Bishop of Doncaster

Preached at Celebration of Lay Ministry 2017 – Luke 6

My garden has a number of apple trees and this year an abundance of apples - both cooking and eating apples.  I can’t tell you how many apple crumbles and pies we must have eaten this year already.  Life can be tough sometimes you know, but someone has to rise to the challenge.  But those who know me well will also know that my knowledge of gardening - let alone trees - could be written on the back of a postage stamp.  However, while researching this sermon my attention was drawn to a number of quite interesting articles about growing fruit and particularly apples.   I never knew it was so complicated.  I just leave my trees and they grow and bear fruit of differing qualities.

All of the articles said, in one way or another, that to get fruit isn’t just an accident of nature, it takes a gifted grower, a lot of hard work and a refusal to compromise.  To get good fruit each piece is treated with reverence and care.  There is real love poured into everything the grower does and they say you can taste the difference.

If we want good fruit to be produced in our lives, it’s going to be the same sort of hard work.  Good fruit from Jesus’ disciples is no accident.  It takes a lot of hard work and a refusal to compromise - as those of you who’ve just finished studying know, and others will remember well.  Your studying and formation for the various ministries you’re about to be licensed and commissioned for, is part of the hard work you’ve already started as you pour yourselves more fully into God’s mission exercised through your ministry.

And you will need to continue working and developing that because, just as a lush tree doesn’t always produce the best fruit - dare I say that a person who looks flowery and behaves like they are spiritually rich - may not in fact be all they seem.  In Revelations Jesus warns certain Christians who are rich and wealthy that though they appear to have it all, they really are poor and destitute.  It’s not how you appear or act that matters, its what’s in your heart that’s important and revealed by the fruit you produce.

But let’s be honest with ourselves, for most of us this won’t come easy and there will be times of dryness.  I know this well in my own spiritual journey, there are times when I feel close to God and times when I’m less so, times when this is the most wonderful ministry in the world and times when being the welcomer at the back of B and Q (other hardware stores are available) seems more attractive.  My spiritual adviser reminds me at times like that, that God has me on a long leash.  Put another way, God knows what we need to produce fruit, he sends others to water our lives, he calls us to a rhythm of daily watering through prayers and reading scripture so that we can continue to be fruitful.

And we mustn’t forget the pruning.  We all know the sayings you are what you eat – but also you are what you say, and the saying “speak little and learn much”.  We get daily watering through the world of God but sometimes we would perhaps be best pruning our own words so that we only speak the best.

All of this is so that we grow into good trees so to speak, because when we grow into good trees we will produce good fruit.  In the passage Jesus also refers to figs and thorns, grapes and brambles but to save us taking the gardening analogy too far, suffice to say that the point being made is that the type of plant you are, determines the type of fruit you produce.  Jesus hints that some people are a bit like the thorns, they head off on a tangent sometimes even theologically.  But they are tough and flexible and those who get too close may get caught on a thorn and can be hurt by sharp words which often keeps people away from Christianity rather than lovingly drawing them in. 

Others are like brambles, they have good fruit, but it takes a skilful hand to get any of it.  So for the most part human brambles impede the pilgrim who’s looking for the nourishment and joy that the good fruit brings.

But we should also remember this passage wasn’t given so that we could judge others.  Christ taught to help judge ourselves.  And this is important in terms of God’s mission.  As disciples of Christ we’re called to help those who don’t know Jesus as Lord and Saviour, to come to him and see their lives transformed.  But how are they going to do that unless we are ourselves good fruit and producing good fruit.  Let’s be honest if we’re a thorn or a thistle we’re going to impede God’s mission and even our own effective ministry.  Who after all wouldn’t rather have a grape than a thorn.  Don’t we prefer figs to thistles.

And how often have we heard it said that you can tell a Christian by the fruit they produce.

So after all this we may well ask what is the fruit?  You’ve no doubt heard the words Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary. These are often attributed to St Francis of Assisi.  Undoubtedly, our actions speak volumes and often the fruit being worked out.  But our words are also important and Christ wants to hear them.  So don’t become a fruit inspector.  Don’t go around with a little check list of Christian works which you think are necessary for people to have in order to be a Christian.  Works can but rarely reveal the whole heart of a person.  A person can be the nicest person in the world and do all sorts of good works such as community work, they can give all their money away and faithfully attend church all their lives.  But it’s what they say that’s far more important than all that.  And it’s in sharing their faith with others, through telling them and of course showing them how Christ has transformed their lives that others will also come to know him.  And the reality is that if we don’t tell others about Jesus Christ no one else will do it for us.

You don’t need to talk about God and the bible all the time but if God  and the world if God never enter your speech, others won’t hear about him and may assume that it’s because God doesn’t have a prominent place in your own heart and lives.  Remember, our speech will betray us, it will tell others whether we’re good fruit or a thorn or bramble.

It goes without saying perhaps, but I will anyway, that one major place to listen to yourself and what comes out of your mouth is when you pray.  Your prayers are a window to your heart.  What do you pray for? Who do you pray for? How do you pray?   Do you spend time magnifying God and praising his name and thanking him rather than just praying for the self - as important as that is also. 

Thomas Fuller said “When the heart is afire, some sparks will fly out of your mouth”.  So listen to the words of your heart and you may be surprised at what comes out of your lips and it will reveal the condition of your heart and your commitment to ministry, to the works God is calling you to do and the fruit of winning new people for Jesus Christ. 

Jesus says in St John’s Gospel “I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full”.

As we bear fruit for Christ through our words that will lead to joy and it’s a powerful reason for living a fruitful life.

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Chrism Eucharist 2017

As we are aware the diocese has been on a journey and I don’t intend to rehash again the things I said in my pastoral letter and Presidential Address to Synod.  As I’ve said before, this is a day when we come together as lay and ordained colleagues from across the diocese.  This is a solemn time, but also an occasion of great joy as deacons, priests and bishops renew their commitment to serve made at our ordinations.  And the whole people of God - licensed ministers or not - recommit themselves to the service of God as his disciples.  The Chrism Eucharist is very much about building our confidence; as we gather together in shared commitment to ministry and mission, as we gather around the altar united in the Eucharist, renewed in God’s service through the strength of the Holy Spirit symbolized in the oil of Chrism, the sign of God’s anointing Spirit empowering the church and his people.

As we gather around the altar together we know that none of us are worthy of our calling, none of us are really great.  We know that we’re not called to promote ourselves or our ministry as being the greatest.  We’re called to proclaim the greatness of God in all we do and say and him alone.  We’re called take up our cross in humility and put the service of God and others first.  That’s the mark of Christian leadership and we can only do it through God’s grace, and the strength of the Holy Spirit.

Through God’s good grace we gather at this service which draws to a close our seven days of prayer for healing and reconciliation.  On Friday we celebrated the appointment of Pete Wilcox as our new Diocesan Bishop and that is one of the pieces in our healing journey.  We will of course get to know Pete over the next few months and years, and we look forward to welcoming him to the diocese in due course.

But this service is the first opportunity we’ve had to come together as a diocese since the announcement of Bishop Philip and the events surrounding it - both within and from outside the diocese.  This is a time for us to recommit ourselves to God’s mission, to each other and to the process of moving on, without in any way diminishing and undermining the questions and issues that we still need to face as does the wider Church.  One of the things that’s remained steadfast throughout these months has been our commitment to God’s mission as focused through our Diocesan vision and strategy, and in that I take great comfort and rejoice in this.

As we approached this week I’ve been helped in my own thinking by the well-known story the story of Jacob and Esau which reads like a juicy novel.  The brothers are born to Isaac and when Isaac is near death he desires to give Esau - the older of the brothers - his blessing.  In biblical times, a blessing was to grant the other person a place of honour and status usually given to the first born son, in this case Esau.  Yet, as the story unfolds, the father is tricked into giving the blessing to Jacob the younger son, whose name means “He deceives”.

Imagine the shock and horror that Esau felt when he learns he’s been cheated.  How on earth are these two characters ever going to be reconciled?  Biblical reconciliation is the process of two previously alienated parties coming together, coming to peace with each other.  And why is this the case?  Because God has reconciled us to himself through Jesus Christ and if that’s the case, we can surely be reconciled to each other.  We should no longer be counting our offences but be focused on Jesus and what unites us.  The absence of reconciliation robs the church of the power of unity.

Prayer and openness are a critical part of the process of reconciliation. When in prayer we come closer to God and listen to what he’s saying to us rather than our own voice, our own inner thinking.  God reveals to us all sorts of things amongst which is a desire to look at broken relationships and put them right.  Prayer is like ointment for the wound of the broken relationship.  The wound will often be messy and infected by hurt and hardened feelings and emotions running high. God will need to soften the hearts, ease emotions if the wound is to be healed.  God will in prayer bring understanding to the reconciling parties.  So one guiding principle in reconciliation is – Don’t seek God in prayer unless you want to make things right with others.  Unless you want to change.

We’re told that the angels met Jacob – but why, we may ask, did they turn up.  Whatever the Angels said to him it was powerful enough for Jacob to feel the need to make amends, he had to be right with his brother. 

Here’s the second principle – You can’t live in peace and harmony with God until you’re living in peace with each other.  Broken relationships result in a broken relationship with God.  Jesus said, “If you are offering your gift to the altar, leave your gifts there in front of the altar.  First go and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matt 5:23-24).  If you’re offering a gift of money or praise and remember someone has ill will or hard feelings against you, go to that person, seek reconciliation, make amends, be at peace.

Jacob knew he’d done wrong and needed to make it right.  He had to take the first step.  He needed to take the initiative. So here’s another guiding principle, it has to be intentional.  Restoring a broken relationship is like mending a broken leg.  If you break your leg you have to go to the hospital so that the Doctors can set the leg in plaster and healing can take place, otherwise it’ll never mend.  The same is true with broken relationships; they won’t mend by accident, you have to intend mending them.  When you’ve broken your leg there’s only so long you can ignore the pain and hurts and so it is with a broken relationship. 

Of course, the relationship is easier to mend when the offender apologises to the offended.  But what happens if the offender doesn’t admit their part.  Scripture make it even more difficult for us because it tells us that the offended is to take the initiative in seeking reconciliation.  Jesus says “If your brother sins against you go and rebuke him in private.  If he listens to you, you have won your brother.” (Matt 18:15).  Note that it’s just between the two of them.  The instinct for most of us, if we’re the offended, is to go round soliciting sympathy and support for ourselves and our cause; we plead our side of the story, to validate our own feelings.  But we don’t go to the person who offended us.  (Tell them the story about the school confirmation and what the children said about falling out with their friends.)

If we’re to reconcile relationships, we need to have the courage and conviction to go directly to the one who’s offended us and to do so not in a spirit of accusation or revenge, but rather in one of clarification. 

After many years Esau and Jacob met.  Jacob bowed to the ground seven times as his brother approached.  It’s an act of humility.  Jacob came with the right spirit and attitude.  He acknowledged that he’d done wrong.  He’d tricked his brother out of his blessing.  He was at fault.  Humility puts us in a position for reconciliation to occur.  A price has to be paid for reconciliation and that’s often called “swallowing your pride”.  Every act of reconciliation requires someone in the hurting relationship to admit some responsibility and a desire to repair the damage.  Our failure to practice humility allows fractured relationships to fester and puts us in opposition to God.  Remember “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6)

At the face to face meeting Esau ran to meet Jacob and hugged him and they wept.  It’s a picture of vulnerability.  To embrace someone else is to expose the heart and that reveals a damaged relationship.  At that moment you reveal the hurt and pain caused, admit wrong.  Reconciliation can’t happen until the heart is exposed to another.  The danger is, of course, is that as soon as you do that you risk it being broken again and many of us don’t want to risk it.  But the opposite is to shut out all humanity and surely none of us want to live our lives in isolation from others, however risky that might feel. 

Jacob wanted to find favour in the eyes of Esau.  He sought peace.  He desired to put the past behind him.  He humbled himself before Esau.  And then Esau spoke those life changing words “Brother, I forgive you.” 

Forgiveness isn’t an optional extra in the process of reconciliation.  Forgiveness means letting go so that you can get on with the rest of your life.  Forgiveness means hoping the best for the other. 

Jacob wanted to make things right.  He’d stolen his brother’s birth right and all the inheritance that goes with it.  Restitution is an attempt to restore that which has been damaged or destroyed and seeking justice whenever we have the power to act or influence those in authority to do something.  Restitution is really difficult though, when you have said words that have damaged a person and their character.

Jacob acknowledges his wrong.  Esau forgives.  The once broken relationship is mended.  Wouldn’t it be nice if every relationship ended that way?  And if we want it to it can.  In the story of Jacob and Esau we catch a glimpse of God.  Jacob says to Esau “For indeed, I have seen your face and it is like seeing God’s face, since you have accepted me.” (Genesis 33:10).  If you want to know what the face of God looks like, go to your sister or brother you have offended, ask their forgiveness, then hear them say, “you are forgiven”.

As Paul reminds us in Ephesians, God breaks down all barriers.  They’re reconciled through the cross to God and are to be reconciled to others.  It’s costly because reconciliation is cross shaped. 

Think about it.  We have broken our relationship with God over and over again.  We hurt God greatly with our disobedience and rebellion.  God doesn’t have to forgive us.  But like Esau and Jacob, God comes to us through his Son, Jesus Christ, embracing us all, calling us brother and sister and saying “I forgive you”.  As God has forgiven us, we are to forgive those who hurt us.  As God has reconciled with us, we are to reconcile with each other.

As an author Phil Cross put it “With only three nails and 2 pieces of wood, with one rugged cross, Jesus built a bridge”.  That is what reconciliation is about, it’s the bridge that Jesus built and which allows unholy people to be reconciled to God and each other.

We’re to live this out.  We are to overflow with reconciliation we’ve received from God, who changes our relationship to him and to each other, who enables us to be different.  He says, be the teachers of my way and my way is peace and justice and love, not violence, bitterness and conflict.  The gift of the church to the world is reconciliation.  

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Presidential address to Synod - 18 March 2017

As we are all now aware, following a period of prayer and reflection Bishop Philip decided last week that, for the sake of God’s mission in the Diocese, he should withdraw from the appointment as the next Bishop of Sheffield.

In the life of the diocese the past few weeks have been difficult and painful.  The appointment of Bishop Philip raised questions and concerns in the minds of many, both within the Diocese and the wider Church of England.  Others welcomed the announcement. 

Both those concerned about the appointment, and those fully supportive of it, women and men and across traditions, have experienced a sincere and deep sense of personal pain and hurt which we have tried to respond to through the listening exercises.  Alongside this there has been a corporate sense of pain across the whole diocese as we have struggled to hold things together in a spirit of unity, mutual respect and flourishing built on confident relationships, dialogue and a focus on God’s mission.  What is clear is that there was more than one narrative being expressed and it is important that in relationship with God and each other we find a way of continuing to graciously listen, love, and in a spirit of unity within our diversity, ask for healing, reconciliation and a way forward.

Much of the hurt and pain caused has been through the use of social and other media outlets.  Perhaps that was inevitable, but it has meant that as a diocese we have lived out our deeply held disagreements and concerns, which it is right to express, in the full glare of the media which has raised the temperature and tensions. A number of the latter emails and letters I received have been concerned about this most public airing of our differences. Eventually, of course, the media will lose interest in us, but we as a diocese must find a way of continuing in dialogue with each other.

There is clearly much to reflect on and there will, as I said in my statement last week, be time to consider what lessons there are to be learned over the coming weeks and months.  The national church will also need to continue to reflect and pray about the issues this has raised.

I would however like to take this opportunity of thanking all those who wrote to me or had individual conversations expressing their personal support for me in this most complex of times and as we seek God’s wisdom.  Your kindness and generosity to me has been greatly appreciated.  As I have said before it is my intention to support everyone as best as I am able, as we make this journey with God and in relationship with each other.

A lot of the questions I have been asked have been concerned about process and in some cases questioning the validity and legality of it.  It also become clear that not everyone is familiar with the Five Guiding Principles, mutual flourishing and New Norms, New Beginnings.  The nomination of Bishop Philip was made within the framework and processes agreed by General Synod which reflect the aspirations of the Church of England to be a broad church that embraces diverse traditions.

The Crown Nominations Commission, which is the nominating body, met in November to interview the candidates.  The CNC is a body with fourteen voting and two non-voting members.  The voting  are the two archbishops, or their representative, six members elected by the diocese and six elected by General Synod.  A third of the elected representatives were female.  The non-voting members are the Prime Minister’s and Archbishops Appointments Secretaries.  The appointment was made in line with the Five Guiding Principles which were included within the House of Bishops Declaration on the Ministry of Bishops and Priests which was part of the package on which the Measure and Canon made under it formed a part.

It has been established for over two decades, both within the Church of England and within the Anglican Communion that both positions, those who support the ordination and consecration of women, and those who in conscience cannot support that, are fully Anglican. 

For many years the Church of England wrestled with how to accommodate this commitment to supporting both positions while also permitting the consecration of women as bishops.  The Church’s first formal attempt to do this failed when the General Synod rejected the relevant legislation in November 2012. 

At the second time of asking, the Church of England did pass legislation to permit the consecration of women as bishops in July 2014, after a process of reflection and dialogue to learn the lessons of its previous failure.  The package that was agreed, and passed into law, in 2014, was founded on a declaration by the House of Bishops, approved by the General Synod.  The declaration comprised five guiding principles, and above all a commitment to “mutual flourishing” for all traditions within the Church.

The declaration specifically provides that:

  • A diocesan bishop may be either a bishop who does, or who does not, ordain women;
  • A diocese may express a view, prior to a diocesan see being filled, as to whether the diocesan bishop should be someone who does or does not ordain women;
  • In every case where the diocesan bishop does not ordain women, there should be at least one bishop in the diocese who does ordain women;
  • Senior leadership roles within dioceses should continue to be filled by people from across the range of traditions.

Those provisions are part of the “mutual flourishing” that is central to the declaration and to the package.  The declaration also recognises that “there will need to be sensitivity to the feelings of vulnerability that some will have that their position within the Church of England will gradually be eroded and that others will have because not everyone will receive their ministry.”  It appreciates that the practical working out of these arrangements may not be easy, for the Church as a whole or for individuals.  To reject the Five Guiding Principles is to reopen the settlement made by the Church of England in 2014 which enable both supporters of women’s consecration, and those opposed it, to flourish alongside each other within the church.

In the document New Norms New Beginnings which was commissioned by Bishop Steven recognised that this journey within the diocese would not be easy. It said “working towards a Diocese where all can flourish and enjoy the highest possible degree of communion will take a significant commitment from every member of the church and will rely on consistent and clear leadership.  It will be important for the Diocese to explore ways of embedding the Guiding Principles within our culture.  It will be important to find periodic ways of auditing where we are as a diocese against the Guiding Principles and to hold one another to account on our fulfilment of them”

As I have reflected on the past few weeks and on where we are as a diocese I have been helped by a re-reading of Bishop Tom Wrights commentary on Philippians 2:1-4 “So if our shared life in the King brings you any comfort; if love still has the power to make you cheerful; if we really do have partnership in the spirit; if your hearts are at all moved with affection and sympathy – then make my joy complete.  Bring your thinking into line with one another.  Here’s how to do it.  Hold on to the same love; bring your innermost lives into harmony; fix your minds on the same object.  Never act out of selfish ambition or vanity; instead, regard everybody as superior.  Look after each other’s best interests, not your own”. 

Tom Wright tells the story of actors in a play needing to know exactly what each one is doing so that it fits together otherwise it becomes a circus act.  On stage, the actors were not out for their own individual glory at each other’s expense.  The play worked because everyone worked together with the same object in mind.  That’s a bit like what Paul is urging on the church in Philippi.  That he says is what the church should be like.  There is an old Jewish joke that says if you’ve got two rabbis you’ve probably got three opinions.  This is often how it feels in the church. 

As our own debate has highlighted there are big theological differences.  There are hurts and pains, some stemming from past experiences, some caused by recent events.  It raises the whole question of how we can live together in the way Paul indicates, how can we think the same, loving each other completely, regarding everyone else and their opinions as superior to our own.  To many this may seem impossible or at least a very long way off. 

The answer, as Paul points out, must be that everyone must be focused on something other than themselves and we know very well that is Jesus Christ, the King, the Lord and God’s mission to transform his world.  This is the ministry and mission to which God has called us all, clergy and laity, women and men and whatever our tradition. 

This passage is about unity and its motivation.  It’s about our own inner lives and conviction and the practical outworking of it. 

Our motivation should be because we want to live this way.  We know the comfort that comes from belonging to the body of Christ, the Christian family from being in Christ Jesus.   As we live in that family we should endeavour to grow in love more and more however difficult that may sometimes be.  That love should sustain us especially in the most difficult times of our relationship.  As the spirit filled people of God we should be desirous to work together more and more in a single direction as focused through our diocesan vision We have been called to grow a sustainable network of Christ-like, lively and diverse Christian communities in every place which are effective in making disciples and in seeking to transform our society and God’s world”

The inner life of unity is however perhaps the thing that seems most difficult.  How can we possibly bring our thinking in line with each other?  Unity by itself cannot be the final aim.  As Tom Wright points out unity is possible among thieves, and many other types.  What matters, he goes on to say, is that Christians, like the actors, all focus single-mindedly on the play, on the divine drama that has unfolded in Jesus Christ the King and is continuing now in the final act with themselves – ourselves - as characters.  Bringing their thinking, he says, into line with each other wouldn’t be any good if they were all thinking something that was out of line with the Gospel.  Our inner lives must reflect the Gospel.  We must all remain fixed on the facts about Jesus Christ and the meaning that emerges from them.  We are called to perform the extraordinary feat of looking at one another with the assumption that everybody else and their needs are more important. 

Tom Wright tells another story “I remember once going to lunch with a friend who had invited about twenty or thirty people.  Some of them were quite well known public figures.  As he said the grace at the start of the meal, he also said, very firmly.  Remember: the most interesting person in the room is the one sitting next to you!  Multiply that up a bit into a congregation, and you’ll get somewhere near what Paul is saying”.

So where are we as a diocese?  We are in a difficult and complex place with no clear guidelines as to how we move forward because no other diocese has been in this place before.  Are we damaged by the recent disagreements?  Yes, we are, but not terminally.  I have heard people say that mutual flourishing as a concept in the diocese is now set twenty years back.  I hope and pray not.  I sometimes wonder if I am being naïve.  I have been accused of pastoral platitudes, but I believe passionately that we are called to focus on the Good News, and I do sincerely hope and pray that even with our differences we can find a way of living together in unity and respect focused, as Paul reminds us on, Christ and God’s mission.  If we can’t then we really do have to do some real soul searching about what we are about as a diocese and as God’s people called to serve the whole of the Sheffield diocese and its people who are themselves a diverse and mixed community.

This will not be easy, I do not underestimate the real pain and hurt that has and continues to be felt across the traditions by women and men, clergy and laity.  We may never get to the point of total agreement and we certainly won’t if we do not remain fixed on Christ but I also believe that the final goal of living together in unity focused on the Good News and the transformation of people’s lives must be worth the effort.  We are called to make this journey together in joy as women and men, seeking mutual flourishing and in the highest possible degree of communion.

In the meantime, the Archbishop of York will in due course submit the name of an alternative candidate for the diocese.  

And I close as I did in my press statement, by reiterating what the Archbishop said to us all “We should use this time of Lent as a period of penitence, repentance and reflection both individually and corporately.  It is my sincere hope and prayer that such a period would act as the basis for reconciliation across the diocese as we rebuild relationships or trust and confidence and refocus on God’s mission and our vision for growth and the transformation of communities.  We should continue to pray for each other and Bishop Philip and also for the next person chosen by God to be the new Bishop of Sheffield who will be coming into a slightly different diocese than it was a few months ago.  I will also continue to pray for you all.


Background information:

New Norms New Beginnings

GS Misc 1076, General Synod, Women in the Episcopate

 

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Looking forward to a new year...

Aristotle is supposed to have said “The more you know, the more you know you don't know.”  As we reflect on the past twelve months many will do so with joy, some with sadness and others with disappointment and regret.  At the beginning of 2016 none could have known what would impact on us personally, nationally or globally.  Few of us would have predicted ‘Brexit’ for example.  We may have anticipated the continuation of war and terrorism and done so with a great sadness in our hearts, praying that peace would one day engulf not only our own lives but the whole world and we continue to do so.  Many would not have predicted the events that have engulfed their own lives both the joyous ones and the less so.

As we look to a New Year none of us again know what lies ahead.  However good the previous year might have been we will start the new one in the hope and anticipation that it will better than the last.  I witnessed this during the New Year celebrations where people spoke hopefully about 2017 even sometimes in a negative sense “Whatever this year brings it can’t be worse than the last” I heard a number of people say.

At the start of a New Year many of us will reassess where life is taking us, determined to take a new direction, we’ll make New Year’s resolutions, most of which we won’t keep.  But in reality most of us have no idea what lies ahead and that can be unnerving, in part because we like to think we are masters of our own destiny. Life is uncertain and unpredictable and it’s difficult to know where to find hope, peace and fulfilment.

There is little we can do with the unpredictability of life but Christians believe that we needn’t be overcome by it.  Hope we believe lies in the Christ child who came to earth, who lived amongst us, and who died so that we might have our sins forgiven and find new life in him.  Some say that you can’t believe in God because you can’t know what you don’t know.  However, those who have come to believe in Christ have discovered a reality, a love that’s changed and transformed them.  It may not have made their problems go away but they see them in a new light and surrounded by the love and support of a community. 

In the Church’s year we are about to celebrate the Epiphany.  It’s the familiar story of the three wise men visiting the infant Jesus.  There is much about this story that we don’t in reality know but it sets us a number of lessons which we can take into the New Year.  The gifts we can offer may seem trivial and modest, but they represent the giving of ourselves to God which is the most important gift.  Secondly, like the wise men we’re on a journey both to discover Jesus and make him known to others.  Thirdly, the wise men through the grace of God came to faith in Jesus and so can we.

At the end of the story the wise men went home by another road.  We too this year can walk a different road, it may be uncertain, but it’s a road that if we stick with it can lead to Jesus which will lead to transformation and a new life in him.

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Bishop of Doncaster speaks about the need to help those less fortunate in our communities at Christmas

Preached Christmas Day 2016
 
My musical taste hasn’t really progressed much beyond the Beatles and in particular John Lennon, who wrote these words “And so this is Christmas and what have you done, another year over and a new one just begun”. As we enjoy our Christmas celebrations which I hope you are doing, this isn’t a bad question to ask. What have you done for those for whom Christmas won’t be a happy or joyous occasion, those not surrounded by the love of family and friends, those who don’t have the light of Christ shining in their lives.
 
At Christmas we celebrate the light of the world – Jesus. But for 65 million people world-wide who are fleeing from conflict and crisis, a joyful home is a distant memory. They live lives of darkness and fear.
 
For me this is highlighted every year when I pass the homeless. In the midst of busy streets with people preparing for Christmas, buying lots of presents and wonderful food to share with family and friends - and I’m no different - I’m struck by how easy it is for us to rush by without noticing they are there, without giving them a second glance. Steve Wilcockson, the Archdeacon of Doncaster, and I regularly meet over coffee at 7.00am in the morning on our way to the Bishops staff meeting. It’s one way of avoiding the horrendous Sheffield traffic. When we arrive there is often a man sitting outside huddled under papers and cardboard in all sorts of weather conditions. And so we buy him a coffee and something to eat. It isn’t a huge gesture but hopefully it helps keep him warm and fed and the social interaction we hope is good for him personally. For him to know that someone cares.
 
A few months ago I was enjoying, as is often the case, a cup of tea and some time in fellowship at the back of church after a service. There I was enjoying myself, chatting away, minding my own business when a woman appeared at my side “I’ve got a bone to pick with you” she said. “With me” I said, acting all innocent and naïve as you do. “Yes you she said”. There was nothing else for it, there was no escape, I had to face the music.
 
Expecting an ear bashing the conversation went something like this –“Ever since you wrote that blog on homelessness, reminding us that most of us try to sidle past the homeless in our towns and cities, in the hope they won’t ask us for something, challenging us to think what we’d feel like if it was us, or one of our family or friends, and if that wasn’t enough, further challenging us to do something about it in easy ways such as buying them a coffee from Costa, or other coffee outlets that are available. It’s cost me a fortune. You pricked my conscience so much”, she said, “that I can’t now walk past a homeless person without engaging with them, even if it’s only a kindly word, buying the big issue, or buying them a coffee”. Job done I thought.
 
An invisible city of vulnerable and excluded people exists in Britain every day. Crisis has estimated that there are around 400,000 hidden homeless people and probably more than that trapped in circumstances that leave them on the fringes of society, living on the streets, in hostels, squats and bed and breakfast accommodation or with friends and family. For many the situation is far from temporary and the problems they face aren’t just about being without a roof. Many struggle with problems of unemployment, family breakdown, mental ill health and substance abuse. With the right support they could overcome these, but all too often they’re left to cope alone.
 
When we look at what’s happening across the world and look back over the past twelve months all of us can name major issues and crisis that still impact on the most vulnerable and which continue to shock and outrage us. Faced with these global problems we can feel overwhelmed, that it’s all too much, there’s nothing we can do so we just give in. But overcome we mustn’t be. As we think of the coming of the Prince of Peace, we pray not only for the peace of the world and individuals, the peace that passes all understanding, but we pray that in that peace we find the strength that we’re given in Jesus Christ and the call to action in our world as part of our Christian witness and testimony.
 
As Christians we must ask ourselves the question what have we done. We’re called to action to help and support the most vulnerable and maybe we start on the streets and towns and cities and villages where we live and where we’re faced with people with problems and issues every day if we’re prepared to take notice of them. And we do so because God showed that he loved us so much that he sent his Son into the world. Jesus didn’t grow up in palaces of privilege; he grew up as an obscure child in an ordinary village in a small dusty province, amongst the poor, the needy, the disposed, the lonely, and the homeless. It could have been a picture like any street in any of our towns and cities.
 
Because of Jesus birth we can say God is here present in his splendour and majesty, but also in the midst of the mess and problems of people’s lives.
 
The Shepherds were told by the angels “To you is born this day in the city of David a saviour who is the Messiah, the Lord”, wrapped in bands of cloths and lying in a manger, not in splendour. He made his home amongst us, amongst our imperfections. It’s there we see his glory full of grace and truth. Jesus is God in human form and identifies with our despair, our hopelessness, our pains, our hurts, the rejections, and horror of people’s lives. He came into the world knowing that it was going to cost him dearly. He bore in himself the marks of human sin so that we might be saved. Only God can save because only God is powerful, forgiving, merciful and gracious. In Jesus we know that hopelessness and despair don’t have the last word because of his glorious resurrection. And through the promise of salvation, lives are transformed for all who turn to him. That’s what we’re witnessing to today.
 
But our call to action isn’t just to the most vulnerable It’s to all. The problem is that for many Jesus is invisible. Telling the good news of Jesus Christ is part of our mission and we discovered during the Crossroads Mission that there are many people open to the message of Jesus Christ if only we go to where they are, listen to them, with a warm and open invitation to our churches to meet Christ through our witness, in our fellowship and our worship. And what better time than Christmas to do exactly that?
 
This Christmas many of us will receive more gifts than we really need or possibly want and with which we could almost certainly live without. There are many who won’t share the greatest gift of all, namely Jesus Christ. But all can, if through our witness they come to know Jesus the one who shows us God, the one who is touchable, approachable and reachable. This is after all the greatest love story ever told.
 
We all matter to God and everyone, whatever their needs and circumstances should matter to us. Christmas isn’t just a nice reminder of the nativity, it’s a threefold call - a call to deepen the sense of God in our lives, It’s a call to practical action in support of those who’ve fallen off the prominent and urgent list of needs and it’s a call to make Christ known to others, to let God into their hearts, to find a spiritual home in him. Jesus told us that if we wanted to do something for him we should feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe others, look after the sick and those in prison. He wants to be in the lives of the homeless, he wants to be in the homes of the poor, lonely, distressed. He wants to be amongst those who are spiritually poor and whose lives are anything but perfect and that include us.
 
God’s agenda is people; it’s lifting up the fallen, binding the broken hearted, healing the wounded, forgiving the flawed. And God will bless us if in the rough and tumble of life we search out the needs of others, search out the lost, the weary heart and comfort it, the hopeless mind and fill it with imagination, the lonely life and fill it with love, wandering soul and bring it home. Home is where somebody loves you and where Jesus Christ has come to dwell.
 
So what have we done? Or what should we be doing? We should show the light of Christ and lead people from their darkness to a brighter future in the incarnate Son of God.

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