Monthly Archives: June 2023

St Peter and St Paul – 2nd July 2023

Zechariah 4:1-6a, 10b-14 and Matthew 16:13-19

In the name of the Living God, creator Father, risen Son and ever-present Holy Spirit. Amen.

In our gospel reading today, we are at a bit of a turning point. Jesus has taken his disciples to Caeserea, Philippi for a bit of rest and respite from their itinerant life style. They had just had an encounter with the Pharisees and Sadducees who were determined to test Jesus, and in six days time Jesus would be transfigured on a high mountain, and glow dazzling white.  Caeserea Philippi is a beautiful area in the foothills of Mount Hermon. It gave Jesus some quality time with his disciples and to work on their understanding of who he was and what he was here to do.

Like many good teachers, he is using questions to help the disciples to work things out for themselves. We are much more use to someone if we help them to really understand for themselves something rather than just telling them it. This is the basis of most modern day coaching, where questions are used primarily to help someone to think things through thoroughly. Jesus begins by asking ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’. And what follows is an interesting selection of names – John the Baptist, Elijah and Jeremiah, which the disciples report that other people had said about Jesus.

We come to the knub of this story next, as using another question Jesus asks them ‘But who do you say that I am?’ From the account it feels that Peter has no hesitation in saying that Jesus is the Messiah! This was a very radical thing to voice, and recognition in Peter’s heart that Jesus was God’s son (even though how Jesus was behaving was not the rampaging expectations of the Messiah to overthrow the Romans by force!). I wonder if this was an instinctive answer, one that came out of Peter’s mouth before he thought of the significance of what he was saying or one of those light bulb moments we have all experienced when he suddenly realised something (and it was out of his mouth as quickly as it had entered his head).

Jesus pounces on this, and says God had revealed to him – and we recognise the sensation as we are likely to have had moments like this ourselves – when we have sudden revelations that can only be from God about things or circumstances around us. Jesus rewarded his faithful response with not just saying Peter would be the rock on which the church was built but also that he would have the keys to the kingdom of heaven – hence Peter often being depicted in church art and stained glass with keys .

Does the entry of the kingdom of heaven need a key or keys to open it? What does this mean? I think the keys are simply to love God with all our hearts, souls, minds and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves. Also we need to live recognising that Jesus died and rose again for us, and that he has left the Holy Spirit with us to guide us. Each of us is different from one another and bring different gifts and talents to the party. God can choose the most unlikely people (like Peter) to take things forward. An uneducated fisherman would not be many people’s first choice of the person to start the church! This means of course that God can use us, no matter how unlikely that may feel to us – through the power of the Holy Spirit working in us too.

So that’s a little about St Peter, let’s look at our other unlikely candidate for growing the church – St Paul. In our art work (and in many depictions of St Paul in churches) – he is often depicted with a sword. The first reason for this – often Saints are shown with how they died (we think Paul was beheaded with a sword) – but I think this is also more about some of the things St Paul wrote. There is a famous passage about the  full armour of God in the letter to the Ephesians (in chapter 6). There Paul writes of the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

There is another famous passage about what can separate us from the love of God in Romans which Paul wrote. He is describing  how nothing can separate us from the love of God and he is right – nothing can!  Paul says –  Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?

Though Paul was probably a more likely leader than Peter ever was, he had a track record of persecuting Christians before he converted – so again a pretty unlikely choice by God. In his early days, he struggled to throw off his previous reputation and actions, but he persevered. We owe a huge debt to Paul, as his writings and actions shaped how the early church grew (and many scholars think it would probably have fizzled out without him). Like many of us, I am not sure Paul would have been the easiest to be around – and he was very determined to do what God wants of him. We have to admire that and see how we can follow his example.

The truth is that God can work in us – with our co-operation by his Spirit so we can do the very thing God wants of us whatever our circumstances! No matter how unlikely it seems to be to us. That is a big thought to leave us with!

After a silence – I am going to end with a prayer reflecting on keys and swords and opening our hearts to God’s love and purpose for us, inspired by Peter and Paul.

We thank you, Jesus, for you call us friends. You trust us as you trusted Peter, you know us through and through, yet go on loving and accepting us in our human weakness. Give us the keys of the kingdom of heaven that we might have life in all its fullness!

We thank you, Holy Spirit, for you draw us to the living God, Like St Paul, one who recognised in Jesus’ life and death for all, Help us to live so God’s love and purpose can help strengthen the kingdom of God in this place and everywhere we go. Give us the sword of the spirit – that we might have life in all its fullness! Amen.

References: The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible 1989, © 1995, Prayer adapted from material on – used with permission © 

Trinity 3 – 25th June 2023 – Penny Ashton

Trinity 3 – 25th June 2023 – Penny Ashton

Normally when we prepare a sermon, we look for words of encouragement.  Our hope is that people will go away having learned something, or been reminded of something they had forgotten, and will have been given a reason to work harder at their faith and come to know God better through that.

The readings that we have heard today don’t give me a great deal of scope for bringing you words of encouragement however.  I do wonder if the reason we tend to prefer to read from Isaiah rather than Jeremiah despite the fact that counting by chapters and including with Jeremiah the book of Lamentations – another one we tend to avoid – their written output is almost exactly the same.  We also believe that the book of Isaiah was written by more than one person, whereas Jeremiah’s appears to be all his own work.  Jeremiah was called to be a prophet for God as a young man, during the reign of Josiah, the last of the godly kings of Judah, and continued to prophesy through the reigns of several kings, many of whom treated him very badly. 

The political situation at the time was one of power struggle between the great nations of the time, and as we know, the people of Israel and Judah were eventually carried into exile as captives by the Assyrians led by Nebuchadnezzar.  It is the warnings that this is to happen that takes up much of the prophecy of Jeremiah, which is why much of what he wrote is depressing to read, and why he was unpopular with most of the kings.  Until quite recently it was quite common to hear of someone who seldom had anything cheerful to say being referred to as a bit of a Jeremiah.  There is a story that on one occasion as his prophecy was being read to king Jehoiakim, the king periodically took a knife and cut off the portion of the scroll as it had been read and threw it into the fire until the whole scroll had been destroyed.  Jeremiah, we read went home and dictated it all again to his scribe, adding many more words this time!

Lament seems to be an emotion that we avoid nowadays, but I wonder if we are wise to do so.  I have noticed when watching the news of recent disasters – particularly the earthquake in Turkey and Syria – that the people there do not attempt to hide their grief when the discovery of a body in the wreckage of their home takes place.  It is customary in this country to hide our grief, and to do our weeping in private – often apologising if we find ourselves shedding a tear in public, but are we right to do this?  We don’t feel the need to apologize when we have shown our joy in good news, or our laughter when amused, so why are we ashamed of our tears?  It seems that displays of grief have only become acceptable at times of national mourning such as the death of her late Majesty, Queen Elizabeth, but not when we lose someone we knew and loved. 

There is much that is wrong with our world at the moment.  There can be very few people left who still deny that climate change is a reality, who say that our seas are not still being poisoned with plastic or that many plant and animal species are in grave danger of extinction.  These are all things that have largely come about in our lifetimes, and while we can claim with some accuracy that we were initially ignorant of the damage that we were causing, we cannot make that claim any more.  Neither, sadly, can we expect that the situation will be put right by the action of governments and big businesses.  They have a part to play, but they are largely driven by the choices we make. 

Manufacturers will soon get the message and stop over production when they realise that nobody is buying.  Governments set their spending priorities according to the votes cast and the letters and emails they receive.  What we do and say does make a difference, and the more we do and say it, the more of a difference we are likely to make.  We are not, and never have been too small to make a difference.

The message of Jeremiah that we heard today, is of the importance of speaking out God’s word when we hear it denounced.  Many of us, and I include myself, are afraid of looking stupid and being ridiculed by all those who hear us – whether friend or not – as was happening to Jeremiah but Jeremiah is aware that if he does not speak out the word that God has given him, he feels as if he will burst or it will burn him inside.  I wonder if we still feel that kind of compulsion.  In the last verses however, Jeremiah remembers that God, who he refers to as ‘a dread warrior’, has always delivered those in need from any who would do evil.

Jesus message in our gospel reading is not much more cheerful than Jeremiah’s.  He is sending the disciples out to spread his message and is warning them that it will not always be easy.  His message will divide people and not all will hear it willingly.  It is possible that it will split families, but the important thing to remember, both for the disciples and for us is that God will always be with us.  As Jesus says – every hair on our heads is numbered, and not even a sparrow dies without God being aware of it.  How much more will he support and protect us. 

As he promises the disciples –anyone who acknowledges him to others, he will acknowledge to his Father in heaven.  The important message from both our readings today is the need to have God at the centre of our lives and to speak his word whenever we feel it is right and needed.  If we can keep hold of these two things, God will be our deliverer, and Jesus will continue to remember us to his heavenly Father.  How much more could we ask for?

Trinity Sunday – 4th June

Isaiah 40.12-17,27-31, Matthew 28:16-20

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

Our prophetic first reading today, from Isaiah, took us to some of the majesty and difficulty of explaining who God is and what God can do. This was also something the early Christians had to grapple with at a significant event in our church history, which took place in the year 325. It was a gathering of anyone who was anyone in the early church, hosted by the Roman Emperor Constantine. At the council of Nicea a number of significant things were agreed in the Christian Faith – amongst them the basics of the Nicene Creed, which has been used ever since in worship and we will say it once again later this morning.

Anyway, this creed has enshrined our understanding of God as the Trinity. That is God in three persons, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. This is a concept and doctrine that we celebrate and cherish today on Trinity Sunday. If you Just take a moment to take a cursory glance at the Nicene Creed on the next page in our service books,

that reveals the creed arranged in  three sections in accordance with the Trinity.

One starting We believe in one God, the next We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ and the last one starting We believe in the Holy Spirit.

It is not easy to try and distil the Christian faith like this, and particularly not easy when people disagreed about how things worked as they were back in the 3rd century. Human nature hasn’t changed very much. As different people, just as they do now hold strongly differing views! Trying to find a compromise that everyone can agree on – remains very difficult, but we are stronger if we work together.

Back in the 3rd century, they were doing this in part to combat the heresies or mistaken beliefs of their day – There were quite a few of these around by  this point,  which mostly sound like nasty diseases – Arianism, Monarchism and Manicheanism to name but three! Amongst other things, the Council of Nicea also decided what books should be in and out of the Bible. There is also some doubt on the role of the Roman Emperor Constantine in all of these events (and whether his motivations were genuine or self-seeking). A question that has been troubling historians and theologians for many years and that’s a question I shan’t attempt to grapple with today.

What I want to say of the Council of Nicea (and this is probably not something to be proud of) is this – that I find it really consoling that the council of Nicea – the great and the good of the early church had great difficulty in coming to agree how to describe God as Trinity and the relationships between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And in reality it was another 50 years before the Nicene creed reached the fullness of the version we use today. Trying to define God and describe the relationships between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is really pretty beyond us. God is incomprehensible, far beyond our understanding and greater by far than our imagining. We struggle because we are trying to define something we have neither the language or perspective to manage very well really. Ever since Christians including you and me have been finding it difficult to put God the Trinity into words. This makes me feel so very much better about this sermon!! And others I have preached on Trinity Sunday over the years.

The problem the early Christians had and we still have today is a bit like this. Three blind men met an elephant and tried to explain to each other what it was like. The first blind man felt over the leg of the elephant, and said to the others, ‘It is like a strong tree.’ But the second, holding the trunk, explained, ‘It is like an ever changing vine.’ Still the third blind man ran his hands across the large body and head of the elephant, and exclaimed, ‘No it is endless like a wide mountain’. Each experienced a different part of the same thing. Yet without a full understanding of the whole picture and combining each of their perceptions, the blind men were not going to be able to get an accurate understanding of what an elephant was, because an elephant has all of the three things they found –  The legs are like a strong tree, the trunk is like an ever changing vine and the main body and head like a wide mountain’.

We can see immediately that an elephant cannot be just the legs, or just the trunk or just the body and head. We can see immediately because we, of course, know what an elephant looks like!! If we apply this story to our understanding of the Trinity – we are in a sense all blind men and women  feeling our way into understanding God as Trinity. We can recognize the three separate strands that make up God as Trinity.

  • God The Father, maker of heaven and earth of all that is seen and unseen.
  • Jesus Christ only son of God eternally begotten from the Father.
  • The Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life.

Yet to have a fuller understanding we need to bring these parts together and not deal with them in isolation, and that is probably where the trouble really starts! As we don’t and can’t understand the full picture that is God the Trinity. It’s like doing a jigsaw without the picture (and anyone who has tried that will know just how challenging it is).

We understood the story of the blind men because we know what an elephant is. We are in much more trouble with God as Trinity, feeling our way as we don’t understand and perhaps in this life we will never fully understand. We cannot define God, because any definition limits God to what our human minds can hold. There is always more to feel, to find out, to experience and to share of God. This mystery is all part of the package that is the Christian journey. As I said in this week’s newsletter, it is only in St Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians that these 3 strands are drawn together with those familiar but pretty baffling words – 13The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

We say this phrase a lot as practicing Christians – but what do we mean by it.  Grace, love and communion are all difficult to define, pin down and be exact about. It doesn’t make it any easier if we use the word fellowship instead of communion either! The challenge we have as Christians is to look for ways of expressing our understanding of God. So we can share our good news, without being tempted to think we can really define God, because our definitions will fall short and underestimate what God can do in our lives and the lives of those around us. We need to sit comfortably and easily with this mystery, which with our society’s desire to know how things work is quite challenging.

The most appropriate response to the wonder and mystery of God as Trinity that we can make this morning is to come close to God in worship in awe and wonder. Worship requires our hearts and minds to be open to the movements of the Holy Spirit. Worship brings us to a place where we know God is God, and where we can be continually surprised with fresh understanding. And in worship we can come to the place, with our arms open and our hearts on fire with God’s love – we come to the place that the disciples came to in our gospel reading. Where we can respond to God’s call to us – To go and make disciples of all nations as God is with us to the end of the age. This call doesn’t depend on what God is, our definitions and how well we understand God as Trinity. God’s call to us all is the same whether we understand everything in the Nicene Creed, are experts in the doctrine of the Trinity and can argue deep theology. God’s call to us is the same if we are still at the beginning of understanding where the Trinity is concerned. What matters is whether we respond to God’s call not how we understand it. For God says to us all: Go, therefore and make disciples of all nations, For God is with us always, to the end of the age.


The Revised Standard Version of the Bible – 1989 © 1995.