Rob's message for July

As I write we are in the midst of making plans to open some of the church buildings for people to pray from the beginning of July. There are pages and pages of advice from the Church of England, the government, and all the questions we all have locally about what to do to give people the opportunity to drop in and pray and maybe chat with someone about where God is in all of this. And all the time the news is changing and the advice is changing. It makes everything such a complicated business.

Over the last few months while I have found so much of what is going on really complicated, I have tried to remember three things that I noticed from one of our Easter readings, and which I have been mentioning at most of our online services since. (Do check out elsewhere in this magazine how you can join us on Zoom or Facebook, or give me a ring if you would like to dial in on the phone.)

Uncertain about the reality of the Resurrection (ring any bells for any of you?) Jesus’s friends gather in fear of what might happen to them. The religious authorities had arrested Jesus and crucified him; maybe would they come for his friends as well. Twice it says they locked the doors, presumably both times out of fear, though this is only mentioned clearly once.

Fast forward a few weeks, and the disciples again gather in an upper room, anticipating the fulfilment of Jesus’s promise: the gift of the Holy Spirit. At that point it describes how they are “constantly in prayer.” It has interested me that the disciples seemed to remember to pray here, where before they only resorted to being afraid. In some ways their circumstances hadn’t changed, but their mindset had and this was part of the beginning of the Pentecost story. They remembered to pray.

Secondly, there is a need to recognise that Jesus is with us. Twice the disciples lock themselves in a room. Twice Jesus appears to the disciples. To you and me, of course, the idea of someone appearing in a room when they are locked out of it is the stuff of miracles, or at least magic tricks, but for Jesus who was locked in death but broke out of it, locked in a tomb but escaped from it, this is pretty standard stuff! It really does emphasise Jesus’s overwhelming desire to be with his disciples, and that they would recognise that he is with them.

Then comes a twist in the story. It was surely unsettling for the disciples to realise that now that they had Jesus back, he was seeming to talk about going away again. But Jesus has a plan, and instructs them in John’s gospel to “receive the Holy Spirit.” And everything that they do from that point on is empowered by the Spirit of Jesus, who assures the disciples that he is with them always.

So I have been remembering to pray, both myself and in meeting more often with others from our churches, finding a place to bring my anxiety about the future (by which I mean anything that is going to happen from a point about 30 seconds after I stop praying) and to put my trust in God.

I have been recognising that Jesus is with me; if he can rise from the dead, if he can break free from the tomb, if he can get through locked doors, then nothing need be a barrier to him getting to me. Everything that might separate me from him, including the things that I have done, has been put aside at the cross.

And I have been receiving from the Holy Spirit. This morning as we prayed we remembered how at the very end of the bible it says, “Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.” It’s not any more complicated than telling God you are thirsty.

Three simple principles that bring us to a place of grace, and faith, and rest. I really recommend them to you.

 

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Rob's message for June

Thank you so much to everyone who sent us in pictures of them, their families, and neighbours, all having a splendid socially-distant time on VE Day. It was lovely to see your celebrations, and to hear from those of you whose memories go back that far. Some of you have also shared with me about how hard it was during wartime, and the way that it affected life, and your family, in an ongoing way. Perhaps that was part of other people’s conversations as well.

I can’t remember VE day, but I do go back 25 years to the 50th anniversary in 1995. Back then my grandparents were really well, and it was a privilege to be with them in their village celebrating, with the bunting everywhere and the 1940s music and the questionable pork products. All the same it was hard for me to imagine that they had been through it, and that they had once looked like this instead of being nearly 80.

VE Day was such a significant day, but it was really one in a series of such days. We all know how important D-Day was, the summer before. Once the Allies had landed in France, a big part of the work was done. We also know that the war didn’t end in May 1945: it went on right through the summer until VJ Day on 15th August. But even then, the consequences of years of conflict reached into many lives, and many years into the future.

As I think about the story of Jesus, and compare it with some of these huge events in the history of the modern world, I notice a few things.

First of all I wonder if D-Day is a little bit like Christmas. The Allies landed on the beaches, and they began to take ground decisively, moving across Europe. In one translation of John’s gospel it describes how, in Jesus, God ‘moved into the neighbourhood.’ He had arrived, and as he grew in age and then in influence, God’s kingdom advanced through him.

And then I wonder if VE Day is more like Easter. The end of the war in Europe was a decisive moment. It was a time of great celebration, because freedom had been won. But it was won at a price. There is a lot of disagreement about the number of military and civilian deaths worldwide during the war, but it might be as many as 85 million. You might not find this a helpful comparison, but as I write Johns Hopkins University estimates the total number of worldwide deaths from Covid-19 to be 372,000. That gives us some sense of the enormity of it. There is a tremendous cost in the Easter story too, but here it is different. The weight of suffering for human evil, sin and mortality is borne on the shoulders of Jesus alone. The death toll is 1. It was an awful cost for Jesus, but for us there is freedom and life worth celebrating.

But the war didn’t end in May 1945, the suffering didn’t end there, and even afterwards there were consequences for people in the rest of the world, and for years to come for all those whose lives would never be the same again. Even now we live in a world where I am convinced Jesus has won us an amazing and eternal victory on the cross, but we suffer. In the midst of a global pandemic we don’t need reminding of this. But just as VE Day gave people so much to look forward to, now through Jesus we really can look forward to the time described at the end of the bible, where there will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” For the moment, all the pictures of people around the world rejoicing on that day are the stuff of my imagination – and hopefully yours – but I look forward to when they are as real as anything you’ve enjoyed looking at in this month’s magazine.

 

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Rob's message for May

Over Easter weekend I was listening again on and off to the BBC radio commentary of the amazing Headingley test match against Australia. It’s one of several games last year which you might call the Ben Stokes match. We obviously don’t have the rights to show you the final moments of that amazing game, but here is a photo from a dramatic reconstruction we staged in the back garden of the Vicarage. You can see a bit more of it on our Youtube channel which I mention below. It is one of those games where we will always say to each other, where were you? I know where I was as the game reached its climax. I was sitting outside a café in Wales, concentrating on my wife and children whom I was on holiday with, and definitely not being distracted by the game. You can tell from the other picture, can’t you?

I remember heading out from the holiday cottage pretty despondent that England were down to their last batsman, and still 73 from victory. Everything said that it was over, and that Australia were about to win. It was a matter of time. And then came the first stirrings of hope, as Stokes started to hit six, after six, after six. Jack Leach at the other end did his valiant bit, but was reduced to a spectator for long periods. Unbelievably, he did it. Stokes got England over the line, the crowd and the nation erupted, and at one point BBC correspondent Jonathan Agnew cried, “It is an incredible day.”

On Easter Sunday, we remember something that so many of us have heard time and again. And for me, no matter how often I hear that Jesus is alive, I find myself as thrilled as if it is the first time. It is wonderful and new. I think of this story of a man conquering death, and sin, and hell, and I recognise that if it were not true, you just couldn’t invent it. It is so incredible, but so good. What Jesus did for us, what he won for us, is so good.

Because that’s how we feel, isn’t it? We won. Jesus did it, he did it all, but we won. Forgiveness, salvation, eternal life, won for us. On that day, last summer, most of us could only sit and listen. Most of the rest of the England team could only sit and watch. Ben Stokes did it. One man. But we won. That’s a message for this Easter isn’t it? Jesus has won, so we have won. It is not what we did, but what he did for us… what we couldn’t do. Only Jesus could win the battle over darkness and hell and fear and death. And for all of us, as long as we believe and say yes, Jesus did that for me, there is light, and eternity, and hope and life.

It is not for one summer or one Easter, but for eternity. One incredible day after another, forever, through Jesus. Happy Easter everyone.

 

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Rob's message for April

It was wonderful to gather together as church on 22nd March, even though we had to meet online rather than in our buildings. About 45 of us appeared on screen to celebrate Mothering Sunday, and to think together about some things that Paul says to us about God in the bible which can really help us at this difficult time. If you have access to the internet, I have put a video of this on Facebook and Youtube, which you can find by searching for “Venta group of churches.” It was filmed in Stoke church shortly before we were asked to lock the building.

I sent people looking for things in their houses, starting with something with their name on it. For most of us our name says something about the family we belong to. Mothering Sunday is a day to celebrate the human family big or small, but we also thought about what it means to be part of God’s big family, who all have the name of Jesus in common. We are adopted into it, born again into it, through faith in Jesus, and it is bigger than any place or event: it is about what the Holy Spirit has done in our hearts.

In terms of God’s family, we belong together because we share the same Father. In Ephesians 3 Paul connects the idea of having God as our Father with prayer. At this time we have to pray, and we can pray. God is an amazing Father who loves to hear us pray about anything – and he really does hear.

Then we went looking for plants in our house. Most of us could find one of these. Paul talks about us being rooted and established in love. Lots of you know from your own experience or have seen elsewhere what it is like when a family root each other in love. It is a place where we thrive. A plant needs roots that go down deep to draw in all the good stuff that it needs, and keep it firm and secure. That’s what we can do with God. We can put our roots deep down in him, we can draw on all the goodness he has to offer us, we can trust that he will hold us firm in the storm we find ourselves in.

Last, we found a measuring device of some kind – a ruler, a tape, a jug, and so on. We remembered Paul’s encouragement to us that God can do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine. We measure and count so many things all the time. You will have heard lots of numbers about coronavirus. Some of them are helpful to us. Others could make us a bit scared. Paul says that there is something we cannot measure – and that is what God can do. No person, however much they might like to, can do the immeasurable amount that God can. I can understand if, at the moment, you feel like God can only do a very little, if at all. The good news for you is that he can do immeasurably more. Some of you, on the other hand, will be thinking, God can do the most amazing things! The good news for you, is he can do even more. He can do more than any of us can imagine!

And with this in mind, we keep on praying. There are resources on our website to help us pray. We are meeting as churches every day to pray, and you can join us online or on the phone, if you have no access to the internet. Just give me a ring on one of the numbers on the front of the magazine. And take care, stay well, and God bless all of you.

 

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