Thursday, October 29, 2009
The Dead are Raised!
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
The Blind Receive Their Sight
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.