This is the post excerpt.
Today we celebrate the feast day of St James. We know a little about him from the gospels – called from his fishing boat, one of Jesus’ closest disciples, present at the transfiguration, found sleeping in the garden of Gethsemane…then there’s the embarrassing occasion where his Mum asks Jesus for preferential treatment for him in heaven.
Apparently the first disciple to be martyred for his faith, there are stories that before his death James spread the gospel in Spain.
What St James has given us though – probably unintentionally – is a pilgrimage, a journey to a holy place. There’s a legend that James’ remains found their way back to Spain…to be buried in Santiago de Compostela. So from the early Middle Ages, Christians walked there from all over Europe, and the tradition was revived in the 20th century.
Recent years have seen a film, ‘The Way’, and a sort of ‘celebrity pilgrimage’ on TV. Pre-pandemic more than 200 000 pilgrims followed the routes each year.
My experience of pilgrimage is much more modest – across the mud to Lindisfarne…along the coast to Whitby Abbey. But, reading the stories of pilgrims, I think it’s a great metaphor for the Christian life itself. So here are a few reflections.
Pilgrims nearly always set out carrying too much…enormous packs filled with things that seem essential. A couple of days carrying it all, especially in hot weather, soon persuades them they can manage with far less, and what they don’t have, they can trust others to provide.
Pilgrims on what is called the ‘Camino’ often find the most important part of the journey is the people they travel with or meet along the way. Some are companions for weeks, some just brief encounters at a particular point. The physical and emotional challenge of the walk brings people to the same level. Whatever their place in normal life, here they are all pilgrims, and that changes the dynamic of conversation.
Strangely, since the exact route is laid down, people setting off on the Camino, tend not to know where they’re going. Obviously, they hope their feet will get them to Santiago, but they have no idea how their lives will be affected. Pilgrims usually set off expecting to be changed in some way – but with little idea how.
Overloaded, in need of one another, not quite sure where they’re going but hoping for change…possibly a description of many of us on the Christian journey.
We often imagine that to become a Christian, loads of things are necessary. We come laden with guilt or feelings of unworthiness – or think we should; we assume certain types of behaviour, faith and good bible knowledge are needed before we can even begin.
Actually though, on the Christian journey it’s better to travel light. Most acts of worship start with a ‘sorry prayer’… because we always fall short of God’s ways; but also because it allows us to put down our guilt, accept God’s forgiveness, and be ready to move on. Hanging on to guilt stops us from growing.
And the Christian journey doesn’t start with holiness, or faith, or knowledge…it starts with a desire to set off, with a feeling that Jesus is a person worth following, or just by finding something intriguing or attractive in a church building, community, individual. All we need is a sense of adventure, a commitment to the journey, to try it out…God will provide the rest, often through our fellow pilgrims…
…fellow pilgrims who will be an important part of our journey. There are, of course, hermits, people who manage their Christian journey alone, just as there are lone pilgrims. But most of us need to worship, learn and grow with others.
Wonderfully – though the last 18 months have been marked by separation, even isolation – as a church community we’ve increased the ways we share our faith. Through recording for online services, joining discussion groups, posting our children’s ideas on Facebook, our Advent and Lent windows and much more, we’ve shared our faith with one another.
As happens on a pilgrimage, conversations have been sparked that help people encounter Jesus and consider afresh what he means in their lives; new and lasting friendships have been made. But there will also have been fleeting encounters in the churchyard or even ‘second hand’ through the things we’ve put out there, that have brought people closer to God.
Like pilgrims, we too can name our final destination – as Christians we’re always journeying towards our home in heaven. But like them, it’s far more about the journey than the destination. We travel together, we help each other…but ultimately the most important companion is Jesus, it is by encountering Jesus that we are changed.
For me, becoming a Christian has been a life-long journey of trying to walk with Jesus. It started when others invited me to set off…my parents got me involved in church life as a child, but it can happen at any age.
As my relationship with Jesus has deepened, the stuff I thought vital for the journey has reduced…but what is left has become more important, more precious.
Along the way there have been many fellow pilgrims; some brief encounters, some lasting friendships, talking with them about faith has helped me along. And when it’s all been a bit much, when all I could do was show up and put one foot in front of another, then my fellow pilgrims have been there to lean on…until I was ready to set off again.
It’s been said of Christians, that ‘we are a pilgrim people’. I hope so. I hope we as the community of St John the Baptist see ourselves as travellers, moving towards our final destination in God, walking with Jesus and being changed.
Even with all today’s uncertainty, it’s an exciting time to be a pilgrim here. People are coming forward with new ideas of how to build our community and share our faith. Let’s pray for the Holy Spirit’s inspiration as we travel on together.
One of my Monday morning jobs is writing my ‘to do’ list for the week. I wonder if you have ‘to do’ lists…and whether you too have the thing that keeps being transferred from one list to the next…
That thing which is a bit less straightforward, less pleasant, scarier than the others. It’s easy to fill my days with important jobs, and never quite get round to it…somehow there’s never a convenient time…
I wonder – if we had a ‘to do’ list for our relationship with God – what might that thing be? Might it be repentance…owning up to and letting go of the things that keep us from fully following Jesus?
Perhaps that was true for Herod. He was certainly interested in John’s message. ‘Herod feared John, knowing he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he liked to listen to him.’
John preached repentance, turning away from sins, preparing to follow Christ. Presumably this was what Herod ‘liked to listen to’. In some way it stirred his soul, made him feel better. Maybe he even changed his life a little…tackled a few of the easy things on his spiritual ‘to do’ list.
But he could never quite face the big one…the stealing of his brother’s wife. He was too fond…or scared of Herodias, too worried about appearing weak if he gave her up. There was never a convenient time for that repentance…it stayed on the ‘to do’ list. In the meantime Herod’s conscience was salved by protecting John, and listening to him…until that fateful day.
You can almost feel sorry for Herod as his birthday celebration spirals out of control. There he is, enjoying a drink…showing off his wealth, his wife; her daughter comes in and completes his evening. It’s all going so well. Then he makes that lavish, very public promise, and suddenly ‘repent for the kingdom of heaven is near’ hits the top of his ‘to do’ list in a way he never anticipated.
And what was already hard has become impossible – because now choosing the life John offers requires him to deny the lovely daughter, snub his wife, and go back on a public promise in front of the very people he’s trying to impress.
There’s never a convenient time for repentance…and suddenly what looks like his last chance has arrived at the least convenient time possible. And Herod isn’t up to it – much as he’s attracted by John’s preaching, he values power and reputation more, and has John beheaded.
We know he regrets his decision…is probably haunted by it…from the start of today’s gospel passage. When Herod hears about Jesus, his message of repentance and acts of power, his first thought is ‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised’. It seems he knew John’s message was from God…but couldn’t quite act on it.
There’s never a convenient time for repentance…and it looks like Herod blew his chance when it came. But that’s not the end of the story…
In Luke’s gospel, after Jesus’ arrest, we learn that Pilate – finding Jesus was Galilean – sent him to Herod, ruler of Galilee. Herod ‘had been wanting to see him for some time’. I bet he had – this is the man John preached about, and died for.
Another chance for repentance. But this time it’s even harder…now Herod has the murder of a prophet to repent in addition to his other sins. This proves an even less convenient time for repentance…Herod mocks Jesus and sends him back to Pilate…to his death.
I trust none of us have stealing our brother’s wife or murdering a prophet on our consciences; but we too may have found there’s never quite a convenient time for repentance. We may have some sin, some regret that we never find the time or space to face…to share with properly with God.
Today’s story shows the dangers of power, lust and rash promises. But closer to home, it’s a story of how the message of God’s kingdom is not just for listening to…it requires action.
John and Jesus came with the same message, ‘the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe the good news.’ Repenting is about dealing with the things in our lives that get in the way of our relationship with Christ. They may be trivial; they may be huge. They may be things we’ve done; they may be things we can’t forgive. But there’s a fair chance there’s something we need to deal with.
There’s never a convenient time to repent, we can always find something else important to do. But Herod’s story shows how it can get harder the longer we leave it.
Perhaps it might prompt us to set aside some time this week to consider repentance. Some time when we leave the other things on our ‘to do’ list and make time for a bit of serious thinking about what obstructs our relationship with Christ.
And we might try to do something. Perhaps there’s one action we need to take to deal with that thing we’ve been avoiding. Or maybe one small step at the start of a long journey, working on something we know shouldn’t be part of a Christian life.
This story brought to mind the would-be follower of Jesus saying, ‘first let me bury my Father’, and Jesus’ apparently unfeeling reply, ‘let the dead bury their own dead’.
Perhaps just a reminder that there are always other important things on our ‘to do’ list of life. If we’re not careful we never quite find a convenient time to really ‘repent and believe the good news’.
Wonderfully with God it’s never too late; God is patient, forgiving, always offers another chance. But a deeper relationship with Christ, and the joy of sharing that with others is surely worth facing anything lurking on our spiritual ‘to do’ list.
There’s never a convenient time for repentance – so we might as well get on with it!
It’s been a tough 18 months hasn’t it? So many things we took for granted suddenly no longer possible…much of the control we had over our lives removed. Difficult to plan ahead because of changing regulations…yet impossible to be spontaneous as so many things have to be booked.
Last week at our All-Age service, Jane shared what our new online presence has meant to her. As someone with a hidden disability, she gave us an important reminder that this lack of control, this exclusion from things we’d like to do, is what some people face every day, COVID or no COVID.
Hopefully our recent experiences have made us more understanding of the struggles others face. More than that though, perhaps we’re in a better position to hear God’s word – hidden in the middle of our New Testament reading…’My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’
Paul is writing to a church which has been swayed into following apostles whose message is one of power and boasting. Apostles who talk more about themselves than about Jesus as Lord…about how they should be followed because they’ve been given special visions.
Paul of course had a pretty special vision of his own. Most scholars think he’s referring to himself when he talks of ‘a person caught up to the third heaven’, but writes as if it’s someone else to step away from this sort of boasting. Instead, he concentrates on the ‘thorn’ he’s been given.
There’s been great speculation about the nature of this ‘thorn’, but that isn’t important…what matters is what Paul does tell us.
He tells us that this weakness – whatever it is – came from ‘Satan’. In other words – it’s not something God inflicted as part of a grand plan; God doesn’t cause suffering to teach us lessons.
Paul prayed for this weakness to be taken away, but that’s not how God seems to work. The message Paul receives from God, is that this weakness, disease, whatever it is, whatever caused it, can help him start to understand God’s ways. ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’
It’s something Paul had begun to learn…but something our modern world, which puts so much value on what people do, finds really difficult to accept…that God’s power…true power…is made perfect in weakness.
This isn’t about Jesus caring for the weak, but rather Jesus becoming the weak. It’s at the centre of our faith story – but still hard to grasp.
In all the gospel accounts – at the climax of his ministry – Jesus stops being active, doing miracles and works of power. He gives up all power over his life…lets himself be arrested, condemned and killed.
To the world, Jesus’ end looks like failure. The cheering crowds of Palm Sunday are now jeering; the fervent disciples have fled; he doesn’t even seem to have words to defend himself…weakness indeed.
Yet in all the gospels this is Jesus’ time of triumph. In John, those who come to arrest him fall down in awe. In the other gospels, the centurion who sees him die responds, ’truly this man was the Son of God’. This is before the resurrection. The centurion has recognised ‘power made perfect in weakness’.
The loss of control brought about by this pandemic has exposed how we struggle with this truth…but it’s a truth we need to learn as we hopefully ‘get back to normal’. Because ‘normal’ life tends to value strength and the ability to be in control, and looks down on those without this power. Dependence, ‘weakness’, is seen as a loss of dignity.
But medical advances mean an aging population, and the survival of people with quite profound disabilities. Technological advances mean many jobs are disappearing. In this modern world, more of us are going to depend on ‘benefits’; more of us are going to need ‘looking after’. Power made perfect in weakness is a revelation Christians need to offer to society.
It’s not about pity, or charity, or even valuing everyone as a child of God. It’s about seeing things completely differently. It’s a truth that’s hard to explain – slightly easier to recognise.
Recently I had the privilege of taking a wedding; and hearing two people, very much in love, say to each other, ‘all that I am I give to you’. All that they are, good and not so good, handed over in trust that it will be received with love. Real love brings vulnerability. It can be exploited, but when it’s reciprocated, it’s the strongest thing we can imagine. It gives a glimpse of ‘power made perfect in weakness.’
As a primary school teacher, I once taught a class that included a child with major learning difficulties. By any conventional measure he was ‘weak’. But the gift he was to that class, just by being himself, was amazing. And it went far beyond their developing patience and kindness.
Somehow his weakness and need for help made it easier for others to acknowledge theirs. As a class we started to measure success differently, we began to ‘boast’ about different things. It was seen as a privilege to be partnered with him. By the end of the year, we all looked on life a little differently.
‘Power is made perfect in weakness.’ I don’t believe that means God sends troubles and weakness to help us grow. I don’t believe it means unemployment, the frailty of age, disabilities, the pain of dementia should be welcomed with joy…they can be difficult and horrible. But I do believe that for Christians being weak should never be seen as a condition of diminished dignity…a degrading state.
In Jesus, God chose to become weak…it’s through the weakness of unconditional love he somehow offers us salvation. The weak in our society then, even in their weakness, are still ‘made in the image of God’, and that surely gives them a dignity beyond anything that comes from what they can do.
Today I want to tell you a story. I won’t start with ‘once upon a time’ because as far as I know, it’s a true story.
It could be the story of a remarkable young man and what he did with his life. It could be the story of a narrow escape and a lucky break. But I like to think of it as the story of an ordinary, faithful Sunday school teacher…perhaps struggling a bit to keep a lively group of boys interested on sunny summer mornings…perhaps wondering if they’re taking anything in, but persevering anyway.
Actually, she (and it almost certainly was woman) is the person we know least about in this story – but we know she existed.
Anyway, our story starts in Uganda in the 1970s. The Uganda of Idi Amin, where innocent people regularly disappear. About 40 miles from the capital Kampala, our hero – David – is growing up in a poor village, cared for by his mother. When David is about 9, his mother and all of his siblings die of malaria within a week. Neighbours help him to bury his family – but haven’t the resources to take in an extra child.
So David walks to the capital to try his luck. For a few years he survives with other street children…scavenging for food and sleeping rough. But then he hears street children are being kidnapped to become slaves on the plantations of the dictator. What should David do?
At this point he remembers from years before, his Sunday school teacher saying ‘trust Jesus’; and he recalls passing a business with a sign declaring ‘The Jesus Garage’. So he knocks at the door – and is greeted by a huge, imposing looking man. Trying to look older than his years – David asks for a job. The man – a Christian (hence the name of his garage) takes pity on David, offers him the job of sweeper, and an old car to sleep in. His first home for years.
Actually, what the man gave David was a future…trained him as a mechanic, paid him, and shared his love of Jesus.
With his first proper pay packet, David rented a shack and took in 6 homeless orphans. He met and married Sarah, and together they had 8 children and adopted a further 9. But they did far more than that. When their children needed schooling – they founded a nursery school and opened it to locals…then a primary school, a secondary school.
Some pay fees – and this is used to provide a home and educations for orphans. When the AIDs epidemic struck, many pupils were orphaned each year – they were never turned out when fees dried up.
David is now a priest. I wonder whether that Sunday school teacher ever knew that if she taught nothing else, her message that Jesus can be trusted took root and grew.
2000 years ago, Jesus stood in front of a crowd telling stories. He was trying to make them understand that he, with his motley bunch of Galilean fishermen, tax collectors, hangers on, was actually the beginning of God’s kingdom breaking through on earth.
Well why didn’t he just say that? Why insist on talking in riddles? Perhaps because the crowd couldn’t have taken in what he needed to tell them. Perhaps because it’s a truth too big, too abstract to make sense of in one go. Jesus doesn’t deal in simple facts but deep ideas about our relationships with each other and with God.
In today’s words he was enlarging people’s vision to grasp that here was the tiny beginning of a kingdom that would grow and shelter people of all races. He gave them a narrative world they could enter and explore…which will go on teaching…will help people ponder simple ideas and complex puzzles.
Jesus talked about how things grow. He held up a mustard seed – not that they would see it – it’s far too small. But they knew all about mustard seeds. They knew that tiny though they are, with minimal effort from people they grow into bushes big enough to shelter all sorts of wildlife.
The people in these two parables don’t do an awful lot. They scatter the seed on the ground. There’s no watering, weeding, applying fertiliser…my sort of gardening in fact…but from tiny seeds come full heads of grain and massive shrubs.
Humbling, challenging and encouraging words for Christians working to grow God’s kingdom in their little patch. First a reminder that our role is perhaps both more and less important than we imagine.
We’re called to be the sowers – to plant the seeds – to tell people about the kingdom of God and the person of Jesus. Without the seed, there is no plant, no growth of God’s kingdom. That could be daunting – but remember how the sower just slept and rose and the plants grew? We don’t have to do it all. We don’t need a complete understanding – a thought out explanation – a plan for every step of someone’s Christian journey before we start to invite them into the kingdom. We sow – God’s grace brings about the growth, in a way we won’t understand.
And even the smallest of seeds can grow to a great bush.
So, if you’re a parent, managing a slightly embarrassed prayer at bedtime with your children; if you’re a Junior church or JJs leader wondering how to make sense of Jesus’ words for young people; if your evangelism to a friend consists of suggesting they try evensong, because of the peace it brings you, or ‘Ace’ because it’s fun; if the Rector’s asked you to share your thoughts at an All Age service and you can’t imagine what an ordinary person like you can say about God…
…think of David Serunjogi’s Sunday school teacher and what grew from the simple message to trust in Jesus; think of the mustard seed, and go on planting.
“I danced for the scribes and the Pharisees, but they wouldn’t dance and they wouldn’t follow me”…we all know the song. Even as a child I realised that in the gospels; fisherman, or even tax-collector, was a better bet than being a scribe.
In today’s reading they’re accused of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit…for which they can never have forgiveness. Given all the other sins recounted in the bible – that seems a bit harsh.
So who were the scribes and what exactly have they done?
They’ve heard how Jesus is healing people of major physical and mental ills. They’ve also heard how Jesus talks of forgiving sins as well as restoring bodies. So they’ve come to see for themselves.
But they haven’t really come ‘to see’; they’ve already decided. Scribes were educated men who copied, and interpreted the Torah – the laws of Moses. They had everything neatly boxed into right and wrong, good and evil…and Jesus didn’t fit. He did wonderful things you’d think must come from God, but he didn’t go about it in the ‘right’ way, and anyway, only God could forgive sins.
The scribes are so sure about the system they’ve built up, that they can’t see beyond it. The healings; the wonderful joy and freedom in people who had suffered terrible mental illness; they can’t deny these. If these illnesses were caused by demons – Jesus was clearly casting out these demons.
But because Jesus doesn’t fit their idea of ‘good’ they’re convinced he must be evil. They come up with the ridiculous accusation that it’s by the power of Satan, that Jesus casts out Satan. As Jesus points out – if Satan is working against himself then he’s finished – but this doesn’t convince the scribes, because they hear Jesus’ words and assume it’s Satan speaking. They’ve seen good, and labelled it as evil.
And it’s at this point we hear, ‘people will be forgiven for their sins, and blasphemies, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness.’
When we consider the whole passage this begins to make sense. It’s through the Holy Spirit that Jesus forgives, heals and makes whole. But if the scribes could look at the relief and joy Jesus was bringing – and say it came from Satan – they’d be unlikely to accept that healing for themselves. Jesus doesn’t say, God won’t forgive, but they can’t have forgiveness.
This week, it made me think of vaccine deniers. Not people with good reason to be hesitant, but people who’ve decided vaccines are ‘bad’, and come at every argument from that perspective.
Show the vast array of independent scientific data…all of those scientists must be part of a worldwide conspiracy to cause harm.
Point to improved health where vaccines are used…it’s fake news. Since they’ve decided the very thing that could save them from disease is evil – there’s no way they’ll accept the protection a vaccine offers.
Likewise the scribes; they can’t be forgiven because they’re rejecting the one who can bring forgiveness. It’s not that they can’t see the light – but they’ve called the light darkness. As the ‘Message’ bible translation vividly puts it, they’re ‘sawing off the branch on which they’re sitting’.
So should we be worried? Everything I’ve read about this passage suggests that if we’re worried about committing this ‘unforgiveable sin’, then we probably aren’t. If we’re open to God’s forgiveness – God will find us.
But still, Jesus condemned this sin very publicly. I read some interesting advice for public health officials on how to engage publicly with vaccine deniers. It said you’re not really talking to the vaccine deniers as they probably can’t be persuaded, your audience is the general public…who might need protecting from misinformation.
Jesus responds to the scribes, but knows they’re unlikely to accept his words. His audience is the crowd…and us.
Is he warning that once we think we know good from evil, when our religious establishments have neatly categorised it into rules we can teach and apply, our eyes can become closed to the work of the Holy Spirit?
Here he is talking about seeing something good – something from God – but labelling it evil because the religious ‘rules’ say it is.
I think it can be a problem for churches today. For those convinced that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, other faiths are seen as wrong. But this can close our eyes to the obvious goodness and love involved. We see them as dangerous rather than entertaining the possibility that they hold some truths within them, from which we might learn.
We know, from Jesus himself, that divorce isn’t the best path. So in the past the church refused to remarry divorced persons. The ‘rule’ stopped us looking beyond; seeing many new relationships are built on love that surely is of God.
And still today, Christian organisations tell us that gay relationships are sinful, against God’s plans. Beyond some isolated bible verses though, anyone who takes the trouble to look, who sees the genuine love between many gay couples, must surely find it looks very like the love of God as it’s reflected in all wholesome relationships.
The trouble is, rules feel safe. How am I supposed to judge whether changes in society are the breath of the Holy Spirit, or an erosion of true Christian values? How can I know whether the church should follow, or resist?
Well people came to Jesus for healing. Following him is never easy – but it always involves healing and wholeness. Jesus seems to be saying to the scribes that if it’s healing and wholeness they’re seeing – they should trust it comes from God. Perhaps that’s not a bad guide for us too.
And anyway – when I have to account for my life before God – I’d rather justify having loved too much, than having condemned too much.
Lord God – open our eyes to the actions of your Holy Spirit, that we might share in your healing and forgiveness.
Once – on holiday in the Scottish borders – we had the excitement of visiting ‘Hutton’s unconformity’. A fold of rock sticking out into the sea, it’s perhaps one of Scotland’s lesser-known attractions!
Actually, it’s one of the foundations of modern geology. The rocks tell an amazing story of land formation by sedimentation, geological forces, erosion. The point being that it represents millions of years’ worth of creation before human history began; vital evidence for a changing view of creation and history.
One of the first people to recognise this evidence for an ancient earth said…’the mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far back into the abyss of time’. We’d turned stories about God into a literal account of 6 day creation, 6000 years ago. That piece of rock showed how wrong we were.
Hutton’s unconformity doesn’t tell us much about the earth…but it shows what it’s not – it’s not new, not created as it is now all in one go. It was the possibilities this opened up that induced dizziness.
Today is Trinity Sunday – I think this should be an occasion for ‘growing giddy’, as we look not back in time, but out into the vastness the Trinity hints at.
Instead, we tend to try to reduce ‘the Trinity’ to a literal ‘explanation of God. God’s like a shamrock; a triangle; ice, water and steam. All attempts to make a complex idea accessible – but in trying to explain, I think they miss something about this foundation of our faith.
The Trinity isn’t set out in the bible…but there are different truths about God that are difficult to hold together. Not surprisingly, as people tried, wrong ideas developed…
…Father, Son and Holy Spirit are 3 separate beings.
…God was first Father, then Son, then Holy Spirit…and so on.
So our creeds, setting out the Trinity, developed to say what God is not. They try to put the mystery of God into words – because words are what we have. But I think we should remember that words are inadequate – they only give us an outline.
As a scientist, I sometimes look on the Trinity like a well-established scientific theory. It fits with what we know, or experience about God. It’s been developed by throwing out things we know aren’t true. But it’s not necessarily the last word…it invites exploration rather than closing it down.
So what? Have I just replaced ‘the Trinity’s like a shamrock’ with, ‘the Trinity’s like a scientific theory’? I hope not – because science is always ready for the new and surprising. The latest theory is what fits the evidence we have so far…but scientists are always prepared for something else to come along and make us change the picture a bit.
Science is about truth but scientific theories aren’t assumed to have the whole truth. They invite further wonder and exploration. That’s what the Trinity does for me.
This week I’ve been re-reading ‘The Shack’. Not a book I particularly enjoyed, but it has an intriguing picture of the Trinity.
In it, Jesus is a young, middle-eastern carpenter; the Father (called Papa) is shown as a joyful, exuberant black woman; the Holy Spirit as a mysterious Asian woman. Clearly no more accurate than that shamrock…but it’s not meant to be a description of God – rather one man’s experience of God. And it made me think!
First there’s the obvious but important reminder that Jesus was not blond, blue-eyed, English looking. He was a young, middle eastern carpenter.
Then we have the Holy Spirit as more than dove, or flame. We sing about ‘God in three persons’; here’s an attempt to explore what the third person might be like. Obviously, the Holy Spirit is no more an Asian woman, than a dove – but the picture of the Spirit as compassionate, creative, mysterious, intangible, empowering, and always moving brought the Trinity to life.
God the Father as plump, almost brash, black woman, was quite difficult to cope with. But it too gives a new perspective. The main character in the book had an abusive father. So when he meets God – at a really low point in his life – God reckons a white, male authority figure is the last thing he needs.
Is God a black woman? I doubt it. But the idea that God relates to us in ways we can engage with does hold some truth. And as the book says, it’s probably no less accurate than our vague idea of God ‘as a large white grandfather figure with a flowing Gandalf beard.’ I heard a black priest say recently that reading this book was the first time she could imagine herself ‘made in the image of God.’
There’s a scene in the book where the three persons of the Trinity prepare a meal: laughing, joking and singing together. I found this really hard…far too human. But it helped me think about the love, the community which is the Trinity.
The God figure says, ‘If I were simply one God, one person, I wouldn’t be love. All love and relationship is possible for you, only, because it already exists within me, within God myself.’
That takes me beyond trying to explain how God can be three, yet one – to an exploration of what it means that God is somehow a community of love…that love exists within God.
I think the Trinity should make us giddy with excitement. I’m not particularly suggesting you read ‘The Shack’ – but there’s a world of poetry, art, literature, theology out there exploring this wondrous life-giving mystery. And these days we can just google ‘Trinity’ to find it! The creeds and scripture are there to help us decide what’s not true…but they’re surely not the whole truth about God…so get exploring!
And in those fantastic words from today’s collect…
Holy God, faithful and unchanging: enlarge our minds with the knowledge of your truth and draw us more deeply into the mystery of your love.
Much of the best literature, whatever the surface story, is really about friendships: Holmes and Watson; Harry Potter, Ron and Hermione; Sam and Frodo; Winnie the Pooh and Piglet…
Or, if your taste in literature is a little more mature: Hamlet and Horatio; Elizabeth Bennett and Charlotte Collins…
Friendships make good literature, because it’s in our relationships with true friends that we grow and become ourselves. With friends at our side, we often achieve things we couldn’t imagine tackling alone.
If we’re lucky – we all have someone we recognise as a true friend; perhaps you can picture yours now. On the surface they may look very different – a family member, a school friend, someone we came across much later in life…but all good friendships have things in common.
They will be relationships that have changed both of us. A true friend will know all about us, the good and the bad, but still want to be our friend. And we’ll know their secrets too. With our friends we won’t always feel the need to talk. They’ll sympathise with our failures, and celebrate our successes. They won’t be afraid to tell us the things about ourselves we need to hear. And when we’re struggling, and perhaps have nothing to bring to the friendship…a true friend will be there anyway, expecting nothing in return, because they love us.
Yes – if we’re lucky we know about friendships. But today we hear Jesus say, “You are my friends…I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything I have heard from my Father.”
That’s quite something to take in. Imagine the relationship you have with your best friend – and put Jesus into that picture. We know Jesus loves us – the cross shows us that – but to really accept, ‘I do not call you servants, but friends’, is quite a challenge.
A challenge, but for me important. A servant might love a good master – but there’s always something of compulsion, of power, in that relationship. The point about true friendship is that it’s freely given – on both sides. And it seems this is the relationship God wants with us, through Jesus.
There’s a poem by Adrian Plass that grapples with this idea…in the first verse God describes how he could, with the smallest movement, destroy us…in the second of how he brought the dead back to life and could do so again…the third lists all the ways God can be known, ‘Father, brother, Shepherd, friend, Alpha and Omega, King of Kings…
Each verse ends…
But I cannot make you love me
I cannot make you, will not make you, cannot make you love me
God in Jesus cannot make us love him, because if it’s forced, it isn’t love; he will not make us love him – because it’s our love, freely given, that he wants, before our obedience.
So, I go back to the example of my best friend…and try to picture Jesus inhabiting my life in the same way. Knowing the worst of me, not just because he’s God but because I feel able to share it, and loving me anyway. Being someone it’s ok to question; or to just sit in silence with. Sympathising with my failures and celebrating my successes. And, when I have nothing to bring to the relationship…perhaps not even faith…being there anyway, loving me and asking nothing in return.
It’s very different to many pictures of Jesus, but I think it’s important to hear Jesus calling us friends, because it helps us grow up as Christians. Good friends help us mature into better people because they dare to point out our faults, and show us a better way.
It’s said we’re known by the company we keep – but more than that, we tend to become the company we keep. Friends take on each other’s characteristics. Through friendship with Christ, far more than attempting obedience, we will become more Christlike.
Friends of course are equals. They learn from each other and change each other for the better. Can we really have that sort of relationship with Christ? There are stories in the bible of people who challenge God into apparently changing his mind…Moses and Abraham who plead on behalf of people God has said he will destroy; Jesus’ mother who asked him to ‘do something’ at the wedding in Cana; the Canaanite woman who persuades him to heal her child.
I don’t understand how Jesus could be changed by our friendship…but I do think we are encouraged to question, to wrestle…even to disagree…as we try to grow as Christians.
And even if it is only we who are changed by the friendship, the changes for the better in us may affect how Christ is seen in the world. In some mysterious way, the body of Christ here on earth may be changed by our friendship with Christ.
And as he said, Jesus calls us friends, calls us into that unique relationship with him so that we love one another as he has loved us. The friendship Jesus offers gives us choice and dignity. The invitation to question allows us to discover what faith means in good times and bad. His love gives us the confidence to fail but try again.
Only by being loved as friends will we develop into people who can love others in this way. Not just those we count as dear friends, but everyone who is part of this church.
If we at Adel St John begin to love one another as Jesus loves us, then we will be a church people want to join. And then the love of God will spill over into the community around, and others will discover its power to transform their lives.
I’m not a great wine drinker, and know little about vineyards, vintages or grapes…so I was amazed last month to see French vine growers lighting candles and fires under each vine in a desperate attempt to protect them from frost.
This is their livelihood of course, but I found the level of care for each individual vine quite moving. It also gave me a new perspective on God as vine grower in today’s gospel.
Clearly, for the vine grower, the point of vines is to produce grapes. In this passage, Jesus likens his followers to branches on a vine…reminding us we should be producing fruit.
Jesus doesn’t tell us what this fruit is…but we might suppose it consists of lives becoming more Christlike; of acts of love and compassion; of more evidence of the fruits of the Spirit named by St Paul: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control.
From this gospel reading, it’s easy to end up with a picture of fruitful Christians going to heaven…unfruitful ones cast into the fire. Like many bible passages, this one can be used to judge others…they don’t show this or that fruit…they aren’t proper Christians; or ourselves…what if I’m not producing enough fruit? How do I know?
As usual though, if we dig a little deeper, we find there are other ways to look at it. Since the first hearers will have been very familiar with grape production…a foray onto the internet seemed a good starting point.
And d’you know…I didn’t find any suggestion the grower shout at their vines, ”Produce more fruit or else!”, or that vines can prune themselves. Ridiculous ideas of course…but perhaps worth remembering as we picture God as vinedresser as some translations put it.
The first advice I found for would be vine dressers said, ‘No matter where you grow your grape vines, you’ll need some sort of support system.’
Grape vines apparently grow naturally in woodlands, climbing up trees. Left to themselves in open places they grow across the ground, producing bushy growth, many roots, but little fruit. So, vine dressers lift them and fasten them to supports.
I struggle a bit with verse 2 in today’s reading: ‘God removes every branch in Jesus that bears no fruit.’ But the word translated as ‘removes’, can also mean ‘lifts up’. So which do we use? Well vine dressers, it seems, focus on the lifting up of branches, so they reach the sun, take what they need from the main vine, and produce grapes.
This fits with what I’ve experienced of God. God for me has been the one who knows how by ourselves we struggle to do what’s right; who tenderly cares for each one of us; who through Jesus offers his grace time and time again. I think the God who does that will also lift us up when we’re unfruitful, into a place where we might begin to bear fruit.
The rest of the advice I found involved pruning. Being cut back, it seems, is the main way vines become fruitful.
And I learned 3 interesting things.
No grapes are allowed to grow on a vine in its first 2 years. The branches must grow strong and healthy before they’re ready to bear fruit.
Grapes only grow on new wood, and vines produce far more wood than they need. So even fruiting branches have up to 90% of their wood removed each year before they produce grapes.
I’m pretty sure Jesus didn’t intend us to get bogged down in tiny details of vineyard management…but these ideas will have been very familiar to his first hearers.
They would know that growing grapes is a long-term project; Jesus’ use of this metaphor suggests that discipleship is too. I’m not suggesting that new Christians don’t bear any fruit, but that following Jesus is a life-long adventure, and bearing the fruits of a Christian life doesn’t always come easily.
Jesus’ hearers will also have known that pruning isn’t just a cosmetic affair, but deep and apparently brutal cutting away of dead wood, and disorganised growth.
Left to ourselves, like vines, we grow randomly, following new ideas and people. We get seduced into putting things other than Christ in the centre of our lives. We accumulate the dead wood of bad habits and grudges we harbour. These things need pruning, sometimes quite severely, if we’re to be fruitful Christians, bringing life to ourselves and to others.
And this pruning isn’t something that happens once…Jesus is very clear that fruitful branches are still pruned.
Sometimes, like grape vines, I think we also need surplus good wood cutting away. Sometimes what needs stripping out of our lives is the one good thing too many. Sometimes we need to learn to say no (even to the Rector!); or ‘I’ll take that on, but need to give this up’, so that we can flourish as the people God intends us to be, putting our energy into bearing the fruit of Christian lives.
My foray into the intricacies of grape production has reminded me of the obvious. Vine dressers spend much time and energy nurturing vines so they produce the best grapes. They don’t expect vines to do it all themselves!
It’s given me a picture of God the vinedresser caring tenderly and patiently for each disciple, gently encouraging us to bear fruit. It’s also reminded me that left to myself I bear less fruit, and that I’m not very good at pruning myself.
But how do I let God prune the unwanted stuff out of my life? Jesus suggests I abide in him. He is the vine; we are only the branches – without him we cannot grow or produce fruit. Christian discipleship starts in spending time with Christ – in prayer, worship and study.
Fruit might not immediately appear – but we will begin to recognise what it is that God the patient, loving vinedresser needs to prune from our lives.
After the magic 12th April re-opening, we were blessed to spend a fantastic week at the top end of Swaledale. We’ve been going there around Easter for over 20 years, one of the many joys being that it’s usually lambing time. We walked every day – and passed mile after mile of Swaledale sheep and their lambs.
Not surprising I suppose that the favoured breed should be the one native to the dale. But it then came as a bit of a shock when we passed a small group of blue faced Leicesters. At first glance, my brain tried to tell me these were not sheep but llamas or similar; the are much taller with longer faces than Swaledales. We had to enlarge our idea of what a sheep is to accept that these too fit that category!
Jesus talks often of sheep and shepherds, presumably because the people he spoke to would have been as familiar as the hill farmers of Swaledale with how sheep and shepherds interact. We too are lucky enough to see lambs in nearby fields, and the picture of Jesus as the shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep is not totally alien.
In the middle of today’s reading though, there is a line that’s never really explained… ”I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.” What was that all about? I wonder whether it’s a warning not to get too cosy a picture of shepherd and sheep. A shepherd has their own flock, the flock know the shepherd’s voice…other flocks know the voice of other shepherds.
But lest we take the metaphor too literally, Jesus reminds us he’s the only shepherd, so he will have other sheep, in other sheep folds. Humans need this reminder because our brains have evolved to find patterns. We’re able to process vast quantities of information because we automatically put things into categories. Spotting things that don’t fit help us to react quickly to danger; but it also means we build up pictures of what a ‘doctor’, an ‘engineer’, a ‘Christian’ should look like.
These pictures can be very hard to shift – as pioneering women in science and engineering found. “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold”, is a reminder we will always need.
For Jesus’ first audience it perhaps prepared them for his message to spread from the Jews to other peoples. What about us? Who are the ‘other sheep’ we need reminding of? Sheep who are not like us.
Now I’ve heard, and seen, repeatedly, how welcoming a church this is. So we might think we don’t need this reminder. But I think we’re precisely the people who need to keep reminding ourselves and the wider church of those ‘other sheep’.
If you saw the BBC Panorama programme this week, or have followed any of the recent arguments about sexuality and the church, you will know that the Church of England as an organisation has a huge problem recognising sheep that do not look like us.
Hopefully most churches are now able to welcome people from all backgrounds to worship with them. But what about when they feel called to positions of leadership, to ordination? The Church of England is desperate to encourage vocations amongst minority groups. But once they start training, and even worse, once they start applying for jobs, they often find they are less welcome.
The Panorama programme heard how trainee clergy felt compelled to conform, to become less ‘foreign’; to put up with racist comments, rather than ‘rock the boat’; how they struggle to get jobs once trained.
And these were not people whose English was poor, just people who looked, sounded and acted a little differently from the ‘typical’ vicar. There was a heart-breaking interview with a man saying…’I have tried so hard to fit in, I have given so much for the church, but I can only be me.’ Apparently as himself he is not welcome.
Now I’ve heard, and seen, repeatedly, how welcoming a church this is. So is this our problem? I think it is.
Being a welcoming church isn’t something we tick off our to do list. Sadly, our brains will keep giving us those ‘typical Christian’ pictures. We’ve got something precious here that needs protecting.
Secondly though, we can contribute to the wider church in the way we encourage and interact with those who feel called to any sort of leadership role.
Today is vocations Sunday – when we’re asked to think about what we might be called to do as Christians. It has a particular focus on callings to ordained or licensed ministry, but is also a good time to think about any ways we feel called to help in the running of our church.
We’ve been blessed over the last year to have so many people willing to lead parts of online and in person worship. This isn’t for everyone, but it’s for anyone with the gifts and the calling. It’s really important that we don’t dismiss anyone as too old, too young, the wrong colour, too new, the wrong type of person, to take a lead in our church.
At our extra Easter Sunday Eucharist, one of our young people acted as deacon. It looked different, it stretched and enlarged our picture of what leadership in the church looks like. And it was good!
When Jesus talks about the sheep of his flock, the only description he gives is that: ‘they listen to my voice’. The voice is Jesus’, our job as his church is to provide a space where all are welcome to listen to that voice and follow where it calls them.
We may have little influence on the national church. But we can work hard to enlarge our vision, to fight our brains’ tendency to look for people like us. We can try to develop a picture of a church leader that can encompass differences in colour, culture, class; and looks only for someone who is listening to and following the voice of Christ the good shepherd.
I’m sure you’ve all seen the adverts…’A dog is for life, not just for Christmas’…it’s at this time of year I sometimes feel we should say, ‘Alleluias are for life, not just for Easter Sunday.’
In fact, I have a clergy friend who, about now, starts putting regular posts on social media saying ‘It’s still Easter’, and continues until the Easter season ends after 50 days, at Pentecost.
A timely reminder not just for the secular world – but for us in the church too. There is so much effort involved in the wonderful celebrations of Holy Week and Easter Day, that ‘Alleluia’ can seem a little like a triumphant ‘The end’. Certainly, last Monday, I had no energy for any more Easter! But today’s gospel reading shows us very clearly why those 50 days are important.
As we proclaim ‘Alleluia, Christ is risen’ – with joy on Easter morning, I suspect we imagine the disciples doing the same. At dawn on Easter morning, we read in John’s gospel how Mary met the risen Christ and told the disciples ‘I have seen the Lord’. Even allowing for the male chauvinism of the day…why are they then not out looking…even in the vague hope she might be right?
But no, as we’ve just heard, on the evening of that same day, they were not out and about shouting ‘Alleluia’, looking for the risen Christ, but hiding in a locked room.
We’re told it’s ‘for fear of the Jews’. Yet ‘the Jews’ could easily have arrested them along with Jesus, had they wanted. I wonder – is it really Jesus they’re afraid of? After all, last time they saw him they protested their undying support and then ran away, leaving him to his fate.
Jesus has burst the tomb and is on the loose, but perhaps they aren’t very keen to run into him. Are the disciples locked in by their shame, fear, doubt perhaps?
Whatever is keeping them there doesn’t matter, because Jesus comes to them. He comes to them, where they are, and he says ‘Peace be with you’. Not, ‘Where were you?’, not ‘How could you run off and leave me?’, not even ‘I forgive you’, but ‘Peace be with you’.
‘Then they rejoiced when they saw the Lord’! I bet they did – perhaps partly with relief at knowing they were loved and forgiven.
And yet…and yet, a week later, there they are still shut in that room. This time Thomas is there – doubting Thomas as we remember him; but it seems the others also need convincing, since they’re still not out spreading the good news.
But Jesus comes to them…again without recrimination…offers his peace, and the chance to touch his wounds.
Jesus comes…’even though the doors were locked’.
I’ve heard this story so many times, and I think I’ve always sort of supposed Jesus came through the wall to show he was God. But he’s at pains to show he’s a very human, bodily Jesus. Here he offers his wounded hands and side, in Luke’s gospel he eats a piece of fish. He seems to want them to know he’s the same Jesus they’ve spent the last 3 years with.
I wonder then – does Jesus come in without unlocking the door because he’s leaving this for the disciples to do? He invites them to be part of the new resurrection life he has begun, he offers them the reassurance they need, but leaves them to make their own move when they’re ready.
And so he comes to us, though we lock doors to keep him out. Sometimes the door is locked for fear of what Jesus might find when he enters our lives. Sometimes it’s locked out of disbelief…because the idea of a crucified and risen saviour is so difficult to grasp…or because God seems so absent in the world we see around us. Sometimes it’s locked out of anger, resentment or sorrow.
I think I’ve locked my door for all of those reasons, and probably others besides at different times in my life. But Jesus still enters.
He brings his peace when we’re ready to accept it, to accept we can be forgiven and loved.
He can’t say, as he did to the disciples, touch my hands and side…but he knows our need for something we can touch and hold. So he gives himself to us in bread and wine at the Eucharist. In the last fortnight I’ve shared the Eucharist with a number of people who have had to make do with online offerings for a year – and seen just how much it means to them.
That first Easter wasn’t just one morning of ‘Alleluia he is risen’…it was 40 days of Jesus coming into the locked rooms of people’s lives. Days of giving them physical proof, and of helping them know anything can be forgiven.
There are two beautiful phrases at the end of today’s reading that I want to end with. Jesus says to Thomas, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’
…’have come to believe.’ Not – got it, in a flash one Easter morning – but have come to believe. I think today’s gospel tells us that believing is often a gradual process of Jesus coming into our locked rooms and giving us reason to open the door and venture out.
Then the final lines tell us ‘through believing that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God, you may have life in his name.’
So ‘Alleluia’ is not just the Easter morning moment of joy, it’s Jesus coming again and again, as many times as we need, to where we are; Jesus saying ‘peace be with you’…whether we have feared, denied, betrayed, ignored him; Jesus giving us the means to touch him in bread and wine; until we are ready to open the door and find that in his name is life indeed.
Alleluia – amen.