Fifth Sunday of Easter 28.4.13 John 13.31-15

22 04 2013

Glory and Love

In this passage Jesus emphasises two realities that lie at the core of Christian living, spirituality and ethics: glory and love. And so while very short, it is also very rich.

John 13.31-35

When he had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.” 34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’


To help give shape to the reflection here are three types of question: head questions, heart questions and hand questions. They are about our intellectual response, our emotional response and our practical or behavioural response. I hope that you will want to work at all three levels.

Head Questions

  1. How can you explain the word ‘glorified’ in plain English?
  2. Why does Jesus need to tell the little children that they cannot go without him?
  3. Love is a very complex and muddled word in English. What is its core meaning here?

Heart Questions

  1. What is the emotional tone of the word ‘glory’?
  2. How do the disciples feel about not being able to go with Jesus?
  3. What’s it like to be told that you should love someone?

Hand Questions

  1. What action or effort of yours might glorify God?
  2. What does the commandment to love suggest to you as a priority action today?
  3. What might make the love within your fellowship a clearer witness to the world?


These questions are intended to challenge you to engage more closely with the passage and to hear and feel what it has to say to you.  That’s more than a five-minute task. And so is the follow-up, working out what you might want to say to others as a result of engaging with the passage with head, heart and hands.  Take your time.

Sunday Next Before Lent 10.2.13 Luke 9.28-36 (37-43a)

3 02 2013

A Great Confluence

The story is that of the transfiguration.  This is the high water mark of Luke’s gospel – everything is drawn together to reveal the truth and glory of Jesus.

Luke 9.28-43a

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29And while he

The upper part of The Transfiguration (1520) b...

The upper part of The Transfiguration (1520) by Raphael, depicting Christ miraculously discoursing with Moses and Elijah. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’—not knowing what he said. 34While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ 36When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

[37 On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. 38Just then a man from the crowd shouted, ‘Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. 39Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It throws him into convulsions until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. 40I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.’ 41Jesus answered, ‘You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.’ 42While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. 43And all were astounded at the greatness of God.]

The verses in square brackets are identified as optional in the lectionary.


To help give shape to the reflection here are three types of question: head questions, heart questions and hand questions. They are about our intellectual response, our emotional response and our practical or behavioural response. I hope that you will want to work at all three levels.

‘Head Questions’

  1. Notice that Luke does not use the word ‘transfiguration’ to describe what happened.  Sometimes long words help, sometimes they don’t.  Can you explain ‘transfiguration’ in words of one syllable?
  2. What do Moses and Elijah represent here?
  3. ‘I begged your disciples to cast it out but they could not’. v.40  As disciples of Jesus today, how do we live with the repeated failures of the first disciples?

‘Heart Questions’

  1. Profound and visible things happened to Jesus when he prayed. Is the implication that without prayer nothing transformational or glorious happens? Can you spot the difference in a person or community that prays?
  2. Peter and his companions were exhausted.  What does exhaustion – or even tiredness – feel like?  To what extent are you and the people you live among tired? How can you acknowledge this and minister to it?
  3. In v 34 the disciples are ‘terrified’. In verse 43 they are astounded. Such strong and difficult emotions seem to be part and parcel of the discipleship journey. Are you prepared to provoke and live with strong emotions as you lead your church forwards ?

‘Hand Questions’

  1. We often make the point that Peter’s response was inappropriate.  It was silly to think that the glory revealed could be enshrined. But maybe we miss the point that the great thing about Peter was that did actually respond. He really wanted to do something. How good is the church at working with people’s motivation to do things? What does such motivation demand of those in leadership roles?
  2. The voice from heaven says ‘This is my son, listen to him’. Who are you listening to?
  3. In v.42 Jesus rebukes the unclean spirit. Do you need to give – or receive – rebuke?


These questions are intended to challenge you to engage more closely with the passage and to hear and feel what it has to say to you.  That’s more than a five-minute task. And so is the follow-up, working out what you might want to say to others as a result of engaging with the passage with head, heart and hands.  Take your time.

Christmas Day 25.12.12 Luke 2.1-20

23 12 2012

The Birth of Jesus

Luke is the best storyteller in the New Testament, but we have heard this one just too many times.  The preacher’s challenge is to get back to some of Luke’s inspiring freshness.

Luke 2.1-20

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.


To help give shape to the reflection here are three types of question: head questions, heart questions and hand questions. They are about our intellectual response, our emotional response and our practical or behavioural response. I hope that you will want to work at all three levels.

‘Head Questions’

  1. Why does Luke stress the context of the census?
  2. Why shepherds?
  3. Why does Mary, who gave voice to so much in Luke chapter 1, say nothing?

‘Heart Questions’

  1. What feelings are aroused in you by the thought of a birth a long way from home?
  2. Notice that the angels say ‘fear not’. Where is fear in this story?
  3. How do you imagine the shepherds ‘glorifying and praising God’?

‘Hand Questions’

  1. Is there a journey you need to take but you are putting it off because this is not a convenient time for you?
  2. Are you sometimes a messenger angel to others ? If so, do you need to say ‘fear not’ more often?
  3. Notice that no gifts are exchanged in this passage.  Are you able simply to receive the good news and rejoice in it?


These questions are intended to challenge you to engage more closely with the passage and to hear and feel what it has to say to you.  That’s more than a five-minute task. And so is the follow-up, working out what you might want to say to others as a result of engaging with the passage with head, heart and hands.  Take your time.

5th Sunday of Lent 25.3.12. John 12.20-33

14 03 2012

Glory Seekers

The theme of looking and seeing remains with us from last week.  The passage starts with Greeks who want to ‘see Jesus’ and ends with a reference to the revelation of who he really is in his full glory: the man on the cross, lifted up for all to worship.

John 12.20-33

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ 22Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.

27 ‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ 29The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.’ 30Jesus answered, ‘This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ 33He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

Reflections and Questions

‘went and told’.x2  v22  It seems very convoluted here, stilted. We can’t see what the problem is.   Sure enough, the message gets through in the end. But it was not as straightforward as it seemed.

Why did Philip need Andrew’s support? What if Andrew had not accompanied him?

‘if it dies it bears much fruit’. v25 This is the sort of phrase that sticks in the mind. literally. We don’t connect it up emotionally or practically. ‘Nice idea’, we think, ‘good comment’, ‘very true’. But we don’t trouble with the thought that maybe we need to do the grain of wheat thing ourselves.

What is the grain of wheat that must die in your life or ministry?

‘now my soul is troubled’. v27  Notice the honesty.  We know that Jesus knew and prayed the psalms.  It comes through not in only in the direct quotations but also in the spirit of his praying: direct, open, raw, pithy, blunt. In  a word, riveting.

What would the intercessions on a Sunday morning be like be like if Jesus led them?

‘glorify’, ‘glorified’, ‘glorify’. v28  ‘I have’ and ‘I will’, says the voice from heaven. It is speaking of the past and the future. And yet the pressure here is on the present moment. The hour has come – now.  There is some subtle stuff going on here regarding time. 

How do you see the past, present and future of glory fitting together?

Sunday next before Lent 19.2.12. Mark 9.2-9 Transfiguration

11 02 2012


Last week the theme was ‘Creation’; this week it is ‘Transfiguration’. A week ago I was preaching at Magdalene College Cambridge about Michael Ramsey in their series on ‘Magdalene Saints’. In a change from my ususal practice I am adding a long section of that sermon to this post.  It is not usable in another context (if it was it would not  be in the spirt of a Sermon Starter) but it might set some thoughts going.

Mark 9.2-9

2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ 8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

Reflections and Questions

‘Peter, James and John’ v2. The same crew who were to  be with with Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane (Mark 13.33).  They fall asleep on that occasion. Might they have been in a daze this time?  What do you think actually happened?

‘Moses and Elijah’ v 4. More company.  How did these men’s lives end?  How do they connect with mountain tops?

‘Three dwellings’ v 10. We tend to think of this as typical Petrine clumsiness or as fear of the future raising its head. But do we ever ask ‘why three’? Why one each?

‘There came a voice’ v7   And so we once again end with a link. This time to baptism (see Mark1.11).  Is that just one of those things or does it get us closer to the meaning of either event – or perhaps to the nature of revelation?

From the Sermon ‘Troubled by Glory’ preached by Stephen Cherry in the Chapel of Magdalene College, Cambridge 29 January 2012

Owen Chadwick tells us in his biography that when Michael Ramsey was asked near the end of his life which book he was most glad to have written he answered without hesitation,  ‘The Transfiguration’.

It was published in 1949. Ramsey had lived through the war in Durham, an unlikely Air Raid Warden, who spent many nights as a fire-watcher on the roof of the Cathedral.  On one occasion he set about evacuating all the properties when the ‘all clear’ was sounded.  There were excitements but it was mostly monotony – or to look at in another way – an opportunity to mull over big and deep questions.  During the blitz most of the stock of his previous publications was destroyed.  And as a theologian he might have reflected more than once of on the point, purpose and meaning of writing and publication.

I have wondered whether his book on the transfiguration was, in a way, his gospel.  His careful attempt to communicate a truth so profound and yet so connected with everyday life that it is worth calling Good News.That he was a man with an evangelical mission seems undoubted. He made a difference; he made connections wherever he went. He appointed the first ever non-Anglican to the theology department in Durham – C.K. Barrett who served there his whole life and who died just last year.  Ramsey changed things. He rushed about. He would arrive just in time for Cathedral services, pulling on his surplice as he trotted out of a lecture theatre, and still making his concluding remarks as he left. When he became a Fellow of Magdalene himself he both admired and challenged the somewhat autocratic Master of the day.  He became famous for his stand against injustice in Rhodesia and South Africa in 1960s.

And at the same time he was seen as saintly and mystical – quite distracted by other-worldly matters, not overly concerned by this-worldly concerns.  But he was not a passive, quietist contemplative type. People might have thought so because of his disciplines of prayer and his tendency towards silence. He was not convinced that conversation was a particularly edifying pastime, feeling that it was just as well to be with people silently.  People say that no insult was intended, but I expect that it was sometimes taken.  He must have seemed a hidden man: hidden behind his size and his eyebrows and his strange repetitions and ‘yes.. yes.. yes..’ or ‘mmmm, errrr, ummmm, ,errrr silence ummm, errr, ummmm’  and so on, sometimes for quite a while, apparently.

I heard him preach once in this Chapel. It was in the 1980s.  I can only remember one part of it. He spoke about Judas leaving the Upper Room and stepping out into the night.  ‘It was indeed night’ he said, with real gravitas.  And I began to realise the way in which the Bible is more than words. That it is images and symbols as well. And I quickly began to notice them myself, to read the Bible more richly.   Which is, I suppose, the point of education:  to open the eyes of others, so that they can read more intelligently and see more clearly what is before them.

And so it is not so surprising, perhaps, that a professorial Bishop should find that the Transfiguration is at the heart of the gospel.  The strange story speaks of Jesus being bathed in a light which is bright and yet unearthly. It is uncreated light.  And it is in and by such light that the glory of God is perceived.

But while the story of transfiguration is set on mount Tabor (though Ramsey’s book says it is set on Hermon) there is another hill in the New Testament which the evangelist John – who tells no transfiguration story – points us to as a place of glory. It is Golgotha, the place of the skull, the green hill far away without a city wall.

Matthew and Mark see this as a place of desolation and darkness. Luke sees it as place of compassion and forgiveness. John sees it as glory and accomplishment.  For him it is a place of fulfilment and completion; a place where the story of incarnation finds its end and where the story of resurrection and Holy Spirit find their beginning.

Ramsey was a man of the cross as well as of transfiguration.  The light in which he put his trust, the true light, was not a happy fairy light on a Christmas tree but the indescribable light and energy which comes not from the completion of human projects but from the transfiguration of suffering evil and darkness.

In a sermon on the day of celebration we held in Durham to mark the installation of the Ramsey transfiguration window, his former chaplain Canon John Andrew gave us some an insight into the anguish the great man sometimes experienced when wrestling with an intractable issue of Church or state or a sense of the suffering of others or maybe with simple doubt. But he also spoke of ‘the transfiguration method’, which he says he learnt by living close to Ramsey. It is the method by which you seek to see the world and others in the light of Christ. He told of how his recovery from very serious injury after a mugging in New York was facilitated by this method. It was a transfigured view of things that he found it in himself to forgive his attacker, and from that forgiveness flowed healing of body which surprised the medical professionals who were caring for him. Some saw it as a miracle.

Such graceful change has an aesthetic as well as an ethical dimension. It makes us wonder. And we vicariously delight in what seems like the triumph of another human’s better nature.  Maybe this is the true light; light cannot be overcome by the darkness of evil. Maybe it is the light of which old Simeon spoke that is both the ‘light to lighten the Gentiles’ and ‘the glory of thy people Israel.’

Ramsey’s life brought light to many and it continues to shine today.  The beautiful window – which you must head off to Durham to see at the earliest opportunity – contains a number of small scenes and in one there is a group of three pilgrims. One pilgrim has a distinctly and deliberately Ramsey-esque bearing.  Every day people delight to find him, to see light pouring through him as sunlight is transformed by glass in a beautiful metaphor of the glory of God transfiguring human suffering, desolation and degradation.

Another Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, once said of Ramsey that ‘his happiest days were spent in Durham: close to Cuthbert and Bede. They were days when he was the don who said his prayers untroubled by pomp or glory or position’.

Although his ashes are in the cloisters of Canterbury Cathedral,  Ramsey’s Transfiguration window is very close to the burial place of Cuthbert – that most reluctant and much-loved of bishops, and another man of silence, struggle and sanctity.  But I want to conclude by suggesting that Runcie’s words are not quite right. Ramsey untroubled by glory when a Canon Professor? Surely not.  He was indeed troubled by glory as the war raged and then again as the country emerged into the poverty of rationing and recovery. And it in in that connection between glory and suffering that transfiguration is to be found, and where truly Good News is seen, spoken and shared.

2nd Sunday before Lent 12.2.12. John 1 1-14 Creation

6 02 2012


This is one of two Sundays when the Church of England goes out on a bit of an ecumenical limb by setting a  theme and selecting readings to fit. This week the theme is ‘Creation’; next it is ‘Transfiguration’. And this year we have an opportunity to read the prologue of John’s gospel in a new light.  (For some other reflections on this passage, go back to the Sermon Starter for Christmas Day 2011.)

John 1 1-14

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

Reflections and Questions

‘In the beginning’ v 1. Yes, you are absolutely meant to think ‘Genesis!’  But: is this a contradiction of Genesis 1 or a different way of approaching the subject of ultimate origins?  What can you say about the difference?

‘in him was life’ v 4. This complements the idea that ‘all things came into being through him’. It gives the sense of the pervasiveness of the Word. That there is nothing beyond or outside this creative presence, or principle.  So: is anything ever created by any other purpose?  (What about wasps and the dry rot fungus, for instance?) How can you communicate the intricate connectedness of creator and creation, creator and creature that is suggested here?

‘World’ v 10. Later on in John’s gospel the word ‘world’ seems to describe others, not ‘us’.  But what does it mean in this context? Are all three worlds in verse 10 the same world?

‘We have seen his glory’  v 14 This is a possible link forward to next week, where the theme is ‘Transfiguration’.  And so too is the word ‘light’.  The disciples coming down from Mount Tabor had certainly seen something remarkable and glorious.  When have you seen the glory of God?  What was it like?  What is it like?And why does John’s gospel have no story of transfiguration?


3rd Sunday of Epiphany 22.1.12. The Glory of Good Wine

8 01 2012

The Glory of Good Wine

The season of Epiphany, like the opening of John’s gospel,  is about glory being seen and found attractive and compelling.  Here we see water changed into wine. It’s a sign – but somehow the word ‘sign’ does not quite do justice to what is being signfied here… For there are many layers to this story.

John 2. 1-11

2 On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ 4And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ 5His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ 6Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. 8He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.’ So they took it. 9When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ 11Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

Reflections and Questions

‘The mother of Jesus was there’ v 2. Notice that she is the primary figure and that Jesus and his disciples are in the category ‘also’.  She is in control of events and is not in the mood to take ‘no’ for an answer.  Is it fair to say that Mary is the leader here, is that the right word?

‘They have no wine’ v 4  A nice simple statement.  No amplification is needed. No emotion added.  She just gives a simple fact of deficiency with the implicit: ‘do something about it!’  It is a statement about what is unacceptable. Does its simplicity and candour tell us something about her leadership?

‘Do whatever he tells you.’ v 5.   Fill the jars with water.’ v 7 Now draw some out…’ v 7  These are clear, concise, bold instructions. Like mother like son?  What tone of voice do you detect here?

‘You have kept the good wine until now.’ v 10. How many layers of meaning can you find in these words?

‘Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed is glory, and his disciples believed him’. v 11 This final sentence reflects the connection that we began to see last week between ‘place’, ‘glory’ and ‘faith’.  How do those three words fit together for you? (Idea: write them at the points of a triangle and see what comes up as you reflect on what you  see. What sort of triangle works best – equilateral, isosceles, scalene?  Or do you prefer to draw curving arrows between the  words and create a circle?)