Thy Kingdom Come

In 2016, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York invited Anglican Christians throughout the world to pray for people to come to faith in Jesus Christ. They encouraged individuals and churches to make this prayer a focus in the time between Ascension and Pentecost, following the example of the disciples in the first two chapters of the New Testament book of Acts. At the start of Acts, we are reminded that, after his resurrection, Jesus told his disciples not to leave Jerusalem, but to “wait… for the promise of the Father”. Jesus had said that they would be “baptized with the Holy Spirit”.

The Archbishops’ initiative, called ‘Thy Kingdom Come’, has gone beyond Anglicans and has been taken up by Christians of other traditions and denominations in 100 different countries around the world, with support from, among others, Pope Francis.

Today (30 May 2019) is Ascension Day when we hear the story of Jesus’ return to heaven. (I was talking to someone recently who remembers that when he was at school, they used to have trips out on Ascension Day – I don’t think that happens any more, although this year it falls in school holiday time.) Having watched Jesus ascend, the disciples return to Jerusalem and were ‘constantly devoting themselves to prayer’, waiting for the coming of the Spirit.

The promise of Jesus to the disciples was that

‘…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ Acts 1.8

At Pentecost (Acts chapter 2), we see how that promise began to be fulfilled, with thousands hearing and responding to God’s message. In the rest of the book of Acts we read how the early church – including a reluctant convert named Saul – began to bear witness to Jesus ‘to the ends of the earth’, at least as far as Athens and Rome.

Eventually the gospel – the good news about Jesus Christ – came to us, in Stretton, Appleton, and Appleton Thorn. The book of Acts doesn’t get quite this far: we need to tell our own stories of how the gospel was preached to us and how we responded to its invitation, and of how the Holy Spirit has led us to this point. And we need to pray for others to hear and respond – not simply to become churchgoers, but to experience the transforming power of God’s love.

The challenge is to think of five people you know, and to pray for them to come to faith in Jesus Christ. As you read these words, does anyone come to mind? A member of the family, a friend or neighbour, for whom you could commit to pray? Just a few minutes a day is all it takes! At its heart, we echo the prayer of the earliest church:

Come, Holy Spirit

Let your kingdom come

This year, Pentecost falls on Sunday 9 June. As well as our usual church services that day, there will be a united service for members of Bridgewater Churches Together at Hill Cliffe Baptist Church. The service starts at 6.00pm and all are welcome. (There will also be an evening service at St Matthew’s at 6.30pm that day which will provide an opportunity for us to pray together.)

On Sunday 16 June, the churches of the Great Budworth deanery are meeting for a service in the chapel at Arley Hall. In the past, this has taken the form of Evensong from the Book of Common Prayer, but on this occasion it will have a contemporary feel, using newer worship songs as well as some well-known traditional hymns. I have been asked to put the service together, so those who came to St Matthew’s on the evening of 26 May will have an idea of what we might be doing! Bring your own picnic to enjoy from 5.00pm: the service starts at 6.30pm.

Please set aside some time to pray for those you know to come to faith, and join us in prayer and worship: come Holy Spirit and let your kingdom come!

Alan Jewell

Jesus Walks on the Water

(Mark 6.47-end)

Along with turning water into wine and feeding the 5,000, the idea of walking on water is one of the best-known stories about Jesus. Although, I suspect that football fans who claim that their hero ‘walks on water’ might not know where that idea comes from.

The story takes place in the evening and through the night. Immediately before this, Jesus has fed the five thousand. In Matthew, Mark and John, these two stories also go together. (Luke doesn’t include it.) John’s gospel (6.1-25) tells us that Jesus realised that, after feeding the crowd, they wanted to make him king, and that is why Jesus beats a hasty retreat. In Mark, Jesus dismisses the crowd and goes up on the mountain to pray (6.45, 46) The disciples – never mind the crowds – don’t understand what sort of Messiah Jesus is, so he needs to get away from their inappropriate expectations, and try to persuade them that his is the way of service and suffering, not of whipping up populist mob mentality.

While Jesus is alone, the disciples are out on the lake (the Sea of Galilee), crossing to the other side and struggling with the conditions, battling with the wind and the waves. It’s early in the morning (between 3 and 6am) and Jesus comes towards them, walking on the lake.

The idea of Jesus walking on water is a striking image. The disciples think they have seen a ghost. They are terrified! Jesus has to speak to reassure them:

‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid’.

In v48 we read that ‘He intended to pass them by’. It sounds as if Jesus did not mean to help them. Or maybe that’s just how it seemed to them. Or maybe this is to remind us of the story of Moses (Exodus 33.12-23) who saw God’s glory pass by. (Jesus comes alongside them.)

We saw in last week’s gospel (Mark 4.35-end), Jesus calming the storm, that the sea in the Hebrew mind, represents chaos and danger. (The Hebrew word of water – mayim – comes from a root – mem – meaning chaos. So, creation and the flood…) Here, Jesus has sent his disciples into chaos! (“Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.”) In the account of his stilling the storm, Jesus sleeps and castigates his disciples for their lack of faith. Here, he appears to be passing them by. But he gets into the boat and the wind ceased. Jesus brings order to the chaos.

I said last week that Jesus doesn’t promise to calm every storm in your life. But he does promise to calm you in the storms that surround you. We may say, with the disciples, “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.” We need to see Jesus walking towards us through the chaos, getting into the boat with us and saying:

“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

 

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?

Experience Easter

On the day before Palm Sunday, a group of church people, directed by Ruth Mock, came into St Matthew’s to prepare for ‘Experience Easter‘. They went to work with fabric and greenery, pebbles and props to create a series of six displays which were to be used to tell the Easter story, from Palm Sunday to the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus. And a fabulous job they did, too – the church looks great!

‘Experience Easter’ came (like a lot of good things) from the Diocese of Gloucester as an attempt to engage children and adults with the message of Easter. We live in a world where, increasingly, people are not familiar with even the basic elements of the Christian story. ‘Experience Easter’, as its name suggests, it not just about telling the Easter story: rather it aims to get participants to ‘experience’ the dynamic of Holy Week and Easter in a journey through six ‘stations’.

  • Hopes and Dreams

We start with the ‘Hopes and Dreams’ of Palm Sunday. Those who take part in ‘Experience Easter’ are asked what they hope for, what they dream of. Some talk about their career ambitions – especially if they want to be a pop star or professional footballer. Others share their hope that a family member will recover from illness.

We tell them that the inhabitants of Jerusalem dreamt of a day when God would send a saviour to rescue them from their oppressors, the Roman Empire. Riding into the city on the back of a donkey, Jesus looks like a saviour – albeit an unlikely one. He is greeted as a king by cheering crowds. Going against everything we usually say to children when they come into church (‘be quiet!’), we invite the children to wave palm leaves and shout as the crowds did: HOSANNA! They process around the church and are then invited to sit (near the font) to hear about ‘The Servant King’.

  • Servant King

What kind of king did Jesus know himself to be? And how can a king be a servant? Jesus kneels in humility, like a lowly slave, and washes the feet of his disciples. We explain to the children that, in Jesus’ day, when you arrived at someone’s home you would do so on foot. Having walked through the hot, dusty streets – trying your best to avoid the ‘messages’ left by donkeys and other creatures – your sandaled feet would be in quite a state. Your host might instruct a slave to wash your feet before dinner. But who would choose such a job? In this station, the leader offers to wash the feet of one of the children taking part. (It’s a moving experience to be the person doing the washing.) Drying the child’s feet with a towel, we explain that Jesus said he was giving an example: that those who follow the Servant King should also serve. We ask the children to think how they might serve others.

  • Remember Me

In the next station, we gather around a table set for a meal – the last supper at which Jesus explains to his disciples that he will die, giving his body to be broken and his blood to be poured out. The station is called ‘Remember Me’ and we ask the children if they have something at home that reminds them of someone special. Children talk about photographs of pets and grandparents that have died. Others have precious objects, like a teddy or necklace that belonged to a family member. Jesus takes bread and wine, gives thanks to God, and shares them with his friends. ‘Do this’, he says, ‘to remember me.’ We give the children a small piece of pitta bread and some blackcurrant squash (no, not real wine!) to eat and drink, and invite them to remember something about Jesus.

  • Alone

After the meal, Jesus goes into the garden of Gethsemane. There he wrestles with the agony of what he must face. But his friends can’t even stay awake to support him and one of them will betray him. This station is called ‘Alone’. Children from Year 3 at the school had prepared poems about loneliness and they show a deep and moving appreciation of what it feels like to be lonely. In our Garden of Gethsemane, we read words of scripture that Jesus may have thought about: how God is always with us, even in our darkest hours and that, with God in our lives, we are never alone.

  • Sharing our Sorrows

Next, we move to the Cross. As you can imagine, this is a difficult subject for all of us, never mind primary school children. But even young children have the capacity to engage with difficult things. We ask them to sit in silence, holding a small cross, and looking at the wooden cross which stands in the pulpit, draped with red fabric. We ask them to share what the scene makes them think or feel. A number of them talk about the sadness, to think that Jesus died in pain. We explain that the station is called ‘Sharing Our Sorrows’ as we think of how God comes into our world with all its darkness and brokenness to share our lives, sorrows and all. We invite the children to bring their thoughts and prayers (and the crosses they have been holding), and to leave them at the foot of the cross before moving on.

  • Resurrection

     

If this was a Holy Week service for adults, we might end there and invite people to come back to church on Easter Sunday to hear the next part of the story. But we don’t do that with children; we don’t leave them with the sadness of the cross. The final station is, of course, ‘Resurrection’. We have a beautiful Easter garden with an empty tomb set up in the sanctuary of the church and invite the children, like those women on the first Easter day, to look into the tomb. What do you think those women felt? Afraid? Worried? Excited?

‘Experience Easter’ ends with the children being given time to ask questions and to look again at the six stations that tell the story. They are also given a small chocolate egg to take away and challenged to remember, when Easter comes and they open their Easter eggs, the story that they have shared through ‘Experience Easter’.

Many thanks to those who created the six stations and to those who have loaned items to decorate them. Everyone who comes into church will appreciate what has been achieved. ‘Experience Easter’ is a wonderful thing and I hope we will be able to repeat it in future years.

I’m writing this in Holy Week: for me, the full experience of Easter still lies ahead. But our prayer is that many visiting the church for an Easter service, or simply coming in to look around at the stations, will experience the Easter message for themselves: that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself and that the resurrection of Jesus changes the world for good.

Happy Easter!

Alan Jewell

Two Kings

Sermon preached at St Cross Church, Appleton Thorn, and St Matthew’s Church, Stretton

On Sunday 15 January 2017 / Epiphany 2

Prayer

Eternal Lord,
our beginning and our end:
bring us with the whole creation
to your glory, hidden through past ages
and made known
in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Introduction

We start the season of Epiphany with the story of the wise men (‘Magi’) who visit Jesus.

Quiz question:

In the story, how many kings are there?

Answer: two.

If you said ‘three’, and this were QI, the klaxons would sound and lights flash signifying an obvious but wrong answer. You thought there were three kings in the story? You’ve been misled by the carol, ‘We Three Kings of Orient Are’ and by every nativity play ever performed. In Matthew’s account of the visit of the magi, there’s no reference to them being kings – something you might have thought to mention if it were the case. Luke tells of the shepherds but makes no reference to magi. Mark and John have no nativity story, so that leaves us with Matthew, and Matthew does not say that any kings came to visit the infant Jesus. The visitors are ‘magi’, possibly followers of the eastern religion Zoroastrianism. They are scholars, in the sense that they study the stars. But they are not kings.

Nor does Matthew say that there were three of them. There were three gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh – so maybe they brought one each. In some traditions, there were 12 of them, so maybe they clubbed together to buy those expensive gifts.

And, just to clear things up, they come to the house to find Jesus and his mother, not a stable, and they don’t bump into any shepherds. In fact, given that Herod gave the order to have children up to two years old killed, their visit might have been a couple of years after that of the shepherds.

So, how many kings are there in the story?

If you are wise to my trickery, you might have answered ‘none’ but that’s not right either.

There are two. The first is King Herod – Herod the Great, a puppet of the Roman empire but given the title ‘King of the Jews’. And the second, of course, is Jesus. The Magi come asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” They have seen a star that augurs the birth of a new king. This is why Herod is afraid: as far as he is concerned, he, Herod, is king. The last thing he needs is the news that another king has been born. It’s a threat to his job security and he does what dictators and despots have done throughout the ages: he orders the slaughter of his potential rivals.

So, you can read this story as the account of two kings. One has political power and will do anything to hold on to it. The other has no earthly power and will spend his life giving away what he does have. One will stop at nothing to preserve his own interests. The other will stop at nothing out of love for others. The first will kill in order to protect his livelihood. The second lays down his life out of love for others.

Conclusion

And so, a good question for Epiphany, at the start of a new year, is: which is your king? The king of self-preservation, self-interest? Or the king of love, who gives away all that he has and all that he is? The king who gives orders to others? Or the king who becomes the servant to all?

One kills in order to save his own skin; the other lays down his life in order to save those he loves.

Which is your king? And what does it mean to follow such a king?

Angel-Voices, Ever Singing…

You may know the hymn from which my title is taken. You may even know that this year’s St Matthew’s Christmas Tree Festival is taking that as its theme. Angels, it seems, are everywhere: one of the most popular songs in recent times is ‘Angels’ by Robbie Williams. You’ll find angels in the movies, including the Christmas classic, ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ in which Clarence, a second-class angel, gets his wings. Angels are popular in art, from icons and stained glass, to statues and tattoos, and from architecture to children’s nativity plays.

We get our word ‘angel’ from the Greek ‘angelos‘ which means ‘messenger’. In the bible, angels are messengers, communicating between God and humanity. Sometimes, particularly in the earlier parts of the Old Testament, the ‘Angel of the Lord‘ is almost indistinguishable from God. The angel that appears to Abraham or to Moses is God’s representative. Since God is far beyond human imagination, the angel bridges the gap. And when Jacob wrestles with a strange figure, usually considered to be an angel, he is said to have “striven with God”. Jacob also has a vision of a stairway to heaven: he sees a ladder which reaches from earth to heaven, with angels moving up and down. When Jacob wakes he says:

“How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” (Genesis 28:17)

In the New Testament, when Jesus meets Nathaniel, he tells him that he will see

“heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John 1:51)

It’s an odd picture; not one I’ve ever seen in stained glass, but Jesus is God’s ‘ladder’, God’s ‘stairway to heaven’. Jesus is the ‘place’ where God is made known, the place where earth connects with heaven. Jesus is the mediator, the one in whom heaven and earth, God and humanity connect.

If your picture of an angel is overly influenced by children’s nativity plays, in which the angels are played by little girls in tinsel tiaras and fairy wings, then you should note that the only biblical angels we know by name are male: Michael and Gabriel. (There’s also Raphael if you count the apocryphal book of Tobit.) Not only are they male, they are tough, warlike characters. In the book of Daniel, Michael turns up as defender of God’s people, Israel, and, in the New Testament book of Revelation, when war breaks out in heaven, Michael and his angels take on the dragon and his evil forces.

In the Old Testament, Gabriel helps Daniel to understand the strange vision God has given him. When Gabriel appears, Daniel is so terrified that he falls to the ground. If you are still not convinced that meeting an angel would be a terrifying encounter, then let me point out that, in most cases in the biblical story when an angel appears, the first thing they say is, “Do not be afraid!”

Gabriel also turns up in the New Testament. He appears to the priest Zechariah to tell him that his wife, Elizabeth, who had been unable to conceive, will give birth to a son, to be called John. (We will know him as John the Baptist.) The angel Gabriel is then “sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth”, to a virgin called Mary (Luke 1:26-38). If the news given to Zechariah is strange, this news blows that out of the water. Mary will bear a son, call him Jesus, and he will be called ‘Son of God’.

In Matthew’s account, an unnamed angel of the Lord appears to Joseph and reassures him that Mary’s unplanned pregnancy is God’s doing – “the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit”; he is “‘Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us’.” (Matthew 1:18-25). An angel of the Lord, accompanied by “a multitude of the heavenly host” then appear to the shepherds to tell them to hurry down to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place (Luke 2:8-20). If a single angel is a terrifying sight, then imagine the prospect of seeing “a multitude of the heavenly host”! A whole army of angels filling the sky!

Angels reappear at a number of key points in the Gospels and in the rest of the New Testament, at moments when heaven breaks open to earthly view and when God speaks. I don’t know that I have ever seen an angel – but the bible warns me not to rush to judgement since, some have “entertained angels unaware” (Hebrews 13:2). But as we approach Advent and our Christmas Tree Festival, perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to be open to the possibility of God sending us a message of encouragement and hope through an angel or two. And as we prepare to celebrate the Christmas message, in which God and humanity are brought together by the one who is far superior to angels (Hebrews 1:1-14) let’s be open to the fact that we might have an angelic mission to others as messengers of that good news.

Alan Jewell

Stairway to Heaven

You’ve probably heard of the actor who was so modest that, when he wrote his autobiography, he didn’t even get a mention in it.

Today (24th August) is St Bartholomew’s day and if you read the gospel set for today (Luke 22:24-30), you will find no mention of Bartholomew. In Matthew, Mark and Luke we see Bartholomew’s name listed as one of the twelve apostles, but that’s it. Nothing else. John’s gospel doesn’t mention Bartholomew at all. Instead, John speaks of a Nathaniel (John 1:43-end) and it is suggested that this Nathaniel is the same person. Matthew, Mark, and Luke name Bartholomew as one of the twelve apostles. John doesn’t, but does name Nathaniel. ‘Bartholomew’ is not a personal name but means ‘son of Tolmar/Talmai’, a bit like someone whose surname is Robertson or MacDonald. Or possibly it means that he was a ploughman, ‘son of the furrows’… Matthew, Mark and Luke list Bartholomew’s name next to Philip and in the John passage (John 1:45), it is Philip who finds Nathaniel and brings him to Jesus.

Bartholomew (or Nathaniel) was a fisherman from Cana in Galilee (John 21:1, 2). He is one of the seven disciples to whom the Risen Christ appears while they are fishing without success. Jesus invites them to have breakfast on the beach.

And, finally, Nathaniel is with the other disciples after the Ascension (Acts 1:13). And that’s it. No other references to Bartholomew or Nathaniel. Tradition has it that he travelled to India (possibly Arabia or Ethiopia) and to Armenia. He is said to have been flayed alive and is depicted in art holding his own skin and the instruments of torture (including by Damien Hurst, in his ‘Exquisite Pain’, currently at Chatsworth House). He is, therefore, patron saint of tanners, leather-workers and bookbinders.

In the John passage (1:43-end), Jesus is in Galilee and finds Philip and says to him, ‘Follow me’. Philip finds Nathaniel and says, ‘We’ve found him! The one promised in the law and the prophets.’ Nathaniel is not convinced that anything good can come out of Nazareth. Philip says, ‘Come and see’. Jesus is about to impress him: he describes Nathaniel as someone without guile or deceit. ‘How do you know?’, asks Nathaniel. Jesus says, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you’. This supernatural insight is enough to convince Nathaniel that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah. Jesus says, ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet!’ and gives this slightly strange picture in which heaven is open and the angels ascend and descend on the Son of Man. Behind this is the story of Jacob’s ladder (Genesis 28:10-22). Jacob dreams of a ladder which reaches from earth to heaven, with angels moving up and down. When Jacob wakes he says:

“How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
(Genesis 28:17)

Jesus is God’s ‘ladder’, the one who connects us to God. The place where God is made known, the place where earth connects with heaven; Jesus is the mediator who makes God known, the one in whom heaven and earth, God and humanity connect.

We know very little about Bartholomew – almost nothing if we don’t accept the identification with Nathaniel. But like us, he finds in Jesus the one mediator between God and humanity, the stairway to heaven.