This is the text of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme:
In the middle of last week I got back from a ten-day visit to Tanzania. Not only are my feet still moving to the rhythms of the music and the energy of the dancing – in schools as well as churches – but I have come home looking differently at what had previously been familiar.
My experience reminded me of the late German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt who wrote a book several years ago in which he kindly offered his advice to anyone thinking of standing for election to the German Bundestag: don’t even think about it unless you speak at least two foreign languages to a competent degree. Why? Well, because, he says, you can’t understand your own culture unless you look through the lens of another culture – and to do that…
Sermon preached at St Andrew’s, Sudbury on Sunday, 31st January 2016
for the Presentation of Christ in the Temple.
Come Holy Spirit, may I speak the Word of God, and in the Word may we see a vision of God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Thank you Greville for your invitation. I am a lay minister at St Stephen’s, Canonbury in Islington and am also involved in encouraging mission relationships between parishes and schools here in London and our sisters and brothers in the Anglican Churches of Mozambique and Angola through the ALMA Partnership.
This morning, I am delighted to be here to share something of the good news of partnership in the gospel as we reflect on prophecies and stories about messengers.
Malachi was the last of the Old Testament prophets. He spoke the Word of the Lord to the people of Israel about 500 years before the birth of Jesus. His name, Malachi, means ‘my messenger’ or ‘my angel’. He reminded Israel of God’s love and warned priests and people they had stopped being in love with God. Then in our reading this morning he announced they were going to see two messengers coming from God.
These messengers would be different. ‘See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord who you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, he is coming.’ There would be a messenger to prepare the way and a messenger of the covenant between God and his people. Two different messengers but working together for God who sent them. 2
Some 500 years later, two baby boy cousins were born in miraculous circumstances. One born to Zechariah the priest and his elderly wife Elizabeth became John the Baptist, and the other born to her virgin cousin Mary was Jesus of Nazareth. They were partners in the mission of God, both called to speak about the love of God, one to show the way to God is by personal repentance of things we’ve done wrong, and the other to reform God’s covenant of love so that God and his people can have a good relationship again. The cousins were different but were a partnership of messengers to God’s people.
In our gospel reading, Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the temple. It was quite a journey from Nazareth to Jerusalem, but it was important to them to make this thank offering to God for their son. They encounter two other people in right relationships with God, Simeon and Anna.
Simeon’s name means ‘he has heard’ or ‘he who listens’, listens to the word of God. The words he speaks to Mary and Joseph resounded for them and still resound for us two thousand years later as they are part of the liturgy of the Church. Simeon spoke of what he had heard God say, and of what he saw God was going to do through Jesus, and the spiritual pain that would cause his mother Mary. 3
Anna means ‘favour’ or ‘grace’, she was daughter of Phanuel which means ‘face of God’. She was recognised as a prophet and spent most of her time in the presence of God. Anna praised God and spoke about Jesus to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. 4
So here we have a story of two visitors to Jerusalem, Mary and Joseph, meeting with two local prophets, Simeon and Anna, in the presence of the child Jesus. In their different ways, Anna and Simeon both praise God for allowing them the privilege of seeing this child. They announce he is the revelation of God, that he is salvation and glory. In effect they say he is the Messiah, the Christ. They are messengers to Mary and Joseph. If Joseph and Mary had any doubt who this child was that they had brought to the temple, they can have none now. He is the Christ of God.
Dialogue leads to hearing God
In these two stories, we meet messengers from God and people who received words from God through them. Messengers are people sent with a message, like John the Baptist and Jesus, like Simeon and Anna. Each messenger is on a spiritual journey themselves. Those they speak with may also be on a physical journey, as Mary and Joseph were.
Partnership in the gospel is like this. We are a partnership of messengers to each other. A partnership of messengers to God’s people. We live in the world which Christ has redeemed for God, but ‘we only see through a glass darkly’ as the Apostle Paul put it. 5 Partners – messengers – can help us see more clearly.
Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu have helped us in the West to understand the African philosophy of Ubuntu that ‘A person is a person through other persons’. We need each other to see more clearly.
We say in our African idiom: “A person is a person through other persons.” A solitary human being is a contradiction in terms. A totally self-sufficent human being is ultimately sub-human. We are made for complementarity. I have gifts that you do not; you have gifts that I do not. Voila! So we need each other to become fully human.
This is also true of the different nations: that one people has particular gifts, a distinct world view, a cultural ethos, which is not necessarily better or superior to those of other people. It is just different and needs to be balanced by those of other peoples. So we find, for instance, that Africans have a strong sense of community, of belonging, whereas [Westerners] have in contrast a strong sense of the individual person. These attributes, in isolation and pushed to extremes, have weaknesses. For instance, a strong herd instinct can smother individual initiative so that the person is often sacrificed for the collective, whereas a too highly developed individualism can lead to a debilitating sense of isolation so that you can be lonely and lost in a crowd.
God is smart, making us different so that we will get to know our need of one another. We are meant to complement one another in order to be truly human and to realize the fullness of our potential to be human. After all, we are created in the image of a God who is a diversity of persons who exist in ineffable unity. 6
Building relationships in the world church such as yours with the parish of Chiuanga means you can be a partnership of messengers to each other. The Anglican Communion is held together through thousands of such relationships.
Based on the idea that God can be known only through personal relationships and personal love, Pete Ward suggests ‘Communication within the Church becomes an expression of divine life.’ ‘The Church is a place of divine encounter.’ Dialogue leads to hearing God and to sharing in the mission of God. 7
Around the ALMA Covenant are words written by Bishop Dinis Sengulane, ‘To be a partner is to be one another’s angel.’ As we now know from Malachi, to be a partner is to be one another’s messenger.
God of heaven,
you send the gospel to the ends of the earth
and your messengers to every nation:
send your Holy Spirit to transform us
by the good news of everlasting life
in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 8
‘Malachi The Prophet’ by James C. Lewis in Raw Noire Icons of the Bible. See ‘What would characters from the bible really look like?’ in HuffPost Religion [accessed 31 January 2016].
1 Corinthians 13.12.
Desmond Tutu, An African Prayer Book, (New York: Doubleday, 1995), pp.xiv-xv.
Pete Ward, Partnership and Mediation, (London: SPCK, 2008), pp.96-98.
‘The Fourth Sunday of Epiphany’ in Additional Collects, (London: Church House Publishing, 2004), p.9.
Sermon preached at St Stephen’s, Canonbury on Sunday, 17th January 2016 for the Second Sunday in Epiphany.
Come Holy Spirit, by the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ. Amen.
It’s a sign says John, the first sign
You will know that John’s Gospel is different from Matthew, Mark & Luke. His style is spiritual rather than historical, and it’s a gospel full of theology to meditate on. Being aware that his words may each be significant and have a deeper meaning is often the way to get what John is pointing to. Let’s take a look.
On the third day a wedding took place. What else happens on a third day? Well the resurrection of Jesus did, so perhaps this could be a story about resurrection, but it’s called a story about a wedding. I wonder if the same event could be both wedding and resurrection. I wonder whose wedding this was anyway. Who was the wedding between? Who was the bride and who the groom?
Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited. Mary is called by her name in the other gospels, but not in John. Mary and John were given to each other as mother and son by Jesus on the cross, so perhaps she is called mother because she was in a sense his mother too. Jesus’ mother only appears in John’s gospel here at the beginning of her son’s ministry and then at its end on the cross. In both cases, Mary is defined by her relationship to Jesus, she is the mother of Jesus, who John has already revealed is Son of God. So it’s Mary as the Mother of God who is the person we meet in John’s gospel.
She was there at the wedding, clearly having had an invitation, but perhaps as of right through her relationship with the Bride and Groom. I wonder what sort of invitation Mary had had. Jesus and his disciples were also invited, but perhaps the relationship with Mary had to come first before the others got to join the party.
Mary was told about the problem. Social disgrace was about to consume the Bride and Groom. Right now in this feast their world was about to collapse at what should be the most joyous party of their lives. Perhaps she decided the time and the place were right for God to intervene through their Son. Jesus complained a bit. Mum, I’m not ready yet. But Mary had heard that one before. In fact, she’d used it herself before with the Angel Gabriel, and look what had happened! The result was in front of her. Now she announces his commission herself. There are others who need to take part in the salvation of this world of bride and groom, and they need to follow his guidance.
Six water jars used by the Jews for ceremonial washing. Six. Enough to have one for every working day of the week. Washing with water to purify the body after the actions of each day and be clean to approach God. Replaced miraculously with wine, the best wine, the best possible wine said the master of the banquet. Water and wine. Wine which would come to represent the blood of Jesus poured out for us. Water and blood which would flow from the body of Jesus on the cross. I wonder who the master of the banquet might be. I wonder who the bride was and who the groom.
We do lots of wondering in Godly Play after exploring a story, and we might add, I wonder where you are in this story.
Where are we in this story?
I have offered a spiritual reading of this story, on which we can meditate. However we read this story, whether we read it spiritually or we read it as history, I think there are two theological principles which can help us experience the voice of God.
Firstly, relationships. Relationships come first
We believe in a Trinitarian God who is the Father who creates, the Son who redeems and the Spirit who sustains, and as we participate in this Trinitarian life we get to know God. The Greek Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas argues that the being of God is to be understood in and through ideas of relationship and community. For him, the being of God can be known only through personal relationships and personal love. Relationships come first. 2
Before there was a party and a problem, there were relationships. Mary knew the bride and groom and was known by them, they were so close that when there was a very serious problem, it was to their good friend Mary that they went. Mary did not intervene and try to solve a problem for someone she didn’t know. She knew them first, so she knew that when they came to her and said we’ve got a very serious problem, they really had got a very serious problem, she wasn’t being manipulated.
In Acts 2, we read this is what the Early Church did. Through meeting together they got to know each other, and then gave to anyone that needed something.
This is exactly what The Manna and Urban Hope do. Building relationships with those who come, getting to know people, building trust and building awareness of what is going on in the other’s life. From that relationship and trust, problems can be shared and talked about, and worked on together. Urban Hope and The Manna don’t make assumptions, don’t steam in and take control. They listen, build relationships and trust, and are then given permission to help. 2
This principle that relationships come first before giving is one I teach parishes establishing a world church partnership. At first, it’s so difficult to hold back and get to know people and their situation. Faced with a need we want to do something for the other, but so much more effective is transformation that comes from working on something together as we have with the church school at St Stephen’s, Luanda, as The Manna does in accompanying homeless and disadvantaged people and as Urban Hope does in working with young people. People without power don’t need people with power to exercise control through the power they have and get it wrong, they need people with power to set their power aside, be in their situation, and then journey together jointly.
So if relationships come first, then I wonder if we give enough priority to building them within our church community and how we might do that better together.
Secondly, dialogue. Dialogue leads to hearing God
Based on the idea that God can be known only through personal relationships and personal love, Pete Ward suggests ‘Communication within the Church becomes an expression of divine life.’ ‘The Church is a place of divine encounter.’ Dialogue leads to hearing God and to sharing in the mission of God. 3
There was a conversation. Mary presented the problem and Jesus clearly perceived she was asking him to act, but seemed reluctant. Then she acted and he acted, which all seems a bit mysterious, perhaps some of the dialogue was left out at this point or maybe something else was going on to prompt each of them to act in the same way, even though they had started out with different views. I think there’s a name for a mysterious something else, which brings us to hear what God wants us to do. We sometimes call this mysterious something the Holy Spirit.
John tells us that glory of Jesus was seen and his disciples believed that he really was the Son of God. The Word of God brings faith to life.
Paul wrote to the Church in Corinth about how we can do this together. ‘“No-one can say Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.’ 4 We’ve each been given by God some way of showing what God is like through our lives. We can’t all change water into wine, but when we put together what we can do with what someone else can do, we can do more together than we can do separately. There’s a Kenyan proverb, ‘If you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together. Desmond Tutu says, ‘We are made for complementarity. I have gifts that you do not, and you have gifts that I do not. Voilà! We need each other to become fully human.” 5
As the disciples were transformed by their encounter with God-amongst-them, so we too can be transformed as we discover God amongst us today in our sisters and brothers. For Mary, this meant that the Bride and Groom had wine at their wedding. She took the initiative, we too need to be initiative takers, confident that God is amongst us now, and that through sharing an initiative together, the Holy Spirit will bring about transformation that gives glory to God and builds faith in Jesus.
This wedding feast at Cana was just the start of Jesus’ ministry. John wrote about this being the first sign of Jesus’ glory at the start of the main section of his gospel. Towards the end of his second book, Revelation, John sees ‘The Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband’ and he hears a loud voice saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with humans and he will live with them. They will be his people and God himself will be with them and be their God.” 6
In this divine wedding feast, relationships come first and dialogue between us leads us to hear God through the Holy Spirit working in us and through us.
God of glory,
you nourish us with your Word
who is the bread of life:
fill us with your Holy Spirit
that through us the light of your glory
may shine in all the world.
We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord.
‘The Wedding at Cana’ in Coptic Icons [accessed 17 January 2016].
The Manna and Urban Hope are ministries of St Stephen’s, Canonbury.
Pete Ward, Participation and Mediation, (London: SPCK, 2008), pp.96-98.
1 Corinthians 12.1-11.
Desmond Tutu, An African Prayer Book, (New York: Doubleday, 1995), p.xiv.
‘Post Communion for The Second Sunday of Epiphany’ in Common Worship: Services and Prayers for the Church of England, (London: Church House Publishing, 2000), p.384.
It feels odd to be back in Croydon. I’ve just spent a couple of weeks with others from the church in this area, visiting the Anglican churches in Central Zimbabwe. It’s a link we’ve had for a long time, supporting each other in many different ways. While we were there we dedicated a hospital the church is building (at present the whole area has none at all), and attended an anniversary celebration. If any of you find church services a bit long, in Zimbabwe they can be into five hours on special occasions like that.
What’s really amazing to me is what the people in Zimbawe achieve in a country whose economy is at rock bottom. Unemployment is 80% (that is not a misprint). The currency collapsed years ago so everyone uses US dollars, and it seems to me, they have to pay US prices. But they haven’t given up…
Apparently it’s only been five weeks since I became a member of the Community of St Anselm but I’m sure my calendar must be wrong. Five weeks, and I can barely remember what I used to do on Monday evenings instead of strolling into Lambeth Palace. Five weeks, and I feel entirely naked without my wooden cross hanging on my chest.
In many ways, it is all still very new – I haven’t got into a good making-lunch-the-night-before rhythm yet, so I’m still spending far too much on convenience food, for instance – but already Community life has thrown up some big surprises.
You might remember that before I begun this adventure, the thing I was most worried about was living by a rule of life. Getting it wrong. Messing up. Being restricted. Losing my freedom. But if I were to pick a word to summarise this first few weeks…
When I speak with Muslim friends in the UK, they will often express horror and disbelief at the terrible atrocities they see being done in the name of their faith by extreme Islamists.
Sometimes, I have a similar experience as a Christian too…
Yesterday a friend of mine, Mark Perrott, who now lives in the US, visited the First Pentecostal Church in Aberdeen, Mississippi. He had gone along as a visitor for the first time.
Early on in the service, with children of all ages present, the Assistant Pastor got up to announce a competition for the church members. They would be awarding a AR 15 rifle as a prize to whoever manages to invite the most new people to their church this month.
The Pastor happily described the AR15 as a “killing machine” and added that the prize winner would also get 100 rounds of ammunition thrown in too.
So, the BBC is being hounded again as if the producers are leftie, hand-wringing imbeciles. Songs of Praise is coming from Calais, and some people don’t like it. Nothing to do with the French, of course.
Songs of Praise usually gets slagged off for being … er …Songs of Praise. Often the critique is that it is bland or anodyne. Well, not now it isn’t.
The decision to record in the Jungle of Calais, right at the heart of where migrants are trying desperately to find a new life in a place of safety, is absolutely the right one. There are two reasons for this:
Christian Faith is about God in the real world, not relegated to some imaginary fairy land where it can’t do any harm or embarrass anyone. The Psalms – the hymn book Jesus used – are full of lament, question, anger, frustration and challenge: why do…