24/05/20 Sunday Thoughts

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Greetings on this sixth Sunday after Easter as we journey towards Pentecost next Sunday. First of all, an opportunity to watch and listen to our Territorial Leader Commissioner Gillian Cotterill. Please note that I’m preparing to retire on Wednesday 1 July 2020 and during June I’ll be taking my remaining holiday entitlement at home.

I imagine not many reading this today will remember the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. It was the year before I was born, but I do remember my parents talking about it and seeing souvenir books and magazines from the time around the house.

Last Thursday was Ascension Day in the Christian calendar, and today is the Sunday between it and Pentecost next Sunday.

The Ascension is not easy for us to understand with our 21st Century mindset, but I think it helps if we see it as Christ’s Coronation. Two Bible readings can also help us, the first one is the story of the Ascension itself (Luke 24:44-53) and the other is an early Christian hymn found in one of Paul’s Letters (Philippians 2:5-11). Click on the links to read these passages.

The Ascension is a mystery, and that’s one of the reasons I’ve used abstract art to depict it rather than a traditional image (click on it or here for the source). Having said that, there had to be a point at which the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus came to an end, when his earthly ministry finished and the ministry of the Holy Spirit could begin.

The disciples were told to wait for what was promised, I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.

I guess they were impatient, as we often are, but they didn’t have to wait long. Before leaving them they were prepared for the task ahead, and the power came at Pentecost.

He said to them, ‘This is what I told you while I was still with you: everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.’ Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, ‘This is what is written: the Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.

Their minds were opened to fully understand the scriptures, and given the power to accomplish their work after ten days. They were just ordinary people empowered for God, and we can be like them in the same power of the Spirit. Pentecost is a week away but, unlike the disciples, the power can be ours now. Power to live like Christ and boldness to share his message of love and salvation, new life for all.

Easter (Edmund Spenser)

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Most glorious Lord of Lyfe! that, on this day,
Didst make Thy triumph over death and sin;
And, having harrowd hell, didst bring away
Captivity thence captive, us to win:
This joyous day, deare Lord, with joy begin;
And grant that we, for whom thou diddest dye,
Being with Thy deare blood clene washt from sin,
May live for ever in felicity!

And that Thy love we weighing worthily,
May likewise love Thee for the same againe;
And for Thy sake, that all lyke deare didst buy,
With love may one another entertayne!
So let us love, deare Love, lyke as we ought,
—Love is the lesson which the Lord us taught.

Edmund Spenser

12/04/20 Easter Sunday

Welcome to Easter Sunday worship. This is much shorter today because our Territorial Leaders Commissioners Anthony and Gillian Cotterill are leading online worship with contributions from across the United Kingdom Territory.

Bible Reading: John 20:1-18

Easter Bible Message (Major John Ager)

In the account of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, we begin to glimpse something of what he went through spiritually, mentally and emotionally before his physical suffering and death on the cross.

But why am I going back to Thursday on Easter Sunday?

Actually, I could go back further, to Palm Sunday and even back beyond that. On Palm Sunday he rode into Jerusalem in defiance of the people’s expectations, they misunderstood the nature of his coming and purpose. He came as the Prince of Peace, having previously set his face towards Jerusalem, resolved to go the way of the cross.

Jesus never took the easy way out of a situation; he wasn’t going to be turned from his final challenge. He knew the direction his life was taking, he wasn’t a weak-minded person overtaken by events, he was in full command of what was happening. Yes, this resolve was thoroughly tested in Gethsemane, but his mind had already been made up, and we see his composure during the trial. Jesus even spoke of his coming death as an accomplishment, referring to it as his victory.

So it’s not just about the victory of Easter morning, but the victory secured when Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem.

The time of anguish in the garden sums up his whole life and ministry:
‘Abba, Father,’ he said, ‘everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.’ Mark 14:36

We see both his humanity and his divinity; his humanity telling him to escape the situation, his divinity telling him to obey. We can’t attempt to fathom the depths of his suffering at this time; we do not know, we cannot tell, what pains he had to bear.

Luke tells us that Jesus, being in anguish, prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. Luke 22:44

The words in an earlier verse cannot adequately be translated into English; he experienced severe horror and suffering. The best we can do are the words distress and anguish, different versions try to plumb the depths of his experience.

My music of choice on Good Friday is Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. It selects itself and still has the power to shock and move the human spirit.

This moment is powerfully expressed:
He is ready to taste the bitterness of death,
to drink the cup into which the sins of this world,
hideously stinking, have been poured.

That’s the victory, the mystery of God’s love that Christ should suffer for us. The paradox of a loving God and a suffering Christ, we can’t fully explain it, the reality will always be bigger than the theology of our finite minds, yet:

We believe it was for us,
he hung and suffered there.

The innocent one suffered for us and, in that moment of death, took upon himself the whole load of humanity’s sin and folly.

He quoted Psalm 22 on the cross:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Sin separates us from God and, as Jesus took on our sin, it separated him from his heavenly Father, in a moment of true abandonment.

Yet the psalm has a positive ending, it’s victorious. It foreshadows the Resurrection, so Jesus was able to say, Thy will be done.

I hope you can see now why I’ve gone backwards from Easter, because the Resurrection was the vindication of the victory already achieved in his life.

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Philippians 2:9-11

Be Easter people in a Good Friday world.

See also: Resurrection (Rob Bell)

Holy Saturday 2020

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Wait for it…it’s not Easter yet!

Today is Holy Saturday, not Easter Saturday. Easter starts with the resurrection of Jesus when darkness is turned to light. In stillness, earth awaits the resurrection.

Bible Reading: John 19:38-42

Prayer: O God, Creator of heaven and earth: Grant that, as the crucified body of your dear Son was laid in the tomb and rested on this holy Sabbath, so we may await with him the coming of the third day, and rise with him to newness of life; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Book of Common Prayer

Good Friday (George Herbert)

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O my chief good,
How shall I measure out thy blood?
How shall I count what thee befell,
And each grief tell?

Shall I thy woes
Number according to thy foes?
Or, since one star show’d thy first breath,
Shall all thy death?

Or shall each leaf,
Which falls in Autumn, score a grief?
Or cannot leaves, but fruit be sign
Of the true vine?

Then let each hour
Of my whole life one grief devour:
That thy distress through all may run,
And be my sun.

Or rather let
My several sins their sorrows get;
That as each beast his cure doth know,
Each sin may so.

Since blood is fittest, Lord to write
Thy sorrows in, and bloody fight;
My heart hath store, write there, where in
One box doth lie both ink and sin:

That when sin spies so many foes,
Thy whips, thy nails, thy wounds, thy woes
All come to lodge there, sin may say,
‘No room for me’, and fly away.

Sin being gone, oh fill the place,
And keep possession with thy grace;
Lest sin take courage and return,
And all the writings blot or burn.

George Herbert

Good Friday 2020

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There are some Christians who look for easy answers to situations we face in everyday life, and this is especially so in the current coronavirus pandemic. I’d love to be able to give you a ready-made answer to why this is happening, but I can’t. This is the age-old problem of evil in a world created by a loving God.

What I can do though, is point you to the events of the first Good Friday and suggest that we find the beginnings of an answer there.

I came across this article at the end of March and I’ve been saving it to share here on Good Friday. N. T. Wright is the Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St Andrews, a Senior Research Fellow at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University and the author of over 80 books, including The New Testament in Its World.

Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It’s Not Supposed To.

No doubt the usual silly suspects will tell us why God is doing this to us. A punishment? A warning? A sign? These are knee-jerk would-be Christian reactions in a culture which, generations back, embraced rationalism: everything must have an explanation. But supposing it doesn’t?

Well, you can read the article for yourself.

Good Friday is a day when we reflect on the most profound and spiritual things, and many will have time to do that today in lockdown and I encourage you to do so. You might find poetry and prose helps, music might work for you, maybe paintings or other forms of art.

Let me finish though with one more quote from the article:
It is no part of the Christian vocation, then, to be able to explain what’s happening and why. In fact, it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain—and to lament instead. As the Spirit laments within us, so we become, even in our self-isolation, small shrines where the presence and healing love of God can dwell. And out of that there can emerge new possibilities, new acts of kindness, new scientific understanding, new hope.

Here is a worship song that may help you in your thoughts on this very sacred day.

Let nothing disturb thee,
Nothing affright thee;
All things are passing,
God never changeth!
Patient endurance attaineth to all things;
Who God possesseth in nothing is wanting;
Alone God sufficeth. Amen.

Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), translated Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)