Thursday, September 24, 2015

He who is not against us is for us.

Mark 9. 38-41

One of the joys of St Faith’s, is the number of visitors we receive on a daily basis.  I have rarely been in the church during the week, when a visitor hasn't shown up from some corner of the world.  Interestingly, one of the most frequent questions they ask is ‘What kind of church is this?’

As our weekday welcomers will tell you, it is not always easy to explain what an ‘Anglican’ church is – especially to someone from outside the UK.  It’s quite funny to watch people’s faces when you say ‘Well, basically, we’re a catholic church’.  When you say that, a light of recognition dawns….most people, anywhere in the world, recognise the word ‘Catholic’.  They have an image in their head of certain kinds of robes, certain ceremonies.  Everyone has heard of the Pope.  

But then…you deliver the ‘killer fact’ and watch their face become all puzzled again…”But we don’t follow the Pope…we have an elected church government”.  Confusion reigns!  “How can you be catholic, but not follow the Pope?”

To some people, it really matters what kind of church they are in.  In fact some people have been taught from an early age that their kind of church is the only true church.  I remember, as a child, having very strange feelings about walking into another kind of church. 

In my case, in my little Devon village, it was the URC church down the road.  It was weird!  It didn’t feel like a church.  They didn’t have stained glass windows.  The pulpit was in the centre of the building.  The organ was at the back.  There weren’t any memorials on the walls.  Where was the font?  It was all very distressing.  But worst of all, I found myself asking, ‘are these people actually Christians at all?’

Over the years, I have had the blessing and privilege of worshipping in a vast array of churches – all over the world.  Some of them have also struggled to see me as a Christian.  That won’t surprise those of you who know me well…but actually it had nothing to do with my personality!  Rather, some churches in foreign lands have simply never heard of us Anglicans. 

Take Romania, for example.  I first visited Romania soon after the fall of Communism.  The Communists had very effectively squashed all the churches of Romania, between 1945 and 1989. By 1990, when I arrived with a delegation from the YMCA, the only churches left standing after Ceausescu were the Orthodox Churches.  Orthodoxy has some practices which you and I would find very strange indeed...  

For a start, there is the screen of icons around the altar.  They effectively create a ‘holy of holies’ where only the priest may enter to celebrate the sacred mysteries.  Communion is given on a long silver spoon, so that the body of Christ cannot be defiled by being touched with human hands.  Services are routinely three hours long – with some worshippers coming and going throughout for their favourite bits.  As you know, Orthodox worshippers put great store in icons – believing them to be windows to the heavenly realm.  They may ask Saints in heaven to pray for them to God – because, after all, they are nearer to God.

But for me, a member of the Church of England, the National Church, THE church (as far as I was concerned) the strangest thing of all was to be treated by my new Romanian friends with a huge amount of suspicion.  Many of them wondered whether I could be described as a Christian at all.  They guessed that an ‘Anglican’ was another religion all together…perhaps I was like a Muslim, or a Hindu or something.  It took some very patient work to listen to each other, and to work out that despite our differences, we were both Christians.

For me, there was a real joy in this encounter.  I learned a great deal from my new Orthodox friends.  They taught me new ways of seeing faith, and of understanding God. 

For example – and it is only one example – I learned a new theological idea, known as ‘deification’ or Theosis.  The Orthodox Church teaches, like the Anglican and Catholic churches, that we are made in the image of God.  Like us, they believe that human sinfulness has distorted and spoiled that image.  Like us, they believe that through Jesus it is possible for that sinfulness to be removed…and for us to be restored to a right relationship with God.  But then, Orthodoxy goes one step further. 
Orthodox Christians believe that it is possible for us to attain such a state of Union with God, that we can become ‘deified’ – or like gods (with a small ‘g’) ourselves.   The Orthodox Saint Athanasius said it most succinctly:  “Jesus was made incarnate so that we might become gods” (again with a small ‘g’).

Now that’s a fascinating idea isn’t it?  It means that the Christian life is much more than a simple transaction -  we sin, Jesus dies, we repent, God forgives us.  The notion of ‘Theosis’ invites us on a journey of ever increasing holiness.  Theosis offers us the possibility of becoming so much like Jesus, day by day, that we can even obtain the condition of being a kind of god ourselves.  Of course, this process doesn’t happen overnight.  Orthodox saints are those who after a lifetime of prayer, repentance, self-sacrifice, and daily holiness are considered to have become like Jesus in their soul. 

I wonder what you think about that idea?  Does it encourage you?  Does it make you wonder whether, with God’s help, you too could embark on a process of becoming so much like Jesus that you might even be described as a kind of god?  If you are encouraged, or challenged, then that’s the point….that’s the point of exchanging ideas across different churches.  That’s the point of ‘ecumenism’.  That’s the point of movements like ‘Churches Together’.

As we saw in today’s Gospel reading, the Disciples were rather suspicious of anyone who wasn’t in their camp.  They came running to Jesus…”Teacher, Teacher…there’s this fellow over there who is casting out demons in your name!  Help!  Panic!  We tried to stop him….”

But Jesus is much more relaxed about things.  “Don’t try to stop him” he said.  “For no-one who does a deed of power in my name will soon afterwards be able to speak evil of me.  Whoever is not against us is for us”.

Jesus, it seems, was an ecumenist.  He understood that an infinite God could be revealed in an infinite number of ways.  There are many Christians today who get terribly worried about the vast range of churches that there are in the world.  To some extent, I share their concern.  There are certainly some churches who I think are barely recognisable as Christian – especially any who try to persuade their followers to sign over the deeds of their houses in return for false promises of blessings from above! 
But, by and large, the infinite variety of churches on this planet are, themselves, a reflection of the infinite complexity and depth of our God.  We can, and should, listen to each other.  Each of us has been given something unique and precious.  Each of us, if you like, has our own small window into heaven.  By sharing our perspectives, and learning from each other, we have the possibility of flooding our churches with the full light of heaven.

Therefore, I welcome the chance to work with other churches in this Town.  I welcome the contemporary, modern worship of the Family Church or the Portsdown Community Church at the Beacon.  I welcome the radical ecumenism of the URC, a church created out of a vision that it was a church born to die – when all the churches of the world came together as one, United, Re-formed church.  I welcome the historic rootedness of the Catholic church, who preserve and hand on the traditions and beliefs of the ages.  I welcome the radical social agenda of the Methodists, born among the working classes of England. 

And I hope that we Anglicans can add our distinctiveness to the whole too.  I hope that with our innate sense of ceremony, our wonderful hymnody and musical traditions, our profoundly rich liturgies, and our inclusive vision of parishes – that we too can offer something to our sisters and brothers of other churches. 

He who is not against us is for us.


Saturday, September 12, 2015

Take up your Cross

Mark 8: 31-end.

HEALTH WARNING…the first four paragraphs are a parody…to be read in a phoney American accent!

I have great pleasure in announcing that from today, we are changing our name.  From now on, we will be known as the "Havant Branch of the Church of the Blessings of the Almighty Saviour Jesus ".  Why is this? Well let me tell you, brothers and sisters. Last night, I had a vision! The Lord God Almighty spoke to me from the heavens. He said to me...

"Rector", he said, "Rector - I have good news for you! I want to shower you and your congregation with abundant blessings. (Praise the Lord!) I am going to make yours a church of millionaires! You are going to become so wealthy, so full of miracles, so full of powerful acts of God Almighty, that the whole of Havant will flock to your doors!

All your congregation has to do is to show that they trust me. They simply have to sign over the deeds to their houses to the church. Then I will know that they trust me. Then I will bless them with riches from heaven. Then they will become millionaires, and all their problems will disappear". (Praise the Lord!)

So, my brothers and sisters, our Treasurer, Sister Shelley, will be standing by, at the ready, with forms for you to sign. Just sign over the deeds of your house to the church, and the Lord God Almighty, in the glorious name of Jesus, will give you your heart's desire! A-men, brothers and sisters. A-men!


It's a bit frightening to think that there really are churches like that in the world.  They feed on people's misery. They create an image of the world which is so pumped up with future hope, that gullible people really do believe that God is in the business of making them wealthy...but they are tricked into making their preachers wealthy instead.  Hmmm…perhaps I’m in the wrong branch of the church?!

According to today’s Gospel text, modern-day prosperity preachers are not the first people to have got the wrong end of the stick. This text comes at a pivotal point in Mark's gospel. Up until this chapter, which comes right in the middle of the gospel, Jesus' disciples have seen him doing all sorts of amazing things. He drives out evil spirits, heals and feeds the multitudes; he’s even walked on water. But now, in this passage, the whole trajectory of Jesus' life and ministry pivots, towards Jerusalem, and to the incomprehensible scandal of the Cross.

Verse 31: "He began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected...and be killed".(Mk 8:31). You can just imagine Peter's reaction can't you? He probably thinks that Jesus has gone nuts.  Perhaps the Messiah has been working too hard?  So he rebukes Jesus. Matthew's gospel gives us the words that Mark doesn't record: "Never, Lord" he said. "This shall never happen to you!" (Matt 16:22)

But Jesus is adamant. He tells Peter off with really startling words: "Get behind me, Satan!" Pretty stern stuff.  And then Jesus goes on, in verse 33: "You are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things". In other words, "You are thinking like a man, but by now you should be starting to think as God see things from God's perspective".

Anyone confronted with the idea of suffering might well react as Peter reacts. After all, God can heal, can't he? Jesus' many miracles are proof that God does not delight in suffering.  And yet, somehow, for reasons we might only be able to guess at, suffering enters into God's plan for humanity.  It's there. It was there for Jesus, who suffered on the cross.  It was there for the many whom Jesus encountered but did not heal.  Suffering, somehow, is part of the plan. Christians who are fixated on the Jesus of the miracles have missed out on the suffering Jesus of the Cross.

But that is precisely whom we are confronted with in this text. Jesus had to was part of the divine plan.  But Jesus says that suffering is part of the package for us too..."anyone who wants to follow me must deny himself, and take up his cross".(Mark 8:34

Let's notice that there are, in fact, two elements to Jesus stark statement: we are called first to 'deny self', and secondly, to 'take up our cross'. Let's look at those in turn.

First - what does it mean to 'deny self'?

To deny self, when you think about it, is actually about putting others first.  It's a way of living that always looks out for other people. It's a way of living which never asks "what's in it for me?" but rather "what's in it for my neighbours, and for the Kingdom of God?".  Think about this:  if Jesus had asked himself 'what's in it for me?' before embarking on his ministry, he would never have got beyond his baptism.  We too are called to live that live generously…

…And to live lightly upon the earth.  The son of man had nowhere to lay his head.  To deny self, is also about learning to let go of the things we shackle ourselves with – learning that true contentment is not found in great wealth, but in great relationships, with God and neighbour.  There’s a saying among a certain group of rich people which indicates something of the contemporary mindset about wealth:   “He who dies with the most toys, wins”. 

Nothing of course could be further from the truth.  “You fool”, says God in Jesus parable of the farmer with massive barns.  “This very night, your life will be required of you”.  You can’t take any of it with you.  Jesus says:  “Deny yourself.  Build up treasure that thieves cannot break in and steal.  Build up treasure for heaven”.

Secondly, what did Jesus mean by saying we have to take up our cross?

A while ago, I spent time with a parishioner in my previous parish who had become very frail – let’s call her Lucy.   Lucy had spent all her life serving others through the church. She had been at coffee mornings and fundraisers, and served on the PCC, and made endless cups of tea. She had truly denied herself for others.  And yet, Lucy now found herself frail, bed-bound, and unable to serve others anymore. She even had to rely on others to help her to the bathroom.

Lucy’s body was failing her.  But her mind was as sharp as a razor – and she was a thinker.  She said something very profound to me.  She said "perhaps God is teaching me that there was still a bit of pride in me.  I’m learning that I need to let others serve me for a change. Perhaps I'm learning that in the end, we all must rely on God, and on other people.  That none of us can exist in isolation."

I was intensely moved by what Lucy said.  After a life-time of Christian faith God was still teaching her something deep, something profound, about our need for each other, and for God.  There was, for Lucy at least, a purpose in her suffering.  She learned to gladly take up her cross, for what it would teach her and others.

Jesus own suffering clearly had purpose too. But I find it interesting that the Gospels themselves don't provide a definitive answer to why Jesus had to suffer. The task of interpretation is one that was left to later writers, like St Paul - and other great thinkers of the Church.  All that Mark says on the subject, in today's reading, is that Jesus taught his disciples "that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering" (Mark 8:31). The task of working out why is something that Jesus leaves to his Church. We continue to grapple with it...just as we grapple with the reasons for our own suffering, or the suffering of martyrs across the centuries, and even now in other lands.

We continue to grapple - but we also continue to trust...that denying self, and taking up our own cross - participating in our own suffering and the suffering of the world is an essential, central message that is right at the heart of the Gospel.

May you come to know the power of God that is often revealed in suffering. May you come to know the power of denying self, and taking up the cross that is offered to you.  May you come to know that God's power is so often revealed in and through weakness - our own weakness, as well as the weakness of those we encounter.

And it’s alright…you don’t have to sign over the deeds of your house to Shelley!


Friday, September 4, 2015

Children and Dogs - the Syrian Woman

Mark 7: 24-37  and James 2.1-17

Insults. I like insults. I confess it. There is nothing quite so pleasing to an old cynic like me than a well-crafted insult.

Take, for example, the anecdotal tale about Sir Winston Churchill. Once, at a party, he is said to have been approached by one Elizabeth Braddock, who exclaimed "Mr Churchill, you are drunk!" Churchill is said to have replied, "Madam, you are ugly. However, come the morning, I will be sober but you will still be ugly."Priceless, isn't it?

In my own family, we have two favourite expressions. If one of us does something stupid (usually me) we get called a 'plant-pot'. Don't ask me just works. "You plant-pot!".

But these are all in good fun. Everyone understands the rules...and no-one is offended. We all know, though, don't we, that insults can easily cross the line between gentle playful fun, and downright hurt and offence.

Certain words have the power to wound...for all sorts of reasons. Which is why it is quite surprising that in today's Gospel we should hear Jesus describing the non-Jewish races around him as 'dogs'. In the Middle East, calling someone a dog has always been a gross insult. And yet, when a Syro-Phoenician woman comes to Jesus to ask for healing for her daughter, Jesus' response is 'it’s not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs'.

Jesus appears to be saying that his ministry, his power, his gifts, are meant only for the people of Israel - not for anyone else.

What a shock! What an insult! To the woman in question, it would have been like me saying that only people of my race can come to this church.  What Jesus said was, on the face of it, a racist statement.

But when we read the Bible, we have to be very very careful. It is too easy to take individual quotes from pages of the Bible, and then to use them to justify our own position on something. There are three words which must always be in our minds when we read the Scriptures: context, context, context!

Only a few pages earlier, in verse 8 of Chapter 3, Mark reports that many people came to hear Jesus from all around the area surrounding Galilee - including the towns of Tyre and Sidon which were well known Gentile cities. There is no sign that Jesus tried to send those Gentiles fact he preached God's good news to them as much as to the Jews from Jerusalem and Galilee.

In Chapter 5, Jesus heals the man called Legion, who was said to have many demons inside of him. This man was also a Gentile... living in a region which kept the pigs into which the demons were sent, over a cliff. (As I'm sure you know, Jews would never keep pigs).

At the end of Mark's Gospel, (16:15) Jesus commands his disciples to "Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation".

So the immediate context of Mark's gospel tells us that Jesus was happy to preach to non-Jews, happy to heal them.  He clearly wanted all peoples to know about God.

And that theme is repeated throughout the Gospels. There is a wider context too. John's Gospel, chapter 4, records Jesus' conversation with a Samaritan woman. That was an astounding thing for Jesus to do.  Men of Jesus' time would hardly ever have spoken to a woman in public...let alone a divorced Samaritan woman!

So - let's break down the evidence. First we've got ample scriptural evidence that Jesus was anything but a racist. But then, we've got scriptural and historical evidence that the people all around Jesus pretty much hated each other. So...with that evidence before us...what are we to make of Jesus statement about children and dogs?

Again, I want to drive you back to context. Do you remember what Jesus was up to in the earlier pages of Mark's Gospel? Do you remember how the crowds followed him for all the wrong reasons? Do you remember his theological battles with the Pharisees and Sadducees? He is opposed by his own religious leaders, doubted by his family, followed often for all the wrong reasons by the crowd, accompanied by disciples who only partially understand.

At the beginning of this particular story – about the Syro-Phoenician woman, Mark tells us that after all these battles, Jesus went off to the city of Tyre - some distance from Galilee. He entered a house and, according to Mark, "did not want anyone to know it". Mark presents us with a Jesus in retreat...trying to get away from it all for a while...needing to get his head together in a quiet place without crowds all around him asking for another miracle.

Then along comes this woman - a Gentile - who asks Jesus for another miracle, a miracle of healing for her daughter. Weighed down by the difficulties of his mission, tired, worn-out, it seems to me that Jesus actually appears to snap.  One can imagine him, frustrated that he is not getting through to his own people, saying to himself "I need to focus on Israel...I need to get them to understand before we can take this message any further". He gropes for a metaphor. Tired, he turns to the woman and sighs "First let the children eat all they want...".

Notice the use of the word "first". Jesus' reply doesn't exclude the Gentiles...he simply states that as a Jew, from a nation of Jews, through whom God has chosen to bring salvation to the world - Jesus needs to focus on the Jews first.

Then comes the difficult line: "for it is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to the dogs". It's a metaphor. Jesus is trying to soften his automatic response.  In fact, although we translate the word here as 'dogs', scholars tell us that Jesus used a word which referred to household pets. It was a diminutive form of the word for dogs. A playful word. More like a puppy than a fully grown Rottweiler!

But the woman is more than a match for the tired, worn-out Jesus. And she's desperate to get Jesus to change his mind. So she spars with him. "Yes Lord", she replies...accepting for a moment the idea of the Gentiles as being his second priority. "Yes Lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs".

You can almost see Jesus laughing at this point. You can see him acknowledging that he was wrong to not give his help immediately...and smiling that the woman had so cleverly turned his own metaphor against him.  Mark tells us that then he told her "For such a reply, you may go: the demon has left your daughter".

So what have we learned from this story - and from this bit of bible-study we've been doing together?

First, we've seen something of Jesus' humanity. We sometimes forget that Jesus was human, as much as he was God. He felt the cold, like we do. He felt hunger, like we do. He felt tired, and stressed, and worn-out like we do. And, like we do, when he was tired and stressed, he was capable of getting things wrong.

There is no sin involved in getting something wrong. Jesus was not sinning when he thought that he should not help this woman. He was simply, for a moment, in error. For Jesus to have sinned, he would have had to continue in his error, after it had been made clear to him.

The same goes for us. It is not sinful in itself to hold a wrong opinion. But it would be sinful to continue steadfastly holding that opinion in the face of revealed truth.  When strong science, or  the Holy Spirit, reveal to us that an opinion we hold is simply wrong, we sin when we refuse to change our mind – to repent, to turn around, to face in the new direction of truth.

Secondly, I think this story reminds us to have some patience with each other when we sometimes get things wrong.  It’s good to recognise that we are all human… that we can all mis-speak from time to time...and being always ready to forgive and move on in our relationships with one another.

How different that approach is from the approach of so many in our society. One wrong word, one misplaced phrase can be quoted back to us for the rest of our lives. Families get broken up and destroyed because of a wrong word at the wrong time...because some people seem to almost enjoy feeling insulted. They revel in it...and take a sort of warped pleasure at being at war. Nations go to war with each other because of an insult cast by one politician towards another. Just think, for example, what harm was done by George Bush when he referred to a whole family of nations as being part of an 'axis of evil'. Words do matter. Words can hurt. But forgiveness is stronger. Forgiveness is holy. Forgiveness is worth pursuing.

Finally, I need to say this:  there is a final sharp irony about this story being read on this particular Sunday.  The Syro-Phoenician woman came from an area of the Middle East which is broadly the same as modern-day Syria.  As we sit in comfort around our Sunday dinner tables today, perhaps we will spare a thought for the modern-day Syrians…including those who are walking from Budapest to Germany at this very moment, and those who have set off in leaky tubs across the Mediterranean.  Could it perhaps be said of us, the children of Europe, that we are in danger of only throwing scraps to the poor ‘dogs’ of Syria?

If that is indeed what we think, in the face of all the teaching of Scripture about welcoming the stranger and giving protection to the alien in our land, then we sin.  And God help us if we treat the children of Syria like dogs.  

Let me conclude by letting the words of the the Letter of James ring in our ears:  "What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?  Can faith save you?  If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace:keep warm and eat your fill', and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?  So faith by itself, it it has no works, is dead."