Lord’s Prayer at Pentecost: Pope Francis – Do not let us fall into temptation

Lord's Prayer 3 SheetsYou may have noticed in this news this week that Pope Francis has bravely stepped into one of the most treasured prayers in the Christian faith. He has suggested a different translation for ‘Lead us not into temptation’ in the Lord’s Prayer. His reasoning is that it is not God who leads us but rather we who fall and so the clause needs a bit of a re-write. This has been regarded as being highly controversial, but of course we know that there are several versions of the Lord’s Prayer and that’s before we open a Bible! There is the traditional language version ‘And lead us not into temptation’, known and loved for centuries. There was the Series 3 version of the 1970s ‘Do not bring us to the time of trial’. This was followed in the 1980s by the ASB version which reverted to ‘Lead us not into temptation’ and then that was carried through in 2000 into the Common Worship version we use today.

If we open a Bible the Lord’s Prayer becomes much more complicated and you can see this on the sheet you have been given (see image above) this morning with these three versions printed side by side – Matthew, Luke and the Common Worship. We see that what has become the traditional version – whether it is in 16th century English or contemporary language – is not the same as the biblical versions. The two versions, one in Matthew and one in Luke, are shorter and different. Luke is a mere sketch in comparison to Matthew’s fuller prose. ‘Temptation’ is only one of a number of places where the versions differ. The biblical versions plead that we are not brought to the time of trial. And crucial for our understanding here is not just the ‘trial’ or ‘temptation’, but the being brought into it.

The word translated ‘trial’ or ‘temptation’ refers to both inward temptations and seductions as well as outward trials and afflictions which test faith. So this is what hooks us from inside us as well as assaults that shake us from outside. The request in the prayer is not merely a call for protection from these, but a call to be preserved in them and from them. Put another way it is more like saying ‘Give me strength’ when under pressure. As Pope Francis is keen to stress, God is not pulling strings for his own amusement, where we get led off and tested, tempted and diverted from a righteous path. That is what we see in the Old Testament Book of Job. Here God is depicted as using Job as a test case, and all sorts of calamities fall on him in a bizarre game to prove a point, namely that Job is a good man and made of tough, resilient stuff. That’s the point of the story – resilience rooted in faithfulness to God. The Lord’s Prayer is not for warriors and the already resilient but more for the rest of us who struggle and need help. So this is not a ‘let me show you what I’m made of’ moment; that would be a very brave prayer indeed. We are frail and vulnerable, susceptible to all sorts of distractions and being led astray. When temptation or trial strikes, as we all know they do, this prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, offers a petition that we don’t yield to them, ‘let me not succumb’, ‘let me be delivered from the evil that assaults us’, whether that comes from within us or from outside of us.

That all seems to be a possible reading of the familiar phrase ‘lead us not into temptation’, though it would probably be better translated ‘let us not be led into temptation’ or ‘do not let us fall into temptation’, or even ‘give me strength when temptation comes’. So I think Pope Francis has a point. What we are praying for is God’s strength to hold fast through this; for spiritual resilience.

Today is the Feast of Pentecost. The day we remember the Holy Spirit coming upon the disciples, strengthening them and inspiring them. It is the day they found the strength and confidence to become Apostles, to be sent out to speak and tell the story of the hope we have in Jesus Christ. It is the day they received what they needed to be spiritually resilient. The gift of the Holy Spirit does this in a number of ways. One of them is through strengthening when the going is tough or we are under assault from different sides.

There are times when the temptation can be to snap or bite back, and a short rocket petition fired off for the grace and strength we need, is an example of seeking to be not led, to not fall into temptation and to be delivered from evil – both within and without. Arrow prayers like this, though, are emergency calls, first responder help moments. Better is to build up the resilience over time and here the gift of the Holy Spirit becomes more of a dripping trap filling up a bucket gradually than an emergency flood. Topping up the well comes best through the normal rainfall that seeps through the layers of rock to the underground watercourses, or flows down the hills to fill up the lake. Daily prayer, frequent bible reading, being still to draw on God’s loving grace, these things fill us and sustain us.

So praying for the Holy Spirit to come is the call on God’s grace to make us resilient, to give us strength in time of temptation so that we don’t succumb. This leads into being delivered from the evil within. There is another petition to be delivered from evil without, the attacks that threaten us, but that is for another day.

The Lord’s Prayer is a treasured prayer, but as we know there are different versions and that includes within the Bible. At its core is the calling on God’s Spirit to help and sustain us, to give us strength, to ‘lead us not into temptation’, as we seek to be followers of Jesus Christ and proclaim his hope and love.

Sermon for Pentecost, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 9th June 2019

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Stronger, wider, keener: Praying for the Holy Spirit with ‘Thy Kingdom Come’

17484893_300x300Over the last few years we have been encouraged to use this time between Ascension Day (which was on Thursday) and next Sunday, the Day of Pentecost, as a time to pray. It goes under the banner of ‘Thy Kingdom Come’, picking up on a key phrase in the Lord’s Prayer, and so as with all prayer we aim to align our wills with the will of God. There is a deep echo in these 11 days, because we are told in the Acts of the Apostles that this is what the Apostles did along with Mary, the mother of Jesus during the same period. They met to pray. (Acts 1:12-14) What other response could they make to whatever form the Ascension took than to pray? It takes some getting their heads round.

They had been through so much in such a short space of time. Having followed a movement, which they thought would take them in one direction, that of a political leader to rescue them and sort out all their problems, they find that he has a different agenda. His announcing of the Kingdom went way beyond the political to embrace all their hopes in this life and the next. Their leader had been killed and buried, and then appeared to them again, risen in a new form. And now having got used to him turning up for barbecue breakfasts on the seashore, accompanying travellers on a road and breaking through locked doors, he makes one final dramatic exit. And they see him no more.

Something profound and dramatic had taken place and they needed to work it out. It actually took quite a long time, as their vision and compassion was expanded with their journeys and encounters over the coming years, but the first stages take just over a week. In their praying they call on God, they seek to align their will with the will of God and they no doubt wondered just where this would lead. So we too are encouraged to do this, to pray in this period, to align our wills with the will of God and to wonder in delight and hope where this will lead. Some of the material that goes with ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ will no doubt delight, bemuse and even trouble us in different ways. For some the service last Saturday was a great liberation of praise and a different style to the usual Cathedral worship. For some it was not to taste and what is clear is that no one way catches everyone. We are different, we are quirky, we find different things move us.

The invitation that comes to us through the ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ initiative to pray for 5 people to come to faith in Jesus Christ may not feel natural and can sound like we are being encouraged to invoke a magic spell. Name the 5 people and God will do what we ask. That is to look at it the wrong way round. The initiative is always God’s and rather than us needing to expand the mind and heart of God, it is God who longs to expand our hearts and minds. And so I found Pope Francis’ message for this year helpful, that as we pray for the Holy Spirit to come, we pray that our hearts may be widened and enlarged. I think that we are to use this period of time to pray that God will make us stronger, wider and keener in our love, in our faith and in our witness. Let me explain what I mean by stronger, wider, keener.

The Holy Spirit comes to strengthen. It strengthens in confidence, in hope, in vitality to live and seek to transform as we are transformed. We pray for strength not to coerce or control, not to manipulate or exercise power and domination – my goodness there has been far too much of that over the centuries and we can see it still in abusive religion and the major failings that have come to light. No, stronger is a desire to be equipped with the spiritual resilience and resources to live to God’s praise and glory and be people of hope and light where there is much despair and darkness. And the disciples found strength came upon them on the Day of Pentecost when those puzzled and frightened followers became Apostles who stood up to proclaim the hope inside them. The reading from Acts this morning (Acts 16:16-24) gave us yet another moment when they spoke with confidence and passion, and the resulting imprisonment needed strength and resilience, hope and trust to cope with it, to be able to sing those hymns of praise in the prison cell.

After Morning Prayer on Wednesdays we gather as a clergy team here in the Benedict Chapel to look at a passage from the Rule of St Benedict. This week gave us humility and silence. If you know my colleagues well you’ll spot the irony of that; silence is not a frequent virtue. We read that humility comes through being confident in God’s love, in God’s promise, in knowing that while we are mortal and frail we are nonetheless loved. If our hold on that is shaky then we need the healing grace that will restore for us confidence in knowing we are children of God, and that may need all sorts of healing, but ultimately for each of us to know that we are a beloved child of God. In that strength we can face whatever comes. We pray that we will be strengthened by the Holy Spirit.

Secondly we pray for a widening of our concern, of our hope, of our vision, of our hearts. The reading we had from Acts last week took Paul on a boat trip across the Aegean (16:11-15). Lost in the place names is that he crossed an ancient continental boundary. This gospel has gone from a group of marginal Jews, to the dispersia and then on to Gentiles, non-Jews in Asia Minor, and now it has gone global, entering Europe. Others went in the other direction; tradition has it that Thomas made it to South India. The arms outstretched on the cross want to love the world. And so our concern, our passion is to be wider than we can imagine, or are even comfortable with. So here the praying for 5 becomes an openness to who God may be placing on our hearts in love and passion for Christ’s transforming love. This is not magic and manipulation because it is a wider yearning that comes from God and is a response to God, rather than being a conquest complex from our own egos. Remember that humility in the Rule of St Benedict, which seeks not its own glory but God’s, and it was linked with silence which is a quieting of the appetites, the untamed passions and dis-ease within us.

Praying for a wider love, for a wider vision is to be disturbed from our comfort and cosiness. The strengthening of the Holy Spirit is also a disturbing of the Holy Spirit. It touches social concern, the cry for justice. It touches building bridges to reach those we disagree with. On Tuesday I hosted a hustings in St John’s for candidates for our Parliamentary By-Election. There are deep divisions, not least on how we place ourselves in the European map. My photo has been taken shaking hands with people who are diametrically opposed to one another and we all have to reach across the current divides so that we can work for the common good, the flourishing of all people and be a community and nation at ease with itself. We pray that God will enlarge and widen our hearts.

Thirdly I suggested that we pray that the Holy Spirit will make us keener. Here there is a nudge. There is a passion for sharing faith, an urgency and a keenness for it, because it matters. We need to find some words to be able to say ‘this is why I do what I do’, or in the words of 1 Peter, to give an account of the hope that is within us (1 Peter 3:15), to name Jesus Christ as our Lord. And if the thought of this scares you, read Isaiah and Jeremiah and of Moses and Jonah, where you will find prophets who were scared stiff and in some cases ran away. This is why I began with prayer for the strengthening of the Holy Spirit, so that God’s grace will be with us.

Being encouraged to pray for 5 is not magic or manipulation but rather a response to the widening grace, the keener passion and the strengthening of the Holy Spirit. And our gospel reading brought this to the fore as Jesus prayed not just for his friends but for those who will believe in him through their word (John 17:20). The recognition was that the frightened, sometimes slow to cotton on disciples would actually transform the world through the power of the Holy Spirit which would come in a week’s time. So we make our prayer: come Holy Spirit; make us stronger, wider and keener in the service of God through Jesus Christ.

Sermon for Easter 7, Peterborough Cathedral, Sunday 2nd June 2019

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Thy Kingdom Come – Videos

17484893_300x300A series of films from Thy Kingdom Come to explore sharing faith:

Video 1

Video 2

Video 3

Video 4

Video 5

 

 

 

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Public Square: embedded engagement

jesus-heals-a-lame-man-mediumI’ve been learning a bit about ministry in the public square this week, where whatever you decide to do someone will take a pop at you – sometimes with justification and sometimes without. It is a ministry under the public gaze and therefore with some quite public scrutiny. Our hustings on Tuesday has gathered quite a bit of attention. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that over the past few years we have gone from not holding hustings at all to being seen as offering one of the major hustings in the city. That is quite an accolade for what we offer here, and yet another example of how we contribute to the public square. To my mind that is part of what it means to be the historic parish church for the city and as one person described us ‘the people’s church’, thinking historically about the contrast between the Abbey and the parish church. We frequently hold the common ground and as we sit in the public square so we connect with it.

The issue that triggered a bit of ‘direct feedback’ was over whom to invite for the hustings. Fifteen candidates is too many for a sensible debate and the Electoral Commission has given us advice on how to decide who to invite if we want to keep the hustings a neutral one and we have tried to follow that. The political scene this time is complex and fragmented. There are more parties because existing parties have broken up and new ones been established. So in addition to the four parties represented on the council, and one that used to be, there are some new kids on the block and getting the measure of all of this brings its challenge; more art than science. That means some won’t agree with the decision we have made to limit how many we invite and in the age of Twitter they say so, linking with people from far and wide who decide to make sure we know their thoughts too. We want to be fair, within the limits of space and resources. We have eight lined up and an interesting evening lies in store.

I have some sympathy for those who think all candidates should be there, and if there were fewer of them that would be possible, but can you imagine listening to 15 people speaking for 2 minutes on each question, plus the right of reply when one of them says something they feel they have to correct… We’d be here into the early hours of the morning or only get through three questions. And there are quite a few very important issues that we face at the moment, beyond the one that is in the press all the time.

Jesus faced challenge and direct feedback in our gospel reading, and some of it was hostile. The clue is at the end of that passage (John 5:1-9) where it simply says ‘Now that day was a Sabbath’. You just know trouble is coming. Healing on the Sabbath is deemed to be work, and work on the Sabbath is bad. So to some people’s way of looking at it Jesus has done bad and he will be picked up on it. The man has been ill for 38 years and yet when it comes to getting into the healing springs someone pips him to the post. The belief was the first in when the waters become troubled would succeed in being healed. It’s an odd view given that by definition the one who needs it most will be the slower off the mark. Perhaps this is another of those areas where Jesus turns criteria upside down. Those at the back, come to the front. Those who are first are last and the last first. Those who are usually ignored are the ones who are heard. The passage continues where we hear of how those who took a keen interest in these things did indeed take issue with Jesus for breaking the Sabbath code and it winds them up even more to try to kill him. That sounds quite excessive, but we live in an age of extreme responses too. No wonder many people keep their views rather to themselves, and that makes judging the political mood rather hard at the moment as well.

I was asked to write a piece for the journal of the Society of St Francis, the Franciscans, on city centre ministry. This was for their latest edition on urban theology. I wrote about this church [St John’s] being a place of connecting. By virtue of where [we are] we connect with people as they go about their business. As an ancient sacred place in the heart of the public square it is a place where God is met and also where we can meet with those who are in the heart of the city, whoever they are. Connection and connecting is at the heart of who we are in our life in Christ. This is not just passive, but actively proclaims peace. And with this we proclaim and reflect God who comes among us in Christ Jesus, connecting and linking earth and heaven, bringing healing to those most in need. Some preferred to remain remote and distant, but God in Christ refuses to do this and that brings him to heart of life, to where the cry is loudest even if easily ignored. It is not ignored by him. It brings him to the ones overlooked and not noticed by others who queue jump, as with the ill man in our gospel reading.

This connecting, this noticing and proclaiming peace for the ignored, those crying out, is in our title deeds. Presence in the heart of the city is a beacon ministry, some of which we never see. It is one of making connections and facilitating connections, of meeting, hosting and caring, so that the reconciling love of God in Christ may breathe out blessing and hope. God is found in the bustle and being present where it bites rather than at a distance or remote location. This ‘touching place’ is where heaven meets earth as it really is and where its need of redemption is clear.

Some like what we say and do, and some don’t. On Tuesday we will offer a neutral space where divergent views will find welcome and a space to present their cases. This is an important part of who we are and our vocation for this city. The person elected to represent us in this by-election will have a voice in Parliament where law is made and the cause of justice – what we often call the Common Good – will be advanced or require that they speak out or challenge. This is a sacred duty and one we are right to make space for. It is a ministry of presence and engagement, what I call ‘embedded engagement’ in the thick of it. And we will continue to pray for those standing for election, and for those elected. This is a sacred duty we carry out with generosity and thanksgiving. God is present bringing peace and hope in the thick of life and at its margins. So are we to be.

Sermon for Easter 6, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 26th May 2019

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Greater love shining through in darkness of terror

police lightsThere have been some very moving stories this week coming out of the inquest into the London Bridge terrorist attack in London in June 2017. These stories tell of how some people were caught up in it and couldn’t get away, how others went to the aid of those who had been injured and put their own lives at risk, and some losing them in the process. This is people behaving at their best and bravest. Some were uniformed officers, others were just members of the public out relaxing and enjoying a summer evening. They describe the horror and extreme violence. The advice we are given about terror attacks is to ‘run, hide, tell’, in that order – and that is on the poster on the noticeboards in both of our churches. First get away and to a place of safety. Hide so that you can’t be found and therefore remain safe. And then, only then, if it is safe to do so raise the alarm so that help can come. It is good advice all things being equal, but there is something in the human spirit that it doesn’t quite touch. Something profound is missing.

None of us know how we would respond in this kind of situation and I pray we never find out. Some of us may be more impetuous and rush in without really thinking about it, others more cautious and perhaps make the braver decision to go in fully aware of what might happen, others naturally scared and hide. But those who went to the aid of those who were bleeding or tried to defuse the situation, even picked up a baton or chair to try to protect, were doing something profoundly human and instinctive. It is the response that fits our Gospel reading this morning more closely than ‘running and hiding’ does. People are more complicated than that mantra implies and are capable of sensing that there is something greater at stake than even their own safety. Deep down there is a defiance that says ‘we are bigger than this’; ‘we are not going to allow your violence to define and control us’. ‘We are going to show that this is how we live, displaying love for friend and stranger, for our fellow human beings in their distress’. ‘You will not succeed in destroying our standing together’.

The Gospel reading brought us Jesus’ command to love (John 13:31-35). It comes from a much longer discourse at the Last Supper where Jesus gives teaching about loving service in washing their feet (13:1-20), talks of himself as the Way, the Truth and the Life (14:1-14), promises the Holy Spirit (14:15-31), refers to himself as the True Vine and that they need to abide in him if they are to be fruitful (15:1-11). Abiding in his love means that they show who they are. He then talks of no one having greater love than to lay down their life for their friends (15:13). This is a phrase I barely understood, thinking it to be about how Jesus gives his life, until I spoke with army veterans. It is of course a phrase used on countless War Memorials and at Remembrance occasions. This is the military way, when a comrade in arms will lay down their life for their comrades, and what is more they know their pals will do the same for them. That bond makes an army strong – it is a commitment to one another that realizes that they are strong together and divided they fall apart. The command to love is no soft option. It is a bond to unite even in the face of danger, especially in the life and death moments of battle, to belong to one another so deeply that we will even sacrifice ourselves for the other. And that is of course what Jesus is referring to, because he will give himself for the world.

So ‘run, hide, tell’, may be good advice, but there are moments when it cuts across this ‘greater love’ and the tendency we all have to go to the aid of another in distress. This can matter more to us. Those who went to the aid of others on London Bridge didn’t ‘run’ or ‘hide’ and some of them were themselves killed. They laid down their lives not only for their friends, but for strangers too, which is very open hearted. Love is what binds us together and it is encouraging that people care enough and have enough love in their hearts to go to the aid of another in such dire distress. When the chips are down, then the true defeat of terrorism is in that spirit of compassion and care, selfless love shining through.

This is an important bonding to hold as we are going through a divisive time at the moment. Talking with different candidates for the by-election, a number of them have spoken about how divisive and toxic our political discourse has become. We have to refuse to allow this to consume us. One issue, that of our place and connection with the European Union, must not destroy our common bonds. I suspect we may have to make another decision on this, be it a vote on whatever deal remains on the table, no deal or revoking Article 50. However that vote comes out – and we may get an indication this week with the European Parliament votes – we will have to work hard to heal the divisions and respect one another. There was an interesting programme on Radio 4 this week, where two political commentators, Matthew Parris and Isobel Oakeshott, were put in a room with a conflict resolution expert. The task was simple, listen to the other, summarise the other’s position and show them respect and honour, even if they didn’t agree with it. Honour and respect will be a vital outworking of the love we are called to, where we know we belong together. In this bonding we stand, without it we disintegrate.

The gospel reading presents us with a greater love that is to be the character in which we follow Jesus, show that we are grafted onto his vine. That love is the way even when we face the darkest moments, and especially when some would try to drive us apart in fear and dread. We show the human spirit, the power of love in our hearts when we refuse to let them. One of the most hopeful aspects of recent terrorist attacks has been the way love has shone through and people has shown that there is indeed no greater love than to lay down your own life for your friends, or even for strangers.

Sermon for Lent 5, St Luke’s Church, Peterborough, Sunday 19th May 2019

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Meeting God in the City Centre

IMG_2825City centre life is full of buzz and activity; it is never dull. Peterborough Parish Church, where I am vicar, is in the heart of the city square and provides the backdrop to so many events, to markets, teenagers hanging about outside McDonalds, buskers and people sitting on benches. People come and go, pass by noticing and not noticing.

As with so many other urban centres we have seen a massive rise in the number of rough sleepers, taking up residence at night in shop doorways and then moving on as the day begins, only to return after hours to bed down again. Some sleep in the church porch. We pick up the cardboard used as a mattress, sometimes sharps from drug taking, and clear away the urine and other signs of bodily functions. Finding God in the city comes in the thick of life, not as an escape from it. In looking at this I want to explore briefly four areas: the city as a meeting place, a trading place, an hospitable place and a vulnerable place.

Human beings are social creatures. We are not made to be alone or for isolation. The Bible starts in a garden and ends in a city. It brings relating to the forefront of our living and as the story progresses so it also brings to the fore tensions and conflicts, love and passion, care and neglect, plotting and cooperating. Meeting others is at the heart of a city centre; it is what the public square is for. So ministering in the city centre is one of encounter and welcome. We become a physical presence where we hope people will be able to say, borrowing George Herbert’s phrase, ‘Love bade me welcome’.

A place of connecting is also at the heart of who we are in our life in Christ. We connect to God and one another as we are well placed to exhibit a ministry of peace proclaiming and making. This reflects God who comes among us in Christ Jesus, connecting and linking earth and heaven. He is, as St Paul put it, the mediator, the one who enables at-one-ment with the Father. And so all the opportunities the public square offers to connect, reconcile, speak peace when there are tensions or moments to stand in solidarity as we share the public platform with those of other faiths and none, these are held and brought deeply into the heart of God.

One of the ways human beings connect and build bridges is through trading. The exchange of goods and services, supplying needs and enrichment of living, through the produce of creativity and skills, these have led to the crossing of frontiers and barriers of land and sea, rivers and hills. The market square is a further expression, even a vehicle and engine of the connecting and reconciling. When nations fall out, when isolationist agendas are propagated it is the traders who bring us to our senses with the drive and incentive to free up the flow of goods sharing the ‘work of our hands’, and with these encounters ideas travel in the conversation.

The city centre is naturally a place for cultural and thought exchanges. With the meeting and trading comes the chance to talk. There are those who come and shout at passers by – usually threats of damnation and how God will judge them! There are those who rant and make lots of noise, drowning out any hope of thought or encounter. But not all. For others a diversity of celebrations and commemorations (and we see a lot of them) is an opportunity to learn and listen, to delight in new insights and share from treasure boxes our greatest hopes and thanksgivings (gold), our prayers (frankincense), our pains and healing (myrrh). Magi still call by. They are an opportunity to listen and speak, for not so much ‘spiritual capital’ as ‘spiritual currency’ of exchange.

Cafes, restaurants and bars abound. People come and relax, making the most of hospitality to share stories and laugh with friends and colleagues. Teenagers eat burgers and chips, chicken wings and bring their joy for life. People sit enjoying the fountains – small children delight in the playful spurts. Last summer I met a couple who were exercising their pet dragon on the grass outside the church while they enjoyed a beer from a bar across the road! In a city day trading turns to night economy and at best God’s goodness is shared, refreshment found and settings are restored. “It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest… for he gives sleep to his beloved” (Psalm 127:2). Re-creation is found in the heart of the city, the soul re-found, as trading place becomes hospitable place, and we reflect the hospitality and generosity of God.

Not everyone in the city, though, delights to be there or is there with purpose. Some, as mentioned at the beginning, are there because there is nowhere else to go. They sleep in shop doorways because they have no bed, can’t cope with the environment of the hostel or their complex needs are too much for them to handle. On my way to buy a paper at the beginning of the year I counted 15 rough sleepers in shop doorways around the city square. This is just the tip of a much bigger picture, there are so many more in tents by the river, in bushes and in the outlying streets. The churches have clubbed together to provide a pop up Winter Night Shelter which progresses round a different church or hall each night. A Christian charity of which I am a trustee, working in partnership with the city council, GPs, housing and benefits advisors is offering a pilot scheme for a day centre using a property in the Cathedral Precincts. As soon as it opened the need was clear, as was the commitment to make it work. Outreach workers spend time with those sleeping rough to help them begin that long journey from despair to hope, from abandon to purpose. And it is a long journey to travel from someone being in a place where they just don’t have the energy, the drive to summon the effort to rise up on their own. This does not come with a leaflet or a referral. It comes much more slowly and is helped by being truly present, truly alongside, truly incarnational. A church in the city square doesn’t commute or visit, it is there 24/7. It lives among those who share the space.

Some are there because they are lonely and some are easily led astray or befriended by those who wish them harm, highly vulnerable to be exploited. There are those who cry out without words and who will only open up if they feel safe to do so. Chaplains with time to talk, with an imaginative piece of artwork that opens conversations stand a chance. But not all respond or are easy to reach. We pray for those who are around us, not knowing what the intention of that prayer is beyond their wellbeing, their life being held in and by Christ and God’s peace to bless them. Our prayers open a channel of grace as we intercede, connecting and sending the power of God’s love.

As we encounter the vulnerability of the others we learn about our own vulnerability. A market place of faiths and ideas means Christian presence has no monopoly or right to be heard even from an historic base; our voice has to be earned in the present. It is the compassionate heart that gives this voice credibility, not least with civic leaders. It is a presence 24/7 that abides in this place, not just during office hours or on fleeting visits. When everyone else goes home we are still here and often on the front line. Incarnational ministry means being there, this is our dwelling place, where we point to heaven and earth meeting in the buzz and loneliness, the hurrying and pausing, in the being rooted or having no where else to go.

Presence in the heart of the city is a beacon ministry, much of which we never see. It is one of making connections and facilitating connections, of meeting, hosting and caring, so that the reconciling love of God in Christ may breath out blessing and hope. God is found in the bustle and being present where it bites rather than at a distance or remote location. This ‘touching place’ is where heaven meets earth as it really is and where its need of redemption is clear.

First published in Franciscan, volume 31, number 2, May 2019

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Going viral – Refusing to be silent about hope in Christ

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Peter heals Aeneas (Acts 9:32-35) – tapestry in Peterborough Cathedral

Today our first reading (Acts 9:36-43) requires a geography lesson and a recap, or more to the point a fill-in. Last week we were with Saul on his journey to Damascus and today we have jumped to Peter in Lydda. Lydda is a regional centre, about 25 miles north west of Jerusalem on the road to the port of Joppa, which served as the main port for Jerusalem. Joppa is a further 11 miles west. Lydda is on the crossroads between two main routes, one going east-west from Jerusalem to Joppa on the coast, and the other going north-south between Syria and Egypt. It is then a major place, one where travellers meet and as with all marketplaces and intersections it is a place to exchange news and ideas as well as goods. So Peter is far from hiding, he has gone to a major place where he can’t help being noticed. These disciples are not keeping quiet as they had been instructed to do and are doing anything but keeping their heads down.

That brazen ‘out and loud’ approach is significant. Earlier in Acts (5:17-42) we hear of Peter being arrested and put in prison. Prisons in the first century were more like being on remand than a sentence or punishment in themselves. They were the place you were held until it was decided what to do with you. There were no provisions, so friends and relatives would need to bring you whatever was needed including food. This sheds a rather different light on Jesus’ teaching “when I was in prison you visited me”, you cared for those in a desperate plight. Prison could well have led to a death sentence. The charge would have been a serious one. The Roman cultic worship was obligatory and the Jewish faith had an exemption so if the disciples were charged with being outside this exemption and speaking against the cultic religion the sentence could easily be death. This pops up time and again in Acts. Paul spends long periods in prison with the threat of death over his head. A number of his letters were written from prison, which rather gives them an edge.

Acts describes a miraculous escape. Peter is freed by a visitor, a messenger from God, whom it calls an angel. A visitor is not unusual, because that’s how you get fed, so who knows what actually happened. He is freed and despite having been told not to speak, and even flogged to try to shut him up, he is found in the market place proclaiming his faith in Jesus Christ at the top of his voice. After this he travels, going ‘here and there’, as Acts describes it, and finds his way to Lydda. Again no hiding place, not a quiet backwater where he can keep his head down. These disciples are being defiant and confrontational. Why? Because they believe the message they have is so life changing that it can’t be kept quiet. It just has to be told and the best way to spread news is to go to the main east-west north-south crossroads. Today it would be posted on Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and they would do something to get on the main evening news. They want this message to go viral.

Shortly after Peter arrives at Lydda, he makes news by healing a man named Aeneas, who has been bedridden for 8 years (Acts 9:32-35). His message is clear and evangelistic, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you”, and with that he gets up and makes his bed. This causes a wave of conversions. People see what has happened and are impressed.

Our reading this morning picked up the story as news arrived that a much-loved saint of Joppa had died (Acts 9:36-43). Tabitha seems to have been a skilled seamstress and as people do when a talented person dies they treasure their work. Someone who has worked wood, embroidered tapestries and fine needle point, knitted jumpers and scarves, even tea pot covers, these all go on display and link us to the one who has died. A number of years ago I took the funeral of young animator and when I visited his widow she showed me films he had made. It was his life on display and being treasured. Peter decides to travel the 11 miles to visit. Given how quickly funerals and burials happen in hot climates, this seems to happen very quickly, possibly the same day. If they set off straight away, the turn around at 3 miles an hour is about 8 hours.

What happens next is reminiscent of Jesus bringing Lazarus back to life. Just as Jesus calls “Lazarus, come out” as he stands at the opening to the tomb (John 11), so Peter says “Tabitha, get up”. Unlike the healing of Aeneas, he doesn’t bother with invoking the name of Jesus. As Jesus did, so his disciples are to do. As he said in our gospel reading: “My sheet hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” (John 10:27) They show that they are his Apostles, sent by him, and that his message has credence by doing what he did.

That’s quite a challenge. I can take the implied call not to hide our light under a tub, to quote Jesus. We are to be people who will give an account of the light and hope that is inside us. If we don’t no one will know why we do what we do and so it will be a witness to nothing other than being nice (assuming we are being nice that is). And while Christianity is supposed to make us live graciously and generously, welcoming all with the love of Christ, as I’ve written in the newsletter this time, it is because this displays the light and hope we have in Jesus Christ, risen from the dead; it springs from this life and love, faith and hope. It is not just ‘niceness’. Anglicans are not known for the exuberance of their witness and talking about Jesus as the light within them. It’s a bit of a seat shuffler, being asked to do that. But developing a few natural phrases wouldn’t hurt to make this go viral.

So if we struggle a bit with giving an account of the light, healing the bedridden let alone raising the dead is going to take us to another level. And I don’t know of any occasion when I’ve raised the dead or healed the sick. I’ve blessed people who were dying and some have duly died, hopefully with a sense of peace, but some have recovered – dramatically. I’m too much of a liberal sceptic to claim the credit or even attribute it. So these are passages that make me scratch my head.

There is a film, called ‘Breakthrough’, being advertised in the cinema at the moment. We saw a trailer for it last Sunday evening while at the Showcase. It is about a 14 year-old teenage boy from Missouri who falls through the ice on a river and seems to drown. He goes into a coma with no pulse for 45 minutes. Everyone is encouraged to pray for him and he recovers. It claims to be a true story. The film has clearly been made as an evangelistic tool, but I’m left shuffling in my seat, uneasily slurping on my drink and eating popcorn, with full sceptical alarm bells going off in my head. How much of this has a natural explanation? What has really gone on here? The factors in his favour seem to have been the quick and skilled response of the medical team and that it was a cold water drowning. Here the physiological response to the shock, the bradycardic response, causes blood vessels to constrict, the heart to slow down and divert blood to vital organs that need it more. The brain cooling so quickly can also make it more likely to survive. Who knows what condition Tabitha was in as she lay assumed to be dead in Joppa in our first reading.

The word miracle means a marvelous occurrence that triggers faith. The world itself is such a marvel. Medical science is awe-inspiring. So I’m not looking for proofs, it is after all, as Jesus taught, a Godless and faithless generation that looks for signs. Rather I see those signs all around each day, and each day we are called to live as people who bring life wherever there is death or life is being sapped. That might be in aid, as with Christian Aid Week – which begins today, in the politics of hope and justice – as we call for in an election. It could be in the countless ways we bless and heal, comfort and show the love of Christ. Life is brought in the way we affirm God’s goodness in and through these wonders. Whatever it is, the call that comes out from Peter is to be prepared to give an account of the light and hope in us and proclaim the overarching sovereignty of God. This is God’s world, our life comes from God and we live it for God. That is the message we need to make go viral, by whatever means. God is good, the world is awesome, and in Jesus Christ life is sacred in his sight.

Sermon for Easter 4, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 12th May 2019

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