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Sermon for the Sunday after Ascension: Lockdown Gardening

Sermon for the Sunday after Ascension: Lockdown Gardening

24 May 2020

Borders and Edges

I’m a willing amateur when it comes to gardening. I tend to go for the straightforward things like clean soil, veg. in rows and neat stripes on the lawn. Well, ‘lawn’ is a bit of an exaggeration; it’s really mown meadow. The border is also a bit of an overstatement.  We grandly call it ‘The Western Border’. It used to be a thick bramble hedge until Les and I tore it out with crowbar and axe. But the contrast between lawn and border is clear, even from this photo. The edge divides the two: predictable grass on the one side and an eruption of surprises on the other.  A gardener has been here before and each year we discover some new addition: shrubs, bulbs, bluebells. We even have some planned fruit and veg. of our own among the surprises.

I spend quite a lot of time on the border – the border between humankind and God. That’s part of what clergy do. Border activities include prayer; scanning the contours of that mystery we call God; developing the community’s interaction with Kingdom values; translating divine movement; staring into the divine fog. And at this Ascension-tide, the line between humanity and divinity is most marked. The Ascension celebrates the end of those extra-physical appearances of Jesus.  We believe that Jesus returns to the company of The Father in order that together they send their councillor, their advocate, their Holy Spirit to support us in the on-going work of Christ here on earth. Through The Ascension, the local can become the universal presence of Christ.

Images of The Ascension

Our reading today tells the story of the Ascension. Luke is the only gospel writer who records the event but even he, with his medical precision, struggles. And so do we. The whole canon of Christian Art on the subject is quite frankly laughable so I’ve asked Joss Jordon, aged 7, to paint us the scene and she’s done a great job. It’s bold, colourful, precise and has that vertical dimension about it which was so important for the 1st century mind. For them, heaven was above; hell was below. Joss’s picture is far more sophisticated than the Chapel of the Ascension at Walsingham, where a pair of plaster feet are screwed into the ceiling!

This boundary of Jesus’s earthly life challenges us. Our minds are stretched to the limit; language seems inadequate.  We are faced with this boundary between earth and heaven, between the physical and the spiritual which Jesus crosses and unites them in himself.  But also in us, The Body of Christ.

Monty Don, writing last week about the loss of Nigel, his beloved dog, points towards this mystery in which we are united

“Part of the pleasure of gardening is the connection to the rhythm of something deeper than our daily lives. It connects backwards and forwards to something of which we are only a part.”


Back to my border.  There’s a big contrast between the rough grass and the teeming border. With the help of my gardening friends, I can tell you what is in the border. I can step into the border and weed, mulch, plant and harvest. And there appears to be a heavy crop of soft fruit this year and I shall be sad if I cannot share it with my jam-making brother who lives in the north. But I can tell him what to expect if the lockdown ends. I can witness to most plants in that border: the shrubs which God has thrown up and the stuff I continue to plant.  I know what’s there.

As Jesus ascended he told his friends that they must be witnesses to all that has happened. They must tell of all the good things that Jesus accomplished here on earth – his teaching, the miracles, befriending of the poor and the speaking of truth to power. It was costly, we know that, but The Ascension beckons us upwards too, to continue that work as he equips us to do.

We too are called to witness to the good things we have experienced directly or indirectly from the hand of God: relationships healed, the lives saved from agony, different directions taken, new skills discovered, a new life, a peaceful death. At The Ascension, Jesus encourages us to explore beyond the border, for the treasures to be found there will colour life on my patchy lawn. Amen.

Sunday 10 May 2020 – Simon’s Talk

Sunday 10 May 2020 – Simon’s Talk

Simon Aley, currently preparing for ordination, has recorded this week’s sermon, which can be watched here on YouTube.

If you have any problem doing this the sermon is also copied underneath. 

Today’s Gospel reading is John 14:1-12 and Simon has used the New International Version but you can follow in any Bible.


“Lord show us the Father and that will be enough for us”

So how are you managing in lockdown? How are you contacting friends, family, business contacts? By telephone? Skype? Teams? Facetime? Or Zoom. And what does it look like? A few weeks ago, the Church Times, created a montage of people on these various platforms in lockdown. Various images – some with a full face, others just the top of their head, some dog collars, one even robed! Different ages, different settings And don’t you all look round, take a nosy peek? Or is that just me?!! As you can imagine while our Priest in Charge reads the erudite articles in the Church Times, I tend to go for the cartoon they publish each week and in that same edition the cartoon also focussed on the online screen view classifying us accordingly, the artistic or the scholarly or the realistic! I will leave you to decide which group you fall into or other people you have had these Zoom or similar sessions with and taken a nosey peak! Lord show us the Father and that will be enough for us. Give us a nosy peek at God if you like.

I get Jesus’ disappointment at Philip saying this. “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time?” Philip was one of the earliest of the disciples to follow Jesus, a friend of Andrew and his family, Philip really had better opportunity than most to know Jesus and who he was and yet says “show us the Father and that will be enough.” Clearly therefore being a disciple of Jesus, all that time had not been enough. He needed something more. Jesus has just declared “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except by me.” Philip had assumed perhaps that Jesus was offering to introduce the disciples to the Father, and, in a sense, he does but what Philip fails to appreciate is that in seeing Jesus he is with the Father. Jesus and the Father are one. Philip should know that no-one has seen God and to do so is certain death. So, a strange demand for Philip to make.

What are you hoping to get from the Prime Minister’s announcement this evening 10th May? Depending on when you listen to this you may already know! What restrictions do you want to see lifted? One I have heard many times in the last week is around when we can get back into our churches and worship together. On one level I share that longing but on another I have really valued this time of worship in lockdown, actually seeing our garden grow daily through spring that I have not done in over 20 years living here in Manton and meeting with the people of God locally and around the world through daily acts of worship on Zoom – to pray for one another daily and see God’s hand at work. And as an aside I have probably invited more people every day to these Zoom services because that is how you join than I had to any other church services prior to lockdown and perhaps I need to learn from that. God was not locked into our churches when we had to close the doors. He was and is and will be omnipresent – everywhere. Lord show us the Father and that will be enough for us. We may be in lockdown, but God is with us every moment. The famous German Pastor and writer of the last century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a poem while locked in prison on New Year’s Day 1945 a few weeks before he was executed by the Nazis, not long before VE day. This is a free translation I did of one of the stanzas:

From all His powers so wonderfully bestowed

Whatever happens we can surely know

That God is with us evening until morning

Already knowing what each new day brings.

Jesus gave a wonderful assurance to his disciples and to all of us. It is one of the 7 I am sayings of Jesus in John’s Gospel ego eimi is the Greek for I am and is a very intense way of saying this, deep, personal and reassuring and Jesus is not a way to God, he is the only way. Salvation is found in no-one else, for there is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved. Jesus is truth. In the Old Testament the law is the truth but Christ fulfils the law and so embodies truth; the truth about who I am, how I am counted as righteous and my destiny in God are all wrapped into this assurance. And thirdly the life. Jesus is about to die. Our Gospel reading today has flipped us back to just before Holy Week and Jesus will die in a few days and the disciples have been warned and yet this condemned, or at least doomed man is claiming he is the life. This claim is only possible because Jesus, as he reminded Philip is in the Father and the Father is in him. He knew that but his faith was not strong enough. My faith is not strong enough. Relying on faith alone, I falter. If I had faith the size of a mustard seed, I could move mountains and yet there has been no tectonic activity as a result of my small faith and I suspect I am in good company. The nearest the patron saint of Wales got was for a small hill to rise up from the ground from which he could preach! My faith is not enough even for that. Being allowed back into our churches to worship again would not be enough and being shown the Father, I suspect, would not be enough. I need, we all need Christ in our lives and the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. To know that Christ is in us, the hope of glory – the way, the truth and the life is enough for now in lockdown, in normal times and for all eternity.

Let us pray.

Thank you Lord that you are the way, the truth and the life, that you are in the Father and the Father is in you and in the Spirit’s you are with us and when our faith is weak you uplift us. Help us see however hard the situation is that you are enough for us. We may not see you, but we can love you and worship you right where are

And now to Him who is able to keep us from falling and to make us stand without blemish in the presence of His glory, to the only God our saviour, through Jesus Christ our Lord be all glory, power and authority for all time and for now and forever. Amen

Talk for Sunday 3 May 2020

Talk for Sunday 3 May 2020

Christopher has managed to video his sermon this week!  You can watch it on Google Drive: just click on the link here and then on the ‘play’ arrow in the image:

But in case you’re unable to access it that way, here it is in full:

Contagious Christianity?   Sunday 3 May 2020. Easter IV.

The Resurrection Season.

We are now 6 weeks into the lockdown and three weeks away from Easter Day. The set readings for Sunday are already wandering away from the resurrection appearances but before we forget them for another year I want to take an overview to find some relevance for us today in this situation of isolation when we crave the assurance of hope, of company, of health and of Christ.

It all begins with the empty tomb on that first Easter Day.  That is enough to raise the suspicions of both friends and foes of Jesus.  No trace of a body: just an alibi about body-snatchers spread by the Jewish guards. The empty tomb doesn’t offer evidence, just questions.

The Resurrection Appearances

Those questions soon get answers of a sort as the Risen Lord starts to appear. He appears first of all as a stranger to Mary at the tomb; then to the apostles in the upper room, to the disciples on the lakeside and to the travellers to Emmaus.  Is it Jesus?  No one is sure until he begins to interact with a name (John 20.16), the blessing of bread (Luke.24.30), his wounded hands (Luke 24.39) or some fishing advice (John 21.6). Caravaggio’s painting of the Supper at Emmaus shows just how amazed the disciples were when the stranger reveals himself as Jesus. One chap can’t wait to get away from his chair!

This strangeness suggests that Christ’s appearance has changed in some way. He passes through locked doors (John 20.19) and yet is able to cook breakfast (John21.12), eat fish and honey (Luke 24. 42). But there is another element to this strangeness: Jesus rebukes the disciples for their lack of understanding (Mark 16.14; John 20.23) but also gives them instructions as to how they should conduct their future lives (John 20.17; Mark 16.15). So those who knew Jesus before the crucifixion have to learn to live with this friend who is also a stranger in a different way after the Resurrection.  We all know people who are difficult to predict. They are often the most exciting but also infuriating friends to have!  So the Risen Lord must have appeared to those first disciples but also to us who need both companionship and divine direction which cannot be presumed.

The appearances of The Risen Lord are not confined to any particular geographical area. Jerusalem and Galilee are the favoured places and they are 100 miles part. Damascus is much further north.  There is no obvious connection between these appearances. They don’t appear to be induced by hysteria, hallucination or a desire for consolation. The most surprising of all is the appearance to Saul, the aristocratic Jew fervently opposed to Christ and his friends. His conversion is well documented in scripture (Acts 9; 2 Corinthians 12) because for him and for The Church it was a seismic change.

The Risen Christ also comes among his friends who are ill at ease. He changes them. Mary is grieving for her compassionate Christ; the apostles are afraid of the Jews; Peter is riddled with guilt; the fishermen are glum and most of them are disbelieving. None of them are in a good place yet this challenge by The Risen Lord changes them. They boldly gossip the gospel (Acts 4.13); they exercise healing gifts (Acts 3.6); they worship in public (Acts 2.42) and they courageously challenge authority (Acts 5.29ff).

So here is a mystery.  What drives such a change – and how is it sustained? People of faith have put the answer down to The Risen Lord: the Lord who came to those first Christians as a stranger, in a variety of locations, with boldness, with compassion but also with a message. The fruits of that mystery – that string of appearances from The Risen Lord – is to be seen in The Church today.  These are the groups that began to form in the first pages of the Acts of the Apostles – that most exciting of biblical books which accelerates through church development like a whirlwind! It is around these encounters with the Risen Lord that the church gathers and develops, then and now.

A virus?

Does this sound like an infection? Richard Dawkins in a clever book from 1976 suggested that God acted like a virus, a selfish gene which looks after its own.  He wasn’t the first sceptic to use such an analogy.  During the Roman occupation of the Mediterranean, Christians were hunted down and if they didn’t recant, then they were killed. Pliny – a Roman magistrate – was sent to Bithynia to sort out the province. He had to put many Christians to death. In a letter to his boss, The Emperor Trajan, he refers to Christianity as a “contagion.”

Apart from the implied negativity – especially in these desperate times of the current pandemic – that is difficult to accept. The appearances of The Risen Lord are scattered. Sometimes they do run among friends but in other occasions the most surprising people become Christians. There are no physical symptoms which connect us and there is no evidence that the faith manifests itself in a weakness.

And Christianity has lasted a long time: two millennia.  Whilst countries in Europe still wait for signs that the coronavirus has peaked, there is no sign of Christianity abating world-wide, though in Europe it is struggling. Whilst we wait behind locked doors, there are signs that our faith is developing. One firm reports that its sales of bibles are up 25% in March this year. Other sacred texts show similar increases. And our behaviour has changed. In spite of the curfew, care for neighbour and community has increased, especially in our villages.

St. Paul, writing soon after the physical resurrection appearances had ceased, reminds us in a passage often used in our funeral services (1 Cor. 15.3,4) that Christ died, was buried and was raised. This third action – ‘was raised’ – is in a different tense, suggesting that the raising has happened but is still in force. Christ is alive now! And this is so obviously true, even in our own experience. People find Christ entering their lives often in the most difficult situations.

Thanks be to God, Amen.

Christopher Armstrong




TALK FOR SUNDAY 26TH APRIL 2020   Easter 3


In the reading from St Luke’s gospel today we find the story of the two people travelling away from Jerusalem back home. The journey to Emmaus was about seven miles, so a good two hours walk . They were talking about all that they had seen during the past few days and they were so upset. They were not disciples of the inner circle and so not in ‘lockdown’ as Simon wrote about last week. They were on their way home where they felt they would feel safe. We have probably all taken journeys where we needed to reach home as soon as possible to feel secure and familiar.

They were sad, angry, upset, puzzled.  A stranger joined them, and asked what they were discussing. They were astounded because they thought that everyone would know about the events which had taken place in Jerusalem. They explained and that must have been quite brave as they did not know whether the stranger was a spy but possibly they were beyond caring. The phrase which stands out in their explanation  is “We had hoped he was the one who was going to set Israel free”. They just did not understand although they knew that the body had disappeared and that angels had told some of the disciples that Jesus was alive.

Sometimes events like this make us feel a bit supercilious as of course we know Jesus rose from the dead and is alive now. But we have the advantage of hindsight. The story continues. They arrived at the village and the stranger was prepared to continue his journey until the two invited him to stay. This reminds me of the picture by Holman Hunt called “The Light of the World” where there is no handle on the outside; 



                 Christ does  not force himself on us, the choice is ours.

The stranger stayed with them and ate with them. He took the bread, blessed it and broke it and gave it. Only then did they recognise Jesus who disappeared from their sight. They rushed back to Jerusalem to share what hadhe choice is ours. happened in spite of the fact that it was dark and the journey would be perilous.

Cleopas, the name given of one of the two, was with a friend or perhaps his wife, but whoever it was we can relate to the situation. Too often we do not recognise Christ’s presence as we journey through life with all its problems along the bumpy road. In one of her ‘Thoughts for the Day’ on Radio 4 Lucy Winkett said that “God is not elsewhere”. She was talking about our current situation and as Christ walked with the two on the journey to Emmaus, so he walks with us. Pope John Paul II said “Before God, each human being is always unique and unrepeatable, somebody thought of and chosen from eternity.” Each one of us matters and is loved by God through Jesus.

There is a hymn which shows the wonder of travelling with Christ and the first verse is:

At the font we start our journey,

in the Easter faith baptized;

doubts and fears no longer blind us,

by the light of Christ surprised.

Alleluia, alleluia!

Hope held out and realized.

Christ will often surprise us but we need to be open to that element of surprise which will change us. The disciples were changed by the resurrection as we need to be and realise that Christ walks beside us. Everything changed at Easter; nothing was the same any more. This story of a journey is often used in meditation especially when people are in difficulty and the events of Easter are not “…a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” (Macbeth, William Shakespeare) They  give life meaning and care.

The two walking home did not recognise Jesus possibly because they were walking towards the sunset and so could not see clearly. All their hopes and dreams seemed to be shattered but Christ showed them that it was not the end but the beginning of eternity. We need to walk towards the sunrise and be surprised by the light of Christ.


What does this story have to offer us today in this difficult time? The two people were sad, puzzled and thought all hope had gone. They were walking on a road that was fraught with danger from robbers and wild animals. There are many people today who are sad and puzzled and think that all hope has gone and we are all walking a road that is unknown. The coronavirus has affected everyone, some in dire ways.


There is light even if it at times seems very dim. There are more people watching on-line services than would normally go to church on a Sunday. There is a wonderful community spirit in our villages and in our country. There are stories of immense courage and selflessness. People are caring about others. There will be people asking where God is in all this. The answer is that he is in the midst of all of it; he is in the care homes, the hospitals, the distribution centres, the shops, everywhere where we are, God is there.

He understands our hurt, our dismay, and our fear. He cares about our loneliness and isolation. But he offers everyone hope and eternal life because he loves each one of us. He wants us to reach out to him as the two disciples did when they recognized Jesus and he offers us the light of the sunrise. We only have to reach out and take his hand.

A short prayer:

God of compassion,
be close to those who are ill, afraid or in isolation.
In their loneliness, be their consolation;
in their anxiety, be their hope;
in their darkness, be their light;
through him who suffered alone on the cross,
but reigns with you in glory,
Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen. (Association of English Cathedrals)

Sermon 19 April 2020: in words and on YouTube

Sermon 19 April 2020: in words and on YouTube

Simon Aley has prepared this week’s sermon. And as the Welland Fosse group of churches comes to terms with lockdown, Simon has bravely videoed/recorded himself on YouTube, if you would rather watch/listen than read/scroll.

First you need to read the lesson which is John 20:19-29. 
You can read it using your own Bible, or watch this child-friendly video link from a Catholic community in America. Click here
Click on the arrow in the video below to PLAY Simon’s sermon


Well, here we are in the middle of the coronavirus lockdown, at the heart of the Christian year and the Gospel story is another lockdown! All the disciples – well almost all of them – were in Jerusalem and, knowing that Jesus had risen from the dead – were they elated? Were they out spreading the good news? No, they were dead scared and were together in a room and following current Government advice that the best protection from the current threat is your front door – they responded by shutting and locking it from the inside locking it tight for fear – of a virus?

No, for fear of the Jews, which is a strange fear to have in one sense because the disciples were all Jews themselves! Probably this refers to Jewish authorities, or local mobs although our present lockdown leads many of us to fear ourselves too. If we go out and anyone sneezes or coughs, they are glared at shunned for fear they may have the virus. Here in Manton our walking is restricted as the Rutland Water paths are closed for fear of spreading disease.

Fear was as real then as it is now but for different reasons. The disciples had seen what happened to Jesus and were afraid that the Jews, as John puts it, would come after them next and a similar fate would befall them and we know they were right to be afraid – a similar fate did befall other disciples. People are right to take precautions now for fear of catching or spreading this deadly virus and sadly the daily statistics show the importance of staying at home to save lives. And in the midst of all this fear, the risen Jesus appears, and the clear implication is that he didn’t knock, and the door was not unlocked. So, did this appearance reassure the disciples? I would be surprised if it did at first? ‘How did you get here?’ and ‘What, who are you?’ might all be questions the frightened disciples would ask and we get a clue that these were their concerns as Jesus has to reassure them he is who they think he is – they need evidence. After saying “Peace be with you” he shows them his hands and his side where the nails went through to address their doubts. And note from verse 20 there is no criticism of their doubt: there will be criticism but that comes later, but for now as Jesus enters this locked room he faces and answers their doubts and shows the evidence they need.

And Jesus gives the disciples authority to forgive sins in the power of the Holy Spirit which the disciples receive there and then. Now some people question this. Surely the Holy Spirit came 50 days later – Pentecost – that’s what it means – this must be wrong? No, the Holy Spirit has always been here as part of the Godhead. The Hebrew Bible’s name for the Holy Spirit is Ruach which means breath or wind. The Day of Pentecost recounts a dramatic outpouring of the Holy Spirit which had always been around but now came with power.

So, the disciples who have seen and touched the evidence of Christ’s resurrection are keen to share this with Thomas who was not there and did not see what happened. So, when they meet, they tell him. And this is the difference. This is why Thomas is chided, albeit gently when he meets Jesus, after being told by the other disciples what they had seen, what they had touched and Thomas’ fault lies in the shortest word in his response, at least in our language. The word “I”. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Regardless of the testimony evidence of what he is told by his fellow disciples; unless he sees, he touches, he feels he has no evidence he cannot believe.

And when they meet, Jesus lets Thomas see and touch and feel and Thomas stops doubting and believes and worships “My Lord and my God!” and Thomas is chided and told “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Thomas had all the evidence he should need – eyewitness accounts from his fellow disciples whom he should have trusted. This is important because in John’s Gospel, nothing is there by accident. At the end of this chapter we are told that what is written is there that we might believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God’. John chooses three resurrection appearances for specific reasons and this one is to address fear and doubt that we might believe.

We have our doubts too and we demand evidence. Evidence for doubts as to whether or not this pandemic will ever end and when and the consequences of it all. Will life ever be the same again? Where is God in all this and what are and where are those faith handles, we cling to at such a time? If God is active now why is this person or that person not being protected?

I want to suggest that this lockdown is a great opportunity for all of us to get to grips with some of those questions, to face some of those doubts head on and pray, study and listen to God for ways through these doubts and questions so that we can grow and be stronger in our faith with our roots as Paul said “being rooted and grounded in love” (Eph 3:17). It is at times like this that we need our faith handles to encourage us and sustain us. Books like the Gospel of John written just for this purpose. The problem it seems is there are so many areas of doubt in the Christian faith!!, so many questions and demands for evidence. Even the resurrection itself.

I am often reminded reading this passage of a great book written by the English writer and advertising legal practitioner, Frank Morrison 90 years ago in 1930 and remains print, which I commend to you. He set out to write a book discrediting the resurrection of Jesus to find out as the title of his book suggests “Who Moved the Stone?” But as he researched and read his mind changed and he found faith. In an embarrassing call to his publishers Faber and Faber he warned them that this book he had promised would not be as they had expected because he now firmly believed in the resurrection. The, by now relieved publisher responded – that’s great Frank, what will be the title of your book now? Oh no said Frank, the title remains the same! Frank Morrison worked through his doubts and looked at the evidence and found a faith handle. The disciples’ faith handle was to see and touch his nail scarred hands and speared side. What will be the faith handle for each of us?

Finally, armed with those faith handles, what will we do about it? Jesus is very clear to those disciples in lockdown “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” (v.20) According tradition, Thomas got that and travelled to India, preached the Gospel, founded a church and was martyred in Chennai, formerly Madras.

“As the Father has sent me, so I send you” – what does that mean for us in lockdown and beyond? The answer is found in what it meant for Jesus Christ.

  • He came into the world as a poor Person
  • He came as a Servant
  • He emptied Himself
  • He delighted to do the Father’s will
  • He identified Himself with humanity
  • He went about doing good
  • He did everything by the power of the Holy Spirit
  • His goal was the cross

And now He said to the disciples and he says to us in lockdown, “I also send you.”

So, I guess we had better get ourselves ready. AMEN

A Message from Christopher Armstrong on Easter Sunday

A Message from Christopher Armstrong on Easter Sunday

Our churches remain closed but there will be a celebration of Holy Communion in the Benefice around the kitchen table at The Rectory. My lack of technical expertise means that you will not be able to see or hear it, however it will begin at 11am if you would like to join in prayer or use the readings detailed here. 

The Collect for Easter Day:

God of glory, by the raising of your Son you have broken the chains of death and hell: fill your Church with faith and hope; for a new day has dawned and the way to life stands open in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

The Epistle: Colossians 3. 1 – 7.   The Gospel: St. John 20. 1- 10.

Christopher’s Address is titled: In-Between

One of the many things I will miss about this Easter Day is the Dawn Eucharist: sitting in a darkened church, listening to various readings from the Old Testament which chart the course of our salvation history and meditating upon them in the silence.  As we do this, the dawn gathers, almost mysteriously, without us knowing. Then suddenly, we are aware of the change. ‘Is it dark or is it light’? ‘Is it night or is it morning’? Then the time of hesitation passes and we know that the day has dawned with the shafts of daylight piling into the church, suffusing every corner of darkness.

The practice of getting up before dawn to celebrate The Eucharist reaches back to that first appearance of The Risen Lord to Mary Magdalene. So critical was the event to the Early Church that it was recorded in all four gospels and our gospel for today – John – is uncommonly precise: “Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark.” (John 20.1). Mary does not see the resurrection – no one does – but she returns later to see the effects – the empty tomb – together with two disbelieving (male) disciples. She lingers and then meets the Risen Lord whom she mistakes for the gardener.

The half-light. This in-between state is very common in our lives: ‘Is the egg properly cooked or not’?  ‘Is our boy old enough to drink beer’? ‘Are those really the first sign of my bean shoots’? Such transitions also extend to our emotional life and moral choices too: ‘Am I really in love’?  ‘Could I get away with a tax fiddle’?  Truth comes at us in different forms, as any lawyer will know.  As Emily Dickenson says, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”

This in-between state allows us extra choice, as our epistle today identifies when St Paul writes, “If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things which are above.”(Colossians 3.1) He is suggesting that experiencing the resurrection, believing in Christ, gives us a wider choice in life between the flesh and the spirit (a distinction which he goes at great lengths to explore).

So Mary’s visit to the tomb in the light of dawn has an encounter with The Risen Lord. Is it the gardener? She only recognizes Jesus when He speaks to her.


This pandemic has turned life as we know it upside down.  For many, no dawn can be seen.  All is pitch black: for those who have been laid off; the direction of our personal and national finances; the intense pressures upon families living in cramped premises – and many, many deaths.

For all of us, life is different. We have new priorities, either forced upon us or self-generated. We have become more aware of our neighbours, the value of food, the sacrificial work of our front line, back-office and supply services. Never before have we clapped on a Thursday night for those whose work we have taken for granted! All these are positive signs but it is too early to identify silver linings, green shoots.  My hope however is that life will be different when the new ‘now’ arrives.  There are glimpses, straws in the wind.  People have time for each other; more are exercising; the ozone layer is healing. Many have been taken aback by unsolicited acts of kindness. Will these survive the lock-down or make it into the new reality? Time will tell. As with Mary, life has changed; it has not been taken away.

I used to work in the North-East when the steel works at Consett closed down.  It devastated the region but now, you would not know a vast steel industry had been there at all, such is the multiplicity of new industry and different landscapes.

So our universal outlook is grim – and so it was for Mary Magdalene on that first Easter Day.  The gloom may have continued for her and the other disciples had she not met the Risen Lord in the half-light of dawn. From that moment, life changed. It was alarming but it was enriched with hope, potential.  And it got better for her and the others as the Risen Lord made himself known to more and more, corporately and individually.

Easter in Ordinary

Mary’s gloom was lifted in the half-light. It is when it is darkest that we see the stars so clearly. And so it is, I hope, with the Glory of God, which is why the darkened church on Easter Day is so important. It throws into perspective the new day, the company, the freedom to celebrate as well as the bacon butties and champagne which are an integral part of any Dawn Eucharist! So often I look for the glory of God in some Damascus Road moment: blinding flash and much drama.  Well, it does happen occasionally – and I have experienced a few – but most of the time God comes to us in the normal. The new day, the delight of children, the skill of the operating theatre staff, the compassion of the consultant’s phone call, the warmth of a neighbour. In Bach’s St. John Passion, the evangelist announces the death of Jesus by moving from a minor to a major key, so critical is that moment for us all. One recent archbishop said that the glory of God is Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.

There is much foot-washing going on at the present time up and down our country. By the sacrificial staff on the front line, yes, but also along our streets and in our homes. Perhaps this lock-down has given us time to recognize it there.  It’s a happy coincidence that the Jewish Passover coincides with our Easter festival this year.  For the Jews (and Jesus was a Jew) this most important of feasts takes place in the home as they give thanks for their escape from captivity.  We too can take a leaf out of their book. We cannot go to church but we can give thanks for the presence of the Risen Lord among us; in the provision of lunch, the imaginative games on the internet, a good night’s sleep and the hope which the eruption of the Resurrection brings of a better tomorrow. Amen.





APRIL 5TH 2020

A disciple’s viewpoint

I almost don’t know how to bear it. It has been the worst week of my life so far and I’m not sure what will happen now. He did give us clues about what would happen but we didn’t want to understand. Everything seems so final now and we daren’t go out in case we are arrested.

It all seemed so different at the beginning of the week. We had stayed at Bethany for a while after Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead. It was such a strange experience for us and for Mary and Martha. There was a feeling of—I don’t know—perhaps faith, something we could not understand but it didn’t matter. We were all together and Jesus was our Messiah.

Then we were off again and heading straight for Jerusalem. We remembered what Jesus had said about dying and to be honest we wanted him to go the other way! It was hard to keep up with him especially when we tried to go slowly so that it would take longer to get there but I think Jesus had sussed us out and just kept going as if he was on a mission.

Jerusalem was crowded when we got there; everyone there to celebrate the Passover. Herod had ridden into the city and he had arrived as a warrior with all his circus beside him. He was only there because the Romans thought there might be trouble and they wanted to have a presence. People had cheered him and there was a feeling of freedom and holidaying.

Jesus told some of us to fetch him a donkey and her colt. It seemed to be all arranged and it happened just like he said it would. We were somewhat perplexed about why he wanted them but we soon found out! Like Herod he was going to enter Jerusalem but what a difference. He was riding a donkey. But then it happened as he entered by the Golden Gate.

You should have heard them. What a noise! What a sight! What a welcome! I’ve never seen anything like it. Herod must have thought he was popular but people only cheered him because they felt they had to. But Jesus was cheered and palm branches laid in front of him, people running after him, wanting to touch him, be near him, tearing off their cloaks and carpeting the road in front of him.

And the noise was amazing. ‘Hosanna’ they shouted; Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’. And the crowds just kept growing and growing, their throats got sore and they were breathless with all the shouting and running. Jesus sat calmly on the donkey and seemed somehow accepting it all but sometimes there was a sadness about him as though he knew this wouldn’t last.

But we were so pleased that our Lord and Master had at last been recognised by everyone else; although there were some at the back of the cheering crowds who were not looking too pleased, some of the Pharisees and the Roman soldiers who seemed totally taken by surprise. But there was nothing they could do; Jesus, the Messiah had arrived and they could do nothing to stop him; the people had given their verdict and that was that!

Jesus went to the Temple, the rightful place for the Messiah and went inside. Gradually the crowds dispersed and Jesus was left alone (there was something quite sad about this). We wanted him to capitalise on what had happened but he seemed strangely reluctant and spent a long time in the Temple just looking round and being quiet, praying, I suppose. We wanted to carry on with the cheering and whip up the people again, gain their adulation and bask in his reflected glory but Jesus seemed to have lost the impetus.

We went back to Bethany. Jesus seemed to be settled there, although there was such a strange expression in his eyes, such melancholy, wretchedness and, I don’t know, grief. We really didn’t understand but Lazarus seemed to and they spent a lot of time together, often not saying anything but you could see the bond between them.

And now all that joy and cheering seems so far away and as if it never happened. Not only did we enter Jerusalem but we entered the most sombre of all times. This week has been so hard and confusing; the preparation that Jesus had already made for us to be together and share the Passover meal; the Passover meal that we celebrated with him and the strange words that he used with the bread and the wine; his anguish in the Garden when he prayed so hard; the betrayal by Judas with that most intimate kiss and the arrest. I was so afraid and wanted to fight but Jesus said no and I could see his eyes that he really meant it.

He is suffering so much now. The Romans won’t spare him at all because he has made their life difficult and his own people don’t want him either. And not only could I not keep awake when he asked us to, I didn’t even have the courage to say I knew him. Even after all I’d said about being ready to die for him. I have failed him so much; I deny him, I abandon him, I betray him. But I caught his eye as I passed and they were full of love for me, even me. He forgives me and loves me always and offers me everything. He never invited us to worship him but to follow him. He may not be a conventional king but he is my King and I will share in his glory and hope.


Let us pray:

Lord Jesus Christ, we are reminded of how you entered Jerusalem to shouts of joy and celebration. But we remember too how quickly that welcome evaporated, how soon the mood of the crowd changed.

Lord, we know all too well that we are not so different. Our commitment  to you is so often short-lived, superficial, self-centred. Help us to welcome you into our lives with true gladness and to go on serving you, come what may.

Our world is in turmoil, people suffering and hurting. We know that you too have suffered and now suffer with us. May we remember that there is glory in your resurrection and look towards your light. Amen


It is said that a week is a long time in politics and recently it has been a long time for all of us. Life has changed rapidly and is now completely different. In Holy Week so much happened and yet the beginning of the next week brought such joy in the Resurrection. As we enter Holy Week let us remember that Christ suffered and he weeps with us now as throughout the world people are feeling lost and in darkness. Light will return to us and the light of Christ is always there in the gloom.

Keep well and safe and God bless





Passion Sunday 2020


We have a very active grandson, currently under lockdown with his younger sister.  Joshua loves practical challenges and aged nine – revels in Lego.  He has inherited his collection from parents and uncles in a variety of boxes so it is not clear to him which instructions he should be following, which picture to copy.  Truth to tell, he loves to embellish the design anyway, giving vent to his creative imagination. 

All of this is fine until his sister brushes by and – accidentally – knocks over this fantastic creation.  Then there is war in the playroom: tears, scraps and a dark mood descends until a more positive moment arrives when re-building can commence. But how will Joshua re-build?



Children’s play explores real life in miniature but few of us would have expected real life to arrive in the form of this current crisis.  It is almost unimaginable. We are now leaning to live a new sort of life. For how long, who knows?  But in the here and now, life is rapidly changing and so have our expectations.  This is a global change. We have heard how smog is lifting from China, pollution is dispersing over Italy and the canals of Venice are becoming cleaner.  And values are shifting. We look forward to an unexpected phone call; we ache for a daily walk; a tour round the garden brings greater pleasure.

At the same time as this terrible pandemic is being fought with all its practical implications and sad consequences, we are all trying to grasp its meaning at a different level. Moral, financial, spiritual as well as physical re-calibration is happening. The Prime Minister is talking about morality; new initiatives are springing up across the Benefice; we are all exploring a different register in our lives: a spiritual level.



Passion Sunday marks the start of the run-in towards Easter. Some churches on Passion Sunday distribute nails to bring home the message of suffering on the cross. For the meaning of ‘passion’ is not just fired-up emotion but ‘suffering alongside’ as we believe that Jesus came to do: to share our lives and lead us in a more positive direction. It was costly, just as so many NHS staff are sacrificially serving us all at the present time.  One man working in the Respiratory Department at Papworth Hospital with relations in one of our villages is not allowed to go home to his family for fear of infecting the patients.

The gospel reading for Passion Sunday describes the death of one of Jesus’s close friends, Lazarus (John 11. 1 – 45). His sister Martha rips into Jesus, saying that Lazarus would not have died had Jesus visited sooner. We can see in Martha’s reaction so much of the panic which grips some folk in today’s crisis. But Jesus’ reply is instructive.  He moves the discussion into that deeper register and suggests to her that Lazarus, as a friend of Jesus, shares in that quality of life which we call eternal. It is not ended at death.

We are all taking our part in this Coronavirus prevention, foregoing many normal freedoms.  There is a growing sensitivity one to another; a greater sharing of burdens. This is Passion-tide when we share in the sufferings of Jesus as he approaches death. He also shares our sufferings. Eternal life is reciprocal: ‘He in us and we in Him’ (John 14.20). There will come a time for re-building but now is the time of shared suffering and suffering shared is suffering halved.

But how will we re-build this tumbled edifice? How will Joshua re-configure his Lego?  That lovely story of the Valley of Dry Bones (Ezekiel chapter 37) give us a clue. Bones scattered and isolated is not a living entity. It is only when the Spirit comes that they join together and live. Will we bounce back in the same form after this crisis?  I hope not.  This time of isolation, suffering and reflection must suggest a different way to live. Amen.


Christopher Armstrong.

Mothering Sunday Sermon

Mothering Sunday Sermon

Mothering Sunday  Sermon

John 19: 25-27(NRSV) 

Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 

26 When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” 

27 Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.

Let me just check if there is anyone here who really should be here!

If you are a mother, please raise a hand? OK hands down

Anybody here – If you were baptised or Christened at this Church please raise a hand?

So which group is right?

The answer is everyone is welcome and everyone here should be here but Mothering Sunday historically has a special place for those who were christened and who returned and if they were in service as many were when this tradition developed this was the one day each year they might expect to get back to their home church and back then where you grew up was probably where you were christened and in all probability where your parents still lived so you may well see and stay with your mother on your return, if she was still alive. But the mother in mothering Sunday refers not to going home to see your Mum, though chances are you did but going back to your mother church. And this term was used variously to describe the church of your christening and also the diocesan cathedral. So I have seen old church records of bequests from this county made in wills to the mother church which there meant the diocesan cathedral and in view of their age that mother church was Lincoln whose diocese famously stretched from the Humber to the Thames. Often small amounts tuppence or sixpence but they all added up across such a vast area. I have often wondered how many of them ever visited Lincoln Cathedral? I suspect not many. But it was the mother church.

Last year I met a volunteer at our current cathedral – Peterborough and she was passionate about the cathedral, while not declaring any Christian faith, she nevertheless described the cathedral in essentially spiritual terms. It was like a great blanket covering and protecting her she said with the sense of all the souls who have inhabited the Abbey over the centuries. She was passionate about the mother church and because of that passion she gave of her time resource and really loved it. And we like that about our mothers too. Wanting as children to bring Mum breakfast in bed on Mothering Sunday or draw a picture or find some flowers. We need to do something. And Jesus hanging on that dreadful cross as his mortal life sapped from him sees John, the disciple who Jesus loved standing beside Mary and said behold your mother and to Mary; woman behold your son. We know Jesus had a brother James and yet his passion for the wellbeing of his mother leads him to make this statement from the cross. Woman behold your Son. To secure her future care and love and at the height of his passion and pain to focus his earthly passion on his mother. And we see that love and passion for mothers repeated in every generation. Not always – sometimes it is tough, sometimes that love is shattered or abused but generally that parent child love and devotion is echoed down the centuries.

So how do we apply that same passion, that same love to the mother church? Indeed do we? What is our passion? What “floats our boat”? Our favourite football or rugby team? Our favourite TV or film celebrity or band? Our car? Our pet? And how much time and money do we lavish on our passion?

The French writer and aviator Antione de St Exupéry wrote this – strangely about boat building!

“If you want to build a ship. Don’t summon people to be workers, to prepare tools, distribute jobs and organise their work. Rather motivate people to yearn for the wide boundless ocean.”

If you want to grow your Church’s income and resources. Don’t summons them to Church and browbeat them into stewardship but tell them the Gospel and the love that Jesus has for them worked out in His Church. Does that seem a fair comparison with the quote of Antione de St Exupéry? I suggest it might be.

Growing churches often have growing incomes available and resources to deliver mission. Manchester United is a very popular football team far more popular than my local football team, Barnet football club where supporters were known to walk out of the game during the match even when Barnet were winning, which admittedly was not that often! Whereas Manchester United supporters go around in the red and white club strip, travel hundreds of miles to get to Old Trafford, pay extortionate gate fees whether their team win or lose. Because they are passionate about their club. Much the same could be said of passionate collectors of whatever and people passionate about their hobbies. Are we passionate about Jesus and what he has done for us? As passionate as we might be for the wellbeing of our own mothers?

I saw this story in a recent flyer from a medical charity about a woman in Old Fangak in South Sudan, beside the White Nile.

A woman came into the clinic in this remote swampy area. It was the rainy season although it seems that makes little difference these days and the Marram runway was now mud and incapable of being used. The mother was haemorrhaging and losing dangerous amounts of blood. She was a mother and had 5 children in her care. They had come with her but her condition was worsening and in danger. The children were all tested for blood types as supplies were so low and they brought in as many people as they could to give blood if they were suitable and found 3 but it was not enough. The woman needed surgical procedures that would have to be done in the capital Juba but they could not get her flown out. I have driven a car in such conditions and it is pretty scary an aeroplane would be out of the question. It would take days to cross by boat and land to get to Juba and there are no good roads. The woman did not have a few days. Then news came in that a helicopter was passing nearby the next day and they offered to winch the woman up and fly her to Juba. Within a week she had been treated, recovered and that mother was starting her 500km journey back to her family.

There is no suggestion that the Doctor who wrote this account was a Christian but his observation was that it was the generosity, passion and commitment of this mother’s family, friends and professional carers that saved her. That same word again – passion and linked here with generosity. Features we see at this time each year, Mothering Sunday and features we need to see throughout the year for the Bride of Christ which is the Church – the mother church.

I finish with a quote from the Confessions of Augustine – he of Hippo, which was a town in North Africa, not a reference to his horselike features (although photography was pretty useless in the 4th century!)  “You called, you shouted, you broke through my deafness, you flamed, you blazed and being led in my blunders you lavished your fragrance – AND I GASPED!”


Ash Wednesday 2020.The Benefice Service, Barrowden

Ash Wednesday 2020.The Benefice Service, Barrowden

Ash Wednesday 2020.The Benefice Service, Barrowden

“When you fast…wash your face.” Mt.6.17.


Contrary to Scripture?

In a few moments, we will kneel at the altar rail for the Imposition of Ashes.  Will we be disobeying scripture by doing so?  On first reading the wearing of ashes is being outlawed by St. Matthew. Why then are we doing it?

Matthew was a Jew who was called by Jesus from the tax office to follow him.  He knew the Jewish tradition inside out, including their pattern of fasting which – as we have heard – was very public: standing on the street corners with long prayers, looking miserable and a bit scruffy. It was these empty gestures which Jesus criticised yet he didn’t come to abolish but to fulfil the Law.  And we too are called to fulfil the Jewish law, including the call to repentance and we will do so with Christ, in Christ, through Christ, and in the company of one another.

The Jews in Jesus’ day wore ash on their heads but attitudes were soon to change in the church. After the resurrection and the growing popularity of the Christian church, the Romans were very edgy about this new group. The cross was a dangerous sign to be wearing and could result in arrest or worse. So the Christians adopted a secret sign – the fish – the Greek for which was an acrostic for Jesus: ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour’. We can find it today on Christian pottery and in the catacombs. It was only after Christianity became legal with the Emperor Constantine that the cross became popular – and so it remains to this day, or almost so. It reminds us of the hope into which we are baptised and in which we stand together, with that invisible cross on our foreheads. Ash Wednesday is one of those principal days in the Christian Year when we are called to stand together. This cross reminds us that we are dust but dust destined for glory. It is still a gathering point for revolution.  We only have to reflect upon the fate of Christians in China, Russia or Pakistan.



There is strength in numbers, however we identify with each other.

Just before the birth of Jesus, the Romans had to tackle a revolution in their own ranks led by a gladiator called Spartacus.  The Romans were desperate to stamp this out so rounded up their gladiators and demanded that Spartacus identify himself. Otherwise they would all be put to death. He did. He stood up and acknowledged his name. But then, so did others, all of whom were called Spartacus, until the whole hillside was bristling with men called Spartacus. It’s an inspiring story and one beloved of revolutionaries. That story has been immortalized not just in film but in an overture by Saint Saens. It has a dark, brooding start in a minor key but then gathers to a finale with crashing percussion, brass and trumpets.



And so Christ’s will is for us to carry through Lent identifying with him and with each other to the glorious finale which is Easter Day.  Jesus used the word ‘hypocrite’ to describe those who faked their fast.  The word means actor, pretender, dissembler. And we can fall under that criticism too if we are not prepared to see this journey through.

A hypocrite would not change. He or she would carry on just as before. But the cross calls us to repent or change direction; to take on board the way of the cross. It is never too late. Normally one has to change and change again; to keep on following the cross, with the support of Christ and one another. Newman said, ‘To live is to change and to be perfect is to change often’.

This cross of dust reminds us of our mortality. It also reminds us of that invisible cross of baptism which – like Spartacus – binds us together in glory.