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Do you have a favourite Christmas film? It may be a version of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol (with Alastair Sim as Scrooge, of course), or Irvin Berlin’s White Christmas (starring Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, or The Sound of Music (which is not strictly speaking a Christmas film but is on TV every Christmas nevertheless), or … well 101 other possibilities … there are so many to choose from!?

My favourite Christmas film is It’s a Wonderful Life (considered by many to be the best film ever made). It is the story of George Bailey (played by James Stewart in the film), a man who has spent his entire life giving of himself to the people of Bedford Falls. He has always longed to travel but never taken the opportunity in order to prevent rich skinflint Mr. Potter from taking over the entire town. All that prevents Potter from doing so is George’s modest building and loan company, which was founded by his generous father. But on Christmas Eve, George’s Uncle Billy loses a substantial amount of the business’s assets while intending to deposit it in the bank. Potter finds the misplaced money and hides it from Billy. When the bank examiner discovers the shortage later that night, George realizes that he will be held responsible and sent to jail and the company will collapse, finally allowing Potter to take over the town. Thinking that his wife, their young children, and others he loves will be better off with him dead, he contemplates suicide. But the prayers of his loved ones result in a gentle angel named Clarence coming to earth to help George (with the promise of earning his wings). He shows George what things would have been like if he had never been born. The whole story turns on a moment when George (contemplating suicide by jumping off the town bridge) – realises that God had a plan and purpose for his life after all – prays: ‘I want to live again! I want to live again! I want to live again! Please God, let me live again!’

What has all this to do with the Christmas Story, you may well ask? Well, at Christmas we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. This particular birth, however, was not simply the gift of yet another new life born into our world but the gift of someone very special – the birth of God’s ‘one and only Son’ (John 3:16). At his birth the angelic messenger announced that this special child would have two particular names – “Immanuel (meaning ‘God with us’)” and “Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21,23). There is a famous Renaissance painting by Lorenzo Lotto called The Nativity which shows Jesus in a manger with a shadow of a cross over it. We must recognise that Jesus came in order to die on the cross in order to atone for the sins of humanity and open up a new and living way back to God for sinful people like us. We must move beyond the concept of Jesus as a baby and see the Passion as well as the Incarnation (John 3:16,17).

Moreover, this remarkable gift of God in Jesus – to the manger and the cross – made it possible for all who will turn to God in Christ to experience what the Bible calls ‘eternal life’ or ‘abundant life’ (John 10:10). The most famous verses in the Bible tell us that ‘God so loved the world, he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. For God sent his Son into the world, not to condemn the world but so that the world might be saved through him’ (John 3:16,17). What is more, this eternal or abundant life that is available to us in and through Jesus, is (as someone once put it) ‘a lived for others life’. When the Apostle Peter reflected on what he was most grateful to God for saving him from in Christ, he did not say ‘the power of Satan or sin or death’ (although all that was also true) but rather, ‘an empty or wasted way of life’ (1 Peter 1:18). New life in Christ not only satisfies us, but enables us to make a real contribution in this broken and hurting world in which we live.

I spoke at a wedding a little while ago, and after the Service a young man in his mid-30s came to me and asked me a question: ‘Did you say that in order to truly find God for myself … to find God’s plan and purpose for my life … I need to genuinely commit myself to Jesus Christ?’ I confess I was somewhat hesitant in my response … I didn’t want to put off someone who was genuinely seeking God … but in the end I confessed. ‘Yes!’ I said, ‘that’s exactly what I said … if you want to find God for yourself, if you want to get into the centre-stream of God’s plan and purpose for your life … you need to lay your all on the altar for Jesus!’ There was a moment of hesitation … and then this young man said, ‘Good! That’s what I have been looking for!’ He then told me his story. Apparently, although brought up in a Christian home, he had rejected the Christian message in his late teens, determined to make his own way in life. ‘I had a plan, he told me, ‘I determined to go to university, get a good degree, get a good job, earn a lot of money, find a nice girl and get married, have two children, buy a nice house … set myself up for the rest of my life!’ ‘And’ I said, sensing that there was more to come. ‘And’ he said, ‘I have done all of that … I have achieved everything I set out to achieve, and there is still something missing … and I didn’t know what it was until today!’

J B Phillips suggests that ‘There is a God-shaped space in our lives which only God himself can fill!’ There is a well-know prayer of Saint Augustine which says: ‘You have made us for yourself O God, and the soul finds no rest until it finds its rest in you!’ The great thing about the Christmas Story is that, in the birth of Jesus Christ, George Bailey (and all the George Bailey’s of this world’ can find life – eternal and abundant life, life with a purpose, life with a capital ‘L’ (as the late Lindsay Glegg used to say)! So, this Christmas, choose life, choose Jesus!   

Jim Binney

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WHAT’S ALL THIS GRACE BUSINESS? (Fourth Sunday in Advent 2021)

A few years ago Julia and I took part in the BBC programme Cash in the Attic. Very popular at the time, the programme purported to find various antiques hidden away in people’s homes which could be then sold at auction and raise money that the participants could then spend on holidays or hobbies or whatever. At the time we were both Ministers at Beckenham Baptist Church in Kent, and we were raising money to build a large Community Garden at the rear of the church. The idea was to create a beautiful and peaceful space that could not only be used by the church but also by the community – a place for reflection and prayer as well as fun.

Someone donated a sapphire ring with the suggestion that we could auction it and put the money towards the Community Garden Fund. This inspired me to contact the BBC, tell them what we were doing, and suggest that they do a programme based on our church, a programme about people attempting to raise money for a charitable cause and not just to fund a foreign holiday. The BBC liked the idea, both the church and the community bought into it, people donated various antiques, and we even discovered various antiques of our own squirreled away in various parts of our church buildings. We ended up with a great programme (that you can still find on You Tube) and raised a lot of money for the project. Although we were told unofficially by the programme producers ‘not to talk about Jesus … the BBC don’t like too much of that’ we ended up having a number of deep conversations with both the presenters and the programme staff about the difference Jesus can make in a person’s life. The programme culminated with a great open air concert at the church in which we were able to display just what a multitalented bunch of people we had in Beckenham. ‘Wow!’ said one of the cameramen, ‘I didn’t think Christianity could be like this!’

A major part of the programme was the actual auctioning of the antiques, in our case filmed at Chiswick Auctions. The BBC filmed the auction element of two programmes on the same day. The other programme filmed the same day as ours featured a nice Jewish couple. I got into conversation with the nice Jewish lady who, when she found out that I was a Christian, asked me if I had been to Jerusalem. ‘Yes’ I replied. ‘Did you pray at the Wailing Wall?’ she asked. ‘Yes’ I replied. ‘What did you pray for?’ she asked. ‘I prayed for my son’ I replied, ‘he has a heart condition and I prayed God’s blessing on him!’ ‘I prayed for my son, as well’ the nice Jewish lady said, ‘he was still single, and living at home, so I prayed that the good Lord would find him a nice Jewish girl to marry.’ ‘Did God answer your prayer?’ I asked. ‘Yes …’ she replied hesitantly. ‘What is she like?’ I asked, sensing her hesitancy. ‘She is a right shrew’ the nice Jewish lady replied, ‘she is very, very religious … insists that we all keep every jot and tittle of the Jewish Law … its dreadful!’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘that’s partly why I am a Christian and not a Jew.’ ‘What do you mean?’ the nice lady asked. ‘Well,’ I responded, ‘our Bible tells us that as Christians “we are no longer under the Jewish Law but under grace” (Romans 6:14).’ She looked at me with a puzzled look on her face. ‘Grace! Grace!’ she said, ‘What’s all this grace business?’ Good question … and I was able to spend a few minutes explaining to her not only that Jesus was indeed the Promised Jewish Messiah, but also the difference coming to know him as Saviour and Lord makes.

Today is the Fourth Sunday in Advent, and traditionally the theme for this particular Sunday is ‘The God of Grace’, and we often think specifically of the role of Mary the Mother of Jesus in the Advent/Christmas story. Luke tells us that when the angel revealed to Mary that she was to be the mother of God’s Son, he greeted her with the words, ‘Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you’ (Luke 1:28). ‘Grace’ is one of the most wonderful words in the Bible, in the Christian Faith. It signifies the unmerited favour of God freely given to weak, sinful people like us. We cannot buy it, we cannot earn it, it is the free gift of God. It is that which carries all the various blessings of God to us – ‘one blessing after another’ (John 1:16 RSV). It was God’s grace, and grace alone, which enabled Mary to go through all that she had to go through in order to fulfil her calling to be the mother of God’s Son.

‘Grace’ is at the very centre and core of the whole Bible. ‘Grace’ is the most important concept in the Bible, Christianity, and the world. ‘Grace’ is the unmerited favour of God. It is the love of God shown to the unlovely … the peace of God given to the restless. ‘Grace’ is God reaching down to people who are in rebellion against him. ‘Grace is the love that cares and stoops and rescues!’ (John Stott). It is most clearly expressed in the promises of God revealed in Scripture and embodied in Jesus Christ! 

Mary was not the only one full of grace. John tells us that at that first Christmas God, in the Person of his ‘one and only Son’, came among us – ‘moved into the neighbourhood’ (The Message) – ‘full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14-16). Indeed Jesus came ‘full to overflowing’ (which is what the word means). So much so, in fact, that we are the beneficiaries of this amazing grace – we have all received ‘grace in place of grace’ or ‘one blessing after another’ (RSV). Common Grace that keeps us all alive – the very air that we breathe. Special Grace that comes to us in the Person of Jesus Christ that enables us to become spiritually alive!

Moreover, God’s grace is available to all who will turn to God in and through Jesus Christ. Joseph Smith (in a sermon entitled Standing Close to the Lightning Strike) suggests that God’s grace is like lightning and transforms whoever it strikes. ‘Martin Luther found that out. Walking through the forest one day, praying and working through spiritual torment, literally, the lightning did strike close by. And he felt that as the summons of God. Luther came closer, and when God sent the lightning strike, it was grace. It was what he needed to turn his life around.

John Wesley found it out. Serving as a missionary in the Georgia penal colony, he was a miserable failure. He sailed home in distress, not sure what he would do with the rest of his life. But in a little chapel in Aldersgate Street in London, listening to someone comment on the Scripture, Wesley says that he “felt his heart strangely warmed, and did know that Christ was his saviour.” Wesley came closer, and when the lightning struck and God got his attention, he found that it was grace, all grace, and hope.

Jim Vaus found it out. As a professional criminal, working for the Cohen gang in New York City, Vaus chose to steal, swindle, maim, or even kill to get what he wanted. But there was a nagging feeling inside that it meant nothing. The things that do not satisfy. The FBI arrested Jim Vaus and he was sent to prison. But in prison he heard the gospel, and knew that it was for him. The last I knew, Jim Vaus, ex-criminal, ex-con, was running a youth ministry in a place aptly called Hell’s Kitchen. The lightning struck, and it was grace.’

‘Grace! Grace!’ What’s all this grace business?’ Well, it is something very special that is available to all of us in Jesus Christ. True, we can read all about it in the Bible, hear about it in Church, learn about it from countless testimonies, biographies and autobiographies … but so much better to turn to God in Jesus Christ and experience it for ourselves!

Jim Binney

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GOD OF SURPRISES (Views from the Abbey 28)

A taxi driver felt a tap on his shoulder, lost control of his cab and went careering across the road, narrowly missing a mother with a baby in a pram, just avoiding a lamppost, and just managing to stop before crashing into the plate glass window of a shop! He apologised profusely to his passenger. ‘I’m so sorry’ he said, ‘but you gave me such a shock when you tapped me on the shoulder! This is my first day as a taxi driver and until yesterday I drove a hearse!’

Sometimes in life things can come upon us as a bit of a shock and generally speaking, we don’t like surprises. In our minds we fear the unknown; we find it threatening and destabilising. But life can be full of surprises – in a good way! It has been said that one of the most beneficial and valuable gifts we can give to ourselves in this life is to allow ourselves to be surprised. It’s OK if life surprises you; it’s a good thing. And God is a very surprising God. He comes to us to break through the cocoon of our closed minds and it is always in a good way! According to Pope Francis, ‘God reveals himself through surprises so always allow yourself to be surprised by God.’

Today is the third Sunday of Epiphany. Epiphany means a moment of sudden and great revelation or realisation. Whilst we do not slavishly follow the church year, it is good to keep the main festivals and to follow the main themes of the faith because they are so important that we need to be reminded of them on an annual basis. Epiphany is the ‘season of surprises’ when we open our hearts and minds to God and make sure that we are always allowing ourselves to be surprised by God. No matter how long we have been on the road with Jesus there are moments of sudden and great revelation or realisation that can come to us. We can still always be surprised by God.

We see this throughout Scripture where God breaks through the granite of hard hearts and does something new. For example, Noah being called to build a huge boat because it was going to rain even though it had never rained before (Genesis 6:9-27). Or Abraham called by God at 75 to leave his home and follow God into the unknown and to become a father (Genesis 12,15). Moses encountering God in a burning bush (Exodus 6:1-6). We think of the Magi from the east who first started to look for the infant Jesus in a palace. What is a surprise it must have been for them to find him in a stable. And then there is the Apostle Paul meeting the risen Christ on a dusty road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-9). Which brings us to the passage for today from Mark 1:4-11 where we read of the Baptism of Jesus. The point of the season of Epiphany coming just after Christmas is to progressively unveil more and more about Jesus, whose coming we have just celebrated and where we find one surprise after another.

Firstly, we think of the surprise for John the Baptist. Now he knew Jesus was coming. He had been called to live in the desert and prepare the way by preaching about repentance, for a sea change in people’s lives. In Mark 1:7,8 we find the crux of John’s message: ‘The real action comes next: The star in this drama, to whom I’m a mere stagehand, will change your life. I’m baptising you here in this river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life. His baptism – a holy baptism by the Holy Spirit – will change you from the inside out’ (The Message). John knew he was just the forerunner. The main act was coming. And what an epiphany John had: ‘I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptise with water told me. I have seen and I testify that this is the son of God’ (John 1:33,34). Imagine his surprise! Not only was this the person that John had been waiting for the Messiah that God had long promised, but this person was coming to him to be baptised! We know from Matthew’s Gospel that John tried to deter Jesus: ‘I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?’ (Matthew 3:14). Then Jesus explained why – to fulfil all righteousness, to publicly announce the start of Jesus’ ministry, to identify with sinful humanity and give an example for us to follow – and John consented. We know from John’s testimony that he saw the Holy Spirit descend on Jesus in a physical manifestation like a dove (John 1:32). What a surprise! This moment was unique but when we come in obedience and faith to follow Jesus through the waters of baptism, this is figuratively what we experience. Baptism is a church ordinance (and together with the Lord’s supper) is a place of special grace. Baptism is a picture of what has already happened in the heart of the believer, the outward demonstration of the inward reality of becoming a Christian – going through the water, dying to the old way of life, coming up from the water, rising to new life in Christ. It can also be a kairos moment of special revelation, the opportunity for the Holy Spirit to do something powerful and new in our hearts in that sacramental moment of rising that symbolises Jesus’ resurrection from the grave. This is the testimony of countless numbers of people. Praise God, he can and does come to us anywhere at any time if we are open to receive him, but as with Jesus, baptism is a key event. As John saw – ‘a holy baptism by the Holy Spirit that will change you from the inside out.’ Are we ready to be changed from the inside out? Are you prepared to be surprised by God?

Secondly, we think of the surprise for the crowd. Mark 1:5 refers to ‘the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem’ that went out to be baptised by John. We know from Luke’s record of Jesus’s baptism (Luke 3:7) that John had some pretty strong things to say to this crowd. Sometimes God’s word comes to us – either through preaching or from our own reading of scripture underlined by the Holy Spirit or by a direct Holy Spirit prophetic utterance – and it is a hard message, hard to hear and hard to receive. Whenever we hear something we don’t want to hear our minds can automatically, instinctively close the door, pull up the shutters and forget what we’ve heard. It is the same when we have some kind of life changing epiphany, when we receive a special revelation which might be difficult and costly to us, we immediately distract ourselves and so forget it until it melts away to nothing and we can pretend and go on as if we have never heard it. We need to be aware of this when we are tempted to close our minds to God’s surprises. And what happened next was really surprising. A voice came down from heaven. In this passage in Mark’s Gospel and in Luke’s the words are spoken to Jesus: ‘You are my son whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’ In Matthew’s Gospel (3:17) it is ‘This is my Son,’ as if it is addressed to everyone there to proclaim the identity of Jesus as the beloved and only begotten Son of God. When we experience God speaking to us, often through a still small voice in the silence of our own hearts and minds, it changes everything. It changes the whole course of our lives and we can never be the same again. Are we ready to hear God speak to us – no matter what he has to say? Are you prepared to be surprised by God?

And, thirdly, what about Jesus himself? What was the surprise for him? Was it a surprise when he came up out in the water and in that very moment saw the astonishing sight of heaven being torn oven and the surprise of physically seeing the Holy Spirit? Imagine the joy he must have felt when he heard his Father’s voice. What an assurance this must have given him; experiencing the Holy Spirit in such a way that brought a deep assurance of the love and acceptance of his Father. This deep assurance of the love and acceptance of God by and through the Holy Spirit is available to us all. One of the most surprising events recorded in Scripture happened to the Disciples on the Day of Pentecost that we read of in Acts 2. What were they expecting? God is a God of the unexpected but the violent wind, the tongues of fire, the Holy Spirit inspired speech, out on the streets at 9.00 am declaring the wonders of God? What a surprise indeed! Are we ready to be filled with the Holy Spirit in such a dramatic way? Are you prepared to be surprised by God so much so that in this Epiphany ‘season of surprises’ you might actually have an Epiphany?!

Julia Binney

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A FRUITFUL LIFE (Views from the Abbey 27)

In July 1969 Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first people to walk on the moon. Buzz Aldrin marked the occasion by taking Communion and he read from John 15:5 ‘I am the vine; you are the branches. if you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.’

Today is the second Sunday of Epiphany. Epiphany means a sudden or striking realisation or revelation. The realisation for Buzz Aldrin, as he explained a year after the mission, was that taking Communion on the moon symbolised the thought that God was revealing himself there too as humanity reached out into the universe. And he chose to read these words from John 15 to indicate that, as humanity probed into space, they were in fact acting in Christ. Aldrin was a committed Christian before he went to the moon. Two others felt the tug of faith on their return from the space mission. Jim Irwin, for example, of Apollo 15 felt the presence of God during his 67 hours on the moon surface. ‘Before the flight,’ he said, ‘I wasn’t really a religious man. I believed in God but I really had nothing to share. When I came back from the moon I felt so strongly that I had something that I wanted to share with others that I established High Flight in order to tell everyone everywhere that God is alive not only on earth but also on the moon.’ And he went on to say, ‘the hours I spent on the moon were the most thrilling of my life not because I was there but because I could feel the presence of God.’ Because of the profound experience of God on the moon Irwin wanted help lift humanity to the highest flight in life.

Because of Jesus and as we are ‘in Christ,’ we are lifted to the highest flight in life. Not literally travelling in space or walking in the moon but as Christ lives his life in and through us by his Spirit; Ephesians 2:6-7: ‘God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.’ Tony Horshall, in his book Rhythms of Grace: Finding intimacy with God in a busy life, suggests that ‘Christians, above all, should be concerned to make their lives count, to live ‘on purpose.’ Eugene Peterson in his book Running with the Horses opens with the line, ‘the puzzle is why so many people live so badly, not so wickedly, but so inanely.’ The Apostle Peter in his first letter wrote of that which he is most grateful to God for, ‘to be saved from an empty and wasted way of life’ (1 Peter 1:18). As Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message, puts it ‘your life is a journey you must travel with a deep consciousness of God. It cost God plenty to get you out of that dead-end, empty headed life you grew up in.’ Jesus made it clear God wants our lives to bear fruit for him. As Christians, we are to live fruitful lives.

Last week Jim expounded our Motto text for this year – Genesis 49:22 about Joseph being ‘a fruitful vine, a fruitful vine near a spring, whose branches climb over the wall.’ He applied it to us all; we are to be a fruitful vine, near a spring, whose branches climb over the wall. Such a fruitful vine is one that is strong, well-rooted, vigorous and healthy stock. We are to bear fruit for God; the fruit of a changed life; the fruit of a Christlike character; and the fruit of others won for Jesus. This week is the follow up to last Sunday (Part 2), as we look at possibly one of the best known parables of Jesus about the vine and its branches from John 15.

Vine imagery is used a lot in Scripture. Not only were there vines all over Israel that needed a lot of care and attention and looking after them was a common means of livelihood, but it was also the national symbol of Israel. But Jesus applied the metaphor of vine and branches to himself. Jesus is the vine.  Not Israel. He alone is the source of divine life. God the Father is the gardener or vine-dresser who tends the vine. The branches of the vine are Jesus’ followers, true disciples, as we are grafted into Christ, the vine itself. Jesus’ aim of this parable is to explain the purpose of Christian living and shows us how we can the Christian life successfully.

The role of the vine-keeper is vitally important because the whole purpose of a vine is to produce grapes. The only thing fit for a vine that bears no fruit is to lob it off and burn the unproductive branches. Our loving heavenly Father cuts away at the things that make us unfruitful – sin, self-centred living, dogged independence and disobedience – trimming us back so we grow stronger and spiritually healthy for greater fruitfulness. We need to submit to his pruning. Sometimes things (even people?) have to be cut out of our lives if they are damaging us and it can feel painful at times. But as Charles Elliot put it ‘a spirituality that refuses to acknowledge the winter of the heart, the great sorrowfulness of human experience, is not only refusing to take seriously the life that people actually lead: it is in danger encouraging too much leaf and too little fruit.’ The Apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Philippi: ‘whatever was to my prophet I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish but I may gain Christ and be found in him (Philippians 3:7,8).

If we are going to live a fruitful life, we need to remain in him (John 15:4,5). It is only as we abide, dwell, make our home in Jesus and he makes his home in us that we can live a fruitful life. There is a lot in John 15 that gives us the ‘how’ of remaining in Christ – nurturing our personal relationship with Jesus, obeying his commands, walking in love, submission and obedience. This is about personal discipleship; about applying ourselves intentionally, ‘on purpose’ to growing closer to Christ and deepening our connection to God. The key step in this process of nurturing the spiritual life is receptivity; putting ourselves in a posture of openness to the movement of the Spirit; deliberately deciding to say “yes” to God; cooperating with the Holy Spirit in developing those patterns of life that help us become what God would have us become; not settling for less than God’s best but truly living life to the full for God. 

Are we flying high for God?  Are we doing our utmost and highest for Christ? Or are we settling for mediocrity? To remain in Christ is not about us working harder. Bearing fruit is to be done naturally, patiently, organically as we spend quality time with Jesus, in prayer, in bible study sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit, centring our lives on him, giving him our full attention. Like the branches of a vine allowing the sap of divine life to flow in and through us. We need to ‘exercise the discipline of stopping,’ by being still in his presence, in silence and solitude. As Robert Murray McCheyne asserted, ‘what a [person] on is their knees before God that [they] are and nothing else.’

‘If you were to ask a branch on a grapevine, ‘how do you grow such luscious fruit?’ The branch would probably reply, ‘I don’t know. I don’t grow any of it; I just bear it. Cut me off from this vine and I will wither away and become useless.’ Without the vine, the branch can do nothing. Without Jesus at the very centre of our lives, we can do nothing of any real and eternal worth or bear fruit that will last.

Julia Binney

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A FRUITFUL VINE (New Year 2022)

Today is our Motto Text and Covenant Sunday here at Abbey. A Motto Text is meant to be some kind of inspirational text to carry/encourage us through the coming year. The dictionary defines a ‘motto’ as ‘a short sentence or phrase chosen as encapsulating the beliefs or ideals of an individual, family, or institution e.g. the family motto is ‘Faithful though Unfortunate’. A Motto Text should have clear prophetic element to it because it should be selected thoughtfully and prayerfully as God’s ‘now word’ for a particular people at particular time … which brings us to this year’s Motto Text here at Abbey: ‘Joseph is a fruitful vine, a fruitful vine near a spring, whose branches climb over a wall’ (Genesis 49:22 NIV).

The context is the impending death of Jacob who calls his sons to his bedside in order to bless them before dies (Genesis 49). Such a blessing was not simply a father’s best wishes for his sons’ futures but God’s blessing – Jacob was the conduit, channel, vehicle, instrument of God’s blessing upon his sons (as the passage makes clear). Jacob blesses each of his sons in turn and each blessing is both ‘appropriate’ (v.28) to each particular son … and prophetic in as much as to some extent it foretells (both the good and the bad) the future e.g. Reuben is promised much but throws away God’s blessing (vs.3,4) whereas Joseph is promised a fruitful future but warned that his future will not be easy, although God’s ongoing blessing (blessings after blessing after blessing) will see him through victoriously (vs.22-26). I am concentrating on the first part of Jacob’s blessing for Joseph (v.22) because (as I waited prayerfully on God) it seemed particularly appropriate for us at Abbey at this particular time in our history, our story – ‘fruitful vine, a fruitful vine near a spring, [a fruitful vine] whose branches climb over [the] wall’.

Now it is vitally important for us to ‘be in the blessing’. Blessing (i.e. God’s blessing) here carries sense of being in the flow of God’s grace, God’s favour, God’s Spirit – not just being in the blessing ourselves but carrying that blessing to others. As the old hymn puts it: ‘Channels only blessed Master but with all thy wonderous power, flowing through us, thou canst use us, every day and every hour!’ So, let’s get to the text itself (v.22) … what is God seeking to say to us here … what is his ‘now word’ to us?

Let’s begin by noting the significance of Joseph here – a type of people/person totally committed to God/kingdom of God (not perfect but committed). Why is Joseph so prominent here? He is not the eldest (Reuben), nor the favourite (Benjamin), or even the one from whom the Christ would come (Judah)? Yet there is more about him here than any other brother. Well, Joseph is the ‘key player’ in the game at this specific time. He is the only one strong enough to keep the whole thing together for the conceivable future. God (not just Jacob) needed a committed Joseph to see his plans/purposes for the future through to the next stage. As such [bearing in mind that today is our Covenant Sunday], Joseph is a ‘type’ of the committed people/church/Christian/Church Member that God is looking for today and every day. Akin to that which we see in the early church (Acts 2:42-47). But how can we live this way? Well, we do so on the basis of the prophetic promises made to Joseph (for his ministry/mission) that find here in Genesis 49:22.

A FRUITFUL VINE. Joseph would be a ‘fruitful vine’. He would live a fruitful life in every way imaginable: progeny, character, influence. And in much the same way, we too, are to be fruitful. I am reminded of Jesus Parable of ‘The Vine and the Branches’ (John 15). The New Testament envisages the Christian/Christian Church as being fruitful in three specific ways:

The Fruit of a Changed Life: When the Pharisees professed genuine repentance before John the Baptist he told them to ‘Go away and demonstrate it by the fruit of a changed life!’ (Matthew 3:8). We need to ‘Walk the walk, and not just talk the talk!’.

The Fruit of a Christlike Character: Paul (in his Letter to the Galatian Church) contrasts the way we used to live with way we now live since we have committed our lives to Jesus Christ. He reminds us that the ‘Fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,gentleness and self-control’ (Galatians 5:22,23). In reality there is only one fruit ‘Love’. Someone once put it this way: ‘Joy is love singing; Peace is love resting; Patience is love enduring; Kindness is love’s touch; Goodness is love’s character; Faithfulness is love’s habit; Gentleness is love forgetting itself; Self-control is love holding the reins.’

The Fruit of Others Won for Jesus: Paul writes to Church in Rome about his impending visit and says one of the reasons why wants to come to them is so that ‘I might have some fruit among you’ (Romans 1:13 KJV). Paul wanted to see more people in Rome won for Christ. With all our emphasis on social action here at Abbey, we must never forget that supremely we are here to win others for Christ. To see men/women/young people come to know God in Christ for themselves.

A FRUITFUL VINE NEAR A SPRING. Joseph’s fruitfulness came about as result of living in the blessing of God, the God who ‘blesses you with the blessings of heaven above’ blessing after blessing after blessing (v.24). The Psalmist speaks of a tree whose fruitfulness is the direct result of being planted by a stream (Psalm 1:3). Our minds go immediately to Jesus’ words at Feast of Tabernacles: ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow up from within them’ (John 7:37,38). And John adds, ‘By this he meant the [Holy Spirit]’ (v.39). Now every Christian has the Holy Spirit, but, to quote A W Tozer, ‘Every Christian has the Holy Spirit … but the Holy Spirit does not have every Christian!’ Many of us need to experience (what Watchman Nee) calls ‘The Release of the Spirit’. A surrendering of ourselves to God in such a way that we allow God to work in us and through us rather than attempting to do things in our own strength, wisdom, ways!

A FRUITFUL VINE, NEAR A SPRING, WHOSE BRANCHES CLIMB OVER A WALL: Joseph’s influence was never meant to be contained within his own family/people/nation. Israel’s calling was to be ‘a light to the nations’ (Isaiah 60:3) and at times they were just that. Overall, however, they failed to be that, hence Jesus’ dramatic prophetic enactment in driving the money changers and traders from the Temple, that Israel ‘rather than be a house of prayer for all nations had become a den of thieves’ (Matthew 21:13). Rather like Reuben they promised much but achieved little, resisting God’s prophetic promises.

God’s vision for his Church is that we should grow numerically as well as spiritually and that the Gospel was for ‘every nation’ (Matthew 28:19,20). The church is not meant to be a ‘holy huddle’ keeping ourselves to ourselves. We too are meant to be a fruitful vine … whose branches climb over the walls we tend to build for ourselves. It has been wonderful to see so many different nationalities beginning to worship with us here at Abbey.  Our premises being used to serve others as we partner with Reading Red Kitchen and Care4Calais, Reading Refugee Support Group, and 2:19 (with our Abbey iCaf English Conversation Café). It is not by chance that all this has come about since we committed ourselves, as a church, to transitioning into an international, intercultural church and prayer centre. The branches are well and truly climbing over the wall … long may it continue … and long may we, as individuals and as a gathered community, be committed to Christ, to each other, and to the missio Dei!

Jim Binney

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WAKEY! WAKEY! (Third Sunday in Advent 2021)

A Pastor in a certain Baptist Church I know of, was greatly annoyed by one of his elderly members who fell asleep during his sermons every Sunday. After the service one day, the Pastor said to the old man’s grandson (who always sat with his grandfather), ‘If you can keep the old man awake, I’ll pay you £2 a week.’ This worked for two weeks; the old man was very alert and listened to the sermons attentively. On the third Sunday, however, there he was, up to his old tricks again, sound asleep in the pew. After the service the Pastor called the boy over and said, ‘I am disappointed in you. Didn’t I promise you £2 a week to keep your grandfather awake?’ ‘Yes,’ replied the boy, ‘but Grandpa gives me £5 not to disturb him.’ All too often we are like Grandpa. We don’t like being disturbed. We enjoy living in an atmosphere of quiet contentment. We don’t want anyone or anything rocking our boat. We like stability in our lives. For the most part, as long as everything is going reasonably well and we are not being affected to much by what is going on around us, we just want to be left alone.

Traditionally, the theme for the Third Sunday in Advent is ‘The God Who Disturbs’, and we often look at the role of John the Baptist – in many ways the last in the line of what we might call the Old Testament Prophets – in preparing the way for the Advent or Coming of Jesus Christ. John was Jesus’ cousin (just a few months older than Jesus himself) and we first hear of him in the birth narratives of Jesus (Luke 1 and 2). Like Jesus himself, John doesn’t really burst on the scene until some 30 years later when he appears ‘out of the blue’ so to speak – a disturbing character with a disturbing message. Matthew tells us that he emerged from living in the desert, wearing rough clothing (camel skin), eating weird food (locusts and honey), calling one and all to repent and turn back to God (Matthew 3:1-12). John’s message culminated in pointing to Jesus as God’s long awaited Messiah – ‘the Lamb of God who will take away the world’s sin’ (John 1:29).

The effect was amazing with hundreds of people – even some from amongst those trapped in institutional religion – turning back to God and demonstrating this by being baptised. Ultimately, of course, John’s disturbing ministry backfired on him – it upset the wrong people – and led to his untimely death (Matthew 14:1-12). John’s message, however, was not John’s message but God’s message – John himself was simply the mouthpiece. It was not John the Baptist who disturbed people but his God – ‘the God who disturbs’!

I am reminded of a picture God put into my mind some time ago. I saw a lovely village out in the country somewhere (imagine the Cotswolds, perhaps) with cottages, church, pub, a few shops all gathered around the village pond. It all looked very tranquil and pleasant until you realised that the pond was lifeless, soulless, with no waterlilies, etc. and no ducks or geese. It was stagnant. And then along came a man with a big stick, a long staff of some kind or another – he was clearly someone of importance in the village, perhaps the local Squire or Mayor – and he pushed the big stick down into the centre of the pond, right to the very bottom, and began to stir it all up. All sorts of rubbish began to float to the surface as he kept on stirring things up. If anything the pond looked even worse than before. The villagers began to complain that their tranquillity was being disturbed (even though it was the peace of death) but the man kept on stirring things up. When all the rubbish that had been killing the pond for years was finally brought to the surface the man had it all collected and removed … and slowly but surely the pond came back to life with plants growing in and around the pond and wildlife re-inhabiting the whole area.

Although in Advent we centre our thoughts on and around the birth of Jesus, we cannot really separate his birth from the rest of his life and ministry. Sadly, some people never seem to get beyond the ‘baby Jesus’ stage. Mark tells us that, following the imprisonment of John the Baptist, Jesus himself burst on the scene, also as an itinerant preacher, declaring an equally disturbing message: ‘The kingdom of God is now here … turn back to God … believe the good news!’ (Mark 1:14,15). For the Apostle John, Jesus more-or-less also began this public ministry by deliberately going into the Temple Courts and causing a major disturbance, driving out the traders and money-lenders misusing this sacred space to take advantage of the poor, vulnerable and needy (John 2:13-22).

This is what happening today – not only in the Church, but in society, right around the world. Covid and its associated troubles are just one example of what is going on. There is definitely a disturbing presence in the air. Whilst we must be careful not to draw a negative theology from a positive i.e. God is not the author of Covid (if anything, humankind has brought this and many other of our troubles upon ourselves through our selfishness, materialism, greed, and neglect of God and our fellow human beings) he is undoubtedly using these disturbing days to bring all kind of muck to the surface – in government, industry, the city, society in general, the Church, and the world – so that it can be dredged away and new life come forth. Above all, he is (as he did 2,000 plus years ago with John the Baptist) calling us to look with new eyes to Jesus Christ – ‘Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29).

When I was a child back in the late 1940s and early 1950s we did not have television but we did have radio. One of the most popular radio programmes of the day was The Billy Cotton Band Show on a Sunday lunchtime. It always began with Billy Cotton’s trademark catch phrase, ‘Wakey! Wakey!’ Did he really think we were all still asleep at that time, it being a Sunday? Well, amongst the myriad of messages that God is seeking to communicate to us all during this Advent/Christmas Season, one of them is surely ‘Wake up! It is ‘time to smell the coffee’ (as our American friends say). Time to take a good look at what is going on around us – in our world, in our country, in society in general … in our own lives perhaps! Time to look again at the true meaning of Christmas!

Jim Binney

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HELLO! CAN YOU HEAR ME? (Second Sunday in Advent 2021)

Although she doesn’t know it yet, Julia recently gave me Adele 30 (the latest album by Adele Adkins, one of the world’s best-selling music artists, with sales of over 120 million records) as either a late birthday present, or early Christmas present. She knows that I like Adele’s music (I have all her previous albums). I haven’t had time to listen to it properly yet – it is said to tell a story of a recent chapter in Adele’s life (which is why she wants us to listen to the various songs in the order they appear on the album and not on ‘shuffle’). Like her other albums Adele’s songs grow on you the more you listen to them and you find deeper meaning in the process of listening and thinking about the words.

There is a line in the song Hello from Adele’s previous album which contains the line ‘Hello … can you hear me?’ The song is about a long distance phone call between Adele and someone she was obviously once in love with but hasn’t been in contact with for a long time. Almost on a whim she phones to see if any spark remains between them that can possibly be rekindled after all the years apart. Even as she makes the call she is not sure that any meaningful contact has been made, or that the person on the other end of the line is hearing what she is trying to say.

‘What has this to do with Advent or God or anything important at all?’ I hear you saying. Well, quite a lot actually. Traditionally, the theme of the Second Sunday in Advent is The God Who Speaks. The Writer to the Hebrews tells us that ‘In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son’ (Hebrews 1:1,2). The Writer suggests here that rather than God being up there, out there, distant from us, deliberately incommunicado, he has repeatedly attempted to communicate with us many times and in many ways, primarily through a whole series of prophetic figures who sought to share God’s ‘now word’ with generation after generation. Regrettably, by and large, God’s word through these prophetic voices was ignored, so in the end God sent his one and only Son, Jesus Christ, into our world to make his message to us loud and clear. And what is that message? What is it that God wants us to hear? Well, essentially it is this: ‘God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him’ (John 3:16,17). This, however, is not to be interpreted simply in a personal way but in a missional way. The Apostle Paul reminds us, that God not only ‘reconciled us to himself through Christ’ but also entrusted us with the ‘ministry of reconciliation’ (2 Corinthians 5:18) in which we too are to work to see our fellow human being reconciled to God and to one another.

Sadly, as Jesus himself foretold in the Parable of the Evil Farmers (Matthew 21:33-46), not only did the majority of people reject what God has to say through his prophets, but rejected what God has to say through his Son! The evil farmers ‘took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him’ (Matthew 21:39). Jesus came with a message of love … and we nailed him to a cross! But … just as the tomb could not hold him so his death could not silence him. Matthew’s Gospel begins with the story of the birth of the Christ-child – one whose given names were ‘Emmanuel – God with us, and Jesus – because he will save his people from their sins’ (Matthew 1:21,23), but concludes with the Risen Jesus appearing to his followers and telling them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age’ (Matthew 28:18-20).

What is more God is still speaking to us today! Through the Bible, through anointed preaching and the testimony of Christians, by the still small voice of the Holy Spirit, in a variety of situations and circumstances … and in countless other ways … but supremely in the Person of his Son Jesus. But are we listening? In Jesus, God has taken the initiative. God is ‘on the line’ so to speak. And what is he saying? How does God initiate the ‘conversation’?  Probably just like Adele: ‘Hello! Can you hear me?’ Can we?

He came to you, for in His gentle voice

He’d much that He would say …

Your ears were turned to earth’s discordant note

And so … He went away.

He came, and in His hand He had a task

That He would have you do.

But you were occupied with other things

And so you missed that too.

He would have touched you, and His touch could thrill

And give you quickening power,

But earthly things enveloped, and you could

Not feel Him in that hour.

Jim Binney

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CHRISTMAS PUZZLE (First Sunday in Advent 2021)

Like many of you we will be getting together with members of our family over Christmas. It is always good to meet up in this way, especially if you are not in the habit of meeting regularly during the course of the year. But if you are together for any length of time – let’s be honest about it – things can get a bit fraught?! After all there is only so much eating and drinking, thanking everyone else for your Christmas presents, watching TV programmes, going for long walks that end up in a pub, etc., etc. that one can do over Christmas and New Year. The solution we have found is to have a large Christmas jigsaw puzzle set up somewhere – a card table in the corner of a room – that various members of the house party can dip into whenever they feel the need to escape. The joy of completing the edging, sorting out the pieces into various coloured piles, finding that the most unlikely piece actually fits the space you never thought it would, the mad hunt under the table or round the room for the final missing piece (why didn’t we buy a new puzzle and not one from the charity shop?) … and the ecstasy of finding it and finally completing the Christmas puzzle!

Christmas itself is a puzzle to many people? A recent survey conducted in Oxford Street in London revealed that astoundingly the majority of people interviewed remained clueless about Christmas. For many it was simply about children, family, holiday, Santa, reindeers, snow, awful, piped Christmas music in stores, and so on. Even those who recalled that perhaps it had something to do Jesus Christ (the clue is in the name by the way – ‘Christ-mas’) didn’t associate it with Jesus’ birth. One interviewee thought it was to do with ‘Jesus’ death … or something … isn’t it!?’

In fairness it is confusing to many today. We live in a day when the majority of people never go to church, read the Bible, listen to a sermon (even a street preacher), or want to talk about such things. Thanks to Oprah Winfrey we are all encouraged to believe in whatever we like – ‘your truth’ – and wallow in it (rather like sitting in warm bath, perhaps ignoring the fact that the water is gradually getting colder by the minute). There is a story of a young boy looking at a manger scene which his schoolteacher had set up in the corner of the classroom. The boy had a puzzled look on his face as he surveyed the scene. When his teacher asked him what it was that was puzzling him the boy replied: ‘What I want to know is … where does God fit in?’ Good question. Where does God fit in at Christmas?

Well … right at the centre of the Christmas story actually. Traditionally, the theme of the First Sunday in Advent (that four week period before Christmas Day itself when the Church prepares its people for the birth of Jesus Christ) is ‘The God Who Comes’. When Jesus was born in that manger in Bethlehem 2,000 plus years ago, he was given two names: “Immanuel … which means ‘God with us’” and “Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21,23). As amazing as it may seem this tiny baby was none other than God himself, come amongst us in human form. One who would grow up to teach us by word and example the way God wants us all to live. One who would deliberately sacrifice his own life on Calvary’s cross in order to redeem us from the power of satan, sin, death and an empty or wasted way of life, and open up a new and living way back to God for all (in whatever age or generation) who will turn to him. 

This was the experience of the famous Oxbridge don and writer C S Lewis (1898-1963) author of the Narnia stories who, after a long struggle, finally found his way to God. He tells us that once, while riding on a bus in Oxford, he had the sense that he was ‘holding something at bay, or shutting something out’. He could either open the door or let it stay shut, but to open the door ‘meant the incalculable.’ He finally submitted himself to God, the most ‘dejected and reluctant convert’ in all England in 1929, but it was not until 1931 that he fully surrendered himself to Christ. Why such a struggle to turn to God in Christ? Lewis’s first experience at Oxford was highly symbolic. When he exited the Oxford railway station for the first time, he was loaded down with luggage. Mistakenly, he started walking down the street in the wrong direction. As he kept walking, he grew disappointed at the rather plain houses and shops he found. Only when he reached the edge of town did he turn around to see the beautiful spires and towers that constitute Oxford. In telling this story, Lewis says, ‘This little adventure was an allegory of my whole life.’ From boyhood, he tells us, he had been looking in the wrong direction … until one day he stopped, turned round, and started looking in the right direction. His direction changed from ‘self-scrutiny’ to ‘self-forgetfulness’. He rejected the ‘unsmiling concentration on the self’ and was ‘taken out of myself’ to love God and others. As David Downing (one of Lewis’ biographers) says: ‘The real story of Lewis’s conversion … is not about dramatic changes in a man’s career but about dramatic changes in the man [himself]!’

Jim Binney

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MAPPING THE JOURNEY (Views from the Abbey 26)

During the recent ‘deep clean’ of our church buildings at Abbey Baptist Church, Reading – a great opportunity to also ‘de-junk’ the various cluttered storerooms, nooks and crannies, cupboards and corners – we came across an old Route Planning Map from 1972. We love old maps. They are so colourful and informative – the ‘A’ roads marked in bright red, the names of important towns written in CAPITALS, the estimated mileage and time of various journeys between where you are and where you hope to get to clearly indicated (in a helpful chart) – but in terms of usefulness for today this particular route planning map is virtually absolutely useless. It is completely out of date. There are virtually no motorways indicated (apart from the M1). Things that were important then are not so important now (where you can find an AA Phone Box, for example). Even some of the so-called ‘important’ towns are no longer that important (Kidderminster is no longer ‘a vibrant carpet-making town). We are off on holiday shortly … but we won’t be using this particular map to plan our journey!

Reflecting on our ‘discovery’ I confess that the thought did cross my mind that this particular map could equally illustrate the ‘mission statement’ of many churches (including our own?) up and down the UK today. We are mapping the journey ahead using outdated maps and methods that may appeal to us but don’t cut any ice with the vast majority of people ‘out there’ – people whom Christ calls us to reach out to in his name (Luke 24:45-49). Many years ago Sir John Lawrence posed the rhetorical question: ‘What does the average church member want? He wants a building that looks like a church, Services of the kind he has been used to, Ministers who dress in the way he approves … and to be left alone!’ Is this observation still true today? Sadly ‘the proof of the pudding has been in the eating’. I visited a church some time ago and the first thing that struck me as I entered was a large notice that said: ‘Switch it off, unplug it, and empty it!’ Fortunately, it turned out to be instructions for the hot water boiler and not the Mission Statement for the Church?! Sadly, it could well have been the mission statement for many a church over the last 50+ years.

As a church we have a ‘Vision Day’ coming up in August. It will be an opportunity to re-think, re-work, re-pray our own ‘Mission Statement’. I hope we will use the day well. It is not a day for recrimination or regret (although perhaps a little repentance for missed opportunities in the past may not be entirely out of place). It is a day to seek, discover, and affirm the plans and purposes God still has for us (Jeremiah 29:11). We need to be brave enough to consign the outdated map we have been following to the heritage cupboard, and embrace God’s up-to-date Route Planning Map for 2021/22. I am not suggesting that following the so-called ‘New Churches’ Sat Nav is any better by the way. Many of these churches are discovering that their way of being and doing church is equally dated (far too caught up with Sunday stuff, sung worship, personal prophecy, etc. than selfless service in the community in Christ’s name seven days a week). Even Sat Nav’s need to be regularly updated!

God’s road map for us is unique (as with every other church). We can only find it by prayerfully waiting on God – and we need to start doing that right now, not waiting until the Vision Day itself to decide yet again to do nothing until we have prayed about it some more! We need to come with ‘God ideas’ not just ‘good ideas’ of our own. God will show us the way forward as we genuinely seek him. As in the days of the Prophet Isaiah we too ‘will hear a voice behind [us] saying, “This is the way. Follow it, whether it turns to the right or to the left.”’ (Isaiah 30:21)! Mixing metaphors, let’s dare to believe God has kept the best wine until last (John 2:10)!

One more step along the world I go,
One more step along the world I go;
From the old things to the new,
Keep me travelling along with you:

And it’s from the old I travel to the new;
Keep me travelling along with you.

Round the corners of the world I turn,
More and more about the world I learn;
All the new things that I see
You’ll be looking at along with me.

As I travel through the bad and good,
Keep me travelling the way I should.
Where I see no way to go,
You’ll be telling me the way, I know:

Give me courage when the world is rough,
Keep me loving though the world is tough;
Leap and sing in all I do,
Keep me travelling along with you:

You are older than the world can be,
You are younger than the life in me;
Ever old and ever new,
Keep me travelling along with you.

~ Sydney Carter (1915-2004)

Jim Binney

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THIS IS MY BODY … BROKEN FOR YOU (Views from the Abbey 25)

Tuesday evening at Spurgeon’s College back in the 1960s was Devotional Evening when the entire college community would gather in the College Chapel for corporate worship and to listen to God’s Word together, and once a month to share Communion. One such evening we had a somewhat elderly retired Baptist Minister – prominent in his day – leading our time together. It was a wonderful evening but when we came to Communion he really struggled to break the bread (whoever had prepared the Communion had neglected to subtly cut the underside of the loaf beforehand). Initially we feared that the Minister’s struggle to tear the loaf would spoil the evening … but actually it made it. Having spoken to us of the cost of the cross for Jesus on our behalf, the Minister’s seemingly endless battle to break the bread reminded us that it was no easy thing for Jesus to make salvation possible for us!

I thought then, and I have often thought since, that when Jesus first spoke those highly significant words, ‘This is my body … broken for you’ at the Last Supper (recorded in all three Synoptic Gospels), he was not just thinking of his own body about to be broken on Calvary’s cross, but thinking of the disciples seated with him around the table – the embryonic church, if you like – the body of believers, the ‘body of Christ’ as the Apostle Paul describes the Church (1 Corinthians 12:27). Did Jesus, just for a moment, lift his eyes look at these handful of believers and envisage a church made up of men and women, their lives laid on the altar of life for God, going out into a broken, rebellious, hurting, yet needy society to take the life-transforming Gospel (in all its multi-faceted layers) out into the world.

Bob Pierce (1914-78) was an American Baptist Minister and evangelist. Much of his work was in Asia, but after a visit to suffering children on an island in Korea, a significant sea change took place in his life. He was so deeply moved by the sacrificial service of the dedicated missionaries that he met, and the plight of those people they sought to serve in Christ’s name, that he became a changed man.  He wrote this famous prayer in the flyleaf of his Bible: ‘Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God!’ He came home and founded (the now well-known) Christian Relief Organisation, World Vision in 1950. I vividly recall reading Richard Gehman’s book Let My Heart Be Broken (which tells Pierce’s story) c. 1968 whilst a student at Spurgeon’s. My friend, and prayer partner, David Carter read it at the same time and one day felt so deeply moved that we both prayed that same prayer in one of our prayer times. After we had prayed it there was a long pause … and then David turned to me and said, ‘I have a dreadful feeling that God heard that prayer … and took us seriously!’

It was a former Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple (1881-1944) who famously suggested that ‘The Church is the only organisation that does not exist for itself, but for those who live outside of it.’ Are we prepared, as individual Christians and as a church, to be ‘broken’ by Christ so that like the alabaster jar (in the incident at the home of Simon the Leper recorded in Mark 14:3,4) the fragrance of Jesus might fill the room? If we continue to splash around in the shallows of preserving the existence of our church we will surely die, but if we ‘launch out into the deep’ (Luke 5:1-11) as Jesus exhorts us, we will not only survive but grow!

Broken for me, broken for you,

The body of Jesus, broken for you.

He offered His body, He poured out His soul;

Jesus was broken, that we might be whole:

Come to My table and with Me dine;

Eat of My bread and drink of My wine.

This is My body given for you;

Eat it remembering I died for you.

This is My blood I shed for you;

For your forgiveness, making you new.

Broken for me, broken for you,

The body of Jesus, broken for you.

~ Janet Lunt  

Jim Binney

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