Materials for Worship on 9th July

Peter writes: As Nerys said last Sunday, in spite of their happy endings, these episodes from the life of Abraham contain elements that we, some 5000 years later, find unacceptable.

There is his refusal to allow Isaac to marry outside his own ethnic background in today’s reading,  Genesis 24.34-38, 42-49, 58-67. Thinking of my own lovely daughter-in-law of Chinese heritage, I have to ask “What is wrong with that?” Then there is the way the bride was chosen and the fact that she was brought from another country. In our culture we tend to disapprove of arranged marriages. In the Church of England nowadays, clergy have to check very carefully before calling banns of marriage – is it a forced marriage or an attempt to evade the ever-stricter immigration laws?

Rebecca at the Well, Vienna Genesis, 6th century

Even worse in our eyes is the fact that Abraham owned many slaves and this was regarded as a source of pride. Slavery in the ancient world was often a consequence of poverty and his female slaves had probably been sold to him by their fathers. Nevertheless, historians tell us that slavery at that time was nothing like the shameful brutal and cruel treatment suffered by African slaves in America and the Caribbean. In fact, masters could be prosecuted if they mistreated a slave. Their situation was perhaps more like that of farm labourers or domestic servants in this country in the 18th and 19th centuries.
So we need to view the past – whether biblical or otherwise – through the lens of history; if humans are still around in 5000 years, what will they make of our attitudes and cultural norms?

Turning to Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome, the psychological state he describes  in Romans 7.15-25, could be compared with slavery. He calls himself a “captive”, who cannot help himself from doing what he knows to be wrong and is unable to do what is right. Like a slave, he is being coerced and elsewhere in his letters he talks of being enslaved. Similarly Jesus describes the reaction of his listeners with that colourful metaphor: “We played the flute to you and you did not dance; we wailed to you and you did not mourn”. Like slaves, our freedom of thought and action is fettered and in Paul’s view there is little we can do about it because we are “in the power of the law of sin”. In the words of Private Frazer in Dad’s Army, “We’re doomed!”

Or are we? In the ancient world many slaves were often freed after six years or for other reasons. Paul’s listeners would have known this and would readily understand why he wrote “Who will rescue me from this body of sin? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

Hints as to how he could write this are contained in today’s reading from St Matthew’s Gospel, 11.16-19, 25-30: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens” – slaves in their day were not allowed to be overworked – “and I will give you rest” – slaves were entitled to Sabbath rest and in the age to come we shall all rest from our labours. “For I am gentle and humble in heart”. This is the same example for Christian living as “Blessed are the meek, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”.

It is not a pattern based on the many burdens imposed by the many and petty rules of the “wise and intelligent” but on the simple rule of “Love your neighbour as yourself”. This is Jesus’ easy yoke revealed to babes and infants.


We pray to the Lord, whose service is perfect freedom –

for couples preparing for marriage and those married recently; that in binding themselves one to another they may find fulfilment and joy;

that those who think themselves wise in the world may learn to trust the wisdom of the simple;

for the victims of people trafficking and modern slavery; for organisations working to release them from their situation; for countries still bearing the burdens of past slavery;

that we may be more gentle and humble in our dealings with others, giving them relief from their burdens;

for all who are bearing the heavy loads of poverty, war, oppression or the weight of unresolved sin;

for those we know who are wearied through illness or sorrow; that they may find comfort and relief;

for the departed, that they have laid down their burdens and found eternal rest.

Materials for Worship on Sunday July 2nd 2023

Nerys writes: I hope you’re ready for a challenging read this week because none of our Bible readings are straightforward. Each one is quite difficult for us as modern Christians to relate to, being not only textually difficult but also spiritually and ethically challenging. Some churches will have chosen not to include the story of Abraham and Isaac in their services today but I think it’s important that we don’t shy away from passages like these but learn ways of approaching them. It is clear that none of them are to be read unthinkingly or uncritically or taken at face value. We have to make a real effort to prayerfully discern what they might be saying to us about the God we worship and how we are to live our faith and communicate it with others.

Despite its happy ending, the tale of the near-sacrifice of Isaac on Mount Moriah, Genesis 22.1-14, is one of the darkest and most disturbing of all Bible stories. It is a story which horrifies us and leaves us with many questions. Why would God instruct a father to kill his own son? Why was Abraham ready to go along with it? What about the effect of this experience on the child? What about Sarah, the mother who is left behind? And most importantly of all, what is this story saying about our God and the nature of our faith?

Generations of Jewish and Christian scholars, artists and poets and ordinary readers of the Bible have grappled with this passage. Some have sought to make sense of it by filling gaps in the narrative in imaginative ways, some have read it metaphorically while others focus on its historical and literary context. It’s possible that somewhere in its background lies teaching about human sacrifice, a practice forbidden and regarded with horror in ancient Israel. The story as we now find it, though, is introduced as a test of Abraham’s obedience to God. It can, in fact, be seen as a culmination of a series of tests experienced by Abraham and a key part of the larger story of God’s relationship with the people of Israel. In the Jewish tradition this passage is read daily as part of the morning service. Early Christians saw what God was calling Abraham to do as a sign of what God himself intended to do, sacrificing his own son for the sake of the world. For many, this story prefigures the Cross. For others, however, the life, death and teaching of Jesus reveal a faithful, loving, self-giving, self-sacrificing God, not one who demands blind faith and the sacrifice of the lives of others.

However hard I wrestle with it, I am, unlike artists like Domenico Zampieri above, unable to turn this chilling story into something beautiful and uplifting. At every reading I am also left with more questions than answers. And yet within it and through it, I hear the call for us to trust God rather than depend on ourselves and on earthly things, and I am given assurance that God provides for us in even the most unlikely and darkest situations.

Today, the idea of slavery is just as alien and abhorrent as the idea of human sacrifice. In Paul’s day, many of the people of Rome including those he was addressing in our epistle, Romans 6.12-23, would have been either slaves or freed slaves. For them, the image he uses to describe what coming to faith is like would have been acceptable and meaningful. For us who see slavery of any kind as immoral and unjust, it is troubling. Instead of picturing the process of becoming a Christian as that of being set free, Paul describes it as a change from one slave master to another. His argument that human beings will always be enslaved to someone or something is challenging for us who believe that we have a measure of self-control and self-determination. The thought of being God’s slaves is uncomfortable. It would be easy to dismiss this passage as a response by Paul to a particular concern of the churches in Rome. And yet, if we look beyond the imagery what we see is another invitation to trust God rather than depend on ourselves and on earthly things. We also find an assurance that when we choose to give our whole selves to God’s service, God will provide. God will give us the grace to live a life of joyful obedience which leads to an incomparable freedom to be the people we are meant to be.

Our Gospel passage today, Matthew 10.40-42, is a mind-twister as well as a tongue-twister. It is part of a longer story of Jesus preparing his disciples as he sends them out into the towns and villages of Galilee to proclaim that the kingdom of heaven has come near. Having given them his authority to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers and drive out demons, he speaks hard words about the need for absolute loyalty and commitment in the face of division and persecution, of losing life in order to find it, of taking up the cross to follow him. Then he gives words of encouragement and comfort: ‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me’. His disciples will be sent out as envoys of Jesus, coming in his name, on his business. To offer them help and hospitality is just like offering it directly to him who is God’s envoy. And God will reward those who support their work, even if it’s with something as little as a cup of cold water. The apostles may well feel small and vulnerable but God is watching over them and will provide for them through the goodness of the people they will meet on the way.

Despite the complexity of the text, this is probably easier for us to relate to than the other two readings. As we translate it into our situation, however, there are certain questions that arise. Who are Jesus’s instructions intended for today? Are they just for wandering missionaries or those in full-time ministry or are they for all of us? It’s easy to see ourselves as the ones who offer cups of cold water. It is true that supporting others by providing help and hospitality is an important aspect of the life of the Church but there is more to being a Christian than this. Each one of us is called to go into the world to speak of and embody the Good News of Jesus. We are instructed to go with empty hands, ready to accept the kindness and hospitality of strangers. We need to be willing to risk hostility and rejection. God has promised to provide us with all we need for the task by means of the generosity of others who will be blessed through their encounter with us.

Materials for Worship on Sanctuary Sunday

This week we mark Sanctuary Sunday, the day when churches across Scotland, and worldwide, offer their prayers and express their solidarity with displaced people around the world, of whom there are more now than there have ever been before in history. Supporting and caring for refugees is something we’re always passionate about here at St Mary’s so today we join with others in particularly remembering God’s loving concern for the stranger, the alien, the sojourner, and the refugee.

Rachael writes: The story of Hagar (Genesis 21.8-21) is a powerful one to read on Sanctuary Sunday. As a woman who has been forced to leave her home multiple time (see Genesis 16), her story reflects the experiences of many refugees and asylum seekers. Her situation is desperate, and she has been failed by the people around her – the very people we usually consider heroes of the faith. She is dehumanised when Sarah refers to her only as “this slave woman”. Like so many people who are seeking sanctuary she is marginalised, demonised, and criminalised, rather than being treated as equally worthy of respect and dignity.

Tatiana from Odessa in Ukraine compares her own experience of fleeing her home with Hagar’s in these words:

“…you have a long road ahead through this parched land. There is nothing suitable to shelter you from the heat, there is not a single source of water along the road, only what you have taken with you. You are alone; it’s just you and the boy – the son you are responsible for. There is not a single other person around who could help you if necessary. And you wander in a direction unknown to you, no destination, not knowing where to turn, just wandering, hoping for safety. The situation is dire. What could be worse than this? Many Ukrainians have found themselves in this situation during the war. You’re running from danger, but don’t know where to go. In your hand is one suitcase, which now holds all your life’s belongings. And sometimes you don’t even have a suitcase – I did not have time to collect mine. In your hands are the hands of your children. Who will help? Where to run to? Where can you expect help? Everything around is new and unfamiliar. There are people around, but it is as if you are in a desert. Only you and your problems and no-one who could help!”*

At St Mary’s we have been working to find ways that we can help. We have a long standing relationship with Forth Valley Welcome who’s clothes hub for refugees we are now hosting in the church room. We also worked with them to put on a ceilidh for those staying at the Hydro and we collect toiletries that are distributed to those in need.

We support Castlemilk Community Church’s work with the refugees and asylum seekers who live in their area. The rectory garage is regularly packed to the rafters with donations of equipment and clothes for children and families from people all across Dunblane that are distributed weekly to those who need them in Castlemilk. And the Link group is building relationships with people in Castlemilk by hosting family days out in Dunblane. There we see a beautiful exchange of cultures as those who come often bring specialty dishes to share or delight everyone with a song from their homeland.

When God went into the desert to rescue Hagar the first time, she declared God’s name to be “El-roi” – “the God who sees me”. And in our gospel passage today (Matthew 10.24-39), Jesus tells us that a sparrow cannot fall from the sky without God’s knowledge; that even the hairs on our heads are counted. Tatiana from Ukraine writes “God truly sees and understands Hagar, and her worries and pain. God saves and restores her and promises a hopeful future. This is the God who sees you too…This is my God who gives hope, and gives life!”. All those who are forced to flee their homes, all 108.4 million people worldwide, are seen and known and loved by God. And no matter where they come from, how they travel, or where they are going, they deserve to be treated with the dignity and respect that God inherently created them with. All of St Mary’s interactions with people who are refugees or seeking asylum are based in this belief and why our interpersonal relationships are so important. By meeting them on a human level, we see not just number but people who are more than their immigration status; they are individuals with stories, creativity, and gifts to share. As much as we might hope to enrich their lives, we know that our relationships with them have greatly enriched our lives and our fellowship. We are learning to see our friends not as “other” but as fellow sojourners along the way, seeking new and abundant life.

Jesus also reminds us that the truth can be divisive and uncomfortable. Not everyone will like this message of love and care. We might have to step into some difficult places as we have conversations with friends and family, or lobby our MPs and MSPs, or even make changes in our own lives to be able to give in prayer, or financially, or to allow space for relationships with those seeking sanctuary here in Scotland.

When the world had discarded Hagar, God did not. God’s compassion is unfailing, especially for those who are suffering and going through a time of wilderness. We give thanks for those St Mary’s is journeying with and we say, “Yes God, we see what you see!”.

* extract from reflection by Tatiana Bondarenko in Scottish Faiths Action for Refugees, The God Who Sees Me: Worship Resources for Sanctuary Sunday 2023

Materials for Worship on 18th June

Nerys writes:  Jesus made it all look so easy, swanning around the cities and villages of Galilee, teaching,  evangelising, curing every disease and every sickness, casting out demons and even raising the dead. But as he sends out his followers to do the same in today’s Gospel passage, Matthew 9.35-10.23,   he makes it clear that it won’t be as straight-forward for them. They are to  be welcomed by some and rejected by others, flogged in the synagogues and dragged before governors and kings.   This was probably the experience of the community for which Matthew’s Gospel was originally written. It was certainly  the fate of  the apostles, including St Paul who talks in today’s epistle, Romans 5.1-8, of boasting in his suffering. But what about us? What do these  instructions tell us about our role in the continuing mission of the church here in Scotland today?

Some would say that we have in this passage a blueprint, a template, a manual for mission, but I prefer to see it as a chart of the waters we venture into when we take the good news of God’s kingdom out to our local community. It warns us of the hazards we will need to navigate, and  points out the safe havens which will provide us with sustenance and support. The exact route isn’t  drawn for us. We are called to go with God’s flow, blown by the winds of God’s Spirit.  We are told to travel light, trusting that God will resource and equip us, to be ready to accept the kindness of others, to expect difficulties along the way, knowing that sometimes we will fail but that we will never be alone on our voyage.

The twelve disciples would have had little idea as they set off that day where their mission would take them and what they would encounter along the way.  They would, however,  have had a strong sense of being sent. The instigation comes from Jesus who was literally ‘moved in his guts’ as he looked at the crowds that were following him. He is stirred by the great spiritual need of his people. He is aware that they are harassed and helpless like an abandoned flock of sheep, unaware that their true shepherd is at hand. He sees them as a field full of golden wheat with only a few workers to help the farmer to bring in the harvest. And he urges his disciples to pray for people to join in with what God is already doing. As they obey, they hear him summoning them to him so that he can give them what they need to do God’s work of healing and restoration.

Next to nothing is known about most of the twelve listed by Matthew. They were a motley crew of ordinary, imperfect people drawn into relationship with Jesus. They knew and trusted him and because of that they were  ready to take up the challenge he was setting before them.

During this last week I’ve been praying with this painting of the apostles by a Filipino artist, Edguardo de Guzman  I wonder what strikes you about it.

Its composition is very different from traditional images of the twelve where they are usually arranged in a row, often at the Last Supper. Here they are clustered together as almost one body with many hands, most stretched out in worship or in readiness to serve.

The shades the artist has used are from different parts of the colour spectrum but they all work in harmony with one another. The shapes and segments fit together perfectly too, like a jigsaw, with no gaps.

The disciples’  eyes are closed in prayer but their faces are turned towards the almost imperceptible figure of Jesus in the centre as they accept his call,  listen to his instructions, receive his authority.  There are no  feet to be seen but for me there is a sense of movement in the picture,  conveying perhaps a final drawing together in communion before the sending out.

There is space at the front of the painting for the viewer to step into the assembly. I find that as I do this with my imagination, the flat picture becomes three dimensional and I become aware of details that I hadn’t noticed before. I sense the presence of Judas with his hands clasped tight, a reminder of the opposition to the Gospel within and without, and I notice that Jesus is looking straight ahead, aware perhaps of the difficult path that he and his disciples are called to tread.

The thought of doing mission is no doubt daunting but Jesus makes it clear to the twelve that it his flock, it is the Lord’s harvest. We don’t do God’s work in our own power. We are not called because we are strong or good or clever but because, like Paul, we’re aware of our weakness and of our dependence on the grace of God.  We  hear the call because we are ready to welcome Christ into our lives and to be transformed by the  power of God’s Spirit. When we have a loving, personal relationship with Christ, we experience that peace with God which Paul talks about. With God’s Spirit of love poured into our hearts,  we are able to achieve much more than we ever imagined we could.

This week, I invite you to take some time to look with compassion at your own household. your workplace or your circle of friends. As you do so,  ask God to show you how you can get alongside someone so that they can experience Christ through what you say or do or who you are. 

Look also with compassion  at your local community asking God to show you ways that we as a church can get among our neighbours,  to give and accept hospitality and work together with them to meet the needs of the most vulnerable in our midst.

Today marks the beginning of Refugee Week. As you pray for displaced people all over the world, pray also for more opportunities for our church and others to join in with what God is doing for and through  the  New Scots, refugees and asylum seekers who have settled among us.  

Materials for Worship at Home on June 11th

Moira writes: In preparation for this morning’s worship, you might like to light a candle and reflect on this image of the woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment. See how crowded the area is around Jesus as he walks through the crowd. It’s amazing how this woman who had suffered for so long, actually managed to get through the crowd and close enough to Jesus to touch his robe.

This morning the thread which links all of our readings, is faith. In the first reading from the book of Genesis, (chapter 12 verses 1-9) we see the faith Abram (which means exulted father), later to be known as Abraham (meaning father of a multitude), and in Paul’s letter to the Romans (chapter 4 verses 13-25) we once again hear about Abraham and the changes to his life. Can you imagine what faith it must have taken to listen to the call of God, to take his family and possessions, and move to what was to Abram a foreign land?

Today we think nothing of travelling to the four corners of the earth and everywhere in between, because it is so easy to jump on a boat or a plane and know that we can return at any time. But what about Abram and his family? For many years Abram had lived in his native country of Chaldea in the city or Ur. He then travelled 300 miles north to Haran and lived there for fifteen years because of a call from God. While they lived at Haran, Terah, his father died when he was 125 years old. After this, Abram received a second and more definitive call, accompanied by a promise from God, which we heard in our reading this morning.

As a result, he left Haran at the age of 75, taking his nephew Lot with him and not knowing where he was going. He trusted God implicitly. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, we again hear about Abraham and his great faith. This time Paul emphasises that it is not just by strict adherence to the law that we inherit the kingdom, but it is by faith that God’s grace comes to us. Paul points out one major problem with trying to adhere strictly to the Law; and that is that humans are incapable of keeping it perfectly. Something that I’m sure we all know only too well! Throughout the Bible, the presence of the Law ultimately leads to the wrath of God because humans break it. Don’t get me wrong, we need laws and we need boundaries to be set, otherwise the world would be in anarchy. However, following the Law, God’s Law, to the best of our abilities, give us a way to work around the problem of sin and our distance from God; but it does not solve the problem. So what is the solution? If following the Law of God isn’t going to draw us closer to God, what is? How can we fix it once and for all? Paul tells us that the answer is faith! This seems like an obvious answer since we’re here in church. Churches are supposed to be places where faith is nurtured and encouraged, where faith is lifted up, and where faith is restored when it lapses. Paul says that the righteousness of following the Law, any Law, will not bridge the gap between us and God; that we can only rely on the righteousness of faith.

As we move on to our Gospel passage from Matthew,  chapter 9, verses 9-13, 18-26, Jesus is shown as the great ‘healer’ or ‘physician’ who in his ministry searched out the lost and abandoned, the outcasts and those on the margins of society. Here in this passage, Jesus and his disciples are sitting having a meal with ‘tax collectors and sinners’ and the Pharisees cannot understand why Jesus is doing this. They are so caught up in their rituals and strict adherence to the law, that they cannot understand Jesus’ message that it is the ‘sinners he has come to save and not the righteous.’ The story then moves on to Jesus, the great physician, who was on his way to make an emergency house call. There was a little girl who was in a grave state and her father had pleaded with Jesus to come and heal her. We are told that a large crowd of curious people followed, some hoping that he would succeed, others that he would fail; most probably just got caught up in the excitement of the crowded procession. In this throng, there was one woman who was there for quite a different reason. Here in this large crowd, how could the woman possibly get the attention of Jesus? Her problem was of a very personal nature, and she did not want to discuss the issue publicly. According to Levitical Law, a woman who was bleeding was considered unclean and under that Law could touch no one. Having heard the stories of Jesus’ power she declared, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well.” She then reached out from the crowd and touched the hem of his garment. In Mark’s version of this story, Jesus’ reaction was immediate! He asked, “Who touched me?” The disciples were taken aback. Was this some kind of rhetorical question? Who touched you? Why master look around, everyone is touching you. In Luke’s version, Jesus replied with one of the most mysterious lines in the Bible. He said, “I felt power flow from me.” Whatever happened the important matter of course is that in the midst of the crowd, Jesus felt the touch of a single person. “Take heart daughter,” said Jesus, “your faith has made you well.”

Immediately she was healed! The desperation of this woman’s faith became the channel that led to her healing. When Jesus called his disciples, he didn’t call them to merely observe what he was doing, or so that he could lecture to them. Jesus called his disciples to active practice. When Jesus called his disciples, healed those in need, and taught those who listened, he always asked for some active response. Matthew, and before him Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John, were all asked to make a move in order to accept their new status as followers of Jesus. They got up, left their established routines, their families and friends, and they stepped out onto a new road, just like Abraham. All of this was underpinned by their faith. Their faith that Jesus was the one to lead them, the one to teach them, and the one who would bring them closer to God. Like the woman who reached out and touched the garment of Jesus and was healed by her faith, we too need to reach out to God in prayer and receive his healing touch when we need it. Whenever life feels difficult, whenever we fell as though things are not going well, we must stop and take a moment to pray, and more importantly, have faith and listen for God’s answer. It might not happen immediately, like it did for the woman in today’s Gospel passage, but if we pray hard enough and with faith, things will happen to change our lives for the better.

In your prayers you may wish to pray for:

• Those you know who are ill at this time – for healing, for faith and for strength.
• Those in our community who are struggling in any way – for faith that God will lead them to people who can help their situation.
• Peace in our world – for faith that one day all will know God’s peace and love.
• For all at St. Mary’s – for faith that God is working in and through their lives.

Heavenly Father, as your Son Jesus healed the woman who had suffered haemorrhages for so many years, help us to reach out in faith to you for all our needs and to reach out in love to others who need our help. Amen.

Materials for Worship for Trinity Sunday 2023

Nerys writes: When you hear the word Holy Trinity, I wonder what first comes into your mind? Is it perhaps a church of that name, an image from a  stained glass window or something you’ve read or heard in a sermon? For me in recent weeks it would be this icon.

It was produced by Andrei Rublev early in the fifteenth century and it’s considered to be the highest achievement in Russian art.  You might have heard in the news that it was moved last month against the advice of its restorers,  from a state museum in Moscow to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, a gift from President Putin to Patriarch Krill, one of the most vocal supporters of his invasion of Ukraine.  I was also reminded of it during the last session of our Living the Questions course when we were challenged to think how we live our faith and how we communicate it with others. As I explained to my table companions that evening,  this is the image I return to time and time again when I need to be reminded of what God is like and how I am called to be.

The icon was painted for the monastery of the Holy Trinity of St Sergius, the most important spiritual centre of the Russian Orthodox Church, which a decade earlier had been burnt to the ground in a military raid. The icon was to be for the monks not only a lovely decoration or a teaching tool, but a focus for peaceful contemplation in the midst  of political unrest and violence.

Icon writers usually stick to age-old ways of portraying a subject but with this work, Rublev broke new ground. He used the famous account  of  Abraham’s hospitality towards three mysterious travellers to depict the Holy Trinity. He stripped away the detail of  the story included in traditional icons, leaving only the tree, the house and the mountain which become rich symbols of the story of salvation. These  form a backdrop to the three winged figures sitting in silent conversation around the table. Each of the visitors is identical apart from their clothing and hand gestures which identify them as God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Each looks to the other and as we follow their gaze, a circle is revealed is with a space at the front for the prayerful viewer to step in.

Most icons in Rublev’s day would have had the persons of the Trinity arranged in a triangular shape with God the Father forming the base, the Holy Spirit as a hovering dove  forming the apex, and the Christ-child in the centre. The emphasis here is very different. It’s not so much on expressing the inner workings of the doctrine of the Trinity  but on the way God relates to the world and to us, a mysterious movement of unity and love. Using the famous analogy of Bishop Spong, the emphasis is not on God as ‘a noun that demands to be defined’ but God as ‘a verb that invites us to live, to love, to be’.

And the same emphasis is found in the New Testament readings for today, 2 Corinthians 13.11-13 and Matthew 28.16-20. When Matthew and Paul end their writings with references to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, they are not just drawing on a convenient formula or paying lip-service to traditional teaching. In fact, it would be over a century before theologians began to use words like ‘trinity’ as a shorthand way of expressing what these two authors are articulating. Rather, in these passages, they are both witnessing to a personal understanding of God which motivates them and that they believe will energize and unify the congregations for whom they are writing.

Paul’s final prayer for the divided, bickering congregation in Corinth which we know as ‘The Grace’, sums up the central message of his most deeply personal and heartfelt letter. It is that they are to  love the world as God, the Creator, loves it. They are to have the grace that allowed Jesus to accept God’s will and which will enable them to follow his example. And they are to accept the invitation of the Holy Spirit to find their true identity in belonging together within the fellowship of God’s love.  Paul’s desire for his first readers who were struggling to live together in peace was the same as that of  Rublev for his fellow monks. His icon encourages the viewer to step into the mysterious circle of God’s unity and love which can’t be broken by the powers of the world. We are invited to take our place at the table and enjoy God’s hospitality which challenges hostility, which dissolves difference and breaks down borders and barriers.

The risen Christ of Matthew’s Gospel instructs his worshipping, doubting disciples to offer this hospitality to all the nations of the world. They are to enfold them in the mysterious circle of God’s love by baptising in the name of God the Father who loves us and the whole of Creation, God the Son  who will walk with us to the end of our lives and beyond, and God the Holy Spirit who will dwell within and among us equipping us with all we need to obey everything they we called to be and to do. When we enter into that community  of mutual love, we receive gifts of peace, healing and hope but we are also called to extend the table by becoming both host and guest to others.

In Ordinary Time,  the growing season in the Church Year, it is important for us to consider  how we  choose to live our faith and share it with others, and what will sustain us to do so in these troubled times.  For Rublev and his fellow monks, offering hospitality to others would have been at the centre of what it meant to be a Christian community. They knew that, in order to grow as followers of Christ and bring near the kingdom of God, we need to welcome the stranger, inviting them to join us at our table and also accepting their invitation to us. This kind of  hospitality  is not just about doing good but is an attitude of the heart. It involves being open to see God in others and to respond to their needs.

In your time of prayer this morning, I would encourage you to reflect on your own experience of receiving the hospitality of God. Can you think of ways that you, your family or our church community might offer hospitality to others? What one small thing can you do this week to help bring near the kingdom of God where you are?

Materials for Worship on the Seventh Sunday of Easter

I did my curacy in Bradford on Avon, Peter writes, a lovely town in Wiltshire, about the same size as Dunblane. The church is on the river bank and behind it a steep slope rises to a little chapel called St Mary Torey. (The name has nothing to do with politics but is a West Country name for a high place.)

My children were in the choir and they used to look forward to Ascension Day. Early in the morning the choir would go up the tower and the rest of us would gather at St Mary Torey. The choir would sing “Hail the day that sees him rise” and, being on about the same level, the sound would waft over to us. Then we would go into the chapel for the Eucharist and the boys would go to the organist’s house for bacon rolls and hot chocolate. It was always a memorable occasion.

The effect of celebrating the Ascension this way depends on the ancient imagination of a three-decker universe, with heaven above, hell beneath and the earth in between. But that doesn’t mean that we can reject the Ascension as a piece of outdated cosmology. Let’s look more closely at what it is telling us.

Jesus is taken up into heaven. From the Lord’s Prayer we know that heaven is where God’s will is done and, conversely, where God’s will is done is heaven. To quote the late Pope Benedict XVI, “Earth becomes heaven when and insofar as God’s will is done there”. Taking this a stage further, in today’s reading from John’s Gospel, Jesus says to the Father, “I have glorified you on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do”. So if we want to know God’s will, we look at Jesus and by definition, where Jesus is, there is heaven. During his time on earth Jesus was always in one place at one time and his disciples could see and hear him. But after the Ascension, Jesus is no longer “there”. He has ascended to be with God and God is everywhere. So now, Jesus is everywhere too. In Matthew’s Gospel the Messiah is to be called “Emmanuel”, which means “God is with us”. In the same Gospel Jesus’ last words to the disciples are “Lo, I am with you always, to the end of time”.

Taken together, all this means that wherever and whenever we recognise a Christ-like activity in the world we are experiencing God’s will being done and that heaven is here on earth. To use traditional, metaphorical language, at such moments we “in heart and mind also ascend”.

There is more to the Ascension. In the Creed we say that Jesus now sits at God’s right hand. Now obviously, Jesus isn’t really sitting anywhere and God doesn’t have hands but this is how the ancient world spoke about someone who enjoyed the favour and authority of a king. So to talk about Jesus in this way was – and still is – a challenge to the powers that be, who seek to dominate through violence, oppression and injustice.

And lastly, the Ascension is about mission, our mission to be part of God’s dream for a world that is the opposite of Caesar’s world, where (to use Isaiah’s words) “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid … for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord”. All this is possible because at his ascension Jesus gave us a command: “Go into all the world” and also a promise: we shall not be left alone because at Pentecost we shall receive the power of the Holy Spirit.

And so, at the Ascension it is not just the earthly Jesus who is going to the Father. He draws us up to himself and make us capable of the lofty heights to which we are called.

For Prayer And Reflection

That the Church may be a messenger and witness to the world, in word, deed and prayer;

That the glory of the risen and ascended Lord may shine on those who acknowledge him and those who do not;

That all who exercise power may learn his way of justice, hospitality and mercy;

That we may be aware of where and when God’s will is being done and heaven is here amongst us;

That all who cannot see beyond the clouds of sorrow, sickness, pain or guilt may know his liberating mercy, forgiveness and healing;

That the Lord may receive in mercy the souls of the departed and that, with the saints, they may come to the vision of his glory.

Materials for Worship on the Sixth Sunday of Easter

Nerys writes: Today, church looks quite different from usual. The congregation will be  surrounded by panels like the one below crafted by knitters, crocheters and embroiderers from all around the UK,  reminding us that it is time to make big changes to stop the devastating climate havoc and ecological breakdown that is happening across the world. These panels are part of a mile-and a-half long scarf which was displayed in Glasgow Green during  the United Nations Climate Change Conference,  COP 26,  in 2021. The project was organized by a group called Stitches for Survival. It embodies their passion for the environment and their desire to change the world one stitch at a time.

The banners at the back of church today have a different focus. They tell the stories of people in Malawi who are on the receiving end of the worst of Climate Change as the weather they experience becomes increasingly unpredictable. In February this year, Malawi was hit by Cyclone Freddy, the longest-lasting tropical cyclone on record. The country  experienced a year’s worth of rain in four weeks, over 508,000 people were displaced, hundreds lost their lives,  malaria and cholera are still a threat. Christian Aid has been responding to the immediate crisis but, by supporting locally-run projects,  it is also seeking to help provide long-term solutions. One of these is the use of pigeon peas,  a drought-resistant, soil-revitalising, high-protein, low-cost, delicious crop which is transforming the livelihoods of farmers and improving the lives of the people of Malawi, one family at a time.

We know that caring for the environment and for all people are things very close to God’s heart. We know that we are called to join in God’s work, to protect and restore fragile ecosystems and to ensure justice for those whose lives are being devastated by global warming. We know that we are called to put the needs of the natural world and the survival of the poorest before the consumer lifestyle we enjoy. The thought of making big changes in our everyday lives can be overwhelming, but as today’s readings remind us that when we are in relationship with God, we do not approach these challenges alone or unresourced.

Acts 17.22-31 is a speech given by St Paul in front of the Areopagus in Athens, the epicentre of Greek thought and philosophy. Beneath him was the city’s market-place representing the forces of  politics and commerce, full of people who thought they knew how the world worked. Before him was the Acropolis with its spectacular temples representing all kinds of cults which demanded sacrifices to their gods, serving people who were seeking the divine. Paul’s challenge was to  persuade his intelligent,  learned, religious listeners that there is another, better way to live their lives. That they are called not to be slaves to profit and power, to worship idols or to chase after the latest idea, but to follow the way of the one God who gives us all life and breath, who made the world and everything in it. Paul is trying to convince them to make some big changes in their lives.

John 14.15-21 is a speech delivered in very different circumstances. It is given by Jesus at his last meal to his closest friends. Like Paul in Athens, however, Jesus knew that his listeners would find his message difficult to understand. He needed them to keep his commandments and start living a life shaped by love. This was a huge challenge for people  existing under imperial rule enforced by the power of hatred and fear, within a religious system which perpetuated prejudice and inequality. Jesus also is calling his followers to make some big changes in their lives.

There is no doubt that Jesus places heavy demands on his disciples but he also makes a promise to send us his own spirit to empower us to live for God and for others. The Greek word used to describe the Spirit can be translated in various ways: as the ‘helper’  who gives us the strength and energy to do what we have to do, as the ‘comforter’ who enables us to cope with the difficulties which inevitably follow, and as the ‘advocate’ who constantly reminds God of our plight. The Spirit also gives us that heart-felt knowledge that we are joined to Jesus and to his Father by an unbreakable bond of love to which we are called to testify through the way we live. Moreover, the Spirit  draws us close to each other and enables us to work together as Christ’s body in the world.  We can encourage and enthuse one another as we seek to make the necessary adjustments to our attitudes and to our lives in order to enable change to happen one step at a time.

In church today, we will confess the ways we have  failed to care for the environment and for people like Jen, a loving mum in Malawi, who dreams of her children being able to have the education they deserve. Her hard-working boys have earned places at top colleges but Jen cannot afford to send them both. Food, fuel, fertiliser and school fees have doubled in price in the last twelve months and hard-working farmers like Jen are seeing their harvests fail as the climate crisis brings increasingly erratic weather. You may wish to join us with your own prayers of confession, knowing that our loving God understands and forgives us, following them with a prayer of commitment to make any changes in our own lives which are necessary in order to help counter Climate Change and improve the lives of all those that Jen and her family represent.

Materials for Worship on the Fifth Sunday of Easter

Moira writes: This morning as you prepare for worship you might like to read through our gospel passage, John 14.1-14. This passage is often used at funeral services and can bring comfort to those who are mourning. However, this passage has something to say to us all – here and now. It speaks to the circumstances that trouble our hearts today.

In today’s world, it’s really difficult to listen to these words of Jesus and not be troubled. So many troubling things are happening around us, both in our lives and in the world! Jesus himself was ‘troubled’ when he saw Mary and ‘the Jews who were with her’ weeping over the death of Lazarus. And in John 12.27 Jesus says, “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—’Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.”

“Do not let your hearts be troubled.” These words were spoken on the night that Jesus shared the last supper with his disciples. He had announced his departure from this world, his death! He had washed the feet of his disciples, Judas had left the table to step into the night-time of betrayal, and Peter would soon break his silence with a threefold denial.

‘Our Last Supper’ by Iain Campbell featuring guests of Glasgow City Mission(2016)

“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says. Jesus recognizes that our hearts are troubled. He isn’t warning us about things that will happen in the future, he knows that our troubles and the troubles of the world have already begun. He can see it in us because he’s experienced it within himself. He also knows that our lives and the world are not defined by or limited to what troubles us.

What if not letting our hearts be troubled begins with looking into our own hearts and seeing and naming what those troubles are? Facing up to our worries, things happening in our lives and in our world. It looks like this is the first and most difficult thing Jesus is asking of us in today’s gospel.

I don’t know about you but sometimes it’s easier not to think or to look at what is happening around us. We don’t want to name the things that trouble us because it’s too difficult and too painful, because it forces us to face up to the reality that not everything is working well in present day society and we might wonder where it’s all going and where it will end. We only have to look at the troubles in our National Health Service, the unrest in all areas of the workplace with strikes and protests, not to mention the wars and conflicts happening in many places around the world. And closer to home, the worries and troubles of those who struggle to get by each day because of rising prices and inflation. It’s troubling and we worry where it’s going and how we can get through it.

Thomas speaks for us all when he says, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”. It’s as if we have lost our centre and we don’t know how to re-centre or re-align our troubled hearts and minds. Where do we go when it looks like everything is collapsing around us? So often we need reminding that at the centre of our hearts and minds is God.

When our hearts are troubled, that’s the time we need to re-centre our thoughts and to remember that it’s all part of the great tapestry of life. We can’t expect to go through life completely free from worries, but if we have our faith in God to rely on, then we can, with God’s help, re-centre our hearts and minds.

Phillip says to Jesus, “Lord show us the Father and we will be satisfied.” Phillip doesn’t yet realise that ‘the Father’ is within him, at the centre of his being. God is with him, as he is with us, in the here and now. Our Father’s house is within us, the Kingdom of God is within us. Wherever we go and whatever we face in our lives, God is there with us, he is there in the centre, at the core of everything we do. In the language of today’s gospel, the centre is the Father’s house and there are many dwelling places in this house. In the Father’s house there is a dwelling place for everyone who is troubled. When I say this, I’m not talking about the after-life, and I’m not thinking of this as some sort of celestial place for those who are true believers. I’m taking about the dwelling places as the way that God’s life intersects with our own: in mercy and forgiveness, in justice, generosity, compassion and healing, in love, beauty, wisdom and hope, and in courage, joy and relationship. These are the dwelling places for troubled hearts, the places of re-centering.

A few weeks ago Nerys had a labyrinth in the church hall and we were invited to walk the labyrinth, stopping at places on the way to pray and to re-connect with God. These are places of re-centering and re-focussing on our journey with God. I’m not sure how many of you were able to do this, but if you didn’t manage to walk the labyrinth then, maybe you could think about doing it when the labyrinth in the rectory garden is renewed or use the design here as a finger labyrinth.

Our gospel passage today, I think, is challenging us to think about what is really troubling our hearts today and to remember that God is at the centre of our lives, reminding us that we are not alone. When we find that centre and find balance and harmony in our lives, perhaps we might see and respond to our troubles and the troubles of the world differently.

In your prayers this morning please remember those who are ill or in need of prayer.
Pray for peace in our world, especially in Sudan, Ukraine, Palestine and Israel.
Pray for those who struggle with their faith or have turned away, that God would draw them into his fold.
Give thanks to God for all the good things happening in this community and in our lives.

May God bless you this week and keep you centred in his love.

Materials for Worship on the Third Sunday of Easter

Nerys writes: During the last couple of weeks, I have been delighted to have some dry afternoons to work in the garden of our home in Argyle Way. The soil on the hillside the our side of Dunblane is quite heavy clay. Every winter, the weight of the snow and the driving rain causes it to become quite compacted. So my first job every spring it to turn over the borders and planting areas to open up the soil. It is heavy, tiring work but any gardener would tell you that it’s essential if any new shoots are to push their way through the earth later in the season. Also, I know from experience that a hard, packed surface won’t be able to receive moisture from the spring showers. The water will run off without soaking the roots of the plants.

Jesus understood this. He knew that the packed soil around the edges of fields where people and animals walked, would not yield a harvest however many seeds the sower scattered there. His parable reminds us that the seeds of God’s goodness will not grow in a person who is not ready to accept it. Open hearts and open minds are essential to receive the life that God constantly offers us.

This kind of opening up is at the heart of the Easter story which begins with a wide open tomb. Angels appear, inviting women beaten down by helplessness, grief and anxiety not to be afraid but to open their inner selves to new possibilities. As they listen, they hear a profound and startling message: ‘He is not here for he is risen’. Their minds struggle to accept this incredible news. Mark’s Gospel tells us that they fled from the tomb for terror and amazement had seized them. Overcome by fear, the soil of their hearts was not receptive. According to Mark, they went straight home without saying a word to anyone for they were afraid.

We also are fearful people. The author Henri Nouwen identified over forty years ago the power that fear has to control us. ‘It often seems that fear has invaded every part of our being to such a degree that we no longer know what a life without fear would feel like’, he wrote, Fear closes our hearts to new possibilities, it prevents hope and joy.

Mark’s women aren’t alone in responding to the open tomb in this way. In John’s Gospel, Peter and his companion go inside and notice the graveclothes neatly arranged. The unnamed disciple sees and believes. He has a moment of recognition and his heart is opened to the possibility that God is at work. I find it interesting that we’re not told what Peter thought or felt. I wonder if he was so burdened by remorse that he was unable to respond to what he saw?

Many of us, like Peter, don’t find it easy to open up to God’s forgiveness and unconditional love. We allow our guilt and shame to build up into a thick crust around our hearts preventing the gentle work of reconciliation from happening.
Like the women in Mark, both disciples go home and keep the news to themselves. They leave Mary Magdalene at the tomb sobbing. She sees the angels but is so wrapped up in her grief, so intent on her search for a dead body, that she doesn’t realise who they are. She doesn’t even wait for them to respond to her question. She turns away. All the signs are there that God is at work but she doesn’t see or understand them. She doesn’t even recognise Jesus when he stands right in front of her. Blinded by her tears, she turns away.

Many of us are familiar with the desolation felt by Mary, affected as we have been by the global events of the last few years and also perhaps by personal losses. Our natural reaction is to curl up inside, nursing our grief, rather than opening ourselves up to the healing love of God. The familiar voice of Jesus cuts through Mary’s preoccupation with her pain, calling her back into relationship with him. She sees, she understands, she responds – eyes, mind and heart open to the one she calls her teacher.

Mary runs to tell the others ‘I have seen the Lord!’ but they don’t believe her. The author of Mark’s Gospel has Jesus later reproaching the disciples for their lack of faith and stubbornness. It’s easy to dismiss these uncharacteristically harsh words but sometimes we can be our own worst enemies. Sometimes we choose to keep our hearts and minds closed to wonder and surprise. We resist change, we refuse new attitudes, new opportunities, even though we know deep in our hearts that this is what would bring new life and growth in us.

We’re not told in John’s Gospel why Thomas had refused to accept the words of his excited friends, although he must have seen the transformation in them as they had earlier seen the transformation in Mary. It seems that he also just couldn’t open his heart and mind to the wonderful possibility that it’s the crucified Jesus they had seen. He needed proof. He needed to see for himself.

There is probably something of Thomas in each one of us. There are times when we think we need something specific from God and nothing else will do. It’s ironic that Jesus challenges Thomas’ resistance by inviting him to touch the openness of his wounds. ‘Thomas’, Jesus says, ‘don’t close yourself off but believe, be open, receive the truth’. Thomas surrenders and with great vulnerability and great faith responds, ‘My Lord and my God!’

In our Gospel passage today, Luke 24.13-35, the author recounts that the eyes of the two disciples, like those of Mary, were closed to their risen Lord when he joined them on their journey. Their conversation suggests that they were too caught up in their dashed hopes and broken dreams to realise that the embodiment of all their expectations was walking beside them.

The same thing can happen to us. Our preconceived notions of how things should be can close our minds and hearts to other possibilities. Jesus responds by coming alongside the two travellers, encouraging them to let go of their fixed ideas, turning over their inner beings and seeding them with hope and trust until they are ready to commune with him at the table. It is only later that they realise how his loving presence had opened them up as he opened the Scripture to them and broke open the bread.

On that same evening in John’s Gospel, Jesus once more meets his followers gathered behind closed doors, and opens them up to himself and to his peace and his joy. The image used by John for the giving of the Holy Spirit is of Jesus breathing into them as God had breathed life into Adam. The same Greek verb is used for blowing into a musical instrument. Both the giving and the receiving require deep trust and openness.

Finally Jesus opens his followers out towards the future and towards the whole world by sending them as he was sent. He also gives them authority to open up the past to a new future through forgiveness. There is no ending to this encounter with Jesus or to any of the others, no mention of a departing. The presence of the risen Christ is a permanent, living, reality. The sharing of God’s spirit doesn’t stop. This is the beginning of a life-long relationship, a mutual indwelling which affects every aspect of our living.

Easter is about openness. It’s about God bringing about growth from the turned over soil of our spirits. This Easter season are we open and ready to receive the seeds of grace?

A prayer:
Jesus you are risen! You are with us! Keep us ever mindful of how you are part of our lives in a deep and profound way. Surprise us with a touch of your love in places where we never thought that we would find you. Fill our hearts with hope. May the gift of your presence transform every ordinary moment of ours into a sacred place where you dwell. Help us to see this gift through the eyes of love. Fill us with your peace and joy. Amen.


Jan Richardson, End and Beginning

James B. Janknegt, The Road to Emmaus

Prayer: Joyce Rupp

Materials for Worship on the Second Sunday of Easter

Peter writes

At the Baptism of Christ, back in January, Nerys encouraged us to spend the time between then and Pentecost to reflect on the significance of baptism. For Jesus, his baptism was in the Epiphany season and marked the beginning of his earthly ministry. In the Early Church though, baptisms almost always happened at Easter and we still renew our baptism promises in our Easter liturgy. It doesn’t happen often but if there is a baptism as well, it adds a lot to the joy of our Easter celebration. I still remember the thrill of baptising my twin grandsons on Easter Day twenty years ago.

They were still babes in arms but you can be baptised at any age. I remember in one parish how a man in his 80s asked me one day if he could be baptised. Apparently he had missed out because his father was away in the trenches in the First World War. I realised that this was something he had to do while he still could – and indeed he died a few months later.

This brought home to me that baptism is not just a happy family occasion. It is a serious business and in the Early Church the season of Lent was a period of intense preparation by prayer and fasting, and baptism was by full immersion. If you are ever in Milan, go and see the archaeological remains underneath the present cathedral. There is a massive font, 3 or 4 metres across. This is where St Ambrose would have baptised converts, including – staggering thought – St Augustine himself.

My colleague in Vevey, on Lake Geneva, often used to baptise people in the lake. I have to admit that when I was Rector in Largs I was never tempted to do it in in the Firth of Clyde but whether it’s your whole body or a splash of water on the head, it shows that baptism is part of the Easter mystery. Just as we once lived in liquid in our mother’s womb but then at the moment of birth gasp in the air, so at baptism we go down into the water, in which we can no longer live, and then we are lifted up, coughing and spluttering to breathe in the air. We leave the old life behind  and breathe in the clear, pure air of new life. The meaning of baptism is to show us how we can can go down to the tomb but then be raised, reborn to a new, eternal life. We are shown that Jesus’ story of resurrection can be out story too – in this world as well as in the world to come.

Just as Jesus’ baptism marked the beginning of his earthly ministry, so our baptism – whether we remember it or not – is a sign that we have a ministry to fulfil. On Maundy Thursday the bishop blessed oil to be used at baptism. It is called the oil of chrism (or anointing). In ancient times people were anointed with oil was a sign that they were marked out for a special task and when Charles is crowned he will be anointed with oil blessed by the Patriarch of Jerusalem. We also are called to serve God and our fellow men and women in the daily round, the common task. When we do, we have left the old life behind and have entered on a new life, the Easter life of resurrection.


For prayer and reflection.

Take some time to consider how we might fulfil our commitment to Christian life:

 Will you continue in the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers?

Will you proclaim the good news by word and deed, serving Christ in all people?

Will you work for justice and peace, honouring God in all creation?

Will you, with the whole Church, live and work for the kingdom of God?


The original font underneath Milan Cathedral



Materials for Worship at Easter

Nerys writes: As many of you know, I’ve been putting aside time every day in Lent to work my way very slowly through John’s Gospel. In the process, I have learnt a great deal, not only about this wonderful text but also about myself as a reader. One thing I have discovered is that in order to enter deeper into most of John’s narrative passages, I will very naturally imagine the scene, the people and the events, visually, as a series of paintings which I can examine and explore. Some particular passages, however, demand another approach. For these, I tend to translate what I read into music, imagining the atmosphere, the action, the voices as a series of sounds made by orchestral instruments. John 20.1-18 is one of those special passages which is so rich and mysterious that it calls on us to use more than one of our senses in order to bring it to life and grasp its meaning.

It starts with darkness and, as with every musical composition, with silence. This silence, however, is a prolonged one. After giving us an hour by hour account of the events of the last days of Jesus’ life, the author tells us nothing about the time between the burial of his body and the discovery of the empty tomb. I invite you to stay with that silence for a moment. Is it the absolute silence, stillness, emptiness of death or is it like the silence of night, the silence which proceeds the dawn of a new day? Is it perhaps the same silence as that of Genesis 1, the silence which anticipates Creation, when God’s Spirit hovers noiselessly over the void? The expectant silence we experience as an orchestra waits for their conductor to pick up the baton.

What follows, however, is not the orderly, harmonious progression of the first creation story, but disjointed, stuttering, chaotic rhythms. The empty tomb is discovered. Mary runs, Peter and the other disciple run. (There is more running in these verses than in the rest of the gospels put together.) We hear above the pounding of the feet, Mary’s urgent call full of terror and incomprehension: ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb’. And her agonised cry of loss, the cry of all who experience desolation and abandonment: ‘We do not know where they have laid him’.

Image: Mary Magdalene in the Garden by Sieger Koder

As the early morning light grows stronger, the turmoil subsides. Chaos gives way to curiosity as Peter and his companion notice the graveclothes neatly arranged inside the tomb. The unnamed disciple sees and believes. The beginnings of a new tune is heard as hope surges in the young man’s heart. He doesn’t understand yet but he knows deep down that a new world has dawned.

The bright notes of his new-found delight in God’s creative power fade away with the disciples’ hurried return to the city and we are left with the desolate sound of Mary’s sobbing. Stay with the rhythm of her tears as she stands alone at the tomb. It is through those tears that she sees the angels lighting up the gloom. Their question invites her to share the cause of her grief: ‘They have taken away my Lord.’ Hear the grief of our world concentrated in her lament. ‘They have taken away … my home, my family, my rights, my dignity, my freedom, my hope.’

Traumatised and distracted, Mary turns away without waiting for a response. Another figure appears before her, indistinct, unfamiliar. A stranger who repeats the angel’s question and to whom she repeats her cry of loss. A stranger she takes to be the gardener, one she again turns away from in her passionate searching for the dead body of her Lord. And then, cutting through the discordant sounds of her confusion and desperation, two gentle notes: ‘Mary!’ The Good Shepherd calling her by name. Pause to hear Jesus calling you by your name and calling to himself all those who need his love and healing today.

Image: Jesus Mafa Project

The one Mary had seen and mistaken for the gardener she now recognises as her teacher. The tune of delighted astonishment returns as she calls out, ‘Rabbouni’, and opens her arms to hug him. But this is a new relationship, a different kind of intimacy. Jesus is on his way to be one with his Father who is also our Father. The music tingles with new possibilities as Jesus embraces his followers within his family relationship with God. They are no longer his servants or friends, they are his siblings. Their sister Mary is sent to pass on his message to them and to share her own experience: ‘I have seen the Lord!’ Stay with the music of her footsteps as she heads once more towards Jerusalem. This is the very beginning of a tune whose harmony is to grow richer and stronger as more and more come to believe in the risen Lord and entrust themselves to him. This is a tune to which you and I are called to add our voices and our lives.

Materials for Worship for Holy Week

Nerys writes: I wonder when you were last in a large crowd? Can you remember what it was like? Was it fun or were you frightened? In the Gospel of the Palms and the Gospel of the Passion which will be read in church today, Jesus faces large crowds. The first one welcomes him and treats him like a king, shouting ‘Hosanna’, the second one wants him dead, shouting ‘Crucify him!’. Sometimes we welcome Jesus and other times we turn our backs on him but our loving God will always be faithful to us.

As you read Matthew 21.1-11 today and work your way through Matthew chapters 26 and 27 during the week, you may wish to imagine the various crowds that gathered around him and even place yourself among them.

Crowds had followed Jesus throughout his ministry. People came from everywhere to hear him teach. Some followed him for fish and bread. Some came for the chance of seeing one of his miracles. Many came to be healed. Very few recognised him for who he was.

Jesus didn’t seek crowds. He sought personal ongoing relationships. He didn’t drive away the crowds but on several occasions, he escaped them to be alone or with his disciples. Nevertheless, the crowds continued to seek him.

On his last journey, though, Jesus led a large crowd from Jericho to Jerusalem. His disciples had been forewarned of what lay ahead. The crowd had no notion of what they were part of. Many were eagerly anticipating a glorious Passover, an uprising perhaps, leading to freedom from Roman oppression. And the grand entry Jesus had choregraphed seemed to confirm all their hopes. Many responded with shouts of joy as he made his way into the holy city as the Messiah, the new King of Israel.

Pope Francis kisses a baby after celebrating his first Palm Sunday Mass, in St. Peter’s Square, at the Vatican,. The square overflowed with a joyful crowd of some 250,000 pilgrims, tourists and Romans eager to join the new pope at the start of Holy Week 2013. (Photo: Alessandra Tarantino)

Others sought to silence the crowd. The Jerusalem establishment had been shaken by the popularity of the outsider who was now inside their city. The joyful, worshipping crowd was a threat to the political status quo. Its leader was a threat to their authority. They conspired to get rid of him and they succeeded …

The crowd which gathered at Pilate’s palace after the arrest of Jesus was a very different crowd. This was a crowd attending a political event designed by Rome. It was a crowd drawn together by self-interest.

Every year during the festival of the Passover, the Governor would release one prisoner. It was his cunning way of displaying his power and currying favour among a conquered people. The crowd was made up of factions who had come to support a particular figure. There were also onlookers drawn by the spectacle, people who might be easily swayed to follow the majority. The crowd voted by voice. The name being shouted loudest would be released. On that day the voices of the crowd drown out the pleading of Pilate’s wife and the whispers of his own conscience.

A crowd of Palestinian Christians  carry a cross through streets lined with Israeli soldiers during a Good Friday procession in Jerusalem..  (Photo: Sebastian Scheiner)

The crowd at the cross was the most diverse of all the crowds of Holy Week. Some were triumphant, some heartbroken, some just curious. But watching the crucifixion held everyone spellbound. They were all spectators apart from the Roman soldiers carrying out their orders. Some remained full of disdain and contempt. Some were bereft, disappointed, in the depths of despair. Others left profoundly moved, realising that the crucifixion of Jesus was no ordinary crucifixion and that Jesus was no ordinary man. No one in the crowd fully understood what had happened that afternoon.

The understanding was to come later among those who were ready to form a lasting personal relationship with the risen Christ. It was to come in early morning encounters, in locked rooms, on the road, on mountain tops, wherever two or three were gathered together …

Wonderful God, thank you that you meet me right here where I am sitting – in the ordinary stuff and activities of my day. As I journey through Holy Week, help me to recognise you in Jesus, and empower me to live like him. Amen.

Materials for Worship on 26th March

Lazarus appears only once in the Gospels, Peter writes, and these verses in John 11.1-45 are a sort of curtain-raiser for what follows. The fifth Sunday of Lent is called Passion Sunday. If you are passive, then you are suffering what is done to you by an attacker, which is how it is for Jesus on Good Friday. But, of course, the word passion also means something you feel deeply about. And we are told that at the tomb of Lazarus Jesus “was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved“. Then he wept.

Whether it is for stamp collecting, a football team or a person, someone’s passion tells us a lot about their character. So what does this incident tells us about the character of Jesus? What is he passionate about? In a word it is liberation. “Unbind him and let him go” he cries. Throughout the Bible that has been God’s passion – to release Israel from bondage in Egypt, from exile in Babylon and to bring them back to Jerusalem. We see the same thing in the ministry of Jesus, but on a more personal level. Lazarus, like the son of the widow of Nain and Jairus’ daughter in Luke’s gospel, are brought to life and restored to their families. So too the lepers he heals are no longer outcasts but are restored to society.

In his hymn O for a thousand tongues to sing Charles Wesley expresses it beautifully in a series of contrasts:

Hear him, ye deaf; his praise ye dumb
your loosened tongues employ.
Ye blind behold your Saviour comes,
and leap ye lame for joy.

They were all held in bondage but now they have been unbound and set free.

Take away the stone by John August Swanson

The stone that Jesus had instructed the crowd to take away is a symbol of the things that hold us back. Jesus’ passion is to take away that stone, whatever it is for each of us, that barrier preventing us from attaining all that God has intended for us. Or – to put it in more traditional language – from entering into eternal life. When Lazarus died Jesus did not to try to comfort Mary and Martha by saying, “Well now he’s gone to a better place in heaven”. As he said at the beginning of his ministry “The kingdom of heaven is within [or “among] you.” That is, we can experience the joys of heaven in this life too. That is Jesus’ passion for all of us, now.

But we must not forget the other meaning of passion. Lazarus, after all, had to die before he could receive new life. As he set off for Jerusalem, Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would follow me, you must first take up your cross”. That is, we must leave an old life behind and enter into a new life liberated from habits and life-styles that limit our possibilities and the possibilities of others. Jesus’ passion, God’s passion, is for our wellbeing and the wellbeing of all creation.

And so, the story of Lazarus is more than a curtain-raiser. It is the key to the good news that Jesus came to bring. His passion is to bring us new life, free from the bondage of injustice, physical or mental disabilities, prejudice or hatred.

“Lazarus, come out”. These are the words that lead to eternal life.

For your prayers
for the trust that takes away all fear and brings new life;
We ask you to hear us, good Lord.

for the Church to witness to the power of resurrection and to Christ’s risen presence among us;
We ask you to hear us, good Lord.

for all hemmed in by social or political bondage, by habits and life choices that block the way that leads to hope, peace and wellbeing;
We ask you to hear us, good Lord.

for all who suffer a loss of freedom and for those who inflict it on them;
We ask you to hear us, good Lord.

for all who are striving to find ways that lead to eternal life and to turn away from all that is harmful;
We ask you to hear us, good Lord.

for all at the point of death, for all who mourn the loss of loved ones, for all who have died recently and those whose anniversaries occur at this time;
We ask you to hear us, good Lord.

We offer these prayers for the sake of him who came to bring good news and who has the words of eternal life, Jesus Christ our Saviour.

Material for Worship on the Fourth Sunday of Lent

Nerys writes: Those of you who have read my letter in the last issue of the church magazine will know that I have been inspired to read the Gospel of John in a different way this year. I’m working my way through it leisurely and thoughtfully, allowing it to speak into my life. It isn’t the way I would normally read a book, but this isn’t just any book. In my experience, Scripture doesn’t just explain things or tell us what to do or inspire or entertain us. Scripture enables us to enter into a conversation with God. And in John’s Gospel in particular, I have found that God reveals to an attentive reader who God is and how God works in our lives through Jesus, the Word. Through the stories, the conversations, the teaching and the drama, we are invited to see our world through the eyes of Christ, and to respond. We are not encouraged to seek definitive answers to the mysteries of life, but instead to ask ‘How can I live it in relationship with God?’

Our Gospel for today is John’s account of the healing by Jesus of a blind beggar and of the way others respond to this act of compassion. I invite you to read John chapter 9 prayerfully and expectantly, dwelling on any words, phrases or ideas that seem surprising or significant to you, allowing them to speak into your situation.

It is easy to get lost in this long and intricate passage with its many groups of characters and the sustained play on the ideas of physical and spiritual blindness and sight, on darkness and light. In order to navigate it successfully, I suggest you first focus on the blind man, the only character who appears in every scene of the drama.

Blind beggar by Jules Bastien-Lepage

It was as Jesus was slipping away from the temple on a day when a confrontation with a group of religious teachers almost ended in violence, that he saw him. This man is not given a name. Instead, he is referred to throughout by his disability, the congenital blindness which meant that he was reliant on the good will of visitors to the temple for his survival.

This was a man with nothing going for him. As he sat on the ground begging, he would have been invisible to many of the worshippers or they would have studiously avoided him for fear of contamination. His birth defect would have rendered him unclean in their eyes, cut off from the love of God.

Jesus, however, sees him. His response, whatever that was, causes his disciples to seek to engage their teacher in a theological discussion. They assume that his blindness was God’s punishment for sin, either his own or that of his parents. We’re not told what the man himself thought, but where the disciples see a problem, Jesus sees a person in need and an opportunity for the true nature of God to be revealed in him. We are not told either how this man felt but we can imagine his amazement and delight when Jesus proclaims himself to be the Light of the World and turns his words into life-changing action. Unlike Naaman the Leper of the Old Testament, the man immediately obeys the instruction to go and wash, and returns from the pool of Siloam able to see.

The miracle of this man’s transformation is not the end of the story. He is now called to testify to what happened to him. Over and over again, he is questioned, over and over again, he doggedly tells his tale, and as he does so he gradually comes to see who it is that has healed him. He moves from a place of ignorance to recognizing Jesus as a prophet, a man sent from God. And as his faith grows, so does his confidence. Unlike his fearful parents, he is ready to hold his own as his neighbours dispute his identity and the religious authorities interrogate, ridicule and reject him. His clear, increasingly courageous testimony brings to mind that of Jesus under arrest, and likewise divides his accusers. He is the only one who is in no doubt about who he is, what has happened to him and who was responsible.

As he stuck to his story, however, it must have dawned on him that none of the prophets had actually performed such a miracle. To open the eyes of a person born blind is the work of God, a sign of the coming of the Messiah. So when Jesus returns to find him, he is ready to enter into a relationship of trust, understanding and love with him. He is ready to believe in the Son of Man and to worship him.

As the man who was blind journeys into the light of God’s love, Jesus’ opponents choose to reject that light and remain inwardly blind. And watching on the sidelines are the disciples, the man’s parents and neighbours, bystanders and also us, the readers of the Gospel. What will our journey be as we approach Easter this year? Will it be into light or darkness, healing or rejection? John shows us that we have a choice.

In your prayers this morning, I invite you to ask for insight and wisdom for all in positions of authority and influence, for deep healing for all who are suffering and in need and for the light of God’s transforming love to shine into your own life and that of those you love.

On this Mothering Sunday,

May God our Maker, our mother, our friend,
Wrap us in wholeness,
Keep us in kindness,
And bless our journey homewards. Amen.
(Frances Copsey)