Sunday, 15 May 2016

on pentecost

with guest blogger Irenaeus who was one of the Church's first theologians, and writes here of the Holy Spirit being to the Church what water is to a baker making bread. He also alludes to the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

When the Lord told his disciples ‘to go and teach all nations’ and to ‘baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’, he conferred on them the power of giving people new life in God.

He had promised through the prophets that in these last days he would pour out his Spirit on his servants and handmaids, and that they would prophesy. So when the Son of God became the Son of Man, the Spirit also descended upon him, becoming accustomed in this way to dwelling with the human race, to living in them and to inhabiting God’s creation. The Spirit accomplished the Father’s will in people who had grown old in sin, and gave them new life in Christ.

Luke says that the Spirit came down on the disciples at Pentecost, after the Lord’s ascension, with power to open the gates of life to all nations and to make known to them the new covenant. So it was that people of every language joined in singing one song of praise to God, and scattered tribes, restored to unity by the Spirit, were offered to the Father as the firstfruits of all the nations.

This was why the Lord had promised to send the Advocate: he was to prepare us as an offering to God. Like dry flour, which cannot become one lump of dough, one loaf of bread, without moisture, we who are many could not become one in Christ Jesus without the water that comes down from heaven. And like parched ground, which yields no harvest unless it receives moisture, we who were once like a waterless tree could never have lived and borne fruit without this abundant rainfall from above. Through the baptism that liberates us from change and decay we have become one in body; through the Spirit we have become one in soul.

‘The Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and strength, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of God’ came down upon the Lord, and the Lord in turn gave this Spirit to his Church, sending the Advocate from heaven into all the world into which, according to his own words, the devil too had been cast down like lightning.

If we are not to be scorched and made unfruitful, we need the dew of God. Since we have our accuser, we need an Advocate as well. And so the Lord in his pity for us who had fallen into the hands of brigands, having himself bound up our wounds and left for our care two coins bearing the royal image, entrusted us to the Holy Spirit. Now, through the Spirit, the image and inscription of the Father and the Son have been given to us, and it is our duty to use the coin committed to our charge and make it yield a rich profit for the Lord.

Irenaeus, Against Heresies, from Celebrating the Seasons: Daily Spiritual Readings for the Christian Year, compiled Robert Atwell, Norwich: Canterbury Press, 1999

Sunday, 8 May 2016

on freedom from forces that hold us captive

Today's reading from the book of the Acts of the Apostles (16.16-34), is an extraordinary tale which has much to tell us about the role of Christians in freeing society from those things that can hold us captive, and of the power of a confident relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

It all begins with a young woman, who is already oppressed through slavery and is then being further exploited by her owners for financial gain as a fortune-teller. The words the scripture uses is that she possesses a 'spirit of divination'. In the Bible, being possessed by a spirit or a demon is code for one of any number of conditions that were not well understood in those days, most usually referring to some kind of mental illness.

This slave-girl has been following the apostles for several days loudly proclaiming that they are servants of God who teach the way to spiritual salvation. Which is true. So here's the thing: this girl, in spite of her condition and circumstances, speaks with real insight. She maybe someone who is psychologically unwell, but she is well able to discern what Paul and Silas are all about.

Poor mental health, and the unpredictable behaviour that can arise from it, is very much better understood today — yet not necessarily much better accepted socially than it was in first century Europe, where this episode takes place. Society still has much to learn about how to empathise with and support those who are under psychological pressure of one sort or another. I know this both from my own experience of depression, as well as from my pastoral encounters with others. Sometimes frank and blunt talk is coupled with remarkable insight into other people. Why wouldn't it? Those who have had to, out of necessity, navigate their way around their own mental terrain might sometimes be well placed to recognise what is driving the actions and behaviour of others around them.

I can well see that a spirit of divination in this slave-girl could be precisely the sort of insight arising from her own mental state. As someone once said, in adaptation of a Leonard Cohen lyric, blessed are the cracked for they shall let in the light.

Which isn't to say that people who are a bit disturbed can't also sometimes be quite annoying. I remember coming home after being away from the parish for precisely a day and a half, to find that the same person had left seven telephone messages on my voicemail, written me two emails and had pushed a note through the Vicarage letterbox. It's hard not to feel slightly cramped by such persistence. St Paul clearly feels this, and after several days of being followed around by this girl shouting at them, he has had enough. In some way he is also able to recognise whatever it is that she is captive to and calls it out of her.

This echoes what Jesus did a number of times in the gospels. As Brian McLaren has written:

Thousands come to Jesus with various afflictions and internal oppressions, and Jesus draws into the light whatever oppressive, destructive, disease-causing, imbalancing, paralyzing, or convulsing forces hide within them so they can be freed and restored to balance and health . . . The demonic gives us a language to personify and identify these covert forces that enter groups of us, using us, becoming a guiding part of us, possessing and influencing and even controlling us.

What is is that holds us captive and oppresses us in today's society? The addiction of consumerism? A culture of individualism? Globalisation and power over governments by multi-national corporations? Managerialism and the increasingly excessive burdens and policies of the workplace? The judgementalism of family and friends?

In the slave-girl's case she is controlled by those who own her and exploit her condition for financial gain. Somehow Paul is able to liberate her from this, at least in part, which really annoys her owners.

Today we may be appalled by the idea that a person could be in the possession of another, a commodity to be bought and sold. But slavery is never very far from our presence in 21st century Europe. Not only do many in this congregation have forebears who were enslaved, but it is a practice that continues around the world as we speak. There are domestic slaves living in households in London today, forbidden to leave the house and with their passports confiscated. Women and girls are trafficked to this country to be sex workers. Children abroad are forced into service in the supply chain for products that make their way onto our supermarket shelves and high street stores.

Ten years ago, a good friend of this church, Steve Chalke, set up Stop the Traffik. Today the campaign he founded is an international coalition of activists who remain determined to 'disrupt and prevent human trafficking, its harm and abuse to human beings.' On their website you can read more about the way that people are 'tricked into situations where they are bought, sold, abused and exploited for financial gain.'

Christians believe that we are all equal in the sight of God, that we are all made in the image of God: that there is something of the divine within each of us. And of course you don't have to be Christian to simply believe in the dignity of all humanity.

Just as St Paul does in 1st century Philippi, and as Jesus does before him in Palestine, it remains our calling and our duty to continue to help liberate people from whatever is holding them captive, and from whoever may be exploiting and abusing them.

And that is a risky business. Standing up to vested interests takes courage, as those with power and wealth can bring a great deal of pressure to bear in thwarting those who threaten their activities. The commandment of Jesus to love our neighbours as ourselves compels us to put our necks on the line for others.

The owners of the slave-girl trump up some false charges against Paul and Silas and have them thrown in jail. But are they down-hearted? No, they are not! The apostles, like many persecuted Christians in the intervening two millennia, understand the difference between physical freedom and spiritual freedom.

In one of his letters St Paul wrote:

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? ... No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8.35,37-39 (NRSV)

Paul and Silas, rather than licking their wounds and feeling sorry for themselves, take this spiritual truth to heart. There they are in prison singing hymns and praying in front of the rest of the, presumably bemused, prisoners.

The earthquake that shakes the prison, opening the doors and loosening the prisoners' chains, is probably metaphorical rather than literal. The point being made here is that even imprisonment cannot contain the spiritual freedom that Jesus' followers enjoy.

The jailer who observes these events is so disturbed by witnessing this spectacle that he wants in on it. And why wouldn't he? To see these Christians so centred and anchored by a faith that even serious tribulation cannot shake them. This is Jesus' gift to us, the unity with God that we enjoy through him.

But this is not some thing we keep to ourselves, for ourselves. Like all spiritual gifts it is given to us so that we can be a blessing to others — a blessing to those around us who are held captive, imprisoned, oppressed, exploited, abused, abandoned, hungry, diseased, disturbed; all who yearn for the freedom and liberation that God desires for all his children.

Scripture quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, and are used by permission. All rights reserved.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

on being blessed

God be gracious to us and bless us
and make his face to shine upon us,
That your way may be known upon earth,
your saving power among all nations — Psalm 67.1-2

The word 'bless' has achieved a bit of a revival in common parlance in recent years. Sometimes it's used as a way to respond to a comment that is touching or sweet. 'Ah bless.' Amongst some young people, 'Bless' has become a way of saying goodbye, which is a habit I wouldn't mind catching on. It also gets used, particularly on social media, as a kind of affectionate put down, as in 'My husband has gone to the shed to play with his power tools. Bless.'

Our Psalm today (67) draws on one of the most famous and still widely used blessings, the Aaronic blessing from Numbers 6.24-26:

The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace. (NRSV)

A blessing is 'the authoritative pronouncement of God's favour on people, places, events and objects.'* When we are the recipient of a blessing, we do not become any more blessed than we were already. The priest, or whoever is pronouncing the blessing (and anybody can give a blessing), is simply giving voice to a state that already exists: God's unquenchable love for creation, and in particular humanity. God delights in us, in spite of the mess we sometimes make of our affairs, and of the planet, and continues to bless us. We remain the object of God's favour—and hearing a blessing is a way of reminding us of this.

What, then, changes when we hear a blessing pronounced? Blessing is a currency in the economy of our faith, which is to say that it is used in prayerful transactions: between us and God, and each other. Like the pound in your pocket, a blessing doesn't stay put for long. It gets passed on.

To be reminded of God's favour is something that should always provoke joy within us. If it doesn't then this is something you can pray for, to feel that joy when you are blessed. In turn joy provokes thanksgiving, and fuels our worship and prayers. And when that happens God is blessed, because we are then making God the object of our favour. When we bless God for something, it becomes sacred and holy. So blessing God, and being blessed by God, are at the heart of our relationship with the divine.

Blessings are not simply statements though. For us, they are a prayer that we will continue to be blessed by God. We seek the Lord's blessing for the future as well as recognise it in the present. And Psalm 67 makes clear, that our concern to be blessed by God in future is not just for us. We seek it for everyone. O let the nations rejoice and be glad... Then shall the earth bring forth her increase (v4,6).

In the book of Revelation we see how blessing pours from throne of God; peace and wellbeing for all.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. — Revelation 22.1-2

Blessings are something to be shared. When we give ourselves to others in loving service, we in turn are blessed by that. Lydia in the book of Acts, is quick to understand this. She opens her heart to the good news of Jesus Christ, is baptised, and in response to this great blessing, she offers hospitality to the apostles (Acts 16.11-15). A blessing is something that keeps moving, from God to us, from us to God and from us to one another.

We continue to pray God's blessing on us and for it to be known among all nations, 'then shall the earth bring forth her increase.'

The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace. Amen.

*The New SCM Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship

Monday, 25 April 2016

on a new commandment

And now I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. If you have love for one another, then everyone will know that you are my disciples. John 13.34-35 (GNB)

A religious expert, a Pharisee, once came to Jesus and said to him, "What is the greatest commandment in the law of Moses?" (You will remember that, as well as the Ten Commandments, the Mosaic law contained over 600 rules which governed how the early Israelites organised themselves as a community, and worshiped God. By the time of Jesus, many religious leaders were more concerned about the correct observance of the law than about the love the God has for people and creation.) Jesus answered the religious expert by saying, "[The greatest commandment of the Law] is to 'love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind...' The second most important commandment is like it: 'Love your neighbour as you love yourself.' The whole law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets depend on these two commandments." (Matthew 22.37-40 GNB)

In a heartbeat Jesus slices through all the complexities of religious observance, as well as all the bureaucracy, religious fundamentalism, intolerance, and anything else that causes religious leaders to lose touch with the heart of God.

Towards the end of his earthly ministry Jesus prepares his disciples to continue his mission once he has left them. So he gives them a new, third, commandment: "Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another."

Jesus loved his disciples in many different ways: by being alongside them through all their ups and downs, by nurturing their faith and giving them insight into the radical kingdom of God, by being patient and forgiving with their failures, by investing confidence in them, by demonstrating the divine qualities of justice and peace, by willingly giving himself to them and offering his life up for them.

This is our role model, the example for us to follow. And Jesus is telling us that the way the world will know we are his followers is by the way we love one another. The quality of our relationships with each other and the way we behave is to be so distinctive and so rooted in love that it will infect society around us.

This is how the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is to be transmitted. Not through cheesy evangelistic programmes, not by telling other people how to live their lives, not by copying the sterile marketing tricks of the corporate world, not by taking to the streets once a year in a 'walk of weirdness', not by rushing to street corners with our guitars and tambourines, not by climbing onto a soapbox with a squawking megaphone.

It is by being a hotbed of 'God-intoxicated misfits'* heavenbent on putting love of God, neighbour and fellow followers of Jesus ahead of anything else - particularly self-interest. Tough call. You can see why crass evangelism and bossy moralising caught on. It is so much easier than actually following the new commandment, to live a life that is so distinctively loving, generous and self-giving that it leavens society and lifts the world into the new life of the kingdom of God. Some of the bad and busy outreach programmes of the church look a lot like the Pharisees measuring their fringes and phylacteries. A lot of effort and energy goes into it, but it does little to convey the love of God.

When we graft ourselves onto the true vine, God's love is able to flow through us and out into our relationships with each other, our families, our neighbours and the world. As long as we keep plugging ourselves into that source of love, then we enable ourselves to pass it on and bear fruit.

It was in response to God's love shown in Jesus that we became Christians; it is in sharing that love with others that we grow in our faith and in ourselves. And as we exercise the kind of love that Jesus demonstrated, we broadcast our discipleship and play our part in building the kingdom of God.

As Thomas Merton put it:

The solidarity of the Christian community is not based on the awareness that the Church has authority to cast out and to anathematise, but on the realisation that Christ has given her the power to forgive sin in his name and to welcome the sinner to the banquet of his love in the holy Eucharist. More than this, the Church is aware of her divine mission to bring forgiveness and peace to all men and women. This means not only that the sacraments are there for all who will approach them, but that Christians themselves must bring love, mercy and justice into the lives of their neighbours, in order to reveal to them the presence of Christ in his Church. And this can only be done if all Christians strive generously to love and serve all people with whom they come into contact in their daily lives.
Thomas Merton, The Power and Meaning of Love (emphasis added)

Scriptures marked GNB are taken from the Good News Bible published by The Bible Societies/Collins © American Bible Society.

*Robin Meyers, Spiritual Defiance: Building a beloved community of resistance

Friday, 22 April 2016

on worshiping together

Annual Address from the 2016 APCM at St Anne and All Saints South Lambeth

What happens when we come to church on Sunday?
St Anne and All Saints has been a place of prayer and devotion for over 200 years. Generations of parishioners have gathered here to meet with Jesus Christ in Word, Sacrament and through the ministry of one another. Worship is our response to all that God has done for us, giving thanks for the blessings we enjoy and through which we equip ourselves to serve Jesus, in whom we enjoy new and abundant life. For many people, Sunday worship is a place for individual prayer. And it is also something we do together as a community. We are therefore responsible not just for our own worship but for that of those around us.

Refreshing the way we worship together
Over the last four years, we have made a number of changes to our worship to ensure it is honouring to God, enriching for us and attractive to visitors. Services begin punctually, and we have new orders of service which enhance the dignity of the liturgy. We have recruited a first-class musician to play our organ, and we’ve introduced new music for the Eucharist. We have been training those who participate in leading worship (by reading lessons, leading intercessions, or as altar and chalice servers), and have dropped announcing hymns, all to help services flow more smoothly. And we have explored the use of different Bible translations as we seek to make understanding the Scriptures as easy as possible.

How you can help
Enabling good worship is the work of the whole congregation and there are three ways you can help:
1. Be at church before 10.30am
Arriving late distracts others from the service, and means you haven’t had time to prepare yourself for worship — especially if you arrive after the prayers of confession which follow the opening hymn.
2. Create time for prayer before and after the service
The organ will be played for about ten minutes before the service, and for a short voluntary after the service. During this time please remain seated and silent to allow others to have time for stillness, prayer and reflection.
3. Help those around you to worship
Be aware of making unnecessary noise or creating other distractions during the service. Leave conversations (including church business) until the service has finished. Please switch off your mobile phones, refrain from eating and drinking, and leave noisy plastic carrier bags at home.

Church provides a contrast to daily life
We have all become accustomed to the constant chatter of television and radio, or the stimulus of smartphones, emails and texting. Coming to church provides a place away from the noise and distraction of daily life. This is a place where we can find stillness, attend to our inner life, and listen out for the still small voice of God speaking to us. It is a place to set aside the difficulties of life, and offer our concerns and worries to God. A place to wipe the slate clean over the times we have let ourselves and others down. A place to be recharged and restored for the week ahead, as we step out ‘in peace to love and serve the Lord.’

Here is where we root our lives in silence, prayer and deep devotion to God as we gather to encounter the living Christ and recommit ourselves to following his way.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

on the third sunday of easter - john 21.1-19

During the Sundays after Easter our gospel readings focus on the appearances of Jesus after his resurrection, and the encounters that his followers and disciples have with him. Last Sunday we heard about the disciples, locked away in the upper room, frozen in fear, and of Thomas who was unwilling to believe his fellow disciples' accounts of the risen Lord — only to be convinced once he had touched the wounds in his master's hands and side for himself.

In this week's reading the action moves to the lakeside. There is some unfinished business here for Peter, so the narrative focuses on him. And it is a passage full of echoes from elsewhere in the gospels.

Dawn breaks slowly over the water. It is the beginning of a new day, a fresh start. Peter, perhaps feeling rather purposeless and unfocused now that Jesus isn't there to follow, decides to resume his old job as a fisherman. Some of the other disciples — clearly also at something of a loss — climb into the boat with him. But it is a fruitless endeavour; a night of fishing that yields no catch. It is only as the sun begins to lift over the horizon, and Jesus appears on the shoreline calling to them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat, that they meet with success. A haul that overflows to breaking point.

It is in obedience to Christ that our vocation finds its true purpose. When Jesus is present to us and we are attentive to him, we find our true calling. The Indian Jesuit Herbert Alphonso wrote:

All vocations are in Christ Jesus: the personality of Christ Jesus is so infinitely rich that it embraces all calls and vocations. If then each of us has a personal vocation, it can only be in Christ Jesus. This means that there is a facet of the personality of Christ, a 'face' of Christ Jesus, that is proper to each one of us, so that each of us can in very truth speak of 'my Jesus' — not just piously, but in a deep theological and doctrinal sense.
Discovering Your Personal Vocation, Herbert Alphonso S.J., Paulist Press

What is the face of Christ that you are drawn to? An aspect of his nature that finds true expression in you, out of which the best of who you are also flows? In other words, your calling — which not only directs what you do in life but is also perfectly embodied in the person of Christ. It could be his healing, or his teaching, his spiritual wisdom, his humility, patience, inclusiveness, his courage in speaking truth to power, his prayerfulness, his drive for justice, his self-giving, and so on. This is what takes us to the heart of what it means for us to live in Christ (Colossians 2.6). Our vocation is a person, Jesus Christ himself. Our lives are a response to all that he has done for us, and to his face reflected in us.

Perhaps Peter thoughts that fishing was his vocation. Or perhaps he just needed to go back to earning a living, to eat, now that his future was unclear. As he toils unsuccessfully on the lake, perhaps we can be drawn to think about those areas of our lives where we, too, are striving fruitlessly. Is it linked to an area of your life that is not open to Christ's presence, not listening to his voice?

Elsewhere in the gospels, the account of Peter's first meeting with Christ happens by the lake. Peter has been fishing and Jesus commands him to leave his nets and follow him, where he will learn to fish for people. For Peter his vocation lies in following Jesus and without him his efforts are in vain.

Fishing isn't the only echo of earlier passages from the gospels. When Peter and the other disciples come ashore they see that Jesus is cooking breakfast. It consists of fish and loaves of bread. Remind you of anything?

The five loaves and two fish which miraculously fed a large crowd of people, with many baskets full of leftovers, were a symbol of the abundance and ungraspable vastness of God's grace. That we see this same meal by the fireside isn't coincidence. Jesus isn't a one trick pony in the kitchen, with this as his signature dish. It is a breakfast that signals a recollection of that picnic in the desert which demonstrated how much God's grace overflows beyond what we can ever need. So, too, Peter's fishing nets when they are full to bursting symbolise this. And who is it in this passage that needs to be reminded of the magnitude of grace? Peter himself.

Peter who, when the chips were down, denied being a disciple of Jesus, not once but three times. The curious conversation in which Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him, echoes the three denials. This is Peter being reinstated as a disciple, for 'it was his own identity and discipleship that he had denied' by the side of another fire, in a nighttime courtyard. Peter doesn't need forgiveness. That work has already been done on the cross. No, what Jesus is offering Peter is a chance to step back onboard the good ship discipleship and to resume his true vocation.

Yet it comes with a reminder of the challenges ahead. This is no cosy reconciliation. Peter's choice to reclaim his discipleship will ultimately lead to his martyrdom, generally thought to have been by crucifixion. So here is one final echo from elsewhere in the gospels, when Jesus says to us, 'Take up your cross and follow me.'

Will you?

Friday, 11 March 2016

on the last lap of lent

Before Easter

yet frost still builds
dead palaces.

We hear the crack from
icicles of bone,
snow crowns
have snapped the throats
of daffodils,
the ice-queen walks in
her brittle dress.

No rose-blood in the stem,
no cumulus
perfume in trees,
each day
is a coffin of glass.

The sun is turned
to crystal,
it is our alchemy of winter;
inner cold.

Christ sleeps
behind the quickening stone.

Isobel Thrilling

For prayer and reflection

The poet likens early spring to the time before the resurrection of Christ. As we wait for wintry weather to transition into the warmth of spring, and the buds on trees and flowers to finally break open in bloom, so we see out the final weeks of Lent before the resurrection joy of Easter.

It can still feel quite wintry at this time of year. Isobel Thrilling’s poem doesn’t ignore the signs of the season — cold and unpromising as they may seem. She takes time to observe and describe them.

What have you been noticing during Lent? What has been your experience of living the disciplines of prayer, fasting and acts of service? Can you find a way of being present to the moment and observing what it brings, rather than always looking forward to a better time?