Saturday, May 13, 2023

A Sermon for a Civic Service

 Texts:  Micah 6:6-8  and Matthew 25: 31-36

When I say the word "sheep" to you - I daresay that you have a vision in your mind of something round and fluffy, with a big thick woolly jumper.  On the other hand, the word "goat" brings to mind something bigger, stronger, with a rough wiry coat, and big horns.  In fact, that was not the image that Jesus had in mind.

Something I’ve learned through my trips to Africa in recent years is that primitive breeds of sheep and goats are remarkably similar.  It is actually quite difficult to tell them apart. Woolly, English sheep, and strong wiry English goats are the result of selective breeding over many centuries.  In fact, a African shepherd who might be separating them has only one visible marker to guide him in a hurry - namely that the tails of sheep point downwards, and goats’ tails point up.

The story of the Sheep and the Goats comes at the end of a long section of Matthew's gospel, when Jesus has been talking about the End of All Things.  It all starts back in Matthew 24, when his disciples say to him "Tell us...what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?" So this parable, which is part of Jesus' response to their question, could easily start with the words "At the end of the age"...or, as we might say, "at the end of the day".

At the end of the day, this parable teaches us, there are only two kinds of people.  They are pretty similar, these people - it’s hard to tell them apart, in fact.  They all lead fairly normal lives, they marry, have children, go to work, even volunteer to be Councillors and, yes, Mayors.  But there is a difference between these two kinds of people.  And the difference is found in the way that they relate to other people.

All the people of the world, the sheep and the goats, are surrounded by others in need.  There are homeless people, and hungry people.  There are thirsty people and naked people.  There are sick people and prisoners, ripped away from their families by their own fault, or by the oppression or collapsing economies of the countries they live in.

At the end of the day, the difference between the lost and the saved is indicated not by the way they look, but by the way they behave.  The difference is seen in the way they respond to the hungry, homeless, thirsty, naked, sick and imprisoned.  Jesus is saying "if you want to know who will be saved, look at the quality of a person's life...at the decisions they make about others in need".

Becoming a sheep - a true believer, a true Christ-ian, takes a complete transformation of our inner being...or what the Bible calls being 'born again'.  Crucially, it takes a daily commitment to the abandonment of 'self', and the development of a mindset which puts others first. 

To offer us a different perspective, consider the words of Micah, which was our first reading, just now.  Micah asks how he can please God.  Perhaps burnt offerings might do it?  (I do hope not, because it will make a mess of the Altar!).  Perhaps the Lord will be pleased with thousands of sacrificed rams, or rivers of olive oil?  Perhaps I should offer my firstborn, as a sign of penance for my sin.  (My only daughter is sincerely hoping not!).  But no, Micah concludes, these things will not please God.  If we want to win God’s favour, or (to put it another way) to be on God’s side, all he requires is that we should “do justly, love mercy and walk humbly” with him.

Another thing I’ve observed in Africa has been the immense generosity of people who have nothing.  Before I went on my last visit to Ghana, I told Bishop Matthias that I didn’t want to sleep in a hotel anymore, costing money that could be used for mission.  He had always put me in a hotel because he felt slightly ashamed of the poverty of his house.  But instead I begged him to be allowed to sleep somewhere in his house…anywhere.  A mattress on the floor would do me.  Imagine my surprise (and my slight horror) when I found on arrival that Matthias and his family had refurbished an entire room for me to stay in.  They had repainted the walls, and even bought some new lino for the floor!  I felt awful…but at the same time reflected yet again that in African Christians I so often see a kind of generosity, even in the midst of extreme poverty, that is a beautiful thing to see.  It flows from a lifetime of responding to the need of neighbours all around.

This is the work of a lifetime.  It takes time to gradually pull down the walls of the ego and the self we have built around us.  It takes years to come to the realisation that it truly is in giving of ourselves that we receive, and that in dying to ourselves we are born to eternal life. It takes years to realise that God calls us to live not as individuals, but in communities that care for each other. 

What Jesus called 'the Way' is, in fact, a Way of life.  It demands a complete re-imagining of what we consider important in life.  It means a complete emptying of self...truly giving up my rights, my desires, my feelings, my wants, my purposes:  and the giving out of all my resources to the service of others.  To the hungry and the thirsty, to the naked and the homeless, to the refugee, to the sick and imprisoned.  This is true for all citizens, whether we are elected to public office or simply living private lives. 

But perhaps, as our new King demonstrated graphically last weekend, it is those of us who are called to public office who have the most responsibility to ‘do justly, love mercy and walk humbly’.  Whether we like it or not, we are exemplars for the communities we serve.  Other citizens take their lead from us.  So if we act like goats, grabbing resources to enrich ourselves or our friends, then those we serve will take their lead from us.  Lawlessness, tax fraud, and the accumulation of personal wealth will become the norm.  But, if we dare to act like sheep, to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly, then perhaps, just perhaps, we may lead others to live on the side of God.  Amen.

Saturday, May 6, 2023

What does God think about monarchies?

 There’s no getting away from the fact that people stand quite firmly on either sides of the debate about monarchy. 

There are many who have been joyfully waving flags, ringing bells, and joining together, yesterday, in church to watch the Coronation.  They enthusiastically support the principle of monarchy.  This is often because they see it as the only viable alternative to a Republican system.  Supporters of an English Republic dream of electing a wise national treasure as our Head of State – someone like David Attenborough or Judy Dench!   But monarchists argue that a popular vote would be more likely to elect Simon Cowell or Ant & Dec!  The fact is that if we were designing a nation from scratch, it would be ludicrous to give all that power and influence to one random family.  But we’re not starting from scratch.  Our constitutional monarchy has evolved over centuries.  It has become a kind of screen onto which we project our national identity, and our national ethics of service before self.

As a Christian, I’m compelled to ask what the Bible’s view of monarchy is.  Unfortunately the Bible is ambiguous, at best, on the subject!  In our reading from the first book of Samuel, we are confronted with a God who seems implacably opposed to Israel having a King.  God warns the people that if they have a King, he will take all their wealth for himself, and send their sons into battle for his own political aims.  But the God portrayed in this part of the Bible is one who can be argued with – and eventually he relents, and permits the nation to establish a monarchy.  From that point onwards, until the Exile from Jerusalem, God appears to be broadly content with the idea of monarchy.  He blesses Saul, then David, and then wise King Solomon.  Kings after that were a fairly mixed bag, however. Some led the people away from the worship of God, even to worship other idols.  The books of the Kings are full of descriptions of various Kings who ‘did evil in the sight of God’.  Others led the people back to God.  On the whole, Israel’s experiment with monarchy turned out to be a pretty mixed bag.  Ultimately, the monarchy was lost when the leaders of Israel were carried off into Babylon during the period known as the Exile.

By the time of Jesus, Israel had a ‘vassal’ king, the notorious Herod the Great and his sons.  These monarchs were, however, subservient to the Emperor, Caesar, who claimed dominion over all of Israel.  Jesus recognises Caesar’s earthly authority, famously advising his followers to render unto Caesar and God those things that are theirs, respectively, by right.  St Paul, after Jesus, commends his followers to pray for all who are in authority, and makes the startling claim that all earthly authorities – including Kings and Emperors are established by God.  It is from such teaching that the ‘divine right of Kings’ finds its roots.

So, the Bible – as it so often does – presents an range of views about the monarchy, which we can draw upon to make up our own minds.  On the one hand, Samuel was right about the tendency of monarchs to appropriate the resources of a nation to themselves.  In the UK, for example, the Crown Estate owns just over 1,000 square miles of the countryside. Many Republicans would like to strip the monarchy of such land holdings, and make it available to the people for the building of homes, hospitals and businesses.  Others argue that many of the Crown’s lands are wild moors and coastline, which the Monarch preserves on behalf of the nation, and keeps from the hands of voracious property barons.

The life of our late Queen reassures many people that monarchy, done well, can be a stabilising and yet prophetic force in the life of a nation.  A wise monarch has the power to bring people together, to speak wise words of comfort in times of crisis, and, on behalf of the people, can provide wise but private challenge to prime ministers (who seem to come and go with increasing frequency these days!).  King Charles has often been a leader in our national debates.  Famously, he was worried about the environment 20 years before David Attenborough started to worry about it.  As the progenitor of the Prince’s Trust, Charles was working to level-up the nation decades before politicians caught on to the idea. As an enthusiastic patron of the Arts, he has constantly reminded us that from the Arts, from comedy, drama, music and painting, come dreams and visions of who God calls us to be.

Our Gospel reading, however, offers us another lens through which to view the monarchy.  Jesus promises his Disciples that they will one day sit upon thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.  But he does so after making very clear that the role of any leader is primarily to be a servant.  We sometimes forget, that the word ‘Minister’ means ‘to serve’.  The King is called to be a minister – indeed, much of yesterday’s coronation service ritual was designed to reinforce that point. He was anointed and clothed as a priest, before ascending the throne.  Jesus came to us, in his own words, not to be served, but to serve, and to give up his life for us.  That, ultimately is the model that our King is called to follow – and so are we.

For all his lands and palaces, for all his crown jewels and private wealth, the King carries a heavy burden of responsibility. There is, in fact, very little of his life that I would envy.  Imagine having the ultimate responsibility for the management of 1000 square miles of land – I find it stressful enough to manage the three or four acres owned by this parish! 

The King has responsibilities thrust upon him that most other billionaires around the world can’t even imagine.  Not for him the life of endless parties on yachts, or the freedom to play with space rockets.  No, for the King, each day is consumed with Government business, endless correspondence, and the challenge of meeting the expectations of a sometimes fractured and fractious nation.  He may do so from a position of wealth and privilege, but (as previous monarchs have described it) the trappings of monarchy are in fact a gilded cage. 

I believe, therefore, that the King deserves our respect and our gratitude.  It would be easy for him to have walked away from the duties of monarchy.  He could have abdicated in favour of his much younger son.  But King Charles has chosen to shoulder the burden, and to take on the iconic role of a servant – inspiring and challenging us all to do the same.  And so, whether we are monarchists or republicans, I believe he deserves, at the very least, our sincere thanks, and our most heart-felt prayers.  God save the King!

Wednesday, May 3, 2023

The Feast of English Saints and Martyrs of the Reformation

On May the 4th the Church of England celebrates the witness of the Saints and Martyrs of the Reformation Era. But we are not simply remembering ‘our own’, Church of England martyrs; those who died for their unwavering fealty to the Church of England in the face of Roman Catholic persecution.  We are also remembering those Roman Catholics who died at the hands of Protestants for maintaining their Faith and allegiance.  We remember those like Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley who were burned at the stake by Roman Catholic monarchs in the turbulent years following Henry VIII.  But we also remember the often unnamed Roman priests who hid within, and were sometimes forcibly dragged from, secret closets in the great Catholic houses of the land.  Both sides in this horrible period of English history had men and women of great courage, who lived by the light they had been given at the time.  They believed earnestly in the central tenants of their faith, and earnestly believed, whether they were Anglican Catholics, or Roman Catholics, that their particular expression of the church was the right one.  It was a belief for which they were prepared to die, and yes, sometimes to kill.

We are recognising, therefore, that there was true Godliness and great courage in martyrs on both sides of that divide.  But we also recognise that there was terrible error and great evil committed by those who ordered the martyrdoms on both sides!  The only way that we can confront these two opposing truths is with humility.  First, we are invited to personal humility, as we stand in awe of the strength of faith, the holiness and courage of those who witnessed to their understanding of God right up to the point of death.  Would I, would you, have the courage to do the same?  In the face of someone threatening to burn me alive, would I have the courage to stand firm as the English martyrs did?  Or indeed as our own St Faith did, in a different time?  The honest answer is that very few of us would have that courage.  Our only response, therefore, must surely be one of humility.

However, we also need to express some corporate humility too:  humility and repentance for the Church as an institution, which can turn so swiftly to condemn those who don’t share our particular theological view.  And humility and repentance for all the times that condemnation has turned to violence.  In the Reformation Era, there was a see-sawing of religious life in England at the time, as one monarch replaced another, and the balance of power shifted between Anglicans and Romans, depending who was on the throne.  In those swings of power and opinion, it is frightening to remember how quickly the oppressed became the oppressor.  How quickly zeal turned into hatred and then violence.

The Reformation, in that sense, is a stark warning to theological warriors of today.  Arm-chair theologians, as well as many pressure groups within the church, still argue with each other about what God thinks is ‘right’ on any number of issues.  Christian Twitter is sometimes a very nasty place. Everyone has their own opinion on a wide range of subjects,  These range from which political party is nearer to the Kingdom of God (a good question for Election Day!) to vexed questions around human sexuality.  Or Christians love to debate the protection of national borders, the role of the Monarchy in modern Britain, the question of a woman’s right to choose, the correct mode of dress for priests and many more issues that inspire real vitriol, I’m sad to say.  There are, for example, large parts of the Anglican Communion who are presently breaking away from Canterbury, over recent decisions of the Synod around the blessing of same-sex marriages.

The hardest lesson to learn in these debates is the lesson of humility.  It’s salutary to remember that Jesus himself never wrote down a single word.  He was presumably capable of writing, because we know that reading and writing were taught to Jewish boys of the time – so that they could read the synagogue scrolls (as Jesus did himself on a visit to Nazareth).  Indeed, Jesus himself was described as The Word – the creative force through which God spoke all things into existence.  But Jesus himself never wrote a single word down.  Instead, he spoke in stories and parables, designed to creatively expand our thinking and often leading us to ask more questions.  We have taken The Word, the Logos, the creative speaking of God, and turned it into logical, rule-bound, codified letters on a page.

Stories come from a place in our psyche which is more fluid and flexible than words.  The human brain, as I’m sure you know, is divided into two spheres – left and right.  This is how we have evolved over millennia, or how we were created by God (if you prefer).  Our capacity for creativity AND logic is what has made us the dominant species on this planet.  The left side of our brain is the logical side.  It’s the part of our brain which reasons, organises, catalogues and processes information.  But our left brain exists in a permanent state of dialogue with our right brain – in which art, music, emotion, and story reside.  In that sense, we like the English Martyrs, find ourselves in a battleground – between logic and feeling, between empirical knowledge and faith.   Neither of these is more right than the other.  Both are essential to what it means to be human beings, made in the image of God.

Jesus never wrote anything down, I believe, because he wanted to keep our right brains alive in the difficult, challenging task of building the Kingdom.  The greatest religious art, the sublime music of Bach, the instinct to give without counting the cost, the willingness to love the unlovely neighbour, or even to love our unlovely selves.  These are all right brain activities.

So to those who, with their left brain, want to nail their theological opinions to a stake, I urge the lesson of humility.  Sometimes, the most honest answer to the great questions of our age has to be ‘we don’t know’.  God’s Kingdom is not yet fully revealed, and our ability to understand the mind of God is limited at best.  At the very least, we need to grasp that when we offer our opinion on matters such as sexuality, political alliances, abortion, the monarchy or any number of other weighty matters, we must do so in a spirit of humility.  And, unlike the warring theologians of the English Reformation, we must never, never, never, offer violence in word or deed, to those with whom we might disagree.

Amen.

 

Saturday, April 22, 2023

Making Jesus our Foundation

 1 Corinthians 3.10-11

"By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ."  (NIV)

 “The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord” – as the hymn goes.  When writing to the Corinthians, St Paul was very keen to ensure that Jesus remained the focus of that new church’s life.  This is an important issue for us, too.  Without a constant and deliberate effort to re-focus our church life, and our personal lives, on Jesus, we can find ourselves heading down rabbit holes of well-intentioned, but ultimately fruitless endeavours

So, what does it mean to make Jesus the foundation of our personal lives?  A common mistake is to imagine that by asking Jesus to be our foundation, or to come into our lives (as an evangelical might say) he will help us with all our problems.  In other words, some folks come to church to ask for God’s help, with their suffering, or their finances, or the health of a loved one.  This, my friends, is a common mistake.  It is the same mistake made by everyone who thinks of God as some sort of Father Christmas figure; someone who will grant favours in return for the right prayers.  It’s the same mistake that the Israelites made in the wilderness when they started to worship a golden calf.  It’s the same mistake that all religions make when they erect statues of gods and then ply those statues with gifts of food or riches, in an attempt to receive a blessing.

When we make Jesus our foundation, or ask him into our lives, we are actually saying that we want to become more like Jesus.  He is the model, the pattern, for the perfect human life.  He is the image that we need to copy, or to emulate, in order to attain the promise of a fully lived life, in sickness and in health, in poverty or in plenty.   From the life of Jesus we learn how to live simply, to love extravagantly, to forgive constantly and to rest frequently.  From his death, we learn the value of sacrifice.  From his resurrection, we learn that all deaths and disasters can be overcome, transformed and reshaped by God’s power.  By making Jesus our foundation and focus, we learn how to live life to the full. 

When I was a young Christian, I used to wear with woven hippy-bracelet with the letters WWJD on it.  ‘What would Jesus do?’.  It’s a really good question to ask ourselves in every circumstance of life.  If I’m feeling angry, or afraid, what would Jesus do?  If I’m feeling greedy or lazy…what would Jesus do?  If I’m suffering, or if I’m celebrating, what would Jesus do?

But there is a danger to navigate when we ask this question.  The danger is that, unless we KNOW Jesus, there is always the danger that we will create him in our OWN image.  That’s what happens when people who claim the name of Christian say or do hateful things.  Nationalism, for example, is not a Christian idea.  Hatred of foreigners, is not Christian.  Trolling people we disagree with, on social media or in person, is not Christian.  Refusing to forgive someone who has wronged us is not Christian.  Oppressing women, causing the poverty of others, exploiting the planet’s resources for our own pleasure and convenience, is not what Jesus would do.  The accumulation of vast personal wealth is not what Jesus would do.

But how shall we know?  How shall we tell which attitudes and decisions we make are really Christian, and which are not?  Only, my friends, by spending time with Jesus.  The main way we have been given to do that is through the pages of the Gospels.  Only by soaking ourselves in the attitudes, teachings and life of Jesus in the Gospels can we ever hope to be wise enough to know what Jesus would do.  So, let me ask you this:  when did you last open a Gospel and read it – and really soak yourself in it?  I suspect that for many of us, the answer to that question might be a bit challenging.

I’d like to suggest a tiny change in the language we Christians use.  The work ‘Christian’ gets banded about a lot in our society.  We are told that we live in a ‘Christian’ country (though some argue that actually we live in a post-Christian one).  The word Christian is, to our shame, associated with all sorts of horrible things.  At best, Christians are perceived as na├»ve fools who think that prayers to an invisible deity will be answered.  Or we are associated with gluttonous levels of spending on fine buildings, gold and silver ornaments, and the wasteful refurbishment of crumbling ruins, while millions starve.  At worst, the word Christian is associated in the public mind with hateful anti-gay rhetoric, or the oppression of women, or at the very worst, awful cases of sexual abuse within the church.

But I want us to reclaim the word.  So, whenever the topic comes up, I choose to use the phrase ‘CHRIST-ian’ (with the emphasis on Christ).  I won’t say that I’m a ‘Kristjen’ – no, I’m trying to be a CHRIST-ian – someone who is deliberately and diligently aiming to base my life on the teachings of Jesus Christ.  That takes work.  It takes a willingness to continually renew my knowledge about Christ, through the Gospels, so that the question of what Jesus would do becomes easier and easier to answer.  It takes effort to build a strong foundation for my faith, and for my life.  Will you join me in that effort?  Amen.

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

The Kingdom of Heaven IS advancing!

 Acts 5.27-33

“We must obey God rather than any human authority”.  So says Peter and the apostles, when they are dragged before the ruling council of the Jewish Temple in Acts Chapter 5.  Obeying God, rather than human authority, has been a constant theme of religious struggle over the centuries.  Jesus himself was challenged on this point.  You might remember the occasion when someone asked him whether it was lawful, under Jewish law, to pay taxes to the occupying Romans.  We might ask the same question today if we were living in the Donbas region of Ukraine.  Would it be lawful, or morally right, to pay taxes to the occupying forces of Vladimir Putin?

Jesus’ answer, when he was asked the question, was typically enigmatic.  He said that we should pay to Caesar what was Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.  He seems to imply, with this statement, that it is normal for religious people to live in two worlds, simultaneously. We live on earth (or ‘in earth’ as the Book of Common Prayer so poetically puts it, implying that earth is a state of mind, as much as a physical place).  We are subject to the society in which we live.  We have to conform, to at least some extent, to the rules of that society; or chaos and anarchy would ensue.  But, says Scripture, we are also citizens of heaven – an altogether different way of being, with its own rules and norms.  It is when these two states of being collide – earth and heaven, that religious people have the hardest task of all.  Shall I obey God, or the human authorities?   It is a question (for example) with which conscientious objectors have to wrestle at times of war.  It’s a question that Christians opposed to abortion have to wrestle, when they realise that at least part of their taxes pay for abortion clinics.  It’s a question that Christians who disagree with the socially divisive policies of any government must wrestle.  With the Coronation of our new King coming up soon, with all its pomp and inevitable appeals to our sense of UK citizenship, this is a pertinent question for us too. 

Shall we obey God, or human authority?  It’s a particularly sharp point to contemplate at times of great changes in church doctrine and teaching.  It was something with which the proponents and opponents of slavery had to wrestle, for example.  For centuries, slavery was considered a perfectly normal and natural human condition.  The Bible even gives rules on how slaves are to be treated humanely.  The only time that the Bible seems to reject slavery was in the context of the Israelite’s Exodus from Egypt, and their return from Exile in Babylon.  In other words, a strict reading of the Bible suggests that slavery is perfectly normal, except for the God’s chosen people!  For centuries, Christian companies and nations exercised slavery in the honest belief that God had decreed it to be a normal way of structuring human affairs – albeit with some tight rules about how slaves should be treated, humanely. 

However, among the leading Christians of their day, certain minds began to change.  The likes of John Newton, a former slave-ship Captain, began to see slavery for the evil it was.  His own conversion led to his remarkable hymn, Amazing Grace.  “I was blind, but now I see”, he wrote, in testament to his change of heart and mind over slavery.  Senior Christian politicians, like William Wilberforce, began to lobby the church and the government of the day.  Eventually, the human authorities of the day were persuaded to see slavery for what it was, and to change the law of earth to reflect the laws of heaven.

Today, a similar battle is underway, especially in the Anglican Communion around the world.  This time, it’s a battle for the Bible’s view of issues around human sexuality.  We are in the middle of that battle – with both sides claiming that they are the ones following God and not human authority.  Those who oppose gay marriages, for example, claim that the Bible is explicit about the wrongs of any union outside the conventional one between one man and one woman.  Those, like me, who have perhaps a more historical perspective, look back into history and note the many times in the past when the Bible’s apparently clear and unambiguous teaching has been overturned and transformed into something new.  For example, the Bible teaches that slavery is normal, as we’ve already seen.  It also teaches that if your child blasphemes the Lord, you shall take him to the City gates and have him stoned to death.  The Bible teaches that you should not wear cloth made of two types of material – so woe betide anyone who is wearing polyester-cotton today!  It prohibits the eating of pork and shellfish, which if still in place today would be a great barrier to success for the farmers and fisher-folk of Chichester Harbour.  With regard to marriage, the Bible explicitly supports polygamous marriage – many of the Fathers of the faith had more than one wife.  But we, today, would never countenance such a thing.

You see my point, I’m sure.  The Bible’s teaching, straight off the page from thousands of years ago, can seem unambiguous.  But wrong, for today.  Context is everything, as I always teach.  The context of a small middle-eastern tribe, struggling to define themselves against the world which repeatedly conquered them in battle, is a very different context to ours.  We live in a world which, step by painful step, is becoming just a little bit more like heaven on earth.  For two thousand years, Christians have prayed in obedience to Jesus, ‘thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven’.  Have those prayers been in vain, or are we at last beginning to glimpse what that heaven on earth might look like?

We have many challenges, not least the climate catastrophe, the collapse of nature, and the horror of continuing wars around the globe.  But, we also have systems of justice in which you are innocent until proven guilty.  We have individual human rights; slavery (though still practiced) is universally illegal.  In this country, for all its many faults and challenges, we have education and healthcare that are generally free at the point of delivery.  For all its problems and challenges, we have a universal welfare system, to offer succour to the least fortunate among us.  Most of us have flush toilets, easy access to food and a miracle of technology in our pockets that connects us to the whole world.  The average human lifespan has almost doubled in a century.  And as far as the issues of human sexuality are concerned, we have an increasing openness to loving and accepting people as they are, rather than forcing them to conform to ideas, from a previous context, about what God might require of them.

The Jewish ruling council gave strict orders to Peter and the other apostles not to teach in the name of Jesus.  But Peter and his friends felt that they had no choice but to proclaim the incoming of the kingdom of heaven on earth.  I pray that we might have the courage to do the same.  For we, like Peter, are ‘witnesses to these things,' (these advances of the kingdom of heaven) 'and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him’.  Amen.

Saturday, April 8, 2023

Easter Sunday - It matters what what we believe

 Easter means many different things to many different people.  A sign of new life.  The defeat of darkness.  I like to help our school visitors to remember that the word Easter contains the word East.  We look to the East, to the rising Sun, to remember the  Son who rises.   Or perhaps the word Easter is based on the pagan goddess Eostre (that’s what the 7th century historian Bede believed – although later scholars have debunked him).   It is therefore, perhaps, a celebration of the return of the sun, with all the fecundity of new life, celebrated through bunny rabbits and eggs.  What do you believe, I wonder?

It turns out that what we believe is a rather subjective thing.  And when beliefs clash, things can get pretty dicey, as we’ve seen horrifically this week in Israel, Palestine and Lebanon. What we believe about the death and resurrection of Jesus matters.  But in our incredible shrinking world, we are bombarded with competing truth claims. 

On Good Friday, during the reading of the St John Passion, we heard how Pilate asked Jesus, philosophically, “what IS truth?”.  Even then, 2000 years ago, there were many different truth claims in the world.  How shall we peel away the layers of history, myth, belief and story, to arrive at a truth that matters; a truth we can live by?

There are of course a whole range of views about the actual truth of the Resurrection.  Frankly, we cannot tackle the sceptics’ questions with anything other than the answer of faith.  We were not there, and all we have is the somewhat variable accounts of those who wrote about these events some decades later.  What matters most, to all followers of The Way, is not whether or not something happened, but that it happens, still, today (as theologian Rob Bell has memorably said).   In others words, all of the stories of Scripture have the power to speak into our lives, right here and right now.  There is truth within every story, whether or not it can be scientifically or historically proved.

There is one historical fact on which we can rely – and that’s that the ancients who wrote our Scriptures were much less concerned about literal, historical truth than we tend to be.  They were much more concerned with the power of story – its inner power, its deeper truth, its potential to shape and direct our lives.  So when the Gospel writers tell us of the death of Jesus, they are pointing to a deeper truth…which is that God died.  This is a way of saying there is no situation which God cannot inhabit and embrace.  Even in death, God holds us, walks with us, along our human road.

The resurrection story, on the other hand, points us to the rejuvenating potential of all life, in and through God.  St Paul used the example of a seed, pointing out that just as Jesus died and then rose, so a seed has to die in the soil before it is transformed into a mighty tree.  In doing so, Paul points us to an even deeper reality than the miracle of raising Jesus from the dead. 

Paul teaches us a truth that science has since proved to us: the fundamental truth that all matter in God’s universe is constantly in flux, constantly being reshaped and reformed and given new life.  Dust from the Big Bang coalesces into stars, from which new elements are then blasted out into space.  Those elements get formed into planets, and new suns, from which we and all life finally emerge.  Our own bodies, when we’ve finished with them, are absorbed back into the earth, and become nutrients for the creation of new life.  One day, science teaches us, our world will be consumed by our Sun, which will then explode into space, and our dust will be gathered by the forces of gravity into a new existence, from which new life can once more emerge.

The even deeper truth of the Resurrection is that as the divine presence behind all the universe, God also transcends creation.  He is able to call us beyond creation, into a realm as yet undiscovered by science; the realm we call heaven.  Let us not forget, in our quest for truth, that there is a lot that science doesn’t yet know about the Universe.  There are hints of particles that can exist in two places at once.  There are mysterious theories about multiple universes, or different planes of existence.  Did you know that the biggest brains in science believe that 85% of the Universe is filled with something called ‘dark matter’.  They call it that, because they have no idea what it is, and they cannot detect it, or see it.  They just know dark matter must be there, from their calculations and observations.  The deep truth of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus is that people of faith have always sensed, always known deep down, that there is more to life than the dust we can see, even dust which can be regenerated into new life.

The resurrection then, as the infamous David Jenkins, Bishop of Durham once said, is more than a ‘conjuring trick with bones’.  It points us to a deeper and more profound reality – the reality that the life God gives to the Universe never stops being created and recreated anew.  Out of all deaths comes new life.  Life goes on, constantly being reshaped and reborn, and even drawn into new realities, new realms, whatever Death tries to do.  And so with St Paul, we can indeed stick out tongues out at death, and cry ‘Where, O Death, is thy sting?  Where, O grave is thy victory?’. 

This then is the deeper truth of the Resurrection – a truth that goes beyond the sceptical questions we might have about the competing biblical stories.  The resurrection shows us Creation, and re-creation, through God’s eternal eyes.  Indeed, the whole trajectory of Scripture is that all life, all creation, all re-creation and re-birth finds its culmination in the Divine energy at Creation’s heart, and in the person of Jesus Christ. 

For it is before him, as the closing chapters of the Bible declare, that one day every knee will bow.  Every tongue will confess that Jesus, the divine man, the God made human who finds his way back to eternity, and draws us with him into the as yet unseen realm of heaven: HE is LORD, and rightly the source of our joy, when we declare….Alleluia...Christ is Risen!  He is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Wednesday, April 5, 2023

Maundy Thursday

Maundy Thursday is one of those feast days that cram a lot of meaning in a single day.   And that’s because there’s a lot of story wrapped up in the day, for us to get our heads around.

The name, ‘Maundy’, is generally believed to derive from the Latin ‘mandate’ – or command.  It is said to refer to verse 34 of tonight’s Gospel reading, in which Jesus gives his command that we should love on another, just as he has loved us. 

Another suggestion that ‘maundy’ derives from the French, ‘mendier’ (pronounced ‘maundy-ay’) – meaning ‘to beg’.  It remembers a time when Monarchs and Lords would distribute charity to beggars, on their way to the celebration of the institution of the Last Supper – just as our King does today, as an act of charity. 

Another grand tradition of Maundy Thursday is that Bishops perform the Chrism Mass – during which Holy Oils are blessed and distributed to parish churches for use in baptism, confirmation and healing ceremonies throughout the year.  The oils, blessed by the Bishop, are a sign of that our little parish church is part of a much larger family – the Diocesan family, under the headship of our Diocesan Bishop, Jonathan. 

But Maundy Money, and the Chrism Mass are really just peripheral issues to the main purpose of Maundy Thursday.  The proper title for the day is ‘The Feast of the Institution of the Lord’s Supper’ – or the Holy Communion – or the Mass – or the Eucharist.  Whatever your preference is!  Together, we are invited to reflect more deeply on the deep significance of the service that stands at the heart of our worship, week by week.  It’s a good opportunity because, whilst we celebrate the Lord’s Supper at least twice a week at St Faith’s, its deep meaning can sometimes be lost among other theological ideas which are being expressed or explored during those services. 

Maundy Thursday is our chance to strip away such distractions, and focus on what Jesus was trying to convey to his disciples on that “last night, before he was betrayed”.   The readings we’ve just heard convey to us that there are many layers of meaning, depending upon on whose account of the event we focus.  

According to Paul’s account, the significance of the Last Supper was undoubtedly the symbolic offering of bread and wine, by Jesus, as symbols and signs of his body and blood. Jesus said ‘do this in remembrance of me’ – and perhaps we should focus for a moment on that word ‘remember’.  Our ‘members’ are our limbs, our organs; the parts of our body.  When we talk about being ‘members’ of a club or a church, we’re talking about individual people.  To ‘re-member’ something, then, is to bring together, in our minds eye, separate body parts, or people, into one collective whole.  

In remembering Jesus, we are invited to draw together all that we know about him…all that we love about him.  We remember the totality of his life, teaching and example.  We draw hope and inspiration from his death on the cross, where his life was ‘poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’, whatever that phrase may mean, theologically.  We bring these and many other remembrances together in our minds, prompted by the beautifully simple words, ‘this is my body’.  ‘This is my blood’. ‘Do this in remembrance of me’.

And there’s more!  We don’t just bring Christ together in our minds, we also come together to do this act of obedience and worship.  The church has long-since taught that if I were to celebrate the Eucharist on my own, in splendid isolation, it would not be a valid Eucharist.  We believe that Jesus intended the Lord’s Supper to be an essentially communal act.  This is something we do together.  We literally ‘re-member’, bring together, the living members of the body of Christ, every time we enact this service.

I referred to Paul’s account of the Lord’s Supper just now, the words of which will be very familiar to us all, from the Communion service.  But today, we are also offered John’s account.  John reports this occasion very differently.  Intriguingly, John (the most theological writer of the Gospels) makes no mention of the words of Institution at all.   Instead, John re-members how Jesus started the whole evening off, by washing his disciples’ feet.

In doing so, John shifts our focus.  He wants us to perhaps focus a little less on what we might personally receive from the Eucharist. I think John might not have approved of those Christians who even today talk about ‘making MY communion’.  Instead, John invites us think about what we might give as a result of the Eucharist.  John tells us the story of Jesus washing his disciples feet.  He prompts us to ask what service WE can offer to the world that Jesus calls us to transform in his name.

What if John’s Gospel was the only one we had?  How different would the church be if our primary ceremony was not the receiving of bread and wine, but rather the washing of each other’s feet.   What if our most prized possessions, as a church, were not a silver chalice and patten, or even a cross, but a jug of water and a towel?  What message might that communicate to the wider world about our mission to Love God, and love our neighbours?

So, Maundy Thursday comes at us with a blizzard of meanings.  I hope these last few minutes have opened up some of them.  Maundy Thursday hasn’t quite finished with us yet, though!  At the end of this service, we will strip the Altar bare, and carry off the consecrated body of Christ into the lonely seclusion of the Lady Chapel.  By doing so, we will remember how Jesus was himself carried away from his disciples.  How bereft must they have felt?  How lost, how frightened they must have been!  Perhaps this loneliness might remind us of those we know who are feeling lonely and lost tonight.  Perhaps we might reach out to them, wash their feet, metaphorically, and offer them a touch of God, and sense of communion too?  Amen.