Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Good Samaritan

The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10): Preached at a baptism service for Harry and Tyler Andrews. The sermon was preceded by a clip from the movie "The Miracle Maker" in which Jesus tells the story.

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!


  1. ..."We are either perfect, like God. Or imperfect...and therefore sinners. "

    well, what a great can of worms to open! is God perfect? hmmm... the t'internet has lots to say on the subject, one link is below


    If God is perfect and given that we are said to be made in the image of God, surely that means God is as capable of making mistakes as we are? and perhaps falibility is not so much a question of sin, but more an attribute of perfection. Indeed, i've often argued that although my mistakes are unfortunate, inconvenient, annoying, they are however perfectly executed.

  2. Hi Bisto Boy,

    Thanks for commenting. Interesting blog-article you posted there. Unfortunately it suffers from the same malaise many such articles in that it sets up its own 'aunt Sally' to knock down. By pointing the finger only at literalist and fundamentalist believers (a.k.a. simplistic anti-intellectuals) the author gives himself a very easy target.

    As I'm sure you realise, my own two paragraphs on the perfection of God (and us as 'sinners') was a very compressed attempt to communicate the notion of human imperfection (and the possibility of growth towards Perfection) to a non-church-going collection of visitors. It's a difficult topic to summarise in simple language.

    If I were to allow myself some rather more philosophical language, I would say something like this:

    First we need to define our terms. What is perfection?

    It is actually impossible for us to define it at a universal level, because we don't have a universal perspective. (Our perspective is limited to Planet Earth, and to a time-bounded existence). However, in principle, taking the notion of a Creator as read (for the purpose of argument) perfection would have to defined as whatever the Creator says it is...or rather, what the Creator him/herself actually is. If we allow the possibility of a Creative Force behind the Universe, that Creative Force becomes, de facto, the Ultimate Yardstick against which all of creation is itself measured.

    Therefore, to answer your specific question (and using the philosophical notion above) I don't think we can suggest that God is capable of making mistakes as such. Certainly WE are capable of mis-understanding God (which explains the apparent 'mistakes' /imperfections/ inconsistencies of God in the Scriptures. But those records of human mis-understandings say much more about our imperfections than God's.

    When the Scriptures say that we are made in the image of that Creator, they don't mean that we are exact copies of the Creator. An image is a likeness, analogous to a picture of something, perhaps. It represents the original; it has many similarities to the original; but it is not a perfect copy.

    But why would God create images of himself, instead of exact facsimiles? Scripture teaches that we have the potential to become more and more like The Original (Paul talks about being changed from glory into glory, for example). This is both a burden that we bear, and a glorious gift. It is in our (God-given) nature to want to be more than we are - and the knowledge that we are imperfect can push us onwards. It may not be too heretical to say that our imperfection is perhaps even a gift from a Perfect Creator...an inbuilt mechanism implanted (or, indeed, allowed to evolve) by the Creator to inspire Creations to become more like the Creator.

    Why? Scripture teaches that (as in the myth of Adam and Eve) we are given free will - and Christian tradition has fairly consistently held that free will means that we can choose to become more like God. Presumably this is because a deep element of the Perfect Creator is the pleasure he/she derives from having a Creation which willingly and eagerly seeks him/her out.

    But until that eventual goal is achieved - when we become One with the One (John 17) - we have imperfections. I tend to think of those imperfections as marks on the canvass, or the slightly wobbly line of the artist's brush. The Scriptures define such imperfections with the technical word 'sin'.

    I draw much hope and encouragement from the Scriptural idea that, over time as we draw closer to the Original, the Creator, our imperfections can be gradually erased.

    I hope this has begun to answer your question. I'm especially intrigued by your notion that fallibility may be an attribute of perfection - but I don't think I could go along with that (based on the philosophical argument about God being de facto a definition of perfection). However, I would certainly be happy to agree that fallibility might be part of Perfection's Plan to help us achieve Perfection.


  3. This notion of Perfection (or Perfect God Syndrome) seems to be getting mixed up with the idea of immovable dogmatism, an uncritical and arrogant kind of certainty found in certain Christian quarters. Now I don’t deny that such an attitude exists. But I do get a bit weary with the observation that the fundamentals of Christianity are never questioned or debated amongst its followers; they have been and they are, on a regular basis. Christians are like any other group of people with opinions: stick them in a room together and they’ll eventually find something to disagree about. Hence, universities have Theology departments.

    No, Perfection is rightly something claimed, not as an attribute of any particular doctrine, but of God Himself. I’m not sure about fallibility being an attribute of Perfection. Fallibility and “making mistakes” brings in the notion of intention and outcome. I may have perfectly good intentions about not eating that extra slice of cheesecake, but the outcome may well be very different. In a Perfect God (and let’s throw in All-Knowing and All-Powerful, for the fun of it) intention and outcome are necessarily the same thing. Theologically speaking, God can’t “make a mistake”, i.e. will one thing and have something else happen instead. Which must be handy if He’s ever on a diet.

  4. The main problem i have with the idea that God is perfect, or indeed that God IS perfection, is that perfection implies that anything other than what God is now, is by default, NOT perfection. That puts God in a very static, unchanging position. I've always thought of God as an ever changing, forever creating kind of force. If God were truly static, or perfect as he is, there would be no need for anything more in the universe because that could only add to or change the state of God. I would argue therefore that God can only be perfect in a number of ways: God cannot be perfect on his own or in his own right, he needs others and other forces (humans, the earth, evil) to give his perfection any credence; also that if God is not a static deity, there must be many many many (infinite) versions of perfection.

    I have no trouble in believing that God is All Powerful, All Knowing, All Being etc AND that he can also make mistakes. Ok, most of the mistakes are made by people, not God. However, just like an artist who turns errors of a brushstroke into something beautiful, i think God uses the mistakes to create something even better than his original plan. I think that we actually need to go back to start of the discussion and not define what is Perfection, but what is a mistake? I don't believe God's gift of Free Will was a mistake, but that God does not always desire the outcome. So, to answer Cameron's theological point, God can indeed Will one thing, but have something else happen.

    Tom, i love that quote you mentioned from Paul about being changed from Glory into Glory. That is so encouraging and gives purpose to our life here on earth. But it is also a wonderful statement that we are already in a position of "Glory" - he doesn't say, changed from pond scum into Glory. I'm not so sure then that God's hope for us is to become more 'like the Original' as you put it, but that we're challenged to become the best we can be - that is not necessarily a mirror or God himself.

  5. Hi Bisto Boy and Cameron,

    Some fascinating thoughts here. I like Cameron's reminder that with a perfect God, outcome is always the same as intention.

    The problem with Bisto Boy's (otherwise well argued!) argument is that he suggests that any uncontrolled results of the Creator's action (such as giving us Free Will) implies that God (who gave the gift) is not perfect. I don't accept that premis.

    Whilst I hate using parental metaphors for God (because they are too simplistic), I will use one now. A parent who lets their child fall over (so that they may learn to stand up) is not acting in an imperfect way. To accept that imperfection (and ever-changing creativity) is an essential medium for growth does not, in itself, imply any mistakes on the part of the Creator. He/She simply knows, perfectly, that mistakes are necessary for growth, and therefore, perfectly, allows them.

    We are getting very esoteric here!


  6. Well, this is getting the cogs whirring.

    I’m not convinced about God “not being perfect on his own or in his own right” and needing “other forces” to give His perfection credence. God isn’t Tom Cruise at the end of Jerry Maguire, standing in front of us and earnestly pleading, “You complete me”. That may be fine piece of romancing but surely our relationship with God is a bit different. If anything, it’s the other way round: we stand before Him and say, “You complete me”. It doesn’t change God, it changes us.

    On the issue of making mistakes, an artist can indeed change an error of his brushstroke into something beautiful (lovely analogy, by the way) but only if he’s capable of recognising beauty. In other words, if his notion of what is and isn’t beautiful can change, he must have some other, unchanging notion of what constitutes beauty. Otherwise how would he recognise the “mistake” as being beautiful? To transpose the analogy to God, we could perhaps make a distinction between God in Creation (an "ever changing, creative force") and God as Creator (the unchangeable source of that creative force).

    Bring on the esotericism.

  7. Good stuff Cameron. Thanks for that. I like the Jerry Maguire metaphor.

    Bisto Boy...are you convinced yet? Surely, unless God is the very personification of perfection, how are we to gauge what perfection is at all?

    I would posit that we have to be careful of constructing God in our image, rather than the other way round. If God is, indeed, the source of all that there is, then everything he does is by definition perfect (even if, in human terms, it doesn't look like perfection as we understand it). As the Source, or the Word (Logos) - surely God is the only one who has the power, right, and authority to say what perfection is.

    To use another example...if God decided one day to smash a meteor into Planet Earth, we might very well think of that as an imperfect act. But because it would be God who did it (however heinous a crime it might appear to us) it would be a perfect act.

    God cannot err. And there I stake my claim.

    The problem comes (incidentally) when people try to work that idea into justifications for very strange acts of God as reported in the most ancient Scriptures. Did God really give the land of the Canaanites to Israel...or is that simply a case of history being written by the victors? I just want to mention that dilemma because I wouldn't want this theoretical discussion of the nature of perfection to be taken to mean that we should uncritically accept ancient stories of primitive barbarism as being examples of the perfection of God. (Now that's a long enough sentence to have been written by Rowan Williams! Sorry...I hope it made sense!)


  8. "Bisto Boy...are you convinced yet?"

    in short, no, i'm not.

    "Surely, unless God is the very personification of perfection, how are we to gauge what perfection is at all? "

    ok, putting my reservations aside, if i went with the idea that God is perfection, that still doesn't help me guage what "perfection" actually is - for to do so, would be to understand the Nature of God. God, to me, is so incomphrensible and mysterious that I don't think i could ever understand Him enough to be able then to define what his "perfection" is actually like. I could put trust and faith in the idea that He is perfection, but that wouldn't enlighten me any further to what it is that i'm having faith in.

    Maybe it says something more about me and my own personality, that I am naturally suspicious of anyone or anything that claims to be perfect or unerring. I find it much easier to believe in a God that is capable of mistakes - perhaps because i have indeed made him in my own image, and not me in His. But given that God was made Man in the person of Jesus, and that he became fully human, i'm confused as to whether that implies he was as fallible as the rest of us.

    As for our relationship with God making US complete, and not the other way round, i'm half way there. I personally believe that it's a two way transaction. We are told that God created the Heavens and the Earth out a loving desire. If that is true, who was the love for in the end? If He hadn't created us, where would that Love have been directed? ... towards Himself? I would posit that God did indeed create the world out of a loving desire, to share his Glory, and that this was both a selfish and altruistic act. I think He recognises that he cannot exist out of relationship with others, just as we cannot exist out of relationship with God. So, God is INDEED changed by us and his creation, and made complete. As we are made so by him.

    Perhaps God cannot err and the greatest mystery of all is that we may never know.

  9. I’m pretty much with you on the first bit. The idea of a “perfect” God doesn’t necessarily enlighten me about what that “perfection” actually means. We can think of a perfect father, for example, and describe God in those terms. But it would only ever be an imperfect description and we should definitely be suspicious of anyone claiming more than that.

    Only question I would raise would be about God requiring an “object” for His Love. My love must have an object – my wife, my goldfish, sticky toffee pudding. I must love something or someone in order to love at all. But what if God not only loves but is, in fact, Love Itself (or Love Himself)? He wouldn’t require an object in order to love; it’s simply what He is. But I’d agree that we could never know for certain.

    (By the way, this whole debate reminds me of an off-beat musical I once saw with the wonderful title “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change”. Unfortunately I can’t think of any theological significance to this but I thought I’d mention it anyway).

  10. "My love must have an object – my wife, my goldfish, sticky toffee pudding. I must love something or someone in order to love at all. But what if God not only loves but is, in fact, Love Itself (or Love Himself)? He wouldn’t require an object in order to love; it’s simply what He is"

    i think this is one of those 'if a tree falls down in a wood...' arguments. If no-one is there to observe it, how do we know it fell. So, if no-one/thing is there to receive God's love, or experience God as love, how could it ever be proved that this is what God IS. Shrodinger's Cat theory might loosely apply here.