It’s not just about cheese….


Words for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, preached at Colton Methodist Church.

In a former life as a teacher, I once asked a class of 10 year olds why there are so many different religions. There was a long silence – then someone said, ”because some people like cheese, and some people hate cheese.”

I never worked out whether he was very silly – or very profound…but it seemed as good a place as any to start thinking about Christian Unity this week.

I suppose he was saying there are different ways of having faith – or different ways of being Christian – because people are different. Just as some people prefer a mild cheddar or Red Leicester, whilst others feel only a really ripe Stilton worth eating…so some feel closer to God in silence, whilst others need to sing traditional hymns or modern worship songs.

I’m sure there’s some truth in the cheese analogy, and it can be a tempting way to look at Christian Unity. After all – it makes it quite safe. I might find it hard to imagine that anyone could possibly enjoy Stilton – but we’re unlikely to come to blows over it. I’ll probably never agree with my son about cheese – but we have so much else in common that the cheese issue doesn’t come between us.

So should we this morning concentrate on what we Christians have in common – think of our differences as cheese preferences? Mark, in our gospel reading, makes the shocking point that Jesus’ call has priority even over the commandment to ‘honour your father and mother’, as Zebedee is left without sons to work his boat. Surely the fact that we are all responding to Christ’s call is more important than how exactly we do it…surely in this week of all weeks we should just concentrate on what we have in common?

I’m not so sure. Obviously dis-unity between Christians is not what God wants…but the things that profoundly divide our two churches, and us from the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches did not arise on a whim, or because of a preference for type of building, art or music.

When churches split, it’s because people have agonised and wrestled with an idea or a practice they believe dishonours God, or misrepresents him…it’s because people feel they can no longer worship God truthfully where they are. If we ignore these issues, we ignore things that make us and other Christians who we are.

But you might say, these divisions have led to violence and hatred, have led to statements like “You don’t really believe that do you?” Statements that might devalue years of intellectual struggle to get to that belief. Statements that threaten the way people understand themselves in the light of God.

Thankfully I’ve never heard that in Leeds 15 – so shouldn’t I let well alone? Well I’ve not heard that, but when I taught RE, children often said things like…”I’m a Christian, but my Grandma is a Roman Catholic, or a Methodist”…I’m sure none of us would make that mistake, but if someone asked us what Roman Catholics believe…what makes them not Methodists or Anglicans would we be sure?

And if we’re ignorant of one another’s beliefs we can make vague, sweeping and probably inaccurate statements that make them sound ridiculous. Perhaps this is a week for examining our differences, for taking them seriously – in love, as fellow followers of Christ.

For example our understanding of communion, the Eucharist, the Mass, the Lord’s Supper? (Even the names cause division!)

…well perhaps if we just read a definition, or pick up a vague idea from a TV drama, the idea that bread and wine actually become Christ’s body and blood, or indeed that they don’t change at all, might seem ridiculous. But if we talk to someone who has wrestled with the idea, and decided it is part of their truth, their identity as a Christian, then at the very least we might recognise how it helps them in their Christian journey.

Rowan Williams – former Anglican Archbishop – suggests we ask ourselves ‘Can my Christ save you too?’ and if the answer is no – how have I distorted the vision of Christ that I see him only saving me or people who think like me.

He says we should ask, ‘Can your Christ save me too?’ If I can see how your vision of Christ can be life-saving or life-giving to you, even if I don’t agree, I might learn from it some truth that speaks to me.

Of course this exchange means we have to be ready to answer questions too. When I’d been an Anglican for about 40 years a new vicar put on a course called “What is an Anglican?” I went along because I was embarrassed to realise that I didn’t really know.

Does it matter? I think it does – how can we expect the world to take Christ seriously if we who claim to follow him know little about our own church and less of our fellow Christians?

Because theology, unlike cheese, is a matter of life and death. Our beliefs should be more than a preference for this or that style of worship or building, they should be the core of our identity, the foundation of our hope.

The Jesus in whom we hope does not tell us how exactly we should worship him. Jesus who said ‘Do this in remembrance of me’ – didn’t explain exactly what happens when we obey.

We have to interpret, put into words, because we are human and language is how we make sense of our world; but as we wrestle to express our experience of Christ, so do others.

So my prayer for this week is that we take seriously the ideas that divide us…that we take the time to find out what exactly is a Methodist, an Anglican, a Roman Catholic, a Baptist…that in sharing our differences we each enlarge our vision of the God who is bigger and more mysterious than we can ever comprehend.


Shifting sands…some thoughts for an Epiphany Eucharist, St Mary’s Whitkirk

Camels for epiphany

“When Christmas is over

and New Year is past

we three slow visitors arrive at last.


Too late for the angels

we wonder and long

for the piercing white beauty of feathery songs.


We wandered the wastes

Where the wind and the sand

whispered and shifted and remade the land.


And now by the maker

of all things we stand

Mysterious gifts in our trembling hands.


The gold and the incense

are all fine and good

and the myrrh has its meaning too – all understood.


But here at our mercy

lies God – and we shiver

Just what is the gift here? And who is the giver?”


(Jan Dean – from ‘Wallpapering the cat’ – poems for children)


From a book of children’s poems, I think it captures perfectly the nature of the easily overlooked season of Epiphany. Epiphany, which means revelation or realisation.

The poem is filled with a sense of unease, of bewilderment, as the three men find themselves kneeling before the Christ child. Wise men or kings, they have come, presumably, from comfortable homes and lifestyles…from places of control and power…from positions where other people did the travelling, where the world came to them.

“We wandered the wastes

Where the wind and the sand

whispered and shifted and remade the land.”

They’ve been called from what they know to a place that changes not only their lives – but how they see what’s around them. When the most important thing is searching for a baby at the edge of their known world who is somehow infinitely greater than themselves – they look around them – and what once seemed so important perhaps now seems irrelevant. Their land has indeed shifted and been remade.

And so it should be for us. It is easy to forget, because the world has taken the Christmas story and exploited it to prop up the status quo – where money and celebrity are what count, and where even charity can be used to show how well that world is working.

The wise men are a timely reminder that even though he comes to where we are – our journey to Jesus should take us to places where the sands shift and the world looks different.

“But here at our mercy

lies God – and we shiver

Just what is the gift here? And who is the giver?”

The world looks different when we realise with those travellers that what ever we offer to God is only a tiny part of what he has first given us. His gift is everything we have and everything we are. And the gift is not just for us, or those like us – it’s for everyone.

Once we really understand that, the sands shift and our world looks different. A bit like a party where some of us have grabbed far more than our share of the presents. And charity is revealed as giving back what was never really ours in the first place – as a kind of apology to those who haven’t had their share of God’s gifts.

In this way we might see beyond the success of Christmas appeals to the failures that make them necessary. We might see beyond our throw away lifestyles to the damage we do to the world others also depend on.

But in the strange, bewildering landscape of Epiphany – we hold on to the joy of Christmas, and remember that God’s gift is infinitely better than anything this world can offer. And that if we share it – there is always more than enough to go round.



In the fullness of time.

‘In the fullness of time…’ a sermon for Christmas 1.

Today’s reading contains the earliest version of the Christmas story – from Paul’s letter to the Galatians – almost certainly written before any of the gospels.

“When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman’.

Compared to John’s poetry, or Luke’s story telling, it’s a bit tame. It wouldn’t make much of a nativity play – in fact it’s easy to miss altogether.

“When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman’.

Actually, ‘God sent his Son, born of a woman’, sums up incarnation pretty well …but it’s the phrase, ‘in the fullness of time’ that’s stuck with me.

I guess Paul is saying Jesus was born ‘when the right time had come’…but that word ‘fullness’ is to me a lovely reminder that although the heart of our faith is Christ, what came before wasn’t just killing time before God’s wonderful gift but full…

…full of a developing relationship between humanity and God. I’m not suggesting a master plan – God ordering triumphs and disasters so they led perfectly to Jesus – but God using what went before, until the time was somehow right.

‘The fullness of time’ seems to me a beautiful way to think about our own lives. We often look back with regret for missed opportunities, with bitterness for what life has dealt, or with guilt for our wrongs. Time can appear wasted or empty…that can stop us living properly in the present or looking to the future.

Perhaps it stuck with me because of a conversation I’ve had repeatedly this year…

“How is your new role?”

“I love it. It’s really fulfilling. It feels like the right thing for me to be doing.”

“Don’t you wish you’d gone into it earlier?”

Well it is so wonderful that I could easily look at younger colleagues and wish I’d come to it earlier, easily regret the time spent doing other things.

…but sharing this recently with fellow (equally middle aged) curate Sonia – she said,

“there were things that had to happen in my life to make this possible”…and she is exactly right. The time before was not just waiting for me to wake up – it was full…

…of good things – studying science, teaching, having children, being a full time Mum. …of hard – or horrible things – dealing with depression of close family members – losing my Mum far too soon…

…full of experiences God has used to make me into someone who can now be a priest. I can’t believe in a God who would cause the depression or death of my loved ones to increase my faith or my empathy, but I’m sure God was in that time with me. Looking back I can see how the darkest times were also full of my growth…in faith and in humanity. So regret would be silly – I am just thankful to those who helped me recognise when the fullness of time had come.

Sometimes it really feels that time has been stolen from us…

Nelson Mandela went into prison, for protesting against apartheid, in the prime of life – he was released 27 years later, an elderly man. He had 27 years stolen from him, he missed his children growing up.

It would surely have been better if he had not been imprisoned for so long. There was nothing good about the harsh and demeaning treatment he received. However, those were not 27 empty years – but time full of growing grace, of willingness to let go of resentment, of a developing vision for the future.

In the fullness of time Nelson Mandela was ready to be the first black president of South Africa and lead the way to reconciliation.

But what about when we are to blame for the difficult times? When our careless actions or cruel words hurt others or damage relationships? Days, weeks or even years filled with guilt really can feel like lost time. But guilt can help us grow; can teach us not to repeat our failings. Guilt prompts us to apologise, and though some relationships may be beyond repair – facing up to our part in their destruction can help us become people who would no longer say or do those things.

Perhaps the most beautiful, and difficult, part of the fullness of time…is recognising when guilt has done its work and we can let it go.

As Paul’s whole Christmas narrative says, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman…in order to redeem those under the law.” God gives us Jesus, so that all our human experiences can be given back to God. We are not wiped clean like slates – we are shaped by what has gone before – but in the fullness of time God takes our experiences, our bitterness, our guilt and helps us move on.

The brink of a new year seems a good moment to think about the fullness of time. We can look back to the old year, at how it has changed us. We can look forward to the New Year – and what those changes mean for our life.

Are we in a time of enduring something difficult, of waiting? Perhaps all we can do is offer it to God and ask him to be with us and shape us.

Have we reached a fullness of time moment – time to take a leap into a different future? – time to let go of guilt and move on?

How do we know? I’m not sure we always do…but if we offer our lives to God – we trust that no experience is wasted, that our time is full of God’s grace as he gently remakes us in his image.

And at Christmas especially we remember that although God’s people had ample cause for regret, bitterness and guilt…“when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman…in order to redeem those under the law.”