Saturday, 23 May 2020

With One Accord - The Sunday after Ascension Day



When the disciples arrived back in Jerusalem they went to the room upstairs where they were staying. It will help our reflections if we go with them and although it may not have been, though some say it was, let us in any case, imagine that it is the same upper room where they celebrated the Passover Supper on the eve of the crucifixion. Since then they have known despair, were likely angry with one another (surely in the immediate days they asked themselves couldn’t they have spoken out more and done something to prevent this somehow?) . Soon afterwards they retired in defeat to Galilee, back to their boats then joyfully there were days spent with Jesus again, and now they are in Jerusalem fearful that the authorities may try to root them out for association and they gather. What to do surrounded by the memories, the cushions they lay on that night, the torture they witnessed, the uncertaintly of an empty tomb? But with Jesus having appeared to them and with the promises he gave them - everything he told them that would happen did happen: They must believe him now.

They were constantly devoting themselves to prayer or as the King James Bible says more strongly “These continued with one accord in prayer and supplication.” I do not know why modern versions omit that phrase, with one accord, for it is an important component of the scene before us. They were together in fellowship and harmony, united in experience with no quarrel or discord between them. Their instinctive response to Jesus’ ascension is to pray together. Behind and informing these prayers is that fullness of trust in Jesus, his being the Son of God that they had seen and felt and been part of. This depth and completeness of trust may at times be elusive to us so many hundreds of years on. But our view of the upper room with followers praying is not a picture we are looking into but one we

are part of. As we stand or sit alongside the men and women on that room we feel that they are afraid for the future; we are afraid for the future. They are, with the vision of Jesus ascending in recent memory, hopeful for the future; we are hopeful for the future. They know they will need help for the future; we know we need help for the future.

Their intuitive response to these uncertainties is to pray, but let us ponder a  moment. before this day, before this afternoon in Jerusalem they would not have prayed to Jesus. Is this the first time? Of course they would have prayed with Jesus many times and they should have had the inestimable benefit of his teaching them how to pray to the Father and how to make this a way of being,  a constant part of their daily lives but now, gathered together with Jesus not physically with them, palpably so, no look,no touch no certain presence they pray with one accord. Not, to a distant impersonal God but to a God they know and trust. Let us remain in their room awhile, with all our anxieties sharing the tensions they feel and pray with them to the God we know, and who we know knows us, for the things we know he knows we need so that when we leave the room we do so with confidence and trust.

Amen

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Ascension Day Reflection

Just before we spend a moment or so reflecting on the Ascension and what it may hold for our present understanding, the sharply observant may have noticed that I continued the usual reading in Acts by adding verse 12 which says: “Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. As well as giving the location where the ascension happened it speaks to today’s situation. A sabbath day’s journey did not mean something you could accomplish in a single day but it was a specific distance that you were allowed to travel on the Sabbath. The Dead Sea scrolls restrict it to 1000 cubits or if you were pasturing animals then 2000. Despite the parallels with our modern day restrictions operating in France Spain and elsewhere it reminds us that 1st century Palestine was not our world.

The ancient’s understanding of what lay beyond the dome of the sky was limited; it was certainly where heaven was and in addition a cloud was frequently met in the Old Testament (Exodus, Daniel for example) as a sign of God’s presence. With all respect to my Walsingham friends whose chapel of the Ascension has feet poking down from a ceiling, I do not really find this imagery helpful. Even Luke, writing in Acts does not really dwell on it - he is more concerned it seems to me with what is being said.

The question uppermost in the disciples’ minds is “What next?” Having seen and fully understood that Jesus is raised from the dead they want to know if he would now go on to fulfill the expected purpose of the Messiah, to restore the kingdom to Israel. The answer they are given is “It is not for you to know when this might take place and your job rather than asking these questions is to be my witnesses in the world, in fact to all the ends of the earth.” And when he had said this as they were watching he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight. The disciples witnessed a change from Jesus’ physical presence with them to a spiritual one. They certainly felt that, Luke and doubtless others sought to explain this transformation in terms of things they knew using language that their hearers and readers would understand.

I am comfortable with that. It is a very human thing to do. I was looking recently at an old Japanese print that was seeking to explain the existence of air. The print contained a picture of fish in a bowl. The artist and scientists of those times had no concept of the composition of air, which came very much later,  but they understood that fish inhabited a medium and were able to describe our place in an invisible emptiness as being something like this - something they could see and touch, like fish in water.

The transformation that happened there on Mount Olivet is quite beyond us and I am happy that it is: Paul writing in 1 Timothy  3:16 puts the untouchable ethereal nature of Jesus well:

He was revealed in flesh
Vindicated in Spirit
Seen by angels
Proclaimed among the Gentiles
Believed in throughout the world
And taken up in glory.

Amen

Saturday, 16 May 2020

The Rainbow

Genesis 8:20 - 9:17


The bows appear as concentric arcs with the common centre on the line connecting the eye of the observer and the light source. Most frequently only one bow is visible. It appears on the opposite side from the source; its angular radius of the red border is about 42 degrees. Other colours of the spectrum can be seen inside of this border ending with the violet. Occasionally another secondary rainbow is observed above the primary rainbow. Its angular radius is about fifty-four degrees and the sequence of colours is reversed. The centre of the bows is angularly as far below the horizon as the source (sun) is above.

This entry from the 1964 edition of the encyclopaedia Britannica is less picturesque than Genesis:
“This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and every living creature that is with you for all generations. I have set my bow in the clouds and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the whole earth.”

People have marvelled at rainbows always and as an example of the beauty and mystery of God’s creation they do evoke wonder and questioning, awe and admiration. Yet the science that I have quoted dates only from 1611. The 1771 Encyclopaedia Britannica finding all this still quite modern devoted pages 435 to 441, so some six pages, and a set of exquisite diagrams to the entry. It i s a miracle that we ever came to understand it so minutely, another example of God’s gift to us of reason, deduction and creativity.

All creation is God’s way of revealing himself to us; the perfection that we see in nature, tiny leaves, buds, flowers, fruits always seeming to be the right shape, in the right place, looking as if they ought to be there. But the rainbow is a special sign: God said to Noah “I will remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”

It is always thrilling to see a rainbow and remains so for most of us well  beyond childhood. Here is Wordsworth thinking about that:

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky
So it was when my life began
So it is now that I am a man
So be it when I grow old
     Or let me die
The child is father of the man
And I would wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

“My heart leaps up” and I wonder if the rainbow we see today, comprehensively explained though it is, strikes deep into a spiritual core that we all know we have and have had from the beginning or as Wordsworth says - “So it was when my life began.” So when we look up at a rainbow we are the ones who remember.

I was struck when exploring rainbows to discover Dame Laura Knight’s picture (in the Tate Gallery) called “Spring.” Painted in an impressionist style it shows a pastoral scene of a meadow, a fly fisherman, a country lady with a gathering basket, lambs in a distant field and overarching it all in the sky a rainbow. The picture is dated, 1916-1920 and is so clearly peaceful. I do not know the life story of Laura Knight but it seems to me to be a response to the joy springing from 1918, and the end of the Great War.

We have recently adopted the rainbow to be a sign for the NHS, it may have several meanings but it is I suggest among other things a sign of eternal hope and a reminder of God’s promises to us.

Amen

This sermon can be heard on the following podcast:


The painting that I refer to can be found at




Friday, 15 May 2020

June Letter : Carefully unzipping the tent

Carefully unzipping the tent

Dear Friends,

As I write this letter we have had a statement this evening on how we begin easing the lock down. It is, by the way, another world away since a bellow of “Unlock” from the Speaker of the House made us sit up in anticipation of another cliffhanger of a vote. Today is a cliffhanger of a different sort. There is a lot at stake and to help appreciate this I want to tell you about a conversation I witnessed between survivors of the virus. This is not in any way to minimise the grief and mourning of the thousands  of family members of those who have died nor to forget the lives tragically and prematurely lost but to remind the younger and fitter why it is crucial to be super cautious, to be mindful of others and for ourselves.

These two did not previously know one another, neither had been hospitalised  but they were introduced across a wide road. The one in running shorts and a T-shirt outwardly a picture of suntanned health, the other a horticulturalist used to working outside every daylight hour. Both had suffered with Covid -19 and now five weeks later they were still invalids. The runner, not running anywhere, the gardener not pruning or trimming; both were exhausted two days out of three so only a smallish chance brought them both standing at the same time. (Frances could work it out!) And then even on these “good” days there were still hours when they were prone. They shared experience across the white lines where the similarities were striking: The sniffle they thought they had, the interminable coughing, the temperature and fever, the exhaustion, the getting up and the exhaustion again, the full recovery still awaited.

Hopefully by the time this appears in the magazine they will both be springing around like gazelles, which is a source of hopefulness for us all. I am optimistic but my message this month is less for the vulnerable or the elderly who can see the graphs and the big risks but for the younger of you, who will be back at work maybe, who see but the small block on the barchart of mortality but may not be aware of the weeks of illness that may come your way if infected.

We cannot of course stay zipped in our tent forever but as we emerge let us be sure to live well, safely and with a  mind for others who remain anxious.


With blessings


Steve

Saturday, 9 May 2020

Faith in difficult times

I forget from where we were returning but there we were, Michela and I at the luggage carousel in Heathrow.  Now Michela was young successful and one of my brightest people , she had a taste for the good life, arts, culture, good restaurants and Cava: suddenly into the tedium of waiting for bags she said, “I wish I had your faith.” I looked at my watch - as if to say - we have not been waiting all that long you know - but then looking at her  I deduced that she was not anxious about her Louis Vitton but was worried about why she did not or could not believe in God while I did. What I have remembered about her remark is that sentiment “I wish.”  It is an odd construction to my mind for if it were something really wished for surely there is no impediment to just believing, or is there?

We meet Philip almost exclusively through St. John’s Gospel. His calling is recorded in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke but no more is he mentioned by them. The advantage of this is that we have a consistent account of Philip’s life with Jesus. It begins in chapter one “The next day, Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathaniel and said to him “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and the prophets wrote: Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”   Philip took Nathaniel to Jesus.

Philip was there at the feeding of the five thousand, indeed Jesus asked Philip the question “Philip, where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” he said this to test him for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him “Six month’s wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” Philip helped gather up the fragments of left over bread into twelve baskets.”

In chapter twelve we find Philip once again helping people find Jesus. “Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. “They came to Philip who was from Bethsaida in Galilee and said to him ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’  Philip went and told Andrew, then Andrew went and told Jesus. “ Philip brought Gentiles to Jesus.”

And yet after all this witness we then come to today’s reading which takes place very shortly before the final Passover meal so some three years of following Jesus behind him:

“Lord, show us the Father and we will be satisfied”

No wonder there seems a tone of exasperation in Jesus’ voice: “Have I been with you all this time Philip and you still do not know me?” 

In recent days I have spoken to people who have found their “faith” shaken by recent events. This is way deeper than Michela musing over the luggage. In the face of plague, and surely this is the right word, in the face of so many bad things we might choose to hold up in support of doubt or disbelief it is unsurprising. What to say in the face of such disaster?

Well I want to offer two things - firstly I remain convinced of God’s love for us and in those gifts of inventiveness and creativity given us. I know that the minds we have been given are from God and are capable beyond all our expectations and they will be purposely turned to the searches for prevention, treatment and cure of this virus and I can trust in these things.

And secondly that Philip’s doubt and search for proof, is an encouragement to us. If Philip, who was with Jesus, who experienced all that can still say “BUT only show us the father and we will believe” then let us not be too hard on ourselves when in the face of adversity we may be cross and wavering.

Amen

Saturday, 2 May 2020

Reflection on our closed churches



The fourth Sunday of Easter

I want to say sorry to you all.

I have until now been quiet, zipped here in my tent, peacefully behind the flaps but the trouble is I so disagree that our churches are closed for private prayer, tightly shut, slammed, barred and bolted. And I think someone should say they are sorry.

No more can we kneel in dust moted aisles and seek the sweet voice of God as centuries of people before us have done during plague or famine or simply to mourn a single death. These spaces have been nurtured, augmented, fashioned individually by generations of the faithful and the arguments that we do not need them to be close to God true as they most certainly are, nonetheless fall like stones upon my ears because we can see that we have always needed sacred spaces. Think perhaps of Stonehenge or Ravenna or the building of St. Peter in Rome not to mention our Saxon heritage here in North Norfolk.

There are some who are saying that we are returning to the original way of the church yet this morning’s reading makes me question that. The reading comes from Acts 2:42 which immediately follows Peter’s speech to the assembled people of Jerusalem - there is no gap it is not hidden in an obscure sub paragraph but it is there on the very birthday of the Church.

“They devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.  All who believed were together and had all things in common. Day by day they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts.”

A distinctive feature then of Christian life from the beginning was being together, gathering, holding things in common. Now of course I do not think we should hold services and certainly we should not expressly invite people to gather for that would be irresponsible but is there a clear reason for closing churches that are usually open for private reflection and prayer?  It turns out that we are more responsible than our leaders foresaw, and I am not sure that the praying population would be any less so. We can keep two broomsticks from each other in many places (I have just come back from the pharmacy window at the surgery) we can wait our turn affably and have developed a penetrating fear of the outdoors that prompts us to vigorous hand washing on returning home.

At the beginning of the virus outbreak many, often not regularly seen in the pews,  said to me how grateful they were for the chance to go into our churches, our visitor books’ entries illustrate the support for open churches. Lots of people find our places of worship comforting.  Again I am sorry that they are not there today when comfort is sorely needed. As we are constrained to be apart there is something about the sharing, expressed so clearly by the earliest Christians, that is important: When sitting in a church we are there with all who have walked through that 800 year old door to sit by Norman columns carrying burdens we cannot imagine and to lay them before God. We share with the person who was there yesterday, an hour ago and who will be there tomorrow.

In  our Gospel reading Jesus says that he came to open the sheepfold so that the sheep may enter by it. Please could you in your prayers this week include a prayer that this aspect of the Church’s Lockdown - capital C and capital L may be speedily revisited so that we sheep may come into his house, one or two at a time, apart from one another but sharing deeply together. Amen

You may listen to the whole service and this sermon at