My name is Thomas (John 20:19-31 and Acts 2:14a and 22-32)

Caravagio's 'The incredulity of Saint Thomas'.  Although today commentators think that Thomas did not in fact touch Jesus' wounds as it is not mentioned in scripture that he did, it was a long-held view that he did. (Wiki Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Caravaggio_-_The_Incredulity_of_Saint_Thomas.jpg)
Caravagio’s ‘The incredulity of Saint Thomas’.
Although today commentators think that Thomas did not in fact touch Jesus’ wounds as it is not mentioned in scripture that he did, it was a long-held view that he did.
(Wiki Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Caravaggio_-_The_Incredulity_of_Saint_Thomas.jpg)

Part 1 (confused, uncertain, slightly hyper, critical of self)

My name is Thomas.

He’s gone. Jesus that is.
Not just dead, but dead and gone. Gone from his tomb.
Peter, Peter said so. John backed him up.

Mary, well Mary Magdalene, she reckons he spoke to her.
Outside the tomb when she hung around after Peter and John had left.
But she told us that he had said he was going.
Returning to his Father. Father God.
His Father, our God.
Our Father, his… him… his God.
So he wasn’t God after all, like we’d almost started to believe.
Was he?

So perhaps he rose from the dead, but he’s gone again.
Jesus is properly gone.

At least that what I thought at lunchtime yesterday.

The rest of them, they met up last night.

The story was out, that Jesus was gone from his tomb and us lot,
well we were getting the blame.
Can’t think why we’d want to steal Jesus’ body,
or how the heck we’d hide it
given the smell of a bloodied copse after three days in this heat;
but I wasn’t going to risk getting picked up by the authorities and taking the blame.
I was more sure of seeing the others in daylight today,
when the risks were fewer.

So, I stayed home, whilst the rest of them got together in that room.
I think the intention was to try and remember what Jesus had said,
and work out what the heck was was going on.
The rest of them?
They’re nearly as unsure as I am!

Anyway, apparently he hadn’t gone.
Jesus that is.
Because he showed up.
That’s what they’ve told me to today.

They’d been careful to lock themselves in.
The shutters were closed, the doors locked.
And apparently, he just appeared.

We’ve been together three years now,
and witnessed a lot of strange things on our journeys with Jesus.
Signs and wonders that would have been beyond belief,
if I hadn’t seen them with my own eyes.

I’d actually made us go with him,
when Jesus went to Lazarus’ sisters after the lad died. (John 11)
So yes, I know Jesus raised him from the dead.
But the stone was removed first; I watched them do it.
And when he came out, he shuffled and staggered,
all wrapped up in his death bandages and stuff as he was.
Lazarus didn’t roll his bandages up neatly and leave them on the side,
and then just stroll through a wall, or a door, a few hours later;
which is what the guys are saying happened last night.

Well, they say Jesus came back.
Like he’d said he would, not long ago.
At least that’s what the others reminded me.
It was after we’d got into Jerusalem, and Jesus had us all together.
He did a lot of talking.
We,… we were confused, like normal, and just asked questions.

He’d said something about going,
but not leaving us as orphans,
and coming to us again, (John 14:18)
in a little while. (John 16:18)
It was mixed up with some stuff about who was going to be able to see him,
and who wasn’t.
Who he was, who we were, and how that fitted in with God,
who he insisted on calling Father.
Our God, his Father.
Our Father…

Oh darn it, I don’t know.
I wasn’t there last night, so I don’t really know what happened.
Not really, really know.

It’s not like we’ve covered ourselves in glory, running away and hiding.
I for one had said I’d die with him (John 11:16);
Peter,… Peter had said he’d lay down his life for him (John 13:37).
Neither of us had the courage.
We’ve just hidden, and watched them crucify him.
From a safe distance.
If he could come back,
why would he want to come back to us lot?

I probably I should believe them,
they’re normally trustworthy, about stuff like that anyway.
As long as it doesn’t involve getting killed.

But no, no I can’t.
I will NOT believe.
Unless, unless I see him for myself.
Actually, no.
No.
I need more than just seeing.
I need to know that it’s really, really him,
I need to touch,
touch the wounds,
the things that will make me believe he’s real.

But that’s hardly going to happen, is it?
Because, he’s gone.
Again.

Part 2 (calmer, much more assured, confident, certain)

My name is Thomas.

I had said to the others, privately,
that I would only believe if I touched him.
Jesus.

My Lord, and my God.

He was with us tonight.
With me.
Among them all, all my friends.

Things have calmed down somewhat in town, so I’d felt able to join them.
They’ve been really rather patient with me, all things considered.
My considered, and considerable uncertainty as to what to believe.

So we met again earlier.
To break bread like he’d asked us to.
To remember him.
To try and understand how bread and wine might help us encounter his presence.

(OK artistic license, but some commentators think this is what they’d met to do!)

And suddenly his presence was all too obvious.

He greeted us with words of peace.
Words that became peace, peace like I cannot describe.
It was like something from another world, (John 14:27)
and, even as he spoke directly to me,
I could feel the anxiety melt away,
the fear and doubt evaporate.

Jesus knew exactly what I’d said to the others,
what I thought I needed to believe them, to believe he’d really risen.

His rebuke was gentle, his appeal firm.
His offer clear and beyond anything the others had talked of.
And yet, and yet with him there,
I needed nothing more to confess from the very depths of my being…

My Lord and my God.

They hadn’t said,
when they told me they’d seen him last week,
that he’d given them a mission, and a gift.
What had made the deepest impression was obviously his physical,
risen presence among them.
Hardly surprising,
at least not now I’ve encountered him myself.
What he’d apparently said to them last week was
what I experienced today.

With this overwhelming sense that he is our Lord,
there is a sense of forgiveness,
that I felt before I’d even understood my need for it.
And yet this is depsite him knowing how weak we have been;
Peter, myself and the others.

It was like being made whole again,
having the broken pieces of what had been me,
glued back together again.

But, that’s only the part of it.
I discovered in this brief exchange I was part of something bigger,
a journey that he is sending us on.

We,… all of us,
have to chose what is the trigger to our belief.
Are the words and testimony of friends good enough?
What happens if we can never see Jesus,
can’t touch him, can’t seem to sense how close he is to us:
Does that stop us believing, like it nearly did with me?
I guess this means we have to choose to believe
and in choosing to recognise the risen Jesus as real,
encounter his immediacy in our lives.

Yes, this is what it means to believe.
That there is no classification system for faith,
how, or when we should believe, how much or how little.
There is simply believing, and what we chose to do with that belief.

‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

This isn’t about me.

That beatitude, that blessing poured over us,
like those he’d taught with on the hillside in Galilee, (Matthew 5)
it wasn’t for us,
but for all those who were not there tonight,
had not been there last week,
had not stood at, or hidden from, the cross,
and those who aren’t here now,
will never see him physically in his glorious, risen flesh.

Our Lord and our God.

Part 3 (equally calm, confident, believing, with a degree of urgency).

My name is Thomas, and I am a follower of Jesus.

The work has started.
The journey has begun.

I believe,…
I know,
we’ve made a start.
Here in Jerusalem, today, among the crowds gathered for Pentecost.

Our Lord Jesus has really gone this time,
from our visible presence that is,
ascended to be with the Father, ours and his.

We had gathered together again, as we have daily since he finally left us,
praying, listening, sifting our memories,
tying together what we now know and believe,
with all those things he has patiently said, done and taught us
over the last three years.

We are not alone, we are no longer hiding, and we’re complete.
Yes, we’re complete in that we are twelve again, with Matthias among us.
But we are also complete inside,
made newly complete in each moment,
through the power that he has left with us,
which was so visible today, not just in the flames and the wind,
but in our understanding of the task ahead,
and in the knowledge that this Spirit the prophet Joel spoke of
gives us the strength to do more than we can ask or imagine.

This was the gift that meant many who gathered today for Pentecost could understand us.
The same gift, that gave Peter the strength to speak out
with boldness and authority from among us.

Among our Jewish brothers and sisters there was no point us all talking at once.
Neither was there any point relying on the miraculous
to make the connection with our Lord and God who they,…
we,…
had crucified,
but who had risen again, uncorrupted by death.

King David was the vital reference point.
They know the stories of his sin, his corruption;
they know his words, his prophetic instinct,
the music of his psalms.
His belief should have been their belief, our belief,
in the prophesy that God’s rule would once again come to his people,
through David’s own line of inheritance.

The people of Israel,
the people we’ve met and seen daily for the last three years,
who’ve witnessed and willingly accepted Jesus’ miracles, just as we have;
they knew Jesus.
They knew he was of the line and lineage of David. (Luke 2:4)
That had, after all, been part of the curiosity factor that drew them to him.
Even if he wasn’t quite what they had expected or hoped for.

Their unbelief in the next step of the Davidic connection,
that he was of God, one with God,
meant they were easy prey to the seeds
of doubt and fear sown by the Scribes and Pharisees;
but that made it all the more important, that they understand this prophesy,
that they are given the tools to understand, to make the connection, to believe,
that God had raised the beaten, tortured, tormented, and crucified Christ,
to life.

If the people,
Israelites and Gentiles, everyone,
Don’t have anything solid to believe in,
it makes them unwilling to challenge the corruption of others,
because it might force open the cracks of their own double standards.

We live lives under the burden of our doubts,
our fears and uncertainties hovering constantly
under the surface of otherwise confident actions;
our unwillingness to believe what we can not see,
do, what we might otherwise shrink from.

I know, because I’ve carried this burden of unbelief through all my travels with Jesus,
through the worst of my incomprehension as we listened to him talk
and I asked him dumb questions that proved I hadn’t understood;
in the best of my intentions as we stumbled on his way when he sensed it was right,
through to that day he came and sought me out…

Death couldn’t hold Jesus, and neither can our unbelief,
even when it comes back to haunt us.
It must not be allowed to restrain anyone,
to keep people from the paths of life,
or withhold from us all the joy of knowing
his presence alongside us as we take this journey of faith.

(Delivered as my sermon at St. Peter’s Yateley 27th April 2014 – my last sermon in my sending parish before ordination.)

This is also available as a podcast on the parish website.

Is God waiting for the C of E? (Reviewing Maggi Dawn’s ‘Like the Wideness of the Sea’) #womenbishops

2013-03-03 21.02.40 (w)I read Maggi Dawn’s ‘Like the Wideness of the Sea – Women Bishops and the Church of England’ yesterday.

That tells you for a start that it’s not a very big book – I’m not that fast a reader, especially when I want to give some thought to what I’m reading. If like me you’re a busy ordinand it also shows you that it’s not a difficult read, and worthwhile fitting in among the studies.

There are three main chapters to this little gem. They seem to me to be loosely themed around that Anglican cord of three strands attributed to Hooker; scripture, tradition (or you might term it also ‘history’), and reason/experience (what I think Maggi describes as ‘participatory knowledge’).

I was particularly interested by Maggi’s association between the concept of ‘reception’ (in this case of women priests and a detail of the existing legislation I had a only a sketchy knowledge of) and the story of the Wisdom of Gamaliel in Acts 5. Maggi’s solution to the impasse that has the Church of England adrift in the middle of ‘The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner‘ seems a simple one; is it really the light at the end of the tunnel that offers the hope of journeys with God in a new land?

I remember back in 2010 thinking that the Archbishop’s amendment at that stage in the legislative process was helping to obscure to the imaginative, vital and prophetic voice of the church and those who minister with it. It is clear that situation hasn’t improved, and our voice isn’t getting any louder. I guess what worries me is if it really is as simple as Maggi suggests (and I want it to be), why has this solution not been thought of before, and what stands in the way of this being the solution that is being worked on right now?

I came late to the detailed history of the movement towards the ordination of women, despite my mother’s strong opinions and work for this idea. Maggi’s discussion of the theology of waiting within the scope of this history (Chapter 2) was very helpful. I was most profoundly struck by this, and her moving personal testimony in Chapter 3 of the damage that can be done by waiting to individuals and is being done to the Church’s ‘prophetic power for change’. To read of the extreme behaviour that some have exhibited towards Maggi Dawn was humbling – she, as many others, bore the cross of rejection for too long, to Yale’s gain and our loss.

As I recommend the book to anyone remotely interested in the situation that the Church of England finds itself in over women bishops, Maggi has left me with the very strong idea that she is right, and that God is waiting for the Church of England to pull it’s finger out, and make a clear and simple decision one way or t’other.

Bryony Taylor and Steve Taylor and Andy Goodliff have also written reviews.

What is ‘sacred’ in Christianity?

From the ‘Forest Stations’ by William Fairbank, photographed at Lincoln Cathedral April 2007

It may surprise some to know that this week I started ordination training by focusing on other important religions in the world today, and how Christians engage theologically with them.

From a practical point of view this is partly because I’m doing two years of study, and missing out some of the initial modules that some of my colleagues are studying because I have hopefully covered some of the material in Reader Training. “Inter-faith Theology” is a second year course on the Oxford Ministry Course, and one that because of my mixed-mode MA modules I won’t be required to submit a portfolio for.

I have never lived in a particularly multi-faith community, but as I boot up my rusty brain, I thought I’d share a few thoughts about my own faith, sparked by a recent article in the Independent that I was pointed to by a tweet from Fr Richard that said “really important stuff on the difference between Islamic and Christian views of revelation.” Except for me it wasn’t differences in our views of revelation, but differences in our views of what is sacred.

Selina O’Grady posits here that the difference in recent reactions to a scrap of papyrus and a badly made film (which I don’t feel I need to see, and to which I’m not linking), are at least in part due to the different beliefs Muslims and Christians have about their scriptures. She states that

Islam treats its sacred text as outside the pressures of history… The Bible is human as well as sacred.

I have for some years tended to describe the Bible as a collection of stories about ‘God in action’. But by stories, I do not mean, as Ms O’Grady suggests that these scriptures are ‘myth, an “as if” story.’

For me, the Biblical narrative is about real events and people, but they are related by humans at specific points in history, who have viewed those events through particular lenses of culture, ethnicity and language.

Some Old Testament scripture was written to describe events that occurred thousands or millions of years ago (depending on your views on creation), significantly after the events they try to describe or interpret. As Christian’s we inherited these from our Jewish forbears.

Even some of the ‘stories’ in New Testament scripture, including the Gospels, would have relied initially on word-of-mouth to transmit them. Others were written to specific communities or people with particular problems and needs (like the Corinthians).

So my faith based on Biblical descriptions of what others like Thomas saw for themselves, and declare with them that Jesus is ‘My Lord and my God’ (John 20:28). But none of this makes scripture ‘sacred’ as far as I understand the term.

If something is ‘sacred’, it pertains to the divine and is exclusively devoted or dedicated to that deity – according to the dictionary at least.

Obviously I would agree that the Bible is about God, and his continuing revelation of himself to humanity. But whereas both the Qur’an and the prophet Mohammed (pbuh) appear to be sacred to Muslims to the extent that they cannot be critiqued (and I’m very willing to stand corrected on that), I don’t regard the Bible as sacred to the extent that we should not engage with it using the full range of our intellectual abilities.

However, the sort of speculation to which Ms O’Grady refers, and which is also reflected on here from the viewpoint of a feminist theologian, doesn’t seem to me to have any bearing on the Biblical narrative. The scriptural record does not include details of Jesus’ marital status, as far as I am aware, because it is not pertinent to the Christian faith. I believe God created Jesus as without sin, but does a possible marriage change this? No, I don’t think it does. This I suspect is why I don’t feel threatened by a papyrus that may, or may not, change our understanding of Jesus earthly life. What is important about who Jesus was, is never-changing, not ‘ever-changing’ as Ms O’Grady suggests.

So, the celibacy or otherwise of Christ, has no influence on my faith in the Jesus revealed through the writings of the New Testament as crucified and risen. Yet, is even he, really sacred?

What I’m wondering is whether the Christian understanding of Jesus as the means of God’s grace, in fact means that nothing is sacred, except ourselves! Because as Christian’s we are the ones that should be exclusively dedicated to Jesus as our response to God’s love and forgiveness.

I was having these thoughts online earlier when Ben Martin of the Order of the Black Sheep followed them through by saying:

I suppose in a spiritual way our identity in Christ gives us a sacred nature which is sacrificial rather than untouchable and out of reach, echoing the life, death and resurrection of Christ.

So, perhaps that’s it. What is sacred in Christianity is OUR response to Christ, his death and resurrection, as testified to in the New Testament, and as the means of our relationship with God.

DARE to carry the flame of the Holy Spirit – John 15:26-27 16:4-15 and Acts 2:1-13

All Saints Church, Minstead

Here is the DARE that I gave the people of All Saints, Minstead on Pentecost Sunday.

More information about the service, the liturgy and the local pub are in my previous post here. You will note that I make reference to several people by name, all of whom I know personally and some of whom contributed greatly to my spiritual journey when I was a teenager living in the village.

Perhaps I’m biased, but I’ve always felt Minstead was a place where people are comfortable with the idea of being a bit different in the way they do things, a bit daring and willing to take a risk to make a point.

A scented flame coloured Azalea at Furzey Gardens

This week I reckon Minstead has excelled itself – or more accurately the Chelsea RHS Show Garden team from Furzey Gardens and the Minstead Training Project have excelled themselves at daring to be different! There, next to Simon’s thatched lantern house were the (currently unfashionable) flame coloured flowers of the scented azalea’s that filled my childhood as I played hide and seek with my friends among their stems – even when the garden was open to the public!

This morning as we think about some other flames, and receive some real flames later in the service, I want to suggest that we all need to DARE to carry the flame of the Holy Spirit.

In fact I’m going to use that word DARE to unpack some of the details of the Pentecost story, and give us a mnemonic with which to remember how we are to live out our faith with the flames of Pentecost visible in our lives.

The Holy Spirit is part of God; the way that God works in the world to achieve his purposes, and quite specifically how he works in the life of each of us that believes in the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. That was why we remembered the Easter story in our opening acclamation as we lit our Pascal Candle at the beginning of the service.

In the Pentecost Gospel reading that H read, Jesus knew that he was soon to die, but rise again. He also knew that try as he might, the disciples at this point just didn’t have the understanding that would enable them to make sense of all that was going to happen – especially all mixed up with their very human emotions.

So Jesus explains how the Holy Spirit would be God’s means of delivering to Jesus followers, an understanding of what God was doing through the experiences they were about to encounter. The Message version of the Bible has Jesus saying it this way:

Everything the Father has is also mine. That is why I’ve said, ‘He takes from me and delivers to you.’ (John 16:15 MSG)

So the D of our DARE to hold the flame of the Holy Spirit, is all about DELIVERY. (Hang the first word up! – I had large Comic Sans words to hang on a string for those with learning difficulties to see.)

Think of it as being like the Olympic Torch Relay, which I think comes to Lyndhurst in July (14th). The flame is very cleverly, and usually without going out, being passed from one torch bearer to the next, all the way round the country, until it arrives at the Olympic Stadia in London to deliver it’s flame to the centrepiece of the opening ceremony of the Olympics.

If you like, the tongues of flame at Pentecost, a visible form of the Holy Spirit, were the opening ceremony of God working in the lives of the disciples in this profoundly different way to what they had experienced when Jesus was alive. With the wind that accompanied them, the flames showed God delivering something quite special to those who believe in Jesus!

As the Olympic flame burns in London, people will have gathered to do things that might be utterly beyond our abilities, and in some cases probably seem beyond anything the competitors expect themselves to achieve. There will be personal bests, Olympic records, and world records in the weeks that follow.

The story of Pentecost that G read us, describes what happens when the flames alighted on each person gathered that day in Jersualem.

“They were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the spirit gave them ability.” (Acts 2:4 NRSV)

And there’s the A of our DAREABILITY (Hang second word up.)

The Holy Spirit gives us the ability to do things that we could never imagine possible!
“Ah but…” we have a tendency to say when we’re asked to do something we’ve never tried before, or step out of our comfort zone. “I can’t possibly….” “I don’t do things like that…”

What can’t we do?

  • Don’t we have the ability to talk about Jesus in the ordinary goings on of our lives?!
  • Don’t we have the ability God needs to make a difference here?!
  • Couldn’t we let the Holy Spirit have control of our lives and (with a little hard work on our part) give us abilities we’ve never dreamt of?

Well, if all that were true, I for one wouldn’t be standing here this morning!

The ‘tree house’ at Furzey Garden’s in Minstead (2005)

I’m pretty sure from what I’ve seen on the TV this week, that Chris Beardshaw for one, doubted that the Furzey team had the ability to pull that Chelsea Garden project together to a standard that would win an RHS Gold. The tears in his eyes were ones that showed humility, the relief of having been proved wrong, and the delight with which he knew the news would be received by the rest of the team whose abilities that Gold would celebrate!

So the Holy Spirit is the delivery system by which God works in our lives, but also gives us the ability to do things, big and small, that we might not otherwise do. But those two things might feed, strengthen and enhance who we are as Christians, but if we are to DARE to carry the flame of the Spirit, then we need to make a conscious effort to make connections that take that flame on a journey in us.

Tom Wright’s version of John’s Gospel puts Chapter 16 v4 this way:

“I have told you this, so that when the time comes… to do these things, you will remember what I told you.”

There’s the trick you see, we need to remember to make the connections between what happens in our lives and what those simple, or larger occurrences, say about God, as creator Father, risen Son, and holy Spirit.

To remember, is the R of our DAREing! (Hang third word up)

I tend to describe the Bible as a collection of stories about God in action. In both the Old Testament, the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles, we know that the stories now written down were originally those remembered and told as people made connections with how they saw God acting in the world, and later what they remembered of Jesus’ teachings and actions. Writing them down was a mechanism for helping people remember and understand.

But God didn’t stop revealing himself in our world after Jesus ascended into heaven, or even after people decided that there would only be a certain number of books in the Bible. Through the Holy Spirit God remained living and visibly active on a far larger scale, and in a far more personal way.

When we look at our own lives, and that of the world around us, we can see God at work. Perhaps we’ve been praying for someone and they experience something that we recognise can only be explained by God’s action in their lives. We will need to remember the life and teaching of Jesus, or perhaps a passage of scripture like a psalm, to be able to recognise that; and if they are not aware of it already, we then need to make those connections known to the person concerned.

Another flaming Azalea at Furzey Gardens

If we can see the beauty of God’s creation in a flower, a collection of sticks, and a particular fragrance, or a combination of all three, then that may make us a flower arranger, a gardener, a woodsman or a designer. But unless we remember to praise God for the raw materials, and ascribe our abilities to the way he has made and developed us, inspired and strengthened us through the Holy Spirit, then we still aren’t being DAREing enough! I’m sure that’s why Revd Tim Selwood is calling the Furzey Chelsea Garden quite specifically God’s Gold Garden!

We have to explain the connections we make between our lives what we see in the world around us, or the lives of others, and the revelation of God that we remember through the Bible and the life and example of Jesus.

It’s the explaining that completes the DARE (hang fourth word up) There is no point carrying the flame of the Holy Spirit, if it’s not going to explain how important to us our connection is with Jesus.

Those disciples gathered together in Jerusalem had been hiding and waiting. They hadn’t been able to make proper sense of all that had happened. Christ had died, then in the midst of their grief he was once again among them. Then, just before he vanished for good, he had told them to wait, wait where they were until some powerful force came and worked among them to help them understand it all, just as he had said to them it would before he died.

“You will speak about me.” Jesus had said in the opening words of our Gospel reading. (John 15:27).

The force that enabled them to do that was the Holy Spirit. It delivered the ability to remember what Jesus had said and done among them, to make the connections that gave them understanding. But the real value in the Holy Spirit coming upon them was that it enabled them to explain to others all that had happened, and how that related to people’s own existence now that Jesus had gone from this world.

I spent Thursday at Alton Abbey with the Benedictine monks there, part of what has become a regular pattern in my life. One of them Dom Anselm, is an iconographer, and was teaching iconography to a group staying there for the week. He was explaining to them the techniques that create an image that tells a story related to Christ. They were down to the detail whilst I watched, how to mix a particular colour, how to make the fine brush strokes that created the detail or wrote the Biblical text.

The crucifix in the grounds at Furzey

One of the other monks, Fr Andrew, spent some time with me in their chapel, using a large icon that Dom Anselm has painted, to explain to me one way in which he prays and intercedes for the people and places that are on his heart. He explained how he uses the image to mentally lay his concerns in a specific place at Jesus’ feet as he hangs on the cross at Golgotha.

Iconography is to me a foreign language, one I don’t speak, and had never tried to apply in detail as part of my faith life. For the monks to bring aspects of their faith, and mine, to life with new understanding, there was an awful lot of explaining going on! Part of that explaining was related to what they were painting (perhaps the detail on the hand of Christ raised in blessing), or in how that icon could be used as a prompt to prayer.

The monks weren’t born knowing how to paint icons, nor how to use them in their prayer life, but through the power of the Holy Spirit they have taken delivery of the ability to do so, and by remembering it relation to the Gospel story, and relating it to how their faith works itself out in daily life, they were explaining it to me in a way which brought something new into my life.

When we declare our belief in God, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, (as we will in a moment) we are accepting responsibility for being part of God’s relay race. We will be accepting that through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are taking delivery of the abilities God has given us, remembering as we do where they come from, and how their use in our lives is connected to the story of Jesus Christ. It’s now up to us to deliver onwards (in many different ways, according to those abilities that God is giving us) the story of Christ’s death and resurrection, by explaining to others how it works in our lives, and how God wants it to work in their lives.

This morning later in the service, we will DARE to carry the flame of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit that Delivers to us the Ability to Remember and Explain, the love of God shown us through the death, resurrection and ascension of his Son, Jesus Christ.

And so, let us stand to affirm that faith!

Service for the Celebration of Pentecost

Pentecost candle and holders

On Pentecost Sunday I had the privilege of leading and preaching at the church of All Saints, Minstead (at the invitation of the incumbent Revd Dr James Bruce). This was the church in which I was baptised, confirmed and married. It is also the church that my Dad has attended for the last 60 years, and the occasion also marked his 80th birthday.

In the next post is my sermon, which built on my long association with and knowledge of the community and it’s people and in particular with Furzey Gardens which lies at the top of the village, and last week won Gold at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show for their garden created by members of the Minstead Training Project for people with learning disabilities. (BBC South news coverage here.)

The liturgy for the service I adapted from that in Common Worship especially the Times and Seasons section for Pentecost, to create something that was simple but meaningful. I used the word DARE that appears repeatedly in the “commissioning” that forms the conclusion of that service as the mnemonic that I also hinged the sermon on, producing a over-arching theme that started from the light from the Pascal Candle and the Easter story, and hopefully took them into the future daring to carry the flame of the Holy Spirit. You are welcome to see, use and comment on the form the final liturgy took by downloading this: A Pentecost Celebration

Liturgical Notes:

  • I deliberately asked for the Gospel to be read immediately before the Pentecost Reading, so that the flow of the readings was chronologically correct and drawn together into the one story;
  • I created candle holders that used four of the DAREs in the closing liturgy, and a variety of flame coloured card, so that people had something symbolic to receive and take home (see photo). The master copy for the candle holder is here: CandleHoldersForPentecostDARE
  • The ‘commissioning of people of the Spirit’ at the end of the service was adapted from the original to take account of the fact that we didn’t in fact want people to go outside the church, and I no longer live in the community. They also used the liturgical and historic spaces within the church to guide where I asked local individuals to read the individual DAREs from. These could be adapted to use in any other church and community.

Footnote: I can thoroughly recommend The Trusty Servant pub in Minstead where my family continued Dad’s celebrations at lunch!

Under the gaze of God: Confession for Pentecost – Acts 2:1-12

Altar Frontal - Winchester Cathedral

We normally have an awesome open-air service for Pentecost out in the blazing sunshine. This year we had what I’m told was an awesome service… inside!

It fell to me to lead this year, with a Reader colleague preaching using the ideas of fire, wind and water. Part of his focus for fire was as a purifyer, so it seemed obvious to follow into a time of confession after this part of his talk.

Yet, when I came to peruse the options of Common Worship I found, that even with the help of James Ogley (a fellow member of the Twurch Of England also from my Diocese) I couldn’t find anything from Common Worship Times and Seasons (starting p483), or New Patterns for Worship, that I felt was suitable for the service (All Age format), and linked with what the reading and talk ideas suggested.

I love the creative act of putting together liturgy from different resources, but it has to be just right, and if I can’t find what I think will help people meet with God, I tend to write it myself! This may or may not get me drummed out of the Church of England 🙂

So here’s the prayer of confession I came up with. It came with a sort of free-form introduction. Feel free to use it, or comment, or point me in the direction of something else or authorised!

Do you ever get the feeling your being watched?
Someone who’s looking at you like they know what you’ve done, what you’re thinking?

Well God does… I sure that as the disciples tried not to run away and hide, but waited and prayed in Jerusalem, God was watching them, willing them to be strong and faithful to Jesus’ command to ‘wait for the gift my Father promised’.

God knows how faithful to him we are; as we feel his gaze we’ll know ourselves as he sees us, and know where we fall short.

Dear God,

We feel your loving gaze upon us,
and know our fears, our doubts and our lack of faith.
As we notice the trust that others have placed in your promises,
we recognise our own lack of trust in your faithfulness to us.
As we see and hear your word proclaimed for all to hear,
we remember the times when we have not told your story.

We are not just sorry,
but ask that you might purify us,
so that we might be found whole in your presence.

But God’s gaze is not destructive, he wants to leave us whole, and renewed in our relationship with him so that we can be recognised in the world as people who love him.

He pours out his love over us so that only what is wrong is burnt away through his forgiveness, to leave us whole.

(I concluded with Absolution B77 from New Patterns For Worship)

Peter had been waiting – Acts 2:1-21

Part of a banner at St Mike's Aberystwyth

Pentecost marks a spiritual anniversary for me – which won’t surprise anyone who has ever worshipped at St. Michael’s Aberystwyth, or experienced the excellent preaching of Revd Stuart Bell. Something clicked open inside me in May 1988. Though I may frequently doubt myself, I hope that I allow God’s Pentecost gift to remain the powerful force of direction in my life.

For the 2nd time in three years I will be waiting on the Holy Spirit in our Chapel at our 8am Morning Prayer on Sunday – waiting expectantly to hear Gods’ still, small voice as he moves among us. I already know that what I will be preaching this year, will differ greatly from what I preached in 2008, although the Celtic liturgy of the service that I will lead will be the same (something I’ve adapted from Iona material).

For the sake of comparison, and completeness (since I wasn’t blogging in 2008) here is what I preached then (I will publish this years sometime next week). It is a short reflection written around Acts2:1-21 which should be read in the middle of it:

Peter had been waiting…
For a gift, some sort of spiritual present, that Jesus had called the Holy Spirit. It was to be some sort of power that would enable the disciples to take the stories of what Jesus had done, all over the world. Jesus had told them all, to stay in Jerusalem, and to wait…
It had been 50 days since Jesus had returned to them after his crucifixion and burial. After the resurrection, he had been almost more real than before; so real the walls and doors that hid them from the authorities, had appeared completely insubstantial when he’d suddenly returned. And then, last week he had left them again. The manner of this going suggested it really was the last they would see of him. But before he’d left, he’d been most insistent that they stayed together and waited…
Peter was scared, again. There was no longer any denying of what he’d seen and what he now believed, but he was scared; he felt out of his depth.  There were about 120 of them, folk who had been with Jesus during most of his teaching journeys round the region, all crammed into a house together during the day. It was safer to discuss things that way, than send messages between different groups. The authorities were still twitchy, especially as word had started to spread about Jesus’ resurrection appearances. And there had been things which needed sorting out, if they were to remain together as a group: the gap in their fellowship caused by Judas’s betrayal for a start. People had seen Peter’s point when he suggested it, and Matthias was a good choice. At least it had given them something to do, as they tried to be patient and wait…
What was going to happen? What was Jesus going to do next? The anticipation was more acute than that experienced when they watched someone with a disability approach Jesus. On those occasions Peter had known that through the peace and the calm with which Jesus did everything, something quite amazing would happen. That was, after all, why the people came, because they anticipated that somehow through this teacher, they could be healed. Now, Jesus was gone, and there couldn’t be any more miracles, could there. What were Jesus’s disciples going to say to people, when their hopes were dashed? The disciples and their friends worried about what they should do and say, and they wondered just what was going to happen, but they did as Jesus had asked them; they waited.
Acts 2:1-21 Light a candle, and an incense cone
Whatever he’d expected or imagined, Peter hadn’t foreseen such an extra-ordinary experience. That wind, and those flames had been totally unlike anything they had experienced whilst Jesus had been with them.
Jesus had been a physical presence with them, a powerful presence, but tangible and touchable, even after his resurrection. Peter knew that it was only this that had proved to Thomas that Jesus really was alive, so that he’d declared what they had all been gradually trying to understand, that Jesus was, their Lord and their God. This wind had held something of the same power and presence as Jesus, but more so; suddenly with that wind Peter had become aware of the sovereignty of God, the reality of the power given in the Lord’s name. It was this which had enabled him to suddenly make the connection between what Jesus had done, and the old prophets teachings, and spoken through him to those who’d had been attracted to the house by the noise the wind had made.
Those tongues of flame, had been pretty spectacular. Jumping and dividing, reaching out, with a very personal touch for everyone present. It was being touched by those flames which had inspired the urgency and purpose with which Peter had spoken, teaching from the old scriptures with a similar sort of authority he couldn’t have imagined having. Peter hadn’t felt brave, and most of his friends knew he normally wasn’t, but the explanation had to be made; this was a sign to the whole world that God had inaugurated His Kingdom on earth in Jesus, and that he, Peter, and the rest of these disciples, were being given the responsibility for proclaiming that message.
Peter knew now, what it was he had to do, but he also knew that the message had started out ahead of him and his friends. Those flames had been so personal, that everyone attracted by the noise of the wind had heard the disciples proclaiming their faith in the resurrected Lord in language they could understand, even though they came from all over the world. Of course there had been a few scoffers present, but Peter had been able to disabuse them of the idea that what they were witnessing was the result of a party. Instead, this Spirit was a demonstration of the power of God in action; the same God of the old scriptures, but now manifest in a new and powerful way, just as had been prophesied.
There must have been three thousand people who had responded there and then to the touch of the Spirit and the Gospel of Jesus. People that now believed that God’s sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, had been his victory at his resurrection. They understood now, what they hadn’t understood before. Peter too, understood. He knew this Pentecost wasn’t a remembrance of the Law being given to Moses at Sinai as they had celebrated in the past. Now it marked the arrival of a new law, one which would insist on a new way of life, a new purpose, a new way of living with God.
Now the crowd had dispersed. Peter was drained, but he was also full up, bursting with emotions and connections, an energy and faith that he had never had before. He knew now that his life had been changed, again. Perhaps even more dramatically than it had been when Jesus was alive. Peter knew now, that for all of them, this was only the start. They would need to take a fresh look at all the old scriptures, to really understand what it was they were saying with new understanding; to remember as accurately as possible what it was that Jesus had taught them, so that they could share its importance with others.
Peter knew now that this Holy Spirit, this gift Jesus had asked them to wait for, was the power by which Jesus expected them to share these ideas and teachings together.
But that fellowship would be vital in other ways too. They would need to find new ways of living in fellowship with each other, not just as 12 men, or a group of 120, but as a multi-cultural fellowship around the world. They were fast becoming a really unusual group of people, from lots of different backgrounds, with different skills and experiences. Sticking together, keeping a core understanding between all these people as to what was most important would be really important. But that fellowship would need to give freedom too; freedom to go out into the world and tell the story of Jesus, and show the power of God, in ways that would be relevant to everyone; not just those they knew but everyone else as well.
And they would need to pray. When they met together, they would need to pray with faith for the power of this Holy Spirit to give them wisdom and discernment they needed, to show them how they should meet each others needs and even more importantly what actions would enable this good news to be shared as widely as possible.
The question in Peter’s mind was: would those who had heard and responded to the Spirit of the Lord as it touched them today, respond in faith with actions that others would see in the days and weeks to come?

Forgiving is harder than being forgiven – John 20:19-23

Here’s my sermon from last Sunday – Easter 2 (using both the John 20:19-23 reading and the Epistle reading Acts 5:27-32)

It seems like what the Bible tells us is that if we don’t forgive, we can not expect to be forgiven. In effect that if we are not willing to forgive people then we are limiting the impact of Jesus’ death and resurrection. If we do not open ourselves to the Holy Spirit and allow God to help us to forgive, we lock Christ back in the tomb denying the world its freedom and chain ourselves to the cross because he has wasted his efforts to free us from our sins. The hope of this message is the boundless grace of God that enables us to do this through the power of the Holy Spirit.

It was a tough message to put together and I tussled with it all week, but it was also one that whatever I thought and prayed I couldn’t seem to avoid. Perhaps it was therefore one that needed to be heard.

If you want to read the full text it is here: Sermon John20v19-23 and Acts5v27-32 Forgiving

Leaving Thomas in favour of the grace to forgive

The cross in the entrance of Old Alresford PlaceEaster 2 and the lectionary Gospel is John 20:19 – 31 and the Epistle is Acts 5:27-32.

For some reason I feel compelled to set Thomas aside, and favour of forgiveness – a theme which appears in both readings. We usually only have one reading at the two services I’m preaching at on Sunday, so I’m actually leaving out John 20:24-31 in favour of having the first part of the Gospel and the passage from Acts, read separately but in chronological order.

We have received forgiveness at Easter, the barrier between us and God is broken, and now it seems he has a task for us… we are commanded to be the means by which God forgives others, which means that we need to be open to receiving the grace to forgive – if we withhold that forgiveness then we are disabling Jesus, stopping him from being able to achieve the work in others for which he died, and showing how his work in us is.

Lovely quote from Right Revd Tom Wright (actually given in ref to Mat 18:21-25 but hey it fits well for this week): “forgiveness is like the air in your lungs. There is only room to inhale the next lungful when you’ve breathed out the previous one. If you insist on withholding it – you will suffocate very quickly.”

Also from Gordon Wilson who lost his daughter in the Enniskillen Bomb on ’87:
The forgiveness he spoke of in the hours after the tragedy was an instantaneous decision “from the depth of his heart” which he then “struggled to live up to” but without making that offer he could “not have found the freedom to move on” from those events.

Therefore if we do not open ourselves to the Holy Spirit and allow God to help us to forgive, we lock Christ back in the tomb denying the world its freedom and chain ourselves to cross where he wasted his efforts to free us from our sins…

The Ascension

Here’s another sermon, this time dated from 13th May 2007, back in the first year of my Reader Training.

This one is an audio file, which usefully comes including the Bible reading that preceeded it: Acts 1:1-14 Ascension – waiting and being transformed

In case it’s of any relevance it was a Communion Service at the 9am Congregation of St.Peter’s Church, Yateley. It was also the first sermon for which I wore trousers – daft I know but previously I’d always felt I had to wear a skirt!

It has taken me a little while to get this upload to work.
Firstly I had to subscribe to WordPress in such a way that I could upload audio files ($15 for a year was OK to see if it was worthwhile – I shall know in a years time whether to repeat the subscription that allows audio/video files) .
Secondly my first upload attempt hung during the ‘crunching’ stage, since when life has been busy. This attempt worked easily and I managed to hang the washing in the process!

I shall be interested to see how this comes out and whether anyone listens to it.