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OUR NEXT SERVICE
19th August: EVENING WORSHIP with HOLY COMMUNION
5.30 pm at the Best Western Plus Arkon Park Hotel,
ul. Śląska 10, 80-384 Gdańsk (map)
Montgomery, Powys, Wales is a very special place. It is associated for me with my family and with some wonderful people. It was also the birthplace of George Herbert, whose life and work is commemorated today.
Herbert was born into an aristocratic family and had a brilliant career in academic and public life. However, he withdrew from both in order to serve the Lord devotedly in a rural parish. His poems are jewels of English Christian verse.
Here is one of Herbert’s best known poems. I recommend reading it aloud.
Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.
“A guest,” I answer’d, “worthy to be here”;
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
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Photo by Margot Krebs Neale
The set readings for this third Sunday of Epiphany tell the story of ‘the first of the signs that Jesus did and manifested forth his glory’; the transformation of water into wine at the wedding at Cana. (John 2:1-11). I love this miracle, though John doesn’t call it a miracle, he rightly calls it a sign. It is a sign that points to so many profound and liberating things about the God whom Jesus reveals to us; His delight in and concern for our own personal life and loves, attested by His presence at the wedding feast, His abundant generosity in more than meeting our needs in the midst of everyday life, His call to us to move from the mere outward purity, symbolised by the water for ritual washing, to a transformation of inward joy, symbolised by the wine. But most importantly, this sign…
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Thank you to all who came yesterday to the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols in celebration of the birth of Christ: all who read lessons, Anita and Emil who accompanied the carols so beautifully and everyone who joined in the singing. We were also delighted that ks. Prezbiter Sebastian Maria Niedźwierdziński and members of the Parafia Ewangelicko-Metodystyczna w Gdańsku, Sopocie i Gdyni joined us and contributed to the celebration. It was lovely to feel part of the wider Christian community and to experience a coming together of English and Polish in our hymns, prayers and readings.
Last Thursday Richard Washington (of our Warsaw congregation) and I contributed to the Panel of Protestant Pastors, part of the “Reformacja i ewangelicyzm nad Bałtykiem,” project hosted by the Nadbałtyckie Centrum Kultury.
The topic for discussion was “The problems and challenges facing Protestants today” and it was a welcome opportunity to share experience with representatives of other churches in the area. Richard and I are, of course, lay workers in the Church of England, but our Chaplain was present to keep an eye on us.
We are grateful to Prof. Cezary Obracht-Prondzyński and Dr Krzysztof Ulanowski of the Institute of Philosophy, Sociology and Journalism of the University of Gdańsk for chairing and stimulating the discussion with tact and efficiency.
Jesus’ promises of life, powerfully demonstrated by signs, have for me made for a thrilling and challenging journey through John’s Gospel during Lent. Now, however, we are confronted by dry bones in Ezekiel 37 and by illness, death and grief in John 11. The sisters at Bethany had believed wholeheartedly in Jesus and his healing power and the Martha’s “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11.21) is heartfelt. In contrast, her reply when told that Lazarus will rise again sounds less so and more like a lesson obediently learnt from the rabbis (“I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day”). With death comes corruption. Who does not “wobble” sometimes?
Those wonderful promises to Nicodemus (in John 3.16) and to the Samaritan woman (in John 4.13-14) include the two word “eternal life.” In the end we either trust Jesus or we don’t.
We live in time and in eternity
The promises mentioned in John 3 and 4 were both linked to teaching about the Spirit, the “Breath of God,” taking us right back to the first sentences in the Bible. The bottom line is that the Creator can also recreate. The breath came into them [the bones] and they lived (Ezekiel 37.10). We are not asked to understand how. After all how can the mortal understand the immortal? When asked “Mortal, can these bones live?” Ezekiel answered “O Lord God, you know.” (Ezekiel 37.3).
Faith – not in a proposition, but in a person
Let us go with Jesus to the tomb as the sisters did. Jesus’ tears showed, as the onlookers remarked, his love for his friend, but also, surely, his love for the whole human race facing death. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life (John 3.16). Martha’s fear at the prospect of the removal of the stone acknowledges physical fear at the horror of death. Illness is real, shock is real, loss is real, grief is real and, yes, death is real. Yet the sign of the unbinding of Lazarus is one of release from the fear of death: Unbind him and let him go. Furthermore, in death we go, trusting, where Jesus himself has gone before: “O Lord God, you know.” And we know that death was conquered and a new kind of life opened up.
And eternal life …?
Lucy said, “We’re so afraid of being sent away, Aslan. And you have sent us back into our own world so often.”
“No fear of that,” said Aslan. “Have you not guessed?” […] “There was a real railway accident,” said Aslan softly. “Your father and mother and all of you are – as you used to call it in the Shadowlands- dead […] The dream is ended: this is the morning.”
[…] the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. […] now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read…
(C. S. Lewis The Last Battle)
Words and knowledge fail, of course. But the signs given in John’s gospel during Lent prepare us to contemplate the death of the Lord and His victory over death itself.
“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
What we have we hold challenges us all to let go, or at least to loosen our grip on what we think we have. The chapter encourages us to consider into what or whom we pour our time, energy and money. To do this we need to see and value rightly, to begin to understand the meaning of God’s economy and to respond to God’s bondless love.
“Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4.13-14)
I can count on one hand the times in my life when I have been properly thirsty. Many of us are so blessed with good things that it is a rare experience. The same may be true in the spiritual sense. Indeed we may not even be able to identify our problem. In western countries it is all too easy to turn aside from spiritual thirst and dryness, seeking a panacea, a distraction or a quick fix. Some of us may ‘treat ourselves’, seek out ‘comfort food,’ decide we need a holiday or some entertainment to lighten the mood, watch a box set, perhaps escape into ‘retail therapy’ or decide that the cure lies in a nice cup of tea. Yet these strategies, helpful as they may be in the short term do not solve the problem when strength is sapped and morale sinks (nor, of course, does escapism cure the suffering of depression). At worst this turning aside can take the form of rebellion against God and the idolatry of materialism, as was the case with those of the Israelites in the wilderness who, experiencing real thirst, denied God’s work among them and wanted to return to Egypt.
If Nicodemus in last week’s gospel was pointed forward to the cross, the Lord’s discussion with the woman of Samaria looks forward beyond this to Pentecost. Nicodemus, a man who seemed to have his life under control, struggled with the sheer simplicity of the call to accept a free gift and be born again. New birth is the beginning of new life, but now we are made to consider how spiritual life is to be sustained, grow and flourish. The unnamed woman at the well seems to become aware that her life, and indeed her religion, were stagnating and responds to Jesus: “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. She leaves her water jar (and remember that set of enormous water jars at the wedding at Cana!), understanding what is meant by “living water”, an endless stream bubbling up from the source that will transform the staleness of her life.
Many in religious communities have deliberately turned their backs on the avoidance tactics that the materialistic world offers. To do so is not a kind of self-flagellation, but trust, and those who have done this often describe periods of spiritual dryness followed by a discovery of the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit. Those who accept the challenge to trust, find the streams of water in the desert. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert (Isaiah 35.6)
When in the noonday heat we may be tired (as Jesus was), when in suffering we may thirst for God (as did Jesus, unimaginably, on the cross when he bore the sin of the world), we are not abandoned in the wilderness, as individuals or as a people, if we go forward in trust instead of turning aside. The living water bubbles up from the source, ultimately filling everything. It is from the source that this life-giving sustenance comes, by contemplation of what the Creator has done, by prayer, which is the daily centre of our relationship with God, the Bible and the sacrament. This may be experienced as we pass through green pastures or, through perseverance and trust, in the wilderness.