Where is he?

After this Jesus went about in Galilee. He did not wish to go about in Judea because the Jews were looking for an opportunity to kill him. 2Now the Jewish festival of Booths was near. 3So his brothers said to him, ‘Leave here and go to Judea so that your disciples also may see the works you are doing; 4for no one who wants to be widely known acts in secret. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.’ 5(For not even his brothers believed in him.) 6Jesus said to them, ‘My time has not yet come, but your time is always here. 7The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify against it that its works are evil. 8Go to the festival yourselves. I am not going to this festival, for my time has not yet fully come.’ 9After saying this, he remained in Galilee.

10 But after his brothers had gone to the festival, then he also went, not publicly but as it were in secret. 11The Jews were looking for him at the festival and saying, ‘Where is he?’ 12And there was considerable complaining about him among the crowds. While some were saying, ‘He is a good man’, others were saying, ‘No, he is deceiving the crowd.’ 13Yet no one would speak openly about him for fear of the Jews.

I’m not going to talk about St Patrick. This being St Patrick’s Day. I’m aware you are Stepney clergy. You know perfectly well how to celebrate St Patrick’s Day. So I’m not going there. Allow me, instead, to reflect on three words in this reading from Evening Prayer: ‘Where is he?’

May the words…

Do you know the story of the Scarlet Pimpernel? A fictional British aristocrat who went to France during the Terror to rescue French aristocrats doomed to die. He slipped into disguise and with great daring mingled among the very people who would straight away have chopped off his head. 

Famously brought to life, of course, in the third series of Blackadder – departing somewhat from the original text. “They seek him here they seek him there, those Frenchies seek him everywhere. Is he in heaven or is he in hell? That damned elusive Pimpernel!”

It seems that is what Jesus is doing here. There’s a diversionary tactic “No, you guys go. They hate me in Jerusalem. Go and do your thing at the festival“. Then he seemingly changes his mind and slips into the crowd. At this point in the story he is as yet unobserved.

So often in the gospels people are looking for him. Some Gentiles come to the disciples and tell Philip: “Sir, we want to see Jesus”. After the feeding of the 5,000 he goes off to pray and the people come again to look for him. In this instance it’s the Jewish leaders: “Where is he?“. 

Even though he is not visible he is still the centre of attention. Of course, that’s how to read the Bible – for Jesus to be the centre of attention. It’s how we lead our churches – for Jesus to be the centre of attention. 

It’s how we can get over the Church being atomised, traditions being suspicious of one another, narratives we are fed of decline or fracturing causing fear – for Jesus to be the centre of attention. “Where is he?“

I’ve loved – absolutely loved – being your acting Archdeacon covering 11 months since last February. Thank you +Joanne for inviting me and +Sarah as well. Thanks to the wonderful Stepney Area team and special thanks also to Christine my colleague and friend. It is a canard, but it is true that anything good and helpful from the Archdeaconry is due to her. Anything late, poor advice, ignored emails – that’s on me. 

I’m going back across the border to my day job as a priest working as an Archdeacon focussed on the Two Cities. Soon there will be the new Archdeacon of Hackney, Peter, as well as a new colleague to replace Christine. He’ll bring many improvements. He is the person chosen by God to come among you as servant. Do be in touch. 

I know what Jane Williams means when she says ‘Stepney is the best Area’. Friends, I feel that too. But that’s not to flatter. I say that because here in this context there is a possibility of seeing where Jesus is, where he is at work, the life that he brings. There is a possibility, with the heritage of prayer and poverty, with anachronistic but remarkable Victorian philanthropy and church planting giving us a legacy where so many us are placed into the heart of our communities.

We know that in low-income communities people are often more spiritually open. That’s a danger as more of Stepney gets gentrified. For all the wonderful opportunities that are kicked up when there’s change in the air, one of the challenges is that the new wealth in Stepney is accompanied by what often accompanies wealth, namely self-reliance.

It is reliance on ourselves rather than a desperation that leads us to Jesus that is part of what we are trying to kick with Lenten discipline. “Nothing in my hands to bring, simply to thy cross I cling” an expression of the end result.

This desperation is, as we were reflecting on at the last ‘Stepney at Prayer’, the root of prayer. There’s a sense of desperation in the air shared both his critics and disciples alike: Where is he?

Rocket barbers on Hackney Road is known by some of you. It is in the parish where I served as Vicar. Their motto: ‘you grow it, we mow it’. Steve was one of the founders. He’s got a proper beard and tattoos evident on his arms and on his head. “Come on mate you’re a vicar you should get a nice big cross down on your back“. I’ve not gone for that, hence this beard which is the compromise from that conversation.

Steve was telling me about a tattoo he was planning on his chest. He said “I’ve got a devil on my back, so I might get one of those on the front“. I said “come on mate, you can do better than that“. He replied “OK then, the alternative is a moth“. “A moth?” “Yes, a death moth“. I said with a sigh “I’ll pray for you“. He shot back “would you? I’m having it done tomorrow could you come along in all your gear“ So the following day I’m walking along Hackney Road towards Vagabond tattoo parlour in my black cassock and dog collar. 

It’s clear they are expecting me. Steve is having his chest shaved in preparation. The music gets turned down to let me do my thing. It’s not far from my church and in my parish so I pray a blessing on the business, take authority over the evil spirits and cast them out, pray for pain relief for Steve – to which I get at least one “Amen“. Then I’m on my way.

A few weeks later and I’m back in the chair at Rocket Barbers. Steve is giving me an update on the tattoo chest piece. He lifts up his T-shirt to show how it’s getting on. He said “when the wing of the moth went over my nipple I cried out to that God of yours!” 

So my parting shot as your Archdeacon is to pose that question: “Where is he?“ Jesus in evidence, being pointed to. We “decrease so Jesus might increase“.

In taking on the role of a priest working as an Archdeacon, I’ve been responding to what I considered to be a calling. It goes like this: the Church of England is a vehicle that is not going as fast as it was designed. Part of my calling has been to work out how the engine operates and whether or not it is the oil that needs changing or the carburettor…

With something like that in mind here are two practical suggestions that come in a fairly dour way from the desk of an Archdeacon, and two pleas that come from me, as what I hope you might continue to consider a brother in Christ:

‘Where is he?’ The first practical step is a really tedious Arcdeacon-y one. Signage. Yes, church notice boards and signs. Bear with me: 

I have the great joy of going round churches doing stuff, often cover. Lots of places I’ve not been to before or very often. There’s one feedback common to every visit. It crops up so frequently and applies irrespective of tradition. Signs that are old and scruffy and empty and aren’t legible or, the very worst offence of all – using the font ‘Comic Sans’!

You know the story of the Vicar who was so frustrated at trying to get the congregation to understand what it was like for newcomers in church. He started the service and then said ’stop!’ I’m going you each a fiver and you must go down to the bookmakers to place a bet. Then you’ll feel what it is like going in to an unfamiliar place where people turn around to look at you, where they expect you to know what to do with that pencil and which screens to watch.

Friends, go back to your parishes and prepare – or repair – your signs. Even if there’s plants in the stonework and the tower is falling down show the people the Church is alive. Were is he? We don’t need a miracle, we just need – a sign!

The second practical step is to acknowledge that the role of an Incumbent is so hard, not least because of the compliance agenda. I know this living in a Vicarage, married to a Vicar. The burden on incumbents is so much more than 10 years ago. There are endless emails that demand attention, the Diocese and Archdeaconry churn out reminders for action from annual returns to safeguarding. All important stuff.

As APCMs are being prepared for and held, you and I are aware that as the burden of governance has grown there are fewer people with the time and gifts to fulfil these tasks. Gone are the days of a group of representatives from across church life being the PCC, they have to be fully functioning charity Trustees.

These pressures should force us to be more undefended, to share, to be creative. To look to achieve the great prize of sharing resources. “Oh but if I admit weakness and need I’ll be gobble up by Hackney Church!” – no, that’s not true, unless you’d like to be of course!

The burden is intolerable. We are so often side-tracked by issues, as many who have attained office, up to and including ++Rowan, have found. 

The early Church faced this challenge. What did they do? Appoint deacons. 

So today I want to throw out a challenge, perhaps a vision: A new order of lay ‘admin deacons’.

Who will be the first to take up the challenge of two churches as separate charities, or three churches even, sharing an administrator, a book keeper, a premises/maintenance person? Actually, some already do that. Can you share what works in the deanery? In Stepney surely we can innovate in this way? You heard it here first: a new order of deacons to set the apostles free to do the work you are called to.

Free from what we have to do in order to get on with what we must do – show the people Jesus. Where is he? Hidden in the crowd of compliance perhaps.

Now, two brief pleas – when  first typed that it said ‘two brief fleas’. Maybe there’s an itch I want to leave you with:

Pray for your Bishop. I’ve seen the Bishop’s job up close. It is not very glamorous. Much of it has to be confidential. There’s conflict all around. I think we do this most weeks in our intercessions – but please, please do it with feeling. Pray for your Bishop.

Second, make Jesus the centre of the church. The centre of the sentence you speak. Don’t start with the first person ‘I this, that and the other’, tell stories about Jesus. Prioritise the presence of Jesus. We can find him in scripture, by His Spirit and in the sacraments.

Jesus offers good news, not just good advice advice. It has been done for you, through no effort of your own. Grace! Because of Jesus there’s nothing you can do to make God love you more and there’s nothing you can do to make him love you less.

They seek him here, they seek him there. Where is he? May he be found with our Bishop, be found in the Church. May Jesus be found in me.

Archdeacon Adam Atkinson
17th March 2022