Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Honour and Respect - a light that shines

Philip Clarke shared these thoughts with us during our Harvest Service on Sunday, 26th September. The Congregational Federation has entered into a partnership through Christian Aid with Oné Respé, a project working in the Dominican Republic. Philip Clarke, from Southam Congregational Church, joine a small group of people from CF churches who visited the Dominican Republic and the Oné Resé project last November.

Picture the scene:-

· Sitting in a service on a November evening – dark outside
· Service taking place in a large room beside the school – about 50 people there
· Service being led by members of the local community, all of whom live close to the school
· Worship involves hymns, Bible reading (Zaccheus), prayers (including Lords Prayer and open prayers from the congregation giving thanks to God for their many blessings), an address
· Music group accompanying the singing
· Refreshments (tea and cake) afterwards

So far so normal. Probably been to service similar to that – maybe many times.
But let me fill in a little more of the colour:-

· Maybe dark on this November evening – but still over 30˚c
· Room has wooden strips on walls with gaps to let some welcome cool air come through building – also, no glass in windows. Tin roof.
· 50 people seeing by light of one (energy efficient!) light bulb and three small candles floating in a bowl
· Music group were a Caribbean rhythm section – no guitars or keyboards!
· All in Spanish
· Me and my small group of friends are the only white people in the room
· Refreshments afterwards are delicious – but unlike any tea and cake I have ever had at home

I am, of course, along way from home - in Dominican Republic as part of group from the CF and Christian Aid visiting the project that we in the CF have been supporting over the last 2½ years.

At the heart of the service was a paradox, and the paradox was this. There were elements of the service that we found quite alien to our experience (heat, language, lack of light, the music). These would have been totally normal and everyday to our hosts. Paradoxically, however, those things which we found familiar (the fact they were holding a service at all, the leadership from local people) were the most unusual and striking and exciting to the local people.

The story behind the service, and the reason we could all gather on that hot November evening, is really the story of One Respe. Service gives us a snapshot, a microcosm, of what OR has been doing in the Dominican Republic and why we are now supporting it.

The story of OR is the story of a divided country.

· Country of great beauty and natural diversity (holiday destination) but also squalor and ugliness
· Some live in wealth but 44% live below the poverty line – 2nd poorest country in the Caribbean.
· Some benefit from access to education, housing and health facilities, but many do not
· IMPORTANTLY, a country whose people are rightly understood as happy and welcoming, but through whom runs a deep vein of racism.

As you know, the Dominican Republic shares the island of Hispaniola with a smaller and much poorer country – Haiti. Events of last few months following earthquake on 12/1/10 are well known. What is less well understood over here is that tensions between the relatively poor DR and desperately poor Haiti go back centuries.

Relationships difficult between two countries ever since colonial era – 200 years ago, but they have become even stronger over last century as the DR has tried to lift itself out of poverty through agriculture and tourism, whilst Haiti has continued to wallow as one of the poorest countries in the world.

Economic migration into the DR is well established. Initially welcomed by Gov’t – Haitians doing agricultural hobs that Dominicans didn’t want to do. Many lived on plantations in bateyes.

Urban migration more recent. Bought two nations face to face. Competing for work. Has led to major hostility between the two peoples; mistrust & prejudice. Seen in institutional racism: difficult for Haitians and those of mixed descent to access health, education and other services.

Result = communities marginalised – socially, politically, economically and physically.
· Often the most poor
· Often live at the margins of society – squatter settlements on land nobody else wants – for good reason.
· Can’t access health facilities or basic education
· Nobody to bring them together as a community / represent them / give them a community voice.

We tend to think of poverty in absolute terms – basics of life: food, water, shelter. But poverty, real poverty, is about more than this. Imagine what it would be like for us to be at the margins of society like this. Who would give us the tools and the confidence to lift ourselves out of poverty? Who would speak up for us?

Introduce Catuxo Badillo. Late 60’s. Born in Santiago. Travelled in Europe. Saw ideals of student movements in 1960s. What could he do in his own community? His response was One Respe. Over years, OR has worked alongside these marginalised Haitian and Dominico-Haitian communities to:-

· Bring communities together. Give them a place to meet and a voice
· Educate the children - have set up “little schools” – basic education up to age 13.
· Train and encourage local people to become community leaders.
· Train “health promoters” to work alongside local people to help people access medical care (often provided by other charities), and to provide support to people with long term illnesses
· Educate people in basic healthcare issues, such as HIV/Aids.
· Social skills training – “new masculinity” project.

Christian Aid has partnered OR since 1990, and the CF is partnering Christian Aid between 2008 and 2011 to support the work of OR in both Santiago and in Haina near Santo Domingo.

Today is Harvest Sunday when we give thanks for all the good things we enjoy (and maybe take for granted) and we remember those who can’t share the rich abundance that we enjoy. Also, a chance to think about our harvest. What would we offer to each other and to God as our harvest offering?

Just as we do when we think of poverty, we tend to focus on material things when we think of our harvest. We think of food, water, warmth and shelter. But surely, our harvest offering can and should be viewed as our total offering to God. What we do with our talents, resources and time to see God’s kingdom in our world.

In the work of OR, we saw the fruits of an abundant harvest:-

· People coming together as a community and having the confidence to grow
· People supporting each other in times of need.
· People filling the gaps where wider society has let them down – educating children
· Financial, emotional and prayer support from CA and directly from us within the CF supporting and enabling this work.

Why did I choose the story of Zacchaeus? Used at OR but also for another reason. Story of Zacchaeus is story of someone who, in this case through his own actions, became marginalised from his own community. We aren’t told why he went up that tree to see Jesus but we know he wanted to, and we know something of the immediate impact that meeting Jesus had on his life. I would love to know what happened to Zacchaeus after this story, but I would like to imagine that his life changed permanently and for the better. I would hope that his meeting with Jesus really was a turning point in his life and the catalyst to him re-engaging with his community and ceasing to be marginalised from it. Jesus helped him to re-connect with people round him, and in so doing change his life for good.

We should be careful before trying to draw too many parallels between Zacchaeus and the marginalised communities in the DR. Zacchaeus was rich, and he (we assume) brought his problems on himself. Neither is the case for marginalised communities within the DR. But maybe OR is fulfilling the role that Jesus filled in Zacchaeus’s life – showing him the way, and giving him the confidence, to find his place in his community and in wider society.

In closing, I would like to return to that hot schoolroom in Santiago and to the service. Haven’t yet mentioned the most surprising aspect of the service.

· OR suggested that the people should hold a service
· Supported – but could you provide a priest to lead the worship?
· No said OR – lead it yourselves.

Most remarkable feature of the service was that it was led by the people themselves, and particularly by the women. What a wonderful mark of their growing maturity and confidence as a community that they can do this, and praise God in their own way and very much in their own voices. This has been possible directly because of the support from OR. Can I just ask that today, for the rest of this partnership with Christian Aid, and into the future, we all continue to uphold these people, and the work they do, in out thoughts and prayers.

Can I leave you with a quotation from somebody we met in Santiago. Her name is Milagros Frias, and she is a teacher at the One Respe school in Los Perez in Santiago that we visited. She said:-

“Onè Respé is like a light. To imagine these communities without Onè Respé would be like they have lost a guiding light.”


Sunday, September 19, 2010

Children in Church

It was Becky’s doing!

I say that neither by way of blame, nor by way of praise.

I say it by way of explanation.

It was Becky who said that we should have a commissioning of all those who help with children’s work. It needs to come towards the beginning of a new session … and when we are all going to be around. And today’s service seemed a good moment to do that.

So, over to you. I then thought of readings we could draw on, a story to tell the children. What better story to tell than of the childhood of Jesus – the value he attached to learning, the place of ‘synagogue’ and ‘temple’ in his upbringing. The importance of church in the upbringing of our children.

And then a reflection, for the part of the service when the children have gone to their groups, on the place of children in the church family. We are thinking broadly at the moment of growing disciples. And what better place to start than with youngsters.

I turned once again to Matthew 18. Matthew’s Gospel is the Gospel that brings together the teaching of Jesus in blocks. They have a certain symmetry to them. Matthew 5,6,7 the Sermon on the Mount are balanced b y Matthew 23,24,25 – those are all chapters about living life in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus’s way of living for all who follow him to take to heart. The middle block of teaching is in Matthew 13 and is a whole series of parables and stories about what that kingdom is like – how it grows from the tiniest of seeds. And then on either side are two blocks of teaching on what it takes to be disciples of Jesus – in Matthew 10 Jesus commissions the twelve.

And here in Matthew 18 Jesus talks about what it takes to be church. This is the chapter in the Gospels where Jesus uses the word ‘church’ and where he speaks most about the nature of ‘the church’. Here in this chapter, we get that wonderful verse that is so important to us in our understanding of ‘church’ ‘where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

So what is ‘church’?

What is at the heart of ‘church’?

Church is very much a grown-up institution for grown-ups. We want to teach children so that they can grow up into the church. And become part of this grown-up institution that we so value. The children’s bit is great. Good fun. But now we can get down to the real business of being church. We are grown-ups together. And this is a grown-up institution for grown-ups.

The whole idea of ‘church’ was something new for those disciples who came to Jesus on this particular occasion.

They knew what the grown-up world was like. There were people you looked up to. And as grown ups you knew who those people were.

So their question was quite a natural one.

At that time The disciples came to Jesus and asked, “who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

Natural though there question may have been, the response Jesus gave was not all that they expected. In fact it was not what they expected at all.

And to people who live in the grown up world it comes as rather a shock.

He called a child, whom he put among them, 3and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

This turns on its head the grown-up world’s thinking about children.

It really does come as a bit of a shock!

In this church that Jesus is forming, that is later to be thought of as nothing less than the Body of Christ, children are central. In Jesus eyes they are not the church of the future. Our task is not to help them grow up into the grown up world and adopt its values.

It’s the opposite way round. Children are important. They belong. They are part of us. Because they are the most important part of us. They are around constantly as a reminder to us grown ups of what we must be like.

We have to learn from them.

Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Last Sunday night those of us who were at the evening service were privileged to hear one of the most personal sermons that I have ever heard, preached from the heart, in the raw only three months after losing his wife. What’s after death? Was the question Eric Burton addressed. And it was most moving to hear. He gave Diana a transcript of the sermon … it is up on the web site and it will be in the next issue of Highbury News. It is well worth reading. During his sermon he played a song by a young Salvation Army member – it’s on the website – The road is long but I want to reach my destination – I want to see this man called Jesus.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to catch a glimpse of this Jesus before reaching that destination?

And that is exactly what Jesus offers. And it is here in church.

Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

That goes right to the heart of the thinking that Eric Burton brought with him from the Youth and Chidlren’s department of the then Congregational Union in England and Wales in 1966 when he moved here to Highbury. It is what he encapsulated in his manifesto for a family church of all ages where there are ‘No Walls Within’. It is the ethos of the church we now belong to here.

Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

And the opposite holds as well.

Where were you 28 years ago this weekend? I remember it well.

It was the Sunday of the very first visit of a Pope to these islands. There was in 1982 an excited spirit of ecumenism about the church. His visit was greeted with excitement, not least because it was part of a moving of the spirit that was beginning to take a hold in Eastern Europe and here was a Polish Pope. And as he was taking mass, I found myself preaching at a mass in the Roman Catholic Church in the neighbouring village to ours in Yorkshire.

How times have changed!

As one set of walls came down, others took their place – and too many of the new walls have to do with religion. The spirit of ecumenism is harder to find. Animosity has been far more evident. Indifference too. But most awfully of all … the child abuse scandals, not least in the Roman Catholic Church. It is a shame that has tarnished us all … and not just in the church! Other scandals that have emerged in our society as well are to our shame.

Suddenly these words of Jesus take on an ominous significance.

If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. 7Woe to the world because of stumbling-blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling-block comes!

We have to take to heart these words, and couple them with the words earlier. And re-commit ourselves to our children. Not as the church of the future but as the very ones who make the church – the ones in whom we can see the face of Jesus.

So what have we done?

We have a set of guidelines we have followed – every room has windows in the doors – nothing can be done out of sight of others happening past. Each children’s group has a leader – but also a helper. An adult not on their own with a child. Safe from harm guidelines we are reminded of in our Annual Meeting each year. We have an inspection. Procedures to follow in the event of anyone being unhappy with something that they have seen an adult do with a child. All working with children properly checked and prepared. Mary Michael as our named person who is the person to share any concern with. Good practice we seek to follow. All of it common sense. But common sense we commit to putting into practice. A poster that has to be renewed every three years. And on top of that as we shall be hearing in due course ‘the child friendly church’ award we have just passed to show we are ‘child-friendly’.

But it’s not just for the leaders out there.

It is for all of us. We all of us must be on the lookout for our children. We all of us have to be careful, and caring in how we relate to our children.

For us to be welcoming to children is at the heart of what it means to be church.

Out of sight and out of mind? Or in the midst?

One other change in recent years. On the night when he was betrayed Jesus met with his disciples to share in the Passover. One thing that has happened in recent years is that people have made links with Christian things like communion and their Jewish roots. The Jewish Passover is a family gathering – when all the family comes together. The youngest has a key part to play asking a question that prompts the head of the household to recount the story of Passover.

And what of us in communion.

Our of sight and out of mind? Or in the midst?

There are different ways of looking at it. And we have decided not to do it every time, but every other month instead.

But this is a month when the children will come back and be with us in communion. Part of the family. Doing what we as the whole family of Christ’s body, the church in this place do together as a family – taking bread, taking of the cup and remembering this Jesus Christ.

‘Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven.

* 12What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?

13And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. 14So it is not the will of your
* Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Beyond Death? Revelation 22

The Rev Eric Burton was Minister at Highbury from 1966 to 1977.

Now into his 80's, Eric took the services at Highbury on Sunday, 12th September. During the evening service he told us that this was only the second occasion he had directly addressed the subject of what is beyond death in a preaching ministry spanning nearly 70 years.

He had been prompted to preach in this way following the untimely death of his second wife only three months ago.

It was very moving to hear his reflections and good to share them here ...

Meditation – Beyond Death?
Revelation 22

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever. velation 22:1-5

Following Eileen Davison's fatal fall from a horse the media reported on the consequent distribution of parts of her body. Resulting from those transplants, five people are continuing to live with renewed hope of good health. That fact, relatives of the deceased said, "It's the only hope in the chaos.” The only hope?

Since the recent sudden, quite unexpected death of Viv­ienne, my lovely loving wife, I find more hope in the prom­ises of Jesus in pages of the Bible and words such as these:

"His servants shall serve Him; and they shall see His face; and they shall reign for ever and ever." (Revelation 22. 3,4 & 5).

In sixty seven years of preaching only once have I dared to do so about the nature of life beyond the thin veil we call 'Death'. That surprisingly was way back on the 27th August 1944! The evidence is here (not written in green inkl) Dh, the self assertion of youth!

I am consoled to find that in those same early years I frequently chose Dora Greenwell's lovely hymn for congre­gations to sing.

“I am not skilled to understand
what God has willed, what God has planned;
I only know at his right hand
stands one who is my saviour.”

To attempt to pry would be useless and perhaps irrever­ent. For many, a story John Baillie tells in his masterly book ‘And the Life Everlasting', will suffice.

A patient informed by his devotedly Christian doctor that his end was near, asked if he had any conviction as to what awaited him beyond death. His doctor fumbled for an answer. Just then there was a scratching at the door. “Do you hear that?" the doctor asked his patient. “That is my dog I left downstairs. He has grown impatient and come up and hears my voice. He has no idea that is on this side of that door, but he knows I am here. Is that not the same with you? You do not know what lies beyond, but you know your Master is there."

"I know not what the future hath
Of marvel or surprise,
Assured alone that life and death
His mercy underlies."

His Servants shall serve him

While the New Testament is very vague about life beyond death, it does stress most emphatically that it is all religious. "His servants shall serve Him; they shall see His face and His name shall be in their foreheads" … It is all concerned with Him, His glory.

Dr. Leslie Weatherhead used to invite people to imagine two people going to a classical music concert. The first, Adam, trained in music, plays brilliantly, enters into every part of the concert. Zed goes to the concert to please his friend. Bored with music the concert leaves him cold.

At the concert Adam lives in a world of wonder, love and praise. Zed is just alive, that's all. They sit together, between them there is a great gulf. Zed cannot cross it in a moment and be where Adam is. Adam's long training and practice allow him to revel fully in this great musical treat. Poor Zed feels horribly out of it. He cannot re­spond to music, and at the concert music is everything there is to respond to!

I wonder if dying is something like that: passing into a spiritual world where all the enjoyment is spiritual. We all survive, I think. But whether we live to the full and revel in that life will surely depend on the extent to which we discover the spiritual dimension in this life here. I never think of heaven and hell as two places.

Another of Whittier's hymns ends:

"To turn aside from Thee is hell,
To walk with Thee is heaven."

Jesus said, "I go to prepare a place for you, that where I am you may be also." (John 14.2 & 3) Those words were spoken to the dis­ciples who had followed Jesus and tried to serve him here on earth.

“Some day or other I shall surely come
Where true hearts wait for me;
Then let me learn the language of that home
While here on earth I be:
Lest my poor lips for want of words be dumb
In that high company.”

They shall see His face

The writer of those words had seen it, loved it, lived in the light of it. He set down these five words as being sufficient for all our needs. What a promise! The best of all promises.

I am very fond of a song called 'The Road is Long' written by a Salvation Army teenager. Its repeated refrain and final line is: "I want to see this man called, this man called Jesus, I want to see the risen Lord.”
In what is for me the most satisfying statue of Jesus, Thorwalden's 'Come unto Me', the head is bowed. "If you want to see his face," the sculptor said, "You must get on your knees."

Richard Baxter wrote:

"Come, Lord, when grace has made me meet
Thy blessed face to see;
For if thy work on earth be sweet,
What will thy glory be!
My knowledge of that life is small,
The eye of faith is dim;
But 'tis enough that Christ knows all,
And I shall be with him.“

They shall reign for ever and ever

Two little girls were looking at a painting of Queen Victoria seated on an ornate throne, the orb in one hand and the sceptre in the other, a crown on her head and wearing the most royal robes of state. One girl whispered to the other, "What is she doing,?” The other replied, “She is just reigning:"

With that word 'reign' erase from your mind thoughts of thrones and rulers. Think rather in terms of deliverance from, and victory over doubts, fears, sins and suffering that so hinder our vision while here on earth.

Returning one day from the funeral of his dearly loved son, some friends of the great German theologian Dr. Harnack, wondered what he would do. Do? He went into his study and opened his Bible at John 13.7 and underlined that verse in red ink. Therein that great man found his Christian hope.

It reads: ‘Jesus said, "You do not realise now what I am doing, but later, you will understand."

I have in my possession a very precious scrap of paper.
On it the last words my first dear wife Joy ever wrote: It reads:

“Funeral hymns ….. ‘All my hope on God is founded’

Hope to find one with more about the love of God."

That hymn was sung at the service in which we gave thanksgiving for her life upon earth.

"His servants shall serve him. They will see his face, and they shall reign for ever and ever. " Amen

The sermon over, Eric, moved to the platform and invited Maureen Williams, one of our church members to the lecturn. He introduced the reading she was to share with these moving words:

"We move to a very personal note in this service, which I hope you will allow.

When my second lovely, lovable wife died three months ago we received, and are still receiving, letters and prayers not least from this church at Highbury, and we are so grateful as a family for all the help, in prayer in particular that you have given to us.

Some people have sent us letters, and some sent poems, and one of the most helpful came from someone in this church, and she is going to read those words which she sent in writing to me, and she is going to read them to me now - thank you Maureen."

You can shed tears that she is gone,
or you can smile because she has lived.
You can close your eyes and pray that she'll come back,
or you can open your eyes and see all she's left.

Your heart can be empty because you can't see her,
or you can be full of the love you shared.
You can turn your back on tomorrow and live yesterday,
or you can be happy for tomorrow because of yesterday.

You can remember her only that she is gone,
or you can cherish her memory and let it live on.
You can cry and close your mind,
be empty and turn your back.

Or you can do what she'd want:
smile, open your eyes, love and go on.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

What it takes to be a disciple

Where’s it all been leading up to?

It has been fascinating re-visiting Peter’s story for the Holiday Club this year. If ever there was an example of the Christian faith as a journey then Peter’s story surely has to be it.

What struck me forcibly this time as I was telling the story again was the way in which Peter is grappling with faith, what God means to him in the context of a very troubled, cruel world.

That first encounter with Jesus on the shore of the sea of Galilee comes hard on the heels of the arrest of John the Baptist who had aroused such hopes among so many in the stand he had taken against the powers the be. His imprisonment put paid to those hopes.

Peter was working in an industry, and fishing was very much an industry, on the Sea of Galilee that suffered massive exploitation on the part of the Roman powers that be that had been instrumental in having John the Baptist arrestetd.

Leave your nets was an invitation to follow a different path and discover a different way, God’s way of building society. It was good news that Jesus had to share about the kingdom of God, about God’s rule and the difference it would make.

The teaching of Jesus was electrifying, the healing he brought into people’s lives, not least into Peter’s very own home, was remarkable. There came a point when Peter was sure he was the one, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.

He really was Peter, the Rock, and on that faith Jesus would build his church.

But he hadn’t really got it.

Peter had a hang-up.

His hang-up was a hang-up that so many people have.

Since my return from holiday, I found myself put on the spot by someone of a scientific way of thinking, who had exactly the same hang-up.

Peter could not get his mind around suffering. It was a major thing for him. When Jesus said to him that he would have to suffer, to the point of an agonizing death on the cross. That was simply too much for Peter.

That is not possible.

It did not square with peter’s understanding of God.

How is it possible to believe in God in a world of suffering.

That was the question put to me. And it is a massive question. It doesn’t have any easy answers. I found myself as the conversation came to an end – pointing to the reflections I had made in the August issue of Highbury News. In anticipation of Greenbelt I had recalled one of the speakers who had made a big impression on me.

Richard Rohr a Franciscan had reflected on the way Jesus refused to give cut and dried answers to the questions he was posed. As often as not Jesus responded to questions with more questions. But those questions were the kind that made people think. Richard Rohr suggested that we should not be for ever on the look out for answers, but for answering persons. People who are prepared to share.

Jesus was one of those. Richard Rohr did not disappoint at Greenbelt. The two talks I went to of his I found an inspiration.

In one he came to this massive problem that so many, Peter included, have such hang-ups over. This is the world as it is. We may wish the world were different, but this is the world. It is a world where there is untold suffering. Suffering be it in the animal kingdom, in the planet itself, in human experience is part of the warp and weft of life itself.

Richard Rohr pointed back to Jesus – it was the Jesus that Peter encountered.

Peter sensed Jesus was the one. The one who he and his people had been waiting for, the one who would open up God in a new way, the one who would usher in God’s rule, God’s kingdom, the one who through that electrifying teaching, in that healing would make such a difference in people’s lives.

Peter stuck with Jesus. And Peter plumbed the depths of agonising suffering. He tried to stick with Jesus, lied through his teeth, and claimed never to have known him … and he is reduced to bitter tears.

It would have been wonderful – and Peter with his hang-up over suffering, longed for it to be so – if it had been possible for Jesus to avoid that suffering, for him to be able to avoid the tears.

But something happens through the suffering. It is perverse that it is through the suffering, that Peter comes to encounter something beyond in the risen Christ. And the risen Christ three times counters Peter’s three denials – do you love me?

The cruel world remains.

It is not changed.

But Peter now discovers a strength to enable him to live in that world and to bear withness to the new way of life Jesus has opened up – that strength is the unseen, yet very real power of God, the Holy Spirit.

Now Peter seeks to live out Jesus’ way – he echoes the teaching, he brings healing to people whose lives are hurting.

And Peter falls foul of the powers that be. He is arrestetd by the very Herpod who had imprisoned and executed John the Baptist, tried Jesus, and now determined on the very anniversary of Jesus’ trial and execution to have Peter brought out to face the crowd … and meet his death.

Imprisoned, Peter prays, and knows that the followers of Jesus are also praying. And he is delivered.

But still he has not reached the end of his journey.

The base of that Roman power in what we have come to know as the Holy Land was Caesarea – a typical, Roman city on the shores of the Mediterranean. The hub of Rome’s trade with the middle East. The base for the Roman power.

It is one step too far for Peter to welcome, let alone reach out with love and blessing to the Roman occupiers. To heap insult upon insult the creaters in that sheet which in his vision he sees lowered from heaven are the very animals that are the staple of the Roman diet, not least in banquest such as that one at which John the Baptist was executed. The very foods good Jews knew should not be eaten.

And the voice of God said to Peter, rise up , kill and eat.

And when he awoke it was a Centurion of the Italian cohort from Caesarea that Peter found himself sharing the love of God in Christ with.

I now know, he said, that God shows no partiality.

Where’s it all leading?

Where’s it all going?

It’s after this that Peter writes his letter. It’s a round-robin letter to followers of Jesus anywhere and everywhere, especially those scattered throughout the Roman empire.

Where’s it all heading.

There’s a wonderful word he reaches here.
The word ‘finally’.

Gives us a clue.

Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind.

This has to be one of those treasured moments in Peter’s story. It’s what his life story has been building up to.

This is what it takes if we want to be true to Jesus … and true to living out the kind of life that Peter learned about.

Be of one mind, have unity of spirit. We who follow Jesus need to stick together. I know that’s easier said than done … but this is a touch stone. People are people, and we are no less prone to falling out.

But if a church family becomes fractious, that’s a warning – it shouldn’t be like that. We should have unity of spirit. That goes to the heart of our understanding of church. WE invite all who belong to come along to our Church Meeting. Some think of it as a very democratic exercise – where we vote. But that’s not how we should think of it. The purpose of our meeting together is to seek out what we sense to be the mind of Christ for us. Always, we should seek God’s support that we can he of one mind, and have unity of spirit.

I followed Thursday night’s church meeting with a meeting of Cheltenham’s church leaders at which we welcomed the new Archdeacon of Cheltenham and shared our thoughts about churches of Cheltenham working together. I introduced myself as being the one who had been longer in Cheltenham than any other … to be contradicted by Ally Bates who had arrived with her husband in ministry at what was then the New Life Church – in 1987. We found ourelves reflecting on the need to seek that oneness of spirit, that mind of Christ together as churches. And that was something special to be doing that here at Highbury.

But then comes another insight of Peter’s – have ‘sympathy’; lover for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind.

Sympathy is a word that trips off the tongue and is so easy to use. But as Peter uses it, it is a strong word. It literally means, suffer with each other.

Have a tender heart – literally means – have compassion to the point at which you feel an ache in your gut, in your stomach for each other.

There is no answer to that question that was such a hang-up for Peter.

But in a suffering world there is a response. And it is the response that Peter learned not from any easy answers that Jesus gave, but through experiencing and sharing in suffering with Jesus.

That response involves coming alongside those who suffer, sharing that suffering with them, carrying it together, in love for another, the kind of love that is gut-wrenching and filled with compassion.

And of all this in humility.

Be very wary of those for whom religion is full of the word ‘no’ and full of anger at those who have not got it. That was another thought form Richard Rohr. And another lesson learned by Peter.

Once he had been so prepared to think of himself as different from.

But now he urges a different response to the evil he saw around.

Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse;
On the contrary repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called – that you might inherit a blessing.

That word blessing is a fascinating one. It literally means – speak well of someone.

What does it mean to bless someone. It means when something awful is done to you by someone – don’t simply dwell on that and give as good as you get. Instead look for something of God in that person, and as you do tat find something good to say of that person. And that will become the blessing you give and the blessing you receive.

Where does it all end?

We don’t know for certain what happened to Peter.

Every indication is that he did in the end face the very same treatment at the hands of the Roman powers that be that Jesus had received.

There is no escaping the suffering of our world. But there is a way of living that Jesus opens up for us, that enables us to live in that world in a different way, and then enter into an inheritance that has been waiting for us that nothing can destroy.

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