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St James 25th July 2021 – Rev Alison Way

Link to Rev Alison’s reflection video: https://youtu.be/vTjxXCMMmpo

2 Corinthians 4:7-15, Matthew 20:20-28

In the name of the living God, loving Father, precious Son and ever present Holy Spirit Amen

There have been a few series of a programme called Pilgrimage on the BBC in recent years.  A selection of celebrities with some faith, lapsed faith or none walking well known historic pilgrimage routes. The first one of these series followed the way of St James – who we remember today, which culminates at the Cathedral of St James – in Santiago de Compostella in Spain (which is thought to house St James’ mortal remains). This series featured amongst others the actor Neil Morrisey, Debbie McGee and Reverend Kate Bottley. The route they used was declared the first European cultural route in October 1987 and is known as the Camino. Back in March 2020 we began a Lent course based on a film about walking this route called the Way. It was also about a very unlikely group of pilgrims, and what they discovered about themselves along the route (just like the Pilgrimage TV show!). Sadly Covid lockdowns stopped us continuing.

Pilgrims have been walking the routes the camino includes (with various starting points France, Spain and Portugal) from the 9th century onwards. Technically pilgrimage is a devotional practice consisting of a prolonged journey, toward a specific destination of significance. I think it is more about the experiences on the journey as the ultimate destination. It combines the physical, with the spiritual and the emotional alongside simplicity in living. Pilgrimages are a feature of most world faiths not just Christianity.

The reasons for making a specific pilgrimage are many and various including in fulfilment of a vow, for forgiveness for sins, as a thanksgiving for life or as a means of intercession, among other reasons. I think, sometimes, we should view our whole lives as spiritual pilgrimages to help us cut through the complexity to get to the nub of what matters in our lives. – Our walk with God’s heartbeat guiding our next step. We can be so caught up with the cut and thrust of life, so taking things back to first principles can be helpful and help us to follow the path God would have for us.

Lets think about this a bit more by looking at the life of St James and what his spiritual journey or pilgrimage looked like! James often called the great was a Galilean fisherman who with his brother John (the sons of Zebedee) was one of the first disciples to be called by Jesus to follow him. He was there at some of the big moments in Jesus’ earthly life. He witnessed the transfiguration on the high mountain. The night before Jesus’ crucifixion James went to the Garden of Gethsemene and he slept whilst Jesus prayed.

James’s mother was a key figure in his life – and in our gospel reading we heard her asking whether James could sit with his brother at Jesus left and right hand in glory. We will never know how this came to pass exactly, but the level of anger from the other disciples, might well suggest that James and John may have encouraged their mother in making this suggestion! In a rebuff, James heard those words of Jesus calling for a life of service rather than lording over others, alongside moving away from political behaviours and jockeying for position. How much did this influence his spiritual journey (as well as the first-hand things he experienced?) Did this give him the courage and determination to do things he did after Jesus rose from the dead to spread the good news?.

Continuing with the things James experienced in his life pilgrimage, he was present for the resurrection appearances of Christ. He is then thought to have spread the good news to the Iberian peninsula and subsequently (about 14 years later) he was put to death by Herod Agrippa in Jerusalem. Herod hoped in vain that disposing of Christian leaders would stem the flow of those hearing the good news. It didn’t!

All of these experiences, the highs and lows formed James and his walk of discipleship. We can see as our epistle has it – that there were times when James was just as much a treasure in a clay jar as we are. Meaning he was vulnerable and fragile to making poor choices, and taking the power to ourselves, rather than the power coming from God. Clay jars can be very useful but break easily too.  Just as all of our experiences, the highs and the lows form us. There are moments when we try to take God’s power and use it for our own means rather than making clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.

God can and does use our weaknesses just as much, if not more than our strengths in our pilgrimage through life. The pilgrims on the way of St James particularly use a scallop shell often hung around their necks as a symbol of their journey. There are a couple of pretty fanciful stories linking St James to these shells. I have reproduced some shells for us to use in a prayer activity later at the end of this reflection, but it would be useful to look at this picture below now.

The shell connects us with our spiritual journey. They may remind us of the beginning of our walk with God. We use a scallop shell (or a silver replica) often in baptising new members of our church family. We are reminded of this as we take these promises on for ourselves if we were baptised as infants at confirmation.

The lines and the connections on the shell may remind us of our walk through this life and its many experiences. These lines radiate throughout the shell showing how these form us and interconnect. The triangular shaped peak of the shell reminds us of the three parts of God’s love for us, that connect with us and the lines and connections of our lives. God as Father, creator, God as son and saviour and God as spirit and guide. Our connection with God and God’s connection with us – radiates through all our experiences. Much as St Paul found in the first reading this morning, so the life of Jesus is made visible in our bodies too.

It is helpful to see this life in terms of spiritual pilgrimage, with our concentration only on the next step we need to take. That overused but actually helpful phrase is to say that life is a journey. Our lives are intertwined with God’s love for us and God’s hand guiding us to our ultimate destination. Safe and loved in his heart of love in this life and the life beyond our earthly existence. It is important to stick with each next step we take (as we would if walking a pilgrimage route of life), rather than getting caught up in where we have been and where we might end up. Staying in the present and most importantly in God’s presence in our uncertain and sifting times – this will give us the strength, courage and purpose we need for today. As well as through the grace of God, God’s eternal loving hope for all our tomorrows. Amen.

You may wish to spend some time with this shell image and write a prayer guided by God’s love for us for your next step in your spiritual pilgrimage in these uncertain times.

 

References: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/features/what-is-a-pilgrimage

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09w7lcg (First BBC series of Pilgrimage).

Trinity 7 18th July 2021 Rev Alison Way

Link to the Reflection Video: –https://youtu.be/la_VJ6bRCDk

Ephesians 2:11-end, Mark 6:30-34, 53-end

We will probably remember the late Member of Parliament – Jo Cox said – “We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”  We have also probably found this statement to be true also when we have sat down and got to know people who are very different from ourselves. In our extract from the letter to the Ephesians, the thrust of this is all about unity and inclusivity. It is all about everyone belonging to the Christian community, being united in Christ once and for all, irrespective of them being different from each other. Like the Ephesian Christians before us, we will particularly need this unity and sense of inclusive purpose as we negotiate our way forward as stage four  of the road map comes upon us.

Ephesus like many places in our world today was a melting pot of cultures, and an important military base and port. The gentiles (those of non-Jewish descent) in the Ephesian Churches were probably more numerous than those of Jewish descent. What the writer initially does is spell out that everyone is united and on an equal footing. Don’t let the language of circumcision or uncircumcision put you off. Let me unpack what was being said:-

Before Jesus came the situation was like this. God started to work with the humans he had made. He picked one group and had a deep relationship with them. God promised them a new land and to be with them in all that they did. The basis of the arrangement God had with his chosen people was that if the people loved God and put their love of God first. If they followed the rules he set them on how to live their lives, all would be well. The people had to love God and keep his rules for the bargain to work!! God also hoped the other people he had not chosen would want to join the ones he had. The people he chose were called the Jews (Hebrews or Israelites) depending on where you are in the story. Their mark of identity was circumcision hence the label of them as ‘the circumcision’ in our passage from Ephesians. The other group therefore being the ‘uncircumcision’.

Now this original deal didn’t work very well and for a number of reasons.

  • The group who God had not chosen didn’t like or get on well with the ones God hadn’t chosen and vice versa.

  • Those God had not chosen did not want to join up and a wall built up between them, which developed into a big barrier.

  • There was another problem, the people God had chosen – didn’t like putting God first and following his rules. They kept putting the rule book down and doing what they wanted to do when they wanted to do it…

In view of the problems God sent messengers to his chosen people, the circumcision, often in the guise of prophets, and they listened sometimes and did what God wanted. However, eventually they always seem to end up doing their own thing and forgetting about God. Putting the rule book down and the situation between the two groups of people was getting more and more out of control. The situation escalated frequently and fighting broke out. Sometimes God’s chosen people won and sometimes the other group won!! It was all getting very nasty, cracked and divided, and God wasn’t remotely happy with this!

God wanted to be there for everybody not just a small group and God didn’t want there to be all this hate – because God was always and is always a God of love. So God decided to bring an end to all of this. He sent messengers to say he was going to do something really different and then he did it – he sent his son to be our Saviour Jesus Christ. Now to make this big change, God had to do something spectacular and something that had never been done before. So what happened as we well know, was that Jesus was killed and then he rose again, he came back to life in a new way after 3 days to change things once and for all and forever. By doing that God brought both groups together, so they and we all now have access to God’s love and peace for us. Another way of putting this is Christ broke down the wall of hate by giving his own body. Christ through dying on the cross wanted to bring the Jews (the circumcision) and the gentiles (everyone else – the uncircumcision) together. Through reaching out his arms on the cross he was the bridge of peace for us all bringing everybody into relationship with God – so everyone knew how much God loved them. Jesus did that for the people then and it still works for us today – So we can all know God now, through the power of his Spirit as a direct result of Jesus dying (and rising again). In doing that we should remember that Jesus died to bring us peace and to bring us together all of us in one body. This ensures that you and me and everyone here could know how much God loves us.

In our own way, we need to live and love through this reconciling peace of God and keep it uppermost in our outlook. We live in times of division and much has been hurt and damaged by our recent pandemic times. I don’t think we initially entered into these days in a particularly unified place as a country either – whichever side of the debate we were on in relation to Brexit too.   We have people holding very different views about the pandemic and having lived through very different experiences. At one end of the spectrum are those who are ready to go and get on with it as soon as possible. At the other end is a lot of fearfulness and trepidation, and the impact of a lot of isolation and other difficulties people have had. We have people with all the means they need to live and others well below the breadline. We have people in the full flush of health and those struggling or whose vital treatments have been delayed. We have people who are living with the long-term debilitating impacts of long Covid. We have people who have lost loved ones (often long before what they feel should have been their time). We have people in stressful occupations, or on the front line living with the impact of long-term stress and those without employment and with little prospect of employment. One Sunday supplement magazine article I read several months ago used the analogy that an unprecedented number were living with the impact of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

None of us has been through times like this before, and we will need to do our best to move forward lovingly and kindly in the days ahead of us, keeping at the heart of all our beings and doings the reconciling peace of God. We will need to concentrate on what holds us together (and not to let the things that divide us take over). I do not think this is going to be particularly easy and tensions are bound to surface. For some our pace will be too slow, remembering yet for others our pace will be too fast.

To do this we are going to have to work together and pull together well (and avoid the trap of stone throwing behaviour). For example, some may be more comfortable wearing a mask in the building, others may be happy never to wear one ever again. We will need to respect one another’s choices. In addition – we will be working through all the things that make our churches work. Also we will be doing that with an eye to what will make them grow and grow younger. I don’t know what this will look like exactly, but I know God has a flourishing plan for us all! I need us also to remember that I don’t know at any depth how all the bits used to fit or evolved together over many years before March of 2020. So please help me with this (don’t assume I know because I don’t in all likelihood!). It is also likely that some aspects will need to fit together quite differently. Some fundamental things have also changed and it is likely that more will have to change too. Please help and support where we can and particularly pray.

To use the language and style of this reading, Jesus has proclaimed peace to those who are raring to go, and peace to those who are more cautious. We need to be sharers of that reconciling peace through access to the Holy Spirit, God’s presence with us. We are just as much all members of this household of God, built upon the foundations of the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone as the Ephesian churches ever were! Let’s be united, concentrate on growing together as a dwelling place for God. Let God’s peace and reconciliation fill us and overflow from us. Amen

Jo Cox quote came from https://wearethecity.com/inspirational-quotes-jo-cox-member-parliament/ New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995

Trinity 6 – Rev Alison Way – 11th July 2021

Rev Alison’s video reflection can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vu-rYnozkHw

Ephesians 1:3-14, Mark 6:14-29

In the name of the Living God: Loving Father, Risen Son and ever present Holy Spirit, Amen

Today’s readings could not be much more chalk and cheese. In our Gospel we have King Herod thinking Jesus as he began to teach and preach was John the Baptist raised from the dead. We then heard the sorry tale of how Herod had been intimately and entirely involved in the demise of John. It is a story packed with the seedier side of human nature – deceit, manipulation and inappropriate extra marital relations. In all of it, Herod had recognised that John was a ‘righteous and holy man’ and protected John even after arresting him for speaking out against Herod’s lifestyle choices. Yet subsequently, Herod’s hand was then forced after he had made an ‘extravagant’ and open-ended promise as a gift for a dance performance. Herodias, Herod’s wife, took her chance to enact her revenge on John who had spoken out about the inappropriate nature of her relationship with Herod. We also know deep inside Herod knew what he ultimately did was wrong, because it says the King was deeply grieved.

We recognise the sentiment in all of this in all probability, because sometimes we have all found ourselves resorting to devious means to get our own way, and then on a better day working out we should not have done it! I have seen someone preaching about this passage holding a silver salver to be the platter and asking people in their mind’s eye to put their behaviours of this sort on to it, asking God for forgiveness – It was an uncomfortable and humbling moment.

We occasionally use the phrase wanting someone’s head on a platter when they have done us wrong and we want revenge like Herodias did. This is an idiom of speech with direct origins from this story!! By in large revenge is not something that does any of us any good, much better for us to be seeking peace and reconciliation than ill-fated working out how to get even.

Anyway – as I said at the beginning this passage could not be much more of a contrast with the reading from Ephesians but there is a link. The Ephesians passage has us thinking about praising God across many dimensions of his love for us and rooting the basis of our spiritual blessings firmly in God’s love for us. The link between the two readings connects us to the essence of why Herod knew what he was doing was wrong, because our spiritual journey’s recognise the importance of our quest for holiness through praise and worship of the God who loves us so much. And it was that very thing that Herod recognised in John – he knew John was on the quest for holiness too. More than that he knew John was holy and righteous, and what Herod was doing was not!

When we think about our praising God across the many dimensions of his love for us, it is hard not to dwell on our experiences of the past 16 months or so (and very nearly all the time I have been here). When we have been able to praise God together in worship, we have had to follow quite complicated regulations about the ‘what and how’ of it, much of which has been most unwelcome. It has been very hard to bear the lack of singing, the being together and yet by necessity separate from each other. Inherent in praising God together in worship is heartfelt singing and deeper fellowship in person than we have been able to exercise for most of this time. Like all of us, I am really looking forward to having much greater freedom to worship, and share fellowship. For the first time in a long time, I can see the joy of singing together is finally more than peaking over the very near horizon! Thanks be to God.

As an aside for a moment, as we contemplate the wonder of singing together in praise of God’s glory – what should we start with? I would be very interested in hearing your choices and why you chose them. Though it might be our overarching favourite hymn – that might not contain words that really sum up what our first in church sung praise of God should be after such a long drought of this activity. Please do let me know your thoughts? I am minded to pick (if it is me picking) a good solid hymn of praise – possibly Praise my soul the King of heaven, To God be the glory, or Guide me O thou great Redeemer.

Let’s take a moment now though to dwell on the riches of this extract from the first chapter of Ephesians to remind us why we praise and worship God. There is a lot in this passage, and I am going to draw on just four of many riches to help top up our internal balance about it.

  • Firstly: We worship to recognise our blessedness by God and how we are his children through Jesus Christ.

  • Secondly: We worship as Jesus is the foundation of how we can stand holy and blameless before God through his love for us. Jesus who was there from the very beginning, who was and is and is to come.

  • Thirdly: We worship in God’s glorious grace, freely given to us and as the reading said that is lavished upon us. Not something we earn or deserve, but flowing abundantly from God’s love for us, lavishly as the reading put it.

  • Fourthly: We recognise the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives working in us and through us. In this instance Paul uses the language of inheritance, the power that accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, and toward the end of this passage that we are marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit.

The passage also says there are three active responses we need to be busy with for the praise of God’s glory (which is another central facet of why we worship). The verbs St Paul uses for these are hoping, hearing and believing. These things help us to stay connected to God’s love for us and to be wholehearted in our praise.

Firstly, staying hopeful is important to us and living in the hope of God’s love for us beating in our hearts. This is a great comfort in the troubling times we have been living through, and has been a stream of peace and reassurance.  One of the ways to stay in that hopeful place is to be consistent in our prayer and bible reading, which moves us on to keep hearing the words of scripture and letting them work in our hearts, which is St Paul’s second verb. In a little while, I will be embedding the daily Bible readings that have been supplied over all these months in our daily worship resources into our newsletter. When this all started I never imagined we would still be doing this all this time, but the joy of reading the psalm and short reading specified is usually that you will be reading it alongside many Christians across our land on that day and in unity together. God can work in us through the wonder of scripture – even the most familiar passage can have something new to say in us. As well as hoping and hearing the scripture – the third active response we need in praise of God’s glory is to believe and let the Holy Spirit work in us, boldly and freely in our belief!

As we move towards greater freedom in praising God’s glory together in the days and weeks and months ahead – let’s remember that that is what our worship together is about. We worship to give the glory to God. Technically this whole passage is written by St Paul as a very Jewish form of praise. Some of the original recipients of his letter would have recognised this intent as a psalm or hymn of praise. It was intended to be a way of blessing God for all the blessings God has showered on us, to encourage us in the walk of holiness, and draw us to reconciliation and peace.

At the moment, we need this kind of perspective altering vantage point that worship brings, to enrich our hearts and lives, just as much as our Ephesian forebears did. To take the next step forward revelling in God’s creative love, to remember the big picture of Jesus’ saving love for us and to allow the Holy Spirit to accomplish God’s will in us through his counsel.

Let us pray: Praise be to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. He chose us in love to be holy and blameless. He called us in love to hear the good news of salvation. He blessed us in love and included us in his most marvellous plan. Praise be to God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer – Help us to live with hearts on fire in praise of your glory. Amen.

Prayer adapted © ROOTS for Churches Ltd (www.rootsontheweb.com) 2002-2021. Reproduced with permission.

New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995

Trinity 5 – 4th July 2021 – Penny Ashton

Are we too self-sufficient these days?  It is a popular saying that God helps those who help themselves.  To a certain extent I would agree that God gave us brains and abilities and intended us to use them, but there is a danger in thinking that we will accomplish anything of eternal value through our own strength.

Prof Brian Cox often smiles when speaking of the end of the universe, and is often asked why – his answer is that he thinks it is funny.  He particularly thinks it is funny when we create what we like to think is a permanent memorial to a person or happening, when he is aware that ultimately the universe will disperse to the extent that our world will not even leave the faintest echo of what has happened during all the time that it existed.  It makes you feel rather small and insignificant!

And yet God says: ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness’.

Confusing passage, and may have been a part of an ongoing conversation with the Corinthians, of which we only have Paul’s half. There is a hint in earlier chapters that the Corinthian church is very excited by some new teaching that has been brought to them by people that Paul refers to as ‘super-apostles’, and Paul is trying to bring them back to the basics of the gospel that he taught them.  He does so by pointing out that if he chose to, he has more to boast about than they, but choses not to rather he speaks of some kind of affliction that he wished to be rid of, but whenever he asked God, he received the same answer.  It is a challenge to each of us when we are asked to do something that our immediate, almost instinctive response is ‘I couldn’t possibly do that’.  God’s grace is sufficient for us, for power is made perfect in our weakness.

In our gospel reading, we find Jesus returning to his home.  No reason is given for this, but the preceding chapter gives an idea of how busy he had been, and my own experience is that adult children often return to the family home when they need a rest.  From what we read, Nazareth does not seem to have provided him with that, as his taking part in the regular worship at the synagogue, and his miracles of healing seem to have stirred up a feeling that he has got above himself – it could be paraphrased as ‘who does he think he is?’.  It is interesting to note that referring to him as the son of Mary rather than of Joseph implies a suggestion that they believe him to be illegitimate.  The reception of the synagogue in Nazareth is sharply contrasted with that in the village in the previous chapter, where Jesus had been previously and where he raised the daughter of Jairus, a synagogue official from serious illness, possibly even death.

And so, after a seemingly not very fruitful return home, Jesus goes out again to the surrounding villages and commences teaching again.  This time, however, he decides that the disciples have heard and seen enough of his teaching for the time, being, and now need to continue their learning by taking his message out themselves.  And so, we read that they are sent out in pairs with fairly strict instructions.  They are to take nothing apart from the basics.  They are to take no supplies, but to rely on the welcome they receive for hospitality.  The instruction not to move to another house probably refers to a common practice amongst travelling preachers at the time of going from house to house – effectively begging.  As Paul was told, ‘God’s grace is sufficient for us, for power is made perfect in our weakness.’  If a place does not welcome them or their message, they are to simply move on making sure they take nothing from that place – not even the dust that their shoes have picked up on the journey.  This shaking off of the dust was a routine act for a Jew as he left gentile territory, but to do it to a fellow Jew shows how seriously the rejection of God’s teaching was to be taken.

On Wednesday the PCC heard a report on the most recent meeting of Deanery Synod, and a report that we looked at called ‘Discerning Ministries’.  I have a copy of it with me as I think that we shall be hearing more about it during the year.  The underlying thinking behind it is that we are spreading our clergy to thinly, and being human, they will only stretch so far before they snap.  At the same time we may be frustrating gifted and talented lay people by not using them as they believe God wishes to use them.  Under the heading ‘What is Church?’, it says this:

Our model of church has sometimes been based on having a vicar and expecting then to do or lead on most things – including the things that don’t need to be done by a priest.  The days of ‘one vicar one parish’ are increasingly gone and the current way in which multi-parish benefices are configured often puts a strain on everyone – clergy and laity.  This was apparent before Covid 19, and is even clearer now with additional financial pressures and many people feeling weary.  The role of the clergy as spiritual leaders is still central, but the desire is to release them from the unreasonably broad burdens that many are carrying, alongside releasing the varied gifts of the laity so that together we can find a more joyful and sustainable model.’

St Peter and St Paul – June 27th 2021 – Rev Alison Way

Link to the video reflection: https://youtu.be/Jjkr3QK5f8g
Acts 12:1-11, Matt 16:13-19

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit- Amen

The feast of St Peter and St Paul has been kept together like this since the very earliest days of the church. This date is chosen as it is regarded as the anniversary of their martyrdom in Rome in or around AD64. They are both very important in the development of Christianity but in markedly different ways.

Our readings today –really only major on Peter so I am going to pay most attention to him. We know Peter’s story – how he was one of the 12 disciples. He gets a lot of attention often for putting his foot in it (and getting things mixed up). He gets special mention frequently – partly because he recognised who Jesus was – and said so as we heard in our gospel reading. Jesus names him as the rock on which Jesus was to build the church, but to be honest he was quite an unlikely rock. And that is one of the things I like most about him that he is such a good example of how God can transform and use us. Peter went from impetuous and head strong fisherman to inspired speaker and wise leader. The last time he is referenced in the story of the early church in Acts chapter 15. He is speaking wisely at the council of Jerusalem – where Paul is also present. He is saying things he would never have imagined he would say or believe. His wisdom is based on God’s work in his life and the Holy Spirit dwelling in him.

Things like the amazing events of our first reading where Peter is in a pretty tight spot. It is not looking good – Peter knows it and his fellow early Christians know it. King Herod has found out that killing disciples makes him popular with the Jewish people. He has had Peter arrested with increasing his popularity in mind. So the Jewish people also thought Peter’s days were numbered and Herod placed him under armed guard. The size of the guard is staggering! Four squads to successfully imprison one apostle does sound a bit excessive, but clearly Herod wanted there to be no mistakes. Perhaps, he had heard about how the apostles had been liberated from the temple jail before by angels (in Acts 5) and wanted not to take any chances. He had not taken into account the power of God in his plans, but only the limits of human power – which are not enough and never have been enough to limit God. No matter how many guards we may happen to employ!

When we tune in with the detail of it in the story – it all gets more and more amazing. We have Peter sleeping in between 2 soldiers with more at the door! and others at other guard stations. We can also wonder at Peter’s amazing ability to sleep in these circumstances and when in such mortal peril as he was. Peter is not just a bit asleep either but fast asleep. As an angel of the Lord appearing with accompanying light show is not enough to wake him. The angel has to tap him on the side to achieve that.

We can put some of Peter’s ensuing confusion at what is happening down to coming out of a deep restful sleep suddenly. Being woken in these circumstances can be disorientating. Peter is left with confusion about whether it’s a dream or vision, rather than real life. As he is instructed to get up and get dressed and get going, strange things start to happen from the beginning. He is miraculously freed from his shackles. He gets past all the guards unchallenged. Not just the ones he is sleeping beside or the ones at the door, or the first or second guard points.

The outer iron gate leading into the city, which was no doubt locked and bolted at night opens for them of its own accord. This was important as Greek folk lore of the day gave high regard to self opening doors (giving what happened validity). It is only when all this had happened and the angels leave him that Peter came to himself. Peter realised what had happened as he said ‘Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hands of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.’ Peter is amazed to have escaped Herod and the expectations of the Jews.

We don’t get today the farcical scene that follows this. When the slave at the early Christians’ house he goes to for shelter, leaves him standing outside as she is so amazed Peter is there. Likewise no one inside the house believes her when she says he is there. Chains, numerous guards, and locked doors are all no barrier to the will of God here and his plan for Peter at this point. Everyone is confounded and surprised – not least Peter himself at the outcome. The aftermath of this incident ends badly for both the soldiers – as Herod has them questioned and put to death. Herod himself also comes to a nasty end a couple of verses later in this chapter of Acts. Shortly after this at a public gathering, Herod will not give the glory to God, and an angel of the Lord strikes him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.

Two thousand years on we cannot explain the ‘how’ of this story. Yet we can admire the faith of Peter. That even in this insidious position he remained faithful and positive. He didn’t succumb to anxiety or hopelessness. We can admire his obedience (even if he was half-asleep). He did what was asked of him. He didn’t ask questions. He didn’t need to have every action explained to him. He didn’t prevaricate or dither about what was necessary.
If we take a breath and now turn our attention briefly to Paul. Paul’s story is equally dramatic. He was actively persecuting Christians (holding the coats whilst Stephen was stoned for example!), when he experienced a profound life-changing vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus. He then had to overcome his own reputation and history with the followers of Jesus. Over the years he did much to help shape the understanding of the Christian faith as we hold it today through his letters and teaching.

Paul spread the word and nurtured the new Christian communities across the Mediterranean. He was well educated and well able to manage the communication challenges of his day. It is often St Paul that we have explaining things to different audiences and with different understandings and approaches and winning the day for Jesus. It was a costly path of the discipleship for him too – he underwent many hardships and beatings for his faith, but like Peter in the story of his miraculous escape he relied on God and recognised the source of his strength too. In the second letter of Timothy 4:17 – The writer says ‘But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed’.

Both the story of Peter and the story of Paul is first and foremost about reliance on God and letting his will be done in us and through us. Relying on God’s strength (to do what God wants of us no matter how unlikely or far fetched it may seem). A friend who had a life changing experience and was deeply blessed by God shared with a me a quote from Henri Nouwen’s about how Peter and Paul approached their different challenges. It is sometimes called bread for the journey – it says this:
”We seldom realize fully that we are sent to fulfill God-given tasks. We act as if we were simply dropped down in creation and have to decide to entertain ourselves until we die. But we were sent into the world by God, just as Jesus was. Once we start living our lives with that conviction, we will soon know what we were sent to do.”
Let’s use the example of Peter and Paul to inspire our faith journey and the next steps we need to take.
AMEN

https://www.facebook.com/henrinouwensociety/posts/we-seldom-realize-fully-that-we-are-sent-to-fulfill-god-given-tasks-we-act-as-if/3509332275773576/
The New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition), copyright 1989, 1995

Trinity 3 – June 20th Year B – Rev Alison Way

2 Corinthians  6:1-13, Mark 4:35-41

Video Reflection available here: https://youtu.be/-mLKQ6tHdKk

We are going to listen to a hymn first – Will your anchor hold? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=18kBouNNoqI The sentiments of the hymn we have just heard sung Will your anchor hold – play to the themes I am going to talk about today. It is a big favourite of mine though not very Anglican!! I only came across it during my training for the ministry in Wales and it is I believe regularly sung by the boy’s brigade. It is a great one for a crowd singing enthusiastically as this is not the kind of hymn to sing quietly – but with gusto and passion!!

This hymn points us to the bigger picture, the context of our lives in the storms of life, and the reality that in Jesus we have an anchor that keeps the soul, steadfast and sure as the billows roll. Fastened to the rock which cannot move, grounded firm and deep in the Saviour’s love. And it is living in stormy times that I am going to talk about today. Sometimes in life there is a clear path and an obvious objective to aim for. Things seem certain, well ordered, and inspiring. Basically, all is well with our world. At other times, it seems like life is very confused and messy and difficult, with meaningless running round in circles, lots of frustrations, pain and more questions than answers. We have had a lot of this in recent times!!!

For me, the gospel reading we heard earlier, speaks into the messy confused and difficult side of all our lives with its tales of storms and the fishermen disciples. In the face of the storm, the disciples were not at all sure what to do, suddenly very fearful and at sixes and sevens….. Literally they move from relative calm to a great commotion and much as we might wish it to be otherwise, the truth is that we all have stormy times,  messy confusing times like this, which come on us without any warning! Sometimes caused by something trivial and short lived and at other times caused by events that feel like our whole world has fallen apart. Today I want us to think more deeply about this story of the disciples in the storm in the context of that storminess and messiness in our lives, and see what we can learn from it.

The storms on the Sea of Galilee were well known to the fishermen.  The fishermen that Jesus had chosen to be his disciples. These storms were an unwanted and scary part of life, infamous rather than famous. No doubt the disciples knew of other fishermen or even members of their own families who had lost their lives through one of these storms. We may well find this a bit surprising as the sea of Galilee is a big lake – but it is the truth… Something about the surrounding lands and the prevalence of high wind. Within Hebrew culture, there was also an endemic fear of water. No coincidence that the Old Testament is packed with sea monsters – Leviathans….. in case you have ever wondered. Like modern day workers in the fishing industry the disciples would have had a very healthy respect for the waters they worked. They worked long before there was any real prospect of being rescued, before life jackets, life rafts and air sea rescue!!

I think to understand this story of the disciples in the storm at a deeper level – we need to apply this idea of storms more widely. Rather than just limit it to the power of the weather. At the lowest level, Storms are scary, at times life threatening, bringing chaos and destruction in their wake and a real loss of order. We have many circumstances in our lives that fit this description, not just adverse weather conditions and natural disasters, but also bereavement, redundancy, illnesses and chronic debilitating conditions, and dare I say it pandemics etc!!! Difficulties in relationships and families are all really types of storms, if you think about what they do – they are scary, bring chaos, destruction, loss of order, and life feels like it is not worth living. These modern day storms can shake us to the core just as the original storm shook the disciples.

In the year 2000 – I was suddenly made redundant from the Software Company where I had worked for over 9 years. Clouds had been gathering round this organisation for some time and redundancy had been threatened a couple of times previously, as the firm organised and re-organised but continued to lose money. When it came in the end, it came very suddenly and very decisively as the firm was engulfed by another organisation. I fell out of favour with those that then wielded the power and that was that!

It felt like the definition and purpose of my day to day existence had vanished overnight. I was put on ‘gardening’ leave, so I did not do any more work but could not start another job until that was finished (though job-hunting was permitted obviously). I discovered pretty rapidly that in the week, I didn’t have a reason to get up in the morning or to do anything very much at all. Life lost its shape and coherency. I went from being enormously busy all the time, to not having enough to do!! I also learnt pretty graphically who were really my friends. Those who rang and came round, and provided moral support. I found out the hard way those who found excuses for not trying to help or even be in touch, justifying this by saying they didn’t know what to say in the circumstances. I discovered how much we define ourselves by what we do rather than who we are as God’s beloved children too.

But alongside all this, I found that I had more time to read, to pray and to walk my route of Christian discipleship, I found very great consolation in my life in the church which was one of the few things that stayed the same. Sundays provided a great anchor point and refreshment. I established a pattern over what turned out to be just a 10-week period when I wasn’t employed. Thankfully that set me spiritually into such a better place, and this continued after I got another job. It was a place and a pattern where God got much more of a look in. I am sure that this experience helped me to follow my calling which I was exploring at the time, and I started to train for the ministry about 2 years after this

Even though it was very grim at times, I was very aware of Jesus in the boat in the storm of my redundancy!!! Through the power of the Spirit I was never alone. Jesus was in the storm with the disciples, and I find that very consoling.  Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus left with us, we are never alone, even in the most difficult and stormiest of times. As fellow Christians on the journey of life, we should not be surprised by what I have just said about the Holy Spirit being with us and working in us even in the most difficult times. And yet that is not what the world at large might expect us to say!!

When I first became a Christian back in the day, there was a sense that you became a Christian and everything was going to be alright. It was the easy option, possibly even a bit of a cop out. It was a meal ticket to happiness, or at least that was how it was portrayed. Everything in the garden was going to be rosy! Difficult times were to be a thing of the past. I am not sure how well we have changed that wider perception, but I do think it is changing. Christianity isn’t a meal ticket to happiness, or a guarantee for no difficult times and as our first reading showed us with the struggles of St Paul it certainly isn’t the easy option!

The wonderful things about being a Christian include massive, undeserved forgiveness for sins; God’s peace and spirit being with us, deep joy and the freedom we experience in worship; the opportunity to know Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit that is with us in every breath! and of course, the hope of eternal life which gives greater meaning in everything. I realise now for example, I would much rather have my sins   forgiven, than be happy all the time. Likewise, I would much rather experience God’s presence through the spirit and the inner peace that brings than be happy all the time.

I think it is much more honest to admit that some very bad things happen to good people. Some sad awful and heart-rending things happen to people. Things they have not done anything to deserve. Through it all God is still with them and loves them as they are through the power of his Spirit. God still wants to use them to further his kingdom, but these awful storms happen. Yet sometimes in our brokenness, in the stormiest of times, the spirit is given more room to work in us and this will set us free!

The disciples learnt from the storm experience and had one of the most impressive demonstrations of Jesus’ love for them, as he rapidly stilled the storm and restored peace and calm. They went away from this incident – aware in a new way of who Jesus was and how he worked. I have also known God work through the storms in my life too, particularly through the times round my redundancy I can see how God was with me and I was changed by the power of the spirit working in my life. Also, how God worked in a new and deeper way. A way that in the usual busyness of my existence I might never have given the Spirit the space to dwell so richly. It is easy to look back and see the work being done in stormy times by the spirit from a safe distance and to be thankful. It is not so easy in the midst of stormy times – when it is a struggle to get up in the morning. It is at these times, when all we can do is ask the Spirit to dwell in us richly and to get us through the day. To be honest in our prayers about how we feel and to be reassured that as Jesus was in the storm with his disciples, the Holy Spirit is with us and surrounds us with God’s love in everything no matter how bleak it may seem.

As I started, I end by saying that life can be frustrating, messy and confusing, as we all experience good times and stormy bad times. Storms (both literal and the stormy nature of our modern lives) can shake our very foundations,  but above all we need to remember the Holy Spirit is always with us in everything, as Jesus was with the disciples in the storm. Because as the chorus of that hymn goes: We have an anchor that keeps the soul, Steadfast and sure while the billows roll, Fastened to the Rock which cannot move, Grounded firm and deep in the Saviour’s love. AMEN.

CCLI – Song  reproduced under CCLI 217043 for St Peter and St Paul’s Church Wincanton, Some material included in this service is copyright:  ©  The Archbishops’ Council 2000-2020 – Bible readings from The New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition), copyright 1989, 1995 – CCLI – Hymns reproduced under CCLI 1618191 for St Michael’s Church, Pen Selwood

Trinity 2 – June 13th – Penny Ashton

Reflection for St Barnabas

Acts 11: 19-end

As we are thinking about St Barnabas today, we will be going on a little bit of a Cook’s tour of the first few chapters of the book of Acts.  It is often useful to read the bible, not in sections as we hear it every week in church, but to read a larger portion to see the whole sweep of the story.  In the case of the early church and its development, I would recommend reading from the beginning of Acts up to the first few verses of chapter 13 to get a good overview of how the Holy Spirit worked through different people over time to spread the word of God’s kingdom.  We often take the example of the very earliest church in Jerusalem as a model of how a church could or should organise itself.  According to the description in Acts 4, it seemed to function almost as a commune, and members were willing where necessary to sell personal belongings to finance the church and support the less well off.  We might do well to also consider the church in Antioch, and we will come to that later.  Antioch, which is now in Turkey, although it was then in the Roman province of Syria plays a key part in this story.  It was a relatively new city having been founded about 300 years previously by a former general of Alexander the Great.  It was well situated on a crossroads for international trade, and being near the mouth of a river, was also a seaport, almost certainly a meeting place for people of many races.  It had become the third largest city in the Roman Empire after Rome and Alexandria, was the garrison for Roman troops defending the eastern border of the empire, and had many theatres, temples aqueducts and baths.  We know from our bibles that it was the first place where  the term ‘Christians’ was used.

Barnabas did not come from Antioch – in fact Barnabas was not even his real name, but a nickname given to him which describes his nature, and although he is not remembered as a leader of the early church, his importance should not be underestimated.  We first read about him in Acts 4 in the account of the communal living in the Jerusalem church, under his given name of Joseph.  We know that he came from Cyprus, was a Jew of the tribe of Levi which historically had no land allocation but served in various roles in the temple – anything from cleaners to musicians to guards.  In our first encounter with him he is being generous, having sold some land and giving the money to the apostles.  We are also told at this time of his nickname which means son of encouragement.  He was already trustworthy and well liked.

Some time later we have the stories of the spread of the church, but up to this point always among the Jewish people.  After the death of Stephen, a persecution begins, and people begin to scatter – and word comes to the Jerusalem church that the gospel is being preached to Samaritans.  You will remember how in Acts 1: 8, Jesus gave the instruction to the apostles that after they had received the Holy Spirit, they would take the word to Jerusalem, all Judea, and the third place on the list was Samaria.  Peter and John went in person to check out this new church, which must have been difficult for them given the relationship between the Jews and Samaritans at the time, but they obviously approved as they continued to preach to Samaritan villages themselves on their way back to Jerusalem.

If we read further in Acts, we learn in chapter 9 that after his conversion, Saul began to preach in Damascus and so enraged the Jewish authorities there that he had to be smuggled out at night by the church.  He returned to Jerusalem, but the church there – perhaps understandably did not want to know him.  To be fair, the last time they had seen him, he was supporting those who killed one of their number, and then obtaining permission to do the same in Damascus.  It seems though that Barnabas was not one to jump to conclusions, and he took the time and had the courage to sit with Saul and hear his story – and then to tell it to the church himself.  After that Saul was made welcome – Barnabas was the kind of person who would take time to find out the whole story, and that you would believe.

In chapter 9 of Acts there is then a description of the church which I love – ‘Meanwhile the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up. Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers. (Acts 9:31).  It almost sounds as though God has given them a time when they can heave a sigh of relief before the action starts again!  The work of the Spirit continues though in Acts 10 and the early verses of chapter 11 when Peter is challenged in a vision about preaching to gentiles, and this thread of the story continues in the reading which we have just heard.  Word has come to Jerusalem that the gospel is being preached to Hellenists – that is to Greeks and possibly in that cosmopolitan city to other races as well.  The key phrase to note about this is in v21 – ‘The hand of the Lord was with them’.  This spread of the gospel outside of the Jewish people follows the vision of Peter where he had been reminded that only God can decide what is clean and what is unclean.  Surely the Spirit is preparing the church for the next step.

We often talk nowadays about a person newly appointed to a position being ‘a safe pair of hands.’  This seems to very much sum up Barnabas.  And so it was that when they heard of the church in Antioch, they sent Barnabas to find out the truth, and what he found is summed up beautifully in today’s reading: ‘When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion; for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were brought to the Lord.’

It seems that Barnabas chose to remain in Antioch, we don’t know the timescales here, but while he was there, he made the journey to Tarsus, about 85 miles away, where Saul had returned home, and made a point of finding him and bringing him back to Antioch, where they both joined the team of leaders of that vibrant and growing church.  Once again, the guiding hand of the Spirit can be seen at work, as it was from this church, after a time of worship, prayer and fasting the Holy Spirit guided the church to commission Saul and Barnabas for a specific work, and so after blessing them, the church sent them out.  The rest, you could say is history!

Throughout this story, certain threads are clear. People were spending time in prayer and listening to God.  Barnabas, on whom we have focused today was ‘full of the Holy Spirit and faith’ and so the church and God could use him. He took time to listen, to think and pray about things and was brave.  I often think that the two people in the book of Acts to whom we owe a great deal for their courage are Barnabas and an almost unknown believer in Damascus called Ananias whom God sent to pray with Saul after he was blinded by his vision on the road.  Ananias was not keen to go, having heard in advance of Saul’s mission, but he was obedient, and because of his and Barnabas’ faithfulness, the whole amazing mission of St Paul was made possible.

I am often reminded of the story of a revivalist preacher in the 1930s called Mordecai Ham.  He preached at a meeting in South Carolina which did not seem to be very successful, but one person who made a decision at this meeting was a teenager from a devout church-going family who lived on a local farm.  The boy’s name was Billy Graham and he probably preached the gospel to almost as many as St Paul.  I always have to remind myself when I have the privilege of standing at the front of church to preach, that we have no idea what work the Holy Spirit may be planning for the people who are listening.  Whatever those plans are, they will almost certainly rely upon us having people like Barnabas to help us carry them out.

Trinity 1 – Year B – 6th June 2021 – Rev Alison Way

Link to the video reflection for this sermon: https://youtu.be/_Yd0IeDz6lQ

2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1, and Mark 3:20-35

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

In our gospel we are in the early days of Jesus ministry. It’s a confusing passage as there is a lot going on. In the action that proceeds this passage, Jesus has just gathered and named his disciples, and has already got the hackles up of the Pharisees and Herodians through his actions – He is the centre of attention and packed crowds are following him around, and in this passage are outside his home.

Jesus’ family appear to be struggling with this sudden and rapid chain of events, and had already set out to restrain him (In response to people saying ‘he has gone out of his mind’). In and around his hometown and his home, this change in Jesus must have been quite startling. I am also guessing the family had gone out to restrain Jesus before he got home. They re-appear later in the account and will have found the huge densely packed crowd now outside their house when they do! More of that later…

More surprisingly at one level, Jesus’ activities have come to the attention of the Scribes from Jerusalem, so they are there too. They have travelled especially to denounce him.  The fact they have come to him is interesting, and these learned leaders coming to him in a way gives him credibility. They must have viewed him as a significant threat to their powerbase to have taken the trouble. On arrival, the scribes are not in the mood for talking or listening to what Jesus has to say – they straight away get on with condemning his actions without a hearing. According to them – Jesus is possessed and using the power of the ruler of demons to do the healings and miracles he has been working. The language of demons and Beelzebul is not language we often use today.

Jesus responds by giving them very short shrift. How can the forces of evil have any influence over the forces of evil…. And he then talks about the importance of standing together. He says the same thing – using kingdom and house – if a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom will not be able to stand. If a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. This is stressing the importance of unity and working together at all levels in our homes and in God’s kingdom. The kind of kingdom of love Jesus is bringing and the kind of home of grace and welcome he is building in us. There is also some deep seated irony in countering what the Scribes said too. Instead of working for Satan he has come to overpower and overcome Satan once and for all.

He uses a short story here to make his point. It revolves around advice on how to undertake a successful robbery (which is a very unusual topic for Jesus to use). The story describes tying up the strong man so his house can be plundered. There are a number of ways we could interpret this for example

  • Is Jesus the one coming to tie up Satan and defeat him with his message of love, hope and peace once and for all?

  • Or maybe Jesus is the one who has come to tie up the strong men of his day – the religious leaders who are leading the people badly and astray. They have been diverting people via meticulous rules and regulations rather than faith being a matter of the heart and love for God.

  • Or even is this showing the house of God needs to be radically reformed and plundered, to get back to where it should be and that is what Jesus has come to do at this point. We can think of references to strength and weakness and how they work in Jesus from other places in the New Testament- for example in 1 Corinthians 1:27 – But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;

Jesus then saves his most damming remark for the Scribes and what they said. He says ‘whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never be forgiven’. Those who opposed Jesus were saying that his power came from the chief demonic power, Beelzebul and Jesus takes this very seriously. It is this statement that the power of the Holy Spirit is a demonic power, which he identifies as a blasphemy. The radical change and healing God brings through Jesus never have as their purpose to destroy or tear down; they are always for building up and wholeness and for our good.

The premise of standing together in the kingdom and in each home and household is important. It is important we work together for God’s kingdom as we move forward in this next period and being drawn together to build God’s kingdom where we are. Standing together, and supporting each other are central in this. Standing together with kingdom values and aspirations at the centre of our endeavours is also key.

Circumstances are such that we will need to work out not only what we do to move forward but how we do it in our new reality – utilising the gifts and talents of all of us to make it happen. To do this well and bring glory to God is going to take some time. Working together well isn’t a nice to have  but an absolute essential in this endeavour, and not getting caught up in what divides us rather than what unites us.

Added into this is a level of ‘unknowns’ about how things are going to go in relation to Coronavirus and the lifting of restrictions, and moving forward positively. Certainty about anything is in rather short supply, at the moment. This all feels provisional and temporary in a way I never imagined we would still be experiencing at this point, and yet I can see this is going to continue for much longer than any of us want.

Based on how it has all been up to this point – I also know this is going to be tricky – but we need to work at it together. Patience is important as is being kind and listening carefully, accepting where we make mistakes and learning from them.

The kind of unity Jesus is looking for in his followers is that of family –  a community working together interdependently and based on love and the common good. Towards the end of this passage Jesus declares to the gathered masses that are all around him who do the will of God are members of his family.

It is a bit tempting to see what Jesus says here as a slur on his own family, who at this point are quite frankly and understandably not really getting what he is doing and why – but that isn’t the point Jesus is making at all. His own family trigger his use of this example and he is not advocating hostility towards them but moving to a wider definition of family – his family of followers.

Family was in fact a very important and valued unit in Jesus’ life, and his faith. Loyalty, respect and obedience were hallmarks of Jewish family life. What he is saying is about the closeness we need to aspire to in belonging and working together to do the will of God. And the closeness he wants in his followers – so that we are loving and supportive of one another – and the best worldly example he can see in that is family. In our case our church families.

I don’t want to finish without referring to some wisdom given to us by Paul in our first reading from 2 Corinthians. He reminds us that Jesus came to bring us into his presence by grace – continuing ‘so we do not lose heart’.  We need to stay focussed on the certainties of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit in these strange and unpredictable times. Particularly as we work out how we move forward serving God as his body the church in our communities. We as Paul recommended, need to see beyond our earthly issues, to seeing we have an eternal dwelling place in the loving heart of God. And an understanding as Paul so mystically put it that one day we will experience the eternal weight of glory beyond measure.

Paul is saying this ‘even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day’. Let’s concentrate on that inner renewing and let the outer things that are wasting away take care of themselves. When we can, and when we have worked through whatever steps/guidance comes next and the dust has settled, let’s keep on working on that critical inner renewing as we move into the next phase of all this – whatever that may be. On a personal note, I am having a few days away and then some retreat time over the next 10 days, I would be particularly grateful for your prayers for that retreat time and for inner renewing as we prepare for the next steps.

When I was a curate – I met a lovely man called Ken, sadly he is now no longer with us. His first sea-going draft was on HMS Royal Oak. At the age of 16 as a ‘Boy 1st Class’ he was the youngest member of the ship’s company to survive a torpedo attack while at anchor in Scapa Flow. 834 lives were lost, only 386 survived. When I met him, he was an elderly man of deep faith. He was the secretary of the Royal Oak association and still making the annual pilgrimage to Orkney to remember his ship mates, his extended family. Ken introduced me to a prayer written by William Penn, which he loved and points to the deeper perspective we need. Subsequently I have used it many times (particularly at funerals) – but it sums up something of what I have been trying to say today:

Let us pray –  life is eternal and love is immortal, and death is only an horizon, and a horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight. Lift us up, strong Son of God that we may see further; cleanse our eyes that we may see more clearly; draw us closer to Thyself and while Thou dost prepare a place for us, prepare us also for that happy place, that where Thou art we may be also for evermore. AMEN

References:

https://www.poeticexpressions.co.uk/poems/we-seem-to-give-them-back-to-thee/ http://www.basingstoketeamparish.org.uk/community-stories/remembering-ken-toop

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989

Trinity Sunday

Trinity Sunday

Romans 8: 12-17 and John 3: 1-17

Both the industries that I worked in before I retired were subject to regular inspections – in the bank we had inspectors who would descend without notice – carefully timing it so that they arrived just as we were about to close the doors to the public, and they would then stand behind each cashier as they balanced their till.  In Adult Learning we were subject to Ofsted inspections – and with them you could receive advance warning that they were coming, although not always.  In both cases, the inspectors were people who had done the jobs they were inspecting, and knew how it should be done, and all the tricks people might try to hide things that were not quite right.

Nicodemus is a good church person, he knows how things ought to be done according to the law.  We are not told, and have no way of finding out why he came to talk with Jesus – or why he came by night.  There are lots of possible reasons and we have considered several of them at various times.   As a member of the ruling body of the temple in Jerusalem, he could almost have been sent to check that Jesus is doing things properly.  We often meet Jesus talking with church leaders – they know the proper way to do things.  Even the disciples at times try to put Jesus straight, and we read that Peter is caught out in the days of the early church trying to return to doing things ‘properly’ rather than being guided by the spirit.

Despite his very courteous opening of the discussion, Jesus tells Nicodemus from the outset that he has no way of knowing what God is like – God doesn’t fit into a proper procedure.  Nicodemus has started the conversation with a compliment, ‘Nobody could do the things that you do unless God was with him’ which Jesus throws straight back at him – effectively saying ‘how would you know that?  Only people who have been born again can know about God’.  Sadly, in recent years, the description ‘born again Christian’ has become somewhat debased currency.  We associate it with people who shout long sermons at Speakers Corner, or go from door to door with tracts asking people if they have been saved.  And yet the need to be born again came straight from Jesus, and if we are ever tempted to say that the description ‘born again Christian’ does not apply to us, then we need to come back to this passage in John 3 and remember what Jesus said.

At a recent PCC meeting, Alison asked us all what we were most hoping for, for the future.  There was a variety of answers, but the one that most people agreed on was that they wanted things to return to normal.  I am sure that every one of us had a different picture in our heads of what normal looked like, but even so, I don’t think that is going to happen.

I believe that just as He was when Jesus came to earth, God is doing a new thing with us now.  I wish I could give you some idea what that was, but I have no more knowledge than you – it will be something exciting and maybe scary at times.  I believe that things here will be changing and our faith may be tested.  I don’t know how yet, and it may be uncomfortable.  As the Queen said in a recent broadcast, has been a bumpy ride for some of us – and there may be more bumps to come but God is still in charge.

I was recently reminded that you cannot have a flower without the bud breaking, a chick cannot hatch without smashing through its comfortable and protective shell, and I was told that unless a butterfly or moth has to struggle to escape the chrysalis, it won’t be able to fly.  As the old saying goes, you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.  The past year has put stresses on members of our clergy that they were not trained to cope with.  Asked them time after time to complete tasks that have never been on the theological college curriculum.  I doubt if you will ever hear a would-be ordinand telling a selection conference that they feel convinced that God is calling them, to use their skills in risk assessment and making the best use of Zoom.  I don’t know what Alison was asked about when she was interviewed before coming here, but I doubt very much if it was about her experience in infection control and video editing.  I wonder if Jesus considered assessing the risk before riding into Jerusalem?  I should say at this point that I do see the wisdom in assessing the risks at a time like this has been.

Nicodemus could have been checking that Jesus is doing his signs in accordance to the approved guidelines of the Temple authorities, and it is no wonder that he finds it hard to understand what Jesus tells him, because Jesus has come to teach that God is doing a new thing and if we in Wincanton and Pen Selwood go back to doing what we have always done, I would venture to suggest that it will have the same effect on the town and village that it has always had.

The story of Nicodemus is one that John uses to get over some important truths to us as well as to the Jewish authorities.  Throughout the conversation, Jesus is gently playing with words that can be understood more than one way – he talks of being born ‘again’, or equally ‘from above’ and in the next verse talks about the effect of the wind or spirit – in both cases the words are interchangeable.  Just as we can see and feel the effect of the wind, so too we can see the work of the Holy Spirit, and the only clue we get about the future is that the Spirit goes where it wills, and we will see the effects.

I once promised some of you that although I could not promise never to quote C S Lewis in a sermon, I was unlikely to quote from a book about Narnia, but I am going to break that promise now.  In ‘The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe’ there is an occasion when Aslan plays with Susan and Lucy.  Speaking of this time of play Lucy later says she can never make up her mind whether it was more like playing with a kitten or a thunderstorm.  Perhaps that is what life would be like if we allowed the Spirit to blow where she wills.  Up until now, our tactics have been to meet inside these four walls, and hope that invitations and the occasional special service will encourage people to join us.  Lots of people have been here on special occasions: – at Christmas, Remembrance and Harvest, and especially for school services and baptisms, but very few of them seem to have found anything that seems to inspire them to come again.  Could it be that we are hiding God in a building?  I have often thought that we are good at getting caught in in-between spaces – I think the fashionable word at the moment is liminal space.  Could we be stuck between Ascension and Pentecost?  That we have seen Jesus return to his father, but have not yet fully embraced the inspiration and power of the Spirit?  We read last week what the effect of that was on the apostles! At the end of the recorded version of last Sunday’s worship, Alison used the words of Commitment for Pentecost – several questions which each begin with the words ‘Will you dare…’ and to each the response is ‘We will’.  I do recommend that you look at this if you have not seen it, and look at it again if you have.  Within this section of the service are the words ‘Today we have remembered the coming of God’s power on the disciples and we invite that same Spirit to drive us out into the wild places of the world.’  You could say that the strength of the wind last Sunday turned Pen Selwood itself into one of the wild places of the world, but on a more serious note, I wonder how keen any of us really is to go into wild and possibly dangerous places trusting in the Spirit’s protection.  I wonder if we have become too comfortable where we are?

We do know that Nicodemus did not go away disappointed by his conversation with Jesus, because he occurs again by name in the Gospels when as a friend of Joseph of Arimathea, he goes with him to request permission to bury Jesus body after his crucifixion.  That was venturing into a wild and dangerous place, and would have set him against both the Roman and the Temple authorities.  Perhaps one reason he had the courage to do this was because he was one of the first people to hear Jesus summing up of God’s amazing plan for the redemption of the world in verse 16 – surely one of the best-known verses in the whole of the Bible.  We also, perhaps, have a clue as to why the story of his talk with Jesus occurs at night.  When Nicodemus came to Jesus he was in the dark, but surely he left in the light.  We have the privilege of meeting with Jesus too – do we dare to take his light with us when we leave?

Link to Sunday’s video reflection is: https://youtu.be/A3IOpb3aDfU

Pentecost – Rev Alison Way – 23rd May 2021

Link to the video reflection: https://youtu.be/wfi6hkLZoCA

Acts 2:1-21, John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

In the name of the living God, Almighty Father, Risen Son and ever present Holy Spirit. Amen

What happened on the day of Pentecost sounds pretty staggering as well as spectacular, and we have to wonder what it was like to have been there. For the disciples and the crowd gathered inside that day – (it had been about 120 people earlier in the week), a stunning experience and a spiritual awakening through the noise like the rush of the violent wind and with the tongues of fire resting on each one of them. And then suddenly the ability to speak in other languages as the same Spirit gave them the ability. There are things we don’t know about this – did the Spirit give them the words and the understanding of what they were saying. Or were they saying things without knowing what they were saying? It could well have been the latter as it was more important that the people around them heard the message in their native language and could act on it, than they understood themselves what they were saying. We will never know for sure.

I have always been very impressed with linguistic ability in others. This is definitely not one of my best gifts. I do have an O-level in French, but I was much better at reading and comprehension than speaking. (In fact I remember my French teacher being very frustrated with my spoken French with a pronounced south London accent!) I have been particularly impressed with people who can translate readily from one language to another, and particularly when the going gets technical. I remember on a work visit to Evreux in  France looking at different models of ministry, when I was working in Salisbury Diocese. Over one of the meals I had quite a complicated discussion about my calling as a priest with a devout Roman Catholic nun (I was the first female priest she had ever encountered). All our interactions were translated by the then Archdeacon of Sherborne, who spoke French very fluently! It wasn’t quick but it was very profound!

Being able to hear the message in their own language caused quite a stir in multicultural Jerusalem and by the end of the day (though the extract from Acts we heard didn’t get that far) 3000 people were baptised… That’s 25 people for each person originally gathered if there were 120 people but it could be there were far less than that in the room at the start of the day! – whatever all that was going on here was really quite impressive! Imagine if we spoke and 25 people turned to Christ if it helps!

The gathered crowd who heard the talking said they were talking about God’s deeds of power. Though not everyone gathered were caught up in this (accusing them of being filled with wine!), it is still a huge number who were inspired to become followers of Jesus. I have never known drink to improve people’s linguistic abilities and it was also as we hear from Peter a little further on in this reading – much to early in the day!

Over these past months in lockdown and gently moving out of it, we have been hearing about God’s deeds of power worked through the life and times of Jesus’ earthly ministry.  From Jesus birth, through his life with healings, miracles and teaching, to as we drew closer to Easter, his death and then rising again. Changing the world, once and for all and forever as I often say, conquering death – and opening the way for the coming of the Spirit in power. Our gospel reading also touched on how it had to be this way – Jesus saying ‘If I do not go away – the Advocate (Another word for the Holy Spirit) will not come to you, but if I go, I will send him to you’.

The Holy Spirit is how we connect and know God’s love for us in Jesus. It is the sense we have of God’s presence with us and one of the ways we are guided in the chances and choices of life, alongside exploring the scripture, handed down tradition, wise counsel and our sense of calling. In this week when we are giving thanks for the work of the Spirit in us and the work of our churches through our annual meetings, it is right to pray for the Spirit to fill us afresh for the challenges ahead of us. The knowns and the unknowns of opening out as the time comes. For some this will be too quick, for others too slow – whatever we will maintain our safety first approach and move forward at a pace where we can do the necessary safely. We will definitely need the Spirit’s guidance and no doubt do quite a lot of work too – to make this possible.

There are a set of prayers which encompass how the Spirit works   – where we pray for the different aspects of the Holy Spirit’s work in us. If you are watching this on the video, I pray the prayers after this reflection and I will also include the text of them on the Pentecost post on the Wincanton parish church website. The aspects are: –

  • The strength of the Holy Spirit in our service of God.

  • The wisdom of the Holy Spirit to understand God’s will for us.

  • The peace of the Holy Spirit for confidence to follow our calling.

  • The healing of the Holy Spirit where we need it to bring reconciliation and wholeness.

  • The gifts of the Holy Spirit to equip us for the work we have ahead.

  • And the fruit of the Holy Spirit, so that God’s love is what people see in us.

I have been particularly focussing on praying for the Spiritual fruit of joy and patience in recent weeks to help us in these strange times in which we live. The Holy Spirit is with us as our breath too. At the end of John’s gospel it says – Jesus breathed on them and said – Receive the Holy Spirit.

One of the techniques in today’s world of mindfulness is to tune in on our breathing and reconnect with it or take time to breathe in and out deeply. The centering strength of this is something Christians have known for many centuries. And I will always recommend it as a simple and effective way to reconnect, and move us into a more reflective and open space in the way God would have us travel.

To finish I do think we need to concentrate on being open to the Spirit’s stirrings and for our Spiritual fruit to be uppermost. This will help our message of love for everyone to be what people see in us. so let’s particularly focus

  • on the strength the Spirit can bring,

  • the healing the Spirit can work in us,

  • the gifts we need from the Spirit to face the challenges ahead,

  • the fruit with which we can be blessed,

  • and knowing God through the Spirit in every breath.

Amen

We pray for God to fill us with his Spirit. Generous God,  we thank you for the power of your Holy Spirit. We ask that we may be strengthened to serve you better. Lord, come to bless us.
All: and fill us with your Spirit.

We thank you for the wisdom of your Holy Spirit. We ask you to make us wise to understand your will. Lord, come to bless us.
All: and fill us with your Spirit.

We thank you for the peace of your Holy Spirit. We ask you to keep us confident of your love, wherever you call us.Lord, come to bless us.
All: and fill us with your Spirit.

We thank you for the healing of your Holy Spirit. We ask you to bring reconciliation and wholeness where there is division, sickness and sorrow. Lord, come to bless us.
All: and fill us with your Spirit.

We thank you for the gifts of your Holy Spirit. We ask you to equip us for the work which you have given us.
Lord, come to bless us.
All: and fill us with your Spirit.

We thank you for the fruit of your Holy Spirit. We ask you to reveal in our lives the love of Jesus. Lord, come to bless us.
All: and fill us with your Spirit.

We thank you for the breath of your Holy Spirit, given by the risen Lord. We ask you to keep the whole Church, living and departed, in the joy of eternal life. Lord, come to bless us.
All: and fill us with your Spirit.

Generous God, you sent your Holy Spirit upon your Messiah at the River Jordan, and upon the disciples in the upper room. In your mercy fill us with your Spirit. hear our prayer, and make us one in heart and mind to serve you with joy for ever.  Amen.

 

Copyright acknowledgement – Some material included in this service is copyright: © The Archbishops’ Council 2000-2020, New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989