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Sunday 10th May
For I’m building a people of power
And I’m making a people of praise
That will move through this land by My Spirit
And will glorify My precious name
Build Your church, Lord. Make us strong, Lord.
Join our hearts, Lord, through Your Son
Make us one, Lord In Your Body
In the kingdom of Your Son
Saturday 9th May
Twice in the last week I have heard politicians assert that we need to get the economy going again ‘in order to pay for the NHS’. I have no quibble with the idea that we need to restart the economy (the office for Budget Responsibility estimates that our national output will fall by 35% in the present quarter) but the idea that we should do it in order ‘to pay for the NHS’ is illogical and contrary to what we learn from the bible. Let me explain.
The Old Testament, shared by Jews and Christians, has no hesitation about celebrating the good things of life. In fact good food is the image used for a good relationship with God himself:
You have put gladness in my heart more than when their grain and wine abound. Psalm 4:7
Jesus seemed to have made the most of the good things of life, for he was often reported to have enjoyed a meal with friends. But to the material, physical good things, Jesus, and Paul, added service for they both asserted that love was the greatest commandment and the highest of qualities.
We can assume from this that a prosperous Christians country would be characterised by an abundance of material goods and services, all fairly shared out in a spirit of love. All this represents the creation wealth. In our own society some of this wealth creation is measurable because it is bought and sold on the market, like cakes; some is measurable because it is provided by the public sector, like healthcare; and some is not measured at all because it is not bought or sold, like much of childcare, and domestic cooking and cleaning.
It is therefore quite a shock to hear an assertion that one kind of wealth creation pays for another. Cakes and health care both add to our wealth so it seems quite absurd to suggest that cakes ‘pay for’ health care. We might just as well claim that health care ‘pays for’ cakes.
The elephant in the room, of course, is that in the UK at present cakes are produced in the private sector and paid for by the consumer where health care is carried out by the public sector and the costs shared out among us all through taxation. It could, in principle be the other way round. In fact some health care is paid for by the consumer. Would we claim that private health care pays for public health care? I do not think we would. The argument that the NHS is paid for by the rest of the economy is a sleight of hand. One form of wealth creation does not pay for another.
None of which is to deny that we need to restart the economy. Nor to deny that we need cakes as well as health care. An economy that was completely devoted to heath care would be as unbalanced as an economy that was completely devoted to cake. We need both. The Psalmist, Jesus and Paul all got that. So no more of this nonsense that the rest of the economy ‘pays for’ the NHS. All wealth, whether bought and sold on the market, paid for by taxation or not measured at all, comes from God.
Fr Nicholas Clews
Friday 8th May
VE Day 75
‘We will remember them’ must be among the best known words of the English language.They are part of a poem published in The Times on 21st September 1914 when the author, Lawrence Binyon, would have had no idea of the horrors that lay ahead. These words raise important questions for us: who are we remembering? Why? And how?
Binyon was quite explicit in his poem about whom he was remembering: he wrote of ‘England’s’ ‘dead across the sea’ quite oblivious to the fact that the Armed Forces belonged to the United Kingdom or even the Empire! The Christian identity transcends that of national boundaries. The story of the early church in the Acts of the Apostles is a record of how those earliest Christians overcame their narrow prejudices as they began to realise that the Gospel was for all nations and not just Jews. In the same way, a Christian will always look at war from an international perspective, as a failure of the whole human race to solve its disagreements in a proper manner. Therefore the ‘Who?’ must include all nations. And when Binyon wrote, as the very beginning of World War I, there was still an assumption that war casualties would be amongst the military. War was still a professional matter conducted out of sight of most civilians. That was most certainly not true for the residents of northern France and Belgium (nor the 1197 passengers on the Lusitania, sunk 105 years ago today on a beautiful sunny day). But it has become increasingly the case that the victims of war are civilians. This was made clear in the saturation and atomic bombing at the end of World War II, and by the pictures on our television screens from Vietnam in the 1960s and 70s. Drones now make it possible for ‘bomber pilots’ to sit at desks many miles from the area of conflict. So the ‘Who?’ who must include all victims of war, civilian and military, of all nationalities.
So why should we remember? I think, because war is such a destructive event that it must never be repeated. It destroys not only buildings but human beings and entire economic and social networks. Europe responded well to the end of World War II but so many cases war is followed my famine and chaos. War is the result of the failure of human political systems. And that naturally leads on to answer the question of ‘How?’ We should remember those who have died in war by resolving never to start one again. The lesson of World War I is that there is no such thing as a ‘war to end all wars.’ War can only be ended by not declaring one.
There is a wonderful passage in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians in which he takes all the imagery of war and transforms it. The brutal hardware of first century military violence is spiritualised into ‘the full armour of God’:
- the belt of truth
- the breastplate of righteousness in place,
- the shield of faith,
- the helmet of salvation
- the sword of the Spirit
Thursday 7th May
I came across this refection by my friend Fr Peter Roberts, who is a parish priest on the other side of the A1.
I found it very helpful.
Fr Nicholas Clews
Tuesday 5th May
The mass readings during the Easter season take us through the Acts of the Apostles. It’s quite a natural thing to do because Acts is the account of the life of the early church living in the light of the Resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit. Today’s reading reminds others that life for those first Christians was often very difficult and it begins with the words ‘those who had escaped during the persecution this happened because of Steven….’Stephen was one of the earliest deacons and the first person to die because of his faith.He was stoned to death and among those present was a zealous young Jew known as Saul of Tarsus who looked after the coats of those who were stoning. (Acts 7:55-60)
But good came out of evil because the Christians who were dispersed to different parts of the Roman Empire began to talk about their faith. Most of them talked only to Jews because that lay within their comfort zone, but some began to talk to those who were not Jews, referred to collectively as ‘Greeks’. This was not considered quite the done thing!
Luke, the author of Acts, observes, rather diplomatically, that ‘the church in Jerusalem heard about this and they sent Barnabas to Antioch.’ The church in Jerusalem was responsible for the oversight of the whole Christian community and at the very least wanted to find out what was going on in Antioch; it may even have wanted to stop it. We know from Acts 15 that there were some Christians from Jerusalem who wanted to insist that Greek converts to Christianity should also become Jews.
These ‘Judaisers’ lost their battle and Barnabas was completely assured that all was well in Antioch and that the Holy Spirit was working there.
This episode illustrates constant tension in the Christian church, and indeed amongst all religious people:we want to confine the working of the Holy Spirit to those channels with which we are familiar, or even which we can control. It is a hard lesson that no human authority can control the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit controls us.
Fr Nicholas Clews
Monday 4th May
Looking back on Easter Sunday 2020, I can now see it as one of the best Easter Sundays I have ever known. This was despite everything familiar being denied to me. But something new happened. It began when an email landed on my desktop from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York asking us all to stand on our doorsteps on Easter Day at 10 in the morning and sing the hymn ‘Jesus Christ is Risen Today.’
Well, the truth is I’m not much of the soloist, but I’m quite happy singing in a choir! And behind the vicarage is a block of flats grouped round a car park. So on Easter Sunday morning I printed out a flyer with the Archbishops’ invitation, the words of the hymns, and distributed about them around all twenty five of the flats. At 10 o’clock, my wife, Lynn and I stood in the car park and began to sing. And so did many others. I would guess that the residents of half of the twenty five flats were in their windows or on the doorsteps singing for all they were worth.
I knew that one of the couples singing would have been in church in normal circumstances. But to the best of my knowledge the others would not. But there they were, in an improvised church, gathered round a car park.
The Gospel writers make an interesting comparison between the Christian community before and after the coming of the Holy Spirit. Before, they gathered in a building and they locked the doors out of fear; (John 20:19) after, they stand in the Market Square and tell the good news of the resurrection of Jesus without any fear to all who will listen. (Acts 2:4-36)Is it possible that when Lynn and I were singing in the car park we were more the church than on all those of the Easter Sundays when we were singing inside our own building?
‘The rulers, elders and scribes were astonished at the fearlessness shown by Peter and John, considering that they were uneducated laymen; and they recognise them as associates of Jesus.’ (Acts 4:5.13)
Sunday 3rd May
Wednesday 29th April
I think it’s fair to say that Christians don’t often get criticised for enjoying themselves too much. And in the unlikely event that we were, I think we would deny it strenuously. But Jesus didn’t!
He was asked (Mark 2:18),
“How is it that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?”, whereupon he mounted a determined counter attack, saying,
“How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast.” The general impression from the Gospel accounts is that Jesus spent quite a lot of time dining with friends, some of them regarded as rather disreputable.
We all know, of course, that we won’t be doing much of that for some time. But perhaps being in ‘lockdown’ makes it all the more important to enjoy ourselves. Some of us will be working from home; others will be self-isolating and struggling to find a slot for an online grocery delivery; others may still be travelling to work, sometimes in very stressful environments. And amidst all this, having fun matters. I am listening regularly to BBC Radio 4 who seem to have grasped this, for, amidst the continual news of death and the missing items of personal protective equipment, they are broadcasting poetry readings and pieces of music. Absolutely right!
And we all need to find our own fun. It may be fairly passive, as when we look forward to a TV soap or drama, just to ‘chill out’. But sometimes we gain even more satisfaction from doing something more challenging. My wife, Lynn, is watching lots of videos online about upholstery and then seizing the nearest shabby chair to put it into practice. I have been sorting ancient family photographs into new albums to give as birthday presents. This is all very Godlike!
The first thing that we learn about God, from the book Genesis is that he made something – in his case is the whole world ending with the human race. When the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins converted to Roman Catholicism he gave up writing poetry as if it were somehow rather flippant and unworthy of Christian. He later realised his error and created some of the finest poems in the English language. We may not achieve Hopkins’ fame, but when we create something beautiful, whether it be a cake, a garden, a picture or a piece of music, we are behaving like God.
Tuesday 28th April
We have all had the experience of filling in application forms, whether to open a bank account or register as a member of a library, and coming to the bit marked ‘Occupation’. It’s a funny business, ‘occupation’. Sometimes people brag about their jobs, although in my experience they are more likely to brag about their children’s jobs (‘Oh my daughter is a Consultant Neurologist at a leading London hospital!) ur their spouses job (‘Well, actually, my wife is a Professor of Nuclear Physics at Cambridge University!). Others, rather shamefacedly, admit that ‘I am just a housewife’ or ‘just retired’. It can feel even worse for those who are unemployed because it is as if they have no place in society, they don’t really exist.
Very occasionally, not often at all, people address me as ‘Vicar’. I don’t say its, because I’m usually very polite, but I want to reply ‘I have a name you know!’
One of the Resurrection accounts centres on the use of a name. According to John’s Gospel, the first person to meet the risen Christ is Mary Magdalene. She does not recognise him and when Jesus speaks for the first time he addresses her as, ‘woman’. Mary continues to think that she’s talking to the gardener. But then Jesus speaks her name, ‘Mary’ and now she knows exactly who he is. (John 20:11-18)
Who are you? Who am I? The answer I am supposed to put is ‘Clerk Holy Orders’ (I love that, because no one has ever heard of it!) But next time I may be tempted to put ‘Marmalade Maker’ or Amateur Semi-competent Bike Mechanic. Or perhaps ‘Occasional Poet’. Or perhaps I should follow the example of God, speaking to Moses from the burning bush and simply say ‘I am who I am’. (Exodus 3:13-15) No more putting people in boxes!
Monday 27th April
One of the earliest characteristics of the present emergency was the disappearance of hand sanitiser and the toilet rolls from supermarket shelves.This has been described as a panic buying and condemned as being irrational. Unfortunately, I believe it is entirely rational. If I am not sure whether or not I will be able to go shopping next week, for whatever reason, it is a sensible precaution to buy double the amount of essentials. And if there’s something I would hate to run out of it is definitely loo roll!
The problem with this approach, very sensible from an individual point of view, is that it only works for me if most people don’t do it. If we all do it we create the very shortage we fear. What is required is that we all pursue not our own personal self-interest, but the common interest.
And to some extent we have done this. The greater part of the British population have given up calling in on their neighbours or inviting their family round for a barbecue because we know that if we do become more sociable the cost will be paid by people whom we have never met who will contract coronavirus or have to care for those that do. But this is hard. And it requires what we might call an active faith. When I stay at home I am acting in faith that the rest of the population will do the same, because if I make the sacrifice alone it would be ineffective.
Over the coming months, we will need a great deal of faith. We will need to put our faith in our neighbours, that we will all do the right thing together and pursue the common interest rather than personal self-interest. But the very use of the word faith invokes a religious dimension. It is at the heart of the Christian faith that God is in every situation. That is something we will need to remind ourselves of frequently as this year progresses.
In today’s gospel reading (John 6:22) Jesus’s faith enables him to walk on water. Our faith will require us to commit ourselves to actions which are less dramatic but perhaps even more important: discipline, hygiene, self restraint in socialising, and a willingness to share some of our material resources for the sake of the common good. That will mean higher taxes and an attitude that sees taxation as a means of serving the poor and not an undesirable imposition. A few years ago a young man told me how proud he was when he received his first payslip and saw that he was now a taxpayer. Perhaps we should all have that same pride!
Sunday 26th April: Third Sunday of Easter
The Road to Emmaus: Luke 24:13-35
There is a Sherlock Holmes short story in which the crime was solved by the great man not on the basis of something that happened but on something that did not happen. The clue to the crime was the title of the story: ‘The Dog that did not bark in the night.’
There is something of that in St Luke’s account of the walk to Emmaus.I want to draw your attention to the dog that didn’t bark.Or, in this case, the disciples who did not recognise Jesus.
Now in a simple literal sense this seems quite remarkable.The disciples had spent three years travelling around with this man. He had been the source of all their hopes and now all their disappointments.As they walked toward the village of Emmaus on that first Easter Sunday the knowledge of his death dominated their thoughts and their feelings.And it is at this moment, as they walk together toward the village of Emmaus, that Jesus appears to them.
One would imagine that the disciples would immediately have recognised him.One would imagine that they would have been beside themselves with joy;but nothing of the sort happens.They do not even recognise him.St Luke, in recording this story acknowledges the strangeness of this for he comments that
“their eyes were kept from recognising him”
So what on earth could it have been that prevented the disciples from recognising their closest friend?
There are two answer to this.The first is that the risen Jesus was clearly not visually or physically identical with the Jesus of Nazareth. There is further evidence for this in the witness of St John that the risen Jesus was able to pass through a locked door with ease.There is no evidence that Jesus of Nazareth had this remarkable characteristic before his death and resurrection.
But the second answer lies not in Jesus but in the disciples.Luke says as much.He does not say that the risen Christ was unrecognisable as the same person as Jesus of Nazareth.He says that “their eyes were kept from recognising him”. But we also know that a little later in the story their selective blindness was removed and they saw him as who he was.
So what did cause their sight to fail ?I want to put it to you that it was their own busyness, their preoccupation with their own lives.And the importance of their experience is that it may be our experience as well.
The disciples did not recognise Jesus because they were engrossed in their own misery.They were feeling sorry for themselves.They were backwards looking to the good old days when Jesus had been with them in the flesh and all they could see in the future was a world without him.Their minds were closed, made up.If they had reflected more deeply on their experience, then they might have realised that the death of Jesus was not a disaster but the realisation of all God’s promises.But they did not do that.They were far too busy walking towards Emmaus and away from Jerusalem where it was all happening.
So what changed in order for them to recognise Jesus?I think it is simple.They stopped walking.They stopped talking.And they prayed.They simply spent time with God. It was nothing high powered – it was just a meal and Grace before the meal.But that time of reflection was enough.There is no evidence that Jesus’s physical appearance changed in the slightest.But, as St Luke put it, the disciples eyes were opened.
And once they were opened they were able to realise that deep down they had always known that Jesus was with them.As St Luke puts it
Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road ? Luke 24:33
Jesus had been with them all though the journey.But it was only when they made space to reflect on their day that they realised the truth of this.
And that is the story of our lives.That is the story of each day.Most of us have very busy lives.Sometimes we are physically busy, rushing here there and everywhere.Sometimes mentally busy with so many thoughts and anxieties.We can pass from ˝dawn to dusk with scarcely a thought of the presence of God.And because we have scarcely given a thought to God we can suppose that he was not there.That God simply was not present in our lives. On the other hand, we may be looking forward, with some anxiety, to a world where we will no longer be able to socialise freely as we used to, and supposing that God will not be there.
And both, it seems to me, are great untruths.In every moment of my life and your life, God is present. But you may never know that unless you take time simply to reflect, to pray, to be silent.
Silence can seem like a negative thing,Just an absence of sound. And sometimes it is no more than that. But at its best silence is that space for God to enter.Silence is that space for God to show you how he has been present in your life in so many ways and will be in the future.Perhaps the lockdown’ is a God given opportunity to be still,
And strangely enough the secular world is aware of the importance of stillness and reflection.A little while I ago my wife, Lynn, and I had a meal with friends and one of them, a physiotherapist, was griping over the fact that he is now professionally required to build into all his consultations,time for reflection. Time to ask himself about how he felt about the consultation he had just completed.He thought it was all a waste of time. I replied that I thought it might be a good thing because I, for one, did not spend enough time reflecting.I did not say this to him, but I thought, that what the secular world calls ‘reflection’,Christians would call ‘prayer.’
There are many ways of making that space for reflection, that silence for God.Being in church is not currently possible, but what matters is not the place or even the time but the deliberate setting aside of time for stillness.Sometimes it helps to know that others are doing the same so you may like to know that I am doing this every day, with Lynn, at 09:00 and 17:00 hrs. You may like to use readings set out for every day on the Weekly Bulletin.You may like to read the reflections posted most days on Facebook and on the parish website.
How you make space for God is in itself not a great matter.What matters is that we do it.After all, if those disciples had carried on their journey to Emmaus they might never have realised that Jesus himself had been with them.But having realised, it changed their lives. We do not know why they had been walking to Emmaus. But suddenly it seemed of no importance because they turned round and went back to Jerusalem.And that is the business of God.To change the lives of those who will make space for him.
Wednesday 22nd April 2020
Today I prayed (not for the first time!) with Arvo Part’s ‘Fratres’. It is a very simple piece of music with only three elements. The lowest strings play just one note, completely unchanging: for me this represents God himself. The other strings play something approaching a melody: for me this represents humanity. Very occasionally a woodblock interjects: this seems to represent some kind of external distraction.
The peace begins with the constancy of God in the lower strings. Above, the upper strings search for meaning in an uncertain world. The bare unison melody gradually gains harmonies, becomes full and warm. And when the melody is at its warmest we ca no longer hear God’s baseline – except when the upper strings pause and once more we know that the baseline is still there, unchanging.
Slowly the activity of the upper strings calms down, subsides, disappears. But it disappears not into the uncertainty of the opening but into a kind of resolution, a gentle peace and so all this is left is the unchanging baseline of God.
St Paul wrote
Be completely humble and gentle;
be patient, bearing with one another in love.
Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called;
one Lord, one faith, one baptism;
one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
Tuesday 21st April 2020
A few days ago I heard a piece of music (click above) that puzzled me greatly.My heart said I knew it well butmy head said it was completely new to me. A little more listening solved the riddle. This was indeed a piece I knew well from Elgar’s Enigma variations but in a completely new arrangements for voices alone.
A little research established that this piece, already firmly associated with Remembrance Day had been arranged to fit the ancient words of the Requiem Mass:
May light eternal shine upon them, O Lord, with Thy saints forever, for Thou art Kind.
Eternal rest give to them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.”
The sense of grief and bereavement, already expressed by the music, was now made quite a explicit by the words. Remembering today was instituted in a world which grieved not only for the death whole generation of young men but also for the loss in the way of life. The stability, the world order of 1914 had gone by 1919 when Remembrance Day, or Armistice Day… Was then known, was instituted.
The emotions expressed in Elgar’s our hours to 100 and one years later. The coronavirus epidemic has taken not only the elderly and vulnerable put the wrong and fit many years left to contribute. And although we do not know how, we are beginning to sense that it will have taken away of life. The stability uncertainty of 2019 they never return. The ease of mass gatherings, whether in churches or football stadiums, maybe gone forever.
Football clubs and their supporters will find their own solutions that’s part of the response for Christians must lie in our belief in the holy spirit of God. We have always known that we are one body even if we are not gathered in one building. And that’s conviction only two sustain over the coming months.
Perhaps Paul’s words, written to the Church in Ephesus, could have been writtento us:
As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
Monday 20th April 2020
One of them more mysterious characters of the Easter story is a man called Nicodemus. Only John seems to know about him for the other Gospels never refer to him. But John refers to him three times.He tells us that Nicodemus was Jewish leader, a Pharisee, which meant that he believed in the resurrection of the body. He was also a member of the Sanhedrin, the governing body of the Jewish faith. He was therefore a man of considerable influence and status. As such he was part of that group of people who were often criticised by Jesus and with whom Jesus found himself increasingly in conflict.
Nicodemus was clearly a man that with divided loyalties. He was a member of the religious establishment who had a lot of sympathy for a rebel. So perhaps it is not surprising that the first reported meeting he has with Jesus is not only in private but takes place at night (John chapter 3). Nicodemus begins their conversation with words that could have been heard as flattery:
‘Rabbi, we know that you have come from God as a teacher; for no one could perform the signs that you do unless God were with him.’ (John 3:2)
And in the mouth of many another Pharisee, flattery is exactly what those words would have been. But in the conversation that follows, about being born again, it is clear that Nicodemus has a genuine desire to learn from Jesus.
The conflict between Jesus and religious leaders intensifies and the Pharisees have a conversation about how they should deal with him. They are impatient for him to be arrested and tried but Nicodemus now becomes a little bolder and voices his concern:
‘But surely our law does not allow us to pass judgement on anyone without first giving him a hearing and discovering what he’s doing?’ (John 7:51)
His fellow Pharisees slap him down immediately: ‘Are you a Galilean too? Go into the matter and see for yourself: prophets do not arise in Galilee.’
We do not know where Nicodemus was at the time of Jesus’s trial. Luke’s Gospel tells us that one of the Sanhedrin, Joseph of Arimathea, dissented from their judgement. John’s gospel tells us that Joseph and Nicodemus co-operated in caring for the body of Jesus after his death and that Nicodemus contributed a mixture of myrrh and aloes weighing about a hundred pounds.In his book Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, Pope Benedict XVI observes that, “The quantity of the balm is extraordinary and exceeds all normal proportions. This is a royal burial.” I guess that tells us how highly Nicodemus thought of Jesus. And it suggests that he has moved on from his earlier caution.There was no suggestion that he is now an open disciple of Jesus, but he is willing to come out to Jospeh of Arimathea and to be known for his extraordinarily generous gesture.
Many of us are like Nicodemus.There are pressures on us to hide our faith, our allegiance to Christ, toplay it down, even to hide it.But perhaps we, too, will have opportunities to come out as disciples.Perhaps we should always be on the look out, always be ready to reveal who we are and in whom we trust.
The Resurrection of the Body
Second Sunday of Easter 2020
Prayers and Readings for 19th April can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dCrVWOizUJc
‘Then we shall all have eaten thee’ is not a quotation from the Gospels, nor even from St Paul, but from a rather grisly folk song that may have originated in mid nineteenth century Halifax.
The consequences of courting Mary Jane without a hat on need not concern us here, except for the rather interesting analysis contained in the last few verses. There the song asserts that that dead bodies are eaten by worms; that ducks eat worms and that we eat ducks. Hence the gruesome but rather triumphant conclusion:
‘Then we shall all have eaten thee’.
Where does the resurrection fit into this?
For much of its history the Christian Church has taken a fairly literal view of the resurrection. This was one of the reasons for a general ban on cremation until the twentieth century.
It favour of that prohibition it could at least be argued that even though the body decays in the grave yet the skeleton usually remains intact.
But except among the Eastern Orthodox cremation is now usual for Christians. So clearly we no longer expect the resurrection to be about a literal reassembling of the molecules of our earthly bodies. It means something else.
But although the church has taken the more rather conservative, literal view for many centuries, we do not find that in the scripture. Perhaps the classic passage is from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians where he attempts to answer the Corinthians question, How are dead people raised? What sort of body do they have?
Paul’s reply is that the body we have after death is in many ways quite different from the body we had on earth: imperishable rather than perishable; glorious rather than contemptible; powerful rather than weak; spiritual rather than natural. (1 Corinthians 15:42f)
It is a fascinating concept, a spiritual body. Paul does not say we live on as spirit. We are raised from the dead and given a spiritual body. This is important. It reminds us that an essential part of being human is to have a body, that being human requires us to have a body. In writing this Paul was putting a distance between orthodox Judaism and Eastern religions. The Jewish faith had always been clear that the created world was made by God and was to be enjoyed and celebrated. The body was made by God. There were and still are other religions, and even unorthodox Christian sects which believe that the material world was second rate or even evil. Some sects even believed that the material world was made by Satan and the spiritual world by God.
Paul is having none of this. At the resurrection we have bodies. And although they are radically different from our earthly bodes yet they have a connection. He uses the image of a grain of wheat being buried in the ground. It dies and a new ear grows in its place. The new ear is much greater than the grain that died but as we would put it now, the DNA is the same. (1 Corinthians 15:36 ff)
So resurrection is about the body, not a disembodied spirit; but it is not a literal reassembling of the old body.
And Jesus clearly taught this as well. He was once approached by some religious leaders, Sadducees, who did not believe in the hope of the resurrection. They put before him a rather improbable scenario of a woman who married seven brothers in turn. This was based on the Jewish custom that if a man died childless his widow would marry the next unmarried brother in order to have the first brother’s children through the second brother as it were.
They concluded this scenario with a triumphant question:
‘At the resurrection whose wife will she be?’ Matthew 22:27
We’ve got you now, they thought! They’d trumped him! Checkmate!
And if Jesus had taken a literal view of the resurrection he would have been in trouble. But he didn’t. And what he replied was
‘You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.’ Matthew 22:29-30
In my last parish a child at the local Roman Catholic school asked one of the nuns
‘Will my dog go to heaven?’
The reply of the nun was
‘If you need your dog in heaven, she will be there.’
It was a wonderful reply. The child will have thought I do need my dog and so she will be in heaven. Twenty years on the adult will now think, I do not need my dog in heaven. But at the age of thirteen and newly bereaved she could not envisage that possibility. In many ways we have a similar view of heaven. We tend to see it as a kind of extension of everything that makes us happy in this life, the relationships, the family, the friends. In a sense we can do no other but we need to bear in mind Jesus words to the Sadducees:
You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God.
This idea of the resurrection body matters not only for our own resurrection but also for that of Jesus. You see it helps make sense of some of the oddities of the meetings between the risen Jesus and his disciples:
Mary meets him in the garden and assumes he is the gardener John 20:15
Two of them walk to Emmaus with him, hold deep conversations but do not recognize him until he breaks bread with them Luke 24:13 ff
Thomas meets him face to face but will not believe it is Jesus until he puts his hands in his wounds John 20:25
Jesus walks in and out of locked rooms John 20:19
He eats with them on the beach, the disciples know it is him but do not dare ask him John 21:12
When I was about seven I used to worry that if I met Jesus I would not recognize him. I can still see the vision of had then of him walking down the street where I lived. He had a beard and a long flowing robe of the kind that is ill seen in the middle east. And in Morrison’s Thornbury.
I still worry that I might not recognize Jesus. It is a genuine concern. But the Jesus in my vision is no longer dressed in first century middle eastern clothes. The Jesus I may not recognize looks like a beggar sat outside the Alhambra in Bradford on a Friday night. The Jesus I may not recognize looks like a North Korean child; or a Syrian refugee trying to cross Europe with her family; the Jesus I may not recognize looks like you.
What those first disciples discovered on that first Sunday was not that Jesus had simply been restored to what he had been on Maundy Thursday. What they discovered was that Jesus was now among them, with them, in them. And Jesus told them that before he died when he told them the parable of the sheep and the goats:
‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
Jesus was now among them, with them, in them.
And he still is.
Eamon Holmes and David Icke have done a great deal to raise awareness of the G5-Coronavirus conspiracy theory.I found myself withjust a little sympathy for Eamon Holmes in his concern about the way the debate was being conducted.Some conspiracy theories are true and, it seemed to me, all should be tested against the evidence. Having done a quick bit of research on The Guardian on-line I would conclude that Coronavirus has no connection with G5.So the theory can be described as being without any significant evidence, or not accepted by any recognized scientific body. I was less happy that news presenters should dismiss those who believed or promoted the theory as ‘crackpots.’
But I then began to wonder whether there was something a little inconsistent about a Christian priest insisting on a rigorous evidence-based approach to life. Would my belief that an itinerant Palestinian preacher who died two thousand years ago came to life after death and is still alive stand up to serious scientific investigation? By and large, few people in Britain dismiss religious believers as being ‘crackpots’; perhaps that is because we rarely ask that public policy should be based on our beliefs. I think the consensus in modern society would be that religious belief is entirely personal and subjective and if it provides a certain amount of comfort it may be no bad thing. A bit like a belief in the tooth fairy or Father Christmas.
By a strange coincidence in my reading this week I came across a counter argument in the writings of John Henry Newman. Newman was19th century Anglican priest who converted to Roman Catholicism and ended his days as a Cardinal. He left us many writings including the popular hymns Firmly I Believe and Truly and Praise to the Holiest in the Height.
In his Grammar of Assent he knocked on the head any suggestion that Christian belief could ever be proved in a scientific kind of way. It was not about the ‘head’ but about the ‘heart’, the emotions and imagination. It begins with our conscience, our sense that we ought to do what’s right. This is, in reality, an awareness of the presence of God. Then, at some stage in our lives, we encounter the church, through the lives of its members, through prayer, through the scriptures and the sacraments. And there follows a ‘eureka’ moment in which we realise that this external life connects with our internal life. The life of the church connects completely with our own sense of God. It is less a scientific investigation and more like falling in love.
Amongst the readings at Morning Prayer this week has been selection from that mysterious Old Testament book Song of Songs. This is a collection of poems all about falling in love. There is no mention of God. That is because the writer of these poems simply assumed that we would know that they were all about God:
Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm;
for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave.
It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame.
Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot sweep it away.
If one were to give all the wealth of one’s house for love, it would be utterly scorned.
Song of Songs 8:6-7
Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them,
‘Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus who is called Barrabas or Jesus from Nazareth?’
And they said, ‘Barabbas.’ Pilate said to them, ‘Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?’
All of them said, ‘Let him be crucified!’ Then he asked, ‘Why, what evil has he done?’ But they shouted all the more, ‘Let him be crucified!’
Matthew 27: 15,16, 18
My name is Jesus – Jesus Barabbas. I am lucky to be alive! I had a very close brush with death a few years ago in Jerusalem. I have always believed in direct action.It is no good complaining about how vicious the Romans are.How they occupy our country; rape our daughters, murder our sons. They are clearly in the wrong and our own Jewish leaders are just Quislings – they are the worst kind of collaborators.So I do something about it.I have no regrets about the – that is the price of war. And I know that at some time I too may have to pay the price of war.
Well, a few years ago I thought that my time had come.I was arrested and taken for trial before the Governor, Pilate.I thought it was going to be an open or shut case – I would be crucified without any doubt.
But it was the Passover. And someone in the crowd reminded Pilate of an ancient custom of releasing a prisoner at that time of year. And before I knew it they were demanding he do it. Well, Pilate immediately responded,
‘Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews ?’
He said ‘King of the Jews’ with a slight inflection of irony. He was referring to the other prisoner, another Jesus, from Nazareth. I don’t know why they had got it in for him.He was a bit of a prophet, a bit of a healer, but he was no revolutionary and certainly no advocate of violence.It was rumoured that when the crowds came out to meet him at the gate of Jerusalem he had arrived riding a donkey.Can you imagine?A donkey! As far as I could see he was the victim of political in-fighting. At least in me they had got a genuine freedom fighter!
So, when Pilate offered to release the Nazarene, I assumed that would please the crowd. But far from it.They wanted me. Pilate asked them,
“Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” They shouted back,
“Crucify him!” Pilate asked them again,
“Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more,
I later heard some story that the Chief Priest had put them up to this.I don’t know whether they bribed the crowd or threatened them but I have it on very good authority.I find itastonishing.Given the chance of putting an end to an insurgent with a record as long as your arm – they chose to execute an innocent from the provinces.But what chilled me was the anger in those words
‘Crucify him!Crucify him!’
And they did.And I still don’t get it.Not that I am objecting – I am alive and well and still active in the struggle. But why did this Jesus of Nazareth have to die ?
Joseph of Aramathea
Now there was a good and righteous man named Joseph, who, though a member of the council, had not agreed to their plan and action. He came from the Jewish town of Aramathea, and he was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God.
This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then he took it down, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid.
My name is J
My name is Joseph. I come from a small town near Jerusalem called Arimathaea but if you have never heard of it you are not alone!
Life has focussed very much on Jerusalem for many years.I have done well for myself both in business and in public life.I have become quite comfortably off and have been elected to the Sanhedrin.That’s the council of twenty three elders who act as a court – quite an honour.
But for many years I lead something of a double life. Let me explain.As a good and loyal Jew I have always looked forward to the coming of the Kingdom of God; the time when God would intervene directly in his world and overturn all the evil and corruption.There is nothing controversial about that
But, like many others, I became convinced thata preacher and healer from Galilee, Jesus of Nazareth, was God’s Messiah.It was not an easy belief to hold for someone so prominent in public life as I was.No-one was very much interested in what country people from the north believed.But for a member of the Sanhedrin to believe that Jesus was the Christ was just not on.It was letting the side down.I’d dropped a few hints from time to time that I was rather sympathetic – and it became very clear to methat if I came out as a full blown disciple I would be ostracised.And I simply was not ready for that.I was not ready to sacrifice the good name of my wife and children for what I believed.
I suppose in some ways it was hypocritical. I certainly never felt proud.But the time came when I was put on the spot.Jesus of Nazareth was brought to trial.
I cannot imagine for the life of me why he even came to Jerusalem.
It turns out that when he had entered Jerusalem the crowds had greeted him asa king: they had thrown cloaks and branches in front of him.But the bizarre thing is he rode in on a donkey – of all animals!
The trial was awful. It was as if the rest of the Sanhedrin were looking for reasons for finding him guilty.Witnesses were brought but they all contradicted each other. It was a farce.And Jesus of Nazareth sat there impassively.He just said nothing.I stuck my neck out and suggested there was simply no case to answer.
But the the High Priest made a dramatic intervention. He asked Jesus, point blank
“Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?”
I froze. I had never co
“I am” he said and then went on to make it worse for himself as he said
“and you will see the Son of Man seated at the ‘right hand of the Power,’and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven.’”
Absolute pandemonium broke loose. The High Priest tore his robes; people began hitting Jesus and spitting in his face.The High Priest shouted ‘He deserves to die: who’s in favour?”and a great cheer went up. In my heart I knew it was wrong but at this point I said nothing.And so the vote was recorded as unanimous.
The next two days were awful.Jesus was taken to Pilate.He made a big show of washing his hands in public but in the end he condemned him to death.It suited him to keep the Sanhedrin happy and the death of a provincial preacher was a reasonable price to pay.
I felt I had betrayed him.I could have spoken up and I did not.And so I made a decision.I went to Pilate and asked him for the body.Pilate showed no great interest.He called the centurion to ask if Jesus were dead – it was just another piece of local government bureaucracy for him.And then he gave me the body.And that was it!I had paid out a lot of money for a tomb for myself.And so I laid Jesus’s body there. I wished I had done more for him in life life.But at least he had a decent burial.
The encounters between the disciples and the Risen Christ are marked by a common and very strange characteristic: the disciples fail to recognise Jesus.According to John’s Gospel (20:11) Mary Magdalene is the first of them to meet Jesus but, although they have been friends for a good three years, she mistakes him for the gardener.Thomas, famously refuses to believe that the man standing in front of him is his old friend until he can put his hands in the holes that the nails made (John 20: 24). Luke tells us that Clopas and another disciple walk several miles with Jesus on the road to Emmaus, deep in conversation about the events of the crucifixion, and yet they do not recognise him until they sit down to a meal with him and he breaks the bread. (Luke 24:13) Finally, the whole group of disciples meet Jesus on the beach and John rather cryptically tells us that none of the disciples ‘was bold enough to ask “who are you?”; they knew quite well it was the Lord’. (John 21: :12) So why would they even think of asking him who he was?
Like the disciples, we tend to think that the Resurrection life will be just like the old life. The future will be just like the past only, we hope, a little bit better. But the resurrection appearances of Jesus suggest that sometimes the future is so different from the past that we find it hard to recognise it. I am sure that is the situation we are in now. It is hard to imagine what the future will be like for ourselves as individuals, as families, as a nation, as a world, as the church, once the present emergency is over. We need to be very imaginative and very creative!
And there is great encouragement in all the gospel accounts of the Resurrection. According to John (20:21-23), Jesus sent his disciples into the future equipped with the Holy Spirit. Luke, similarly, tells us that Jesus sent his disciples out and promised the Holy Spirit (Luke 24: 44 to 49). According to Mark, (16 128) a young man assures the disciples that Jesus will go ahead of them to Galilee. And Matthew tells us that Jesus did indeed go ahead to Galilee (28:16).
Forty years ago I was preparing to leave university where I had spent three very happy years. I was going to future and place this was totally unknown and even a little scary. I had a genuine and important question: is God in Barnsley? The answer of course was ‘yes’. Not only was God in Barnsley, but he was there even before I was! He was in Galilee before the disciples were. Even now, God is in our future preparing to welcome us. If we know nothing else about the future, we know this: God is there.
12th April 2020
I have done more walking over the last two weeks then I usually do. I have felt that the government’s permission to take exercise everyday is more of an obligation! The extra exercise has undoubtedly done me good, particularly since Lynn, my wife, has been very successfully developing her baking skills!
One of the things I have noticed on my walking is that many houses have colourful children’s drawings in the windows, often with encouraging little slogans like ‘Thank you postie’. And I’ve noticed that the most common symbol amongst the many posters is that of the rainbow.
The rainbow seems to be a universal symbol of hope. DH Lawrence used it as the title of one of his greatest novels, at the end of which he says of one of the key characters, Ursula Brangwen:
“She saw in the rainbow the earth’s new architecture, the old, brittle corruption of houses and factories swept away, the world built up in a living fabric of Truth, fitting to the over-arching heaven.”
But the rainbow can be an ambiguous symbol. They disappear almost as soon as you look at them, and those who look for the pot of gold at the end will for ever look in vain. The rainbow can symbolise a longing that is never fulfilled, as indeed it does in the film the Wizard of Oz:
Oh, somewhere over the rainbow
Way up high
And the dreams that you dare to
Why oh, why can’t I?
But in the bible there is no such ambiguity. In the bible the rainbow is always a sign of hope. On two occasions, in the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel (1:26-28) and the New Testament Revelation of St John (4 1-2 and 10:1-4), it is used as symbol of the glory of God. But by far the best know occurrence of the rainbow in the bible is the story of Noah.
The story of Noah is almost a tragedy. God made the earth and ‘saw that it was very good’. Humankind was the climax of his act of creation, for men and women were made in the image of God himself. But it went wrong. In the story of Adam and Eve we see how human pride separated us from God. To this pride and alienation the writer of Genesis attributed the pain of childbirth experienced by women and the difficulty of farming the earth experienced by men.
The story of Noah is, in a sense a repetition of this theme. The author of Genesis tells us that God saw the wickedness that the human race had committed and he repented of having made us. That in itself is a tragic word: ‘repented’. God repented of his finest creation. And so he resolved to destroy it – with a flood. Except that there was one man – Noah – who acted justly. So God decided, for the sake of Noah, not to destroy all of the earth. He took Noah into his confidence and instructed him to build an ark. So because of the obedience of one man, Noah, the human race as a whole was saved from destruction. Does that sound familiar? We could just as readily say that because of one man, Jesus Christ, the human race was saved from destruction. Noah is a kind of precursor of Jesus. But not just Noah. Once Christians start looking back over the Old Testament we see in it the story of Jesus, except that is like a jigsaw that is broken into lots of pieces. There’s a bit of the storyline over there and then another in that corner and it all points to Jesus.
And it is not just the story of Noah that looks forward to Jesus. They first story about sin was that of Adam and Eve. Paul saw very clearly that Jesus reversed this story:
‘For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.’
John Henry Newman builds on this in his hymn Praise to the Holiest the Height, where he refers to Jesus Christ as
A second Adam to the fight
and to our rescue came
In the entrance into Jerusalem, commemorated on Palm Sunday, the parallel is with King David. The crowds knew exactly who they thought Jesus was as they spread their cloaks and palm leaves in front of him:
Blessed is he who comes
in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom
of David our father!
Hosanna in the highest heavens.
As the last supper, celebrated on Maundy Thursday, the allusion is less to an individual than to an event. This meal takes place at the time of the Passover and Jesus transforms it in an extraordinary manner into what will become for Christians the Eucharist in which bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. And then a remarkable way the whole story of the Passover, the Exodus the rescue, the escape from Egypt, is all swept up into the Christian expression of salvation history. The Israelites were rescued from slavery in Egypt by the blood of the passover lamb. We are rescued from slavery to Satan by the blood of the Lamb of God.
Christians find in the prophet Isaiah’s figure, the suffering servant, very clear hints to the nature of Jesus’s own death:
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised,
and we held him in low esteem.
These are only the better known, the more obvious examples. There are many, many more. For Christians the death and resurrection of Jesus are the complete fulfilment of everything in the Old Testament. Or to look at it another way, everything in the Old Testament looks forward to the death and resurrection of Jesus.
But let us end where we began, with the story of Noah and the rainbow. For the author of Genesis the rainbow is not about the vague kind of unfulfilled longing we might find in DH Lawrence or the Wizard of Oz. It is the symbol of the covenant, the promise made by God to Noah that he would never again destroy the earth. The first generation of Christians began to understand that this was the significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus and that this death and resurrection were the guarantee of the promise. In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles Peter tells those assembled in the house of Cornelius that ‘all the prophets testify about Jesus that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’ (Act s10:43). Paul writes to the Galatians, When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.’ (Colossians 4:4)
The rainbow is an important symbol for Christians, but has never become the definitive one in the same way as the cross. But in many ways it’s could be so for it symbolises God’s faithfulness and the way in which evil can be transformed into good. Its key strength is undoubtedly that it resonates with the hearts and minds of the people of our community in our own time. The rainbows in the windows of the people of Pudsey and Thornbury are an affirmation of faith in the resurrection.
Aleluia! Christ is Risen!
Fr Nicholas Clews
10th April 2020
As the first Good Friday dawned, Jesus awoke as a prisoner of the religious establishment. There was the formality of a trial to go through, but at that point the outcome of it all seemed pretty certain. Jesus was going to die. What is more, his death would not be an accident, but the inevitable outcome of his birth.It was what he and his Father had planned. But as he stood on the threshold of his death it must have been the most frightening moment of his existence since he had agreed to be conceived. He knew that his death would be followed by resurrection, but in order to achieve that he had to let go of his life and once he was dead he would be utterly powerless. He would have to trust his Father completely.
On this Good Friday, the whole world is in a similar position. Except that this death was quite unprepared for. It has already begun and seems a lot more real than the life that may follow: the roads are so quiet that I can stroll across the main Leeds-Bradford dual carriageway; many shops are locked; churches are no longer open and the once bustling Parish Hall at St James and The THornbury Centre are silent and empty.These all witness to the death that has begun.
To some extent the future lies in the hand of chance: nobody quite knows how the coronavirus will progress nor when we will find a usable vaccine. In the meantime millions of people over the world will die and even more will be bereaved with very little chance to mourn as they would like. The world beyond coronavirus will be will be severely economically damaged and very different from the world before. What we do not yet know is whether Good Friday will be followed by Good Friday and Good Friday again for ever and ever. Or whether there will be an Easter Day
But that is in our hands. God has put it in our hands. God has given us the clear instruction to love one another, to serve one another, to wash each other’s feet. And we are showing that we have learnt that. The discipline of millions of people in staying at home, waving to their neighbours across the street without approaching them, phoning or even writing to their parents or their children, standing two metres apart in the supermarket queue, is a witness to the fact that we can wash one another’s feet. But it mustn’t stop. It must continue. We need a new world where washing one another’s feet is normal.
The bible ends with a vision of such a new world given to a man named John, recorded in the twenty-first chapter of the Book of Revelation:
I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
God has shown us how to build this world.Just before his death Jesus told his disciples,
A new command I give you: Love one another.
As I have loved you, so you must love one another.
By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.
9th April 2020
The Liturgy of the Word
The Sermon (or read it below) Intercessions and Conclusion
It’s looks as if we are going to be in it for the long haul; that is to say, what Bishop Nick has referred to as ‘the Eucharistic fast’. I last celebrated the mass on Sunday, 15th March; on Tuesday 17th the Archbishops asked us to suspend all public worship.
Since then the Christian church has been quite innovative in finding different ways of worshipping. I have carried on saying Morning and Evening Prayer, but at home rather than in church and, I have to say, with a greater sense of discipline than previously. I have circulated the mass readings for everyday of the week to all members of both congregations. And I have posted some kind of reflection every day on Facebook which has variously been a full-length sermon, a poem or on one occasion a joke!
My social media skills, which have always been pretty rudimentary, have improved considerably. I can post on Facebook and have learned to inserts links and make videos of myself as a talking head! Even now I am planning to post a video of myself reading the liturgies for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Day.
So what about the Eucharist? The mass? What do we do about that, especially as we now know that we are probably going to be unable to gather together for twelve weeks or more.
When, for a brief week, the prohibition on public worship still allowed for private prayer in church, the archbishops were suggesting we might celebrate private masses with very small congregations present by invitation only. All that is even possible now is for a priest to celebrate a private mass with members of his or her own household. Should we do it? Should we video it? Should we live stream it?
I don’t think there is a definitive answer but I have come down on the side of “No” to any of it. In coming to that conclusion I am drawing on my own understanding what it is to be a priest and what it is to celebrate the Eucharist. With regard to the former, I have always been very clear that the ministry of priest exists within and as part of the Church. My ministry is not a personal one but an expression of my membership of the church which has a particular expression in the congregations of St James and St Margaret. So, for example, whenever I conduct a funeral I am very clear that I do it as a member of the whole Christian Church and particularly St James and St Margaret’s. This is this can be at odds with the secular world which sees me are some kind of freelance funeral celebrant.
So when I preside at the mass, I am doing so as part of the whole body of Christ. The sacrifice of the mass is offered by as all or not at all.
There is a precedent for this. The mass is not celebrated from the night of Maundy Thursday until the eve of the Easter. There are no celebrations on Good Friday or Holy Saturday. These two days are days of waiting and mourning. This will be longer than two days. It has already been over twenty days are there may be seventy or more still to go.
The sacraments are ways in which God can communicate with us. There has never been any suggestion that he cannot communicate without sacraments. Anglicans and other catholics may be rather puzzled that members of the Salvation Army choose to do without sacraments, but there has never been any suggestion that Salvationists are not living the Christian life? So perhaps for time we are all Salvations!
And perhaps when we finally do come together again, it will be with a renewed commitment to the Eucharist, a new awareness of its beauty and its value. It will be a celebration indeed.
‘This is my body broken for you.’
Simon of Cyrene
A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross.
My name is Simon. I come from a small town called Cyrene out in the middle of nowhere in North Africa, so people call me ‘Simon of Cyrene’.I have only once ever been to Jerusalem, our capital city.That was many years ago and I shall never ever forget it.
I went because it was the passover.That’s the big religious festival of the year for those of us who are Jews.I wanted to see the Passover lamb being sacrificed and to be part of it all, to share in the atmosphere.
I expected the crowds to be biggest round the Temple.But that was not the case.In fact the crowds were densest on the road that led away from the city, towards a hill called Golgotha.They were pushing and shoving all over the place.
Well, I reckoned that if there were crowds there was something worth seeing.So I grabbed my two sons, Rufus and Alexander, one in each hand.(It was lucky I did not have three sons!). Holding them tightly I pushed my way right to the front of the crowd.
What I saw shocked me. The Roman soldiers had a prisoner.Poor devil!They had whipped the flesh off his back and were now taking him to be crucified.For some reason they made a crown out of thorns and stuck it on his head.The thorns had cut and scratched him.But worst of all they were making him carry his own cross.Out in the country the Romans do not bother you – I had never thought they were this bad.
The poor man was clearly exhausted.He kept tripping and finally he stopped as if he couldn’t continue.I remember thinking
“Why doesn’t someone take that cross off him and give him a break ?”
The Roman soldiers didn’t look as if they were going to volunteer.Then I heard one of them shout
And before I knew what had happened two of them dragged me into the road, lifted the cross of the man’s back and shoved it on mine.I nearly collapsed under the weight. It was like carrying a tree.Well, it was a tree!And then I thought about Rufus and Alexander, still in the crowd.Would they get lost ?I was about to protest but the soldiers had their swords
So I walked.After all, I was the one who wanted someone to carry the cross for him!And as I walked I thought.I thought of what I had to look forward to.At the end of the journey I would be free.Free to find my children.Free to go to the temple.Free to go back to my wife and home.But that poor man who had carried the cross so far had nothing to look forward to but a horrible death.
When we got to the top of the hill I was told to put the cross down.I didn’t need telling twice. I looked round but the soldiers seemed to have no interest in me.I walked away quickly to look for Alexander and Rufus. But after few yards I turned quickly to look at the prisoner.He looked exhausted.But in a strange way he looked triumphant.As if dying on the cross were the fulfilment of his life.
I never found out who he was – and I never want to go anywhere near a Roman soldier again.But I have never met a man like him – before or since.So gentle yet so strong.And in a peculiar sort of way I felt proud that I had been able to carry his cross.
Last night I found myself watching a TV programme, The Road to Istanbul, about a group of celebrities going on pilgrimage together.They were following The Sultan’s Trail, a 1400 mile footpath from Vienna to Istanbul.
Over a meal one evening the seven pilgrims talked about their own personal faith journeys.Adrian Chiles, the TV presenter, spoke of how he had been received into the Roman Catholic Church at the age of 39.The priest who prepared him for his first communion had gone through all the usual Christian teaching about the sacraments, but what Adrian Chiles remembered most clearly was the priest’s advice that he should forget all that he had said but ‘promise me this that you will find ten minutes every day to be still -and the truth will come to you.’
What a wise man! It has taken me sixty-two years to come to a similar conclusion.
But finding the time, the place and the means to be still are not easy.Especially the means.I have found three things of help. One is the reading of scripture.Ideally just a short passage and often a story from the gospels,I try to imagine the story as if it were a film, to hear the voices of the all the people including Jesus, and then to imagine myself into the scene and to note what I think what I feel, what I say, what I do.
A second is listening to music, if possible something quiet and reflective and if possible a piece that does not already have strong associations for me.Music I do not already know is often very helpful – and at present I am listening to Arvo Part.
The third is reading poetry.I currently working my way very slowly through a volume of Carole Duffy.A lot of it I pass over without a second thought but one that I keep going back to is a short poem set in a park in Wimbledon – London SW19.I love the way that the human and natural run on parallel tracks, unaware of each other; I love the apparent randomness of the events.Poems ideally should be ready slowly and aloudTry this:
TERZA RIMA SW19
Over this Common a kestrel treads air
till the earth says mouse or vole. Far below
two lovers walking by the pond seem unaware.
She feeds the ducks. He wants her, tells her so
as she half-smiles and stands slightly apart.
He loves me, loves me not with each deft throw.
It could last a year, she thinks, possibly two
and then crumble like stale bread. The kestrel flies
across the sun as he swears his love is true
and, darling, forever. Suddenly the earth cries
Now and death drops from above like a stone.
A couple turn and see a strange bird rise.
Into the sky the kestrel climbs alone
and later she might write or he might phone.
Monday 6th April 2020
John’s gospel tells us, (12:1-11) that in the last week before his death, Jesus ate a meal with his good friends Martha, Mary and Lazarus, who lived in the village of Bethany, just outside Jerusalem. During the meal Mary made a rather extravagant gesture: she anointed Jesus’s feet with some very expensive perfume and dried them with her hair.
We don’t know how most of the guests reacted to this, but John does report Judas’s words:
‘Why was this ointmentnot sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’
To put this in perspective, a denarius was about a days wage, so it would seem that the ointment may have been worth about £20,000 in today’s prices.
John tells us and that Judas was treasurer to the disciples and was a fraudster and that his aim in making this suggestion was to make sure that the money passed through his own hands.
But there are other aspects in which Judas’s suggestion is quite inappropriate. Perhaps we should begin by acknowledging that most of us would have a certain sympathy with him. Many of us have a bias towards practical help in preference to beauty. There’s a kind of moral authority attached to the former and we may feel that the latter is an indulgence. For example, it is very common for mourning families to request charitable donations instead of flowers at a funeral.
And if that is what people want, that is absolutely fine. It’s their choice. And that’s the point: it’s their choice. Judas doesn’t get this. Judas wants to impose his values on Mary. Jesus, in contrast has no such desire. His reply, ‘You have the poor with you always but you will not always have me’, can sound a little arrogant. It is if he’s putting himself centre-stage as being more important than the poor. I don’t think he is doing that at all. I think he is simply acknowledging that at this moment Mary needs to demonstrate her love for him. He is concerned with what Mary needs to do.She has worked out but he’s going to die and she wants to anoint him for his burial.
But the second error that Judas makes, and it’s a monumentally arrogant one, is to assume that in some sense Mary has done this act at the cost of giving to the poor. He has no reason to assume this. If Mary was a competent housekeeper she would have put aside money for almsgiving, money for essentials and the money for luxuries. From which budget did she take the money for the ointment? Judas assumes she took it out of the almsgiving pot,that she robs the poor. It is just as possible that she took it out of the luxury pot, that she was able to buy the perfume to anoint Jesus’s feet because she had done without herself. Perhaps it tells us something about Judas that he cannot see this.
Like Mary, we must make choices about how we spend our money. And in our own budgets we will undoubtedly include both practical help for the poor and items of beauty. What matters is that practical help for the poor is consciously built into our budgets, that it is more important than some loose change dropped into a collecting box at the supermarket.
Our Lent Charity is water aid which provides the most basic necessity for some of the poorest people in the world. Keep Watch you collect on one side and return it as soon as our churches are open for worship again.
Sunday 5th April
From Fr Peter Green
If you wish to listen to the sermon please click on: https://youtu.be/MV7B_tp7J38
Today I want to focus on the Gospel of the Palms rather than the Passion Narrative. Maybe, because of the extraordinary circumstances in which we find ourselves – locked down because of the Covid- 19 virus pandemic – this is a chance to redress the balance slightly. The Passion narrative, the description of the trial and execution of Jesus, is so important, so central to our faith, that it seems almost inappropriate not to focus on it – especially if you’re not going to hear the Passion read again on Good Friday.
And, what’s more, it is barely used for any other Sunday of the year because of the importance of this holy season. But, in my mind, the Palm Gospel – the description of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem – gets a bit overlooked when the Passion narrative takes over in our worship for today. I think that this may be my chance to bring it to the fore.
I want to focus on two things: firstly, the fact that Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey – and in Matthew’s account, it seems as if he is straddled both over the donkey and her foal; and secondly, that shout of “Hosanna!”
In some Churches, they get a real, live donkey for their Palm Sunday procession. I must admit that I’ve only read about it – never seen it – and I must also admit that, were I to be organising a Palm Sunday procession, I would be a bit reluctant to incorporate a real, live donkey into the proceedings. They say, don’t they, that if you’re in the acting profession, you should be wary of working with children and animals – and the liturgies of Holy Week have actually played a role in the development of the theatre and of opera in our culture.
The liturgies of Holy Week are most assuredly dramas – we re-enact the events of the very first Holy Week to an extent unparalleled at any other time of year. But, I must admit that I would be wary of working with a donkey – after all, they tend not to be house trained and I would also wonder if they might behave unpredictably in other ways. But unpredictability is a key theme in the Palm gospel – and the donkey and her foal definitely play a part in it.
One thousand five hundred years ago, Severus, a Christian bishop in Syria, pointed out something that may have been obvious to him but is less obvious to us: he pointed out that there’s something unbelievably strange about a King in that world making a triumphal entry into his capital city sat on a donkey. Triumphal entries were best made with huge retinues and maybe the King would be on a horse or in a fabulously decorated chariot – but a donkey? A humble beast of burden – no use on a battlefield, hardly a statement of power and prestige.
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a donkey is, of course, a fulfilment of a prediction made in the Old Testament by the Prophet Zechariah (Zech 9:9) – and for Severus, as for many other Christians, this is not only about prophecy, it also tells you something about the one sat on the donkey’s back. For Severus, Jesus’ choice of a donkey reinforces words of Jesus also found in Matthew’s gospel: that Jesus is “meek and humble of heart” (Matt 11:29). Jesus does not enter Jerusalem at the head of a conquering army, soldiers in great numbers, fully armed, with a great train of captured enemies to be executed for the public entertainment or enslaved – he comes into Jerusalem alone, and on a donkey.
I think Jesus’ choice of a donkey tells us something symbolic and also really important about the experience of many Christians – and certainly it chimes with my experience: I think Jesus on the
donkey is telling us that he does not come to claim us with force – he approaches us with great gentleness.
That may sound nice, but actually I think it can be a great problem. One of my favourite Christian poets [John Donne] wrote four hundred years ago, “Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you as yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend”. He’s expressing his deep frustration with a God who is insistently gentle and who doesn’t enter the human heart with a great show of power. How often have we inwardly – or outwardly – shouted at God to make himself more clearly known to us? When we do this, it is as if we cannot be satisfied with him unless he comes into our lives wearing a crown and rich robes in a great triumphal procession on a white horse with an army at his back – and all we get is a Galilean artisan on a donkey.
Maybe the crowd were excited to Jesus because they spotted the connection with the prophecy of Zechariah – maybe they were more than satisfied with him riding that donkey – but even then, it seems likely that they too were going to be dissatisfied. Maybe they thought that this was going to be the beginning of the long-hoped for war of liberation with a new King who, like King David, would be a great military leader inflicting great defeats on the enemies of the Hebrew people. Maybe they too misunderstood that the real King of the Jews was not going to come to establish an independent country of Israel – the real King of the Jews is also the King of the whole human race – the King of the world – and, frustratingly, he does not come in power but in gentleness.
And maybe some of those who cheered on Palm Sunday were, by Friday, shouting, “Crucify him!” Maybe some of them shouted that because he had dashed their hopes: he wasn’t the king they thought they wanted. Is this our situation? It has certainly been mine at certain moments in my life.
As with all of the gospel stories, I reckon that one way or another we play all of the roles – sometimes the disciple, sometimes the deserter; sometimes the baffled onlooker, sometimes the Pharisee; sometimes the cripple, sometimes the one congratulating himself that he has no need of healing; sometimes the starving prodigal, sometimes the elder brother; sometimes the man set upon by robbers, sometimes the Priest or the Levite passing by on the other side; sometimes a member of the crowd shouting, Hosanna!” and sometimes a member of the crowd shouting, “Crucify him!”. Yet still he comes to us gently – he does not batter our hearts as if with a battering ram, he knocks, breathes gently on us, shines, and, without force, looks to mend us … if we will let him.
And now, briefly, what about “Hosanna!” We use that word every time we celebrate the Eucharist. Have you ever asked what it means? One of the reasons those words are used in the Eucharist is to make us re-live the Palm gospel: Christ is about to enter into our community as he transforms bread and wine into his body and blood – he’s about to come among us in a unique way.
The Christians who helped shape the way in which we celebrate the Eucharist want us to have in the back of our minds the story of Palm Sunday – to put ourselves in that ecstatic crowd who are seeing the arrival of the king they have been longing to see all their lives. So, what does “Hosanna!” mean? The answer is simple: it means, “save!” or “rescue!” or “saviour!” or “rescuer!” And, of course, you can only really say that word and mean it if you have been yearning to be saved – or have had the experience of being saved. Have you been saved? Do you remember being saved? What are you saying when, every time you join in the celebration of the Eucharist, you say, “Hosanna! You saved me! You rescued me!”
Behold, our rescuer comes – he gently knocks on the door of our hearts, he does not batter – he gently breathes life in us if we let him – he does not come in the form of a hurricane; he shines without dazzling; he seeks to mend us – but only if we open our wounds to him. He comes not with an army to storm our hearts, but alone and on a humble donkey.
The Revd. Peter Green BA (Hons), MA (Hons), MA (Lit), PhD, SSC
Dean of Chapel and Chaplain, Bishop Grosseteste University, Lincoln
Friday 4th April
Sometimes poetry hits home where prose cannot.Like this from R S Thomas:
Who to believe?
The linnet sings bell-like,
a tinkling music. It says life
is contained here; is a jewel
in a shell casket, lying
among down. There is another
voice, far out in space,
whose persuasiveness is the distance
from which it speaks. Divided
mind, the message is always
in two parts. Must it be
on a cross it is made one?
From Fr Nicholas Clews
Wednesday 1st April
There is a video version of this reflection on the facebook page of St Margaret Thornbury
Tuesday 31st March
You can hear this reflection on the facebook page St Margaret Thornbury.
We are all bereaved.Not on account of the physical death of friends or family members,for the it is quite unlikely that any of us will ever know personally anyone who has died thorough Coronavirus.But we are in mourning for the loss of a way of life. It seems an age since those wonderful days when we could walk or drive where we liked, gather in groups without any anxiety, visit our friends or relations and give them a hug or shake hands without any sense that what we were doing was dangerous. We have lost a lot.
It is important to know this because in many ways we are all driven by our emotions and over the next few months we will all be driven by the emotions of people passing through bereavement.Our reactions to others will not necessarily be strictly rational.
Even now we can see controversy growing over how the Police enforce social distancing. Perhaps some Chief Constables are driven by anxiety; perhaps those who resist their actions are driven by anger. Perhaps those who try to carry on as normal are driven by denial.Perhaps those who want to hold the Chinese government accountable are driven by a need to blame someone.
We can deal with this by being aware of emotions, most especially our own.But we need to make sure that we and others are properly informed.The starting point is always knowledge of how the virus is spread and what its effect will be.And we need to make sure that we have the right information.Good sources are the NHS and HM Government.Advice from friends or obscure websites with no indication of its ultimate source should always be checked against good sources.From this essential information we can understand why the Government is calling for such radical changes in our behaviour.
But perhaps the great support we need to offer is emotional – phone calls to friends or family.But what I remember above all is that God is with us.The words of the prophet Isaiah may seem a little overdone but just because words are familiar it does not mean they are untrue; and familiar words can be very comforting:
Do not be afraid… When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.
Monday 30th March.
Since our social lives have become so restricted, we have all had to find new things to do in our leisure time.Yesterday, my wife, Lynn, developed her new upholstery skills.I delved into the family photograph albums.
Looking back over old photographs can degenerate into mere nostalgia (‘Nostalgia isn’t what is used to be’ as the saying goes). And nostalgia can lead to the fantasy that the past was wonderful and if only we could make things as they used to be all would be well.
But looking back has its positive side.We are all products of our past, both as individual and nations, and at the very least we have to live with our past; at the best we might want to celebrate it. Looking back over the photograph albums has reminded me of what I already knew – that I have a wonderful family and we have had some good times together.
Looking has long been used as a form of prayer by Christians.The principle is that we discern where God has worked in our lives;there is an assumption that if we can see where God has worked in the past then we will have more confidence that he (or she) will work the future.Unlike with financial investments, past performance is a guide to the future!
The people of Israel believed in this principle very strongly as a nation.Every year they celebrated – and still celebrate – the Passover, when God delivered them from slavery in Egypt.At this time of year Christians do the same. But what we celebrate is not our rescue from slavery to an earthy ruler, but our rescue from the tyranny of Satan. The Jewish passover has become the symbol of this Christian hope.
We are approaching this time of year now, when we remember the Passover and also the suffering and death of Jesus. In a sense we relive his passion. But as we do so we have not forgotten that death ends in resurrection.Even in Holy Week we are an Easter people. Past and present are as one.
Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
From Fr Robert Johnson
Saturday 28th March
A trip to the Dales would have been wonderful in yesterday’s sunshine. But not appropriate. So in my statutory exercise period I walked out of the vicarage, turned right on Galloway Lane and headed towards Pudsey. Within minutes I found myself on the edge of a steep hill with a panoramic view of the Fulneck Valley and the Tyersal Beck. It was not quite Wensleydale but it was very beautiful. And all just a short walk from a very urban setting.This was a reminder that beauty, like God, is found close at hand, in the familiar.
That truth lies behind one of the criticisms sometimes made of the religious practice of pilgrimage. Pilgrimage, by definition, is going on a journey, somewhere else, to find God. There is nothing wrong with this in itself, but it can you encourage the expectation that God can only be found somewhere else. And so we can be left in a perpetual state of longing, wanting things to be other than they are, wanting to be in a different place, a different time, with different people. ‘If only….’ can be a very sad and even dangerous phrase. It prevents us from making the best of what we have. It condemns us to living in the past, in the future and never in the present.
Finding God in our immediate circumstances has long been part of the Jewish and Christian traditions. The prophet Jeremiah urged the Jewish people to make the most of their exile in Babylon, to settle down, find husbands and wives for their children and build houses. (Jeremiah 29:5-6) The apostle Paul writing from prison to the church in Philippi reminded his readers that God was close to them:
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Brother Lawrence led a rather obscure and outwardly unexciting life in seventeenth century France, working in the kitchen of a monastery. He is remembered because he wrote down his experience of prayer in a book that is now known as The Practice of the Presence of God. Among his words are these:
“He does not ask much of us, merely a thought of Him from time to time, a little act of adoration, sometimes to ask for His grace, sometimes to offer Him your sufferings, at other times to thank Him for the graces, past and present, He has bestowed on you, in the midst of your troubles to take solace in Him as often as you can. Lift up your heart to Him during your meals and in company; the least little remembrance will always be the most pleasing to Him. One need not cry out very loudly; He is nearer to us than we think.”
Fr Nicholas Clews
Thursday 26th March 2020
When I was a student at theological college, Holy week, the seven days leading up to Easter, had a very special feel. We stopped travelling to university lectures and stayed in college. We continued the usual routine of prayer and meals but the academic business of writing essays was put on hold. The sense of stillness intensified halfway through the week as we gave up conversation and ate together in silence. There was a great sense of expectation because we knew it would culminate on Easter Eve in a great celebration with a bonfire, the Vigil Mass and a party!
The present time feels very much like Holy Week to me. Yesterday, as I cycled round Pudsey and Thornbury during my statutory exercise period, the roads were virtually deserted. And as it was a lovely sunny afternoon it felt a little like a French provincial tiown settling into its early afternoon siesta!
But siestas always end with the rapid return to the bustle of normal life. Holy Week ends, with utterly reliable predictability, in the celebration of Easter. But if the present time feels a little like Holy Week to me, the strange thing is that we have no idea when Easter will come, nor what it will be like.
But the present time will end. There will be at least the opportunity for resurrection, for new life. And we need to begin planning for it now! If we don’t plan for it, it won’t happen. Last night I cleaned my study. I moved my desk and all the chairs and got rid of the cobwebs. I dusted, I polished, I vacuumed the carpets. It’s what I used to do in Holy Week. It was a symbolic way of putting the past behind me and preparing for the future.
The present time has been compared to ‘the war’. In many ways it is quite an appropriate comparison for it has brought us together in a remarkable way. When we go shopping supermarket assistants instruct us to stand on the markers placed two metres apart and we all obey instantly. Yesterday the government’s call for NHS volunteers was oversubscribed by a factor of two within twenty four hours. The nation that had been bitterly divided by Brexit is suddenly united again in the face of an invisible enemy from outside.
But in recent history we have of course enjoyed two world wars. And our responses to each were very different. After World War I the ruling class punished the working people of both Britain and Germany. The people of Britain came very close to rebelling and at times the ruling class were very much afraid of it. The people of Germany did rebel and found a solution that turned out to be very much worse than the problem. We responded in a very different way to World War II. The German and French nations resolved never to go to war again. The government of the United States committed vast resources to rebuilding Europe. Britain created the welfare state and the National Health Service and there has remained a consensus between the two major political parties these are both important to our national identity.
In the present crisis we have discovered new ways of living. We have learned to support each other and to look out for the vulnerable. We have learned that there are beautiful places to walk on our own doorsteps. We have learned that we don’t need to go shopping quite so often and that we can make interesting meals from surprising ingredients that we have found at the back of our pantries.
When we return to something like normal life the old problems will remain. But we can choose. We can choose to devote our resources to jetting around the world and driving gas-guzzling road-hogging luxury cars. Or we can choose to build better flood defences and develop low carbon technology.
The Book Deuteronomy sets out a very similar message from the Lord God to the people of Israel as they enter the promised land:
See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.
But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.
This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
In a similar way, we have the opportunity to choose life or death. Or rather, we will have passed through death to find life on the other side. And the strange thing about the resurrection life is that it is very different from the life before. One of the strange characteristics of the resurrection of Jesus is that his closest friends did not immediately recognise him. He hadn’t stopped being Jesus. He hadn’t become someone else. But the experience of death had changed him. We, as individuals, as a church, as a nation, have the opportunity, the responsibility, to choose life. And the resurrection-life will be different from the one we knew before.
Wednesday 25th March 2020
Today is known in the Christian Church as the Feast of the Annunciation. It’s the day when we remember how the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her that God wanted her to give birth to his only son. More importantly, it’s when Mary said ‘yes’ and God became one of us or, to use the jargon, became incarnate.
It was an incredible risk. Mary could have said ‘no’; infant mortality was high; and if you were a Jew in Roman-occupied Palestine there was a reasonable chance you could be executed on a trumped up charge of political subversion.
There is a great deal of ‘becoming one of us’ going on at the moment. A great deal of incarnation. It came home to me when I saw a photograph of a family member on Facebook, dressed from head to foot in plastic, looking rather like an astronaut. This is what doctors wear when they are caring for coronavirus patients. He wrote, rather flippantly, of it being the ‘new look’ for spring. Some of his Facebook friends described him as a ‘hero’.When we spoke by phone he was quick to point out that the nursing staff are the real heroes as they are continually in contact with their patients throughout the day while the doctors flit in and out for an occasional consultation. We then both agreed that much more visible but less acknowledged heroes are the shop staff who meet hundreds of members of the public every day, some of whom will be carrying the virus unknown to them, and most of whom will be met at a distance of less than the statutory two metres.
I did some shopping yesterday. I made a point of speaking to the shop assistants and saying, ‘thank you for being here’. One of them replied, with a smile, ‘People need feeding!’ My simple act of generosity, at no cost to myself, was invariably met by a similarly generous response. There is a technical, theological term for this: grace. Grace begins with the generosity of God but continues to be shown in the generosity of human beings. As John the gospel writer puts it
For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. (John 1:16)
I met a great deal of grace yesterday. I saw and spoke with God on several occasions, and God usually took the form of a shop assistant.
St Paul wrote
Jesus Christ, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!
Someone in our own time wrote:
What if the great initiative had not gone to plan?
Maybe the girl had said ‘no’;
or the usual childhood illnesses had intervened with death;
or the workman’s son sustained a minor but probably fatal injury;
or the Eternal One simply come to like his way of life
and chosen to avoid the necessary conflict.
Would The Two have been left in the empty nest?
Or lumped with son who wouldn’t leave home?
Sense, perhaps would prevail and another plan be sought.
Tuesday 24th March 2020
It is over thirty years since I trained for the priesthood, supported by a very holy man, Fr George Moffat. He ended his full time ministry as Rector of Bolton Abbey but we were together in a very different place, a coal mining village called South Elmsall, in Beyond-Wakefield.
Fr George had a passion for keeping the church open to all-comers during the day. I think this passion sprang from two key beliefs: that the church belonged to all the people of the village and not just the eighty or so who worshipped regularly, and that although it was possible to pray anywhere, some places were – well, just special.
The Jews knew all about special places. They had one that was special above all others – the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus and Mary and all their family made a regular pilgrimage there for the Passover celebration. But there was a time, some centuries before Jesus, when the Jews had been unable to do that. In the year 587 BC they were invaded by the Babylonians and their leaders taken away to exile in their captors’ city, which we might know as Basra, in southern Iraq.
There were many dreadful aspects to this exile but one that the Jews felt keenly was their inability to worship in Jerusalem. We know this because they wrote a song about it, which we know by the rather prosaic title of Psalm 137:
By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.
Back in 1978 Boney M set this to music as the pop song By the Rivers of Babylon where it stayed at No 1 for five weeks and, according to Wikipedia, remaining one of the top ten best selling singles of all time. Its popularity can only be because its theme of exile and separation is one that many people have experienced over many centuries. And that now includes all of us.
We can no longer visit family and friends; when, last night, I tried to phone my elderly mother, who lives a hundred miles away, I received the message that ‘all lines are engaged.’ When I got through to her and tried to place an on-line grocery order for her – she is 91 years old – I found that either all slots were booked until well after Easter or supermarkets were not accepting new customers.
Perhaps all this was symbolised the fact that last night I locked St James Church and I do not know when I will open it. The passion that Fr George Moffat had for keeping churches open was contagious – and I caught it. Never have I kept a church locked and on one occasion I had to accept the resignation of a churchwarden in order to achieve it. That both our churches will remain locked indefinitely is a symbol of our exile. We cannot gather together for worship. We cannot even sit in a church. With the ancient Jews we might well lament,
How can we sing the Lord’s Song in a foreign land?
But they did. The existence of Psalm 137 is evidence of that! And we will. This morning I will say Morning Prayer at nine o’clock and my colleague at St Clements and St Augustine will say it at the same time. We will then speak by phone and have coffee together. I invite you to join me in prayer any day at nine or five o’clock. I will be phoning members of my congregations throughout this week and the Weekly Bulletin will be sent out-by email where possible or even Royal Mail where necessary.
If you would like to receive a copy of the Weekly Bulletin with a sermon please send me your email address. There is more than one way of being the church.
Oh, and I got through to my mother using the mobile network and at 5:30 this morning I found an on-line delivery spot. My mother will not run out of cabbage!
Tuesday 17th March 2020
I spent my time of prayer today with a piece of music called The Beatitudes, by Arvo Part. It’s a setting, lasting about ten minutes, of some of the best-known words of Jesus: ‘Blessed the pure in heart’ and so on. It’s a setting for a small choir, largely without accompaniment. I was struck by how it gradually got higher and higher in pitch, as if it were a picture of Jesus ascending into heaven, ascending into the clouds, getting smaller and smaller until he disappeared. When the skies are clear I can see aircraft above our house doing something like that as they set off from Leeds Bradford airport to the far corners of the earth.
Something rather surprising happens towards the end of this largely choral piece. We become aware that somewhere in the texture there is an organ hiding. As the words come to an end the organ comes out of hiding in a joyful, exultant, cadenza like passage, dancing high up in the sky. And it’s the organ which has the last word, not the choir which has dominated the piece. Words are now put behind us in a word-less ecstasy. It is as if Part is telling us that words can take us so far in expression and after that have to rely on music alone. Some emotions are beyond words.
This is not a new idea. Many early Christians latched on to the notion that God is so far beyond human experience that we can say nothing about him. He’s quite simply not like anything else in the whole of creation. Even to refer to God as ‘he’ or ‘him’ does not really make sense. We may call God our ‘father’ or our ‘Lord’ or our ‘friend’ but these words are very rough approximations. God is none these. He is God!
The Early Christians were not the first people to work this out. Five hundred years before the time of Jesus the prophet Isaiah wrote
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
And we can go back even earlier than this. When Moses stood before the burning bush and God spoke to him, Moses asked God for his name. (Exodus 3) He wanted to pin God down, define him, put him in a box – limit him. And God refuses to play the game. He replies ‘My name is I am. I am who I am.’ When the Israelites ask the name of the God who has sent him, Moses is to reply, ‘I am has sent me!’
The point is that we cannot know anything about God until we know him. Faith is not about intellectual knowledge but personal experience. That is why in Arvo Part’s piece of music the words do not have the last word. Faith goes beyond words. Or, to change the metaphor from music to food, ‘taste and see that the Lord is good.’ (1 Peter 3:3 quoting Psalm 34:8)