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Message from Archdeacon Feb – March 2017

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As Rob was away for January, the Benefact message was very kindly written this time by  Archdeacon Paul with a foreword from Rob.

 

Dear Friends,

Archdeacon Paul has kindly put pen to paper (fingers to the keys, really) and given us some encouraging thoughts about God’s great love for us – timely encouragement as we race towards Lent and Easter. Thank you, Paul – I can stretch out again in the sun and relax!

God’s rich blessings to you all.

Rob

____________

 

In one of his books Richard Holloway describes two of the monks responsible for his training to the priesthood:

‘Father Edmund was a small teddy bear of a man, with a large unruly stomach that looked like a baking bowl beneath his cassock. He was loved not only for his eccentricities but also for his loving-kindness. One never felt judged by Edmund or found wanting. But his good nature laid him open to persecution. Edmund had a weak bladder. He lectured in Old Testament, but I don’t recall him ever finishing a lecture. Students would sit at the back of the lecture room with two tumblers under the desk and they would quietly pour water from one glass to the other. Slowly, subtly, inexorably, it had its effect. Edmund would start to shift uncomfortably, a look of mild distress would come over his features and he would bring the lecture to a speedy end and trot abstractedly from the room…

 

Then there was Father Stephen, Edmund’s complete opposite. He was tall and austere, with a face like an eagle. His look was piercing. We called him ‘Yahweh’ because he had the same effect on us as Yahweh had on the children of Israel. He made us feel inadequate, spiritually feeble, morally and intellectually undeveloped. He always induced in me a mood of compulsive self-examination and a fear that he could see into my soul and penetrate to my grubby little secrets. He was asthmatic but spoke in controlled bursts of speech, lion-like in their fierce intensity.’

 

Holloway goes on to say that he thought Stephen was the better Christian, the real man of God, the model of spiritual authenticity. Why could he not be like him, terrific and holy and frightening? And then he concludes: ‘Stephen filled me with guilt and awe. Edmund filled me with joy, gave me a sense that I was loved, that it was all right, that I was accepted.’ Thinking back to those two figures some years later Holloway admits that he had got things the wrong way round. Edmund was the real exemplar of Christianity, not Stephen.

 

Admittedly there is much in the Bible about right conduct, morality, holiness and as a result the popular view of Christianity is that it is all about imposing a rigorous type of morality on ourselves and on the world. The word ‘Christian’ describes a type of behaviour, a way of acting that is self-denying, self-effacing, heroic in its purity and uncomplicated certainty about what is right and what is wrong. Christianity is obviously interested in how people behave, because it is interested in human happiness and helping people to grow to maturity. But that is not its primary message.

 

Christianity’s main message is ‘While we were yet sinners Christ dies for us.’ In other words, God looks upon us with love and acts to help us long before we ever show any sign of response to that love. (That’s one reason we baptize infants because it underlines that God’s love comes first. We don’t have to qualify for God’s love by the way we behave. His love is a free gift generously bestowed on us and supremely so in the person of Jesus Christ. That’s why we call the Christian message ‘good news’ and not ‘good advice’. It is mainly about what God has done for us and only then about what we try to do for Him in response.

 

The Jews learnt that when God released them from slavery in Egypt. It was first and foremost an experience of grace – generous love on God’s part. Only after they had stumbled through the Red Sea and along to Mount Sinai did they receive the law (Ten Commandments etc). their obedience to the law sprang from gratitude – if God had done so much for them what could they do in return?

Similarly, people have joyfully responded to Jesus’ assurance that God loves them unconditionally by wanting to follow him and serve him as best they could, even if that entailed sacrificing their lives for him.

 

So as we approach Lent and its call to self-examination, repentance and renewal, we need to hear that call in the right context. Our response needs to spring from gratitude, not fear; from resting secure in God’s love (which will never falter) and not striving to earn that love by any exertions of body or soul. To return to Holloway’s two monks: we need Edmund before we are capable of heeding Stephen. We need to remember that the foundation of Christianity is this: ‘We love because God first loved us.’ (1 John 4v10). And the more clearly we see the depth of God’s love, the more deeply we will want to love him: that is the dynamic we seek to renew in our daily acts of devotion and discipline but specially so in the Season of Lent, when we follow Jesus to his final act of surrender to God on the cross, and beyond that seek to share in the power of Jesus’ resurrection

 

Paul W Thomas

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