Ways of guidance

A motorist once stopped his car in a Wiltshire village, and asked a passing local: ‘Excuse, could you tell me which way to go to get to Bristol?’ ‘Oooh,’, said the villager, ‘if you’re going to Bristol I wouldn’t start from here.’ And there’s the guy who stopped in Surrey and said ‘Leatherhead?’ to which the reply was ‘Potato face!

Knowing which way to go in life is a question which affects many people. We feel the need for guidance. Of course there are those who seem to find their way in life with a quite untroubled ease – everything they do seems a natural progression without wondering whether it’s the right thing. But many of us seek God’s guidance.

It may be for the big things in life: what career to follow, where to live, which school to send the children to. It may be for smaller day-to-day decisions – which route to follow on the journey, a choice of holiday cottage. It may be decisions which involve others such as which project to develop at work or in church. In all of these things we can seek God’s guidance, we can ask him to show us what is best, the right decision to make, what his will for us is and how it fits in his plan.

There’s a pretty key assumption lying behind that and I want to make it clear. Christians believe in a God who loves us, who cares about us as individuals and who therefore guides us. That’s an amazing thing – I was in sporting event the other day and struck by the crowds. Thousands and tens of thousands of people – you can tell I live in a small village and don’t get out much – and I was thinking to myself ‘How on earth does God know each person and care about them?’ But he does: remember how Jesus said that sparrows are two a penny but God knows every one?

It’s wonderful. It didn’t have to be like that. Imagine an indifferent God who creates a world and looks on with detached interest to see what it will do in the way that you or I might observe a nest of ants going about their business.

Or he could have given us general rules to obey like a herd of cows, a time to come and a time to go. Or at the other extreme, we could imagine a God who was a dictator, moving chess pieces around.

Instead God gives us individuality, free will and moral responsibility. He grants us liberty to fulfil our desires and the chance to grow in discernment. Sometimes Christians think of guidance as being a bit like a treasure hunt: you follow the clues, you go from Bible reading to prayer to wisdom of friends to common sense to signs to a feeling of peace and when you’ve found all the clues you get the answer. As if God knows what’s best but hides it and we then have to find his will.

Perhaps we could think of guidance being more like orienteering with a guide. As you go out walking together, finding new places, you also get to know one another. You learn from his experience and if he is a good guide he will teach you to read the map yourself. As we journey through life with God, our relationship with him deepens, we learn to trust him, we discover more about ourselves and become more practised in discernment. That image also helps us understand times when God has allowed us to learn from our mistakes and dead ends.

So what sorts of guidance are there? I heard of a chap who had a message from God. God wanted him to build an ark. It had to be a bit like Noah’s, but this one needed many decks on which to hold many fish tanks. These fish tanks had be filled with all the different types of carp. It was to be God’s new multi storey carp ark.

That’s very particular guidance. Often though guidance is general – and we find a great deal of it in the Bible. Do no murder! It is good to work to earn a living and to support your family. Anyone may marry but no-one must, and singleness should be honoured as a vocation. God’s word gives us all that we need to know for salvation and ethical living.

But the details of it we will need to work out for ourselves. The Bible won’t tell you which job to apply for. It won’t tell you who to marry, although there are indications that it’s good to share your life with someone who shares your faith.

That’s a lot of the background behind today’s reading from Genesis. It’s a couple of thousand years BC, and Abraham wants to arrange a marriage for his son Isaac. God has called Abraham to live in Canaan, where the people worship idols. But Abraham wants Isaac to be a partner with someone who worships the Lord, so he sends his servant off to find a bride for Isaac from the area that Abraham originally came from. In this part of the reading the servant recaps his story.

In v. 42: ‘I came today to the spring and said ‘O Lord if now you will make successful the way I am going’. All guidance starts with faith and prayer. The servant shares Abraham’s faith. He believes that God is there and that God answers prayer, so he prays to God for guidance. Faith, prayer and crucially obedience are at the heart of guidance. It’s no good having a doctor but not going to the doctor when you feel ill. And when you’re there, you don’t just tell the doctor your problems and go away again, you listen to her answer and take the medicines.

As Jesus says in v.25 of the gospel, ‘these things are hidden from the wise and intelligent but revealed to infants’. It is possible to overthink guidance, to worry too much about the right thing to do. But if we are humble then the path can be more easily revealed to us.

Prayerful obedience means we get used to hearing the voice of God. In my last parish I was doing some visiting. As I walked past one house, I felt the nudge of God – go and knock on that door. But it was getting late, there wasn’t really time so I carried on home. Next time I was that way I felt God prod me again. Harder this time. I knew the people there had moved in recently but it wasn’t that long ago, surely they could wait and I was in a hurry.

A week or so later, same place, but this time more like a command ‘Go and knock on that door’. The guy opened it, looked surprised but also relieved. ‘Ah, you must have heard about my wife. The cancer is quite bad now. Come on in.’ I didn’t know their situation, but God did, and eventually managed to get through to me! ….

Perhaps sometimes we also need to repent of our willfulness, entrust our future to God and actually trust him. There’s no point praying for guidance if we’re not prepared for the answer, if we’ll only accept it if it fits our existing dreams.

That’s the point Jesus makes in the Gospel reading, 18 and 19. ‘John came eating and drinking and they said ‘He has a demon’, but the Son of Man came eating and drinking and they say ‘Look a glutton and a drunkard.’’ The people’s hearts were in the wrong place, so they couldn’t respond to the message of John and Jesus. The crowd were judging, condemning, contrary, not open to God’s voice. When we seek guidance it’s good to ask God to purify our hearts too, make us ready.

So the Bible guides us generally, prayer helps us listen to the voice of God. Sometimes God guides us using signs. In v.43 and 44 the servant suggests to God a sign to point him to the right young woman. And God graciously grants it. We might also remember Gideon’s fleece. Both of these signs are given to people who humbly seek reassurance, who really don’t know what to do. And it can be legitimate for us to ask for a sign – as long as we are humble and not putting God to the test.

In his ‘Sacred Diary’ the Christian writer Adrian Plass feels he ought to go carol singing with the church. But he’d like to stay at home and watch the Bond film. So he asks for a sign: ‘Lord, if the doorbell rings at 9.04 pm and it’s someone dressed in the uniform of a Japanese Admiral, I’ll know you want me to go carol singing.’

The sign the servant asks for works because it’s about character. In v.44 the right woman is the one who gives the servant a drink and offers to water his camels too. Given that a mature camel can drink 30 gallons, and the servant had ten of them, that’s a lot of water! Rebekah is a woman who is practical, strong, thoughtful and kind.

In other words, Abraham’s servant uses common sense. God gave us human wisdom, let us use it! Do a job that plays to your strengths. Work out the budget for a property renovation. It’s ok to be restricted to living where you can support your ageing in-laws. Sure, there are times when it is a sign of faith to go against prevailing opinion, but God doesn’t call us to pigheadedness. Remember that what’s right for someone else is not necessarily right for you: John was called to fasting, Jesus was called to party with tax collectors and sinners. Both were right, both fulfilled their vocation, and as Jesus points out in v. 19, wisdom is vindicated by actions: you can tell it’s right by the results.

Another source of wisdom can be found in the wider community. Friends, family, church, colleagues – all can give wisdom.

In this reading we see it in v.50, where Rebekah’s family are involved in the decision. At last, there is her own consent in v. 58. Anything which involves other people will include them in the guidance process – for instance those seeking to be ordained or become Lay Ministers have to seek the goodwill of the wider church.

Finally, abiding in the will of God brings us a sense of peace. In v.30 Jesus says that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. Often when we have prayed about something, thought about it deeply, agonised before finally making the decision, a sense of peace will come. That is not to say that the right course of action does not involve challenge or uncertainty. It may, but alongside that there is often a sense of ‘rightness’, of trusting God for the unknowns.

All of these things together make up guidance. We bring them all together in prayer: Biblical commands, circumstances, common sense, wisdom of friends, consent of others. God could have just told the servant the girl’s name. But what then would he have learned?

As it is, God guides free people; Isaac and Rebekah are brought together, and through their marriage God’s plans are advanced. May we walk with him through our lives, know his guidance, and play our part in Growing his Kingdom.

 

 

Hagar and Ishmael – Genesis 21:8-21

Would you be flattered if you were described as a small cog in a very big machine? I’m not sure I would! I suppose whoever came up with that phrase may have been trying to get to the idea that each of us has a place, and a role to do. That our part may seem minor, but we are contributing to something much greater than ourselves. Economics and society may well feel like that, but what about God’s plan? Where do you and I fit into God’s great big picture? Are we dots of colour on the painting? Cogs in the machine? Grain that is ground to make bread

I think a better image is one that will resonate with anyone who’s been to an Open Gardens recently. Think of a flower bed, a riot of colour. There are groups of plantings, blocks of blues purples and reds following the gardener’s plan. The overall effect is of great beauty, natural and at the same time ordered. Yet all this is possible because each individual geranium or rose is following its destiny, being fulfilled in flowering. It’s that fulfilment which is key – God’s plan does not involve treating us as impersonal cogs. God’s plan for creation is fulfilled as we find our true place, destiny and calling

God weaves a tapestry out of history and when he does so he makes it up from the individual threads of our lives. He includes our triumphs and disasters, our obedience and even our failures. As we hear in our Old Testament reading, God is able to work with even the most unpromising situations. He can turn around injustice, he can bring about his purposes while also bringing healing and fulfilment to individual persons

You might like to have the reading from Genesis 21 verses 8-21 in front of you. To understand what’s going on, we need to recap from earlier on in the story, where God had called Abraham to go to Canaan and promised that he would be the father of many nations. Yet Abraham and his wife Sarah were old. So after several years, Sarah suggested that Abraham should have a child with her slave-girl Hagar. Sarah gave Hagar into Abraham’s arms, Hagar conceived and gave birth to Ishmael

As Christians in the 21st century, what on earth do we do with this? It’s the stuff of dystopian science fiction. Yes, it may have been the custom back then, yes it may have been an accepted way of producing an heir; but how do we understand it now, make sense of it? To us it’s outrageous. Slavery is an abuse of power, let alone making the slave girl have your child.

It’s really important to understand that when the Bible stories describe something, they often do so as a warning, not as an example to follow. The people in the Bible are not plaster-cast saints; perfect individuals whom we must admire from a distance. They are all too human, flawed, dangerously so. They wrestle with God and their own frailties. Sin catches them out, but somehow God works through this gritty reality. The stories tell us about real people, real passions, real redemption

Old Testament narrative in particular tends to tell us what happened and invite us to draw our own conclusions. Sometimes there will be a clear moral, more often we have to work out for ourselves: was this action wise? Did it obey God and lead to human flourishing

And the obvious answer is no. Hagar was unhappy. Sarah was jealous. Abraham was caught in the middle. God had not been obeyed. Abraham and Sarah had taken matters into their own hands, used a flawed and unjust human solution to try and fulfil God’s promise. The story is about to get worse, and yet amazingly, God can redeem it

Thirteen years after the birth of Ishmael, God repeats his promise to Abraham. This time Sarah conceives and gives birth to Isaac. By the time our reading starts in v.8 Isaac is about three years old – they weaned late back then, and the feast celebrates the fact Isaac has passed through the period of greatest infant mortality. Yet in verse 9, Sarah sees Ishmael playing – or the word might mean making fun – of Isaac.

How incredibly destructive jealousy is! Jealousy is one of the most powerful and irrational emotions. Jealousy fritters away inheritance on legal fees, it wastes court time on disputes over the names on gravestones, it leads one man to oppose his neighbour’s planning permission because the neighbour’s house is nicer. Jealousy fuels social media trolling, it causes anxiety and leads people to cut off their nose to spite their face. Jealousy reorients our lives to priorities which do not bring peace and can never satisfy. It is a form of madness.

If we do find jealousy in our hearts – perhaps at the career success of colleagues or the wealth of friends – then we need to repent of it. But we also need to sow a better plant to replace the weed. The Christian antidotes to jealousy are contentedness and generosity. If we are content with our lot, then the good things others enjoy will not trouble us. If we give thanks regularly for our blessings, then we will not feel that we are missing out. And if we are generous in our attitudes and actions, we will not feel diminished when others do well.

Abraham and Sarah were wealthy. Isaac’s needs would have been amply met if they had shared with Ishmael. But Sarah insists that Ishmael will not inherit. Conveniently forgetting her own role in creating this situation, she demands in v.10: ‘The son of the slave girl shall not inherit with my son Isaac.

Now some experts say this is not as harsh as it appears. Apparently there were laws at the time which allow the child born to a slave and her master to inherit. But the slave and the child can be liberated in exchange for relinquishing the inheritance. So in effect, Hagar is freed

But it still seems harsh to me. What sort of freedom is this? Freedom to wander unsupported? Freedom to be friendless and alone in the wilderness? Who wants that freedom? Abraham did not want it for Ishmael – he is greatly distressed. We can only imagine the marital situation that resulted.

The unstoppable force of Sarah meets the immoveable object of Abraham in such a way that only God can resolve it with a direct command to Abraham. Do what your wife says, but it will work out because God has a plan. It is indeed Isaac who is the son of the promise, his descendants will give rise to the Jewish nation. But choosing Isaac does not mean that Ishmael is rejected. He too will become a great nation

This is really important. There’s a lot in the Bible about how God chose Israel, how he has a chosen people. Sometimes this was interpreted as God choosing a particular people to the exclusion of others. But St Paul reminds us that God’s plan was always that Israel would be a light to the nations, a special blessing to the Gentiles, showing them how to live and know God.

God’s call is always like this – to be a means of blessing. God doesn’t call anyone to be special or to feel great – he calls us to serve. We who come to church on Sunday – we shouldn’t think of ourselves as the chosen few, but as a means of blessing to our communities

Sometimes that may seem optimistic. In the final few verses Ishmael’s very survival seems in doubt, let alone any idea of becoming a great nation. Hagar is lost, dehydrated, it’s a pathetic scene as mother and son both weep and prepare to die.

But just at the point when all is lost, God saves. The loving and rescuing heart of God cares just as much for the cast-out slave as for the patriarch. In verses 17 and 18 God affirms that he has heard Ishmael’s prayer. He knows every person’s situation and he hears us when we pray to him. God reiterates his promise that Ishmael will be a great nation – which should remind us that God’s promises can be trusted. God commands action ‘Get up’ – and we should remember that God’s blessings often need a response from us. God opens Hagar’s eyes and she sees a well – which may remind us that sometimes the answer to pray lies in what is already close at hand.

The story ends with God continuing to be with Ishmael. The young man carves out a life for himself as a desert ranger, and his mother finds him a wife from her home in Egypt. Finally, as a postscript in Genesis 25:9, we find that when Abraham dies, he is buried by his sons Isaac and Ishmael. At the death of the parent the divided family come together

To sum up then, in these events we have a warning. A warning about the terrible consequences of jealousy and exploitation. Abraham and Sarah are not here as examples to be emulated, but avoided. Yet as well as a warning, we also have a promise and an encouragement. We see that God can redeem even the most desperate situation. That God has an incredible ability to turn things around and use even the most flawed people in his plan. Here we see grace, compassion for the needy, redemption and hope. Amen.

 

The Eucharist and Who I Am

One day a gorilla escaped from the zoo, prompting a huge search of the district and appeals on radio, television and in the newspapers.

A few days later they found him in the city library sitting at a desk with two books spread out in front of him.

The gorilla was deep in concentration. One book was the Bible; the other was written by Charles Darwin.

The zoo keepers asked the gorilla what he was doing. The gorilla replied: “I’m trying to figure out whether I am my brother’s keeper or my keeper’s brother.”

Who am I? The question of identity lies at the heart of films like the Bourne trilogy and plenty of books too. Many people spend their lives in search of a secure identity, others decide on an off the shelf identity to adopt, like the teenager who suddenly becomes a goth. Many of us devote a lot of time and effort to creating an identity for ourselves and projecting it for others – how many Facebook profiles do you think give a real impression of their owners’ lives?

If we take our identity from others and allow the world around us to define who we are, we end up confused and often disappointed. But if we listen to what God tells us about our identity, we find security. As we continue our sermon series on the Eucharist, we’ll reflect today on what Holy Communion tells us about who we are. What is our identity in the sight of God? The answer is truthful, at times challenging, and always full of glorious hope.

If we look at our Luke reading, Chapter 22 verses 14-20 we find that our identity is rooted in Christ’s death for us. The reading takes place at the Last Supper – it’s the Thursday before Easter and Jesus has come up to Jerusalem to celebrate the traditional Passover meal. He gathers with his disciples in an upper room, and as the meal reaches its climax Jesus does something unexpected.

He knows that he will shortly be arrested and condemned to death the next day. So he takes the bread and says ‘This is my body, given for you’. Then he takes the cup of wine, saying ‘This cup poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood’.

In doing this he began the tradition that became Holy Communion, and we say those same words as we gather round the table even today. For centuries Christians have debated their precise meaning: do the bread and wine actually mysteriously become the body and blood of Jesus? Or do they represent his body and blood, symbols reminding us of his death on the cross? Or is the answer somewhere in between? We’re not going to resolve four centuries of argument in one sermon, so let’s focus on the underlying meaning.

Jesus talked of his body and blood, given for you. He says that he gave his blood for us; he gave his body, dying on our behalf. If you’ve ever had a blood transfusion, you’ll know how one person’s generosity can give life to another. As the father of a child who’s had a kidney transplant, I am forever grateful to the unknown woman who in her death allowed her organs to be given up and shared for those in need. What a profound gift that is, how could I ever say thank you enough, apart from going on the register myself?

Christians believe that Jesus gave his body and blood on the cross in love so that we might live. Christians depend on Jesus and his self-giving life, just as the transplant recipient depends on the organ.

But for the disciples, with their background in Old Testament inspired Judaism, a very different image would come to mind. Imagine a man who has wronged his neighbour. Something has happened, which cannot be undone – perhaps there has been a fight. Now he is making the long journey to Jerusalem, with a year old lamb in tow. There’s not many in his flock, this lamb represents a sizeable portion of his livelihood, but the sin is serious and he genuinely desires reconciliation.

At the temple, the costly sacrifice is made on the altar. As the lamb dies, the man feels a weight of guilt lifted off his shoulders. The price is paid, sin’s death has died, and he can go home sombre but forgiven.

Jesus’ disciples interpreted his death like that. He was the Lamb of God, who freely gave himself as a sacrifice for our sins. Christ was the Passover lamb, dying so that God’s people could be delivered from evil. Jesus himself spoke of his death as being a ransom – a price paid so that the captives could go free. Shortly before dying he gave us this ceremony so that we could remember his body and blood given for us.

So the Eucharist tells us we are forgiven. The first step in our identity is as redeemed sinners, those who have been loved by God so much that the ultimate price was paid. What amazing worth we have in his eyes! If you’re ever tempted to wonder if you count for much, then remember this: Christ died for you. You are immensely valuable and hugely loved

As we celebrate communion, remembering this will surely create love and gratitude in our hearts. As we reflect, we can experience his forgiveness, being set free from guilt and things that bind us. We’ll remember what Christ did for us and dedicate ourselves to his service in thanksgiving. Nothing could be too much to offer him. Our identity is not trapped by the past, or defined by our mistakes- we are forgiven!

But this is not the whole story. Sometimes the emphasis on forgiveness can be overdone, so that, paradoxically, we end up thinking too much of our failings. Churches which forget the next step can end up making people look inwards, focus on their mistakes, even becoming guilty that Christ died for them. That is not at all what he intended.

The second part of our identity is also found in the words of the Last Supper: this is the new covenant in my blood. Covenant means agreement and Jesus is talking about a new beginning, a new life.

In other words, when we accept Jesus into our lives, we become children of God. Trusting in Jesus we are born again. We have a new identity as sons and daughters of God – the Bible calls us saints.

So as well as being forgiven sinners, we are also children of God, saints in the making. This is really important for Christian living because it invites us to become what we are. We are already children of God – let us live out our identity. Christian living isn’t about raising ourselves to some impossible level, but allowing God’s Spirit to make us what we actually are. Look with me at 2 Corinthians 3 verses 17 to 18.

St. Paul says that where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. Freedom might not be a word we associate with religion – isn’t it about laws? But this is the freedom to become the Real Me. The person God intended me to be, the person I’m designed to be. Not the Me that society pressures me to become, or the Me the advertisers sell to, or even the Me who tries to live up to people’s expectations. But the freedom to be the Real Me living God’s way, following God’s call, becoming more and more myself as I get closer to him.

I’m a gardener. If I want to plant cabbages I know that I need firm soil with lots of manure. That’s what helps cabbages fulfil their potential. If I planted carrots there, it would be a disaster. They wouldn’t push through the compacted soil, the high fertility would make them fork and twist. Similarly God doesn’t want you to try and be anyone else. He wants you to thrive in the identity and environment he has given you.

At the same time as we become more ourselves, we also become more like Jesus. There’s a remarkable image in that Corinthians reading, as if by looking in a mirror we catch sight of Jesus image, and as we look at him the light reflected transforms us by our focus on Christ.

Perhaps it’s like those children’s toys that glow in the dark. You have to put them in the light for a while until they somehow glow with their own radiance. Similarly as we spend time with Jesus, as we look to him, we begin to resemble him. When we worship God, when we spend time in prayer, we find our identity is rooted more and more in him, and then our actions are transformed.

At the confirmation service last month Bishop Lee described how he had met Desmond Tutu. Apparently the most striking thing about Tutu is that he is totally happy being Desmond Tutu. He’s the most comfortable person in his own skin that Bishop Lee had ever met.

I don’t know about you, but I want to be like that. Not to become like Desmond Tutu – that wouldn’t work!! I want Jesus to shape my identity so that I am totally comfortable with whom I am in his grace. I want to be rooted in Christ, not moulded by others. It’s not easy though.

We define ourselves in so many ways: by the sins with which we battle, or mistakes from long ago. We’re tempted to find identity in success and fear failure, to gain credibility from qualifications and position. We even allow the gifts of God: parenthood, marriage, work to become the core of identity and try and make them carry a weight they cannot bear.

So it needs a positive effort to secure our Christian identity. We need to remind ourselves regularly that we are forgiven. We need to see ourselves as saints in the making. We need actively to remember that call to be like Jesus. We must consciously reject the false identities with which we are labelled, and assert our identity in Christ. Let us pray now that we may be rooted and grounded, built up in him.

Eucharist Series 1

1 Peter 2:1-3 and John 6:32-40

There’s a story told about one of the early cosmonauts who went up into space, and on his return gave a press conference. A Russian journalist asked him: ‘When you were up there, did you see God?’ And as a good communist, the new hero answered ‘No, I did not see God.’

So when an American astronaut had returned to earth the press asked him the same question: ‘When you were up there, did you see God?’ ‘No,’ replied the astronaut, ‘but I would have done, if I’d taken my helmet off.’

It’s a question of discernment. Are you open to the God who calls us? God is there, can we accept him? Christianity believes in a God who reveals himself. He is not far off, not hidden, not secreted away through knowledge available only to the few, but God himself reaches out to us. This is one of the key Christian beliefs, not that humanity has to build up a pyramid that we ascend to reach God, but that he comes down to us. In our prayers and thinking we do not play hide and seek but he makes himself known to us, most of all through Jesus Christ.

So how do you meet God? Through prayer? Whether silent or out loud, forming words – one’s own or using someone else’s – or the wordless way of contemplation? Do you meet God through the Bible, reading, reflecting, holding, meditating, being inspired and challenged? Did you catch this morning morning’s glory, in the Arboretum or along the Cliff, caught up in praise and wonder for the beauty of God’s creation?

Such moments are like sparks of the divine, a flash of spiritual light, a shooting star falling that only the stargazer will see. Being open to God, seeking him, is like being that stargazer. Standing outside and looking up at the night sky does not make shooting stars appear, but it means that when they do come you’re in the right place to perceive them.

Similarly prayer and reading the Bible does not force God to make himself known. Spiritual disciplines are not mechanistic, we cannot manipulate God, what ‘worked’ yesterday may feel routine tomorrow, but those disciplines do create the space for us to be aware of him. Which is why it is so important that we continue to make time to pray, reflect and be open to God.

So how do you meet God? Do you find him amongst other people? The outer and corporate life as well as the inner and personal? Worship is so important for every Christian – of course there are different ways, and various styles which appeal to the whole range of personality types – but the give and take in worship is very important too, as is the sense of fellowship and community over a shared meal.

Many people find God through acts of service such as feeding the homeless, taking communion to the elderly or teaching the children. I often find that this is God’s way of taking us deeper in our faith. That people whose spiritual lives have got a bit dry can find renewal and great fulfilment by looking outwards and serving others.

And it’s important that we use as many ways of communing with God as we can. Look at the pillars and walls of this church – they hold up the roof together. No one pillar, however massive could bear the weight alone, nor could the walls hold the centre.

So it is with our spirituality. Someone who spends a lot of time in solitary prayer but does not meet for fellowship or serve others can easily end up with an inward looking religion which makes little difference to the world around them. But relying solely on service will leave you feeling drained with nothing left to give.

Or an approach to spirituality which relies on regularly receiving communion but does not put aside time to read God’s word will find it much harder to feed the mind, or encounter spiritual challenge, and is therefore unlikely to grow.

All these are necessary. All are means of communion with Christ, of experiencing God through Jesus. In our gospel reading from John 6, Jesus teaches that this relationship with him is at the heart of our faith.

The reading is set shortly after the feeding of the 5000, where Jesus breaks the loaves and fish to sustain an enormous hungry crowd. This sign is then used to explore how Jesus can feed us in a spiritual sense.

The people have been well fed. Can you keep on doing this, just like Moses did in the desert, they ask. Jesus has to remind them that it was not Moses who gave their ancestors manna, but God himself, and it is the sign of a much more profound food. In verse 33 ‘For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’

‘Sir, give us this bread always.’ They understand it as physical food, but Jesus says ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’ He can sustain us for ever, and his offer is open to all: ‘whoever comes to me I will never drive away’ – what wonderful words those are when we doubt whether God’s mercy and love can really include us.

Indeed he will ‘lose no-one who comes to him’. When we commit ourselves to Jesus, we are secure in him and through him we have a promise of life that lasts forever, in verse 40: ‘This is indeed the will of the Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him will have eternal life and I will raise them up on the last day.’ Jesus is like spiritual bread. When we believe in him he nourishes us for eternity. And he gives us spiritual food each day 

The way that we abide in him is through those ways of meeting God. Prayer, the Bible, worship, service, all those things we thought about earlier. They are all forms of communion with God through Christ.

Which brings us to the Eucharist, which we’re thinking about in this sermon series through Advent. It’s important to see the Eucharist against that background – to appreciate that God makes himself known and does so in a variety of ways. The Eucharist itself is a special form.

It’s an act in which we receive the presence of Christ. When we eat the bread and drink the wine it’s a very physical act. The sacrament becomes part of us. There’s no more profound way of expressing your assent and your dependence on Christ than by physically receiving. It’s where we show that we are in him and he is in us.

Now of course Christians have argued for centuries over the exact way that Jesus is sacramentally present through the bread and wine. I don’t intend to think about that today. It’s far more helpful to acknowledge his presence and ask him to reveal himself and minister to us when we receive communion.

So what does communion tell us about God? God is the host, inviting and welcoming all to his table if they will receive. That sense of invitation and welcome should flow throughout our worship. Communion must never feel exclusive – so is it right to hold a Eucharist at times when lots of non-communicants are present? And if we do, how we do include them?

God reveals himself to us in bread and wine. This tells us he does not despise the physical. So when we worship Christ born in a stable our liturgy must connect with today’s world. If Eucharistic worship becomes distant, over spiritualised or inaccessible it ends up denying that Jesus came to the world as he found it. How can our style of worship be coherent with its central truth: that of incarnation?

The Eucharist tells us that God is self-giving and loving – Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice for our sins and through his love we are forgiven. As we follow in his footsteps we are called to be a community of love, giving and forgiving one another. When we share the peace, it is good to ask is there anyone with whom we’re not reconciled as we approach the altar? We’ll think about the community of faith more next week.

Finally, the Eucharist tells us that God is present with us on life’s journey. Christ is the bread of life on whom we feed. He has given us many ways to be in communion with him. So perhaps we can ask ourselves: How balanced is my spirituality? Am I over dependent on one or two means of grace? Where might God be calling me to grow?

As we come close to Christ and receive the bread and wine, let’s be thankful to a God who makes himself known and offers himself to us that we might live. Let us pray that we may discern his presence at communion and in the world around. Amen.

For this moment

Of all the Remembrance Sundays that I have been involved in, this is the one where I feel most anxious about the future. I’ve led Remembrance in the aftermath of 9/11 and the London bombings, at times when British forces have been at war on two fronts, yet at no time has the future seemed as uncertain as it does today.

Traditionally we give thanks for the blessings that we enjoy, and commemorate the sacrifices made by many so that we could be free. Yet it seems that the progress in made in rebuilding society in the aftermath of the second world war is going into reverse: barriers are being raised between nations, economies are becoming defensive, outsiders are viewed with suspicion, and demagogues are once again rising to power.

For those of us who have placed our hope in a positive view of human nature, in the triumph of reason over prejudice, in the ability of different countries to work together for the common good of all creation, these are deeply worrying times.

As I have prayed – for Donald Trump as he takes up the presidency, for the Brexit negotiations and climate change talks, for Iraq and Syria – as I have prayed I have also sensed the need to repent. I have felt God calling me back to a more Biblical faith in him.

I have sensed that I have put too much faith in our human ability to address our problems – despite our great sinfulness – and have not fully accepted that the Kingdom of God comes in God’s time and through his leading. Like many I have trusted that our society will steadily progress from good to better – whereas our Gospel reading (Luke 21:5-19) speaks of a great crisis before Jesus is revealed in glory.

Times like this can be a wake-up call, an opportunity to reflect on where our Christian values have become absorbed by the values of the world. Has Christianity in the West become too closely identified with a particular form of government, a certain philosophical view of historical and scientific progress?

As our Epistle reading (2 Thess 3:6-13) shows us, Christians have lived and thrived in societies which were profoundly undemocratic and unjust. All around the world today Christians bravely contend with great difficulties. Our privileged lives may be taking a step closer to theirs. We are still called to be salt and light, to transform the world around us, to give of ourselves sacrificially so that others may know Christ. We are called to make a difference in our world, not to give up on it, nor to see it as the ultimate end. God calls us to place our hope in Christ and to wait, with faith and action, for the coming of his Kingdom.

A Day in the Life of a Vicar

Of course, you only work Sundays don’t you?’ is the gentle ribbing with which every ordained person is familiar. Underlying it though is often a real question along the lines of: ‘What exactly do you do?’, and in response to requests, here is my attempt to describe a typical day.

Sunday is the most important part of the week for the Vicar, but not often the busiest. I usually take three services: 8.00 am or 6.00 pm, 9.30 am and 11.00 am. I try to stay as long as possible to meet people and frequently there is a PCC meeting after the 11 am, a Sunday afternoon event or entertaining at the Rectory.

Monday is my day off, and the other weekdays begin by checking emails as I help get the children ready for school. I’m blessed in having a five minute commute, getting in touch with the rhythm of the seasons as I walk to Stanton Church. It’s also an opportunity to keep in touch with the school parents, as I deliberately coincide with drop off time! Prayer is a duty and a joy for the clergy: we have a responsibility to pray for parishioners and time is set aside every day for this.

After prayers, the morning’s activity may include an assembly or two at our 4 village schools, Little Lights, a midweek service, taking communion to the housebound or dropping in on a coffee morning. One of my key roles is as a training incumbent, supervising two curates, a Children’s Worker and ordinands / lay ministers on placement. Most weeks include at least one morning training, managing or supporting a colleague.

Lunch is a chance to catch up with the family, do some hosting, or attend a meeting such as Deanery Chapter. The afternoons are times for visiting, preparation or correspondence, of which more later. I take between 5pm and 7pm cooking supper and getting the children to bed before the evening meeting.

With 8 churches and an average of 4 PCC meetings per year per church, there are a lot of PCCs! The best ones end by 9.30 pm, which allows time to be seen in one of our 5 pubs! There are also three significant building projects, each of which involves a meeting about once a month. Adult education is a real passion for me, and so Foundations courses, Lent Groups, Bible studies and the like have an allocated evening in most weeks. Then there are the occasional Trusts, Diocesan and Deanery events, planning meetings, socials, special evening services and wedding rehearsals.

While weddings, and to some extent baptisms, are seasonal, funerals occur throughout the year. Pastoral visiting before and after these events is a high priority, as is preparation of the service. We also try to visit those who are unwell or in particular need, although we are not telepathic and so do need to be told!

There are three great unseens in my work. For every public event there is preparation to be done: 3-5 hours for a service, an hour or two for each study group, meeting or assembly. Secondly, there is a huge amount of correspondence which I fit in when I can, mainly about buildings, finance and organisation. Thirdly, I reckon I spend about an hour a day travelling, although the Blackberry allows me to deal with some emails while out and about, and I also take every opportunity to pop into our 5 village stores.

Within the typical daily pattern there are also variations. Saturdays include weddings, village meetings, and 8 parishes hold a lot of fetes and fundraisers! There are occasional events, like the Marriage Preparation Day, a few small things I do for the Diocese, and of course every job nowadays has lots of in service training. Over a week I rarely work fewer than 45 hours and sometimes more than 55. It is an interested and varied ministry and most of the time I love it!