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).

Designer Babies: should we play God?

A review of the third talk by the Rt Revd Dr Lee Rayfield in a series of four on “Science & Faith: Big Questions in Faringdon Corn Exchange” 

Nearly 90 people came to Faringdon Corn Exchange on 11th January to hear the Rt Revd Dr Lee Rayfield, Bishop of Swindon, talk and answer questions about this topical and challenging issue. With a background in Immunology research, Dr Rayfield has been a member of the UK Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA) since 2012.

Dr Rayfield started by asking the audience what we understood by the phrase “Designer Baby”. He then took us through a brief review of pertinent medical techniques, including amniocentesis, fetoscopy and Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD), that are already in use to diagnose genetic abnormalities causing conditions such as Down’s Syndrome, Thalassaemia and Cystic Fibrosis. PGD is used to screen embryos produced in the laboratory to select those that are free of diseases which are likely to be fatal in infancy, or significantly limit lifespan or quality of life. More controversially, parents may select an embryo with tissue matching a sibling born with a genetic disease to facilitate later tissue donation. Dr Rayfield stressed that these techniques have been developed with the good intention of reducing human suffering. We do not seek to “play God” but rather to “be human in God’s way”.

For some people the foetus is viewed as a person from the moment of fertilization, so they cannot accept a procedure which leads to the creation of “unwanted” foetuses. For others, including Dr Rayfield, our response must be more nuanced since 70% of naturally-conceived embryos fail to implant in the womb. We need to look beyond our initial reaction to decide what respectful and regulated use of unimplanted embryos may be permitted for human benefit. Dr Rayfield suggested that all medical interventions modify our natural bodies and therefore we shouldn’t view our DNA as sacrosanct. He stressed that the HFEA does not permit any laboratory work on embryos beyond 14 days after fertilization, the stage at which recognizable organization of neural tissue is beginning.

Dr Rayfield, as a Church of England Bishop, believes that he should engage in the HFEA licensing process to build bridges and bring a Christian perspective that upholds the unique value of every person, created in the image of God. He sees human cloning as wrong because it denies the uniqueness of the individual. The Bishop said that modifying the genetic make-up of an embryo, currently not generally permitted under UK law, is a more controversial question. The HFEA is allowing research and treatment based on the use of donated mitochondria (the cell’s power supply) to replace faulty mitochondria in the maternal egg. This has been misleadingly described as making “3-parent babies”.

Current research on gene-editing, presently only licensed for treatment of non-reproductive cells, will make it possible to replace faulty genes. The Bishop is concerned about the danger that modifying the human genome may in future be promoted to maintain the UK’s world-leading research status and economic competitiveness, rather than continuing to be governed by strong medical and ethical principles.

For this reviewer, the take-home message was that genetic research is fast outpacing our ability to judge ethical issues. As Bishop Rayfield says, we need to have people involved in the licensing process who will engage in ethical, prayerful decision-making. We should pray that they will be enabled to speak truth to those in authority.

Mark Ritchie

We believe the Holiness and Unity of the Church (Exploring the Nicene Creed)

In this article we shall think first about the Holiness of the Church then its Oneness.

What does holy and holiness really mean? In Old Testament Hebrew the word for ‘holy’ is kadosh; and in New Testament Greek hagios. It simply means ‘separated or set apart’, the same in both Testaments, and is used for God and for his people. In Leviticus 19:2 Moses speaks to the whole Israelite people: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy”. In 1 Peter 1:15 the writer speaks to the Christian assembly: “As he who has called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct”; and again in Chapter 2:9: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light”.

This shows how holy is invariably used in a faith-religious context with strong moral emphasis, and with real everyday relevance and application for the whole of life. It means being set apart and dedicated for a higher wider purpose or ‘consecration’. And the Christian Church is certainly not an exclusive club with a ghetto mentality! Indeed our Lord spoke of his readiness to give himself utterly for his disciples and for all of us and his whole world, when he said: “And for their sake I consecrate myself that they also may be consecrated in truth” (John 17:19). Some translations have ‘sanctify’ which means the same.

Thinking about the holiness of God as taught in holy Scripture, and supremely as seen in Jesus, we could sum it up like this: God is faultless and unfailing in perfect Love, Goodness, Beauty, Truth and Purity; in Understanding and Wisdom; in glorious Eternal Purpose for all Creation; and above all in Compassion, Justice and Mercy. And there is no malice or evil intent or sin in God.

Such is our Holy God, and we who bear his image and likeness are called and challenged to be holy too. . . nothing less. To put it mildly it’s a very tall order; a tremendous challenge! But the Church of Christ has never hesitated to accept that vocation enshrining it in its Creeds as its sure belief, knowing that the God who calls us never fails to equip us with his grace. It means to become and to be what we truly are, by the grace of justification (put right with God), and sanctification (made holy by God).

This is why the Church speaks of Holy Baptism, Holy Confirmation, Holy Eucharist and Communion, Holy Marriage and Holy Orders (Ordained Ministry); Holy Scripture and Holy forgiveness, freely available for everyone forever. And a Holy Fellowship too, both universal and local, of those who seek to help, support and care for each other, in the loving holiness journey.

There are times of course when ‘Holy Church’ has seemed anything but holy. There are not a few dreadful pages in its history. But there are far more better pages; and such there will always be, for however much you and I let the side down (as we sadly do), our holy God and Saviour never lets us go, leading us on to better holier ways.

When we looked at the meaning of ‘Catholic’ it was necessary to see something also of the Church’s Oneness and Unity. ‘Catholic’ we learnt means holding the true universally received Faith of the Church, the one common biblical Faith of the New Testament – a Faith which by its very nature unites us. ‘Catholic or world-wide’ also means embracing all nations, races, colours; all social groups, ages, abilities; gender and sexuality. No one is excluded from the Gospel of Christ and the Christian Family.

So an essential component of the Church’s unity and harmony is its adherence to the Gospel truth, that ‘there is only one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all’ (Ephesians 4:3). And “of us all” means exactly that – all peoples across all continents, all human families, all shapes and sizes; all made one-in-Christ by Baptism forever. (We shall look at this again later).

The Church is fundamentally One because there is only one God. And so there can only be one sure organization with the mission and task of bringing God’s Creative-Saving Love to all humanity. This, the Christian Church faithfully fulfils by God’s clear guiding Light and divine grace. And though other world faiths may teach much that is good, only faith in Christ Jesus provides the fullness of truth.

The Church’s Unity however, though truly real in its undergirding essence of Baptismal Life is still sadly impaired in various other levels. At Communion, before sharing ‘The Peace’, the president often says: “We are the Body of Christ and in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (1 Corinthians 12:12,13). Indeed we are the Body of Christ whether Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist or whatever. Our prayer and hope should be that this becomes a full complete reality, embracing all the Churches; with sharing of all Ministries and the Sacramental Bread and Cup of the Eucharist; and in worship and prayer, in learning together, and witness and service to others. May this vital ecumenical task grow until we are all truly and wholly visibly One, just as Jesus longed and prayed: according to his will and in his good time across our whole world (John 17:19-23).

The causes of division are many and complex, often purely political or nationalistic. But sadly deficiency in holiness and love, and lack of humility before the whole truth, is also its cause. Too often also, assertions are made by some Churches or groups that only they have got it right; and that too can bring about division! Real holiness, genuine love with patient truth-seeking dialogue, and above all earnest prayer, are the surest ways to bring about the unity we yearn for. And this must apply to all the Churches who look to Christ as head and Lord, and seek to do God’s will for all his peoples.

An act of praise to acknowledge the holiness of God, his Church, and each one of us:

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord;
Holy is the Lord God almighty,
who was, and is, and is to come.
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord.
Amen. Alleluia.

George Abell

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

JESUS . . . “Will come again in glory . . .” (2) (Exploring the Nicene Creed)

In this article we shall look again at the theme of Christ’s Return, thinking especially about the Glory, the Judgment, and briefly the final unending Kingdom. It is important to link glory and judgment together to see the latter in full meaning.

All through this series I have stressed the sheer magnitude and wonder of Divine Love, in Creation, in Redemption, and in the path of Christian living and holiness; all the collective amazingly generous work of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. I haven’t once mentioned the word repentance because I believe the sheer impact of the message of this Divine Love-in-action must prompt change in us and growth in holiness. The repentance, which must be individual free response, will I believe follow almost instinctively. It can’t do any other, or we have simply failed to grasp the message. I think of those priests and others who at the Crucifixion event went away beating their breasts (Luke 23:48)!

The creed is concerned with essential doctrines based on the “faith once for all delivered to the saints” as the New Testament puts it (Jude:v3): not with personal response. Discipleship and Christian living, with trustful prayer, etc, is of course the next vital stage of the Christian Journey. The New Testament beliefs about Jesus, based on the experiences of his first followers, means victory in and through Christ; his, and his eternal Gospel’s triumph, over all sin, evil and death; and the fulfilment of all God’s good purposes for us all. This is the glory.

To give glory to God in prayer and liturgy is to acknowledge all that God is and all that he has done for us with the highest and best gratitude, love and worship that we are capable of. And to live out the glory in Christian loving discipleship. The Hebrew word for glory ‘kavod’ means the radiance of the divine being and nature; God’s kingship, grandeur, beauty and wonder; his very presence and actions; but most of all his saving rescue work for his people.

The Greek word ‘doxa’ lifts these Old Testament divine characteristics to a higher plane. In the New Testament it speaks of the glory of the Eternal Trinity, with supreme emphasis on the work of Christ, the far wider salvation victory he has won for us. So James 2:1 writes “Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory”. “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1; Old Testament). “ The Word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth and we have beheld his glory”. (John 1:14; New Testament). The final return of Jesus in glory will mean that all this will be seen and experienced with sheer delight, ecstatic happiness and joy, beyond words yet true in the heart of our glorious faith, and so in our hearts too.

The Judgment, essentially means I believe, the putting right by God of everything once wrong. It must involve recognition of human frailty and failure with full honest accountability; and with justice and full human restoration. However, at our level of understanding and our limited human concepts, we cannot fully comprehend the mind and decisions, and the merciful grace of God. In a previous article I wrote this about Christ’s life, teaching, and sacrifice for us: “It was both a rescue operation and a programme of teaching and re-education.

Above all it was to demonstrate, in the clearest possible way, that our Creator God is a God of unconditional, unlimited, generous forgiving Love, not that of a vengeful punishing Father. God’s true, full and best justice would be shown indeed, but in a way that turns upside down the way we see judgment and justice. God would take upon himself the consequences of what sin, evil and wrong can bring about. He would bear our sins and the due punishment himself! The incarnation was a risk of the highest order! It meant that God, out of his sheer infinite love for his world, and for each and every single one of us without exception, would take the risk that his Love might well be misunderstood, derided, rejected, or even worse, just disregarded by apathy or indifference.

All this was the exceedingly costly and high price of sin. And he was prepared to pay it, and did so to the uttermost. This was the price that blinded hearts and minds demanded! It was no purpose or pleasure of the Father to see his only beloved Son humiliated, tortured and crucified as a criminal; he the utterly innocent one, whose only desire and aim ever, was to bring healing and forgiveness, generous care wherever needed, and the highest good for all people”.

To say all this means we dare not treat lightly the sins and terrible wrong doings that we humans are sadly capable of. On the contrary, the more we grasp the fullness of the divine endlessly outpoured Love, the more we see the gravity and appalling consequences of sin, wrong doing and evil. And, that we must change. That we take seriously here and now our choices, responsibilities and actions; how in this present world we live and relate to each other; how we use our personal gifts, and the good world shared with us. For all this is truly to live out the first phase of the great final unending Kingdom; the very kingdom of God ushered in by Christ, and for which we pray in the Lord’s Prayer. We also know that when we do see Jesus at the end of our life’s journey we shall be finally and fully changed into the very likeness of Christ. Note the key passages 1 John 3:1-2, and 1 Corinthians 15:51-54.

So we must try to live as we know we should with Christ as our perfect example and sure aid, never losing sight of the infinite mercy of God, the availability of forgiveness at all times; and the glorious truth that in the end LOVE will triumph and that no one will be lost to the all embracing divine Love (John 6: 39). The story of the prodigal son shows us that the Father is forever looking out for us, receives us back graciously and tenderly, forgives and heals us; and re-clothes us with his own holiness (Luke 15:11-32). Apply this parable to the Judgment, for surely this is what it is all about.

To conclude: the new and final Kingdom will be inexpressibly perfect and wonderful; all beautiful and lovely, unfading and unending; and above all, close to and somehow within the very heavenly life of the Holy Trinity. It will indeed be fantastic, beyond our wildest dreams of happiness, joy and loving. We shall look at it again in the Creed’s closing words when we shall think about our own resurrection and “the life of the world to come”.

To the God of glory be all the glory! Alleluia. Amen.

George Abell

St Bartholomew’s Day

Bartholomew? Isn’t he something to do with hospitals? Look him up and you’ll find he’s mentioned in the New Testament, usually alongside Philip, and in John’s gospel he’s identified as Nathaniel. Legend has it that after the Ascension Bartholomew preached the gospel in India before moving to Greater Armenia (The area between the Caspian and Black Seas). He is said to have been martyred in Albanopolis in Armenia, now known as Kruje some 20 km north of Tirana. In some accounts he was beheaded, but the popular version is that he was flayed alive before being crucified, head downward.

His remains are said to have been given to one of the first churches in the city of Dura-Europos in Syria but later, miraculously, were washed ashore on Lipari a small island to the north of Sicily before being moved to Benevento, 50 km north-east of Naples. Some of the relics were given to Frankfurt, and Canterbury and some to Rome where they were preserved in the basilica of his name. The basilica at some stage inherited an old pagan medical centre, which, over time, made the link between Bartholomew, medicine and hospitals.

But there are other associations. His martyrdom is commemorated on 24th August. On the same day: in 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius erupted killing 15,000; in 410 AD, Rome was overrun by the Visigoths, and in: 1349 AD, the Jews in Mainz were blamed for the Plague and 6,000 were killed.

In 1572, 223 years later, in France came the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre. It started with the murders of the leaders of the Huguenots (French Calvinistic Protestants) ordered by the King Charles IX, but quickly developed into a mob-led bloodbath which left 3,000 dead in Paris and a total of 70,000 killed in all France.

Although the universal Church was later very thankful for the 16th century Reformation, it brought about a horrifying fanaticism and cruelty, all perpetrated in the name of God. The Bartholomew Day Massacre shows some of the tensions that come at times of religious ‘excitement’ and though I can’t imagine any of us killing for our version of the faith, we need to learn from this event because it might affect our own attitudes to some of our more annoying fellow Christians.

We need to be very careful about generalising about people even if we know they are part of what might be a persecuting movement. One of the enemies of the Huguenots, the Duke of Guise, who personally organised the murder of members of their leadership opened his house to the families of local Protestants and gave orders that they were to be treated kindly when under his roof. Some other Catholic leaders enabled other families to escape the butchery, being horrified that what started as a plot to kill only the leaders had turned into wholesale massacre.

To those who planned the event, such lenience shown by leading Catholics was shocking. The Papal Nuncio is said to have reported to the Pope that, “the only one who had acted in the spirit of a Christian and refrained from mercy, was the King; while the other princes, who pretended to be good Catholics and to deserve the favour of the Pope, had striven, one and all, to save as many Huguenots as they could.”

As Vicar Steve told us, we are all involved in mission, and we should be aware that we are handling what is potentially a very dangerous weapon. Although political, social and ethnic elements also feature in the conflicts that trouble our world, we can’t ignore the fact that religious differences are also used as levers to keep the pot of discontent on the boil. This can cause some people to adopt a very uncompromising stance because they feel that what God wants of them must be adhered to at all costs. For this very reason many people are turned away from religious conviction of any kind because they feel that it only fosters division and lack of toleration.

We, who believe that God’s demands are supreme, must also see that convictions about the details of what those demands are, differ greatly among good people in all generations, and so there just has to be moderation in all things. Only so, surely, can the distinction between faith and fanaticism, conviction and bigotry be drawn. Don’t let anyone deride the “liberal values” of toleration, respect for other peoples’ views or the belief in the common humanity that binds us all together. These things can’t be portrayed as ‘wishy-washy’ and motivated only by the desire to have no conflict, and to compromise at all costs; No, that is misrepresentation, because to stand for these values often requires as much courage, and sometimes causes as much conflict, as a stand for any value, when confronted by selfishness or zealotry.

Remember how the commonly accepted association of leadership with domination was reversed in Luke (22: 25-27) by linking it with service?

Can we use the anniversary of one of the awful events of religious cruelty to strengthen our prayers that such events, which keep recurring in our world, do not turn us or others into partisans wanting vengeance or retribution on whole groups of people, or even into generalisers who tar every one of our enemies with the same brush?

Give us all, Father God, a sense of proportion and zeal of moderation!

Max Young

Unexpected Easter Stars

Since Easter, I have found Hollywood most enlightening. Thinking about the Passion, especially about the Resurrection and what it means, I dimly remembered that films tell the story in a variety of ways. Just as reading different versions of the Bible illuminates in ways that a single text version does not always do, so seeing several films on the death and resurrection of Jesus yielded surprises that have been most fruitful.

It has to be said that ‘Biblical’ films take liberties with the main story line: a Bible literalist might easily get annoyed with them but most of the additions just creatively fill the many gaps in the chronology that has come down to us, shedding a slanting light onto the familiar. In all cases, the respect shown for the truth of the story is very direct and real. Among the films I saw, the moral force of the tale lies with those who come to believe in Jesus as the Messiah – despite everything, often to the point of martyrdom.

The Robe (1953) tracks three such conversion experiences. The Greek slave ‘gets it’ immediately, on the first Palm Sunday; later, the high-born Roman lady, finally incensed with Nero’s evil, joins Marcellus, her Roman tribune fiancée, in willingly giving up her life; Marcellus’ personal transformation is accompanied by his own sequence of intelligent observations and questions, all challenging Christian faith.

It is a reminder, today, that apathy, scepticism or hostility towards our faith is not necessarily the product of ignorance or thoughtlessness – or even new. Why would an intelligent, well-educated Roman opt to follow what can easily be seen as a wandering band of illiterates who, with fantastical tales, threatened to negate centuries of success by turning away from the apparently proven gods of progress?

Risen (2016) perhaps does the sceptical questions best – and answers them in the best way possible.

Two people stood out for me in all of the films – Barabbas and Pontius Pilate. Barabbas is sometimes portrayed as a rebel leader of insurgents against Roman rule, a man to whom, one version has it, Judas is fatally drawn as more likely than Jesus to deliver the “messianic” victory over the Roman occupiers – hence the betrayal.

Another version has him killed off after a rumpus as Jesus is dying. But all versions have him personally wondering how it is that Jesus dies in his place. As in scripture, quite literally, Barabbas is the first person of whom it can be said, “Jesus died for him” – that alone makes him of timeless interest.

Perhaps the most thoughtful characterisation is by Antony Quinn in Barabbas (1961). Here, Barabbas starts out as popular, boorish hooligan figure who, as he is released from his dark cell, is confusingly dazzled by seeing Jesus under arrest across the square. He is bewildered and then journeys through spiritual rejection and doubt, finally accepting Jesus as his Saviour, dying in the mass crucifixions Nero orders after torching Rome. This is not the once-and-for-all certainty of conversion through a personal encounter with the risen Jesus, as in Risen, but a slow, painful and lonely pilgrimage, brought to a humble end on his personal cross. Precise biblical veracity it might lack but spiritual depth it has in abundance.

The path taken by Pontius Pilate is, of course, different. The various characterisations of him in the films all have value. Reading the Gospels yields no certainty as to his character or motivation; the films give an interesting range of possibilities:

In Barabbas, Pilate is a superbly confident administrator, unimpressed by either the mob or the temple leaders: · the issue at stake is simply too minor to waste time on. He is intellectually interested in the question of “What is truth?” but rather as a matter for philosophical reflection in the Graeco-Roman tradition.

  • In The Robe, Pilate is a weak and petty man – the supposedly untypical Roman, incompetently responsible for deicide so that “Rome” is not tarnished ever after – carried along by events rather than controlling them, envious of anyone better connected at the Imperial court than himself.
  • In King of Kings, he is a dry lawyer, interested only in definitions of kingdom, jurisdiction and authority, ‘truth’ being what a court determines it to be. Herod Antipas is more his real enemy than the wandering Galilean or Judean subversives.
  • In Risen, Pilate is at the end of his career and cynical; above all, he is frightened by the impending visit of the Emperor Tiberius to Palestine and all else is subsumed by that. Kill, suppress, imprison, cover up: anything for the appearance of order. The ‘missing’ body is of far greater threat to that order than the crucifixion and Pilate acts accordingly.

All these are legitimate interpretations of Pilate from scripture. And what unites them all, in the Gospel accounts and in the films, is the central irony that Pontius Pilate is the first man to proclaim who Jesus was and is. By insisting – from whatever motive – on the sign saying, ‘King of the Jews’ in Latin, Greek and Aramaic, he begins the necessary and never-ending task of global evangelisation.

Films are no kind of replacement for the Gospels, They cannot tell ‘the whole story’; they are a multi-layer filter of selective screenplay, direction and acting, based on Scripture. But in another sense they do tell a ‘whole’ story. In particular, the way the disciples visibly react to Jesus startlingly confirm his humanity. The way we see how the miracles amaze them suggest God working within him. The depiction of the Resurrection in Risen is marvellously well done. Because the films are stories of the story, we see somehow more clearly that his sacrificial coming – to save all humanity – is made possible by Pilate and Barabbas. They are the indispensable men in the Passion story. Judas was another – but that, as they say, is another story.

Peter Foot

Never Volunteer

You would have thought that in my seven years in a Royal Naval school and over twenty years in the Army I’d have become inured to withstand requests to volunteer for anything. They say the Army teaches soldiers two things: “If in doubt, put down smoke and go left”; and “Never volunteer for anything”.

“Never volunteer” – when asked for volunteers, soldiers become poker-faced, apparently deaf, and learn to reply, without havering or putting up questionable excuses that they regretted their inability to volunteer for this very worthy task but, unfortunately they already had a commitment. (probably confidential – need to know and all that.)

I’m afraid, I failed not to volunteer on a number of occasions – sorry for the double negative! One of them was back in about June last year when Margaret Starr cornered me and said something to the effect that she needed my expertise (flattery) – she had heard me telling of my time as an Army caterer. Within a very short time I found I had accepted the responsibility of assisting to produce a supper meal for sixty in the Barber Rooms at the end of November. And what a production team it was! Margaret was boss with Jeni Summerfield running the kitchen and a goodly team of cooks and helpers. Then Margaret suggested that it made good sense that the diners were given something to take home after the feast and that I should conceive and organise this ‘gift’. But what gift could I give? A number of possibilities crossed my mind – a bottle of water from South West Uganda? a small pack of Cheese straws? a block of chocolate moulded into the WATSAN Logo?, . . . .  or what? It was, I suppose the word ’gift’ that made me think of our God-given gifts or Talents and a very short hop from there to the parable to be found in both Mark and Luke.

But who would put down the ‘seed money’ for this venture? There were a number of possibilities, and happily, the first person I approached said they thought that their contribution would be rather like handing out starters for sourdough loaves, part of it would be combined with more flour and water and made into a loaf – and so the YEAST PROJECT  was born. YE Are So Talented!

Unlike the recipients of the Talents in Mark and Luke’s version of the parable, the Yeast Project recipients were self- selected and as in Luke’s version given the same amount each. The other difference is that to reduce any pressure on recipients, no names or records were kept – the counting was done in the same way as the counting of the collection of envelopes is carried out each Sunday with complete confidentiality. We know there were some big bags of talents from a number of volunteers, including one of £500! We also know that we/they enjoyed the challenge and met it in a number of different ways – using the money to buy blank CD’s and selling recordings of their work – making marmalade, cakes and  biscuits – using the talent to buy sausages and selling ‘bangers and mash’ lunches – giving talks – making sacrifices by gathering funds from what would have been normal expenditure and putting it in the ‘yeast pot’ instead – Running a stall on a Saturday morning – perhaps the envelope fillers could let me know what they did to achieve what was, in the end, a magnificent result.

Yeast Project envelopes counted thus far raised £2,131 – so WATSAN and the fund for Parish Mission in Faringdon will each receive £1,065.

Many, many thanks to all involved in any way with the Yeast Project, your efforts have been magnificently successful. Here’s what we prayed when the Talents were received and blessed on Easter Sunday:

Heavenly Father, we offer these gifts, raised through the talents you have given us, to help with the work of WATSAN in South West Uganda and here in our Mission in this parish. Half these gifts will go where we cannot go and help those we cannot see or reach ourselves in Uganda and; half will be used here with those we can both see and reach. Through these gifts may the ignorant be taught, the thirsty for water and the knowledge of Jesus be satisfied, and your Kingdom increased. We ask your blessing on these gifts, on all those who accepted the challenge to grow their talents and those who supported them – and on the work of WATSAN and our Mission here.  We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Max Young

JESUS . . . Ascended into heaven . . . seated at the Father’s right hand

Exploring the Nicene Creed

The Ascension or return to heaven of Jesus marks the completion of the greatest life ever lived on this earth. There will never be a life like that again: indeed never again will there be need for such a life! Jesus, the eternal Son of God had for some 33 years shared our human life in all its fullness. He had adopted servant-hood for all our sakes, for all people and for all time (See Philippians 2: 5-11). Truly one of us, as the Son of Man, he had made possible the world’s salvation: that we might be “ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven” saved through Christ forever.

This was reconciliation desperately needed with our Father God: restoration of freedom and liberty, and the essential goodness of creation and humanity, marred and damaged by sin and evil. It was achieved only by the unlimited, unconditional, freely given, utterly generous love of Christ our Saviour.

The cost had been very high, nothing less than the shed blood of Jesus in Sacrifice on the Cross. And what seemed the most terrible tragedy ever turned out to be the greatest possible victory over all evil, sin and death. We celebrate that at Eastertide and in a special way at Ascensiontide, and every single day.

Now, having successfully completed the Salvation task Jesus would leave the disciple band he had loved and nurtured. He had patiently trained these men and women for worldwide mission to carry forward to every place the Good News of God’s Redemptive Love. He had left the throne of heaven to achieve all this. The day had come for him to say good bye to those loyal friends firmly promising his continued presence in a new and different dimension. They would have the very presence and power of God’s Holy Spirit; a charisma and dynamism that would continue century after century until the end of time and final second coming of Jesus. We shall think more about this in the next article.

The Ascension also meant the enthronement of Jesus or as this Creed expresses it: “seated at the Father’s right hand”. It’s an assertion of his divine Kingship; of his authority and power over all creation and all people; of his great High Priesthood, and his perpetual intercession for the Church, his body, bride and love. (See Matthew 28:16-20; Acts 1:8-11; Romans 8: 34; Hebrews 1:3-8; 4:14-16 & 7:25; Revelation 22:17).

The actual manner of that departure is beyond our full comprehension and so difficult to describe. As in the 40 days after his resurrection from death Jesus’ comings and goings though real and tangible were quite mysterious. One minute he was with them, the next he had vanished and was absent. In telling the story of those dramatic days the Gospel writers had only human language to speak of events which were both natural and supernatural at the same time.

In an earlier article I tried to explain how in the Nicene Creed some of its truths are expressed in a down to earth way, i.e. in a concrete or literal manner; but that some truths cannot be expressed that way at all. The statements then have to be much more that of symbol, metaphor or analogy. The Resurrection did happen. The Ascension did happen.

They are truths of sound and coherent faith built on actual events and circumstances seen and witnessed however hard to explain. They conveyed deep vital meaning and transforming power which those first followers of the Lord and countless millions since have experienced, and still do so. Jesus, my Lord and my God; ascended, glorified, reigning; my Saviour, my King and my all.

Again they give worthwhile purpose for living and new hope in an oft confused torn world, and they give greater love for our creator God and for each other. They also carry a very special meaning, pointing to and assuring us of our resurrection in Christ, of our ascension to be with him one day. For these we have real certain foretaste now. The Gospel Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion are real outward signs of this. Baptism confers the gift of new eternal life. Communion nurtures that gift, nourishing it throughout our lives until we see Christ in heaven, sharing also his final return in glory.

To sum up, the Ascension means the presence, not the absence of Jesus. The apostles firmly believed that he would still be with them by his Spirit. After the Ascension they “returned to Jerusalem with great joy”, not an emotion you feel if you have lost your best friend! (Luke 24:50-53). The Ascension meant gain not loss. Jesus would be closer to them than he ever was before. And he left Mount Olivet to be with us also, and in every human heart and place the world over, including Faringdon and Little Coxwell.

He was taken from human sight so that he might come to us wherever and however we are, as friend and brother, companion, guide and Saviour. He is as close as the quiet prayer we say in trustful faith, or the loving act we show to another person. Though we cannot see him we cannot lose him once we have opened our hearts to him (Revelation 3:20-21). Closed or barred doors still mean nothing to Jesus! He finds endless ways to break into those hearts that do not believe in him or would try to shut him out and reject him. In the end, I believe he will win every single soul without exception. (John 6:39). Such is his powerful Love and his infinite mercy.

A Litany of Praise to Jesus

For his holy Incarnation and victorious Cross: Blessed be Jesus our Lord and God.
For his triumphant Resurrection and glorious Ascension: Blessed be Jesus.
For the gift of his Spirit and the holy catholic Church: Blessed be Jesus.
For the gifts of grace in Word and Sacrament and Fellowship: Blessed be Jesus.
For the triumphs of his Gospel, the lives of his Saints, and yours and mine: Blessed be Jesus.
For joy or for sorrow, and in life and in death: Blessed be Jesus.
For the hope of eternal glory with him and with each other: Blessed be Jesus.
From now until the end of the ages: Blessed be Jesus our Lord and God.
Alleluia. Amen.

George Abell

Which Bible Character are you most like?

This was one of the challenges from this year’s Lent course, to help in our discussions with others when talking about our faith – I’d like to share with you my experience….

Playing around on the internet I found the perfect online quiz to help me with this. After answering 10 multiple choice  questions, it pronounced I was definitely a Deborah. Well, I know sometimes I can be quite determined, and maybe even want to use a tent peg other than for pitching a tent sometimes, but I wasn’t sure this was quite right.

I talked to a colleague about the ‘Faith Pictures’ course, and asked her if she would agree with the character – immediately she replied that I wasn’t a Deborah (whatever was I thinking!), I was quite clearly an Esther. Oh! I hadn’t thought of her . . . so I asked another colleague, “Am I a Deborah or an Esther?” Again, no hesitation, I was an Esther.

So I asked another colleague who agreed to give it some thought over the day – just as I was leaving work she told me that she could think of no-one better than Esther to describe me! I was beginning to feel a bit unsettled by this, whatever was God telling me?

At the Lent Group that night I was telling this story to a church member that I didn’t know very well, but didn’t give the character’s name. She looked at me and said “Did they all say you are an Esther?”! Oh my goodness, God was trying to tell me something. I had such a visceral reaction to this, I went so cold and goose-bumpy, I thought I had better start praying and finding out more . . .

The first description of Esther I read said “Esther was undoubtedly beautiful …”  – I didn’t need to read any further! (I’m not that daft, I carried on reading!). Esther was a woman chosen by God to do his work, but in a measured way, sure of her commitments and her place in the situation in which she found herself. She was considered in her actions, and looked for ways to undertake her task whilst still respecting and understanding those around her. She strikes me as having a well-developed Emotional Intelligence, an understanding of how people ‘tick’, and a clear sense of wrong and right.

Most importantly she knew what she believed to be right, and determinedly and loyally followed her actions through to achieve the desired outcome, showing a resilience and surety that I would like to possess.

I am still not sure what it is that God is telling me, and am praying hard for Him to make it clearer, but I would value anyone’s insight to help me to develop my understanding of whether I really am an Esther, or whether you think I am more like a different character. The course has certainly given me food for thought, and challenged me in a way I wasn’t expecting.

Kate Butcher