Sunday, 5 January 2020

The Magi - not yet time for the cardboard box

Homily for Epiphany: Isaiah 60.1-6; Matthew 2.1-12.

Here’s a poem for this time of the year:

Christmas is being put away:
The Kings in a cardboard box,
Mary stashed in tissue paper,
Joseph wrapped in a woolly hat,
And the infant Christ in a nylon sock;
All tucked away under the stairs,
We’ll climb another year
Up to bed and down to breakfast.
And somewhere in the pantry of my thoughts,
A wistful coil of questions
Goes unanswered.

(Patrick Purnell: Imagine. Way Books, 2004)

It’s almost Twelfth Night, it’s time to take down the Christmas Tree - if it hasn’t gone already... And there are the other decorations to take down, the cards which now we might read - and we might think, “I really should get in touch properly with the people who wrote them…” And if we have a crib, we must dismantle it. The kings will head for their cardboard box…

Except that bit’s not right! The kings arrive only with the Feast of the Epiphany – properly on the 6th January, though we celebrate it in church today… a day early. The arrival of those three kings of tradition, more properly the wise men or magi, is the reminder that Christmas is not all over. These are the late arrivals as they come to pay homage to the child of Bethlehem. In their lateness and foreignness they stand for us… people who have heard a rumour at a distance, people who haven’t really got the message straight, people who take time to get things done because – we tell ourselves – we want to get them done properly (even if that is something of an excuse for putting them off). The magi are quite unlike the shepherds who’d heard the message of the angels and promptly abandoned their flocks to go into Bethlehem to find out just what was going on. Forget the idea that they took some pretty little lambs to set before the crib as an offering to the Christ-child. There’s no time for that. The shepherds bring nothing but themselves. And that is everything that God could want… If only we would hear the good news of Christmas, and bring ourselves in thoughtless, reckless joy!

But the wise men are not like that. They see a star in the East. They’re prompted to find out what it signifies. And they have to get things right. Practically, of course, there are all the arrangements to make for a long journey – we think of them travelling vast distances over cold deserts from a mysterious eastern land. But there are also all their calculations. The charts which tell them where the star will lead them. Getting the right presents to set before the infant king whom they expect to greet. And presumably they need the right clothes because they expect to find him in a royal palace – and all the other baggage. Isn’t that rather like us? We worry that we won’t get the right gifts for people at Christmas – because the right present is not the one we would buy, but the one we think we ought to buy because of who they are or because of what they will expect. It makes it all so difficult. But presumably that is why the wise men finally turn up with those such distinctly unsuitable gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Couldn’t they just get a couple of baby-gros, preferably not new-born but a size or two larger since it’s taken them so long to arrive?

What would the wise men bring today? Something more modern perhaps, yet nevertheless suitably lavish gifts. I find myself quite amazed by the latest must-have consumer technology, and actually acquired some which requires linking up my mobile phone through Bluetooth and a music subscription service to get the most out of it - thankfully I wasn’t left to set it up myself! If you’re listening to this in a state of incomprehension, then how must Mary and Joseph have felt when these richly-robed mysterious men of the east dismounted from their camels to produce their gifts for Jesus of gold, frankincense and myrrh? If you ask, who really needs such extravagant gifts, then perhaps we need to start by looking at the clutter in our own lives: all those things we could live quite happily – perhaps more happily – without.

But the story of the wise men and their gifts is one to make us think. They stand at the juncture of two worlds and two eras, they stand for what we think we know but don’t, and for the quest for knowledge in which we so frequently (like them) fall short. We think we know the story and sing, “We three kings…”, but of course the story doesn’t tell us the number of these eastern visitors, but the number of their gifts… and it doesn’t tell us that they are kings either. We need to re-visit this story, if for nothing else to remind ourselves how so often we don’t remember the stories of the Bible properly – faith needs to be based on something more than what we half-recall from our childhood or from an annual Carol Service.

The magi themselves understood the importance of knowledge. They knew the night sky, and spotted the difference when they observed something they took to be a new star. And they act upon their knowledge. They follow the star. But even so they can’t help going wrong. They assume the star indicates the birth of a king, someone whom the world will value according to the world’s scale of values. So when they can no longer follow that star, when they can see only by the cold light of day, they make assumptions. “We must find this child in the nearest palace.” They want their calculations confirmed. They haven’t the patience to wait for the re-appearance of the star by night when it will finally lead them to the child of Bethlehem.

And that is so like us too. We look for answers, but we think we know already what we want. Like people who read their horoscopes and do the stars to find the answers they want. Those magi in a way are no different, ancient astrologers as they are. And they miss the answer – they find Herod in his palace, intent on keeping his throne whatever the cost, when really they should be heading beyond Jerusalem’s suburbs to Bethlehem to find the child of a so-far quite unremarkable couple. We need to remember this. People want answers to their questions and problems. That’s why they turn out in huge numbers when supposed mediums appear at the Consett Empire, and that’s why the people who produce the horoscopes get richest from the premium phone lines they advertise in their newspaper columns. And that’s a warning to us. When people say that Christian faith doesn’t offer them the answers they want, is that what it’s truly there for? Faith is not about believing in supposed answers. It’s about believing in God, and that first requires that we seek him.

Seek God - but don’t expect all the answers at once. It’s a lifetime’s quest. Perhaps that’s where religion is failing for so many people these days. They just don’t have the patience. But religious faith is about living – so it’s about the whole of life, not just an annual observance like Christmas, or an answer given when I feel a question coming on. The word “Epiphany,” the name of the Feast we celebrate today, literally means “manifestation” or “setting forth.” It’s the showing of the child of Bethlehem to be God’s Son – if only we will see. It’s the opening of a door, but stepping through it does not give us all the answers… just a new sense of direction. “Arise, shine for your light has come…” says the prophet Isaiah in today's Old Testament reading. These are words of hope for God’s people, of promise to the Jews. Today we read them and see their promise fulfilled in Christ. But nevertheless, can we see that promise in a child still resting in his Mother’s arms, still dependent on her care?

The poem I started with concludes with these words:

A wistful coil of questions
Goes unanswered.

Is that how Christmas leaves us as we pack away the decorations?

In his poem “The Journey of the Magi,” T. S. Eliot has the wise men reflect upon what they had seen. Such a long journey it had been, and what had they found? Had they seen a birth? – yes, but also they had sensed a death foretold. This is not a single event standing alone without purpose. It’s the beginning of a life which desires to embrace our lives in their wholeness.

The invitation to us is to recognize the light which shines in the Christ-child, to walk through the door which he opens for us, and to continue on the journey. To be thankful for the answers we find, but to be ready also to live with the mystery – to recognize the purpose of God within that mystery, and in it to know our calling.

Sunday, 29 December 2019

Finding Bethlehem - Christmas Homily

Christmas Night – Eucharist – 24.xii.2019

(Isaiah 9.2-7; Titus 2.11-14; Luke 2.1-20)

What’s Christmas about? Lots of things - and I don’t really need to give you a list. But if I wanted to sum it up in once sentence today, I’d say “Christmas takes us to Bethlehem.” It’s there in the carols we sing: “O little town of Bethlehem;” “Once in royal David’s city” (which is of course Bethlehem); and in the Calypso Carol there’s the chorus, “O now, carry me to Bethlehem.” That’s where we “see the Lord appear to men” - God comes to his people in Jesus at a particular point in time and in a particular place.

“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie…” How still! Let me try you with this…

“When peaceful silence lay over all, and night was in the midst of her swift course: from your royal throne O God, down from the heavens, leapt your almighty Word.” These are words which resonate with me, from the Book of Wisdom. I couldn’t remember them exactly so I searched for them online, looking for the phrase “In the stillness of the night…” What did I find?...

In the stillness of the night. Imaginations run wild. Can't help to think about you and I. In a mental paradise. Girl I need your love like the trees need the sun. Relying on your touch. And only you can deliver. Water feels the herb and the herb's buds sprung.

It's not what I was looking for! And there were lots of other results before I finally found the one I actually wanted.

Christ is born into our world - but is it a world which knows what it wants?  Or do we think we know what we want, but miss what we truly need?

The American priest and preacher, Fleming Rutledge, has said, “the significance of the birth of Jesus Christ will forever elude us if we are unable to take an inventory of the gravity of the human condition.” In other words we need to recognise what sort of a state we’re in. “Humankind cannot bear very much reality,” T. S. Eliot wrote in his Four Quartets. But the message of the Incarnation - of God taking our human flesh when he comes in the child of Bethlehem - is that God comes to us exactly where we are, in the midst of all our concerns; God comes to us in Jesus - and that’s why he can speak to us and bring us the healing of our most grievous wounds.

Christmas takes us to Bethlehem. What will we find there?

A visit to Bethlehem is a high point in any pilgrimage to the Holy Land. But what do you find there? One of our pilgrim party a couple of years ago recorded how her first impression was spoiled by the scaffolding which filled so much of the Church of the Nativity - and then there were long queues in which we had to wait. I remember on another occasion having to wait first for a service to end and then as a monk meticulously swept the steps down into the shrine - it was all part of the strict division of rights each different religious community exercised over the building, but it had the effect of increasing the anxiety of those (of us) who fear that they’ll miss their opportunity to visit. And when you finally get in, you find the supposed place of Christ’s birth marked by a silver star set in the floor… Another pilgrim photographed me as I reached down to venerate it - the holiest of places but the picture shows me looking very awkward with my bottom very prominently uppermost.

But that’s the point… A prayer I use at Christmas reads,

Blessed art thou, O Christmas Christ,
that thy cradle was so low
that shepherds,
poorest and simplest of earthly folk,
could yet kneel beside it,
and look level-eyed into the face of God.

A child can stand and look straight into the crib we have prepared beneath the altar of our church - but an adult needs to bend and bow. The Christ-child calls us to set aside our dignity. But at the same time this is God putting aside the majesty of a heavenly throne to be born for our sakes in poverty.

God comes to us in Jesus to find us as we are, without any payment on our part, without any need for pretence, without any need to earn his love.

And he comes to us in our deepest needs.

This year in Bethlehem the artist Banksy has created his own version of a crib scene in the hotel he has built next to the so-called Separation Wall. The Wall surrounds so much of the town to deny its people free movement from the West Bank into Israel. The hotel itself he has called The Walled-Off Hotel, not the Waldorf but an indication of the plight of the people who live there, literally walled off from places they might want or even need to go. The Wall itself is a horrible sight, and Banksy has incorporated it into his nativity scene. He’s used very traditional figures of Mary and Joseph and the child in the manger with the ox and the ass looking on. But the backdrop is that wall.

It’s obviously at least in part a political statement. But there’s something more. High up above the Holy Family, the artist has made a hole in the wall and at the same time challenges us as to how we interpret that hole. It could be a burst of light shining through a star, or it could be the damage caused by the blast of a shell. It could be a sign of hope in the darkness, that barriers can be broken down, or it could be a reference to the violence by which so many people are oppressed. And both interpretations are possible in the original story of Christmas. The birth of the child of Bethlehem to bring new hope… But also his family are in Bethlehem because of a census ordered by the occupying forces of the Roman Empire. As Justo Gonzalez writes, a census was “an inventory of all the wealth of a region - its people, its animals and its crops - so that the government would be able to tax people to the maximum. A census usually announced greater poverty and oppression.”

Bethlehem is a real place - now and 2,000 years ago. And we live real lives in real places. Two years ago that artist, Banksy, commissioned a Nativity Play to be put on in the car park of his hotel, next to the Separation Wall. The main point was that the characters were all acted by local people, young and old, people who lived in Bethlehem. It’s nativity plays in our schools which so often make the deepest impression on people in our own towns and villages in this country. In part that will be pride that someone’s child is playing their part - and the love which that brings out. But I hope it’s also because this is something being made real here and now.

The tradition of setting up cribs in our churches goes back to the crib which St. Francis built at Greccio in his home region of Umbria - and there he used real people, a real baby and an ox and an ass. In countries like Italy and Malta the Presepe or Presepio can be very elaborate incorporating the place of Christ’s birth into a whole village. The buildings might be recognisable in the scene as the buildings of the village. People go about their work as they do in the same jobs day by day in the real world. You might have to look quite hard to find just where the birth of the Christ-child is taking place. But he is there - and the difference he makes is real.

Jesus is born into our world in the midst of all that is going on in our lives. He may seem a world away. So many people know all too acutely the reality of suffering, the loss of a loved one, the illness of a friend. So many struggle to get by from day to day. Others have everything they want and might not give anything else a thought. And at Christmas so many of us party on, forgetting the meaning of the Feast - or are consumed by anxiety to get everything just right.

To all of us Christ comes with the message of God’s love for the world - of God’s love for us / God’s love for me.

I’d started by saying, “Christmas takes us to Bethlehem.” But it’s God who takes the initiative, so perhaps it’s more accurate to say, “Christmas brings Bethlehem to us.”

Monday, 9 December 2019

Do they know it’s Christmas?

On the social media platform, Twitter, the other day somebody posted this issue:

 “Can we talk about something other than Christmas, politics or weather?” “Such as?”
“I’ve forgotten what else there is.”

There’s certainly been plenty of politics and weather during the last few weeks! They seem to have taken over our lives in certain respects - unwelcome intrusions - so no wonder people might want to talk up the “Christmas spirit.”

“Can we talk about something else?...”  I suggested, “Advent.”

So let me remind you again about Advent! It’s a neglected season with the Christmas decorations so often going up even before Advent begins. Say “Advent” to someone - and they’ll likely think of Advent Calendars, which these days come stocked with chocolate, sometimes gin, and I think I heard of one which offered a diamond behind each new day’s window.

I still yearn for the days when there was simply a picture - and it told a story, unfolding until the young couple with their donkey finally reached a stable on December 24th with the central window opening on Christmas Day to reveal the child in the manger. The whole point of Advent is to pace ourselves on a journey in which there’s time to hear again what God is saying to us - and find the fulfilment of his purpose as he sends his Son into our world.

An Election on 12th December is pretty bad timing in anyone’s calendar. But still worse is the manner in which so much of the campaigning is being conducted. We could do with a concern for truth, for words of meaning rather than emptiness, for promises that may have some reality deeper than opportunism, and for a desire that the outcome may result in justice for all rather than victory for one party or another. Remember God’s purpose - and his method - at Christmas: LOVE. It’s a word I’d like to hear more, and God’s Word revealed in Jesus is Love.                         

Martin Jackson

Saturday, 23 November 2019

Thursday, 7 November 2019

Remembrance Day - Sunday 10 November

A reminder that our services are at different times on this most important day.

The Sung Eucharist at St. Cuthbert's in Shotley Bridge moves an hour earlier than usual and is a bit shorter than usual. Then, - following a short break - we gather again at 10.50am for an Act of Remembrance at our church's two memorials. All are very welcome to either or both services.

As usual there'll be an open air Act  of Remembrance at 3pm at Memorial Cottages, Shotley Bridge.

At St. John's Church, Castleside the Eucharist is at 4pm for the 2nd Sunday of the month and will include an Act of Remembrance at our church's War Memorial. And all are welcome for a joint Act of Remembrance at 3pm at the Memorial in the old churchyard.

9.30am Sung Eucharist 
- St. Cuthbert's Church, Shotley Bridge

10.50am Act of Remembrance - in St. Cuthbert's Church
- including Two Minute Silence at 11am

3pm Village Act of Remembrance 
- Memorial Cottages, Shotley Bridge

3pm Joint Act of Remembrance 
- St. John's Old Churchyard, Castleside

4pm Sung Eucharist with Act of Remembrance 
- St. John's Church, Castleside

Saturday, 10 August 2019

Where your treasure is...

Trinity 8 - Year C – Eucharist – 11.viii.2019

(Genesis 15.1-6; Hebrews 11.1-3, 8-16; Luke 12.32-40)

          Few possessions: a chair,

          A table, a bed…

That’s the start of R. S. Thomas’s poem, At the end. A year ago, instead of going away, I spent much of my summer holiday period looking for a residential care home for my mother - visiting four different homes with her, wondering how much persuasion she’d need to go, and then having the decision taken away when yet another of a series of falls landed her in hospital with the emergency doctor saying, “Here’s your answer!” I still think of the day she finally went into the Care Home where she still lives. An ambulance was to take her from the hospital. I went via her house and faced the question: What are the things that you can take with you, salvaged from a long life? The answer was: the clothes I could fit into the two suitcases she would use to go on holiday, her Bible and a couple of magazines, her television, and a few pictures. There would be no room for anything else.

At the end, what can we take with us?... what do we need?

A year after my Mother went into care, I still have the problem of what to do with my parents’ house. When I used to visit my parents in their home, one of the things they would ask me would be to take away “all those old records of yours.” Nearly 40 years after I left home they still thought of them as mine to take away. I finally did and now they sit unplayed in carrier bags in my dining room – in fact except for a couple of Beatles records on 45rpm vinyl, I don’t think most of them ever did belong to me. They’d already had me remove piles of sheet music which I suspect were simply dumped on us when I was learning to play the piano – and those piles now languish on my piano in the Vicarage, unplayed. I have a fear of what I’d find if I ventured into their loft: there’s probably a lot of my childhood stuff – old issues of Look and Learn and The Eagle and a lot of ancient school reports and exercise books. The thought of them still waiting to be cleared, I find rather oppressive. But I doubt anything is of any great monetary value. Why didn’t my parents just get rid of them, if they didn’t want them there? Even worse, why have they allowed accumulations of other possessions elsewhere in the house? A garage full of stuff that’s no longer fit for purpose – tools that just don’t work, a bike that might be too old even for Beamish Museum. A bedroom which hadn’t been usable since my brother left home over 35 years ago, because it was full of his old books, clothes, records and other things. I tried tidying the room with a friend a couple of months ago - and when my brother was back in England last month I showed him what we’d picked out. He wasn’t interested in any of it. He’s left it all behind. He doesn’t need it. It was even, perhaps, holding him back. But they had hung on to it all those years.

What do we cling on to? What do we really need?

It’s a natural thing to accumulate possessions. But then what do you do with them? That’s a question that was beginning to trouble Abram in today’s Old Testament reading. He’s just won a great victory in battle. He’s been honoured by the mysterious priest-king Melchizedek. He’s seeing the fruits of God’s promise that he would lead him into a land of plenty where he would have riches, flocks and many servants. But what is he going to do with it all? Who can he leave it to? He’s got no children and his natural heir is the otherwise unmentioned Eliezer who lives far off in Damascus. Abram is thinking about his “things.” You can’t take them with you – and he’s not very happy about who might inherit them. But God has different ideas. God’s promise is not about the material things he wants Abram to have – it’s about his purpose for Abram’s life and about the purpose he has for his descendants, the lives that may be touched by God’s presence in them.

Abram is anxious about his stuff. Jesus addresses the anxieties of his followers in today’s Gospel:

Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

What we read today follows on from what Jesus tells his followers about their worries concerning life’s daily needs. Just, don’t worry! Look at the birds of the air which find their food day by day. Look at the flowers in the field which are beautiful just as they are. So consider your priorities. What do you really need in the way of possessions? “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

I don’t think Jesus is saying everyone has to go out and sell everything they have. He’s talking about calling and purpose in our lives, not advocating a course which would lead to economic meltdown if everyone took it literally. But if you’re going to hear the call of God, you need to ask what should I do about it? – what do I really need? What action is God calling me to take?

Much of what Jesus says to the disciples seems to tie in with the life they are called to lead. His first words to them are, “Follow me…” And theirs is a life lived on the road – following Jesus, going out on their own with a mission to proclaim his Kingdom. It’s a calling which I find a challenge. I love being a follower of Jesus, but I also love living in that wonderful big, inconvenient Vicarage of mine. Stuff accumulates. I have to ask if it holds me back from doing the things I should. How many pre-occupations do we each have which get in the way of listening to God in prayer, even before we try to make our response to his call? What are the things that might be holding you back on your journey?

One of the things Pope Francis did after his election was to call on Christians to be a “Church of the Poor.” What does that mean in a Church which is so evidently wealthy? The Pope has given something of an example in the way he lives. He’d already refused to live in the Archbishop’s Palace in Buenos Aires – and he’d travelled not in a chauffeured limousine but by public transport. Now he lives in a simple room of a hostel for clergy and gets driven around in a small car. I wondered what it had been like for him as he found himself stuck in Rome with only his travelling bags. Wouldn’t I want to go back home to be given a few weeks to pack everything up? Instead he simply went back to the Casa del Clero on a bus with some other cardinals, picked up his suitcase, paid his bill and got on with his new job.

“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Where is your heart? Where is my heart?

That’s a question that faces us in our own Church… in our own lives, in our priorities, in our readiness to hear what God is saying to us and discover where he is calling us to go.

However we answer, Christ calls us always to be ready for him. “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit…” Be like the servants waiting for their Master to come back from a late night banquet. They couldn’t just leave the lights on so that he could let himself in. Oil lamps needed to be kept topped up and their wicks trimmed. Elsewhere Jesus asks just what you can expect of the relationship between a servant and his master. But today’s Gospel has a twist. The servants wait up, the Master finally comes home – but then he gets them to sit down, and he serves them, bringing food himself for them to eat. We are called to do the work of proclaiming Christ’s Kingdom. But it is a Kingdom like no other, where the King himself is the servant to his people.

Jesus calls us to follow him. Christ commissions us to go out and travel light in proclaiming his Kingdom. And Jesus Christ is the King who serves his people, who sits us down to eat and nourishes us with his love.

What more do we need?

Here’s that poem with which I began: At the End…

Few possessions: a chair,
a table, a bed
to say my prayers by,
and, gathered from the shore,
the bone-like, crossed sticks
proving that nature
acknowledges the Crucifixion.
All night I sit at
a window not too small
to be frame to the stars
that are no further off
than the city lights
I have rejected. By day
the passers-by, who are not
pilgrims, stare through the rain’s
bars, seeing me as a prisoner
of the one view, I who
have been made free
by the tide’s pendulum truth
that the heart that is low now
will be at the full tomorrow.

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

Proclaiming the Kingdom - Being the Church

Trinity 3 - Year C – Eucharist – 7.vii.2019

(Isaiah 66.10-14; Galatians 6.7-16; Luke 10.1-11,16-20)

When I read today’s Gospel passage - Jesus sending out 70 disciples in pairs to go ahead of him - I find myself thinking of some words of Alfred Loisy, a French priest who lived at the end of the 19th and into the middle of the 20th Century. They’re words that translate roughly:

Jesus appeared proclaiming the Kingdom of God, but what came about was the Church.

Go proclaiming God’s Kingdom - and what do you get? - the Church! Is that supposed to be some sort of let-down? - a big anti-climax following on from the mission Jesus had set himself? Does it tell us that we’re simply not up to the task which Jesus gave his followers? It certainly says something about the original urgency in what Jesus sought and a process of institutionalisation which followed. So was the mission of Jesus - proclaiming the Kingdom of God - in the end a failure?

From the outset I want to say, No! Proclaiming the Kingdom of God is good - it’s the calling of the followers of Jesus. And being the Church is good - that’s how we continue the work of Jesus. The two go together. We need to remind ourselves that this is a situation of not one or the other, but both / and. We need continually to be reminded of our initial calling - to proclaim the Kingdom and recognise the urgency of the task; but also to see how its message may be consolidated and made real in people’s lives - and that requires urgency.

I don’t think Alfred Loisy was being cynical when he made his observation. His thinking took him into conclusions which saw his writings banned, and eventually he was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church. He had problems early in his ministry with the authorship of the Scriptures, the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection, and doubted that God was revealing the reality of his being and nature in Jesus. After his excommunication he continued as a lay intellectual and taught a humanist system of ethics separate from any divine revelation. Yet nevertheless I think we owe him a lot for his single sentence observation that Jesus’ mission was to preach the Kingdom of God, but what we find ourselves dealing with is the reality of the Church.

Jesus himself makes only one direct reference to an institution which might be called the Church, when he tells Peter and his disciples: “You are Peter, and on this rock will I build my Church.” And scholars have asked whether Jesus really had any sense of such an institution in mind - couldn’t this simply be Matthew in his Gospel writing with hindsight? Would Jesus be disappointed with what his followers have become?

The answer is, I think, Yes and No.

Yes, because we always fail to live up to our calling. The life of the Church is far from perfect. Jesus calls his first disciples to leave their fishing nets or their tax desk - to walk away from their comfortable ways of life for the sake of proclaiming Good News to any who will hear: to bring justice to the oppressed, healing to the sick, hope for the poor.

Go on your way,” he tells the people he sends out ahead of him. “See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road.”

But we can so often feel stuck in the doldrums of faith. We haven’t the energy for the urgency. We have responsibilities which we don’t feel we can shirk. We need money, clothes, footwear - and homes to live in. So we simply can’t respond in the way Jesus asks.

Yes, Jesus would find there are very few who these days can live up to the urgency he asked of his first followers. But there’s also a No.  “The kingdom of God has come near.” That’s what Jesus wants people to know. But the task is to bring it near to people where they are. After preaching the Good News of the Kingdom we have to get on with the task of living it. And that’s what it is to be “the Church.” That’s something we have to do in the here and now, in the places where we live, with the structures we need to enable that way of life - and when it comes to being the Church, that means the structures of buildings and the structures of organisation,… each of which can get us down, but at the same time necessary to enable us in our mission.

In the last eight days, our diocese has celebrated the ordination of eight new deacons and eleven new priests. This is the time of year that makes me look at my own ministry - the response I made to my own calling nearly 40 years ago. I make the time to read again the Ordinal - the words spoken by the Bishop to those he is about to ordain - and feel the enormity of the task: “to proclaim the word of the Lord, to call his (or her) hearers to repentance, and in Christ’s name to absolve and declare the forgiveness of sins.” The Bishop tells the priest: “Remember the greatness of the trust now to be committed to your charge… Remember always with thanksgiving that the treasure… entrusted to you is Christ’s own flock, bought through the shedding of his blood on the cross.” Am I really up to it? - I ask myself.

This year I’ve been moved to be with a number of those who have in the last few days been ordained - some of them very young, they seem (though in fact none of them as young as I was!). So much that many of them are giving up, and I’m in many ways daunted on their behalf at the thought of what they may go through and have to deal with in the Church over the coming years and decades. But as I’ve been reminded myself, we pray to God, “you see that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves.” And the Bishop reminds those who are to be ordained:

Because you cannot bear the weight of this ministry in your own strength but only by the grace and power of God, pray earnestly for his Holy Spirit. Pray that he will each day enlarge and enlighten your understanding…

Jesus tells his followers to go out proclaiming the Kingdom without purse, bag or sandals - we need to be equipped only by his grace. But then we will need to build on the fruits of that task. Baptise people of every nation - he will tell his disciples before he leaves them. Take bread and wine, he tells them at the Last Supper, and they will be for you my Body and my Blood - do this in remembrance of me, and I will be with you.

This is how we build the Church - not in bricks and stone, not in man-made organisational structures; but by celebrating the sacraments, by faithfulness in prayer and study, in service of others and sharing of the Good News. Jesus himself is the Word made flesh. Proclaim the Kingdom - and pray that what we will get is the Church, which is truly his Body, living out his ways.