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.”

 

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.

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!

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.

The Lord’s Prayer

Sermon preached at St Cross Church, Appleton Thorn

On Sunday 24 July 2016 / Trinity 9 (Green) / Proper 12C

Listen to an audio recording of the sermon – click here.

Readings:

The readings summarised as a tweet
Hosea 1:2-10 Want to know what it’s like being your God? Try marrying an unfaithful woman! H’s children named prophetically. #Hosea1_2 #TweetingTheBible
Colossians 2:6-15 Emptiness of deceit vs the fullness of God in Christ and fullness of life in him. From death to life. #Colossians2_6 #TweetingTheBible
Luke 11:1-13 When you pray, say ‘Father…’. Persevere. How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit. #Luke11_1 #TweetingTheBible

Prayer

Gracious Father,
revive your Church in our day,
and make her holy, strong and faithful,
for your glory’s sake
in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Introduction

The disciples ask, ‘Lord, teach us to pray’. You’d expect a religious teacher to teach prayer, as John the Baptist had done.

Jesus gives them the Lord’s prayer, not quite in the form that we are used to. The prayer is recorded in Matthew as well but Luke’s version is shorter.

Given what Jesus has to say about prayer (e.g., in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 6:7) you’ll know that learning a prayer off by heart and reciting it parrot fashion is not what Jesus is suggesting. Rather, he gives a pattern for prayer, an idea of what Christian prayer is.

What is Prayer?

Prayer is Relational

Father…

It comes from our relationship with God – the relationship that God has already established and offers, that God is our Father, we are his children. Prayer is addressed to ‘Father’. (Matthew has ‘Our Father’.) Given that the word Jesus uses is ‘Abba’, a term of intimacy, we begin with a certain confidence. God has made himself known to us as Father and we are invited to address God using the word that Jesus himself used, ‘Abba’. It’s the sound that a child makes, like ‘dada’, but it’s not childish because it also would be used by an adult to address his or her father.

Prayer is Reverent

…hallowed be your name.

We address God as ‘dad’, but this is no indulgent sugar daddy. This father is one whose name is ‘hallowed’, treated with respect. Matthew has ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name’. This is our heavenly father, the who whose name is holy.

Prayer is about Ranking Priorities

Your kingdom come.

We pray first for God’s kingdom to come. Not ours. You are not the centre of the universe. The universe does not revolve around you. Matthew has:

Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.

In prayer, we align ourselves with God’s will. And you thought it was about presenting God with a shopping list!

Then, Prayer is about our Bodily Resources

Give us each day our daily bread

Given that God knows what we need before we ask, why do we ask? Because we need to acknowledge our creaturely dependence on God. That’s the deal: God is Creator. We are creatures. Our daily bread is what we need to sustain us in our earthly pilgrimage. This is not caviar and champagne – though we may enjoy those on occasion – this is the staff of life, meeting our basic needs.

And Prayer is about our Spiritual Resources

And forgive us our sins…

Sin is what breaks our relationship with God our Father in heaven. In Christ, God has done all that needed to be done to restore that relationship. But we can drift away. Each time we pray using the Lord’s Prayer, we ask that the relationship be restored.

Prayer is about our Relationships with Others

…for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.

Our relationship with God is always tied in to the relationships we have with others. We can’t expect God to forgive us if we are not open to forgive others.

Prayer is about having the Resilience to cope with life

And do not bring us to the time of trial.

It’s not a ‘get out of jail free’ card. I don’t know if you had noticed, but Christians – even vicars – do not necessarily lead charmed lives! We pray that we may have the resources to cope with what life throws at us.

Our prayer is that God will never take us to a place where we are stretched beyond our capacity to endure, to persevere.

Matthew has:

And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.

Conclusion

Prayer is never mere repetition or recitation of something we have learned by rote. It is

  • Relational
  • Reverent
  • To do with Ranking Priorities
  • We trust God for our Material Resources
  • and for our Spiritual Resources
  • We seek the Resilience to cope with what life throws at us.

The Epiphany

In the west, we think of the Epiphany as being mostly about the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus. But there are other associations which we are invited to make during the season of Epiphany – including the Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan and his first miracle, turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee.

The word ‘epiphany’ means a manifestation or revelation. It’s sometimes used to mean a moment of inspiration: you’ve been thinking about something for days and getting nowhere. Suddenly, the thing that was hiding from you pops into your head. You’ve had an epiphany. Something that was hidden becomes clear, that’s what an epiphany is. In the Christian church we think of the mysteries of God – things long hidden – being revealed to us. Starting with the birth of Jesus where God shows himself definitively to us in the poverty and humility of the manger. Outside of the Holy Family, the first revelation is to the shepherds.

The first nowell the angels did say was to certain poor shepherds in fields where they lay…

The shepherds were humble folk, Jewish but not particularly religious. Then come the magi, the wise men. They are exotic rather than humble, and religious but not Jewish. The shepherds are familiar local figures, down from the hills. The magi are mysterious foreigners who have travelled far. Matthew (2:1-11) tells us that they follow a star to find the place where the new king has been born. First of all, in Jerusalem, they face another king, Herod, who is afraid when he hears that a new king has been born. They outwit him – well, they were wise men! – and pay homage to the new-born King in Bethlehem. These strangers are drawn in to the story of God’s dealing with his people. Right at the start of Matthew’s gospel we hear that the one who is born to be Messiah, in fulfilment of (Jewish) prophecy, is also King to the gentiles, the foreigners, strangers, outsiders. The Gospel is not just for us and people like us. It is Good News for all.

And that is the note of Epiphany: like dropping a pebble in a pond, the ripples move ever outward. From the narrow confines of the manger, the news of the birth of Jesus spreads, to Jewish shepherds, to gentile wise men. At his baptism, Jesus is revealed as God’s Son:

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

Luke 3:21, 22

In John (2:1-11) we hear of the first miracle of Jesus, turning water into wine – not just any old plonk, but good wine – and are told that ‘his disciples believed in him’. In John, miracles are ‘signs’ which point to something. They are epiphanies, moments of revelation. John will tell us of healings, feeding the 5,000, walking on water, and the raising of Lazarus. At these moments, the veil is drawn back and we see the truth about who Jesus is, and how he reveals God to us. And we are invited, like the first disciples, to respond with faith.

The pebble is dropped into the pool and the ripples reach out, from the manger, to us. We are here because the Good News has reached us. But what if the ripples stop with us? What if this is as far as they go? We are the last to be reached. The Good News comes to us, but stops with us. The season of Epiphany is a reminder to us that the revelation of God’s love to the world is not just for us. We are charged with allowing the ripples to go beyond us, into the wider world, where our families, friends and neighbours are.

At the start of this year, we might well think of how we can share the Good News of Jesus with those beyond the church. Where shall we start?

In The Bleak Midwinter

I’m sticking with the themes of the Epiphany season. On Sunday I took as my sermon topic: why I never choose ‘We Three Kings’ for carol services. Put simply, the Bible doesn’t say they were kings nor that there were three of them… There’s also no mention of camels or stables and the magi almost certainly didn’t come across the shepherds, as they do in our nativity plays. But there were three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh, and they offer fertile soil for reflection. Gold is a gift fit for a king; incense is offered to God; and myrrh speaks of both healing and anointing for death. The magi are exotic strangers who are drawn by a star to the little one who is the Light of the World, showing that God’s plan for the world isn’t limited to his people, the Jews. The magi are foreigners, gentiles. They too are brought in to the story of the incarnation.

So, today my theme is: why I almost never pick ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’, despite it being a favourite of just about everybody. It has a fabulous tune, by Gustav Holst, who was born in Cheltenham. The tune is called Cranham, which is the name of the Gloucestershire village where Holst lived when he composed it. The words are by Christina Rossetti:

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

First of all, we don’t know when Jesus was born and it is unlikely to have been during the winter, bleak or otherwise. The shepherds were out on the hills at night, which suggests that it was not winter and that it was not bleak. And if it was in the winter, how much snow do you think there was in Bethlehem? It does apparently sometimes snow in Bethlehem in winter but it’s rare. And, if it happened when Jesus was born, you would have thought that either Matthew or Luke might have mentioned it. But they didn’t. So, no ‘snow on snow’.

But I guess that Christina Rossetti knew that. What she did is what artists have always done: she transposed the story of the nativity into her own world. White Christmases were more common in the nineteenth century than they are today (because of a ‘little ice age’ that ended around the 1850s). Climate change means that our winters are increasingly likely to be warmer and wetter than they were in Rossetti’s day. There’s something about bringing the gospel into our own time and culture that makes sense: the incarnation means that God makes himself known in human flesh, in a particular place at a particular time, but in doing so, God is made known in all places and at all times.

I recently wasted a couple of minutes watching a video online in which an animated Martin Luther argues with a couple of Anglicans over writing a Christmas hymn. Luther wants to write about the doctrine of the incarnation and God’s plan to redeem humanity. The English hymn writers want to sing about snow and livestock.

But there’s theological reflection in Rossetti’s poem, as well as the description of meteorological phenomena. King Solomon, at the dedication of the Temple, asks:

‘But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!’
1 Kings 8.27

The God who cannot be contained by heaven, let alone a temple built by human hands, deigns to dwell in a mere stable-place and to be content with “a breastful of milk and a mangerful of hay”. We’ll skip over the fact that the Gospels don’t actually mention a stable, nor the “ox and ass and camel which adore”, and dwell on the humility which God shows in coming among us as that most vulnerable creature, a new born human child, born in poverty. I also love the tenderness of the description of his mother worshipping her Beloved “with a kiss”, while angels, archangels, cherubim and seraphim throng the air.

But the crunch comes with the final verse and this is what makes the hymn work in worship, despite the dubious meteorology and livestock references:

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man
I would do my part;
Yet what I can, I give Him –
Give my heart.

At the epiphany we think of the magi with their gifts, honouring the new born King. With them we recognise that the greatest gift of all is the humble child in whom God is made known. And with Christina Rossetti we wonder what it is that we can give in return for such a gift. Shepherds and wise men had the opportunity to worship the infant King:

Yet what I can, I give Him –
Give my heart.

Alan Jewell