“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
There was once a young man who sneaked into church hoping nobody would notice him. The only reason he’d come was because he was keen on a girl who sang in the choir, and he hoped that if he was in the service he’d be able to see her at the end of the service and ask her out. He wasn’t quite sure what to do, but he saw people going in and sitting down, so he did the same. Just as the service was beginning, an usher came up to him.
‘Excuse me.’ he said. ‘The person who’s supposed to do the reading hasn’t turned up. Could you possibly do it?’
The young man was horrified for a moment, but then thought quickly. The girl he had his eye on was there, in the choir. She would be most impressed if she heard him reading in the service.
‘All right,’ he said. He took the Bible and looked through the reading the usher had showed him.
It came to the moment. He want up, opened the Bible, and began to read. It was from John’s gospel and he vaguely recognised it.
‘Anyone who doesn’t enter the sheepfold by the gate,’ he heard his own voice say, ‘but climbs in by another way, is a thief and a bandit.’
He was thunderstruck. This was what he’d done! He was standing here, pretending to be a regular bible-reader, when in fact he’d only come in to meet a girl. He forced himself to go on, aware of his heart beating loudly. If he was a bandit, coming in under false pretences, what was the alternative?
‘I am the gate for the sheep,’ said Jesus. ‘The bandit only comes to steal, kill and destroy. I came that they might have life, and have it full to overflowing.’
Suddenly, something happened inside the young man. He stopped thinking about himself. He stopped thinking about the girl, the congregation, about the fact that he’d just done a ridiculous and hypocritical thing. He thought about Jesus. Unaware of the chock he was causing, he swung round to the clergyman leading the service.
‘Is it true?’ he asked. ‘Did he really come so that we could have real life, full life like that?’
‘Of course it is,’ he replied, quite unfazed by this non-liturgical outburst. ‘That’s why we’re all here. Come and join in this next song and see what happens if you really mean it.
And the young man found himself swept off his feet by the presence and the love of Jesus, filling him, changing him, calling him to follow. He got more, much more than he had hoped for.
For those of us reading Acts (find out more), today we read Acts 3 and meet a man who also gets more than he hoped for. The Bible I usually use calls him a crippled beggar, but I wonder if we’d give him more dignity, and ourselves greater understanding, if we called him a vulnerable person?
Ignored and forgotten by the state; marginalised by society; discriminated against; someone who has not fit the criteria for support through the social care system?
Carried into the temple by some people who chose to help (or wanted to make themselves look good? – who knows!), this vulnerable man comes hoping someone will take pity on him, and give him a few coins, enough to keep him going another day.
He sees Peter and John. And they don’t give him what he’s hoping for, they give him something better. An encounter with Jesus the healer, the transformer, the Saviour. More than he expected or hoped for.
What are we expecting or hoping for today?
As we continue to look towards the easing of lockdown, what are you hoping this time will teach you, us, society?
How can you use your voice today to stand up for the marginalised and vulnerable?
I leave you with a short video a family member sent me, which I found help me think more carefully about the world we might hope 2020 will help us and all the world create.
Join the conversation
if you’ve got thoughts or something to share you can comment below and share them with us all – I’d love to hear from you, and I know others would too!
This week, in a slightly longer than ‘normal (!) vlog, I look at Luke 24 (the Road to Emmaus) and reflect on how our plate and cup are empty, waiting to be filled because as Methodist in Britain we are not practicing communion while we are physically distancing and unable to gather as worshipping community.
The text below the video is roughly the same as what’s in the video, but at the bottom of the blog post there’s an extra video, a downloadable version of the blog post for printing, and of course, opportunity for you to join your thoughts to the conversation!
In Luke’s gospel, after Jesus resurrection, we find the story of Cleopas and his travelling companion on the Emmaus road. I shared a reflection on the passage in last week’s Sunday reflections.
Cleopas and his companion are filled with grief and uncertainty after Jesus’ death and then a stranger joins them on their journey. And they hadn’t any clue who this stranger was.
“As they came near the village to which they were going, [the stranger] walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them.
When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.”
What I have found striking reading this over the last week is that it is in the breaking and sharing of bread that the true identity of Jesus is realised. As they sit together, in fellowship with one another, learning and discerning and questioning, eating and drinking, the bread is broken and Jesus is seen for who he is.
Breaking of bread is one of the many titles in Christian tradition we use for communion, Eucharist, the Lord’s supper. This week the Emmaus story has set me thinking about communion.
This is my home communion set. It was given to me by my placement church while I was training, a multi-cultural congregation in a deprived and diverse suburb of Birmingham. This reminds me of where I’ve come from, and how I’m part of the national and global church.
I use this set to take communion to people who are housebound. So it reminds me both of the local churches which I serve, but also of the homes to which I have visited and shared communion.
This set reminds me that the presence of God is everywhere; global, national, local and in our homes.
Communion is something may be important to our spirituality as individuals and as worshipping communities. It is a meal we share, through which we remember Jesus sharing a meal with his friends before his arrest and crucifixion. We take bread and wine, symbols of the body and blood of Christ, we bless them, break them and share them as we remember Christ and experience him present with us now. Where we are embraced by the unconditional love and unending grace of God, offered through Christ, made present by God’s Spirit.
But for the moment, the plate and cup are empty. We’re not sharing communion together. We are distanced from one another, unable to physically gather and share as a worshipping community.
At the moment, some churches have been practicing communion online, but as British Methodists, we are not. In 2018 our Methodist Conference considered virtual communion, albeit considered under very different circumstances to that which we find ourselves in today. Conference voted against the practice, and while given current circumstances I suspect the conversation and decision might go differently, for now we follow those decisions, leaving plate and cup empty, waiting for the day they can be filled again.
For me, I want to be honest with you, I’ve come to a point where I’m ok with that. It’s painful, not being able to share communion with those I know dearly wish to receive it. It’s painful not the able to gather at the table to share as a worshipping community.
Some of you may share my feeling ok, but I expect that for some of you, not receiving communion has been, or is continuing to be difficult right now. I want you to know I understand something of that struggle. But I also want to share with you a little bit about why, for me, I’ve come to a place where I feel ok for the moment, that the glasses and plate are empty and waiting, as I patiently wait for the time they can be filled again.
And in sharing, I hope that it may help you too.
At the beginning of this year, many Methodists prayed the covenant prayer, as a sign and renewing of our continuing commitment to living in relationship with God, knowing that God continues to be unconditionally committed to us by his love and grace.
Within the covenant prayer we say the words: ‘let me be full, let me be empty,’
I’ve found reflecting on those words in light of not receiving communion during this time helpful. The covenant prayer contrasts various ways of living, employed or laid aside, having all things or nothing, being full or being empty.
But whether employed or laid aside, having all things or nothing, full or empty, are all included as part of our living in relationship with God. There is never an absence of God.
For me, these words remind me that whether I have received communion or not, all of life is saturated in God, God is still present and part of my life and being. So I’ve felt God helping Me to this time, not as a case of communion being taken away from me, but a time where I consciously abstain, as part of my being emptied for God.
Yet, at the same time, I also see the empty plate and cup being just as presence filled by God’s Spirit as when they are filled with bread and wine.
Inclusion and exclusion
For me, another reason that I feel ok that we leave plate and cup empty is that, if did communion online, what about those who are offline? Who do not have internet access?
before lockdown, when communion was celebrated in our buildings there was inclusive intent within our liturgy and practice, and those that were housebound had the options of home or extended communion.
But today, those who would be excluded from online communion have no other way of receiving.
As part of communion we often share the peace, sometimes preluded by the words:
‘In the one Spirit we were all baptised into one body. Let us therefore keep the unity of Spirit in the bond of peace.’
For me, if I was able to share communion with some of you, I wonder if I would then risk breaking that unity of Spirit and bond of peace, through depriving and excluding some, from what I was offering to others.
To bring us back to Emmaus, in that resurrection story, as Cleopas and his companion offered hospitality to a stranger, it was in the distribution, the breaking and sharing, Jesus was made known.
This Emmaus encounter is not communion as we may have come to practice it. Here is a simple meal and a household who share hospitality with a stranger. In that act of sharing what they had, their guest shares with them everything he is.
We can only gather as households right now, but I can assure you that even though plate and cup are empty, Jesus is present with us, not a stranger but a friend, longing to be a guest at our tables.
It may not be how we’re used to it through communion, we still patiently wait for a time that we can once again physically gather together to worship and break bread together, but even while cup and plate are empty, if we allow our eyes to be opened to it;
God’s Spirit, the very presence of God, continues to bind us together; though distanced, we are united – one in Spirit.
God’s unconditional love and unending grace are overflowing for us as much now as they always have.
And whether we feel full or empty, Christ in his fullness is forever with us.
May the peace of the Risen Christ be with you.
Peace be with you
A video montage of over 100 people signing Peace be with you, put together by some friends based in Manchester. Look carefully and you may find 1 or 2 familiar little faces!
 See Share this Feast, Reflecting on Holy Communion, (Methodist Publishing, 2018), p6  See Share this Feast, Reflecting on Holy Communion, (Methodist Publishing, 2018), p4  Part of the Covenant Prayer, Methodist Worship Book, p290  Example of the Introduction to the peace, Methodist Worship Book, p189.  I must give some credit to a friend who sowed this seed in their blog post earlier this week – https://dbobstoner.com/jesus-on-a-boriswalk/
Join the conversation
if you’ve got thoughts or something to share after reading and reflecting on my thoughts, you can comment below and share them with us all – I’d love to hear from you.
Many in my churches will know that this year is a ‘Year of Testimony’ across the Methodist Connexion and we’ve been sharing stories of God at work among us in recent weeks.
I want to encourage us to continue to see and speak about where God is speaking and working among us now, during this time of distance and isolation, because even though we may be distant from each other, God is not distant from us.
Many in my churches will know that a sermon illustration from my garden is often not far away, and on Sunday afternoon, I took the plunge to dig the veggie patch. It was covered in weeds and very much not ready to do any planting! But I turned it, fork by fork, pulled the weeds out, moved any stones I found, and broken down the chunks of soil so that it is now ready for me to start some planting.
For me – God spoke to me through that process, about how church and ministry might look now.
For me, much that was familiar and growing has sadly gone, almost all the weekly routine I took for granted has been turned on it’s head. Yet I’ve had a really strong feeling that God has been saying there’s now potential for new ground to be tilled, new planting to be done and new growth to be seen.
I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
This week God has been saying to me, reminding me, that while life and ministry feels like it has been turned on it’s head, while I miss seeing people and already long to be able to communicate without using phone, email or other technology, God has not turned on his head.
God is still as present as ever, and even in the chaos and uncertainty, is able to do new things, and will do new things in me, and I pray, in us as we journey through this together.
God is with us, and will make a way through the wilderness – do you perceive it?
Where has God been in your week? Comment below and share your stories of God with us, in us and among us.
Yesterday afternoon we gave into temptation in our house. I say we, I didn’t have a lot to do with it, except I had to pay for it. Getting an email saying ‘thank you for your purchase’ was a little disorienting when my initial though was – but I haven’t bought anything…. then I remembered Louise was logged into my account. What did we give in to? After Disney released Frozen 2 online early, we gave in and purchased it.
Many of you know, and I’m not ashamed to say it as a 28 year old man, I loved Frozen 2. Perhaps not for the same reasons as my girls, but I love the themes, the story, and the way various theological threads and themes can be woven into the narrative. Many of you know that because I’ve already used bits of Frozen in services, and shared our experience of the screen not working in my covenant sermon his year.
We’ve has the soundtrack playing in the car for many weeks, I can just about sing all the songs without thinking, but of course – I’ve only heard the story, the spoken word within it once.
Louise and the girls were part way through watching when I joined them, which meant to first lines I really heard were from Kristoff and Olaf the talking snowman, just after they have evacuated Arundelle from the storm that is engulfing the city.
Kristoff: Are you ok there Olaf?
Olaf: (playing with some children who are stuffing shards of ice into his chin) Oh yeah, we’re calling this controlling what you can when things feel our of control.
Louise and I just looked at each other. It was one of those profound moments where God spoke, challenged, encouraged and affirmed all at once.
To be honest, much of this week has felt to me, out of control. The pace of the government’s measures to tacking COVID-19 has been incredibly fast, and for me it is part of the pace of change that has made me feel even more out of control, not knowing what announcements or measures might be next. Anxious for me, my family, friends, and all of you as we all, together, yes distantly, respond & react to the conditions we now face.
I that moment, I was reminded (and believe that this was God’s Spirit’s prompting) of the Serenity prayer, which I imagine many of us will know, though maybe not the second part quite so well…
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will; that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him forever in the next. Amen.
Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971)
Some things are in our control. Some are not. I pray God helps me and us all to keep hold of a sense of perspective as much of what we know of life and church activity pauses, and we reimagine, rediscover, and reinvent what it means to be church, disciples and community.
These are different and therefore maybe difficult times for many of us, but I am also filled with hope. Hope because I have already heard testimony of how God is working in these days, how relationships are changing, growing and strengthening, how the absence of stuff to ‘do’ as church is enabling people to ‘be’ with each other in new, different and exciting ways. I am hopefully and excited (though also nervous about what may come!) that when we get to the other side of this period, God’s church has the opportunity to be stronger, wiser, closer to God and each other. I think we will appreciate and value gathered worship, meetings and events differently, and I suspect we may even find ourselves continuing to do and be church differently when we all this is over.
In these coming days, as we seek to make sense and become familiar with who we are and how we are in these strange times, having wisdom to know what is or isn’t in our power to change will be immensely helpful in our own navigation of these unchartered waters, as individuals, as families and as church community.
The full prayer then goes on to remind us to take each day as it comes, one moment at a time, as things are, not as we wish they were. Trusting that one day God will make all things right. There is much about our current situation we cannot change, but one thing that cannot change, is God’s constant love for us, God’s everlasting presence with us, God’s unending compassion and grace.
“But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”
Psalm 86:15 New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised (NRSVA)
The Psalms are filled with the turbulence of human emotion, question and struggle and lament and thanksgiving. I encourage you, if you’re struggling to make sense of your emotions, or not sure you can find the words to pray at the moment, reading the Psalms may well be a helpful place to go.
I find this verse, which comes in various places throughout scripture, a rooting reminder, one that helps me refocus on what really matters that the character of God is constant and unchanging.
On this Mothering Sunday, as many of us do not see family as had been planned, nor gather with our church family for the first time of what is likely to be a number of weeks, I pray that we may all know for ourselves, in new and helpful and encouraging ways, the parenthood of God, who is love and mercy and grace and faithfulness in abundance. I pray as you experience the love and faithfulness of God to each of us, you are able to place your hope and trust in God in these uncertain and anxious times.
While much around us has changed, God has not. God is constant. God is everlasting. God is God.
I leave you, with a video of Rebekah I recorded earlier this week, who has totally on her own made up actions to this song which she has been playing constantly all week (I’m glad the office isn’t next to the lounge!). I think & hope her enthusiasm, energy and creativity will make you smile – it’s been one of the many ways the girls have kept me going this week.
The song ‘You never stop loving me’ is from a CD collection called You’re a star by Chris Harding, who goes to my Aunt’s church in Tavistock. If you’re interested, this google search will point you to various sources for download and/or purchase.
Join the conversation
if you’ve got thoughts or something to share after reading and reflecting on this, you can comment below and share them with us all – I’d love to hear from you.