20 April 2021

Breaking bread  was such a distinctive  part of Jesus’  ministry. He even associated the bread with his body and charged his friends to remember him by breaking bread and drinking wine together. No one who saw this bread breaking would ever forget it.

And yet, not everyone was happy to be included in this ministry of hospitality – the rich young ruler, Judas Iscariot, the farmer who looked back from his ploughing, Pharisees, Sadducees … quite a list! As Charles Causley observes:

He went round to all the people
A paper crown on his head.
Here is some bread from my father.
Take, eat, he said.

Nobody seemed very hungry.
Nobody seemed to care.
Nobody saw the god in himself
Quietly standing there.

The poet’s ‘Ballad of the Bread Man’ picks up on the significance of bread and bread making in the ministry of Jesus. But the line which I love best is the brief description of the Bread Man’s presence as ‘quietly standing there’.

Quietly standing there – and here. You cannot see the Bread Man but you know he is quietly standing beside us, a hidden presence, an unseen guest, longing to feed us with the bread of heaven, the bread of life in this his ministry of hospitality.

His gentle companionship is characterised by two things – his gracious presence and his refreshing absence.  The nature of his ministry doesn’t depend on other people knowing that he is there. And in his absence, the past is purified  and  what is important and what is not is revealed.

19 April 2021

Forty-five years ago this September, I went to Ghana to teach mathematics for a year. I didn’t have to look back very far to realise that this had been the most profound experience of my life, framing everything I did  thereafter.

One day, a friend invited me to come and help his mother build a new house. I was surprised. I had no house-building skills but I went anyway. The bricks for this house were made of earth and water baked in the very hot sun.

I was allocated the job of mortar mixer! With my bare feet, I played my part mixing the earth and water whilst others filled the wooden frames to make the bricks which were eventually used in the construction.

People were passing by all the time. I noticed that some of them stopped to chat and, more significantly, some of them extended the conversation whilst  helping with the house-building.

There was plenty to do. This one filled a brick, that one carried some bricks to the house. Some helped with the building. And after chatting and helping, their ministry of drawing near came to an end and they continued their journey.

Afterwards, I asked Augustine what was going on. It was customary behaviour. ‘If someone helps to build the house then they will be entitled to share in its hospitality.’ And the converse is our inspiration.

 18 April 2021

After Buckingham Palace was bombed during the Second World War, Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, said, ‘I’m glad we’ve been bombed. It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face. The Princesses would never leave without me and I couldn’t leave without the King, and the King will never leave.’

It was one of those moments where one of the fundamental characteristics of the monarchy was laid bare – the identification of the monarch and his family with the people whom they serve. Yesterday saw another,  symbolised by the solitary figure of the Queen standing alone in St. George’s, Windsor wearing a black face mask trimmed in white.

Although the Royal Family was able to command huge resources for the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral service, it was clearly affected by the restrictions imposed by the Covid 19 pandemic not least the reduced numbers, the social distancing and the face masking.

Nevertheless, it turned out to be a very powerful service, beautifully choreographed by the representatives of the armed forces and the staff at the chapel. The innovative presence of a female voice among the three lay clerks and the moving lament from the lone Scottish piper were striking.

Perhaps some would argue that there was no need for a eulogy because so much had already been said but its omission made for an even more eloquent service. It was the perfect foil for the Word of God to take centre stage – Jesus’s promise, ‘I am the resurrection and the life, he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.’

And the beautiful extract from the Apocrypha which asked us to ‘Look at the rainbow and praise its Maker …’ and concluded, ‘By his own action God achieves his end, and by his word all things are held together.’  Death is no respecter of  persons. As St. Paul says, ‘All die.’  And in our death we have nothing else to cling onto save the promises of God.

17 April 2021

Some people remember names. Some people never forget a face. Some are recognised by the strength of their accent. Others by the way they walk. Some by the familiar clothes they wear!

We all have our way of recognising other people. But is there anyone in your circle of family and friends who is recognised by the way they break bread? Do people break bread anymore? How distinctively can it be done?

In order to recognise someone by the way they break bread, two things need to be true. Firstly, you need to be in a place where bread is broken – a house, a kitchen, a table. Secondly, you need to be the beneficiary of their generosity.

This constitutes a ministry of hospitality – a ministry of making room for other people around a table, in your home, at a kirk or wherever. This is the ministry of the risen Christ. For Jesus was ‘known to them in the breaking of bread’.

Cleopas and his  friend must have seen these hands before handling bread, blessing bread, breaking bread, sharing bread. In truth, Jesus did it often with Simon, the leper, Zacchaeus, outcasts and sinners. Five thousand people saw him breaking bread!

It was such a distinctive part of his ministry. He even associated the bread with his body and charged his friends to remember him by breaking bread and drinking wine together. No one who saw this bread breaking would ever forget it.

16 April 2021

Do you think Jesus could solve a quadratic equation? It was a sparkling boast of the Modern Major General in Gilbert and Sullivan’s celebrated patter song in the ‘Pirates of Penzance’. For as he sang, ‘I’m very well acquainted, too, with matters mathematical, I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical,’

The ancient civilisation of Mesopotamia certainly rose to this challenge and had the knowledge for centuries prior to the exile of the Jews in the sixth century BC. Babylon was part of this great civilisation. However, it collapsed towards the end of the exile.

You remember Belshazzar’s Feast and the writing on the wall, the desecration of the Temple vessels and the demise of the king. It was the Persians who succeeded. King Cyrus was the one favoured by God to lead his people home. He was given the title ‘anointed one’ in Isaiah.

When the exiles returned home, did they carry with them the treasures  of  Babylonian learning. There was much. ‘By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.’ they sang. ‘How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land.’

It was the elite who were taken into exile. They were there for some fifty years. I cannot imagine their grief endured forever and that Mesopotamian learning did not rub off on them and their children. But whether that extended to the formula for solving quadratic equations is quite another matter.

The famous English mathematician, who was erstwhile clerk to the Westminster Divines, learned his basic mathematics from his brother. His interest  was stimulated so much that he rose to become Professor at Oxford. He  is honoured for inventing the infinity sign. As for his brother, he was training to become  a carpenter!

15 April 2021

Following a recent blog on nuclear mechanics, a friend sent me a short video entitled, ‘Wow, Wow’. It  was a very swift tour of the known Universe comparing and contrasting Planet Earth with its moon and sun with similar but larger planets and suns.

The video ended in dramatic form with a quote which is worth pondering. It inspires in me a sense of wonder which is a stimulus not just for personal enquiry but also for worship. So let us consider the heavens, the moon and the stars which God ordained and marvel with the Psalmist, ‘What is man?’

For, It has been estimated that there are more stars in the Universe than there are grains of sand on the earth, but there are more atoms in one grain of sand than there are stars in the Universe.’

14 April 2021

When I visited the National Air and Space Museum in Washington in 1979, I was able to see with my own eyes a sample of the rock which had been picked up from the surface of the moon. Although I could see it with my own eyes, I couldn’t prove that it had actually been taken from the moon.

However, I had seen the astronauts on the TV. I had read about the Space Programme. I trusted the scientists who had presented the facts. Therefore, I was prepared to make the leap of faith required and believe that the rock had come from the moon!

It wasn’t because I saw the rock that I believed it came from the moon. It wasn’t because Thomas saw the risen Lord that he believed he was God. In both cases, we had to make a leap of faith. Seeing was not believing.

The leap of faith could only be made through the spirit of enquiry. And that begins with questions, uncertainties, doubts. It requires the honesty to look stupid and the courage to go into unknown territory. Whilst his senses couldn’t prove that Jesus was God, they took Thomas to the place where he could believe it!

13 April 2021

One of the curious things which has emerged out of the scientific revolution of the twentieth century is a deeper understanding of what is actually happening in our world at its most basic level.

The electrons spinning around in the atom are jumping from one orbit to another in a random fashion. If you measure position and then speed, you get a different result than if you measured speed and then position.

This happens because at this level, the scientist is not an observer but a participant. He affects what is going on! As a result, we can say that there are two significant characteristics built into the very fabric of creation and our being.

The first is uncertainty. Nothing is certain at this microscopic level and nothing is predictable. The best we can do is work with probability. This is more or less likely than that and so on.

The second is  correlation. Everything is related to everything else. But more than that, the meaning of one thing is only found in relation to the meaning of another.  Like the scientist who cannot be an impartial observer. He participates as much as the electron!

This has obvious implications for our faith. It is not built on certainty either otherwise it wouldn’t be faith. And, of course, the acknowledgement that the truth is not to be found in one denomination  or one religion, one nation or one commonwealth  encourages us to be humble in our assessment of self and open to what people think across the whole  universe!

12 April 2021

Among all the accolades and tributes paid to Prince Philip, there was one from the United Reformed Church which stated that the Prince was ‘a keen questioner of preachers’.

It was in his character to ask questions and one of the many attributes which made him a suitable consort for the Queen. There is no better way to get to know another than asking them questions about themselves, their work, their lives.

In two of the Deans of Windsor, he found intelligent apologists. With Robin Woods, he participated in the development of St. George’s House where prominent Britons in industry science and other sectors came to discuss religious and social issues.

With Michael Mann, he ended up having  a lengthy correspondence  about the theory of evolution which was eventually published in 1984 under the title, ‘A Windsor Correspondence’.

To be a keen questioner of preachers may seem a small and almost insignificant tribute but in death it takes on a far greater significance. For it has to do with the integrity of faith, the search for the truth and the meaning of life.

Our faith is built upon the promises of God. ‘I will be with you always.’ is one. ‘Peace I give you.’ is another.  ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’ is a third. They are not certainties and this uncertain world begs a lot of questions!

11 April 2021 – St. John 20;19-31

Thomas had two striking characteristics. Firstly, he was courageous. When Lazarus was ill, the disciples tried to persuade Jesus not to go and visit him. The people in Jerusalem were planning to kill him. However, it was Thomas who said, ‘Let us also go that we may die with him!’

Secondly, he was honest. When Jesus was talking about preparing the way ahead, Thomas said, ‘Lord, we know not whither Thou goest and how can we know the way?’ He  admitted his ignorance and asked a question to discover the truth. His honesty brought to birth one of the greatest sayings  of Jesus, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life.’

His courage and his honesty combine in his response to the news of the resurrection. He  openly admitted his doubts. ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands … I will not believe.’  he says. He wanted to see the evidence for himself and in this way, he is an effective link between first and twenty-first century sceptics!

However, when Jesus visited again, he invited Thomas to touch the wounds as he had requested. Thomas refuses to take up the offer to handle the evidence for himself. At that moment, he discovered that it wasn’t necessary and simply said, ‘My Lord and my God!’

Thomas could see with his own eyes that this was Jesus. He didn’t need to touch him to prove it. That’s why he could say, ‘My Lord!’ But Thomas says more. ‘My Lord and my God!’  Whereas his first statement was a statement of fact, ascertained by his own eyes,   the second was a confession of faith.

There was no way Thomas could prove by sight or touch that the risen Lord was also his God! In his quest for the truth, Thomas could only go so far using his senses. He realises that seeing is not believing. With the physical eye, he saw the risen Lord.  But that didn’t prove anything except a miracle of resurrection. To see that he was also  God incarnate required the eye of faith!