The Kingdom of God… not quite what you were expecting

‘Ere we go, ere we go, ere we go!!’ No, not England’s performance against Tunisia in the football world cup, rather it’s another posting on my blog- yes, that is two in the last month…  And another baptism too, which brings us up to double figures for the year so far, just before we reach St John the Baptist day, our patron saint’s day.

The Church’s obsession with big crowds is so different ...

Here’s what I said last Sunday, responding to the passage in Mark 3 where Jesus tells the parables of the sower and the mustard seed… as always, available on the website here if you want to here exactly what was said, but here’s the text:

Have you ever tried to describe or explain something to someone, who has very little knowledge of what you’re talking about… the words, they know the words you’re using, but when you put them together… they just don’t fit…

How do you explain colours to a blind person? Or the sea to someone who’s lived their life in a desert?

‘Its like…’ and you find yourself reaching for something they will understand… explaining to a blind person that colours are what the eye perceives when light is reflected at different wavelengths may be true, but it’s not helpful… you need to find something that they can understand… but you also have to realise it will have its limits- Imagine the biggest oasis of water you’ve ever seen, but make it so big that you can’t see the other side or walk around it… but you’ve not touched on the tide, the waves, the smell or the feel of water…

Jesus, in the passage we just heard from the Gospel of Mark, has been trying to describe the kingdom of God… For us, today, we’re like the blind man or the desert dweller… we don’t really have a clue what this means. For Jesus’ first listeners it was possibly even more confusing, because they thought they did know… the kingdom of God was surely their country, because they were the chosen people and their kings had been the chosen leaders… they were the ones who God had saved from Egypt so many years before. God had given them the 10 commandments, had brought them through the sea and the wilderness… they knew the kingdom of God. Or they thought they did.

Jesus used simple picture stories- we call them parables, to nudge and knock at their ideas- to gradually challenge them. He used images they understood, that were all around them- plants growing in the field… but in a way that challenged their ideas- the kingdom of God is not quite what you think.

Things in life are often not quite what you think… take children for example… before you have your first, you’ve got an idea of what its like… and then folk take great delight in watching you discover that, it’s not quite what you think. And then you have another, a second delightful child… and guess what? They’re not a clone of the first… or they have some similarities, but not where you were expecting them… and then a third… and well, what if she’s a girl after two boys? Well, it won’t be quite what you think… the only way to find out what it is like, is to live through it, and in 20yrs time you’ll know.

The kingdom of God is not quite what you think. The Christian faith is not quite what you think. Baptism, God, the church and the Bible- not quite what you think… but you only really find out what they are like as you go along.

So what did Jesus mean when he said ‘The kingdom of God is like a man scattering seed’ and yet also ‘like a mustard seed’…

The kingdom of God grows… not when and how we wish it- we do not control it, but we do play a part… just like we don’t control everything when we’re trying to grow plants from seed, but we are important-

We- choose the soil, we prepare the soil, we plant the seed, we clear weeds, we water the seed

We don’t- make it sprout, control the weather, control the way this particular plant grows…

Which brings me to the mustard seed… If we use the picture of a seed about to sprout to describe something, in our mind we think of something small, that is going to grow and become huge… and we can easily fall into the trap of thinking like this when we hear these words of Jesus… but- If Jesus wanted to talk about the Kingdom of God as something huge and strong and tall… he’d have said it was like a cypress tree- they’re massive. But a mustard plant? It’s not small, but neither is it huge… sure, the seed is tiny, but frankly, if you’re trying to impress someone with size and strength, the mustard plant isn’t a great choice. And it’s not exactly a looker- a straggly bush type plant that you could just about call a tree if you felt generous. It’s a tough thing though, growing in hot and dry conditions. So what is going on? If we remember the passage, it says that the mustard plant provides shade and perches for the birds of the air… it’s a place of safety, protection and shelter, it’s tough and it can survive and grow in all kinds of places. That’s the kingdom of God.

It grows in each of us when we respond to the invitation to acknowledge the claim that God is the creator who loves every one of us. It grows in us when we make that step of turning away from the bad practices (or sins) of our own lives and turning towards Jesus as the model of how to live, as the guide, the door keeper and yes, the way to reach God. It grows in us as a community of people when we choose to practice love towards one another, to become more hospitable, to learn kindness to strangers, to feed the hungry and care for those in need.

At times we might wish for this to grow in us faster, or more easily… but our role isn’t to control how fast a plant grows, nor how quickly God’s kingdom grows in us… we encourage growth but we can’t make it happen. Sometimes we need to be patient, to wait; to have faith… sometimes things that look dead (our clematis) just need to need to wait for the right time (the Titan Arum or corpse flower at the Eden project).

In baptism of a child we plant a seed of faith… when we come to church and hear the words of the songs and the words from the front, seeds are being scattered among us…what happens next is in part up to us, and in part up to God… There is an invitation for us all- to grow, to find peace, to shelter… it is up to us, each one of us to make our own response.


Bishop Robert- celebrating what has been, looking ahead to what is to come

Text below is the transcript of the address given by Bishop Robert (that’s him, below) to the churches of the Barnstaple Mission Community on Sunday 18th March 2018.

BBC News - New Bishop of Exeter Robert Atwell installed

Philippians 2.1-16


“Is there anything of which it may be said: See this is new?” A question posed long ago by that miserable Old Testament preacher, Ecclesiastes; but pertinent for us today as we commission this new Group Ministry for the churches of Barnstaple.


Today is a day for giving the mission and ministry of the Church in this town a new look and a fresh vision. We give thanks for all that has been achieved, and say ‘Yes’ to everything that God is calling us to embrace in our discipleship of our Lord Jesus Christ.


But it’s also a day for avoiding the trap of nouvelle cuisine – all style and no substance. And that will only happen if everyone here swings behind this fresh start and makes a go of it. Words by themselves will achieve nothing.


‘Sing to the Lord a new song. Sing to the Lord all the earth. Tell of his salvation from day to day.’ If I had a text for today, it would be those opening words of Psalm 96. The trouble is, learning a new song is never easy. If an organist ever dares to change the tune to which a familiar hymn is sung, the gripes and groans that go up from a congregation are endless, even when the old hymn tune was a dreadful dirge. It’s so easy in life to default to the familiar, even when the familiar is negative.


I don’t know if you’ve ever watched Gareth Malone on the television and the amazing way he draws out the musical talents of people, be they military wives, or staff in the Royal Mail or the scratch choir of a hospital in Staffordshire. He always emphasises the importance of articulating the lyrics – so that the audience doesn’t miss the message.


We Christians have our own special song; and in spite of our different traditions and styles of worship, we are all agreed on the lyrics.


The lyrics are those of God who “so loved the world that He gave his only Son so that all who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life”.


The lyrics are of our Saviour Jesus Christ “who emptied himself, taking the form of a servant and was obedient unto death” but rose again and longs to live through you and me.


The lyrics are those of the Holy Spirit who empowers us to be Christ’s eyes and hands and feet in this generation here and now.

They are lyrics of glory because we sing of heaven and pray that one day we may rejoice in the vision of God for ever.


The lyrics are unchanging but the audience has. We live in a very different country from the days when this ancient church of St Peter was built 700 years ago or even when the late Billy Graham led his crusade in Britain in the 1960s. Our nation may not be post-Christian, but it is certainly no longer Christian in the way it was once considered to be, and we need to face that reality square on as we endeavour to get our act together.


What has also not changed is the call of Jesus Christ to follow him, his commission to make new disciples and to baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; to go into the world and engage in the public square, whether in the Panier Market, in local schools, or in the council chamber.


Jesus promises to be with us to the end of time, but he bids us witness: meet, act and, where necessary, confront, especially on behalf of the poor and socially excluded in our communities. We need to expose the secular assumptions that pervade so much of contemporary living in the confidence that comes from being grounded in the transforming love of God.


If you are ready to answer Christ’s call, then you need to raise your sights way beyond the inward-looking agendas that all-too-often bedevil PCCs. Beware of getting bogged down with things that do not address the issues that actually matter to the people of Barnstaple, and which, to be frank, bore the pants off most church people too.


Because let’s be clear: unless we engage with the issues that are shaping Britain today, then we will be expelled from the public square – and deserve to be. The Church of God is not a religious club for members only: it is the Body of Christ and we’ve a job to do and a difference to make. It’s why Jesus bid us be salt and light in the world.


I’ve read your Group Ministry Action Plan and there is so much that I want to affirm in what you are doing as parishes and individuals in your witness to Christ. For example, I think it’s great the way you are endeavouring to make your churches fit for purpose in the 21st century. Many young parents are happy to take their toddlers to the supermarket or to the library, but don’t want their babies crawling around under a dark pew in the dirt. Regular members in the congregation do not always realise this, confusing the smell of damp hassocks with the odour of sanctity.


The time has come to work together more strategically and more imaginatively than you have been doing in the past. This new Group Ministry is a means to that end. Together you can do great things, but separately you will be less effective. So this morning let me set before you four areas for you to think through as you discern priorities and shape your mission to the people of Barnstaple.


First, young people. How can you as a group of churches, committed to working together, engage more effectively with your local schools and young people? In so many of our schools today religion is presented as essentially irrational and potentially unstable, often on the spurious basis that science and religion are incompatible.If you and I seriously long for a Christian presence in Barnstaple in the years ahead then you need to be in your schools now, listening and talking.


Secondly, how are you going to engage intelligently with your local health centres, hospital and hospice over the major ethical issues that are arising from developments in genetics, or with the debate around assisted suicide and euthanasia? My worry is if we opt out of these debates we will collude with the growing public perception that Christians are out-of-touch, or worse still, that Christians are only given to shrill, negative and extreme opinions. In Devon there are increasing numbers of people with mental health problems. As Christians, what have you to say about human well-being in Barnstaple?


Thirdly, how are you going to engage with the new housing developments that are springing up around the place? Is a joint bid for funding from the diocesan New Housing Project Fund possible? When new people arrive in a town they are eager to make friends and to bond with the local community. What an opportunity. Don’t squander it.


And fourthly, how can you work together to support and engage with local businesses? Is their mileage for more town centre ministry, based here at St Peter’s, but run jointly by St Peter’s and the other parishes? Please don’t retreat into a privatised world of religion. Centuries ago the prophet Jeremiah told the Jews living in exile in Babylon to seek the welfare of the city in which they lived. And God says the same thing to you today in Barnstaple. As Christian people we are committed to human flourishing and building up the community in which we live and work.


For all these things, and many others besides, we have important lyrics in our Christian song. Yet, sadly, most people today aren’t hearing them. Why is that? Perhaps because the words we speak come across tritely, weakly, inarticulately; or maybe they are simply not coming across at all? Can you help one another in communicating better with the local community, learning from one another about what flopped and why it flopped, and what has gone really well and why?


Recent research has shown that putting words to music makes the words four times more likely to be remembered. I’m not suggesting that you set the Gospel to rap and the local clergy stand outside the Panier Market leading shoppers in a sing song – though I can guarantee that would make headlines in the local paper.


What I’m saying is that putting across a Christian message with credibility means releasing ourselves from Meccano-like ecclesiastical structures and stale constitutions, so that the words we use together, the very Gospel message we’re about, really does become music to people’s ears. And for that to happen, our lives and our words have to marry up.


In Gareth Malone’s last series he put a choir behind a screen and told them to sing the words of the song they were practising, first not smiling, and then with smiles. It was easy to detect which performance was which – for with the smiles came a bounce and a joy that transformed their performance. It’s why joy is key to our missionary task. Joy is what makes the Gospel infectious.


I must confess that I’ve not detected an over-abundance of joie-de-vivre in the Church of England over the past decade, and I take my own part in the blame for that. But it is why we talk about ‘serving the people of Devon with joy’. Those last two words of our third diocesan priority ‘with joy’ are not an optional extra. Miserable, grumpy, burnt-out Christians aren’t a good advert for the Gospel. Without a dollop of joy, all the words we utter will sound pedestrian, constraining, and stultifying.


So take to heart the words of St Paul in his Letter to the Philippians which we had as our reading this morning: “If there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.”


You have been wrestling with structures and stipendiary allocation for years. That’s now settled, hopefully for the long term. So the energy that has been directed inwards to sorting out your organisation needs now to be turned outwards to engage with the local community. And what better day to do this than on Passion Sunday when, in company with Christians throughout the world, we prepare to walk the way of the cross.


So let me invite you to give your best energy no longer to the organisation of the Church, but to placing all that you are and all that you strive to be into Christ’s hands. Then the words and notes you sing will become so integral to your being that the amazing truth of Christ’s vision for this world will dawn on others and we understand the meaning of his words:  “Behold, I make all things new.”



+ Robert Exon

So, it’s been a while since I blogged- actually this is my first post of the year and I didn’t even write it myself. I’ve been busy, with one thing and another- taking on a new bit of responsibility in my work, supporting a large number of bereaved families and so on, and that’s meant my notes for Sunday mornings are less fully worked out. I do want to get back to blogging, and not just posting sermon texts, but it’s one of those things that seems a bit of a luxury at the moment… we’ll see what the next few weeks bring.

Prayer- an expression of vulnerability and trust.

There are times when you discover that you’re on the same page as God- when you’ve been meaning to speak about things for a while and everything seems to nudge you in that direction… when everything is trying to tell you something. That was yesterday- with the way that 2 sermons by different people fitted in synch with each other, and everything else, down to the unplanned comment about ‘if you want me to pray with you at the communion rail and it takes 10minutes’, which was followed by someone turning up late for the service who, guess what, needed to spend time with God. Huh. Sure, it could all be coincidence, it’s just a lot of coincidences, all happening one after another, in a week when I’m talking about God hearing our prayer. Yup.

So, as usual, what I said doesn’t match with what I wrote, but here is the plan I had at the start of yesterday morning, based on James’ letter to the Christian church and a passage from Matthew’s Gospel (Bible references are James 5.13-18 and Matthew 13.54-58). The audio version is as always available on-line here

Having just come back from the clergy conference I want to share with you over the next few weeks some of what we were talking and learning about. Not so much the details of staying at the Royal Agricultural University in Cirencester where prohibited items in rooms specifically mention shotgun ammo and birdscarers, but rather the nature of the diocesan priorities that we were reflecting on. If you’ve had a letter from any of the staff or been on the website this last year you’ll probably have noticed- Pray, Grow Disciples, Serve with Joy… these 3 things are the priorities that are shaping the plans and activity of the diocese. They are the means by which we hope to see churches grow in confidence, faith, and numbers. We’ll come back, over the weeks ahead to the ideas of growing disciples and serving our communities with Joy, but this week we’re continuing in our own teaching on prayer.

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Last week we were thinking about prayer for the world (which we often call intercession) and our own relationship with God that is reflected in our prayer life. As I said, how close we feel to God, how aware we are of what God is doing, how broken our hearts are for the troubles of the world, all stem out of how much we take on Jesus’s teaching on prayer- calling God Father, praying for his kingdom to come in all things and seeking his guidance in our lives.

This morning we’re thinking about another aspect of the life of prayer- prayer for each other. We sometimes call this prayer ministry, we might also think of it as a type of intercessory prayer if we’re more comfortable with that language, or just simply ‘praying for you’.

Our two readings highlight the tension that exists around praying for people we know, or having people we know pray for us- If we look at James, it’s very simple- if you’re happy, sing songs of praise, if you’re sick, get folk to come and pray with you. Mark’s Gospel is described as the blunt, Ronseal account of Jesus’ life- the short tabloid read to the lengthy broadsheet account of Matthew… in which case James’ letter to the Christian church is the equivalent among the epistles of the New Testament. Not a different letter for each church, no need to write several letters… just this- control your tongue, care for widows and orphans, be like Jesus, and here: praise God in the good times, seek help in the bad, confess your sins and you will be forgiven.

Our passage from Matthew’s gospel offers us what might be our response to this- it’s all very well to say that but- our family and friends know us too well. Just as Jesus was not able to heal many in his home town, so we know that among those closest to us it can be hard. They know our flaws, they may be wary of revealing their inner struggles or needs to us- I know there’ve been times when I’ve deliberately sought out a stranger to pray for me about something, because it’s painful or complicated to ask someone who knows the situation to pray into it… and there are times when that is ok. However, it may be that I’m simply avoiding the situation- if it’s Sandra I’ve offended or who’s upset me, it isn’t that helpful, in the long term, to ask Pete to pray with me about it… the broken relationship can’t be healed by him.

Praying for one another involves a degree of trust and faith- in God, of course, but also in each other. It involves being somewhat vulnerable, and so we must practice being trustworthy just as we must practice trusting. When I bring something to an individual who’s offering to pray for me I have to know a few things-

  • That they’re connected to God- there’re some people who I just feel more comfortable praying for me because they’re obviously on God’s wavelength; but God is on everyone’s wavelength, often it’s just me that hasn’t noticed. You may or may not have come across the results of surveys earlier in the year which show that over half our nation now say they have no religion- as far as those folks are concerned everyone here is more connected to God than them, not just those who lead prayers at the front. Also, while we’re here- the NRSV translation of James 5.16 says ‘prayer of the righteous’, so gender isn’t the issue here, its our personal relationship with God… just to be clear on that.
  • I have to know they care- being prayed for isn’t a check box, or a production line! Something is bothering me, whether big or small, and I find myself asking for prayer… I don’t want the person I ask to reply ‘It’s fine, God knows your need, sit there while I pray’… and after 10 seconds of silence, or a short catch-all prayer that God would ‘help me in all I face’ to ask me to move along as someone else want the chair… And I want them to remember they’ve prayed for me- not to shout about it the following week while we queue for coffee, but to ask how I am…

There’re other things too, when and how to pray with young people and those of the opposite sex, when to pray out-loud and when to be silent, but ultimately this is the most important thing- most of us can pray for someone, and to most of us have something going on that could be prayed for… There is no barrier of age or experience that can’t be worked through, there are no clever words…

It feels timely to me that this summer I’ve been reading several books on prayer, while at the same time both Carolyn and Cathy have been talking about having the church open for prayer and producing prayer resources to allow mid-week visitors to pray, someone’s just given me a pile of books on prayer after I’d written in my to-do list ‘create library of prayer books for the church’, I’ve been reminded of my licencing here when I said that my highest priority was to lead us in prayer.

There are some terrible things going on in the world, there are some concerning things going on in the life of the wider church, and yet, here at this time, it feels as though our response is this- we need to pray. To come closer to God so that we can carry God with us into the world. To pray for the needs of the world and for each other. To allow others to pray for us, whether in celebration or sorrow.

Later on, as we have communion, there’ll be a chance for us to be prayed for and pray for each other in several ways- first of all, as we sit and wait, I hope we’re able to take the chance to pray for those around us- I used to pray for people going up while I was waiting, and not just that they’d hurry up. Secondly, there’ll be the opportunity to be prayed for at the back of the church or at the communion rail- whichever you prefer. Stay at the rail after you’ve had wine and someone will pray with you; or go to the font at the back, and someone will pray with you there. Lastly, when the children come back in from Sunday School, they are going to lead us in praying for each other after we’ve finished receiving Communion- they might stand near to you, or walk past you- you might find a small person puts their hand on your shoulder. And after we’ve finished the service, there’s no rules that say you can’t continue to do this- turning to those near you or finding someone else and asking for prayer. There’s no time like the present.

Looking ahead…

Last weekend we were away- not just me slacking off, but a bunch of folk from our churches, having a retreat/holiday/weekend break at a place called Lee Abbey, on the North Devon coast. I think it’s fair to say it was amazing for everyone in some form- whether the walks along the coast, the teaching and input, the company of friends, being catered for and eating with 100 other people (without having to wash up!).

So, as a result, I’ve nothing to share in terms of ‘here’s what I said…’

I could share some of the things I heard at the weekend, all about identity, about knowing we each matter as individuals to God our father, about how being secure in our identity is worked out in what we do (and why we do it!), but at the moment its all floating round and needs to settle down… maybe another time.

Instead, I’m going to advertise, blatantly, something we’re doing this weekend. Obviously I’d love anyone reading this to come and join us, but equally, if you’re in Hungary, Canada or Suffolk then you might not be able to. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do the same-

In both our churches it is traditional for us to remember the birth of John the Baptist, which is celebrated on June 24th each year. This year we want to remember and celebrate our own baptisms as a way of recommitting ourselves to live in hope, working to bring peace and to restore relationships with those around us. Some of us have been baptised as adults, others as children (which we often call Christening- but they are the same thing). In baptism, Christians around the world promise to turn away from evil and to turn towards what is good, and to hold Jesus as our guiding light as we do this. At this time, with so much bad news and uncertainty, we want to hold out something that is good and life-giving to our community. We warmly invite anyone who has been baptised, particularly if it was in either of our churches, to take this opportunity to refresh their baptism, and to come along with Godparents, parents and anyone else. Many of us, over the years have been asked to be godparents, and this is also a chance just to remember what we, as godparents, are part of.  Each church will, as usual, be decorated by our amazing volunteers who turn the windowsills into a riot of colour and celebration, and the services will be followed by serving of Fairtrade refreshments.

A child's baptism at Newport 2015

I’m hoping the churches will be full, with friends visiting and folk saying ‘yes, I’m in’ for the first or the 40th time. I’m hoping that for us this will be a time when we say that we are aligning ourselves with the prince of peace and the kingdom of hope, and standing against the evils of hatred and injustice.

And, wherever you are- whether you happen to be near a church called ‘St John the Baptist’ or aren’t near to a church at all, you can do the same.


Some helpful thoughts from a wise colleague…

This week my colleagues have been putting some really good things online, and I’m happy to share them- this comes from Bishop Sarah-

This week in Manchester we have unfortunately seen the NHS and emergency services at its best and Lucy Easthope in the Guardian online talks about how the emergency response of Monday night has been planned over many years. The planning has included “training people to sit patiently with a mother and ask her gently for permission to […]

via We need to admit how much this hurts — Contemplation in the shadow of a carpark

Finding comfort when things are uncomfortable

Last Sunday morning our reading was from John 14- a passage that we’re most familiar with, unfortunately, from funerals. It’s very often used, because its so very poignant and appropriate to the question of ‘what is happening here?’ that we often face at those times. Yet the odd thing is, it comes before the death of Jesus- he is helping his friends to come to terms, in advance, with his death…

Image result for lean on someone

Yesterday I went significantly off script, various things came up and had come up- some tough things for us as churches alongside things to celebrate, but it was just one of those wonderful timings- The passage chosen for today, and which I’d put on the list several months ago, was just perfect for many of us in different ways. Just another one of those remarkable coincidences that seem to happen around God.

Anyway, here’s what I based my talk on- I think the audio should be on our website here

Jesus is the way to the Father… but that doesn’t make it comfortable…

Often folk like parts of the Gospel, or the idea of God, or the feeling of the Holy Spirit, but when all three come together it can be more challenging- we might like to have a pick’n’mix, but is that what is on offer?

I once came across the acronym USP- Unique Selling Point… its what makes something unique- its particularly to do with marketing and sales- what makes this product or service stand out…

In terms of faiths and philosophies, this passage expresses one of the really important USPs of the Christian faith- How we can relate to God…

All philosophies/belief structures and religions try to help give life meaning- to find a way to live.

Many have some spiritual aspect beyond the material and measurable

A significant number have an understanding of the universe that embodies spiritual power within a god or gods

Some believe that there is some kind of life after our death

A few believe that their god is interested in individuals- that some kind of relationship is possible

One, and only one to the best of my knowledge, claims that anyone who wishes to can have a parent/child relationship with their god, a relationship that is based on love, hope, and that out of that relationship they can act and represent their god…

Jesus says- no one comes to the Father except through me. Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.

This is one of those ‘did he really say that?’ moments- What Jesus said is either true or blasphemy-the Sanhedrin, the Jewish leaders, made their decision and then acted on it- blasphemy- so they sought his death, and they killed Stephen for what he said…

Whilst the gospel is open to everyone, its not acceptable to everyone- there’s a point at which it can no longer be one of the things that we ‘like’… it is either so true and so important that it shapes our response to everything else, or its complete rubbish.

If Jesus is wrong about himself, if Stephen was wrong about Jesus, then the Christian faith is built upon the mistakes of a deluded man and his lying or hallucinating friends…

But the proof is in the pudding- when we humbly seek God, when we come in prayer for the needs of our community and seek forgiveness for the mess we’re making of our world… then we find that God responds- rarely in the way we might have preferred, or the timing we had in mind, but often in a way we could not have conceived of.

In prayer faith and faithfulness go hand in hand- do we believe in God’s ability and desire to act? And do we have the faithfulness to keep on pressing into that situation, praying for those people etc…

If we want to see people come to faith, we have to pray. If we don’t pray, why are we surprised when people don’t? Like a father, God knows what we need and yet delights in our asking for it…

Boom! Shazaam! ‘Where’d he go?’, the resurrection according to Matthew and Spielberg, with visuals by God.

What a weekend! What a week! What a day! What a sunrise!

Image may contain: sky, ocean, cloud, twilight, outdoor and nature

Looking back its really easy to look past the middle of the road stuff and see either the highs or the lows… most of the time when someone asks how you’re doing the reply is either ‘Great, thanks!’ ‘Busy as you like!’, on occasions we may be ‘just awful’, but its rare that we describe ourselves and our day as ‘a bit pants and a bit good, you know’…

I’m saying this because when we read the events of the first Easter, they’re viewed in hindsight- the women were overjoyed, the men ran to the tomb, the angel- well, the angel played it pretty cool actually. After an event we talk it down or we talk it up, but while its happening we’re mostly just getting through- hanging on with our fingertips, refusing to give up, or just trudging along. Last week I took my daughters on their first rollercoaster ride… there was much screaming, laughter and general ‘whoa!’-ing, but when the ride finished, their voices were unleashed ‘it was like this, and so that and then…’ Often in church we’re quite good at calm and reflective, but we don’t tend to do too much ‘it was just amazing!!’… maybe we should try a bit more?

Anyway, some of these things and more were included in my talk on Sunday morning which was based on Matthew’s Gospel… it was recorded on the website here, and my original notes looked a little like this:

Matthew’s account of the resurrection is a real action movie- there’re angels and supernatural earthquakes, but there’s also the human aspect- down to earth things- the body is gone… Jesus appears and speaks to the women- they can ‘clasp his feet’…

At the beginning of the day, everyone thought they knew what was going to happen- the guards, the women and the disciples… but they were all wrong. And so their first reaction is a mix of disbelief and fear- Guards were afraid, Angel says do not be afraid, women hurry away, afraid… Jesus says don’t be afraid…

But the women were also filled with joy…

When something momentous happens, how do you feel? When you get wonderful news, what emotions go through you? A friend gave me some news the other day- it was big stuff, and I could feel a whole mix of thoughts- concern, sorrow, relief… when you get the best news, sometimes its hard to accept it… sometimes you have to say to yourself ‘is this real’- but the answer is often ‘why wouldn’t it be?’… when someone tells me its raining, I rarely look up… when they see a rainbow I’ll come to the window- if they say its snowing I can’t bring myself to believe it until I know for myself.

The resurrection- Matthew and the other Gospel writers, who are the primary source for Jesus’ life, seem to present the resurrection and the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to his disciples in the same way as they present the rest of their gospels- when they include a story, its clear that they aren’t presenting that as something that happened…

If Jesus rose again, its of supreme importance- because it validates what he said about who he was, about his power and authority, and it means so much for life after death.

If Jesus did not rise again, its of supreme importance- because it invalidates his claims, and the claims of others around him, it means that he was ‘just a teacher’, but one with a remarkable idea that he was the Son of God- or whose teachings were so warped as to sound like that… either way Jesus is not someone to follow.

What are the alternatives?

He didn’t really die- Soldiers put him on the cross, a soldier stabbed him with a spear… they were professionals doing their job…

The women and disciples were mistaken- (wrong tomb) if so, why didn’t the authorities at the time produce Jesus’ body? That would have quashed the stories early on, and there wouldn’t have ever been a church

The disciples stole the body- that was the line the authorities took… interestingly in Acts it never comes up again… when Peter, John, Stephen and Paul are before the Jewish or Roman authorities, on trial about their claims, its not recorded that anyone suggests this… instead the response is ‘blasphemy’- how can you suggest Jesus was the messiah? Rather than ‘of course he wasn’t, you’re deluded and wrong’…

A spiritual resurrection- this suggestion comes from Christians who want to believe the accounts of a resurrection but can’t accept the idea of a bodily resurrection… but it has two big problems- where did the body go? And what does ‘spiritual resurrection’ mean- his disciples claimed they saw and touched him, and shared food with him… and the body was gone… a spiritual resurrection doesn’t actually help, it just raises other, equally big questions.

The resurrection started a chain of events that has led to us being here today…

There was a man named Jesus who was crucified outside Jerusalem- the Bible says so, the Jewish historian Josephus says so.

His followers claimed that he rose from the dead- again, the Bible, Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius and the Jewish Talmud all agree that his followers claimed this…

Those followers then went on to live as if what they claimed was true- to travel around sharing the news with others, they didn’t deny it under oath or torture. They lived lives in keeping with Jesus teaching, including practices of generosity as well as healing the sick… they prayed and bore witness to lives changed through prayer and God’s power.

If that had all been untrue, or just made up, it would never have made it out of Jerusalem, out of Palestine… it would never have made it to the heart of the Roman Empire, where for the next 200yrs Christians were persecuted- but still continuing to grow in numbers until its estimated that by the time of the Edict of Milan in 313AD there were over 200million Christians…

Despite rumours to the contrary the Christian faith is still alive and well in the world… but it is true that there are a lot of people in our own country and community that wouldn’t accept the claims that Christianity makes… so the challenge for us is to let them see the truth of those claims in our lives- in our love for the poor as well as the rich, in our generosity to the stranger as well as to our friends, in our faithfulness in the small things and the large- in the way that we show the love of Christ that prompted him to live on this earth, to minister amongst Jews, Samaritans and Gentiles, and to walk the path of the cross.

We worship Jesus as the son of God, because that is who we believe he is, as demonstrated supremely by his death and resurrection- which is why you’ll see here and in many other churches an empty cross- a symbol of state execution, but without its victim. We remember his sacrifice in the way he showed his disciples- through the breaking of bread and the sharing of wine- in some churches using grape juice, wafers, raisins or other things- in some countries using different food that has meaning to them, with the use of water to demonstrate that even the poorest of us can bring something. We celebrate that Jesus is the light of the world, who came into the darkness- with candles, white to symbolise purity… we do all this, and remind ourselves with the words of our communion prayer, that we worship, follow and serve a God of love and power who knows us and sees us at our worst, yet would transform each of us to more than we could hope for. Let us worship the Lord- Alleluia, Christ is risen.


Hope for growth- Hoffnung fur alles!

Maybe its just because its the new year, maybe its because in many ways 2016 wasn’t such a good year (though there are a number of lists around that highlight the amazing things that did happen in 2016- measles ending in the America’s, peace in Colombia, the end of the Ebola epidemic to name just 3), maybe there’s something in the air, but it seems as though hope is on the horizon, or at least in the air.

Some folks prayed with me last summer, for a season of breakthrough that would start in 2017, some others I know have been praying for a renewed spiritual hunger in our churches and communities an so on… when you use language like that its easy to lose touch with folks who’re operating on a more practical day-to-day level, but its important to recognise that hope for peace and love, hope for compassion and forgiveness to grow in our lives, that’s the kind of hope that isn’t limited by a specific faith, and its will be a blessing to everyone- so bring on the hope!

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Last Sunday morning we were gathered at the very beginning of the year, and we spent some time thinking, talking and praying about our hopes and intentions for the year- those things we’d like to see, those differences in our own lives that we’d like to attain- in different areas. And today we are thinking about beginnings again. Today is the first Sunday after the Epiphany- when we remember the final action, as it were, of the nativity- that Jesus was, as a young child, visited and worshipped by wise men from the East- we don’t know their names for sure, we don’t know that they were kings, but tradition has grown up and developed around the text to give us the camel-riding (and shades wearing if you’ve ever seen them here) Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar, coming according to an early Armenian tradition from Arabia, Persia and India. We don’t know the details for sure. But we do know that this, the ending of act one, was also the beginning- even at this point in his life Jesus was the cause of something that had never been seen- These men came to worship the Son of God, without intermediary or having to become Jews first. Even in the early years of his life Jesus began to open up the promise and the blessing that had been given to Abraham to include others… the beginning of the kingdom.


And our two readings this morning continue that- in Jesus’ own baptism, and the encounter between Peter and Cornelius which, if you continue a few verses concludes with their baptism…


The growth of the kingdom of God starts with a meeting- Jesus comes to John, Peter comes to Cornelius, the magi came to Bethlehem… each one of us has at some time come for the first time to a place where we have encountered God…


At this point in the church year we remember Jesus’ own baptism, we remember our own baptism, or the day of our confirmation,  our coming to faith… those significant moments which mark the start of our journey of faith- Over the years here and in different churches baptism has been seen as both the very start point of our relationship with God- coming into the family, and also, along with confirmation, the point at which we choose, at which we choose that we are for God… Jesus baptism came at the very beginning of his ministry, the baptism of Cornelius and his household came at the start of the church’s growth amongst the gentiles- that next chapter in the kingdom of God…


And during his baptism it was evident to all those around that God had chosen Jesus- the voice spoke from heaven, the Spirit descending like a dove- an image that you’ll find not just here but in many churches to illustrate the presence of God’s Spirit among us- as Peter spoke the Holy Spirit came down and filled Cornelius and all his household… and so the meeting, led to baptism, which showed God had chosen to act…


For us at this time of the year, we can pause and reflect on our own journey- those three aspects. Where we are on that journey- for some much lies in the past, for others its all recent while for a few here we’re looking at planning a service in the next few months of baptism and confirmation…


These things, and all that is our Spiritual life are things we live- that grow in us.  As the hopes that we spoke of last week need to be spoken and shared and then acted upon, so our hopes for our faith need to be spoken, and then acted on. Last week in our other congregation I spoke about not having resolutions- I find that they always make me feel guilty, because I know I’ll fail. Even while I’m still holding to them, I know that I’ll fail and so I already feel guilty. Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount- do not swear by anything on heaven or on earth, but let your yes be your yes and your no be your no…  This year I’ve decided to try and read the Bible. Not just a bit of it, but the whole thing. It’s not my resolution, but it is my hope. I want to do this so that I can know God more, and so that God will be shown and known more in every aspect of my life. I strongly suspect that I won’t manage the daily readings each day, but its my hope that by trying I will walk closer to God… I’m telling you so that you can help me- not to beat me with it, or to make you feel guilty that you’re not doing the same, or to impress you, but because I’d like your help.  The thing is that I’m no busier than last year or the year before… and I’m just as lazy, but I’m simply choosing each day to do something that will help me, and I’m already noticing it.  Just yesterday I met someone who said they were a Christian but that they didn’t feel the need to go to church- which is, to an extent true… but if you never go to church you’re like a car that is never refueled, a doctor who never sees a patient, a footballer who’s stopped going to practice…  that car still remains a car, that doctor might still be a doctor and a footballer could call themselves a footballer- but none of them are fulfilling their purpose, nor being all they could… there are times for each of us when its all we can do to just hold position- in our work, relationships and spiritual lives… that happens. But that isn’t what we hope for, it isn’t our longer term aim.


My hope is that this year all of us will be growing in our faith- in our practice of it, in our service of others and in our being fuelled for the rigours of life…


The gospel that we hear in these passages from Scripture is simple enough, the question it poses for us is simple enough, and so it remains for us to work out our response to that question in our lives- and so we have our hopes for the year, for ourselves and our families, our church and our community…

New year’s hope…

I hadn’t seen Rogue One until Wednesday, and just like my friends and family who were very good and didn’t spoil it for me, I won’t go and spoil anything for anyone who’s yet to go… just to say its really good fun. But I will say one thing… ‘we have hope.’ A great line in the midst of it all, and one that I’ve been holding out and holding onto recently, and will continue in for the foreseeable.

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On Sunday morning we had a quiet-ish New Year’s Day service- but we thought and reflected on hopes and resolutions, after reading from the first chapter of John’s Gospel, verses 10-18, and also the opening chapter of Paul’s letter to the Ephesian church… I wish I’d written down exactly what I said, and it wasn’t even recorded, but here at least are the notes that I used… I may develop it further and post more after the weekend…

John testifies to this- that Jesus is the ‘one and only’- he’s not just someone amazing, but someone unique… he recognised who Jesus was- even though he could have said ‘he is my little cousin’… Recognising isn’t just seeing, its seeing and understanding/knowing… receiving and believing- not just with our heads, or just with our hearts, but with both, and with our feet… Letting this encourage us as well as challenge us…

Who are we in Christ, and so what?

John testified about Jesus- that he was the One and only… that he was the Word- the expression of God’s power in creation- just as physical forces such as heat, electrical energy and gravity only become apparent when they are expressed- when they are doing something, so God’s power was expressed and shown most clearly in Christ… Jesus was the visible  aspect of God. And John testified to that, John who had known Jesus all his life- his younger cousin, one of those who could have said ‘isn’t he just the carpenter’s son??’ was able to say ‘he is the one and only’ the one through whom we can become children of God…

And more than that…

As Paul wrote to the Ephesians- we are chosen by God…  adopted by God (as a slave set free might be adopted into a family)…

Marked by a seal… owned… but also under his care… under his banner, under his direction…

Cleansed by the blood… saved by his own action- not just saved, but saved by him taking our place, our sin… but ultimately not our punishment- because of our sins we were deserving of death and eternal separation from God… but Jesus had not sinned, and so death did not hold him, but through his action was itself defeated.

And so?? What shall we do… how shall we live? The grace of God is such that he continues to love us and welcomes us as his children, no matter whether we come to him daily, weekly or yearly. The grace of God is such that he is with us as blesses us whether we try to align our lives with his will in everything, or only so much…

Yes, God has chosen us, has known us, has spoken into our lives… the choice that is ours is how much we will listen, how much we will speak back to God, how much of our lives we will open to him…

Just as many people have New Years resolutions about their fitness, hobbies and other parts of their lives, maybe this is a good time to look at our spiritual lives and ask if they are all we’d wish them to be… if we’re happy with our knowledge of God’s love for us, if we feel that we do worship God with all our heart and soul, if we share our faith naturally with any who ask, that our prayer life is challenging and uplifting and that our times with God’s Word equip us for the day… Its easy to look at someone and compare ourselves- that person is holier than me, is more spirit-filled, a real worshipper, an evangelist… but we are all on our own journey of faith, and God’s desire for each of us, as individuals saved by the blood of Christ, sealed by the Spirit and called his children… his desire is for each of us to grow and flourish as ourselves, being transformed into the likeness of Christ- not of the person next to us, though they might be able to point us in the right direction… but Christ.

We can ask ourselves what Jesus would have said, done, bought, sung, given to etc, but the real part of it is where we then say, and so what will I say, do, buy, sing, and give to?

For myself I’m challenged by this, and I’m making a commitment to start a daily reading plan that will take me through the whole Bible this year; and to not only pray but worship God each day. My resolution is to know Christ more in all of my life, and to make him known more through every part of my life… and I fully expect to fail at times. That’s why I’m telling you- so you can encourage me and hold me to account. I want to ask you to help me grow this year. And we can all do the same for each other- You don’t need to stand up front and tell everyone what you’re doing, though at some points in the year it would be great to hear how God has been at work in people’s lives… but it is helpful for us each to be accountable in some way- you may like to write something down, or commit it to God, or tell a good friend or family member… it may be something you need a group around you for… this may be a good time for us to get another home group going…

we all know how telling someone your plans makes them more real… so this year, not just for a few weeks but throughout the year, let your faith become deeper and more real… and work with God to make that happen.

Be of good cheer, for Christmas is still here! Hope is always in season.

I spotted an article a few days ago that was someone’s Christmas Day message, written and posted up on their blog in advance- because they hoped that everyone would have too much to do on the day to be wasting  spending time reading a blog… well, for similar reasons but doing things the opposite way around here’s what I preached on Christmas Eve… on the passages from Isaiah chapter 9 and John’s Gospel chapter 1.  I did also preach on Christmas Day in the morning, but I thought I’d mix things up a bit… in order to fully appreciate this post, please read at 11.30pm after a hectic day, surrounded by candles and Christmas lights, with a few good friends and maybe having had a small glass of something-

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I want to give us three short thoughts at this time, based on three images from our Bible readings- we have these same readings each year, and for each of us different parts will stand out, and have significance. They are also a part of the season- just as we sing carols, eat turkey, struggle with the tree, so we hear the familiar words read. But although they are something we return to each year, we need not become so overfamiliar with them that they lose their power. So may God speak to us all this Christmas season through his word, and through his Son Jesus Christ who’s birth we celebrate.

The passage from Isaiah has two wonderful images in it- ones that I find really helpful in tough times. And these are tough times. There is mention of the land of the shadow of death- Isaiah is writing at a time of unrest in his nation, when its uncertain when and where the next invasion will come from, who are their allies… the only certainty is that God is still faithful despite the people and their rulers turning away again and again. But for us that phrase, the shadow of death, is most often connected to Psalm 23, and the promise it contains- I will fear no evil, for though I walk in that valley I know that the Lord is with me… Isaiah would have known that same Psalm, and his words are of hope for the people around him at that time- a light is dawning… ultimately the darkness of night, the despair of war will come to an end…

The second image is one that Jesus spoke about hundreds of years later, and you’ll have heard me mention it before- the yoke. When Jesus talks about a yoke he is encouraging his followers- come to me all who are weary and burdened. I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you- you will find it easy and the burden light… as a well-fitted harness allows us to work hard and to carry heavier weights… this is in contrast to the bar on the shoulders of Isaiah’s people, the yoke of the invading armies which bears them down… God promises that one day that will be broken, and Jesus invites us to take up a new yoke that fits us and works with us. For its important to realise, to remember, that of the many things that Jesus came to do, freeing us from the need to work was not one of them.

The third image comes from the passage from John we just heard, and its one of encouragement and hope- There are many parts of this passage which I don’t fully understand, but that evoke something within me, but for today I want to look at the very final verse- The Word (which we’re just beginning to understand is John’s way of describing Jesus in this prologue to his Gospel) became flesh. That’s the heart of what we celebrate at Christmas- the indescribable power of God at work in creation entered into the world in a child… God who brings light in the darkness and an end to the night, came and made his dwelling among us- he came among us. No, more than that, he came and lived and worked and sweated among us… We can say that God knows us because God has lived among us- we know that God understands our fears and our work- that God’s promises to be with us in the valley of the shadow of death and to form for us a yoke that is easy… we know those promises are made by a God who has walked on this earth- who worked by the sweat of his brow, who cooked and cleaned and waited for the sunrise, who knew the loss of friends and was himself let down by those who followed him. This God made his dwelling amongst us, to know us.  Just as we know what it is to love somewhere in a picture, to love somewhere from a holiday, and to love somewhere you live… God knows that too. He has chosen to do this. And tonight we celebrate and remember that.

So may your tinsel be sparkly and your bubbles freshly poured, may your hearts be filled with love for your neighbour and compassion for the stranger, may you know the joy of the giver and the gift, may you know God’s love for you this year, in the midst of whatever you are living through- may you know God with you- Immanuel…


By now your turkey will have been demolished, the wrapping will be well and truly strewn, and you’ll be beginning to wonder what you should have got done before work starts, but I invite you to join with me and that radical disciple, the Archbishop of Canterbury in praying, speaking for and acting to help the homeless, the poor and the disadvantaged, wherever the may be, as we remember the birth of the homeless refugee Jesus.