Signs of the Spirit – a Pentecost sermon

Pentecost is very often remembered as the coming of the Holy Spirit, the moment at which the disciples, and therefore the church, receive the Holy Spirit. And yet, as by now we are well aware, this is not the Holy Spirit’s first entrance into the narrative of scripture – far from it. This is the same Spirit who hovers over the waters of creation, the Spirit whom God breathes into the first human, the Spirit who moves again over the waters of Jesus’ baptism, and is breathed by Jesus on the disciples in the upper room after his resurrection. So what, in the context of the Spirit ever-present through the whole creation, and the Spirit already actively involved in the life of Jesus and his disciples, does it mean to say that the Holy Spirit is received at Pentecost?

Perhaps we might want to say that the disciples receive the Spirit in a new way at Pentecost, or that they become aware of and open to the Spirit’s presence in ways that they weren’t before. Perhaps we might want to say that in Pentecost, through the action of the Holy Spirit moving over and through the disciples, God is in some sense doing a new thing. Perhaps we might want to say that in Pentecost God provides a template for renewal, new life, movement and change in the ongoing life of the church and the world.

However we understand it, there is no doubt that this is – among other things – a moment of high drama. The Spirit, eternally present, now reveals her presence in dramatic and miraculous signs. And, like all good drama, the narrative of Pentecost points beyond itself. Here we have three dramatic signs, which are so familiar to us but must have been so strange to their first audience: the wind which rushes through the room; the tongues of fire which rest on the disciples but do not burn them; and the multiplicity of languages which the disciples suddenly find themselves able to speak.  And each of these signs signifies something about the Holy Spirit which speaks far beyond the Pentecost narrative itself.

The rushing wind might call to mind other winds in scripture: the wind moving over the chaos of creation; the mighty wind which Elijah encounters on the mountain; the wind of the storm which Jesus stills; Jesus’ own words about the Spirit being like a wind which blows where it will. It is a sign which speaks of wildness beyond human control, and of movement which moves not only itself but all that it touches. And we might ask ourselves where in our own lives, as a church and as individuals, we have experienced that wild movement.

The sign of fire too mind other fires: the fire around which Jesus and his disciples so recently gathered to share breakfast on a beach, or the one around which Peter denied knowing Jesus; all the ways in which the God of the psalms is likened to light and fire, whose “word is a lamp for my feet”; and again we might find ourselves on the mountain with Elijah whose encounter with God is presaged not only by wind and earthquake but also by fire. This is a sign which speaks both of illumination and of risk. And we might think too of our own fireside gatherings: of stories shared of lament and hope.

And then we come to our third Pentecost sign: the disciples’ sudden ability to make themselves understood – to make the good news of Jesus understood – in languages not their own. And here there is a specific echo of the Tower of Babel, of languages as a gift which divides. But here those languages speak no longer of division but of unity. And notice what sort of unity: this is not the erasing of difference. There are still many languages, many peoples, and they are not the same. The unity of Pentecost is not that of uniformity, but of transforming difference so that it no longer divides. Here, the boundaries which once separated neighbour from neighbour become bridges between people who are still different, still uniquely themselves with all their own customs and stories and languages, but united within and across their diversity. This is not a reversing of Babel, but a transforming, onwards movement to a different sort of unity, predicated not on becoming the same but on communicating across boundaries. Indeed, God is doing a new thing. And we might like to think about our own lives and experiences and communities, about the times when we have spoken or listened across the boundaries of difference to find a new sort of unity. We might want to ask God to show us where we are being called into this sort of transformed and transforming relationship within diversity.

Very often, this is where we leave the Pentecost story – after strange wind and fire, miraculous gifts of speech and understanding. And if we stop there, we might think that this is where the gift of the Holy Spirit is located: in the extraordinary, the powerful, the strange, the miraculous. But of course, this is not the end of the story. It is not the end – it is only just the beginning – of the church’s encounter with the Holy Spirit. And it is well worth paying attention to what happens next. Because very soon we encounter another set of signs. These are quieter, gentler, more ordinary signs, but they are no less important and no less indicative of the presences of the Holy Spirit. We see these signs in the shared life of the early followers of Jesus, in the sharing of life and of faith which will become what we know as ‘church’.

In the breaking of bread, in the sharing of food and resources, in the welcoming of strangers, in the declaring of what Jesus has done, in generosity and good will, and in porous boundaries which do away with the very notion of ‘them and us’: in all these things and more, the Holy Spirit is revealed, just as much as in the dramatic signs more usually associated with Pentecost.  This is the Spirit who remains, steadfast and abiding, pervading the life of the church from the moment of Pentecost as she has pervaded the whole universe from the moment of creation.

Again, we might find ourselves drawn back to the mountain with Elijah. After the wind, the earthquake, and the fire, comes “the sound of sheer silence” in which God is. In a similar way, after the grand drama of Pentecost dies away the Holy Spirit remains, and still remains, in the quiet signs of the communal life and worship of the church. This is the Spirit who steadfastly abides with us, as we abide steadfastly in the places to which God has called us. This is the Spirit whose life of renewal moves as much in the silence and in the sharing of common life as in the spectacular or miraculous. This is the Spirit who invites us with the whole creation into new, transformed, and transforming life infused by her wild and gentle power.

This reflection is part of Hodge Hill Church’s ‘Trees of Life’ series: https://treesoflifehodgehill.blogspot.com/

On meeting Christa in the kitchen

I often pray in my kitchen, and even more so during the last year when we have largely been worshiping at home. The bishop who confirmed me told us we should pray while doing the washing up (I’m sure he said lots of other wise things as well, but that’s what I remember!) and I really took that to heart. And as I have prayed in my kitchen I have thought back over the times when I have encountered God in kitchens, but would not at the time have recognised her as such. In the kitchens of my Granny, step-mum, aunties, friends, in the experience of being heard and seen, of being valued and taught and fed, in recipes passed on and struggles shared, so often I have been in the presence of God in the kitchen, and not realised it at the time.

Last year, as lockdown started, there was a certain amount of controversy in the wider church about the concept of ‘church at home’, and particularly what seemed to me a slightly snobbish dismissal of the kitchen as a site of worship. And it seemed to me that some of that dismissiveness was associated with seeing the kitchen, and the domestic sphere more generally, as ‘women’s space’, and therefore not a ‘proper’ place to encounter God. In that context, Christa seemed like the ideal companion with whom to reclaim that space as holy ground, and to explore what it means to recognise God in the kitchen.

On meeting Christa in the kitchen

Where else would she be but here,
among the everyday miracles that feed us,
the rising of daily bread?

I met her here long before I knew her name,
the body of Christa inhabiting the kitchen,
elbows planted firmly on the table, 
or leaning up against the fridge,
a mug of tea in hand – or else a glass of wine – 
moving with a grace and ease
that taught me how to take up space.

Her arms lifted me up
to stir the Christmas cake, for luck. 

Her fingers guided mine,
until the movements came as easily as breathing.

Her ears heard into speech
my deepest dreams and longings,
back turned and busy, to attend
to what could not be said face-to-face.

She passed on the wisdom 
of how to make a meal out of nothing. 

She has slipped between the pages 
of my battered recipe book,
spattered with chocolate and gravy. 
There she is, in a living litany of kitchen saints,
in Granny’s biscuits, Dora’s fruitcake,
Genny’s hot cross buns. 

Here in the kitchen, Christa wears a pinny
as holy as any vestment, 
and suited to every season.
She breaths deeply, freely, 
rolls up her sleeves,
and gets stuck in. 

Christa – the female figure of Christ – emerges from a tradition of female forms of the Divine which stretches back to the earliest days of Christian history in art and theological writing, though it has often been suppressed by a male-dominated, patriarchal church. For contemporary Christian feminists, Christa can provide a freer and more expansive way of exploring Christological concepts and doctrines, in ways which move away from the patriarchal frameworks in which these theologies have become entangled.

My own journey with Christa has been most strongly influenced by the poetry of Nicola Slee (“Seeking the Risen Christa” (SPCK, 2011)) and the art of Caroline Mackenzie (https://carolinemackenzie.co.uk/).

Recognising Jesus – a reflection on the road to Emmaus

I wonder if you have ever had that experience of seeing someone familiar, and just not quite being able to place them. You know you know them from somewhere – but where? And what on earth is their name? I suspect it’s an experience we’ve all had, perhaps some of us more frequently than others. I know it used to happen to me all the time when I was a youth worker, working in a lot of different schools. I would see a child out of school – and, more crucially, out of school uniform – and just not quite be able to place them.

The disciples on the road to Emmaus don’t recognise Jesus as he walks with them. We don’t know what they were thinking as they walked – was there something familiar about this stranger? Were they sure they knew him from somewhere, but couldn’t quite put their finger on it? And we don’t know why they didn’t recognise him. Was it simply that they really didn’t expect to see him? Was his appearance changed in some way? We can only imagine

Cleopas and the other unnamed disciple still don’t recognise Jesus as they talk with him. This is, to me, perhaps more surprising. As he asks them questions – Jesus whom they have heard asking questions so many times before, big questions which must have left them pondering – they do not recognise him in his questioning. And as he teaches them about the scriptures – Jesus whom they have heard teach so many times before, from whom they have learned so much – they do not recognise him in his teaching.

When they do recognise him, it in another action they have seen him do before: “in the breaking of the bread.” And not only the breaking of the bread, but in the four-fold action of taking, blessing, breaking, and sharing. This, the disciples recognised. Not only from their very recent meal in the Upper Room, but also perhaps from the feeding of the 5,000, and from who knows how many ordinary, everyday meals with Jesus, of which we have no record. It is in this familiar action that the disciples finally recognise the risen Jesus.

And once they have recognised him, they see their encounter with him differently. With the great benefit of hindsight, they see afresh their conversation with him on the road. I wonder how many of us recognise this experience, of realising only in retrospect where and how we have encountered Jesus? I suspect quite a lot of us. And recognising Jesus’ presence with us only after the event is no failure on our part. As we see from a whole host of stories – from this one of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, to the Roman Centurion’s belated realisation that “truly, this man was the Son of God” – it is part of a pattern of hiddenness and revelation, recognition and unveiling, which is common to the way God makes Godself known.

“Recognise” is an interesting word. It comes from the Latin roots ‘re’, meaning ‘again’, and ‘cogito’, meaning ‘to know’. To recognise is to know again. The disciples recognising Jesus in the breaking of bread know him again, perhaps know him in a new way, know him as risen. We might be reminded of the quote from T.S. Eliot which Al shared in his introduction to our Easter Sunday ‘Trees of Life’ material:

‘We shall not cease from exploration,
and the end of all our exploring
will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time.’

This is an Easter kind of recognition. It is both a knowing again, and a knowing anew. The disciples both recognise Jesus as the friend whom they thought they had lost forever, and recognise him as the risen Christ. He is both strange and familiar to them. In some sense, even in their recognition, they are knowing him ‘for the first time’. And not only knowing Jesus afresh, but perhaps understanding afresh all that they have learned from him and experienced with him.

But this recognition is not, primarily, to do with understanding. It is a different and deeper knowing than that. This is primarily a knowing of the heart, rather than the head. Hearts are important here. “How foolish you are and slow of heart” says Jesus to the uncomprehending, unrecognising disciples. And then “were not our hearts burning within us?” they ask one another in their moment of recognition. Recognising Jesus for who he is is much more a recognition in the heart than the head (although we would be foolish to think the two can be entirely separated).

We may want to pause for a moment here and ask: when and where and how have we recognised Jesus in our own lives and experiences? When are the times that our hearts have burned within us? When are the times that we have looked back and recognised God in an experience in which we didn’t see God at the time? And where are the places and situations where we still need our eyes to be opened, to see afresh, to know again, the presence of Jesus where we least expect him?

There is something significant here about this moment of recognition occurring in the context of the disciples’ hospitality to the unrecognised Jesus. As we sometimes say in church in our eucharistic prayer: “Jesus was often a guest”. It is as a guest that the disciples receive him and recognise him. But he is also, in taking, blessing, breaking and sharing the bread, inhabiting the role of the host. And these disciples, perhaps shaped by all the teaching they have heard from Jesus himself over the years, are not only ready to offer hospitality to this stranger, but also receptive enough to allow him to take a hosting role which might more properly be theirs.

It is in this that Jesus is recognised: both as guest and host, both as the one who receives his friends and is received by them, in a mutuality which subverts expectations and breaks down the binary distinction between guest and host. We, the church, would do well to learn from this. Very often, the church can be concerned with playing the host, with being the ones with resources to offer, the provider, the giver. More rarely, the church is able to see ourselves as guest, receiving the hospitality of our neighbours. What Jesus shows us here, and in so many places, is that this isn’t an either/or situation.

Jesus invites us to become less concerned with who is the guest and who is the host, whose territory we are on or who is in charge. Jesus is not to be found in concerns for status, hierarchy, or proper order (which is so often a cover for power misused). Instead he is recognised in the gentle subversion of divisions and distinctions, and in the sharing of daily bread.

This reflection is part of Hodge Hill Church’s ‘Trees of Life’ series: https://treesoflifehodgehill.blogspot.com/

Glimpses of Resurrection – an Easter sermon

If, after the pain and grief of Jesus’ passion and death, we are looking for a happy ending, then the gospel accounts of the resurrection might seem like a bit of a disappointment. There is no triumphalism here, no promise that everything will be alright now. What there is instead is a dizzying whirl of experience and emotion.

Mark’s gospel ends with terror, amazement, and fear. John describes the beautiful but bewildering encounter between Mary Magdalen and the risen Jesus in the garden. Though her tears may have turned to joy at the sound of her name from the lips of one who knows her like no other, still there is an incompleteness here. “Do not hold on to me” says Jesus. That pain of being unable to hold, to touch, the beloved is one to which we can all surely relate more closely now than ever. Resurrection, at least in these gospel accounts, is not necessarily the uncomplicated resolution to every pain and sorrow.  

As we rise to greet the dawn of this Easter day, whether we are singing triumphant Alleluias or barely daring to whisper them, the grief and lament in our own lives too is not resolved. We mourn all that we have lost in this last year, we bear the wounds and scars of this time, and our Easter joy does not take them away. Nor should we expect it to. The risen body of Jesus still bears the scars of crucifixion and we – the church, Christ’s body in the world – we too still hold within us our own woundedness even as we rise.

Resurrection is not the salve for all our ills, it does not promise unending, untroubled happiness. Not because the gift of life and love which Jesus brings into the world in his rising is too small, but because it is something greater than that, something different and more complex, deeper and more lasting, than the false hope of “it’s all going to be ok”.

The joy which is kindled on Easter morning, ‘while it was still dark’, is a joy which burns slowly and deeply, which burrows into the very depths of our being, into the very substance of the universe, and can never be extinguished. This is not the false optimism which wants to dismiss our grieving, or smooth over the hurts and injustices of the world. This is the deep-rooted hope of resurrection life which knows that death will come and grief will hurt, but still steadfastly says that death cannot have the last word. This is the light of love which burns so constantly and steadfastly that it cannot be overcome.  

And all around us we can catch glimpses of this resurrection glory. Not only in the obvious joys – the blossoming trees, the familiar faces – but also in treasure more deeply buried but there for the seeking. It is there in the resilience of communities and the love of neighbours; in resistance to injustice, and refusal to look away; in dissatisfaction with the world as it is and dreams of what it could be.

The whole creation is shot through with resurrection glory, if only we will have eyes to see it. This is the great revelation of Easter, the great truth of our faith: that a different world – different from the one which will crucify its saviour rather than bear to hear the truth of who God is, different from the one which will crucify again and again those who dare to resist destructive power and embrace another way of living – a different world is not only possible, but is already here. Underlying all our hopes and fears, joys and sorrows, guilt and shame and grief, underlying all that makes us human in all our messy complexities and contradictions, underlying all that we are and all that the universe contains, is the unending, immeasurable, incomprehensible love of God – deeper and wider than our imaginations can contain, infinitely merciful, and totally freely given.

It is this that the resurrection reveals. Not the triumph of good over evil, or the end of suffering and death – even the most cursory glance at the world could tell us that that is not the case. But something both less heroic and more pervasive – a paradigm shift, a new way of looking at the world, a transformed and transforming change of perspective. In his rising Jesus flings open every imprisoning gate and door to reveal the sheer, overwhelming grace in which God holds all time and space and all eternity. And once we have caught a glimpse of it, once we have seen – even in our anxiety and uncertainty – the underlying, all-encompassing love of God as the foundation on which the whole universe rests, then our way of seeing the world, our neighbours, and ourselves, is forever fundamentally altered. This is the great rupture which the resurrection brings, both in Jesus’ rising on that first Easter day, and also in every resurrection moment in which we catch sight – however fleetingly – of  that sure and steadfast joy.

Easter is not the ‘happily ever after’ of a fairy tale ending. It is so much more than that. For a start, it isn’t an ending. Resurrection is much more a beginning than an ending: far from neatly rounding off the Jesus story, it opens it up and points ahead, into a vast, expansive reality of joy and hope, love and new life. This reality, this realm of resurrection, is often hard to catch sight of, often obscured, but it is always present, ready to bubble up in new and unexpected ways, ready to invite us with the whole creation into new and abundant ways of living.

This reflection is part of Hodge Hill Church’s ‘Trees of Life’ series: https://treesoflifehodgehill.blogspot.com/

‘Christ and Mary Magdalen’ by David Wynne, Magdalen College, Oxford

Noli Me Tangere

I wrote this poem on Easter Sunday 2020. In these times when we are having to keep our distance from each other in order to keep each other safe, Jesus’ words to Mary, “do not touch me” or “do not hold onto me”, seem to take on a new significance. In the figure of the risen Christa we meet the God who cannot be held onto or pinned down into something neat and manageable. She is more than that, and freer than that. And she invites us into the freedom of her risen life. Even as we continue to experience the constraints and limitations of the restrictions we are currently living with, we can catch glimpses of resurrection joy and hope, and allow those glimpses to open our minds and hearts to a more expansive, more liberating vision of God, our neighbours and ourselves.  

‘Noli me tangere’ (‘Do not touch me’) 

In the distance between us,
Christa is risen,
shimmering footloose and fancy-free
across the dew-damp grass,
no more contained by lockdown
than by liturgy.

She will not be
constrained, held back,
grabbed, groped, caught.

She will not be
confined to her allotted place,
made small enough to fit
the expectations of our gaze.

She will not be reduced
to what people can manage.

She takes up space,
laughs too loudly, talks too much,
is more than anyone can handle,
strides straight out of the rooms
we have prepared for her,
to gossip on street corners
with unsuitable strangers.

Stand back and watch her rise,
beyond even the furthest boundaries
of what we ever dreamt
this re-born God could be:
transformed by light which pours
from open wounds.

‘Do not touch’, but
sing, shout, laugh, dance
with all the wild delight
of her risen life in you.

Christa – the female figure of Christ – emerges from a tradition of female forms of the Divine which stretches back to the earliest days of Christian history in art and theological writing, though it has often been suppressed by a male-dominated, patriarchal church. For contemporary Christian feminists, Christa can provide a freer and more expansive way of exploring Christological concepts and doctrines, in ways which move away from the patriarchal frameworks in which these theologies have become entangled.

My own journey with Christa has been most strongly influenced by the poetry of Nicola Slee (“Seeking the Risen Christa” (SPCK, 2011)) and the art of Caroline Mackenzie (https://carolinemackenzie.co.uk/).

Christa takes to the streets

I wrote this poem in response to the recent events surrounding the death of Sarah Everard, and in particular the violent policing of protest and vigils in her memory, on Clapham Common and elsewhere. I wanted to explore the questions which I and others had been voicing about where God is in all this, in the injustices of a world where male violence against women is so often normalised and so rarely addressed.

Death and resurrection, pain, hope, and anger are all themes in this poem, along with the complexity of the relationship between those things in women’s lives and our responses to male violence. Christa in this poem stands in solidarity and sisterhood with every woman who has protested or resisted the violent impact of patriarchal misogyny on our lives. She is both risen and scarred, always in the process both of being crucified in the pain and suffering of her sisters, and of rising in their strength, compassion and holy anger.

Christa takes to the streets

She stands among her sisters,
faces streaked with candlelight and grief.
Stories everywhere, like breath on the wind:
groping, grabbing, shouting, stalking,
all those looks, words, touches… you know.
She nods. She knows.
And the silent swell of all that’s still
too big, too raw, too hard to tell,
too small to bother mentioning,
a rolling boil of rage.

She has known death. Her scarred wrists
speak of pain, sorrow, fear
of all that lurks in the shadows,
yet here she stands, rising still.
And all around her in the stillness,
rising: the rising of the women,
her sisters, her body, rising
anger coursing through her,
rising to the surface, bubbling over
in sobbing and singing and silence.

She's crushed again, aching bone-deep
and, burrowing into her bruised and broken body,
the heavy familiarity of betrayal:
the weight, like a knee on her back,
of sin – not hers – that clings and presses
until her face is in the dirt.
She can barely lift her eyes,
sore with sorrow and still weeping,
to greet the creeping grey of dawn.
Yet still from the ground she rises.

Christa – the female figure of Christ – emerges from a tradition of female forms of the Divine which stretches back to the earliest days of Christian history in art and theological writing, though it has often been suppressed by a male-dominated, patriarchal church. For contemporary Christian feminists, Christa can provide a freer and more expansive way of exploring Christological concepts and doctrines, in ways which move away from the patriarchal frameworks in which these theologies have become entangled.

My own journey with Christa has been most strongly influenced by the poetry of Nicola Slee (“Seeking the Risen Christa” (SPCK, 2011)) and the art of Caroline Mackenzie (https://carolinemackenzie.co.uk/).

God in the mess – a reflection on the Transfiguration

Mark 9.2-10 (The Transfiguration); Mark 9.30-37 (Jesus welcomes children)

As I looked at today’s readings, I remembered another time when I preached on the Transfiguration: it was in a big church, with lots of children, and it was an All Age Service, so I wanted to think of something the children could do. I decided to use ‘magic painting’ – do you remember those books of picture outlines, where you paint over the picture with water, and the colours appear? Perfect, I thought, for illustrating the point I wanted to make, which was that in the Transfiguration Jesus is transformed not into something different, but to reveal more of who he really is. So too, as the children carefully painted over the pictures with water, those pictures would reveal more of what they were. A great analogy! (Or so I thought.) I laid out pictures, paint brushes and pots of water on tables at the front of church and invited the children to paint while I preached.

Those of you who have ever worked with children may be laughing by now, and have probably already guessed the punchline to this story. As I reached the end of my sermon, I went to get one of the freshly painted pictures to hold up and illustrate my point, and found a scene of utter devastation. There was water everywhere – and not just water, but painty water – all over the floor, the tables, the children, the chairs, a number of innocent bystanders, a swathe of ancient stonework, and by this point it was starting to seep up from the hem of my vestments. The pictures were not the beautiful sermon illustration I had been hoping for either. Some were floating in puddles on the table or floor, others were well on their way to becoming paper mache. I fished the least soggy one out of the wreckage to show the congregation, and spent most of the rest of the morning mopping up and apologising. Not my finest hour!

But what did I learn from this? The point I was originally (and somewhat ineptly) trying to make remains. In the Transfiguration, Jesus is transformed: not transformed into something different, but into a fuller and more glorious version of himself. His friends recognise something in him that they hadn’t seen before. And this is the kind of transformation to which Jesus calls us too: not to become someone different, but to become more fully and gloriously ourselves, the people God has created us to be, alive to the presence of God’s Holy Spirit within us. And that transformation – which is not a one-off moment like the Transfiguration, but the slow and steady work of a lifetime – will not go unnoticed by our friends and neighbours either.

But something else I learned was this: transformation is a messy business. God knows, transformation is a messy business. God, in the incarnation, chooses to involve herself in all the transformative messiness of being human. God, in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, demonstrates that the transformative power of love is at work even in grief and pain and anguish. God, by the Holy Spirit blowing wildly through the world, blows apart all our ideas of order and control with scandalous mercy and grace. God is very much at home in the mess of transformation.

Peter, however, is not so comfortable with messiness. Peter wants to tie up the loose ends. He has seen this incredible, transforming glory, shining in the face of Jesus, and Moses and Elijah with him. And he wants to capture it, to build something to contain it. And, as so often, Peter in his eagerness misses the point. He misses the point that the glory of God is not something that can be contained or pinned down, or tamed into something nice and neat and manageable. God does not fit in a box – or, indeed, in a mountain-top dwelling. God’s transfiguring power is not found in a moment to be captured and preserved, but in an ongoing movement of transformation.

Jesus doesn’t go in for tying up the loose ends, or giving neat answers. In our second reading, the disciples want answers – they want to know who is the greatest. But Jesus does not respond with words, but with a person: the person of a child. And note, this passage is not the teaching which comes a little later in Mark’s gospel about receiving the kingdom like children, or as Matthew’s gospel has it, changing to receive the kingdom like children. Here, Jesus is making a different (but related) point: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Children are – according to Jesus – not only to receive the kingdom, but to be received, to be welcomed. And welcoming children, as I learned at that All Age Service, and as any of us who have lived or worked or worshiped with children know, is undoubtedly a messy and transformative business.

The children’s bibles of decades past, with their illustrations of perfectly well-turned-out and well-behaved children being held up as an example by Jesus, do actual children a disservice. They try to neaten up the messiness that comes with the reality of children’s lives. Those picture-perfect, unreal children are an attempt to contain human lives in the neat boxes they just don’t fit into, just as Peter wanted to contain the glory of God in a dwelling place on the mountain, but found that it would not be contained.

“The glory of God,” says the second-century theologian Iraneus, “is a human being, fully alive.” The good news we find in the Transfiguration is that the glory of God cannot be contained. It seeps out into and through all the messiness of our lives, sometimes in strange and unexpected ways, often in ordinary glimpses of extraordinary love. And it is transformative. In knowing God, in following Jesus, in acknowledging the work of the Holy Spirit in ourselves and in our neighbours, we are transformed. Like Jesus on the mountaintop, we are transformed not into something different from who we are, but to become more and more ourselves, the people God calls us to be. God does not want us to fit into boxes that are not designed for our flourishing, but longs for us to be transformed in all the messiness and reality of who we are and who we are becoming. May we be open to that call, ready to embrace the endless, transforming, uncontrollable, messy, glorious love of God.

This reflection is part of Hodge Hill Church’s ‘Trees of Life’ series: https://treesoflifehodgehill.blogspot.com/

‘This is not who we are’ – a reflection for Holocaust Memorial Day

Reflection for Holocaust Memorial Day, delivered as part of online worship for students and staff of The Queen’s Foundation. Text: Luke 6.12-16.

Content note: includes references to genocide, anti-Semitism, white supremacist violence, and sexual abuse.

Today we mark Holocaust Memorial Day.

All of us, I imagine, will have read or heard the harrowing testimonies of holocaust survivors, or seen the shocking photos which emerged from the camps.

Most of us here at Queens, through the Jewish Christian Relations course, if not before, will be well aware of the role Christian theology played in creating the conditions in which the holocaust was possible, well aware of the complicity of Christian doctrine – and the church – in anti-Semitism and genocide.

So what do we do with that knowledge?

We could say: “never again.” As, indeed, we just have, as we do after every fresh atrocity, after every unveiling of the church’s role in racism, anti-Semitism, all the things that seek to separate neighbour from neighbour – we say it again, and again, and again. It seems to me that “never again” is not enough.

We could say: “this is not who we are.” And that is tempting. We saw a lot of that in the wake of the recent riots in the US, in response to the co-option of Christian symbols to the cause of white supremacy. I’m sure many of you, like me, were horrified to see banners saying ‘Jesus saves’ being wielded by people wearing t-shirts with slogans which glorify the holocaust. Of course we want nothing to do with that. But I think “this is not who we are” lets us, the church, off the hook too easily.

We could say: “that could never happen here.” That’s a very common response to the ongoing uncovering of abuse within the church. We all want to think our church is not like that, we are not like that. But that betrays a dangerous level of naiveté.

Never again. This is not who we are. That could never happen here.

These are inadequate responses to the horrors of the holocaust, to the horrors of racism and white supremacy, to the horrors of abuse in the church. And they are inadequate because they refuse to acknowledge the realities of evil, and of our own complicity.

Which brings us, in a round about way, to our bible reading today. Jesus calls the twelve. And right there among them, slipped into the list of names, we find “Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.” Judas Iscariot, chosen by Jesus, part of his inner circle, right from the start.

There has never been a time when the church could claim that betrayal, violence, all manner of evil, was outside of us. There has never been a time when we could honestly say: “this is not who we are”.

At baptism, in many denominations, candidates are asked “will you resist evil?” It’s a huge question, which lies at the heart of the Christian life. And I think we can only honestly answer ‘yes’ if we are prepared to acknowledge the reality of evil, not least in ourselves and in the church.

That is not easy to do, but it is essential. As the great feminist thinker Gloria Steinem says: “the truth will set you free… but first it will piss you off”. Resisting evil is hard. Resisting evil is rarely heroic and never uncomplicated. It requires the continual hard work of self-examination, repentance and ongoing conversion of life. It requires us to admit our complicity in systems which oppress and harm our neighbours, to acknowledge our participation in theological and structural sin.

The holocaust presents us with the starkest reminder of the extent of where that sin can lead us. It should call us to commit ourselves afresh to resistance and repentance, to confession and self-examination. This is hard work. We cannot do it in our own strength. But it is necessary work. And in Jesus, who calls us, who calls even those who will betray him, we find the unending, overwhelming, incomprehensible grace we need to take the next step, and the next, and the next.   

#AdventBookClub day 5 – week 7 – ‘The first King’

We come to the end of our #AdventBookClub journey with R.S. Thomas, with these words:

"wisdom must come on foot."

And I wonder… I wonder what sort of wisdom this is, that comes on foot? I wonder what I need to do (or not do) to slow down enough to encounter this pedestrian wisdom? I wonder what are the things I am chasing after that look like wisdom, but are not? I wonder how to shape a life open to the kind of wisdom that comes quietly, gently, unpretentiously?

And so – slowly, gently, with care and attentiveness, striving to be open to the quiet wisdom of the ordinary and the wild expanses of God – the journey goes on…

This year for #AdventBookClub we are reading “Frequencies of God: walking through Advent with R.S. Thomas” by Carys Walsh. Join the conversation on Twitter using #AdventBookClub or on Facebook by searching for the group ‘Advent Book Club’.

#AdventBookClub week 5 – day 6 – ‘That there…’

I wonder what sort of landscape you are transported to by R.S.Thomas’ image of :

       a landscape
that will through all time
resist our endeavours
at domestication.

My mind goes to the moors my cousins and I played on as children – with huge and strange rock formations which we pretended were animals or castles or pirate ships, or whatever our game required – vast untamed space where we too could be untamed. Or the sea on a wild and windy day, crashing over whatever sea walls or flood barriers we humans have erected in a vain attempt to contain or control it. Or the sheer enormity of a view so vast our eyes and minds struggle to take it in, and a photo can never to justice to the immense space.

But all the wild landscapes of our experience or imagination are only a metaphor in Thomas’ writing for the untamed vastness of God. Lurking beneath the surface of our world, beneath all our illusions or order and control, is another reality: the all-encompassing, untamable wildness/wilderness of God. For me, this has echoes of what a very different theologian, Mary Daly, refers to as the Background, which she defines as:

"the Realm of Wild Reality: the Homeland of women's Selves and of all other Others; the Time/Space where auras of plants, planets, stars animals, and all Other animate beings connect"

I wonder whether Thomas would recognise in that definition something of the untamed reality of the kingdom of God, which he tries to capture (if ‘capture’ can possibly be the right word for conveying the very wildness of it) in this poem, and in so much of his writing?

This year for #AdventBookClub we are reading “Frequencies of God: walking through Advent with R.S. Thomas” by Carys Walsh. Join the conversation on Twitter using #AdventBookClub or on Facebook by searching for the group ‘Advent Book Club’.