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Sermon – Sunday before Lent

14th February 2021

Readings: 2 Kings 2: 1–12  Elisha succeeds Elijah, who is taken up to heaven Mark 9: 2–9  Jesus’ Transfiguration

1.       Introduction.        Alexei Navalny, the Opposition Leader in the Russian government, is a good modern-day example of a person of great courage, who despite an attempt on his life, returns to his home country to challenge the leaders of his country and in so doing, encourages his supporters.  Prior to the event of Jesus’ Transfiguration, our Gospel reading today, Jesus had spoken to all 12 of his close disciples about going up to Jerusalem, where he would die.  Peter had taken him to task, causing Jesus to rebuke him.  The Transfiguration is an important event for Jesus himself and for three of his disciples, Peter, James and John, who would take on important roles in the leadership of the Church.   For two of them it would be at the cost of their lives.  We can read in Acts 12 of Herod having James put to death.  Not in the New Testament, but in tradition, supported by Jesus words to him after Jesus’ resurrection, “Someone will lead you where you do not want to go.” (Jn 21 v 18), Peter was crucified.  As we prepare to enter the season of Lent with a strong focus on the passion of Christ, we do well to reflect on the significance of Jesus’ transfiguration.

2.       Liturgical.   Despite the significance of the transfiguration, the Church of England, and perhaps more widely in the Church, has found it difficult to give due recognition to such an enigmatic but profound event.   The Book of Common Prayer allocates 6th August as the day to mark the Transfiguration, but without any special readings for such a profound event.   But then we are not too good with other celebrations.   Ask anyone whether churchgoer or not about the significance of today, 14th February, and almost everyone would say, “St Valentine’s Day”, but in the Church of England calendar it is St Cyril and St Methodius’ Day.   I guess that Lea, as a native of Hungary, would be one of the few people that we know, who could tell us much about those two great 9th century missionary brothers probably of Slavic origin but from Macedonia, now N Greece, who went to the Slavic people in what is now Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Bulgaria.   They were keen on people having a liturgy in the own native language and to this end Cyril invented the Cyrillic script, still in use in parts of Eastern Europe.   To return to the Transfiguration, the Alternative Service Book allocated the 4th Sunday of Lent for the observation of the Transfiguration.   This was a sure-fire way of it being overlooked by most individual churches as they celebrated Mothering Sunday.  Probably the Common Worship position of allocating the Sunday next before Lent is a good compromise, ensuring that however few Sundays there are before Lent, the Transfiguration is marked every year, with the gospel in the liturgical Year B from the second synoptic gospel, Mark’s Gospel and related readings; the Old Testament being Moses receiving the commandments on the first or second time or, as this year, Elijah’s ascent to heaven as he hands over to Elisha.

3.       Elijah and Elisha.  I will just draw out a few points from that OT reading.  First of all, the two prophets had a demanding journey setting out from Gilgal about 1 to 2 miles from Jericho, down in the Jordan valley at about (Mediterranean) sea level, 13 miles up to Bethel in the hills N of Jerusalem, probably at about the same height as the city.  The Jerusalem Central Bus Station is at 2,700 ft (817 m) above sea level.  Bethel literally means ‘house of God’, where Jacob, when fleeing from his brother Esau, stopped for the night and had a vision of angels going up and down a ladder between heaven and earth.   At Bethel there was a school of prophets.   I reckon that Elijah was keen to introduce his successor, Elisha, so that the School accepted Elisha.  He suggests that Elisha should even stay there, but Elisha knows instinctively that he must stay with Elijah until that became impossible.  Perhaps they stay a night, before returning very close from where they set out, namely Jericho.   An easier down-hill journey of about 14 miles, to a second school of prophets, where again Elijah invites Elisha to stay with the prophets, but Elisha firmly resists this and again, perhaps the next day, they set out, but accompanied by no less than 50 prophets from the School, down to the River Jordan just north of the Dead Sea at 1,250 ft (-382 m) below sea level. 

          Old Testament prophets were known for their performance of miracles.   Elijah’s final miracle is to strike the River Jordan to provide a way to cross to the other side, before he is then received into heaven.   Some people find such a miracle hard to accept.  When Joshua led the Israelites into the promised land, crossing the River Jordan, a natural explanation is given, that a landslip higher up the valley was the physical cause of the water ceasing to flow.   The miracle is in God’s timing, of bringing the Israelites to the brink of the river at just the right time.   The Arabian historian Nuwairi records a similar event in 1267 A. D.  In the early 20th Century, in 1906 and again in 1927, similar events of landslips stopped the flow of the river, and now, so much water is regularly extracted, that you can almost paddle across in places.  On the East side of the Jordan, the remarkable life on earth of the man, who again and again had challenged authority, including Ahab, King of Israel, putting his own life in danger, comes to an end as he is taken up to heaven in a whirlwind. As a representative of the prophetic line, he is the one to be present at Jesus’ transfiguration, together with Moses, the great law giver.

4.       The Transfiguration.   What was it that Moses and Elijah talked about with Jesus?   St Luke tells that “They spoke about his departure which he was about to bring to fulfilment in Jerusalem.” (Lk 9 v 31).   The Greek word translated ‘departure’ is ‘Exodon’, literally, ‘the way out’.   The Greek therefore gives us a natural link with the OT Exodus from Egypt, under Moses’ leadership.   From beginning to end, Jesus is the one who supports and fulfils the Law and the Prophets.   You may wonder about Peter’s response to the situation, especially as it has been translated in Church Bibles that we use.  He proposes three dwellings, one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah.   This is not meant to be some sort of self-isolation for 10 days.  The Greek word is variously translated ‘booths’ (RSV), ‘tabernacles’ (KJV) or ‘shelters’ (NIV).   I like tabernacles, as this links with the Feast of Tabernacles, a sort of week’s camping holiday with tents or tree branches, perhaps in the garden, to remind the Jews of their forebears’ wilderness experience.   This meeting was not only important for Jesus but for the early Church, to help counter any idea that Christians were rabble rousers, intent on flouting the moral law of the Jewish people.  The gospels helped any thoughtful Roman citizen to have a more balanced view of conflict between Jew and Christian.

                The climax of the transfiguration is a cloud, reminiscent of the cloud which guided the Israelites in the wilderness, coming over the mountain and out of the cloud comes the voice of God the Father, ‘This is my beloved Son, listen to him’.   It can be quite frightening being up a mountain enveloped in cloud.   Many years ago, when our younger son Andrew was 7 years old (and he is now 50), I was leading a walking group of 12 in the Lake District.  We were at a high level on Sergeant Man in thick cloud and rain and I could not find the track to take us down.  We had to go down, on compass and reference to the map, quite a steep slope.   I held Andrew’s hand and he was quite unperturbed.   We all got down safely.

5.       Application.           At the beginning of my sermon, I spoke of the courage of Alexei Navalny, a man much in the news.  I want to tell you now of Fadzayi Mahere, a woman of great courage who recently returned to her own country of Zimbabwe.  A committed Christian and a qualified lawyer, she had worked at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, but then decided that she must return home to defend people whose human rights had been abused, and to protest against police brutality.  She was quite soon arrested and thrown into prison, a prison with appalling conditions, lacking any kind of human dignity.   The Christian way is by no means always an easy way.  We may not have the calling or the opportunity to courageously challenge authority where power is misused and people are abused, as did Jesus, and as do Alexei Navalny and Fadzayi Mahere. May we though, out of the clouds of life, hear the voice of God the Father saying ‘You are my son, I love you’ or ‘You are my daughter, I love you.’ and so press on to serve Our lord in all the challenging circumstances of life.

          I conclude with the words from the hymn, ‘The King of love my shepherd is’, based on Psalm 23, “In death’s dark vale, I fear no ill, with thee, dear Lord beside me; thy rod and staff my comfort still, thy cross before to guide me.

                                                                                                                                                         Christopher Miles

Sermon – 2nd Sunday before Lent

Sunday 7 February 2021Second Sunday before Lent

Readings: Colossians 1:15-20, John 1:1-14

I was most affected by a telephone conversation I had on Thursday morning.  It was a long call, with someone I hadn’t spoken to before, obviously I won’t go into details but their lives had been turned upside down in the last six months – not by Covid but by other personal tragedies. 

The person I spoke to has a Christian faith but they found themselves and their faith shaken to the core and they found themselves asking the question which afflicts many of us at some point:

How can there be a God if bad things happen to good people?”

I should start by saying that it is absolutely fine to say this out loud – it is even biblical.  Read the Psalms – they are a wonderful example of both praising God and questioning him at the same time.  About half of the psalms are about how wonderful God is and half of them are asking how he could be so harsh with his chosen people.  Seriously, read them.

The philosopher AC Grayling posed the challenge quite neatly – he said that if one believes that God is both all-powerful and all good then it is a logical contradiction for there to be suffering in the world. Either God cannot prevent suffering, in which case he is not all powerful, or he will not prevent suffering, in which case he is not all good.

The problem with this neat argument, and the problem which lies at the root of much of our fist shaking at heaven when tragedy strikes, is that our preconception of God as a deity whose function is to wrap his creation and each of his creatures in so much cotton wool that nothing bad can ever happen is fundamentally mistaken, and is not a view of God that one gets from the bible.

So why does God allow suffering? Let’s think first about the suffering caused by our fellow humans – wars, terrorism, preventable poverty, environmental destruction and so forth. In my view it is clear from the earliest chapters in the bible that God always intended mankind to have the freedom to choose how to act towards him and towards one another and that our freedom to choose is a fundamental part of our humanity.

A quick illustration: A few years ago Vivienne played the good fairy in a pantomime. As the story unfolded two of the characters decided to take a wicked course of action that would bring ruin to their brother but, in the end, the good fairy stepped in and made them change their minds by casting a spell so that they become good, albeit against their will. So, some wickedness was prevented but it was at the expense of their free will or their freedom to make a bad choice.

Now, you may say that it would have been good if God had acted like the good fairy and taken away the free will of, say, the 9/11 plotters and prevented that disaster from happening or if God had prevented the concentration camps by taking away the free will of the Nazis. But it only takes a moment’s thought to realise what a dangerous route that is. If God takes away the free will of other people to prevent suffering then, presumably, God would also take away our free will every time we made a wrong choice – if we drove too fast would God act as a speed limiter and make us slow down to prevent the suffering caused by an accident, if we choose not to donate blood one day and God knew that someone would die for want of that unit we would be marched like a zombie to the clinic to prevent the suffering of another. I think you can see where this is going – when God gave humanity free will he took the biggest risk ever because it meant that humans could always make the wrong choice, but it is the price we pay for not being automatons.

However, surely, a choice made to do good made out of genuine free will is of infinitely greater value than a person whose will is bent to God’s against their will to prevent suffering. So, to answer AC Grayling I would say that God is both all-powerful and all good but, from the moment of creation, God has chosen to limit the exercise of his power in the interests of giving us the room to be and become fully human.

So what about natural disasters like earthquakes or tsunamis and what about diseases like cancer or even Covid – why isn’t God preventing these and allowing the innocent to suffer?

Well, firstly and most importantly we inhabit vulnerable physical bodies in a dynamic physical world. Tectonic plates shift and cells divide and sometimes those things can create the conditions for life to arise and sometimes they shift and divide in the wrong way and create the conditions for death, even premature death. The bible itself actually mentions numerous earthquakes and there is no shortage of premature death there either so we shouldn’t imagine that we are thinking of things that were either unheard of or couldn’t be mentioned in scripture.

So why does God allow this? Well, firstly, shouldn’t we be asking: on what are we basing our expectations of God? If we try to make God into a good fairy who waves a wand and protect everyone from every tragedy then we will always be disappointed in that God. But, actually, shouldn’t we take our image of God from the bible? The bible certainly does not tell us that God wraps his people in cotton wool and never lets anything bad happen to them – on the contrary much of the story of the nation of Israel is about how they learned to recognise and to worship God despite the bad things that happened to them – held in slavery in Egypt, taken into captivity in Babylon, occupied by the Romans. Time and time again, in the psalms, in the book of Job and in the prophets there is recognition that we live in a fallen world, that bad things do happen to good people and that whilst we may shake our fist at God, ultimately the only answer is that he is Sovereign, he is in charge, that his ways are not our ways and his thoughts are higher than our thoughts.

As educated Westerners we find that so frustrating because we want to be in charge and, if necessary, to serve a Freedom of Information request to find out what is going on but, as Christians, we are subject to a higher power, and I don’t mean the Archdeacon.

And as Christians we should also remember the element of faith: that death is not the end. I said a moment ago that we inhabit physical bodies in a physical world but we are also told in the bible that these bodies are like seeds that need to die in order to become transformed and resurrected bodies, in a resurrected and re-created world in which death is no more and where God wipes away every tear.

So, finally, Where is God in all this?

I would say in two places – we worship a God who does not stand far off from our suffering but rather a God who entered into our world and took suffering upon himself in the person of Jesus – the same Jesus who did not live a life of ease and comfort but who went into the wilderness for 40 days and nights and who later took that wilderness experience all the way to the cross. In Jesus God did not avoid suffering and death but rather transformed it into resurrection and victory and the fruits of that transformation are for us to share. So humanity does not suffer apart from God, on the contrary God has been there before us and shared our suffering in the person of Jesus, God the Son.

But God the Holy Spirit is also there, in the midst of the suffering, in the actions of all the thousands of people who seek to help alleviate suffering. God is there in the free will decisions of human beings to care for and help each other. God is Love and when we demonstrate our love for others in need through practical action we are reflecting something of God’s love for us.

God is not to be found in the avoidance of suffering – that god is an idol no more worthy of worship than a good fairy in a panto, much as I love her. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Jesus Christ and, I hope, our God is to be found not in the avoidance of suffering and pain but in the coping with suffering and pain, in choosing to love and to be human and to be humane towards one another despite the suffering and pain and, like Jesus in the wilderness, resisting always the temptation to give up and despair when we are at our weakest.

When life challenges our view of God, as it always will, we need to constantly ask ourselves, in what image of God is my faith based? When that question comes do not think about God an abstract being apart from us who watches our suffering from afar, but think about Jesus, God with us, suffering, dying and rising again for us and think about God the Holy Spirit who motivates us to love others in their suffering and who can enthuse us to lift our eyes beyond our own suffering to the joys of the kingdom of heaven.

Having mentioned the psalms I will end on one that my caller loves and clings onto, Psalm 23: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me.”

Amen.

Sermon – Candlemas

Sunday 31 January 2021

Candlemas – The Presentation of Christ in the Temple

Readings: Malachi 3:1-5, Luke 2:22-40

I have a slight concern with the Church of England at the moment.  Actually, I have lots of concerns both for and about the Church of England at the moment, but today’s is this:

Sometimes I wonder if we are so keen for everyone to like us and hopefully to join us and hopefully to put a bit of money in the pot that we can keep the roof watertight that we make our faith all about the niceness and never about the challenge.  We always say: “Come as you are” but rarely: “Have you thought about allowing God to change you?”  We are happy to coo over the baby of Christmas but reluctant to let the lessons of the adult Jesus threaten our way of life. 

And although we are now over a month from Christmas, in fact today closes the season of Epiphany even for the most dedicated decoration enthusiasts, we are back to seeing Jesus as a baby, being passed around among the adults for them to wonder at, with the resultant temptation to sentimentality that brings.  But we must resist our brains being bypassed by this cute imagery to focus on, and listen to, what is actually happening here. 

Mary and Joseph were devout Jews and, under the law of Moses, Mary had come to be ritually cleansed.  Leviticus 12 says that 8 days after a son was born he should be circumcised and 33 days after that the mother should go to a priest and offer a lamb as a burnt offering or, if she could not afford a lamb, she should take two doves or two pigeons.  This offering was for the women to be purified from the ritual uncleanliness of childbirth and there were echoes of that tradition in the churching of women.

In addition, Jesus, as the first-born son, was being offered or presented to God, hence the Presentation of Christ in the Temple.  This was in accordance with Exodus 13:2,12 – “Consecrate to me every first born male.” and “Redeem every firstborn among your sons”.  This was in memory and thanksgiving of the Passover in Egypt, when the first-born children of the Israelites were spared.  

So, Joseph and Mary took Jesus to the Temple to fulfil these requirements of the law.  When people talk about Jesus being either anti-Temple or anti-Law it is useful to remember him in this context, not to mention his teaching at the Temple as a boy and his later zeal to maintain the Temple as a place of prayer by driving out the money changers. 

But, whilst the Holy Family were there, they had the remarkable encounters with Simeon and Anna. 

Simeon and Anna have at least two things in common, one minor and one major.  First it seems that they were both well on in years.  We are told that Anna had reached the age of 84 and, whilst we are not told Simeon’s age expressly, we are certainly given the impression that he is on the verge of death and has been hanging on for this moment.  God had promised Simeon that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah and, when he saw Jesus, Simeon’s words, are saying that he can now die in peace:

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word.  For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people.  To be a light to lighten the gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people Israel.”

Simeon didn’t actually speak in the King James Version but these words are familiar to regular church goers as the Nunc Dimittis, which is part of our Evening Prayer and sung at Evensong. 

Although this scene could hardly be more Jewish, Simeon makes it clear that Jesus is not merely the consolation of Israel for which he has been waiting but is also a light to the gentiles, which is the whole, non-Jewish world. It is of course that imagery of Jesus as light coming into the world which we represent when we give a lit candle to the newly baptised and which we represent here today with our own candles for candlemas.

So far this all sounds quite positive but, and here is where we need to get over the cute baby imagery, even now there is a foreshadowing that this will not be an easy or pain free journey.  Speaking specifically to Mary Simeon says that Jesus will cause the rising and falling of many, which echoes Mary’s own song the Magnificat, that he will be spoken against and that even Mary will not be spared from having a sword pierce her own soul.  We only need to think about Mary standing at the foot of the cross to see the truth in that.

This baby will change things – it will change things for the powerful but also for you.  

Simeon’s words also contains echoes of the prophecy of Malachi, which was our first reading this morning, and this makes it even clearer that when the Lord comes into his Temple things are going to change:

“…Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come into his Temple…But who can endure the day of his coming?  Who can stand when he appears?  For he will be like a refiners’ fire…he will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver…then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness…”

How is silver refined?  It is heated until it melts and all the dross is scooped off.  It leaves the silver purer but the melting and the scooping away of dross may not be a comfortable experience.  The coming of the Lord into his temple, which is what we see and celebrate today, is not intended to be a cute montage of older people celebrating a new baby which affects nothing.  Rather it signifies that the old order has passed away, that God is doing a new thing.

But Simeon and Anna have something even more important in common than their great age.  Both Simeon and Anna were blessed by the Holy Spirit.  We are told expressly in v.25 that the Holy Spirit rested on Simeon and we know that Anna was blessed by the Holy Spirit too as prophecy is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit in both Simeon and Anna revealed to them that this baby Jesus was the Christ child and through them it was revealed to others – to Mary and Joseph, to others in the Temple and to us through the words of scripture.  We should never think that the Holy Spirit forces people to do things against their will – if Simeon or Anna had not been open to the work and prompting of the Holy Spirit in their lives they simply would not have been there and this encounter would never have happened.

So, today, let us not get distracted by cute babies.  Let us remember that when God comes into his Temple, which could be the Temple in Jerusalem, it could be this church and it could be the temple of your life, that things will change. Silver will be refined, but the burning away of dross may not always be comfortable.  Today we remember the epiphanies of Simeon and Anna, as they welcomed and proclaimed the coming of the Christ to the world, we give thanks for the insight granted to them by the Holy Spirit and we pray that the same Holy Spirit which rests on us through our baptisms and on the church because of Pentecost will also grant us the gift to recognise Christ and be unafraid to proclaim to the world the coming of the light of the world.

May the prompting of God the Holy Spirit lead us always towards Jesus who is God the Son who lifts always towards God the Father.

Amen.

Sermon – Epiphany 3

Sunday 24 January 2021

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

Readings:  1 Corinthians 1:10-13; 3:21-23, John 17:20-23

If you have been joining me for morning or evening prayer over the past week then you will have noticed that we have been travelling through the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

If you have not been joining me for prayer during the week then I hope you have been praying in other ways, as suits you best.  However, if you have not been praying at all during the week then we need to talk.  Seriously, the only way we can grow in our relationship with God is by spending time with him in prayer and if we only show up once a week then how do we expect to grow as disciples?  That’s another sermon but if you want to speak to me about prayer then please do.  Prayer for the Christian is not an optional extra and it cannot be ‘contracted out’ to the Vicar, although he does pray for you nonetheless.

In the Anglican calendar today is actually the third week of Epiphany, and the reading set for today was Jesus turning water in wine at the wedding at Cana.  

I was going to make the point that when Mary spoke to Jesus and told him to make some more wine, these are the only recorded words in the Bible that she spoke to him directly, and I love the fact that it was to ask for wine.  Quite relatable during lockdown.  But I shall save that until next year, because if we can no longer get wine from France we may need another miracle.

But this year I do want to reflect on Christian Unity and the readings have been changed accordingly.  I am actually amazed that I have never preached on this before because it is something that is close to my heart in many ways and I do pray regularly for church unity, even when it is not the week so to do.

Fortunately, disunity amongst Christians is not the substantial issue here that it has been in our past.  In this country Protestants have burned Catholics and vice versa and in the history of St Mary’s Hadlow, which would have been Roman Catholic before the Reformation, the list of previous incumbents shows Catholic clergy being replaced by Puritan ministers and the toing and froing on that list during the 1500 and 1600s speaks volumes about an age of unrest and change. 

There is no doubt that, here at least, things have changed for the better on that front.  Plague years notwithstanding I have been delighted ever since arriving here to walk around Hadlow with our Catholic sisters and brothers on Good Friday, holding up the cross and praying together, with no one burning anyone.  I have also been delighted that St Mary’s is once again playing a full part in Tonbridge Area Churches Together.  In fact, it was only last Thursday morning that we had a Zoom call between church leaders of the Anglican churches, the Baptists, the Methodists, Hillsong, the River Church, the URC and the Redeemed Christian Church of God.  We all acknowledge and respect each other’s differences but all treat each other as being fully Christian, and we laugh together and pray together and events like Sunday Funday have been a great joint outreach. 

But, sadly, sectarianism is not confined to history.  In the memories of everyone here today we will be aware of division and hatred between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, and walls still exist between certain neighbour-hoods in Belfast.  In Glasgow there are similar divisions and, back in the days when we had pubs, I’m sure that a Celtic fan wouldn’t venture into a Rangers pub.

It has also been fascinating watching the world of American politics through the eyes of faith.  The evangelical Christians who endorsed former-President Trump could hardly have been more different in their words and prayers and behaviour from the Catholic priest who prayed at President Biden’s inauguration. Although I may be wrong, it is genuinely hard to imagine some of those evangelicals admitting that Catholics are properly Christian.  In fact, that is not solely an American phenomena.   I remember once going into a Christian bookshop in London and the person in front of me asked for a book by a particular author.  The shop assistant whispered that they did not stock it because the author was a Catholic.  The same shop also filed their books about Catholicism in the cult section.  So, we must never assume that Christians here are beyond such things.

Even if we do think that we are beyond disunity with our fellow Christians here at parish-level the sad reality is that at denominational level there is still substantial division.  I have already mentioned the upheaval of the Reformation and the fact is that the Catholic and Anglican Churches are still ‘out of communion’ with one another.  Although the Catholic church recognises the validity of baptism in our church it does not officially recognise our eucharist as being properly consecrated, not least because it does not recognise the validity of Anglican ordination.  A fundamentalist Catholic may well view me as a heterodox lay person, occupying their building and only pretending to celebrate communion.   Harsh but logical.

Many of you will be familiar with the Methodist Church, which obviously grew out of Anglicanism through the ministry of Wesley and his desire to make disciples of people outside the structures of the Church of England.  In many ways great strides have been made in healing the divisions between our churches – on a personal level, I work very closely with Sharon Lovelock from Higham Lane Methodist Church in the Chaplaincy at Hadlow College and there are many ‘Local Ecumenical Partnerships’ in which worship and buildings are shared, including at St Andrews in Paddock Wood.  But still, despite many years of talks we have failed to properly reunite at a denominational level, largely because of different views about the authority of Bishops but also, I suspect, because people get wedded to their structures which become more important that unity.  That applies both ways, by the way.

But what does Christian Unity mean, and when did dis-Unity start?

It is clear from our Gospel reading this morning that Jesus prayed that his followers would be ‘one’.  And the purpose of this ‘oneness’ is so that the world may see their unity and believe in Jesus.  In verse 21:

so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

and in verse 23:

 “that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

Jesus doesn’t pray for unity amongst the believers just because it is nice to be nice but as a witness to the world – so that the world would believe. 

I have atheist friends who, when they look at Christianity see thousands of different churches and sects and denominations and they say that if you guys can’t agree amongst yourself then how are you going to convince me?  It’s a valid question and it seems to be the one Jesus was praying about.

But, despite even the prayers of Jesus, humans still have freewill and it is clear that divisions and disunity were a fact of Church life from the beginning.  At the Last Supper Judas showed the ultimate disunity by betraying Jesus.

In the letter to the Corinthians St Paul is extorting the church there to put their faith in Jesus before their preference or loyalty to any church leader, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas, but it is clear that this arises from a situation of disunity where exactly this has been happening.  Although it is deeply human nature to prefer some people over others Paul is saying loud and clear that our unity is found in our identity in Christ.

So, the Church in Corinth had some internal divisions going on, but it is also crystal-clear from the New Testament that there were all sorts of other divisions going on – primarily between the Jewish followers of Jesus, headed by Peter and James and the gentile converts being made by Paul.  Although in today’s epistle Paul is seeking to heal such divisions it is also clear from elsewhere that he and Peter were not above sharp disputes from time to time. 

Following the closure of the New Testament period Christianity spread around the Mediterranean and, for the first 1000 years of church history, it is a story of self-governing churches in Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople and Rome, which had differences but which were always in communion with one another.   However, when the Roman empire in the West collapsed and the Byzantine Empire in the East continued there was an ever increasing division between the church in Rome and the four churches in the East.  This culminated in the Great Schism of 1054 when communion was broken between what came to be known as the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholics. 

Later, as mentioned, we had the Reformation and communion was broken between us and Rome and, since then, the history of Protestantism has been one of further division and even atomisation in which faith is only ever a personal matter and the whole concept of being ‘in communion’ with anyone or anything else seems meaningless.

It is sobering to think that the church which stood here in 975 would have celebrated a eucharist which was recognised throughout the Christian world but it is now not even recognised by fellow Christians in this country.  That does not feel like progress to me.

Breaking with one another is always done, I am sure, with the best intentions.  Either to seek to get closer to the true meaning of the bible, or to listen to a more inspiring preacher, or to take the faith to the people more effectively, or to attend a form of worship which speaks to us better or for a hundred other understandable reasons.

But if the Church is the body of Christ then it has always seemed to me that divisions in the church are wounds in the body of Christ.   Do we contribute to exacerbating those wounds or do we seek to heal them, to be one so that the world may see and believe?

And so we pray for unity, which echoes the prayer of Jesus.  But what would unity look like?  I don’t think that it unity needs to mean uniformity – all looking the same and worshiping in the same way.  Diversity, I believe, is fine – the body of Christ has many cells which work in different ways and for different purposes, but always for the good of the whole.  A Christian in mid-West America is always going to be different from us as we are from a Christian in Armenia or Ethiopia.  The body of Christ can cope with diversity.

But my prayer now and always is that we can be in communion with one another – that we can fully recognise and proclaim one another to be full members of the body of Christ – that all those who proclaim Father, Son and Holy Spirit are within the divine economy. 

If the kingdom is divided against itself then it cannot stand.  But if we are one, if we love each other and recognise each other and treat each other fully as members of the same body of Christ here in St Mary’s, across the breadth of the Church of England, and between denominations then the world will see and know that we are in Christ, that Christ is in us to the glory of God the Father.

So pray.  Pray regularly.  Pray for unity.  And don’t forget that unity with others always begins with unity in your own heart.

Amen.

Sermon – Epiphany 2

Sunday 17th January 2021

Readings: 1 Samuel 3: 1-20, John 1: 43-end

Why are we here today?

I don’t mean why are you at home on Zoom, whilst Francis, Annabelle and I are in a rather cold church, we know all about that, I mean what makes us gather as a church at all?

What, or who, calls us together?

I am going to put my neck on the line and suggest that beneath whatever surface reasons we have – friendship, upbringing, joining in with community –  I suspect that we are each drawn here for the same underlying reason.  

Whether we really know it or not I believe that everyone who is drawn towards worship, has been called by God at some time and in some way and that we are all ‘here’ in response to that call with a desire to experience something more of the God who calls us.

We are still in the season of Epiphany and the old testament, psalm and gospel readings set for this morning give us examples of different ways in which God calls his people and the way in which his people have their epiphany moment of recognising the One who calls.

The Old Testament reading for today is about God’s call to Samuel. Samuel was then a young boy working as an apprentice in the temple to Eli the priest. To our eyes this probably looks like a strange way to bring up a child but given the importance and the centrality of the Temple to Jewish life to be apprenticed to a priest in the Temple

must have been an incredibly important and sought-after position. 

A bit like being an intern at Google now.

When you read the stories about Abraham and Moses, it is possible to form the view that in ‘Old Testament’ times people were having visions and encounters with God on a daily basis.  But, interestingly we are told at the beginning of today’s reading that in those days the word of the Lord was rare, and there were not many visions. Either God had gone quiet on his people or his people had lost the ears to hear.

Either way God chose to raise up Samuel as a new prophet and we heard that God began by calling his name out loud:

Samuel”

But each time Samuel thought it was his master Eli calling and he came running into his master’s room, saying “Here I am, you called me”. So sometimes God may be speaking to us loud and clear but we simply fail to recognise it.

In verse 7 we are told that Samuel did not yet know the Lord, because the word of God had not been revealed to him. The phrase ‘word of God’ is laden with meanings – it can mean the written word of Scripture, it can mean Jesus as the living Word of God but, in this context, we should not forget that it can also mean the literal, spoken, word that Samuel was hearing for the first time.

God called Samuel in an audible way but because Samuel had never heard the word of God before he mistook it for Eli and it took the older man’s wisdom firstly to discern that it was God and secondly to tell Samuel how to respond. Actually, the first part of his advice to Samuel was “Go and lie down.”

And sometimes we need to do exactly that in order to hear God’s call – to quieten ourselves and our own thoughts and agenda.   To consciously make the space to listen out for God over the hubbub of our lives.

And when God called Samuel for final time we are told that there was not simply a voice but, in verse 10, that the Lord came and stood there and called “Samuel, Samuel.”

When God stands in your room, calling your name, that is a pretty full on, hard to avoid call.

Samuel’s response to God when he called for the final time is actually the ideal response for each of us no matter how we experience God in our lives – he says: “Speak, LORD, for you servant is listening”.

Those words of quiet obedience cannot help but remind us of Mary’s response to the annunciation: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word”. 

Although we are thinking specifically about Samuel’s experience of being called it is also interesting to reflect very briefly on what he was being called to. In verse 11 God tells Samuel that he is calling him to do something that will make the ears of everyone who hears it ‘tingle’, as he is to pronounce God’s judgement against the family of Eli, the very priest to whom he is apprenticed. Being called by God does not always lead to cucumber sandwiches – sometimes it means disturbing one’s hearers by seeking to bring them back to God’s call, and many prophets and priests and, of course, Jesus Christ himself, have paid the price for saying things which may make others squirm and disturb their sense of power and entitlement.

The calling of Philip by Jesus in John’s gospel was also a direct and unambiguous call: Jesus simply found Philip and, without preamble, said to him “Follow me”. There is no response from Philip other than immediate obedience. Although this instant response to the call of Jesus can be inspirational it can also be challenging, because it can be so different from the way that we often respond, and many scholars have tried to create a ‘backstory’ for the relationship between Jesus and Philip to explain this lack of preamble and questioning – however I was interested to see something by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book The Cost of Discipleship:

“This encounter is a testimony to the absolute, direct and unaccountable authority of Jesus. There is no need of any preliminaries, and no other consequence but obedience to the call. Because Jesus is the Christ, he has the authority to call and to demand obedience to his word. Jesus summons us to follow him not as a teacher or a pattern of the good life, but as the Christ, the Son of God…When we are called to follow Christ, we are summoned to an exclusive attachment to his person. The grace of his call bursts all the bonds of legalism. It is a gracious call, a gracious commandment. Christ calls; we are to follow.”

Samuel heard the call of God the Father in an audible way and that was the call that he needed to begin his prophetic ministry and Philip was called personally by God the Son, Jesus and that was the calling he needed to become a disciple. However, with one or two notable exceptions, very few people are called so directly. The psalm set for today, Psalm 139 which has always been one of my favourites, speaks of a different sort of experience of God and it is one that I suspect more of us can relate to.

Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?

If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, [a] you are there.

If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea,

even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.

This speaks not of hearing God speak audibly or even of meeting Jesus face to face but of an inescapable sense of God’s presence – of simply knowing that he is there whatever we do and wherever we go.   And we should not be surprised that a sense of God’s presence, which we may call the Holy Spirit, is the way in which most people will be aware of God in the present age because Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit on the church to be our comforter until he returns in glory. So this is by no means a second rate manner in which to experience the call of God as we worship one God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

So perhaps we are gathered today because of a calling by God – whether Father, Son or Holy Spirit.

But maybe you don’t feel that you have ever encountered the call of God and you are here because your friends are here. Well, that is within the divine economy too.   Turning back briefly to the gospel reading there is another type of calling: The first thing we see Philip do as a disciple is to call Nathanael to follow Christ by saying ‘come and see’. 

Nathanael wasn’t called by Jesus personally but he was called by another disciple to come and experience something of the Jesus that he had discovered. I suspect that may be the way many of us first heard the call of God – from another disciple saying ‘come and see’ and, of course, it is a way that we, as disciples, can call others to see the Lord – ‘come and see’.  

Of course the callings of Samuel, Philip and Nathanael are not exhaustive of the way in which God calls his people – the bible is absolutely full of different ways and, I suspect, that God speaks to each of us in the way that we need. If you are bookish and quiet and prayerful then God will likely call you in quietness, if you are loud and active then God may have to speak a little louder.

So why are we here? Because God has called each of us in myriad ways to gather together around the word of God, and everyone here has responded to that call. That is an awesome thought. But God does not call us to sit still and he continues to call each of us in our different ways.

As individuals and as a church we could do a lot worse than to follow the example of Samuel and say: “Speak, LORD, for you servant is listening” and to your friends, “Come and see”.

AMEN.

Sermon – Baptism of Christ

Sunday 10th January 2021

Readings Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11

I started trying to write this sermon on Thursday morning, not knowing quite how the world would look whenever, or indeed if-ever, I finished writing it, never mind by the time we came to this morning. 

Generally speaking I try not to talk about the sermon writing process when I come to preach.  After all, when you are eating sausages and eggs, or tofu for the vegetarians, you don’t normally want to know where they have come from or how they been made.

But I don’t mind saying that this is the hardest time I have ever known to try and write.  After 10 months of the ups and downs of dealing with the covid situation, which have included isolating twice because of family members having symptoms and not being able to get tests or results quickly, this third lockdown, and the other events of the past week, has hit me quite hard.  

Why is that, I wonder, surely I should be used to it by now?

I think it is because over Christmas we had the choir back in church, the vaccines were promised and I dared to hope, for a moment, that we were on a smooth slope back to normal life.

And then, of course, like everyone else we spent the week between Christmas and New Year stuck at home unable to go and see all our family and friends, which was a bit of a downer, and then it was only on Monday of last week that the new national lockdown was imposed.

My particular struggle, with the new lockdown, was what to do about in-person worship in church.  Unlike the first lockdown 

the government did not ban communal worship and the bishops were leaving it up to individual clergy and PCCs.  You all know where we got to on that and, as I said on my round-robin email, no one gets ordained in order to ask people not to come to church so that has been a real, almost existential, issue.  I have no regrets about reaching that decision, and doing so quickly in the circumstances, but it gives me no joy to be in an empty church building once again.  I know that the true church is the living stones who are you out there, but that doesn’t make it any less empty in here.  I want nothing more than to have you living stones back here and for the place to resonate with your voices once again.

But the new lockdown has also had other personal implications such as the children being home from school, possibly for many weeks, and considerable uncertainty about Annabelle’s end of year exams.

That was Monday and Tuesday.

Wednesday morning was a good and productive time in church, not only celebrating communion, albeit into a camera on my own, but also being able to serve at least five families from the foodbank.  Although tragic that we have to do that it felt good being able to do so.  

On Wednesday evening, which for me is last night as I write this, we had the incredible images from Washington DC of the mob urged on by Trump to invade the Capitol building.  Such sights I never thought to see outside of a movie.  People wearing Nazi T-shirts and carrying confederate flags storming the home of American democracy whilst elected senators feared for their lives.  Unbelievable. 

By Thursday afternoon, things in America appear to have calmed down a little and Congress has formally certified Joe Biden as the next President, although what Trump’s next move will be is anyone’s guess.

But the new covid death figures have just been released and, as I write, it is over 1100 people dead in 24 hours and a nursing home in Crowhurst reports that it lost half of its residents to covid over the Christmas holidays.

It is tough to concentrate on writing a sermon.

There is just too much big stuff happening all the time.

But something else also happened on Thursday at 4.00 pm.

I joined a Zoom call with 55 other members of the Sodality of Mary, many of whom are from the United States, and we prayed a rosary together for the healing of that nation.

And as we prayed I was, to use C.S. Lewis’ phrase, surprised by joy.

Our two readings today have one person in common.  It is not Paul or Apollos or John the Baptist or even Jesus.

The one person, and I use the term advisedly, who appears in both the reading from the book of Acts and the Gospel of Mark is God the Holy Spirit, and does so in the context of Baptism.

In the book of Acts Paul returned to Ephesus, which is in modern-day Turkey, and there he spoke to 12 followers of Jesus who had been previously baptised.  It does not expressly say that they had been baptised by Apollos, who has gone off to Corinth, but that is the strong implication.  It turned out that they knew nothing about the Holy Spirit and that they had only received the ‘baptism of John’, as they put it.  So Paul baptised them again, presumably using the Trinitarian formula, and this time the Holy Spirit arrived in power and they started prophesying and speaking in tongues.  

Why did the baptism of John not work for the disciples in Ephesus?  We can only speculate but in today’s Gospel reading John the Baptist himself said that his baptism was only with water, whereas Jesus would baptise with the Holy Spirit.  Of course, John’s baptism worked for Jesus, but then the whole Trinity was present so John feels almost redundant in this process. 

Why did Jesus need to receive John baptism of repentance, when he was without sin?

Again, without knowing the inner mind of God we can only speculate but we know that the one who was without sin would also take on the sin of the whole world and, importantly, as Jesus was baptised with water he was also visited by the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, and the voice of the Father announcing that this was his beloved Son.

Today we are remembering not only the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan but also the baptism of the 12 disciples in Ephesus and also, of course, our own baptisms.

And when we remember our own baptisms we are viscerally reminded that we follow where Jesus has gone before in this and in all things.  We are baptised with water and the Spirit because he was first, we share bread and wine because he commanded us to do likewise, we are resurrected because he was first and we are lifted into the life of God because of his ascension.   

But today we should especially remember that because of our baptisms, performed in the name of the Trinity, we too receive the Holy Spirit – that very same person of God who alighted on Mary, on Jesus, on the disciples in Ephesus, on the church at Pentecost and on the church throughout time.  

The Holy Spirit dwells within all the baptised, bringing forth fruits and gifts, which include not only prophecy and tongues, but also joy.  And when we make space and time for God, chiefly through prayer, so they gifts and fruits can show more and more fully in our lives.

Whilst it has undoubtedly been a difficult and sometimes shocking and sometimes depressing week I have kept praying – by myself, with others on Facebook and with my sodality priest friends.  It is only through that constant cycle of prayer and the constant exposure to the psalms and to scripture that I remain constantly exposed to God and to the work of the Holy Spirit in me.  And that is why, in the midst of it all, I can still be surprised by joy.

Remember your baptism.  Remember the Holy Spirit dwells in each of us because of our baptism.  That Holy Spirit draws us together and points us always towards Jesus who lifts us to the Father.  Pray constantly and ask the Holy Spirit to bring forth all the gifts and fruit he has in store for you.

Prepare to be surprised by joy.

Amen.