Friday, April 24, 2020

24 April 2020 | Barbecuing on the beach

I have been amazed, when looking at the news, to discover just how many people the police have had to stop having barbecues on the beach or in parks during lockdown. Unsurprisingly, the police have told them it’s not acceptable at the moment and have sent them on their way.

When I was a child it would never have occurred to our family to barbecue on a beach, even at the best of times – we went in for sandy sandwiches unfortunately! But barbecues are not a modern invention. John’s Gospel tells us that, after the resurrection, Jesus was barbecuing by the side of a lake. The disciples, meanwhile, were in a boat out on the lake, fishing: ‘Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus … they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught”’ (John 21:4, 9-10). I’m looking forward to the day when we’re all free to have a barbecue again with our church friends! Of course, Jesus wasn’t having to socially distance – far from it: the resurrection experiences are about close sharing with friends.

This was a bring-and-share barbecue. The idea was that the disciples should contribute some of the fish they had caught. But they had caught nothing! So, the story continues: ‘Jesus called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?” ‘No,’ they answered. He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.’

Canterbury Cathedral, 'Ministry of Jesus' window, The Miraculous Draft of Fishes

The right side of the boat is where the disciples need to be. In English, we can enjoy a play on words at this point – in this case, the right (not the left) side is the right (correct) side! This year we will miss the Olympics, but it is the only time I ever watch sailing. I’m intrigued that when you see people racing, they sometimes have to move over to one side of the boat and almost hang over the edge to make sure the boat is moving properly through the water. They have to go to the right side. If they moved to the wrong side the boat would presumably not move as it should or even capsize. 

Whatever your purpose in sailing, you really have to know what you are doing with a boat, and veer to the right side, whichever that side is. The disciples should have known what they were doing – some of them were fishermen, after all – but, evidently, when fishing they had caught nothing. They were not in the right place physically or mentally. They were still coming to terms with the resurrection of Jesus and what it could mean for them. 

Evidently, at first, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not recognise him. But even when Peter realised and shouted ‘It is the Lord’ there was still some hesitancy about their daring to trust, and maybe a bit of wondering whether others would actually believe them, though they knew in their hearts it really was Jesus:
‘Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.’

Last year I was watching a programme, I think it might have been ‘Songs of Praise’, where they were showcasing a church that had begun to offer a much needed service for the community. I remember the minister saying that all it took for a church to see what needed doing, and then to offer it, was a small movement in their way of thinking. He referred to this barbecue-breakfast resurrection story and pointed out that the resurrection experience simply gave a slight shift. The disciples did not have to move far – only from one side of the boat to another – to receive more than they could have dreamed of. On one side they caught nothing and nothing was working for them – but with just a small tweak in their way of thinking and their actions they were able to haul in a great catch of fish and provide people with more than enough.  

The church is sometimes thought of as like a boat. In fact the symbol of the World Council of Churches is a boat afloat on the sea of the world with the mast in the form of a cross. We are all, including the church, facing challenging rough waters at the moment. I wonder, are we on the right side to keep the church afloat and on course? Do we need to make any slight shifts so that, instead of bringing nothing to the table, we can bring and share a net full to overflowing that Jesus, our risen Lord, can use to satisfy people’s deepest longings? Just like at that lakeside barbecue!
Frail is our vessel,
and the ocean is wide;
but as in your mercy you have set our course,
so steer the vessel of our life
towards the everlasting shore of peace,
and bring us at length to the quiet haven of our heart's desire,
where you, O God, are blessed,
and live and reign for ever and ever.  Amen.

Prayer attributed to St Augustine (354-430)

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Friday, April 17, 2020

17 April 2020 | Home encounters

You don’t normally invite total strangers into your home. Most of us like to guard our privacy. But, during the lockdown, we have been seeing intimately inside people’s homes. Presenters and interviewees on current affairs programmes are often broadcasting now with the help of their computer or mobile from their own home. It has been fascinating to get a glimpse of people’s kitchens, studies or sitting rooms in the background. Mostly, the rooms have been very tidy… I wonder if they always look like that! Somehow, these people now seem much more personal, now that we’ve seen them dressed casually and surrounded by the accoutrements of their homes. We are getting extraordinary access to their private space and we are seeing people in a whole new light.

In normal times, we only see what people want us to see of them. They appear in role and with a carefully maintained public persona. Whether it be the influential people we see on television or the ordinary people we (normally) meet face-to-face in everyday life, we generally get to see just the ‘mask’ they wear that hides the real person behind. Interestingly, the original meaning of the word ‘persona’ in Latin was ‘a theatrical mask’. Of course, at the moment masks have a rather different connotation – we’ll be thinking particularly of the masks that are a vital part of health-workers’ and social-care workers' protection against COVID-19. But, ordinarily, masks are something people hide behind. Occasionally the mask slips, but normally people, ourselves included, project a certain image of themselves. The problem comes if we simply behave for effect. Jesus reserved some of his harshest words for ‘hypocrites’ – the word meant ‘play actors’ in the original Greek.

Currently, we’re getting to see behind people’s normal masks and, thankfully, I think we’re generally appreciating what we see. When on television we see people in their own homes, we’re seeing them not just as public figures but as fellow human beings. There have been moments when our national leaders have revealed themselves not only as hard-working but also as deeply vulnerable. There is a determination to beat the COVID-19 virus, not in the name of any political party or nation, but for the sake of our common humanity. Perhaps we are beginning to have a renewed sense that we are all sons and daughters of one heavenly Father.

It seems fitting that one of the first encounters between the risen Jesus and his followers happened in an ordinary home in a village called Emmaus. Cleopas and another, unnamed, follower of Jesus had arrived at the house, which, presumably, belonged to one or other of them, in the late-afternoon. They had been joined on the road to Emmaus by a stranger and they had begun talking with him about Jesus’ crucifixion and the rumour that his tomb was now empty. As it was getting late, they had invited the stranger into the house, to stay with them. Then something astonishing happened - Luke tells us: ‘When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight’ (Luke 24:30-31). It had in fact been the risen Jesus walking and talking with them on their journey. They now knew why they’d felt that their ‘hearts had been burning’ (Luke 24:32) as they talked with him and listened to him interpreting the scriptures. Jesus revealed himself as their companion and fellow traveller as he shared an ordinary meal in an ordinary home at Emmaus. 

Image: ‘The Supper at Emmaus’, Caravaggio (1571 – 1610), National Gallery London (Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License)

I love this painting by Caravaggio of the supper at Emmaus (normally on display at the National Gallery). The artist displays such exquisite handling of light and dark. The details seem so realistic – including the bowl of fruit that seems about to topple off the front of the table. The picture seems to break through into the viewer’s plane and, as it were, draw you into the scene. We are invited into this ordinary home, where something extraordinary is happening. The risen Jesus reveals himself, so that we can, by his grace, find our true selves and fulfil our potential as God’s sons and daughters. I’m so glad that we were invited by the scriptures and the artist into this home at Emmaus! 


Friday, April 10, 2020

10 April 2020 | Lockdown

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. (John 20 vv 19–20)

We aren’t the first disciples to be in lockdown at Easter!

S.Cecilia Church, Trastavere, Rome  © Philip Richter

We always tend to think of Easter as a very joyful occasion, and I hope you manage to get some joy, most especially through a broadcast service, or reading and praying, but also by doing something special to celebrate – Philip got his Really Meaningful Easter Egg by post!

But we have to remember the resurrection was not immediately a joyful experience for the first disciples – they were deeply afraid, just as now people are deeply fearful of the Covid 19 virus. It was difficult to assimilate the good news of those who had encountered the Risen Jesus, and doubly difficult when the disciples were fearing that, following on from the death of Jesus in a cruel crucifixion, those known to be associated with him would be the next target. (The way that Christians are persecuted throughout the world today is not only by punishing them, but by threatening them with targeting their families.)

The disciples locked themselves away. Granted they were able to meet together, which we are not (though we can have contact over social media) but it was a frightening time. We are in the middle of a terrifying time, we don’t know what could happen. We are in different circumstances, but experiencing the same emotions as the first disciples. Lockdown, fear and distress when thinking about what has happened.

If you are a fan of the quiz show ‘Pointless’, when contestants get the same number of points and one set need to be eliminated at the end of the round, the normally affable Alexander Armstrong and Richard Osman take on a different persona, and go into a sinister sounding rap ‘oooooh, oooooh, oooooh lockdown, oooooh, oooooh, oooooh lockdown’! I keep thinking of that rap as an earworm, as lockdown is a challenging position to be in.

But for the first disciples, the joy of the resurrection is in the wonder of Jesus coming into that lockdown situation – they don’t know how, but he enters their place of fear, and is there giving words of comfort. Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Words of peace and the strength of his presence needed to be given and received. Jesus showed them his wounds, to show that he still bore the marks of what he had been through, but his presence and his love and person were very much there for them. It is then the spirit of the resurrection came into play: The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

May we in our fears and worries and lockdown suddenly come to and realise that we are seeing Jesus – Christ with us and beside us - bringing words of peace to strengthen us.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Halleluiah!