Autumn 2020 reflections Reflections

Week 10: John 1:14

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
John 1:14

By Revd Canon Andrew Bunch

Throughout my life, Christmas has been one of the highlights of the year, particularly when I was a child. Was it the festive church services that made it all so special? Well, if I am totally honest, I think the answer would be no, not really. It was the family atmosphere, the special food and the Christmas cake, but most especially waking up on Christmas morning and wondering what presents there were to be unwrapped. Yes, the day was full of expectation, joy, and family love. Going to church was part of this celebration, but it was the physical reality of the secular celebration that made the day really special.

Now you might find that a shocking admission from someone who is/ was your parish priest and was brought up in a vicarage household. It might sound as if it was a betrayal of the centrality of the Christian Gospel in the shaping of our lives. But I just wonder if this degree of honesty is actually a call to strip away some of the sideshows of what we take as the Christian Gospel and discover the real significance of Christmas for our lives.

Just take a step back and ask a few questions about what is recorded about the birth of Jesus in the Gospels. First, the details of the birth of Jesus are not recorded in either the Gospel of Mark or in John. These two Gospel writers didn’t think it was either important enough to record or the details had not been remembered by them. The name of Jesus’ earthly father is not noted by Mark and John doesn’t mention the name of Jesus’ mother. So, in two of the Gospels the birth and early years of Jesus’ life are not seen as being particularly significant to the Gospel to be communicated.

It is true that both Matthew and Luke name both Jesus’ earthly father and mother and both give an account of his birth, but there are some major differences between the two accounts. The way the two Gospels handle the material around Jesus’ birth indicate a considerable overlay of theology built up around Jesus’ birth. In Matthew there is a desire to show Jesus’ birth is special in nature but also rooted in the past associated with the people of Israel. In Luke, Jesus’ birth is also seen as miraculous, but two themes seem to shape the story; namely the failure of the established leaders of the nation’s religion to be able to believe the word of God in action (Zechariah not believing the angel in the Holy of Holies) and the reconciliation of past hurts as Simeon greets Jesus, Joseph’s son (recall the enmity between Joseph and Simeon  in Genesis 42). Both Matthew and Luke see something very special is associated with the birth of Jesus, but it seems in all four Gospels it is not the details of Jesus’ birth that are of primary importance and needs to be celebrated, it is something much greater than this.

I believe the that primary importance of the Christmas celebration is neatly captured in the words of John… “The word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us and we beheld his glory, the Glory of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth”. This is the heart of our faith about the birth of Jesus, that his very presence and life display the nature and love of God in material form. So rather than scoff and make tut-tutting noises about the secular Christmas celebrations, maybe we should recognise they have a point. At Christmas, maybe we should look around afresh at this material world and stop and wonder. For it is the love and glory that we experience in a physical form in this material world, that we see the nature of God most fully. It is God’s creation, and it is his gift to us.

Jesus’ life and witness demonstrate how wonderful and beautiful this world can be when we open our eyes to see God’s glory and grace in his creation. Yes, let’s give thanks for the opening of our eyes to this truth and make the celebration of Christmas something which is truly glorious and inclusive. In this way, maybe we are on the point of recognising God’s presence more fully in the midst of his most wonderful creation that he has given us to enjoy.

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Autumn 2020 reflections Reflections

Week 9: John 20:19-23

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
John 20:19-23

By Revd Daniel Walters

“Fear”, a wise spiritual teacher once said, “is the path to the dark side”.

Okay, it was a fictional green alien spiritual teacher from Star Wars, but the point still stands. We don’t generally think of fear as being a moral weakness, but as a legitimate emotional response to a dangerous situation. Indeed, if humans literally had no fear, then we would not have survived for as long as we have!

But, famously, the Biblical injunction to “not be afraid” is the most frequent instruction given to believers, in both the Old and New Testaments. It may not be spoken 365 times as is sometimes claimed, but we are certainly talking triple figures, especially if we include similar phrases.

In this case, however, when Jesus appears to the apostles for the first time after the resurrection – huddled as they were in a locked room, terrified of the religious authorities – Jesus does not tell them to “not be afraid”. Instead he says something far more profound: he says “peace be with you”.

Being at peace is something far deeper than a simple lack of fear. It is a lifetime’s work of being truly able to accept oneself and those around us. To see both ourselves and others, and the whole created order, as truly creatures of God, loved unconditionally by him.

I suspect that’s something few of us will ever fully achieve in this life (I know I certainly have a long way to go!), but the fleeting glimpses we may receive are precious gifts that stay with us.

Yet just as Jesus offers this gift of peace to his disciples, to his friends, he gives them something which perhaps should strike them with fear: he sends them out, just as he was sent by his heavenly Father. He compares their mission here on Earth, which is about to begin, to his own which is coming to an end.

And what is their mission? To forgive the sins of others. To make it known to all that the poor choices they have made, the destructive habits which they have adopted, are not what defines them. What does define them, what gives them value is the fact that they are beloved children of God.

What a responsibility for the disciples! To not be afraid of this awesome charge would suggest a big dose of humility is needed. And yet, this is the very mission of the community of God: the Church.

In John’s Gospel, it is perhaps here that the Church is born, formed around this mission of peace through forgiveness. A mission that is beyond any of us, but not beyond God’s Holy Spirit, working in us and through us – and sometimes, even despite us.

May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep all of our hearts and minds in the knowledge of his love and his forgiveness this Advent and Christmas. Amen.

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Autumn 2020 reflections Reflections

Week 8: Mark 10:46-52

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’ And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man said to him, ‘My teacher, let me see again.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
Mark 10:46-52

By Revd Dr Anne Holmes

When reflecting on this story, it is usual to talk about actual sight and symbolic sight, or insight. I will begin by rehearsing this approach, but then I want to take a brief look at the story from another angle, an angle informed by my work as a group analyst conducting reflective sessions with various NHS teams. This will allow us to consider the issues of loneliness and isolation, exclusion and inclusion and the particular challenge of this pandemic.

Firstly, the story is about faith, sight, context, and timing. Bartimaeus was blind. We are not told whether he had been blind from birth, or because of illness or an accident. We can imagine that, like many blind people, he had developed acute hearing to manage everyday life. He also knew how to use his voice. As a beggar he would have had to call out to those passing by, in order to receive any alms. He had heard that Jesus would be passing by and used his voice to shout out to try catch Jesus’s attention. At first, he failed, as many tried to silence him. He persisted in shouting until Jesus responded. Jesus did not assume that he knew what Bartimaeus wanted and asked him ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The reply was clear: ‘My teacher, let me see again’ and Jesus replied: ‘Go, your faith has made you well.’ His sight was restored.  As one commentary has put it, ‘the granting of physical sight to Bartimaeus symbolizes the true “insight” which is necessary for any disciple of Jesus’[1] Earlier, he had addressed Jesus as ‘Son of David’, a title used only once elsewhere in  Mark’s Gospel (12:35-37) and may have been intended to mean Messiah. This is the call from one who has taken his time to think about Jesus and knew his deep significance. Ordinarily, as in the previous healing of a blind man in Bethsaida (8:22-26}, Jesus would have sent him away, but he and the disciples and the crowd are on their way to Jerusalem. It is no longer the time for what has been described as the Messianic Secret. The timing is different. Jesus knows what lies ahead even if his disciples are resisting understanding it. Bartimaeus joins the crowd and follows Jesus ‘on the way’, meaning on the way to the cross.

We can only speculate about what it was like for Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, before this encounter with Jesus.  However, the way in which many sternly told him to be quiet indicates that he was perceived as an outsider, getting in the way of the progression to Jerusalem. Like some of our homeless on the streets of Oxford, he may have known others in his situation and fought for his patch, his territory marked by the cloak which he gladly left behind. What we can assume is that he wanted his sight to be restored and believed totally that Jesus was the one to do this. As a result of being able to see, he joined the crowd of followers, became part of a large group, an insider now and possibly glowing with the praise which Jesus had bestowed on him. His faith had made him whole. We are often told that loneliness is one of the scourges of our day. So is social isolation, one of the consequences of the current pandemic. In his most recent book Morality, published this year before the lockdown of 23rd March, the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has drawn a distinction between loneliness and social isolation. He has written that loneliness ‘is a subjective, self-reported state, while social isolation is an objective condition, usually defined as a lack of contact with family, friends, community and society’[2] . Usually one of the ways of mitigating social isolation due to non-pandemic factors is to join a society, volunteer organisation or faith community. So often those who need to be reached do not have a voice like Bartimaeus and it is our task to try to reach them and give them a voice.  If we look around with the eyes of faith, even during this period of restricted contact, we may be able to follow Jesus in asking what a person wants and then responding to the answer. That is our opportunity to follow the way.

[1] Barton, J and Muddiman, J. eds, 2001. The Oxford Bible Commentary. Oxford. Oxford University Press, p. 908.

[2] Sacks, J. 2020. Morality. London. Hodder & Stoughton, p. 30.

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Autumn 2020 reflections Reflections

Week 7: Matthew 25:31-46

‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’
Matthew 25:31-46

By Revd Professor Bernard Silverman.

Matthew’s view of judgement seems harsh and uncompromising.   But read this passage in bits, first of all up to the end of verse 36.  Those who are blessed will inherit the kingdom prepared from the foundation of the world.  But what is required sounds impossible—to have given the king, the Son of Man, food when he was hungry, drink when he was thirsty, a welcome when he was a stranger, clothing when he was naked, care when he was sick, a visit when he was in prison.  How could anyone have done that?   No wonder the righteous are perplexed. 

But, read on—whenever you did these things for “the least of these my brethren”.  Whenever.  In other translations: “Whenever you did it for any of my people, no matter how unimportant they seemed,” or “Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me”.   Whatever you do to the son of man (a Hebrew phrase probably meaning “an ordinary person, nobody in particular”) you do to the Son of Man.  So there’s hope for all of us—so often the most apparently inconsequential thing is what is needed to inherit the kingdom prepared from the foundation of the world.  And if you believe, as I do, that the kingdom is this-worldly, not just on the far side of history, you are at that very moment living your inheritance. I read: “The Son of Man does not demand supernatural feats, but simple, unobtrusive, charity.”

So now to the harsh bit, verses 41 to 45, the negative of what was said before.  Those who do not do these things go to eternal punishment, to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.   Is this just a rhetorical device? Perhaps.  

However, we all live in that grey zone, where sometimes we do right and sometimes we fall short.  Sometimes we do that act of “simple, unobtrusive, charity” and sometimes, through negligence, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault, we don’t.  So which is it to be, “the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world”, or “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”?     

The key words are that little phrase “for you”.  The eternal fire is only prepared for the devil and his angels.  The kingdom, if only we will accept it, is prepared for all of us.  Matthew’s wonderful dramatic picture of judgement is not there to frighten or threaten us; it’s to nudge our inner attitudes and our outer behaviour in the right direction.  The ideas of the kingdom are not an add-on to our lives in what is so often a world of darkness, despair, injustice and violence.  They are there, for each of us, from the foundation of the world.  That is God’s will for us.

This Bible passage (rather like counting systems in elections!)  has a theatrical quality that adds to its impact.  Underneath it is the idea that every little action, every little attitude, has cosmic and eternal value.  I’ve never really understood my own vocation.  My own faith drifts at times and I very often feel uncomfortable with and in the institutional church.  More seriously, both in the natural world and in the world and society we have made, there may be points of light, but there is great darkness too, as we have just called to mind on Remembrance Sunday, and as we are living through in the pandemic.  Bad things happen to good (and not so good) people and there is no trite or simple explanation.  But without the idea that every small thing matters, good and evil would be just things that happen, only our own opinion.  I pray that is not so.    

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Autumn 2020 reflections Reflections

Week 6: Luke 15:11-32

Then Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ ” So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.

‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” ’
Luke 15:11-32

By Eva Walters, Children’s Worker at St Margaret’s Church.

As any child brought up in a church-going family, you come to know the Bible stories like the back of your hand. I remember feeling a deep sense of injustice at this story of the prodigal son as a young teenager. I have a very clever and capable sister who I sometimes felt could do no wrong in our elders’ sight and my teenage angst would often feel deeply for the brother who stayed at home.

And as a child brought up in a church-going family, I have also had to find different way of being able to listen anew to these stories. The Ignatian imaginative practice is one way that I learned a few years ago and that I find extremely helpful. So instead of focusing my righteous indignation on the father and the delinquent son, I want to turn my attention to the others in this story.

You see this was probably a very large household. The father in this parable had a decent amount of land and servants, with neighbours and friends nearby, and we might imagine that he had some status within his community. The shame that the younger son had brought on the family would have been discussed by the father’s kin, friends and servants. So, what did the community think when this son returned?

We hear from the passage that the servants took their master’s lead and sprang up into action, beginning to prepare for the celebrations of the return of the lost child. This child had meant something to this community. Had they wept with the father as he left? Had they felt anger at his apparent betrayal of the father? Had they stayed by their master and friend’s side when he looked to the road to see if his beloved child was coming home?

To me these verses now speak of a Father, perhaps in one of the most vivid depictions of what God is like, whose love overflows onto those around him. This community and belonging, cemented in the foundation of God’s love, is integral to the Church. When our church communities mirror our Heavenly Father’s love, our children and young people can feel a true sense of belonging and acceptance that is unusual in our world’s understanding, outside of their families. If a child or young person feels that the church is a place where God’s love is tangible, then there will always be an invisible string that can and will lead them back.

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Autumn 2020 reflections Reflections

Week 5: Luke 10:25-37

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’
Luke 10:25-37

By Revd Canon Andrew Bunch, Vicar, and David Longrig, Licensed Lay Minister in the Benefice.

Andrew Bunch:

When I was working in industry, I learnt the value of working as a member of a team; different people bring different insights and thus expand the understanding of an issue. This has been one of the factors which has shaped my ministry. Right from the start of my time in Oxford, we have had a weekly Bible Study where all members of the ministry team share their thoughts on the Gospel for the coming Sunday.

Our appreciation of the parable of the Good Samaritan demonstrates this point very well. I asked David Longrigg for his reflection and he came up with the very positive view in the poem below:

David Longrigg:

“Are you hurt?” I asked him.
A silly question really, as he lay
In pain, distress, his pockets slashed
And emptied, his body bruised and broken,
His clothes spattered with  the mire
And mud of the footpath in the wood,
The trees seemingly nodding and whooshing
In sympathy with the derelict state
Of this broken man.
“Please help me!” he cried.   “I  can’t move!!”
I did my best to help him to his feet,
To ease him somehow onto my mule,
A four footed beast that was, so to speak,
From my Samaritan village my travelling fuel.
“I’ll take you to the nearest inn,” I said.
“Look after him, “ I told the landlord.
“Give him food to eat, wine to drink,
A pillow for his head and medicine for his wounds.
Here is enough money to cover all the costs.”

And left.

The landlord said, “Who was that man?”
“I don’t know,” the robbed man replied.
“He was a man so modest and kind,
To let us know
The value of loving your neighbour,”

Andrew Bunch:

David is very much a man who sees the positive view in any situation, a man who sees “the glass is half full”. But I have a more critical view and hence another side of the parable comes out to me, as I see “the glass is half empty”. There is a huge criticism in this parable of the priest and the Levite. They were going down on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. As Jerusalem is up a hill and Jericho is below sea level, you can tell they were going away from Jerusalem, going home to Jericho (where many priests and Levites lived) after serving their period of duty in the Temple. So, they had no excuse not to help the injured traveller, they were simply responding to the fear that they might be attacked too. In the words of the “Black Eyed Peas” … “Where is the love” in their response? Where is their faith? Where is the evidence that they practice what they proclaim with their lips?

This parable reminds me that there needs to be a consistency between what we profess and what we do if we are to be believed and trusted. Yes, we will fail from time to time… but we have got to strive to get things right and live with a sense of both integrity and humility in our lives. Luke consistently makes the point, throughout his presentation of the Gospel, that this is lacking with those involved with the Temple. He sees the Temple authorities as complete hypocrites, not acting out what they say they believe… starting off the gospel with the priest, Zechariah, not believing the words of an Angel in the Holy of Holies!

In a team approach to Bible study, we all gain from the different understandings offered by each other. To enable this to happen and bear fruit, there has to be Love in action. This is what I hope you have witnessed from your ministry team over the years.

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Autumn 2020 reflections Reflections

Week 4: Mark 1:41

Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!”
Mark 1:41

By Rajiv Sidhu, ordinand at Ripon College Cuddesdon:

This is a real ‘gobstopper’. There is a lot to chew over. In these two very short verses, a huge amount happens. The heart of the gospel can be found in this short but life changing interaction. We find four key things about the nature of God, through the actions of Jesus in this reading. Firstly, Jesus sees the leper. Secondly, Jesus is moved by the leper. Thirdly, Jesus reaches out to the leper. And, most importantly, Jesus chooses.

Jesus sees the leper.

It is very easy to overlook this very simple point. Jesus sees the leper. The leper was the outcast, the person diseased by something that people did not understand. They knew they had to keep their distance. They knew that something was happening that made this person different. They would have been surrounded by suspicion and exclusion.

Yet it is this very context that Jesus meets the Leper. And rather than choose to ignore or avoid the situation, Jesus sees this person. He sees the experiences of hurt, humiliation, and abuse. The mental anguish of wondering “why”, and the cycles of pain, self-distain, and forsakenness that this person went through.

Jesus sees and acknowledges all these experiences. He does not deny any of them. He sees this person, the very personification of marginalisation, and recognises them. He recognises their humanity. He recognises their kinship with him. He sees them when others choose not to see them. He sees them when they call out to him. He sees them in their desperation. And the good news is, it does not stop here.

Jesus is moved by the leper

Jesus has heart. He is moved by this plight. Some translations suggest that Jesus is moved by “anger”. Others suggest “pity”. The point though, is that Jesus is moved. Jesus shares in our joys and sorrows. We see this here. And. This. Matters. This matters because our stories, our experiences, our hurts, our heartbreak, our anger, all these things move Jesus. He is with us through these things. He breathes with us. He walks with us. His humanity means he shares with us, in all these things in their fullness. More than that though, Jesus also…

Jesus Reaches Out To the Leper.

Jesus touches the leper. Jesus crosses boundaries. Jesus sees the brokenness, the otherness, and the sickness. And sees through them. Jesus sees a situation that is not right. And reaches into it. Jesus sees a situation that is not just, that is not fair, and that is not to God’s plan, and reaches into it. He touches it. He holds it. He feels it physically. Regardless of the cost to him socially. Regardless of the suggestions that will be made after this. He reaches out because he sees. He reaches out because he is moved. And he reaches out because reaching out is the right thing to do.

Jesus chooses.

This is my most favourite sentence in the Bible. (Thank you, Andrew!). Life is complicated. And ideas crucial to life are even more complicated. The concept of “justice”, and “social justice” is fraught. Whose Justice? Who decides Justice? What even is Justice? How can human justice be equal to God’s Righteousness? Is such a thing possible? Is Human Justice anything like “Gods justice”? Human justice cuts, divides, and excludes at some point. Is that Gods righteousness? Does that mean there is a limit to the Salvation of Passion Sunday?

And in more practical terms- what about the context of the people that we are having to decide justice about? What about this circumstances that have surrounded and shaped them? How can we make such finite decisions in the face of infinite variables?

Undecidability” is the term for such decisions; decisions that you must make because you are forced into a situation where a decision is needed. Yet a decision cannot possibly be made. But “undecidability” is not “indecision”. Indecision is simply not choosing. To not choose, is, though, to choose to be outside of the situation. And to be outside of the situation with the option to choose to intervene, is to be in a place of privilege. Worst still, the decision not to decide, is a decision to stay with the dominant opinion, idea, or thought. And we see this here. There are all sorts of reasons not to intervene. For Jesus to choose not to see, for Jesus to choose not to be moved, and for Jesus to choose not to reach out. Yet he does. This single sentence has immeasurable hope; “I do choose.”

Jesus, the Son of God, the Divine Incarnate, the one who can choose to be outside because he is from outside, both humanly and divinely, chooses to intervene. He chooses to heal. He chooses to touch. He chooses to be part of this story and to make it better. He does the radical thing. The thing asked in faith. The thing that delivers hope. Jesus chooses to do the loving thing.

We are called to be equally radical. So, see the person in front of you. Be moved by them. Reach out to them. And most fundamentally, choose. Choose to bring faith, hope, and love, to a world that so desperately needs it. Because that is what Jesus did, does and continues to do.

With us.

For us.

Besides us.


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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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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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