What’s in the Way

Today’s reading is Mark 6:45-56Open Link in New Window

Here is today’s reflection by Sam.

We’re going to spend some time just talking about how incredible Jesus is this morning. I’ve got no other agenda than that. Let’s just geek out about how great Jesus is.

This morning we join the disciples as they’ve just finished clearing up a meal for over 5000 people. You know those days where you get home and just drop yourself onto the sofa with a smile on your face. You’re absolutely shattered but it’s been an unforgettable day. When we lived in Winchester we’d travel up to London to see gigs and I remember after seeing Bruce Springsteen on a hot summer’s evening in Hyde Park, we got off the train, walked home and I remember collapsing onto my bed. Best. Day. Ever.

That’s the disciples as they get onto the boat. Jesus is like, you guys chill, head on back, I’m just going to finish a few conversations but I’ll catch you up. As the boat sails away, the noise of the crowd begins to fade and the disciples’ excited chatter fades too, as it is replaced by the beauty of the lake at sunset and a gentle content silence.

This sounds like the end of a story. The epilogue of an epic day. Fade to black.

But later on that night, Jesus is resting on the side of the mountain and he looks out across the lake, out there in the distance, he sees their boat still sailing.

These types of boats, you’re looking at around 4-6 knots with the wind in the right direction, and they’re not going far, just 6km up the coast. That’s like an hour, two hour journey. But it’s the middle of the night and they’re still battling the winds. You only get the oars out when it’s really desperate. And Jesus watches on.

And this is where it gets weird. Verse 48, he goes out to them. Now it’s not mentioned that he’s done this before, he never does it again but I guess he’s feeling confident because he steps out onto the water and walks out to them. Just walks out on the water.

Was he going to give them a push? Just checking in? Did he want to take a closer look at their rowing technique, maybe coach them along? The passage says that he was just going to pass them by. Of course he doesn’t because they spot him and get freaked out, understandably. I’d be tempted to tease them here, I might’ve brought a sheet with two eye holes like a scooby doo villain, but Jesus is far more gracious. Immediately he calms them down and gets in the boat. The wind dies down and they turn to each other. What. Has. Just. Happened?

I thought it was important to talk you through the story because I think the next line is most crucial and I want you to hear it properly.

“They were amazed because they had not understood about the loaves”. (Mark 6:51-52Open Link in New Window)

The loaves?

Oh yeah, the loaves.

Just this same afternoon, this same group of men stood before Jesus as he took five fish and two small loaves and fed an entire town. Who is this man?

My problem with the gospel is that I know these stories and I’ve become numb to them. I used to live in Exeter where my friend’s dad was the manager of the rugby club. When they built their new stadium, we went to the opening game. Capacity crowd, 12,500 people all roaring, it was incredible.

You may know but in the feeding of the 5000, that number is actually just counting the men, not the women and children who were there as well. So in reality, we’re looking at closer to 15,000 people.

Imagine me standing on the field at Sandy Park in front of that capacity crowd with a couple of fish finger sandwiches saying, don’t worry guys, there’s enough for everyone. It’s absolutely wild. Just unbelievable.

But Jesus did just that.

So why would we be surprised that he can walk on water as well?

This line, “they had not remembered about the loaves” is addressed as much to us as the disciples. This man, who we’re reading about in the gospels, has worked his way through the hill country of Galilee, healing physically and healing hearts, calming the storms, feeding multitudes with next to nothing. Then we get to a paragraph break and we forget all that, because suddenly it’s amazing to us that Jesus can walk on water.

Mark has been building a case for Jesus, he is completely in control of all of nature. He is completely human, hurt by rejection and reliant on rest and friendships. But he is also completely divine, completely unlike anything that came before.

His power over the water represents the ultimate power. It is no coincidence that water appears at every turn in the Bible. The Spirit hovers over the water to create in Genesis 1Open Link in New Window. The red sea provides salvation from the chasing Egyptian army. God provides water from rocks. Even in the little things, water shows Gideon proof that God is with him.

Water held this symbolism of power throughout the ancient near east. There’s a historical parallel that at the same time that God parted the red sea at Moses’ request in an act of grace to rescue the Israelites from Egypt, in Greek mythology, Agamemnon had to sacrifice his daughter to appease the vengeful god, Artemis so that they could sail safely to attack the Trojans.

We have this parallel of one spiritual force, God being gracious and controlling the seas to bring safety to his people, contrasted with another culture, where a different, evil spiritual force, uses the seas as a way to force submission from these people.

True or not, this Greek myth represents the world’s view of the gods and the waters. Jesus literally stomps all over that and proves he is one with the God they knew who is greater than the seas and forces of nature, and yet cares for them each personally as he walks over to the boat and calms the winds.

Jesus is amazing. Let’s refuse to lose sight of that.

But all this is great on a Sunday, we read these stories and allow ourselves to believe they might be true but then the reality of the week sets in on Monday morning and then we go back to relying on our own strength. Our own abilities are necessary to get us through.

I want to contend that the same guy who walks calmly across the roaring oceans is with you in your work, in your families, in your unexpected self isolation, in that conversation you’ve been dreading.

So why do we allow ourselves to forget that?

I think it’s to do with our scepticism of miracles and our competency as people.

Our jobs and our roles in society are often dictated by other people’s evaluations of our competency. The ceiling of our abilities often decides for us how far we’ll get in our careers, or the limitations on us in what education is available to us or the ways we are limited in retirement. We do this in so many things, even in church, in the roles that we assign to people or invite them to join in, it’s all based on competency and willingness.

But all this is based on the world around us and the messages that it speaks to us. It is based on a system that is risk averse and sees people as resources to reach an end goal.

And when we become entrenched in a system, we use it as the lens with which we understand God’s kingdom, the kingdom that Jesus spoke of overtaking the world. If I’m fully honest, I see it most clearly in my prayer life.

When I get around to praying, they’re often prayers in hindsight. God, bless the thing that I’ve already started. Or at their best, they’re prayers based on what I think is achievable. They’re often prayers reliant upon me being the answer to them. They’re prayers of someone from the kingdom of the world, not the kingdom of God.

But I used to pray for miracles. I don’t know when that changed. But years of disillusionment and maybe, if I’m honest, feeling let down by God not answering them changed how I pray.

And I see what’s wrong with this when I read these stories of a man who walked on water.

And I see what’s wrong with this when I read these stories of his Spirit, the very presence of God, being poured out upon his followers, upon us.

I don’t know why the hope of miracles is so quick to fade from me but I want to keep clawing it back. I think I need to keep coming back to these stories and the reality of this man who walked on the same planet that we do, doing things that cause me to stop in amazement. I need to not only come back to these stories but to come back to the person that they are about because he is alive and with us today.

I’ve heard that we don’t see miracles because we don’t have enough faith. That’s a lie. These people ran to Jesus and grabbed his cloak and were healed. Not once so far in the gospel has anyone even recognised that Jesus is God. They had no faith but they had something better; they had Jesus. They needed to ask for help and he was there.

I can’t tell you why miracles sometimes happen and they sometimes they don’t. As far as I can see, Jesus never explains that so I’m not going to try to.

But he does promise to be present to us in our asking. He promises to be close to us in our hurting. He promises that his kingdom is coming and sometimes we’ll see that here and now and sometimes it won’t be realised until he comes again but he promises that it will come.

And he invites us to reach out and grab his cloak and ask.

We think of miracles as the natural order of our world being interrupted and two worlds coming together. But that’s not what the Bible says; God isn’t breaking into the world to provide like someone reaching in to clean a fishtank. He’s not separate from us, we don’t have to plead him into paying us attention. He’s already here. He’s alive and present to us. The lord is here, his spirit is with us. And he’ll walk across the waves to get to us.

There will be a video version of the service.

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Who is This?

Today’s reading is Mark 5:1-20Open Link in New Window

Here is today’s reflection by Gaby.

Last week, I went to Tyntesfield for the day. It was a stunning autumn day with warm sunshine and bright skies. Despite the glorious weather, it felt like quite an effort to get there despite it only being 20 minutes away. I kept thinking I wouldn’t be going or I should pull out or I should stay at home and, and have a prayer day at home, but with a small amount of effort and exertion. I managed to get myself there. The minute I got there, I knew I’d made the right decision. Just being in that beautiful space was very restorative to me. There are lots of beautiful places in the city I could have gone and I feel we are very blessed to have them.

If you’ve never been there, Tyntesfield is set in beautiful countryside East of Bristol. It has a farm-like feel but then some beautiful and varied gardens and lovely views with trees and shrubs.

But the interesting thing is, every time I sat down and looked at these beautiful views something happened. See this view here for example. This is a Kodak moment as they would say in the old days or in our days now we would say that’s an Instagram moment. When I took this picture there was a loud drilling noise. I found out later, it was people cutting metal fencing to make it deer proof, so that the deer won’t get into the Rose Garden.

I like kind of liken it to my brain a little bit, because sometimes things seem perfect on the outside. On the inside, it doesn’t look so good. On the outside, it might look like I’ve got everything sorted and my life is perfect. It all looks good, but there’s always that niggle behind this niggle that’s inside our brain. The niggle that is our personality, our push, our motivations, pushing us on to something different, pushing us in another direction. For some of this us, this is a negative voice that’s telling us that we’re not loved or we’re useless or we’re not good enough. For others of us it’s a push to do more, a desire to go further, run faster, jump higher, all the time. For some of us, it’s something that controls our life perhaps an addiction, or, or just a fear, or a worry, perhaps we constantly worry about money, or we constantly worry about our health, or the health of our family, perhaps we constantly worry about safety. There’re all sorts of things that might compromise the beauty that’s going on outside of us because of the inside of us.

Today’s reading is about Jesus sending out demons… we often think that that’s no longer relevant. We might think those kinds of things don’t exist anymore. I’ve not seen a demon. We perhaps think that maybe it happens in somewhere else far away but not here. But perhaps demons are closer than we think. Perhaps they come a little more subtly in this culture, perhaps they don’t look like the face of evil. Perhaps they route themselves in our habits, or the way that we live our lives, or the choices that we make.

Today I’m going to talk about demons as being more patterns that we’ve let get rooted into our lives and things that we’ve allow to control us and our actions. Perhaps things that we’ve chosen ourselves to, to control us. In some cases, we see things like alcohol or drugs, but those are fairly obvious. You know, people call it the demon drink. And I think we do let these things, control us at some times, and for some of us that it’s a big problem and we’re getting help for it. For some of us it’s a problem, and we’re not getting help for it. If that is a problem for you please come and speak to me or one of the clergy team. We want to help you but the problem is with these demons no one may know about it.

But there are other demons too, in our lives. There are other things that take root and take control. Something for me I think that is a real problem is being over busy and over exerting myself, trying to fit too much into one lifetime trying to always do everything that I’ve been asked to do or invited to do, trying to take the best of every opportunity because of YOLO. It’s the belief that you only live once. So, we need to take everything that we can out of this life. It’s also expressed in other things like the phrase “I’ll sleep when I’m dead”. The idea of missing out is really important in our culture, nobody wants to miss out on the good experience on the fun times, but actually where are all these things leading us. Where does it leave us?

I’m not sure that it leads us anywhere. When I look at my life, objectively, I look at the blessings that I have. I look at the four children, and the husband and the home that I live in, I feel very blessed. But actually, if you look at my life, sometimes it’s more like a prison than it is a fun. Do I enjoy every day of my life? Does it matter? Perhaps I don’t have to. But when I think about my week. Do I think about it in a stressed way do I think, oh my goodness, I’ve got so much to do? Or do I think, Gosh, I’m so grateful that God has placed me where I am with the people that are surrounding me. I think perhaps I don’t. I think perhaps I look at the things that are controlling me, and I worry about them.

My life shouldn’t be a to do list. There’s more to my life than that. And sometimes, am I so busy doing all the things that I think I should do that I forget to ask God, about the things that he wants me to do. From experience the things that God wants me to do are the things that give me life and joy and peace and love. But I’m missing out on all of those good things often because I’m doing other things, dashing around taking children to clubs that they might not want to go to. I’m encouraging my children to do things that maybe it’s not right for them to do. Am I enabling addicts, pushing the children into similar type of lifestyles that that I lead, but one that is not necessarily bringing me happiness or satisfaction, and certainly not joy to myself?

What is it that is going on. What is the demon that is controlling me? How do I name it? How, how does it control me. And how do I put a stop to it. These are all some of the things that I’ve been thinking about… like the beautiful landscape with the drilling in the background… sure, it looks good on Insta but is it real…

The man with an impure spirit or demon possessed as other translations say couldn’t be held down… in a lesser way some of us are like that… never able to rest because we always have to do the next thing…he also had what we would call an extreme mental health problem and was self-harming with stones. How many young people in our city our area even our church are doing this as a way of dealing with their own hurt and pain. A lot… we may not know that the people we love are doing this but they may be doing it.

So, what do we do with these demons… how do we get rid of them? The problem often is that we may cast them out but then we invite them back in again. The first step is recognising we have a problem and telling someone else. One of my children when potty training once wet themselves and I said “Why didn’t you tell someone” “I did, I told Emma.” Emma being one of their little friends. We mustn’t tell Emma, we need to tell someone that will help us get help.

Prayer is a great first step. Admit what it is you need help with. Ask God to come into the situation and help you, tell the devil that you are a child of God and he has no dominion over you and ask for the Holy Spirit to fill you. The next step is lifestyle, you need help to handle the issue in your life, you can trust that God wants you to be free from this but if you keep going back to it you won’t be free. What steps can you put in place to help you stay away from temptation.

I’ll give you an example. I have been too busy. For me I need to think through the shape of the week. Have we all got good quality rest and downtime… what activities do I need to stop the children from doing, what activities do I need to stop myself from doing, when can I book myself a prayer day so I can reflect again, (November 10th!). How am I going to get more sleep, more fun? I need to take a day back when I work on Saturdays. If I say I am a Christian how does my worship life look? Am I taking time to pray, read my bible and worship with others? Am I letting God in? Am I part of the church community or am I simply a consumer? Please do get in touch if you would like someone to talk through and pray with you about this.

Let’s pray.

Holy Spirit we welcome you into the pictures of our lives. We welcome you into the annoying noise that wrecks the picture. Please Lord can you get rid of that noise in our lives, please help us to have peace in our heads, our homes and families. Please help us with the demons we face, give us strength and courage to face them and ask them to leave. Give us support as we try to walk away from the things that bring us down and make healthy choices with how we live our lives. And may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Amen

There will be a video version of the service.

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Signpost: Grace

Today’s reading is 2 Corinthians 5:17-21Open Link in New Window

Here is today’s reflection by Ian.

Today we are temporarily departing from our preaching series on Mark, for what I am calling, ‘Signpost Sunday’—an opportunity to update the church on some things, and also for me to input to this as your vicar.

I have chosen this short reading from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, because it captures in these few words, the complete and utter transformation which comes to each of us, when we know God in Jesus Christ as Lord of our lives. The most significant and liberating message ever given to the people of the earth, is the good news of Jesus Christ, the Gospel of God’s grace.

Grace is a constant theme in the Bible, and it climaxes with the coming of Jesus. As it says at the beginning of John’s Gospel, ‘grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.’ (John 1:17Open Link in New Window). The word ‘grace’, the Greek word, ‘charis’, means ‘favour, blessing, or kindness’. All of us can extend kindness to each other, but when the word ‘grace’ is used in connection with God, it has a much more powerful meaning. ‘Grace’ is God choosing to bless us rather than condemn us for the wrong we do in our lives, which would otherwise get in the way of our relationship with him. Grace is God’s blessing to us, however unmerited this may be – the unconditional love of God.

I was blessed with lovely parents. My mum died in 2013, my dad in 2017. They were fallible like you and me, and had their own struggles and challenges. But as their child, I knew utter love. I may have told this story before. But it is one that is forever with me… Glass panels in some bedroom doors / Andrew and I playing /smashed / Dad’s reaction…

Dad’s unconditional loving response to this, was enough. I We weren’t shouted at, we weren’t punished …the grace and love of his response was powerful—and sufficient. We are forever thankful for such love, and it helped mould us and make us.

We can never earn our way back into favour, back into a whole and loving relationship with God, whatever we do. It is only, as the apostle Paul says, ‘…by grace we are saved, through faith, and this is not of our own doing; it is a gift of God – not the results of works.’ And…

‘If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation…old things have passed away… all things have become new.’

The Christian life is founded on this wonderful truth. Paul’s statement in these verses is dramatic—that we become new creations. This has huge implications for our lives.

The old things have passed away. We are in the loving embrace of God, and nothing can defeat or overwhelm the grace and love of God, as revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ, and when we accept Jesus as our Lord and Saviour.

I had quite a formal religious upbringing. We went to church with mum and dad, at Christ Church Swindon, usually a very formal service. My brother and I went to boarding school at 8, and had compulsory chapel every day—sometime uplifting, sometimes utterly tedious! I struggled for a long time in getting to the point of accepting the unconditional nature of God’s grace and love. It was not in fact until well after our marriage, when we went to church together, and after I had been persuaded to join a house group, that the penny finally dropped for me. In fact, I stopped going to the group due to processing all my stuff. But during this time, I finally understood that there weren’t hoops for me to jump through, I didn’t have to prove anything, I didn’t have to constantly feel inadequate or not up to the job when I compared myself to others etc. In the quiet of my home, I prayed a simple prayer to Jesus, saying sorry for the things I had done wrong in my life, thanking Jesus for what he had done for me on the cross, asking his forgiveness and to come into my life, and receiving the gift of his Sprit. In that moment, I knew that my life had changed forever. A huge weight lifted. I had been made new.

This is the grace of God—the free, undeserved goodness, favour and love of God for you and me.

Life is too often filled with striving and struggling, conflict and confusion… and what an 18 months this has been, with a global pandemic on top of all else.

Robert Louis Stevenson said, ‘There is nothing but God’s grace. We walk upon it; we breathe it; we live and die by it; it makes the nails and axles of the universe.’

Would you like to know and receive more of the grace of God? I know I would. And what an incredible and beautiful thing it would be, for our church community to be one so filled with the grace of God, infecting and permeating everything we think, say and do, that this grace and love just spills out into overflowing into the communities we serve, the communities in which we live, and our workplaces and families.

This is God’s gift to the world, in Jesus Christ, and through his Church—powerful, beautiful and gentle. And this is what God has placed on my heart as we look to the future, that we clearly become a community of God’s grace and gentleness, for each other and for our neighbour. This means that our thoughts about each other, our words about and to each other, our actions between each other, are seasoned with God’s holy love, are marinated in the fruit of the spirit, and became a veritable feast of hope, joy, light, life and meaning for all those we meet along the way, as well as for ourselves.

Last Monday, at a PCC Extra, we started the process of discerning God’s new purpose and vision for St Matthews over the next few years. It is timely. This past period has been one of constant fire-fighting, with many people living and working outside their comfort zones under great pressures. It was hard to see the wood for the trees! Many still, continue to live with the consequences and burdens of this time. But we are emerging7mdash;and we are adjusting, re-gathering, re-connecting, re-opening, and we are re-building… There is a real Holy Spirit filled hope in the air. God is at work.

By the grace of God alone, and in the power of his Holy Spirit, not through our own efforts, and not motivated by our own fears or ambitions, as we live lives of faithfulness, God will build something new… we shall be, both individually and together, ‘a new creation’.

This new vision process is being facilitated by Chris Bradley, a faithful Christian brother, with professional experience of leadership and organisational development both within the church and in the secular world. We’ re in good hands, and the process will rightfully take several months. I ask you to respond to a call to pray earnestly throughout this process. The emerging vision and plan will frame and encompass what we do as a church for the period ahead.

In the meantime, we also continue with our commitment as a church to outreach via the Alpha Course. It is wonderful this autumn, to be able to meet in person again, over a meal together. Alpha is a God sent opportunity for anyone to ask big questions of life and faith. Our commitment to this as a priority, continues with vigour and enthusiasm. Please pray for our current Alpha, and also for our plans and hopes for the next Alpha which will start in January.

We are also trying new things. In addition to trialling a re-introduction of an early service twice a month, there is the 4pm Service, a more informal, café style of church. We are praying about connecting with the large numbers of young people in our communities, who need the grace of God as much as anyone. It has been an utter joy to meet new folk at this, Alpha and our other services.

Our ongoing commitment to discipleship and outreach is reflected in our continued support for Children, Families and Youth ministry. Thank you for your support, financially and practically. It is really tough emerging from pandemic, as we seek to re-connect and re-build. Thank you to John, Laura and all those who, at relatively short notice, so joyfully and willingly supported our Harvest Fiesta weekend, when we met neighbours and friends from the community and simply enjoyed making connections.

Please take John Stilwell into your hearts and prayers, as our CFY minister in this season.

How do we stand strong and firm in the message for God’s grace for the world, while the pressures and demands of the world seem to crowd in? We ground our understanding of God’s grace in biblical truth—God’s holy word in the Bible. This is why Home Groups and Bible Study Groups are so important—for friendship and support and also for encouraging biblical learning, to help us go deeper, and grow in wisdom and understanding. This is an essential underpinning of the Gospel of Grace. And there is a postscript to my earlier story here.

Do you remember I said I stopped going to the home group? For various reasons, I never went back, as the groups went through a big re-organising. Deborah and I in fact took on leading a new group. But somehow, in the busyness of life and a big church, I never had a conversation with the old home group leader about why I stopped. It was not until a few years later, when we were leaving Knowle to go to Cambridge for theological training, that I sat down with Peter, and he quietly mentioned this. I confess I was mortified. Life had cracked on for me, and I really hadn’t given it a thought. I explained to him that the time in his group had in fact been life-changing—that my encounter with God because of those groups discussions and reflections, had turned me upside down and inside out—and that I actually gave my life to Jesus Christ as a result.

I thank God I managed to tell him, and that he so gently raised it. It was more healing and wholeness for him and me. Peter very sadly died from cancer a few years later. But he knew and knows the Lord. Learning the truth of God from the Bible is life changing.

There is much else that St Matt’s is embracing and taking forward—our commitment as Christians to care for God’s creation, at a time of real crisis in our world; our commitment to diversity and to fuller engagement with our parish context and communities; and the responsibility for us all to be looking out for the needs, concerns and wellbeing of each other, our neighbours and friends. Do you know, I have been surprised at how many people don’t know each other at St Matt’s, even though they might have been here for many years. And we have a relatively small congregation. Go and say hello!

We are also committed to maintaining our unique church building as a Christian place for of sanctuary and service for the community. We are facing some financial and practical challenges here, which I am confident, by the grace of God, we shall overcome.

Much is being lovingly and joyfully given and received. But we remember too, that many are still living under great stress and strain, anxiety and fear in these times. This is why I place this brief update in the context of God’s grace. As the Lord said to the apostle Paul, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, and my power is made perfect in weakness.’ (2 Corinthians 12:9Open Link in New Window). In other words, let’s totally surrender our lives to Jesus. Depend on him, be guided by him, have faith in him and his purposes for us, listen to his voice, follow his ways, and know the joy of being a community of God’s grace and gentleness.

Let’s pray:

In thy word, Lord is my trust,
To thy mercies fast I fly;
Though I am but clay and dust,
Yet thy grace can lift me high. Amen

Thomas Campion

There will be a video version of the service.

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