This service is published by https://devotions.urc.org.uk/ .
It is also available via telephone on 01252 978319 – if you know anyone who wishes to worship but who is unable to do so via the Internet, please share this phone number with them.
The Rev’d Fleur Houston, a retired minister living in Macclesfield leads worship.
Good morning, and welcome! My name is Fleur Houston and I am speaking to you from Macclesfield. Not from Macclesfield and Bollington United Reformed Church where I am a member, but from the study that I share with Walter on the top floor of a silk weaver’s garret, with a large picture window overlooking the hills. Wherever we are, in living room or study, in bedroom, kitchen, or breakfast room, we meet today in the presence of God. And we do not meet alone. For we are part of the great company of the Church, past, present and yet to come. In a moment of silence, let us now set aside the business of the morning, still our hearts and our minds, and prepare to worship God.
Call to Worship
Alleluia! Christ is Risen! He is Risen indeed! Alleluia!
Rejoice, heavenly powers! Sing, choirs of angels! Exult, all creation around God’s throne! Jesus, our King, is risen! Sound the trumpet of salvation!
Rejoice, heavenly powers! Sing, choirs of angels!
Rejoice, O Earth, in shining splendour, radiant in the brightness of our King! Jesus has conquered! Glory fills you! Darkness vanishes for ever!
Rejoice, heavenly powers! Sing, choirs of angels!
Rejoice, O holy Church! Exult in glory! The risen Saviour shines upon you!
Let this place resound with joy, as we sing, echoing the mighty song of all God’s people!
Hymn: All people that on earth do dwell
Psalm 100, metrical version by William Kethe (publ. 1560-1561) altd.
All people that on earth do dwell,
sing to the Lord with cheerful voice.
Him serve with fear, His praise forthtell,
come we before Him and rejoice!
2: The LORD ye know is God indeed;
without out aid He did us make.
We are His folk he doth us feed,
and for His sheep He doth us take.
3: O enter then His gates with praise!
Approach with joy his courts unto
praise, laud and bless His name always
for it is seemly so to do.
4 (choir only) For why? The Lord our God is good,
His mercy is forever sure.
His truth at all times firmly stood
and shall from age to age endure.
5: To Father, Son and Holy Ghost,
the God whom Heaven and earth adore,
from earth and from the angel host
be praise and glory evermore.
Prayers of approach, confession and pardon
All-holy God, Light of the hearts that see you, Life of the souls that love you, Strength of the thoughts that seek you, to abide in you is to stand fast forever. Grant us this morning your grace and blessing for the sake of Jesus Christ our Redeemer.
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves. As we turn to you this morning, we know that we have fallen short of our high calling. And we are ashamed. We have focussed too much on ourselves and on our own wants and needs. We have not loved you with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, We have not loved our neighbour as ourselves.
Remind us, Lord, of your constant love, for we put our trust in you; show us the way we should go. Release us from the burden of our sins, that we may turn to you again and be renewed through Jesus Christ our Lord.
In repentance and in faith, receive the promise of grace and the assurance of pardon. Here are words you may trust, words that merit full acceptance: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” To all who turn to him he says: “Your sins are forgiven.” He also says: “Follow me.” Thanks be to God. The LORD is my light and my salvation, Whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; Of whom shall I be afraid?
Prayer of illumination
As we listen to the Bible readings we allow God’s word to speak to us,
And so we pray:
Lord, your word is a lamp for my feet,
and a light upon my path.
May the Scriptures come alive to us this morning
that our hearts may be warmed
our faith stirred
and all things be made new. Amen.
Psalm 66: 8-20
Bless our God, O peoples, let the sound of his praise be heard,
who has kept us among the living, and has not let our feet slip.
For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried.
You brought us into the net; you laid burdens on our backs;
you let people ride over our heads;
we went through fire and through water;
yet you have brought us out to a spacious place.
I will come into your house with burnt-offerings; I will pay you my vows,
those that my lips uttered
and my mouth promised when I was in trouble.
I will offer to you burnt-offerings of fatlings,
with the smoke of the sacrifice of rams;
I will make an offering of bulls and goats.
Come and hear, all you who fear God,
and I will tell what he has done for me.
I cried aloud to him, and he was extolled with my tongue.
If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.
But truly God has listened;
he has given heed to the words of my prayer.
Blessed be God, because he has not rejected my prayer or removed his
steadfast love from me.
St John 14: 15-21
‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. ‘I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.’
I sometimes think that the gospel of John is like a great diamond, shaped and polished, and scattering light and fire. It has many different facets. As you look at it from one angle it might seem dark and deep, but hold it up to the light, and it is a glorious blaze of colour.
Take these verses which we have just heard. They are as good an example as any. There are different ways of looking at them, different facets, if you like. Now that’s interesting. Let’s examine them more closely.
First of all, we see what is happening in real time. The disciples and Jesus are self-isolating. They sense something is about to happen. They have just finished their supper. As it turns out, this is the last meal they will all eat together. Judas has already gone out into the night. Indeed, there is not much time left. The net is closing in and Jesus knows it. He is being betrayed even as he speaks. His companions are feeling anxious and confused. Death is staring them in the face, Jesus’s death. The grief is beginning to sink in. If Jesus dies, what about them? They are suddenly feeling all too human, all too vulnerable, all too mortal. They have a dread of something fatal looming large, lurking round the corner. It’s only natural.
Jesus acknowledges their confusion. He speaks to them personally, and his voice is calm and authoritative. He is taking charge of the situation. Here, and in the next two chapters of the gospel, we have Jesus’s last words, his final teaching. They are certainly important for the disciples. But don’t they apply every bit as much to us today? We simply can’t exaggerate their importance. What then is he saying to us in these times of crisis? What is he saying to us in the teeth of COVID-19?
Like the disciples, we are feeling threatened. In common with Peter, Thomas, Philip, and presumably all the others, our everyday life is dislocated, our norms are crumbling, There is clearly a need for some plain speaking. So Jesus spells it out. “If you love me”, he says, “you will keep my commandments”. “If you love me”: this is clearly not a love “like a red, red rose, that’s newly sprung in June.” Jesus is not evoking gushing emotion or touchy-feely sentimentality, however beautiful that may be. No, nothing like that. The love Jesus is talking about is ethical. If we love Jesus we will automatically do the right thing. We just can’t do anything else. And so we will keep his commandments. Our love for Jesus is expressed in love of God and love of our neighbour.
But how do we love our neighbour now, at the present moment, in this time of pandemic? To obey Jesus’s commandments is second nature for us, they are in our DNA, they give us a sense of authenticity as his followers, a sense of identity as church congregations. But the virus raises searching ethical questions about our social life and our Christian practice.
Have we not conscientiously preached the gospel, celebrated the sacraments, been welcoming and hospitable, opened our doors to friend and stranger? But what now? now we are forced to make unpalatable decisions, to close our doors, suspend services of worship, and distance ourselves from one another. In times like these, how can we preach the gospel? how can we accompany people? How can we share their celebrations? Or support them in their sadness and grief? How can we comfort them?
And what of our service to the wider community – our night shelters, our toddler groups, our coffee mornings, our youth groups? Where spreading the gospel goes hand in hand with spreading the virus, these too must be closed down at least for the time being. It is the responsible thing to do. It’s only right. We have to accept that we present risks to one another and to the people we serve. That, if anything, brings us back to reality with a jolt. Loving our neighbour at the present moment means we have to be socially distanced from them. None of us is immune to mortality. Faced with COVID-19 we all are in the same boat. We none of us live Teflon-coated lives. Every single one of us– young or not so young, prince or pauper, citizen or non-citizen, whether we live in Congleton or Cameroon, we are all of us mortal. We all belong together. And we also belong to God. The whole world, its people and everything else belongs to God.
Has COVID-19 taught us a sobering lesson? Has it taken this awful virus to make us realise that we are not self-sufficient, that we followers of Jesus simply cannot rely on our own resources? Have we perhaps been taking so much pride in our obedience that we have allowed the love of God in Jesus Christ to take second place? Do we need to be reminded that our love for one another is grounded, not in our own achievements, but in God’s love?
Perhaps it’s time we looked at another facet of our diamond. It’s time we considered what Jesus says next. Now this is unexpected. This really is a revelation. We don’t have to rely on our own resources!
Jesus will ask the Father to give his followers “another Advocate,” a Paraclete, as the Greek text would have it, a person called alongside us to assist us, to intercede on our behalf, to comfort us in times of need. A person who will bolster our spirits and give us strength and courage. Some of you may be familiar with the Bayeux tapestry. This medieval strip cartoon tells the story of the invasion of England by William the Conqueror. In one panel, a bishop is thumping a group of reluctant soldiers from behind with the flat of his sword. The caption reads: “Bishop Odo comforts the troops”. Some comfort we might say! The analogy cannot be pressed too far, but in comforting the troops, Odo is actively fostering strength and courage for the fray.
The Advocate then is a person who will give us sustained, all-round support. For ever.
Now I’m sure you will agree that that is a wonderful gift. But wait a moment! Does Jesus not say that this is another Advocate? Who is this person? Another who? Another what?” This is another of the same sort as before. Rather as when we ask some-one: “would you like another cup of coffee?” or “would you like another helping of trifle?” It’s more of the same, and yes please! The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, is another of the same, another Jesus. As Jesus goes away, the Holy Spirit will come to his disciples to replace him. And in this way, Jesus will be closer to his followers than ever.
Just as it was for the disciples, so it was for the first hearers of the gospel, and so too it is with us: Jesus abides with us. Today and for ever. We who follow are not left abandoned, orphaned and alone. In the face of a pandemic, we are caught up and sustained by God’s love. Today and every day. For God is not confined by our human limitations. God is not self-isolating. God is alive and at work, the living God, who through his love for us revealed in Jesus Christ, illuminates our life in community and sustains us in faith, love and hope.
Our doors may be closed but we are open to the world. We are part of a great world-wide web of followers of Jesus, past, present and yet to come. We are part of a network of believers that transcends borders and boundaries. We have a unity in all our diversity, a unity that sustains community, a unity that is expressed not only through telephone conversations or through those helpful apps which enable many of us to stay in touch with friends, family and work colleagues, but also through a lived togetherness in common prayer. As we pray together we know that we are all of us caught up in the love of God in Jesus Christ. A love that never comes to an end.
This brings me to my final point. As we hold the diamond up to the light, it comes to life. It is full of fire, it scatters light in all directions, it is glorious.
In May 2020, we are in a different position from the disciples on the eve of Golgotha. They have to take Jesus at his word, they can’t understand what he is saying and they won’t until after his earthly ministry has come to an end. But we live on the other side of Easter. We are an Easter people. We know that the Jesus who addresses his terrified followers is also the risen Christ. That makes a whole world of difference. For at times like the present when we are only too conscious of our own mortality, we can proclaim with assurance that Jesus has triumphed over death. And triumphed over death once and for all. In the light of the Resurrection we are given strength and courage to face the future. For we have an advocate who guides us, comforts us, strengthens us and calls us on in hope. And it’s a never-ending story.
Five years ago this month, Pope Francis published an encyclical letter called Laudato si – “Praise be to you, my Lord!” The reference is to the lovely canticle attributed to his namesake, St Francis of Assisi. The letter concludes with these words: “Let us sing as we go. May our struggles and our concern for this planet never take away the joy of our hope. God, who calls us to generous commitment and to give him our all, offers us the light and the strength needed to continue on our way. In the heart of this world, the Lord of life, who loves us so much, is always present. He does not abandon us, he does not leave us alone, for he has united himself definitively to our earth, and his love constantly impels us to find new ways forward. Praise be to him!”
And all God’s people say Amen!
Hymn: Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine
Frances Jane Crosby (1820-1915)
Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine;
Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
Born of His Spirit, washed in His blood.
This is my story, this is my song,
praising my Saviour all the day long.
This is my story, this is my song,
praising my Saviour all the day long.
2: Perfect submission, perfect delight,
visions of rapture burst on my sight;
angels descending, bring from above
echoes of mercy, whispers of love.
3: Perfect submission, all is at rest,
I in my Saviour am happy and blest;
watching and waiting, looking above,
filled with His goodness, lost in His love
Affirmation of Faith
As followers of Jesus Christ, living in this world—which some seek to control, but which others view with despair—we declare with joy and trust: our world belongs to God!
From the beginning, through all the crises of our times, until His Kingdom fully comes, God keeps covenant forever. Our world belongs to God!
We rejoice in the goodness of God, renounce the works of darkness, and dedicate ourselves to holy living, for our world belongs to God!
As committed disciples, called to faithful obedience, and set free for joyful praise, we offer our hearts and lives to do God’s work in his world, for our world belongs to God!
With tempered impatience, eager to see injustice ended, we expect the Day of the Lord. And we are confident that the light which shines in the present darkness will fill the earth when Christ appears for our world belongs to God!
Ever-living and ever-loving God, You make the wilderness bloom like the rose, we bless you for the gift of life and for the love of family and friends.
You redeem your people as they wander in the desert and bring them home. We bless you for the gift of Jesus Christ, your Son, our Saviour.
You are creating a new heaven and a new earth we bless you for the gift of your Spirit, to strengthen us to serve you in the world
And so we pray for the world. We pray for the leaders of the nations that they might exercise good governance and show concern for those who live in poverty and despair. May they be blessed with discernment and wisdom in these troubled times, that our broken and sinful world might find healing.
We remember before you those who have fled their homes because of war and face an uncertain future. May they come to know the power of human kindness to transform their living.
In this time of pandemic, we give thanks for all those who volunteer so generously and cheerfully to help their neighbours. We remember especially at this time doctors and nurses and all who are at the front-line of medical care. Bless all those who bring healing and hope to those who are ill or anxious about what the future may bring.
Kyrie eleison Lord have mercy
Living God, you created life out of love, as Christians celebrate with joy
the resurrection of Jesus, we give thanks for the fellowship of the Church as it witnesses to the Lord of life.
And as we do, we remember especially our brothers and sisters in situations where to confess the Christian faith is to risk harassment, persecution, even death itself.
May they find peace in the knowledge that they are following the footsteps of their risen Lord.
We pray for our own churches and our own congregations. As we face up to present challenges, may we find that strength and courage which you give to all who know your love, that we may manifest that love and worship you in faith and truth.
Kyrie eleison Lord have mercy
We pray for our families and friends. Watch over them and protect them. We pray for those we love who are far away surround them with your loving care.
In a moment of silence we now remember those known to ourselves who are in any sort of trouble whether of body, mind or spirit.
May they know that there is nothing in heaven or earth that can ever separate them from your love in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Kyrie eleison Lord have mercy.
Eternal God, You hold all souls in life. We praise you for those who have shared this earthly life with us and entered into eternal life with you.
Yours is the love that will never die. In our weakness, you are our strength; in our darkness, light; in our sorrows, comfort and peace; from everlasting to everlasting, You are our God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, One God, for ever.
All these prayers we ask through your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ.
The Lord’s Prayer.
It is time to take up our offering. We give in different ways, through our actions as well as our money. For many, staying at home and being less active is a gift given to your community. For others it may be taking up a new commitment. You may be giving to local charities, or directly to those in need, in terms of your stewardship to your local church, it maybe you are filling and keeping your offering envelopes each week, or are giving via standing order or paying directly in the church bank account. However we choose to give, it’s important to continue – to offer our money and ourselves to God. So let us pray together:
O God as your people we praise you
and we bring our offerings –
not as for the Psalmist, of sheep or goats –
but our money and our lives,
given freely and in grateful thanks
for all that you have done for us,
God bless them and use them
for the building up of your Kingdom
and the sharing of your love
God in unity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Hymn: Guide me, O thou great Redeemer
v.1 tr. Peter Williams (1722-1796) altd; vv.2-3 tr. William Williams (1717-1791) altd.
Guide me, O thou great Redeemer,
pilgrim through this barren land;
I am weak, but thou art mighty;
hold me with thy powerful hand:
bread of heaven, bread of heaven
feed me till I want no more.
Feed me till I want no more.
2: Open now the crystal fountain
whence the healing stream shall flow;
let the fiery, cloudy pillar
lead me all my journey through:
strong deliverer, strong deliverer
be thou still my strength and shield.
Be thou still my strength and shield.
3: When I tread the verge of Jordan,
bid my anxious fears subside;
death of death, and hell’s destruction,
land me safe on Canaan’s side:
songs of praises, songs of praises
I will ever give to thee.
I will ever give to thee.
May the peace of God which is greater than anything we can ever understand keep your hearts and your thoughts in the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ our Lord, and may the blessing of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be with you and those whom you love from this time on and for evermore. Amen.
Sources and Thanks
Opening Responses adapted from the Exultset by Andy Braunston
Affirmation of Faith from the Christian Reformed Church of North
Offertory written by the Rev’d Lythan Nevard
Other liturgical material by Fleur Houston.
All People That On Earth Do Dwell recorded at Westminster Abbey.
Blessed Assurance by Chelmsford Citadel, Salvation Army
Cwm Rhonda the BBC’s Songs of Praise
Thanks to the Rev’d John Young, Liane Todd, Kathleen Haynes, Linda Richards, Lorraine Webb, the Rev’d Lythan Nevard and the choir of Barrhead URC for recording various parts of the service.
Recordings reproduced in line with Barrhead URC’s OneLicence, CCLI licences, and the PRS’s limited streaming licence.