Sunday, April 15, 2012

Have I only slipped through the door?

Acts 10.34-43
1 Corinthians 15.1-11
Mark 16.1-8

A popular request at funerals is for a poem written by Henry Scott Holland, who was Dean of St Paul’s in the 1920s. The poem begins,

Death is nothing at all,

I have only slipped through the door

into the next room.

Holland is echoing the words of Jesus when he said ‘There are many dwelling places in my Father’s house’ and ‘I am going to prepare a place for you.’ In dying Jesus will, so to speak, slip through the door to the next dwelling place. And Jesus goes on to reassure his heart-broken disciples that he will come again and take them to himself, so that where he is they may be also.

But saying that death is about slipping through the door from one room to the next, or from one state of being to another, is not the same as saying that death is nothing at all! Someone who lost her grown-up son when he drowned has written her own retort to Henry Scott Holland:

The poet says that ‘Death is nothing at all

I have only slipped through the door

into the next room’ -

but what help is that to us?

For ...there is no coming back fetch the kids,

to pay the bills,

to call and say Hi!

When Jesus says, ‘I will not leave you bereft; I am coming back to you’ he’s not denying the reality of his death. He isn’t sentimentalising, and pretending that nothing will have changed after he dies. Indeed, when on Easter Day Mary clings to him in the garden , hoping to keep him with her in this life just as he used to be, he tells her that can’t happen. He can only be with her now in a different way.

In Greek myth the Goddess of Spring, Persephone, returns from the dead for half of every year to resume her former life. But the resurrection of Jesus doesn’t restore him to his disciples so that he can resume his old life. Instead, it alters the meaning of his death, which ceases to be the moment when his life was extinguished and becomes the moment when his existence was transformed.

When we say that Jesus conquers death, or has the victory over it, or has taken the sting out of it, we don’t mean that it doesn’t matter any more. We mean that - because of his resurrection - death cannot overcome us, or destroy us, or wipe out our existence. Even an untimely death, or an unpleasant one like Jesus’ crucifixion, cannot deprive our lives of their meaning. Death is no longer the end, but a new beginning.

Peter’s sermon in Acts Chapter 10 is one of the earliest recorded statements of what the New Testaments calls the ‘kerygma’, the proclamation of the core beliefs of the CHristian faith. Luke seems to choose a deliberately halting style to convey Peter’s words. Is this because they are the words of Peter, and this is how he spoke?

Greek wasn’t his first language and unlike Paul or Luke, he hadn’t been to university. He was a fisherman and his grasp of Greek is what we might need to sell some fish to a Greek speaker. But when it comes to explaining a new belief system he seems to struggle to find the words he needs. Either that or Luke’s church has lost the precise words that Peter used and only knows roughly how he spoke, in which case Luke is reconstructing what he thinks the authentic voice of a Palestinian fisherman must have sounded like.

The message of Christianity according to Peter is a gospel of peace and reconciliation between God and human beings and between different nations and races. The thing that happened to bring this message about was Jesus. He burst onto the scene in Galilee after John proclaimed his ministry of national cleansing and baptism. Jesus was clearly inspired by God’s Spirit, as evidenced by the way he went about doing good and healing those who were oppressed by evil. But his reward was to be murdered by being nailed to a tree.

Peter doesn’t attach any particular importance to the Cross here. In fact, he’s clear that Jesus’ killing is unlawful, that there’s something fairly spontaneous about it - he’s just nailed to a tree trunk with suitably outstretched branches - and that his death serves no particular purpose. The idea that Jesus’ death sets us free from the consequences of sin is a later refinement of the kerygma, it’s not part of Peter’s original proclamation.

Instead, Peter concentrates his attention on the resurrection. For in Peter’s view it’s not the fact of his dying which sets Jesus apart and makes him unique, it’s the fact that God raised him from the dead on the third day.

It’s interesting that Peter should want to focus on the resurrection rather than the death of Jesus. Jesus’ execution was a public fact. Everyone in Palestine knows about it and Peter can appeal to their memory of the story even though they live on the coast a long way from Jerusalem and can only have heard about it on the grapevine. But the resurrection is something more mysterious. Peter admits that Jesus wasn’t immediately visible to other people after his resurrection. He didn’t simply slip back through the door and come again to his disciples and take them to himself. Instead, God granted him the gift of becoming visible to a group of special witnesses whom God had appointed from the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry to be his apostles or missionaries, proclaiming the good news about him. They ate and drank with Jesus after he was raised - probably a reference to sharing holy communion with him like the two disciples at Emmaus - and Jesus instructed them to proclaim the message that he is now God’s right-hand man, the judge of the living and the dead and the person who has been granted the power to forgive sins.

Peter’s primitive proclamation of the Jesus message shares features of other brand new religious movements. Like Islam and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Peter appeals to a mysterious revelation which ordinary people couldn’t share. Instead, somebody special or - in the case of Christianity - a special group of people, the apostles, have been entrusted with the truth and have to relay it to others. And that secret truth is the resurrection story and the events and teaching which surround it.

There’s no mention here of an empty tomb which pilgrims can visit to verify the story, perhaps because Peter recognises an empty tomb doesn’t prove a great deal. Instead, the resurrection is a story that has ro be taken on trust.

Why, then, is the resurrection so important for Peter? I think it’s because it transforms the story of Jesus from just another tragic episode in Jewish history ,about a man who went around doing good and combatting evil until his life was snuffed out by being put to death on a tree, and makes Jesus instead the Lord of all.

Writing not long afterwards Paul also talks about the resurrection too. He says it is the secure basis on which rests everything else that his readers believe and do. Without it they can’t really trust in the saving power of Jesus.

Again there’s no explicit mention of an empty tomb, although Paul does mention in passing - this time - that Jesus was buried, implying that his burial was now becoming an important part of the story. He also makes a much stronger link between Jesus’ death and the forgiveness of sins. For Peter, forgiveness comes from believing in the whole Jesus’ event, but for Paul forgiveness is only made possible through Jesus’ death.

Paul also seems to expand the number of witnesses to the resurrection. It’s still a unique event, which only a favoured few could share, but whereas Peter was deliberately vague about precisely whom God had chosen to be the witnesses to the resurrection, Paul specifies that Jesus had appeared to more than 500 men and women all at once, presumably when they had gathered for worship or to receive teaching. Furthermore, he says that the apostles or missionaries chosen by Jesus to proclaim his resurrection were not just the original 12 disciples, nor even those 500 witnesses, but a group he calls ‘all the apostles’ including Jesus’ brother, James.

Paul’s motive for expanding the charmed circle of witnesses to the resurrection becomes clear at the end of his account, for he wants to include himself in their number. Peter implies that only people who had witnessed Jesus’ earthly ministry could be witnesses to his resurrection, and Paul anticipates a number of objections to the idea that he could possibly be a witness too. The first is that he was around at the wrong time to have witnessed the resurrection - like someone born far too early or aborted. The second is that, as an arch-persecutor of the Church, he isn’t a suitable person to be a missionary for the risen Jesus. The final objection is that a true apostle has to have taken the Gospel message to new people and places - Peter to the Gentiles, Thomas to India and so on - to which Paul replies that, while he may not have been the first person to proclaim the resurrection in any of the places he visited he had worked harder than all of the other apostles.

The really interesting thing to come out of Paul’s account, however, is the idea that the risen Jesus can still make himself known to his followers long after the first Easter. Paul may single himself out as the last and least of the apostles, but once the principle has been conceded there is no particular reason why any Christian shouldn’t be permitted to have a vision of the risen Jesus, as - for example - the writer of Revelation does long after Paul was writing.

Marks’ account of Easter also brings the story of the resurrection into the present tense - a tense he deliberately uses to heighten the immediacy of the story. Extremely early on the Sunday morning the women come to the tomb and see that the stone has been rolled away. Straightaway, then, we encouraged to think ourselves into the situation and imagine that we were there with them.

They do not actually see Jesus, of course. His resurrection remains far more enigmatic than that, but it’s made clear to them that he - Jesus - is going before them. Quivering, astonishment , alarm and fear, these might seem to be strange responses to resurrection, but they’re actually the typical ways in which characters in the Bible respond when they encounter God.

When Jesus says, ‘I will not leave you bereft; I am coming back to you’ or ‘I will go before you’ he’s not offering a cosy solution to life and death issues, a promise just to hold our hand in the valley of the shadow of death, he’s giving us an exciting and mind-blowing challenge. Are we ready for our lives to be transformed by the knowledge that Jesus is with us?

Feeling Alone with Jesus

1 Cor 11.23-26
John 13.1-17, 31b-35

The washing of the disciples’ feet is an acted parable of Jesus’ love for us. He loves his followers, and his love for us makes it possible for us to love one another.

Jesus knows that he is about to be abandoned and betrayed. Yet, like a person lying in a hospital bed and saying, ‘I just feel sorry for all the other people here!’ his main concern is that the disciples will not feel abandoned. They must continue to know that he loves them when he is gone.

People sometimes says, don’t they, that they can’t do long distance relationships. It’s OK when the person they love is very close and can be seen and touched every day, but they can’t cope with separation. They will get distracted, or their love will no longer be fed and will steadily diminish with the passage of time.

Now I don’t hold any truck with that. For three years Helen and I lived at opposite ends of the country. I was in Brighton and she was in Derby and then, later, in Manchester. We had a long distance relationship which we kept going by exchanging endless letters and sharing occasional phone calls. So it is possible and plenty of other people have proved it too.

What John is acutely aware of is that, like the first disciples after Good Friday, Jesus’ followers today have to conduct a long distance relationship with him. But whereas the first disciples could still try to hold onto him, as Mary Magdalene did in the Garden on Easter Day, we cannot. Whereas they could still see him, like Thomas did in the Upper Room, we cannot. Whereas they could still speak to him face to face, as Peter did on the seashore, we have to rely on the books that were written about him to find out what he said.

In that sense we have been left alone and Jesus knows it will be difficult for us. He therefore wants to reinforce our awareness of his love for us. This will encourage us to love one another and help us to know and feel that he is with us in spirit to strengthen us.

The main focus of this passage is that Jesus is our servant. This should in turn inspire us to offer our lives in service to others. But the key message, nonetheless, is not about things we have got to do but about what Jesus does for us.

The Church at Corinth was in trouble. People there had fallen out with one another about oh so many things, including the Lord’s Supper itself. Paul sternly reminds them, therefore, that this service is not just something he had devised, or a new idea that someone has brought back from the ancient equivalent of Spring Harvest. It’s a tradition that comes straight from Jesus himself.

Even when Jesus was present with his friends Paul notes that they had a mixture of motives. Jesus sat down to eat with them knowing that someone in the circle was about to betray him.

The purpose of sharing the meal is twofold. First, like the foot-washing, it reminds us of the incredible depth of Jesus’ love for us and gives us a chance to proclaim his love. And second, it reminds us that he is with us in spirit when we break the bread and share the cup. So, however alone we might sometimes feel, when we share in holy communion he comes to be with us again.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Freedom in suffering

Mark 15.25-39
2 Corinthians 12.5b & 7b-10

This Lent, as you know, we have been following the themes of the Churches Together in Britain and Ireland Lent Course. The same themes have been used on Sunday mornings in the Radio 4 service at 8 o’clock and they can be found on the CTBI website.

As the weeks have gone by so the theme each week has got gradually darker. This is surely appropriate. Mark makes a point of saying that Good Friday was a day when darkness fell over the the whole land even though it was the middle of the day. Jesus’ death was, he says, like a total eclipse of the sun, a moment when ordinary life was challenged and put on hold, an unnatural moment when goodness and godliness appeared to be vanquished by evil, when God’s plans for the whole course of universal history seemed to be under permanent threat. And yet, just like an eclipse, it was followed by the restoration of the light. ‘The light shines on in the darkness and the darkness has never been able to extinguish it.’ So, although the theme of our Lent course each week has grown more sombre, there has always been light still at the end of the tunnel.

In prison, and now awaiting trial for his part in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, the theologian and teacher Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote this verse about the Crucifixion:

Wondrous transformation! Your hands, strong and active, are fettered.

Powerless, alone, you see that an end is put to your action.

Yet now you breathe a sigh of relief and lay what is righteous

Calmly and fearlessly into a mightier hand, contented.

Just for one blissful moment you could feel the sweet touch of freedom,

Then you gave it to God, that God might perfect it in glory.

‘Just for one blissful moment you could feel the sweet touch of freedom.’ Bonhoeffer, himself powerless and imprisoned, reminds himself how Jesus was fastened to a cross, powerless now to save himself, incapable - indeed - of any independent action, the victim of events. And yet, in this moment of apparent defeat perhaps - thinks Bonhoeffer - Jesus was actually able to breathe a sigh of relief that his work was finished, that there was nothing more he could do or be asked to do, that now he must entrust his purpose to others and - ultimately - to God. Perhaps he was even able to feel that his mission, his God-given task, had finally been accomplished, that he had achieved everything he set out to do. That’s certainly how John interprets Jesus’ cry from the cross. But Mark is more enigmatic. He leaves it for us to decide whether it was a cry of dereliction or a shout of triumph, or even a mixture of the two.

Bonhoeffer certainly felt that mixture of emotions. On the one hand he was frustrated by his own powerlessness and anxious about his loved ones. On the other hand he was calm and fearless, and a source of great moral strength to his fellow prisoners.

We reflected in the Lent group that lots of people have to go through times when they feel powerless or disempowered and when they lose the power to control what happens to them. It might be someone who always led a very active life but who is now confined to a wheelchair and can only go out for a walk when someone else pushes them. It might be someone who has to care for a close relative or friend and therefore finds themselves having to put other choices - about their career, or their other interests, or other relationships - into cold storage. It might even be something as fleeting as being unable to go on a planned journey because there isn’t any petrol at the pumps.

Is there a sense in which this kind of experience can, in a strange way, set us free from life’s usual anxieties and preoccupations? Can the emptiness that such a loss of control creates be filled with an unexpected tranquility and a feeling of quiet acceptance?

I guess all of us know people whose dignity and courage in the face of suffering and death has been an inspiration and an encouragement to us, just as Jesus’ death inspired the Centurion. At the Lent Course we spoke of members of our own congregation whose attitude to dying had been a source of strength and inspiration to those who spoke to them or visited them.

As we’ve noted before, it would be invidious to pick out any single example from our church, so once again I will limit myself to speaking about my mother. When she was dying in hospital Helen - who was at her own mother’s bedside at the time - sent her a message to say how much she had always admired the way my mother put up with her suffering with quiet courage and without ever complaining. My mother reflected for a moment, and then she said, ‘Well, I’m complaining now!’

In the Lent group some of us thought that there were some experiences of suffering, or loss and disempowerment which might simply drive us mad and make us feel utterly derelict and entirely negative about our situation. But, of course, we can only know how we shall really feel if, and when, it happens.

Perhaps, like the man I once visited on his deathbed in hospital, when our time comes we shall just keep repeating to ourselves over and over, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ And if we do, we can still be assured that Jesus understands how we feel.

Or perhaps, we shall be like the children I used to visit when I was a hospital chaplain, whose bodies were stunted by the high doses of cortisone they needed to keep arthritis at bay but whose joints were nonetheless twisted and full of pain. They seemed to have nothing to celebrate and little to look forward to, and yet I never met a single one who wasn’t unfailingly cheerful and full of hope.

Or perhaps, like Bonhoeffer, we shall be able to glimpse - even through the dark days of our suffering - a redeeming glimmer of freedom, a feeling that at least we have accomplished our life’s work and can hand on the baton to others, a sense of being set free from worry about the future. And, if we do, we can be assured that Jesus has been there, too. Jesus gave his life, and its end, to God who then perfected it in glory. Even the centurion who was guarding his cross was heard to say, ‘This man must have been a Son of God.’

No one really knows how Dietrich Bonhoeffer died. The people who were there didn’t want to tell the truth about it and can’t be relied upon as witnesses. But on the Sunday after Easter, the day before he died, Bonhoeffer celebrated a short service for some of his fellow prisoners. He had just finished praying when two plain clothes policemen came to take him away. To one of the other prisoners, a British secret service man called Payne Best who had been captured by the Germans, he said, ‘This is the end. For me it is the beginning of life.’ They were his last recorded words and invest his dying with a quiet dignity which nothing that his captors might try to do could take away.

Best, who had got to know Bonhoeffer well during the final weeks of the War, said of him that Bonhoeffer was always full of happiness, and took joy in every small event in life, grateful ‘for the mere fact of being alive’. Then, like the centurion at the Cross, he spoke of how Bonhoeffer’s example had given glory to God. Despite - or maybe because of - the fact that they had only met in prison and under threat of death, Best says that Bonhoeffer ‘was one of the very few people that I have ever met to whom his God was real and close to him.’

What was Paul’s thorn in the flesh? He tells us earlier in the same part of his letter about a wonderful visionary experience he had of being snatched up to heaven, and some commentators have lamely suggested that his thorn in the flesh, was the mere fact of having to come back down to earth again. But that hardly seems likely. For one thing, it wouldn’t be a real thorn in the flesh, but a spiritual torment. And, for another, we know that Paul had problems with his eyesight and may have had mental health problems too. One of these is more likely to be the actual thorn he is talking about.

Some of Paul’s detractors - and there were many - said that if he had real faith in God, God would take this cup of suffering away from him. Others said that a truly good person wouldn’t have been given a thorn to contend with in the first place. But Paul makes a virtue out of his suffering. He says that God’s power at work within him is made perfect in weakness, and therefore he is happy to boast about his disability.’ Whenever I am weak,’ he says, ‘Then I am strong.’

It’s an amazing assertion. But is it true? For some people suffering undermines their faith and confidence in God. They find themselves uttering the same cries of dereliction and abandonment that some people heard Jesus shouting from the Cross. But for others their faith is made stronger in weakness, and they find that sense of freedom and completion of which we have already been thinking and which other people also heard Jesus articulate from the Cross. So there’s no easy answer to the question about whether suffering can make us stronger or perfect us in spite of our weakness.

Yet, what Paul is saying surely does describe what God is accomplishing on the cross. However Jesus may have experienced it, on the Cross God’s power was certainly made perfect in weakness, and Jesus’ personal experience of weakness is what ultimately made him strong enough to overcome death for us.

Thinking again about the Cross, Bonhoeffer wrote:

Everything we may with some good reason expect or beg of God is to be found in Jesus Christ. But what we imagine a God could or should do – the God of Jesus Christ has nothing to do with at all.

What is certain is that we may always live aware that God is near and present with us ...and that danger and urgent need can only drive us closer to God. What is certain is that we have no claim on anything but may ask for everything; what is certain is that in suffering lies hidden the source of our joy, in dying the source of our life; what is certain is that in all this we stand within a community that carries us. To all this God has said Yes and Amen in Jesus.

Palm Sunday & Holy Week

Mark 11.1-11

Today is the first day of Holy Week, when we remember the last week of Jesus’ earthly life. Today is called Palm Sunday because on that day Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey while his followers waved palm branches in celebration and sang praises to God. It was a demonstration of Jesus’ claim to be a new kind of peaceful leader and it upset the people who were leading the Jewish nation at the time.

The next day Jesus upset the Jewish leaders again by causing a disturbance in the Temple but he spent most of the week quietly teaching the crowds, until Thursday evening when Jesus and his disciples shared a special meal. This was the Passover meal, when Jewish people celebrate their escape from slavery in ancient Egypt. But Jesus changed the meaning of this meal for his followers when he picked up a piece of bread, broke it, and said, ‘This is my body, broken for you.’ Then he picked up the wine cup and said, ‘This is my blood poured out for you. Whenever you do this I will be with you, until I come back as king over the whole universe.’

After this Jesus and his friends went to a little park called The Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus liked to go to pray. But one of his friends, Judas, betrayed him to the Temple police, who came to the garden and arrested him there.

After a hasty trial Jesus was condemned to death for blasphemy, that is for insulting God. And on the following day, Good Friday, he was executed by being nailed to a cross and hung up in the hot sun. Heart failure and exhaustion would have killed him.

Two bandits were crucified on either side of Jesus, and a sign was sign was fastened to the top of his cross. It read, ‘This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.’ It was meant to be a sick joke and, to make it still more unkind, a crown mad eof sharp thorns was rammed onto his head by the soldiers who were guarding him.

But this cruel joke rebounded on the people who killed Jesus because, on Easter Day his tomb, which had been given to him by one of his wealthy followers, was found mysteriously empty. And his friends, who had run away in confusion when he was arrested, began to say that he was with them again, alive in a new way. So maybe he was a king, and maybe he didn’t insult God after all. Maybe it was the people who killed him who were in the wrong.

We believe that there is a nasty side to all of us which would be just as happy as the Jewish leaders were at the time to see Jesus dead and gone for ever. Because the selfish, dark side of our nature feels uncomfortable with Jesus, and doesn’t want to be challenged or changed by him. But we believe that Jesus allowed himself to be killed so that he could overcome this nasty side of human nature. For, even after it had done its worst to him, he came back to life with his power increased and not destroyed. And he now wants to live in us, and to get rid of the bad side of our character, so that we may begin a new life in him and become God’s friends, or children even, forever.

Freedom in action

John 12.20-33
Writing from prison in 1944 the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said:

Freedom is found only in action, not in escaping into thought.

We must dare to quit anxious faltering and enter the storm of events, carried by our faith and by God's good commandments alone.

Then, rejoicing, true freedom will welcome our spirit in its embrace.

‘Freedom is found only in action.’ Few of us will find ourselves in an actual prison cell, but it's easy to become prisoners of what is comfy and familiar as we take refuge from ‘the storm of events’ going on outside.

The BBC's John Simpson has said something very similar in a book based on his experiences as a foreign affairs correspondent. 'What if the point of living isn't to be placid and happy and untroubled by the world, but to be deeply, painfully sensitive to it, to see its cruelty and savagery for what they are and accept it all as readily as we accept its beauty; to be touched by it, moved by it, hurt by it even, but not be indifferent to it.'

A minister who went out onto the streets during last summer's rioting found that people put down the things they had looted, or apologised for trying to smash things up when they saw her collar. Her experience, witnessing people looting her local shopping centre, bears out something which one of last year's Nobel Peace Prize winners said to explain why she had got involved in campaigning for justice in her homeland of Liberia: 'One day the world's problems met us at our doorstep.' Freedom is found in action, entering the storm of events, carried by our faith, rather than cowering behind locked doors.

In our reading from John’s Gospel Jesus reaches the point where the talking has to stop and he has to put his life on the line. It is the time for action.

The new interest in his mission shown by Gentiles seems to be the catalyst for Jesus’ thinking about this. Perhaps he realises that he is going to have to step outside his own comfort zone. If he’s going to lead a worldwide transformation of human existence, teaching and working miracles among a predominantly Jewish audience isn’t going to cut the mustard. Now he must do something which will really catch the attention of the whole world, and of course we’re not talking about a gimmick here, jumping off the pinnacle of the Temple or conquering a country or two, we’re talking about something that will bring about a genuine and enduring change.

‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified’,and this involves self surrender, self-giving. ‘In very truth I tell you,’ Jesus says, ‘Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains that and nothing more; but if it dies, it bears a rich harvest.’

What that means for us is that - as churches and individuals - we have to expect to change, to commit, to make ourselves vulnerable, to give something up, if we want to follow Jesus, and grow, and make our contribution to his mission. ‘Whoever loves himself - or herself - is lost, but whoever hates himself - or herself - in this world will be kept safe for eternal life.’ Serving Jesus means following his example, and whoever serves Jesus will be honoured by God for ever. Freedom is found in action, entering the storm of events, carried by our faith.

Of course, making this kind of commitment asks a great deal of us. Our passage from John’s Gospel is John’s version of Jesus’ temptation in the Garden of Gethsemane. Sensing the ordeal which lies ahead of him Jesus says, ‘Now my soul is in turmoil, and what am I to say? “Father, save me from this hour?” No, it was for this that I came to this hour.’

And then God affirms what Jesus has long suspected, that the only way he is going to draw the whole world to himself is by being ‘lifted up from the earth’. Jesus could be talking about his ascension here, but John’s Gospel doesn’t include the ascension story because - for John - the way that Jesus ascends to the Father and is glorified is not by rising through the clouds from a mountaintop but by being lifted up on a cross.

Lent, then, is a good time to remind ourselves of the need for radical action. Freedom is found in following Jesus, and that means freedom is to be found in action, entering the storm of events, carried by our faith.

We have reflected previously this Lent on the fact that many members of our congregation are already committed to action in Jesus’ name, to entering the storm of events in an effort to make the world a better place. But maybe some of us are still faltering, still trying to find the right thing to do. Or maybe we feel the time has come to follow Jesus in a different direction or in a new way.

Christians Against Poverty is looking for four volunteers from our church to act as mentors to people struggling with debt problems. The way they work is by matching their customers to someone who they can easily identify with - so a young mum struggling with debt would be mentored by another young mum, a middle aged man would be mentored by another middle aged man, and so on. That means building up a pool of diverse volunteers in Wakefield whom they could draw on as required.

The mentor, or befriender, offers emotional support when the going gets tough - usually over the phone but occasionally face-to-face. They might invite the person they’re supporting to come with them to Messy Church or to a ladies’ pamper evening or a men’s sports’ quiz laid on by Christians Against Poverty for a group of similar customers. It’s not about being ‘on call’ or sorting out people’s problems. It’s just about being there at the end of the phone when living on a strict budget, perhaps for the first time, is proving hard for the customer to bear. There are lots of debt advice schemes, but this is the only one which offers customers a mentor to walk with them - metaphorically speaking - on the journey back from a nightmare to normal life.

If you think you might be interested, or if you think you could help with the occasional social events for the customers, or meet regularly in a small group to pray for the project and its customers, please see me afterwards because - to get the scheme launched in Wakefield - all we need is seven churches, with four mentors from each church who would each befriend about two customers per year.

As a church we have also got to continue stepping outside our comfort zone. I know we’ve already started doing this by removing the pews and remodelling our worship space. But now we’ve got to go further, because true freedom can only be found in action, entering the storm of events, carried by our faith. So we need to go on exploring what it means to follow Jesus, and act for him, in Sandal today - and that’s what Ruth Smith has come to help us do. We’re going to have another meeting with her in May and if you would like to be part of that meeting please see me or Judy Rylance to find out more.

Remember, the world’s problems are waiting to meet us at our doorstep. The point of being Church isn't to be placid and happy and untroubled by the world, but to be deeply, even painfully engaged with it; to to be touched by it, moved by it, hurt by it even, but never to be indifferent to it. That is what Jesus shows us.