Monday, 31 January 2011

If you have love for one another

Yesterday we had the last of our 'circumstance-dictated' joint services with the two churches in my parish. The heating in the older building has now been fixed, so the two congregations can return to separate spaces. The past three weeks of togetherness have been good, with a larger congregation and the voices of two choirs, worshipping and fellowshipping together. Many old grievances and walls between the two churches are melting away as time passes and each church reaches out to the other. The diocesan GAP (Growth Action Plan) process has been helpful in speeding up this process as both churches work together in mission, as has the patient care and hard graft of the vicar, my training incumbent.

This parish has an interesting history. In the early days, the two churches each had their own vicar. Then for a while the parish consisted of three churches, under one vicar. Subsequently, one of these churches joined with a different church as a united benefice, leaving this parish with its current configuration of two churches under one vicar (with curate).

I have said before that these two churches are very different in style. One is in an old building, built in the 1850's, and has more traditional forms of worship, with an 8am Book of Common Prayer Holy Communion service (written in 1662), without any hymns or songs; a 10:30 Common Worship service (written in 2000), with traditional hymns, organ and robed choir; and a 5 pm service of Choral Evensong, which again is from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, and again incorporates traditional hymns, organ and robed choir. The interior of the building is traditional, with pews, formal choir stalls, high altar, and Lady Chapel. The chancel walls are painted with beautiful frescoes, but they in need of repair. There is no church hall, as it was sold off years ago, but there is a space at the back of church which has been re-ordered to make room for fellowship, with a kitchen and lavatories, and a small room for Sunday School (there are 2 children who attend regularly at present).

The second church's building used to be old, too, but the old building had to be demolished and a new, smaller building sprung up in 2001. As you come in the front door, the new building has a small coffee lounge leading to a worship space (people here refer to that part as 'the church'), and on into a hall, where the uniformed groups such as Brownies, Cubs, Guides and Scouts meet throughout the week, and where the Sunday School is held on during the main service. There are about 8 children who regularly attend Sunday School, and once a month we have a Parade Service with the uniformed groups, where there are about 40 children present. At the Parade services, a band plays with brass, keyboard, flutes, clarinets and guitars. It's an all-age band, which I am in, as are my two kids. This church has also got a robed choir, but they sit in normal chairs like the rest of the congregation. There are no pews, and there is no Lady Chapel. There is a small organ (not a large pipe organ like in the other church), but there is no organist at present, so the music for worship comes via CD's. This church uses some traditional hymns but also more contemporary worship songs, and they do not use hymn books, they project the words onto a screen.

Recently with the joint services some people from the traditional church were inspired to comment after experiencing the worship at the less formal church that they would like something different from time to time in their more formal church. My heart leaps in hearing this. The all-age all-instrument band has been invited to play on occasion at the more formal church, too, and so far has been well-received. Things are moving, and it is exciting to witness. One church member is going to start up Messy Church there soon - how wonderful is that?! In fact, the GAP process has invigorated both churches in many ways. Its such a privilege to be part of the church as the body of Christ and to be involved with others as we all seek to be faithful disciples. May we continue to listen and be open to the Spirit's leading.

Monday, 24 January 2011

The True Christian - a homily for BCP evening Communion

Romans 12:6-16
We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

Marks of the True Christian Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.

John 2:1-11
The Wedding at CanaOn the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.’ So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

In the Epistle reading from Romans 12, St. Paul exhorts us not to claim to be ‘wiser’ than we are, so at the outset of this sermon, I want to assure you that I make no such claim! But that reading gives us some pretty challenging things to think about. I wonder how many of us would claim to be a ‘true Christian’. I would probably say that I am a ‘true Christian’. But looking closely at verses 9-16 of Romans 12, known as the ‘Marks of the True Christian’, we gain a sense of renewed humility as we recognise our shortcomings.

A ‘true Christian’ lets love be genuine, hates evil and holds on to what is good; ‘true Christians’ love one another with affection and outdo one another in showing honour. They do not lag in zeal – they serve the Lord with enthusiasm. They rejoice in hope, are patient in suffering, and persevere in prayer. They contribute to the needs of the other Christians; and extend hospitality, even to strangers. True Christians bless those who treat them badly; bless - and not curse. They rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep, and live harmoniously with one another; they don’t think they’re important - they associate with the lowly; and they never claim to be wiser than they are. I think this passage gives us a target to aim for, if we seek to be true Christians; I would venture most of us aren’t there yet – but we would hope that we’re on the right path.

One gift of St. Paul’s letters is that he reveals to us our higher goal, that higher way of living as disciples or followers of the Lord Jesus Christ. In this way, St. Paul’s letters are a sign revealing the glory of Jesus himself, which links in with this season of Epiphany. During the Epiphany season, the focus is on signs from God revealing the true identity of Jesus to mankind, and the glory of Jesus revealed in our Gospel Reading from John chapter 2 is revealed through the miracle of the water turned to wine.

The symbolism of water turned into wine demonstrates that Jesus is the One who has come to do a new thing; to provide the new blessing; to transform the old covenant with its system of laws that became corrupt (to the point of absurdity) into a new covenant, the rule of love, grace, faith and trust in what Christ has done, and what he’s able to do for us when we let him into our heart and mind and soul. The message of the water turned to wine at the wedding of Cana is a picture of the way our God gives to us an abundant life. But with our human nature, we can take this for granted. As St. Augustine writes, “For even as that which the servants put into the water-pots was turned into wine by the doing of the Lord, so in like manner also is what the clouds pour forth changed into wine by the doing of the same Lord. But we do not wonder at the latter, because it happens every year: it has lost its marvellousness by its constant recurrence.”

On a superficial level, the wine Jesus created was a face-saving gift to the groom and his family, but at the deepest level, Jesus has created the good wine of redemption, given to us by his grace; he produced good wine from water when the old "water" of the Jewish Law had run out. Jesus is the only One who provides the grace of redemption when the old ways produce nothing.

Miracles are called ‘signs’ in John’s Gospel - signs that point us to Jesus as the One who came to give us life in all its fullness. And when we follow him, we then become signposts ourselves – we should be displaying signs of growth and transformation. We should display something resembling the marks of a ‘true Christian’ that St. Paul describes. When we show genuine love, affection and honour to one another, when we’re patient in suffering and bless our persecutors, when we live in harmony with one another, we will be signs that point to Jesus our Savour, the one who meets our needs in times of crisis and times of joy; the One who offers the very best of the kingdom to the meek and the lowly.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Where we differ, dialogue is vital

I'm a member of an evangelical network for ordained women, Awesome, who have been meeting over the past 12 months with Reform, a large conservative evangelical network in the UK, for talks over differences between views of the ordination of women as priests and as bishops in the Church of England.

For now, the talks are over, and a final statement has been published on the Awesome website and on the Reform website. From the statement on the Awesome website:

" is clear to us that our ongoing differences are not only in relation to the exegesis of the specific biblical texts where we have focussed our studies. Further areas which have arisen in our conversations and which we believe require ongoing discussion among evangelicals include:

1. The effect on biblical interpretation of different understandings of the relationship between exegesis of specific texts in their original contexts, wider biblical theology, and the role of doctrine and systematic theology.

2. The form and significance of creation order in relation to being made male and female, especially as revealed in Genesis 2 and later biblical appeals to it.

3. The doctrine of the Trinity, in particular whether or not language of submission and obedience is to be used for the eternal intra-Trinitarian relationship of the Son to the Father and the significance of any such order within the Trinity for the ordering of relationships between men and women in the church and husband and wife in marriage.

4. The relationship between submission and obedience and whether there is a universal Christ-like mutual submission among Christians or a specific submission of wives to husbands whose position as head is to be understood in terms of Christ-like authority.

5. The connection between any ordering in relationship between husband and wife and any ordering of men and women within the ministries and offices of the church.

6. The nature of episcopal jurisdiction and the provision therefore required for evangelicals opposed to women bishops when women become bishops."

As ever, encouragement of ongoing dialogue is important among God's people, especially where differences result in damage to the body of Christ.

I affirm my commitment to the following ideals from the statement:
•• to sustain each other in prayer
•• to work for charitable best practice in all our relationships and discussions
•• to recognise and nurture the gifts of all fellow evangelicals, both male and female.


Monday, 17 January 2011

Epiphany 2

1 Corinthians 1:1-9 & John 1:29-42
As we continue in the season of epiphany we find in our Gospel reading this testimony from John the Baptist about who Jesus is, and here John refers to Jesus as ‘the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world’, he is ‘the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit’; he is ‘God’s Chosen One’. John the Baptist’s calling was to prepare the way for this One person, this special person whose manifestation was prophesied over many generations of Israel.

John the Baptist gathered many followers over the years he’d spent preparing the way for Jesus. We can imagine must have been overjoyed when he saw the Spirit come down from heaven and remain on Jesus. Here he is! Here is the One! And John’s followers trusted his testimony about the significance of Jesus – right away as he points Jesus out to them, John’s disciples begin to follow Jesus.

A strong thread running through our readings this morning is the importance of testifying to others about God’s grace found in Jesus. In the reading from 1Corinthians, St. Paul shows up the result of his testimony and the testimony of those ministering with him to the church in Corinth. The result was that the Corinthians were greatly enriched in knowledge of the grace that was given them in Christ Jesus. But Paul doesn’t let them get comfortable there, because in his 2nd letter to the Corinthians he says ‘[God] has committed to us the message of reconciliation. [So] we are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us’. God calls his people to testify about his loving kindness and redeeming power made known to us through Jesus Christ. Each one of us has heard this testimony from someone, which has led to our being called into the body of Christ as his church. But this cannot be the end of it. Regular attendance at church isn’t all that we’re called to. We are called, as well, to be witnesses for Christ. And that means sharing our faith. Church is important, that’s for sure. But unless we testify to others about who we worship when we come together as church, what is the point?

There are many reasons why we hesitate to share our faith – fear of failure, of rejection or of offending people. Let's be honest. Sometimes it’s just a case of apathy – or we don’t think we need to do this; we can leave it to others. It can be so difficult to tell others about the benefits of a living relationship with Jesus Christ, and we can find ourselves instead saying to people things like, ‘why don’t you go to church, it helps me’, or ‘if only more people would go to church, the world would be a better place’. It’s not that this is wrong, but we can find that we’re leaving Jesus out of the conversation altogether.

I have a cousin who is a pastor in the US at a large and lively evangelical church. My cousin preached a sermon recently that’s available to listen to online. I listened to Steve’s sermon, and it was great. (You might not have liked that it was 40 minutes long! I marvelled at how congregations there are used to that length of sermon.) But his sermon was from the heart, it was enthusiastic, and it was on a subject that’s very important. It was as important to the early church from the beginning as it is to the church today. Steve’s sermon was about sharing our faith, and he asks the question: is sharing our faith a privilege, a responsibility or a burden?

Some people might say a small 8am BCP congregation isn’t the appropriate place to preach about ‘sharing your faith’ or ‘giving your testimony’. Is this true? Are we exempt here? In our Old Testament reading from Isaiah, God says, “I will make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” In Matthew chapter 5 Jesus says to his disciples, “You are the light of the world. ...let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven”. Does this not also apply to an 8am BCP congregation, here in our little town, as much as it does a big evangelical congregation in a church halfway across the world?

The statistics show that the church in the west is in decline. There are people out there - in our families, our neighbourhoods and our community - who need to know about the saving grace of Jesus, who need to know that they can be reconciled with God, who need to know the path that leads to life not only for eternity but for the fullness of life that is available now.

If we are in Christ, if we are in the church, which is the body of Christ, God has chosen us to be his ambassadors – to represent the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. When we live as we are called to be, we can’t help but share our faith. No matter our age, no matter our state of health, there are people in our midst, who we meet regularly, who need to hear our testimony about Jesus.

Let us pray: Gracious God, you have made reconciliation possible for all through the righteousness of your Chosen One, Jesus Christ our Lord; and you have called your church to participate in this ministry of reconciliation. We pray for courage, wisdom and discernment so that we may share our faith appropriately with others. Equip us for this privilege and responsibility by your Holy Spirit, for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Saturday, 15 January 2011


I'm thinking I would like to start blogging a bit more on thoughts or reflections rather than mainly just posting my sermons. One problem with this, though, is that a lot of what happens in ministry is confidential, or its stuff that wouldn't be right to put out there into the wide open blogosphere. For example, recently I've been feeling quite bruised by some criticism targeted at a particular service that I was involved in. I felt the criticism was unfounded and in fact, petty, but to go into detail about it here just doesn't feel right. And I've been involved in some highly intense pastoral situations, but they are certainly not appropriate to write about. This reflects the nature of the job, and also underscores to a certain extent its isolating aspect.

Another problem is the risk of being labelled [liberal, conservative, evangelical, catholic, orthodox, heretic - take your pick - although like Brian McLaren I would hope that I'm all those and more], when a particular flag is flown or cause promoted (though some of that might be discerned from the sermons anyway). One never knows who reads the blog, and though truth matters, so does my future ministry. Whether to be bold in this or not, the most important thing to me is that I am faithful to the gospel as I understand it.

I had a visit from the Diocesan Director of Curates (at least that's what I call him - not sure of his official title), and we talked a bit about the interesting phenomenon of online social networking and blogs (he has a blog, a facebook and a twitter account himself). We both agreed that it doesn't make sense to bury your head in the sand re: the opportunities that online communication affords. If we want to be able to relate to this generation, this stuff isn't going to go away.

I love reading the blogs that I'm subscribed to. I sometimes wish I blogged like Rachel in Revise Reform or maybe like Rev Elizabeth in The Rev and a Dog or like NRIGirl in Coffee with Jesus, but as anyone can see, those are very different blogs, and anyway, I should just be myself, I guess. I just feel a little stuck in a rut. But evolution is natural, so, who knows?

Sunday, 2 January 2011


Isaiah 60:1-6, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12
Today we celebrate the Epiphany. After months of watching the signs and following the star, the Magi saw and recognised the truth about Jesus Christ. If you watched The Nativity series on the BBC just before Christmas, you may have noticed a little error they made in telling the story – the Magi didn’t arrive in time to see the Christ child on the same night that he was born, as the programme portrayed– they probably didn’t even arrive on the 12th day of Christmas – it’s more likely they arrived months afterwards, because they came from such a long distance. But at least the programme didn’t dress the Magi up as kings.

Matthew’s gospel is the only gospel to refer to the Magi, and ‘three kings’ aren’t mentioned at all. The identification of the Magi as ‘kings’ is linked to our OT reading from Isaiah & in psalms that say the Messiah will be worshipped by kings. Early readers interpreted Matthew in light of these prophecies and by 500 AD, the tradition of the three kings was adopted by all commentators, and this carried on up until the Protestant Reformation, after which the idea of the wise men as ‘kings’ was out, and they returned to their original status of Magi.

The word Magi probably refers to priestly astrologers from Persia. As part of the Zoroastrian religion, these priests paid a lot of attention to the stars; they had an international reputation for astrology, which was highly regarded as a science.

The same Greek word that translates as ‘wise men’ in the King James Version of the bible is translated as sorcerer in the Acts of the Apostles, with the sorcerers Elymas and Simon. But in spite of that negative use of the term, here in Matthew’s gospel, the Magi play a positive role. They don’t need conversion from their godless arts because they’ve recognised who Jesus is and have acted appropriately by worshipping him. The Nativity programme paid a lot of attention to the process the Magi went through, discovering the meaning of the bright star and acting upon this by following where it led. They knew that the infant born in Bethlehem was immensely important and brought him gifts that reflected their insight. Gold, frankincense and myrrh were the usual offerings given to a king at that time; gold, being valuable, was a symbol of kingship, frankincense is a perfume and was a symbol of priesthood, and myrrh was used as anointing and embalming oil.

By contrast to the epiphany of the Magi, the negative figures in the text are, of course, King Herod, and also ‘all Jerusalem with him’. Herod sees the Messiah as a rival to his kingship and he asks the Magi to come back and tell him the location of the newborn king so that he can destroy his competition. But surprisingly, all of Jerusalem, too, is disturbed at the coming of the Messiah. The ‘people’s chief priests’ and the ‘teachers of the law’, help Herod plan his evil assaults because of their wrong interpretation of Scripture. And so the Magi, the foreign elite, stand on the side of Jesus and act in keeping with biblical prophecies, while the religious elite of Israel stand on the opposite side with Herod and plot against Jesus.

Through the story of the Magi, the extent of the coming Kingdom of God is made clear, and this point was elaborated by Paul in our reading from Ephesians. Jesus came into the world to save all nations, not just the Jewish nation, and Jesus accepts all people, regardless of their status. The incarnation was first revealed to local shepherds and foreign Magi. God’s justice and peace is for the whole world, sharers together in the promise in Jesus Christ.

Later in Matthew chapter 27, as Jesus faces his inevitable suffering, Pilate’s gentile soldiers are the first since the Magi to call Jesus the ‘king of the Jews’, but the crown they give him is a crown of thorns, and his throne is on the cross. At that moment, instead of a bright star, darkness came over all the land. And we hear the voice of the Roman Centurion: ‘Surely he was the Son of God!’ Finally, Matthew ends his gospel with the resurrected Jesus commissioning his followers to go and make disciples of all nations.

The Magi’s attention had been fixed by the bright star that revealed Jesus to them as the true king of the Jews, through which all creation would be saved - and it was an event of astronomical proportions. The Magi dropped everything, travelling far from the East because the magnitude of this event that had been revealed to them. The story of the Magi speaks to us today not only about the extent of God’s kingdom over all peoples and all creation, but also about the importance of awareness and recognition of who God is in Jesus Christ and what he wants from us in terms of response.

Do we pay much attention to what God reveals to us in our own life? Are we aware of what God is doing in the life of other people in our communities and in our world? Think about what it would take for God to get our fixed attention. And then come to him by whatever route you can, with the best gift you can give: yourself.

O God, who by the leading of a star revealed your Son to the nations of the world; lead us to a clearer vision of your presence, and the nations into the ways of unity and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.