Sunday, 29 April 2012

Easter 4: God is greater than our hearts

1 John 3. 16-24, John 10.11-18

As you may know, I haven’t been around much this week. That’s not because I was swanning off on holiday again. I have been serving on an Advisory Panel in Ely assessing people who want to become priests. I usually do about one of these a year. It’s very hard work, and I’m always exhausted at the end, but it’s a great privilege and joy too.

By the time they come to us on one of these Panels the candidates will have already spent a long time reflecting with others in their own Dioceses. There’s a very rigorous process to go through. You can’t just walk in off the street and ask to be a priest. But this Panel is the bit that will really determine the future. We make recommendations to their Bishops about whether they should go into training for ordained ministry, and usually the Bishops follow those recommendations.

It’s a very thorough process, and we don’t come to our judgements lightly. There are three advisors to each group of eight candidates and over a couple of days we watch them make presentations and lead discussions, and each of the advisors interviews them in depth. One advisor looks particularly at why they feel called to the priesthood, what their experience of the Church of England is and what their spiritual life is like. Another looks at whether they will cope with the intellectual demands of priesthood. You don’t have to be a genius, but you need to be able to do the study, think on your feet, communicate, relate your faith to the real world. The third advisor – and this is my role at these Panels – is the Pastoral Advisor, and in many ways I get to look at the most basic things of all, character and personality, how the ups and downs of life have shaped them ? Are they mature enough, stable enough, resilient enough? Do they know themselves and accept themselves? Can they get along with others, take responsibility, be some use to those who are suffering?  We’re not looking for perfect people – in fact we’re always suspicious of those who look too good to be true, because they probably are . We are looking for people who have learned from their lives, come to terms with their losses, accepted their limitations. It’s not to do with age – I’ve seen some wonderful young candidates who have wisdom far beyond their years, and old ones who don’t know themselves at all, whose unhealed wounds would soon poison their ministry.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that those who aren’t recommended for training are bad people, or any less able than others. It may be simply that this isn’t the right role for them, and that they should be using their talents in some other way, but we do have to look very thoroughly at these very personal aspects of their lives to see if they could cope with ordained ministry, for their sake and for the sake of those to whom they will minister.

I’m telling you all this not just to explain why I might be looking a bit tired – though I am – or just because I think you might be interested, but because when I got home and started preparing today’s sermon, I was struck by how well the readings fitted with what I had spent the week doing. In the Gospel Jesus talks about good shepherds and bad ones; and in a way that is exactly what I had been looking for. Were these the kind of people who would stick with those they served when the wolf came and the going got tough or would they panic or, worse still, just decide it was above their pay grade and head for the hills? And in our second reading too there was a lot of talk of what was in our hearts, which was just the question I’d been asking myself about these candidates – what makes them tick, what is at the centre of their being? When you peel back all the layers, who are they really? There was one phrase in the reading which particularly struck home. John says that what is in our hearts is important, but more than that, if we are to be the people God intends us to be – whether we are priests or not – we also need to know that “God is greater than our hearts.”

To understand what that’s about we need to know a bit about what someone living in the first century like John meant when they talked about the heart.

For us, the heart tends to be associated with feelings, emotions. “Does your heart rule your head or the other way round?  we ask. The heart is where the mushy stuff happens, the head is where the logical thinking goes on. But ancient people didn’t see it like that. They didn’t know what the brain for – in fact some schools of thought believed it was just a cooling device. And they thought their emotions were located in their guts, which makes sense really, since that’s where we often feel them. The heart was the place where thinking happened, the place where you made decisions, the place where you formed your image of yourself, your idea of who you were. It was the centre of your being, the essence of your Self.  

So, when John talks about hearts in that second reading, he’s talking about our sense of ourselves, of who we are. He talks about hearts that need to be reassured, hearts that might condemn us, and most of all,  hearts that need to be put in perspective. What we think of ourselves is important, he says, but “God is greater than our hearts.”
Let’s go back to those Advisory Panels I serve on. The people who come to them have been through all sorts of experiences, good and bad, just like all of us. My job is to help find out how those experiences have shaped them, how they have affected the way they think of themselves – their hearts, in John’s terms. Often I ask “What gifts and what scars do you think your life has left you with?” It tells me how self-aware they are, but it also tells me whether they see themselves as victims of their circumstances, or whether they feel they can be more than that. Over the years I’ve seen people who’ve been bullied or abused as children,  told they were useless, that they’d never amount to anything. But what I want to know is, do they still think of themselves like that? Is that still what is in their hearts, their image of themselves? It’s hard to shed those messages completely, but have they learned that they are more than that, that God is bigger than their hearts, bigger than that self-image?  I’ve seen people who have failed spectacularly, who’ve made a real mess of their lives and been convinced at that point that they were beyond redemption. That’s understandable, but are do they still think that, or do they believe in a God who is greater than their hearts? Have they found forgiveness, and stood up on their feet again. Have they learned from their mistakes? If they haven’t then they will probably come crashing down again, but if they have they will have precious gifts to give to those they meet in their ministry who feel the same.
I’ve also seen people – just a few – whose lives seem to have been plain sailing when they were young – lucky them – and who grew up assuming the world would fall at their feet. That sounds fine, but it often breeds complacency, naivety, and maybe a desire to play it safe, just in case they disturb that apparently life-long lucky streak. I want to know, though, whether they’ve got the courage to beyond that charmed life, and put themselves in places where they might fail or feel out of their depth. Only if they’ve done that will they learn that God is greater than their hearts, and find the resilience that will take them through testing times.

In our Psalm today we met someone who certainly had learned that, who would, I suspect, sail through his Advisory Panel if he came to it. The person who wrote the well-loved words of Psalm 23 was talking of his life. He’s a shepherd – a good shepherd from the sound of it. As he thinks about his life he realises that just as he’s led his sheep through all sorts of landscapes, so he’s been on a journey too, through landscapes of his own. There have been green pastures and still waters – places of rest and refreshment. There have been right pathways to choose, times when the road has been long and tough. There have been dark valleys too, frightening places where he wondered if he’d survive at all. Was he up to the journey on his own? Was his heart, his confidence, his ability great enough for it?  No, of course not, no more than his sheep would have survived without him to care for them. The important thing he has realised, though, is that just as he has been there for them, God has been there for him. “The Lord is my shepherd,” he says, and that is why he can also say “I shall not be in want” or “Therefore can I lack nothing,” or “I have everything I need” as other translations put it. Looking back he has realised that God was always with him, and that meant that it wasn’t all down to him, to what was in his heart, to what he thought about himself, what he thought he was capable of. As he looked back he realised that God had given him blessings he hadn’t expected or earned, green pastures and still waters just when he needed them, joys that refreshed him. At other times God had nudged him towards the right path, through the words of others, or some inner sense of where to go – it wasn’t his doing. In the darkest moments, when he was utterly stuck, he could see now that God had just been there, beside him in the darkness, known in the touch of a friend, perhaps, who had no magic wand or clever words, but just stuck around till the morning came. Even in the presence of those who troubled him, in the face of his enemies, there had been food aplenty, the oil of welcome, the cup that overflowed. His own heart might not have felt big enough to meet the demand, but he didn’t have to do it by himself. God’s vision of him was bigger. He had everything he needed.

God is greater than our hearts, says John, and I think that message would be echoed by the lives of many of those I’ve met this week. He is greater than our selves, greater than our abilities. Whoever we think we are, God’s picture of us is greater than that, deeper than that, better than that, and when we know that we have courage to grow into what we can be, not victims of our circumstances, but able to live in the freedom that God wants for his children. You don’t have to be a priest, or someone who wants to be a priest, for this to be true. It is true for all of us. Amen

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Easter 3: Let's hear it for the broiled fish!

The disciples were quaking with terror. Frankly it had been a terrible weekend. Jesus had been brutally killed, and for all they knew they were next in line for execution. Now rumours were spreading that he was alive again. People said they’d seen him, that the tomb was empty. None of it made sense and his followers felt they had been catapulted into a world where everything they knew had dissolved, melted around them into baffling mystery. And now, to cap it all, he seemed to be standing in front of them, appearing out of nowhere. I’d be terrified too, and so, I guess, would you. It was all completely beyond them, overwhelming and surreal.

They stand there, stunned into silence, and Jesus says…“Have you got anything to eat?” What? Miracles are happening in front of their eyes, the world is being turned upside down, and all Jesus cares about is the fact that he is feeling peckish? It’s as if he showed up here today, standing among us in all his shimmering glory, and announced “You know, I could murder a nice cup of tea…”

I read one commentary on this story this week which rather wrote this story off. “Couldn’t Luke have done better than this?” the commentator asked. Somehow the image of Jesus munching his way through a bit of broiled fish, apparently just to make a point that he wasn’t a ghost, was too banal, too ordinary. What has broiled fish got to do with the vanquishing of death, the opening of the gates of glory, the life everlasting and the new creation? It does all seems a bit mundane.  But I think that is just the point. It is mundane; mundane literally means to do with the earth, with the reality we can see and know.

Our first reading was all about the real and the physical too. It is an account of the aftermath of the healing of a man who had been lame from birth. Peter and John had come across him begging at the gate of the Temple. He asked them for money, but they had none. Instead they offered him healing, something which would liberate him from his dependency on the charity of others as well as relieving his physical pain and disability. Straightaway he jumped to his feet, praising God. We don’t know what happened to him after his healing – did he join the disciples, or just melt back into the crowd? – but in real physical terms his life was transformed, and that seems to have been what mattered most to Peter. The life of Jesus, who he calls the Author of Life, life itself, had overflowed into this man’s life and the change that brought about was absolutely real and tangible.

Of course, we tend to come to stories like these – of resurrection and miraculous healing – with a lot of sceptical baggage. With our post-Enlightenment understanding, we often get completely stuck on their impossibility and can go no further with them. But we need to recognise that our viewpoint – and our problems – wouldn’t have been shared by those who first heard and told these stories. People of the first century, and many centuries before and after  didn’t think resurrection or miraculous healing were impossible. They believed the world was ruled by the will of God, not the law of nature. If he wanted to heal or raise from the dead, he could. I know I have said this before, from this pulpit, but I’m saying it again because if we want to be able to read the Bible in an intelligent way it’s vital that we understand this. I don’t know what we would have seen if we had been there on Easter Day or at the Temple gates. I don’t know what the disciples saw. They weren’t trying to address our modern concerns with recording facts .But I do know what it meant to them. Somehow their experiences convinced them that God was at work in their midst, and at work in a very specific way which revealed his priorities for his world and his church.   

And it all comes back to the broiled fish.

We often think of Christmas as the great feast of the incarnation – God becomes flesh in the child of Bethlehem. But actually for the early Christians it is clear that Easter was just as much about incarnation as Christmas, and perhaps even more so. It was just as much to do with bodies, bodies that lived and breathed, ate and touched, felt pain and pleasure too. “You shall call his name Emmanuel” says the Angel Gabriel to Mary before he is born. Emmanuel is Hebrew for “God is with us”. But if it is a fitting title for the baby in the manger, it is even more appropriate for the risen Christ. God is with us, says the Resurrection, even though we have tried so hard to send him away into the shadows of death. God is with us even though we have done our best to wipe him from the face of the earth. God is with us, in the person of Jesus, raised from death, different in some ways, but unmistakeably flesh and blood too as he eats that piece of broiled fish, something you could smell and taste, with bones you had to pick out from between your teeth, and juices you had to lick off your fingers, as real as it gets. God is with us, and at work in the nitty-gritty things of life, just as committed to his world , in all its messy physicality, as he always had been.

The resurrection, just like Jesus’ birth, is a message that our vulnerable, fallible bodies aren’t some kind of prison for the far more noble spiritual material of our souls, prisons which we should look to rise above and long to be delivered from. They are a gift from God, who made the world and all that was in it, who looked at it and called it good.

That mattered to the early Christians, whose words we are reading when we read the New Testament. They didn’t have the physical presence of Jesus among them anymore, but they were still convinced that he was very much there. They believed that they encountered him first and foremost  in one another, as they tried to form new communities, drawing together Jew and Gentile, slave and free, men and women. They were the body of Christ.  It wasn’t about mysterious rituals or complex liturgy or abstract theological ideas, but about the real, and often rather ordinary, things of life, the things that can seem insignificant, but make all the difference. Jesus commandment to them had been “to love one another as I have loved you”, They were to wash one another’s feet, share their belongings, treat others with dignity and respect, look first to the needs of those who were most vulnerable, those at the bottom of the pile and help them in the practical, physical ways that they most needed, regardless of whether there was any reward for them in doing so.

When I hear people today saying that faith should be something private and spiritual, that Christians shouldn’t make waves about the way we spend money, or look after the environment, or engage with our local communities, I have to wonder what Bible they are reading, because the one I read seems to me to be all about these very real and practical issues. It says very little about life after death, and a great deal about life before it. I get a bit fed up, too, with Christians complaining that they are being made invisible if they can’t wear crosses to work. Frankly if people need to see a cross around your neck or on your lapel to know that you follow Christ, there is something wrong with the way you are living out your faith. Jesus said that people would know we were his followers by our love, not by our jewellery. The cross isn’t just a club membership badge, it is, or should be, a way of life that is obvious in our attitudes and actions towards others.

After this service we will be holding our Annual Parochial Church Meeting – the APCM. It’s a legal requirement that we have such a meeting, and like all legal things it is surrounded by all sorts of jargon and littered with paperwork. We elect new members of the PCC and churchwardens. We receive the accounts and the reports of what has been done to look after the fabric of the church. Frankly, it can seem as if it is all about drainpipes and deficits and ticking boxes to make sure we comply with charity legislation – not exactly thrilling, unless you are into that sort of thing.
It’s tempting to think it doesn’t really matter, that it is a descent from the sublime to the ridiculous, from the really important stuff, prayer and worship, to dull trivialities.

But our Bible readings today should remind us that, in God’s eyes, these things really matter. They are the broiled fish of our lives, the real, nitty-gritty, practical ways in which we live out our faith, a faith that is all to do with flesh and blood, with ordinary people trying to live ordinary lives in a way that speaks to others of the love of God. The fabric of the church matters because for so many it provides a safe space for reflection and comfort in a trying world – that applies to those who slip in and out in secret as well as those who come to public worship. The jobs done by members of the church matter; looking after the church hall, getting involved in the school as foundation governors, providing transport to the over-60’s club, visiting those who are housebound. It is these things which in this place – the place where God has put us - make him real to those around us. It is in these things that they meet him – or don’t as the case may be.

So let’s hear it for broiled fish, because that’s where we discover that God is real and that God is with us.


Sunday, 8 April 2012

Easter Sunday

Mark 16.1-8

I wonder what sort of anxiety dreams you have; those dreams where you find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time, with the wrong equipment, and somehow you can’t seem to put it right. Everyone has them, but what form they take depends on what you do for a living. Teachers, I expect, dream of finding themselves standing in front of a class they didn’t know they were meant to be taking and doctors of treatments that go disastrously wrong. Taxi drivers probably dream of being hopelessly lost somewhere, and actors of being on stage, but with no idea what play they are in.
Priests – if I am at all typical – dream that they are here in the pulpit preaching when they discover that the last page of the sermon has gone missing… Don’t worry, as far as I can see it is all here this morning.

But Mark’s Gospel, from which this morning’s account of the resurrection comes is the kind of thing that might well feature in such a nightmare, because, as far as we can see that is just what happened to it. It ends on a very puzzling note – and this is the very end of the gospel itself. “The women went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” The end.

Is that it…?

Where is the bit where Jesus appears to them? Where is the bit where it all starts to make sense? Where is the bit where their terror turns to joy? Did Mark really mean it to finish like this? Biblical scholars tend to think that, just as in those priestly nightmares, the last page of his Gospel was indeed lost at some early stage, ripped off by accident. The early church really just consisted of scattered small groups of persecuted believers often meeting in secret, so it’s easy to imagine that happening.  

But in many ways I’m glad we have lost the ending, because it gives us an intriguing space to fill, a space for wonder and imagination. I like it that it doesn’t end with everything tied up and explained, because in reality, the resurrection wasn’t like that anyway. Even the Gospels which are complete don’t really find ways of properly explaining exactly what happened. It’s quite clear that Matthew, Luke and John are struggling to describe it. They talk about the risen Jesus as the same as the man who died on the cross, and yet also radically different. Sometimes it takes a while for his disciples to recognise him. Mary mistakes him for the gardener at first, two other disciples don’t realise who he is as he walks beside them on the road to Emmaus. They tell us that Jesus is flesh and blood – eating meals with them, showing them the wounds he suffered. But they also talk about him appearing and disappearing in locked rooms, or by the lakeside, coming apparently out of nowhere.

In an odd kind of way, though, the fact that they are stumbling and awkward about what happened  makes it all the more clear that something did happen. Frankly if you are going to make up a story, you would make up something that held together better than this, that wasn’t full of loose ends and unanswered questions, that wasn’t so puzzling and unsatisfactory.  There was no need for the disciples to invent the resurrection; there was nothing in it for them but trouble. And yet, this is the story they tell.

Something - whatever it was – happened on that first Easter Sunday, something so powerful that those who were there were utterly convinced that Jesus was not dead but alive, and more alive than he had ever been, more alive than they were themselves, with life flowing out of him that brought them to life too, giving them courage to go out into the world and spread his message. The day before, they had been huddled in their locked rooms, hiding in fear that what had happened to him would happen to them too, and with good reason – why should the Romans, or the Jewish authorities want to leave any of these dangerous revolutionaries where they were?
Yet on this day, that mood of fear turned into one of hope, of joy, of faith that all wasn’t lost, that God was still very much with them. If they hadn’t been utterly convinced of that, then they would have given up and gone back to their former lives. And if they had done that then the Christian message would have been dead before it was born, the church would never have got off the starting blocks, and we wouldn’t be here. So in an odd way, the best proof of the resurrection is us.

A former bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, was pilloried a few years back for saying that the resurrection was “more than a conjuring trick with bones”, but he was absolutely right. The real miracle wasn’t what happened to Jesus’ body but what happened in the hearts of those who had followed him, who had watched as he was crucified, sure that all their dreams had turned to dust and ashes. It doesn’t matter that we can’t explain the resurrection, that we can’t describe it. The proof of its power and its truth is in our own lives, as it was in theirs, as we find the courage to rise again ourselves, to carry on hoping when hope seems daft, to carry on loving when love is thrown back in our faces, to continue to struggle for dignity and justice against what can seem like an overwhelming tide of oppression and injustice in the world. Whenever that happens, Christ rises again in us.

You can’t fail to have noticed, I’m sure, this fine Phoenix here at the front. We made him at Messy Church on Good Friday. But why? you might ask.  What has this mythological bird got to do with Jesus? Am I going to be preaching about the Loch Ness Monster or the Yeti next? No, the point of the Phoenix is that it was adopted early on as a symbol of resurrection – both Christ’s and ours. The story went that every 500 years the Phoenix would lay itself on an altar and burst into flames, sacrificing itself. But from its ashes it would be reborn to live again. The Phoenix predates Christianity, and it is found in many cultures, but it is easy to see why those early Christians liked it. In its story they found echoes not only of Jesus’ death and resurrection, but also  a picture of the lives they were leading too, lives which were often very hard, and which often ended in martyrdom. Was it all worthwhile? Was there any point in trying to live out Christ’s message when it would all end in the pain and sorrow of death? Why not simply throw in the towel, live for yourself, look after number one, eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die, everyone for themselves and the devil take the hindmost?

The Phoenix, and the story of Christ which it echoed for them, was a reminder that what you were going through now was not the end of the story, not the whole picture, just a stage along the way, that beyond death, all sorts of death – the death of the body, the death of hope, the death of love – there was new life. They believed in resurrection – not just in terms of what had happened to Jesus but also, and much more importantly, what happened in their own lives too. I have no idea, and no one can, what happened on that first Easter Sunday, what we would have seen if we had been there, but I know for certain that something did happen, and that it changed the lives of those who saw it forever. It gave them the strength to endure, to stick to their message, to carry on when they felt like giving up.

In a moment we will be baptising Verity. Her name means “truth”. But what is the truth we want her to know, and to embody, as she grows up? Christians say that it is this: that she, like everyone, is a child of God, made in his image, that she, like everyone, is eternally loved, that she, like everyone, will never be failed or forsaken by God, and that whatever happens to her, whatever trouble she falls into, God can raise her up again. We pray that she will know and live the truth of that resurrection power, the truth of the Phoenix; the truth that tells us that what looks like the end to us is not the end to God. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.

As Desmond Tutu put it:
“Good is stronger than evil;
love is stronger than hate;
light is stronger than darkness;
life is stronger than death.
Victory is ours,
through him who loves us.”   


Friday, 6 April 2012

Good Friday

 If you’ve had a chance before today’s service to have a look around at the various displays in the church you may have seen this one, here by the pulpit, which I have entitled “Open the door”. It struck me that the story of Holy Week is full of thresholds and barriers of one sort or another which somehow are opened by Christ’s death and resurrection.

There is the curtain in the Temple, torn in two from top to bottom. It hung at the entrance to the Holy of Holies, the place where God was believed to dwell, where only the High Priest could go, and then only once a year on the Day of Atonement. Now, says Mark, anyone can meet with God, and it is God’s own decision that it should be so – the curtain is torn from top to bottom, from heaven to earth, not the other way around.

There’s the stone which was rolled across the tomb where Jesus’ body lay. It was an apparently impossible barrier. On Easter Sunday morning this stone was the main worry of the women who went to anoint Jesus. How were they going to get at the body? These stones were huge and heavy, designed to keep wild animals out as well as people. Whatever you put in a tomb like this stayed there. But as they found, what is impossible for humans is no problem for God. Life breaks out anyway.

And there are two sets of gates in the Passion story as well – implied rather than named, but very much part of Christian tradition – the gates of heaven and of hell. The book of Revelation tells us about those heavenly gates. There are twelve of them in the new Jerusalem of his vision, each one made from a single pearl. The gates, he tells us “will never be shut by day”. Oh, and by the way, he adds, “there will be no night!”

The gates of hell appear in a part of the story of Holy Week which we often miss out, the Harrowing of Hell. It is marked tomorrow on Holy Saturday, when our thoughts are often turning very rapidly to Easter Sunday, which is why it so easily gets lost, but to my mind it is one of the most powerful and important parts of the story. It is mentioned  in the Apostles’ Creed and in one tiny verse in the first letter of Peter , (1 Peter 3.19). Jesus descended to the dead, we are told, preaching to the spirits in prison, setting free those who, in Jewish thought at the time of the New Testament inhabited the shadowy underworld of Sheol. Despite its neglect today this story has inspired wonderful poetry and art. A medieval poem by William Langland, The vision of Piers Plowman, is one of my favourites. It begins like this:

Hold still
Truth said: I hear some spirit
Speaking to the guards of hell,
And see him too, telling them
Unbar the gates.  'Lift your heads
And from the heart
Of light
A loud voice spoke.
These gates, Lucifer,
Prince of this land: the King of glory,
A crown upon his head

And at the end we hear these triumphant words,

…. along that light all those
Our Lord loved came streaming out.

The gates of hell don’t prevail. Even those imprisoned there are set free.

And freedom is what the Passion story is really all about. It’s no accident that Jesus was killed at the feast of the Passover, the time when the Jewish people told again the story of their exodus from slavery in Egypt. That’s probably one of the reasons why the Romans were so nervous that Jesus was planning to start a revolt, and so open to the suggestion that it would be a good idea to get rid of him. When people are hearing stories of freedom all around them they are far more likely to start feeling that they would like some too.

For the first Christians the death and resurrection of Jesus brought that ancient story of Exodus up to date, showing them what freedom could look like for them as they built new and open communities in which they could learn to live out Christ’s message. As we hear the story in our own age, it can do the same for us too.

This tale, with its gates, its curtains and its stones, invites us to consider the ways in which we might need to open the door, cross the threshold, break through or break out. We too might find ourselves confronted by stones that seem too heavy to move; domestic and economic circumstances which we feel we can do nothing about,  feelings of inadequacy, times when we see only what we can’t do rather than what we can. We might need freeing from some crippling sense of guilt or unhealed hurts which keep us locked behind the gates of a personal hell. We might need freeing from the sense that God could not possibly want us to come close to him, that standing in his presence is “not for the likes of us”. Or we might need freeing from the equally imprisoning self-righteous assumption that we are God’s guardians, and have him safely contained in some Holy of Holies that only we have access to, as the High Priests did at the time of Christ. We might need to find, as they did, that actually, God is already out there, going where he pleases and being with whom he pleases in the person of Jesus. His death is the final, dramatic demonstration of his whole life’s message. He had eaten with tax collectors and prostitutes, touched untouchables, treated Gentiles and women as disciples as worthy of attention as the most learned of rabbis. In Jesus we find a God who is not about to be boxed in by us.

There are all sorts of things we might need freeing from, but it is equally important to consider what we might need freeing for. Those ever-open gates of heaven aren’t just, or even mainly, about what happens after we die. Jesus said little about that. Heaven, for Jesus, was something that was coming here and now. It was about justice, dignity and love in politics, economics, families and friendships. The gates stand open into a new world which starts now – growing from tiny seeds, specks of yeast, sometimes almost invisible, but with the power to transform the world. Do you want to be part of that? say those pearly gates. If so – then come on in.

As you come to this Good Friday, I don’t know what sort of freedom you might need to find in your life, but I do know how important it is to take that longing seriously, because unless we open the door, step over the threshold, we will never know that fullness of life to which God calls us.

I’d like to finish with a poem by Miroslav Holub – it is here in the display – which seems to me to sum it up God’s invitation perfectly.. It is simply called “The door”

The Door

Go and open the door.
Maybe outside there’s
a tree, or a wood,
a garden, or a magic city.

Go and open the door.
Maybe a dog’s rummaging.
Maybe you’ll see a face,
or an eye, or the picture of a picture.

Go and open the door.
If there’s a fog
it will clear.

Go and open the door.
Even if there’s only
the darkness ticking,
even if there’s only
the hollow wind,
even if nothing is there,
go and open the door.

At least there’ll be a draught.                                 Miroslav Holub 1923-1998
translated from the Czech by Ian Milner


Thursday, 5 April 2012

Maundy Thursday: A sermon by Kevin Bright

I hope that you have had time to eat before coming here this evening as I want to talk about one of my favourite subjects - food.

On a basic level it’s something that is essential to our very existence but it also means a great deal more than that. For many of us meals are linked to our memories, for me terrible school food, I shall never forget spam fritters, who in their right mind would ever come up with such a concoction? I’m lucky enough to enjoy some rather good business lunches from time to time but I would still say my best meals have been those with ingredients from our own garden shared with family and friends.

Food can have many meanings pleasure, enjoyment, fusions, art, surprises, textures, flavours, aromas. From programmes such as Masterchef as well as from personal experience we know the hard graft that goes into preparing worthwhile meals and the emotions involved when they are well received, or otherwise. Preparing the best meal we can is one way to express love for those we share it with.

Sharing a meal means so much more than simply consuming food together as highlighted by the recent attention attached those dining with our Prime Minister described by some as ‘Cam dine with me’, certainly no such thing as a free lunch in this case. So who we eat with and under what circumstances seems to have potential for controversy as much today as it did when Jesus was scrutinised by his critics.

It seems that Jesus openly enjoyed his food, particularly the aspect of sharing and interacting with others. Elsewhere in the bible we will have heard how he fed the 5000, eat in the home of Martha and Mary, invited himself to dinner with Zachaeus and would have been a very welcome guest when he did considerably more than ‘bring a bottle’ to a wedding at Cana.

Even when he wasn’t eating it seems Jesus is thinking about food and its wider meaning, he tells us of the feast laid on when the prodigal son returns and of the beggar who wanted to eat what fell from the rich man’s table.

So the meals of Jesus represent something much greater than the food consumed. He was criticised for eating with tax collectors and sinners and his followers were told that they were not fasting enough. This was the very point as Jesus brought a new reality into people’s lives, centred around something tangible and something capable of being shared.  Food and the actions surrounding it offered a way in which love could be expressed through our everyday activities.

The reading from Exodus foreshadows the Last Supper. In both readings there is urgency and a sense of building anticipation. Like when the Israelites were in Egypt, the paschal lamb is about to be sacrificed only this time the lamb is Jesus.

"Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father".
If you knew you were going to die in under a week, what would your priority be? A meal with those you love would probably be a good start. In John's Gospel, that means, for Jesus, taking time to gather with the disciples to share food.

That last supper is undoubtedly the most famous meal ever. The food and drink may be simple but controversy and meaning are interwoven into its fabric as it is rooted in denial, betrayal, a disciple’s suicide, a Messiah’s death, the body and blood of the soon to be crucified Messiah, and another example of love in the everyday this time focused on dirty feet.

We heard in Exodus that ‘this day shall be a day of remembrance for you". Passover was intended as a perpetual day of “Remembrance” which is mentioned in this passage, as well as in the reading from 1 Corinthians where we heard ‘Do this in remembrance of me’.

When we take time to remember Jesus sacrifice we may also be able to accept the reality of our God who continues to feed us daily giving him to us as manna in our wilderness, food for our earthly pilgrimage.

With open hearts we can receive Christ through Holy Communion but he also receives us as we kneel before him and joins us at the table once more reaffirming his message of so many meals shared before, “I love you and you are special to me”.