Author Archives: pgrimwood

Something for Sunday

This is one from my personal archive but I thought it could do with another airing.

John 20:19-31

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.

A Survey of the Wondrous Cross

This Good Friday I have been asked by our parish church to submit a meditation or theological reflection on three verses from John’s gospel. John 19: 28-30. I submit it to your judgement sisters and brothers.

When I had just arrived in Coventry I had a conversation with the Anglican vicar with whom I was to work in an ecumenical project. He greeted me with these words: “Peter, what did Christ do for us on the cross?” I answered swiftly and clearly quoting the apostle Paul. He then declared in terms, that I was a fit and proper person to work with him in the parish.

I liked him! I liked this emphasis on doctrine. It also brought home to me the importance of another New Testament text namely 1Peter 3:15. “Always be ready to make a defence to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you.” I had shown myself to be ready. Are you likewise ready? I merely ask.

All of us in our separate ways must be ready to answer that question. What did Christ do for us on the cross? In framing an answer we are not alone indeed we have gathered here today to do what Isaac Watts did-undertake a survey of the wondrous cross; to probe its mystery and to encourage each other in faith, hope and love. In our thoughts and reflections this afternoon I have been assigned three verses from the fourth gospel-that of John. So it’s his answer to the question posed above that I will be focussing on for the next few minutes.

John sets out his stall very early in his gospel. “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”. That’s from chapter 1 before Jesus has uttered a word.

Jesus is the Lamb of God-a sacrifice offered in a new Passover which will inaugurate a new Kingdom-a new world order if you like. Jesus is to offer himself as a sacrifice upon the altar of the world. He is both priest and victim.

Throughout John’s account of the passion Jesus is shown to be in control of events. He declares that he is thirsty calling to mind Psalm 69 but also John chapter 4   when Jesus began his ministry to the Samaritan woman by expressing a need. A sponge is placed on hyssop and lifted up for him to receive. Why hyssop? This is to fulfil another text Exodus 12 v 22 in which Moses cites the use of hyssop as a part of the Passover sacrifice.

Then Jesus declares: “It is finished.” The sacrifice is complete. Or to use a Methodist phrase: tis done the great transactions done. He bows his head and gives up his spirit. This is more significant than first appears. Normally a victim dies and then bows his head involuntarily. But Jesus bows his head first and then gives up his spirit. Does Jesus commit suicide? To us this seems unthinkable but in the ancient world suicide was a noble act. Jesus remember is both priest and victim.

One might also remember the noble sacrifice of Captain Oates lauded at the time of his passing from Anglican pulpits-and his famous last words-“I am going out and I may be some time.” Sometimes I use this form of words when popping out to the shops. Not everybody gets the reference.

In order to get a sense of what all this might mean for us consider the first Passover-that night that is different from all other nights. The night when the Passover lamb is sacrificed and the angel of death passes over Egypt sparing the children of Israel but smiting the first born of all the Egyptians. And in this moment when God shows his power the children of Israel are led out from Egypt into the desert to become God’s holy people and to be made worthy of the new land that has been promised to them.

To be made worthy of the Promised Land is no straightforward matter. Very soon the children of Israel were grumbling about their new circumstances. Egypt had been a real consumer society, plenty to eat and the children of Israel remembered with regret their fleshpots and plenty of public sector employment. Some of the big infrastructure projects are still standing and can be seen from outer space to this day. Of course things had become somewhat disagreeable in recent years and the contributions that the Hebrews had made to good governance in the country had been forgotten. There arose as scripture says a Pharaoh who knew not Joseph.

And now behold a new Passover and Jesus is the new paschal lamb slain upon the altar of the world to bring in a new creation for the redeemed people of God. This the invitation, this is the grace freely given and ever given. But it comes with a call to be the people risen with Christ  to declare their faith and show by deeds that their sins are forgiven. And the first of these deeds is the call to leave Egypt and follow Jesus, the way, into the desert and then over Jordan to the Promised Land.

Let’s be clear about Egypt. This is a state of being not a geographical entity. There was a large Jewish community in Egypt, the land, until the late 1940s. It was in Egypt that the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek and in Egypt in Jesus time was a centre of Jewish of Jewish philosophy and scholarship. I well remember visiting John Newton’s parsonage in Olney, Bucks. Over the mantelpiece in his study was this text: “Thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondsman in the land of Egypt and the Lord thy God redeemed thee.”

We too are called to come out of Egypt but this is a difficult and costly call. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is a costly grace not a cheap grace.

We too are in bondage to the pharaohs of this world who know neither Joseph not Jesus. You know their names!! We too love our fleshpots, we are almost desperate to go shopping again and we believe that the graces given by economic growth will be ever given.

A sign has been given to us in recent days. A 200,000 ton container ship stuck in the sands of Egypt laden with the products of the east to feed the misguided consumerism of the west. Its name “Ever Given” but not like the grace of God freely given –not at all. This is the devil’s grace and it too is costly grace a cost born by all the poor and disadvantaged people of the world.

In the cross we see clearly our evil-the abuse and misuse of the natural world to make instruments of torture well brought out in the poem you are about to hear. But at the same time God’s sacrificial love his gift of himself as the new Passover lamb which points to the recreation of the world and redemption for sinners like us.  As Paul expresses it:

Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us therefore let us keep the feast.

Against Zoom

Just over a year ago the word ”Zoom” referred to a camera lens. But now Zoom has a different meaning altogether and refers to the popular video-conferencing app. It was novel at first but now it’s beginning to pall as a way of worship and a mode of meeting. I dislike looking at myself as if into a mirror when speaking. I also miss the sense of full body context so that you can become aware of the boredom or irritation of others. Gestures and body language are easily missed –formal disagreement with a speaker is difficult. I have also discovered that you can do other things while zooming such as reading texts and following up links and the rest of the meeting is oblivious to your activities.

I have set a personal limit on the number of Zoom meetings I can cope with per day without endangering my psychiatric well-being and emotional stability. That number is three. A webinar counts as half a zoom. I look forward to Zoom free holidays.

How do you feel about worship on Zoom? How do I feel? On a daily basis I attend Morning Prayer by Zoom with Anglican colleagues and friends. There is a set order which is screen shared, the two readings and psalms change every day and the intercessions are offered on a free and extemporary basis. There are three daily tasks: leader which includes the extemporary prayers, reader and responder. There are five regular members of the group although sometimes a sixth person joins us. It works very well and has now been going five days a week for a year.

Other forms of Zoom worship can also be a positive experience provided there is an opportunity for everyone present to be seen and to make a real contribution. What I personally dislike is the splicing together of various elements: prayers, readings, sermon and song for transmission to a passive congregation of viewers at a later date. I find this to be an utterly sterile experience perhaps especially when I myself have preached the sermon.

The Christian faith is faith in God who has become incarnate in the man Jesus. The word has become flesh and dwells among us. (John 1 v14) Bodily presence matters. We acknowledge the presence of the risen Christ among us in one another and in the bread and wine by which that presence is particularly signified. The word has become flesh not a video conferencing app.

It is all very well to read spiritual books, think lofty and enlightened thoughts and cultivate an enhanced condition of soulful life but the presence of Jesus, our incarnate God, is about his presence in one another and especially in those who particularly need our help. The others really matter. Now I am not denying the value of periods of solitude and silence. Methodism would benefit from a lot more silence. As T S Eliot wrote: “Even the anchorite who meditates alone prays for the Church, the body of Christ incarnate”. We have been deprived for a long time-a year without the Lord’s Supper!  Who would have believed it possible!

St Paul in 1 Corinthians speaks of Christian worship as the time when we come together.

“When you come together each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.”

Sound good to me. Let it come soon!!

The Matter of the Census

The completion of the census form is something we will all have to address in the next week. But the taking of a census doesn’t always get a very good press in the Bible. Although the Lord commands a census to be taken of the children of Israel in Numbers 26 in 2 Samuel 24 census taking is denounced as revealing a lack of faith in God’s providence. There are of course references to census taking in the New Testament but these are associated with the taxation policies of the alien occupiers.


My main interest in the census focuses on one particular question. “What is your religion?”

This is a more difficult question than first appears. There is you see a clear distinction between religion and faith. A religion is a set of cultural and linguistic practices through which a faith is expressed. As Christian preachers we seek to proclaim Christ rather than particular religious practices. Such practices can be reserved to the notice sheet with details of forthcoming meetings and social events.


Christianity is a faith but Methodism or Presbyterianism or whatever might be described as religions. For myself I like to draw on the whole deposit of faith whether it be Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant in proclaiming Jesus as the saviour of the world. I frequently find myself worshipping with other Christians whose religious background is different from my own. When I was a minister in Milton Keynes, where there are many ecumenical partnerships many people wrote ”ecumenical” in the relevant box on the census form. This is not what the census compilers had in mind.


So the first possibility for me would be to write “none”. I have transcended narrow religiosity because I am a follower of Jesus.

Another answer might be to write “Christian” in the space provided. The difficulty about that is that Christianity is not really a religion within the world view of the census writers. They want to know about people’s denominational allegiances be they: Church of England, Roman Catholic, Baptist, Evangelical [an umbrella covering an enormous number of Christian groups], Orthodox, Pentecostal or whatever. If I reply that I believe in the one holy, catholic and apostolic church, as I do, I can imagine them tearing their hair out.

A third answer would be to write “Methodist” in the box provided. This is a perfectly proper answer within the meaning of the question. Nevertheless it doesn’t really do justice to my Christian faith. But then my faith isn’t really on the line here simply my preferred cultural and linguistic practices by which I express my faith. A wise Local preacher in my first circuit once said to me: “a Methodist is Christian in earnest”. Great line. I’ve often quoted it. Nobody not even a Methodist, I hope, would ever say; a Christian is a Methodist in earnest.


So what to do. Well you could do nothing because the question is voluntary in any case. The case for writing ”none” is simply this. It will serve as a warning signal to the leadership of the churches that they are facing a serious missional challenge and can no longer rely on people feeling a sense of loyalty to their denominations established status, the racial or social class profile of their people or any other form of tribal membership. That’s a good message to send and I am sure that St Paul would agree with me.

Something for Sunday – The Turning Point

This passage is the pivotal moment in St Mark’s gospel. After this Jesus turns his face towards Jerusalem and the teaching is all about humility, the necessity for suffering and the way of the cross. In the Alpha Course members are offered an opportunity to explore the meaning of life. St Mark is not interested in discussing the meaning of life because he knows the secret of life. That’s why he calls his book gospel. The secret is that the meaning of life is to be found by following Jesus. Following Jesus means embracing death on the cross in his cause. This is extraordinary.

It’s particularly extraordinary when we consider how Jesus has been portrayed up to this point. Jesus has come across to us as a superhuman hero. He casts out demons. He heals the sick. He raises the dead. He subdues the storm. He walks on water. Twice, not once but twice he multiplies bread to feed large crowds. These are the actions of a wonder worker or a King.

And now it is this man who says to his disciples. If any man would come after me let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. We would do well to dwell on the sheer awfulness of what is being proposed. The cross was a method of public execution in which the victim is humiliated and subjected to extreme physical torment in full view of friends and neighbours. Naked of course. For the pious there’s the additional difficulty that to die in this way is to be accursed of God. It says so in the Bible.

So for Mark the meaning of life is death freely embraced as the ultimate act of self-denial. In this way the powers of death and evil are defeated. Some New Testament writers interpret Jesus’ death on the cross as an act of love. Paul does, John does, most preachers do but Mark doesn’t. Mark simply wants to say that the way of the cross is simply the way of obedience to the will of God. Discipleship requires following that way regardless of cost or consequences.

This is a very stark message indeed. Too much for Peter at the time, too much for the other disciples, too much for us? Yes certainly. And Mark wants to push it into our faces. He wants to challenge and embarrass us. He wants to turn the world upside down. But if we go along with him we’ll see that actually there’s good news here after all.

The New Testament proposes that you and I should live after the pattern of the cross. Mark emphasises it most strongly but each of the New Testament writers put the cross at the centre of the faith. The cross of Jesus defines the way in which we should live. We live no longer for ourselves but for others and for God. Christianity is not a way of making something of yourself in the eyes of the world-to profess Christ is not to be compared with joining the Rotary Club –it’s a way of self denial-self giving love.

What would it mean to live after the pattern of the cross? Jesus’ death is consistently interpreted in the New Testament as an act of self-giving love. To be Jesus’ disciples is to obey his call to bear the cross and thus to be like him.

Yes it is true that the death of Jesus carries with it the promise of resurrection but the power of resurrection lies in God’s hands not ours. Our calling is thus to follow Jesus without worrying about the results-cash value if you like. Follow Jesus and leave the results to God.

And how are we to do this? How do we take up our cross and follow Jesus. Our lives are so different from those of Mark’s first hearers-caught in the crossfire of a vicious war between Roman oppressors and Zealot terrorists. For them to resist the oppressor’s power of death even at the cost of ones own life made some sort of sense. But what sort of sense could it make for us. How do we live after the way of the cross?

The passages that follow in Mark’s gospel give us a clue. Here we find teaching against ambition, against the danger of riches, against worldly status, for wives against husbands, for children against adults, for the weak and powerless against the strong and the powerful.

How might this be applied to one area that troubles us a great deal-the question of divorce and remarriage. To follow the pattern of the cross suggests to us that marriage is a costly vocation patterned upon the costly love of Christ upon the cross. It is hard and the commitment to costly love should outlast the sentiment that drew the partners together in the first place. It involves the renunciation of power, which is why the New Testaments’ teaching against divorce is a teaching against the misuse of power by husbands against wives. Indeed in Matthew’s gospel the disciples, all men of course, respond by saying:

“Well if that’s the case it would be better not to marry at all!”

Today that’s one precept from the New Testament that’s been taken very seriously indeed.

All this does sound very stern-quite unappealing and unattractive. But that would be a false inference. The secret of the universe is self-giving love-self denial-self offering. We thrive on this both as givers and receivers. We find the meaning of our lives not in what we got but in what we gave.

Finally here are two verses from a wedding hymn. Remember the New Testament proposes the cross as the pattern for the love that there ought to be between husband and wife.

Now Jesus lived and gave his love

To make our life and loving new

So celebrate with him today,

And drink the joy he offers you

That makes the simple moment shine

And changes water into wine.

And Jesus died to live again

So praise the love that come what may

Can bring the dawn and clear the skies

And waits to wipe all tears away

And let us hope for what shall be

Believing where we cannot see.

Often we cannot see, our view is darkened. But the Roman centurion at the foot of the cross who saw Jesus die saw clearly:

“Truly, he said, this man was the Son of God”

Something for Sunday

Mark 1 v 29-39

Before I went to India a few years ago I read this in a newspaper travel column: ”In India wherever you go there are people”. I didn’t really understand this until I arrived and then I saw and understood. Indian streets teem with people-crowds swirl about everywhere even in apparently minor villages. For us to walk to down a street in England and not pass anyone is an everyday experience but for an Indian visitor to England it is strange and unnerving. Where are the natives? In India wherever you go there are people but in England wherever you go there are cars.

Galilee as Mark describes it seems much more like India than England. Crowds are everywhere, the whole city gathers at Jesus door, the sick are visible and present and not hidden away in a hospital. Jesus is a sensation and everyone talks about him and gathers around him. You can gain an impression of what it was like by looking at old photos and newsreels of Gandhi’s non-violent resistance campaigns. India again you see. The crowds, the holy figure in the midst and the powerful symbolic actions performed by the leader which show the coming of the new order to the poor, the marginalised and the oppressed.

Gandhi makes salt by the seashore in the midst of the crowds and the cameras to defy the British Government’s salt monopoly. By doing this he signifies the end of one source of authority and the coming of a new democratic postcolonial order. Jesus heals the sick and exorcises the oppressed to show the coming of the Kingdom of God and the overthrow of the Kingdoms of this world.

Gandhi was a spiritual thinker and a politician of genius. Jesus? Well Jesus was something else again. Gandhi was touched by the life of Jesus. It could be said of him that he was almost persuaded to be a Christian. We who are Christians and try to follow Jesus can try comparing him with other historical figures. I don’t think it diminishes Jesus it exalts him!

In this passage Mark offers us a typical day in the ministry of Jesus-actually not a whole day just part of a twenty-four hour period.

I see three elements to this:

Firstly there’s the public ministry as seen by the crowds. There are the acts of healing and exorcism. There is the confrontation with the powers by the use of symbolic actions which show up their world as finished and overthrown. There’s the preaching. We are not told anything about the content of the preaching but perhaps it doesn’t matter. Jesus is himself the content of the preaching. He’s a sensation. Everyone talks about him and goes after him.

To enter into this join the crowd, feel their excitement; crane your neck to see over their heads, smell their sweat. Look out – shield your eyes from the glare of the sun. Jesus is coming. Can you see him yet?

Secondly Jesus is not just a public performer. He shows real love and compassion towards the private and personal suffering of a member of the family of faith. He raises Peter’s mother in law from her sick bed. The fever leaves her. This takes place behind closed doors in the house.

The tension between the public and the private work of Jesus ought to give us pause for thought. The Kingdom that Jesus expresses in his own person is a Kingdom of love. Jesus though is not one of those people who loves humanity in general but finds real human beings difficult to live with. There are many people in history who have sacrificed their nearest and dearest to the cause of humanity in general. We’ve probably met people like that and some of them work in the Church. No, Jesus is not like that. Jesus is not only a liberator he’s also a personal friend. Some of the most beautiful passages in the gospels describe Jesus at home with his friends.

Of course there are questions about this healing which we are bound to think about. What sort of fever was this? Was it psychosomatic in some sense? Notice that when she is healed Peter’s mother in law immediately serves the company. As with most of Jesus healings the sick person is restored to their social role. They come in from the cold-they find their place. Perhaps in this moment there is something of the political alongside the personal, something of the public work alongside the private act of compassion.

Thirdly and perhaps most important of all in this portrait of Jesus’ day we see someone who is in full control. He is master of his agenda, master of the crowds. He is in great demand yet he makes space for quiet times in lonely places so that he can pray to God. Everyone searches for him but he decides whether he will be found or not, whether he will stay or move on to the next place. He is not trapped either by opposition or by a fan club.

This finding of space for prayer is crucial. We pay lip service to it in the Church but we don’t really believe in it judging by what we do and how we behave. I remember a wise old monk telling me that he’d asked a minister how he found time and space for daily prayer.  Oh, came the reply I’m so busy that all I can find time for is listening to Christian music downloads in the car. Busyness is what the world values so that we have to be seen to be busy too.

Jesus is in control. I don’t feel as if I’m in control. I wish I was but I’m not. A pair of lines from an old hymn comes back to me.

Help us oppressed by things undone

O thou whose dreams and deeds were one.

As I read this passage describing a typical day in Jesus’ ministry my overwhelming impression is one of energy and movement. The crowds are in motions Jesus is in motion and the disciples; well they too are in motion although they struggle to keep up. They have to pursue Jesus. You can imagine them running behind him

How did we manage to lose this? OK we got old, we got tired and we got cynical. So what could we do about it? This passage gives us a clue. Following Jesus means moving on: – making space for God in prayer, not letting them whoever they are running your life for you. To be honest that’s the bit I find hardest because I tend to worry more about what they want and what you want than about what God wants. And I guess we’re all mostly the same.

Something for Sunday

Just imagine! You are in that special place set apart for prayer, for thought, for the hearing of God’s word and for teaching. A reassuring place? Yes indeed. But perhaps at the same time frustrating. Could anything really new happen here? Couldn’t we hear a new teaching?

So the congregation in the synagogue at Capernaum might have felt. But on this day they are in for a surprise. Without warning a new preacher enters the gathering and begins to teach. And the teaching has a freshness and authority about it instead of the platitudes and rehash of commentaries they have been used to. They may well have been astonished and excited. What will he say next? What will he do next? But others will have been fearful notably the scribes and other established preachers on the plan who find a voice in the demon possessed man.

What have you to do with us Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are the holy one of God. 

This is a moment to savour. Yes this is indeed the Holy one of God. He will turn the world upside down.

Jesus of Nazareth is a radical indeed a revolutionary figure. Christianity is a revolution in the world’s affairs and the revolution begins here! Pagan religions had worshipped power –Christians worship love personified, pagan religions had affirmed the self – Christianity points to a love that will transcend the self. To worship the God of love is to go with the grain of the universe as God has made it. This is indeed a new teaching.

A revolution. Is it though? Perhaps not so much as one might imagine. For our engagement with Judaism shows us how much Jesus stands within a tradition passed down to him and to us. Nevertheless to the congregation in Capernaum it felt like a new teaching-a radical new moment. And that’s how it needs to feel to us – new teaching – a new departure. 

What then is all this to us in our time and place? Just recently I have been watching episodes of the Crown on Netflix. The deadweight of tradition and custom seems to crush the characters especially the Queen, her advisors and the Bishops of the Church of England. The personality of the former King Edward VIII is presented to us as everything that should be avoided. One of the worst things that is said of him is that he stopped going to Church. Shock! Horror! As I have said Christianity is a revolutionary factor in the world’s affairs but the revolution is still incomplete. There is always a tendency for the practice of the faith to slide back into a kind of ritual practice of traditional practices and the affirmation of socially conservative habits.

One of the few good things about the pandemic is that it has forced us to confront and change our church going habits. A re-set or a re-boot is often a good thing. Or as St John’s gospel reminds us; we must be born again.

Now on the matter of demons let me tell you a story. When I was a minister in the North east I got to know and befriend my Anglican colleague in the village. Among his various gifts and graces he exercised the role of Diocesan exorcist. He was called in to exorcise both people and dwellings. People were grateful for his ministry and the devils would fear and fly at his approach. Even Methodist demons were overcome so you can see how gifted he was. I liked him and I admired his pastoral ministry. One day in a confessional mode he admitted that he didn’t believe in demons or unclean spirits but he offered his ministry of exorcism because he felt he was good at it and people seemed to like it.

This set me thinking-about the nature of belief and what integrity in ministry amounts to. And of course the question as to how we read passages like to-days gospel.

My friend thought he knew better than Jesus, the possessed man, the congregation in Capernaum and the author of St Mark’s gospel. To him the whole thing was obvious. The man in the synagogue was mentally ill, deluded shall we say and so what was needed was a therapeutic intervention, counselling, medication the ministry of the diocesan exorcist- one of those. (This is to judge the faith by the standards of the world whereas I believe that the world is under the judgement of the faith). The difficulty for me is that my friend’s view doesn’t take faith in Jesus seriously enough nor does it acknowledge the reality of evil in the world nor the existence of powers antagonistic to the gospel. So yes I believe in the demons. And what’s more in the name of Jesus I want to give them names and call them out.

Jesus came full of grace and truth that all who believe in him might have life in all its fullness, follow the way of love and know joy and peace. This is the promise but against this promise there are the powers that set out to kill him and silence him forever. These powers, OK let’s call them demons, are still at work beguiling us with promises of power and affluence and encouraging us to live only for ourselves scorning the environmental degradation of the world and the exploitation of the weak. These demons are all around us. You know their names.

Here are some pictures showing their works and the signs of their power.

In our reading of St Mark this year we will follow Jesus as he passes among the oppressed and exploited people of Palestine exorcizing their demons and scourging their oppressors. Mark’s gospel is a story of conflict and struggle against the powers of darkness, for the powers of light. Those who follow Jesus will have tribulation indeed as the cultural critic Terry Eagleton reminds us: if you claim to follow Jesus and don’t end up dead you’ve got some explaining to do! Great line that!! But be of good cheer the dominant theme of the New Testament is victory. Thanks be to God writes St Paul who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Epiphany: Love casts out fear!

As a season Epiphany doesn’t get much of a “look in” in Methodist Churches because it tends to be pushed aside to make way for Covenant Services. I have many more sermons in my files for Covenant Sunday than I do for Epiphany. This is a pity so I was pleased in one of my churches to be able to move Covenant Sunday to September to mark the beginning of the Methodist year and what used to be called the “winters work.”

Just this week I read an American article by a University theologian who set out to link Epiphany with the Covid -19 pandemic in a most imaginative way. Allow me to share with you some of his reflections.

The magicians or astrologers in Matthew’s story had a vocation. It was to gain control over the human and celestial worlds in order to assure a blessed destiny for human beings through wrestling control from the hostile evil powers. To control the elemental spirits of the universe and the laws of matter which ultimately they thought governed the world was their craft. They were the scientists of their age and they worked alongside the pagan priests of the time to bend reality to the will of humanity.

In the story the magi or the wise men follow the star that puts an end to astrology and magic. They encounter Jesus and they fall down and worship him. They have discovered that life is not simply a product of impersonal laws and the random movements of matter because at the heart of everything there is a personal will, a good Spirit who in Jesus has revealed himself as love. Love it is, as the great Italian poet Dante wrote, which moves the sun in heaven and all the stars.

In the loving purposes of God magic, astrology and the techno-scientific apparatus we engage with so as to control the universe are unnecessary. Through Christ God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things. In him all things came into being and in him all things hold together and it is in him that we live and move and have our being.  

During the past year we have seen a desperate search for magic bullets: the NHS app: remember that!, the find, test, trace, isolate and support system which never seemed to work, the lockdowns and now the jabs that will set us free!!. Now I will be glad to receive the jab and I have tried to observe the rules as closely as possible. But a route back to the world as it was before may not be open to us and perhaps that is a good thing for we need to build back better.

The Church has a very special vocation here. It is to proclaim that it is love rather than magic or science that is ultimately the key to life and that the universe is the work of a loving God. We should remember that as Isaiah wrote: Truly the Lord has born our infirmities, and he has carried our sorrows.

Covid-19 is a scary thing but we should remember that perfect love casts out fear. God loves us and he is not angry with us nor has he sent the virus to punish us. What he has done is enter our life. He has become as we are that we might become as he is. He is love and he calls us to embrace the love that is at the heart of the universe. That will involve repentance for we have used and abused his love and our actions have wasted much of his creation and now we are facing the price of our prodigality.

And suddenly there was with the angels a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying:

Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased.

And the shepherds returned glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Sisters and brothers that’s our vocation too!

Insights from my Aunt

During our various lockdowns I have been enjoying Family Zoom sessions with relatives in New Zealand. These meetings require some prior negotiation because of the time difference but we manage it. It has become evident to us that New Zealand has managed things well. They locked down hard at first and they imposed strict quarantine measures. Consequently they have had only 25 deaths and only this week I was able to admire my cousin’s holiday photos following her week long trip to the Mount Cook national park.

There has been a tendency in my own thinking, to offer seasons for New Zealand’s success. Namely that it’s a long way away, that there are only a few ports of entry and that the population is quite low whereas the UK is densely populated. But they did rise to the challenge, they locked down hard and early and imposed strict quarantine controls at the borders. The New Zealand Government inspired confidence led by the beautiful and charismatic Jacinda Ardern and so on and so forth. If only etc., etc. Yes New Zealand has done well. I have even bought masks from a New Zealand supplier.

But there’s another consideration which I hadn’t thought about until my Aunt offered a reflection about recent events and compared this pandemic with that of the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918/19. This hit New Zealand hard and according to my Aunt decimated the population. That I think is probably an exaggeration but there’s no doubt that it was a serious crisis for New Zealand. There was a response in the form of a Royal Commission and new public health legislation. What however my Aunt’s comments reveal is that it created a powerful folk memory and a resolve to address such crises more effectively next time. That is to say this time.

In our country there is no similar folk memory of the Spanish flu pandemic. Our folk memories of 1918 are associated with the armistice of November 11th 1918 and victory over Germany. Nevertheless the pandemic cost many more lives than the world war. When we see pictures of rejoicing crowds on November 11th we do not think as perhaps we should that these people are failing to observe a proper social distance.

Among the fatalities of the flu were the following:

Max Weber German sociologist

Frederick Trump (Donald Trump’s grandfather)

Gustav Klimt Austrian painter

Alfred Hindmarsh New Zealand Labour Party leader

Among the sufferers and survivors were the following:

Walt Disney

Mahatma Gandhi

Franklin D Roosevelt

Woodrow Wilson

David Lloyd George

Franz Kafka

Raymond Chandler

I have a book on my personal shelves entitled “1918”. Although this is a military history of the year there is no reference to the flu pandemic in over 500 pages despite the fact that it is believed to have begun in an American Army camp.

These reflections are important for they raise questions about what we chose to remember and what we chose to forget, what occasions are to be remembered with thanksgiving and what other occasions are to be remembered with repentance. There is a great deal in our past as Churches, nations and individuals that we should remember with repentance.

When the pandemic crisis is over we should come together once again with joy and give thanks for our deliverance. At the same time however we need to repent and repair our relationship with God and His creation. This pandemic occurred because of “spillover” by viruses into the human population occasioned by our careless abuse of the environment that God has gifted. We must acknowledge all that has been amiss, resolve to build back better and not simply return to normal.  

Collective guilt is not something we find easy to accept since we regard sin as a personal and individual failure. This is a mistake on our part and is contrary to the witness of scripture. Coming to terms with collective guilt is a valuable therapy for nations and leads to renewed healing and wholeness-just ask the Germans!

Plagues Past and Present

One of the best things about reading history is that it lifts you above what others have called the narcissism of the present. This is the foolish idea that our times are completely unprecedented and that we have nothing to learn from the wisdom and the follies of the past.

Two books in the past year have offered a corrective to this point of view. The first is “Epidemics and Society” by Frank Snowden. Written before the present pandemic which is nevertheless referred to in in a revised introduction it describes the history of humankind’s relationship with infectious disease and gives an account of the pandemics of the past. How lucky we were to escape a pandemic for so long! We had this one coming our way for some time and pandemics can be much more serious than this one. Think smallpox, Ebola virus and bubonic plague.

The other is “The Fate of Rome” by Kyle Harper. Harper is a professor of classics and ancient history in the USA. Most of us are dimly aware that the Roman Empire can be said to have fallen. Some of us know that pandemic disease gave the Empire a series of shocks. There seem to have been three main ones: the Antonine Plague of 165-6, the plague of St Cyprian in 264-6 so called because Cyprian Bishop of Carthage wrote a detailed description of it and the plague of Justinian which raged across the Mediterranean world in the sixth century and of which there are many reports. These diseases had a devastating effect on population numbers. In addition the Empire had to face the effects of climate change-not anthropogenic climate change to be sure- but none the less devastating for the strength and welfare of the Empire and its inhabitants. These findings have been resourced by a new science: bio-archaeology. The Roman Empire was not a blessing for the health of its inhabitants. To the question: What have the Romans ever done for us?-the answer might well have been: got us sick.

From my perspective particular interest attaches to the response of the Church in worship teaching and service. In the case of the plague of the third century Christians were initially blamed and persecution intensified. But the response of Christians in caring for one another and for strangers strengthened the Church and showed up the uselessness of the pagan gods. Preaching both at this time and later became darker with an especial emphasis on judgement and the end times. By the time of the plague of Justinian Christianity was the official faith of the Empire.

Against this plague the Church mobilised all its resources. There was special preaching, new Biblical commentaries were written and prayer walks across the city of Rome were held led by the Bishop-Gregory-known to history as St Gregory the Great. Gregory’s writings on pastoral ministry can still be read with profit today. An important theme of Gregory’s preaching was judgement and a belief in impending judgement is an impetus to action. So Gregory was inspired to initiate a mission to the savage Anglo-Saxons a mission which sadly remains incomplete to this day.  Special days of prayer were decreed for the Christian calendar by the Emperor’s command.

One of the most famous icons which led the processions –an icon of Mary devoted to the health of the Roman people can still be seen in in the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore. It would be interesting to know whether it’s been brought out as an aid to intercessory prayer during the present pandemic.

So far during this pandemic the Churches response has been disappointing. The leadership seems unable to speak prophetically and their prayers are sometimes half hearted. The theme of judgement and repentance is scarcely ever mentioned and yet the scientists know that behind the pandemic and the climate crisis lies environmental degradation driven by greed. The later Romans were taught by their Church to repent of their greed, inequality and waste. Why is our Church so timid and so silent?