The mustard seed

How should one measure the stature of a tree? Its girth in centimetres? Its height in metres?  Jesus rarely measured anything quantitively, for him it was all about the quality. The stature of a mustard tree, quite clearly in Jesus’ mind, is measured by its ability to host nesting birds – to give them a place to be safe, to raise their young, and to fly home to.

If that is what the kingdom of God is like, and the church is in some way a sign of it, then can we be the kind of church whose stature is measured not by the number who attend, nor by the amount of money in the collection plate (good and helpful though these things are) but by our ability to provide an environment that is safe, that is nurturing, in which people can feel at home. In essence, for Jesus the kingdom of God is about hospitality.  That’s maybe why after the mustard seed he goes on to talk about yeast – the stature of which is measured by its ability to raise a whole loaf, a loaf which can then be broken and shared with friends and strangers.

Our stature, then, as churches, might be best measured by our generosity – our ability to give, to share, to be given, and to be shared. We practice this each week as we share in Holy Communion, and seek to become what we eat – the Body of Christ, Christ who lived a life of hospitality, and enjoyed the hospitality of others, and who spoke of heaven as a sum of many dwelling places and as a great feast.  May we embody the life of heaven here on earth and may our churches be more like the mustard seed and its tree, the yeast and its bread.

Pentecost

The lectionary readings for Pentecost give us two contrasting stories of the Holy Spirit being given to the disciples.  The Acts reading is the familiar Pentecost story: dramatic, and public.  The John reading is the resurrection appearance to the disciples as they huddle in the upper room: it’s personal, intimate.

Each reading has something important to say to us. The reading from Acts celebrates the courage and passion and enthusiasm with which the Holy Spirit filled the disciples, how they became more than they had been, fulfilling their potential, becoming fully alive – it’s also about communication, the miracle of being able to find all the right words and have them understood.  The John reading is more like simply taking a deep breath and finding that you have breathed in that peace that passes all understanding, right into your innermost being, and that it has brought you to life.

I don’t normally talk much about the specifics of Greek words in the bible, but today’s an exception. The Greek word used for the Holy Spirit is ‘Paracletos’ – Paraclete, and it literally means, ‘one who comes alongside’.  The word shows how apt are the descriptions of the Holy Spirit as advocate, comforter, and counsellor. Coming alongside is both about the ability to find the right words, to speak in a way that communicates and is understood, and to listen in a way that enables you to understand, and it is about being a comforting presence to those who are most in need.

In the Holy Spirit we experience God alongside us. Remember what the early church would go on to face after the first pentecost: not only do we read of a church that was growing, thriving and inspiring, but also a church whose members were persecuted and killed for their faith. The Holy Spirit wasn’t just God’s way of empowering his people to do his work – continuing the work of Christ.  The Holy Spirit was and is God’s way of being with us and for us and in us, in our deepest griefs as well as in our joys, in our toughest challenges as well as in our triumphs.

Through the Holy Spirit, what we experience most of all is the overwhelming love of God  – the sort of love that infused creation, that was revealed in the incarnation, that shone through Jesus’ life and ministry, tested on the cross and proved to be the ultimately powerful force in the universe.  When Paul wrote in the letter to the Galatians about the fruits of the Spirit, love was the first that he named: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”  These are the gifts of a comforter and a counsellor, of one who comes alongside and stays there. May we each – and all we know to be in special need at this time – know the comforting and strengthening love of God, and may we surround one another with that love, now and every day.

Ascension

‘Why do you stand there looking up to heaven?’
It’s no wonder the disciples were caught staring up at the place where their friend and teacher and Lord had bid them farewell, but the angels are right to point the disciples back to the world – we are not to be so heavenly that we are of no earthly use.

It seems to me that the ascension is, above all, a feast of the body of Christ. It’s the day when we remember the departure back to heaven of Jesus’ earthly, incarnate form, the day when his presence stopped being particular (tied to a specific time and place and material form) and started to be universal – present to all times and places ‘even to the ending of the age’ (Mt 28.20).

But the ascension is but one moment of this process of the particular becoming universal.  At the Last supper Jesus explained his own body in terms of bread and wine, which he then broke, poured out, and distributed.  On the cross the  his actual body was broken and his blood flowed.  At the resurrection his body was both physically real (which he proved by eating and drinking) yet also able to go unrecognised and walk through locked doors (a step up, perhaps, from walking on water?).  Now, at his ascension, that physical body disappears, and in its place we find a group of bewildered disciples left with the task of carrying on Jesus’ work.

By the time St Paul started writing his letters to the early church, he had started calling the christian community ‘The Body of Christ’ – something which we still do, and to which we continue to aspire.  There was one final thing that needed to happen before those early Christians could assume the role as Christ’s new body on earth: that body had to receive the Holy Spirit, the breath of life, which we can read about in the story of Pentecost (Acts 2) or indeed in the quieter version in John’s gospel where the risen Christ breathes his Spirit on his friends in the upper room.

So during the course of this process, the Body of Christ which begun as the incarnate Son of God, born as a baby in Bethlehem, growing up as a carpenter’s son in Nazareth, being baptised and undertaking a three-year ministry of preaching, healing and teaching, and culminating the cross and resurrection – that Body of Christ is transformed into the Church – established by Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit to continue his work in co-operation with God.  Thus, Jesus’ particular body (limited to one time and one place, two thousand years ago) becomes universal, filling the whole world, and for all time.

We talk about the universal church, but really is that what we mean?  In the end, to be true to the Christ whose body we try to be, we come full circle: in the Church, the body of Christ becomes not, after all, merely ‘general’ or ‘universal’ but particular again, incarnate in the individuals and christian communities in which the Holy Spirit dwells.  If we are, in Teresa of Avila’s words, “Christ’s hands with which he blesses people now” then our action in the world is particular, in the places where we find ourselves.  The church may fill the world, but if it is truly to be the Body of Christ, then it cannot be ‘general’ but must always be active in the places where it finds itself.  If we are the Body of Christ then we must be incarnate, too – through the ascension we will always have a heavenly life, but here and now our calling is to continue, in his name, the work that Christ began.

 

John 14.1-14 – ‘…so that where I am, there you may be also…’

What makes you feel that heaven isn’t so far away? A beautiful piece of music or art?  Looking out at the ocean, or a spectacular sunset?  Spending time in prayer?  Holy Places, such as churches or pilgrimage sites, are often described as ‘thin places’ – where earth and heaven seem to be closer, and whatever it is that separates this world from heaven is worn thin, perhaps by centuries of prayer.  Some people seem to find glimpses of heaven everywhere.  Stephen Cottrell, Bishop of Chelmsford, wrote of his sense of overwhelming awe when he went out of his front drive two days after the pavement had been re-surfaced and saw that already a tiny plant had started to germinate and grow in the tarmac – this testimony to the miracle of life had him wanting to get down on his knees, right there and then.

Perhaps you have had such moments yourself – moments of profound awareness of the sacred in ordinary things, or of the miracles that we walk past every day without blinking, or of the way that the extraordinary things of this earth point beyond themselves to a heaven which is beyond our imagining, yet suddenly feels near enough to reach out and touch.

In John’s gospel heaven is never far away.  Jesus’ divinity shines through in all his words and actions, and here, in this central part of the gospel, we find John putting into words the mystery of how Jesus not only demonstrates the proximity of heaven, but also how in his own person he enables complete continuity between earth and heaven.  As Jesus goes on painstakingly and loving to explain (again!) that God is his Father and our Father, this becomes clear to us, if not to his disciples at that point. ‘The Father and I are one,’ he says, and this means that heaven is not only near (in place or time), it is right there, right then, in their very midst.

No wonder these words are so often chosen as the bible reading for funerals. They are full of the hope in the promise that ‘where I am there you may also be.’  If we have enjoyed the companionship of Jesus in our earthly life, then we will continue to do so after our death.

Jesus speaks all these words as one who is cherishing this last bit of quality time,  before his death, with the friends who have shared his earthly ministry. They have witnessed his miracles, heard his teaching, been challenged in their understanding of who he is and who God is, seen things they would never have dared to dream of.  They have been closer to him than family, sharing his joys and sorrows, challenges and times of reflection, humour and anger.

The Jesus in these chapters of John’s gospel speaks of one who knows that this is the last night that he’ll be with them in quite this way.  He knows that he’s going to die, and soon.  He knows that his friend Judas has already set in motion the chain of events that will lead to the cross. He speaks as one who has only a limited time left to try to give his friends everything they will need to make sense of what’s about to happen. Thus, this whole section of John’s gospel is a heady combination of theological depth and pastoral concern: almost everything in these chapters is both profound and absolutely practical.  It is exactly what the disciples need to hear, and yet by definition they could only realise that with the hindsight of the cross and the resurrection.

So he comforts them with hope, and in the promise of the ‘many dwelling places’ set aside for them he once again shows the abundant generosity of God that had already been revealed at the wedding of Cana and at the feeding of the five thousand (both earlier in St John’s gospel, and both foretastes of the life of heaven).

The really striking thing about this part of John’s gospel is that Jesus is both promising heaven, and at the same time, coaching his friends on how to survive and flourish in the mean time, and how to grow a church after his death that will one day fill the world. He shows them the nearness of heaven, and then prepares them for another 2000 years of this world – and counting! He prepares them for his departure, while reassuring them that he will, in every way that matters, always be with them.  And somehow we must hold these things together.

I am reminded of the axiom that states: care for the world as if you’re going to be judged for it today, and as if you have to make it last another billion years.   We hold together the ‘now and not yet’ all the time. We live with the temporary nature of earthly life – the blessings of this life and the promise of eternal life is a tension that we live with constantly.  And it’s a good job that we do.

Christian Aid Week has just ended, and its strapline used to be, ‘we believe in life before death’ – in other words, it is not good enough to lament at the suffering of our fellow human beings, but console ourselves that they are beloved of God and will get their reward in heaven. To rely on the hope that God will sort it all out at the end of time or when we each die is to miss the point (and I always have this same argument when my persistent Mormon visitors come to the door) – our hope for the renewal of the earth and the coming of the kingdom are not unrelated to our calling to be stewards of the earth here and now.

When we pray, ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ this is not just some future hope about what God may do, it is our own pledge about what we ourselves are going to do. Readying ourselves for the life of the kingdom of heaven means working for the establishment that kingdom on earth.  We cannot wait for God to do those things for which he has given us the means ourselves – God is already at work, in the ordinary stuff of this world, and longs for us to join him, here and now.

And this is what makes sense of that tension in John’s gospel. Jesus has to show his friends that he is going ahead of them to prepare their place in heaven, while at the same time giving them the tools they will need to start building the kingdom on earth.  He begins, of course, in the next chapter, by the commission to share the love with one another that they have already known in their  relationship with him. ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’

This is the defining characteristic of the kingdom of heaven, but it is also the defining characteristic of an earthly life that is working towards the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth. In continuing the work of Christ we continue his ministry of creating continuity between earth and heaven, and we will find that those moments when heaven and earth feel very close are not limited to ‘holy’ places but happen everywhere where we practice the Love that is God’s greatest command and greatest gift.

 

 

 

“The thief comes only to kill and steal and destroy, but I came so that they may have life abundant…”

For the last few days the news has finally, and rightfully, been full of outrage and anguish at the news of the abduction of dozens of girls from a boarding school in Nigeria.  Social Media has been full of pleas to #bringbackourgirls.  Our own slice of the world is finally up in arms that these girls, who were trying to make the most of themselves, to be all that they could be, who were learning, growing, and living life as abundantly as they possibly could, have been stolen from their school and from their families. Most strikingly has been the publication of the list of names of those who are missing, along with pleas to speak their names, remember them in our prayers, and to cherish and care about each one of them.

From today’s gospel: “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out…  The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy, but I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

God calls us into that life abundant, and calls us by name, at our baptism. I understand that some of the missing girls are Muslim, while many are Christian.  To be honest, I don’t think God cares by what faith they have come to know him: he knows them, each of them, by name, and loves them all.

New parents are hyper-alert to the needs of their child – a new baby can wake its parents in the middle of the night because they are programmed to believe that their child is the most the most important thing in the world.  It’s not the volume of the call that matters, it’s how important we think it is, how carefully we listen for it.  Whenever we call God our Father, we affirm that he is this acutely aware of the pain and distress of each of his seven billion children.

And therefore so must we be.  For to be beloved of God, to be part of Jesus’ flock, is to affirm that our relationship with God is intimately bound up with the welfare of the whole flock.    We are not cats in the household of God, just in a one-to-one relationship on our own terms, we are his sheep, and our relationship with God as our shepherd is inseparable from our relationship with each other.   A sheep that is close to the shepherd is by definition close to the rest of the flock.

And the closer we come to our shepherd, the more we may remember about the gospel message and what it reveals about Jesus’ attitude to the lost, to the weak, to those in distress.  And how in performing acts of mercy, kindness and courage, he told us to go out and do likewise.

Our calling as the body of Christ on earth has to be to continue Jesus’ work of enabling all his people to have life abundant.  This is the start of Christian Aid Week, when we may be thinking of contributing something to the work of a charity which, in the name Jesus Christ, seeks to bring abundant life to those in need (of any faith or none) through the relief of poverty, through education, better healthcare, improved sanitation and so much more.  This is how we start to be not only sheep in his flock, but fellow shepherds.

Our calling is to protect those most vulnerable from ‘the thieves who come to steal and harm and kill’ – and to ask our government to do this in our name when we see acts of violence and injustice being carried out against those who cannot defend themselves.

Meanwhile on the micro scale, we think again of those missing girls.  Pray for them. Speak their names. See them as God sees them. Love them, even from thousands of miles away.

For your prayers, below is the list, provided by the Christian Association of Nigeria, of 180 of those still missing:

1. Deborah ​
2. Awa ​
3. Hauwa ​
4. Asabe ​
5. Mwa ​
6. Patiant ​
7. Saraya ​
8. Mary ​
9. Gloria ​
10. Hanatu ​
11. Gloria ​
12. Tabitha ​
13. Maifa ​
14. Ruth ​
15. Esther ​
16. Awa ​
17. Anthonia
18. Kume ​
19. Aisha ​
20. Nguba ​
21. Kwanta ​
22. Kummai ​
23. Esther ​
24. Hana ​
25. Rifkatu ​
26 Rebecca ​
27. Blessing ​
28. Ladi ​
29. Tabitha ​
30 Ruth ​
31. Safiya ​
32. Na’omi ​
33. Solomi ​
34. Rhoda ​
35. Rebecca ​
36. Christy ​
37. Rebecca ​
38. Laraba ​
39 Saratu ​
40. Mary ​
41 Debora ​
42. Naomi ​
43 Hanatu ​
44. Hauwa ​
45. Juliana ​
46. Suzana ​
47.Saraya ​
48. Jummai ​
49. Mary ​
50. Jummai ​
51. Yanke ​
52. Muli ​
53. Fatima ​
54. Eli ​
55.Saratu ​
56. Deborah
57. Rahila ​
58. Luggwa ​
59. Kauna ​
60. Lydia ​
61. Laraba ​
62. Hauwa ​
63. Confort ​
64. Hauwa ​
65. Hauwa ​
66. Yana ​
67. Laraba ​
68. Saraya ​
69. Glory ​
70. Na’omi ​
71. Godiya ​
72. Awa ​
73. Na’omi ​
74. Maryamu
75. Tabitha ​
76. Mary ​
77. Ladi ​
78. Rejoice ​
79. Luggwa ​
80. Comfort ​
81. Saraya ​
82. Sicker ​
83.Talata ​
84. Rejoice ​
85. Deborah ​
86. Salomi ​
87. Mary ​
88. Ruth ​
89. Esther ​
90. Esther ​
91. Maryamu
91. Zara ​
93. Maryamu
94. Lydia ​
95. Laraba ​
96. Na’omi ​
97. Rahila ​
98. Ruth ​
99. Ladi ​
100 Mary ​
101. Esther ​
102. Helen ​
103. Margret
104. Deborah
105. Filo ​
106. Febi ​
107. Ruth ​
108. Racheal
109. Rifkatu
110. Mairama
111. Saratu ​
112. Jinkai ​
113. Margret
114. Yana ​
115. Grace ​
116. Amina ​
117. Palmata
118. Awagana
119. Pindar ​
120. Yana ​
121. Saraya ​
122. Hauwa ​
123. Hauwa ​
125. Hauwa ​
126. Maryamu
127. Maimuna
128. Rebeca
129. Liyatu ​
130. Rifkatu
131. Naomi ​
132. Deborah
133. Ladi ​
134. Asabe ​
135. Maryamu
136. Ruth ​
137. Mary ​
138. Abigail
139. Deborah
140. Saraya ​
141. Kauna ​
142. Christiana
143. Yana ​
144. Hauwa ​
145. Hadiza ​
146. Lydia ​
147. Ruth ​
148. Mary ​
149. Lugwa ​
150. Muwa ​
151. Hanatu ​
152. Monica
153. Margret
154. Docas ​
155. Rhoda ​
156. Rifkatu
157. Saratu ​
158. Naomi ​
159. Hauwa ​
160. Rahap ​
162. Deborah
163. Hauwa ​
164. Hauwa ​
165. Serah ​
166. Aishatu
167. Aishatu
168. Hauwa ​
169. Hamsatu
170. Mairama
171. Hauwa ​
172. Ihyi ​
173. Hasana
174. Rakiya ​
175. Halima ​
176. Aisha ​
177. Kabu ​
178. Yayi ​
179. Falta ​
180. Kwadugu