Revd Alex Pease gave his last sermon as Rector of Itchen Valley Parish
So this is it! My last service as your Rector! It’s very sad for Lucy and me to be putting this job down.
As I mentioned both in my speech at the APCM and in my article in Itchen Valley News, I have drawn on all my life’s experiences to do this role. There is no doubt in my mind, that it was no accident that I found myself here doing this job: the huge number of unexpected personal connections that Lucy and I have with so many of you will testify: family connections, school connections, university connections, army connections and Allen & Overy connections….
Lucy and I stopped counting after 20 or so completely unexpected links with so many of you came up, as we got to know you. It has felt like the culmination of all my life’s experiences, a completing of circles, a tying up of loose ends, to be your Rector and I have found that everything I have done in my life, however foolish, however sensible has been relevant and useful to my role amongst you. I have been able to use here the experiences of the ups and downs of my life, a sense that none of it has been wasted…as many of you will have heard in my preaching.
You have been welcoming, warm and encouraging. You could not have been a better community in which to serve. It has been enormous fun for Lucy and I and we are so happy to be remaining in this community with you all…. but as members of the church rather than its leaders.
Three years ago, when I was instituted as your Rector, in that wonderful service led by Bishop David, the reading was John 3:1-15: the story of Nicodemus coming to see Jesus by night. Today the reading is John 20:24-29, the story of Thomas.
Nicodemus and Thomas; the description in John of Jesus’ encounters with these two men have bookended my ministry as Rector here. They are two men who reflect the character of many of us in Itchen Valley:
Nicodemus, the lawyer, the professional, the influential member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, the ruling council, but compelled by the logic of the miracles, the signs, that Jesus has performed, to steal out to see him at night. His is the approach of the rationalist, the learned, the lawyer or the scientist
Thomas, on the other hand, is the practical man, who is no fool, by the way. He knows that no-one who has been crucified and has been dead for three days lives again. He wants irrefutable evidence that Jesus has actually been resurrected, he isn’t just going to listen to fabulous stories told by others, to what other people must have imagined they had seen. His is the approach of the sceptic.
What is it that makes ordinary people, rationalists and sceptics ever believe the good news of Jesus Christ? The good news of his resurrection, His rising from the dead that we celebrated last Sunday at Easter?
How is it that the penny ever drops?
What is it that makes them truly believe, not on a superstitious basis: ‘Well maybe its true and I better be safe than sorry’; not on a cultural basis: ‘We have always been to church in my family so that’s why I go, but I could not tell you what I believe, or really whether I believe’. Not on that basis.
But rather what makes intelligent people: rationalists and sceptics, believe in such a way that they make the truth of the resurrection of Jesus and a relationship with the risen Christ, the foundation stone of everything that they are? By which they evaluate the course of their lives and in the context of which they make every decision they take…..What makes people believe in this way? What makes people followers of Christ?
It’s an issue which weighs heavily on a newly appointed Rector…and should weigh on every follower of Christ; How can I fulfil the Great Commission given to his disciples then and now by Jesus in Matthew 28:19 ‘..Go and make disciples….baptising them….and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you’?
How can I fulfil this responsibility to God in Itchen Valley?
For some time I thought that the answer might be logic. The sort of reasoning that Nicodemus seems to have been looking for….
So, I studied what is called Christian apologetics; reasons why it is logical to believe in a God. And many of my talks over the last few years have included these arguments. Although interesting, to me at any rate, apologetics ultimately, just doesn’t seem to cut it….No-one comes up to me after I have given a spirited explanation of how the fine-tuning of the universe suggests strongly the existence of God.
How, for example, the slightest difference in the speed of the expansion of the universe after big bang as little as 1 part in 10 to the power of 60 would have resulted in it all collapsing back on itself or separating so fast as not to gather into planets at all….A level of improbability likened to firing a bullet at a target just inches across on the other side of the universe and hitting it first time! No-one says after my Christmas Eve service when I tend to explain that: ’Thats it! I get it now, there must be a God: an unmoved first mover who started it all….I’m a Christian!’
Nor does philosophy seem to be conclusive. No-one says after a service ‘Ah now you have explained to me the free will theodicy: that it is logically possible for a good and powerful God to be someone who permits evil to exist, because there is a good reason for doing so; that it is the inevitable consequence of being so loving as to permit humans to have free will, that humans may use that free will, and have done so over the generations, to cause others to suffer….No-one has said to me after a service when I have explained that ‘Now I believe/Now I get it’.
Sometimes, someone might be persuaded by the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus alone that I have presented, particularly at Easter services,
like the evidence before a Jury; how the rapid and strong growth of the church across the world after Pentecost from a group of a few simple men cowering with terror in an upper room to becoming eventually the largest religion on earth, despite all the power and might of the Roman Empire seeking to snuff it out, is difficult to explain when the idea of Christ rising from the dead was absolutely central to what the early Christians were telling everyone, unless it actually happened……But this evidence probably only results in a wish to study further, if those listening haven’t got more pressing things to do….
Nor does an unpacking of theology seem to win the day….pointing to the many prophesies in the Old Testament, for example in Isaiah, written hundreds of years before Jesus lived that speak of the Messiah, as a suffering servant in terms which read so much like a description of Jesus and the crucifixion.
No, none of these arguments: neither apologetics, nor philosophy, nor history, nor theology seem conclusive for rationalists and sceptics, although any of them should invite further exploration, I would have thought….
But many of these arguments do help to demolish a number of self imposed intellectual obstacles to faith that we love to use to protect ourselves against engaging with our Creator, they clear the ground…..making an engagement with the Way, the Truth and the Life, possible…
Why are these arguments insufficient in themselves? Because many of us say, with Thomas, ‘Whatever you say….If you are telling me that a crucified man has come back to life after three days, I want something tangible, I want to see and touch those wounds on that resurrected body to know that it is true….’
So how is it that anyone ever believes the gospel? How is it that Christianity did not die out with the apostles who did see the risen Christ? What is it still doing here 2000 years later?How is it that anyone makes that paradigm shift in their thinking? That one day they were not a believer, they were a rationalist or a sceptic and the next day ‘Jesus is Lord’ is the watchword for their lives? How can we followers of Christ fulfil the Great Commission to enable this to happen for our neighbours? How can we make this happen for ourselves?
We can’t……but the Holy Spirit can.
It’s all about the presence of Jesus.
Its all about the presence of the Holy Spirit sent by Jesus to us.
Nicodemus wants intellectual answers but Jesus says ‘no-one can [even] see the Kingdom of God unless they are born again’. By the same token we cannot be the subject of a kingdom that we cannot see. We need to be born of the Holy Spirit. We need the presence of the Holy Spirit sent by the Father and the Son.
Or to use Jesus’ words at the Last Supper, which I explained on Maundy Thursday, we need to have a bath in the Holy Spirit.
So it is the Holy Spirit who enables us to believe.
The logic of the rationalist is overwhelmed by the presence of the Holy Spirit and the cynicism of the sceptic is confounded by the presence of the Holy Spirit. It is Jesus’ presence that changes Thomas’s mind. His presence means that Thomas’s objections no longer matter, he lets go of them and they are seen for the spiritual obstacles that he is choosing to place in the way of his belief. He no longer needs to put his fingers in the mark in Jesus’ hands. He no longer needs to put his hand in the wound in Jesus’ side, because Jesus is there in front of him.
Jesus has now ascended to the Father, so we will not see him in his resurrected flesh, until he returns at the end of time (which may or may not precede the expiry of our own brief chapters on earth), but he has sent us his Holy Spirit.
And His Holy Spirit is doing great things in the Itchen Valley; extraordinary things in so many people’s lives.
So what can we do to encourage the work of the Holy Spirit in the Valley?
Certainly focusing on him during our worship in words and music, both contemporary and traditional, making sure what we do in church is about Him and not about ourselves or any performance, inviting his presence when we meet. But most of all by not driving him away…
Because the Holy Spirit can be grieved and the Holy Spirit can be vexed and the Holy Spirit can be quenched and like a dove….. can easily be driven off – see The Sensitivity of the Spirit by RT Kendall
In Ephesians 4.30 Paul teaches us not to grieve the Holy Spirit by bitterness anger and rage and by disunity; to be kind to one another forgiving each other; by disagreeing well.
By the way, I would like to thank you that you have all chosen to make the effort to be unified, but not the same. You started on the path of unity by merging the four parishes 15 years ago and now you are fulfilling that by the courteous way in which you deal with each other, recognising that others within this church have different ways of worshipping God, but not letting that be a source of conflict.
Thank you for this!
This unity enables the Holy Spirit to work here, because he is grieved by disunity and anger and leaves……
In this parish, we have seen the Holy Spirit being particularly active, especially during our Alpha Courses, as we have asked for his presence, some of us have had our lives changed.
The best environment to see that we don’t need to cling to our intellectual objections to Christianity cherished as they are by us, wrapped up in our identity as they were for Nicodemus and Thomas, is to attend Alpha. And the easiest way to experience the presence of the Holy Spirit is by attending Alpha. Alpha starts online on Thursday led by Tim Clapp and Dan Day Robinson. Do let Beccy know if you would like to take part….
I am confident that the Holy Spirit is doing a new thing in this place; that you will not drive him away by anger and disunity….and that, in the words of Al Jolson,‘We ain’t seen nothing yet’….
If we in the Itchen Valley Parish continue to be sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s gentle promptings, we will see ourselves and many of our neighbours abandon their scepticism and we and they, like Thomas, will fall before the resurrected Christ, calling out ‘My Lord and my God!”
Jesus Appears to the Disciples
19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
Jesus and Thomas
24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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.”
26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Jn 20:19–29). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
John Barber led us in the following prayers:
Father, we give you thanks for Alex and his ministry amongst us over the last nine years. We praise you for the manifold gifts and qualities he has brought to shepherding and leading us – his wisdom, energy, integrity, professionalism, diplomacy, intellect, warm-heartedness, self-deprecation, adaptability and sense of humour. We thank you all the more for his passion for communicating your good news and his consistent witness to the transformational impact of your unending love and saving grace.
Lord, we express our gratitude for his partner in ministry, Lucy, and for all the ways that she reflects your kindness and generosity. Thank you for her heart for the lost, her listening ear, her encouraging nature and her superb judgment. We thank you also that Lucy shares with Alex a great gift for friendship, of which we are all beneficiaries. We praise you for Alex and Lucy’s love for your Word and for how their lives are guided day by day both by your immutable truth and by the leadings of your Spirit.
As we release them today from formal ministry, may they enjoy complete and lasting satisfaction in having been good and faithful servants here. Looking ahead, we thank you that we are not losing them as members of this community and friends. We pray boldly now for healing for Alex from long-term disease and for Lucy and him to enjoy a rich new season of life together for many years to come. We trust that you will show them how they can best join with the activity of your Spirit in new ways, while continuing to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ and to touch lives with your forgiveness and love.
Father, we admit that seasons of change can be anxious times. We ask that you would steady us as a body and give us confidence in your best plans for our Parish’s future. We pray for our Church Wardens and other leaders as we enter this period of vacancy and ask for your gifts of wisdom, discernment and faith for them. We also pray that even now you would be calling the right person as our next Rector and that, in your perfect timing, it would be entirely clear why he or she is right for the role and has your anointing to lead us.
Finally, Lord, we join with the whole nation, and indeed the whole world, in mourning the loss of the Duke of Edinburgh on Friday. We are in awe of his extraordinary life and are grateful for his devotion to his wife, family, almost countless charities and country. We thank you especially for his imagination in creating the D of E Scheme and for the generations of young people whose lives have been enhanced through it. We praise you that in sacrificing much of his own ambition he remained at the same time true to himself, so was a rock of integrity on whom his wife could count absolutely. We pray now especially for her, not this day as our Sovereign Lady but simply as a grieving widow. We ask that you would bring her comfort and solace as she contends with the great loss of consort, husband and best friend.