Acts – An Inclusive Community

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Collect Prayer

Risen Christ,
by the lakeside you renewed your call to your disciples:
help your Church to obey your command
and draw the nations to the fire of your love,
to the glory of God the Father.
Amen

Reading

44 Even as Peter was saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who were listening to the message. 45 The Jewish believers[e] who came with Peter were amazed that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles, too. 46 For they heard them speaking in other tongues[f] and praising God.

Then Peter asked, 47 “Can anyone object to their being baptized, now that they have received the Holy Spirit just as we did?” 48 So he gave orders for them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Afterward Cornelius asked him to stay with them for several days.

Acts 10:44-end (NLT)

Homily by the Rev’d Jo Joyce

This account in Acts of the gentiles – non Jewish believers, receiving the Holy Spirit is a little different to the account of Pentecost. When the Holy Spirit came then, those who were filled were all Jewish believers or Gentiles who had converted to Judaism. This account comes a little later when Peter is speaking to Gentiles who have not converted. First, he had an encounter with Cornelius, a roman centurion, a captain of the Italian Regiment and as he reflects on this he realises that God’s message is for all, not just those who have converted to the Jewish faith – Christianity at that point remined a small sect of Judaism. Peter’s speech, the revelation of the Holy Spirit and a vision convincing him that new believers no longer needed to follow Jewish food laws led him to open the message of Jesus to all comers, without putting barriers in the way of conversion to Judaism and all of its laws.

As we move then to our part of the story it’s worth looking closer. Often, I think when we are reading in the bible about the gift of tongues we are a bit sceptical, or maybe even anxious. Unlike more obvious gifts such as healing, it doesn’t seem to have much purpose. At Pentecost others heard them speaking their language and believed, so it was missional, but it doesn’t seem to happen here, rather the gift of tongues seems to be used in worship to praise God with no other obvious purpose. There is no clarity as to why it happened or whether it happened again to that group of people. Add this to it being one of those gifts which in the modern church can end up being divisive – “they are one of those born again people” – where there is genuine fear about people being manipulated or making it up, and where some church leaders have made it into a badge of their particular type of church – either you’re in or out, it can be sadly dismissed.

Yet all of this, whether it is making it a requirement of belonging, or something of which to be afraid somewhat misses the point. The early believers didn’t ask for it it, it just happened, it was a kind of spontaneous worship, as natural as breaking into song, or dropping to their knees to pray. And for Peter it was a sign that what he was coming to believe – that God saw all people as equal, was right. And remember for him that was a radical cultural shift.

Later in the letter to the Corinthians St Paul talks of love as being more important than the gift of tongues, while in the letter to the Galatians he talks about the fruit of the spirit – love, joy peace gentleness etc. These are the ways that we know if something is of God. My guess is that the day that Peter preached the atmosphere would have been full of that peace, filled with the presence of God. He is not afraid of what God is doing, even if it doesn’t look like how he would think of worship, but he sees similarities in his own experience, and opens his mind to the fact that God might be doing something radically new, including people who until now had been, not just outside but religiously unclean.

So how might we see this today, well firstly, I think the key message is that God includes those we least expect. The Holy Spirit doesn’t put barriers on who can be included. As I read this it’s easy to get blasé and think but of course God is like that, but we too can be like Peter. I wonder who we think God would never include? Who are the outsiders who make us feel a bit different? What are the experiences of worship that we shy away from or deny are of God? When we see others experience God differently to us how does it make us feel?

Peter was on a journey – it took him a while to come to terms with allowing others in and enabling them to worship in a different way to him, but it’s a journey we all have to go on at some point. As we pass the faith on, we realise that God doesn’t always work in others the ways God works in us. That worship can be different from ours but just as holy. That sometimes God challenges us to step outside our comfort zone and realise that he is doing a new thing. The work of the Holy Spirit in bringing others to faith might sometimes challenge us, but if we are not being challenged to see and think about faith in new ways then maybe we need to question how open we are to the work of the Spirit.

Prayer

May the Lord God Bless you each step of Life’s way.
May you learn each day to open yourself to love and the blessings of love.
May you find a stick to lean on when the road is hard- and not use the stick to beat
yourself.
May you be blessed with life’s abundance and blessed in poor days too, learning again
what really matters, what lasts. May you never give in to despair or the lie that
nothing can change.
May you find ways of life and walk them with courage, knowing that every step is
within the heart of Christ who holds all our days in love.
© Revd Dr Christopher Jenkins

Closing Worship

Acts – A Discipling Community

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Collect Prayer

Risen Christ,
your wounds declare your love for the world
and the wonder of your risen life:
give us compassion and courage
to risk ourselves for those we serve,
to the glory of God the Father.
Amen.

Readings

Acts 8:26-end (NLT)

26 As for Philip, an angel of the Lord said to him, “Go south down the desert road that runs from Jerusalem to Gaza.” 27 So he started out, and he met the treasurer of Ethiopia, a eunuch of great authority under the Kandake, the queen of Ethiopia. The eunuch had gone to Jerusalem to worship, 28 and he was now returning. Seated in his carriage, he was reading aloud from the book of the prophet Isaiah.

29 The Holy Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and walk along beside the carriage.”

30 Philip ran over and heard the man reading from the prophet Isaiah. Philip asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?”

31 The man replied, “How can I, unless someone instructs me?” And he urged Philip to come up into the carriage and sit with him.

32 The passage of Scripture he had been reading was this:

“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter.
    And as a lamb is silent before the shearers,
    he did not open his mouth.
33 He was humiliated and received no justice.
    Who can speak of his descendants?
    For his life was taken from the earth.”

34 The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, was the prophet talking about himself or someone else?” 35 So beginning with this same Scripture, Philip told him the Good News about Jesus.

36 As they rode along, they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “Look! There’s some water! Why can’t I be baptized?” 38 He ordered the carriage to stop, and they went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.

39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away. The eunuch never saw him again but went on his way rejoicing. 40 Meanwhile, Philip found himself farther north at the town of Azotus. He preached the Good News there and in every town along the way until he came to Caesarea.

Homily by Colin Udall Lay Reader

Many centuries ago, long before the birth of Jesus, the prophet Isaiah foresaw the suffering of “the Servant of the LORD” in dramatic language which hid nothing of the horror and the power of the vision which was disclosed to him. This same prophecy has been quoted many times in the New Testament, and one such occasion was the story we’ve just heard when the Evangelist Philip was enabled to explain the words to the Ethiopian Ambassador, who was returning from a pilgrimage in Jerusalem.

As was customary, the Ethiopian was reading out loud on the long chariot journey which would take him back to Africa. The Scripture which he read was Isaiah 53:7-8. “He was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer was silent, so he did not open his mouth.  In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.  Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.”

Drawing near to the chariot, Philip asked if the reader understood what he was reading. But how could he, without an interpreter? So the traveller asked Philip to join him on the chariot, making the most of the opportunity to tap into the preacher’s expertise. This encounter changed the life of the Ethiopian forever – he heard of Christ, His mission, His sacrifice, the gift of salvation to all nations, not just Israel.

Jesus is to be found in all the Scriptures – the Old Testament and the New Testament. It was from the Old Testament that Jesus taught two disciples on a journey on the road to Emmaus: “beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, he expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” (Luke 24:27).

A disciple is a follower.  The disciples went from being followers to evangelists – apostles. What is the sign of a disciple of Jesus? They go to church. They may go to church every time the door is open. They get involved. They give. They serve, pray, witness, evangelize. All these and perhaps more indicate you are disciple of Jesus.

Someone said: “I go to church, so I am a Christian.” But that’s like saying if you go to McDonald’s that makes you a Quarter Pounder.

If someone were to ask, “Are you a Christian?” and you responded “Yes, I am!” they might say, “Funny, you don’t look like a Christian.”

Sometimes we don’t resemble a disciple of Jesus, BUT WE SHOULD! There should be a difference in us from other people because we are Christians. We are His disciples and we should be interested in making more disciples

HOW DO WE MAKE DISCIPLES? We invite them in or else go out to get them. However, to invite them in we must have something to draw them.

What makes us a discipling church, a discipling community?  I think it is about being noticed for who we are and what we stand for.  Our banners outside and our noticeboards tell passers-by something of this.  Because of the pandemic, we have substantially increased our online activities and this has increased people’s awareness of what we do and what we stand for.  We have involved the community in our various activities such as the Advent windows, the Easter Egg trails.  We have continued our Messy Church activities and people have put time and a great deal of effort into making this an attractive family event online, with a discipling message for those who take part.  We have our services online and I for one hope this continues, even after the pandemic and the lockdowns have finished.  We have online audiences for our services and prayers that include people who may never come to church, but they are hearing about Jesus, the Bible stories that found our faith and those things that we do that say we are fulfilling Jesus’ call on us to love our neighbours wherever they may be – local, national or international.  Foodbank, Christian Aid, Job Club and so on.

The pandemic has meant that we are not the hub of community in this church that we were before the lockdowns.  You may describe us as more scattered, through the online presence we now have.  But that’s ok, Acts 8:4 tells us that “Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.” Wherever we scatter, we must preach. They scattered because of persecution. We scatter for other reasons, however.

People say to me that they can’t talk about their faith because they don’t know what to say. Paul charged young Timothy to charge the people in his preaching of the Word. Be strong. Be straight. Be sincere.  In other words, just be yourself and tell the truth.  Keep it simple.  Where I now work, a couple of people who knew me from when I worked there before call me “The Vicar”.  That just came out of a conversation where I said that I didn’t mind working on Sundays when I was rostered to, but I would never volunteer for overtime on a Sunday because I wanted to go to church whenever I could.  These people don’t make fun of me, they understand what I want to do, even if it’s not what they want to do, but it has led to other conversations about what I believe and where I stand on certain subjects.  And I am not the only Christian person at work.  I have met others who have shared with me their beliefs and also I have got into a van where the previous driver had been listening to a Christian radio station.

The early Christians were a discipling community.  They must have been, otherwise the Christian faith would not have grown in the way it did.  Studies have shown that this was not just through preaching and teaching, but practical action – helping one another, treating people as equals (remember Paul admonishes a church where they did not wait for the slaves before they started the services) sharing with each other and with those outside of their church community.

We need to be a discipling community too, continuing to serve Jesus by sharing his good news and continuing to share His love with one another and those in the communities around us.

Amen

Prayers

Living God,
long ago, faithful women
proclaimed the good news
of Jesus’ resurrection,
and the world was changed forever.
Teach us to keep faith with them,
that our witness may be as bold,
our love as deep,
and our faith as true. Amen.

Closing Worship

Acts – A Courageous Community

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Collect

Risen Christ,
faithful shepherd of your Father’s sheep:
teach us to hear your voice
and to follow your command,
that all your people may be gathered into one flock,
to the glory of God the Father.

Reading: Acts 4:5-12 (NLT)

The next day the council of all the rulers and elders and teachers of religious law met in Jerusalem. Annas the high priest was there, along with Caiaphas, John, Alexander, and other relatives of the high priest. They brought in the two disciples and demanded, “By what power, or in whose name, have you done this?”

Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers and elders of our people, are we being questioned today because we’ve done a good deed for a crippled man? Do you want to know how he was healed? 10 Let me clearly state to all of you and to all the people of Israel that he was healed by the powerful name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, the man you crucified but whom God raised from the dead. 11 For Jesus is the one referred to in the Scriptures, where it says,

‘The stone that you builders rejected
    has now become the cornerstone.’

12 There is salvation in no one else! God has given no other name under heaven by which we must be saved.”

Homily

Last Saturday, I was at a conference called Dismantling Whiteness.  It was a collection of theologians, clergy and activists who wanted to look at the problem of racism from the perspective of being white.  It wasn’t about being negative about white people at all.  And it wasn’t about saying that all white people are racists.  Rather it was about what we do about a world which for too long has assumed – sometimes explicitly and sometimes without thinking about it – that white people are better than black and brown people and has organised itself in such a way that reflects that.  This heresy – for all humanity bears the divine image of God and to suggest otherwise is an offensive lie – has led to racial injustice which carries on throughout generations and still affects our sisters and brothers today.  The conference was about recognising that this problem of racism and injustice isn’t a problem that we should expect our black and brown friends and neighbours to solve.  It is actually a problem which to a large extent has been created and continued (whether we mean to or not) by white people. White people have a part to play in dismantling whiteness as a form of oppression and working with our black and brown friends to reimagine our whiteness in such a way that all of us – black, white, brown or whatever – can all live in healthy, loving, equal relationship.

Sounds quite positive, doesn’t it?  Perhaps like something God might want us to do.  However, our conference attracted some attention on social media and many of the participants, in one case myself, were recipients of a concerted campaign of unpleasant messages from people who accused us of being racist against white people, being woke, bleeding heart liberals, deluded and part of a cult and so much more.  Now I have never been much of a believer in the saying “sticks and stone break my bones, but names will never hurt me”.  Words can really hurt and intimidate, and I found the experience of being a group under attack in this way rather scary. 

In our reading from Acts today, we find Peter and John held prisoner by the authorities for firstly healing a man and then for sharing the good news of Jesus.  In his commentary on this part of the book of Acts, the African American theologian, Willie James James Jennings writes this:

Speaking holy words has serious consequences.  These are not words that simply speak of God.  There is nothing inherently serious, holy or dangerous in God-talk.  The holy words that bring consequences are words tied to the concrete liberating actions of God for broken people.  Such holy words bring the speakers into direct confrontation with those in power.

In the case of my colleagues and I at the conference, the concrete liberating action was saying that racism is unacceptable and white people have to look at themselves as part of dismantling racism.  Those words brought us into conflict with people for whom whiteness is a form of power and superiority.  However, for Peter and John, their words had even greater peril – they were arrested and held prisoner by those with religious and spiritual power.  Peter and Johns’ message of new life and freedom in Jesus threatened the religious and political status quo and those who benefitted from things as they were did not like that at all.

However, Jennings continues:

Jesus not only spoke such words, but he was such a word.  He was predestined to challenge those in power and confront the powers, spiritual and human.  The disciples knew this confrontation – the confrontation we see in this reading – was coming.  The struggle against those in power that marked the life and death of Jesus was coming for them as well.  The great illusion of followers of Jesus, especially those who imagine themselves leaders, is that they could live a path different from Jesus and his disciples.  They believe somehow that they can be loved, or at least liked or at least tolerated or even ignored by those with real power in the world.

And that is the reality – we are not here to be liked.  As a good-news-proclaiming community, as Jo encouraged us to be last week, we will find ourselves speaking out against all sort of status quos that are unhealthy and unjust.  If the gospel, which literally means good news, is to BE good news for those who need it, we will find ourselves challenging poverty, racism, unjust trade, the climate emergency, consumerism, cronyism and so much more.  And if we do it well, if we really begin to have an impact, we will upset people who benefit from keeping things just the way they are.  People will try and shout us down or discredit us, and it won’t be fun.  But we need to do it.

When I was, in my small way, getting some flak last weekend for my participation in the Dismantling Whiteness conference, one of the things that really helped was being part of a community.  Jennings, commenting on Peter’s courage to keep speaking, even in the face of opposition, says:

Peter speaks boldly, but this boldness is not the result of character refinement or moral formation – e.g. Peter isn’t brave because he has learned to be brave – Peter has not become the great man who stares down his enemies with epic courage, the kind that creates an odyssey or a heroic tale.  Indeed, there is no such thing as individual boldness for the followers of Jesus.  Of course, each disciple can and must be bold, but their boldness is always a together boldness, a joined boldness, a boldness born of intimacy.  The modern lie of individualism is most powerful when we imagine that boldness comes from within.  It does not.  It comes from without, from the Spirit of God.

The theme of my sermon today is the courageous community, but the community is just as important as the courageous.  It is being part of a community, of people who love the same God, and who share the same gospel values, that gives us courage to stand up to the unjust powers of our world. We are not expected to do it ourselves.  We don’t need to fight all the time – sometimes we are the ones who speak out, sometimes we let others take a turn and we encourage and pray for them.  And most importantly, we are a community formed and enabled and enlivened by God’s Spirit of Love, which encourages us – literally gives us courage – to say those holy words that the world needs to hear.

So, what does that mean for us here, for St Paul’s Stockingford?  Well, you have a long history of speaking out and then acting on your convictions.  You have supported Christian Aid for many years.  You have been a Fairtrade church.  You were one of the first churches to welcome ordained women. You have made choices with your re-ordering project to consider the climate and to be responsible in your choices.  You have hosted job clubs and credit unions and family summer lunch clubs to support people facing difficulties of different sorts.  The first thing I want to say is that these activities were never optional extras in the life of the church – they are a core part of living the gospel, of speaking holy words to the powers who keep our world unfair and unjust.  Keep doing this, and if you are newer to this church family, get involved! The second thing is that as we emerge from lockdown and as we try to grow our church, whatever that new future looks like, we need to ensure we keep that holy truth telling, that speaking which might land us in trouble, at the centre of who we are.  And we need to do it together.

And I would encourage us to ensure racism is one of the things about which we are prepared to speak truthful, holy words. A few days ago, on Stephen Lawrence Day, the Archbishop’s Anti-Racism Task Force produced a report on how we can work for racial justice in the Church of England.  For too long the Church of England has not been a welcoming and supportive place for black and brown Christians.  The report is breath-taking in its scope and ambition, and if implemented fully -which I hope it is – will go a long way to changing the culture in the structures of the Church of England.  But the real Church of England is here (indicating the heart) and unless in the hearts of the community which is the church, both here in Stockingford and across the nation, are willing to learn, change and love, things will not change enough.

My final point is that sometimes the holy words need to be spoken to ourselves.  I will confess that understanding how racism has impacted black and brown friends in the church has not been comfortable.  It is never easy to hear how the world has benefited me and been unfair to another on something as basic as the melanin in our skin.  But sometimes the greatest courage is not in changing the world, but in being willing to change ourselves.  And, that is where the Gospel comes in again – Christ died that we might be saved.  Our ignorance and complicity in the brokenness of the world do not define us and need never be the end of the story.  There is new life now, new chances to live the lives we should be living and build the communities and repair the hurts and rebalance injustices now.  All we need is a little courage.

So, by the grace of God, in faith in the redeeming work of Jesus, in the strength and equipping of the Holy Spirit, may we be a courageous community. Amen.

Prayers

Love incarnate,
Fountain of Mercy and Justice
In a world of inequity and pain
May our actions be our prayer. 
We cry out for Shalom, fullness of life to all.
Let the Spirit of Truth guide us.
Let the Spirit of Love free us. 
Give us the compassion, courage and resolve
to become the light, we seek
that many may see life and their dignity restored
Inspire us to embody a world without injustice and prejudice  
Form us into channels of your love and peace 
Let the river of justice and mercy flood our imperfect world  
Quenching the thirst of parched souls and lands.
Abide in us o Liberator that we become the Word 
so that the world may have Life, Life in all its abundance.
Amen 

Taken from the book Christian Aid book Rage & Hope: 75 Prayers for a Better World’,  Edited by Chine McDonald.

Good News

Phone, Mobile Phone, Smartphone
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Collect

Risen Christ,

you filled your disciples with boldness and fresh hope:

strengthen us to proclaim your risen life

and fill us with your peace,

to the glory of God the Father.

Acts 3:12-19

12 Peter saw his opportunity and addressed the crowd. “People of Israel,” he said, “what is so surprising about this? And why stare at us as though we had made this man walk by our own power or godliness? 13 For it is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—the God of all our ancestors—who has brought glory to his servant Jesus by doing this. This is the same Jesus whom you handed over and rejected before Pilate, despite Pilate’s decision to release him. 14 You rejected this holy, righteous one and instead demanded the release of a murderer. 15 You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. And we are witnesses of this fact!

16 “Through faith in the name of Jesus, this man was healed—and you know how crippled he was before. Faith in Jesus’ name has healed him before your very eyes.

17 “Friends,[c] I realize that what you and your leaders did to Jesus was done in ignorance. 18 But God was fulfilling what all the prophets had foretold about the Messiah—that he must suffer these things. 19 Now repent of your sins and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped away. 

Homily

The title for today is: ‘A good news proclaiming community’ but what exactly is that? How can we be that? Community suggests all of us, but if we are honest that’s a bit scary. I am reminded of a question someone asked me some years ago…

“What is God?” My colleague asked me one day. She was here on placement for a year from Japan, we had been talking about her culture and she had been asking me about church and Easter. What would you say? How do we proclaim our faith when our frame of reference is so different to that of the person we are talking to? What does it mean to tell others the good news? The challenge we face today is not too different to Peter’s in our reading.

Our acts reading today is a little strange, because unfortunately the lectionary cuts off the first part of the story. Following on from the filling of the disciples and others with the holy spirit at Pentecost, Peter has just healed a man who had been crippled by praying in the name of Jesus. This had, not unsurprisingly, created a massive commotion and everyone had come to see what the fuss was about. And its here that our reading begins…

Peter seeing their astonishment and the man clinging to him explains. It is not he or the other disciples who are special. It is God who has healed the man, the God of their ancestors, the God whom they know. He goes on to explain how God had sent Jesus who had been killed and raised to life and it is faith in Jesus that has enabled this miracle to happen. He acknowledges that they did not mean to kill Jesus, that they did not understand who he was (something I think is really important to note especially when we read some of the gospels which can, if not read and understood properly, sound antisemitic).  And he encourages them to repent, literally turn around from their sins to seek God. There is a new start.

I think several things are helpful to note from the story. Peter was not intending to heal that day, neither was he intending to proclaim the gospel. Both happened because he was prayerfully listening to God and observing the world as he went about his daily life and listening and being obedient to what God was asking him to do. We don’t have to plan big speeches, be a practiced evangelist or public speaker, all of this happened spontaneously.

Remember, this is Peter who just shortly before all this, at the crucifixion, had denied he even knew Jesus. We don’t have to be brilliant all the time. We can make mistakes and God will still use us. But what Peter is prepared to do is give an explanation for what has happened. We don’t have to have all the answers, he doesn’t explain how the healing happened, he just encourages people to believe and understand who Jesus is and encourages them to change their lives and believe. He doesn’t insist on this, he leaves the rest to God. Its up to them how they respond.

How we listen to the Sprit and proclaim the good news is up to each of us. We won’t all be called to pray for supernatural healing and explain it. But we might be asked why we go to church, or what we believe about life after death, especially when the death of some one prominent such as the Duke of Edinburgh occurs, or who we think Jesus is. In those moments I think it’s important we are authentic. We are not responsible for telling them everything, all we need to do is explain our own story, to proclaim our little bit of gospel. How has faith affected our lives, what do we believe about God? Don’t worry if there is stuff you don’t know or things you can’t answer, be real, talk about the great things about faith and the hard things too. The good news is as much your story to tell as it is Peter’s, and its that encounter with real living faith that changes people’s lives.

Intercessions

In joy and hope let us pray to the Father.

That our risen Saviour may fill us [and …] with the joy of his

glorious and life-giving resurrection …

we pray to the Father.

Hear our prayer.

That isolated and persecuted churches

may find fresh strength in the good news of Easter …

we pray to the Father.

Hear our prayer.

That God may grant us humility

to be subject to one another in Christian love …

we pray to the Father.

Hear our prayer.

That he may provide for those who lack food, work or shelter …

we pray to the Father.

Hear our prayer.

That by his power war and famine may cease through all the world …

we pray to the Father.

Hear our prayer.

That he may reveal the light of his presence to the sick,

the weak and the dying,

to comfort and strengthen them …

we pray to the Father.

Hear our prayer.

That, according to his promises,

all who have died in the faith of the resurrection

may be raised on the last day …

we pray to the Father.

Hear our prayer.

That he may send the fire of the Holy Spirit upon his people,

so that we may bear faithful witness to his resurrection,

we pray to the Father.

Hear our prayer.

Heavenly Father,

you have delivered us from the power of darkness

and brought us into the kingdom of your Son:

grant that, as his death has recalled us to life,

so his continual presence in us may raise us to eternal joy;

through Christ our Lord.

Amen.

Second Sunday of Easter

Image by John Hain from Pixabay

Collect

Risen Christ,
for whom no door is locked, no entrance barred:
open the doors of our hearts,
that we may seek the good of others
and walk the joyful road of sacrifice and peace,
to the praise of God the Father. Amen.

Reading

32 All the believers were united in heart and mind. And they felt that what they owned was not their own, so they shared everything they had. 33 The apostles testified powerfully to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and God’s great blessing was upon them all. 34 There were no needy people among them, because those who owned land or houses would sell them 35 and bring the money to the apostles to give to those in need.

36 For instance, there was Joseph, the one the apostles nicknamed Barnabas (which means “Son of Encouragement”). He was from the tribe of Levi and came from the island of Cyprus. 37 He sold a field he owned and brought the money to the apostles.

Acts 4:32-35 (NLT)

Sermon

It always rather bemuses me why the church insists on reading the Book of Acts immediately after Easter.  Surely there is enough else going on between Thomas and his doubts, the friends travelling to Emmaus and Peter getting reinstated after his earlier epic fail?  Surely we don’t need this breathless, hotch-potch of early church adventures added to the mix? But no, the Church is adamant. The reading from Acts MUST be used, my lectionary book says in uncompromising italics.  And being a mainly well-behaved sort, I do.

But, of course, there is a good reason why the Church insists we read Acts during the Easter season.  It is our annual reminder of what Easter means in the life of ordinary people like you and me.  It shows us what a community of Easter people looks like.  It takes us back to what it means to be the church.  And this year, more than ever, as we carefully emerge from lockdown, perhaps it is good to remind ourselves what it means to be Church, what it means to be Christ’s body here in Stockingford today. So, over the coming weeks, Jo, Colin, Nigel and I are going to focus on these Acts readings and see what they meant to the people at the time, but also what they might be saying to us today as we try to be God’s people, sharing God’s love in our community.

Our Acts reading today is only a few lines long, but it is full!  We are told that the believers were of one heart and soul; that they shared everything they had; that those who had experienced the risen Christ told what they had seen with great power; that no one went without and that Joseph was amongst those who shared all he had earning himself the nickname Barnabas which means “Son of Encouragement”.  It is a challenging but inspiring vision of what true Christian community is like.

I want to draw out a few themes from this short punchy reading.  The first is that this early Christian community was united.  Now, first century Palestine was a very diverse place.  The Jewish community itself was divided into different traditions.  As in any community there would be the haves and the have nots.  There would be men and women, young and old.  The earlier chapters of Acts tell us that this early Christian community began at the feast of Pentecost when pilgrims from across the Mediterranean world flocked to Jerusalem, so there would be people of different races and tongues.  But they were one in Christ Jesus, one in heart and soul – at the very core of their being they were family.  No one was better than anyone else.  No one mattered more than anyone else.  All were sinners saved by grace, and rejoicing in the new life Jesus offered.

Our congregation today is no less diverse.  In our church, we have those with plenty and those who struggle.  We have different ages and races and church backgrounds.  Some of us have been coming to St Paul’s for generations.  Others are new.  We are divided on politics.  We include Monarchists and Republicans, Remainers and Leavers, and we support a wide range of football and rugby teams.  Some of us worship in the building, others worship online.  But we unite around this one truth – that God loves us and came to us in Jesus.

This is something that I am sure we will have no trouble remembering as we emerge from this pandemic year when we have missed one another so much.  But it is something to hold on to as hopefully we welcome more people to our church as part of our 200 by 200 journey.  No one is better than anyone else.  No one matters more.  We are each God’s gift to one another in all our wonderful differences and we are united in our trust in Jesus.

The second thing is that the new church community were generous and shared what they had.  Now, that early church community expected Jesus’ return almost immediately, so they had no need for fields or belongings.  Their experience of communal living might not entirely work in today’s church, but that same spirit of generosity and of care for one another is key.  We cannot be indifferent to one another’s needs and struggles.  And it is always worth pausing from time to time and reflecting on whether we are using what God has given us for good – be that a skill or a talent, be that free time, a nice home or a welcoming garden, be that a healthy income…  All things come from you and of your own do we give you is a well known offertory prayer.  So let’s stay grateful and generous with whatever God has given us, and do our best to meet one another’s needs when we can.

Lastly, the early church community was one of encouragement.  The apostles encouraged the other believers by sharing the truth of our faith.  And Joseph encouraged the apostles so much that they nicknamed him the Son of Encouragement!  Oh what a joy to be part of an encouraging church.  That has certainly been my experience of being vicar here at St Paul’s and I do hope I have to some extent returned the favour and encouraged you in your faith.  Because encouragement is so wonderful in church communities.  Every time you thank one of the tech team, or celebrate the skills of the sewing circle, or mention to the person leading prayers how much their words meant to you, or enjoy the beautiful flowers in church or notice some act of care or service in our church life, you are encouraging that person that they – and what they can do – matters and is a valued part of our shared life.  There is so much going on in our church life that no one can notice it all, so encouragement has to be a whole church activity.  It has to be a culture.  I think we have that culture here, but never lose it because it is an incredible gift.

So the early church community was a community that was united, generous and encouraging, and I hope at our best we are that too.  Of course we will mess up and miss the mark sometimes – nowhere is perfect – but I love serving a church that mainly has those values at its heart.  Not just because it makes for a wonderful experience as your vicar, but because they are essential for the sharing of the Gospel.  We could have the best preacher in the Diocese, the snazziest technology, the slickest outreach programme, but as St Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians, all those things are clanging gongs without love.  Unless people meet the love of God in the way we treat them and one another, nothing else will work.  In a world saturated in fake news and hard sells, people want something authentic and real.  We need to talk about God’s love and hope and then have to bloomin’ live it!

After this snappy little reading, there is one of the most troubling tales in the New Testament – the story of Ananias and Sapphira, a couple who, like Barnabas, sell their field, but keep some of the proceeds back and lie about it.  The outcome is that both drop dead.  It is a terrifying tale.  But it illustrates how deadly inauthenticity is to the community of faith.  I don’t think that their decision to retain some of the money was as much of a problem as their inability to be real and honest with their fellow believers.  Deceit and dishonesty utterly undermined this little community’s core values.

Because the authentic early church community – united, generous and encouraging as it was – was a powerful thing.  As chapter 5 v14 of Acts says “Yet more than ever believers were added to the Lord, great numbers of both men and women…”

So, as we travel through the book of Acts, learning more of what it means to be a community of resurrection faith, let’s be authentic, united across our glorious differences, generous with whatever God has given us and encouraging to one another.  May people encounter God’s love among us and may that draw them to the risen Jesus.

Prayers

Eternal God, our heavenly Father, we bless your holy name for all that you have
given us in and through the life of Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.

We give you thanks:
for his long and full life;
for his strength of character;
and for his devotion and service to family, nation and Commonwealth.

We praise you for:
his generosity;
the many contributions he made to our national life;
and the encouragement he gave to so many, especially to the young.

All God of mercy,
entrusting into your hands all that you have made
and rejoicing in our communion with all your
faithful people,
we make our prayers through Jesus Christ our Saviour.
Amen.

Closing Worship

Easter Sunday

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed! ALLELUIA!

Collect

Lord of all life and power,
who through the mighty resurrection of your Son
overcame the old order of sin and death
to make all things new in him:
grant that we, being dead to sin
and alive to you in Jesus Christ,
may reign with him in glory;
to whom with you and the Holy Spirit
be praise and honour, glory and might,
now and in all eternity.

Reading

Early on Sunday morning, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and found that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance. She ran and found Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved. She said, “They have taken the Lord’s body out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”

Peter and the other disciple started out for the tomb. They were both running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He stooped and looked in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he didn’t go in. Then Simon Peter arrived and went inside. He also noticed the linen wrappings lying there, while the cloth that had covered Jesus’ head was folded up and lying apart from the other wrappings. Then the disciple who had reached the tomb first also went in, and he saw and believed— for until then they still hadn’t understood the Scriptures that said Jesus must rise from the dead. 10 Then they went home.

11 Mary was standing outside the tomb crying, and as she wept, she stooped and looked in. 12 She saw two white-robed angels, one sitting at the head and the other at the foot of the place where the body of Jesus had been lying. 13 “Dear woman, why are you crying?” the angels asked her.

“Because they have taken away my Lord,” she replied, “and I don’t know where they have put him.”

14 She turned to leave and saw someone standing there. It was Jesus, but she didn’t recognize him. 15 “Dear woman, why are you crying?” Jesus asked her. “Who are you looking for?”

She thought he was the gardener. “Sir,” she said, “if you have taken him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will go and get him.”

16 “Mary!” Jesus said.

She turned to him and cried out, “Rabboni!” (which is Hebrew for “Teacher”).

17 “Don’t cling to me,” Jesus said, “for I haven’t yet ascended to the Father. But go find my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

18 Mary Magdalene found the disciples and told them, “I have seen the Lord!” Then she gave them his message.

John 20:1-18 (NLT)

Guest Sermon from the Rev’d Sherine Angus

This Easter, as we hear the readings and encounter again the familiar story we come afresh carrying all that has happened in the past year.  We come today after a year that has, in many ways felt like an extended period of Lent and wilderness.  I suspect we share some of the feelings that the women and disciples had.  Whilst they had heard from Jesus his many promises, the promises that his death wouldn’t be the end but the beginning, promises that he would be with them forever.  In the reality of his death, in the confrontation of the empty tomb I suspect they wondered just for a moment whether those promises were true, before reminding themselves that people don’t rise from the dead, that the darkness will continue.

And we remember that there have been times during this pandemic, and even now as restrictions are reducing that we wonder if it will be true, if we can believe the promises, if we won’t be plunged back into the darkness of another lockdown.

Yet, in the midst of all the confusion and grief, there is an encounter in a garden.  An encounter that marks a new beginning, new hope, new life.

And we remember that this year, that encounter in the garden seems so poignant after months of not being able to see people or chat to friends in person we too can now meet in a garden and enjoy that precious contact once again.

You might have expected Jesus to approach Mary and say look it’s me!  But instead he says, ‘woman why are you weeping?’ and after a year of so many tears, so much loss, so much grief we can understand those tears of exquisite pain, Mary had come to do the last act of care for Jesus, to prepare his body and found that she couldn’t do that, the body had gone. 

And again, we remember the thousands of people who died alone during this pandemic, without family and friends, without them being able to carry out that final act of care for their loved ones and the intensity of their pain.

The first thing that Jesus did was recognise the pain and grief that Mary was experiencing, he didn’t say, look everything is fine, pull yourself together, get over it, I’m here. He knew that time needs to be taken to allow us to deal with trauma, to process all that those he loved had gone through as they witnessed his death on the cross.

And we remember, the loss that we all carry, lost love ones, lost livelihoods, lost connection with family and friends, lost life events such as weddings and funerals, anniversaries and leaving schooling. And we know that we will need time to recognise that loss in order to move forwards, that we can’t just ‘get over it’ and move on as if nothing has happened.

Jesus then said to Mary, who are you looking for?  A question that resonates with meaning and significance, what is it that we look for, where is the meaning without God, what is it that she was searching for? her love, her teacher, her sense of purpose.

And we remember that so many have turned to prayer during this year as we’ve realised that exotic holidays, shopping trips, meals out, expensive cars are not what we are looking for, as we have searched for something to making meaning and give hope in this time of pandemic.  Realising that seeking God, finding solace in prayer is our only source of sustaining hope.

Finally Jesus says ‘Mary’, and in the confusion and muddle of grief that turned her world upside down, that consumed everything and seeped into every part of her life, through that one word, the calling of her name, she knew it to be true.  As Jesus called her name, Mary knew that the source of all love was calling her, that even through the darkness of despair she could hear the voice of Jesus breaking through the pain.  The realisation that all that had gone before, the pain, the loss, the death was healed by a God who knows us each by name. 

That by his resurrection everything that we know to be true has been transformed the normal order of things has passed away. Death now leads to new life, pain to transformation, suffering to hope.  And this is why we are all here today, and in fact why we have kept worshipping either online or in person throughout the pandemic and every week to come.  We are here because we believe that whatever darkness we encounter at the cross, beyond it the transforming power of Jesus brings new life when all seems lost, brings light into darkness and above all else he calls each of us by name.  We believe that the tomb is empty and that God dwells amongst us and within us, we believe that by his death on the cross we are redeemed, forgiven and transformed to new life.

Take a moment to close your eyes now, to hear the voice of Jesus, the voice of love calling you by name……

He is speaking into the depths of your heart, ready to transform and renew, to heal and restore as we carry on our journey as Easter people in the knowledge that whatever we encounter He is there with us..

Christ is Risen, He is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Prayers

In joy and hope let us pray to the Father.

That our risen Saviour may fill us with the joy of his
glorious and life-giving resurrection …
we pray to the Father.
Hear our prayer.

That isolated and persecuted churches
may find fresh strength in the good news of Easter …
we pray to the Father.
Hear our prayer.

That God may grant us humility
to be subject to one another in Christian love …
we pray to the Father.
Hear our prayer.

That he may provide for those who lack food, work or shelter …
we pray to the Father.
Hear our prayer.

That by his power war and famine may cease through all the world …
we pray to the Father.
Hear our prayer.

That he may reveal the light of his presence to the sick,
the weak and the dying,
to comfort and strengthen them …
we pray to the Father.
Hear our prayer.

That, according to his promises,
all who have died in the faith of the resurrection
may be raised on the last day …
we pray to the Father.
Hear our prayer.

That he may send the fire of the Holy Spirit upon his people,
so that we may bear faithful witness to his resurrection,
we pray to the Father.
Hear our prayer.

Heavenly Father,
you have delivered us from the power of darkness
and brought us into the kingdom of your Son:
grant that, as his death has recalled us to life,
so his continual presence in us may raise us to eternal joy;
through Christ our Lord.
Amen.

Closing Worship

Palm Sunday

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Collect Prayer

True and humble king,
hailed by the crowd as Messiah:
grant us the faith to know you and love you,
that we may be found beside you
on the way of the cross,
which is the path of glory.

Palm Gospel

As Jesus and his disciples approached Jerusalem, they came to the towns of Bethphage and Bethany on the Mount of Olives. Jesus sent two of them on ahead. “Go into that village over there,” he told them. “As soon as you enter it, you will see a young donkey tied there that no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks, ‘What are you doing?’ just say, ‘The Lord needs it and will return it soon.’”

The two disciples left and found the colt standing in the street, tied outside the front door. As they were untying it, some bystanders demanded, “What are you doing, untying that colt?” They said what Jesus had told them to say, and they were permitted to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their garments over it, and he sat on it.

Many in the crowd spread their garments on the road ahead of him, and others spread leafy branches they had cut in the fields. Jesus was in the center of the procession, and the people all around him were shouting,

“Praise God!
    Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
10 Blessings on the coming Kingdom of our ancestor David!
    Praise God in highest heaven!”

11 So Jesus came to Jerusalem and went into the Temple. After looking around carefully at everything, he left because it was late in the afternoon. Then he returned to Bethany with the twelve disciples.

Mark 11:1-11 (NLT)

On Palm Sunday, this year we are not having a sermon as we are hearing the story of Christ’s passion as we prepare to enter Holy Week…

Passion Gospel

As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. Pilate asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ He answered him, ‘You say so.’ Then the chief priests accused him of many things. Pilate asked him again, ‘Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.’ But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed.

Now at the festival he used to release a prisoner for them, anyone for whom they asked. Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection. So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom. Then he answered them, ‘Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?’ For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead. Pilate spoke to them again, ‘Then what do you wish me to do* with the man you call* the King of the Jews?’ They shouted back, ‘Crucify him!’ Pilate asked them, ‘Why, what evil has he done?’ But they shouted all the more, ‘Crucify him!’ So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.

Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters*); and they called together the whole cohort. And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. And they began saluting him, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.

They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus. Then they brought Jesus* to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull). And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it. And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take.

It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. The inscription of the charge against him read, ‘The King of the Jews.’ And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left.* Those who passed by derided* him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!’ In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah,* the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.’ Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.

When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land* until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’* When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, ‘Listen, he is calling for Elijah.’ And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.’ Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he* breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’*

Mark 15:1-39 (NRSV)

Image by Thomas B. from Pixabay

Prayers

Let us pray to the Father through his Son
who suffered on the cross for the world’s redemption.
Fill with your Spirit Christ’s broken body, the Church.
Give to Christian people everywhere a deep longing
to take up the cross and to understand its mysterious glory.
By the Saviour’s cross and passion,
Lord, save us and help us.

Bless those who lead the Church’s worship at this solemn time.
In the preaching of the word and the celebration of the sacraments
draw your people close to you.
By the Saviour’s cross and passion,
Lord, save us and help us.

Strengthen those who are preparing for baptism,
together with their teachers, sponsors and families
Teach them what it means to die and rise with Christ
and prepare them to receive the breath of his Spirit.
By the Saviour’s cross and passion,
Lord, save us and help us.

Look in your mercy upon the world you loved so much
that you sent your Son to suffer and to die
Strengthen those who work to share
the reconciliation won at such a cost upon the cross.
By the Saviour’s cross and passion,
Lord, save us and help us.

Bring healing by the wounds of Christ
to all who are weighed down by pain and injustice
Help the lonely and the betrayed, the suffering and the dying,
to find strength in the companionship of Jesus,
and in his passion to know their salvation.
By the Saviour’s cross and passion,
Lord, save us and help us.

Welcome into paradise all who have left this world in your friendship
According to your promises,
bring them with all your saints
to share in all the benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection.
By the Saviour’s cross and passion,
Lord, save us and help us.
Holy God,
holy and strong,
holy and immortal,
have mercy on us.

Closing Worship

Lent 5 Passion Sunday

Photo by Mohamed Nohassi on Unsplash

Opening Prayer

Gracious Father,
you gave up your Son
out of love for the world:
lead us to ponder the mysteries of his passion,
that we may know eternal peace
through the shedding of our Saviour’s blood,
Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Jeremiah 31: 31-34 (NLT)

31 “The day is coming,” says the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. 32 This covenant will not be like the one I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand and brought them out of the land of Egypt. They broke that covenant, though I loved them as a husband loves his wife,” says the Lord.

33 “But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel after those days,” says the Lord. “I will put my instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34 And they will not need to teach their neighbors, nor will they need to teach their relatives, saying, ‘You should know the Lord.’ For everyone, from the least to the greatest, will know me already,” says the Lord. “And I will forgive their wickedness, and I will never again remember their sins.”

John 12:20-33 (NLT)

20 Some Greeks who had come to Jerusalem for the Passover celebration 21 paid a visit to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee. They said, “Sir, we want to meet Jesus.” 22 Philip told Andrew about it, and they went together to ask Jesus.

23 Jesus replied, “Now the time has come for the Son of Man to enter into his glory. 24 I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat is planted in the soil and dies, it remains alone. But its death will produce many new kernels—a plentiful harvest of new lives. 25 Those who love their life in this world will lose it. Those who care nothing for their life in this world will keep it for eternity. 26 Anyone who wants to serve me must follow me, because my servants must be where I am. And the Father will honour anyone who serves me.

27 “Now my soul is deeply troubled. Should I pray, ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But this is the very reason I came! 28 Father, bring glory to your name.”

Then a voice spoke from heaven, saying, “I have already brought glory to my name, and I will do so again.” 29 When the crowd heard the voice, some thought it was thunder, while others declared an angel had spoken to him.

30 Then Jesus told them, “The voice was for your benefit, not mine. 31 The time for judging this world has come, when Satan, the ruler of this world, will be cast out. 32 And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.” 33 He said this to indicate how he was going to die.

Homily

Over the past few weeks we have been thinking about some of the covenants God made with humankind. Covenant is a word which we don’t use often these days. When we do, it is usually in terms of legal documents. For example, if you buy a house, you will sign a deed of covenant which agrees your responsibilities as the buyer and what you can expect from those who are selling. So really a covenant is a bit like a contract – something which sets out both the rights and responsibilities of the people involved. And if we break a covenant or a contract, we can expect legal penalties – a stiff fine or worse. We can expect to be in quite a bit of trouble!

In our Old Testament reading today, we see God talking about covenants again. But the desire of God seems to move beyond the external, legal covenants of the past. The people only broke them anyway, building up unpaid fine after unpaid fine in their divine ledger. God instead dreams of the day when the relationship between us will move from the externals of duty and observance to the heart – to a relationship of love. One of the ways the prophets used to describe God’s hopes for God’s relationships with humankind was to compare it to a human marriage. Now marriage has legal standing – it is a contract made between two people and there are benefits and responsibilities to this arrangement. But a true marriage goes beyond these legal arrangements and is all about the heart. In any relationship of love, you don’t draw up a contract for the daily stuff.

Or maybe you do? One of the favourite programmes in our house is the comedy “Big Bang Theory”. In this programme a nerdy but brilliant physicist called Sheldon makes his long-suffering friend and roommate sign an agreement which covers everything from when he can use the toilet to the fact this roommate has to drive Sheldon to his dental appointments. The agreement becomes a running gag over the many series of the show because it is absurd. When we care about someone, we don’t need to contract for every detail. If we love someone, we want what is best for them and will act accordingly, and actually the lack of contract allows for flexibility as our lives and circumstances change. However that lack of contract also makes us vulnerable – what if the other person doesn’t fulfil our expectations of them? The consequences could be inconvenient at best or deeply hurtful at worst. Aside from the laughs, one of the things Sheldon’s ridiculous roommate agreement demonstrates is that it is impossible to contract for true relationship. Sometimes we just need to take the risk.

One of the things that makes a relationship of love so risky is the potential of separation and loss. This is something that has been brought into sharp focus for many of us in this past year. For all of us there has been the pain of being separated from friends and family members we love. As many of you know, I am very close to my Mum, Dad and sister – despite being 300 miles apart, in normal times we are always popping up and down the M6, catching up with each other. In the past year, I have seen them once, and Liam hasn’t seen his family at all. This has been painful, but we are fortunate compared to many. 126, 000 people have died of covid in the UK in the past year, almost 300 of them in our borough. That is a lot of love and grief to deal with. Recognising that we all have our losses and our griefs after a year of pandemic, the Church of England is supporting the National Day of Reflection on Tuesday – a year to the day since the first covid 19 death in our country. It is designed to show those who are grieving that they are not alone and to provide a way for us to reflect and remember together the difficult year just past. We can join in with this in a number of different ways: you can keep a minute’s silence at noon, send a card to a friend who is grieving or lonely, tie a yellow ribbon to our church gates as a sign of prayer for those who have died and all who loved them, watch a short service of remembering from St Paul’s at 7pm on Tuesday or light a candle in your window at 8pm. It is an opportunity to show all those who have taken the risk of love, and found themselves hurting and grieving, that we are with them.

Love is a risk and this is a risk God is prepared to take. Today is the beginning of Passiontide – the fortnight before Easter when we remember Jesus’ ever more urgent journey towards the cross. In our Gospel, we see Jesus seeing more clearly than ever what the cost of love will be, but refusing to turn back, refusing to ask his Father to find another way. He knows that the cross is the only way that the demands of love and justice can be fulfilled, and without it we can never have the free and loving relationship with God that God desires and is the greatest possible experiences of humanity. Jesus is afraid of suffering and death – he knows just how much it hurts – but God’s love is stronger than death. God’s love is stronger than death in the determination Jesus shows in walking the path before him. God’s love is stronger than death in the glorious resurrection we will proclaim in a few weeks time. God’s love is stronger than death in the hope we now have for all we have loved but see no longer.

So this Lent, my final plea is for us to accept God’s invitation and move beyond a contract to a relationship of the heart. It is too easy to fall back into a sort of bargaining relationship with God. I’ll say my prayers, go to church when I can and support some good charities if God you do x, y and z? When I mess up, I’ll do some good things to balance and beat myself up a bit, and then we’ll be quits, yes? These sorts of contracts make God’s love seem a bit safer, a bit more predictable and more manageable. But they are a poor reflection of what God wants to share. God invites us beyond those sorts of contracts to a relationship of love, and was prepared to go to the cross to make it possible. So, this Lent, God says “Let me love you?” Love is a risky thing, but I urge you to say yes.

Prayers

We pray that Christ may be seen in the life of the Church.
Jesus, Lord of the Church,
in your mercy, hear us.

You have called us into the family of those who are
the children of God.
May our love for our brothers and sisters
be strengthened by your grace.
Jesus, Lord of the Church,
in your mercy, hear us.

You have called us to be a temple
where the Holy Spirit can dwell.
Give us clean hands and pure hearts,
so that our lives will reflect your holiness.
Jesus, Lord of the Church,
in your mercy, hear us.

You have called us to be a light to the world,
so that those in darkness come to you.
May our lives shine
as a witness to the saving grace you have given for all.
Jesus, Lord of the Church,
in your mercy, hear us.

You have called us to be members of your body,
so that when one suffers, all suffer together.
We ask for your comfort and healing power
to bring hope to those in distress.
Jesus, Lord of the Church,
in your mercy, hear us.

You have called us to be the Bride,
where you, Lord, are the Bridegroom.
Prepare us for the wedding feast,
where we will be united with you for ever.
Jesus, Lord of the Church,
hear our prayer,
and make us one in heart and mind
to serve you with joy for ever.
Amen.

Closing Worship

Mothering Sunday/Lent 4 – Clothing Ourselves with Love

Photo by Javier Reyes on Unsplash

Opening Prayer

God of love,
passionate and strong,
tender and careful:
watch over us and hold us
all the days of our life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Reading

12 Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. 13 Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. 14 Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are called to live in peace. And always be thankful.

16 Let the message about Christ, in all its richness, fill your lives. Teach and counsel each other with all the wisdom he gives. Sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God with thankful hearts. 17 And whatever you do or say, do it as a representative of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through him to God the Father.

Colossians 3:12-17

Homily

One of the interesting things about the pandemic is how it has affected peoples’ style of clothing.  Some have spent the last year in jogging bottoms and hoodies.  Others have worn their best clothes to the supermarket as it was the only time they went out.  Some colleagues wear a full face of makeup and styled hair for their online video calls.  Others give thanks for the inbuilt beauty filters.  One of my children – who shall remain nameless – had to wear school uniform for an online interview earlier this term.  I walked into her bedroom to discover her in front of her computer wearing her blazer, shirt and tie on her top half which was visible to the camera and her pyjama trousers on underneath!  The pandemic may have changed what we wear when, but we still wear something, and we will be thinking a bit more about how we clothe ourselves later on…

However, let’s begin with a recap of some of our thinking in recent weeks and then take a look at our reading. In the first few weeks of Lent, we considered the covenants God made with humankind and wider creation.  With Noah, God decided that never again would creation bear the cost of sin, and so began the way of the Cross.  God decided that God alone could meet the demands of both justice and love.  God alone would pay that price.  With Abraham, we see God invite humankind into a relationship of intimacy and worship.  God is not simply a God of the cosmos, but a God who cares about ordinary people: a couple who have no family for example, their slave girl driven into the wilderness is another.  We meet a God who will, as part of that journey to the cross, come and live amongst us as one of us, sharing life’s joys and its sorrows. Jesus – fully human, fully divine.

Today’s epistle reading comes from after.  After Jesus’ time amongst us, after the cross and resurrection.  But it begins with words that echo those covenants which came before: since God chose you to be the holy people God loves…  Do you hear the ancient words to the Israelites where God calls them to be blessed, beloved and holy?  Of course, that belonging is no longer dependent on family or ethnicity, but on faith – faith in Jesus, God among us; Jesus who died for us; Jesus who conquered death and is seated in glory.  Through simple trust in the God who loves us and meets us in Jesus, we become his people.  We have been reading John’s Gospel in morning prayer recently and in Chapter 6 people ask Jesus, ‘What must we do to perform the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’ That belief, that trust, is where it all begins.  That is all God seeks from us.

However, if we do know ourselves beloved, forgiven and saved by God – and if we do believe others to be precious children of God – it should show itself in our behaviour.  Paul describes what a community based on love might look like.  He talks about clothing ourselves with kindness, tender-heartedness, forgiveness and love.  That clothing imagery is interesting – it makes it seem intentional and habitual, a bit like getting dressed in the morning.  While standards of dress may have changed somewhat during the pandemic, as we discussed earlier, we have still put on clothes each day.  We have picked out items that are fit for the tasks of the day – we might wear something different if we are gardening, shopping or snuggling on the sofa.  Paul invites us in the same way to choose to clothe ourselves in the right values to live by in the day ahead.

I am famously not a morning person.  Even now, I much prefer to say Morning Prayer later in the day when I have woken up a bit.  But when the girls were younger and life was a whirlwind of unpredictable, noisy activity from 6am until 8pm, my Morning Prayer was often a single sentence as I dragged my eyes open each day: “God, I thank you for this new day and all the opportunities it holds…”  A pretty basic effort really, but it meant I began each day with gratitude and hope which are not bad values to clothe yourself with as a Mum to small children.  And God is very gracious to frazzled single sentence prayers – they don’t need to be fancy.

I am telling you this, I suppose, as an encouragement in this season of Lent to find your own waking prayer – if you haven’t got one already.  How might you put on the values of love, kindness, peace, forgiveness and thankfulness as your put on your socks?  And how might you remember to say it?  A note stuck to your shaving mirror?  An aide memoire beside the kettle? A reminder on your phone?  What might help you put on the values Paul describes each day?

Of course, we will fail.  Much as we put on a new white top only to spill ketchup on it, we will have days when we put on our bright values of loving kindness and find that the day’s events reduce them to grubby rags.  We need the hope and forgiveness of the cross as much as any of our forebears in the faith.  But if this new covenant between God and God’s chosen, holy and beloved people, is sealed on our part by trusting faith, it is sealed on God’s part by the gift of the Holy Spirit.  God living in our hearts, making us day by day, little by little, more like Jesus.  So, let the gospel of Christ, in all its richness, dwell in you. Prayerfully clothe yourselves in love each day and let God work in you and through you for the good of those around you.  Amen.

Prayers

Sisters and brothers in Christ, let us come to the Lord in hope, let us pray to the Lord in faith, let us hold to the Lord throughout our lives.

Gracious God, as a mother loves her child, so you love us.  For that great truth we praise you.

Let us give thanks today for women.  For Eve our first mother – we thank you for having the courage to be curious, to lose your innocence and become the first to understand the complexities of life.

For Sarah, Hannah and Elizabeth – we thank you for sharing your stories of patience and endurance, through long years of waiting and not knowing.  May women everywhere who long for motherhood draw strength and comfort from you, in times of pain and heartache.

For Hagar – we thank you for your resolve and perseverance in exile.  May all mothers who are forced to flee in circumstances of war, famine and domestic violence, or who are forgotten, be given hope in you.

For Rachel – you carried the burden of grief and wept for your children.  Hold the hands of all those mothers who weep for their children – for children who have gone missing, who have died or are lost to them in other ways.  We ask for your blessing for the needs of all mothers.

For Mary – the new Eve, whose ‘yes’ to God changed our world forever.  Thank you for your faithful love and tender care of God’s most precious Son.  May we never forget that in your giving, is our greatest receiving – of the gift of life, wrapped in a manger and in a tomb.  May we know the true cost of relationship by holding our faith in Christ deep within our hearts as you once held him deep within your womb.  Mary, you remind us that whoever believes in your Son, will never be thirsty.

Loving Father, to those of us who have been granted the gift of being mothers and grandmothers, let us not forget those for whom Mothering Sunday is a difficult day, rather than a celebration.  We pray for those who may long for, or have longed for children, who are denied this experience.  May they find fulfilment through knowing your love.  We pray too for those who have never known their mother or whose mothers have died.  We remember all mothers who share in Mary’s suffering of witnessing their child’s death.  We pray for those who struggle with the way their children have chosen to live their lives.  We pray for those who have a difficult relationship with their mother.

Heavenly Father, bless them with your love.  May they have the comfort of knowing that your love for them is constant, your understanding perfect, your compassion never-ending.  Loving God, we give you thanks for all who care for us, who encourage us and help us grow.

Living Lord, we pray for the needs of your whole world.  We pray for those nations torn by conflict, violence and poverty and thirsting for knowledge of your love.  May those who suffer know of your presence.

Heavenly Father we bring before you all those in this community who have asked for our prayers and who carry heavy burdens.

We remember too those whose anniversaries fall at this time and those who have died unknown to us but known and loved by you.  Grant us, with all who have known you in their hearts, a share in your eternal kingdom.

Merciful Father, accept these prayers for the sake of your son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

http://leicestercathedral.org/sermon/prayers-mothering-sunday/

Closing Worship

Stamford Methodist Virtual Choir Organist: David Husbands

Lent 3 – Cleansing the Temple

Pennies, Coin, Coins, Money, Jar, Spill
Image Pixabay

John 2:13-22

Jesus Clears the Temple

13 It was nearly time for the Jewish Passover celebration, so Jesus went to Jerusalem. 14 In the Temple area he saw merchants selling cattle, sheep, and doves for sacrifices; he also saw dealers at tables exchanging foreign money. 15 Jesus made a whip from some ropes and chased them all out of the Temple. He drove out the sheep and cattle, scattered the money changers’ coins over the floor, and turned over their tables. 16 Then, going over to the people who sold doves, he told them, “Get these things out of here. Stop turning my Father’s house into a marketplace!”

17 Then his disciples remembered this prophecy from the Scriptures: “Passion for God’s house will consume me.”[a]

18 But the Jewish leaders demanded, “What are you doing? If God gave you authority to do this, show us a miraculous sign to prove it.”

19 “All right,” Jesus replied. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

20 “What!” they exclaimed. “It has taken forty-six years to build this Temple, and you can rebuild it in three days?” 21 But when Jesus said “this temple,” he meant his own body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered he had said this, and they believed both the Scriptures and what Jesus had said.

Homily

John’s Gospel looks at Jesus’ life and ministry a little differently to the other Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.  His narrative is a little more immediate, he looks at things a little from above rather than in with the crowds.  One of the things he does is to focus a little more on the Jewish Festivals.  And he places the cleansing of the Temple near to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, right after what most people say is Jesus’ first miracle – the turning of water into wine at the wedding in Cana.  So let’s take this opportunity to look at this story, which is usually hidden in the busyness of Holy Week, that final week of Jesus’ ministry on earth.

So, after the wedding at Cana, Jesus and his family head to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival.

The Gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus had been here before, as a teenager.  In fact, as the first-born son, the Temple should have been a familiar place as he would have spent time there as a young child studying the Scriptures, training to be a Rabbi.  And although we are not specifically told so, we can imagine he stayed at the Temple a long time under the tutelage of other rabbis, because there are plenty of times that Jesus is referred to as a Rabbi in our Gospels

Luke tells us that when he was a teenager and they visited the Temple, they missed that he wasn’t with them on the journey home and had to go back to Jerusalem and finally found Him 3 days later, conversing with the priests in the temple. Back then the temple was a place of prayer, and worship, and teaching. It was a place of holiness. It was a place where you could learn and converse with God.  And Jesus would have been very familiar with all of this.

Now, we know that God is everywhere. We know that there is no place you can go where you will not encounter God. David tells us in Psalm 139:

Where can I flee from Your presence? If I go up to heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, You are there.  If I live at the eastern horizon or settle at the western limits, even there Your hand will lead me; Your right hand will hold on to me. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me, and the light around me will be night”— even the darkness is not dark to You. The night shines like the day; darkness and light are alike to You.

There is no place you can go where you will not find God, but there are places where you will find Him especially close and those places are not to be violated, or soiled. The Temple was such a place. This temple had marble floors, and stone columns, and divisions where the gentiles, and women and men could go and worship. The priests had to bathe in prescribed ways in order to serve here. It was a holy place.

Passover was, and indeed is, a special time.  Jesus and his family would have looked forward to seeing the beautiful, magnificent temple as it loomed in the distance. Their hearts would have quickened a bit as they saw the magnificent building rising in the distance. They would have been surrounded by throngs of people, coming from all over the country to join in the Passover festivities and caught up in the atmosphere in the approach to the city.  They would have joined others in singing the Psalms of the Ascent as they came toward Jerusalem and the Temple where they believed God Himself lived.

Jesus and His disciples head to the temple and instead of teaching, and holiness, and worship, they hear the mooing of cows. In the temple itself, they hear the cooing of doves. They smell the overwhelming stench of the livestock and Jesus gets angry. He gets so angry, so riled and upset that He goes out and makes a whip and comes back and cleans out His Father’s house.

Take a moment to picture the scene in your minds. Picture Him, angry, shouting, swinging the whip he has made to drive out the animals and their owners.  With one hand He’s opening livestock pens and with the other, he’s turning over the tables of the money changers and driving out those who are charging a fortune to change Roman coinage into Temple coins, screaming at them that they are robbers and thieves, and they violate His Father’s house.

It amazes me how some people paint Jesus as some kind of wimpy, gentle man, who only ever goes around telling everybody to turn the other cheek. That’s not always Jesus. He was a man’s man. Remember, he was a carpenter before they had power tools and before Ikea made Billy Bookshelves.

When people ask, “What would Jesus do”, they need to remember that swinging a whip and turning over tables is a distinct possibility.

We are in Lent, the season to reflect upon our spiritual lives, our prayer lives, our relationship with God.  It is the season when we can cleanse our own personal Temples.  It is the season when perhaps we focus on giving up, not just chocolate and cake, but other bad habits we may have picked up that stop us focussing on God.  In the current Lockdown climate I know that I have not been focussing on God as much as I should have done, particularly as I have found myself with so much extra time on my hands to do so.  So, I sympathise and empathise with those of you who say that routines have been difficult because of lockdown circumstances.  I have heard plenty of interviews with famous people and indeed with ordinary people who say just how hard it is to find regulation in lockdown.  But now, in Lent, it is a chance to re-focus wherever we can, even if that may be a little hard right now.  Small steps are better than no steps at all.

A friend of mine has written a self-help book and for several years has had a podcast that “Helps you to be the best you can be”.  In a recent episode he talked about “taking action today”. He talked about taking small steps and not imagining what it will be like at the END of the process, but just at the end of the small step. The important thing was taking action today.  It is never too late, even though we are part-way through Lent, to start to focus on God a little more.  It is never too late, even though we are in March, to have a New Year’s Resolution.

So, we don’t have to be like Jesus cleansing the Temple, we can start small.  Read a small passage from the Bible today and promise to repeat that tomorrow and the days after.  Find time to pray for a few minutes and again, promise to repeat that the days after. We can all start small and we can all begin to cleanse our temples.

Prayers of Intercession

The Church of Christ

Lord, your presence is known in the structures we build, and also in their collapse. Though your people need places to gather, it is not the buildings or works of art alone that form your legacy.  Fill us with the desire to search for your truth, that we may transform the world, becoming fools for your sake. Establish in us a community of hope, not to contain your mystery but to be led beyond security into your sacred space.

Lord, teach us to live simply that others might simply live: in your mercy, hear our prayer

Creation, human society, the Sovereign and those in authority

Creator God, yearning and striving to bring harmony out of chaos, so fill every fibre of our being with your wisdom, and so  blow as a mighty rushing wind among the landscapes of our world, that the earth may reflect the wonder of the universe, in the glory of the transfigured Christ, who shared with you in the cost of creation.

Lord, teach us to live simply that others might simply live: in your mercy, hear our prayer

The local community

Lord, we thank you for the gift of friendship. For our companions on the journey with light enough to show us the fruit where brambles grow; and warmth enough to feed the grain of daily need, we thank you.  For those who, in times of adversity, welcome us in and clang shut the door on the wolves outside; and for those who in times of happiness share a double joy, where each is glad for both, we thank you. Lord, help us to treasure such relationships and, through them, grow ever closer to you.

Lord, teach us to live simply that others might simply live: in your mercy, hear our prayer

Those who suffer

Lord, who binds up the broken-hearted, who proclaims freedom to the captive and promises justice to all who mourn its absence or loss, look with compassion on those who suffer.Bless them with beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness in place of grief, and instead of the miasma of despair, enfold them in a garment of unending praise.

Lord, teach us to live simply that others might simply live: in your mercy, hear our prayer

The communion of saints

Lord, we pray for those who have enjoyed the sun here on earth for a while, who have lived light in the spring, who have loved, who have thought, and are now done…. May flights of angels sing them to their rest in your eternal home.

Merciful Father, accept these prayers…

http://www.layanglicana.org/blog/?s=intercessions+for+3rd+sunday+of+lent+year+b&submit.x=0&submit.y=0