Archives for posts with tag: Disciple

Sermon for Mattins and Evensong on the Sunday after Ascension, 17th May 2015
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; John 17:6-19 (Mattins): Isaiah 61; Luke 4:14-21 (Evensong)

What happens after the main man has gone? You know, at that special conference; the Royal visit; when the prizes have been given out and the speeches made; when the curtain has come down after the climactic finale.

Wasn’t it good? Didn’t he speak well? We all felt so inspired, uplifted, even. With this man Jesus, so many wonderful things happened while he was around. Miracles, maybe. Water into wine at a wedding, somebody said. Getting people who had been wheelchair-bound for years to jump up like spring rams. His medical ability even extended to bringing people who had died, back to life. Think of poor old Lazarus. What a wonderful time! What a wonderful man!

You can imagine how the disciples felt. It wasn’t just the Twelve by this time. There were 120 of them in the upper room – it must have been a big place. But even if it was full of the bustle which goes with a crowded room, they felt flat, empty, bereft.

Jesus had disappeared, he had been taken up into the clouds. According to Luke’s account in Acts, two men in white garments had appeared, as the disciples looked up where He seemed to have gone, and mysteriously said that He would come back the same way he had gone. (Acts 1:10-11)

That’s not very helpful. The disciples didn’t know where Jesus had gone, although from some of the things He had said to them, they could infer that He was somehow going back to His Heavenly Father, to the God who had sent him. He had said, for instance, ‘All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you.’ (John 17:10-11)

It’s not surprising that mankind has always been very concerned to know about life after death. There are all the myths of Hades, and people coming back from there – think of Orpheus and Eurydice – and about ghosts. For instance, this week I was fortunate enough to see John Neumeier’s famous production of the ballet ‘Giselle’ at the Staatsoper in Hamburg.

Young Duke Albert dresses up as a peasant, (as you do), and falls for a beautiful peasant girl, Giselle. Giselle is, however, rather delicate. Her Mum, who is blind (and therefore more perceptive, like the blind seer Tiresias in Greek tragedy), predicts that it will all end badly. Giselle already had another admirer, a peasant called Hilarion, before Albert burst into her life, and he just happens to find Albert’s sword, unmasks him, and poor Giselle dies of a broken heart.

In Act 2, the setting is Giselle’s grave. Ghosts, ghosts of girls whose fiancés had deserted them before they married, called the Wilis, appear, along with poor Albert and Hilarion, who are bereft at losing Giselle. The Wilis try to trap all men in a dance of death. They get the poor peasant boyfriend, but not Albert. And then the ghost of Giselle appears too. Happily, she seems to forgive Albert for cheating her, and they dance tenderly together. But the dawn breaks, and he is left alone. So sad.

We find it so difficult when we lose someone, when someone dies. Where did they go to? The Greeks believed in a very well-detailed vision of the world after death: of the underworld, and Hades, and of the gods in heaven, on Mount Olympus.

But in contrast with all that detail about ‘heaven’ in literature and mythology, in the case of Jesus there is no detail; apart from references to Jesus ‘sitting at the right hand of God on high’; it’s rather vague. There is some terrific visionary stuff in the Book of Revelation (chapter 21), but no simple factual guide.

But the disciples, whose sense of loss must have been really acute, didn’t get tied down in this eschatology, trying to capture the truth about life after death. They had work to do in the here-and-now. Jesus had given them the vital task of passing on the good news, the revelation of God among mankind. ‘How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who bringeth good tidings’, as the Ascension Day lesson from Isaiah 57 says.

Father Matthew of the Anglican Church of St Thomas Becket in Hamburg, where I was on Thursday, made the congregation smile by saying that we all had beautiful feet. I hear that Godfrey also preached on Ascension Day about feet – whether they were beautiful or not I haven’t heard. According to Fr Matthew, we weren’t meant to stand around gawping, like the disciples looking up to heaven, but to get on with letting the world know the good news of Jesus. And to the extent that we did pass on the good word, our feet would be beautiful.

Father Matthew in Hamburg, and Godfrey here, weren’t offering some chiropodist’s secret treatment for bunions. The message, the message at this time in the Christian year, is that, whatever the Ascension stands for – the coming of the Kingdom of God, the ‘year of the Lord’s favour’, as Isaiah 61 puts it, which Jesus told them was a reference to Him (Luke 4:21) – whatever that really means (as it is surely a mystery), there is work to do. Next week, on Whit Sunday, we will celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit, the ‘Holy Ghost, the comforter’. But in the meantime, in the few days after Jesus’ ascension before the Spirit came to the disciples, they still had to organise themselves.

So at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, they had to choose someone to replace Judas Iscariot. To replace Judas – as what? As a disciple, an apostle? A disciple, μαθητής, was a student, literally – it’s the same meaning that ‘Taliban’ has, I understand; a student of Jesus the Teacher, the rabbi. Or an ‘apostle’, a man ‘sent out’, which is what αποστολος in Greek means. It was neither of these. Matthias, the new man, was to be a witness, a witness to the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus. The Greek word is μαρτυρος, ‘martyr’. It has come to mean so much more than just a witness. A Christian witness is someone who is prepared to sacrifice everything in order to witness to the Good News.

It’s interesting to see how they chose Matthias. First they prayed for God’s guidance, and then they ‘cast lots’. I’m not sure whether this was voting, as such, or something like drawing the short straw. Either way it reminds us, as I hope we were reminded at the General Election, that important choices go better if we say our prayers first.

Then, having got the team up to full strength again, they were ready. We should be the same. As Christians, there are times when we may feel a bit lost, perhaps drifting a bit in our faith. Jesus isn’t really ‘there’ for us. All we can see is busyness in our lives, ‘stuff’. The main man has gone. We need the charge of the Holy Spirit in our souls.

We should learn from what the early church did. They got on with practical things, making sure that their leadership team was up to strength. It must have been an incredibly tough time for them. Where had Jesus gone? What did it mean that He would come back the same way that He had gone? No-one knew. And yet: and yet the essentials of the Gospel story were in place. Jesus had come among them, teaching and healing the sick. He had died. He had risen again from the dead – not a ghost, but in person, flesh and blood.

It meant that God is involved with mankind, that He cares for us. Nothing, in the whole of human knowledge and experience, can be more important than that. And it isn’t just a stupendous event, something to leave you gawping in amazement, but it is also a life-changer. A lot of our concerns, a lot of the things we think of as being vital for our way of life, can never be the same in the light of this.

We may feel a bit bereft, like the disciples after Jesus had gone, after the Ascension; but we know more than they did. The Holy Spirit will come – it has come. In reality it is here, ‘open and around us’. It may help us to remember this, by our celebrating Whit Sunday and the run up to it – but the Holy Spirit is always there. He is the Advocate, the Comforter. Let us be comforted, and get on with it.

What is ‘it’, that we’re supposed to get on with?

He hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord; (Isaiah 61:1)

How many of those things could we – could you – do? To ‘bind up the broken-hearted’ we can certainly do, by supporting, by being there for, people caught up in sadness of one kind or another. Tick that one.

But ‘To proclaim liberty to the captives’ and so on? Tricky one. Are we being asked to release all the people in prisons? Perhaps it implies that we should support Amnesty International, which works to free all those who have been wrongly imprisoned, in Guantanamo, for example.

But again, perhaps if we ask the Lord in prayer to guide us, He might confront us with what is happening in our prisons here in England. More and more people are being incarcerated, but government cuts have meant that there are fewer prison officers. People are being locked up in their cells for longer and longer at a time, and there are fewer opportunities to attend courses and learn skills which offer the prisoners a chance of rehabilitation in society at the end of their sentences. There is surely work for us Christians to do here as well.

So as we look forward to next Sunday, we pray, ‘Come Holy Spirit, our souls inspire’: but we have important things to do meanwhile, even now, so that we really can ‘proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord’. With God’s help, it’s up to us.

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Sermon for Mattins at St Mary’s on the Third Sunday after Easter, 21st April 2013
Acts 9:36-43 – Tabitha

If you had asked me who Tabitha was, when I was little, I think I might have told you about Tabitha Twitchit, the cat in Beatrix Potter who was the mother of Tom Kitten and his sisters Mittens and Moppet, and who made clothes for the kittens.

Now in the lesson just now we heard about Tabitha in the Bible, whose name meant Dorcas, or ‘gazelle’, a woman ‘full of good works and almsdeeds which she did’. She had died: and the widows who were in attendance, weeping, showed the apostle Peter ‘the coats and garments which Dorcas made, while she was with them.’ Like Tabitha Twitchit, Tabitha Dorcas was good at sewing.

But Dorcas was altogether more important than that. She is one of the few people in the Bible – or anywhere – to have been raised from the dead. The widow of Nain’s son; Lazarus, Jesus himself of course – and Jairus’ daughter. What Jesus said to Jairus’ daughter, whose name we are not told, was ‘talitha cumi’, ‘which is, being interpreted, Damsel, …. , arise.’

Damsel, arise. Talitha cumi. Dorcas, get up. Ταβιθα, αναστηθι, in Greek. There does seem to be some similarity between the two stories. Does it mean they are only stories?
St Paul said, if there were no resurrection, then our Christianity is pointless (1 Cor. 15:14).

But that’s not what I want to concentrate on this morning. We believe in God: we believe that Jesus was God in human form, the Son of God. Why would there be any limit to what God could do?

No, what I want to focus on is Tabitha, Dorcas. The Acts of the Apostles describes her as a ‘disciple’ – μαθήτρια, which means a learned woman, or a female student. It is the feminine version of the word used for the Twelve, the disciples. Their two key names are ‘disciple’ – a student – and ‘apostle’ – someone sent out, an ambassador. Today is celebrated in many churches as Vocation Sunday – and I want to look at this one person, Dorcas’, calling.

You will recall how important it was for St Paul to be accepted as a an apostle. He became the apostle to the Gentiles, to the non-Jews. Now here we have Dorcas, described as a ‘disciple’. This marks her out as very important among the early Christians. Before the Twelve became apostles, before Jesus sent them out to preach the gospel, they were disciples, students, of Jesus, the Teacher, the Rabbi.

When Mary Magdalene encountered the risen Jesus at the tomb, she called Jesus ‘Rabboni’, the most respectful word for a rabbi, a teacher, when she realised that she had mistaken him for the gardener. She too was a disciple, μαθήτρια.

So just as St Paul mentions, for example at the beginning of some of his letters, that he is ‘called to be an apostle’, Dorcas is described, before anything is said about her good works, as ‘a disciple’. She has one of the key qualifications for being one of the early leaders of the church; she is a disciple.

When I was reading about Dorcas, it reminded me about the continuing wrangle in our church about women bishops. True enough, the Bible doesn’t say that Dorcas was a bishop, an επίσκοπος, an overseer. But is does say that she was a disciple. I feel that being a disciple then was probably even more exalted than being a bishop – and Dorcas was especially exalted, she was uniquely ‘exalted’, in that she was raised from the dead!

But my train of thought wasn’t about whether there is Biblical authority for there being women bishops – although I do think that Dorcas shows that there is – but rather I thought again about the fact that there is still a deadlock about it today.

As you will remember, at the last General Synod of the church in November last, the motion to allow the church to ordain women as bishops was very narrowly defeated, by four votes in the house of laity. Three of the four representatives in that house from our, Guildford, diocese, voted against, and so did two of our clergy representatives, (one of them being our Archdeacon, who is now going to be Bishop of Blackburn).

There was a lot of upset, sadness and anger as a result within the church – but outside, the most common reaction was that the Church of England had showed itself to be completely out of touch. It was not our best day.

But when the various post-mortems started, those who voted against were saying not that they opposed women becoming bishops, but that they did not feel there was ‘proper provision’ for people who did not accept that there should be women bishops.

As you will remember, when women were first ordained as priests, the church adopted a system of ‘flying bishops’ to give spiritual oversight to parishes which passed a resolution that they would not accept women as priests. There are three or four parishes out of the 160 in our diocese which fall into this category, and there is a flying bishop appointed – the technical term is that he is their ‘Provisional Episcopal Visitor’.

There have been various proposals about how to look after parishes that will not accept women bishops. First there was a suggested ‘Measure’, with a capital ‘M’, which would be part of Canon – church – Law. Then this was replaced by a suggested Code of Practice, which would be more like the Highway Code: not law in itself, but the idea is that if one follows it, it will avoid breaking the law.

The problem is, that there doesn’t seem to be any likelihood that the various groups who are opposed to women bishops will agree that any one system would give them the protection they are looking for.

The other problem, which is related to this, is that if you go too far in making provision for people who, for whatever reason, refuse to acknowledge the authority of a woman bishop, you will to some extent make that woman bishop less than, or certainly not equal to, a male bishop. Not surprisingly, that’s not acceptable either.

Our bishop, Bishop Christopher, has been taking part in various meetings of bishops aimed at trying to come up with proposals to put to the next meeting of General Synod in July, so that the impasse can be removed.

He has said that the bishops have decided not just simply to put the same proposals, which were rejected in November, to the vote again. It is thought that they would not get through – and there might even be more votes against than last time.

However, there is a silence about what proposals they are going to put forward. No one seems to be minded to compromise, and indeed some groups appear to have hardened their position.

There is apparently a school of thought, following the Bishop of Gloucester, that there is so little chance of agreement, given the current membership of the Synod, that the only thing to do is to wait until new Synod elections have taken place in three years’ time, and new people will be there to consider the whole thing afresh.

I think, from what I have read, that this wait-for-three years idea is really based on the assumption that the majority in the church, who support women bishops, will get themselves elected in bigger numbers, so that the opponents will be overwhelmingly defeated, and there will be no need to have any provisions for dissenters – you will either have to accept women bishops or, ultimately, leave the church. But then again, the antis might organise their supporters too, and come back in greater force.

I have recently discussed all this with a leading Forward in Faith minister (FiF are against women even as priests, let alone bishops) and with various people, lay and ordained, who can’t see why we shouldn’t have women bishops – and who think that the church is losing out, for as long as it doesn’t happen.

My own perspective is that the Church of England is a ‘broad church’ with a fine tradition of accommodating a wide variety of views on all sorts of important things. We range from High Churchmen, who are practically indistinguishable from Roman Catholics, who sometimes use Roman Catholic service books and pray for the Pope as Vicar of Christ on earth; we range from them to Low Churchmen, who don’t wear any vestments, who may not use the prescribed forms of services either, but incline to Pentecostal worship, speaking in tongues and so on: and we include all shades in between.

We accept that all these varieties are Anglicans. We turn a blind eye to the fact that Canon Law actually lays down the services to be used, the vestments to be worn, and the doctrine which is supposed to be authoritative – you can find it in the 39 Articles in your Prayer Books, beginning at page 611. There are an awful lot of churches that don’t go along with these requirements – and no-one tries to kick them out as a result.

It has given me the idea, (which you might think is an odd one coming from a lawyer), that perhaps it is not a good idea to try to draw up legalistic solutions to the women bishops question. Codes of practice, Measures in Canon Law and so on, will never command unanimity. But should that stop the whole process?

I wonder whether in fact a better way would not be simply to recognise that not all Anglicans agree, even on quite fundamental matters – but that we all worship the same God and proclaim the same Lord Jesus Christ. So we should simply get on with ordaining bishops. Some would be men, and some, women.

Perhaps we would have to do it on the basis that all the language we use now is really gender-neutral. Just as in a legal contract it usually says that words connoting the masculine also include the feminine, so we could either actually change the relevant words in the consecration service and in Canon Law, or adopt a definition clause similar to one in a contract.

Then what if a particular parish doesn’t accept the bishop’s authority, if that bishop happens to be female? I would suggest that a parish in that situation should do what a number of parishes already do, even in this diocese, and would just carry on regardless.

If they need a bishop, they can ask one to come and give them ‘episcopal oversight’, for example to ordain new priests. There is a good historical precedent for this in the beginnings of Methodism, when John Wesley (who with his brother Charles, remained Anglican priests until they died) found that there were many congregations in the new colonies in America who had no priest – but that the Church of England would not send bishops to ordain people.

So the Wesleys, who were not bishops, ordained ministers for these congregations. Although in the end it was a factor in such congregations becoming Methodist rather than Anglican, there was no difference – there is no difference – between Anglicans and Methodists doctrinally, and the Wesleys weren’t kicked out of the Anglican Church.

Today’s Americans have arguably done it again – they have ordained women as bishops, and indeed the ‘Presiding Bishop’, as they call it, their leading bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, is female. But although there have been rumblings, the Episcopal Church has not been chucked out of the Anglican Communion.

This would seem to me to be very true to the practice of the early church. First Jesus himself, and then St Paul, set up the gospel message over against the religion of the Pharisees and scribes. Jesus said, according to St Matthew, (5:17) ‘Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am come not to destroy, but to fulfil.’

But He went on to preach the Sermon on the Mount, which went far further than the old legalistic approach. A Christian goes the extra mile, turns the other cheek: that is much more important than the letter of the law. Could we not adopt a similar approach to consecrating women as bishops?

I would suggest that if we did look at it in a less legalistic way, then we should not draft precise codes of conduct or detailed provisions. We would simply acknowledge that in this area, as in others, some congregations would not entirely conform: but the hierarchy would turn a blind eye.

I hope you get the idea. Sometimes a sermon isn’t a ready-made prescription: do this and your passage to heaven is secure. Sometimes the preacher has to challenge their flock, to ask you to work out how you would put the gospel message into practice in your lives. This is one of those. Let me – let Bishop Christopher – know what you think.