Saturday, 11 April 2020

Easter Day: John 20.1-18: Tim Mountain


As I write this, the country is beginning the third week of lockdown. Our Prime Minister is in intensive care. Despite the signs of spring and promise of warmer weather a shadow hangs over us. We wonder when the darkness will go and the clouds lift.  We don’t know for sure. Nonetheless, we are pretty confident that this will pass. After all, Her Majesty the Queen has said as much!

But for Mary, Peter and other disciples of Jesus, Friday’s crucifixion had signalled the end of their hopes and dreams of better times to come. The darkness that had descended over the land that afternoon was now a gloom in their hearts. This would not pass. What could they do but accept the shattering, face the stark reality of the tomb and what it contained?

However, in a story that Christians retell every year at Easter, astonishingly and against all expectations the emptiness in their hearts was confronted with an empty tomb. Initial shock and bewilderment grew into joy and new hope. The light blazed in the darkness and the darkness could not overcome it. Love conquered hatred. Life triumphed over death; yes, even it too will one day be no more.

Significantly, the resurrection of Jesus was God’s work. No human hand devised or arranged it. Nobody laboured to make it happen. Human ingenuity, perseverance, cooperation and generous giving-of-self will almost certainly get us through this present pandemic. Restrictions will ease and we will slowly emerge from our tombs of isolation. Not a resurrection, although it might seem like it after weeks of lockdown.

No. The resurrection that Christians talk of is of a different order. A new creation out of the old. A transformation that is God’s work, not ours. And importantly, the promise of resurrection for those who follow Jesus isn’t simply a matter of life after death, something to look forward to, a ‘passport-to-heaven’ kind of faith. Belief in a resurrection post-death also signals a conviction and commitment to life before death. The anticipation of resurrection carries with it a responsibility to live here and now as Jesus would want, as a sign of the realm and rule of God: to aspire to healthy relationships with others, characterised by love and kindness, honesty and integrity; to do what we can to contribute towards a more caring, fairer and just society; to be bearers of joy, hope and light in a darkened world; to be people who witness to Jesus’ love and Lordship. Perhaps we will have a renewed resolve to be that kind of Christian during and in the aftermath of this lockdown.

So, on this Easter Sunday, in these times of shadow and death, of sadness and uncertainty, may we know something also of the joy, peace, hope and love of the Lord as once again we celebrate an empty tomb and a resurrected Jesus. 

“Christ is risen. Alleluia! The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed!”

Friday, 3 April 2020

Palm Sunday: Matthew 21.1-11: Ian Green


Last Thursday at 8pm our family ventured outside and joined with others in our street to ‘Clap for Carers’, and in particular those working for the NHS. 

It was an uplifting moment! 
Normally when we cheer and clap in the street it’s because a grand procession is coming our way.  But on Thursday evening nothing arrived.  No one actually received our applause, yet every health worker in the country, I suspect, was buoyed up by it.

Upon reflection I think we knew what we were supporting.  We were giving thanks for dedication and compassion.  We were conscious of all those who’ve gone the extra mile for us, often at some personal risk.  We were thinking of wonderful people in hospitals who do a difficult job.

We also, I suspect, knew why we were doing it. It was all about thanksgiving and having an opportunity to show appreciation.

In the end, this slightly wacky idea caught on and created a great sense of unity for a nation in the midst of crisis.

On Palm Sunday, we are thinking of another crowd out on the streets doing their on kind of clapping, this time by waving branches and calling out Hosanna!

However, maybe this crowd got a few things wrong.  They certainly did if their greeting was for a conquering hero sort of king.  They got it wrong if they thought all the palm waving in the world would bring about transition through violent change, or that freedom could only be achieved by power.

They needed a re-think and the cross gives us all that.  The cross is about self-sacrifice, forgiveness, suffering for others and living out the consequences of love.

The cross redefines our lives, our relationships, our community and our response to the needs of others.  And in these challenging days of Lent 2020 these qualities are rightly being applauded; even  by people out on the streets.


Saturday, 28 March 2020

Lent 5 : John 11.1-45: Christine Hutt


  The Raising of Lazarus   

The home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus was a place of hospitality for Jesus, a place where he could relax.  He had no home of his own so this place was quite special for him. So why did Jesus not go straight to Lazarus when he heard that he was ill? Why did he remain for two further days – was it to protect himself and his disciples?  When Jesus talked of going back to Judea, his disciples protested:  ‘Master, only a few days ago, the Jews were trying to stone you to death, are you going there again?’

Then there followed a discussion containing misunderstandings on the disciples’ part.  ‘Are there not twelve hours of daylight?’ replied Jesus.  ‘Those who walk by day will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light. It is when they walk by night that they stumble, for they have no light.’  Darkness and night represents life without Christ, life dominated by evil.  At the last supper, after Judas received the sop, he went out and ‘it was night’ (John 13 v 30).  Earlier in John’s gospel, Jesus described himself as the light of the world.  There are twelve hours of daylight; lots of time at present with things being cancelled, time to think and reflect, like on an extended retreat! Time to reflect on what it means for Jesus to be the light of the world, particularly in the situation we are in.

After a pause, Jesus said to his disciples ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going to wake him up’. Here the disciples took the word sleep to mean sleep, but Jesus took it to mean death. Jesus then spoke to them quite plainly ‘Lazarus has died, and I am glad that I was not there – for your sakes, that you may learn to believe.  And now, let us go to him’.  This prompted Thomas to say to his fellow disciples ‘Come on, then, let us all go and die with him’ perhaps with a sigh of resignation, showing his loyalty, but despairing at the situation. I thought that this phrase in the Phillips translation ‘that you may learn to believe’ was a very apt one.  Sometime it takes a crisis, or a very difficult situation to challenge and develop our faith. The death of Lazarus presented a crisis to Jesus, but for Him every crisis became a Kairos moment, a moment of spiritual opportunity.

When they arrived in Bethany, it was Martha who met them, always one for action, but she chided Jesus with the ‘If’ word -‘if you had been here my brother would not have died, but I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask’.  Jesus said to her ‘Your brother will rise again’. Martha then stated her belief in the resurrection at the last day, which prompted Jesus to say ‘I am the resurrection and the life’ (one of the seven ‘I am’ sayings in John’s gospel). Martha then declared her belief in Jesus as the Christ, the son of God.  She then fetched Mary who posed the same ‘If’ question to Jesus. Mary’s weeping and the Jews weeping (in some versions of the Bible, the word condole is used), affected Jesus, who was deeply moved and visibly distressed. Then there is the shortest verse in the Bible: ‘Jesus wept’. Jesus showed us a God whose heart is wrung with anguish. In the Hymn by Timothy Rees ‘God is love, are the words:
‘and when human hearts are breaking under sorrow’s iron rod,
all the sorrow, all the aching, wrings with pain the heart of God.

Jesus then arrived at the tomb of Lazarus – ‘Take away the stone’ he said. After a protest from Martha, as the body had been in the tomb for four days, they remove the stone.  I remember seeing the ‘Oxford Passion’ by Creation Theatre Company in 2007, a modern rendition of a mystery play, and in a review I wrote these words ‘The outrageous action of opening the tomb in the portrayal of the raising of Lazarus took us way beyond our comfort zone, something that the written words in the gospel are not able to do in quite the same way.’
Jesus prayed to God before saying ‘Lazarus, come out!  When Lazarus came out, Jesus said ‘unbind him and let him go’.

The sculpture of Lazarus by Jacob Epstein is in New College chapel in Oxford. (Chris and I used to go there occasionally for evensong when we wanted a change from ‘happy clappy’ Baptist worship!)  I found the sculpture quite disturbing, because as a child, with anything to do with death, one was supposed to avert one’s eyes.  This sculpture drew me, I wanted to stare at it, yet I felt it was not allowed. Epstein’s work reached deep into the human psyche, and seeing this sculpture of Lazarus was said by Khrushchev to be ‘the sort of thing that gave him nightmares’.
Looking at the statue of Lazarus, it would appear that there is something comfortable about the familiar even if you are half dead. It also looks as though Lazarus is turning towards Jesus even though his eyes are still shut. Jesus wants us to be fully alive in him, even though that may mean moving out of our comfort zone, into the unknown.

On this Passion Sunday, the account of the raising of Lazarus shows us a picture of the raw emotions around death and resurrection. It gives us a foretaste of the death and resurrection of Jesus which we shall be thinking about in a couple of weeks’ time. May it give us food for thought during this time of social isolation due to the coronavirus.
‘When our hearts are wintry, grieving, or in pain,
Your touch can call us back to life again,
Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.’

Saturday, 21 March 2020

Lent 4: Mothering Sunday: Luke 2.33-35: Gillian Roberts


The child's father and mother marvelled at what was said about him.  Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: 'This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.  And a sword will pierce your own soul too.
As I read this, my immediate thought was -         

*  Don’t we all marvel at what is said of our children?
*  Don’t they amaze us?
*  Don’t we say, “Did we really produce her/him?”

But, unlike us, Mary hadn’t actually seen how He’d turn out at this point.  Jesus was still a baby!   And here is the holy man, Simeon, prophesying what He will be like and what the effect of His life will be.

Simeon’s warning came so soon after the birth of Jesus.

Had Mary already forgotten all that had gone before? 

Had she forgotten the startling announcement that she was to be the mother of GOD’S SON? 

Had she forgotten that the angel had said He would be great and called the Son of the Most High and would be King?
She had been so ready to be the Lord’s servant - “Do what You want in my life, Lord.”

She even wrote a worship song about how God was using her – an ordinary peasant girl!

But so much had happened since then.
·        *  the indignity
·       *   the harrowing journey,
·       *   the no room in the inn,
·       *   the birth,
·        *  the shepherds! 

Had this Child (GOD's son) become 'their' baby in so short a time?

And here was Simeon taking Him in his arms and praising God.
She and Joseph had followed the Law’s instructions and gone to the Temple.  Doing their duty to God.

But this was a blow!  She had forgotten …..

Interesting how God gives these reminders to us.

Have you forgotten whose you are, Mary? 

You said OK to Me. 

“Do what you want in my life”, you said. 

“This is MY Baby”, says God.

“This is ME – God - living in you”. 

And it will hurt.  This isn’t just privilege for you. Privilege always carries responsibility.  Mary’s was to keep this little one – care for Him. 

God says, 
·        *  I’ve come to save the whole of mankind. 
·       *   The Jewish people will misunderstand and try to hold Me for themselves and use Me for their own ends. 
·        *  The Gentiles will be amazed and a bit afraid because I don’t seem to be one of them. 
·        *  Those who think they’re somebody will realise that they’re not
·        and those who are self-deprecating will discover I want them – that God loves them. 
·        *  And it will break your heart the way I’m treated – and even the way you’re treated.

And I know you don’t understand…

She didn’t understand ….. but she treasured these things in heart and pondered on them

As you stand before Simeon, Mary, hearing his words about this little boy you’ve given birth to, you are amazed.  You are puzzled.  It all sounds so enormous.  Is it your son he’s talking about?  You have a lot to ponder – and treasure.

Life is filled with challenges.  Some of them seem enormous, others almost insignificant (especially to other people!)

And now you stand at the cross – still pondering.  Do you remember, Mary, the words of Simeon, 'a sword will pierce your own soul too?'
You’ve already been through so much.  Perhaps you thought the worst was over, because bit by bit it had happened. 
·        *  You’ve heard Your Son maligned – some (even you yourself) thought Him mad. 
·        *  The religious men thought He desecrated the Sabbath with His healings.  
·        *  He seemed to have no time for you, preferring to be with the sick and the obvious ‘sinners’. 
·        *  You’ve not understood what He was doing… You’ve pondered about it all…


Adrian Snell’s song from, “The Passion”, captures your feelings

Son of my heart where are you roaming?
I have wandered many paths in search of you
Rising with the sun as the early flowers open
You wander lonley through our country
With words I cannot understand
Son of my heart.

Son of my life I love you dearly
Love so deep I don't know how to say
I want you close to my heart and walking by me
Yet ways are strange, your people change
Son of my life,
Son of my life.

Son of the world I was your mother
Mine was the pain that once unlocked you to the world
And now I see a stranger held in chains and taken from me
What words remain when daylight fades
Son of the world.

And now I see a stranger held in chains and taken from me
Where is the child I gave my life to?
What words remain when daylight fades
Son of the world


Yet at the cross, with her heart breaking with sorrow – the sword had pierced her heart – Jesus, her son and God’s Son, looked after her future by giving her into the care of His friend, John.  Later, she would join the disciples as they waited for the gift of the Holy Spirit.  The mother Mary would carry her Son again in Spirit.

MOTHER-TO-BE


Mother-to-be or not-to-be,
That, for Mary, was not the question.
No, all the life she had formerly supposed
Still stretched out clear before her, unenclosed.
Mother-to-Him or not-to Him was her specific invitation –
Would she give her life to bring His life to her nation,
Carry His life into her everyday everythings,
Let this divine bearing determine all her bearings?


Our invitations come similarly personalised,
Our self-imagined futures still open before our eyes.
Ours then similarly to decide –
Will we let Him grow great inside,
Give our life to bring His life to our situation,
Trust Him to bring peace to our anxious nation,
Carry His life into our everyday everythings,
And sing there with joy whatever song He sings?

Mark Greene, Advent 2019


And what of us, this Lent?

Did we say, “Yes”, to God many years ago?

Did we understand what that might mean?

Have we known the heartbreak as we've shared His sufferings of His being rejected, maligned, misunderstood?

Mark Green's poem reminds us that it's still our role to 'let Him grow great inside' and to give Him birth into our communities in our living and loving and suffering.



Listen to Son of my heart on YouTube at
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fhTwUlNCzqU


Friday, 13 March 2020

Lent 3: John 4.5-42: Heather Andrews


Retreat Association Icon – John Coleman – Ikon John
Jesus and the Samaritan Woman

Once again, Jesus is in the territory of ‘the other’, at Jacob’s Well, near Sychar.  Tired from the journey, he is seated, alone, in the heat of noonday.  He has an interesting encounter, with an unnamed Samaritan woman who comes to draw water.  She has something that Jesus needed – a means to access a drink – and so, from this situation of need, He makes an approach…asks for help, strikes up a conversation. ‘Give me a drink of water’.   How welcome was that?  A stranger, a man, a Jew…such an approach unconventional, unexpected.  There is much that makes this a risky encounter.

Jesus, a stranger, becomes for a time, a guest at the ‘table’ of the well.  He is tired, vulnerable to the heat and to hunger – his disciples have gone to do the shopping to find sustenance.  Jesus sustains himself in this ‘in-between’ time by making an approach to a woman who is also alone, who has the ability to help him, to give him water.  The conversation touches some tricky subjects; the age-old conflict between Jews and Samaritans; the legitimate claim of the Samaritans to a relationship with Scripture proved by their common ancestry of Jacob. 
Jesus barters for the woman’s actual water with an offer of his own – of ‘living water’ that springs up eternally, life-giving hope, a promise of cleansing and renewal.  At the well-table, Jesus from being stranger, then guest, becomes host.  Jesus lifts the discussion beyond territorial disputes, opening for this lady by God’s Holy Spirit, true worship, heart-worship.  He declares himself to be the Messiah.  There is a moment of transformation.

Knowing her own situation, and finding herself truly known by this stranger, this guest, this Messiah, she flees as the disapproving disciples return, bringing lunch and suspicious accusation.  She carries the message of hope and spreads it within her own community… Come and see this man I met… and her friends are brought to Jesus.  The harvest field has widened, into alien territory.  A harvest is being reaped, amongst unexpected people, and the disciples are being taught a lesson, that none are beyond the approach and welcome of Jesus Christ.  Jesus and the team stayed in Sychar for a couple of days, and opened the door of faith for many, who came to believe that Jesus really is the Saviour of the world.

So for us… strangers can become guests, guests bring gifts and can in turn become hosts, we can learn and grow in the most unexpected of circumstances when conversations about Jesus – and his living water – open up around a table.

Saturday, 7 March 2020

Lent 2: John 3.1-17: Pauline West

Lent 2 John 3: 1 – 17 
“He came to Jesus by night”, John tells us at the beginning of the story of Nicodemus’ visit to Jesus. The surrounding darkness gave him anonymity, he was apprehensive yet the darkness gave an illusion of safety. It was not just the outside darkness that Nicodemus wrapped around himself, there was inner darkness and confusion as the ensuing conversation illustrates. Nicodemus wanted discussion; he wanted to learn more about Jesus from the man himself. You sense Jesus’ sympathy and love for Nicodemus but his replies whilst offering hope and light also presented a challenge and called for commitment.  
Jesus shows us in this story the compassionate way God handles our fragility and our desire to know him more. Jesus does not dismiss the searchings of Nicodemus neither does he pamper to his defences. He strips away the flimsy veil that Nicodemus is using to protect his soul and exposes it to God’s light and truth. Later the veil in the Temple would be torn in two as the full power of God’s light and truth was exposed on the cross as Jesus died. 
Jesus admired and respected the intellect, the honesty and the desire of Nicodemus to understand him and what God was doing and so he challenged him to listen and to commit. He challenged Nicodemus to be honest with himself, his knowledge and his heart and take the leap of faith and run with the wind of the Spirit. This challenge is not just a one off conversion moment it is our daily challenge; it is our Lenten challenge. 
It is a challenge that invites us to feast on God. The feast is found in the well known verses 16 and 17.  In these verses is found an astonishing fact and a fantastic blessing. The fact is in the statement “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” His love prompted the gift. And the blessing is in the reason for his action: “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him”. He came to save. 
Nicodemus wrapped up in the safety of his darkness sat down with the Son of God and was challenged to throw it away and grasp the freedom of life in the Kingdom of God. He struggled with what he heard as we can struggle with the mind blowing invitations God issues to us. But we know NIcodemus stuck with the struggle and finally paid the body of Jesus honour with myrrh and aloes. I like to think that in that tomb he was also blessed with the peace that the risen Jesus was to give and gives to his followers and that he found at last in the darkness of a tomb his place in the light of the Kingdom of God.