Easter, the Coronavirus and ‘Doing Whatever it Takes’

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“Every single person in the country is affected by this” I was told and so we are. Who would have thought that our lives could be so dramatically transformed by a disease that nobody had ever heard off until a few months ago? All social gatherings have been banned and people have been encouraged to work from home. Schools have closed and Churches have had to cease all acts of public worship. Prime-ministerial news briefings have spoken about ‘flattening the curve’ to give the NHS the time and space to cope with the rising number of infections and those who are over 70, pregnant women and those with underlying health conditions have been encouraged to go into self-isolation. Social distancing has become the new social responsibility and the nation has been put on a ‘war’ footing. The health crisis has also become an economic crisis with the Chancellor of the Exchequer pumping £330 billion pounds (15% of GDP) into the economy to help businesses pay their rent, salaries and suppliers – the largest ever injection of aid in ‘peace time’ Britain. The Chancellor is clearly committed to ‘doing whatever it takes’ to overcome this crisis and yet the Prime Minister’s frankness has been clear from the start ‘many more families will lose loved ones before their time’. It’s a truly nerve-racking and terrible situation, a situation outside of our experience, and which has brought out both the best and the worst in us. Many people are kindly looking after their neighbours whilst others are sadly and selfishly panic buying in the supermarkets and shops.

If we ever needed a reminder of the imperfection of our world, then surely this is it! For many of us, calamities and disasters usually happen to other people, somewhere on the other side of the world. We are not used to the fact that in a global situation and in a truly global pandemic this one might actually affect us.

And yet for the Christian this all rings strangely true, for the Christian will be aware that in many ways, theologically speaking, we have never lived in a perfect world; for Genesis reminds us that when we think we are ‘masters of all that we survey’ and are in charge of our own destiny perhaps knowing better than even God himself, then something always happens to trip us up and we are destined for a fall. Now God has graciously gifted us with many wonderful qualities and characteristics, such as knowledge, skill and intellect and we are constantly amazed at what human endeavour and intuition can achieve, but fundamentally the heart of the problem is always the same – it’s the problem of the human heart, which wants to do things our own way and keep God out of the picture. This bias to self (which affects us all) the Bible calls sin and spoils our relationships with God, with one another and even with creation. It’s the worst of all social distancing! What we need is a new start and a new hope!

Fortunately, the Christian is aware that despite the fact that many of us may have forgotten God, he doesn’t forget us, for in the person of Jesus, God steps into this broken and fallen world of ours and bears the brunt of our pain and our sin in his own body upon the cross. He’s the one who truly does ‘whatever it takes’! He dies the death that we all deserve precisely so we don’t have to when we put our faith and trust in him – and he does this because he loves us. Christ’s death is awful and frightening, and if he were just an ordinary man then it would be the end of the story, but it’s not – because Christians recognise that Jesus isn’t simply human, he’s divine, he’s the Son of God, God made flesh, God incarnate and his resurrection proves it as witnessed by so many of his day.

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He is therefore as the risen Lord, , a man of the ‘new creation’ (2 Corinthians 5.17 / Revelation 21.1), a man of the new life and  perfectly restored order, which is promised eternally to all who believe. This is the joyful essence of Easter Day and it provides us not just with the courage and strength to meet the challenges of this moment (however dark it may be) but hope for the future, for as the Bible reminds us ‘God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3.16).

So, yes, despite the difficulties of the present moment, may I take this opportunity for myself and the parishes I represent to wish you all a very happy and joyful Easter.


May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all … this day and always. 2 Corinthians 13.14


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Faith, Hope And The Flames Of Notre-Dame

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It was with a great deal of sadness that millions watched the iconic Gothic Cathedral of Notre-Dame go up in flames on Monday 15th April 2019 via their televisions, computers and smartphones. It seemed incredible to think that this wonderful cathedral that had taken over 200 years to build was essentially destroyed in a mere 30 minutes. It felt like something out of a movie or a bad dream. Many French citizens were in tears and disbelief as they witnessed this terrible event unfold but huge credit should be paid to the firefighters and others who were trying against the odds to save as many of the priceless art and religious antiquities as they could whilst others were trying to save and preserve the actual building. Yes, France may pride itself on it’s secular education but this tends to hide the fact that over 2/3rds of the population still identify themselves as Christian predominantly Roman Catholic – but equally it has to be said that to the French, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame represents so much more than being simply a place of religious devotion. It represents their nation, their heritage, their architecture, their culture and their wonderful way of life – and so it comes as no surprise that almost immediately President Macron committed himself and the whole of France to rebuilding and restoring the Cathedral.

“So I say this very solemnly to you tonight, we will rebuild this cathedral all together – and it is undoubtedly part of the French destiny …. we will rebuild Notre-Dame.”

Thankfully, in the cold light of day it appeared that despite great damage, the structure was basically sound and donations large and small were coming in from across France and indeed the world for its repair.

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But what is it that drives the human spirit to want to commit itself to such projects? For even in our own country, we have historically seen the rebuilding of Coventry and York Cathedrals damaged by fire, as well as Windsor Castle. It seems for all sorts of reasons we have an innate, inbuilt desire to rebuild, capture and preserve these majestic and ‘glorious’ buildings because they represent the triumph of victory over adversity and they speak to our heart and soul – and so we naturally wish the French every success in their efforts to overcome the disaster that has befallen them. There is of course a parallel to be found in the Christian faith, for just as President Macron said, ‘we will rebuild this cathedral all together, the Christian will be aware that this is precisely the task given to every believer – to help collectively and together to build a Kingdom, a temple, a church, not with actual bricks and stones (because these are transitory and prone to damage and decay) but with ourselves as human ‘living stones’ (1 Peter 2.5), joyfully working together in hope and celebrating the victory that Christ has won over sin by his death upon the cross. For the Christian appreciates that it is what is built in Christ’s name for the common good which is the most successful, eternally praiseworthy and enduring.


In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord.
Ephesians 2.21


 

Have You Really Got To Grips With – The Resurrection?

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‘A lot cleverer people than us embrace religion so I can be as dismissive of it as I like but we have to acknowledge that’. Paul Whitehouse.

These were the words that comedian Paul Whitehouse shared with his good friend Bob Mortimer in the BBC Television Series Mortimer & Whitehouse: Gone Fishing (Series 1: Episode 2), where having recovered from heart problems, they each mused about the future and chatted to a local Vicar about death, and their own funerals. Because neither were religious, they captured quite nicely the views and perspective of so many in our largely secular society. In some ways, each wistfully wished that there was more to life than this but couldn’t quite embrace the apparent foolishness of a religion they had no real experience or sensible knowledge of. Their musings echoed the apparent disconnect that exists between believing individuals and the rest of society – a disconnect which is made worse by opinion polls that suggest that Christianity in the UK is in a rapid state of decline. Although there is a decline, it has now been recognised that many of these polls don’t make sufficient distinction between active Christians who attend church regularly, and those ‘non-active’ Christians who are people who simply view themselves as Christian because they happen to live in a ‘Christian country’. If there was a clearer distinction between the former and the latter, then statistics about matters of faith and belief wouldn’t be quite so stark as are sometimes portrayed.

Last month my sister-in-law died, and I attended her funeral not as a clergyman but simply as my brother’s brother. Of course, the whole thing was immensely sad and hugely painful, and seeing my brother (who is still a relatively young man) who I love, without his wife, and his daughters without their mother – greatly hurt. But it didn’t hurt as much as I’m sure it would have done, had I had no hope! As Christians, a very real comfort and consolation can be found in the fact that we believe not just in life and death – but in life, death and resurrection. For as Bishop Tom Wright puts it, we have a sense of saying ‘Good night and see you in the morning’, for Heaven isn’t simply ‘pie in the sky when you die’ – a land of make believe, somewhere over the rainbow. It’s the promise of a new real existence as demonstrated in the person of Jesus himself, whose life, death and resurrection were witnessed by so many; people who saw him, touched him and ate with him. These are events which are not simply made up but recorded by many faithful men and women in the Scriptures and other historical documents, many of whom were prepared to die themselves on the basis of what they had seen and heard. So why are we so blind, ignorant and unwilling to believe their testimony in this modern age?

Bishop Tom Wright (a greatly respected Christian theologian and commentator) explains it like this.

‘The great turning point in human history, the moment when everything changed was when Jesus came out of the tomb on Easter morning. We live in a world which fools itself that the great turning point in history came in Europe and America in the 18th Century, when we had what was called ‘The Enlightenment’ and with our new ideas, and our new science and our new democracies etc we were actually going to solve the problems of the world. If you look back at the last couple of hundred years, you say, ‘Well give me a break! If that’s called solving the problems of the world then we are going to have to think a bit better in the future.’ But actually, that’s because ‘The Enlightenment’ has offered a parody of Christianity. The Enlightenment therefore wants to rubbish the resurrection because if the resurrection happened it means that THAT was the great turning point in history and not Europe in the 18th Century and so the agenda for Christians today … is to go back and re-inhabit the truth that God’s new world was born, not when certain European thinkers had some bright ideas 200 years ago, but when Jesus came out of the tomb on Easter morning, and as we learn to live ‘out’ of that belief, ‘out’ of that event, then that is the way that God’s kingdom is going to come on earth as in heaven.’

If each of us can get a small glimpse of this, and hold it thoughtfully, intelligently and respectfully in our hearts, we can properly celebrate and wish each other a very Happy Easter.


Then go quickly and tell his disciples: “He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.” Matthew 28.7

Confronting Systems Of Power: A Message For Easter

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The news that a Novichok military grade nerve agent had been used against former Russian citizens Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury on 4th March was a shock to all concerned. Since this potential threat to the British public could only be the work of a nation state, the situation was extremely grave. Therefore, once it was determined that Russia was responsible it was understandable that Theresa May as the British Prime Minister would act swiftly in response, ultimately expelling 23 Russian diplomats or “undeclared intelligence officers” with one week’s notice, alongside various other measures. This she said, “would fundamentally degrade Russian intelligence capability in the UK for years to come – and if they seek to rebuild it we will prevent them from doing so”. Naturally, it’s anticipated that Russia will retaliate but at the time of writing this letter it’s not known what their actions will be. For some, not knowing can lead to a real sense of fear and uncertainty – what can ‘little Britain’ do in the face of mighty Russia?

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Thankfully, many of us will gain comfort and inspiration from the pages of the Bible. The David and Goliath story of the Old Testament reminds us of just what can be achieved when one takes heart, puts one’s faith not only in God but one’s natural God-given ability to sling stones. Standing up to bossy tyrants always requires endeavour and the courage of one’s convictions.

When Jesus stood before the Temple in Jerusalem and said ‘destroy this temple and I will rebuild it in three days’, the people standing next to him misunderstood, saying ‘how are you ever going to do that, it took 46 years to build this temple?’! But Jesus wasn’t referring to the physical temple he was referring to himself. Because he knew that you can’t confront corrupt systems of power without paying for it, and the systems he had in mind were the ‘principalities and powers of this world’ which are motivated by personal greed, power and abuse – in other words,sin’. Dark systems which ultimately only ever really lead to suffering, pain, death and despair. When Jesus says, ‘destroy this temple and I will rebuild it’, he’s talking about something new and unexpected that would happen after his death. He’s talking about resurrection! Yes, Jesus dies for our sin upon the cross, but his resurrection announces that God has not given up on us or this world because this world matters. Therefore, the way that we live our lives really matters, for every act of love, kindness and compassion that we undertake reflects the love of God for us in Christ, and nothing will be forgotten. For as Rob Bell, a Christian preacher and theologian observes, “resurrection affirms this life and the next as a seamless reality, embraced, graced and saved by God”. Therefore, the Christian knows that if you want to stand up to corrupt systems of power you need to be prepared to challenge it and say your ideals are not my ideals. I won’t and don’t recognise what you stand for. I don’t believe in the power of death, I believe in love, life and yes – resurrection!

A very Happy Easter to you all.


“Keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life. Jude 1.21