Sunday, 31 March 2013

The icon of the harrowing of Hell and 1 Peter 3:18-22

We find this icon of the harrowing (or plundering) of hell on the festival row of the iconostasis. It is the icon that is used on Holy Saturday and traditionally is associated with 'the descent into hell' of Christ, in between his death and resurrection. That teaching is based on an understanding of 1 Peter 3:18-22, which goes back to at least 350AD (It was taught in the West by St Augustine). Later on we will look at 1 Peter 3 and suggest that those verses have a slightly different meaning, but it makes little difference to the sense of the icon.

This icon is a celebration of the victory of Christ, and of what his resurrection achieves.

We take each part in turn

1. Hell: the cave at the bottom. Here we see the shattered gates of hell (cf Matthew 16:18 where Jesus says, 'I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it') and satan himself, placed under the feet of Christ. In other icons of the harrowing of hell we see the instruments of torture.
All that holds humanity captive - satan, sin and death - has been destroyed.

2. Christ: He is the central figure
This icon speaks of his divinity: his halo bears the inscription (hard to see) of alpha and omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet; the light flows from Christ - he is the source of light; he holds the scroll which only he is able to open; and behind him is a circle. It could be the tomb from which he comes. But the circle is the symbol of God: it is, at its heart, black because God is beyond light. In iconography that which is bigger than light is portrayed through the absence of light. Yet out of this 'beyond light' comes light, and so the circle gets brighter the more you move away from the centre.

The icon speaks of the fact that Christ is the new Adam. This particular icon stresses this. The figure who Christ is raising is old Adam, and there is a connection between the two, drawn out by the colours that are used and the fact that the flowing robe of Christ mirrors the right leg of Adam.

We see Christ's compassion to Adam: the expression on his face can be seen

Christ's movement is both downwards (evidenced by the flowing robe), and upwards. His hand is underneath Adam's hand and he raises Adam. The brilliance of this icon is that it shows that it is because Christ descends that Adam can be raised.

3. The onlookers. On the left we see David, Solomon and John the Baptist. On the right we see Moses (holding the tablet of the law) and the prophets. They look on Christ, apart from Solomon who looks at David, and Moses who looks outwards. I haven't come across any explanation for these two figures looking away from Christ, and if anyone thinks they know what is happening here, I would be grateful if they could comment.

4. Adam and Eve: They represent humanity.

I guess if we are to place ourselves anywhere in this icon it would be either in Adam or in the front of the icon (i.e in hell).
We were entrapped, and Christ comes and raises us.
Adam looks to Christ and lifts up his right hand in response to Christ, or does he reach out to Eve? Eve patiently waits her turn

This icon does focus on what Christ has done, on his victory over sin and death and the forces of hell.

Even if 1 Peter 3:18-22 cannot be used to justify the claim that Christ descended into hell between his death and resurrection, those verses do stress the victory of Christ over evil. The introduction, 'For Christ suffered ..' also appears in 1 Peter 2:21  There, Peter tells us of the innocent suffering of Christ. Here in ch 3, Peter continues the story and tells of the victory of Christ: he suffered to bring us to God.

Christ was put to death in the sphere of the flesh and made alive in the sphere of the spirit. His body, pre-resurrection, was animated by 'flesh'. Post-resurrection, it was animated by 'spirit'. And it is in his resurrected, victorious state that he preaches to the 'the spirits in prison' (which would have been understood by Peter's readers as evil spirits). Christ is declaring to them his victory.The passage goes on to speak how, because he suffered for us, Christ has saved us and has all authority.

So the message of the icon is indeed the message of 1 Peter 3. Christ has smashed the powers of evil; he sets those free who call to him and allow him to lift them up; he proclaims his victory.

As the great Orthodox Easter hymn acclaims, "Christ is risen from the dead. Death has been defeated by death, and to those in the grave, new life has been given".





Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.

These are the last words spoken by Jesus on the cross (Luke 23:46). They are the last words spoken by Jesus in his earthly life.

If we put the different gospels together, then Jesus first speaks those words of utter abandonment, as he goes into the darkness, and takes the sin of the world onto his shoulders: 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me'.
Later John records how Jesus, just before he dies, says, 'It is finished'.
Luke doesn't record those words, but he does say that after the three hours of darkness, the curtain in the temple is torn in two.
Something has happened. The curtain which separated the Holy of Holies - that most astonishingly holy place where God said he would be - from the rest of the temple was ripped apart. God has come out. The death of Jesus on the cross has broken down all barriers. The way to heaven is now open.

And so the very final words of Jesus, spoken as he dies, are the words of one who, having been cut off from God his Father, is once again in communion with God. The price has been paid, the task has been accomplished, heaven is opened.

1. This is a prayer of communion with God.
These are words spoken by David in Psalm 31. They are words that Jewish mothers would teach their children to pray before the darkness of night closed in: 'Into your hands I commit my Spirit'.

Jesus takes that simple prayer of Psalm 31:5 and adds one word, 'Father'.

It is the name that Jesus used par-excellence for God. The very first words that Luke reports Jesus saying are: 'Why were you searching for me? Didn't you know I had to be in my Father's house'. He teaches his disciples to pray to 'our Father in heaven'. In the garden of Gethsemane, as he struggles to submit to the will of God, he prays and addresses his God as his 'Father'. It is only as he experiences the eternal separation of hell that he addresses God as 'God'. And now, as he faces death, he calls God 'Father'.

And Christians can, because of Jesus' death on the cross, share that privilege. The door to heaven has been opened. We can call God 'Abba', 'dear Father'. Our relationship with God really can be one of intimacy. The Spirit that God gives us is the Spirit of Jesus which cries out in us, 'Abba Father'.

I was greatly touched last week at the 'Sometime on Sunday' event when we host people with learning disabilities. I was sitting next to Karina. And she asked me very directly whether I loved Jesus. And I said 'yes'. And she said, and her eyes sparkled as she said it, 'I love Jesus, I love Jesus'.

And if we don't experience that intimacy - and many faithful Christians can go through life without that awareness - we still hold on by faith to the fact that one day we will know profound intimacy with God. When we cannot call God 'Father' by feeling, we can call God 'Father' by faith.

2. This is a prayer of confidence, of trust in God.
We put our trust in ourselves, or in professionals (doctors, teachers, politicians), in money or science, in our family.

But the crunch comes at the moment of intense pain or when we face death. When money, education, our body and mind let us down; when the doctors and the family are helpless - in whom or what do we put our trust?

Last year I was with a young woman who was dying. She was in some pain. Her family were around her. They told her she was going to a better place. She said, 'No, I'm going to the other place'. I guess that is when the vicar steps in. It was one of those occasions when I don't remember what I did say, and do remember coming away wishing I had said more. What I hope that I did say was something like this: 'We all deserve to go to the other place, so you are not alone. The fact you've realised it is a pretty good thing. But put your hand in the hand of Jesus. He loves you and he died for you. Call out to him and trust him. He will save you'.

Jesus' prayer is a prayer of trust:
It is a prayer of trust in the face of unimaginable pain. [In order to take each gasp of breath, he would need to pull his body up, putting his whole weight on those nail torn hands. So he would pull himself up, breathe, and then - because of the pain - drop down; but then he couldn't breathe, so he would pull himself up, breathe, drop down; pull himself up, breathe, and drop down].
It was a prayer of trust in the face of agony and, no doubt, a longed for death.

It was a prayer that he could pray then, because he had prayed it many many times before.
It is a prayer that recognises that God is bigger even than death, and that in the end it is only God who we can trust.

Henri Nouwen wrote:
".. the Words of Jesus flashed through my mind: 'Father, into your hands, I commend my Spirit.' Dying is trusting in the catcher. To care for the dying, is to say, ' Do not be afraid. Remember that you are the beloved child of God. He will be there when you make your long jump. Don't try to grab him; he will grab you. Just stretch out your arms and hands and trust, trust, trust." (Father, Into Your Hands I commend my spirit; an excerpt from Our Greatest Gift, A Meditation On Dying And Caring, Harper, 1994)

And Jesus does not whisper the prayer.
He calls out in a loud voice: "Father into your hands I commit my Spirit".

He wanted people to hear him.
This is a prayer of trust, but it is also a declaration.
He wanted them to know that his Father can be trusted.
He wanted satan to know that despite his worst - far worse than what Job had to go through - he still trusts his heavenly Father.

He wanted them to know that there is no one else who he could trust.
He wanted them to know that there is no one else who he would have wanted to trust.
He wants us to know that there is someone who you can trust

3. This is a prayer of commitment, of self-giving to God.
Jesus is literally giving everything that he has, himself to his Father: 'Into your hands I commit my spirit'. He is not giving his body, because his earthly physical body is shot through. There really is nothing left.

For 33 years, he has given himself in life to God; now he gives himself in death to God.

This is a prayer which can be prayed by all people at all stages of life.

It is a prayer of commitment and surrender that can be prayed when a person begins to understand that there really is a God who loves them and who has a claim on their life.
It is a prayer of commitment and surrender that can be prayed by a person as they face their own death.
But it is also a prayer that can be prayed by you and me, here and now.

We look at the Father who loves us and gave us everything and then gave his Son for us.
We look at the Son of God who loves us and gave everything to us and then gave himself for us.
And we kneel down and we pray, 'Father into your hands I commit my spirit'.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Understanding the icon for Palm Sunday


This is one of the more accessible icons. It also has profound depth.

It tells the story of the day when Jesus rode into Jerusalem riding on a donkey.

It is a significant story and it appears in all four gospels (Matthew 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-11; Luke 19:28-44; John 12:12-19).

The particular icon that we see here is Russian and comes from the C16th. It can be found in the Pskov museum.

Jesus is shown riding on a horse. Donkeys were unknown in this part of Russia, and so horses are used to depict the donkey. In this icon, the horse is noble – a far cry from the colt of the donkey that we are told Jesus rode on. Other similar icons have the horses submissively bowing their head.

However we need to be aware that the icon is not depicting the actual scene: rather it is trying to uncover its meaning. The fact that Jesus rode a colt was a fulfilment of the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9, which speaks of God’s king coming to Jerusalem riding on a colt. It is this which the icon is trying to show, and the name of this icon is ‘The triumphal entry’. Jesus is shown coming to Jerusalem as King.

THE TRIUMPHAL ENTRY 

The one who is coming to Jerusalem is shown as the Son of God and the King of Kings. He has a halo on which are depicted the letters (now hard to see) alpha and omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet: the name which is given to both God the Father and to Christ in Revelation. Above the halo is the inscription IC XC, standing for Jesus Christ. He also holds a scroll (he is the one who is worthy to open the scroll in Revelation 5:5). The light which illuminates the rock and the horse comes from Jesus himself. He is the source of all light.

Meanwhile the children cut down palms from the tree, and lay their garments at his feet. The laying of garments beneath someone’s feet is a symbol of total surrender. I am saying, ‘You can walk over me’. Underneath their outer clothing, they are dressed in white – the symbol of purity. The children who proclaim, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’, are mentioned in Matthew 21:15. Jesus said, ‘Anyone who will not receive the kingdom of heaven like a little child will never inherit it’ (Mark 10:15). In some similar icons, a child is shown pulling a thorn from the foot of another child – obviously as a result of climbing the tree. In that, there is a hint of what lies ahead for Jesus.
The people outside Jerusalem have come out to welcome Jesus. Some of them hold palms. There are men and women, and in some icons, a clear depiction of husband, wife and child. There does not appear, in these icons, to be any hint of people in the crowd who reject Jesus (although these are only mentioned in Luke’s account).

So this is the depiction of the triumphant king, the eternal Son of God, coming to Jerusalem, God’s city.

THE HUMBLE ENTRY

And yet there is something odd about Jesus. Although he rides a noble horse, and not a colt, his humility is shown in the way that he is seated.  He is at peace and his face is turned to Jerusalem, but his back is to Jerusalem. It seems to show that this is not what he wills, but it is something that he accepts. Perhaps he is aware of what awaits him when he reaches the city. And as he approaches, he blesses the city (it is hard to see in this particular icon, but his right hand is pointed towards the city in blessing).

There is also some hesitancy about the disciples following Jesus. One of them blesses Jesus; another (Thomas?) seems to be pointing back. Jesus, in the way that he is sitting, identifies himself with them [‘So Jesus is not ashamed to call them his brothers and sisters’ Hebrews 2:11]; he is also urging them on.

AN ICON OF PILGRIMAGE: THE MOVEMENT FROM THE OLD CITY TO THE NEW CITY

As we look at the upper level of the icon, we see there are two cities in this icon.
The city on the left represents the cities of this world.
The city on the right, with its many churches and well dressed citizens (they wear shoes in contrast to the bare footed disciples) represents, at one level, the earthly Jerusalem; but at a deeper level it represents the heavenly Jerusalem.

All lines and all movement in this icon point to the heavenly Jerusalem. Although Jesus is the central character, the New Jerusalem is the focal point. The horse is going uphill towards Jerusalem. The mountain and tree lean towards Jerusalem. The lines of the rocks, both of the mountain and the floor, point to Jerusalem

And there is a progression from bottom left to top right. We begin with the disciples, who are underneath the old city. We progress over the rocky mountain, which represents the wilderness, the place of the Holy Spirit and meeting with God (in this particular icon there is a large cave, echoing the caves that we find in icons depicting the caves, for instance, where Elijah meets with God, in which Jesus is born and in which he is buried). We move through the tree - which, because of its angle, is directly above Jesus - and into the heavenly city. Those who know Rublev’s icon of the Trinity will know that in the upper level of that icon there is a rock which inclines to a tree (also directly above the angel representing Jesus Christ) which inclines to a house.

This is an icon which tells how God’s King, the eternal Son of God, is coming into his city and his kingdom. But it is also an icon for his rather tentative followers. It is saying that, at one level, in order to move from the earthly city to the heavenly city, we need to go through the wilderness, the place of repentance, of death to self and of recognition of our need for God, and through the cross of Jesus.

But it is also saying that we need to look to Jesus. He is the bridge between the disciples and the New Jerusalem, heaven. The children (representing the saints, and martyrs) are those who encourage us on our journey. Those who are already in the New Jerusalem (the prophets and patriarchs?) urge us on: they look, not at Jesus, but at the disciples. [‘Seeing we are surrounded by such a great host of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders’ Hebrews 12:1]. Jesus, the Son of God, identifies himself with us, is one of us, and urges us on. 

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

A talk for Palm Sunday 2013



Many of us are driven by the pursuit for applause. We want our moment in the spot light. We want to be a star – in whatever is our chosen field. We want to know that we really matter, and that other people know we really matter.

We day dream:
I’ve run the grand prix and we’re standing on the podium
I’ve scored the winning goal in the FA cup and I’m lifting the trophy and 50000 people roar.
You’re on the cat walk – people are gasping at your beauty
You’re the leader of the party which has won the election, and at the conference the party adores you.
You’ve won the X factor, millions of people have voted for you, the glitter falls and the music swells, and it is your name that is in the headlines
You’ve become pope, and 150000 chant your new name

The astonishing thing about Jesus is that he could have had all that and more, and yet he never seeks the limelight.

When, in Mark 1:36 – because of his healings – he is told ‘everyone is looking for you!’ he simply moves on.
When he brings Jairus’ daughter back from the dead, he orders people, ‘Don’t tell anybody’.
When, in John 6:15, he has fed the 5000, and they want to make him king, he slips away to a quiet place.

His blood brothers want him to become big. They tell him, ‘Go big time. You’re doing this stuff in insignificant Galilee. Go to where it is all happening. Do it in Jerusalem.’  And then they say, ‘No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things’ [and I love the next line], ‘show yourself to the world’ (John 7:4). It is a Jeremy Clarkson moment.
The devil tells him to do that: ‘Throw yourself off the temple – then they’ll realise that you are someone not to be messed with’

And when Jesus asks his disciples, ‘Who do you think I am’, and Peter says, ‘You’re the Messiah; You are the one God has sent into this world to be his ruler in this world’, Jesus then commands them not to tell anybody (Mark 8:30)!

I think one of the reasons that we dream of being in the spotlight is that we want recognition. We feel we need to prove ourselves: and this is the thing that will show that I am really worth something.

Jesus did not need that.

He knew who he was.
And he knew he was deeply deeply beloved by his Father.
He knew it from a very early age: when he was in the temple, he told his parents that he was in his Father’s house.
And then there was the voice from heaven – not once, but twice. At his baptism and transfiguration: ‘You are my beloved Son’.

Jesus does not need the adulation of others to prove that he is somebody.

And yet, despite all of that, Jesus –at the very end of his ministry – takes this astonishingly public step. He allows his disciples to cheer him. He puts himself on that podium.

He asks his disciples to find a colt (it is possible he has prearranged it all with the owner), he rides it, they throw their garments in front of him, they declare that Jesus is king and they praise God.

The one who has avoided the limelight for 33 years, suddenly goes public.

It is public and it is provocative: Jesus is now openly claiming to be God’s king. He is claiming to be the Messiah.

Everyone would have known the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!
    Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
    righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
    on a colt, the foal of a donkey.


And the disciples knew what Jesus was saying. When they spread their cloaks and coats on the road, they knew what they were doing. It was what the people of Israel did when Jehu came, in the Old Testament, to be anointed king (cf 2 Kings 9:13)

And their words match their actions; ‘Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord’
[There was a blessing pronounced on pilgrims travelling to Jerusalem in Ps 118:26, ‘Blessed his he who comes in the name of the Lord’. That chant is changed by the disciples to ‘Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord’]
And they go on to say that Jesus is the one who has come to bring peace in heaven (the angels at Jesus’ birth declared that he is the one who would bring peace on earth) and glory to God.

Jesus followers are having a party. This is the pre-election rally. This is the coronation party. They are saying, ‘This is our man. And he is coming to reign. We welcome him as our king.’

And Jesus encourages them. When his opponents tell him to shut his followers up, Jesus tells them that if they are silent, the stones themselves will declare his praises.

There is so much here!
But I’d like to focus on three reasons why I think Jesus does this now.

1. Jesus is saying that he is coming as the King who will bring peace

It is often said that Jesus is showing that he comes as a humble king – because he is riding a donkey and not a war horse.
That may be the case; it may not be.
Certainly it is said that if a ruler was coming in peace they would not enter the city riding their war horse. I doubt, however, that they would ride on a colt – it would look extremely awkward, and could have been quite humiliating.

What I suspect is more significant is the prophecy from Zechariah 9, that we looked at a bit earlier. Verses 10-12 continue:

I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
    and the war horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
    and he shall speak peace to the nations;
his rule shall be from sea to sea,
    and from the River to the ends of the earth.
As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you,
    I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.
Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope;
    today I declare that I will restore to you double.


The one who comes riding on the colt is the God-appointed king who has come to bring peace. He has come to bring hope. He has come to set people free – and in particular to our enslavement by sin and satan. He has come to establish God’s kingdom.

Jesus is saying, ‘I am the king who will bring God’s reign of right-ness and peace’.

Jesus is the king who would bring peace to you and me.

He would quell our restless churning for recognition or significance or meaning; He would show us that, together with him, we are profoundly beloved. He would bring calm to troubled and guilty consciences – which, even if we deny them, still paralyse us. He would pour cool waters of forgiveness over steaming resentment and bitterness. He would subdue those desires and drives in us which lead us to destroy ourselves and others, and fill us with a love for him and for others.

He is saying, ‘I am the king who would bring peace’.

2. Jesus is saying that he is coming as a sacrifice

He rides a colt ‘which no one has ever ridden’.

In the Old Testament, an animal which has no blemish and which has not been used is destined for a sacred task. (Numbers 19:2; Deuteronomy 21:3)

In both of those cases, the animal was to be sacrificed.
But in this case, it is not the animal which is to be sacrificed. It is the one who rides on it.

Jesus comes into Jerusalem as its king. But he is not coming in as a conquering king. He comes knowing that he will be the king who will be rejected. He comes as the king who will be lifted up: but who will not be lifted up on a podium, but lifted up to be mocked, spat upon, crucified.
He comes as the king who will give his life for his people.

But it is his death on the cross, only a week later, which will bring peace on earth, peace in heaven and glory to God.

3. Jesus is saying that now is the time when you have to decide

This was decision time then – but it is also decision time now.

Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a colt.
He has performed the wonderful works of God.
He has shown that where he is, God’s kingdom is.
He is now claiming openly to be the Messiah, God’s chosen ruler in this world.

The disciples recognise that claim. They proclaim him as King.

In throwing their clothes at his feet, they are symbolically throwing themselves at his feet. They are saying, ‘You are not only the King. You are our king’.

But there are others who do not accept the claim. The Pharisees, who are in the crowd, but who are not disciples, cannot accept him.
They tell him to stop making a scene, to order his disciples to be silent.

On the one hand we have those who accept his claim to be God’s king; on the other, we have those who reject that claim.

Jesus knows that, although there will be some who accept him, in Jerusalem he will be rejected.
And he weeps.
Not for himself (‘they don’t like me’), but for them.

If only they had had their eyes open they would have seen God at work.
If they had received him – if they had welcomed him into their city, and into their lives – then things would have been very different.
The disaster that was going to befall Jerusalem 40 years later, would not have happened. ‘If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace – but now it is hidden from your eyes ... you did not recognise the time of God’s coming to you’. (Luke 19:42)  

It was a time of decision. And when Jerusalem made that choice on Good Friday, they went with the Pharisees and not with the disciples. They rejected Jesus.

But for us, it is also a time of decision.

When Jesus wept over Jerusalem, I wonder whether he also wept for you and me.  
I wonder if he said, “Oh Malcolm, Oh Alison, Oh Mary, George, Philip - if only you had opened you eyes and ears; if only you had opened yourself to me, allowed me to be your king and ruler; if only you had received me – things could have been so different.

Instead of trying to live for yourself, trying to prove yourself, showing us that you could do it all by yourself, pushing yourself forward into the spotlight, building your own little empire and crushing other people in the process - you could begin instead to live a life of freedom, rooted in the growing awareness of the immense love of God for you, of the gift of forgiveness, of your need for his power to change, of the availability of that power for change. From being a prisoner in the waterless pit, you could become a prisoner of hope.”

And perhaps he wept over us, because he longed to draw us close to himself, but we would not.
Perhaps he wept over us because he longed that we might know him, the depth of his love and the power of his resurrection, and we would not. 

Saturday, 16 March 2013

On the occasion of Steve and Emma's wedding blessing


It is a real joy to share in your extended wedding celebrations. Thank you for the privilege of allowing me to speak.

Steve: You must love Emma very much having this today! I note the timetable concludes at 5pm, but then it is not a particularly significant match.[England playing Wales in decider for the 6 nations grand slam]

Anyway, with apologies to Emma, Alison and myself decided to buy you a small gift as a momento of the day. [produce rugby ball]

There are three things I would like you to remember about this

1. The Rugby ball is made by having the panels stitched together.

It is pretty useless if they come apart.

State marriage is about a legal contract that you make with each other.
But when you come to church to have your wedding blessed in the presence of God, something much bigger happens.

You’ve been stitched up!
You become bound together, not just by law, but by something that is bigger than law.

Emma, the bad news is that you no longer belong to yourself; you also belong to Steve
Steve, the bad news is that you no longer belong to yourself; you also belong to Emma.

The bible teaches that it is not just you and you making an agreement to live together. It teaches that you now belong to each other. You are not two separate entities: you are one.

And if one of you gets kicked into touch, the other gets kicked in touch.
And if one of you flies over the posts in the 80th minute and wins the grandslam, the other flies over.

When one is shamed, the other is shamed
When one weeps, the other weeps
When one rejoices, the other rejoices
When one is honoured, the other is honoured

So it is in your deepest interests to build up the other.

You need to be like Rugby players and not like dodgy footballers.
Dodgy footballers at corners push down the opponent in order to go up higher to get the header.
Rugby players gather round one of their colleagues in a lineout and lift them up, so that they can get the ball.

You have been bound together by God.
And if you find that the stitching is coming apart – well, today we’d throw the ball away and get a new one. But in the old days they didn’t do that. These things were too precious. They would go to the one who had stitched it together, and they would say to her, ‘Please, it’s coming apart. Would you restitch it?’

2. What matters with the rugby ball is not just out here: but it is inside. It is the membrane.

Guard your love for each other.

There really is no simple way around that than by giving each other time and by being open with each other.

You both have significant jobs and I guess you work silly hours.

So I would urge you particularly: give each other time. Give each other time when it is a delight to do so, like now; but also give each other time when it means making sacrifices.

Take time out. Ensure that you have at least one evening a week together. Do what you love doing; do what the other loves doing: walking, having meals, watching rugby. For there to be quality time, there needs to be quantity time.  

And be open with each other, especially when you are hurting.
Some of us are like boilers with no release valve. The pressure increases and increases and finally it explodes.
But most of us are like vacuum cleaners that are never emptied – we take the rubbish into ourselves, and we get fuller and fuller, and eventually we just clog up.

And be open with each other when you have been hurt by the other. Don’t withdraw in a sulk. Tell them, in love!  And remember Ogden Nash’s advice: ‘To keep your marriage brimming with love in the marriage cup, whenever you’re wrong admit it; whenever you’re right, shut up’.


But you need more than just love! You need a bit of inside help.

For the membrane in here to work, it needs to be pumped up.

And for our marriages to grow and our love to deepen, we do need God, who is the source of life and love, who gave you to each other, and who loves you. We need his Spirit to come into our lives and relationships, and to blow them up for him.

We’ve just read of a couple who invited Jesus to their wedding (John 2:1-11). It was a good thing to do. They got far more than they bargained for: although what intrigues me is that they may never have known, not for many years.

I can imagine one of the servants at the wedding speaking with the couple several years later. ‘Your wedding: now that was something. We ran out of wine. We didn’t tell you; you’d have died. But there was panic in the kitchen. And do you remember Jesus who you invited. He saved the day. I don’t know how he did it, but 120 gallons of water became 120 gallons of wine, just like that’.

That is why I am delighted that you have chosen to have this blessing and to ask God to be involved in your relationship and your marriage. When we do open up to him, we get far more than we have bargained for.

3. This ball was created for a purpose.

It is not an ornament. It has to be looked after, but it was not made to be cherished and nurtured. It was created so that people could play Rugby with it.

And God stitched you together not just for yourself, not just for your marriage. It’s not the be-all and end-all. He stitched you together for a purpose.

He stitched you together
a) to be a picture of his incredible love for us: that your marriage, as the two of you become one, might show how Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, would become one with us – so that we might belong to him, and he to us – in the intimacy of love.

b) that, for the many years that we pray that God will give you with each other, you may be companions, pilgrims together on a journey to him.

c) that you may be together a deep and profound blessing to many many other people, your family, your friends, and those beyond.

When Jesus turned that water into wine, he was saying that if we are prepared to put our trust in him, he will take what is ordinary and turn it into something extraordinary.

He is saying that he will turn ordinary, messed up, but infinitely precious human beings into sons and daughters of God with an eternal destiny.

But by doing this at a wedding, he is saying that he has come to turn our ordinary relationships into something extraordinary: that your marriage may be a deep blessing to you and an even deeper blessing to many many other people.