Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Is it time to sell the church?

Texts: James 5.1–6 and Mark 9.41end

I caught sight of a sobering internet meme this week.  It said something along these lines… Imagine that it is the year 2124 – one hundred years from now.  You, regretfully, are dead.  No living person has any memory of you. To your great, great, great grandchildren, you are just a name on a family tree. Someone else will be living in your house – and they will have ripped out all the refurbishments you spent a fortune on, and replaced them with their own.  Someone else will be caring for your garden, and they will have replaced all your expensive shrubs with the ones they like.  Everything you owned in 2024 is now either in a rubbish dump, or it belongs to someone else.

It’s a sobering thought, isn’t it?  And it is deeply reminiscent of the parable of the man who built many barns in which to store his wealth.  “You fool” says God to him.  What is the point of gathering all this stuff?  You really can’t take it with you.  This theme is taken up and expanded by the letter of James (who may, or may not have been the brother of Jesus).  He also recognises that wealth is often acquired on the backs of poorer people – of the labourers in the fields (and perhaps in our case, the sweaty factories of Asia).  To the rich, James writes, “The wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.”!

This isn’t always true, however.  It is perfectly possible to make money without exploiting the masses.  I was interested to read this week that Sir Paul McCartney is one of the first musical billionaires, along with a young woman called Taylor Swift, who I think I’ve heard of!  Sir Paul’s wealth comes thanks to sales of re-released Beatles albums, and a new Beatles song.  Good for him – I say.  He is a man of amazing talent, who has simply persuaded others to buy his records.  His session-musicians and publishers have been paid.  No-one was exploited. 

But Sir Paul – and Taylor Swift - faces the same dilemma as all wealthy people.  The same dilemma that we face: “how much of the wealth I have accumulated should I keep to guard against the trials and indignities of my old age, and to pass on to my descendents?  And how much should I release into the world, to carry out my Christian, religious or moral duty to care for others?”  

The church also has the same dilemma.  In Mark’s gospel, we read that Jesus warned us against putting a stumbling block in the way of anyone’s faith.  One of the more persistent rants that I get on the internet comes from those who wonder why the church is constantly asking for money when it has so much wealth, already stored up. It’s a real stumbling block for many.

People say to us “why should I contribute to your appeal for a disabled toilet, or to help the homeless, when you have a safe full of silver chalices, and land all over the parish which you could sell?”.  It’s a perfectly reasonable question, to ask. 

The standard answer to such questions is that the church is the custodian of such wealth.  By various canon laws, and deeds of trust from previous generations, cashing in our wealth for money to pay for mission is remarkably difficult, even impossible.  We hold this wealth, in our massive barns called churches, to pass on to our descendants.  But, ironically, they won’t be able to use it either – for exactly the same legal reasons!

I remember a story told to me by the Acting Archdeacon of Portsdown, Canon Bob White, a few years ago.  He was meeting the pastor of an independent church, who held their services in a rented school hall.  The pastor looked jealously at Fr Bob’s enormous barn of a church, with its remarkable organ, stained glass windows, and glorious ceiling.  The pastor said, “I wish we had such a building as this!  What a great mission tool it would be”.  Fr Bob immediately got his church keys out of his pocket, and offered them to the pastor.  “Here,”  said Fr Bob. “Take it!  You’d be welcome to it!”.  Of course that was a joke.  And legally impossible.  But Bob’s point was that if he could spend even a fraction of the time in mission that he currently spends caring for his enormous barn, the kingdom might be far more advanced in his parish.

It’s a great balancing act, in which we are engaged.  On the one hand, our building is a repository of the life and memories of this community.  It’s a sign and a signal to the world that there is a different Kingdom, a different economic and political system, on offer.  It’s a place soaked in the prayers of this community, for nearly a thousand years (that we know about).  It’s a place which lifts our eyes, our minds and spirits beyond the humdrum round of daily life, and helps us to fix out eyes on the promise of heaven. But on the other hand it’s a vacuum cleaner for the cash that we pour into keeping it standing, and for the time we spend administering it.  It is both a glorious gift, and time-sucking, money pit around our necks.

There are no easy answers to these dilemmas – neither to the question of our personal wealth, nor to the question of the inherited wealth of the church.  But it’s important that we – both personally and corporately – keep on asking these questions, and praying for wisdom from the Spirit of God.  Amen.

Saturday, May 18, 2024

Pentecost - A Story for OUR time.

Text: Acts 2.1–21

Today, we confront one of the more extraordinary stories of the early church.  It’s a story of tongues of fire on people’s heads, amid the sound of a rushing wind.  It’s a story of a sudden and miraculous ability to be understood by people of other languages.  It’s a story about nervous, frightened followers of Jesus suddenly finding the courage, and the power, to spread his message.  So it’s pretty extraordinary stuff, isn’t it.  It doesn’t sound anything like the world that we inhabit.  It sounds mystical, fantastical, even mythical doesn’t it?

So, let’s apply the 3 C’s of bible reading that I’ve taught a number of times from this pulpit.  Do you remember what the three C’s are?  Context, context, context.

The first context is that of what was happening in the time of the actual story.  The disciples had witnessed Jesus being raised from the dead, and then taken into heaven.  They were confused, dismayed, and not a little frightened.  The Master they had given their lives to follow had apparently disappeared, leaving them alone.  What’s more, he had given them a command to take his good news to the whole world, and promised them the power of his Spirit to do so.  But so far, nothing.  Days had gone by.  They waited in Jerusalem, just as Jesus had commanded them.  But nothing was happening.

And then, all of a sudden – bang!  At just the right time (that is in God’s time, when God judged the moment to be right) people from all over the Empire had gathered in Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit is sent upon the disciples.  He fills them, not least with courage. They spill out onto the streets to tell people what they had learned about Jesus.  Crucially, by some strange power, the foreign people in the crowd could understand what they were saying.  

The text is slightly unclear about exactly what happened here.  On the one hand, the text says ‘All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability’ – which implies the sudden gift, given to the disciples.  On the other hand, the text underlines just how many different nationalities were in town that day – and enigmatically has the crowd saying ‘And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?’.  That seems to imply that the miracle takes place in the ears of the crowd, rather than the mouths of the disciples.  

We should also note that Luke uses a rather obvious story-telling device to relate this tale.  When the crowd finds itself aghast at being able to understand what is being said, they (apparently!) speak with one voice, to list all the nationalities among them.  It’s a remarkably coherent list for a crowd to all say together out-loud, isn’t it?  They would have needed someone at the front of the crowd with the speech written out in big letters, pointing to each one with a big stick!  It’s clearly a story-telling device, by Luke.  We’re not meant to read it literally – like many of the Bible’s stories. 

So, that’s the basic context of the story – the first context.  It’s a story of a bunch of disciples, frightened and confused, suddenly find new energy, new power, to step out boldly to declare their Truth.  It’s a story of how their message suddenly found its mark – and gained serious traction among people from all over the world.

But what is the second context – the context of the author, Luke?  According to the best scholarly opinion, he wrote this story between 40 and 60 years after the fact.  What motivated him to give his time, and the considerable cost of large amounts of papyrus and ink to the task of writing this story, in this way?  At the time Luke was writing, the church was in trouble.  Largely thanks to the missionary work of Paul, it had grown to a sufficient size to have become rather an irritant to the Roman Empire, and the Jewish State.  Their message of God’s equal love for all humanity, and their call for a new Kingdom of peace and of justice for the poor, was a real threat to the Senators, Generals and religious leaders who held all the power.  These troublesome Christians claimed that this Kingdom would replace the empire of violence; an empire which kept the poor in their place, while the rich got richer on the backs of the poor’s labour and enterprise.  At the same time, some of the Christians themselves were beginning to lose hope.  No-one likes being oppressed for their faith.  And it seemed that the early promises of Christ’s second coming were not, in fact, coming to pass, in the way they expected.  They were jittery.  And some were even falling away from their first love of Jesus, as the opening chapters of the book of Revelation so dramatically relate.  

Luke’s dramatic story of that first Pentecost needs to be seen in that context.  He’s writing to a people who need encouragement – who need goading into new action, new enthusiasm for God’s world-changing message.  He reminds his readers, that the church was born in a moment of great spiritual power, amid a great and public miracle.  By listing, in great detail, all the foreign visitors to Jerusalem, he is also reminding them that the church is a universal, worldwide, catholic institution – meant as much for Medes and Parthians, Romans and Greeks as it is for Jews.  This is a message that Luke reinforces a few chapters later, with his dramatic story of Peter’s conversion, which I preached about recently.  (Check out https://youtu.be/poEY7jW5Cg0 or https://tomkennarsermons.blogspot.com/2024/05/love-one-another-including-those-not.html)

And that brings us, rather nicely, to the 3rd context.  Ours.  What is our context as we read this story – understanding that whatever actually happened on that first Pentecost, Luke wanted us, his readers, to draw lessons for our own time, and for our own life as Christians.  If a bible story doesn’t speak to us, then it doesn’t speak at all.

In our time, we are the small band of disciples, hidden away behind the closed doors and walls of our building, our own metaphorical upper room.  We might feel like a mighty army, as we gather together in this place, singing hymns to strengthen our faith and our resolve.  But, in fact, we are less than 1% of the people who live in this parish.  And so, the story of Pentecost turns out to be our story.  

We are the ones who need a fresh outpouring of courage, to go out into the street, into our homes, schools and workplaces, into our clubs and social groups, to declare, as Peter did, the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.  We are the ones tasked with the message of a Kingdom in which the poor will be lifted up, in which justice and mercy will flow like rivers, and in which every human has the potential for God’s Spirit to be ignited within them.  The message of those strange tongues at Pentecost is that if we will only have the courage to speak God’s Truth, then God will take care of the translation issues.  The Holy Spirit will draw all people to God, if we only have the courage to fling wide the doors of our upper room; if only we have the courage to start telling people the good news that there is real hope for a better world, and for richer Spirit-filled lives.  A hope and a faith we have found by following Jesus Christ.  Amen.


Wednesday, May 15, 2024

The Battle for Unity

 Text: John 17.20-end

The 6th of June, D-Day, is fast approaching.  This year, we will mark the 80th anniversary of that epic embarkation of the allies to liberate Europe from the scourge of Naziism. Anyone who has been anywhere near Southsea Common in the last weeks will have some idea of the preparations that are in hand.  We will commemorate with gratitude the lives of the 22,442 men of the British Armed services – and the many more allies - who gave their lives for the freedom of our French neighbours, and to push back the tide of fascism.

The 6th of June, by co-incidence also happens to mark another significant anniversary, which is rather less well known – namely that of the Young Men’s Christian Association - the YMCA - founded 180 years ago, on the 6th of June, in London, by one George Williams and his friends.  The reason I mention this is because the motto of the YMCA is one of the verses we’ve heard today, specifically, John 17.21 – ‘that they may all be one’.

I have an affection for that great institution because I served as a YMCA staff member for about 20 years in the 80s and 90s.  The YMCA played an important part in the War effort too.  They provided YMCA Canteens, in which soldiers could take a break from the front line, and write letters home.  It was sometimes said that they served up ‘tea and comfort’ to the troops, and they were much loved for that.

There’s a lovely story I remember hearing about a YMCA Canteen which was set up in Portsmouth, near the Guildhall, during the second world war, in the run up to D-Day.  The story gives us an insight into the distinctly British mentality of so many people during that whole conflict.  The story goes that during the bombing of Portsmouth, an excited young man ran into the YMCA Canteen shouting “The Guildhall’s on fire, the Guildhall’s on fire!”.  The YMCA lady serving tea behind the counter looked up, and replied, “so it is dear.  Would you like some sugar in your tea?”.

As a non-denominational Christian organisation, the YMCA has striven throughout its history to be a place where true unity of spirit between people of all faiths and none can be found – just as Jesus prayed in his monologue of John’s gospel.  And that same unity of spirit was also the inspiration behind the allied advance on D-Day.  British, American, Canadian and other forces all combined.  Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen, all combined.  Fighters, logistics experts, scientists, weather-men, politicians, and, yes, YMCA tea makers, all combined in one great unified push to beat back the great evil of fascism.

On the surface, Jesus’ prayer is apparently a prayer about his followers.  He is laying out his heart before the Father, and praying for unity between all believers.  But he longs for that Unity, not least because he knows that through such Unity, other people might see the unifying love of the Father at work.  Unity is ultimately the Divine vision for the whole world.  The church is called to be an exemplar of what such unity could look like.  We are challenged, by Jesus, to build a unified church, so that the world might see what a unified world could be.

I have no doubt that Jesus must weep when he sees the fractured nature of today’s world, and, yes, the fractured nature of his church.  We human beings, it seems, are simply not capable of being one...we are just too tied to our own ambitions, or our own limited understand of the mystery of God, or to our own greed or self-protectiveness to be able to truly embrace that one-ness.  And yet Jesus offers all humanity, including the church, a radical new vision.  It’s a vision in which every knee shall bow, and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord.   We call Jesus ‘Lord’ because of the historical pattern of a medieval Lord who sets the laws for his subjects to follow.  We can therefore choose to follow the law of division, enmity and hatred, or we can follow the Lord of love.  When we say ‘Jesus is Lord, we mean of course, that Jesus’ radical, loving, serving way of life is the way we choose to follow. 

The hard reality is that we seem to be entering a dark period of world history. The Prime Minister said as much this week, when he said that the next five years would be among the most difficult we’ve seen in a long time.  And, as if to prove him right, the rest of the week has seen increased aggression in Palestine, the attempted murder of the Slovakian Prime Minister, a new law to ban political dissent in Georgia, and a fresh wave of Russian aggression in Ukraine.  One commentator said recently that we are entering a period that looks very much like the inter-war years, of the 1930s – and we all know where that ends up.  Around the world we are adopting the kind of megaphone politics, which use ‘fear of the other’ and protectionism of the state, to achieve division, rather than unity between nations.  We shout at each other, across our political, religious and societal battlelines; we forget how to listen to each other. Into such a divisive environment, Jesus calls the church to show what it means to disagree agreeably, to maintain unity, despite our differences, to show love in the face of opposition and even hatred.

Yesterday, I witnessed the inauguration of a new Council, here in the borough of Havant.  After two decades of control by one political party, a new alliance of three parties was placed in power by the will of the electorate.  The sometimes stark policy differences between those three political parties have been put aside for the sake of Unity, and for the opportunity to effect positive change. Only time will tell whether this new coalition, led by the Labour Party’s Phil Munday, will be able to use that unity to drive forward public reforms, and work for the public good.  My prayer is certainly ‘that they may all be one’, for the sake of all the people of the borough.

So, in the coming days, as we hope for new unity in local politics, as we remember the unity of the Allies against Facism, and as some of us, at least, remember with thanks the work of the YMCA, perhaps we will take a moment to remember Jesus’ prayer of oneness. Perhaps we will take a moment to re-commit ourselves to the sacred task of working for the unity of all humanity.  Amen.

Friday, May 10, 2024

What is Truth?

Text: John17.16-19

The Gospel of John is notably concerned with the question of Truth.  In the previous chapter to the one we’ve read today, Jesus promises his followers that the Holy Spirit will lead them into all truth.  And then, a few chapters later, Jesus ends up in a debate with Pilate about the nature of Truth, leading to Pilate’s famous question ‘But what is truth’.  In Melvyn Bragg’s libretto for Jesus Christ Superstar, Pilate’s question is memorably expanded to read ‘But what is truth?  Is truth a changing law?  We both have truths.  Are mine the same as yours?’.  In expanding Pilate’s simple, but profound philosophical question, Jesus Christ Superstar invites us to think about all the competing truth claims that there are in our society.

There are, of course, many such competing truth claims, and not just in the political sphere.  Truth, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.  My truth is based on my experiences, my knowledge, my context, my intuition.  Nowhere is this more true than in the field of religion.  I have often wondered whether I would be a Christian if I had not grown up in a English village, in a Christian home, and joined the choir of my local church.  If I had been born in an Islamic home, or a Buddhist one, I daresay that I would call myself a Muslim or a Buddhist.  So, you may well ask, why is that when I know this, and when I’ve studied other religions, why do I hold on to the adjective Christian?

In today’s reading, Jesus is recorded as praying to his Father that his followers will be ‘sanctified by the truth’.  As I said just now, this comes after promising that the Holy Spirit would lead them into all truth.  This is a bold claim, from the writer of John’s gospel.  He puts in Jesus’ mouth the thought that sanctification (which is another word for salvation) will be achieved by the Truth.  In other words, Truth saves us.  It is also John who gives us the memorable phrase from Jesus’ lips, ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life’.    ‘But what is this Truth?’ as Pilate asked.  How shall we know which of the many truth claims from all the world religions is the one we should pay most attention to?

John offers us his answer to that question.  He quotes Jesus saying ‘your word is truth’.  Which might make some of us run scurrying for our Bibles.  But this same John, who puts those words in Jesus’ mouth, is also the author of the great prologue to his own Gospel.  You know the one:  ‘in the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God’.  There’s a beautiful circular logic to what John is saying.  He’s saying that Jesus points us to truth via God’s Word, who turns out to be Jesus himself!  But the trouble with circular logic is that it has a tendency to crumble quickly under the weight of intellectual scrutiny. 

Take, for example, those Christians who believe that the whole Bible (and not just the words of Jesus) is the Word of God.  They point to various passages, such as the famous line in the second letter to Timothy, claiming that all Scripture is God-breathed (and is therefore the ultimate source of truth).  But this is a circular argument.  How do you prove that the Bible is the Word?  By pointing to the bits of the Bible that say it is!  To use an analogy, I could claim that I am a thin man.  How can I prove this to you?  By writing the words ‘I am a thin man’ in elegant writing on a piece of ancient parchment.  Then you have to believe me…whatever your eyes are telling you!

So, you may justifiably ask, why do I remain a Christian (despite finding Truth in all sorts of other places, despite acknowledging the circularity of the Bible’s own claims, and despite the dubious nature of some of its more miraculous claims)?   To that question, I say that in all my study, in all my wanderings through philosophy, history, theology and the great wisdom often to be found in other religions, I have not yet found a BETTER answer to the problems of the world, than the teachings of Jesus Christ. And I have not found a better example of how to live, than the life of Jesus Christ.

For a moment, as an experiment, let’s dare to strip away the accretions of the gospel writers, written to increase faith in Jesus, to prove that he was Divine.  Stick with me here.  Strip away, just for now, in your mind the miracles, signs and theological monologues for a moment. What are we left with? 

I suggest to you that we are left with the teachings of a man, uniquely inspired by the very idea of God, who truly saw what the world was like, and who offered a better Way to humanity.  He saw the way that violence and coercion were the main tools for governing, and he proposed the tools of love and self-giving as an alternative.  He saw the way that the rich people of the world kept the poor in check by depriving them of the basics of life – and he proposed a topsy-turvy alternative, in which the poor would be raised up, and the rich cast down from their thrones.  His self-declared purpose was to declare the Day of the Lord’s favour, when the prisoners would be freed, the sick healed, the poor made rich, and the broken-hearted would find solace.  He declared that in this Day of Favour, in this Kingdom of God, the poor, the peacemakers, the meek, the humble and even those who mourn would be blessed.

So to those who justify division between people of different ethnicity, we turn to Jesus who says ‘everyone is my neighbour’.  To those who justify violence to maintain control, we point to a Lord who advocated love, and who called peace-makers the children of God.  To those who justify the hoarding of great personal wealth, we look to the Lord who had nowhere to lay his head, and who called the man who built barns to contain his wealth a fool.  To those who want to sit in judgement on other people’s life choices, we look to the Lord who says ‘judge not, lest you be judged’. 

My friends, we need a kinder, more tolerant form of Christianity in this country, and in this world.  We need a Christianity that lifts up the broken, which loves the stranger, and which blesses the poor. We need Christians who judge not the sins of others but who endeavour only to live their own life in as holy, sanctified way as they personally can.  We need to strip away the dogmas of past ages, the arid debates about what dogmas we have to believe in order to be saved, and instead look to Jesus, the Word, the Life, and the Truth.  His word his Truth.  He has the words of eternal life.  Other great teachers, great gurus, great religious founders may echo or reflect the Truth we find in Jesus.  We can listen to them too.  We should listen to them too.  But, I declare, proudly and with certainty, that it is in the life and teachings of Jesus that we find our most reliable, most consistent, most divinely-inspired path to salvation. He is the one who offers me the Way, the Truth, and the Life by which I can find my own path to becoming one with God and the world.  And that’s good enough for me. Amen.

Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Ascension - a narrative of expansion

 Texts:  Acts 1.6-11 and Matthew 28.16-20

There’s an old story I like, about a country farmer and his son who were staying, for the first time, in a hotel.  They were astounded by all the modern miracles they were seeing for the first time. The farmer watched an old woman get into the lift, in the hotel lobby.  Then a few moments later, the doors swooshed open, and out came a gorgeous young woman. 

“Wow!” said the farmer to his son.  “They have a machine for turning old women into young ones!  Go and get your mother, son!”

I imagine that sense of awe and wonder was rather similar to what the disciples felt on the day when Jesus ascended into heaven.  For them, it must have been even more of a miracle than him rising from the dead – because this happened right before their eyes.  They are standing with him, on a mountain-top outside Jerusalem.  According to Matthew’s account, he gives them what we call the Great Commission – a command to take his message to the four corners of the world.  Matthew doesn’t say what happened next – but, as Luke tells it in the book of Acts, Jesus was ‘lifted up’ and ‘a cloud hid him from their sight’.  You can just imagine them standing around, mouths open, looking at one another, then up to the sky, and mouthing to each other ‘what just happened?!’

It’s a good question for us, too, as we encounter this story in the 21st century.  What exactly did happen?  Interestingly, Matthew’s account contains no reference to Jesus disappearing, let alone being taken up into heaven.  Mark and John are both silent on the whole episode.  It is only Luke who tells us this particular story.  And even he changes the details. 

Luke tells the story twice:  first at the end of his gospel, Luke says that having blessed his disciples, Jesus ‘withdrew from them’ and was carried up into heaven.  This sounds more like a statement of belief.  ‘Jesus withdrew’ is a description of a teacher who gives his blessing, and then wanders off to be alone.  One wonders if the reason Luke adds ‘and was taken up into heaven’ is because the disciples didn’t see Jesus again.  So he probably, must have, got taken into heaven.  Didn’t he?

This account, intriguingly, is at the heart of various mythologies about Jesus’ continuing ministry on Earth.  According to the Mormon faith, for example, Jesus left his disciples, got in a boat, and sailed to America – where he founded a new civilisation!  There are other legends too, of Jesus making his way to the Middle East, or even as far as India.  I have to say, clearly, that there is no historical evidence for such stories.  But they do persist in various dark corners of the Internet, and indeed in the myths of the Mormon church!

Perhaps the uncertainty about what happened to Jesus after he withdrew is the reason why Luke’s second account of the same story, in the first chapter of Acts, is a much clearer, unambiguous statement.  One can imagine Luke, between the end of his gospel, and the writing of the book of Acts, thinking to himself “I’ve left that ending a bit open to interpretation, haven’t I?  Perhaps I’d better fill in a few more details”.

So in the account from Acts, Luke is quite specific.  Jesus doesn’t ‘withdraw’, but rather, he is lifted up, and a cloud hides him from his disciples’ sight.  Of course, it is perfectly possible to describe ‘being hidden by a cloud’ as ‘withdrawing’ – but that is not, in fact, the clear inference of Luke.  He goes on to emphasise his new version, by picturing the disciples standing around, stunned, gazing into the sky – until two men in white (whom we assume to be angels) arrive to explain what has just happened.

From our 21st century perspective, it has to be admitted that this is all a bit fanciful, isn’t it?  For one thing, we no longer believe (as Luke would have) that heaven is ‘up there’, and hell is ‘down there’.  That triple decker view of the universe, common at the time of Jesus, with earth as sandwich filling between heaven and hell – that view has been roundly discarded, along with the idea of a flat earth having four corners.

In fact, 21st century science offers us what I consider a far more intriguing idea – namely the concept of the multiverse.  According to the discoveries of physics, it is theoretically possible for there to be multiple dimensions, and multiple universes existing side by side. They are invisible to us, because we were born into this universe. But the behaviour of certain sub-atomic particles, which appear to wink in and out of our existence, suggest that there may be a way to travel from one universe to another. 

Perhaps heaven (and indeed hell) is such a place.  Perhaps heaven is a realm that co-exists with our reality – separated by physical laws we are only beginning to understand.  Perhaps this is what Jesus meant when he said ‘the Kingdom of Heaven is among you’.  Perhaps there are even moments when we are capable, through faith, of peeking through the veil between this world and heaven.  There are places on earth which humans have, for centuries, described as ‘thin places’ – places where the peace and the beauty of heaven feel close enough to touch.  And perhaps there are moments when heaven touches earth, through the sub-atomic barrier – such as when Jesus met Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration, or perhaps when angels appear, dressed in white, to let us know what has happened?  Or perhaps when, after diligent and constant prayer or worship, we ourselves sense the presence of God?

All this is conjecture, of course.  I’ve used the word ‘perhaps’ rather a lot!  But I wanted to explore how it is possible to read Scripture’s variable and in some cases competing accounts of a key event in Jesus life, and still find a way to live with the mystery of what the writers of Scripture have left us. The underlying truth that differing accounts of this moment all point toward is this:  Jesus is no longer confined to a human body, with all its limitations of time and space.  His message, his love, his presence (if you will) are available to all people – not just those who manage to track him down to one physical place.  This is a narrative of expansion.  Jesus’s message, Jesus’s love, carried by his disciples, carried by you and me, can be likened to a firework, fired into the sky, to burst out in a blaze of glory and to shower the entire world.  As Jesus said in Matthew’s account – “Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age!”

And to that, we can certainly shout with joy, ‘Alleluia!  Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed, Alleluia!”

Saturday, May 4, 2024

Love one another - including those not like us!

 Texts: Acts 10 and John 15

Today’s reading from the Book of Acts is part of the story known as the Conversion of St Peter. You may like to read the whole of Acts 10 when you get home.  This is not conversion in the sense of being persuaded of who Jesus was.  Peter already knew that - in his bones.  No, this is conversion in the sense of a deep and radical transformation in his thinking, and in his attitudes.  It suggests to all of us that however long we have lived a life of faith – as Peter had done in the company of his Lord – it is never too late to have our thinking and our attitudes converted by God’s spirit working within us.

The context of this story – of which we’ve only heard the last few verses – is this.  Peter had had a vision of something like a sheet, containing animals of every kind, being lowered down from heaven. He had heard a voice saying ‘Get up, kill and eat’.  Peter had resisted this call – because there were very strict rules about what a good Jews should eat.  To place it in our context, it would be like Clare (who is a vegetarian) being commanded from heaven to go and eat a ham sandwich.  Initially, it’s likely that Peter thought this vision was pointing him towards being tolerant of people who ate forbidden foods.  But other things were happening. 

At about the same time, a Roman centurion called Cornelius, a Gentile, was having his own vision.  Cornelius was a good man, who was known to worship YHWH, and to give generously to the poor.  He had a vision – about the same time as Peter’s vision – in which he was commanded to invite Peter to come and speak to his household. 

 It is difficult for us nowadays to appreciate how wide the chasm was that separated Jews from Gentiles in that time and place. The Jews knew very well that they were God’s chosen people, but instead of humbling them (as it should have) to become God’s servants to the world, their status as chosen people was turned into a thinly-disguised spirit of favouritism and superiority. True, they knew that God had promised that through Abraham he would bless all the nations of the world. But in their minds and hearts that meant that everyone else in the world would become Jews.  In their minds, to be pleasing to God one had to be a Jew; to enter eternal life one had to be a Jew. It was a toxic misunderstanding of biblical theology which became a witch’s brew of racism and spiritual pride. They regularly referred to Gentiles as “dogs,” – indeed even Jesus, brought up in a Jewish household, used the same language on one occasion.   Jews thought of Gentiles as crass idolaters, unclean and immoral.  A Jew would no more enter a Gentile home, or sit down to a meal with a Gentile than they would eat a ham sandwich.

Peter himself admits this when he says to Cornelius and his household, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation…” Again, there was nothing to this effect in the Law of Moses. It was not unlawful, but it was the way that the Jewish lawmakers had defined the law. If you don’t want to eat unclean food or be rendered unclean by touching unclean things, it is better just not to enter a Gentile house or even associate with them.

But Peter, still reeling from his vivid vision, finds himself reluctantly in the home of Cornelius.  Led there by events outside of his control, he finds himself preaching the good news of Jesus Christ to this Gentile household.  And then, the most amazing thing happens – the Holy Spirit descends upon the whole lot of them.  They start speaking in tongues, and praising God for Jesus Christ.  Peter is dumbfounded and perplexed.  He can’t believe his own eyes.  But neither can he deny what he is seeing.  God is obviously, and dramatically, breaking into the lives of these Gentiles.  He is baptising them in the Holy Spirit.  He is sealing their salvation, just as Peter’s own salvation has been sealed. 

This is Peter’s conversion.  It’s a conversion away from previous certainties.  It’s a conversion away from thinking that what he had learned and been taught throughout his life was the only way to think. It was a conversion away from rules and regulations, and towards the much greater, foundational rule of God’s love for all humanity.  It’s Peter’s realisation that when Jesus taught (in today’s Gospel reading) that his followers should love one another, he didn’t just mean that we should love people who are like us, who think like us, who believe the same precise theologies as us.  As Jesus himself said in an early chapter of John’s gospel, God so loved the world – not just the Jews.

So, what does this mean for us – in our context, today?  Today, the church across the world is being torn apart by a new kind of pharisaism – specifically over the complex issues around human sexuality.  The Anglican Church is split down the middle between those who advocate tolerant, loving acceptance, and those (such as the church in Uganda) who support prison sentences and even the death penalty for gay people.  The Roman Church is split over the recent teaching of the Pope, that gay couples should be able to seek God’s blessing.  Even in our own country, there are priests and people who are resigning from the church over the issue – and especially over the recent decision of the General Synod to permit prayers of love and faithfulness for gay couples.  Frankly, I weep for those who are so sure of what they believe God has commanded, and what God desires, that they are prepared to give up belonging to the very church that loved them, nurtured them, trained them and sent them out in love to the mission field.   

To such people, I ask, humbly, that they consider the test of Cornelius and the conversion of St Peter.  Peter saw God at work in the lives of Cornelius and his household.  He could not deny that God was blessing them despite their lack of adherence to the ‘the rules’ as Peter understood them at the time.  The same principle has to be true for us. 

So when I meet someone whose sexuality is different from mine, or whose gender identity is not within the boundaries of what society calls ‘normal’, or (on the other hand) when I encounter someone who is angry about non-binary people asserting their rights  – I find myself asking a very simple question.  Is God’s love manifest in this person’s life?  Are there signs of the Holy Spirit blessing them?  Are they growing in faith?  Are they becoming more, or less loving towards others?  Are they speaking in the strange tongues of the language of love, or do they cling to society’s normal language of division, separation, and the innate sense of the superiority of one deeply considered moral position over another?

My brothers and sisters, I want us to be known as the kind of congregation, the kind of church, that welcomes everyone, with whatever they bring, and whoever they are, and whatever expression of the complexity of human life they inhabit.  I want us to welcome all, baptise all who seek it, bless all who ask for it, and accompany anyone who asks us to walk with them on the journey of faith.  And most of all, I pray for the same conversion, in heart and mind, that St Peter experienced.  I pray for a conversion away from dogma and pharisaic rules, towards the kind of open, all-embracing Love of Jesus Christ that was poured out on the household of Cornelius. Amen.

 

Friday, April 26, 2024

The Second Coming of Jesus

 Text : Revelation 3.

I shall take as my text for this evening a phrase that is repeated twice in our New Testament reading:  “Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches”.  This phrase comes from the book of Revelation.  In its early chapters a series of letters are written by the author, John of Patmos, to seven churches in Asia.  These letters offer both encouragement and warning to the newly fledged churches. 

We don’t really know who John was.  Perhaps he was John the Apostle – who had actually spent time with Jesus, of course.  But other scholars are less sure.  What is sure is that he felt that the churches were in a crucial period of their life.  They had been established in the decades following Jesus’ death and resurrection, and they had initially been promised that Jesus was going to return very soon.  But, by the last decade of the first century, when the Book of Revelation was written – many were beginning to doubt the prophecy of the Second Coming – and some of the churches were beginning to fray at the edges.  Whoever John was, he clearly wanted to re-ignite their faith in the second coming of Jesus – and he wanted them to be as ready as possible for that great event. 

To all the seven churches, John writes that they must ‘listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches’.  Listening to the Spirit is a difficult task – isn’t it?  There is always the great danger of thinking that we’ve heard God’s voice, speaking to us, or pushing us in a particular direction.  But then, on reflection, we often find that what we’re really hearing is our own voice, or our own desires, coming to the surface.

I tend to think that is what happened with much of the talk of an imminent second coming of Jesus.  To those who had lived with him during his time on earth, his loss must have been devastating.  But, they developed a belief that Jesus had not been wiped out by death.  In fact, they asserted, he had risen from the dead.  And not only had he conquered death, but he would return with power and glory to rule over the whole world.

The trouble thinking of Jesus as a ruler of the Earth, a kind of Earth King, is that it runs contrary to much of what Jesus himself said and taught.  His approach was always to invite and cajole people into his Kingdom – a Kingdom which he stated (to Pontius Pilate) was specifically not of this world.  His Kingdom was a way of life, entered into freely and voluntarily, in which love and self-sacrifice were the law. The idea that Jesus would return to impose a mighty powerful Kingdom, sweeping aside his enemies in the process, really doesn’t sit well with the kind of invitational mode in which Jesus operated.  In fact, it owes much more to the old Jewish notions of a Messiah – something that the Jews and the Christian-Jews longed for as they suffered under the violent heal of Rome.  We should therefore not be surprised that prophets and preachers of the day would keep on encouraging their followers to ‘hold on’, and to promise them that soon, Jesus would come and batter the Romans into submission.

Two thousand years later, we might well ask what has happened to the Second Coming.  And we should certainly wonder what the Spirit is saying to the churches on this topic today.  It doesn’t take a lot of searching on the internet to find that the idea of a Second Coming, and indeed the End of All Things, still figures highly in the minds of some rather imaginative individuals.  A couple of weeks ago, an American Christian organised the importation to Israel of some pure red heifers, in the belief that the end of the world is coming, and that the Temple in Jerusalem will soon be rebuilt.  On that day, one of the liturgical actions which will be required (by the ancient Jewish laws) is the sacrifice of a pure red heifer, with not a single hair of another colour. 

The same people (both some Jews and some very evangelical Christians) are, it seems, positively salivating over the present conflicts in the Middle East – especially between Israel and Palestine, and with Iran.  They detect within these conflicts the promise of Armageddon, and the end of the world.  Any of them would, of course, tell you that they are not looking forward to the misery of Armageddon.  They don’t want to be the cause of such misery. But they believe that Armageddon must come before Jesus will return.  So, they are quite happy to sell weapons to the warring factions in the Middle East. They are equally happy to lobby and fundraise for the rebuilding of the Temple (which would mean destroying the Muslim holy shrine of the Dome of the Rock). All because, as they say, ‘the Bible predicts it’. 

But is this what the Spirit is really saying to the churches?  I’m not so sure.  Maybe I’m just projecting my own thoughts, my own logic and my own desires, and making God in my own image.  But I don’t think so.  The language of conquering, of world domination, of deliberate war-making to bring about the end of the world seems as far from the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth as I think we can get.  In his sermon on the mount, for example, did he say ‘blessed are the war-makers’?  (It was peace-makers that he would bless).  In his parables, did he compare the coming of the Kingdom to the onslaught of an invading army?  Or did he talk instead about the Kingdom as something like salt that flavours food, and light which shines in darkness. The kingdom is precious treasure, or a lost coin – something to be searched for diligently, and personally.  The Kingdom is like the Father of a prodigal child, who finds himself being offered forgiveness and restored life. 

So what is the Spirit saying to the churches, especially about the Second Coming of Christ?  I think the Spirit is saying that Christ comes again every time that neighbour reaches out to neighbour. Every time that a homeless person finds shelter, or a hungry family is fed by a foodbank, Christ comes again.  Every time that someone who has been wronged finds the strength to forgive their aggressor (Father forgive them, for they know not what they do), Christ comes again.  Every time peace is established, in the face of war, Christ comes again.

I therefore believe in the Second Coming of Christ – but not as a mighty warrior upon the clouds, coming to bash heads together and set up a new earthly throne on which he will reign by diktat and compulsion for eternity.  The Kingdom of heaven will not be established by a sword.  Rather, Jesus’ second coming is a gradual process – one that takes place every time we invite him to set up his throne on the seat of our hearts.  It takes place every time that we sincerely acknowledge him as Lord of our lives, and then set out to live his Kingdom laws of love and sacrifice.