My prayer for the Itchen Valley – my final sermon by Revd Rebecca Fardell

I apologise for not posting this sooner but I have no internet. I would like to thank you all for your very kind words and extremely generous gifts on Sunday; I am extremely touched and feel lavishly blessed! Rebecca

Readings: Luke 24.13-35 and Ephesians 3.14-21

The disciples have had quite a week. It all began so well with Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, when the crowds greeted him with palms and the walls of the city resounded with their cries of Hosanna. Now it begins, the disciples must have thought. Now he will reign as our king. Four days later came the intimacy of the Upper Room where their Lord washed them, prayed for them and fed them. But then there was the horror of Good Friday with soldiers and whips; with cries of ‘crucify him’ and all their hopes and dreams being nailed to the cross. Then there was the despair of grief and the terror that the Romans would not stop with Jesus, that his disciples would be next on their hit list. And then there was the confusion of an empty tomb and tales of angels and resurrection.

The disciples have had quite a week and so it must have been with heavy hearts and weary bodies that Cleopas and his companion set out for Emmaus that first Easter afternoon. But on that road they encounter Jesus. Have you ever thought how strange this famous conversation on the road to Emmaus was? When Jesus comes alongside these exhausted travellers, he does not say, ‘Be glad, I am Jesus, your risen Lord’. He does not amaze them with stories from beyond the grave. No, he turns to the Scriptures and gives them an in depth Bible Study which begins with Moses and takes them through all the prophets as he explains what has happened and why.

Hopefully, it is not a surprise to you when I say that I love the Scriptures. I love the Old Testament with its story of how God created the world and of his faithful dealings with his people. I love the New Testament with its biographies of Jesus and history of the early Church. It is the Bible that tells us who God is. It is the Bible that tells us about God’s plan for his world. It is the Bible that tells us what it means to be a friend of God. It is the Bible that teaches us God’s will. Although I do not always like the Bible and there are bits that are tricky to understand, I love the Scriptures for they are the Living Word of God.

It is therefore to the Bible that I often turn when I want to know how to pray and what to pray. I want to pray things that God wants and praying the Scriptures is a good way of being confident that I am praying for things that are according to God’s will. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven…these are prayers which our Father delights to answer.

You may not realise it, but that is what we do Sunday by Sunday because it was to the Bible that Cramner and the Church of England Liturgical Commission turned when they devised our orders of service. When we pray ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace’ we are using Simeon’s prayer recorded in Luke 2.29. When we pray ‘Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might’ during the Eucharistic Prayer, we are joining the praises of the angels recorded in Isaiah’s great vision (Isaiah 6.3). And of course, every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we are praying words from Matthew 6 and Luke 11.

So when I knew I was coming to serve my curacy in the Itchen Valley, I sat in my room at Ridley Hall and asked God to give me a passage of Scripture to pray for you. He did and I have been praying the words of Ephesians 3 for you nearly daily for the past four years. I have prayed these words boldly, knowing that the God St Paul describes is the one to whom I pray. I have prayed them boldly, confident that they are God’s will.  It seemed therefore right to speak about these words today.  There have been three main elements to my prayer for you which I want to share with you now, before giving thanks for some of the ways in which I have seen my prayers answered. I believe God has given me a different prayer for the people of Sunnyside and Bourne End, a prayer from Philippians. This is my prayer for you, the people of the Itchen Valley:

  1. I pray that the Holy Spirit would work in you
  2. I pray that you would be rooted and grounded in love
  3. I pray that you would comprehend and know the love of Christ more and more.

This short passage from Ephesians contains a wonderful picture of the Trinity. This is the God we bow before. This is the God we pray to. Our Father in heaven has created us and all things. We can experience his love because of what Christ has done for us. Because Christ has risen and ascended to heaven, we can have the Holy Spirit living within us, teaching us, guiding us and strengthening us. As they listened to Jesus on the road to Emmaus, Cleopas and his companion felt their hearts burn within them. The Holy Spirit was teaching them and convicting them of the truth of what Jesus was saying. Paul’s prayer for the Ephesisans – and my prayer for you – has been that you would be filled afresh each day with the Holy Spirit so that you may be strengthened; filled so that you might grow in your faith; filled so that you would become ever more like Jesus; filled so you would be faithful witnesses to him. Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would come to dwell in the hearts of all who believe in him. It is the Holy Spirit working within us that makes the difference. My prayer has been that the Holy Spirit would fill you afresh each day so that you would know his power within you and that Christ would dwell in your hearts through faith.

If we are to grow as Christians, we need to be rooted and grounded in love. Our true identity is not in our families or our jobs or our money. Our true identity is that we are children of God. He has created us and named us and called us to be his beloved sons and daughters. You are because God loves you. I am because God loves me. It is as we stand firmly on the truth of God’s love for us – it is as we allow that love to form us and transform us by the power of the Holy Spirit – that we grow as Christians. It is as we grow as Christians and put our roots deep down into the truth of who we are in God’s eyes that we will show the love which is the natural fruit of Christ at work in our lives: Love for God. Love for one another.

Paul’s prayer – my prayer – is that you would both comprehend and know the love of Christ. Faith is not just an intellectual thing but a practical one; it is not restricted to the classroom but a lived experience. This prayer is about understanding and experiencing God’s love for you and all his creation. Following Jesus is not just about understanding lots of facts, it is about relationship with the living God through Christ Jesus so we need to understand and experience that wonderful love. Following Jesus is about our hearts as well as our heads.

The love of Christ is vast: it is so high that it is higher than your greatest joy. It is so deep that it goes lower than your deepest despair. It is so wide that it can reach from your beginning to your ending and cover the breadth of your experience of life. No one is outside the love of God. No place is beyond its reach. The love of God encompasses the joy of Easter and the despair of Good Friday; it stretches from Jerusalem to Emmaus; from Cambridge to the Itchen Valley, from Winchester to Sunnyside and Bourne End and beyond. As we sing – with enthusiastic actions – each week at Little Rainbows: Jesus’ love is so high we can’t get over it, so low we can’t get under it, so wide we can’t get round it, O wonderful love.

It is this wonderful love that I long for each of you as individuals and us as a community to understand and experience. This love is so vast that however much we understand and experience today, there is always more. If you are walking close to God, there is more. If you are young, there is more. If you are old, there is more. If you have been a Christian for five minutes, there is more. If you have been following Jesus all your life, there is more.

The extraordinary thing is -and this is why this has been my prayer for us as a community, as well as my prayer for you as individuals – that we understand and experience this love best as a community…’I pray that you may have the power to comprehend with all the saints…’ writes St Paul(Ephesians 3.18). The verb you is plural, not singular. Paul is praying for the worshipping community in Ephesus.  The disciples came to understand the good news Jesus was sharing with them as they listened and discussed together. The disciples came to experience the love of Jesus as they shared a meal with him together. Likewise we can understand the love of Jesus as we gather together to study the word of God. As we share our insights and grapple together with the verses we struggle to comprehend, we will come to a better understanding than if we only encounter the Scriptures alone. Like Cleopas and his companion, we can experience the love of Jesus as we gather together to worship God and serve each other more readily than when we are alone.

Our reading reminds us that God is able to do more than we can ask or imagine. He has abundantly answered my prayer for which I give him enormous thanks.  This prayer begins and ends with praise to God. I want to end with praise and thanksgiving for who God is and the ways in which I have seen answers to my prayers. Paul is seeking to encourage the Ephesians with his letter and I hope that this will encourage you too. I have seen God answering this prayer in the conversations I have been privileged to have with you in times of joy and times of sorrow and as we have shared life together. I have seen God answering this prayer in the fellowship, prayer and Bible study we have enjoyed in the Mum’s group. I have seen God answer this prayer in the growth of our young people. I have seen God answer this prayer in the ways people have responded to the love of God by sharing that love with the older members of our community through CAMEO, those suffering from mental health issues and those who are bereaved. I have seen God answer this prayer in the ways in which you have graciously welcomed me into your community as we journey together for a season and the practical ways in which you have cared for me. The list is endless…the Holy Spirit is at work in this place and at work through us as Christ’s body here in the Itchen Valley.

God has answered another prayer I have been offering over the past four years. My prayer for me as I moved to Hampshire was not just that I would successfully complete my curacy without causing too much hurt or chaos along the way(though I have prayed this sincerely and often). No, my main prayer was that I would love you. I have loved you and I do love you and so as I leave you, I continue to pray that the Holy Spirit would fall afresh on you and that you would be rooted and grounded in the love of Christ, that you would understand and experience ever more of his love. I look forward to hearing how God answers that prayer in the days, months and years to come.

Revd Rebecca Fardell

 

 

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