Category Archives: Faith Matters

Sunday 2nd May

Reading: Acts 8: 26-40

Many things have been written about the meeting between Philip and the Ethiopian official – from the fact of this enquirer’s black African heritage to his position at the Court; from the implication that he followed the Jewish faith to the suggestion that God brought them together. However, there is one part of this passage that leaps out every time I read it.

Philip says to him “Do you understand what you are reading” and the Ethiopian says “How can I understand unless someone explains it to me?” So Philip does…

But two things come into mind. The first is that many of us struggle with understanding things we read in our Bibles. (And that includes ministers who, having read the texts and studied for years still wrestle with them!) I have often had difficulties with “doing Bible Study” So many seem reluctant to try – and I have often been told “I am not clever enough”
or “I am afraid of seeming stupid” So instead we shared the Word, and said what we felt it was saying to us today. That way there is no wrong way – just a personal interpretation that speaks to us as individuals.

The second thing is the assumption that we have to understand everything to take part. I remember a discussion once about a young woman with Down’s Syndrome who wanted to receive Communion. The Elders were against it – in case she did not understand what it was really about. The minister responded by saying “Do any of us?” (Grace got Communion!)

The Word of God is for every age and every era. Making sense of Scripture is a wrestling with the help of the Holy Spirit, trying to hear God speaking here and now through words remembered and written down centuries ago. It is a challenge and a privilege to hear and to share in this never-ending story. When I was at Theological College the then Moderator of the URC, David Jenkins preached in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity on the great shoal of fish. His text was “They called to their partners in the other boat” This, he said, was
true ecumenism – not that they all got into one boat, but that they worked together to land the catch. I have never forgotten it – and inspired interpretation is not reserved for theologians like David, but sometimes can be given even to us!

God bless you all.
Revd Barbara Bennet

Sunday 25th April

Unlocked for Lockdown?

The Judean desert, as you may have seen for yourself, is a place of gaunt beauty much of it little changed since Biblical times. Among many striking features are the caves found near the ancient settlement of Qumran. Their entrances can be seen high up on the towering precipices all around.

The story relating to the caves riveted the attention of school parties we took there on trips to Israel. The caves, you’ll recall, held the Dead Sea scrolls, a collection of Jewish texts discovered by Bedouin shepherds in the 1940s and 1950s. Subsequently cleaned and studied, the writings shed valuable light on a range of literature, much of it Biblical.

Very recently, some twenty further pieces of parchment were found (among other remarkable items) in the Cave of Horror – so called because of the skeletons of women, men and children uncovered in earlier excavations.

These newly revealed fragments are believed to be the remains of scrolls stashed in the cave during a Jewish uprising against the Roman Emperor Hadrian between AD/CE 132 and 136. They are Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible books of Zechariah and Nahum, when, as ever, vital ingredients of civilized living like truth and justice were in short supply.

The only fragment quoted in the article about the discovery is uncannily timely – ‘unlocked for lockdown’, one might say. It reads: ‘These are the things you are to do: speak the truth to one another, render true and perfect justice in your gates’ (within your communities).

At a time when too many political leaders brazenly lie, to gain or retain their power, and care little about justice (fair sharing of wealth and resources), the wisdom of the ancient prophets is hauntingly relevant. For if we are to confront our own Cave of Horror (Covid-19, accelerating species extinction, global pollution, the climate crisis), it’s surely imperative that leaders and people in every sphere of life do indeed ‘speak the truth to one another, and render true and perfect justice’. 

Edward Hulme

Eco-Sunday 18th April

Introduction from Geoff to this week’s Reflections

Sunday 18th April would have seen us hold an Eco Church themed service with Catherine Causley from Transition Exmouth as our guest speaker. Since we are unable to meet for worship, I invited Catherine to provide our Reflections for this Sunday, suggesting she might like to write for us what she would have conveyed in her talk.  This is what she sent – which I hope acts as a challenge and an inspiration to us all!     

The things we have done to reduce our environmental impact as a family

My name is Catherine and I am married to Roger and together we have 2 children, Holly aged 9 and Toby aged 7. Over the last few years we have been trying to reduce our environmental impact, slowly over time we have tried a number of different things. We added things one by one, it was easier than trying to implement a whole series of changes in one go and it allowed us to embed new behaviours before adding new things. Maybe in hindsight we might have implemented things in a different order but we were learning as we went along. Our carbon footprint has reduced by 50% and I do not feel like we have sacrificed anything by the changes we have made.

  1. Reduced our consumption of dairy products. Our son has eczema and it took us a while to realise that it was triggered by dairy, so a couple of years ago we went dairy free for 6 weeks to see if eliminating dairy helped his condition and it did. We found the experience ok after a period of adjustment, so have massively reduced our dairy consumption except for the occasional piece of cheese. For me the hardest thing was giving up milk in coffee but after a couple of weeks I soon got used to it. We tried numerous nut milks but they were not for us but if you can’t go without something in your morning coffee then oat milk is definitely the best option.
  1. Went from 2 cars to 1. In 2019 I was involved in a minor car crash, where someone drove into the side of my car writing it off. We decided not to replace it and now just have one car. I was worried about how we would make it work with both of us needing to commute to Exeter for work, school drop offs and general usage but actually it’s been fine. We both have e-bikes which we use for short journeys, the battery makes cycling up to the top of Brixington easy. Pre-covid I used to cycle the 11 miles into my Exeter office and it would take the same time as driving.
  1. Buy second hand. This is something I have always done, mainly because I didn’t have the budget to buy new items. I have a passion for Stag bedroom furniture and often find older furniture is better quality and built to last in a way new furniture just isn’t. I buy preloved clothes for my children and myself and have recently learnt to sew so that I can make alterations and repair our clothes.
  1. Stop flying. My last flight was 4 years ago and I flew to Manchester for a work event. We have made the decision to no longer fly, much of Europe is accessible by ferry and car. We tend to holiday in the U.K. There are so many beautiful places to see and we are blessed to live in such a stunning part of the U.K. Whilst I may fly again at some point I have no plans to in the medium term. My children’s favourite place to go on holiday is Dawlish, at the age they are all they want is a beach, a park and the freedom to run around and play. My favourite holiday was to North Wales, it’s really the prettiest place in the U.K I have ever been to, it’s just a shame you can’t guarantee the weather!
  1. Go vegetarian – almost. For a few years now we have been reducing our meat and dairy consumption, we went from eating meat everyday to a couple of times a week. Then in January we did Veganuary and went fully vegan for a whole month. I am lucky my children love vegetables and are not fussy eaters and actually they barely mentioned the switch. Now as a family we are almost vegetarian, by that I mean we eat the occasional bacon sandwich and will eat whatever we are served at someone else’s house but very rarely cook meat at home. We also don’t eat eggs, fish or red meat.
  1. Green energy. This was probably the easiest switch for us, we went with a supplier that sells only renewable electricity, our supplier is Octopus. There is a concern that it will be massively more expensive but we found it cost about the same. Renewable gas is harder to come by but we have a newish gas boiler and keep the ambient temperature low, I make my kids put on a jumper before I switch on the heating!
  1. Eco renovation. We love our house and intend to stay here forever so we have installed solar p.v to generate our own energy and have battery storage to store energy whilst the sun is shining to use later in the evening. This was not a cheap measure but will pay back in 10 years and save us over £25,000 over its lifetime in energy. We will generate about 75% of the energy our house uses. Later on this year we will replace the ancient double glazing and insulate the whole house. The cost to insulate the attic will be about £300 and will save us £140 per year and last 40 years so it’s a great return on our investment.
  1. Recycle everything. I am a firm believer in reuse before recycling so not only do I primarily buy second-hand furniture and clothes but I also give away things I no longer need. Exmouth Friends in Need is a great way of passing on things and it helps to support disadvantaged people in our community. I also use freecycle which is an email based free giveaway site and the bonus is people will come and collect it from you so it’s easy. In my day job I work for Devon County Council as the reuse project officer for the waste management team, so I have learnt to be very good at ensuring my rubbish ends up in the correct bin. I really focus on food waste and hardly ever throw food out. I use the community larder when I have an excess of things I have grown or bought and turn my vegetable waste into compost.
  1. Get involved. Now my children are older I have a bit more time so I have got involved with Transition Exmouth. They are a local environmental community group aimed at helping people tackle the climate crisis. To date we have run energy advice clinics, networking events, litter patrols and worked with the Town council to adopt a 10-point plan to reduce their environmental impact. I am also in the process of setting up a Library of Things, so that people can share items.
  1. Organic box scheme. A couple of years ago we started to get vegetables from a local organic farm and every week we have a veg box, the flavour is just amazing, plus it has the bonus of creating far less packaging waste.

So if this has inspired you and you would like to take a step to being more eco conscious but are unsure where to start my suggestions would be to

  • Switch to a renewable energy supplier
  • Insulate your house
  • Buy organic food, preferably from a local grower

For more information or to meet like-minded people, you could join Transition Exmouth, we are a lovely friendly and supportive bunch. You could also check out our new website, Our place, Our planet for lots of ideas on how to reduce waste.

Catherine Causley

Sunday 11th April

John 20: 19-31

Often our focus when we read this passage is on the disciple Thomas, Thomas who was not present the first time and who could only believe when he had seen with his own eyes what the others were claiming. Maybe we focus on him because we know what it’s like to have our faith tested, or to struggle with faith, and we are reassured by his doubts. There are, however, other things going on in this passage and the focus on Thomas might divert our attention away from what it is that Thomas is directed to – and I’m referring to Jesus wounds. These are an important part of this narrative and a crucial means for Jesus to identify himself. We read in verses 19 and 20, ‘Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you’. After he said this he showed them his hands and his side.’ And again, in the second encounter a week later, when Thomas is present, we read that Jesus said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side…’

Down through the centuries many Christians have meditated upon Christ’s wounds. Indeed in later times Christians experienced the phenomena of stigmata, where the wounds of Christ were replicated in their own flesh: very often women, though Francis of Assisi was the first recorded case. So what do these wounds signify? What story do they tell? What is the significance of the fact that our faith is founded upon a Messiah with wounds, a Messiah who is able to point to his pierced hands and side? Well, of course those marks speak volumes. They speak of the clash between the politics of this world and the politics of Jesus’ Kingdom, the fact that the religious and political powers of this world conspired to send Jesus to a tortuous death. They tell us that when God’s rule engages with human rule blood is spilt. Yes, there are political dimensions to Christ’s wounds. But of course, they speak too of love, a sacrificial love, a love that suffered for the sins of the world, for these wounds proclaim the price of our redemption. And of course, they speak too of the unfathomable mystery of a suffering God. In the face of the mystery of pain and suffering in the world, in the face of the absurdity – obscenity even – of a faith that speaks of a loving God in a world of hellish torment and injustice the Christian faith quickly runs out of words. All we can do is point to the wounds of Christ, to a God who deals with suffering by entering into it and sharing it in order finally to defeat it from within. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, ‘only a suffering God can help.’ Jesus’ wounds testify to such a God.

I have a question, though. Should we call what Jesus showed his disciples his wounds – or his scars? Because if you think about it, they are not quite the same thing. The difference is that scars are what wounds become when they heal. Wounds are ruptures, intrusions, invasions of our bodies. They are open and they are usually painful and they bleed. And because they are open they become infected and they spread infection and that can be fatal. But scars are the memories, the traces of wounds. They are testimony to the power of healing, to closure.

Of course, we all carry scars. Some of them are reminders of things we would like to forget, but others we are quite proud of. One poet has described scars as ‘the short stories of the flesh’ – they all tell tales of some kind. Leonard Cohen says in one of his novels, ‘A scar is what happens when the word is made flesh.’ He is speaking here of our capacity to wound one another through our words, and that is frightening. But of course he is also referring to the Christ of John’s Gospel who, he tells us at the beginning of his gospel, was God’s Word made flesh, dwelling among us, full of grace of truth. And now here, towards the end of his gospel, John shows us the result of the divine Word becoming flesh – there are scars. But note! They are scars – in other words healed wounds.

This risen Jesus, after all, is the embodiment of healing. In him the healing of the great breach between God and the world is healed. In him all of creation which is groaning and sighing in pain is promised healing. That is why he breathes upon the disciples in this room because risen from the grave Jesus’ whole being breathes wellbeing and healing and peace and reconciliation. By his wounds-become-scars we are healed.

There are, however, others in this scene who are wounded, at least to begin with. Yes, Jesus may be the only one with marks to show but these disciples gathered here on the first occasion are deeply wounded. They are injured and hurting. Just think of the description of them – ‘behind locked doors for fear of the Jews’. What makes you hide behind locked doors, apart from a virus? What makes you steal away to some place where you can turn the key in the lock and be protected from the outside world? These disciples are traumatised and fearful. Yes, earlier on that day Peter and the beloved disciple had been to the tomb and found it empty, but they had yet to see the risen Lord and they do not yet understand, and with the rest of the disciples they are shattered by the events of the past days when their world had come crashing down. And so they hide away. And suddenly Jesus is there and he blesses them, ‘peace be with you’, and shows them his scars and again he pronounces peace, and then he breathes upon them, saying, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit!’ And of course this is the moment when their resurrection begins, their rising out of fear and into life.

It is important to note though, that we need to read this part of John’s Gospel with early chapters of the Book of Genesis in mind. The scene of discovery of the empty tomb is set in a garden where Jesus meets Mary Magdalene and that carries echoes of the Garden of Eden and of Adam and Eve. Back there in Eden we read that God breathed life into the dust to create Adam and to give him life, and now Jesus breathes upon these wounded disciples and at once there are the beginnings of new life, of healing, of resurrection. From this moment onwards these disciples will become the community of the scarred. Earlier on Jesus has warned that if the world hated him it would hate them too. Just like Jesus, his followers will find themselves at that bloody place where they collide with the politics and the powers of the world. And beyond that, they will not be spared all the wider pain and the wounds that life in the world inflicts upon us all. But with the breath of the Holy Spirit, with the breath of Christ’s shalom upon them, they will discover at least the first tentative stirrings of healing, of resurrection, of peace. This is the gift of the Spirit – that wounds become scars.

Celebrating Easter this year, for the second time in a lockdown, though of course this year in a by now far less strict one and with more hope for the near future, we need to speak of healing. At a time like this we need to speak of healing if our faith means anything to us at all, and not just healing from this virus. For the current pandemic and its effects hold a mirror up to us of all the ways in which we need healing – all the ways in which we are wounded, and fearful and hurt and an Easter faith must address these. And we look to Jesus, the risen Lord and we ponder his scars. Our scars become part of our life story, of our character and we might wonder if Christ will bear the marks on his hands and his feet and his side forever. Are they part of his eternal identity? Who knows? Wounds? – no. They are long gone. But you could argue that Christ’s scars, like ours, are part of his character, and bear eternal witness to who he is and what he came to do.

So, in brief: Christ’s scars bear eternal witness to God’s immersion in our pain. They speak of the suffering God, who alone can address us. And Christ’s scars embody a promise: that there is healing, that by the grace of God our wounds and our hurts and our suffering do not have the last word – there can be some measure of healing, however incomplete, in this life. And Christ’s scars challenge us therefore that our wounds do not define us, they do not take over our identity. And they therefore give us strength and hope to live with suffering and not to be destroyed by it.

That is the Easter Gospel not just for times of lockdown and infection and fear, but for all times. And to God be praise and glory.

Revd Sabrina Groeschel

Palm Sunday

Philippians 2: 5-11 and Luke 19: 28-44

‘What kind of King is this?’

Jesus was travelling to Jerusalem, a journey which would end with betrayal, arrest, torture and death on a cross. Jesus had journeyed from Jericho, where he had healed blind Bartimaeus, to Bethany which was about 13 miles. From Bethany he had only two miles to go to Jerusalem, so he had almost reached his goal.

The prophets of the Old Testament had a regular custom which they used when people refused to listen and take in their spoken message. They resorted to drama, to paint a picture in people’s minds and a drama was just what Jesus had in mind as he travelled into the Holy City. He proposed to ride into Jerusalem in such a way that the very action of it would be an unmistakable claim that he was the Messiah, God’s anointed King.

When Jesus rode into Jerusalem at the end of his journey, he was making a clear statement which was fulfilling a prophecy that Zechariah had made long before. Few people could have misinterpreted it, or could they?

‘Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See your King comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of
a donkey. (Zechariah 9:9)

This entry into the city had been prepared long before, it was no sudden, impulsive action. Jesus did not leave things to the last minute. It teaches us a lesson in preparing well when we are doing God’s work. The most important preparation is prayer to ask God for guidance in every detail of our lives but especially when we are preparing to do his work.

Jesus had made his arrangements with the owners of the colt and a password had been agreed. He sent two of the disciples ahead of him to collect the colt and bring it to him. But they couldn’t complete the task without the password, which was, ‘The Lord needs it.’

When the disciples returned to Jesus with the donkey they threw their cloaks on its back and Jesus climbed on. It took incredible courage for Jesus to enter the city in the way that he did. By this time there was a price on his head. It would have been natural for him to slip unseen into Jerusalem, but he entered in such a way as to focus the whole lime-light upon himself and to occupy the centre stage. It is impossible to exaggerate the sheer courage of
Jesus.

Imagine the scene: As they walked along the road, the people were laying their cloaks in the road. The excitement was electric, they knew that something momentous was going to happen.  When they came to the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen.
‘Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!’
‘Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!’

The Pharisees in the crowd asked Jesus to stop the disciples shouting out what for them was blasphemy. But Jesus said to them, ‘If they were to keep quiet, the very stones in the road will cry out.’

It was a deliberate fulfilling of the picture painted by Zechariah. But even in this, Jesus underlined the kind of kingship which he claimed. The donkey in Palestine was not the lowly beast that it is in this country. It was noble, because only in war did kings ride on a horse; when they came in peace they came upon a donkey. So Jesus by this action came as a King who comes to his people in love and in peace and not as the conquering hero, which the mob expected and were waiting for.

Jesus was prepared to do whatever it took to save us. Ridicule, pain, torture, even death on a cross. His was total commitment because he knew there was no other way.

Rev Jim Thorneycroft
Synod Pastoral Advisor

Sunday 21st March

OT: Jeremiah 31: 31 – 34; EPISTLE: Hebrews 4:14 – 5:10; GOSPEL: John 12:20 – 33

Reflection on OT Lesson

The atheist anthem, ‘Imagine’ – composed by John Lennon, is a rather fanciful vision of a world where all possessions are held in common and the world lives in unity and peace without the barriers of nation, race, class or religion. ‘And the world will live as one’ is the aspiration.

However, it’s not just atheists who have fanciful visions. Jeremiah’s picture in chapter 31 suggests that God will stop trying to teach his people things and somehow just ZAP us – so it becomes natural for us to know God. So, His will is written on our hearts and God becomes part of us. But, as we all know, it’s not that simple! Jeremiah LONGS for the time when God and His people will be united and there is some anger and despair that this is not happening. The Old Covenant (based upon the Exodus story and made between God and His people through Moses) is dead and gone says Jeremiah. Why? Because people have been found INCAPABLE of faithfulness and love towards God. So, from now on, the NEW Covenant is to be written on hearts and lives, not on tablets of stone! It may sound wonderful, but it’s actually a last resort, a desperate measure. Only by wiping the slate clean can God achieve what he intended when he first created people.

Jeremiah correctly describes the human hearts’ need for radical overhaul, but he does not show HOW it is going to be achieved. He doesn’t describe just HOW God will fulfil the promise of a New Covenant. As we now know, the New Covenant, carved on the human heart, is the promise God makes to us in Jesus. Our New Testament readings show us what the New Covenant means.

Reflection on Epistle

The writer of Hebrews shows us that to be effective the New Covenant needed a new kind of priesthood. Priests, back in the time of Jesus, had a bad reputation because they sought privileges and did not practise what they preached. Then, as often now, priests had ideas above their station. But Jesus was a different kind of priest. ‘A priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.’ But what does that mean? In Genesis 14 we find the founder of the Jewish faith, Abraham, being blessed by Melchizedek who is clearly greater than him. Melchizedek is a mysterious figure about whom we know little. He arrives from nowhere. He appears and disappears just as quickly! He has no genealogy, no father and mother, no descendants, no beginning and no end! The point is that his priesthood was entirely different from that found in Judaism which depended entirely upon descent.

Jesus’ priesthood is the same; it does not depend upon descent but on himself alone. It’s a priesthood which last forever and does not need to offer sacrifice for his own sins. Jesus is the priest, who, in offering himself (not a sacrifice) opened the way to God and ended the need for sacrifice to be made. He showed us the true meaning of priesthood.

Reflection on Gospel

And, just as Jesus reinterpreted priesthood, he also reinterpreted what is meant to be the Messiah, Son of the Father. As Hebrews puts it: ‘Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered.’ Of course, the disciples couldn’t see it.  They wanted a quick fix. They wanted an easy victory. They wanted an all-conquering, victorious Messiah, not a crucified one. Not one who learned His Father’s business in the school of suffering.

The disciples had to learn that being Son of the Father was NOT about Jesus being given absolute power and setting up his kingdom by diktat. It was NOT about being a divine figure who was one step removed from the daily suffering and toil of those he came to save. It was NOT a matter of sharing God’s rule and living in glory and bliss. NO!

Jesus, the Son of the Father, had to learn what it was it was like to be part of the world and be the butt of its violence and hatred. Jesus had to learn what God’s ‘creation business was all about from the bottom up, before he could ever save it. Jesus learned that to be the Father’s obedient Son meant enduring its suffering. He endured the darkness of the world in order to be its light. He endured the wickedness of the world in order to rescue it.

How about us as Jesus’ followers? As the sons and daughters of God (co-heirs with Christ) are we too prepared to learn what it means to be about our Father’s business?

Revd Terry Spencer

Mothering Sunday

Surely one of the most powerful pieces of art in the world is a sculpture by Michelangelo in St Peter’s in Rome, known as the ‘pietà’. Those who dismiss Mothering Sunday as sweet sentimentality should stand in front of this representation of motherhood. ‘Pity’, the literal translation of the Italian ‘pietà’, is too weak a word in English to describe what it must feel like for a mother, any mother, to hold her dead son, let alone Mary holding the crucified Jesus. The depth of emotion so wonderfully expressed by Michelangelo takes us immediately to the heart of the words of Simeon in Luke’s Gospel: “a sword will pierce your own soul too”. Listen to any mother remembering a son brought home dead from battle, or any mother bereft in one of a thousand refugee camps around the world, or any mother aghast at the impact of an earthquake or a flood as her children are lost.

Mothering Sunday today marks the fourth Sunday in Lent. Few of us make significant changes to our routines for Lent these days; if we give up anything it is probably something we should give up anyway to stay healthy. But when Mothering Sunday was established more than a thousand years ago this day marked a genuine relief from the privations of the extended fast. It was sometimes called ‘Laetare Sunday’ ‘A Sunday for rejoicing’, because it was like an oasis in a barren season, a modest celebration with family amid the weeks of serious self-denial. Even so, we can glimpse something of the mile-post signified by today. Half-way through Lent we turn for home. Even for us comfortable Christians it gets serious. These next weeks are overshadowed by the inevitability of suffering and death facing Jesus and the connected fact of our own suffering and mortality. Of course we cannot really appreciate the sense of impending crisis facing the disciples who had heard Jesus foretelling nothing but death and dishonour at the end of the road. On another occasion Jesus compared his suffering to the birth-pangs of a mother; yes there is joy at the new birth but back then many women died in labour. Such mother-love is as far from sentimentality as you can get, whatever it says on the cards today.

The 14th century mystic Julian of Norwich famously and bravely likened Jesus to a mother: “Our Saviour is our true Mother in whom we are endlessly born and out of whom we shall never come”. Such ‘mother love’ is the hallmark of Jesus and should be imprinted on us, and through us onto the world. It is this love which God vindicated by raising Jesus from death. One reason we cannot fully share the horror of that journey to Jerusalem is that for the Christian followers of Jesus these same weeks are back-lit by Easter hope. ‘Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…’   But here is a great mystery: what part does our suffering play in the purposes of a Christ-like God?

Why should we suffer now that Christ is raised? Has God not won a victory? Many of the Letters in the New Testament tackle this question, including the whole of the Book of Revelation which was written to raise the morale of the persecuted church. Where is this almighty God, where is this risen Jesus, where is this life-giving world-transforming Spirit we were promised?   Paul writes to the church in Corinth about one of his darkest times when he felt “utterly unbearably crushed”: “we felt we had received a sentence of death so that we would rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead”.  Even more starkly – and strangely – he writes elsewhere that his own sufferings somehow complete the sufferings of Christ and that they have a part in the overall plan of human salvation. This is not merely the age-old problem of why suffering exists at all in a world created by a loving God; that is difficult enough. But the fact that Christians suffer too, sometimes more than others because they are Christians, is doubly problematic, and has been so from New Testament times.

Which brings us back to where we are, half-way through Lent, thinking ahead to the suffering and death of Jesus himself, the labour pains of eternal life, to use our Lord’s own metaphor. Deep down we know that unless our suffering is bound up with that of Jesus and unless his suffering is bound up with ours, there is no meaning to any of it as far as faith or hope are concerned. Unless this is the action of a Christ-like God the story of Jesus of Nazareth would merely take its place among the great tragedies in history or fiction, alongside that of Socrates or King Lear. Worse still, we would be left desperate at the emptiness and perversity of evolutionary progress on this extremely lonely and vulnerable planet. What we need to know is not only that God in Christ somehow took our part in the suffering and death of Jesus of Nazareth back then, but that God continues to share with us human beings in this present time. For here is the only light that can be shone on this matter: in addressing what may be called in shorthand ‘the problem of suffering’ God does not answer the question – it is unanswerable within time and history. But God does respond to the questioner.

There is no logical way through the dilemma of what Paul calls ‘the sentence of death’, the awareness of mortality, and the dark side, the sheer frustrating finitude of it all, good and evil, light and dark. But there is an almost foolish way through the darkness and that is the way of a relationship with God himself, inside our human story for the duration of time and space, God here and now. Just as Easter is not only about the future, so the present darkness may be navigated with faith and hope and love. It is not in the end a matter for debate but for experience. God in Christ gives us not an answer but a partnership. Jesus remains Emmanuel, God alongside, through everything. This is the kind of God God is. Love drives a sword through the heart of God, not only through Mary’s heart. Mothers can glimpse this. Love hurts; but love prevails. Let this be your treasure, received with thanks and shared with all, for Jesus our mother’s sake who has brought us to life.

Revd Peter Brain

——————————————————————————————————————–

and a prayer by Revd Helena McKinnon  (used by permission)

Mother me, my Father,
that I may step unbowed
from safe within your haven
to face a hostile crowd.

Mother me, my Father,
and help me ease the pain
of taunts and tears and teasing,
and make me love again.

Mother me, my Father,
with hands so deeply scarred,
that I may touch some other
whose suffering is hard.

Mother me, my Father,
that all my life be styled
on loving like a mother,
and trusting like a child.

Sunday 7th March

John 2: 13-22

The so-called Cleansing of the Temple in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke is recorded towards the end of Jesus’ ministry after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. In John it occurs at the beginning of his ministry. His action is more than just a protest about the commercialisation of, and segregation in, the house of God. It is above all a sign that a radically new state of affairs accompanied the coming and presence of Jesus which showed up the failure of the old Order and indicated that a transformation had come about with the coming of Jesus.

We are impressed very often by all the wrong things.  In John 2 everyone was impressed with the magnificence of the Temple.  For over four decades it had been undergoing construction and was not even then finished.  It reminds me of the Ken Follett novel The Pillars of the Earth that refers to the construction of a European cathedral that literally stretches across generations of construction workers and craftsmen.  Some projects in the past were so grand that the person who laid the first stone just knew that he would never live to see the completion of the great project he was engaged in.

How could anyone fail to be impressed by Herod’s Temple?  Maybe it did not quite hold a candle to the original splendour of Solomon’s Temple but that building was long gone, and Herod’s edifice was quite something to behold.  Elsewhere, in Mark’s Gospel we read of the disciples own jaw-dropping moment upon seeing the Temple in Jerusalem.  “As he was leaving the temple, one of his disciples exclaimed “Look, Teacher, what huge stones! What fine buildings!” (Mk.13:1).

Maybe Jesus threw out the moneychangers because their ever-expanding emporium was eclipsing the real meaning of the temple.  Maybe the temple had started to look like just any old Jerusalem market, and so people were forgetting that to have faith was to believe that God’s house is most definitely not just any old place.  The temple was not about nationalism nor about the exclusive appropriation of faith and worship and the exclusion of those whose faces do not fit because they are different. The commercial exploitation, in which people are regarded as a means for profit, and manipulated to preserve the power of the privileged, and the injustice, which still today determines the appalling political practices that too often bedevils many of our leaders, has no place in the house of God.

Had Jesus’ fellow Jews got the wrong focus? Did they regard the magnificent temple as their own accomplishment in which they could do whatever they wanted because it was, after all, their place?  They had built it and it was theirs.

Perhaps the ‘lock-down’ has deprived us of those special places where we can gather together to worship God. Those locations where we may well have had significant and meaningful moments, even where we sensed the presence of God, are so important. Often at times such as these we long for them and try to recapture those precious memories and re-live the experiences. As important as those locations are, as magnificent as some of those buildings may be, they can too easily get in the way and become a barrier and a distraction.

John wrote his Gospel after the Romans had desecrated and destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus’s words “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up”, was taken to refer to the magnificent building where the encounter occurred. It has taken more than a life-time to build this Temple …. and you are suggesting that you can rebuild it in 3 days? But John was not referring to the building, but to Jesus and to his death and resurrection.

The Temple for the Jewish people symbolised the presence of God. It was there people worshipped God and offered sacrifices to God. But humanity’s selfish arrogance, ambition, pursuit of power, status and wealth conflicted with the purpose of God.  John, in referring to Jesus as the temple indicates that God’s presence is located in Jesus. It is in his coming, his humility, his life, his compassion, his love for all and especially for the vulnerable, the weak, the neglected, and in the selfless offering of himself, in death and resurrection.  That is where God is encountered. If the temple symbolises the location and presence of God, John’s astounding declaration is that the one standing before those people in the Temple was the Son of God, ‘the word made flesh’, but they were far more impressed by bricks and mortar and the rituals of religion than they were by the actual presence of God. God is right here, right in front of you. Jesus is the revelation of God, the one and only God (John 1:18). That is the testimony John repeatedly reinforced with different sets of images, different characters, different stories, all pointing back to this essential truth. That is why he places this incident at the beginning of his Gospel.

Revd Michael Diffey

Sunday 28th February

Luke 13:31-35; 2 Corinthians 3:12-18

In our reading from Luke, Jesus, who is headed for Jerusalem, which has a long history of persecuting prophets and rejecting God’s envoys, receives a warning from the Pharisees about Herod wanting to kill him. Jesus, however, is not intimidated by Herod, ‘Go and tell that fox Herod for me, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work”.’ In other words, I must do what must be done; I will not play chicken to Herod’s fox, but how I wish I could be the mother hen who protects her fragile brood under her wings. I wish I could gather Jerusalem under my arms like a hen gathering her chicks and shield them from what is to come.

It is such a beautiful image – Christ the mother hen – and it has deep roots in the Old Testament. Ruth, a vulnerable and displaced refugee, is blessed with the words, ‘may you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge.’ We find the image repeated in the psalms: Psalm 91, ‘he will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find shelter.’ Here is a picture of divine, protective love. Of course, it is significant that Jesus’ use of this image is female: he pictures himself as the mother hen.

Jesus was not concerned with political correctness, but the fact is that he took a gentle and deliberately feminine image to contrast himself with the vicious, male fox that is Herod. There is surely an invitation here to join Jesus in giving female imagery its right place.

Here Christ pictures himself as covering and protecting his people, but there are other threats that Jesus covers and protects us from apart from political predators. Perhaps
surprisingly, we could begin with a reminder that we also need protection from God. The reading from 2 Corinthians picks up the narrative of Moses going up on the mountain
and communing with God, and it speaks of us as Christians beholding the glory of God – but not directly. It refers to ‘… unveiled faces, seeing the glory of God as though reflected
in a mirror…’ We can only see God as deflected by that mirror who is Christ. He is our Mediator – the mother hen who protects us from God’s searing glory that would otherwise consume us. Indeed, that is why we can gather in the presence of God in worship. That is why we can believe that God is present among us now, without our being destroyed.

This leads us to another sense in which Christ the mother hen covers us with her wings. In the Old Testament we find that God deals with sin by covering it. You will have heard of the Jewish festival of Yom Kippur, which is the day of atonement, the day when God deals with Israel’s sin. In the Old Testament there is a lot of blood and a lot of sacrifice on that day. But the root of the word ‘Kippur’ means ‘to cover’ and so Yom Kippur is literally The Day of Covering. We read in Psalm 32, ‘Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.’ When Christ laments over Jerusalem and longs to cover them as a hen covers her brood, he is longing too to cover their sins.

The classic ‘sin story’ is that of Adam and Eve. After their disobedience they made loin cloths to cover their shame. Perhaps there is an inkling there of our tendency to try to
cover up wrong, to hide it. There can be no cover-up with sin – it must be exposed, confessed, brought out into the light, and that can be painful. But then, praise God, it can be covered over – and so lose its destructive power. To those who feel the guilt and the pain of their wrong and carry the burden of shame, there is no better news than to say, ‘your sins are covered. By the graceful, forgiving wings of the mother hen they are covered over. Find shelter there.’

One last reflection on the mother hen: might it not also be an image of Christ’s body the church? Could ‘mother church’ also be mother hen, spreading her wings over the vulnerable and threatened? During the War, the church community of Chambon-Sur-Lignon in France sheltered over 5000 people – including 3500 Jews – from the Vichy government and the Nazis. The community became Christ, the mother hen, sheltering her chicks. When in February 1943, the leaders of the community were arrested, the policemen happened to arrive at dinner time and were invited to dine with the families of those they came to arrest. The attitude of the community was later summed up as, ‘we were doing what had to be done’ – words which echo Jesus, “Listen, I am performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work”.’ Or, in short, ‘I am doing what needs to be
done’. What needed to be done here was not just to give shelter to the Jews and others who were threatened, but to extend hospitality even to the agents of the fox – to expand
the bounds of the nest to the enemy. We are always challenged to go further!

Sabrina Groeschel

Sunday 21st February

Mark 1:9-15

As we heard in the Gospel reading, soon after his baptism by John, Jesus was driven by God into the wilderness to make certain that he could cope with what lay ahead. Jesus is testing his call and God is testing him too. How he responds is both an inspiration and a help for us now.
Today if someone is seen on television in the middle of nowhere commenting on the desolation and emptiness, you know that if the camera turned around you would see several trucks full of equipment and support, with no danger of getting lost or forsaken!

Mark writes that after Jesus’ baptism “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness and he was there for forty days, tempted by Satan”. Matthew and Luke offer us fuller accounts.

Jesus was alone. The question immediately arises: how does this story come to us? It must be something Jesus himself spoke about to his disciples, not to impress them with his personal courage or endurance, but to make the point that these temptations come our way, too, when we seek to follow Jesus. The Gospel record has Jesus spending a lot of his time warning his followers about the dangers facing him, dangers which would eventually face them too.

Looking at the story which we heard, we notice that there are apparently three temptations. Yet really there is only one, and it comes to Jesus in three ways – and to us. Putting it bluntly, do we really trust God to see us through? The alternatives are spelt out and we can look at them in a moment, but beneath it all we are being asked to trust God, God’s method and God’s love, come what may.

So rather than elaborate on the details of the three temptations, I want to reflect briefly on temptation as such.

But first, remember that Jesus was alone, as so many of us have to be with the precautions needed to restrict this wretched virus. So the first thing to say is that he understands isolation and wants to prevent it becoming depression or worse. Actually few of us sharing this service never see another person – and all of us have the consolation of the company of our favourite radio or television or even films. But if you feel trapped by the virus, then remember the wonderful name of Jesus ‘Emmanuel’ and take heart. God is with us.

The second thing to come out of this temptation story is that each of us has to choose. Unless we are in a really bad place we don’t have demons and voices challenging us or even threatening us. Most ministers have known at least one schizophrenic person, convinced that the devil was close by. That’s very rare of course. But even our normal lives have temptations. And by temptations I mean opportunities and choices – like those facing Jesus. How to use our power, in our case the power of citizens or consumers.
You might expect me to mention Fairtrade as we embark on another Fairtrade Fortnight tomorrow. What we buy can change the world a little for the better, if we are thoughtful and loving in our choices. That familiar Fairtrade Mark signifies that we have chosen to support people who otherwise have very limited scope for a decent life.

We have other, less obvious, choices to make about attitudes rather than things. It does matter to God how we treat other people when we are tempted to impatience or rudeness. When we judge people not for what they do but for who they are – as though they were labelled – that’s the root of racism of course and we are all capable of it. But if we first choose to recognise every fellow human being as a child of God, then we can go on to decide whether we like them or approve of what they do. But start by recognising the fellow human being. Jesus famously said ‘judge not, that you be not judged’; prejudice is so unchristlike, the opposite of love.

Choices – the heart of the temptation story. To define what is good as selflessness is the profound message which Jesus taught and lived out. By human standards it makes little sense to love your neighbour as yourself – what Paul calls ‘the foolishness of God’.

And yet even in loneliness we need not be selfish. Every day we have some choices, albeit limited ones. And in choosing we have the temptation to put ourselves first or not. The Jesus who is Emmanuel is one who is with us, willing the very best for us, and defining that very best as love – and forgiving us when we fall short.

Even at the moment of supreme loneliness, facing his execution during the final weeks of the second world war, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was able to praise God for being able to love, just as Jesus prayed for his own executioners as he loved us to the end.

We are not in such a dark place of course. But wherever we are, however we feel, we are Christ’s in our own time and place. We are not absolutely alone because whatever we face he faces with us – and as we learn to resist our own selfishness and make the loving choices, he will increase our strength and bring us safely and strongly through any temptations.

Revd Peter Brain