Sunday, September 27, 2009

Bear one another's burdens

Maybe it’s because on my mother’s side I come from a family of teachers, maybe it’s because between myself and my children 37 years of my life have been determined by the school year, I always think of September as marking the start of a new year.

It works for me as a Christian as well. Maybe it’s no coincidence that the Jewish New Year falls in September. In September we celebrate the wonder of God in creation – with marvellous displays of flowers, vegetables, fruit – the fruitfulness of God’s creation!

Then at Christmas we celebrate the way God comes into our lives through Jesus Christ – born as one of us, he lived among us and mapped out for us the way to live a fully human life.

In Holy Week and Easter – we mark his death and resurrection and marvel at the extent of his forgiving love and the share we have in his resurrection victory.

And then as summer arrives it’s Pentecost and we mark the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the energising power of God with us.

One passage seems to me to bring all of that together. It’s a passage that speaks of fruit – and brings to mind the beauty we see around us today. It speaks of the the things that characterise a Christian life and brings to mind all that Jesus taught, and it brings to mind the energising power of the Spirit that comes at the climax to the year.

Paul talks of fruit and imagines all manner of wonderful fruit. He then suggests that the very things that characterise a Christian life, love, joy, peace patience, are not so much things we generate in our own strength, but are rather the fruit of the energizing power of that unseen force of God’s presence with us in the Holy Spirit.

He speaks of the fruit of the Spirit … and then he finishes in this passage with a one liner that sums up all that Jesus’ teaching stands for.

Galatians 5:22 to 6:2

the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.

My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ.

It is the one line liner I want to home in on.

Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ.

That’s what Jesus stands for in a nutshell.

We each have burdens to bear. Instead of going it alone, we need to be prepared to carry each others’ burdens.

It was this verse that inspired the Christian social reformers in the second half of the nineteenth century to find a better way of providing care and support in a safe haven or ‘asylum’ for people with mental health problems. The inscription they put over the door of what became the Coney Hill hospital remained there until the hospital’s closure in 1994.

Their vision was that people with mental illnesses should live in a setting where people would look out for each other, care for one another, and carry each others’ burdens.

We have moved on from those big institutions. But now as people with mental health problems are in the community, the community as a whole needs to be a place where people look out for each other, care for one another and carry each others’ burdens.

That in a very real sense is what church is about. Be it in our network of prayer, in our pastoral care visiting scheme, or indeed in our hosting many community groups church at a local level needs to be a place where we look out for one another, care for another and carry each others’ burdens.

But church must not be an inward looking place where we look out only for each others’ needs. It needs to be an outward looking place where we extend that wonderful vision into the wider community.

That’s what our Alpha Course is about – people do ask those big questions that at times seem so imponderable. Who? Why? What? How? What is the point of Life? Why do people suffer? What happens when we die? Is forgiveness possible? To have space to think through some of those questions and share with one another the place to begin to find some of the answers. Tuesdays at 7-00 from 6th October.

Each month we support a local charity. Next month it will be the Cotswold Downs Group, friends of Daniella, that Bob and Nia helped to found. This month it has been the County Community Projects. Each week we invite people to bring gifts of packaged food to support the food parcels CCP puts together and for harvest today a special invitation – in so many ways, CCP is helping children, young people, families and vulnerable adults reach their full potential in life.

The Street Pastors initiative going is very much about churches taking action on the streets, helping to meet the needs there are in the town centre streets at night times over the weekend – more information about the need for volunteers is in the current Highbury News – in particular applications are invited to do the work of Street Pastor on the streets.

Caring for another, looking out for each other, carrying each others’ burdens doesn’t stop at our own locality. To be part of one local church is to be part of the world-wide church. Through our Congregational Federation we have entered into a partnership with the Oné Respé project that brings Honour and Respect to the streets of the Dominican Republic.

This small scale project is working with 125 young people in weekly youth meetings, 80 men in ‘new masculinity’ meetings, addressing among other things domestic violence – with the slogan on the tee shirt Juan Pedro Linares is wearing, ‘for a society without machismo’.

100 women in weekly meetings, 140 community health promoters, and a number of schools.

And as in so many island nations, Oné Respé shares with the Christian Aid focus not just on campaigning for climate change but pledging to do something about it in the countdown to Copenhagen.

Looking out for one another, caring for another, carrying one another’s burdens.

It can take it out of you!

Carrying one another’s burdens can become a burden in itself – it is wearing simply to begin to think of the burdens of responsibility placed on us.

The wonderful insight our Christian faith has is that when we seek to carry one another’s burdens and so fulfil the teaching of Christ, we are not on our own.

The very Jesus Christ whose teaching is summed up in the words that ask us to help to carry one another’s burdens, is the Jesus who extends to each one of us an invitation …

Come to me all of you who are tired from carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.

That’s not all. The Jesus who challenges us to carry one another’s burdens, and invites us to off-load those burdens on to him, is the one who also offers us a strength from beyond ourselves in the energizing power of the unseen presence of God in the Holy Spirit.

That takes us back to the very start of that passage from Galatians.

The love, joy, peace and patience we need if we are to carry one another’s burdens is not so much the kind of thing for us to work at in our own strength, but rather we should see it as the fruit of the Holy Spirit at work within us.

See it that way and the task becomes not just manageable but eminently do-able! In the strength of God’s presence with us, let’s rise to the challenge and carry one another’s burdens! And when such a responsibility gets us down, let’s hear again those words of Jesus, Come to me, all of you who are tired from carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.

Sunday, September 20, 2009


1966 was a special year for Highbury … and not just because England won the world cup!

It was the year that Eric Burton came to be minister here. Eric brought with him vision and inspiration that he brought from the years he had spent working for the then Congregational Union of England and Wales as their Children’s and Youth officer.

He had just published a book outlining his vision for family church were people of all ages and all backgrounds were welcomed as one family of God’s people in church. No Walls Within was the title of his book and Eric’s vision for the church.

Eric was into the latest in visual aids and participative worship. Film strips, slide shows – this was state of the art technology. And things visual were all important. He had a picture board made that many will remember with fondness. He worked in collaboration with Roland Francis. Each Sunday one of the young people would open the curtain to reveal a poster Eric would relate his children’s talk to or a cartoon Roland had made specially for the occasion. They were wonderful and engaged the youngsters.

When we have visiting speakers we invite them to use pictures on the projector if they would like to. Some do, some don’t.

First time after we had had the projector Eric came to preach a couple of summers ago. And he set out instructions which Ian White took home and followed to create illustrations on the projector for his service.

This was Eric – approaching 80 and wanting still to innovate.

The other side of 80 Eric visited us again in the summer. Once again he set out detailed instructions for Becky to put into OpenSong to go with his service. Great to see his enthusiasm – took Becky quite some time – so thank you to her as well.

But this year was interesting for reasons that at the time Eric was not aware of.

A month before coming Eric rang me just to run past me his idea for the Sunday morning service.

It was to be a family service with all the children staying in as it was school holiday time. It was also to be a communion service.

Eric wanted to know if it would be all right to address Communion and what communion is.

Eric is one of those I look up to, one of those who has not only played his part in shaping my understanding of ministry and church life, but also one of those who has been Minister to me, in particular at the time of my father’s death when Eric was very supportive to us as a family as he took the funeral service.

To have Eric ask me whether it is OK to follow such and such a theme is great – it is so affirming. But also … if you think that’s the case then I follow your wisdom.

He built his whole service around the theme of Communion, and left for me in booklet form the text of what he had shared during the service.

If anyone would like to borrow it, it makes good reading as an explanation of Communion.

It is an outline of a Congregational interpretation of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. It begins with reflections on its Jewish roots. It then goes on to explore what Christians mean and sees Communion as ‘an act of remembrance, an act of thanksgiving, an act of penitence and an act of devotion.

Reading what Eric had written and seeing what Eric had done in that service, and being aware of the theme he had chosen, something caught my attention.

I found Eric prompting me to think again. And Eric’s promptings chimed in with conversations I had been having with Becky.

What Eric writes starts with the Jewish roots of Communion in the Passover meal.

Passover is essentially a family gathering. It is not something you do in the synagogue. It is something you do at home. Insofar as it is possible the whole family will gather together for Passover in the family home. It will be presided over by the father of the family. And it will include everyone in the family – from the youngest to the oldest. Indeed the youngest will have a particular part to play, asking the senior member of the family what the significance of the Passover is and why it is celebrated?

In Jesus’ day it was celebrated in Jerusalem and involved sacrifices in the Temple. We first encounter Jesus going up to Jerusalem for the Passover when he is 12 and subsequently we find him going up according to John’s gospel again in his ministry. It is at or around Passover that he gets the group that have become his family together in the upper room of a particular house in Jerusalem to share in the Passover.

If Eric began at that point he also set his reflections on Communion in the context of a service where the children were sharing with us for the whole service.

What we do on a Sunday when we meet is to meet with ‘no walls within’ as a church family.

We make a point of being welcoming to all and specifically invite all who love the Lord Jesus Christ to share with us at the Lord’s Supper.

Why do we share in communion when the children are not with us?

Our children’s leaders have fed back to us that it can be a very long time on a Commmunion Sunday when the children are in the back of the church.

Becky has prompted us to think again.

In her summer newsletter to parents and families she has suggested doing something different … and we are going to do that today.

More and more churches share communion at a point at which the children are in the service – when we joined with St Luke’s back in January we saw then that that is their practice.

And so after the sermon as the hymn begins, the deacon who has been on vestry duty is going to go through and tell the children’s leaders we are ready for the children to return to church.

When they come back they will go back to sit with their families.

We will then move into the communion part of our service.

I have grown up with a tradition that I waited until I became a church member, made my own confession of faith and became a church member – our equivalent of confirmation before taking communion. I recall therefore my first communion. I was about 12. I make much of the fact that for the most part I use the words that were used with me on that occasion at the heart of the service.

We do, however, have an open invitation to all who love the Lord Jesus Chrsit. I have come to learn that Passover includes all the family; young and old. Jesus was welcoming of all from the oldest to the youngest.

May it not be appropriate to share communion with the children as well?

What we want to do is to go with the wishes of the parents. If you think you would like to wait until your children have been confirmed, received into church membership, or maybe until they have been baptised, then we want to respect that.

So what we shall do is to offer the bread and the wine to parents first and it is for the parents to show that it is to be offered to the children as well. If they would rather not have the children receive, the deacon will say a simple God bless you to each of the children who are not receiving.

So what is happening in Communion for me?

Reading: John 14:15-27

I believe in the real presence of Jesus Christ in communion. I do not mean that the bread becomes the body of Christ, the wine becomes the blood of Christ and Jesus’s real presence is located in bread and in wine. I do not go with the idea that there is some substance in heaven that makes a thing on earth what it is and that the substance changes, the elements remain the same and so you can say the bread becomes the body of Christ. I am uneasy with all of that.

But I belive in the real presence of Jesus Christ in communion.

His real presence is there as we meet together in his name. It is rooted in the promise that where two or three gather together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.

Some people say that taking bread and wine is just symbolic. They are just symbols. The bread and the wine certainly is symbolic … but I believe that something more is going on when we eat and when we drink.

We are doing what Jesus commanded us to do. We are doing what every generation of Christians in one form or another has done ever since the time of Jesus.

As we eat the bread and as we drink the wine I believe that God is real and that God is really at work within us.

You can feel the bread as we eat going down. And sometimes it makes you splutter.

You can feel the wine – we use grape juice as you drink it.

What we eat and what we drink is real.

The love of God seen in the body of Christ broken for us and the blood of Christ shed for us is just as real – and that love of God in Christ is activated in our lives as it were by the working of the Holy Spirit.

Just as what we eat is real and what we drink is real so too the presence God at work in Christ and through the Holy Spirit is real.

It is not a theory. It is not something just symbolised.

Something real is happening. And it is the work of God coming alive in us.

As I hold the bread I think how real it is, as I eat it I think how I need things to eat to survive. And I think how real God’s love in Christ let loose by the Spirit is … and how I need that just as much.

I hold the glass – isn’t it interesting in the wake of the swine flu fears those who have a single cup have made special provision not to use the cup. We can see today our history being worked out. Originally in 1827 we had a cup. I think this is our original chalice. Then in the Victorian period at some point, when there was an awareness of hygiene and the danger of contagious diseases, lots of free churches were persuaded to switch to individual glasses. I have not qualms about using a single cup on occasion – but at the moment I am pleased to have individual glasses.

As I hold the glass – I think the same train of thoughts about the need to have something to drink.

But something else comes to my mind as well.

I hold the glass between my thumb and finger and as I look at the liquid I notice that I can see my pulse beating. Have you noticed that. It may just be me!!!

Just as the real beat of my heart can be seen in that cup, so too the life-beat of God’s love in Christ let loose by the Spirit is real within me as I drink that cup. God’s love in Christ by the power of the Spirit is my life-blood, it is the beat of my heart deep within.

Communion is most moving. It is something we share as a church family. With no walls within. It is something in a moment or too we will share with our youngsters as well.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Come and See!

An invitation to share …

And questions to answer

It has to be one of my favourite phrases.

On a beach a beautiful rock formation, such wonderful colours. You cannot keep it to yourself, you simply have to call out to your long-suffering partner those wonderful three little words.

On Cleeve Common you spot a beautiful oyster shell embedded in the rock far from any beach and there’s nothing else for it … you call, you beckon … and those three monosyllabic words tumble out in their excitement.

A bush alive with butterflies. This time it’s Felicity re-paying the compliment. Three words 4-3-3.

And now for the most wonderful discovery of all. Not only have the BBC got highlights of Football League games as well as the Premiership on Match of the Day, but on the internet they are showing highlights of each game played by each club, including Cheltenham Town, all the goals!

Have you got what those three words are yet?

C _ _ _ A _ _ S _ _

Come and see!

Those three little words go a long way towards explaining why the wonderful Good News of Jesus Christ caught on and spread.

John explains what happened in the first chapter of his book.

Philip lived on the north easterly shore of the Sea of Galilee in Bethsaida, the home town of Peter and Andrew. When Jesus decided to go to Galilee he found Philip and said to him, Follow me.

Nothing of said of what happened next. It’s not important to the story John is telling. But it was life-changing for Philip. Joining up with Peter and Andrew and others who were already following Jesus, his immediate reaction was to want others to know what he had discovered.

So it was that Philip found Nathanael and told him the wonderful news!

“We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”

Now it would appear that Nathanael was more than a little cautious. Maybe he knew Philip’s enthusiasms, maybe he was wary of being carried away on the latest fad. Maybe something had happened that had made him hesitate to leap in.

His response is quite disparaging. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

Philip’s reply is telling.

He could have argued the case, but he didn’t.

He could have said, ‘Go and find out.’ But he didn’t.

Instead Philip says,.

“Come and see.”

Three small words.

One friend’s invitation to another friend.

‘Come and see’

It began five years ago in one church. Since then lots of other churches have caught on. A couple of years ago, the church Felicity’s mother and sister and cousin and their families in Leicester joined in.

This year the Congregational Federation has joined in.

Think of people you know who once came to church, who have at some point been interested in church. Why not ask them to come back, or come along and see what happens now. What if more than one person did that on the same Sunday. What if lots of people in lots of churches were doing it on the same Sunday.

That’s what will be happening on the last Sunday in September. And we are going to be part of it.

YouTube Video clip of Back to Church Sunday

Invitations to take with you … or simply make the invitation.

The service we will invite people to will be a celebration of God’s creation, and the call to us to care for one another in that world – at our harvest weekend we will be looking at our own mission and the Christian Aid project we are supporting in the Dominican Republic, Oné Respé.

But Philip’s story didn’t end there.

He stuck with Jesus through to the cross, beyond to the resurrection and was with the followers of Jesus on the Day of Pentecost. He was involved in spreading the Good News in Jerusalem. And when Saul’s persecution of the church was at its height he fled, taking the message wherever he went.

On one occasion he was on the wilderness road that led from Jerusalem to Gaza. This time he met someone who had a lot of questions to ask.

Acts 8:4-8 and 26-40

Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them. The crowds with one accord listened eagerly to what was said by Philip, hearing and seeing the signs that he did, for unclean spirits, crying with loud shrieks, came out of many who were possessed; and many others who were paralysed or lame were cured. So there was great joy in that city.

Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch

Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go towards the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’ So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:
‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.’
The eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’ He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

Who, why, what, how?

These are questions people ask at all sorts of points, not least when confronted with the realities of a sometimes very troubled world.

What is the point of life?

Why do people suffer?

What happens when we die?

Is forgiveness possible?

Does God exist? Yes No Probably

Philip was prepared to listen, the Eunuch was prepared to learn, both of them were up for discussing and discovering something new.

That’s basically what Alpha is about.

‘The Alpha Course is an opportunity for anyone to explore the Christian faith.

“It is relaxed, low key, friendly and fun.

There is a meal together at the beginning of each session which gives you an opportunity to know each other.

Listen, Learn, Discuss and discover. And ask anything. Alpha is a place where no question is too simple or too hostile.

Our Alpha Course will run from 6th October to 8th December on Tuesday evenings. Again the idea is that we invite people. That’s it’s strength.

We have been involved in those difficult questions – in a conversation in a discussion. Take the opportunity to invite someone along. Don’t just say, go along it will be interesting.

Use Philip’s invitation – come and see as well. Come with them, bring them along.

This Autumn we have an invitation to share … Come and See.

So much to pass on at Highbury

If you give a little love you can get a little love of your own

A blessing shared at Highbury

Now and the Future at Highbury

Dreaming Dreams Sharing Visions at Highbury

Dreaming Dreams Sharing Visions

Darkness into Light