Saturday, 30 May 2009

Sunday 31 May 2009 Pentecost : Melanie

Picture the scene :
I was in Cairo –
a student on placement.
It was a wonderful summer evening.
Clergy from across the diocese had gathered – this was their final evening.
Tables were set ; wine served ;
the bishop was in good spirits.
I had been persuaded to give an impromptu clown performance.
All went well –
I even managed a clown portrait of the bishop.
Face still painted,
hair sprayed bright green,
I headed off to my digs.
‘Wait’ someone shouted.
‘Don’t go’ – I hesitated,
I had no more material for an encore.
‘Can you come to our youth group?’ he asked in broken English.
Dates, times, locations were established.
‘Just one thing’ he said
‘Can you tell us what it means’
My mouth dropped open.
How could I explain that a clown doesn’t mean anything? that a clown plays, enjoys, but never has an underlying meaning.
I went to the youth group
and I have to confess
invented a theological meaning behind my clown act.

Here we are at Pentecost
faced with that same question
What does this mean?

We can only imagine the scene on that day.
The chaos as crowds gathered ;
The disciples behind locked doors,
terrified of going out for fear of the Jews ;
then the sudden wind, and fire.

No warning, no tell tale signs,
just bang! and lives were changed.

The bewilderment, fear, amazement
as the disciples struggled
to comprehend what was going on.

The new languages, new understanding,
new words, new power.

What does this mean? they asked.
Something so strange,
it was beyond explanation.

First there was the wind,
with a power and energy of its own.
Blowing this way and that,
beyond human control.

Then the fire, red flames jumping,
darting in so many directions.

This was not God as king,
judge, lord.
This was a new side of God,
an edge of God.

God the Holy Spirit
seen through shadows, guesses,
groping in the dark.

The edge of God
that is beyond human language ;
the edge of God
that is seen in the flicker of flame ;
the edge of God
that is felt in the breath of wind ;
the edge of God
that defies human description ;
the edge of God
that changes people in an instant.

No wonder they were amazed
and perplexed
and said What does this mean?

No wonder they struggled to find a language for this experience;
No wonder, 2000 years on we still struggle
to articulate, identify, analyse, those events.

How can we?
How can the human mind
begin to grasp an encounter
with the edge of God.

It’s like trying to grab reflections of sunlight
from a still pond; or gather colours of a rainbow.

Try as we might we cannot control God the Holy Spirit with our minds,
understanding, or language.

Yet how often we try to do just this.
Try to keep our well ordered
straight lines.
Try to maintain boundaries –
keeping them cut, manicured,
with borders that would be the envy of Chelsea.
Spend time snipping and shaping ;
creating elegant peacock shapes,
lions, exotic creatures. So busy are we tending our own neat lives that we fail to notice the breeze, the fire, the glimpse and hint that is the edge of God.

We fail to notice the colourful plant in the corner of the garden; its branches waving wildly in even the smallest breeze, making uncanny noises. Its fruit bright and tasty,
and with healing powers.

Or perhaps we have noticed, but there is something about this edge of God that is too incomprehensible; too other worldly; too out of control for our liking.

We prefer structure, symmetry, order,
human borders rather than God’s borders.

The trouble is unless we sniff the breeze,
touch the fire, we will stay contained,
confined, in our own garden; transformation will always be something that happens to others – to others who have dared to catch a glimpse of the edge of God.

Pentecost offers us a fascinating
new world. The disciples were changed
through their experience that day.
We too can be transformed, changed,
renewed. We too can encounter
the edge of God, and be bewildered, amazed, perplexed, and say to ourselves
What does this mean?

Sunday 24 May 2009, Easter 7, Acts 1:15-26, John 17:6-19, The Risen Ascended Christ Known Through His Church, Bruce.

The central panel in the east window at St Michael’s shows Jesus appearing to his remaining eleven disciples on that first Easter Sunday. It was to be through their testimony that the good news would spread.

Just before he returned to his Father in heaven, Jesus commanded his disciples to return to Jerusalem and wait for the outpouring of promised Holy Spirit. They are to abide in him, because they can do nothing without him.

Instead, they hold an election. Luke is recording this for us does not pass judgement, but more than one commentator has wondered if Matthias, of whom we never hear again, was not the true replacement for the traitor Judas. Much stress is laid upon the calling of Paul to be a true apostle. Matthias or Paul? Does it matter? It was of prime importance that each apostle should be a witness of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. The church could only be led by those for whom this was a living experience.

Here then is a paradox. God has decreed that the world will know the good news of his love through the flawed, contradictory life of his church. We aspire to be the best, and yet the ways that we live often seem foolish and hesitant. Not every decision made by a church council is necessarily God’s will. We need to be humble, always open to the possibility that we are wrong.

Notice, however, that Jesus in our Gospel passage lays stress on the ways that we are protected and kept safe, and sanctified, made holy, by the truth of his word, and (elsewhere) by the action of his sanctifying, Holy Spirit.

So we have a purpose in being here. The particular way that we express this is that we exist to Encounter God and Grow in Him. This is deliberately ambiguous: I need to encounter God afresh, every day, and I never stop learning and growing. We encounter God as we gather for worship and praise, and also in our smaller groups. But we also exist to help others who have not yet had that first encounter, or who are tentative, exploring.

What was God thinking when he entrusted this task to us? Are we not doomed to fail?

Fear not. Jesus has promised to protect us and to sanctify us. And he promised to fill us with his Holy Spirit. You will remember that we started to think about this last week, and I asked you pray the prayer from the back of the Yellow Peril each day: “Lord Jesus, fill me with your Spirit.”

But is the church not failing, in decline?

This is not true, at least not everywhere. It is not true in south America and Africa and large parts of Asia. It is true, though, that in the affluent west the historic church has less creditability and influence. We have been wedded to a parish model suited to the needs of Christendom, that endured for perhaps a thousand years. We have not recovered, however, from the enlightenment and the industrial revolution. What worked in villages and small settled communities has been lost in large towns and the explosion of mass media.

That is why some of us have begun to explore the lessons we can learn from Christians who have faced the dislocation of civilisation and society in a previous age. There have been times before where the civil authorities have seemed weak and rudderless, where tides of pagan thought and morality have swept away the moral boundaries and compass. It is instructive to examine the lives of these hardy individuals- Patrick, Aidan, Hilda, and the communities they set up at Iona, Lindisfarne, Whitby, and elsewhere. There are stories of early Christians that are frankly legendary and imaginary, but these people actually walked the earth of our country. They worshipped God, preached Christ, loved people, and formed communities in Ireland, Scotland Wales and England.

It is not possible to recreate their lives exactly, not would we wish to. We can, however, learn some important principles from them. We can work out for ourselves what it means to live lives of simplicity, purity and obedience. We can explore principles of life-long learning, spiritual journey, and a rhythm of prayer, work and re-creation. We can work together to become the church God wants us to be, in Camberley, in 2009, and have the courage to face renewal and change in the years running up to 2013.

The challenge is to live lives in communion, koinonia, with Jesus who is risen, ascended, glorified, and now prays for us. The challenge is to love God totally, and our neighbours as ourselves. The challenge is to worship with all of our hearts on Sundays, also seven days a week. The challenge is to allow God’s kingdom to come behind each of our front doors, wherever we live throughout Camberley and beyond.

Questions for Discussion

1. What most encourages us about being part of God’s church?
2. And what gives us most difficulty?
3. Jesus prayed for us to be protected (John 17:15), and for us to be sanctified. How do you respond to this?

Sunday 17 May 2009 EASTER 5 Acts 10:44-48, John 15:9-17, The Risen Christ: known by the work of his Spirit in our lives, Bruce

St Michael’s Purpose is to Encounter God and Grow in Him. Our Vision is to be a Growing Community of Faith, Open for All. We do not believe this is our idea but his. What does this mean?

We are to be open for all kinds of people, and we are to be open for all that God wants to do in us and for us.

In our readings in Acts in this Easter season we have reached a tipping point. The new church is open for all kinds of believers, it is even open for Saul; it is open for the ‘unclean’ as seen in Peter’s dream, and it is open for the Roman centurion Cornelius. God’s new kingdom is open for the whole world.

We forget the certainty that most early Christians had, that the church was only open to Jews. It took a God-given dream to persuade Peter to go against convention, all that he believed, and the wishes of his companions. He is impressed by Cornelius’ account of the angelic vision that had prompted him to send for Peter. In a state of wonder, he begins his sermon. He acknowledges that only God could have brought about these events. He tells the story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He announces that those who believe in Jesus are forgiven their sins, when he is interrupted. Cornelius and the whole gathering start to speak in tongues just like the disciples had on the day of Pentecost. God has poured out his Spirit on them, just as Jesus had foretold before his ascension.

Peter turns to his companions, and shrugs. They are astonished. They hear them speaking in tongues. It is unclear whether they are hearing people speak in their own language, probably Aramaic, or in strange languages that they do not understand. What they cannot deny is that God is obviously at work. How can they respond? Peter insists that since they have been baptised – drenched, immersed – in the Spirit, they should also be baptised in water. As you read through the Acts, you will see that conversion always involves belief in Jesus, and then baptism in water and baptism in the Spirit (sometimes accompanied by what would later become Confirmation – the laying on of hands by a senior elder or bishop). The order sometimes changes, but the total experience or package does not.

This is one way that we know that Christ is risen and active in his world: he sends his Spirit. His Spirit leads us into new experiences, and helps us to reveal God’s love to others, as we saw in Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian last week, and in his encounter with Cornelius in today’s reading.

How are we at St Michael’s open for all people? We have five regular types of Sunday service, all different. There is Prayer Book Communion every Sunday at 8.00am. There is a short Family Service every Sunday at 9.15am. At 10.30am we have Morning Worship, or Parish Communion, or Liquid Church. It gives us problems, because we are gathering a community of very different people, with different needs and aspirations. Humanly speaking, we would be better off just catering for one kind of person, but that would be to limit God.

How are we at St Michael’s open for all that God would show us? We have Encounter and discussion groups, quiet days, and we engage in joint initiatives with other churches such as 40 days of relationship. We are exploring insights from the Celtic church like pilgrimage, and six of us are off tomorrow to Holy Island. We are exploring the new monasticism, what it means to live in community in the twenty first century, and out of this has come the initiative to inhabit the church on Thursdays.

We are a growing community of faith. Jonathan Sax has described community as a place where everybody knows my name and where I am missed if I am not there. We need to be a community, and probably a collection of communities.

But we must also be open for all.

We must also be open for all kinds of people. If we are humanly successful at building community, we will become cliquish and inward looking. Only with the help of God’s Spirit can we build a community in his image. We will have fuzzy boundaries, be slightly untidy, and retain the urge to reach out to others, and share his love.

We must also be open for all that God would give us. We were all given the gift of God’s Spirit at our conversion. Some of us are more confident or aware in this area than others are. An analogy might help: when we are sent a new bank card in the post, we often have to ring a number in order to activate it for use. God is willing and waiting to hear our prayer for him to fill us with his Holy Spirit.

Jesus is risen: he sends his Spirit into our lives.

There will be fruit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. In other words, not just 40 days of relationships, but 40 years, or a whole life time of living lives that make it easier for others to encounter God.

There will be fruit – his Spirit will lead us into encounters with others. We will expect the unexpected, and realise that God calls all sorts of people.

There will be fruit – his Spirit will lead us into a wider, deeper encounter with God.

The work is God’s, but there are things we can usefully do. Every day for the next fortnight, pray with me to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Use the prayers on the back page of the Peril. Take part in the Day of Prayer for Renewal on Friday 19 June. Consider signing up for the Lost for Words course to be launched in June.

Here I am, Lord.
Is it I, Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go, Lord,
if you lead me;
I will hold your people in my heart.

Questions for Discussion
1. What examples can we give of people who would surprise us if they became Christians? How would we respond if they did?
2. How could St Michael’s be more Open for All? What would be the limits?
3. What experience have you had of God’s Holy Spirit? How helpful is the analogy of the bank card?

Saturday, 9 May 2009


In the Gospel reading we have just heard, Jesus paints a very clear and beautiful picture with a vine at the centre. As vines are not all that familiar to us, let’s mentally change the picture to one of a fruit tree we know personally – perhaps an apple, a pear, a plum or a cherry. We have seen them in glorious white or pink blossom this year and loved the sight. Now we await the fruit!

If we hold that picture in our mind, we can imagine the risen and glorified Jesus standing in our midst this morning. He is rooted in the eternal life of God for ever. That life-giving sap rises up through Christ and his outstretched arms. We draw on that life as we live day by day in him – attached to him by faith, by prayer and by mutual love like budding blossom and fruit on a tree. That is we how we experience the eternal life of God which is new every morning. And it is only as we are continually fed by that life-giving sap that we can live the Christian life day by day.

We have friends who have an apple tree in their front garden. Last year it had a bumper crop of fruit. The tree was laden and the branches bowed down under the weight. We were down there recently but it looked decidedly lacking in buds. We were told that it had done its stuff last year and there would be no apples this year! Well, the Christian life is not supposed to be like that! Jesus makes no bones about the fact that a fruitless life is no good, and Christians are to produce fruit not just once a year (let alone, every other year), but all the time. High on our agenda at St. Michael’s is the aim of ‘seven day a week Christianity’ – seven day a week fruit!

And Jesus is talking about ‘fruit’ not just blossom. The blossom may look very beautiful – we may look the part, say all the right words and be regular Church attenders – but if there is no fruit.....what use is that? Beautiful but no good for feeding hungry people, whether literally or spiritually.

And Jesus tells us that God our Father, like a good gardener, inspects our lives on a regular basis, and out come the secateurs and perhaps the compost. God will always seek to encourage growth and fruit, making us resort to prayer and response, sometimes by events in our life and circumstances which may be painful but which cause us to grow in character and maturity and useful output. When God ‘prunes’ our lives, it may well hurt, but his purpose is to make us more healthy and productive. (Let’s note, however, that output is not to be measured by frenetic activity. Some of the most spiritually productive people have spent a lifetime in prayer, sometimes by virtue of their calling, sometimes because illness or accident has meant that activity is very restricted.)

Fruit may take many forms, but today we are thinking about bearing fruit by reaching out to other people in the power of the risen Christ. I want to suggest two ways in which we can do this.

First, consider Philip in our first reading from Acts 8. He has the gloriously rewarding experience of guiding someone through to personal faith in Christ.

I would like you to notice two facts about this great story. The first is that Philip does not go running up to any old passing chariot and ask for a lift. He is instructed by an angel, and specifically guided each step of the way by the Holy Spirit. At the heart of this story is the fact that the man concerned is already seeking God. He is reading the scriptures and has come across a passage from Isaiah which attracts but greatly puzzles him. It is a passage which points to Jesus and the cross. Clearly the Holy Spirit is already at work in his life. What he needs now is an interpreter and a guide.

The best definition of evangelism I know was given to me years ago by a fellow minister, Gavin Reid, later Bishop of Maidstone. He was one of those instrumental in organising the Billy Graham campaigns in this country. It is very simple: “Look out for where the Holy Spirit is working, get alongside, and co-operate.”

Look out for people who are, in one way or another, open to the Gospel. The word ‘angel’ means messenger and can very well be human. So perhaps a good friend tells you someone is in need or seeking, and perhaps you can help in some way. If we prayed more and rushed around less, perhaps we would be more open to the Spirit’s leading as to who He wants us to talk to.

The second point from this story that strikes me is that Philip begins by striking up a relationship based on where the man is at that moment, and not starting immediately to preach. Start where people are, and not where you would like them to be. If we are truly open to the Holy Spirit and willing to be guided, even where it appears to take us out of our depth, we will be gloriously surprised at what God can do through us. We shall be blossoms that really bear fruit.

My second major point for today is simply that fruit may be in the form of actions rather than words. Today is Christian Aid Sunday. If we are really reaching out to bear fruit in the power of the Holy Spirit, it will be by a combination of actions and words. There is, for example, a new ‘Besom’ Group just launched in Camberley, which brings together Christians prayerfully to provide practical service to people in need. We need always to be on the look-out for lonely people to befriend, people who need a practical helping hand in one way or another, people who need our presence and our prayers. This is both an end in itself, and also usually the best way to lead into talking about our faith at a point when people will listen.

These are all very straightforward points, which really we know very well. I am not saying anything remotely original. But it is not just a matter of ‘knowing’ but of putting into practice. As James tartly remarks in his New Testament letter (1: 22 – 25): “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says......and, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it – he will be blessed in what he does.”

We are still in the wonderful season of Easter, of springtime, life and growth. As we rejoice in the presence of the living Christ and allow him to feed us with spiritual food in our Communion this morning, let us have in mind always that his nourishment is in order that we may bear fruit – not just pretty blossom, not just lots of leaves, not just handsome branches – but FRUIT! That we may actually put our faith into practice day by day. We need to review our lives with Jesus’ words in front of our eyes: “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourself to be my disciples.”

1. What do you understand by the word ‘Fruit’ in John 15?
2. Everyone finds it difficult to talk to others about their faith. Are there useful lessons we can learn from Philip in Acts Chapter 8?
3. No doubt Christians have helped you grow in your faith at certain times. Looking back, what approaches have you personally found to be most helpful?
4. One of our main aims at St Michael’s is to reach out to those outside our Church, both by word and deed. We often do things better together than on our own. List some of the ways we do this at present. Can we make them more effective? Are there new initiatives we could consider?
5. In order to ‘bear fruit’ we must keep very close to Jesus – the Vine – day by day. How can we do this? And how can we do it better than at present?