Next Thursday (May 21), we will be celebrating Ascension Day online with a special service for all ages which will be available on this website from 7.30pm.
Ascension Day is a Christian festival which takes place 40 days after Easter Sunday, and which celebrates the story of Jesus ascending to heaven as told in the Bible in the book of Acts, Chapter 1.
The service will incorporate many of the elements which will be familiar to followers of the parish – hymns on fiddle, double bass and keyboard, photos of members of the church looking up to the sky (they may even be wearing tea towels on their heads in time-honoured fashion), prayers, a story about the impact of Jesus on the life of his disciples and a talk about the impact he still has. There will be contributions from people from all across the parish.
We do still need a bit of help though. Can you pop a tea towel or scarf on your own head and transport yourself back 2,000 years to the time just after Jesus died and rose again? Imagine you are one of the disciples and you are with Jesus when he ascends to heaven. Look up to the sky and take a selfie.
Maxine Everitt, who is organising the service along with Kris Lawrence, explains a bit more: “We would like you to imagine what it would have been like to watch Jesus ascend into heaven; the tea towel or scarf is to help you get into character.
“What would you be thinking? Can you capture that in an expression? Individuals, couples and families including youngsters would be great too – Please!”
For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. Mark 8:35
When I preach I usually preach on the Gospel set for the day, but today I feel called to preach on this passage.
This week has seen a remarkable transformation in our country, and in other countries around the world. At the start of the week most things were happening pretty much as normal. Then things changed rapidly.
On Monday Lesley and I felt ill, and have self diagnosed with Covid-19 (with current advice no one else is going to do so) and are now self isolating.
On Friday two of the boys came home from uni, so we will be self isolating for 14 days from then (unless the advice changes again).
By Friday most things were shut down.
- We read about young people partying because they have no reason to be scared of it (not strictly true – but perceptions matter) .
- The Blitz Spirit is invoked, as though standing up to the virus is similar to standing up to bombing.
- People with second homes away from the cities are going to stay there, where the risk of infection is perhaps lower, but perhaps the risk of overloading the NHS should the virus spread in those areas (the risk being higher now that lots of people from many different places are moving in).
What do all these have in common? It is people looking at the situation from only one perspective.
My take on today’s reading is that Jesus is telling us that acting on our own selfish wants is not the way to live a fulfilling life.
It will depend on your definition of “the Gospel”, but I believe that the Good News that Jesus is calling us to is “Life in all its fulness“, and that this is achieved by working towards the Kingdom of God, which is working towards making this world the way that God wants it to be.
As a country and a world we have been becoming more and more insular: believing that we control our own destiny. Death is something which is seen as unnatural for people under 70 (or perhaps older) and has become something we don’t talk about (perhaps we should – note the date of the article – factual information may be out of date). Yet only a century ago the Spanish Flu killed between 17-50 million people; the two world wars killed about 20 million and 75 million respectively. Before the creation of the NHS 6% of children were expected to die before they were 1.
For most of history we have known that life was precarious, and that we rely on each other. We have also known that employment could be precarious, until the rise of the unions, and as their influence wanes we are discovering it again.
And yet this myth persists that we are in charge of our own destiny. This myth leads us away from the Kingdom of God, where we care for each other.
John Donne wrote: No man is an island, and during this pandemic we seem to be rediscovering this, and rediscovering the Kingdom of God (to be clear, I am not saying that God sent the virus so that this would happen, but when things do happen God can find some good in them, however bad they may be, as well as comforting those who are suffering). Let us pray that that sense of the Kingdom of God lasts beyond the current pandemic.
This week’s reading is the Woman at the Well from John 4.5-42. Instead of a sermon we showed this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5y2GlmTxpkM. The same script is done in a different way here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AFZgvKNWDcw.
This Sunday we remember the Prophets, and the thing about John the Baptist is that there hasn’t been a prophet in Israel for 400 years. The passage is full of symbolism, a lot of which we won’t naturally understand
He (mis)quotes Isaiah: A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
In pre Roman times most roads were not made up – the only roads that were made up were for the King to use – so the passage is equating the Lord with the King – the Messiah.
At the heart of the passage is a call to repentance, and a call to trusting in God’s grace. Jewish faith believed in repentance as the way (back) to God. There were nine norms of repentance:
- Make yourself clean
- remove evil doings from God’s sight
- Cease to do evil
- Do good
- Seek justice
- Rescue the oppressed
- Defend the orphan
- Plead for the widow
The latter three of these being a constant refrain – to care for the alien, the orphan and the widow – perhaps something to contemplate in the forthcoming election!
The condemnation of the Pharisees and Sadducees comes because they believe that keeping the law is what is required, and that being children of Abraham guarantees that they will be right with God – not repentance. In Aramaic the words for children and stones are similar, and so John is using word play to attack them.
Finally we come to the axe at the foot of the tree and the winnowing fork. Those of us who lean towards a loving God struggle with these images – but they only apply to those who do not repent, and repentance can happen at any time. However, I would want to argue that the sooner we repent the better – life is better lived in the light of repentance than it is otherwise and life lived without repentance is already a form of hell!
Where are you on the journey of repentance?
Find out how to Pray Your Way with our Advent series on Tuesday evening this month.
The series of three sessions is deigned to give new insights into ways of praying.
The first, on Tuesday, December 3, at 7.30pm, is “Unlocking Prayer”: a practical introduction to a method of theological reflection which can shine a light on puzzling things in our lives, and will be led by Lesley Shatwell.
On December 10, Craig Nobbs will lead “Holy Reading”: The contemplative monastic discipline of Lectio Divina, showing how this practice can dovetail into everyday life.
On December 17, Stella Wiseman will help you to “Write yourself into the story …” Taking a passage from the Bible you can learn how to think yourself into a story.
Each session will start at 7.30pm and will take place at Lesley Shatwell’s home in Badshot Lea. For details, contact Lesley on 01252 314703 or email@example.com or email the parish office.
A couple of Sundays ago, Lesley Shatwell preached at St Mark’s on repentance and what it means.
The Gospel reading that day was from Luke, chapter 13, v 1-9. You can read the whole extract here but, basically, Jesus says: “unless you repent, you will all perish”. He then told the parable of the barren fig tree which was given a reprieve.
This is what Lesley had to say about this uncompromising message:
When I first read the reading, I couldn’t quite make sense of what was happening. I had to read through a few times. It starts when Jesus has been told about an atrocity which Pilate has committed. He slaughtered some Jews when they were offering sacrifices to God. My goodness, that has strong resonance for us today doesn’t it? Muslims being gunned down when they were at prayer in New Zealand. Perhaps Jesus overheard people trying to make their own kind of sense to a barbaric act because he tells us that those who died were no more sinners than anyone else. They weren’t slaughtered because of their sin.
But then there’s his comment, “unless you repent, you will all perish as they did”. That’s worrying, it doesn’t seem to make sense does it? And it’s frightening. On the one hand, people died in a horrible atrocity and they no more deserved it than anyone else does. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. But on the other hand, that could be our fate unless we repent. Can repentance really ensure that we will avoid perishing, even in random acts of terror?
Same goes for the disaster when the tower of Siloam collapsed and killed 18 people. A “natural” disaster, no one’s deliberate fault. And “unless you repent, you will all perish as they did”. Those people who died weren’t extra wicked sinners, they were just like you and me. Oh Jesus, help me, I don’t even know how to repent? What is repentance?
OK, time out! Let’s press the pause button before we all disappear into the fiery furnaces of hell.
What does “perish” mean? That’s straightforward at least, isn’t it? It means “die”. We are human, we do all die eventually. We don’t know when, but it comes to all of us. Some might have an untimely death, some may slip away peacefully after a long and happy life. So I don’t think Jesus is saying, “repent and you will have a human life here on earth for ever”. There’s something else going on. Hum. One of the reasons why people were flocking to be baptised by John the Baptist was because they thought the end of the world was imminent. And tomorrow could be the last day. It tends to focus the mind: better get ready quick before it’s too late.
But equally, who knows exactly what Jesus meant? He might have been talking about perishing to this world so that we might rise to glory in the next. I’m afraid you will have to consider that for yourselves because we could be here till Christmas with this sermon if I start tackling the idea of everlasting life with God in heaven.
Right, I’m ready to press the “play” button again. Repent! Repent! Yes all right!
Repent or else fire and brimstone, perishing in eternal hell. Yes, but how?
What is repentance?
Repentance is the translation of the Greek word “metanoia”, which means “a change of mind”.
Oh, so it’s that easy? I just have to change my mind? It can’t be so hard – particularly if I will avoid eternal damnation. But you have to mean it.
Change your mind and do something to show that you have truly changed your mind.
Change your mind and turn to Jesus – now there’s an invitation. Yes, an invitation, not a threat. Change your mind and turn to Jesus.
What if all those things which have been holding me back, all those things which stop me from being truly me, all those things which I am ashamed of in my life, which worry me, which upset me … what if all that rubbish in my life perished?
Now: imagine, for a moment, you are living a reasonably contented life. Things are ok, you get by most days. There are some good things, maybe a lot of bad things. But generally you find life is worth living. It’s like you are a tree, growing in a vineyard. Some days it’s quite pleasant, the sun shines, the birds sing. And nobody bothers you. Nobody asks anything of you. You are just a tree after all and there are plenty of trees around in the world aren’t there. Yes, there are days when the storms come and you are buffeted by wind and rain, but nobody pays much attention to you.
And then, out of the blue one day, the owner of the vineyard comes by. Where are the figs?
Figs? Who said anything about figs? I didn’t know I was meant to be giving you figs. I’m just a tree, leave me alone. Don’t chop me down, that’s not fair. Look, give me a chance – now I know I could give you figs, I will, but I can’t make them overnight. I will give you the figs, especially if I get help from the gardener.
It’s one view of the parable. Do you see what Jesus is offering us? Repentance. It’s not a threat, it’s an opportunity, an invitation to try something in a different way. Of course, it could be tough, even if it’s in your nature to produce fruit, you will have to put some effort in.
But, what is it about your life that you would change? Do you have any regrets? Any sadness? Any cherished hopes? Within each one of us there is potential. The potential to bear good fruit. But we need the right encouragement and we need to want to unlock the potential. Within each one of us there is something, a gift, and it would be a huge loss if we let it perish. Maybe you have found the gift, the potential within you, maybe you are still searching. But we do have the gardener on our side. Jesus is ready to give us all the love and nurture we need to flourish and bear good fruit.
Repent! Turn to those true things which bring life in all its goodness. But be kind to yourself, all things in their own time. Gently does it, fruit takes a while to ripen. And remember, Jesus, the gardener is always ready to nurture and care for you.
How can we access the Bible, make it come alive?
That is what ‘Write yourself into the story’ is exploring next Tuesday evening – November 27 – at St Mark’s, Hale, from 7.30pm.
Basically, ‘Write yourself into the story’ is a way of reading the Bible and then responding by using your imagination and words to draw you into it and make it become alive for you. It is a simple process and open to everyone – you don’t have to be a writer to join in, and you will be talked through the process step-by-step. What you write will be a personal response and everyone’s will be different. And as those who attended the last session can tell you, it can be enlightening and fun. We also learned from each other when we read out and discussed our writing – though there is no obligation to do so.
Come along and join in. There may even be cake…
For further details, call Stella on 07854426297 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Picture by Ben White, Unsplash.
If you find Ignatian Meditations, or if you aren’t sure, and would like to find out, this web site has a number that you can try: http://taketime.org.uk/.
What do you think?