Friday, June 7, 2024

Sing to the Lord a new song: the place of music in worship

Texts:  Psalm 150, Colossians 3.12-17, and Mark 14.22-26

Music is such an integral part of our culture, isn’t it?  Perhaps the easiest way to get a handle on that is to imagine a world without music.  Imagine, for example, watching a movie without background music, setting the emotional tone of each moment.  Can you conceive of a TV advert without music blaring in the background, trying to grab your attention?  “Go compare!”. Music is everywhere.  We sing on the football terraces.  Many of us wake up to music on the radio.  Long journeys are accompanied by the ‘choons’ we choose.  This week’s D-Day celebrations in Southsea were led by a huge cast of musicians, including some from our own Cathedral choir. 

But what exactly is music?  When you break it down to its bare bones – it’s a surprisingly simple thing.  In Western music, it is a collection of 12 tones – 12 resonating sound frequencies.  These are arranged in such a way as to be interesting, or inspiring to the human mind.  Some cultures have less than 12 tones.  Some, especially in the East, have more – quarter-tones that sit between the 12 that we have come to think of as normal.  

But why music?  What is it about these tones, these vibrating frequencies that stir our emotions, and which connect with us on such a deep level?  Why do we generally prefer the sound of musical notes to, say, the squawking noise of, say, a parrot?  Or the sound of wind in the trees, or water in a fountain.  Speaking as a musician, I’d say the answer to that question is complex.  It certainly has something to do with the way music resonates with our bodies.  Our ears, and other parts of our body, find the experience of being immersed in music genuinely pleasurable.  There is a physiological link between the sounds we prefer, and the way our bodies absorb and process them.   Nature has made us to appreciate music at a physical level.  

But nurture is also involved.  We love the music that we’ve come to know, from our earliest age.  Some of us find it hard to learn new music – because we are deeply attached, emotionally to the pattern of sounds we grew up with.  That’s why introducing new hymns in worship is always a fraught process.  And its why some of us maintain that any music produced since Mozart should be considered ‘dangerously modern’!

So far as we can tell, from archaeology and ancient literature, music has always been important to humans, practically from the moment we became humans.  In ancient caves, archaeologists have discovered animal bones with holes along the side – clearly intended to be used as a kind of flute.  We know that drums have a very long history too, in many early cultures.  We know that music played an important part in worship, throughout the Bible.  Key ideas about God were turned into music – which made those ideas easier to remember and to process. 

So, for example, we read about the Song of Miriam, the wife of Moses, who sang a song of celebration and praise when the Eqyptians were thrown into the sea.  Our gospel reading, just now, told of how Jesus and his friends sang a hymn before going out into the night.   The Bible includes an entire book of 150 song lyrics, called the Psalms.  We know from the last of those songs, number 150, what kind of instruments were being played to accompany the singing.  That last psalm – which the choir sang for us as a first reading - contains a list of all the instruments which were used to praise God – the trumpet, the psaltry (a kind of zither), the harp, stringed instruments (presumably something like violins or cellos), pipes (presumably like flutes or maybe bagpipes) and cymbals – well-tuned but loud cymbals!

Vitally, for churches (and this touches on the work of the RSCM) music is a way of helping us to absorb our theology and doctrine.  Our hymnody reflects and reinforces our theology.  Theology is, generally speaking, an intellectual exercise.  It forces us to think about the mystery of God, and our place in God’s world.  But music acts upon us at a deeper, emotional, instinctive level.  It can help us to bridge the gap between what we believe, intellectually, and what we live out in our daily lives.  That’s why the choice of what we sing is so important – and why care is needed in the choice.  Music has the power to carry truth – or lies - beyond the intellect and into the heart.  It can, in fact, be dangerous.  Here’s an example….

In a week in which we’ve all thought about D-Day, it’s worth remembering that Hitler used music to promote his pernicious nationalism.  The words of the German national anthem during his time were ‘Deutschland, Deutschland, uber alles’ – which translates as ‘Germany, Germany – over all’.  In other words – Germany is the best, the most superior nation, with a divine right to rule the world.  Sung at every Nazi rally, this message of an innate superiority of the German people went straight from Hitler’s warped brain into his people’s hearts.  Once convinced of this lie, some of them became willing to do almost any heinous crime in the name of German superiority.

That’s why it matters what music we sing.  That’s why Graham takes such care in the choice of the hymns we sing here, week by week.  If we choose hymns that push one particular theological idea, it’s important that that is balanced by an alternative view as well.  So, for example, take the modern hymn ‘In Christ Alone’.  Perhaps you’ve heard it:  “In Christ alone, my hope is found /He is my light, my strength, my song”.  It’s a smashing hymn, with a brilliant tune.  But, troublingly, it does contain this line:  “But on that cross as Jesus died/The wrath of God was satisfied”.  That is a very specific and deliberate statement of one particular theological idea – called ‘penal substitution’ – which is the view that Jesus had to die to appease God’s anger about human sin.  Another way of saying that is ‘that Jesus took the punishment which should have been ours’.  But that, as I have taught many times, is only one way of understanding the meaning of the crucifixion of Jesus.  If we only choose hymns that contain references to penal substitution, we’re in danger of ending up with a very myopic understanding of God.

The best and the greatest church music, in my view, is that which doesn’t get bogged down in pushing disputed theological ideas.  Such hymns are no better than football chants, which attempt to ‘big up’ the home team, while putting down the opposition.  The best church music is that which lifts our eyes and our hearts beyond the minutiae of theological debate – and which opens our inner being to the reality of God.  That’s why the psalmist says that praise should be the purpose of our song.  Praise for God, for all that God is, whether on the trumpet, or the psaltry, the harp, or even the loud cymbal!”  Amen.


Wednesday, June 5, 2024

We need some D-Day spirit today!

2 Timothy 2.8–15

Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained. Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory.  The saying is sure:

If we have died with him, we will also live with him;

if we endure, we will also reign with him;

if we deny him, he will also deny us;

if we are faithless, he remains faithful—

for he cannot deny himself.

Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.

Mark 12.2834

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’  Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’  

Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”;  and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength”, and “to love one’s neighbour as oneself”,—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’ When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ After that no one dared to ask him any question.

 ________________________________________________________________

How much do you think you could endure, for the sake of the Gospel?  How much of your happiness and comfort would you sacrifice to love your neighbour as yourself?  Are you prepared to die with Christ, so that you might live with him?  Could you ensure hardship and suffering, for the promise of reigning with Christ – whatever that metaphor means?

These are the challenges of today’s readings, and of the commemorations of D-Day that are taking place in Portsmouth and in France over these two days.  The soldiers, sailors and aviators of D-Day gave themselves utterly to the task of loving their neighbours in France – to release them from the grip of Hitler’s Nazi regime.  And they did it for love….for the love of their French neighbour, inspired by the love of God, who rightly insists on our heart, soul, mind and strength.   Each one of them deserves our undying respect, admiration and thanks.

Other groups of people have been brought to the forefront too.  Yesterday, the King reminded us that Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus were among those who died and fought for freedom that day.  We must never make the mistake of thinking that only western, Christian, people understand the value of sacrificing oneself for one’s neighbour.  There are many in other religions to whom Jesus would say, as he said to the Jewish scribe, ‘you are not far from the Kingdom of God’.

Another group of unsung heroes are those who worked, diligently, sacrificially and often in secret, behind the lines.  Often women, these were factory workers, the farmers, the Land Girls, and the military support units, like the WRENS, who helped with the logistics, planning and delivery of the greatest amphibious fleet ever assembled in history.  Women flew airplanes from factories to the front, they drove lorries and logistics waggons, they provided food and nourishment for the troops, and nursing for the wounded.  

All of these ‘folks behind the lines’ made sacrifices to love their neighbour too.  Often they gave up their homes and normal lives to add their skills and expertise to the war effort.  They lived for long periods away from the families, and even their own children (who were billeted in the countryside as evacuees).  It may perhaps be said that no nation in history was ever so completely mobilised in the task of sacrifice and love of neighbour.  That is, of course, something of what we mean when we talk about the wartime spirit of Britain.  Churchill’s greatest achievement was to encourage and foster the spirit of sacrifice among an inherently selfish nation.

Yes, this was about defence – defence of the United Kingdom from the Nazi threat.  But it was more than that.  This nation, bolstered by our Allies, decided to sacrifice a generation of young people in the defence of Europe, and for the love of our European neighbours.  We led the charge against the blind and stupid nationalism and despotism of Hitler and his henchmen.

Which is why it is so worrying, 80 years later, to see some of the same patterns emerging in our politics today.  Extreme right wing ideologies are once again on the march.  Politicians and leaders routinely lay the blame for our economic challenges at the feet of those least able to defend themselves – just as Hitler did with the Jews. We are encouraged to look for people to blame – homeless people, benefit ‘scroungers’, foreigners, travellers, fat people, woke people, trans-people.  The millionaires who run our country don’t want us to look too closely at their wealth.  ‘Look over there’, they cry.  Be distracted. Blame the others.  

In short, we are forgetting the lesson of D-Day – that the path to glory is not paved with blame, but with sacrifice.  The more divided our nation becomes, the more we blame ‘the other’ for our own unwillingness to bend to their needs, the further from the Kingdom of God we fall.

What are the practical implications of this message?  D-Day was an example of national sacrifice, and logistical prowess combined in an epic battle for the common good.  One of the modern battles we are waging is one against the large total of net migrants to this country.  With net migration of three quarters of a million people a year, our hospitals, schools, housing and health-care facilities are under immense strain, without a doubt. 

What if we were to apply the D-Day Spirit to this very real challenge?  It would take a ‘wartime spirit’ that was, for example, willing to forego some of the high standards of building and safety standards we’ve come to expect.  It would mean a few less hospitals and homes designed to win prestigious awards, and rather more prefabs and Nissan huts.  But with sacrifice and love for neighbour at the heart of such a programme, if would be possible to mobilise the nation to quickly build new homes, hospitals and schools, and to relieve the pressure on public services by bringing-in immigrant builders, doctors and teachers – who would pay tax and build the nation. 

But what do we do?  We blame the migrants – instead of our lack of D-Day vision. So, we choose not to requisition the land of multi-millionaires as we did at D-Day, to meet a national emergency.  We choose not to build the prefab homes we once did to house people in urgent housing need.  We choose not to build hospitals in simple huts, or set up schools in porta-cabins.  No – because we are too good for these things.  Oh, they are good enough for poor people in far off lands.  We’ll set up field hospitals in tents for them.  But we have our own high standards here at home, and we’re not going to bend them for anyone! 

Has it never struck you as perverse that we can build glamping pods for wealthy British holiday makers, but we won’t provide housing pods for the homeless?  We can build acres of mobile home parks for wealthy vacationers, but we can’t provide safe parking spaces for travelling communities.  Doesn’t it seem odd that we want the right to travel anywhere in the world on our blue British passports, but we won’t give the same freedom of movement to ‘the others’. You see, the homeless, travellers, and immigrants are ‘the other’ – and we’re not going to sacrifice for them!

My friends, we’ve forgotten how to apply our heart, soul, mind and strength to the task of loving God, and loving our neighbour.  And until we regain the D-Day spirit of sacrifice, coupled with ingenuity, I believe that as a nation we will remain far from the Kingdom of God. Amen.


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!”