Bread of Life

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Today’s Gospel continues the reflection on the story we had two weeks ago, when Jesus fed 5,000 people with 5 loaves and 2 fish.  In last week’s Gospel reading, Jesus announced “I am the bread of life”, which made a clear connection between the miracle in the wilderness with the offer to us of the bread of life.  The key message of today’s Gospel is that the bread of life opens the door to eternal life.  Let’s think about what that means.

 

Think about the memorable meals that you have enjoyed.

 

On Thursday, I was invited out to lunch.  My friend has reproductions of two paintings by Brueghel on her wall, and these paintings mean a lot to her and she has researched and studied them.  One of them shows a number of fruit and vegetables, which were new and exotic when Brueghel painted them.  My friend gave us a meal that used the ingredients depicted in the picture, so we had tiny tarts of humous and raspberries or peas, lemon chicken, risotto of artichoke and white asparagus,  mangetout peas and a variety of tomatoes, gouda cheese and pumpernickel, with cherry tarts to finish.  It was a very memorable meal – the food was exquisite. 

 

Meals can be memorable in other ways.  Sometimes it’s the setting, the place that makes the occasion.  My husband Sheridan and I were once invited to a dinner of Irish historians at the Irish embassy in London.  I don’t remember what we ate, but they were very generous with the wine and there were a lot of speeches at the end. 

 

And meals can be memorable because of the people who are there.  Which is probably why I have a clear memory of lots of Christmas dinners with the family. 

 

You will have your own memorable meals. 

 

And that meal in the wilderness two thousand years ago must have been memorable.  Not for the menu – bread and fish, no frills, no fancies.  The location must have been interesting, an outdoor picnic in a remote place, but we are not told anything about the landscape or the beauty of the place.  Calling it a wilderness makes it sound dry and arid.  And the company?  Five thousand people – and that was just the men – plus all the women and children – was not exactly cosy.  Some of them might have remembered Psalm 78 where the people of God complain and mock God: “Can God prepare a table in the wilderness?”  And there they were in the wilderness, and food was provided, in bountiful quantities, enough for everyone.  And was this God’s provision?  Yes it was.  I wonder how many of them recognised that?

 

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is uncovering more layers of meaning in that memorable meal.  He recalls the way that God fed the people of Israel in the wilderness – this is the story that Psalm 78 is also remembering.  When Moses brought the people of Israel out of Egypt and through the deserts, God fed them for 40 years with miraculous food.  They had enough to eat until they came to the promised land.  It was holy food because it came from God, but at the same time it wasn’t the kind of holy food that nurtured them spiritually, that brought them closer to God, that meant that God was dwelling in them.  Psalm 78 calls it the bread of angels, but the real bread of angels was still to come, the bread that Jesus’ offers as his body. 

 

Jesus is the Bread of Life, the living bread that comes from heaven.  Every time we receive Holy Communion, Jesus feeds us with himself, so that Jesus becomes part of who we are.  That is just so amazing!  Jesus wants to be part of us, and wants us to be part of Him.  At the Last Supper he gave thanks for the bread and wine and shared them.  He said “do this to remember me”, and so we do it, week by week, remembering Jesus, being fed by Jesus, being nurtured and sustained, becoming more like Jesus as we absorb his body and his blood.  The bread of angels is offered to us, a precious gift.  It unites us with Christ and it unites as a community who share this holy feast. 

 

There is another memorable meal I will never forget.  It was the 7th October 2001, not too far from here in Birtley.  In the morning, I had been ordained priest at Durham Cathedral and in the evening I presided for the first time at Mass.  It was such a privilege.  Almost 17 years on, it remains such a privilege.  I come with empty hands and I offer the greatest of gifts – the body and blood of Christ.  I am nobody, but the body of Christ is everything. 

 

Jesus says that whoever eats this bread will live for ever.  It is the bread of heaven, the bread of eternal life.  When we eat this bread we are committed to living under God’s rule to bring God’s everlasting kingdom to earth.  And we have the confidence that when our bodies die, we will live on. 

 

I pray that this will be a most memorable meal for you.  You are here to eat the bread of angels, the most precious food you will taste.  Here in this church, a pale earthly pattern of the glory of heaven.  Here, in the company of your brothers and sisters in Christ bodily present at this time and in all the ages past and in the years to come.  Here, the angels in heaven rejoice with you and give glory to God.  Here, Christ himself is giving you his body and his blood. 

 

Jesus says to us:  I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 

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Kings, Rulers & THE Kingdom

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Sometimes people in power think they can behave any way they like, especially when it comes to people who are more vulnerable or people who are a nuisance or people who offend them or disagree with them or point out their failings.

 

We see this today in the way Donald Trump has been splitting up families of immigrants, and the way he has treated people who have experience of his appalling behaviour towards women. 

 

There is no sign that Trump recognises the wrong he has done.  In fact, he is full of self-justification.  He thinks he is in the right, that he is the best, that he has done nothing wrong.  He even stated recently that he has the power to pardon himself.  That was in relation to the special council Russia investigation. 

 

Herod, on the other hand, does seem to have a guilty conscience.  Mind you, what he did was pretty bad. 

 

Herod Antipas, the Herod in today’s Gospel reading, is the son of Herod the Great who features in the stories of Jesus’ birth.  Herod the Great was king by permission of the Roman rulers.  When he died, the kingdom was split into three and governed by three tetrarchs – and Antipas was one of these.  A tetrarch was not quite a king, it was the next level down.  In today’s Gospel, Mark calls Herod Antipas king, but actually, he wasn’t.  And the Herods ruled by permission of the Romans. 

 

On our holiday to Munich recently, we visited the fairytale palaces built by Ludwig II.  He was king of Bavaria 1864-1886, but he was subject to constitution.  All he had to do was sign documents.  He really wasn’t very interested in the art of ruling or diplomacy or leading the nation, but the longed for the power and the influence and glory held by his hero, King Louis XIV of France, the sun king.  He wanted to be a proper king.

 

The Herods were a bit like that.  They had some small power, but they longed for greater power.  They wanted to be religious rulers like David and Solomon with the support of the people behind them.  Instead, they were unpopular and hated by the people. 

 

The home life of Herod Antipas was less than exemplary.  One time, when he was visiting his half brother Philip, he fell in love with Philip’s wife Herodias and proposed to her.  So Herodias divorced her husband Philip and went off with Antipas, while Antipas divorced his wife.  It was all pretty scandalous, like the tabloid accounts of the sexual shenanigans of royals or presidents in our own day.  Antipas has stolen his brother’s wife, and that’s just not on.

 

John the Baptist spoke out publicly against the situation.  So Herod put him in jail.

 

But Herod had one saving grace.  He like to listen to John.  He didn’t always understand him, but he wanted to hear what he had to say.  He didn’t always like the message, but he knew that it contained a truth.  There was part of him that wanted that truth. 

 

Herodias, on the other hand, was having none of it.  Nobody was going to tell her that what she was doing was wrong.  She was going to have her revenge.  And she took it.  There was a drunken, debauched party for Herod’s birthday and she manipulated the situation behind the scenes and had her daughter Salome ask for John the Baptist’s head on a platter.

 

Herod could hear the two voices:  John’s voice – the voice he didn’t understand but he knew it made sense, the voice that cried out against him but held the truth.  And the voice of Herodias his wife – calling him into further evil in order to save himself from shame. 

 

According to the historian Josephus, Herod had John killed because he was afraid that John would be the focus of a rebellion against him.  And that may well be another dimension in the story.  Herod was trying to protect his kingdom and preserve his honour.

 

John the Baptist was killed because his message conflicted with those who held power.

 

Herod Antipas wanted so much to be king.  But his way of being king was to misuse power to control the truth ad to enjoy a lifestyle of pleasure and debauchery.  Ludwig II so wanted to be a glorious leader like his namesake Louis XIV, and the only way he could do this was to spend all his money and all the public funds he could lay his hands on to build amazing palaces where he could cut himself off from everyone else.  And President Trump – what does he want? – to be loved and lauded and looked up to. 

 

And then Herod Antipas starts to hear stories about Jesus. It’s early in Jesus’ ministry and people are trying to make sense of who he is.  Herod picks up some of the gossip that Jesus is a prophet, maybe Elijah returned to life.  But Herod’s conscience stirs and he thinks Jesus is John the Baptist returned to life.  He knows the execution of John was wrong.  And now he is afraid that he might get his comeuppance.  He is pierced by guilt. 

 

Guilt is not comfortable.  Guilt happens when we recognise that we have done wrong, when we have hurt someone, when we have pursued our own interests at the expense of others.  Actually, guilt can be really healthy, because it happens when we face up to the truth about ourselves.  Because then we can do something about it.

 

And the message of Jesus is that God will forgive us whenever we turn to him.  I wonder if Herod heard that message?  I don’t think so somehow.  God love us so much that he will always wipe the slate clean and help us start again.  We can’t do it for ourselves.  Trump thinks he can pardon himself in political terms, but he never can pardon himself before God. 

 

The kingdom that Jesus proclaims is where God rules, where God is king, not someone who puts himself forward as perfect, as the best.  The kingdom of God is where sins are forgiven, where God forgives us, where we forgive those who hurt us, where we have the confidence that whatever we have done, we are still loved and accepted by God. 

Sabbath rest

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In the first story of creation in the book of Genesis, right at the beginning of the bible, God made the world in six days, and it was very good.   On the seventh day, the Sabbath day, Saturday, God rested.  And the people of the Jews observe that day – as you might say – religiously.  It is a profound day of rest.  Local people have often told me how they are sometimes asked to turn on a light or do some small task that our Jewish neighbours are forbidden to do on the Sabbath.  And it is a really good practice to take rest seriously.  We sadly lost that discipline when Sunday trading was introduced in August 1994.  Now we have no excuse for rest and relaxation and enjoying the company of friends and family.

 

Today’s Gospel reading tells us two incidents that took place on the Sabbath.  In the first, Jesus and the disciples are walking through fields of corn, and as they go, they pick a few heads of grain and eat them.  The religious people are horrified.  This was one of those little tasks that are forbidden on the Sabbath.  The religious people have a good go at Jesus for letting the disciples graze on growing corn.  It’s in the tone of “call yourself a holy man and yet you let your followers disobey one of the important rules of our faith!”  they want to show Jesus up.

 

That story is then immediately followed by another.  In the synagogue, the place where they gathered to worship God and pray, there was a man with a withered hand.  Maybe he’d had a stroke, which left his arm and hand useless.  Everyone is looking at Jesus.  They knew that he healed people, but would he heal someone on the Sabbath?  And the conventionally religious people are looking for an excuse to criticise Jesus some more.  Some people take a lot of pleasure when others do wrong – it makes them feel ever so good about themselves, because they perceive themselves as being better than that.  Jesus knows what’s going on in their hearts, and he challenges them: “Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath or to do harm, to heal or destroy?”  No one says a thing.  There is no answer to that without condemning themselves.  So Jesus heals the man.  His hand is restored.  And the religious people are furious!

 

So Jesus is breaking the rules, which are quite clear in the bible: the Sabbath is a gift from God (Exodus 16), the Sabbath is a day of solemn rest and whoever works will be put to death (Exodus 31), over and over again, you find similar things are being said.

 

But Jesus turns it all round.  The Sabbath is good, the Sabbath is a delight – until you use it as a means of judging others or punishing others or saying that you’re better than the others because you can afford to keep the rules properly.  The Sabbath is good, the Sabbath is a delight – until you use it as an excuse for not helping those who are in need.

 

I follow a Jewish teacher[1] on twitter from the US, and every Friday evening, he signs off for 36 hours for his Sabbath rest.  It is a weekly reminder of the blessing of Sabbath time, of setting aside the busy-ness of life, and just being, rather than doing.  We really do need some of that in a world where the pace is rapid and the pressures are constant.  Another rabbi[2] on Twitter summarised the Sabbath like this:

  1. Avoid technology.
  2. Connect with your loved ones.
  3. Nurture your health.
  4. Get outside.
  5. Avoid commerce.
  6. Light candles.
  7. Drink wine.
  8. Eat bread.
  9. Find silence.
  10. Give back.

 

We really need to reclaim some of that.  People will do it differently:  My day of rest is a Monday, but these days I tend to spend it running after toddler granddaughters – which gives me great joy but is not hugely restful.  I know that the older I get, the less energy I have, and I have to take more breaks.  For Margaret and Brian, their Sabbath time is their holidays, which are an important part of their life, perhaps the only time in their busy lives when they can just sit back and enjoy themselves.

 

When I was ordained, I was given a book by Nicholas Allan, called Jesus’ Day Off.  It’s a children’s book.  I think it gets given to a lot of people when they are ordained deacons and priests.  Let me read it to you.

 

READ BOOK

 

It’s a reminder about the need to take time out and enjoy yourself, to have a balanced life.

 

Jesus criticises those who mis-use the Sabbath and turn it into a means for belittling others and denying help to those who need it.  In our culture with all its pressures, I don’t think Jesus would be telling us to work every hour God sends us and to fill our time with good deeds.  I am sure he would be telling us to smell the roses and taste fresh-baked bread.  Then you will have the physical and spiritual energy to live out the love of God.

[1] Lee Weissman

[2] Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg

Meeting God

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How do you experience God?

 

Someone I know through Twitter encounters God in what she calls small beauties.  These are the little things, a cluster of wild flowers, a bird that comes close, a bee in the sunlight, a cat stretching in a warm patch, that keep her in touch with God.  They are a perfect point of Creation, reminding her that there is still great beauty in a troubled and troubling world.  For her, God is in everything, and each small beauty is a moment of grace.  It’s not just about God the Father Creator, because she sees Christ present at that moment of creation and Holy Spirit lights the fire.  The Holy Trinity is a dance that flows through everything.

 

Other people I know find God in great landscapes or sunsets – the big examples of creation.  When I worked in the NHS in Darlington, I took part in a Common Purpose programme.  One day, we were taken to a factory where they made bridges.  It was a huge building, like a cathedral.  It was the end of the day, and most workers had gone home, just a few left on the factory floor, and it was pretty quiet.  They were making two bridges at the time, a motorway bridge for somewhere near Manchester and a bridge for Japan that needed to withstand earthquakes and had to be accurate to a millimetre.  All of a sudden I had a powerful experience of God as Creator – not in the sense of pretty vistas and chocolate box images, but God as engineer, constructing things that served a purpose and which worked to enable connections and keep people safe.  And Christ was there, because what the incarnation means is that God is involved in all the stuff of human life.  And the Spirit was there, because that kind of creativity takes huge imagination and ability.

 

How do you experience God?

 

In the sermon at the royal wedding last weekend – yes, I am still talking about it – Presiding Bishop Michael Curry was talking about God’s Love, because God is Love.  And Love is at the heart of the Trinity, the way the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit relate to each other, the way God relates to the world.  This is pure, unselfish, sacrificial love.  Love that shows us how to live.  Love that changes the world.  Love that means that we don’t need guns or nuclear weapons.  Love that means that children will have enough to eat.  Love that means everyone is family.  There is power in that kind of love.  When we experience love like that, we find ourselves in the heart of God.  When we encounter the power of love, we meet the Holy Trinity.  Where there is love, God is there.  And God want us to keep that love flowing and growing.  That kind of love gives life.

 

For ten days from Ascension to Pentecost, we followed the novena for Thy Kingdom Come, and people met together in the chancel to say prayers and use the readings and explore the pictures that had been provided.  It was a powerful experience.  Earlier this week, someone else who had been following the novena at their church told me how they had experienced the presence of God calling them to serve in a very particular way.  Sometimes God just creeps up on us.

 

How do you experience God?

 

We meet God in gentle ways and in powerful dramatic ways.  Sometimes we barely even notice.  It is like seeing God out of the corner of our eye.  We can train ourselves to take more note and when we do, we can be amazed at what God is doing in our lives.

 

Today Sophie and Stash are going to receive Holy Communion for the first time.  I have been going to their house and working with them over many weeks, leading them through a course of study.  God is important to Stash because he made pets and animals.  For Sophie, God created the world and humans.  And they are now going to meet God in the sacrament of Holy Communion, which is another way of experiencing the presence of God.  They are coming close to God, and God will come close to them.

 

On more than one occasion, I have met people or had email conversations with people who had dreams or visions of Jesus.  Wow!

 

You experience God in different ways at different stages of your life.  And the God you meet is the Trinity.  And though it’s always God you meet, sometimes your experience is more God the loving parent, or creator, or it’s Christ who gets alongside us and understands what we’re going through, whom we find in compassion and caring, or it’s the Holy Spirit, inspiring us, dancing in us, blowing the cobwebs away and disturbing us.  And we call those different ways of knowing God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

 

It is amazing that we can experience God, and in so many ways!

 

We can meet God because God loves us so much and wants to be involved in our lives.  God wants us to engage, to be open.  God wants a conversation.  God wants a relationship with us.   And God doesn’t limit us to knowing him in only one way – God meets us where we are, in the middle of our lives, and speaks to us in whatever language we are prepared to listen.

 

So how do you experience God?  Think of all the ways and all the times in your life.  And give thanks because you can meet God for yourself.

 

And then I have one more question.  How does God experience you?

Appointing God’s workers

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In the reading from Acts, we are between Ascension and Pentecost.  Jesus has ascended into heaven.  Judas has taken his own life.  The apostles are down to 11.  Peter is with 120 believers, and he talks to them about appointing a successor to Judas, so that there would be 12 again.

 

The number twelve was important.  There were twelve tribes of Israel, so the number 12 was integral to the history of the Jews.  Jesus had appointed twelve apostles, and said that they would “sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel”.  So Peter clearly felt that 11 just wouldn’t do.

 

The means they use to appoint the successor apostle is interesting.  They take nominations from the community.  The criterion is that those nominated should have been among the followers throughout Jesus’ ministry and had been there for significant events, especially Jesus’ resurrection appearances.  When two people have been proposed, Justus and Matthias, they pray for God’s wisdom and then they cast lots – maybe they rolled a dice, or used straws or some other method.  By casting lots, they were putting the decision into God’s hands.  And through that process, Matthias was appointed.  We don’t know anything about him and we never hear of him again in the Bible.  He does have a feast day – tomorrow, the 14th May – but the absence of information makes it difficult to relate to him.

 

If they had waited for the Holy Spirit rather than jumping in so quickly, the Spirit may have revealed Paul as the additional apostle – which is what actually happens, when Paul encounters the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus and becomes the apostle to the Gentiles.

 

The story raises the question for us about how people are appointed to take on roles and responsibilities in the church.

 

Let me explain first how people are selected for ordination as deacons and priests.

 

People who feel that God is calling will need to talk to their parish priest – or the chaplain if they were university or college students.  The priest will put them in touch with the Director of Ordinands – who is the person in every diocese who is responsible for managing the process of selection.  The Director of Ordinands will then put them in touch with a Vocations Advisor, who will work with the person who feels God is calling them.  The Vocations Advisor will meet with them regularly, helping them to think through their sense of calling.  The Church of England looks for qualities in 9 areas in candidates coming forward for ordination.

 

Eventually, the person will attend a Diocesan selection panel.  Here in Durham that means having interviews with three people who seek to discern the calling in relation to their education, their spiritual life, and pastoral care – both their ability to offer pastoral care and the ways they have of maintaining their own pastoral care.  When the Diocesan panel feels a person is ready to go through to the next stage, they go to a national selection panel, where they stay for 2 nights and have a number of interviews and procedures designed to help the team assess the candidate.  After that, the candidate might be recommended to start theological training, which takes two or three years.  After that, they can be ordained as a deacon for a year and then as a priest, serving first as a curate, working with a parish priest.  Yvonne is getting a curate who will be ordained this summer – and that is the process that he will have gone through over the last few years.

 

Here in church, we have to think carefully about who does what.  We had our Annual Meeting a few weeks ago, when we elected the people who serve as Church Warden or on the Church Council, and appoint those who serve as Sidespeople – their responsibility is to welcome people who come to church and make sure they have everything they need.

 

Those are the obvious roles, but there are other jobs to be done:  Brian regularly visits one of the Care Homes for older people to hold services; and a number of people help with Fun @ 4 – our monthly service for children and families where we do craft activities around a bible theme.  And every now and then, someone comes up with a new idea.  We also have rotas of people who read lessons, do the intercessions, assist with administering Holy Communion, and serve.

 

It is great when people come forward to volunteer for jobs and offer to help.  It is good for the church and it is good for their own development.  We are committed to “Safer Recruitment”, which means that we need to interview people who want to take on responsibilities within the church.  This is about checking out that people understand the responsibilities and that they will undertake them faithfully and according to the values of the church.

 

I am hoping in a few weeks time to start a course on different aspects of liturgy, which I hope many of you will attend.  This will be about giving knowledge and growing confidence in some of the roles around leading worship.  As people go through the course, the PCC will decide who should do what jobs: reading lessons, doing the prayers, administering Holy Communion, and so on.  We do need more people who are willing and able to do these jobs, so that there are enough people to share the work.

 

We do not cast lots, as the early Christians did, to find people to help with the work of leading and running the church.  We do need to pray about who we ask to help – to pray for the Holy Spirit to guide us and to give us the people we need to do God’s work here in Bensham.  Next week at Pentecost, we will be thinking about the gifts that the Holy Spirit pours upon individuals and upon the Church.  In the meantime – pray for the coming of the Holy Spirit into this place so that we might proclaim God’s good news and help to build God’s kingdom.

Them & Baptism

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In last week’s story from Acts, Philip baptised the man from Ethiopia in a roadside pond.  In this week’s story from Acts, there is another baptism.

 

The book of Acts tells the story of the early church, starting with the Ascension of Jesus – which we celebrate on Thursday, then the day of Pentecost, which we celebrate in two weeks’ time.  And then the first half of the book of Acts tells the story of Peter, and the second half tells us about Paul.

 

In the book of Acts, we get glimpses of how the early church operated, and we hear tell of a number of baptisms.  And I have to tell you that there was no consistent practice, because they were still working things out.  And also because the Holy Spirit was not going to conform to any sense of order.

 

Now the way we do things in the Church of England is that baptism is the way you become a member of the church; that is the act of first commitment to following Christ, whether you are making that decision for yourself, or whether the parents and godparents are making that commitment on behalf of a child.  In the early church, the bishop was responsible for baptising new Christians, and as part of the rite, the bishop would lay hands on the candidate and pray for the coming of the Holy Spirit.  As the church grew, the bishop simply couldn’t be available for every baptism, and so that rite was split.  Baptism – particularly of infants – was delegated to priests, and when the child was old enough to make their own commitment to Christ, they would come before the bishop at a special service and the bishop would confirm their faith and pray for the Holy Spirit.  So Baptism and Confirmation are really parts of the same process.

 

In today’s story, it all happens the other way round.  Christianity grew out of Judaism, and the early Christians were all Jews.  But then Peter is asked by a gentile, a non-Jew, called Cornelius, to explain the faith of Christ.  While he is talking to them, the Holy Spirit comes upon the people who are listening to them.  Nobody was expecting that to happen!  We will hear a lot more about the Holy Spirit over the next couple of weeks, but the first thing you need to know is that you can’t control the Holy Spirit.  Peter sees this happen and realises that he cannot deny what the Holy Spirit is doing, so allows Cornelius and his family to be baptised.

 

In this story, the Holy Spirit comes first, and the baptism confirms the action of the Holy Spirit.  In other stories, and in current church practice, it’s the other way round.

 

There is a question about how easy should it be to get baptised, and that is something I am still struggling with.  Families come along with babies and small children and ask for baptism, and the tradition has been to assume that the families want the children to be part of the faith of the family, and that they will bring the children up at Christians.  But very often, we don’t see those families again.  We try to be as welcoming and helpful as possible, to give the families a good experience of church, so that they don’t get reasons to hate us.  And then we just have to trust to the Holy Spirit.  It takes a huge amount of humility not to resent the families who just come because they want the party afterwards.

 

Years ago, I was having my hair cut.  The hairdresser was telling me that she was going to Christening.  She said how much she liked going to Christenings.  I saw an opportunity for a theological discussion.  “That’s interesting,” I said. “Why do you like going to Christenings?”  “Oh,” she said, “because I don’t normally go to the pub on a Sunday.”  End of conversation.

 

Over the last few years, we have had more and more Iranian people coming to church, which is great, and it is a joy to have them with us.  Many of you have already been baptised – mostly by Fr Tony at Wakefield Cathedral.  Sometimes people ask me for baptism.  I am told that the statistics show that 90% of Iranians who ask for baptism do so because they think it will help their case for asylum.  I don’t know.  To begin with, I would baptise people when they gave me what I perceived as some evidence of genuine faith.  As time has gone on, I am learning to delay baptism until I am more certain that their request for baptism comes out of a real desire to follow Jesus.  And now that we have the Bible class going, I would want people to attend regular classes.

 

There are cases in other churches where an asylum seeker has said to the priest, “I wanted to be baptised so that I could get asylum, but then I discovered Jesus for myself, and my conversion became real.”

 

As far as the Home Office is concerned, baptism does not necessarily prove genuine conversion.  Being baptised will not automatically give you residency.  I have baptised people who were then not successful in getting residency.  And when I go to the immigration court to support anyone, the court wants to know how many Iranians are still going to church after they have got residency – it is seen as a measure of how good I am at discerning genuine cases of conversion.

 

Confirmation can happen later, when you have obtained residency and when you feel you are ready to make that additional commitment.

 

In welcoming people from other countries into church, who started life following another path of faith, we are a bit like that encounter between Peter and Cornelius and his family.  We need to respond with generosity and love, a real genuine welcome.  And then we need to develop wisdom about how we help people grow in faith, and how we perceive when faith is genuine.  Because the situation here is more complex than Peter baptising Cornelius or Philip baptising the Ethiopian, because of the dimension of asylum.

 

Pray for those who come to church to be baptised:

  • For the families who bring small children, that they may genuinely want to follow Christ;
  • For those seeking asylum, that they grow into the true faith of Christ.
  • For yourselves and your own walk of faith, that you may grow in loving Christ and in loving your neighbour and your enemy.

Philip & the Ethiopian

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I want to look today at the story of Philip, from the first reading we had, from the book of Acts.  This comes early in the life of the early church – I don’t know exactly, but maybe 5 years since the crucifixion and resurrection.

 

Philip was a deacon.  He had been appointed with 6 other men when it became clear that the disciples needed to delegate some of the work.  The role of the deacon was to manage the social and welfare programme of the early church.  But the Holy Spirit had other plans.  The Holy Spirit wanted Philip for an evangelist.

 

Somebody was asking me about evangelism earlier this week, so this might be a particularly good sermon to listen to.

 

Philip is supernaturally prompted to go out to the wilderness road that goes south west from Jerusalem to Gaza.  So he gets there and awaits further instructions.  Then along comes a foreign chariot, and the Holy Spirit tells Philip to join the chariot.  So he runs alongside.  Inside, the occupant is said to be a high-ranking Ethiopian civil servant.  Scholars think that this man was a god-fearer, a non-Jew who was attracted by the Jewish faith.  He was probably not even an Ethiopian, but from south Sudan.  Wherever he came from, he had been to Jerusalem on pilgrimage, and he was now setting off on the long journey home.

In a chariot going at the speed of a running man, it was going to take a long time.  He is described as a Eunuch, which meant one of two things: either that he was physically a eunuch or that he was homosexual.  He was also a foreigner, and I wonder he always got a warm welcome?

 

The Ethiopian gentleman in the chariot is reading out loud from the book of the prophet Isaiah.  That was the normal way of reading scripture at that time, so that the word is proclaimed.  Philip is running alongside the chariot, and hears the Ethiopian guy reading.  He asks him if he understands the scripture he is reading, and the Ethiopian says not really, he could do with some help.  So Philip gets into the chariot with him, and explains the passage to him.

 

A pause to pick up some important points:

  • The Ethiopian guy is exploring matters of faith, and it is important to him to read scripture. That tells us something too – about how important it is for our faith
  • He quickly realises that merely reading scripture isn’t enough, he needs to understand it, and he needs help with that. Some people really do believe that when it comes to scripture, what you see on the page is what it means, that the Holy Spirit has dictated the Scripture, and you had better accept it.  No!  Reading scripture is a conversation.  If you take a line out of context, you can be led badly astray.  You do need to understand the situation in which the scripture was written, what it meant then, and what it might mean when applied to our own lives.  Though that sounds complicated, it isn’t really. But you do need to be open to other ways of understanding what you read.

Sometimes, you’ve read the bible so often that you think you automatically know what it means – that’s a real danger point.  There is also something new to notice and hear from the bible. There are many layers of meaning.

I also find that I can read a passage from the bible and it has something directly to say about a situation I am going through in my work.  Setting my own life and the bible alongside each other can provide some profound insights.

 

Philip explains the passage that the Ethiopian is reading as a prophecy about Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion.  This reflects a couple of stories we have heard recently, where Jesus spent time with the disciples explaining to them how the scriptures pointed to him.  This gives Philip an opening to tell the Ethiopian about Jesus.  The Ethiopian recognises the truth when he hears it.  His heart lifts and he wants to make a commitment.  It makes sense, and he wants to live by it.  He asks for baptism, and they pull into a layby beside a pond, and Philip baptises him there and then, after one bible class, with no godparents or sponsors and the only witnesses being whatever staff the Ethiopian had with him.

 

It is a story that has influenced what the church does with baptism:

  • Deacons are allowed to baptise – not just priests. In fact, anyone can perform a baptism in an emergency, but in regular practice, deacons and priests do the baptism.  But I suspect that if Philip hadn’t baptised the Ethiopian, the rite would be limited to priests.
  • All you need for baptism is an honest and true commitment to following Jesus. But that leads to interesting questions about how you measure that.  Is every family who brings their baby to church to be baptise sincerely and honestly going to help that child to follow Jesus?

 

I mentioned evangelism.  This is a story of evangelism – Philip tells the Ethiopian about Jesus and what he did for us.  There are some key points here too:

  • The Holy Spirit makes it happen. The Holy Spirit tells Philip what to do and where to go.  And then at the end, the Holy Spirit whips Philip away to his next gig, which is proclaiming the good news in all the towns and villages along the west bank.
  • Philip gets alongside the Ethiopian. He gets into conversation with him.  He finds out what interests him.  And then he offers assistance.  And then takes the opportunity to tell the guy about Jesus.  That is evangelism.
  • Philip has enough confidence in his own faith to be able to talk to a stranger about it. He’s no bible scholar.  He’s an ordinary dude who loves Jesus and loves what the scriptures have to say about him, and is happy to share that, even if he doesn’t get it right all the time.
  • The Ethiopian responds with enthusiasm. In some versions of the story, the Ethiopian declares his faith in Jesus Christ the Son of God, but this was probably a later addition to the original story.  The point is, he was spiritually ready to hear the good news.  In most cases, the journey to conversion is longer and tougher.

 

It is a charming and heart-warming story.  It is an encouraging story, because it tells us about someone who responded positively to the good news about Christ.  It reminds us about the place of the bible in our lives and how we make reading the bible part of our regular practice.  It raises questions about the practice of baptism in the Christian church.  And it helps us to think about the importance of evangelism in the way we follow Jesus.

 

One story with layers of meaning, and I have hardly even started!

Safe & Welcome HWE

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Safe and Welcome

Holy Week & Easter for people with autism and other special needs

 

Meg welcomes everyone to church and explains the service.

  • During this service, you will need the service booklet that explains what we are going to do and has the words of the songs;
  • It is OK to move around the church during this service;
  • If you need some time out, that is fine. The hall at the back of church is open with things to do;
  • There are toilets in the lobby area if you need to find them.

 

Make sure you have a Palm Cross. The first song is about Jesus coming in to Jerusalem on the donkey.  We will wave the palm crosses as we sing this. You can keep your palm cross and take it home with you at the end of the service.

 

Song:  We have a King who rides a Donkey

 

Story:

Jesus came into Jerusalem riding on a donkey.

His friends cut down branches from palm trees and waved them.

The people who were there spread their cloaks on the ground.

They were shouting and singing.

It was a big celebration.

Everyone was happy.

Everyone was happy, EXCEPT the religious leaders and the people in charge.

They were very angry because Jesus was so popular.

And they were very angry because they didn’t like what Jesus was teaching the people.

A few days later, Jesus had supper with his disciples.

During the supper, he took bread, gave thanks to God, and shared the bread with the people who were there.

He said, “This bread is like my body”.

At the end of the meal, he took a cup of wine, gave thanks to God, and shared the wine.

He said, “This wine is like my blood”.

Then he said, “Do this to remember me”.

He also took off his cloak, got a bowl and a jug of water, and washed the feet of the disciples.

He said, “Do this, because good leaders need to serve the people”.

 

Activity:

Here is some bread.

I invite you to come and break off a small piece of bread and give it to someone in your family or to a friend.

Make sure that everyone has some bread if they want it.

 

Someone will say this prayer:

 

Thank you God

for the bread that Jesus gave us to remember him.

Thank you for all the food we eat.

Help us to make sure that everyone has food.  Amen

 

Song:    A new commandment

 

Activity:

Jesus washed the feet of his disciples.

That would be a bit difficult to do here in church today, so I invite you to come and dip a facecloth in the water, squeeze out as much water as you can, and take the facecloth to wipe the hands of someone in your family or a friend.

There are towels here too, so that people can dry their hands.

 

Someone will say this prayer:

 

Lord Jesus,

you taught us that, when we serve and help other people,

we also serve and help you:

help us to care for other people.  Amen

 

Story:

After the supper, Jesus and his disciples went to a garden.

Jesus prayed to God.

While he was praying, soldiers came to arrest him.

He was tried by the authorities and condemned to die.

He was then put to death on a cross.

 

 

Song:  I danced in the morning           (3:19)

 

Story:

On Sunday, early in the morning, Mary Magdalene and some of the other women went to the tomb where Jesus was buried.

They found the stone had been rolled away, and the tomb was empty!

Jesus body wasn’t there any more.

A man all dressed in white – it may have been an angel – said that Jesus had risen from the dead.

Jesus wasn’t dead any more, he was alive again!

It was like everything had been made new, a new start.

 

Story:

At Easter, we often eat decorated eggs or chocolate eggs.

Eggs are a sign of new life, because chicks peck their way out of eggs.

Eggs also remind us of the stone in front of the tomb.

So we have an egg activity now.

 

Activity:

Decorate the plastic eggs.

Take a piece of cotton wool and dampen it in the water.

Then put the damp cotton wool in the bottom of each half.

Sprinkle in a few cress seeds.

In a few days, the seeds will sprout – you will have new life growing in your eggs.

(Cress is good to eat with egg sandwiches).

 

Song:  This is the day, this is the day  (NONP 3:22)

 

Someone says a prayer:

 

God of glory,

by the raising of your Son

you have broken the chains of death and hell:

fill your Church with faith and hope;

for a new day has dawned

and the way to life stands open

in our Saviour Jesus Christ.  Amen

 

Story:

Over the next few days and weeks, the disciples saw Jesus many times.

He joined two people walking to Emmaus and surprised them.

He came to them and said “Peace be with you”.

When Thomas didn’t believe that Jesus had come back, he told Thomas to touch the marks of his wounds.

He cooked a barbecue breakfast on the beach while the disciples went fishing.

He forgave Peter for denying him three times and told him to go and care for the people.

The disciples were so pleased to see Jesus.

Jesus taught them lots of things, so that the disciples could go and tell all the people about how much God loves them.

 

Activity:

 

Choose a butterfly, flower or egg shape to hang on the cross

as a way of saying thank you to God

because Jesus has risen from the dead.

 

We say the Lord’s Prayer together:

 

Rejoicing in God’s new creation,

as our Saviour taught us, so we pray:

 

Our Father in heaven,

hallowed be your name,

your kingdom come,

your will be done

on earth as in heaven.

Give us today our daily bread.

Forgive us our sins

as we forgive those who sin against us.

Lead us not into temptation

but deliver us from evil.

For the kingdom, the power,

and the glory are yours

now and for ever.      Amen.

 

 

Song:  Alleluia, Alleluia, Give thanks to the Risen Lord          (8:1)

 

Someone says a blessing prayer:

 

God the Father, by whose love Jesus was raised from the dead, open for you the gates of everlasting life.

Amen

God the Son, who won a glorious victory

give you joy as you share the Easter faith.

Amen

God the Holy Spirit, who filled the disciples with the life of the risen Lord, give you power and fill you with Christ’s peace.

Amen

And the blessing of God Almighty,

the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,

be upon you and remain with you always.  Amen

Believing in death

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Jean had everything ready.  Her children were coming for Sunday afternoon tea, just like the old days.  It had been such a long time since she had got them all together.  She checked the table once more, laid with a pretty cloth that her own mother had embroidered, the best porcelain tea set, sandwiches and scones and the best and lightest Victoria sponge.  Jean took a deep breath.

 

They soon arrived, her adult children: her daughter Maisie got there first and then her youngest son David.  As she could have predicted, the eldest boy George burst in at the last minute.  Not that he was a boy any more, but in his mid-40s already, with the others not far behind.

 

They sat and ate tea.  Though Jean tried to keep everything normal, she could tell they were watching her.  They weren’t daft, they knew something was up.

 

“OK, mum,” said Maisie.  “What’s this all about?”

 

“You don’t normally bring us all round for tea on a Sunday afternoon,” said George, “not these days”.

 

“I’ve got something to tell you,” said Jean.  “I’ve had some tests and seen the doctor.  It’s definitely cancer, and there’s nothing they can do.  The nurse is going to help me, and they will make me as comfortable as possible, but we’re only going one way with this.  I am going to need your help and support.”

 

“No!” said George.  “This isn’t happening.  Don’t be daft, mum.  You’re fine.  There’s nothing wrong with you.  You’ve always been so healthy: you never smoked, you never drank much, you eat a healthy diet. You of all people! They’ve made a mistake.”  He had risen from his chair and he was angry.  “Don’t put any more pressure on me.  I can’t cope!  My job is under threat; my wife is blaming me for everything; my children are going off the rails.  And now you come out with all this – do you want to destroy me completely?”

 

“George,” Jean pleaded.  “Please listen to me!”

 

“I’m not staying to listen to any more of this rubbish!  When you’ve stopped all this attention-seeking, I’ll come back and tell you how difficult my life is!” and George grabbed his coat and stormed out of the house.

 

“He’s no help at all”, said Maisie.  “Mum, we’ve got to draw up an action plan.  I want to talk to the doctors.  Just let them tell me there’s nothing they can do!  What’s your actual diagnosis – I’ll google it.  There will be a treatment somewhere that will make you better.  We’ll send you to America, if that’s what it takes.  I’ll set up a crowd funding page.  We’ll raise the money somehow.  Don’t give in mum.  You’ve got to fight this!  Don’t worry, I’ll sort this.  There’s no way we will let this get to you!”

 

And she grabbed her coat to get back to her laptop and her new cause.

 

Jean was left at the table with her head in her hands.

 

David put his arm round her. “Mum, I am so sorry.  You must have been bearing all this on your own for weeks.  And it must have been so difficult to tell us.”

 

Jean said, “Yes, it has been a rollercoaster ride.  I was like George and Maisie – at first I didn’t want to know and then I was sure that there must be some treatment somewhere.  But I came to see that the doctors were telling me the truth and I had a choice about how I live with this.  And that’s what I want you all to know.  I am going to die.  I don’t know how long I have left, but I want to make the most of it.  And for me, making the most of it is about having good times with my family and showing how much I love you all and finding peace.  It isn’t about trying to find an obscure cure or pretending it isn’t happening.”

 

There was a knock on the door at that point.  It was Father James, Jean’s vicar from church.

 

“How did it go?” he asked.  He knew that Jean was going to tell her children about her illness and prognosis.

 

So Jean and David told him about how George and Maisie had taken it.

 

Father James said, “It’s not easy to hear bad news.  Peter found it very difficult when Jesus told the disciples he was going to suffer, be rejected and then be killed.  Peter knew that Jesus was the Messiah, and in his mind, Messiahs didn’t get trampled on.  He had a lot to learn!”

 

“And how about you, David?” he continued, “How do you feel about all this?”

 

David thought for a moment and turned to his mother. “Mum, I will be here for you,” he said.  “We’ll make a list of all the things you’d like to do, and we’ll have some great times.  We’ll talk and share our memories and dream our dreams.  We’ll make sure you do all the things you feel you need to do, like saying goodbyes or making arrangements.  But we’ll do it at your pace, and you will choose what we’re going to do and when.”

 

Jean thanked him.  She was somewhat comforted.  “But I am still upset by George”, she said.  He thought I was being attention-seeking and that my illness would be another problem in his complicated life.  It was all about him!”

 

Father James was reassuring.  “That was his first reaction.  Hopefully, he will come back when he’s thought it through and be more supportive.  It’s a bit like what Jesus said.  At the moment, he is putting himself first.  He needs to take up the cross of engaging with your situation.  He needs to accept it and walk with you.  That way, he will find life, even in your dying.  Jesus was actually talking about what it means to follow him, but it also applies to the way we relate to others and our families.

 

Bad things happen: illness, accidents, death, lots of things.  They are part of life.  The way we cope with these difficult things matters.  Jesus has already walked ahead of us on the road of trouble and distress.  Jesus is always with us.  But it does mean letting go of our own hopes and expectations and looking beyond them, and putting God and others first.”

Wild beasts & Angels

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John looked pretty rough.  He dressed in whatever he could get, a coat made from camel hide, held in place with a leather belt.  When you saw him, it was like you were looking at a prophet who had stepped out of the old books of scripture.  It is likely that John had spent at least part of his life living in a religious community in the desert at Qumran – this community placed a lot of emphasis on baptism.  In the Jewish religion, baptism was carried out for people who were converting, but it was not a regular part of the faith.  But John offers baptism to all Jews, as a way of repenting from sin and being forgiven by God.  And in his preaching, he talks about the coming of a great spiritual leader who will connect people with God’s Holy Spirit.

 

And then along comes Jesus.  John baptizes him in the River Jordan, the river that separates the wilderness from the promised land.  Baptism was about entering the promised land spiritually.

 

We believe that Jesus was sin-less, so why was he getting baptised as a sign of repentance and the forgiveness of sins?  Right from the start, Jesus was identifying with sinful humanity.  He stood in the place of sinners at his baptism, and this points forward to the cross, when he died in the place of sinners.  He took on the sin of the world and plunged with it into the water of cleansing.  Then at the end, he takes that same sin onto the cross, where it is killed with him, and taken down to hell.  So Jesus’ baptism is very much a part of his work of redemption.

 

He identifies with us right from the start.  And when we are baptised, we are identifying with him, and we take on all that Jesus stands for: the kingdom of God, mercy, love, forgiveness, service of others.

 

So Jesus is dunked into the river, and as he comes out of the water, three things happen:  firstly, the heavens were torn apart.  When heaven opens up to earth, that’s when God’s will is perfectly fulfilled.  It is a sign that Jesus is operating in God’s way; everything he is, everything he does, everything he stands for opens the door between heaven and earth.

 

Then the Spirit of God appears in the form of a dove, hovering over him.  This picks up the prophecy of John the Baptist about the one who would baptise with the Holy Spirit.  The dove is the sign that Jesus has the endorsement of God’s Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is with him and he brings the Holy Spirit to the people who turn to him.

 

And then there’s a voice speaking, and it’s coming from nowhere, and they realise that it’s God talking, and he’s saying to Jesus:  You are my Son, the Beloved, the only one, and I am so pleased with you!  God is confirming who Jesus is.  God is confirming Jesus’ mission – he’s doing the right thing.  God is saying: Jesus, go for it, get alongside my people, save them from their sins, show them how much I love them.

 

After the Baptism, before he starts his formal ministry, Jesus is compelled by the Holy Spirit into the desert.  There was wisdom in this. When you dash into action without reflection, you often end up acting without focus.  Going into the wilderness meant a time to reflect and pray.  And when you do that, you find yourself thinking through the “how” of doing things and not just the “What to do”.  It meant exploring the different ways of carrying out the job entrusted to him.  And inevitably, this led to some dead ends.  Mark’s Gospel says that Jesus was tempted by Satan.  The other gospels, Matthew and Luke, give a fuller account of three temptations, but here in Mark, the temptation just gets a brief mention.  It was certainly about Jesus’ mission and ministry, about his motivation, and the manner in which he would work.  If he was a modern leader, he would be thinking about the values he needed to live up to and encourage in others.  And Jesus had to reject the values and approaches that were not God’s way of doing things.  The way we do things matters, not just what we do.

 

But in being tempted, Jesus was also entering into solidarity with sinful humans.  It continued the work started at the Baptism.  Jesus knew what it was like to be human because he lived it through and through.  Mark tells us that Jesus was with the wild beasts – which is a very vivid image of what temptation is like, facing the wild beasts both inside us and outside us.

 

Temptation happens to us all the time – we barely even notice it.  We are tempted to cut corners, to lash out at someone when we feel they are getting at us, to show people how displeased we are, to say an unkind word.  With social media, there are more opportunities to give in to temptation and send off the angry tweet or put someone down on facebook.  And it’s no good saying, “I don’t go on Social Media, so I’m all right”, because you are surely being tempted in other ways.  Every time we say the Lord’s Prayer, we say “lead us not into temptation”.  Lent is a time when we look at ourselves and try and understand the ways we are being tempted, so that we can build up the resilience to resist.

 

Jesus knew what it was like to be tempted, and he will help us, when we turn to him and ask for his help.

 

At the end of the story of Jesus’ temptation, Mark tells us that “the angels waited on him”.  May the angels guard us and protect us this Lent, and give us peace and refreshment when we struggle with our own wild beasts.