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Wednesday, 27 May 2020

Unity, protection and sanctification

Here's my reflection from today's lunchtime Eucharist for St Martin-in-the-Fields:

Our Gospel reading today (John 17.11-19) is part of the prayer that Jesus prayed for his disciples on the night before he died. Chronologically this prayer comes before Jesus’ Ascension, but, in terms of its content, it is a post-Ascension prayer because his concern is for his disciples once he has left them. Many of his disciples had been on the road with him for three years and had sat at his feet as disciples listening to his teaching, observing his example and imbibing his spirit. Following his Ascension, he would leave them and they would have the challenge of continuing his ministry without him there. He knew that that experience would be challenging and therefore he prayed for them to be supported and strengthened in the challenges they would face. I want us to reflect on three aspects of this section of Jesus’ prayer; unity, protection and sanctification.

Jesus prays that his disciples may be one, as he is one with God the Father and God the Spirit. In other words, we have to understand the unity that is the Godhead, before we can understand the unity that Jesus wants for his disciples. As God is one and also three persons at one and the same time, there is a community at the heart of God with a constant exchange of love between the Father, the Son and the Spirit. That exchange is the very heartbeat of God and is the reason we are able to say that God is love. Everything that God is and does and says is the overflow of the exchange of love that is at the heart of the Godhead. Jesus invites us to enter into that relationship of love and to experience it for ourselves. That is his prayer, his teaching and also the purpose of his incarnation, death and resurrection.

Earlier in his farewell discourse, Jesus gave the command that we should love one another as we have been loved by God. It is in the sharing of love with each other that we experience unity and experience God. Unity, then, does not come from beliefs or propositions. It is not to do with statements or articles of faith. It does not involve us thinking or believing the same thing. Instead, unity is found in relationship, in the constant, continuing exchange of love with others within community; meaning that unity is actually found in diversity. Jesus prays that we will have that experience firstly by coming into relationship with a relational God and secondly by allowing the love that is at the heart of the Godhead to fill us and overflow from us to others, whilst also receiving the overflow of that love from others.

The second aspect of Jesus’ prayer is his prayer for our protection. Our need for protection is often physical and immediate. That is certainly the case for those who were featured in this year’s Christian Aid Week campaign affected, as so many are today, by Covid-19, but for them in the context of crippling poverty. Their need to be protected is one that can, to some extent, be met by aid and medical provision, underpinned by prayer. Similarly, there are many known to our community in need of tangible protection at this time. A member of our Sunday International Group, who gave his testimony in Sunday’s service, has said that St Martin’s has been a ‘shelter from the stormy blast’ for him.

In his prayer Jesus asks that we will be protected in a different way, by being protected in God’s name. God’s name has been given to him, he says, and he has then given that name to his disciples. In our day, we have lost much of the depth and richness that names held in more ancient cultures. Names in Jesus’ culture and earlier were signs or indicators of the essence of the thing named. When we read the story of Adam naming the animals in the Book of Genesis that is what was going on; Adam was identifying the distinctive essence of each creature brought before him and seeking a word to capture and articulate that essential characteristic. It is also why the name of God is so special in Judaism – so special that it cannot be spoken – as the name of God discloses God’s essence or core or the very heart of his being. Jesus prayed that we might be put in touch with, in contact with, in relationship with, the very essence of God’s being by knowing his name. That contact is what will protect us. If we are in contact with the essential love and goodness that is at the very heart of God then that will fill our hearts, our emotions, our words, our actions enabling us to live in love with others, instead of living selfishly in opposition to others. Jesus prays that the essential love which is at the heart of God will transform us in our essence, meaning that we are then protected from evil by being filled with love.

The third aspect of Jesus’ prayer is to do with sanctification. Sanctification is the process of becoming holy. Jesus prays that we will be sanctified in truth, with the truth being the word of God. The Prologue to John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus himself is the Word of God. Therefore Jesus’ prays for us to become holy in Him. It is as we live in relationship to him, following in the Way that he has established, that we are sanctified. This is what it means for us to know Jesus as the Way, the Truth and the Life. It is vital that we note that we are not sanctified by the Truth, meaning that sanctification is not about knowing and accepting truths that we are to believe. Instead, we are sanctified in the Truth, meaning that we are made holy as we inhabit, experience, practice and live out the Truth; with that truth being Jesus.

Knowing God is, therefore, like diving ever deeper into a bottomless ocean where there is always more to see and encounter. We are within that ocean – the truth of relationship with Jesus – and can always see and uncover and discover more of the love of God because the reality of God is of an infinite depth of love. God created all things and therefore all things exist in him and he is more than the sum of all things, so it is impossible for us with our finite minds to ever fully know or understand his love. However profound our experience of God has been, there is always more for us to discover because we live in and are surrounded by infinitude of love. St Augustine is reported to have described this reality in terms of God being a circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.

Jesus is constantly praying for a continual and continuing immersion in relationship with Him so that we will experience unity by sharing love, protection by experiencing the essence of God and holiness through living in Him. Because we are with God and in God and God in us, we can and, increasingly, will act in ways that are God-like and Godly. That happens because we are so immersed in God and in his love that his love necessarily overflows from us in ways that we cannot always anticipate or control. Essentially, we learn to improvise as Jesus did, because we are immersed in his ways and love. That is Jesus’ prayer for us. We pray Amen, may it be so.

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Peteris Vasks - Presence.

Monday, 25 May 2020

CTiW: Livestreamed Ecumenical Pentecost Mass


As current COVID-19 restrictions do not allow us to hold our usual live CTiW Pentecost Service, Churches Together in Westminster are pleased to announce that instead an ecumenical Pentecost Mass will be livestreamed from Farm Street Church of the Immaculate Conception at 6pm on Sunday, 31st May 2020. It is hoped that the service will include recorded music by Soul Sanctuary Gospel Choir, and the choirs of Farm Street and All Saints, Margaret Street.

All are very welcome from whatever Christian tradition or none, to celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and to pray for our country and world at this time of crisis.

A poster is above, and the link for the livestream is https://www.farmstreet.org.uk/livestream.

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Soul Sanctuary Gospel Choir - The Prayer.

Saturday, 23 May 2020

Artlyst: Salisbury Cathedral 800 Years Of Art And Spirit

My latest article for Artlyst is a review of the Celebrating 800 years of Spirit and Endeavour exhibition at Salisbury Cathedral, which has been taken online since lockdown:

'The exhibition was a major commitment on the part of the Cathedral for its anniversary year, so lockdown was a bitter blow but, in the spirit celebrated by the exhibition, one they were determined to overcome. In response a virtual exhibition was created which launched eight centuries to the day after the first foundation stones of this magnificent building were laid and just over a month after the real-life launch was halted by the COVID-19 lockdown.

As Dr Robert Titley, Salisbury Cathedral’s Canon Treasurer and Chair of the Cathedral’s Arts Advisory Committee has said: “Christianity is a religion of redemption and salvation. We planned this exhibition to celebrate a landmark birthday for our Cathedral and city but the coronavirus overtook us. Now – thanks to this virtual realisation – the exhibition lives anew, to bring hope and delight in a time of trouble, passing through the closed doors of isolation and lockdown. It’s a sign of what is possible when the Spirit of God fuels human endeavour.'

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Robbie Robertson - Shine Your Light.

Windows on the world (279)


London, 2019

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Joni Mitchell - Shadows And Light.


Thursday, 21 May 2020

Let me go, because then the Spirit will come

Here's my reflection, with a new meditation, from the Ascension Day Eucharist at St Martin-in-the-Fields:

Imagine how the disciples must first have felt when they heard that Jesus was planning to leave them in order to return to his Father. They had had an incredible roller-coaster three years of ministry together with him which had culminated in the agony of watching him die. They thought that they had lost him and that all their hopes and dreams had been dashed. Then there was the joy of the resurrection; the dawning realisation that Jesus was alive, was still with them and was not lost to them after all.

And then the Ascension. The Jesus that they thought they had regained left them. What was that all about? There was so much that they still had to learn? There was so much that they could have done together? Why?

Because Jesus was physically distancing himself from the disciples at the Ascension, there is a similarity to the words that Jesus spoke to Mary Magdalene when she became the first to recognise him after his resurrection. As she did so, she naturally reached out to embrace him but his words to her were, “Touch me not.” Why?

There is a strand of theology which is called ‘the Negative Way.’ Within this way of thinking about God all images and understandings of God are consistently given up and let go because they are human constructions that can only show part of what God is.

So, all talk of Jesus as shepherd, lamb, son, brother, friend, master, servant, king, lord, saviour, redeemer and so on goes out of the window because God is always more than the images that we construct to understand him. In saying that, I was speaking of God as being masculine, something which is, again, only a limited human understanding of God. Ultimately, God is neither male nor female but is Spirit and the Negative Way says that in order to encounter God as being beyond our limited imaginations and understandings we need to give up and let go of all our human ways of describing him.

The Ascension and Jesus’ words to Mary seem to say something similar. Jesus seems to be saying to the disciples, “Don’t cling on to me. Let go of me as you know me because, when you do, you will gain a greater experience, less limited experience, of me. Don’t cling on to me. Let me go, because then the Spirit will come.”

To let go of what is safe and familiar and secure in order to be open to encounter what is beyond is both scary and exhilarating. Yet, it has been, in part, a key part of our experience for many of us during lockdown. It is what Jesus calls us to here and it is the way in which we encounter the Spirit in our lives.

The title of a song by the ska band Madness, ‘One Step Beyond,’ became a catchphrase in my previous parish that developed real spiritual meaning by challenging us to go further in living out our Christian faith, to go one step beyond where we are now in the way that we live as Christians. The Ascension seems to challenge us to go at least one step beyond where we are now in our understanding of God. We need to leave the safety, security and familiarity of the past in order to encounter the new thing that God is doing in the present.

The Ascension teaches us that nothing is sacred: not buildings, not books, not actions, not people; not even Jesus as the disciples encountered him! We must always move beyond our understanding of the place, space, people and realisations that we have now because that is how the Spirit comes!

Touch me not.
I am not yours
to have and hold,
in this shape
in this form.
Let go.
Let me go.
Let my Spirit come.
Divine my Spirit,
know me
within.

An absence
that is presence.
A leave-taking
that is arrival.
A loss of God
that is
being found
in God –
being in God,
being one
with God.

Touch me not
as flesh and blood.
Touch me now
in bread.
Consume me.
Let me in,
within,
as wine
divine.
Elements,
Spirit -
I in you,
and you
in me.

I ascend -
human in heaven.
Understanding,
interceding -
humanity
at the heart
of Godhead
filling the
human-shaped
space
in the very heart
of God.




Do also join us later today at 8.00pm on BBC Radio 4 for a celebration for Ascension Day. That service will be led by our Vicar, the Revd Dr Sam Wells, and the Revd Marie-Elsa Bragg, with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, The Daily Service Singers and St Martin's Voices.


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Hail The Day That Sees Him Rise.

Monday, 18 May 2020

Stepping up to the plate

Here's my reflection from today's lunchtime Eucharist for St Martin-in-the-Fields:

The expression “step up to the plate” refers to “voluntarily assuming responsibility for something.” However, when someone seems to have a particular role or responsibility covered, it is then difficult for others to see the part that they could play or to think there is a need to play their part. That is, in part, what Jesus is addressing with his disciples in his farewell discourse, a part of which forms our Gospel reading (John 15. 26 – 16. 4).

In the farewell discourse and also in many of his parables, Jesus was preparing his disciples for the point when he would leave them. That point was reached with his Ascension. Among the parables Jesus told to prepare his disciples was the Parable of the Talents, where the Master in the story is absent for much of the time. By telling stories where the central character was absent or had left the action, Jesus was saying that he would be leaving and that, when he did so, he was going to entrust his disciples with the responsibility of continuing his mission and ministry.

That was, and is, an awesome responsibility and we can readily understand why, for example, the third worker in the Parable of the Talents was depicted as being paralysed by fear at the prospect of the Master’s absence. However, it also shows the value that Jesus saw in his disciples and sees in us. It is amazing, but true, that God believes in us enough to entrust us with working towards the coming of his kingdom, on earth as in heaven.

The question, then, was whether Jesus’ first disciples (and by implication, all who follow, including ourselves) will step up to the plate and assume responsibility. When the one that was thought of as being in charge and responsible was no longer with the disciples physically, they were made aware of their own responsibilities. Jesus is recorded in our Gospel reading as saying that there were things he did not say to his disciples at the beginning because he was with them at that stage. It was only at the point that Jesus was to leave that it became essential that they heard those things. It was only at that point that they could hear those things.

What Jesus was saying was a version of the popular statement that no one is indispensable, even him. “The graveyards are full of indispensable men,” is another similar saying, popularly attributed to Charles de Gaulle. The reality for Jesus, as the incarnate Son of God, was that he could not personally share his message and love across the known world or throughout history without disciples committed to following him and sharing him with others.

Therefore, at the Ascension, Jesus was like an Olympic torchbearer passing his light on to his disciples and calling them to bear his light. This could only happen when those following him acted as his hands and feet, his eyes, ears and mouth, his body wherever they were. That is essentially the challenge of the Ascension for us, but this challenge is combined with the promise that Jesus will send his Spirit to us to empower and equip us to be his people.

For this reason, the Ascension and Pentecost are intimately linked. The Ascension provides the challenge – “Go, then, to all peoples everywhere and make them my disciples” (Matthew 28. 19) – and Pentecost provides the means - “when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, you will be filled with power, and you will be witnesses for me in Jerusalem, in all of Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” In this way we have been given the resources needed to fulfil our responsibility. Similarly, in the Parable of the Talents, the Master gave out resources (the ‘talents’) alongside responsibilities. In the same way, after the Ascension, the Holy Spirit came to empower Jesus’ disciples.

Do we recognise that each of us has much that we can give; that we are all people with talents and possessions however lacking in confidence and means we may sometimes be? We all have something we can offer, so how can we, through our lives and work, benefit and develop the world for which God has given humanity responsibility? What resources - in terms of abilities, job, income and possessions - has God given to us in order to fulfil our responsibility to bear his light in this dark world? Through his Ascension, Jesus challenges us as to whether we will be faithful or unfaithful servants? How will we respond?

If we accept the responsibility we have been given, we can then pray for quiet courage to match this hour. We did not choose to be born or to live in such an age; but we can ask that its problems challenge us, its discoveries exhilarate us, its injustices anger us, its possibilities inspire us and its vigour renew us for the sake of Christ’s kingdom come, on earth as in his heaven.

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Holy Cross Choir - uJesu Wami.

Sunday, 17 May 2020

Artlyst: Home Alone Together Twenty Five Artists

My latest article for Artlyst is a review of Home Alone Together, an online exhibition at Image Journal:

'The shared, bounded environment in which people now live can be a space of refuge – representing safety from a nebulous, deadly threat, but can also be a pressure cooker. The exhibition recognises that we are all caught up in a strange experiment of uncertain duration, and even those fortunate enough to escape direct loss and trauma are being forced to reckon with new realities – economic, emotional, spiritual – from the (dis)comfort of their own home. In this unsettled moment, the exhibition’s curators – S. Billie Mandle and Aaron Rosen – suggest that artists can help draw our experience into focus.'

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Interviews:
Articles:
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Blessid Union of Souls - Home.