4 pm 24th December: Nativity Service.
11.30 pm Midnight Mass. With Carols.
10.30 am Christmas Day: Eucharist with Carols.
4 pm 24th December: Nativity Service.
11.30 pm Midnight Mass. With Carols.
10.30 am Christmas Day: Eucharist with Carols.
It might become one of those questions which children one day ask their parents.
Where were you when you heard the news that Bob Dylan had won the Nobel prize for literature? I was in my car, nodding off slightly- don’t worry I was only the passenger- but I did bang my head against the window when I heard the announcement!
The woman who announced the winner didn’t sound totally convinced either- or she might have been influenced by the Australian habit of making statements sound like questions- when she read out- the winner of this year’s Nobel prize for literature is Bob Dylan? The world at the moment seems perfectly divided between those who are hurraying and those who think the world has taken another peculiar turn.
At the heart of it is a question of genre- does Dylan write great songs or does he write poetry?
Today is Bible Sunday- and that means we have to consider questions of genre too?
If I was to reflect on the whole Bible, as I have done many times in the past, I would remind you of the songs, the poetry and the literature- as well as the history, theology, comic sketches, law, ethics, letters etc which we find across the whole Bible; which, of course is a library about the human quest for and encounter with God.
But this year I want to concentrate on only one part of the bible- well actually 4 parts. The Gospels.
Pictures on the front in gold. Have you ever noticed them?
What are they and why are they there?
Matthew = Human with wings.
This association of the 4 gospels with 4 creatures can be traced back to the middle of the C2nd century, and has a fascinating story behind it- much of it guess-work!
And what it tells us about the nature of the Bible is significant.
And here is a link with what I said about Bob Dylan and genre earlier. Only Mark’s Gospel actually calls itself a gospel.
John and Matthew self- describe as books.
While Luke calls his version an orderly account of events- all those which have shaped the Christian community so far.
The earliest description from outside the gospels themselves comes from Justin Martyr, in about 120 AD, where he calls them the memoirs of the Apostles.
But Gospels was the collective title which stuck; and I think for good reason.
The’ 4 orderly accounts’ was never going to catch on and neither was the 4 books; because that does not really say anything, and they are ,despite what Justin Martyr said, quite clearly much more than biographies or memoirs-, even though they do contain quite a lot of such detail.
The word Gospel – is a translation of the greek evanggelion. The word usually translated as good news in the New Testament, but also used in the Greek world for a public proclamation made by a king or other person of power, and therefore carrying with it a sense that a life changing message is involved.
One of the most popular one man translation of the Bible is called ‘ The Message.’
I am sure that Gospel caught on because it not only describes the type of book referred to, but what it is and what it does.
These four gospels are where we can encounter Jesus Christ. They include information about him, but also much more. They do announce and proclaim a vital message.
They contain meaning, and questions for us. They contain comfort but also profound challenges.
They confirm what the Old Testament also tells us, that our relationship with God is a blessed one, but not easily encapsulated- in a system of rules, or doctrines or beliefs.
It is something, if you like, that we get caught up in but never entirely get! If we had one Gospel only we might have had it easier, but I think we would have been much more likely to miss the richness of what theologians have termed the Mystery of God.
Having 4 Gospels, each with its curious symbol, paints a much fuller, more tantalising and rewarding picture.
Matthew’s Gospel has this man symbol associated with it. This seems to have happened because it begins and ends with humanity; specifically Jewish humanity.
It begins with long genealogies about Jesus’ ancestry.
In doing so the point is made that the culture Jesus inherited shaped him and was a fundamental part of who he was. In Matthew we read of things now long associated with the rabbinical tradition. Jesus gives practical guidance on how to lead a righteous life, how to root that in self- awareness and how to re-configure your motivation. It is the Gospel which allows no escape from the practical application of religion and should have made Anti-Semitism unthinkable.
The symbol for Mark’s Gospel is the lion- because Mark begins his story in the desert- the domain of the wild beasts.
The place where people are most vulnerable; and most aware of their need and who they are.
The guiding theme of Mark’ s Gospel instantly becomes apparent- that the starting point of discovering that you are beloved by God is to be honest about your frailty and faults and terrors.
In the gospel Jesus offers hope and forgiveness, but never a cure all. If it begins in the desert it in ends with the women outside the empty tomb, who are afraid.
It is the Gospel which above all spells out that humility is the root of faith- not something to be banished as you become more proficient but something to be nurtured.
The Ox became associated with St Luke’s Gospel because begins with John the Baptist’s father Zechariah in the Temple at Jerusalem- a place of animal sacrifice.
What happens to Zechariah is something initially terrifying and impossible to assimilate turns over time into a source of rejoicing. Actually again and again in this Gospel God is shown to work through a series of ambushes which at first disconcert but then when light dawns turn out to be transformations. It was CS Lewis who coined the phrase ‘Surprised by Joy,’ to describe those experiences we have which echo this picture.
To me this is a great reminder that faith is not about self- denial- but about the heart and mind being opened up and discovering new horizons; over and over again.
In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus’ opens the scroll of Isaiah and reads it out, but immediately makes the claim that this is no old text, no ancient wisdom- profound as it is- no, here and now, he will give sight to the blind and set the prisoners free!
And finally John- with its symbol the eagle. John’s Gospel simply is the Gospel that soars. There is a wonderful psalm, which we often say together at Night Prayer- psalm 91, which has the verses.
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High:
Who abides under the shadow of the Almighty…
He will cover you with his wings, and you shall be safe under his feathers:
His faithfulness will be your shield and defence.
It is John who assures us that God has been upholding the world since the very beginning and proclaims that his love has no limit and no end.
Each of the Gospels, of course has far more to say than these summaries suggest; but my point is that they complement each other, and help fill in the picture. And together proclaim to us and offer to us the good news God has given- and it is very rich, challenges and eye-popping fare.
When you attend a church service like our main service, to paraphrase Jerry Lee Lewis ‘ there’s a whole lotta blessing going on.’ Incense is blessed before the service, twice more during it, and that incense is then used to bless the altar, the bread and the wine, the cross, the people etc,
And of course the service always finishes with a verbal blessing of the congregation by the priest.
But although in the main service everything is more dramatic and explicit in the way it highlights blessing, obviously, it does not follow that the early service and those who attend are somehow less blessed-second rate worshippers with their second rate service- in both senses of the word.
It would be very odd to think that there is something inferior about an incense free service.
How we understand blessing is key.
Our Old Testament reading from Deuteronomy is all about blessing. Moses is addressing the people of Israel as, after years of wandering in the wilderness, they stand on the margins of the promised land. But his message is not one of undiluted triumph and optimism- ‘ you’ve made it at last.’ His words are hopeful but have a warning attached.
God he says has set before you.
Life and prosperity but also death and adversity.
Blessings, but curses to.
Moses’ message here repeats itself again and again throughout the Old Testament- it is that God has made you- all people- for good- for life- for compassion- for fulfilment etc. but you don’t always choose that path- you will make the wrong choices.
The same message is there in the story in Genesis of the creation of Adam and Eve.
In the Old Testament- First chapter of God’s dealings with humanity-The Law and the prophets provided the guidelines and the wisdom that help people return to the straight and narrow.
But at the root of everything is the fundamentally good creation gifted by God- the original blessing, as some have called it.
Christianity took that idea on.
Turn to page 5 of your order of service.
We find it expressed on page 5 of the service- right at the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer, and where we also explicitly use the language of blessing; because our existence and nature is something which we are grateful to God for and therefore wish to express our praise to Him. To lift up our hearts and to give thanks for.
Blessed are you, Lord God,
Our light and our salvation;
To you be glory and praise for ever.
From the beginning you have created all things and all your works echo the silent music of your praise. In the fullness of time you made us in your image, the crown of all creation.
Unfortunately, that crown just keeps on slipping.
Which is why that great prayer shortly changes gear, from the blessing of the gift of life to our need of God’s steadfast and active compassion.
As a mother tenderly gathers her creation, you embraced a people as your own. When they turned away and rebelled your love remained steadfast.
And then moves on to Jesus. Another, decisive gift from God; a blessing which enables true reconciliation and salvation; what we can’t achieve for ourselves or by ourselves.
The rest of the Eucharistic prayer recaps how this happens which is why we all respond at the end of that prayer with the words.
Blessing and honour and glory and power be yours for ever . Amen.
It can be a bit confusing at times but blessing clearly is a 2 way street. It describes what God has done for us and continually offers to us, and also what we feel in response. As He blesses us, we wish to bless him in gratitude.
But a third element needs a mention too. I referred to it when I preached a couple of weeks ago- calling or vocation. What we are for- what something is ultimately for. That is one of the reasons that we can bless incense and people.
Let me try to explain?
Unseen by most people in church we bless the incense in the vestry before the service begins. There are different ways of doing this. Joy and I will make the sign of the cross over it and pray internally something like this- Be blessed by him in whose honour you shall be burned.
The incense we use in church has been made by monks and nuns from the gum of various trees- frankincense is a key ingredient.
When it is harvested in Asia or North Africa it is already destined to be used as scent, but its exact purpose is not fixed.
When it falls into the hands of the incense makers its purpose becomes more defined, but its ultimate destination is not known.
But when we use it becomes special for us- as it helps us honour the good news of the gospel, celebrate the bread and wine and all the people here in this community. So its purpose is refined.
When we bless it we don’t fundamentally change it, but we do set it apart for a special and exalted purpose; and one which ultimately has its source in God as it is part of creation.
Isn’t that the way it is for us when we come together to worship?
We come to reflect on the blessing we receive from God, and express our blessing in praise and thanks, but we also come to receive the blessing of becoming- refinding, rather than refining, ourselves; to go back into God’s world as a blessing to it. – quote prayer after communion- both of them.
Send us out in the power of your spirit to live and work to your praise and glory.
We who the spirit lights give light to the world.
I have just been up on the scaffold to take a look at progress being made. All the dead plaster has been removed and the walls are being prepared for plastering over the next week.Some photos can be seen on the St Barnabas Twitter feed.
We are very pleased that Kathy Childress of Christian Aid will be joining us on the 1st of May. There will be 2 films,one for younger members of the church, and a planting ceremony in the churchyard after the service. Kathy has a very powerful personal story of how she got involved with Christian Aid.
Training for the Wandsworth Churches. Saturday 16th April
Venue: St Barnabas Southfields 146 Lavenham Road, London SW18 5EP
Arrival: Tea Coffee and pastries available from 9.45.
10.00 – 10.20 Worship including Godly Play story Hugh Ridsdill-Smith + AN Other
10.20-10.55 Why are we doing this? Hugh Ridsdill-Smith
10.50 – 1.00 Practical techniques, ideas and resources for Leading Sunday School sessions Ali Campbell
After 16 or so years with us the New Testament Assembly church has had to close. We will be praying for Zelda and her flock this Sunday as they hold their last service with us. They are having a special celebration from about 1pm to which we are all invited. Bishop Delroy Powell will be leading the service.
Last Friday I followed in the Queen’s footsteps.
On Thursday she opened the new lion enclosure in London Zoo. On Friday Ruth and I were among the first members of the public to visit the new attraction, as part of a special preview for zoo members
We did get more than a glimpse of the lions- we actually saw them running and heard them roaring, which was first for me in nearly 50 years of visiting. As you know, lions, in captivity tend to pace or sleep!
I will never forget that.
But just before we joined the queue for that feature something, even more unforgettable happened.
I had my closest ever encounter with a Blue Morpho butterfly.
I was just about to leave the butterfly house when someone said ‘you seem to have a friend.’ And pointed at my coat.
There indeed was a large butterfly with its wings closed; so all I could see was the grey parchment- like, owl eyed exterior of the wing.
And then it opened its wings for a second and I glimpsed the iridescent blue inside. If you haven’t seen a Blue Morpho, the effect- produced by the refraction of light- is a kingfisher’s wing crossed with a summer sky- or the cloak of the Virgin Mary for those of you who know your medieval art!
As I knew I had to leave soon, to see the lions and I couldn’t let my hitch-hiker come with me, as the cold would kill it, and you are rightly forbidden to touch such fragile insects, I had a problem.
So I just stood there, waiting for it to take wing of its own accord.
But it didn’t budge, but just stayed their flashing its wings.
At which point the peace of the butterfly house was shattered by a troop of Primary school children. Most of whom were either nervous or terrified of the butterflies zooming around their heads- because of their unpredictable flight paths , speed, and size- some about the same size as this hymnbook.
So the children wanted to get out as quickly as they could.
Seeing that some were waving their arms about and were in danger of swiping the fragile insects, I gently remonstrated with them.
As I did so and turned, my Morpho opened its wings and the last group of the class saw it and stopped dead. The fear was immediately replaced by wonder. And they remained entranced, until I, having to get to the lions, coaxed it on to my finger and transferred it safely to a flower.
Here on Easter morning, we are at a moment when the terror of Holy Week, is eclipsed by the wonder of Easter Morning.
Jesus Christ, unjustly condemned, betrayed, abandoned by his friends, is put to death on a cross.
There are flashes of the butterfly’s wing too, of God’s and man’s glory- for example, Jesus washing his disciples’ feet during the Last Supper, as a great sign of the power of service for others, and the faithfulness and compassion of Jesus’ women followers, who don’t abandon him.
But it is only on Easter morning that the true wonder is revealed. The women are first at the tomb, and they are terrified. St Peter is next, and he is duly amazed. Which in the Greek has a much stronger sense than it does today.
To re-appropriate Yeats’ century old phrase about the Easter Rising;
the Resurrection has a terrible beauty.
Which is what we would expect- if we understand it as the decisive flashing forth of God’s glory in the world, which points towards the ultimate fulfilment for all creation of God’ loving purposes.
For centuries butterflies have been taken to represent the Resurrection, because of their beautiful transformations- as have flowers!
And candles have long been lit to help the faithful get their minds around the dazzling glory of Easter morning.
But such things were not originally seen as merely symbolic reminders of theological truths to tickle the mind. They were perceived as direct accessible examples of God’s power to transform, mend and enlighten.
God’ s glory was seen as all around- in nature, and the everyday stuff of human life. All that brings forth wonder and love.
I want to conclude with the powerful Easter prayer, written by one of the great Fathers of our Christian Church Gregory of Nazianzus, nearly 1700 years ago.
Let us pray.
Today we rejoice in the salvation of the cosmos.
Christ has risen; let us arise in him!
Christ enters new life; let us live in him;
Christ has come forth from the tomb;
The gates of hell are open,
And the powers of evil are overcome!
In Christ a new creation is coming to birth;
Lord make us new,