept it changed all that. (The Synoptics themselves may have recorded this as a secret phrase when Jesus wept, he looked over Jerusalem). Here was a God who cared, either in Jesus or through Jesus, and it threatened the very heart of their faiths. Apart from those who wanted to protect the history and tradition of where they had come from, the word was received with great joy. A God who cared, cared for Lazarus certainly, and by implication for them all. This was indeed the Messiah they hoped for. Word and excitement quickly and widely spread, and climaxed in the triumphal entry to Jerusalem. It was certainly the event that led to the crucifixion of Jesus.

A God who cares! That indeed is what we as Christians have to offer. Not a God who can change but a God who cares, and a God who will thus redeem. By what we do and say let us proclaim to the world that hope, which is often still threatened by the idea of love and compassion.

Prayer

Thank you, Lord Jesus, that you will be our hiding place, whatever happens.

Corrie ten Bloom

So, what is the answer to the question at the beginning?

JESUS WEPT. It was the start of the whole event, and it is the hope we always have before us

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Fourth Sunday of Lent

Readings: 1 Samuel 16,1-13  Ephesians 5,8-14    John 9,1-14

In the journey through Lent the stories of Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman give us a picture of a great desire to get to the heart of what Jesus is, but the picture never really comes into focus for them. Nicodemus, because of his connections, remains a great admirer of Jesus but cannot quite see enough to let go of his tradition and status to really see what Jesus has to offer. The Samaritan woman on the other hand glimpses the real Jesus but, this time through tradition, does likewise and needs the re-assurance of others to focus on Him.

Today’s gospel reading on the blind young man goes far beyond that. It is an account of a young man whose “sins” go far deeper than himself, and he is indeed the only person in the gospels to have been afflicted from birth (it is in the writings of the early the later Christian accounts, Acts for one, where we see this happening).

Here is a young man afflicted from birth, and by the reckoning of the day such affliction means sin. The young man is again something different from the others that we see in the gospels in that he was not an outcast or anonymous. In fact he was quite well known, the Pharisees knew him and the disciples knew him. In point of fact the disciples knew his parents also for there is no mention of them having to search around for them.   A young man who doesn’t appear as destitute from his affliction but one who desperately needs to change things. A young man also who is both confident and resolute. Did Jesus know this man also? Or did he see something very special in him?

Jesus certainly saws in this young man the opportunity to correct may of the false ideas of the time. This blindness is certainly not anything to do with sin, either of his own making or that of others. It is a place where the redeeming work can go on. So through Jesus that redeeming work of God took place, and he did it in a way that the man could understand. Jesus used his own spittle to combine with the dust to make a paste and then to spread it over the eyes of the blind man, the rest is as they say, history. There were no words, no chants, no throwing out of evil spirits, no prayers. It is done simply by the touch of Jesus, the touch of God’s love.

We live in a world where touch is difficult. It can be misinterpreted, and in our world of the coronavirus downright dangerous, to be avoided at all costs. But if we read the Old Testament or the New, we find touch so often at its heart. Indeed the Samuel reading is of the anointing of David by pouring oil over his head. Love and touch are the heart of what our faith has to offer, so how do we achieve it?

We must find a way. In our threatening world, in our suspicious world, in our increasingly insular world we must find a way to touch, in a way that is re-assuring to those we reach out to. At this Jesus was very adept, in discovering ways which were both acceptable and re-assuring to the recipient, rather than blundering on with our own ideas. It is the recipient who must experience it, not something for our own delusion. More than ever the church needs to touch the world reassuringly, and perhaps the candles we place in our windows can be a start of this. At the very least they will assure others where such love can be found.

Returning to our gospel account that touch was made, and even quicker, the arguments began to rage. Who had given this young man his sight? For the man himself there was no doubt it had come through Jesus. For the Pharisees it could only have come from God, and they strengthened their case by drawing attention to the fact that it had happened on the Sabbath, a day when the Law made it quite clear that no work could be done.

The Pharisees remonstrated with the young man, but he stood his ground, evidence again that this man had not been blighted by his affliction. Getting nowhere with him, unable to get him to change his mind, they sought out his parents and a new scenario develops.

“Is this your son who was born blind?” is the question but the implication was much more serious…..sort him out!

In most commentaries, hence in most sermons, you see the parents as evasive in fear of the Pharisees. This is a perfectly natural conclusion because it was they who had the power to ex-communicate anyone from the Temple and the faith even. But that was to exclude people from their society also, so it probably was a reasonable response, “to go and ask him, for he is of an age”

If you look more closely, however, at the young man, look at how he has grown-up despite his affliction, there is an indication that his parents were much more than this, evidence of a much more forward, enlightened upbringing than the usual. They have not brought up a son to do what tradition demands, but a man to think and discover for himself, to analyse for himself and to bring things into focus in his own life. The very response of the son suggests a very enlightened parenthood.

The Pharisees may have wanted him to see through their focus, but he was determined to focus through his own.

During the recent and desperate illness of our son-in-law, Paul, we have had to bring into focus. It is certainly not the focus we would have wanted or chosen, not the focus we would have hoped for. It was the focus of what is, of what will be. It was a time when as a family, certainly for me as an individual, that was too difficult, and at times too desperate, even for prayer. It was a time to bring ourselves into focus, something day by day we are still doing, helped by the loving touch of so many around us.

But for Paul and Helen and their family the situation was far worse. Whilst the commitment and the outstanding care of the surgeons and medics in general has been outstanding, the real wonder has come through a chaplaincy visitor, Ray. It is he who brought life into focus for Paul. How did he manage it? By simply being there twice a week and talking about the things they had in common, the fishing, and the health service, and when it came naturally about how his faith has sustained him. It was the healing of God, yet it came through Ray, the very thing that Jesus brought into the world. It was there that Paul could put a handle on what was happening, on what had happened in the 8 weeks that he knew nothing about, on the future. It was Ray with his faith and yet human focus who was the healer.

To paraphrase the young man in our gospel account he was really saying to the Pharisees that, “you are trying to make me see things as you want me to see them, but Jesus has simply enabled me to see, to bring it all into focus, God’s love pouring through him did that”. As a church, as followers of Christ we can all do that, and perhaps it is never more needed than now.

EASTER 2020

Alleluia he is risen!

What a strange Easter it is for us all this year.  With none of our usual collective worship leading us through Holy Week to Easter Sunday, we face the journey to the cross alone or only with those we live with or meet online.

So many disadvantages, but there are some positives.  We have the chance to reflect more deeply, to pray more, to read the readings of the day more than once and consider them more carefully and to care for others who ill, alone or anxious.  And there is plenty of choice of worship, reflection and prayer available online for you to choose those that suit you.

Rev. David Shaw has been writing his homily each Sunday since our churches closed.

You can read them here.

Karen will be leading Morning prayer at 9.00 am  and Evening prayer at 9.00 pm every day from Maundy Thursday to Easter Sunday. Let her know if you wish to join and she will send you a link.

Celebrate@4 is posting videos – find out more

Here is a list of links to help you through Easter week.

  1. Diocese of Coventry Holy week and Easter services
  2. BBC television broadcasts
  3. St Mary’s Warwick 
  4. Easter Sunday at 9.00 am online with the Archbishop of Canterbury
  5. Broadcasts on BBC Radio 4
  6. St Mark’s in Bilton is broadcasting on Facebook – details of how to join 
  7.  Holy week reflections by Rev Richard Cook – written blogpost or video on Facebook
  8. Sing Resurrection, 10.00 am on Easter Sunday
  9. Broadcast services from the Taize Community

Lord Jesus Christ

You taught us to love our neighbour and to care

for those in need as if we were caring for you.

In this time of anxiety, give us strength to comfort the fearful

to tend the sick and to assure the isolated of our love and of your love,

For your name’s sake.

AMEN

Do let us know those you have found most useful and contact your church warden if you need help.

Bishop of Coventry from Diocese of Coventry on Vimeo.