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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Calm the Storm

Today’s reading is Mark 4:35-41Open Link in New Window

Here is today’s reflection by Gaby.

In Dad’s army Lance Corporal Jones’ catchphrase was “Don’t panic Mr Mainwaring”.

We could use the same phrase to describe Jesus’ response to the disciples at the calming of the storm. He says, “Why are you so afraid do you have no faith?”

Now the disciples are in a pretty extreme situation, I’ve been on a ferry in a force 9 gale and that was scary enough… But they are in a little boat and these hardened fishermen think they are going to drown.

But Jesus speaks to the storm and says
Peace be still…

We have been walking through a storm of a time over the past few years, we had Brexit then COVID and underneath all of this is the impending threat of climate disaster sitting at our door. But do you know I think that Jesus is not asleep like we think he might be, I think he is saying “Peace be still” to the world around us.

I think everyone here is mature enough to realise that we are not the sole answer to the problems the world has. We can’t fix Brexit or COVID or climate change alone.

Jesus speaks to us personally when he says “Why are you so afraid?”

I ask you this question today “Why are you so afraid? Why are we so afraid?“

Do we still not have faith in God?

But the disciples, they didn’t feel comforted, they were terrified still because of what they had seen… I guess we often think that if we had been there with Jesus and seen him in the flesh we would be more believing but they aren’t more believing because of what they have seen, they are scared witless.

Why are they so afraid? Because they have seen a storm calmed in a second by a human… it didn’t just roll away it disappeared altogether.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if that happened to us with all our problems…? but maybe it can… maybe we could be praying for solutions rather than trying in our own way to sort it out and worrying about it all the time.

Today I pray that you won’t panic like Lance Corporal Jones in the face of your problems but will pray for Jesus to bring peace and stillness and solutions to your problems and storms. Jesus is here. We don’t need to be afraid.

There will be a video version of the service.

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The Parable of the Sower

Today’s reading is Mark 4:1-25Open Link in New Window

Here is today’s reflection by Richard.

The parable of the Sower is so very well known to us all we have all heard it many times. In some ways it is misnamed… It should really be called “The Parable of the seed that was scattered and what happened to it next” But that doesn’t roll off the tongue quite so well!

Jesus often used agricultural stories and parables to get his point across as most of the people in his time would have been engaged in farming and fishing. They would have readily identified with what he was saying. To give a bit of context to the parable there are a few points about the conditions faced by 1st Century Palestinian farmers.

Today to grow crops the fields are ploughed and then seed is planted, this gives the seed every opportunity to grow effectively. However, in Jesus day the practice as opposite—the farmer scattered seed and ploughed after. The seed therefore would go everywhere and the soil was variable as explained in the parable.

  1. Some of the seed fell on a path. Fields were tended in strips with paths in between. They would be trodden down and become compacted hard soil which provided the birds with instant food.
  2. Some of the seed fell on rocky ground. Much of Galilee is limestone with a thin layer of soil on it. The seed would germinate but would not be able to root properly and the plant would die in the heat.
  3. Next there is the seed that was choked by thorns and weeds. There were no chemical weedkillers, the plants would have to take their chances and inevitably some would not compete successfully against the weeds.
  4. Finally the seed that fell on the good soil, rich and deep it produced an abundant harvest—a yield of 30-100 times what was planted.

It may appear that the seed has a number of outcomes but in reality, it either falls on good or bad soil.

As Christians with the benefit of hindsight and even without the explanation given in verses 13-20 we probably understand what Jesus is saying to us through the parable. Jesus is the Sower and the soil are the hearts that either accept his words and become part of his Kingdom (the good soil) or conversely appear to accept his words but in time reject them—the various bad soils.

It is important to remember that even his own disciples often didn’t understand the parables, but in time, following Jesus’ death and resurrection they would have made much more sense. I say this because sandwiched in between the parable and its explanation is what has been described by one of the commentators as the most difficult passage in the Gospel.

When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that “they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.”’

Mark 4:10-12Open Link in New Window

This sounds a bit harsh, it seems like Jesus is excluding people.

What is important to recognise is that Mark frequently focuses his readers on those who are ‘insiders’ and those who are ‘outsiders’ in the Kingdom of God.

  • Those who accepted Jesus often included those others despised, such as those ritually unclean, the sick, sinners, tax collectors and the like. These people along with his closest friends became the ‘insiders’ and to them the mystery of the Kingdom of God was, at least in part, revealed to them.
  • Those who believed they were the ‘insiders’—the Pharisees, teachers of the law rejected Jesus and his teaching and became ‘outsiders’. Their hearts were hardened against Jesus and many became his sworn enemies. Verses 11 and 12 is perhaps best understood in this way: By teaching in Parables, Jesus enemies might not be able to grasp the significance of what he is saying and bring false accusations and charges against him.

In addition it is clear that God sometimes hardens peoples hearts further in order to carry out his sovereign purposes. Jesus words are a paraphrase of Isaiah 6:9-10Open Link in New Window Where Isaiah is prophesying to the stubborn Israelites.

We now come to the explanation of the parable and for this I would like to relate it to our lives today. We know that Jesus is the Sower and he sows the word and the soil are the hearers. So what sort of soil is the Gospel message reaching today?

  1. Firstly the path—people hear the Gospel and it goes in ear and out the other. They are not against it, they just don’t care, it is of no interest to them. One of the commentors says this ‘Christianity fails to make an impact on so many people not because they are hostile to it but because they are indifferent to it. They think that it is irrelevant to life and they think they can get on well enough without it.’ This is certainly my experience and it might be yours as well. Most people think it is fine that I am a Christian, they don’t have a beef about it, it is not just for them. I often get comments along the lines that ‘that’s great for you—I just can’t believe’. I dearly desire that these people allow Jesus into their lives but no argument I can ever come up with gets anywhere. For those in this place we need to pray for the Holy Spirit to reach and touch them.
  2. Secondly the rocky ground—the ground with a thin layer of topsoil. These are people who are attracted to Christianity and may make some form of commitment but never really allow God’s word to sink in deep. The first sign of opposition and they drop out. As a teenager I used to like going to Crusader Camps (Christian youth camps) I would get all excited by faith as I was surrounded by Christian young people and had a great holiday. I remember once I put ‘Jesus loves you’ stickers on my textbooks at school after returning from camp aged about 12. Another boy saw them on the first day back at school and made a snide remark (I am not going to repeat what he said because it is offensive) By the end of the day they were all taken off the books. By the time I was 15 I had lost any faith I had and stopped going to church.

    Ian often talks of us going deeper in our faith. It is why we have small groups and come to church on Sunday. Last week Helen said that we need to be feeding ourselves with God’s word, the Bible. Without going deeper our faith will always be superficial and we are in danger of slipping away. I have seen so many people quit following Jesus and each person I count as an absolute tragedy. If we see one of our brothers and sisters slipping away we must encourage them as much as possible.

  3. Next is the real killer of the seed of faith, the weeds—This is the distraction of wealth and the pursuit of the things of the world. In 2021 International Bulletin of Mission Research which publishes statistics on Christianity said this:

    Christianity thrives in the Global South, with Africa leading (2.81% annual growth), followed by Asia (1.50%) and Latin America (1.14%). In the Global North there’s almost no growth, with Europe being the laggard (0.01%), followed by Northern America (0.27%). Oceania with Australia and New Zealand is also below average (0.63%).

    Faith in Jesus is growing and thriving in poorer communities and where people face persecution. It is stagnant in the affluent parts of the world. I know for my own experience that the things of the world have a great draw. I recognise that I am out of kilter when I spend more time thinking about stuff I want or the things I want to do than about my faith. Jesus said in Mathew 6:21Open Link in New Window For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. This is a challenge for each one of us.

  4. Finally, the good soil. Those who accept Jesus and go deeper with him. But there is a caveat—they are to be fruitful. How are they to be fruitful: by sharing the good news of the Gospel with others and not hiding their light under a bowl… like me ripping off ‘Jesus loves you stickers’ off my exercise books. How is this done:
    1. By the way we lead our lives in our families, amongst our friends, neighbours and those we encounter.
    2. By speaking to others of our faith when we get the opportunity
    3. By praying for people to come to know Jesus
    4. Inviting people to hear the Gospel—inviting them to Alpha or Church events, like our Carol Service.

I guess each one of us has been one or more of those soils at some point in our lives. My prayer for each one of us is that we would go deeper with God and our faith in Jesus.

Amen

There will be a video version of the service.

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