Erdington are continuing to produce a members led service on the fourth Sunday of each month. Premiering at 10.30 on Erdington’s Youtube Channel – You are all very welcome to join us by following the link below.
“When we return, we will all be newcomers.”
It was just a throw away comment, but the more I thought about what was said the more profound I believe the comment was.
Of course! We will all be newcomers, again.
As our churches begin to reopen in larger numbers after a year of on-again, off-again COVID-19 closures, our habits in these once-familiar physical spaces have been broken.
What was instinctive and comfortable in March 2020 is now, for many of us, just outside the realm of memory. How did we share life in these spaces? How did we get work done here?
Even with a widespread yearning for a return to normalcy, we may find that our familiar places now feel somewhat foreign. Ongoing and necessary health and safety precautions will change the ways we interact in these spaces.
There will no longer be impromptu meetings around the coffee table. Many meetings will still be via Zoom, or if in person they will have to be carefully planned, the meeting room laid out very differently. Fellowship will have to be much more intentional, less small talk and more meaningful conversation – ‘Time to talk of God’.
On Sunday mornings, social distancing may mean that our usual pew can no longer be “our pew” because it’s now reserved to be the buffered distance between us. Some of us may find ourselves distributing individually wrapped, carefully sealed communion wafers and wine glasses to the faithful as they enter – no gathering around the table for weeks to come.
It’s not only that our past habits have been broken; in some cases, our very ways of being in spaces together may no longer be advisable or possible. We will have to create new ways of being community together. What was that comment?
“We will all be newcomers.”
There’s also a deeper distancing that has occurred over the last year in our churches. We may now be strangers not just to physical spaces but also to those with whom we previously shared those spaces. So much life happens in a year, even in a year of pandemic lockdown.
While congregations and organizations have tried to sustain community in difficult circumstances, there are still so many stories, so many experiences that we did not share with each other in real time. There’s been grief and joy that simply went unspoken.
The poet Naomi Shihab Nye writes,
“When someone you haven’t seen in ten years / appears at the door, / don’t start singing him all your new songs. / You will never catch up.”
If she were to write it today, we can imagine her saying, “When someone you haven’t seen except by Zoom / appears at the door …”
While it is tempting to agree that catching up will be virtually impossible (pun intended), one of the particular gifts of religious communities is that most of us do some of our most intentional ministry with newcomers.
In this moment after we have missed so many other moments, we will need the best of what we know from that to help us find a way of being back together.
For example, we have cultivated practices for welcoming one another and inviting one another to share in something larger than ourselves — the mission of the church in the world.
At our best, we know how to listen for, celebrate and receive the gifts of each new person.
We know how to help each other share our stories of heartbreak and hope and, in each telling, find new layers of meaning.
We know how to invite people into service in the world that is good for the world and deeply fulfilling for them personally.
We will need all those capacities and all that experience to help us be, and become more than, newcomers together.
Said it so casually, so clearly: “When we return, we will all be newcomers.”
In eight words, we hear the truth that reopening our buildings was never going to be as simple as unlocking the doors, turning on the lights, roping off a few pews or putting out hand sanitiser — not that those things are all that simple.
Reopening our buildings, resuming life together, is an emotional and spiritual challenge. It is good news for us that congregations know how to be in those spaces with faith, hope and love. Now as ever, the world needs all three.
God bless, Alan.
This is one from my personal archive but I thought it could do with another airing.
Now Jesus did many other signs that are not written in this book but these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the messiah, the son of God and that through believing you may have life in his name.
This is perhaps the key verse in the whole of St John’s gospel. It’s a kind of preface or introduction even though it comes at the end. Here’s a book of stories, signs and scenes the author says each one written down to help you believe in Jesus and reveal something of the truth about him. By believing in him you will have life in his name. That’s the promise-the sales pitch if you like.
So in this story of the risen Jesus’ appearance to doubting Thomas what is being offered to us? How is this story a clue to the new life we might have in Jesus’ name? Where are we in all this? What I see in this is a warning and an encouragement.
But first a word about Thomas himself. Thomas comes across in the gospel as simple, devoted and straightforward. When Jesus sets out for Bethany putting his own life in danger Thomas says: Let us go that we may die with him! Later in the upper room it is Thomas who asks a clear and simple question: We do not know where you are going. How can we know the way? Like us he really wants to believe more strongly. This realism and simplicity has its down side though as we are about to see.
Thomas sounds very modern. Just like us. He wants to know the facts. He will only believe on the basis of the evidence. It’s got to be good evidence too. And what’s more he’s got to test it all personally. He won’t accept anything on the basis of someone else’s testimony still less on the authority of his community. The Bible can say what it likes and Ministers and Priests can say what they like but he’s got to know it for himself. A rational, evidential approach confirmed by personal experience.
Many people at this season begin their thinking about Easter by asking: What really happened? The belief that God raised a man from death seems improbable but if we could only collect some more facts we might get to a decision as to how improbable it might be. Facts that’s what we need, more and more of them, scientists, archaeologists, bible scholars, questers for the historical Jesus-they can all help-but only give us more facts and then we might believe.
I’m sorry Thomas. This isn’t going to work. The truth is that you and I make sense of our experience by applying to our experience our beliefs. Our ideas about the world determine what we see and experience within it. It is the mark of a successful politician or spiritual leader that they can persuade us to change our beliefs. Once our beliefs have changed the facts will soon fall into place.
Many casual readers of the New Testament assume that if only they had direct access to the experience that were vouchsafed to the first disciples they could believe as they did. A closer reading of the texts show that many of them were as sceptical as we are. Thomas we have already referred to, Matthew records that some doubted when the risen Jesus appeared before them. Mary Magdalen thought the risen Jesus was a park attendant, the travellers on the Emmaus road didn’t recognise the stranger and so on. The truth is that there never was a privileged moment when a favoured few saw face to face and believed while the rest of us have to make do with seeing through a glass darkly. All of us see in a glass darkly- all walk by faith and not by sight.
That’s the warning. Now for two words of encouragement.
Belief is formed within a community. It is the community that believes and so our creeds begin with the words: we believe. You can’t be a fully integrated member of any club or group unless you learn its language and share its values and assumptions. So the road to belief begins by simply being there and being together. This is what the risen Jesus tells his disciples to do. Wait together and be together.
But notice. Thomas was not there when Jesus made his first appearance to the disciples. Consequently he finds belief in the risen Jesus difficult. He cannot see or know as the others know because he was not there with them.
Clearly the message for us is be there. Be with other followers of Jesus, share their vision and receive Jesus’ peace. You came to-day on a Low Sunday. Congratulations. This is the place to be and you are in very good company.
Thomas recognises his Jesus and then makes a good confession and then Jesus addresses a question to him and a word of blessing and encouragement to us.
Have you believed because you have seen me? Thomas answer must surely be yes. But there’s a hint in Jesus question that this might not be the best way to come to belief. Then Jesus says to him and to us. Blessed are those who have not seen me and yet believe.
I used to love that verse because it encouraged me to think that belief without sight constituted some sort of achievement. How wise and spiritual I am and we are if we believe notwithstanding the absence of some special experience. But that may be a misunderstanding. You have not seen nor have you had a special experience but that is to your advantage –true faith is not based on an accumulation of knowledge, facts or special experiences. Such things can easily mislead you. How easy it is to have an experience and miss its meaning.
True faith tends not be based on research or the accumulation of data as Thomas mistakenly imagined. It isn’t ultimately a matter of knowing it’s a matter of unknowing-a matter of unlocking the capacity of the deep mind to receive and believe something new. My best ideas tend to come to me in the silence of the small hours-not when I’m sitting at the desk with half a dozen books around me. In a similar way it is at such moments that I remember the name that was on the tip of my tongue earlier in the day, the phone number or address I couldn’t remember. People who tell stories about their conversions often describe them in terms of a moment of surprise. True faith isn’t simply the fruit of study it’s a gift.
This gift of faith comes from God whose nature and name is love who made us out of love and dwells within us. He is closer to us than the very air we breathe as St Augustine says. Our discovery of faith is a discovery of our true selves-the spirit of a loving God active in our hearts and minds but we must learn to be open to that.
Where then do we go from here?
Not in a fruitless search for more and more facts. No amount of data can ever provide final satisfaction and true faith. To advance down that road is simply to end up in the hands of Richard Dawkins.
Rather the way to a true faith in the risen one lies in being with his disciples and being open to an acknowledgement that the risen Jesus dwells within our hearts. It is there that we must behold him and it is in our hearts that we must welcome him in.
The old chorus has a lot going for it I think. Remember it
He lives, he lives
Christ Jesus lives to-day
I know he lives today
You ask me how I know he lives
He lives within my heart.
There is a popular saying in western Christianity that I must admit I don’t particularly like – ‘It may be Friday but Sunday’s coming’. I’ve always felt Holy Saturday is an entirely under utilised theological resource. It is part of our Western psyche that wants to jump forward to the resurrection, get to the point, resolve the story, tie it up with a nice neat little bow, and run the ‘happily ever after’ closing screen.
The COVID-19 pandemic would not play our Western game of shortcuts and quick fixes.
An often-overlooked component of the incarnation is the three days that Jesus spends in the grave. God doesn’t stop where we live but goes before us into death. Meeting with us in our brokenness, Jesus does not give up when things get uncomfortable; he willingly gives his life. He trusts the Father and moves into the unknown.
Some of our church members, particularly those hesitant to engage anything “digital,” report that there was no “Easter Sunday” in 2020. The church was “closed.” In one sense they are right but really they missed the point of resurrection.
The Coronavirus forced us to stay in the tomb. We have been living in the tomb time for over a year. It’s been a long Holy Saturday. This requires us to have faith and obedience in the face of uncertainty.
Romans 6:4 and Colossians 2:12 reveal not only the astonishing depths of God’s love but also indicate our place is with Jesus in the tomb. This descent into the tomb with Christ is part of our journey to spiritual maturity. It is a move toward our own resurrection life. This inverts the modern world’s values of honor, prestige, and power.
The tomb forces us into an uncomfortable state of liminality and confusion. Like Cleopas and his companion we get on with life but with a slower step, “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place” (Lk 24:21). The tomb represents separation, disorientation, and living in the in-between. As we look to engage in new ways of mission, different ways of being church, innovate, and create new things, we hit the wall of disappointment and failure.
The late theologian and author Alan Lewis wrote,
‘The second day appears to be a no-man’s-land, an anonymous, counterfeit moment in the gospel story, which can boast no identity for itself, claim no meaning, and reflect only what light it can borrow from its predecessor and its sequel, not its number in the series, but its place, bears its significance, as that day between the days which speaks solely neither of the cross nor of the resurrection, but simultaneously remembers the one and awaits the other, and guarantees that neither will be heard, or thought about, or lived, without the other.’ (Alan E. Lewis, Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday)
While we often pass right over Jesus’ time in the grave as a non-event, it is of paramount importance. The Scriptures, church tradition, and the creeds affirm a “descent into hell.” We can safely say that Jesus was busy during the darkness of the tomb, yet the implications are perhaps beyond our finite comprehension.
We can learn a lot from what the disciples do during this time. A cursory review of the Scriptures may respond with “not much” or at least “nothing to be proud of.” They had a funeral of sorts (Jn 19: 38-41). They rested (Lk 23:56). They waited (Jn 20:2). They hid out (Jn 20:19). Some doubted (Jn 20:25). Some lamented (Jn 20:11). But they also talked, they processed, they prayed—they formed relationships while they waited, and they wrestled with the implications of what had happened (Lk 24:36). In actuality, this is a vast amount of significant activity. In fact, they were becoming reflective practitioners long before theological colleges came up with the idea!
In the ‘tomb time’ the disciples were asking lots of questions. Was Jesus really the one? What does this mean? Should we go home and go fishing? Can a person cursed and executed on the cross really be the messiah? Have we been duped? Are we going to be executed now too? Also, the timing was essential to their activity. In John’s narrative, we often emphasize the disciples’ cowardice, hiding out with the “doors locked for fear of the Jews” (Jn 20:19). Yet in another sense, they were doing the only thing they could do. Had they rushed out headlong into the streets of Jerusalem, considering the powder keg it was already, they likely would have met a quick fate.
I believe this is what the Holy Spirit is calling the church to as we embrace the new reality of a pandemic with a long tail. The tomb time is a place to wait, reflect, connect in new ways, and learn to ask different questions.
Tomb-time involves consciously pausing to diagnosis our context through the three lenses of hindsight, insight, and foresight. Furthermore, we are in a place of powerlessness. We are waiting for God to do what only God can do.
One of the greatest threats as we begin to emerge from the tomb time is the rush ‘back to normal.’ While the pandemic has been a time of flourishing creativity and innovation for many churches, if our goal is to get back to business as usual, we are squandering the gift.
Normal wasn’t working before the pandemic. In fact, normal was dreadful. The traditional church has been in a death spiral of decline for decades. Outsiders look at the church and they don’t see Jesus. They see infighting, judgment, and hypocrisy. They don’t see the church as a place of healing, but a place of harm. We have failed to connect in a significant way with the last three generations in the UK. We have not ‘made disciples’ we have made ‘church members’ many of whom disengaged when we closed our sanctuary doors for the pandemic.
The pandemic gave us the gift of a reset. We’ve had a year in the tomb to wait, pray, strengthen our relationships, and ask different questions.
Recently, some church leaders have stepped forward to critique digital church. The essence of their lowly view of online church is, “that was a nice temporary solution, but now let’s get back to real church.”
But what about those of us who found digital church to be just as real, or even more real, than a church centered in a building? What about all the disciples we actually made in digital space? What about the ways we learned to inhabit digitality in such a way that it brought healing to the isolated and the suffering? What about all the people who will never set foot in our sanctuaries who found a home in a digital community?
As we move toward resurrection Sunday, may we remember that resurrection is about continuity, not replication. Jesus is raised from the dead in his same body, but it is different. New creation describes a radical change of state. The wound-bearing Jesus is the same, but different. May we come out of the lockdown phase of the pandemic, the same, but different.