Curcuit Service Sunday October 17th

This will be a very special Circuit Service at Salisbury Methodist Church, to recognise Mrs Kate Newton as a fully accredited Local Preacher.

The preacher for this service will be Mr Michael King, who helps and guides our Preachers ‘On Trial’ through the long process of study and testing that is involved in the training of Preachers.

The service will be led by Revd. Bryan Coates.

As not everyone who would like to attend is able to do so, the service is being live streamed. Please follow the link below.

https://youtu.be/qIPJNJLkbUs

Reflection for Sunday 14th March

Mothering Sunday

Reflection 37

Lectionary Passages –
Luke 2 vv 33 – 35 and John 19 vv 25 – 27

The Sharp Sword of Sorrow for our Mothers

I have spent most of this week feeling desperately sorry for the Queen.  Hasn’t she had enough? A ninety-four year old, with an absolute continuing commitment to duty and service but with the anxiety surrounding her ninety-nine year old husband in hospital for a protracted stay with a heart problem.  In the not too distant past, Charles and Diana’s divorce, Andrew and Sarah Fergusson’s divorce, Anne and Mark Philip’s divorce, Diana’s death, all the questions that still swirl around Andrew and his links and friendships, all of the apparent trauma surrounding Harry and Meghan’s departure for America and now that interview.  A mother – and a grandmother, who knows full well the sharp sword of sorrow.

On Wednesday morning I spent time saying prayers with a family at a graveside in our local cemetery. Their twenty-three year old son had been viscously murdered in a particularly brutal racist attack only just over a mile away from where I live.  They are a Sikh-Christian family whose line originates in northern India but they are long established in this country.  I had been privileged to conduct the funeral in 2019 and last Wednesday was the second anniversary of his death. We gathered again at his grave.   Grey clouds wept heavy rain – rain that matched the tears of his mother.  Another mother who knows the sharp sword of sorrow.

While drinking my mid-morning coffee and listening to Radio Two’s Pop Master Quiz, my eye was caught by a wren in the garden.  Flying backwards and forwards to the ivy that festoons part of our garden wall, it must have been the female carrying delicate material to line her nest.  I wondered about that tiny bird – almost the smallest of our British birds.   Having completed the nest, she will lay up to eight eggs, spend over two weeks incubating them and then another three frantically feeding the chicks until they fledge and fly.  And then watch as some of those nestlings are likely to fall prey to our next-door neighbour’s two marauding cats.  Is it an unworthy anthropomorphism or do wren mothers know anything like our human sword-sharp sorrow?

One of the most dramatic and powerful theatrical productions that I have ever watched was a one-person show based on Colm Toibin’s book ‘The Testament of Mary’.  Fiona Shaw held us absolutely spellbound for 90 minutes without leaving the stage; at the end there was a pin-drop silence – we were all so moved by what we had witnessed.  She gave us a completely new angle on Mary, a new understanding, as she railed in real anger at her son and wailed in anguish at his crucifixion.   As Simeon had predicted, Mary knew the sharp sword of sorrow.

I have chosen to focus not only on readings for Mothering Sunday rather than on those for the fourth Sunday in Lent, but also to suggest both Gospel passages that are given as alternatives.  They are very short, and it is worth reading part, at least, of the surrounding passages too to set them in context.  It is Mary who is one of the central characters in these passages.

I love the story of Simeon and Anna, if for no other reason than that I see in these two very aged people a saintly persistence in faith and faithfulness that lasts to the very end of life.   As a good Jewish couple, Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem for the prescribed ceremonies at the birth of a child.  Again, where else could Luke have heard about this unless it was from Mary herself?

For Simeon, after years of waiting and longing, there was something within him that told him that in this tiny child God’s purposes would come to fruition. He breaks into a psalm of praise – what we know as the Nunc Dimittis – ‘Now Lord, let your servant depart in peace, my eyes have seen your salvation’.  Then a Blessing and a warning about the sharp sword of sorrow that will pierce Mary’s heart.

It comes true.  John’s finely detailed description of the scene of the crucifixion includes the picture of four women close to the foot of the cross.  Among them was Mary – the mother of Jesus.  What did it cost Mary to stand there and watch her eldest son die in such a bloody and barbaric way?  What did she really think, what did she really feel?  How sharp was the sword of sorrow for her?

At least Jesus, in his last moments, was alive to her pain.  He had prayed for forgiveness for those who had crucified him – and others.  He had spoken words of assurance and promise to one of those crucified alongside him.  Now his closing eyes focus on his mother and in deep concern and compassion he creates a bond between her and the one who in John’s Gospel is called ‘the disciple he loved’.  He dies knowing that she is being cared for by John.

There are some connotations of Mothering Sunday being linked to people, especially those working away from home, returning at this, the mid-point of Lent, to attend their ‘mother church’, or people from local parish churches attending Services in the mother church of the diocese – the Cathedral. Most of our focus, however, is on our own mothers.  In our heart of hearts, we recognise that our mothers know pain and sorrow – and that at times we have been the cause of that.  Families are complex units of human life and the news headlines this week have again brought home that truth.

If it is true that Jesus is the bearer of our sins, isn’t also true that we can, with equal accuracy, describe our mothers as the bearer of our sorrows, which sometimes are as sharp as swords.                                          We see it in Mary, we see in our own mother.

Thank God for our mothers.

Bryan Coates    March 2021

PS I started sharing these Reflections on the fifth Sunday of Lent – Passion Sunday, as we entered the first lockdown almost a year ago.  This might be the last one for the time being.  We are planning to resume ‘live’ worship in at least some of our Circuit Churches and I now have a commitment to prepare sermons and services for those churches for the next few Sundays.  Thank you for staying with them.

 

 

Reflection for Sunday 7th March

Reflection 36  – Sanctuary?

Lectionary Passage – John 2 vv 13 – 22

El Greco
Christ driving the Traders from the Temple
about 1600
Oil on canvas, 106.3 x 129.7 cm
Presented by Sir J.C. Robinson, 1895
NG1457
https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG1457

All four Gospels record for us the dramatic incident that is referred to as the Cleansing of the Temple by Jesus.  The accounts in Matthew, Mark and Luke, for such a significant event, are surprisingly brief – just two or three verses.  They follow one another quite closely; in Mark we read a slightly longer statement from Jesus – to ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer’ we find the addition ‘for the people of all nations.’  But it is still only three verses.

As we would expect, John’s version of the incident is considerably longer, goes into more detail and also tells us about the challenge from the religious authorities coupled with what seems a somewhat enigmatic statement from Jesus.

However, there is a much bigger difference between John and the other three Gospel authors.  Whereas Matthew, Mark and Luke place the story at the very end of Jesus’s life – within the context of that final week in Jerusalem, John places it at the very beginning f His ministry.  There can hardly have been two cleansings.  It would have been unthinkable, having seen it happen once, that those in charge of the Temple would have even begun to tolerate a second cleansing. It is such a climatic act that it fits naturally into all that happens in terms of conflict with the leaders in Jerusalem. So how do we reconcile this apparent fundamental difference in the timing?

Some points of clarification and explanation.  The first three Gospels – known as the Synoptic Gospels, share not only a great deal of material and style but also the broad outline of the ministry of Jesus.  They tell us of the beginnings of His ministry in Galilee and of His movement towards and in Jerusalem at the end of His life.  There is a narrative style and many, many incidents and healings as well as conversations are included.   In contrast, John records comparatively few incidents but often goes into much greater detail and depth about both the conversations between Jesus and those He encounters and also the statements by Jesus about Himself.  Many of John’s ‘events’ take place in Jerusalem – especially within the context of one or other of the great Jewish Festivals.

Importantly, John is not so much concerned with the chronology of the ministry of Jesus as he is with the theology – showing us who Jesus IS.  From the outset, Johns shows us a Jesus who is empowered with the authority of God Himself.  Here that authority is shown in the all-important Temple itself.

The Temple in Jerusalem was arranged in a series of ‘courts’ surrounding the central Holy of Holies. The outermost court was The Court of the Gentiles into which anyone and everyone was permitted.  Worship involved both sacrifice and offering. The rules insisted that any animal to be offered in sacrifice had to be perfect and had to be inspected and approved as such.  Offerings could only be made in acceptable coinage.  Worshippers, pilgrims to Jerusalem, needed to change their everyday money   into Temple money; they needed to purchase acceptable animals or birds to offer.  There was a trade in these items and that trade took place in the Court of the Gentiles.  It was closely licenced and governed by the Temple staff and it was legitimate.  Except that it was open to corruption and overcharging.  And it was a cacophony.  Imagine the noise – thronging crowds at the end of their pilgrimage journey, animals bleating, birds cooing, traders arguing about the prices with their customers!

It is a graphic scene, made more so as we picture Jesus, a hurt and angry expression, quite violent action overturning tables, a strong commanding voice ordering ‘Out! Stop!’ and with a whip driving out animals and market traders.

Like more than one of the conversations that John records, the one that follows in the Temple with the authorities is on two levels.  Like one of the prophets of old, Jesus could read the signs of the times.  Recognising the threat posed by the collision between the imposition of Roman order backed up by the empire’s military might and the Jewish longing for freedom and independence supported, in part, by such resistance movements as the cloak and dagger Zealots, Jesus had already predicted the destruction of the Temple.  Now, with a real threat to his person, Jesus talks not only of destruction but of Resurrection.  The Gospels were written long after the event.  In recollection and in the light of the Resurrection, the penny dropped for the disciples and they realised that Jesus was talking about Himself.  At the time this must have been obscured and seemed unintelligible.

Where do we go with his story, what is here for us?

One of the books that I remember from way, way back in my early childhood is ‘If Jesus came to my house’.  It is a very simple story of a child welcoming and sharing with Jesus.  What if Jesus came to our Church?

I am sometimes very aware of just the busyness of Church on a Sunday morning.   We meet friends, we see people that perhaps are outside our normal circle, we greet one another, ask questions about their wellbeing and welfare, and about their children and grandchildren.  The normal process of a family of connected people coming together.  But, and I am as guilty as anyone of this, because we are pushed for time and want to make the most of the opportunity, our meeting and greeting easily passes into the business of all of the aspects of Church life that are outside the sphere of Worship.  I am quite sure that our Heavenly Father delights in His people interacting with each other.  But, and it’s a big but, are we so preoccupied with all these peripheral concerns that an atmosphere of Worship goes out of the window?

I love the word Sanctuary with all its connotations.  Undeniably we live hectic, pressured lives.  We try to cram as much as possible in – and that includes Sunday mornings at Church.  In doing so do we crowd out an opportunity for others and for ourselves to be quiet in the House of God.  Do people joining us in our Worship time find a real sanctuary from all the pressures of daily living, find refreshment for their mind and renewal for their soul?  With all the emphasis today on our mental health, is the Church which we attend really a House of Prayer for us and for those who worship alongside us?

To quote (or probably misquote) T.S. Eliot – for us and our Church, is Jesus with His authority     ‘The still centre of the turning world’ or would he need a whip of cords?

 

Bryan Coates       March 2021

 

 

 

 

Reflection for Sunday 28th February

Reflection 35

Lectionary Passage Mark 8 vv 31 – 38

 

The topsy-turvy Messiah and His uncomfortable words.

We are used to hearing comforting and comfortable words from Jesus – words such as ‘Come to me, all of you who are tired from carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest.’ Matthew 11v 28 and ‘For God loved the world so much that he gave His only Son, so that everyone wo believes in him may not die but have eternal life.’ John 3 v 16.  It comes as quite a shock to hear some of His uncomfortable words.  In this Sunday’s passage, we hear what must be the most uncomfortable of them all – ‘If anyone wants to come with me, he must forget self, carry his cross and follow me.’ Mark 8 v 34.

In the careful arrangement of his Gospel, Mark presents this passage as the turning point in the ministry of Jesus.  Up to this point, according to Mark, Jesus had exercised His ministry of teaching and healing in the north, in Galilee.    Although frequently in conflict with the Jewish religious authorities who, hearing about Him and His distinctive style and teaching, came from Jerusalem to see for themselves, Jesus enjoys the relative safety of largely rural Galilee.  From this point on Jesus ’sets His face towards Jerusalem’ with all that it means.  It means for Jesus suffering and death. He needs the disciples to understand that.  In quick succession we find this and two other warnings about both His death and also His promise of Resurrection.  Mark 9 vv 30 – 32 & Mark 10 vv 32 – 34.

In the first ‘half’ of Mark’s Gospel we read of people’s amazement at some of the things they had heard and seen.  The work of Jesus had prompted the question ‘Who is this man?’ Mark 4 v 41.  Jesus, wanting to be sure that His disciples had at least some understanding of who He was, challenges them not only with the general enquiry ‘What’s the gossip?’ or more precisely ‘Tell me, who do people say I am?’ but then asking the disciples directly ‘What about you, who do you say I am?’   It is, of course, Peter who replies, ‘You are the Messiah.’ Mark 8 vv 27 – 30.

In Matthew’s account of Peter’s declaration, Jesus warmly commends Peter – ‘Good for you’ says Jesus to Peter – Matthew 16 v 17.  And then all those familiar words about Peter the Rock and the rock foundation of the Church. Mark, in this passage, follows Peter’s declaration with the account of quite strong conflict between the two of them.  Jesus has some hard things to say and some hard lessons for those disciples.  And for His disciples today – us!

Our passage starts with the prediction by Jesus of his rejection by those at the very centre of the religious life of the nation, of His suffering and of both His death and resurrection.  Peter takes Him aside and rebukes Him.   The words here ‘take’ and ‘rebuke’ are very powerful words. Take puts Peter in charge, as if he is ordering a child.  Rebuke, equally directive, is the word used of Jesus’s command to the demons – Mark 1 v 25 or the storm – Mark 4. 39.

What is going on?

For Peter, along with many, many others, the word Messiah has connotations of Victory, of Triumph, of Glory.  The Jews champing under the bit of the Roman occupation of their land and the subjection of their people, longed for freedom and independence.  They had built up the hope and the expectation of a dramatic intervention in their sorry plight by God who was to send His Messiah who would restore them to what they believed as their rightful place and standing in the world.  Yet here was Jesus, just acknowledged as the Messiah and accepting that acknowledgement, talking about rejection, suffering and death. That seemed unbelievable nonsense. How could it be? It was completely upside down to their long-held dream.

The clues were there – but the disciples had missed them.  In His first recorded sermon at Nazareth, Jesus, using Isaiah, had defined His ministry as to ’bring good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed.’ Luke 4 v18.  We find the precursor to that manifesto in the poetry of Mary’s Song of Praise, known now as The Magnificat, where she sings of God scattering the proud, bringing down the kings, sending the rich away with empty hands in order to lift the lowly and fill the hungry with good things.  Luke 1 vv 46 – 51.

God’s standards, God’s work is topsy-turvy to the world’s.

That is echoed in the rebuke of Jesus to Peter. ‘Get away from me Satan.  Your thoughts don’t come from God but from man!’   The thought, the temptation that Jesus could take a direction that took Him away from suffering and death was the devil of an idea.  Peter needed to hear that in no uncertain terms.

And so do we.  The second paragraph of this passage is uncompromisingly direct.  The words of Jesus are uncomfortable in the extreme.  To follow Jesus means forgetting, denying self.  It’s not about giving up alcohol for January or chocolate for Lent, it is the complete subjection and surrender of our inner-most being to God.  To follow Jesus means accepting the burden of carrying the cross.  The Romans ordered condemned criminals to carry their cross on the way to execution – as we shall see in the story of Jesus’s crucifixion.  It’s about the acceptance of the burden of sharing the suffering of others as well as ourselves.  To follow Jesus means a willingness to lose our life in the service of the Gospel.  To follow Jesus is not to be ashamed of Him and His teaching.

In our Covenant Service, we say –

‘I am no longer my own, but yours.  Your will, not mine, be done in all things.’ 

At the end of the promise that we make together comes this –

 ‘Glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, you are mine, and I am yours.    

It is the challenge and the commitment of following Jesus.  It is the assurance and the promise of God Himself.  It is the topsy-turvy world of Christian faith.

 

Bryan Coates                                                                                                                                  February 2021

Reflection for Sunday 21st February

Reflection 34

Lectionary Passage for Ash Wednesday and the Season of Lent – Psalm 51 vv 1 – 17

Our Penitence and God’s Mercy and Forgiveness

Wednesday of this last week was marked as Ash Wednesday and so we have just begun the Christian Season of Lent.  Traditionally, Lent has been a time of fasting, a time of abstinence but also a time of reflection and penitence.  Partly because the Gospel passage designated for this Sunday is from the opening part of the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel – again – this week’s reflection is a bit different.

The Book of Psalms is an easy book to find.  The way our Bibles are printed, Psalms comes just about in the middle.  We find a collection of 150 Psalms.  The word itself is a transliteration of a Greek word which was derived from a Hebrew word with a connotation of the twanging of strings – a plucked instrument.  The Psalms were meant to be sung and the collection is often referred to as the Hymn Book of the Second Temple.  On pilgrimage journeys towards Jerusalem and in the worship of the Temple itself people sang the Psalms.

As in any collection of Hymns, in the Psalms we find expression of a whole range of human emotion and religious experience.  There is a great variety of subjects, from Harvest Festivals through Coronations to pure Praise of God -and many moods are reflected – hope, fear, success, frustration, joy, elation, sorrow and despair.  Every mood and experience is brought into relation with God.  We are very familiar with some of them, in particular Psalm 23, Psalm 8 with its question ’What is man?’, and in Psalm 139 ‘Where could I get away from your presence?’.

Seven of the Psalms are referred to as the Penitential Psalms – Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143.  It is Psalm 51 that is the most familiar of these.  Like any collection of Hymns, the Psalms were written over a long span of time and by many different authors.   Scholars no longer accept the old view that they were written by David, the superscription ‘A Psalm of David’ could equally be expressed ‘A Psalm for David’ and there is evidence of the origin of at least some of them from long after David’s time. Even the traditional view that Psalm 51 owes its origin to David’s penitence following Nathan’s rebuke over his affair with Bathsheba 2 Samuel (12 vv 1 – 1 3) is questioned.  But that doesn’t alter its abiding value for us as twenty-first century Christians.

‘Be merciful to me, O God, because of your constant love,
Because of your great mercy wipe away my sins!
Wash away all my evil and make me clean from my sin.’
Verses 1 & 2

Aware of God’s mercy and love, the worshipper reaches out towards God and pleads for a cleansing from his sins.   He is dependent on God and longs for the relationship, which he had broken, to be restored.

‘I recognise my faults; I am always conscious of my sins.’
Verse 3

The first step of penitence is an awareness of our sin.  The Psalmist is honest with himself and with God.  His sins confront him inescapably.

‘I have sinned against you- only against you – and done what you consider evil.
So you are right in judging me; and you are justified in condemning me.’
Verse 4

Confession is a recognition that we have sinned against God.  It’s not that we haven’t sinned in ways that affect other people but rather that every sin is, at a very basic level, against the laws and the person of God.  God is right all along in His judgement on us.

‘I have been evil from the time I was born; from the day of my birth, I have been sinful.’
Verse 5

Without even delving into the Doctrine of Original Sin, I believe that we can recognise that within us, from our earliest days, there is a bias, a propensity to do the things we know we shouldn’t do.  The Psalmist acknowledges this – as does Paul – see Romans 7 v 15.  We are both sinners and saints.

‘Sincerity and truth are what you require; fill my mind with your wisdom.’
Verse 6

Verse 6 presents difficulty to translators; the Hebrew is unclear.  Some versions here speak of our inmost parts.  From deep within, the Psalmist knows what God really requires of us in terms of sincerity and he prays for God’s wisdom.

‘Remove my sin, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Let me hear the sounds of joy and gladness;
and though you have crushed me and broken me,
I will be happy once again.
Close your eyes to my sins and wipe out all my evil.’
Verses 7,8 & 9

This is the verse where in other translations we read ’purge me – or cleanse me – with hyssop.’  It seems that a leafy branch of hyssop was used in Temple worship and religious ritual as a sort of sprinkler in the same way that holy water is sprinkled in some Church traditions using an aspergillum – only then it was sacrificial blood that was meant to be the cleansing agent!  They knew about snow from snow-capped Mount Hermon and saw its whiteness as purity.   The Psalmist yearned to be made clean and restored to purity and looked forward to hearing God’s word of forgiveness and the promise of salvation.

‘Create a pure heart in me, O God, and put a new and loyal spirit in me.                  Do not banish me from your presence; do not take your holy spirit away from me.
Give me again the joy that comes from your salvation and make me willing to obey you.
Then will I teach sinners your commands, and they will turn back to you.’
Verses 10 – 13

The Psalmist knows that it is only God who can recreate us with a pure heart and a new spirit. Although holy and spirit are printed with lower case initial letters, this verse, and other references in the Old Testament to the spirit of God, anticipate the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  God’s salvation is joyous and brings a willing obedience to Him.  These verses contain the implication of our responsibility and our desire, having found the joy of our salvation, to share it and tell others.

 Spare my life, O God, and save me,
And I will gladly proclaim your righteousness.
Help me to speak, Lord, and I will praise you.
Verses 14 & 15

The Psalmist prays for deliverance – we can’t be sure about any particular threat to him, but as a result of his safety, he promises to sing aloud God’s praises. Verse 15 is well known in a different form from the liturgies of the daily patterns of prayer – ‘O Lord, open thou my lips, and my mouth shall show forth thy praise.’

‘You do not want sacrifices, or I would offer them;
you are not pleased with burnt offerings.

My sacrifice is a humble spirit, O God;
you will not reject a humble and repentant heart.’
Verses 16 & 17

In some ways these are very surprising verses.  Given that the Psalms were sung as part of Temple Worship in Jerusalem as well as elsewhere, and given that part, at least, of that Worship involved the sacrifice of animals, the Psalmist seems to question the very basis of what took place.  In other parts of the Old Testament the practice of sacrifice is called into question. Certainly, the prophet Micah asks questions about ‘what does the Lord require when I come to worship Him?’  Micah 6 vv 6 – 8.   Here the Psalmist is clear – he has found acceptance and forgiveness through his repentance and humility.

Psalm 51 is a tremendous and meaningful Psalm.  For well over two thousand years people have found in it words that reflect their experience and have used it to express their penitence and faith. We – the Jesus people, find in Him the perfect, and final, sacrifice.  We hear, through Him, God’s continuing promise of mercy and forgiveness in response to our sincere penitence.  We receive, in Him, the assurance of a new heart and a renewed spirit.  We are blessed by Him with the joy of our salvation.

Bryan Coates
Lent 2021

Reflection for Sunday 14th February

Reflection 33

Lectionary Passages Mark 9 vv 2 – 9 and 2 Corinthians 4 vv 3 – 6
Raphael, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Will-o-the-whisp faith or non-faith

Not only do we find Biblical quotations in a surprising variety of everyday use, but we also find them in seemingly unexpected places. The Coat of Arms for the City of Wolverhampton includes the words ‘Out of darkness cometh light’.  It is a quotation – in Authorised Version language, from the second of our Lectionary passages for this Sunday and that, of course, refers back to the very beginning – to the opening verses of the Book of Genesis where we read that out of total darkness ‘Then God commanded “Let there be light” and light appeared.’ Genesis 1 v 3.  The themes of light and darkness are themes that occur time and time again in the pages of Scripture.

During my time working for the Inland Revenue, I occasionally had to travel by train between Wolverhampton and Birmingham.  The return journey after dark through the area known as The Black Country could be quite exciting.  Sometimes the furnaces of the giant steelworks along the route would be open. The darkness was lit up spectacularly by pulses of fire as the steel was poured in the industrial heartland of our country.  In the descriptive phrase of his Hymn ‘Jerusalem’, William Blake wrote about ‘dark, satanic mills.’   I saw the steel-mills of my home region in a different light.

The Disciples saw Jesus in a different light in what we refer to as the Transfiguration.  We read that a week after Peter’s revelatory statement about Jesus ‘You are the Messiah’ Mark 8 v 29, Jesus took his inner circle of Disciples, Peter, James and John, up a high mountain.  I often wonder about Andrew and why he seems to have been excluded from that small group.  After all it was Andrew who, having discovered something about Jesus, went and brought his brother to see for himself.  This account is that the inner three were treated to a spectacular event that left them uniquely privileged.  Jesus shone with the presence of God.  He was joined by two of the greats from their history and their faith – Elijah and Moses.  The Book of Exodus records that Moses too, having been in the presence of God, shone – so much so that he had to veil his face as he moved back among his people – Exodus 34 vv 29 – 35.

The Disciples were somewhat baffled; Mark tells us that they were frightened.  Peter, and it usually was Peter, spoke up offering to make three ‘booths’ for the three leaders.  You get the sense that he was speaking for the sake of saying something in the midst of the unique experience, that they didn’t know what to say and that they didn’t know what to make of it.  Some commentators have found in the three booths a link to the Feat of Tabernacles or Booths – one of the three great annual Jewish Festivals.  Other commentators find in that offer a desire to prolong or preserve the experience for Peter, James and John.

Throughout the Bible mountains are important. They signify a closeness to heaven and to God. We sometimes talk about ‘mountain-top’ experiences.  The light of God shines clearly for us.  His presence seems real and close.  That which theologians refer to as the numinous – a sense of the awesome presence of the Divine, takes hold of us.  Like those disciples with Jesus, we may not fully understand or be able to articulate what has happened, but that doesn’t diminish the validity of the experience.

From another no-longer-in-the Hymn-Book Hymn:-

Stay, Master, stay upon this heavenly hill;
A little longer let us linger still;
With all the mighty ones of old, beside,
Near to the aweful Presence still abide;
Before the throne of light, we trembling stand,
And catch a glimpse into the spirit land.

Samuel Greg    Hymns and Psalms 158

Like those first Disciples, in Jesus we catch a glimpse of the Light and Love of God Himself.

Then in contrast to the Light there is the darkness.  And there is mystery in the darkness.  As far back as Isaiah, people have pondered the very nature of belief and of non-belief.  As part of his sense of the Call of God, Isaiah recognised that his clear God-inspired preaching would be rejected by those who wanted to neither listen nor to hear.  Who stopped up their ears?  Isaiah 6 vv 9 – 10.  Jesus uses those same words in his explanation of the Parable of the Sower in recognising that some seed, for various reasons, fails to produce a harvest which parallels His word falling on deaf ears.  Luke 8 vv 9- 10.    John, in the Prologue to his Gospel, writes that some prefer darkness.  Here, in the second of our Lectionary passages, Paul picks up the same line of thought.  He writes about the Gospel being hidden for some people, about non-belief, about minds being kept in the dark.  His explanation is that it is down to ‘the evil god of this world’.  2 Corinthians 4 v 4.

In honesty, I have some reservations about Paul’s explanation as well as about the evil god of this world.  I can’t help but ask questions about the mystery of faith.  It isn’t as easy as falling off a log.  If everything about faith was as plain as a pikestaff, why doesn’t everyone believe?  Why me?   Even trying to define faith outside the circle of the Church is difficult.  There is an ethereal, will-o-the-whisp quality about it which almost defies definition.

I am just glad that for me at times the Light of Christ shines and allows me to catch a glimpse into the spirit land.  My prayer is that it is true for you too.

Bryan Coates
February 2021

 

Reflection for Sunday 7th February

Reflection 32

Christ Healing Peter’s Mother-in-Law. –  Monastery Dečani Serbia

Lectionary Passage Mark 1 vv 29 – 39

A Day in the Life……

Another quite brief passage taken from the long opening Chapter of Mark’s Gospel.  Mark gives us details of a sort of representative day in the life of Jesus during His Galilean ministry.  The day, and it was a Sabbath, had started in the Synagogue in Capernaum.  Jesus, as was his custom, had joined in the regular Act of Worship and had been offered the opportunity to teach.  After the healing of the man who caused such a commotion, Jesus and some of the disciples move on and the day moves on.

Three quite short paragraphs describe other events of that day and move into the early hours of the following morning.  There is the account of the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law, a picture of crowds thronging around, bringing their sick and needy ones, and the description of an early rising Jesus seeking solitude and prayer but interrupted by the disciples who want to pull him back to their town.

I want to focus on two verses.  Firstly, in verse 31 ‘He went to her (Simon’s mother-in law), took her by the hand, and helped her up. The fever left her, and she began to wait on them.’

Oh, to be able to have just a little more information!  Mother-in-law is mentioned but not Simon’s wife.  Who was she and where does she fit into the story of Simon’s discipleship over the next three years and beyond?   In last week’s story we read about a healing – a man, a man possessed by an evil spirit.  Here it is a woman with a fever.  Two specific but very different healing stories.  At least according to the passage, no words are spoken.  The touch of Jesus is sufficient. The healing and her restoration to health is immediate.  So much so that ‘The fever left her, and she began to wait on them.’  The Living Bible has at this point the phrase ‘She prepared dinner for them.’  Some may see this statement as somewhat demeaning – a woman waiting on men.  It’s not that at all – in fact the very opposite.  As elsewhere in the Gospels, it is a woman, in this case Simon’s mother-in- law, who shows the characteristic of the true discipleship that is in the pattern of Jesus Himself.  We see the humble service offered to others in her.

To me the key phrase is ‘the fever left her’.  It seems to me that the word ‘fever’ is a wide embracing word that has a meaning that extends far beyond any medical terminology.  Often, immediately after the words of Committal at a crematorium or a graveside, I use the prayer that begins ‘Support us, O Lord, all the day long, until the shadows lengthen, the evening comes, the busy world is hushed, the fever of life is over…’.  In the Hymn from that outstanding poetic genius – Fred Pratt Green – we sing ‘For he alone, whose blood was shed, can cure the fever in our blood.’  One of the early Church Fathers, the scholarly Jerome, preaching in Bethlehem in around 400 AD said ‘Each and everyone of us suffers from fever.’ Isn’t it true for us today?  The fever of pride, the fever of anger, the fever of self-righteousness, the fever of acquiring and possessing stuff. The fever list could go on and on.

In another Pratt Green Hymn ‘O, Christ the Healer’, we sing the verse,

‘From every ailment flesh endures
Our bodies clamour to be freed;
Yet  in our hearts we would confess
That wholeness is our deepest need.’                    

And then there is the Hymn (no longer in our present Hymn Book) which begins with reference to this passage ‘At even, when the sun was set, The sick, O Lord, around thee lay.’ and which ends  ‘Thy touch has still its ancient power;’   Like Simon’s mother-in-law, we need the touch of Jesus to cure the fever in our blood and to bring us that wholeness which is God’s will for us and for the whole of His creation.

To me the second key verse is the response of Jesus to the disciples’ demand ‘Everyone is looking for you.’  Jesus replies ’We must go on to the other villages round here, I have to preach in them also, because that is why I came.’ Those disciples whose home was Capernaum were comfortable in the place and familiar with the people.  They wanted Jesus on home turf, limited and safe.

For Jesus, the twin approach of His ministry was Healing and Preaching – again with a very wide interpretation of ‘preaching’.  As we shall see as we work through Mark’s Gospel, although the ministry of Jesus starts within the limited geographical region of Galilee – ‘the other villages round here’, He is intent on reaching beyond – to the north to the Phoenician city of Tyre -Mark 7 v 24; to the east Gerasa on the other side of the lake, Mark 5 v 1; and, of course, to the south – to Jerusalem.  Jesus is quite clear, His purpose in coming is to bring the Good News of God’s Love to all.

The suggested passage from the Epistles for this Sunday is from the ninth chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Church in Corinth.  In that chapter Paul reflects on the impetus that he feels to preach.  He writes ‘God has entrusted me with this task.’  ‘I am under orders to do so.’ ‘How terrible it would be for me if I did not preach the Gospel.’ vv16 & 17.  In a marvellous verse, Paul sums up his work and his passion for sharing the Gospel ‘So I become all things to all men, that I may save some of them, by whatever means are possible.’ Chapter 9 v 22.

The word ‘other’ in the sentence of Jesus, the word ‘all’ in the sentence of Paul are all inclusive, all embracing. Whether in humble service or in confident proclamation, like Paul and Jesus Himself, we are in the business of testifying to the power of the healing touch of Jesus and the gift of wholeness He brings.  As with Paul, there is a Divine Imperative which does not let us off the hook.  Our calling as Christians, by whatever means possible, and to whoever we can reach, is to tell the Good News and to love one another – never more important than in these testing times that we are living through with the pandemic.

Bryan Coates       February 2021

 

 

Reflection for Sunday 31st January

Reflection 31

Lectionary Passage – Mark 1 vv 21 – 28
Eleventh century fresco of the Exorcism at the Synagogue in Capernaum.

A Healing – A Man with an Evil Spirit

 The opening Chapter of Mark’s Gospel is quite long and is crammed full of incident and detail.  Mark uses the 45 verses to introduce his readers to some important themes.  He sets out the most important theme of all in the opening verse – ‘This is the Good News about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’  He introduces us to John the Baptist who baptises Jesus.  Two verses tell us about the 40 days of temptation in the wilderness.  Then the account of Jesus meeting and calling the first four disciples.  And all of that is in just 20 verses!  Then, as it were, for Jesus it’s down to work.

One of the themes that Mark wants us to understand very clearly is that of the authority of Jesus as the Son of God.  One of the ways in which Mark underlines Jesus’ authority is in His power demonstrated in His miracles.  None of the other three Gospels have such an emphasis on the miracles, healings and exorcisms of Jesus.  Mark devotes a quarter of his Gospel to this aspect of the work of Jesus. Among eighteen miracle stories, thirteen tell us of specific healing stories – as well as some more general healing references, and four of the thirteen relate to what we might call exorcisms.  This is the first.

The setting is Capernaum – a town on the north-west corner of Lake Galilee, but the important part of the setting is the Synagogue in Capernaum.  Jesus joins in the Sabbath Worship and, as an acknowledged Rabbi, is offered the opportunity to teach there.  While the Teachers of the Law – the Scribes, taught with erudition based on long but dry traditions of the Jewish Law, the teaching of Jesus was immediately recognised as being different.  It had the note of authority.  God’s authority.

Then a man comes into the Synagogue and he is screaming.  He is possessed by a spirit that is identified as evil – a spiritual power that is opposed to God.  Here, as with the account of the healing of the Gerasene demoniac – Chapter 5, that evil spirit recognises Jesus and calls out ‘I know who you are – you are God’s Holy Messenger.’ The possessed man had asked two questions, ‘What do you want with us?’ (note the ‘us’- a multiplicity of demonic forces were at work in him) and ‘Are you here to destroy us?’  Jesus responds with two commands, ‘Be quiet, and come out of the man.’

It’s a graphic scene.  A congregation at Worship.  The interruption by a noisy, frenzied man. Strong forceful commands.  Effective words.  The man restored to wholeness.  An astounded crowd.  Jesus.

It’s a graphic scene but it is one that, for me at least, raises a whole host of questions.  One question is about faith and authority and I will come back to that.  Immediately there is the question about the man’s illness.  In Mark’s Gospel it seems that the phrases ‘unclean spirit’, ‘evil spirit’ and ‘demonic possession’ are almost interchangeable.  Using the Lectionary, we shall come to the story of the father and his son coming to Jesus and, from the description of the symptoms, it seems as if the boy’s illness could be ascribed to epilepsy.  Mark 9 v 14ff.  In our story now there is no detail beyond the phrase ‘evil spirit’ – a powerful force that shakes the man violently and causes him to cry out.  Perhaps the heart of this story for us, is not about our ability or otherwise to diagnose the man’s illness but our relating this account to our world and our life today.

As perhaps never before, we are now acutely aware of mental health issues.  There are demonic forces at work.  How else can we describe, for example, the plethora of scams in circulation at present; scams that involve emails that masquerade as genuine NHS communications offering vaccine injections that obviously do not exist in return for the details of a vulnerable person’s bank details?  There are people who cry out – even scream, in anguish.  Television reports this week have included interviews with doctors and nurses on the very edge of breakdown, stretched to the limit and beyond in their work on Covid wards. Or a pair of nurses working in a hospital mortuary and in tears because of the seemingly endless flow of bodies brought for their care.  Or a former soldier weighed down and deeply disturbed with memories of the unspeakable sights and sounds of his periods of service in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Or a mother on reduced income trying to cope with her children ‘s home schooling without internet access or any device.  All of us (properly) restricted under late but sensible regulations and longing for the sort of human contact within family and congregation that is not just the norm but also a vital part of our humanity.  There is undeniable, immeasurable suffering and mental anguish.

The virus has a violent hold on us all, and we cry out.

Of course, I have questions about the nature of the mental illness of the man in the synagogue.  What is clear to me is the authority of Jesus and the efficacy of His words.  In the account, there is no mention of faith – neither the faith of the man nor of anyone else.  What is clear is that the healing of this man in so much need took place in the synagogue, within the context of a Sabbath Service of Worship and in the presence of the community of faith.

Put together the suffering and the need of people around us, ourselves as the community of faith and Jesus with his authority, his passion for the wholeness – mental, physical and spiritual wholeness, of all and His command to whatever force disrupts that wholeness ‘Be Quiet.  Come out!’

In the Lectionary passage we have discovered a great story, a story which Mark puts right at the beginning of all the healing stories he goes on to relate and one he uses to show the growing awareness of the power and authority of Jesus.  I believe it will remain as just a great story unless we take it and use it to ask questions.  Questions of ourselves, our need and of our faith in the authoritative healing power of Jesus.

Healing for us, and who else?

Bryan Coates
January 2021

God in Love Unites us

Dear Friends in Christ,

I am writing to invite you to a meeting at which we, as the Salisbury Circuit, shall discuss the ConferenceReport ‘God In Love Unites Us’.

We had hoped and, initially planned, to hold an actual meeting. Inevitably, with the advent of the Coronavirus and all its implications and restrictions that meeting was postponed. With no immediate prospect of the possibility of a meeting in person, and with the approach of a critical deadline for our responses, we need to arrange a zoom meeting.  This will be on Saturday 20th February from 10.30am London Time.

The God In Love Unites Us Report is a very detailed and thorough examination of the Church’s understanding of some aspects of our common humanity –in particular our relationships, our sexuality and our position on co-habiting and marriage. It is a far broader report than just the question of same sex marriage –although, that is the topic that has attracted most attention and discussion.

Our Circuit Administrator –Claire Rankine, will act as host for the zoom meeting. Please book your place by clicking here, you will be taken to the Eventbrite website where you will be able to book a ticket for the call, these are free and will give you all the details you need for the 20th. Ideally people will have read the Report itself(see below). Underlying the Report and our position is the complex question of our approach to Scripture –its authority and interpretation. Anna has prepared a paper on this to assist our preparation, together with a video which you may find helpful. Steve has also edited a filmed debate which took place in our District. Please see a link to 2 videos sharing the two opposite points of view. Please take time for your own preparation.

After the Meeting, I will prepare a summary of the opinions expressed. This Report will go to a special meeting of our District Synod as part of the whole picture of gleaning information from the whole Connexion in readiness for the Meeting of the Methodist Conference later this year. It is a Circuit Meeting –open to everyone, and I really hope that people will feel that they are welcome and that their views and opinions will be listened to with courtesy.

Sincerely

Bryan Coates

Acting Superintendent

Resources:
The God In Love Unites Us Report can be found online at:  https://www.methodist.org.uk/media/12606/3240-10-amended-marriage-and-relationships-report.pdf

We have some hard copies of the Report, which we can post to you. Please contact Bryan.
Anna’s paper on “A Light unto my path and a lamp unto my feet” a report about approaches to Scriptural Authority which can be found here.

And the video link about ‘Living with contradictory convictions’ –https://vimeo.com/356672378

The links to the filmed debate that Steve has prepared –
Video 1 –https://youtu.be/ZiVxPV7c-SQ
Video 2 –https://youtu.be/1lr5mMNJ7Ck

Scriptural Background to the God in Love Unites Us Report

From Revd Anna Bishop

For many of us, our perspective on all matters to do with relationships and sexual behaviour draws on our reading of the Bible. For this reason, as we meet to discuss these matters, it is important to pause, and reflect that “our reading of the Bible” is really not such a simple matter!

In 1998 the Methodist Conference adopted a Faith and Order report, which identified seven different attitudes to biblical authority, and indicated a range of ways in which Methodists use what is written in the Bible as a source for what they believe and do.  The report states that all of these ways are acceptable within “our doctrines”: none is more useful or more correct than any other. Indeed the report highlights the richness brought to the faith community and to the discipleship of the individual believer, by engagement with a range of different approaches to Scripture:

“…we cannot expect only one specific view of the Bible’s authority to win the day and convince everyone else. Though we agree on the central issues, there are many open questions which lead different Christians to view the Bible in somewhat different ways. It is necessary to remember that salvation is by faith in Christ and not through attitudes to Scripture, or doctrines held, or the living of a perfect life.

If we can understand how and why Christians come to a range of views on the Bible, some of which might seem strange or questionable to us, perhaps we can come to respect each other’s perspectives, and together make biblically-informed decisions about Christian living in the world today.”

Therefore, as you prepare to discuss with others the issues raised in the God in Love Unites Us report, you might find it helpful to read through the seven models set out below and reflect on which one, or combination, of these tends to be your own default for understanding the Bible. Which do you find most difficult and why? Which most informs your current beliefs about the matters raised in God in Love Unites Us? Spend some time meditating on the light each of these perspectives might shed on the issues to be discussed.


Models of Biblical Authority

7.9 The seven following examples represent different perspectives on biblical authority which are held within the Church. They are not precise definitions, and any one of us might feel that our own position is a mixture of two or three of these examples. But they are intended to illustrate briefly the range of views which are held, and the reasons for holding them.

7.9.1 The Bible is the Word of God and is, therefore inerrant (free of all error and entirely trustworthy in everything which it records) and has complete authority in all matters of theology and behaviour. It is ‘God-breathed’ and its human authors were channels of the divine Word. The Christian’s task is to discern accurately what the Bible teaches and then to believe and obey it. Reason, experience and tradition should be judged in the light of the Bible, not the other way round.

This view is concerned to safeguard the conviction that the Bible has its origin in God. It works from the premise that God cannot be the author of error, and therefore the Bible cannot contain error. To give undue status to any other source of authority is to exalt fallible human insight over the infallible Word of God.

7.9.2 The Bible’s teaching about God, salvation and Christian living is entirely trustworthy. It cannot be expected, however, to provide entirely accurate scientific or historical information since this is not its purpose. Nevertheless, it provides the supreme rule for faith and conduct, to which other ways of ‘knowing’, while important, should be subordinate.

This view also stresses the divine origin of Scripture, its supreme authority for Christian belief and practice, and its priority over other sources of authority. But it holds that reliable information on, for example, historical or scientific matters may not fall within God’s purpose in giving the Bible.

7.9.3 The Bible is the essential foundation on which Christian faith and life are built. However, its teachings were formed in particular historical and cultural contexts, and must therefore be read in that light. The way to apply biblical teaching in today’s very different context is not always obvious or straightforward. Reason is an important (God-given) gift which must be used to the full in this process of interpretation.

This view emphasizes that the Word of God contained in a collection of books written in times and places very different from our own cannot simply be read as a message for our own situation. We must work out by the use of reason how far and in what way the ancient text can appropriately be applied to the modern situation.

7.9.4 The Bible’s teaching, while foundational and authoritative for Christians, needs to be interpreted by the Church. In practice it is the interpretation and guidance offered by Church leaders and preachers which provides authoritative teaching. Church tradition is therefore of high importance as a practical source of authority.

This view is concerned to stress that the people of God, the Church, existed before the Bible and that the Bible therefore does not exist independently of the Church. Interpretation of the Bible is essentially a matter for the Church community, and especially its appointed leaders, rather than for private individuals.

7.9.5 The Bible is one of the main ways in which God speaks to the believer. However, the movement of God’s Spirit is free and unpredictable, and it is what the Spirit is doing today that is of the greatest importance. The Bible helps to interpret experience, but much stress is placed on spiritual experience itself, which conveys its own compelling authority.

On this view, to give too high a status to the Bible may prevent us from hearing what God is saying to us today. We should be guided principally by the convictions which emerge from our own Christian experience as individuals and as a church community, which on occasion will go against the main thrust of the Bible’s teaching.

7.9.6 The Bible witnesses to God’s revelation of himself through history and supremely through Jesus Christ. However, the Bible is not itself that revelation, but only the witness to it. Christians must therefore discern where and to what extent they perceive the true gospel witness in the various voices of the Bible. Reason, tradition and experience are as important as the biblical witnesses.

This view emphasizes that the Bible mediates the Word of God but is not identical with the Word of God. We can discover which parts of the Bible are God’s Word for us only if we make use of all the resources of reason, church tradition and experience.

7.9.7 The Bible comprises a diverse and often contradictory collection of documents which represent the experiences of various people in various times and places. The Christian’s task is to follow, in some way, the example of Christ. And to the extent that the Bible records evidence of his character and teaching it offers a useful resource. However, in the late 20th century it is simply not possible to obey all its teachings since these stem from very human authors and often represent the ideology of particular groups or classes in an ancient and foreign culture. Reason and experience provide much more important tools for faith and practice.

This view also stresses that the Bible was written by people addressing particular times and situations. But, guided by the insights of, for example, feminist and liberation theologies, it further argues that before we can discover in it God’s Word for us we must strip away from it those elements which betray the vested interests of particular groups, for instance, the interests of male dominance or of political and economic power-blocks.

7.10 If we go back to the Deed of Union and its summary statement that, ‘the Methodist Church acknowledges the divine revelation recorded in the Holy Scriptures as the supreme rule of faith and practice’ we can see that most, if not all, of these positions are compatible with possible interpretations of this ambiguous phrase!

Taken from A Lamp to my feet and a Light to my Path: The Nature of Authority and the Place of the Bible in the Methodist Church,

Published for the Methodist Conference 1998
By Methodist Publishing House