Love Is In The Air…

This year, Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, falls on 14th February, otherwise known as St Valentine’s Day. This may cause problems for devout romantics as we try to reconcile our Lenten discipline with the extravagance of love… (Maybe transfer your Valentine’s celebration to the day before and take your beloved out for pancakes?)

We will be marking the start of Lent (on Valentine’s Day!) with a service of Holy Communion, with the imposition of Ashes, at St Matthew’s at 7:30 PM on Ash Wednesday. Then, on the following Wednesday evenings during Lent, we will have our usual service of night prayer (also known as ‘Compline’). If you have never been to one of these, I recommend them: it’s a short service (about 25 minutes) of quiet reflection and prayer.

I am also hoping that we will have enough takers for a Lent Course. This will probably be held on Tuesday evenings at the vicarage. If you are interested, let me know and I will confirm the details for you.

For the romantics, with thoughts of love around this time, we are again holding our Weddings Afternoon at St Matthew’s. It will be at 2:00 PM on Sunday 11th February – the nearest Sunday to St Valentine’s Day. As in previous years, we have invited couples who have booked weddings at St Matthew’s to attend but the occasion is open to anyone who would like to join us. I’m sorry to say that we have very few weddings currently booked – there are just 4 at St Matthew’s and 2 at St Cross for the whole of 2018.

The dearth of weddings being planned may make you wonder whether love is, actually, all around or not. Of course, people still fall in love and get married. But increasingly, they don’t make the connection between romance and family life, and what the church has to offer. The most recent statistics show that only a quarter of weddings (26%) include a religious ceremony. These days, the choice that couples have is greater than ever – from hotels to stately homes and other venues. The Christian Church needs to make more of the fact that the very heart of our message is love:

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them (1 John 4.16).

Making that connection – between the love of God and people’s daily lives is our constant challenge – demonstrating that our faith in the God who is love makes a positive difference to the lives that we lead.

One of the problems with Lent is that it might look like we are not really good enough for God; that we have to improve our lives before God will find us acceptable. But that is not the message of the Gospel. Before his public ministry begins, Jesus is baptised by John in the river Jordan. As he comes out of the water, he hears a voice from heaven:

‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ (Mark 1.11)

This is before Jesus has done anything! Before his public ministry of teaching and healing; before his miracles; before his death and resurrection. Before any of that, God affirms that Jesus is God’s beloved Son and that God is already pleased with him!

As we make our journey through Lent and as we celebrate the love that we have for one another, maybe we need to hear God’s affirming word to us:

You are my child. I love you. I’m pleased with you!

And on that basis, let’s get on with loving God and loving one another. Not in order to win God’s favour but in simple gratitude for knowing ourselves loved. We need to know that love is, actually, all around!

Alan Jewell

Two stories…

In Mark 3.7-12 we read of the crowds following Jesus. There is “a great multitude”; we hear of “great numbers” and Jesus is concerned that he will be crushed by the crowd… And then we look at the church that we belong to. At our church council meetings, we receive a report on attendance. Spoiler alert: attendance is dropping. Year on year, fewer people are coming to church. As a vicar, that’s discouraging. And it’s not just us. In 2011, the Church Growth Research and Development website described the Church of England as being in the ‘Last Chance Saloon’. That was six years ago. Things have not improved. Of particular concern is the attendance of children. In the decade to 2016, adult attendance dropped by 13%. With children (under 16s), the fall was 22%. The average Church of England church has three children in it. 25% of churches have no children at all. (Last Sunday, at St Matthew’s, there was one child. I think there were two at St Cross.)

As you know, we are about to employ a children and families worker to try to address this situation. But what of the church we hope that children and families will join?

In Mark 3:8 we read that the crowds had heard all that Jesus was doing. That’s why they turn up to see and hear for themselves What is our community hearing about us and about Jesus? What they hear is a church that often inward looking, fighting its own battles – many of which are irrelevant to the wider world – and on its way out. Those of us who are part of the church know that there is good news too: in church, people find love, welcome, acceptance and purpose.

There is healing too – maybe not as spectacular as the miracles we read about in the New Testament – but that doesn’t mean it’s not real. People find support which helps them to live their lives.

I was reading an interview with Russell Brand. You may know him as a comedian, actor, writer and political activist. Many churchgoers would find his comedy and his persona crude, coarse, and vulgar. He is a brash, shocking character who has struggled with addiction. He was in a self-destructive cycle and was rescued from addiction by a 12-step programme. But this interview quotes him as saying something which may be most shocking of all:

“My personal feeling is the teachings of Christ are more relevant now than they’ve ever been.”

As an addict, he believes that the world of today is addicted to instant gratification. How do we break out of that cycle? By inviting God into our lives. That’s what he learned from his 12-step programme and he’s become an evangelist for it.

I’m not holding up Russell Brand as a perfect example of orthodox Christianity – far from it! Who knows whether his transformation will last and what long-term impact it will have? But the story he tells about Christian faith and spirituality is far more positive than many we hear.

Brand believes that investing in Christian spirituality has saved him. That’s old-fashioned language, ‘saved’! Most Christians don’t talk like that any more. But Brand believes that what he has discovered personally has the power to transform the world. He says the Lord’s Prayer every day and found himself asking, what does it mean to pray “Thy kingdom come… on earth as it is in heaven”? It’s not enough to be transformed oneself. We need to seek the transformation of the world in which we live. The world is addicted to instant gratification and needs to be saved.

So there are two stories about Jesus. The one the church tells which is often negative and unappealing. And there’s the one told by those whose lives have been transformed by their encounter with the God who is made known in Jesus Christ.

Salvator Mundi

Sermon preached at St Cross, Appleton Thorn at 11:30 PM Holy Communion on Sunday 24 December 2017 / Christmas Night

Introduction

On 15th November this year, a painting came up for sale at Christie’s in New York. The successful bidder paid $450 million, making it the most expensive painting ever sold. In 1958, it had gone for £45, which, with inflation, is a little under £1000 in today’s money. So, what happened? In 2011, the painting was attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. Before that, it had been believed to be by one of his pupils or some unknown artist, possibly a copy of the original. (Some art experts are still not convinced that it is a genuine Leonardo, so, you pays your money…)

The picture is called Salvator Mundi – Saviour of the World – and was painted around 1500. It’s a picture of Jesus Christ, holding the cosmos in his left hand and raising his right hand in blessing. Jesus is the Saviour of the World and he could be yours for $450m.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser, writing about Salvator Mundi makes a connection between what was happening in Italy in the early 1500s, when Leonardo was active, and what was happening in Germany not long after. In 1517, an Augustinian monk in the university town of Wittenberg had been struggling with how to get right with God. If God is righteous, what chance do we stand?

The monk’s name was Martin Luther and he had concluded that

despite his rigorous standard of living, nothing he was capable of as a human being would ever be good enough for God. And that, if God was entirely just – that is, if God judged us according to our merits – then all of us are in deep trouble.

Luther was reading St Paul’s letter to the Romans and trying to understand the expression, “the righteousness of God”. He took this to mean that God is just and punishes the unjust. How could God do otherwise? Luther knew that, as a monk, his life was impeccable. And yet he also knew himself to be a sinner. Nothing he could do would ever satisfy God. Luther the monk didn’t love God. In fact, he hated God because he believed that God was and ought to be angry with him.

And then Luther looked again at St Paul’s phrase, “the righteousness of God” (Romans 1:17) and the idea that “the just shall live by faith”.

Then I grasped that the righteousness of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before “the righteousness of God” had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven…” (Here I Stand, A Life of Martin Luther)

In other words, Luther the impeccable monk knew that he wasn’t good enough for God. Imagine trying to save up to buy the Salvator Mundi. It doesn’t matter how much I save or how hard I work, even if I save and work to the day I die, I’m never going to achieve the $450m. I don’t stand a chance! Luther knew that he could never earn God’s salvation. What he discovered in scripture was that God is not just ‘righteous’ but also merciful. You’ll never be able to afford the Saviour of the World – no matter how good you are or how religious – but what if the Saviour of the World offered himself to you as a gift, a free gift? This insight, that God offers us salvation not as a reward for being good, but as a gift to be received by faith, transformed not just Luther but the world in which we live. It was the rediscovery of this idea that began the protestant reformation 500 years ago.

Conclusion

The Good News of Christmas is that the Saviour of the World comes to us as a gift. God isn’t waiting for you to be good enough or religious enough. The New Testament says that it was while we were still sinners, that Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).

That’s how we know God loves us. The Christian life is not about being good or being holy or righteous or religious. It’s about being loved. And loving in return. And love cannot be bought or sold. It can only be given and received as a gift.

And, unlike Santa, there is no naughty list, no nice list, there is just a ‘loved’ list. And your name is on it. Whether you are naughty or nice, your name is on God’s list. The point of the Christmas gospel message is that it is a free gift. Jesus, laid in a manger, the servant of all, obedient to death on a cross, risen, ascended, glorified, is yours.

Additional Collect

Eternal God,
in the stillness of this night
you sent your almighty Word
to pierce the world’s darkness with the light of salvation:
give to the earth the peace that we long for
and fill our hearts with the joy of heaven
through our Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

Good Old Saint Nick!

On Saturday, I was given a Christmas quiz to complete. (Yes, Saturday. The day before Advent had even begun, but let that pass.) One of the questions was

Where did the original Saint Nicholas come from?

As the former vicar of a church dedicated to St Nicholas, I was fairly confident that the answer was, as is often the case in early church history, “In what is now Turkey”. Nicholas turns up on Christmas quizzes because his name is where we get ‘Santa Claus’ from, of course. (In my previous parish, we had to get ‘Santa’ to fill in a child protection registration in order to appear at our Christmas fair. Not the real, Santa, you understand, he was too busy, but a stand-in. Employer: St Nicholas’. Job applied for: Saint Nicholas.)

The real Saint Nicholas was the bishop of a place called Myra (in what is now Turkey). He was born to wealthy parents but orphaned as a teenager. In the year 303 CE, the Roman emperor Diocletian passed laws making it compulsory to offer sacrifice to the Roman gods. Those who refused were imprisoned and could be executed. Nicholas was imprisoned but released when Constantine became emperor in 306.

It is said that Nicholas attend the Council of Nicaea, called by Constantine in 325. He was a fierce defender of orthodox trinitarian Christian faith. So much so, that there is a story that he slapped the heretic Arius. Well done, Santa! Despite that:

“He is reported to have been a kind and generous man, with a great love of justice, and to have intervened on a number of occasions to save people who had been unjustly condemned.”

The Saints of the Anglican Calendar, Kathleen Jones, Canterbury Press, 2000

He died in Myra and was buried in the cathedral but his remains were whisked away in the eleventh century CE to Bari in Italy. Some say his relics were stolen but it’s alright because Saint Nicholas himself appeared in a vision to tell them that he needed to be taken away before the Muslim Turks invaded.

The first biography of Nicholas was written 200 years after his death and many of the stories associated with him come from an account written in the thirteenth century.
The best known of them involved the saint saving three girls, whose poor father could provide no dowry in order for them to marry, from a fate worse than death by lobbing bags of gold into their home. This is supposed to be the origin of the pawnbroker’s sign – three gold balls – and is associated with the idea of giving gifts. He is also supposed to have rescued three boys who had been butchered in order to be sold as ham by a wicked butcher. Restoring boys to life who have been butchered and salted for ham is an interesting idea: first they were cured then they were healed.

In St Nicholas’ Church, Halewood, there is a set of three windows behind the altar with Saint Nicholas flanked by couple of angels. (The windows are by Sir Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris.) Nicholas is depicted holding a baby and visitors assume that the child is Jesus but I don’t think it is. I think it is just a child being held to show the saint’s love of children. If I were talking to a group of children visiting the church, as they did from our own and other primary schools, I would point out that, in our church, there was a child in the centre. In the same way Jesus put a child at the centre when he said

‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. (Luke 18:16)

As churches we are struggling to get children and young people to be a part of our family. (To be honest, we are struggling to get the parents of children, even grandparents.) But we have the legend of Saint Nicholas, patron saint of children, and the example of Jesus who welcomed the little children, to help set our agenda.

Without children in the church, we are missing out. Jesus says

Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ (Luke 18:17)

Advent Sunday 2017

Advent Sunday is the first day of the church’s year. I arrived in 2014, so this is my fourth Advent. I’m starting my fourth year with you! I remember my first Advent Sunday, standing in the pulpit at St Matthew’s, and berating the congregation, bemoaning the fact that I found myself in a church surrounded by Christmas trees and not even a purple altar frontal to indicate that we were in the season of Advent.

You know that Narnia is a place where it is always winter and never Christmas. I’d come to a church where, as soon as December was in sight, it was already Christmas and never Advent. I’m pleased to say that the lack of an altar frontal has been addressed, thanks to a generous gift.

Last year, I shared an illustration with you: imagine that, instead of Advent and Christmas, we were talking about Lent and Easter. Just before Ash Wednesday, you ask me if I’m doing anything for Lent – giving anything up, or taking something on. I tell you that for Lent I’m going to eat a chocolate egg every day. Eat a chocolate egg every day for Lent? Aren’t you supposed to be fasting? And, when Easter comes, you’ll have eaten so many chocolate eggs, you won’t enjoy your Easter egg. And I say, why are you so miserable, you Easter-hating Scrooge, you! You keep Lent in your way – with your prayer and fasting – and I’ll keep it in my way by having chocolate for breakfast very day.

But that was last year. This year, age has mellowed me. I’m not going to rant and rave. I’m going to embrace the culture. I’ve already sung ‘Away In A Manger’ twice. Yesterday, I attended four Christmas events, one after the other.

Someone asked me recently, Why do you hate Christmas? (They may not have put it that strongly, but they were responding to something I often say, which I suspect is said in vicarages up and down the country: it will soon be Boxing Day. Best day of the year!) I said, I don’t hate Christmas. But I love Advent. I like Advent hymns better than Christmas carols…

This year, the latest Advent can start! The shortest Advent. But what are the themes of Advent? The word means coming or arrival. The Collect talks about Christ’s coming, first in humility and then again in glory. We look forward to celebrating the arrival of the child in the manger, daring to believe that when we look in, it will be to see the face of God. We look forward to coming face to face with Jesus when he comes again. How will that be for us? Will we be able to look upon his face without fear? Yes, if we know ourselves to be forgiven and accepted by God because of what Jesus accomplished, not on the basis of our own good works or religious practice.

The poet, Malcolm Guite, who is Chaplain at Girton College, Cambridge, describes Advent as “a paradoxical season”:

“a season of waiting and anticipation in which the waiting itself is strangely rich and fulfilling; a season that looks back at the people who waited in darkness for the coming light of Christ, and yet forward to a fuller light still to come and illuminate our darkness.”

Guite asks us to consider how Christ comes to us today. Not just that he once lived among us in history nor just that he will come again in eschatology. But how does Christ come to us today?

Jesus promised,

remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:20)

Jesus says,

where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’ (Matthew 18:20)

Jesus comes to us in the person of God’s Holy Spirit and when we take bread and wine in remembrance of him. And, as we saw last week, in the parable of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25:31-end), Jesus comes to us when we encounter the weak, the vulnerable, the needy. These are all advents.

In the bible readings for our main Sunday services this year, we are looking at Mark’s gospel . Someone has said that Mark’s gospel is a way of asking the question

What does it mean to live faithfully as a Christian in a dangerous world?

I can’t wait!

Andrew the Apostle

What do we know about Andrew? He was a fisherman from Bethsaida on the shore of lake Galilee and brother of Simon Peter (Matthew 4.18, Mark 1.16); John’s gospel tells us he was originally a disciple of John the Baptist (John 1:35ff). John directed Andrew to Jesus (John 1:25-42). Andrew then found his brother, Simon, and brought him to Jesus, saying “We have found the Messiah” (v41).

Andrew and Simon become disciples of Jesus and are appointed as apostles (Matthew 10.2, Mark 3.18). They seem to have shared a house in Capernaum where Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law of a fever (Mark 1:21, 29-31).

Andrew is present with the other apostles at key events in the gospels. He is specifically mentioned (Mark 13:3) when Jesus talks about the coming destruction of the temple as asking, with Peter, James and John, ‘when will this be?’

We also come across him in John’s account of the feeding of the multitude (John 6.3-13).

8One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?’

The next time we hear of him is when some Greeks tell Philip they want to see Jesus. Philip and Andrew then tell Jesus, and Jesus talks about his death. (The mission to the gentiles won’t begin in earnest until after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.) (John 12:20ff).

Andrew is with the others at the start of the Acts of the Apostles when they are awaiting the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 1:1-18).

The Orthodox Christian tradition (which refers to him as Πρωτόκλητος, the ‘first called’) claims Andrew as the first Patriarch in the same way that the Roman Catholic tradition claims Peter as the first Pope. And the connection with Scotland? The story that, in the C8th, relics of Saint Andrew were brought to the town now known as St Andrews, where you’ll find Scotland’s oldest university and ‘the home of golf’.

What I like about Andrew is that he often seems to be a crucial link in a chain that brings others to Jesus: his brother, Simon; the boy with the loaves and the fish; the gentile Greeks who are looking for Jesus.

As churches we face significant challenges – declining attendance, ageing congregations, and increased expenditure. It looks like Mission Impossible! And it is: none of us can meet the challenges that the church faces, unless every member of the church sees themselves as a link in a chain. Andrew links his brother to Jesus. We have family and friends who know us as church people. How can we bring them closer to Jesus? Andrew is a link for the gentile Greeks who want to see Jesus. We all have links to the wider community. How can we reach out to them? Our neighbours may not know that it’s Jesus they want to see – but they might want to see a Christmas tree festival or sing some carols. You are the links that can bring others closer to Jesus. In the feeding of the multitude, Andrew is the link that releases resources to meet the need. We’d like to put a kitchen in this building, not to feed the 5,000 but to offer hospitality to our community – not just regular churchgoers. We need the whole church family to be links in the chain that will release those resources.

Just as Andrew was called to be a link in a chain that drew others to Jesus, so are we.

Happy St Andrew’s Day!

Joseph

My bible dictionary tells me that there are 11 Josephs in the old and new testaments – from Jacob’s favourite son to several in the new testament, including one who is Jesus’ brother – but this one is “Joseph, the husband of Mary, mother of Jesus” (Matthew 1:16). What do we know about him? He was a carpenter (Matthew 13:55), although that word (τέκτων, from which we get ‘technology’) could mean a craftsman or builder of various types. He could have been the village odd-job man or a builder or an architect employing others. Whatever his actual trade was, Jesus is known as ‘the carpenter’s son’. In 165CE, the Christian writer Justin Martyr says that Jesus himself made yokes and ploughs, which would give a nice context to his saying

28 ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’

Both Matthew and Luke tell us that Joseph was a descendent of King David (Matthew 1:20, Luke 2:4) which is why, Luke tells us, he and Mary made the journey from Nazareth, where they lived, to Bethlehem to comply with the demands of the census made “when Quirinius was governor of Syria” (Luke 2:14). The birth of Jesus then fulfils the prophecy of Micah (Micah 5.2) that a ruler would come from Bethlehem, the “city of David” (where David was anointed king by Samuel, 1 Samuel 16:13, 15).

In Matthew’s nativity story, Joseph hears that Mary, to whom he is engaged but before they live together as man and wife, is pregnant and resolves to “dismiss her quietly”. A reasonable response! He’s “a righteous man” and a gentleman. He doesn’t want to “expose her to public disgrace”. What on earth could make him change his mind? Nothing on earth: it takes an angel! The angel appears to him in a dream and reassures him that this is God’s business and that he has nothing to fear (Matthew 1:18-25). (Unlike the annunciation to Mary, none of this finds its way into the average nativity play!)

The child is to be named Jesus, which, like Joshua, means “God is my saviour (v21)”. Born of a virgin, he will be Emmanuel, which means “God is with us” (v23). Luke tells us that shepherds, “keeping watch over their flock by night”, are summoned by angels to go to Bethlehem where they find “Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger” (Luke 2:8-20).

When the child is born, another angelic dream (in Matthew’s account) warns Joseph to take “the child and his mother” and to flee to Egypt so that they can escape the jealous wrath of Herod. They stay there, refugees, until the death of Herod means that they can return to Nazareth (Matthew 2:13-21).

We are told that Joseph was “a righteous man” (Matthew 1:19). He was a devout Jew, travelling to Jerusalem to attend Passover each year, including that occasion when Jesus, aged 12, went missing (Luke 2:41-52). I wonder how Joseph felt, to hear his son’s explanation that he had to be in his Father’s house? (v49)

By the time we arrive at the Crucifixion, Joseph has disappeared from the story. Mary is present but not Joseph. Perhaps Joseph was older than Mary and had died. We don’t know when that might have happened, but when Jesus is rejected at Nazareth, he (Jesus) is referred to as “the carpenter’s son” (Matthew 13:55), so presumably Joseph was still alive when Jesus began his adult ministry.

From the end of the second century CE, it was being claimed that Jesus’s real dad was a Roman soldier, with whom, willingly or otherwise, Mary had conceived her child. But Matthew gets in quickly; even before the accusations start to fly: Joseph may not be the father of this child (what we would call his ‘biological father’) but God is. Both Matthew and Luke agree that Mary was an engaged virgin when she conceived Jesus (Matthew 1:18; Luke 1:26). Her pregnancy was “from the Holy Spirit”.

The ancient understanding of conception may have been different to ours – there was less understanding of the biology than we have – but they knew enough. The announcement of a virgin conception that the Holy Spirit has brought about is the curtain-opener for a story of God’s engagement with His world. It’s a way of saying that this man, born in this way, is going to do something extraordinary; that God has a plan for God’s world.

Poor old Joseph may not get top billing in the nativity play but he has a supporting role in the story. He is a decent chap, wanting to do what is right; protective of his missus and her son.

Collect

God our Father,
who from the family of your servant David
raised up Joseph the carpenter
to be the guardian of your incarnate Son
and husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary:
give us grace to follow him
in faithful obedience to your commands;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.