Saturday, 3 November 2018


4th November                    1 Corinthians 15


Faith and hope will one day be unnecessary gifts, for we will see and know what now we believe and trust and hope in. But for now, our faith and our hope are essential, which is why St Paul ranks them among the three most important gifts of the spirit, alongside the one gift that lasts into eternity, love. Our faith and hope are not about what is now, but about what has been – the life and teaching and resurrection of Jesus - and about what is to come – the resurrection of the dead, our own life beyond this one.

People found this difficult even in the first generation, when witnesses were still living who saw Jesus in his lifetime, and who witnessed his return to life after crucifixion. They still find it difficult today. Astonishingly, folk myths take hold and are spoken of as if they were truths, taught to children as if they were more comforting than the truth. But how can it be comforting to be told that Grannie has become a star in the sky, when any child knows that stars are superheated gas balls set massive distances from each other on their lonely orbits. How can it be helpful to tell a child that Old Mr Jones has gone to become an angel? It isn’t true, and so it doesn’t prepare them to handle the actual truth. It seems when it comes to death, people either avoid the truth by indulging in sentimental storytelling, or when imagination and faith fail completely, by insisting that death is the end, that there is nothing beyond it. Because we do not at this time see the resurrection of the dead, many people deny it.

In Corinth there was a powerful group of people within the church who insisted that there was no resurrection. You live, you die, that’s the end of it. Paul, Apollos, Peter and all the others who had led churches in Corinth and taught the stories of Jesus, including of his resurrection from the dead, they were wrong. And so the authority, leadership and teaching of Christian leaders was completely undermined and the faith they taught utterly devalued. And yet these unbelievers continued to consider themselves part of the church, and as they spoke out they damaged the church more and more. Paul wondered why they bothered, because if they were right, and he was wrong, then ‘let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!’

If you don’t believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, or that we can be raised from the dead, then what you do in church is a waste of time. Paul knows, and offers lots of witness statements to back himself up, that Jesus did rise. But if you choose not to believe that Jesus rose, then it follows that his death either wasn’t real or was the end for him. In either case, his teaching, his actions, the miracles, all become meaningless. And if Jesus is meaningless, then so is the rest of the story. If he didn’t rise from the dead, you won’t rise from the dead. And if that’s the case, why are you in church? Go and party, or have a lie in, or go shopping, because nothing in church makes any sense if don’t believe in everything that Jesus is.

Paul was pretty frustrated by this group of effective unbelievers who were exercising a lot of influence within the church and undermining the faith of others. You can see this frustration in the outburst: Come back to your senses! (v34). Paul knew that some of those who denied the resurrection would try to justify themselves by demanding a description of what life after death looks like. They’d see it as a clever question, because of course no one knows what life after death looks like. None of us has seen it, other than those first witnesses of Jesus, which is why it is a matter of faith and hope. Paul’s frustration shows again as he exclaims: ‘Foolish question!’

But then Paul offered an answer to the question which has been definitive for Christians ever since. Let’s look at it this way. Imagine for a moment that you’ve never seen a flower seed or bulb before. You know, because you’ve been told, that if you put it in the ground, it will grow. But what might you expect that to mean? Becoming a bigger flower bulb perhaps? But no, the seed or bulb destroys itself. Apparently, the seed no longer exists. In its place there are roots, and a stalk or leaves. Eventually in the place where you buried the seed or bulb you find something quite, quite different. Could you have imagined it? From just seeing a bulb, could you have imagined a bright, golden narcissus? A narcissus is so very different from a bulb, isn’t it? And this is Paul’s point. The life of the resurrected is brighter and bigger, more colourful, more vivid than we can possibly imagine right now. It is as like the lives we currently live as the flower is to the bulb. The one emerges from the other, but the seed must die in order for the plant to emerge. Our current life is a mortal one, as mortal as Adam. Our future life is eternal, everlasting and spiritual – like our risen Lord Jesus. Now we are like Adam, then we will be like Jesus, and it will be indescribably wonderful!

What Paul describes is far more hopeful and far more lovely than the strange stories that people imagine bring comfort to children or even to themselves. He offers us something to hope for, a glorious end to the life of faith. Without this hope, being part of church is a waste of time, but with it, everything that we do when we worship, when we pray, when we spend time reading our Bibles and getting to know God better, is a preparation for the life to come. Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory over death and over faithlessness through Jesus Christ our risen Lord!

Saturday, 20 October 2018

Build up the church in love

21/28 October                    1 Corinthians 14

This sermon begins with reading a couple of verses from the chapter in a language that I am able to read, but that I know isn't spoken by anyone present in the room - in this case, Welsh.

Did that edify you? Did you feel better for hearing those words that you didn’t understand? It made me feel good! Well, actually, it didn’t, because I wasn’t communicating with you. The words were meaningful, and as it happens I know exactly what I said, which is not the case when I normally speak in tongues – I wasn’t using the gift of tongues then, I was teasing you, speaking Welsh. And it wasn’t good for you or for me, and would only have been good had there been a Welsh speaker here to understand the words.

The reason I did it was, of course, to underline Paul’s point about speaking in tongues. Using that gift in private, to grow closer to God, is really wonderful, and I can strongly commend it to you. But in public it is no more helpful than those words of Welsh were, unless there is a way to translate it. My speaking it in this way is basically selfish. And that’s not how the gifts that the Holy Spirit gives us are to be used. Whatever gifts we have, they are of proper value when they build up the whole church. That’s not to say we should only use our gifts for the whole church – we must work at growing closer to God as individual disciples in prayer, Bible knowledge and in the way we live. But in church we must use our gifts to build up the whole church.

Paul tells us that this works by starting with the rule of life that underlies all Christian life. He calls this rule the ‘way of love’ and describes it in chapter 13.4-7: Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13.4-7 NRSV). This is the way of life that each of us should strive for. In chapter 14.1 Paul writes: ‘Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy’.

This way of life is a privileged one, but it is not a reserved one. Some people think that only those of us who are ordained need to live this way, or to have spiritual gifts, and especially to have the gift of prophecy. But Paul wasn’t writing to a group of clergy. He was writing to a whole church. All Christians, he suggests, should live according to the rule of love, and ask God to give them spiritual gifts, whether of teaching, hospitality, tongues, apostleship, healing, wise discernment – or prophecy. The point of prophecy, he reminds us, is that it builds up the church. Used properly, prophecy speaks into the present moment, speaking God’s word into what is happening right here, right now. Prophecy can bring comfort and encouragement. It strengthens and affirms. Sometimes it challenges and disturbs too, and seeks to change the status quo, but only ever for the building up of the church.

Being a prophetic voice is not easy. People don’t like prophets when they challenge or disturb. If a prophetic voice seeks to change the way that things have always been done it must of course be tested. But so often across time prophets have been shouted down or shouted at for speaking uncomfortable truths. We take some of those truths for granted now: that we should read the Bible in our own language, for example, that we should update our liturgies, or that the priest should not turn his back on the congregation – or that the priest might be turning her back. Or more locally, it can’t have been pleasant to be the person who first said ‘we’ll have to close the church in Horton’, for example. Perhaps that’s why so many people shy away from asking God for the gift, or look to the clergy to be the ones who exercise it. The clergy are so much easier to blame. But its not what Paul said. All of us are to ask for the gifts and to use them out of the basis of the way of love. Lovingly building up the church.

It’s challenging, especially when community demands clash with the needs of the church. We have to measure our actions against scripture, look at what Jesus taught and ask ourselves how community demands and the good of the church come together. Sometimes they don’t. Paul tells us that we have to think like adults in this, while acting like children when it comes to evil – in other words, to learn and apply our learning when it comes to the way of love, and to stay well away from learning about evil. Unless it is part of our working lives – as police officers or social workers, we should keep away from it. And thus we must pray extra hard for Christians who do have to deal with evil as part of their work. Jesus tells us to be ‘wise as serpents and innocent as doves’ (Matt. 10.16). In the affairs of the church, we must exercise adult wisdom. Millennials sometimes talk about ‘adulting’. Intentionally being responsible, thinking about it properly. Adulting should be loving and unselfish, looking to build up ourselves and others, not to indulge ourselves at the expense of others. So let’s do adulting when it comes to living in love and using the gifts that God gives us to make our church stronger and more encouraging. Let’s do adulting when we try to be men and women of prayer and of scriptural confidence. Let’s do adulting when supporting each other and seeking what is best for the church. Let’s do adulting when we look at the Bible to see what God actually wants us to do for the community around us, and then use our spiritual gifts – most especially the gift of love – there too.

Thursday, 4 October 2018

Stronger than a city wall

7/14 October                    1 Corinthians 13

I wonder what St Paul would think if he knew that the main occasion for listening to and preaching on his great hymn to love was at weddings. Perhaps he’d be happy, but I suspect that he’d be concerned at taking the passage out of context. Standing alone and treated as a reflection on the love between two people, however lovely the chapter is, it misses the point. In the letter, chapters 12 to 14 are one argument. Paul is writing about the use of spiritual gifts in the Corinthian church. He’d been told that the some people were using spiritual gifts to make themselves look and feel powerful or important within the church, and in particular the gift of tongues was being seen as a sign of superior faith, and effectively excluding others from worship and a sense of belonging. Spiritual gifts, Paul wrote are given to build up the whole church. We are given them not for our own benefit but for service to others. And the greatest gift of all is the one that enables all the other gifts to be used in service. Love.

If you love, and you use your gifts in the spirit of love, then your gifts, whatever they are, will help others and make an impact. But if your starting point is not love, then any other gift is a waste of time. Prophetic words become background noise, the gift of tongues an annoying jangle, because the gifts are not benefiting others if they are not used out of a base of love.

To make sure that the Corinthians understood the point, Paul set out a description of what love is like. Now, since we have one overused word for love in English, and Paul had a choice of words in Greek, we should understand that the great gift underlying all things is αγαπε (agape). This is a strong word. It doesn’t describe romantic love or the relationship between two people (that is ερως – a word that does not appear in the Bible), although of course two people might have a relationship defined by αγαπε. The Greek concept of αγαπε is of a powerful unconditional love, and refers to the love that God has for humanity. It would be the closest word Paul could find to parallel the Hebrew concept of אַהֲבָה  ‘Ahava’ comes from the Hebrew verb ‘hav’ – to give. It demonstrates the character of a love which is about giving, not receiving. It is not a passive love. Ahava requires action, making a choice to behave towards others in a generous way. When Jesus said: ‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another’ (John 13.35 NIV), he didn’t mean that the disciples felt nice about each other, but that they actively worked for each other’s wellbeing, seeking good for each other, serving each other– using their God-given gifts for each other’s benefit. This is ahava and it is what Paul looks for as he uses the nearest Greek equivalent. We’ll see the point again in the verse that almost sums up the whole letter, 1 Corinthians 16.14: ‘Let all that you do be done in love’ (NRSV).

Paul knew that it wasn’t enough to tell the Corinthians to love. He spelled out what love looks like, and what their behaviour towards each other should therefore look like: Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13.4-7 NRSV) So the question we ask ourselves is, does this describe us? Could we replace the word αγαπε (love) with the name of our church community, and see a true description of who we are and how we behave towards one another?
The real challenge is when we look to the source of all love, to God, to see what love looks like in action. We see God’s love in action through Jesus Christ. Which means that as we look at Christ’s example we learn that love is the wisdom of the cross. ‘We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another’ (1 John 3.16 NRSV). Love, according to the wisdom of the cross, gives until it hurts, and then keeps on giving.

That’s a far cry from the behaviour of the Corinthians, showing off their gifts in front of each other, failing to share their food at the Lord’s supper and railing at Paul for pointing out their failings.

Paul calls love an ‘excellent way’ (1 Corinthians 12.31). And it should be exactly that. A way of life. 1 Corinthians 13.4-7 could be taken as a rule of life, a discipline. When we catch ourselves behaving towards others in a way that is outside that rule, we need to stop, and ask the help of the Holy Spirit to live out the gift of love in the generous and courageous way that Paul suggests. Looking at Paul’s description of love and thinking that it would be nice to be like that, or sighing and saying, ‘yes, but I’m not a naturally patient person, so…’ – well that sort of attitude isn’t good enough for Paul, and so it shouldn’t be good enough for any of us.

St John Chrysostom, writing about this chapter, said: ‘Love is stronger than a city wall; it is harder than steel. And even if you should think of some material stronger than these, love’s strength exceeds them all’. That strength of love comes from its source, God, who is love and whose love undergirds all things. If we live by a rule of active, not passive, αγαπε love, then we will be protected by that strength, and we will become sources of strength for others in our own right.

When I preach on this passage at a wedding, I want this kind of giving, active, sacrificial love to be the underlying strength that binds the two people in front of me. Perhaps it is easier to preach that message to them if what they see in the church they are standing in is a building full of people who live out God’s love for one another. A building full of people rich in the gifts of the spirit, and using them to benefit one another, because we are living out Jesus’ command: ‘Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another’ (John 13.34-35 NIV).

Thursday, 13 September 2018

Rivers of living water

1 Corinthians 12

Living Brook benefice takes its name from two important ideas. It comes from a brook – or a collection of connected brooks – that are the only shared geographical feature between our parishes. It winds between the villages, finally emptying into the Nene in Hardingstone. But that inspires a more important connection. Living Brook reminds us of the living water that Jesus offers a Samaritan woman in John 4, and of the image of water representing the holy spirit which runs through the whole of scripture. Think of the water flowing from the rock in the wilderness, or the promise of water to bring life to the desert. The river Jordan, divided by God to allow Joshua to lead his people into the promised land, became the place of baptism for John, the water representing the life that comes to us when we receive the spirit: life in all its fullness (John 10.10). Jesus said that ‘out if the of believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’ (John7.38). John explains (John 7.39) that this water is a reference to the Holy Spirit, and to what would come after the day of Pentecost. Today, the waters of baptism continue to signify that life given by the spirit to the baptised, and offered, through every baptised person, to the rest of the world. That abundant life is more than we need. It flows from us to others, being shared with the rest of the church and flowing from the church to those beyond the church who are thirsty and need to drink.

We plunge into the depths of the spirit in baptism, and on other occasions when the spirit moves in power. But daily we return to the Holy Spirit as we pray, as we share in communion, as we read the bible or other spiritual books with hearts listening to God. St Paul says that we are all one body and we are all made to drink of one Spirit – and we drink daily, and receive, and share, daily.

That daily renewal is important. Recently, I led a quiet day in Piddington church. During the morning, I went for a walk in one direction from the church and passed a place where I often stop to look at the brook and to reflect on Living Brook. It is a place where usually the brook is wide, and runs fairly rapidly. It can be quite impressive there. But on that day there was no water at all. That’s hardly surprising, given the very dry summer that we’ve had. It reminded me that the same can be true in a Christian community too. The living water can stop flowing out of the mouths of believers, if the believers start to take God for granted; if the believers stop regularly asking the holy spirit to come. We each need to be praying, every day, for the Holy Spirit to be with us. If we don’t ask the spirit to come, we might find that the brook begins to dry up, and we find ourselves thirsty, and unable to properly support each other. The brook might run dry because instead of concentrating on living as God would have us live, in love and unity, we have allowed ourselves to be distracted by our own concerns. We come to church thinking about the state of the building, or whether we are personally receiving enough attention, or whether that person we don’t get on with is going to be there and spoil the morning for us. We forget that we are one body, and that as one body we are more than a group of humans, but the body of Christ. We look at ourselves, and at each other, but don’t look hard enough at Jesus, and when that happens, the brook can run dry. We were all made to drink of one Spirit, without any difference of rank or status or race or anything else. And we must do what we were made to do. So every day, pray ‘come, Holy Spirit. Come, Holy Spirit.’

Later in the day I went for another walk in a different direction, and came across another branch of the stream. I heard it before I saw it – indeed I didn’t see it at all, because the water I could hear was running too far below the level of the path, and was shielded from sight by many lovely waterside plants. Although I couldn’t see the water, the signs of its presence were many and lovely. After the experience of the morning, I thanked God gratefully for showing me another picture of Living Brook – not just quietly sitting, but flowing noisily and bringing life and colour, through the power of the holy spirit.
And when we are full of the life of the spirit, that life flowing from us to others can be seen, not in colourful plant life – unless your spiritual gift is flower arranging or plantsmanship – but through the spiritual gifts. What we need to remember about those gifts is that they are not for us as individuals. The gifts of the spirit are given for all to share – for service to the church and to those who are thirsty. This means that I can benefit from the gift of hospitality, or of helping, or of organising events, even though I may not have those gifts myself. Because those people who do have them use them for the benefit of all. And I should use the gifts I have for the benefit of all.

Paul went to some trouble to emphasise this through the way he took a popular analogy of people coming together as a body, and changed it to remind people that the body is not about a hierarchy or status (which was how the image was used in classical teaching) but that everyone is valued and important. He had heard reports that in Corinth gifts were being used to benefit people personally, sometimes at the detriment of the whole church. The fashionable gift was speaking in tongues, and that was especially problematic, because unless there is someone to interpret, the only beneficiary of tongues is the speaker. Everyone else is left wondering what is going on. There’s nothing wrong with the gift of tongues, but like any gift it is only valuable in so far as it benefits everyone, the whole church. So Paul wanted the Corinthians to think more widely about what gifts they asked God for, and to value more gifts. And he wanted the Corinthians to always use their gifts in the context of prioritising love for one another. Having a gift is all very well, but if you don’t love one another, and you don’t use your gifts to benefit one another, then you my as well not have them. Our gifts must be used to build up the church, to benefit the whole.

Paul gave lists of gifts, and never gave the same list twice. He didn’t want people to think that his lists were definitive. We sometimes behave as though they are – that unless something is on one of Paul’s lists, it isn’t a gift. I don’t think Paul saw it that way. He gave examples, trying to be relevant to those receiving his letters, but he wasn’t seeking to limit the holy spirit. There are gifts that are obviously and always gifts of the spirit – prophecy is the obvious example, and is the only example that always appeared in Paul’s lists. Paul did think some gifts more important than others – again, he valued prophecy above all other gifts. But that should not devalue the other gifts. The risk of thinking some gifts greater than others is that a church community can assume that if you have a ‘greater gift’ you are more important than the other members, or that you must be in a position of status in order to have that gift. ‘I never went to Oxford or Cambridge, I’m not a senior cleric’; ‘I’m not the vicar, I didn’t go to university’… ‘so I can’t have a gift like prophecy’. That’s not true, and Paul wants us to get away from that idea. Every one of us, Jew or Greek, slave or free, drinks of the Holy Spirit, he says. Every one of us can be equally blessed by any gift of the spirit. We just have to ask. Come Holy Spirit. Please give me the gift of… whatever gift you would like the Spirit to bless you with. Please bless me with the gift of prophecy. Why not? Whoever I am, whatever my role in church, Paul tells us to ask for the greater gifts. We need the lesser ones too.

The greatest gift of all, the one we must ask for, every single one of us, no matter what else we ask of God, is love. Without love, the church ceases to be one, united body. Without love we stop reflecting God, who is one, spirit, Lord and God. Without love, anything else we do stops reflecting God and only reflects ourselves. Without love, the greatest gift of the Holy Spirit, the brook dries up and becomes as unpleasant and full of rubbish as the stream bed that saddened me on my morning walk. So let us ask the Holy Spirit to pour into us life and love, and whatever other gifts that we need. Let us ask the holy spirit to unite us as one church. And when we do, listen out for the living water that flows from our hearts to bring that life and love to all.

Saturday, 18 August 2018

Cover your head

1 Corinthians 11. 1-16

The thing is, we read into scripture what we want to see, or what we fear seeing, or what we think we're going to see. And sometimes we just don't know enough about the background to fully understand what we're actually reading. 

This passage is a case in point. Some things are clear. Women were taking up roles in churches which fit into what we would now see as leadership roles. They were acting as prophets and leading prayer - they were worship leaders. Paul takes that for granted. He's clearly used to the idea of women leading in church services, and he doesn't in this passage say anything that would suggest that a woman can not be a leader in church.

But there is a problem involving the women leaders in Corinth. They've caused offence, and he's presumably received comments about them, or he wouldn't have bothered mentioning it in his letter, And the problem is not around what they are doing, but about what they are wearing - or rather, not wearing.

It was usual in that particular culture for women to cover their heads when out in public. It was a societal norm, and not a controversial one. Every culture has different expectations of dress for men and for women. In the culture in which I live women have a great deal of freedom, but there are some restrictions which would be very shocking to break. Keeping our breasts covered, for example. On a hot day, a man might appear in the street without a top, but it would not be acceptable for a woman to do the same. And I am very emphatically not suggesting that we should. Definitely not. But if I lived in certain tribal communities in another part of the world, I might wonder what all the fuss was about.

When we read Paul's instruction to women to conform to a dress code that is culturally important, we need to see it as that, and not as a greater statement about women. It was shocking go go out without a headdress. Yes, women might take them off indoors with the family. And yes, church is family, so perhaps one line of reasoning might have been that it was OK to take off the headdress because we are all one family here. But at church there were newcomers, visitors, new converts, people who didn't know everyone well. Applying the rules of a family household was too forward. Instead the women who took off their headdresses risked looking as though they were prostitutes - the only group of women who did go out with loose hair and without a headdress of some sort. Or they risked looking as though they were trying to be men. 

There was no need for a woman lading in church to try and look like a man. Shea did not get her authority in church from somehow being an honorary man. She is a creation of God made to complement man, and has authority in her own right. For her, authority in church was better exercised with the headdress on, looking like a woman, being all that God made her to be. Not risking being seen as taking authority by somehow pretending to be male. It wasn't necessary and it wasn't godly. 

A woman in leadership in 21st century Britain may not need a headscarf, or long hair. The cultural norms that Paul was living in do not apply to us. So it doesn't help to look at this passage as being about whether or not a woman should cover her head in church or wear long hair. Rather, we need to ensure that we behave as leaders in ways that do not shock or cause scandal (as some of those Corinthian prophets were doing). We need to dress appropriately and modestly according to the rules of the churches that we serve and the culture we currently inhabit. That way we will not become a distraction, or get away of what is really important, which is the message that God wants his people to hear through us. And funnily enough, exactly the same rule applies to our male colleagues. 

This is my body

1 Corinthians 11.17-end

It was a great day for a church picnic. Everyone was bringing their own food, but the PCC had implied that a certain amount of sharing would be encouraged, and the vicar had given Jo and Sam the impression that if they came straight to the picnic after their shift at the warehouse, it wouldn’t matter that they didn’t have time to sort out their own food. ‘Don’t worry’, she said, ‘everyone always brings too much. You just come.’ The picnic ran between 12 and 2, so it seemed fine to arrive as soon as they could after their shift – running for the bus meant they got to the site soon after 12.30. Not too late.

Photo by Christine Siracusa on Unsplash
The vicar seemed distracted when they arrived, getting ready for the communion service. The church members were sitting in groups around the site. Some of the members who came from the big houses at the edge of the area had occupied the picnic tables. They’d brought cloths and had plates and glasses and some very fancy looking dishes of food – a lot posher than any picnic Sam and Jo had ever seen. Other members were sitting around blankets with more ordinary looking food. It was obvious that they’d been eating and drinking for a while and some seemed to have finished already.  

Sam and Jo spotted the picnic organiser with his family at one of the tables and went over to them. ‘You made it then,’ he said to them. ‘We understand from the vicar that you couldn’t bring your own food. Shame. Never mind. There are some cheese sandwiches here.’ And from a bag under the table he pulled out a packet of sandwiches and a bottle of water. As he passed it to Jo, he seemed unembarrassed at his failure to offer any of the wine or lemonade on the table, or of the chicken Caesar salad, quail’s eggs or the delicate individual fruit pavlovas that looked so delicious. Not that there was much of it left.

Sam looked around for somewhere to sit, and found a space some distance from the tables. Soon the vicar was calling them together for communion – the sandwiches would have to wait. She broke the bread, using St Paul’s words about there being one bread and one body, but as Sam and Jo looked around the gathering, it didn’t feel like that to them. The people at the tables had only spoken to them when handing them the sandwiches that were so inferior to their own lunch. It seemed they had nothing in common. ‘But we should’, whispered Jo. ‘Didn’t Jesus die for us too? He didn’t think we were less important than anyone else. So why don’t people talk to us? Why are we over here and not siting at one of those tables? Why aren’t we worth a share in the nice food? Is it just because we can’t afford to put a lot in the collection, or because we’re late – it isn’t our fault that they always start these events while we’re still on shift. If this is the body of Christ, I don’t feel like I’m a part of it’.

What happens next? Do Jo and Sam go and find another church, one where they don’t feel looked down on for being warehouse operatives? Does the vicar spot what is happening and speak out to the wealthy members of the church? Perhaps those wealthy members haven’t realised just how unfair they are being. Perhaps they think preparing a few cheese sandwiches was a great kindness and that they did well – will she put them right? Will she tell them that they are amputating part of the body by behaving so thoughtlessly? Or will she keep quiet, because she’s afraid that these wealthy people have the power to make her life miserable, or even to take her job from her?

I’m not describing a real scenario. Jo and Sam are fictional. But I’ve seen close enough variants a few times in the course of my life to know that what St Paul described in 1 Corinthians 11 is still a threat to the body of Christ now. In those early days of the church, the sharing of bread and wine was becoming symbolic but hadn’t yet been separated from the sharing of a meal. Influenced by the shape of a Passover meal, bread was broken and blessed at the start of a shared meal, and the cup of blessing shared at the end of it. People reminded themselves of all that Jesus had asked them to remember, as part of the sharing in a full meal. But in Corinth the local customs for eating together were leading to divisions within the church. Wealthy hosts would eat in their dining rooms, starting as soon as they were ready. Poorer church members would arrive to find the meal in progress and their food – of a much lower quality – served in the hall. That was not how Paul, Peter and Apollos had taught the Corinthian Christians to behave, and it definitely did not reflect the teaching of Jesus.

As Paul reminded the Corinthians of the story of the Last Supper – and this is the earliest account of it that we have – he was doing it to show them how their behaviour was not a remembrance of Jesus, but rather it was letting him down. Jesus calls his people to be one body, united in love for God and for each other. The bread is the symbol of that body. Jesus, the bread of life, identified his body with bread and asked all who follow to see bread as his body. The bread of life, the body of Christ, both are one. And so, Paul says, when we share that bread, we are not just connecting with Jesus, in receiving something that becomes for us his body. We are connecting with the whole church – because we are the body of Christ. The bread is a symbol and sign of our identity as the church – we are the body of Christ, and so we are the bread of life for the world. Eating that bread is not only a personal spiritual experience. It is a shared experience – the word corporate really comes into its own. Eating the bread binds us as Jesus’ body here on earth, his presence in the world.

And if we believe that, then our behaviour towards each other must be completely respectful, loving and thoughtful. It isn’t acceptable to look down on other Christians. It isn’t acceptable to hand one a cheese sandwich while you eat lobster. Better for everyone to have cheese sandwiches. And to eat them together – not eating first but waiting. In my picnic scenario, the event should have been times to start when Jo and Sam were able to get there. And a proper planned shared meal would have been better too. With tables reserved for those unable to sit on the ground because of bad hips, or dealing with a baby, or old age, even if that meant some people used to a more refined way of living find themselves sitting on the grass. Those who really can’t wait to eat, Paul said – eat at home, because you are making it into a private meal, not a shared meal for Jesus’ followers. There should be no exclusivity, no looking down on people. We are one body and we need to behave as though that matters.

Because it does matter. It matters enough that it was one of the last things that Jesus prayed for, and St Paul and other first generation apostles spoke of it constantly. We are one body. And so let us live thoughtfully, respectfully, lovingly, always putting our fellow Christians needs ahead of our own. Jo and Sam and fictional, but the truth is, there are plenty of people out there who have been made to feel the way that they were. Let’s not be that church. Let’s be the church that Jo and Sam looked for – the one that welcomes, and includes and keeps things equal.

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Lectio Divina readings to start with

Readings for Lectio Divina

Any passage of scripture or meditative writing can be used for this kind of prayerful reading. You could learn much from writers such as Julian of Norwich, Brother Laurence, Theresa of Avila or the poems of Malcolm Guite 'An ordinary saint' is well worth starting with. You can find his sonnets on his own blog:

 Here, I suggest some Bible passages  that may make a good programme to begin with, as you start to explore lectio divina as a way of prayer.


Isaiah 35
Isaiah 40. 18-31
Isaiah 61. 1-11
Micah 6. 1-11
Matt 13. 1-23
Matt 25. 14-30
Luke 15. 11-32
Luke 16. 19-31
Luke 20. 9-19
John 10. 1-18
Romans 8. 28-39
1 Cor 12.31b–13.13
1 Cor 15.12-28
2 Cor 4.1-18
Ephesians 4.2-9
Colossians 3.1-17
1 Peter 1.13-25
1 Peter 2.4-12
1 John 4.7-21

Matt 5. 1-12
Matt 15. 21-28
Matt 27. 32-55
Mark 9. 2-13
Mark 10. 17-31
Mark 14. 12-25
Luke 1. 46-55
Luke 11. 1-13
Luke 19. 1-10
Luke 23. 26-49
Luke 24. 13-35
John 1. 1-18
John 4. 4-42
John 6. 30-58
John 13. 1-17
John 14. 1-14
John 15. 1-17
John 17. 20-26
John 19. 16-37
John 20. 19-29
John 21. 15-25