Christ the King 2020

Brian Reader

For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice…
Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep. I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken.

Ezekiel 34.11-16, 20-24

[The other readings for today are Ephesians 1.15-end and Matthew 25.31-end]

Today is the last Sunday of the Church’s year, and the Sunday before Advent. It is also the day when we think of Christ as the King.

These days it may be hard to imagine that the kings and queens in years gone by were all powerful; you may never have seen them, but what they said was law, and you did everything in your power to keep them happy. Woe betide you if you made the king angry, as your life would not be worth living, that is, if you still had a life! Today our Royal family has lost most of its mystery and virtually all of its power, and subject to constant media attention, the Royal Family has shown itself to be just as human and frail as we all are. That is apart from the Queen herself, who throughout her long reign has honoured her commitment to duty to this country and Commonwealth which she made before God at her coronation.

But today we celebrate and honour a different kind of monarch, God’s only Son, Christ the King. Christ, who is everlasting, and through the years has not had his power diminished or whittled down. Following his victory on the Cross and His glorious resurrection, God has given him all power to rule over God’s kingdom, both here on earth and in heaven. And this King seeks to save and enhance lives, not to destroy or belittle them. Perhaps now, just before Advent and the run up to Christmas, it is timely to remember that Christ is the all powerful king. We sometimes forget that when we celebrate his birth, when he laid aside all his glory, and rightful place in heaven, to come down to us on earth as a helpless babe at Christmas.
As we read in the Good News Bible translation, God is saying;

I will give them a king like my servant David to be their one shepherd, and he will take care of them. I, the Lord, will be their God, and a king like my servant David will be their ruler. I have spoken.

Ezekiel 34:23

And in The Message translation we read:

God raised Christ from death and set him on a throne in deep heaven, in charge of running the universe; everything from galaxies to governments, no name and no power is exempt from his rule. And not just for the time being, but forever. He is in charge of it all; has the final word on everything: At the centre of all this, Christ rules the church: The church is Christ’s body, in which he speaks and acts, by which he fills everything with his presence:

Ephesians 1.20-23

And Christ is given the Power to defeat death and evil, we don’t mind that, it’s nice to have an all-powerful king to fight our corner, or a nice shepherd to care and look after us, but, Christ is also given the power and authority to judge. We don’t like that so much, especially as we all know we have all done much of which we are ashamed. And as Matthew, harking back to the images we find in Ezekiel, says;

When the Son of Man comes in his glory … he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

Matthew 25.31-33
The Good Shepherd and two angels. Mosaic (6th Century)

Now those of you who have been to the Middle East will know that sheep don’t look like the fluffy white bundles of wool that we think of in this country. No, they look scraggy and thin, much like a goat, so when I was in Aden, Diana my first wife and I used to call them ‘shoats’. The reason for separating them was that goats are less hardy than sheep and have to be cared for in harsh weather. Oh! and if you have to separate them yourself, a lamb’s tail hangs down and goat’s tail points skywards!

And going back to Ezekiel, a good shepherd can also judge between one sheep and another. Perhaps that is why we are told not to judge each other; only God knows all, and he will judge all of us at the end of time.

Then the King will say to those on his right, Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world.

Matthew 25.34

So Christ will be able to separate us as sheep from goats; or as chalk from cheese.

As inheritor’s of Christ’s kingdom, we must ensure that we are trying our best at all times to do what our King requires. In the reading from Ezekiel, verses 17 to 19 are missing. Have you wondered what they said? We are told that we should be satisfied with eating the best that the Lord provides and we must not trample down what we don’t eat. God provides clear water for us to drink, and yet we tend to muddy what we leave for others! God made us stewards of the world he created, yet we are greedy and tend to plunder, waste, and pollute this fragile ecosystem that is God’s world.

God says this about us, comparing us to sheep:

I shall look for the lost one, bring back the stray, bandage the injured and make the sick strong… I shall be a true shepherd to them.

Ezekiel 34.16

He rightly accuses us as the rich and fat sheep, of pushing the sick ones aside and butting them away from the flock. What an indictment!

In Matthew, Christ is telling his disciples that He is with the hungry and the thirsty and if we do not feed them or give them drink we are failing in our duty to serve him. In the same way, He is with the stranger needing clothing and shelter, and with the sick and those in prison, whose plight we ignore at our peril. This does not mean that we have to rush off and visit all the prisoners; although in the Middle East that is necessary, because if your friends don’t visit you with food, you go very very hungry! But if we are not all required to visit prisoners, we are all needed to fight for justice.

Remember as we say our Lord’s Prayer together:

Do we really mean that? Are we trying to do God’s will on earth? Are we like the Christians we read about in the New Testament? They were prepared to do God’s will on earth, and were even prepared to die for their faith. And we should remember that even today, Christians in other parts of the world are still dying for their faith. Or are we perhaps fair-weather Christians, a bit like our politicians, who will say whatever they think is needed at the time, but will go their own way when it suits them?

And there is another thing about Christ our king which is different from earthly rulers. He is approachable, He has lived on earth and knows all about our tribulations and trials. And Christ is real and can escort us to the throne of heavenly grace.

A boy once asked his vicar, “How do I know that Christ is real and alive?
The vicar said to the boy, “When you and your father came into church this morning, what were you doing?
We were talking,” said the boy.
And is your father real and alive?
Of course he is, I couldn’t have a conversation with him if he was dead,” replied the boy.
There is your answer,” said his vicar, “We are able to talk to God the Father, through God the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit in prayer, and if we give him time, and space and silence, he will speak to us. This is how we know God is alive and very real.”

Now God as three persons in the Trinity is a mystery, impossible to fully understand, yet we know in our hearts it is true, and that God is alive, working and caring in our world today. And we have to make the reality of Christ, come alive for us. Because although Christ is King, he still wants to have a personal relationship with each one of us.

Make sure that you get to know Christ and let Him rule in your life today.

And then Christ the King, will bestow his love and his peace and his purpose, to all you think, and to all you say, and to all you do.

AMEN

Remembrance Sunday 2020

Canons Veronica and Roy

Almighty Father,
whose will is to restore all things in your beloved Son, the King of all:
govern the hearts and minds of those in authority,
and bring the families of the nations,
divided and torn apart by the ravages of sin,
to be subject to his just and gentle rule;
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Our Collect Prayer seems to strike the right note for Remembrance Sunday, as it brings to mind that it is sin which divides us and which causes wars, and that it is only when the world is subject to God’s just and gentle rule that then (and only then) wars will cease. Perhaps we forget that the point of remembering on this special day the trenches, the dead and the dying, the heartache, is that we don’t want anyone to experience such terrible times of war ever again. In sorrow we name aloud those who were traumatised, wounded or fell in battle (and recall that so many of them weren’t professional soldiers, sailors or air crew).

Jesus spoke this parable to the disciples: “The kingdom of heaven
will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

Matthew 25:1-13

Every year, when we say “we will remember” all of this, we are in all good conscience saying “we won’t let it happen again”. But sadly, even as once more we bow our heads in silence before the memorial boards here in church commemorating our local lads, we cannot escape the fact that wars and killing still go on unabated across the world. Our Gospel for this Sunday reminds us that we all need to stay alert and awake, prepared to listen out primarily for God’s commands, and “with oil in our lamps” to respond positively to the deep yearning of humanity to be at peace… the sort of peace that passes understanding (whether in the midst of fears of conflict or coronavirus), the peace of Christ that we all long for.

The First World War was rounded off by a pandemic as deadly as the present one – exacerbated by the weariness of a world worn down by the fighting and hatred of war. Our present crisis may not have been brought about by wars, yet we may feel ourselves bogged down in the mire of divisive politics and entangled in the insidious barbed wire of different “tribes” seeking narrow self-interest above the well-being of “the other”. The world awaits the distant bugle call signalling that somewhere an effective vaccine has been found, while vainly hoping to “be home by Christmas”. But let us not despair: let us keep our lamps lit by being wise enough to go on replenishing the oil of human kindness, and in the gloom of our remembrances today, let us be determined to fix our eyes on the light of Christ, which no amount of darkness can ever extinguish, and so hold fast to the importance of God’s command to love one another.

Bible Sunday 2020

Brian Reader

If you had read my last sermon in Pulpit Perspectives in the St. Oswald’s Blog you may be surprised to see me here as my Reader’s Licence should have runout last week. However, I am pleased to report that I have spoken to the Warden of Readers’ and she has said that because of COVID all licences are indefinitely extended.

Now today is The Last Sunday after Trinity. It is also known as Bible Sunday, and the theme and readings link up with my last sermon as I was suggesting that we might give more time to reading our Bibles.

And if we had any doubt, then our collect for today makes the point very clearly.

Blessed Lord,
who caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning:
help us so to hear them, to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them, that through patience, and the comfort of your holy word, we may embrace and for ever hold fast the hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ.

Do we read our Bibles and receive the comfort of God’s Holy Word? These days, our lives seem so full of distractions. We tend to turn on the television and leave it on, or reach for our mobile ‘phone or tablet. We all seem desperate to get instant news even though at the present it is rarely good news. We seem incapable of stepping back and reflecting on what our Christian faith has taught us to do in times of trouble.

All the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the LORD had given to Israel. Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. The scribe Ezra stood on a wooden platform that had been made for the purpose; And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshipped the LORD with their faces to the ground. So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our LORD; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.” And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.

Nehemiah 8:1-12

Our first reading from Nehemiah tells of a time about a century after the Jewish exiles were allowed to return from Babylonia to Jerusalem after a lengthy exile. Life has not been easy. The people have suffered from hostile neighbours and crop failures. While they succeeded in rebuilding the walls and a new temple it compares poorly with Solomon’s Temple that the Babylonians destroyed when they sacked Jerusalem.

Hardship has led to disillusionment and spiritual weariness. Now Ezra the priest has been told to read the first five books of the Hebrew Bible as an act of worship.

This took several hours and is clearly not a one-man show, but is instead a joint effort by Ezra and the other spiritual leaders to help the people understand the scriptures – to understand the Lord’s will – and to understand their own responsibilities in relationship to the Lord.

This was no time for tears but a time to rejoice.  They now have a temple and a city with walls. This is a holy day, a day when the Lord is present with them and a day when they can begin to rebuild their spiritual heritage.

So are we disillusioned and have a spiritual weariness? Did we feel a bit like that when we returned here to worship again after lockdown, only to find that the church is not the same? There is no singing of hymns and we can’t meet together the way we used to. We can’t even use the new kitchen to provide us with refreshments. But praise be, we are back in Church worshipping together again, and that is something for which we should all be thankful.

Let us now consider The Bible; it is a very human book. It is not only one book but a collection of many books, written in many different styles, at different times and in varying contexts. The Bible did not fall out of the sky ready-made and there is evidence that parts of both the Old and the New Testaments have been revised and rewritten over the centuries.

Within the Bible, God’s word is depicted in very dynamic terms – His word is his deed. When God speaks, things happen. We talk about God’s Word and this means His total message to mankind. God has used the Bible, down through the ages to reveal himself to us.

He has spoken through his prophets, whose words and deeds have been recorded in the Bible; he has spoken to His people through their history, by showing how he has acted throughout the ages, giving them support,
succour, and hope, during times of both their obedience & when they rebelled.

When you read the Bible you are aware of the truth that those who wrote the books of the Bible had faith in God; and that their understanding of God changed, as they reworked the Bible texts to cover changing circumstances. For it is from the Bible they learnt about God, and from God they learnt how to discover the truth in the Bible. 

However, without the help of the Holy Spirit and our faith to aid our understanding, the Bible is just old religious literature beloved of our fathers but dead to many of this generation. It is God alone who gives the Bible Authority and reveals it to be the Word of God. And Christ, who came to fulfil these prophesies, himself frequently referred to the scriptures.

In today’s epistle St Paul writes to  the Colossians:

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Colossians 3:12-17

We sometimes question why the world rejects the Bible. But why should the world believe and follow the teaching of the Bible, when some, who call themselves Christians, never open their Bibles at home from one year to the next?

A community of Christians that stops reading the Scriptures, will soon be deaf to God, and will try to fashion things the way they want. This is what must have happened in the early 13th century. 

Did you  know,  that at that time, the Bible was not the main basis for Roman Catholic worship and the synod of Toulouse in 1229 – forbade the laity to possess the Scriptures (Bible), except the Psalter, and such portions as are contained in the breviary, (their equivalent of our prayer book)  and especially denounced all translations other than Latin?

One of the reasons for the reformation was the wish of Christians to return to a true Christian religion based on the Bible. This gave the impetus to Wycliffe and Tyndale who translated the scriptures into English some 400 years ago. Today the work continues with many Christian Biblical scholars of all denominations working closely together to produce the text of the Bible which is as accurate as can presently be achieved. 

This does not mean that the Bible is any easier to understand! God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. 

This is good news; the last thing we want is a God who thinks and acts like us.

Jesus said to his disciples: “The sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”

Matthew 24:30-35

For example in today’s Gospel from Matthew Jesus is trying to tell his disciples about things which are outside their imagining, what Jesus’ ‘royal appearing’ will be like. Jesus takes us back, to images of the prophet Daniel. They will see, he says, ‘the son of man coming on the clouds of heaven’. This could be referring to the time after his ascension, when he returned to heaven, showing that he had been vindicated, and demonstrated that his suffering had not been in vain.

And the passage ends with Jesus saying, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”

God has given mankind intellect and this great reference book, the Bible. The Bible does not contain pat answers to all the questions we have in life, but by careful study, the use of our minds, and guided by the Holy Spirit and our friends in Christ, we too can understand the truth and wisdom of the Bible for our use in our world today.

Don’t let the current limited thinking limit you. Negativity like the coronavirus is contagious; you have to pay attention if you don’t want to catch it! Even if you are the only positive person in your family, be the one with an optimistic outlook in every situation. What we call ‘common knowledge’, often is commonly wrong!

‘The Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.’

Have people who are telling you it can’t be done factored God into the equation? If not, pay no attention. Instead of listening to people who increase your doubts, listen to the people to whom God has given wisdom, knowledge and understanding.

Oh yes! And don’t forget to read your Bible.

  • Helen Buchanan on Bible Sunday 2020Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the Bible , it was very interesting. Bible reading is my weak spot...

Harvest Festival

Today we might look around us and notice the things we cannot do at church that we’d normally rejoice in doing…

  • singing favourite Harvest hymns,
  • admiring all the produce brought in in recent days by the children of Bollington Cross School – mountains of fruit, vegetables, tins, packets adorning every ledge and all destined for HOPE Central Foodbank
  • shaking our neighbours’ hands or embracing at the Sharing of the Peace
  • catching someone’s eye and smiling in acknowledgement (well – we can still do that of course, but the other person can’t really see you smiling behind the mask).

Then usually at Harvest we’d have an interactive sermon involving hordes of excited children, who’d then come around during the Offertory hymn to collect your money donations in little buckets, looking up at you like little baby birds – which one of you could refuse to empty your pockets, handbags and wallets in response to those pleading eyes?…

And those same children cannot freely roam round our church any more, nor assist at the altar for the time being.

Oh, and we cannot share the wine of Communion, only the consecrated bread. We must simply remain in our places instead of coming forward to kneel or stand at the altar-rail, whilst the Vicar in a mask comes round to serve each of us in turn where we are…

Yes, we can sit here contemplating all those things, actions, gestures, which we have come to value as part of our churchgoing, things we took for granted as part of our freedom to worship, even to the extent of not needing ever before to book our place here in advance, just assuming there would always be room for us when we turned up at the door in answer to God’s open invitation…

We can sit here today and mourn what we have lost, even if, God willing, only temporarily – but instead, from the strange vantage point of our socially distanced seat, we can choose to look around us and to take in the new perspective offered to us inside church, and to give thanks for the many blessings afforded to us by our building today:

  • the flexibility of having comfy chairs that can be arranged safely in a socially distanced way
  • much more floor space available round the baptistry
  • the unwonted burst of light now streaming into the nave from the previously obscured windows at the back of the church
  • the beautifully crafted solid wood of the new store cupboards and of the new kitchen and fire escape doors

And the new opportunities for better hospitality and welcome and nurture that our new kitchen space will offer when the time is right in the future to welcome everyone back in to share God’s banquet and those signs of the kingdom symbolised in us caring for the vulnerable, the lonely, the weary, the marginalised, the care-worn, as well as rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep, over a glass of sherry or a cup of tea or coffee.

Harvest Thanksgiving is a time to notice our blessings, large or small, the “daily bread” God provides, the fresh water we are privileged to drink, the ease with which most of us reach into our kitchen cupboards and need not go hungry…

O LORD, you are my God; I will exalt you, I will praise your name; for you have done wonderful things, plans formed of old, faithful and sure… For you have been a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their distress, a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat. When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm, the noise of aliens like heat in a dry place, you subdued the heat with the shade of clouds; the song of the ruthless was stilled. On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death for ever. Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken. It will be said on that day, Lo, this is.our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

Isaiah 25:1-9

Our Old Testament reading today reminds us of God’s ultimate plan to offer an amazing, truly “world-beating” feast for all peoples to share which will be “simply the best” – and which will celebrate the destruction of the shroud that is presently cast over all humanity, the grief and fear that surrounds us as mortals – the longed for time when death has been swallowed up for ever, and God will wipe away every tear and every degradation, and we shall be made whole again.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say. Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

Philippians 4:4-9

Paul encourages us to rejoice – against all the odds and in spite of appearances to the contrary – “not to worry about anything” – keep praying, and your hearts and minds will be infused and guarded by God’s all-encompassing and healing robe of true peace, which is beyond all understanding… Hold fast to and keep in your sightline everything that is true, honourable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent and worthy of praise and keep on doing those small things that show kindness and create beauty, and share God’s rich harvest bounty with others around you who need to hear words of hope and receive your acts of generosity.

Once more Jesus spoke to the chief priests and Pharisees in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Matthew 22:1-14

In our Gospel parable Jesus speaks of how all those invited to God’s banquet need to be ready to accept the invitation in the first place, but more than that, we need to put on the generous gift of the splendid wedding garment that in Jesus’ culture every good host would have offered at the entrance door, and which in the story clearly was declined by one guest who thought it was somehow demeaning to be offered another robe. Let us not in our pride or any false assumption of our self-sufficiency, turn down God’s final gift of clothing us with His grace and His love, so much more splendid and effective than our own. And let us rejoice in being God’s guests, humbly being served here at his table and so empowered to go out into the world to share that banquet of kindness and joy and peace with others.

We praise and thank you, O Christ, for this sacred feast:
for here we receive you,
here the memory of your passion is renewed,
here our minds are filled with grace,
and here a pledge of future glory is given,
when we shall feast at that table where you reign
with all your saints for ever.

AMEN

16th Sunday after Trinity 2020

Brian Reader

The word of the LORD came to me: What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”? As I live, says the Lord GOD, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die. Yet you say, “The way of the Lord is unfair.” Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair? When the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it; for the iniquity that they have committed they shall die. Again, when the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life. Because they considered and turned away from all the transgressions that they had committed, they shall surely live; they shall not die. Yet the house of Israel says, “The way of the Lord is unfair.” O house of Israel, are my ways unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair? Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways, says the Lord GOD. Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord GOD. Turn, then, and live.

Ezekiel 18:1-4. 25-end

When Jesus entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things. What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

Matthew 21:23-32

Some of us thought that we might be back in Church by now, but we will have to wait a little bit longer.

While we were in lockdown I celebrated my twenty five years as a Reader, and I now wonder if I will ever preach again as my licence to preach from the Bishop runs out in October. I wonder if the Bishop gives Covid extensions to Reader Licences like Road Tax and MOTs!?

This Sunday is the Sixteenth after Trinity, and as Veronica reminded me, we are also in the period of Michaelmas, or the Feast of Michael and All Angels, which is celebrated on the 29th of September. As it falls near the equinox, the day is associated with the beginning of autumn and the shortening of days; in England it is one of the “quarter days”. It used to be said that harvest had to be completed by Michaelmas, almost like the marking of the end of the productive season and the beginning of the new cycle of farming. It was the time at which new servants were hired or land was exchanged and debts were paid. This is how it came to be for Michaelmas to be the time for electing magistrates and also the beginning of legal and university terms.

Victory of St. Michael by Raphael

St Michael is one of the principal angelic warriors, protector against the dark of the night and the Archangel who fought against Satan and his evil angels. As Michaelmas is the time that the darker nights and colder days begin – the edge into winter – the celebration of Michaelmas is associated with encouraging protection during these dark months. It was believed that negative forces were stronger in darkness and so families would require stronger defences during the later months of the year. 

Traditionally, in the British Isles, a well fattened goose, fed on the stubble from the fields after the harvest, is eaten to protect against financial need in the family for the next year; and as the saying goes:
“Eat a goose on Michaelmas Day,
Want not for money all the year”.
So the day was also known as “Goose Day” and goose fairs were held.

In today’s OT reading we heard how Ezekiel was accusing the Israelites of saying that ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’’ Some have complained that the Covid virus has been sent by God as a punishment but this is not true. What were the Israelites complaining about? The prophet Ezekiel was speaking to the exiles in Babylon, sometime after 600 BC. As you can imagine, the Israelites were suffering in exile and they felt that it was not their fault. The law of Moses had said that God often punishes children for the sins of their fathers, and their prophets had often told them that the whole nation had to suffer because of the sins of a few. As a result, the Israelites were now complaining that God was not fair.

Last week we heard that Macclesfield Football Club had failed which is sad for the town. Football Clubs act as a focus and help communities to stick together. Now that fans are not allowed in to see the matches footballers are kept together as a bubble, they act almost like a tribe, all for one and one for all. That was how it was with the Israelites before the exile; they had a group or family identity, but no individual identity.

Ezekiel says that personal responsibility is just as real as national and family responsibility. At the end of the day, or your life, each of us is responsible to God for our own lives.

It is true that whole nations suffer because of the follies of their leaders, and often whole families are scarred by the sins of one member, yet God is just and will reward each of us for our own behaviour. “The soul who sins is the one who will die”

Today we hear a lot about freedom and choice, but freedom and choice also brings with it responsibility. Each of us has to be responsible for our own actions. We, like the Israelites, can try to hide behind the group sometimes. We blame our sin or our wrong doing on our upbringing, our environment, or our friends. You hear the excuses – ‘I never had a chance’; ‘It’s what everybody’s doing’; ‘I got into bad company’; or to use modern jargon,‘ I was influenced by peer group pressure’. As if this was any excuse. What rubbish; we all have free choice. The message of this passage is that we cannot side-step our own responsibility for our own behaviour.

The second half of the reading brings hope. What if a person wants to change? Ezekiel makes it very clear that if a man turns his back on his old bad way of life, God is waiting to forgive him, because God actually hates punishing the guilty. God is forgiving; He is not unjust. On the other hand, if a good man turns to a life of sin he can’t get by on his previous good record. God will judge him along with his new sin. The chapter ends with an urge to action. Repent. Turn away from the past. It also brings us to the core of the matter: You need a new heart and a new spirit.

And this brings us very much to our Gospel reading. Here Jesus is asking his questioners “John’s baptism (including the message he was proclaiming) – where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or from men?” Jesus often asked questions, sometimes they were rhetorical, but this wasn’t meant to be rhetorical, it was a simple question.  The scribes and the Pharisees were trying to trap Jesus by asking, “By what authority are you doing these things?” “And who gave you this authority?”

The Pharisees Question Jesus – James Tissot

And Jesus quite rightly assumed that if they didn’t know where the message of John came from, then they would not be willing to accept that he too came from God the Father, who gave him the authority to do all things. It is interesting to read how the religious leaders of the day squirmed to find – not the truth – but an answer which would not leave them open to attack! “If we say, ‘From heaven’, he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From men’ – we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”   What a fudge.  

Do we answer like that if we are asked about our faith or where we spend our time when we come to Church?  Are we prepared to tell the truth and not care what our friends may think of us? Those of the house of Israel in the time of Ezekiel knew the commandments that God had given them, they knew right from wrong. Regrettably, today, those about us do not seem to know what is right and what is wrong. Christian teaching is no longer the norm.

It is as if we are standing on, or knew where the firm ground was, while others floundered about in a quicksand which was gradually swallowing them up.    Two things come from that, we must not follow them into the quicksand or we too will be swallowed up and die, but we must make every attempt to rescue them. We can point to the firm ground where God’s love can be found, we can try to get them to turn around, because that is what repent means, to turn towards Christ and the safety and forgiveness he offers to all. And we can also throw them a lifeline, we can tell them about our strong faith to help them come to Christ.

“Oh! I couldn’t do that,” I hear some of you cry, “my faith is very personal.”  Or is that another fudge. Do we mean our faith is not very strong? I’m not sure if it would stand up to the hurly-burly of challenge or close questioning. Don’t be ashamed of that, because I was like that before I started studying to be a Reader. Like most people I had not really given my Christian life much thought since the time of my confirmation. My reading of the Bible was, I am ashamed to say, at best spasmodic and then very perfunctory. In plain words – I didn’t read my Bible much at all. I was prepared to say I was a Christian but I was not really prepared to have others question my faith or to tell them convincingly who Jesus was and why it was necessary for Him to come into the world and die for me on the Cross.

But you know there is an easy way to learn more about your faith.  Get to know your Bible. When you can, go to Church where a portion of scripture is read at every service, and read the Bible on your own. Today there are many good translations and commentaries. If asked, I would say start with the ‘….. for Everyone’ series by Bishop Tom Wright, who has written an easy to read and understand commentary for every book of the New Testament. Don’t continue to fudge and hedge.

Give Jesus another chance.

Heavenly Father,
we know that you have made us for yourself,
And that our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you;
help us to learn more about our faith,
so that we may share your love and your joyous Gospel with those who as yet do not know you.
We ask this in the name of your Son,
our Lord Jesus Christ. 
AMEN.

Eleventh Sunday after Trinity 2020

Brian Reader

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. Matthew 16:13-20

Today is the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity and it is twenty three weeks since we were last able to join in a service in our church, St. Oswald’s.

Our Gospel a reading from Matthew contains a passage with a very unusual question from Jesus. “Who do men say that the Son of man is?” Or putting it another way, “Who do people say I am?” Now in all my long life I have never heard a question like that. I have often heard the reverse, “Who do you think you are?” asked when a person has stepped out of line, but never “Who do you think I am?”. Before we consider the question that Jesus asked, perhaps we should first remind ourselves what it would have been like in Jesus’ day.

Many Jews then (as now) would have been waiting for God to send an anointed king who would free Israel from oppression and bring justice and peace to His world at last. Nobody knew when or where this anointed king would be born. However, many believed he would be a true descendant of King David, as God had made wonderful promises about his future family. Some would have pointed to the prophecy of Micah 5.1-3 as indicating that the coming king should be born in Bethlehem. Now the word for ‘anointed king’ in the Jewish language, was the word we normally pronounce as ‘Messiah’. So what would this Messiah be like? How would people know that he had arrived?

Nobody knew exactly, but there were many theories. Many hoped for a warrior king who would defeat the pagan Romans and establish Israel’s freedom once again. Many expected him to be the one who would purge the Temple and establish true worship. Everybody who believed in such a coming king knew that he would fulfil Israel’s scriptures, and bring God’s kingdom into being at last, on earth as it was in heaven. But nobody had any real idea of what all this would be like.

There had been several would-be Messiahs who came and went, attracting followers who were quickly dispersed when their leader was caught by the authorities. One thing was certain. To be known as a would-be Messiah was to attract attention from the authorities, and almost certainly hostility. So when Jesus wanted to discuss his real identity with his followers he took them well away from the area they normally frequented. Caesarea Philippi is in the far north of the land of Israel, a good two days’ walk from the Sea of Galilee. This was well outside the territory of King Herod because he certainly would not take kindly to news of another Messiah promised by God and all that might entail.

Having set the scene, we should now consider this vital conversation, on which so much depended. It proved to be a watershed in Jesus’ ministry, as from that time nothing would be the same again. He had to bring into the open the differences between his understanding of his mission and theirs. You can imagine Jesus walking with them as he asked what people said of him; and, although he was regarded as a prophet, significantly, no one appears to think that he might be the Messiah.

And then the crunch question: ‘What about you, who do you think I am?’ and Peter, so quick it was almost automatic, as though speaking as the Spirit directed said, ‘Oh we know, we know you’re the Messiah. You’re the son of the living God!’

Now the Hebrew word ‘messiah’ means the anointed one. Its counterpart in Greek is, “christ” which comes from the word ‘christos’, and the two terms are used interchangeably in the Bible. We should also understand that at this time the phrase ‘son of God’ did not mean ‘the second person of the Trinity’. There was no thought yet that the coming king would himself be divine – though some of the things Jesus was doing and saying must already have made the disciples very puzzled. This perplexity would only be resolved after his resurrection, when they came to believe that Jesus had always been even more intimately associated with Israel’s one God than they had ever imagined. No: the phrase ‘son of God’ was just a biblical phrase, indicating that this king, this Messiah, was in a particular relationship with God, adopted to be his special representative.

Very soon after Jesus’ resurrection, his followers came to believe that the same phrase had a whole other layer of meaning that nobody had previously imagined. But it’s important, if we are to understand what is being said, that we don’t read more into the passage than is there. What Peter and the others were saying was – you are the true king. You’re the one Israel has been waiting for, the one of whom the psalms and prophets had spoken, to be God’s mouthpiece against injustice and wickedness in high places and who would lead Israel to victory and liberty.

And he told them to tell no one else because the information was dynamite and any suggestion of who he was would have drastically shortened the time he had to prepare them for His work that they would be required to carry on after the Resurrection.

But he had a task for Peter. It was not that he was the first to be called, or the cleverest, the most cultured, or the wisest; but he had become the natural leader. He was chosen and appointed by Jesus, and in his preaching at Pentecost Peter was the first to witness publicly to the Resurrection. Jesus’ renaming of Simon to Simon Peter, ‘the rock’ on which he would build his Church was probably a reference to the Temple Rock in Jerusalem on which the first temple had been built. The ‘keys of the kingdom’ are symbols of responsibility, because authority in the Church is always about responsibility.

Christs handing the keys to St. Peter, by Pietro Perugino

St. Matthew’s words, ‘The forces of death shall never overpower it’, will encourage not only Matthew’s persecuted readers but also the Church down the ages. The Roman Empire, and many others, have declined and fallen, and the Jewish people are now dispersed, but the Church of Jesus Christ still stands and grows. And starting with Peter, Jesus built a community, consisting of all those who give allegiance to him as God’s anointed king. We should also remember that Jesus’ new community, his Church, will after all, consist simply of forgiven sinners. So forgiveness has an eternal significance and we too must learn to forgive.

And what of Simon Peter? There’s a bit of Simon Peter in all of us. Simon is the sort of man that Jesus uses to make his Church: a mixture of inspiration and self-interest, of insight and ignorance, of rock and sand, sometimes with flashes of inspiration, sometimes the very devil. He is so reluctant to change his ideas and has still so much to learn. He can make great promises of loyalty, yet can fall asleep and deny his Lord.

But he is capable of great courage and commitment – just as you are. Just as we all are. Jesus is relying on us all to be his Church, to spread his message of forgiveness, and to show God’s love to all.

O God,
you declare your almighty power most chiefly in showing mercy and pity:
mercifully grant to us a measure of your grace,
that we, following your commandments,
may receive your gracious promises,
and be made partakers of your heavenly treasure;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord.
AMEN

7th Sunday after Trinity

Brian Reader

Jesus put before the crowd another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened. The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the Kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”
Matthew 13:31-33. 44-52

Today is the Seventh Sunday after Trinity Sunday, the day when we thought about God as being Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are still in the pandemic, although there are signs that things are getting better, as we cautiously ease out of lockdown. We have all experienced a time for which we were not prepared and certainly never expected. The norms of life have been overturned, and probably the hardest thing has been that we have not been able to gain direct physical support from friends and family; even the comfort we got through worshipping together in Church has been denied us. But Christianity and faith have not been dead and many of us have worshipped at home with Bible reading, pray and even hymn singing and services on the television or the internet. What do today’s readings say to us in these difficult times?

For the last three Sundays the Gospel readings have been taken from St Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus is talking in parables about the Kingdom of heaven. The reason for this is that although the people were expecting God to deliver them, they had no idea how this would come about. In fact earlier in the Gospel Jesus’ disciples had asked Jesus why he was speaking in parables and he answered, “You have been given the gift of knowing the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but they haven’t”. Last week the passage spoke of the wheat and the weeds growing up together, and it explained the mixture of good and bad in this life, and how it will be sorted out at the time of judgement.

Today we heard about the mustard-seed, and how from a very small seed it grows into a big shrub. In a similar way, although the kingdom of heaven started in a small way with just Jesus, here on earth it will grow and continue to grow. How from small beginnings, quietly and unnoticed, the kingdom will grow and continue to grow. The kingdom of heaven is also compared with hidden treasure, and the best pearl. So valuable is the kingdom, it is worth giving up all we have to make sure of it, and about the fisherman’s net, which again describes the sorting out of good and bad at the end of the present time.

One of the main points of Jesus’ message was his announcement that the ‘kingdom of God’ or the kingdom of heaven, had already arrived. The ‘kingdom of God’ meant the rule of God in people’s lives. That happens when people realize that God is the ruler of the world. It also meant the ‘realm’ or community of people where God’s rule is obeyed. The kingdom of God had, in fact, already arrived with the coming of Christ – for he was the first who fully obeyed the will of God. So he could say to the Pharisees, “The kingdom of God is among you”, as it was present in the words and works of Jesus.

Note that the kingdom is also a community of people, a body of Christians who meet together to worship and pray, to listen and learn, a place where we can support and be supported by other Christians, all of us seeking to follow and obey the teachings of Christ.

So yes it is important and necessary to meet, to come to Church, not necessarily here at Saint Oswald’s, but anywhere where Christ is recognised as Lord and king, because we are all one in the body of Christ. We all hope that we will soon be able to return to our own Church and together partake in our communion again.

Before the pandemic some were pointing to the so called decline of the Church as evidence that the Christianity has failed and that there is no point in coming to church anymore. Is the kingdom of God failing – never! While the numbers here in the British Isles have been down, there are vast increases in the numbers of Christians in other parts of the world. Jesus’ parables show God at work in the world, quietly, almost secretly. Yet ‘the kingdom’ goes on growing and spreading from small beginnings like the tiny mustard seed. When you think of the few who followed Christ just after his crucifixion and the vast numbers now of Christians all over the world, well the parable turned into a prophesy which we have seen fulfilled.

“The kingdom of God is near!” said Jesus. “Turn away from your sins and believe the Good News!” Yes! We must all ‘repent’, and have a total change of heart if we are to accept the rule of God in our lives. We must believe the good news that Jesus came to bring. God offers new life to all who believe, – all who will leave their old way of life and follow him. And Jesus told us another thing about the kingdom, it is valuable. It is worth everything that anyone has. Finding it is like finding treasure hidden in a field – and selling everything to buy that field.

It means giving up all we have clung to for security, and trusting God alone. It also means being sorry for our sins and changing our ways. This is not something we can manage just on our own by trying hard. But in Paul’s letter to the Romans we read about The Holy Spirit – and God’s eternal purpose for us. The Holy Spirit of God is alive and actively at work in everyone who belongs to Christ. He helps us to keep God’s law. It is his presence that convinces us we really are God’s children; that we can call him Abba, our father. He is our foretaste, or the first instalment, of the glory to come, a living well of hope within us. And the Holy Spirit helps us when we pray, when we can’t find the words and don’t know what to say. It is God’s intention that every one of us should be like Christ. Like him in character now and like him in glory eventually. In other words, God is recreating us ‘in his own image’ (Genesis 1:27). And every little circumstance of life is worked into this great overall purpose. Nothing can shake it. No one can ever make him write us off no matter what we have done or how far we stray – we have Christ in heaven to plead our cause. You may remember the words from the Alternative Service Book, which said – ‘for the sake of Jesus Christ, our only Mediator and Advocate’.
And Paul reminds us, “If God is for us, who can be against us”, and “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” There is no power in heaven or earth that can cut us off from his love.

So whatever life may bring, we can win through. These are the great certainties of the Christian faith and life. These are the treasures of the kingdom. Are they not worth any price, any sacrifice during the short time we have here on earth?

Heavenly Father, help us recognise your kingdom in the world and to keep your laws,
To love you with all our heart and soul, and to love our neighbours as we do ourselves.

Amen

3rd Sunday after Trinity 2020

Brian Reader

After a long time in lockdown, it appears that things are getting better and hopefully soon we will be able to meet together as a congregation in our own church once again.

Today is the Third Sunday after Trinity and as we celebrate St Peter tomorrow, it is also known as Petertide. Traditionally in the Anglican Church this is the time when new priests are ordained, and Veronica was ordained as a deacon 29 years ago at Petertide.

In today’s short Gospel St. Matthew speaks about water.

“Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.”

Have you ever been really thirsty? Perhaps you have been doing the housework, or been out shopping and said: “I’m dying for a cup of tea – or mug of coffee”. Or you have been playing or watching sport, and looked forward to a nice glass of lemonade or something else! Have you been watching tennis and seen the players taking their break and invariably a drink. I wonder how many of you remember when the only drink supplied was Robinson’s Lemon Barleywater. Or perhaps you have taken part in a nice friendly game of football, – if there is such a thing – or the rough and tumble on the Rugby field and then enjoyed half a pint of shandy or perhaps even a pint.

Yes, you were thirsty, but not REALLY THIRSTY, not dehydrated as in a desert region, when the lack of liquid in the body becomes life threatening. I haven’t really been in that position, but I got close to it when I was in Bahrein. Some of you may know that in the Persian Gulf in the middle of summer it gets very hot. I won’t bore you with all the details but I was required to fly a low level flight over the harbour and surrounding coastline. It was nearly noon and it was too hot to touch the metal of the wings with bare hands. Getting into the cockpit, was like getting into an oven, and flying around at low level with the sun beating through the canopy was as hot as I imagine Hades to be. When all was done, after an hour, I was soaked in perspiration and had probably lost about four pints of liquid and felt quite faint.

I did not want lemonade, I did not want beer; all I wanted was cool water.

What did our Gospel say? “And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these…” Even a cup of cold water! I would have given a king’s ransom for that. No! In the desert, or the hot lands of Palestine, the gift of a cup of cold water is not to be sneered at – it is a gift beyond price.

In the passage this water is to be given to “one of these little ones because he is my disciple”. Jesus talks a lot about children, but here he is talking about his band of followers. The whole of Matthew chapter 10, which has been set as the Gospel over the last three weeks, tells us about Jesus and his instructions to his disciples. Earlier he had told them about what to do, “As you go, preach this message: `The kingdom of heaven is near’ “. This is a direct instruction from Jesus to his disciples that they were to go out and spread God’s word.

And we as followers of Jesus we are also tasked to spread his word. Today that is called ‘mission’, and we know that if there is no mission then we are not a church. Mission is our work and we know it is not easy to spread God’s word to those who do not wish to hear. In the Gospel reading, Jesus is talking about the rewards. “He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me.” What a wonderful thought, and so clear. Jesus was sending out his disciples to take news of the kingdom of heaven to the Jews.

They were doing his work and so those who received the disciples favourably, or welcomed them as it is translated in the New Jerusalem Bible, were also welcoming Jesus and those who received Jesus were welcoming God the Father who had sent him. And so today, if we are God’s true disciples, anyone who is receptive to your telling the good news of the Kingdom of God and spreading the Gospel message, is welcoming Jesus; and anyone who welcomes Jesus welcomes the one who sent Him, that is God the Father.

And going on with the reading, “Anyone who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and anyone who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man will receive a righteous man’s reward”. What do we mean by a prophet and a prophet’s reward? Where would we look for a righteous man today? In today’s world we can think of a missionary or a person going out to spread God’s word as a prophet and I would hope that all modern day Christians would be righteous men and women.

OK. so we can understand that a prophet should receive a reward in the life hereafter, but why should anyone who receives him or her, receive the same reward? That is the wonderful simplicity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For those who believe that Jesus, the Son of God, was crucified for our sins, and rose again on the third day, the reward is eternal life; to be made heirs of the Kingdom of God.

By the Grace of God, that reward is the same for all, you might say, that for those who receive Jesus into their life and are born anew, it is their birthright.
I remember a sermon many years ago, when the preacher emphasised: The Gift, the Blessing and the Call.

God in his loving mercy has given us the chance to be free from our sins. If we acknowledge our sins and accept that gift, God showers us with many blessings, one of which is eternal life – to be with Him in glory. And after we have received the blessings we each have a call, to live out our faith in our everyday lives and to pass on the good news of God’s love to others. The Gift, the Blessing and the Call.

Let us return to thinking about the gift of cold water. In the Bible we have lots of imagery concerning thirst and water and wells, because it was easily understood by a people who were aware of the importance of water in a hot dry land. They could not get water by just turning on a tap.

We all remember the story from St John’s Gospel about the Samaritan woman at the well in the heat of the day and how Jesus told her, “Everyone who drinks the water (from this well) will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

We are all thirsty for spiritual refreshment and we turn to Jesus because he is the only one who can protect, refresh and sustain us. Without God in our life we are nothing. But with the gift of spiritual water that Christ is offering – and that spiritual water will become in us a spring of water welling up to eternal life – we can be born again and do anything in the name of Jesus.

And remember what happened to the Samaritan woman when she had accepted Christ’s gift she rushes back to her village to witness to Jesus and lead others to him. This is the proof of living water, the stuff of the new birth – a life redirected from being a sinner to being a glorious witness for Christ.

O God, the protector of all who trust in you,
without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy:
increase and multiply on us your mercy;
that with you as our ruler and guide
we may pass through things temporal
that we lose not our things eternal;
grant this, heavenly Father,
for our Lord Jesus Christ sake,

AMEN.

7th Sunday of Easter 2020

Brian Reader

Last Thursday was the feast of the Ascension; the day on which the Church celebrates Jesus’ Ascension up to heaven.

I used to enjoy the Ascension Day service as we always had the anthem ‘God is gone up’ by Gerald Finzi. We would sing, “God is gone up with a triumphant shout: The Lord with sounding Trumpets’ melodies:” and I found a fine example of the anthem on You Tube.

But the reading from Acts says nothing about trumpets sounding, just the reverse. The disciples seemed somewhat surprised as initially they just stared into heaven. Surely as Jesus was taken up from earth, his disciples must have felt a tinge of sadness. How would they cope without Jesus’ presence? Surely they would miss him?

When the apostles had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
Acts 1:6-14

So in our Gospel reading we hear the Farewell Prayer of Jesus which he made sometime before the crucifixion. Jesus had accomplished all he set out to do during his lifetime. He had made God known and fulfilled prophesies from the Bible. He had passed God’s message on. Now there remains only his death for the sins of the world, and beyond it the glory of the resurrection and ascension. But Jesus knows that his followers will be in a hostile world and will miss Him. So he prays that God will protect them; that their lives may be shaped by the truth of God’s word; that they may display such unity among themselves and that the world will be shaken out of its disbelief; and that they may, in the end, go to be with him and see his glory for themselves.

Jesus looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.! have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
John 17:1-11

So, after time, these same disciples came to realise that Jesus’ ascension was very much to their benefit. They came to realise that whilst Jesus might not have been physically present with them, once his spirit had been given to them at Pentecost, it would always be with them. And so we read in Acts that they went back to Jerusalem and they all gave themselves to prayer. They also came to understand that in heaven Jesus himself was praying to the Father for them, as in St Paul’s letter to the Romans he writes: “Christ Jesus, who died … was raised to life – is at the right hand of God and is interceding for us.” And it was surely this presence of Jesus by His Spirit and his prayers for them that encouraged and empowered them in those first difficult days of the Church’s life.

Jesus prayed, and so should we. Even Jesus’ disciples knew that their prayers were not all that they could be, and so they took the very sensible step of asking Jesus for help. And as we know, Jesus was only too happy to oblige. And so it was that Jesus taught them the prayer that we all know so well; the prayer that we call the Lord’s Prayer.

I would hope that you would use the Lord’s Prayer as part of your prayer life every day. And yet, many of us feel that we would like to pray more, or to have more depth to our prayers. Well, those of us who feel like that are in good company. Whilst, on the one hand, prayer is the simplest thing in all the world: we just talk to God, we need to practice it; to make it a habit.

So perhaps like me you have a desire to learn and grow and experience more in your prayer life. You too might like to join me in praying, “Lord, teach me to pray.” But well we might ask ourselves, why bother? Indeed, why pray at all? Doesn’t God know everything already, and won’t he do what he wants regardless of whatever we might say to him?

Archbishop William Temple famously said, “When I pray coincidences happen. When I don’t pray, they don’t.”

I’ve found that to be true.

Jesus said, “Ask and you will receive”. The Bible seems clear, that for His love for us God has determined that he will listen to and answer our prayers, and so from the comfort of our own sitting rooms or indeed anywhere – even in the car, we can change the world. As we pray for people and situations, God acts.

The truth is, that we can sometime change to become like the people we spend time with. And by spending time with God in prayer, we mysteriously become more like God’s Son, Jesus.

Over the past three and a half years more and more worshipping communities have dedicated the eleven days between Ascension and Pentecost to pray ‘Come Holy Spirit’. We are praying that the Spirit will inspire and equip us to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with our friends and families, our communities and networks. It has been amazing how many varied ways there have been in which people from every tradition have taken up this challenge. The effects have been remarkable.

It is our prayer that those who have not yet heard the Good News of Jesus Christ and his love for the world will hear it for themselves, and respond and follow Him.

Each and every Christian across the country is invited to pray that God’s Spirit might work in the lives of 5 friends who have not responded with their ‘Yes’ to God’s call.

Whether you have joined in ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ before or not, you are invited to take part this year – along with churches from over 65 different denominations in 178 countries around the world. Archbishop Justin Welby has said that “In praying ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ we all commit to playing our part in the renewal of the nations and the transformation of communities.” So during the 11 days of Thy Kingdom Come, it is hoped that everyone who takes part will:
• Deepen their own relationship with Jesus Christ,
• Pray for 5 friends or family to come to faith in Jesus,
• Pray for the empowerment of the Spirit that we would be effective in our witness.

United in prayer, we hope and trust that we will be changed to became just a bit more like Jesus, and we hope and pray that through our prayers for our community, nation and world, God will change the world for the better. Perhaps you might like, in your own way, in your own situation, to join in this movement for change – so pray for the world, for those around you, and don’t forget to include yourself.

While watching an Ascension Service on line I was reminded of the famous saying of Saint Teresa of Avila which reminds us that Jesus is relying on us –

“Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

3rd Sunday of Easter 2020

Brian Reader

The road to Emmaus

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
Luke 24:13-35

Many living today have never before experienced the difficult times that we are now facing. One of the things that Christians feel deeply is that we cannot attend Church and we miss the comfort which may be found in the Service of Holy Communion. However, it is not the first time that the Church has been in such a position. Throughout Christian history some Christian people have found themselves isolated from the sacramental life of the Church for all sorts of reasons, and particularly in times of plague, famine and warfare.

At such times the Church has encouraged people to make what is called a spiritual communion. It is a way of uniting yourself with Jesus and entering into communion with him even though you are not able to receive the sacrament itself. I hope that many of you partake in services at home, reading prepared words or joining in with a service on the radio, TV or online.

Today’s Gospel reading tells the story of two of Jesus’ followers on their way to Emmaus. One of the things that sometimes upsets people in the story of the resurrection, is that Jesus’ friends failed to recognise him. Why did this happen, and is this something that should concern us?

Despite the fact that Jesus had told them that he would return from the dead, his disciples did not understand this, and they had no idea what he would look like. In a similar way, it is not unusual, for us to ignore friends or simply fail to recognise them, especially if our thoughts are elsewhere. Let me give you an example. I was in Tesco’s the other week during the ‘lockdown’, when someone I knew by sight said ‘Hallo, how is your father keeping?’ This took me by surprise as had my father still been alive, he would have been 118 years old. So my reply was a feeble one: I just said, ‘I have no father’. 

Today’s gospel reading is my favourite resurrection story. No, it’s much more than a story, it is an account of what actually happened to two people as they walked along the road from Jerusalem. Nowhere does the Easter story speak to us as clearly as in Luke’s account of this walk to Emmaus. Imagine the scene. The bottom has dropped out of their world. They are wrapped up in their own thoughts, their friend and teacher Jesus, had been crucified like a common criminal. They couldn’t understand it. They were very dejected. And someone joined them – as the Good News Bible says, “they saw him, but somehow did not recognize him.”

Jesus said to them, “What are you talking about” And they answered, “Where have you been? Haven’t you heard about Jesus the prophet who they crucified? And we had hoped that he would be the one who was going to set Israel free! And now some of our friends have said that they have been told by angels that he is alive!” They were trying to make sense out of what had happened, but Jesus had the answer. “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, Jesus explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”

We are lucky, we also have the New Testament to help us, but Jesus was able to give them a Bible study on their journey using just the Old Testament. “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

Jesus used scriptures to make sense out of what had happened, and we too today can use the Bible to help us when we are disheartened and worried, and the Holy Spirit will guide and help us. But Jesus will only come into our lives if we are ready and willing to accept him.

As they approached the village, Jesus acted as if he were going further, but they invited him to stay. So he went in to stay with them, and he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognised him.

Jesus, from the time of the Last Supper, has left us a positive and practical act that we can follow. It has come down to us for almost 2000 years and, although today we cannot join with other Christians in the act which we do in ‘remembrance of Him’, we can join in simply as we pray, so that we can come near to Him, recognise Him as our risen Lord and Saviour; and in that way Jesus can feed and sustain us in the days ahead.

The Gospel tells us that the disciples got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. For them despondency and mourning are now things of the past. Let’s imagine what would have happened if it had been us… We would just have finished a seven-mile hike from Jerusalem. It was evening, the sun would have set, and we haven’t finished our meal yet. Yes, we would have been pleased and overjoyed. But to go back to Jerusalem tonight? No, let’s get some rest, and go tomorrow when it’s light. Not so his true disciples, they got up and returned at once to Jerusalem to tell the others what had happened on the way and how Jesus was recognised by them when he broke the bread.

And that same Jesus relates to us in the world today. So let us take four lessons from the reading:

  1. Sometimes we fail to recognise Christ as he works in the world today. We ask, “Why does God allow this to happen?” We fail to realise that it has doubtless been a consequence of our own poor choices and selfishness and carelessness collectively as human beings that has brought this world to the state it is today, but Jesus has not given up on the world.
  2. We have the scriptures to help us to understand and by reading the Bible, the Holy Spirit is able to teach and direct us.
  3. Jesus left us a ceremony where usually we can join together as his disciples did at the last Supper. Today, alone or with others we can join in a spiritual communion. This can be a special time when we not only remember, but we are able to recognise and become part of Christ here on earth.
  4. We are Christ’s hands and feet on earth today and we should be ready to do his bidding whenever he calls us and to be always looking for opportunities to spread the Gospel, the good news, of his glorious resurrection.

O Lord Jesus, we know that you are alive today. Help us to look for you and recognize you in the world about us.
Help us to read and appreciate our Bibles more, and send your Holy Spirit to guide us in the way of all truth.
Be with us as we make our spiritual communion today and help us to make coming to your table a regular habit.
Lord, show us what you would have us do in the way of sharing the good news of your love and salvation for all.
And please, Lord, help us to act when your time is right and not put off till tomorrow what we should be doing today.

Amen.