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Autumn 2020 reflections Reflections

Week 3: John 13:34-35

A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.
By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.

John 13:34-35

By Revd Canon Andrew Bunch, Vicar of St Giles’ and St Margaret’s, Oxford:

Very early in my time as a parish priest I asked another priest, who had been at school with me, what was the best way of getting the message of the Gospel across to people. He gave me a very simple and direct response… “Just love them!” Challenging and concise …. But what is love?

Get a group of clergy together and you can be sure that before too long they are talking about funerals. But what makes people want to go to a funeral? The answer seems to be that the people who come are those who have been touched by the love of the deceased. This was made plain to me by one particular funeral, of a lonely lady, that I took early in my days as a parish priest. The lady’s next-door neighbours came to me for the funeral interview and early on they said something very strange… “she was a very difficult woman.” Well, it isn’t normal for people to say that of the one who has just died, so I noted the comment, but put it to one side. Then they used the same phrase again a few minutes later and a few minutes after that. I realised it couldn’t be ignored. So, I asked how did they get to know the deceased? It came about from many years before when the couple moved into their house, this lady had helped them over a couple of matters. For me, that really demonstrated the power of even a limited act of love in forming a lasting relationship.

The trouble is our society seems to want to equate love with liking something a lot, but this doesn’t ring true with the reality of life. Love seems to be the glue in life that holds people together despite their differences and disagreements. Love bridges the gaps between people, cares for them in a time of need and essentially gives people a chance when a rational choice would be to walk away. These insights indicated the need for a re-assessment of Jesus’ statement recorded in John’s Gospel “love one another as I have loved you.”

My quest became to define the characteristics of the nature of love that Jesus had demonstrated in his life and talked about in his teaching. There were some definite themes that came up namely compassion, forgiveness, mercy, and a generosity of heart. This is what goes to make a community in which love is known and experienced. But the implication of the Beatitudes indicates that the kind of love Jesus was wanting people to engage with was dynamic and not static in character. For the Beatitudes set before us principles that can never be completed, they present an ongoing challenge.

Having gained these insights, the question was how to share them in a way which could be readily understood and applied in our current society. I wanted to find a model to get the message across and the one that came to mind was “the arrow of love”, the picture shows it in diagrammatic form. Although the model may seem novel in Christianity, it is actually indicated in the book “The Cloud of Unknowing“ by a medieval Christian mystic, which states that …. it is only with the arrow of love that you can pierce the cloud of unknowing surrounding God.

But the intention of an arrow only really comes into being when it is in flight and for this to happen, there must be a pressure wave that precedes the tip of the arrow. Searching for the characteristic of love which corresponds to this function caused my whole understanding of Jesus’ life and teaching to go through a somersault. For I realised that for the arrow of love to fly, the prerequisite is a spirit of humility. The teaching on this is present many times in the Gospel, but I had failed to recognise it. It is present in Jesus’ birth, his death, his teaching about becoming like a child and his condemnation of James and John wanting the best of places in God’s Kingdom… it is there time and time again.

The arrow of love seems to give a clear insight into the nature of love Jesus wants us to take into our way of life. All of us can make this arrow fly in our lives but … it demands that we live with a humility of heart. It is joyous when the arrow is in flight in our lives, it transforms the world around us, for the flight of the arrow of love creates a culture of generosity in its wake.

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Autumn 2020 reflections Reflections

Week 2: Matthew 5:1-12

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Matthew 5:1-12

By Tricia Brant, Community Worker at St Margaret’s, Oxford:

The Beatitudes are my favourite part of the Bible. If I could only keep one part of scripture, this would be it. They are challenging, inspiring, powerful and rich, but also full of hope – they each come with a promise. They show the ‘upside-down-ness’ of God – God’s values are different. ‘His delight is not in the strength of a horse, nor his pleasure in the speed of a runner’ Psalm 147 v 10. The Beatitudes are counter-cultural; they are kingdom values. They cause us to reassess the things we strive after, to try to look at and value people differently, and to see treasure in those who are overlooked.

If our society were to write the Beatitudes, they would be the opposite of Jesus’ words. They would say ‘Blessed are the successful, the powerful, the rich, and the self-assertive’. This leaves no room for those to whom life didn’t deal the best hand, who didn’t have the same opportunities or privileges. Fortunately, God doesn’t value what we value, he sees people differently.

Jesus spent his life and ministry with the outcasts and untouchables, in many ways those he called ‘blessed’ in the Beatitudes, those who knew their need of God. He saw value in them, called them his friends – this is God incarnate, the King of Kings, the creator of the world calling the downtrodden friends. He didn’t choose to spend his time with the morally upright and socially acceptable, he chose to honour the smelly and the dirty, the uneducated, the lowest of the low. He didn’t have to make himself feel better about himself by being surrounded with those who reflected well on him. He knew his value, he knew he was loved by the Father, he didn’t need to prove it. This, our truly humble God.

Humility is a common thread that goes through the Beatitudes. To be poor in spirit and meek, you must know your need of God. Mourning and persecution themselves bring humility, there is little room for pride – a wise person once told me that ‘being widowed is a great leveller’. To be merciful requires the humility to look at another’s needs and to see them as important. To be pure in heart requires a grace and humility towards others. To be a peacemaker requires putting aside your rights and compromising. All these require a degree of laying down ourselves, of not pursuing selfish gain. Having the perspective of a greater good, of building God’s kingdom.

I once knew a gentle homeless man called Herminio. I remember sitting with him in a group of people from a soup kitchen in Montevideo. At that time, he was so degraded by his circumstances, completely humiliated. He didn’t talk and could only grunt, he was stooped over, smelly and dirty. He sat there scratching away and pulling out from under his clothing the biggest lice I had ever seen. He then later got up and shuffled to the bathroom, leaving the most awful smell. I later painted a portrait of him as part of a series of homeless men from the soup kitchen in Montevideo. I renamed each one after strong Biblical characters, who on the surface, were unlikely leaders, but God saw qualities in them that were not apparent to others. This was to show that God doesn’t value people as we do but, sees us differently. I remember sitting in my studio one day, looking at my painting of Herminio and thinking ‘how does God see him?’ My answers were, He absolutely loves him, beyond measure and things along those lines but thinking it would be in a rather patronising and pitying way. Then it hit me: God would be overwhelmed with pride and love for him. With pure delight, He would be telling everyone, ‘Look! This is my son!’ He would want to show him off to everyone, more than any parent whose child has achieved great acclaim. I was humbled. If he had been a relative of mine, I wouldn’t have wanted anyone to know. I would have been tempted to hide him away and been so embarrassed. But God sees beyond our dirt and sin, our failures and weaknesses. He loves us completely and absolutely, beyond measure and without boundaries, with pure pride and delight – He sees us differently.                                            

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Autumn 2020 reflections Reflections

Week 1: John 10:10

“I have come that you may have life in all its fullness”. John 10:10

By Revd Canon Andrew Bunch, Vicar of St Giles’ and St Margaret’s, Oxford:

The Christian faith has been an integral part of my life from my earliest days. I was brought up in a vicarage and went to a secondary school with a religious foundation. Although I knew the key stories of the Bible and regularly worshipped in church, I cannot say that I could have given a clear view of what Bible stories motivated my faith. But this started to change in the 1980s, partially due to regularly travelling on the underground going home from my place of work in the City of London. 

On that journey, the underground train regularly stopped in a disused station whilst waiting for the lights to proceed. Chalked on the empty station wall was “Jn 10:10” and, as I tended to travel in the same carriage each day, I saw this inscription fairly frequently. After a while I became curious about the reference and so looked it up. From then on, the quotation has become lodged in my mind.

My commitment to a life of faith has grown over the years and in the early 1980’s it propelled me to enquire about ordination. On the second attempt, I was accepted for training and was ordained to be a priest working in secular employment. I definitely did not want to be a parish priest, I wanted to bring the Christian faith into the workplace and have this outreach rooted in the parish back home. My level of responsibility at work grew and things went well for me. One day my boss came in to have a quiet chat. He indicated that I could have a great career in the company, but I would have to give up my active involvement with the life of the church. I was well aware of the tensions he was referring to; it become very obvious when I had to prepare a sermon in the middle of the night when flying back from a presentation I had just given in Anchorage. But the question that my boss had posed made me reflect on how I wanted to spend the rest of my working life.

“I have come that you may have life in all its fullness” – Yes, I wanted to have a life which would be the most fulfilling that it could be. Yes, I could pursue a career in industry, but would this be completely fulfilling to the person that I am? It seemed that such a life could only be partially fulfilling for me. Such a life would not be fully in touch with the core of my being, especially if I had to set aside my commitment to share the Christian faith with others. So, the die was cast; I handed in my resignation and became and parish priest.

What I can say is that the life that followed has tested me to the utmost, in many different ways. I have been involved with others in situations that I would never otherwise had access to. Insights, special moments, pains and joys have been shared that I would never otherwise experienced. Life has been very full, “my cup has overflowed” in so many different ways – it has been a roller-coaster of a ride.

I know that I owe an awful lot to others that have shared their lives with me. I haven’t been bungie jumping like my sons, but I have plumbed the depths and seen life in times of the greatest delight. I realise that life in all its fullness is not a solo affair, it is a shared experience, known in community with others. So, I want to say a huge thank you to all of you who have shared in the journey that I have been on in the past 23 years. I am sorry for any pain or distress I have unwittingly caused, and I want to thank you for all the various ways you have enriched my life. Thank you all, but most of all I want to thank Kathryn and my family for travelling this journey with me. All of you have helped me glimpse what life can be like in all its fullness when we take the Gospel that Jesus shared to heart and try to make it real in our own lives.

When I was ordained someone from the local convent gave me a card on which the words of Dag Hammarskjöld were written “For all that has been, Thanks. To all that shall be, Yes!” Is this sentiment an appreciation of John 10:10 in real life?

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Autumn 2020 reflections Reflections

Introduction to Autumn Reflections 2020

From Revd Canon Andrew Bunch, Vicar of St Giles’ and St Margaret’s, Oxford:

This is my last opportunity to share the passages of the Bible have been especially significant for me during my time as your parish priest. But rather that make this exercise a solo affair, I wanted to involve the people leading the various aspects of ministry in this Benefice to share their understanding of these passages that have become special to me. So, in this series of reflections, a range of perspectives will be offered rather than a recollection of ideas you have already heard.

Ten key passages have been selected and on the Saturdays from October 10th onwards a reflection will be offered on one of the passages. On the days of the week following, a sentence or two will be offered on how the passage might affect our approach to daily life.

I hope these passages bring insights to mind which have been key in my ministry here in Oxford.  They might help you to gain a greater understanding to the spiritual insights that have inspired my ministry with you over this time.

If you would like to be notified by email each Saturday when a new weekly reflection is posted, please make sure you are subscribed to the “prayer & faith” emails from St Giles’ (click here) or St Margaret’s (click here).

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