Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas 2012

John 1.1-14

I had a strange experience a couple of mornings ago.  I was standing in my garden, in the early dawn, when suddenly I saw the face of Jesus looking back at me, from the grass.  Just his though someone had buried Jesus up to his neck on my lawn.  It was quite a shock, I can tell you - until I realised that what I was actually looking at was the remnants of a football which my dog has systematically chewed pieces off, leaving just some bits of white leather hanging on!  In the right light, it looked just like the face of a bearded man, looking right at me.

My first thought was 'E-bay'!  I could make a fortune.  There have been faces of Jesus on pieces of toast, or in the core of a tomato that have gone for thousands!  The face of Jesus on a Vicar's football...that would be worth something!  But then, it set me wondering.  For a start, no-one actually knows what Jesus looked like.  There are no portraits of him by anyone who knew him.  We have a picture of him in our minds - long hair, beard, nice smile and so on.  But actually, the chances are that he would have had short hair.  And probably a typically Jewish nose!  So on reflection, I decided that pedaling dubious images of a probably incorrect version of Jesus wouldn't be very appropriate.  So I booted the ball back up the garden!

I wonder whether you have ever tried to imagine the face of God.  It's impossible of course.  But I think it is possible to imagine God's expression, at least.  I imagine God looking, frankly, disappointed.  I imagine him looking at the mess our world is in, and being rather miffed, to say the least.  He must look at the wealthy bankers getting richer, while the foodbanks of Portsmouth struggle to keep up with the demand from the homeless and poor.  He must weep over the battles in Syria and all around the middle east.  He must be distraught at the shootings in Newtown, Cincinnati just over a week ago.

As well as imagining God's expression, I wonder if we could try putting ourselves in God's shoes for a moment.  Given a world which is systematically ignoring your call to love God and love your neighbour, what would you do about it?  If you were God?

Perhaps you would be tempted to jolly-well sort it all out.  Perhaps you would appear on a thunder cloud, and start laying down the law with an iron fist, coupled with the threat of thunder bolts and lighting (very very frightenly!  Galileo, Galileo...).  Perhaps you would use your almighty, omnipotent power to force people to be kind to one another.  Perhaps you would reach into human hearts with divine love, and tweak each human soul so that it henceforth only does good things, right things, holy things?

But, if you did might find that you have a new problem.  Instead of a human race which chooses of its own free will to love you and worship you, you would have created a race of puppets.  You would have reduced the beautiful thing that a human being is - filled with possibilities for ingenuity, music, science, art and creativity into something not much better than a toy.  Adam and Eve would be reduced to Ken and Barbie.  And any love or worship they offered you or one another would be a poor thing indeed.  A mere shadow, a fabrication.

So, what do you do?  How do you persuade human-kind that there is another way?  How do you speak a Word to them that they will hear, and to which they can respond with all their hearts?  Here's what you do...

You send them your Son - a human being who is so filled with God that he can say with integrity "I and the Father are one".  You send them a Word clothed in flesh.  You show them what a human life can be like if it overflows with God. You send them a Word which reveals the full glory of God by living the kind of life that God calls all his creation to live.

You send them...a baby.  You send humanity the most fragile form of humanity that you can conceive, so that humankind might finally wake up to the idea that the glory of God is not shown in acquiring wealth, or fighting wars, or living in hate - but the glory of God is shown in the weakest kind of human being possible...a baby, in a stable; son of a poor unmarried woman in a backwater of the mighty Roman empire.

If you could stand in God's shoes tonight, perhaps you too would send humankind a Divine Word clothed in flesh.  For tonight, God comes to us as a human, to show us what it really means for us to be human.  By a life of selfless giving, total sacrifice, total love and compassion, Jesus shows us the heart, and the face, of God.


Monday, December 10, 2012

Luke 3.1-6 (Advent 2) The Word of the Lord comes to John

Luke 3.1-6 and Malachi 3.1-4

We are entering the book of Luke in this liturgical year.  Luke will be our companion for much for the next 12 months.  It is through Luke that we will primarily focus on the story of Jesus.  Today, we are near the beginning of the Gospel according to Luke – and it’s clear that Luke wants his readers to know that the events he is reporting can be traced to a particular time and place.

Over Christmas, we will hear again those famous words “In those days a decree went out from the Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered (or taxed).  This took place while Quirinius was Governor of Syria”.  Luke then goes on to tell us all about the birth of Jesus, as he had received it – focusing on the arrival of the shepherds, those lowest of the low, at the manger.  Interestingly, Luke says nothing at all about the arrival of the Wise Men from the East – that is left to Matthew to fill in.

But today, in chapter three, the action has gone fast-forward.  Roughly 30 years have passed, and Luke puts another time stamp on his story.  “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod the ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Iturea and Trachnonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness”.

The people of Luke’s time didn’t have the same easy system of dates that we had.  Events were marked by who was in charge at the time.  So, if we were to say something similar, we might say something like “In the 18th year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth the 2nd, during the premiership of Harold Wilson, when Roy Jenkins was Home Secretary and Michael Ramsay was Archbishop of Canterbury, the world of God came to Billy Graham at Wembley Stadium.

Those of us who are old enough to remember Billy Graham’s mission to England are given a sense of the sort of time lapse between the preaching of John the Baptiser and when Luke then wrote about it.  The point is not so much the detailed date, but rather:  “Pay attention!  Listen up!  I’m telling you about something that happened in living memory,  A herald came with an urgent message from God”.

And what was that message?  John quotes Isaiah’s vision of the earth-works needed to build a road across a wilderness – reconfiguring the landscape shovelful by shovelful.  Because that ultimately is how you build a kingdom…brick by brick, shovel by shovel, or…if it’s a spiritual Kingdom, person by person, or soul by soul.

The prophet Malachi – who wrote our first reading for today – had similarly dramatic ideas of what God’s coming means:  God is in the precious-metals business, refining, purifying gold and silver by putting it through the fire to reveal its pure state; God is a consuming fire.  In another stunning image, God is a washerwoman armed with fuller’s soap – not soft, perfumed handwash, but abrasive laundry soap that scrubs and scours.
Luke saw in Jesus a glimpse of the sheer purity that is the benchmark for all humans created in God’s image.  That holiness is what God made us to share.  God challenges us to be what we were created to be.  And in Advent, these flamboyant images of fire, scrubbing and highway engineering describe what it is like to prepare to experience the salvation of God.

Advent tells us that we can expect God to probe all aspects of our lives and to clean us up;  that the way we live now, individually and as a church and nation, will come under God’s righteous judgement, when he answers our prayers for succour and deliverance.

God’s purpose is always to restore the original beauty that has been lost to sin.  Malachi’s name means “my messenger” – and he was part of God’s plan to clean up.  He roundly condemned the laxity and corruption of the leaders of his day.  John the Baptiser, in the verses that follow today’s reading, goes on to call the people who heard him a ‘brood of vipers’.  If either of them were around today, they would have many people to hurl such insults at, wouldn’t they?  Corrupt politicians, radio stations who drive people to suicide, greedy bankers.  The bankers are perhaps the most obvious target aren’t they?  In the last three years, despite the ‘bankers bonus scandals’, incomes among the top bankers in our country have risen by around 25% - while the real incomes of ordinary people have been dropping through inflation.

But John and Malachi would not have confined themselves to the leaders of nations alone.  They would ask not just about bankers, but about how you and I use our money too. Do we, for example, spend more on Christmas cards and gifts for our friends and families than we spend on the poor and needy?  If so, perhaps we need to ask how that relates to banker’s bonuses.  Are we just giving more bonuses to people who already have so much?

It is good to give gifts to our families and friends, of course. – because friendship is a wonderful gift to celebrate and strengthen.  But we can give to others at the same time, not least through buying fairly traded, environmentally friendly, or hand-made presents.

Perhaps we might add up what we will spend this year on Christmas celebrations, and make an appropriate donation to charities on top?  Then, people who have no one to give them a gift can receive a gift from us.  If, for example, you have not yet given to this year’s campaign by Churches Homeless Action, there’s a large bucket in the Narthex, ready to receive your gift!

Getting the balance right over these things is a tiny part of what it means to prepare for God’s coming among us, during Advent.  There are so many more ways that Advent should speak to us – and that the message of John and Malachi can speak to us.  What does it mean, for example, to prepare ourselves spiritually, and in prayer, for the coming of the king?  How can the crooked parts of our lives be made straight?  How can we help to lay the straightening road through the wilderness…one shovelful at a time….one person at a time.

Advent is a call to wake up and respond to God’s initiative.  “In the 61st year of the reign of Elizabeth the 2nd, when David Cameron is prime minister and Theresa May is Home Secretary and Rowan Williams is still the Archbishop of Canterbury, the word of God comes to us:  Hark! A herald voice is calling:  “Christ is nigh” it seems to say.  Cast away the dreams of darkness, O ye children of the day!”


I am indebted to Canon Rosalind Brown, whose thoughts on these passages (in the Church Times on 7 Dec 2012) form the substantial basis of this sermon

Saturday, November 3, 2012

All Saints 2012

The Rev'd Richard Coles is a parish priest and public broadcaster whom you may have heard on my favourite Radio Station...good old Radio 4 (or what some people still call 'The Home Service!'.  He has published a book called 'The Loves of the Improbable Saints', in which he has written up stories about some of the strange people who have been made Saints by the Catholic Church.

For example, have you ever heard of St Ronald of Buckingham?  Apparently, he was born into the world like any normal baby, and immediately preached an amazing sermon....before promptly dying.  Then there's a favourite of mine - St Theophilus the Myrrh-Gusher.  Its a great name isn't it?  It refers to the belief that the bodies of certain martyred saints have the ability to ooze a sweet smelling liquid from their wounds.

I've got a few other favourites...there is St Drogo, the patron saint of unattractive people.  There's St Isodore, who in the 1980s was designated the patron saint of the Internet, because he was well known as a scholar and compiler of information.  Can you imagine the scene in Heaven when God tells a particular saints that the Catholic Church has just designated him as the patron of something or other?  "I'm the Patron Saint of WHAT?!"

Personally, I'm particularly drawn to St Anthony of Padua...who is the patron saint of lost causes!  And then there's the number one weird saint of all time...the Patron Saint of finding a parking place.  Apparently, in New York, car drivers circling a block can be heard muttering this prayer:  "Mother Cabrini, Mother Cabrini - find me a space for my driving machiny."

Richard Coles says that whilst all these Saints might be jolly good fun for us, there is a grain of truth in many of them.  Sometimes, saints become patron saints because of the terrible things they were made to suffer for their faith in Christ.  So, for example, St Apollonia is the patron saint of Dentists, because she had all her teeth extracted as a punishment for believing in Jesus.  I could tell you a lot more horror stories...but its a bit early in the morning for that!

So, why do we celebrate All Saints?  Is it perhaps a feast in honour Southampton Football Club...which, as some of you may know started life as the All Saints Church Soccer Team?  No of course not.  Besides, I don't get football at all.  I've never really understood the attraction of watching 22 people run up and down a field with the sole object of getting a ball between two sticks.  And what's all that business with protesting against the decision of referees?     Have you ever seen a referee, with a frustrated player up in his face about a red card suddenly change his mind at put the card away again?  Why do they bother?

No, the festival of All Saints is nothing about football, and very little about silly or funny patron saints.  Rather it is a reminder to us that we are members of a church which is both here on earth, and also in heaven.  The Bible refers to all Christian believers as Saints.  It's a term which we can all own, if we are followers of Christ.  Hmm...St Tom of Portsmouth....has a bit of ring to it?

The Church has always taught that we are members of not just a world-wide church, but a Universal one.  We, here on earth are known as the Church Militant, and those Saints who have died and now live with God are called the Church Triumphant.  In the same way that we pray for each other here on earth, the Church teaches that we should also pray for those who have died, and that they pray for us.  That is why many churches have of Saints in heaven, whom we can ask to pray for us, as we continue to pray for them.

Our two readings today remind us that, as the Bible says, God is the God of the living, and of the dead.  The dead are held by him, in his love, until the great end of days that we all hope for.  Our first reading, from the book of Revelation, paints a picture of the end of the world, when the whole of humanity, living and dead will be united before God...when God fashions a new heaven and new earth...where death is no more, and where there will be no more crying or pain.  Its a wonderful vision, isn't it?  Some people take the underlying theme of Revelation quite literally - they believe it to be a sure and certain prophesy that the world will end, and that God will intervene to stop all the slaughter and the hatred.  And why not?  Personally, I'm not quite so sure...I tend to see the visions of Revelation as poetry which points us towards a spiritual reality that we can claim today.  God is already with us.  In Jesus, God has already made his home with mortals.  For those who truly trust in him, whether they be alive or dead, there need be no more mourning, or crying or pain.

But I am not here to tell you how to interpret Revelation.  That's a task that you must take on for yourself, as part of your own discipleship.  Incidentally, it's something that our Thursday night Bible Study will be thinking about in due course...and there are still some spaces available for those who would like to join us!

Our Gospel reading reminds us of the story of Lazarus, rising from his tomb at the command of Jesus.  This is given to us, on All Saints Sunday, to remind us that God, in Jesus, has power over death itself.  Strictly speaking, Lazarus was not 'resurrected'.  Rather, he was re-vivified.  He came back to life...but he would one day die again, at the end of his life.  Resurrection is rather what happened first to Jesus.  The Bible talks of Jesus as 'the first-born from the Dead'...and describes resurrection as a sort of new birth.  Jesus' body was transformed by his resurrection.  It was different, unrecognisable by those who knew him on earth, until they heard his voice, or recognised him in the Breaking of Bread.  It was a new, eternal body...a body which will last for ever....and a body which the bible promises that we will also be given one day.  We Saints.  We who trust in Jesus.

And that's the crucial point.  It is our trust in, and love for Jesus which makes us, and those who have died, Saints.  It's nothing to do with what we have done in life; how much we've given or sacrificed.  You don't have to be a martyr to be considered a Saint.  All that is asked, by God, is that we trust in his grace, and his mercy, and his love.  You see, Jesus is the kind of referee to whom you can go and appeal.  He might metaphorically hold up a red card, and there might be a real danger of being 'sent off'....but if we appeal to Jesus, telling him we are sorry, he is the one referee who would gladly put his card away, and say 'Play On'.   He does that because of his Grace.  He does it because of his mercy.

And because of Jesus, we are All Saints.

Russell is now going to sing a song that he has written for us.  It's dedicated to St Mark's, and the words chime really well with what we've been thinking about.

Not by the Sword, not by the arm that Justice is begun,
but by His hand and by His light that Victory is won.

Not by our bows, not by are guns that hate is overcome,
But by His love and by His Truth that terror is over-run.

O Jesus' Vict'ry is won,
With Power and Truth is was done,
Our God is Lord of all,
His enemies they will fall.

Not by our words, not by our deeds that salvation is to come,
But by the grace and sacrifice of Jesus Christ, God's Son.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Sons of Thunder

Mark 10. 35-45

         It was a lovely sunny afternoon, that day.  The disciples and the crowds had been following Jesus all around the countryside, through Galilee and Judea, listening to his teaching, hanging on his every word.  Towards sunset, as the crowd started to cast about for places to camp for the night, Jesus motioned to his disciples.  Instantly, they stopped laying out their sleeping blankets, and clustered around him.  What did the Master want?  What did he need from them?
        With a nod of his head, Jesus motioned for his closest friends to follow him.  They moved off up a slope to a patch of shade under an olive tree.  The disciples sat down, teasing Peter as he lowered his slightly arthritic hip onto the dirt.  Matthew and Nathaniel leaned against the trunk of the tree.  And then all 12 pairs of eyes focused on the Master.  What was he going to say to them?  This was going to be interesting.
Jesus seemed hesitant.  What he was going to tell them was going to upsetting for them to hear.  It was going to shatter some of them...they would not understand it.  They would protest.  Some might even decide that they didn't want to follow him anymore.  Jesus took a deep breath, and began.
      "We are going up to Jerusalem," he said.  Judas and Andrew exchanged glances.  Yes, their eyes communicated.  We know.  We're not stupid.  Jesus went on,
      "And when we get there, the Son of Man is going to be betrayed to the Chief Priests and the Teachers of the Law."
      Simon began to protest.  "What?!" he said. "How can that happen?  You've got all these crowds...."  Jesus held up his hand, and Simon fell silent.
      "And..." Jesus went on, "They will condemn him to death"
      It was Andrew's turn now.  "No, Lord!" he protested.  "That's impossible.  Look how everyone loves you! Everyone is following you".  Jesus shook his head.  That sad look the Disciples had been noticing all day clouded his eyes again.
     "The Chief Priests and the Teachers of the Law will condemn him to death," Jesus repeated. "And then they will turn him over to the Gentiles - to the Romans - to be mocked and flogged and crucified."  The Disciples erupted.  Each one tried to out-do the other with protestations.  "No, Lord!  We won't let that happen!  It's impossible!  No-one could do that to you".
      Jesus stood back and watched.  He let them rail their incomprehension at him for a while.  And then, he started smiling.  A smile crept into his eyes, and then made its way down to his mouth, until it took possession of his whole face.  The Disciples' protests dropped to a low murmur, and then to silence.  "Why is he smiling?  Has he been winding us up?"  Jesus fixed the Disciples with his eyes, and finished his speech,
      "But on the third day, he will be raised to life!"
      There was silence.  Judas  turned towards Thadeus and mouthed, "He's cracked!.  Must be the sun.  Go and get him some water".  Thadeus, shook his head.  This wasn't the first time that Jesus had said this kind of stuff.  Though this time, it looked like Jesus really meant it.   Besides, Thadeus wasn't Judas' slave.  If Judas wanted to get Jesus some water he could do it himself.  Thadeus wanted to stay and see what happened next.
        But nothing happened.  Having said what he wanted to say, Jesus turned away from the Disciples, and made his way down the slope to the rest of the crowd.  The Disciples watched him leave...wondering what it all meant.
       Simon was the first to speak.  "Well, I believe him," he stated boldly.  "Everything else he has ever told us has been completely trustworthy, hasn't it.”  He turned to James and John, the so called 'Sons of Thunder'.  "Guys, do you remember how Jesus met with Moses and Elijah on that mountain the other day?  When only the three of us with were him?  If he can do that, I can certainly believe that he could rise from the dead."
       "Yes," replied James.  "But what happens then?  Once he's been raised from the dead.  What is he going to do after that?"
       Matthew, the former civil servant, piped up.  "Well, I reckon he'll start a new Government.  I reckon he'll sort out the Romans, and then set up a new, holy know, that 'Kingdom of God' that he's always been talking about.  I wonder who he'll ask to be Chancellor?"  Matthew suddenly had a far-way look in his eye.
       "And who will he make Prime Minister?" said Andrew.  "Simon...that's going to be you!"  Simon shook his head modestly - but he smiled as well.  Everyone knew that Simon was Jesus' right hand man.
       The Disciples continued to banter among themselves.  Who would be minister in charge of the drains? they laughed.  Who would command the army?  But James and John, the Sons of Thunder, went silent.  They didn't like the way that their friends were talking.  They were not at all happy about having posts in the new Kingdom of God being carved up by the other Disciples like this.  James decided he'd had enough.
       "See you later, guys."  he said.  "I'm off to bed.  Come on John."  John got up off the ground, and followed James down the slope towards the crowd.  When they were a little way from the others, James stopped John with a hand on his arm.  “Listen”, he said.  “Why don’t we go and see Jesus and ask him for jobs in the new government ourselves?  If he says it, the others won’t be able to stop us getting the best jobs”
        “Do you think he won’t mind?” asked John
         James pondered for a moment.  “Maybe”, he concluded.  But if you don’t ask, you don’t get!
         John looked thoughtfully at James.  There was a chance here.  Perhaps they might just make it, and become Jesus' right hand men.  John nodded at James, and together they looked at over at where Jesus was sitting, on a rock, alone on the edge of the camp.  They walked carefully over to him, picking their way between sleeping bodies.  They approached the Master.
         “Um” said James, “Um…Rabbi?  Can we bother you for a minute?”
          Jesus looked up from his prayers, with a knowing look in his eyes.  “Yes, boys.  What is it?”
         “Rabbi,” said James, “We want you to do for us whatever you ask.  Ok?”
          Jesus wasn’t going to make any promises.  He was more canny than that – and quite used to people trying to trap him into saying something he might later regret.
         “What is it?” he said cautiously.
         James got ready to make a well-considered plea , backed up with lots and lots of good reasons as to why they should be important officials in the new Government.  But John couldn’t contain himself.  He was so nervous, that it all came tumbling out! 
         “We want you to grant for us to sit on your left and on your right when you come into your kingdom!   Um…please….”
         Jesus looked disappointed.  He had hoped for better from these two.  He had hoped that perhaps they had begun to understand that his Kingdom was not like that at all.  He shook his head, and said, "You will indeed drink from my cup.  But to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant.  These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father."  James and John were a bit puzzled, but they were wise enough to know when to back down.  What did Jesus mean?  We will drink from his cup, but the places of honour are decided by God?  That was typical of Jesus.  He always talked in riddles.
         Unbeknown to James and John, however, they had been followed.  Judas, who had never quite trusted the Sons of Thunder, had trailed them from a distance, and had heard the whole conversation from behind a tree.  As James and John turned away from Jesus, Judas slipped back through the darkness to the other Disciples.  “You’ll never guess what James and John are up to!” he hissed, when he got back…and then proceeded to tell the whole story.
        "That's not right!"  "Who do they think they are?"  The Disciples were livid! After a quick discussion together, they decided that this would just not do, and they all strutted over to where James and John were settling down dejectedly for the night. 
        Simon, ever the spokesperson, spoke first.  "What's this we hear?  Have you been up to Jesus to ask for a place on his right and on his left?"
        James looked at the ground, and shuffled his feet nervously.  "Well,  erm…", he mumbled.  "We did just have a chat…".
        "That's not good enough" replied Simon.  "Who do you think you are?  Do you think you are better than the rest of us?  Do you think Jesus is going to choose either of you over us?"
        Jesus, in the meantime, had been sitting on his rock, looking over the camp.  He wasn't surprised.  Disappointed, but not surprised.  He had smiled to himself as he saw Simon stride across the camp over to James and John with the other nine disciples in his wake.  Jesus made a decision.  It's time for me to intervene here, he thought. 
        Jesus climbed down from his rock, and wandered down the slope to where the ten disciples were gathered around the other two.  As he approached, one of the Disciples, Philip, looked up from the argument, and saw Jesus approaching.  He nudged Bartholomew in the ribs and pointed at the approaching Rabbi.  Bartholomew nudged Matthew, Matthew nudged Andrew and in a few seconds, the little group of angry men had ceased shouting, and waited for Jesus to approach.
       Jesus walked up to them and stopped.  He looked around at them with love, but also a little disappointment in his eyes.  Into the anger in the air around him, Jesus spoke gently.
      "You know how the Gentiles do things, don't you?  You know how their rulers lord it over the rest of the people, and how their high officials dominate everyone else?"  A few of the Disciples grunted.  They knew what Jesus meant - they had seen how the Romans bossed everyone else around.  "Well", Jesus went on, "That is not how it shall be with you.  Instead, whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant - not your Prime Minister," he said, looking knowingly at Peter, "and not your Chancellor", he said, smiling at Matthew.  "And whoever wants to be first among you must be a slave to everyone else.  This should not surprise you.  The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.  The Son of Man came to give his life away, not to go lording it up over anyone."
     And then, the Disciples noticed that Jesus' eyes seemed to become distant.  He seemed to be staring off into the distance, over vast miles, and even through time itself.  And then, Jesus' voice was heard in a tiny little church in the heart of Portsmouth, in a little church named out of affection for another follower of Jesus, a man called Mark.  There was a congregation gathered that morning.  A congregation of ordinary people - people just like the Disciples and the other followers of Jesus.  These were ordinary people - but people who had heard the call of Jesus, across the millennia - the call to live in ways that were life-giving; the call to live in love with God, and with each other.  These were people who longed to hear Jesus speak to them, and longed to hear from him how life could be richer, deeper, more meaningful.  And across time, and through the walls of the church that morning, the people of St Mark heard Jesus speaking to them.
     "In my service, there is perfect freedom.  By serving me, in your homes, in your jobs, in your schools, in your church, in your community - you will find me.  By serving me with your time, and with your talents and with your money, you will know me. When you serve others, you serve me.  When you reach out to others, you reach out to me."
     And all the people, in that little church in North End, said, "Amen".

Monday, April 23, 2012

Rector's Address 2012 - The Peace which Passes All Understanding

This is my address to the three churches of the North End Portsmouth Team Ministry, gathered for a Parish Mass prior to our Annual Parochial Church Meeting on 22nd April 2012.  It is part-sermon....part 'Rector's Annual Address'.

Texts:  Luke 24.36b-48; Philippians 4.4-7

Jesus stood among his Disciples, locked in the Upper Room, and said "Peace be with you".

Which reminds me (!) of the story of the Vicar who had just preached a rather long and boring sermon.  He couldn't understand why people were just filing past him at the door without saying anything about his talk at all.  Finally, one man came forward who could always be relied on to give an opinion.  "Vicar" he said, "Your sermon this morning reminded me of the Peace and the Love of God".  The Vicar was delighted, and asked why that was.  "Well", said the man, "your sermon reminded me of the peace of God because it 'passed all understanding'....and it reminded me of the Love of God because it went on forever!"

At the end of most of our services, the Celebrant uses the words "May the Peace of God, which passes all Understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the love of God....etc".  But what does this mean?  What is the Peace that Passes All Understanding?  Can we understand it at all?

There are various suggestions around - especially if you put the phrase into Google!  If type the question 'what is the peace that passes all understanding' into the interweb, you'll get answers like:
- the feeling you get when all the kids have finally gone to bed
- the blissful moment when your neighbour's party finishes at 2am
- the effect of large amounts of drugs!

The phrase itself comes from Paul's letter to the Philippians, chapter 4.  There, Paul encourages the Christians of Philippi to rely on God, and to rejoice in God. That, he tells them, is the key to the peace of God which passes all understanding. Here's what he says to them:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.  Let your gentleness be known to everyone.  The Lord is near.  Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, with passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  (Phil.4.4-7)

Here, then, is the Bible's prescription for discovering the kind of Peace which Jesus prayed for his Disciples.  Like a good sermon, it is a three-stage process:

1)  Rejoice.  Paul rams this idea home.  "Rejoice in the Lord always...again I will say it, rejoice!"  That's a tough idea to get our heads around, isn't it?  How do you rejoice in the Lord when there is so much wrong with the world?  Or when sickness has struck down one of our friends?  Or when lead has been stolen from the church roof again!

But this one of the great ironies of the Christian faith.  Faith gives us a way of seeing the world differently.  Faith helps us to expect God to be present in the most dire of circumstances.  When Jesus hung on the cross, in the most desperate moment of his life, when even God seemed to have forsaken him, Jesus managed to find ways of reaching out with love.  He forgave the thief on the cross, and promised paradise to him.  He showed concern for his mother, and prayed for all his persecutors.  'Rejoicing in the Lord always' is about seeing the world as pregnant with possibilities for God's activity...however terrible things may get.

So that's the first way to find peace...learn to rejoice in the Lord always.  Even in the most dire of circumstances, look for, and expect, God to be at work.  We are called to be alert to God's activity, and God's presence.  Rejoice in the Lord, always!

2)  The second stage of finding this peace beyond all understanding is a simple phrase...."Let your gentleness be known to everyone." (Phil.4.5).  In a short while, we are going to commission a new team of Pastoral Visitors. These are people who have been trained, by Fr Tony and Reader Jeff, to represent the church to the wider community - especially to those who are sick and housebound, those who can't be part of the large gathering of the body of Christ.  These folks are willing to 'let their gentleness be known to everyone'...they are willing to be public about their faith, public about the call of God on their lives.  To use the phrase of Jesus from our Gospel reading, they are willing to be his witnesses.

Of course, there are many others in our parish whose gentleness is known to everyone - who are willing to be witnesses.  There are so many ways of serving God, through parish life...and there are far too many people doing it for me to be able to go through the list individually.  But, take comfort, and be righteously proud, of what your faith has led you to do for Jesus in this parish.  Do you sing in a choir or a music group?  Do you sit on a committee, or manage finances?  Do you wield a screwdriver or a broom, or a tea-pot or frying pan for others?  Do you welcome people, or beautify our worship with flowers and serving?  All of these tasks, and so many more, are public declarations of the love you bear for Jesus, and of the gentleness he has instilled in your soul.

Through these acts of love, we let our gentleness...inspired by known to everyone.  We witness to what Jesus is doing in our lives.

So - the stages on the way to finding the Peace of God are...

1)  Rejoicing in the Lord always - worshipping God in our services and in our lives.
2)  Letting your gentleness be known - witnessing to others about what God is doing in our lives.
3)  and thirdly, and finally, according to Paul...we are encouraged "Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God (Phil.4.6)

This thought is of course most powerfully expressed by Jesus himself, when he says, in Matthew 6.27 "Who of you, by worrying can add a single hour to his life?"

The peace which passes all understanding is gained by those who rejoice in the Lord, who are witnesses for the Lord, are prepared to trust the Lord who holds their future in his hands.

But trusting God completely, for the whole future, is no easy task.  On Good Friday, all seemed lost.  Jesus was dying a degrading death, his entire mission seemed to be at an end.  But God knew what God was doing.  And as Jesus burst forth from the tomb, God's purposes became clear.

What does this attitude of trust mean for us as a parish?  I believe that we are a parish which is learning to trust God, and not to worry too much about the future.  We are learning to trust that God knows what God is doing...and not to work ourselves into a lather about what might, or might not, happen day by day. Of course, that doesn't mean that we should stop thinking, nor stop finding ways to creatively be witnesses for Christ in this community.

Looking back over the last year, we've done some fantastic things together as a parish – much of which has arisen spontaneously, out of an increasing sense that we are simply and joyfully celebrating life together.   This is precisely what I mean about rejoicing in the Lord always.  Whether it’s through our worship, or our 60s night, barn-dances or fund-raising fayres, concerts or quizzes, shared meals or shared work-days, quiet days or the Cluster fund day….there is a level of joyfully “entering into the moment” in this parish…which is beginning to feel more and more holy, to me.

It's been wonderful to welcome Fr Tony and Fr Charles into our Team – they have both brought their own unique personalities and gifts into the mix, alongside our three ordinands, Linda and Mother Margaret, and our Readers, Jeff and Doris.    It's been exciting to extend and strengthen our relationships with other churches in this area - reminding us that we are part of a much larger family of Christians than just our parish.  Incidentally, I would like to just thank everyone who has stepped up to fill in the gaps left by my becoming an Area Dean and the IDWAL link with Ghana.

What else?  We have maintained our commitment to the wider community through the way we have maintained our buildings, and vitally through the Community Cafe...although I would comment that more involvement from congregation members in building maintenance and CafĂ©-running would be most welcome.  We now have more non-churchgoers working in the Cafe than we do actual church members – and maintenance of all our buildings is carried out by only a very small group of volunteers.

What else?  We have constantly improved our church buildings - a new disabled toilet at St Francis, central heating in the Cafe at St Mark's, along with new external lighting;  a new sound system for St Nicholas, along with the completion of the outside play area and new cladding for the halls.  We have received - and contributed to - a substantial report on the future of our buildings, which will help us to focus our future work.

What else?  We have seen a whole gang of folks go through confirmation classes, and another group become fully fledged pastoral visitors - as we shall recognise formally in a moment.

Fundraising this year has gone hand in hand with social activities...and for me, that's the best kind of fundraising.  The day we worry about raising funds, but forget to have fun and fellowship together while we are doing it would be a sad day indeed!

Worship, this year, has settled into a bit of a traditional pattern, across all three churches - and we've had some wonderful services. It would be fair to say, however, that our current mix of ministers is a fairly traditional blend.  We also know that by and large, our congregations are happier with traditional styles of worship.  However, I want to caution myself, as well as the rest of the parish, that we need to remember that one size does not fit all.  We need to remain open to experimenting with new and different styles of worship, in order to offer the chance of life-changing encounters with God to as many people as possible.

There have, of course, been some sadnesses this year.  Especially we mourn the passing of much loved congregation members - especially Belle Hunt and Gwen Jones...both of whom were, for many of us, more like family members than mere church goers.  But, we remember Paul's advice not to worry about them, and we trust that God holds all those we have lost in the warmth of his embrace.

In summary, then, I think we have reason to be optimistic about our common life together - satisfied, though not complacent.  We do know something of what it means to Rejoice in the Lord Always.  We do have some wonderful examples of Christian Witness - of letting our gentleness be known to everyone. We are learning not to worry too much about unimportant things, or things we cannot change...but to embrace God's activity in our lives every day, and to say ‘yes’ to those opportunities which arise for fellowship and fun, spontaneity and laughter.

My hope and prayer is that as we continue to do these things, and to live this way, we will continue to know, together, more and more of what it means to live in the Peace of God, which passes all human understanding.  Amen.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Easter Sunday - What Do You Believe?

Easter Sunday:  What do you believe?

Easter means many different things to many different people.  A sign of new life.  The defeat of darkness.  The Spring Equinox, with all the promise of new life - chicks and eggs.  Or, perhaps, the single most important event of all history!

What do you believe?

Let's first review the claims made about Jesus, which we demonstrated just now in the signing of the new Pascal Candle. He is the Alpha and Omega. The Beginning and the End. He is the one who has the power to make all things new...and who promises a new heaven and a new earth. C.S. Lewis spent some time in his book, Mere Christianity, thinking about what it meant for Jesus to come and live as a human being. He wrote: “The Eternal being who knows everything and who created the whole universe, became not only a man, but (before that) a baby, and before that a foetus inside a woman’s body. If you want to get the hang of it, think how you would like to become a slug.”

Jesus, having emptied himself of his divinity, came to live among us as a human being.  It’s worth remembering that. Sometimes, when we struggle to live like Jesus, it’s tempting for us to think “Well, it was easy for Jesus – he was God!”.  But that is not the message of the Gospels.  Jesus emptied himself of all Godly power.  He became fully human, to show us what a truly full, human, life looks like.  As a human being, he lived and he loved, and he gave up all that he had for others.  He taught us what God was like, and offered us the chance to choose God’s way of living.

But if it wasn’t for Easter...these remarkable actions on the part of God would quite probably have gone unknown, and un-remarked by the rest of humanity. Jesus wasn’t the first man to die in a horribly painful way...and he wasn’t the last. His disciples knew that, and the historical records of the time - the Gospels - tell us that after his death they thought that the whole thing was over. They hid in an upper room - terrified.

But the fact is that Jesus shrugged off death!  Taking back the Divinity he had laid aside as a human, he rose from the tomb!  And what a dramatic impact that had!   It transformed the lives of Jesus’ friends, and from there it transformed lives throughout the whole world.

It is sometimes said that it doesn’t really matter whether or not we believe in the Resurrection. Some people have suggested that Jesus didn’t actually rise from the was just that his presence with the disciples seemed to live on with them, after his death. Some people suggest that Jesus was only alive in the sense that any dead person is alive to our memories. But I don’t think that interpretation matches the facts.

First of all, people don’t give up their own lives for a memory. We know that many - if not all - of the disciples were persecuted, hated, tried and martyred for their assertion...their absolute certainty...that Jesus had got up from the grave. They could not deny what they had seen with their own matter how much they were threatened and beaten. Now in these days we know that people will give their lives for religious dogma - for what they’ve been brainwashed with by the mad mullahs of Al Quaida.  But the sacrifice of the Disciples was something quite different. For them to have denied that they had seen Jesus rise from the dead, would have been like us having to deny that grass is green.

Secondly, if Jesus had not risen from the dead, why didn’t the Roman or Jewish authorities simply produce his body to disprove it? That would have quickly stopped the resurrection rumour in its tracks. But there was no body to produce.

As you know, probably, I’m a pretty liberal Christian.  I’m happy to allow a great deal of latitude in the interpretation of all sorts of theology!  But on this one issue, I am steadfast to the faith we have inherited, in the precise formula that we have inherited it.  Jesus calls us to follow him, not only because he died for us...not because we feel grateful to him (although of course we should). The message of Easter is that Jesus calls us to follow him because he lives!

As one of us, Jesus not only died, but was raised from the dead and now lives with the Father. And he says that he wants to share his joy and his life with us. Jesus isn’t looking for our sympathy; he’s inviting us to get involved. He’s looking for us to join his followers in proclaiming that there is another way than the way of war and violence and hate, of greed and consumerism and poverty. And he’s inviting us, ultimately, to come home to the love of our heavenly Father. That’s why he give us life, and to call us home. Not to illicit our pity.

So it does matter what we believe. If we believe that Jesus only lived in his disciples’ memories...then he died there too - when they died. And our faith is based on nothing more than a vague wishfulness - a unproveable hypothesis that maybe God exists, and maybe we have somewhere to go after we die.

If, on the other hand - as all the evidence suggests - he really rose from the dead, still lives today, and calls us to life and to heaven...then that is worth something. That is a truth worth hanging on to. That is a fact worth telling our neighbours about. That is something worth celebrating.

Alleluiah...Christ is Risen!

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Palm Sunday 2012

Palm Sunday

Jesus Enters Jerusalem on a donkey...

Palm Sunday. "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!"  We hear these words, we sing these songs but I wonder if we understand the impact of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on the people of his time? This day marked the end of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and the beginning of his end. He was moving into the final week of his earthly ministry - a climactic moment.

It did not just happen - Jesus planned everything very carefully. He had even arranged for a donkey to ride on, and had agreed a coded message with the owner - so that when the Disciples turned up and took the donkey, the owner wouldn't complain.

It was very important for Jesus that he should arrive in the city on a donkey. He knew the prophecy from the ancient book of Zechariah,

‘Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your King comes to you;
Triumphant and victorious is he,
Humble and riding on a donkey
On a colt, the foal of a donkey’

Jesus’ actions were an unmistakable claim to be the Messiah, God’s messenger to the world. You see, Jesus normally walked everywhere. This is the only time we see Jesus travelling other than on foot. That is why the people pulled branches from the trees and shouted ‘hosanna’ – which means ‘save us’. That's why they threw their garments on the ground to welcome the King of Kings into the holy was an very ancient custom to spread out cloaks for a King...going right back to the story of King Jehu, in 2 Kings 9.

Yes, the crowd certainly understood Jesus' claim to be the Messiah. That is why they began to sing the psalm of praise, Psalm 118 that pilgrims always sang on the way to Jerusalem: a song of victory, a hymn of praise to the God who defeats all his foes and establishes his kingdom:
'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
...With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession
up to the horns of the altar!'

But what did his disciples understand by all of this? Throughout the Gospel records we see Jesus struggling to help his disciples understand the sort of kingdom that he had come to usher in. But some of his disciples, even on Palm Sunday, still harboured ideas of Jesus coming to overthrow the Romans and to restore the power of the Jewish State. Whatever Jesus said, whatever Jesus did – it seemed that his disciples couldn't free themselves from some very human notions of power and victory.

You see, Palm Sunday is unmistakably all about power – the power of God. But the power of God is of a different order to the powers of this world. God’s power is not a sort of multiplication of the power of Caesar or of Napoleon or of the USA. Somehow just bigger, better, more powerful power. God’s power is not like that.

That is the point made in one of the crucial moments of Jesus Christ Superstar - the Rock Opera. Jesus and his followers are seen arriving in Jerusalem. Simon the Zealot is urging Jesus to go ahead and get the crowd to follow him to get rid of the Romans. Simon declares. ‘You’ll get the power and the glory for ever and ever and ever.’ And do you know what Jesus replies? Very gently, against all the noise of Simon the Zealot, he sings, 'Neither you, Simon, nor the fifty thousand, nor the Romans, nor the Jews; nor Judas; nor the twelve, nor the priests, nor the scribes nor doomed Jerusalem itself, understand what power is; understand what glory is; understand at all.’

You see - God’s power is shown through Jesus and through his self-giving and sacrifice, and suffering. Jesus Christ and him crucified; that is the power and wisdom of God. As St Paul said, "the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God". (1 Cor 1:18). It's a different order of power that works not through violence and victory but through love, service and sacrifice.

It is easy for us to see both those kinds of power at work today. On the one hand, we can see the power of violence and victory - as we see armies marching against each other around the planet, as we see selfish companies and individuals grabbing all the riches and wealth that they can, as we see man's inhumanity to man continuing to spread around the world.

But we can see the other kind of power as well. Every time that someone stands up against the violence and greed. Every time someone reaches out a hand to help another human being. Every time a hospital is opened, or a school is started, or a refugee is fed or given a tent - that's the power of God at work.  Every time someone decides to give up the latest gadget they desire, and chooses to give that money for the benefit of others...there is another power at work...the power of love, service and sacrifice.

And actually - I think - if you were to count up all the people in the world who are involved with education, healing, loving their families, relieving poverty, serving their church or their local community, or working for reconciliation - and then counted up all the people who are money grabbing know I think we'd see, pretty quickly, that God's power is very much in evidence. I think you'd see really who is reigning on Earth.

We hear about the atrocities - the terrorist bombs, the famine and poverty - because they are real, and they are horrible. But what we don't hear about is the day to day normality that most people actually live with. God is the God of normality. God delights in the simple loving acts of families, and communities and churches all over the world. God delights in those communities around the world – like those I met in Ghana recently - who are not obsessed with grabbing power, and working every hour of the day to acquire the latest gadget, or the bigger house. God delights in those communities who take just what they need from the land, and spend the rest of their time pursuing friendship and art and community. His power is found there. He is there.

That's why we can sing, with such joy, that Jesus Reigns over all the Earth! Because although we hear more about the bad stuff in the world - the reality is that God is alive...and 'God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year.'

When Jesus rode into Jerusalem, on that first Palm Sunday, he was profoundly misunderstood. But the power of God that he was embracing and sustaining and sending forth throughout that first Holy Week has continued to shape and affect lives all around the world ever since.

The power of God is not about war and conquest, it's about love and sacrifice.

The power of God is not about gaining wealth, it’s about gaining simplicity.

One final thought.  By his actions on that first Palm Sunday, Jesus laid claim to the title ‘King of Kings’.  In this Jubilee year, when we will mark 60 years of our own constitutional monarch’s reign, we sometimes forget what it means to live under an absolute Monarch – like kings were in the time of Jesus.  A constitutional monarch, like ours, is very limited in their power.  Their power is largely ceremonial.  They can influence events, but they don’t have the power to dictate how the country is run.  An absolute Monarch had tremendous power.  Their word was law – quite literally.  If a King of those days said ‘jump’, the only reasonable response was to ask ‘how high?’.

By riding into Jerusalem in triumph that day, Jesus claimed to be the absolute Monarch of all absolute Monarchs.  He claimed that his way of living, his way of dealing with other people, his way of loving all whom he encountered – that was the new Law. 

What does that mean for us, who call ourselves Jesus’ subjects, Jesus’ disciples?  It means that we are called – no, we are summoned, - to obey the new law of our King of Kings.  It means living lives that are poured out in service to others, as his was.  It means living lives which seek nothing for ourselves.  It means devoting ourselves to the process of ‘unselfing’…of giving up all that our fragile egos demand, giving up what we want in favour of what is needed by the whole society around us.   

And so as we share today in the last supper of bread and wine, let us recall the new age that Jesus came to usher in, an age not based on military power or might but on suffering and service, love and obedience. And let us commit ourselves anew to being people of his Kingdom - people who embrace his way of living...the way of self-sacrifice and love.

As a sign of that commitment, I'm going to ask you to make a gesture this morning. When you come to the rail, to receive the sustaining power of the body and blood of Jesus, we are going to offer you a Palm Cross. After you have received the bread and the wine, or received a blessing, let me invite you to reach out and deliberately take that cross, as a sign that you are taking up the challenge that Jesus offers us. Take that cross home with you - and put it in a prominent place. Let it be a reminder, throughout the rest of this year, of the fundamentally different way of life that Jesus calls each one of us to embrace. Not the way of power, and wealth, and consumerism. The way of love, of self-sacrifice, of simplicity, and of peace.

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Cross: Symbol of Our Sure and Certain Hope

John 3. 13-17

The Cross:  Our Sure and Certain Hope…

A homily for the end of a Lenten Quiet Day, at the Church of the Ascension, Portsmouth.

The Cross is a powerful symbol indeed.  It stands, for many, at the centre of their faith, and even at the centre of time itself.  A traditional belief, especially in the Orthodox church, is that after his Crucifixion, Jesus descended into the world of the dead, and released those who had died before him, but who were held captive because of their sin.  The Cross then, stands at the Crossroads of time.  Jesus’ atoning death is believed to have effect both forward and backwards in time.

It should not surprise us then, perhaps, to discover the cross, or cross-like symbols, popping up throughout history.  Many crosses have been found throughout pre-history…way before it became important as a Christian symbol.  In most cases, the cross was a symbol of life.  It may be that the cross symbolised the making of fire by rubbing two sticks together…fire being a symbol of warmth, the Sun, and life.  In other mythologies, crosses symbolised a connection between heaven (as a vertical line) and earth (as the horizontal line).  Worship, therefore, took place at the point of connection between heaven and earth…at the centre of the Cross.  There are two pre-Christian crosses that you will probably be most familiar with. The first is the Swastika – which has a wide variety of meanings to many many different people of the world (see here for more details ) .  The second is the Ankh – an Egyptian version of the cross, with a looped head at the top…believed to be principally a symbol of life.  (See here for more details )

Initially, after Jesus’ death, the cross didn’t feature in Christian worship at all.  For many, it was a disgusting and degrading symbol, not worthy to be used in connection with the Christ.  For us, a modern parallel might be the use of a hang-man’s noose as a religious symbol.  Early Christians, as you probably know, preferred the use of the secret sign of the fish (here for more details ) - the Icthus, the letters of which could form an acrostic phrase:  Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour.

However, as crucifixion faded from habitual use by the Romans, we begin to see the sign of the cross emerging in Christian worship…until, by our time, it has become a ubiquitous sign of the Christian religion…like it, or not!

The cross, then, comes to us with redolent history.  It is an ancient sign of life and healing - a divine union between heaven and earth.  Tradition has it that the ‘pole’ which Moses lifted up in the desert, for sick people to gaze upon and find healing, was in fact a cross…though in this case it was a ‘T’ shaped cross.  The same symbol – a T-shaped cross with a bronze serpent – is now a universal sign of the healing arts.

The sign of the cross speaks to us of life…and of a mystical union between heaven and earth.  But to Christians it speaks still deeper.  For it was on a cross that God showed how much he loved the world.  In the words of our Gospel reading, 'God so loved the world that he gave his only son, to the end that everyone who believes in him should not perish, but should have everlasting life' (John 3.16).  The whole narrative push of the Gospels was that is was necessary for Jesus to die on such a cross.

But why? Why was it necessary for Jesus to die on a Cross? It's frankly what the church calls (for good reason!) a ‘Mystery’.  My advice is that you should be deeply suspicious of anyone who tells you that they have understood exactly what Jesus was accomplishing on the cross.  The writers of the Bible itself wrestle with meaning – at various points they conjure with metaphors like ‘paying a ransom to the devil’ or ‘taking our sins upon him’ or ‘being punished for our sake’.  Later theologians have sometimes preferred to speak of the Cross as a grand moral example…a graphic, lived-out picture of how far it is necessary to commit oneself to the Gospel.  Others have pointed out how the Cross stands as a vindication of peaceful resistance over inhuman violence…because the subsequent Resurrection demonstrates that peace will eventually overcome all war.  Rowan Williams suggests through the Cross, the human power-mongers who promise that violence can rule the world are shown to be false prophets.  How can violence rule the world if it ends up pushing God to the margins of society?

So, as you can see, there are many different ways of understanding, or meditating upon the meaning of the Cross.  But through them all, one underlying reality holds sway.  It was to the Cross that Jesus turned his face.  He was reluctant…praying that this particular cup of suffering may pass him by…but it was clearly vital to Him, and to the completion of his mission.

For that reason, if no other, we look to the Cross. The Cross was important to Jesus…it symbolised the very apex of his mission.  And so to us, the Cross symbolises the very heart of our Religion.  It symbolises the sure and certain hope that we have that, as our Gospel reading made clear, ‘whosoever believes in Him, will have eternal life’.

It is perhaps worth pointing out, however, that Jesus did not dictate, in that passage, precisely what we were to believe about him.  We are not asked to sign up to any particular theological understanding of his atoning death, for example.  We are invited not to believe things about Jesus…but to believe in Jesus.  We are invited into something similar to a relationship with a person, not mental assent to a series of theoretical propositions.

Those who ‘believe in Him’ are those who have studied his life, as well as we can understand it from our distance in time.  Those who believe in Him are those who trust that His way of living, his way of giving, sacrificially, of all that he had and was…this is the way to eternal life.  The Cross symbolises the giving up of the last thing a man can give…his very life.  For us, especially in this time of Lent, may it symbolise the giving of our lives too…offered as living sacrifices for the God who is our sure and certain hope.


Monday, February 6, 2012

Healing Simon's Mother-in-Law

Mark 1:29-29

A gospel reading with the words 'Simon's Mother-in-Law' is just too good to resist, isn't it?  Many of you know my mother-in-law, Jan...and a sweeter person you couldn't wish to meet.  But I just can't help laughing when I hear some of those old mother-in-law jokes.  You know the ones...

"I haven't spoken to my mother in law for 18 months.  I don't like to interrupt her" (Ken Dodd)

"We all know when my mother in law is coming up the path.  The mice start throwing themselves at the traps." (Les Dawson)

"I just got back from a pleasure trip...I took my mother in law to the airport" (Henry Youngman)

and my all time favourite...

"My mother in law threatened me one day...she said 'I'm going to dance on your grave'.  I said, 'I hope so...I'm going to be buried at sea' "(Les Dawson)

These ten verses of Mark's Gospel, however, have a very different attitude to mother in laws!  Did you notice, during the reading, that after Jesus healed her, Simon's mother-in-law set about serving her guests?  Reading that with modern eyes, we might wonder what's going on.  It's almost as though Jesus healed the woman so that she would go and get him a cup of tea!  But of course, nothing could be further from the truth.  In 1st Century Palestine, the privilege of serving an honoured guest was one which was given to the senior woman of the house.  It was counted a right, an honour and a privilege.  Simon's wife might have served the guests... especially after her mother had been so ill.  But clearly, serving guests was what her mother wanted to do, as soon as she was well. It was a matter of honour, not servitude.

Have you noticed how often Jesus' healing miracles are about more than just restoring someone to health? As soon as she is healed, Simon's mother in law is immediately restored to her position of honour in the house.  When Jesus heals someone, the healing doesn't just deal with physical symptoms.  It also, invariably, has the effect of bringing people from one state of being to another. Jesus seeks to restore not just health, but, as we thought about a couple of weeks ago, life in all its fullness (John 10.10).

In 1st Century Palestine, sick people were often treated as though their illness was their fault.  Based on some ideas that were expressed in the Old Testament, people believed that illness was the result of some sin or other - either something done by the sick person, or perhaps by their parents.  Sickness was seen as a punishment for sin...and sinners needed to be shunned and excluded from society.   Kept on the margins...reduced to begging.

Jesus, however, sought to break down that idea.  He understood the causes of sickness to be far more complex.  In the story of the paralysed man, let down through the roof to be healed, (Luke 5) Jesus plays with these ideas in public.  First he says to the paralysed man "Your sins are forgiven" - demonstrating that he had the divine power to forgive sins.  But the man still lies on his stretcher, while Jesus disputes with the religious leaders whether or not it makes any difference to forgive sins, or to give healing.  Then, Jesus turns to the man "I tell you...get up, pick up your stretcher, and go home".  It was Jesus' words of healing which restored the man to health - not the forgiveness of sins (although that was freely offered too).

Sickness did not, in Jesus clear view, arise out of sin.  Sickness is not a punishment for sin...although it can certainly arise out of human sin in general...human greed, human refusal to pursue wisdom, science and medicine.  After being healed by Jesus, all people are able to be restored to human society.  Simon's mother-in-law is restored to her position as the senior woman of her household, and given the high privilege of serving her important guest.  Lepers are restored to their friends and family.  The blind are no longer reduced to begging at the side of the road.  This, for Jesus, is one of the signs of the Kingdom.  It's an echo of the words of his Mother in the Magnificat..."he has filled the hungry with good things...he has exalted the humble and meek".

Interestingly, in these days when we are far more aware of some of the causes of disease, we are in danger of giving in to the same blame-culture to that which Jesus tried to combat.  Now that medical science has given us reason to believe that low weight, moderate exercise, and the eating of 'five a day' are the cure for all ailments, we tend to blame people for their illness.

How often do we hear - or even, how often have you and I said, "It must be her fault.  She hasn't looked after herself”.  “I told her she should have stopped drinking, or smoking, or eating, or going out without a coat on...(or whatever!)."  We quickly blame people for their illness - attributing it to a sin on their part. When we do that, we fail to understand, unlike Jesus, that the causes of sickness are far more complex.

Our society is driven by massive marketing, consumerism, and the easy availability of sugar, alcohol and fat.  We live highly pressurised, stressed-out lives as we desperately to keep up with everyone around us.  How easy it is for us to point to someone else's illness and say "It's their fault...they didn't exercise enough - or they over-did their exercise.  They ate too much...or they didn't eat enough."  We seem to take a perverse delight in blaming people for their sickness...rather than understanding that people live they way they do because human life is messy, and living that way helps them to cope.

Jesus' response to the messiness of human suffering was profound.  First, he turned over the idea that sickness was linked to personal sin. But secondly, he also embraced human suffering itself.  By taking all that the society of his day could throw at him, even to the point of death on a Roman instrument of torture, Jesus entered fully into the messiness of human life.  This is, I think, part of what it means to say that Jesus took the sins of the world onto himself.  He took the messiness of human suffering onto the Cross.  He allowed human messiness it to overwhelm him to the point of dying because of it. Human messiness, human weirdness, human suffering, human pride, human greed...all of it was nailed onto the Cross with Jesus.

And then?

And then Jesus transcended it.  The story of the Resurrection is the story of how God has the power to transcend and overcome all human messiness.  Through the Resurrection, God offers us a powerful symbol of the way life can be.  New life - life lived to the full - puts suffering and messiness in the past.  Notice how, in the days after the resurrection, Jesus offers forgiveness even to Peter who denied him three times.  There is no room for blame and finger pointing in the Resurrection Kingdom.  Instead, blame and finger pointing give way to forgiveness and understanding.  Peter who denied Jesus (and therefore contributed to his suffering) was offered forgiveness, and a job to do ("Feed my sheep").  Like his own mother-in-law, Peter finds himself restored through healing and forgiveness to his proper role in society.

By the way, "My mother in law fell down a wishing well last week.  I was amazed.  I never knew they worked" (Les Dawson)

Sorry...couldn't resist that one.

So what might we take from this story, and from Jesus' attitudes towards sickness, and from his attitude towards the messiness of human lives?

Of all people, Christians should understand that sin - human messiness - is endemic.

And of all people...Christians, like Christ, should be willing to offer forgiveness and healing, whenever sin is encountered.  We are people who should understand that everyone messes up - because we ourselves mess up, all the time.

My friends, I have to tell you something.  I love this church, and I love its people.  I love the commitment you have to supporting each other when you are sick, or to fundraising, or to working in the Cafe, or singing in the choir. I love the way that many of you reach out to those who struggle to make sense of their lives in our community. I want us to be the kind of community which accepts, unreservedly, without any surprise whatsoever, that all human beings are messy.  Like Jesus, I want us to be those who simply understand that none of us is perfect.  Every single one of us is striving to be better, but we will often fall, often stumble, often mess up.  When we watch someone else stumble, I want us to be the kind of community which says to itself "before I criticise that person, I need to walk mile in their shoes".

I want us to be the kind of community which continually, constantly, offers forgiveness, healing and understand to each other...and indeed to ourselves.  Let's be the kind of community which offers understanding to those whose choices in life - fed by all sorts of unimaginable stresses - lead them to make, what seem to us to be strange decisions.  Let's be those who, when we find someone falling over, reach down and pick them up.  Let's be those who get on with being the kind of loving, understanding community that Christ calls us to be.

There is no room in Jesus' Kingdom for blame.  Jesus didn't blame Simon's mother-in-law for her illness, nor did he blame all the sick and the lame who came to him for help.  He reached out, and touched them with love.  He offered her healing, and restoration to the role she was called to play in life.

And he calls us to do the same.


Sunday, January 22, 2012

What Price Unity?

Titus 2.1-11

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is a good week for us to be meeting together.  Although we are all Anglicans here - as far as I know - we are Anglicans from various and different traditions.  A little later we will participate in Benediction, during which some of us will believe with all our hearts that we are somehow even more in the presence of Christ than we are at other times.  Others of us will be slightly bemused, and see the ceremony of Benediction only as a metaphorical guide to prayer.  Under this one roof, to my certain knowledge, are gathering tonight people whose Christian faith is best described as Catholic.  Others, have evangelical backgrounds, but might now describe themselves as 'central'.  Others have an interest in Orthodoxy - myself included.  Some like their music positively ancient...I know one choir member at least who considers anything newer than Mozart to be dangerously modern.  Others take real joy in singing the latest anthems of living composers, or even the odd upbeat, rock 'n' roll chorus!

This, for me, is the heart of what it means to be Anglican.  We belong to a church which systematically and deliberately attempts to be a communion in which people of different opinion, styles and preferences can nevertheless gather under one roof...all declaring a common belief in Jesus Christ.  We don't always get that right - and clearly there are huge tensions between us over issues like sexuality and the consecration of women bishops.  (Isn't it interesting that the primary issues which divide us are usually about sex?)

For many years, the Churches Together movement has been a beacon of hope to those who lament the divisions in the church around the world.  But, unfortunately, after 30 or more years, the flame of the Churches Together movement is beginning to wane.  Those who have spent half a lifetime or more desperately praying for the visible Unity of Christ's Church have, in many places, begun to wonder whether God is deaf to their prayers...or perhaps whether God has a different plan altogether in mind.  There remains, of course, a hard core of ecumenicalists who work hard to bring churches together in common worship and action - and I take my hat off to them for their diligence and commitment.  There are some great examples of projects out there in which churches of all hues combine their resources, time, and people for the common task of building the Kingdom.  Perhaps the best local example is the Churches Homeless Action Group, which this year raised nearly £14,000 from the churches of the city at Christmas.  The college at which most of our priests are trained by this Diocese - STETS in Salisbury - is a course which brings Anglicans together with Methodists and URC trainees, to learn from each other's experiences.

But, these wonderful pieces of work remain the exception rather than the rule.  The church remains divided, across the world, because we seem unable to give each other the benefit of the doubt over a wide range of doctrinal and ecclesiological issues.  Should the church be ruled from Rome?  Women bishops?  Gay Bishops? Gay people?  Where does our authority spring from - the Bible, or Tradition, or Reason, or Experience, or a combination of any two or more of those four. Styles of liturgy, the place of Mary, praying to the Saints, whether or not to follow a lectionary, or simply preach on what the Spirit suggests.  Hymns or choruses?  Organs or guitars?  Robes or everyday clothes?  The real meaning of the Eucharist...a simple memorial, or a transubstantiated real presence of Jesus, whose flesh we really eat as spiritual food.

And that's just for starters.  I could go on for a very long time.  And I imagine that for the world outside these doors...those who have not chosen to worship with us tonight, the very real temptation must be to proclaim, with Shakespeare, 'a plague on all your houses!'

Into this maelstrom of confusion comes tonight's reading from Paul's Letter to Titus.  It's a very short letter - only three chapters long, covering just a couple of pages...and it often gets overlooked.  But on this Sunday during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, it has the capacity to speak volumes.

In the letter, Paul writes to Titus, whom he has appointed as the Bishop of the Island of Crete.  It is clear from Paul's text that he is very concerned about divisions which have already begun to erupt in the early Cretan church.  Paul describes the 'many rebellious people, idle talkers and deceivers' who, Paul says, 'must be silenced since they are upsetting whole families'. (Tit.1.10-11).  He goes on to describe them as those who 'profess God, but then deny him by their actions.  They are detestable, disobedient and unfit for any good work' (Ti.1.16)

What is Paul's remedy for this problem...this problem of rebellious factions?  His advice to Titus is essentially two fold:

First, as we heard in our reading, Paul encourages the Cretans to live Godly lives.  Men are to be 'temperate, serious, prudent, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance' (Ti. 2.2).  Paul then goes on, in the context of his time, to give others lists of good behaviour for women, (young and old), young men and even slaves.  Much of those lists might make us wince a little today....although I quite like the idea of young women having to be submissive to their husbands! (Ironic Joke!!).  But the underlying point which Paul makes is clear:  being a Christian means living in a way which becomes 'an ornament to the doctrine of God our Saviour' (Ti 2.10).  Our lives should be those which look like polished jewels - ornaments - on the crown of faith.  Put another way, as the Apostle James wrote in his letter, "Faith without works is dead" (Ja.2.26)

A Christian will be judged - by God and other people - not by what they say or profess, but by the kind of lives they lead.  Remember Paul's words to Titus...there are those who 'profess to know God, but they deny him by their actions'. (Ti.1.16)

Paul's second point to Titus is the most important of all, in the context of a discussion about Christian Unity. He says this, in chapter 3 of the letter:  "Avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless." (Ti.3.9)  Paul goes on, even more forcefully..."have nothing more to do with anyone who causes divisions, since you know that such a person is perverted and sinful, being self-condemned". (Ti 3.11)

Wow.  Those are strong words.  "Have nothing more to do with anyone who causes divisions.  They are perverted and sinful."

These then should be our watchwords when dealing with any other Christian.  True Christians are judged by the kinds of lives they lead.  Paul encourages his readers to be those who are 'obedient, ready for every good work, speaking evil of no-one, avoiding quarrelling, being gentle and showing courtesy to everyone." (Ti.3.2).

That's why we are here tonight.  Even though some of us might have personal theological qualms about, for example, the ceremony of Benediction, out of gentleness and courtesy, we will kneel in contemplation before the Host when it is displayed, open to what God may show us through the practices of others.  

That is why we are Anglicans:  because out of a desire not to speak evil of anyone, and to avoid quarrelling, we will continue to worship side by side with people with whom we might profoundly disagree, for example, over whether or not a Priest or a Bishop can be a woman.

That is, ultimately, according to Paul, what defines us as Christians.  We are willing to lay aside quarrel and dissent, finding ways to respect and accommodate each other - so that we can focus on the heart of our calling - to be 'ornaments to the doctrine of God our Saviour' (Ti 2.10).

May we discover what it means to put our love for God, and our love for neighbour, above and before any doctrinal dissent.  May we, by our lives, be ornaments for God...those whose attractive, loving, gentle lives of service draw others into a living faith in Jesus Christ our Saviour.

If we could all do that, I believe that the issue of Christian Unity would quite simply take care of itself.