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Palm Sunday Sermon: Fruitfulness

Matthew 21:1-11


Location, Location, Location
. The Channel 4 programme about people trying to buy their dream home. It was one of a glut of home buying and home improvement TV shows that hit our screens a few years ago.

And ‘location, location, location’ might be a good theme for understanding the challenge of the Palm Sunday story that we’ve heard so often. Matthew starts with a detailed location report:

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives (verse 1)

Why? The prophecy of Zechariah (14:4) looks to the day when the Lord will stand on the Mount of Olives. It has notions of God fulfilling all his purposes for all time, and it is messianic.

But Bethphage? It’s a place whose name is literally translated, ‘house of unripe figs’[1]. When you remember that a few verses later Jesus curses an unripe fig tree as a prophetic sign, you might say that the challenge of Palm Sunday is that the Messiah has appeared: are we bearing fruit?

So what does a fruitful life look like? To see what the Palm Sunday story tells us about that, we’re going to look at Jesus, his disciples and the crowd.


Firstly
, Jesus. It’s not often that my wife Debbie and I get out to the see a film together, but last month we finally managed to see The King’s Speech before it left the cinemas. You will know the story, I’m sure – however relaxed the relationship between the screenplay and actual history was. Prince Bertie – later King George VI – has terrible trouble with public speaking, due to a stammer. In an early scene where he addresses a massive crowd on behalf of his father, King George V, he goes to pieces and you sense the difficulty his audience has, as well as his own agony. His authority is undermined.

There is no record of Jesus stammering, but he does undermine conventional approaches to authority. He comes into Jerusalem ‘humble, and mounted on a donkey’ (verse 5). His authority is expressed in humility. And that’s something some people find hard to understand or accept.
In the 2004 film King Arthur the Knights of the Round Table are portrayed as pagans, and Arthur as a Christian – albeit the only decent Christian, since all the other Christian figures in the film are shown to be corrupt[2]. One day, pagan Lancelot overhears Arthur praying for the safety of his men before they go on one final, dangerous mission. Lancelot says, “I don’t like anything that puts a man on his knees.” Arthur replies, “No man fears to kneel before the God he trusts. Without faith, without belief in something, what are we?”

If we want to be fruitful in the kingdom of God, then Jesus shows us that humility is a prime quality. We may or may not be given special authority (beyond the general authority every child of the King has), but we are all called to demonstrate humility.

Yet isn’t that one problem the world often has with the church? Humility is not the first quality they associate with us. Arrogant, judgmental and with an air of moral superiority are more likely the characteristics of Christians, in their estimation. I’m not suggesting we should water down our profound moral convictions – far from it – but the way we present ourselves can suggest we know little of the grace that brought us to Christ in the first place. It is remembering that grace, that undeserved merciful love of God, that leads us to live in humility.

Sometimes we even inflict that arrogance on others in the church. Again, the problem is the same: someone who does not demonstrate humility is a person who has not let the gospel of God’s grace to sinners permeate deeply into their soul. Jesus didn’t need grace – he wasn’t a sinner. Yet he showed humility as he entered Jerusalem. If he, the sinless Son of God, behaved like that, then how much more should we?

Would it not be a good idea, then, for us to reflect all the more on the fact that we are sinners saved by grace, and let that stimulate the growth of humility in us? What could be more appropriate as we journey with Jesus towards Good Friday?

Secondly, the disciples. Elsewhere the disciples come in for a bad press in the Gospels. They don’t understand Jesus, they don’t do what he wants, they let him down. And coming up in Holy Week is perhaps the biggest failure story of a disciple: Simon Peter’s denial of Jesus.

But what do we have here? We have a positive story about two of Jesus’ disciples. He sends them to the village ahead with cryptic instructions to untie a donkey and her colt, and bring them to him. We don’t know whether Jesus had prearranged a signal with the owner of the animals, or whether this is some prophetic word. Either way, though, it puts the two disciples in a strange position. They could have looked (and felt) like fools, acting on Jesus’ instruction. But the good news is, they obeyed. And that is the second sign of spiritual fruitfulness here: obedience to Christ.

However, obedience stands in contrast to certain cultural values today, especially the popular understanding of freedom. A shallow understanding of freedom is quite common, thinking that freedom is only about me being free to do what I want. I am my own master. I take no orders from anybody else – well, apart from my manager at work, and I only do that in order to draw a salary.

This, however, is a terrible misunderstanding of freedom. True freedom is not about self-indulgence, it is about being free in order to do what is right. Mostly we do not have that kind of freedom, because we are enslaved to sin. But if freedom is the possibility to do the right thing, then freedom and obedience are connected. They are not opposites.
A journalist called Tobias Jones wrote a book in 2007 called Utopian Dreams. He wanted to find out why we affluent westerners were so unhappy. He went to explore various experiments in communal living that were proposed as solutions. Eventually, he embraced Christianity, saying it ‘works because it is true’. He realised that if freedom were only about pleasing myself, then community would not be possible: we would all be doing our own thing, regardless of each other. He concluded that freedom and obedience were not opposites, but two qualities that belonged together.[3]

Now I suggest to you that the two disciples who obeyed Jesus’ strange command to bring the donkey and her colt knew that: the health of their community of disciples depended on obedience. Obedience to Jesus gave them freedom for all that was good.

And does it not make sense for this to be the second sign of fruitfulness? If we know we are sinners saved by grace and that engenders humility, then something that also leads to is obedience to Christ in gratitude for all he has done for us. With that obedience comes true freedom – not just freedom from sin, but freedom for goodness.

Thirdly and finally, the crowd. You may have noticed that I have not included one major potential hymn for Palm Sunday today – ‘My song is love unknown’. Not that it doesn’t have a lot of worthy content, but there is one aspect of the words that I find seriously misleading. It’s the way the hymn portrays the rôle of the crowd in Holy Week. It presents an idea that the same crowd that acclaimed Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is the one that also cried out for his execution. You’ll remember the words go from ‘Sometimes they strew his way’ to ‘Then “Crucify!” is all their breath’.

It’s a seriously misleading and highly unlikely scenario. Why should the same crowd be around several days later, when thousands of pilgrims descended upon Jerusalem for the Passover? And isn’t it more natural to read that the mob who bray for Jesus’ death are associated with the chief priests and teachers of the law who handed Jesus over to Pilate? Indeed, the word ‘crowds’ used there may simply mean ‘those alongside’[4].

If that is so, then all we are left with here is not a crowd that will later turn against Jesus, but simply a crowd that is trying to come to terms with him, and which isn’t quite there yet. Jerusalem is in turmoil at Jesus’ entry (verse 10), just as it was when news of his birth reached King Herod, and to the question, “Who is this?” the crowds reply, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee” (verse 11).

Of course, that doesn’t really do Jesus justice, does it? He is a prophet, but he is more than a prophet. Not until he is crucified later in the week will he be recognised for who he truly is.
How, then, do we react to people who have an incomplete picture of Jesus? It would be very easy to go into ‘telling-off mode’. We’re quite good at that, as I said when considering the humility of Jesus. Thinking back more years than I care to admit, I recall that when Jesus Christ Superstar became a popular West End musical, some Christians reacted by saying, ‘Jesus Christ is not merely a superstar. He is the Son of God. Accept no substitute!’

Now I agree with the content of what they said, but not the tone. And we have a gospel opportunity to be alongside people who have only caught a half-glimpse of Jesus. We can be the quiet voice of gentle encouragement, not the strident voice of condemnation.

What I think we’re witnessing here are the early signs of God’s work in these people, preparing them for the message of his Son. I can recall being asked to visit non-churchgoers at times, not expecting much out of the visit, and probably stereotyping them before I went and at the beginning of the meeting. But then I find they start asking deep spiritual questions, and I realise that while they don’t yet have a handle on all that Jesus is, nevertheless something is going on in their lives. Actually, I don’t so much think it’s something happening in their lives, more like someone. The Holy Spirit is preparing them for the Good News of Jesus.

In other words, it’s what John Wesley called ‘prevenient grace’: God is at work in people’s lives before we ever show up on the scene, and our task is to join in with what he is doing. And that’s exactly how Jesus saw his own ministry on earth. He said he only did what he saw his Father doing (John 5:19).

A third sign of spiritual fruitfulness, then, is to ask the Holy Spirit to show us where he is already at work, so that we can have the privilege of being God’s junior partners in the work of his mission. Let there be no doubt that the Father wants people to find his forgiving love in Jesus Christ and discover true purpose as they become disciples of him. Whatever we think about the state of the church in the Western world at present, it doesn’t change the fact that God is hard at work in the world, wooing people with his love. But he needs us to be the midwives who usher his new life into the world. Humble and obedient disciples will want to pray, “Lord, show me where you are at work so that I may be your assistant in making more disciples of your Son.”

Now that doesn’t sound like a ‘house of unripe figs’ to me. It sounds like true fruitfulness.


[1] On the Mount of Olives and Bethphage, see Donald Hagner, Matthew 14-28, p593.

[2] See http://www.damaris.org/cm/t4tquotes/743 (paid subscription required).

[3] See http://www.damaris.org/cm/t4tquotes/3029 (paid subscription required).

[4] I owe this insight to Dr Jim Fleming.

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Nativity!

A new family comedy film called Nativity! about a school nativity play that gains the interest of Hollywood is released in British cinemas on 27th November. For those with long memories of British TV comedy, it may bring back the nativity sketch from ‘Three Of A Kind’.

The movie stars Martin Freeman of ‘The Office‘ fame, along with other big British names such as Ashley Jensen from Extras (so that’s two stars from programmes originated by Ricky Gervais), John Sessions, Ricky Tomlinson and Alan Carr.

Damaris Trust has been commissioned to provide resource materials for churches to use in discussion and outreach (and which will, effectively, promote the film in church circles). Below is a trailer. Enjoy!

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Sabbatical, Day 71, Easter Sunday: Jesus Returns To Life

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Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! In this final Damaris Trust video for Holy Week, Krish Kandiah and Peter May talk about how Jesus’ resurrection from the dead gives us hope when considering what happens when we die.

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A great service for Easter Day at St Andrew’s this morning. ‘In a packed programme tonight’, as the Two Ronnies used to say, we had the Easter liturgy, renewal of baptismal vows, Holy Communion (of course) and people invited from the community to remember deceased loved ones.

In the middle of all that, there were two highlights for me. Firstly, the worship band shrank at one point to the younger members only. So Emily on vocals , Dan on guitar, Bradley on keys  and the drummer whose name I don’t know – they’re all round about thirteen years old – led us in Tim Hughes‘ ‘Happy Day‘. Here’s a version by the original artist:

Emily is a great singer, Dan a quiet and efficient bandleader, Bradley filled in subtly and the drummer guy is top drawer.

The other highlight was Lee’s sermon. Taking Mark 16:1-8, he made a virtue of the strange and sudden ending to Mark’s Gospel. He said we have to write our own ending to the Easter story in our lives. I thought that was great. 

For all that, it’s been quite a mixed day emotionally. On the one hand, I have entered Easter with a renewed confidence in the truth and importance of the Resurrection. Not that I ever lost my belief in the bodily Resurrection of Christ for one moment, but sometimes when life or circumstances aren’t the most encouraging, it can feel far away. Reading Tim Keller (sorry to mention him again!) and Tom Wright (see this excellent article from The Times yesterday) has done much to fortify my faith.

But other things have been weighing me down. My friend Will says today, in talking about his service this morning, 

Before the prayers of intercession, I reminded our congregation that for many the joys of Easter are still crowded out by their own personal Good Fridays. I know I have friends who will this week spend more time agonising in the Garden of Gethsemane (Jen and Mike, we are praying for you and Luke). For some, Easter is more like the women in Mark who hid when afraid.

And as he mentions his friends Jen, Mike and Luke, so I have been thinking about the three couples I mentioned last Sunday who have separated. Some events today have reminded me of them. Debbie and I feel such pain for them. And if that is how we feel, how do they?

More trivially, our eighteen-year-old cat is suddenly looking old, frail and weak. We are beginning to think the end might be near. The children realise, and on top of the fact that they have been asking questions about death as we’ve come through Holy Week, Good Friday and today. Mark in particular keeps asking whether he will die on a cross like Jesus.

I’m also starting to get more regular questions about how much longer the sabbatical has to go. The answer is that – with having tacked a week’s leave onto the end – I shall be back on duty four weeks today. The official Methodist literature on sabbaticals talks about planning your ‘re-entry’, which rather makes ministers feel like Apollo astronauts. The idea is that there should be a managed, phased re-introduction to active ministry.

Which makes me think of two words: ‘fat’ and ‘chance’. At least I hope it won’t be like my last sabbatical, when the superintendent asked me to come back early due to a crisis with the circuit treasurer. However, a sabbatical grants you new vision in all sorts of ways. It is then a huge challenge to share that vision with churches that are used to things being a long way different from such visions. I’ve always been a restless traveller on the outer fringes of Methodism: right now I feel somewhere out beyond Pluto.

Of course, it may just be a version of what anyone feels when a good holiday is coming to an end and they have to return to work. (Not that I’m suggesting the sabbatical is a holiday!) Time will tell.

Sabbatical, Day 70, Holy Saturday: Jesus’ Body Lies In A Tomb

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This is the Damaris Trust video for Holy Saturday (not Easter Saturday, please: we’re not into Easter until tomorrow). Pete Greig talks about where God was on the day that Jesus lay dead in a tomb. He discusses our experiences of feeling in this inbetween state, and the hope that we can cling to.

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One of the themes of John’s Gospel after Jesus dies is that of secret disciples. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus arrange for the burial of Jesus’ body. Joseph follows Jesus secretly for fear of ‘the Jews’ (i.e., the religious leadership); Nicodemus had come to see Jesus in chapter three ‘by night’. I mention that, because this morning I have had forwarded on to me the Premier Radio campaign to get Christians to sign up online to declare they are Christians. I first read about this a week ago on Jason Clark’s blog, where he expressed reservations about the initiative.

Now I have seen it for myself, I share Clark’s concerns. The declaration amounts to an assent to certain doctrines. Yet as the Epistle of James says, ‘Even the devils believe.’ Clark proposes an alternative that includes a strong element of discipleship action, and I don’t see how you can exclude that from any understanding of what a Christian is. I would add that the declaration also woefully omits any sense of faith being about the grace of God. It’s all couched in ‘me, me, me’ language. 

I don’t like saying this about Premier Radio, and especially about their Chief Executive Peter Kerridge. I met him a few times in his previous appointment, when he worked as an avowedly Christian radio professional on a community commercial radio station in Harlow, Essex, called Ten 17 radio. He was training Christian leaders (including me) to create snappy ninety-second ‘thoughts for the day’ that would be broadcast on their breakfast programme, in the midst of Top 40 hit singles. We could be as religious as we liked, so long as we were lively and entertaining. It was a great vision.

Equally, I don’t want any of this construed as sympathy for the National Secular Society’s campaign for ‘debaptism’. Their requests that churches delete records of baptism at the request of those who renounce Christian faith amounts to an altering of history that would make Soviets and Maoists proud. People are free to accept or reject faith anyway. It all amounts to a silly campaign from a tiny group of self-important self-appointed self-publicists.

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Tonight I’ve been to Chelmsford Cathedral. There was a Service of Light and Confirmations. I went for the confirmations. Five of the twenty candidates came from the parish church where we are worshipping. Another used to be part of that parish. It was great to support them.

I found the Easter Eve liturgy curious in one respect: already we were proclaiming ‘Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, alleluia!’ I had never uttered those words before Easter morning. I am sure there is a good reason, but I can’t see it. I thought we would still be marking the waiting period.

The Bishop of Chelmsford made a thought-provoking point at the beginning of his brief address. He spoke about how the tomb of Jesus was in a garden. Gardens are places of rest and new life. He then compared it with Eden, the symbolic place for the beginning of human life, and said that the Garden containing Jesus’ tomb was the place where new life and new creation began. (Sounded very Tom Wright!) You may have thought of that many times before, but it was a new and fresh thought for Easter this year for me.

See you tomorrow, when I shall be celebrating that Christ is risen!

Sabbatical Day 69, Good Friday: Jesus Is Crucified

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Here is the Damaris Trust video for Good Friday. Andrew White talks about the importance of Jesus’ death on the cross on our behalf. He discusses what this means for his ministry of reconciliation in Iraq.

We went into town this morning for the annual open-air united service in Chelmsford High Street. A band from the church where we are worshipping led the music, and the choir from our children’s school dazzlingly performed a selection of songs from a musical entitled Resurrection Rock.

A nun from a local community spoke. Hers was a serious address where she spoke of Bad Friday and Good Friday. Today is only Good Friday because it is about redemptive suffering. Anything else would be Bad Friday. Suffering isn’t good for its own sake. She spoke passionately as one who had spent years in the Democratic Republic of Congo, serving women and young girls who had been raped by HIV positive men, young boys who had been brutalised into becoming child soldiers and mothers who had watched children die from diseases we find easily preventable in the West.

And from that, she made a connection between Good Friday and Easter Day. For whenever we, who believe in Christ’s redemptive suffering and conquest of death, minister to those in need or work for justice, we are doing Resurrection work. In that sense, she asked, is the Resurrection happening today?

Later, Rebekah – who had understandably described that part of the service as ‘longer than church’ – posed again the question, “Why do we call it ‘Good Friday’ and not ‘Bad Friday’?” I tried to explain how God took the Bad that was done to Jesus and turned it for Good. She found that hard to grasp.

In the back of my mind I was thinking of Tim Keller‘s The Reason For God, and his chapter on the Cross. He explains how forgiveness and love inevitably involve both substitution and exchange. When we forgive someone, it always comes at a cost. If I forgive you a debt, I take on that debt. He doesn’t get into the question of Pauline language and whether to speak of penal substitution, just that forgiveness must in some sense involve the substituting of the debt, and that this consitutes and exchange. The notion of exchange, he says, is fundamental to love. If I love my children, I will exchange my freedom for their well-being. I will not only give them attention when it is convenient to me, for if I do that they will only grow up physically. Love means I will attend to them when it is inconvenient. I give up my freedom to serve them in love. This, says Keller, is like what Christ does for the world on the Cross.

I shall be interested to plug those thoughts into those from a book that is on its way from Amazon: Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision by Tom Wright. I’d like to see how this compares and contrasts with Wright’s more cosmic vision of salvation. The Reformation tradition has tended to take Luther’s question of “How can I find a gracious God?” and insert the word ‘personally’ after ‘I’. That is critical, but I know that in this book, Wright is saying that such a question makes the sun orbit around us rather than vice-versa. We’ll see …

Sabbatical, Day 68, Maundy Thursday: Jesus Prays Before He Is Arrested

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You have just watched video number five from Damaris Trust for Holy Week. Nick Pollard talks about Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane on the night of his arrest. He discusses the significance of this, and what the command to the disciples to ‘watch and pray’ might mean for us.

I should add that today is very significant for me, both as 9th April and as Maundy Thursday. For it was on 9th April 1976, which was Maundy Thursday that year too, that I found faith in Christ.

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When I was at theological college, we never got to celebrate Easter together. It always fell in the – guess – Easter vacation. So we celebrated it ‘proleptically’ (along with Holy Week and Good Friday). That is, we celebrated it in advance of it happening. And what follows here is something of a proleptic post. Three days ahead of time, I’m typing a few thoughts here about the Resurrection. It’s part of a synchroblog today suggested by Slipstream, the Evangelical Alliance‘s network for ‘younger leaders’. (I ended up in it because I was part of its predecessor, Leaders’ Digest, before anyone gets sarky about my age.)

And the Resurrection is the great proleptic event of all history. Mind you, even the Apostle Paul doesn’t use such a fancy word as ‘proleptic’. Just as Jesus regularly did, he uses an agricultural image. He calls it the ‘firstfruits‘. Ancient Israel celebrated two harvest festivals. One was the great ingathering at the end of the summer, rather like the harvests we still mark in a post-industrial, credit crunch, Web 2.0 world. The other was in the late Spring, when the ‘firstfruits’ appeared, and is the festival that was happening when Pentecost erupted in Jerusalem. The appearance of the first fruits promised what was to come. 

In that sense, Jesus’ resurrection is ‘proleptic’ for us. It promises our resurrection at the end of time, and with it the new heavens and new earth promised in Revelation 21. As Tom Wright has correctly reminded us, it’s about so much more than ‘going to heaven when we die’. How right he was to say that ‘heaven is not the end of the world’. It’s the foretaste of the new creation. You want hope in what I just called our ‘post-industrial, credit crunch, Web 2.0 world’? You have it – in the Resurrection. Jesus has the currency the world craves.

And it’s not just for the world: it’s something we need as disciples of Jesus to renew us over and over again. Yesterday, I bumped into a friend. She is on the leadership of a church where a number of people are going through major pastoral crises. “We just need to get to Easter,” she said. I think you could take her comment more than one way. It’s not just about getting to a certain point in time. It’s that getting to Easter puts you at the place of hope.

A second thought on Resurrection: it’s twenty-five years since Michael Green wrote his wonderful book ‘The Empty Cross of Jesus‘. Opposite the contents page he wrote this:

Michelangelo once broke out in indignant protest against his fellow artists who were for ever depicting Christ in his death on the cross. ‘Paint him instead the Lord of life. Paint him with his kingly feet planted on the stone that held him in the tomb.’

But Michelangelo continued to isolate the death of Christ, from the Pietà of his youth in St. Peter’s to the unfinished Pietà in Florence … so did the theologians and the preachers.

The point Green makes in the book is that it’s dangerous to separate the death and resurrection of Christ in our thinking or our emphasis. It’s something Jürgen Moltmann stressed in a different way. In ‘The Crucified God‘, he says we should speak of both ‘The Cross of the Risen One’ and ‘The Resurrection of the Crucified One’.

Why is it important to hold Cross and Resurrection together? Because when we emphasise one at the expense of the other, dangerous distortions creep into our thinking and discipleship. When we overlook the Resurrection, we preach that ‘Jesus died for your sins’ but turn it into legalism: ‘You’d better be grateful and live a good life.’ Atonement has to connect death and resurrection. When we overlook the Cross, we enter tawdry triumphalism and entertain a faith that cannot grapple with suffering, like those who come to worship on Easter Day having avoided Good Friday. Or we are like the church steward who once prayed with me in the vestry before a Good Friday service and referred to the day as a tragedy.

A third and final reflection. (Oh why not, I’m not getting to preach this Easter due to my sabbatical, so here’s my chance!) I want to dig out a favourite story. In my first ministerial appointment, one couple (who had left the Methodist church for the URC anyway!) disdainfully nicknamed me ‘Laugh-a-minute Faulkner’. Why? Because I committed sacrilege in my sermons by usually opening them with a funny story. I know, terrible. Write the disciplinary charge now.

One Easter, the churches in the town decided to hold a united service on Easter Sunday evening. There was to be no sermon, but I got the gig for the five-minute thought for the day. I recounted a story I’d heard from Tony Campolo, in which he told how on the afternoon of Easter Day, Russian Orthodox priests would get together and tell one another their biggest belly-laughs to celebrate the joy of the Resurrection. More soberly, I then cited the poet Patrick Kavanagh who said that the Resurrection is ‘a laugh freed for ever’. I concluded that I had ample theological justification to tell a joke.

Which I proceeded to do.

You can guess which two people didn’t laugh.

You can guess which two people refused to share the Peace with me.

Now I know how to be miserable. Ask Debbie about my Scrooge impersonation around Christmas. But one thing I know about the Resurrection is that it’s the reason for great joy. If I can outdo Larry for happiness at the thought of the Resurrection – it’s what has held me together when I’ve had crises of faith – then something was desperately wrong with this poor couple. In every sense of the word they were sad.

Maybe on Sunday, the truth that ‘Christ is risen, he is risen indeed’ can force a smile onto the stoniest of faces. After all, why be stony on the day the stone was rolled away?

Finally, here is a list of the other blogs confirmed as participating in this synchroblog, as of yesterday afternoon: 

http://mikeaddis.blogspot.com 

http://blogdyfedwynroberts.blogspot.com/ 

http://theurbanpastor.wordpress.com/ 

http://lifefaithetc.blogspot.com 

www.meetalancraig.com 

http://gkcorner.blogspot.com/ 

www.knightswoodcongregational.org.uk/blog/ 

www.markmeynell.wordpress.com 

www.deeperwaters.wordpress.com 

www.bibleandmission.wordpress.com 

www.adrianwarnock.com 

http://andybeingachristian.wordpress.com 

http://thesimplepastor.blogspot.com/

Sabbatical, Day 67: Jesus Is Anointed With Perfume

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Above you will see the fourth Damaris Trust video for Holy Week. Rob Parsons talks about an anointing in Luke’s Gospel which has parallels with a similar situation that occured in the days leading up to Jesus’ death. He discusses the ideas of love and forgiveness presented in the story.

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Quite separately, here’s another video. Some have suggested that ‘Stand By Me‘ began as a gospel song before co-writer Ben E King popularised it. See what you make of this ‘world’ version of the song. (HT: Gavin Richardson.)

 

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As to the sabbatical, it hasn’t been the most eventful of days. There have been conversations with friends, but they have been of a sensitive nature and I can’t therefore reflect on them here. I’ve read more Tim Keller, added to my Mark Heard collection by plugging some gaps at emusic, and cursed clouds that floated in front of the moon just as I had a nice photo lined up.

The other main thing I’ve done, you’ll see in tomorrow’s post. There is a synchroblog sponsored by Slipstream about the Resurrection, and I’ve typed some thoughts. I’ll put the post up in the morning, and update it later in the day with specific sabbatical news.

 

 

Sabbatical, Day 66: Jesus Discusses The End Times, Flash Mob Worship, And Egg Ministry

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Third Damaris Trust video for Holy Week above. Anna Robbins explores some of the issues raised by Jesus’ teaching about the future, which he gave in the temple courts soon before his death. What does it mean that Jesus will return, and how should we live in the meantime?

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Found this today, thanks to following Ruth Gledhill on Twitter: guerrilla flash-mob worship in Liverpool last Sunday. (Ruth Gledhill’s blog post on the subject is here.) Here are Christians putting into practice the principles in Clay Shirky‘s ‘Here Comes Everybody‘ to create a public prophetic action. Do watch the video. It’s fascinating.

So is this the way to go? Three years ago Theo Hobson wrote a piece in the Guardian in which he said that Christianity could never avoid a ritual element, but it could avoid the ritual being controlled by authoritarian hierarchies. (HT to Third Way re the Hobson article.) This will be problematic for some in my Methodist tradition, because we appoint ministers (and, occasionally, laypeople) to preside at sacraments to ensure ‘good order’. The New Testament is concerned with good order at the sacraments, as we find when Paul addresses the chaos and injustice at the Lord’s Supper in Corinth (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). However, Paul addresses the problem via teaching rather than the instatement of authorised leaders.

Thoughts, anyone?

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And finally for something completely different. Today, I have mostly been … boiling eggs. Debbie began something in our first Spring here three years ago that has become a little tradition. An Easter party for the children. She started it in order to help our two make friends, and now Easter is not complete without it. Egg rolling competitions, egg and spoon races (including one race for mums), an egg hunt in the garden, Easter bonnet decorating – all are essential parts of a ritual which those arch-traditionalists, our children, demand.

Normally I’m out and about whenever Debbie schedules it, but this year, with the sabbatical, I was around. I had been deputed to be ready to capture the action with my camera. Although I managed some of that near the end, you’ll always find me in the kitchen at parties,

and today was no exception. Debbie dropped Mark’s egg for the egg rolling competition just before our guests arrived. Others arrived, having forgotten to bring eggs, and one little girl only told Mummy half an hour before coming out that she needed an egg. I can safely say that, whatever my failings in other areas, I am a master at hard-boiling eggs. Just as well for someone whose introduction to cookery when he went away to college was a book entitled ‘How To Boil An Egg‘.

So does the church want a hard-boiled minister? Here I am. Send for me.



Sabbatical, Day 65: Jesus Clears The Temple, We Visit London And The Lolly Stick Cross

more about “Damaris Trust Holy Week 2009, Monday:…“, posted with vodpod

Here is the second Damaris Trust video for Holy Week. Tony Watkins talks about the surprising display of anger shown by Jesus as he cleared the temple courtyards of merchants. He discusses why Jesus took such offence to what he saw, and what that might mean for us.

…………

A belated birthday treat for Rebekah today. For months, she has wanted to visit London, and today was the day. Leaving the car at the main Methodist church in town, we walked to Chelmsford train station, caught a connection to Liverpool Street and a tube to Victoria.

Once we arrived at street level, we asked around to find the bus stop for The Original London Sightseeing Tour. This company is one that offers open-top double-decker bus tours of London’s sights. You buy tickets that are valid all day. You can hop on and off. You receive earphones for a detailed commentary. Children also get a special fun pack.

Knowing that Mark would be young enough to go free, we calculated that two adults and one child would cost us £56 for the day. We used some Tesco Clubcard vouchers towards the tickets. For every £2.50 in Clubcard, you receive £10 in vouchers. Therefore we exchanged £12.50 to get £50, and expected to pay the balance of £6 in cash. But I was charged £60: I didn’t realise the prices had increased on 1st April. We could have exchanged a further £2.50 in vouchers and not have had to pay a single penny. Dang, to quote my American friends.

It was an ideal day to sit on top of an open bus. 15° Celsius (59° Fahrenheit), and sunny, so great weather but not hot. The tour would take us all across central London. We saw Hyde Park, Marble Arch, Park Lane, Oxford Street, Marylebone Road and ground to a halt on Regent Street. With Mark getting extremely bored and both children struggling to keep the adult-sized earphones in their ears, we elected to jump off. Using McDonald’s for the only thing it’s worth (their toilets), we dived into Oxford Circus tube station and headed for St James’s Park station, from where we headed for the park itself and enjoyed a picnic. The park squirrels were tame, and the ice cream from a kiosk was good. (There is no connection between the squirrels and the ice cream.)

From there, we walked down to see Buckingham Palace, which was the place Rebekah most wanted to see.  Despite being a Londoner, I’ve never seen it in the flesh before, either. Neither Debbie nor I are avid Republicans (the thought of a President Blair or – worse – President Mandelson is scary enough), but we are both instinctively ambivalent about royalty, so it is never a place I have been worried about seeing. However, Becky was delighted, and from there was content to head home.

While in St James’s Park, she repeated a question we’d had to defer the other day: why was Jesus crucified? I tried to give her a simple answer on two levels. One was about how good people can upset bad people. The other was about the kindness of a friend who takes the blame for us. (Yes, I know that latter one can be pushed too far in some models of the atonement, but it was a place to start that she could understand, but I’m following people like Tom Wright here who accepts a form of substitutionary atonement while rejecting the ‘Pierced for our Transgressions‘ school. I also know there are problems with that particular article of Wright’s, but I’m interested here more in what he affirms than his attitude to certain partners in the debate.)

…………

Once home, Rebekah wanted to show me something she has been making since yesterday. She has wanted to make a model of the Cross on which Jesus died. I have to tell you it is made out of pink and purple lolly sticks from a craft set, but don’t be put off. At one stage yesterday, she wanted to make a Jesus to go on it, using furry balls, but that part of the project had evidently foundered. Nevertheless, the cross was decorated with the words ‘Jesus was crucified’ and a series of hearts.

But while there was no body of Jesus on the lolly stick cross, there was something else: a montage of triangles, soaked in glitter. 

“That’s the star,” she told me, “the star that led the wise men to Bethlehem.”

She gets it. At the age of six, she knows in a simple way that the incarnation and the atonement cannot be divided. Oh that more of us would.

Sabbatical, Day 64: Palm Sunday Pain

more about “untitled“, posted with vodpod

Today, I start a new series of videos produced by Damaris Trust for Holy Week. In the first one above, Richard Collins talks about Jesus’ rather unusual entrance into Jerusalem. He discusses the significance of this event in terms of what it tells us about the kind of king that Jesus is, and the kind of kingdom into which he calls us.

Palm Sunday can be taken as a joyful day. We think of the crowds waving their palm branches, welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem. Yet as we know, pain is in the background. ‘Bow thy meek head to mortal pain, then take O Christ, thy power and reign,’ we sing in the hymn ‘Ride on, ride on in majesty’, which is laced with the anticipation of the Passion.

Right now, Debbie and I feel pain for friends. In the last few months, three Christian couples we know have separated. All have children. Sometimes we think we might know a partial truth of what has happened, but we have been careful to keep quiet and definitely not to extrapolate a small amount of data on its own to form conclusions. Our rôle is to be available if wanted, and most of all to pray.

I think each time the two of us talk privately about these tragedies, we give each other a certain look. It says, ‘There but for the grace of God we go.’ Not that God’s grace isn’t available to our friends – of course it is – but the sense that things can start sliding from small things, or something from the past we thought was buried might boomerang back from over the horizon and hit us, or we might make an uncharacteristic slip.

Not that I’m saying this is what happened with any of our friends, because we simply don’t know, and we don’t want to speculate. Rather, it’s that sense that we all need the mercy of God. We also need to keep that fine balance between the sense of security in mutual love and yet not allowing ourselves to take things for granted.

I think that’s all I want to say tonight. Say a prayer for these couples, for us, and for yourselves, whatever your domestic and family circumstances. May God guard us all. May we do our part in response. And may God work in the lives of our wounded friends.

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