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PLEASE GOD, LET ME LIVE AGAIN! (Christmas 2021)

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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FOOD, GLORIOUS FOOD (Sabbatical Sundays 04)

‘Food, Glorious Food’, written by Lionel Bart, is the opening song from the 1960s West End and Broadway musical (and 1968 film) Oliver (based on the book Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, of course). The song is sung from the point of view of the children of a workhouse for orphans where they are forced to work to ‘earn their keep’, and deprived of proper nutrition while the administrators feast on delicacies. The children arrive for breakfast while fantasizing about delicious food such as sausage and mustard, and sweets including jelly and custard. When the workhouse boys arrive at the front of the serving line they receive only tasteless gruel from the staff. The song is intended as a metaphor for keeping hope alive, despite being mistreated. Last Sunday (29 January), for our 4th Sabbatical Sunday, we visited Salisbury Cathedral for their 10.30 a.m. Holy Eucharist, and afterwards went for lunch at the Cathedral Refectory Restaurant … and what a veritable feast both events proved to be. Food, glorious food, nourishment for both soul and the body!

Once a month Julia and I go down to Ebbesbourne Wake, a small village down the Chalke Valley near to Salisbury. Julia’s mother, Olivia, is 96 years of age and lives in a charming little cottage next-door-but-one to Julia’s younger sister, Livy and Livy’s husband Jack (and the dog, and the cat). Olivia maintains her independence supported by Livy (and a team of carers) and we go down for a few days each month to see Olivia, and give Livy the opportunity to get away herself for a short break. It all works very well. Because we are on sabbatical we had the opportunity to go over a weekend (we usually go down on a Sunday afternoon after the Morning Service at Abbey). This meant that we could visit Salisbury Cathedral on the Sunday.

We have visited the medieval city of Salisbury many times, and the Cathedral many times, but never for a Sunday Service. Sarum College, the Anglican centre of theological learning in Salisbury sits within the cathedral close on the north side of Salisbury Cathedral. We enjoy a good relationship with Sarum. The Revd Canon Professor James Woodward, the Principal, is one of our main Supervisors for our doctoral studies at the University of Winchester, so we often visit Sarum as well (which has links with the University of Winchester).

In reality ‘cathedral worship’ is a genre in itself, and people seem to either love it or hate it. Cathedrals have a life of their own which is very 24/7. As the Very Reverend Nicholas Papadopulos, the Dean, suggests, ‘For centuries, this holy place has captivated pilgrims, worshippers, and visitors alike. In its breath-taking beauty, we glimpse the faith and hope of those who conceived and built it and, as we gaze upon their work, we find our own faith and hope restored.’ Sunday Worship in a cathedral can be ‘a bit of a show’ in many respects with the congregation often reduced to ‘mere observers’ rather than ‘major participants’. Salisbury recognises this and unashamedly confesses that ‘music is central to our services and is led by our talented choirs and musicians’ but at the same time it prides itself on being ‘a living Church where God is praised and people grow in faith. We pray daily for our community and the world beyond it.’ It certainly has the buzz of being a ‘local church’.

We arrived in Salisbury in good time, parked in the main carpark, and walked through the quaint mediaeval streets to the cathedral set in its own beautiful grounds. The cathedral itself is aesthetically very pleasing with the most remarkable large central font where water is the predominant feature, its surface reflecting and extending the surrounding architecture. The surface looks like solid black marble rather than water and more than one tourist (I’m reliably informed) has laid their mobile phone on this ‘marble surface’ only to see it sink slowly to the bottom of the font!?

We were made very welcome – I would say ‘warmly welcomed’ but it was a freezing day and I wish I had worn my thermal ‘Long John’s’. The Eucharist (which means ‘thanksgiving’, is the posh way Anglicans talk about Communion) was indeed quite a show … and we loved it. Everything from the winsome notices from the Dean at the beginning to the excellent coffee and chat after the Service was over. We loved the ceremony, the parading in, the excellent choir, the way the Dean conducted the Service, the beautifully read Bible Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany, the thoughtful prayers of intercession for the Church and the World by one of the lay members of the congregation. The Eucharist itself was dignified and orderly, as one would expect in the context, but so, so meaningful. Star event for us both, however, was the sermon – fifteen minutes of winsome, well-crafted, exposition of the Story of the Wedding Feast at Cana of Galilee (John 2:1-11) by the Cathedral Treasurer, Canon Kenneth Padley. Quite brilliant, faithful to the text, and Christ-centred – a message for those who wish to reflect on Jesus rather than for the ‘activists’. (You can find recordings of the sermons on YouTube). Interestingly enough was the total absence of incense – perhaps we will make up for it next week when we are going to a baptismal service in another High Anglican Church?!

There were around 300-400 people present (as far as I could tell) although I gather that there are a lot more people, from all round the world, who follow the livestreaming of the Services. The congregation was 99.9% white and (with the exception of the choirboys – yes they were all boys) middle-aged and respectable (as you might possibly expect in Salisbury). Lots of people engaged us in good conversation afterwards – including Canon Padley himself, and we felt very much at home. We will definitely pay a return visit sometime. As someone whose Christian roots are in evangelical faith, Pentecostal experience, and Baptist ecclesiology what do I find of worth and value in such a place as Salisbury Cathedral? I suppose what I found on this particular Sunday was an intelligent pattern to the whole worship event; well-crafted, biblical, winsome, Christ-centred preaching; a sense of dignity and encounter in Communion; well-read Scripture and thoughtful, passionate prayers for the Church and the World; a warmth of welcome (and good coffee) … There is no reason why we non-conformists can’t do all these things well ourselves … but increasingly I find myself getting more and more annoyed by the ‘sloppiness’, the ‘anything goes’ attitude of so much evangelical and charismatic Christianity. Has God become too much the ‘all-matey rather than the Almighty’ for some of us?!  

After the Service we wandered over to Sarum College, to return some books to the college library, and then decided to have lunch back at the Cathedral Refectory rather than wander round Salisbury looking for a restaurant. ‘We will just have a bowl of soup … and maybe I will allow you to have a sandwich … because we are having a big meal tonight!’ Julia said, authoritatively. The Cathedral Refectory Restaurant is excellent – we have eaten there before – and a very pleasant venue. Surprisingly it wasn’t as crowded as we expected (perhaps it was a bit early for Sunday lunch) and we found a nice table. Sunday lunch at the Refectory is (I would suggest) a bit special. We took one look at what was on offer, and how reasonably priced it all was, and … any idea of ‘just a bowl of soup’ went right out the window. The best Sunday lunch we have had so far this year by far! If you ever find yourself in Salisbury visit the Cathedral and have lunch at the Refectory Restaurant.

So it was back to Ebbesbourne Wake for an afternoon snooze … we needed that after such a large yumacious Sunday lunch … and a light supper! A nice piece of fish accompanied by a nice glass of chilled white wine … although I expect Jesus turned the water in the jars at the Cana wedding into a rather splendiferous full bodied red!

Jim Binney     

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NEW LAMPS FOR OLD (Sabbatical Sundays 03)

Last Sunday Julia and I made a nostalgic trip (for me anyway) back to Greenford, Middlesex, and specifically to my home church, Greenford Baptist Church – a church which has experienced a significant renaissance in recent years becoming a very diverse, lively, multicultural church in comparison to the somewhat traditional very ‘white’ church of my youth. My doctoral research is in this whole area of intercultural, multicultural, multiethnic church so the freedom to travel around and visit other churches on these ‘sabbatical Sundays’ during January to March provided me with the opportunity to make a nostalgic return to Greenford to have a look at what has been happening there since I finally left in 1969 (having semi-left in 1965 to train for the Baptist Ministry at Spurgeon’s College) to take up the Pastorate of Bewdley Baptist Church in Worcestershire.  

‘New lamps for old’ alludes to the deceitful slogan used in the story of Aladdin by which the wicked Uncle Abanazar attempts to wheedle the magic lamp out of the young hero in exchange for an ordinary, new one. This is not the case at Greenford Baptist Church because what has happened there in recent years has involved a complete transition into a warm and welcoming, ethnically very diverse, evangelical, charismatic church far more reflective of the surrounding community than ever before. The new lamp is actually somewhat of a positive development, and advancement, compared to the old.  In the post-electric world ‘lamp’ carries an archaic flavour, taking us back into the world of poetry, but lamps are much considered by poets, not because they are picturesque but because they required frequent attention, and because the alternative was a pervasive darkness. In the Biblical Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13) the lamp carefully charged with oil is a symbol of vigilance and readiness.

We set off early from Reading (in freezing fog) in order to get to Greenford in time for their 10.30 a.m. Worship and Teaching Service. I was born and brought up in Greenford and it felt very strange driving through places I knew so well – streets I had lived in, schools I had attended, the firm I worked for. It was the same … but very different. Our prefab had long gone, Taylor Woodrow (where I worked) was no more, even Greenford County Grammar School had a new name and had relocated to the old school playing field. The Baptist Church building, however, was much the same – on the outside at least – although on the inside it had seen a major overhaul. The pulpit was gone, the organ was gone, the old kitchen was gone, the old chairs were gone … the platform area was revamped, there was a new kitchen, new chairs, a new all-singing all dancing sound and vision system … and flags of all the representative nations everywhere (we liked the flags)!

We were made very welcome, although there was no one of my generation left (they hadn’t all died let me hasten to add, just moved away over the years). I first came to Greenford Baptist Church as a 16 year-old. It was here I was converted, baptised, and ordained into the Baptist Ministry. I showed Julia the very spot where I had accepted Jesus as my Saviour and Lord 63 years before (and she took a photo of me standing on the very spot). The Senior Minister, Pastor Warren McNeil, was away for the weekend, so the Service was led by the Associate Minister, Pastor Satyajit Deodhar. There didn’t seem to be many people present to begin with but by the time we got into the full swing of things there must have been 70-80 people present. It was all quite informal with quite a bit of singing (strangely enough there were no musicians – everything was via video tracks on the big screen), and contributions from various members of the congregation. We also split up into small groups for a time of directed intercessory prayer, which was good. There were no Bible readings to speak of, although the sermon was essentially an exposition of 1 John 4:1-6 (the church is working its way through 1 John on Sunday mornings at the moment). Intriguingly Pastor Deodhar didn’t use the screen to illustrate his sermon, although he did involve the congregation quite a bit by periodically asking questions (to make sure we were listening I suspect). It was a good word, however, encouraging us to recognise/rely on the fact that God was living within us by his Spirit all the time, rather than just make use of the gifts of the Spirit from time to time when we needed to make sense of something or needed direction.

Everyone was very friendly and there was a lovely time of fellowship afterwards over coffee to which the majority of the congregation stayed. By then they had sussed out who we were – I feature quite prominently in the church’s history at one point – but we didn’t think that was the only reason why people were so friendly. One thing that did strike us, however, was that the congregation (even though ethnically very diverse) were actually quite British – they has all been in the UK for some time. We felt that they were, as a church, in an interesting place. They have a platform to really go forward into whatever God has for them in their ongoing story … or (dangerously) they could settle for what is? The enemy of the better is the good!?

After church we drove up to Greenford Broadway, parked the car, and had a nostalgic walk through Ravenor Park, past the houses (next door to each other) where my mother and father had lived (and the reason why they met), and along the Broadway, before having lunch at a new restaurant called Super Chef. Everything was similar but very different – in some ways nicer than I thought it would be – in other ways too much had changed about Greenford for my liking. The restaurant was good, however, great food, reasonably priced, and excellent service. For once I managed to eat all the food on my plate (and some of Julia’s as well)! Although virtually all the shops in the Broadway have now changed I am pretty certain that the site of Super Chef was (more-or-less) the site of Howards (The Drapers) back in the day. In the mid-1950s, when I passed the 11+ and secured a place at Greenford County Grammar School the only two places where you could buy the required distinctive green school blazer was either Howards or Abernethie and Sons. Abernethie blazers were cheaper than Howards blazers, but were a slightly inferior quality green … so it was obvious which shop your blazer came from … which was rather unfortunate when, like me, you were a kid from the local council estate (where money was at a premium) rather than the posher side of town?! 

After lunch we drove round various other nostalgic sites for me – the site of the ‘big house’ I was brought up in (now the site of an industrial estate), the Holy Cross Church (where my parents had me ‘christened’), the British Legion Club (with its flat above where we lived when my father ran the bar) – intriguing for Julia to be able to put places to well-known tales I had told her. Too many places had disappeared for good, however, and I am not sure if I could return to live in suburbia again. I will be very interested to see how Greenford Baptist Church progresses though … to be continued!

Jim Binney

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TIMES OF TRANSITION & TIMELESSNESS (Sabbatical Sundays 02)

Last Sunday, for our second Sabbatical Sunday, we visited Brookside Church in Lower Earley. Originally part of what was known as the King’s Church, Brookside became an independent church in 2001. Essentially an evangelical, charismatic church, Brookside is known for its close working relationships with the churches and charities of what is now known as Transform Reading (formerly known as Reading Christian Network), and for its wonderful work within the local community (in association with other churches in Earley) through the Earley Help Hub, reaching out to families, young people and children. When Julia and I first came to Abbey Baptist Church, Reading, four and a half years ago, we were particularly appreciative of the kind, gracious and loving support freely given to us by Steve Prince (who leads the Brookside Church team, and who is also Chaplain at Reading Football Club) and his wife Anita (who as well as serving on the leadership team at Brookside is on the Management Team for Reading Street Pastors). Visiting Brookside was an opportunity for us to say a ‘thank you’ for standing with us in those early days in Reading.

We just about made it in time for the start of their 10.30 a.m. Worship and Teaching Service (even though we also live in Earley we still managed to get lost on the way there – our Satnav proved totally useless). We were warmly welcomed at the door, offered a cup of coffee, and lovingly greeted by another friend from Transform Reading, Alan Magness and his wife Eileen. In contrast to the very ordered structure of last Sunday’s Service at St Giles-in-Reading, the Service at Brookside was somewhat ‘free flowing’ shall we say. One of the church leaders introduced the theme of our time together – ‘Transition’ – by pointing us to Jesus and reading a lovely passage from Colossians 2 about the spiritual fulness that is available to us in Christ. The ‘Worship Group’ then took over and led us in an extended time of sung worship, interspersed with various ad hoc Bible readings, prayers, pictures, etc., from the floor (so to speak). There were about 50 or so people present by the time we got into full swing – mostly white ‘baby boomers’ I guess, but with a smattering of other ethnicities. The singing was enthusiastic, and everybody seemed to be enjoying themselves … but there were also times for silence and reflection … it was all ‘easy paced’. After about 30 minutes the children left for their own groups, we sang another song, and then Steve Prince shared some thoughts with us for another 30 minutes or so.

Brookside Church is (like many churches, I guess) going through a period of transition. The halcyon days of yesteryear (when the Kings Church setup was at its zenith) are long gone, and Brookside are prayerfully seeking where the Lord wants them to go from here. Steve’s remit for this Sunday was to wrap up a mini-series on the theme of ‘Transition’ (that the church have been considering for a few weeks) by looking at some of the things that can hold us back, as well as some of the things that can help us move forward as church. The title of Steve’s talk was: When everything is transitioning – including leadership. We like Steve Prince. He is a good communicator, and without actually pinning his talk down to one particular Bible passage, managed to draw out a number of biblical principles in a winsome and interesting way – often involving the congregation in discussion along the way. We felt a great infinity with Steve, his fellow leaders, their predicament as church. Abbey has been going through (and is continuing to go through) a similar period of transitioning.

Indeed it would appear to me that – right across the world, and in every area of society and life – God is pulling out the rug from under our feet via pandemics, lockdowns, war in Ukraine, governmental failure, economic problems, etc., etc. It is as though God is saying to us all – from Presidents to paupers – ‘Stop all the nonsense! Take a long, hard look at yourselves. Stop doing all the awful things you are doing to one another and start doing the right things – the godly things!’ It was lovely to finally visit Brookside Church – a first for us. It was all a bit chaotic perhaps … but that is surely ‘par for the course’ when God is in the house and calling us to transition from what is (however ‘precious’ we may think that is) to something else, something completely different, new, unexpected perhaps! Will we visit Brookside Church again … I think we just might … even if its just to show solidarity with fellow travellers along the road of transition.

After church we went for a short walk around Dinton Pastures Country Park. It is a delightful place with a beautiful lake. The weather was great – clear, and dry, and bright – and there were hundreds of people doing the same as us. Is ‘exercise’ the new Sunday morning ‘worship event’ we wondered? It had to be a short walk because we had booked in for lunch (we learned our lesson from last Sunday) at the Lower Early Toby Carvery and they only hold the table for so long. The advertising blurb suggested that there was something ‘timeless’ about this particular Toby Carvery – well I guess not … if you are late for your booking?! Fortunately, we were not too late, and were allocated a nice table in the restaurant with a nice view over the surrounding countryside. It was not simply a repeat of last Sunday’s visit to a Toby Carvery (the one by the Thames at Caversham Bridge). This Toby Carvery was much better … even the food seemed much better! The welcome, the efficiency and friendliness of the serving staff, the warmth of the plates (and therefore the food) … even the size of the Yorkshire puddings … and the fact that you didn’t have to join a rugby scrum to get your food. The only failure was that (once again) I failed to eat everything on my (admittedly) overloaded plate.

We have plans for next Sunday’s visit to a church … I won’t tell you where just yet … but Julia has already suggested that we need to find out where the nearest Toby Carvery is for after the Morning Service?! Abbey Baptist Church (along with many other churches and institutions) may be in a ‘time of transition’ but it very much looks like (as far as future Sunday lunches are concerned) we are in ‘groundhog day’ – a foody timelessness trap!

Jim Binney  

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OLD WINE & A CROWDED CARVERY (Sabbatical Sundays 01)

Julia and I are on a three-month long sabbatical from (more-or-less) the beginning of January until the end of March. It is NOT a holiday, let me hasten to add, but a time when we will be working hard six days a week to hopefully get the bulk of our doctoral theses written up. Every seven years Baptist Ministers are entitled to a three-month sabbatical but even so, we are immensely grateful to the Deacons and members of our church, Abbey Baptist Church, Reading, for allowing us this period of time away from all the busyness and burdens of pastoral ministry.

During this time we plan to take Sundays as our ‘day off’ from our studies and use the time to visit various churches in and around Reading. Most of these churches we will not have visited before. Some we have driven or walked past and they have intrigued us … others we are just simply ‘nosey’ and want to see what they are really like … others have been very kind and supportive of us since our arrival in Reading and we simply want to go and say a silent ‘thank you’. We also thought – given our love of food – that we could go to a morning Service wherever and then go and have lunch somewhere. Seems like a plan!  We are not going away during our sabbatical but working from home (it’s where all our books are). In my spare moments – I will need a break from the computer – I plan to do a bit of French, pick up my guitar again, and get back to ‘blogging’. So … I thought blogging about our various ‘Sabbatical Sundays’ might be fun.

Last Sunday, the first Sunday of our sabbatical (we had to be at Abbey Baptist Church on the first Sunday in January for our annual Covenant and Motto Text Sunday) we visited St Giles-in-Reading (an Anglican Church in the High Church tradition) and then went on to the reasonably nearby Caversham Bridge Toby (a carvery in the traditional rugby scrum tradition) … and we thoroughly enjoyed both!

We have wanted to visit St Giles for ages. I confess that, in these days when we (who come from an evangelical and charismatic tradition) are constantly being bombarded with exhortation after exhortation about our need of the ‘new wine’ of the Spirit (Matthew 9:16,17, etc., etc), I was rather intrigued (not to say attracted) by a church that blatantly heralds itself as the ‘home of the old wine’. As something of an amateur wine connoisseur myself, I know that (in terms of wine drinking) an expensive mature wine is invariably better than cheap new plonk! I can’t help but also ponder if the sincere thought-through faith of the genuine, prayerful spiritual Anglo-Catholic is of more worth than the frothy, shallow, easy believism of many a touchy-feely evangelical charismatic? I say this as an evangelical (although not the American Trump-supporting type of evangelical) and as a charismatic (although more a ‘gifts of the Spirit’ embracing Pentecostal than an ‘endless singing of repetitive worship songs’ charismatic). ‘Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches’ (Revelation 3:7, etc., etc).  

So last Sunday we went to the 10.30 a.m. Parish Mass at St Giles-in-Reading, an Anglican Church in the High Church or Anglo-Catholic tradition (more Roman Catholic than the Roman Catholics, one member of the congregation informed us afterwards) which is situated on Southampton Street, just outside the town centre. A Forward in Faith church, they reject the ordination of women to the priesthood, which made it of particular interest to Julia (although she has always been made welcome in such churches because Baptist ordination doesn’t count anyway as far as they are concerned?!).

St Giles is a ‘smells and bells’ church and we were tunefully welcomed by the rather pleasant call of the church bells as we walked from the Oracle Car Park to the church. Warmly welcomed at the door, given a hymn book and an Order of Service book and a Welcome leaflet, we found our way to a vacant pew – actually most of the pews were vacant when we arrived – but there must have been around 50 people present by the time the Service started. The Parish Mass followed the usual High Church pattern with the Rector and the Curate parading in preceded by the Cross Bearer, the Thurifer (swinging the thurible and fogging almost the entire church with clouds of pungent smelling incense – good for the chest we were again reliably informed afterwards), the Choir (all three of them, who immediately disappeared into the organ loft where they led the singing from), and numerous others who all had a part to play in the hour long Service.

The theme, it being Epiphany, was the Baptism of Jesus (Matthew 3:13-17), and the whole Service (although very different to what we were used to) we found very enjoyable. The Rector, Father David Harris, a Canadian (who grew up Plymouth Brethren and whose brother is a Baptist Minister back in Canada) led the proceedings very ably with an equally pleasing resonant voice. The Curate, Father Sebastian Way, preached the sermon – it was only 5 minutes long but full of good content and very Christ-centred. The singing was good, the Bible readings and prayer of intercession were ably led by members of the congregation, and the Eucharist (or Communion) element was dignified and meaningful – with a rather pleasant full-bodied communion wine. Everyone was very friendly and welcoming – even when Julia let slip that she was the Minister of Abbey Baptist Church. I wouldn’t want to do it every Sunday – I’m too much of a non-conformist to be doing with all that pomp and ceremony and dressing up – but I would definitely visit St Giles again.  

After an interesting chat with the Rector afterwards it was time for lunch and we found our way to the Toby Carvery by Caversham Bridge. It is many years since I visited a carvery, which is strange for me given my love of meat. It was packed but we managed to find a table in the bar area and then joined the queue at the service area. At a Toby Carvery you can choose a normal sized plate or a large sized plate – guess which one I chose. The staff serve you a generous amount of various choice meats and then you can help yourself to as many vegetables as you want. Neither of us actually managed to eat everything we loaded on to our plates although we both made a valiant effort. It was not exactly fine dining but it was good, and it saved Julia from cooking, and we will definitely visit a Toby Carvery again … maybe next Sunday … depending on where our next Sabbatical Sunday takes us?

Jim Binney

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RISKY LIVING (New Year 2023)

It was the late John Wimber (founder of the Vineyard Network of Churches) who suggested that ‘Faith’ is spelled R.I.S.K. Julia and I were reminded of this at the beginning of this New Year when we read some words of Willie James Jennings (Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and Africana Studies at Yale Divinity School) about ‘the risk of faith that comes to each of us’ at one time or another.  We have been slowly and steadily working our way through Jennings’ marvellous commentary on the Book of Acts in our daily devotional time together for almost a whole year now. NB. This is book of the year for me – if you haven’t got it, go out and buy it. Of the scores of books I have read over the last 12 months this has been ‘the one’ that has gripped me the most. But I digress … we have been slowly and steadily working our way through this book because Jennings’ brilliant way with words simply forces us to … the thoughts he shares with us simply cannot be rushed. In particular, we have spent a lot of time thinking about those chapters in Acts 4-13 that fall between the exciting events of that first Pentecost in the Christian Calendar and the thrilling story of the Apostle Paul’s Missionary Journeys. With the exception of the story of the Conversion of Saul/Paul of Tarsus (Acts 9) these chapters are probably, if not the most neglected in Acts, certainly the most rushed through, such is the Church’s obsession with ‘Pauline Theology’ (as against the Teaching of Jesus in the Gospels).  But what pearls have emerged for us as we have slowly and prayerfully worked through what these extraordinary passages of Scripture reveal.

Thinking about what God might be saying, at the beginning of this New Year, to us, to our church at Abbey, and even to others wider afield, we have especially felt enlightened, encouraged and challenged by the story of God’s dealings with the Apostle Peter and the Roman Centurion, Cornelius (Acts 10). When we read the Scriptures together we are continually looking for God’s ‘now word’ to us – that rhema word (Ephesians 6:17) that stands out from the page, that comes to us as if underlined in red ink by the Holy Spirit. And this whole passage seemed to be just that!

We are familiar with the story. Peter, seeking to listen to God and make sense of his new-found Christian faith, is already beginning to move beyond the man-made restrictions of his Jewish faith. He has already stepped outside of the comfort zone of religious respectability by staying at the house of a tanner named Simon (Acts 9:43), a man designated ‘unclean’ by the religious Jews because of his profession. God is already revealing to Peter that the Good News of the Gospel is not just for Jews but for all – even for those respectable society deems unacceptable, beyond the pale.  Whilst staying at Simon the Tanner’s house, Peter has a vision of a sheet descending from heaven full of ‘unclean’ animals that no self-respecting Jew would consider eating … and God tells him to kill and eat them (v.13)! Unknown to Peter, at exactly the same time Cornelius, a god-fearing Gentile (who lives a good distance away in Caesarea) experiences an angelic visitation instructing him to invite Peter to visit him because Peter has some great news that Cornelius (in his quest to really know God for himself) both needs and longs to hear. Those of us familiar with the story can ‘join up the dots’ but right now Cornelius doesn’t know what Peter is going to tell him, and Peter is really, really confused because it seems God is asking him to do something that completely goes against the grain … against everything he had been previously taught God didn’t approve of? Peter is so stunned, so numbed, by this that God has to repeat the vision twice more (v.16) before Peter wakes from his self-inflicted stupor.  

Even then Peter resists the divine command. Even when Cornelius’ servants knock at the door to extend their Master’s invitation Peter is still ‘wondering about the meaning of the vision’ (v.17), ‘still thinking about the vision’ (v.19). ‘Surely,’ we say to ourselves, ‘anyone with an ounce of common sense would immediately link the two occurrences – the command to kill and eat the alleged unclean animals and the request from a bunch of Gentiles?’  But for Peter this is all too extraordinary. He is suddenly, almost forcibly, being asked to slow down and catch sight of the birth pangs of God’s new order (which actually is not new at all but something God planned from the very beginning) – that the Good News, the Gospel, is not just for Jews but for all peoples, everywhere. Indeed. It takes a divine kick up the backside by the Holy Spirit to get Peter moving again (vs.19,20).  

Peter is not being disobedient. Indeed, as Jennings astutely recognises, ‘In Peter we have a servant who lives on the other side of betrayal, denial, repentance, and forgiveness. His obedience was refined through suffering and trial, beatings and death threats. Peter obeys but now that obedience must take flight with the Holy Spirit into an uncharted world where the distinctions between holy and unholy, clean and unclean have been fundamentally upended.’  This is a moment when the old word of God connects to a new word of God, a moment where purity is expanded to cover what has been conceived as impure, a moment of struggle for Peter to allow his vision of faithfulness to God and the covenant with Israel to expand. We are reminded of the oft repeated words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount – a word especially to those entrenched in an immovable religious system, in a hidebound interpretation of Scripture – ‘It has been said to you, but now I say to you’ (Matthew 5:21-33).

For Peter, the crucial question is, ‘Is it possible to be faithful to the God of Israel in a new way?’ As Jennings penetratingly observes, ‘God has brought Peter inside this question and presses him towards its positive answer. This is a risky time, second only to Good Friday and Holy Saturday, in which God risks with Peter and Peter risks with God. Will Peter hear this new word from God, and will Peter believe this is a new word from God?’ If Peter (and his fellow believers) had not believed that this was indeed a new word from God – God’s ‘now word” to them – then Christianity would have at best remained in the backwaters as a small insignificant sect within Judaism, and at worst would probably not have survived at all!

When Julia and I accepted the call to Abbey Baptist Church, Reading in 2018 we came to a historic town centre church that, despite its amazing history, was struggling. Numerically small (around 20 active members at that time) and with a declining, ageing, almost exclusively white British congregation, the future looked bleak. Over the last 18 months, however, we have seen an amazing turn around dating from the time the church held a Vision Day, at the end of which, it committed itself to transitioning into an international, intercultural church and prayer centre (Reading is a large multicultural town with 35% of its inhabitants originating outside the UK and where over 150 different languages are spoken). Since that time (largely as a result of our outreach work amongst refugees, migrants and immigrants) we have seen the church grow significantly both numerically and spiritually with a number of baptisms and Sunday congregations regularly in excess of 100 people drawn from a number of different nations.

In this extraordinary turn around at Abbey – all born of God, I would make clear – I would want to give credit to the bravery of ‘the old Abbeyites’ (as they like to call themselves), that handful of elderly white people who were brave enough to hear from God, and take a courageous step in response to God, that ultimately meant a huge change in the way Abbey had functioned in the past and would continue to do so in the future. Only one person left as a direct result of the cultural changes. There is a strong sense, however, that this is only the beginning of something extraordinary.  What does God have in store for us next in this New Year that stretches ahead of us. Will we hear this new word from God, and will we believe this is a new word from God?’

This, however, is not something exceptional … it is meant to be the Christian ‘norm’. ‘This’ according to Jennings ‘is the condition of risk in which Christianity comes to exist and without which authentic Christianity does not exist. This is the risk of faith that comes to each of us … The risk here is found not in believing in new revelations but in new relationships. The new word that God continues to speak to us is to accept new people, different people, that we had not imagined that God would send across our paths and into our lives.’

Jim Binney

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TIME TO JUNK THE JUNK (New Year 2023)

A week plus into 2023 seems an odd time to write about New Year Resolutions. I do so deliberately because by now most of those resolutions will have been broken. Julia’s ‘dry January’ resolution lasted a week … and yours you ask? Well the only New Year Resolution that I have ever managed to keep … was the resolution not to make any New Year’s Resolutions! Oftentimes, however, the sentiment to change something positively in our lives is commendable, and the turning from an old year to a new year can act as a catalyst to do so, especially if there is a lot of ‘stuff’ in our past we want to get rid of?

Periodically Julia and I go through our cupboards, search the loft and the garage, load our car with all the rubbish (the good stuff goes to the charity shop) and take it down the local dump where we can safely get rid of it all. We hate clutter. Over the years we have visited homes that are totally cluttered – stuff everywhere – because the people we are visiting seem incapable of throwing anything away, ever. And our lives can get like that, sometimes detrimentally so, when the junk of our lives clings on and won’t let go. When an incident or conversations (sometimes dating from way back), a time when we failed (badly perhaps), work troubles, or sin issues hang like a fog. Or when there’s been a diagnosis of ongoing ill health, or some unforeseen drain on our finances that we can neither avoid nor afford. You know that feeling? When it’s hard to get that certain something out of you head and see past ourselves. The past won’t let us move forward, but the future doesn’t seem all that bright either.

Some of us carry small, individual burdens that cause us to walk through life encumbered as though we had a ball and chain round our ankles.  Sometimes there are so many small burdens that the collective weight of these burdens is beginning to be too much for us to carry.  Some of us carry much larger burdens that have simply become too much to bear. You may carry a burden that has come to you completely outside of your control.  You may not even have known how much the burden was weighing you down until you suddenly realized that its weight had actually become unbearable.

Now this may initially sound too simplistic – shallow ‘Christian-talk’ rather than something helpful (I will try and respond to that later) – but God doesn’t want us to carry our burdens.  He wants us to lay them down at the foot of the cross.  He wants us to surrender our heavy loads to him. The Psalmist encourages us to ‘Cast our burdens on the Lord’ (Psalm 55:22) and Jesus himself invites us to ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light’ (Matthew 11:28-30).

It takes an act of our own will to give up our burdens.  We can sit in the presence of God and hear him speaking to us but we need to take action today – right here, right now – to allow God to give us the peace we crave by laying down that which causes us pain.  The act of laying down our burden may be just the beginning for us – it may be totally appropriate for us to seek further assistance in finding the relief we need.  Or it may be that a simple act of faith and surrender is all that it needs. When Nelson Mandela finally left prison after many years of unjust incarceration he said, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” Holding on to ‘stuff’ from the past does not make us strong, it makes us bitter. Letting go of ’stuff’ is not a sign of weakness, it sets us free. Don’t imprison yourself forever.

In John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian, weighed down with the weight of so much ‘stuff’ from his past, finds himself on a highway pointing to ‘salvation’. Bunyan tells us that, ‘Up this way, therefore, did burdened Christian run; but not without great difficulty, because of the load on his back. He ran thus till he came at a place somewhat ascending; and upon that place stood a Cross, and a little below, in the bottom, a sepulchre … [and] as Christian came up to the cross, his burden loosed from off his shoulders, and fell from off his back, and began to tumble; and so continued to do till it came to the mouth of the sepulchre, where it fell in, and I saw it no more.’

Alas! and did my Saviour bleed

And did my Sovereign die?

Would He devote that sacred head

For sinners such as I?

At the cross, at the cross

Where I first saw the light,

And the burden of my heart rolled away,

It was there by faith I received my sight,

And now I am happy all the day!

Was it for crimes that I had done

He groaned upon the tree?

Amazing pity! grace unknown!

And love beyond degree!

Well might the sun in darkness hide

And shut his glories in,

When Christ, the mighty Maker died,

For man the creature’s sin.

Thus might I hide my blushing face

While His dear cross appears,

Dissolve my heart in thankfulness,

And melt my eyes to tears.

But drops of grief can ne’er repay

The debt of love I owe:

Here, Lord, I give myself away

’Tis all that I can do.

At the cross, at the cross

Where I first saw the light,

And the burden of my heart rolled away,

It was there by faith I received my sight,

And now I am happy all the day!

~ Isaac Watts (1674-1748) & Ralph Hudson (1843-1901)

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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