June 2014

A Letter from your Lay Reader

Dear Friends,

On 15th May I attended a service at Winchester Cathedral to celebrate the Silver Jubilee of the Hampshire and the Islands Historic Churches Trust. It was a very simple service with music from St. Michaelís Bassett choir (that was why I was there) and an excellent and most entertaining sermon form the Very Revd Trevor Beeson (former Dean of Winchester). Trevor had at one time been a great advocate for closing down ancient churches which cost the church, as a whole, vast sums of money in repairs and restoration, although more recently he has had a change of heart.

Earlier that week I had been preparing a sermon for St. Michaelís Bassett for the fifth Sunday of Easter. The readings from Acts and the first Epistle of Peter set for that Sunday guided my thoughts to the people of God as the living stones which make the real church of God, as opposed to the old and ancient stones from which the places where we worship, what we refer to as our churches, are built. So I thought I would share with you some of my thoughts on, 1 Peter 2:1-10 and Acts 7:55-60 which may help us to recognise our calling to be the living stones.

St. Peter is always remembered as the rock. We recall the passage from Matthew 16 where Jesus gave him the name, Peter, saying "on this rock will I build my church". In his first letter, Peter gives us this wonderful image of Christ, the living stone, helping us to see and understand the absolute faithfulness and assurance of Jesus as Lord. A living stone rejected by mankind, but chosen by God, as Peter was himself by Jesus to be the cornerstone of the church. Peter extends that image of the living stones to us. We are ourselves to become living stones following the example of Jesus. Individually, we may achieve little, but together we can "be built into a spiritual house". John Wesley said that the Bible knows nothing of solitary religion. One single stone cannot make a building, one Christian cannot make a church, but together, a number of Christians can be built into a "spiritual house" with Christ as the cornerstone holding us all together: that very special stone upon which all our faith, hope and trust is built.

As Christians, we still sometimes fall into the trap of thinking of the church as just a building in which we worship, forgetting that the true church is the body of Christians meeting and worshipping together. Peter also describes this body of believers as a "holy priesthood" offering spiritual sacrifices, in other words, those who serve God, and carry out his work in spreading the Gospel Message.

What a contrast we find between Peter's idea of stones, and the stones Luke tells us about in the reading from Acts, stones being hurled at Stephen. But here we see Stephen as a wonderful example of a living stone. Stephen is a good speaker and debater. He is wise and knowledgeable, with a good grounding in the scriptures and Jewish history. Luke describes him as a man "filled with the spirit" and as a man "with a vision of Glory". Stephen was, however, seen as a real threat to the traditions of Judaism, and in the same ruthless style with which the Sanhedrin dealt with the initial trial of Jesus we see Stephen being handed over to the crowds for summary execution by stoning.

What is truly remarkable about Stephen is the Christ like spirit he shows when close to death. We are given this image of a young man standing and gazing into heaven, as stones of hatred and malice are hurled towards him. First he prays "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit" a prayer reminiscent of the prayer of Jesus on the cross, "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit". Then, and perhaps more wonderfully he prays "Lord, do not hold this sin against them". We instinctively think of Christ's words "Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing". Solid in the face of torment and death, thinking of others rather than himself, Stephen is a wonderful example of a living stone, someone who followed the example of Christ to the end; someone who was prepared to carry the cross. Christ was the first living stone, ordained by God to be the cornerstone of the church. By following the example of Christ, by believing in him and dwelling in him, we can all become living stones ourselves, forming together the true body of the church:. a body constructed by the living stones from every generation continually being added to form a great living temple.

with every blessing

Malcolm Harper