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A reflection for Sunday 5th May 2024 Easter VI by Canon Dean Fostekew

“Oh! I have 3000 friends on Facebook. I feel blessed to have so many friends following me.” 

Perhaps, today, this comment is not uncommon. Having friends numbered in the thousands is for many a badge of honour; even if in reality those with all those friends have never met more than say 2% of all those so called friends. So are those followers actually ‘friends’? 

That is a question that can cause some heated debate and I remember one such debate a few years ago at the Book Festival; when one of our own congregation challenged Rabbi (now Baroness) Julia Nueberger on her use of the word ‘friend’ in one of her books. Nueberger happily used the word to describe Facebook followers but our member believed that a friend  could only be someone with whom one had a close relationship with, whom one actually knew and spent time with. 

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word ‘friend’ as:

“A person with whom one has developed a close and informal relationship of mutual trust and intimacy; (more generally) a close acquaintance. Often with adjective indicating the closeness of the relationship, as best, good, close, etc. Cf. mate, pal."

How do you define the word ‘friend’ in your experience? 

Jesus, as recorded, in today’s Gospel account obviously believed friends to be more than followers on social media. For him a friend was someone with whom he had a deep and loving relationship:

“12 ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command you.”               John 15:12-14

For Jesus a friend was someone for whom you would give your all, even your life to save them or to make things better for them. They are not someone on a list of followers unknown to the individual they are following. They are people who have mutually chosen to be part of each others lives to such an intimate extent that they are more or less family. Friends are the people that one choses to spend time with and with whom one has a deep understanding and fellowship. Whatever the depth of relationship one has with any particular friend implies that one actually knows them by face, name and time spent together and not as just a nickname on a scroll of names following your latest instagram or snapchat photograph!

A friend for Jesus was someone who abided in his love and thus the love of God. Someone who had chosen to enter freely to a relation of depth with him and who had opened their heart to receive love from him. We are friends of Jesus and he is our friend as well. Not in any soppy or sentimental way but in a way that is all embracing and empowering. True friendship as defined by Jesus is a relationship built upon, transformed by, and sustained by unconditional love. The boundless love of God manifested through the Christ to those who recognise who he is and are willing to open their hearts to him. 

This friendship is powerful and life changing for friends of this depth are willing to put themselves out when needed. To laugh and cry with each other, to rebuke and teach each other and to love each other even when they might drive each other mad. Friends are those people who know us so well that they love even our faults and shortcomings because they can see the who person we are and not just a fraction of our humanity. Friends forgive each other when needed, carry each others burdens at all times, laugh together and wipe away tears. 

This is the friendship that Jesus talks about today; transformative, deeply loving relationships and not some unknown connection on a list. Personally, I would like all of us to reclaim the word ‘friend’ from social media usage by the way we show how we love our friends, just as Jesus shows us how he loves each of us as his friends too. 


 

A reflection for Easter V Sunday 28th April 2024 by the Rev'd David Warnes

On a short visit to Edinburgh many years ago, long before I lived in the city, I fell into conversation with a local who asked me:

“Where do you stay?”

I wasn’t then familiar with the Scots use of that verb “stay” and when I replied:

“The Old Waverley Hotel”.

the person with whom I was chatting looked completely baffled.

I was of course being asked where I lived, not where I was staying, and in those days the correct answer would have been Ipswich. Edinburgh was then a place I was passing through. Ipswich was my settled residence, the place of my abiding. 

Jesus uses the word “abide” no fewer than eight times in today’s Gospel passage and the word is also found six times in today’s Epistle.  The Greek verb meno – I abide – occurs three times in Matthew’s Gospel, twice in Mark, six times in Luke and a surprising thirty-three times in St John’s Gospel. 

Sometimes St John seems to be using the word in the ordinary sense, for example in          Chapter 1, Andrew and another disciple of  John the Baptist encounter Jesus first time and ask him:

“Rabbi where are you staying?”

to which Jesus replies

“Come and see”

“Where are you staying?” sounds rather mundane, yet there’s a hint here of important truths that are unfolded later in the Gospel. Discipleship is about abiding in Jesus and Jesus’ own abiding place is profoundly important. We discover the nature of that abiding place when Jesus tells Philip:

“Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father is in me.”

And in today’s Gospel Jesus tells his disciples”

“Abide in me as I abide in you.”

He makes the idea of abiding very vivid by using a word-picture of himself as a vine and inviting his followers to be grafted on to him. 

“Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”

Taken together the three sayings I have just quoted make the point that abiding in Jesus who himself abides in God links us to God and nourishes us. 

The word-picture of Jesus as the true vine would have had a vivid immediacy to the disciples for they all knew about the growing of grapes and the grafting of grape vines. I wonder what word-picture Jesus would have used had the Incarnation happened in 21st century Edinburgh. A possibility occurred to me the other day when I reached for the mop and bucket which we store in the cupboard under the stairs. Another thing that lives there, because there happens to be a phone socket, is our modem. It links us to the outside world. We can send and receive emails, stream music, watch classic sitcoms on TV. It works because we are plugged into it, and it is plugged into the vast resources of the internet. And there, perhaps, we reach the limit of the usefulness of this metaphor, for not all of those resources are wholesome or benign. Yet I think it’s a helpful metaphor because the traffic is two-way and it depends on us being plugged in. 

That’s not the view of religious faith that most of our contemporaries have. They see it more in terms of subscribing to theological propositions and obeying moral rules, and those things, important though they are, are secondary to faith itself. Archbishop William Temple made this point well in his Readings in St John’s Gospel:

“Our discipline is not a bracing of our wills to conformity with a law; it is the maintenance of communion with the Lord to the point of immutable indwelling.”

“the maintenance of communion with the Lord to the point of immutable indwelling”

Indwelling, abiding or, to go back to the modem metaphor, being connected and staying connected; being connected and staying connected to the God who loves us. 

Today’s Epistle is a call to Christian love and in it, St John tells his readers:

“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”

And there’s that word “abide” again, that call to get connected and stay connected to the source of love itself. 

St John’s Gospel offers guidance on how to stay connected, how to abide. In chapter 8 we read:

“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

And the Greek word that is translated as “continue” in that verse is the same word that elsewhere is translated as “abide”. Staying connected involves reflecting on all that we know of Jesus from the Gospels.

In chapter 6 Jesus says:

“He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him”

And we are reminded that when we make our communion we are connected with Christ, nourished  by him and connected also one with another. 

So the very structure of this service – the Word read and reflected upon, the Eucharist celebrated and Communion received – builds and strengthens that connection, that abiding. But that’s not an invitation to be stationary. The Jesus of whom we read in the Gospels is a man on the move, and abiding with him, being connected with him involved the first disciples in moving with him, moving out of their comfort zones. That’s a point that Rowan Williams made in a conference address in 2007.

“Disciples were people called away from home because they must be where their master is. And that is never going to be comfortable; but perhaps it becomes intelligible when one realizes…that the home where you will finally realize who and what you are is the home, the place prepared for you, by Jesus.”

We come here week by week to strengthen our connection with, our abiding in, Jesus and to abide in Jesus is to commit to a journey that may at times be difficult and uncomfortable, but whose destination is the full realization of ourselves.


 

A reflection for Good Shepherd Sunday Easter IV 21st April 2024

Good Shepherd Sunday 2024

125/135th Anniversaries of the Congregation 

“I was glad when I heard them say; 

“Let us go into the house of God.”     Psalm 122


I remember the first time I walked into the Church of the Good Shepherd. Immediately, I was aware that this was a holy place. That it was a building loved and cared for and more importantly one that was steeped in decades of prayer and worship. I have always believed that prayer oozes out of bricks and mortar and I still feel that today about this place. Those words from Psalm 122 are I believe very apt in relation to this church. This truly is the ‘House of God’.

It is often said that building do not make a church and that’s correct. The church is actually the gathering of the people in worship but I have long believe that buildings do have a strong role to play in making the church visible and attractive. The journalist Canon Angela Tilby writing in the Church Times of 16th February 2024 wrote:

“It has become a widely held view that church buildings are an obstacle to the mission of the Church … For years, (she goes on to say) I have felt assaulted by the oft repeated little chant; “The Church is the people, not the building.” It is true that the NewTestament says nothing about church buildings, but it has quite a lot to say about people as a building, a temple, built on Christ.”

She is right in what she says but a much loved building whose foundations are deeply rooted in prayer does have something very special to offer the the community in which it is placed. 

Tilby goes on to say:

“Churches are signs of the holiness of God manifested in particular places, histories, memories. … There are good reasons that church buildings should be loved and preserved. After all, it is the building that bears witness to those who have lived and died in a particular place, and also signals continuity to those who have not yet been born.”

Again, her word echo my own thoughts and feelings. After the Covid19 lockdown I was overwhelmed by the number of local residents who thanked me that we kept the church garden and porch chapel open in those difficult times. Their words were also reflected in the numerous prayer request and comments left on the prayer board on the door. Words such as refuge, sanctuary, place of hope and calm were commonly used. I realised then how much this wee church building means to so many in the local environment. They may not choose to worship here but they certainly feel an ownership of the place and value the stability it offers in a changing world. It is a point of reference for more people than we could ever imagine. 

There will be those people locally, who look out to see that we are open on Sundays and Wednesdays for worship. Neighbours who watch you come to worship and who feel that you are representing them as well and who may say something to you if they don’t see you leave for church. We all worship not just for ourselves but for unseen or even unknown others who appreciate the fact that we do so, even if they are unable to do the same. 

Tilby continues:

“ A church building is the Gospel in wood, glass and stone. It witnesses to the risk of the incarnation: that God chose to dwell with us in a real time and a real place.”

This church building designed by Robert Lorimer to be a ‘country church in the city’  is certainly that but it is also so much more. It is the place God’s people can gather not only to worship but to enjoy each others company, to love and support each other. It is a place to laugh and cry in, a place to be silent and a place to raise a glass of fizz in celebration and in a spirit of fellowship and partying. 

For me this building is my much loved spiritual home. The place where I have laughed and wept, the place where I have comforted and been comforted, the place where I have listened to others and been listened to myself. This building, this congregation is part of my DNA and I suspect from what I know of you, that many of you feel the same. There are those times when, to be frank, you may have no idea why you are here or what it all means but still you are drawn in; and there will be those times when you are bowled over by the presence of God that you simply cannot speak. This for me is what a church building is all about. It is the place where we can be with God in a determined and specific way. Yes, God is always round us, in the wonderful Creation which have been given and share in but a building such as ours which is held together by prayer and love really is a holy place of God. 

Tilby concludes her article:

“People and place matter. Christianity is not just a religion of the Spirit. … a church is the memory of Christian presence. This does not mean that there are not times when there is no alternative, when it comes to mission, however, church buildings, far from being seen as an obstacle, should be celebrated for what they are: the threshold of faith.”

Those entering a church building for the first time will be aware of how much the place is, as I said before, prayed in and loved and it might just attract them to return and get to know it better and to explore what faith is all about as well. 

Those who dreamed of having a church in this bit of the city dreamed big and their dream became a reality. It is an unfinished dream both spiritually and physically. The dream of faith will never cease and we always have more to discover about God and our place in God’s love. This building was never completed, the money ran out and the tower and north aisle never appeared (and I say ‘Thanks be to God’ that, that was the case) but the gathering space that we have is perfect as it is, and I like the fact that it’s unfinished. For it speaks to me of the provisionality of life and faith There is always more to discover, create and do. 

Nothing should ever be set in stone or assumed to be the last word and a good building needs to grow and adapt organically if it is to survive as a place of worship and sanctuary in a community. Over the years the Good Shepherd has seen changes and not lest our recent decision to use the back of our church as our social gathering space and our plans for new cupboards to facilitate that gathering. Not only for our own use but for others from our local community who also love and value this place too.

The ‘church’ may not be the building but a good building can and does enhance everything a congregation may wish to do and as I believe, it can be an excellent tool for mission and witnessing to Christ in the bit of the kingdom it the congregation finds itself in. 

Let us be glad as we say; ‘this truly is the house of God’

Stone and brick,

mortar and wood,

glass and gathering space

symbols of:

prayer, commitment 

love and faith.


Vision and hope,

care and toil,

chat and comfort

all build 

the Kingdom of God

in this place.


 

A reflection for Low Sunday by Judy Wedderspoon Lay Reader

John 20: 19-31                                        Low Sunday

Jesus said to Thomas: “Do not doubt but believe.”

Thomas has come down through Christian history as the disciple who was unwilling to believe in the resurrection of Jesus until he had visible and tangible proof. 

There is more to Thomas than that.

We do not know where he came from, although it is likely that he came from Galilee. Nor do we know how he came to be a follower of Jesus. Nor do we know what he did before becoming a disciple. But all three synoptic evangelists, Mark, Matthew and Luke, include him in their lists of the disciples who, early in Jesus’ ministry, were commissioned by him as apostles and sent out to spread the word in Galilee. Luke also includes him in the list of disciples who after Jesus’ resurrection, before Pentecost, were assembled at prayer, awaiting further instructions.

There are many legends associated with Thomas. Because he is described as “Didymus”, meaning “the Twin”, some early Christians believed that he was the twin brother of Jesus. That is not a belief which I can share!

Another legend says that after Pentecost Thomas travelled East to spread the Gospel, and finally ended up in India, where eventually he was martyred. There does not seem to be any concrete evidence of this, but the Internet tells me that in parts of India he is still regarded as their patron saint.

Finally, there is the Gospel of Thomas, one of a number of Gospels which were in circulation in the early church. (Other such Gospels include for instance the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Mary, and the Gospel of James.) None of these was eventually included in what we know as the New Testament. They were lost to Christianity until old manuscripts were discovered in the last century. But they were very influential in their time. The short Gospel of Thomas is a collection of so-called “secret writings” which sometimes repeat and sometimes purport to amplify the teachings of Jesus as they have come down to us. Just to give you a flavour: when recounting Jesus’ saying that no man can serve two masters, the Gospel of Thomas prefaces Jesus’ words by adding: “It is impossible for a man to mount two horses or to stretch two bows.” Both analogies are very unlike the type of analogies normally used by Jesus. So one has to ask, did these sayings really come from Jesus? Or, indeed, did they really come from Thomas? We will probably never know.

That’s a lot of negatives! Why do I think Thomas matters? What have we to learn from him?

I like Thomas. I do think that we can learn from him. He appears three times in St John’s gospel. Each time he has something important to tell us.

In John chapter 11, Jesus has left Jerusalem, having angered the Pharisees and the elders of the Jewish community by the cleansing of the Temple and by his teaching and healing in defiance of their dictates. With his disciples Jesus has continued to heal and teach beyond the river Jordan. Then the news comes to him that his dear friend Lazarus has died. Jesus at first delays, but then makes clear his intention to return to Judaea, to Bethany. The other disciples fuss around him. They do not want to go so near to Jerusalem. They are afraid for him, because the Jews have been trying to stone him. It is also rather obvious that they are afraid for themselves. Will they be stoned by the Jews? And what will happen to them if they lose their beloved leader? 

Thomas simply cuts through the cackle. He says: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” [Jn 11: 16] That apparently ends the matter. Thomas is ready to follow the Master to whom he has given his allegiance, no matter what the cost, even unto death. Doubting Thomas must also be recognised and honoured as loyal and courageous Thomas. It is not easy at times to cut through the cackle and tell your fellow disciples where duty lies.

John then again brings Thomas to our attention in his account of Jesus’ discourse in the Upper Room after the Last Supper:  

 From John chapter 14: Jesus said to his disciples “And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

Thomas was honest. He was prepared, as I mostly am, to admit ignorance and to ask for an explanation when he didn’t understand. I’ve often wondered how he felt about Jesus’ reply: “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Theological experts in the succeeding centuries have written volumes about those words. I suspect that Thomas may still have been puzzled, but he didn’t press the point. But when he was puzzled, he admitted it and asked. I believe that to be an example for all of us. We can admit that we don’t understand, and ask – even though we may find the reply beyond our understanding.

And lastly, in chapter 20 of John’s gospel, Thomas appears in the familiar reading which we have just heard. He could not accept without question the excited report of the disciples to whom Jesus had appeared earlier in the Upper Room. Nor could he accept Mary Magdalene’s account of our Lord’s appearance to her in the garden at the empty tomb, nor the account of the two disciples who had returned from Emmaus. All those accounts seemed to be tainted with emotional hysteria, understandable but unsatisfactory as far as Thomas was concerned. So he stood firm. “I’ve got to see for myself.”

And he did. Jesus appeared again to his disciples. Jesus understood Thomas. He understood Thomas’ need to really know. He showed Thomas his terrible wounds. So Thomas then uttered the words which have come down to be a beacon for us and for all believers. “My Lord and my God.” Thomas was the first to recognise unequivocally the divinity of Jesus not only for himself, but for all of us, for us who have not seen and yet have believed.

So let us thank God for Thomas, and for John the evangelist who has brought his memories and insights to us. Doubting Thomas, yes, but also loyal and courageous Thomas, and honest Thomas. Thank God for such as him.

A reflection for Easter Sunday 31st March 2024 by Canon Dean Fostekew

“There will be no miracles here.” and “Everything will be alright.” 

You’ll probably know these two sayings from the sculptures in the grounds of the Modern One and Modern Two galleries. They are by Nathan Coley and Martin Creed. For me they have a resonance with today’s glorious feast. You might wonder quite how? But think on. How did those woman who went early in the morning to Jesus’ tomb really feel on discovering the body gone and a strange young man telling them to go and tell the disciples that Jesus had risen? 

“7But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ 8So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Mark 16:7-8 

There is a bit of a problem with these last two verses from the Gospel read this morning. The young man (or angel) in the tomb tells the two Marys and Salome to go and tell the disciples and Peter that Jesus is no longer in the tomb but that he has in fact risen from the dead and is on his way to Galilee. This is all well and good, and you might expect the women to go and do just what they have been told to do. But! As we are told in verse 8, the women were so terrified of the angel and his message that they decide not to say anything to anyone. (There will be no miracles here!) Verse 8 really does not make much sense because if they were so terrified as to do nothing, how then did the news of Jesus’ resurrection spread? 

Personally, I believe that the women were made of sterner stuff and once over their initial shock they did as they were commanded and spread the good news. (Everything will be alright.) The seeming paradox of the women being too terrified to say anything and the news of the resurrection spreading is simply, poetic licence. Mark uses the language he does to emphasise how utterly amazed and terrified the three women were - in the FIRST instance. I can’t believe that once they were over their initial shock that they chose not to say anything to the disciples and Peter. It is human nature to want to talk about what one has seen once the shock has passed - it is in fact one of the ways that we come to term with our experiences. We humans need to talk about our traumas in order to process and understand them and to comprehend the effects that they might have upon us from there on in. If we bottle it all up we are usually heading for difficult times ahead. A bit like that 17th century french Bishop of Modseine trying to make light of the unexplained miracles that kept happening in that city when he said; ‘There will be no miracles here’. Forgetting that we humans can’t control what God does. 

The three women, I suspect, would have talked among themselves about the empty tomb and the ‘young man’s’ words to them. I also think that they would have been too in awe of the ‘angel’ not to have done as he asked and that they would have sought the disciples and Peter out. So, although, Mark says they said; ‘nothing to anyone’; I think they must have or how else did the news of his rising from the dead spread? We also have to remember that Mark’s account is just one of the resurrection accounts in the New Testament. In Matthew 28 we are told that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary after encountering Jesus in the garden did run and tell the disciples what they had seen, with great joy and excitement, not fear. So, although, in Mark’s account the women seem to be dumb struck, in Matthew’s account it is actually Mary Magdalene who becomes the first evangelist of the risen Christ. The truth of the women’s reactions is probably somewhere in between. They realised a miracle had happened and that perhaps 'everything would be alright’ even after their grief had overwhelmed them on Good Friday. 

On that first Easter morning the women in their grief and despair at Jesus’ death, want to ‘lay him out’ properly as women have done for centuries before and after. They want to give him a good and decent burial and this would have been in the forefront of their minds and actions. When they encounter the empty tomb; fear, anger and distress would have overwhelmed them. So much so that they were rendered speechless but once over their initial shock and surprise they would have course sought out Jesus’s closest followers and friends to tell them what they had seen and experienced in all its weirdness. They well may have been convinced that a miracle had happened. I think those three women in this Gospel account became evangelists just as Mary Magdalene does in Matthew’s account. Can you imagine, however, what Peter and the disciples first made of what the women had to tell them? 

In fact how would you have responded if told that Jesus was risen from the dead? Might your first response had been along the lines of that 17th century bishop with his no miracles statement? How do the words; ‘Alleluia! He is risen!’ really make you feel? Do they give you hope, that things will be alright? Now translate that back some 2000 odd years to those who first heard those words - ‘He is risen!’ These words contain a power of liberation and hope beyond our actual comprehension. For these few words release us from our slavery to sin and guide us into the shining light and power of Jesus’ resurrection. Once the words; ‘He is risen!’ have been spoken life can or is never the same. 

Human life has not been the same since that first Easter morning. Christ’s resurrection changed human history for his resurrection was proof of our forgiveness and liberation from our sins. It was proof beyond measure that God loves us as he loves his Son, so much in fact, that we humans can be forgiven eternally because of the selfless actions of Jesus on the cross. How amazing is that? What a miracle that is and how wonderful it is to know that things are and will be alright, eventually. I hope that you find it amazing when you hear the words we use a lot today; ‘He is risen!’ because there are no other words quite as powerful apart from; ‘I love you’ and when you think of it; ‘He is risen!’ could quite as easily be translated as God saying; ‘I love you’. This is what today is all about, the power of love, God’s love, Jesus’ love, human love to change our lives and the lives of others too and to ultimately change the world. Perhaps the phrase today is; ‘He is risen!’ but translated as; ‘I love you’. 

In this amazing love of God we are risen into new life day after day after day. But, however, it is NO USE in Christ being risen if we don’t then do something about it. The best thing we can do is to tell another human being about Christ’s resurrection and the great love that God has for each of us. We need to try never to be too frightened, as the women may have been, to tell others about Jesus and we need to remember that miracles can and do happen and that things will be alright, if we have hope. For hope is love and love is the proof of the resurrection. May your lives always be filled with hope and love and may we always shout throughout eternity: 

Alleluia! He is Risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!