One of the most memorable voices of my English schooldays was that of the great cricket commentator John Arlott. He reported on many things, and was also a poet, wine-connoisseur, hymn-writer, part time politician, anti-apartheid spokesperson and renowned host of dinner parties. His distinctive radio tones and brilliant turns of phrase illuminated English summers and some other special occasions, notably the great Centenary Test Match in Melbourne in 1977. Thousands of miles away I remember being curled up through the night listening under the covers to John’s words. His descriptions were typically unforgettable: such as that of the scene of Dennis Lillee’s destruction of the English first innings, where, he said, even the ‘seagulls were standing in line like vultures’, and also Derek Randall’s heroic second innings fightback – an innings as inimitable as John’s own expressions. Gordon Greenidge, the great West Indian batsman, even named him ‘the Shakespeare of commentators.’ Above all, however, I will always cherish John Arlott’s vigorous standing up for our common humanity, not least over apartheid. He had learned to move on from his English colonial upbringing from Indian cricketers, not least the wonderful Vijay Merchant. Famously then, he was involved at the forefront of cricket’s anti-apartheid struggles. Indeed, as early as 1948, visiting South Africa, he refused to fill in the section marked ‘race’ on the departure form, except to put the word ‘human’. ‘What do you mean?’, said an angry immigration officer aggressively. ‘I am a member of the human race’ came back the reply. Eventually he was just told to ‘get out’. How I wonder would John Arlott fare today with resurgent racism, nationalism, and the exclusivism of so many immigration policies? What price human unity today? What, in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, does faith have to contribute?...
What is your ‘good news’? One of the theological college principals I used to work with would occasionally ask this of students. If you had to put the good news of your Christian faith in a short phrase, he would say, what would it be? Now he was certainly not trying to dumb down faith, under the pressures of modern media attention spans and ‘church growth’ gurus. That, to be honest, would hardly have worked! Our theological college was, after all, the child of two theological traditions - one of them radically incarnationalist and the other powerfully modernist – both of which had rattled the cages of conservative and complacent faith in the past. No, he was certainly not attempting to avoid deep and complex questions and intelligent reflection. He was just trying to encourage us to affirm what we could affirm and to be able to share that clearly with others. For, let’s be honest, much theology and Christian communication can be pretty difficult to grasp, can’t it? Nor is it just ‘traditional’ faith communication. Sometimes, to be quite frank, so-called ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’ theology is also not very clear about ‘good news’. It can tell us a great deal about questions and debates, and help us move on from much that is death-dealing. Yet it can sometimes be less helpful in affirming what, in Jesus and Christian Faith, is truly life-giving. So, what is our ‘good news’ today?...
‘Is your Church involved in a rally or political or symbolic action every week?’
One of my daughters asked me this, shortly after our Earthweb-led involvement in the recent ‘Sound the Alarm’ Green Faith events, followed shortly by the presence of some of us on the March4Justice and planning for today’s Palm Sunday Refugee rally. I had to be honest: ‘well’, I said, ‘pretty much every week we, or some of us at least, are involved in something.’
And why wouldn’t we be?
Today’s Gospel reading after all (Mark 11.1-10) is a reminder of what I would call the ‘prophetic performance art’ which reappears again and again in the Biblical stories. The so-called ‘entry into Jerusalem’ by Jesus is but one example of this - admittedly particularly significant. For it does not stand alone, nor was it originally intended to be simply repeated or venerated. Rather, in embodying Jesus’ own call to transformation, it seeks to inspire us to our own prophetic performance art. In this we are not exactly social influencers like today’s social media stars, but we are like divine influencers in reshaping our world. All of which can sound, or become, quite pretentious. So maybe a better, arguably more biblical, way of putting it is that we are called to become the wonky donkey…
What is an 'indecent' body to you? Marcella Althaus-Reid, one of the most stimulating of modern theologians, posed this question vibrantly. Her best known book, entitled Indecent Theology, challenged us to reconsider how we see and talk about bodies - especially female, sexually and gender diverse, poor and colonised bodies - all which have been treated as ‘indecent’. This, for me, is certainly at the heart of a healthy understanding of gender identity, and, crucially, affirms the gifts which gender diverse people have for the whole body of Christ and the whole body of society and our planet. It also takes us to the heart of 1 Corinthians chapter 12, where St Paul specifically commends us to honour the ‘weaker’, ‘less honourable’, ‘less respectable’ members of the Body of Christ. For, as Paul affirms, these ‘indecent’ members are ‘indispensable’, requiring ‘greater’ honour and respect...
‘My burden is light’. This assurance from Jesus invites us to consider the things we carry, and how burdensome they really are. It invites the question, 'how much is enough?' How much is enough of anything - faith, love, food, work, information? We live in a culture that is dominated by the excess of many things. Yet as human animals we are driven by a seemingly insatiable appetite for more. While this may be a part of our biology, our scriptures and traditions teach us another way, that may help us off the treadmill of more, more, more. God in Christ invites us into another way of seeing the world and our needs within it – the way not of the ‘wise and intelligent’ (I think being understood here as those who think they are wise and intelligent and have the paperwork to prove it!) but rather the way of the vulnerable and open, the ‘infants’...
I can trace my beginnings to a river. For once upon a time in England, in the difficult days of the depression just before World War Two, two men and a woman boarded a ferry across the Mersey – yes, just like the song! One of the men recognised the woman and introduced him to his friend, the other man. Every day as the three of them made their commute by ferry they would meet, and the woman and the second man grew closer. The second man went to war, but in 1942 he came home on leave and they were married. Then, or perhaps it was a different time of leave, the two of them went to the cinema, but the bombs fell as so often at that time. They sheltered under the great Liverpool St George’s Hall in the air raid shelter. But fearful of missing the last ferry across that river, they took a chance and raced to the shelter near the ferry terminal. That was the night the St George’s air raid shelter took a direct hit and all who had sheltered there were killed. Their need to catch the ferry saved the woman and the second man. In 1944 the woman gave birth to a baby – that child is my older sister. The river, and the ferry that crossed it brought my parents together, and without it, I would not be...
What spirit do we need to renew our lives, nation, and world at this time, and what might our prayers for Christian Unity have to share in this?
By now most of us have seen the photos of many notable landmarks, especially in Europe, virtually deserted. Among them, and symbolic of the tragedy that has come upon northern Italy, is the great St. Mark’s Square in Venice, dedicated to that most audacious saint whom we commemorate today. Everywhere in Venice you see the symbol of the winged lion, his paw on the gospel; the symbol of Mark the evangelist - the gospel writer.
Mark wrote the first gospel. That sounds quite commonplace to us two thousand years on. We know that the other two synoptic writers, Matthew and Luke, took his work as their model and added to it, but Mark wrote the first one. The very act of writing was extraordinary. He did something that had never been done before. There had been other kinds of similar writing – lives of the great heroes of Greece and Rome – but no one had ever written a gospel before. It was an audacious act to try and set down what had happened and who Jesus was. Mark was brave and did something entirely new.
We don’t know for sure, but it seems likely that he wrote his gospel around 70AD - the time that the first Christians were being expelled from the Jewish synagogues and undergoing persecution following the fall of Jerusalem. That event was cataclysmic at the time. He writes because he feels he has to. He writes because there is a danger that if he does not the story will be lost, perhaps forever. The threat of imminent death inspires extraordinary acts of bravery, as we are seeing in the world today. Fear can beget bravery.
However, fear can also beget timidity and we see that in the gospel story we just read. It is thought that Mark actually ended his gospel at verse 8 ‘and they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid’ – in the Greek text it actually ends with the tiny word ‘gar’, meaning ‘for’. The first gospel ends with a tender little conjunction – a joining word. It was for the pens of later writers to finish the text – and to join Mark’s brave, first testimony, to the future trajectory of the church, commissioned by their version of the risen Christ to ‘go out and proclaim the gospel’. Mark told the truth, tender as a young leaf – at first the wonder, the audacity of the resurrection could not be believed. It was just too new; too incredible to be trusted.
We like Mark, are facing dangers. We like Mark, are being challenged to do things we have never done before. We like Mark recognize that the way out of here requires hope and trust in things we cannot yet fully see or believe. Can we, as individuals, as churches, as society, be like Mark? Can we be brave enough to attempt the new, and bold enough to hold the tender green leaf and not crush it? For this is God’s call to us in our time. Amen.
by Penny Jones, for St Mark's Day, celebrated Sunday 26 April 2020
When you see an egg, do you see the risen Jesus? This is what Christians have done from the earliest times. There is an Armenian picture from the eleventh century that shows the angel and the women at the tomb with a huge egg inscribed with the words ‘He is not here. He is risen.’
So why an egg. Well firstly eggs are elliptical in shape – they are infinite, having no beginning or end, and so are symbolic for God. There is no end to God’s creativity, God’s love, God’s compassion.
Secondly an egg symbolizes the potential of new life. In some sense it is a microcosm, a miniature version of everything that is. It reminds us of the potential that each of us has for new life and a new beginning, today on Easter Day and every day.
Thirdly, for a chick to emerge from an egg, the shell must be broken. This symbolizes for Christians the rolling away of the stone from the front of the tomb, so that the risen Christ could emerge. It reminds us that for the new to come, the old has to be fractured and let go – an important message in these days, where so much of what is familiar to us has to be left behind.
Eggs tell us that God cannot be contained; that resurrection is possible and life is stronger than death. In recent memory Christians living under the severely repressive Albanian government, used to dye eggs red for the blood of Christ in the Orthodox fashion, and then take them out in the dark of Holy Saturday night and place them on the steps of town halls and places of government. By doing so they asserted the power of love over hate.
So, what do you see when you see an egg? Take a little time today to contemplate an egg and ask God to help you see there the reality of new life even in the midst of death. And look twice – for it can be a messenger of hope and resurrection to you today.
Penny Jones, for Easter Sunday 12 April 2020
Shortly before we were ordained in 1986, Jo and I were privileged to attend the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh. Its title – ‘In Search of a Larger Christ” – and the impact of some of the speakers has stayed with me for a lifetime of ministry. The speakers were global – African, Latin-American, and for me most notable the great Asian theologian Kosuke Koyama. In impeccable English, Kosuke Koyama explained that it was impossible to understand the character and work of Christ until you had attempted to translate that into a language other than your birth language. His point was that our ideas about Christ are shaped by the culture and context in which we first encounter Christ. Until we stretch ourselves to translate those ideas into a different culture, our idea of Christ will always be too small. Let me tell you, our idea of Christ is way too small – and that was very clear to me in preparing this sermon today for Cosmos Sunday.