Thursday, April 29, 2021

Leading through serving...

The Humble Servant

John 13.16

“Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.”

My grandmother, long since departed, was born in the early years of the 20th century.  All her life, she worked as a cleaner – a profession of which she was very proud.  Everything had to be neat, tidy and beautifully cared-for.  With a tin of brasso in one hand, and a polishing cloth in the other, her home was always immaculate – every surface polished, and everything in its place.  (It’s more than possible that my own slight obsession with tidiness was inherited from my Grandma.  I think it’s probably her fault that poor old Sandra has to suffer in relative silence when I moan about the state of the Vestry, or insist that the Altar needs to be moved by half an inch!)

            Like many young girls at the turn of the last century, my Grandmother’s profession as a cleaner started at a very young age.  At 14, she was packed off from her little Brixham home to a big house in Torquay, where, in her words, she ‘went into service’.  She started by raking out and setting fire-places for the whole house, long before the days of central heating.  The rest of her days were spent scrubbing and washing and sweeping and cleaning.  In return for her ‘service’, she was given room and board and a small amount of pocket money – which she brought home to her parents on her occasional day off.  My grandmother was, in fact, a servant in the time when we still knew what servant-hood was. 

Around that same time, I believe that the typical Rectory would have had five or six servants to look after the Rector and his family.  (Ah!  Those were the days!)  These days, we engage professional cleaners, or gardeners, or other household professions for those tasks we can’t do for ourselves.  But they are not servants.  They are ‘trades-people’ – and there is equity between us.  We all play our part in keeping society going, each one contributing what they do best to the good of the whole.  On the whole, I think ours is a superior system…but it does mean that we have somewhat forgotten the force of the metaphor of a servant, when Jesus uses it.

            Servants were, of course, a well-defined class in Jesus’ time.  Usually, they were actual slaves – who had no choice about the job they were required to do.  In fact, whenever Jesus talks about ‘servants’ in the New Testament, the original word he used was ‘slave’.  There were clear lines of delineation, between slaves and their master.  It was very clear who was in charge, and whose rules were to be followed.  To be a servant – a slave – was to be one of the humblest members of society. 

            It was, for example, the job of a servant to wash the feet of anyone who entered their Master’s house.  First century roadways were full of muck, including horse and donkey muck, of course.  And everyone wore open-toed sandals.  So, washing someone’s feet was no happy task!  Which is why Jesus’ disciples were so scandalised by their Master being so insistent on washing their feet, before the Last Supper.  It was an act of complete abasement.  It was the worst job of the moment.  It was the job of the humblest slave.

             And yet this is what Jesus taught his disciples.  He taught them that to be the humblest of servants was their calling in life.  This was what he called them to: not power, authority, command and mastery.  But service.  Or in its Latin-based equivalent:  ministry.

            It does me no harm at all to be reminded from time to time that I am called to be your servant!  Of course, some of that service is expressed through the giving of leadership and teaching – which feels rather paradoxical, to be honest.  But leadership which is based in the concept of ‘servant-hood’ is a very different kind of leadership than that which is based in the concept of being a ‘Master’.  I lead you, to the best of my ability, as an act of service.  My motivation is your growth, and your thriving.  Someone who leads from the view-point of a Master may be said to be seeking to feather their own nest, or to advance only their own desires.

            It is for that very reason that Government leaders are also called ‘Ministers’.  The leadership of a nation should never be about gaining ‘mastery’ or power.  Neither should it be about the ‘feathering of one’s own nest’.  We may well ask whether any politician who seeks a form of ‘kingship’ as a result of their elevation to power is really suited to be the kind of servant-leader that the job of a minister, or even a ‘prime minister’ requires.

            Jesus tells us, in today’s Gospel, that a servant is not greater than their Master.  For a politician, that means remembering always that the electorate is their Master.  For a Christian, it means never failing to heed the teaching of our Master, Jesus himself. 

Everything we do, in the service of others or of God, must be done within the framework that Jesus himself lays down.  So when Jesus tells us that forgiveness is the route to salvation, we must learn to forgive.  When Jesus warns us that greed is not the pathway to joy, then we must learn to give things up.  When Jesus teaches us that suffering is the route to healing, we must take him at his word.

            As servants of the Most High God, and ministers of Jesus Christ, we are all called to embrace the radical, servant-leadership that he himself models for us.  For if it’s good enough for our master, it’s good enough for us slaves.  Amen.   



Sunday, April 25, 2021

Is Jesus the ONLY way?

Acts 4.5-12 and John 10.1-10

To watch this sermon, please click here:

Believe it or not, we have now laboured and suffered together, you and I, for a little over 6 years.  (I took up this post in February 2015).  I acknowledge that you have done most of the suffering!  I’m quite certain that most of what I’ve said in that time, from this pulpit, has filtered only into your subconscious.  But there is one mantra which I have repeated SO many times, that I hope you’ve all got it by now.  It’s my mantra about how to read the Bible.  I call it the ‘three Cs’ of Bible reading.  So, let’s see if I’m right.  Tell me…what are the Three Cs of Bible reading?  Context.  Context.  Context.

My message has been that when we tackle any portion of Scripture, we must bear three contexts in mind.  The first is the context of the original story.  The second is the context of the writer of the story – sometimes decades, sometimes centuries later.  The third and final context is our context.  What is going on in our world, in our lives, that is affected by this story?

Today we are confronted by two very bold claims, made by St Peter, on trial before the Jewish Leaders, and then by Jesus, as recorded in John.  These are bold claims of exclusivity for the Christian faith. 

In our first reading, from Acts 4, Peter says ‘There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved’.  Then, in our Gospel reading, Jesus warns the Pharisees that he is the only ‘gate for the sheep’, and that anyone who enters into the sheepfold (that is, the Kingdom of Heaven) by any other route is a ‘thief and a robber’.

These are bold claims indeed.  But before we rush to condemn the believers of all other religions to eternal damnation, let’s use our tool of the Three Cs.

The context for both Peter and Jesus was a context of Roman military occupation.  Augustus Caesar (who ruled at the time of Jesus’ birth) believed that he literally had come from heaven to earth.  Caesar claimed that he was the son of God incarnate on earth. He used skilful propaganda to spread his message. Sound-bites like: “Caesar is Lord!” and “There is no other name under heaven by which people can be saved than that of Caesar.” He also had a 12-day celebration of his birth called the “Advent of Caesar.” You could even give him offerings so that your sins could be forgiven. He was, according to his own propaganda, “King of Kings and Lord of Lords.”

Do you recognise these phrases?  I’m sure you do.  These were political catchphrases of the day which Jesus and his disciples deliberately subverted, to spread the message that the true Kingdom of God would be nothing like the militaristic, greedy and violent rule of Rome.  Both Jesus, and then Peter, were making a political statement, as well as a spiritual one.

By the time that the Scriptures recording those events were being written down, Rome’s violent rule had progressed even to the tearing down of the Temple (in the year 70) and to the violent destruction of Jerusalem itself.  The Jews had been scattered across the known world, forced into becoming refugees – at situation which would last until the 20th century.  The context of the writers of these Scriptures was therefore even more political than those of the speakers they recorded.  They wrote to offer hope to the persecuted and frightened followers of Jesus of Nazareth, that their faith was not in vain.  They wanted to encourage them to hold fast, even against the terror and power of Rome.

And what about our context?  Well, many of the same brutal forces which propelled the Roman Emperors are still in operation today.  Violence is still used as a means of imposing the will of the powerful.  Political slogans are still lapped up enthusiastically by the unthinking popular crowd.  Consumerism is a stronger force then it ever was for Rome.  Not only do we import luxury goods from foreign lands, just as the Romans did, we also want those goods to be made as cheaply as possible, driving millions of low-paid workers into slave-like conditions. 

So, we are wise if we understand Jesus’ claim to being the only gateway of salvation to be at least partly a political claim.  But what about its spiritual dimensions?  Is Jesus saying that his gate is the only way to heaven, as well?

In his context, he probably was.  His ‘Kingdom of God’ stood in direct opposition to the other dominant religious ideas of his day.  Judaism had become corrupt, and bound by life-choking legalism, and wasteful animal sacrifice.  Rome’s claim that the Emperor was the path to spiritual salvation (as well as economic salvation) was clearly nonsense.  None of the other religious ideas of the time were free from notions of legalism, control by powerful elites, and animal (or even human) sacrifice.  Jesus was providing the only path to God, in his context, which didn’t employ violence or greed and corruption at the heart of their method.

But, reading these Scriptures into our context, can we really state with confidence that Jesus would condemn to hell the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, or the Dali Lama?  Would he condemn any number of other peace-loving, violence-rejecting, consumerism-fighting, resource-sharing, enlightenment-seeking religious people of our day, of our context?   After a life-time of reading and studying his words, I honestly can’t believe that he would.

I am a Christian largely because I was born into a Christian family, in a nominally Christian country.  But if I’d been born in Tibet, or India, or Mecca, the spirit of God would have undoubtedly reached out to me through other gates, other paths. I would have been drawn towards other religions which honour the same core principles of the Kingdom of God – peace, selflessness, love, forgiveness, and respect for all creation. 

For me, Jesus Christ remains the greatest, clearest and most noble expression of what a spirit-filled life looks like.  He is the author and perfecter of my faith.  I’m glad and honoured to own the title of being a Christ-ian.  But, like you I hope, I also understand the context of the Scriptures we’ve inherited, the context in which they were written, and the context in which we read them.  Such an understanding means that I must take the claims of exclusivity with the pinch of salt which I believe all thinking Christians must also do.


Thursday, April 22, 2021

For England and St George?

To watch this sermon, please click here:

Tomorrow, the 23rd of April, is of course St George’s Day.  Given the patriotic sentiments which are naturally abroad in the nation at the present time, I thought it would be interesting to explore this theme.  Let’s start by asking what we know about St George himself.  The answer is ‘precious little’!  In fact, in the year 494, Pope Gelasius I stated that George was among those saints (and I quote) “whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose actions are known only to God”. 

Further research tells me that for every story or legend about St George, there are two or three others which tell a different story.  But here’s a reasonable summary of what we may know about him:

George was probably a Syrian, and a Roman soldier living in Palestine at the beginning of the fourth century. He was martyred at the town of Lod, south-east of Tel Aviv in about the year 304.  This was the time of the persecutions of Diocletian (the same persecutions which ended the life of St Faith of Aquitaine).  George became known throughout the East as ‘The Great Martyr’. There were churches in England dedicated to him before the Norman conquest, from as far back as 704 in Dorset, for example.

The story of his slaying the dragon may be due to his being mistaken in religious paintings (icons) for St Michael, himself usually depicted wearing armour; or it may be a mistaken identification with Perseus’s slaying of the sea monster, a myth also associated with Lod.

George is, of course, not only England’s Patron Saint.  He is also the Patron of Ethiopia – a fact of which I love to remind white supremacists, when they try to appropriate George to their warped cause.  He is also the Patron Saint of Portugal, and of the Mediterranean Islands of Malta and Gozo. George is the Patron Saint of the Orthodox Church, whose depictions of him in icons are legendary.  The famous flag of St George – the red cross on a white background – was first conceived by the city-state of Genoa, in Italy. 

It is for me, an encouraging idea that England has chosen, as its Patron saint, such a multi-cultural figure as St George.  The other major countries of the British Isles are rather more parochial in their outlook.  Andrew was chosen for Scotland quite probably because Scotland was claimed to be the final resting place of that great Apostle.  Patrick was a Briton, but he did a fantastic job of converting the Irish to Christianity.  David was a Welshman, indeed a Bishop of Wales.  But England?  Well we used to have a Patron Saint who was a a native of Britain – namely Edward the Confessor, the last King of Wessex, who died in 1066.  St Thomas of Canterbury was another prime candidate for a while.  But they were all replaced by George, the warrior saint, who was venerated around the world, and a truly international symbol.  It was, in fact, only during the reign of Edward VI, in 1552, that George ascended fully to the status of England’s only and official Patron Saint.

Another irony of St George is the extent to which he is venerated by Muslims.  George features quite large in ancient Islamic texts, and he is still the subject of many prayers among Muslim people.  There’s a lovely story of when William Dalrymple visited the Shrine of St George in Beit Jala, in the West Bank, in 1995.  He asked the priest at the shrine "Do you get many Muslims coming here?" The priest replied, "We get hundreds! Almost as many as the Christian pilgrims. Often, when I come in here, I find Muslims all over the floor, in the aisles, up and down!”.

So, let’s review what we know.  George was a Syrian, and Roman soldier, who died in Israel.  He is venerated by both Christians and Muslims, by the Orthodox Church, by an African nation, across the Middle East and by other major European powers.  So when people wonder why I proudly fly the Cross of St George from the tower of this church building, I tell them this:  to appropriate George as some kind of narrow English nationalist is a remarkably ignorant thing to do.  It’s a laughable example of an own-goal!  George represents one of the most multicultural saints that I can think of!  He is loved and venerated across the world, from Russian to Africa, all across Europe and the Middle East, and (thanks to the Portuguese) across much of South America too.  He is a symbol of universal brotherhood, and the battle against the dragons of our weaker human natures which seek to corral us into tribes, locked in hatred and mistrust against each other.

And let's remember something important about all saints, to whose example we look:  no-one ever became a Saint by looking out for ‘Number One’.  No-one ever became a Saint by putting up borders and failing to offer aid.  No-one ever became a Saint by hoarding personal wealth, or failing to feed the hungry.  St George stands as an exemplar of saint-hood…someone whose story embraces all humanity, and whose life was poured out in sacrifice.  May we all have the courage to follow such an example as St George!


Thursday, April 15, 2021

Divine Reading

 I wonder if you’ve ever heard the phrase ‘Lectio Divina’.  It’s Latin – and it translates literally as ‘Divine Reading’.  It’s a practice from ancient times, of (essentially) reading Scripture very slowly, carefully and prayerfully, to allow each word, phrase and theological concept the time to settle into one’s soul: time for the Spirit of God to commune with the Spirit of Man. 

Today, we are confronted with a blizzard of theological ideas, from the mouth of John the Baptiser.  The context is that people have been quizzing John about this new prophet who has appeared on the scene – this Jesus of Nazareth fellow.  Who is he? (the crowd is wondering).  Is he the Messiah that John foretold?

In response, John speaks in phrases and words which come at us like bullets from a gun.  Frankly, without taking the time to read them carefully, they can wash over us…like some of my more theological sermons!  We need to take time to fully absorb the importance of what John is saying. 

Lectio Divina gives us a simple, practical tool for doing just that.  Divine Reading has been a practice of the church since at least the time of St Benedict (in the 6th Century).  It fell out of fashion in some quarters, but in the 20th and 21st Century it has been somewhat revived as a useful, spiritual tool.  The Second Vatican Council recommended its revival.  Pope Benedict re-affirmed the idea at the start of the 21st Century.  And it’s a technique taught by Spiritual Directors and Guides all over the world.

Put simply, Lectio Divina – Divine Reading – is a four stage process:

1)    reading/listening

2)    meditation

3)    prayer

4)    and contemplation.

Let’s just unpack those a bit:

First, choose a text to focus on.

For example the chosen text can be from Eucharistic liturgy, daily prayers or affirmations, or from the Gospel; there are no specific requirements regarding the texts used during this practice: nor are there requirements on reading a certain amount each time you practice the Lectio Divina.  It could be a long passage, or just a few words.

Next, embrace silence.

Focus on your breathing, or repeat a prayer silently, as you relax and allow yourself to let go of noise and distractions. Once you are silent and focused, you can start to intently read the text you chose.

Read the text

Take your time, read very slowly, in order to take in each individual word and its sound. While reading, be sure that you are also listening, as you wander calmly through the words about and of God. When you arrive to a word or phrase that you feel grabs your attention, stop, and repeat it, memorizing it, absorbing it.  If the text contains a story, take time to imagine yourself as one of the characters in the story.  What would they have felt?  What might God have been saying to them?

If you find a phrase or a word that you don’t understand, make a note of it, or underline it for later study.  You could look it up, later, on the internet.  Or you could ask me, or another priest, for an explanation of what is being said.

You may find your thoughts wandering into memories, or current worries and distractions.  This is part of the process. This is you offering your thoughts, concerns, and mind to God and this, in turn, is God speaking and listening to you.

This should lead you to the next phase, of conversing with God;

You can “speak” with your thoughts, ideas, your inner voice, or out loud. Or you could draw or paint your thoughts.  You should feel calm and relaxed: this is you interacting with God, who is happy to visit with you. Then you can remain in contemplative silence, in God’s company, and return to the text when you feel it’s right.

Remember that the goal is not to complete a certain amount of text or reading, but to connect with God by reading his words.

Let’s try this technique with just half of one of the verses from today’s Gospel: “He whom God has sent speaks the words of God….”  (John 3.34)

We’ve selected our text.  Now, be still.  Let silence encompass you. 

Ready?  Now read the text, slowly, thoughtfully, questioningly…

“He who God has sent…”  Who is that referring to?  Well it’s John speaking.  And we know he was being asked questions about Jesus.  So this must refer to Jesus – that’s the ‘He’.  But what happened to him…’He who God has sent…’  So Jesus was sent by God.  His being among us wasn’t an accident of fate or history.  His arrival among us was a deliberate act of a loving Father-God.    But what’s next?  What did he do?

“He….speaks the words of God”.  So Jesus speaks the words of God.  Does that mean that his words have special power, special authority?  Are Jesus’ words different from the other words we read in the Bible? Perhaps the other words we read are inspired by God…like a mountain inspires a painter.  But not the actual words of God.  Those are Jesus’ words alone.  So what does that mean?  Does it mean that we should pay more attention to Jesus’ words?  Is that why some Bibles print Jesus’ words in red ink?  Is that why the book of the Gospels is paraded before reading, rather than just read from the Bible like other readings?

I could go on…but I hope you get the idea.  Out of just 10 words, a whole parade of questions, insights, and contemplation can flow.  And having done that task, Lectio Divina invites us to converse with God….so let us pray:

Father, thank you for sending Jesus to us.  Thank you for choosing to send him, out of your love for us.  Thank you for speaking to us, so clearly, so beautifully, so powerfully through the words he spoke while he was among us.  Thank you for his wisdom.  Thank you for his stories, and his insight.  Thank for the Love he conveyed.  Help me, Father, to listen more keenly to Jesus words, every day.  Help me to respond to them with joy, and with purpose.   Amen.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

The Sceptical Prince

Preached on the day after the announcement of the death of HRH The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh 

I have a great deal of affection for St Thomas – not least because he is my namesake!  Mind you, the only time anyone calls me Thomas is when I’ve done something wrong.  Usually my Mother, my sisters or my wife!

            Poor old Saint Thomas is universally known as ‘Doubting Thomas’, quite simply because of this one occasion when he couldn’t quite bring himself to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead.  That ‘moniker’ he has had to live with stands as a badge of shame for just one small incident in an otherwise an exemplary life.  He was, for example, the first of the disciples to recognise Jesus as ’The Way’.  He followed him Jesus diligently throughout his ministry, and unlike Peter, he did not actively deny his Lord.  When confronted with the reality of his mistake about Jesus’ resurrection, he immediately repented of his hasty words, and acknowledged Jesus as not just his Lord, but also his God...a word rarely used of Jesus by the other apostles.

            Then, after Pentecost, the Church’s tradition tells us that he went East, with great enthusiasm for the task of spreading the Gospel.  He established not least the Church of India, which still functions today. But poor Thomas, everyone seems to forget all this wonderful stuff about him - they forget what a tremendous power-house for God that he was.  They just dismiss him for one moment of doubt.

            Actually, I think that doubt is a healthy thing.  Doubt, or at least scepticism, is a sign that the mind is working - weighing-up, critically and carefully, the information which it is being fed.  I think we could all do with a little more scepticism in our intellectual diet.  

            Prince Philip was, I think, also one of life’s sceptics.  He was sceptical about the claims that humanity made for itself, especially with regard to caring for wildlife, and for the climate.  His work to establish the World Wildlife Fund, and to be among the first to fix solar panels to a home, speak of someone who was sceptical about the assurances of the rich and powerful, that nothing bad would happen if we go on as we are, consuming the world’s resources.  Prince Philip’s scepticism about the way we bring up our young people and equip them for life led him to found the Duke of Edinburgh’s award.  He was also the driving force behind a number of significant, global inter-faith conferences, indicating at least some scepticism about the primacy of his own national religion.  His Royal Highness would have been the first to deny any label of saint, but his willingness to challenge status quos, and to find new solutions, is a tribute to his sceptical, doubting frame of mind.

            And, I have to say, within the field of religion, scepticism is also no bad thing.  We owe a huge debt to those who have gone before us in the faith, especially to the writers of the Scriptures.  But if we accept everything they wrote without a little bit of doubt, we would, frankly, still be keeping slaves on Church of England-owned plantations in the Caribbean (because all the Bible writers shared a common belief that slavery was normal).

            We might like to picture faith as being like a spider’s web – which is an image which I know will delight Sandra and the church cleaners!  Like a spider at the centre of the web, God is the generator of everything around him.  But there are many strands to the web, holding it to the wall (or, in our case, usually holding it in front of one of our cameras).  If any one of those slender strings of web should be broken, the rest of the web still hangs, quite happily. 

            Imagine, if you will, that those individual strands represent ideas about God.  The Trinity, the Virgin Birth, our assumptions about the Atonement, for example.  It is perfectly OK for us to examine each one of those strands.  We can pull on it; testing it to see if it is as strong as it needs to be to carry on its work.  Sometimes, an individual thread can be removed altogether…but the rest of the web holds firm.  Our ideas about God, and about how he calls us to live are constantly shifting and changing.  And it’s the Doubting Thomases among us, the sceptics, who are sometimes the ones who light the path to new understanding. 

Without people who were willing to be sceptical about established norms, we would still practice slavery, racism would be considered normal, women would be forbidden from speaking in church, the Bible would not be printed for to all to read, and we would still be hanging on to binary language about human sexuality. 

            So to anyone listening to my voice who has doubts about what they believe, and about how the Christian Way should be practiced, and want to re-assure you.  All doubters, all sceptics, all intellectual enquirers…you are welcome here.  I applaud your scepticism.  I embrace your scepticism.  Come, let us reason together.  Let us unpick the individual strands of the spider’s web of faith, and test them together.  

One final thought.  There first thing Jesus said to his disciples on appearing in that locked room was ‘Shalom’ – or ‘peace be with you’.  The kind of peace did he mean?  Did he mean the kind of holy silence which might descend on us, from time to time, during a service?  No, not really.  The Hebrew concept of ‘shalom’ implies wholeness, completeness, soundness, health, safety and prosperity.  To pray ‘shalom’ for another person is to hope that they might experience those things in their life.   So when we share ‘the Peace’ together, in a few minutes, let’s hold in our minds those prayers.  While we wave cheerily at each other in our socially-distanced way, let us pray for each other’s wholeness, completeness, and prosperity.  Let us pray that each of us, sceptics and doubters, as well as those who have no trouble just living with the faith they inherited might find peace together on the Way of Christ. Amen

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Witnesses to what?

 Jesus said:  ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.' (Luke 24.46-48)

I wonder whether any of you have ever had to be a witness in a law court.  It’s something I’ve been asked to do on quite a few occasions.  It comes with the territory of being a pastor; sometimes to people who have got themselves into strange and difficult situations!

As a result, I perhaps have a slightly unhealthy obsession with court-room dramas, and especially court-room stories.  Like the one I heard last week, in which a lawyer was questioning a Doctor, who was a witness in a trial.  The lawyer asked the witness, "Doctor, before you performed the autopsy, did you check for a pulse?"

The witness replied "No."

"Did you check for blood pressure?"


"Did you check for breathing?" asked the Lawyer


"So,” the Lawyer asserted, “it is possible that the patient was still alive when you began the autopsy?"

"No." said the Doctor

"How can you be so sure, Doctor?"

"Because his brain was sitting on my desk in a jar."

"But,” asked the lawyer “could the patient have still been alive nevertheless?"

"Well,” replied the witness, “it is possible that he could have been alive and practicing law somewhere."

The legal system depends on witnesses.  We need people who can give reliable accounts of events so that proper judgments can be made.  And we need those witnesses to be credible.  Time and again, when I’ve been a witness, people that I’m supporting with my testimony have routinely asked ‘You will wear your dog-collar, won’t you?’.  Poor things – they seem to believe that someone with a clerical collar is likely to be more credible than someone in a suit.  Probably because they don’t know me very well!

Jesus needed reliable witnesses too.  He knew that the best way of spreading the Good News of his resurrection was to get people talking about it – people whose credibility could not be in doubt.  So, let’s look at the people whom he chose.  Strangely, these were not lawyers, judges, policemen or even priests!  Jesus’ disciples were a rag-tag bunch of ordinary, everyday people – or what English politicians keep calling ‘hard working families’. 

Many were fishermen.  Some were civil servants.  One, Simon the Zealot was thought to be a Canaanite…a non-Jew…a foreigner who travelled with Jesus living off the charity of others.  Some commentators believe that Matthew might have been a pub landlord!  

It was ordinary people that Jesus chose to be his credible witnesses.  Ordinary people who had, only days before, abandoned him to his fate, and run away.  Ordinary people who still didn’t understand the reasons for Jesus death and resurrection.  Ordinary people who were not theologians.  Even now, in today’s story, Jesus has to patiently explain the Scriptures to them.  They haven’t got it yet.  Their theology is only just beginning to form.  But to Jesus – they are just what he needs.

“You witnesses” he says – to them, and to ordinary people, just like us.

But what is it that Jesus wants them to be witnesses about?  Well, in the passage we just read, there are four key ideas that Jesus says his disciples are witnesses of.  Let’s hear it once more:

“Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer(1) and to rise from the dead on the third day (2), and that repentance (3) and forgiveness of sins (4) is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”

So, disciples are first of all witnesses to the idea that the Messiah is to suffer.  Jesus’ suffering is key to understanding Jesus’ mission.  It is through his willing self-sacrifice – even to the point of torture and execution – that Jesus points us to the way that the world will be saved.  If you heard my sermon on Good Friday, you’ll know that Jesus’ suffering has a whole plethora of meaning.  If you didn’t hear it…why not look it up after this service?  For now, let’s just confine ourselves to this thought about the suffering of Jesus:  Evil will always find a way of nailing up the Son of God onto a cross.  And yet Jesus will always offer us hope that such suffering can be transformed, transmuted, redeemed.

We are witnesses to that process of transformation (which is the second point of today’s passage).  On the cross, Jesus allows the violence of the world to overwhelm him, and then, by the power of Love, he overcomes the violence, and rises from the dead in a resurrected body.  The first born of the dead.  The first-fruits of those who sleep.  Death is overcome, violence becomes irrelevant and has no more power over him.  Love conquers all.  Alleluia!  Christ is risen!

Thirdly, we are witnesses to the power of repentance.  From the very start of his ministry, Jesus cried out ‘repent’…or ‘turn around’ (which is the more accurate meaning of the word he used).  Turn around from human ways of living and turn towards God.  Turn away from the myth that violence can defeat violence.  Turn away from economic systems that keep the poor in poverty and keep the wealthy in power.  Turn away from political ideas that shut-out the stranger, and those which propagate the Dickensian lie that charity begins at home.

            Then finally, the witnesses of Jesus can say, with the confidence of the Resurrection that ‘there is forgiveness’.   Forgiveness for seeking more than our daily bread.  Forgiveness for trying to make our Kingdom on earth instead of God’s.   Forgiveness for our lack of forgiveness to those who have trespassed against us.

Then, and only then, will the new heaven and the new earth promised at the very end of the Bible come to pass.  Then, and only then, will the true power of the death and resurrection of Jesus be known.   Not, as I suggested on Good Friday, a mere heavenly transaction to wipe away an individual’s sin… but a wholesale, full-scale, radical re-ordering of the whole of human life.  That’s why we pray “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”.

That’s what Jesus called his followers to be witness too.  That’s what we are still called to witness to.  We are Jesus’ army of ordinary people, today.  That is our vocation and our calling.


Sunday, April 4, 2021

Easter through the eyes of St Mark…

I love the Gospel according to St Mark, who will be our companion throughout this liturgical year. It is the oldest of all the Gospels – that is, the first to be written - and therefore it is potentially the most trustworthy, in terms of basic facts.It is also the shortest of the Gospels, by a considerable margin– which is real help if you want to get a solid, reliable, sense of the life and ministry of Jesus – which can be read in a single sitting! Mark helps us, I think, to drill down to the key, fundamental elements of our faith.

There are many things which we know about Jesus that Mark does not relate.  If we want the story of the Wise Men, we turn to Matthew.  If we want Shepherds and Angels, Luke is our narrator.  If we love the idea of Jesus turning water into wine, then it’s to John we must turn.  Together, the four Gospels offer us different lenses through which to see Jesus. 

And, having heard the other Gospels’ tales, it’s always interesting to return to Mark – the stripped-down, factual reporter of events as understood them.  And it’s especially interesting to see what he does not say. 

What we have just heard are the final verses of what scholars agree is ‘authentic Mark’.  Did you notice what Mark does not tell us?  He does not relate any of the stories which, between them, the other Gospel writers tell.   There is no appearance to Mary in the Garden, when she thinks (at first) he’s the Gardener.  There is no appearance in the locked room.  There is no story of Doubting Thomas, or the encounter on the Road to Emmaus.  There is no account of Jesus forgiving Peter for having denied him.  There is no ‘Ascension’ story.    There is, in fact no story-telling at all about Jesus meeting with his disciples after his resurrection, in the Gospel of Mark.

Let me be clear.  I’m not trying to suggest that all these stories didn’t happen.  But I do want us to see that Mark interprets the events around the Resurrection rather differently than other writers. 

Mark offers us an empty tomb, just as the other writers do.  In it, the terrified women encounter someone calls a ‘young man dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side’.  Mark’s keenest readers would have picked up quite a lot of symbolism from that description.  We presume that the ‘young man’ is really an angel (although Mark doesn’t actually say so).  Perhaps he was the same young man who fled the Garden of Gethsemane, in Mark 14 (just two chapters before).  One who ran away in fear, is now clearly forgiven and given the glorious task of announcing the Resurrection.  Young man?  Angel?  Mark leaves us to draw our own conclusions, and perhaps to be inspired by them.   Perhaps we who also run away from Jesus, from time to time, can be welcomed back and given new purpose?

The young man’s white robe recalls the dazzling white of the clothing of Jesus, Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration – the story at the very centre of Mark’s Gospel.  The fact that Mark bothers to specifically point out that the young man is seated on the right side of the tomb is pointer to Jesus, now resurrected, being seated on the right hand of God.

Mark, as I’ve already said, gives us no information about the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus.  This is the only resurrection promise he offers – that Jesus will be seen (in Galilee).

Mark’s Resurrection account is stripped to the bone.  There is no triumphalism in Mark.  Neither are there any domesticated tales of Jesus cooking fish on the beach, or sitting down for dinner at Emmaus.  Instead, Mark leaves his narrative with these words, “So they [that is, the women] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them: and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid”.

So, what might we draw from Mark’s unique take on the Resurrection of Jesus, especially in our own time and context? 

We’ve all been through a time of trembling and fear, haven’t we, thanks to Covid-19?  Like the women, running from the tomb, we too have been amazed that our lives can be turned upside down by events entirely outside our control.  Like the women, running from the tomb, we don’t yet know how this story will unfold.  What new surprises await us?  And yet, in all our fear and amazement, like them we hold on to the promise that “He has been raised.  He is not here”.  The fact of the Resurrection gives us hope, even in the midst of trouble, that God himself holds us in his hands.

I think Mark challenges us to an act of absolute Faith.  Without any ‘proof stories’ whatsoever, Mark invites us to embrace, in fear and trembling, by an act of faith, a certain and sure belief in the Risen Christ.   If we start to compare and contrast the other Gospeller’s tales of those post-resurrection days, there’s a chance that we will be drawn too much into their inconsistencies, and doubt can creep upon us.  Mark cuts through all that fluff, and simply says, “He has been raised.  He is not here”.  Simple, bare, unadulterated fact.  Typical Mark! 

Mark leaves us with a simple, bare, unadulterated choice…believe, or don’t.  Trust in Jesus, or don’t.  Follow Jesus, simply, faithfully, obediently, completely.  Or don’t.  The choice is yours.  And mine.  And the choice you make will determine how you respond to this call:  ‘Alleluia!  Christ is Risen!’  (Response:  ‘He is risen indeed.  Alleluia!)

Friday, April 2, 2021

Good Friday - The meanings of the Cross

Yesterday, after my Maundy Thursday sermon, one kind commentator on Facebook described it as ‘a very helpful teaching sermon.  Which is absolutely right.  Over these final days of Lent, I’ve chosen to take a more educational approach – than I normally do.  It’s a risk!  And it’s a little bit longer than I normally preach.  But that’s because I suspect that many of us carry around in our heads only a very limited sense of what these great events are all about, much of it taught to us at a very young age, and at a pretty basic level.  

 So today, I invite you to focus with me on the Cross itself, much as we did on Passion Sunday – but with some more meat thrown in to the pot for today’s meditation!  What's going on?  What new layers of meaning might there be to inspire us?  I want to invite you to go deeper…

‘What’s going on?’ is a question which has puzzled Christians for 2000 years.  

Frustratingly, Jesus himself was surprisingly enigmatic about what his death meant.  He told his disciples that it was 'necessary' for the Son of Man to die.  At the last supper, he told them that his body and blood were to be 'poured out for many, for the forgiveness of sins'.  But he didn't say very much more at all.   How could the pouring out of his blood be 'for the forgiveness of sins'?

The first Christians searched the ancient texts of what we now call the Old Testament.  In Isaiah, for example, they found someone called, enigmatically 'Servant of God' "poured out his soul to death, and bore the sin of many" (Is.53:12).    They read that 'The LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all'.

Some Jewish thinkers believed that these texts pointed to a Messiah.  But others said that the Servant was of the nation of Israel - called to be a Servant to the rest of humanity (and indeed, that is the standard understanding of that text by Jewish thinkers today).  But early Christian readers found enough synergy between Isaiah's 'servant' and Jesus Christ, to connect the two in their minds. Paul, and other New Testament writers used four primary words to try and understand:

1) Sacrifice.  Sacrifice for sin was a very Jewish idea.  People routinely sacrificed everything from pigeons to whole cows on the altar at the temple, believing that such an act of contrition would atone for their sin.  So sacrifice was rooted in the idea that God was angry with humanity...and only the sacrifice of something precious would stem his wrath.  That brings us to the second word which the early thinkers used...

2)  Propitiation.   To remove us from the wrath of God which early thinkers thought that Christ had to die as a propitiation for our sins.   The word ‘propitiation’ means, essentially, appeasement.  Believers in this doctrine say that Jesus appeased the wrath of God, that is ‘satisfied and dealt with it’, through his suffering and death.

3) Reconciliation.  Early Christians thought that this propitiating sacrifice had the effect of reconciling us with God...bringing us back into fellowship with him.  This is about ‘at-one-ment’, or as we say it, ‘atonement’ between humanity and God.  St Paul writes that God "through Christ….was reconciling the world to himself" (2 Cor. 5:18-19).

4)  Ransom.  Finally, to add real texture to the meaning of the cross, early writers threw in the idea of Satan.  Because we are sinners, they argued, we are in bondage to sin, and therefore to the father of sin, Satan himself.  We therefore need someone to redeem us from bondage - like a ransom paid to a kidnapper. So St Mark reports Jesus saying that he had come "to give his life as a ransom to many" (Mark 10:45)

But over the following years, many other Christians have questioned the assumptions which lie behind these early attempts to understand the Cross. They argued that these understandings are based on two logical, but questionable assumptions.  The first question was whether God really was angry with humanity.  

After all, according to Jesus himself, "God so loved the world...”. Jesus showed us a Father-God...a God whom He taught us to call 'Daddy'...Abba.  Surely a loving Father, like a loving earthly Father, would understand that his children mess things up, and offer forgiveness, not wrath.   To many Christians, this feels much more like the kind of God which Jesus described.

Others point out that there is no contradiction.  It is perfectly possible for a human parent to be angry with their child, but to also love them at the same time – just ask my daughter!  So why not for God?  

The other questionable assumption is the whole idea of Satan.  For many Christians Satan is not a real being - rather he is a metaphor, for all the evil in the world.  If that is true, why would Jesus nee to ‘ransom’ us from a non-existent being?

These questions about Satan and the wrath of God left theologians with a problem.  What did Jesus death mean, if there was doubt about the underlying assumptions?  What was it all about?  Here are three substantial contributions to that debate, from across the centuries…

Writing around the late 11th century, the theologian Peter Abelard proposed that Jesus death was a 'great moral example'.  For him, Christ's death was dramatic demonstration of how much God loves his human children -  by aligning himself with human suffering, even to the point of torture and death.  According to Abelard, Christ's death shows God's love to us, and then draws from us a grateful response.  We therefore thank God, for loving us that much...and we respond by living how he calls us to live.

 Another idea, expounded by Faustus Socinus, in the 16th century, was that Jesus death was a Supreme Example.  He argued that Christ's death provides an example of how we should trust and obey God perfectly, even if that obedience leads to suffering and death.  Socinus pointed out that St Peter himself had touched on this idea, when he wrote:  "…Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps".(1 Pet. 2:21)

More recently, as I mentioned on Passion Sunday, Rowan Williams has suggested another lens through which to see the Cross.   In Williams' mind, Jesus death is the ultimate consequence of his refusal to use violence to fight violence.  Williams points out that human beings believe that what you need to combat violence is even greater violence.  He calls this the ‘myth of redemptive violence’.  But Jesus takes all the violence that the world can muster against itself and God, and then transmutes it, through love. He even manages to generate faith and hope in those around him at the point of death.  Consider the thief, and the Roman Soldier who suddenly sees God hung before him.  

Williams also suggests that Jesus’ death is a graphic illustration of what happens when we remove God from our lives, and from our collective society.  We push him of our City…where we can no longer hear his voice.

There are many more theories...and many combinations of theories. I haven’t even touched on the huge symbolism of blood in the Bible, nor on the ‘Day of Atonement’ theories.  (Except that I just have, just now, by mentioning them!).  But that's enough theology for one afternoon!  The difficult task is to sum all these theories try to make sense of them, in way that makes the story come alive for us.  So in conclusion, I want to share with you what I've come to the hope that that makes some kind of sense to you!

For me, all these ideas, all these interpretations, boil down to one essential idea....and it's this:  all of the above!   I think there is truth in all these ideas, even if it is truth veiled in metaphor.  Even if Satan is only a metaphor, we still need God to free us from the power of evil in our world.  If the metaphor of ‘ransom’ is helpful in that task, let’s use it.  

Even if God is Love, even the greatest love is still capable of anger:  ask any loving parent.  Removing anger from any relationship can only be a good thing.  It the metaphor of propitiation helps us to get our minds round that, let’s use it.

Our task, as followers of Jesus, is to keep on peeling back the layers of meaning, discovering with every passing Good Friday new insights, new hope, new inspiration.  In that sense the death of Jesus is an inexhaustible source of wonder, and a place for our imaginations to go as wild as the events described, in different ways by different reporters and thinkers, of that first Good Friday.   

I'm now going to invite you to spend a moment in front of the Cross.   I'm going to invite you to take one of the ribbons in the basket, and to tie your ribbon onto the Cross.  These ribbons are yellow, this year, in commemoration of the National Day of Reflection we held a week ago.   Let each one be a prayer for those we have lost during the Pandemic, as well as a sign of your own commitment to Christ.  As you tie your ribbon on, let me invite you to pause, to stand for a moment in the presence of God, and to re-commit yourself to a living relationship with God, through Jesus Christ.  Take a moment to thank Jesus for showing us that he can take everything we are capable of throwing at him...all our sin, all our doubts, all our fears, all our unforgiveness - and that he is capable of transforming it, redeeming it, overcoming it.  

This plain cross of suffering, will be transformed in just three days’ time - as we come to church on Easter morning to celebrate the good news of Jesus resurrection.  Our flower artists are poised to bring colour and life into the church once more, as a sign of God’s new life.  Watch, therefore, as your death, your sin, your barrier to growth with God, is buried with Christ in his tomb, and transformed into new life in his resurrection.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Maundy Thursday - Layer on layer of meaning

Maundy Thursday is one of those feast days which tries (and usually fails) to communicate a lot of meaning in a single day.
   And that’s because there’s a lot of story wrapped up in the day, for us to get our heads around.

The name, ‘Maundy’, is generally believed to derive from the Latin ‘mandate’ – or command.  It is said to refer to verse 34 of tonight’s Gospel reading, in which Jesus gives his command that we should love on another, just as he has loved us. 

Other etymologists argue that ‘maundy’ derives from the French, ‘mendier’ (pronounced ‘maundy-ay’) – meaning ‘to beg’.  The French word mutated into the Old English maund, which as a verb means to beg and as a noun refers to a small basket held out by maunders as they maunded.  That has some weight, as an explanation, because it remembers a time when Monarchs and Lords would distribute charity to beggars, on their way to the celebration of the institution of the Last Supper.  That is a tradition which still hangs on in the form of the Maundy Money, which our Sovereign distributes to selected subjects on this day.

Another grand tradition of Maundy Thursday is that Bishops perform the Chrism Mass – during which Holy Oils are blessed and distributed to parish churches for use in baptism, confirmation and healing ceremonies throughout the year.  The oils, blessed by the Bishop, are a sign of that our little parish church is part of a much larger family – the Diocesan family, under the headship of a Diocesan Bishop. 

The Chrism Mass is also an opportunity for all the clergy and readers of the Diocese to renew the vows they made at ordination and licensing.  It was a bit tricky for us all to gather in the Cathedral this year, because of the pandemic restrictions.  So instead, we gathered in smaller groups, all across the Diocese, and participated in online worship from the Cathedral.  For me, it was quite a change to be an online worshipper, rather than an online worship leader!

But Maundy Money, and the Chrism Mass are just peripheral issues to the main purpose of Maundy Thursday.  The proper title for the day is ‘The Feast of the Institution of the Lord’s Supper’ – or the Holy Communion – or the Mass – or the Eucharist.  Whatever your preference is!  Together, we are invited to reflect more deeply on the deep significance of the service which stands at the heart of our worship, week by week.  Because, the deep meaning of the Eucharist can sometimes be lost among other theological ideas which are being expressed or explored during those services. 

Maundy Thursday is our chance to strip away such distractions, and focus on what Jesus was trying to convey to his disciples on that “last night, before he was betrayed”.   The readings we’ve just heard convey to us that there are many layers of meaning, depending upon on whose account of the event we focus.  

If we listen to Paul’s account (which was handed on to him, no doubt by one or more of those present on the night) then the significance of the Last Supper was undoubtedly the symbolic offering of bread and wine, by Jesus, as symbols and signs of his body and blood.

Jesus said ‘do this in remembrance of me’ – and perhaps we should focus for a moment on that word ‘remember’.  Our ‘members’ are our limbs, our organs; the parts of our body.  When we talk about being ‘members’ of a club or a church, we’re talking about individual people.  To ‘re-member’ something, then, is to bring together, in our minds eye, separate body parts, or people, into one collective whole.  In remembering Jesus, we are invited to draw together all that we know about him…all that we love about him.  We’re encouraged to see the totality of his life, teaching and example.  We’re encouraged to remember his unique connection to the Divine, and the glory of his fully-lived humanity, brought together in one man.  We’re encouraged to draw hope and inspiration from his death on the cross, where his life was ‘poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’. And of course we remember his glorious resurrection, and the hope it offers for all humanity.  We bring all this – and much more – together in our minds, prompted by the beautifully simple words, ‘this is my body’.  ‘This is my blood’.

And there’s more!  We don’t just bring Christ together in our minds, we also come together to do this act of obedience and worship.  The church has long-since taught that if I were to celebrate the Eucharist on my own, in splendid isolation, it would not be a valid Eucharist.  Its full power and meaning would be lost.  Because, Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper as an essentially communal act.  This is something we do together.  We literally ‘re-member’, bring together, the living members of the body of Christ, every time we enact this service.

I referred to Paul’s account of the Lord’s Supper just now.  But today, we are also offered John’s account.  John reports this occasion very differently.  He actually makes no mention of the words of Institution at all – perhaps because by the time John was writing, Paul’s narrative (and that of the other Gospellers) was already well-known, and didn’t need repeating.  Instead, John re-members how Jesus started the whole evening off, by washing his disciples’ feet.

In doing so, John shifts our focus slightly.  He wants us to perhaps focus a little less on what we might personally receive from the Eucharist, in terms of food for our spiritual journey.   I think John might not have approved of those Christians who even today talk about ‘making MY communion’.  Instead, John invites us think about what we might give as a result of the Eucharist.  What service can we offer, to our brothers and sisters, and to the world that Jesus calls us to transform in his name.

My friend, the theologian Martin Mosse has often prompted me to ask how different the institution of the church might be if our primary ceremony was not the receiving of bread and wine, but rather the giving of the gift of washing each other’s feet.   What if our most prized possessions, as a church, were not a silver chalice and patten, but a jug of water and a towel?  What message might that communicate to the wider world about our mission to Love God, and serve our neighbours?

So, Maundy Thursday comes at us with a blizzard of meaning.  The best I can hope to do in these few minutes is to unfold some of the meanings for us – and encourage each of us to take time to ponder them.  And Maundy Thursday hasn’t quite finished with us yet.  For at the end of this service, we will strip the Altar bare, and carry off the body of Christ into the lonely seclusion of the Lady Chapel.  In doing so, we will remember how Jesus was himself carried away from his disciples.  How bereft must they have felt?  How lost, how frightened they must have been!  Perhaps this loneliness might remind us of those we know who are feeling lonely and lost tonight.  Perhaps we might reach out to them, and offer them a touch of God, and sense of communion too?