Easter 5: Called to be an Abider

Easter 5: Jesus is the vine and we are the branches. If we want to stay close to God, to know and hear his voice we need to learn to be a Church that abides.

HVG Zoom 9:30
Easter 5

Acts 8:26-40
John 15:1-8

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Olive branches in St Remy, Provence

As we have mentioned, the Church is still in the Easter season between the Resurrection, Ascension and Pentecost. The readings of these weeks tell the story of the early church and what the disciples were getting up to.

Last week in Acts, Peter was speaking to the elite of Jerusalem about the Good News of Jesus and this week Philip meets the Ethiopian eunuch. The Gospel readings spotlight some of Jesus’ teaching. Sue M’s brilliant sermon last week talked of Jesus the Good Shepherd, she left us with the challenge to spend time listening for his voice. This week, Jesus invites us to abide with him as branches on his vine.

The story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch begins with an angel of the Lord visiting Philip. The angel tells him to ‘get up and go toward the south’. And he does. No argument, no excuses, Philip’s first response is not No! He simply goes. Most other people who encounter angels usually respond with surprise and shock, think of Mary, Joseph and Elizabeth. Philip doesn’t seem to register any fear or shock, he got up and went. The next thing that Philip does is hugely courageous. Again, he is told what to do and he does it. This time by the Spirit: ‘go over to the chariot and join it.’ Philip approaches the eunuch and asks if he understands what he is reading?

Whoa! Imagine for a moment the next time you are on a bus or plane or next to someone who is reading a Bible. Would you interrupt them and ask, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ Would you do it?! This is courageous living! We have talked recently at some of the PCC’s and the Rural Review meetings about wanting more people to come to church; particularly young families with children. This is great and I am praying for that! We, and by this I mean you, us, need to be able to explain what faith is about. Not religion, not the churchy stuff, rather the Good News of Jesus as Philip did with the eunuch.

Philip in this account appears to be fearless. Why? I think he knew and recognised the voice of the one calling him. The angel and the Spirit both spoke to Philip and he acted in obedience. Like the sheep with their Shepherd, he recognised the voice.

Philip was right in the middle of the new church which was growing rapidly, more people were being added every day, there were prayer meetings and meals together. Lots of activity and in the midst of that, Philip recognised the voice of the one who was calling him. He had no reason to fear. Because he knew the voice, Philip was then obedient to what he was being called to do. So he approached the eunuch which led to an invitation to sit with him and proclaimed the Good News about Jesus. Then Philip baptized him – right then and there on the side of the road.

What good news for the eunuch. We don’t know his name – but he is a foreigner in Jerusalem. He would have looked and spoke differently. As he was a eunuch he could never be fully accepted by the Jews despite being wealthy and of high social status in his own country. It is good news for other people when we overcome our fears and share the good news of Jesus by our example and by our words.

How can we find the courage to recognize, face and overcome fear? By getting to know the one who calls us. Spending time in his company.

John calls this abiding. Abide is a funny word. It is not normal in most people’s everyday language. It feels somehow outdated as we live in a world that does not allow for much to be static; change happens quickly and we seem to be waiting for the next ‘new thing.’ There is a quality to abiding that speaks of commitment and endurance. To abide is much more personal than just hanging about or waiting.

In these early verses of John 15 Jesus speaks of the vine and the branches; He is the vine and we are the branches. The great desire of Jesus and of God the Father is that we remain together. There is also a warning about being apart from the vine; we can do nothing, we will not bear fruit and ultimately we will wither. The branches that do not produce fruit will be removed. I am sure we have all had times and seasons in our lives when we have been far from God and know what it is to wither.

‘Abide in me and as I abide in you’ says Jesus. Ben Quash, an Anglican priest and Professor of Christianity & the Arts writes, ‘the challenge of the finding the right ways to be an abider in such a world is huge. It’s the challenge of finding the source from which all life flows, the springs of our own being, the grain with which we are meant to live, and which it damages us to go against. It means being part of communities for whom ‘abiding’ is a watchword – above all, for Christians, the Church.’

We can see from this that Christian abiding is not keeping things are they have always been, nor it is about gritting our teeth and staying the course. Abiding is dynamic, it has a sense of full and personal commitment. As Christians we are to be part of churches who abide. That is what Jesus does for us when we let him abide. Can we do the same by abiding in Him?

The beautiful hymn ‘Abide with Me’ provides an excellent discourse on what it is to abide. The writer of that hymn, Henry Francis Lyte, died of tuberculosis 3 weeks after its completion. ‘Abide with Me’ was apparently played on the deck of the Titanic as it sank and it has been played in Remembrance Services across the UK and the world today. At the opening ceremonies of the London 2012 Olympics, singer Emeli Sande performed ‘Abide with Me’ to a universal audience and introduced this fine hymn to a new generation – but even in that there was a haunting sadness and beauty to it.

It is a call to the ‘help of the helpless, thou who changest not’ abide with me. It also speaks to the time when heaven’s morning breaks and earth’s vain shadows flee.’ Better times are coming, stay close! Jesus abides in his Father’s love and we are to abide in Jesus’ love. We are called to be a part of this relationship. Abiding gives us a deeper experience of God’s love. As we experience that deep and full love, we should be able to love those around us deeper and better. People are always God’s priority. He first loved us and created us to be in relationship with him and each other.

As this Easter season continues to unfold around us, we have been given the opportunity to study the early church and how they became a contemplative, compassionate and courageous church. They did this day by day, one person at a time – always listening for the voice of God to guide and direct them, so they could be courageous and obedient in the spreading of the Good News. May we be courageous, obedient and so full of love for others that we can do the same.

Easter Sunday: Timing is Everything

Happy Easter! Christ is Risen!
We decided to use Mark’s Gospel this Sunday – mainly it was practical as there are 6 services and 2 priests in the Hambleden Valley. As I explored Mark’s account of that first Easter, it became clear that it is the right story for today.

April 4th, 2021

From rockwellhouse.org

Acts 10:34-43
Mark 16:1-8

There is an old church myth about a young curate, having been asked to preach on Easter Sunday for the first time, got up into the pulpit and said: ‘Christ is Risen. There is nothing more to say.’ He then promptly sat back down.

In some ways, he is exactly right! Christ is Risen. He has conquered the final word of death; he has overcome the grave. He is Risen and we are saved.

There is more to say though!

Sue and I chose Mark’s Gospel for this morning which is not the popular one. Many of you might prefer John’s version with the beautiful portrayal of Mary Magdalene mistaking the gardener for Jesus. John has the tension and drama of Peter and John running to the tomb, Peter runs right in while John peers cautiously although he got their first. Mary, Peter and John all had their own reasons for being at the empty tomb that morning and we can reflect on where we place ourselves in this version.

Each of the Gospels has a slightly different account of that first Easter Day. All four Gospels have women being the first there. Mark (closely related to Luke’s ending) has three women Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome going to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus. This was and is a sad job.

They approached the tomb with their practical concerns of the giant stone needing to be rolled away. These women seemed to have no hesitation about what they might find inside the tomb as they seemed to have walked right in. They knew, at least in their minds, what needed to be done.

But their morning ritual is upended by the young man in a white robe telling them that Jesus has been raised from the dead. Mark’s version does not have a glimpse of the risen Jesus or running disciples. We do not get the same sense of celebration or joy found in Matthew, Luke or John. The young man tells the women to go and tell Peter and the disciples that Jesus will meet them in Galilee. According to Mark they leave in terror and amazement and tell no one. This ending does not leave us with great feelings of hope!

Maybe this year, we need Mark’s version of the Easter story. Maybe we all need some time as the women did to sit with the terror and amazement at the resurrection of Jesus. Maybe we don’t need to shout right away.

I came across a little book by Thomas Merton called ‘He is Risen’. It begins with:

He has risen, he is not here… he is going before you to Galilee. (Mark 16:6-7)

Christ is risen. Christ lives.
Christ is the Lord of the living and the dead.
He is the Lord of history.

Christ in the Lord of a history that moves.
He not only holds the beginning and the end in his hands,
But he is in history with us, walking ahead of us to where we are going.
He is not always in the same place.

Let this be a helpful guide to us this Easter Day. He is not always in the same place. But walks ahead of us to where we are going. He met his disciples in Galilee. Jesus was good to his word.

Maybe many of us feel dislocated from church, from our faith at this time. The enormity of what many people have endured in this last year is striking and largely unprocessed. All the loss and disappointment, the grief experienced. It would be disingenuous to stand up today and ignore that.

We will move on though in hope, in the glory of the resurrection. We see this in the Acts reading in Peter’s speech. Peter the zealous follower turned Good Friday denier turned Easter Sunday runner to being restored by Jesus on the shores of Lake Galilee – is now preaching and teaching in Caesarea.

Peter knows what he is saying is true because he witnessed it, he lived it. Peter has taken the commandments of Jesus to share the Good News seriously and is living it out. It took him a while though. The women, did tell the others, we know they did because the other Gospels record it. We also know because if they hadn’t – we wouldn’t know any of the story as it would never have been passed on.

This Easter Day we can trust that God is still in charge of Easter – whether we are indoors, outdoors or on Zoom. The tomb is empty, death has been defeated. Jesus lives.

I will finish with a little more Merton:

Christ lives in us and lead us,
through mutual encounter and commitment,
into a new future which we build together for one another.
That future is called the Kingdom of God.
The Kingdom is already established;
The Kingdom is a present reality.
But there is still work to be done.
Christ calls us to work together
in building his Kingdom.
We cooperate with him in bringing it to perfection.

Maundy Thursday: Hearts, Hands & Feet

Thursday April 1st, 2021

1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31-35

I did my first assembly at the Frieth School today and it was great fun. I talked to the pupils about Maundy Thursday and I asked to reflect on their feet. This was met with a mix of reactions! Had we been meeting in a church tonight I would have included foot washing as part of the service. Again I expect this might produce a mix of reactions!

Maundy Thursday is a very bodily experience. Hearts, hands and feet feature prominently tonight in our readings.

What comes out of our hearts will directly affect our hands and feet and what we do with them, who we help with them and where we go with them. I would like to spend a few minutes looking at the hands and feet in the readings this evening. There are over 560 Biblical references to hands and some 260 mentions of feet. These numbers aren’t significant other than that is a lot of hands and feet!

In Exodus, God gives specific instructions to Moses and Aaron about how the Passover meal is to be prepared. Hands were needed to prepare the lambs and make the arrangements. Sandals were to be on feet, staff in hand and the food eaten quickly. The lamb’s blood needed to be painted over the doorposts.

They were to be ready! Things had to be done.

Maundy Thursday is a day of preparation. There are physical as well as spiritual preparations to be made before heading into Good Friday. In a usual Maundy Thursday service I would have invited the brave and bold to come forward to have their feet washed. Following on from this we would celebrate our last Communion before Easter Sunday. At the end of the service we would strip the altar and then sit in silence to keep watch.

All of these actions – however ceremonial we make them – should help us to turn our hearts, hands and feet to Jesus as he heads to Gethsemane and then the cross.

Our Corinthians reading has Paul handing to us what he received from the Lord. What we have received from the Lord needs to be handed on. Paul is handing on what he knows of the Last Supper; these are the familiar words of our Eucharistic Prayers. The actions of Jesus and his hands in taking the bread, lifting it to give thanks, blessing and then breaking it with his hands. This is the new Passover meal.

Jesus breaking the bread. This is a violent action. Jesus is breaking his own body. Jesus’ body is broken for us on the cross. Not because of anything that He did but only for what we have done. This is the drama that is played out on the altar each time we take communion together. Do this in remembrance of me, he says. Remember my body broken and blood spilled for you. You.

This is the Good News.

As I was preparing for this sermon, a line from John jumped off the page. Verse 3 – Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God,’

Amen! Jesus knows what is going on. He has been given all things. Whatever it is, is in his hands! The relief that this has brought me has been amazing! I am careful to say that the ‘bad stuff’ is still happening and it is still difficult. But it’s in His hands. I’m in his hands; You are in his hands.

Because it is in his hands; we can get our feet washed. That is what John is telling us. Jesus knew he was going to God, so he got up from the table (verse 4), tied a towel, poured the water, and began to wash the disciples’ feet.

Jesus’ foot washing is an act of service and an act of love. The ultimate victory is knowing that he was going to God is completely in Jesus’ hands. He can then do the menial job of foot washing. This foot washing shows us what humble service and true greatness are.

Maybe we have a Peter or two in the congregation tonight. You would have wanted all of yourself to be washed – feet, hands and head. Maybe there are a few anti-Peters who are saying ‘no! I will not be washed!’

Feet, like the heart, pick up stuff along the way. They go places maybe the shouldn’t. Lead to where we don’t want to go. We step in it sometimes too. If we believe, deep down, that our lives are really in His hands then feet washing isn’t that big of a deal. It is a sign of humble acceptance. Humble acceptance of all that has been done for you. Jesus has set us an example as he has washed our feet, we are to wash the feet of others. We can do this in our acts of love and service to each other however unglamorous or menial they might be.

Jesus’ hands healed the blind and raised the dead.

Jesus’ hands broke the bread and poured the wine.

Jesus’ hands have our names written on them.

Jesus’ hands were nailed to the cross for the dirt on ours.

Jesus’ feet walked thousands of miles to heal and teach the least, the lost and the last.

Jesus’ feet brought the Good News.

Jesus’ feet walked up the hill under the weight of the cross.

Jesus’ heart beats for you and for me.

Jesus’ heart breaks over the lost souls of the world.

Jesus’ heart loves beyond what we can ask or imagine.

Will you let the things that have been picked up in your heart and on your feet be washed away tonight?

Loving Lord, you served your disciples in washing their feet: serve us often, serve us daily, in washing our motives, our ambitions, our actions; that we may share with you in your mission to the world and serve others gladly for your sake. (based on a prayer by Michael Ramsey).

Fish on Friday: Living on the Edge

Every Friday, the wonderful Revd Helen Arnold (Lead Chaplain of Thames Valley Police) leads a short reflection on Teams for TVP Officers & staff. I get asked every so often to lead – this was my offering for yesterday…

I recently listened to a 3-part podcast from one of my favourite Christian speakers, Beth Moore, who is an American Bible teacher, writer, speaker. The podcast is called ‘On Edge’ which I felt was fitting for the times we are living in. However, it was into the second of the three podcasts when Beth mentioned about being with this particular audience, somewhere in New Hampshire in 2013. I had mistakenly thought this was a new podcast. Everything that she was speaking about at that time in 2013 was very relevant to today!

In the podcast, Beth was talking about different groups of people as well individuals who found themselves on the edge at various times and situations. One example was a group of people on the edge of moving into the a land that God had promised them. The other was about a woman who grabbed onto the hem of Jesus robe as he walked by her. Just for context!

What struck me about this and as I have thought about living on the edge more this week – is that a)people have often (throughout history as it turns out) found themselves living on the edge of something and b) if we are on the edge so much of the time – are we really ever on solid ground? How do we know?

Many people have found themselves living on the edge of something over the last year – as I also reflected on this in relation to the one year anniversary of lock down. The edge of sanity, breakdown, break up. The edge of health and illness, life and death. The edge of a job or relationship, financial security. The edge of decisions with potentially huge consequences both seen and unseen. We might even be on the edge of greatness, of break through, new opportunities. Edges everywhere you look!

We might wonder however we ended up on the edge of where we are as it seemed just to have happened. Edges are important though. At the end of the podcast, Beth Moore, talked about edges and hems are being necessary as without them everything falls apart. The hem on a garment keeps it from unravelling. Sometimes we are on the edge of something new to keep the rest of life from unravelling. We need an edge, it is the edge that can lead us to solid ground.

I heard this poem recently – I think it is fitting for those on the edge.

For Longing by John O’Donohue
Blessed be the longing that brought you here
And quickens your soul with wonder.
May you have the courage to listen to the voice of desire
That disturbs you when you have settled for something safe.
May you have the wisdom to enter generously into your own unease
To discover the new direction your longing wants you to take.
May the forms of your belonging—in love, creativity, and friendship—
Be equal to the grandeur and the call of your soul.
May the one you long for long for you.
May your dreams gradually reveal the destination of your desire.
May a secret Providence guide your thought and nurture your feeling.
May your mind inhabit life with the sureness with which your body inhabits the
May your heart never be haunted by ghost-structures of old damage.
May you come to accept your longing as divine urgency.
May you know the urgency with which God longs for you.

Passiontide: Wanting to See Jesus

Lent 5 – 21/3/21

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 51:1-12
Hebrews 5:5-10
John 12:20-33

Edward Vardanian, Crucifixion (2003)

How has Lent been treating you? Has it been a time of learning new things about yourself and God? At this point in Lent, I think that many people get tempted to give up on the whole thing! Others may think it doesn’t make much difference anyway and carry on as normal. Whichever way we are marking it (or not) this season is moving on – rather quickly. We began after Ash Wednesday with Jesus’ baptism as told by Mark; the next Sunday saw Jesus beginning to teach his disciples that he was to undergo great suffering, be killed and rise again in three days. The next thing we read was Jesus turning over the tables in the Temple with the reminder that he would be killed and rise again in three days. We lightened up a bit last week for Mothering Sunday.

This Sunday – the fifth Sunday of Lent begins the final push towards Easter as a ‘season within a season’: Passiontide runs these next two weeks until Easter Sunday. There is a turning in the Gospel reading this morning as Jesus narrows down the time frame with ‘the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified’. In the previous Gospel readings there has been no time specified. This threw the disciples and the Jewish authorities into confusion over when things were to happen!

There is another confusing piece in the Gospel passage too. The festival was Passover, the great Jewish feast that required Jews from far and wide to come to the Temple in Jerusalem. So where did these worshipping Greeks come from?

Somewhere along the way, we can assume, they had heard about Jesus and now had a desire, a wish to see him. Are they curious about his message, his parables? Are they hoping to see a miracle-worker? Were they sceptics? Troublemakers? Wanting to pick a fight? We don’t know what the motives were and I am glad of this mystery as this brings up some rather interesting questions for us.

Do we wish to see Jesus? Maybe see the Jesus who does stuff for us, answers our prayers, heals people and helps the lonely, the lost and the least. But the Jesus who talks about his death and how hard it is going to be? The Jesus who wants us to give up our lives with little promise of comfort or reward?

I wonder what those Greeks made of what Jesus said next? Is this the Jesus they wanted to see as he launches into talk about death? Whoever serves me must follow me? Did they follow him after this?

Then there is the voice from heaven! The crowd heard it – some said it was thunder, others said it was an angel. Again, how much do we want to see Jesus and do we want to hear from him?

There are times when I really want to see Jesus. I want nothing more than to hear his voice – whether it is the still small one or thunder from the heavens. There are times when I would rather be deaf and blind to it all. Excuse signs and wonders as thunder and blend in with the crowd.

The question today is ‘do you wish to see Jesus?’ Does this question register with us all right now? From the essayist Debie Thomas, ‘If we say yes, which Jesus do we wish to see? The teacher? The healer? The peacemaker? The troublemaker? Why are we interested? Or, if we’re not asking and seeking, then the question shifts, and we have to ask it differently: why is Jesus not on our radars? Does ‘seeing’ him feel impossible right now? Uninteresting? Irrelevant? Has he become so familiar to us that he’s faded away entirely?’

I hope that for those of us who have grown up in the faith have not lost the scandal and shock of Jesus’ death. I pray that as we continue through this Lenten journey we can all recapture something of the deep mystery of the crucifixion. With new eyes we see what happened on Good Friday.

If we want to see Jesus, we have to be willing to look at the cross. It is the cross that makes true sight possible. It is, as Jesus said, ‘when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’

Debie Thomas, ‘In the end, what this week’s Gospel reading teaches me is that I don’t have to strive and strain to see Jesus. As he told those Gentile seekers two thousand years ago, he is the one who draws and gathers all people to himself. He is the one who allows himself to be lifted up, so that what is murky or overwhelming or frightening — God in his indecipherable Otherness — comes close and becomes visible.

As we continue our journey through Lent, I hope you will want to see and hear Jesus in new ways. Jesus loves whether we do or not. Jesus wants to see to me, you, all of us – regardless of our desire to or not – far more urgently than we will ever want to see him. We love because he first loved us. The cross draws us towards love with a power that is compelling and completely mysterious. Jesus draws us together in love. Let us watch for the signs with seeing eyes, listening ears and hearts that burn for more of Him.