All posts by Christopher Miles

Sermon – Trinity 13

Hand Washing – 29th August 2021

James 1: 17 – End   Listening and doing; Mark 7: 1 – 8, 14, 15, 21 – 23  True cleanliness

  1. Introduction.          How many times a day do you wash your hands?   For myself, I haven’t tried counting but it must be at least a dozen times and perhaps a lot more not to mention the use of sanitizing gel.  When I was at a boarding school, in the junior house we had to line up on the way to a meal and pass Matron, showing both sides of our hands to show that our hands were clean.   I guess I am one of only a few people here present who has done an NHS hand washing course with its practical test at the end.  As a hospital chaplain I had a personal clip-on sanitiser, so that after visiting patient, if we had shaken hands, I could readily disinfect my hands before going to another patient.  Perhaps we have some sympathy with the Pharisees’ remonstration with Jesus, that his disciples were not washing their hands before eating!   Sometimes I get a little annoyed with a person when I ask a question and the person’s answer is to a different question to the one I asked.  It may seem to you, that Jesus even deliberately ignores the Pharisees’ question, apart from a reference to cleanliness and in response asks them a question.   If either of these points resonates with you then this sermon is for you as we look more deeply at today’s Gospel and at the end briefly tie it in with to today’s Epistle.

2. Pharisees’ question.         As Jesus points out, the Pharisees’ question is not directly based on the Hebrew Scriptures, that is, for us, the Old Testament.  Rather it is based on the interpretation, known as the Talmud, originating from the time of the priest and prophet Ezra of the 6th Century BC and continuing perhaps 200 years or more into the present era, comprising both written interpretation, known as the Mishnah, and the oral tradition, known as the Midrash.  Mark as the gospel writer also expands on the Jewish practice at that time.  The practice of hand washing, washing of food bought in the market and washing of cooking and eating vessels was all good and accords with what is common practice today by many of us, especially in this Covid pandemic.

3. Old Testament.      Without even going into the interpretations in the Talmud, it is worthy of mention that there is much in the Old Testament about washing including especially washing of hands and feet. Many of the references are to the required practice of the priests that they should not enter into the Tabernacle or Temple without washing their hands and feet, in order to appear clean in the presence of God.   The general thrust of this is therefore ceremonial rather than that of hygienic practices by the general population.  Thus, as Mark states, the interpretation in the Talmud was seen in ceremonial terms.

4. Jesus’ response.  Now let’s consider Jesus’ response.  First let us remember that Jesus was an itinerant preacher, saying on another occasion, “The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt 8 v 20).  We are very accustomed to our houses and flats, all with running water.  However, in my younger years, I lived in two villages with no running water.  In one, in Rutland, we lived in a cottage, dependent on a hand operated pump outside the house.  There was no bath or hand wash basin, just a sink where we washed up and washed ourselves.  In another village, in East Sussex, we had a piped water system in the bungalow, dependent on the rainwater collected from the roof into an underground tank and then pumped by a hand-operated semi-rotary pump, into the roof tank.  I am sure that as a boy I did not wash my hands 12 times a day!  Jesus and his disciples had even less provision, perhaps eating a meal outside, a mile from a well.   I can well understand that Jesus and his disciples didn’t always wash their hands before eating

Secondly, remember that Jesus said in his ‘Sermon on the Mount’, “I have not come to destroy the law and the prophets but to fulfil them”.  Jesus had been brought up in a good Jewish family, obedient to the requirements of the law, as seen in the early chapters of Luke’s gospel.  He was often challenged about healing people on the Sabbath.  He went deeper than the written law, to the principles underlying the law.  He knew that in particular, the Pharisees, the strictest law-abiding Jews, were often out to trap him.

On this occasion Jesus holds on to the principle of ceremonial cleanness, that is, what is pleasing to God, and challenges the Pharisees on the grounds of fundamental unholiness, of the breaking of the commandments.  He is not denying that hand washing is a good thing but that it is not the basis of establishing a right relationship with God and in that respect, it is quite trivial in comparison to the major moral aspects of the law, in particular the ten commandments, which we have writ large on the E wall of the chancel.

If you wish understand the full thrust of Jesus’ teaching, then sometime this week read the whole gospel passage from Mark 7 v 1 through to v 23.  As you can see in the Sunday newssheet, today’s reading, is as one commentator has put it, ‘rather like a shrink-wrapped supermarket fish’, with its simplified selection of verses.

5. Application.           How do we apply today Jesus’ teaching in his response to the Pharisees’ challenge?   We should not neglect good hygiene, using sanitisers, washing our hands, having Covid vaccinations.  We should do these things so that as far as possible we remain in good health and therefore are not a burden on other people and also, out of concern for one another that we are not passing on infection to others.   What we are doing is living out the second commandment of Jesus summary of the law, ‘loving our neighbours as ourselves’.  We need to see that all people are made in the image of God, whatever the colour, race or religion of the other person.  Our relationship with God should motivate our relationship with one another, and I believe to a large extent it does.  But as we look out at the worldwide scene, we see in so many countries that this is not so.  There are personal and corporate struggles for power, there is little concern for those who ‘get in the way’, in that struggle.  We are particularly concerned at present about the desperate situation in Afghanistan, where those who sought a new freedom and way of life, now live in fear of their lives.  

Let us not be quick to condemn the legalism of the Pharisees or even the Orthodox code of living of Jews today.  We live in this country, as in most countries, circumscribed by a mass of law, regulation, codes of practice and formal guidance.  We live in a complex technological age with huge populations.  As someone involved in writing of international standards, in my case, relating to lightning protection, I am conscious that I am contributing to that mass of requirements.  I try to do it bearing in mind a concern for the safety and wellbeing of people, both directly from the effect of lightning strikes and indirectly in care of the buildings in which people live and work or are served by, with a particular responsibility for churches.

I said at the beginning of this sermon, that I would refer briefly to today’s epistle, from the epistle of James, whom I said in my sermon in July, was almost certainly not the James the son of Zebedee, but possibly James, son of Alphaeus, another apostle of the 12.  One can sum it up by saying that we should be good listeners and good doers.   In other words, we should not be in a rush to speak but rather be willing to listen.  Sometimes in parish ministry, someone has said to me something like, “Christopher, thank you so much for visiting me two months ago when I was going through a difficult time, you were so helpful to me then.” I think back to the occasion and realise that I hardly said anything. By articulating a problem, the person has seen the solution.   Secondly it is not enough to leave Church today saying, ‘That was an interesting sermon.  We need to ask ourselves, ‘What am I going to do differently as result of that sermon.’

Jesus was a man of prayer, thought and action, listening to God the Father, guided and empowered by God the Holy Spirit.  Let us like him see the underlying principles of our religion and act on them.

Christopher Miles

Sermon – Trinity 4

Trinity 4 – The Church as place of healing27th June 2021

Rev’d Christopher Miles

Readings: Lamentations 3 vv 22 – 33    God’s faithful love

Mark 5 vv 21-E     Healing of the sick woman and raising of Jairus’ daughter

  1. Introduction.         As we progress hopefully towards the end of Covid restrictions it is good to have the two positive readings today to encourage us.  The reading from Lamentations, speaking of God’s love for us and the reading from Mark’s Gospel with such positive accounts of Jesus’ ministry to those in distress.   It is good that, with these accounts in mind, we should consider both the spiritual input to the healing process and the Jesus’ ministry in relation to the specific ministry of the Church as an institution.  There are also difficult questions that I cannot even touch on, such as “Why does God inflict plagues on this worldwide level?”  Firstly a few words about the readings. 
  2. Lamentations.       The book of Lamentations follows the book of the prophet Jeremiah.  In the older, Hebrew, Jewish Bible it is simply labelled ‘Lamentations’ but usually attributed to Jeremiah, because in the 2nd Century Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, it is entitled ‘The lamentations of Jeremiah’ and opens with the introductory words, ‘And it came to pass, after Israel was taken captive and Jerusalem was made desolate, that Jeremias sat weeping with this lamentation over Jerusalem and said’.   Much of the book is the author questioning why God seems to have deserted his people and brought this terrible desolation on Israel and especially on the capital city, Jerusalem.  So, its theme is appropriate to our current national and global situation.  It is good that within that context Jeremiah can come in with such a strong positive note as we had in our first reading this morning, beginning, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end (3 v 22).”   There is one verse that seems a bit difficult and calls for comment.  V 27 reads, “It is good for one to bear the yoke in youth”, in otherwards to experience some hardship when young.  When I was young, I experienced all the usual childhood diseases, namely mumps, whooping cough, chicken pox, measles and German measles.  Perhaps that has given me some immunity later in life.  In a wider sense I think that this is what Jeremiah is saying.
  3. Mark’s Gospel.     Now let us turn to Mark’s Gospel.  What a wretched time the sick woman had had.  She had suffered a great deal under many doctors.  Medicine has developed a long way in the last 2000 years, but still does not have all the answers.   It is perhaps difficult for us to appreciate the woman’s dilemma.  She was aware of Jesus’ healing ministry, yet for a woman in public to approach a man, other than of her own family, was a ‘No, no!’ and certainly not to touch him in any way, yet she had both a strong belief that Jesus could heal her, that he had healing power, and that healing power needed to be transmitted physically.  Her scheme was a cunning compromise, that in the crowd, she could come up, perhaps from behind and just touch his robes.  How terrified she naturally was, when Jesus called out, ‘Who touched me’.  She was in danger.  Because of her bleeding she would have been regarded as ‘unclean’ and to deliberately touch a rabbi was a serious sin.  No wonder Mark records that reluctantly and trembling with fear the woman admits to what she had done.  Far from condemning her, he responds, “Daughter your faith has healed you.  Go in peace and be freed from your sufferings.”  An attitude towards women that we are only now 2000 years later, catching up with!

Mark then goes on to narrate the account of the raising of Jairus’ daughter.  These two accounts occur in all three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke.  One may consider the event an equivalent of the raising of Lazarus in John’s gospel.  Jesus’ strict instruction to Jairus, his wife and the three disciples, who had accompanied him, not to tell anyone about the event may seem surprising.  You may feel that he had tried to provide a cover for the situation by saying “The girl is not dead but sleeping”.  Matthew tells us, “News of this spread through all that region.” (9 v 26).   Jesus knew though that such a dramatic miracle would arouse the concern and even wrath of national leaders.  His instruction is in contrast to that in the previous chapter where he tells the healed demoniac, Legion, “Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you.” (5 v 19).  On that occasion He was in the tetrarchy of Philip on the East side of the Sea of Galilee, well away from national leaders, whereas in today’s events he has returned to Galilee on the W side of the lake.  Albeit not in Judah, he was nearer to Jerusalem and in an area of Palestine of greater concern to the national leaders. 

  • Implication of Jesus’ healing miracles.            It seems to me that there are three possible responses to today’s Gospel and Jesus’ healing miracles generally:
  • Firstly, some Christians might regard the healing miracles as unique to Jesus, as evidence that he was God’s chosen Messiah, or Christ, to use the Greek term.
  • Secondly some Christians might regard prayer and healing as a phenomenon of the early Church, a ministry of the chosen apostles to give the Church a kick start but not applicable today.
  • Thirdly others might say that with the development of modern medicine, spiritual healing has no place these days.

To the first group, regarding non-medical healing as solely proof of Jesus Messiahship, I would say that Jesus sent out the 12 disciples and then 72 disciples telling them to preach this message, “The kingdom of heaven is near. Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons” (Mtt. 10 vv 7, 8). Then, when he sends out 72 disciples, he tells them, “To heal the sick and tell them that the kingdom of God is near you” (Mtt. 10 v 9).

To the second group I would point to Paul’s epistle to the Church of Corinth, where he writes of gifts of healing as one of the gifts of the Spirit (1 Cor 12 v 28).

To the third group I would point to the Epistle of James, where in his final chapter (5 v 14, 15) he writes, “Is anyone of you sick?  He should call the elders of the Church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord.”  Oil, probably olive oil, was used because of its healing properties. Here the physical and spiritual go hand in hand.

Healing today.       Where does this lead us as Christians today?  It seems to me that scripture and experience strongly point to a place for healing ministry in the Church today.  This ministry may be exercised in direct co-operation with established medical treatment through chaplaincy in hospitals etc.  For 5 years, early on in my retirement, I served as a part-time chaplain in the Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells Health Trust, mainly at the Kent and Sussex Hospital in Tunbridge Wells but also in Pembury Hospital and occasionally in Maidstone Hospital.   I had conversations with a great variety of patients as I went round the wards and generally, I offered to pray for the person I was visiting.  This was nearly always accepted, even in the case of a Muslim.   We had a sizeable chaplaincy team with a full-time ordained chaplain and many lay volunteers, one of whom was a doctor.  We always had at least one chaplain available, day and night.   There was one amusing incident where the doctor had been seeing a patient.  She then said to the doctor, “Now I would like to see the Chaplain”.  “Yes, I am right here” the doctor responded.   The patient had great difficulty in understanding that a doctor could also be a chaplain.    There is of course a place for healing ministry in the local church.  Clergy and lay ministers have the opportunity in visiting people at home to offer to pray with and for people.  There is of course no reason why any of us should not pray with and for friends and acquaintances.  Each Sunday we pray for the sick.  It is not appropriate, nor is there time to speak of the particular needs of individuals.  Let us though consciously pray for these people believing that God will work in their lives.  Perhaps you could remember one name and pray at home during the week for that person.   Whilst touch and physical presence can be valuable, the work of the Spirit is not confined.   Jesus healed by a remote word.  Some churches have an opportunity for specific individual prayer, perhaps in a side chapel so that people returning from receiving communion can receive prayer.  Not every local church has members with gifts of healing.  My gift is more aligned to healing of church lightning protection systems!  That must very definitely be aligned with science, and engineering!   But as shown in my stole I recognise that I exercise that gift under the hand of God.  In conclusion let us develop our belief that our risen Lord Jesus is at work through his Church to redeem, heal and renew us as we seek to serve him. 

I finish with 3 verses from Psalm 103, verses which we said at Morning Prayer on Tuesday, the day on which Jenny Hopkins was licensed as a lay minister.

“Bless the Lord O my soul, and all that is within me bless his holy name.

Bless the Lord, O my soul and forget not all his benefits;

Who forgives all your sins and heals all your infirmities.”

Sermon – 2nd Sunday of Easter

Sermon at St Mary’s Church Hadlow 10 a. m. on the Second Sunday of Easter 11th April 2021

Readings: Acts 4 vv 32 – 35  Believers share their possessions

John 20 vv 19 – End  The risen Jesus appears to the disciples on Easter Day and a week later.

Introduction.   I have said before that there are two people in the New Testament who get a bad press, namely Martha, the sister of Mary and Lazarus, and the Apostle Thomas. Today I want to focus on Thomas. In the late 1960s, I had a posting to Royal Air Force Muharraq, accompanied by Julia and our very young son Philip. As a licensed reader in the RAF, I assisted quite often at services in the station Chapel. In my second year in Bahrain there was no chaplain at the main Anglican Church, St. Christopher’s in the capital city of Manama and so I was also conducting services there from time to time.  There were other churches in Manama , one of which cause the Mar Thoma church, providing for Christians from the Indian subcontinent. You may have heard of the Mar Thoma Church. By strong tradition the Church was founded by the Apostle Saint Thomas who is considered to have landed at Crananore in South West India in AD 52.  In the period 1997 to 2003 when our son Philip was firstly senior engineer and then project manager for a project repairing the dry docks in Dubai, we visited him and his wife Karen on a number of occasions. In Dubai there is also a branch of the Ma Thoma church which at that time, like many other congregations, met in the Anglican, Holy Trinity Church.  They now have the own church in the complex of churches a few miles away on land at Jebel Ali, given by the ruling Sheikh. At the first service on the 16th December 2001, it is recorded that there were 5000 participants.   Certainly, one has to recognise that the Mar Thoma Church is a strong Church, probably as a result of Thomas’ initiation in the 1st century.

2. Thomas.   What do we know about Saint Thomas and the early Mar Thoma Church?  There are broadly three sources.  In no particular order there are:

  • Writings ascribed to Thomas but probably written by others,
  • There are brief references to him by reliable historian of the Church,
  • There are references to him in the New Testament from holy scripture.

3.       Books of Thomas.           There are three books named after the Apostle.

  •   There is ‘The Acts of Thomas’.  This is the only one of the five principal apocryphal ‘Acts’ which has survived intact.  Probably written in the late second century or early 3rd century A. D. The setting is almost certainly Indian.  Thomas is reputed to have been martyred in India. There is a  chapel on St Thomas’ Mount, the traditional site of Thomas martyrdom, near Madras (photo at end).
  •  There is the Gospel of Thomas, a Coptic papyrus discovered in Egypt in the twentieth century.  It is largely comprised of the sayings of Jesus, with many paralleling the canonical gospels.  The Gospel is probably the earliest of Thomas’ books
  •   The Apocalypse of Thomas is one of three principal apocalypses, the other two being attributed to the Apostles Peter and Paul.  Thomas’ Apocalypse has a strong emphasis on light.

In summary the books of Thomas give considerable support to his active ministry in India and probably elsewhere.

4.       Historians.  There are two reliable historians, both of the 4th century, who note Thomas’ work.

  • Firstly Jerome, a great scholar, bishop and translator, responsible for the translation of the Bible into Latin in what is known as the Vulgate version.  He notes that Thomas travelled to Persia, now Iran.
  • Secondly, Eusebius, born in Caesarea, where he founded a monastery and was consecrated Bishop.  He drafted the Creed, finalised and approved at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD and which we will be saying in a few minutes.  Eusebius is sometimes known as the ‘Father of Church History’.  He records that Thomas was active as a missionary in the East.

5.         New Testament. I come now to the third and most important source of information about Thomas, the Apostle, namely the New Testament.  Apart from five mentions in list of disciples, there are three significant references to Thomas, all in John’s Gospel.

Firstly, when Jesus tells the 12 quite plainly that his friend Lazarus is dead, Thomas makes the surprising statement, “Let us also go that we may die with him.”  One cannot be sure what was in Thomas’ mind at that point. Jesus had spoken of going back to Judea, but because of the risk of death the disciples expressed surprise at the suggestion.  Then after he had told them plainly that Lazarus was dead, Jesus says “For your sake, I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe.  But let us go to him.”  Did Thomas think that they were to join Lazarus in death?  The raising of Lazarus is in John’s gospel the sixth and final sign pointing clearly to Jesus’ own resurrection.  At the very least we can see in Thomas’ statement a strong commitment to Jesus, even if the belief in resurrection was not yet formed.  A belief as expressed a little later by Martha about her brother, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”, a hope shared then by the Pharisees but not the Sadducees, a hope to be shared with all of us.

          The second significant reference to Thomas is in John 14, where we find Jesus preparing his disciples for the fact that he will soon die, but in so doing will go to God the Father and prepare a place for them.  Thomas says to Jesus, “Lord we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?  To someone like Thomas with an enquiring mind he found Jesus’ enigmatic statements difficult to follow.  Was Jesus going to Bethany to see how his old friend Lazarus was getting on? Or was he going to risk going right into Jerusalem where the national leaders were keen to arrest him.   Or was he perhaps going to some of the dispersed Jews such as those in the great centre of learning, namely the city of Alexandria in Egypt where the Hebrew version of the Jewish Bible had been translated into the Greek language in what is known as the Septuagint Version, widely quoted from by 1st Century Jews.  Jesus’ response is even more enigmatic, for he says “I am the Way”.

          The third significant reference to Thomas is in our Gospel reading today. In that we are told that Thomas was not present on Easter Day when the risen Jesus appeared to the 10 apostles.  Clearly though he sceptical of the reports from the 10 as he responds, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were and put my hand in his side, I will not believe it.”  Here again we see the enquiring mind of Thomas, wanting good proof, hard evidence, not just secondhand reported evidence.

          What is more, Jesus graciously provides all the evidence a week later.  There is nothing enigmatic about this meeting and Jesus’ response.  Probably Jesus already knows that Thomas is destined for a demanding role in the kingdom of God, by establishing a church in Iran and another in India.  A truly apostolic role.  Jesus, after his initial greeting of “Peace be with you” to all gathered there, then invites Thomas to put his finger into the mail wounds in his hands and to put his hand into Jesus wounded side.  Thomas has witnessed Jesus come through locked doors, no problem if one reckons on one extra dimension for a resurrected person.  Thomas doesn’t need further proof but rather, responds with the strong affirmation, “My Lord and my God”.

6.       Our response.  What about our response?   We live in a strongly scientific world.  Science and mathematics underly much of our practical life, whether in medicine or transport, building or communications.  Many people like Thomas want to ask questions, and this can apply to matters of faith as well as the practicalities of daily life.  The Christian faith has stood up to 2000 years of questioning.  Faith is strengthened by an enquiring mind.  Do not be afraid to ask questions, to read, both the scriptures and helpful books.

          Maybe, like Thomas, you have had a ‘bad press’, perhaps been put down when you were young either at school or at home.  Maybe compared unfavourably to a sibling.   God hasn’t written you off.  He can use each one of us in the work of his kingdom.   Take inspiration from the way God used so-called ‘doubting Thomas’ in the foundation of an important branch of the Christian Church.

Christopher Miles.      

photo from The Lost Bible by J R Porter 2001, phot Ann and Bury Purless

Sermon – St John the Apostle

Sermon – St John the Apostle,  27 December 2020

1 John 1   God is Light – walk in the light; John 21 vv 19b – End – Jesus’ rebuff of Peter.   John will probably outlive Peter.

  1. Introductory.   Christmas has ended.   Thankfully Christmas was not completely cancelled although it wouldn’t have been the first time.   During the period of the Cromwellian Commonwealth, 1642 to 1660, the celebration of Christmas was firmly prohibited by Parliamentary decree.   Looked at it in its historic context it was not surprising.   During many reigns, our royal families and nobility had set an example of riotous and immoral celebrations.   I said ‘Christmas has ended’ because in the popular mind Christmastide is coincident with Advent and therefore the Christmas season ends with the climax of Christmas Day.  By government decree we were originally allowed 5 days for Christmas, ending today, albeit it ended up by being more like one day.  I have often wondered why in the Church calendar, Catholic and Anglican, we have a slightly strange grouping of major festival days, immediately following Christmas, namely St Stephen’s Day on the 26th December, St John’s Day, as today, on the 27th December, and then on 28th of December, Holy Innocents’ Day.   I suspect, albeit I can find no authority for it, that the Church in its wisdom decreed these days of obligation to ensure the masters and mistresses gave their servants a good 4-day break from work, an enjoyable holiday.   Today then we celebrate the Apostle John, the brother of James, the sons of Zebedee.   John, with good reason, is the traditionally accepted author of both the gospel in his name and the three epistles in his name, hence the readings today from I John and the Gospel of John.   Rather than focus on a particular verse or group of verses, I am going to give a broad overview of John’s Gospel and First Epistle.

John’s Gospel.      I start then with the purpose that John had in mind in writing the Gospel, stated quite explicitly in the penultimate chapter, where he writes, “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples which are not recorded in this book.   But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (Jn 20 vv 30, 31).   Much, but by no means all, of John’s Gospel, is structured around selected signs or miracles of Jesus.  Signs point to the way ahead, as in road signs, certainly in the days before sat navs, to guide us to our destination and perhaps to tell us from where we have come, so that we don’t go round in circles.   John has selected and records six signs, which I will describe briefly:

The first miraculous sign is at a wedding feast in Cana in Galilee, where the host runs out of wine to give to his guests, and Jesus turns water into wine, one of the two physical elements of the Eucharist.   John quite explicitly states, “This is the first of his miraculous signs that Jesus performed, at Cana in Galilee and his disciples put their faith in him.” (Jn 2 v 11).

The second sign is one of the many healing miracles of Jesus.   Again, He is at Cana, when he is approached by a royal official, who begged him to come and heal his son who was seriously ill with a fever.   The son wasn’t there in Cana but more than 15 miles away in Capernaum.   I guess that the father had been at the wedding feast and knew about the water being turned into wine.   Jesus doesn’t go with the father to Capernaum, but says, “You may go, your son will live.” (Jn 4 v 49).   John records, “This was the second miraculous sign that Jesus performed.” (Jn 6 v 54).    Healing at a distance, and the Church says that in a Zoom service the elements cannot be consecrated remotely!

The third sign is the feeding of the 5000, in which the second element, the bread of the eucharist is the focus, as well as fish, which later became a Christian symbol.   John tells us, “The People saw the miraculous sign that Jesus did, they began to say, ‘Surely this is the prophet who is to come into the world.’” and there were those who intended to come and make him king by force, but he withdrew. (Jn 6 vv 14, 15).   The reference to ‘The Prophet’ is almost certainly to Moses’ prophetic statement recorded in Deuteronomy, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet, like me, from among your brothers.” (Deut 18 v 15).

Immediately following the feeding of the 5000, Jesus walks on the surface of the Sea of Galilee as he goes out to join the disciples in their boat as they crossed to the other side of the Sea.  John probably reckons by now that there is no need to keep numbering the signs; his readers will have begun to get the message.

So far, we have been in the North of Palestine with an entirely sympathetic audience.   The next sign occurs in the South, in Judea, when Jesus restores the sight of a man born blind by telling him to wash in the pool of Siloam in Jerusalem (Jn 9 v 11).   Having had two cataract operations this year, I am mindful of benefit of improved sight but cannot comprehend what it must have been like for a man who had been born blind, and his healing happened without all the modern medical and surgical advances.   The miracle arouses opposition from Pharisees because Jesus was apparently breaking their strict interpretation of the Sabbath law (Jn 9 vv 14 – 16).   There were though those who challenged the Pharisees, saying, “How can a sinner do such miraculous signs?” (Jn 9 v 16).  

The sixth sign is quite tremendous.   It is the raising of Lazarus from the dead.  Despite Jesus’ deep friendship with Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha, when he hears the news of Lazarus’ illness, he deliberately delays his departure from the East side of the River Jordan, for two days, knowing that he would be performing this supreme miracle as a sign pointing to, and giving veracity to, his own resurrection.  This miracle resulted in a meeting of the chief priests and a group of Pharisees calling a meeting of the Sanhedrin.   The Pharisees said “Here is this man performing many miraculous signs.  If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”

  What an amazing selection of six miracles pointing to the true nature of Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, who was in the beginning with God and was God, without whom nothing was made that was made, leading up to the supreme miracle of Jesus’ own resurrection and thus fulfilling John’s purpose for those who seek after truth, that “You may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may life in his name.” (Jn 20 v 31).

1 John.        My overview of 1 John will be much briefer with a focus on two words, light and love.   Just as with his Gospel, John states quite clearly the purpose of his first epistle.   In his concluding words he states“I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.” (1 Jn 5 v 13).   Broadly, John’s gospel brings people to faith and his epistle gives assurance to those who have come to faith.   The theme of light is a continuance from the Gospel in which he has written “In him was life and the life was the light of men.” (Jn 1 v 4).   In our epistle reading today, John writes, “God is light;” and he invites the Christian readers to walk in that light”.   In His Gospel, John records Jesus saying to his disciples, “A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another; as I have loved you.” (Jn 13 v 34).   In his epistle he writes, ‘God is love.   Whoever lives in love, lives in God and God in him.”  (1 Jn 4 v 16).   In Greek there are three words that are translated as ‘love’ in English.  There is ‘phileo’, typified as a brotherly or sisterly love.   There is ‘eros’ from which we derive the word ‘erotic’, a more emotional love and thirdly there is ‘agape’ with the sense of a self-giving, sacrificial love.   It is this third word, agape, which is used in the two quotations that I have just made.   Our love for others is to be a sacrificial love after the example of our Lord Jesus.

Conclusion.    We come today almost to the end of a very difficult year and the prospect of anyhow a difficult start to a New Year.   If this has in some way shaken or disturbed your faith, I invite you to read John’s gospel, particularly pausing to think about the seven signs, as a means of strengthening your faith.   In this difficult year people have spoken about light at the end of the tunnel, perhaps particularly with the Covid 19 vaccination becoming available.   Let us as people of the light walk now in the light, being positive about life now.   I finish with a quotation from Winnie the Pooh: Pooh asks Piglet, ‘What day is it?’   Piglet replies, ‘Why, it’s today’, to which Pooh responds with gusto, ‘My favourite day!”

Christopher Miles

Sermon – Advent Sunday

Sermon at St Mary’s Church Hadlow
on Advent Sunday 29th November 2020

Isaiah 64 vv 1 – 9   A prayer for God to intervene
Mark 13 vv 24  – E The distress of the last days

  1. Introduction.   “O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down”.  Perhaps many Christians, and others would echo that prayer of Isaiah at the beginning of our first reading, to come down and save us from this plague or as we prefer to call it in modern times, pandemic.   We long for an end to the restrictions associated with Covid19, especially having just been put in Tier 3. We may be fearful of the impending effects of climate change.  As I write a robin settles in the hawthorn bush at the end of our garden, and bobs up and down in agreement.  Birds, as well as humans, are under threat. The world seems to be in turmoil.   We long for God to come and sort out our mess, to save us in every sense of that word, remembering the words of the Psalmist, “God saves both man and beast” (Ps 36 v 6).

          Jesus, in our gospel reading, warns us that cataclysmic times not only on earth, but in the heavens above, will preceed his return to earth.  

          Today we begin not only the season of Advent, but the beginning of the Church’s year.  In the Book of Common Prayer there was not so much consideration of Christ’s return, going straight from the last Sunday after Trinity to Advent Sunday. The Alternative Service Book introduced us in 1980 to the Sundays before Advent and this has been continued into Commom Worship.  We have had quite a lead in to the climax of Advent Sunday, not only on the last few Sundays but also in weekday Morning Prayer, reading right through the book of Daniel and much of Revelation.  Today we begin Common Worship Year B with a focus on Mark’s Gospel in our Sunday readings.   In our Gospel reading today Jesus warns us to be prepared, to watch, to which Luke adds Jesus saying, ‘and pray’ (Lk 21 v 36).

2. Be prepared.           ‘Be prepared’, but for what?  As three of the evangelists, Matthew, Mark and Luke, were  writing the their gospels, there were two events that were still in the future for them.  The first was the destruction of Jerusalem, and in particular of the Temple and the second was Jesus return to earth.  One needs to read the whole of Mark 13 to understand what Jesus is saying.   As Jesus and his disciples leave the temple, one disciple draws Jesus’ attention to the magnificence of temple stones.  You may have seen some of these huge stones in the Western Wall, where Jews today pray individually and conduct religious ceremonies such as Bar Mitzvah.  Jesus, whilst having a great respect for the temple, prophesise that the temple will be destroyed in the lifetime of many of them.  This may explain the difficult verse at the end of today’s reading, where Jesus says emphatically, “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.”  The temple was destroyed by the Roman army in 70 A. D, following a 4-year siege of Jerusalem, some 40 years after Jesus was speaking and so within a generation. However the verse is difficult because it seems to refer to his Second Coming, as this preceeds it in today’s reading.  I would like to think that Jesus is saying,  “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have been generated.”  I am told that neither the Aramaic nor the Greek texts support such a translation.   The Greek word for generation is ‘genea’, which actually can be translated ‘age’.   It could well be that Jesus is saying of the destruction of the temple that it will happen within a generation, but his coming will happen at the end of the age.    There is a link between the two, for the destruction of the temple is symbolic of the end of the Old Covenant and Jesus’ return will be the climatic end, the full accomplishment, of the New Covenant.    It is of course Jesus’ return for which we must ‘Be prepared’, to use the motto of the Scouts, or to ‘Watch and pray’ to use Jesus’ words.  

3. Signs.            ‘Watch’ for what? Jesus gives us the parable of the fig tree.  He tells us to watch out for the leaves coming, because soon the young figs that have over- wintered as little lumps, no bigger than my little finger nail, will start growing, then in summer to develop into full-grown ripe figs.  Last Autumn I cut down our fig tree, as in 19 years it produced no more than about 5 edible figs.  What though are the signs of fulfilment that we should be watching out for?   As I mentioned earlier, in weekday Morning Prayer in the pre-Advent season we have been reading through the books of Daniel and Revelation.   Not easy books to read and I am wary of trying to select from them precise signs of the coming fulfilment of  the Kingdom of God at the return of Christ.  I will just point up two signs from Jesus’ own words in the gospel accounts of the end of the age.

Firstly, Luke records Jesus as saying, “Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.” (Lk 21 v 24).   This time, I suggest, clearly began with the sack of Jerusalem in 70 A. D.  From that time forward Jerusalem was under Gentile control right through to the 20th Century, when in 1919, the UK was given a League of Nations mandate to establish in Palestine a homeland for the Jews, with finally Israel becoming an independent state in 1948.

Secondly Jesus says, as recorded by Mark, “First the Gospel must be preached to all nations.” (Mk 13 v 10).   You may say, hasn’t this now happened?  I think there is not a country without Christians.  Perhaps North Korea is the only country without an established Church, but the Gospel has been preached there.  Let me though just amplify this a little from the book of Revelation.  John says, “After this (this refers to the 12 tribes of Israel), I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.” (Rev 7 v 9).  Several chapters on, John says, “I saw an angel flying in mid-air, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth – to every nation, tribe, language and people.” (Rev 14 v 6 ).  In Mission Aviation Fellowship’s book, ‘Above and Beyond’, in the final section, entitled ‘To the end of the age’ it states, “ According to the Joshua Project, today over 40% of the world remains unreached with the Gospel, and our teams remain committed to going above and beyond to make sure those living in extreme isolation are given the best chance to thrive in the fullness of Christ.”   So this second sign may take another 100 years to be fulfilled.  Very appropriately the book concludes by saying, “It is our hope that you will join us in the Great Commisssion, knowing that our Heavenly Father will always be with us, to the end of the age.”

4. Prayer.        Finally, I will take up the point made by Jesus as recorded in Luke’s gospel, that we should not only watch but pray.  When we talk of prayer, we so often think of asking God to do something for us or for other people.  There is nothing wrong with that. I began with Isaiah’s prayer, “O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down”.  Let us though put a stronger emphasis on prayer as aligning ourselves with the will of God.  We pray in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Your will be done on earth as in heaven, your kingdom come.’  The kingdom of God will not come in all its fulness by us trying to twist God’s arm, praying for him to hurry up, but rather by us seeking his guidance, being open to the Spirit, in His prompting about the little things of life, as well as discernibg the way forward in the big decisions of education, career and life partnerships.

5. Conclusion. In conclusion, Jesus warned us that the end of the age would not be an easy time.  We are still passing through the the restrictions, the heartache and the myriad impacts of the coronavirus, Covid 19.   As the writer of a recent article in the Church Times, wrote (Voice from out of the rubble by Anna Carter Florence, Church Times 20th November 2020 p15) “We can choose to walk through the pandemic, dragging the carcases of our predjudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us.   Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world and ready to fight for it.”  Let us go into this Advent season, this new year of the Church, trusting in Our Lord Jesus Christ, in hope of a wonderful future.   I conclude with the final verse of Stuart Kine’s hymn, ‘How great thou art’.

When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation
And take me home – what joy shall fill my heart!
Then shall I bow in humble adoration
And there proclaim, my God how great Thou art.

Christopher Miles

Sermon – Trinity 14

Sermon at St Mary’s Church Hadlow 10 a. m. on Trinity 14,

13th September 2020

Exodus 14 verses 19 – End    The Lord protects the Israelites Matthew 18 verses 21 – 35 The unforgiving servant

  1. Battle of Britain.  Last weekend, on Saturday 5th September I met three members of the family of Squadron Leader Philip Campbell Pinkham, who 80 years ago as Commanding Officer of 19 Squadron RAF took off with his Squadron from an RAF airfield in Essex and who was shot down by an incoming a German Luftwaffe aircraft somewhere over the River Thames, crashing on the North Downs just above the Pilgrims Way in Birling parish.  We met to remember the sacrifice of a young man of 25 who, in common with many other pilots in the Battle of Britain, lost his life in the defence of his and our country.   I had the privilege of dedicating a new memorial cross at the place where he died and saying a prayer of thanksgiving with the family members and others at this place with its marvellous view Southward to West Malling and Borough Green.  As Mayor’s Chaplain I was able to convey the greetings and the appreciation of Cllr Jill Anderson of this act of remembrance just within the boundary of our Borough.

2. Exodus.   During the Exodus and the wilderness wanderings, the Israelites lived through  a very stressful and uncertain 40 years.   As we look back on that period of the formation of the nation of Israel, with a record written from a theological perspective it is easy to miss the uncertainty that many ordinary people felt.   There were those who often criticised Moses’ leadership saying it would have been better to stay in Egypt as slaves than to endure the hardships of life in the desert.   Our first reading this morning reminds us of the early stage of that uncertain period.   The Egyptian army was pursuing the escaping Israelites and so, suddenly they were confronted with the Red Sea in front,  the Army behind and possibly soon be round their flanks as well – no escape. “Help.  We have had it now”, many of them must have been thinking and even voicing aloud.   Suddenly a dark cloud comes down between the Egyptian Army and the Israelites, the wind gets up and blows with gale force to thrust the shallow waters of the upper Red Sea out towards the Indian Ocean and the Israelites are able to move forward in the early morning light.

Sunday 15th September 1940 is regarded as the turning point in that Battle; a point when the Royal Air Force began to gain the upper hand and obtain air superiority over the German Air Force.  Hitler was intent on invading England, but he knew that he could not do that until he had air superiority.   He was taken aback as the Luftwaffe with superior numbers began to loose the upper hand.   Air Marshal Hugh Dowding, Commander-in-Chief of Fighter Command revealed in his memoirs that he attributed the success in the Battle of Britain to ‘divine intervention’.   Incidentally, on that Sunday our Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, with his wife Clementine, visited the Sector Operations Room at RAF Uxbridge, to witness at first hand the progress of the battle that day.  The operations room was restored about 25 years ago, with the plotting board as it would have been at some point on that Sunday.   Although RAF Uxbridge closed as an RAF Staion about 10 years ago the operations room has been retained and is open to the public (battleofbritainbunker.co.uk).   Usually Battle of Britain Services are held on or close to the 15th September.   This is not a full Battle of Britain Service, but it seemed appropriate to recall today that critical time in the life of our nation, a time of great uncertainty, 80 years ago. 

A word about the walls of water on either side.   They have been portrayed quite often in children’s Bibles and in films as huge vertical walls of water perhaps 100 feet high.   Quite sufficient to cause a thinking person that the whole account is either made up or grossly distorted.   In the Hebrew language, the original language of the Old Testament, there are two words, translated as ‘wall’.   One is ‘Chomah’ used of a defensive wall such as a city wall or of an enclosure such as an orchard or vineyard.  The other is ‘qir’ used of the wall of a house or other building.   The word used of the Exodus is ‘chomah’.   It therefore is describing the water as a protection of the Israelites, since it prevented a flanking movement by Pharaoh’s army.   The water needed to be only 3 or 4 feet deep to prevent such a flanking movement and didn’t have to be vertical as in the wall of a house.

Some Israelites did not share the belief of their leader, Moses, in the God of all creation.   They did not perceive that God was using his own creation, with the laws of its operation, including providing air superiority, to facilitate their escape from Egypt.  They did not see that God was laying the foundation of a great plan of salvation that succeeding generations would celebrate in the Passover Festival as God’s supreme act of salvation of his chosen people.   Such people would easily have looked back on that night and said “Phew! That was a lucky escape!”.  Such people, without faith in God, found the deprivations and uncertainity of the wilderness experience more that they could bear.  They repeatedly complained about their leaders.

3. Uncertainty.            Most of this year we have been living and are still living through a time of uncertainty.   Restrictions were easing but with the possibility of a resurgence some restrictions have been reimposed, both in this country and in other countries.   No longer is it a fight between one country or alliance of countries and another, but rather of all countries fighting an unseen, a hidden, enemy.   However the threat is also a global force for unity and even cooperation against this common enemy.   There have been plagues throughout history, there are always illnesses abounding and it is difficult to understand the causes and the working of such things.   The human race, with its huge population, is having unexpected effects on the whole natural world.   In dense populations disease spreads more readily.   It is difficult to understand the place of viruses in the created order.   The chief certainty of life is that each of us will die.   Part of the wisdom of life is to live positively, through uncertainty, towards that end,.   This in part is done by a firm belief in God our Creator, who knows us each one, who loves us each one.   The Exodus and wilderness experience was a challenging time for the Israelites.   By no means all rose to the challenge.   When the twelve spies were sent out to make a reconnaisance of the Promised Land, only two came back with a report based on faith in God and his promise.   We have the evidence of the supreme and loving God in his great saving act of the New Covenant, achieved through our Lord Jesus Christ.

I was but 4 years old at the time of the Battle of Britain and was evacuated from Kent to Devon.   For those living here in Kent, those in London enduring the nightly bombing, it must have been a very challenging time, when some lost hope.   One of the good things to come out of the Second World War was the founding of Missionary Aviation Fellowship, as three former RAF officers, two pilots and an engineer, believed that God was calling them to use the skills that they had acquired in wartime to serve him in peacetime in serving countries in Africa.   That new venture which has flourished over the past 75 years, now flies in around 26 countries in the world.   The last surviving founding member, the Engineer Officer, Stuart King, who continued throughout his life to take an active interest in MAF, died on 29th August at the age of 98.   We thank God for a humble, dedicated and visionary servant of God.

Let us, who are living in a particular time of uncertainty, not only because of Covid 19 but also not knowing how we will progress as a country, when we fully leave the European Union in a few months time, continue to trust in God, a loving and faithful God.

1418 words                                                                                                                                                  Christopher Miles

Sermon – Trinity 11

Sermon at St Mary’s Church Hadlow 10 a. m. on Trinity 11, 23rd August 2020

Exodus 1 v 8 – 2 v 10    Birth and upbringing of Moses

Matthew 16 vv 13 – 20  Peter’s confession of Christ

Introduction.       Julia and I returned 9 days ago from a two-week family holiday in Cornwall.  On the Sunday morning two weeks ago we all attended the Tube Station in Polzeath, where we were staying.   This is not a new station on London’s district line, but a Christian venture started about 10 years ago in the former Methodist Church, to reach out to surfers.   About 50 of us sat on and around a large grassy bank overlooking the beach at Polzeath for a simple act of worship.  Some guitar led music to which we were allowed only to hum, a time of prayer and a sermon.  Our preacher, Caroline, spoke movingly of how God had led her with her husband to move very recently from Orpington to take up Christian ministry in Cornwall.  I went up to her afterwards and just said ‘Christ Church Orpington’.   ‘Yes’ was her reply.   I spoke of my links, including preaching there in May 1968 and the mentioned more recent ministry including being Vicar of Leigh at which an elderly woman nearby joined in and said did I know Ken and Gladys Skillman.  I did.  The woman is Caroline’s mother and Ken and Gladys, no longer alive were her parents, that is Caroline’s grandparents.  Ken sang in the choir at Leigh and Gladys and Julia did meals-on-wheels.    Having lived for well over four score years and lived in over 30 places in 10 counties and met 1000s of people I so often find unexpected links with people.  

Today’s first reading relates the birth and upbringing of Moses the leader of the Israelites in God’s great saving acts of the Exodus.  It is fascinating to note the people whom God used in the preparation for the Exodus – members of Moses’ family and others.   In our Gospel reading we heard of the climactic point in the preparation of one of the foremost leaders of God’s people of the New Covenant, the Apostle Peter.

As then, so now, God uses the coincidences of life, the calling of the quiet voice of the Holy Spirit and the cooperation of many people in the work of his kingdom in preparation for the climax of the Kingdom of God in Christ’s return to earth.    Let us look more closely at the outworking of God’s plan of salvation, through Moses, through Peter and through ourselves.

Moses.   ‘Call the midwife’.  It is not only The King, Pharaoh, who calls the two Israelite midwives, but the King of Kings. Pharaoh’s instructions were to kill the boys, who 20 years later might form a revolutionary army, but to let the girls live.  The midwives calling of God was to preserve life not to destroy life.  They were women of faith in the one true God and were prepared to risk their own lives in disobeying Pharaoh. It is good that we know their names, Shiprah and Puah, for they deserve to be held in remembrance as God’s agents who risked their lives in fulfilling His plan of salvation.

Next, we think of the unnamed mother of Moses, who hid her baby boy in defiance of Pharaoh and who no doubt instilled in her young son a sense of God’s promises to his chosen people.  When it was no longer possible to hide her son, Jochebed, as we learn in Exodus Chapter 6 was her name, devised a cunning scheme that involved what was technically a means of disposing of unwanted children, to put Moses in one of the many channels of the Nile Delta in the land of Goshen, where, under Joseph the sons of Israel had settled.  Pharaoh’s palace was at Rameses, Egypt’s capital city, in the land of Goshen.  If the Pharaoh at that time was Rameses II who had about 60 daughters, it was quite likely that this particular princess, possibly called Tharmuth, had a regular habit of coming to a particular place in the river.   On this occasion the baby was put in a carefully constructed basket, placed in the reedy shallows, safe from the river current.  Jochebed, a woman of faith, had an important but risky role in God’s plan of salvation.

Moses’ elder sister, no doubt carefully briefed by her mother, also had an important role in God’s plan.

We know little about the Princess, although she was a woman of compassion and with the status to exercise her compassion, possibly hiding from her father the origin of the baby.  Maybe with the large number of princesses this was not difficult to do.  God can use people of good will, albeit outside the fellowship of his chosen people, to achieve his plans.   She would have seen to it that Moses had a good education.

So, four women and a girl, who guided consciously or otherwise by His Spirit were essential agents, through the coincidences of life, through God’s call and in cooperation were important agents in preparing his chosen leader of the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt to the threshold of the Promised Land.

Peter.       Let us now move forward from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant, to a leader who may seem a surprising choice to take a leading role in implementing God’s plan of salvation, when Jesus would no longer be physically present with his followers.  Jesus and the 12 close disciples had gone to Caesarea Philippi in the mountainous country in the North of Palestine, close to the border with Syria and not to be confused with Caesarea, much further south, on the Mediterranean coast.  It was a time of reflection, away from the crowds, a time of Jesus preparing the 12 for his death.   The 12 had accompanied Jesus in his 3 years of public ministry, they had eaten, rested, discussed and slept together during this time.  They had witnessed Jesus healing, teaching, preaching, encouraging and challenging people throughout Galilee, Judea, Samaria and sometimes further afield, with his concern for Gentile as well as Jew.   To carry on the work of the Kingdom of God, he needed followers who were thoroughly committed, who understood and believed fully in his role.  He knew that his own death would be a great challenge to the 12, including Peter who takes him to task as recorded in the same chapter of Luke, just after today’s reading.  Were the 12 just taking a popular view of him as a prophet or as the Messiah?  To start the ball rolling he asks them what people are saying about who he was.  People will often express views about a leader to his followers, his fans, that they would not express directly to the leader.

  Some surprising answers come back.   Some say John the Baptist, whom Herod Antipas had had beheaded.  What a superficial judgement, considering John was Jesus’ cousin, only a few months different in age and John had baptised Jesus!   Some were saying that he was Elijah.   There was more justification for this as the last words of the Old Testament, in the book of the prophet Malachi, state God as saying to him, “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.  He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers or else I will come and strike the land with a curse.” (Mal 4 vv 5, 6).  Malachi was not saying that there would be a literal resurrection of Elijah but that there would be a prophet in the mould of Elijah; one who would fearlessly challenge both high and low, rich and poor and that if they responded in repentance the result would be family harmony, social wellbeing, but if not then a terrible outcome.   Jesus had made clear to the 12 at an earlier stage that actually John the Baptist was the one who fulfilled Malachi’s prophesy.  Thirdly some people were saying that Jesus was a prophet in the mould of Jeremiah or maybe another of the prophets, perhaps because he apparently foretold the destruction of the temple and frequently challenged the national leaders.

    Jesus then puts a more challenging question to the 12, “What about you?  Who do you say that I am?”    It is easy to have a general discussion, but not so easy when it becomes a personal challenge.   In their witness of Jesus’ ministry had they been able to see deeper than the perception of the generally sympathetic response of much of the population?  Only the answer of Peter is recorded, with his inspired statement of his belief, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  There is not time this morning to consider Jesus’ enigmatic response about the rock.   We must get personal.

Our response.  Today many people of other faiths or none would say that Jesus was an outstanding teacher or a prophet.   Some years ago, as the Multifaith Coordinator for the Air Cadet Organisation I had discussions with leading people of other faiths, who at that time were the appointed advisers in their faiths to HM Forces, as to how they understood chaplaincy.  This was with a view to us appointing chaplains of other faiths.  I was having a discussion with the Muslim Adviser, Khurshid Drabu, a barrister who was Vice-President of the Immigration Appeals Tribunal. After about an hour’s formal discussion, I concluded with a ‘throw away remark’, “Don’t Muslims accept Jesus as a prophet.”  I was quite surprised by Khurshid’s response, “Yes, indeed, in some respects greater than Mohammed, for only Jesus healed people.”   Let us be glad that Muslims and many others accept Jesus as a prophet. As we saw in our Old Testament reading, God can use people of good will in achieving his plans of salvation, as he did with the Egyptian princess.   But what about ourselves?   Jesus’ question comes to us today, “Who do you say that I am?”  God wants people whether lay or ordained, young or old male or female, to take forward the work of his kingdom.  The gospels record only two other people who made a firm confession similar to that of Peter, and both of those people have always had a ‘bad press’, doubting Thomas, one of the 12, and Martha, who was cumbered about with much serving.  Can you say today with the Apostle Peter, in response to Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”    

Christopher Miles

Sermon at St Mary’s Church Hadlow Church 10 a.m. on the 3rd Sunday of Lent, 15th March 2020

Romans 5 vv 1 -11 Peace and joy come through suffering approached positively John 4 vv 5 – 42 Jesus’ encounter with the woman of Sychar

1. Introduction

The Duke of Sussex arrived in the French port of Marseille. When the official asked him for his passport, he had to admit that he had none. He was summarily required to present himself at the Town Hall and apply for one. He soon found himself before a municipal clerk, who was bowed over his paperwork on his desk. The clerk took out a passport form and, without looking up began to fill it in.

“What is your name?” asked the clerk.
“Augustus Frederick” replied His Royal Highness (no, not Harry, for the year was 1791).
“No other name?”
“No”
“Who do you belong to?”
“To my father and mother.”
“Are you of the department of the Mouth of the Rhone?”
“No sir”
“Of what department are you?” (Pause)
“Of the department of the River Thames”
“What is your father’s name?”
“George.”
“What trade does your father follow?”
“He is King of England.”

When Jesus arrived in the region of Samaria at the town of Sychar he was met by a woman coming to the well outside the town. After a considerable conversation in which the woman diverted attention from her personal situation, to controversial questions about the correct place of worship, the woman says:

“I know that the Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
Jesus responds, “I who speak to you am He.”
The King of kings arrives in foreign territory

I think that this account of Jesus’ ministry is the most amazing account of the all four gospels, with perhaps the exception of the raising of Lazarus. This morning I want to look at three aspects of this encounter, reconciliation, redemption and the laying of a foundation.

2. Redemption and Reconciliation

I have spoken before of Jesus’ concern for the poor, the despised, the marginalised, including especially the Samaritans. Jesus could have avoided going through Samaria on his return with the twelve, to Galilee but he deliberately goes by the shorter route albeit with the risk of re-buff, as did happen on another occasion. He deliberately waits at Jacob’s well outside the town, whilst the disciples go into the town to do some shopping. The well would have been a place of meeting for many, but more so in the cool of the early evening; not at midday. A woman comes on her own, probably deliberately when others did not normally come, for she may have been ostracised from society, seeing she was living with a man to whom she was not married and that she had had five husbands. Life may have been particularly hard for her; we don’t know what had gone on before. Perhaps she was strong minded and not prepared to put up with abuse from her previous husbands. In Jewish society and probably in Samaritan society it would have been considered improper for a man to speak in public with an unknown woman. Jesus is prepared to step outside the conventions of the day. Jesus doesn’t judge her. Far from even preaching to her to repent of her sins, he asks her to draw water and provide him with a drink. In outreach we need to be unjudgmental and willing to receive as well as give. The woman is a bit taken aback by Jesus’ friendly approach. The conversation very quickly and naturally goes on to spiritual issues, using water as an illustration of spiritual refreshment and renewal.

When the subsequent conversation goes on to the correct place of worship, whether Mount Gerizim, visible to them, being about 2 miles away, or Jerusalem, Jesus far from taking up sides, gives an answer that is not localised in a particular place but is universal, relating to our inner attitude and condition. We can worship God anywhere. The principles are to worship God in spirit and in truth. Today some people say that the Book of Common Prayer is the only form of worship that they can use. Others say we must use contemporary language if we want to reach out to people outside the regular fellowship of the Church. Others go further and say we should have a greater spontaneity in our worship and be led by the Spirit, rather than constrained by set liturgies. Some like to express their worship with their whole being, praising God with their arms outstretched. Let us be open to worship God in a variety of ways whether using the Prayer Book, Common Worship or quite different, approaches such as Messy Church. Let us accept one another. As the Coronavirus progresses, we may have to limit further our worship activity. Let us whether together or on our own, worship God in Spirit and Truth.

In this account of Jesus’ ministry to the Samaritan woman, he both redeems her to God and reconciles Jew and Samaritan. He is the Great Redeemer, the Great Reconciler.

3. Church foundation

Jesus is also laying a good foundation for the future Church in its progressive outward movement and universal principle. In Acts 1 v 8 Jesus, shortly before his ascension, instructs his disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” That third stage was reached very quickly, soon after the stoning of Stephen, one of the seven chosen deacons. Stephen in his speech before his stoning refers to Jacob’s body being brought back from Egypt to Shechem; to land which Abraham had bought. Probably Jacob’s well was close to Shechem, a town perhaps 10 miles SE of Samaria. It was near Shechem that the returning exiles of Israel built a temple on Mount Gerizim. Both town and temple were destroyed in the first century BC. The village of Sychar, only about ½ mile from Jacob’s well, was built up to be a town, in effect replacing Sychem. Philip the deacon, who would have heard Stephen’s martyrdom speech and during the subsequent scattering of the Church from Jerusalem went down to a city in Samaria, very likely actually went to Sychar, before perhaps going on to the city of Samaria. Jesus’ ministry, a few years before, had laid an excellent foundation for people to come to faith in the risen Lord Jesus. The unnamed woman of Sychar had brought a large number of the townspeople out to Jacob’s well to meet Jesus and now they not only believed him to be the Messiah, but that he had died and risen. The Samaritan Church was founded.

The Church of England is making a considerable effort to be a missional Church, to reach out to those outside its regular worshipping community, to have a concern for the poor, the marginalised, the immigrant, the people who are in the BAME category, Black, Asian and minority ethnic origin, to LGBT+ people, We recognise now that the way we treated immigrants from the West Indies in the 1950s and 60s, the Windrush generation of people, who had been encouraged by our government to come and work in the UK, was at times quite appalling.

On 29th February I attended the Bishop’s Study Day for clergy and Readers. The title of the study was ‘Scattered and Gathered – Fruitfulness in the whole of life”.

The main thrust of the day was that we place too much emphasis on the clergy when we think of the mission and evangelistic activity of the church and not enough emphasis on all church members in the their daily occupations as they meet people uncommitted to Christ, perhaps some, like the woman at the well of Sychar with an openness to hear and commit themselves and others who will never be regular churchgoers but will be influenced for good by the way we conduct ourselves at work, in leisure activities and the other aspects of our daily life. There are normally about 60 of us here on a Sunday morning. During a week, if we each meet with only 10 people, that is overall 600 people in just one week, who have been influenced for good (or ill) by our daily life. About 6% of the population of the UK regularly attend a church at least once a month. If each person in the 6% has a significant meeting with 10 people during the course of a week then about 56% of non-regular churchgoers, over half the population of the country will have been influenced by church members.

Tremendous opportunities. In our Deanery Ash Wednesday our Area Dean, Andrew Axon, in his sermon encouraged each of us the make Lent a season of deepening our relationship with Christ. I have never met the present Duke of Sussex, albeit I have once met his grandfather, but I look forward each day to meeting with the Son of God, the Messiah, or Christ, our Lord Jesus.