Monthly Archives: June 2020

Something for Sunday

Romans 6: 4

We were buried therefore with him by Baptism unto death so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of God the father we too might walk in newness of life.

Modern people have some very funny ideas about religion. They think that going to church is rather like going to a restaurant seeing the word steak on the menu and then eating the menu card on the assumption that that the card is the steak itself. Consequently they find worship rather indigestible and somewhat unsatisfying. And you hear them say “can’t see what people find in it. All those long words-must mean something to the chefs but as for me I’d rather have the real thing. Just put it in front of me and I’ll eat it.

This to confuse the symbol with the reality. When we go to the restaurant we are faced first with a symbol-sometimes it is written in a strange language-the reality comes later in the form of the food. Very often the more obscure the language the better the food turns out to be. So when I go to France or Italy I’m careful to pack my menu reader otherwise I won’t get the best out of the trip.

Worship in Church is rather like reading the menu. And what are printed on the menu are stories pointing us to the ways in which we might live our lives. We read about the great figures in the bible and we think: yes I could do that or yes I’ve been tempted that way, and when Jesus says to His disciples: Follow me we think. Well why not! Why should I go on living the selfish life I’ve always lived? I could do something better. Let’s go for it.

All of us find meaning in our lives through symbols. We hear stories; we see events on TV and sometimes they capture our imagination. Yes we think that’s how life is nowadays. Dreadful isn’t it! These things hold up a mirror to us in which we see ourselves. The Grenfell Tower fire was like that for a lot of people. They are the ways in which we find meaning in the events of our time.

The life of Jesus is the key symbol of the Christian faith. It’s what has captured our imagination as Christians. It’s not as if we are asked to live our lives exactly as he lived his-that’s impossible. Instead we are called to follow him. He lived a selfless life devoted to the kingdom of God-we could follow that-yes we really could! He suffered-we’re going to suffer too-oh yes we are! But we could suffer to some purpose just as he did. And remember God vindicated him-raised him up. So we might be raised up and renewed-we could walk in the light of the glory of God. Yes we really could.

The story of Jesus has been compared to one of the rings you see in a tree trunk when the tree is cut down. We only see the ring at the point where the tree was cut down but the ring actually runs right through the tree. The ring that we see corresponds to the life of Jesus that we read about in the New Testament. It’s the bit of God we saw. The symbol that stands for all the rest. For the life and reality of God is the same for every age and that reality can give meaning and purpose to our own humdrum existence.

I once had a colleague who wrote a book called “Cooking up Worship”. He thought worship was like a meal with a starter, a main course (for him the sermon) and a dessert. I think this is a misunderstanding. Worship is like reading the menu not eating the meal. Worship, like the menu card, always points beyond itself to a new life lived in the power of the spirit.

Now in the passage from Romans Paul discusses the meaning of what is perhaps the key Christian symbol: baptism.

Baptism is about deciding to follow Jesus. Hearing the good news, renouncing evil, dying with Jesus and rising with him. The whole thing is a kind of re-presentation of Easter. We die with Christ, we rise with him. The water used is not a symbol of cleansing or washing-it’s a symbol of dying-death by drowning. Sprinkling a few drops of water over the baby’s head does not really make that clear. The idea of the death of our sinful bodies is also problematic for many when applied to babe in arms.

This brings us up against a Christian idea-that of original sin-the idea that humanity is fallen and that sin is universal. That consequently all of us stand in need of the grace of God-given through baptism. It’s an idea at variance with our sentimental notions about childhood innocence. I say our sentimental notions but personally I have no such notions myself. You see in me a true believer in original sin. I am completely at one with St Augustine who describes the selfishness of infants in some famous passages, which were obviously inspired by direct observation.

Baptism then is a kind of picture of the Christian life. A bit like the pictures of meals you sometimes see on menu cards. The picture always looks good, the reality on the plate in front of us may often be rather disappointing. That’s life.

In the end though the proof of the pudding is in the eating. In the restaurant the promise is in the menu and the reality is the food on plate-which may or may not live up to the promise. In the Christian life the symbols are what we share in this building but the reality is what is lived beyond this building in the community. Orthodox Christians –the Christians of Greece and Russia call this the worship beyond the worship. When this service is ended the real communion begins-the feeding of the hungry-the seeking of the lost and the lonely-the work for justice and peace. Here we see only the symbols-there we meet reality face to face.

Holy Communion services in the Easter season take up this point in the way they point us forward at the end.

Alleluia!

Go in joy and peace to love and serve the lord.

No end of a lesson!

The downfall of Colston’s statue in Bristol came as something of a shock. As a former resident of Bristol the statue was well known to me as a landmark and nobody who has lived in Bristol can be unaware of the Colston name-the name of a concert hall, a famous school and alms houses. All of these places have for generations honoured the name of one whose generosity gave so much to the city of his birth. But there’s another side to Colston’s legacy as we have been reminded recently.

Now I live in Worcester and across the road from the Cathedral bus stop and at the entrance to the Cathedral itself there is another memorial. It is to the men of Worcestershire “who gave their lives for their country in South Africa 1899-1902”. This commemorates the Boer War, strictly speaking the second Boer war, fought to extinguish the independence of the Afrikaner speaking republics by the British Empire. The war was fought with a combination of incompetence and great cruelty by the British. The non-combatant Boer population was herded into concentration camps (we invented the term) where many died as a consequence of squalor and neglect.

The war was controversial in Britain. There were protests and demonstrations against it at the time. A famous one occurred in Birmingham in 1901 at which David Lloyd-George gave a powerful speech and was nearly lynched by a patriotic mob for his pains. The feminist campaigner Emily Hobhouse travelled to South Africa and exposed the appalling conditions in the camps. This greatly embarrassed the government but did not prevent them from winning the next general election!

The Boer War was an imperialist war. We might feel critical of Afrikanerdom because of its association with apartheid but the war was not fought because black lives matter or to release black people from oppression. On the contrary this was a war between rival oppressors. In the aftermath of the fall of Colston there have been renewed calls in Oxford for the fall of Cecil Rhodes statue in the city. Rhodes was an imperialist and an evil genius behind the Boer War but he was also a great benefactor to Oxford University.

Should these memorials be taken down? I don’t think so. They stand as testimony to the sinful character of humanity, mute witnesses to mixed motives and self-interested illusions. They should stimulate penitential reflection and an acknowledgement that we are not saved by self-righteousness and by virtue signalling but by the grace of a loving and forgiving God.

They should also inspire a resolve to critically examine the past and do better in the future. Where is there a statue to Emily Hobhouse? What shall we do to honour the memory of Martin Luther-King? I merely ask!

Rudyard Kipling wrote a famous poem at the end of the Boer war. Its final lines are well known.

We’ve had no end of a lesson

It will do us no end of good.

But as to what that lesson was that must be left to historians and prophets to discern.

Black Lives Matter

It is with some trepidation I write this post as I know there will be those in the church better placed to comment on the events of the last few weeks. I refer to the horrendous footage of the murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis in America. It is difficult to watch and I know many people have tried and failed to see the footage to the end, as Christians I believe we should watch to the end for so much of scripture tells us to stand along side those who are oppressed. 

As we continue to experience the ramifications of George Floyd’s death across the world it is easy to dismiss this as not our problem – “it took place 4000 miles away”, “We are not racist like America”, “I work with coloured people and we get on fine”. This does not excuse the fact that racism is still happening in our country and society today and dare I say it even in our church. Don’t believe me? Then talk to a BAME teenager, talk to a minister with a Caribbean or African heritage. 

Within the protests of recent weeks there have been a number of phrases used in the discussions which I have found challenging. Firstly there is the phrase ‘white privilege’. Initially I reacted against this, I may be white but I am not privileged. I did not receive a large inheritance from my father, I do not benefit from a trust fund, I was not sent to a prestigious private school, but that is viewing privilege from my white english background. So in true biblical fashion I will tell you a parable.

You may have the same job, earn the same salary, live on the same street, and drive the same model car as your black neighbour, so you may not see yourself as privileged, but when you go out into the street you are not called derogatory names, no one will make monkey noises in your face or throw bananas at you, or tell you to go back to where you came from. As white person the Prime Minister would not make fun of your appearance or compare the way you dress as to looking like a letterbox – that’s white privilege. 

The second issue I have wrestled with is the ‘Black lives matter/All lives matter’ argument. We know that God cares for all his children irrespective of the colour of their skin, their gender, their sexuality. What is being said is that at this moment ‘Black lives Matter’. Look at the teaching of Jesus in Luke 15:3-7:- 

‘So he told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.’ 

The shepherd did not abandon the 99 but he knew they were safe and so focused on the one that was lost. At these times we need to focus on the black community who need our understanding and support, silence is not an option. 

My third and final issue was watching the toppling of the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol. As some one who has been influenced by the non-violent campaigners in the world – Bonhoeffer, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, Oscar Romero – to see violence, even violence against property, makes me feel sick. Again I go to scripture to be reminded that in some circumstances people need to to take radical action. 

‘Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the benches of those who were selling doves. “It is written,” he said to them “My house will be called a house of prayer, but you have turned it in a den of robbers”.’

With all this taking place against the background of the Coronavirus lockdown we find we are challenged, it would be easy to simply hide away in the hope that this will pass along with the current pandemic, but don’t ignore what is being said or asked of us by our sisters and brothers of the BAME community. Take time to speak and listen to what our sisters and brothers are really saying and when needed stand with them in their hour of need. 

God bless and stay safe,

Alan. 

Something for Sunday

When one picks up a novel in a shop or the Library and reads the story you often find yourself wondering how this will end. Who did it and so on? The temptation is always to turn to the last page in order to find out.

But the gospels are not like that. The first hearers or readers of the gospel knew how the story would end. Indeed the church existed long before the first gospel ever appeared. There’s a hint of this in our gospel passage for today where a list of the disciples is given including Judas Iscariot who betrayed him.

So why were the gospels written at all? I think the answer to that is also given in today’s passage. The purpose of the gospel is to answer a threefold question being asked by the Church then and by the Church today. That threefold question is this:

Who are we? Are we being sent and if so where? And what do we do when we get there?

Well who are we? Here the answer is clear. We are those whom God has called. That is to say we are a holy people-those who are called to be saints.

The first bunch listed here were not particularly impressive people but then nor are we. One is a tax collector, another will betray Jesus and another will deny him-that’s three out of twelve. But they are witnesses to Jesus and so are we.

We are discipleship movement called to mission. So what would we be doing if we were able to meet as usual. Although it is quite true to say that we gather together to meet our friends, enjoy a bit of social solidarity, sing the hymns and pray for others as well as ourselves there’s a bit more to say.

We come together to fortify ourselves. To check up on those things which really matter and be strengthened in those beliefs that are at the heart of the faith.

The second question: are we being sent? Yes we are. A disciple is one who is a follower but an apostle is one who is sent. These are words from the original Greek.  In the story of the Jesus movement disciples become apostles-they are sent.

A phrase from the creed that may not speak to your hearts is nevertheless relevant here. We believe in a holy, catholic and apostolic Church.

Holy because called by God.

Catholic because we are a pretty mixed bunch-or we should be if we take God’s mission seriously.

Apostolic because we are a group of disciples who are sent on mission.

And where are they sent? Well in the passage Jesus says to them: don’t go to the Gentiles. Samaritan towns! Don’t go there. Now that reads oddly to us because let’s face it we are gentiles and so is practically everyone with whom we come into contact. So how do we find a message for ourselves here because believe you me there is one.

Remember Palestine then was a mixed community just as it is today-gentiles and Jews together. Jesus and his disciples are Jews –the house of Israel. So Jesus’ instruction is clear: go to the people you know and the ones who need to hear the message of the Kingdom and are capable of hearing it. –the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

So for us I would interpret the message like this. Start where you are. We must fulfil God’s mission in the place where we are now. We are for God’s kingdom but God’s kingdom in Sutton Park.

And that I am quite sure is where you are and what you are doing.

So we are being sent but what do we say and do when we reach the place to which we are sent.

Jesus instructions are clear: preach, declare that the kingdom of God is at hand, heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers and cast out demons. That’s quite a commission but it is given to them all even to Judas who later betrayed him. We are given no clear idea at least in this gospel as to how they get on. Let us simply assume that guided by the spirit they have an impact.

What are we to make of this? And in particular could we cast out demons and raise the dead. There are many demons at work in our society and in the hearts of our neighbours. But as Christians we believe that love is stronger than hate and that kindness is better than cruelty. We can do our bit by a smile here; and a kind word there and random acts of kindness here there and everywhere to cast the demons out and we know there are many. In this way we bring in the kingdom here there and everywhere.

But what about raising the dead? Well there are many ways in which people can lose their hold on the real renewed life that is at the heart of the gospel promise. People can become strangers to one another, dead in their sins. Our mission as Jesus disciples is to summon people out of their tombs to the renewed life that is at the heart of the gospel vision.

As for those who sleep the sleep of the death of the body our faith in the raising of Jesus  declares our confidence  in a world restored  and a place in it for those who wait to pass from death to life.

For myself I would only say this. Over the years I have taken many funerals and I still continue to lead them. When I started out I felt that that my job was to give comfort and mange grief but nowadays my emphasis is a little different. Following Jesus, as I must, I now feel that I must share the good news, give hope and encouragement and in effect raise the dead by emphasising the Christ’s victory over death and the joy we feel in the Easter faith. Sometimes that even means sharing a joke for heaven is the place where we will all be right merry together.

In our worship we meet Jesus who is with us not only in the bread and wine but also in each other. We call to mind the reality of who he is and what he has done to set the world to rights. That work of restoring the kingdom continues and now belongs to us to go forth and tell, to heal and save and to bring forward the better world that is His promise to us. That’s a wonderful promise and a wonderful charge to each and every one of us.

“Church After Lock-down?” by Tom Watts

We were reminded at our Zoom Local Preachers’ meeting that our loving God longs for His followers to respond to these strange and difficult times of suffering for so many people locally, throughout this country and around the world.  A new preacher in training said that as churches we need to pray for God’s guidance.  And we all said amen to that; for how else can we know what God wants His church to say, to do and to be in this time; for we as followers of Jesus know how often His church has been at the forefront of the just and caring changes in society that often come through these times of trial.  I think of the end to the acceptance of slavery and apartheid; both of which had brought much suffering into the world and the church helped to bring the necessary changes to the society of the day.

Following the onset of Corona Virus, the world and indeed church is unlikely to be the same again and our thoughts at LP meeting led me to think of three changes for good that with God’s guidance we can help to bring goodness to all.

Firstly, we must never again take our caring professions for granted.  Most of you, I guess, will have joined in the show of appreciation each Thursday; the grace shown by all who work in hospitals, care homes etc should mean that government spending on this essential service must never again be reduced as it was during austerity.  The church and each of us, when the opportunity arises, must constantly remind our Members of Parliament of the value we all place on ALL the people that work to serve the public in keeping us healthy, looking after us in old age and saving our lives.  They have shown such grace; the least we can do is to speak up for these wonderfully gracious people, keeping them in our prayers.

Secondly, we must learn to admit when we are wrong and when mistakes are made.  That should of course apply even to those who have the enormously difficult task of leading our country at this time and in the future.  I read about the leaders of Sweden and Norway admitting to their people that they had made mistakes in their plans to deal with the virus and I could not help contrasting that with our own leaders.  Accepting we are wrong and saying sorry is part of the grace that we as church should know all about; for forgiveness is central to Jesus’ teaching.  We should also accept that the church makes its own mistakes as we attempt to show the love of Jesus to our local communities, with practical help and support, a listening ear and an offer to pray for and with them.  We are called to share such grace in humility and with hope so that our communities will know they are valued and loved.

Finally, the pandemic has coincidently shone a light on one of humanity’s major issues that unfortunately we have never found a way of resolving.  The issue is of course racism; for in its own way this is a pandemic that eats away at the goodness we want for God’s world.  The events in America have brought to the attention of the whole world a problem that seems to have existed since creation.  OT Jews were called to be a light to all Nations but failed.  In the NT they missed the point of Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan and dismissed His conversation with the Samaritan woman.  I have referred to the Slave trade and Apartheid; both supported, in a way, by the church of the day.  As Christians today we must do our best to enable our communities to know that God’s love is for all regardless of race, position in society or sexuality.  Racism takes many forms from the dreadful killing of a man by a policeman, to the ‘go home’ shouts on the streets and the short-sighted comments of thoughtless MP’s.

As Christians, let us be seen and known as the people of grace, hope and love, let us give thanks, let us apologise for our mistakes and let us never let a racist remark or slur pass without a reminder that God’s love is for everyone.

Tom Watts