community · faith · Poetry · Worship

What’s The Opposite Of Spiritual

This is quite a bit longer than I would usually post … a sermon preached a few weeks ago in Easter week, focussing on the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and the importance of an embodied faith, lived out by our spiritual practices.

Thursday Communion 13.4.23 St Catharine’s, Gloucester

Jesus Appears to the Disciples

On the day of resurrection, Jesus had appeared to two disciples on their way home to  Emmaus … after Jesus has left them, they hurry back to Jerusalem to share the news … Luke 24:35

35 Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.

36 While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ 37 They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38 He said to them, ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ 40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41 While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate in their presence.

44 Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’


Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”   … touch me and see …

The risen Lord is present with us now as we meet to share in this meal of Holy Communion – bread and wine … now able to be here present in our bodies – a privilege that we appreciate so much more in recent years.   Pause

It’s that aspect of our lives that I’ve been thinking about – we might call it the embodied life.  We had some family time over Easter, and spent hours playing board games … physically present with one another, engaged in an activity that was communal and devoid of screens. Contrast that with what we often see and experience ourselves as we spend time relating to our phones , social media etc.

I remember an occasion when I was a theological student and we were visiting the local church for a seminar.  The vicar led a discussion with us, and at one point (I can’t remember how it came up) he asked us “what is the opposite of Spiritual ?”  We kind of knew that he was laying a trap for us, and I can’t remember if anyone did fall into the trap, but he was expecting someone to say ‘physical.’  The point being – the opposite of spiritual is unspiritual.

And the reason he asked the question is because one of the heresies that have always been around for the church (Gnosticism) is one that sees the physical, material world as bad, creation is fundamentally flawed, even evil, and to be truly spiritual we need to rise above the material world, to escape from the body and become pure spirit.

This heresy was around in the early years of the church, and is still around today. although we may not recognise it easily.

I have a Christian friend who to all appearances is an orthodox Christian – but his view of the climate crisis is that we shouldn’t worry too much about it or put our energies into tackling it because Jesus will return and renew the earth anyway.  And yes, that is a part of our faith, but it’s getting dangerously near to saying that the material world doesn’t matter.

But Christian faith is founded on the material world. Everything about our faith is solid … material .. physical.

God is revealed in creation – The heavens declare the glory of God – psalm 19

God is supremely revealed in the  incarnation – Jesus, the eternal Word made flesh.

And in our Gospel reading we see that even the resurrected body of Jesus is solid, substantial, not an apparition, not a free floating spirit somewhere in the ether.

Just note some of the words in the Gospel reading – hands, feet, touch, flesh, bones, hands, feet (again) eat, fish, eat (again).  This is bodily stuff.  Now I know that there’s much that we simply don’t know about what happens when we die, and what resurrection means for us, but there are some clues here – aren’t there ?

I’ve heard people talk about the spirit leaving the body when we die and having some kind of independent existence as if the body is merely a shell, and not really important for our existence.  But the resurrection of Jesus is not like that – the resurrected Jesus is body mind and spirit … new body for sure, but a resurrection of the body, and not some free floating spirit.

Each of us is made up of body mind and spirit, working together, and the gnostic heresy that tries to elevate the spiritual as something disembodied must be resisted.

There’s a real danger at this moment in time that our spiritual life becomes less embodied, with fewer physical expressions of faith in favour of something interior, private, individualistic.

I enjoy thinking, and reading … stuff that goes on in my head, but I’m more interested in living !  I’m more interested in a faith that is embodied, lived out in material ways.  One of my retired clergy colleagues years ago talked about the way that the life of the spirit, spiritual things are experienced through the material stuff of life.

This includes acts of service to others; being present with others to share our lives; taking creation seriously – enjoying the diversity of all that God has given us, and playing our part in caring for the world.

And it includes our practices in worship – that wonderfully work to keep us true to this embodied faith.  Just think of these actions that embody our faith …

The waters of Baptism; The bread and wine of communion. The posture of our bodies … in our Christian tradition we stand when the Gospel is read, or when we say the creed. We greet one another in the peace – and I have noticed the way the peace is shared in this service – with handshakes and hugs.  

In Lent we have the service of ashing on Ash Wednesday, and the washing of feet on Maundy Thursday. Our Good Friday services are focussed on the bodily crucifixion of the Lord, with crown of thorns, and torture and vinegar.

But there are other practices that might not be so familiar to us – making the sign of the cross, bowing down or kneeling as part of our worship, or raising our hands in praise. Having hands laid on us in a service of healing.  All of these are ways to embody worship, and all touch on something profound that cannot be replicated by the inner workings of the mind.

In the eucharistic prayer there will be pouring of wine, breaking bread and lifting the cup and the bread … bodily actions that reveal something of the heart of our worship.  Do you know ? I think there’s more – you may think of more … but let’s just stop there … 

I’ll finish with a sonnet .. . inspired by this a book of sonnets by poet Malcolm Guite that go through the church year 

Disciples gathered in Jerusalem
When suddenly two friends arrived and said
The Lord had risen and appeared to them
They’d recognised him when he broke the bread
While they were puzzling on the situation
Jesus himself came with his word of Peace
“You look as if you’ve seen an apparition
Do you have anything that I may eat ?
He took the food and ate it while they watched him
“You see a Ghost does not have flesh and bones,
I’ll tell you ev’rything that has been written –
I had to die and rise to take my throne.
Now soon it will be time to say goodbye
Then you’ll be clothed with power from on high”

Later in the service we shared the peace in silence …to focus on the bodily action.
I suggested that for any who are keeping their distance (as we have had to do in the pandemic) that they find a way to make the sharing of the peace a bodily thing, maybe by using the Makaton sign for peace.


N.B. Whilst writing this I came across this article on ‘excarnation,’  Embodied Living in the Age of Excarnation” By Joel Oesch .

The article helped to inform and clarify what I was trying to say and draws on the work of Charles Taylor, who defines excarnation as “the steady disembodying of spiritual life, so that it is less and less carried in deeply meaningful bodily forms, and lies more and more in the head.”

Grace and Peace.

Prayers · Worship

Liturgy For A Free People

This follows on directly from the previous post”Lessons For A Free People,” which I would recommend you read first.

I’m attempting to write a prayer for use at a service of Holy Communion, or Eucharist.
In my Anglican tradition, these are called Eucharistic Prayers, and follow a well defined structure that goes back hundreds of years.
The structure goes something like this:
1 Opening responses to affirm God’s presence.
2 Praise and Thanksgiving, usually with some reference to Jesus
3 Congregational response
4 Jesus’ words at the Last Supper, as he blessed the bread and wine that would be shared
5 A prayer that we may remember the death and resurrection of Jesus as the foundation of our faith.
6 The Epiclesis – a prayer to call down the Holy Spirit on those gathered for worship and the gifts of bread and wine
7 Prayer that we may be faithful in our desire to follow Jesus
8 Closing words of praise

Here’s my attempt to work with a similar, but different structure to write a prayer that is focussed on Food Sovereignty

We remember that God is with us, here and now.
We meet in the presence of the risen Lord Jesus
We open our lives to the Holy Spirit among us
We are gathered to give thanks and praise

You called your servant Moses
to lead your people from slavery into freedom;
You provided food for them
day by day in the desert wilderness;
And you taught them to live
so that none would be in need.

Often they forgot your ways
of truth and justice,
mercy and peace.
But time and time again
you received them back,
and taught them once more
to worship you in their works
and not just their words.

In time, Jesus came to live among your people
to lead them once more from slavery into freedom.
He provided for the crowd in the desert wilderness
when he took the bread, and gave thanks;
broke it and shared it among the crowd.
He reminded them of their calling
to practise justice so that all are fed.

Jesus lived as an example to all,
Reaching out to the poor,
The widow, the orphan and the stranger.
His death destroyed for ever the power of death
His resurrection restored our life

Lord Jesus, come now and bring your freedom

As we share this meal
we remember the last meal that Jesus shared with his friends
And ask that you send down your Holy Spirit
on us and on this bread and wine
that we may live in obedience to your law of love.

For on that night
as Jesus met with his friends,
about to be handed over to be killed
he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and said:
This is my body, given for you all.
Jesus then gave thanks for the wine;
he took the cup, gave it and said:
This is my blood, shed for you all
for the forgiveness of sins.
Do this in remembrance of me.

Blessed are you,
Holy and Mighty one
for through your goodness we now have this bread to offer;
fruit of the earth and work of human hands,
it will become for us the bread of life.

Blessed are you
Holy and Eternal one
for through your goodness we now have this wine to offer;
fruit of the vine and work of human hands,
It will become for us the cup of freedom.

Every time we share this meal
May no one have too much,
and none have too little.
And where we have allowed
the rich to get richer
and the poor to get poorer
may we act justly
to restore what has been taken away.

For this hope we bless you God.
Bless us now as we scatter
to share in your life,

wherever you lead us;
until we are gathered once more
to share with one another

what we have known of your goodness,
and remember again in bread and wine
Your gift for the life of the world.


Bible · Church · community · Worship

Taken, Blessed, Broken And Given

I haven’t done this before – put an extended quote in a post. But on Monday I was in a conversation about the place of food in thinking about the life of faith. After the conversation, I remembered that I had just binned some issues of a periodical, * one of which was all about food and faith.

I retrieved it from the recycling and started to read one of the articles. Here’s a taster of the article by Angel Mendez-Montoya:

Food Matters

Every act of eating implies transformation of some sort. The food that we eat is transformed into energy, vitamins, proteins, minerals and nutrients that our body and mind require for proper functioning.

Our bodies can be strengthened or weakened by eating or abstaining from certain substances. Eating food not only transforms our concrete physicality and experience of embodiment, it can also transform our state of mind and heart and even awaken our spiritual sensibility.

As so beautifully portrayed in the film, Babette’s Feast, food can be transformed into a lavish meal that not only awakens aesthetic sensibility, but also transfigures time and space into a heavenly banquet that heals all wounds and brokenness.

Eating certain dishes can trigger memories from the past, of beloved people, or cherished experiences around the table. Sometimes the actual food that we eat is not that important, for what really matters is that which transforms our hearts and spirits, the experience of gathering around the table and rejoicing with people that we love and that love us, immersing ourselves into the transformation of measurable time (kronos) into an immensurable experience of eternity (kairos).

Dr Angel Mendez-Montoya currently teaches theology, philosophy and cultural studies at several universities in Mexico City, and gives lectures primarily in Mexico, USA and Europe. He is the author of The Theology of Food: Eating and the Eucharist (Oxford:Wiley-Blackwell, 2009).

Two Gospel Stories

I love the fact that the above description focusses on transformation. I love the idea that the encounters we have with one another as we share food and conversation have the power to be transformational. The central act of worship for Christians recalls a meal, the Last Supper, and our prayer is that this also is an encounter – with the risen Jesus – and is also transformational.
Christian worship has kept that Last Supper meal as the touchstone for worship, but I’m wondering if we might have missed something here ?

I’m sure it’s significant that the Gospels contain many accounts of meals. Eating is fundamental to life, and something that is, at its best, a shared experience.
Take the feeding of the 5,000 in Mark’s Gospel.
Jesus took the offering of bread and fish, prayed a prayer of blessing, broke the bread – and gave it to the disciples to share among the people.

I have put four words above in bold, because they appear again at the Last Supper – Jesus took bread, and when he had blessed the bread, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.”

The appearance of those same four words have linked these two passages from the Gospel, but the Last Supper passage has taken on a particular significance in being at the centre of every celebration of the Eucharist ( Holy Communion), when we remember Christ’s death for us on the cross. The words of Jesus that are used in the communion service are “Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”

The way that the Eucharist has come down to us means that what Christians remember above all is the death of Jesus on the cross, and not his life. A quick look at the prayers authorised for communion in my denomination, The Church of England, reveals that there is nothing in them that relates to the life of Jesus. The same is actually true of the historic creeds, there is nothing that speaks of the 33 years between the birth and the death of Jesus.

When Christians read the account of the feeding of the 5,000 we may see it as secondary to the Last Supper, but perhaps we should take more seriously the fact that those two passages are linked by those four words – taken, blessed, broken and given – and focus our remembering not only on the death of Jesus, but also the act of sharing food with a hungry crowd of people.

This gives rise to two thoughts for me:
1. Maybe the words that we use in our services could be more holistic and include aspects of the life and work of Jesus as well as his death and resurrection. There are creeds that I have come across that do this (creeds that I have used, even though they are not authorised !), but I can’t remember a communion prayer that does. Maybe you know different ?

2. Maybe our communion services could take more account of the place of food and eating a meal rather than the symbolic wafer and glug of wine ? Would a gathering around an actual kitchen or dining table, sharing a meal count I wonder ?

* The Bible In Transmission: Food Matters. Summer 2013

Church · community · Creativity, · faith · Worship

Set Piece And Open Play

We’ve been watching some of the Football World Cup qualifiers in the last few days, as well as the Autumn Nations series of Rugby Union. On Sunday we were with friends at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff watching an unconvincing Wales team beat Fiji, largely because Fiji were reduced to 14 for much of the game as a result of a red card, and down to 13 for 20 minutes because of two yellow cards.

Having said that, it’s always great fun watching them play, the crowd are amazing, and there were some standout moments. We felt drawn in to the occasion, cheering, singing and shouting until we were hoarse; smiling at the Fijian family behind us as they cheered for a Fiji try; standing up to see the action at the far end of the pitch, just out of our eyeline.

It got me thinking about Rugby, Football (Soccer) and Church, and a possible analogy between what kind of play is going on in sport (Set piece / Open play) and what kind of expression of worship is going on in a church service.

For example – a set piece could be a free kick, or a corner in soccer (or a minor set piece would be a goal kick or throw in). A set piece in Rugby is a scrum or a line out or a penalty. How you work with the set piece depends on where it is on the pitch, what stage of the game you’re at etc. Goals and Tries often come from set pieces. You admire the skill of the free kick taker as they propel the ball so that it loops into the penalty area, just out of reach of the goalie, for an attacker to launch themselves into the air and head the ball into the top corner of the goal.

But then there’s open play – the moment in a game of rugby when your heart is in your mouth as the ball spins from the scrum halve’s hands along the line to the centres, one of whom places a kick that will fly with pin point accuracy and be caught by the winger who dodges the defending players and touches down another try. There will be mistakes and loose balls; crunching tackles and sidesteps; rucks and mauls; (don’t ask me to explain) …. It can be exciting or it can be tedious, but always with the possibility of something surprising that will turn a game around.

In Church, a set piece could be a sermon or the communion prayer, with shorter set pieces being a reading or someone leading some prayers. You admire the way that the preacher takes a passage from scripture and draws from the text something beautiful, something that sums up in a few words what you recognise as exactly what you would say if you could. You watch the person presiding at the Holy Table, and see the way their words and actions go through the drama of salvation and include us in the story.

But I sense in the worship the possibility also of open play. Contributions that come from the interaction in the moment and from the participation and involvement of the congregation. The smile between two friends who haven’t seen one another for a few weeks; the exuberance of the child running around the outer ring of chairs, as if it’s a racetrack; The voice behind me as we sing the opening hymn, lifting the praise to a new level; the moment at the end of the service when someone tells us about their life between Sundays – we’ll be praying for them this week especially; the invitation from the preacher to respond to the reading from the Gospel with our own experiences, that earth everything into daily life. The tears of someone recently bereaved who in their vulnerability allow us also to open our lives to one another.

On a bad day, we leave disconnected, uninvolved, feeling that we were just spectators when we wanted to be more a part of things. But on a good day, the interplay between set piece and open play can seem almost magical and we leave inspired, uplifted, amazed; buzzing with the mysterious feeling that we have somehow been involved in the action ourselves, and been touched by a presence that defies logic and planning, and brings us back next week for more.

A Prayer For This Day · Bible · faith · Prayer · Worship

Your Blessing On Our Lips

I’ve been reading a passage from Ecclesiasticus for the last few weeks. Here is today’s passage, from chapter 50. It describes the worship in the newly restored Temple in Jerusalem. As the worship came to an end ….

Then the singers praised Him with their voices in sweet and full-toned melody.

And the people of the Lord Most High offered their prayers before the Merciful One,
until the order of worship of the Lord was ended, and they completed his ritual.

Then Simon came down and raised his hands over the whole congregation of Israelites,
to pronounce the blessing of the Lord with his lips, and to glory in his name;
and they bowed down in worship a second time, to receive the blessing from the Most High.

A Benediction

And now bless the God of all, who everywhere works great wonders,
who fosters our growth from birth, and deals with us according to his mercy.
May he give us gladness of heart, and may there be peace in our days in Israel, as in the days of old.
May he entrust to us his mercy, and may he deliver us in our days!

The words that struck me today were these:
Then Simon came down and raised his hands over the whole congregation to pronounce the blessing.

It reminded me most powerfully of the times when I have done exactly that. At the end of our worship – in the places where I have served as curate and as vicar – in Hull, Beverley, and Hoddesdon … and wherever I have had the privilege of leading God’s people in worship, I have raised my hands to pronounce the Benediction, the Blessing, using words like this:
May the peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God and of His son Jesus Christ. And the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, remain with you, this day and always. Amen.

Or it might be those moments at the communion rail, as someone bows their head to indicate that they are here to receive a blessing – maybe not yet ready to take the bread and the wine. And I place my hands lightly on their head and pray a prayer of blessing over them. Some times I will use the ancient prayer of Aaron, the High Priest of Israel –
The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you;
the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.

Sometimes, I might say word of blessing that I know will speak to their immediate situation – maybe for healing, for guidance, for a particular need.

But as I reflect on this part of my experience as a minister God’s church, I know that this privilege is not one that is set aside for a special group – for the ordained minister or those with some special power. Why should God’s blessing be contained within the confines of gathered worship ? Is a church building the only place to receive the peace, mercy and deliverance that come from God ? It might be reassuring to be in such a setting, receiving God’s blessing, but we must never restrict God’s blessing to such ‘Liturgical niceties.’ * The gift to bless another is a gift for us all to give and to receive.

We may simply say ‘God bless’ as we say goodbye to a friend, or ‘bless you,’ as we are aware of a need of another.
Sometimes we may use the words too easily, without much thought, but the faith of Israel teaches us that these words of blessing have power. So we use them prayerfully.

I have a prayer that I use most Fridays:

God of earth, sea, and sky;
God of bread, wine, and story;
God of wind, fire, and water;
God who shaped us,
God who remade us,
God who fills us.
Take our lives, body, heart and soul –
make us one with you and with each other.
Give us your word on our lips,
and your blessing in our hands,
that the world may see and know,
and give you glory.

May God bless you, and those whom you love and pray for; and may you be given words of blessing to give to someone this day.

* A phrase from Walter Brueggemann that I must acknowledge !

Church · community · Worship

The Work Of A Leader

This post is a quote from a book by Richard Giles – At Heaven’s Gate.

So with yourselves; since you are eager for spiritual gifts, strive to excel in them for building up the church.
1 Corinthians 14 verse 12

The chief work of a good leader is to build community. The true pastor is one who works with devoted skill, tender loving care, and infinite patience to nurture a community of faith into fullness of being; surrendering to the work of the Spirit of God ‘until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity of the full stature of Christ.’ (Ephesians 4 verse 15)

Good worship springs from an authentic and palpable sense of community. Once we learn to ‘cook on gas’ as a genuinely interactive community of faith, we shall draw forth from one another a whole range of talents and ministries to create extraordinary worship …. good worship, at the local level, week in week out, depends very much on the quality of common life enjoyed by that local community. Good worship begins with a whole and happy community.

It cannot be done the other way round – for worship to be used as a sticking plaster for a dysfunctional community will not last very long. It is not much use devising creative acts of worship that we hope will somehow put the community back together again. The human heart is stubborn and contrary, and conflict will need to be addressed and wounds healed. We cannot look the other way when a community is hurting inside, for good worship continue to be beyond us if we are not right with each other, not at ease with who we are as a body.

At Heaven’s Gate pages 16 & 17

Church · community · faith · Jesus · Worship

He Is Risen Indeed, Alleluia!

It’s Easter Day. For me the most important day in the Christian Year. It’s a declaration that God is unwilling to take our ‘no’ for an answer. With Jesus, it is always yes. An unconditional ‘yes’ to be with us.

This morning we met with some friends and their two young children to walk up Robinswood Hill. The hill is just a mile or so from where we live, and from the top you gt a 360 degree view taking in the city of Gloucester and the surrounding countryside.

We had decided to get to the top in time for sunrise just after 6.30. We met in the car park, with the darkness already beginning to fade as the pre-dawn light became stronger.

It’s a 200 metre climb – quite a task for Steve with a two year old on his back, and pretty challenging for their five year old. But we made it in time for the sunrise, and got ready for a short act of worship for Easter Day. Another friend joined us at the last minute. He phoned us from the car park, 200 metres below us.
‘Where are you ?’
‘We’re at the top. We’ll see you in about 15 minutes’

So finally, we were all there, and shared a communion of croissants and hot chocolate, with a song and some prayers, and the familar Easter shout:
Alleluia, Christ is risen
He is risen indeed, Alleluia.
Praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ
He has given us new life and hope by raising Jesus from the dead
Alleluia, Christ is risen
He is risen indeed, Alleluia.

As we started to sing ‘Thine be the Glory’ at the end of our short service, a couple who had just got to the top of the hill came and joined us. I don’t know what the dog walker and the few others who were there for the sunrise thought, but we gave it our best as we sang that great Easter hymn.

Over the last 35 years or so, we’ve nearly always done something similar. From a hill in North Yorkshire, to a nature reserve in Hertfordshire, via Beverley in East Yorkshire, where one year we had snow! There’s something very special about celebrating the resurrection as the sun comes up.

When we got home, I came across this song in one of my prayer books. It seemed to echo our early morning gathering, and sums up for me a lot of what our faith is all about. Here’s a translation below and a link to the song here

“Vamos todos al banquete “

Let us go now to the banquet, to the feast of the universe —
the table’s set and a place is waiting.

I will rise in the early morning; the community’s waiting for me.
With a spring in my step I’m walking with my friends and my family.

God invites all the poor and hungry to the banquet of justice and good —
where the harvest will not be hoarded so that no one will lack for food.

May we build a place among us where all people are equal in love —
For God has called us to work together and to share everything we have.

translated version of “Vamos Todos Al Banquete” written by Guillermo Cuéllar
and commissioned by Msgr. Oscar Romero for the Misa Popular Salvadoreña

Church · community · faith · Following Jesus · Theology · Worship

Re-Imagining Eucharist

OK, so this is two words. Having five word titles is a challenge I set myself, as well as being a web address ( that was available! I think it’s time to allow myself to break the rule if I need to. Plus, as this is a post about rule-breaking, it seems appropriate.

So to Eucharist. The central act of weekly worship in many Christian churches. Eucharist was not a word I was familiar with when I was growing up. For the Christian community of my childhood it was known as The Lord’s Supper. Also known as Breaking of Bread. In other traditions it’s known as Communion, Mass and Eucharist. I’m using Eucharist here because it seems to be the word that is most used these days in a lot of Church of England circles. It’s the act of worship where we remember Jesus’ Last Supper, and his command to remember him by eating bread and drinking wine, just as they would have done at that meal.

In another post, I have written about the ‘High Hedge’ that separates those who are ‘in’, with those who are ‘out,’ in some churches. The highest hedge would mean someone had to be baptised, and confirmed in order to receive the bread and the wine.

None of the words that are used to describe this central act of worship suggest this high hedge. The Lord’s Supper suggests a meal, as does The Breaking of Bread. Communion suggests fellowship and intimacy. The word Mass (from the Latin Mittere, to send) is to do with being sent to be the God’s People For God’s World. Eucharist is from the Greek word meaning thanksgiving.

Maybe if we were being honest we should rename this family meal as Phractis – Greek for hedge. The word phractis itself sounds like fraction, which is when something is split into parts – in the case of Eucharist, those who receive and those who don’t.

A few years ago I heard Sarah Miles tell her story of coming to faith in Jesus. She had never been to church. She had never been taken by her parents. She was from a non-religious background. But one day she was passing a church and felt compelled to go in. When it came to the time for communion, she knew instinctively that this was something she wanted, and needed. As she held her hands out in expectation, someone put the bread into her hands. This was the start of her journey of faith.

As I read the Gospels, I see Jesus sharing meals with people without any restrictions. He eats with ‘tax collectors and sinners,’ people who were on the outside of the religious community. He knew that when you eat with people, connections are made. People share, not only their food, but themselves. The best meals are where we get beyond polite conversation to reflect on the big questions that our lives are asking us. Not every time we share a meal, for sure, do we ask these questions, but if we never ask them, then we’re not really sharing our lives.
What makes your heart sing ? What’s the best thing in your life at the moment ? Did you see the sunset yesterday ? How do I bring up my kids in this crazy world ? How do I put bread on the table when I’m out of work ? How can I look after my elderly parent as well as everything else I’m supposed to do ? How do I live with myself, when I know all the bad stuff that others don’t see ? ….. (you add your own question)

There is a ‘high hedge’ in the Gospels, but it seems to be all about following Jesus. That in the end is what divided people – into those who were willing to take a risk and see where it led, and those who decided to stick with what they knew. If there is a holy act that expresses this desire to be a follower, then it’s baptism. That’s the hedge.

But certainly in the established church in this country we got it the wrong way round. We made baptism available to everyone and anyone without fully explaining that this was a serious life choice.
And at the same time we said that you weren’t supposed to share in the family meal. There was a limit to the hospitality that we could offer.

It’s like if you invited some friends round for the evening. Come at 7, you said. So they arrive at 7 just as you are sitting down to your evening meal. And you ‘welcome’ them into the same room where you are eating, but you went on and ate your meal while they waited for you to finish.

What am I saying ? Throw out hundreds of years of church practice ? Pretend I know better ?

Just think how it would be if there was another way to share bread and wine. A meal that would be just as holy, just as mystical, just as life changing. A meal that just as clearly had Jesus at the centre, but which didn’t bar anyone from joining in. A meal that could happen anywhere, anytime, for anyone.

I wonder how many preachers, church leaders, priests and pastors would say Yes to this ? It might be threatening. It might be risky. It might be difficult to square with your theology.

And then again, it might be wonderful.

Grace and peace.

Church · community · Prayer · Worship

A Great Many People Praying

I was reading in Luke chapter 1 this morning. It’s about Mary’s cousin Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah, as they longed for a child. (Who would turn out to be John the Baptist).

During the time Herod ruled Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, married to Elizabeth. Zechariah and Elizabeth truly did what God said was good. They did everything the Lord commanded and were without fault in keeping his law. But they had no children, because Elizabeth could not have a baby, and both of them were very old.

One day Zechariah was serving as a priest before God, because his group was on duty. According to the custom of the priests, he was chosen by lot to go into the Temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 There were a great many people outside praying at the time the incense was offered. 11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to Zechariah, standing on the right side of the incense table. 12 When he saw the angel, Zechariah was startled and frightened. 13 But the angel said to him, “Zechariah, don’t be afraid. God has heard your prayer. Your wife, Elizabeth, will give birth to a son, and you will name him John.

The phrase that struck me was this: There were a great many people outside praying

As Zechariah is doing his work of leading God’s people in prayer, “A multitude of people are faithfully gathered at the temple to back Zechariah in prayer. Prayer is the context in which God acts most creatively, the environment in which his promises are announced and his work of salvation begins.”
Eugene Peterson in Praying with the Early Christians

In these days of Covid, I am struggling to work out what being part of a congregation means. We have our small group of Christian friends, and are working at mutual encouragement and support, but the congregational aspect of church life is hard.

I have been to a few of our services in church, and experienced that socially distanced, mask wearing, non singing way of being church together, which is ok up to a point.
I have watched pre-recorded services online, some of which have been very creative, using technology to involve members of a congregation in readings, leading prayers, singing at home etc
I have watched live services online at home, which at least has the benefit of being live.

But the sense of participation in worship, and the sense of being a part of a community in worship has been largely absent. I think this has resulted in me praying much less for our worship, and those who lead, even whilst my disciplines of prayer, reading of scripture and study at home have increased.

I’m challenged today to wrestle with this, to try and see a way to make congregational worship more a part of my life in these days.

Grace and peace.

Bible · Church · faith · Following Jesus · Worship

The End Of A Year

I’ve been thinking about annual cycles of religious festivals – For Christians, the church year goes like this: Advent – Christmas – Epiphany – Lent – Easter – Pentecost – All Saints – and back to Advent again. Most of the festivals are focussed on Jesus – his life, death and resurrection.

This Sunday, 22nd November is the final Sunday in this church year. Next Sunday will be the first Sunday of Advent, which marks the beginning of a new church year. This last Sunday is called ‘Christ The King.’ The idea is that the culmination of the year should focus on the completed work of Jesus before the story starts all over again.

In the Jewish faith, there is something very similar that must be the inspiration for the Christian tradition. In Judaism however, the cycle is all about the reading of Torah. Torah is The Law of Moses – the first five books of what Jews call ‘The Bible.’ and what Christians call ‘The Old Testament’ or ‘The Jewish Scriptures.’

This cycle of readings is completed in a year, and as in the Christian tradition, there is a special day that marks the end of the year, and starts the new year. In Judaism this is linked to the feast of Sukkot, which is a kind of harvest festival, and takes place around October.

There is a wonderful description of this festival – Simchat Torah – in the book I wrote about in my last post. The book ‘In the Beginning’ by Chaim Potok. Here’s the quote.

I remember the night in the second week of October when we danced with the Torah scrolls in our little synagogue. It was the night of Simchat Torah, the festival that celebrates the completion of the annual cycle of Torah readings. The last portion of the Five Books of Moses would be read the next morning.

The little synagogue was crowded and tumultuous with joy. I remember the white-bearded Torah reader dancing with one of the heavy scrolls as if he had miraculously shed his years. My father and uncle danced for what seemed to me to be an interminable length of time, circling about one another with their Torah scrolls, advancing upon one another, backing off, singing. Saul and Alex and I danced too. I relinquished my Torah to someone in the crowd, then stood around and watched the dancing. It grew warm inside the small room and I went through the crowd and out the rear door to the back porch. I stood in the darkness and let the air cool my face. I could feel the floor of the porch vibrating to the dancing inside the synagogue. It was a winy fall night, the air clean, the sky vast and filled with stars. [. . .]

The noise inside the synagogue poured out into the night, an undulating, swelling and receding and thinning and growing sound. The joy of dancing with the Torah, holding it close to you, the words of God to Moses at Sinai. I wondered if the gentiles ever danced with their Bible. “Hey, Tony. Do you ever dance with your Bible?”

I had actually spoken the question. I heard the words in the cool dark air. I had not thought to do that. I had not even thought of Tony–yes, I remembered his name: Tony Savanola. I had not thought of him in years. Where was he now? Fighting in the war probably. Or studying for the priesthood and deferred from the draft as I was. Hey, Tony. Do you ever read your Bible? Do you ever hold it to you and know how much you love it?

Wow ! I could almost feel the sense of celebration. Joy and awe all mixed up and expressed in the dance. An exuberant, intense display of fervour and devotion.

And I asked myself the question that in the novel David asks of the Roman Catholic neighbour of his childhood – Do I ever dance with my Bible ? Or to put it another way – does our celebration of Christ The King have this same sense of being alive in our faith. Maybe it’s the fact that we English / Church of England are so reserved and unemotional that stops us ? Or maybe we just don’t have the same passion about our faith ?

There will be no dancing this year, as our chuches are closed for public worship due to Covid, but maybe next year ….

Grace and peace.