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

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

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.”

Max Young writes … Do Christians believe in God?

I once met a Muslim who asked me that question, “Do Christians believe in God?” The reason he asked this question was because the Christians he’d met were ones who only spoke about Jesus, and when they used the word ‘Lord’ it seemed to him they were talking about Jesus only.

Do we have to believe in God to be a Christian? Well, of course we do! It’s at the heart of our faith – Jesus himself said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.” You can’t do that, without believing in God, can you? But I wonder, do some of us believe in him without actually knowing or experiencing him? If we’re to know God in, or through, Christ, we have to experience him as, Jesus did, in the down to earth, everyday, business of life.

If you agree with me, then nothing should interest us as Christians more than the religious experience of Jesus. Let’s forget for a moment what he taught and did, but focus on what happened to him, on his experience.

In seven verses (9-15) of the first chapter of his Gospel, Mark pares everything down to give us a powerful story of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry among us. In those verses he describes events which, are reflected in the experience, the lives, of every one of us, the highs, lows and the humdrum.

There’s the glorious ‘high’ of his baptism in the Jordan, with the Spirit descending on him like a dove, and when he heard the voice of God his Father affirming him in his love.

Can you picture that scene? Can you imagine the joy that must have shown in his face. Presumably his religious experience before his baptism by John must have been relatively normal, but now he was at a phenomenally significant turning point.

Have you ever been to a baptism, when something a little different happens. When God seemed to be there in a special way? Yes, I know, it could be just a psychological reaction on the part of the person being baptised or someone in the baptism party– though what’s wrong with that? But it might be something deeper, what is called a theophany – God showing himself to a human being – mightn’t it? If God is God, and he loves his children, why shouldn’t we accept the possibility of a specially chosen close encounter with him?

Aren’t such ‘highs’ part and parcel of our ongoing experience as we grow in the Christian life? We should thank God for those glimpses, those mountain-top experiences, those wonderful answers to prayer.

But then, after that high came a dreadful ‘low’ – quite literally a desert experience. The idea of God meeting his people in the wilderness runs like a thread through the Old Testament: there’s Moses, awestruck at the burning bush; Israel dwarfed by the desert vastness of  Sinai; dejected Elijah, too, at the ‘mountain of God’. Jesus’ desert experience was, quite explicitly, an experience of Satan, the enemy of God, a time of testing and temptation. And it wasn’t just a brief skirmish; it lasted nearly six weeks. Imagine that! Six weeks is a long time, as any parent knows in the summer holidays! I don’t think that the word torment is an exaggeration for this experience of Jesus.

In preparing people for their baptism, or their child’s, it’s essential to warn them that a spiritual ‘downer’ may happen afterwards. No ‘high’ can last for ever. We teach that the Christian life is an ongoing battle, and that the power of evil is a constant reality. And we need to remember that it was the same Spirit who descended upon Jesus at his baptism who then “drove him out into the wilderness.” The low times in our spiritual lives aren’t signs that God has gone away and abandoned us. For reasons he alone knows, he sees fit to put us through the mangle – to parallel Jesus’ experience. Yes, it can be wonderful to experience the reality of God in our lives, but it doesn’t always seem that way!

We have the highs, the lows and then we come to what I called the humdrum, a return to normality “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God.” In a word, he got on with the job his Father had given him to do, proclaiming God’s kingdom and gathering followers. The high had been enjoyed; the low had been endured; now it was time for the steady task of service.

As it was for Jesus, God calls his people, us, to work, and we shouldn’t let the highs or lows distract us from that basic fact. Anyone who suggests that the living of our Christian lives should be at a constantly high-octane intensity or excitement, has blinded themselves to both scripture and experience.

After his time in the wilderness, Jesus, this time in the words of Luke, “returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit.” The Spirit again! The same Spirit who filled Jesus with exultation at his baptism – the same Spirit who drove him out into the desert – that same Spirit now empowered him for his day to day ministry.

The message couldn’t be clearer. Don’t delight in God only in the highs, when the Spirit is so excitingly obvious. Don’t cry out to God only in the lows, when the Spirit seems depressingly absent. No, expect him to be there also in the ordinary business of life, equipping, guiding, and enabling by the same Spirit. The experience of God can be quite routine. If our spiritual antennae were really sensitive we’d be able to receive this message every waking day, every hour, every minute. “Seven whole days, not one in seven.” Yes, Christians do believe in God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

George Abel writes … We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins

Exploring the Nicene Creed

This brief statement was included in the Creed to emphasize that the Church is a Sacramental Community; so it will be helpful to explore the meaning of this term.

Essentially Sacraments are real and meaningful Signs: signs, or sure indicators of God’s Love and Grace at certain points or needs in our Christian journey. They are often referred to in our Prayer Books as the means of grace. Hence a Sacrament is fundamentally an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, ordained and given by Christ himself. Through them we receive the promises of Jesus; sure pledges with firm assurance of his gifts of grace. The whole New Testament sees them in this light, fulfilling also promises made by God in the Old Testament (Joel 2:28-29).

There are two major Gospel Sacraments, Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. There are five other rites of the Church often called sacraments, given for particular stages as we grow in Christ, namely: Confirmation, Reconciliation (confession), Holy Orders (making the Church’s ministers for those called), Christian Marriage (for those called) and Anointing (for the sick). Sacraments do not work mechanically like machines (i.e. a certain cause always has a certain effect); or like a tap being turned on. And they have absolutely nothing to do with magic or superstition! They operate, for the want of a better word and are meaningful, only in the context of faith and trust, devotion and humility, love and obedience to the Lord the giver.

Holy Baptism is the foundation Sacrament or basis from which all other Sacraments and grace-giving rites have their origin and find their meaning. Throughout these articles mention has been made how aspects of our holy Faith have tangible concrete expression in the Sacraments.

Thinking about the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus I wrote this: “These are truths that carry also a special meaning, for they point to and assure us of our resurrection in Christ, and of our ascension to be with him one day. For this we have real and certain foretaste now, for the two Gospel Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion are explicit outward signs. Baptism confers on the believer the gift of new eternal life. Communion nurtures that gift, nourishing it throughout our lives until we see Christ in heaven and share too his final return in glory”.

Holy Baptism is truly the New Life Sacrament giving life in Christ and with Christ forever, within the family of Christ’s Church. The Creed stresses that it means the absolving and forgiveness of all that has been evil or wrong in the person’s former life. And most importantly the truth that divine forgiveness and healing of heart and conscience are available all through life. For infants it is not some kind of cleansing of an inherited propensity or inclination to sinfulness (once called original sin), but just as for adults the sure guarantee of a life held for ever in the enriching and forgiving Love of our Father. God always gives full pardon and forgiveness when we confess the wrongs we have done, whether in prayer silently at home; or with the Christian family in church when (after the general confession said by all) the minister pronounces the royal words of pardon. And always where we confess humbly, truly and sincerely.

There might however be an occasion, if we are seriously and persistently troubled in mind and conscience when we need the additional counsel support and affirmation that sacramental confession can bring. So never hesitate to make use of it if necessary, for clergy are trained and commissioned to give this particular help and encouragement. Divine forgiveness however given does not come cheaply, for we always make confession to Christ who was crucified for us, whether quietly in prayer at home, or in the pew in church, or privately before God’s priest. Yet it is truly and graciously given for our dear Saviour has paid the price, completely, willingly, lovingly, and for everyone, and forever. That is especially what our Creed wants to hold before us.

Thinking about Baptism and the whole sacramental life of the Church, always try to see the Sacraments as real living encounters with Jesus; a meeting of friends, and our very special Friend and Brother. They are encounters with the living God, and with all his true friends in the local and universal family of Christ. They are enriching, warm and uplifting, truly grace-giving, heartfelt and beautiful, personal ‘contacts’. Never forget that your baptism established that relationship with your Saviour, both for this life now and for eternity with him. If you are expecting good news and it comes in a letter or by email or face book you get quite a thrill. If it’s by ‘phone and you hear the voice how much better; but if it comes in person face to face what a greater joy. Always think of Sacraments in that last kind of way. They do bring huge joy and happiness now, and are real foretastes of life with Jesus in heaven.

But why “One Baptism”? It is to assert its supreme importance as the one and only rite of Christian initiation. And as the foundation and key Sacrament, once given it can never be repeated. Infant Baptism is always fully and completely adequate; and wherever possible should be confirmed by the person’s own choice at a suitable age in the Church’s rite of Confirmation. Its ‘oneness’ also links it to the oneness of our Father God and our Lord Jesus Christ; to the one holy Faith also and the very life and nature of the one Church of Christ (Ephesians 4:3). In the early Christian centuries there were many religions with varieties of initiation practices and very complex ceremonies. Following Christ’s clear injunction the Church chose to have just one significant rite of Water Baptism in which the Holy Spirit of God grafts the believer into Christ and his family the Church.

Here is the Book of Common Prayer’s Catechism definition of Holy Baptism: “In my Baptism…. I was made a member of Christ, the child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven”. There is no better summary. To be a member of Christ is to be joined and grafted to him and his Body the Church; to be the child of God is to be known and loved by him as his son or daughter with an immeasurable degree of personal loving care. To be an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven is to receive here and now active living membership in God’s present and eternal Kingdom. We shall think about this in the next article.

God of glory, whose radiance shines from the face of Christ, grant us such assurance of your mercy and knowledge of your grace, that believing all your promises, and receiving all you give, we may be transformed into the image of your Son; and with grateful hearts share that self same glory: Through Christ our Lord. Amen. (Adapted from new Baptismal Rite 1998).

Wassail! or Cheers! Happy Christmas! or Merry Winterval!

I have been trying to reinstate the word ‘WASSAIL’ (Old English meaning “be healthy”) to replace the meaningless ‘Cheers’, as a greeting, farewell and a toast. Some people also use ‘cheers’ to mean, ‘thankyou’, a word that needs emphasising rather than changing.

I seem to remember that about 20 years ago Birmingham Council officials decided that, in their multi-cultural city, ‘Christmas’ was a word not to be used. Instead they invented “Winterval”.

What an uproar that caused! Can you just imagine Christmas being, as it were, cancelled? Some, including millions of turkeys and acres of Christmas trees, might welcome the thought, and some people too, of no Christmas Cards, stocking fillers, expensive presents, tinsel and Gift-wrap. But the flip side is that shops would go bankrupt; children would be disappointed that there wouldn’t be a pile of e-gadgets, computer games, robots and drones, piled under the Christmas tree; and tubby white bearded chaps in red coats would face early redundancy.

“Winterval”- how insulting that must have felt to the good Christians of Birmingham! It must also have upset the many Muslims and Hindus who celebrated the holiday as well as their own festivals of Eid and Diwali. In that year Advent in the city of Winterval was a time of controversy.

This year amidst all the hustle and bustle of the preparations I hope that there will be time for us to prepare to meet the child Jesus and to celebrate God’s life-changing, hope-giving intervention in our world.

We can learn from the past – remember the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth – old people with no children – the angel’s message to Zechariah? Zehariah was a good and committed Jew who knew the prophets’ words about a Messiah. But he didn’t know just how important a part he and Elizabeth would play in the arrival of this Messiah.

And here we are in the present. We will all have looked with awe and wonder at the almost miraculous sight of a new-born child – no matter who’s it is. The marvel of such perfection. At that stage it is difficult not to feel God’s presence in the child whom we see as a symbol of hope – a new, pure, unspoilt life with unknown and vast potential. Zechariah knew his child was a unique messenger who would be the one who announced the Messiah at the start of his mission.

Today, Jesus’ Advent is into a world with huge distractions; into a world of massive indifference where people will take a full part in “Winterval”  but, sadly, not in Christmas. We must rejoice in the present and enjoy the sense of anticipation of his arrival and, importantly, communicate to all about us that Jesus was born to save sinners and their souls, not to cause us to flex our credit cards.

As we prepare for the future we need to ensure our birthday celebrations focus on the Christ-child and the wonderfully different future he offers to all. Zechariah used the words of Malachi to describe the gift the Messiah was bringing, he talked about the night – the haunt of darkness, bad dreams, fear and evil – being driven away by the sunrise. Isn’t that a wonderful picture? A picture of what he has done, does still, and will do. The present from Jesus under our tree is one of tender mercy that brings to an end our separation from God.

Although we can enjoy the fun, bright lights, TV repeats, pantos and everything else that “Winterval” brings, we know they won’t last. By New Year’s Eve they will definitely have lost some of their sparkle.

However, Christmas represents the unexpected joy brought about by our unorthodox God reaching down and offering to touch our lives. Try hard to accept his gift, because it will last; we will be forgiven so that we can start again; any darkness will disappear, because the light has come.

There may be some of you who remember the words of King George VI in the first Christmas broadcast of the World War II He was quoting Minnie Louise Haskins:

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year,
“Give me light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied, “Go into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of Christ.
That shall be to you better than a light and safer than a known way.”

Don’t celebrate Winterval,
Celebrate Christmas! Wassail!

Max Young

Father, Forgive

When I was Bursar of an Almshouse in Bath, we had a wonderful cross-section of ladies as residents: we had missionaries, nurses, teachers, air hostesses, cooks, secretaries etc. One lady had been a leader of a Julian Community and she, Margaret Howard, was the daughter of a Provost of Coventry Cathedral who, almost 77 years ago, on the night of the14th November 1940, had stood with the cathedral stone-mason, Jock Forbes, and two others, on fire-guard on the roof of the cathedral. That was the night, the city suffered the longest air raid of the second world war.

The four of them were able to cope with the incendiaries dropped during the first three waves of bombers, but the waves after that were too much for them, fires started in inaccessible places within the complex roof structure, the fire brigade couldn’t get there for a long time and when they did, they were only able to operate for a short while before the water supply failed. The four men managed to save some of the cathedral treasures, but then they could only stand and watch as the fire raged throughout the building and their much loved cathedral burned to the ground.

In the cold grey light of the following morning the people of Coventry emerged from their shelters to find 600 people killed, even more injured, hundreds of homes had been destroyed, many roads were blocked and at the centre of it all, their mediaeval cathedral was a burnt-out shell. The people of Coventry were shocked, stunned, scared, and bitter.

How do you think you would have reacted if you had been there that morning?

“You wait, you filthy krauts, we’ll get you for this!”

That would have been a very understandable reaction – wouldn’t it? And no doubt there were plenty of people who reacted just like that – in those circumstances, the instinctive human reaction would be a desire for revenge on an enemy who had done such things.

But in Coventry they overcame that desire. The Provost got Jock Forbes to build an altar on the site where the high altar had been – an altar made of stones dug out from the rubble, and, they set up behind it a great cross made of charred roof timbers found among the ruins. On the altar was another cross made of three large, sharp, 14th century nails bound with wire that had all been picked up from the ashes on that first morning. They chromium plated the cross of nails, and had the words “Father, forgive”, carved on the wall behind the sanctuary. The contrast between the black charred cross and the silvered cross of nails starkly symbolises life out of death, and the words on the wall preach the gospel  of divine forgiveness far more effectively than any human voice could do.

“Father, forgive.” … It must have taken a fair bit of courage to write those words. Mustn’t it? It can’t have been easy when there was an overwhelming feeling of hatred and bitterness towards the Germans that was backed by the government’s propaganda efforts to make the enemy an object of hatred. It isn’t easy, at the best of times, to forgive those who have done us wrong – Is it? Yet it is at the heart of the Gospel. It was about forgiveness that Jesus came into the world on the first Christmas day – about forgiveness that he was raised from the dead on the first Easter Day. And it is forgiveness that lies at the heart of the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us.” I have always thought that word “AS” in that phrase is too weak, because the meaning is clearly, ‘Forgive us our trespasses only if we forgive them that trespass against us’.

On Christmas Day 1940, just six weeks after the bombing, Coventry Cathedral was selected to start the Empire broadcast. The Provost ended his introduction with these words, “What we want to tell the world is this: that with Christ born again in our hearts today, we are trying, hard as it may be, to banish all thoughts of revenge; we are bracing ourselves to finish the tremendous job of saving the world from tyranny and cruelty; we are going to try to make a kinder, simpler – a more Christ-Child-like sort of world in the days beyond this strife.”

We still have a long way to go, haven’t we?

We have to try to forgive others….No, that’s wrong, we have actually to forgive others. We have to forgive because that takes the danger and tension out of the situation and draws the forgiver and forgiven into closer relationship with each other and with God. That’s the thing that brings peace. Think what would happen if Catholic and Protestant, Jew and Arab, Christian and Muslim, could do that.

Those words carved into the wall at Coventry weren’t, “Father forgive THEM.” They weren’t a quotation from Jesus’s words on the cross. No. Simply, “Father, forgive.” Forgive US, as well as those who destroyed Coventry.  In those words, “Father, forgive,” they were and we are laying before God not only the guilt of others, praying for their release from the slavery of sin, but all our own guilt as well  – Our selfishness, greed, callousness, our indifference, our anger, our lust – all those many contributions which as individuals and as a society we make to the total of human sin. We’re throwing our own sins into the poisonous pot, and we’re asking God to purify and clean it. We’re all in need of God’s forgiveness, we all want a clean slate. In those words we’re praying for ourselves. But we’re also, without being judgemental, praying for others who have done wrong. We’re joining with God, sharing with him in his purifying power, uniting ourselves in his life.

This month 77 years after that terrible air raid in Coventry, we will meet on Remembrance Sunday in this peaceful Church and town. We remember the dead of two world wars and too many smaller wars in which our armed forces have been and are engaged – all fought for “freedom and righteousness.” Today some of us remember relatives, loved ones and friends whose lives were cut short or damaged by war: for those people, this is a day that stirs up many emotions and memories. All of us remember only too well the horrifying pictures brought into our homes by newspaper and TV, of warfare in so many areas of the world including terrorist actions in our own country. Certainly we will not be glorifying war. We know too much of its horrors for that. We’re being asked to remember the fallen and the horrors of war – it is not forgive and forget – we must remember man’s capability for destruction, but when we pray, “Father, forgive,” we confess our sinfulness, and ask God to help us change the way we live, to give us the strength to forgive. If we can mean what we say, we will affect the quality of our lives and the lives of those around us.

Max Young