Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Celebration - following the footsteps

Christmas, at least in Panto land, is a time for making wishes.

What wish would you make?

I would be tempted to wish that all will be well.

When it comes to wishes, there's no pleasing some people.

How long have we been dreaming of a white Christmas … and when it comes! Beautiful to look at, but the problems it has caused! There comes the point at which you wish you could wake up and it was all gone.

So many people think of religion in exactly the same way. It's all about making a wish. And the wish it's so tempting to make is that all will be well. and all the world's woes will be no more.

Wake up and everything will be better.

That's so close to the wonderful message that that comes through at Christmas that it can entice and sadly, mislead.

After all, Jesus came to make a difference – but look around in the world and ask what difference has he made?

Peace on earth and mercy mild God and sinners reconciled.

Not much evidence of reconciliation going on.

Particularly troubling what has been happening to some of the most ancient of Christians this Christmas. CHIKS in Kerala State is a part of fhe world wehre there ancient churches of orthodox descent – that trace their ancestry to Thomas and his travels. Coptic Christians speaking the language of Christ – and one of the most ancient Christian parts of the world – in Iraq. And yet such devastation – devastation of Christian communities there and in the middle east.

If God came in Christ to set everything right … I wonder.

The faith I hold on to is different from that.

It has nothing to do with making wishes.

We have been using footprints to follow the journey Mary and Jospeh, Shepherds and Wise Men made to the stable – following in their footsteps.

Today we think of the footsteps Jesus left

He came to walk the road we have to walk … the path he trod was the path we tread, the road he followed the road we must follow. It may be a path way of joy – great joy. It may be a path way of great pain.

The Christmas message is the Christ walks the path we follow – he is with us in the joys and he is with us in the pain.

Then he offers us a way of life to follow, footsteps for us to plant our own footsteps in – as we are called to follow him.

From the squalor of a borrowed stable – someone has written new words which we have sung already – but I went back to the original words of Graham Kendrick and they spoke to me afresh …

King of heaven now the Friend of sinners,
Humble servant in the Father's hands,
Filled with power and the Holy Spirit,
Filled with mercy for the broken man
Yes he walked my road, and He felt my pain,
Joys and sorrows that I know so well;
Yet His righteous steps, give me hope again
-I will follow my Immanuel!

His righteous steps, give me hope again – I will follow my Immanuel.

That word – Immanuel God with us.

The message is not that everything will be well.

But rather in the mess of the world, Christ opens up for us a God who walks with us wherever the road may lead, - that presence with us, his righteous steps give us hope again.

That then means we have steps we can follow – I will follow the God who in Christ is the God who is with us always come what may. He is the God who calls us to love our neighbours, to love our enemies, to be peace-makers with a ministry of reconciliation and so actively make a difference in the mess of the world.

That’s the good news of Christmas.

Yes he walked my road, and He felt my pain,
Joys and sorrows that I know so well;
Yet His righteous steps, give me hope again
-I will follow my Immanuel!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Come and Join the Journey

In some parts of the Cotswolds there was more than twelve inches of snow. We were fortunate in Cheltenham by comparison: we just had four inches or so!

It wasn't just the snow that was the difficulty, however, it was the ice. The roads around the church were like a skating rink!

In spite of all that many of our children were able to get to church. Most of our families live within walking distance. So it was that our Nativity service was able to go ahead.

It was good to welcome a number of visitors, one of whom had braved the journey from Stroud in a land rover. She was from the States originally and thought nothing of the tiny bit of snow we had had. It was just like being at home, she said, but she failed to understand the fuss we were making!!

A smaller number braved the elements to join in a very different carols by candlelight service in the evening.

If you missed our Nativity you can catch up with it here. Written by Becky Hartwell, it invited us all to join the journey!

Joining the Journey

(Start with the song Journey on while the children get in positions)

Narrator: A long time ago God began a story that went on and on. Heroes came and went and still the story went on and on. People lived and died and they only heard little bits of God’s story.

It was a long, long story, a story of the journey of God’s people.

Right at the start of that journey, thousands of years ago, God made a promise to a man called Abraham, that one day He would send someone very special to help people through their troubles.

Little by little the story became clearer.

It was as if God was building a picture of Himself and his people.

On and on went the story. More and more people joined the journey.

Every now and then God whispered in the ear of one of his people and a little bit more of the picture fell into place. It was a picture of someone very, very special.

His name will be Immanuel – God with us.

Wonderful counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace

It was a picture of a very special time
A time of righteousness and justice,
A time when the wolf shall live with the lamb,
The leopard shall lie down with the kin,
The calf and the lion and the fatling together
And a little child shall lead them.

Lead them on a journey, the most wonderful journey of all time.

And then something happened in Nazareth.

Let us join together and sing At This Time of Giving

Hymn: At This Time of Giving

Narrator: In the town of Nazareth lived a young woman called Mary, she was due to be married to a young carpenter called Joseph.

One day, it was just an ordinary day, just like any other day, Mary sat in her house all alone. She had no idea, no idea at all that her journey was just about to begin.

(Mary sits on platform cleaning, Angel stands at pulpit)

Angel: Greetings! The Lord has blessed you and is with you.

Mary: Aah! Who are you? What are you talking about?

Angel: Don’t be afraid Mary; God has shown you his grace. Listen! You will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and will rule over the people of Jacob for ever. His kingdom will never end.

Mary: But I don’t understand how this can happen

Angel: Your baby will be holy and will be called the Son of God. God can do anything!

Mary: I am the servant of the Lord. Let this happen to me as you say.

(Angel sits down in pulpit)

Narrator: At that moment Mary knew! In her heart of hearts she had no doubt. She was about to begin a journey and it would be the most wonderful journey of her whole life. From deep down inside her she could feel a song welling up: it was the song she would take with her through the whole of her journey.

With all my heart I praise the Lord,
and I am glad because of God my Savior.
He cares for me, his humble servant.
From now on, all people will say
God has blessed me.
God All-Powerful has done great things for me,
and his name is holy.
He always shows mercy to everyone
who worships him.
The Lord has used his powerful arm
to scatter those who are proud.
He drags strong rulers from their thrones
and puts humble people in places of power.
God gives the hungry good things to eat,
and sends the rich away with nothing.
He helps his servant Israel and is always merciful
to his people.
The Lord made this promise to our ancestors,
to Abraham and his family forever!

Mary’s journey was about to begin … and she was ready for it! And yet in a strange way the journey had begun long, long ago, right back then at the very beginning with Abraham. It was a journey that had been going on right up to now. And now it was a journey Mary was going to join.
There could be no doubt about it, Mary was ready!

But what about Joseph? Coming back from a hard day’s work, he could see something had happened.

(Joseph joins Mary on stage)

Joseph: Mary, what is going on? You seem different. Please tell me what is going on.

Mary: I am pregnant. An angel of the Lord visited me and told me I would have a child, a son. He would be a king who would reign forever. The angel said the Holy Spirit would come upon me and that’s how I’d be able to have this baby.

Joseph: I’m sorry Mary, I can’t deal with this right now. I don’t think I believe you, I don’t think I can trust you.

(Mary sits off stage, Joseph stays at front, pretends to sleep)

Narrator: There was no joy in Joseph’s heart. It seemed to be the end of everything. And so he began to make plans to divorce Mary secretly. Little did he know that he too was about to set out on a journey. In that moment of darkness, he was not alone. God was there … for him. God was there … for Joseph. It was later that night while he was asleep and dreaming that God sent an angel to meet him in his dreams.

(Angel stands up in pulpit)

Angel: Joseph descendent of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife because the baby in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son and you will name him ‘Jesus’ because he will save his people from their sins. This is to bring about what the Lord had said through the prophet, “she will have a son, and they will name him Immanuel which means ‘God is with us’”.

(Joseph wakes up)

Narrator: When Joseph woke up, he knew in his heart of hearts that all would be well. If Mary was about to set out on the most wonderful journey of her life, he would be part of that journey. And deep down he knew that it wasn’t only Mary’s journey he would be part of: it would be the journey that had begun so long ago. It would be the most wonderful journey he had ever been on.

And so it was he did what the angel had told him. He took Mary to be his wife, and pledged his heart to her

(Mary joins Joseph back on stage)

Where you go, I go;
and where you live, I'll live.
Your people are my people,
your God is my god;
where you die, I'll die,
and that's where I'll be buried, so help me God
—not even death itself is going to come between us!"

The most wonderful journey of all was about to begin for Mary and Joseph; it was a journey they would share together. They both knew it was God’s journey. But little did they know what kind of journey it would be …

Soon after this Caesar Augustus sent an order that all people in the countries under Roman rule must list their names in a register. Joseph, from the family of David had to go to the town of Bethlehem, the town of David to be registered. Mary knew this would be a difficult journey and she was heavily pregnant but together Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem.

Let us join now together and sing Little Donkey

(During the song Mary and Joseph walk round the church and then back to the front)

Hymn – Little Donkey

(innkeeper stands at front)

Narrator: It took many days to reach Bethlehem. When they arrived Mary was very tired. They needed to find somewhere to stay but the town was crowded. Many others had come for the census and every inn they went to was full.

(Joseph meets innkeeper 1)

Joseph: Have you got any room for two travellers? We have had such a difficult journey.

(Innkeeper 1 shakes head and walks away)

(Joseph meets innkeeper 2)

Joseph: Have you got a room to spare? Even for just one night? My wife is very tired. The baby is due very soon and I must get her a room.

(Innkeeper 2 shakes head and walks away)

(Joseph meets innkeeper 3)

Joseph: Sir, my wife is so tired. Please, have you got a room? Please, have pity. Is there nowhere at all?

Innkeeper 3: I’m afraid we’re fully booked, all my rooms are in use. But you seem desperate, I do have a stable at the back. It’s got animals in it and not like any of the rooms but it is dry and warm.

Narrator: The journey had been a hard one, so long. But now their journey was over. Joseph had found somewhere for them to stay.

(Mary and Joseph go through the doors at the back of the platform with the innkeeper)

Mary and Joseph went to the stable and that night Mary gave birth to Jesus. She wrapped him in cloths and laid him in a manger.

Let us join now together and sing Away in the Manger

Hymn: Away in a Manger

A long time ago God began a story that went on and on. Heroes came and went and still the story went on and on. People lived and died and they only heard little bits of God’s story.

It was a long, long story, a story of the journey of God’s people.

Little by little the story became clearer.

It was as if God was building a picture of Himself and his people.

On and on went the story. More and more people joined the journey.

Every now and then God whispered in the ear of one of his people and a little bit more of the picture fell into place. It was a picture of someone very, very special.

'God says: From now on, I myself am the shepherd.
As shepherds go after their flocks when they get scattered,
I'm going after my sheep.
And I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep.
I myself will make sure they get plenty of rest.
I'll go after the lost,
I'll collect the strays, I'll help the injured to get better,
I'll build up the weak ones and oversee the strong ones
so they're not exploited.

Mary and Joseph were not the only ones to join the journey, God’s journey.

On a hill that looks over Bethlehem another journey was about to start.

(shepherds lay on platform, pretend to be asleep)

Bob: Hey
Bill: What?

Bob: You guys awake?

Bert: Well, we are now

Bob: It’s really cold and dark

Bill: That’s the life of a shepherd.

Bob: How do you stand it? The cold, the darkness, the silence, the isolation.

Bert: You get used to it.

Bob: But does it get any less boring? Does anything happen here at night?

Bill: A shooting star once in a blue moon. What do you think a shepherd does?

Bob: I don’t know I just thought it would be more exciting than this.

Bert: I’m going to check on the sheep.

(angel stands up in pulpit, other angels stand at the front)

Angels: Do not be afraid!

(shepherds tremble)

Angel: We bring you good news that will be a great joy to all people. Today in the town of David your Saviour is born. He is Christ, the Lord. You will find him wrapped in pieces of cloth and lying in a manger.

Angels: Glory to God in heaven!

(All angels go through the back doors)

Bob: Wow, that was amazing! There’s nothing else for it … we have a journey to make!

Bill: Let’s get down to Bethlehem, I want to meet this baby. Although, I’m not sure what a manger is.

Bert: I think it is where animals feed. But hold on, I’m not sure we are special enough to meet this wonderful baby. The angels called him our Saviour.

Bob: Don’t be silly, the angels just came and told us. Wow, we are so blessed. Hurry up guys!

(shepherds go through back doors)

Narrator: So, the shepherds went quickly on their journey. They ran as fast as they could. Seeing was believing! They told everyone they met what the angels had said about this child. All who heard the shepherds were amazed.
Let us join now together and sing Joy to the World

Hymn: Joy to the World

Narrator: A long time ago God began a story that went on and on. Heroes came and went and still the story went on and on. People lived and died and they only heard little bits of God’s story.

It was a long, long story, a story of the journey of God’s people.

Little by little the story became clearer.

It was as if God was building a picture of Himself and his people.

On and on again went the story. More and more people joined the journey.

Every now and then God whispered in the ear of one of his people and a little bit more of the picture fell into place. It was a picture of someone very, very special.

Give the king your justice, O God
And your righteousness to a king’s son.
May he judge your people with righteousness
And your poor with justice.

Kings remote and legendary will pay homage, kings rich and resplendent will turn over their wealth. All kings will bow down and worship,

There were still others who had a journey to make. They had been chosen to be part of this very special story. Little did they know it, but they too would have a journey to make, and as they made it they too would join God’s journey.

(wise men stand at the front)

Caspar: Well, just another day at the home of the wise men. Hold on, (looks up) is that? No, it’s too bright. Hold on. I think that star is brighter than all the others. Guys, come and take a look at this.

Tony: What are you shouting about? I was studying my books.

Stanley: What are we meant to be looking at? Wow, that star is so bright.

Tony: It’s not like any I’ve seen, so bright, I don’t even need a telescope.

Caspar: You know what this means? I’m sure it says in one of our books that the birth of the King of the Jews would be foretold by a star.

Stanley: You can’t be serious. The birth of a king, the most important king?

Tony: I remember reading that. This birth is supposed to be a really special event. We need to go and meet him.

Caspar: Are you sure you want to do that? That star will probably take us somewhere like Jerusalem – that’s a really long journey and I have bunions. The camels are resting and well, we’ve got things going on. How important can it be?

Tony: This is big, we have to go, we have to go now. We need to get packing.

Caspar: But…

Stanley: But nothing. We have to go. We have a journey to make. Let’s get packing. And we need gifts. Now what have we got in our special presents cupboard. Gold is an obvious one, he is a king after all. And frankincense, he will be no ordinary king: he’ll be worthy of our worship.

Tony: And myrrh.

Caspar: Myrrh? But that’s for dead people surely: not for babies. That is not a gift for a newborn baby. He is a really special baby as well.

Tony: Definitely myrrh. I can’t really explain why but it’s important, we need to give myrrh.

Stanley: Well, lets get packing, we’ve got quite a journey ahead of us – especially if he’s going to be moaning about his bunions.

(wise men walk round the church, ending up at platform, Herod also goes to platform)

Narrator: So the wise men set off on their journey. It was a journey that took them far, far from their home in the East. It was a journey that took them to Jerusalem, to the palace of King Herod. Surely that’s where their journey would end: it was the obvious place for a king to be born.

King Herod: You tell me there is a new king to be born, I must speak to my advisors. Please take a seat.

Narrator: Although King Herod seemed happy to see the wise men he wasn’t. He had battled long and hard to get the power he now had. On no account would he lose that power. He spoke to his advisers and realised that this birth would mean something terrible for him. Herod was angry. Very angry.

(Herod storms off to the back of church)

Stanley: Well, he seemed very nice.

Caspar: And we mustn’t forget to tell him where the baby is once we have met him.

Tony: I can’t believe he wanted to worship him as well, what an incredible man!

Narrator: So after hearing from Herod’s advisors that the new king would be born in Bethlehem the wise men resumed their journey. They followed the star and soon they found Jesus in the stable.

(wise men go out the back doors on the platform)

Narrator: They journeyed to the stable. They entered the house and saw the child in the arms of Mary, his mother. Overcome, they kneeled and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented their gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
It was a long journey for all that came to the stable. Let us have a moment of prayer, thinking of journeys that others will be facing this Christmas.

Time of prayer

We will now share in worship singing From the Squalor of a Borrowed Stable

Hymn: From the Squalor of a Borrowed Stable

(During the song the stable scene with the children is created on the platform)

Let’s join in the joy of Christmas as the children sing Behold the Star, join in when you like.

Kids sing Behold that Star

Narrator: A long time ago God began a story that went on and on. Heroes came and went and still the story went on and on. People lived and died and they only heard little bits of God’s story.

It was a long, long story, a story of the journey of God’s people.

Little by little the story became clearer.

It was as if God was building a picture of Himself and his people.

On and on went the story. More and more people joined the journey.

And that night, in that stable, in that little town of Bethlehem all those people reached their destination. It was their journey’s end.

Or was it?

That night, in that stable, in that little town of Bethlehem the wise men, the shepherds, Mary and Joseph discovered that their real journey, the journey God had in store for each of them was only just beginning.

Once the wise men had seen Jesus they were warned by God in a dream not to go back to Herod. So instead they returned home a different way. What a journey they’d had! What a journey lay before them!

(wise men leave the platform, go to the back)

Narrator: The shepherds were changed people. Once they had seen the baby they went and told people what the angels had told them and everyone was amazed. They then went back to their sheep, praising God and thanking him for everything they’d seen and heard. What a journey they’d had! What a journey lay before them!

(shepherds leave the platform, go to the back)

Narrator: An angel came to Joseph in a dream and told him to escape with Mary and Jesus because Herod wanted to kill the little baby. What a journey they’d had. What a journey lay before them!

(Angels leave the platform)
(Mary and Joseph leave the platform)

A long time ago God began a story that’s still going on. Heroes have come and gone and still the story goes on

It’s a story of the journey of God’s people. It’s a journey God wants all of us to join.

The baby Jesus grew up and became a man.

Come and follow me, he said, and many joined the journey.

It took him to the cross and beyond to resurrection.

Come and follow me, he said, and many joined the journey.

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.

I am with you always … to the end of the age!

Come and follow me, he said, and ever since many have joined the journey.

And so Jesus reaches out to us all down through the years and says …

Come and follow me … join the journey.

I am the way and the truth and the life
No one comes to the Father except through me

Come and follow me … join the journey

I am the light of the world,
Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.

Come and follow me … join the journey.

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you have joined the journey and that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

Come and follow me … join the journey.

I am the resurrection and the life
Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.
And everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.

Come and follow me … join the journey.

Let us join in singing our final worship song, will you come and follow me

Song: Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?

We shall now close with a prayer:
In my journeying with you,
may I never lose my sense of direction,
never lose sight of the landmark towards which I travel.
And should cloud or rain obscure my vision,
may I draw closer to you,
so that my feet may tread in your footsteps,
your words be my encouragement,
and your love my protection against the storms that assail me.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Through the darkness ... joy! The shepherds' story

There’s something rather special and endearing about the shepherds. You can, as Becky and the children have shared with us, have a lot of fun with the shepherds. It is the Holiday Club on Saturday … but that’s not going to stop me from getting across to sing carols at Sainsbury’s – 11-00 for an hour – do join us if you can – and when we get to While shepherds watched their flocks by night, we’ll have a lot of fun with the original tune – a rollicking rendering of that favourite of carols to the tune better known as On Ilkley Moor bar t’hat. So join us – we need all the support we can – as some of our regulars cannot make it.

As I read through the shepherds’ story once again for today, I noticed the beginning of the story and the end …

It starts by night when the shepherds were terrified.

It ends as the shepherds returned ‘glorifying and praising God’

I guess what struck me was the transformation from the dark and the fear to the glory and the praise.

Then I noticed something else. The Bible I was using to prepare for this morning has cross references in the margin. I noticed beside that wonderful phrase at the end ‘glorifying and praising God’ there was a cross reference. See Luke 7:16.

I turned to Luke 7:16 and I found it was the end of a story that had started with tragedy and sadness.

Jesus went to a town called Nain, … As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow … when the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her.

The story goes on to tell of the raising of the widow’s son … and of the way Jesus ‘gave him to his mother.” The reaction of all watching is a mixture of opposites - “Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God …”

How curious, there seemed to be the same mixture of emotions. There is the joy of glorifying God. But that glorification of God only emerges out of the fear … and it only comes out of the darkness of the awfulness of this woman’s experience of bereavement.

Isn’t it curious, thanks to the editors of my cross-reference edition of the Bible I started with the Christmas story, but quickly found myself reflecting on one of those moments of tragedy and sadness in the story of Jesus. On this occasion the glorifying of God only comes through the experience of the darkness and in this instance the weeping.

Beside the phrase ‘and they glorified God’ I noticed one of those tell-tale letters that is characteristic of a cross-reference Bible. The superscript ‘w’. I looked across at the margin and a long, long list of cross references, quite a number in Luke’s gospel.

I decided to follow them through.

Next I was taken to Luke chapter 13 verse 13, chapter 17 verse 15, and chapter 18 verse 43 and to three people who experienced the awfulness, the mess, the darkness of life lived at its worst.

A woman who had been bent double for eighteen years, one of a group of ten men suffering from the most feared of all devastating illnesses at that time, leprosy, and a poverty-stricken outcast reduced to begging on the streets of Jericho who cannot see.

Each of those people in a different way is living in the darkness of a world that rejects them, in a world that they can scarcely cope with.

Into the mess of their lives comes Jesus and something happens. Each is in some way set free, as healing comes into their hurt, and light floods into their darkness.

And each of them comes to the point at which they share in glorifying and praising God.

We started with a story you might expect at Christmas, the story of the shepherds. But we quickly have moved on to people whose lives have been torn apart by some of the worst things life can hurl at people. The loss of a son hard on the heels of the loss of a husband, devastating illness, rejection by society, abject poverty.

Into the darkness of each of these situations comes Christ … and in Christ’s presence comes a transformation. Whether it’s the shepherds terrified, the mother weeping, the woman devastated, the leper outcast, the blind beggar ignored, they each find the darkness dispelled and they find themselves glorifying and praising God.

I don’t know about you, but I sometimes feel the darkness can feel extra dark around Christmas … and it’s not just because of the time of the year. If things have gone wrong then everyone else’s enjoyment seems even more difficult to bear.

When that’s how people feel I want to draw people back to the story of Christmas and the message of our faith. Because it is of fundamental importance to me not only that the story takes place in a world that is at times very dark, but also that the message of Christmas speaks into the darkness.

But it is not enough for me that Jesus should come as a baby – babies are all right, but they quickly grow up. It is not enough for me, simply to be reminded of the healing that Christ brings into the lives of those who hurt.

The links in my cross-reference Bible take me further into the story of Jesus, into those parts of his story that have a power to touch us at our darkest and transform our lives too.

The next of our references precipitates us into the final days of Jesus’ life and to chapter 19 verse 37.

As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen.

That path takes them into Jerusalem, to the arrest in the darkness of the Garden, to the trial and to Golgotha, the place of the skull, where in the presence of two criminals Jesus is crucified.

He looked with compassion even on those responsible for his execution, and through them we can sense him looking with compassion on us. It is as if forgiveness and mercy flows out from the cross.

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Then, Jesus crying with a loud voice, said, “Father into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last.

And then comes the next of our references. And these words come from an unlikely source. “When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, “Certainly, this man was innocent.”

Crucified, dead and buried, on the third day he rose again from the dead.

And that evening, again when it was dark, two friends made their lonely journey home from Jerusalem on the Road to Emmaus, their hopes devastated. Joined by a stranger they did not recognise, they stood still, looking sad.

Once again, the darkness envelops.

It was when he was at the table with them that he took the bread, blessed and broke it and gave it to them, that their eyes were opened, and they recognised him.

We have reached the ultimate moment.

It is now, through Christ’s death and resurrection, that the joy can really become real and firmly rooted.

Listen to that sense of joy those two had, and then to the joy they shared with the others on their return, and to the joy they all have as they wait with expectation.

Luke 24:32-36 and 45-53

32They 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?’ 33That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ 35Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. 36 -->

36 While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’* 37

Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah* is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses* of these things. 49And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’
50 -->
50 Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.* 52And they worshipped him, and* returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53and they were continually in the temple blessing God.*

There are dark times, doubly so at Christmas, don’t just join the shepherds in the dark and look to the Christ child, don’t just look to the healing Jesus brought into hurting people’s lives. Realise that he shares with us in the most painful of human experiences on the cross, and invites us to share with him the glory of his resurrection.

That’s what enables us to move from the darkness with all its fear to the joy of giving praise and blessing to God.

But even that is not quite the end of the story.

There’s one thing we must do. And for that our cross references lead us out of Luke’s Gospel into Matthew and to the sermon on the mount where Jesus maps out for us the kind of life we must follow as we follow in the footsteps of Jesus.

Jesus says to each one of us … You are the light of the world … let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works.

That’s it – we need to put our faith into practice and in our actions show love towards others. That’s why Christmas has to be accompanied by doing something for others. And why our communion will include our collection for CHIKS, children’s homes in Kerala State.

Because something happens when we put our faith into action.

You are the light of the world … let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works, and those others will then find something that transforms their darkness and leads them to the point at which they too can share in that praise and glory of God … for they will see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. Matthew 5:14-16

Sunday, December 5, 2010

To the East with Thomas

At our service on the second Sunday of Advent we welcomed Robin Radley of Chiks. He told us about Children's Homes in Kerala State. It is the charity we are supporting this month and our Christmas collection. In the New Year, our Church Secretary will be going out to Kerala and will visit some of the homes taking them our love.

Click here to hear what Robin had to say about CHIKS that Sunday.

Click here to visit

And Click here to read about this month's charity and our support of CHIKS.

To lead into Robin's talk, our sermon on the Second Sunday of Advent told Thomas's story. It followed on from the story of the Wise Men starting out on their journey to the stable.

To the East with Thomas

After one of her visits to Kerala and to CHIKS, children’s homes in Kerala State, Sue presented me with three books that made fascinating reading. How easy it is for us to think of Christianity as a western religion, something Europeans exported to India and the East.

How differently the story is told in Kerala itself. The Christians of Kerala is ‘a brief profile of the evolution of all major churches in Kerala’ by Anthony Korah Thomas.

It quickly becomes apparent that the rich mix of Christians in Kerala goes well beyond the protestant missionary enterprise of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, beyond the Portuguese Catholic missions of the sixteenth century. There’s an intriguing mix of Eastern Orthodox and Syrian churches that trace their history further back to the very first century AD … and to an ancient tradition that the Apostle Thomas. Acts describes the expansion of Christianity from Jerusalem, through Judea and Samaria to the ends of the Roman World – west to Rome. And the way we tell the story has tended to focus on that western church.

But other traditions tell of the move Eastwards. And one of those traditions tells of journeys the Apostle Thomas makes to Syria and Edessa and beyond two journeys to India, the second of which took him, so those traditions tell to Kerala in South Western India. Not that he was keen to go. He was filled with fear, until as the Syriac Acts of Thomas from the third century records, that the Lord appeared to him in a night vision and said, “Fear not, Thomas. Go away to India and proclaim the Word, for my grace shall be with you.”

Roman archaeological remains on the coast of Kerala together with coins show that trade took place between the Roman World and Kerala in the second half of the first century. The story fits.

More than that, another of those books tells the story of Kerala and Her Jews. The town of Kochi boasts a synagogue that’s three hundred years older than Cheltenham’s synagogue, dating back to the sixteenth century, but traditions of a Jewish presence going back to the second half of the first century, or possibly even earlier to the Babylonian exile.

As we focus on CHIKS as our Christmas collection and today welcome Robin Radley to tell us more about the work of those Children’s Homes in Kerala State, maybe we can bear in mind the Eastern dimension of our Christian story.

Nowhere is that plainer than here in the story of the wise men, the magi, who came from the East. And returned there. One of those traditions has Thomas meeting with two of them on his travels to India.

It’s no bad thing to bear in mind Thomas’s story.

Now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. 13And when day came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles: 14Simon, whom he named Peter, and his brother Andrew, and James, and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, 15and Matthew, and Thomas, Luke 6:12-15

We would do well to take a leaf out of Thomas’s book and be disciples of Jesus, called to learn … and then to go out into the world.

These twelve [including Thomas] Jesus sent out with the following instructions: … go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.

As a disciple and apostle, Thomas was always ready to learn of Jesus, but more than that he was ready to put that teaching into practice.
We have a teaching to share with Thomas about the love of God breaking into our world and coming to rule in our hearts, our homes and our world.

And, like Thomas, we must put that teaching into practice by bringing healing into the lives of those who hurt.

But that can be scary in a hostile world. Like Thomas at moments of fear we need to be aware of the presence of Christ with us, speaking through the storm the words, Peace be still! Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.

What draws me to Thomas is the commitment that he is prepared to make before he has all the answers to the things that trouble and perplex him.

Turning to John’s gospel it is the commitment that is apparent first …

When Jesus heard the news of the death of Lazarus, he determined to go and visit him, even though that would take him closer to Jerusalem and very much closer to his own death. Thomas is the one who expresses his commitment to Christ in forthright terms.

Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’

Thomas and the others accompany Jesus into Jerusalem but by the time they have reached the evening of the last supper, questions begin to crop up for Thomas. What I like about Thomas is his honesty in asking those questions.

It is only as we ask questions of our faith that we will elicit responses that can help us forward on our journey of faith. That was exactly the experience Thomas had.

‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe* in God, believe also in me. 2In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?* 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4And you know the way to the place where I am going.’* 5Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ 6Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

Thomas may have been with the other disciples in the Upper Room on the night Jesus was arrested.

But he was not among the disciples in that upper room on the evening of his resurrection.

But Thomas (who was called the Twin*), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 27Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ 28Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ 29Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

Those words of Jesus stayed with Thomas.

He was among the twelve who heard the commission of Jesus to go into all the world, and make disciples of all nations, and among those in the upper room who sensed the strength of God’s spirit with them on the Day of Pentecost. And many in Kerala remain convinced that he overcame his fears and heeded the words of Jesus in that vision of his … recorded in the third century Acts of Thomas

“Fear not, Thomas. Go away to India and proclaim the Word, for my grace shall be with you.”

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Mary and Joseph start their journey

It’s great to share in a baptism service with Carly and Ian and Mackenzie as little Jayden is baptised. It doesn’t seem like five years ago that we spent time together planning for a wedding and preparing for marriage, and then the special day. And then getting ready for Mackenzie’s baptism – and it was special sharing in that on Easter Sunday. And now it’s great to share in Jayden’s baptism on another special day for us, on Advent Sunday as we start the build up to Christmas.

We have got a theme for our services leading up to Christmas … The Christmas Journey. And we have an invitation to share – Journey with us at Highbury Church this Christmas. Christmas is all about journeys and travelling. There are those journeys people make to share in Christmas celebrations. But there were lots of journeys in the Christmas story.

Today we start with the journeys Mary and Joseph made, next Sunday we will journey with the Wise Men from the East – and we are going to have a focus on the Christmas charity we have chosen this year – CHIKS Children’s Homes in Kerala State, as Robin Radley the inspiration behind all that work joins us. And then Sue will be making the journey to Kerala in the New Year to spend time at some of those homes and take our love and greetings with her.

Then the following Sunday we will be journeying with the shepherds. And then we are going to put all those three stories together on 19th December in a chidlren’s nativity play.

Then we are going to do something different this Christmas. In the actual week leading up to Christmas we are going to lay out those three journeys for people to follow and reflect on in the quiet of this place. The church will be open from 10-00 to 11-00 and again from 6-00 to 7-00 and you will be invited to journey with Mary and Joseph, to journey with the Wise Men, to journey with the Shepherds. Then comes our Christmas day celebration – everyone coming together to celebrate with presents and toys to show, and fun to share.

The Christmas Journey begins today with Mary and Joseph, and their travels.

Mary’s travels begin as she makes the journey over to her cousin’s Elizabeth’s home where both of them compare notes because they are both expecting. Then it’s Mary and Joseph’s turn as they travel from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem. Those aren’t long distances – a bit like from here to Warwick, or from here to Birmingham.

But then comes a darker journey as the powers that be seek to eliminate Jesus and destroy the newly born baby. They flee as refugees travelling much further to Egypt. And then when it’s safe to return the make the jouney back to Nazareth.

Not that their travels finish there. We pick them up on another journey when Jesus is 12 and he and his parents make the journey to Jerusalem from Nazareth when Jesus comes of age. Sometime between that point and the start of Jesus’ ministry, Joseph disappears from the scene. It looks very much as if he died. He was there with them at the beginning of it all – but not through to the end. We glimpse Mary travelling with Jesus. And sometimes Jesus does things that disturbs her. She doesn’t understand what he is about. And then she makes the journey with other women when he has to walk carrying a cross. Her travels take her to the cross – it is as if someone has driven a sword into her own side and pierced her – the pain, the grief is overwhelming. But that pain and that grief do not have the last word – she journeys through it and beyond it … to resurrection.

In a sense all of life’s journey is there in the travels Mary makes.

In her travels she journeys with Jesus. A special baby. A young boy growing up. But then someone who teaches a remarkable way of life for people to follow, a way that involves putting other people first and going out of your way to help one another. It involves love for God, love for your neighbour. It’s a remarkably caring life that he shares – always a look of forgiveness. It is a tragic life, and Mary shares that sadness. But it is a remarkable victory over death that he wins – and Mary as we see her at the finish of her travels senses something remarkable in the resurrection victory she too can share. And more than that it is through this Jesus that she senses there is a strength she can draw on that will be with her, the unseen yet real presence of the strength of God.

There is a real sense of journeying on. In those five or six years since starting to think of getting married – you have journeyed on. The prayer in that marriage, the prayer at Mackenzie’s baptism, the prayer today is that as you journey on and wherever life leads you you may sense you are not alone, but God is with you, Christ is there to guide you and there is a strength to draw on from outside yourselves.

And that’s something that goes for us all.

That leads me to the next thought.

Mary, and Joseph too, treasured everything about Jesus.

There’s a wonderful verse that tells us how she treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart. And you can see Joseph sharing in that as well.

Little ones are there to treasure. It’s great treasuring moments. It was good looking at that wedding album. Photos of the little ones when they were tiny. As they grow up. Little things you treasure. Grandparents treasuring those pictures.

Moments to treasure.

What did Mary treasure? The sense that God was with her. The sense that Jesus was to make such a difference to so many people. Were there moments of his teaching that she treasured? Were there moments of healing to treasure? Did she treasure that moment at the foot of the cross when in spite of all the pain he made sure his mother would be looked after by one of his close friends? Did she treasure the moment when she knew he was risen from the dead? Did she treasure that sense of a strength from beyond herself?

I hope there are things for us to treasure – not just in the album, not just in the little ones as they grow older. I hope that we can treasure that sense of something with us from beyond ourselves in God – and in Jesus Christ.

On the journey as they travelled in the bad times and the good times Mary and Joseph sensed God was with them in this Jesus who was so special.

They treasured so much about Jesus.

There’s one more thing that strikes me about Mary and Joseph. And it too begins with t r

They had something that made all the difference. I think it makes all the difference in all sorts of different ways, and in all sorts of different bits of their lives.

They had something called ‘trust’.

When you think of it, given the circumstances of the story it was a big ask. But Joseph and Mary had trust in each other.

That was something we explored in our conversations about marriage. It goes right to the heart of relationship building. Trust makes a relationship.

When a little one comes along they have that trust. There’s that wonderful moment when the little one with the tiniest of hands, puts that little hand into the great big hand of mum or dad. That moment of trust is so special.

Trust can be betrayed – in a relationship, by a parent. How important it is to build up that trust.

But there is another dimension to that trust that makes it so special.

Mary and Joseph had a trust in God.

There were moments when it felt as if everything was going wrong. Nothing went right. They had sadness in their family. It seemed everything was faling apart, going wrong.

But continually, they had trust in God.

Trust in God, that God will be with us, come what may. Difficult sometimes, but trust – keep on trusting, that nothing in life or death, in the present or the future, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Travel – with God,

Treasure – the love of Christ

Trust – inside your relationship, inside your family, and above all trust in God. Hold on to that trust.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Cheltenham Street Pastors First Anniversary

A service commisioning twelve new Street Pastors and celebrating one year of Street Pators in Cheltenham at Cambray Baptist Church. A message shared by Richard Cleaves of Highbury.

Perfect Love Casts out Fear

It was 4-10 on a Saturday morning a month or so ago that I found myself in the company of four of our Street Pastors as we made our way back to the Salvation Army at the end of what I was told had been a quiet evening, but not an uneventful one.

It was one of our older Street Pastors who said something to me that has stayed with me ever since.

“I think quite differently about going out into Cheltenham in the evening now! I used to be fearful of all the young people. Now I realise they are with very few exceptions lovely people who are looking out for each other. I no longer feel such a fear about going into Cheltenham in the evening”

I used to be fearful … I no longer feel such a feel.

What she said registered with me because over the years I have sensed that people over a certain age, and I count myself among those who are over a certain age, find Cheltenham at night a scary place. Indeed I have sensed a very real ‘fear’ of the town centre after dark among many of an older generation. It is the kind of fear that has almost made the town centre after dark a no-go area for many.

It is a fear I have shared.

In catching the vision for Street Pastors the churches have Cheltenham have made it clear that that is a fear that we must not run away from and allow simply to take a hold of our town centre. It is rather a fear that needs to be faced, a fear that needs to be addressed.

Street Pastors addresses that fear in a number of ways.

First, groundless fears can be allayed.

What my friend was sharing with me I too had observed. Actually the great majority of young people who are out on a Friday night and Saturday night are looking out for each other, are simply there to have a good time, in just the way every generation has done. It’s no bad thing that our increasing number of Street Pastors can feed that kind of observation back into the thinking of people who have exaggerated fears of Cheltenham after dark.

But … and it is an important ‘but’. It is quite apparent from the police and from Accident and Emergency that things do happen that are pretty scary, fuelled as they are by our society’s current inability to respond appropriately to the alcohol crisis.

In that context fear is no bad thing, giving rise to a proper caution.

This is where the Street Pastor initiative really comes into its own. It seeks to add into the mix of the night time economy simply a presence that is there to help where help is needed. But in doing that it takes seriously the kind of fear that it is proper to have.

The Street Pastors organisation recognises that

Justifiable fears must be respected.

In doing that it takes a leaf out of Jesus’ book. When sending out his friends into what in its own way was an equally scary world, Jesus urged them to be

Wise as serpents and innocent as doves.

Yes, be gentle as a dove, but also as wise as a serpent.

It is simply the ‘presence’ of the Street Pastors in that ‘gentle way’ that can make all the difference. But that presence is also underpinned with the wisdom of a serpent. As those who are being commissioned tonight know only too well, however enthusiastic and keen, Street Pastors only go out once they have completed a rigorous training programme, that addresses issues around alcohol, drugs, violence and so much more.

Street Pastors only go out in pairs, and always with two lots of pairs keeping within sight of each other. One of the pair is in constant touch through an ear piece and microphone with the night-safe radio network that links all those involved in the clubs and in security with the police control room, while the other of the pair has a mobile phone linking them directly with the remaining pair of the team of six who are back at the base in the Salvation Army.

After an hour and a half with two pairs, I then stayed back for an hour and a half at the base.

We were listening into the radio channel. It wasn’t long before we heard one of our Street Pastors calling in to the Police control room. It looked as if a fight was about to start on the Strand. They requested the control room to turn the cameras in that direction. Within a couple of minutes a police officer had arrived. But only one. His presence was enough to stop the fight breaking out, but it was still ugly. Only a couple of minutes later we heard the Police Control room calling our Street Pastors. A young girl had all but passed out and police were in attendance at Boots Corner. Our Street Pastors walked over to Boots Corner and took over from the police. They talked gently with the young girl, shared water with her, got her back to her feet and at her request walked her home. Meanwhile the police were able to reinforce their colleague on the Strand.

The next day the Echo did not report a fight on the Strand, A & E did not have to cope with any injuries from what could have become an ugly incident and no ambulance was called out to the young girl. And none of those things got into any statistics because you cannot report what did not happen!

The presence of those Street Pastors made all the difference as they were as wise as serpents and as gentle as is a dove.

I sat in on the very start of the training of those who have been commissioned tonight. It was great to see the enthusiasm and the commitment of everyone there as people from their 20’s to their 70’s introduced themselves. Right at the outset one thing was made absolutely clear by the trainer.

Street Pastors is not about ‘evangelising’ or ‘proselytising’. It had hardly happened, the trainer said, but when it had arisen Street Pastors is absolutely clear – anyone using Street Pastors as a platform to evangelise will be asked to leave the organisation.

What motivates us all in Street Pastors, those in the management group, those behind the scenes, as much as those who go on the streets is our shared Christian commitment to the God who is described in that passage from 1 John 4. This is what motivates us.

Let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God, and knows God.

For us who are Street Pastors what counts is not so much the strength of our love for God, but rather the wonder of God’s love for us.

In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to the atoning sacrifice for our sins, the means by which our sins are forgiven.

God is love.

That’s what drives us. But what the Street Pastor does is not to evangelise with some kind of tract.

It is simply to be there to help, embodying that kind of love by sweeping up broken glass with a dustpan and brush, by handing out a pair of flip flops to a girl whose high heeled shoes have let her down and who is trying to get home in bare feet over pavements sometimes strewn with broken glass, it is handing out a simple bottle of water.

It is the gentleness of the loving presence that is all important and that makes all the difference.

It was in the third shift of that night that I found myself walking with those four street pastors past the Everyman Theatre up Regent’s Street towards Marks and Spencer.

Just ahead of us as the road narrows was a group of three or four thirty-something men. They were hurling abuse, nasty abuse, at a larger group who were facing down from the other end of what is quite a narrow stretch of road. It was ugly. The four street pastors knew what they were going to do; I wasn’t quite so sure. They had had the training. I hadn’t. What’s more they were wearing the Street Pstors uniform – I too was in uniform, but I felt as if I stuck out like a sore thumb in my white anorak with a yellow flurescent jacket over it. I felt that fear coming on.

I joined the other four in simply walking past the first group and towards the top of the head. We were walking in that slow pace I always associated with the opening credits of the Bill. The abuse was now going over our heads. But it was apparent that the ones behind us were now walking away towards the theatre. All but one of the gang ahead of us drifted away up the High Street.

But one remained. One of our team recognised him from his clothing. He had been thrown out of a couple of pubs and had been causing trouble through the evening.

He accosted us and asked us who we were and what we were doing. I guess from a distance the uniforms had clearly shown we were something ‘official’. As soon as he learned we were street pastors, he turned all his invective, abuse and wrath on God. By now a young couple of freshers had joined us, she with bare feet. One of our Street pastors turned to them. The boy wanted to join in the conversation. We were willing him just to take the girl away. Then very gently, one of the Street Pastors simply listened and shared his view of God and God’s love. Ten or fifteen minutes later, we had learned of a pretty horrible situation that young man was in. We had shared something with him at his instigation of that love of God that motivated us. And by that time the anger we had encountered twenty minutes before had gone. He went his way, no longer part of ‘a gang’.

Again, there were no broken windows or limbs for the Echo to report the next night

It was one of those many moments when we were simply living out that kind of love that John speaks of that goes to the heart of our Christian faith.

And with that kind of love something else happens. Something happens to that fear which we are so wanting to address.

God is love, John tells us. And those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgement, because as he is, so are we in this world.

Then comes the insight that is so vital.

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear …

Groundless fears can be allayed … but that is not enough!

Justifiable fears must be respected … but that is not enough!

Street Pastors offers something more … the conviction that

Perfect love casts out fear.

We are in the business of casting out fear.

We do that simply by embodying in simple acts of kindness and timely gestures of help, the love that is the very nature of God.

That’s what was so significant in what friend Kathleen had to say that evening

“I used to be fearful … I no longer feel such a fear”

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.

What is that holds us to that conviction?

What is it that makes us want to be in the business of driving out fear?

We love because he first loved us.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

What it takes to be disciples

It’s great to catch a glimpse of what our Open the Book team are doing as they take Bible stories into the assemblies at Oadwood School. And to think there are other such teams taking Bible Stories into many, many school assemblies throughout Gloucestershire and up and down the country.

I loved the way the story of Jesus’ Special Friends came to an end.

Jesus shook his head and smiled. “Don’t be scared,” he said. “God has given me a lot of work to do. And I need helpers Helpers like you and your friends. Once you weree fishermen. But from now on, you’ll be fishing for people. And helping me bring them to God.

Then Jesus stepped out of the boat and wawlked away, across the shore. “Come with me,” he called.

Peter and his friends watched him go. They looked at the fish. They looked at each other. Then they dropped their nets, left their boats behind, and raced off to follow Jesus.” [The Lion Storyteller Bible retold by Bob Holman (Lion, 1995)]

It’s one thing telling Bible stories for children and catching the fun and excitement as those special friends ‘raced off to follow Jesus’.

It’s worth re-visiting those stories, however, in an adult context. The stories we tell to children as children’s stories, are in fact about adults in an adult world. And the world they lived in was a world where it was not actually straightforward to ‘race off and follow Jesus’. It was in fact fraught with difficulties.

The task Jesus had come to do and the task he expected of those who would follow him is spelled out in quite some detail from chapter 9:35 through to chapter 10 in Matthew’s gospel.

As Jesus travels from village to village, from city to city he has a message to share that’s focused on the way God’s rule is all important in the home, the family and in the world at large.

On the one hand, his teaching in some strange way made sense and helped them make sense of their lives. It was always about God’s kingdom and it gave them that sense of purpose they longed for.

And on the other hand, with Jesus it wasn’t just words. What he did made a world of difference to people as he brought healing into hurting people’s lives.

Then as Matthew 10 opens, twelve of those special friends of Jesus are named and Jesus then commissions them. He passes on to them something of that sense of authority that he has.

And then he gives them two things to do. First they are to share the very same teaching – it’s the very thing that people need to make sense of their lives … and it’s something really worth passing on.

And then they too are to bring healing into hurting people’s lives and make a difference to other people.

That’s the task in a nutshell.

Stefan and Birgit were with us for three years about ten years ago as Stefan was studying for a doctorate at the University and undertaking a pastoral placement here.

We have supported them since as they have moved to Brazil to undertake Christian work. As a family they are among those we have a special partnership with in mission.

It was great to chat with Stefan and see the three children over Skype earlier this week. What they are doing over there in Londrinia in Brazil is exactly what is envisaged here in Matthew 9 and 10.

They share a teaching ministry. That’s primarily what Stefan is engaged in. He teaches in a large theological seminary which is one of the main protestant theological seminaries in Brazil. He teaches Old Testament and biblical studies. It is quite some accomplishment for a German who did his doctorate in English now to be teaching theology in Portuguese! He encapsulates that ‘teaching’ side of the work of mission. He is helping students to make sense of the Scriptures who will then go on in pastoral and teaching ministry to help people make sense of their lives through the Scriptures.

But while we were chatting Birgit was out. A physiotherapist, Birgit has become very involved in a drug rehabilitation project run in their locality. That’s the other side of that mission coin – the practical, helping service that brings healing to hurting people.

Such work has its difficulties and in our prayers and in our practical support we seek to be a support to Stefan and Birgit, and to Marit, Simeon and Jacob in their family life together.

Jesus too recognised the difficulties. A lot of what he shares with those ‘special friends’ in chapter 10 is about addressing the difficulties that are all too real. He recognises not all will be impressed. People will mock and taunt – there will be real persecution. Jesus shares words of wisdom about how to cope in that kind of situation, and emphasises the importance of actions rather than words.

Matthew 10:16-20 and 40-42

Following in the footsteps of Jesus can lead you into scary situations – be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. And even if it is just a cup of water … what a difference that can make!

It is a year since Street Pastors was launched in Cheltenham.

On Saturday night at Cambray at 7-30 that anniversary will be marked and the latest set of volunteers to join the scheme will be commissioned, bring the total number of Street Pastors in Cheltenham to 50. Though more are very much needed.

I’ve been asked to give the address on Saturday night and felt I couldn’t do that without getting a taste of the training they do and experiencing a night out on the streets.

It was an inspiration.

So it was I found myself just after 4-00 one Saturday morning walking back to the Salvation Army church which is used as a base with one of the older members of St Luke’s who I think will be in their seventies. What she had to say was an interesting.

“I think quite differently about going out into Cheltenham in the evening now! I used to be fearful of all the young people. Now I realise they are with very few exceptions lovely people who are looking out for each other. I no longer feel a fear about going into Cheltenham in the evening.”

Cheltenham at night on a Friday and a Saturday can be a scary place. In that context Jesus’ words of wisdom are to be wise as a serpent and gentle as a dove.

That sums up the approach of Street Pastors. The training is extensive. They are now an integral part of the town’s response to the Night Time economy. Dressed in a distinctive uniform they go out in pairs, always two pairs together. One person in each pair has an ear piece and microphone which links them into the Police Control room and enables them to hear conversations among all the security staff in all the clubs around the town.

In the middle part of the 6 hour shift I did that night I was back at base where we were chatting, and listening in to that radio chatter. I pricked my ears up as one of our Street Pastors radioed into the police control room to report a fight that was starting on the Strand. Within a couple of minutes a single police man arrived. Enough of a presence to calm the situation a little but not enough to stop it entirely. Within a couple of minutes the police control room were asking for some street pastors to attend a girl by Boots corner who was on her own and needing help. They moved over there where they found a police van with police officers helping that girl. They took over and the four of them were able to chat with her, share some water, some of those flip-fops which for girls with no shoes on make all the difference and walk her home. That freed up the police to join their colleague and nothing came of the fight.

The Street Pastors carry a dustpan and brush and it was surprising how much broken glass they swept up. And a dozen girls had flip flops.

A fight that didn’t happen doesn’t count on the statistics. Girls who don’t go to A and E with badly injured feet having walked over broken glass don’t count on the statistics.

Two things struck me about that night. First the whole approach takes those words of Jesus seriously. Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. There was a wisdom in the rigorous training and strict approach to patrolling they took, linked with a gentle presence that made all the difference.

And the other thing was taking seriously what Jesus said about the cup of water. What a difference that makes too.

Practical help. But absolutely clear. It is not bound up with teaching. There’s no ‘evangelising’. Each of those involved in Street Pastors will no doubt have other settings in which they can share a faith that is definitely important to them. But Street Pastors is not the setting for that.

Mind you, it was fascinating to see how many conversations there were initiated by people asking questions, sometimes very big questions, as they faced real difficulties and major problems. Who knows how many of those conversations may have been a real help too.

I for one am with those ‘special friends of Jesus’ not just in the adult world as much as in the world of children’s bible story telling. That involves something in Christ’s teaching, and in the whole of his life, death and resurrection that for me helps make sense of a sometimes very troubling world. And at the same time it also involves bringing practical help real healing to people who are hurting in that very troubling world.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Remembrance - the Hard Questions

This Remembrance Sunday I want to ask three questions.

How do we remember?

What do we do with the difficult memories?

Why do we remember?

First, How do we remember?

In responding to those questions I want to draw on some of the words, thoughts and ideas that are in Hebrews 13.

Memory is a funny thing. I for one remember things in all sorts of different ways. I can sometimes remember things that have happened to me in such a real way it is as if I am re-living those events. I can see the sights, I can hear the sounds, I can smell and feel once more as if I was there. My memory can play back like a tape recorder, like a video recorder in my mind. I can see events unfolding before my eyes, I can hear once again words spoken to me.

I feel for those who have among their memories disturbing memories that play again in ways that are all too real. On Remembrance Sunday I feel for those who have had experiences in war that this day are real once again in memories that come flooding back.

But on this day I do not have such memories. My memory does not go back to the second world war, let alone the first world war.

How do I remember on this day?

Hebrews 13 verse 3 I find very helpful.

Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured as if you yourselves were being tortured.

Remember … as though.

Listen to the memories of those who were there. Listen through the words they have shared with us and passed on to us.

Picture yourself in the scene. See the sights they saw. Hear the voices they saw. And then remember as though you were there.

Someone from church has prompted me to do just that once again this Remembrance Sunday. In anticipation of today I have been re-visiting a family story of my own … and discovering a poem for which Judi Marsh won a runners’ up award at the Literature Festival.

The family story enables me to remember … as though I were there.

Ghost Voices, Judi’s remarkable poem is an exercise in ‘remembering … as though’. On the one hand she feels for those who do remember. AT the same time she thinks herself into the mind of one caught up in the horror of war. Judi invites us in the first part of the poem to see with the eyes of one who was there. And in the second part of the poem she invites us to hear with the ears of one who was there. She invites us to remember … as though we are there.

Ghost Voices by Judi Marsh

Sometimes, even now,
I see them – my comrades.
In my dreams they live again.
And always it is night.
Always it is that night.
And I see again,
Silhouetted against a smoky sky,
The ragged shapes of wooden posts
And barbed wire,
Broken and reaching out,
As strange and nameless trees
In the nightmare world of a wartime night.

Sometimes, even now,
I hear them – my comrades.
In my dreams they sing again.
And always it is night.
Always it is that night.
And I hear again,
Ghost voices singing ghost songs
In the grey night. Anthems from men
Who will not grow old, who will not come home.
They sing to me down the years
Living again in my memories, and
Dying again in my dreams.
They sing – this choir of lost souls –
And again I am haunted
By the nightmare world of a wartime night.

To remember as though is to risk the pain of the memory that troubles.

It is real people who live again in my memories,
They are real people dying again in my dreams
In the nightmare world of a wartime night.

What do we do with painful memories?

I want to draw on another insight from this passage in Hebrews 13.

These words contain a wonderful promise. It is the promise of the presence of God with us at moments of desperate need.

He has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.”

So we can say with confidence,
The Lord is my helper,
I will not be afraid.
What can anyone do to me?

This is the promise to draw on in the face of the troubling memories.

I have seen John Simpson reporting for the BBC from many of the conflicts and wars that have been in the news in recent years. I had no inkling of his Christian commitment. It was moving to see him on Channel 4’s new version of Thought for Today, 4Thought, speaking of the difference his faith has made to him.

He spoke movingly of a tragic incident he had been involved in when some of the camera crew he was with were injured and a cameraman killed. The memory of that occasion disturbs deeply. John Simpson describes the strength his faith has been and then speaks of an occasion when he met with a vicar. He describes the way the vicar encouraged him to think that his friend was as much in the hands of God now as ever he had been.

A simple thought, yet a very profound one that had made a difference to John Simpson.

What do we do with disturbing memories? Hold on to the promise in these words: The God we believe in is the God who is with us in the middle of disturbing times, the God who promises,

I will never leaver you or forsake you.

So owe can say with confidence,
The Lord is my helper,
I will not be afraid.
What can anyone do to me?

One question remains.

3) Why do we remember?
When we moved to Cheltenham first we visited the Famous and had a conversation with Ross Cole. But not since.

And that is more years than I care to remember!

When telling the story on one occasion to Caroline and Chris Gregory Caroline took me to task. She had grown up with Ross Cole and she and Chris knew the family well. You must give him a ring, she said, insisting I make a note of the phone number. I noted the phone number back in the summer and made the call this week.

He described visiting with his wife Ploegsteert in search of the cemeteries. There were 14 of them. They had no way of finding the actual cemetery. Then he remembered his father, Reg Cole’s brother, describing a visit he and I think his father had made in search of the grave in the 1920’s or 1930’s. His father had found it and given a description of finding a particular shop, taking the second on the left and going up a lane.

Ross Cole and his wife shared those half remembered directions with a local who immediately pointed them up a country lane out into a wood, where the cemetery was. And threw was Private Reg Cole’s grave.

But most moving of all, as Ross Cole recalled, was the realisation that the cemetery was one of those cemeteries to contain British and German soldiers side by side.

How vital it is that we have come to the point through all the horrors of the twentieth century when we can be in friendship with Germany and the people of Germany.

Midlands Today told the story this week of an older man who had been caught in the air raids on Coventry that happened 70 years ago today. Ever since he had harboured a fear, if not a hatred for German people. Until this year. This year he had been on a visit to Dresden where he met German people the same age who had been in the air raids on Dresden. He found them to be people just like him. And he found it possible to consider them friends. How wonderful to hear of the way his experiences had changed and hatred given way to friendship even after 70 years.

What do we remember for? It is not to keep the hatred going. We remember to keep alive the memory of the commitment that was made by the peoples who had been at war not just to be buried side by side in a graveyard, but to live side by side in mutual respect and honour.

So I finish with the opening words of Hebrews 13 in response to this most pressing of questions … what do we remember for?

Let mutual love continue.

Then the writer suggests the importance of putting that love into practice, into action.

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Matthew's Manual of Discipleship - the beatitudes

Go into B & Q and you may well bump into Alan Titchmarsh.

Not in person, over here for the Literature Festival, but a life-size cardboard cut-out.

I think it’s a bit of a pity.

Back in May B&Q decided to take off the shelves the books of someone else who has never sought any personal publicity, has little time for garden make-over programmes, and said of B&Q’s decision, “It’s sad for the public. And it’s sad for me. There are celebrities and there are experts.”

Much as I like Alan Titchmarsh, I for one am with Dr D.G.Hessayon. When I purchased my battered copy of the New Vegetable and Herb Expert, ‘an enlarged and updated edition of the world’s best-sellling book on vegetables and herbs’, thirteen years ago, it and its predecessor had already sold 4,870,000 copies. The Garden Expert was first published 51 years ago and by the time I bought my copy ten years ago had sold 5,340,000 copies.

I like ‘how-to’ books. And when it comes to the garden, I don’t think you can find a better ‘how-to’ book.

Of all the Gospels Matthew comes closest to being a ‘how-to’ book. It may not have pictures, charts and diagrams, but it is laid out with a pretty clear structure. And it even has a bit of a blurb on the back cover that tells you what it sets out to do … if you have eyes to see!

It’s intriguing that each of the Gospels tells you at the very beginning or at the very end what it is about and what it’s setting out to do. And each of the Gospels is subtly different.

The clue to Matthew comes in the very last words Matthew records Jesus as saying to the disciples.

It was on the third day after the execution of Jesus on the cross that Mary Magdalene and the other mary went to see the tomb. An angel, a messenger of God, had a message for them to take to the disciples …

“Go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.

They left the tomb with fear and great joy when suddenly Jesus met them, and said, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

So it is that the eleven disciples went to Galilee to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.

There it was that Jesus came and said to them,

‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’*

A wonderful promise – I am with you always to the end of the age.

And a powerful challenge …make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.

How can they rise to the challenge and make disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey everything Jesus had commanded?

Matthew has provided them the wherewithal. He has built his Gospel around five sets of teaching that Jesus gave. In that teaching you can see what Jesus has commanded. It is what you need to know if you are going to obey everything Jesus commanded, and if you are going to be a disciple.

Matthew’s gospel is the manual for disciples.

It opens with the birth stories of Jesus, then moves on to the proclaimation of John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus in chapter 3. Then Jesus faces a time of temptation in the wilderness in chapter 4 and then begins his ministry in Galilee where he calls the first disciples. Then he goes throughout Galilee teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom and bringing healing to so many people, that crowds flock to him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and from beyond the Jordan.

In chapter 5. When Jesus sees the crowds he goes up the mountain, sat down and his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak and he taught them …

This is the first great bit of teaching Matthew records. And in some ways it is the greatest. Want to be a disciple? You will need to know the teaching of Jesus … and here it is.

The sermon on the mount.

What an opening.

The opening says it all.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven …

As ever with the Literature Festival all the celebrity speakers passed me by. But I feel as if I did have a good Literature Festival nonetheless, but I learned on Thursday that I had chosen the wrong event to go to after all!

On Monday I did a play on communication, a wonderful workshop with a young and very dynamic theatre director on Shakespeare’s sonnets, and went to a poetry reading for the launch of an anthology of poetry by black writers. And I missed a poetry presentation evening at the Playhouse on Monday evening when Judi Marsh was a runner up and read her own poem. So congratulations to Judi and sorry I missed it!

A large part of the Bible is written in poetry. Christ Church visitors and house group leaders had invited me to share a quiet day on prayer with them last Saturday. I shared some of the poetry of George Herbert and used it as a way into reading the psalms as the powerful poetry of prayer.

In his preaching Jesus uses poetry.

There’s something about poetry that makes it memorable. We were asked to memorise a sonnet for the workshop on Shakespeare’s sonnets. I was relieved that we only got through two sonnets so I didn’t need to own up to not having learned them by heart.

It’s doable.

And this is one of those great passages to memorise.

Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted,
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

The repetition of the word blessed. So much stronger than the Good News Bible rendering of the word ‘happy’. It is as if it is drumming the message home.

The Hebrew Poetry Jesus had grown up is a poetry where it is not so much rhymes and a beat that counts, but instead it is a poetry of ideas.

The rhythm is not so much in the words, definitely not in any rhyme, but it is there in the rhythm of the line.

Blessed are … for theirs is
Blessed are … for they will be

And there is great comfort in these lines.

Feeling poverty-stricken in your faith, as if the springs have run dry – blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Felling alone in bereavement, know that you are never alone,
Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.

Feeling browbeaten, taken advantage of, bottom of the pile, take comfort in the words of Jesus …

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

But make no mistake about it Jesus is not offering his would-be disciples, us included, sugar or saccharin to sweeten our task.

There’s more to these words than meet the eye!

The word translated Blessed is not the easiest of words to translate. That’s why the Good News Bible opts for the word ‘Happy’. But it doesn’t really work. Especially as you move on through the beatitudes.

You might just about get away with Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice, for you will be filled. Is it ‘happiness’ that the peacemaker looks to. And what about those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, or better for the sake of justice, theirs may be the kingdom of heaven … but can you really say such people are ‘happy’?

A long time ago I came across a reference to someone who spoke the Aramaic language that Jesus would have spoken and who had a very interesting take on the translation of this word. Whenever I have preached on or taught on our course about the beatitudes I have quoted that ‘someone’.

You can imagine my surprise, therefore, when earlier in the year, I heard that someone speak and give that very explanation that I had quoted time and again in marking umpteen pieces of written work as students on our course write their own paraphrase of these words.

Elias Chacour describes himself as a Christian that goes back 2000 years, an Arab, a citizen of the state of Israel, and he grew up in a village in Galilee. He and his family were expelled in 1948 by soldiers accompanying Jewish people settling in that area with the establishment of the state of Israel. His story is a wonderful one as it tells of his return to the villages of the Galilee, how he became priest and then Bishop of one of the ancient churches of the Holy Land, and how he has run schools, camps for Jew, Muslim and Christian in a life-time’s work for justice and reconciliation. His great book is called Blood Brothers.

And he was over here to speak a special lecture of the Bible Lands Society in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford.

It wasn’t long in his address before he turned to the Sermon on the Mount, and to the Beatitudes.

I pricked my ears up.

I was converted to Christianity not long ago. Not long ago, for us Palestinian Christians, we count time differently from you. We never forget the Swiss for putting this age in our arms, for us we still feel it in our body that time, oh my goodness, one thousand years are like one day before the Lord, so what are two thousand years?

It’s the day before yesterday that the younger boy from Nazareth was hanging around with our boys and girls, with our elderly, with our shepherds, sharing our weddings and our funerals.
Watching everything – our clouds, our water, our flowers – and he took all of that and made of them the parables of the Kingdom of Heaven.

He spoke with such authority.

He did not say to those who followed him ‘Ah! Happy you are because you are persecuted; because you are hungry and searching for justice.’ That man would never have said that.

We have two texts of the Sermon on the Mount – the one says ashray and if there is any Jew who understands Hebrew he would vibrate to ashray that’s taken from yashar and from osher v’osher and the second text says to varwhom (? phon.) and both of them mean literally straight, straighten up, straighten up yourself you hungry and thirsty for righteousness. Get up – go ahead, move, do something if you want to be a peacemaker.

Peace never requires contemplators, peace requires proactive people who get their hands dirty, to build peace and justice for every human being.

That was the teachings of that young boy from Nazareth. Some of my ancestors – my forefathers – listened to him, followed him up to Jerusalem. Jerusalem, the bloody Jerusalem where all the prophets died – were killed – because they protested against the injustices of the then authority in Jerusalem.

These words take on the feel of a really challenging – how to obey the commands of Jesus. This becomes a very real manual for discipleship.

Are you poor in spirit, in mourning, meek … straighten up!

Straighten up yourselves, stand up and be counted as you hunger and thirst for justice and righteousness and you will be filled.

Straighten up, get up – go ahead, move, do something as peacemakers and you will be called children of God.

No longer the saccharine of reassurance, it’s electrifying as it challenges us to the task of discipleship.

Eight times the phrase is repeated. Each time Jesus ups the ante. At the eighth call to straighten up he thinks of those facing persecution for the sake of righteousness, for justice, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

There are wonderful balances as the second half of this line now echoes the first of the beatitudes.

Then one more is added in.

Up until now each of the beatitudes is impersonal …

Blessed are the poor in spirit
Blessed are those who mourn

Then neatness of the eight so memorable for their repeated form, is broken with a ninth.

No longer impersonal. Jesus suddenly is direct. He looks those would-be disciples in the eye …

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

To be a disciple we need to straighten ourselves up get up, go ahead, move, do something …

It’s the same with any manual –

After all, it’s no good just reading Dr Hessayon’s books to make a difference in the garden you need to straighten up, get up and do something!

What it takes to be a Christian - Romans

Since the beginning of the year Richard Cleaves, our Minister, has preached a series of sermons on Paul's Letter to the Romans during our Sunday evening services.

The sermon followed a reading from Acts 28:11-31. In that final chapter of Acts Luke tells of Paul's arrival in Rome and leaves Paul "proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance."

Although Paul wrote his letter to the Romans a number of years before, in all likelihood during a three month period when he was staying at Coring that is referred to in Acts 20:3, it makes sense for Romans to follow straight on from Acts. It is as if Romans contains the summing up of Paul's preaching of teh Kingdom of God and of this teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ.

Richard suggested that the whole of Romans can be summarised in two words that Paul uses in Romans 1:7 and again in Romans 16:20 "grace" and "peace".

Paul's account of the Christian faith in chapters 1-11 can be summed up in the one word "grace"

Paul's challenge to living the Christian life in chapters 12-16 can be summed up in the one word "peace".

For this final sermon Richard took as his text Romans 1-16 in its entirety.

It is not insignificant that the sermon was preached on Sunday, 17th October 2010 only days after 33 miners had been rescued from a mine in Chile, in a historic mine rescue. The miners had returned to the mine that Sunday to share in a service of thanksgiving.

Grace and Peace
What it takes to be a Christian
Paul's Letter to the Romans

“The word Christian today is more of a soporific than a slogan. So much – too much – is Christian: Churches, schools, political parties, cultural associations, and of course Europe, the West, the Middle Ages.

I read those words more than thirty years ago and they still ring true today.

They were written by Hans Kung in what was then a best seller, On being a Christian.

It was a book as he said at the very outset written for all those who, for any reason at all, honestly and sincerely want to know what Christianity, what being a Christian really means.

It is written also for those
Who do not believe, but nevertheless seriously inquire;
Who did believe, but are not satisfied with their unbelief;
Who do believe, but feel insecure in their faith,
Who are at a loss, between belief and unbelief;
Who are sceptical both about their convictions and about their doubts.
It is written then for Christians and atheists, Gnostics and agnostics, pietists and positivists, lukewarm and zealous Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox.

And somewhere in that long list was me more than 30 years ago.

What Hans Kung had to say captivated me … and I feel it even more so now.

What is special about Christianity? He asks early on in the book.

Many seek to answer that question by looking for abstract axioms, concepts, principles, ideas.

But Hans Kung was convinced – and he persuaded me.

It is not possible to find the answer there since Christianity, as its name alone suggests, cannot in the last resort be reduced to any kind of eternal ideas, abstract principles, human attitudes. The whole of Christianity is left hanging in mid-air if it is detached from the foundation on which it is built.

The foundation upon which Christianity is built is Jesus Christ.

With the eye of the historian we can uncover the Jesus of history. With the eye of the believer we can see through Jesus to the God who is love.

Jesus Christ invites faith and demands obedience of those who would follow him.

He offers us the free gift of love reaching out from God into our innermost being – that’s to say ‘grace’.

And he challenges us to live in the peace God gives and become peace-makers in a world too often divided. Romans 1:1-7

I want to say a big thank you to the likes of Hans Kung who have been an inspiration to me down through the years, and many others starting from my parents, through my Sunday school teachers, to my school teachers, lecturers, the many people in the churches I have belonged to through the years, not least this church and those I have shared with in the fellowship of our Congregational Federation, especially on our training course. Romans 1:8-15

Some criticised the BBC for sending so many to cover the Chile mine rescue. I wanted to say thank you! Wasn’t it wonderful to have so much of the news bulletins filled with Good News! What a remarkable rescue!

If that’s Good News how much more does our Christian faith rooted in Jesus Christ deserve to be called ‘Good News’. It is good news that we have received, and Good News that we are called on to share.

This Good News is nothing less than the power of God for salvation for all who believe, whatever background they come from. Romans 1:16-17

Mind you, it is not possible to get away from the bad news. It is our responsibility as Christians to turn the spotlight on the world we live in.

Where we see injustice, where we see immorality, where we see what is wrong we must speak out. Romans 1:18-32

We stand by the ten commandments, narrowed down to two Love God, Love your neighbour, summed up by Jesus in the Golden Rule do to others what you would have others do to you.

That sense of justice, the essence of that morality, that golden rule is not ours alone. On the wall in the Tantur Institute seminar room in that conference on reconciliation I attended a couple of years ago in Bethlehem was a poster with that Golden rule quoted from all the religions of the world.

There is something that is common to humanity, call it conscience if you will, that at rock bottom can tell the difference between right and wrong. Romans 2:1 – 3:20

How tragic that there is within us all, each one of us, the capacity to get it wrong. And it is the sad tale of the whole of humanity that we get it wrong.

But that is not the end of the story.

Jesus Christ presents us with a way out.

In that Chilean mine they called that pod that brought about that remarkable rescue ‘the phoenix’ – so-called after the bird that is destroyed but then arises again out of the ashes of the very fire that destroyed it.

For us as Christians Jesus Christ is nothing less than the phoenix – he is the one who offers a way out, a way to break the impasse.

The reality is that all of us, all of humanity, each one of us, without exception falls short of the ideal. We do not live up to it.

It can feel as if we are trapped in a world that is so destructive. Jesus shared with our humanity to the point of the cross and utter devastation. Through his resurrection we can share in his victory and see that destruction does not have the last word. That is liberating.

It can feel as if God has to be against us because we have so let him down. We can look to the cross, hear again Christ’s words of forgiveness and know that he has restored the closest possible relationship we could ever hope for with God.

It can feel as if we have to carry the weight of the world’s evil on our shoulders. We can look to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and see that he has shouldered that burden. As we see in him the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world, we know that he has taken away the sin of each one of us and God accepts us as we are.

Look to Jesus. Believe in Jesus. And there is a transformation. Romans 3:21 – 4:25

It must have taken some doing to step into that pod, into that Phoenix. Stepping from it was the most wonderful step of freedom anyone of those men had taken. The second to step out, Mario Sepulveda, leapt and sang and handed out stones and later explained the spiritual crisis he had experienced underground: “I was with God and I was with the devil, he said. They were fighting over me and God won. I grabbed on to the best hand. I held onto it and never thought for one minute that God wouldn’t get me out of there.”

The 17th miner to be set free Omar Reygadas, knelt on the ground, clutching a Bible as family and friends, and President of Chile looked on in silence.

What a difference their faith made to those miners in that ordeal.

What a difference our faith can make to us in any ordeal we face.

Jesus draws us into the embrace of a loving God who takes us by the hand and enables us to stand in that grace, knowing that we are forgiven. There is no escaping the world with its sufferings: as we journey through that world God holds us by the hand and enables us to face that world with endurance, with patience, and with a hope that will not disappoint us.

How can we be so sure? Because through Jesus Christ it is nothing less than the love of God that is poured into our hearts by that unseen yet very real strength and power of God that is his Holy Spirit. Romans 5:1-21

For those miners buried for 17 days before they were discovered and for another 49 days before they were set free it was nothing less than a burial and a resurrection.

Jesus comes with us, alongside us, and shares our humanity at its abject lowest … and then he lifts us into the presence of God in all his glory. A wonderful love that will not let us go. For us that experience is nothing less than a death and resurrection.

It is as if we can go right back to the beginning and begin all over again.
Romans 6:1-23

It is tough, however.

And the doubts and the questions remain.

And faced with some of the awfulness of our world, those questions get tougher.

It’s all very well the preacher latching on to the faith of those miners – but in so many other places the rescue doesn’t come. The suffering prevails.

And even in our own lives evil seems to have the last word.

The good that I would I do not, the evil that I would not that I do. Romans 7:1-25

The reality is that we cannot do it on our own.

I have often felt that if Christianity were nothing more than a way of life to follow it would be a recipe for breakdown and disaster for none of us can live up to the challenge Jesus Christ asks of us.

But Christianity is Good News.

That Good News is the power of God for salvation to all who believe.

And that power of God is let loose in our lives.

Sometimes people say prayer is the key. And it is. How vitally important prayer is. But what about those times when prayer doesn’t come, when prayer doesn’t work.

My words go up, my thoughts remain below
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.

It is precisely at those times when we find ourselves groaning in despair that God is actually with us. Remember the footprints. At that moment when there is only one set of prints and we feel as if God has abandoned us and we wail and groan inside … that’s the moment when God is carrying us. Those very groans and wails are nothing less than God within us in that unseen and yet very real presence of his groaning and wailing with us. The strength of that Spirit bears us through.

We are not alone. There is a strength beside us and within in the unseen, yet very real power of God, the Holy Spirit. Don’t be put off by the excesses of the Toronto Blessing, of speaking in tongues. The Holy Spirit is fundamental to our Christian faith, we cannot do without it – for that’s the strength we need to see us through.

For well over twenty years I have had a plaque on the wall of my study that says, Lord help me to remember that nothing is going to happen to me today that you and I together can’t handle.

In the conviction that God is present with me from day to day in his unseen yet very real power of the Holy Spirit, I can say that I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:1-39

That’s a conviction that is for me at least a very personal one. But for some in the church today it is a conviction to hold on to in the face of very great hardship and even persecution. One of those places where that is very apparent is in the Middle East. And it is focused in the Holy Land.

Jesus offers us the grace of God’s free forgiving love.
Jesus draws us into the peace of the presence of God and asks us to be peace-makers. How important for us to support in our praying and in every way we can those Christian churches who are seeking to live that out in the midst of the conflicts that come especially when the extremes of Judaism and Christianity clash with the extremes of Islam. Romans 9-11

The whole point of faith, the whole point of grace, the whole point of being in this relationship with Christ is that it shapes the way we lead our lives.

That’s what it all builds up to.

In response to the wonderful gift of God’s free forgiving love, let’s offer the whole of our lives in service to God by being of service to one another.

Let’s not go it alone.

Let’s play our part as part of the body of Christ, working together with those who share the faith in the life and work of the church.

Let us above all love one another, with a love that is sincere and genuine, with a love that does not draw boundaries but embraces all, with a love that shows honour and respect, and with a love that reaches out even to those who are our enemies. Romans 12

Alice Brown belonged first to Highbury when it was in Winchcombe Street, and returned to the church at the death of her sister about ten years ago. In her room in Lilian Faithful House she has a book case of 200 books most of which are books of poetry and classics of English literature. I found myself on Friday afternoon reading some of the poetry of Shakespeare and of John Donne.

I passionately take my stand on the insight of John Donne …

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main; if a Clod be washed away by the Sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never sent to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee ….

As Christians we have to be part of society and more than that we have to play our full part in that society. Romans 13

As Christians we have to be part of a community of Christian people that we get to know by name. How vital to the well-being of our church is our visiting scheme and the visitors meeting on Thursday – how important the lists we have of those who belong, diligently kept up to date for our visitors meeting. How important that we know each other by name. Of each other and of others outside we must never be judgemental and we must always recognise that the most important members of our church family are those who are the most vulnerable. Romans 14:1 – 16:24

The God of peace will overcome all evil
The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ will be with us.
Romans 16:20

And so to God who is able to strengthen us according to this wonderful good news that is nothing less than the power of God for salvation to all who believe,
To God who is able to strengthen us according to the message of Jesus Christ, a message that contains the key to the very meaning of life.
To God who is able to strengthen us according to those commandments that shape a life of faith
To the only wise God be glory for ever.
Romans 16:25-27

May the God of hope fill us with all joy and peace in believing,
So that we may abound in hope
By the power of the Holy Spirit.
Romans 15:13

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