Maundy Thursday 2018 – a reflection

Brian Reader

I don’t know about you, but some of us found the dramatic reading of the Passion Story from St. Mark’s Gospel last Sunday, not only moving but also quite harrowing. We have been through six weeks of Lent and it may have left some of us feeling a bit scarred or traumatised by it all. Recently I read a reflection by Gerard W. Hughes from his book ‘Oh God, Why?’ on the subject of the Pasion and suffering which I think puts it into a wider perspective. I would like to read that passage to you.

“Frequently we hear ‘The Cross lies at the heart of Christian life’ and ‘Unless we enter into the Passion and death of Christ, we cannot share in his resurrection.’ The phrases are true, but in what sense is this Good News to any except masochists?

Some writers of saints’ lives can leave the reader with the impression that the Christian journey is a kind of ‘sufferathon’, the person who suffers most winning the Olympic gold. We are still afflicted with this false belief, so that we can feel bad about feeling good, for we are told that suffering is a sign of God’s favour.

Some theologies of the Cross do not help, suggesting a God who can only be appeased by the shedding of blood, but who is ready to accept the blood of his Son in place of the blood of us all. This can leave us very grateful to Jesus, but less keen on his heavenly Father!

According to these beliefs, the most effective service of God would consist in our imposing the maximum suffering on ourselves and on others. Suffering, in itself is an evil and to be avoided. While it is true that some people are ennobled by suffering, the majority are diminished or destroyed by it. God’s will for us, as Scripture frequently says, is life, not destruction and death.

Jesus did not will suffering, he prayed to escape from it. ‘Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by’. He declared himself to be the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophesy. ‘The spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for he has anointed me. He has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives and to the blind sight, to set the downtrodden free.’

It was because Jesus lived out this prophecy that he suffered, for he threatened those whose power, prosperity and security depended on keeping the poor in their poverty and the downtrodden in oppression. If we let Christ be Christ in us, oppose injustice and speak the truth in love, we shall also suffer at the hands of those whose power we threaten, whether in Church or State.

This is to share in the Passion of Christ. To keep quiet in the face of injustice and oppression, doing nothing to oppose it, may be painful but it is also a refusal to enter into the Passion of Christ. Much of our suffering has nothing to do with the Cross of Christ, for it is not pain incurred through following him, but the pain of our own bruised ego when our own kingdom is threatened by criticism, loss of status, or financial loss. But if we can let God into this pain, show it to him, acknowledge its origin in our own egoism, pray to be delivered from our own false securities then the pain can become curative, leading us to freedom, from our false attachments and to the knowledge that he really is our rock, our refuge and our strength, and that we have no other.

Perhaps instead of trying to enter into the Passion of Christ, we should ask Christ to enter into our suffering, whether it is the suffering we endure through trying to follow him, or the pain we feel when our own kingdom is threatened. It is in our own pain that we can find him present and beckoning.”

AMEN

There is an ancient prayer on the Passion, called Anima Christi, meaning “Soul of Christ”. Here is a translation of it from the Latin:
May thy mind and heart be mine,
Thy body and blood heal mine,
Thy blood act on me like wine.
May the water from thy side cleanse me.
In thy goodness hear me.
Let thy wounds enfold me,
So that I become inseparable from thee.
From all that is evil protect me,
In my life may I always hear thee;
In death may I see thee invite me
To be one with all creation
In praise of thee and adoration.

AMEN

Lent Lunch Talks 2018 – 5

Roy Arnold

“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:8

A thought to hold in mind and we may illustrate it by something that happened to Jesus: two men stood before him, one was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.

The Pharisee said to himself “How glad I am that I am not as other men are. I fulfil all the laws of our Jewish faith from the old testament. I have never touched a pork pie. I wash everything that is unclean according to the Bible. I go to synagogue every day and I am very pleased with myself. And I am certainly better than this tax collector.”

And the tax collector said “God have mercy upon me – a sinner.”

You might have thought that Jesus, the Son of God, would have commended and congratulated the Pharisee for his exemplary religious life. but instead, Jesus commended the tax collector for his absolute honesty.

Sometimes we can get bored by the same old words in our services week by week in our church worship. But I think the repetition of the words is good for us, and the words “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves…” remind us of the need for honesty before God. And as we hear these words often, we can (and must) take them to heart, as they remind us that what God wants is not self-righteousness but honesty – and certainly never to think of ourselves as better than any other, because we have all sinned and come short of what God – and Jesus – wants of us.

When we come to church to worship God, our services often start with a confession, and I think that we often just gabble through it, maybe without much thought. Yet I believe God wants us to come to Him with our sins of thought word and deed, of commission and omission, to be forgiven, and to improve our lives and be happy. We cannot afford to wallow in our sins – we need to get rid of them. Things like bad temper or peevishness, or money grabbing – maybe things we may not think of as sins at all – just part of who we are.

Envy is counted as the number one of seven deadly sins, which can destroy our relationships in marriages or in family life. And confessing our sins to God is a start towards a better way. I think we could all do with preparing a list (as we do when shopping) and being specific about the sins we want to be rid of. Only make the list in your head (in case you accidentally leave it around). Although in the early church people did confess their sins openly as a way of healing, which is a thought alien to us – to think that our sins might be making us ill, and confession a way to get better. So as the way to end these Lenten talks…

Christ himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die
to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds we are healed. Let us
confess our sins. 1 Peter 2.24

Let us admit to God the sin which always confronts us.
Lord God,
we have sinned against you;
we have done evil in your sight.
We are sorry and repent.
Have mercy on us according to your love.
Wash away our wrongdoing and cleanse us from our sin.
Renew a right spirit within us and restore us to the joy of your salvation,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Psalm 51

Almighty God,
who in Jesus Christ has given us a kingdom that cannot be destroyed,
forgive us our sins,
open our eyes to God’s truth,
strengthen us to do God’s will
and give us the joy of his kingdom,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.

Lent Lunch Talks 2018 – 4

Roy Arnold

We are now halfway through Lent. The word Lent comes from Old English lencten, the lengthening of the day as this year of 2018 spins along. And this Lengthening of the Days is another way of describing Spring. And at one time, Spring was synonymous with giving the house a good clean through – a Spring Clean. Not so much practised nowadays, because with a good Hoover and washing machine you can Spring Clean every week. Yet, I believe, we can still Spring Clean our lives – our souls- and our life-style.

At one time if you asked about THREE sinful things to do people might have said SMOKING, DRINKING and SWEARING. Well I would say yes to SMOKING as a wrong thing, as it is self-harming. But actually up to you if you want to die of lung cancer. As to drinking, well of course it can be harmful and lead to alcoholism (another way of self-harming), but is probably OK in moderation. Although I would say that it is difficult to moderate, and that an awful lot of harm is caused by DRINK – violence is often a result of drinking. But in moderation some people say it is a good thing. As to SWEARING, I suppose it depends on the context – and whether or not it is meant, or is a habit.

But there are (I think) many other things – every day things – which become sinful. ENVY comes top of the Seven Deadly Sins – and it can spoil relationships and family life. And there are other everyday things that can become sinful and destroy people’s happiness. I would say BAD TEMPER would come top in this. old men (and I speak as one) can be particularly good at Bad Temper – which is related to peevishness and changeability – never knowing whether you are going to upset someone – someone you never know how they are going to take things. Self-righteousness is another thing which can destroy happiness.

I could go on about everyday sins because they can ruin family life and marriage. Maybe – if we would like to Spring Clean our life – this is where we could start in this season of Lent, which as it happens, coincides with Spring. And Spring coincides with fresh life and new growth.

God doesn’t want us to confess our sin to him in order to condemn us, but to give us a Good Life. A life like Springtime after Winter. To give us LIFE and have it more abundantly.

Lent Lunch Talks 2018 – 3

Roy Arnold

I spoke last week about our sins, which can come in all shapes and sizes – little sins, big sins and huge sins. The interesting thing is that huge sins begin normally with small thoughts we allow to grow.

If you think about it, the holocaust, in which six million Jews died, began with someone’s thoughts and passed on through the ages until it became a terrible crime against humanity.

My talk last week was about our sins of thought, word and deeds – hateful thoughts, hateful words and hateful deeds. And we can divide these sins into two halves, namely things we actually do or think or say (we call these “sins of commission”) in contrast to our “sins of omission” – things we don’t think (when we should) or don’t say (when we should) or deeds we should do but don’t.

And I have always believed that all of us are more guilty of sins of omission. The good thoughts and opinions about other people, or the good, encouraging (loving) words we should have said but didn’t or don’t, and the good deeds which we forget to do – or never even thought of. All of which linger on, as thoughts, words or deeds which remain good intentions.

According to our prayer-book  we don’t act as we should, through “negligence, weakness or our own deliberate fault”. In this season of Lent our faith reminds us of our need to come to God and say sorry. And, if need be, to say sorry to the people we sin against. That is if we previously through carelessness or negligence haven’t even recognised that we have hurt them – usually the ones we shouldn’t hurt at all…

If we can ask God to forgive us for our sins of commission or omission, then forgiven and freed from guilt we will be able to serve God and one another in newness of life – the fresh start which Lent reminds us about.

New mercies each returning day
hover around us while we pray.
New perils past, new sins forgiven.
New thoughts of God, new hopes of heaven.

3rd Sunday of Lent 2018

Brian Reader

Exodus 20. 1-17; 1 Corinthians 1. 18-25; Ps 19; John 2:13-22

Today is the third Sunday of Lent and our readings direct us to think about the Law and Jesus’ action in the temple. I am sure you recognized the reading from Exodus as the Ten Commandments. Those of you old enough to have been brought up using the old 1662 prayer book will remember that the Ten Commandments were part of the old communion service and even if they were omitted for the rest of the year, they were certainly recited in Lent. My father-in-law, the rector of a small village church, loved to tell this anecdote of how he took a service in another parish in the early 1940’s and read out all the 10 commandments. One of the older ladies in the congregation was so impressed that she handed him a crisp 10 shilling note – which was a lot of money in those days – with the words “a bob for each commandment”!

A ten bob note

Let us now consider the reading from St. John’s Gospel. One of the first prayers I remember as a child starts – ‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild’. The record of Jesus overthrowing the tables in the temple is not the action of a meek and mild person. Before we look at what happened, we need to consider the importance of the Temple itself. The Temple was the beating heart of Judaism. It wasn’t just, as it were, a church on a street corner. It was the centre of worship and music, of politics and society, of all national celebration and mourning. It was also the place where you would find more animals (alive and dead) than anywhere else. But, towering above all these, it was of course the place where Israel’s God, YHWH, had promised to live in the midst of his people. It was the focal point of the nation, and of the national way of life. And this was where the then unknown prophet from Galilee came in and turned everything upside down. People used to this Bible story can forget how shocking it must have been. And it raises a number of questions. What was wrong with the Temple? Why did Jesus do what he did? And, when they asked him for a sign, what does his answer mean?

Before even that, there’s another question to be considered. People who know the other gospels in the New Testament will realize that they also contain a very similar incident. However in the other three Gospels it occurs at the end of Jesus’ public career, when he arrives in Jerusalem for the last time, rather than at the beginning as it does here. One reason for putting the incident at the beginning, as John does, is the fact that Matthew, Mark and Luke don’t have Jesus in Jerusalem at all during his adult life, so the final journey is the only place where it can happen. John, however, has Jesus going to and fro to Jerusalem a good deal throughout his short ministry. And if he had done something like this at the beginning, it would explain why certain other things happened. Like why people came from Jerusalem to Galilee to check him out, and why, when the high priest finally decided it was time to act, he already felt they had a case against him.

Firstly, we have to understand what a dramatic and violent act this was, and, you might ask, ‘Is there a link with the Ten Commandments?’ Well Jesus was angry at the injustice and the downright theft – Thou shalt not steal. He was angry that the poor were being exploited. To buy a dove would cost a full day’s wage but a ‘guaranteed unblemished dove’, which alone was acceptable for sacrifice, well that would cost three full weeks’ wages. And it could only be bought in the Court of the Gentiles; it was a racket! The Temple tax was two days’ pay but Gentile coins bore ‘graven images’ so it cost another day’s pay to have your money changed into Temple coinage. And Jesus was even more angry that Israel, the so called ‘people of God’, were dishonouring the name of God, and were also denying its calling to be a light to the nations.

There was blatant exploitation of pilgrims! From all parts of the Roman world they came, Gentiles, attracted to the Jewish faith by Jews they met in their home towns. They were excited to come to their great Temple, but there they found that the only place they were allowed to go to pray was like a noisy market. It seemed that neither Gentile coins nor Gentile people were welcome. The Lord had suddenly come to clean out his Temple, just as Malachi had promised. So Jesus drove the sheep and cattle out, and overturned the tables of the money-changers.

His new Temple has no need for animal sacrifice. John understands that all Jesus’ actions here are linked to the time of Passover. John has already told us that Jesus is God’s Passover lamb, and now He goes to Jerusalem at the time when freedom, and rescue from slavery in Egypt, was being celebrated. Somehow, John wants us to understand, what Jesus did in the Temple is a hint at the new meaning he is giving to Passover. But the action and the story as it unfolds, also point to Jesus’ own fate. Because when they ask him what he thinks he’s up to, and request some kind of sign to show them what it all means, Jesus speaks, very cryptically, about his own death and resurrection.

He is the true temple: he is the Word made flesh, the place where the glory of God has chosen to make his dwelling. The Jews had ancient traditions about the Temple being destroyed and rebuilt. It had happened before, and some thought it would happen again. Herod the Great had begun a programme of rebuilding the Temple, and now, forty-six years later, one of his sons was completing it.

The period of time, ‘In three days’ links with the wedding at Cana, when the wine was changed on the third day. Similarly their imperfect religion will be superseded; by and through his Resurrection. He is himself the spiritual Temple where God is truly worshipped. His friends recalled verse 9 of Psalm 69 about the Messiah, which says ‘Zeal for your house will consume me’; but the Sadducees were angered by his claim and used it in evidence at his trial. ‘Destroy this Temple’ he said – and they did; because by persisting in avarice and prejudice, they brought destruction on themselves. Jesus takes the traditions and applies them to himself. He is the reality to which the Temple itself points. His death and resurrection will be the reality to which the whole Passover celebration points.

In the two vivid scenes of this reading, John has introduced us to almost all the major themes of the gospel story, and has given us food for thought about where it’s all going. If profit matters more than people and prejudice more than unity, these things lead to death. So the story is not about church bazaars or dual-purpose buildings or even Sunday selling; it’s much more serious than that! Jesus still challenges his Church: if we set profit above people, if we let prejudice hinder unity, if we neglect our mission, we too shall bring judgement and destruction on ourselves. The Lord whom we seek has already come to his Temple. And the church and Christians fail
when they neglect God’s standards of holiness, justice and love. And if all this sounds too difficult to take in, I can do no better than to finish with the words of that great evangelist Dr. Billy Graham who consistently preached that “Jesus Christ is the Son of God who alone can save us from our sins”. Countless people found faith through his simple, clear message, and responded to his call to “pray to God for forgiveness and, by faith, receive Jesus Christ into your life”.

Amen

Lent Lunch Talks 2018 – 2

Roy Arnold

Here we are in the season of Lent – and, from her fabulous collection of stoles, Veronica will be wearing purple for the next few weeks at Holy Communion. Purple for “saying sorry to God” for our sins and to receive his forgiveness.

Sins:
– the things we have thought (about other people – and even about ourselves) which has saddened God
– or the words we have spoken. – unkindly or carelessly – and which maybe have been contrary to God’s ways
– or our  deeds which have been wrong in God’s eyes.

To sum up, our sins of thought, word or deed.

Note the order of our sins. Sins begin with thoughts – the things which we harbour in our minds, or which other people have planted in our minds. Things which we keep in our “craws” and which, as sure as eggs are eggs, thoughts will become words. And from being hidden they will become public – out in the open – for all to hear. And from words they can soon become deeds.

How much better our own lives and our world would be, and happier too, if we could think good thoughts, and speak good words, and do good deeds. But often maybe we don’t, which means we must own up to God our sins of thought, word or deed, and trust in the love of God – who surprisingly knows the thoughts of our hearts, and our words before they leave our mouths and our deeds before we do them.

But before he can forgive us, we must own up, come clean. Then God in His everlasting love can truly forgive us, and we can make another new start. We must be born again – maybe many times!

2nd Sunday of Lent 2018

Brian Reader

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Romans 4:13-25; Ps 22:23-31; Mark 8:31-38

Good Morning to you all. Today is the second Sunday of Lent and Lent is a time of reflection. Our Bible readings for today direct our thoughts to consider what it meant for Jesus to be the Christ and what it means for us to be a Christian.

The passage from Genesis talks about Abraham. Now he had believed in God and had been doing God’s will for some time, so when God spoke to him again “I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless”, he was not surprised, as this is the fifth time that God had made promises to Abraham, so it is nothing new.

However, many years had now gone by since God had first promised Abraham that his descendants would become so numerous that they could be compared to the dust of the earth and the stars of the sky. But so far, Abraham and his wife had not had any children. They were both getting older, and it was looking like they would not have any children. So God took this occasion to remind Abraham that He would multiply him “exceedingly”.

At this time God also changed Abram’s name to Abraham, meaning he would become a “father of many nations”, and changed the name of his wife from Sarai to Sarah. Even though it didn’t look like Abraham and Sarah would ever have a child, God continued to repeat and add details to the original promise He had made to Abraham.

And Paul in his letter to the Romans makes reference to this promise. He reminds us that Abraham wasn’t righteous or doing the will of God because of the Law because the Ten Commandments had yet to be written, No, Abraham was judged righteous because he had faith, he believed, he did what God wanted.

In the same way, we can’t buy our way into heaven by doing good works or by just following the Ten Commandments. Which is just as well, as we will never be able to fully keep the first commandment, let alone the rest.

So how do we respond to God’s infinite love and Grace?

Well Jesus fulfilled the Law; firstly by showing that love is the fulfilling of the Law. In fact, Jesus gave us the double command to ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your Soul, with all your mind’, and ‘to love your neighbour as you love yourself’, and said that this was the perfect summary of all the Commandments, in the world the entire Law.

And secondly Jesus showed, by his whole life of obedience to the Father, from start to finish, that this was how the genuinely human life should be lived. His death on the cross ushered in God’s new promise for all mankind, so the way to salvation now, is not by keeping laws but by receiving God’s forgiveness through Christ. He and not the Law opens the way between the Father and us.

Earlier in this service we used the Ten Commandments as a confession. Some may ask is the Law relevant for us today? The Law may be fulfilled in Jesus Christ but this does not mean we can ignore it. Its inadequacies are clear enough, and it was for this reason we were reminded about the positive sayings of Jesus as well as the negative parts of the Old Testament Law.

Rules cannot lead a person to God. Nevertheless they remain ‘holy, just and good’. The Ten Commandments are the essence of the moral law of the world, as we understand it. We are not made Christian by keeping them, but we heed them because we are Christians and we try to live as God has decreed. The church and Christians fail when they neglect God’s standards of holiness, justice and love.

Also, an understanding of the Law helps us to understand the Jewish culture of the day, and this in turn helps us to better understand the good news of the Gospel.

Let us now consider the reading from Mark. Just before the passage set for today, Jesus asks the question “Who do people say I am?”  And Peter answered, “You are the Christ.” But it is quite clear that Peter did not understand that God’s promised ‘Christ’ or ‘Messiah’, would have to be the Suffering Servant promised in Isaiah.

Now, Jesus’ friends and followers were used to danger. It was a perilous time. Anyone growing up in Galilee just then knew all about revolutions, about holy people hoping God would act and deliver them, and instead, ending up getting crucified for their trouble. Any new leader, any prophet, any teacher with something fresh to say, might go that way. They must have known that by following Jesus they were taking risks. The death of John the Baptist, will simply have confirmed that.

But this was different. This was something new. Mark says Jesus ‘began to teach them’ this, implying that it was quite a new point that could only be begun, once they’d declared that he was the Messiah – like a schoolteacher who can only begin the next stage of mathematics when the pupils have learnt to add and subtract.

And the new lesson wasn’t just that there might be danger ahead; the new lesson was that Jesus had to walk straight into it. Nor would it simply be a risky gamble that might just pay off. No, it would be certain death. This was what he had to do.

You might as well have had a football captain tell the team to stand still and let the opposition score all the goals they wanted. This wasn’t what Peter and the rest had in mind. They may not have thought of Jesus as a military leader, but they certainly didn’t think of him going straight to his death.

As Charlie Brown once said, “winning isn’t everything but losing isn’t anything”; and Jesus seemed to be saying he was going to lose. Worse, he was inviting them to come and lose alongside him. This is the heart of what’s going on here, and it explains both the tricky language Jesus uses; it was tricky for them to puzzle out at first hearing, which explains the strong negative reaction of Peter, so soon after telling Jesus that he and the rest thought he was the Messiah. Messiahs don’t get killed by the authorities. A Messiah who did that would be shown up immediately as a false Messiah.

So why did Jesus say that’s what had to happen? St Mark explains this in the later chapters of his Gospel, but already there is a hint, an allusion. ‘The son of man’ must have all this happen to him, declares Jesus; only thus ‘the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him’: It is the only way for the kingdom of God to come. Jesus is half quoting, half hinting at, themes from the prophetic books of Daniel and Zechariah. He will eventually be vindicated, after his suffering, as God sets up the kingdom at last.

Jesus is both warning his followers that this is how he understands his vocation and destiny as Israel’s Messiah, and that they must be prepared to follow in his steps. So important is this message that opposition to the plan, wherever it comes from, must be seen as satanic. Even Peter, Jesus’ right-hand man, is capable of thinking like a mere mortal, not looking at things from God’s point of view.

This is a challenge to all of us, as the church in every generation struggles not only to think, but to live from God’s point of view in a world where such a thing is madness. This is the point at which God’s kingdom, coming ‘on earth as it is in heaven’ will challenge and overturn all normal human assumptions about power and glory, about what is really important in life and in the world. The coming of God’s kingdom with power has a lot more to do with the radical defeat of deep-rooted evil, than with the destruction of the good world that God made and loves.

Jesus understands that evil will be defeated, and the kingdom will come, precisely through his own suffering and death. But despite this, the passage makes it clear that following him is the only way to go. Following Jesus is, more or less, what being a Christian means; and Jesus is not leading us on a pleasant afternoon hike, but on a walk into possible risk and danger. Or did we suppose that the kingdom of God would mean merely a few minor adjustments in our ordinary lives? Yes, suffering is also part of being a follower of Jesus – it may be as simple, yet as difficult as saying ‘No!’ to oneself, or bearing hardships or being at risk to life and limb.

We should remember Abraham and be like him. He had faith, he believed, he did what God wanted. God made promises to Abraham and these were kept. In a similar way, God, through Christ, has made promises to us, which he will keep. Our Lenten reflections should show us that a true understanding of what it takes to follow Jesus, will involve hardship, and, sacrifice
but the rewards will be everlasting!

AMEN

Lent Lunch Talks 2018 – 1

Roy Arnold

Just by way of interest, how many of you take the “Macclesfield Express”?

Well, if you do, you will know the item called “Before the Bench” – a weekly list of people had up for drunkenness, driving too fast, stealing, beating up their wives or girl-friends, drug offences – selling them or taking them. It all makes depressing reading.

But there is nothing new under the sun. Back in the early days of the church, St Paul, in his epistle to the Galatians, gives us a similar list of offences like “quarrels and strife, unfaithfulness in marriage, anger, drunkenness, jealousy, etc”.

By way of contrast, St Paul lists what’s on the opposite side of the coin – what he calls the Fruits of the Spirit. In other words, how God wants us to live a better way – a more happy way. Here is his list: “love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”

I think you would agree God’s way is by far the better way. You would think that coming to church regularly might be a guarantee of us leaving a life full of the Fruits – the harvest of the Spirit. Yet in my time as a vicar I have had an alcoholic churchwarden, an organist who regularly “borrowed” money from vulnerable pensioners, a young server who embezzled funds from his employer (a funeral director) and a regular communicant who was totally obnoxious. Meanwhile (I guess) others might be sinners in a more hidden way – behind closed curtains.

It may well be that as a church we are always banging on about sins. So I make no excuse – as a sinner myself – that in these next few weeks of Lent, I am going to talk about sin. “We knew nothing about sin until our new Vicar arrived” – an old joke. But I have come to a new understanding of how God works. For instance, in the Lord’s Prayer two things are closely linked together and joined together by a very significant conjunction – by an “and”: “Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses.” This is God’s provision: Bread and forgiveness.

Appropriate, then, that with our bread and soup, that we dip into some thoughts about sins – and God’s wish for us to be rid of them. We can all be tempted. But being tempted is not sinning, to quote: “Temptations are like birds flying over our heads. It is only when we let them make nests in our hair that they become sins.”

Jesus said: “Be ye perfect as I am perfect.” Maybe like an archer aiming for a bull’s-eye, not quite hitting it, but having to keep trying.

St Paul said: “The good that I want to do, I don’t do; and the evil I don’t want to do, that I do!”

When we think about God we might be inclined to think of some stern headmaster – always on duty to spot naughty children. But Jesus tells us that his likeness is to:
a housewife searching for a lost coin,
or a shepherd looking for a lost sheep
or a father welcoming home his tearaway son.
At this mention of God in relation to our sins, think of the three descriptions – the housewife, the shepherd and the overjoyed father.

Sunday Next Before Lent 2018

Ann Coomes

This coming week brings us something unusual which has not happened since 1945. Can you guess what it is? It is that this year, both Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day share the same day ! This is the first time in 73 years that that has happened.

At first glance, it may seem an odd mix, the combination of a day which begins a period of prayer, fasting and penance with a day dedicated to romance, but when you think about it, there is a very obvious link between the two days – and that is – love!

For Lent is about far more than giving up chocolate or something else that we really like, and therefore spending the next five weeks feeling both a bit miserable and a bit virtuous at the same time. Lent is really all about setting aside time to learn how to love God more, as we give Him more space in our lives.

Lent was first observed by the very Early Church, and has its roots in the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness in prayer and fasting before God. His reactions to the temptations that Satan laid before him all demonstrated his perfect, divine love.

Consider the first one – the temptation to turn stones into bread. In other words – the desire to satisfy immediate physical desires. Later on, Jesus would indeed feed people – thousands of them, with bread when they were hungry, but He went so much further than that – he became the Bread of Life itself for us, providing us with spiritual nourishment forever. His love went beyond satisfying just human stomachs, to satisfying human hearts as well.

Then there was the second temptation, to jump off the top of the temple and trust God to send angels to catch him. Satan was tempting Jesus to act out of pride in who he was, and to use his privileged position to impress others. But of course, to do so would have been to act in arrogance and self-assertion. And so, Jesus chose instead to continue his humble, loving, dependence on his father, which is how we should also walk before God.

The final temptation, when Jesus is offered the kingdoms of the world in return for his worship of the devil, sparked a furious response from Jesus: ‘Away from me, Satan!’ For to put something or someone else before God is to turn your back on God, whose very nature is love. Jesus knew that to worship God lies at the very heart of our participation in the divine love. And when we share in God’s love, we can go on to share in sacrificial service to meet the needs of others, as Jesus did.

And so, during his time in the wilderness, Jesus was living out the love of God in practice, and for us, Lent can become a time to learn from him.

And of course, it all begins this coming Wednesday, Ash Wednesday. Many thousands of churches around the world will mark it with a service that includes ashes being smeared on people’s foreheads. Have you ever wondered where that practice has come from?

The tradition of using ashes goes back far earlier than Jesus in the wilderness. It goes right back to the Old Testament, when the Israelites had sinned, and, then finally come to their senses. When they saw their evil ways as God saw them, they could do nothing but repent in sorrow, and mourn for the damage and evil they had done.

As a visual sign of their change of heart, they humbled themselves before God by covering their heads with ashes. It was an outward sign of their heart-felt repentance and acknowledgement of sin.

Centuries later, when the early Christian church was observing Easter each year, it became the custom for both new believers and older ones to demonstrate their repentance before God by having ashes sprinkled over them at the beginning of Lent.

The Bible certainly has some wonderful verses concerning God’s call to us to come near to him: Here are just a couple from the Old Testament:

‘Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.’ (Joel 2:12-13)

And from Luke: ‘I have not come to call the virtuous but sinners to repentance’ (said Jesus).  I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’

God loves us, and rejoices over us when we come near to Him.

But – what about Valentine’s day? Where can that fit into all this?

Well, of course, Valentine was a follower of Christ, who spent his life sharing God’s love with others. We know very little about him, except that he was a priest who lived in Rome in the late 3rd century .

It was a time when the Emperor Claudius had decided that soldiers in the Roman Army were distracted from their duty by their wives, and so he attempted to outlaw marriage.

It is believed that Valentine disregarded the emperor’s command, and married many couples in secret. He also helped Christians in Rome during times of persecution there.

Eventually Valentine was caught, arrested, and condemned to death. While he was in prison awaiting execution, Valentine showed love and compassion to everyone around him, including even his jailer. The jailer had a young daughter who was blind, but through Valentine’s prayers for her, she was healed and could see again. Just before his death in Rome on 14th February, he wrote her a farewell message that he signed ‘From your Valentine.’

So the very first Valentine card was not between lovers, but between a priest about to die, and a little girl, who had been healed through his prayers.

Valentine’s life demonstrated the importance of showing God’s love in action.

And so we have it – the very unusual but very fitting combination of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day. A day of our coming to God in repentance because of his great love for us, and a day of us celebrating and sharing our love for others because God’s love shines in our lives.

Coming up in Macclesfield

Cre8 Youth and Community Programme – Opportunities for volunteers

Youth Clubs on Tuesday and Wednesday Evenings.

Skills and/or interest in art, craft, cooking and games/sports would be particularly helpful.

more.


Macclesfield Fairtrade Fortnight – Monday 26th February – Sunday 11th March (see website)

Fairtrade Breakfast – Anytime 9.30am to 3.00pm on Saturday 24th February at the Hope Centre, Park Green.  poster

Fairtrade Coffee Morning – 9.30am to 12.15pm on Saturday 3rd March at Macclesfield Library.  poster