Before going to theological college, I spent 6 years managing a Christian bookshop. It had been something of a dream of mine for all my teenage life. I had a passion for business, for resourcing God’s people in mission and ministry, and reaching out beyond the margins of church.
The place often felt like a signpost, as well as selling goods we saw a growing ministry of pastoral care – welcoming all sorts of people from many different backgrounds with many different stories to tell. We would point people to support, spiritual, physical, economic, we would offer conversation about life and faith, sometimes we would pray with people, and one of the joys of this ministry was that through it God was at work and we saw a number people begin following Jesus.
It was through this pastoral ministry that God began to reveal to me a calling to a vocation as a Methodist minister. But one of the things that surprised me most when running the bookshop was not these opportunities for mission, ministry and pastoral care with those on the margins, but the conversations I had with ‘already Christians’.
Running the bookshop meant I was serving a wide and diverse range of Christian people, fellowships and churches. And I saw that as a great thing, an opportunity to learn from others, discover more about God’s church and celebrate our common faith.
What surprised me, as just how un-loving God’s church can be from within. I was amazed the first time I was criticised for stocking anything but the King James Bible – on one occasion I was told I was the antichrist for stocking a particular book (I can’t remember what the book was now! – just the accusation!).
I don’t think it’s wrong to have conviction in faith, but I do think we need to as God’s Spirit to watch over us that we don’t get to a point where we are so convicted of our faith that we show no openness to the diversity of faith present in God’s people.
In Colossians 3 we read the following verses, which come from a larger section where Paul is seeking to enable understanding of what living together as Christian community looks like.
8 But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices 10 and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. 11 In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!
As the letter to the Colossians unfolds, the message of the gospel – the Good News -Jesus Christ – is being unpacked and given clarity. Christ is all and in all. Human labels that divide are superfluous to the power and grace of God.
One of the things that often saddens me is that Church, and society, spend so much time and energy highlighting our differences, and allowing that to lead to division and jealousy.
If we are kingdom people, worshipping Christ who’s kingdom we are welcomed into through God’s love and grace – surely it is our common faith in Christ who is all and in all that we should hold our main focus on.
John Wesley, who’s ministry contributed to the birthing of Methodism, was himself well aware of the way opinions led to division, and in one of his sermons argued that differing opinions need to be held in perspective with common faith, and that differing opinions should not lead to the cessation of fellowship.[i]
Friends there is much that has potential to divides us. Views on political and public health measures during the pandemic; contradictory convictions around communion, sexuality, gender & marriage; Brexit; immigration. The list could be endless, and these things are not things we should entirely ignore. But I think should be approached with the a recognition from all that by the love and grace of God human made division is wiped away – Christ is all and in all.
For me, these verses challenge me to hold our common faith in the un-boundaried love and grace of God at the centre of my relationships. Not focused on difference and division, but on the kingdom of God where Christ is all and in all.
[i] Sermon 19: Salt and Light, John Wesley’s 44 Sermons. Epworth Press, 1944
Throughout August I will be encouraging us to reflect on things we have learn and are learning through lockdown about self, God and being Christian community.
These giraffes sit on my office windowsill, you might have seen them in previous videos. We bought them on a holiday in France in 2012 and they remind me of our holiday.
They sat on our mantel-piece in Cornwall, then went into storage while we were in Birmingham. When moved here Louise my wife thought we should get rid of them, I didn’t, so we found a compromise and they ended up in my office.
Now they not only remind me of our holiday, they also remind me that as human beings, include married couples, have differences of opinion.
Lockdown as a time to learn
I want to encourage us to reflect this month on what we may learn from lockdown, because I do not believe this is a time of life on pause that doesn’t matter. I don’t believe this is a time that God wants us to waste.
Just as the time the Israelites spent in the wilderness was formational for them, I believe our living in lockdown is a time that can be formational to us. Where God has and continues to speak to us, challenge us and change us.
For some of us, we may feel like lockdown is over, for others, we may still very much feel like we’re in lockdown, for others again, maybe we’re in the middle.
Wherever we stand on that spectrum, it doesn’t really matter, it just goes to prove one of the things that I’ve been increasingly conscious of over the last few months – just how diverse and different we all are.
Diversity & Difference
And that’s where this month of learning from lockdown reflections is going to begin.
In the book of 1 Corinthians we read:
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.
1 Corinthians 12:12, NRSV
The body of Christ, the community of faith, is made of lots of different parts, we all look different, we think differently, respond to circumstances in life with the full colour pallet of human diversity.
I’ve seen the diversity and difference in so many ways through lockdown. Some people have seemed to thrive during lockdown, Energised by the new opportunties and environments and challenges others have really struggled, and others somewhere in between – with good days and some not so good days.
Christian faith is not about conformity – not about creating robots that think and speak the same. It’s about being a community of faith that can call itself a communtiy while celebrating the fact we’re different.
It’s about being people tuned into God’s Spirit, collectively discerning what Gods Spirit is saying to us as individuals and as a community of faith
As we’ve worshiped from our homes, I’ve found my role as minister being less of a leader of worship, and more of an enabler of worship – offering lots of different resources by post and online, seeking to resource the diverse people that make up the churches I serve. It’s been a joy to see diversity thriving, but a challenge at times to keep up!
So as I encourage us to reflect this month on what we may be learning from lockdown, I want to start from a recognition of the diversity and difference among us.
And I want to encourage you all, to think and pray and reflect for yourself… what would you say you’re learning, or have learnt during lockdown.
And try to be go a bit deeper and further than saying I’ve learnt to use zoom.As much of an achievement that may be! `
Where has God spoken to you, challenged you or encouraged you?
What is God’s Spirit saying?
Join the Conversation
Comment below with your own reflections on leanring from lockdown.
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.
Some of you will see them by looking outside your windows or front door. For some of you, in just a short walk you’ll see them dotted in houses along the street. Others if you will have heard and seen them on TV. What am I taking about? I’m talking about the nations recent art-explosion of rainbows.
Along our street there are big ones & little ones, painted ones & coloured ones, all different, and unique, but all part of a bigger picture, a bigger message – that there is hope, that this time of distance will come to an end.
As we look at these rainbows, as pieces of art, we see the diversity of colour & design, the variety of materials used to make them.
The rainbow is perhaps most widely used today by the LGBT+ community which (to put a much longer, more complex history of the symbology into much briefer terms) has becomes as a symbol that offers a shared identity, a symbol offering a sense of unity to a diverse community.
Thinking about rainbows themselves in a more scientific way, when they appear in the sky they are caused by the reflections, refraction and dispersal of light…(and that’s where my scientific knowledge reaches its end!). As it happens, into the sky shines a spectrum of colour for all to see.
But before scientific understanding took place, before – perhaps – people could attempt to use rainbows in art, the rainbow as a symbol comes in biblical tradition as a sign of God’s covenant with Noah that floods will never again destroy the earth.
11 I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.’ 12 God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13 I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.
Millenia on, and the rainbow continues to be a sign of hope & promise. A reminder of God’s care for the world, for creation, for all living creatures, for all humankind made in God’s image.
Lent has somewhat been disrupted for us here in 2020, but today is Palm Sunday. The day in which we remember Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.
As Matthew tells it, after weeks and months of ministry ‘on the road’ Jesus gives some of the disciples instructions, they get a colt, and Jesus rides into Jerusalem. Matthew makes the point, as Matthew often does, to point to Jewish scriptures – Christ as the promised one, the Messiah, the new king.
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
Zechariah 9:9, (cited in Matthew 21:5)
And as he approaches Jerusalem, a crowd gathers – they were not in the midst of a global pandemic! As the crowd does, they grab branches from the trees and wave them and cheer.
8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,
‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’
There’s a parallel to Jesus’ lowly entry to Jerusalem, from the eastern side of the city. From the west, Pilate was entering Jerusalem in a military procession. As Borg and Crossan put it:
Jesus’ procession proclaimed the kingdom of God; Pilate’s proclaimed the power of empire. The two processions embody the central conflict of the week that led to Jesus’ crucifixion.
Borg and Crossan in ‘The Last Week’, p2.
For the crowds that gathered and waved their palms, Jesus was a symbol that life could be different. Jesus had become a symbol of hope that things could be better. Of course things didn’t go the way people expected, and it’s not long before a crowd gathers again, this time chanting ‘crucify him’.
As we sit in our homes, we too can know Jesus as a sign to us that life can be different. That there is hope that things will get better.
You’ll see a picture of our rainbow made by Rebekah and Lydia at the top of this post. Ironically, made with their very own palms (I didn’t think about this when we made it!). Just as the palm branches were what the people of Jesus’ day could find, we have rainbows displayed across the nation. Diverse and unique, yet holding a universal message of hope.
Rainbows as symbols of diversity and unity. Rainbows as a reminder of God’s care for all creation. Rainbows as a symbol of hope.
While we can’t gather as a crowd today and wave our palms, we can still know, live and even declare to our streets and communities the universal hope that Christ’s entry to Jerusalem declares. Things can be different. Things may get worse (we know Good Friday is coming), but they will one day get better (resurrection is coming).
I hope and pray that this Palm Sunday you will be able to celebrate Jesus as a sign of hope for you today. As Jesus enters our hearts and homes this week, and we journey with Jesus through his last week, may we and those around us know the hope that Jesus brings.
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.
Adapted from the transcript & notes of a Sermon first preached by Rev Dan Balsdon at Bognor Regis Methodist Church on 20th October 2019. The Readings were Jeremiah 31:27-34 & Luke 18:1-8
Please forgive any typo’s I missed!
As a probationer presbyter, the Church requires me to undertake ongoing study. At the moment, I’m preparing for a study week with fellow probationers in November which will centre around reflecting on our first year of ministry and thinking about what the Christian gospel looks and feels like in the places I serve.