St Paul's is used for services, christenings, weddings, funerals, book groups, rehearsals, plays, meetings, school shows, concerts, Bible study courses, confirmation classes, private prayers and more! Read on to find out what our church can offer you!
Our main act of worship is on Sundays at 10am, when we welcome families and children. This is a Parish Communion following the
new Common Worship service. The Liturgy is sung in a modern setting especially composed for St Paul’s by Mike Dixon. After the service coffee is served at the back of the church giving people a
chance to meet and chat. To read Michael's Thought for the Week and previous sermons, please scroll to the end of this page.
10.00am Parish Eucharist
6:00pm Evening Prayer
6.45pm Meditation time
10:00am Eucharist at St Mary's Convent
12 noon Eucharist
St Paul's is now livestreaming all of our Sunday morning Eucharist services on YouTube. The services go live in real time at 10am on Sunday mornings but can also be watched afterwards. To watch, either search on YouTube for St Paul's Grove Park W4 or use this link .
A christening can be part of our Sunday morning service, or we can arrange a special service. You are very welcome to use our lovely vicarage garden or the Isis
rooms which adjoin the church for a party following your child's christening! Please contact our vicar if you would like to discuss having your child christened at St Paul's at firstname.lastname@example.org 020
The pictures below are from the christenings
of Billy Adams and Hugo Bryant.
St Paul's is a beautiful place to host this special day. You can put up a marquee in our gorgeous vicarage garden, and it is also possible to have have a smaller drinks reception in the church, or use the adjoining Isis rooms for a party. There are some more pictures of the garden on the Who We Are page. The photo above is of the wedding of Jane and Peter Valentin in June 2017, with their lovely daughters and bridesmaids Rosie and Florence! If you are interested in using St Paul's for your special day, please contact Rev'd Michael Riley at email@example.com 020 8994 4387
Below are some photos from the wedding of Celia Surtees and Christopher Charlwood; which was held at St Paul's
in the summer of 2015. As you can see, they had their reception in a large marquee in the garden and were fortunate to have lovely weather too!
We sing during Communion every week and meet for a short practice session at 9:30am on Sundays. This is an informal group, no robes required and new members are most welcome! We also sometimes sing anthems on special occasions, and perform music of all kinds at the many St Paul's concerts! To find out more, please email our vicar at firstname.lastname@example.org
On Mondays, the meditation group meet in the church at 6.45 pm for about half an hour. We practice the tradition of meditation followed by World Community of Meditation which is ecumenical. A quiet celebration of communion often follows at 7.30 pm. We are often joined by members of other churches. All are welcome to attend either event or both.
A group meets at 7.30pm on Wednesday evenings for discussion and study. The studies usually occur in sessions and are advertised on the notice sheet at the beginning of each session.
St Paul's Book Group was formed by a group of Grove Park Christians who were interested in exploring spiritual texts. Membership is growing steadily and the books we have read include A Practical Christianity by Jane Shaw,Visions of God by Karen Armstrong, Abiding by Ben Quash, The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin, The Shack by William Paul Young, Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, Silence and Honeycakes by Rowan Williams,The Problem of Pain by CS Lewis and Muhammad - A Biography of the Prophet by Karen Armstrong. Having had a very inspiring evening with Desmond Tutu's book No Future Without Forgiveness about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, we then read Looking Through The Cross by Grahame Tomlinson, The Lighthouse by Charlotte Rogan followed by Be Not Afraid by Samuel Wells and then Towards Mellbrake by Marie Elsa Bragg, the ordained daughter of Melvyn Bragg. In Autumn 2017 we all read different books about Luther to celebrate 500 years since the Reformation, which led to a very lively and interesting discussion!
All are welcome. If you would like to know more then please email Shelagh at email@example.com Look at the calendar on the What's On page to see what our next book and meeting will be!
Play & Stay
Little ones and their parents or carers are welcome at our Play and Stay sessions, which are in the Isis Rooms every Thursday, from 9:30-11:30am. A great way to meet up with other families and to enjoy playing with toys and reading books with your child! For more information, please contact Shelagh on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Poetry and Prose Group
The poetry group was started during the Covid lockdown in March 2020 and now meets via Zoom every Thursday to share poetry, prose and conversation! We find it an inspiring and thought-provoking hour, and a lovely way to connect with others. You can join the group by phone as well as via a video link, please email email email@example.com if this appeals to you. We have put the poems we read durng lockdown into sixteen anthologies and you can read them by clicking on, and downloading the pdfs below.
St Paul's runs a flourishing and fun Youth Group! Everyone from ages 11-17 is most welcome to join us in the vicarage between 4.30-6pm, on the last Sunday of every month. The Youth Group comprises a mixture of activities such as baking, table tennis, snooker and some discussion of philosophical or religious ideas where doubts are welcomed and questions encouraged! We want to provide a safe and non-judgemental space for young people to explore what they really believe and what they think about God and the church.
If you'd like to find out more about St Paul's Youth Group,
then please contact Bea Vickers on 07766 491716 or firstname.lastname@example.org
All are welcome at the St Paul's Tea Club which is on the first Thursday of every month, from 3-5pm. Pop in for a cuppa and a chat and you may make some new friends or catch up with your neighbours! If the weather is nice then we will meet in the lovely church garden!
Confirmation is administered by the Bishop of Kensington either here with a small group at St Paul’s or at St Paul's Cathedral, with candidates from other parishes, or another church. Candidates are prepared by the Vicar in classes, usually in the evenings or at weekends. A special class is arranged for adults if required. If you would like to be confirmed, please speak to Michael. Normally children are confirmed before their first communion. All Christians are welcome to receive communion or a blessing at our communion services.
We are always happy for the church to be used for funerals and memorial services, and to talk with people as they face life's challenges. The ministry of prayer and laying on of hands, anointng and sacramental condession are also always available. If you are interested in using St Paul's for these occasions, please contact Rev'd Michael Riley at email@example.com 020 8994 4387
THOUGHTS FOR THE WEEK
Thoughts for Conversion of St Paul. 24th January, 2021
Acts 9:1-22 Matthew 4:18-22
Some two years after Jesus died on the cross a man called Saul was on his way to Damascus in order to do his best to destroy the young Christian community there. As we heard in the first reading, shortly before he reached the Syrian capital he had his dramatic transforming experience. He was reduced to sightlessness, and had to be helped and led into the city, and did not eat or drink for three days. For Paul this was a meeting with the risen Christ, which led him to see Jesus as the Messiah of Jewish hopes. And the humbling experience helped him personally at different levels, including his walk of faith. He was given courageand strength for his preaching ministry, and his work among the Gentiles. Ananias was told that this would be Paul’s work from now on, for Paul is to be God’s ‘chosen instrument’ to proclaim good news to the Gentiles. Writing to the churches in the Galatian province much later Paul says: “God set me apart to preach Jesus Christ among the Gentiles.”
There were others who shared the new faith with non-Jews, including some who worked with Paul: Barnabus, Mark, Luke, Silas, Timothy and Titus. But there were many in the Jerusalem church who thought that Gentiles should become full Jews first, before being baptised. They wanted Gentile converts to meet with Jews in the synagogue on the Sabbath Day, and then join with the Christian community on Sunday. It was Paul who resisted this, and laboured so that the Christian way should not get stuck as a Jewish group or sect, so Christianity was able to spread across the Roman empire, after the defeat of the Jewish revolt in AD 70.
So we honour Paul as the apostle to the Gentiles, a courageous man who travelled all over the eastern mediterranean world, sharing the gospel. Sometimes Paul has been described as a giant of the Christian story. He looms large in the New Testament, with his role in the Acts of the Apostles and his 14 letters. The four gospels give us more about Jesus’ life and teaching, but that is partly because Paul’s letters are real letters written to church groups he knew, about specific things. (Romans excepted).
The gospels were written by second generation Christians later on, people who decided to record in a systematic fashion the oral tradtions about Jesus. Paul was a contemporary of Jesus, around during his public ministry. So St Paul’s letters are our closest written link to the earthly Christ. When Paul turned from his fierce anger against the new faith, and embraced Christianity, life did not become easy for him. In his second letter to the church at Corinth he speaks of the consequences of his change of heart: beatings, imprisonments, riots, lashes, sleepless nights. But more painful for him was any division in the body of Christ, which was the reason for many of his letters. His teaching has had a profound influence throughout Christian history, firing up many of the great saints and theologians of the church, including the African St Augustine, Martin Luther, John and Charles Wesley, and Michael Ramsey.
Paul was eventually arrested for his own protection, and he appealed to Caesar for a trial in Rome, claiming the rights of a Roman citizen. On the voyage there he was shipwrecked on Malta, and was placed under house arrest when he reached Rome. During a time of persecution under the Emperor Nero, both Paul and Peter died in the year AD65. Paul is aid to have been beheaded by sword, another privilege of a Roman citizen.
So we honour Paul as a martyr, who gave his energies and life for the Christian gospel. In Rome today you can visit the church built over Paul’s tomb. All over Europe shelters were built over the tombs of the saints, so that people could come and praise God for their witness. Later stone churches wee set up, including a large church with cloisters at Paul’s tomb in the 12th century. The beautiful cloisters remain, but the church was destroyed by fire in 1825. It was rebuilt and is now cared for by Benedictine monks. As you enter the large open space, the eye is drawn to Paul’s tomb, under the main altar at the east end of the church. (There is a similar arrangement for St Peter’s tomb at the Vatican) This calm and holy place of prayer fittingly honours our patron saint, who is also the patron of London.
As we set out as disciples of Christ today we need to draw on Paul’s confidence that each step we take as individuals, and a church community, is received and blessed by God. And that God supplies the gifts and strength we need. Paul was a small man, not physically strong, and troubled by what he called his thorn in the flesh. Some have thought this was epilepsy, but more recently Bible scholars have suggested that Paul was having recurring bouts of malaria. There were malarial swamps around Tarsus in south eastern Turkey where Paul grew up. Writing about this in the second letter to the Corinthians, Paul says that three times he asked the Lord in prayer to remove this thorn - to heal him. The response he received from God was:
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
2 Cornithians 12:9
These words have been a great comfort to many who face burdens and sorrows as they seek to follow Christ. And they encouraged Paul to press on, sharing the light and peace of the gospel.
O God the King of the saints, we praise and glorify you for all who have finished their course in your faith: for the holy patriarchs and prophets, for apostles and martyrs and our patron Paul, for all your dedicated servants, known to us and unknown. We pray that ,encouraged by their examples and strengthened by their fellowship, we also may share in the light and joy of heaven: through the merits of Jesus Christ our Lord.
Thoughts for Advent 2 6 December, 2020-12-04
Isaiah 40:1-11 Mark 1:1-8
Most of us have heard the dawn chorus at some stage, perhaps on a school trip or more recently on holiday. The chorus begins with a chirp here, a chirp there, one bird calling to another, gently enquiringly. The voices increase, the messages become clearer, then one blackbird sings and fills the air with praise, full tone and beauty, and then the whole chorus is filling the air with praise.
Something like this chorus occurred in out times as Eastern Europe emerged from an era of darkness. The ruin of war was succeeded by over 40 years of Russian domination. A voice was heard in one country, then another, bravely raising questions of truth and freedom. Intermittent notes were replaced by a clear and confident song: the chorus swelled as all knew that the light was coming. From gatherings for worship thousands advanced up the streets, their hearts on fire with the message of peace and freedom; and the old order changed.
Something like a dawn chorus also announced the end of the exile for the Hebrew people in the 6th century before Christ. For over 40 years the massed deportees from Jerusalem had lived in Babylon. For them also times of worship were moments to ponder the meaning of things, and to ask ‘how long?’. We know this from Psalm 137: “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.” There was lamentation, but also some hope that the exile would come to an end as news spread of divisions in the Babylonian government, and an arc of new Persian power was rising in the north. It seems that there was a circle of prophets in exile who were faithful to the earlier teachings of Isaiah of Jerusalem, and their words came to be collected with the first 29 chapters of the book of Isaiah. And in this group there were those who were watching, and waiting and listening, and in the mind of one of them a word of hope stirred: “Comfort, O comfort my people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has serve her term, that her penalty is paid, and that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. “
A word came to another prophet who has been hoping and praying: “A voice cries out: In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low.” These are the words the gospel associates with the ministry of John the Baptist, whom we shall thimk about more next week. It may be another prophet who sees that the Hebrew people have served their term, which leads to blaze of glory stuff, good news shouted form the mountain tops. And alongside this in Isaiah 40 there is a gentler dimension: “He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them close to his heart,” words we hear in a beautiful aria from Handel’s Messiah. And among the same circle of prophets were those who saw the coming of God focussing on a servant, a humble suffering servant, with no form or beauty, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. We often meditate on these passages from the book of Isaiah in Passiontide, but they are part of the prophecies which speak of the living God returning to win his people. What will it be like when God brings his people back to Jerusalem? These prophets suggest it will not be a glorious victory parade, and the best things will happen when someone takes the form of a servant, being obedient unto death. This is how God will comfort his people and this is why Advent is good news.
The good news is that God acts as a caring shepherd, and the Advent promise is a promise of love. We can see pointers to these promises in human society, not least in this time of the pandemic, within our families and through the Scriptures. And the words of the prophets are like a series of alarm calls, to wake us up to God’s love and mercy today. Many of the prophets, including the most Christ-like of them, Jeremiah, suffered greatly because of their unpopular message, encouraging people to trust in God’s promises. And they felt the sufferings of their own people. The last book of the Old Testament is the book of the prophet Malachi, who wrote about five hundred years before Christ. Malachi suggests that hope for the future should influence the way we live in the present but people in his society are not living in this way, which is why his prophecies contain some fierce warnings. In the last chapter of his
book Malachi says: ”Surely the day is coming - it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and that day will set them on fire, says the Lord. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves.” A day of judgement and wrath is coming, but those who serve God will be his treasured possession.
Jesus also spoke about judgement and the future, as we were hearing last Sunday. (Mark 13) But he also spoke about the kingdom being already among us, and in St John’s Gospel he emphasises that eternal life begins here and now. God delivers on his promises, as St John declares in the opening chapter of the gospel: "The word became flesh and dwelt among us." The promises that the prophets knew are fulfilled as Jesus shares our humanity, matching words with deeds. In Advent we try to trust in these promises.
A prayer to finish:
Come among us , Lord Jesus, come and bring light to dispel our darkness, come and bring hope to drive out our fear, come and bring joy to banish our sorrow; come and bring love to fill our hearts, that through us the world may be drawn to your light. Amen
Thoughts for Advent Sunday 29th November
Jeremiah 33:14-16 Mark 13
Apocalyptic ideas are prominent in our scripture readings at the beginning of Advent. Bible scholars debate the origins of the world view or mindset that lies behind this literature, found in the prophets, the Book of Daniel, the Book of Revelation, and parts of Jesus’ teaching in the gospels. It is generally agreed that there are elements of dualism (good versus evil), pessimism (times are extremely tough) and immanence ( so bad that the world as we know it is about to end). Apocalptic reflections often address the concept of judgement, and hopes for a better future.
Our gospel reading today comes from chapter 13 of St Mark’s Gospel, sometimes referred to as ‘the little apocalypse.’ This is a a break in the narrative, between Jesus talking on the Temple mount and the passion narrative in chapters 14 to 16. Jesus talks with Peter,James, John and Andrew about the end of the age, encouraging them to bewatchful and alert, and avoid being deceived.
Advent is a waiting season, as we prepare for and wait for the coming of Christ at Christmas. Christmas is going to be different for all of us this year, in church and at home, but there will still be much to enjoy , and some great music at church. We wait and prepare. But waiting is not always easy: waiting for a bus or train can be frustrating in the cold, as also waiting for a cheque to clear or for pay-day when funds are tight. It can be difficult waiting for an operation when we are unwell, especially at the moment. And waiting for the coming of a baby can be difficult, as it must have been for Mary and Joseph. Waiting in hope that the Lord will deliver on his promises, and waiting for that righteous saviour, which Jeremiah spoke about in the first reading. And Jesus himself had to do some waiting, being open and trusting, seeking out the ways of God and finding the best way to serve. Jesus waited all through his twenties, when others would be active in pursuing their goals. He watched and waited and looked for the best way to serve God and promote the kingdom.
Then he took action and started his 3 year public ministry of teaching and healing and drawing people to know more of God’s love and mercy.
I have spoken about waiting, but there is also watching to be done in Advent. In our gospel story Jesus talks about being on guard - be alert and ready and watch. When he says these things he is talking about the big picture the Bible points to, when things will change and God’s rule or kingdom will finally be established. He is talking about being faithful to our responsibilities, and trying to live in the best possible way, at peace with family and neighbours, and active in the service of others. Jesus is talking to us about kingdom truths and kingdom values, which is why he encourages us to pray the Lord’s Prayer with the petition: THY KINGDOM COME. Jesus is encouraging us to work for the kingdom to come, and we do not do this by being correct, but by opening our hearts to God. We feed our connection to God through our thinking and praying and worship together. We watch for the kingdom and we wait for Christmas, trusting that God has changed things through the baby at Bethlehem, and confident that Jesus shines on us with God’s love.
A prayer to finish:
God of signs and wonders, we come to your words in Scripture, seeking understanding and trust. By the power of your Holy Spirit illumine our hearts and minds, so that we may believe the New Testament witness and have eternal life. We ask this through Jesus Christ our teacher and saviour. Amen.
Thoughts for Christ the King 22 November, 2020-11-20
Ephesians 1:15-23 Matthew 25 :31 -40
At the end of the church year we are asked to think about the rule and kingship of Christ. When we think of rulers we might consider leaders in the Bible like David and Solomon, Egyptian pharaohs or Roman emperors like Augustine or Hadrian, or the man who played a pivotal part in settling the Christian church, the Emperor Constantine. These were people with solid worldly power and influence.
What about Jesus as king? In the Hebrew Bible people thought of God as a king. Psalm 97 opens with: “ The Lord is king: let the earth rejoice.“ Early Christians used the title ‘king’ for Jesus. He was called ‘King of the Jews’ and mocked as an earthly king at his trial. He preached the kingdom of God and his parables were of the kingdom. But his kingship is also different to worldly power. As Jesus says at his trial before Pilate, “ My kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36) It is to do with this world - our world - but it is different, to do with hearts and minds, with ideas and forces for good, and stepping out with a measure of kindness and care. And this is the point of the parable today, the parable of the sheep and the goats. We are being asked to do our best to help the hungry and thirsty, the naked and those in need of shelter, strangers and refugees, the sick and those in prison.
Although part of the story appeals to me, we have to face the fact that Jesus paints a picture of a great final judgement with humanity being sorted into the good and the bad, the sheep and the goats. This story gripped the imagination of the medieval church, with many a wall-painting depicting it in English churches above the chancel arch, and it adds a fierce element to the music of Verdi’s Requiem - dies irae, day of judgement. On the right, the righteous ascending to heavenly bliss, and Jesus saying to them, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance.” On the left the sinful falling into a pit of eternal fire prepared for the devil and all his angels. We were thinking about making choices good or bad when we looked at Psalm One in the Advent Group on Friday.
Do we think Jesus intended this to be the way to understand God’s judgement? A liberal minded Christian today finds it difficult to imagine Jesus permanently rejecting people and excluding them from God’s love, unless we think of evil people such as Stalin ,who have excluded themselves from the mercy of God, by their life and actions. Some want to suggest that this parable is an example of a religious teacher’s hyperbole; pointing up extremes in order to promote what is good and valuable. And the church has tended to suggest that the goats were simply any who had broken the commandments, thieves and murderers., and so on.
Many Bible commentators want to say that the parable is less about judgement and more about KINDNESS, and rewards for kindness, and for those ready to help. The sheep are not blessed for their faith or their diligence in prayer, or their knowledge of the Scriptures, or for acknowledging Jesus as King. They are blessed for their behaviour and their kindness; their concern for the weakest and most vulnerable in society, and their willingness to stand by people in need. The Church has taken these things in the parable and fashioned them into seven acts of mercy. These are:
1. Feeding the hungry
2. Giving water to the thirsty
3. Welcoming strangers and clothing the naked
4. Sheltering the homeless
5.Visiting the sick.
6. Visiting the imprisoned
7. Caring for the Dying and Burying the Dead
Six of these are drawn from the parable and the church has added number seven. We are called to be a community that lives out these acts of mercy as disciples of Christ.
I suggest that there are three important things to draw from the parable of the sheep and the goats. Firstly, the righteous do not know the acts of charity they are performing - they just respond naturally to needs. Their righteousness is visible to God and to those who benefit from their generous spirit. In the parable they ask: “Lord when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?" Secondly Jesus says that in serving others we encounter him - we help Jesus if we help a hungry person. This is surely an encouragement to us. We all have days when we feel low or miserable, and just don’t want to talk to Auntie Joan who is ringing us up with another moan about her arthritis. The King says: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”Thirdly Jesus talks of “whatever you did for one” Jesus does not burden us with impossible expectations, and he doesn’t want us to feel guilty about the problems of the world or the needs we encounter. We are not expected to help thirty people a week, but if we can help one, we are being a true disciple of Jesus.
This might mean stopping to talk with Big Issue sellers and buying the magazine, or opening the door to that lad from Sheffield who had just come out of prison. We might not think much of the scheme but buying something we do not need is helping an ex-offender. And we might think about our eating and shopping habits and the choices we can still make to promote trade justice. And we can do our best to seek information about what others with more time and energy are doing for others, that may inform our prayers. We cannot be on top of every situation or need but we can hold them before God in prayer.
When we step out on behalf of other people we are stepping out for Jesus. He is the one we try to follow, taking courage from his life and teaching. Jesus’ kingship is revealed in the service of others. The light of God’s love and glory shines through his humility and service, and his death on the cross, where he reigns as our King.
Stir up your power O God, and come among us. Heal our wounds, calm our fears, and strengthen us for your service, through Jesus Christ our Lord and King. Amen.
Thoughts for All Souls’ Service 15 November 2020
Wisdom 3 John 14:1-6
Last year the Church of England published three booklets to help people think about the Christian faith, written by Steven Croft the Bishop of Oxford. One was a general introduction, with thoughts on the Apostle’s creed, the Lord’s Prayer and the Beatitudes, the second went into more depth with the Beatitudes and the third delved deeper into the Lord’s Prayer. Each booklet has at the beginning some questions set out in an old teaching style. Here are two from the book on the Beatitudes:
Pilgrim, what is the Christian vision for the world? The Christian vision for the world is one where God reigns in justice, peace and love.
Pilgrim, what is the hope in which a Christian lives? A Christian lives in the sure and certain hope that as Jesus Christ rose from the dead, so he will come again in glory to judge the world. Christians believe that God will renew the heavens and the earth, and that beyond death we will enjoy eternal life with God.
I thought it worth quoting from that teaching document, since hope is the context for our thinking and remembering in the month of November.. Christian hope is about life beyond death and connected to the Cross and our Easter faith. We joined earlier in saying the canticle from the book of Wisdom, one of the books of the Apocraphya, books between the two testaments: The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God - they are at peace. God tested them and found them worthy.
Here is hope in God and his good purposes for his people, before Jesus’ time. But we Christians relate our hope to Jesus, focussing on his resurrection and our union with him through baptism and participation in the eucharist. Every eucharist celebrates the cross and resurrection, and at baptism we pray that the newly baptised will be made one with Christ in his death and resurrection. This aspect was especially emphasised in the early years of the church, when baptism generally took place in a sunken pool of water. You walked down into the waters on one side, and were immersed in the waters in the name of the Trinity. Then you walked up the stairs on the other side and were given a white garment to wear, to symbolise that you had entered the new resurrection life of Jesus Christ.
What we share in through the sacraments and the fellowship of the church should give us a measure of hope. In this service we pray for the departed with confidence in what Jesus has done: we affirm together our hope of shared eternity with those we love but no longer see. Our words and affirmations do not always match what we are feeling inside, because we can be fearful and anxious about all this for ourselves and those we say goodbye to. It can be difficult to let the departed rest in God’s peace when we are so often reminded of how much we miss them. God knows this, and Jesus, who wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus, also knows this.
We look for strength within the Christian fellowship, bringing memories and gratitude, fears and regrets into our prayers, bringing this to Jesus who faced death on the cross for us. We look for a measure of trust, trust in the record of the New Testament, and those who, through the ages have had glimpses of heaven, confessing their faith in the resurrection to eternal life. And a service for All Souls’ proclaims our common mortality, expressed in hopes of shared eternity.
‘Eternal life’ is something Jesus often speaks about, especially in the gospel of John. Our second reading came from John chapter 14, a passage which is often read at funerals: in my Father’s house are many dwelling places or mansions or resting places; different places for those who have passed through death. Perhaps these words spring from Jesus’ familiarity with the psalms. Psalm 23 finishes with the hope – ‘I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.’
This home, this heavenly home is designed to cater for everyone, each according to their need and personality - each created by God, and welcomed home. This mansion or dwelling place is a place of security and peace, a place where we are draw along to be the people God wants us to be. And this resting place in God’s house offers us wholeness too. We and those we love take with us the person we have been and the person we have failed to be. . We grow and reach our fulfilment as human beings in the nearer presence of God . We follow Jesus , who is our way, our truth and our life. We follow him to that resting place , keeping in our hearts those we love, but no longer see. This is part of the hope which Christian pilgrims live with today.
Direct us O Lord in all our doings with thy most gracious, and further us with thy continual help: that in all our works, begun, continued and ended in thee, we may glorify thy Name, and finally by thy mercy, obtain everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Thoughts for Remembrance Sunday
1 Peter 1:3-9 John 15:12-17
The Bible tells of many individuals whose lives were transformed by an intervention from God. Moses was looking after his father-in-law’s sheep when God spoke to him from the burning bush and commissioned him to lead the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the promised land. David was called to national leadership from the secluded rural life of a shepherd. Prophets like Amos and Jeremiah were called to speak out, often against their own people and governments, when silence would have been safer. St Paul was called from the way of zealous persecution to friendship with Jesus. And we could talk of thousands through the ages, people like John and Charles Wesley, who have responded to the call - often when that call was not immediately welcomed. A positive response to a call from God often involves inconvenient and radical re-orientation: roots have to be broken up, well established relationships broken, and assurances about the future exchanged for discomforting uncertainty. For many people whose story is recorded in the Bible this was so, and they had to face difficult decisions and take risks.
Jesus was clear about this, warning his disciples that they would face hardships, and that standing up for the truth could involve conflict within families and communities. This is part of what he meant when talking about taking up the cross - if you want to be my disciple you must be ready to face trials. And Jesus knew all about man’s inhumanity to man, suffering that death on the Cross. According to John’s account Jesus spoke about this the night before he died, as they were seated around the supper table. We heard this in the goepel reading, Jesus giving the command to love, and then saying: “Greater love hath no one than this, that a man layeth down his life for his friends.” These are the words we find on war memorials up and down the land, showing that Jesus is ready to die for his friends, and to pay the ultimate sacrifice. And he does this to help his friends and disciples bear fruit for God.
Part of bearing fruit today is learning from the past, and doing our remembering well. Remembering is at the heart of the Christian gospel: Do this in remembrance of me says Jesus at the Last Supper. And on the Cross the penitent thief says to Jesus: Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom. But remembrance is more than regretful recollection. As we remember we bring things together: we bring out of the past and into the present those people whom we have loved and lost; those whom we still love but see no longer; those to whom we owe much but cannot pay our thanks and respect enough.
Remembrance is the opposite of dismembering, which happens so much in war and conflict, and alas, has been a hallmark of Donald Trump’s presidency. To dismember is to take apart, to pull apart something that should be held together. Remembering is pulling together something that was already whole. So the thief on the cross is asking Jesus to remake, redeem and reconcile him, so that he can be the whole person God intends. Thus Remembrance Sunday calls us to pray for our world and ourselves , so that we can turn to healing and wholeness and redemption. We build on the dedication and self-sacrifice of the past, and so work for a better world. We do not have to reach so far to recall great acts of heroism in times of war and tragedy.We know about this in South Africa and Northern Ireland, Rwanda and former Yugoslavia.
Many historians, filmmakers and novelists have helped us to think about the experiences of those who fought in the trenches, including the film of last year, 1917. And we learn about those who went through Dunkirk or D Day (Saving Private Ryan)or Pearl Harbour, and what it was like to live through saturation bombing in Dresden in 1945. Millions of civilian tragedies, six million Jews dead, and all those in eastern Europe who exchanged the tyranny of Nazi Germany for the cold, dead hand of the Soviet Union..
And films have helped us to know about more recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq , and a novel published last year, The Beekeeper of Allepo, tells us of the shocking violence in Syria, and the terrible tragedies that refugees face as they journey hopefully to a safe western state.
Today we remember some of this we try to remember and forgive. Many of you will have seen the film, The Railway Man, starring Colin Firth. This is about a Scottish man who goes back to Burma to meet one of the Japanese guards from his wartime camp. It was a journey of forgiveness and reconciliation, hard for many people to manage. I often think of our brave sovereign lady, Queen Elizabeth. On a visit to Northern Ireland she shook hands with a politician who, as a member of the I.R.A., had planned the murder of her uncle, Lord Mountbatten. But costly acts of forgiveness are being offered all the time. And we try to be forgiving as we remember and give thanks for the courage of those who have stood up for what is right: for costly and sacrificial gifts that have been given: for the yesterdays of others that have enabled our tomorrows. We give thanks for the souls and saints we cherish, and those whom we love but no longer see. And we remember those who kept the home fires burning, who kept and held us and our families together - parents and grandparents, family and friends, teachers and youth club leaders, godparents and church communities.
In some reflections on sacrifice and remembrance Archbishop Rowan Williams talks of learning from world conflicts that the good of one and the good of all are inseparable. And he notes that following two world wars there was a renewed and deepened commitment to justice and equality, and a vision of interdependence and mutual service.
Here are some further words of the Archbishop’s to finish:
In giving thanks for the courage and self-giving of so many who have stepped into the breach and risked their lives for the sake of others, for the sake of justice, for the sake of liberty, we pray for our world, remembering that our duty and our call is to help people find God’s love and peace, and to know that the suffering of one and the suffering of all cannot be separated. May God give us the strength and the clarity to work for those things as the best way to honour those we remember on Remembrance Sunday. Amen
Thoughts for 25th October : Last Sunday after Trinity
It is often said that in the Anglican church we have three signposts for the Christian way: Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. By reason we mean thrinking things through, consulting the best of modern scholarship on an issue - medical ethics or climate change or our justice system. In referring to scripture we mean that we pay attention to the 66 books of the Bible. We think about the teaching of Jesus as it relates to Christian living and discipleship today: maybe giving special attention to the Sermon on the mount in St Matthew’s Gospel chapters 5-7, and the iconic parables of St Luke. By tradition we mean giving attention to the customs and traditions of Christian communities over the centuries, seeing how they evolved, and working out how they help the life of the church today.
About 60 years after Jesus died the church around the Mediterranean sea started to organise under the leadership of overseers or bishops in every major centre of population. I think that this form of church government makes sense, and that it is good that the Church of England stuck with this part of church tradition. At the time of the reformation other groups gave up having bishops. I also think it is good that, having studied the issues, and examined the scriptures, we have chosen to depart from the tradition in respect of divorce and women in ministry. And I think it is good that, in the Anglican church we stayed with the ancient customs valuing the sacraments, ways in which special moments are blessed by God. We speak of seven sacraments: marriage, holy unction, Holy Orders, Reconciliation of a Penitent (or Confession), Baptism ,Confirmation and Eucharist . At the reformation some groups decided not to accept all of these, but all do accept Baptism and the Eucharist. A sacrament has an outward and visible sign pointing to a spiritual grace or truth. At Baptism the pouring of water symbolises the cleansing and forgiving power of God as we enter the family of the church. And at confirmation we say that we confirm for ourselves the promises made for us at baptism, and receive a blessing of the Holy Spirit to help us live the Christiian life. But confirmation is no longer, as it once was, the passport to receiving communion at the Eucharist. As the church has recovered a stronger sense of the importance of baptism, confirmation features less. In the diocese of Southwark, which is London south of the river, children are admitted to communion from the age of 7, and adults who are at home in a church community are always welcome to receive communion. I have always followed their thinking for adults, but preferred to stick with confirmation with a bishop for the young.
When we turn to the teachings of Jesus we find he works at reasoning things through, and encourages people to think about the traditions and the scriptures, trying to point to a better way, and avoiding giving offence by suggesting that any one of the 613 commandments of the Hebrew Scriptures should be ignored. He reaches into the tradition by drawing together in summary two different commandments as many Jewish teachers did. And here we are talking about general precepts and customs, not the Ten Commandments given to Moses in the book of Exodus (chapter 20) For Christians the most important books of the Bible are in the New Testament, the 4 gospels: Matthew Mark Luke and John. These give us words and deeds and teachings of Jesus. Every Sunday we read from one of them, and we generally stand for that reading, to honour Jesus. The first five books of the Old Testament are the most important foe Jewish people - Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteuronomy. These books give us the creation stories, the covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the stories of the Hebrew people in Egypt, and then escaping from Egypt under Moses and reaching the promised land.
Jesus quotes form Deuteronomy: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart……….’
And then from Leviticus: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ He is suggestingt that these are the commandments or scriptural tenets which underpin everything. If we are truly loving God then we are going to show respect and honour to our neighbours, meaning those with whom our lives are connected. Loving God affects the way we think and respond to people and situations, and helps us to think about priorities, and work for the good. We all need help with this,which is why we are encouraged to turn to the Scriptures, and to think about the teachings of Jesus. And we are regularly encouraged to turn to the psalms, the prayer poems of the Hebrew Scriptures, the prayer book of Jesus and his friends. It was natural that Christians took these into the worship of the church - they are prayers of trust, exploring the heights and dephs of human emotion, and helping people to stretch towards integrated and truthful ways of living. In a joint letter this week the Archbishops of Canterbury and York encouraged us to look for resilience and trust, reminding us that God gives space for lament, grief, anger and tears. We see this above all in the psalms, and in the New Testament we see God facing pain and grief as Jesus dies on the cross: God stands with people who suffer, and stands with us all at this time.
In our Advent Group.which this year will be a zoom meeting, we shall take some time with 5 psalms, encouraging us with trust, including the 23rd Psalm. Today we joined together in saying part of Psalm 90, which is about God’s time and our time, and ends with a plea that God will prosper our lives and works. In, a new book of prayers and reflections on the psalms, Stephen Cherry wrote this prayer to go with our psalm:
O God of endless ages, we look to you from the midst of our current crisis, and we are overwhelmed by our lack of power and wisdom. Look with pity on our condition, console our hearts and strengthen our resolve. Bless all who seek your will, and all who are working to further your purposes, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Thoughts for St Luke’s Day 18 October 2020
2 Timothy 4 and Luke 15: 11-32
Some of you know that I have a new lodger called Luke. He is 4 months old and jet black. He grew up in a house with mother and five brothers and sisters , and there were also two dogs and five humans . There was lots of love, so Luke is the most friendly and affectionate cat as well as the most intelligent in west London,;he loves books, and his party piece is pulling books off shelves , particularly church books which have ribbons which are fun to chew. Like many young animals he loves shoes and shoe laces, running up and down stairs and curtains and furniture and he seems to have been a circus cat in a former life, as he is capable of great leaps and acrobatics. He is memerised by the washing machine and the computer, often jumping on the keyboard and adding his own letters and symbols to documents. Sometimes he sits in a dignified postion putting me in mind of the sphinx at Cairo in Egypt, which is appropriate as apparently it was the ancient Egyptians who first domesticated cats.
So several thousand years before Christ there were cats bringing joy and pleasure to people, and St Luke must have encountered them when he travelled around the eastern Mediterranean with St Paul, and in Greece where he is said to have settled in later life. He was a 2nd generation Christian who never met Jesus, but came to faith through those who did, and he is described in the letter to the Colossians as the beloved physician. Tradition has it that he took to painting and was the first to paint icons, so he is the patron saint of artists as well as doctors and the healing ministry. For St Luke healing is the restoration of human dignity and harmony, and it features prominently in his two books - the Acts of the Apostles and the gospel of Luke, the Acts being the story of the young church after the resurrection. The gospel helps us especially with proclaiming the major feasts of the church year, Christmas, Candlemas, Easter Day and Pentecost, and he exclusively contributes to liturgical prayer with the canticles Benedictus, Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis. Luke writes in order to liberate people from what holds them down, and depicts in vivid ways the people who inhabit the narratives, the parables and stories. Women play a fuller part in St Luke’s Gospel, and there is great stress on prayer, and on Jesus as a man of prayer. St Luke has a special concern for the poor and outcasts, and makes us aware of the way in which Jesus looks at people - trying to love them into a better way.
It is Luke only who gives us the premier parables : the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. The Prodigal Son comes from chapter 15 of the gospel, which is all about the lost and found, with the other stories of the Lost Sheep and Lost Coin - all designed to encourage us to make our way home to the Father. St Luke depicts Jesus as the true physician who heals our wounds and leads us to healthy ways of living, which is what many encounters and parables are about. The word ‘prodigal’ can mean wasteful, reckless or extravagant, and the parable is partly about a son who decides he has had enough of family life, demands his share of the family money and goes off and spends it on riotous living. But some Bible scholars think the story should b called ‘the Prodigal Father’ , because it is about a Father who recklessly pours out his love, waits for his son to have a change of heart and comes to his senses, and when this happens rushes out to meet him and welcomes him back with a party.
When he reaches rock bottom the lost son has one of those monologues which often apear in ancient stories and fables: they help the reader to understand the characters and identify wither situations. There is some stock-taking and then consideration of the way forward, leading to action, sorrow and repentance. In this parable the son says: ‘I will set out and go back to my Father.’ So the younger son was lost and then found, and the story illustrates how much rejoicing there is in heaven when somebody who gets lost in bad ways finds a better path.
In one of his books the theologian and ethicist Robin Gill sees the focus of the parable in the compassionate father, responding with strong emotions to his returned son. Ane he refers to the elder son as the less than compassionate one, because of the way he responds to his father’s actions. When we have talked about this in study groups we have tended to feel rather sorry for the elder son, perhaps knowing something of sibling rivalries and jealousies. I always rather hope that the smell of good food (the fatted calf) or just the infectious joy of his father’s love might have melted the man’s heart, and that he would have joined the party and been reconciled.
Anselm Gruen, a writer and commentator from the Benedictine monastery at Munsterscharzach in Germany, suggests that this parable should be called the parable of 2 Lost Sons. One has gone astrat in reckless living, and the other, the elder son, has got lost in conformist living. The Father invites them both to leave behind their ‘lostness’ and to join him in the feast. As Simon was reminding us in his sermon last week, many of the parables and encounters include an invitation, an invitation to join in the wedding supper of the lamb, an invitation to join in the mercy forgiveness and love shared in the eucharist.
If we follow Anselm Gruen’s way of thinking about the parable, we can see it underscored by the context of these stories in chapter 15, when we hear that Jesus reponds to the Pharisees and scribes who are complaining about him mixing with sinners. Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners in order to make God’s mercy and love visible. Also to show that God loves the lost and longs to draw them home. So these parables of chapter 15 answer some of Jesus’ critics and offer an invitation: to come to Jesus and find God’s love and forgiveness, to reach repentance and find fresh hope, and find our way home.
Pilgrim God, we thank you for granting us the freedom to seek and find you, and we ask that we may draw inspiration and courage from St Luke’s writings for the journey of faith, that we may find our way home to you, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
Thoughts for Trinity 16 27 September
Phillipians 2:1-13 Matthew 21:23-32
In September 1935 the Nuremberg Laws removed the civil rights of Jewish people in Germany. Two weeks later the Confessing Church, a division of the German Lutheran church, held its synod. Some present, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer,( Lutheran pastor, theologian and spiritual writer) wanted their church to actively oppose the Nazi persecution of the Jews. But most wanted to avoid the issue, and in the end they passed a resolution supporting Jewish Christians, but failing to condemn the persecution of all Jews. As in other times of Christian history the leaders were more concerned about state interference in church affairs, and internal disagreements, than they were infighting oppression. In effect they colluded with a tyrannical regime.
In the gospel story today the chief priests and elders are in a similar position to church leaders in 1930’s Germany. They are living under Roman occupation, and whilst not supporting the values of a pagan Roman state, they are unwilling to oppose it. When Jesus arrives in the Temple the authorities immediately challenge him. As far as they are concerned he has already proved to be disruptive and provocative. Earlier in the week he stirred up the crowds as he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. The he visited the Temple where he threw out the money-changers and dove-sellers, and set up an impromptu clinic to heal blind and lame people. He was challenging the staus quo and putting the authorities relations with Roman in jeopardy. So they decide he must go, and are trying to entrap him so that they can charge him with blasphemy. So they ask: ’by what authority are you doing these things. Jesus deftly avoids the trap and sets his own by asking them a question: ‘Did the baptism of John came from heaven, or was it of human origin.’
The chief priests and the elders don’t know what to say. They had ignored John’s call to repentance., so if they say ‘from heaven’, their hypocrisy will be obvious. But they are afraid of the crowds, who did believe in John and recognised him as a prophet. If they say that John’s baptism was human in origin they could be attacked. So they dodge the question and claim not to know the answer. And then Jesus underscores their hypocrisy with a parable.
There is a father who has two sons. The first refuses to do what his dad wants, but later changes his mind and does it anyway. Some suggest this son represents tax collectors and others who live outside the Jewish law. Many of these heard John the Baptist preaching; they believed him and changed their ways. The second son says that he will do what the father wants, but doesn’t. This son represents the chief priests and elders, religious professionals who have promised to do God’s will. Yet they reject John’s prophetic message, following their own path. Jesus suggests that those who listen and repent and change their ways – however marginalized – are going to be first in the kingdom of God. And those who wear their religion on their sleeves and always talk as if they know what God wants - well, these may have more of a struggle. Writing from a Muslim perspective there is a similar message in the Turkish writer Elif Shafak’s latest novel, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize last year. The novel is called,’!0 minutes, 38 seconds in this Strange World’, and the central character is Leila, who runs away from her oppressive family in eastern Turkey, and falls into prostitution when she reaches Istanbul. It is a brilliant and deeply spiritual tale, recognising how we can all swing between wanting to work for good things, for justice, but often find it easier to go slow and stick to our own safe circles.
St Paul always encourages us to look to Jesus to help us navigate the complexities of our world. To think about how he would react to what we face, and to try to put others before ourselves. And Paul asks us to learn from the humility celebrated in the praise poem he includes in chapter 2 of his letter to the Philippians. On the sheets the part indented is thought to be an early Christian poem, giving thanks for Jesus’ humility and obedience and self-emptying, stretching even to death on a cross. And because of that humility and obedience, God has highly exalted him, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow. And Paul is inviting his readers to understand their own circumstances and trials not according to the
mind-set of imperia,l Rome, but in terms of an alternative story. It is to the crucified one, not the powers who executed him, that every knee shall bend. And bending the knee to Jesus, like taking the knee in the United States today, has its political dimension, for those who want to see a more just and equal society. For Dietrich Bonhoeffer it meant execution by the Gestapo in 1945.
A Prayer from 1940
Heavenly Father, by your son Jesus Christ you have set on earth a kingdom of holiness to measure its strength against all others: make faith to prevail over fear, righteousness over force and truth over the lie, and love and concord over all things; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
Thoughts for Trinity 15 20th September 2020
2 Corinthians 4:1-6 Matthew 9:9-13
St Matthew was one of the original followers and friends of Jesus, and we heard today of his call. He was at work at his day job, when Jesus called him to join his band of workers for the kingdom. The incident took place at Capernaum, the centre of Jesus’ ministry around the Sea of Galilee. It is a small place, so we must not think that this is the first time Matthew and Jesus had encountered one another. I imagine that Matthew had often stood at the back of a crowd in the market place listening to Jesus, or slipped into a courtyard where Jesus was talking to a group in someone’s house.
Matthew was dissatisfied with his way of life and ready for a change Jesus seemed to know what was in people’s hearts and minds and so knew when Matthew was ready for this. So with a look as powerful as his simple words Jesus invited Matthew to join God’s family, to join in promoting God’s kingdom. ( A look famously portrayed by the artist Caravaggio on a large canvass in a church in Rome) Jesus saw that Matthew’s need for a change could be used for God’s glory. He is said to have taken the gospel as far as Persia and Ethiopia, where he worked with the same Ethiopian official who was baptised by the deacon Phillip, and to have been a leader of the church in Antioch in northern Syria, from where the gospel that bears his name emerged.
Most Bible scholars think that the person responsible for editing the first gospel in the New Testament was not the same as the apostle Matthew. But some argue that the apostle Matthew may be the source for much of the teaching and parables which appear only in this gospel, including the sermon on the mount. And many suggest this gospel came from the church community the apostle Matthew had founded, so it was given the name Matthew. The editor seems to have been educated in the tradition of Jewish scribes, and to be very aware of the tensions between Christians and Jews. He shows considerable knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures, and the way in which things happened with the result that O.T. scripture was fulfilled. He also has a more developed sense of the church as a community of believers, again possibly as a result of the particular flavour of the church in Antioch.
Coming back to the apostle Matthew the tax-collector, on the day he joined Jesus’ band, he was in a way re-joining the family from which the Pharisees had excluded him. People tended to dislike tax-collectors because they worked for the occupying powers and were often extortioners ( see the story of Zacchaeus) but they were also placed alongside those leading an immoral life. According to the Pharisees they belonged to an unclean profession, along with shepherds, tanners and camel drivers. So calling an outsider like Matthew to join him in God’s work highlights the running controversy between Jesus and the Pharisees about ritual purity. Jesus excludes noone from the kingdom because of their profession or life-style, and so he was happy to sit at table in Matthew’s home eating with those whom others saw as sinners. ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor but those who are sick.’ Knowing how he offends the Pharisees Jesus quotes from the prophet Hosea.
‘Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy - not sacrifice.’
In the original context the prophet was complaining about people in his society who were careful about their religious duties, but not good at looking out for their neighbours or the vulnerable in their community. Jesus felt there were many in his day who needed to hear the same message. Mercy seems to be about reaching out to other people with a measure of God’s compassion and love and forgiveness: starting where people are rather than where you would like them to be. The way some Pharisees operated was putting people into boxes marked sinner, expecting people to reach a certain standard before they would take notice of them. Jesus tells us to share God’s mercy and to try not to judge or belittle others. Because of his closeness to God he felt free to mix with every body and not worry about some of the customs and purity rules. Anchored firmly at the centre of God’s great family Jesus found the freedom to do what he thought was right, including calling Matthew to join his company.
Father we thank you for the witness of your apostle Matthew, and ask that we also may encounter you and know your truths and peace, through Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour. Amen.
Thoughts for 2 August
Genesis 32 Wrestling Jacob
Matthew 14 The Feeding of the 5000
Wrestling Jacob - what does this story have to tell us? Jacob, who has not been a good example in terms of faith and goodness, is con-fronted by God on his own at night when his defenses are down. In the deep expanses of the night Jacob wrestles with God. He pits his strength against God, and almost wins. But he is changed and broken by the experience, and his thigh is put out of joint, and as the sun rises he lopes off across the desert.
Jacob’s strength and priorities were reordered by this experience, and now he is ready to be God’s servant. Sometimes we all need rescuing form our sins and weaknesses, but also from our strengths.
Our strengths can blind us and stop us living fruitfully. Jacob, till this point, had always been in control, the manipulator who stole his brother’s birthright and over-reached. Now he is overtaken by God, and finds where real strength is to be found. He is under new management and able to play his part in God’s plans for his family and people. Jacob was chosen, and now converted, turned around, but not without some pain and discomfort.
Turning to our gospel story, the Feeding of the 5000, we have people maybe thirty years after the event reflecting on what it was like to be with Jesus in a deserted place. The stories circulated in the oral tradition which someone collected together and then appeared in the four gospels. Remembering that special event they would have spoken of Jesus walking about among them, talking, helping, healing. He couldn’t have spoken to 5000 people at the same time: he must have wandered among groups. And later, when it dawned on them that they were hungry and far from sources of food, Jesus was the one who solved the problem.
The gospel editors saw this as a miracle. Jesus as God’s son has power over creation, and uses that power to multiply loaves and fish in order to feed the hungry. The gospels suggest that Jesus is often empowered by divine grace to go beyond human power in order to meet particular needs. Some Bible commentators have suggested that it was more a miracle of sharing: Jesus was a powerful figure who persuaded the crowds to do good things - in this case share their picnics. Others have seen the Feeding of the 5000 as a meditation on sacramental things: God uses ordinary things, bread, wine, fish and water to feed and sustain his people. And among those present at this feeding there would have been those remembering stories of God feeding his people in miraculous ways in the Hebrew Scriptures - manna to sustain the people in the wilderness, ravens to feed the prophet Elijah, Elijah feeding 100 soldiers with 20 barley loaves and a few ears of corn. In each case things looked hopeless, but God provided, as Jesus provided for the 5000.Jesus is at the heart of that special day, giving all who were present a special sense of God’s care and love for them.
It is interesting that this feeding, like Jacob’s wrestling, happens in a deserted place., where you often have to wrestle with reality. Jesus had already done this in his time of testing after his baptism, and here he wrestles again with issues of power and need. In St John’s account of the Feeding it becomes clear that this event had something of a political flavour, with 5000 + men (and women and children) banded together with hopes of Jesus leading them in an armed struggle against the Romans. Jesus rejected that power and withdrew from the situation, certain that this was not the way to promote God’s kingdom.
The earliest Christians saw this Feeding story as connected to the banquet at the end of time, but also as a reminder of the eucharist.
In the story Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to those assembled. These are known as the fourfold actions of the eucharist, acted out on behalf of a Christian community by a priest today: taking, blessing, breaking, giving - actions which lead us to Jesus Christ, our living Lord and Saviour, sustainer and friend.
Thoughts for 26th July
St Paul’s Letter to the Romans Short Parables from Matthew 13
The parables we have in the gospel are about priorities. Jesus encourages us to make the things of God’s kingdom important in our lives - things of great price, things of lasting and deep value, such as truth, goodness, integrity, justice, loyalty and hope. The reading from St Paul gives us words of hope, asserting that nothing can separate us from the love of God. This is one of St Paul’s lists, where he builds up thoughts of triumph in the face of adversity in a lyrical way, arising form his own experiences. In this year of the three year lectionary we have several readings for the letter to the Romans, so it seems worth thinking about the letter.
This is St Paul’s longest letter (16 chapters) and he wrote it in the year 56 whilst staying in Corinth, preparing the ground for his visit to Rome. He intended to move on to Spain, but it turned out that he went to Rome as a prisoner in chains, and was martyred there in the year 64. In this letter Paul set out to deal with some tricky questions:
1. Why his fellow Jews had rejected Jesus?
2. How far new Christians who were non-Jews should be required to follow Jewish customs?
Paul sees Jews and Gentiles as being one in Christ, so he asserts converted Gentiles should not have to be circumcised before baptism. He wants Jewish people who become Christian to share
worship and social life with Christians of any background.
St Paul also speaks in this letter of being justified by faith - I was referring to this a few weeks back. Being justified by faith means being in line with God’s ways, and in a right relationship with God. And according to Paul justification is a free gift, it is grace. And grace leads to hope, and hope is related to our future, which is made secure by the gracious work of God in Christ Jesus. This is the kind of circular argument by which Paul makes his case, always aware of the reality of human weakness and suffering.
In chapter 8 of the letter Paul speaks of a God active in relation to human beings, calling, confirming, justifying, strengthening, and he asserts nothing - no powers, no sin, no evil - can separate us from the love of God. Sin and evil have no ultimate power, as we grow in discipleship and turn from what is bad
This all relates to the way Paul understands baptism. We are baptised into Christ, into a living fellowship with Jesus and his body the church. At baptism we receive the power of the Spirit for making that fresh start., and through it we are united with Christ in his death and resurrection. In the waters of the font we bury badness and rise up to a new future with Jesus. Water is a symbol of spiritual faithfulness and fruitfulness. Sometimes people allow their life experiences to lock them down, so that they dry up and become fearful. Baptism should lead us to a refreshing spring within us, the Holy Spirit. And it is that Spirit that draws us to the good, to the pearl of great price, to the things of lasting value.
The spring within us also helps us with our prayers, and Paul tells us that we have Jesus to help us too. But prayer can still be difficult for us. We are often told that prayer is simply conversation with God, and we can dip into this conversation when we are cutting the grass or tidying the kitchen. Sometimes finding the right words is hard, and sometimes we sense that God knows everything, so why bother? Or we think that our prayer requests are too trivial for the Lord of all creation, or too weighty. - Lord please slaughter tyrants or drug barons or people traffikers These kinds of requests frequently turn up in the prayer poems, the psalms. And we keep on praying that people with power and influence will be turned to the things that make for peace and justice. We naturally bring our personal hopes before God in prayer and the Holy Spirit can bring us beyond words to inner longings and hungers, to parts of our souls that need God’s refreshing love. This is what we see Paul speaking of at the start of our reading : “the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”
Look graciously upon us O Holy Spirit, and give us for our hallowing thoughts that pass into prayer, prayers that pass into love and action, and love that passes into life with you for ever. Amen.
Thoughts for 19th July
Jacob’s Ladder Genesis 28:10-19a
Parable of the Weeds Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
Many of you will have visited Bath and been to Bath Abbey, the medieval church in the centre. Outside the west front of the church someone decided to celebrate the story of Jacob’s ladder, with carved stone angels going up and down ladders either side, connecting us to the divine, and inviting us to enter the house of God.
In the story Jacob is on the run, having stolen his father’s blessing, which rightly belonged to his older brother Esau. Jacob stops to rest at a sacred place, which provides the setting for his dream. God enters Jacob’s world and offers him a blessing through land and descendants, but also promises to be with Jacob throughout his travels. The speech in the dream is followed by Jacob’s response when he awakes. Firstly he comments on the holiness of the place – ‘How awesome is this place - this is the gate of heaven.’ Then Jacob ends by naming the site Bethel - meaning ’house of God’. Later in this chapter of Genesis Jacob lays out five conditions for trusting in God, so he is not at this stage a great example of faith, despite the beautiful vision in his dream. He remains something of a rogue, negotiating a deal with God. Yet God has plans for Jacob, so continues to pursue him, looking for change and renewal, as happens later in Jacob’s story.
We were noting last week that Jesus keeps telling stories and offering suggestive pictures to help people think about God’s kingdom. The stories wheedle their way into the memory, and eat away at the edges of our vision of God. He knew what he was doing when telling stories, which is why he talked about people learning from children. Children are naturally curious, and want to go on wondering and dreaming, and being ready to receive. Following children we can be open to the things of God.
The parable of the weeds affirms this, with God’s sweet refreshing rain falling on the unjust as well as the just. In the story the farmer allows the weeds that have grown up in his field to flourish. He recognises the danger that in weeding, his workers might uproot the good along with the bad, either by negligence or due to mistaking some wheat for weeds.
And the parable is telling us that this is how God intends Christian disciples to live, alongside the good and the bad, believers and non-believers. We are not to shut ourselves away in a fortress, but to live in the real world, with its dangers, trials and challenges. It is a sorry truth that the workers in the parable would have made a mess of the field, and discarded much that was good. And it is also true that some Christians have wanted to push people out, those who didn’t quite fit, and they can get impatient waiting for God’s harvest, and want to do some de-selecting, so that things are tidy. There is some support for this thinking in the Book of Revelation, and the letters of John, and maybe in the teachings of Jesus, such as the end of our reading today - throwing evil-doers into the furnace, ‘where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth ‘ Some would say that Jesus is here stretching a point, and using apocalyptic images from Jewish tradition to encourage people to listen. And in most of his teaching he suggests that we should not expect tidiness and uniformity. Fruitful living means living with anomalies and difference, and being patient with what we do not understand. Jesus invites us to follow a loving, forgiving and merciful God who accepts untidy edges, and wants to keep the gate of heaven open.
A 17th century prayer for a hospital doorway: O God, make the door of this house wide enough to receive all who need human love and fellowship, and narrow enough to shut out all envy, pride and hate. Make its threshold smooth enough to be no stumbling block to children, nor to straying feet, but rugged enough to turn back the tempter’s power: make it a gateway to thy eternal kingdom. Amen.
Thoughts for 12th July Parable of the Sower. Matthew 13:1-9
When we look at the gospels we see that Jesus is a great story-teller. He was an excellent communicator, and led people to see truths through stories about everyday things. Parables are stories with meaning, a bit like Aesop’s Fables, and Jesus used them frequently to tell people about God’s kingdom and values.
Jesus tells stories about people working in the fields, about their experience in sowing seed, about the crops grown on the land, about rain and sunshine, an avaricious man building new barns, about a steward dismissed for corrupt practises, and a vineyard owner who hires new labourers at all times of the day. He engages people with stories that lead to something new, and through parables the audience have their eyes opened. Stories which point us in new directions can rescue us from destructive patterns of living and renew lives. The stories are so important to the teaching of Jesus, because he doesn’t set out a systematic code or body of prohibitions. Jesus simply wants to raise people to God’s ways, to move and touch them, assure them of God’s acceptance, and comfort them. And this is what he wants for us who read the stories today. Christian faith is faith in the living Lord Jesus who speaks to us through the gospels, encouraging us and leading us to God’s grace and peace.
What about today’s parable of the Sower? Is it about the sower – or about his careless method of sowing – or the seeds in the soil – or is it largely about failure versus success. Maybe Jesus was contrasting the initial mixed reception for his message with the fantastic ending: the seed in the good soil yielding 30 / 60 and a hundredfold. Traditionally the church has seen the story as one of fruitfulness, with Jesus as the sower, spreading the word and getting different reactions, with the gospel message eventually spreading throughout the eastern Mediterranean, and reaching the capital of the Roman world. The parable tells us that not every seed bears fruit, and that some seed takes root but never matures. Commitment and perseverance are required, so that seeds may grow fruit in abundance, and new believers may be empowered to do beautiful things for God
Thinking about this parable I am always reminded of the way it is told in the show, ‘Godspel.’ This show is largely based on St Matthew’s Gospel, and when we put it on some years back, some of the chorus had the task of shouting : ‘Good Soil, Good Soil’ -throughout the telling of the story. These were the ones who were going to bear fruit because they had been working on themselves, feeding, nourishing and composting the soil. And the show suggests that they were doing this through prayer, striving for the truth and integrity, good deeds and listening to God’s word. In part this is to do with paying attention to scripture, and reflecting on Jesus’ stories.
So much of Jesus’ teaching was about new life, fresh hope, new opportunities. And this is what lies behind most of the parables, including the parable of the Prodigal Son., a story of a father always ready to forgive and love. In the stories Jesus teaches that a change of heart and mind is always possible - change , repentance and renewal being at the heart of the gospel. The future does not have to be determined by the past – we do not have to be bound in by ancient hatreds - a bad decision or hastily spoken word does not take people outside the range of God’s mercy and love.
The history of the church is full of people who have found grace to change and set off afresh in God’s ways.
St Antony of Egypt - a 3rd century wealthy man of Alexandria, who after listening to the gospels, sold up, and went off to seek God in the desert, where he was joined by many other seekers.
Martin Luther – a 16th century scholar and monk of Germany, who dwelt with the letters of St Paul, and came to see that the church of his day had taken many wrong turns. His witness led to the reformation and the formation of the Lutheran church, and his writings had a profound influence in England.
John Newton, - the 18thcentury slave trader who found peace with God, joined the anti-slavery movement, became an Anglican priest and wrote hymns, including ‘Amazing Grace.’
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound,
that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now I’m found,
was blind but now I see.
By the time he wrote this hymn John Newton was physically blind, but he felt he had gained sight, or spiritual insight, through the gospel of Jesus Christ, through the word of grace that had come to lodge in his heart.
The word, spread by the sower, spread by disciples today, reaches into people’s hearts and minds, and leads them to fruitful change and peace. ‘Amazing Grace.’ Amen.
Thoughts for Pentecost
Some of you will know that Jesus died at the time of an important Jewish festival called Passover, and Pentecost, 50 days later, was originally a spring harvest festival. The earliest Christians took Passover and made it Easter, and Pentecost they made the time to celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit - transforming their lives 50 days after the resurrection. Christians say that the Spirit brings light and warmth and courage, and encouraged the first disciples to share the good news of Jesus, as we heard in the Pentecost story. The Spirit inspires all of us, and at our baptism and confirmation the church prays that we know the power of the Spirit to help us choose what is right and good.
In the days after Easter Jesus met with his friends many times in a new risen form, then he left them at Ascension to be with God. Jesus had promised to send to them a helper and comforter, who came at Pentecost, filling them with new life and energy. One day they were afraid and anxious, staying behind locked doors: the next they were rushing about excitedly, talking about Jesus. They were talking to pilgrims in Jerusalem for the festival, people who came from different parts of the Mediterranean world and spoke many languages. The gift of languages in the story is puzzling for us. Perhaps all we can say is that the coming of the Spirit was a powerful and miraculous event, and St Luke (the author of the Acts of the Apostles) wants to emphasise that the gospel of Jesus Christ is not a local thing, but universal - for all people. And the languages are part of the overflow of praise on this festival day. Jesus’ friends felt that God had visited them with flames of fire on their heads and that the Spirit blew into their lives like a powerful wind. All this enabled them to overcome barriers of understanding. The disciples were all familiar with the first part of our Bibles, the Old Testament or Jewish scriptures, where the Spirit is seen with King David, and with prophets such as Isaiah, Micah and Ezekiel.
The Spirit is a dynamic life-giving force, the power of God leading and guiding his people. In the new testament we see that Jesus is conceived by the Holy Spirit, and receives the Spirit at his baptism. His whole ministry is characterised by the Spirit. At the end of St Matthew’s Gospel, as we shall hear next week, Jesus sends out the disciples to baptize in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. And today we heard of that Spirit coming upon the young Christian community. St Peter in his speech, refers to the way in which this Spirit was predicted by the prophet Joel. St Paul often speaks of the Spirit: wisdom, knowledge, healing, prophecy, discernment, and love are all mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12. And in his letter to the churches in Galatia he speaks of the fruits of the Spirit as: love, joy, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Some Christians say that all the things which make for good and healthy friendships and relationships and communities can be encouraged by what the Spirit generates. The Spirit is a bit like oxygen, essential for all living things - essential for the life and health of the church.
The Holy Spirit helps and gives strength, helping people discover new powers and abilities to help the church grow. And we believe that God wants us to reach out for the Spirit in our lives, so that we can spread more of that love and peace in the world. We do this as we meet with fellow Christians and as we honour God with our ways of living, our worship and our prayers, and as we offer the Lord’s Prayer. One of my favourite hymns has words by Charles Wesley which celebrate this feast, words of praise and prayer:
O thou who camest from above,
the fire celestial to impart,
kindle a flame of sacred love,
on the mean altar of my heart!
Thoughts for the Sunday after Ascension
We think about the Ascension of Christ on this Sunday - the triumph and rule and kingship of Christ as proclaimed in our prayers and hymns. We think of Jesus as one who prays: he prays in the gospel story for protection for the apostles, and for all who follow them. He prays for the church today, as this is his role, his work following the resurrection and ascension. The letter to the Hebrews tells us that ‘Christ ever lives to make intercession for us.’
I have mentioned before a wonderful statue of Christ praying for God’s people, which is at the east end of St Andrew’s Church in Fulham Fields. It is a powerful image, with Jesus standing with his hands outstretched, inviting us to join him in this ministry of prayer. And in these days running up to Pentecost the church encourages us to pray that the Spirit will be with us, and help us to be faithful people of prayer.
The New Testament refers to Jesus as the great high priest. This is because in his day the Jewish people had a community leader
known as the High Priest. This figure was attached to the sacrificial system based at the Jerusalem Temple. Once a year the High Priest entered a special place in the Temple called the Holy of Holies, to pray on behalf of the people. Early Christians wanted to say that Jesus had taken on this role, once and for all. Through his death, resurrection and ascension he had passed through the veil separating earth and heaven, for all time. And in heaven Jesus is busy praying for us, with divine energy and fire.
There are elements of the Ascension story which are puzzling, , including Jesus disappearing in a cloud, and seemingly going away. But the New Testament wants to say that at the Ascension Jesus goes to be with the Father, in order to be with us, to be more intimately present with us for ever. He changes from an earthly perspective to a heavenly vantage point. And the cloud in the story we heard in Acts speaks of presence, not absence. In the Scriptures clouds symbolize the presence of God, God with Moses, God with Jesus at the Transfiguration. The cloud indicates God’s presence here, and in later Christian mysticism. Among Christian mystical writings there is the 14th century English book, the ‘Cloud of Unknowing.’ In this book the Cloud symbolizes the deep and mysterious presence of the divine. We enter this through commitment to a life of prayer.So when Jesus enters the cloud at the ascension he is taken into the very life of God.
Coming back to Jesus’ prayer at the Last Supper we find him praying for protection, for wisdom and trust, and for unity. He
prays that the Spirit will come and bring strength and comfort, energy and love to all who follow him. He knows that the disciples are going to desert him during the night, and that they and all who follow will face difficult choices, temptations and challenges. Jesus prays that we may come through them, to find the joy and peace of eternal life.
Some people think of the Ascension as another bereavement for Mary and the friends of Jesus, but in their time of prayer together they come to see that they are being asked to let go in order to receive the fullness of his love and presence., and the promised gift of the Spirit.
We praise and bless you, risen and ascended Lord: help us to share in your ministry of prayer, and to know your presence and love in these challenging times. To you Lord Jesus, with us to the end of the age, be honour and glory, now and for ever. Amen.
Thoughts for the Sixth Sunday in Easter
During Eastertide we always have readings from The Acts of the Apostles, as this book tells us what happened to the friends of Jesus after the resurrection, and how they respond to the good news of Easter: how they honour Jesus, how they live and worship and share the faith. The reading today is part of the story of Philip, one of the star preachers of the early church. In the story Philip is directed to help out an Ethiopian official, clearly a Jew, who has been on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. On his way home he was reading from the prophet Isaiah, from chapter 53, the passage about a suffering servant, one way of thinking about God’s messiah. This is one of the passages Jesus must have shared with the disciples on the road to Emmaus on the first Easter Day, as it goes to the heart of his understanding of his role. The New Testament suggests that Jesus’ friends are not to see his death on the cross as a humiliating defeat, because the suffering was forseen, and it is a way of publicizing God’s manifesto and kingdom. The passage the Ethiopian was reading was thus a gift to Philip, and before long the man was so attracted by Philip’s teaching that he wanted to be baptized, and to be part of the new movement, the Christian way.
Our gospel reading gives us Jesus sitting with his friends at the last meal they have together, the night before he dies. Jesus tries to prepare the disciples for life after he has gone, as he knows that his time is short, and that he will soon be arrested and killed. Some people think this is a little like a last will and testament : Jesus does not have money or possessions to leave to his friends, but what he has to leave them will enrich them for ever. He talks about peace and dwelling or abiding with the Father, and he says,‘I will not leave you orphaned.’ This is because he is sending the gift of the Spirit, the advocate, the comforter, the spirit of truth to help them, guide them and inspire them. The Spirit will touch them with Jesus’ love and strength and remind them of his teaching. And the primary focus is to do with love, not romantic love but the higher love which St Paul speaks about in his first letter to the church at Corinth. This is enduring love, the love that goes the extra mile and respects others, the love that makes for the strongest friendships, relationships and families, the love that helps us in deciding what we most value.
The second thing Jesus bequeathes to the disciples at the Last Supper is the gift of peace mentioned in chapter 14 verse 27:‘Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you.’ This is not peace as a cessation of war, or when nothing is happening; this is the deep peace of God. This peace cannot be created by simply being still or quiet. It is not of our making, but a gift from Jesus, and the same peace Jesus shares with his friends on Easter Day. And this peace is good news for those with troubled hearts, and a help to those who worry and are afraid. Jesus will be with them in the future, and this future is assured because of the gift of peace and the gift of the Spirit.
The Biblical word for peace is ‘shalom’, which has to do with harmony at all levels of life, and the establishment of Christ’s rule of justice and peace. This is comfort to the disheartened and troubled. One of the prayers of blessing speaks of God’s peace passing all understanding. This is good for us too, as to be held secure in God’s peace does not require full understanding from us. And when we face trials we can be held in God’s shalom; perhaps beyond understanding, but on a journey to healing and strength. We all need that shalom now, as we are cut off from so many things which refresh and sustain us, including family and our church fellowship.
At the end of our services the priest says: 'Go in the peace of Christ’ and we respond ‘Thanks be to God.’ In part we are saying ‘thank you’ for the peace which may have touched us in our worship together, and then for the peace Jesus shares with us. And as we say those words we are praying that we may know God’s peace in all that we encounter.
Thoughts for the Fifth Sunday in Easter
So much has happened in the last 8 weeks to remind us of the precious nature of our lives that, to be faced with both the passage from the First Letter of Peter and the Gospel passage today, one most commonly heard at funerals and memorial services, might seem intimidating. However, I would like to suggest that the opportunity to reflect on them both today is a very positive thing for us all.
St. Peter is offering words of encouragement to Christians living in the Black Sea area who were facing persecution and were feeling downhearted. “Like new-born infants, long for the pure spiritual milk so that, by it, you may grow into salvation”, he says.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus is also offering encouragement to his Disciples. It comes at a very crucial point in the story that St. John is telling. Although the Disciples are not aware of this, they are with Jesus on the last night of his life, having celebrated the Passover meal. John’s account of what follows at the meal covers 4 chapters. Jesus is using this occasion to present to the Disciples the true nature of what it is to be at one with him and, thus, with God. What is more, this passing on of God’s identity and how to engage with it is something he wants the Disciples to engage with themselves. It has begun with Him presenting himself to them in humble servitude by washing their feet. Now, knowing what is to come, Jesus is trying to comfort them. This is why so many choose this passage when they too are seeking comfort. What comfort is he offering? To begin with, he is offering them “dwelling places”. In Jesus’ time it was commonplace, at times of long journeys, for important people to send servants on ahead to prepare “dwelling places” for the party to rest in comfort after the day’s journey. As ever, it is Thomas who asks the question we all want to hear answered. We don’t know where Jesus is going so how can we know the way? In this context, it seems a question he was born to ask, for it elicits from Jesus his great proclamation “I am the Way, and the Truth and the Light”. So, as followers of Jesus, how do we recognise these dwelling spaces?
For Jesus, his “house” is the world and the dwelling spaces he provides are the spaces where his followers can rest and reflect. For some of us every Sunday morning is a dwelling space, but part of the feeling, conveyed by the time we are currently living through, is that this time is also a dwelling place. We are having opportunities to reflect on the sacrifices made by NHS workers and Volunteers to save lives; Supermarkets, food Banks and other “key workers” to enable normal life to carry on. We can also reflect on those whose behaviour and selfishness has been intimidating; we will all have opinions on who they are. Jesus’ way is lit by the reflection of God, his Father. This is a reflection of Love upon which Jesus’ life and ministry has been based. In John’s Gospel this is not just an appeal for his Disciples to reflect God’s way but an appeal for all Jesus’ followers. The opportunity we have now, as we move on, is to find the abundance of love and support that have lit the way through this time and reflect it back to a nation champing at the bit to return to life as “Normal”. The “new normal” is already a cliché, perhaps, but all of us must contribute to the debate and shine God’s light on the road ahead.
A Prayer to end. God our Father give to us, and to all your people, in times of anxiety, serenity; in times of hardship, courage, in times uncertainty, patience, and, at all times, a quiet trust in your wisdom and love; through Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN
Thoughts for Easter 4 : The Good Shepherd: John 10:1-10
One of the earliest representations of Christ that I have seen is in a museum in Alexandria in Egypt. It is a marble statuette about 30 inches high, and you would be forgiven for thinking it had nothing to do with Christianity. It bears no relation to the image we generally have, of a man with long hair and a beard and a serious look. The Egyptian marble figure is fresh-faced, no beard, with curly hair, and he is smiling, clearly enjoying his work as a shepherd. And there is a sense of vigorous movement in the statuette, with Jesus striding forward with a shepherd’s stick, with sheep on the ground by him, and one carried on his back. This is no doubt one of the lost sheep, a sheep that has strayed, and perhaps fallen and wounded itself. Jesus, the good shepherd, carries the sheep home to safety.
Early Christians were not fond of the cross as an image, since crucifixion was a common form of execution for criminals, and it seemed a shameful death for God’s son. They used symbols like the wreathe, a sign of eternal life, and the fish. The word for fish in greek letters spells out the phrase: Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour.
And they warmed to the shepherd image, thinking of Jesus’s words 'I am the good shepherd'. Jesus as the good shepherd loves and cares for the flock, and has qualities beyond that of the hired workers or strangers. So the role of the shepherd is synonymous with values such as trust, faithfulness, dependability and strength, all of which radiates from the marble figure in Alexandria, probably carved for one of the early church leaders of Egypt. We know that protecting and rescuing the lost requires tenacity, strength, courage and leadership, which Jesus speaks of in John Chapter 10. We are not dealing with the old Sunday School image of gentle Jesus, meek and mild. The gospel speaks of the shepherd laying down his life for the sheep: there was risk from wild animals, and from thieves and robbers. Good shepherding had an element of sacrifice, of giving out; something those of you who are parents know about.
And we all have to think about how we care and guide, and the ways we help the young and the vulnerable to find spaces where they may flourish. If the shepherd guides, how do we guide those who are travelling through a valley of darkness at the moment, or laid low as we are cut off from our usual sources of refreshment and fellowship? In all of this we are called to listen and to care, as many at St Paul’s are doing through the help group. And we remember Jesus going the extra mile, dying on the cross for us. As the good shepherd leading us he goes before us into every situation. We don’t face anything alone, because he has been there already, and we need fear no evil. The image of the protective shepherd of God’s flock is popular throughout the Bible, and Jesus identified with it as a way of promoting the Father’s care and mission. In this he links with one of the great figures of the Old Testament, the shepherd king David. In the 23rd Psalm David says, ‘The Lord is my shepherd.’
Around the same time as that artist sculpted a marble figure of the good shepherd in Egypt, a Christian writer wrote this: ‘Jesus took flesh of the virgin, hung from the cross, ascended the heights of heaven, and when he rose from the dead he raised human-kind from its tomb.’
The good shepherding of Jesus is about raising us from our tombs, from what imprisons us, and holds us down. Through the Easter stories may we come to understand the parts of our lives which need lifting up, restoring and healing, so that we may be raised for real and abundant living.
Loving God, whose son is the shepherd of your people: comfort us with your presence and help us to hear his voice, to follow him and to dwell with him in your house for ever, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
THOUGHTS FOR THE THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER: LUKE 24
I don’t remember an April when it has been so warm and pleasant. We can’t go out far and we cannot plan holidays, but we can sit and travel book-wise in the garden. I have recently been in Mexico, Siberia, Turkey and Syria. And I am thinking of travel at the moment as our gospel reading for this Sunday gives us a journey recorded in St Luke’s Gospel, a journey of 7 miles, as two disciples walk slowly and despondently among the pilgrims leaving Jerusalem after the Passover festival. A stranger joins them and asks them about their conversation, and they begin to tell of all that has been burdening them. St Luke emphasizes how sad and dispirited they are, reminding us that the news of the resurrection was not at first good news. The news of the empty tomb added to the pain and tragedy of those days for this couple, who had followed Jesus, heard his teaching, seen his miracles, and yet felt that the Cross was the end of the story. As they walk away from the seemingly failed mission, Jesus finds them and walks with them, in order to lift, encourage, teach and affirm.
From the Emmaus story we learn that to recognize Jesus and receive his new life is a gift from him, the resurrection encounters are all free gifts from Jesus. This is a complete contrast to the events leading up to Easter, when he is handed over. In Holy Week he gave himself up to those who betrayed and sacrificed him. Now, in his risen life he is in control of every encounter. He comes and goes at will and he is only recognized when he chooses to reveal himself. And in the Emmaus story he deliberately seeks out two disciples walking away from it all. On the Emmaus road Jesus hears their confession of confusion and rebukes them for their lack of study of the Scriptures. He teaches them about the cross and his sufferings drawing on the scriptures which point to a suffering messiah (the prophet Isaiah) Many wish that St Luke had recorded a little more of that bible study, as it would have clarified many points. But it is clear that Jesus was suggesting that they needed a stronger trust in the scriptures . Through the Bible we see God’s urgency to communicate, which is sometimes met with human deafness and resistance.
When they reach Emmaus Jesus behaves as if he is going on. He does not force himself upon them. He waits for them to take the initiative, and they urge him to stay. He goes with them, and when they sit at table the stranger takes, blesses and breaks bread and gives it to them. At this moment their eyes were opened and they realize that the stranger was Jesus. In the moment of recognition Jesus vanishes, since his ministry to them is now complete: he has walked with them taught them and ministered to them so that their hearts were burning within them. At the supper table they see and recognize Jesus, as we may do when we share in the sacred meal.
At the moment we are having to fast from the eucharist, from the breaking of bread, maybe for another month. This has always been at the heart of my Christian life and devotion and I miss it very much. But there are other things to value from the Emmaus story, including Bible study, and listening to the wisdom of others. And when lockdown is lifted I hope we shall be able to return to table fellowship, sharing with others in our church and our homes. Many of our prayers and hymns speak of feasting at God’s table, and sharing in the heavenly banquet. And Jesus gives us a meal to remember him, the same meal which empowered those disciples to race back to Jerusalem and take their place with the other disciples. Their real journey, their spiritual journey of faith, was just beginning as restored members of God’s Easter people.
Lord Jesus, we praise and thank you that you are with us even when we cannot recognize your companionship: walk by our side as we embark on each day’s journey, and walk with the confused, the anxious and despairing. May our eyes be opened and our hearts burn within us as you bring light and hope to our lives. To you be praise and glory for ever.
Thoughts for the Second Sunday of Easter
A few years ago one of our bishops suggested a way of thinking about Easter was to think in terms of music, a new piece of music. He said that God is the composer, and we are called to play our part in performing the new music. This would be difficult if we were on our own, but the gospel story today reminds us that we are never alone.
Firstly Jesus prays for us, his followers today. Secondly Jesus shares peace with us, as we heard in the Easter story. Thirdly Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit upon us, the spirit being the power and love of Jesus at work in the world. And fourthly we are never alone because as Christians we belong to the family and fellowship of the church.
So sharing and performing the Easter music is something we can all do because Jesus prays for us, Jesus shares God’s peace with us, Jesus breathes the Spirit upon us, and we each belong to the fellowship of the church. Of course there are times when we are not so tuned in. At the moment, in the midst of this destructive virus we may be struggling to be aware of the presence and support of Jesus. But we learn from the story of Thomas, who stayed with the disciples, even though he found it very hard to accept what they were saying about the risen Jesus, ‘unless I see for myself I will not believe you.’ On Jesus’ second visit Thomas was there, and he comes to see and believe. Jesus invites him to do the things he said, including touch the wounds. I doubt that Thomas needed to do that. Jesus often saw straight through to the heart of what people were feeling and experiencing, and Jesus knew what Thomas needed. In the same way he knew the right thing to lift up Mary Magdalen on Easter morning, and to affirm the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Jesus came to Thomas, offered him what he needed, and drew from him the greatest affirmation of faith in the New Testament: ‘My Lord and my God.’
Empowered by that experience Thomas became a brave and confident disciple of Christ, sharing God’s Easter music in many places, including Syria and later India. He knew that he belonged to God, and valued the peace and fellowship of the church.
Thoughts for Easter Day
Like many of you I’ve been enjoying the silence of the garden. With little traffic and no aeroplanes, one hears nothing but birdsong. And it has been delightful. It occurred to me that this is how it was for the friends of Jesus on the first Easter morning. We think of Easter as full of light and colour, shouts of Alleluia and bold song, trumpets and bells. But Easter began in silence and stillness, in solitude and the darkness of a rock tomb, and all Mary Magdalen would have heard on Easter Day as she walked to the tomb was the song of the birds. Then she realizes that she is weeping, having found the tomb of Jesus to be empty. Then she speaks to a stranger and discovers it is the risen Jesus, who restores her and
commissions her to be the first apostle of the resurrection, the first to share the good news of Easter - ‘Go and tell the others.’
Lots of us have questions when we approach the Easter story, and we are in good company, for the first disciple had them too. When Jesus was crucified many of his friends found it difficult to make sense of things: how could their hopes be dashed and their Master killed? Three days later some women visited the tomb and found it empty - they were astonished, as were the others who came to see, and those who were walking to Emmaus that evening.
None of them found it easy to believe that Jesus was risen from the dead until they met him, and that changed everything. It changed Thomas who initially could not believe. Thomas had his doubts, but stayed with the group of disciples. Things can happen that make it harder for us to believe, including living through this time of plague, the corona virus. Staying in touch with other Christians can help, because we learn from other people’s faith and experience.
Staying with the Easter story can also help us, as we learn how the friends of Jesus deal with the death, disappointment and defeat of Good Friday, and how they find hope in the victory of God’s love at Easter.
The resurrection of Jesus is what makes sense of the transformation in the disciples and points to the new life and peace Jesus offers to us. During Lent we try to hold before God our mistakes and sorrows, our fears and hopes, and we ask God for his healing. In Holy Week we have the opportunity to lay these at the foot of the cross, so that they may be lifted and raised by the power of the resurrection. This year we pray fervently for that healing and raising power, so that many may find Easter strength and peace in these challenging times.
Thoughts for Maundy Thursday
On this day we remember that Jesus had a final meal with his friends and entrusted the movement to them. At the Last Supper he gave them power and grace to manage that future. “Do this”, he said, “ in remembrance of me.” Jesus was saying something like - this is a way of entering into my life, and drawing strength from me: take the bread and wine and think of me.
When the disciples first heard this, they must have been puzzled. They were sharing a Passover meal with Jesus, and Jesus did what every host was doing that night; blessing God for the food, and praying over different foods and cups of wine. After Easter they must have remembered what he had said, and what a special feel that supper had. This is why they went on to “Do this” in remembrance of Jesus.
They must also have remembered Judas leaving the supper early, and the time of prayer and testing in the garden of Gethsemane, which we would normally commemorate in church with a silent watch till midnight. It is a time to think about what Jesus is facing, as he wonders if he is doing the right thing. But in the end he prays - “ Not my will, but thine be done.”
Our gospel reading on this holy day comes from St John, chapter 13. It appears at the beginning of five chapters when Jesus talks with the disciples at the Last Supper and says goodbye. Jesus shows his love for his friends and takes on the servant’s role, washing the feet of the disciples. Washing feet was a social courtesy, usually performed by a slave. So it is that Peter objects and misunderstands, and has to learn how Jesus reverses the normal values of the world. Peter and the other disciples enter this terrible night spiritually clean and accepted, although they all desert Jesus, and Peter goes on to deny him.
Later, Peter comes to see that God wants us to share bread and wine, to draw strength from him, and he wants to touch the places in our lives that need washing with his healing love.
Those of you who have visited Jerusalem may have been taken to an upper room there. It may be the site of the Last Supper, and certainly has an authentic feel to it. The house has an upper chamber, with a small staircase, doubtless used by those serving the meal, and a larger staircase for the guests. There is space enough for 13 people or more to recline on couches gathered around a central table. In that empty stone room, you feel that something significant has happened, including a supper which is now for us a means of grace and a channel of love. This year , without our church fellowship, we simply have the gospel story to feed our imaginations, our prayers and hopes and give us spiritual communion with Christ.
Thoughts for Palm Sunday and Holy Week
Palm Sunday has both joy and sadness, Joy as we remember Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem and sadness as we read the story of the last days of Jesus’ life. Some of the crowds in Jerusalem for the Passover festival were clearly thinking that Jesus, the teacher from Galilee, might be the new messiah, which is why they cheer him on as he enters the city with their ‘Hosannas’.
This year we pay attention to the passion story in St Matthew’s Gospel, chapters 26 and 27. Matthew tells us more about Judas, and more about Pilate and Pilate’s wife and her concerns about Jesus.
On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of Holy Week we think of Jesus being in the Temple daily, meeting with people, teaching, encouraging, discussing and continuing his running disagreement with some of the Jewish leaders. On Thursday Jesus has a final meal with his friends, and a time of prayer and testing in the garden of Gethsemane, before he is arrested. On Friday there follows the trials and the crucifixion.
Some of Jesus’ friends and supporters, may have been getting anxious that
Jesus was not showing his power and messiahship in the way they were expecting. One of these may have been Judas, who perhaps wanted to force his hand. We read of Judas’ betrayal with a kiss, and later his remorse and suicide.
Later we encounter Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus and his tears as he realizes what he has done. And we see how difficult it can be to stand up for the truth, for fear. After Easter Jesus responds to that denial when they have breakfast by the lake, and Peter is restored.
On Good Friday we come to the trial before Pilate. Some say Pilate was just doing his best in a tricky political situation. History has not been kind to Pilate, though he does have the distinction of appearing in both our creeds. Then we have the mocking by the soldiers, and Jesus being led out to the hill of Calvary, where he is crucified and dies. We read of the centurion, the man in charge of the soldiers, being moved by Jesus’ death. He must have seen thousands of deaths in his line of work, but the way Jesus died affected him deeply. He exclaims “truly this was the son of God.”
This is a tale of fear and love, faith and mistrust, political expediency and a cruel death leading to fresh hope and life. It has been told in a thousand different ways by writers and musicians, artists and craftsmen, architects and designers and all who have planned things to encourage devotion, and places to help people offer worship and draw close to the Christian way.
This year the corona virus cuts us off from much of what helps us at this holy time: fellowship, sacraments and the beauty of holiness. But we have words and stories in our bibles, and the stories in the gospels which lie at the heart of our faith. We turn to these, knowing that we join with Christians across the world doing the same: reflecting on the sufferings and sacrifice of Christ, and drawing strength for what we face today.
You might like to have your bible out for times when we would normally have a service in church:
Palm Sunday at 10am
Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday 7.30pm
Maundy Thursday at 7.30pm with silent watch till midnight.
Good Friday when we remember Jesus on the Cross between 12noon and 3pm.
Easter Eve 12noon
Easter Day at 10am, celebrating the resurrection of Christ.
I am hoping that, when the worst dangers of this virus have passed, our church leaders will give us a day when we can all be together in church, celebrating God’s love for us in the risen Lord Jesus. Till then we pray for them, the Royal Family, our Prime Minister and all who serve in the government, the homes and families of our area, and all who work through the NHS to promote the health of others.
Thoughts for Passion Sunday by Simon
In the Church Calendar, this Sunday is Passion Sunday. Christians have been using Lent to reflect on their faith in preparation for meeting Christ on the Cross on Good Friday. Many Christians around the world, therefore, recognise the fifth Sunday in Lent as Passion Sunday and as an opportunity to reflect on what we might be bringing to our personal witness during Holy Week which begins on Sunday April 5th. But Faith does not sit still, because we do not sit still. Each year during Lent we bring different experiences and encounters to play which shape our lives, and which have the potential to enrich our Christian experience. What we bring to this year is, of course, especially resonant.
In the context of the challenges we face as a nation at this time, reading our Gospel for Passion Sunday from John 11 is a sobering experience. It relates Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the grave at the home of Lazarus’ sisters, Martha and Mary. The story is told in an interesting way.
Jesus and his Disciples are on their way to Jerusalem. He receives a message that Lazarus is gravely ill. Pointedly, John records that Jesus waited for 2 days before moving on to Bethany with the disciples seeing that his death will signify God’s glory and that “The Son of God might be glorified by it”. By the time they arrive he is dead. In fact, as we hear later, he is already entombed. In keeping with tradition, friends have gathered to mourn with his sisters, and the disciples, too, join them. Jesus can hardly help being caught up in the tragedy of a young life lost.
At this point, in his telling of Jesus’ story, John takes us to one of the central points of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus has come to glorify God. He has come to show that the God of Moses is the God of All. The gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke record incidents which reflect the possibility of Jesus’ divinity; the Resurrection is the final proof. For John, Jesus is God Incarnate – God in Human form- from the moment of his birth. He demonstrates this through 7 signs which punctuate the first 11 chapters. The Raising of Lazarus is the seventh. In John’s Gospel, this will be the event that finally turns the Authorities against him. However, raising Lazarus from the dead is too good an opportunity to miss. Jesus’ ministry is about eternal life with God of which Death is just one part. In a life of faith this is one of the most important aspects to reconcile. God was with us at the beginning, is with us in our lives, is with us at our death and in our life eternal. Through this sign Jesus is preparing us for his own death and resurrection. If that cannot give some meaning to the next two weeks then I don’t know what can.
The contexts we bring to this year, of course, are profound. They go beyond the personal and into the public domain. By raising Lazarus, Jesus invites us to view death in a new light. The onset and progression of the Covid 19 virus presents us with similar issues. We have been told, unequivocally, by our Government, and by Health Service professionals, to prepare for more deaths as the epidemic continues. We are being prepared to face a changing world.
During this time, we will all face significant challenges. Our reading from St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, however, challenges us to separate our ordinary lives to live in the life of the spirit. On Tuesday morning this week, some newspapers announced that our “Freedom” to move about had been taken from us. Paul suggests, however, that the life of the spirit frees us to be God’s children. This is the spirit that the Government thought they had unleashed in their initial advice on voluntary social distancing and holding back on excessive stockpiling of food and household supplies. Paul encourages us that Christians live in the spirit that, for example, brings streets together through online networks and helping with deliveries to those in quarantine. Easter will be different this year for sure, but, as we prepare for it, we can come closer to God through Jesus’ Passion and his ascent into Eternal life.
Thoughts for Mothering Sunday (22 March) by Michael Riley
Now that we are all being encourgaed to spend more time at home, I thought it was time to sort through my bookshelves and find things I have never read properly. I found twenty-six books in my study, and a further seven in the spare bedroom. These include biographies (which I usually do not manage to finish), theological works and spiritual books (such as David Runcorn’s The Language of Tears), novels, history and travel writing (Dresden in 1945, and Paul Theroux’s latest book on Mexico). So, I have lots to catch up with and enjoy whilst I am at home more in these times of trial.
What I enjoy about a good writer is the way their work can immediately transfer us to another time or place or culture, and help us to see what the people in their stories are seeing. This was true with Charles Cumming’s latest novel about MI6, partly set in contemporary Morocco, in Ayse Kulin’s novel The Rose of Sarajevo, a love story set in the Balkan crisis, and in Justin Marozzi’s book about cities and their contribution to Islamic civilization. I’ve also read recently The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak, which beautifully engages with the mystical Sufi tradition of 13th century Islam, and a novel by Barbara Nadel, which explores family and culture, secrets and murder in present-day Istanbul. And having read a book about family and a funeral in Syria, I’m now reading The Beekeeper of Aleppo, a shocking tale of a couple who lose a child in the conflict, and eventually make their way to Turkey and then Britain. I think we learn from the tragic stories of recent times how to face the complexities of our world.
This is true with many of the stories in our Bible, including the one we have on Mothering Sunday; Jesus on the Cross talking to his mother and his friend John. (Gospel of John 19:25-27) We know that Mary stayed close on Good Friday, and there is a tradition that she met with Jesus, as we have it shown in St Paul’s Church, on the fourth of the Stations of the Cross. St John records Jesus later calling to Mary and his friend, asking John to care for her and she for him, and creating new bonds of family between them. Parents who have had to watch their children suffer and die know what this encounter will have been like: it contradicts the natural order of things. We think at this time of mothers whose children died in the years of dictatorship in Argentina, and more recently, in the senseless violence of Mexico and the Syrian conflict and in Yemen. All this scandalous suffering is embraced by God on Good Friday, when Jesus and his mother meet.
Rev'd Michael Riley
St Paul's Church
64 Grove Park Road
London W4 3SB
020 8994 4387
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