PHHHT, PHHHT, PHHHT

I once read an article on Jesus’ parable about the great feast in Luke 14 where there was a scramble amongst some of the guests to get seats at or near the top table.

Jesus saw that this shabby scramble for the places of honour showed they weren’t there to honour their host, but to honour themselves. Then he had a word for his host about giving – giving is at the heart of the Gospel – and is at the heart of Christian life. But not all giving is the genuine article, is it? The writer suggested a story that Jesus might have used to cover this aspect.

A chap called Nicholas, who had a great reputation for generosity, died and went to heaven. St Peter met him at the gate. There he showed him two piles of gold, one small and one large, made up of nuggets of varying sizes.

“What are these?” Nicholas asked.

“They are the acts of giving you performed on earth – one nugget for each act.”

Nicholas’s heart filled with pride. But then Peter said, “I’m sorry Nicholas, sad to say not all giving is true giving. A lot of it is tainted with self interest. So we’ll have to run a test on your acts of giving. By the way, the nuggets in the larger pile don’t count.”

“How come?” Nicholas asked.

“They represent all the gifts you gave to your friends, relatives, cronies, and so on. They don’t constitute real gold. Even gangsters are good to their own.” With a PHHHT the nuggets in the larger pile turned to dust. Peter took a sieve which had large meshes in it, and placed the nuggets from the smaller pile in it. After he had shaken it he was left with the biggest nuggets in the sieve.

“What are you doing now?”asked Nicholas.

“I’m removing those gifts you only gave to get something in return. Such giving is a kind of investment. You get it back, sometimes with a handsome profit.” With that he tossed the nuggets aside, and with a PHHHT they turned to dust. Then he made the mesh of the sieve smaller, put the remaining nuggets into it, shook it and once again tossed aside those that remained. PHHHT

“What was that for?” Nicholas asked.

“That removed the good deeds you did so as to win the praise of others. One can make an idol of oneself through giving.” Peter then made the mesh finer still , putting the remaining nuggets into it. As he did so he said, “Now we’ll remove the good deeds you did simply for the good feeling you got from doing them.”

Nicholas watched him toss the nuggets that got caught in the sieve into the air where with the now familiar PHHHT they turned into dust. Again Peter gathered up the remaining ones an put them into the sieve having made the mesh finer still.

“What now?” asked Nicholas.

“Now we’ll extract all those things you gave only out of a sense of duty.” He shook the sieve, The nuggets that remained were then tossed aside and they suffered the same fate as the others. PHHHT!

“Stop!” Nicholas cried, “If you go on like this, there won’t be anything left. Then how will I earn my passport to heaven?”

“We should go on,” said Peter. “We should look at the cost of your giving. Suppose we removed the things you gave but which you never missed, how much would disappear? And what of the gifts you gave merely because the receiver was someone you felt deserved your gift?”

But poor Nicholas wasn’t listening any more. “It’s a terrible feeling to have gold within your reach, and then have it snatched from you.” He cried.

Peter said, “Or if it turns out not to be real gold but fool’s gold. Ah, Nicholas, real giving is very rare, just as real gold is very rare. To give without expecting anything in return, least of all the great prize of heaven, that is what constitutes real giving. . . . But cheer up, I’ve got good news for you.”

“What good news?” asked Nicholas.

“The Lord is the greatest giver of all. His acts of giving are pure gold. But we’ve talked long enough. It’s time to meet the Lord himself.”

“But I’m empty handed!” Nicholas cried.

“That only means you’re poor,” Peter replied, “But never fear. The Lord gives most generously to those who are poor and are not ashamed to admit it. So let’s go.”

I wonder, is that story relevant to us? It is, regrettably, relevant to me.

Max Young

Canon John de Wit

10th May 1947 – 17th June 2018

Pam de Wit writes: Thank you to all who attended John’s funeral and all who offered sympathy and so much kindness during John’s illness and after his sudden death. Your love and prayers are a great comfort.

The Faringdon Singers opened the Funeral Service with Psalm 121 (I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills). This was the passage of scripture that John heard read to him by a friend in the moments before he died.

The service brought together more than 200 people from every part of John’s life, to offer back to God a much loved and gifted priest, musician and artist. The first hymn, Angel voices ever singing, was one he loved.

Later in the service the Bakehouse Trio played a favourite piece by Corelli, and John’s cello teacher Coral Lancaster played a Bach suite for solo cello, before the Prayers led by Barbara Mapley. The final organ music, played by Norman Ashfield from Birmingham, was Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in G major.

As John had hoped when he planned the outline of this service, the Word of God’s love was proclaimed in poetry, read by Peter Foot (George Herbert’s ‘Love bade me welcome’) and in a reading from St John’s Gospel (chapter 14, 1 – 6: ‘In my Father’s house are many dwelling places’); and also in the last icon that John painted, which was displayed alongside the coffin and blessed by John’s former Bishop in Birmingham, the Rt Revd Mark Santer.

John’s icon is a copy of the famous Russian icon of the Holy Trinity by André Rublev. There is a place ready at the front of the table for us to come and share God’s hospitality, represented by the circle of love that holds together the three figures in the composition of the painting:

Steve Bellamy in his sermon drew out the common thread in the readings and the painting: ‘John wanted us to look at the last icon he painted and to see the warm invitation of God to each one of us to be a guest in God’s household of love, where we can be held secure through the troubles of this life into all eternity. It is our privilege to hear that message today and by God’s grace to respond to his invitation – and as we remember before God our much loved friend John, a humble and unassuming true gentleman, full of fun, a painter, preacher and musician, a faithful priest and loving husband, it is also our privilege to commend John with confidence to his Lord and to the fulfilment of that vibrant life of God’s household of love, which was always at the heart of John’s life as he followed Jesus here’.

John himself saw the roots of this faith in the Christian life of his Dutch family and the blessing of his married home. His earlier studies in history and art history (including several years working at the Ashmolean Museum when he was in his 20s), together with his interest in theology and prayer, later gave rise to a longing to find visual ways to express the truth of the Gospel. In icons John began to feel he had discovered an ancient way of painting that could also speak to the modern world. As Steve put it in his sermon, ‘ icons can capture us as we look at them, and draw us in to enjoy being with them in the stillness, they are an ancient way of speaking about prayer, about God’s love and about the life of Christ’.

The final hymn, Now thank we all our God, expressed John’s sense of gratitude for his life on this earth, and was a prayer for all of us as we continue on our journey.

Dr Graham Scott-Brown

25th October 1929 – 17th June 2018

An edited version of Graham’s recorded message to the congregation, played at his Thanksgiving Service on 10th July 2018.

“Until 1952, Nepal was a closed country; when it opened up the six missionaries who were waiting in India for many years, two of them for 16 years, immediately went in to do medical work. It was illegal for Nepalis to change their religion and many were put in jail. By 1966 there were less than 100 believers in three small churches. In 1966 God poured out His Spirit on the church in Pokhara – there were conversions, healings, some of leprosy and TB, spiritual transformations and visions of Jesus – an exciting and moving time.

“I came to Faringdon in 1984 so I have had 34 years to pray every day – and often many times a day to see God at work, not in the same in detail, but the same in quality. I’m not always very good at hearing God speak clearly to me, but over the two months recently spent in New Zealand I seemed to learn something about it.

“The following verses are apt, and others, were especially meaningful: John 17:1, Psalm 57:2, John 12:24. Now, I would love people to take up the things I have prayed for for so long: pray that the Father may glorify Jesus; pray that here in Faringdon, many people may turn to Him. That it be a challenge to Faringdon that the fear of the Lord may come upon people.

“That’s it … not very long.”

Margaret Scott Brown

Editor: Graham’s obituary appeared in the August edition of Faringdon Folly.

New beginnings in Faringdon

Sheree, Charlotte, Harriet, Alice and I have just arrived in Faringdon after a period of theological training at Trinity College Bristol. Prior to this we lived in Maidenhead serving as part of God’s Church in Furze Platt. Like Steve and Wendy, we met at school, giving our lives to Jesus while attending Church before we married—initially captivated by the servant-hearted love of those we met. Both Sheree and I have always felt a strong call to serve Jesus specifically within the communities we serve, both in the parish and workplace.

After training to be a teacher, I taught Music at a Secondary School in West London and through a free pilgrimage and some interesting conversations, began to explore the call to ordained ministry. After prayer and a miraculous conversation with the Head Teacher, I was asked to teach RE and did so for a further seven years, as Jesus opened the doors towards developing a chaplaincy within the school. During this time Sheree also joined the community to work as a Learning Support Assistant for those with additional learning needs and English as an additional language.

After nine years of marriage our daughter Charlotte was born, shortly followed by Harriet and now Alice! Both Sheree and I love being parents and we have learned loads while watching God grow in them the faith and gifts that he has given them. We love walking together, riding bikes, sharing meals and having fun with friends. We are also keen campers—one highlight of the year being the New Wine retreat, which will be interesting this year with an eight-month-old baby!

As we find our feet in a very different context, we have been reminded that the God who created us calls us by name, and that it is as individuals within the body of Christ that we serve those who do and do not know Jesus. We are all looking forward to making new friends in and out of the Church in Faringdon, as we follow where Jesus leads us and along with you help to make him known.

Paul Walker

Tom, Dick or Mary?

This year, the Friday before the August Bank Holiday is St Bartholomew’s Day. Who was he? I don’t actually know of anyone called Bartholomew – I’ve heard of the London Hospital named after him called St Bart’s – the oldest hospital in Britain still providing medical services on its original 12th century site. He has absolutely nothing to do with the blonde son of Marge and Homer Simpson. There is a publisher of road maps called John Bartholomew of Edinburgh and, funnily enough, in my bookshelf one of his maps is alongside Philip’s Atlas of the world – Bartholomew and Philip next to one another? – quite a coincidence since the former was introduced to Jesus by the latter?

Looking through the New Testament, Bartholomew’s name appears five times – once each in the Gospels and once in Acts. Mostly his name was one in a list of names and in three cases he is linked with Philip. It is also thought that he was the person whom John called Nathaniel. That’s all the info we have on him – all we know is that he was consistently present.

There’s also an ancient tradition that Bartholomew travelled to India, and another that he was eventually crucified in Armenia after being flayed – I remember seeing a beautiful small carving showing this at the entrance to the Chapter House in York Minster and there’s a stained glass window in the Quire that shows him again, holding his skin – rather gruesome to our sensitive modern eyes.

What more can we say about him? His martyrdom showed that he remained faithful. John tells us he was called to Jesus through Philip – he didn’t suddenly hear a voice out of the blue. And if we stop and think about it, that is how most people are called – by something heard, something read, or something seen.

So how will you celebrate St Bartholomew’s Day? Will you be getting your maps out and planning a family outing to the coast or inland? You and how many others if the weather is fine? You could have fun if you’re going any distance by rail – but check your timetable carefully. You could have a wonderful day sitting in your car, stationary for hours on end! There’ll be thousands about over the weekend and many of them will set off early on the 24th! Thousands of people about you who you don’t know – so many anonymous faces – I wonder how many of them will be a Bartholomew? He IS there, among the crowd in every generation, not anonymous but puzzlingly hidden.

Thinking of people hidden in the crowds reminds me of some of those crowd or congregation-scanning sequences in Songs of Praise – do you watch it? I like watching it because the singing is often inspiring, but the interviews, I reckon, are even more so. In a minute or less we are given a miniature portrait of Christian living in all its infinite variety. The chance of us ever meeting the people interviewed is tiny. We know that they are out there somewhere, continuing to live the Christian way, hour by hour, day by day, year by year. But those lives are entirely hidden from us, except for sixty seconds of concentrated inspiration glimpsed face to face on the screen in our homes.

“I am the Way,” said Jesus. Bartholomew heard, and believed, and followed. He saw Jesus, Jesus saw him, face to face. After Pentecost many others must have seen Bartholomew, known his face and voice, heard his testimony to the Lord. They found in him an authentic guide, a road map as it were, as they began to work out what it meant to follow the true Way. But to us, he leaves nothing, not even enough material to fill a sixty second TV interview slot.

Bartholomew claims nothing for himself, this saint of summer. No need to compete with him as we might have to do with James, Peter and Paul, in leadership, eloquence or perseverance. He demands nothing from us, yet he too is an Apostle, whose call, response, discipleship and ministry were as real as his better-known fellow-believers.

He is like all those people who serve God faithfully, steadfastly, and often quietly, in a seemingly humdrum way. We can’t all be famous! We can all aim at being steadfast, allowing the Holy Spirit to help us live the Christian life; praying, using the Scriptures, treasuring and sharing communion in sacrament and membership, bearing witness in our own individual situations.

Both the claim, and the demand, to which Bartholomew silently points, are Christ’s, “I am the Way. Take up your cross and follow me.”

So thank God for Bartholomew, the Apostle and guide for the Way of the Cross; and thank God for the Bartholomews we know, even if their actual names are Tom, Dick or Mary.

Max Young

It says in the Bible . . . Are you listening?

A recent article in my newspaper (18th May) told of a man in Blyth being convicted for keeping four men as slaves and it reminded me of some reading I did on the slave trade some 10 or so years ago.

In 1788 a Jesuit called Fr Raymond Harris published a little book called ‘Scriptural Researches on the Licitness of the Slave Trade, Shewing its conformity with the principles of natural and revealed Religion, delineated in the Sacred Writings of the Word of God.’ Harris, as was not unusual at the time, assembled a list of quotes from the Bible showing that slavery was part of the natural order – and one of the most important proofs came from Philemon, the shortest book in the New Testament. Harris’s reasoned that St Paul had told Philemon to take back Onesimus as a slave; and that meant slavery was sanctioned as an institution. Therefore the slave trade that was such a good profit-making enterprise and financially beneficial to the ports of Liverpool, London and Bristol was also sanctioned by the Bible. Harris used the Book of Philemon to defend a gruesome trade in human cargo.

A book that repudiated Harris’ claim was written in the following year by a former African slave. His book was called ‘The Interesting Narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African.’ The book told of his life and how he educated himself mainly via the Bible and eventually bought himself out of slavery for £40.

In his memoirs he took Fr Harris to task –saying what was important was that Philemon was asked to take Onesimus back as a brother – and that meant that masters were to exercise brotherly love towards their slaves. And what is more, Equiano thought that since at the time when Paul was writing Christians held all things in common, then there was no way that Philemon would be allowed to keep his slave as his own private property. In the end he thought that Paul was actually not defending the slave trade at all, but attacking the very institution, not just of slavery, but of the holding of property altogether; and that meant of course that if there was no property there would be no slaves.

He concluded with a pretty blunt message to Fr Harris: “of this epistle which you cite strongly in favour of slavery, when the whole tenor of it is in behalf of the slave. Besides who would lose out if slavery was abolished? Perhaps the manufacturers of neck-yokes, chains, collars, handcuffs and leg-boots.”

John Wesley brought Equiano’s book to the attention of William Wilberforce and other anti-slavery campaigners. What Equiano was doing, which was so different from Fr Harris, was opening the Bible and letting it speak to him, instead of distorting it to make it fit his own words. He spoke to the Bible from his own world and it answered him back.

And that was not universally the case for all books, “I have often taken up a book, and talk to it, and then put my ears to it, when alone, in the hope it would answer me; and I have been very much concerned when I found it remained silent.” But the Bible was different – he addressed it from his situation and it spoke back to him.

By taking his question to the Bible, Equiano received an answer quite unlike those who merely found what they were looking for. He didn’t conform to any stereotype and perhaps because of this, his answers were original – in Philemon, St Paul was heard speaking afresh and he began to say something quite different. Slaves were not commodities but human beings; and perhaps even more importantly, certainly for William Wilberforce, they were human beings who would hear the Gospel.

It was through his act of open listening that Equiano’s Bible was allowed to speak to him and eventually it silenced the other voices of inequality and oppression; it shook a world which had grown all too comfortable in slavery. And it seems to me, if there were a bit more listening going on – not least to the Bible, then the churches might not be quite so divided, and there might be a bit more listening to those who have been cast outside the net of believers.

In fact there are many people who fear the Bible because they think it might say something that threatens their presuppositions about the kind of people God might love; but if we were to listen more carefully then things might begin to change – God loved slaves and condemned slavery and the Western world gradually accepted that message. And there may be many others whom he loves but who so often we seek to condemn.

Max Young

Summing Up (Exploring the Nicene Creed)

I want first to give an estimation of the importance of this Creed both for the Church as a whole and for each of us personally; then to mention briefly other Christian Creeds, Confessions of Faith, Articles of Religion, and such like. Then I shall close with a very different style of creed which I think ‘earths’ our glorious Nicean Faith in our present day world with its huge needs, despairs and challenges. It’s called “A Creed of Hope”.

For about 1700 years the Nicene Creed has been the official bedrock or public Confession of Faith of almost all Christians. Its phrases have a depth of beauty, clarity and meaning that has enabled it to stand the test of time, and to weather many turbulent days and eras in the Church’s history. It was, and so still is, a truly ecumenical creed.

As I have explained earlier it was first promulgated by leaders from all local Churches across the whole of the Christian world. So in a true sense it is still the basic essential Creed of all Christian Communions today, whether Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Anglican or whatever. It is therefore a Creed of Unity which holds us together and unites us whatever our relatively small differences on some aspects of our faith and practise might be.

In my very first article I wrote: “… standing and proudly but humbly declaring that Creed with others is immensely important and helpful, both individually, and as a communion and fellowship of believers. It undergirds our personal faith. It reassures us when necessary. It bonds us together in Christ as Church and family, and above all it gives glory to our God”. In other words just as our spine and bone structure supports and undergirds our whole body, so this Creed is like the spine of our faith. Like the Lord’s Prayer it is something we could do well to know by heart.

Through 1700 years of Christian history there have been many other Creeds and Confessions of faith. The shorter “Apostles Creed” as it is called is even older than this one and is still used at Anglican Services, Confirmations etc. You can find it in the Book of Common Prayer or Common Worship.

Another creed compiled some years after the Nicene Creed is called the “Creed of St Athanasius”. It was formulated to express in depth and detail the nature and harmony of the Persons of the Trinity. That can also be found in the Book of Common Prayer after Evening Prayer. At the time of the 16th Century Reformation many splits from the Roman Church sadly took place (arising from the errors, wrongful teachings and practises of the later middle ages).

New national or regional Churches then formulated not a new basic essential creed but what were called Articles or Confessions of Faith, setting out the theological and ecclesiastical position of each Church with its understanding of the Christian Faith.

At this time the Church of England adopted what was called “The Thirty Nine Articles of Religion”, and they can usually be found as an appendix to the Book of Common Prayer. Such articles are not of the same standing or importance as the catholic or universal creeds like that of Nicea. They dealt in part with controversial issues of the time; and also made clarification of other aspects of our faith. Though they do have value still, many of those 16th century issues have largely been resolved. And thankfully nowadays there is far more common understanding and practice of our holy faith on the part of most Christian Churches.

A useful exercise is to sit down and compile one’s own personal creed setting out how we as individuals see our faith, what it means to us, and how we try to live it. After all the Creeds are not just cold cerebral academic statements but living expressions of living people living out the Christian life. Some time back one of our Alpha Courses here as a group compiled how it saw its creed. They came up with a very worthy document, very Christ centred, heartfelt, and certainly challenging. I will close now with a very modern style of creed. Read it and use it, hopefully I pray as your personal creed too.

A Creed of Hope

  • I believe in God, the God of all truth, the God whose word is life. I believe in God who accompanies me along every step of my path on this earth; many times walking behind me, watching me and suffering with my mistakes; at other times walking beside me, talking to me, and teaching me; and at other times again, walking ahead of me, guiding and marking my pace.
  • I believe in the God of flesh and blood, Jesus Christ; the God who lived in my skin and tried on my shoes; the God who walked in my ways, and knows of lights and shadows. The God who ate and starved, who had a home, and suffered loneliness; who was praised and condemned, kissed and spat on, loved and hated. The God who went to parties and funerals; the God who laughed and cried, and shed his blood for me on a cruel Cross.
  • I believe in the God who is still attentive today; who looks at the world and sees the hatred that segregates, divides, sets people aside, hurts and kills; who sees the bullets piercing the flesh, and the blood of innocent people flowing on the earth; who sees the hand that dips into another’s pocket, stealing what somebody needs to eat.
  • I believe in the God who sees the dirty rivers, and the dead fish; the toxic substances destroying the earth, and piercing the sky; who sees the future mortgaged, and man’s debt growing. I believe in God who sees all this … and keeps on crying.
  • But I also believe in the God who sees a mother giving birth, a life born from pain; who sees two children playing; who sees a seed growing, and a flower blooming out of the debris, a new beginning; who sees three crazy women clamouring for justice, an illusion that doesn’t die; who sees the sun rising every morning, a time of opportunities. I believe in a God who sees all this … and laughs, because in spite of it all, there is hope

George Abell

Just listen to those bells

The deadline for this article is the day before I’m involved in a Songs of Praise Service with the Vale of the White Horse Branch of the Oxford Diocesan Guild of Church Bell Ringers – an annual celebration in which they will make the following resolution:

Almighty God, you have called us to be bell ringers in your Church: make us united and faithful in your service, so that our ringing of the bells may be done to your glory and for the benefit of all your people. As bell-ringers, we dedicate our energy and skill to God’s glory, and determine that our ringing work will be our prayer. That is our resolve.

It was Alfred Lord Tennyson who coined the phrase, “Ring out, wild bells!” Why he said this, as an Englishman, I don’t know, because we don’t want to hear the clang and clash of chaotic continental bells. What we want to hear and relish is modulated, civilised, precise, and glorious English church bells, change ringing. Those beautiful tones that resound around English villages, towns, and cities and those places overseas that love the feel of England, bells calling the faithful to worship.

So let the bells ring out. Let them call us to worship almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who showed us how much he loves us by living amongst us and dying for us, a life and death costing not less than everything. Let the bells that call us to worship call those who ring them too. Let them call us, each one of us, to a life that offers worship to almighty God, to a life that puts the love of God above everything else, to a life that makes proper space for our relationship with God.

Here’s a bell-related story with a moral we need to heed. During WWII, one of the millions the Nazis sent to concentration camps was Corrie Ten Boom. She with her sister endured numerous indignities and humiliations and her parents died in the camps. After the war ended, she was freed, but found she was still ‘imprisoned’ by her hatred of those who had hurt her and her family. After much tears and prayer she finally succeeded in ridding herself of this hatred and began to speak churches throughout Europe trying to help others achieve the same objective.

She forgave person after person for what they had done. However there was one man whom she had great difficulty in forgiving. So she went to speak to her preacher. He thought about it for a few moments and then pointed to the bell rope hanging in the foyer.

“Do you see that bell rope?” he asked. “Every Sunday, the sexton pulls on the rope and rings that bell – announcing to the community that it is time for worship. As he pulls the rope, the bell rings ‘ding’, and ‘dong’, ding and dong. Eventually he lets go of the bell rope… but the bell, being heavy, still swings and rings ding, and dong, slower and slower until at last it stops ringing.”

“I believe the same thing is true of forgiveness. When we forgive, we take our hand off the rope. But if we’ve been tugging at our grievances for a long time, we mustn’t be surprised if the old angry thoughts keep niggling away. They’re just the ding dongs of the old bell slowing down. But the key thing is this: you’ve got to let go of the bell rope. You’ve got stop tugging at your grievances over and over again… or you’ll never forgive. So, have you let go of the bell rope?

Is there someone you have never forgiven for something they did to you in the past? Is there someone who – if you met them in the street, you’d try to avoid because their very presence makes you angry? Is there someone at ‘The Peace’ in church that you miss out? Is there someone who, when you hear their name mentioned, it sets your teeth on edge?

Then you need to let go of the bell rope. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us”.
Let me end with some words from Longfellow –

The bells are the best of preachers,
their brazen lips are learn-ed teachers,
from their pulpits of stone, in the upper air,
sounding aloft, without crack or flaw,
shriller than trumpets under the Law,
Now a sermon and now a prayer.

Max Young

Max Young writes … Can We Be There?

Confusing or what? Things just didn’t make sense. A couple of days ago they’d known where they stood. They’d seen Jesus crucified, then sealed into a tomb, and their world had come to an end. They’d put their trust in Jesus, but now he was gone. The disciples were in mourning but they’d have to get things together again and get on with the rest of their lives. It was sad, but with Jesus dead, the life they knew with him was over.

But, suddenly, things were different and they didn’t understand what was happening. The women had found Jesus’ tomb empty and this had been confirmed by Peter, and then Mary told them she’d seen Jesus risen from the dead! It was incredible. Had his body been removed or stolen? Or was it just possible that Mary was right and he was risen? They didn’t know what to think, and it was very frightening..

Then, later, when they got together behind locked doors, they talked over what had happened and no doubt, debated Mary’s claim to have met Jesus, risen from the dead. Trouble was, she was a woman, and therefore in the men’s eyes her statement was debatable as it would not be allowed in law. Few would have believed her and developed a faith from her witness. Remember there were quite a few followers of Jesus and the room would have been fairly full. So up to the point of realising they had company and seeing Jesus in front of them, they were not believers in the risen Christ.

So, what Mary had claimed was true after all. The Lord was risen! There he was standing among them, talking to them. Their utter despair was turned to hope; despondency transformed into joy. Death had been overcome and replaced by life. Their fear and uncertainty was replaced with a new way of seeing things, there was hope for the future.

But Thomas missed all this – he hadn’t been there, for whatever reasons. When the others told him what had happened, he couldn’t and wouldn’t believe them. Just as with the other disciples, second-hand faith was not for him. He had to see it for himself. Only then would he be convinced and believe.

The next Sunday they got together behind locked doors again, this time with Thomas among their number. Once more the doors were shut, and once more the risen Lord stood among them and spoke to them, “Peace be with you.” Thomas saw, Thomas heard, Thomas believed. “My Lord and my God!” he said. Now Thomas knew for himself that when they met in fellowship on the first day of the week something wonderful and marvellous might happen.

What about us? Are we always in a Church on the first day of the week? Or do we sometimes give in to the temptation to have a Sunday ‘off?’ After all, these days there are plenty of fairly reasonable distractions to tempt our absence – family events, sports matches for the children, DIY that can’t be done in the week. It seems more and more difficult to give church-going the status of a commitment.

And even if we do go to Church every Sunday, now that most of us have wheels, we can go to the Church we find most attractive – its services may be at a more convenient time; it may be one where our children’s friends go; it may be more child-oriented; or may be more to our musical or theological taste, there are any number of reasons. The pull of loyalty to the parish in which we live can be lessened when we have so many alternatives.

Do we do a Thomas and, as it were, go AWOL? Do we miss out on the fellowship of our Parish Church with our actual Christian neighbours? Are we sometimes inclined to have a Sunday without worship?

If we do miss a Sunday we may, like Thomas, miss the day when those attending felt blessed; a day when they were uplifted, energised and encouraged by the prayers and praise; when the Bible readings had a real impact. Could it have been one of those days when the preacher’s words just flowed as though their heart had been set on fire and God’s Word had been spoken – and heard? And was there the feeling in it all that the Risen Lord had been among them bringing his blessing and his peace?

But we’d have missed it! We weren’t there! For whatever reasons, we weren’t there, and so we missed the fellowship and lost the rich blessing.

There are now so many claims upon a Sunday that compete for our attention and time. Can we give priority to our faith, and a commitment to God, and make a habit of meeting with other Christian people within the fellowship of the church so that we may be strengthened and encouraged by one another? Can we, with God’s grace, find the risen Lord among us? We know the Lord is risen – can we be there?

Max Young writes … Some Palm Sunday Thoughts

Looking ahead to Palm Sunday, I wonder what happened to that donkey, or in Matthew’s version, the donkey and colt? In Jesus’s time, such animals were a form of mobile wealth – cash on the hoof – not the kind of thing you’d give away lightly – and yet it was given away. We don’t know whether the owner got it back; that would have been quite difficult with all the extra human traffic in Jerusalem for the festival.

But it’s one of those things about Christian discipleship, frequently mentioned by Jesus, that our relationship with the things we own should change when he comes into our lives. We can’t hold onto him and them equally. Jesus was quite clear when he explained that his disciples were people whose grip on wealth, influence and even on family had been loosened. Perhaps if we haven’t changed our relationship to our possessions then we would have to ask ourselves whether Jesus had really come into our lives.

And what about the crowd who, seeing Jesus on the donkey, saw the parallel with the words they’d heard from their reading of Zechariah. A prophet might appear in our minds as an old man in flowing robes and a long white beard – we might be able to visualise Ian McKellern as Gandalf more easily than we can a prophet like Zechariah. But to the crowd this was the very stuff of life – they had heard his words at home and in the synagogue; words that they were seeing brought to life in front of their very eyes!

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he
humble and riding on a donkey
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

And so, suddenly, this crowd is shouting the word “Hosanna!” – normally a word kept for their worship at this festival in the hallowed precincts of the Temple – But, with Jesus right in front of them in the street, they simply can’t hold back the word any longer. When Jesus comes to us, today, promises of new life and hope and forgiveness suddenly seem to be a possibility. But, for that to be possible, however, we need to have eyes to see them …

Some people obviously can’t see the new spiritual reality. In fact, they don’t even see Jesus. Instead, like many of the crowd on the first Palm Sunday, they ask, “Who is this?” Clearly they aren’t the ones whose friends or family had been healed by Jesus or whose water had been turned into wine. They are those perpetually on the sidelines, unable, unaware or unwilling, to try to understand the spiritual event on the main stage. They are the girl in the jewellery shop fingering the crosses and asking the shop assistant if they have ‘one with the little bloke on it’. They are the mother I heard telling her daughter some years ago, as I walked past them on a Good Friday march of witness in Filey, that it was something to do with Christmas. They are the ones who, for whatever reason, don’t come to a church to worship with us. They are the ones who need someone to answer the question, “Who is this?”

And who must provide them with the answer? You and I, as Christians have to spread the Good News by our words and actions. If we are successful the question they ask will change to “Who are these?” You may remember me quoting the words of the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu,

“It would be fantastic if people not only said of Jesus Christ, “What sort of man is this?” but said of us, his followers,

“What sort of people are they? Their gracious actions, and the language on their lips is of God’s goodness and love. Let us get to know them. There is something extraordinarily normal and wonderful about them.”