Sustainable Food

Sermon for Big Green Week, Sunday 9 June 2024, St Peter’s Bramley.
Readings: Psalm 65; Matthew 25:14-30

This week, beginning today, is designated as Big Green Week. It’s a reminder to us that we live on a green planet. Well, actually a blue planet, as David Attenborough reminds us, since two-thirds of the world’s surface is ocean. But we’re not fish, we live on the land, not the sea.

The land and sea are incredibly diverse, along with the number of species they support. Just think of the different landscapes you can see in the UK: limestone pavements and saltmarshes, peatlands and ancient oak forests, freshwater streams, tidal rivers and the seas that surround us. Each habitat is home to more animals, plants and insects than you have probably ever heard of. Have you ever heard of the ‘twait shad’? No neither had I until I was reading up for this talk. It’s a freshwater fish that lives in the River Severn.

Creation – whether blue or green – is good. Psalm 65 which we read together earlier tells us that God revels in his creation. Throughout the Bible we read of a people who live close to the land, enjoying a mostly regular pattern of sowing and reaping. Winter was followed by spring, rain watered the earth, crops grew, the sun shone, crops were harvested and people gave thanks. Until very recently in historical terms – until perhaps the last two hundred years – that was still the case. In some places it still is: I photographed this farmer with his horse-drawn cart of hay as recently as 1995, in Romania. It illustrates beautifully Psalm 65 verse 11: “your carts overflow with abundance”.

Since the Industrial Revolution, farming has become more ‘efficient’ in the sense that more tonnes of food can be grown on each acre of land, and it can be sold around the world rather than just at the local market. This has many benefits, not least giving us the vast choice that we find in the supermarket, and enabling billions of people to be fed.

But we’re only now realising the downsides of this industrial-scale farming. To grow so much food for so many people means felling ancient forests to grow crops, much of which is used to feed the animals that in turn become the meat on our plates. It means using pesticides and insecticides that threaten many species with extinction. It means keeping animals in cramped conditions indoors fed on grain, rather than grazing in the fields as the adverts might lead us to believe.

This isn’t sustainable. Intensive agriculture using chemicals – the way that farmers manage our land – leads to degradation of the soil – less food being grown each year. Along with climate change which has disrupted long-term pattern of rainfall, it means that one in six of all species of wild animal in the UK is at risk of extinction , whether it’s dormice or grasshoppers, turtle doves or indeed twait shads. You may have noticed there are a lot fewer insects in the summer these days, and insects are important for pollinating both crops and other plants.

What has all this to do with us, here in church? Well, we believe in a God who has created this world with its awesome diversity of life. The book of Genesis tells us that everything God created is good. And that he has given us – humans – the responsibility of looking after it. When we fail to do so, that is sin.

You may think, “I don’t go round chopping down trees or poisoning rivers, I don’t shoot wild birds or spray pesticides”. But there is such a thing as corporate sin. Simply by buying the cheapest food available (grown using pesticides), or flying off on holiday (which contributes to climate change), we are each in a small way guilty of playing a small part in this decline of the natural world.

Does it matter? Yes, it does. At a purely material level, this is unsustainable. Fewer insects means that plants don’t get pollinated. Polluted rivers means it costs more to make our water drinkable, and so on.

But it’s also a spiritual issue that affects our relationship with God. The parable that Jesus told about the three servants who used their master’s money in different ways is about the Day of Judgement. On that day, whether we are still alive or have already died, we will be asked to account not only for our faith in God but also for how we have lived. God will ask us, have we been faithful servants loving our global neighbours? And what have we done with what he has given us?

The parable of the Talents is not about how much we start with but how we use it. The servant who had one talent was not criticised for starting with less than the one who had five. What mattered was that he had done nothing with it. With Jesus, ‘Do nothing’ is not an option. It falls to each and every one of us to use whatever we have to restore the earth’s diversity and productivity.
But what are our resources, our talents, in this context? I’m going to suggest three actions that we each might consider taking:

First, use whatever land we own. You may have a garden or allotment, where you can grow your own food. That’s wonderful. Or instead of growing food, you might choose to plant flowers that attract bees and other pollinators.

Many of us, living in a city, don’t have that option. Instead, we have purchasing power. We all buy food, so let’s consider how we can buy ethically. Consider this acronym: LOAF. It stands for “Local, Organic, Animal friendly, Fairtrade”.

Food grown locally has the lowest carbon footprint, the least impact on the environment. That may mean literally buying from a local farm, but even if it just means buying British food in season and refusing to buy meat and fruit that has been flown across the world, that all helps.

Organic food is that which has been grown without artificial fertilisers or pesticides. It means that insects, birds and other animals can flourish alongside the crops that are grown for food. It may be more expensive in the short term – and I recognise that not everyone can afford the extra cost of organic food – but the long term cost in terms of the health of our ecosystem is greater.

‘Animal friendly’ means vegetarian or vegan food. Many people are turning to this, either for health reasons or because of the cruelty that many farm animals suffer. There’s also a good argument that farmland is used more efficiently by growing crops that humans eat directly, rather than growing grain to feed animals that become the meat on our plates. I’ll put my hand up here and admit that I do still eat meat, though less than I used to. You may wish to start by just eating vegetarian a couple of days a week.

The F in LOAF stands for Fairtrade. Most of the world’s farmers are at the bottom end of a global supply chain. They earn very little and live in poverty; farm workers in many places are young children or slaves. The Fairtrade system works with local co-operatives and ensures that farmers are paid a decent price for their crop and don’t exploit their workers. On top of that, they are paid a premium that their local community can use as it sees fit, perhaps for building a school or installing a water supply. Another benefit, relevant to what we’re thinking about today, is that Fairtrade farmers are educated in sustainable farming practices that help to reverse the loss of fertile soil. There are other schemes such as Rainforest Alliance that seek to achieve the same aims. So if you can, do look out for those marks on supermarket shelves.

The third way we can respond to this environmental crisis, beyond growing our own food and thinking carefully about what we buy, is to use our vote. We know that climate change will impact all our lives greatly in the coming years. Yet with the General Election coming up in the next month, it is the ‘elephant in the room’ which is not being talked about in political debate.

Election candidates are thinking about the next four weeks to the election, or the five years to the one after that. But urgent action is needed to plan for long term policy over ten, twenty, fifty years, if climate disaster is to be avoided.

One way we can address this is to sign up to the Vote Climate campaign which seeks to put tackling climate change at the top of the agenda. This is a non-party-political movement that asks you to agree to vote for whichever candidate in our constituency is judged by the people behind it to have the most positive responses to questions about environmental policy, even if that’s not the party you usually vote for. Just look for

Well, this has been a talk about some very practical things: growing food, buying food, using our vote. People of all faiths and none are concerned about the environment and looking to do something about it. But what is our particular focus as Christians? As followers of Jesus, we seek always to work with God. The God who told us, in the words of the prophet Micah, to ”Do Justice, Love Mercy, Walk Humbly with our God”. What matters most, Jesus said, is to love God and to love your neighbour as yourself. That’s not just your neighbour next door but also your global neighbour, the person across the world who grows the food that you buy.

What matters isn’t the detail of what we do – God isn’t going to condemn you if you can’t afford to buy Fairtrade or don’t have a garden to grown your own food – but the intention behind our actions. So if I can summarise, I’m asking you to use whatever land or money God has given you in a wise way. To think about the impact of the food you buy, both the impact on the environment and on the people who grow it. And to take advantage of the upcoming election to get the environment on the agenda, because it’s only at a national and international level that large-scale changes can be made.


The magnetic Spirit

Sermon for St Peter’s Bramley 19 May 2024 (Pentecost Sunday)
Readings: Acts 2:1-21; John 15:26-16:15

Aurora over Tiverton Cemetery.
Photo © Lewis Clarke (cc-by-sa/2.0)

Did anyone here see the Northern Lights last weekend? … Unfortunately I didn’t, because I hadn’t been told in advance what to expect on Friday night, and on Saturday it was too cloudy. I’ve also not got the money to go on an expensive cruise to the Arctic Circle to see them. But I’ve seen other people’s photos and they are really spectacular. Ever-changing colours and forms: rays, pillars, sheets of colour growing and fading.  Then after a while, it all fades away and the night is black again.

What has this got to do with our worship today?  Well, I’m going to suggest we can draw some parallels between the Northern Lights and the work of the Holy Spirit.  Bear with me – I don’t want to press the analogy too far, but let’s see where we get.[i]

The night sky has always been a source of wonder and amazement, and used much in religious imagery, not least in the Psalms. At one time people believed – perhaps some still do – that comets, meteors, auroras and other such sights were a direct message from God for a particular time.  In today’s first Bible reading Peter quoted the prophet Joel “I will pour out my Spirit in those days – I will show wonders in the heavens”[ii] We may not make that link as directly now, but we can at least affirm that all the amazing and beautiful sights in the universe are part of God’s creation, and we can thank and praise him for them.

Before I get further into the analogy, let’s be clear what we mean by the Holy Spirit.  Jesus described him, depending on which translation you read, as the Comforter, or Counsellor, or Advocate.  The Greek word actually has a legal meaning, not exactly a lawyer, but rather the wise person who accompanies a witness in court to guide them in the testimony they give.[iii] So the Holy Spirit is there beside us telling us what to do and say to live out the truth that he brings. The Latin word ‘Spiritus’ can also mean ‘courage’ as well as ‘spirit’:  again, the Spirit is one who gives us the courage to be bold in living out the Christian life.

Back to the Northern Lights, or aurora. Who knows what actually causes them?  … A reminder of some basic science. The earth is surrounded by a magnetic field that protects us from the sun’s most harmful rays – one of the conditions God has put in place to make life on earth possible in the first place. The aurora is caused when electrical particles from the sun hit this magnetic field. The displays are usually unpredictable, Not static, but flickering in a way that can’t adequately be captured in words or in a single picture. Sometimes so brilliant that they can be unforgettable, even life-changing. Just like some people’s experience of the Spirit, but I’ll come back to that later.

For a second strand of my thought, another bit of science. The earth’s magnetism is useful in other ways besides protecting us from nasty particles from the sun. Who knows what this is? … A walker’s compass. The magnet in the compass also interacts with the earth’s magnetic field to show us the way when we can’t see the path. It’s very useful if you get lost in the cloud on our northern hills: I recall one occasion when the mist came down and only the compass showed me I was heading south when I thought I was going west. The Holy Spirit is our compass for life: Jesus said that “He will guide you into all truth”[iv].  

How does he guide us into truth? It might sometimes be by a direct word of knowledge, a sudden inspiration or sense that God is telling us to do some particular thing; or just as importantly, not to do it.  At other times, the Spirit’s guidance comes through reading the Bible, or talking and praying with other experienced Christians.

That truth into which the Spirit leads us might take different forms.  It might be a truth about yourself that you hadn’t realised before, or about the gifts that he wants to offer: often the Spirit will give us words of encouragement for ourselves, or for others, to help develop the gifts that He longs for us to use in his service. Or on the other hand, just as a compass sometimes shows us we’re on the wrong path,  it could be the truth of something we’ve been trying to hide from ourselves that we have to acknowledge, as Jesus said, the Spirit will ‘convict the world in regards to sin and righteousness and judgement’[v]

Or the truth into which the Spirit leads us may be a new understanding of the world around us. There are many voices in the world telling us which way to go, but many of them are not of God. The rise of AI will make it even harder to know what is true (but that’s a discussion for another time!) Even within the Christian church, you will hear strongly opposing views on divisive issues.  In what people are now calling a ‘post truth society’, it’s more important than ever to find out what God’s truth is.  So pray that the Spirit will guide you when you think about these things.

Some of you will know Arani Sen who was vicar of our neighbouring parish of Upper Armley until a couple of years ago. In his book about the work of the Holy Spirit[vi], he suggests that the truth into which the Spirit leads us is to bring in the Kingdom of God, not in some distant end-of-time sense, but here and now among the prople around us. To be aware of their needs, to serve them in humility but in the power of the Spirit, so that God’s kingdom can grow among us slowly and surely as we exercise the spiritual gifts we have been given.

Going back to the idea of the compass, it proves that the earth’s magnetic field is still there all around us, even when the spectacular aurora isn’t present, and we can’t see the magnetism directly. In the same way, the ‘everyday’ experiences we may have of the Spirit’s guidance remind us that He is always present, even if we haven’t experienced anything spectacular. Jesus said to his disciple Nicodemus, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone who is  born of the Spirit”.[vii]

Just as you don’t need to understand the science to use a compass or to be impressed by the aurora, so you don’t need to study theology to ask Him to direct your life. Many books have been written on the theology of the Holy Spirit and they may help make sense of what you experience.  But going back to our aurora theme, few people board an arctic cruise because they want to study the earth’s magnetic field. No, they leave home and spend their savings go to see the spectacular aurora, the northern lights. Few will be disappointed: some tour companies even offer a money-back guarantee if the lights don’t appear. 

Likewise, just believing in the Holy Spirit is not enough: we must be willing to make our spiritual journey in the hope that we will know his presence. We need to be expectant. As I said at the start, I missed the display of the aurora last weekend because I didn’t know it was coming. And the Holy Spirit will usually only work in those who have been told about him and who want to experience him, although there are exceptions.

When St Paul met some early Christians in Ephesus, they said “we didn’t even know there is a Holy Spirit”, but when Paul explained about him, and prayed for them, they all received the Spirit and some prophesied or prayed in other languages.[viii] Some people still have such a special experience of the Holy Spirit in an unforgettable, life-changing way one or more times during their walk with God. This is sometimes called ‘being baptised in the Spirit’. Others may never have that experience, but that doesn’t mean the Spirit is not at work in them. They know the Spirit in a quieter way. Or both, at different times. 

Next month, Bishop Arun Arora – or is it Aurora? – will be coming to confirm several of our church members. He will pray for each of them by name, that they will receive the Holy Spirit. But it’s always been the belief of the mainstream Christian churches that anyone who has been baptised in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit has in some way already received him. Each person’s story is unique. Not every story is about spiritual fireworks. Rather it is about seeking and responding to God’s good gift, his Holy Spirit. The Spirit gives different gifts and experiences to each of us. [ix]

So, as we draw these various thoughts and images together I hope at least one of them has helped you understand the Holy Spirit better. May I encourage you to take up your spiritual compass: ask God the Holy Spirit to be with you as your advocate, adviser, comforter, encourager and guide. Ask him to lead you into the truth about yourself, your faith and God’s world around. As we have been thinking about the night sky, and the compass that helps us find our way in the world, I’m going to finish with some verses from Psalm 139. Let us pray.

Where can I go then from your spirit?
   Or where can I flee from your presence?
  If I climb up to heaven, you are there;
   if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.
  If I take the wings of the morning
   and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there your hand shall lead me,
   your right hand hold me fast.
  If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will cover me
   and the light around me turn to night,’
  Even darkness is no darkness with you;
      the night is as clear as the day;
   darkness and light to you are both alike.

[i] Lawson, Felicity. Article in Scargill Movement’s Momentum magazine May 2024, p.10

[ii] Joel 2:29-30

[iii] Pawson, David ‘Jesus baptises in one Holy Spirit’. Hodder & Stoughton, 1997, p.62

[iv] John 16:13

[v] John 16:8

[vi] Sen, Arani ‘Holy Spirit Radicals: Pentecost, Acts and Changed Society’. Malcolm Down Publishing 2018.

[vii] John 3:8

[viii] Acts 19:2

[ix] Lawson, ibid.

[x] Psalm 139:7-12, Common Worship Psalter.

Many sheep, one flock

Sermon for St Peter’s Bramley, 21st April 2024.

Text: John 10:11-18

Spring lambs
A.     Introduction

“I am the good shepherd”.  One of Jesus’ seven “I am” sayings, and a suitable reading for this time of year, when the sheep are turned out into their summer pastures and new lambs are gambolling in the fields.

First, let’s set this in context. When Jesus addressed his critics among the leaders of Judaism, he knew that they had learnt their scriptures by heart, and wouldn’t miss any implied reference.  They would know that this whole passage about Jesus being the good shepherd was a reference to chapter 34 of the book of Ezekiel, where God condemns the priests of Israel for failing to look after his people. They would be cast out when the good shepherd came, one who is variously identified either as the Messiah, or as God himself. So Jesus is quite clearly setting himself up for an argument here, by claiming to be both Messiah and God. Also by identifying as the ‘good’ shepherd he is criticising the priests of his day for being bad shepherds. The Greek word used for “good” here – ‘kalos’ – means something like “morally good and perfectly competent”, the priest being by implication immoral and incompetent. 


B.     A new understanding

But the verse that I want us to focus on today is verse 16: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

We must remember that the sharp division between Jews and everyone else, which still fuels conflict around the world today, is nothing new. In this chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus starts to teach a new understanding, a totally radical idea in his day, that his Father – the one true God, in his role as a shepherd – wants his flock to consist not only of the Jews but also the Gentiles – everyone else. To those brought up on the idea that being ethnically Jewish gave them a privileged place in God’s sheepfold and under his unique protection, that was not just wrong, but blasphemy.

Indeed, the idea of bringing all peoples into one flock can only begin to make sense in the context of the relationship between Jesus, his heavenly father, and the Holy Spirit who conveys their love to the world: in other words, the love of the Trinity. That is a specifically Christian concept, the idea that God’s love for the whole world can through the Holy Spirit be found within his people.


C.      Who are the other sheep?

But who are these “other sheep not of this sheepfold”? I suggest that like waves rippling out from a stone thrown into a pond, we can consider several waves of the mission of Jesus and his church to find and bring home these other sheep.

First, in his own lifetime, were the outcasts of his own society, the Jews ostracised for having leprosy, physical disability, children outside marriage or anything else considered to make them unclean. Throughout his ministry he loved, included and healed them.

Secondly, the Samaritans, Israel’s northern neighbours, who long ago had been part of the flock but were now looked on with suspicion at best. Jesus’ own ministry and teaching showed his concern for them.

Thirdly, to the rest of the Greek and Roman world that lay beyond. Jesus’ great commission to his disciples before he ascended to heaven was to go to “Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and all the ends of the earth”. In that order. The book of Acts shows that sequence unfolding.

Finally, through the rest of time, and through the Christian church, the mission of inclusion was to spread through all continents and all sectors of society. There were to be no barriers to which sheep could be drawn into the ever-expanding sheepfold of the church.

Two men on a lifeboat

D.     One flock, one shepherd

That brings me to my next point. “There will be one flock, one shepherd”.  Let me tell you a story – with apologies to anyone who has ever belonged to a Baptist church. This isn’t really aimed at you.

There were two survivors of a shipwreck. As they got talking on their liferaft, one asked the other:

“Do you believe in God?”

            “Why, yes, I do”

“Do you believe in Jesus?”

            “Indeed, I believed he saved us from our sins.”

“Excellent! Pleased to meet you, brother.  And to which church do you belong?”

            “I am a Baptist.”

“Me too!  Strict, Particular or Reformed Baptist?”

            “Oh, Reformed of course, strict Calvinism isn’t for me!”

“I quite agree! But which particular form of reformed Baptist theology do you follow? Continental, Confessional, Sovereign Grace…”

            “I belong to a Baptist Union congregation, part of the Inclusive church network”

“Inclusive church? Heretic! (spitting) The 1689 Baptist Confession is the only true church. I shall not speak to you again!”

Throughout history the Church has had a tendency to split over questions of belief or practice, most of which reflect the glorious cultural diversity of people across the world. But how sad it is, how Jesus’ heart is broken, when sheep of his one flock turn on one another! As Ezekiel put it, “You pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide”.

E.     Jesus the cornerstone

That tendency to split has been in the church from the beginning. Perhaps that’s why, when Peter was on trial before the High Priest, to justify his healing miracle in the name of Jesus, the Holy Spirit prompted him to quote from the Psalms the verse about a cornerstone, and apply it to Jesus. There are several hymns and worship songs that pick up on this image, quite a different one from that of sheep, but let’s remind ourselves what it means.

The idea of God laying a foundation, or a cornerstone, or a keystone or capstone, are found throughout the Bible – in the Psalms, Isaiah, and the writings of Peter and Paul. They convey slightly different concepts but  it’s all about unity.  A foundation stops a building subsiding. 

Cornerstone Keystone

A cornerstone makes sure the walls are at right angles. A capstone holds the roof together to stop rain getting in. And a keystone holds together the two sides of an arch that are each unstable by themselves.

So in describing Jesus as one of these special stones, Peter is aware of the dangers of the church subsiding into the soft ground of muddied thinking, or going off in the wrong direction, or failing to hold together as one and becoming several unstable elements that won’t connect with each other. It is only when we recognise in each other the unity we have in Jesus Christ – our good shepherd, the perfect image of God in us – that we can resist that temptation.

F.      Implications for our mission

So what does all this imply for our mission as one part of the Church of Jesus Christ revealing God’s love in Bramley?  Three things:

Firstly, we must recognise that although we meet in different buildings, and worship in different ways, these other sheep are part of the one flock. Our sisters and brothers in the Baptist, Methodist, Catholic, Salvation Army and other congregations are really all in the same sheepfold.

Secondly, when we pray, we pray as one. Not just with our immediate neighbours in Christ but with his whole church throughout the world, each part of which will reflect its own cultural practices and struggle with its own political situation. Although we are a scattered flock, let us never forget our spiritual ancestry as sons of Abraham.  So when we pray, as we must, for peace in Israel, Gaza and that wider region, it is right to ask God to protect the Jewish people in their ancestral homeland that He promised them. But let us not be drawn into taking sides in the ancient hatreds that still perpetuate war. Jew, Muslim or Christian, the people of the middle east, or anywhere else, are those ‘sheep of another fold’ whom Jesus wants to seek and draw to himself.

Finally, and turning back to our own lives, let us pray to have the eyes and heart of Jesus. For it is only if he lives in us by his Holy Spirit, that we will see others around us as the lost sheep that it is our calling to find, heal, and bring back into the fold.

To the Church in Headingley

Sermon for Evensong at St Michael & All Angels, Headingley, 21st April 2024. Text: Revelation 2:12-17

So, the Revelation to John, Chapter two. I suspect there are few preachers who whoop for joy when they find the text for the day is from this last book of the Bible, and I’m not one of them. It is notoriously difficult to understand, since it contains so much symbolism that made sense at the time of writing but is obscure to us two thousand years later. And, we don’t really do this kind of ‘apocalyptic’ writing these days.  When people talk of the apocalypse, they are really thinking of some kind of dystopia, maybe the aftermath of a nuclear war or something. 

But this revelation to John in his island retreat was meant to be an encouragement to him and the Christians he was writing to. The “seven letters to local churches” were intended for Christians facing persecution, to get them to look beyond their immediate troubles and find hope in their commitment to Jesus. Good advice I have received is not to focus in detail on what particular imagery might mean, but to try and understand the big picture of what Jesus was telling his church at that time.

Why does Jesus, through John, address church communities rather than individuals?  Because the strength of Christianity lies in the local church, whether in worship, witness or action.  Alone, we can do little; together, we can achieve much.  Also, because in times of difficulty, there is an increased need to gather together for security and mutual encouragement.  We see that right from the start of the Church, in the upper room on Easter evening, the disciples gathered “with doors locked for fear of the Jews”.   

Each local Christian community – each parish or even congregation within a parish – will have its own feel, its own local traditions, and its own difficulties. As someone who has always appreciated the breadth of traditions within the Church of England, it’s lovely to be part of two very different services in one day. We had our usual Common Worship communion this morning at my local church in Bramley, where we have a very diverse congregation but in particular lots of young families from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. The mainly contemporary worship songs were led by an older couple on guitar and flute, and a younger couple singing.  Quite a contrast to this more traditional language service with choir and organ, but I find spiritual encouragement in both. In John’s day, I expect it was no different.

Each of these local Christian communities in second-century Asia Minor, then, receives a particular message from Jesus, which in each case both praises and criticises them, before offering a promise for those who stay faithful in the face of persecution.   The praises, the criticisms, and the promises are specific to each place, because Jesus always knows that each church community faces particular challenges and has particular strengths.

Today’s reading is to the Christians of Pergamos – modern day Bergama, a city fifteen miles inland on the Asian side of Turkey. They are praised for holding fast to their faith, even when at least one of them has been killed for it. In the other letters, congregations are praised for their hard work, perseverance, keeping Christ’s word and not denying his name. The emphasis is not about becoming martyrs but being true to the Christian worldview when the world is going in other directions. In our own time, it is increasingly hard to stand up for tolerance, truth and neighbourly love when society is becoming more divided, and false news and lies are all around us.

On the other hand, they are criticised for two things. Firstly for holding to the teaching of Balaam. This refers to the Old Testament book of Numbers, where the prophet Balaam, despite being told by God to bless the people of Israel, also encouraged them to sin in ways that we would still find unacceptable today. And for holding the teaching of the Nicolaitans – we’re not quite sure who they were, but from the context they were doing the same in their day, following the religious and sexual practices of the people around them rather than being distinctive in following Christian ethics.

So the overall message to the church in Pergamos seems to be: keep your faith, even when times are difficult, and be careful not to let the ways of the world compromise the way you practice your faith.

What, I wonder, would Jesus say to the church in Headingley?  I believe he praises you for holding together as a benefice of three quite different churches, each responding to the needs of the age in a different way. St Chad’s is taking a lead on environmental issues, its rewilded churchyard and solar panels an example to other churches across the Diocese of how we might respond to the environmental crisis. Heston at All Hallows has developed a distinctive ministry inclusive of people with all kinds of physical, financial and spiritual needs, and engaging with those of other faiths to find common ground in serving the needs of the parish.

Here at St Michael’s he praises you for engaging in the cultural and civic life of Headingley, showing a commitment to being inclusive, and worshipping him in words and music that seek to express the spiritual life within us, whether in contemporary or traditional style.   

But for what would he criticise you? To quote the words of the confession that we said earlier, what have you as a community, left undone that you ought to have done, or done that you ought not to have done?  I do not live among you, and it’s not for me to judge you. But I leave you to ponder that.

The praises, in any event, are more important than the criticisms. As the Psalmist said, “God’s anger lasts only a moment, but his favour lasts a lifetime”. So at the end of each of the letters is a promise.  The promises are expressed symbolically and addressed this time to individuals rather than congregations. The Christians in Pergamos are promised the ‘hidden manna’, probably the reason this reading is paired with the one from Exodus. The manna, the miraculous bread from heaven, has always been understood by the Church to be not only a sign of God’s provision to those in need, but also a foretaste of the eternal life that comes through Jesus to those who believe in him: Jesus who called himself the ‘bread of life’.

The other promise is of a white stone with a secret name. What that means is less obvious, but it may be a way of saying that we need to treasure our deepest faith, our most intimate understanding of God, in the secrecy of our own heart. That way, whatever life may throw at us, our faith in Christ is kept secure.

Other symbolic promises in this set of letters include “eating from the tree of life”, “not being hurt by the second death”, “the right to sit with Jesus on his throne”, “being dressed in white”; and being given “authority over the nations”.  One of the threads running through the New Testament is that our rewards for living faithfully in this life will be given us in the next.  It is of course impossible to really know what such existence will be like, but the Revelation reminds us to look beyond the troubles of this life and stick with Jesus along the way. 

So if I can sum up what we can learn from this small part of the last book of the Bible, it is this: that as part of the churches in Headingley, as well as the wider Church of England and indeed the Church of Christ throughout the world, we must recognise the tension between engaging with the world and retaining our distinctiveness as Christians. We can celebrate the diversity within and between our congregations, while seeking to find the specific ministry that each local church has to its parish. And that while there will no doubt be aspects of our church life that could be criticised, much more important is to hear the words of Jesus praising us for when we get it right, for by holding to our faith in him and seeking to respond to his call, we know we shall inherit that eternal life that only He can give.

Faith seeking understanding

A sermon for Maundy Thursday at St Peter’s Bramley
Readings: Exodus 12:1-14 / John 13:1-35

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you didn’t understand what was going on?  I recall at least two such occasions, one secular and one spiritual.

A couple of years ago, my manager invited me to a meeting. I was given only a vague idea of what it was about and didn’t know who else would be present. I entered the room to find my manager talking to two people I didn’t know.  I took my seat and the conversation continued without reference to me. Eventually I could stand it no longer and I interrupted, to ask if we could have some introductions, and some context for the conversation so that I could understand the discussion and join in. Afterwards my manager apologised, and agreed that there should have been introductions and an agenda.

Back in the 1990s, as those who have been Christians a long time ago may recall, there was a worldwide spiritual revival called the Toronto Blessing.  Some members of my congregation had been to the New Wine Christian festival that year, and when they returned to the local church, several of them had changed in what seemed to me very odd ways.  One young woman who was normally very shy and quiet had become much more confident in her faith and told of how the Holy Spirit had physically thrown her across the room.  One older lady found that whenever the Bible was read aloud, she would shake uncontrollably.  Others had received the gift of tongues for the first time.  I’m not doubting that any of these experiences were genuine for those concerned, but to me it was disconcerting, and if I’m honest a bit frightening. 

Both our readings today, as we remember Jesus’ last supper with his disciples before the crucifixion, are about people confused and frightened by spiritual goings-on.  Put yourself in the position of the Israelite people: not Moses and Aaron, but the ordinary folk: the shepherds, brickmakers, straw-gatherers, male and female slaves, children in the street.  They had experienced a series of plagues the like of which no-one had seen before: frogs, gnats, locusts, hail… it must have been truly terrifying. And now they are told what they must do to avoid their eldest sons being killed by the angel of death: they were to kill a lamb, spread its blood around the door, roast and eat it – but not with the usual vegetables, instead with bitter herbs and unleavened bread.  And to dress for the occasion: not in their best clothes, but in belted tunic and sandals, holding a staff. The outfit of a pilgrim. And to eat the meat in haste, because as soon as the meal was over, they would have to flee for their lives. 

Did the people act on these strange instructions? It seems they did, as the Exodus story givens no hint of any of them being left behind. In confusion they followed Moses and Aaron across the plains to the Red Sea, and we all know what happened next. 

Move forward perhaps thirteen hundred years. Jesus’ disciples had already seen many miracles and other odd happenings over the last few years with Jesus, and other events more recently may not have made much sense, such as Jesus’ riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. But now they had been sent ahead to prepare the Upper Room for the Passover meal. At least they knew what to expect this time. There was a set menu, and the story of the Exodus was repeated word for word every year.

Except, this time it wasn’t. Jesus, their Lord and Messiah, acted like a slave in washing their feet. He used the occasion to warn of his imminent betrayal and death.  Judas left the room to go about some unspecified business, which Jesus understood but the rest didn’t.  Jesus started talking about his body and blood instead of bread and wine.  And then, like the people of Israel in Egypt, as soon as the meal was ended they were ushered out into the darkness on a journey to – what?  Very, very, strange.  But again, there’s no suggestion that anyone was left behind. Without understanding, but with complete trust in Jesus, they followed on to find out what happened next.

What is it that makes people join in and follow without fully understanding what’s going on?  In a word, faith. In our Start course sessions during Lent, we have discussed how much we need to understand about the Bible and the Christian life to set out on a journey of faith.  The answer seems to be, not very much. If we can grasp the essentials, the rest will follow in good time.  And there’s good precedent for this: the 11th century theologian Anslem of Canterbury is perhaps best known for his three-word summary of Christian theology as being ‘Faith seeking understanding’. Faith comes first; understanding follows.

But what is this faith that we can grasp, before fully understanding it? The connection between the Exodus and Holy Week is no coincidence. In God’s master plan, one was always intended as a shadow, a prequel if you like, for the other. The details may have been different, but the core message was the same. I suggest it can be reduced, like Anselm’s summary of theology, to three words:

Lamb, blood, salvation.

The descendants of Jacob who ended up in Egypt were pastoral nomads. Lambs would be slaughtered as a sacrifice to God, and the meat would have been a regular part of their diet. But in this special feast it took on a new significance.  The blood of the lamb, in particular, was used in this new ritual of marking the doors for protection against death.  And through this Exodus, this going out from the plague-stricken land of Egypt, not only would their firstborn be saved from imminent death, but the whole of the twelve tribes would be saved from the wrath of Pharaoh. They didn’t understand at the time what was happening, but later they did, and passed the story down the generations until Jesus took it up that Passover eve in Jerusalem.

What Jesus did on Good Friday was to take this story of salvation through the blood of the lamb and make it his own. Not without reason did John the Baptist call Jesus the Lamb of God: it’s a title that has come down through the centuries. In his one, perfect sacrifice for sin, Jesus did away with the need for any other kind of sacrifice, whether of lambs or anything else. By inviting his disciples, and all who would follow, to share the cup of wine in remembrance of the shedding of his blood, we are united with each other and with those who came before us in the story of salvation. In his death, through the shedding of innocent blood, and through his resurrection that echoes the people if Israel coming up out of the waters of the Red Sea, Jesus has led us out from the slavery of sin, into the freedom of a life with God, without the fear of his wrath.

Those disciples didn’t understand, in the Upper Room, what all this was about. Later, after the Resurrection, Ascension and Pentecost, they did, the Gospel was preached, then written and passed down the centuries to us.

Now, it is for you and me to take this story and make it our own. To have faith in our Saviour, faith that throughout our life seeks a deeper understanding. To pass it on to new generations, that they too may know, believe and understand.  This is his story: this is our song.

Lamb, blood, salvation. 


What would Jesus write?

For Ash Wednesday, 14th February 2024. Text: John 8:1-11

Jesus writing on the ground

Picture the scene: we are in the outer courtyard of the Temple in Jerusalem, at the time of the Feast of Booths, around the beginning of October. Jesus is teaching to the appreciative crowds who have come to hear him, but among them are some of Jesus’ opponents who are looking to find more evidence that he has broken Jewish laws.

A woman is brought in – unwillingly no doubt, perhaps even kicking and shouting – and dumped on the ground before Jesus, as ‘exhibit A’ in this kangaroo court. Here is someone who has clearly broken the law, the commandment forbidding adultery. Surely Jesus would not fail to judge her and find her guilty? Would he? Well, at the end of the story, while he did not condemn her, neither did he condone her part in the relationship, because he told her to sin no more. After that experience, I’m sure she didn’t.

But despite the title of this passage in most Bibles, this isn’t really about the woman. It’s about the men who brought her to Jesus, using her as a pawn to entrap him. And it’s Jesus’ response to them that I want us to ponder this Lent.

Challenged by them to give his judgement, Jesus doesn’t reply immediately. He lets them put their case for the prosecution before commenting, and as they do so, he writes something in the dust on the ground with his finger.  This is one of those bits of the Bible where you really wish the writer had given us a bit more detail. Go on, John, tell us what Jesus wrote! There have been many suggestions over the years. Was it Deuteronomy 22:22, that made the man involved just as deserving of death as his victim?  Was it the Sh’ma Y’Israel, the Jewish daily prayer in which believers are reminded to avoid the lust of the heart and eyes?[1] Was it the names of men in the community known to be two-timing their own wives? Was it all the ten commandments, meaning that no-one could claim to have kept all of them? Or maybe the sign of the cross? You can find several sermons on YouTube giving other suggestions, but no-one can be certain.

Whatever he wrote, it had the desired effect when he did speak. And he spoke not to the woman to condemn her, but to her accusers. He challenged anyone without sin to cast the first stone. In the light of Jesus’ writing, none of them dared risk the charge of hypocrisy by pretending to be perfect.  Jesus alone had the moral authority to call out the men’s sexism. 

Bracelet with WWJD

Some years ago it was common in the Church to hear the phrase ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ Some people even wore wristbands with that phrase on them. But today the question is, ‘What would Jesus write?’ Maybe you are aware that you have accused someone else of sin – to their face, or just in your heart. If you were to bring them to Jesus, telling him all about their sins and asking him to condmen them, what would he write on the ground with you in mind? 

Leaving aside suitable Bible verses, I was reminded of several common English idioms that he might use.

“Those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones”, perhaps? This  reminds us that it’s difficult to criticise others without a charge of hypocrisy, as we all have our own failings and the stones that are thrown back may cause a lot more damage to us than we have caused to them.

“Walk a mile in her shoes”, perhaps? We don’t know the background of this act of adultery. Is it more likely in a male-dominated society that the woman seduced her neighbour’s husband, or that he forced himself on her? Was this an ongoing relationship or a one-off incident? And where did it happen that they were observed?  It’s frustrating to say the least when other people criticise us for our faults without knowing what lies behind them. Equally, we don’t know the background of someone else’s apparent failings,

“There but for the grace of God go I”[2] are words that wouldn’t really apply to Jesus, but he might well invite us to apply them to ourselves if we are tempted to judge someone else’s behaviour. It can often only take one unforeseen incident or change in circumstances to force someone into poverty or homelessness, for example, and as a result end up shoplifting to survive. Can we really say we wouldn’t do the same in their circumstances?

“To err is human: to forgive, divine”[3].  That reminds us that the person we accuse of sin is, after all, only human like ourselves. We may want to be quick to condemn them for something we know we would not have done ourselves. But even if their sin is different from ours in nature or degree, we are all in the same position of needing God’s forgiveness for something. And the more we know God’s forgiveness in our own lives, the easier it becomes to forgive others.

How about this phrase, a little less well known: “A hundred pounds of sorrow pays not one ounce of debt”. It’s worth noting that the concept of sin has changed several times in religious history. One of the Jewish understandings of sin, was that is is not so much a breaking of rules, as a debt. If I sin against my neighbour, I owe her a debt, which might be repaid in a literal way by making a gift or a payment, by writing an apology, or by making efforts to restore a broken relationship. But if I sin against God, how can I ever repay a debt to him? The proverb is a reminder that repentance is more than saying sorry, it needs a genuine changing of our ways. It also reminds us that God’s forgiveness made posible through Christ’s sacrifice is one that we can never earn.

But I want to draw this reflection to a close with some verses from the letter of James. This apostle, possibly Jesus’ brother, is perhaps best known for his writings about good deeds being as important as faith. But he also wrote this: “For the one who said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’, also said, ‘You shall not murder.’ Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgement will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgement”[4].

We all tend to judge others, but this passage about the men who brought a sinner to Jesus, along with many others in the Gospels, shows that Jesus’ approach to the Jewish law was radical. Time after time, he shows that while actual sins need to be acknowledged and repented of, the greatest element in God’s character  is his ‘ḥesed’, his loving mercy. If something your neighbour has done or said offends you, before you criticise them openly or pray for them as a sinner, bear this in mind, that if you do not condemn them, neither does Jesus. He knows their sin: it is for him to forgive; it is for you to show mercy, that God’s mercy may be shown to you. Mercy triumphs over judgement.

On me, Lord, have mercy, On me, Christ, have mercy. Amen.

[1] Numbers 15:39

[2] Often attributed to John Bradford (C16) but uncertain.

[3] Alexander Pope, 1711

[4] James 2:11-13

Present at the Presentation

Text: Luke 2:22-40

Bramley St Peter, 28 January 2024

The context of the sermon is the baptism of two children of the same family.

You have come together as an extended family to celebrate this special occasion, maybe representing several generations and with differing experiences of church.

I want us to think about the people gathered when Jesus was brought to the Temple as a baby and what they might say to us about our experience of God, of families, and of church. And although we now have video screens, I’m turning to the older art form of stained glass for our illustration of Jesus being brought the the Temple in Jerusalem, not to be baptised but to be dedicated to God.

Stained glass window

We are fortunate to have this splendid window by the font, illustrating today’s Bible reading. On the right we have Simeon and Anna. Simeon was a holy man who for many years had believed that one day he would see the Messiah, the saviour. Many people in his time expected Messiah to be a strong political or military leader. Yet Simeon was open to God’s Holy Spirit and also open to being proved wrong. When he saw Jesus, he understood by that same Spirit that here was the Messiah. He knew as an old man that he would not live to see Jesus grow to adulthood, teach, work miracles and suffer for us.  It was enough for Simeon to have seen Jesus even as a baby. He could then, as the older translations put it, ‘depart in peace’, in other words, he could die knowing that God’s promise to him had been fulfilled in his own life and that God’s promise to the world would be fulfilled soon. So the message to older people is, what promises has God made to you during your life? Which of them have you seen come true to thank him for, and which are you still longing and praying for? What will enable you to depart in peace?

Anna was aged eighty-four, which in those days was exceptionally old. She had been widowed from a young age but was still heavily involved in the life of the Temple. When tragedy strikes such as the death of someone’s partner at a young age, the temptation is to turn away from God, to think that if he exists at all, he is cruel. But Anna never lost her faith, in fact it grew deeper with age and she quietly supported the work of the Temple in prayer. So to anyone who thinks that God or life, has treated them unfairly, the message is: stick with God, keep your faith and remain part of the Church, for that’s where you will find your meaning.

Anna too was open to the Holy Spirit, and when she saw Jesus, it says, ‘she spoke about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem’. So this wasn’t a private family occasion, the Temple was full of worshippers and this old woman – not a priest or a theologian but someone with deep personal faith – had the boldness to be the first to proclaim the Gospel of salvation through Jesus in Jerusalem. Just as at the Resurrection, it was a woman who brought the good news. So to anyone who thinks they are too old or unqualified to have a ministry in church, the message is: think again! Be open to what God wants to do through you.

On the left side of the window we have Jesus’ mother Mary and her husband Joseph. Joseph doesn’t get many mentions in the Bible, and none after Jesus was aged twelve, so we assume he died some time after that. Like Simeon, he would never see his son fulfil his destiny, so what was his part in the story?  Well, many Christians believe in the virgin birth, that Joseph was not Jesus’ natural father. But it was Joseph, not Mary, who was decended from the great King David a thousand or so years earlier. God’s promise that one of David’s descendants would rule his people for ever would come true in Jesus, so Joseph’s role was to adopt Jesus as (in effect) his stepson, and be the perfect father to bring him to the verge of adulthood. What an important role!  So to all the parents out there, whether your children are your own, or adopted,  or step-children, the message is: rejoice in this calling, to be the best parent you can, to bring your children to adulthood in a way that will enable them to fulfil their own vocation and destiny.

And Mary. The mother of our Lord. Not only did she become a single parent at some point, but Simeon’s prophecy could have offended and distressed her. What must it feel like to be told as a new mother that your child would be opposed by many people, and that his own death would be like a sword piercing your soul? Mary knew then, if she didn’t already, that she would outlive her son – something that no parent wants to happen – and that his death would be a painful one. How much grief she had to bear through her life! Yet her reaction to this was to be ‘amazed’. She, too, remained faithful to God and faithful to her son.  So to anyone who has lived through the death of a child, or who faces that prospect, the message is: turn to Christ, who is faithful. Put your trust in him who understands all your feelings, all your grief. Even Jesus wept at the death of a friend. Yet at the heart of the Gospel is resurrection to eternal life.

Below the parents is another figure, probably intended to be an angel, holding two doves. These were the offering expected of a poor family that could not afford a sacrificial lamb. It shows us that Jesus’ family was not well off. We know that Jesus had several younger brothers and sisters. Joseph must have had to work hard as a carpenter to provide for them all. Being poor is no shame and no barrier to being a Christian, in fact, much of Jesus’ own teaching is that the less we depend on wealth, the closer we will be to God. So to anyone who works hard to provide for their family, or has money problems, know that the Holy Family shared that experience too. It’s also a challenge to all of us in the church to be open to sharing what we do have with others, so that all families can have what they need.

What about Jesus himself? First, a bit of history for our own congregation. You may notice if you look carefully that the baby Jesus has the face of an older person, and appears to have red hair. The window was installed in 1910, to mark the retirement of Revd Samuel Cope, Curate and then Vicar of Bramley for 43 years, and he apparently was a redhead. He was popular in the parish for his care for the children in the church.

But back to Jesus. It would be thirty years before he himself was baptised and started his ministry of preaching and healing. In that time he was faithful to God, faithful to his parents, and was, it says here, ‘strong and wise’. So to young people wondering what lies ahead in life, I say: honour your parents, seek wisdom, be of strong character, and always be open to the way God will lead you. The day will come, sooner or later, when he will make your life’s calling clear to you.

So what have we learnt from these characters and their story? I suggest that it shows us above all that God’s will and his timing are beyond our own ideas of what constitutes a ‘good life’ or a ‘long life’ or a ‘successful career’. Simeon and Anna had a long time to wait for their moment to come in old age but were open to embracing it when it came; Anna didn’t let her husband’s early death prevent her from living a long and holy life; Joseph probably died in middle age but had fulfilled his vocation by working hard and living up to his calling as a parent; Mary clung on to God’s promises despite all the heartache that her life would bring. Between them, they launched Jesus on his unique life, a life and death that would bring salvation to everyone, then and now.

Maybe for you, the time to respond to God’s call is now. Our church’s vision for this coming year is to grow in faith and in numbers. If anything you hear today makes you want to find out more about the Christian faith, we have a course coming up that may interest you – details to follow in the church news slot later in the service. Or you may wish to ask for prayer after the service for whatever life is throwing at you right now. Let’s pray.

Lord God,
The protector of all who trust in you,
Without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy;
Increase and multiply upon us your mercy,
That you being our ruler and guide,
We may so pass through things temporal
That we finally lose not the things eternal.
Grant this, heavenly Father,
For the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Serving together

For New Year’s Eve 2023. Text: Colossians 1:9-20

Fireworks above Paisley Abbey

Paisley Abbey. © david cameron photographer licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence

Today, starting in about an hour’s time, TV screens across the world will begin to show fireworks being set off, first in the easternmost territories of the Pacific ocean, then westwards all around the world as the spinning globe turns once more on its axis, taking us into what most of the world counts as the two thousand and twenty-fourth year of the current era. It’s a festival that brings together people of many religions and ethnicities, a celebration that knows no boundaries other than those of time zones, a rare moment when the whole world can party together in recognition of our common humanity.

Last week I explored what it meant for Christ to come as a light into the darkness, and for us to welcome Christ into our individual lives, bringing light into whatever dark situations we and our families may find ourselves in. This week I want to widen our horizons and think about what it means to welcome Christ into our church community, here and around the world. So I’m going to ask you to spend a few minutes sharing your ideas and experiences with the person next to you.

Later, I will invite you to share in the covenant prayer, an annual act of commitment that started with the Methodist church but now used by many different churches. It’s a prayer said, not at home as individuals, but together as a community. Many people each making the same promises, and being accountable to each other for living up to the promises that we make. Paul wrote his letter not to one person, but as it says in verse 2, to “the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Colossae”.   So my first question for you to spend two minutes sharing with your neighbour is:

Does your experience of being a Christian feel more like a personal journey, or of being part of the journey of faith of the whole Church?

The nature of Christian churches does, of course, vary widely, and those different types of congregation will be held together by different common purposes. Consider these different groups and what it is that binds them together:

  1. A traditional Orthodox, Catholic or Anglican church centred around the weekly or daily liturgy of the Mass or Communion service.
  2. A village church centred around the activities of the village: farming, school terms, summer tourists, annual fairs and shows.
  3. An inner-city church responding to its deprived neighbourhood through foodbanks, counselling, teaching and other ministries, that involve most of its members in some way.
  4. A small house church that centres around regular gatherings for prayer, worship and Bible study.
  5. An intentional community of Christian families living together, each with its own daily work to bring money into the community, but sharing most of their resources and often eating together.
  6. A ‘gathered’ urban church where people come from all over the city to share a particular style of worship and preaching.

So my second question to discuss in pairs, as we prepare to renew or covenant with God, is this –

  • Which of these have you experienced in your Christian journey? And which is most like St Peter’s as it is, or as you would like it to be?

None of these types of congregations with a common purpose come about overnight, as Christian culture like any other is built up over the years as people come together and find common purpose. Working or worshipping together slowly builds connections. It also builds confidence in each other as members of the church come to see each other first as strangers, then as people with something in common, then as friends and finally as part of the one body.

In verse 18 of the reading from Colossians, Paul says something important: “Christ is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy”. Great though it is to have a committed Rector like Julia, and for all the benefits of our Church of England’s system of bishops and parishes, we must never forget that the Head of the Church, ultimately, is not an Archbishop or Pope, but Christ himself. If a Church splits over some issue of doctrine or practice, what matters is not so much which side has a better argument, but whether they can continue to accept each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, engaged in different forms of ministry.  As Paul puts it in verse 20, “God was pleased … through Christ to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven”.  That ministry of reconciliation is also ours: to be reconciled to other Christians whose idea of what a successful church looks like is different from our own, in order that together we can act as Christ’s family in the world, doing his will to the glory of God. And also to be reconciled to the people around us who for whatever reason may feel that the church is  ‘not for them’. So the last question for you to share, before we sing our next hymn, is this:

  • What might a ‘ministry of reconciliation’ look like in our community?

After the Party

Sermon for Christmas Eve at St Peter’s, Bramley

Text: John 1:1-14

Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

It was a wonderful Christmas party, perhaps the best they had ever organised. The room was candlelit. Everyone who had been invited turned up, along with some friends who hadn’t. Some of them were dressed to the nines and brought gifts of champagne and flowers, some less well dressed with just a bottle of cheap wine, and some, well, we can overlook the jeans and work boots, but to bring nothing?  Never mind, the house was full, Christmas lights were twinkling, music tinkling, glasses chinking, conversation flowing. The hosts enjoyed every minute of it, even if they never sat down themselves.

After midnight people started drifting away. Soon, the party was over. Then, the morning after. Not just the hangover, the piles of washing up, the tidying. It was the darkness. The darkness outside of another dismal December day, but also the darkness inside. The unpaid credit card bill. The new neighbours with their antisocial behaviour (who of course hadn’t been invited). The recently diagnosed illness that  they hadn’t dared talk about to the guests. And most of all, the depression that so easily settles when reality hits and problems that won’t go away have to be faced.

Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

In some ways, it was the same for Mary and Joseph. What a party they had that night! The glory of the Lord shone round about the stable, the angels sang, the wise men came in all their finery with gold, frankincense and myrrh, the shepherds came, underdressed and offering a symbolic lamb, and maybe the innkeeper even turned up with a flagon of the best Galilean wine. Everyone praised the newborn baby, to add to the prophecy Mary had already received. They were, that night, the most blessed family on earth.

But the shepherds returned to their fields, the magi hurried away for fear of  Herod, the angels ceased their singing and the star faded. It was just another cold winter’s night in the unheated stable, far from home and with a newborn baby to care for. On top of that, the Magi’s warning of Herod’s wrath was weighing on their minds, and before long they were to become asylum seekers in Egypt. It must have felt a very dark time for them, when the party was over.

All these details of the familiar nativity story come either from the first three gospel accounts: Mark, Matthew and Luke, or later traditions. John starts his gospel in a very different way. It seems unimportant to him exactly when and where Jesus was born, or who visited him. This unique event was not to be limited to just one night in Bethlehem, or even the few years from the annunciation to Mary to the return from Egypt. The coming into the world of the very Word of God was, no, is, an event that ripples through space and time, affecting even this night our understanding of the world.

So how, on this Christmas night, does this cosmic event speak to us? Where is the darkness that threatens us, that will still be there when the Christmas celebrations are over? Our circumstances are all different. The darkness may be within our own minds, within our families, within the community we live in, or the problems of the world at large. As we walk through life, certain events will seem to cast a dark shadow over us. In my own household this year, we’ve had to cope with illness, injury, unemployment and expensive building works.

The apostle John wrote for people who were Jews by birth but, unlike their leaders, believed Jesus was the Son of God. Religious disagreement led to division, division to separation, and separation, for some, to martyrdom. A very dark time for the early Church, and no doubt one reason why John writes his prologue in terms of light versus darkness: the light of faith in Christ expressed in the love of the community, versus the darkness of unbelief and persecution from both Jews and Romans1.

A beacon of fire blazing on a dark night
© Copyright Tiger and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Yet at the heart of this familiar passage is verse 5: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it”. This last phrase has been translated in many ways: the darkness “has never put out” the light, “could not overpower it”, “has not understood it”, “did not comprehend it”, “has not seized it”2 , or “has not welcomed it”.3.  Taken together, these give us the powerful idea that the light is something that may be opposed, but is stronger than what opposes it, and ultimately cannot be stopped. There is no suggestion in the Gospel that the darkness ceases to exist when the light comes. Rather, the light prevents the darkness from having power over those who come to the light.

Later in his Gospel, John records Jesus saying “Believe in the light, that you may become children of light”, and again, “He who follows will not walk in darkness, but have the light of life”. 4 What John’s declaration to his community tells us is that whatever form darkness takes, the fact that God sent his son to become a man, born of a woman, has turned on a light that the darkness cannot turn out. And that light can be within each one of us.

This light is not about self-fulfilment. It’s a tapping into the glory of Christ who is ever present, connecting us with the rest of his community. As if the Star of Bethlehem rises within each of us whenever we turn, as it were, to the east: engaging in worship and prayer, paying attention to the divine source of that light. Just as a light turned on in a room gives light to that room even though it’s still dark outside, so the inner light of Jesus can help us to feel the brightness, the warmth, the comfort of his presence and of being part of his community, even though life’s circumstances may seem dark around us.

I therefore encourage you all to rejoice this night as we remember the birth of Jesus, and to celebrate the festival with your friends and family. And when the parties are over and normal life resumes through the winter, don’t forget that the Church keeps the season of Christmas right through January, finishing with the celebration of Candlemas on 2nd February. May you take this Christmas season to find the light of Christ within you. A light that can never be extinguished. Thanks be to God.

  1. Ashton, John, “Understanding the Fourth Gospel”, Clarendon 1991, pp 166-170
  2. German: “die Finsternis hat es nicht erfaßt” ↩︎
  3. French: “les ténèbres ne l’ont pas accueillie” ↩︎
  4. Ashton (op.cit.) p.209, quoting John 12:36 and John 8:12

Stick with Love: giving

Sermon for Bramley St Peter, 3 December 2022

Readings: 1 Corinthians 1:3-9 ; Luke 14:12-14

The congregation were first of all asked some questions, which set the scene for the rest of the talk…

  1. What do the following have in common: the City of Aberdeen, the Royal School of Church Music, the Duchy of Lorraine, and the Greek Navy? Their patron saint is St Nicholas.
  2. When is the feast day of St Nicholas? 6 December.
  3. Who visited this church last weekend and has recently written a book that features St Nicholas? Bishop Arun. His book is titled “Stick with Love”
  4. Here’s the last question, which may seem unrelated but isn’t, as we’ll see shortly. I read something recently about a woman who was criticised on social media for (quote) ‘only’ spending a hundred pounds on each of her children at Christmas. We don’t have children ourselves, and I’m a bit out of touch with these things. So, I looked online to find out the average amount that British parents do spend on each child? According to a recent survey, is it (a) £35, (b) £70, (c) £100 or (d) £190?  Answer either (c) or (d): Median £100, Mean £190. In other words,the woman in the story was being criticised for being average, and that’s what commercial pressure does to us – it pushes up expectations.

Let’s draw those threads together. Arun’s book takes us through the season of Advent, which starts today, looking at a famous Christian each day to see what we can learn from them. Some are historical saints; others have become famous in our own time. Saint Nicholas appears of course on 6th December. He was a real person, a Christian bishop in what is now Turkey about three hundred years after the time of Christ. Historically he was one of the most widely celebrated Christian saints of all time.

What he was most known for was his generosity to the poor. One famous story about him is that there was a man who had lost all of his money. The man could not afford proper dowries, that is wedding gifts, for his three daughters. This meant that they would remain single, unemployed, and living in poverty. Hearing of the girls’ problems, Nicholas decided to help them, but, bearing in mind Jesus’ advice to do good deeds in secret, he went to their house under the cover of darkness and threw a purse filled with gold coins through the window (windows didn’t have glass in them, in those days). The father could then afford for his daughters to be married. It was only later he found out where the money came from. (So now you know where we get the idea of hanging bags of gold coins on the Christmas tree!)

I think Nicholas may also have been motivated by what Jesus taught in today’s reading about being generous to those who can’t repay us, rather than giving only to those who we expect to give us a present in return. That’s something to bear in mind this Christmas. How do we decide who we give presents to, or what particular present to give?

 Think particularly about gifts for children. Our motivation might be their pleasure – what are their hobbies and interests? It might be education – what books, toys or games will help them develop useful skills? It might be to develop talent, if they are into sports, arts or music.  But there’s nothing wrong with adding something just for celebration – sweets or other food as a treat, for example.

This year, as the environmental crisis looms ever larger, more people are thinking not only of how their gifts might help the person who receives them, but also the human and environmental impact: where was that present made and who made it, how long will it last, and can the materials and packaging be recycled? Now’s not the time to go into this in detail, but you may want to look up A Rocha’s ‘twelve tips for a greener Christmas’ – the suggestions include cooking or buying a meal for that person who has everything, or a gift of your time.

But going back to the season of Advent, what we are really doing in this season is not just decorating our homes and wrapping presents to celebrate Christmas with our families, important though that is. Advent is about preparing our hearts to receive God’s greatest gift.  Another question (clue in the title of the book!)

Final question: What is God’s greatest gift to us? His love!

God’s greatest gift to us is not measured in pounds (or if you must, it was about seven pounds, give or take). And like Nicholas’s gift of a wedding dowry, it was given at night, to a family in a poor home. God’s greatest gift is his welcoming, forgiving love, shown most clearly in coming among us as Jesus Christ: baby and man, teacher, healer, prophet, and through his death our Saviour and Lord. Look again at that reading from the letter to the Corinthians: six times in those seven verses Paul mentions Christ.  Four of those times he is given his full title: Our Lord Jesus Christ. It was so important to Paul that his Christian hearers understood this. In calling Jesus ‘Christ’ we recognise that he is God as well as man, and in calling him ‘Lord’ we recognise that he has a claim on our lives.

St Nicholas understood this. Leaving aside the legends, we do know that he attended an international conference of bishops in his day that agreed the words of the Creed. Nicholas stood up strongly against those who said Jesus was only a man, and also those who said that being a Christian was just about being good. Nicholas knew that Jesus was also God in human flesh – as we sing in a well-known Christmas carol, “Very God, begotten, not created” – and that it is through his goodness, not our own, that we are saved.

Which brings us, at last, to the question of baptism. Mary and Jimmy have brought their children to be baptised, or christened, in recognition that Quin and Joy are indeed God’s gifts to their family. Unique gifts, each to be treasured for how they are, as God made them. They are christened in recognition that God gave his own son, Jesus, as his greatest gift to each one of us. Together as a family they pledge themselves to come to Christ, to turn to Christ for his guidance, and to follow Christ as part of his family, so that as the children grow, they can receive and grow the spiritual gifts that the Holy Spirit wants to give them. 

What about the rest of us? Well, this Christmas, the best presents we can give to our children, or indeed anyone we care for, are our love and faith. As the Bishop titled his book, let’s ‘stick with love’. That is the most precious and lasting gift of all. If we offer presents as well, let’s choose those that reflect our love for God and family, and our care for the world he has given us. Thoughtful gifts that don’t cost the earth, or break the bank, or expect anything in return. But don’t forget the treats!

And finally, this Advent we’re hanging decorations on our tree each week as we mark the themes of the season. Today we have this one representing ‘GIVING’, with an icon of St Nicholas on the back.