Saturday, August 18, 2018

Growing up with God

Readings:  Proverbs 9.1-6, Ephesians 5.15-20, John 6.51-58
As you have probably heard by now, I am a Grandad.  As a grandad, I’m re-discovering many of the puzzling questions I used to ask when I first became a dad.  Like ‘why can’t this child tell me what’s wrong with it?’.  Or when’s he gonna to learn to speak English?  Or the most important question of all…when’s he going to be old enough to buy me a pint?

Growing from childhood into maturity is a recurring theme of the Bible too.  The whole of the Bible is, in many ways, a metaphor for growing up.  There are all those wonderful tales of biblical heroes who grow from children into adults – the show-off Joseph with his coat of many colours who grows into the second most powerful man in Egypt.  There’s the young daring boy David, afraid of not even the mighty Goliath, who grows into a wise King and leader, a song-writer and poet.  Even the primary story of Adam and Eve is ultimately a story about growing up and growing beyond the garden of one’s youth.

The very religion that the Bible relates also ‘grows up’ through its pages.  It moves from an early dawn of realisation that this God, this Jewish God, didn’t require child sacrifices, through to an assumption that God wants to lay down lots of complex rules, through to the ultimate revelation of the God of unconditional love and mercy revealed to us through Jesus.  It’s all about growing up, you see.

As we’ve just heard, the book of proverbs echoes this theme.  The wisdom of God, usually characterised as a woman, invite the immature, and the simple, and those without sense to feast at her table of wisdom.  “Come,” she says, “Lay aside immaturity and live – and walk in the way of insight.

Writing to the Ephesians in our second reading, St Paul also encourages his readers to grow up, or specifically to ‘grow wise’.  “Be careful how you live,” he says.  “Not as unwise people, but as wise.”  And then, a little later, “…do not be foolish, but understand”.  Next weekend, I shall be attending the wedding of my oldest niece, at which we will hear those other poetic words of St Paul, from 1 Corinthians 13 – read so often at weddings: “When I was a child, I thought as a child.  But now that I am a man, I have put away childish things”.  St Paul’s own life was a story of growing up.  By God’s grace, he grew away from being an angry Pharisee, who stoned the early Christians to death – into one of the wisest and most revered of Jesus’ followers.

At yesterday’s parish conference, entirely by co-incidence, Mike Fluck introduced us to some further thinking about what it means for us to grow up in our faith.  He reminded us of the thinking of theologian Gerard Hughes, who teaches that mature Christian faith has three stages to it.  The first in the ‘institutional’ stage.  This is the childhood stage of Christian faith.  This is the time when we want certainty, and the comfort of being told what we should believe and how we should behave – both in our lives and in the way we worship.  We want our faith to be institutionalised…so that we know where we are.  Nothing disturbs us.  Our Christian club is secure…and like the Famous Five, or the Secret Seven, we know who are friends are. 

This is the stage in which we want to be led by strong leaders, who will praise us when we do things right, or correct us when we are wrong.  People we can look up to, who we trust to do the hard work of thinking about our faith for us.  Just like we did when we were kids.

But this, says Gerard Hughes, is just the starting point for a Christian.  The next stage – the adolescent stage if you will, is the ‘critical’ stage.  This is when we start asking questions for ourselves.  It’s when we become open to hearing what others might have to say, and when we begin to challenge our more child-like notions about our faith.  For many, this stage can be characterised by things like realising that God is not an old man sitting on a cloud, but a living presence in the world - and not a man at all.  It’s the point at which we realise that all our language about God is meaningless, in the face of the infinite mystery of God-self. 

And these insights lead us onwards into an even more grown-up faith; into the phase which Gerard Hughes calls the ‘mystical’ phase.

The mystical believer is the one who knows that God is not just encountered on the mountain-top, or in the church, but also and profoundly deep within us.  The mystical believer recognises that their life-events have shaped them into the person they are, with the beliefs they hold…and that God is ever at work within them, shaping and changing, moving further and further away from those old institutional certainties into a belief which is so much more profound, so much deeper, so much more rewarding.  Perhaps, it’s the moment when we realise that life is so much more complex than we assumed in our childhood. 

It’s the moment, perhaps, when we realise that our intercessory prayers to the God on the cloud are pointless, because God doesn’t need to be reminded of the needs of the world.   God isn’t an old man on a cloud - God isn’t deaf and forgetful!  It’s the moment when we realise that prayer doesn’t change God, but it does profoundly change us.  Through prayer, we bring the needs of the world into our immediate focus, not God’s. We undertake the vital task of being reminded that we are not the centre of the universe, and the needs of the world are our needs too.  And we reach out to hear the voice of God in our hearts, calling us and equipping us to be part of the solution.  That we are part of the answer to our prayers.  That we are part of the process of healthy growth in the world.

But we are not alone in that task.  Understanding that we are part of the solution doesn’t mean that we have to do it alone.  The mystical Christian knows that he or she is connected spiritually to all of humanity, through the Spirit of God, revealed to us by Jesus.  And Jesus himself offers us his presence and his strength on the path of life…the path of growth.  As we heard in our Gospel reading “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.  Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me”

These are mystical words…not institutional ones.  In these words, are huge depths of meaning which may take us a life-time to begin to understand…and certainly not something I can explain in the two or three sentences left to me this morning.  Perhaps the best that any of us can do, in the face of such depth, such mystery, such profound wisdom is to submit to it, and let it transform us.  Perhaps all we can do is fall to our knees in front of the mystery of the Eucharist, and say to the Lord who calls us:  help me to grow up!


Saturday, July 21, 2018

Mary Magdalene - the wealthy witness

This sermon was preached at St John's Purbrook on the Feast of Mary Magdalene - 22 July 2018.
There are rather a lot of Marys to be found in the Gospels.  Mary was a very popular name in 1st Century Israel and Judea.   We know, of course, of Mary the Mother of Jesus.  Then there’s Mary of Bethany (who is sometimes confused with Mary Magdalene, but who was the ‘sinful woman’ who anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair). 

There is another Mary – literally called ‘the other Mary’ - whom Matthew lists as part of the group of women who were witnesses to Jesus’ burial.  In fact, I rather imagine that – in those days - if you were to stand in the street and call out ‘Mary!’ you’d get quite a few responses!

This makes the task of teasing out the story of Mary Magdalene a little bit of a challenge.  So let’s review what we know – and a little bit of the legends which have accreted around her. 

Mary was a Jewish woman, who according to all four Gospels travelled with Jesus as one of his followers.  She was a witness to his crucifixion, burial and resurrection.  According to Matthew, Luke and John’s Gospels, Mary was the one who told Peter and the other male apostles that Jesus had risen from the dead.  So, she is often referred to as the ‘apostle to the apostles’. 

Mary is actually mentioned by name twelve times in the gospels – more than most of the apostles, in fact.  Her ‘surname’, of Magdalene, most likely meant that she came from the fishing town of Magdala, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

Luke’s Gospel list’s Mary as one of the women who travelled with Jesus and who helped support his ministry out of their own resources.  That indicates that she was probably a wealthy woman.  The same passage also states that seven demons had been driven out of her.  Seven is a symbolic number in Scripture – meaning completeness.  So to say that someone had seven demons in them was to say that they were completely consumed by whatever illness or malady was afflicting them.  Clearly, therefore, Mary had reason to be very grateful to Jesus, for the healing that she had received.

And that, frankly, is all that we really know about Mary in factual terms.  During the middle ages, there were many other tales told about her.  For a start, as I’ve already said, she was often mixed up with the sinful ‘Mary of Bethany’, or even with the woman caught in adultery (whose name we don’t know…but it was probably Mary as well!).  Even more elaborate medieval legends tell exaggerated tales of Mary’s wealth and beauty, as well as her alleged journey to Southern France.  There were even speculations, somewhat fuelled by various second and third century Gnostic writings, which suggestively described Mary’s as Jesus’ wife, or lover. Maybe even the mother, by Jesus, of the line of Merovingians! But there is nothing in Scripture to support such an idea.  Not that this stops the likes of Dan Brown from creating some highly entertaining stories about the possibilities. 

So if you don’t mind, I’d like to focus on what we DO know about Mary – and to ask ourselves what we can learn from her real story.

I think there are two words which we can hang an understanding of Mary on.  They are ‘wealthy’ and ‘witness’.  Let me see if I can break those down for you.

As I’ve already said, Mary was clearly independently wealthy.  We don’t know why.  Perhaps she was the widow of a wealthy man?  But clearly, she was wealthy enough not to have to work for a living, and to have the leisure to travel around with Jesus.  More than that, as I’ve said, she was one of those who supported Jesus’ ministry out of her own resources.  We must not miss this detail.  It’s tempting for us to imagine that Jesus and his first followers didn’t need money.  Perhaps we imagine that Jesus would just ‘miracle-up’ some food every time they were hungry, or some new clothes when their old ones wore out.  But Jesus’s ministry was rooted in the real world, just as ours is.  And we know that the Disciples carried a purse – in fact Judas seems to have been the Honorary Treasurer for their little group.

And so, right at the beginning of the story of the church, the way in which we use our wealth becomes an important issue.  Mary Magdalene used her wealth to support and enhance Jesus’ ministry.  She understood that the work of God needs money to be invested in it.  It is part of God’s way of working with human beings that he chooses to work through us.  We are God’s hands and feet to a world in need.  God uses our hands to touch the world, our feet to spread his good news, and our wealth to build his Kingdom on earth.  Mary understood that.  I wonder whether we really do?  I wonder what the church of today would look like if all its members really understood what sacrificial giving for the work of God looks like.  Perhaps we would spend much less time holding jumble sales to keep the roof on, and much more time devoted to sharing God’s love with our neighbours in need.

So Mary Magdalene can be an inspiration to us in terms of the way we use our wealth.  And the second word I suggest we hold in our minds about her is the word ‘Witness’.

I’ve already mentioned that according to Matthew, Luke and John, Mary was the one sent to the male apostles with the news of the Resurrection.  We must not miss the significance of this.  According to Jesus law, women were unreliable witnesses.  Anyone from Jewish society of the time who heard that a woman had been sent by Jesus to tell men the news would have struggled to get their head around it.  Even at the moment of his greatest triumph, it seems that Jesus was still keen to declare that in his Kingdom there was no room for old fashioned, patriarchal, misogyny.  The word ‘apostle’ means ‘someone who is sent’.  By being the first witness to the news of the Resurrection, Mary, despite her gender, became the first ‘one who was sent’ – and so, effectively, the first Apostle. 

Now I realise of course that as a church which has recently experienced the ministry of woman, thanks to dear Connie, St John’s Purbrook is not likely to be holding on to out-dated notions of male and female roles in ministry.  But it is our task to make sure that we use each and every opportunity to tell others that Jesus is never concerned about our gender.  Our value to God has nothing to do with whether we are male or female, or perhaps even trans-gender.  Each of us is equally loved and regarded by God. And each of us is called, like the Magdalene, to be a witness to the world.  Each of us, in some sense, is an apostle – for we are sent out with the good news of God’s love for the world on our lips. 

By meditating today on Mary of Magdala, may you come to know how much God wants to partner with you in the work of building his Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.  May you learn the joy of releasing your wealth to that task, and the joy of knowing that you too are ‘one who is sent’ for the work of God.  Amen.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Sermon for the First Mass of Rev'd David Morgan

Sermon for the First Mass of Rev'd David Morgan and anticipating that of Rev'd Vickie Morgan

A little over 9 months ago, it was my enormous pleasure to welcome David and Vickie into their new roles as deacons of the church.  You might remember that I said then that the word 'deacon' comes from a Greek word, diakonos - which meant 'servant', 'waiting man', 'minister' or sometimes 'messenger'. 

If you want to dig a little deeper into what a deacon is, then you might like to revisit my sermon of the 15th of September last year…available at, or on the sermons section of the parish website.

But as of yesterday, in the glorious service at Portsmouth Cathedral, David and Vickie have been called to an additional ministry – the ministry of the priesthood - just as I was twelve years ago.  Please notice that I say we were all called to an additional ministry.  We never stop being deacons.  But now, by God’s grace, David & Vickie are also called to the office and role of a priest. 

So, what is a priest?

There are many different answers to that question…depending on what theological tradition you come from.  So what I’m about to tell you is essentially MY understanding of mainstream Anglican teaching.  I’ll leave it to you to go and look up other understandings – including the long history of the Jewish priesthood, on which our priesthood is based.  But I hope my words will at least help you to get a handle on what it’s all about!

For traditional Anglicans and Catholics, a priest is perhaps best described by what they are authorised and commissioned to do – that is to say, the functions of a priest which are different from those of deacons.  These fall into three categories:




Let’s deal with these in turn…

The first is the ability of the priest to celebrate the Eucharist.  Traditional Christians believe that during the Eucharist prayer, the priest stands in the place of Jesus at the Lord’s Table.  Jesus’ disciples were effectively the first Christian priests, and Jesus said to them that whatever they loosed or bound in heaven was loosed or bound on earth.  This mysterious saying offers assurance to worshippers that when the priest says, on behalf of Jesus “This is my body” and “This is my blood”, then a real, spiritual event takes place.  In ways we do not fully understand, heaven is linked to earth.  Bread becomes body.  Wine becomes blood.  Spiritually.  Mysteriously.  But really.  And through the mystery of the Eucharist, WE become empowered to be Christ’s body in the world.  The risen Christ makes himself present to us in the holy mystery of the Eucharist…so that Christ may then be made present in the world through us, the church, whom he described as his Body.

Whilst the priest stands in the place of Christ at the Eucharist, there is also sense in which the priest also stands in the place of the people.  It has sometimes been said that the priest represents God to the people, and the people to God – a concept with deep Jewish roots, harking back to the veil of the temple, through which only the Priests could go.   At the moment of the Eucharistic prayer he or she is literally standing on the threshold between heaven and earth…acting as a bridge between God and human kind.  It’s an awesome task…and one for which all priests deserve your prayers.

That’s why the celebration of a first Mass is such a key moment in the life of any priest.  For David, in a few minutes, it’s the first time that one has had the chance to participate so fully in such a holy and precious mystery.  It’s a huge privilege, and one which quite often elicits an emotional reaction…so don’t be surprised if you hear David choking back a few tears!

The second function of a priest is to be able to offer Blessing.  Now this one really is a mystery!  Again, the idea is based on Jesus’ assurance that whatever a priest binds or looses in heaven is also bound or loosened on earth. 

A priest who offers a blessing is essentially a co-worker with God, in that moment.  He or she is essentially conferring, or assuring us of God’s favour and kindness towards us.  The Hebrew word most often translated as ‘bless’ is barak, which can mean ‘to praise, congratulate, or salute’.  We find that word throughout the Genesis story – when God blesses the sea creatures and birds, blesses Adam and Eve, and then blesses Abram as he is sent to the promised land – and promises that through Abram, all the families of the earth will be blessed.  All these blessings are plainly associated with happiness and welfare.

So when David offers us God’s blessing at the end of our service, he will be conferring and assuring us of God’s will for us.  God’s desire for all his children is for us to live blessed, happy, fulfilled lives.

The third and final function of a priest is to offer ‘absolution’ – that is God’s forgiveness. Again, the priest stands in the place of Jesus – offering and assuring the repentant person of God’s forgiveness.  Earlier in our service, David offered that Absolution, after our prayer of confession – and it was, I’m sure, a special moment for him and for all of us.  But the ‘general absolution’ during worship is just one way that absolution can be given.  In my ministry – as I’m sure it will be for David and Vickie – the most valuable time that absolution can be offered is in one-to-one pastoral encounters, such as during times of confession or the ministry of reconciliation.  Many times, I have found that having the authority of the church to offer and assure a repentant person of God’s loving forgiveness is a really special gift.

Eucharist, Blessing and Absolution.  These are the three defining functions of a priest.  They are, to an extent, the icing on the cake of a ministry which is otherwise lived out as a deacon.  They are additional to the ongoing tasks of serving the people of God, through leadership, teaching and prayer….as well as unblocking the occasional toilet. 

So to David, and to Vickie who will celebrate her first mass next week…welcome to the order of priests.  I pray that you and all of us will be enriched by what you will both experience and offer.  From working with you over the last two years, I have no doubt that you are going to prove to be a great blessing to all. May God bless you both richly in your new ministries!

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Meaning of Atonement

Picture the scene.  It’s the second world war, and the Japanese army is forcing British prisoners to build a railway, from Burma to China, crossing over the famous River Kwai.  At the end of each day’s hard, sweating , labour in the sun, the soldiers are lined up and counted.  Also counted are the shovels they have been given for the day’s work – to make sure that none can be used for escape plans. 

But on this day, it is discovered that one shovel is missing.  The Japanese soldiers scream their anger at the lined-up British soldiers.  “Unless you tell us now who has taken the shovel, you will all be shot!”.  For a moment, there is stunned silence, as each man comes to terms with the news that he might be about to die.  Then, one soldier steps forward.  “It was me,” he says. “I took the shovel”.  A Japanese soldier puts his gun to the man’s head, and shoots him dead on the spot.

Later that day, the shovels are counted again when they work party returns to the barracks. Then it is discovered that there has been a mistake.  All the shovels are in fact there.  There are no shovels missing.  The soldier who apparently confessed his crime, was in fact completely innocent.  He took the punishment that had been threatened to all his brothers.  He died so that they might live.

And there, in this apparently true story, we find an eloquently simple parable of what the death of Jesus meant.  Like the innocent solider who gave his life for others, the church has generally taught that Jesus took the punishment which should be ours.  Evangelical and Orthodox theology calls this the doctrine of ‘penal substitution’.  Jesus takes the punishment due to human beings who ignited the righteous wrath of God.  It’s the picture – or at least something like it - that I guess most of us have in our minds, when we think about the death of Christ.  But there are many other ways of grappling with this idea.

Most theology about the cross rests on the idea of atonement:  that is 'at one-ment' - the idea that somehow, by his death, Jesus managed to bring fallen, sinful humanity to one-ness with God.  Many different images are used in pursuit of this idea.  Drawing from Isaiah's visions of the Suffering Servant, theologians have proclaimed that 'it is by his wounds that we are healed'.  Suffering then, and specifically God's suffering for our sake, is crucial to this theology.  Another popular image is taken from Jewish tradition, when, on the day of atonement, a goat would symbolically have the sins of the people laid on it - and it would then be led out into the desert to die.

Another at-one-ment image is the idea of ransom.   According to that theory, our sins make us the moral property of the devil.  Because we sin, we belong to Satan – whom Jesus described as ‘the ruler of this World’ in today’s Gospel reading.  Jesus, as the only sinless human being who has ever lived, was the only price which could be paid to 'redeem' us back - to pay the ransom demanded by the devil.  He is the priest-forever – the eternal mediator in the order of Melchizedek – who becomes ‘the source of salvation for all who obey him’ – as the writer to the Hebrews put it, in our New Testament readings.

But we would do well to remember that all these images are just that...images deployed by theologians like St Paul, and many after him, to attempt to get a handle on precisely what Jesus was doing that day.  Because, conspicuously, Jesus himself, never explained precisely what was going on.  The nearest we get to an explanation from Jesus himself is the words we use at every Mass:  'this is my body, given for you; do this in remembrance of me'.  'This is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.  Do this as often as you drink it in remembrance of me'.  Clearly, from Jesus lips, his sacrifice has something to do with forgiveness of sins...but what, precisely?  How did it work?  What was the mechanism?  That's what thinking Christians for two thousand years have asked.

For comes down to this.  Whatever all those different atonement images point to...the one, unquestionable fact is this:  Jesus took it.  Jesus took all the hate, all the malice, all the worldly power, all the fear, all the violence that the world could throw at him.  He took it, and absorbed it.  He took it, to the point of utter powerlessness.  He took it to the point where he was so overpowered by the hatred and sin of human beings that his own connection with God was lost.  "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

But the story of the cross doesn't end at Golgotha.  The story of the cross ends three days later, when, having taken all the hate and sin, Jesus rises from the dead.  Death and sin are defeated - but not in some mechanistic kind of way.   Sin is not defeated because somehow our sins were individually nailed onto Jesus.  It's not as if the sin I committed yesterday is somehow floating around the spiritual be picked up and nailed onto Jesus 2000 years ago.  Sin doesn't exist in the sense of being a real, albeit spiritual thing.  Rather, sin is a description of a way of living that is contrary to the ways of God.  

Jesus rises from the tomb because Jesus could take it.  Jesus is bigger - universally, galactically bigger, than our petty human sins.  And therefore Jesus could overcome them. They simply don't matter to him anymore.   One image, often used in the Bible, is that God covers our sins.  Another is that he forgets them.  The Jews celebrate 'Yom Kippur' - the Day of Atonement.  'Kippur' comes from a root word which means 'to cover, or to hide'.  Another word is 'obliterate'.  Our sins are not an actual thing.  They are actions and thoughts which God, mercifully, is big enough to be able to simply cover over.  In the words of Jeremiah – our Old Testament reading for today – the Lord simply remembers our sins no more.

By his death, and crucially by his resurrection, Jesus pronounces that our sins are as nothing to him.  He can shrug them off as easily as he shrugs off death itself.  Like an earthly parent who shrugs off the mis-doings of their beloved child, Jesus pronounces, by his actions, the forgiveness of sins.  The new Covenant written on the Cross is a Covenant of unconditional forgiveness. 

By his death, Jesus declares that our sins are washed away, in his eyes.  Anyone who turns to him can find forgiveness.  Not a grudging forgiveness.  Not the sort of forgiveness which the world offers.  We human beings will only offer a sort of grudging forgiveness won't we?  Anyone who has ever had to fill in a criminal records bureau check is only too well aware of how conditional is the forgiveness that human beings can offer one another.  "I can forgive....but I can never forget" one of the most oft repeated phrases we use.  "I will forgive you for what you have done, as long as you never do it again".  We hold each other in a sort of provisional forgiveness.

But this is nothing like the forgiveness of God. Jesus takes every bit of hurt and sin and anger and power-crazy nonsense that the world can throw at him...and what does he say?  Does he rail at his accusers?  Does he say, "Stop doing this to me, and perhaps I'll let you off"?  No, he says "Father, forgive them, they don't know what they are doing".

Compared to the goodness and mercy and holiness of God, human sin is as nothing.  God wipes away sin, like it was a fly on his nose. Remember the story of the Prodigal Son?  The Father of the prodigal doesn't even demand that his son should repent of his actions and beg forgiveness...he just runs to greet him, and welcomes him home. The son's sin is not even mentioned.  Its dealt with.  It’s done.  It is forgotten.  It just doesn't matter anymore.  It doesn’t even matter what the precise spiritual mechanism is.  Penal substitution?  Atonement? Ransom?  Redemption?  Moral imperative?  Example Theory?  None of these contain the whole truth.  They only glimpse it.

Let me put this another way:  there is nothing you and I could do, no penance, no act of contrition, no wailing and knashing of teeth, no amount of sack-cloth and ashes, no amount of giving up chocolate for Lent! - which could make God forgive us any easier than he already does.  Acts of penitence are good for us – they discipline us, they help us to look to what matters, and not what we fancy.  But they have no effect in themselves on God’s forgiveness for us.

Not only does Jesus death and resurrection declare that he can take everything we throw at him.  It shouts out that these sins are as nothing, compared to the grace and the mercy of God.  "Forgive them, Father...they are like children in the playground.  They don't know what they are doing."

"Come unto me, all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, for I am meek and lowly in heart...and you will find rest for your souls."

Jesus doesn’t invite us into a theological debate.  He invites us instead to trust Him.  He invites us to live our lives as those who are forgiven and freed from our past, and who choose to walk with him along his Way of eternal life.  He calls us to follow his example, of a life poured out for others, in which sins are forgotten, and life is abundant.  That is the way of the Cross.  And that’s the way we travel.


Thursday, March 1, 2018

My house should be a house of prayer!

My house should be a house of prayer, but you have turned it into a market place! (John 2.13-22)

There is a wonderful lady who belongs to this congregation.  You’ll know whom I’m talking about (if you are a regular member here).  Every month, during our First Saturday Coffee Mornings, if the weather is dry, she and her husband stand outside the church selling homemade marmalade and other items to passing customers….while the rest of us come inside, into the warm. 

On the one hand, this act of sacrifice on her part – and her husband’s - is a brilliant advert to the community that our monthly coffee morning is on.  But what everybody round here knows is that she also has a worry, directly grounded in this morning’s Gospel reading, that turning the church into a temporary market-place might not be the right thing to do. 

I know – and respect - exactly where she’s coming from. 

There are two schools of thought, essentially, about church buildings.  The first is that they are essentially no more than a dry gathering-place for the people of God and the local community.  Many churches meet perfectly happily in school halls, or plain rooms across the country.  In Africa, I’ve experienced churches which meet in barns, school-rooms, or under canopies of palm branches.  Their worship has been no less real than ours.  No less honouring to God.  And it hasn’t mattered at all that the same space may be used as a market place the very next day.

But there’s another school of thought – in which buildings like ours have something intrinsically Holy about them.  To get a sense of what many in this community feel about our building, you only have to check the visitors’ book, or the prayer book, or just spend a couple of hours in here during the week, watching the people who come and go to pray.

A couple of weeks ago, Vickie and I had one of our annual pleasures – that of introducing Year 5 to St Faith’s as a building.  We talked about the arches – and the way they point us towards heaven.  We talked about how the Nave ceiling is like an up-turned ship, reminding us of Noah’s Ark, perhaps, and the fact that we are all somewhat at sea on the ship of Faith.  We showed the children our beautiful Sanctuary, and some of the silver-ware that we use – telling them how the patten and chalice are made of silver because of the precious blood and body of Jesus that they will contain.  We showed them the font, in which some of them had been baptised, and reminded them of its history.

It was wonderful to watch their little faces looking up in awe at the beauty around them – and gaining a sense that there is more to their town than they had thought. 

Jesus clearly felt something very similar about the Temple in Jerusalem.  As a Jewish boy, growing up outside the big City, the Temple was a special place indeed.  It was the place in which God was said to dwell – although Jesus clearly knew that God was present everywhere, because he talked to God all the time.  But the Temple was special.  It was somewhere where God was especially present, somehow more tangible than in other places.

So when he arrived at the Temple, perhaps 20 years after his first visit as a 12-year old, he was incensed at what he found.  There were money changers, everywhere – because the Temple authorities had insisted that the people’s tithe could only be paid in Temple coins.  So, if you wanted to give a gift to the Temple, in penance for your sin perhaps, you had to exchange your Roman coins – at a loss – with the money changers.  It would be like me printing our own St Faith’s bank notes, and then telling you that you can only give your collection in our money.  And you could only exchange your pounds with us…at the exchange rate I set!

And, Jesus found, the place was full of animals.  The ancient system of sacrifice required that a penitent sinner had to provide an animal to be slaughtered on the Altar.  So, the Temple Authorities set up animal pens, and allowed worshippers to buy the animal they wanted.  A dove, perhaps, for a small sin.  Or a cow for one of the really big sins!

So, instead of a place that made God feel more tangible, more real, more present, Jesus was confronted with a load of money changers making profit out of a bureaucratic law about coinage, and a load of farmers encouraging pilgrims to buy their goat! Is it any wonder that Jesus was furious?  Is it any wonder that he tried to chase them all out of the place?  I’d feel exactly the same if I came in here to find a branch of Money set up in the Sanctuary, and Colin Hedley standing in the prayer area shouting ‘come and buy my cows!’

This is indeed a special place, and we must be very careful how we use it.”  There is, however, in our typically Anglican way -  a balance to be struck.  When all’s said and done, this is only – at the most basic level – a pile of stones with a roof on top after all.  And because it’s an old pile of stones with a roof on top, we have a legal and social responsibility to care for it – as the oldest piece of heritage in Havant.  And that’s expensive.  And there’s clearly a limit to how much you, as a congregation, can afford to give.  Did you know, for example, that of the £300,000 we raised last year, only £52,000 came from standing orders and cash collections?  That’s just one sixth of the total costs of the parish.

English churches have actually always tried to walk the line between being a holy place and a place for the whole community.  Communion rails were first established to keep animals out of the Sanctuary – because the oldest churches did indeed double as market places.  

Many churches created a separation between the holy spaces and the common places by erecting a screen between the Nave (where the people, or the ‘knaves’) carried out their business, and the Sanctuary where services were said.  The ringing of bells during the Eucharist was first done to invite ‘knaves’ (in the Nave!) to lift their heads from their commerce, and remember for a moment in whose presence they were. 

We used to have such a screen here, in fact.  The evidence is up there in the wall.  That bricked-up doorway would have once led out onto the top of a screen that would have separated you ‘knaves’ down there from the Holy Sanctuary.  Such screens were routinely topped off with a big, wooden cross, known in ancient English as a ‘rood’.  The screens were therefore called ‘rood screens’ – and were also used as minstrel galleries, before the advent of organs.

This little history lesson reminds us of course that we are custodians of a living breathing, changing building.  The rood screen is now gone. The lighting and sound system has been replaced.  This week, we placed an order for a new screen and projector so that in future sermons I’ll be able to show you pictures of what a rood screen looked like, or images of Jesus chasing the money-changers out of the temple.  Other things have changed too.  The pews that you are sitting on were only introduced in the last 50 years…and they are about to be replaced again with more comfortable, useful, stackable ones, if you decide to support the PCC’s plans when they are finalised.  Next week, we begin work on re-painting the inside walls of this space.

My hope, however,  is that along with our “Lady of the Marmalades”, we will never forget that this is first and foremost a place in which God is tangibly more present, more touchable, more knowable, to the whole of the community we serve.  Amen.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Take up your cross

Take up your Cross

Mark 8: 31-end.

HEALTH WARNING…the first four paragraphs are a parody…to be read in a phoney American accent!

I have great pleasure in announcing that from today, we are changing our name.  From now on, we will be known as the "Havant Branch of the Church of the Blessings of the Almighty Saviour Jesus ".  Why is this? Well let me tell you, brothers and sisters. Last night, I had a vision! The Lord God Almighty spoke to me from the heavens. He said to me...

"Rector", he said, "Rector - I have good news for you! I want to shower you and your congregation with abundant blessings. (Praise the Lord!) I am going to make yours a church of millionaires! You are going to become so wealthy, so full of miracles, so full of powerful acts of God Almighty, that the whole of Havant will flock to your doors!

All your congregation has to do is to show that they trust me. They simply have to sign over the deeds to their houses to the church. Then I will know that they trust me. Then I will bless them with riches from heaven. Then they will become millionaires, and all their problems will disappear". (Praise the Lord!)

So, my brothers and sisters, our Treasurer, Brother Clive, will be standing by, at the ready, with forms for you to sign. Just sign over the deeds of your house to the church, and the Lord God Almighty, in the glorious name of Jesus, will give you your heart's desire! A-men, brothers and sisters. A-men!


It's a bit frightening to think that there really are churches like that in the world.  They feed on people's misery. They create an image of the world which is so pumped up with future hope, that gullible people really do believe that God is in the business of making them wealthy...but they are tricked into making their preachers wealthy instead.  Hmmm…perhaps I’m in the wrong branch of the church?!

According to today’s Gospel text, modern-day prosperity preachers are not the first people to have got the wrong end of the stick. This text comes at a pivotal point in Mark's gospel. Up until this chapter, which comes right in the middle of the gospel, Jesus' disciples have seen him doing all sorts of amazing things. He drives out evil spirits, heals and feeds the multitudes; he’s even walked on water, and been transfigured by shining light on the mountain-top, in the company of Elijah and Moses. But now, in this passage, the whole trajectory of Jesus' life and ministry pivots, towards Jerusalem, and to the incomprehensible scandal of the Cross.

Verse 31: "He began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected...and be killed".(Mk 8:31). You can just imagine Peter's reaction can't you? He probably thinks that Jesus has gone nuts.  Perhaps the Messiah has been working too hard?  Perhaps he needs to go on Extended Ministerial Study Leave! So Peter rebukes Jesus. Matthew's gospel gives us the words that Mark doesn't record: "Never, Lord" he said. "This shall never happen to you!" (Matt 16:22)

But Jesus is adamant. He tells Peter off with really startling words: "Get behind me, Satan!" Pretty stern stuff.  And then Jesus goes on, in verse 33: "You are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things". In other words, "You are thinking like a man, but by now you should be starting to think as God see things from God's perspective".

Anyone confronted with the idea of suffering might well react as Peter reacts. After all, God can heal, can't he? Jesus' many miracles are proof that God does not delight in suffering.  And yet, somehow, for reasons we might only be able to guess at, suffering enters into God's plan for humanity.  It's there. It was there for Jesus, who suffered on the cross.  It was there for the many whom Jesus encountered but did not heal.   Suffering, somehow, is part of the plan. Christians who are fixated on the Jesus of the miracles have missed out on the suffering Jesus of the Cross.

But that is precisely whom we are confronted with in this text. Jesus had to was part of the divine plan.  But Jesus says that suffering is part of the package for us too..."anyone who wants to follow me must deny himself, and take up his cross". (Mark 8:34

Let's notice that there are, in fact, two elements to Jesus stark statement: we are called first to 'deny self', and secondly, to 'take up our cross'. Let's look at those in turn.

First - what does it mean to 'deny self'?

To deny self, when you think about it, is actually about putting others first.  It's a way of living that always looks out for other people. It's a way of living which never asks "what's in it for me?" but rather "what's in it for my neighbours, and for the Kingdom of God?".  Think about this:  if Jesus had asked himself 'what's in it for me?' before embarking on his ministry, he would never have got beyond his baptism.  We too are called to live that live generously…

…And to live lightly upon the earth.  The son of man had nowhere to lay his head.  To deny self, is also about learning to let go of the things we shackle ourselves with – learning that true contentment is not found in great wealth, but in great relationships, with God and neighbour.  There’s a saying among a certain group of rich people which indicates something of the contemporary mindset about wealth:   “He who dies with the most toys, wins”. 

Nothing of course could be further from the truth.  “You fool”, says God in Jesus parable of the farmer with massive barns.  “This very night, your life will be required of you”.  You can’t take any of it with you.  Jesus says:  “Deny yourself.  Build up treasure that thieves cannot break in and steal.  Build up treasure for heaven”.

Secondly, what did Jesus mean by saying we have to take up our cross?

A while ago, I spent time with a parishioner in my previous parish who had become very frail – let’s call her Lucy.   Lucy had spent all her life serving others through the church. She had been at coffee mornings and fundraisers, and served on the PCC, and made endless cups of tea. She had truly denied herself for others.  And yet, Lucy now found herself frail, bed-bound, and unable to serve others anymore. She even had to rely on others to help her to the bathroom.

Lucy’s body was failing her.  But her mind was as sharp as a razor – and she was a thinker.  She said something very profound to me.  She said "perhaps God is teaching me that there was still a bit of pride in me.  I’m learning that I need to let others serve me for a change. Perhaps I'm learning that in the end, we all must rely on God, and on other people.  That none of us can exist in isolation."

I was intensely moved by what Lucy said.  After a life-time of Christian faith God was still teaching her something deep, something profound, about our need for each other, and for God.  There was, for Lucy at least, a purpose in her suffering.  She learned to gladly take up her cross, for what it would teach her and others.

Jesus own suffering clearly had purpose too. But I find it interesting that the Gospels themselves don't provide a definitive answer to why Jesus had to suffer. The task of interpretation is one that was left to later writers, like St Paul - and other great thinkers of the Church.  All that Mark says on the subject, in today's reading, is that Jesus taught his disciples "that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering" (Mark 8:31). The task of working out why is something that Jesus leaves to his Church. We continue to grapple with it...just as we grapple with the reasons for our own suffering, or the suffering of martyrs across the centuries, and even now in other lands.

We continue to grapple - but we also continue to trust...that denying self, and taking up our own cross - participating in our own suffering and the suffering of the world is an essential, central message that is right at the heart of the Gospel.

May you come to know the power of God that is often revealed in suffering. May you come to know the power of denying self, and taking up the cross that is offered to you.  May you come to know that God's power is so often revealed in and through weakness - our own weakness, as well as the weakness of those we encounter.

And it’s alright…you don’t have to sign over the deeds of your house to Brother Clive!


Saturday, February 3, 2018

John 1 - The Sacrifice of Light

John Chapter 1

I think I can guess what at least some of you are thinking this morning.  “Why on earth are we hearing that Christmas reading again?”  Others of you are probably thinking “He’s taken down the crib – at last – but he’s forgotten to take down the star!”

Well, you’d be wrong.  I haven’t forgotten, you see.  I’ve left the star up quite deliberately.  Because – I think - that poor old star needs a bit more prominence in the Christian story.  As for why we are being asked by the Lectionary writers to think about the Word becoming flesh again….well, let me try to explain.

Everyone loves a story.  Stories are powerful ways to communicate – which is precisely why Jesus used parables, and why we all love movies and books.  The Christmas Story that we’ve just worked our way through is one of the best.  It’s the perfect combination of rustic shepherds, visiting magicians, angels and animals….and there’s a baby in it, just to finish off the ‘Ah!’ factor.  At least, that’s all according to Luke and Matthew. 

But John, writing his Gospel some decades after Luke and Matthew, is not interested in shepherds and wise men.  Scholars tell us that John wrote his Gospel in his old age – after a lifetime of spreading the message of Jesus.  No doubt the stories about wise men and shepherds were already circulating widely.  John didn’t need to re-hash them.  So he goes deeper…much deeper than a typical Christmas congregation is ready to grasp.  Such congregations are usually too high on Christmas Spirit  (of one form or another) to want to do any meaningful theology.  Which is why, I think, the Lectionary writers give us one more bite at the cherry, at this moment in the year. 

After a lifetime of teaching and learning, John wants us to grasp the enormity of the Christmas event, the coming of Jesus, what scholars call the ‘Incarnation’.  ‘Incarnation’ describes the in-dwelling of God in human form.  The ‘Incarnation’ is that moment when God, who is Spirit, takes on human flesh.

There are two words which John especially plays with, in his poetic Gospel introduction.  The first is ‘Word’, and the second is ‘Light’.  Let me see if we can’t break them down a little.
‘Word’ is the English translation of ‘Logos’ – a Greek word from where we get the word ‘logic’.  John is saying that the incomprehensible being we call God is many things – spirit, love, a creative force that binds the universe together.  But God is also mind.  God has thoughts.  He – or indeed she - has desires and intentions for the world that has been created.  God’s thoughts, God’s logic, God’s reason – these are the ‘Logos’ – the ‘Word’.  “In the beginning was the Word” – the Logos – “and the Word was with God and the Word was God”.  It’s one of those great big thoughts that we human beings struggle to get our tiny brains around – that God can be thought of as having different aspects, but each of them is also fully God’.  So, God’s reason, his Word, can be part of God as well being completely God.  “The word was with God and “was God”.

And, John is saying, that ‘Word’ is the aspect of God which became human and dwelt among us.  Again – incomprehensible, isn’t it?  How can an aspect of God become human, while not dividing God up into different people?  If God is on earth, in the form of Jesus, how can he also be still in heaven?  And how come Jesus (God the Son on earth) prays to God the Father in heaven?  Is he talking to himself?  It’s enough to make your brain explode!  And that’s ok.  We are limited, created beings.  We cannot ever begin to grasp the reality of God – and anyone who tells you that they have understood God is a fool.

So, confronted with the sheer enormity of what he’s trying to say, John chooses a different picture.  He uses a metaphor.  He has stated the truth as clearly as he can grasp it, by talking about the ‘Word’ dwelling among us.  But now he chooses a different tack, and begins to talk about ‘Light’.

Ah!  That’s better.  ‘Light’ we can understand.  We know about Light.  We see its effects.  We know that even a tiny spark of light cannot be extinguished by the darkness.  We know that if this church was completely darkened, save for one candle, all our attention would be focused on that single solitary light.

“In Jesus”, says John, “was life, and that life was the light of the world. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it”.

And that, ultimately, is the message of Christmas, and the good news of the Gospel.  Darkness is all around us.  The darkness of war, and famine, and poverty, and homelessness and selfishness and consumerism and racism and fear of the stranger and all hatred and rebellion against the reason and logic of God.  “But the light shines in the darkness”.

In Jesus, through his teaching, his life, and yes even by his death, life is offered to the world.  Jesus’ whole life is offered to us, by John and the other Gospel writers, as The narrow Way to life.  His way of living – generously, lovingly, wisely, sacrificially is offered to us as an example of what God’s logic and reason look like.  Generosity, Love, Wisdom and Sacrifice.  These are signposts for us.  Generosity, Love, Wisdom and Sacrifice.  Lights in the darkness.  Clues to how we too should live, if we truly want to find life.  And clues about how we can choose to live if we truly want to shine God’s love into the lives of those around us.

Last week, at the end of our service, we lit candles and held them aloft, promising to be lights to the world.  Three times, in response to challenges from David at the Font, the whole congregation said “Let us shine with the Light of your Love”.   So let me ask you…how’s it going?  Where have you shined God’s light of love this week, the first week since you made that commitment?

Generosity.  What new generosity have you shown this week?  Who has been touched, or had their life transformed by your gift.  Did you remember to bring a gift for the foodbank to church this morning?  Well done, if you did.  Has the suffering of one Syrian refugee been relieved by your generosity this week.  Thank you.  Or perhaps you gave a gift to help pay for the costs of keeping this church shining as a light in its community, such as the repair to the West Door.  Thank you, if you did.

Love.  Who has experienced your love this week?  Who has woken up this morning feeling lighter, less burdened, more deeply regarded because of the Love you have shown them.  Well, I bless you for showing that Love.

Wisdom.  How have you grown in wisdom this week?  Which passages of the Bible that you have undoubtedly been reading have struck you with new insight?  What wise decisions have you made about the lifestyle you lead, or the consumer-choices you’ve made?

And finally, sacrifice.  Sacrifice is more than simple generosity.  To sacrifice is to give until it hurts.  Sacrifice is what Jesus made on the cross.  Sacrifice is the change of mind which knows that nothing I own belongs to me…but everything is God’s. Sacrifice is the act of giving up everything, all possessions, all rights, all privileges for the greater, deeper, mind-blowing privilege of shining God’s light into God’s world.  It’s about putting everyone else first, holding nothing back…but being poured out completely for the good of the world. 

Stars make that kind of sacrifice.  In order to continue shining their light into the heavens, a star must continue to sacrifice itself, constantly.  To shine, for a star, is to burn up its resources in the service of the Universe.  Eventually, after all the hydrogen in a star is burned up, the Star will die.  It will give itself completely to its task.

That’s why I’ve left the star hanging there for one more week.  We have Christmas in our memories, and the promises of Candlemass in our hearts. May we also be reminded that we too, like Jesus, are called to give ourselves completely to the task of shining God’s light into our world.