Category Archives: News

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

Sunday 14th February

Try to have 3 candles ready to light, and maybe some soft instrumental music playing in the background

Our Sunday worship was due to fall on St Valentine’s Day – which has become a heavily commercialised celebration of (mostly) sentimental and romantic love. When I was asked to share worship with you on this special day, I was very excited. The ideas flowed as my imagination took flight. 

And then two things happened – the third lockdown, which prevents us from doing what we hoped; and I realised that EVERY Sunday is a celebration of Love, indeed, every day, every hour, every moment has the potential of being a celebration of love – and this pandemic has shown us many times what that love looks like.

 What I hoped to share with you in church today – using many of your voices – was extracts of Bishop Michael Curry’s world-stopping sermon at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markel on 19TH MAY 2019. A powerful reminder of the power of love.

 I have interspersed his words with moments of prayer and meditation. Take your time as you read, savour Bishop Michael’s words and wisdom, and invite the God of love into your heart once more…

 “The late Dr Martin Luther King Jr once said: “We must discover the power of love, the redemptive power of love. And when we discover that, we will be able to make of this old world a new world, for love is the only way.”

There’s power in love. Don’t underestimate it. Don’t even oversentimentalise it. There’s power in love… Not just in its romantic forms, but any form, any shape of love. There’s a certain sense in which, when you are loved, and you know it, when someone cares for you, and you know it, when you love and you show it – it actually feels right.

There is something right about it. And there’s a reason for it. The reason has to do with the source. We were made by a power of love, and our lives were meant – and are meant – to be lived in that love. That’s why we are here…”

Moment of Meditation – light a candle

 God our soul’s magnet,
may we be drawn to you,
fall in love with you,
follow you with a lover’s devotion
through the gates of materialism and superficiality,
the exploitation and corruption,
the senseless waste of resources and the false gods,
to the humanity and the divinity
at the heart of your heart, and our own…
Amen.

“Ultimately, the source of love is God himself: the source of all of our lives. There’s an old medieval poem that says: “Where true love is found, God himself is there.” The New Testament says it this way: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God, and those who love are born of God and know God. Those who do not love do not know God.” Why? “For God is love.” There’s power in love. There’s power in love to help and heal when nothing else can.

Jesus of Nazareth was asked by a lawyer to sum up the essence of the teachings of Moses, and Jesus said: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind and all your strength. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself.” … Love God, love your neighbours, and while you’re at it, love yourself.

That’s what love is. Love is not selfish and self-centred. Love can be sacrificial, and in so doing, becomes redemptive. And that way of unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive love changes lives, and it can change this world.

If you don’t believe me, just stop and imagine… a world where love is the way.
Imagine our homes and families where love is the way.
Imagine our neighbourhoods and communities where love is the way.
Imagine our local governments, national governments and nations where love is the way.
Imagine business and commerce where this love is the way.
Imagine this tired old world where love is the way.

When love is the way – unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive.
When love is the way, then no child will go to bed hungry in this world ever again.
When love is the way, we will let justice roll down like a mighty stream and righteousness like an ever flowing brook.
When love is the way, poverty will become history.
When love is the way, the earth will be a sanctuary.
When love is the way, we will lay down our swords and shields, down by the riverside, to study war no more.
When love is the way, there’s plenty good room for all of God’s children. Because when love is the way, we actually treat each other, well … like we are actually family.”

 Moment of Meditation – light a candle

 Let us be different,
Let us not be the same,
You will be you, I will be me,
Each of us has our own name. 

You do things your way,
In the light you have found,
You must be true to what you know,
And stand on your own ground.

 Until we can learn
To honour each other,
To hear and know what makes us real
We can’t love one another.

 But when that time comes,
Though many the flowers,
From different roots, we shall be shown
That one earth is ours.

“Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was arguably one of the great minds, great spirits of the 20th century.  In some of his writings, he said, from his scientific background as well as his theological one he said that the discovery, or harnessing of fire was one of the great scientific and technological discoveries in all of human history.

Fire to a great extent made human civilisation possible. Fire made it possible to cook food and to provide sanitary ways of eating, which reduced the spread of disease in its time. Fire made human migration around the world a possibility, even into colder climates. There was no Bronze Age without fire, no Iron Age without fire, no Industrial Revolution without fire. The advances of fire and technology are greatly dependent on the human ability and capacity to take fire and use it for human good.

Fire makes it possible for us to text and tweet and email and Instagram and Facebook and be socially dysfunctional with each other! Fire makes all of that possible, and De Chardin said fire was one of the greatest discoveries in all of human history.  And he then went on to say that… if humanity ever captures the energy of love – it will be the second time in history that we have discovered fire.

Dr King was right: we must discover love – the redemptive power of love. And when we do that, we will make of this old world, a new world.

 Moment of Meditation – light a candle

Lighter of lights – illumine us
Fire of fires – thaw us
Power of powers – strengthen us
Lover of lovers – warm us
Teller of tales – encourage us
Destroyer of darkness – save us
Touchstone of truth – examine us
Summoner of stars – amaze us
Wellspring of wisdom – weather us
Water of life – refresh us
Dancer of days – delight in us
Breath of the universe – bless us.

Amen.

Revd Martin John Nicholls, Chaplain of Point in View Chapel

Sunday 7th February

Isaiah 40: 21-31; 1 Corinthians 9: 16-23; Mark 1: 29-39

It’s not just the celebrations of the birth of Jesus that seem such a long time ago, is it? Even the visit of the wise men to Jesus seems a distant memory. And yet the season of Epiphany which their journey kicks off is still with us and will be for one more Sunday yet.

Epiphany, the disclosure of God to the world. The wise men represent the world beyond the stable. And during this season, we are invited to reflect upon God and all that is summed up in God.

The wonder the wise men express as they present their gifts to the Christchild might lead us to be dazzled by God, intoxicated by God and the life of the church to be one long song of praise “How great thou art!”

That is certainly the tenor of the passage from Isaiah – one of unfettered praise. By comparison with this extraordinary God, other would-be gods are anaemic and dysfunctional.

But just as life cannot be one long party – and, goodness knows, we are all too aware of that in February 2021 – our response to God cannot be one of constant ecstatic praise that removes God from the realities of life as we know it. The Apostle Paul, writing to the Christians in the city of Corinth, speaks of how the gospel drives his life and pulls him in many directions, becoming all things to all people.

And the breathless story-teller Mark wants us to see Jesus as the focus of divinity, plunging into the midst of human need. It is there that the wholeness and well-being at the heart of God are asserted and enacted.

We can’t sing songs of praise for long without stopping and thinking “But what does all this mean for us and the way we live our lives?”

As usual with Mark, every word he writes is packed with significance. Every action, every exchange of words, no matter how insignificant on the surface, is important to the message this Gospel-writer wants to convey.

His stories of miraculous healings are far more than just that. He sees everything he writes about what Jesus does and says as symbolic, filled with deep meaning.

One writer illustrates this by comparison with two great figures from more recent history. When Martin Luther nails his denunciation of the Roman Catholic church on the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg in 1517, the meaning of his action extends far beyond the sum of its parts. A monk posts a note on a church door. So what? But this is not just any note on any door and history will show that this is not just any monk.

That one powerful act of defiance came to take on larger-than-life proportions which would become the founding myth of the Lutheran Church.

And the same can be said of the Black Rights movement in the United States in which that other Martin Luther – Martin Luther King Jr – was such a prominent figure.

When Martin Luther King knelt down in the face of police dogs and water cannons or when others sat in cafés from which they were excluded or sat at the front of the bus, they were engaging in symbolic actions the importance of which far outweighed the significance of the action itself. Those iconic moments are echoed loudly in the Black Lives Matter campaigns of more recent times.

These are not supernatural actions but that doesn’t make them any less miraculous. Their divine power lies not in the manipulation of nature but in the confrontation with the dominant order of oppression which witnesses to different possibilities.

To return to the gospel story… Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law, a nameless woman in good gospel tradition… The story is told very briefly – this is the Gospel of Mark, after all, when everything is told briefly! In the scene which immediately precedes this one, Jesus heals a distressed man at the synagogue by driving a demon from him.

And the combination of these two miracles – symbolic actions – has the effect, not surprisingly, of bringing many physically and mentally sick people to Jesus – and it seems the whole population of the city of Capernaeum has turned up.

But, hidden away in the narrative, is an important detail which we should not overlook. The masses gather outside the house ‘after the sun has set and evening has come.’ Why does Mark use that phrase? It’s obvious, isn’t it, that evening comes when the sun sets..? But this is the Gospel of Mark, so this is no inadvertent repetition, you can be sure of that. ‘After the sun has set…’

Remember on what day this story takes place. Jesus and his friends have just left the synagogue having marked the Sabbath there. The Sabbath runs from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday.

The sun has now set – and it is therefore no longer the Sabbath. There is something being flagged up here which we are to note for future reference. The only reason to mention the setting of the sun is because healing on the Sabbath – before the sun has set – will become a controversial matter later in Jesus’s ministry. Yes, every word here has a purpose…

After the excitement, Jesus retreats to a quiet place. But he doesn’t get much peace. His friends come looking for him and demand that he return. There are so many more people who need healing. Jesus declines…

Why would he do that? Why would anyone with the power to make people whole refuse to use that power in the face of people who plainly need it? Is this the compassionate Jesus we celebrate?

As usual, Mark has a purpose in this mysterious rejection by Jesus. There is a bigger picture. However good and popular it might be for him to heal large numbers of people, his ministry lies elsewhere. His is a ministry of proclamation of the Good News in which individual healing has its place but is not the primary task.

That task is to proclaim the Kingdom of God, to tell people that oppression and marginalisation are not God’s way. Social justice and compassion on a large scale – that is the divine way.

Maybe Mark wants us to see that the excitement Jesus generates in Capernaeum is getting in the way of that broader message. So he presses on to the next place – and the next place and the next – in his urgent quest to invite those who hear him to re-imagine the world.

Therein lies our inspiration. I know how frustrating it can be when things don’t quite go according to plan or as quickly as we had hoped. I know many of you will be feeling that frustration right now. But the church experience – whether gathered on Sundays or separated as we inevitably are just now or through the myriad other activities that are embraced in the Christian life – is not about revelling in where we are. Neither is it about looking back and wishing things were as they used to be. It is about joining in the Jesus journey – no matter how frustrating, to press on to the next place – and the next place and the next – as we discern together where the Spirit is leading.

As in the case of Jesus, that won’t always make us popular with those whose journey is different from ours and to whose understanding of the faith we may seem a threat.

In our society which is so often called secular, there is, nonetheless, a longing for spiritual fulfilment – especially at this time of pandemic and consequent re-evaluation of our national life, when our place in the world is so uncertain, when old political certainties have been thrown to the winds, and when those at the bottom are paying a disproportionate price for the country’s ills.

Christians have an opportunity for prophetic ministry almost unparalleled in modern times. But the danger is that Christianity in its traditional forms cannot relate to these impulses because they speak a different language. If we so marginalise ourselves from society and life, then that is a tragic situation that prevents us from showing leadership in the rediscovery of God.

The Apostle Paul knows the importance of telling and retelling the story, interpreting and re-interpreting for every community he encounters. Only by speaking the language as our neighbours can the Gospel have impact.

I know that what you at Glenorchy are aiming at is a faith that encourages all of you to explore what it means to connect to the sacred within, to connect to nature, and to connect to your neighbours; a faith that is truly ‘progressive’ in the same way that Jesus was ‘progressive’, journeying on. We are all called to share that journey.

And we can gain courage and strength for this journey by finding in ourselves those powers that Mark sees in Jesus. The American theologian Walter Wink has said that Jesus was “not God in a man-suit, his every step predetermined from all eternity, but a human being seeking the will of God in the everyday decisions that shape life and living…”

We can do no better than to share in that journey and in that same discernment, in our own time and place. Now. The initiative on which the United Reformed Church is engaged – called “Walking the Way; Living the Life of Jesus Today” – has not endeared itself to everyone (something else those people in London have dreamed up!) but it is a response to exactly that call to journey on which is at the heart of the Gospel of Mark.

Can we summon up the courage to shed the accumulated baggage? If we are indeed to ‘progress’ and keep progressing, let us share a sense of expectancy, a glimpse of future possibilities and a vivid imagination.

As the season of Epiphany draws to a close – the season of God’s revelation to the world – and a season which, this year presents us with the ongoing challenges of Covid-19 – let us nonetheless share with Isaiah in the wonder that is a proper response to God; let us join Paul in engaging with the very real dilemmas our present situation places before us, and let us share also in the hard decisions with which life faces us every day. Today more than at any time many of us can remember, let us be prepared to leave behind things which may seem good in themselves for the sake of the bigger picture, for the sake of that vision of God’s New World to which, together, we are committed.

Thanks be to God.

Revd Iain McDonald

Sunday 31st January

God who suffers with us!

The suffering which is the lot of so many people has been brought home to us by the pandemic. The news that over 100,000 have died in our country and over 2m world-wide is tragic. It is difficult to comprehend the grief and despair, fear, loneliness, mental illness and the loss of livelihood.

Wednesday 27 January was International Holocaust Memorial Day when the world remembered 6 million Jews who were killed during the 2nd World War and the thousands of men, women and children who have been the victims of genocide. Apart from the great sense of loss, death can be accompanied by memories many which can bring so much joy. During such times we often experience much kindness, care and generosity from so many, including some with whom we had little more than a nodding acquaintance. I am reminded of the words of a very wise man who said: Christianity doesn’t explain suffering; it shows us what to do with it. (Baron von Hugel, 1795 – 1870).

For many suffering is accompanied by the strong conviction that God is a loving Creator who cares deeply for his people and even accompanies them into a new future undefeated by the terrible loss. The greatest mistake we often make in our thinking about suffering is to put God on the wrong side – that is over and against us. We picture him as judge and jury
– using suffering to do things to us – to teach us a lesson – when in fact God shares with the pain and suffering in all its terrible destructiveness.

Good Friday is the place where God himself endures the reality of pain and suffering. Good Friday is not complete without Easter Day. Together, they present us with the complete picture. There we see, not only God sharing the reality of our suffering, but enabling us to use it creatively and discover something positive in it – by using it as a force for good. We don’t always find pain and suffering accompanied by compassion. But we can be certain that amidst our suffering God is on our side. Suffering is his before it is ours. It’s part of his eternal Calvary. God suffers with us and enables us to use suffering to bring something
creative out of it.

Prayer
God, you are constantly present and accessible to each of us; we marvel at your astonishing approachability and gentle intimacy.
May we give expression to our gratitude as we worship you.
May your Spirit touch us and refresh us with hope and new life.
We pray for all who grieve the death of loved ones, those who are suffering physically and mentally from the devastation of this pandemic and from the injustice which afflicts so many.
May they feel the comfort of your presence, discover renewed confidence and meaningful purpose in life.
We delight that even in suffering you do not abandon us but enable us to discover new ways to serve you and one another.
May the joy of resurrection emerge out of the despair and pain we encounter, bringing hope, peace and fulfilment.
May the example and experience of Jesus Christ who suffered, died and rose again be a real presence in our lives too.
Amen

Michael Diffey

Sunday 24th January

Mark 1: 14-20

This passage from Mark’s Gospel invites us to consider the subject of the call of God. We are by the seashore with a bunch of seasoned fishermen, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. We read that this ministry begins with a proclamation: ‘the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near…’ and this is exciting, as for some centuries the people of Israel had been waiting for God to act. Their nation was a shadow of what it had once been and there was a hope that God would return. Then first John the Baptist appears preparing the way, and now Jesus arrives, announcing that at last God is breaking into the world. In fact, what God was now doing was not what most people either expected or hoped for, but central to Jesus’ strategy for asserting God’s rule over the world is the gathering of groups through whom God would work. Here by the lakeside Jesus calls these fishermen: ‘Jesus said to them, ‘follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ We are told that ‘immediately they left their nets and followed him’ and there is something very strange about that. Here in Mark’s Gospel there is no suggestion that these fishermen already knew Jesus. Jesus just appears out of nowhere, evidently a stranger, and he calls them and they respond and follow, no questions asked – why would they do that? Maybe there were reasons why they were ready to drop everything. Maybe they were ready to take the risk because of the hope of something better than what they were used to.

In Jesus’ time the fishing industry had become heavily regulated in order to give the Romans as much control of it as possible. As is so often the case in imperial economies – some things never change – the fish upon which local people depended as a dietary staple were increasingly exported to distant regions of the Roman empire at great profit, but mainly to the empire. In other words, the effects of political and economic power had made fishing a hard and insecure profession, which was looked down upon and despised.

So maybe the state of the fishing industry was a prompt to these men to leave their nets in search of something new. Maybe they felt a sense of disillusionment with their world which made them ready to respond to Jesus’ call, but much as that may be part of the explanation, it doesn’t account entirely for their spontaneous abandonment of home and family and surroundings.

I’m struck by one commentator who suggests that this is not so much a ‘call’ story as a ‘miracle’ story, suggesting that the fishermen’s response to Jesus’ call can only be understood ultimately in divine terms: that here God was calling them and God’s Spirit was prompting them to respond. Surely here we learn something about the call of God to follow Jesus as a disciple. What motivates us? What compels us? It may partly be down to human factors, to disillusionment or frustration with our world as it is: maybe a sense that there must be more to life than this. Or maybe it’s a broader disillusionment with the state of the world, a sense – as in Jesus’ day – that the political, the economic and the imperial powers that are at work are not producing the kind of world we want to live in, that deep values that we hold dear are in jeopardy. All these should be prompts that make the call of Christ, the call of his Kingdom, an invitation to something new and lifegiving, but beyond all that there is also what we call the work of the Spirit, the miracle by which our spirits are opened to the divine Spirit, and our hearts prised open and reset so as to beat as one with the heart of God.

So that is something of how the call of God works, but here I want to go further by taking this image of ‘calling’, and to contrast it with two other images that are used to describe human existence – two words that have been used to portray our life as human beings in the world.

The first image comes from German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who described human life as ‘thrown’ – that we do not choose to be here, we do not choose to be born – we simply find ourselves here. For Heidegger, however, there is such a thing as freedom and the task of human existence is to make something authentic and real of ourselves in the face of our ‘thrownness’.

The second image is ‘driven’. In our contemporary world, people who are driven are often furiously busy and need to be. However, at the same time, a high-speed world marginalises and people who cannot compete – people perhaps like Andrew, James and John. By contrast, Saul of Tarsus, with his zeal and his fanatical persecution of Christians is a driven character.

That brings us to the third description of human life along with ‘thrown’ and ‘driven’ – and that is ‘called’. At Saul’s great moment of liberation he heard his name called, ‘Saul, Saul…’ He was stopped in his tracks, halted in his driven-ness and called by love. His entire Gospel, and the role of faith in God’s love, all came from the moment when he realised that his life not ‘driven’ but ‘called’. That was his moment of emancipation.

So how would you describe your life? We are all thrown into a world that is capable of great love and beauty, but which can be cruel and harsh – as it was for those fishermen in Galilee – a world in which we are ‘dogged’ by forces over which we have little or no control. We aspire to make something of ourselves in that world and sometimes we struggle with the cards we have been dealt. Some of us are more or less driven, and that may bring its rewards, but peace and wholeness are not among them. But then comes Jesus, calling these fishermen, calling them to follow and calling us. To be called is to recognise that however thrown we are, however fated by blind forces, our destiny is as beloved sons and daughters of the living God. To be called is to recognise that however driven we may be it is not finally our accomplishments that define us but the sheer grace that embraces us. And, finally, that call that summons us to Jesus is far too important to be left to us and our response. The Spirit is at work in us, prompting us, drawing us. And hence the miracle is repeated over and over again, that miracle at the lakeside by which those fishermen dropped everything and followed Jesus.

Revd Sabrina Groeschel

Sunday January 17th

I have been using some of all this unwanted spare time to look through old slides and transfer them into computer files. What a fascinating task. Among those of Greece I found one of the old town square in Corinth, which I first visited as a student almost 60 years ago! It still has the ruins of the ancient synagogue where the apostle Paul preached; it was quite emotional to stand there.

Paul arrived in around 50AD after a less than effective visit to Athens, and he stayed 18 months, founding a church. Though he was quite a scholar himself, he must have felt that the highly educated population of Athens had been too sceptical and too bound up with their various schools of philosophy to accept his message. In the passage we just heard, at the start of his letter-writing to the Corinthians, this feeling comes to the surface. The Jews won’t accept Jesus as Messiah and the Greeks won’t accept a Messiah at all; neither can worship a crucified God. ‘Where is your wise man now?’ he asks – implying the answer ‘too clever by half to worship your Jesus Christ’. Though Paul could not know Matthew’s nativity story, on this second Sunday after Epiphany we can hear echoes of those wise men who, having worshipped the child Jesus, departed by another road – not just by another route but with a whole new mind-set, much wiser than when they came.

Paul’s letters to the Christians in Corinth are forever reminding them of their basic calling, to follow Christ and live in his all-sufficient love. Salvation is not a matter of knowledge, of passing the entrance exam to heaven! What God has done, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, (as Isaac Watts puts it) ‘demands my soul, my life, my all’. Christianity is not a set of propositions, doctrines or dogma to be treated as an ideology, a system such as Hitler or Lenin tried to enforce, over-riding human instincts of freedom and relationships. On the contrary Christianity is a way of life in every sense, joining the command ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ to the first command ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’. A way of life in every sense. If you want a clear statement of what Christians believe and how they should live you cannot do better than read chapters 13 and 15 of Paul’s first letter to those Corinthians long ago.

But of course it does still seem foolish, as it did back then. To claim, as Paul does, that ‘God foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength’ is of course not self-evidently true. To point to Jesus of Nazareth being tortured to death, and to say that this man is revealing God’s nature, is still foolishness to the wise as well as a stumbling block to most other religions, not only Jews. How is this God’s Word made flesh? Is this what God means for us? God with us?

A Christ-like God is essentially with us in the dark, in the pain, in the fear and at the end. Many of the other attributes which people ascribe to God simply do not fit with this Christ-like God. Even Christians fall into the trap sometimes, believing that God will protect them or their loved ones, or fulfil their dreams or deliver prosperity or even send fine weather! These are not the actions of a Christ-like God. If Paul were here he might point out that he had a rough time following this Jesus, that he was betrayed and unjustly tried like his Lord and killed by the Roman emperor Nero in a persecution of Christians which was grossly unfair and corrupt. He might have thought ‘where is God when you need him?’ As we sang a few weeks ago, what child is this?  God embodied in a human being whom many, not only Donald Trump, would call a loser.

And yet, as Paul writes to the Corinthians, there are three things which last for ever, faith, hope and love – and the greatest of these is love, as Jesus Christ was love. Somehow wiser than human wisdom and more powerful than human strength.

When Paul writes that ‘God has made foolish the wisdom of this world’ he does not mean that we should not thank God for the scientific breakthroughs which have brought so much hope in recent decades and most recently have offered us all some light at the end of our current dark tunnel. It is not knowledge that is the problem, but confusing it with wisdom. Science can and must go on telling us more and more about the multiple processes of the world, undoubtedly enriching our human lives and experience with discoveries and adventure. But knowledge is not wisdom. I will repeat the joke: knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit, wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad. How we use our knowledge determines whether we are truly wise or not.

Those wise men whose knowledge interpreted the star which eventually led them to Bethlehem and to Jesus were wise enough to realise that to share that knowledge with Herod would be a disaster. For them, life would never be the same again. Nor will it be for any of us.

But fear not. Love may be costly, as Jesus demonstrated; it may even look like losing. Yet it is the only hope for us whether as Christians or simply as human beings. Both in the short-term and looking further ahead we need wisdom which is so much more than scientific knowledge, if the future is to be even tolerable, let alone enjoyable or peaceful. We need love, we need to trust love.

A Christ-like God invites us to bear the cost and wear the crown. As Paul writes: Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God.

And to God, creator, saviour, inspirer, be thanks and praise.

Revd Peter Brain

Sunday January 10th

Walking the Way

Walking the way and living the life of Jesus today was a new initiative that the URC launched in 2018 to help churches to redefine who they are and what God intends them to be. It was an ethos rather than a fixed programme and it had no start and no finish. It was about re-discovering the fact that Jesus calls us to whole life discipleship not something we simply do on a Sunday.

Church services are good for your health according to a whole series of scientific surveys carried out in the United States. For instance, a survey of 4,000 people in North Carolina found that older people who attended church were less depressed and physically healthier than their less religious counterparts. The study was described to the American Association for the Advancement of Science by Dr Harold Koinig, who said, ‘Church related activity may prevent illness by a direct effect, using prayer or scripture reading as coping behaviours.’

Dr Dale Matthews of Georgetown University reported that in a review of 212 comparable studies he had found similar results. But he emphasised that this did not mean that should supplant Prozac or that saints are always healthier than sinners, even though as a group, those with religious commitment are healthier.

But whether those of us who attend church regularly (or did before Covid) are physically healthier than those who never set foot in the church, Christian disciples are spiritually healthier because we have made a decision to follow Jesus Christ and as a result are filled with the Holy Spirit and have set out to follow our Saviour. But are we? Or have we made that decision and ticked that box and content to just stay the same. Because following the way is a proactive thing, it should change us and develop us and build a relationship with us and Jesus Christ.

So what is the heart of being church? We have just celebrated Christmas and experienced again the story of God’s Son coming to earth to show us what God is like. To give us an example for life and then to give his own life so that we can be forgiven our sins and follow him the Saviour and know the certainty of eternal life with God.

Jesus was sent as a light into a dark world and he was sent with a manifesto, not a political one, but one that was promised many years before by the prophets. Jesus stood in the synagogue and read the words of Isaiah 61: 1-2, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ He then said, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’

So the heart of being church is for us who have accepted Jesus Christ into our lives to become disciples and to live out our faith not just on Sunday when we are together, but every day of our lives.

But then Jesus promised to build the church and in Matthew 16:18 he says to his disciple Peter, ‘And I tell you that you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church.’

But what did Jesus mean when he used the word church? The Greek word for church is ecclesia and it is used 115 times in the New Testament. It is strictly defined as ‘The called out ones or the elected ones.’ In Greek culture an ecclesia was a select civil assembly, ordinary people brought together for a specific purpose and it always referred to people not a building. But what did Jesus and the writers of the New Testament mean when they used the word ecclesia to describe a Christian body of people? We can assume they intended to convey something of the original Greek meaning of the word which was a group or body of Christians called or elected by God, called out from the Roman and Judean system. Coming together as a separate civil community. It meant a politically autonomous body of Christians having no king but Jesus. This was revolutionary declaring Jesus as King not Caesar.

But Paul and Silas weren’t church builders as we might think in terms of trying to establish groups of believers known as churches. They were kingdom builders! They were dethroning earthly rulers in the minds of the people and alienating them from the hold Caesar had on them through heathenistic government. They were teaching the principles of Christian government and they were presenting the call of God to whoever would hear and respond to the call. The consequence for any such believers was that they became citizens of Christ’s kingdom and became part of the ecclesia, or community of believers.

Jesus sent out his disciples. You see all too often we just think of the church as being here in the building and what we do on Sunday is all we need to do. We simply wait for people to come in and bemoan the fact when they don’t.

Also when we read that Jesus sent his disciples out we often think that he meant for a time limited project. But I believe we need to redefine this sending out so that we understand that the implications are for wherever we go in our day to day life. As Jesus sends us out, he doesn’t just occasionally send us to a specific context for a specific moment, but he simply sends us out.

Obviously as we are in the middle of a pandemic and going out in the normal way is not happening. If we are going out it is probably to go food shopping or taking the dog for a walk or just taking exercise and getting back home as soon as possible making sure that we wear our masks and keeping away from people. But we are still meeting and talking to people even if it is virtually. Many of us have become more used to using technology. We have smart phones, iPads, zoom meetings, most of which we had never heard of before last year! But even if we haven’t a clue how to use any of those things, we can still use the phone and write letters.

To be witnesses for Jesus, to make more disciples, to be channels of justice, peace and healing and to be good news to the poor or just being a friendly voice on the end of the phone to a lonely person is living our lives for Jesus even in a time like this.

As we embrace this mind-set, we will be ‘Walking the way’ and living the life of Jesus today, Amen.

Jim Thorneycroft

Sunday January 3rd

Human history is a great story of events that have changed people and places for ever. From the moment of creation this world and everything in it is ever changing. Nothing can or should remain the same. The story of the OT shows us the upheavals of God’s people – flood, exile, famine, promise, and each time there is change God is in the middle of it. In 1972 there was a seismic change when two minor denominations of the UK church chose to amalgamate (the first to do so since the Reformation!) to become the URC. That means that next year we shall celebrate our Golden Jubilee. We have not quite yet lived up to our desire “to seek ever wider union until the whole church of Jesus Christ is one” because the time is not yet right. But we keep to our ecumenical vision in as many ways as we can, and look back on our roots and traditions with pride.

But January is not just a time for looking back. The Roman god of January – Janus – has two faces, one looking back at what has been, and the other looking forward for a vision of what is to come. I think we could be forgiven this year for not really wanting to look back too much to 2020, but I think in order to see the future clearly we must, and we must see what a seismic shift there has been in the Church world-wide. We are not now the same as we were twelve months ago – and we should now be ready to build on the vision we have been given of how the church might move forward. Let’s be honest – many churches of all denominations have struggled with falling numbers, less ministers and in spite of national initiatives, a lack of clear vision and forward thinking. 2020 has been a year where we have been forced to stop and take stock. In a first for many of us our church buildings have been closed (previously in times of crisis they have been the pivot of our hopes and prayers!) We have had to become creative about our meetings and our worship. Ministers have produced their sermons as reflections for people to receive and ponder on. The internet has become vital to us. 2020 is the year that our buildings became less important and our communities more so. Last year was the year when we could worship any day of the week, when we could replay bits of the service, when we could switch off and start again.

When John wrote the prologue to his Gospel he linked it by its opening words to the beginning of the story of the Jewish people. “In the beginning” is the start of both stories; “In the beginning God” and “In the beginning  the Word” links that Word becoming human that we have heard and sung about (quietly!) for the past ten days. The birth of Jesus was also a seismic event – and yet it passed many people by, because they didn’t know it was happening. In their desire to get the census over and life to return to what was normal under Roman rule, they were not looking for fulfilment of prophecies, but for life to resume.

In our search for sense and meaning in the peculiar times we have lived through it will be important that we do not fail to see the significance for us of what God is leading us towards. We must strive to use all we have learned this past year about being the Church so that we never return completely to what we were. As ever God gives us free choice. Once the virus is under control, once the scientists stop frightening us and the Government returns to other things we could too easily retreat into our buildings and go on as we have been doing. But as we have learned over and over in this crisis just because we could does not mean we should! Our mission as Christ’s church is to spread the Gospel. This year we found that there are other ways besides the church buildings. In the past many churches have prioritised the fabric of the church over the mission. (More time is spent choosing the colour of paint for the ladies’ loo than on how we are to spread God’s love and care outside our buildings.) Mission, I was told early in my ministry, is the work of the minister. No, it’s not! Mission is the work of every single believer. Mission is every church’s priority. With what we have learned this year we have the means to recharge the Church, to change our way of doing things, to reach people we have never reached before. We can be a new sort of church – a community of people using the buildings to further our mission to others.

I like and admire the strapline used by Glenorchy – “Within these walls let no-one be a stranger” Whoever thought it out put it into just enough words. And yet, in the light of where God has led us this past year, maybe we will need to rethink it? Maybe in this new vision we have it could become “Let no-one be a stranger – within or outside these walls.

May God continue to bless us with vision and hope and courage to become what God is showing us we can be – starting now.

Barbara Bennett

Christmas Day

Luke 2, 1-20

One of the intriguing features of the Christmas Story is the contrasts, the tensions that we find woven into it. For example, there is the contrast between Caesar Augustus, the mighty Roman Emperor, and the tiny baby in the manger who is presented as the true ruler; and if we include the other account of Jesus’ birth in Matthew’s Gospel we find the contrast between the shepherds, common everyday people, and the wise men, learned people of status and class; and there is too the contrast between Jerusalem, the capital city boasting its mighty temple and little lowly Bethlehem whose claim to fame will centre on a manger in a humble stable. It is out of these contrasts, these tensions that the story of Jesus’ birth emerges.

There is, though another tension written into the account that we need to note, the contrast between ‘those days’ and ‘this day’. Our chapter begins, ‘In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered…’ In other words, ‘in those days’ an imperial decree went out from the very citadels of power, and of course empires live by decrees. They enforce their rule by decrees, proclamations, laws, statutes that say, ‘this is how things shall be!’ And the people of the Empire, if they know what is good for them, obey because they fear the consequences of resistance and disobedience. The word ‘fear’ is crucial: empires enforce their rule by fear – by stoking fear of reprisal and retribution to those who refuse to submit, but also by stoking fear of scarcity; deprivation; ‘the other;’ the different; the refugee and those in flight.

Now, some of you, I expect’ have seen the film ‘Life of Brian’, set in the days of Jesus and Augustus, where the question on the lips of the revolutionaries is, ‘what have the Romans ever done for us?’ And of course the answer is – well, the roads, the aqueducts, the infrastructure etc etc: In other words, not everything about Roman rule was bad. But nonetheless there were soldiers at every street corner, and there were public executions with thousands hanging from crosses to remind people of the penalty of rebellion. So,  the fearful shadow of the empire hung over everyday life and kept people in order. This was a closed world, a world where hopes of change and of liberation were shut down and where horizons were narrow and blocked.

Then, however, we read on in our passage from ‘in those days’ and we find the words ‘this day’: the angel appears to the shepherds and says, ‘to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.’ In other words into ‘those days’ – into ‘those days’ of fear and captivity there is inserted ‘this day’ – a new regime, a new rule, a day of release and liberation! Out-with the heavily fortified, heavily armed, heavily defended citadels of empire there is in this manger in this stable the stirrings of something new. And suddenly the world is no longer shut down and closed-in and bounded by the grip of the empire. No, the world is open to heaven for suddenly the dark skies are parted and the angelic host is sighted and the things of heaven are found here on earth. And the focus of it all, the centre, is this baby whose rule has come and in whom earth is open to heaven and heaven to earth, and suddenly the shut-down world is prised open to new possibility, new horizons, new life. ‘This day’ has come and with it the Saviour, the Messiah, and now, suddenly, ‘in those days’ is old news for things have changed and from ‘this day’ forth nothing will ever be the same. ‘In those days’ – an empire whose hallmark is fear. ‘This day’- a kingdom that over-rides the fear with hope.

And what of ‘our day’, today? What will future commentators say of Christmas 2020? They will say that ‘in those days’ the UK government couldn’t make up it mind; and ‘in those days’ the British government and nation were facing the abyss; and ‘in those days’ international treaties and protocols were being torn up; and ‘in those days’ huge migrations of people were set in motion by fear of death and destruction; and ‘in those days’ it was realised that human life on earth was rapidly becoming ecologically unsustainable. ‘In those days…’ Well, as Christians, today, on Christmas Day, we say, ‘this day in the city of David, a Saviour has been born’. This day, in this little baby, heaven has invaded earth, and earth has welcomed him in the figures of the shepherds and the wise men. The world is no longer in lock-down. The checkpoint between heaven and earth has been cast aside. Soldiers may be stationed in the streets but angels are stationed out in the fields. And it all amounts to the good news of Emmanuel, God with us. Celebrate it today – and celebrate ‘this day’ every day.

I hope that despite the current circumstances you will today all be able to celebrate “this day”. I wish you all a Merry Christmas.

Revd Sabrina Groeschel 

Carol Service 20th December

The clue is in the first half a dozen words: ‘In the beginning was the Word’.

John is consciously reminding us of the opening of the book of Genesis, the first words of Hebrew scripture: ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’. We are invited to think of the coming of Jesus Christ as the fulfilment of the strategy of the creator, the climax of history, the end of the former times.

And as his Gospel progresses John has Jesus meeting a succession of symbolic figures to reveal to them the nature and purpose of God. Whether it’s Nicodemus or the Samaritan woman, or Simon Peter or the woman caught in adultery, or Pontius Pilate or even Judas Iscariot – all these encounters reveal how God, the Christlike God, deals with us personally, John’s readers and would-be Christian disciples. Until at the end the resurrection demonstrates love’s power, the new beginning is completed. The light has come and the darkness has not overcome it.

The book of Genesis invites us to think of the universe as somehow God’s work, not least in making human beings, as Psalm 8 puts it, ‘a little lower than God’ with power over every other living thing on earth. In similar vein the fourth gospel invites us to consider the person of Jesus as embodying the humanity we are all meant to have and the divine love which we are all meant to show.

The parallel with Genesis continues in early Christian thought as they strove to understand just how mind-blowingly unique this Christ Jesus was. Paul actually calls Christ the ‘second Adam’. His ‘yes’ to God’s will is such a contrast to Adam’s ‘no’. It gives us the possibility of forgiveness when like Adam we find doing what God commands is just a bit too much and we fail. As in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive, says Paul.
As John puts it: ‘what has come into being in him was life and the life was the light of all people’.

Christianity is essentially hopeful. This does not mean, as some might think, optimistic or naïve, in a fantasy world where ‘things can only get better’; it certainly does not mean pretending that all our serious current troubles will somehow just melt away. But it means trusting deep down that ultimately we are loved, for ever, whatever. That’s why Paul’s great three-some of faith, hope and love are aspects of the same reality, the gift of God, which is life, eternal life, now glimpsed and then fully known.

I’m not a chess-player but I do like the metaphor describing how Jesus Christ is and will be Lord of all. Sometimes there’s a crucial move in the middle of a chess game which means that only one player can win, whatever the other player does, however long it takes. In Jesus God has made that move; the game will only end one way now.

So enjoy Christmas in the spirit of Easter, the celebration of hope in such a bleak mid-winter.

Thanks be to God.

Revd. Peter Brain