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)

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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.

 

Remembrance

November is the month for remembrance. In the church calendar, we mark the festivals of All Saints and All Souls. In the former, we remember the heroes of the faith, recognized by the church for their outstanding example. In the latter, we remember all those “we love but see no longer”.

On 11th November, Remembrance Day, we think particularly of those who have died in the line of duty during two world wars and subsequent conflicts.

Remembrance Sunday falls on 12th November this year. As well as the usual morning services and acts of remembrance at both churches (10:15 AM at St Cross and 10:30 AM at St Matthew’s), we are planning a special evening service at St Matthew’s at 6:30 PM.

This year marks the centenary of a number of key events in the First World War, such as the Battle of Passchendaele. With this in mind, I have been looking at the poetry of GA Studdert-Kennedy in order to prepare an act of worship and reflection. Studdert-Kennedy was a vicar in Worcester when war broke out in 1914. He volunteered and went to the front line as a chaplain, where his practice of handing out cigarettes earned him the nickname ‘Woodbine Willie’.

He was awarded the Military Cross for his services. His citation read:

“For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He showed the greatest courage and disregard for his own safety in attending to the wounded under heavy fire. He searched shell holes for our own and enemy wounded, assisting them to the dressing station, and his cheerfulness and endurance had a splendid effect upon all ranks in the front line trenches, which he constantly visited.”

As well as a chaplain, ‘Woodbine Willie’ was a poet. His collection, “The Unutterable Beauty“, from 1927, has recently been re-published. He writes from a Christian perspective of the horrors of war, seen at first hand. His work is thoughtful and moving, bringing together the faith of a Christian priest and the questions of someone caught up in bloody warfare.

As well as poetry, the service will include hymns and readings, and I think will provide an opportunity for prayer and reflection in the spirit of remembrance.

I hope you can join us and I look forward to seeing you,

Alan Jewell

The Commemoration Service

Please join us at St Matthew’s at 6:30 PM on Sunday 5th November for our All Souls Commemoration service. As usual, we have particularly invited families who have arranged funeral services with us in the past year or so to attend, but the service is for all of us who have lost loved ones, whether recently or not.

Thanks to Geoff Buchan, we have a beautiful new book of remembrance which will be in church if you wish to add names to be included in the prayers during the service. (Please write clearly as we have to sight-read them!)

The service will include suitable hymns, readings and prayers, and a sermon. Please come and invite others who might find it helpful.

St Luke

Yesterday (18th October) was the feast day of St Luke the Evangelist. Luke is credited with writing both the Gospel which bears his name and its sequel, the book of Acts. Which means he wrote more than a quarter of the New Testament!

In the Epistle to the Colossians, Paul refers to Luke as “the beloved physician” (Col 4:14) and he is, amongst other things, the patron saint of physicians and surgeons (and butchers, interestingly).

The Ministry of Healing

St Luke’s Day is a good time to think about the Christian ministry of healing. I’ve known Christians who believe that God will heal each and every sickness as long as you pray with enough faith. The danger with that is that if you pray and you are not healed, not only do you still have the illness, you now have to live with the guilt of not having enough faith. The opposite danger is that we never pray for healing, or at least never pray with any expectation that the person we are praying for will be healed. (A former colleague used to say that there was only one way off the ‘Prayer for the sick’ list…) My own view is that we should pray for healing, but with humility and honesty. And allow God to answer our prayers in the way that God chooses. I believe that, in prayer, God meets us with healing love. The way in which that healing love is manifested is up to God.

All healing is from God

There is something in the way in which we are created that has healing ‘built in’. If you cut yourself, your body tends to heal. If your doctor prescribes medication and it helps, that too is healing and ultimately the gift of God, as is the skill of a surgeon. As someone once said, ‘If I get a headache, I pray to God that the pain will go away and I take two paracetamol. Whichever gets there first doesn’t really matter, I’ll take the healing’. In prayer, we are working with the healing that is ‘built in’.

Mental Wellbeing

October (10th) also sees World Mental Health Day, hosted by the World Federation of Mental Health. Each year, Chester Diocese hosts a day to encourage conversations about mental health which some of us have attended. In Christian circles there is a particular issue with mental health problems: people we come across in the gospels who today we would recognise as having mental health issues are identified as being victims of demonic activity. I’m not saying that there is no such thing as evil but I am saying that our understanding of how brains and minds work has come a long way, and that people who present in those ways would today be diagnosed with a mental health problem and be treated appropriately.

Our culture is getting better at acknowledging that mental wellbeing needs to be addressed just like physical wellbeing. There’s no stigma attached to having a broken leg or needing surgery or pain relief. There should be no stigma attached to having a chemical imbalance in the brain and needing medication or a talking therapy. Among younger people, in particular, there is a move to change the way we think and act about mental health, and that’s a very healthy development.

It helps to know the facts: one in four people experience a mental health problem every year. Half of them say that the associated isolation and shame is worse than the condition itself, so that’s something we can work on. At our conference, the organisers took a photograph of those who attended. One in four of us had to put a piece of paper in front of our faces so that we were not included in the picture.

What can the church do?

From time to time we hold ‘healing services’. They’re good things and can be helpful. In my view, every service should be a healing service. Every time we come to church, there should be a healing encounter with God, the Healer. At the eucharist, when we get out of our seats and come to receive from God, we should expect to receive a measure of healing – enough to send us back out into the world, better equipped to cope with our own problems and to offer healing love to others.

In church we can offer a healing space to those who are struggling. Sometimes, it’s just a place to be quiet and reflect. Occasionally, people come here just to sit quietly. (What a shame the building isn’t open throughout the week!) Sometimes it’s having someone to talk to. In my view, listening is the most underrated skill and gift. It’s underrated as a skill because listening isn’t just waiting for the other person to stop talking so that I can say what I want to say. It’s not “I know how you feel because such-and-such happened to me…” It isn’t getting information from the person so that you can give them advice. Often people want to talk, not listen to advice. Actively listening to another person, letting them talk, is a gift that is all too rare.

The tricky bit is getting it right: when does someone want to sit quietly, undisturbed; when does someone want to be actively listened to; and when does someone want nothing more than a chat, just others to acknowledge them as a human being.

We don’t advertise our Thursday morning communion as a ‘healing service’, but it is. Many of us can testify that being part of a congregation like this, sharing this activity, is healing. (So, whatever you do, don’t tell anyone else about it. Because, if you do, they’ll all want to come!)

Alan Jewell

The Fight to Survive?

Jeremy Paxman (former Newsnight presenter and University Challenge inquisitor) has written a piece about the Church of England in, of all places, the Financial Times (to which he is a contributing editor). It’s an affectionate piece. He clearly has a soft spot for the good old C of E. But it’s a bleak piece too, about ‘the Church of England’s fight to survive’, as Paxman asks

“is the Church of the brink of extinction?”

Paxman describes a visit to “an ancient Dorset church as a tiny handful of parishioners takes communion”. The priest is 87 years old. None of the congregation is “in the flush of youth”. Paxman admires the scene but speaks of the Church’s “Irreversible decline”. Whereas a decade ago, 13 million British people identified themselves as Anglican, that number is now just 8.5 million. Fewer than one million people go to church regularly, a decline of 11% over the past decade.

The Church, he says, has some very precious real estate. But historic buildings are expensive to maintain: 20 C of E buildings are closed each year. Why not sell most of them off?, he asks.

Church giving, as well as church going, is declining as our core supporters age: 70% of giving to the Church comes from those over 50. 40% from the over 70s. He quotes Mike Eastwood, the Liverpool Diocesan Secretary, as saying that we have “about 10 years” to turn things around.

Paxman writes:

Optimism is a precondition for any job in the Church of England. But the overwhelming impression is of dwindling, ageing congregations: homely, well-mannered and kindly folk increasingly out of joint with the noisy, secular spirit of the age.

Underlying our problems is the fact that every survey shows that succeeding generations are less likely to believe in God or have a positive view of religion or church.

In the end, the C of E’s problem is that not enough people believe in the one thing that makes it different from the secular world…

There are signs of hope, too, including an increase in the numbers coming forward for ordination. (A quarter of the Church’s clergy are aged 60 or over.) But where are congregations growing?

One of the phenomena of our day is the success of Holy Trinity, Brompton, and the churches it has planted. ‘HTB’ is the church that gave us the Alpha Course which offers people an opportunity to explore the Christian faith, usually over a bowl of pasta. Paxman tells us that 24 million people have completed the course. HTB is a success story: not only are its services full but HTB sends whole congregations out to plant churches elsewhere. Sometimes the HTB plant takes over a church building that is in danger of being closed down. It’s a controversial strategy but one in which the Church of England is investing money. (One church that has been ‘taken over’ by HTB is St Sepulchre’s, Holborn. Known as the ‘National Musicians’ Church’, St Sepulchre’s is the last resting place of Proms-founder, Sir Henry Wood. When former HTB curate, the Revd David Ingall became Priest-in-charge, the church announced that it would no longer host concerts because the space was required for worship. The change in policy drew criticism from figures in the music world such as John Rutter and Aled Jones.)

HTB’s theology is conservative evangelical and its worship style, charismatic. It is the form of Christianity in which I was ‘born again’ and from which I heard the call to ordained ministry. But I have changed in the 31 years since I was ordained deacon. To those who care to ask, I sometimes describe myself as ‘post-evangelical’ and a ‘recovering charismatic’. I still believe that Jesus is good news and that God is to be encountered in the bible which bears witness to Jesus as the Word of God. My own preference is for contemporary styles of worship: my ideal church service would be a ‘Rock Mass’ – lead by a band (with me on lead guitar and preaching, of course). But even vicars don’t always get want they want. And neither should they! In Stretton and Appleton Thorn, we continue with our ‘mixed economy’ of services – from All-age Worship to Book of Common Prayer Evensong – because we are trying to serve the whole community. In city centres, you can specialise – if you want Anglo-Catholic worship there’s a church for you. If you want a conservative low church, there’s one for you. And if you want guitars and drums, you can find that too. In our churches, we have to try to offer something for everyone. The danger of course is that you end up pleasing nobody.

And I’m not pessimistic about the church: as Paxman says, you have to be an optimist in my line of work. I’m encouraged by some words I heard from former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams: the church survives because it is God’s idea.

I believe that God has a purpose for the churches in our parishes and I don’t think that involves us going out of business. We need to learn to engage with a culture that no longer takes faith in God for granted and which does not have a ‘brand loyalty’ to the Church of England.

We are not going to be ‘HTB’ – at least, I don’t think so – but we do need to be the church in this place. I still believe that the story of God’s love for the world revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is the best news there is. How do we live our faith in the world as it is today (not harking back to some halcyon days, now long gone)?

Those are the challenges we face. I think we can do it. What do you think?

Alan Jewell