Easter 7, Sunday after Ascension Day

 

Last Thursday was Ascension Day. My earliest memory of that day is of setting off in crocodile from school in New Street Lymington to St Thomas' Church. I don't recall much from the school service, but I do remember Canon Bostock telling us that it was a 'Red Letter' day, so it was a very important one. Ascension Day always falls on a Thursday, and as such is easily forgotten. 40 days after Easter, it marks the ending of the physical presence of Jesus on earth. The festival owes its inspiration to St Luke, who recounts it twice - at the end of his Gospel, and at the beginning of his second volume, the Acts of the Apostles.

The apostles stare at the sky, as Jesus disappears from sight. In one of the chapels at the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in Norfolk, there's a pair of feet disappearing through the ceiling. Pilgrims to the Holy Land will be taken to the traditional site of the Ascension, on the Mount of Olives. Now covered by a mosque, the visitor is shown a rock from which Jesus is said to have ascended; and on which he left the imprint of his right foot. 'And a cloud took him out of their sight'.

In the Bible, the cloud was the sign of divine glory. In the Old Testament when the presence of God appears on Mount Sinai, or in the Tabernacle, the portable temple of the Exodus, a cloud comes down. Clouds are, and they were particularly to ancient civilisations – mysterious, shining realities floating high in the heavens; or sometimes descending, and conceiling the peaks of the mountains. Their qualities of shining brilliantly and hiding made them a powerful image of the presence of God – the God who was the source of light, the God who dazzled and blinded, and couldn't be seen. His glory was a veiled glory. Thus the cloud expressed God's glory and presence. Out of a cloud a voice affirms Jesus as God's beloved Son at his baptism. On the mountain of Transfiguration a cloud descends and Jesus is glimpsed radiant with glory. At the Ascension he is taken up into the heart of God.

When Christians began to celebrate the great festivals of the Church's year and visit the holy places, the site of the Ascension didn't seem to be a priority. They went instead to Christ's birthplace. There, at Bethelehem, they affirmed that the Ascended Christ was the same Christ who had lived as one of us, assuming our human nature. As the Letter to the Ephesians puts it, 'Now, the word 'ascended' implies that he also descended to the lowest level, down to the very earth'. And St John in his Gospel tells us that in this coming down, in the Word become flesh, we see his glory, the heart and nature of God. And, paradoxically, that glory is seen most fully on a cross at Calvary, love and self-sacrifice unveiled.

Eric Gill AscensionThe sculptor and typeface designer Eric Gill was a complex and controversial character. He was born in 1882 and died in 1940. He was the inspiration behind London's Broadcasting House. He was also a gifted wood engraver. In 1918, he engraved his Ascension of Christ. There is the risen Christ, his arms and legs still bearing the marks of the crucifixion. Standing on tip-toe, he's looking heavenward, his left hand raised in blessing. He's in the very act of leaving the apostles. And it's interesting how Gill has chosen to portray them. Like their Master, the apostles are looking upwards; but this is the thing - their facial features, even their beards, are identical to his. The truth is - Christ's Ascension is theirs too. Life in God's nearer presence is our destiny too. In returning to the Father, Christ doesn't leave his humanity behind: no, he takes it with him; our humanity - praying for us to the Father just as he prayed for us on earth.

In the church's year, this Sunday, the last in Eastertide, is a Sunday of waiting, of expectation. The departing Lord said to his disciples, 'Stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.' They see Jesus go into heaven, and on the Day of Pentecost, in a gale of wind from heaven, and in fiery tongues of flame, the Spirit comes upon them. They, the disciples, are heirs and successors; and they go out into the world to share his life, and to proclaim his good news. Without them, without their spirited mission we wouldn't be here this morning. And there's a challenge, because the ascended Christ tells the disciples to get on with being disciples, to be disciples for the rest of their lives.

This is still our mission today. Like Jesus at his baptism, like the apostles at Pentecost, we too have received the gift of the Holy Spirit. We too have been sent out to be Jesus' hands and feet and eyes in today's world. And he gives us the same blessing and reassurance, 'Know this', he says, 'that I am with you always; yes to the end of time.'

Fr John.

(Image kindly given permission to use by the Tate Gallery)

Easter 6

THE VALUE OF PRAYER – BEAULIEU 17.5.20 by Revd Iain Morrison

IonaOn a retreat that I led on Iona a few years ago we focused our time together throughout the whole week on the subject of prayer and this was inspired in part by a sermon which the late Pope John Paul II delivered to thousands of young people at Ninian Park in Cardiff during his visit to the United Kingdom in 1982. We are fortunate in the western world that we have access to so many books on the subject of prayer but I want to lead you on a journey this morning to explore what is meant by prayer and how we are best able to enter into the real meaning of this subject which is first of all the activities of our Christian discipleship.

Christ Himself taught us how to pray but His instructions to His disciples led them into a radically different kind of prayer from that in which they had been nurtured in the orthodox Jewish faith. The God to Whom Jesus prayed was not the invisible, untouchable God whose name ‘Jahweh’ could not even be uttered, for Jesus knew that a much closer relationship was possible between God and Man in a dialogue (not a monologue) that enabled this to happen and to flourish. It is in the Lord’s Prayer that Jesus, when teaching His disciples how to pray, began with the words ‘Abba bishmaya,’ – ‘Our Father.’ The word ‘Abba’ was a word that was used and used still by children who speak Aramaic to this day – the daily language of Jesus and a language that is softer and more gentle than many dialects of Arabic. You may have heard it spoken by the actors cast in the controversial and Mel Gibson’s very graphic film ‘The Passion.’ Jesus used this familiar address to His Father to illustrate that we too are able to relate to God as a young child relates to his or her father, respecting his authority yet having the knowledge that we are loved, protected and guided by Him.

Prayer, however, is not confined only to our corporate prayer in church nor to the verbal utterances we might offer. Those of the Eastern Orthodox Christian churches, especially those in the religious life, are familiar with the ‘Jesus Prayer,’ which is way to a great application and perseverance in the art of prayer. The Jesus Prayer uses the simple words “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me a sinner.” It begins with these words being spoken softly and gently and allowed slowly to enter into the mind and as time progresses it becomes evident, by God’s grace, that these words gradually become an interior prayer. Any verbal expression then becomes redundant and it then becomes the prayer of the heart and the mind. It is when we have achieved this status that we become aware of God’s vibrant presence and are drawn into an intimate relationship with Him. We begin to hear His words addressed to us by name and our sense of purpose and being is slowly revealed.

Pope John Paul II spoke of prayer as a multiplicity of different levels ofr applications. It is in prayer, especially silent prayer or peaceful, quiet prayer, that we begin to focus our attentions purposefully upon God. We need to know even in our ordinary daily lives the whereabouts of someone before we can begin to communicate with them! We could not hold a conversation with someone else in some sort of void if we are unsure where they are or where we are!

I am sure that all of us are lovers of the open countryside: the hills, the rivers, the forests, the Downs, the lakes, tarns and lochs and all those other things of nature that can delight the soul and in such places we can sense and even be keenly aware of the creative forces of God in His handiwork:- the silver veins of a new dawn; the shimmering cascade of a mountain steam; the swish of the rising swell on the ocean tide; the call of the new-born lamb or the skylark winging her way high above with a canopy of sapphire as her roof; of a rainbow or the setting golden sun floating on the scattered islets in a darkening sky. God’s handiwork cries out to a world which is able to see, to listen and to feel the Divine presence. Unless we are able to distance ourselves from time to time and retreat from our ordinary, daily lives we shall always find it difficult to be aware of God’s presence in our lives and certainly to communicate with Him in prayer in ways that we find rewarding.

We need always to prepare ourselves for prayer and where we can hear God speaking to us: guiding us; comforting us; listening to us, we shall be able to say ultimately ‘Yes’ to God and a great joy will be come to us in that, despite the vastness of the world in which we live and the countless millions of people who live on its surface, God speaks to each one of us - and we matter to Him! He calls us by name!

When we become conscious of our prayerful state and that we are privileged because of the freedom and God’s grace and goodness to know Him at a more intimate level, then we begin to take responsibility for ourselves and to put aside perhaps the ways which we have done little to enhance our attempts at discipleship.

Every time we pray, we acknowledge that Christ is our way, our truth and our life and our prayers become channelled through Him to the Father. God knows us for what we truly are, whatever that may be, because only through Jesus is God able to experience every condition of Man. God in Jesus, shares our human experiences with us! By coming to know Jesus we come to know the Father and to detect His presence in our lives. “To have seen Me is to have seen the Father,” said Jesus to Philip. “The words I say to you I do not speak as from myself: it is the Father, living in Me, Who is doing this work.” (John 14:10).

This is why, when we pray to the Father, we conclude with the words: “through Jesus Christ our Lord,” for only by our knowing Jesus can we come to know God. It is Jesus Who represents humanity transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit into the unique state into which we are all invited to share. It is the same Holy Spirit that converted the Disciples and all the Holy Saints in over two thousand years of Christianity that can change us today! But why do we expend effort and struggle to attempt what seems impossible?

As Christians we know instinctively that we cannot remain static for we are all on a pilgrimage of great significance and hope. We may doubt that we shall ever achieve Sainthood but at least we can try and God will love us for it!

AMEN.

Easter 5

Stephen, Gareth, Deacon and Dalmatic

A joke that falls out of Christmas crackers: ‘How does Good King Wenceslas like his pizza? Deep pan, crisp and even!’ As the carol tells us, he was the king who looked out on the feast of Stephen.

We read of Stephen first, in the sixth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. The first generation of followers of Christ – a fledgling movement within Judaism - were beginning to establish themselves in Jerusalem. There's an energy about them: some of their adherents are prepared to assert themselves and challenge the status quo; others are more cautious, and critical of those of their number whom they regard as undermining their Jewish roots. Tensions are emerging. There seems to have been a particular issue regarding the daily distribution to the destitute, particularly for the widows. The Greek 'christians' complained that their Jewish fellows were benefitting. So the brethren chose Stephen and six others, whom the apostles authorised, laying their hands on them and commissioning them to serve ('diakonein') at table. These servants were key personnel. It's from this beginning that the Church traditionally derives its order of Deacons.

St StephenStephen is usually depicted in art wearing a Dalmatic, the deacon's vestment. Ever since then, individuals have been called, and entrusted to carry out specific tasks and duties; and in the case of ordained and authorised ministry, that role is affirmed through the bishop's action of laying on of hands.

Passionate and articulate, it was inevitable that Stephen's activities would attract attention, and his words soon put him on a collision course with the religious leaders. Dragged before the ruling council, he's accused of blasphemy against God and Moses, and for undermining the Law and the Temple. Stephen gives as good as he gets, and his detractors are enraged by his confidence and robust defence. They've heard enough, and he's dragged out of the city, and stoned to death. The early Church never forgot that moment. He became the first Martyr, a Greek word meaning 'witness'. They were burying the first person to give their life for their faith in Christ. To be a follower of Christ has been risky from the start, and as the Foreign Minister, Jeremy Hunt's recent Report revealed, its no less true today.

He concluded that as much as a third of the world suffers from religious persecution, and Christians are among the most persecuted. That said, over the centuries the Church has also hurled its stones against people of faith. The Church's Prayer Book once prayed for Jews, Turks, Infidels and Hereticks, “that they might be liberated from their ignorance, hardness of heart and contempt for the Gospel, and saved among the remnant of true Israelites”. Sticks and stones may break bones...but words can wound as well as inform. And sometimes even those who should have known welcome and affirmation have left, feeling ostracised and vulnerable.

Stephen's story lays bare the joy and cost of following Christ, and God calls us to faithfulness and commitment; to telling the truth that is in us.

Mr Jones

 

Recently I watched a DVD with the uninspiring title, 'Mr Jones'. It's based on the life of Gareth Jones, who's played by James Norton. Jones was born in 1905. He was a brilliant linguist and became foreign affairs advisor to Lloyd George. He witnessed many of the momentous happenings of the early 1930s, and his diaries provide an insight into the complexities of international relations at this time. Working as a journalist in Germany at the time Hitler became Chancellor, Jones found himself flying with him and Goebells. The following month he went to Moscow, hoping to interview Stalin about his economic programme and 5 Year Plan. His critique proved unpalatable, and some of those around him sought to play down the gravity of the situation. Thus Gareth became the outsider, gripped by the courage of his convictions, principled, fearless, telling it as he saw it. He was murdered, shot days before his 30th birthday.

David Lloyd George later wrote in the Evening Standard, 'Gareth shrank from no risk...I had always been afraid that he would take one risk too many. He allowed no obstacle to turn him from his course...He had the almost unfailing knack of getting at things that mattered'.

Stephen, Gareth, men of conviction and courage, and for whom the truth was non-negotiable. Stephen's death reflects that of his Lord: commending his spirit to God, and praying that his murderers be forgiven. We note that one of those holding the coats of those who stoned Stephen was Saul, that great persecutor of the early Church. And marvel, that very soon Saul would become Paul, one of the most remarkable leaders and defenders of the faith. Jesus said, “...I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14.12)

Easter 4 2020

Easter 4

The red numbers on my bedside radio told me it was 4.42am. I was woken by a sound coming from downstairs. As I listened more closely, it proved not to be the threatening sound of a burglar's footsteps, but simply 'Wesley' whimpering. Like a light-sleeping parent, I was soon alert, attuned to his voice, and his needs.

This 4th Sunday of the Easter season is known as 'Good Shepherd Sunday' because of the Gospel reading for the day. In Chapter 10 of John's Gospel, Jesus refers to himself as 'The Good Shepherd' (vs 11); and Jesus uses the images of shepherd, sheep and sheepfold to show his love and concern for us. One of the earliest Christian carvings is of Jesus as Shepherd. Many of us will recall from Sunday School days a framed picture: a blond Jesus immaculate in white, with piercing blue eyes and trimmed beard, a lamb resting on his shoulder. This romantic image is a world away from the reality that Jesus knew. It does not include living on the edges of society, the vulnerability and dangers of living outdoors, the odours, the loneliness and challenges of living with sheep rather than humans. The shepherd had no prominent place in their society at the time of Jesus. Because of the nature of their work, they were unable to fulfil their responsibilties to worship, and were regarded as unreliable witnesses. How remarkable, then, that it was first to some shepherds watching over their flocks that the birth of Christ was announced.  Sheep

We are familiar with sheep in our locality, and there are many lambs in our fields at present. In Beaulieu, Jenny Dolbear commented that her sheep definitely have a leader of the pack; they tend to follow the same paths within a field, and find the best grass; they instictively know how to look after their lambs, and when confronted by predators they can be fiercely protective. She has a pet sheep, who knows its name and responds just like a dog.  

Those observing and listening to Jesus were filled with questions: 'Who is this? Is he God's prophet? Could this Rabbi be God's chosen Messiah or not?' In the Bible, the ideal king is pictured as a shepherd, modelled on David, the former shepherd-boy. Facing the problems of keeping a nation together, he came to see that it was not that different from his task of tending sheep. The prophet Ezekiel has a striking account or careless shepherds neglecting their sheep (Ezek. 34.1-10), criticizing the priests and prophets of his time who neglected their duties. Some of Jesus' most stinging criticisms were aimed at the religious leaders, and those who thought they were religious, but whose preoccupations were with being noticed, and feathering their own nests.

Jesus warns against those who have no real commitment to those in their charge, seeking only to take advantage of them, and exploit them. Recently, our institutions, including the Church, have been forced to confront their failure to protect and safeguard those in their care. With more robust measures in place, and greater transparency, please God,we are more aware of our awesome responsibilities as pastors and church communities.  Jesus the good shepherd window

It is worth noting that when Jesus was speaking about the Shepherd, he standing in the Temple. The sheep around him were not skipping playfully around the Galilean countryside, but being prepared for slaughter; integral to the worship of the Temple. As they will be offered up in sacrifice on the altar, so will Christ be offered as a sacrifice. In his selfless offering, Jesus the takes the place of the victim, literally laying down his life for the sheep; the Good Shepherd has become the lamb. Jesus personifies tenderness, toughness and self-sacrifice, and his leadership involves physical involvement and self-sacrificial love. The life of this Good Shepherd matters less than that of his sheep. 'Paschal Lamb, thine offering, finished once for all when thou wast slain, in its fullness undiminished shall for evermore remain.' George Bourne (1840-1925).

The Ordination Service draws on the image of the shepherd as the ordaining bishop outlines the extensive pastoral profile to the congregation. To new parish priest is to be committed and trustworthy, and willing to search out those who are lost, guiding them through confusion. 'Remember always with thanksgiving that the treasure now to be entrusted to you is Christ's own flock, bought through the shedding of his blood on the cross....Serve them with joy, build them up in faith..'

The 4th Sunday of Easter is set aside in the Church's calendar to encourage all of us to think about Vocations. For some, this is a specific calling to authorised ministry - ordained or licensed. For others, it could mean serving God through faithful discipleship in everyday life. Everyone has a vocation, and by virtue of our baptism we are called to be faithful witnesses to Christ. As Archbishop Welby has said, 'Our first calling is to live life in all its fullness and to represent Christ in the world'. Each of us has gifts that we can use in his service. God never calls us to be something or someone we are not. Whatever stage we are in life, God is always calling us deeper into his life and work; inviting us to help build his kingdom of love and joy and justice.

Last week, I spoke of two faithful women who helped nuture my vocation when I was a teenager. They would never have described it in those terms, but their prayerfulness, and ability to come alongside me at an impressionable time in my life, made a difference. As did those other faithful souls, among them remarkable priests who had taken to heart their Lord's commission. Over these many years, the congregations committed to my charge have moulded me into the parish priest I have become. Thank God for you all.

On this Vocations Sunday, think about what God might be calling you to do for him, his Church, his world. Give thanks to God for all that he has done in your life, and continues to do. As St Irenaeus once said, 'The glory of God is a human being full alive.'

Father John

 


Philip Baxter – Director of Music

Philip has announced his retirement and it will take effect from the end of July. We were fortunate to secure him, and we shall miss his musicianship and leadership. Within twelve months of Philip's return from a decade in France, his sinus and breathing problems re-started. He has decided that a move to a drier climate would be beneficial. He is hoping to relocate to Spain, an area he knows, where he has family contacts, and where there is a flourishing Anglican church. At present we do not know when our church services will resume, but we shall hope to make a proper and public presentation to Philip at some stage.