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Happy New Year!

There are eight Sundays this year between Epiphany and Lent. As we continue our journey of renewing catechesis across the Diocese, may I offer you some suggestions for your preaching and notices and pastoral conversations?

It was good to share five study days in November with over 450 clergy and LLM’s across the Diocese on renewing catechesis. My opening address from those five days will be published on this blog next week. One of my tasks for January is to edit the five excellent guest lectures (and one other) into a new book to be published in September with the title Rooted and Grounded: Faith formation and the Christian tradition. More details later.

As a Diocese, we are trying to recover a simple and life giving way of using the Christian year to help form new Christians in the faith.

The overall scheme looks like this:

Autumn: sow the good seed of the gospel
Epiphany: invite people to baptism
Lent: prepare people for baptism
Easter season: Baptism and confirmation services and ongoing formation

Through harvest and remembrance, Advent and Christmas, there has been a lot of sowing. As I wrote in December, more than 260,000 people attended services in Advent alone: around five times our normal worshipping community.

Many, many people will have begun to sense God at work in their lives in new ways, and some are ready to take the next step on the journey. Epiphany is a season to dare to invite some of those people who have heard the good news to consider baptism or confirmation or a public renewal of their baptismal promises. There are many different ways to do that through preaching or notices or pastoral conversations.

Offering an invitation to baptism in this season is a very ancient tradition in the church attested in both the Church of the East in the Cappadocian Fathers and the Church in the West through Ambrose and Augustine .

On some Sundays, special sermons were preached directed at those who were enquirers warmly inviting people to consider baptism. On other Sundays the preacher would turn aside and take time to address enquirers as part of the main sermon.

You may find that certain things need to be put in place as you begin to make these invitations over the next few weeks. You may want to identify a Sunday for adult baptisms in the Easter season and for renewal of baptismal promises. You may want to identify a suitable confirmation service in the deanery for the candidates who come forward. It’s not too late to arrange either of these things.

And, of course, as you plan Lent you will need to plan ways of helping enquirers explore and learn about the very beginnings of faith. There is lots of good material available for small groups (including Pilgrim and the Alpha course).

In Lent last year I gathered 120 people across the Oxford Area to explore renewing catechesis at the very beginning of the project. One of the things we realised through those conversations was that clergy and LLMs are doing more work with people one to one and rather less in groups. For various reasons, people are less willing to sign up for longer “courses” but still want to explore faith.

Partly in response to those insights, I’ve been involved in creating a new resource for Lent and Easter this year. I’ve written 40 days of very short reflections on the Beatitudes for Lent and 40 days of Reflections on the Lord’s Prayer for Easter. Both will be published as short booklets by the end of January. They will also be available through the Church of England’s App, currently carrying the “Follow the Star” material (iOS | Google Play), and delivered through smart speakers and in a range of other ways.

Both booklets are for anyone who wants to go deeper. Their main aim is to introduce Jesus and what it means to follow Jesus through these two profound texts to an interested enquirer through short, simple daily readings and prayers. My hope is that many churches will use them to support candidates for baptism and confirmation and as a foundation for one to one conversations and small group work.

I hope this new season of invitation will be part of what it means for us to be a more Christ-like Church. It arises directly from contemplation: trying to catch a fresh vision of Christ and of what it means to be human. It is motivated by compassion: love for people and a longing for them to know the riches of God’s love and purpose for their lives. It will also take courage to offer a new invitation in preaching and notices and pastoral conversations – especially if you’ve not done it for a while.

Pray with me that this year and every year God will be drawing people to Christian faith ones and twos and small groups all across the Diocese.

God of our pilgrimage
Renew your church in this place
In the ministries of befriending and listening;
teaching and learning faith.
Help us to welcome new believers to baptism and confirmation
And restore in your love those who are lost
May Christ be formed afresh in us
As we help to form new disciples in your mission to the world
Through Jesus Christ our Lord
In the power of the Holy Spirit
And to the glory of the Father
Amen.

Copyright © 2018 Tom Bower, www.tombower.co.uk

Lent begins this year on Ash Wednesday, 14th February, and lasts for 40 days until Easter.

Lent began in the early church as 40 days of preparation time for new Christians to prepare for baptism at Easter.  Read more

Matins on Easter day is a song of joy.  Heart deep, world wide, heaven high, life long.

For forty days the Church has fasted.  We have denied ourselves the Alleluia and the Gloria.

We have walked the way of the cross.  We have journeyed through Holy Week.  We shared the foot washing and the agony in the garden.  We witnessed the trial, waited by the cross and watched the body of Jesus laid in the tomb.

And now it is Easter Day.  The stone has been rolled away.  The grave clothes are folded and no longer needed. Christ is risen.  He has appeared to Mary.  A new gardener in Eden.  He is walking the Emmaus Road as a shepherd, bringing home the lost. He will break bread and cook fish on charcoal in the early morning, spreading a table for his friends.  He will enter rooms full of fear and breathe new life and power.  He will gently test those who doubt him.  He will restore those who denied him.  He will interpret Scripture for his friends. He will commission them to go and make disciples.  After nights of desolation, he will give them such abundance that their nets can scarcely hold the catch.  He will forge frightened Galileeans into true fishers of people who will turn the world upside down.  He will ascend into the heights of heaven.  He will send the Comforter as he has promised.  He will never leave us.  He is here.

The Lord is risen.  The heart of the Church is breaking open with joy.   The pent up Alleluia’s overflow.  The glorias abound.  Jubilate everybody.  The whole earth is alive with song today: cathedral choirs, organ fanfares, string quartets, drums and castanets, calypso guitars, brass and woodwind.  Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.

All of our hymns and songs and anthems are pure joy.  On this day we need the Easter Anthems, the Te Deum and Benedictus and then we’ve only just begun.  Even our bible readings today are songs of joy.

Miriam sings at the crossing of the Red Sea:

“I will sing to the LORD for he has triumphed gloriously”

The saints in heaven praise God for the story of salvation:

“Great and amazing are your works, Lord God the Almighty”.

We sing the Easter Anthems this day and for the fifty days of Easter:

“Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us, therefore let us keep the feast”.

We are called this day above all days to Easter joy.  Let that joy rise within you.  Let nothing in all creation quench it or overcome it.  For the Lord is risen.  He is risen indeed.  Alleluia.

Christians are not always famous for their joy.  Pope Francis goes so far as to say this: “There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter”[i].  It’s a striking phrase.  We project to the world and to one another a sense that we are burdened and worn down, serious and dull, too earthly minded to be any heavenly use.  Our church needs to rediscover joy.

We are too easily overwhelmed by the sorrows and troubles of the world.  There are sorrows and troubles enough this day, to be sure, as there will be tomorrow and every day of the coming year and of every year after that.  But Christian joy does not depend on everything being right with the world.

We are too easily overwhelmed by the sorrows in our own life.  There will be sorrows enough for most of us.  Sometimes they will be almost overwhelming but not quite.  Joy is not expressed in the same way at all times in life, especially in times of great difficulty.  But Christian joy does not depend on everything being perfect in our lives.

We are too easily overwhelmed by the imperfections in the Church and they are many.  But if you wait for the life of the Church of England to be completely sorted and set right you will never know a single day of joy.  For we will always be a flawed and imperfect Church like every other this side of eternity.

There is a simple lesson about joy which we are called to learn and relearn.  Christians are not called to rejoice for all circumstances.  We are called to rejoice in all circumstances.  There is a world of difference.

To rejoice for all circumstances is deeply misguided.  It leads to a forced, false joy which tries to pretend that sickness or injustice or even death are really blessings in disguise.  There are terrible things in the world and terrible things in our own lives.  We need to name them and grieve them and be angry about them.

But to rejoice in all circumstances is a very different calling.  To rejoice in all circumstances is to understand that underneath all that is difficult, all that is written in a minor key, all the sorrow and pain and grief, a stronger, major key of joy emerges and prevails.  Even in the midst of the darkest valleys we draw our strength from God in hope and joy that one day all will be well and all manner of things shall be well.  And even today, and especially today, there is a well of hope which feeds the roots of our soul and rises up to joy.

For Jesus whom we love is risen.
He offered his life for our sins
He has conquered death, never to die again
He is the new Adam.  He offers now abundant and eternal life.
He is Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.
He was killed with nails and wood and spear.
But death could not hold him.
Death has been conquered and Satan thrown down.
There is a river of life flowing from the cross which will fill the world and fills it still.

So sing you heavens and rejoice now all the earth.  Let the Church echo alleluias for all of this beautiful day and the fifty days which follow.

Alleluia Christ is risen. Everything has changed.  Alleluia.  Gloria.  Jubilate.  Amen.

A Sermon in Christ Church

Matins on Easter Day, 2017

[i] The Joy of the Gospel, 6

A reflection for Ash Wednesday

“Blessed are the merciful”, says Jesus, “for they shall receive mercy” (Matthew 5.7).

“Mercy is the very foundation of the church’s life” writes Pope Francis (Amoris Laetitia, 310)

I want to encourage you to journey through Lent with today’s gospel reading from John 8.  It’s almost always described as the story of the woman caught in adultery.  But it should also be described as the story of the scribes caught in harsh judgement. Best of all, it is the story of the Saviour who is shaped by mercy.  The tensions in the story lead us through Lent to the drama of the passion and the meaning of Christ’s death.

So keep the story in mind as you travel through the next forty days.  Read it often and find yourself, as it were, in the three different characters and discover the three different characters in you.

The context is important.  Jesus is sitting and teaching in the temple.  He is in the place of judgement, a priest and a king.  The king is to be both judge and saviour. What kind of wisdom does he have when faced with an impossible dilemma?  Will he be like Solomon, able to offer a way forward in this terrible impasse?  Or will he fail the test?

Reflect first on the scribes and the Pharisees.  They are at their most unattractive here.  Cruel, harsh, judgemental, lacking in that foundational quality of mercy.  They publicly shame a woman in public, display her as an object for spectacle and scrutiny to make a broader, wider point.  Their aim is to test, to divide.  In the name of purity and holiness and rules, they have forgotten how to love.  Their zeal leads them to demand blood and death.  They want to test Jesus, the Son of God, and therefore to test God himself against his own laws.

We are meant to recognise ourselves in the scribes, I think, here and elsewhere in the gospels.  Our worst selves, of course.  The part of us which enjoys nothing more than to judge others and especially other Christians.  The part of us which continually strives to divide Christ’s body.  The part of us which listens to rumour and gossip.  The part of us which constantly seeks the high ground, the superior place, from which to rain down rocks on others.

If you cannot see your inner Pharisee when you look into the mirror then you are blind and you have not yet looked hard enough.  Take time in Lent for self-examination, for confession, for reflection, on your desire to feel and to be superior, to others, to judge, to displace God from the mercy seat.  Take time to realise the consequence of your unchecked zeal in the lives of others.  Put down the rocks you are so ready to throw and slip quietly away and seek the mercy you so desperately need.

For most of us, that will take at least a couple of weeks of Lent, perhaps longer.  When we can see ourselves more clearly and accurately in the mirror, when we see the hatred in our faces and hear the harshness in our voice and the rocks in our hands, then we are are ready to reflect on the woman who is brought before Jesus.  Taken in sin, as we are.  Deeply uncomfortable in the light of day, as we are.  Ashamed as we are.  Seeing all too clearly the wrong turnings.  Expecting nothing but condemnation, injury and death.  We are ready to stand far off and scarcely raise our eyes to heaven and say: God be merciful to me, a sinner.

We find ourselves in the woman and this woman in us.  The woman’s journey in the story is to move from the shame she feels in her actions to new beginnings, from the harsh gaze of the Pharisees to the gentle gaze of Jesus; to move from the condemnation of the scribes to the silence and stillness of the Saviour; to move from death and judgement to new life and new beginnings.

The central task of Lent is to recover mercy rather than judgement as the heart of our understanding of God.  It is all too easy to live with an image of God who is like the Pharisees: who is far more ready to condemn than to forgive.  To live in this story for a while is to see those harsh images of God dissolve and give way to Jesus, crouching in the dust, silent.  To hear him dismiss our accusers and hear them turn away one by one, dropping the stones they have brought in to throw at us.  To be left face to face with Christ.

To hear his words to us:  Neither do I condemn you.  Neither do I condemn you.  Go on your way and from now on do not sin again.

The story of the woman might bring us through Lent to Passiontide.  But the gospel passage has still more truth to teach us.  For we are left with a tension, a dilemma, in which mercy has prevailed over judgement in this scene.  Mercy has prevailed in a way which we recognise as deeply authentic.  This is the God we recognise through our tears, as it were, God for the weak and despised, God who subverts.  But how is it possible for God to raise us up, to set us free, to pronounce us forgiven and called to holiness and to share this work of mercy?

The gospel reveals to us that this reconciliation, this work of grace, is not possible without the cross.  We are continually tempted to write the cross out of our understanding of faith: to recude the gospel to something we do or learn or teach.  This tension between judgement and mercy leads in the gospel inexorably to the passion.  These hands which let go of their stones will pick them up again not to kill this woman but to kill the one who sets her free.

The one who kneels and draws in the dust and speaks words of mercy will give his life for this woman and for us all.  His life is offered, yes, as a demonstration of God’s love but far more than that.  Our words and our understanding struggle to grasp and comprehend the meaning of the cross.  He gave there by his one oblation of himself, once offered, a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.

Jesus makes his journey to the cross to complete a task, to accomplish the salvation of the world, to offer through his death freedom and a new beginning.  His words to this woman and to the scribes anticipate his death.  They are a profound reworking of religion and power and life.  They flow from the meaning of his death which gives life to the whole world.

This is the gospel we are offered and which we bear.  We are released from our compulsive need to condemn and judge others and set free to love.  We are released from our shame and guilt and set free to live.  We are called to service in the pattern of Jesus.  Mercy is the very foundation of the Church’s life.

Blessed are the merciful for they will obtain mercy.

A sermon at Ripon College Cuddesdon

Ash Wednesday, 2017

John 8.1-11