Log in

Mark Rowland
20 June 2011 @ 08:28 pm
The Anglican-Methodist Covenant will once more be an issue at Conference this year as the Joint Implementation Commission presents its latest report. I've been disappointed by the Covenant in that has generated pages and pages of reports but very little in terms of concrete reality. For me the problems come from the failure of both our churches to take seriously the affirmations they have already made. It is not that we need anything new or anything more, it's just that we are not true to our word.

The Anglican-Methodist Covenant was signed on behalf of both churches in 2003, following approval processes. In the Methodist Church, this meant a vote in every circuit meeting, every district synod and Y Gymanfa. The Methodist people voted for it. I'm afraid I don't know the procedures that were followed in the Church of England, but I trust that it would not have been signed by the Archbishop of Canterbury without appropriate endorsement.

I am frustrated and disappointed by the failure of the Church of England to reflect Affirmation 2 in her canon law and practice: "We affirm that in both our churches the word of God is authentically preached, and the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist are duly administered and celebrated."

I am frustrated and disappointed by the failure of the Methodist Church to reflect Affirmation 7 in her structure and polity: "We affirm that there already exists a basis for agreement on the principles of episcopal oversight as a visible sign and instrument of the communion of the Church in time and space."

We don't need more reports, we need to act on what we have already affirmed.
Mark Rowland
05 June 2011 @ 09:06 pm
Why do you stand looking up towards heaven? Why?

Well, why not? Don’t you think that that would be completely natural. The man you’ve been following for the last three years, the one who has turned your life completely upside-down has just disappeared off into the clouds. Where else would you look? It’s perhaps a picture for us of how the apostles did not and could not know what how to react to Jesus’ ascension. And the confusion, that difficulty hasn’t really gone away. We don’t know what to do with the ascension. It’s a neglected feast – probably because it falls on a Thursday and we’re not very good at wanting to come to worship when it’s not Sunday. But it is a feast of Our Lord and a pretty major one at that. 40 days after the resurrection, the Lord ascended to heaven to be seated at the right hand of the Father.

Some commentators get very caught up on the word ascension – going up – itself. It gets all too caught up in the old three level universe idea that heaven is up, we’re on earth and hell is down. Now we all know perfectly well that that’s not how the universe fits together, or at least not how our bit of it fits together. But that doesn’t matter for the ascension: the point of the account is that Jesus – in his bodily sense – went away from the apostles to return to his Father in heaven. Jesus goes home, if you like. And when he’s gone, the apostles can do nothing but stare after him. Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven?

It’s natural isn’t it to look to what we’ve known and to what we’ve become comfortable with. But as this episode in the life of the apostles shows us, we can’t stay there, we are always called to move on to the next step. There was a lot waiting for the apostles, and indeed the book of Acts goes on to tell us about it. Great challenges lay before them, great joys and a great deal that I’m sure they could even begin to imagine. I doubt they had any idea how it would all work out. Through the ministry of Christ and through the Holy Spirit which he had promised them they were equipped for the mission they were called to. But they needed to look forward, to move on: to set out on the next stage of the journey.

Baptism marks the beginning of a journey. Through baptism we enter into the church and we begin to share in that mission that was first committed to the apostles. The mission of making disciples of all peoples, of proclaiming the message of Christ, of being signs of the love of God in the world. That is a mission that we have to grow into constantly. [Child] may have a bit more growing than some of us to do, but not one of us can think that we are there yet. We must continually grow and develop in our service of God and in our mission to God’s world.

We do so not out of duty or obedience and much less out of compulsion. We do so out of love. Love for God and love for all the people of the world, whom God loves so much. This love is demonstrated powerfully in baptism. [Child], I said, for you Jesus Christ came into the world, for you he lived and showed God’s love, for you he suffered death on the cross, for you he triumphed over death, rising to newness of life;
for you he prays at God’s right hand:
all this for you, before you could know anything of it.
In your Baptism, the word of Scripture is fulfilled:
‘We love, because God first loved us.’

That love is for each one of us – not as some kind of amorphous grouping, but each one of us as individuals, with all our glorious variety and difference. It is our own experience of the love of God which draws us to share in his mission of love to all people, to the whole world.

The result of the ascension is perhaps best expressed in the words of St Teresa of Avila: Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours, yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion is to look out to the earth, yours are the feet by which He is to go about doing good and yours are the hands by which he is to bless us now.

The ascended Christ reigns for ever at the right hand of the Father but he is with us always to the end of the age. He is with us and in us for we are his church, the body of Christ. In his name, the Father has sent us the Holy Spirit, to breathe life into us and to lead us into all truth. He is with us in his sacraments, in baptism as people are brought anew into his body the church and in Holy Communion as through his body and blood, he feeds, strengthens and sustains us.

Through this, we are called, as his Church, to be the sign, the symbol, the sacrament, the reality of his presence in the world. Why do you stand looking up to heaven?
Mark Rowland
29 May 2011 @ 07:36 pm
Zechariah 8:1-13
Revelation 21:22 - 22:5
John 21:1-14

I am very fond of paradoxes. In general, I like the way that they can tie your head up in knots. Suppose I take away your bag and I promise you that I’ll give it back if you guess correctly what I’m going to do with it. You guess that I’m not going to give it back... what do I do?

And, of course, there is no answer. You’re in this unresolvable realm of paradox. If you pick one option it contradicts itself, and if you pick the other it contradicts itself and so you are left bouncing between the two.

But I’m fond of paradoxes too when we are trying to do theology. Theology some would argue is itself a paradox, because it is the study of God who is unstudyable. So often I find that we are able to speak most clearly of God through paradox because when speaking of God our normal ways of thinking and reasoning begin to break down. They have their use but they reach their limit, just as in physics the basic laws of movement are very good for snooker balls on a snooker table, but if you want to start talking about the movement of atoms and smaller particles those laws break down and we need a more sophisticated way of speaking. For me, paradox is a very powerful tool when we wish to begin to engage with some of the difficulty of speaking about God.

Charles Wesley in his hymn-writing makes frequent use of paradox to make his points. The absolute amazement of what God has done and who God is cannot be expressed in ordinary ways because they simply do not convey the enormity of it. “Tis mystery all, the immortal dies” he wrote in that most famous hymn “And can it be”. The immortal dies. It’s a paradox: one who is immortal cannot die because then they wouldn’t be immortal anymore. But it is only in asserting this that we can get close to saying something about the significance of Christ’s death and subsequently of course his resurrection.

That hymn we sang just before the gospel does the same. It is not terribly well known but it speaks powerfully of what God can do in our lives. It speaks of how amazing God’s actions towards us are. “The Lamb shall take my sins away: tis certain, though impossible.” It is both certain and impossible says Charles Wesley: a classic theological paradox. And so it is that this evening I want to reflect upon those paradoxes. I don’t often give my sermons titles, but I have called this one “Impossible possibilities” and I want to ask some questions about that. Because I’m a good Methodist, most of the time anyway, I’m going to do it under three headings. Impossible transformation, impossible mission and impossible worship.

Impossible transformation

In speaking of impossible transformation, I’m talking about that change that God makes in us through the Holy Spirit. It’s something of what Charles Wesley was taking about in that hymn as he spoke of us stopping sinning and being formed again in Christ. Christ is the power of God in humanity and, through him, this kind of transformation can be achieved. The boldness of this assertion was controversial in the days of the Wesleys and earned them a lot of criticism and it is bold in our day. Indeed much of Methodism, let alone the wider Church, has forgotten what we once called the doctrine of Christian perfection. It is a doctrine which I like to state as simply as I can by saying that there is no limit to what the grace of God can achieve in us. In the face of all those who would say it is impossible for us to stop sinning, it is impossible for us to become more like Christ, it is impossible for us to know God or to be channels of his love, I want to say again there is no limit to what the grace of God can achieve in us. It breaks through the barriers of reasonableness and sensibleness and all the rest of it.

Zechariah the prophets spoke to God’s people in exile. He set out a vision for them which seemed utterly impossible. A vision of the transformation of their lives: a change from God seeming distant and seeming to have abandoned to them to God dwelling once more in Zion and making his home in Jerusalem. Jerusalem would be once again the faithful city. Old men and women will sit in the streets again, boys and girls with play in the streets. Even though it seems impossible to the remnant of this people in these days, should it also seem impossible to me, says the Lord of hosts? They could not see their condition changing or their life changing. We perhaps face the same problem: we forget God’s power, ability and will to change our lives, to transform us and to make us more like Christ. But though it seems impossible to the remnant of people in the Church – and that’s we often feel, do we not – should it also seem impossible to God? Our transformation and that of all who follow Christ may seem impossible to us, but it is eminently possible to God.

Mission impossible

If I say the phrase “mission impossible” you might think of something else. But I’m speaking of our mission together as God’s church. I hope the question of our mission both as local congregations and as the Methodist Church throughout our city is at the forefront of our minds at the moment. I hope that we do not think of it as something to be left to other people or something that we ourselves don’t need to worry ourselves with. We all share in the mission of Christ and his Church.

But I think that the hang-up we keep facing in our mission is that it is impossible. We can’t do it – there is no way. People don’t want to listen, they certainly don’t want to come anywhere near a church and as for talking about God, well, you must be out of your tree. Mission impossible? Very much so.

I wonder if that’s how the disciples felt as they encountered the risen Christ and as the enormity of the mission he was calling them to became apparent to them. We heard in John’s gospel of that resurrection appearance by the sea of Tiberias. The disciples were out at sea fishing. But that was impossible. They had been out all night and had caught absolutely nothing. Not one single fish. Someone on the shore calls out to them: cast your net on the other side.

What’s the point? It’s impossible. We won’t catch anything. We’ve been out all night and not caught anything. And we’re experienced fishermen, we know what we’re doing. What can you teach us?
But they do, and they get in an impossible catch. So many fish that they can’t haul in the net. And they sit down and the eat with the risen Christ. On one level a simple scene of breakfast on the beach; on another completely impossible. And it is these disciples who will be sent on to proclaim this impossible message in a hostile world, to people who don’t want to hear it in places they’ve not even heard of let alone been. Mission impossible indeed and 2000 years later God’s church is still doing it. Our mission may be impossible but we stand in a great tradition of impossible mission. If God is for us, who can be against us? When God call us to mission, God equips us for it. Tis certain, though impossible.

Worship impossible

When we gather for worship, we come to encounter this God of impossible possibilities. We come to meet God face to face even though no one can look upon God and live. We come as ordinary people, so insignificant that it is amazing that God can be mindful of us. We offer our paltry prayers, our hesitant hymns and our soporific sermons and we expect God to meet us here? Impossible.

But the impossible possibility of our worship is that those hymns, prayers, and dare I say it even sermons are windows to that vision which are given in the book of Revelation. We are here and it can be for us as if we were gathered in that city which has no temple for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. It has no need of sun or moon, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the lamb. Its gates are never shut: they are always open and the people of all the nations bring into it their glory and honour.

All of that. 6 o’clock. Whitchurch Methodist Church. Impossible but with God the reality of our impossible worship. In our worship God takes the ordinary, the mundane and the everyday and transforms it into the extraordinary, the exciting and the remarkable. Holy Communion – the Eucharist – is at the heart of our worship as Christians and it is the perfect example of this. Ordinary bread and ordinary wine by the power of the Holy Spirit becoming Christ’s own body and blood, Christ true and real presence with us. Holy Baptism: ordinary water a channel of the healing and renewing grace of God, doing for us more than we could ask or imagine even before we know anything of it.

Our impossible worship is transformative for us and for the world: we worship before the throne of God and of the Lamb, we see God’s face and God’s name is upon us. We need no more light of lamp or sun because God is our light and reigns for ever and ever. Impossible, yes, but the eternal reality of Christian worship.

So go from here this evening as God’s impossible people, impossibly transformed by his grace, called to his impossible mission and sharing in his impossible worship. May God, by his grace, accomplish in us all abundantly more than we can ever ask or imagine and to him be all glory, honour and dominion in the Church and the world, now and for ever. Amen.
Mark Rowland
29 May 2011 @ 02:51 pm
Acts 17:22-31
John 14:15-21

In the Northern hemisphere, as we are, we celebrate Easter in the midst of spring. The message of new life, of Christ’s victory over death and of the restoration of creation that is part and parcel of Easter is visibly echoed in what we see around us as plants come back to life, flowers bloom and trees are covered with leaves again. Many of our Easter songs and hymns make reference to this and use it as an example – now the green blade rises is perhaps to most obvious example.

The season of Easter continues for 50 days until Pentecost and today is Rogation Sunday. Rogation Sunday is in some ways like the opposite of a harvest festival – it is a day for praying for the fruitfulness of the earth and asking that there will be a good harvest. It is easy for us to forget about these things because we can generally easily get the food we need – a quick trip to the supermarket and all is sorted. But for many people in the world it is not so straightforward and indeed for some of our forebears it was not so easy. Their prayers for the fruitfulness of the earth were heartfelt because of their basic need for food. When we pray the Lord’s prayer, we ask for our daily bread but it is probably easy for us to skate over that knowing that there’s a loaf and a half in the bread bin.

Paul, preaching to the people of Athens could speak of God’s presence in creation. He was able to speak to them in terms that they could relate to. They had an altar which was dedicated, as they had put it, “To an unknown God”. And so Paul comes saying, what you do not know, we will now tell you. This God you’ve built an altar for but who you do not know yourselves is the one we preach. Paul describes him: The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth. I don’t know if the culture or tradition of Athens said anything about this unknown God, but Paul could identify him as the creator and could place him in that long tradition of the scriptures of speaking of God as revealed in creation.

On our weekend away a fortnight ago, as we shared something of how we pray, a number spoke of their experience of perceiving God in creation. The amazing diversity of what God has made and God’s continued sustaining of his world does indeed speak powerfully of the life that he gives. That life reflects the risen life of Christ and is offered to us all through Christ. As we pray today for the fruitfulness of the earth and for a good harvest, we pray too for the fruitfulness of our own Christian life and that God might use us to bring in the harvest of his kingdom. If you read on in Acts, you’ll find that some of the people in Athens Paul was preaching to thought he was ridiculous but some of them became believers. We too are called to share the news of that goodness of God of which the whole creation speaks.

Forty days after his resurrection, which we celebrate on Thursday, Jesus returned to heaven in the ascension. His presence with us in this world is for ever changed from how it was with his disciples, both before and after his resurrection. Then he was with them on the road, as they shared meals, as he taught and healed and so on and so forth. In looking towards the time when he would no longer be with them in that way he said, “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.” It’s one of those statements that you can think is all very well to say, but what on earth does it mean? And if you’re a disciple, it’s perhaps cold comfort. It’s one of those place where you think that someone like St Thomas, or perhaps St Peter will say, “Yes, Lord, but how will we see you?”

The implicit response to that in this gospel reading is in terms of the commandments. If you love me, you will keep my commandments. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father and I will love them and reveal myself to them. In other words, live your life according to the pattern that I have shown and you will see me. Follow the ways that I have set out and you will know me. The greatest commandments – the greatest pointers to that way – are love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength and love your neighbour as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these. They are open ended calls to the Christian life – they are not rules that you could tick off on a checklist at the end of each day as to whether you had kept them or not. We could always keep them more. Our Christian life is one of change and development and growth. We need too to pray today for the fruitfulness of that growth, that God might draw us along the path of holiness. In our Methodist tradition, echoing themes in the wider church, we have talked of sanctification, that is being made holy, as part of the way of salvation. By grace, by the power of God, we can be made holy, we can be transformed such that we love God more and we love our neighbour more and we reflect ever more closely the likeness of Christ. We need to pray for this growth.

“I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth,” said Jesus. After the Ascension we look to Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit, who breathes life into the church and leads us into all truth. In the Western Church when symbolic colours are used, the colour we use for Pentecost is red, representing the fire of the Spirit – the tongues of flame that we read about in that account of the apostles in the upper room. But in the Orthodox Churches, often the colour used is green, the colour of growth and fruitfulness. For the Spirit brings forth in us the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. We need to pray for a great harvest of this fruit.

In our prayer and in our worship today then, let us pray for the harvest of the earth, that the earth may be fruitful and that all may have what they need for each day. Let us pray that God may make us thankful for all that we have. But let us pray too for the harvest of the Spirit, for the grace to love God and to love our neighbour and to show forth the fruit of the Spirit. And let us pray that through the new life God gives to the earth and through the new life God gives to us and all his church, the greatest new life of all, the risen life of Jesus Christ our Lord, might be known to all people. Amen.
Mark Rowland
19 May 2011 @ 12:57 pm
You may by now be aware of the news that the invitation for a Methodist ordination service to take place in the (RC) Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, in Liverpool has been withdrawn. Hats need to be off to those in Methodist Church House in London who have speedily rearranged the service to take place in the Anglican Cathedral in Chester (and to the Dean and Chapter for allowing that). There's a report in the Methodist Recorder on it today, but unfortunately it doesn't do much other than repeat the official statements (which are in the cut below if you've not seen them).

As one of those who was due to be ordained in the Metropolitan Cathedral, I was extremely saddened to hear this news. Having a quite catholic take on the Methodist tradition, a Methodist ordination in a Roman Catholic venue seemed deeply fitting to me. I was very much looking forward to it and excited about it. That joy was shared by many others - both Catholic and Methodist.

Recently, I became aware of some rather different attitudes floating around parts of the Roman Catholic blogosphere, which described the planned service as an insult to Catholics and as a sacrilege. There are also a number of somewhat unfair characterisations of what it is to be Methodist. It did make me wonder whether there would be a complaint to Rome and what the result of that might be.

In the days since hearing of the decision, I've reacquainted myself with the Ecumenical Directory of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity (one of the Vatican bodies responsible for the withdrawal of the invitation). There is an overall thrust that ecumenism needs a spirit of love, charity and generosity. It has quite a strong emphasis on the responsibility of the Bishop of the Diocese to know the local ecumenical situation and gives him a responsibility to make appropriate responses in that light. The particular part which pertains to use of buildings is 137
Catholic churches are consecrated or blessed buildings which have an important theological and liturgical significance for the Catholic community. They are therefore generally reserved for Catholic worship. However, if priests, ministers or communities not in full communion with the Catholic Church do not have a place or the liturgical objects necessary for celebrating worthily their religious ceremonies, the diocesan Bishop may allow them the use of a church or a Catholic building and also lend them what may be necessary for their services. Under similar circumstances, permission may be given to them for interment or for the celebration of services at Catholic cemeteries.
We don't have our own building in which this service of ordination can be worthily celebrated - hence the need for an ecumenical venue. I suspect that the Vatican takes a rather more strict view of this and regards it as meaning that the use of a Catholic building could only be permitted if there is no other building of any description (Methodist or otherwise) that would do. However, it is interesting to set alongside it one of the recommendations from The Grace Given You in Christ, the 2006 report of the International Commission for Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Methodist Council. That recommendation says: "Catholics might also consider how the ecumenical provisions contained in the Ecumenical Directory could be applied in each territory to the fullest possible extent in the case of Methodists, subject to the overall constraints of the Directory and official Catholic teaching."

The Archbishop in his statement speaks of the power of symbols. The withdrawal of this invitation is itself an extremely powerful symbol which on reflection I think much more powerful than the original making of the invitation and the planned service. I think this reflects the rather colder wind that is now blowing for our ecumenical dialogues and relationships. The 21st century will look very different to the 20th in that regard and it is perhaps regrettable that we did not seize more fully the opportunities that were then available but are now fast slipping away, if they have not already gone. If this can be a wake-up call to us all as to the urgency of the ecumenical task then it has the possibility to be a blessing, but I suspect it may simply be a sign of what is to come.

I will need to visit the Metropolitan Cathedral and hear Mass when I go to Liverpool and offer prayers again for the unity of Christians according to the mind of Christ. But I will go there in sadness not joy.

Official statementsCollapse )
Mark Rowland
24 April 2011 @ 09:04 pm
It seems a long time ago that I went to see [parents] to begin talking about a baptism today. It is wonderful to be able to celebrate with them and with [children] today at their baptism. In the early church, Easter was THE day for baptisms and the season of Lent originally began as a season of preparation for those who would be baptised at Easter. Baptism represents us being buried with Christ so that we can rise with him and so it is especially appropriate to celebrate baptisms on Easter Day. All of us who are baptised should all give thanks today for our baptisms and praise God that we can rise victorious with Christ. It is a joy to celebrate that today.

Even all that time ago when I first met with [parents], we knew that today would be Easter. It is easy for us – it comes round every year, we can look in our diaries and find out what the date of it is this year and we know something of what to expect. But for those people on that first Easter Day they had no idea what to expect. They didn’t know what they day would hold or what it would mean. We heard about two of them in our gospel reading. Mary Magdalene and Peter had been friends of Jesus during the years of his ministry. They had seen him arrested by the soldiers and sentenced to death. They had seen him die on the cross and they knew that he had been buried in a tomb. I wonder what they expected that Sunday morning. Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early in the morning, while it was still dark. Perhaps she came for some quiet moments there, as we might spend some time quietly at the grave of a loved one. But when she got there she saw something very strange – the stone had been rolled away. The huge great stone that had sealed up the tomb was rolled away and Jesus’ body was gone – who could have done this? Probably shocked, perhaps upset, maybe amazed, she runs to find Peter and another disciple. They go and look too – she isn’t making it up! It is Mary who meets Jesus; though she doesn’t recognise him at first. It is only when Jesus calls her by her name that she recognises who he is. That’s why in the service of baptism, I ask what the children’s names are. Baptism is about calling us by our names, just as Jesus called Mary Magdalene by her own name on that first Easter morning. She rejoices that Jesus is risen and she goes to tell all the other disciples. Rejoice! The Lord is risen!

We came today knowing what day it was and perhaps what to expect; Mary Magdalene came to the tomb not knowing any of that. Jesus called her by her name and she rejoiced. In baptism, Jesus calls [children] by their names and I hope they will rejoice. He calls each of us by our names and call us to recognise him, to rejoice at his resurrection and to tell the world!

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Mark Rowland
23 April 2011 @ 08:45 am
Many of the aspects of the gospel readings of Palm Sunday draw our attention to the question of who Jesus is. As he enters Jerusalem, the crowds say, “Who is this?” As he is before the High Priest, he is charged “I put you under oath before the living God, to tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God’ Who are you, in other words. Before Pilate, he is asked, “Are you the King of the Jews?” I am sure that many of those in the crowd and many others who witnessed the events leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus would have been left wondering, “Who is this?” As we have journeyed through Holy Week in our worship, in our reflection, in our reading of scripture, I hope that we have been drawn to wonder again. To ask ourselves one more time, “Who is this?”

It is today as we contemplate the cross that we can begin to put an answer to that question. It is today in response to the crucifixion of Jesus that we can begin to reflect. The scriptures give us some ways in which we might speak of him:

My servant shall prosper

The whole of Christ’s passion demonstrates his servant ministry. Indeed, you might suggest that that is the characteristic of his entire earthly ministry. Whoever wishes to be great among you must be the servant of all. We recalled yesterday how he washed his disciples feet, setting them and us an example to follow. Christ going to the cross in obedience to his Father demonstrates the ultimate in servanthood. He is the servant of us all.

He made intercession for the transgressors

We are perhaps accustomed to thinking of Christ interceding – praying – for us at the right hand of the Father, where he is seated in glory and from where he will come to judge the living and the dead. But we perhaps forget that the whole of his passion is an act of intercession, an act of prayer for transgressors, in Isaiah’s words – for us all. Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do, prays Jesus on the cross. And, of course, we recall that Jesus had spent the night in prayer in the garden of Gethsemane. His words, his actions, all of his passion is prayer to the Father for our salvation.

Here is your King

There are various pictures that might come into your mind if someone said to you “Here is your king”. But the image of Christ upon the cross, Christ wearing the crown of thorns, Christ whipped and beaten is probably not the first one that would be in your mind. It is not for nothing that we read a portion of the passion account on the feast of Christ the King, because his kingship is not as the kingship of this world. It is in fact a greater and more wonderful kingship and kingdom than anything we have here. Here is your King.

We have a great high priest

In his life and in his death, Jesus offered everything to the Father. On the altar of the cross, he offered the eternal sacrifice, a sacrifice far greater than anything any other high priest could offer. It was perfect and spotless for he was blameless and holy. We share in that one eternal sacrifice every time we come to the Lord’s Table, in every Eucharist we celebrate. Christ offers himself and draws us time and time again into his one eternal sacrifice as we gather in worship. We have a great high priest.

So as we kneel before the cross today, as we look to Christ, as we look on him whom we have pierced, we make our response. This is Jesus. This is our servant. This is our king. He prays for us and for all people. He is our great high priest. Today he hangs on the cross but we are not ashamed. No, we glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, for he is our salvation, our life and our resurrection; through him we are saved and made free. We do not ask any more who he is, but we proclaim that this is truly the Son of God. Behold the wood of the cross, on which hung the Saviour of the World. Come, let us worship! Amen.
Mark Rowland
17 April 2011 @ 03:37 pm
Sometimes someone new stands out. At work, at a club or society, in school, maybe even dare I say it in church(!) You glance over and wonder who’s that? Where did they come from? Who are they? You might whisper to the person sitting next to you, or catch someone’s eye and see if you can find out.

Now all of that happens and more, if the person does something that’s a bit strange. If they act differently from the rest of the group or their appearance is different or they sound different. We wonder all the more who that person is and what they’re doing here. Who are they? Who is that strange person?

And it’s that question that sits behind the two gospel texts that we’ve heard this morning – both the account of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem and the account of his passion.

“When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil. “Who is this?” people asked” Who is this? There’s a man riding into the city on a donkey. That’s not normal. It’s quite strange. Who is he? Where’s he from?

In the long version of the passion, we hear about the questioning of Jesus by the chief priests. “I put you on oath by the living God to tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” Tell us who you really are, they say. We will give you one last chance to admit that it’s all an act, to lay aside these bold claims, to be reasonable. Come clean with us, go on. Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God. Tell us.

Jesus is brought to Pilate. He too asks who Jesus is. He’s heard plenty of things, I’m sure. He’s probably got a thousand and one other things on his mind. More important things he could be doing than dealing with this dispute. But he needs to get to the bottom of it, so he asks, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Tell me. Who are you? Who are you? But Pilate gets no response, even as charges against Jesus are levelled left, right and centre. Jesus stays silent.

Many of the people we hear about ask the question, who is this? The liturgies and events of Holy Week should lead us to ask the same question, “Who is this?” As we recall Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, as we recall his words and actions in the Upper Room, as we see him led to the cross, as we see him taken down and buried. Who is this? Who is this?

It is at the cross that we see an answer to that question. In the literal sense: the notice above his head reads “This is Jesus the King of the Jews”. But as we look more deeply, as we see his death there for us, with the centurion, we see “Truly, this was God’s son”. Today and through the days of Holy Week we come to the Lord’s Table, we approach the altar, we come to the sacrifice of calvary set before us. As we receive the body and blood of Our Lord, we ask “Who is this?”

With St Thomas as he saw Christ’s wounds and with the Church of every age which gathers here with us, we are challenged to respond, “My Lord and my God.”

Mark Rowland
03 April 2011 @ 01:48 pm
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9

“Can’t see for looking” was a phrase that my late Grandfather used to use. I know it was not unique to him but it reminds me of him. Can’t see for looking: a phrase when you don’t see what is immediately in front of you because you’re too busy trying to find something. Sometimes that means that the thing you don’t see is the very thing you’re looking for.

Our gospel reading this morning is all about seeing and not seeing. Some of the characters in this story might be said not to be able to see for looking, and I don’t just mean the man born blind. It’s interesting to see how those around Jesus and this man react to the healing that Jesus performs.

Consider the disciples... they see first and foremost a question about sin - “who sinned that this man was born blind?” They see the question of fault. Whose fault is this that this person is like that? It was no one’s fault – it is part of life. But all parts of life give the opportunity for the wonders of God to be revealed. If we are attentive for it, we have the opportunity to see God’s work all around us.

The people who used to see him every day didn’t really recognise him. “Isn’t this the man who used to sit and beg?” They saw the begging and they saw his lack of sight, but they hadn’t really seen him before. He had to convince them that he truly was that person. “I am the man” he said.

And so it is that he’s brought to the Pharisees so that they can investigate what has happened. They are told what happened – the man put mud on my eyes and now I see. But they see all sorts of other things first: Jesus can’t be from God because he doesn’t observe the Sabbath. But for others, they see that Jesus has performed a miraculous sign so he must be from God. They are divided and argue among themselves.

Some others felt it must all be a trick and so they call his parents. Was this man really born blind? His parents see that he is healed and they know that he was born blind but more than that they do not know. Furthermore they do not want to know – they would rather not see because it is far too inconvenient. So they say, ask him – he’s a grown up – don’t ask us. We prefer to look the other way; we prefer not to see.

So it is that they call again to the man who was healed. He sees with great clarity – not just physically but spiritually too. He knows as well the limits of what he sees. “Give glory to God”, they say to him, “we know that this man is a sinner.” But he knows what he does not know and simply says, “I do not know where he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” And there is a dispute – for they have seen God through the works and teaching of Moses. Indeed they have and great was God’s work through Moses. But they refuse to look any further. They do not see that God could work in Jesus as he did in Moses, or perhaps in an even greater way. Perhaps they do not see because of their fear, perhaps simply because of their confusion, perhaps because of the significance of their own position in the society. But they do not see.

It is the healed man who points this out to them. Jesus healed me and you wonder whether he’s from God? God doesn’t listen to sinners, but does listen to those who worship him? How can there be any question? How can you not see? If this man were not from God, he could do nothing. They become angry with him, “You were born entirely in sins and are you trying to teach us?” Their own pride prevents themselves from seeing clearly.

Jesus seeks him out again. “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” The man bows before Jesus and worships him. He sees. The glory of God has been revealed to him. He sees, not just physically but spiritually too. Who knows what became of him after this? What did he do next? With God all things are possible and we could imagine that his life went on to bear the signs of God in amazing and significant ways.
This Lent we are called to see clearly. To see clearly in a spiritual sense. That means that we are called to see ourselves as God sees us. That is a two-edged sword. We are made in God’s image and likeness, we are precious children of God, we are dearly loved and valued. When we are ready to put ourselves down and to think ourselves of little worth, then we need to be reminded to see ourselves as God sees us. When we think ourselves incapable or useless, we need to be reminded of the gifts which God has given us and which he calls us to use in his service. When we feel ourselves less significant than others, we are called to remember the love of Christ for each one of us.

But it also means that we are called to see clearly the ways we fall short of what God calls us to. That we learn to see the obstacles that prevent us seeing clearly. That we become able to lay aside our pride, the certainty of our own rightness, our readiness to ignore the signs of God that are right in front of our eyes. We are called to see these things and with help of God’s grace to set them aside. With God’s forgiveness, we can then come to greet the risen Christ, truly to see him and to worship our Lord and our God.

“Tell me, so that I may believe in him” said the healed man to Jesus about the Son of Man. Let me see truly is what he was asking. Can’t see for looking? Let me look and see clearly. May God grant us the grace to see ourselves clearly and to be restored ever more closely to his image and likeness. Amen.
Mark Rowland
Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 95
John 4:5-42

I’m not sure we have many places left like the well where Jesus and this unnamed Samaritan woman meet. Of course, our water technology has moved on and we don’t generally have to go to a well to get a water – though we should remember that across the world we’re still very fortunate in that. But that’s not what I mean when I say that I don’t think we have places like this well any more.

Everyone needs water. You can survive if you have to for quite a time without food, but you cannot survive very long at all without water. So everyone needs to come to get water. So the well is a place that you will find all sorts of people, regardless of their normal station in life. It’s a great equaliser. At the times for drawing water – typically morning and evening – there would be great crowds at the well, all getting the water they need. The need for water to drink is no respecter of status. So notice the oddness of this scene where the woman meets Jesus at the well. Where is everyone else, also coming to draw water? Why is she alone?

Notice what time it is. It isn’t morning, nor is it evening. It’s not the time for drawing water: it’s noon – we’re in the very hottest part of the day. Drawing and carrying water would be hard work at the best of times. No one would want to do it in the full heat of the day. But this woman comes then to draw her water, away from the crowds, separately from the rest of her community.

She was probably quite surprised to find anyone at the well. I’m sure she was much more surprised to find a Jewish man there. And then for him to ask her for a drink of water was out of the question. This most simple of things: one person giving a drink of water to another was completely contrary to the way that society functioned. Jews and Samaritans shared quite a similar religion in many ways but were divided on various issues. I’m sure we can think of examples from the history of Christianity where different Christian groups kept themselves apart from one another. Still today, we’re ready to put barriers between ourselves and other Christians.

Jesus says to her, “Give me a drink”. She can’t believe it; this isn’t what happens. “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” She is very well aware of the situation. She knows full well that Jesus shouldn’t be talking to her and he certainly – as a Jew – shouldn’t drink from a Samaritan cup. Jesus is breaking through these boundaries and challenging the conventions of his day. I don’t think anything like this would have ever happened to her before.

If that’s not enough, her day is about to get stranger. Jesus says that if she who he was, she would ask him for living water. Here’s this man who has no water – otherwise why would he have asked for a drink? - asking her for water and now saying that he could give her living water. Perhaps she thinks that Jesus has taken leave of his senses, and so she talks gently to him. “You haven’t got a bucket. The well is deep. How are you going to get the water?”

But it becomes a moment of realisation for her. John’s gospel includes many of these scenes where through words and actions the truth breaks through. There is the revelation of the message of God. In chapter 1, which we often read at Christmas we have that very famous verse “And the word became flesh and dwelt among us and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only Son, full of grace and truth”. You could see that as a theme for the gospel: we have seen his glory. John’s gospel gives us many accounts of those who have seen his glory, in one way or another. Last week it was Nicodemus, a leader among the Jewish people. Next week we move on to a man born blind. But today perhaps most surprisingly, it’s a Samaritan woman. On two counts, not the sort of person that the society expects to be seeing the glory of God. But that is no barrier for Jesus.

She realises something of who Jesus is. “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and flocks drank from it?” She realises: see sees if you like and knows something of Jesus’ glory. Notice too how she herself breaks down the barriers – almost in return if you like. She talks of our ancestor Jacob. We share an ancestor she says: we both recognise this person as a great figure of our faith and our community. We belong together.

With a response as speedy as any of the stories of the calling of the disciples, she says “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty”. She has moved from only a moment ago asking where he would get water without a bucket and with a deep well to asking him for this water.

Jesus’ knowledge of her own family history – and we can only speculate, we don’t know what the reasons for that were – adds even further to her experience of him as a prophet, a man sent from God.

She seeks to break down the boundaries yet further and raises one of the great issues that would seem to divide them. The Jews say you must worship in Jerusalem, Samaritans say you must worship on the mountain. Both of those views have some foundation in the Hebrew scriptures. For Jesus, actually, neither is really there. True worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. The spirit you may remember, blows where it will. Jesus, in John’s gospel, is the way, the truth and the life. True worshippers will worship out of these experiences of realisation: realisation of God and realisation of the identity of Jesus Christ. Worship will come from seeing his glory.

The woman declares her faith “I know that Messiah is coming. He will declare all things to us”. We will then be able truly to worship in truth. Jesus says to her “I am, it’s me, the one you’re talking to”. I am, that unquestionable reference to the name of God, the words that elsewhere would have people picking up stones to stone him for blasphemy. I am, says Jesus. And she realises again.

The disciples join us. They haven’t had the benefit of this conversation. They haven’t realised what it’s been about. And they’re shocked – what on earth is Jesus doing talking to her. And they keep to the boundaries. None of them speak to her. So she goes back to the city. She leaves behind her water-jar: she didn’t even get what she came for. But she did get something else, much greater.

As she gets back to the city she tells everyone. This woman who came alone, at the hottest part of the day to draw water goes to speak to everyone. She tells them about Jesus and about her experience and realisation of his glory. Many Samaritans believed in him because of what she told them. I think she is probably the first female preacher we encounter in the gospel – we could even call her the apostle to the Samaritans. Jesus is invited to stay with the Samaritans and he stays for two more days. It was shocking for him to ask for a cup of water and now he’s a house guest! The people themselves have that realisation that the woman told them about. They say, “We have heard for ourselves and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.”

This Lent we are invited to realise anew. Again. To see and hear for ourselves and to recognise Jesus, sent from God, who speaks prophecy, the Messiah, the Son of God. That realisation should break down boundaries, should draw us together and bring reconciliation and peace. Too often we have made it quite the opposite. Let us meet together, let us join as friends, putting aside old division and moving forward in the light of the glory of the Word made flesh, full of grace and truth.