Breakfast on the beach

John 21.1-19

How do you know you’re in the right religion? For me, it’s when Jesus says,

“Come and have breakfast.”
(John 21.12)

That’s my kind of religion! (Grilled sardines on the beach: what could be nicer?)

In his earthly ministry, Jesus had often eaten with his disciples and with others. Often with the wrong sort of others – the tax-collectors and sinners. Unlike John the Baptist, who lived as an ascetic, surviving on locusts and wild honey, Jesus was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard (Luke 7:33-34; cf. Matthew 11:18-19).

We know what Jesus said and taught about God; how he proclaimed God’s love in word and deed; but we also know that what he did – including eating and drinking with sinners – was a demonstration of the hospitality of God. Who is this man that eats and drinks with sinners? Well, if he’s God, that tells us something about who God is. God welcomes sinners. And that’s good news.

All of this comes together in the accounts of the Last Supper. In John, we read that Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, acting as their servant; in Matthew, Mark and Luke (and in 1 Corinthians 11.23-34), we have the institution of the eucharist: Jesus takes bread and wine (food and drink) and shares it with his disciples saying, “Take, eat, this is my body, given for you. Do this in remembrance of me”. “Drink this…”

The risen Jesus is pictured eating with his disciples: on the road to Emmaus, Cleopas and the other disciple (Mrs Cleopas?) recognise him in the breaking of the bread (Luke 24.13-34). That’s followed by an appearance to the disciples in which Jesus eats fish. Again, I know I’m in the right religion: in that story, the risen Jesus asks, “Do you have anything to eat?” (Luke 24.41)

And here, in John’s gospel, Jesus, by the sea of Tiberias, arranges a barbecue of fish and bread for his friends. (Tomorrow is a Bank Holiday, if you’re thinking of something similar!)

After breakfast, Jesus speaks with Simon Peter. Some resurrection appearances are to individuals (like Mary Magdalene, Thomas, and in Acts, to Saul), some to groups. This account goes from an encounter with seven disciples to a one-to-one with Simon Peter. Simon, the fisherman, had been called to discipleship after a miraculous catch of fish (Luke 5.1-11). Jesus tells him “From now on you will be catching people” (v10). In this episode, Peter again recognises his Lord and responds to his call. The haul of fish probably represents the church that Peter and the others will establish. Peter, who had denied Jesus three times, is given the opportunity, three times, to declare his love for Jesus. And he is given a job to do. He will feed and tend the Good Shepherd’s lambs and sheep. But he will also glorify God in his death.

Discipleship is a full-time commitment. It is not a hobby, an interest. It is a life lived as a follower of Jesus Christ. For Simon Peter, it was a literal call to give up his life. For us, we are to be a “living sacrifice” (Romans 12.1).

In our communion service, we hear the invitation of Jesus to come and eat and drink with him. We take bread and wine and remember him. We also hear again his call to discipleship. As a church we are to demonstrate the radical hospitality of God, to eat and drink with sinners. We are to feed and tend the sheep that the Good Shepherd calls to himself.

  • Do we today hear that call to be disciples of Jesus?
  • As a church, are we prepared to live the radical hospitality of God?
  • How do we best express our calling to tend and feed the Good Shepherd’s lambs and sheep?

How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place

I’m writing this having seen those terrible images of the fire which has ravaged the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris. Today there is aerial footage of the extent of the devastation but that doesn’t match the shock of watching video of the spire collapsing. Someone has commented that the last time the 850-year old building suffered major damage was during the French Revolution, and that it survived two world wars largely unscathed. 500 firefighters attended, risking their own lives in order to save what they could of the building. It was said to be within 15 to 30 minutes of complete destruction.

A priest, Fr Jean-Marc Fournier, chaplain to the Paris Fire Brigade, entered the building while the fire was raging in order to rescue precious relics held there.

And, bizarrely, while I am writing this, I answer the phone to someone from Lymm Fire Brigade. They want to arrange a visit to St Cross to arrange a safety inspection – today. I explain that it’s not a great time for me (it’s Holy Week) but hope that a churchwarden might be free to meet them.

The world’s reaction to the fire at Notre Dame has been swift and heartfelt. Pope Francis said:

Today we unite in prayer with the people of France, as we wait for the sorrow inflicted by the serious damage to be transformed into hope with reconstruction.

The French President, Emmanuel Macron said that Notre Dame would be rebuilt “more beautiful than ever”, hopefully within five years. “We can do it and we will come together,” he said. Billionaires and ordinary people around the world have pledged more than 5 million euros to support the rebuilding project, recognising that the cathedral is not just a house of religion, but a symbol of Paris and of France, and an icon that belongs to the world.

Others have expressed conflicting views: given the crisis we face over climate change and poverty, and the fact that people are still living with the consequences of the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017 which claimed over 70 lives, how can the world justify spending such a huge amount of money on a mere building?

In our own small way, we face similar questions with our churches. Like parishes up and down the country, we have buildings which are much loved and valued, but we find ourselves faced with having to fund repairs and maintenance from the pockets of small congregations of ageing worshippers. While we can’t claim anything to match Notre Dame’s history – Henry VI of England and Napoleon Bonaparte were crowned there, and its where Joan of Arc was beatified – we do have our own stories. St Cross and St Matthew’s are the places where people have been christened and married, and where loved ones are remembered. People come to us for a Christingle service or on Remembrance Sunday. They visit the churchyard on Mothering Sunday. They want us to be there for their grandchildren to have those experiences too. Our buildings are not essential: the early church met in people’s homes. But they do stand as a visible symbol of our commitment to be here for our community (not just the congregation).

At St Matthew’s we have just held our annual meeting. Questions were asked – rightly – about the gap between our income and expenditure, and the costs of repairs to the roof and stonework (amongst other things). We had just received the news that our faculty application – the permission to go ahead with the proposed development of the building – had been granted. But how can we go ahead with a building project when we don’t have the money to mend the roof or pay the bills without dipping into our ‘savings’?

The answer to that question lies in the vision we have for the church. Is it a building that merely needs to be kept open for diminishing numbers of the faithful? Or do we see ourselves as having something to offer our community? How does our building express our faith and the desire to be open to those who live locally but don’t often turn up for regular services? The proposed reordering is about making our building more inviting and accessible by improved access and better use of the space for welcome and hospitality. The Chancellor of the Diocese (His Honour Judge David Turner QC) had to look at our proposals and the objections that were made to them. His job is to consider the impact our plans will have on the building (given its listed status) and the possible benefits to the mission and worship of the church. In particular, he has to ensure that we do no harm to the building’s historical and architectural character.

The Chancellor concluded that

“the parish has, in my judgement, demonstrated clear and convincing justification for the changes proposed which is more than sufficient here to outweigh any minor architectural detriment. In most cases the changes will represent improvement.

In short, I have found the arguments for change persuasive here. These changes, I have no doubt, will better serve the ministry and mission of the church in the parish and area.”

So, we have permission to do the work. We now need the money and the will to proceed. We will be seeking grants for the project and fundraising (as we will for repairs). We need people to come together in support of our vision and mission; not just our regular worshippers but also the wider community.

Unlike Notre Dame, we don’t have billionaires queuing up to give us money. But we do have you. And that’s a great start!

Alan Jewell

Journey Into Light

Journey into Light Exhibition is coming to St Cross Church, Appleton Thorn and St Matthew’s Church, Stretton.

Journey Into Light – featured in the exhibition at St Matthew’s, Stretton

An exhibition of prisoners’ artwork will go on display at St Cross Church, Appleton Thorn and St Matthew’s Church, Stretton from 12th – 23rd March 2019. The exhibition is made up of more than 40 individual pieces of art produced by prisoners from HMP Styal and HMP Thorn Cross, Cheshire.

Titled, Journey into Light, the aim of the exhibition is to demonstrate to visitors that behind every prisoner’s conviction and sentence is a personal story of love, hope and loss. The exhibition is a partnership between local churches, the Diocese of Chester and chaplains from HMP Styal and HMP Thorn Cross who have worked with the prisoners to produce the pieces of art. The exhibits differ in style from large acrylic paintings, abstract landscapes, and self-portraits.

Debbie Dalby, Director of Social Responsibility at the Diocese of Chester, says: “We want people to view the exhibition and leave with a greater sense of empathy and awareness of prisoner experience. There is life beyond prison and we want to celebrate renewal and restoration and the hope of a brighter, more optimistic future.”

Both St Cross and St Matthew’s will be open to visitors on:

Tuesday 12 & 19th March 10am -12noon

Wednesday 13th & 20th March 2.30-4.30pm

Thursday 14th & 21st March 2.30-4.30pm

Friday 15th & 22nd March 3.00 – 4.30pm

Saturday 16th & 23rd March 1.00- 4.30pm

All welcome. Admission free.

Pressing On

Some years ago, I had a phone call from a parishioner. He worked for one of the utility companies and wanted to know if I could help him with the date of Easter. He was preparing for a meeting and needed to know when Easter would fall over a number of years as it has a bearing on the demand for electricity. There was no Google in those days, so I took down my copy of the Alternative Service Book (1980) and was able to find the information he was looking for. It’s not often that I am able to provide such a useful service!

The calculation which gives us the date of Easter each year is beyond my simple brain, but it has something to do with full moons and the vernal equinox. (Not the actual full moon or equinox, of course, but ecclesiastical ones… Don’t ask me!) I gather that Easter can fall on any date between 22 March and 25 April. This year, Easter Day is 21 April, which is fairly late.

It’s slightly easier to calculate the date of the Annual Parochial Church Meeting: it has to be held not later than 30 April each year. At St Matthew’s, this year’s meeting will be held in church after the morning service on Sunday 14 April. At St Cross, the meeting follows the service on 28 April. Anyone whose name is on the church’s electoral roll is entitled to attend the meeting and take part in its proceedings. It’s worth saying here that, if you wish to have your name entered on the roll for either church, you must fill in an application form. If you have been on the roll before, that doesn’t count as this is one of the years when a new roll is prepared, and your details will not be carried over. Application forms are available from either church and each church has an Electoral Roll officer: at St Matthew’s, it’s Richard Johnson and at St Cross it’s Sandra Bates. If you want further information, please ask.

You may wonder why you would want to have your name on the church electoral roll. There aren’t many benefits, it has to be said! But it is one way of declaring your faith. You are identifying yourself as a Christian who belongs to a particular Anglican church – St Matthew’s or St Cross in our case.

But the Church of England is not really a ‘membership’ organisation. Anyone who lives in the parish is a parishioner – not just those who go to church. Of course, baptism is the sacrament of initiation into the life of the Christian Church. If you are baptised, you become a member of the Church (the catholic – or worldwide – church, not just the Church of England). In Anglicanism, confirmation is usually seen as an opportunity to confirm your baptismal faith – particularly if you were baptised as an infant – and to have your faith confirmed by the Bishop. But, as a former Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, said:

“The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.”

Having your name on the church electoral roll, taking part in its annual meeting, perhaps even putting your name forward to serve as a member of the Parochial Church Council or as a Churchwarden, are all ways in which we can serve our parish – including those who are not church members. At a time when church attendance is declining, and many organisations find their membership numbers falling, the importance of us identifying ourselves as Christians is crucial. I’m writing this before Lent, a time when many Christians look again at what it means to identify themselves with Jesus Christ, to walk in his footsteps in preparation for our celebration of the resurrection.

At our annual meetings – either side of Easter, this year – we long to see signs that our churches are alive, made of people who identify with Jesus, in his death and resurrection, knowing the power of his love. As we read in the letter to the Philippians:

“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”

Philippians 3:10-12

At your baptism, you were baptised into Christ Jesus, his death and resurrection (Romans 6:3,4). In confirmation, you made a public commitment to the faith into which you were baptised. By joining the electoral roll, you identify yourself as an active, worshipping member of a particular congregation. And in all of this, we “press on” because Christ Jesus has made us his own.

I wish you well as you press on in your journey through Lent towards Easter!

Alan Jewell

The Christingle

I’m writing this on 2 January 2019, so, if I haven’t had chance to say so in person, I’d like to take this opportunity to wish you a happy new year.

Christmas in both churches was busy, as always, with nativities, carols and crib services. One of the highlights of the season, as usual, was the St Matthew’s School Christingle Service, held on the evening of Monday 17 December. The church was packed, and families were treated to the sight of children holding lighted candles, singing, “Like A Candle Flame”. It’s always very effective and memorable.

A number of people have asked when we were going to hold the St Matthew’s church Christingle service, as it is usually on one of the Sunday mornings in Advent (as it was at St Cross on the first Sunday in December). The answer is at 4:30 PM on Sunday 3 February. I thought I would use this article to explain some of the thinking behind this change.

The Christingle goes back to a children’s service held by the Moravian congregation of Marienborn, in Germany, on 20 December 1747. (The Moravian church is one of the oldest protestant denominations, with its roots in 15th Century Bohemia.) The minister, John de Watteville, read verses which the children of the church had written to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

He then explained to the children the happiness that had come to people through Jesus, “who has kindled in each little heart a flame which keeps burning to their joy and our happiness”.

To make the point even clearer, each child then received a little lighted wax candle, tied round with a red ribbon. The minister ended the service with this prayer, “Lord Jesus, kindle a flame in these children’s hearts, that theirs like Thine become”.

The account of that occasion concludes, “hereupon the children went full of joy with their lighted candles to their rooms and so went glad and happy to bed”.

No one is quite sure what the word ‘Christingle’ means but it may come from the German word for ‘Christ child’ (Christkind). The symbolism has developed from those simple candles wrapped with ribbon, so that today our Christingles usually consist of an orange (representing the world), with dried fruits or sweets (representing the fruits of the earth), wrapped in a red ribbon (the blood of Christ, shed out of love for the world), holding a candle symbolising Jesus, the Light of the World (John 8:12). (I understand that someone posted on an account of their bewilderment when their child came home from a church school with a satsuma, some cocktail sticks, sweets and raisins, and a candle. One commentator wondered what jelly babies stuck in oranges had to do with Jesus!)

In 1968, a Christingle service was held in the UK by John Pensom, as a fundraiser for the Children’s Society. The idea caught on, massively, and today many churches hold Christingle services, often in support of the Children’s Society. 2018, therefore, saw the 50th anniversary of the introduction of the Christingle service to the UK by the Children’s Society.

The Children’s Society says that Christingle services can be held at any time from Advent to Candlemas, with Christmas Eve being particularly popular. The idea of Jesus as the Light of the World need not be restricted to Christmas, but, in the northern hemisphere at least, it works well in the dark winter months, reminding us of the love of God coming as light into our dark world. In the parish where I was Curate, we always held our Christingle service in January, close to the Feast of Epiphany (6 January), when the idea of the Light which had come into the world with the birth of Jesus, starting to reach out to the world with the wise men who followed a star to find him. My Rector took the view that, with was so much going on in December, holding the Christingle service in the new year took some of the pressure out of the Advent-Christmas build up, and gave something to look forward to in January.

The season of Epiphany takes us through to the start of February, when we mark the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, also known as Candlemas. This takes place 40 days after Christmas day and brings us the story of how Jesus, as a baby, is taken into the Temple in accordance with his family’s religious tradition (Luke 2:22-39). While there, an old man named Simeon, whom the bible describes as “just and devout”, takes the child in his arms. Simeon had been promised that he would not see death until he had seen the Christ. He recognises this child as the Lord’s Messiah and utters the words we know as the Nunc dimittis

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word.

For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,

Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;

To be a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of thy people Israel.

This acknowledgment of Jesus as “a light to lighten the Gentiles” led to the tradition of candles being blessed in churches for the coming year. This year, we are marking Candlemas, not on 2 February, as this will be a Saturday, but on the nearest Sunday, which is the 3rd.

If you have followed my article to this point you will see that Candlemas could be the perfect time to hold a Christingle service in support of the Children’s Society – focussing on the story of Jesus, the child who is the Light of the World, and using our Christingle candles to remind us to take that Light out into the world. We also felt that it might work better as an evening service, rather than at 10:30 AM, so we have decided to use the 4:30 PM slot on Sunday 3 February.

I am hoping that it will be an enjoyable and memorable occasion and that the Children’s Society, a charity with Christian roots which works with vulnerable children and young people in Britain, will benefit from our support.

Please come and join us!

Alan Jewell

Just for Christmas?

The Church of England has recently published its most recent report on church attendance. You won’t be surprised to learn that it’s not exactly good news. Church attendance continues to decline. Of even greater concern is the fall in the number of children in our churches. In ten years, adult Sunday attendance has fallen by 15%. Children’s Sunday attendance has fallen by 24%. The numbers coming to us for baptisms, weddings and funerals – a mainstay of our church’s ministry – have also fallen (by 22%, 27%, and 28% respectively). Church attendance at Easter has fallen by 16% and there isn’t a diocese in the Church of England that can report an increase in Sunday attendance.

There are a few brighter spots, however: one is the size of what is called “the worshipping community”. This is the number of people who come to church each month, including to midweek services. That has stayed about the same for the past few years, despite the fall in weekly Sunday attendance. (In other words, the number of people who come occasionally is no less, even though the numbers in church on any given Sunday are fewer. People who are part of our church community come less often than they would have done in the past.)

Another bright spot is Christmas. Christmas attendance has “bucked the trend“. Over the decade it has increased by 1%, which is not huge, admittedly, but after a dip in attendance at the start of the period, the numbers attending a service at Christmas have grown to 2.68 million in 2017, the highest figure since 2006 (and a 13% increase since 2013). Clearly, not all who attend midnight mass or a Carol Service regard themselves as practising Christians. For some, it’s an annual ritual irrespective of belief. But at the same time Christmas services demonstrate that the church still has something which is attractive to those who are not part of our regular worshipping community. We have seen the same with the attendance at our Remembrance and Armistice services. (94 people attended an evening service at St Matthew’s on Remembrance Sunday to mark the 100th anniversary of the 1918 armistice.)

What is it about Christmas? I suppose the familiarity is comforting. If you come to a Christmas service, you’ll probably recognise at least some of the hymns. The story is well-known and, as someone commented, it’s difficult for clergy to mess-up the nativity (whatever they might do for the rest of the year).

I’m writing this at the vicarage in November (it’s a miserable day today, too!). Just down the road there is evidence of new homes being built. I realise that development in any community can be controversial but as the church we look forward to welcoming our new parishioners when they move in. I was interested to discover that the two new developments close to St Matthew’s church have names:

Saviours Place and Kings Quarter

I’m not sure where those names have come from. (I’m aware from David and Margaret Hart’s history of St Matthew’s that, in 1527, there was a chapel in Stretton known as the Oratory of St Saviour, but I’m not sure if the housebuilders were aware of that.) It occurred to me that those names might help me to prepare my sermon for Christmas midnight. You can probably fill in the gaps yourself, but I see it going something like this…

In the gospel of Luke, we hear the message of the angel to some terrified shepherds: it’s “good news of great joy for all people”. A Saviour has been born. But where is the Saviour’s place? Not Jerusalem, where power lies, but the little town of Bethlehem, the city of David. Centuries earlier, the prophet Micah had seen a ruler whose origin was “from old, from ancient days” who would come from little old Bethlehem. Bethlehem is the home of Joseph’s ancestors, including King David, so he and Mary go there to be registered at the Emperor’s command. While in Bethlehem, the time came for Mary to be delivered of a child, her first-born. She wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger, “because there was no place for them in the inn”.

The Saviour’s place is not in the centre of power but tucked away in insignificance, in a manger in Bethlehem.

Another ancient prophet, Isaiah, had also painted a picture of one who would occupy David’s throne and establish his kingdom. A child would be born whose arrival would come like light to those in darkness. Among his kingly titles, he would be called “Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”. The angel Gabriel had told Mary that she would conceive and bear a son to whom God would give the throne of his ancestor David.

Matthew’s gospel tells us that wise men from the east will come to Jerusalem looking for the one born to be king. They have seen his star rising and want to pay him homage. Jerusalem is just the kind of place to find a king. But Jerusalem already has a king. His name is Herod, and he and his court are terrified at the news of a potential rival. Who is this that threatens Herod’s position and power, and where might he be found? The king’s advisors tell him about the word of the prophet who said that Bethlehem was the place where a king might be born, and that’s where the wise men go to find him. Herod says he wants news of the infant king’s whereabouts so that he too can pay his respects. He wants to do nothing of the sort, of course. He just wants rid of the threat to his power, and will stop at nothing to hold on to his throne.

Herod fails to eradicate his young rival (the holy family go to Egypt as refugees). As an adult, Jesus announces that the kingdom of God has arrived. It’s not like the kingdom that Herod ruled over. It’s not a place with boundaries. It is the recognition of God’s reign, and Jesus is its centre. The Kingdom of God is within you, he says. You could reach out and take hold of it. Where I am, the Kingdom of God is.

Jesus is proclaimed as the messiah – the Christ – a title which means that he is anointed to be King. But what a strange king he turns out to be! Starting his life in a manger, not in a palace, this king practices his kingship by taking the role of a servant, not a boss. And as our servant, he humbly surrenders himself – out of love for us – to the earthly powers, “even to death on a cross“. The only crown he ever wore was not of gold but of thorns. Pilate’s ascription to him of the title ‘king’ is made to mock him and his people.

The resurrection changes everything, of course. Except that those wounds of love are somehow taken into the Godhead. Jesus, our Saviour, is our wounded King.

As well as welcoming those who come to the Kings Quarter and to the Saviours Place, the church is here to proclaim, not itself, but our Saviour King, and his message of love and welcome to all who want to find themselves finally at home.

Happy Christmas!

Alan Jewell

Ruth’s Ordination at Chester Cathedral

Ruth writes:

On Saturday 2nd June I was ordained priest in Chester Cathedral. The service was very moving and emotional and was the culmination of my year here in Stretton and Appleton Thorn serving as a deacon. It was lovely to have the support of so many family and friends as I made my promises before the Bishop.

So what happens next? Well I’m still a Curate licensed to serve at St Matthew’s and St Cross and will continue to work alongside Alan, who is definitely still the Vicar of both parishes! But I am now able to preside at Holy Communion and conduct Weddings and I look forward to continuing my ministry in the churches and wider community.

Over the past few months I’ve had the chance to reflect on the ministry God has called me to. The Ordination Service includes a detailed explanation of the role of a priest:

Priests are called to be servants and shepherds among the people to whom they are sent. With their Bishop and fellow ministers, they are to proclaim the word of the Lord and to watch for the signs of God’s new creation. They are to be messengers, watchmen and stewards of the Lord; they are to teach and to admonish, to feed and provide for his family, to search for his children in the wilderness of this world’s temptations, and to guide them through its confusions, that they may be saved through Christ forever. Formed by the word, they are to call their hearers to repentance and to declare in Christ’s name the absolution and forgiveness of their sins. With all God’s people, they are to tell the story of God’s love.
Common Worship: Ordination Services. The Archbishops’ Council 2007

This is a daunting list of responsibilities and there have been moments when I wondered if I was up to the task! However, there are two things that have comforted and consoled me as I prepared for Ordination.

Firstly, during the Ordination service in response to the Bishop’s questions, I replied, “By the help of God, I will.” An important reminder that this can’t be done alone, by anyone, however gifted. I need the grace and power of God each day, because without Him I can achieve nothing.

Secondly, I am comforted by the last line of the quote above:

“With all God’s people, priests are to tell the story of God’s love.”

Sharing the story of God’s love isn’t a task reserved for those who have been ordained; it’s the responsibility of all baptized Christians. I can’t do this alone – in my own strength without God. I can’t do this alone – without you. We are in this together. So I ask for your prayers for me – as this next stage of my ministry begins to unfold. But also I pray for you too– that God’s surpassing power may be shown in your lives as you tell the story of God’s love to the world around you.

Revd Ruth Mock