On this page you can find details of this month’s services and transcripts of recent sermons preached by our Minister, Revd Dr Kirsty Thorpe.
Sermon DateForthcoming Church Services
John 15: 9-17 and Acts 10: 44-48
This week about 350 of us – mostly URC ministers in active local ministry – have been together for a unique event. For the first time ever we’ve held a ministers’ gathering, bringing people into one place to talk about Christian discipleship and our identity as a church. The whole experience was rich and – at times – quite overwhelming. It’s been a bit like the biggest college or school reunion ever as I’ve constantly seen people in the lunch queue who I recognise from years back. Can I remember their name? Do I have the faintest idea where they now minister? Will we pick up where we left off, last time we saw one another, or do we discover we now have almost nothing to say to each other? And there have been plenty of temptations to evaluate one’s colleagues, just as no doubt they would have been evaluating me. How have they aged? Can I still recognise the person I knew back in the 1980s, in one or two cases, or have they become someone else altogether? Two gifted Christian musicians led our worship each day – a highly daring feat in itself. Imagine planning worship for a whole lot of practitioners who do it themselves every week and are great at criticising things they don’t like! Doug and Iain managed brilliantly and one of the things they did which I most enjoyed was to teach us some new music. ‘Sing your own harmonies’, Doug suggested. There’s a dangerous and radical idea. What if our different ideas for filling out the tune were to clash and make an awful sound? But it worked. Together, our variations on the main tune created a beautiful, rich, evolving harmony in the room where all of us singing the same note would have sounded thin and dull before long. If only the church could be like that all the time – one great song of praise with different voices in harmony, focussed on God’s love.
Keep that idea in mind as we turn to today’s reading from John chapter 15. We’re in the chapters of the gospel called by scholars the ‘farewell discourses’. During supper in Jerusalem in the final days of his life Jesus gets up from the meal and goes round with a bowl and towel washing the disciples’ feet. Judas Iscariot responds to Jesus’ prediction that one of his close followers will betray him by going out into the night to let the Jewish authorities know where they’ll find the rabbi from Nazareth later on. Jesus continues to teach the disciples in ways that – if they can remember later any of what he’s been saying – should help them through the pain and uncertainty that lie ahead. And, in chapter 15, we arrive at the final ‘I am’ saying of John’s gospel. ‘I am the true vine’, says Jesus, and God his Father is the gardener. Dwelling, living, abiding in Jesus is the way to be fruitful as one of his disciples. ‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Dwell in my love.’ And Jesus indicates strongly that dwelling in God’s love will involve him in laying down his life. ‘There is no greater love than this, that someone should lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends, if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is about.’
What does it mean that we should ‘dwell in’ and share this mutual love which Jesus has shown to us? I’m offering three ‘g’s as I attempt to answer that question and the first stands for ‘generous’. Sometimes hymns put deep truths best because the hardest, most challenging ideas make more sense through poetry than prose. In John Henry Newman’s great hymn, ‘Praise to the holiest in the height’, we sing about the loving wisdom of God: ‘O generous love! that he who smote in man for man the foe, the double agony in man for man should undergo’. Elgar sets those words to amazing choral music in his great work, based on Newman’s poem, ‘Dream of Gerontius’. The choir is hushed and excited – the sound swells and ebbs away dramatically – at the incredible thought that God should love us in such a costly way. In what way is God’s love – the love Jesus comes to share, the love he call us to abide in and echo in our live – so generous? Because it is prepared to face death, if necessary, to bring us into God’s presence. It isn’t an easy option, even for Jesus himself, who prays in Gethsemane that the cup of suffering might be taken from him. Even so, the way of the cross is the way that leads us to God. This generous love Jesus shows us encompasses even Judas, who’s just left the room to betray his master, because it’s a love that reaches out to everyone, enemy and friend.
This week we received three amazing talks from Dr Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, who spoke about discipleship through the lives of three 20th century women. His first example, Mother Maria Skobstova, was an Orthodox nun who in exile from revolutionary Russia set up a Christian community in Paris during the 1920s. An unorthodox saint in her personal life – a divorced single parent who enjoyed a glass of wine and a cigarette – she developed a special ministry to the poor and lost around her, especially refugees. Each morning she would go around the markets of Paris accepting whatever gifts of unwanted food she could glean to make the day’s soup for the many needy visitors to her house. In the 1930s her ministry grew to include fleeing Jewish refugees from all over Europe and then, under Nazi occupation, giving safe passage to those Jews she could. Her community provided them with papers identifying them as Orthodox Christians. Arrested by the Gestapo she ended her life in 1945 in the gas chambers of Ravensbruck concentration camp. It is said that she swapped places with someone who was particularly terrified by what lay ahead.
I suspect that for many of us the idea that Jesus died as a way of atoning for human sinfulness is very unattractive teaching and can be a total stumbling block to faith. Here, in this passage from John’s gospel and in stories like that of Mother Maria, we discover another way of understanding the cross. We can see in a totally different perspective the willingness of Jesus to lay down his life for his friends, and the strength that gives to his disciples that they should do the same. We can understand these examples of self-sacrifice as signs of God’s generous love towards humanity, which knows no bounds and sets no limits on the lengths to which it will go. One writer I read on this wondered how different the church would look if, instead of adopting the cross and empty tomb as its main symbols, it had gone instead for the bowl and towel as its central signs.
Not only is God’s love generous, it is gracious – in other words, merciful. Jesus lets Judas Iscariot go out into the night to do what he believes he has to do. He doesn’t – as no doubt many or all of us would have done at that moment – condemn his misguided follower before the other disciples. There is no ‘after all I’ve done for you’ finger pointing in God’s love, unlike our human relationships and the way we cope with our mistakes and brokenness. This week has also been something of an exploration of grace for me. It’s impossible, over the years, not to have differences and even outright arguments with one’s fellow ministers. In the past few days I’ve been back in contact with some people with whom I’ve previously been very far from seeing eye to eye. Some people acted as though nothing had happened – we established a surface peace and made no reference to past disagreements. Others managed to avoid making eye contact or saying ‘hello’. In most cases we don’t tackle these things because facing conflict and raking over troubled past history are things we mostly choose to avoid. On the final morning I caught up at breakfast with a fellow minister I’ve not seen for a few years and had a really good – though brief – conversation. This person then looked over my shoulder and said: ‘I need to speak to that person at the other table. They sent me some awful letters in the past. I haven’t seen them for a long time. I’m over it now. I have to say ‘hello’.’ It felt brave but very scary. I had no idea who the other person was, or what had happened, but this colleague and I sat by the uncleared plates and prayed before they went to make this grace filled gesture. I admired their courage. Generous, gracious love in action.
And that’s my final ‘g’ – the love Jesus abides in and invites us to share in the true vine is ‘grounded’. John’s gospel begins with a beautiful poem about the incarnation, about the way God in Jesus takes on human flesh and brings the true light of God’s love into the world. Some of us recognise that grounded God-given reality and others reject it. We have a choice. But it’s encountered in the day to day interactions of our lives not in heaven centred spiritual removal from the demands others place on us. That’s the truth which gave Mother Maria the strength to give up her life for the refugees who needed her in Paris. That’s the truth which inspired Vilia to open her door to her neighbours in the storms of Hurricane Matthew in the story from Christian Aid’s work in Haiti we heard earlier on. That’s the truth which can help us in our daily discipleship to encounter Jesus in ourselves and others, as we choose to bear our bowl and towel, sharing God’s generous, gracious, grounded love.
Psalm 23 and John 10: 11-18
Anyone who enjoys novels by Jane Austen or other early nineteenth century writers will know what it meant 200 years ago to be the son of the family who went ‘into the church’. Austen has several clergymen in her books – most of them pompous, ambitious, humourless, and not particularly interested in Christian faith it would seem. When you know a bit more about the life of a local clergyman in those days all of this makes a bit more sense. To become an Anglican clergyman meant joining a profession. It didn’t necessarily mean you had strong personal faith, or a deep longing to fulfil God’s call on your life. It might mean instead that you had a good education and several older brothers who would come first in the handing out of family assets. In that case, finding a safe and settled career in the church with accommodation thrown in and a clear promotion structure should you feel ambitious, was a good choice for a moral young man with a clear speaking voice.
How things change! Two centuries later, things are very different now in all the denominations. It’s not just that women can be ordained. There’s also the fact that like many other roles which used to be highly regarded, ministry is now seen as far less significant in our society. Numbers in training for ministry today are below what’s needed to replace those retiring in all the major denominations in this country. That’s true even allowing for the boost that women’s ordination has given to the figures for paid and especially for unpaid (non-stipendiary) ministry. I remember back in 2008, when the financial crisis sparked a recession, hearing some Church Historians say this would be good news for potential sources of new ministers. ‘Vocations always go up during a recession’, they said. I now think they were wrong. Numbers in training for ministry at our 3 URC colleges are at an all time low, I suspect. But today is Vocations Sunday – not just for us but for all the churches, and around the world. So why are people still answering the call to be a minister? What does it mean to feel God’s call on your life in this way and what sort of ministry do we need in the future?
Today’s readings give us a good place to start. In John’s gospel Jesus describes himself in a number of different ways but one which we still identify with is that of the Good Shepherd. Hardly any of us have much first hand experience of sheep or the countryside but we seem to have deep within us a warm response to these pastoral images. Is this anything more than a sort of faith equivalent of the ‘Countryfile’ effect? Is it just that if you give us a few pictures of lambs and beautiful scenery we all feel warm and comforted without giving any thought to the reality of life and nature? Jesus knows our tendency to sentimentalise very well, which is why answering his call and exploring our vocation is not a cop out but a step up to the plate exercise.
‘Don’t spend all your time feeling safe and secure with me, as your good shepherd’, he tells his followers in John chapter 10. ‘Remember too that there are dangers out there – thieves who come to steal, kill and destroy, hired workers who abandon their post when a wolf comes into view. Because there are risks on all sides, which demand vigilance from whoever cares for the flock, you need a good shepherd to care for you.’ Think how many other voices there are in our lives reassuring us that they’ll take care of us. Buy this insurance policy and you’ll be safe for life. Join this gated community and nothing will harm you. Invest in this new burglar alarm and you’ll never need to worry when you’re away from home. Sign up to this holiday package and all your worries about where you’ll be staying and what you’ll do each day will be sorted out for you. Jesus offers assurance of a different kind. ‘Become part of my flock and you’ll be cared for spiritually. Follow me and discover what it means to lose your life in order to receive it back again in a totally transformed way. Choose to live by different values from those around you and discover the liberation that brings through the action of God’s love.’ That’s a message with powerful chemistry within it and it changes us as we start to internalise its power and explore what it means for each one of us within the body of Christ, the Church.
It may be that our vocation is to full time service within the Church, or it may be that we offer the time we have around our other commitments – paid or voluntary. That’s something each of us has to explore in our own way. What is certain is that none of this becomes clear unless we are prepared to make space so we can truly listen to God. Prayer, stillness, reading the Bible, having models of Christian service in other people around us to inspire us, relating the Jesus we meet within the gospels with the life we’re leading now – these are all part of exploring our vocation. Sometimes it’s encouragement from others that gets us over the next stage of saying ‘yes’ to God’s call. Other people will see in us things which we don’t always discern, and by telling us about our gifts they help to encourage and challenge us. If you ask most people how they began to identify a calling from God it usually started with someone telling them they had a gift they should be using more, or perhaps hadn’t even seen at all yet within themselves. That experience is both scary and exciting for the person on the receiving end. ‘If they can see this in me then is that God speaking to me through them?’
How good are we at spotting gifts in those around us and helping people to offer them for the glory of God and the growth of the Church? It’s a talent we urgently need to develop. How much easier it can be – on a bad day – to sigh heavily and declare there’s nobody around to help take on the task we need doing. There’s few things more dispiriting and disempowering for a community than when that sort of message becomes our normal response. I remember fondly a lovely church secretary whose stock in trade was – unintentionally – taking the wind out of everyone’s sails with the way church notices were presented. By the time we’d had a long list of tasks that needed doing and volunteers required we all felt pretty deflated – and that was less than 5 minutes into the service. It wasn’t that this person lacked faith – just that they’d never thought about how it felt in the congregation to keep getting reminded of things we weren’t doing rather than helping us to feel able to respond positively when appeals for volunteers were made.
One problem I have with the proposals for changes in ministry in North Western synod now is that, for me, being in local leadership gives me great opportunities to get to know the gifts and potential within people in the congregation. Then, with God’s help, it quite often happens that I can encourage people to explore a new calling and take on a new role within the life of the fellowship. I don’t see how ministers will be able to build knowledge of local congregations so they can discern new callings in future. Knowing people well enough to encourage their growth in this way takes time and relationship building of the sort that won’t easily be available. And for me it’s also bound up in a package with the other things that ordained ministry involves – above all preparing and leading worship, identifying areas for mission and outreach and pastoral care. Sometimes when I’m in a meeting outside church circles – the patient participation group at the health centre, the governors at Ashdene – we have one of those discussions about when we’ll meet next. I notice how bemusing most people find a minister’s diary to be. I seem to have endless chunks of free time in the week but even so I can’t guarantee whether I can make that next meeting. What they can’t see, and I can’t predict, is what will be happening in people’s lives four weeks from now. Will there be a whole list of urgent conversations I need to have about some delicate issue to do with safeguarding, or preparing a funeral, or getting a new initiative off the ground? Much of ministry is deciding what information needs to be known by which people and when you need to share it. An image of ministry that often comes to my mind is that of a weaver – looping threads together and binding the different colours and patterns of Church life into one, attractive, unified body of work. So, for me, exploring our vocations starts with listening to God and then develops as we listen to one another and learn to offer our gifts for the good of the whole people of God. It is above all about relationships – belonging – the very things that I think our culture most yearns for, even if it doesn’t any longer ‘do’ faith. Being relevant to our community through service helps this conversation along.
But that’s not all. Probably the thing that delayed my own journey into ministerial training longest was my fear that by seeking ordination I would have to stop being me. It was when I discovered ministers who were still very recognisably human – as well as saintly in some of their characteristics – that I could believe this really was God’s call on my life. As we speak the London Marathon is being run. One of the 40,000 runners today is Sister Theodora Hawksley, a 32 year old Catholic nun. When she told the sisters in charge of her order that she planned to run, one of them asked ‘Do you want to run it in a veil?’ Her initial thought was that running the race was a big enough challenge without wearing her veil at the same time. Her second thought was ‘What a great opportunity to witness!’ I sincerely hope that if the weather’s too hot to run with her veil and keep cool she’ll have third thoughts and leave it behind. But the very idea that people who answer the call of Jesus the Good Shepherd remain real people with feelings and families and doubts as well as faith, fears as well as confidence, helps me to continue my ministry. The Good Shepherd is not a figure with a pure white robe far away from the trials and dangers of life but a hands on companion, fully embedded in the realities of our daily living, who guides, protects, feeds and nurtures us. Let’s pray that when we hear his call on our lives we will discover how to tap into the energy and love he brings with him which enables us to say ‘yes’.
Jeremiah 31: 31-34 and John 12: 20-33
At home I have my grandfather’s preaching Bible. It’s not one I use every week because it’s the King James version and the translations I prefer are more modern. He’s written in the margins in his small, spidery writing every occasion when either he himself preached on a text or heard a notable sermon on the passage. He apparently heard a Revd Dean preach on today’s gospel on the fourth of July 1945. Goodness knows what that sermon was about. How would you speak about Jesus’s predictions of suffering and God’s triumph through sacrifice if you were preaching to a congregation towards the end of World War Two? I have no idea. If I were to mark up my bible in the same way I would remember a sermon on this text I heard from the Revd Graham Cook, over 20 years ago, in the little village chapel of Moulton just outside Northwich. It was the chapel’s final service. The place was unusually packed – normally on a Sunday afternoon we were lucky to get into double figures for attendance and sometimes we had no organist. Things hadn’t always been that way, which was part of what Graham reminded us about in his sermon. On occasions like that preachers have to find something positive to say, so we can give thanks for what has been and move on into God’s future.
Moulton had a story to tell. The congregation had been founded in the early 19th century by the local cobbler, who began teaching the village children to read and write. A cottage was bought and became a place where a Sunday School began and then a chapel, with a small graveyard outside. The connection of Christian faith and education – one that was very common two centuries ago and is part of our history here too – meant the chapel at Moulton began a simple lending library. Small, improving books were lined up on simple wooden shelves, the volumes carefully stitched into oilskin cloth covers to protect them, and the children and their parents would borrow them. By the time the chapel closed this part of it’s origins had been largely forgotten. Most people only remembered the long, slow decline of the previous half century. Graham’s sermon brought us back to faith in the God who brings new life when a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies.
Today’s gospel passage is full of touches typical of John’s gospel that take some unpacking. First of all we need to place this passage in the overall story of the build up to the Passion and crucifixion of Jesus. Just before this episode in Jerusalem a remarkable event has happened outside the city at the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha, two sisters and their brother who are good friends of Jesus. Lazarus has died and Jesus has brought him back to life. In doing so Jesus has firmly sealed his own fate in the eyes of the Pharisees and chief priests. Ironically, because it is clear that Jesus has the power to bring life, the religious authorities now definitely want his death. As a confirmation that Jesus’s days are numbered John chapter 12 has opened with Jesus being anointed with precious oil by Mary, the sister of Lazarus, despite protests about the waste of an expensive perfume from Judas Iscariot keeper of the disciples’ communal funds.
This is Passover time, too, and the gospel writer expects us to know that Passover is the time of year when Jerusalem is a city full of people from all over the Middle East, Mediterranean and North Africa. On the day following the incident with the anointing, Jesus has gone into Jerusalem and been blessed by fellow Passover pilgrims waving palm branches as he rides on a donkey. His public teaching, in John’s gospel, is about to draw to a close. From now on he’ll speak mostly in private to his disciples, giving them final guidance on how they are to behave when he is no longer with them in person. And John wants us to understand why Jesus is about to withdraw behind closed doors to brief his closest friends one last time. It’s because the world has now woken up to who he is. The proof of that is in the fact that Gentiles have now come looking for him. The word is getting round about the preacher and healer, the rabbi from Nazareth. Just as at the start of Matthew’s gospel the world turns up to greet the baby Jesus in the form of Magi, wise men from the East, here the world appears in the form of foreigners. Are these possibly non Jews drawn to Jerusalem by interest in the Passover festival? How have they heard about Jesus? Are they, perhaps, people who are Greek by birth and have converted to Jewish faith in the one God? None of this is made clear. What the gospel writer wants us to do is to identify ourselves with the moment when Jesus arrives on a bigger stage, when his twitter following tops a million, when he hits the big time in terms of the attention he’s arousing. And, to point up the significance of what’s happening John plays us a familiar little tune from the very start of the gospel. Do you remember how, in chapter one, as Jesus starts to gather disciples in the presence of John the Baptist it is first Peter, then Andrew and then Philip that he meets? He invites Philip to ‘follow me’. Here in chapter 12 we see Andrew and Philip being approached by foreigners – non Jews – who want the disciples to help them to meet Jesus. These strangers use one of two key words in John’s gospel (the other one is ‘hearing’) when they say they want to ‘see’ him. In John’s terms this stands for wanting to get to know Jesus, to build relationship with him, potentially to put their trust in him. No wonder that, hearing this approach, Jesus recognises that a significant moment has arrived when his behaviour needs to change.
We’re not told what, if anything, Jesus says to the Gentiles. We are told that he replies with a mysterious comment about his hour having come. Earlier in the gospel we’ve heard about this ‘hour’. Back at the wedding in Cana in John chapter two when his mother asked him to act as the wine for the guests ran out, he replied at first ‘That is no concern of mine. My hour has not yet come.’ Now that time has come and Jesus knows the end of his life is approaching. The picture John’s gospel paints us of Jesus is always that he knows things very clearly, understands them already, and is just waiting for the right moment to explain them.
Here he talks about his own approaching death in terms of a grain of wheat, which falls into the ground and dies before it can germinate, grow and produce a crop.
That’s the hard bit for the disciples to understand and it’s the challenge for us too. Yesterday Michael Williams and I were at synod in Blackburn, with representatives of the 130 or so United Reformed Churches in North Western synod, discussing major issues for our future. We made some big decisions and we won’t know for some time – years probably – whether or how they are going to bear fruit. Are we being faithful in our risk taking or have we lost something vital about our identity which we won’t ever be able to reclaim? Time will tell.
Jesus reassures his followers that what we can’t see now we will see in the future. That when he is glorified, when he is lifted up, people will acknowledge his authority and hear his message. Our challenge is to keep asking questions without easy answers, to keep bringing people to Jesus whenever the opportunity to do so arises, to keep questioning our own willingness to be open to or resist the movement of the Holy Spirit. Let’s pray that the seeds of what we let go, by God’s grace, can and will bear fruit for his glory and the sake of the world.
Luke 1: 26-38 and Luke 2: 4-19
Today – Mothering Sunday – gives us a chance to focus on a figure from the Bible who for many Christians around the world is central to their faith but who has tended to get far less of a look in for Reformed Christians like us – Mary, the mother of Jesus. The reasons go back hundreds of years but possibly now things are starting to change. Perhaps this is because today the divisions between churches are less important than what we realise we have in common – and the need to share these things with a world where God doesn’t always get a look in. Perhaps it’s because Mary has a great ability to reach out from the pages of scripture and touch us in a way that continues to surprise and challenge and comfort us.
My journey with Mary began when I discovered something more about what her name actually means. Until then she was trapped – for me – in the pose of an adoring Madonna figure, forever gazing at the baby Jesus with her face beautifully calm and composed. To make matters even more offputting for me at the time, the figure of Jesus on her lap would often look much more like a mini adult than any baby I’d ever set eyes on. I didn’t understand what that meant in terms of the artist reminding us that this baby is the Son of God – I simply thought the whole thing looked slightly ridiculous and unreal. Then, in my late 20s, I discovered the meaning of the name Mara in Hebrew and it challenged all my assumptions. Mara – I read – can mean ‘fat’, ‘beautiful’ and ‘rebel’. That was a shock. Fat and beautiful – I could associate the two, especially in a poor culture where someone whose body is actually well-covered with flesh might easily be seen as the height of beauty. But rebel? Where did that come from? Perhaps I hadn’t been reading Luke’s gospel very well. Perhaps I’d had filters in place when I encountered the Magnificat in Luke chapter 1, which stopped me from hearing the revolution, the ‘world turned upside down’, in Mary’s great song of protest as she and her cousin Elizabeth share their confinement. True, you can go slightly crazy when you’re expecting a baby and nine months seems like the longest period of time ever, but this is taking things to extremes! Let’s hear this passage in Eugene Peterson’s modern version from ‘The Message’. (pp. 116-17)
So where are the women who’ve given Mary the courage to speak out like that? How can a young girl know so much about the world? Think of the inspiring, articulate young women we sometimes hear speaking truth to power today. Imagine Mary being rather like a first century Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by Taliban gunmen for daring to want an education. In October last year she started a degree at Oxford University, five years to the day after that shooting. Malala’s father named her after a Pashtun heroine which tells you something about the fact that – unlike some in his culture and elsewhere in our world – he was proud to have a daughter. Mary the mother of Jesus has a name which links her to one of the most amazing women in the Old Testament, Naomi. Like many women, before and since, Naomi knew the agonies of life at first hand, intimately, year after year, sadness after sadness. She calls herself ‘Mara’ – at the lowest point in her life. ‘Do not call me Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has made my life very bitter’ she says. (Ruth 1.20) Why is Naomi so low? Because her husband Elkanah and her two sons Mahlon and Chilion have died. She is on her own. In the culture of the time she’s become a nobody, a burden on anyone distantly related to her, a complete liability in a culture where women without husbands are at risk, and she knows it. No wonder she becomes bitter – Mara – a name from the same root as the Hebrew verb marar which means to ‘be bitter’.
Has Naomi made a mistake? It seems she’s assumed that the God who sees us suffering is not involved in our lives, doesn’t care what happens to us, and actually sends misfortunes to bring us low. God is not like that, and the one who shows her this is her daughter in law, Ruth. One daughter in law stays behind but the other, Ruth, goes with Naomi to Boaz the only male relative who might give them a hope of not starving to death. And, eventually, Ruth and Boaz marry – a marriage from which several generations later the great king David will come. So let’s look at this story another way. Maybe newly widowed Naomi, recovering from three burials of the men she loves most in quick succession, doesn’t claim the name Mara to say God’s made her bitter but as a way of saying God has made her strong. That’s a way of rebelling against the things in life that bring us down. ‘You thought you’d bring me low but I’m using this abuse to fight back’. Mary the mother of Jesus knows all about persecuted and strong women in the Hebrew scriptures. That puts her song of rebellion in a whole new light not just for her but for everyone who follows Jesus.
What do you treasure in your heart and ponder over? How incredible that a first century gospel writer gives Mary the mother of Jesus the respect and dignity of recognising her as a thinking individual, someone with a brain, who is capable of theological reflection and deep insights. Even though the gospels give us only brief glimpses of Mary and her relationship with her adult son, Jesus, we can intuit from the man he is and way he behaves what a deep influence she has had on him. We also sense her growing willingness to defer to him, to recognise God at work in him, to sense that his life and ministry have a much greater influence and potential than even she had dreamt of when first she brought him into the world.
It has been gradually dawning me in recent years that Mary builds a valuable bridge for us, as followers of Jesus, between us and God. I heard a Scottish episcopal bishop a few months ago saying how many new churches in Scotland over the last few years have taken the name St Mary’s. He wasn’t sure why this was happening but he suggested it was because Mary is a figure who unites us by saying ‘Yes’ to God. She offers us a sign of holy family and that’s what people want. Our own Partner church Llanfair in Penrhys South Wales is St Mary’s – and lies at the centre of a medieval pilgrimage route with a well where for centuries Christians came to collect holy water and perform baptisms. There’s something approachable and human about Mary. She’s also a model of faithfulness and service. She has to learn to watch suffering without losing faith – something we all need to do in our own lives. And after the death and resurrection of Jesus she’s still there with the disciples playing her part as a disciple. She’s there, too, right among the male disciples when the Church is born at Pentecost. This Mothering Sunday and beyond let’s recover for ourselves Mary’s pattern of saying ‘yes’ to God, the unity she offers and her presence at the heart of a holy family.
Genesis 17: 1-7, 15-16 and Mark 8: 31-38
What sort of boss do you like? The sort who tells you at the start of the job what you’re about to let yourself in for or the sort who lets you throw yourself into things without giving you any warning about what might lie ahead? This week a colleague rang me to ask about an issue they’d raised and had no reply about. Did I know anything about what was happening? In fact I didn’t but I suppose some people might choose to skirt around an issue like that and waffle ambiguously even so. I chose not to do that. I’m not very good at avoiding the subject on occasions like that. I told this person honestly what I thought was going on and in reply they thanked me for being direct about things. Even if I couldn’t help move things forward at least this person knows more now where the obstacles to progress lie and who might be able to help remove them.
The picture of Jesus we get in Mark’s gospel before chapter 8 is hard to pin down. He does things suggesting he’s very close to God as he performs miraculous healings, sees into people and situations with a depth of understanding that astonishes, attracts and disturbs those he meets. But all this time he isn’t being at all clear in public about where his authority comes from, who he thinks he is and what he is planning to do. Suddenly, a few verses before today’s reading, Peter the disciple who always manages to put openly into words what everyone else thinks but doesn’t dare to say, manages to join up the dots. The disciples and Jesus are off on the borderlands of northern Galilee, far away from their normal stamping grounds. They’ve been in Bethsaida on the north shore of the sea of Galilee, where Jesus has given a man his sight, but now they’ve made the long walk north to Caesarea Philippi. This place is on the slopes below Mount Hermon near where the River Jordan rises – a significant location in which to discuss the source of living water for the people who live to the south in the Jordan valley, who grow their crops and build their communities thanks to the river’s flow.
High up places give you an overall perspective on the landscape and help you to see the connectedness between what lies below. Mark the gospel writer has placed his main characters – Jesus and his disciples – on the mountainside as their rabbi asks them a very dangerous leading question: ‘Who do people say I am?’ The disciples rehearse the usual range of answers – John the Baptist come back to life, Elijah, one of the prophets – before Peter says the riskiest thing possible right out loud: ‘You are the Messiah.’ We probably hear this as a religious statement, and the danger of these words being spoken in any company passes us by, but to the hearers of Mark’s gospel it would have been clear as day what a potentially life changing set of words Peter has just spoken. To be declared the Messiah – God’s chosen one – means setting yourself up to challenge the authority of the Roman Empire and its occupying forces. It makes you a marked man or woman – public enemy number one – the person whose face will be on every wanted poster in the Hollywood Western film version of this story. No wonder Jesus responds at once by telling his disciples not to tell anyone about him.
But then we get today’s reading. Suddenly, having just told them they’re to stay quiet, Jesus is now telling the disciples things that will be making their heads spin and fill up with a new set of questions. He talks of himself as the Son of Man – a phrase the disciples will recognise from the Hebrew scriptures in the book of Daniel. In chapter seven of Daniel, the Jewish exile who’s been taken off by King Nebuchadnezzar to his court in Babylon has a vision of God – the Ancient of Days – and see before him a human figure – a Son of Man. This figure is given power by God to protect God’s people as they undergo suffering. That’s the title Jesus now assumes for himself. It’s a powerful, coded language that points up the fact that the days when Jesus will be quiet about his identity have really ended now. He’s going to be open and public about his role, and the result will be taking on not just a few sceptics and minor officials in the towns and villages of Galilee but challenging the power of the elders, the chief priests, the scribes – the full religious hierarchy of Judaism, and being put to death as a result. The message couldn’t be starker. It is debateable whether the disciples are able to make any sense of the prospect that death itself will not be the end of things and that Jesus predicts his own resurrection after three days. I imagine that, with Peter, they want to end this conversation fast because it’s too uncomfortable to listen to any longer. Peter’s attempt at silencing Jesus – the Greek could be translated quite easily as ‘shutting him up’ and is used elsewhere as the word for telling an unclean spirit or evil force to be silent – backfires totally. Instead of the Jesus who calls on us to follow him we here meet, suddenly, the Jesus who announces ‘Out of my sight, Satan!’, or in the King James translation ‘Get thee behind me, Satan!’ And he goes on to describe in painful detail not just to the disciples but a wider crowd what it means to follow him into the disturbing future he’s just described. To do so means taking up one’s cross and following.
How does this invitation sound to our world today and how does it resonate within our lives? It’s clearly not meant to be attractive. The painful death by torture in public Jesus predicts for himself is of its very nature something any normal person wants to avoid. Following this sort of leader, and being willing in the process to give up one’s own desires, is not something to be undertaken lightly. You either make this a conscious decision or you choose to walk away but it’s not possible that you’re going to stay with Jesus after this point in the gospel of Mark by accident. If you choose to stay then you have to adopt the new, upside down values that Jesus explains to anyone willing to listen. Holding onto your life will only result from being willing to let it go, totally. Trying to save your skin will end up with you losing everything. The key element which transforms this sacrifice into something worthwhile rather than a pointless exercise in self harm is the presence of the good news, says Jesus: ‘Whoever loses his life for my sake and for the gospel’s will save it.’ What does it mean to lose one’s life for the sake of the gospel? At this point in Mark’s gospel the answer seems to be the good news is God’s presence among us, the breaking out of the kingdom of God in the middle of our everyday, human world. Transformed lives, mended bodies, healed minds, restored communities and people put back into the right place with their true selves, their closest friends and relatives, the wider community around them – in other words the defeat of evil in all its forms. That’s what the kingdom of God has been revealed as being so far in Mark’s gospel and that’s what we’ll claim for ourselves if we’re brave enough to let go of the other sources of reassurance and protection to which we normally cling on so firmly, exchanging them for this radical new relationship with God in Jesus.
Our daily headlines give us plenty of agonising examples of pain and sacrifice around us in the world. The awful images of bombing and destruction in eastern Ghouta, the rebel held suburb near Damascus, are almost unbearable to see and the United Nations declared ceasefire will struggle to bring any relief unless powers like Russia choose to abide by it. But those people, like the victims of the civil war in Yemen, the displaced people of South Sudan’s upheavals, the refugees from the Congo’s latest conflicts, and the malnourished millions affected by Venezuela’s economic collapse and rampant inflation have not chosen this path of suffering. It’s been imposed on them. They have had no choice. And millions of others in our world are in similar predicaments.
Is Jesus saying the only way to God is through pain and misery? No. But he is saying that a freely chosen path of self-denial, a decision on our part to give up our own choices and preferences in favour of God’s for us, will bring us closer to the source of true goodness and love at the heart of our world. The point is we’re not being forced into this at knife point or down the barrel of a gun. We have a choice. We can follow or not, as we choose. The question we each of us need to ask is: ‘Does life feel more real, more fulfilled, more complete when we’re on the road with Jesus – even if the destination is arrest, trial and death in Jerusalem – or when we’re pleasing ourselves?’ Of course, our decision to follow may not always be followed through consistently. We are good at getting lost on the way, at backtracking, at hiding in byways and blind alleys in the hope Jesus hasn’t noticed our absence. Perhaps the true question today is not so much are we willing to follow but why should God continue to bother with us when our following is often so intermittent and half hearted? Perhaps that’s something to ponder this week, as we walk with Jesus, in company with all God’s people, keeping our eyes open for opportunities to serve and promote the kingdom of God.
Jonah 3: 1-5 and Mark 1: 14-20
Some writers leave the introduction of their main character to well into the opening of the story. They let us wonder who the dramatic focus is going to be on and when this individual is going to show up. Mark, the gospel writer, is a man with a mission – just like the person whose story he’s telling. He goes straight in at chapter one, verse one, and introduces us to Jesus Christ, the Son of God, whose gospel (good news) he’s about to share with us. This is story telling with a foot on the accelerator and the words ‘And we’re off…’ ringing in our ears. In the next few lines we meet Jesus and his cousin John the Baptist in the Judean countryside, by the side of the river Jordan, as Jesus comes to receive baptism along with the crowds of other faithful from Jerusalem and all aorund who’ve come to see the new prophet. Jesus receives God’s special blessing in a moment of personal intimacy. If we’ve still got doubts as to who this story is going to be about then those must disappear fast when we hear the words: ‘You are my beloved Son; in you I take delight’. This, says the gospel writer, is what Jesus hears at his baptism as the holy Spirit descends on him like a dove. But there’s no time to stop and ask ‘what exactly does it mean that Jesus is God’s son?’ Without drawing breath – ‘at once’ says the gospel – Jesus is driven out into the wilderness to be tempted for forty days and given an intensive physical and spiritual preparation and strength test for what lies ahead in his ministry.
Now, at verse fourteen only, we enter the third scene in this tightly packed drama. We’re back up in Galilee with our friends in the north. This is the region where Jesus has spent almost all his time since his infancy until now, in his late 20s. This is the place he calls home – where Mary and Joseph raised him, as part of a family with brothers and sisters. This is where he’s learned about going to synagogue, when as a boy he began to read and value the Hebrew scriptures. Galilee’s towns and villages are full of the people who have shown him how to live well before God within a community and where’s discovered important life lessons. And it is here that he’s learned his trade as a builder as a way of earning his keep. And Galilee’s economy is nothing without the lake – the Sea of Galilee the locals proudly call it. Can you imagine a more beautiful sight than the lake in the bright morning sunshine, with the water sparkling and the distant Syrian hills on the horizon? Do you know a greater fear than the terror of a sudden storm whipping up the waves of that same lake into the scariest, most dangerous roller coaster ride you ever want to be out in a boat and experience?
Being out in the wilderness has done something to Jesus, Mark’s gospel tells us. Before verse 15 we’ve not heard him speaking but now his voice rings out loud and clear: ‘The time has arrived; the kingdom of God is upon you. Repent, and believe the gospel’. We all know exactly what that means don’t we? We can each write a 2000 word essay on the meaning of the phrase ‘kingdom of God’. We can all accurately describe what Jesus thinks people need to repent of, and what it means to believe the gospel. So we can get on with the next part of the service now…… only, of course we don’t know. And Mark the gospel writer knows we don’t. Nobody ever has or does know for certain exactly what Jesus means by everything he says. The attempt to get all of that straight – to say ‘once I’ve got that big clear I’m ready to take the next step’ – is what undoes us more comprehensively than anything else. ‘If I can just define the Trinity in half a page, if I can only describe the mission of the church in one strapline, if I can only make the ultimate two minute film about having faith, then it will all fall into place, God.’ But that isn’t how it works and, to judge by today’s reading, it never has done.
Jesus goes down to the lakeside and he meets fishermen. It’s not clear if he knows them already or they know him. Mark leaves the whole background of the scene totally vague. ‘Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men’ says Jesus. The humour and shock of the moment must hit us. Jesus knows full well you can’t go out with nets to bring in people as a catch. For one thing it would only take a couple of big hauls for the boat to sink under the weight and the lake isn’t full of drowning people anyhow. He knows the image is ridiculous and there’s a smile on his face as he says this. Right from the word go Mark the gospel writer is introducing us to Jesus’s habit of putting God into ordinary life with stunning effect: ‘You use nets to land fish – I’m going to show you how to ‘land’ people and catch them up in God’s loving purposes. Want to join me?’ Each of us has skills and gifts. Jesus doesn’t ask totally impossible things of us which don’t relate to what we can do already – our existing skills and gifts. He comes along and says, playfully: ‘Do you want to do that with a different underlying intention? Would you like to do it for and with me?’
Just as we’re starting to wonder what all of this means Jesus is off down the shore about to gather in some more companions. Simon and Andrew don’t have much time to become the ‘we were first’ disciples before newcomers arrive to take their place and disrupt the team dynamics. The second recruitment conversation isn’t even detailed. All we know is that in this case father Zebedee sees his two boys, James and John, walk off in the company of the young rabbi from Nazareth and is left to run the family business with just the hired men. Does Mark want us to see Jesus as supremely uninterested in economic stability for lakeside communities? If that’s not what’s going on then is the gospel writer trying to give us a very early clue that following Jesus is about finding a new meaning of family that doesn’t depend on blood relationship?
Please note what hasn’t yet happened in Mark’s story. We haven’t discovered what it is that makes Jesus so irresistibly attractive and charismatic that when people receive the offer of his company many find it hard to say ‘no’. We have next to no idea what it is he’s just recruited four Galilean fishermen to do and neither do they. We assume – guessing wildly and hopefully – that it’s something you don’t have to be a circumcised Jewish male with good boat skills to make something of – because if it is then none of us qualify – but there’s no clear evidence for that yet. So where is this journey going and what on earth is unfolding? If we’re feeling excited and scared that’s fine. Plenty of people have been there before us and felt just the same. If we’re not sure whether we’re about to make a mistake, or get lost, or fail to keep going on this journey, I have one word of advice for us all, myself included. Keep watching Jesus. I’m just learning a piece of new music with a choir I attend. It’s a very modern piece, highly repetitive, and yet there are slight changes which you have to concentrate hard to catch. In order to keep the whole choir together there are points in the score which read: ‘Unity cue. Conductor indicates these by a special sign.’ If you’ve got lost but are looking you can get back with everyone else but if you’ve lost your place and don’t watch you’ll never get back into the harmony. Let’s keep watching Jesus and see where he’s taking us as we accept his invitation to ‘Come, follow me’ together.