Below there are two videos from yesterday’s service. The first half contains prayers, readings & reflections. The second half comes after people have come back from ‘breakout rooms’ where we hear the feedback from the congregation on the two bible readings. I would values your feedback as I intend to upload these live services each week. Please be assured, people were asked their permission prior to recording and were given the option of stopping their video function.
Call to worship
Back then there was the twelve.
Here and now there is us.
We are your disciples today
and today we gather to worship you.
Back then they followed you in the flesh.
Today we follow in your Spirit.
We are your disciples
and today we gather to follow you.
Back then there were but a few.
Today we, numbering billions,
are part of a worldwide Church.
We are your disciples today
and today we gather to serve you.
Hymn Born in Song (Singing the Faith 21. Hymns & Psalms 486)
Loving and Holy God,
it is such a privilege
to bring our honest prayers to you,
to open the Scriptures and discover not only that ordinary women and men,
but also Jesus himself, offered to you the gritty ‘stuff’ of their lives –
it gives us the permission we need to be that honest
not just ‘polite’ prayers,
but the questions and challenges
and anger and hurt
of our very human emotions
bursting from our hearts and minds and flung out at you.
Thank you for listening to these too.
And thank you for being in this day with us – with me – in whatever unfolds.
Whatever this day brings,
your will be done;
even if I’m struggling,
your will be done;
because I cannot believe otherwise
than that you will the good
of every single one of your children –
Jesus gave us the way to follow, but we don’t always get that right. Sometimes going our own way is on the same path as yours, but sometimes we follow a selfish path and leave you behind. Thank you that you wait for us, give us signs through the Scriptures, through our friends, through the news, to bring us back to the right way of living. Your grace is extraordinary and expansive and tells us every morning, today is a new start.
We ask now that you fill us with your Holy and life-giving Spirit, giving us hope, enriching our worship and filling us to overflowing with love. Glory be to you, God our creator. Glory be to you Jesus, our Redeemer. Glory be to you, Holy Spirit, our Sustainer. As it was from when time began, is in this present moment and will continue to be, world without end. Amen
Reading: Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7
This week’s reading tells of Sarah’s laughter. Below is a video and your challenge is to watch it without laughing:
Sarah & Abraham were old. I mean REALLY old. Abraham would be at that age where he’d soon be expecting a telegram from the Queen – that old. They didn’t have children and Sarah experienced that awful title of being ‘barren’. Because of course it was Sarah’s fault. Or, that was what was always assumed. Never the man’s fault. It would be easy to look at these bible stories and say how much life has improved and how things are different now. Except, for many couples, the experience of infertility remains a matter of shame. Churches can be amazing places of hospitality, but they can also be intrusive, nosey environments, where personal questions are considered normal. Questions to single people about whether they’ve got their eye on someone. Questions to married couples about when they’re going to start a family, or have a second child. These questions might be well-meaning, but for people who do not want to be single, or are childless for a multitude of reasons, it can make the experience of coming to church something to dread.
Sarah had taken matters into her own hands. She knew Abraham would want an heir, so she told him to take their female slave and sleep with her. What pain must Sarah have endured to suggest such a thing and then live with the consequences? What pain must Hagar, that slave, have endured, lacking in all agency, even over her own body? But God promises a child to Sarah. Ridiculous. Impossible.
And so we come to our story for today, where Abraham entertains three unnamed strangers. His hospitality is extravagant – he tells them he’ll fetch a little water and a little bread, but then has a calf slaughtered. All of this happens before one of the strangers repeats the promise God has made: Sarah will have a son. Sarah isn’t invited to this gathering of men, this conversation in which men are talking about her private issues, her fertility, but she’s eavesdropping about them talking about her, and when she hears this promise, she laughs. She laughs at just how ludicrous it all is. She was a post-menopausal woman of advancing years. I’m sure we all know some pretty sprightly 90-year old’s, but can you imagine them becoming pregnant? No wonder she laughs.
For a collection of books which contains the depth of the human experience, there’s actually not much laughter in the bible. So let’s sit with this for a while. If we continue our story, fast-forwarding a couple of chapters, we encounter Sarah again, having just given birth. ‘God has brought laughter for me. Everyone who hears will laugh with me,’ she says. Her initial laughter was mocking God. God had made empty promises as far as she was concerned and she finds it funny that God is showing her any interest, because it’s just too late. Sarah’s second episode of laughter isn’t tinged with cynicism. This time it’s genuine. And infectious. A hearty belly-laugh that brings joy to all who hear. Perhaps you have a friend or a family member that you know, who when they laugh you find yourself laughing with them until tears stream down your face and until you can’t remember why you started laughing in the first place?
We all find different things funny. I wonder what your favourite comedy programme is. What jokes make you laugh? Who makes you laugh? Personally, I like the gentle humour of comedians like Susan Calman or Sue Perkins. I’m not keen on Mrs Brown’s Boys – I just don’t find it funny. We all laugh for different reasons. Laughter can help you discover courage because it diffuses fear. There’s a reason why there’s such a thing as ‘gallows humour’ – laughing at the most traumatic situations. A couple of years ago I went down to London to protest against President Trump’s policies – whilst I was happy for him to visit the UK, I wanted him to know that many here did not endorse his politics. And on that march, with hundreds of thousands of others, there were banners ridiculing the president. Using the laughter of resistance, using a subversive humour. Now let’s see if I can say this right: one placard pronounced ‘Super Callous Fragile Racist, Sexist Lying Potus.’ Another one stated ‘It’s so bad even the introverts are here.’ Now, maybe you don’t find these particularly funny, but humour is a way of dismantling oppression. Liberation can be found through collective laughter. To laugh in the face of your oppressor is a way of saying, you can try and control my situation, but you cannot control my spirit. You will not have the last laugh.
For Sarah, she had endured hardship which brought her a hollow laugh, but of course, eventually this was subsumed into the laughter of joy. The laughter of the sceptic turning to the laughter of pure uncontrollable delight. And her son is named after this expression – Isaac in Hebrew means laughter. Sarah is not judged for being cynical. She is not judged for her disbelief. She is not judged for giving up.
Even before Sarah’s hardship is brought to an end, she says, ‘Is anything too wonderful for God?’ Perhaps if we were to sum up the entire bible, this short verse would be the one. We find this echoed throughout the story of God and God’s people, throughout our own story of faith, throughout the story of the church – is anything too wonderful for God.
The story of Sarah & Abraham (including the terrible abuse of Hagar) is full of tricky elements that we shouldn’t skirt over or even excuse. But the laughter will come. For many of us we are in a period of waiting. Waiting for restrictions to end. Waiting for churches to reopen. Waiting for black lives to actually matter. Waiting for an end to the climate emergency. Sarah had waited and then given up hope. And when finally she allows herself to imagine a different future, she is bursting with joy. We too can use our waiting to imagine a different future. To become better people, a better church, a better government, a better world. In visualising God’s justice, does that bring a smile to your face? Because it does to mine.
Hymn: Lord, you sometimes speak in wonders (Singing the Faith 158. Not in Hymns & Psalms)
Reading: Matthew 9:35-10:23
Once we get past the story of the birth of Jesus and into the bit where he actually starts his ministry, we have a chunk of Matthew taken up by the Sermon on the Mount. This is where Jesus is directing his teaching to the crowd. We’ve now entered a new chunk, this time, the teaching is directed to a much smaller group – the inner circle of the followers, the disciples of Jesus. We now have a series of more focused, more specific instructions.
Now, Jesus has not been teaching for very long, and already he’s sending his disciples out, giving them authority to preach and heal. I wonder, how did they feel? They’re pretty new at this stuff. Surely they just wanted to carry on being his followers, to let Jesus take the lead. Did they feel ready I wonder? Well, Jesus think they are. But of course, they are not sent out alone. They are expected to go with the support of others, to share the experience of proclaiming good news, to rely on each other. Because Jesus knows it will get pretty tough for these disciples and they will need the strength of each other. If were to read on, Jesus says, ‘I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves.’ This is not an easy mission, which makes me question why any of them volunteered, or didn’t back out. This is a risky business. It’s not going to be a popularity contest. They will experience failure.
These instructions, although pretty specific, only take the disciples so far. Jesus doesn’t tell them what happens if someone offers food that isn’t acceptable. He doesn’t tell them who to go to first. He doesn’t tell them the words to say. Sometimes we get bogged down with specifics because instructions will only take us so far. The words of Jesus and the bible in general is not an instruction manual, covering all eventualities. The church needs to move beyond Jesus himself and work it out. The bible doesn’t tell us specifically how to behave in a pandemic. It doesn’t go into details about committed same sex relationships. It doesn’t speak about motoring, or computer technology or the etiquettes of texting. Of course it doesn’t. Our journey of faith is about being sent out, with a grounding of good advice, and the rest we need to make up as we go along, to react to whatever we encounter within the broad framework of the mission before us.
The disciples are told to go on their mission without money, without food, without luggage, without a change of clothes, without firstly booking an Airbnb. They are unprepared in every sense. What a foolish mission. They were ill-equipped, vulnerable, and will be utterly dependent on others to provide for their most basic of needs.
So let me get this straight. Jesus is sending out his followers, the ones he’s trained up, to continue his ministry of preaching and healing. But rather than going into communities without taking anything from them, they are to be reliant. Rather than giving, they are expecting to receive. This is counter-cultural stuff for us. We value independence. Being able to look after ourselves is considered a good thing. Most of us hate having to be dependent, unable to meet our needs but needing someone else to provide. How good are we at receiving rather than giving? And when we do receive, do we feel a debt to be repaid, an obligation that needs responding in kind?
At Pentecost, we were thinking about being a good guest rather than a host, and this reading reaffirms the fact that we are needed in spaces that are not our own, rather than to act as custodians of our own spaces.
A significant part of the mission Jesus gives his disciples is to cast out demons. We tend to skip over that bit, just focusing on the proclamation and healing. I did exactly that at the start of this reflection. Exorcism isn’t something in the Methodist church we spend a great deal of time discussing. I am deeply uncomfortable of churches that offer exorcisms as part of worship, praying demons out of people. I worry that this is potentially very damaging to people who are highly vulnerable or mentally unwell. I’ve recently read Vicky Beeching’s autobiography, Undivided. Vicky was a prolific Christian singer-songwriter who less than 10 years ago was filling stadiums. But she had a secret that she kept hidden: her sexuality. It was something she felt was deeply shameful. As a teenager she attended a Christian rally where she heard an altar call for anyone who needed prayer. She came forward and admitted to the adults gathered around her that she didn’t want these gay feelings, and suddenly she was exposed to these Christians trying to exorcise demons out of her. She has never previously associated her sexuality with demon possession and this became a burden to her for decades afterwards, damaging her mental health. Eventually she came out, but her career dried up as fundamentalist evangelicals stopped booked her and buying her records. She now spends some of her time campaigning for equality and diversity. Amazingly, she is still a Christian.
Yes, exorcism can be used in a manipulative and dangerous way. But what if exorcism wasn’t about casting out demons, but casting out that which torments people? What if we took a stand against violent structures that hold people captive? What if we were to imagine liberation from all that binds us, freedom from that which constrains us, release from powers that prevent us from being truly human? I believe that being actively involved in social justice is the modern form of casting out demons. The demons of debt. The demons of modern-day slavery. The demons of white supremacy. The demons of addiction. The demons of domestic abuse. The demons of poverty. People are incapable of hearing the good news Jesus brings until they are liberated from that which possesses them. In each of his healings and exorcisms, Jesus removed the barrier first before expecting the person to listen to the gospel or respond.
Like the early followers of Jesus, we may not feel ready. We may feel ill-equipped, under-resourced, feeling there must be someone better qualified for the task. But we are all given the missional task of proclaiming the good news, of healing and casting out demons. What can this mean in practice? Proclaiming good news is also about living good news. It’s about being a person who can see God in all things, in all people, even when people let us down. Its about being a person who pours a healing balm onto volatile situations, rather than that person who fans the fire of hatred. Its about being that person who cannot be silent in the face of injustice. It’s about being the person who celebrates diversity but resists divisions that cause fracture. These are not easy things to live out, but we are not alone. We are not left to our own devices. We are firstly given God’s Holy Spirit, who does equip us, does sustain us, does lead us. And we are given each other, to support and build each other up. And thank God for that. Amen
Hymn: Everlasting God (Singing the Faith 46. Not in Hymns & Psalms). This worship song is by Vicky Beeching
Prayer of thanksgiving and intercession
In long summer evenings when light lingers and sunsets have time to deepen from light pink to deep red – we offer you our thanks and praise.
We remember and hold before you people in your world where the fading of the light brings not only darkness but sadness and discomfort. May they know your light.
When we are able to buy, cook and eat food, enjoying the abundance of what is available, especially those of us who can eat together with loved ones – we offer you our thanks and praise.
We remember and hold before you those who today will share meals tainted with sadness, those who through no choice of their own eat alone, those who are hungry and have little food. May they soon know joy and plenty.
When we have been offered hospitality that was generous or unexpected – we have been blessed and we offer you our thanks and praise.
We remember and hold before you refugees and those who are strangers in a foreign land, those for whom exceptional warmth and hospitality would mean so much. May they know a rich welcome and ongoing support.
When someone who knows us a little, but not well, remembers our name – we offer you our thanks for their care and attentiveness.
We remember and hold before you those who have been forced to change name or those who forget their name – the overseas student in a culture that feels alien, those who have been trafficked, those living with dementia. May they know liberation and freedom.
And hear us too as we take time to remember and hold before you…(list a few situations from the week’s news ….) Minister to their needs we pray. Ever creating, ever loving, ever encouraging God, we offer you our deep thanks. Use our gifts, talents and skills in the world so that our lives may tell out your praise and where possible aid those whom we have remembered before You today. Hear our prayers, through Jesus Christ our loving Saviour. Amen
The Lord’s Prayer
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins
as we forgive those who sin against us.
Lead us not into temptation
but deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power,
and the glory are yours now and for ever
Worship Song: Joy of the Lord (not in current hymn books)
May God bless you with impatience at waiting for peace
May God bless you with intolerance of injustice
May God bless you with righteous anger at poverty
And may God fill you with the spirit of hope, found in that newborn child who can change the world
Some material is taken from © 2020 Spill the Beans Resource Team, and from The Church of Scotland ©Faith Nurture Forum
This week, as I have been on study leave, the service comes to you via the Methodist Church Ministries: Vocations & Worship Team. Next week we will be back to our normal format
Sunday 7th June 2020 – Trinity Sunday This short act of worship has been prepared for you to use whilst we are unable to use Methodist Church premises. If you are well enough why not spend a few moments with God, knowing that other people are sharing this act of worship with you.
Father God, Holy Three-in-One, We join with the saints on earth and in heaven as we bring our worship to you. Come and meet us now by your Holy Spirit, and gather our dispersed voices into one single church of praise. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Hymn: Holy, Holy, Holy (StF 11) Sing/ Read /pray /proclaim the words or listen to it here
Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty!
Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee:
holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty,
God in three Persons, blessed Trinity!
Holy, holy, holy!
All the saints adore thee,
casting down their golden crowns
around the glassy sea;
cherubim and seraphim
falling down before thee,
who wert, and art, and evermore shalt be.
Holy, holy, holy!
Though the darkness hide thee,
though the sinful human eye thy glory may not see,
only thou art holy;
there is none beside thee,
perfect in power, in love, and purity.
Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty!
All thy works shall praise thy name in earth and sky and sea;
holy, holy, holy,
merciful and mighty,
God in three Persons, blessed Trinity!
Reginald Heber (1783-1826) (alt.) Based on Revelation 4:8-11
Or enjoy this wonderful Jamaican Gospel version from the Grace Thrillers:
Let us pray together
Eternal God, We worship you, creator and sustainer of the universe, and we praise you for the gifts of life, health and strength. Lord Jesus, We worship you, Saviour and Lord of the world, and we praise you that you have found us, washed us, forgiven us and given us a place in your church. Holy Spirit, We worship you, sanctifier of the people of God, and we praise you that you have renewed us and blessed us with your gifts. Amen.
Prayer by Revd. Aian Ferguson from the Methodist Prayer Handbook 2014-15 p4
Today’s Reading from the Old Testament Isaiah 40.12-17,27-31
Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span, enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance? Who has directed the spirit of the Lord, or as his counsellor has instructed him? Whom did he consult for his enlightenment, and who taught him the path of justice? Who taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding? Even the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as dust on the scales; see, he takes up the isles like fine dust. Lebanon would not provide fuel enough, nor are its animals enough for a burnt offering. All the nations are as nothing before him; they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness.
Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God”? Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
Today’s Gospel Reading: Matthew 28.16-20
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Time to Reflect
How do you explain the Christian doctrine of the Trinity to a child? The answer of course is that you don’t – there’s no need!
Of course, it’s correct that the word ‘Trinity’ can’t be found in the Bible. That’s because it is a summary of the whole of Scripture. It’s about trying to capture in a simple way the mystery and awe of passages like our Isaiah reading today. How do you imagine God? I’m sure it varies widely according to context. God reveals something of what God is like through Scripture, through Jesus, through God’s Spirit in us. God reveals the God-self to the world through the church; through people like you and me. We even (especially?) see something of what God is like through the eyes of a child. In your baptism, you were baptised as Jesus commanded, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. You didn’t need to hold a master’s degree in Systematic Theology to understand that. As you grew up, you simply needed to know that this mysterious God is love, that you are loved, and that God loves us all in many ways, especially through the witness of the church – the body of Christ on earth. Just love – with no strings attached. It’s so easy, a child could get it.
Take a time to sit quietly
A time of prayer
Father, in whom we live, In whom we are, and move, Glory and power and praise receive Of thy creating love.
We pray for your church throughout the world, continually exploring new ways to be in fellowship and to offer worship. Unite us by your creative power across earthly boundaries of time and space to bring you our united voices of praise and glory.
Incarnate deity, Let all the ransomed race Render in thanks their lives to thee, For thy redeeming grace.
We pray for all those who have revealed Christ to us in past months. For key workers, carers,
intercessors and strangers – we give you our thanks, and pray that we in our turn might reveal Christ to our neighbour too.
Spirit of holiness, Let all thy saints adore Thy sacred energy, and bless Thy heart-renewing power.
We pray for all those who need the comfort of your Holy Spirit today. The lonely, the anxious, the bereaved; the sick, the distressed, the dying; those facing difficult decisions and those forced to make new beginnings – bring your peace to them.
Eternal, triune Lord! Let all the hosts above, Let all the sons of men, record And dwell upon thy love.
We bring all our prayers to you, O God our Father, in the name of Jesus and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This week’s intercessions based on the hymn (StF No. 5) by Charles Wesley (1707-1788)
The Lord’s Prayer
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours. Now and for ever. Amen.
Hymn: Listen to StF 15: The Splendour Of The King
or sing a verse of a hymn that comes to mind
The splendour of the King,
clothed in majesty;
let all the earth rejoice, let all the earth rejoice.
He wraps himself in light and darkness tries to hide,
and trembles at his voice, and trembles at his voice.
How great is our God, sing with me,
how great is our God, and all will see
how great, how great is our God.
And age to age he stands,
and time is in his hands;
beginning and the end, beginning and the end.
The Godhead, Three in One, Father, Spirit, Son,
the Lion and the Lamb, the Lion and the Lamb.
How great is our God, sing with me,
how great is our God, and all will see
how great, how great is our God.
Name above all names, worthy of all praise;
my heart will sing: how great is our God.
Name above all names, worthy of all praise;
my heart will sing: how great is our God.
How great is our God, sing with me,
how great is our God, and all will see how great,
how great is our God.
Chris Tomlin (b. 1972), Ed Cash and Jesse Reeves
A prayer of blessing based on Romans 15:13
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit; and the Blessing of God, the Holy Three-in-One, be with you, and all those whom you love, and all those who love you, today and always. Amen.
Original Materials by Revd. Stephen Froggatt
Matthew 28:16–20 (NRSV)
Call to worship
Come and worship!
We will praise the One between, within, and over.
Trust in the One who co-creates the was, the now, and the will-be.
Our hope is in the One who creates expansive love
calling us to do the same.
Follow the One who never breaks covenant.
We follow the One whose extravagant love calls us
to co-create justice for the oppressed,
feed the hungry, unlock prisons,
and welcome strangers, orphans, and widows.
Praise the One whose justice is grace-full and inclusive.
We praise the Spirit that spans the ages. Amen!
~ written by Tim Graves
Holy Spirit, we welcome you (Singing the Faith 385. Not in Hymns & Psalms)
breath of the big bang,
idea of creation,
you who make spring come forth,
who make life out of nothing,
breathe yourself into me.
you are the flame,
I am your light. You are the nerve,
I am your muscle. You are the Word,
I am the story. You are the song,
I am the singing.
I am one with you
and one with all Creation. One Spirit,
one flesh, many forms. In your Spirit
I am we.
Holy One, live in me;
I am your body. I remember,
and I live.
~ written by Steve Garnaas-Holmes
For ignoring the vision
breathed by the living Spirit
churning deep within our souls;
Lord have mercy,
Lord have mercy,
Have mercy upon us.
For refusing to look at the vision
alive within those
who look or act or sound different from us;
Christ have mercy,
Christ have mercy,
Have mercy upon us.
For choosing familiarity, ease, and comfort
rather than risking the opportunities
afforded in the vision
Lord have mercy,
Lord have mercy,
Have mercy upon us.
~ based on Habakkuk 2: 1-4. Written in 1998 by Katherine Hawker for the Evangelical United Church of Christ
Psalm 104: 24-34
Genesis 11: 1-9
Breathe on me breath of God (Singing the Faith 370. Hymns & Psalms 280)
1 Corinthians 12: 3b-13
John 20: 19-23
Acts 2: 1-21
I have teenage boys who love all of the superhero films. We’ve had conversations about which superpower we would choose. Invisibility? How about the power to fly? Teleportation is a pretty popular choice in our house, but for me, I’d like the ability to speak fluently every known language. For any Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy fans, you might know this as the babelfish. The fish which fits into your ear and is a universal translator giving the ability to both speak and understand.
I can speak a smattering of French & German – I can get by, order food, ask for directions, but proper conversation is beyond me. The last conversation I had with a German, I left her confused by my clumsy attempt. So yes, to effortlessly communicate, to understand nuances, cultural references, idioms; that would be my superpower.
I’ve actually been learning a new language for just over 6 years now, but I’m still struggling with it, the grammar is very different from what I’m used to and the rules seem to continually change; that language is Teenager. Somehow when I attempt some of their sentences, it just doesn’t sound right; they can say something is ‘sick’ (that means fantastic by the way), but if I say it, my boys cringe with embarrassment. I think to really get a language, you have to live amongst those who are fluent, absorb yourself in their world and perhaps acknowledge that even then, you will still make mistakes.
Babies are particularly good at copying, it’s how they learn, but all humans are excellent at mimicking; it is hardwired into us to pick up on what others do, and if we want to be accepted by them, we do the same. We imitate them. My brother lives in central Liverpool – when I visit, I do have to be a bit careful not to slip into a Scouse accent when we are shopping for fear some might think I’m taking the mickey. Assuming that accent is something I do without thinking.
Today is Pentecost – the date in the Christian calendar when the church celebrates God’s Holy Spirit and how that spirit became a real presence for the followers of Jesus. It’s the third most important day in the church after Easter and Christmas. It wasn’t originally a Christian festival – it is a Jewish day of celebration and simply means 50; 50 days since Passover when Jews continue to mark their liberation from slavery in Egypt. Us Christians are very good at imitating and copying and we copied the Jews and borrowed this idea. For us, it’s 50 days since Easter Day – well, technically 49, but who’s counting? Jesus had gone, but had left his followers with a promise, that the Advocate or Spirit would be given to them very soon and they were told to wait for this. The passage reads, ‘When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.’ Those mates of Jesus had continued to gather, looking after one another, praying together, and on that day they were all in the same house.
When The Advocate, the Spirit comes in a blaze of excitement, it is to this gathering, so I would assume the Holy Spirit like company. We live in a highly individualistic culture, but God’s spirit meets us when we come together – there’s something special about being in community that is part of God’s intention. It’s why being forced apart at the moment is so hard and for some of us this separation has been damaging to our mental health. We sometimes refer to Pentecost as the church’s birthday – and like all birthday parties, the best ones are where many people are invited.
Back to the story: ‘All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.’ The apostles rush outside into the cosmopolitan city of Jerusalem, and here were crowds of people from all different nations, very much like most big cities today where under normal circumstances wandering to sightseeing points you can hear many different accents and languages.
The Apostles were given that superpower I most desire – God’s Holy Spirit gave them the ability to speak in other languages and be completely understood. If we go back, right back to Genesis chapter 11 we’ll find a story which comes just after the story of Noah and the flood and how the descendants of Noah scattered over the whole earth, and this chapter tells us that at this point in human history everyone on earth spoke the same language, the same words. Well wouldn’t that be nice? Wouldn’t that encourage peace and harmony? No need to learn GCSE Spanish, spend money on phrase books or employ translators. They could understand each other with no issue of interpretation. But these people had decided to build a tower, one so high they thought it would reach ‘up’ to heaven so that they would have access to God, because God is ‘up there’, right? Remember, we spoke about that last week when we were thinking about the Ascension of Jesus. The people of Shinar had failed to understand that God is not ‘up’, not remote, not someone to be reached by climbing lots of stairs, distant from the earth, someone disconnected from humanity. And this frustrates God, that the people hadn’t recognised when God was right in front of them, down here. So as a consequence, God confuses their language and causes them not to be understood – and all this happens in the city of Babel; where the babelfish gets its name and it’s also where we get the word babble from, that incomprehensible language of babies. It is possible to think of Pentecost as a reversal of the story of Babel; people were divided because of their differences and their lack of understanding, and God’s Holy Spirit comes and unifies them, making them understand again.
But I think something else is going on here. Those apostles were not speaking one language and suddenly everyone around was given the ability to understand them; it was the apostles who were given the ability to speak the words of the people.
If you come to church regularly you will speak at least 2 languages fluently; your own native language which for many of us is likely to be English, but you will also speak another language: Christian. And it’s a language for those who don’t come to church very often increasingly find hard to understand. Because we use words we wouldn’t use in any other context; words like salvation, redemption, sin, trinity, grace, kingdom, mercy, heaven. And some of us might even think we know what these words mean. We also have this confusing way of speaking and singing as if we lived at least 200 years ago, as if words like ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ are fundamentally more holy than ‘you’ and ‘your’. We are particularly bad at providing any translation and as a church we expect people to come and speak our language, to learn our words, rather than the other way around.
The story of Pentecost, the story of the power of the Holy Spirit shows us that God has the ability to break down barriers, allowing us to enter other people’s space and talk their words. How good are we at communicating the story of Jesus, explaining the difference he makes to us, showing people God’s love for them and speaking this in ordinary ways?
As the decades go by, we have had to face the reality of declining numbers in the Methodist Church. It would be easy to think that evangelism had been a failed project and trying to reverse the trend is like turning round a super tanker. But all too often we have assumed that people just need to come to us. If only people would walk in off the streets and join us, be like us, sing like us, pray like us, speak like us. And if they did that, they could belong. The welcome provided by so many Methodist Churches is excellent, but we do rather like being a good host. The message of Pentecost provides us with a serious challenge to be a guest in someone else space. To speak their language. To go to where they are and not expect them to come to us.
The lockdown over the past couple of months has forced us to rethink evangelism and worship. It has forced us to reimagine our church. A church without walls. I recently attended a webinar where we were talking about how things might change for the better after lockdown restrictions are lifted. Evangelism for many of us is a tricky word that carries uncomfortable baggage. But the Evangelism & Growth Team at the Methodist Church are trying to get us to have a better definition of proclaiming the good news of Jesus. This is about speaking of the goodness of God, but it is also about listening for the goodness of God and living out the goodness of God. Evangelism is relational and works best when we seek depth in our relationships and demonstrate vulnerability. Evangelism seeks to do good and not harm. Evangelism isn’t shaming, it is not good news for some and bad news for others, it is good news for ALL. Finally, evangelism is inclusive and is rooted in social justice, because if we want to share the good news of Jesus, we seek the best for everyone and this means challenging unfair structures that push some people to the bottom of the pile. We are not free until all of us are free. Whilst some of this can and does happen within church buildings, we should not be confined to our spaces. The challenge of Pentecost is to widen our vision and to step outside. Lockdown had already engaged up to 1 in 4 adults in some form of online act of worship. That’s good news! People are curious about spiritual matters. To borrow a phrase of one of my theological tutors, we need to scratch where it itches. We need to go where the need is.
The main image of Pentecost is what? Let’s go back to the text: ‘Divided tongues as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.’ It’s fire – holy fire. As a point of interest, when you think of hell, perhaps you have those classical images by Botticelli inspired by Dante’s Inferno? A hot place of torture. Dante has a lot to answer for and it is a stubbornly enduring image. But in the Bible, fire is more often a holy thing – the people wandering in the wilderness were guided by God providing a pillar of cloud in the day and a pillar of fire at night. Remember when God spoke to Moses through a burning bush. And now God’s Holy Spirit comes like fire.
If all of this sounds like a huge responsibility and you are worried that you will use the wrong words, that like my attempt at speaking German, you will leave people baffled, don’t be. Pentecost can show us that these ordinary folk decided to reach out to those around them; they were brave enough to speak. And they were given help.
We have an incredible message, an amazing story to tell, of the Jesus who is not a bland nice man who passively smiles and does little else; our story is one which reaches out to all who are hurting, all who feel marginalised and left out, all who feel they don’t quite belong and we can tell them, Jesus stands with you, and we’ll do a bit of the shouting with you about how unfair things are, we’ll speak up for you because we know you’re important to Jesus and important to us. We’ll show you respect, treat you with kindness, but that doesn’t mean we won’t challenge your prejudice or agree with everything you say. But despite all of that, we’ll love you because Jesus loves you anyway.
We have been living fractured lives, like the people in Babel, we haven’t understood one another. But what God’s Holy Spirit does for us is to allow us to say, hey you Parthian over there, I’m an Elamite, and I comprehend you, I understand you, or to translate it into teenager, I get you. Even though you are different from me, I get you. I am from Devon and you are from Gloucestershire, but I get you. I’m straight, you’re transgender, but I get you. I vote this way, you vote the other, but I get you.
This is the beginning of the church – this is how it all started. Not trying to force us into the same model but celebrating our differences and doing so together. Stepping into each other’s space and learning to talk each other’s language. Because God shows no favouritism. You, me, him, her, them, yes even you – we belong, let’s start talking and really understand. It’s called radical inclusivity – it’s a gift of the Holy Spirit and it’s how it all began. Amen
She sits like a bird, brooding on the waters (Singing the Faith 393. Not in Hymns & Psalms)
Flaming God of Pentecost,
Let us speak in tongues of comfort
to those weeping over the bodies of their loved ones
Let us speak in tongues of courage
to those living in fear;
fear for those they love, fear of death, fear of making the next rent payment
Let us speak in tongues of condemnation
against laws and policies that promote violence,
prioritizing the preferences of some over the lives of others.
Let us speak in tongues of care
for the most vulnerable in our world–
human beings, animals, and ecosystems.
Let us speak in tongues of love
for you and for your people,
that Your language might be our language.
And when our tongues are still,
when we have no words to speak,
let our hearts burn with your fire,
let our ears hear your words in our own native tongue,
let our skin feel the wind of your Spirit–
a mighty wind, blowing where it will.
Dancing Generation (Not in Singing the Faith. Not in Hymns & Psalms)
The Spirit of truth lead us into all truth,
give us grace to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
and to proclaim the word and works of God;
and the blessing of God,
Spirit, Son and Father
remain with us always. Amen
(Methodist Worship Book: Pentecost liturgy)
As we prepare to worship, I invite you to watch the following video, sung by the Birmingham Citadel Salvation Army Singers, giving us assurance that wherever we are and whatever we face God will always be with us.
Call to worship
Come near to God and he will come near to you (James 4:8)
Lord God, we come to worship you (this morning/evening) with your command to draw near to you ringing in our ears. It sounds so obvious Lord, so simple, but we find it so difficult. A thousand trivial things get in the way such as our appetites, the television, our hobbies, or even the tickle we have in the small of our back. Help us this morning Lord to forget all these and to bring you our whole attention so that we can hear you speaking to us. And when we have heard, help us to obey. Amen
Jennifer Martin – The United Reformed Church
Sing Praise to God who reigns above (Singing the Faith 117. Hymns & Psalms 511)
Prayers of Adoration, Praise & Confession (written by Tony Rowntree of Bishops Cleeve)
Almighty God , at this time we come to You together in spirit rather than as a physical congregation, to praise you for all that you are and all that you do for the world. You have shown us your truth and your love through your Son Jesus Christ. Help us at this time to worship you in spirit and in truth. Help us to be aware of your presence with us at this time so that we may pray to you in faith, may sing your praise with gratitude and listen to your Word with eagerness.
Almighty God, you are infinite and eternal in wisdom, in power and in love. We know that our words can never fully describe your nature and that our minds and only begin to glimpse a little of your greatness. But we come as we are, and we bring what we are to offer You our worship as a sign of our love and an expression of our praise. We praise you again for the world in which we live and all the beauty and wonder of your creation. We praise and thank you for the lives you have given us and for all that you have done in and through your Son Jesus Christ.
Almighty God, we thank you again this morning that in this difficult time in all our lives we know that we are never alone; you are always here with us and that we can always depend on you. We thank you that always you are faithful, you are true, you are loving, and you are merciful. We thank you that at this time, day by day, week by week, month by month you are still working out your purposes; that seen or unseen, recognised or unrecognised, through your Holy Spirit, you are still moving and building your kingdom in today’s troubled world.
Almighty God, as we bring you our praise and thanks, we also recognise that there have been times when we have not lived faithfully as your disciples. That there have been times when we have not loved you as you have loved us; times when we have not loved our neighbours as we love ourselves and times when we have preferred our ways to your ways. We come to you now, repenting of our failings, seeking your forgiveness, and asking for your help to change, to become people whose lives clearly witness to your love and who live in ways which are consistent with what we believe and are honouring to You. Help us always to remember that your Son Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners and that to all who turn to him he says, “Your sins are forgiven”
We bring this our prayer in the name of your Son Jesus Christ in whose words we all now pray together “OUR FATHER WHO ART IN HEAVEN……….”
Psalm 68: 1-10, 32-35
Acts 1: 6-14 – read by Beth Guttridge of St Mark’s
Refection – Acts
It’s been six weeks since Easter Sunday, and only now do we have the story of the Ascension. Jesus isn’t gone for long though, because next week we have Pentecost, a reminder should we need it, that Jesus is eternally present.
I wonder, when you think of heaven, what spring to mind? We are all influenced by the artists of the past, so for many of us, despite our rational minds telling us it can’t possibly be so, our thoughts go ‘upwards’. Wherever heaven is, it seems to be ‘up there’. When my son’s friend tragically died a couple of years ago, the tributes has a common theme for him to ‘fly high.’ I found it fascinating that despite most of these teenagers declaring no religious faith, the language they reached for at a time of grief was deeply religious, confirming that life wouldn’t end for their friend and that whatever happened to him after death, he was still somehow alive. For many of us, when using our hands in worship, we point ‘up’ to God, we raise our eyes and hearts heavenward. Up is good; it is where we assume God and heaven are found.
So we might all have sympathy with the disciples, when confronted with an actual cloud that seems to lift Jesus beyond their sight, they are left standing and gazing upwards. How unreasonable then, when a couple of people (are these angels?) give the disciples a ticking off for looking in the wrong place. They had just witnessed Jesus go ‘up’; of course that’s where their eyes were searching.
But this seems to be a continuation of the disciples getting it wrong – a familiar scene for anyone who has read the gospel accounts of disciples frequently misunderstanding, asking the wrong questions, being in a state of confusion about who Jesus was and making mistakes. This story starts with them talking to Jesus in expectation. They asked him, so you’ve hung around for a while now after your resurrection, we assume that’s because you’re about to do something spectacular. Is now the time when you’re going to make everything better? You seemed to be doing so well, and then you got yourself killed and we were massively disappointed, but your resurrection confirmed your ability to put things right. What they’re actually asking is, when are you going to be the Messiah we want you to be?
Jesus replies, it’s not for you to know. It’s not for you to dictate when or how God’s purposes will be worked out. It’s not for you to determine whose side God is on. But just in case the disciples yet again felt hurt and confused, Jesus reminded them that with God they are never alone. They will receive God’s holy spirit and through that power will be able to fulfil the mission of Jesus to the whole world. And that’s the point when he vanishes.
I wonder how the disciples felt. They had just placed all of their expectations on Jesus, and in putting the responsibility for action on his shoulders, they were of course, denying that they had any part to play. As we will learn next week, the one thing we can say about God’s Holy Spirit is, she loves company. Jesus cannot fulfil his mission independently and in isolation. He needs the disciples to step up.
In the Methodist Church, or at least in those churches that I have been a part of, Ascension Day has never been a big deal. Perhaps we don’t like emphasising the absence of Jesus. When we read of Jesus being lifted up out of sight into a cloud, it all feels a bit implausible, the stuff of magic. We want to ask, how is it done. Since the age of Enlightenment we have become fixated on the notion that facts equal truth, that the things of the Bible are problematic because myths are not facts. We worry about the corporeal being of flesh and bones; where is that if the tomb is empty? Where did the body of Jesus actually go? In our modern age, we might want to send a drone up with Jesus with a camera on board to capture on film the events happening in real time. And some of our theology has tied itself up in knots because if we cannot establish these things as fact, they cannot be held to be true.
The disciples are being so heavenly minded they are of no earthly use, as the phrase goes. Jesus calls us back to terra firma. To the reality of where life is, to where people are and where the need is greatest. The mission of Jesus was to promote love and justice and he did that not by daydreaming and stargazing, but by embracing the gritty reality of peoples lives and entering into their spaces to heal and restore.
The story of the ascension is a universal one – Jesus is not left in just one geographical place at one particular point in history. His ascension and the arrival of the holy spirit soon after releases Jesus to be in all places in all time. That’s why we refer to the risen Jesus; Jesus is alive because he is no longer subject to a historical life. If all we do is get bogged down with what happened to his actual body, we consign this story to an event which only occurred 2000 years ago and has little or no relevance to us today.
The post-resurrection Jesus is different – he tells his followers not to hold onto him, he appears not recognised and disappears without warning, he enters locked rooms and now we have him disappearing into the weather. It is only Luke who tells us this story as a continuation from his gospel when he is writing about the activities of the new disciples, the apostles. And in this story Luke is drawing a line under the life of Jesus – scene one has ended, the curtain has come down and we’re just about to witness the start of scene 2. The ascension is absolutely necessary – the resurrection was such a dramatic twist – like the Spanish inquisition, no-one expected that to happen. But the drama of the resurrection would have just petered out if we didn’t have a final moment. It was necessary Jesus should come into this world, and just as necessary that he should leave it.
The ascension can remind us not to be pulled down, but to be set free; to be liberated to allow the holy spirit of God to enter our lives, to be the living presence of Jesus. So, don’t look for Jesus thinking he is a long way above us; rather than looking up, we can look within ourselves to find him. Jesus has not left us. Jesus has filled us.
When circumstances make my life too hard to understand (Singing the Faith 641. Not in Hymns & Psalms)
(for a reflection on this hymn, see: https://www.methodist.org.uk/our-faith/worship/singing-the-faith-plus/posts/when-circumstances-make-my-life-too-hard-to-understand-stf-641/ )
John 17: 1-11
1 Peter 4: 12-14, 5: 6-11 – read by Stephen Varley
The reading from 1 Peter speaks to an audience suffering an ordeal, reminding them to ‘cast all your anxieties on God’, with the promise of restoration, support, and strength. I find this particularly relevant at the moment, when most of us are finding this lockdown increasingly difficult. It seems to become more of an ordeal with every passing week. There is much anxiety around and mental health crises have increased.
Today marks the end of Mental Health Awareness Week and The Mental Health Foundation has chosen this year’s theme to be ‘kindness’. Studies unsurprisingly show that both those who are being kind and those who receive kindness find an increase in their wellbeing. If we can be kind, we see a reduction in our own stress levels, and we are more able to reimagine a better world and help to make that happen. For those on the receiving end of acts of kindness, these acts do not have to be extravagant or time consuming to have a significant impact on a reduction in anxiety levels. A simple act of kindness can transform a person’s day.
Peter is writing during the reign of Emperor Nero, a known hater of Christians, who mercilessly persecuted the church for over a decade. Peter knew that trouble was brewing and potentially heading their way. He’s trying to give these early Christians, these Followers of the Way greater understanding about why they might suffer, and to provide them with reassurance of the strength of God.
I wonder, how many of us are feeling anxious at the moment? How many of us are worrying about this virus, about the health of the ones we love, about when and how the church can meet again, about how we can safely get our shopping done this week, about whether this years crop of strawberries will be any good. There are many things that cause us to worry and feel anxious.
Jesus said, ‘Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.’ (Matthew 6:34)
I am an optimist. My husband is a pessimist. He says a pessimist can never be disappointed. But I’m a glass-half-full kind of person and in the immortal words of Monty Python, will try and always look on the bright side of life. So why have I found the last couple of weeks so difficult? Why am I struggling to cast off my anxieties and look to God for restoration? I was listening recently to a sermon by Nadia Bolz-Weber (I’ve mentioned her before – she’s worth checking out) who talked on exactly this issue. She told the story of some prisoners of war during the second world war. When they were eventually released, one of them was asked, out of their group, who coped the best during their confinement. The pessimists, came the reply. The optimists were constantly hoping and expecting rescue and kept getting disappointed and eventually this had a crushing effect on their morale.
I know in my conversations with many of you that we’ve all been experiencing the occasional wobble. For some of us, it might feel more intense than a wobble, a bit more serious that is perilously close to crushing our morale. So my message for you, which is a message I need too right now, is not to worry about tomorrow and to cast your anxieties on God. Try not to get sucked into thinking too far ahead. Most of us did not initially reckon on the lockdown lasting this long and our worries are now being propelled to a future worry.
Jesus reminds us that today has worries of its own and that’s enough to be coping with. There is no point in trying to paint a rosy picture about the pandemic – the statistics are grim. It can be very helpful to be honest about how we are all feeling; by expressing how we feel can be helpful to mental good health. Suppressing our feelings is the opposite of this. But this isn’t the end of the story. Today is just one day. For now, it might be a bit rubbish, but our hope is in the eternal and extraordinarily gracious God. And that hope can restore our soul. It doesn’t always make today better, but it can remind us that today will pass. If we can rest within God, to rely on God’s strength and support, we can be assured that eventually all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.
You will never run away
Prayers of Intercession (written by Tony Rowntree of Bishops Cleeve)
O Loving God we give you our thanks that you are always with us ; that you are with us in both good times and bad times – particularly that you are with us as struggle to cope with the impact of the coronavirus . When we are uncertain about what lies ahead may we turn to you for guidance. When we are discouraged or depressed may we turn to you for inspiration. When we are in despair may we turn to you for hope.
We thank you for your love, your mercy and your faithfulness. As we remember that your love never ceases , that your mercy is renewed every day and that your faithfulness is so great may this give us the confidence that in the days that lie ahead whatever problems we may face , whatever disappointments come our way, whatever sadness we may experience , you will grant us the hope that stems from the confidence that you will always be with us and will have a continuing purpose for us.
At this time we pray for the leaders of the Christian church that they may be enabled to use the opportunity given by the impact of the coronavirus which has both disrupted our set ways and also highlighted the really crucial links in our communities. May the church be enabled to reassess our priorities and make changes that bring us closer to our neighbours and closer to You.
At this time there are so many people for whom we want to pray that you are with them at this their time of need. We think of those who are now ill from the corona virus and those recovering (sometimes over a lengthy time) from such illness. We think of the thousands of bereaved relatives and friends of the victims of the virus.
We think of the doctors, nurses and other health and care workers treating and caring for those suffering from the virus – sometimes at great risk to themselves. We think of the millions whose daily lives have been disrupted by the “lock down” arrangements some who do not know whether they will have a job in the future and some isolated at home on their own. We think finally of the leaders of our nation who must take decisions and make choices which will have life and death consequences for so many – that they be given the wisdom and the strength to discharge this task in the best interests of all.
Finally, a (slightly edited) prayer by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century:-
Give us O Lord:- a steadfast heart which no unworthy affection may drag downwards;
an unconquered heart which no tribulation can wear out;
an upright heart which no unworthy purpose may tempt aside;
Bestow upon us also O Lord our God:-
understanding to know You;
diligence to seek You;
wisdom to find You;
and a faithfulness that may finally embrace You,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
Faithful One, so unchanging (Singing the Faith 628. Not in Hymns & Psalms)
May the God of strength support you
May the God of healing restore you
May the God of grace surround you
May the God of hope embolden you
And may the God of love enfold you and those you love, today and every day. Amen
Call to worship
“If you love me” Jesus says
We show that we do by loving.
“If you love me” Jesus says
We show that we do by sharing.
“If you love me” Jesus says
We show that we do by serving.
“If you love me” Jesus says
We show that we do by worshipping.
So let us worship God.
Lord of the boundless curves of space (Singing the Faith 111. Not in Hymns & Psalms)
Anna Herriman is profoundly deaf and is training to become a Local Preacher in the Methodist Church and would be the first female British Sign Language (BSL) user to do so. Below is Anna’s BSL prayer
Psalm 66: 8-20
A Psalm of lament and praise in a time of coronavirus – lead by Vicki Courtney (St Mark’s)
How shall we praise you, Lord, our God?
When we are locked down,
how shall we praise you?
When the doors to your house are barred,
and your people cannot assemble?
When those desperately in need of money and work
cannot even wait in the market-place?
When we have to circle round people in the street,
and to queue for shops maintaining safe distance?
When we can only communicate
by hearing on the phone,
or seeing on the screen;
or digitally messaging,
or even just waving through a window?
When we cannot meet our parents and children,
grandparents and grandchildren,
or other family members and friends?
When we cannot touch them in their flesh and blood,
to know they are really alive?
How shall we praise you?
How, like Thomas, shall we not see yet believe
that your son is raised among us?
How shall we praise you?
How can I praise you, Lord?
Are you plaguing us with this virus
to punish us because we have all done wrong,
or thought wrongly,
or felt wrongly,
or just been wrong?
If so, why do only some die,
and those, apparently, the ones who are the least worst or most caring amongst us?
Or are you trying to teach us a lesson?
If so, why is it so hard to learn?
And how are we to find the answer
when we do not even know the question?
Or are you still the same loving God,
coming to us in our sufferings
and opening up the way to new life in Jesus?
Lord, I will try to praise you.
Through gritted teeth,
I will try to praise you.
I will try to remember that you have created all things,
and this virus is part of your creation.
I will try not to hate it
but seek to mitigate its harm.
I will try to keep myself and others safe.
I will work to pray for them
and seek to help in whatever way I can.
Lord, when I cannot pray or worship
help me be aware of all your people
and your saints and angels
hovering around me,
lifting me up.
When I feel alone,
let me feel you near me,
even if only for a moment that enables me to go on.
Let me hear you say
“Peace be with you”.
Lord, I will praise you.
Let all the peoples praise you. (The Revd Kenneth Howcroft)
Acts 17: 22-31
Christian missionaries haven’t always behaved well. Although we can celebrate the spread of the gospel, plenty of damage was done in the past to communities, both physically with the introduction of new diseases, and also in causing division encouraging people to reject the religion of their tradition. Last summer I visited Rwanda during the period when Ebola was still prevalent in some of West Africa. Rwanda had all but escaped this disease, apart from a Christian missionary who had decided to visit neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo to lay hands on those who were ill. Of course, he then contracted Ebola and when he developed symptoms, came home to Rwanda. Yes, Christian missionaries can be disrespectful, antagonistic and downright dangerous at times.
Paul is a Christian missionary and he gives us a pretty good example of how to behave well. Firstly, he’s not afraid to enter into conversation with those who hold a different belief system. In verse 18 we read the philosophers debated with him. The people of Athens were used to debating and were always keen to hear new ideas and Paul interested them, and they took him to the Areopagus to hear more. The Areopagus was a rock on the hill near the Acropolis, but the term ‘Areopagus’ actually refers to high court or government institution and was known for its democracy. Athens itself was filled with argument, a place of philosophical banter and debate. Much of this is complimentary to Jewish culture – at theological college we had a lecture by an orthodox Jew who told us that whenever two rabbis meet you could guarantee there would be three different opinions.
Paul of course, is talking exclusively to Gentiles here. They don’t have the foundation of a belief in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Moses. But don’t mistake this for a diverse gathering – these are the intelligentsia he’s talking to, the powerful ones, the decision-makers. He starts with a compliment: I can tell you’re a religious lot, there are examples of it scattered throughout the city. He goes on to point to an altar he found with an inscription: to an unknown god. They have many, many gods who are named, but just in case they offend a god by omission, the Athenians have created this safety-net – the unknown god. They are hedging their bets by creating this.
Paul doesn’t tell them they’re mistaken or wrong to have this altar. He doesn’t preach to them about a God who is foreign, who they ought to give up the familiar to follow. Instead he contextualises what he says. He doesn’t reach for scriptural texts to quote because he knows his listeners have no reference point with those texts. Paul knows quoting Isaiah just won’t be persuasive here. Instead, the quote he uses, the one we so often use today, has no origins in either Christianity or Judaism. He reaches for Greek poetry: ‘in him we live and move and have our being.’.
There are some pitfalls in Paul’s sermon – the reference to the unknown god is perilously close to saying to those who follow other religions, actually you’ve been following Christianity all along, you just didn’t realise it. I’m not sure many Muslims would find that complimentary. Likewise, when he quotes Greek poetry, he is dangerously close to cultural appropriation – picking something from somebody else’s culture and applying to their own. I’m never terribly comfortable when white people wear their hair in cornrows as a fashion statement, because as a white person I don’t have the shared history, the shared experience of being black.
Finally, despite all of his clever arguments, Paul’s mission to the Areopagus is a bit of a failure. He was scoffed, ridiculed. Although some converted, it was a very small number – it must have been disappointing for Paul, used to having a more dramatic effect.
So whilst I began by saying Paul gives us a good example as to how to take the gospel to those of other faiths or none, perhaps we need to add some notes of caution here. But there are some things I think we can learn from. Firstly, he is deeply respectful in the way he approaches the Athenians. He knows they don’t have a shared faith, but in no way does he try to undermine them. This is crucial when considering an interfaith dialogue.
Also, Paul seeks to find God regardless of the context. He can even see God in the worship of those he might otherwise brand pagan or idolatrous. He is generous enough to widen his vision of where God can be located. All too often we point to other faiths as if they stand in opposition to our own. We might find the prayer wheels of Buddhism an alien concept or the statues of Hinduism idolatrous. My brother went to Nepal a few years ago and brought me back a singing bowl, used by Buddhist monks as an aid to meditation. It’s a beautiful object – is it either cultural appropriation or simply wrong for me to use it as an aid to my own prayer – I hope not.
We sometimes limit God through the language we use or in our attempt to domesticate God. God is both bigger and more intimate than we can imagine. Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote a book entitled, God is not a Christian – perhaps some of you have read it. I might also add that God is not British, or white or male or heterosexual. Our assumptions about God reduces the capability God has to break through to every human experience. I’ve spoken before about being a panentheist– I believe that God can be found in all of creation. We risk being isolationist if we insist that our own ways of worshipping are the only correct ones. We risk being exclusivist if we insist our ways are the only ways of speaking of God. We even risk idolatry if we assume that God looks and behaves and sounds only like us, and does not look or behave or sound like those who are different from us.
As this lockdown continues and as our churches find new ways of worshipping and being, we are no longer confined to worshipping in our church buildings. We are discovering new places where God can be found. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, ‘We ought to find and love God in what he actually gives us.’ The challenge is for us to notice God in other people and in our current environment. Not to limit God in this way, but to expand our vision. Not to claim exclusive rights over where God is, but to say, today I’ve noticed God here.
That ‘unknown god’ is a good description, for each of us is on a lifelong quest searching for understanding of the unknowable God. Christianity never started out being inward-looking. The fact we are here today is testimony to the determination of other Christians to allow people to find God through Jesus. Our ability to ‘do’ mission at the moment feels pretty limited, but one thing we can do is to pay attention to where God is. Perhaps the next film you watch, or the next chapter of that book you’re reading, or the next telephone conversation you have, of the next walk you take, you can be intentional in your desire to see God. Like Paul, many of us find God in scripture, but this reading suggests we can also find God in poetry, and beyond that, in art, in literature, in nature, in dance, in music, in silence. Perhaps you have found God somewhere else? In God we live and move and have our being, Paul tells us. It is when we are attentive to God that we can notice the divine in both the mundane and in the extraordinary.
Desert Song (Hillsong)
1 Peter: 3:13-22
John 14:15-21 – read by Rev Phil Summers
We pick up where we left off from last week in John’s gospel, so we have to remind ourselves that this is part of a long conversation Jesus is having on what we now call Maundy Thursday.
His disciples must have been in some state of confusion – Jesus seemed to be talking an awful lot about death, about leaving them, about life changing forever. But as always, this isn’t the end of the story, because he also provides deep reassurance. He tells them that God will provide them with an Advocate – the Spirit of Truth. Jesus is keen that despite feeling pain, they shouldn’t despair because despair leads to inactivity and giving up.
Jesus says God will provide ‘another’ Advocate. This means another of the same kind. This Advocate is Jesus in another form. The same but the other self of Jesus. If this Spirit is ‘another’ Advocate, this suggests that there has already been an Advocate: Jesus. We’ll explore much more about the Spirit when we come to Pentecost of course. Through the Spirit, Jesus isn’t confined to being physically present, this way Jesus could be eternally with the Followers of the Way, not simply alongside them but within them. This Spirit will guide the Followers of the Way in truth and provide strength and comfort.
The Greek word used here is ‘Paracletos’ which is usually translated as Advocate. There are strong legal overtones here – the one who will stand alongside you when you are charged in court. But it also functions relationally – an advocate provides reassurance, consolation and encouragement. The Advocate is the one who is on your side. The one who will always speak truth to us and about us.
For us to function as Followers of the Way, to take Jesus into our lives, to welcome God’s holy and life-giving Spirit, means we are not just the ones who are being consoled, but the ones through that Spirit who can console. ‘So much to be consoled as to console’ we sing from the words of St Francis. And that also means speaking words of truth. Truth is a slippery concept – Pilate was right to ask, ‘What is truth?’ History is written by the victors, by the powerful and we often don’t hear the stories of more ordinary folk, the ones who struggled. It’s why I think it’s so important to retell the stories of the transatlantic slave trade, or the stories from the Shoah – the Jewish holocaust, and not just the stories of victories and leaders.
Each Sunday evening I take part in a quiz with my team members from my old pub quiz team. Last week it was my turn to set the questions and I wrote a round called ‘Her-Story’ asking questions about women in history. Prominent women, such as Elizabeth Fry, Rosa Parks or Catherine of Sienna came up and I was disappointed my team members struggled to answer many of them. These women’s truths, their stories are spoken of in whispers rather that the shouts about William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King or John Wesley.
Truth today can be tricky to pin down. We have become sceptical about what we read in the newspapers, cynical about what politicians say. Truths which are not liked are branded ‘fake news’, despite overwhelming evidence; even evidence is doubted as we worry it might have been fabricated, videos altered. Whose truth, we now ask?
Jesus tells us the spirit of truth cannot be received by the world, because the world will not recognise this spirit. That’s particularly relevant in an age where some doubt the moon landings. This spirit, this advocate speaks the truth, speaks truth to power. And that’s not always popular. As Christians we’re unlikely to win any popularity contests. The Brazilian Archbishop, Hélder Câmara, is quoted as saying, ‘When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.’ Perhaps today we can say, ‘When I give money to buy protective equipment for the NHS, I am called a saint. When I ask why the NHS has limited protective equipment, they call me a trouble-maker.’
Because we have been given the Spirit of truth, we need to find our voice and use it, trusting that words will be given, trusting that strength will be given, trusting that encouragement will be given. If we accept that all humans are made in the image of God, then we know we each hold equal value to God. Jesus implies the way we will each be judged will be how we treated the most vulnerable in our society, the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned. These are the ones we should be speaking out for, through the power of the Advocate.
I also want to briefly touch on Jesus telling his disciples he will not leave them orphaned, because I find the whole family dynamic in the bible fascinating. There are virtually no examples of stable nuclear families – most of either terribly dysfunctional, or what we might now call blended families. Jesus himself had a loose understand of familial ties. Part of this is about a rejection that your family name or inheritance lent you a certain status. It was a rejection that blood relations gave you superiority.
When I was a slightly rebellious teenager, dressed up and ready to go out with friends, there was a repeating mantra my parents would say: ‘remember who you are’. Held within that mantra was an assumption that I had been brought up to know better and therefore had some sort of superiority over those who hadn’t benefitted from my rather privileged childhood. And my parents were certainly less than impressed with some of my choices of boyfriends, again, because there was an underlying belief that I was better than them.
We are all held within the family of God; it can be a bit messy at times as most families are. Squabbles are bound to break out, but this is the family to whom we belong. Orphans and widows are given particular attention throughout the bible as being in need of care. Jesus says we are not left as orphans, he does not want us to be vulnerable and uncared for. Instead, we are each in need of the protection a family often brings. Families can be places of love and nurture, but for some they are places of abuse and despair. The family Jesus leads us into is a place which brings out the best in us, envelopes us with love, encourages us when we think we have no worth, comforts us in our pain, champions us when we speak truth to power, protects us form harm, and brings us to life. We are all part of this family; through the example of Jesus and the Advocate, we can ensure no-one is left outside this family. No person left behind. So this week, let us commit ourselves again, to each other, to those who feel they don’t belong, to the vulnerable and powerless, to use our voice to speak the truth. Amen
Come down O love divine (Singing the Faith 372. Hymns & Psalms 281)
Prayers of intercession
Let us take our weariness and tiredness to God who picks up those who have fallen and raises up those who are brought low. Bless those, holy God, who are bowed down under the burdens they must carry. We pray for those who are crushed by their responsibilities at work and those who feel the pain of our world, who marvel that others can seem so indifferent to it. Help them to keep on going. Bring supportive friends alongside them. Give them tokens of your grace, fresh vision and courage and signs of encouragement in their struggle.
Let us take our loneliness to God, who delights to put the solitary into families. God our Father and Mother, bless those who are lonely, those who have grown old and whom the passing years have taken all their friends and contemporaries. Bless those who are shy, who find it hard to initiate conversation and have never known real friendships. We pray for strangers in a foreign land, for asylum seekers and refugees, separated by language and culture from familiar ways and much-loved customs. We remember all those whose families are dysfunctional that they may find a home in the church.
Help the church, we pray, to be a place of acceptance and belonging, a place of welcome and inclusion, where all can find a home, a listening ear, a friendly smile and a helping hand, even during these times of lockdown. Let us take our sorrows to God, who binds up the broken-hearted and comforts those who mourn. Bless those whose hearts are sore today. Be very close to those whose family circle has been invaded and whose joy has been darkened by death.
We remember those who have lost loved ones for whom they have cared, whose needs they have met, whose lives have been so intertwined that they still listen for a voice they will not hear again.
We remember wives who have lost husbands and husbands who have lost wives; parents who have lost children, who find their homes strangely silent and empty now, and children who have lost parents, who are confused by a world that seems less secure and more frightening than before. We pray for all who are prevented from attending funerals and ask for your comfort for all who mourn.
Let us turn to God in trust and recommit ourselves to God. Send us forth this day with the joy that no-one can take from us, the life which is your life and the hope that gives strength to our actions. Help us to sing of our faith and in that singing find our strength to go on, trusting in Jesus. In all the holy names of God we pray. Amen
Stay With Me – a puppet band
Be ready to love those you meet.
Go and reflect the welcome of God,
Creator, Redeemer and Advocate,
whose heart closes no-one out
but whose love is for all, always. Amen
Some material taken from ©2013 Spill the Beans Resource Team
In order to participate in todays service, please firstly download the Service Sheet here:
Let us build a house where love can dwell (Singing the Faith 409. Not in Hymns & Psalms)
Prayer of confession and absolution
Psalm 31 – sung by The Psalms Project
Psalm 31 Reflection
The Psalms, the worship songs of their day, reflect as wide a variety of the human condition as our songs today. We have uplifting ones, celebrating the days of wonder and the glory of God. We have rebellious ones, questioning and challenging God and seeking distributive justice by way of compensation. We have angry ones of lament and fury. We have lonely ones, seeking but not finding God’s presence. We have consoling ones, affirming the faithfulness and constancy of God. As Methodists, we are known to ‘sing our faith’. The Psalmists did the same – this religious songbook contains a depth and breadth of theological thinking.
Psalm 31 is a treasure-trove for the human condition. The Psalmist has experienced great suffering. The people are in pain and distress, waiting for this to be alleviated. Seeking the fortress of God.
In these times of isolation, we have retreated into the fortress or our own homes. A place of security and safety. The Psalmist speaks of their distress – ‘my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also.’ It is interesting how the writer of this Psalm notes the connection between body and spirit. Tears are shed, the body deteriorates, and this has an affect on the soul. There is a refreshing honesty in how the psalmist tells God exactly how things are, in the knowledge that God is not simply interesting in our spiritual lives, but our physical ones too.
For those of us who are keeping well, we might have noticed some physiological changes over the past few weeks. Some of us might be sleeping much longer than usual, but waking up not feeling refreshed. For others, we might have fitful, broken night’s sleep full of vivid anxiety dreams. For some of us, our inactivity is strangely exhausting. The Psalmist manages to speak into our current situation – verse 10 says ‘my strength fails because of my misery.’
Even though we are locked away, we can continue to show concern for those who are struggling. The Psalmist says, ‘I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbours.’ There is a painful reality than when people are going through a really hard time, sometimes, people step away, or even there might be an element that the person suffering might be somehow responsible for their suffering which justifies why other don’t offer to help. When my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, some 16 years ago, she suddenly found out who her real friends were. Some of her neighbours simply stopped speaking to her. If they passed her in their cars, they wouldn’t make eye contact. The hospice nurse explained that it is a known phenomenon that when a person is dying, some of their friends simply can’t face a reminder of their own mortality, so rather than reaching out with compassion, they turn away. My mother, in her dying, had become a ‘horror to her neighbours, an object of dread to her acquaintances, those who saw her fled from her.’
There is clearly an invitation here, not to look away, but to be present in new ways with those who are suffering. Most of us dread catching COVID-19, and we have become fearful of strangers, and perhaps even friends and family, hiding away. But this must not stop us from showing love.
This is a psalm Jesus himself knew. He quotes verse 5 when he is on the cross; ‘Into your hand I commit my spirit.’ This takes on particular poignancy as we know of many people who have died because of this virus. We pray that for those who are currently dying, and commit their safekeeping into the eternal love and mercy of God.
If we take a quick look at verse 15, it says, ‘My times are in your hand.’ Hands have been particular factor during this pandemic, as our initial responses were to frantically handwash to remove traces of the virus. Other peoples hands have become a risky form of potential contamination. Most of us are desperately missing the human touch of a hug or simply handshake. But it is into God’s hands we place ourselves. We reply on God’s hands when human hands are absent.
Under normal circumstances Christian Aid Week would be reliant upon human hands, to deliver and collect envelopes to local communities, hands to bake cakes and hold coffee mornings, hands to sort books for sale, hands to count money collected. Perhaps some of you are missing this week of activity.
We were originally told that this virus was indiscriminate. Now, however, we know that this virus disproportionately affects deprived areas and those who are black and Asian. Christian Aid is painfully aware that the world’s poorest people are the most vulnerable to this crisis. They are less resilient, have less access to healthcare and will be less able to weather the economic impact. Christian Aid, through generous donations, has been standing alongside the poorest communities for the past 75 years. And it will continue to stand with them through this crisis, and will be with them afterwards. Now more than ever, please share your love for your vulnerable neighbours by giving what you can.
We thank God and pray for the hands of all those working on the medical frontline now to help save lives, in the UK and around the world. As verse 15 and 16 say, May their times be in God’s hands, may God’s face shine upon them. May the unfailing, steadfast love of God be their constant strength. Amen
Be still for the presence of the Lord (Singing the Faith 20. Not in Hymns and Psalms. Complete Mission Praise 50)
Helen Taylor is going to play for us now this hymn and I invite you, if you are able, to sing along at home.
Reflection: John 14
Reflection: John 14
This passage is a favourite at funerals, offering comfort, hope and reassurance. A well-known slogan of Christian Aid is ‘We believe in life before death,’ and throughout this pandemic this slogan provides a new challenge to us.
Perhaps for some of you, the words, ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled,’ rings hollow at the moment. For these are indeed troubling times. ‘Do not fear’ is the most repeated phrase in the entire bible – it’s not simply a platitude. We’re not asked to go about cheerfully when our world is crumbling, but we are invited to believe in the God who believes in us. And this passage comes on the Thursday evening before the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus. Jesus, who is about to suffer torture, humiliation and death, is the one to provide words of comfort to his anxious disciples. Do no be troubled.
I wonder which phrases did you especially notice in todays reading. Perhaps the words, ‘In my Fathers house there are many dwelling places,’ took on new meaning. We sometimes refer to our church buildings as the house of God, the Father’s house. And of course, at the moment we are prevented from entering our churches. Instead, our dwelling places are our houses. Our homes have become places of work, places of education, places of exercise, places of meditation and of course, places of worship.
No matter how difficult the circumstances, we are given the opportunity to reflect on how God can use them for good. That’s not to say it justifies the suffering or even balances it out, but in our dwelling places we are finding new ways to worship. New ways of being church. New ways to deepen our faith. For some of this, it might be easier than for others. For some of us, this feels like a wilderness experience and we might be shouting at God as the Psalmist does, why have you forsaken me? But for some of us, we are discovering how we can live out our faith at a distance from other people. And when this is all over, when we have returned to our home churches, when we can be together again, I hope we will carry with us that experience of dwelling in God’s presence. Last week we looked at Psalm 23 which speaks of dwelling in God’s house my whole life long.
If you were to be able to ask God just one question, what would it be? Just ponder that for a moment? There are so many questions I have. So many answers I want to understand. It’s difficult to narrow it down. Perhaps I might ask God for confirmation that the worship of other religions is equally as acceptable as the worship of Christians. I really hope so. Perhaps I might ask what grieves God the most? Or what delights God the most? Or maybe I’d ask why, just for once, God couldn’t have intervened and stopped the holocaust, stopped the Rwandan genocide, stopped the Cambodian killing fields. I’m sure you have better questions than I do and maybe some of you have answers to some of my questions.
I love Thomas – he’s one of my favourites. He gets a bad rap. We know him as Doubting Thomas. He’s the one who doubted, that is forever how he is known. If my discipleship is ever recorded, unlikely, but if it is, I’d hate the idea I might be known forever as Clumsy Rachel, or Swearing Rachel or even Doubting Rachel, from those moments when I’ve demonstrated all of those things. Thomas is bigger than his mistakes. And here we have him asking a profound question – how do we know the way?
I imagine at this point the rest of the disciples took a big intake of breath. He’d exposed his ignorance. He’d asked a question rather than keeping quiet. Remember back to your school days; were you someone who kept quiet even if you didn’t understand, or threw your hand up making the teacher regret that they had once said, ‘There is no such thing as a stupid question.’ Thomas is probably saying what everyone else is thinking. He’s asking the hard questions.
Thomas, like many of the Psalmists, in honest in his speaking. Honest in his questioning. This virus had led many of us to ask some hard questions, about life and faith and purpose and truth and God and many, many others. I certainly have more questions than answers right now. Like Thomas, many of us are saying, but hang on Jesus, we don’t know the way. We don’t know how to get through this. We don’t know how to follow you right now.
There are more questions we should be asking right now. Questions that may prevent us from going back to normal, because normal was part of the problem. Normal is a massive wealth disparity, both in the UK and globally. Normal is 7500 children per day dying of preventable diseases. Normal is the planned renewal of Trident at an estimated cost of £205 billion, just in case, when the stockpiling of PPE in hospitals, just in case, was a casualty of austerity. Our questions allow us to reimagine and recreate a world where poverty is not inevitable, where climate change is not inevitable, where violence is not inevitable. Where the world does not have to be troubled.
Jesus doesn’t call us to be passive in our discipleship. Reimaging and recreating requires stepping out in faith. Even in our most difficult days, Jesus promises he is with us, to the end of the age, according to Matthew. For some of us there will be painful days ahead and I pray you can cling onto that promise. When Jesus says, ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life,’ this takes on a new meaning through the lens of COVID-19, when life is fragile and we don’t know the future, we doubt the truths we are told. This virus has shone a light on our broken economic systems, highlighted new meanings, new perspectives, new connections. The early Christians were not known as ‘Christians’; they were known as Followers of the Way. I really like that. Jesus is showing us a new way and the possibility of a new normal, daring us to dream we can be as he was. As we commit to following the way of Jesus, walking in his footsteps, we commit ourselves afresh to ensuring the abundance of life is a reality for everyone. Amen
Prayer of lament and intercession
Be thou my vision (Singing the Faith Hymns 545. Hymns & Psalms 378)
The Lord’s Prayer & Blessing
Donations to Christian Aid can be made here: www.caweek.org/payin
Call to worship
Though the way seems long and the road rough
Yet will we trust the One who leads us.
Though the direction is unknown and we don’t know the outcome
Yet will we place our lives in Christ’s loving care.
It is Christ who brings us out to green pastures and restores our souls.
It is Christ who gives us hope and peace. Praise be to Christ our Lord. AMEN.
All for Jesus – all for Jesus (Singing the Faith 341) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tqvprlKZKhQ
A 5 year old’s prayer of thanks:
Thank you for our world
Thank you for all our beautiful trees
Thank you for all our flowers
Thank you for making us and everybody
Thank you for our streets and neighbours
Thank you for the people that collect our bins
Thank you for all our posties in our world
Thank you for our people who make us food and sell us some
Thank you for all our doctors and nurses helping people when they’re sick
Thank you for loving everybody. Amen
You can listen to this prayer here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IN2M5E5h2FY&feature=youtu.be&fbclid=IwAR3mAq3n_kyWAZT6XwHjVWaJ-4nJ94ZY3pjJ4mWzTCycNG8Xab1cjMkq08Y
A late edition. This is my son, Gabriel, reading Psalm 23
Acts 2:42-47 Read by Caroline Sparrow
The observant amongst us will have noticed that the 23rd Psalm was our lectionary reading a few weeks ago. Today we have it again. When we come to our gospel reading, we will find the theme of shepherds, so rather than focusing on the Psalm, instead I’m firstly going to take a look at the reading from Acts and share some of my thoughts.
This passage describes the reaction to Peter’s amazing sermon that inspires the conversion of many people. Three thousand we are told in verse 41. That’s pretty impressive. For those of us who are preachers, this is the reaction we dream about. Peter’s words have built up that small community and suddenly we find them eating together, spending time in each other’s company and even going as far as to sell possessions and give the money to those in need. Let’s just take a moment to imagine such a church. Being with other Christians continually praising God, praying together, baptising newcomers and everyone happy about this newfound way of living. Especially at a time when we are forced to be apart, this is what many of us are desperate for.
But hang on – does all this ‘goodwill of all people’ sound too good to be true? Well, you’d not be wrong. Because the reality was, this happy commune was soon to be fraught with difficulties, arguments and some major fallouts. The euphoria didn’t last long and we shortly face a community at risk of fracture. Ananias sells some of his property (but by no means all) and then fails to put the whole amount into the communal pot (5:1-11). Peter gets cross with him; they have an argument and Ananias falls down dead. Peter then confronts the widow, who also promptly dies. And we are told, ‘great fear seized the whole church,’ which given this story doesn’t sound terribly surprising. This is a very long way from a group of Christians spending time in each other company ‘with glad and generous hearts’ (2:46).
Disagreements continued about ritualistic food, circumcision, inclusion of gentiles and all manner of other aspects of establishing a Christian way of living. Does that sound familiar? Christians today continue to argue about who has the right interpretation of the Bible, or the right way of conducting worship, going as far as to deny that some people are proper Christians. Although they fall under the umbrella of ‘Christian’, Quakers and those attending Westboro Baptist Church would probably fail to find much common ground, being on opposite ends of the theological spectrum. From an outsiders point of view the enormous variations of church would appear to lack agreement on anything.
The church was established on a set of ideals and a desire to come together in community. Reading ahead, it would be easy to think it quickly became a failed project with infighting and some pretty unchristian behaviour. Last week I mentioned that the Bible weaves together the story of God with the story of humanity. What I didn’t say was that the Bible records the history of God’s people mostly getting it wrong, going the wrong way and doing the wrong thing. But God doesn’t give up on them and the Bible is also about people changing their behaviour. By weaving our story in with these Bible stories, we are continuing this story of God and God’s people. Still getting it wrong a fair amount of the time, but that doesn’t stop us from trying. And God isn’t done with us yet. God isn’t done with the church, even today when we cannot meet together in our buildings.
St Teresa of Avila is quoted as saying, “The Lord walks among the pots and pans.” I like that domestic image of ordinary life. Pots and pans are made to be used to the benefit of others. They get dirty from being used, but in the sharing, God is with us. Giving us a clean slate everyday. In these uncertain times the church isn’t finished just because the buildings are closed; it’s being renewed.
One Thing Remains (Not in Singing the Faith) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zNUNexJlwGk
Another late edition. This is my husband, David, reading 1 Peter 2:19-25
This next video shows a herd of sheep coming at the call of their shepherd: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Coq_grSFlNs
So this morning, we’re thinking a lot about sheep. In our liturgical calendar it’s sometimes described as Good Shepherd Sunday. I grew up in North Devon and spent a considerable amount of my childhood on the local farm. I helped feed orphaned lambs and would go and try and befriend the feral cats. My husband, by contrast, grew up in inner-city Birmingham. His childhood was a world away from my own, playing on busy urban streets. For him, the pastoral images of the gospels is simply not part of his experience. And I guess, increasingly, it is less relevant to many of us. I know there are still some professional shepherds working the hills and fields, living a remote, isolated life, but it’s a career path few teenagers consider. The question is, what can this story offer to us today? For those of us living in towns, how are the warm, fuzzy images of a shepherd and their sheep relevant when we really only come across them in church nativities? Well, it seems that we are not alone in struggling with this metaphor – in verse 6 we are told the Pharisees didn’t grasp it either. Not everyone in 1st century Palestine understood the life of a shepherd and the challenges of looking after sheep.
For those of us with a little bit of experience, we know sheep are pretty dirty creatures, prone to getting stuck, prone to their coat getting mangled and certainly having a herd mentality. Lambs are cute – our Easter pictures of new life are full of these energetic, clean, delightful creatures. But sheep are none of those things. Lambs tend to grow into ugly, stupid animals, unable to make decisions for themselves and needing a leader to follow. Because they have poor depth-perception, they struggle to find an open gate and need someone to encourage them through. They would struggle to find their way without help.
Suddenly, this metaphor of Jesus shows itself to be less than flattering. He’s talking about us, right? We’re the sheep in this story, right? Wait a minute, that means Jesus thinks we’re filthy, dim-witted creatures incapable of good decision-making – is that what’s he’s saying here? Is that what we want to hear? Many preachers have interpreted this reading as us covered in the filth of sin, unable to find our way in life and requiring the benevolent shepherd to rescue us. I’m not sure this pastoral image is quite as comforting as I’d once supposed.
The problem with this reading is that I don’t think of myself as a sheep. I’m very uncomfortable with any herd mentality – it’s one of the reasons I’m not altogether keen on being in very large Christian congregations. Perhaps you have, and have fabulous memories of those emotions that you were swept along with – I’ve never been terribly happy in these environments and worry about my emotions being manipulated with the crowd. I’m someone who is confident to stick out from the crowd. I’m certainly not happy with being described as either dirty (even if that does mean sinful) or dim. That’s not how I see myself. That’s not how I describe my relationship with Jesus as a relationship between one who is dominant and one who is submissive. That makes me feel very uncomfortable.
Sheep, whether 2000 years ago, or today in Britain, are an economic commodity. They are rarely kept as pets. They are used for wool and breeding and of course for food. There are all manner of dangers sheep are exposed to, whether through the thieves Jesus spoke of, or weather conditions or predators. Jesus here is offering more than just protection. In 21st century Britain we have all become used to living in a society that places economic value on people. One of the interesting aspects of this lockdown is how this economic value is being rewritten. Refuse collectors are being thanked for turning up and doing their job because we are all painfully aware of the chaos it would cause if they didn’t. And we are all grateful to them and all of the other key workers, very few of whom would be ranked among the highest paid in this country.
Jesus refused to place a monetary value on things or on people – it didn’t interest him. The economic value of the sheep isn’t why he seeks their protection. When we are exposed to pain and suffering, Jesus doesn’t walk out. He steps up, not because he wants any reward from us, but because he loves us. The shepherd doesn’t expect anything from the sheep, except to listen. To be attentive to the voice of the one who cares. There are many voices which can distract us – possibly the most destructive voice is the one inside our heads that tells us we are not good enough. That whisper which puts negative thoughts at the forefront of our minds, suppressing our self-esteem, telling us our bodies are not beautiful creations, ensuring embarrassing moments are not forgotten and that we risk new ridicule in our activities. That voice is powerful and when we give that voice oxygen it becomes the dominant narrative to our lives. Jesus offers us a different voice. He is saying, I know you better than you know yourselves, better than that voice inside you.
Jesus talks about the sheep not following the voice of a stranger. They only follow the voice of the one who knows them, the one who has taken time to get to know them. I am comforted by the idea that God has spent time paying attention to us, getting to know each of us by name and that this will last our whole lives. God doesn’t just dip in and out, rescuing us from harm and then disappearing.
And then of course, there’s the last verse in this reading: I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. Fear was a way of life for many people living in the Roman-occupied land of Jesus. It was frequently violent, insecure and was especially difficult for anyone who didn’t fit in. In this discussion, Jesus is offering protection to the most vulnerable. But he isn’t just talking about the basic necessities. He’s speaking about abundance. He’s not just talking about existing – he’s talking about living and loving being alive. This is not survival. This is flourishing. And suddenly this passage is no longer about us filthy sinners requiring salvation because we are incapable of doing the right thing – this is about Jesus offering us salvation which is about pure joy. It has much less to do with Jesus thinking we are miserable sinners, and much more about Jesus thinking we are deserving of a wonderful life and he is the one who can show us how to live it.
One of the things I hadn’t noticed before about this passage is how Jesus doesn’t define abundant life. Just moments before, Jesus has healed a man born blind. For that man, abundant life is about release from dependency and poverty into freedom. Abundant life for the Samaritan woman at the well was about having her voice heard and an end to her shame. Abundant life for you might look different from abundant life for me. Because Jesus knows us each individually and calls us by our name. Our reading in Acts spoke of the important of community and Jesus talks from within the context of company, but that doesn’t mean we are all the same.
Abundant life is about stripping all that stops us from living the life God intends for us. Silencing the voice inside our heads that tells us we don’t deserve happiness. There is an invitation here, not just to listen to this word of God, but to live it. To embed it deeply within it so those words don’t remain words, but give our lives the meaning God desires. Because God desires us each to be living our best lives.
That’s all very well Rachel, you might be saying, but how on earth can we be living our best lives right now, when we are locked away prevented from seeing each other. Surely at best we are just waiting to live our lives full of abundance. How can we have lives full of abundance when we can’t even have abundant kitchen cupboards?
My challenge to you, which is the same for me, is to try and expand your vision of what abundant life looks like. So that means we’re not simply waiting to live until these lockdown restrictions are lifted, but to immerse ourselves into the joy of the salvation Jesus brings. Salvation and happiness and abundant life are not things in themselves to seek, but they are by-products of a life dedicated to following the Good Shepherd. The shepherd who knows us by name, who seeks good things for us, who doesn’t dip in and out, but is constant throughout our whole life journey. The shepherd who seeks out those who don’t fit in and tells them they belong, that in him they can find a home. Now that’s a voice I need to listen to today. Amen
Jesus, be the centre (Singing the Faith 447) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EG-l1kK-BpU
Following on from last week’s reflection on the Lord’s Prayer, here is Nadia Bolz-Weber’s reworking:
Our Father who art in heaven….. Our Father who art in everything…who art in orphanages and neonatal units, jail cells and luxury high-rises.
Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. We beg you to bring more than just a small measure of heaven to earth because this place is a mess. Lord, your people are killing each other and the vulnerable are even more vulnerable and the wealthy are even more wealthy and it’s hard to see a way out, Lord. So, we need your Kingdom to speed up.
Give us this day our daily bread. Give us this day our daily touch, our daily laughter, our daily kindness, our daily humility, our daily freedom.
Give your children their daily bread, their daily naan, their daily tortillas, their daily rice.
Forgive us when we hate what you love. Forgive us for the pride we exhibit in our political life together. Forgive us for how much we resent in others the same things we hate in ourselves.
And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. Deliver us from the inclination that we too do not have evil in our hearts. Deliver us from addiction and depression. Deliver us from complacency. Deliver us from complicity.
As Jesus taught us, we are throwing this bag of prayers at your door.
Use these prayers to hammer us all into vessels that can accept the answer when it comes.
For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever.
When we are living, we are in the Lord (Singing the Faith 485) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HBb-xZEem9g
May the voice of the one who calls you by name
Be the voice you hear today and every day.
May the love of the one who calls you by name
Be the love that surrounds you today and every day.
May the peace of the one who calls you by name
Be the peace that frees you today and every day.
And may the blessing of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, be with you and with those you love. Amen.
Call to worship
We who read this, together and apart,
are united in having taken the risk of living and loving, in a dangerous time.
We are dwellers on a threshold caught between birth and death.
Together we will raise our eyes to the mountains,
and wonder where our help comes from.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xw2jpBwa2Io King of Glory, King of Peace (Singing the Faith: 56. Hymns and Psalms: 449)
“If the only prayer you said in your life was ‘thank you’ it will be enough.” Meister Eckhart
A prayer: Thank you.
*pause* Take a moment to reflect with gratitude on things, people, and times you are thankful for.
1 Peter 1:17-23
Acts 2: 14a, 36-41
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cXRwCprmji4 O, the love of my Lord is the essence (Singing the Faith 431. Not in Hymns and Psalms)
Reflection: The Lord’s Prayer
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how easy it is to slip into an anti-Jewish rhetoric when it comes to the crucifixion of Jesus. I’m currently reading The Misunderstood Jew by Amy-Jill Levine – Levine is a New Testament scholar who happens to be Jewish. She is fascinated by Jesus as a Jew and although she has no intention of converting to Christianity, studies the scriptures within their very Jewish context.
Peter’s sermon in Acts starts with a potentially damning statement – he is talking to an exclusively Jewish audience and he puts the blame of the death of Jesus squarely on their shoulders. Perhaps, like me, you are used to hearing sermons where Pharisees are portrayed as pantomime baddies, resembling Malvolio in Twelfth Night, ridiculous, obsessed with protocol, pompous and puritanical. Christians down the ages have been guilty of blaming the Jews for the crucifixion and this had led to violent antisemitism.
Levine has reminded me that Jesus was a Jew. Did I need reminding of that? It is easy to portray Jesus as a white European – we’ve all seen the paintings. Well, not only was Jesus a Jew, he was a pretty orthodox one. If you bring to mind an image of an orthodox Jew, perhaps this is what you see:
Many Jews wearing clothes with fringing, a rule taken from Numbers 15:38 (‘tell them to make fringes on the corners of their garments’), and it is likely that Jesus did the same for the same reasons. If we think of the story of the women with the haemorrhage touching the fringe of the cloak of Jesus (Matthew 9:20), perhaps we can now see a more Jewish image of Jesus. The Pharisees were not thought of as hypocrites at the time; this is a purely Christian interpretation. Instead, the Pharisees were the purest in heart, the most faithful. Think of an outstanding Christian; perhaps Mother Teresa or one of the saints, perhaps someone closer to home whose faith you admire – Pharisees were like them.
Levine has helped me to reflect on the Jewish nature of the Lord’s Prayer. She argues that if we read it from within the Jewish context we can find it more political than perhaps we are used to. Jesus refers to God as Abba; under Roman occupation, Caesar would have been referred to as ‘father’, so this is a direct challenge to the authority of the occupying rulers. We still use the word ‘father’ as an honorary title of respect; we refer to the oldest sitting male MP as the Father of the House. By referring to God as Abba, Jesus is reminding us who to put first, and this would have been controversial in his socio-political context when Caesar was top dog.
Most Jewish prayers speak of the name of God as being almighty and sacred. ‘Hallowed be your name’ reminds us of the Jewish unpronounceable name of God (YHWH). The next line (‘Your kingdom come’) also has a political dimension, Levine suggests, because it suggests the world in which first century Palestinians lived was far from perfect. It is a challenge to the Roman rulers that they would be better off under God’s rule, living in God’s world than under Roman rule.
‘Your will be done’ is a call to action. God’s will needs doing. God’s will needs doing by us. We all need reminding that God’s action is mostly carried out through the activities of the faithful. We pray that we are open to understanding whatever God’s will is, and that we commit our lives to bring this about. We are seeking the ideal world that is God’s will.
When we come to, ‘Give us our daily bread’, Levine has an interesting approach – she considers the fact that this is not a request for grain or the right conditions under which we might grow and then produce food; this is a request to God that we work with God to ensure everyone is fed. Bread requires both divine and human effort. I find it interesting that this prayer uses the plural rather than singular – ‘our’ and ‘us’. This prayer is about our existence within community. My God is our God. My bread is our bread.
‘Forgive us our sins’ is more accurately translated as ‘debts’; this calls for us to take a long hard look at what we owe and who owes us. I have spoken before at my dislike of transactional relationships and how we feel the need to pay back good deeds (and occasionally bad ones!). Christianity (and indeed Judaism) is not based on the concept of karma (and thank God for that) and the nature of forgiving debts is partly about economic justice. We all justify good living through hard work; those who enjoy large houses or fast cars must have worked hard and therefore deserve these things. Forgiving debts, just as God has forgiven us is partly about us seeing value in everyone and addressing the economic disparity. It goes beyond this though, as I discovered when I visited Rwanda last summer. This line in the Lord’s Prayer took on a whole new meaning to me as I sat in churches where survivors of the genocide worshipped alongside the perpetrators. Forgiveness is a lived reality in Rwanda.
‘Save us from the time of trial’ is generally considered a better translation than speaking as if God seeks to tempt us into doing wrong. Levine suggest that at a time of huge persecution of the Jews, they would be keen not to be put into a position where they would deny their faith. Although many people speak as if God never gives us more trials or struggles than we can bear, I’m not persuaded by this; what we each pray for is that our pain and suffering will not to bring us to a point where we fail to find meaning in life. I’m also not persuaded that God is the one who gives us these sufferings in the first place. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, I am resistant to the idea that God is the engineer of our pain. Instead, we pray that we may continue to find God whatever trauma we may experience.
The final part of the Lord’s Prayer we have inherited is not included in the gospels (‘the kingdom, the power and glory are yours’) but this is included to give an ending to our prayer. Levine has helped me to find the Jewish desire for justice within this prayer; she has given me a new perspective on a prayer I admit to occasionally find boring. Having reflected and re-examined it in the light of the Jewish nature, I don’t think I will find it repetitive or dull again.
So now, I invite you to say out loud the Lord’s Prayer. Try saying it slowly and concentrate on each line. I hope my reflections might encourage you to revisit this most familiar prayer. My preference is for the modern version, which is below, but please use whichever version springs to your lips:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins
as we forgive those who sin against us.
Save us from the time of trial
and deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours
Now and forever.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zBfRNrvvUfc Father, I place into your hands (Singing the Faith 519. Not in Hymns and Psalms. Complete Mission Praise 133)
Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19
I know the Emmaus Road story provides great strength and is a favourite passage for many Christians. Here’s my next confession: I’ve never been a fan of this reading. I’ve always been left with a sense of irritation that these despondent male disciples recount the news of the resurrection by the women, but remain grief stricken, because of course, women’s testimony is not to be trusted. They tell this stranger that the women claim to have been witnesses, but their male friends couldn’t verify it, so it can’t be true. They were devastated; their hopes in the Messiah were dashed. Perhaps they were even angry that Jesus had allowed himself to get caught and killed. Maybe they secretly thought Jesus had been foolish.
Unfortunately this story resonates in a #MeToo era, where women’s stories of violation and sexual abuse continue to be disbelieved. We don’t treat any other crime in the same way. If your neighbour told you they had been burgled, would your first reaction be to ask whether they were telling the truth? Would you suggest it might have been their fault in flaunting their goods through their windows and frankly, what did they expect? No, of course, you wouldn’t. You would feel sympathy and offer to help. For millennia, the account of a woman is somehow less trustworthy than that of a man. She must be wanting attention, or she must have done something to deserve her treatment, or she must have sinister ulterior motives for ruining the reputation of a man with false sexual accusations.
The women at the tomb were not believed. It simply wasn’t credible. They must have fallen into a hysteria (as women are apparently prone to doing) and they cannot tell a story accurately and dispassionately. Unless it can be verified by a man, it must be a lie. At best, this is women’s gossip. If we look at verse 11, the testimony of the women is dismissed as an ‘idle tale.’ Actually the Greek is a bit more colourful than that, one which I might put in a rather more crude Anglo-Saxon way, but I’ll spare you that for today.
This stranger, who up until now has been pretty quiet, turns to them and says, ‘You fools.’ That’s the bit of the story I like the most. Had they never paid attention to how Jesus lived? His birth was entrusted to women; of course his resurrection would be the same. It is the women who attend births and rebirths, it is women to whom Jesus turns and gives life, proves that life conquers death. It is the good news of this life that Jesus chooses to entrust to those on the margins of respectability. And when he calls these disciples fools, he is saying, ‘Now do you believe her?’ These men, who thought the women foolish, who maybe even thought the same of Jesus, they are the ones who are shown to be the real fools.
Those who are powerful always expect to be first in line. It is a hard blow when they realise the world Jesus inhabits doesn’t react to status. Instead, he prefers to share good news and life with those who have the least of these things. Perhaps because they need it the most, they need it first, but also because they are the ones who won’t react with scepticism. They are the ones open to being transformed.
The women were the first witnesses and their testimony was a fragile thing. But from their evangelism, their preaching of the good news, a world-wide movement started which we are a part of today. Our own testimony might feel like a fragile thing, something we wonder if it is worth telling. We might doubt if our testimony has any power to change the listener and perhaps we even fear being boring in our ordinary tales of encounters with God we have experienced along the way. Maybe we worry about our testimony being ridiculed, like those first women at the tomb; an unbelievable tale. Perhaps we are simply scared of sharing our stories.
We can all learn from the witness of those women at the resurrection. They decided not to stay quiet, they risked being doubted and ridiculed. They spoke out and thank God they did. So my challenge for you this week is to pick up the phone and share your story. Have a conversation of depth in which you tell someone how the risen Christ has made a difference in your life. We each have a story to share and you might be surprised at the difference it makes. The Bible weaves together the story of God with the story of humanity. God continues to do that today, weaving our stories together, and when we entrust our story with another person, they become more deeply connected to us and suddenly we can find their story is now woven into our own.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2h-wlsGDnUE On the journey to Emmaus (Singing the Faith 308. Not in Hymns and Psalms)
There are so many people needing our prayers at the moment, we feel overwhelmed. There is so much suffering and grief as this pandemic takes hold, we don’t know where to start, we don’t know the words to find. Speak to us, O God, so that we don’t have to.
We know your love is extraordinary and your generosity extravagant. Send them to those who need them and maybe even include us in that too.
Are you happy with lists, Holy One? Because that’s all we’ve got at the moment. Lists for shopping. Lists of those to phone. Lists of books to read. Lists of concerns. So we’re going to list to you now those things that bother us the most, knowing that they must bother you too:
- the medics on the frontline and the cleaners behind the scenes in every hospital in every country
- those who lie in hospital beds, or in their own beds in care homes, whose bodies are being weakened with this disease
- those at home, panicking because they cannot hold the hand of their dying beloved
- the ones whose mental health is just getting worse and worse
- the ones whose addiction is bubbling under the surface and simply getting through to the end of each day takes a monumental effort
- the kids and the parents who are pushing each other’s buttons, especially those with no gardens to let off steam
- the decision-makers and the ones in charge who we have no idea whether they’re getting it right or not
- … (space for the ones who bother you, including yourself)
Locked away, inside our homes, most of us can’t do much to help expect stay put. O God, give us wisdom and courage to face each day not with dread but with enthusiasm. Give us a voice to speak to those who need us. Give us a heart to care and tears to cry for those who suffer and may the solidarity of our compassion reach out to them, so that they know they are not alone. And let some of that compassion bounce back to us, because we need that too right now.
Above all, step into our lives and become obvious to us. Because we do not want to face the days ahead without you beside us.
We offer these prayers in all the holy names of God. Amen
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fu6Z-P2y2WU Calm me, Lord, as you calmed the storm (Singing the Faith 624. Not in Hymns and Psalms. Hymns Ancient & Modern 832)
Already a blessing
in the walking
already a blessing
on the road
already a blessing
already a blessing
in the listening
already a blessing
in the burning hearts
already a blessing
in the almost evening
already a blessing
in the staying
already a blessing
at the table
already a blessing
in the bread
already a blessing
in the breaking
already a blessing
already a blessing
give us eyes
already a blessing
let us see.
(Jan Richardson: paintedprayerbook.com)
(some resources taken from Liturgy in a Dangerous Time complied by Simon Cross and is free from copyright)
Service sheet 12th April 2020
Today, as we celebrate the risen Christ, we might feel more connected to those disciples, scurrying around in hidden places. We might feel entombed and isolated, waiting and not daring to hope. But Easter has come. Jesus is alive and as the church we are the ultimate symbol of resurrection today, because the day will come when we will break free. This year may feel like we’re not doing Easter properly, but what better symbol of the resurrection than a scattered church surrounded by death; Easter reminds us that nothing can separate us from the love of God, not even death. Easter reminds us that death will never have the final say because life is triumphant. Easter reminds us that we live as resurrection people and to that I say a loud Amen.
Call to worship
After nights of deep darkness,
we come in the bright light of this Easter morning.
We come in search of something.
We come in search of the living.
We come in search of the Living One
The Resurrected One.
We come with eyes open to the dark emptiness of the tomb.
We come with ears tuned to hear the angel proclamation:
Christ is not here, for he is risen.
Halleluiah. Jesus is risen.
He is risen indeed. Halleluiah
Our opening hymn was introduced to me by a supernumerary minster many years ago. He told me when he was a young man he sang this at one of the large Christian rallies where gave his life to Christ. Whenever I sing this I remember John and how his passion for Christ did not diminish with his years and it gives me goose bumps every time.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6xM-fpXayUg – See what a morning (Singing the Faith 309. Not in Hymns & Psalms)
When everything was dark
and it seemed that the sun would never shine again,
your love broke through.
Your love was too strong,
for death to hold.
The sparks cast by your love
dance and spread
and burst forth
with resurrection light.
We praise you for the light of new life
made possible through Jesus.
We praise you for the light of new life
that shone on the first witnesses of resurrection.
We praise you for the light of new life
that continues to shine in our hearts today.
We pray that the Easter light of life, hope and joy,
will live in us each day;
and that we will be bearers of that light
into the lives of others.
(Revd Michaela Youngson)
Forgive us when we fail to see your love.
Forgive us when we deny your life is present amongst us.
Forgive us when we dare not dream.
Forgive us when our despair becomes infectious
In the transformation of your resurrection, you declare our sin is no more. Guide us so that we may live as your Easter people. Amen
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y-M3cuTAINo – Christ is alive! Let Christians sing (Singing the Faith 297. Hymns & Psalms 190)
Easter morning begins in darkness. The story has confusion and tears and misunderstanding. The first Easter Day did not begin with loud alleluias and tears of joy and celebration. It began with heartache and pain. Today, many of us are struggling with the concept of a different Easter where we don’t get to celebrate with our church family surrounded by spring flowers and singing our hearts out to magnificent organ playing. But actually, finding hope in the midst of our estrangement means encountering God. We may feel broken and hungry for each other’s company, but here we have the ultimate story of humanity finding an unimaginable love.
When we read the resurrection story we rush to the moment Mary meets Jesus, or even beyond, when later that day he appears to the disciples. But of course, way before any of that, the resurrection happened in darkness, when no-one was watching. The secret of the resurrection happened in the hours before dawn, with no witnesses. Out of death God works the great mystery to bring about life. Because whatever we believe happened (and we can argue about what a video recorder might have captured in that tomb had they been invented), we can all agree that this is mind-blowing stuff. The question isn’t whether we believe or not; the question is whether we have experienced the risen Christ.
Our story from John begins with Mary and a couple of the other disciples, early that morning, coming to attend to the remains of Jesus. Mary was diligent in her duties, though she must have dreaded seeing the broken body of the man she had given her life to. Of course, when they get there, before they are even in half light, they see disturbance. The tomb has been ransacked. The pain of their grief is multiplied. The two male disciples go inside, but Mary’s grief is too much to bear. She will not go in and see the reality of the stolen body. She didn’t think it could get any worse.
Two people appear; angels we are told. They strike up a conversation with her and ask a ridiculous question – why are you crying? Isn’t it obvious? Mary turns and practically bumps into someone standing there. He asks the same thing – why are you crying? Did Mary wonder why she was being asked this? Didn’t they know? Hadn’t they heard what happened a few days ago? This is the point that we always shift the narrative to Mary’s mistake – she mistakes Jesus to be the gardener. How on earth didn’t she recognise him? I mean, I know it was dark, but she’d spent years with this man. I am not persuaded that this is about Mary not expecting Jesus; many of us have experienced visions of those we love who have died and known it wasn’t entirely real. But in my reflections recently, I have been considering the resurrection and how Jesus is no longer confined to one place and time but released to be in all places and in all times. So perhaps, Jesus was the gardener, or rather, the gardener was Jesus. Jesus was released through the resurrection to be everywhere, in everyone. Jesus has become every man and every woman. Mary didn’t recognise him because Jesus had been utterly transformed so as to resemble an ordinary working man, but I don’t necessarily think Mary made a mistake. She finally recognised Jesus in an altered form when he spoke to her with the kindness she knew to be of God. And Jesus continues to do that, becoming recognisable in the faces of ordinary people today.
Mary doesn’t recognise Jesus until he calls her by name. This encounter is personal. And finally, when the darkness is lifted, when Mary sees the illuminated truth, Jesus tells her not to hold onto her. I have always read this as if Jesus is a bit tetchy. I have read this as if he has a stern teacher voice on, starting a sentence with ‘’Don’t”, in the same way I might speak to my dog. But in re-reading this, I have found a different intonation in the voice of Jesus. I think he might be telling Mary not to hold onto the things of the past, not to cling to relics, not to look back and be consumed with grief, not to grasp onto those things we think give us comfort but turn out to be unreliable. Maybe Jesus is telling Mary to look for the resurrection with hope, to be present to the now and not weighed down by history, to hold onto something much more sure, to hold onto the love of God that is the strongest force in the universe. To hold onto the fact that love never dies, it is eternal.
Jesus isn’t always in the places we expect him to be. We don’t always recognise him. Perhaps at the moment we can glimpse the face of Jesus in those NHS staff wearing masks and face shields, seeking to bring healing and comfort to those who are in pain. Perhaps we can glimpse Jesus in the refuse collectors, clearing away our mess. Perhaps we can glimpse Jesus in the supermarket shopworkers, bringing nourishment to our hunger and generosity to our meagre expectations.
It’s hard for many of us at the moment to expect to see Jesus when we are not seeing each other. But there are some unintended consequences of this lockdown and if we pay attention we can find resurrection happening around us. I am told that for the first time in decades, there are dolphins swimming in the canals of Venice and the waters usually churched and full of diesel, is clear and blue. I am told that the smog that has been a constant factor in many east Asian cities has lifted and pollution levels have dramatically decreased. I am told that the Himalaya’s are visible from the Punjab district of India for the first time in 30 years. Just as we are being forced to rest, the earth itself is resting and healing. Creation itself is demonstrating resurrection.
Some of you, I know are gardeners, and I have delighted to hear of the work you are doing with time on your hands. I can’t think that you appreciate the humble dandelion, in fact many of you will see this weed as a real nuisance, despoiling your lawns and flowerbeds. It is one of those plants enormously difficult to get rid of, because even the smallest amount of root will sprout again. At this time of year dandelions are coming into their own, and here we have a fantastic symbol of resurrection. A plant you thought you had got rid of forever, is yet again sprouted new life. We may think of beautiful spring flowers such as tulips and daffodils as an emblem of Easter, but perhaps the dandelion is more appropriate.
The religious and political authorities thought they had eliminated the problem of Jesus. They assumed with Jesus out of the picture, his followers would disperse and the memory of him would quickly fade. But they hadn’t factored in love. Love cannot die, it merely gets transformed. According to the funeral liturgy of the Roman Catholic church, ‘Life is not ended, it is merely changed.’ Jesus lived over 2000 years ago in Roman-occupied Palestine. His resurrection means that this single human being has been released beyond the limits of time and place, to be alive within the whole of creation. 2000 years ago Jesus was limited and restricted. Through his resurrection, he becomes present to us all.
We put a great emphasis on St Paul and his writings to various early churches. Perhaps today we can remind ourselves that Paul was never a disciple, he never met Jesus in person, he was not a witness to the resurrection. This makes him the perfect voice to name the experience of the risen Christ and the reality it became for him. Let me finish with Paul’s words: ‘When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.’
Where will we see Christ revealed today? Where will we notice the risen Christ today? Who will be the face of Christ for us today? When we manage to find Christ, to recognise the life of Christ in us and in those we encounter, we can be immersed in the glory of God. And even in our struggles and pain, we can shout alleluia to that.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kYA0tFX2tV4 – Now the green blade rises (Singing the Faith 306. Hymns and Psalms 204)
O God, with faces touched by the light of a new day,
and hearts warmed by our prayers and praises,
we come before you to pray
for the needs of our world.
Into the light of Easter morning
we raise those who are struggling with illness,
with despair over their lives, or with
the breakdown of relationships.
Into the light of Easter morning,
we bring those places in our world
where war, violence, poverty and need
are the experiences of everyday life.
May the light of Christ shine upon them.
Into the light of Easter morning,
we bring the headline news of this weekend.
We hold in our hearts the pain
of those suffering violence, bereavement or conflict.
May the light of Christ shine upon them.
And into the light of Easter morning
we bring ourselves, the private struggles,
the heart’s yearnings, the hidden dreams,
the unfulfilled potential.
May the light of Christ shine upon us.
I invite you now to say out loud The Lord’s Prayer, knowing that around the world countless Christians are reciting the same prayer through different languages and traditions.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UPH7-dNrwb8 – Thine be the glory (Singing the Faith 313. Hymns & Psalms 212)
When it takes hold, resurrection doesn’t let go,
it shakes the dead awake,
it shakes the darkness from the light,
it shakes the silence from our throats
and it wrestles death from all that is dying
Let us go out into the world
and in the upheaval of resurrection
seek out the life