Thursday, August 31, 2023



TL:DR everybody needs a community they can’t bear not to meet up with.

The apostle Paul and his companions planted churches around the eastern Mediterranean. The first churches they planted in Europe were in Philippi (in the north of modern Greece). On coming to a new city, it was Paul’s usual practice to first seek out the Jewish diaspora community, those with whom he shared a common background. There was no recognised Jewish community in Philippi (not enough Jewish men to form a synagogue), so Paul sought out ‘God-fearers’—Greeks who were drawn to worship the Jewish god at prayer by the river, and from there the first European church was established in the household of a businesswoman called Lydia. But Paul’s activity caused civil unrest, resulting in his being beaten and imprisoned—which led to the establishment of a second house-church led by the officer responsible for the city jailhouse. When it came to light that Paul was a Roman citizen—and as such should not have been beaten or imprisoned without trial—he was asked to leave quietly…

They moved along the coast to Thessalonica. There, there was a Jewish community, but they were not very receptive to Paul’s message. The local Greeks were much more receptive, and a church planted; but the Jewish community were unhappy, and provoked civil unrest, forcing Paul to move on yet again, after little more than three weeks there. They headed on to Berea, and there the local Jewish community were much more receptive. Yet another church was established; but when news reached the synagogue back in Thessalonica, they sent a delegation to incite trouble for Paul in Berea. Yet again he and his companions moved on, this time travelling south, as far as Athens.

At this point, Paul becomes increasingly concerned for his new friends in Thessalonica, from whom he was parted so quickly. So, he sends his friend and co-worker Timothy back north to them. On returning to Athens, Timothy discovers that Paul has himself moved on again, this time to Corinth, where Timothy catches him up, and is able to deliver good news. The church in Thessalonica is doing well, they long to see Paul again as much as he longs to see them. For Paul, for whom being apart from these new friends and fellow-believers was death, this news fills him with joy, makes him feel alive again.

We read an extract from the letter he wrote them (1 Thessalonians 3:7-13) at our mid-week Communion today. And it really was a joy to me to have, among the congregation, two friends visiting from our neighbouring church Sunderland Minster, and an elderly member of the St Nicholas’ congregation who had not made it out to be with us for a long time following a fall and loss of confidence.

I wonder whether this is how we think of church. Whether the days between when we gather together feel like death. Whether we long to see those people, and whether seeing them is a joy. Or whether we who are able to meet regularly come to take one another for granted. Whether we have forgotten how good it was to be able to meet together after the deprivation of lockdowns, and whether we hold in mind those who can no longer join us due to infirmity.

Everyone needs a community that causes us to feel like Paul did in relation to the church at Thessalonica. Who knows, it could even be a church.


Thursday, August 24, 2023



In one of the Bible readings set for Holy Communion today, 1Corinthians 4.9-15, Paul writes of church planters like himself, ‘We have become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things, to this very day.’ (v 13b).

There is a man-made hill in Rome, called Monte Testaccio or the Hill of Shards, carefully constructed from an estimated 53 million pottery amphorae that had contained 6 billion litres of olive oil. It is hard to know when the project began—if it already existed in Paul’s day it would have been small in scale, but it grew to be the largest rubbish dump in the ancient world by the second century CE. Amphorae were used to transport oil, wine, fruit sauce and fish sauce around the Empire, with many supplying the capital, Rome. Those containing other products could be reused, or recycled, broken down to be an ingredient in cement which the Romans used in building. But the amphorae containing olive oil—imported into Rome in huge volumes, mostly from Spain—couldn’t be recycled. The oil left a scummy residue that couldn’t be scraped off the insides of the jar and spoilt subsequent batches. The amphorae didn’t break into small enough pieces, and the oil reacted with lime to form a soap that compromised the concrete (soap not being a successful building material). So, the jars were partially broken and laid down as a rubbish dump, that grew and grew over time.

Today, the Monte Testaccio has a cross on its summit. To prevent erosion, it is not a public pace, but it is possible to visit by arrangement, should you find yourself in Rome and looking to get away from the other tourists. It is said that the hill sings to you as you climb it, the noise of pottery shifting and being ground under your feet.

That seems to me to be a perfect illustration of Paul’s reflection on church planting. The churches he planted were small and periodically faced persecution, but by around the time when Rome stopped adding to the Monte Testaccio, the Church had grown large and displaced the old gods.

Sometimes the church still looks like rubbish. But she still sings when trodden under foot.


Tuesday, August 22, 2023

On rocky ground


Some thoughts on how Jesus builds his church, and how apparent failure is not necessarily failure at all:

One time, Jesus asked his disciples who people said that he was (you can read about it in Matthew 16.13-20). That is, he enquired, of those closest to him, how closely they were paying attention to the wider crowds who followed them around. What conversations had they overheard? And they were able to report back a range of rumours circulating about him. Basically, the popular consensus view seemed to be some hero or other back from the realm of the dead.

That, in itself, is an interesting exercise, that invites us to listen beyond our own echo chambers. Who do those around us say that Jesus is?

Jesus continued, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ That is, perhaps, both ‘What conclusion [however provisional] have you drawn?’ and ‘When you hear these rumours, these competing ideas, how do you respond?’ How are you engaging in the conversation?

Simon Peter jumps in with a typically emphatic response: ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!’

Jesus both affirms Peter’s response, and sternly orders his disciples not to go round repeating such things to anyone else. And in between these two statements, Jesus says something very interesting about Peter, and the Church.

To pick up on it, first we need to know that the name ‘Simon Peter’ is composed of ‘Simon’ from the Hebrew for ‘to hear’ and ‘Peter’ from the Greek for ‘rocky’.

In his account of the Jesus story, Matthew has already told us about the time when Jesus told a parable of the Sower, which he had then discussed further with his disciples in private:

‘Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away [xérainó—or ripened].’ (Matthew 13.5, 6)

‘As for what was sown on rocky [Peter] ground, this is the one who hears [Simon] the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away.’ (Matthew 13.20, 21)

Simon Peter is rocky ground, the one who hears and responds immediately and with enthusiasm—impulsively, even—but who will deny knowing Jesus three times on the night of his arrest and trial, the events that culminate in Jesus’ execution (Matthew 26.33-35, 69-75).

And Jesus says to him, ‘And I tell you, you are Peter,’—that is to say, Jesus is underlying the point that Simon Peter is rocky ground—‘and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.’

Jesus chooses to build his church on rocky ground.

Jesus—who, before he was an itinerant teacher and miracle-worker, was, for most of his adult life, a house builder—chooses rocky ground as the site to build a house for his people’s assembly (ekklesia); chooses a site where you don’t have to excavate much to reach a good foundation.

And the stream of people exiting through the gate of the realm of the dead—those passing from shadowy half-existence to a qualitive experience of coming alive—won’t overwhelm the house built on such a foundation.

Of course, this makes sense when it comes to building a literal building, but the church—as Peter himself will testify, 1 Peter 2.4-10—is a spiritual house, built on a rejected stone. Why, then, build the church on rocky ground? Let’s dig deeper.

The person who is rocky ground (Matthew 13.21) is not rooted (rhiza, root—or offspring) and lasts only for a fleeting, time-limited season (proskairos). When his or her options are shut down (thlipsis), they ‘fall away’ or cause stumbling or offence (skandalizó).

This is fascinating. Jesus will build his church on those who respond to him with gladness and, experiencing rejection, move on. Indeed, we see this very principle at play throughout the Acts of the Apostles, where persecution drives the establishing of new churches, from place to place. The harvest the Sower hopes for in and through such church planters ripens quickly and then they move away. We see this principle at play today, in the very large numbers of people coming alive in Jesus in Iran and among the Persian diaspora; in China and among the Chinese diaspora; and in the remarkable growth of the church among the regularly persecuted Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities in the UK.

Church, in its outward form, is intended to be short-term—not an edifice, not a set tradition of ‘how we do things here’—and in this very way diverse people are called out of darkness into God’s marvellous light radiating from Jesus (1 Peter 2.9).

This is very hard for those who are invested in the church as an outward form to accept. Moulded to form, they will oppose the very idea. What is required is nothing less than repentance, a renewing of the mind. As the apostle Paul—himself rocky ground—wrote to the church in Rome, ‘Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.’ (Romans 12.2).

For those longing to see a church renewed, we pray.

For those whose joyful yes to Jesus is met with disheartening resistance, we pray.

For those whose options are closing in on them, we pray.

For those through whom many will come alive in Jesus, we pray.

For those coming alive in Jesus, we pray.

Lord, build your church.



Tuesday, August 15, 2023

On prayer as holding space


I have been thinking about intercessory prayer, about what it means to be a community that prays for our wider community, people who pray for our neighbours. I have been thinking about how we pray, and what happens when we pray, and why sometimes we find prayer so difficult, and how we might grow as intercessors. And the wonderful passage from the Gospel this Sunday has been transformative. Let’s take a closer look at Matthew 15.21-28. Our story begins like this:

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out

Now, it doesn’t come across in the English, but the Greek uses the same word, έξέρχομαι (exerchomai) ‘to depart from’, for both Jesus and the Canaanite woman. Jesus departs from, or steps out from, his region—his community—and the Canaanite woman departs from, or steps out of, hers. There is a beautiful mirroring here, a reciprocity of action. Jesus and the woman each crossing the boundary between them, stepping outside of their world to encounter someone from a different world. Between them, they are holding a space between two worlds: between Galilee and Sidon; Jew and Gentile; male and female. There is mutual vulnerability and dignity, and no power imbalance or coercion.

In Jesus we see the revelation of what it is to be God, and what it is to be human. Here in this encounter, we see that when we pray to the Father, in the power of the Spirit, through Jesus the Son, for our neighbours, we are invited to hold space between two worlds. To _hold space between heaven and earth_ or, between the ‘now’ and the ‘not-yet’ of the kingdom of God. We hold a space that we do not control, trusting that God will act to bless and transform those who pray and those for whom we pray. Let’s continue:

… and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’

The English says shouting, but the Greek says κράζω (krazό) ‘to scream, or shriek’. No wonder the disciples are uncomfortable in her presence. This account is reminiscent of Hannah pouring her heart out before God, her anguish at being childless, and bullied for it, and the old priest Eli mistaking her anguish for drunkenness and berating her, trying to move her on. I love that, in contrast, Jesus’ first reaction to the woman is to say nothing, to resist the urge to enter into conversation, to fill the void with words, to offer insight. Sometimes the best possible response—the God-revealing response—is silence, is simply to sit with another so that they know they are not alone, so that they know that they are seen and heard, and not recoiled from.

When we pray for our neighbours, we are invited to _hold space for strong emotions_. If we have truly taken a step from our world into theirs, we can expect shouting (theirs, and ours) and silence (ours, and theirs) as what is on the inside bursts the boundaries of respectable behaviour and break into the outside world. Words can be a barrier, a power game. If our prayers are too neatly packaged, too wordy, too cold, these are sure signs that we haven’t stepped out at all. Let’s continue:

He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’

Lost sheep is again a little misleading. The word for sheep is πρόβατον (probaton) ‘a little sheep’ and the word translated lost is άπόλλυμι (apollumi) ‘to destroy utterly; that is, perishing’. When the disciples plead with Jesus to send away the shrieking Canaanite woman, he responds, ‘I was not sent if not to the little sheep, being utterly destroyed, of the house of Israel’. Jesus is not sent to send away this Canaanite woman, or indeed anyone. Sorry, boys, but it’s a ‘no’ from me. That is to say, the disciples’ prayer is not in line with God’s will, in this situation. Instead, the woman offers a prayer of her own.

But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’

Two words here—τέκνον (teknon) ‘a dependent child’ and κυνάριον (kunarion) ‘a puppy’—add to the image Jesus is building: little sheep, little children, little dogs. All three are vulnerable.

She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’

How is it that food falls from the children’s table? As any parent will tell you, food falls from a child’s table, or highchair, because they are overwhelmed. Because they have not yet mastered the necessary motor skills and hand-eye-mouth coordination. Or because they have not mastered their emotions, their frustration at not being able to communicate with their parent in any way other than to push the bowl over the side. This is not wilful disobedience, but an attempt to communicate, to be understood. And where the child is overwhelmed, the puppy cleans up the mess on the floor.

The disciples are overwhelmed by the presence of a woman who is overwhelmed by the unhappiness of her afflicted daughter. But the woman acknowledges the messiness of her life, where the disciples try to manage it, to keep it out of sight and sound. The woman also recognises that if her prayer is answered, then the disciples will also get what they desire. While, culturally, the disciples would have seen themselves as children and their Canaanite neighbour as a puppy, the woman reveals that she recognises herself in the child and Jesus’ disciples as puppies hoping for scraps. The tables are turned, as it were.

When we pray for our neighbours, we are invited to _hold space for becoming_. This is in direct contrast to the overwhelming conditions we so often find ourselves in that lead to lives being utterly destroyed. Where despair is obvious, we are called to make hope a viable possibility in people's lives again. The little sheep becomes an ewe, with little sheep of her own. The dependent child becomes an adult. The puppy becomes a companion, guard, and guide. None of this occurs overnight.

Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.

The woman’s faith is great—or goes beyond the boundaries that life has set for it, creating a more spacious life, for her, for her daughter.

Intercessory prayer, then, is a response to the invitation to hold space between heaven and earth, to hold space for strong emotions, to hold space for becoming.

It is a privilege and an adventure. So let us pray, today and every day. Amen.