Christ is risen; share the news – Mark 16:1-8

HAPPY EASTER! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

This morning was a great chance to consider the Resurrection through the eyes of St. Mark with the children of our congregation taking part. So the following is something like what I said… with some of the props!

Who has already had some Easter Egg this morning?! Anyone willing to ‘fess up?!

So, I’ve 3 eggs, decorated or foil wrapped eggs, 3 Easter Eggs here for us to explore… and I’m sorry if those further away can’t see the action here, but eggs is eggs and don’t come (much) bigger! You are welcome to come closer if you wish.

We’ve got 3 eggs, all looking very pretty here, and we’re going to see if we can crack them into a glass bowl.

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Putting the Russian icon egg covers on the eggs on Holy Saturday.


Egg 1:
Russian icon egg, pretty, Jesus on it, HARD BOILED.

Egg 2: Foil wrapped, chocolate coated, (crack it…. dribble….) RAW.

Egg 3: Creme egg wrapped, wooden egg, open it…. nothing.

How do those eggs make you feel? Confused, disappointed, shocked… (hungry?!)
What day is it today? Easter Day!
What do you think should be in those eggs? Chocolate!
What’s the date today? April 1st, April Fool’s Day…. Check my watch; still before noon.
Do you think all this is just a joke?

Yes?
No?!
Good.
Why not? …..     Hopefully get an answer that involves the empty tomb.

Why don’t the children sit down here at the front (or with parents) for a few minutes…

There are four different accounts of the Easter story, Matthew’s, Luke’s, John’s and the one we heard this morning is…? Mark’s.

In Mark’s Gospel, that we heard just now, what surprises us?   No-one meets Jesus… there’s only one angel… there’s three women… the story is quite short… it ends without the women having done what the angel asked of them.

Mark’s story focuses on the confusion, shock and disappointment that three women experience at Jesus’ tomb on Easter morning.

The Friday night that Jesus died, two ladies called Mary, friends of Jesus, had watched as a man called Joseph of Arimathea, who secretly wondered if Jesus heralded a new part of God’s relationship with the Jews, had buried Jesus in a stone tomb. He’d rolled a big stone over the opening to stop people stealing the body.

36 hours later, and they’ve brought their friend Salome to help them anoint Jesus’ body with precious oils. They’re expecting to encounter the problem of moving the huge stone from the tomb entrance, but instead they’re confused by the fact it’s been rolled away.

Were the eggs that I brought with me this morning anything like you might have expected? No!
Were they confusing? Yes.

We all know that when we discover that things aren’t quite what we’re expecting, we become uncomfortable. We cast about for something that’s what we think of as normal, or expected. If we don’t find what we’re looking for, we’re suddenly hyper-sensitive to what’s different, or new. This is a good thing – it makes us curious. It’s how we gain new experiences and is how we learn.

So, the women are shocked and uncomfortable, but they are also curious, so they go inside the tomb. What are they looking for inside the tomb? Jesus’ body.

What do they find? Angel… man dressed in white.
Where’s Jesus? Risen… (going to meet the disciples in Galilee).

The Angel says “Jesus isn’t here. He’s been raised from the dead. The women are to go and tell his other disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee.”

That’s the important bit… like the nice yellow, yolk in hard-boiled egg. It’s the important bit at the centre of the story. This isn’t a completely empty place, like my little wooden egg. Yes, they’re horribly disappointed, confused and shocked, but they’ve just been given a really important piece of information; they’ve learnt something so knew it’s never happened before in the history of the world. Someone has died, their friend Jesus has died, and risen to life again… resurrection!

So, what’s that important news again? Jesus is risen.
Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia.

What’s the other bit of news the angel gave them?… Get the adults to help… they were to go and tell the other disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee.

It’s easy to get distracted isn’t it? We get all excited about one particular bit of a new discovery, and something else about it gets forgotten until later. That’s like the chocolate covered egg I brought, isn’t it. We got all excited and distracted by the chocolate coating, that what might have been important about it, that message in the middle, all dribbled out and felt disappointing when we tried to crack it!

In a similar way, it’s very easy to remember the very exciting bit of Easter, that Jesus has indeed risen from the dead, and then get distracted by the chocolate so we forget the other bit about the angel’s Easter message. What were the women meant to do? Go and tell other people about Jesus being risen, and where they can meet him.

The women in Mark’s Gospel do run off, amazed, but also afraid. They’ve found everything that’s happened in the last few minutes, confusing, shocking and disappointing. They are just so overwhelmed by everything, that they are actually silent, they don’t tell anyone anything!

Is that what was meant to happen? No!

Did they never tell anyone anything about what they’d seen and heard? Hmmmmm….. Yes? Well, the resurrection story in Mark’s Gospel certainly stops there!

If yes…. So how do we know? How come it’s written down in Mark’s Gospel if they don’t tell anyone?

Here’s something that might surprise you: in the very earliest manuscripts (papers) that have been found of Mark’s Gospel, his whole Gospel stops there. Some people think that was all he wrote. Some people think that the last bit of his resurrection story, got lost… like the contents of that uncooked egg. Other people have actually tried to tell another last bit of the resurrection story for Mark, because they’ve added to the end of his Gospel.

The way that Mark’s Easter story ends, as we hear it this morning, is with the women running off and saying nothing to anyone. That’s really important because it makes us think. It makes us think about what’s important at the heart of the Jesus’ resurrection, and what we’re meant to do with that news. What are we meant to do with the news of Jesus’ resurrection? Share it!

The women must have shared the news eventually, because if they hadn’t, their story couldn’t have been told to Mark and written into his Gospel. We know the disciples did meet the risen Jesus, in Jerusalem and Galilee, because we are told that through the other Gospels. So this Easter, as we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, we are reminded that we need to share that news. We need to tell people who don’t know, and remind people who do know, but have perhaps forgotten that’s important. And we need to tell them where they can meet Jesus; here in church, perhaps when we pray, even when we’re confused, scared and disappointed.

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Our Easter Garden, set into the altar.

So, from my three eggs, have we got anything to share? Not a lot!
The wooden egg isn’t edible by anyone.
The chocolate was wrapped around a raw egg, and that’s now all a bit messy and yukky, so we can’t share that either.
The pretty hard-boiled egg is edible…. but it’s not going to go very far is it.

Have you all seen the beautiful Easter Garden at the front? Take the children to the altar…

There are the crosses on the hill, where Jesus was crucified on Good Friday.
Can you see the tomb?
Did you notice that at the very beginning of the service after we lit the candles and I put the big Easter candle in it’s stand, I went and rolled the stone away on the tomb?
Take a close look. What’s nearby?

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What was left of the contents of the golden egg after it had been shared.

They will find a large golden egg.
Get them to bring it to the front very carefully, and open it into a fresh glass bowl.
They will probably be excited, but ask them…

What they are meant to do with what’s inside, before we get too distracted?

SHARE IT! With the whole congregation….

Thanks to the ever-present strength and camera of Graham who keeps this clergy going. The pics are his.

As I was reminded at the end of the service, this was the last sermon of my curacy. On 9th April I will be Licensed as Associate Priest to the parishes of St. Mary’s Eversley and St. Barnabas Darby Green. My thanks to all those who have contributed to the journey thus far, and here’s to the next adventure…

 

 

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Going the ‘long way round’ – Matthew 16:21-28

Going the long way roundMuch at St. Mary’s Eversley is now focused on preparing ourselves for the arrival of the new Priest-in-Charge of Eversley and Darby Green, and the work that will be done with him in the months and years to come, following Jesus, and proclaiming his love for the world. So yes, sermons have a particular bias in that direction over the last couple of weeks:

If we’re going on a journey, perhaps a walking journey, what do we need to have with us? Boots, wet weather gear, bag, food, water…. But how do we know where we’re going? We need a map, compass, or perhaps satnav or some sort of gps system. We need to know where we’re going, and how we’re going to get there, before we start; then we need to have a plan of the route, know what the obstacles are going to be – is there anything we are going to have to go round? And we also need to know the destination we’re aiming at.

I suspect that almost all of us have had cause recently to look at a map, of one form or another. I’m getting used to having a car with built in sat nav, and it amazes me the route variations that it offers, some of which are wildly different to what seems obvious, to me at least. Sometime taking the sat nav’s suggestions seriously can be a good thing, sometimes er… not so good. Trust me, if you can, whatever your sat nav says, avoid the centre of Exeter when heading to the edge of Dartmoor!

Some of us who have been to the West Country over the summer, have had to take a decision: do we drive past Stonehenge very, very slowly, with the queues of other holiday traffic, or get up at crack of dawn in the hope of avoiding the jams, or seek an alternative route, that is much further and apparently a longer way round, but is less stressful, and may get us to our destination much faster?

If we heard or read the Gospel last week, or remember our scriptures well, we know that a few days before our reading this morning, Simon Peter had effectively worked out the destination of Jesus’ ministry on earth. He’d sussed that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, the ultimate ruler that the Jews had been looking forward to for generations, the one who would liberate them.

So when, very soon after, he hears Jesus talking not of an authoritative assault on Roman rule in Jerusalem, but that Jesus expects their own Jewish leaders to torture and kill him, Simon Peter the ever impulsive, tells Jesus that he’s talking dangerous, defeatist, nonsense.

But of course, Jesus isn’t talking nonsense. Simon Peter and the other disciples may not be able to see it, but Jesus understands the map that his Father God has given him, and he doesn’t get to the destination, to fulfilling the role of Messiah by being on the aggressors’ side of a conflict. He has to take a different route.

The journey that Jesus has to take involves… a sarcastically offered purple cloth, a crown of thorns, a heavy cross – the cross that he won’t just have to carry, but he will be nailed to!

The divinely ordained route to Jesus being fully revealed as the Messiah, involves being on the receiving end of mis-understandings, injustice, and pain; it involves being tortured, and being killed, and only then, at the resurrection, will the destination be reached. Jesus is going the long way round; he has to, he doesn’t have a choice.

If we’re faced with something daunting, scary, something that at least part of us doesn’t really want to do but we know we can’t avoid, we are all prone to getting a little short with people who ‘don’t get it’. Jesus it seems was no different, and in a very real way, what Simon Peter was suggesting was the devil’s way out; if Jesus didn’t go to the cross, there wouldn’t be the light that breaks through darkness, the good that overcomes evil, God’s forgiveness of our sins, the resurrection to eternal life, and two millennia of us being able to witness to our risen Lord.

At the heart of the message in our Gospel this morning is not just what Jesus would have to do as the Son of God on earth, but what we are called to do as a result, and Jesus is quite blunt about what it is. We are also called to carry the cross to follow him… we also have to go the long way round, to get to the place where God is revealed to the whole world in the person of Jesus.

Like Simon Peter, we have a human tendency to want to go the quick way, to bowl into situations where we feel we know the ‘right’ thing that should happen, or even the way we’ve ‘always’ done things. Then we expect people to recognise us as Christians, to listen to the message we share, and to automatically recognise Jesus in us and so come and join in with what we’re doing. But life isn’t like that, and this morning is a very good reminder that we have to work out the divine route to showing God’s love for the world, and to remember that it probably requires a lot more tact, patience, hard work and sacrifice than we feel is either necessary, or ideal.

In the other passage for today, from Romans 9:9-21, St. Paul makes this equally clear. We might get to rejoice in the hope that comes from Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, but we are also called to be patient, to persevere. When Paul tells us to ‘bless those who persecute us’ and ‘not to be haughty’ it’s pretty obvious that we will need to be humble and forgiving of people who don’t understand that sometimes we need to go the long way round to achieving God’s aims. As Jesus found with Simon Peter, sometimes it will be other followers of Jesus that may be the ones we feel aren’t understanding the route of humility and sacrifice he has prescribed.

As a church, we’re gearing up to start exploring the next bit of the map, and to discern the route, the divinely ordained route, to making Jesus’ Messiahship better known in our local communities. The map and compass, or the sat nav, that must inspire us, are scripture and lots of prayer, inspired by the Holy Spirit. It will require the building of new relationships, changes to some, and perhaps even the hard work of repentance and forgiveness for the healing of others. The one thing I think I can guarantee, is that it will require going the long way round various obstacles in the way, obstacles that we wish weren’t there. It will take longer than we think, or want it to. Like Simon Peter we are more than likely to get some things right, and then make sweeping assumptions and get things wrong.

We will all be required to make sacrifices of some sort or another, perhaps giving up treasured ways of doing things, or picking up burdens of care and commitment to new projects or particular people. These are the sacrifices due to Jesus, tokens or small offerings in gratitude for his greater love and sacrifice for us. The destination we know; it is the return of Jesus in glory.

Let’s load ourselves up, map, compass, gps… patience, forgiveness, prayer and humility…. cloth, crown, nails, cross and all… and follow Jesus route to glory, the long way round.

Sound-bites… or sacrifice? A sermon for ‘Pip and Jim’ at Winchester Cathedral – Isaiah 40:27-end John 12:20-26

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In the vestments of Winchester Cathedral (photo courtesy Graham Hartland)

The Dean and Chapter of Winchester Cathedral offer the curates of Winchester Diocese the wonderful opportunity of preaching at Cathedral Evensong towards the end of the curacy. It’s a daunting thing, but a huge privilege, and today it was my turn. Normally, this would be undertaken in ‘choir dress’, but since tonight was the first Evensong of the Feast of St. Philip and St. James tomorrow, they got some of their gorgeous robes out and of course, I had to fit in.

There was also a serious message to share as well, and one I felt was timely in this ‘election’ season:

It is all too common in the media frenzied world we live in, that when some key moment in history is being played out, like the announcement of a General Election, those who live by a well-poised microphone, seek an interview with the key players. Sound-bites are demanded to enable us who feed on the all-consuming media-machine, to discern the so-called truth. The media wants to know ‘who?’, and ‘what?’, and ‘why?’, so they can be first with the relevant ‘scoop’, grab reflections from the most note-worthy analysts, and massage our minds with ‘breaking news’.

The little group of Greeks who plagued the most approachable of Jesus’ followers for an interview with the wandering rabbi who’d just been greeted in Jerusalem like a conquering hero, could well have been the early equivalent of today’s political editors. One might imagine that the ‘who’, ‘what’ and ‘why’ of a political leader on a donkey would make good copy!

However, despite the tendency of those who saw their world in ruins and yearned for freedom from the tyranny of occupation to wish it otherwise, Jesus was no conquering hero, or political leader. He was however someone who sensed the change in the tide, as the welcoming Jews who were fascinated by the miracle of Lazarus’s resurrection fell away at the sound of Pharisaical sarcasm, and were replaced by these curious Greeks. Jesus, the Son of Man, knew that what lay next for him was as much of consequence for these gentiles as for his fellow Jews; so they might as well get their click-bait sound-bite, then they could go away and analyse it as the events that revealed its truth unfolded in the week to come. It obviously worked, otherwise we wouldn’t still be reading it today!

“The hour has come…” sounds like political rhetoric worthy of Winston Churchill; less so a discourse on the germination of a grain of wheat. Yet it is that image that holds the kernel of the message that Christ’s impending death and resurrection represented. The pun is intended, for the kernel of a seed is packed with energy and the building blocks like starch, protein and fat, which allow it to grow through the soil until it reaches the sunlight to make its own food and reproduce. Christ would die to bear much fruit; the fruit of the Kingdom of God that would form from a single, sacrificed grain of hope.

For the exiled people of Israel, reading in Babylon the words prophesied by Isaiah decades earlier, the seeds of their hope lay in the traditions of their faith. Their complaint is that God is ignoring the right of his people to see in their generation the fulfilment of the promises made to the patriarchs. They dimly remember that they were called to be a great nation, as numerous as the dust of the earth (Gen 12:2-3), and a blessing to all peoples (Gen 28:13-15). Yet defeat and deportation have left them too numb to grasp the truth that the power of their creator God extends from their past, through this present suffering, well into the future, in which lies the fulfilment of those promises.  Like the writer of Psalm 25, they are asked to wait for the Lord, not in the insidious doubt that breeds despair, but in the sort of confident expectation that breeds hope.

The exiles in Babylon would eventually find that hope in the restoration of their lands and temple. But their future leaders would again become so hidebound to an understanding of God which they created in their own flawed image, that they would fail to recognise the means by which they would indeed become a blessing to all peoples, and so they crucified their flawless Saviour. It was to this sacrifice that Jesus refers in his response to the eager plea of the Greeks for an interview. It would in fact be they who, at Pentecost and because of his resurrection, would be among the peoples to whom God’s new covenant with all people would be inaugurated.

How much are we like the Pharisees, forming our image of God on the basis of our own flaws? How much are we like the exiles in Babylon, prey to insidious doubts that God perhaps has forgotten us? If it is not us for whom we are concerned, perhaps it is the defeated souls who wash up on the shores of the wealthy west, almost as devoid of hope as they are of the money that bought them a dangerous passage, powerless to battle the bureaucracy of borders? Or perhaps it is the young for whom we are concerned; especially those faint and weary from the constant expectation that everyone can be above average, who fall exhausted into an epidemic of depression?

Have we not known? Have we not heard? That our faith is in the everlastingly faithful creator who has revealed himself to us in Jesus? That it is we who are called to be the grains of wheat who by sacrificing ourselves, our time, our effort, our money, even our political differences, on behalf of others, will be serving Jesus?

The chances are we do know, and we have heard, but making a life of sacrifice and service a reality is much harder than perhaps we would wish. We yearn to change a world that at times seems in ruins, and free it from the tyranny of injustice, yet the work can seem fruitless. Subsuming our own needs and desires into the sometimes unpopular, awkward, perhaps even isolating work of serving others, is tough. Which is why we too need to catch hold of more than the sound-bites of Jesus’ ministry, and pick up again the seed of hope he holds for each of us.

Christ’s death and resurrection, in obedience to his Father’s will, gives everyone the opportunity for a relationship with God that guarantees his presence with us through the power of the Holy Spirit. However much of a struggle it is, if we have faith in Jesus and follow his example, we will find that he is with us. If we wait in confident expectation of his presence among the tasks we do at his command, then we will find our strength renewed for the work we do to serve others, and our lives bearing much fruit in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord.

 

Let us pray:

We give thanks to you our risen Lord, that in your death and resurrection you offer all people the seed of hope. Help us to be this seed, and growing through acts of love, sacrifice and service, bear the fruit of your Kingdom.

Faithful creator, incarnate through the power of the Holy Spirit, inspire in us the courage to act responsibly towards your creation, that we might not remove the seeds of hope for future generations through our careless abuse of the world’s resources.

Remembering that in your flawless humility you suffered for us, Jesus, work in the words, actions and policies of our leaders and media to offer a fresh vision of truth, justice and the renewal of hope for all people.

We remember from our Diocesan cycle of prayer those who are refugees and asylum seekers, and all who find themselves struggling for hope in the face of bureaucracy, injustice and exploitation. Loving Jesus, give us the courage to work for the right of all people to safety, security and freedom, as we serve others in your name.

Lord Jesus, we know ourselves to be fragile, and many for whom we care to be faint and weary from the cares the world places on them. We remember in a moment of silence those known to us who need to know your comfort, healing, presence and peace…………… and strengthen those who share their own journey to wholeness in support of others.

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God,
and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all, evermore. Amen.

Christ the King – In Him, can we? Colossians 1:11-20 Luke 23:33-43

What I think is a male Duke of Burgandy butterfly... a close view of the photograph suggests  stubby legs at the front! (Noar Hill, near Selborne, late May 2016)
What I think is a male Duke of Burgandy butterfly… a close view of the photograph suggests stubby legs at the front! (Noar Hill, near Selborne, late May 2016)

This morning as part of my placement in the North Hampshire Downs I was in All Saints, Odiham marking the end of the liturgical year with the Feast of Christ the King. My reflections start with the super-moon and a very small butterfly!

Epistle: Colossians 1:11-20  Gospel: Luke 23:33-43

I suspect few of us will have seen the full-extent of the super-moon on Monday, though on Sunday as I returned from a late afternoon service in Greywell I was blessed with a wonderful view of the apparently huge rising of the ‘nearly’ super-moon, in the glowing colour of autumn’s glory. But as there was no-where suitable to pull-off and capture the phenomenon in a photograph, it has to stay purely as a memory.

There was something so fascinating about this phenomenon of the moon being 30-thousand miles closer to the earth than usual, that images of it filled our news bulletins, our papers and our social media. Something we usually feel very far removed from, suddenly appeared closer (due to angles and orbits) and we were drawn into the detail of the moon, especially the craters and their impact ray systems. From a greater distance we normally just accept these by projecting onto them features with which we are more familiar: a man, or a rabbit, depending on our cultural context and physical viewpoint. Instead the different materials of which the moon is made were highlighted, emphasising for those of us that aren’t scientists that the moon is a far more complex thing than perhaps we realised. We understand more of the universe when we are able to see the detail of what we are looking at.

I originally come from the New Forest and have been fortunate to be surrounded by wildlife most of my life, learning to understand the differences in coat colour, markings, size and other physical attributes of some native animals and birds. But it took the discovery and accessibility of digital photography to bring to the fore the detail and significance in an insects eye, antennae, wing-case or legs. Did you know for example that some of the small, rare and beautiful Duke of Burgundy butterflies have only four apparent legs, the vestigial remains of the front two marking out such individuals as males?! It’s important to those studying the viability of butterfly populations to know whether individuals are male or female. We understand more of the world around us when we are able to see the detail of what we are looking at.

On this final feast of the Christian year, known as the feast of Christ the King, we are given the opportunity to understand in more detail the significance of our Servant King by drawing close-up to the cross on which he died.

In Luke’s account of the crucifixion the accepted view of Jesus’ pretentions to the role of a Messiah who brings salvation, inspire mockery and derision with the thrice repeated challenge to save himself. The Jewish leaders, the Roman soldiers and one of the criminals with whom he is being crucified see Jesus as-if only from a distance, and even then, perhaps only as what they want to see: not a man or a rabbit on the moon, or an insect with the usual legs but another defeated and humiliated trouble-maker put out of the way.

Yet the second criminal takes a much closer view. Recognising his own death as justified by the law of that time because of his own wrongdoing, his vision of the innocent next to him is enhanced, and he sees clearly in his character, words and actions, the truth of who Jesus is, and the power of which his crucifixion speaks. For the irony of the mockers demand that Jesus should “save himself” to prove he is “the Messiah, the chosen one”, is that in his crucifixion lies the means by which this King achieves his royal power and offers salvation not to himself, but to all humankind. As in so many other examples from his earthly ministry, it is an outcast from society who is capable of a unique insight into who Jesus is, the Servant King.

The early Christian Hebrew poem that we now read in English prose in Colossians, draws this image of Christ as Servant King still closer, like a telescope on a distant moon or perhaps the macro lens on the minute detail of a passing insect. Here is visible even more detail, highlighting the supremacy and sacrifice of Jesus, giving us a greater understanding of the nature of the God we too are called to serve.

Jesus, it highlights, is the first-born of all creation. In him all things hold together. It is easy to forget when looking in awe at a super-moon or the beauty of a butterfly, that actually they are, because Jesus. Jesus Christ wasn’t simply the person for whom the whole creation was made, it was his idea, his workmanship in the first place, designed for humans to enjoy and care for. He who flung stars into space, created us to rule with justice what he had brought into being (Psalm 8).

But, we’re told, he is also the first-born from the dead. Why? Because the evil and pain that came into that creation through humans wrongdoing, their inability to care appropriately for it and for each other, could only be healed by the very one who created it, the living God. Christ the agent of creation is also the agent of reconciliation, forgiveness and hope, which is why Christ the King, the head of the church, the fullness of God, is a crucified Christ, the Servant King.

As WE look in detail at these close-up images of God made man, refusing to save himself because of you and me, and the world we live in, we should also see something else: Jesus is the blueprint for the genuine humanness which is the gold-standard of what we are called to be as humans. The cross isn’t just about the perfection of love, grace, forgiveness, humility and sacrifice which Jesus made, it is a summons to find and exhibit that love, grace, forgiveness, humility and sacrifice in our own personal humanity.

Unlike the images we have of a super-moon, a butterfly or any other aspect of the world and life around us, whether purely in our memory or on a camera or computer chip, this close-up, detailed image of Christ, the Servant King, can only be retained in our memories, and, importantly, shared with others, IF we willingly admit our own wrong-doings, strive constantly to understand who Jesus is by being up-close to him in all things, and bring that image alive in our own lives.

JESUS withstood the mockery of those who really should have understood and recognised him, and rose with humility above the derision of those whose last laugh was at the expense of an innocent. In him, can we?

JESUS recognised in the words an outcast criminal condemned for crimes he really had committed, a hope and faith in God that deserved a place with him in paradise. In him, can we?

JESUS, first-born of all creation, brought the world into being as a place of beauty, in which the abundance of life was to be enjoyed, celebrated and cared for. In him, can we?

JESUS, first-born of the dead, brought healing and forgiveness to a broken world and to broken people. In him, can we?

In the image of Jesus we show to others in our own lives, can we welcome people into this kingdom of Christ, our King?

Reflection on Mary of Magdala (John 20)

Easter garden at St. Mary's Old Basing and Lychpit 2015
Easter garden at St. Mary’s Old Basing and Lychpit 2015 – interestingly our model of Mary of Magdala has her in a blue robe, not a red one.

Presiding in celebration of a Saint for the first time today, so needed to come up with some reflections on St. Mary Magdalene:

Mary of Magdala, Mary Magdalene.

The woman we remember today has had so much imposed upon her since she was first captured for posterity in the pages of scripture that it is difficult to untangle the things that we really know of her, from the the things that have been assumed, conflated with others; impressions and fables captured in art and in literature, both learned and less so. I make no pretence to be doing anything other than adding to the layers of uses to which her character, her actions and her faith have been put, but I do so because her story is one that brings us within touching distance of Jesus, a fact that I think lies at the heart of her universal appeal to both the Christian and secular imagination down the centuries. 

We can be pretty sure that this Mary was an independent woman from the lakeside town of Magdala, on the Sea of Galilee. Why independent? Well because in scripture she takes her name from the place, rather than from her nearest male relative (Hebblethwaite, p116-7) as is otherwise the case in the Gospel’s and context of the time. The myth of her sinful past may well rest on the absence of these reassuring family ties, and, the layer of assumption that her closest relationship with a man appears to have been with Jesus (Hebblethwaite, p116-7), has no doubt contributed to more romantic notions than scripture actually provides evidence for.

We can be pretty sure that despite the red dress of so many artistic impressions of this woman, Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute. Too long has her story been conflated with those of the sinner who touches Jesus in Luke 7:39 (who was not necessarily a woman of easy virtue herself, if our modern understanding of language is accurate), and Mary of Bethany who anoints Jesus in John 12 whose character has likewise been prostituted (Hebblethwaite, p119).

Scripture does testify, more than once, to the fact that Mary of Magdala had mental health issues when she first encountered Jesus, for her seven demons are referred to in Luke 8:2 and Mark 16:9 (Hebblethwaite, p120). The number seven probably only suggests the severity of her illness, not its nature and cause, which have themselves become a rich source for the imagination of more modern writers and theologians, wanting to encourage a more positive pastoral attitude to mental health care through the example of Jesus’ ministry to her. And yet scripture gives us no detail of this healing encounter with our Lord, perhaps because as some have suggested it took place over the months and years of their friendship during Jesus’ travels, rather than in one single, miraculous encounter (Hebblethwaite, p120).

Our chief evidence for the action, character and ministry of Mary Magdalene is in the scripture that forms our Gospel on this her Feast Day. Here, is a woman who (possibly with others) wanted to give the body of the crucified teacher the reverence it was due, to fill the void which being witness to his murder had created in her life. But the emptiness she initially encounters is even greater than anticipated, as she reaches a tomb devoid of the healing (John 20:1) that a graveside watch can bring.

As was the case at the crucifixion, once the initial encounter with the confusion of Christ’s resurrection is made, the men who perhaps she hoped might support her in their shared perplexity, vanish. So she weeps alone with a grief that soaks through the layers of her life as well as her clothes. It has been said that ‘maybe you can only see angels through tears’ (Wright, p146) and I know that’s been true for me: Mary seems suddenly devoid of hope because all she thought she understood has been taken away, but the presence of angels creates the questioning that cuts through her desolation.

Possibly the most consistent point of reflection through all the layers of Magdalene myths is the scriptural evidence that it is not only angels she sees, but the risen Lord himself whom she finally encounters and recognises by the use of her name: Mary….. As she reaches out to cling to the one that brought her healing, she comes up against another stage in that very process, one that does not rebuff, but invites her to re-enter the independent life with which she first encountered Jesus, but now without the luggage of illness with which she had previously been encumbered. As the Apostle to the Apostles (Wright, p147), sent to share the good news of the reality of the resurrected Christ with those who had run too soon to witness it themselves, Mary of Magdala finally receives the freedom (inspired by Mann, p55) that comes with true healing and renewed purpose.

I wonder how much the layers of people’s suppositions about our histories and our characters weigh upon our lives? People think they know something about us when they glimpse a few simple facts that might include our marital status (past or present), a bereavement or an illness.

Likewise, we may grudgingly recognise that in the light of the snapshots we see of others’ lives week by week, whether in their homes, the shops or in the national headlines, we impose our own layers of conjecture as to how they understand themselves, their spiritual journeys and their encounters with God.

Like Mary Magdalene, what we need to encounter for ourselves is not only the healing that comes from being a follower of Christ – happy to stay on the road with him week by week and willing to stand at the cross of his suffering with others – but also to encounter the emptiness of those places and relationships where initially he seems absent. We have to trust Jesus to reveal himself to others, not only in those places where we except him, like here in a much-beloved church, but in the places where perhaps we have given up looking for him.

On finding the place where they expected to find Jesus, many have run away, because they were looking for someone who had died. The freedom of the resurrection, the hope that Mary of Magdala was the first understand, was that sometimes it is only when we stop and sit with weeping with our broken expectations, that we encounter the living Christ. Only in that encounter, wherever or in whoever it is formed, will we know not only freedom, but the purpose to which Jesus is sending us back into the world in which he calls us to live day by day.

 

The books I’ve used as resources and inspiration are Rachel Mann’s “The Risen Dust – Poems and stories of passion and resurrection”, Margaret Hebblethwaite’s “Six New Gospels – New Testament Women Tell Their Stories” and Tom Wright’s “John for Everyone – Part 2”

#WWDP2015 Do you know what I have done for you? John 13:1-17

The Christian women of Old Basing decided some months ago that whilst the women of The Bahama’s had wanted an interactive reflection on John 13:1-17 (something of which I was unaware at the time), they would prefer to have the more usual speaker for this years World Day of Prayer, and asked me to speak. So today, I shared with them a few thoughts,… and gleaned some of theirs.

The jug, bowl and towel that St. Peter's Yateley gave me as a leaving gift as a symbol of servanthood.
The jug, bowl and towel that St. Peter’s Yateley gave me as a leaving gift as a symbol of servanthood.

“Do you know what I have done for you?…
Do as I have done for you!”

This [jug and bowl] set, complete with small, matching towel, was a gift from my sending parish last Pentecost, when as a family we left in preparation for my ordination and coming here. It was very specifically given as a sign of the service I would be offering to the communities I will work in as an ordained minister, not just in my diaconate year, but always. The reference to the passage that is our Biblical focus today, is unmissable.

Jesus lays aside his garments and takes up a [towel] or apron, kneeling at people’s feet, as a slave would. He, the once and for all Messiah, [pours water] onto soiled, dirty, feet, making them clean. The symbolism is spelled out clearly in the scripture – as Jesus has served his disciples, has become a slave to their needs, so they should go and do likewise!

The connection to the slavery and service offered by the ancestors of many in the Bahama’s is also obvious. Equally, many of us have given much of our lives to serving others – service perhaps of our country, almost certainly of our church; service to various charities, to neighbours and friends in crisis; we will have served our family with an outpouring of love wherever possible, whether it’s been reciprocated or not. Those acts of service hopefully continue, and it is through them that we rightly offer spaces for God’s blessing of the lives of others.

So, as we re-visit this probably familiar passage, what more does Jesus want of us?

Jesus was preparing to lay aside not just a few moments of his life in the service of others, nor the length of natural life in enforced slavery as did so many during the height of the slave trade, and sadly still today in some places of the world. We know Jesus gave up life itself, willingly, freely, as a sacrifice for the whole of God’s creation. It may have been the ultimate freely given gift of grace, but it was given with the anguish of God’s broken heart as well as a broken body. There was pain in these Jesus’s actions among friends in the Upper Room knowing that one would betray him, the anguish of his submission to his Father in the Garden of Gethsemane, in which he also knew his Fathers’ anguish that it had to be this way, and then heaped on this, the physical suffering of the cross. In it all Jesus was conscious of his divine origin and destination, and that this was the most critical task laid on his place in this world by God.

When he bled on the cross – the action we remember in the Eucharist alongside his other command to ‘do likewise’ by sharing in bread and wine – When he bled on the cross, it was a cleansing from sin and our tendency to ‘fall short of the mark’ as Fr Alec put it in this months “Basinga”. It was the ultimate act of love of the Son of God for every other child of God, then and now.

Christ’s was a sacrifice for the future of God’s Kingdom, a drawing not just of his own generation into relationship with God, but the ‘supreme work’, a once and for all sacrifice so that all people in all places of the world, from the Bahama’s to Old Basing, might recognise God’s love for them, acknowledge their shared humanity in Christ’s image, and proclaim it to each forthcoming generation.

'Christ's blood' poured out to cleanse us.
‘Christ’s blood’ poured out to cleanse us.

So let us change the footwashing image slightly. Let us take a more ordinary jug and bowl, one that we might use daily to prepare food rather than place on the mantle-piece, and think for a moment how it might be if we poured [our blood*] out over one another.

Our blood is our life, we can’t carry on without it, we lose too much of it and we pass out. Healthy blood also contains cleansing properties, fighting off the bacteria of those bugs and diseases that can cause us harm. The DNA markers that we find in our blood, can be found in future generations of our family, however distant, to mark them out as having a shared heritage. Our blood can on occasion be donated to save the lives of others.

Slaves who died, did not do so willingly as Jesus did. They died because of people’s inhumanity to their fellow humans, a lack of recognition as to a shared place in God’s creation.

Sacrifice is much more about freely giving up something important to us, something we hold dear, more-so than straightforward acts of service where we might enjoy the effort and be happy to give up the time involved. Sacrifices include those things where we may be less likely to see the benefits of in the lives of others, or within our own lifetime – they are an act of faith, designed to give life, focused on the future.

We may feel that we have already made sacrifices in our lives. Perhaps we have given up a career for our family, or some of our family life to take forward a career or calling. But our focus this morning, and this passage in particular, asks us how radical and sacrificial can our love for those around us be today, and in every future day?

What can we sacrifice, from which we may not gain any benefit but which would enable others to more fully experience the love and forgiveness of Jesus? How do we pass on our Christian heritage, including that of this Women’s World Day of Prayer, pouring out our faith-blood like we might donate our actual blood and DNA, to future generations?

I’m going to invite you now, in a few moments of silence, to consider those questions. But I don’t want you take away your answers in silence. It would be lovely if we all knew what they were. So, whilst we are having our refreshments after the service, if I may, I would like to interrupt us briefly**, so that we can talk about what sort of sacrifices we feel we are able to make. Whether or not they are directly related to Women’s World Day of Prayer, we can think about how we might make them happen, because Jesus wants us to follow in his footsteps, to “DO as he has done to us”!

* After a Twitter conversation, the ‘blood’ was cheap tomato ketchup, watered down a bit, with added red food colouring. I was told it was reasonably authentic!

** I carried out my threat to interrupt them. The feedback centred around the need for health (excercise specifically I think) to be more closely associated with social welfare, and the levels of isolation experienced in the community, I think particularly by elderly (who were well represented in the congregation). I challenged them to have done something as a community of Christian’s about one of these issues by the time they gather for next years WWDP.

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 Break Bread – a reflection from discernment

Following on from my previous reflections (here and here) written in the last few weeks before my BAP, re-reading the following written some months earlier I find that there have been several echoes of my reflections on what Bishop Jonathan Frost (Bishop of Southampton) asked me to read during my Diocesan Panel Interview with him in November 2011.

It was a book called ‘Dare to Break Bread – Eucharist in Desert and City’ by Geoffrey Howard, that had been published in 1992. It focuses on the work of a priest (the author) in the light of the Eucharistic liturgy (the words Christians use at Holy Communion.) The following is a copy of my letter to Bishop Jonathan in January 2012 responding to the three tasks he gave me in connection with the book, and forms a review and reflection of it:

The first part of your charge to me I failed, as I did not achieve it before Christmas; the festive demands got in the way I’m afraid. Actually this confession of failure almost seems appropriate to the book. Within it the author shares so much of his burden of guilt for what he seems to feel is constant failure. I found myself wanting to hold him before God (as he does Harry at the start of the book) so that he might find absolution.

The second part of your task I have now accomplished. With shoes off and candle lit in a wonderfully silent room at Alton Abbey, I read the whole book in a day. Now I am returning to my notes and thoughts as I read it, I once again appreciate the gift of that space, indeed any quiet space, within ministry. Geoffrey Howard wrote the book in a space within his ministry. It is from these spaces with God that perhaps we see most vividly the true “colours” of how we connect with God in people and draw people to God.

"Jesus, remember me, when you come into your Kingdom." Luke 23:42 (Painting by Kari Juhani Hintikka by permission of Alton Abbey)

This letter completes the third part of the challenge you set me, that I write to you with my reflections. The book emphasises that the role of a priest is not restricted to the Lord’s Table or any other sacramental liturgy. Blood is truly shed, and the body and soul broken in day-to-day contact with those in whom we recognise Christ. We come alongside people on God’s behalf, yet we must expect Christ to be revealed to us in every encounter – the Christ who holds the pain and sacrifice of our failures nailed with him to the cross.

The word that struck me as I concluded the book, and has stuck with me in the days since, is “vulnerability”. By offering to serve as priests we make ourselves vulnerable in several ways. In the simplest sense, and with our families, we make ourselves vulnerable to unwanted interruptions, ‘reduced circumstances’ and spiritual attack. We will also have repeated occasion to make practical and spiritual sacrifices and make ourselves vulnerable to acts of aggression – verbal, material and physical. It’s like in the very act of being “gospel” we offer people the right to metaphorically nail us to the cross next to Christ – whether they do so deliberately or we do it to ourselves in our responses, both visibly and invisibly.

If we understand the Eucharist as a sacrament of community (“sharing the bread of common experience”) then this book seems to emphasise its’ place as the culmination of all that proceeds it through the days or week of other “sacramental activity” that precedes it. Our connection with Christ in the Eucharist should therefore lie in what we bring to it, not that which we expect to receive from it.

Perhaps in this lies some of the differences and tensions between the Eucharistic worship of evangelical and catholic traditions. Is there any truth in the idea that for many of a more evangelical persuasion, the Eucharist can be a place from where people take the Gospel message out into the community, rather than the place of Resurrection to which those of a more catholic persuasion bring to Eucharist both the burdens and joys of the Gospel message in community? For if Christ had not been raised from the dead, we would and could not share in the remembrance of the broken body and blood of Jesus; so we must first have shared in that sacrifice through our living and preparation for Eucharistic worship.

The thing that truck me as liturgically most significant, and something I’d like to know more about, was the question that Howard poses early on: where is the freedom of unconditional forgiveness in our Eucharistic liturgy? Beyond the reason of tradition, I don’t know why the liturgy maintains a stance of repeatedly seeking God’s mercy after the absolution, which seems on the face of it to conflict with a Gospel of abundant grace.

Thank you for making this book part of my journey to understanding a calling to ordination. It leaves many questions unresolved in the readers mind, but then I don’t think it set out to answer any, only to highlight that there is no black and white in our faith, and how we are called to live it out. Instead it highlights the many tensions that a priest draws from the community they are called to serve, and is required to hold as a humble offering before God.