Sunday, November 29, 2009
A sermon for the First Sunday of Advent 2009. Preached at St Mark and St Nicholas Churches.
So...26 shopping days left until Christmas...assuming, that is, that you now shop on a Sunday, like the rest of Britain! Isn't it frightening how quickly Advent has come round again?
I don't know about you, but as I get older I find that each year seems to go by more quickly than the last. After the warm days of summer, suddenly we find ourselves plunged into Halloween, Bonfire Night, and then the mad dash towards Christmas. It's that time of year when we all begin to fret. Who am I going to buy presents for? Have I bought my Christmas cards? When should I put the decorations up? Who is making the Christmas cake this year?
Frankly, for me, its all just a little tedious. The same questions come up, year after year. Shall I do something really radical this year? Shall resist the pressure to buy trinkets for family members - people who have more possessions than anyone in history has ever had? Should I give money to charity instead, in their name? Who are we going to stay with this year...or who is going to stay with us? My parents, or Clare's? Or maybe there's a way to do both?
But this annual Christmas Crisis is only a graphic example of the same kinds of questions that plague me all year. There is a rhythm to life in general, isn't there...a sort of inevitability about when certain things will happen. There's a rhythm to each day - a rhythm of getting up, going to work (or school, or the day centre, or whatever each of us does every day). We finish our day, we collapse in a chair, watch some TV, go to bed...and then do it all over again. It's pretty terrifying, when you think about it. We have created a society in which people have to go out to work for six days a week - just to afford the vast cost of a house that they use only to collapse in at night.
For some of us, there's a comfort in that kind of rhythm. It is possible to go through the rhythm of life without ever really waking up. What did I do yesterday? What about the day before? Does every day look pretty much the same? Every season? Every year?
There's a rhythm about history in general, too. The world turns. Fishermen, fish. Farmers, farm. Politicians talk. Armies fight. Teachers teach. Banker's bank. And the world continues to turn.
In the face of such rhythm, in the face of such tedium...it is hardly surprising that people hope for change. It's a theme that has impregnated human thinking for millennia. There's a film out at the moment called 2012 - based on an obscure prediction from the Mayan Indians that next year will see the end of the world. There's is not the first such prediction, as we well know.
In the year 1000, the people of Europe got themselves into a fine old tizzy, thinking that the end of the world would surely come at the dawning of a new millennium. In the 1500, the same thing happened. As the second millennium drew to a close, all sorts of crackpots started to predict the end of the world. Christian and Jewish fundamentalists started plans to rebuild the Jerusalem Temple. The Jehovah's Witnesses predicted that 1914 would be the end of the world. People stood on mountain tops, or hid in caves as the millennium approach...following strange, charismatic leaders who promised them a new world, a second coming, or the end of all things.
But nothing happened. The world continued to turn. Farmers still farmed. Politicians still talked.
So what are we to make of today's Gospel reading? Time and time again rumours of the end of the world have turned out to be false...so how shall we read this text in front of us? The passage we've heard is actually part of a rather longer passage in which Jesus says "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven." (Luke 21:10-11). It sounds just like our world, doesn't it?
But then, if you asked people from any decade in the last 2000 years, they would say that it sounds like their world too.
Jesus himself warns us to be careful of all predictions of the end of the world. In verse 8 of this same chapter he says "Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name, claiming, 'I am he,' and, 'The time is near.' Do not follow them. When you hear of wars and revolutions, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come then."
So, there's a clear warning from Scripture that we should not try to predict the end of the world. But there's also a puzzling line from Jesus in this complex passage: Verse 32: "I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened."
What?! There's no getting around this. Jesus is recorded, by Luke, as having said that the Son of Man will come before the generation in which he was living was still alive. "This generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened". Puzzling isn't it.
Perhaps Luke was slightly over-egging the Christmas pudding! Perhaps because he was writing to a group of Christians who were under persecution and hatred for their faith. Perhaps he used a little artistic license to offer them some hope. Perhaps these are words which have less of Jesus, and more of Luke about them?
Some scholars suggest that the word 'generation' should be understood as 'race' - so that Jesus was saying that the Jewish race would not pass away before the Son of Man comes. That would give a rather longer timescale on events.
Or perhaps, Jesus really did say 'generation'. Perhaps he really meant it. If so we are invited to think what his words meant...and what they still mean. For us.
If Jesus really said what he meant, then we are forced into a rather different conclusion. We are forced to consider that the Son of Man has already come for the second time.
Let's think about what happened next in the story of Jesus.
Resurrection and Pentecost.
Jesus, having been killed, rises from the dead. After he leaves for heaven, re-inhabiting the All from which he came, he sends his Spirit to 'lead his followers into all truth'; to show them The Way, to fill them with 'power from on high'.
So perhaps Jesus, through Luke, means us to understand that the second coming of the Messiah is not one massive event - but instead, a series of much smaller events. Perhaps Jesus has come, and perhaps Jesus comes, and perhaps Jesus is coming.
For, without doubt, Jesus comes every time people refuse to give in to the pressure to do evil, and start to do good. Jesus comes every time that the hungry are fed, or every time that peace breaks out. Jesus comes every time one of us says 'no' to the tedium of human rituals and rhythms, and embraces the creativity that God put in our heart. Jesus comes every time one of us steps aside from dull routine, and does something which shines the light of God into our community.
In other words, Jesus comes every time that we offer ourselves, as Jesus off himself, for the service of others. Jesus comes when we serve others in the Parish Community Cafe. Jesus comes when we visit the housebound or the sick. Jesus comes when we do the job we've been given with all the creativity we are capable of. Jesus comes when we give, sacrificially, for the work of God. Jesus comes when we collaborate with others in the essential task of running his church...sitting on committees, cleaning and maintaining - keeping the rumour of God alive in this community. Jesus comes when we reach out to the stranger, or to the prisoner. Jesus comes when we love our families, and serve each other in our homes. Jesus comes when we embrace all that is creative and loving and life-affirming.
So then - we don't wait, cowering in some cave, or sitting on some mountain, hoping to see the Son of Man arriving on a cloud. Instead, we look for where Jesus is already come, and where he is already coming. We look for signs of his Life and Light among us, and we embrace them. We listen for his knock, and we open the doors of our heart.
If we can truly grasp what it means to serve a God who came among us, and who comes among us, and who will come among us...perhaps Advent and Christmas, and the rhythm of the year and the sometimes tedious rhythm of life can be infused with fresh meaning for us. Perhaps we can look expectantly towards the heavens of our hearts - and joyfully embrace the Lord who Comes.
Even so, Come Lord Jesus. Maranatha.
Friday, November 6, 2009
(Also preached on Sunday morning at St Mark's)
So...there you are, at home. You're maybe digging the garden. Or preparing the dinner. Or perhaps you're mending your fishing rod for a day on the river...and there comes a knock at the door. On the doorstep is a wandering preacher, who looks straight into your soul and says "Come. Follow me".
What do you do? You've got a family who are relying on you. You've got responsibilities to them, and to your neighbours. You've got an employer who is expecting you to be at work...or a teacher who expects you in class. But there's something about this preacher. There's something inspiring about him.
Of course, you know something about him already. You've heard some of his teachings, and you've heard the rumour that he's out and about looking for followers. But you never expected that he would knock on your door.
So what do you do? Should you simply follow him out of the door? Should you step out on a new adventure...and let all your other responsibilities take care of themselves? Or should you shut the door in the preacher's face?
What do you do?
But you've been intrigued by this preacher's message. You've already heard him, talking about how the 'Kingdom of God'...the new government of God...is coming. You've heard him calling people to turn away from society's normal ways of doing things. You've heard him saying that people need to 'repent'...to turn away...and to believe that there is good news.
But that's hard, isn't it? Good news. Hmm. Good news for whom? The last time you heard the phrase 'Good News' was when a bunch of soldiers rode through the town. They were proclaiming that there was 'good news' about the Emperor, Caesar. Apparently - according to the soldiers - Caesar had declared himself to be the Lord of Lords and the King of Kings...and this was 'good news'. Apparently. According to the soldiers, 'there is no other name by which people can be saved than the name of Caesar'. Considering the amount of taxes you are having to pay to Caesar, and considering the number of soldiers all over the countryside, it doesn't feel much like good news to you.
But this wandering preacher - this Jesus-bloke - he's talking about another kind of good news altogether. Or at least that's what you've been hearing. Apparently, his good news is good news for the poor. And for those who are mourning. And for those who are pure in heart. And for those who are peacemakers. That's a bit different than good news for Caesar, and for business-men and for weapon-makers...
Perhaps Jesus' good news...good news for the poor, and the oppressed, and the meek...perhaps that is worth following. Perhaps that is worth laying aside your family responsibilities for a while.
What do you do? Are you prepared to follow this call to 'Follow me'. Because that's what heroes do. Heroes throughout history are always given a call to follow. Sometimes they resist that call. Like Moses who resisted the call to lead the people out of slavery. Like Jonah who resisted the call to go and tell the people of Nineveh to repent.
Because calls are dangerous. Calls lead us out of our safe, secure lives into lives of adventure, possible danger, and even death. But isn't the case that the best journeys are the ones where there is adventure and challenge along the way?
That's a challenge that many soldiers have followed over the centuries. It's a challenge to stand up and fight for what you believe in. It's a challenge to leave family and home - and to become a peace-maker, often in a foreign land. It's a challenge that will certainly include adventure. It might well end in death.
But's it's a hero's call. It's a call to transform a society - perhaps through fighting, perhaps through diplomacy, perhaps through the transforming power of rendering aid and giving food to starving people. It's a call to stand up against powers of oppression that would seek to dominate an entire population...just like the Egyptians dominated the Israelites.
So what do you do?
Do you follow this preacher - this Jesus? You don't know where he might lead you. Perhaps he'll lead you on a path to destruction. Perhaps he's trying to put together a rebel army to over-throw the oppressive dictator's army. Or perhaps he's talking about another kind of kingdom altogether...a kingdom of God's rule, which God, and only God can ultimately establish.
And if you follow him on this path, and if you die, will anyone remember you? Will anyone sing laments for your passing? Or will you lie in an unmarked grave on some foreign battle-field?
Wouldn't it just be easier to stay at home. And go fishing tomorrow.
Wouldn't it be easier easier to just settle back in your comfortable chair, tend your garden, dandle your children on your knee, and pretend that everything's alright with the world. Wouldn't it be easier to never give your time, your energy, your skills, or your money to any other living soul?
Yes. It would be easier. But where's the adventure in that? Where's the challenge? Where's the growth? Where's the chance to be changed from glory into glory ever more like the image of God your Creator?
"Come. Follow me. And I will make you fish for people".
You hear the call. You know something of what it means. It's something about doing things differently. It's something about living differently...living for others, not for yourself. It's something about acquiring scars and wounds, instead of the latest stuff from the market. It's something about giving up home and family, and having nowhere to lay your head for the sake of a bigger vision, a better vision. A vision of a new kind of Kingdom.
You've heard the call.
What do you do?
What do you do?
What do you do?
Note: this sermon/meditation was immediately followed by an Act of Remembrance, including the customary two minutes silence in memory of those who have given their lives for our freedom.
Thursday, October 29, 2009
Before we moved to Portsmouth, I wasn't much of a gardener. But when we moved into our new Rectory, the place had been vacant for a long time. As a result the garden was SO overgrown that we simply had to do something about it.
We started by having a series of bonfires, which I fear did little to endear us to our new neighbours. Great clouds of smoke billowed into the air all around North End...But we didn't have a choice! There was a huge pile of garden rubbish in one corner of the garden! It would have taken 30 or 40 car-loads to take it all to the tip! So for a few days, we were forced to fill the air with smoke...and fill our own lungs and eyes with the stuff as well!
But now, after a year of hard work in between parish duties, we have finally got the garden looking reasonably neat and tidy. This summer we've had some delicious veggies to munch on for free - and a blaze of colour in our flower borders. But now, as the winter nights draw in, we are experiencing something that every gardener experiences; after all that work, and all that planting and weeding and watering and tending...everything's dying! It's so infuriating! We do everything we can to prolong the season. We've got a green-house, thanks to a gift from my Mum and Dad, which enables us to grow tomatoes for a few more weeks. We keep the weeds at bay in the hope that a bit more light will help our plants to grow...but its all in vain. Everything's dying! Or perhaps more accurately - everything's moving into a new state of being. It's inevitable. Change is inevitable. Leaves drop from trees and flowers, and are then broken down to form nutrients for the next generation. Plants pull in their resources, hunkering down for the cold.
And that's true of all life isn't it? Eventually, everything and everyone dies - or, again, we should really say 'everything moves into a new state of being'.
The Bible's great Genesis Myth teaches us that we are made of dust. You and I are made up of billions and billions of particles of dust, or matter...molecules of elements like hydrogen, oxygen and carbon. For a number of decades, these particles of dust come together to make you and me, well, you and me. For the length of what we call our life-time, these molecules spontaneously start doing all sorts of things in co-operation with each other. They form our body, they process nutrients, they fire electrons at each other in our brain so that we can think. But then, for reasons that we are only beginning to understand, after an average of 7 or 8 decades...all those molecules, fairly suddenly, go off to be something else.
Even our Sun, the physical source of all life on earth, will one day change to such an extent that it will no longer give it's life-giving heat and light to the Earth. One day the molecules which make up the Sun and the planets will gradually, or in the blaze of a Super-Nova, go off and be other things.
Seasons come and go. Nations rise and fall. People live, and they die. This is part of the journey...the Journey of Life that some of us have been thinking about on Monday nights for the last couple of months. Life is, indeed, a journey. There will be changes in direction, challenges along the way. There will be trials and temptations - good times and bad. And all our journeys are reflected in the journeys that we read in the Bible.
Do you remember last week's sermon? I gather that some of you missed some portions of it, thanks to an apparently enormous spider which had threatened to eat some of the choir! So for those who missed it, let me just recap briefly! We were thinking about how the Bible contains story after story - and that each story is given to us so that we can read our own lives on those pages. As we read about the stories of Abraham and Moses and the Prophets and Jesus and Paul and Peter - we are invited to make connections with our own lives. As we read stories of trials and temptations, we are invited to think about our own trials and temptations. How have others handled these things? How should we? As we read about the conflicts and the peace-making of others, we are invited to think about our own conflicts and peace-making. How have others handled these things? How might we? When we read about the death of great people, which is somehow, again and again turned into triumph...we are invited to think about our daily deaths and resurrections.
As we read about the constant change and variability of life as others have lived it, we are reminded of that wonderful hymn, sung at many funeral services..."Change and decay in all around I see". But then comes the surprise. "Thou Changest Not O Lord, Abide in me"
In all of human experience, in all the changing scenes of life, the one thing we have discovered which never changes - is God. The writer to the Hebrews taught us that: 'Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today and forever." (Heb 13.8). This is wisdom from above - handed on to us from previous generations. This is the notion that whatever happens to us, to our planet, to our bodies, there is a Great Spirit, a Great Consciousness, a Great God who remains unchanged...holding it all together. The Great Myth of Genesis describes a God who breathes life into his creation - and, as in that other old song, 'holds the whole world in his hands'.
But not only does God hold our lives in his hands...he holds our deaths as well. "Listen," says St Paul, "I will tell you a secret. We will not all sleep. We will all be changed. In a flash. In the twinkling of an eye. At the sound of the Last Trumpet. For the Trumpet shall sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will all be changed." (1 Cor. 15. 51-52)
It is not just life that is full of change then. Not just our gardens. But also our lives after death. The reading from the book of Revelation that we just heard reminded us that our lives after death contain even more change - but glorious change. "Now the dwelling place of God is with people, and he will live with them...He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away" (Rev. 21.3-4 edited)
The Bible then presents us with a picture of change and transformation all through its pages. There's the change of dust particles, molecules and matter, into human beings - infused with God's own breath of life. There's the changes of life - the ups and downs, the joys and the sorrows, the little deaths and little resurrections, all taking place in the loving gaze and concern of our unchanging Heavenly Parent. And then, after death, the change continues. We are, in Paul's phrase, changed from glory into glory (2 Cor 3.18) in this world and in the next as we draw closer to God. St Paul talks about that drawing closer as being like the drawing aside of a veil, or a curtain. As the curtain is removed - like the curtain in the temple was removed at the death of Jesus - we have the capacity to draw near to God, to be able to gaze upon God's face, and to be transformed more and more into his likeness. We who are made in the image of God have the capacity, and the invitation, to change so that we become like God's self.
That's an amazing thought, when you ponder it for a moment. Jesus himself reminded those around him that the Hebrew Bible teaches that we human beings can be called "gods" - with a small 'g'.(See John 10.34 for the reference). In other words, we who start our lives as clumps of molecules, bound together by the breath of God, have the capacity to change and grow - to be changed from one degree of glory into another - so that we become kinds of gods. What are gods? They are immortal beings. That's what you are I are...according to the Scriptures...immortal beings! Because of the gift of life given to us by the greatest, unchanging, Immortal Being of them all. God does not change...but God draws us, by a process of change, deeper and deeper into God's own self. He changes us from clumps of molecules into gods!
That deserves a 'Halleluiah!' doesn't it?!
And that, my brothers and sisters, is what we believe is happening right now to those we have lost in this changing world - those who have gone before us into the Great Adventure - the life after death. We don't know what is happening precisely to each of them - because we can't know, really know, about a process that we can't yet experience. But from our own lives, from our own observation that to change is to grow, we can be sure that our loved ones - the souls who from their labours rest - they too continue to grow...being drawn ever deeper into the heart of the Divine Spirit who made us all.
And so, today we pray for them. But we pray not out of fear of a vengeful God who is looking for reasons to get tough with our loved ones. Instead, we join with all the company of heaven, with Angels and Archangels and say 'Holy, holy, holy'. We pray with joy...thanking God for the lives of our loved ones among us, but also glad that they are now even closer to the heart of God than us. We give thanks that they live in the midst of inexpressible joy, and that they are even now being made into gods by our loving Heavenly Parent.
Is there room for doubt? Is there a possibility that some of those who die do not, ultimately end up transformed into gods? Perhaps. The Bible certainly points to the idea that it is possible for someone to be so self-centred, so wrapped up in themselves, so closed to the possibility of a life transformed by God, that they may consign themselves to oblivion. As C.S.Lewis said so eloquently, 'the doors of hell are locked on the inside'.
I've lost a bit of weight recently - nearly 4 stone actually. So I'm feeling rather chuffed with myself. But if I gave up eating altogether, then I would eventually die. The tragedy of life is that there are some who give up feeding spiritually from God altogether. They never open themselves to love, to companionship, to acts of kindness, to family, to generosity...let alone to the idea of belonging to a church. Such people, the Bible suggests, the people who never raise a finger to the sick, or the poor, or the oppressed...such people's hearts have become like rocks. Rocks don't change very easily. It's hard for a rock to be changed into a god. It's not impossible. But its hard. And some, perhaps never make it.
But ask yourself this about your own loved ones. Did they know any goodness in their life? Did they know what it meant to love and to be loved? Then how could they possibly resist the love of God when they encounter it? How could they want to do anything more than accept God's free gift of life, in heavenly City where there is no more mourning or crying or pain? If you sometimes doubt where your loved ones have gone - hold on to that thought. Did your loved-one respond to love on earth? Then how much more will they respond to Love in heaven! Or in Jesus' words: "which of you if your child asked for bread would give him a stone? How much more then will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask for them" (See Mt 7.9ff)
Jesus raised Lazurus from the dead. Jesus reversed the normal process of decay that follows death - showing that God, who changes not, can yet bring about enormous change. God who changes not change us. It’s glorious change. It's change that we should welcome, look forward to, anticipate, and begin to embrace today. We who have been born again by the Spirit of God are on the glorious, ever-changing Journey of Life.
And it’s change that I promise I'll think about differently the next time that I moan about my garden.
Saturday, October 24, 2009
Today is known as Bible Sunday - the day when we are encouraged to think about the importance of the Bible in our lives...and to support the work of agencies like the Bible Society who do so much to put Scripture into the hands of those who have not yet received it.
The Bible is strange publication. It is said to be the most popular book in the world. According to the book "The Top 10 of Everything" by Russell Ash, "No one really knows how many copies of the Bible have been printed, sold, or
distributed. The Bible Society's attempt to calculate the number printed
between 1816 and 1975 produced the figure of 2.4 billion. A more recent
survey, for the years up to 1992, put it closer to 6 billion in more than
2,000 languages and dialects. Whatever the precise figure, the Bible is by far
the bestselling book of all time." (See http://answers.google.com/answers/threadview?id=14).
According to the TIMES newspaper in 1996:
"Forget modern British novelists and TV tie-ins, the Bible is the best-selling book every year. If sales of the Bible were included in best-seller lists, it would be a rare week when anything else would achieve a look in. It is wonderful, weird ... that in this godless age... this one book should go on selling, every month." (See http://www.soon.org.uk/page19.htm )
On the other hand, it is said, the Bible is also the least read book in the world! Its a strange fact - almost every house in the Christian-influenced world has at least one Bible. But very few people ever open it. Bibles are given as gifts to children. They are given when people are baptised or confirmed. Sometimes they are given as wedding gifts. But, unfortunately, for many people they often remain as pristine as they are on the day they are received.
Why is this? I'm sure it's for a number of reasons. Sometimes the translations of the Bible are in language that is just too difficult to understand. So people who don't read anything more than a newspaper or TV advert find it just too difficult to read...especially traditional versions like the 'King James'. Many people have told me that they do try to start reading the Bible, but as soon as they get past the initial stories of Genesis and the early parts of Exodus, they find the endless lists of numbers of people, and endless laws, just too hard going. Others, having skipped the laws, find themselves in the Psalms, or in the books of prophecy...and there they quickly find their attention wandering, because of the range of images and ideas - which come from a mind-set and culture that is very different from our own.
And so, frustrated (and perhaps feeling a little guilty) such people lay aside their Bible, and pick up a nice easy romance novel instead. Or a nice easy gossip magazine. And the result is that we have a whole generation of Christians, in churches all over the world, who have been told time and again to read their bibles...but who find that they just can't do it. Even if they do manage to slog their way through to the end - the sheer variety of ideas, the apparent contradictions, the complex imagery, the extremely complicated theological ideas; all conspire to make many people feel totally inadequate to the task. I know this is true. I know it because people tell me so. I know that many of you, if I asked you to be honest, would tell me that you haven't opened your own Bible for years. You will undoubtedly be a good Christian. You will be someone who tries to follow Jesus every day. You will be someone who worships your Creator, loves their neighbour, and who gives generously to the work of God. And yet, you will be carrying around this weight of guilt that you never actually open your Bible.
So, how am I to respond to this fact? How would you expect me to react? Perhaps I should pull myself up to my full height and shout 'Sinners!' at you from the pulpit. Hmm...I'm not sure that would help very much, would it?
Because, actually, if you are one of those who finds the Bible difficult to read...I agree with you. The Bible is not a novel. It's not a newspaper. Some people have described the Bible as 'the Maker's Instructions'. But for many, its the kind of instructions which come from Korea, translated by someone who learned their English in primary school...like this bit of helpful instruction from a computer hard-drive I recently purchased: "More simple under USB interface, it only can do until the 3rd step and deleted is present channel. Please plug the USB cable out after the
safe injection when delete the files in the computer."!!
But the Bible is not an instruction manual. Neither is it a well-planned novel from a single writer, who sets out to tell a story. Instead, it is a collection of 66 letters and books, assembled over a period of about 1,600 years. It contains legal codes, songs and poetry, prophecy, myths, stories and complex theology. Sometimes these different elements are separate. Sometimes they are woven into just one of the 66 books - such as the book of Revelation, which is just about the most complex of all the books.
So should we abandon all hope? Is the Bible just too much for us to handle? That was, in fact, the view of the Catholic Church for many centuries. It is still an attitude which prevails, to some extent, in the Orthodox Church - as I discovered last week in Romania. The Catholic Church believed that the layers of the Bible were too complex for the vast majority of simple folk to comprehend...and that it would be dangerous to release the Bible for general consumption. Bishops and Cardinals feared that people who had not been comprehensively educated in how to read the Bible would be in danger of picking up random phrases and ideas which seemed to support their own world view. And, when we look at the sheer number of different churches, each with their own slant on the Bible, we are forced to wonder whether they may have been right.
The Orthodox Church does not actively discourage its people from reading the Bible, but neither do they particularly encourage it. Instead, Orthodox services are deeply soaked in Scripture - using constant repetition. The Orthodox Church holds that if people regularly attend church, and listen to the Scriptures they encounter there, it will be enough. For Orthodoxy, and previously for Catholicism, the Bible has always been a book that is encountered by a community - rather than by individuals. It is read in community. It is understood in community. The community speaks and sings the words of Scripture together - and through doing so, find new layers of communal meaning.
And actually, that's pretty close to what we do here, isn't it? I was once supporting someone who had left a charismatic church and joined an Anglican one. After attending a few services, he said to me, "I never realised how much you Anglicans use the Bible". He pointed out that whilst in a typical charismatic service only one small portion of the Bible would be read and studied, practically the whole of the Anglican service was taken, piece by piece, from the pages of the Bible. He said to me, "your services are soaked in Scripture, aren't they?" he was right. Almost every major part of our service comes directly from the Bible. Everything from the words of confession to the Eucharistic prayer, to the Blessing at the end of the service - all of these are words that are drawn from Scripture - words that have been spoken by people of God for thousands of years. On top of that, we hear at least two portions of the Bible read, at least one of them is studied through the sermon, and other portions are sung through hymns and anthems. Yes, indeed, we are soaked in Scripture.
So does this mean that we don't need to bother with the hard work of reading the Bible on our own? No. It doesn't. One of the things that the Protestant Reformation gave us, and indeed gave our brothers and sisters in the Catholic church, was access to the precious pages of Scripture for ourselves. With that access comes the chance to grow daily in our understanding of God.
But, the Catholic Bishops of old were right about one thing. They were right that, unless properly understood, it would be easy for uneducated people to pick up the Bible, and then just quote one or two choice phrases which happen to suit their own idea of the world. That's why the quote "you shall not suffer a witch to live" was used so mercilessly throughout the Middle Ages. That's why the letter to Philemon was used for so long as a justification for slavery. And that's why even today, battle lines are being drawn over all sorts of issues, based on different interpretations of Scripture - everything from the question of ordaining gay bishops to the question of how God heals today, the place of the Holy Spirit in worship, and the vexed question of women priests.
The problem, I think, is this. Some people look to the Bible to justify their already fixed position or predjudice on one issue or another. When they do so, I think that they fundamentally mis-understand the story that runs through all the pages of the Bible. That is a story of a Journey. Taken as a whole, the Bible says very little about fixed positions, and, taken as a whole, it simply cannot be used to support any predjudice. Instead every story in the Bible, and even the story of how the Bible was put together, is a story about a journey.
There is the journey from darkness to light, at the very beginning of time. There is the story of the exit from Eden. There's the story of Noah, who journeys away from a world of wickedness to a new creation after the flood. There's the story of Abraham who leaves his father's home and flocks, to journey to a new land of promise. There's the story of Moses, who leads the people of Israel on a journey of discovery through the desert. There's the story of the nation of Israel, who journey through good times and bad, power and exile, towards the promise of a new Jerusalem. There's the story of Jesus who journeys from the centre of God to experience humanity and then to return to the right hand of God. There's the story of the early church, and the journeys they make to take God's good news out to the World. There's the final journey of humankind, mapped out in the visions of John in the book of Revelation - a glorious, mythological journey through times of evil and testing, to the promise of new creation and resurrection.
Do you know what the first followers of Jesus were called? Before anyone had coined the name 'Christians' - the followers of Jesus were called 'Followers of the Way'. (See Acts 22 and 24 for evidence). They understood that the message of the Bible was the story of a journey - a journey from darkness to light, a journey from sinfulness to healing, a journey from death to life, a journey from ignorance to enlightenment. Anyone who learns to see read the Bible as a pointer towards this journey has, I think, made a major step forward. Anyone who tries to interpret the Bible as a set of rules or principles which can be used to trump someone else's ideas, is on a hiding to nowhere. They will never be able to conclusively argue their point from Scripture - because Scripture simply does not speak that plainly, when taken as a whole.
Once we understand the Bible as a narrative of the journey - then we can truly begin to unlock its secrets. Once we've learned to read our own journeys in the stories that the Bible contains, we've made a major step on the road to wisdom. There is perhaps no better illustration of this point that the story of Blind Bartimeaus, from today's Gospel reading. It is a story that is rich with journey images...
The story starts in Jericho - the City, you will remember, that was once destroyed by Joshua after journeying for seven days round and round its walls. Joshua's persistence on his journey meant the destruction of the city which has been seen as evil. Now, Jesus is pictured leaving the famous City of Evil, taking many with him away from its famous walls. As he leaves it, he is shouted at by Bartimeaus. "Son of David", he calls. "Son of David, have pity on me". The very title given to Jesus by Bartimeaus is a signal of a journey - the genetic journey from David to Jesus.
The crowd tell Bartimeaus to be quiet. They don't want him on their journey. He is not like them. He's different. He's blind. He will be an pain to take on the journey. They will have to look after him, care for him, feed him. No, it's better if he keeps quiet.
But Jesus has other ideas. "Call him", he says. And the crowd, perhaps seeing that they were wrong not to want Bartimeaus on the journey, are moved. "Cheer up!", they say to the blind man. "On your feet". "Start out on the journey with us...Jesus has called you too".
What happens next? Jesus heals Bartimeaus. He takes him from blindness to sight. From darkness to light. And this little story ends with one final journey metaphor: "Immediately he received his sight, and followed Jesus along the road". (Mk 10.52)
Journey. Journey. Journey. Its all about the Journey.
So - let me try to summarise. The Bible is a difficult book for anyone. It's no surprise to me that it is the most published, but the least read, book in the world. It can indeed be complex and confusing - and there is no shame in admitting that we sometimes find it too difficult to manage.
But here, in church, Sunday by Sunday, we open and read the Bible together. Together, as the family of God, we grapple with its meanings, we wrestle with images and we are inspired by its examples and teaching. And, during our service, we also use the words that our ancestors gave us through the Bible to praise the same God that they praised.
And finally, I invite you to see the Bible in a new light - not as a rule book to be followed slavishly, and certainly not as a verbal weapon to beat other religions up with. Instead, I invite you to see it as a book which can shine light on our own journeys - our voyages of discovery about who we are, and who we can become in the light and life of God.
Perhaps, with that one over-riding, essential interpretive thought in our mind, each of us might be better equipped to open our own Bibles, and begin to get to the heart of its message.
Saturday, October 3, 2009
Once in a while, as a preacher, I get a sermon topic that makes me groan as I open the Bible to prepare. I confess that this is one of those Sundays!
We have in front of us a text which - unless we read it very carefully - is one which could send people running screaming from the church!
On the surface, there's no getting away from Jesus' primary message here. Consider verses 10 and 11: "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery"! That's a very tough line to take, isn't it?
Jesus' foundation for this very stern line is the book of Genesis. He approves of the ancient notion that when a man leaves his father and mother he becomes joined to his wife. The two become one flesh. "So", says Jesus in verse 8, "they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore," he goes on, "what God has joined together, let no one separate" (or 'put assunder' as the King James Bible puts it so poetically!)
So, on the face of it, there appears to be no good news here for anyone who has been divorced. A plain reading of this text seems to brand anyone who has been divorced as acting contrary to the very will of God. Even harder, anyone who has re-married is branded as an adulterer!
And there's an even more uncomfortable truth about Jesus that we preachers have to confront. The fact is that Jesus sets the bar very high on every aspect of human behaviour. "Love your enemies - and pray for your persecutors". "Sell all you have, and give the money to the poor". "Love God with all your heart, soul, body, mind and strength." And as we saw last week - "pluck out your eye if it causes you to sin". "Cut off your hand if it causes you to stumble". The list is endless. In fact if any of us - married, single, divorced - if any of us try to hold ourselves up against the high standards that Jesus set, then there is, apparently, no good news for any of us.
But before we all despair, and run from the Church screaming - let's relax. Let's dig a little deeper into what's going on here.
We need, first of all, to see Jesus' teachings in the light of Jesus' actions. Let's first consider what Jesus' reaction so often is to those he encounters who are in living in sinful ways. Time and time again, his reaction is one of open-handed forgiveness. Despite his clear opposition to the principal of adultery, when he actually encounters the woman who has been caught in the actual act, he ends up saying "neither do I condemn you. Go, and sin no more". To Matthew, the greedy tax-collector, he says "Come, follow me". Consider the woman at the well, who has had many husbands; he freely converses with her and teaches her. Consider Peter, who denied his Lord three times; Jesus forgives him and restores him to a leadership position. The sinful woman who washed his feet with her tears; she finds acceptance and forgiveness.
We need then to see Jesus the one who sets a standard. His standards are high. The kind of perfection he describes is difficult to attain. But then, what's the point of a standard unless it requires something from us...something to aspire to.
On the other hand, though, Jesus is also the one who freely offers forgiveness to those who fail to meet the standard. Jesus knows that his standards are high - even too high for us to meet in our own strength, and by our own resources. To anyone who shows even a glimmer of understanding that their lives fall short of the standard, Jesus opens his arms and welcomes them in. To those who turn to him, he offers his own living spirit - the Holy Spirit of God - to dwell within us...drawing us on ever closer to the heavenly standards of the Kingdom of God. That's why we in this church continue to marry people who have been divorced. We draw from Jesus' example of not condemning those who, like the rest of us in so many respects, have missed the mark. We offer loving forgiveness - and we hope that it is offered to us in return. We forgive others their sins, and pray that we might be forgiven ours too. "Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us" The only people whom Jesus continually criticises and rails at are the chief priests and pharisees...who simply refuse to see that they, too, fall short of the high standards of God.
So, there is good news, after all. The good news is that forgiveness, healing, wholeness and new life are all freely available to anyone who trusts in Jesus, and in Jesus' way of living. Anyone who looks at the standards he sets, recognises them for what they are...Godly standards...anyone who turns away from their way of living, and turns towards God's way of living...to such people there is utter forgiveness, and the chance to start over again. All of that is summed up in the ancient phrase..."Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand". The word 'repent' comes from a Greek word that meant 'turn around' or 'turn away'. So, literally, 'turn around' and point yourself towards God's standards - God's way of living...or 'the Kingdom of Heaven'.
Another ancient word that we ought to understand is the word 'sin'. Like so many words we use in Christianity, it comes out of an ancient Greek concept. A 'sin' to the ancient Greeks was in fact a term used in archery-training. To sin was 'to miss the target'. So for us too, to sin is to miss the mark, or to fall short of the high standards of God.
That is, of course the heart of the Gospel. Those of you who think I'm sometimes a bit too liberal need to hear that that is where I stand. Forgiveness, healing and new life are freely available to anyone who recognises that they have sinned...that they have missed the mark. Forgiveness and healing are available to anyone who will turn around, repent, and turn towards Jesus', and who will receive his gift of new life. We can all be 'born again' - given the chance to start over - and receive the free gift of God's Holy Spirit living within us, changing us from glory to glory. We can all live forever in the Kingdom of Heaven - the way of being that embraces God's standards, and which flows on into eternity.
But there's more. There's something even deeper going on just under the surface of these texts we are considering. In both last week and this week's readings there is a unifying concept at work - unifying in the sense of the notion of one-ness. Let me explain...
In this week's reading, from Mark 10, we see Jesus refering to the Genesis notion of one-ness. Two, separate human beings come together - and become one. "So", says Jesus, "they are no longer two but one".
In the the previous chapter - Mark 9.42-49 which I read last week - we heard Jesus successively working his way through most of the things we have two of - and suggesting that one be got rid of. Hands, feet, eyes - all reduced to one-ness.
This is a theme that echoes through all the Gospels, and into the New Testament in general. In John Chapter 17, for example, we are given a front-row seat as Jesus prays to his Father in heaven. What does he pray? He prays for his followers, "that they may all be one, just as you and I are one". He goes on to pray in John 17.23: "I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one."
The concept of One-ness, then, seems to be a key Gospel principle. And it's one that a branch of early Christianity took up with relish. They were called 'Gnostic' Christians - from the Greek word 'gnosis' which meant 'knowledge'. The Gnostics took the notion of one-ness that pervades the Gospel and extended it to a new and radical thought. What if, they argued, we were all not just children of God, but actually aspects of God ourselves? What if I am a part of God which, for the brief span of a human life, is being 'Tom' for a while? What if you and I are infact all parts of the same God...each of us experiencing and delighting in what it means to be human for a while. What if Jesus - whom we believe to have been fully God as well as fully human - is a pointer to a deeper truth...the idea that we are all both human and divine?
Personally, I don't go as far as the Gnostics did. I think that their idea tends to confuse the Creator with the Creation. But I don't claim to be wise in all things. I don't think I've understood even a tiny bit of the depths and wonder of God. I remain open, as I hope you do, to what God yet wants to teach us about God's self. There is plenty of Scripture that points us in the Gnostics' direction of thought. There is the idea of God as the Vine, and us as connected branches. There is Paul's metaphor of all the people of God being one body.
If the Gnostics were right, or even half-right, then the notion of one-ness becomes even more crucial. True one-ness would mean living and acting in ways that truly understood just how connected we all truly are. No longer would we see ourselves as separate autonomous beings - who can callously inflict pain and suffering on each other. Instead we would learn that to inflict pain on someone else, or to stand by while another person suffers, is to inflict that suffering on ourselves. An understanding of true one-ness would allow us to make sense of St Paul's notion that when one member of the body hurts, then all hurt. When one celebrates, we all celebrate.
Further than that, a full understanding of one-ness - whether Gnostic or not - would enable us to see God in a completely new way. No longer would God be the old man on a cloud, looking down on us, waiting to give out rewards or punishments. Instead we would begin to see God as the creative, life-giving force at our very centre. Instead of looking outwards for our salvation, we would begin to look inwards...tapping the very source of life that is at the centre of all our lives.
In that context, the idea of two people becoming one through marriage - or indeed any close, personal, faithful relationship - begins to make even more sense. Those of us who are happily married know what it is to discover the connections which build and grow over a life-time of togetherness. We begin to recognise the Divine Spark in each other...and to recognise that we share the same Divine Spark. When one of us hurts, the other is wounded too. When one of us is happy, the other shares their joy. Marriage, and other kinds of close personal relationship, become something to which we can all aspire...because in togetherness we begin to discover the truth of one-ness. Sometimes it takes hard work. Sometimes we have to give up something of our own needs and wants in order to discover what we need and want together. Some people are simply unable to make that transition...they remain stuck in their own desires...and it is in those circumstances that infidelity, adultery and ultimately divorce often occur.
That is why, ultimately, I think that Jesus sets committed faithful marriage as such a high standard - and why he discourages separation and infidelity in such strident terms. It's not because he's stuck with some outdated notion of the 'way things should be'. It's because he speaks out of his unique sense of one-ness with God, and recognises that committed, faithful, loving marriage can open our eyes to the connection we all share in God.
So marriage then is a picture, a holy picture, of one-ness...the one-ness that lies at the heart of the Gospel. In much the same way that two become one in marriage, so we who are separated from God by the way we live our separate lives, can become joined to God.
That's a standard worth aspiring to I think.
Saturday, September 26, 2009
It's not easy for us city dwellers to get our heads around the concept of Harvest, is it? I mean, our food arrives on gigantic lorries, is unloaded into our gigantic supermarkets, and then brought out to our cars in gigantic shopping trollies. It's too easy for us to forget that our food had to be grown for us. We forget the skill involved in sowing and weeding and watering and harvesting and packaging and transporting all that food into our local supermarket.
And yet - its important that we do remember. We must remember for lots of good reasons.
So what is Harvest all about? Many things...of course. But here's my take on some of them:
First and foremost it is, of course, a time for giving thanks for many things:
We give thanks to God for our food – which, in the West, is more abundant and varied than at perhaps any other time in human history. We never have food shortages – the shelves of the supermarkets are always well stocked. But it wasn’t always like this, as those who were alive in the war and before can, no doubt, remember. So we are thankful for the abundance, the variety, and the sheer quantity of all we receive here in the UK. We give thanks for the fact that we live in relative peace - a peace which enables the free-flow of goods.
And, we might ask, why do we give thanks to God for this abundance? After all, it wasn't God who planted the seeds, cared for them, packaged them and transported them. We thank God because God is the Creator. We thank God because despite the cleverness of human beings, we are still incapable of copying even the simplest act of our Creator.
Scientists have learned a great deal about how things work. They've learned that all the instructions for creating life are woven into strands of DNA. They've even learned how to splice two pieces of DNA together to create different forms of life. But there is not a scientist in the world who is capable of taking the raw ingredients of life - say a few molecules of hydrogen and carbon - and then imprinting coded instructions on them and making them live. Life is the weird force which makes me live and move and have being - while this lecturn remains dead and lifeless. Life is something we don't understand at all.
Even if, as scientists, we could believe that the Universe has always just existed (as theologians claim that God has always existed) we are still unable to understand why a rock has no life, but a plant or an animal does. We simply don't know what the animating force of life is. We can't re-produce it ourselves.
The book of Genesis gives us a picture to hold onto. It paints a picture of God breathing life into the nostrils of a human being, created out of dirt. Life is seen by the writer of Genesis as a spiritual force - something given to us by our Creator-God. Otherwise we would be just dirt, still.
Do you know the story of the Scientist who decided that God was no longer necessary? One day he climbed a mountain and called upon God. “God! We humans now have the ability to bring people from the dead, we can create our own life, we don’t need you anymore so you can leave us alone.” God listened to the scientist and nodded his head. “Okay, I’ll tell you what, if you can really create life, let’s have a competition, if you can create a better person than me, I’ll go, but we’ll have to do it the way I did it in the old days.” So the scientist agrees and begins to collect some dirt to make his person. God simply watches him and finally asks him what he’s doing. “I’m using the dirt to make a person.” God smiles, looks at the scientist and replies, “First you have to make your own dirt.”
So at Harvest time, we give thanks to God for the life sent forth into the Universe. We thank God for it's complexity and beauty. We thank God for the way that the life in plants and animals sustains us, as well. We thank God for the way the systems of the earth are balanced so that we might have a life-span in which to grow. We thank God for the food we eat that sustains us along the path of our life - a life given to us so that we might grow more and more into God's own likeness.
Another reason we spend time thinking about Harvest is that it is a time for remembering to use the earth’s resources wisely and sustainably:
We need to make sure that the long-term consequences of today’s actions will not jeopardise the lives of generations to come. Did you know that the idea of sustainability goes back centuries? It feels like a really modern thing doesn’t it...for those of us who have grown up in a world 'addicted to oil' (to borrow one of the more positive Bush-isms) and to not worrying about our environment. But sustainability is something that Christians and Jews have been advocating for thousands of years.
For example, in Old Testament times, the ancient Israelites tried to ensure that their agriculture was sustainable; that too much was not taken from the earth without giving it chance to recover. This meant giving the land a rest every seven years, and also every fiftieth, or jubilee year.
Genesis talks about this very principle of using the earth’s resources wisely. In that great mythological story, we see God giving the Garden of Eden to Adam - under a sort of tenancy agreement. In that agreement, God tells Adam that he must rule over the earth, and take care of it. The sad fact is that ever since those days, we have learned how to rule over the land...but only now are we beginning to understand the importance of taking care of it.
We have lost that ancient wisdom from our human consciousness. We plough and plough the land until it turns to desert. We lift the resources of oil and gas laid down over millennia, and plan to use them up with three or four generations. Instead of letting land lie fallow every seven years, to recover, we fill it full of chemicals in the hope that we can keep going - making money from crops - for just a little longer. It's madness...and it flies directly in the face of the wisdom of our ancestors, and of God, passed on down through the pages of the Bible.
Harvest time is also a time for remembering to share the fruits of the earth:
Alongside that idea of letting land lie fallow every seven years, Hebrew Bible law had another ground-breaking idea that we have also forgotten...that of the year of cancelling debts.
Here are some words from the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 15. In verse 4, God is reported to say “There must be no poor among you…” In those words, God sets down a condition of the tenancy agreement which simply says...”You must share what I have given you. You may not keep more than you need...and there shall be no poor among you”. Later in verse 7, God is given these words by the writer: “Do not be hard hearted or tight fisted towards your poorer brother. Rather (in verse 8 and following - & somewhat paraphrased) be open-handed and freely lend him whatever he needs - and when the seventh year comes...the year for cancelling debts...freely forgive your brother your debt to him."
"There must be no poor among you". As you'll be well aware, the Harvest has failed in South Sudan again this year. Millions of people are facing starvation because of two things: the lack of rain, and the unwillingness of the world to share what we have.
It does us good, I think, to remember that we have green fields and flowing rivers entirely by accident. I did not choose to live in England...I was born here. I live in a country with bulging supermarkets entirely by accident. If I had been born in South Sudan - I would be starving today. The same goes, frankly, for all the wealth and comfort that we have. We have it only by an accident of our birth. I benefit from central heating and a warm dry house. I benefit from owning a car, and having a television to watch. And yet I didn't invent central heating. I didn't invent the car. I don't know anything about how a television works. I possess all these things because of the accident of my birth. And now, I find, that English law give me rights to possess these things. I have the right to live in my house, drive my car and watch my television.
But as a wise man once said, 'with rights come responsibilities'. Once we begin to really understand that we have all we have only comes by the accident of our birthplace, perhaps we will begin to take God's love for the poor - for those who don't have these things - more seriously. I have the right to possess my stuff - but I have the responsibility to share my stuff as well.
Perhaps if we took that responsibility seriously - personally and as a country, then, perhaps the people of South Sudan will be able to thank God for the harvest today, as much as we can. Not the harvest in their own land - but the abundant harvest taking place across the whole world in which they should be able to share.
So as we give thanks to God today - we remember our responsibility to help create a world in which everyone can give thanks...wherever their food comes from.
Jesus often talked about the perils of having too much and keeping for oneself what should be shared with others. You will remember I’m sure that parable of the rich man whose crops were so abundant that he planned to build more barns in order to store them. He did not sell or share his harvest. Then, on the night that he had finished building and stocking his barns, God said to him, “You Fool! This very night you will die!” So he died, and was not able to enjoy the results of his wealth. Jesus said that we should not store up treasure for ourselves on earth, where it will rot. Instead, we should build up spiritual treasure that will last.
So maybe harvest time is an opportunity for trying afresh to get the balance right between providing for ourselves and our families, and building a world which is based on mutual support and help for those in genuine need - rather than on materialism and greed.
There is a new phrase doing the rounds in Christian circles, which I rather like...and which is a constant challenge to me. It’s the phrase “living light” - and implies that we need to live in such a way that we are not shackled to anything material. That doesn’t mean that we give up all material things - God has given us physical bodies with physical needs - and its right that we should relish in God's creation. But we should never let any of them become our masters.
Linked to that idea, Harvest is, finally, a time for remembering that God sows spiritual seeds in our hearts, and wants them to bear an abundant harvest. In that story of the man who built huge barns, Jesus reminds us that earthly food is transient, and to seek the food that lasts for ever - the spiritual food which is offered to those who follow his Way.
You see - God gives us a choice - pure and simple. Either we can live for ourselves, and reap the consequences (for example of an unsustainable world economy). Or we can look for spiritual wealth, through Jesus - and join with all of God’s people in building a better world.
So for me - and I hope for you - that is what Harvest-time is all about. Yes, remembering to give thanks. But also reminding ourselves to use the earth’s resources wisely; remembering to share the fruits of the earth, and finally remembering that God sows spiritual seeds in our hearts. It is of course entirely up to us whether we listen to these messages, and let those seeds germinate and grow.
Friday, September 18, 2009
Let me start by asking you to use your imaginations for a moment. What would you do if you knew that you only had a week to live? Assuming you were fit and healthy, that is. If you had full health, and freedom of movement, what would you do with your last few days on earth?
It's a puzzle isn't it?
If it was me, I'd probably want to spend time with the family that I hardly ever see - because they are scattered around the country. Or I'd want to do something really bonkers - like sky-diving. Perhaps I'd go on that trip to Egypt that I've always promised myself. Who knows?
What about you? What would you do?
Of course, this is all very theoretical. None of us is ever likely to have to make those kinds of choices. None of us really knows when we are going to die. But that wasn't the case for Jesus. He knew that his journey towards Jerusalem was going to result in his death...and he had to decide what he was going to do with his final days.
In today's gospel, we hear the second of three occasions in Mark's Gospel that Jesus tells his disciples that he is going to suffer, die, and rise again. We find Jesus knowing with absolute certainty that his road to Jerusalem is going to lead to death - and a painful one at that. The question we are presented with is this: how does Jesus choose to spend his last days on earth?
He could have gone sight-seeing. Perhaps he could have had a mega-party with all his friends and followers. Being God-on-Earth, he could have held mighty rallies, and shown mighty acts of power to wow the crowd.
But no. Instead, Jesus chooses to spend some of his last days on earth teaching his followers about what it really means to be a disciple. He teaches them about two vital things. Two things that are so important, that he takes his disciples aside to make sure they've got the message. Those two things are: the vital importance of humility, and the command to reach out to the weakest members of society.
When they arrive at a stop-over in Capernaum, Jesus turns to his followers and asks them "What were you arguing about on the road?" (v. 33). "But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest" (v.34)
Mark adds a nice little detail now. He says; "Sitting down, Jesus called the twelve and said...". Sitting down was what a Rabbi did when they were teaching their disciples. Sitting down was a sign that serious teaching was about to take place. When a Rabbi sits down, you take notice. Now what it is that Jesus wanted his disciples to take notice of? He says to them...
"If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all".
It's the topsy-turvey Kingdom of God again, isn't it? Time and time again, Jesus turns our eyes away from human notions of power. He turns the world upside down - away from people having power over people. Instead, he says that real power is found in service.
Last week, as most of you will know, we had the pleasure of a visit from Bishop Daniel of the Cape Coast. He reminded us that Bishops are called to be the 'servants of the servants of the servants of God'. Let's just break that down!
The people of God - all of us - are called to be servants of God. Priests and ministers are called be servants to the servants. And Bishops are called to be the servants of the servants of the servants! It's quite different from the way that we often view Bishops and church leaders. We tend to look up to them - and give them deference. Over the years, church leaders have accumulated titles...like 'the Reverend', or 'Father'. Archdeacons are called 'Venerable', and Bishops are called the 'Right Reverend', or 'Lord Bishop'.
Actually - as Bishop Daniel reminded us - all these titles are a million miles from the notion of service that Jesus spoke about. Thankfully, all these titles now have very little meaning. They are pointers to the job that each individual priest does...not attempted descriptions of their 'levels of holiness'. And, thankfully, most of the Bishops, Archdeacons and priests that I know are a long way from demanding that kind of deference. For example, at his farewell service last week, I remembered that when I first met Bishop Kenneth, he invited us to think of him as 'cuddly Bishop Ken'!
The notion of service is absolutely central to the Gospel. Jesus teaches us that it is in serving others that we find wholeness of life for ourselves. Rather than being a sacrifice, in fact we find that when we serve one another, there is a kind of freedom, and a kind of joy, that infects us. This is an essential part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
Jesus served us too, by living among our ancestors, teaching us through them what God is like, and then showing us the way to perfect freedom through his own service and sacrifice on the cross. Before he died, one of his most significant acts was to wash his disciples' feet. Just imagine that. Smelly, dirty feet. Covered in camel dung. That was a job that usually got done by the lowest member of the household - a slave, or a child. It was certainly not a job that was done by the master of the house.
But Jesus found liberation through his own service. Because of his willingness to serve others, by dying on the cross, the Scriptures tell us that God raised him up. God gave Jesus the liberation of resurrection.
And we too can find a sort of liberation as well. There is the sort of 'liberation from self' which comes from thinking about others, instead of being focused on myself. There is the liberation which comes from giving money away, and seeing lives transformed through it...rather than keeping all my money for myself. There is liberation in giving time to the service of others, instead of time for the serving of self.
Ask anyone who works in a charity shop, or who serves soup at a soup kitchen, or who labours in the African sun to bring relief to the starving. They will tell you that there is liberation in serving others. Ask anyone who works in the Community Cafe - giving their time freely in the service of others. Ask them how they feel when one of their regulars, perhaps an elderly widow who lives on her own, comes in for some warmth, a smile, and a chat.
Ask those who serve in the choir - giving up their Friday evenings to try and make sense of my bumbling conducting. Ask them how they feel when they get to serve you, the congregation, with their music on a Sunday morning. Ask those who came yesterday to the church work-day...what did it feel like to serve the whole church community with a few hours of labour? Ask Roy and Josie and Shirley and Eileen and Jeanette and Martin and Chris and Sheila and Geoff and Clare and Emily and Mary and Andy and Caitlin and Chloe. Ask them whether it felt good, deep down inside, to know that they were serving others. Ask Brenda Le Provost and Pat Atkinson who give up every Monday and Thursday to keep watch on the church, welcome visitors and distribute the pew news. Ask them whether they feel a sense of freedom, a sense of joy that comes from serving each other in that way.
The fact is that the church of God, and the work of God, exists entirely on the voluntary service of its members. Without that sense of service...we could not be here. Without the gifts of time (and indeed money) that you give, this church would have closed years ago...and with it would have gone all the good that we are able to do in this community.
But Jesus' message in today's gospel was not only about service. After making his great statement that those who would be great must be the servant of all, he "took a little child, and had him stand among them"(v.36). Taking that child in his arms, he said to his disciples, "Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me".
Why did he do this? What's so special about children? Well that's a question you hardly need to ask if you are a parent! But, in Jesus day, children were treated rather differently. For one thing, a child was a burden on the family - until they were old enough to work. (Come to think of it, nothing's changed!). Children didn't have any of the rights that children have today. There was no 'criminal records bureau' protecting them. There was no state education. There was no right to free medical treatment. There was no protection in law against exploitation and child labour.
If an adult called a child over to them, in Jesus' day, it wouldn't usually be to give them a hug. Adults used children as runners. "Come here child! Go and get me that bunch of grapes!". Children were, most definitely, to be seen and not heard. Did you know that in some circumstances, it was even legal for a father to kill his child!
So children were essentially treated as goods and cheap labour...even slave labour. They were the least powerful members of society. They couldn't change anything. There were no school councils asking for their opinion. There were no youth workers and teachers who tried to help them develop as whole human beings.
Jesus didn't take that child into his arms because he was sentimental about kids. He picked up that child to show that he, Jesus, was on the side of the poorest, the most dis-possessed, the most abused and sometimes despised members of society.
And so that was his message, that day, in the house in Caperneum. Anyone who wants to be considered great in God's kingdom must be the servant of all...and especially a servant to the poorest and most outcast in any society. We are called to bless and serve the poor...not only for the sake of the poor, though that would be a good enough reason. But for our sake too. As we bless others, whether it is with gifts of money or of time, we ourselves will find blessing. Our as Good King Wenceslas reminded us..."Ye who now will bless the poor shall yourself find blessing".
Finally, I believe, this message needs to be a challenge to the way that we give. The thought of that Christmas carol reminds me that the dreaded season of present buying is pretty much upon us. No doubt many of us will be starting to wrack our brains to think "what can I buy for my son or daughter or mum or dad - something that they don't have already...or which they wouldn't be capable of going out to buy for themselves if they wanted it?" Let me encourage you to think 'outside of the Christmas box' this year. Let me invite you to think about whether you could bless the poor with your gifts - as well as bless your family.
Think, for example, about buying a present of a cow, or a goat, that could be used in Africa or India to feed a starving family. The harvest has failed in Kenya this year. Millions will be going hungry while we are stuffing ourselves with turkey and chocolate. Could we perhaps spare some of our wealth for the table of a poor family?
There are now plenty of charities who enable us to buy presents that will really help someone in need - presents which can be sent on behalf of our own already rich relatives. Let me encourage you, seriously, to think about whether you could change the pattern of Christmas this year - whether Christmas really could be about goodwill to all...not just our family and friends.
So finally, may you discover the liberation that comes from service. May you discover the joy of taking the lowest members of our society into your arms and blessing them.
Saturday, September 5, 2009
Insults. I like insults. I confess it. There is nothing quite so pleasing to an old cynic like me than a well crafted insult.
Take, for example, the anecdotal tale about Sir Winston Churchill. Once, at a party, he is said to have been approached by one Elizabeth Braddock, who exclaimed "Mr Churchill, you are drunk!" Churchill is said to have replied, "Madam, you are ugly. However, come the morning, I will be sober but you will still be ugly."Priceless, isn't it?
Most families have their own little insults, thrown at each other in fun. When I was a child, I tried to copy my Dad who once called me a "dopey ornament". But I couldn't say it properly, and so from then on we called each other a 'dopey onument'!
In my own family, we have two favourite expressions. If one of us does something stupid, we get called a 'plant-pot'. Don't ask me why...it just works. "You plant-pot!". Our other favourite, is to refer to each other as being as 'mad as a bag of spanners' - which has a certain resonance. Sometimes it gets shortened to 'you spanner'.
But these are all in good fun. Everyone understands the rules...and no-one is offended. We all know, though, don't we that insults can easily cross the line between gentle playful fun, and downright hurt and offence.
Sometimes, the line is very thin...and it can take our children many years to learn how to straddle it. Imagine two children, say a brother and a sister, calling each other playful names. The girl says to the boy "You dog". And everyone around them laughs. The boy thinks this is fun, and tries a response..."If I'm a dog, then you are a bitch". Suddenly, the room falls silent. And the boy finds himself without any supper that night.
Certain words have the power to wound...for all sorts of reasons. Understanding the power of certain words - and especially the more offensive ones - makes it even more surprising that in today's Gospel we should hear Jesus describing the non-Jewish races around him as 'dogs'. In the Middle East, calling someone a dog has always been a gross insult. And yet, when a Syro-Phoenician woman comes to Jesus to ask for healing for her daughter, Jesus' response is 'it’s not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs'.
Jesus appears to be saying that his ministry, his power, his gifts, are meant only for the people of Israel - not for anyone else.
What a shock! What an insult! To the woman in question, it would have been like me saying that only white people can come to this church. It would be like me saying that God only loves people of my race. There is no other word for it. What Jesus said was, on the face of it, a racist statement.
And this is where we need to have care. Because if we are not careful, we can suddenly find ourselves justifying racism. Last year, as many of you will know, the British National Party put up posters asking 'What would Jesus do?'. They attempted to suggest that their vision of a monochrome Britain is something that Jesus would have supported. And they were following a grand tradition.
This week we have been marking the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the second world war. Hitler and the Nazis also claimed that God, and Jesus, were on their side...the side of so-called racial purity.
So is there any basis for that assumption? Does this story actually support the idea that Jesus was a racist?
When we read the Bible, we have to very very careful. It is too easy to take individual quotes from pages of the Bible, and then to use them to justify our own position on something. Three words which must always be in our minds when we read the Scriptures are these: context, context, context!
Only a few pages earlier, in verse 8 of Chapter 3, Mark reports that many people came to hear Jesus from all around the area surrounding Galilee - including the towns of Tyre and Sidon which were well known Gentile cities. There is no sign that Jesus tried to send those Gentiles away...in fact he preached God's good news to them as much as to the Jews from Jerusalem and Galilee.
In Chapter 5, Jesus heals the man called Legion, who was said to have many demons inside of him. This man was also a Gentile... living in a region which kept pigs. (As I'm sure you know, Jews would never keep pigs).
At the end of Mark's Gospel, (16:15) Jesus commands his disciples to "Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation".
So the immediate context of Mark's gospel tells us that Jesus was happy to preach to non-Jews, happy to heal them, and wanted the whole world to know about God.
And that theme is repeated throughout the Gospels.There is a wider context too. John's Gospel, chapter 4, records Jesus' conversation with a Samaritan woman. Men of Jesus' time would hardly ever have spoken to a woman in public...let alone a Samaritan.
So - let's break down the evidence. First we've got ample scriptural evidence that Jesus was anything but a racist. But then, we've got scriptural and historical evidence that the people all around Jesus pretty much hated each other. So...with that evidence before us...what are we to make of Jesus statement about children and dogs?
Again, I want to drive you back to context. Do you remember what we've heard over the previous weeks from Mark's Gospel? Do you remember how the crowds followed Jesus for all the wrong reasons? Do you remember his theological battles with the Pharisees and Sadducees? He is opposed by his own religious leaders, doubted by his family, followed often for the wrong reasons by the crowd, accompanied by disciples who only partially understand.
At the beginning of this story, Mark tells us that after all these battles, Jesus went off to the city of Tyre - some distance from Galilee. He entered a house and, according to Mark, "did not want anyone to know it". Mark presents us with a Jesus in hiding...trying to get away from it all for a while...needing to get his head together in a quiet place without crowds all around him asking for another miracle.
Then along comes this woman - a Gentile - who asks Jesus for another miracle, a miracle of healing for her daughter. Weighed down by the difficulties of his mission, tired, worn-out, it seems to me that Jesus actually appears to snap. One can imagine him, frustrated that he is not getting through to his own people, saying to himself "I need to focus on Israel...I need to get them to understand before we can take this message any further". He gropes for a metaphor. Tired, he turns to the woman and sighs "First let the children eat all they want...".
Notice the use of the word "first". Jesus' reply doesn't exclude the Gentiles...he simply states that as Jew, from a nation of Jews, through whom God has chosen to bring salvation to the world - Jesus needs to focus on the Jews first.
Then comes the difficult line: "for it is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs". It's a metaphor. Jesus is trying to soften his automatic response. In fact, although we translate the word here as 'dogs', scholars tell us that Jesus used a word which referred to household pets. It was a diminutive form of the word for dogs. A playful word. More like a puppy than a fully grown Rottweiler!
But the woman is more than a match for the tired, worn-out Jesus. And she's desperate to get Jesus to change his mind. So she spars with him. "Yes Lord", she replies...accepting for a moment the idea of the Gentiles as being his second priority. "Yes Lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs".
You can almost see Jesus laughing at this point. You can see him acknowledging that he was wrong to not give his help immediately...and smiling that the woman had so cleverly taken his own metaphor and turned it around in her favour. Mark tells us that then he told her "For such a reply, you may go: the demon has left your daughter".
So what have we learned from this story - and from this bit of bible-study we've been doing together?
First, we've seen something of Jesus' humanity. We sometimes forget that Jesus was human, as much as he was God. He felt the cold, like we do. He felt hunger, like we do. He felt tired, and stressed, and worn-out like we do. And, like we do, when he was tired and stressed, he was capable of getting things wrong.
There is no sin involved in getting something wrong. Jesus was not sinning when he thought that he should not help this woman. He was simply, for a moment, in error. For Jesus to have sinned, he would have had to continue in his error, after it had been made clear to him.
The same goes for us. It is not sinful to hold a wrong opinion. But it would be sinful to continue steadfastly holding that opinion in the face of truth. That's why the British National Party is an inherently sinful organisation. Every major political party, every major religious teacher, every major philosopher agrees that racial separation is stupid, wrong, and counter-productive to the whole notion of humanity. And yet, the BNP persists. To answer their own question on that awful poster, 'what would Jesus do?', Jesus would have insisted that God's good news of love was a message meant for all of humanity...not just white British people.
Secondly, I think this story reminds us to have some patience with each other when we sometimes get things wrong. A few weeks ago, while answering one of the 40 or 50 emails which pour into my computer each day, I wrote a line to one of my parishioners which offended her. I said something without giving it enough thought. It doesn't matter what exactly...it was between me and her. Her response, however, was really gracious...The next time she saw me, she took me quietly to one side, and let me know that what I had said was a bit thoughtless. As soon as I realised what she meant, I was mortified. I had intended no insult. But I had been wrong. So I asked for forgiveness...and was willingly given it by a lady who has far more grace accumulated than I do.
That's precisely how we should be towards one another. Recognising that we can all mis-speak from time to time...and being always ready to forgive and move on in our relationships with one another.
How different that approach is from the approach of so many in our society. One wrong word, one misplaced phrase can be quoted back to us for the rest of our lives. Families get broken up and destroyed because of a wrong word at the wrong time...because some people seem to almost enjoy feeling insulted. They revel in it...and take a sort of warped pleasure at being at war. Nations go to war with each other because of an insult cast by one politician towards another. Just think, for example, what harm was done by George Bush when he referred to a few nations as being part of an 'axis of evil'. Words do matter. Words can hurt. But forgiveness is stronger. Forgiveness is holy. Forgiveness is worth pursuing.
And so, finally, this story drives us on to an essentially Christian imperative. Following our Master, the Christian church must see itself as being totally committed to the breaking down of all barriers that prolong human misery, or which prevent the needy from getting help.
In order to share God's love with a neighbour, we are not expected to agree with their theology, or their life-style.
In order to love a neighbour, we don't have to be the same colour, or the same culture.
In order to love our neighbour, we don’t have to agree with every our neighbour says, or even the words he has used. Jesus was of a different nation to the Syro-Phoenician woman... and yet, as soon as he was challenged by her, he set aside all that, and gave her the help she needed.
In order to love a neighbour, we simply need to get on with the job of loving them.
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
In a few minutes we will be baptising Harry and Tyler into the Church. But why are we doing it? What's it all about? I mean, its a bit of an odd thing to do isn't it...to pour some water over someone's head in the name of God?
Well, perhaps the first thing to say about baptism is that it is a very ancient practice. We know that for 2000 years, Christians have been doing this simple thing to each other. It stems out of a command that Jesus gave his disciples before he left them to carry on his work: "Go into all the world and make disciples - baptising them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit." (Matthew 28:18)
Jesus himself was baptised, in the River Jordan. So baptism is something that we do out of obedience to Jesus. We do it because he told us to...even though we might not understand it very well.
The second thing we can say about baptism is that it is a sign, a symbol - of something much deeper than what we shall see on the surface. (Note for website only: The technical term for this, within the church, is the word "sacrament" - which, according to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, means something that is an 'outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace".)
We see signs all around us, don't we? On remembrance day, we wear a poppy. On World Aids day, we wear a ribbon. When we drive down a street, we see road signs. What are these things? A flower. A ribbon. Some marks on a circle of metal. But because we know what they mean, these signs have resonance for us. We know that the poppy reminds us of those who have given their lives so that we can live in peace. We know that the ribbon reminds us that AIDS is a disease which millions are suffering from. We know that a circle with the number 20 in it means that we should drive safely.
So what is it that baptism is symbolising? Well, pretty clearly, it's a symbol of washing and cleansing. Christians believe that baptism is an essential part of the process of having our sins washed away.
But what is sin?
Sin is anything that gets in the way of us truly becoming the people that God created us to be. It's the bad stuff, the general rubbish and clutter of our lives, that comes between us and God. It's a difficult word, isn't it? Somehow we have got used to thinking of sinners as being those people who do the very worst things. Murderers, thieves, rapists, and so on. But that's only partly true.
Scripture tells us that 'all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God' (Rom.3:23). We've all 'fallen short'. I'm a sinner...and I hope that you'll forgive me for saying this... we are all 'sinners'. I'm not insulting you...honestly! I'm just using the word in the way it was meant to be used! None of us, if we examine ourselves honestly could ever claim to be perfect. And that's the dividing line. We are either perfect, like God. Or imperfect...and therefore sinners.
But the message of Baptism is that God never gives up on us. God is always reaching out to us, and offering us the chance to become more and more like him. He offers to take away our sin, and helps us to become more and more God-like. More like the people, created in God's image, that God intended us to be.
Baptism is a part of that process. It's an outward sign that God is at work in us. It's a sign of our saying 'yes' to the process of becoming more like God. For Harry and Tyler (who will probably scream when I pour water on their head) - it's a sign that their parents, on their behalf, are saying 'yes' to God as well.
But why would we want to do that at all? Why would we want to become more like God? The story of the Good Samaritan, which we just saw on the screen, might help us to find an answer.
In that story - which Jesus told - a man was going on a journey. While he was walking along, minding his own business, he was set upon by a group of thugs. Various important people walked right on past him. But eventually, a Samaritan stopped and took care of him. The story of the Good Samaritan has all sorts of things to teach us.
Samaritans were generally hated by the people that Jesus was talking to. If he was preaching to us, he might have used a Gypsy or a Traveller, instead of a Samaritan. Or, if he was preaching to the kind of ignorant people who vote for the British National Party, he might have used an African, or a Pakistani man.
We have a young friend who was visiting us last week. At the end of the evening, he set out to walk home, just a few streets away - but accidentally left his keys on the kitchen table. About 10 minutes later, I got a phone-call from him. He apologised profusely, and asked if I would mind coming out in my car to bring him his keys...because he was too nervous to walk back to my house. The reason was that as he had walked down London Road, he had been treated to a torrent of abuse from a group of young people. They shouted and screamed at him that he should go back to Pakistan. The irony is that these young British thugs were too stupid to realise that my young friend is training to be a doctor...someone who would be able to help them if they were ever ill. And worse still, they were too stupid to realise that my friend is, in fact, an African, not a Pakistani! He looks nothing like a man from Pakistan! I really fear for the spiritual health of our nation when our young people show themselves to be that stupid!
The story of the Good Samaritan teaches us about the need to stop judging other people because of their race, or their background. Samaritans were hated. But Jesus tried to show his listeners that such hatred was pointless. A Samaritan was just as capable of being a good neighbour as anyone else.
The story of the Good Samaritan shows us a different way. It shows us that it is possible to live a life that is based on giving, instead of getting. It shows us how generosity has the power to transform lives. The Samaritan in the story simply gave...of his time, his money, his medicine, his bandages... without looking for any reward. Except the satisfaction of simply doing good.
In doing so, he mirrored the way that God acts towards us. God is, by nature, a giver. God gives us his very breath, by giving us life. He gives us an amazing planet to live on, full of beauty and challenge. He gave us his son, to show us what he was like. He gives us healing and forgiveness every time we turn to him. He gives us his Spirit to help us to learn the Truth about who we are, and who He is.
I wonder what our society would look like if all of us lived that way. It's just possible that if more people embraced Jesus' way of living, that this world would be a far happier, far more sharing, far less destructive place for us all to live in. Wars over resources would be solved by people learning to share. Poppies would become a thing of the past. AIDS would be cured because money would get spent on medical research instead of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Ribbons wouldn't be needed anymore.
That's the sort of way of life that Harry and Tyler's parents (and God-parents) are signing them up to today. It takes courage to stand up at the front of a church in the way they are going to do in a few moments. And it takes courage to say "yes" to God's way of living...and "no" to doing things the old way. It takes courage to embrace God, and reject sin. It takes courage to step out on a journey of faith...and that is courage that I welcome and applaud.
Now - let's do some baptising!
Friday, August 7, 2009
Preached at St Francis Church on the Sunday following the funeral of Rob Townsend, husband of the Vicar of St Francis.
It's good to be with you this morning - in the middle of what is, undoubtedly, a difficult time for all - and especially, of course, for dear Diane. Rob's death came so suddenly that it has taken us all by surprise. I want to start by thanking you all for the messages and gestures of love and support that I know you have all been sending to Di. She has told me that she has had more offers of help and support that she knows what to do with...and that she feels immensely loved, and held in your prayers. So thank you for that.
I know that many of you have also lost husbands and wives, and you will know something of what Di is coping with right now. The loss of such a close family member is always devastating - whether one has a Christian faith, or not. But for those of us who have faith, that devastating loss is - albeit slightly - gentled by the knowledge, and the hope, of the Christian story.
As is so often the case, our set Gospel reading for this morning speaks directly into our situation. Jesus refers to himself as the bread of life, and then promises that those who have been drawn to him, by Our Father, will be raised up at the last day. There are three ideas here, woven together:
- there's the analogy of Jesus as the bread of life.
- Then there's the idea of God drawing us into relationship with Jesus.
- And then there's the promise of resurrection.
In those three ideas is found the heart of the Christian story - the story that Rob put his faith and trust in. So in the next few minutes, I'd like to unpack those ideas for us to ponder together.
Bread is one of those metaphors that runs right through the Bible. Bread was one of the most basic foods for the people of the Bible - as it remains for those of us who are not watching our figures too closely today! By referring to himself as the Bread of Life, Jesus was saying that he, and therefore God, is the basic requirement for all spiritual life. That's an idea that remains controversial even in our day. For some people, spirituality is about connection with Mother Earth, or a devotion to nature. For some its about ley-lines, gem-stones and lucky charms.
But to focus on these things is, I think, to confuse the Creator with the created. Jesus called us to go deeper - to focus on the source of all life...the Creator God. There may be power in created objects...because such objects come from God, and are infused with God as all things are. But if we focus on the objects, and not on their Creator, we are missing out on something really fundamental. It would be like focusing on the bread-tin, instead of the bread. The oven, instead of the loaf.
As we come together around the Lord's Table, as we shall in a few minutes - we are encouraged to focus our spiritual eyes on the Bread of Life - the most basic requirement for spiritual life. We are called to eat that bread, and drink that wine as a sign that we say 'Yes' to God's call - to the drawing of us towards himself that Jesus referred to.
And that's the second of those three points. Jesus said "No-one can come to me unless the Father draws them" (Jn 6:44). Many people have, I think, misunderstood that sentence. Many have used it to justify a spirit of spiritual superiority over others, saying "I am a Christian because God has called me...therefore every other religion is wrong". Or, perhaps worse still, "every other Christian who disagrees with my point of view is wrong. I'm saved, because God has pre-determined that I am one of the chosen."
(Web note: This section of the sermon is hinting at the notion of 'pre-destination' - the theological idea that God has pre-determined those whom he will save, and those whom he will condemn. There isn't space for a full discussion of this topic here...but I'd be happy to debate with anyone who wishes to explore it in the comment section of this Blog).
I don't think that Jesus meant his words to be taken in that way. I think that he was pointing out that God never stops drawing all his children towards him...he continually offers his life to all of his creation. In the very next verse, Jesus goes on to explain that the prophets had said "They will all be taught by God" - meaning, surely, that God offers his life to all. Some people respond to that call. Some people chose to feed on the Bread of Life. And some don't. Those that do, like Rob, have the greatest and most significant hope set before them...the hope of resurrection...and the third of my points for this morning.
Some years ago, a lawyer called Josh McDowell set out to examine the evidence of the Resurrection...intending to disprove it in the way that a lawyer would if arguing their case in court. The trouble was, that the more he examined the evidence, the more convinced he became, that the Resurrection was a real event. The book that he wrote as a result - called "Evidence that Demands a Verdict" has been a best-seller in Christian circles ever since.
Now I'm not going to try to summarise a whole book in two minutes. But some of the questions he asked went like this:
If Jesus didn't rise from the dead, who stole the body? If it was the authorities of the time, why didn't they simply produce the body when the Disciples started telling everyone that Jesus had risen from the dead? If the Disciples stole the body, why would they be willing to be tortured and executed for a lie? Wouldn't it have been rather easier to go back to their fishing nets and businesses?
Josh McDowell, and many like him, have concluded that we have good legal-style evidence for believing, with the Disciples, that Jesus did indeed rise from the dead. Others have argued that even if he didn't...if perhaps his body was thrown onto the Jerusalem rubbish heap (as happened to most crucifixion victims) his Disciples were so enlivened by their encounter with him, so persuaded of his Spiritual life and force, that they were certain that death could not separate them from their Lord. So certain were they, that they were prepared to be executed and tortured, rather than give up their belief.
We, then, have strong grounds for believing the Easter story. We have strong grounds for believing that Jesus, the Bread of Life, never gives up on us, and that his Father and ours never stops calling us. We have strong grounds for believing that the hope of resurrection is a real hope. We have strong grounds for believing that Rob's life - and that of others we have loved - is not over...in fact that it has only barely begun.
And so, though we are in grief, we press on towards the goal (to use St Paul's phrase). In this church, over this weekend, we have had the sadness of Rob's funeral, but also the joy of marrying Amy Stevenson, as was, to her new husband Carl Lees. This afternoon we will be baptising Maisie Haytor into God's family. And during this last week we have rejoiced in the arrival of Toby Fisher - a new son for Karen and Sean, and a new Grandson for June.
The funeral service from the Book of Common Prayer had the immortal phrase "in the midst of life we are in death". But perhaps, as people who believe in the resurrection, as people who feed on the bread of life, we should better say that as Christians, we can rejoice. We can rejoice because even in the midst of death, even in the midst of such a shocking event as Rob's death, Rob and we are in life.