Author Archives: pgrimwood

My first Covid-19 sermon.

On June 21st I am due to give a sermon on the environment at Mickleton in the South Warwickshire Circuit. This probably wont happen but I’ve written the sermon and here it is-the first of my Covid-19 sermons. I am offering it you sisters and brothers for critical comment and reflection.

It’s not what I was expecting. What I was expecting was a series of extreme weather events, floods and rising concern about carbon in the atmosphere. All these things may yet happen but perhaps the most important message for these times is expect the unexpected.

But let’s be honest, it should not have been unexpected. There have been many warnings-the government even ran a simulation exercise in 2016. Looking back further I can remember having my temperature checked while passing through Hong Kong airport few years ago. But my diary with all its crossings out reminds me that this was not part of my expectations for 2020.

So for me to attempt any sort of theological reflection on where we are now might be thought in me to be a presumptuous task. That phrase “a presumptuous task” comes from a very famous old book-one from my lockdown reading list. On this list are books that I’ve always meant to read but somehow I’ve never got round to including translations of the pre-Christian Latin and Greek classics. The poems that Boris Johnson likes to quote.

Take Vergil’s famous poem-the Aeneid-an account of how the hero Aeneas flees from Troy when it falls to the Greeks and gathering a band of refugees sets out to found a new empire in Italy-this is Rome’s foundation myth. They have many adventures and fight many battles. These battles are described in extraordinarily bloodthirsty detail. The gods watch over all this intervening from time to time on side or another, changing the weather on a whim and receiving the sacrifices of the warriors. Bulls, birds and lambs are slain on blood soaked altars on almost every page. Wine is poured out; trophies are laid on altars and as for the gods they look on smiling when they are not at war with each other. This is a religious world dedicated to power and victory in which courage is the highest virtue and in which nature and the power of the gods are easily confused.

How different is Christianity’s take on the world! Central to our ideas about the world is that God is loving and that creation is an expression of that love. To live wisely and well within our world is to live lovingly-to go with the grain of the universe as has been recently said. To live well is to live a life of service to others in humility, freedom and joy. Contrast that with the world of pagan Greece and Rome as described by Vergil and Homer. Christianity as St Maximus the Confessor said is an entirely new way of being human.

The atheist philosopher Nietzsche who began his scholarly career with these classics described Christianity as a religion for slaves. He had a point-a good point. When preachers suggest to you that living in a Christian manner is plain common sense be very wary. Similarly there is a tendency sometimes to suggest that all faiths unite around common values. Again be wary!

No Christianity and its older brother Judaism represents a revolution in human affairs-the oldest and the best. –from a religion which honours power and violence to one that affirms self-giving love. Jesus said: I am among you as one who serves. That was and is a counter-cultural thought. But that’s why Christianity represents a revolution in human affairs. And as Christian consciousness fades in our culture as part of the process of secularisation we do well to affirm our credentials as a counter-cultural revolutionary movement. We should affirm our calling to be part of an entirely new way of being human and not relapse into being pagans-especially not pagans supercharged with sophisticated technology and engineering skills.

But what is all this to us? And in particular what is all this to us when we think about the environment. I see our needful response under three headings:

To acknowledge God’s love and his gift to us of creation.

To make a humble and grateful response to that love

To receive all this in joy and share that joy with others.

Just a few words about each

God’s love. And God saw everything that he had made and behold it was very good. Of course to write in this way is to take a religious standpoint rather than a scientific one but without a spiritual or ethical outlook we’d be lost if we tried to make sense of the world. Listen to Thomas Trehearne:

You never enjoy the world aright till the sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world…till you can sing and rejoice and delight in God as misers do in gold and Kings in sceptres you never enjoy the world. Or I could have quoted Wordsworth or Gerard Manley Hopkins or any number of Psalms.

Humility-Humility doesn’t get a very good press these days. It’s dismissed as a virtue for monks. Modern people obsessed with consumerism and individualism prefer to imagine anything good as “all about me”.  Christianity is quite different. It’s about love but not self-love instead it’s all about love of the others.

The implications for the environment are important. We should live within nature, of which we ourselves are a part, as if we are its servants rather than its masters.

Most of our environmental problems arise from seeing nature as our tool-a source of items to be extracted and put to use for the sake of our comfort and pleasure. You and I and all our fellow humans have got ourselves into a bad place because we see ourselves as somehow like gods-super humans. Everything that exists doesn’t exist in its own right but for ourselves alone.  This persuasive way of thinking can be seen in the media every day in the form of a narcissistic obsession with my rights, my property, and my pleasures. This is no way to be happy in Jesus.

Joy

Joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit as Paul reminds us-an occasion for happiness and delight when we conform to the order of God in the world-when we turn away from our self-centred concerns and consider the lilies, the birds of the air and the fullness of God’s work in creation.

Such joy is not limited tour own experiences of happiness and delight but extends to the whole creation as it looks forward to freedom from its bondage to decay. Again this is Paul’s vision. Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ our Lord.

As I said at the outset it wasn’t what I was expecting. I had fondly imagined that infectious diseases were nothing to do with me-that’s all about history. But I was wrong. This is about me and it is about the environment. The warnings were there-Ebola, Marburg, SARs. We’ve been creating the conditions for this: frenetic urbanisation, destruction of natural habitats, mass air travel.

This has been a warning but it’s also been a source of unexpected joy. Bird song, clear air, the chance to really feel and smell the new springtime all around us. We have accustomed ourselves to eco-alienated habitats but all is not lost when we find ourselves beginning to notice and feel a real kinship with the world of nature.

Let’s be realistic but also hopeful. We’ve had no end of a lesson. It could do us no end of good.

Something for Sunday

This coming Sunday is Pentecost when the Church celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit to the first Christians. The key text for today (Acts 2:1-21) begins by declaring that the disciples were all together in one place. Alas we are not all together in one place this year indeed we are all over the place but notwithstanding that I hope we are not all at sea!

The text speaks of the gift of the Spirit in terms of fire-a fire of love-not one blast but tongues of fire-to each disciple a flame-a gift or as we might say a charisma of the Holy Spirit. All God’s people are charismatics. The Church is a charismatic community.

The gift of the Spirit is a gift of diversity-to each disciple his own flame. Not only does the Holy Spirit make us all one he makes us each different. Life together in the Church is a world of joy and blessing as we enrich each other with the gifts entrusted to us and receive from others the gifts entrusted to them.

But the gift of the Holy Spirit is also a gift of unity. The Holy Spirit makes the many to be one body in Christ. Confusion and misunderstanding of the kind described in the story of the tower of Babel (Genesis11) is ended in the dramatic manner described in Acts 2. Henceforth the believers are united in heart and soul and have all things in common.

St Paul writes that where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom. This could be read as a warning not to restrict our understanding of the Spirit to rigid and simplistic definitions.

I was rather surprised, indeed shocked, when I received a mailing some years ago which advertised this service:

“A ministry to women using beauty therapy and pampering to leave women refreshed, relaxed and with a renewed experience of the Holy Spirit.”

Here the Holy Spirit has become nothing more than that which gives us a personal buzz-this is a long way from the Spirit which Jesus sends. That Spirit as the church understands it is not all about me it is instead about igniting a fire of self-giving love within our hearts and shared in true fellowship not only within the people of God but with all our neighbours.

Of course the Holy Spirit has no clear form-we can’t grasp it or make a picture of it as we can with the person of Jesus. It’s much more like the air we breathe-we enjoy its presence, we even bemoan its absence but it gives life to the Church and points us to Jesus whose gift it is. 

Something for Sunday

This coming Sunday, May 24th, is the anniversary of John Wesley’s conversion and an important date in the Methodist calendar.

There have been a number of famous Christian conversion experiences beginning with that of Paul described in Acts 9 and referred to again in Galatians 1 verse 17. Perhaps the most famous in Christian history is that of Augustine in Milan described in Book 8 of his Confessions. There he was sitting in the garden of his house feeling anguished and distressed when he heard a child next door calling out: “Pick it up, Read it, Pick it up, Read it. His mood changed at once and he took into his hands a copy of Paul’s letters and opening it at random read Romans 13 verses 13/14. And the rest as they say is history.

Augustine’s confessions is one of the great books best read in a modern translation of which there are many. My favourite is that of Sarah Ruden published in 2018. Try it. It could change your life. The account of his conversion experience has provided the template for other such experiences including perhaps that of John Wesley himself.   

Wesley’s account of what happened on the evening of May 24th 1738 begins with his attending evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral-a good start-but then he goes to a Methodist meeting where one was reading from Luther’s introduction to his commentary on Romans. During the reading his heart was strangely warmed as he put it.

On the following day he went to another meeting (You can’t stop these people!) which he addressed on the subject of his conversion stating that until the previous evening he had not been a proper Christian at all. The leader of the meeting who obviously knew Wesley well was sceptical about this and told him that if he hadn’t been a proper Christian before May 24th he had given a very good impression of being one.

Somebody said to me once. Your problem Peter is that you never meet anyone because you are always going to meetings. (This was before I met the lady who subsequently became my wife-at a Methodist meeting!)

Other prominent Christians down the ages have testified to special experiences – St Thomas Aquinas the greatest theologian of the Middle Ages had such an experience at the end of his life and resolved to write no more. –which was something of a disappointment to those who admired his mind. But some Christians, perhaps most, have discounted such moments. Martin Luther when challenged as to how he knew he was a Christian simply replied: I have been baptized. That’s a good answer.

Heart-warming experiences are not peculiar to Christians –atheists and followers of other faiths have them too-some atheists have even been converted from Christianity by such experiences.

But I would not wish to be misunderstood. Special experiences can be blessings:

Many of us have been deeply moved by particular pieces of music –the choruses from Bach’s St Matthew Passion for instance or special hymns. Charles Wesley’s hymn “O thou who camest from above” never fails to move me-even to bring a tear to the eye. Provided it’s set to the right tune of course! This is what some Orthodox writers call the gift of tears. Then there are what I would call St Martin experiences-an encounter with someone in real need-causing within us an overflowing feeling of love-leading to action. Many of us have had experiences like that but we shouldn’t boast of them. Paul who seems to have been no stranger to mystical experiences preferred to speak only of his weaknesses and to insist: Let him who boasts boast only in the Lord.

Special experiences mean a lot to people and such people like to recall these special moments. But everyone is different. God speaks in many languages and through all manner of media. When Paul had his special experience on the Damascus Road those who were with him at the time heard nothing. Those who were with Wesley listening to Martin Luther’s comments on Romans remained unmoved. When I tried to replicate the moment by reading the same passage to a group of modern Methodists in Bristol everyone was thoroughly bored. It’s the same in the Holy Land-some are really excited by the Garden Tomb, others by the Sea of Galilee or the desert. In these things we are all different and in our differences we should rejoice.

Something for Sunday

A book that I made good use of in my early days in the ministry was entitled; “Experiments in Bible Study” by Hans Rudi-Weber. I tried out a number of his Bible study experiments in various churches and they all seemed to go well.

One of them was on our epistle passage for this Sunday (1 Peter 3: 13-22) and was entitled; The Hope that is in You. The key verse is verse 15. “Always be ready to make a defence to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you but do it with gentleness and reverence”.

This is what the author wrote in his notes: “The hope of the early Christians was that Christ is Lord and that his cause would win. This hope became visible in their daily life. Their priorities obviously differed from those of the people surrounding them. They were even ready to suffer and die for that hope Such a visible hope astonished or irritated their neighbours and colleagues. So questions arose, not only friendly questions but also accusations. Christians were summoned before the judge. In a literal sense they has to make a defence of their hope.

In the early church evangelism was thus not only an organised activity by especially gifted persons. It was much more the spontaneous and non-aggressive gossiping of the gospel by ordinary Christians in the course of their daily life. And the secret of it all was the hope which had become visible in the daily life of the Christians.”

So the question for you and I is simply this. How, today, can our Christian hope become visible in our lives? Addressing this question led to many fruitful exchanges.

Malcolm Guite’s poem spoke to me:

And where is Jesus, this strange Easter day?
Not lost in our locked churches anymore
Than he was sealed in that dark sepulchre.
And he is up and risen, long before,
The locks are loosed; the stone was rolled away,
Alive, at large, and making his strong way
Into the world he gave his life to save,
No need to seek him in his empty grave.

He might have been a wafer in the hands
Of priests this day, or music from the lips
Of red robed choristers, instead he slips
Away from Church, shakes off our linen bands
To don his apron with a nurse he grips
And lifts a stretcher, soothes with gentle hands
The frail flesh of the dying, gives them hope,
Breathes with the breathless, lends them strength to cope.

On Thursday we applauded, for he came
And served us in a thousand names and faces
Mopping our sickroom floors and catching traces
Of that corona which was death to him:
Good Friday happened in a thousand places
Where Jesus held the helpless, died with them
That they might share his Easter in their need,
Now they are risen with him, risen indeed.


You can hear Malcolm read his poem if you go to the blog page on his web site:
www.malcolmguite.wordpress.com/blog
Spotted in the Tablet this weekend

Something for Sunday. John 14: 1-14

Now here are comfortable words. Do not be troubled, do not be worried or upset-fortify yourselves by faith in God and the one whom he has sent. Yet we are troubled, worried and we are often upset about many things-some of these are large and important matters others appear trivial at least to others. All of them create feelings of distress and fear that gnaw at our souls so that we cease to be the people we could be.

We know what we are worried about but what might the first disciples have been worried about. And what might the first hearers of John’s gospel have been worried about. I see their worries under two heads:

First a fear of separation. Jesus is going. These words are addressed to the disciples by way of farewell. He is going and they cannot follow. Not at once at least. There is to be an absence almost a sense of desolation. Jesus admits as much.

How is this to be coped with? Can it be coped with?

Our own experiences of separation, of loss and bereavement crowd in upon us. How can our hearts not be troubled? It is not for nothing that this passage is usually read at funerals. Jesus tries to fortify his disciples but the death that he is to die is his own.

Secondly a fear of failure. We are always taught to read texts in context and immediately prior to this famous verse is the account of Jesus foretelling Peter’s denial before the cock crowed three times. Now there was failure! And the other disciples were no better. All forsook him and fled.

But our failures and theirs should be distinguished from God’s cause. As I never tire of saying we should be pessimistic about man but optimistic about God.

Jesus is going on ahead of his disciples. He is going to his death, which he has freely accepted. This death is necessary. It is the preparation that is made for those who will come after. This is the death that will break every barrier down so that the boundless love of the father can reach out to everyone, fill our hearts with love and change the world.

And it is the way that his disciples are called to follow. Yes Jesus does call his disciples to come and walk with him the way of the cross. And everyone who follows that way finds that by embracing the deaths we must die there truly is nothing to be afraid of and that death really is swallowed up in the victory of love.

In the life of the Church this is the Easter season. Our hearts should be full of joy and peace. In fact they are not. We are worried and perplexed. We have said many times that Christ is risen. But if he is risen where is he and is he coming soon. We have proclaimed the good news but the world goes on much as before. Could it all be our fault? Is our faith inadequate? Are we feeling to make progress? Is it our inadequacies that stand in the way of Christ’s return?

Jesus message to the first disciples and to us is reassuring. Have courage. Jesus can cope with our inadequacies. Jesus has just foretold that their leader Peter will fail-indeed that he will deny everything. Yet they are not to be distressed. Don’t believe in the wrong things he says.

Instead place your trust in Jesus, have confidence in the mystery of love revealed in the cross and the resurrection. Share his risen life, share his words and continue his works. You won’t be alone, instead be encouraged by all the signs of love that have been revealed to us in the last two months.

Reading in Lockdown

Not everyone has seen the lockdown as an opportunity to do some extra reading but I am a naturally bookish person so here are two titles that I can recommend from my reading over the last six weeks.

The first is “The Myth of Christian Persecution” by Candida Moss. Candida, a Catholic, is now Professor of Theology at Birmingham University but before that she had a academic career in the USA and became something of a media star. She is deeply learned in Christian history and in the history of of persecution in the early Church. This is her specialist subject and she has clearly read everything about it but notwithstanding she writes with great ease and fluency. I was carried along quickly and was sorry to put the book down after quite a short period.

There are three messages I will take away from this book.

Firstly: The stories of the persecuted martyrs are largely inspirational fiction. Persecution and harrassment did occur but it was only occasional and the early church enjoyed long periods of peace.

Secondly she explains why early Christians were disliked, why they were regarded as atheists, and, this is no more than a hint, why we might have disliked them too.

Thirdly: She criticises modern attitudes towards the persecution and martrydom of Christians especially in the United States. It encourages hatred towards the “others”, self righteousness and the demonizing of our critics. Of course in some parts of the world Christians do suffer for their faith but an indulgence in shrill rhetoric has led Christians to perform many cruel and evil acts. Better by far to work with all people of good will to eliminate cruelty, intolerance and persecution for everyone in the name of the God of love.

The second book also comes from the United States. It is “Everything happens for a Reason-and other lies I’ve loved.” by Kate Bowler. Kate comes from a Mennonite background in Canada and is a Professor at Duke University in the US which has a distinguished theological school with many Methodist scholars. Her specialist subject is the history and theology of the Prosperity Gospel and there are many references to it in the story she tells.

Kate suffers from cancer and the outlook for her and her family is not good. She describes her journey with the illness, the messages and ministry she has received from others and the place in which she finds herself now.

Anyone involved in pastoral care and finds themselves alongside the sick and the desperate will find this to be a helpful and challenging read. It’s not long. I read it in one day.

Both of these books are available to download on e-readers for a very modest price.

Good Shepherd Sunday

Today the fourth Sunday of Easter is known as Good Shepherd Sunday. The readings always come from John 10 and Psalm 23 is set for recitation. It’s an opportunity to reflect on Christ’s offering of himself for the sake of the flock and his ongoing care for His people. Many preachers use the occasion to offer their insights into the nature of the Churches pastoral ministry. Anglican ordinands are charged to set the pattern of the Good Shepherd always before them as the pattern of their calling.   In many ways the imagery is strange and counter-cultural. After all in animal husbandry good shepherds don’t lay down their lives for the sheep the sheep lay down their lives for them. In some contemporary Christian circles the term shepherding is associated with an authoritarian style which many Christians find disquieting.  

My favourite illustration for this day comes from my Uncle who was an agricultural scientist but worked on a Welsh sheep farm as a placement in his student years. He recalled carrying lambs over his shoulders in a manner often portrayed in icons and stained glass windows. His most vivid memory of these moments was of the lamb urinating down his back and inside his jacket. No doubt pastoral ministry often feels just like that and perhaps it should.  

Grace, mercy and peace,  

Peter G