Holy Saturday

Holy Saturday (Easter Vigil) – Immanuel Lutheran Church

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.  

God bless,

Alan.

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.

Do the faithful thing.

God's Love - Experiencing The Love of God in Your Life

The last time I wrote on this Bulletin I wrote about loving could be one of the hardest things we can do. But I also want to say that loving is one of the most faithful things we can do.

Faith, at least for me, is not first and foremost about thinking the right ideas about God. Faith is a sincere and intimate connection with and commitment to a person.

Faith comes down to sharing our life with a friend. In my case, that friend is the risen Christ. As the late Marcus Borg once put it, ‘believing is actually be-loving’. And Jesus was pretty clear about how to love him.

Shortly before the Last Supper, some Jews from outside Israel—came to see Jesus. When Andrew and Philip came to check if he wanted to meet with some potential new followers, Jesus reminded them what loving him was going to look like:

“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.” (John 12:24-25)

In ‘The Universal Christ’, Richard Rohr says “Christians are meant to be the visible compassion of God on earth…. They agree to embrace the imperfection and even the injustices of our world, allowing these situations to change themselves from the inside out, which is the only way things are changed anyway.”

As is often said, hurt people hurt people. Our common strategy for dealing with our pain is to find somebody to blame for it. We try to fix our pain by causing pain in someone else. Instead of healing our pain, blame multiplies and intensifies it.

Jesus invites us to join him in the only truly effective way to mend our lives. The way of love. When we acknowledge that we are all hurt people then and only then can we begin the healing process.

When we recognize that my pain is our pain, we take the crucial step away from blame to compassion. To use Henri Nouwen’s phrase, we become the wounded healer instead of the wounded victim.

We love Jesus by loving other people. Real people. Without exception. In all the messiness of their lives. And, yes, that means sharing their sorrow and suffering as our own. Elsewhere, Jesus called this loving your neighbour as yourself.

Sometimes, this will just wear us out. At the end of a long day, we may have nothing left to give. Now and then, we will need a mid-afternoon nap, a long weekend, or a walk in the park with our dog.

That’s okay by Jesus. He knows that love is hard work. We need a rest. And as it turns out, that’s an act of love as well. Sometimes the hardest one. The act of loving yourself.

God bless,

Alan.

Do the hard thing.

Lately, life hasn’t been feeling like, well, life. There’s been too much loss and loneliness and fear and anger and exhaustion and boredom. We miss eating out and visiting friends, going to the gym, and traveling. And we miss hugs.

When I was a student in the 1980’s I did a lot of running There was once an advert for running shoe whose strap line was ‘Made to do hard things’. Implying that it was not just the shoe but the runner was made to do hard things. I can assure you running up and down the hills of Sheffield was hard!

But honestly, we’re also meant to do tender things. To be close to one another. To give and to receive understanding and comfort. To share tears and laughter. To be, at least for a moment, just a little less guarded with each other. That’s why we miss hugs. We miss life.

Medical professionals and government leaders assure us that the vaccine will save us from this restricted and frustrating life we live at present, and in important ways, I believe that they are telling us the truth.

Hopefully masks and physical distancing will become an increasingly distant memory. The daily death count will disappear from our newspapers’ front pages and stop scrolling across the bottom of our TV screens. The life we’ve been missing will return—sort of.

It’s more accurate to say that the life we had known will return. What we call ordinary life is a sort of half-life. The pandemic simply highlighted and amplified its pattern. As a result, our yearning to be saved was able to announce itself to us with visceral urgency.

When I talk about salvation here, I don’t mean that we want to be whisked away from planet earth to a faraway heavenly dwelling place. Nope. I mean we are drawn to become who we really are. In her book, ‘Dusk, Night , Dawn’, Anne Lamott says, we are ‘loving awareness with skin on’.

The reason we need saving is that we are not just love in the flesh. We are also, as Anne puts it, ‘walking personality disorders’. We are a mix of things. Anne’s pastor says that we have dual citizenship. “We have the human passport with all our biographical details and neuroses engraved on it, and the heavenly one, as the children of the divine.”

Sadly part of that ‘Human Passport’ can mean that when we are hurt we are tempted to hurt others to try and achieve some kind of solace. For a while, it can feel good to judge others and to nurture resentments. Even when we realise how lonely and grumpy we’re becoming, we can find it pretty hard to live a different way. Sadly many congregations are hamstrung in their mission because of the internal lack of forgiveness that pervades our congregations.

But you know, it might just be that the advertising campaign was right. We were made to do hard things. We were made to love.

On this planet, love looks like admitting that we are fragile and wounded. As hard as that kind of vulnerability is, it’s even tougher to do the only thing that will make us whole: forgive.

While we’re talking about forgiveness, let’s be honest that we need forgiveness for our unforgiveness. If you’re anything like me, that’s going to involve admitting that you’ve done your share of dealing with your own wounds by wounding others.

Yep, in our personal lives, we were meant to do hard things. And my experience is that salvation—feeling connected to others and being at home in my own skin—lies in doing these hard things.

But I’ve also learned that I cannot do them on my own. At least in my life, I do these hard things by cooperating with a love that is always given to me. I do not save myself.

That’s what Jesus meant when he said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

He was willing to do the hard thing. To love us because that’s who he is. And his love is what makes it possible for me to move toward being who I truly am: loving awareness with skin on.

We were made to do hard things. We were made to love.

God bless and stay safe,

Alan.

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.

Take Courage!

10 Commandments Of Courage To Lead In Uncomfortable Times

Is courage a virtue, and what does it mean to be properly courageous? In Summa Theologiae  St. Thomas Aquinas begins to answer these questions by distinguishing among three kinds of virtue. First are the intellectual virtues that enable us to reason rightly. Second is the virtue of justice, by which we set things right in human affairs. And third are the virtues of courage and temperance that enable us to work for justice by removing obstacles to it.

While temperance makes it possible for us to pursue justice without being lured by pleasures that would distract us from justice, courage is the virtue by which we overcome difficulties and dangers inherent in the pursuit of justice. Courage renders the will capable of justice.

But there is no courage without fear. Fear, for Aquinas, is the natural and healthy passion that we experience when we perceive the threat of separation from what we most deeply love: “All fear arises from love, since no one fears save what is contrary to something he loves”.(St. Thomas Aquinas – Summa Theologiae). Healthy fear is important, indeed essential, for a rightly formed life. In fact, Aquinas argues that when people do not experience fear, either because of a lack of love for themselves or for others or due to reckless disregard of danger, they cannot be said to be courageous, even if they act in daring and audacious ways. Courage is not the absence of fear but the strength in our fear to confront obstacles to justice and then to endure the pain and hardship that this confrontation brings.

This last year has raised many fears in our society, some are beginning to wane as we get the pandemic under some form of control but I believe the Church will face an even tough test in the years to come. The church we know and love will change, is changing and has already changed and that change brings fear for so many people.

We know well what it means to be, as the hymn goes, “tossed about / with many a conflict, many a doubt; / fightings within, and fears without.” But there is wisdom and grace in the hymn’s next words: “O Lamb of God, I come, I come.” (Charlotte Elliott – ‘Just as I am, without one plea’ – Singing the Faith 556). Aquinas recognised that ordinary courage will always fail, simply because some obstacles—especially death— are so formidable. But in Jesus Christ, we bear witness to life beyond death and to justice beyond our present experience. In the triumph of this, we are granted courage that comes not from our own effort but from the work of the Holy Spirit in us. In Jesus and through the power of the Holy Spirit, we find strength to challenge, to persevere, and to be patient.

Abiding in Jesus in times of fear is neither a quick fix nor a way to avoid engaging pain and injustice. On the contrary, in the hope of Jesus we are able to address pain and injustice directly without being overcome by fear or despair. We say with Peter: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). And we hear him say to us, “Take courage; I have conquered the world” (John 16:33).

What does it mean to be courageous in our time? It means we take full account of our fears without denying them. It means we honestly examine not only our fears
but also the loves that give rise to our fears. It means we work to confront threats to justice and to rightly ordered loves, and we do so with patience and with hope. And it means, above all else, that we renounce any idolatrous presumption that the work is ours alone. We lean into Jesus, in whose life we participate and who alone makes faithful courage possible.

God bless and stay safe,

Alan.

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”

Ashes, Dust and Truth

Image result for ash wednesday

One Sunday I was preaching in a small country Chapel in rural Cheshire as the steward gave the notices for the coming week before the service started I reached for the glass of water in the pulpit only to quickly put it down when I noticed the film of dust on the waters surface. I was rather distracted for the rest of the service, for everywhere I looked on every surface there was dust! Not that I have any problem with dust it is very friendly and always comes back. Despite dust being part of all our lives we become embarrassed when people arrive unannounced and there is a layer of dust on our furniture. How much greater our embarrassment if the looked under the bed!

With the imposition of ashes, on Ash Wednesday the secrets of our ‘dust’ are brought into the light. Ash Wednesday is not about the cheerful stories we tell ourselves . It’s an uncomfortable thing for those who are normally neatly groomed, to walk out of the church and into the sunlight with dirt smudged on our brows. For many churchgoers, Ash Wednesday is one of the only things about our faith that makes public demands on us. We can leave our singing, our prayers, our fellowship and our financial giving behind in the house of God, but the ashes that begin the Lenten season are brought outside. Those ashes are given odd looks and, perhaps, hesitating explanations.

The ashes on our foreheads tells the truth about human existence. It’s an allusion to the creation of human beings recounted in Genesis 2 and to the realities of sinful life first described in Genesis 3.

The ashes testify to the fact that we are God’s creation. We are not our own, but are totally dependent on our creator God. The ashes remind of the lies we often tell ourselves: the lie that we aren’t full of need, the lie that we are OK, the lie that we don’t really need God. Ash is a physical reminder that we are clay in God’s hands.

This ash testifies to the fact that human creatures are broken creatures. Our lives, in truth, are not whole. They are scarred and twisted by sin. Our ashed brows forbid more popular lies: the lie that we are righteous, the lie that we’ve got life under control, the lie that repentance is something for other people. Ash is a visceral reminder of our brokenness and need.

The ashes are a telling of the gospel but in dirt. Not only are they mark of the truth about sin and God’s call for repentance, but they are a public witness to the healing and forgiving love that God pours over our repentant lives. 1 Peter quotes from Isaiah that “All flesh, is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.” (1 Peter 1:24-25) The epistle links Isaiah’s truth about dust to the good news of Christ; “you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.” (1 Peter 1:23). Both death and life uses the dust of the earth.

The word of the Lord, that same word that remains forever, was made flesh. The eternal word dwelt with us ‘dusty’ people and never hid the truth about our dependence and brokenness. That living word testifies to the truth we try to hide beneath polished surfaces. As we begin Lent, we move towards the cross where the polish, of self denial is stripped away to reveal the dust beneath. Pain and sin are real and terrible, but God is the creator of and the Lord over the ‘dust’ of our lives and responds to the truth of our brokenness with the greater truth of Christ’s mercy.

The ‘ashing’ is a public testimony to who we really are. It strips away our masks. When we leave the church and run into friends and neighbours, they find it hard to look away from the ash on our faces. The problem, though, is that most friends and neighbours don’t know the biblical references that the ashes and the dust contain and so can’t see the witness to our true human condition that is written on our faces.

So we are called upon to translate the message.

We have to speak about the truth of that dust, not only in the marks on our foreheads, but with our words and our bodies. Perhaps our dirty faces can be a little means of grace. Perhaps they can be a nudge from God, the push we need to live out the truth of repentance in our everyday lives. Perhaps they can prompt in us the courage to go public with the truth that we are dust and to dust we shall all return.

God bless

Alan.

Grief, Loss and Bereavement – a free workshop

Workshop Date: Wednesday 31st March 2021 @ 7:30pm

For some Christians, the death of a loved one is inexcusable. Why didn’t God heal him/her? Did God ignore my prayers?

In this workshop we raise some of the big questions around death and dying, and around prayer and faith, as we explore bereavement from a Christian perspective.

We recognise that this is an emotive topic so we have Chaplaincy colleagues (Deacon Marilyn and Deacon Rachel) available for 1-1 discussions and prayer in ‘breakout rooms’ if required.

The workshop is set deliberately in Holy Week so that we can anticipate the joy of celebrating Christ’s resurrection, and thus bring some answers to our questions.
The event is designed for people from churches in the Sutton Park Circuit, and will be led by Revd Stephen Froggatt. Questions raised by this group will inform Stephen’s sabbatical study on the need for lament in public worship.

Revd Emily Young will also be on hand to ‘make the virtual tea’ and assist with the technology. We all hope you can join us online on 31st March.

Book via Eventbrite