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
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.
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
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989