It’s an Adventure!

I was talking to someone recently who told me that he had heard that vicars were not allowed to work more than 35 hours a week. I wish I had known that! When I was offered this job, I had to complete a health questionnaire to make sure I was sufficiently fit to take on the demands of full-time vicaring. The company that administered the questionnaire did so on the basis that the job was 40 hours a week. I wish! The reality is that this job will take as much time as you give it and then some more. There are some clergy who have part-time posts but there is nothing part-time about vocation.

So, what about part-time Christians? Is there any such thing? You’d be right if you guessed that the answer is ‘no’. One of the problems we have is that the word ‘Christian’ is often used to mean someone who is good, or kind, or nice. My wife, Rose, says that she once helped a colleague pick up some papers that had been dropped and was told, “that was very Christian of you”. There are many good and kind people – atheists, Muslims and Jews, for example – who would be offended to have their goodness and kindness labelled ‘Christian’. And not all who go by the name ‘Christian’ are particularly good and kind people. Some of us worry that we are not very good Christians…

Acts 11:26 says that “it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called ‘Christians.” In other words, a Christian is a disciple and a disciple is a Christian. So, what is a disciple?

In the gospels, disciples are called by Jesus to spend time with him, learn from him and reach out to others in his name. In the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20), the disciples are sent out to

make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:16-20)

I often quote the following from the Revd Dr Alison Morgan, a Christian thinker and author:

discipleship is a form of apprenticeship undertaken in community

It’s an apprenticeship: none of us is a master, we’re all learning on the job from the Master. We make mistakes and move on.

It’s undertaken in community: there may be Christians who are called to the solitary life but most of us live out our discipleship in community with others. Alison Morgan, again, says that “the plural of disciple is church“.

Jesus warns that this is no part-time job and no easy calling. In Luke 14:28-33 he compares it to someone who decides to build a tower. Imagine starting off with the best of intentions, digging the foundations, putting up the first few courses of brick and then realising that you don’t have the money to finish the job. Everyone who passes by will see not a tower but a folly, something ridiculous: a monument to your stupidity. Or a king going out to war against another who doesn’t sit down first and work out if he has the troops to get the job done. If he hasn’t, he takes the diplomatic route to see what he can rescue from the situation.

Who among you, Jesus says, if you were going to build a tower or start a war, would not work out first whether you have the resources to finish the task? Jesus is talking to large crowds. Many of them may be simply going along for the ride. Many may not have given any thought as to where this particular ride might take them. We know, as we follow Jesus towards Holy Week and Easter, that his journey is to the cross. On the other side of that is resurrection but he will not get there without walking the Via Dolorosa, the way of suffering.

“I’m going to the cross: who’s coming with me?” It’s hardly the most enticing advertising slogan ever but that is how Jesus calls people to discipleship. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it:

“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

This is not masochism and it gives no support for sadism. All human existence is touched by suffering: Christian discipleship is the call to die! At baptism, we are baptised into the death and resurrection of Jesus. What is it that dies?, given that most of us were baptised as infants and here we are still walking around and breathing in and out! What is it that dies? It is our ambition. It is our self-determination. It is the view that the universe revolves around me. The implications of that take a lifetime to work out but the selfish self must die so that the God-self, your real self, can live.

I’m writing this in Lent, which many find a good time to look again at our discipleship, our walk with Jesus. Have we counted the cost, weighed up the pros and cons? Jesus warns us that Christian discipleship is tough; it’s costly. But, he assures us, the benefits are out of this world! In one of the songs that we sing with the children who come to Praise & Play, we’re reminded that:

It’s an adventure following Jesus.
It’s an adventure learning from him.
It’s an adventure living for Jesus.
It’s an adventure following him.
Let’s go where he leads us
Turn away from wrong
For we know we can trust him
To help us as we go along.
It’s an adventure following Jesus…1

In April, both parishes hold their Annual Meetings: a good time to re-evaluate our calling to live for and serve God in the communities in which God has put us. On 16th April, we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus and are reminded that although being a Christian is never easy, we are invited to live out our discipleship in the light of Easter.

The resurrection assures us that a life of Christian discipleship, although costly, is worth it. God puts his seal of approval on the self-giving life of Jesus and shows us that a life like that, lived in love, is one that even death cannot ultimately put a stop to.

I hope you will be able to join us for one or more of our services in Holy Week and Easter.

Alan Jewell


1. [Capt Alan Price © 1990 Song Solutions Daybreak]

God the Father

When we were in Berlin recently, we visited the Pergamon Museum. It was built in the first part of the C20th to house monumental buildings, including the Pergamon altar after which the museum is named. When we were there, the museum was being refurbished and the Pergamon altar was not open to the public. But we did see the Ishtar Gate of Babylon. It was built in 575 BCE by King Nebuchadnezzar II and stands 14m (46′) high and 39m (100′) wide. What you see in the museum is constructed from material excavated in the early C20th and then reconstructed in the museum with new bricks. It’s “One of the most complex and impressive architectural reconstructions” ever and is very impressive. You can walk along the processional way, also partly reconstructed, and imagine what it would have been like to walk into Babylon in the days of Nebuchadnezzar II. The walls of Babylon were one of the Seven Wonders of the World, until they were replaced on the chart by the Lighthouse of Alexandria in the C3rd!

The Ishtar Gate that you can see is the smaller, outer gate. Behind it would have been an even bigger, more impressive gate – too big to fit in the museum, the bigger gate is in storage.

So what would it have been like to walk into Babylon in those days? The walls and gates are covered in blue-glazed brick, shining like jewels in the sun and decorated with images of dragons and bulls, symbolizing the gods Marduk and Adad. The walls of the processional way are decorated with bulls, dragons and lions, symbolising the goddess, Ishtar.

It would have been impressive! In fact, it would have been intimidating. The bulls, dragons and lions are there to terrify you. If you were even thinking of invading our city, don’t. It’s protected by our gods and they are fierce. This, and other artefacts in this and other museums, make a very good point about gods: they’re fierce, terrifying and you should be afraid!

Is that how you see God? Terrifying?

At the weekend, we went to see Fiddler On The Roof at the Everyman in Liverpool. It was the last night but I believe they are putting it on again in June. I recommend it. The main character is Tevye, the Jewish milkman, and his family and their community in Russia at the start of the century. Tevye and his Jewish community are trying to maintain their traditions in the face of huge changes in the world around. He’s poor and has five daughters that he wants to see married in keeping with tradition. I won’t spoil the story for you but very early on we hear that Jews are being evicted from their homes. How will they be able to maintain their faith, their tradition?

One of the most touching aspects of the musical is Tevye’s relationship with his God. Tevye talks with God: God is his confidant and the subject of his complaints. Why is my horse lame? Why am I poor? And what am I going to do about getting five daughters married?

Lord who made the lion and the lamb
You decreed I should be what I am
Would it spoil some vast, eternal plan
If I were a wealthy man?

In the face of adversity, Tevye says to God:

I know, I know. We are your chosen people.

But once in a while, can’t you choose someone else?

Tevye’s relationship with his God is rather different from the picture we have from Babylon. God is a friend, a companion. In the Jewish bible we read of God as Father to his people:

When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them,
the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
and offering incense to idols.
Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with bands of love.
I was to them like those
who lift infants to their cheeks.
I bent down to them and fed them.

Hosea 11:1-4

Jesus takes that understanding of God as a Father to his people and makes it personal: God is our Father in heaven.

Not all of us have completely positive memories of our own fathers or families. But, in an ideal world, parents love their children and want the best for them. Jesus says that God is like that, the loving parent who wants the best for his children. Sometimes it’s not obvious. But that’s the picture of God that Jesus paints.


Reflection for Compline in Lent 2017, based on Book One, Session Two of the Pilgrim course.

The Trouble with Lent…

Sermon preached at St Matthew’s Church, Stretton

On Sunday 5 March 2017 / Lent 1 (Purple)

Readings:

Prayer

Heavenly Father,
your Son battled with the powers of darkness,
and grew closer to you in the desert:
help us to use these days to grow in wisdom and prayer
that we may witness to your saving love
in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Introduction: the Trouble with Lent!

I’ll tell you what the problem with Lent is:

It’s not that it’s not biblical. Although there’s nothing in the bible that says that if you give up chocolate for 6 weeks you’ll enjoy your Easter eggs more. And it’s not because people think that Lent comes from Jesus fasting in the desert for 40 days… (It was originally to do with being baptised on Easter Day. Those who were to be baptised spent the days and weeks beforehand preparing. And those who had been excommunicated, being penitent, were to be readmitted to church fellowship – they would prepare with self-examination. Over the years, other Christians began to join in, and that’s where Lent comes from. It hasn’t always been 40 days.)

No, the problem with Lent is that it is dangerously close to the heretical cult of self-improvement. To be honest: for many, it’s a spiritual form of new year’s resolution. It’s March now and your new year’s resolutions have been binned, so you take this opportunity to have another crack at it.

As someone has said:

“Fasting without prayer is just a diet.”

Fasting – for health and weight-loss has become fashionable. It seems that abstinence is the new indulgence.

Pope Francis has said, what is the point of giving up something that is of no benefit to someone else? (He says we should give up our indifference to others.)

So, the danger is that our Lenten discipline can be narcissistic: self-interested, self-absorbed, self-obsessed. And that’s pretty much a definition of sin!

I’m not against self-improvement. There are a couple of things about me that could do with some improving…

The problem is the cult of self-improvement. Visit any bookshop: the shelves are full of self-improvement and lifestyle books. Spirituality is seen as a branch of self-improvement, an addition to our lifestyle.

The only British Heresy!

Britain has only produced one world-class, Olympic standard heretic – a few saints, but only one heretic: Pelagius. Pelagius was a British lay theologian who was influential at the end of the C4th and the beginning of the C5th. Pelagianism has come to mean the belief that human beings can earn salvation by their own works. (It’s possible that Pelagius himself didn’t believe or teach that.)

Pelagius is said to have reacted with horror to a prayer of St Augustine:

“Give what you command and command what you will.”

In other words, if you want me to be good, God, you’ll have to do it. I can’t! Pelagius taught that we can all be good, if we choose to be good. Augustine said that even our ability to choose is flawed. We need to be saved by God’s grace. And the church sided with Augustine. Luther rediscovered Augustine and the Church of England followed Luther in its 39 Articles of Religion:

XI. OF THE JUSTIFICATION OF MAN

WE are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings: Wherefore, that we are justified by Faith only is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort, as more largely is expressed in the Homily of Justification.

Or, if you like your Book of Common Prayer, the prayer of consecration at Holy Communion says:

ALMIGHTY God, our heavenly Father, who of thy tender mercy didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the Cross for our redemption; who made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world

In other words, Jesus has done it all. His death on the cross has dealt with the sins of the world, including mine. What can you add to that by giving up chocolate or alcohol? The bible says that we are saved, not because we are good but because God is good. There is nothing that you can add to what God has done in Christ. The good news is that you don’t need to.

Conclusion

What’s good about Lent? Lent gives us a great opportunity to consider our lives. To be serious about who we are and who we would like to be. Why does Christ die on the Cross on Good Friday? What does it mean that He is raised on Easter Sunday? What does that mean to me?

I hope that you will join us for Compline on Wednesday evenings as part of your Lent discipline. Not because it will help you get into heaven. But if might just help you live your life here on earth in the light of heaven.

A Franciscan Priest, Fr Richard Rohr, asks (in an article entitled, “Lent Is About Transformation“), Have you ever noticed that Jesus doesn’t give motivational speeches? “Try harder. Do better.” What he says is that we need to die and be raised to new life. That’s what our baptism service says.

What we need is not self-improvement by our own effort. What we need is to be transformed by God’s grace, by the example of Jesus and by the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit.

Have a good Lent!

Have a Good Lent!

The Antiquities of the County of Suffolk (1846) by Alfred Suckling, record that in the registers of Darsham Church, there are “several curious entries”. Including:

‘A license granted to Mr. Thomas Southwell to eat meat in Lent, aged 82, and sickly, by John Eachard [Vicar], for which he paid 6s. 8d. for the use of the poor in Darsham, according to the statute, March 4, 1638.’

So here’s a church fundraising idea: rather than giving things up for Lent, you can buy a license to allow you to do whatever you like. Chocolate? That’s £10.00, please!

It’s been done before. In 1517, when the Pope wanted to rebuild St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, he sent a Dominican Friar called Johann Tetzel to Germany to sell indulgences. Tetzel said that you could pay to have someone’s soul set free from purgatory – a sort of ‘get out of jail free’ card for a loved one. Tetzel was a good salesman, with his slogan:

As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.

That might not have been official church teaching – indulgences were really to do with punishments that the church could impose on the living, not the dead. But the way in which they were being marketed caught the attention of an Augustinian Friar by the name of Martin Luther. Luther put together a series of propositions and sent them to his bishop. (He may or may not have nailed them to the door of the church in Wittenberg. If he did, it was not the dramatic gesture it may have seemed – more like pinning something on a notice board.) These 95 theses included one which asked why the Pope, who was one of the wealthiest men ever to have lived, didn’t pay for the repairs himself rather than expecting poor ordinary folk to give their money.

These 95 theses, sent to the Archbishop of Mainz on 31st October 1517, marked the start of the protestant reformation. I don’t think that Luther knew what he had started, nor was he able to control where it led, but part of what he did was to get back to what the bible says, rather than what the church said the bible says, and what had accumulated over the centuries. Luther’s reformation shared with Renaissance humanism a desire to get back to the original sources – ad fontes: the Renaissance went back to Greek and Latin classical texts, rather than relying on mediaeval interpretations of those texts. The Protestant Reformation decided to go back to the bible, rather than on how the church interpreted the bible.

It began with this rejection of the sale of indulgences. Imagine being able to pay to have your sins forgiven and go straight to heaven!

But it turns out that the gospel is even more outrageous than that. What Luther discovered, when he went back to the bible, is that God saves us, not because of our merit, but by grace alone. We receive that grace by faith alone. Salvation cannot be bought because it is offered free of charge. It cannot be earned because it is God’s gracious gift.

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
Ephesians 2:8-10

The problem with Lent is that it can make us feel worthy, even self-righteous. But the gospel gives us no reason to boast because none of it is our own doing. It is God’s doing: we are what God created us to be. And part of that is a life of good works – not in order to earn our salvation but simply because that is who God made us to be.

Curate!

I’m sure you are aware that our parishes of Stretton and Appleton Thorn have a good history of training curates: you might remember some who began their ordained ministry here and went on to other things in the diocese and beyond. Since I arrived, I have let it be known that I would welcome the chance to work with a curate. I am pleased to say that Bishop Peter asked me to consider someone who is due to be ordained in July this year.

The person in question is Mrs Ruth Mock. Ruth is currently the Diocesan Family Life Officer, based at Church House in Daresbury, supporting parishes in their work with families. She is a former primary school teacher and mother of three boys – one doing finals, one doing A levels and one doing GCSEs this summer. I believe Ruth will be a great asset to our mission and ministry.

After consulting the Wardens and PCCs of both parishes, I let the diocese know that we would be very happy to work with Ruth and she said that she would be happy to come.

I am pleased to announce that the bishop has offered the post to Ruth and that she has accepted.

I should say that the post is subject to various conditions, but, all being well, Ruth will be ordained deacon on Sunday 2nd July this year.

Obviously, a curate is not simply an “extra pair of hands” – although that would be very useful, of course. We are responsible for providing her with an experience of parish ministry that will set her up for the rest of her life as a priest in the Church of England. Her job title will be ‘Assistant Curate’ and we would expect her to be with us for up to three years.

You will be interested to know that Ruth is married to the Revd David Mock, currently vicar of All Saints and St Barnabas in Macclesfield. David is going to be the next vicar of Barnton and he will be welcomed to his new post on Monday 26th June. Ruth will, of course, be living in Barnton and will travel in to work here with us. She will have a base in the parish office at St Matthew’s Church Hall.

I’m very excited at the prospect of working with Ruth: I think she has a lot to offer and I hope that we will be able to provide her with a good experience at the start of her ordained ministry.

Please pray with us for Ruth and David, and their family, as they prepare for the next stage of their life and ministry.

Every blessing,

Alan

The Boy Jesus in the Temple

Long before the Home Alone movies. And long before David Cameron left his child in the pub – we’ve all done it! – there was the story of The Boy Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2:41-end). All parents know how difficult it can be to keep tabs on a child. One possible explanation for the apparent negligence of Mary & Joseph may be to do with the fact that, as a 12-year-old boy, on the threshold of adult life, there may been a mix-up over whether he was traveling with the women and children, or with the men. They would have travelled in groups of relatives, so it’s not difficult to imagine the potential confusion.

This is the only biblical story of Jesus’s childhood, after the nativity stories and Luke’s account of the presentation of Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2:21-40) and it contains the first words of Jesus to be recorded. Jesus’s parents were, of course, devout Jews, and went to Jerusalem for the annual Passover festival. (Jewish men were required to attend three festivals a year: Pentecost, Tabernacles and Passover. In practice, “only Passover was strictly observed” (I Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke) and here, there were clearly women attending too.) Pilgrims were required to stay in Jerusalem for two days during the week of the festival. The boy Jesus apparently thinks that two days is just not enough, so he stays behind. They’ve travelled homeward for a whole day before they realise he’s missing.

Of course, when they eventually find him (‘after three days’), he’s perfectly happy sitting with the religious teachers, listening and asking questions.

And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. (2:47)

His parents, on the other hand, are not so happy. They’ve been wracked with anxiety and they let him know that this is no way to treat your parents. Mind you, Mary had previously been warned that it was not going to be easy being this child’s mother…

Jesus’s first recorded words are:

‘Why were you searching for me?
Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ (2:49)

The King James bible translates this as, “about my Father’s business”. The point is that we see the contrast between Jesus as part of his earthly family and Jesus the Son of his divine Father. Jesus’s relationship with his earthly family was often in tension with his divine personhood and his demands on his disciples to put their divine relationship first was a tough one.

The promise of the nativity story is revealed here: Jesus is the Son of God. This is a moment of epiphany, a revelation. Jesus’s true identity is laid bare. And then he goes back to being a jolly well-behaved boy, obedient to his parents. The next time we meet him, it will be at baptism at the hands of John, where Jesus will be affirmed as God’s Son, the beloved, pleasing to God his Father.

Jesus’s role is unique, but in a way, this is our story too. Our first loyalty is to our Father in heaven. That’s who we are, children of God. Jesus’s relationship is unique but he invites us to become God’s children too. Mostly we live that out as parents and children, brothers and sisters, as friends and so on – our earthly relationships where we are called to love one another. But we too have a heavenly Father and we are called, not just to be in his house, but about his business.

Jesus heals the Leper

I may have mentioned that I am going to New Testament Greek classes, trying to make good my poor performance in Greek as a theological student. When I arrived yesterday, my fellow-students were asking our tutor if he always started with the Greek text when he was preaching. He said he did and was reading from Romans, in Greek, the text on which he was going to preach on Sunday.

I don’t. But occasionally I do consult a Greek text just to check something. So, today, in the story of the leper who comes to Jesus (Mark 1:40-45), we read:

“Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand…”

And I thought, ‘I know this one!’ The words “Moved with pity” translate a single Greek word:

Σπλαγχνισθεις

From the Greek σπλαγχνον, which means intestines or bowels. We say, his heart was moved. In Jesus’s day, it was your gut that felt strong emotion. We talk about a ‘gut-feeling’ or something being ‘visceral’, which is to do with the internal organs. When you feel something so strongly it churns your insides.

Philippians 1:8 King James Version:

For God is my record, how greatly I long after you all in the bowels of Jesus Christ.

Good News Translation:

God is my witness that I tell the truth when I say that my deep feeling for you all comes from the heart of Christ Jesus himself.

Jesus is deeply moved by this man’s plight. His heart goes out to him. He’s a ‘leper’, which means he has some sort of skin condition (not necessarily Hansen’s disease) which marks him out as an outsider. Leviticus (13) says that those with skin conditions are unclean. They must live outside the camp and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean!’ Skin diseases were seen as a sign of God’s judgement.

Illness can often lead to people being stigmatised. People with skin conditions may fee embarrassed. Other illnesses and diseases can be ranked according to how much we blame people. A current campaign in our own day, which I heartily endorse, is to end the stigma around mental illness. We are a bit better at talking about depression, bipolar illness and dementia. Churches should be places where people don’t need to pretend. But mental illness is still sometimes associated with moral or spiritual weakness…

Jesus’s heart goes out the man. Our hearts must go out to those who are ill, physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually… Jesus brings healing to the man. And so must we.