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

Reflection for Sunday 24th January

Sunday 24th January 2021

Reflection 30 – Protest

Lectionary Passage Jonah 3 vv 1 – 10

Jonah and the giant fish in the Jami’ al-tawarikh (c. 1400), Metropolitan Museum of Art

Three apparently disparate introductory paragraphs that I want to try to weave together and link to our Lectionary passage from the Book of Jonah.

Part of the international background to my days as a student was the long running war in Vietnam and the growing Civil Rights movement in the United States.  While Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon were faced with the complexities of an impossible war in South East Asia, figures like Martin Luther King faced their own struggle for social justice closer to home in places like Alabama.  Voices were raised in protest on both fronts.  The hard-hitting eloquence of protest was expressed in song.  It was the era of Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary and others.  Songs like ‘We shall overcome; Where have all the Flowers gone? If I had a Hammer; Blowin’ in the wind and The Times They Are a-changin’ expressed just some of the protest that surfaced at that time.

I was outraged in the week!  In an interview on T V News, a nurse – exhausted by long shifts in the most trying of circumstances and on her way into an overstretched hospital, told of how she had run the gauntlet of a band of people blockading the entrance and who were insistent that the pandemic is a hoax.  It makes me want to take them by the scruff of their necks and march them into a Covid ward and challenge them with the truth.  Sadly, we live in an era of fake news.  I was glad to hear President Biden make his commitment to the truth in his inaugural address to the World.  Questions about truth are not new.  In John’s Gospel, true to form in John – with his emphasis on deep conversations, we have a fairly detailed record of the conversation between Jesus and Pilate.  At the end, Pilate asks the question ‘And what is Truth?’ John 18 v 38.  It’s still a question for today!

The preferred teaching method of Jesus was in parables – especially when working with the crowds. Particularly the first three gospels are cram-full of the stories that Jesus told.  Jesus took every-day, familiar situations and used them to convey what he wanted people to hear.  A farmer sowing grain in his field, a shepherd hunting for a lost sheep, a traveller on the dangerous bandit-ridden road from Jericho to Jerusalem.  Real life, fact-based situations that we accept as parables and look beyond to discover the truth that they convey.  But they are parables.  Jesus wasn’t the first to use parables and the New Testament isn’t the only place where we can find them.  Read Nathan’s stinging rebuke of King David over his affair with Bathsheba contained in a parable –            2 Samuel 12 vv 1 – 7.

I recognise, of course, that different people have different approaches to the Bible and its truth.  The last thing that I want to do is to undermine another person’s faith.   For what it is worth, I see the Book of Jonah as a parable.  A parable of protest.

As a parable, I don’t need to enter into speculation about the fish – it is a fish in the text and not a whale, or about even the possibility of a person surviving three days in its belly.  Accepting it as a parable allows me to search for its truth as well as an understanding of the reason behind the inclusion of this rather strange story among the writings of the Prophets and in the Old Testament as a whole.

Some background.  It was President Ronald Reagan who used the phrase about ‘evil empires.’  To the Jews of the Old Testament, in their experience evil empires referred to the Assyrians and the Babylonians, with their respective capital cities Nineveh and Babylon.  The Assyrian Empire was the dominant force in world politics and power in the eighth century BC.  Nineveh would have been both the last place that a Jew would have chosen to go to and the last place where a ‘missionary’ would expect a result from his preaching. Its bad reputation lasted long after its fall.   But the evidence of scholarship is that the Book of Jonah was written long after the fall of Nineveh and the Assyrians.  Like the Assyrians, the Babylonians came and went.  After the Babylonians the Persians under Cyrus had a much more enlightened and benevolent attitude.  The Jews were allowed to return home after a fifty-year period in exile.

The Book of Jonah is very short – only four quite brief chapters – and it is worth reading as a whole.  The story of the book is very familiar.  Jonah is called by God to take a strong warning to the people of Nineveh. Instead of obeying, Jonah goes to Joppa and boards a ship going in the opposite direction.  When overtaken by a violent storm, the sailors cast lots to determine the person causing the danger; the lot falls on Jonah and, after attempts to get out of the situation, the sailors throw Jonah into the sea where he is swallowed by a large fish.  In the belly of the fish, he prays to God for help; the fish spits him out and he starts again by going to Nineveh and, against the odds, the people (including the King) hear and repent. God’s change of mind about punishing Nineveh makes Jonah angry and petulant and God has to teach him the lessons of His love and concern for all people.

Scholars point to several factors that make it much more likely that the Book of Jonah comes from a much later period than the eighth century BC. After their return from exile in Babylon following the new beginning that the Persians under Cyrus allowed towards the end of the fifth century BC, there was a period of rebuilding – homes and livelihoods, national buildings like the Jerusalem Temple and nationhood.  But it stalled – which is where Ezra and Nehemiah come in with the details of work-people and building works and the instructions for their religious and national life that are contained in the books that carry their names.  But there was a sense in which they pulled up the drawbridge.  The nation became insular, isolated and introspective. There was a purging of outside influences.  Just one example is that marriage to non-Jewish women was forbidden.

Jonah is a protest.  The author of Jonah really believed that the Jews, as God’s chosen people, held a divine responsibility to be light for the world with a mission to draw people – all people, to the Living God.  All of that was going by the board.  Jonah is the parable told to convince people of the mercy of God which reaches out and includes everyone – even the people of Nineveh – or wherever.

The Book of Jonah seems to me to pose a series of questions for us.   Firstly, where is the voice of protest today?  How do we, as Christ’s Church express our concern with passion and energy for the voiceless ones, the downtrodden ones, the hard-pressed ones, the needy ones in our Society today.  The film ‘I, Daniel Blake’ is a protest against the sheer impossibility of anything approaching a decent standard of living if you are on Benefits.  Then, on an International scale, with more United Nations Resolutions criticising and even condemning Israel for the ever-expanding Settlement programme and the treatment of the Palestinian People than on any other subject, how do we protest and find a way of justice and peace for all?  And the Rohingya people exiled from their homes in Burma? And, and….?

And where is ‘our’ Nineveh – a place where we really don’t want to go and full of people who seem beyond redemption.  God sent Jonah to the people of Nineveh not out of fervent religious zeal but out of deep compassion for people in their need.  Does our Church today need a voice of protest about our introspection, our inertia, our insularity?  Do we need a renewed conviction about the mercy and love of God for all – even those who seem to represent an evil empire in whatever form that takes?

Dare we sing in response to the question ‘Whom shall I send?’

‘Here I am Lord.
Is it I Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go, Lord,
if you lead me.
I will hold your people in my heart.

Singing the Faith (663)

Bryan Coates
January 2021

Reflection for Sunday 17th January

Sunday 17th January 2021

Reflection 29   ‘Come and see!’

Nathaniel Under the Fig Tree – James Tissot 1836 – 1902
Lectionary Passage John 1 vv 43 – 51

In his opening Chapter, John records the meetings between Jesus and some of those who were to become His Disciples – Andrew and Simon, and in this passage Philip and Nathanael.

There are huge gaps in our knowledge and our understanding of the first Disciples of Jesus.  There is an immediate pitfall; when ‘disciples’ are mentioned we tend to limit them in our thinking to twelve – all of whom are men.  The evidence of the gospels is that from the early days there were far more than twelve and that some of the ones who could properly be called disciples were women.  In Luke Chapter 6 v 13 we read –  ‘he (Jesus) called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them….’  The clear indication is that out of a larger number he chose a representative group, with all the Jewish significance of the number twelve.  At the beginning of Luke 8 we find the names, with some detail, of a group of women who surely were as much true disciples of Jesus as any of the men. (That is for another Reflection!)  Then, and again it is Luke who records it for us, after the Resurrection there was the perceived need to replace Judas.  There was a gathering of 120 disciples.  By prayer and by drawing lots, they chose Matthias.  We never hear of him again.

Similarly, of the Twelve, there are several who are only names on the lists in Matthew, Mark and Luke – in both his Gospel and in Acts.  Matthew 10 vv 1 – 4; Mark  3 vv 13 – 19 ; Luke 6 vv 12 – 16 and Acts 1 vv 12 – 13.  What do we know about James son of Alphaeus, or Thaddaeus?  – nothing.

Our Lectionary passage throws up another mystery.  It centres on Nathanael.  Nathanael is mentioned in John’s Gospel – and only in John – at the very beginning – John 1 and at the very end in the account of the failed fishing trip and then the breakfast on the beach with the Risen Jesus – John 21 v 2.  Quite obviously he is a disciple, he is in close company with some of ‘the twelve’.  His name, however, is not included in the lists. We don’t know much about him, apart from the fact that he came from the village of Cana in Galilee.  There was obvious rivalry between the ‘twin’ villages of Cana and Nazareth and Nathanael can’t help his comment about what sort of person comes from Nazareth.  It can’t be coincidence that having told us about Nathanael from Cana in Chapter one, John immediately in Chapter two tells us about the wedding feast in Cana.

Importantly we see Nathanael through the eyes of Jesus.  Part of the domestic picture we have is that Galilean houses – perhaps quite small and tightly packed, didn’t have gardens as we understand them but had what we might call a yard.  Fig trees were important for their fruit and also for their shade.  People planted fig trees outside their homes.  They provided an extra space – a sort of verandah, a stoop, a conservatory, a place to sit and relax, to pause and think, to meditate and to pray.  Jesus catches sight of Nathaniel under his fig tree, and when Philip brings Nathanael to meet Jesus, he recognised him and sees something deep and commendable in him. ‘Here is a real Israelite, there is nothing false in him.’

I am left wondering about Nathanael and about discipleship.  In the lists of the Twelve, there is a Bartholomew.  He is another about whom we know nothing and for whom there is no other mention in the whole of the new Testament.  Traditionally the Church has added two and two and made the assumption that Bartholomew and Nathanael are the same person.  It was the norm that people had two names.  It is an assumption that has been carried over the centuries.  There is no evidence for it.

We like neatness and order.  We need rational explanation.  Have we ‘over-tidied’ the Gospel at this point?  To have Nathanael as a disciple as close to events as to be one of the seven on the Lakeshore but not on the list of the Twelve is untidy and incongruous.

I want to leave Nathanael as we find him in John’s Gospel.  He is obviously a member of that larger group of disciples.  I don’t need to ‘herd’ him into the smaller group.  I want to value him for that separation, that distance from the others.  I want to honour him – as Jesus does, as a man of depth and faith whose identity and difference means an exploration of belief and commitment in a new way.   He honours Jesus – ‘you are the Son of God!’ but we seem to leave him in Galilee, which is where we meet him again on the lakeshore.

After more than fifty years of Ministry I am left wondering and worrying about the Church (especially in the midst of this present crisis) and its desire for orthodoxy and conformity.  I am left wondering and worrying about discipleship and my own discipleship.  Do we sufficiently honour difference and variety?  Do we embrace and welcome those who want to step outside the boundaries that we impose?  One of the most ‘different’ people I have ever met was a girl called Sally Trench.  We were on the same Community Development Course at Westhill College.  She was a devout Roman Catholic and came from a very affluent family.  While still in her teens, at night she would shin down the drainpipe outside her bedroom window and go a sit with homeless people in the East End of London. That was her discipleship. Personally, I have to ask – have I been radical enough or too conservative – too concerned with maintaining the status quo with the established structures of the Church?  What might a different, radical church look like and act like on the other side of the pandemic?

How do we accept and support discipleship that may be quite different from our own? Do we really need to try to squeeze one another into a single mould of discipleship – a mould that is of our own making?  Has what I have tried to explain about Nathanael given us a stimulus for the future?

Then, in this passage too, there is Philip.  Philip is another disciple who ’comes to life’ in John’s Gospel.  We find Philip in four passages in John and, way back last May, he was the focus of one of my reflections.  I deem this story in today’s lectionary to be the most important of those accounts.

In the previous part of John 1, we read about Jesus meeting Andrew, who immediately goes and finds his brother Simon and takes him to Jesus.  In our passage today we have the account of Jesus finding and calling Philip.  ‘Follow me’ Jesus says to Philip – and he does.  Philip’s immediate reaction is to go and find Nathanael.  And Philip knows Nathanael well enough to recognise that any sort of discussion about the merits of a man from Nazareth or about Old Testament prophesy is just not sufficient to satisfy the thinker who is his friend.  Philip simply says, ‘Come and see’.

To me this passage challenges us and begs the question- Are you and I so convinced on a deeply personal level about all that Jesus is and means to us that we, with enthusiasm and excitement, want to say to our friends and family ‘We have found the one, come and see’?

If Nathanael is the blueprint for a different kind of discipleship, then surely Philip- like Andrew, gives us a pattern and indeed an imperative for discipleship that will make a difference in today’s Church.

Bryan Coates                                                                                                                                     January 2021.

PS Sally Trench’s story is told in her book ‘Bury me in my boots.’

Reflection for Epiphany 1

Sunday 10th January 2021 – The Sunday after Epiphany

Reflection 28

Lectionary Passage Mark 1 vv 4 – 11 and also Matthew 2 vv 1 – 12
Edward Burne-Jones, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Recognising Jesus

I have acknowledged before that I am something of a news junkie.  I watch the TV news with my early morning cup of tea, with my lunch and dinner and then again late into the evening.  Like many I was transfixed on Wednesday by the pictures of the storming of the Capitol in Washington.  Just as I was horrified that day by the scenes of mayhem, I have been baffled by the sway that one man has held over such a significant number of people in the United States for the past four years.  Apparently 80% of all Evangelical Christians in America voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and even now, because the Big Lie works, more than a hundred Representatives to Congress still believe that the Presidential Election last November was somehow rigged in favour of Joe Biden and that Donald Trump was the real winner.  Sadly, although some are distancing themselves from him and his lies, it isn’t only the white supremacists and the lunatic fringe that still support him.

How do people fail to recognise who that man really is and what he stands for?

As an aside, I believe that, if not already – Society at large needs to weigh up very carefully both the positives and the negatives of social media through which so much miss-information can be spread and believed!

Our Lectionary passage for this Sunday invites us to recognise who that man Jesus really is.

This last Wednesday wasn’t just about headlines in the news relating to the Coronavirus numbers here or the disaster in Washington.  Wednesday was the Christian Festival of the Epiphany.  Epiphany means ‘manifestation’ or perhaps more understandably ‘a revealing’.  In the Western Church the Gospel Reading for the day is from Matthew 2 vv 1 – 12 – the visitors from the East come to Bethlehem with their gifts and their Worship.  They are the representatives of the outside world, the non-Jewish world.  It is the big picture.  Jesus figures on the world scene. He is revealed and revered with royal gifts.

However, still today in the Eastern Orthodox Church it is the story of the Baptism of Jesus that is the central focus of their Epiphany Celebrations on what for them is one of the three most important festivals of the Church.  Interestingly there were pictures in the press of President Putin attending an Eastern Orthodox Epiphany Mass.

In his customary brevity, Mark compresses the account of the Baptism of Jesus into just three verses – verses 9 – 11.  But in doing so, Mark places at the very beginning of his account of the life and death of Jesus THE critical statement about Jesus.  A statement that he goes on to press home through the rest of his Gospel.  Jesus is the Son of God.

It is John, towards the end of his Gospel, who is unequivocal in setting out his purpose in writing and recording the Jesus story – a purpose that is shared by all four Gospel writers.  ‘These have been written in order that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through your faith in him you may have life.’ John 20 v31.   Although not so explicit, Mark with that statement very near the beginning of his Gospel and also the same statement very near the end of it, allows and encourages us to share the questions and the discovery, as people in all sorts of situations recognise Jesus for who he is.

One of the key elements of Mark’s Gospel is the way that recognition grows.   Implicit in his Baptism account is the fact that God’s words ‘You are my own dear Son. I am pleased with you’ are words that Jesus, and Jesus alone, hears.  It is a private affirmation for Jesus.  Neither John the Baptiser nor the crowds of people there (v5) heard God’s voice.  Recognising Jesus for who he is has to be worked out by watching him at work.  Somewhat surprisingly it is people with severe mental illness who are quick to catch on.  In Mark 3 we find a ‘general’ picture of the healing ministry of Jesus.  Mark 3 v 10 tells us that he healed many people and that those who had evil spirits in them ‘would fall down before him and scream, You are the Son of God’.   That recognition becomes much more specific in the story of the healing of the madman of Gerasa – Mark 5 vv 1 – 20 – who cries out ‘Jesus, Son of the Most High God! What do you want with me?’

In between those two healing accounts we find the familiar story of the stilling of the storm.  The disciples, drenched, cold and frightened are astounded and ask ‘Who is this man? Even the wind and the waves obey him!’  The way Mark sets out his account of Jesus is that this revealing and recognition is a slow process aided and, in some way, abetted by Jesus who, when people are at the point of recognition command them to keep it secret – Mark 3 v 12 etc.  His time has not yet come.  Biblical scholars call this the Watershed Theory.  The important moment that changes his direction comes when Jesus firstly asks the group of disciples to tell him what people are saying about him and then, much more directly, challenges them ‘What about you?  Who do you say I am?’  Mark 8 v 29.  This recognition at Caesarea Philippi is followed immediately by the rather curious event we know as the Transfiguration when God’s voice from Heaven declares ‘This is my own dear Son – listen to him!’ This time the declaration is for everyone to hear.  The Messianic Secret is out.

There are two other important passages in Mark that reinforce this recognising Jesus theme.   In the story of the Baptism we are told that Jesus saw ’Heaven opening.’  As with other passages that we have reflection on, here the original Greek uses a much stronger word that just ‘opening’.  It is a word meaning ‘rent apart’ – forceful and dramatic.  In the account of the death of Jesus Mark tells us that ‘The curtain hanging in the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.’  Mark 15 v 38.  The Inner Sanctuary of the Temple – The Holy of Holies – which represented the very presence of God, was protected from view.  Now, through Jesus, a revealing of even that sacred space.

Then, and again it is an immediate, the Centurion in charge of the crucifixion, seeing the way Jesus died, says ‘This man was really the Son of God!’ v38.  Both at the beginning and at the end, Mark makes sure that his readers have an understanding of just who Jesus is.

Of course, ‘The Son of God’ is a theological statement.  But it is also a devotional one.  The question that Jesus asks of the disciples – ‘And you, who do you say I am?’ is one for us.   The heavens and the curtains are torn apart.  God, in all his Glory is revealed – no longer hidden or unknowable.  In the person of Jesus, in direct and intimate relationship with the Divine, it is God in Jesus who is among us and invites us, with all our questioning, to join with the sages of the centuries in recognising him and offering our Worship and the gift of our love.

Bryan Coates
January 2021

Reflection for Covenent Sunday

Sunday 3rd January 2021 – Covenant Sunday

Reflection 27

Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem is a 1630 painting by Rembrandt
Lectionary Passage Jeremiah 31 vv 7 – 14 and also vv 23 – 34 and Mark 14 vv 22 – 26
From six hundred years before the birth of Jesus, the prophet Jeremiah speaks to us today

Poor old Jeremiah!  His name has become used to describe a person who is pessimistic about the present and who foresees a calamitous future; a prophet of doom who denounces the times we live in.  The associated noun ‘jeremiad’ is a lamentation, a doleful complaint, a list of woes.

In truth, Jeremiah did have some tough and negative things – in the name of God – to say to his people and some dire warnings to give them, but he remains one of the really great figures of Old Testament times.

To say that Jeremiah lived in tumultuous times is something of an understatement.  The background to his work is the complexity of world history beyond the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea in the Seventh Century before Christ.  Time and space here doesn’t warrant more than a brief outline.  The tectonic plates of world power were shifting.  The Assyrian Empire, which had reached its zenith under the rule of men like Sargon and Sennacherib, was waning.  Scythians – a wild and barbarous people, swept down from the north.  In the east, the Babylonians were flexing their muscles and, under Nebuchadnezzar would become a powerful force.  To the south there was the ever-present threat posed by Egypt.  In the middle, tiny Judah centred on the city of Jerusalem.  There were world changing battles – Megiddo (608 BC) – from where we get the word Armageddon, and Carchemish (605 BC).  There was a succession of Jewish Kings – Josiah, Jehoahaz, Johoiakim and Zedekiah.  And into that melting pot, God gave Jeremiah an uncomfortable message for His people.

Jeremiah was born around 650 BC quite close to Jerusalem.  He had an unshakable conviction that God had singled him out from before his birth (Chapter 1 v 4) to convey the warnings to His people.  Two age-old temptations beset the nation.  One was the worship of false gods.  Even while Moses was with God in the clouds of Mount Sinai, an impatient, wayward people fashioned a golden bull and worshiped it.  Once in the promised land the fertility-based worship of the Canaanite people proved a constant temptation.  It was so in Jeremiah’s time.  Then, as ever, Judah tried to play international power politics, trying to box above her weight.  The temptation of intrigue and alliances spelt constant trouble.

Jeremiah repeatedly warned kings and people.  He saw people’s unfaithfulness to God as the cause of the crises on both the political and moral front.  He tried again and again to get people to see the danger they were in, to turn their behaviour and to return to God.  He suffered because of his work.  He was beaten, he was imprisoned, he was lowered into a dark, dank muddy pit and only rescued by an Ethiopian.  Against his will he was eventually taken to Egypt by a remnant of people after Jerusalem had been totally destroyed.  As far as we know this is where he died.  In spite of everything, he remained unshakeably faithful to his calling.

Amid the forecasts of impending doom, Jeremiah clung on to hope.  Like all of the prophets, his faith in the mercy of our God who works through history and never lets his people go, remained constant.  That hope is given expression in the first part of the Readings from Jeremiah’s prophesy – verses 7 to 14.  The picture is of a land restored and a people at peace in a land of plenty for all.  Beyond the looming catastrophe God will forgive, comfort and provide for His people.  Jeremiah’s assurance, in God’s name is ‘I will turn their mourning into joy, their sorrow into gladness.’ Verse 13.

In our situation today, with so much suffering in so many ways through the Coronavirus and so many people facing an uncertain and troubling future, how do we hold on to hope and share the assurance of God’s mercy, forgiveness and constant faithfulness and care?

In many ways, Chapter 31 of the Book of Jeremiah is the most important.  I have deliberately extended the suggested reading to include two further paragraphs and their lines of thought.  Verse 23 through to verse 30, having painted a picture restoration and harmony, quotes a proverb that evidently was in circulation at the time.  Ezekiel too, in a later period, quotes the same proverb. It runs ‘The parents ate the sour grapes, but the children got the sour taste.’  Jeremiah raises the all-important subject of personal responsibility.    In his day people were quick to pass the buck and declare that their suffering and their plight wasn’t their fault but rather due to the legacy of previous generations.  We are bound up together and there is a sense in which we must bear corporate responsibility.  In our day there is the ongoing debate about Nature and Nurture – which are the dominant influences in our life and behaviour, our upbringing or our genes?  One of the significant contributions that Jeremiah made to the growing understanding of our lives in relationship with God comes in verse 30 – ‘Whoever eats sour grapes will have his own teeth set on edge.’  We do bear responsibility for our own actions.  However, we do so against the background of our relationship with God and His love and mercy.

So to the third paragraph – verses 31 to 34.  Of course, things for many are different this year but, traditionally within Methodism the first Sunday of the New Year is marked as Covenant Sunday, the day when we renew our Covenant with God.  Covenant is a key Biblical word.   It is the expression of God’s grace and His gracious relationship of love and understanding with His people.   We do not earn it, we do not deserve it.  He initiates it and asks of us worship, faithfulness, righteousness and obedience to His laws.  An impossible task.  We try, and with his help make our New Year promise –    ‘I am no longer my own but yours. I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.’  Tough words to say.  Even tougher to live out.  Jeremiah spoke and wrote (he had a PA called Baruch who took his dictation) about a New Covenant in which God promises ‘I will be their God, and they will be my people. I will forgive their sins and I will no longer remember their wrongs.’ vv 33 & 34.  We make a new start in the New Year – forgiven and freed from the past and with the assurance that God is our God, and we are His people through thick and thin.

In Mark 14 we have the record of what we call the Last Supper.  Around the meal table in the upstairs room in Jerusalem, and in the company of His closest friends, Jesus carefully chose the Covenant idea to express God’s purpose in His life, death and resurrection.  In the tangible form of bread and wine, we remember in gratitude and devotion.  God’s Covenant relationship with His people is not expressed in a document of paper but in a person – Jesus.

Thank God for Jeremiah.  Even more, Thank God for Jesus.  Happy New Year!

Bryan Coates

Reflection for the fourth Sunday in Advent

Annunciation (c. 1472–1475), by Leonardo da Vinci, Uffizi

Lectionary Passage Luke 1 vv 26 – 38

Mary finds herself caught up in God’s redemptive plans and purposes

 Traditionally the Fourth Sunday of Advent directs our focus to Mary – the mother of Jesus.

It is Luke in his Gospel who gives us the greatest detail about the events that lead up to and then surround the birth of Jesus.  Of the other Gospel writers, it is only Matthew who gives us any information at all – neither Mark nor John even mention it.  Christmas would be very different and greatly impoverished had Luke also decided to start his Jesus story with the beginning of the public ministries of John and Jesus – as did Mark and John.   I am fascinated by the way the Gospel writers gathered and then selected and arranged the material that they chose to include.  John, towards the end of his Gospel, talks about both that selection process from all that was available and also his purpose in writing – John 20 vv 30-31. Luke tells us, at the very outset, that he has carefully studied the material about Jesus and is setting out an ‘orderly account’ for Theophilus – Luke 1 vv 1 – 4.   Chapters 1 and 2 of Luke’s Gospel are very different from the rest of his writings.  They are long chapters – 80 and 52 verses respectively.     I can’ help wondering about the source of all that Luke sets out.

As far as we know Luke, who was a doctor of Gentile origin – Colossians 4 v 14, was late on the scene. He wasn’t one of the group of early disciples and, as far as we know, never met or heard Jesus in person.   For at least some parts of Paul’s second and third ‘Missionary Journeys’, Luke was one of his travelling companions.  There is a very early and very strong tradition that John the Disciple ended up in Ephesus and an equally strong tradition that there he looked after Mary.  We know that Luke got very close to Ephesus on that third journey – Acts 20.  Did he then or at another time actually go to Ephesus. Did he meet Mary?  Did Mary share parts of her story with Luke?  Where else could Luke have obtained the intimate and intricate details but from Mary herself?

Early in Chapter One, Luke tells us about Zechariah and Elizabeth both of whom belonged to priestly families.  They were old and childless but, in mirror images of both Sarah (Genesis 1) and Hannah (1 Samuel 1) God promises a son.  God’s messenger – the word angel is derived from the Greek word ‘angelos’ which means ‘messenger’, is Gabriel.  We meet Gabriel twice in the book of Daniel and then twice here in the first Chapter of Luke.  Having brought the news of a baby to Zechariah, six months later he does it again – but this time to a young girl called Mary.

I don’t think it at all disrespectful to say that Mary must have been quite a girl.  And a girl she almost certainly was.  In the custom of the day a girl could be promised in marriage in an arrangement between families at a very early age.  Mary was somewhere between betrothal and formal marriage.  She was startled, afraid and deeply troubled at Gabriel’s appearing and at his message to her.  Not surprising really!  Gabriel has come with words of peace and re-assurance and then words about God’s gracious purpose and plans for her.  And through Mary, God’s age-old purpose of redemption.

As an aside to ponder, throughout the New Testament, an aspect of Jesus and his fulfilment of the Old Testament is that he belongs to the line of King David -v 32 etc.  That is where Joseph comes in and is important.  In the genealogy of Luke 3 and Matthew 1 the family line from David come to Jesus through Joseph – not Mary.

We could, quite fruitfully, explore some aspects of Mary’s disposition and character and faith.  She was blessed and favoured by God vv 28 &30, deeply thoughtful v 29 & Chapter 2 vv 19 & 51, obedient v 38, faith-full v 45 and worshipful v 46.   I believe to do so would be to miss the point.

God, in all sorts of situations, in his divine purpose, chooses to use all sorts of different people.  Sometimes they seem to be the most unlikely people.  The Bible is cram-full of them.  Moses the murderer.  Jacob the cheat.  Rahab the prostitute.  David the shepherd boy.  Peter the rough and ready fisherman. Saul the Pharisee who set out to persecute the followers of Jesus.   Ask the question of anyone who has a sense of the irresistible Call of God and not least those called to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament.

In Chapter One of Luke’s Gospel, it is an elderly couple and, here in our passage for the day, a young woman living in an obscure rural village (‘Can anything good come Nazareth?’ ask Nathaniel – John 1 v 46) – in a backwater of the Roman Empire who God uses in his plan of salvation.

The Christmas Story in its own right is a tremendous story.  This year in unusual circumstances; circumstance which just perhaps enable us to put aside all the trimmings and even the excesses and focus again on the central truths of the story, we celebrate both the advent of Jesus in history and the advent of Jesus to us, here and now through our faith.

For our purposes in using the Lectionary for the day it seems to me that the key verse is verse 37.  Gabriel says, ‘For there is nothing that God cannot do.’   This Advent Season, in your life and in mine, how is God speaking to us and waiting to use us in his continuing plan and purpose.  How ready are we, like Mary, to answer ‘I am the Lord’s servant’?

Bryan Coates

December 2020


Reflection for Third Sunday of Advent

Reflection 25 – Lectionary Passage – Isaiah 61 vv 1 – 4 & 8 – 11, also Luke 4 vv 16 – 21

Good News – for whom?

When I left school, I joined the Civil Service and was appointed to one of the Inland Revenue Offices in Wolverhampton.  For five years I was a tax man!  It was a time of more-or-less full employment. Very occasionally we would come across an apparently destitute person who, in official phraseology, had ‘no visible means of support’.  We had no alternative but to remit any Income Tax due.

Amid all the news media focus this past week on the beginning of the vaccination programme and on the lack of progress of Brexit negotiations, it may be that two important reports have slipped by almost unnoticed.  One was about HMRC using commercial companies (what is that all about?) to pursue and threaten people who are apparently on their beam ends and completely unable to pay their outstanding tax bill.  The other was the report about the number of people in this country who, through a variety of adverse circumstances, including the pandemic, are described as destitute.  The number is shocking – 2.4 million people including over half a million children.  What a terrible word is that word destitute!  What a terrible situation to be in.

This is Britain.  This is the twenty-first century.  What ARE we as a Country and as a Society?  I am full of admiration for the great army of people who spend not inconsiderable amounts of time and energy in raising huge amounts of money each November – and again this year in spite of the virus – for the Children in Need appeal.  And that is just the tip of the iceberg when we total all the money that is raised for a multiplicity of charities each year.  But how can we even talk about children in need without it jarring? How can the words ‘children’ and ‘need’ live together in the same sentence let alone in the reality of Britain – one of the world’s largest economies, today?

In our Lectionary reading for this Sunday, we come to this passage from Isaiah Chapter 61.  This is from the third section of the Book of Isaiah. Somewhere after 536 BC, when the new world power, the Persians under their King – Cyrus – defeated the Babylonian Empire and, as part of an enlightened policy, allowed captive peoples to return home, another Isaiah was at work back in Jerusalem.  It wasn’t all sweetness and light, and the returnees were finding the difficulties of rebuilding their lives as well as the all-important national symbols including the Jerusalem Temple.  Some of the downside of his society is reflected in Isaiah’s writing and preaching – Isaiah chapters 56 through to 66.   However, as with the other two Isaiahs, this prophet sparkles with God’s inspirational Spirit. Chapter 61 (and particularly verses 1, 2 and 8) is one such passage.

In God’s name, Isaiah announces good news for the poor, healing for the broken hearted, release for the captives, freedom for those in prison and the year of God’s favour.

Surprise, surprise!  Luke records that Jesus went back home to Nazareth where he resumed his normal routine of Sabbath Worship (‘he went as usual to the Synagogue’ Luke 4 v 16).  When He wanted a Biblical quote to describe his purpose and the direction of His ministry, he turned to this passage from Isaiah 61.  Was it their ‘Lectionary’ that Sabbath –‘he was handed the book of the Prophet Isaiah’ -v17, or did Jesus himself request that scroll? The passage fitted His purpose exactly.  It is His self-declared manifesto.  It became the pattern of His ministry.

He spent His time, His energy and Himself with the poor, the broken hearted through bereavement, those held captive by convention or by society or by sin and, in His last moments, a fellow prisoner.

Isaiah spoke about being anointed by God’s Spirit by which he spoke those words.  The word Messiah means the Anointed One.  Jesus as the anointed one also speaks about the year of God’s favour, but not as a future event.  Jesus declares ‘Today this has come true.’  Not yesterday, Not tomorrow. Today!

At first, the people in that synagogue congregation were full of wonder and admiration.  Very quickly however, perhaps threatened by the uncomfortable immediacy of that word ‘Today’, they turned, and it appears that Jesus very narrowly escaped death as the crowd dragged him out and wanted to throw him over the edge of the cliff.  Preachers beware when congregations are stirred!

Just as a couple of weeks ago in that difficult passage from Mark 13 where we came to the imperative ‘Watch’, so now another single word with its urgency -Today.  And its questions for us as the Church.  What does ‘Today’ mean? What is Good News for the poor, the broken hearted, those held captive, those who are the prisoners of forces beyond their control?   How do we respond?

After Lusaka, the second city of Zambia is Kitwe.  It is a copper mining town.  Some of the townships that ring the city are provided by the mining companies for their workers. Some established townships are owned by the city council.  Beyond the ring of formal townships lies an outer ring of informal aka ‘squatter’ townships.  Temporary shelters, without any services such as water, electricity or sewerage, provided homes for destitute people who have no visible means of support.  The Church is at work there.  Apparently, out of nowhere, up to 300 children appear each morning to be cared for. The Church providing activities while parents search for food and work and literally putting food into their children’s mouths.

The Trussell Trust began in Salisbury at the inspiration of a Christian couple.  Trusted by the Government it does sterling work in providing food for people in need.   Sandy and I live in a part of the Borough of Eastleigh.  Eastleigh has a food bank and this year over 700 people or families with real need have been provided with food – and this week also with surprise parcels of ‘goodies’ for Christmas, delivered by, among others, members of local churches in response to an appeal.    I have to ask -Is that all? Is that enough?   While poverty, destitution even, is a problem in other parts of the world, never be hoodwinked into believing that it isn’t on our own doorsteps too.

Just two up to date examples of one aspect of Isaiah’s words and Jesus’ ministry.  You will yourselves know of those who today are broken hearted, those held captive by forces beyond their control, those imprisoned by circumstance – perhaps of their own making, those who are the victims of today’s situation.

I am sure that the Jesus who wept over the city of Jerusalem and her people, weeps again now.  But, like Isaiah, He still says, ‘the time has come when the Lord will save His people’ and he still says ‘Today’.

What are we doing to make it happen -Today?

Bryan Coates

December 2020

Reflection – Second Sunday of Advent

Lectionary Passages – Isaiah 40 vv 1 – 11, Mark 1 vv 1 – 8

Second Sunday in Advent

Two lit Advent candles

God’s Word through Isaiah; God’s Work through John

Thank God for Isaiah of Babylon!

Most scholars agree that the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, as we have it in the collection of 39 books that Christians refer to as the Old Testament, is the work of not one but of three people.  Their work spans three very different periods of Jewish history.  Isaiah of Jerusalem (Isaiah chapters 1 – 39) relates to the work of the prophet of the eighth century BC.   Centred on Jerusalem and against the background of the rising threat posed by Assyria – the world super-power of the day – Isaiah speaks in the name of God and brings dire warnings of God’s severe judgement on His people.

Superpowers and their empires do not last for ever. The Assyrian empire was overtaken by the Babylonians.  Their policy was death and destruction to nations and peoples that got in their way.  In the sixth century BC, Jerusalem was flattened, her leading figures killed, and the remainder of the population taken into captivity to Babylon. That remnant of people from Judah and Jerusalem languished in slavery and exile for fifty years.   It was into the situation of exile in Babylon that the Second Isaiah (chapters 40 – 55) works and speaks – again in the name of God.  There are no more doom-laden passages but rather a message of God’s redeeming purpose worked out in the events of history.  Alongside sublime poetry and the idea of the Servant of God – a servant who suffers – there is the message that the exile is coming to an end.  Under Cyrus, the Persian Empire was rising with a new policy that allowed captive peoples to return home – as happened after around 536 BC.   There is the thrilling message of Hope; there is this first word of our passage for today – ‘Comfort’.

Isaiah of Babylon goes a long way in adding a whole dimension to our understanding of God. In the passage from Chapter 40 we read of God’s coming with power, bringing with him the people he has rescued.  We also have the picture of God’s tender care of his people – ‘He will take care of his flock like a shepherd;  he will gather his lambs together and carry them in his arms; he will gently lead their mothers.’ Isaiah 40 vv 10 – 11.  Unsurprisingly, in the words – and indeed in the whole approach of Jesus, who knew his Bible – we find a clear understanding and application of the message of the Second Isaiah to himself.

It is Isaiah of Babylon (along with the prophet Malachi 3 v1) that Mark quotes right at the beginning of his Gospel.  Our New Testament passage for this Sunday is the opening verses of Mark.  In a short, twelve-word verse, Mark sets out his understanding of Jesus.  He is the Christ – the Messiah.  He is the Son of God.  It is Good News.    In the following sixteen chapters, Mark will amplify this introduction and we will see both the human and the divine Jesus.  For now, with his quotation from Isaiah 40, he launches straight in.   There is no star, no stable, no manger, not even Bethlehem.  There are no angels, no shepherds, no wise men, not even Mary and Joseph.  There is, however, John the Baptiser – an austere, ascetic figure.  I like the idea of the honey in his diet, but not the locusts.  The leather belt is wearable but perhaps not the camel-hair shirt!

John’s was a compelling cry from the wilderness.  In the wilderness experience that we have known this year and that is still with us this Advent Season, does that cry still echo and are we receptive enough to hear it?

There was a very real note of expectancy in John’s person as well as his message.  Malachi spoke about the messenger who goes ahead and prepares the way.   Isaiah wrote about the levelling of the landscape in order to ensure a smooth and safe journey for God’s coming.  Whatever their hopes for the Messiah who was to come – and sometimes these hopes were misguided and mistaken as we shall see later in Mark’s Gospel, people were ready to respond to John.  Mark tells us that many people from Judea and Jerusalem went out to hear John’s preaching.  In some versions of this passage – as in the original Greek, we read ‘all the people of Judea and all the people of Jerusalem’. Mark uses deliberate exaggeration to emphasise that sense of pent up expectation that enabled response to John even with his straight, uncompromising talk.

Is Advent for us just trees and their lights, shopping and its queues, quantities of food and drink?

Or, this year especially, in what will be for most a very different Christmas, can we hear John’s cry and find a renewed and rekindled sense of expectation of the Christ who continues to come to us?


There was in John’s message a call to repentance and a note of God’s forgiveness.  The word here that is sometimes translated ‘repent’ or ‘repentance’ comes from a root meaning ‘to change one’s mind’ and behind it is the Hebrew verb ‘to turn around’.  John couples it with the promise ‘God will forgive your sins’. In Isaiah’s passage, with a word of encouragement, he tells his people ‘their sins are forgiven’. Isaiah 40 v 2.    To turn from our sins and our sinfulness is an act of will and heart.  God’s forgiveness is an act of grace and love.  Accepting it is an act of faith.  On the banks of the River Jordan the turning by the crowds of people resulted in deliberate action – Baptism – a symbolic cleansing.

In this Advent Season, how does our penitence and the knowledge of God’s forgiveness show itself in what we do and in who we are?

John the messenger acknowledges his role in preparing the way for the Coming One – the one who is greater than him.  It was the slave or the servant’s task to remove dusty sandals from his master’s feet.  John’s preparation has been baptism with water, now he promises a far more powerful baptism – the Holy Spirit.  In Mark’s Gospel, just as there are no accounts of the birth of our Lord, there are neither accounts of the Risen Jesus nor of the giving of the Spirit as in John 20 v 22 or the promise of the Spirit – Luke 24 v 49 or His coming to the disciples at Pentecost – Acts 2. Instead, and as soon as Mark 1 v 10, Mark clearly shows the ministry of Jesus as being directed, impelled even – by God’s Spirit, Mark 1 v 12.

In this Advent Season, how do we claim the indwelling, enabling and enlivening power of the Spirit in order to prepare ourselves again to receive and welcome the Coming One – Jesus, who, as ever, is Emmanuel – God with us?

Bryan Coates                                                                                                                                    December 2020


P.S. For completeness, the Third Isaiah was at work back in Jerusalem after the return from Exile.

P.P.S. As well as the streamed Services from Bemerton, Salisbury and Steve’s Sunday Service and his daily Morning Prayers, Anna is presenting Compline each day as a form of Evening Prayer.

It is accessed at:

Reflection – Advent Sunday 29th November

Reflection 23
Lectionary Passage Mark 13 vv 24 – 37

Advent Hope

Today is Advent Sunday, the beginning of the Christian season of preparation that leads us to Christmas.  Advent, of course, is about the coming of Jesus.  The Incarnation – historically His coming among us in human form ‘Our God, contracted to a span, incomprehensively made man.’ Charles Wesley’s verse.  Through our faith, He comes into our lives in the present tense.  He will come again!  This, in part, is our Advent hope.

In many ways the thirteenth chapter of Mark’s Gospel is the most difficult chapter in all of the four Gospels. On a personal level, I have found it difficult to express truth for us for today in the set passage.  Apocalyptic writings are concerned with the end-time; cataclysmic events that bring an end to space and time as we know it and usher in God’s heavenly Kingdom and rule.  In the Old Testament the Book of Daniel is one such apocalyptic work.  In the New Testament, pre-eminently it is the Book of Revelation that is written in that genre.  Mark 13 is another example of this form.

Our Lectionary passage takes us to the second half of the chapter.    For the last couple of weeks, in the concluding part of our working through Matthew’s Gospel, we have looked at parables in his Chapter 25, which we discovered were used by Jesus in the teaching of only the group of Disciples.   Early in Chapter 13 we learn that Jesus shared this with an even smaller group – just Peter, James, John and Andrew.  Four fishermen met Jesus on the Galilean Lakeshore, heard his call and immediately responded.  Three years further on, sat on the Mount of Olives and looking across towards the city, that same small group share this last intimate moment with Jesus and hear him speak in different and distinctive tones.

What was going through the mind of Jesus that led him to speak to his closest friends in this way?  What was going through the mind of Mark in selecting this material out of all the vast wealth of stories about Jesus and His teaching that was told and retold amongst those early Christians?

Jesus was in Jerusalem.  Jerusalem, with both its history and the built-in expectations for the future of the nation, was by far the most important location of Jewish faith and its practice.  Within the city itself, the Temple was all-important.  During that last few days in the city, Jesus and His disciples must have been back and forth to the Temple many times.  At the very beginning of this chapter one of the disciples commented on what a fine building the Temple was.    Jesus, steeped in the Old Testament scriptures and standing in the long line of Jewish prophets, was aware of the very real danger that the nation was in.  Rome was a powerful occupying force.  Pushed too far, her patience would snap. World super-powers had brought destruction to the city and death to her people more than once.  Jesus had grown to love the city with its dominant Temple.  He loved her people even more.  The Temple was once again vulnerable.  As was the nation.  Jesus, acutely aware of his own vulnerability in these last days, couldn’t but give warning about what was on the horizon.  He chose to cast that warning in the language of apocalypse.

Our understanding is that Mark was the earliest of the Gospels to be written.  Mark didn’t start with a blank sheet of paper.  Many, many stories of Jesus and stories about Jesus were in circulation.  The Hymn that we used to sing beginning ‘Tell me the stories of Jesus, I love to hear’ must have been a real-life constant demand as congregations met together in the early days of the Church.  Mark attempted to answer that call by collecting just some of the stories and committing them to paper.

Our understanding is that Mark was writing his Gospel, in part based on Peter’s memory and testimony, some thirty or so years after the death of Jesus.  In July AD 64 a fire swept through Rome and destroyed a whole section of the city.  Christians were blamed, scapegoated.  Persecution of Christians and the Church on an empire wide scale began.  Between AD 66 and AD 70, Rome finally became tired of the constant insurrection and seething unrest of the Jewish nation. They laid siege to Jerusalem and finally broke through both the resistance and the walls of the city and took it apart stone by stone. That included the Temple. Jews today honour the last stones left standing by the Roman forces.  The Western Wall (known as the Wailing Wall)– is the last remnant of ‘the wonderful stones and buildings’ Mark 13 v 1.

News of those events must have dominated Mark’s mind and he remembered the warning of Jesus.  Mark wasn’t so much writing about the future as the immediate past or even events in the present.

In ‘our’ part of this chapter, Jesus seems to be pointing to the future.  With quotations from Isaiah, Joel, Zachariah and especially Daniel, He describes a cosmic catastrophe.  A darkened sun, a lightless moon and falling stars herald the coming of ‘the Son of Man’.   Again, a line from a Charles Wesley Hymn – ‘Lo, he comes with clouds descending,’.   Jesus uses the example of a fig tree coming into leaf as an illustration of ‘reading the signs of the times.’

Then comes the telling paragraph.  Over the centuries many people have thought that they had inside information that gave them a precise time and date for the end-time event and the coming of Jesus.  I vividly remember a group of Christians with great urgency gathering on the slopes of Mont Blanc because they had one such prediction.  In each and every case people have been wrong. Even Jesus says ‘I do not know. Only the Father knows.’ Again, a type of parable – this one about the master returning after a journey to watchful servants.  And it is all summed up in a final word ‘Watch!’

That has been a lot of introductory words that lead to the central point that I find in this passage.

Advent is about our hope in the Coming of Jesus.  God is in charge.  His victory is not just promised, it is secure.  He will sum up our history and gather his people. At the heart of that gathering will be Jesus – Saviour and Lord.  We don’t have to adopt apocalyptic language or imagery to hold on to the hope that, in spite of all the distractions and diversions, our faith in God’s purposes and power will not be defeated.  His purpose and power are expressed in His love in Jesus.  That love will never let us go.

At the end of both Matthew’s Gospel and Luke’s there is the command to the disciples from Jesus to take the Good News in to all the world.   From John’s Gospel it is about taking care of one another.  Isn’t it interesting that for Peter, James, John and Andrew there is no last word at what appears to be an unfinished ending to Marks Gospel?  Instead, here at this final meeting of the first four disciples before the events of the Thursday and Friday, a straight command.  ‘Watch!’

Is that a word from Jesus for us in the present tense today?

Bryan Coates                                                                                                                            Advent Sunday, November 2020


Prayers for Advent

In addition to the on line Services each Sunday from Salisbury, Bemerton and from Steve, and also in addition to Steve’s daily Morning Prayers, Anna has made the commitment to produce a streamed Evening Compline Service each evening of the week, apart from Sundays, for the whole of the season of Advent.  Compline originated as the last one of the seven ‘offices of the day’ used by priestly and monastic communities before retiring to bed and dates back at least one thousand five hundred years.  It is a lovely gentle Order of Service for the evening based on Jim Cotter’s version and will include his ‘O Antiphone’ for all the days of December.

It can be accessed at:


Reflection – Sunday 22nd November

Christ the Good Shepherd 6th century Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo Ravenna (Province of Ravenna. Emilia-Romagna Region) ITALY

Sunday, November 22nd 2020

Reflection 22

Lectionary Passage – Matthew 25 vv 31 – 46
A Parable of Jesus – Sheep and Goats; The Final Judgement
Stir-up Sunday!

 In some parts of the Christian Church this, the Sunday before the season of Advent, is still referred to as ‘Stir-up Sunday’.  The Collects are collections of one-liners, short ascriptions of Praise to God coupled with single theme prayers.  One of the shortest of all,  the Collect for this Sunday begins ‘Stir up, O Lord, the wills of your faithful people,’  and it goes on to mention ‘the fruit of good works.’  Apparently, with just over a month to go, people took it as a reminder to make their Christmas puddings and cake in good time – stirring in good fruits.   If anything is going to stir up God’s faithful people, it is this awesome parable.

In fact, although referred to as such, it is not so much a parable as a simile, used by Jesus as a starting point in his teaching about God’s final Judgement.  In another one- liner ‘just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats’ Jesus draws on the commonplace picture.  Mixed flocks of sheep and goats were gathered and separated at nightfall, the goats requiring to be kept warm while sheep could be left outside.   Although Jesus again is speaking and teaching privately to his close disciples during that last week in Jerusalem, the gathering he speaks of is a gathering of ‘the people of all the nations.’  There is here an inescapable warning of Judgement!  That Judgement is for everyone – the people of all the nations will be gathered before the throne of the King.

So, as ever in our Reflections, the questions – What does this passage mean?  What does it have to say to us today?

I find in this passage something about the compassion of Jesus.  Sometimes it seems that the picture that Matthew paints of Jesus is that of a straight-talking, uncompromising teacher who, at times, doesn’t mince his words or pussyfoot around.  The Beatitudes of Chapter 5 – ‘How Blessed (or Happy) are you…’  are counterbalanced by the Woes of Chapter 23 – ‘How terrible for you…’  We heard last Sunday of the place of ‘wailing and gnashing of teeth’, this week it is ‘the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’   However, in addition to stark warnings and graphic scenes, Matthew makes sure that we see that there is great tenderness and concern in the ministry of our Lord.  In Chapter 9, stories of healing exclusive to this Gospel -two blind men and a dumb man – are followed by the account of Jesus travelling round ‘all the towns and villages, healing people with every kind of disease and sickness’ and are linked to the explanation ‘As he saw the crowds, his heart was filled with pity for them, because they were worried and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.’  Matthew 9 vv 27 – 36.  In today’s passage that compassion is expressed in the list of six groups of people and their very real distress and need.

In today’s world – especially at the moment with all the situations thrown up by the Coronavirus, I hear the clear call of Jesus to his people to be stirred up to compassionate action to those in need.

I find in this passage something about unconscious goodness and charity in lives that are shot through with those qualities.  Again, there is that emphasis on people of all the nations with no distinctions merely down to race, colour, gender, age or even systems of faith.  There is no mention here of allegiance to a particular creed or conformity to one set of religious regulations. Christians do not have a monopoly on high standards, on compassionate living or on sheer goodness.    In the account the King first addresses the people on his right – in Biblical terms the place of honour – and declares them blessed. They are surprised.  They are unaware. They have acted, in purity of motive, to answer the practical needs of people that they have seen around them.  In contrast, the people of the left side group have been oblivious to the plight of others and, in total disbelief and denial, find themselves on the wrong side of the judgement of the King.

In today’s world of the self-centred social media of some people, coupled with fake news and the denial of the harsh reality of the way so many are forced to live is in complete contrast to the self-giving love that is demonstrated in the life of Jesus himself.  This stirs us towards the motivation of love for others that is the bedrock of Christian living.

Perhaps at this point, the Prayer of St Ignatius Loyola speaks to us.

Teach us, good Lord, to serve you as you deserve;
to give and not to count the cost;
to fight and not to heed the wounds;
to toil and not to seek for rest;
to labour and not to ask for any reward,
save that of knowing that we do your will.  Amen

I find in this passage something tremendously important about our understanding of the Incarnation – Emmanuel – God with us.  The phrase that echoes and shocks from the passage is ‘ Whenever you did this for one of the least important brothers of mine, you did it for me’ or the negative to the others –  ‘you refused to help me.’  The emphasis, of course, is on the ‘me’.  Jesus not only identifies himself with the poor, the disadvantaged and the suffering but is at one with them and in them.  This is not new. In taking a child and putting that child in the centre of the group of disciples who had just been squabbling about their importance, Jesus tells them ‘Whoever welcomes in my name one of these children; welcomes me,’ Matthew 18 v 5.  The God we worship in Jesus is not remote, uncaring, unmoved by the suffering of the lives of people, but rather one who is present in all that we all go through.

Stir-up Sunday is the very last Sunday of the Church’s liturgical calendar.  For a whole year we have worked through Matthew’s Gospel.  Next Sunday is Advent Sunday – a faith filled Sunday of the Christian year. Not only do we begin again and look forward to lessons from Mark’s Gospel for the next twelve months, but we begin to anticipate the coming of Jesus.   Perhaps it is entirely appropriate that in this final passage from Matthew we consider the presence of the Incarnate Christ with and in those most in need in our world.

Stir up, O Lord, the wills of your faithful people,
that they, bringing forth the fruit of good works,
may by you be richly rewarded;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen

Bryan Coates

November 2020