Groucho Marx who famously quipped 'I don't want to belong to any club that will accept people like me.'

What was he railing against? Was it clubs and institutions per se? Was it that he knew that his own deep character flaws?  Did he understand the propensity of many clubs and institutions to insist that its members all act and behave in the same way? Did he crave to belong to a club that was so eclectic and diverse that it accepted all manner of folks?

I suspect that it was a mixture of all of the questions that I have just raised and this raises a paradox: we all want to belong, but sometimes, often, we are frightened of what belonging entails, or demands of us. We want to be made welcome, yet at the same time we are afraid of losing are individuality. Yes, we need to be clear clubs and institutions can stifle us and force us to put on a false persona.

And, the Church is no different. At times the Church has failed to understand its own rules. Churches can seek to create a congregation of little me's, moulded in the image of a charismatic leader and his or her acolytes. But, here is the problem Church's like this don't conform to the set of rules described in today's readings.

For our guiding rules – theologies if you prefer – must be inclusivity, diversity, love and grace. Jesus came for all and he wants all to join his Church, even folk like Grouch Marx, even folk like you and me. And, if we fail to get that message out there our aspiration to be an hospitable church will be fairly meaningless.

The reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter's great vision, must have been scandalous to both Peter himself and the Jewish community. Through the vision Peter is to learn about grace, diversity and inclusion. He is to learn that not every believer is expected to be a theologically modified clone of the other. Grace means widening the parameters, flexing the club rules, opening the doors to all manner of people.  Grace means looking beyond mere externalities and accepting that the potential to live a Christ like life, comes from within. It is about the rule that governs our hearts not the clothes we wear or the food we eat.  Grace is divine, the law had become a set of human constructs. We must as a Church always try to get to the heart of things.

But, in order to keep any institution afloat, and thriving, we do need some rules, or perhaps at least a rule. And the Church's rule is love. And, it turns out that love is an active and dynamic rule. Love

can't be put under a microscope for analysis, it can't even be hard coded into a set of rules and placed in a governance manual, the Jews, through the Pharisaic elite had tried to do this, and look where this led them. But, love can be experienced and felt and the effects of a community where love rules are not invisible, as Jesus said: 'By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you have love one for another.'

Love implies looking into the heart of the other and saying 'I know that you are beloved by God.' The twentieth century mystic summed it up like this: 'The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image. Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them.'

Love, grace, diversity, affirmation, inclusion these must be our guiding rules and principles. These underpin our aspirations to be an hospitable, holy and healing community. We must desire to be  community where each and every person knows that that they are known by God, and where they can truly be themselves, for only then will everyone know that we are his disciples, Amen.

 

When I was younger various folk, teachers mostly, used to occasionally ask me 'why do you always have to have the last word?' Funnily enough I always had the sense not to reply.

But today's gospel reading is about not last but first words.

And, the first word used, twice, in today's gospel passage, by Jesus, is peace: he is the bringer of peace; we are to be bringers of peace. Peace is an important concept in Christianity, just note how many times the word is used in our liturgy.

So here's the question: 'what does peace mean in explicitly theological terms?'

The biblical word which we translate as peace is Shalom, which translates as 'right relationship.' Peace in Christian terms doesn't simply mean the absence of violence or injustice, nor does it mean feeling good about ourselves. Peace is not to be reduced to sentimentality. Peace or shalom is all about relationships. Righteous relationships with God,  righteous relationships with each other. And if we are serious about our discipleship we need to strive to be bringers of peace. We need to walk in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi who famously prayed 'make me a channel of your peace.' We need to allow ourselves to be inspired by the likes of Desmond Tutu who understood that right relationships, or peace, only become a possibility when we seek truth and reconciliation, when we become willing to let go of bitterness and resentments and when we say to the past that it cannot govern the future, for surely this is, in part, what takes place through the resurrection? If we wish to be children of the resurrection, we must be prepared to give hurts, pains and failures back to God, so that we can move ahead forging better, more righteous relationships.

But, how can we do this, for we need to be clear and honest? Sometimes our failures, or suffering, and our rightful indignations seem to have the upper hand. Well, the gospel again provides the answer: through the gift of the Holy Spirit.

 

Are we prepared to sit here this morning and allow the Holy Spirit to be breathed over us, into us? Are we prepared to receive the Gift of the Holy Spirit?

 

I would like to suggest that if we are serious about our aspirations, the three H's, hospitality, healing and holiness we need to allow ourselves to be shaped, nurtured and inspired by Jesus' post resurrection gift; the Holy Spirit. And if we do permit ourselves to be led by the Holy Spirit something even more remarkable might happen:

We will become the sort of community where the living God is experienced as real and tangible. Where the honest doubter, the modern day Thomas, stands a chance of being met and greeted by Jesus, where doubt becomes the raw material of faith. We will become a church that can do no other than to grow in number and in holiness; a church where people perhaps find themselves saying somewhat unexpectedly: 'My Lord and My God!' Surely that's an exciting vision?

Sometimes churches can become a little snooty about those on the periphery, those who come to church only occasionally, those whose faith doesn't appear to be fully formed. What I say is let's pray that our periphery expands, let's welcome the cynic, doubter and occasional worshipper as a gift from God.

Pope Francis recently wrote that when someone starts hanging around with Christians – just as Thomas did, even though apparently he didn't believe- 'they need to be helped, not pushed away or cast out. Sometimes when Christians think like scholars of the law, their hearts extinguish that which the Holy Spirit lights up in the heart of a sinner when they stand at the threshold, when they start to feel nostalgia for God.'

These are wise words, which we should pay to attention to, for our role is to welcome all who approach us and to trust in the Holy Spirit. It is God who converts not us. As St. Francis also said 'go and preach the gospel everywhere but use words only where necessary.'

This does not imply that we should be passive, or avoid words for sometimes they are necessary. I do however think it implies that we should be concerned with the quality of our own community and the message that it gives out.

Are we a community into whose very DNA is breathed peace, right relationships, reconciliation and truth, Shalom in other words? I hope and pray so. Amen.

 

Rev Andrew Lightbown

 

At first sight Ash Wednesday, or more specifically, the Ash Wednesday rituals must look a bit odd.

Imagine being brought into church as a total outsider and witnessing ash being placed on people's heads, in the shape of the cross. You might rightly wonder what on earth was going on; strange lot these Christians.

So what is going on? What is the point of Ash Wednesday? And why is so important that we never lose its message? Well, I think that Ash Wednesday calls us back to some of the most foundational characteristics of our faith.

It firstly calls us humility. As we look at the world and gaze on God we surely must recognise our smallness, but even as we remember our smallness we must also accept our significance. We should not stand before God with a false humility, proclaiming that we are, 'ever so humble.' We are not to be modern day Uriah Heeps. Revelling in humility is no form of humility at all.

Yes, we are small, but we are God's children, we are chosen, called, predestined to be agents of his grace. Ash Wednesday asks to accept this our mandate; confident that we can be agents of His grace but not in our own strength. Ash Wednesday, in the Words of the Coventry Litany of Reconciliation, asks us to repent of 'the pride which leads us to trust in ourselves and not in God.'

The prophet Joel describes the casting off of pride leading to trust in God as 'returning.' And what do we find when we repent in order to return? 'Steadfast love, and blessing.'

Ash Wednesday invites us to receive God's steadfast love, which is our blessing, so that we in turn can become a real blessing to those who we encounter.

And this is the point of the Gospel story we have just heard, a story which incidentally is depicted on the reredos behind the altar. Why don't you gaze at it afresh when you come to receive communion

According to the customs of the day Jesus should have agreed to the stoning of the woman caught in adultery. But he doesn't. He instead does something remarkable: he reminds the gathered crowd that they are all sinners.

By inviting those without sin to cast the first stone, he invited the crowd to abandon hypocrisy, to recognise themselves as they really are before God and to exercise grace; to become a source of blessing and affirmation. That too is part of our Ash Wednesday invitation:

To abandon hypocrisy, to recognise ourselves as deeply fallen and as a consequence to become a blessing to those equally imperfect folk who we encounter in the ordinary waif and wain of life.

And here is the great Lenten paradox: we become agents of grace and sources of blessing not because we reach some superhuman level of moral perfection, but instead, because we recognise our ingrained weakness and sinfulness. None of this of course means that sin is okay or that morality should be thrown out of the window. Consider the last words of Jesus to the woman:

 

'Go your way and from now on sin no longer.'

 

This Ash Wednesday we need to hear those words for ourselves. We need to encounter the Christ who seeks to meet us as we really are, in our sinfulness, but who seeks also to affirm and bless us with his healing grace, for that is how we get better, that is how we increase in holiness, that is how we become sources of blessing and agents of grace. That is how we become Christian. It is all done through an honest encounter with Jesus, the great redeemer.

So today let us approach the altar with soft and open hearts, thankful that Jesus wants to feed, affirm, bless and sanctify us so that we may in turn feed, affirm and bless those who we meet and encounter as we make our pilgrimage through life.

And by the way do gaze afresh at the Reredos; in some ways I think it was made for days such as Ash Wednesday.

Amen.

 

Rev. Andrew Lightbown