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Brother Mark is a pseudonym of The Reverend Dr Robert Jaggs-Fowler, a clergyman, physician, writer and poet. His biography can be found at: www.robertjaggsfowler.com

Monday, October 01, 2018

In Search of the Christian Voice


(First Published in 'Three Voices - One Message', the Parish Magazine of Barrow upon Humber, Goxhill and New Holland in North Lincolnshire, October 2018)

And so, we reach the month of October.

A month very much associated with the season of autumn, when the countryside takes on a mellow feel, as trees change into glorious hues of red, amber and yellow, before falling as a soft carpet beneath our feet. A month of reflection, as we look back on the events of a long summer; but also, a prophetic month: a month that warns us of the future, as it heralds the coming of winter.

As I write this foreword, I have just listened to a podcast from The Church Times. In the podcast an author, the Revd Nadim Nassar, was speaking about the background to his new book called ‘The Culture of God: The Syrian Jesus - reading the divine mind, sailing into the divine heart’. It promises to be an interesting book and I eagerly await the arrival of my copy. However, in the podcast, the author raised two questions in a most emphatic manner. In relation to the difficult issues besetting our world today, he asked, ‘where is the voice of the Church?’ and ‘where is our prophetic voice?’

The Revd Nassar’s challenge is a pertinent one for us all. As we look back to the many and various world events over the summer, where indeed was the voice of the Church? Was it there at the forefront of our political, social, military and humanitarian responses to these events, leading and challenging with a loud and clear message? Or was it muted or, worse, nowhere to be found?

And what of the months beyond October, as we move towards those times that bring increasing debt, food shortages, fuel poverty, and loneliness for many people, a time of winter pressures for the NHS, and a new year in which the UK will leave the European Union and try to stand alone in the world? Where indeed is the prophetic voice of our Church, as a strong guiding light amidst all this change and potential turmoil?

In the life of the Church, October sees us commemorate several important historic people, who might act as mentors, guides and role models, should we ever need more than the life and actions of Jesus himself! Amongst them, George Bell, Bishop of Chichester, who is recognised for speaking out against Nazi Germany and saving Jews fleeing the regime; St Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Society of St Francis (‘the Franciscans’); William Tyndale, who translated the Bible into English and was martyred for his trouble; the nun, Teresa of Avila, an author and theologian of contemplative life through mental prayer; Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, whose important writings place him amongst the Apostolic Fathers; St Luke the Evangelist; that learned, wise and gracious man, Alfred the Great;  and not least of all, Martin Luther, who stood up to the theological irregularities of the Catholic church. All these spoke with a voice written through with their Christian faith, and they were not afraid to speak prophetically.   

So, as we move through this month of reflection, change and prediction, where do you feel the voice of the Church is today? Where is the Church’s prophetic voice?

Most importantly, where is your voice as a Christian?



May Musings


(First Published in 'Three Voices - One Message', the Parish Magazine of Barrow upon Humber, Goxhill and New Holland in North Lincolnshire, May 2018)

“At last came the golden month of the wild folk - honey-sweet May, when the birds come back, and the flowers come out, and the air is full of the sunrise scents and songs of the dawning year;” so
writes the early 19th century author, Samuel Scoville Jr. in his classic novel, Wild Folk.

Your own idea of May might be something along similar lines. The month means many things to many people. For our pagan forebears, it was associated with the Greek goddess, Maia, a goddess of fertility. For many, it will simply be the delight of having two Bank Holiday Mondays to look forward to. For others, it will be the idea of a Royal Wedding that offers excitement.

Of course, within the Christian Church, we have many exciting things to anticipate. In the Roman Catholic Church, it is a month of celebrations in respect to the Virgin Mary, when she is crowned ‘Queen of May’. For Anglicans, May is a month that is dominated by the Spirit (naturally of the Holy kind). The first few weeks of May are the final weeks of Easter, with the 50th day of Easter, the 7th Sunday after Easter, falling on the 20th May. This day is also known as Pentecost; the day we commemorate the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Disciples after the ascension of Jesus into Heaven.

One week later, we have Trinity Sunday (27th May); the day we celebrate the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity – God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, that also being the day when clergy traditionally compete for the unbridled joy of trying to give a concise, unambiguous and heretically-free explanation of the doctrine from the pulpit. I suspect that my time will come…

Then, after Trinity Sunday, we enter a long period of Ordinary Time; that period in the Church calendar when we do not celebrate any particular aspect of the mystery of Christ, but when we are left ample time to ponder that mystery in all its glory, and to deepen our faith through prayer, worship, study and meditation.

Whether it be the sense of Spring vitality, national holidays, a Royal wedding, the wonder of the Holy Spirit and the Holy Trinity, or the contemplative freedom of Ordinary Time that gives a lift to you, may your month of May at least be a Blessed one.

Sermon: Sunday 29th April 2018 - All Saints, Goxhill and Holy Trinity, Barrow on Humber




Texts: Acts 8.26-40
          John 15.1-8
----------------------------------------------------
Opening Prayer
May I speak in the name of God: The Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Amen



Those were the first, somewhat loaded words spoken by Philip to the Ethiopian when they met on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza.

‘Do you understand what you are reading?’
*
The words reminded me of another short but heavily loaded question thrown at one of my senior officers in the early years of my military career. My Field Ambulance was partaking in war-games somewhere in the wilds of North Yorkshire, and our vehicles had trundled into location overnight, in the midst of a heavy fog. The following morning saw the arrival of a very irate Brigadier, who summoned my Officer Commanding with the words:

 ‘Major McGarva – Do you know where you are?’

Yes, Sir,’ came the defiant reply. ‘I am here, Sir’.

Defiant they may have been, but in truth, we were lost. In fact, we were in front of the enemy lines– which is never a good place for a medical unit to be. We did not understand what the map was telling us; had no idea how we had arrived there, did not fully appreciate where we were, and had no idea as to how we were going to complete our mission. 
*
‘Do you understand what you are reading?’

Philip’s question to the Ethiopian also reminds me of another phrase that has captured the inquisitive nature of, quite possibly, millions of television viewers: ‘Who do you think you are?’ is the name of the programme, where celebrities are helped in the attempt to uncover the past history of their family.

It is human nature for us, at some stage of our lives, to ask questions of our past – where have we come from? Who were our ancestors? How did we get to the place we now find ourselves? They are the questions that websites such as Ancestry.com help us to answer, and in so doing, give us a greater understanding of our identity and our place in the world today – they help us to know who we are, and where we are, in the great timeline of life.

*
‘Do you understand what you are reading?’

Of course, the Ethiopian didn’t realise the enormity of what he was reading before Philip arrived on the scene. He didn’t realise that, by reading the portion from the book of Isaiah, from what we now call the Old Testament, he was reading something that predicted the arrival of God in the form of Jesus Christ, and of his subsequent crucifixion.

In effect, it was somewhat akin to reading an historic document within the family archive of Jesus’ ancestors, that spoke of a generation yet to come.
For that is what the Old Testament is to us, as Christians. It is our collective family history as Christians, our Biblical equivalent of Ancestry.com. It informs us of our past; it tells us who our collective ancestors were before the birth of Jesus Christ; it helps us to understand the enormity of who Jesus Christ was and is; it helps us to understand who we are as Christians, and how we arrived at this place today; and it helps us to understand our mission from here on…

For the Old Testament helps us to fully understand the New Testament, and the New Testament provides us with our tasks as Christians in the 21st century. By reading both the Old Testament and the New Testament, we understand with greater clarity the answers to those questions as to Who are we? Where are we? What should we be doing? and Where are we going?

*

‘Do you understand what you are reading?’

Philip’s question to the Ethiopian is just as pertinent to us today, as we read the Gospel of St John.

Here, we are introduced to the concept of the vine and its branches. We are told that Jesus is the true vine, that God is the vine-grower, and that we are branches of that vine. The passage continues to speak of pruning and cleansing – of our cleansing - and of bearing fruit – and in truth, it may all seem a little puzzling at first glance.That is, unless we remember words from the Old Testament. It is another case of Do you understand what you are reading?’

For the Old Testament tells us that Israel was first likened to a vine, and that the 12 tribes of Israel were its branches. However, that vine contained a lot of dead or diseased wood and proved not to be as fruitful as God desired it to be.

With the incarnation of God in the form of Jesus Christ, God the vine-grower was starting again. Jesus brought us a new covenant, a new promise -  doing away with the old promises made between God and Israel (the old vine). As part of that covenant, Jesus became the new vine – a strong and healthy vine, with the ability to grow and spread far and wide. Those who abided in Jesus – those who stood with Jesus – became the metaphorical branches - the healthy new branches - of the new vine that was, and is, Jesus.

And as any gardener might tell you, for a vine to grow luxuriantly, and to have strong new branches, it needs to be pruned - or cleansed - of its dead-wood. In John’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that we have already been cleansed.
But how would that be so?

Well, the story of the Ethiopian reminds us as to how we are cleansed. Once the Ethiopian had heard from Philip the Good News of the life of Jesus Christ, what did he do? He stopped his chariot by some water and asked Philip to baptize him.

Baptism is an act of cleansing. By our baptism, we are cleansed of our sin, and we are thus at one with the body of Jesus Christ; we abide in Jesus; we become a healthy branch of the new vine that is Jesus Christ. For the Greek word for cleaning and pruning is from the same origin, and when the Gospel of John refers to us as ‘pruned branches’, he is referring to our baptism.

*

But I say again, that question of Philip’s to the Ethiopian:
Do you understand what you are reading?’

For, having understood that the ‘old vine’ of Israel was failing so badly in God’s eyes, so that God became incarnate – became alive - in the form of  Jesus Christ, and that Jesus is the metaphorical, the symbolic, new vine – the ‘new Israel’ - replacing the old vine that was the Israel of the Old Testament -  and that we by our baptism have been cleansed – or, to continue with the metaphor, are the pruned branches of that new vine that is Jesus Christ – having understood all of that, we then have to understand what it means for us ‘to bear much fruit’.

For that is what John tells us that we are expected to do - ‘bear much fruit’ and ‘become his disciples’; become the disciples of Jesus Christ.
So, what exactly is this fruit we are expected to bear as we abide in, or stand with, Jesus?

It means that we are expected to act; to make his words and our beliefs meaningful in kind; not to simply pay lip-service to his commands, perhaps once a week in church on a Sunday. We are expected to fulfil God’s mission – to tell others of the hope and love that is the Good News of Jesus; to baptise new believers; to provide care and compassion to those who are ill; and to make new disciples – new followers, supporters, helpers - who will assist us in the work of God.

….that is where we are supposed to be going as we leave this building today – that is what we are supposed to be doing next – today, tomorrow, next week, next month, next year, for the rest of our lives – that is our mission – that is the mission set for us by Jesus – that is God’s mission.
And we know the vast importance of that task – that monumental task – the task set by virtue of our baptism – that act which made us cleansed and pruned, healthy branches of the vibrant vine that is Jesus Christ – by all of that, we know the vast importance of our task that will glorify God, and, in so doing, also bring into our own lives, and the lives of those around us, that which we need to be human – we know all of that, and we will receive all of that, once we truly understand who we are as Christians, where we have come from, where we are now, and how we fit into that huge map that is comprised of the Old and New Testaments, which in turn gives us our mission for today…

We know all of that with great clarity, once we can answer ‘yes’ - ‘yes, we do’ - to Philip’s question.

May God open our eyes and our ears, our minds and our hearts, so that we can truly understand what we are reading.

Amen.