The Twelve

Mark 14:12-16, 22-25

Last week we heard the story of an unnamed woman who anointed Jesus – he says – in preparation for his burial (Mark 14:3-9). Her giving was lavish and extravagant, to the annoyance of some who were there, but accepted by Jesus. I wondered if, instead of a frugal Lent, we might have an extravagant, lavish Lent – a Lent filled with extravagant, lavish love for God and for others.

Today we think about Twelve men. They have names we might know, although it’s not easy to compile a definitive list. Two of them – Peter and Judas – we will come back to on these Wednesday evenings. Tonight we think about ‘the Twelve’ as a group. It seems that Jesus had a purpose in choosing precisely Twelve apostles, or ‘messengers’ (Mark 3:16–19; Matt 10:2–4; Luke 6:14–16; and Acts 1:13). They are called by Jesus. They spend time with Jesus and are instructed by him. They are promised a role in the coming kingdom (Matt 19:28) and are sent out by him preach and heal. But why 12? What is the significance of their twelveness?

In the Hebrew Bible, the people of God consisted of the 12 tribes of Israel. Way back in Genesis (35:22–26), the patriarch Jacob (AKA Israel) had 12 sons who became the heads of 12 tribes which made up the people of Israel. The number 12 turns up in various places in the OT symbolising the whole people of God. In Exodus (24:4), Moses “built an altar … and set up twelve pillars, corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel”. Joshua was told to choose 12 men, one from each of the tribes, to take a stone from the river Jordan and to set them up as a memorial to their crossing the river (Joshua 4). In calling 12 men, Jesus seems to be gathering around himself a new people of God. In the OT story, the 12 tribes became divided and factional: the united kingdom under Saul, David and Solomon became a divided kingdom, one northern (Israel) and one southern (Judah). Both north and south went into exile and were dispersed. The idea of drawing the 12 tribes back together became a potent one.

So, Jesus chooses his 12 and sends them out as missionaries to the contemporary people of Israel. In the OT, God’s calling of his people, from Abraham onwards, was never just about them: the people of God were supposed to be a blessing to the whole world.

I’ve just finished reading a book about mental health and I’ve started a book on politics – they are different subjects but there have been some interesting overlaps. Both books talk about community. Our ancestors were social beings. The human race has done so well as a species because we learned to cooperate. On the African savannah our ancestors were surrounded by large, fierce creatures. They managed to survive because they learned to hunt together and to defend themselves as a group. They learned the value of looking out for one another. Both books talk about the loss of community that began in the C20th and has accelerated in the C21st. We live much more separate lives – we have become ‘atomised’. My dad left school and did his apprenticeship at Dowty Rotol. They made parts for aeroplanes. When he retired, he had never worked anywhere else. Every morning he got on the bus and went to work. Every evening he came home on the bus. Some Friday evenings he would take us to the works sports and social club. In the summer, there were fetes and at Christmas, a party for the children. When we went on holiday, usually to Butlins, he would invariably meet someone he knew from work. My children, by contrast, have already had more jobs than my dad had in the whole of his working life. We talk about the gig economy. Zero hours contracts. Work is precarious. Increasingly, people work from home or on a rented desk. Work is no longer providing community.

We think of loneliness as being a problem of old age. And it is. But it’s also a problem for younger generations, who have social media but no social lives. Who have facetime, but no face-to-face time. The image of the modern family is of parents and kids, even in the same room, all looking at different screens. We no longer gather around the telly to watch the Morecambe and Wise show, we binge watch box-sets on demand. Families don’t eat together like they used to.

When I was at university, the personal stereo – the Sony Walkman – was invented. Seeing people walking in the streets with their earphones in, someone I knew commented, “defeated the object of being human”. And now we all do it.

The two books I have referred to both see this as a loss: one talks about the damage we are doing to our mental health, the other to the loss to society of shared experience. Both books say that building community is a project vital to our wellbeing.

But isn’t that what church has always been about? Community? Like the 12, centred on Jesus, learning from him, and sent out by him to mission and service. The time we spend together, the experience we share, the support we give and receive, equip us better to live our lives and to love one another, including those outside the church fellowship

The numbers attending worship are dwindling – partly because of the phenomena I’ve mentioned – and yet the need for community has not diminished. The 12 weren’t perfect – we know that – and neither is the church, present company excepted. But what we have found is – we believe – what the world needs. Unfortunately, the world doesn’t know that it needs what we have! And we are not very good at sharing it.

Jesus calling the 12 is a clue: although our faith is personal, the Christian life is not meant to be lived alone. It is meant to be lived in community; that community is not meant to be a fortress that keeps others out but a beacon of light that welcomes others in. And he calls them together around the meal table.

The Woman with the Alabaster Jar

Mark 14:3-9

When I was in the first year of secondary school, I knew that we were grown up now because our RE teacher, Mr Potter, said to us, conspiratorially, “of course, boys, you know that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute”. I have to say, I didn’t know that: it had never been mentioned in primary school. But it made me feel like an adult to have this information shared with me. By the time I was an adult, I learned that Mr Potter, RE teacher, was wrong. He wasn’t alone. He was repeating an error made in the C6th by Pope Gregory the Great. It turns out that the church hasn’t always been good in the way in which it handles the stories of women. Gregory had confused Mary Magdalene, the disciple from whom Jesus had cast out seven demons, with a number of other women in the gospels. As we hear the story of the unnamed woman who anoints Jesus at Bethany, let’s try to hear her story and not get distracted by any other stories from the gospels.

Mark is probably the earliest gospel: Mark (the author) invented the genre. And the earliest part of Mark’s Gospel is probably the passion narrative (chapters 14 to the end) – which existed before the gospel as we know it, either in written or spoken form. This part of the story is told in more detail than all of Jesus’s life up to this point. In fact, Mark’s Gospel is 16 chapters long and by the start of chapter 11, we are already entering Jerusalem, the beginning of the end (apparently).

Mark gives us the story of Holy Week day by day, from the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, to the resurrection of Jesus. So, two days before the Passover, the chief priests and scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus and have him killed. Not during the festival or there may be a riot. So, Mark tells us, it’s Wednesday of Holy Week (as we would call it). Jesus is in Bethany, at the home of ‘Simon the leper’, eating a meal, and a woman arrives with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, which she pours on Jesus’s head.

It’s perfumed oil, made from an exotic plant. At St Matthew’s a couple of years ago, in Holy Week, we thought about the stories of the passion narrative in terms of our senses – sight, sound, taste. touch… – and we used this story to think about the sense of smell. In our world, scented candles, aromatherapy oils and diffusers are common. But Mark tells us that the woman had an alabaster jar of “very costly ointment”. She broke open the jar and poured the contents on Jesus’s head. This is an extravagant gesture. The scented oil was worth more than 300 denarii. A denarius is a day’s wage for a labourer. This perfume cost getting on for a year’s wages.

What a waste! The disciples say. What a waste! We could have given that money to the poor! Jesus’s reply (“you always have the poor with you”) could sound callous. His point is not, There will always be poor people, get used to it! What he says is, you will have many opportunities to give to the poor – his assumption is that giving to the poor is a natural part of what it means to be a follower of his – but at this precise moment, what this woman has chosen to do is to make a “lavish offering of inspired devotion”. It’s spontaneous and generous and extravagant. She may not have understood what she was doing but Jesus gives an interpretation: she has anointed my body for burial. She has done what she could. At this precise moment in the story, what more could anyone have done, other than anoint his body in preparation for burial?

At this point, I could break into a sermon about giving: this woman gave a year’s wages. How much do you put in the plate on a Sunday? I want you to get out your chequebook – we don’t take cards and you won’t have enough cash on you – and prove your love for God by making an extravagant donation!

But I’ll spare you that. The story of Jesus feeding the 5000 is a story of extravagance – there were 12 baskets left over after everyone had eaten! Jesus turning water into wine is a story of extravagance – 120 gallons of wine, after everyone has been drinking for days! This woman gets it.

When we are afraid, we live in a world where resources seem limited. “There’s a limited supply of happiness. If you’re happy, that takes away from my happiness.” But it doesn’t work like that! If you can be happy for other people, you’ll discover there is an unlimited supply of happiness. (“I’m happy for you” is sometimes said through gritted teeth. But what a skill to master! You’re happy. I’m happy! There’s an unlimited supply of happiness!)

How much love is there in the world? A limited supply? If you’ve got love in your life, does that mean there’s less for me?

No. As the children’s song has it:

It’s just like a magic penny,

Hold it tight and you won’t have any.

Lend it, spend it, and you’ll have so many

They’ll roll all over the floor.

For love is something if you give it away,

Give it away, give it away.

Love is something if you give it away,

You end up having more.

 

We often think of Lent as being about abstinence, being frugal. But what about an extravagant Lent? A lavish Lent? A Lent filled with extravagant, lavish love for God and for others.

The unnamed woman with the alabaster jar gets it. And, Mark tells us, “wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her”. And it is. And her story challenges us to get it too.

Love Is In The Air…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alan Jewell

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.

The Sign of Jonah

Wednesday 17th February 2016

Jesus said,
‘This generation is an evil generation; it asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.’ (Luke 11:29)

Jonah was a prophet. A reluctant prophet. God said to Jonah, ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and cry out against it!’ So Jonah set out in the opposite direction. He gets on a ship that is going to Tarshish. God sends a mighty storm and the ship is likely to be destroyed. The mariners each cry to their god while Jonah sleeps in the hold of the ship. Why aren’t you praying?, they want to know. They cast lots to find out whose fault it is that the boat is in danger and the lot indicates that it is Jonah. Which god do you worship? I worship the LORD, the God of heaven who made the sea and the dry land. So, what have you done, Jonah?!

Jonah admits that he is fleeing from God and eventually the men throw him into the sea and the storm ceases.

But the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. (Jonah 1:17)

Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land. (Jonah 2:10)

The ‘sign of Jonah’ is a picture of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus is not a reluctant prophet, far from it, but he is ‘swallowed up’ by death in the ‘belly’ of the grave, before being ‘spewed out’ into resurrection life.

In “Wondrous Encounters: Scripture for Lent“, Richard Rohr (American Roman Catholic priest) takes the story of Jonah and uses it as a picture of our spiritual journey. We may find ourselves in the belly of darkness, thrown there by circumstance. Jonah ends up in the place where God wanted him to be, even though he had rushed headlong in the opposite direction. Rohr says our spiritual journey is “more like giving up control than taking control”. In life, we may boldly set out in one direction, perhaps knowing that it is the wrong one, perhaps not, but end up somewhere we never expected to be. Who knows whether we might not end up where God wants us to be, despite ourselves?

Faith is a leap into the unknown. Religion likes certainties and absolutes. (Religion is a ‘first half of life’ activity; faith is more possible in the ‘second half’ of life.) Faith is more like falling or being thrown in at the deep end. Somehow we might just end up where we were meant to be.

Rohr quotes the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard:

“Life must be lived forward, but it can only be understood backward.”

Jonah knows what God is doing only after emerging from the belly of the whale. Despite his best efforts to avoid God’s call he ends up being transformed by it. (Actually, he still has much to learn – spoiler alert: the wicked city of Nineveh hears his message and repents. God changes his mind about destroying the wicked city of Nineveh and that really annoys Jonah! He knew all along that God was merciful. That’s why he fled to Tarshish, so that Nineveh wouldn’t benefit from God’s mercy! Jonah gets really depressed and sits down to sulk. A bush grows over his head and shelters it from the harsh sun. And then God appoints a worm to kill the bush and that makes Jonah angrier still. ‘Why are you angry about the bush? Well, do you not think that I care about the people of Nineveh?’)

“God of surprising journeys, help me to live my life forward, trusting that you are steering the ship. Help me to understand my life backward by seeing and forgiving the many ‘signs of Jonah’.”
(Richard Rohr, “Wondrous Encounters: Scripture for Lent”.)

Ashes to Ashes

So, how’s Lent going for you? I’m writing this at the start of Lent (on Ash Wednesday to be precise), so, so far, so good! I am reading “Wondrous Encounters: Scripture for Lent“, a collection of meditations by Fr Richard Rohr. Rohr is an American Franciscan Roman Catholic Priest. I first came across his writing when I was attending a conference in Salisbury. The conference was aimed at those looking at sustaining ministry for the long haul. (In other words, those who have been in ordained ministry for quite a while but who aren’t ready to think about retirement just yet! People like me.)

Richard Rohr has written about spirituality for what he calls the ‘two halves of life’. The first ‘half’ of life is a time for finding out who we are. It’s time to test the boundaries, to strive, to achieve. In the second half of life, all being well, we have found out who we are. Now it’s time to be who we are. So who are we? He says there are two key moments in our lives:

“One is when you know that your one and only life is absolutely valuable and alive.
The other is when you know your life, as presently lived, is entirely pointless and empty.”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call a paradox!

The first moment is about connecting with God, our ‘ultimate Source and Ground’, in which we find ‘energy and joy’. The second moment gives us ‘limits and boundaries, and a proper humility’. We need to know both, and in Lent, we are invited to find both.

I suppose it depends on your personality and experience whether you need to be reminded how fabulous you are, or whether you need reminding how limited you are. We begin Lent with Ash Wednesday. Ashes have long been a symbol of humility and repentance – in Genesis the Bible says that we have come from ‘dust’ and to ‘dust’ we will return; and the phrase “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust” is used in the funeral service. It might seem morbid, being reminded of your mortality and of the need to repent, but we don’t do it every day of the year, just on Ash Wednesday.

Richard Rohr points out that the ashes we use at the start of Lent are traditionally made from the previous year’s Palm Crosses. Palm Sunday (on 20th March this year) is a bit of a false start. The crowds welcome Jesus as a hero whom they hope will liberate them from the oppression of their Roman masters. But those hopes are cruelly dashed on Good Friday. They were false hopes. Jesus will bring about our liberation, but not by espousing the methods of their oppressors – the violence of arms and force. So, as we begin Lent, the crumbled hopes of false starts are placed on our foreheads. No need to rub it in! we say. But it’s only one day a year and we are very stubborn when it comes to learning lessons. Especially the lesson of the Cross. We want a Palm Sunday Jesus, all cheers and celebration. But Ash Wednesday reminds us (even before we get to Palm Sunday) that Jesus won’t get to the bright glory of Easter without passing through the ash-darkness of the Cross.

We have a number of ways of helping you to know yourself a bit better during Lent. On the Wednesday evenings (February 17th and 24th; March 2nd, 9th, 16th and 23rd ) we have a service of Compline (7:30PM at St Matthew’s). Compline is to do with bringing the day to ‘completion’ – a quiet, peaceful, thoughtful time of prayer before the day ends. But it also invites to consider how all things will come to their completion. (Don’t worry, it’s not as morbid as it sounds. Those who come love it.)

On Palm Sunday (20th March, 4:30PM at St Matthew’s) we are getting our ‘extended choir’ together again for a service of worship that will get us ready for Holy Week. On the Monday of Holy Week (7:30PM, 21st March) we look forward to welcoming the Bridgewater Singers who will perform Bob Chilcott’s ‘St John Passion‘. And then on the Tuesday and Wednesday evenings there will be more opportunities for prayer and reflection.

Thursday 23rd March is Maundy Thursday, when we mark two of the greatest gifts that Jesus gave to his disciples – the eucharist and the great commandment ‘to love one another’. There will be services at St Matthew’s at 10:30AM and 7:30PM.

Good Friday is on 24th March. We will be following the Stations of the Cross at both churches – 10:00AM at St Cross and 2:00PM at St Matthew’s. Between them, at noon, there is the Bridgewater Churches Together act of worship and witness in the middle of Stockton Heath.

So, have a good Lent. Easter isn’t that far away…