I write here about a range of things; a loose collection of posts and reviews about things that I am passionate about. For the most part that means you’ll see lots of posts about my faith and about Jesus’ ministry through me here at St. Anselm’s, Hayes. You can also find any sermons or broadcasts I may have delivered (although I’m not entirely consistent in posting them).
I was asked back (amazingly!) to BBC Hereford & Worcester to deliver a Thought For The Week. It’s a huge privilege to be able to speak to so many people about what it is that God may have in store for them – prompting people to sit in prayer and seek the path God has put before them. Listen to the Thought here, or read the transcript below and if you have questions about vocation then do get in touch.
What are we called for?
This coming Friday you will see me featured in the new BBC Two documentary “A Vicar’s Life”. Amongst other stories you’ll see how I left college in Oxford and came to Hereford to become an Assistant Curate – a Deacon, a Servant – in the Church of England.
That path was the culmination of four years of prayer and exploration of what it was that God had in store for me. There’s no one path to finding what God calls us to do. There’s no neat way that enables us to see the path before us other than to ask God to show us.
We often talk about ‘vocation’ in the Church. We generally use it as code to mean a process by which somebody becomes an ordained minister. But vocation is really the action of God’s love through us each and every day – and finding what that action is, is at the heart of figuring out the path God gives us.
So how do we even start to discover that path? We start with prayer. We end with prayer, everything that God wants to share with us he does through the sacrament – through communion – and through prayer. As we spend time with God we discover the spark of His love inside us and as we fan those flames we start to discover what it is, or who we are called to be.
It could be ordained ministry, it could be teaching, nursing, becoming a doctor or a carer – all those roles that we already understand as a kind of vocation – but there are other things that we’re less good at exploring and being open to. It could be that you’re called to be a good neighbour, or to be the person who smiles when others frown, or to be the person who holds the hand of somebody who is frightened.
Whatever it is that God has in store for you – try to find it. Be still, know that God loves you – that His spark is inside you – and fan those flames with prayer and with the sacrament.
This morning I delivered my very first ‘Thought for The Day’ – it was a little scary… It’s a short reflection on death, autumn, the continual gifts of death and the presence of God.
At 4pm this afternoon I will be preaching at a memorial service at Holy Trinity in Hereford. This service takes place twice a year and we invite those who have lost people in the previous six months to come, sit, be quiet, to sing, to pray, to light a candle and to give thanks for the lives of those loved ones who have died.
At this time of year it’s especially moving, we’ve just celebrated Halloween, then the day after – All Souls Day and then All Saints Day. You’ll hear stern warnings from some Christians of the danger of what Halloween has become – and there’s strong truth in that – but what follows – All Souls Day – is at the heart of a week of remembering the dead – at the heart of a changing season around us.
Now autumn is my favourite time of year. Leaves fall, fields are bare, we are past the rush of September. There’s a peace in this week of All Souls that allows us to take a breath, to see the beauty of what is around is, what is now dead or dying and to take in the great gifts we have had from that bounty. The food from the fields, the beautiful vistas of the countryside, the fruit from the trees… the cider in our cups.
But, Autumn – death – continues to give us gifts. As the evenings draw in, the clocks go back we start to shiver at the colder weather we start to see frost on the windows, it feels a good time to remember those who have died. We can recall our loved ones with a smile, we can remember that phrase they used, the way they made tea or the way they told us off. We can smile, but that memory is tinged with the sadness of loss, those memories are sometimes bad or hurt, there are tears – there is pain. Leaves fall.
But just as we see the beauty in those fallen leaves we should embrace the pain of our loss and in doing that we accept that whilst our loved ones are gone, we understand that they are not gone forever. That they are loved by God and that just as Autumn goes through the pain of winter – spring always comes.
God looks for us in the firmament of heaven, knowing the pain we are in and offering us a warm hand – here on earth right now we feel that as just the tiniest hint of a warm breeze on a cold autumn day – compared to the full-blown howling love that awaits us in death.
So as we leave Halloween, all souls day and all saints day behind, appreciate the warm breeze, appreciate the good and bad memories of those who have died – and know that whenever you need it, in pain and in happiness – God’s warm hand is always there to be held – all you need to do is reach for it.
I’ve been moved to post this because of the excellent piece posted over at pickingapplesofgold.com ‘Top Tips of starting #vicarschool‘ – In part because I enjoyed the piece so much and also in part because I disagree with a small bit… and there’s nothing like a minor disagreement to urge me into writing. So here are my Top Tips on starting (or continuing) in theological college.
I’d like to say these are in order, but one of the big things I’ve learnt at theological college is that priorities are different – so take them in an order which makes sense for you.
1 – Figure out your prayer life – quickly.
One of the biggest things that shifts in school is that you’re now expected to fit in with the prayer life of the community. This is amazing – it’s a real gift to sit in chapel or church with fellow ordinands and to experience corporate worship. But then, things start to niggle you. What was sweet when you first arrived starts to distract from the worship, those people that you loved to pray with at the start of term quickly become the people that stop you ‘getting what you need’ from the worship. The guitar grates, the organ is overpowering, the people who bow in odd places, the people who raise their hands… these things become all important – and distracting.
The hardest lesson to learn is that the corporate worship at theological college isn’t for you – in the person of YOU – it’s for everyone, all over the world. The fact that you have to sit through another 45 mins contemplating a conker and what that means to you on your journey should not distract you from the fact that corporate worship is there to bring us together in prayer and praise – and sometimes we get nothing from it – but that’s okay.
If you enter college and your ONLY path for prayer is the corporate worship you are going to find yourself frustrated very quickly. Figure out what you need to help develop your own relationship with God and build on it – take from other examples of worship and prayer – develop – but have something that helps you. For me it was the rosary – something I’d only prayed with in passing before I came to college but something that I now rely on when things get tough and I need time with God in prayer. For you – who knows – but figure it out and hold it dearly. Your own prayer life is not that of the community.
2 – Good enough – is not good enough.
When I first started I lost count of the people who told me ‘it’s okay, all you need is a 40 to pass and that’s good enough‘. Over the past two years I’ve watched as people have played chicken with the pass mark, ‘how close can I get!’ It’s tempting. To dismiss the academic work as unimportant, as a distraction from the ‘real’ work of formation. That another essay on a dead german theologian (we’ve all been there) will quite possibly kill your vocation.
The reality is very different. True, your pass mark isn’t going to determine where your Title Post may be – but it will certainly come to bare when you’re looking for an incumbency or in a few years time when you decide you’d like to study a specialist area in more detail – all of a sudden that 41% is a hindrance you could do without. But what if you have zero interest in academic matters and have no intention of doing further work – why should you bother to do more than the absolute minimum?
Because God doesn’t call us to be ‘good enough’. We are called by God to be Priests, to be ministers of The Word and of the Church and if we want to exercise that office to the best of our ability then we need to understand where we come from, what previous generations have thought, what other people have said about complex areas of doctrine. People have dedicated their lives to answering these questions and we are arrogant if we think that when somebody asks us if they are going to Hell because they stole something that we can answer them with integrity and humility if all we have to draw on are the bare essentials of a ‘good enough’ education in theological college.
When we were in school we were always told that you would never know when you may need this theory or that theory but some day we would. My experience in life has told me I have needed algebra, I have needed French I have needed a lot of those things – but most importantly I have needed a mix of them that I could not have understood whilst I was a student. Your theological education is the same. To be humble in the face of your office and your parish you should be able to draw on a depth of knowledge and understanding that has centuries of thinking behind it – and not what you can come up with in the five minutes it takes you to make a cup of tea.
*This is of course not to say that the rest of your life in theological college isn’t important – the important element is to have a good mix – your family life, your spiritual life, your prayer life, your academic life – and to dismiss any elements of that as unimportant and to only do the bare minimum is damaging to your formation. For full disclosure my floating average is somewhere between 55-60 – I’m desperately trying to get that up over 60, especially in my third year, but I also have to accept that I want to spend time with my wife and son and that I need time set aside for prayer. [note to reader, I left college with a 2:1, I got that average up and was really happy! 23/9/19]
3 – Find a balance – it changes.
When you start college the life becomes all encompassing. There is something to do all of the time – study in the library, go to worship, go to lectures, attend a tutorial, sit and pray. Often this means that your family get left behind. Be open with your family about your excitement and wanting to be part of the college life, but be open in return to your family and make sure that you are balancing things well. Only you, as a family, can figure out this balance. Advice from outside will always be from the perspective of another family and what works in one place may not work in another place.
Be open to your family and ask them to be open with you. Love them with all your heart and be there for them – even if that means spending an hour less on an essay than you’d like, or stopping reading something interesting, or skirting an optional prayer group.
4 – Counselling.
During theological college a lot of things will shift for you. What you thought was important before suddenly becomes unimportant, those things you dismissed six months ago are now shown in a different light. This can have a huge impact on your mental health and you should be alive to that. Most colleges offer counselling in one form or another as a separate discipline to spiritual direction – take up that offer and use it – your family will thank you for it – and so will your bar bill.
5 – Spirital Direction.
If you don’t have a spiritual director – get one. Your college can help you get hooked up and if that fails there are other organisations who can help. Spiritual guidance through formation is important – and it is vital that you get input from outside the college bubble.
6 – Books.
Buy all of the books. I’m kidding. Books can be horrendously expensive but the joy of shelves filled with books is one of the greatest pleasures on earth! I am a bit of a book person and I love the physicality of them. I have a growing theological library that I index on LibraryThing. If I bought all of these books new I would have gone bankrupt last year – but you can buy most of the books you need second hand from places like AbeBooks for pennies. The vast majority of my library has cost no more than £1 and in may cases 75p.
There are book grants available from people like Sons of the Clergy or the Dearmer Society etc and you should make use of them. College libraries are for the most part excellent – but sometimes having a copy of the main book the course is being taught from is far more helpful than a copy from the library – especially if like me you like to write in the margins.
When it comes to essays I get most of the books I need from the library, then if one of them particularly grabs me I’ll go and buy a copy so I can pull it apart at my own pace without keeping it from someone else.
Try to buy your books from an ethical place. Try to avoid Amazon. Consider Waterstones, Blackwell’s, AbeBooks etc – all of these guys match Amazon on academic texts (especially Blackwell’s who are an academic specialist) and often they are cheaper. Keep your eye open for Church House specials – as they’ll often be significantly cheaper than Amazon.
7 – Love.
At some point over your time in college you are going to absolutely loath somebody. It could even be yourself. It’s going to happen, you can’t help it. In the rarified atmosphere of a theological college that loathing can spread and grow and deepen to the rest of the community. When you find that happening you need to do something that my spiritual director calls ‘aggressive loving’.
Aggressive loving means praying for that person every single time you pray. You pray for their love in return for yours and you pray that they are happy in God’s love. It’s amazing how quickly loathing can turn to love when you pray for somebody. It works. I do it a lot.
8 – There is more to this life than theological college.
Get out. Go. Do not for a moment forget that your life now exists in a bubble in a world that is very different from that going on around you. You’ll find your language changing, your outlook shifting – everything – and then when you re-enter the real world it can come as quite a shock. It’s like going to Hogwarts as a muggle but then finding when you leave you’re only allowed back into the muggle world.
So get out. Go out with friends who are not connected with the church or with the college. Read different newspapers and websites. Spend at least half a day outside of your college each week. Go away in the holidays – even if it’s just a caravan two miles down the road. Don’t lose touch with the rest of the world.
9 – You are surrounded by clever people.
Before you came to college you probably had a life doing something different. You may have gone to university, or had a job, or raised a family or any number of things. Remember that everybody else did as well. It’s easy to fall into the trap that leaves you thinking you are surrounded by people who are only measured by how good the last piece of worship they organised was. Get to know what people’s skills and abilities are and talk to them about it – share yours – you’ll be amazed at how many cool, clever people you are surrounded by.
The friendships you generate in college will support the rest of your life in ministry. Don’t allow yourself to only see people in one dimension.
10 – Leave the conkers where they are.
Conkers don’t need to be in worship. They are beautiful under the tree where they fell. Please don’t give me one as I walk into church.
What did I want? I wanted a Skype virtual number that worked with the Skype client on my iPhone, my laptop and importantly – with a desktop phone that would function without the need to be plugged into my computer.
Easy. Google Skype desktop phone and you’re presented with an array of options. But here’s the rub. They don’t work. Skype – the consumer version – is just not wired to work properly with a stand alone desktop phone (VoIP) – so you’re going to have to try something else. I now have a virtual Skype number that calls through on my various devices as well as a desktop phone – this is how I managed it – it took me the better part of two weeks of on-and-off work to get this up and running – there is so much contrary information on various websites that I hope this offers a clear path for new users.
1 – Skype wont work for you.
The personal version of Skype is not up to this task. Yes, you can buy a USB phone for your computer but it’s barely better than a bluetooth headset and it still requires your computer to be up and running and signed in. You need Skype For Business. It’s designed to work with more robust VoIP systems and will integrate with a number of desktop phones – most easily with this range from Polycom. Be aware you need a very specific version of the Polycom phones that come with the relevant firmware pre-installed. This is important. Without that firmware the upgrade process for these devices is a pain – a REAL pain. I know.
2 – It wont work with JUST Skype for Business
Skype for Business is an awesome stand-alone tool. It’ll ring your devices, is far more robust than the personal version and offers good value for money. You could stop right here with a simple subscription and forget the desktop phone idea.
3 – I really want a desktop phone
This is where things get hugely confusing. In order to use a desktop phone you are going to need a full-on VoIP server, a PBX server and a phone plan of some kind. What does that mean in practice? It means you need a Microsoft Office Enterprise Licence. The easiest way to get up and running is to sign up for an Office 365 E5 Licence. This gives you everything you need to be up and running with a desktop phone – including the Cloud PBX service for Skype For Business. You’ll just need to add a domestic calling plan. So now you have:
- Office Enterprise Licence
- Cloud PBX (included in E5, needs to be added for other enterprise licences)
- Calling plan
You are set to go – you need ALL of these things. Skype For Business will not work on a desktop phone without this set up.
4 – What’s the cost?
An office E5 licence sets you back £25 per month. But for that you get the entire Office suite of apps and a bunch of other things that made it worth while for me.
Cloud PBX is £5 per month (but is included in the E5 licence)
Domestic call plan is about £7 per month – but can vary depending on your Office Licence.
You can chop and change these licences depending on your needs as long as you have the three items listed above in some form or another.
5 – Setting up the phone
Buy a Polycom phone. It arrives with the firmware installed and you just log in via the web interface, insert your Skype For Business credentials and it just works – honestly, this was the easiest part of the whole thing. There’s a bunch of help online if you get stuck – but it really is straight forward. My phone calls just like a real phone, it receives calls easily and as Skype For Business becomes more integrated into the Office suite of tools it becomes ever more useful as a desktop device – contacts, calendar, diverting and transferring to other members of my team etc.
6 – Do you really need a desktop phone?
If you really need a desktop phone this painful path is worth it – because you’re essentially setting up a small commercial set up with Microsoft. It works really well once set up but a lot of it is for IT pros and not for the likes of you and me. If you don’t really need a phone, you may well find the cost and set up just too much – stick with your iPhone and a bluetooth hand-held for your desk.
7 – It works REALLY well
Now I’m set up I have incredibly robust email, access to Microsofts Office Enterprise tools and software and integration across all of those tools. I can easily manage my own email server and my own phone server. This is such a good tool.
This month I am on placement at St Mary’s in Princes Risborough. It’s an amazing church and this is the first time that I have preached a sermon there… I struggled a lot with this sermon because I couldn’t get my head around what Paul was trying to say – it took an incident in the previous week (you’ll have to listen to find out) to shine some light on what was going on.
I’m really pleased with my delivery and message here – I spoke far too quickly in places but.. being Welsh I am prone to that.
Please do listen and let me know your thoughts.
There’s no script as such for this sermon because it was delivered to an Evangelical congregation and it would not have been appropriate to stand in the pulpit – but below you’ll find my initial notes as I tried to pull together my thoughts. It has very little connection with the sermon that was preached so you’ll really need to listen to it to take away the message.
Readings: Ephesians 1:3-14
When I put this reading down it started me wondering about the world ‘blessed’ about what it means when community has discovered the depths of what it means to be ‘blessed’ – a joyful baptism, the deep joy of taking part in a community effort to help others in some way or forgiving others… it’s the joy we feel at a funeral – that’s an odd thing to say but it’s the deep sense of blessing we encounter knowing that despite the sorrow death does not have the final word.
What does it feel like when we live up to this God-given vocation as a community of blessing? We exist as Churches to bless our neighbours – near and far – a powerful powerful counter-testimony agains the widespread view that christians are only interested in judging and saying no to people – not blessing them.
It’s all very easy to say but what does that look like – what does a church doing this look like? Well it looks very much like this church that’s for sure – but let me give you another example. It’s full of sorrow and pain, the worst thing that could ever happen to a Church congregation – the shootings in charleston.
A man walked into a bible study group, to a group of people who had opened their arms to him and then he shot them. He opened fire and killed, maimed and damaged people that had held him in love.
In a country where this kind of thing happens far too often I was waiting for the inevitable responses. The hatred. The stone throwing. The political ‘debate’ whilst the Church that had been damaged was left to pick up the pieces.
They did that – they started to pick up the pieces but you know what they did? They recalled what it meant to be given the spiritual gifts of Christ, they remembered that we are all adopted by God – even those who are not ‘in our gang’ and they went to his initial hearing. In the states victims of events such as these are allowed to address the court as victims – these are usually extremely emotional. People tell their stories and then they ask the judge to put this person away for the rest of their lives or worse – they ask the judge to kill this person. I was waiting for this, I was waiting for the hatred – but what I saw was a spiritual outpouring that left me crying in front of my computer.
I watched as the man who was arrested for the shooting stood in front of the court via a big screen and I watched as each victim, each person who had lost someone stood… they told their stories and then they forgave him. Over and over and over again.
“I forgive you”.
“I forgive you”.
“I forgive you”.
“I forgive you”.
Every single person who stood in that court forgave him.
THAT is what it means to be blessed through Christ. That is what Paul is telling us in this reading. That is what we must live every single day in every single thing that we do.
I’ll tell you another story.
I was sat outside Lacy Green School. I was parked quite near a corner into a side road and I was early for our assembly. I was reading todays reading, starting to think about what I was going to preach about… a van pulled up next to me and he had a go at me for parking so near to the corner. I put my bible down and I just looked at him – he had disturbed me, how dare he- doesn’t he know what I was doing! I was doing work for the Church and this guy, this person who’s not in my church DARES to disturb me! So I replied calmly but incredibly rudely that he must be confused because he was talking to someone who didn’t care what he thought.
The guy hit the roof – he went nuts – he called me everything under the sun, he swore, he called me fat he went balistic – but I didn’t care – who was he to tell me what to do? who was he to shout at me – I just looked back at him smiled and waved – it’s fair to say he got even more mad… then he drove off and I picked up my bible again.
Then it struck me – um… what a complete… well what a dreadful person I had been… here, right here in this reading I’m being told we are all one because of Christ and here I was throwing things at someone – I wouldn’t have done that to any of you guys and none of you would have been rude to me in the first place because we are all nice to each other because we’re all part of this Church – but this reading tells us we are ALL one in Christ we should live that example every day with every person.
As I pondered this I reversed the car away from the corner and started to regret my behaviour, I said a prayer – in fact I took out my rosary and prayed for forgiveness…. I got forgiveness – the chap in the van came back. This time I had my bible on the seat next to me and my rosary in my hand – I looked up and here he was in his van coming towards me. He stops next to the car, gets out and… well… he says sorry for being so rude to start with and that he felt dreadful about it. I took his hand and I said sorry to him, then I gave him a hug and with tears in our eyes we remembered that we were both men and men don’t do this kind of thing so we nodded to each other got back in our respective cars and parted company.
When we open ourselves as Christians to the spiritual gifts given through Christ then we remember that these gifts are given to everyone and then maybe, with prayer, we’ll get to experience that blessing, that joyful blessing in Christ.
I enjoyed giving this sermon today, I’m not overly happy with the narrative and I think I’m on dangerous theological ground – however – I’m in that wonderful position during training that means I know enough to be dangerous but am still blissfully unaware of a great deal!
So dig in and enjoy and please give me feedback – I am very open and accepting of any criticism on these sermons so do shout.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Today is Low Sunday. It’s the first Sunday after Easter and I suppose we are all feeling a little low, the excuse to eat excessive amounts of chocolate is past, the party that was the initial celebration of Jesus Risen is over and we’re now, effectively, in the hang over period – a little ‘churched out’ perhaps.
However, Low Sunday isn’t called Low Sunday because of our self induced hang overs but because it closes the Octave of Easter – the eight-day period from Easter Sunday until today. It is also called St. Thomas Sunday and this Sunday the reading is always John 20 19-end and relates to the appearance of Christ to his disciples – this time with Thomas now present.
You’ll all have heard of St. Thomas of course – otherwise known as Doubting Thomas. Hardly a great title but there you go. Thomas is also referred to as Didymus (which means twin) and although the name Thomas is actually an ancient name (not as English as it may sound) we’re not really sure that was his name at all. In fact we don’t know a great deal about Thomas full stop. He only appears in Matthew, Mark and Luke when listed with the other disciples and he only appears three times in John.
What we do think we know is that St. Thomas travelled to India and spread the gospel there. For many centuries the Christians of Kerala have called themselves St. Thomas Christian’s. The information that he went there – and was martyred there – is the subject of a long document of the third or fourth century called the Acts of Thomas. It’s a terrific read and fascinating part of the Apocryphal writings (the books that didn’t make it into the Bible) and if you’ve not read it it’s worth digging out.
However, The Acts of Thomas is considered to be more popular romance than historical document and was probably written in the interest of gnostic teaching rather than an accurate record.
It’s certainly not impossible that St. Thomas went to India and that he also evangelised Parthia – it’s thought his final resting place, or at least where his relics are claimed to rest – is at Edessa in Mesopotamia – current day Turkey – although dangerously close to the Syrian border.
But, for the moment let us stick with the Thomas we’ve got to know in John, the Thomas that we’ve heard about in todays reading.
We meet him first in John 11, verse 16 – “Let us also go, that we may die with him”. He was referring to the death of Lazarus, a good friend of Jesus – the other disciples did not want to go – or for Jesus to go – to Lazarus – they felt it was too dangerous – but here is Thomas – at the vanguard and ready to go with his teacher to his friend and share his fate – even if that means death. More Loyal Thomas than doubting Thomas. He would rather face death with his Lord than to live without him.
Next, we meet him in John 14, verse 5 – “Lord, we do not know where you are going, How can we know the way?” This time Thomas is asking the question the other disciples do not.
Jesus is telling them that they shouldn’t be troubled (for Jesus already knows what he is to face) but to have faith and believe in God because in His house there are many dwelling places and if He were to leave them then they would know how to follow – not now, but later.
You can see the other disciples sat around the table nodding sagely as if understanding what Jesus was saying – but Thomas was the one who said – hang on a moment, what on earth do you mean? How can we actually know the way? You’ve not told us the way!
Thomas was confusing what Jesus was saying with an actual place – and that question leads to one of the most well known and most loved verses in the Bible – “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him”. Doubting Thomas? No, more like Honest Thomas. The Thomas who wont sit there and nod sagely but will ask the questions that need to be asked.
We meet Thomas for the final time in todays reading, in John 20 and sadly where he gets his nickname from – Doubting Thomas. Thomas was not willing to believe that Jesus was risen because he had not seen him.
The previous two times we’ve met Thomas he’s demonstrated that his is not fearful and doubting but loyal and honest. We don’t know where Thomas was the previous resurrection Sunday – we’re not told – but you can easily see that he must have been distraught – this loyal and honest man wasn’t there because his world had been totally shattered and torn apart – he wasn’t there because his heart was broken – his teacher was dead.
So now, he’s being told about the resurrection of Jesus, he’s being told about the Presence of the Lord, the Power of the Lord, the Peace of the Lord, the Praises of the Lord the Promotions of the Lord and the Provisions of the Lord – all these things happened on the day Jesus revealed himself to the other disciples – that’s a lot to have missed out on and hardly something that is easily told – it’s something you have to see for yourself. It’s easy to see why he responded the way he did – I don’t believe you!
He had not placed his fingers in the mark of the nails and had not placed his hand one Jesus side where the spear had torn into his flesh. Imagine, this loyal and honest apostle, this man who had been told that his teacher was dead, being told that he was alive – he really was low, this really was the ultimate low Sunday – why should he believe? Why should he just take their word? One last time Jesus replies, once again Jesus is there to hold the hand of this loyal, honest and questioning follower.
Jesus appears to the disciples, coming through locked doors and says 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’.
And you know what? Thomas does! ‘My Lord and my God!” So Doubting Thomas? No, more like Faithful Thomas.
For me the story of Thomas through John is one that I wish more Christians would hold onto. It’s a story of a man who is not afraid to ask the difficult questions, a man who is not afraid to challenge or speak truth unto power – he is a man who does not leave his brain at the door when he encounters Jesus – he is a man who embraces his faith and continues to question.
It’s something the House of Bishops have asked us to do at the coming election – and so as I head to May 7th, perhaps feeling a little low and wondering what possible difference I can make, I will take Doubting Thomas’ example – I will ask the difficult questions, I will be loyal to my faith and I will be honest to myself and my Christian values.
I’m a little bit in awe of St. Thomas – I think he teaches us an important lesson and I think he opens the door for us to have a greater understanding of Jesus, so I’ll head back to my bible and read those passages again, this time without first thinking of Thomas as doubting, but thinking of him as loyal, honest and faithful.
I really enjoyed writing this one – it’s going to form the basis of the sermon I am going to submit for my course – but as the visiting lecturer told us in our preaching weekend the best time to fix a sermon is after you have given it… so here you are, here’s my Cleansing Of The Temple sermon at its midpoint- it’s first presentation and before it has been re-written and re-presented. So please, take a moment and give me your feedback.
We’ve heard from the gospel this morning the story of the cleansing of the temple. We know this event is important because it’s one of the few that are in all four gospels. It’s quite a sedate title really – ‘the cleansing of the temple’ – as if Jesus came in with his disciples and spotted that someone had missed their turn on the cleaning rota and got the Henry out to lend a hand.
In fact when you’re reading the majority of John you’re presented with such a divine vision of Jesus – more God, more Divine than human it’s incredibly jarring to see an angry Jesus.
If this were Luke I wouldn’t bat an eyelid. But this is John – Jesus is always calm, collected, and thoughtful – everything he does reflects previous prophecy or is incredibly well thought through with an eye to his immediate future. But here – just two chapters in we get this angry Jesus – and not just angry actually – but thoughtfully angry – a sustained anger.
He walked into the temple – this was Passover so it would have been HEAVING, he saw people selling animals for sacrifice, saw people changing money so they could buy the temple coins to gain entry, saw the priests making big profits from this market place, saw the Temple selling for money those things that can not be bought with money.
He saw people BUYING their way into Grace (or so they thought), into Heaven, and worse… the Temple was enabling it – actually not just enabling it but becoming rich by it. The Temple authorities were not worried about worship or becoming closer to God they were worried about money in the here and now, they were worried about the rules and the letter of the Law. They had lost sight of what they were there for. They were buying and selling an imitation of God’s Grace.
So Jesus doesn’t just fly into a rage – he sits and makes a whip of cords – can you imagine the scene? Can you see how angry Jesus must have been to see all of this and then to sit and to take the time to make a whip of cords before letting lose that anger? Can you see Jesus pacing meaningfully around the Temple flailing his whip and driving out the people and the animals? He treated both in the same way – as far as he was concerned there was no difference between the moneychanger and the sheep destined for sacrifice.
And then we get to the nub of why John has this incident at the stark of Jesus ministry rather than at the end as the other gospels do… “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up”. This is textbook John, a wonderful picture and story that helps us start to understand the change that is occurring here.
This is the end of the old world of sacrifice and of only being a good Jew if you worship at THE Temple, what John is showing us here is that Jesus is destroying the old Temple, the old way of doing things and he is showing us that HE will become the Temple. When Jesus is resurrected three days after he is crucified his body becomes the sacrifice, later Jesus body is bread and Jesus body, not the lamb, is sacrifice. This allows John to point to these words from Jesus afterwards and demonstrate that He knew exactly what was coming – but of course the disciples don’t understand that until after the resurrection.
But so what? I’ve just given you a textbook explanation of what John is doing here story wise, why it was important and I hope I’ve given you a picture in your mind of an angry Jesus because for me, one of the biggest things we sometimes forget about Jesus is that he got angry.
It’s easy for us to picture Christians as people who should take Jesus example and always be nice, head tilted 45 degrees to the right and listening as you demonstrate how understanding and Jesus-like you are – but actually you’re raging inside. This story shows that Jesus wasn’t always nice – it shows that when things were wrong he got angry and that actually, if we want to be more like Jesus then we should get angry when things are wrong.
For me right now this lesson is one of authenticity. This is why I love the Bible. Two years ago I could have read this lesson and taken from it a story of prophesy, or I could have taken another more practical lesson but this week I’ve taken authenticity as a church as what the Holy Spirit is trying to show me.
The Bible isn’t something you read through once, these stories are not just something that you read through once and tick off and say ‘okay, I’ve read the Bible’ they are something that we should live with daily. Previous generations understood this better than us – perhaps it was the lack of TV but they read the Bible together every day… Now, once something is done it’s time to move onto the next thing – but the Bible gives us a framework within which the Holy Spirit can work in us to help us discern those things that we would otherwise not see – or worse would actively avoid – and for that to work, for us to have a door open to the Holy Spirit we need to sit with the Bible as much as we can – reading the same stories, the same examples, the same lessons over and over again and each time getting what we need right then, or rather what God needs us to get right then.
So right now, this week, I’ve been reflecting on why it is that I keep coming to this passage every time I walk into a Cathedral and I’m charged for entry, or every time I see the exit through the gift shop sign on the way out of a Cathedral. I see Jesus walking in and turning over the coffee shop tables, pulling the books and olive wood statues from the shelves and smashing the glass donation boxes asking why it is we have turned the Fathers house into a market place. It’s an easy picture to paint isn’t it – especially when our nose is out of joint at having to part with £15 to walk through the door so we can pray.
The conclusion I’ve come to is that this story is not about those petty things, those things that wind us up because we feel that these buildings our OURS and we should be able to wander in and out as and when we want with no barrier to entry – actually the reason I feel uncomfortable about these things is because it puts into start contrast for me the difference between the building and worship. The Cathedral, our church buildings in general, are just places we come to worship when we are called. We expect God to turn up here and to hear our prayers, but what this story shows us is that God doesn’t inhabit a building – no matter how grand – God inhabits us and our worship can happen anywhere. The point of our church buildings is that they can offer two things:
1 – A place to come and worship as a community
2 – A hook upon which we can engage others in the mission of the church
And that’s where I come back to authenticity. Our church buildings have practical things that need to be paid for. Beyond that we have things that we need to buy to make our worship more comfortable – there’s nothing wrong with that – there is nothing wrong with spending money on a new roof, or a new tower in a Cathedral so a lift can be put in – because that is being done to authentically enable our churches to be either a place of community worship – a beacon in our communities – or to enable broader mission work.
Our Cathedrals and churches have become places of hope and support for a vast number of people who rely on the services – both spiritual and practical – that they offer – our churches have become places where food banks operate and credit unions are formed – we are starting to relish in the church being a force for good in the world – we are starting to relish the fact that that means DOING things not just raising money to do things. We are starting to realise that selling things in our foyer is not an invitation for Jesus to be angry with us but an opportunity to fund a homeless shelter, a food bank, a credit advisor, a way to keep the building open, warm and well lit so that it can be a sanctuary, a place of divine peace and worship.
We are being authentic in our call to build the Kingdom here on earth.
So next time we cringe at paying for something in church or when we see a new coffee shop in the cloisters of a Cathedral – just ask yourself if it’s being authentic – and if it’s not, then be like Jesus and get angry!
I wrote these from scratch using the Common Worship liturgy for prayers during lent. They are okay – the only feedback I had is that there is no need to keep saying ‘we pray’ – that’s implicit in what we’re doing – but I’m pleased with these overall and pleased with the thread of illumination. I’ll come back to these again and play with them I think…
In the power of the Spirit and in union with Christ, let us pray to the Father.
Lord, we pray for those preparing for baptism and confirmation. We pray that your Grace and Love shine through the door they are about to open and illuminate a path of Christian life in your service.
Lord, in your mercy…
Lord, we pray for our leaders. Those who serve through leadership carry a burden that is not always visible to us. Illuminate their burden so that we may help and support them in their service.
Lord, in your mercy…
Lord, we pray for those looking for forgiveness. We pray that we may be able to discern their need and help illuminate a path to you, to your love and your forgiveness.
Lord, in your mercy…
Lord, as we move forward in Lent we pray for those who are held captive by busyness, those held captive by a desire for more, those held captive by the false gods of consumerism and greed. Illuminate these false gods and empower us your servants to help others find your path.
Lord, in your mercy…
Lord, we pray for those who are hungry. Hungry for food or for your spirit. Hungry for love or looking for their next meal. We pray that we find a way to see into their darkness and illuminate a path to practical help and spiritual support and that we offer both with a kind word and a loving heart.
Lord, in your mercy…
I’ve really struggled with this sermon. It was given to celebrate The Baptism of Christ this morning – but amid horrific events in Paris. I sat with the text most of the week, read widely and googled even more widely – but nothing. In the end this was what came, line by hard line. I had good feedback from the congregations this morning – other than people saying it was short at only six minutes!
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
It’s very hard to stand here today and talk about a celebration – a festival – after this weeks horrendous events in Paris. But today is the festival of the Baptism of Christ. We celebrate the Baptism of our Saviour – the moment that he decided, he made a choice that the time had come for him to face his ministry. He had decided that the time had come to follow his vocation. For thirty years he had lived in Nazareth, now was the time to step forward. Jesus made a choice and took up his inheritance.
In Mark’s gospel there is no nativity story. No story of where Jesus came from or where he was born other than to say he had come from Nazareth of Galilee. We barely get 4 verses into the gospel before Mark is telling us about his baptism – I think that’s very striking – the start of Mark’s gospel is about a man making a choice, not a man being born into a destiny already before him.
We are faced with choices all the time. Not all of our choices result in the heavens being torn apart and God speaking to us telling us he is well pleased with us. But those choices are no less important.
In our modern Baptism service the priest asks those who are being baptised, or via their parents and God Parents – Do you reject the devil and all rebellion against God? Do you renounce the deceit and corruption of evil? Those questions are not just for that moment, are not meant to be discarded and forgotten about as soon you as leave church and head for the party. Those questions should sit with you every time you make a choice. Every time you make a decision you should ask yourself if you are turning your back on evil and facing Christ – because in that choice you mirror the decision that Jesus took that day – or in the lead up to that day – to face his ministry, his vocation – perhaps knowing exactly what lay in front of him.
So what can we take from Jesus decision, the example of the choice that he made? We know that because of our Baptisms we have made a promise – a choice, that we confirmed during our confirmations – to turn to God and turn our back on evil – and we have to do that in every single choice – every single decision we ever make – even when we may know that that decision will lead to a personal loss or challenge.
After Jesus was Baptised he was immediately driven (you have to love the language and style of the Gospel of Mark, if you wanted to make a gritty Norwegian version of the story of Jesus you’d surely start with the Gospel of Mark) ‘and the spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
We are in the wilderness with the wild beasts – every day of our lives. We’ve seen this week what happens when people make the wrong choices, when they let evil into their hearts.
For us, here and now on a smaller scale, one small bad decision leads to another, and then another and then another – before you know it you’re in a cycle that is almost impossible to break out of. ‘Oh, I’ve done this before and it was okay’.
This is one of the reasons we confess our sins each Sunday – doing what people were doing on the banks of the Jordan all those years ago. They were being baptised in the name of God, they were being washed clean of their sins and to be washed clean of their sins they had to face them and repent. Our confession on a Sunday shouldn’t be something we mumble through and read without thinking. Our time for confession is to allow us to seek out those choices we’ve made that week that were perhaps bad ones – and we all make bad decisions all the time – decisions that may have been good for us – but bad for others. A chance to break the cycle of bad choices and turn afresh to Christ.
I think that when we confess our sins, when we face our choices, when we turn our backs on evil and face Christ we perhaps try to be like Jesus that day. We make that declaration to ourselves and when we truly do that, when we truly ask God to wash us clean of our sins we invite the Spirit to descend on us – like a dove from the sky – a sign of peace and love, not war and hate – and in that moment God speaks to us and in our hearts says he loves us, and that he is well pleased with us.
So what do we do with that love and peace that we have been granted by God? Do we just bask in that glory? No, we take the words of the dismissal at the end of the service to heart… go in peace to love and serve the Lord… a good friend of mine in Wales used to say at the end of his services…. “go in peace to love and serve the Lord – the service has ended and now the worship begins”.