Reflection ~ Rev Dr Phil Wall
It’s A Wonderful Life
This morning, we continue our reflection on our identity, purpose, and future as we consider the second of seven searching questions for the Church at large. You might remember that last month, we asked the first of the questions – why do we exist as congregations – speaking of the call to shine, and this month we flip that question around as we ask ‘What would be lost in our community or in our world if we ceased to be?’ Those of you who watch the midweek reflections have been given a heads up about this as you saw me think of Christmas and talk about my second favourite Christmas film – “It’s A Wonderful Life”.
(My favourite is, of course, The Muppets’ Christmas Carol…which is interesting as both films are reworkings of Dickens’ tale of Scrooge and co).
In case you don’t watch on a Wednesday and haven’t seen the film…first of all, have a word with yourself…but secondly, here’s a very quick catch-up. The film stars James Stewart as George Bailey, a decent man who suffers a series of misfortunes and a devastating financial blow, all of which leads to him considering taking his own life on Christmas Eve. Cue Clarence the Angel who will earn his wings if he can teach George that life is worth living. So Clarence shows George a world in which George never existed…and it’s a much darker place indeed. Without George’s acts of sacrifice and service, kindness and compassion, friends and family members experience loss and loneliness, bankruptcies and breakdowns whilst neighbours and even strangers suffer addiction and premature deaths. The perfect Christmas film! But everything’s all right in the end as George soon realizes the joy of living, even given his recent hardships; the community rally round to support him; and Clarence, the angel, gets his wings. Ahhhh!
Whilst perhaps a little on the nose, it’s, well…a wonderful film…that shows how everyday acts of kindness can transform communities; how the actions of one affects the lives of many; essentially, even, of ubuntu – the African worldview that suggests ‘I am because we are’.
Now, it could be argued that our local churches – Castle Square, St. David’s Uniting and whichever local congregation our wider church family are a part of – are in a similar position to that of George Bailey. After years of sacrifice and service, many congregations today will feel down on their luck, perhaps facing financial difficulties or questions of survival and therefore asking – well, what would be lost in our community or in our world if we ceased to be? I wonder how you would answer? In fact, if you’re reading this at home, I encourage you to put down the script for a minute or two and ponder that question – what would be lost in our community or in our world if we ceased to be?
Perhaps you could share your answer with an elder or someone else in the church. For now, as with all of our seven searching questions, we’re going to pair that question with one from Jesus – there are around 300 of them to choose from! And so we head up now to Galilee where Peter and the gang are trying to figure out what their new normal will look like for Jesus has risen, hope abounds but what’s to happen next?
Reading: John 21:2-17
So, Peter and the boys go on an unsuccessful all night fishing trip. Bit embarrassing, considering their profession, and then some stranger seems to rub it in when he asks them ‘friends, haven’t you caught any fish?!’, to which, Peter has to reply in the negative. Well, the guy on the shore then has the cheek to tell these experienced fishermen to try the other side of the boat…as if that should make any difference. But actually, it does! Suddenly, there’s such a huge number of fish caught in the net that the guys struggle to haul the net in. At which point, they boys realize the guy on the shore is, in fact, their pal Jesus…so Peter gets dressed to swim over to him – as you do – and the gang enjoy a breakfast on the beach with the risen Jesus.
What is going on here?! Well, commentators have offered all kinds of theories about this passage. For example, by going fishing, were the disciples abandoning Jesus and returning to their old ways or does John’s use of Greek here suggest that the disciples are now drawing people in to Jesus? And the number of fish drawn in – 153 – is that a number of importance in Jewish numerology; does it symbolize Jesus saving all nations as people thought there were 153 types of fish in all the world at the time; or is it just a load of fish? And what’s with Peter, while we’re at it…fishing naked, then putting on his cloak to swim to Jesus…is that some nod back to Genesis where hiding your body was associated with shame – remember the whole denial thing – was Peter fashioning the first wet-suit of his day, or is this something other? What is the whole passage about and what’s it got to do with our existence as churches?
Well, let’s put those questions aside for today and go back to that first question from Jesus – ‘haven’t you caught any fish?’.
Throughout the accounts of Jesus’ life, Jesus uses parables and poetry to convey different layers of meaning in his teaching and I think that’s exactly what’s going on here. Yes, perhaps the words were a nod to the literal lack of lemon sole in their net but I think it must have also, in some way, referred back to his words about the disciples becoming fishers of men (and women!). About how his friends are to share good news in word and deed with those in Jerusalem, in all Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the Earth. Of how the church is not meant to be a staid club for the elect and elite but how we’re meant to go out into the highways and byways, inviting everyone to God’s party. And just to get his message home, Jesus once again models this process to them. Think about it…Jesus turns up without invite; he then invites his friends to a meal of plenty and finally, he tells Peter to go feed others. This foodie formula of Jesus’ comes up time and time again in the gospels and can be seen as a shorthand for the whole movement of God. God comes to us – always the first movement is from God to us – God welcomes and feeds us; then God send us out to invite others to the feast. Sometimes this movement will be metaphorical – come to the true vine, the bread of life, the one who offers living water and nourishment for the soul. At other times the invite will be more literal. Come, and get your fill boys – the beachside bbq is ready!
All of which brings us back to the question in hand – What would be lost in our community or in our world if we ceased to be?
Well, the truth is that the Church at large does not have a monopoly on goodness. There are, of course, plenty of folk outside the Church who make the world a better, kinder, more just place to live and there’s plenty of times when those of us within the Church betray our call to shine. And before we get too judgey or guild-ridden about this, we must remember that Jesus never thought for a second that his rag tag group of fishermen, tax collectors and outcasts were perfect! Just look at the guy he’s asking to be the rock of the new movement! It’s imperfect old Peter who Jesus is charging with feeding others. It’s imperfect old us who Jesus is still charging with feeding others!
And as I looked through the photographs we shared online as we were reminded of our call to shine (those not online will get the chance to see the video when we are all physically meeting together again), I wasn’t surprised to see that most of them involved food of some kind or other!!! The Chewsdays café gang aproned up and ready to serve; the Covid cookbook and harvest collection; ladies guilds enjoying fish and chips or afternoon tea; Easter breakfasts and Christmas dinners; welcome meals for the refugee community; biscuits and squash at Kids’ Club; Communion at the church; carols at the pub; coffee with the park ramblers; all manner of buffets, Birthdays, bring and share lunches and, yes, even a beach banquet where some fished and shared an abundance of food with each other!
‘But isn’t that just good, Welsh hospitality?’, some might ask. ‘But other congregations round here are doing the same’, others might say.
Well, yes, those on this side of the Severn do know how to put on a tea…and if I drove or didn’t live at the top of the hill, I might well be charging the church for trousers with elasticated waists! And yes, other congregations round here do some amazing things. St Catherine’s do fantastic work with Christians Against Poverty. Temple are faithful in their witness with Street Pastors. Cornerstone in Treforest serve the uni students and St Dyfrig’s support CAFOD which transforms communities around the world. Different parts of Christ’s body serve in different ways. But thinking of us, what would be lost in our community or in our world if Castle Square or St. David’s Uniting ceased to be…for me, it has to be the unconditional welcome of God.
For if you’re desperate or doubting, angry or anxious – you are fully welcome here. If your sex, gender and sexuality can fit neatly in a box or if you don’t conform to easy labels, you are fully welcome here. If you’re Baptist, Presbyterian or URC; charismatic, contemplative or questioning; if you can recite the Nicene creed, the five pillars of Islam, or the complete lyrics to Dancing Queen, you are fully welcome here. If you’re reading these words off paper, if you’re catching up later whilst walking the dogs, or if you’re listening live – even from Rhyl – Rhyl! – you are fully welcome here. If you like to ‘treat yo’self’ or are ‘a little bit Alexis’; if you’re excited by Loki’s imminent arrival, are still furious about ‘H’’s reveal, or have no idea about any of these tv references, you are fully welcome here! Whatever you watch; however you voted; whatever paths you’ve walked, mistakes you’re made, denials you’ve given…with us, with God, you are welcomed, you are wanted, you are loved.
So what would be lost in our community or in our world if we ceased to be? An invite and welcome to the greatest party of all time, for it’s us that has the pleasure of handing out the invites, but it’s God who made the guest list…and everyone’s name is on it. Amen.
 The verb ‘to haul in’ (21:6) is the same as that used in 6:44 to describe those who come to Jesus from God and in 12:32 to describe the transformational effect of Jesus’ death so some scholars suggest that John is saying the disciples are now sharing in God’s works by drawing people to Jesus.
Prayers for ourselves, for others, and the world – Claire Hughes
When two or more gather in your name, there is a communion: there is an opportunity to remember your great gifts to us. We pray that our congregation, and others like it around the country and the world, shine out as a beacon of your light in the darkness of our world. Let our presence bring comfort and succour to the communities in which we live. We pray that others will look upon our efforts, made in the light of your example and be encouraged to come to know your goodness and love in their own lives.
We pray for our minister and elders, who provide us with loving pastoral care. May they receive such care from us in return. We especially remember Phil, our minister, this week, as he embraces entering his fifth decade of life, when he turns 40 on Tuesday. Give him and those with him the strength to complete his challenge of walking the three Welsh peaks next weekend. May the breath-taking beauty that will surround him and the symphonic sounds of nature that will fill his ears, invigorate him, as he walks. We will pray for him and be with him in spirit, if not in person (though some of us dearly wish we were!)
As we think of Phil’s efforts, we remember why he is walking: to highlight the great inequalities and terrible poverty that exist in the world. We pray that those who govern our nations will look beyond the boundaries of their own countries and recognise the great needs of others across the globe and respond to those needs with aid and support and the willingness to provide a haven to refugees and food, medicine and other supplies to the starving, homeless and war-stricken.
We think of those near and dear to us, who need the Light of the World to shine on them, as they face their own trials and difficulties. We pray for those who are in hospital or unwell at home; for those who are feeling isolated and ask that they feel the hope of the season and of the gradual easing of the restrictions that, whilst protecting us, have also left us feeling lonely; for those who mourn the loss of loved ones and those who are longing for the time when they can meet with family and friends again and hold them in a tight cwtsh.
Whilst our world may not yet feel ‘normal’, we thank you for the many blessings we have from you: our beautiful planet, each other, food on our tables, clothes on our backs, a roof over our head, pets on our laps or at our sides, children and grandchildren playing at our feet, friends with whom to share a laugh or two. Even when we may feel low in spirits, let’s look and listen for God’s presence, in the new life of Spring: flowers bursting open, birds singing joyously, the sun shining through leafy branches, and let us be confident of the hope of better days to come and be thankful.
In this time of quiet contemplation, let us take a moment to bring our own silent prayers before God, (PAUSE)
We gather these prayers together in the pattern of prayer that Jesus taught, saying in whichever language we are most comfortable,
Ein Tad,yr hwn wyt yn y nefoedd Sancteiddier dy enw
Deled dy deyrnas Gwneler dy ewyllys Megis yn y nef, felly ar y ddaear hefyd.
Dyro i ni heddiw ein bara beunyddiol A maddau i ni ein dyledion
Fel y maddeuwn ninnau i’n dyledwyr
Ac nac arwain ni i brofedigaeth Eithr gwared ni rhag drwg.
Canys eiddot ti yw’r deyrnas A’r nerth, a’r gogoniant, yn oes oesoedd, AMEN
As we have been fed, let us go to feed the hungry.
As we have been welcomed, let us go to welcome all.
As we have been set free, let us go to set free the imprisoned.
As we have been received – give.
As we have heard – proclaim.
As we have been loved – love.
And the blessing of God – Creator, Christ and Comforter –
be with us and all we meet with and eat with this day and forevermore. Amen.
Hymn: Come All Ye Vagabonds