Saturday, April 22, 2023

Making Jesus our Foundation

 1 Corinthians 3.10-11

"By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ."  (NIV)

 “The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord” – as the hymn goes.  When writing to the Corinthians, St Paul was very keen to ensure that Jesus remained the focus of that new church’s life.  This is an important issue for us, too.  Without a constant and deliberate effort to re-focus our church life, and our personal lives, on Jesus, we can find ourselves heading down rabbit holes of well-intentioned, but ultimately fruitless endeavours

So, what does it mean to make Jesus the foundation of our personal lives?  A common mistake is to imagine that by asking Jesus to be our foundation, or to come into our lives (as an evangelical might say) he will help us with all our problems.  In other words, some folks come to church to ask for God’s help, with their suffering, or their finances, or the health of a loved one.  This, my friends, is a common mistake.  It is the same mistake made by everyone who thinks of God as some sort of Father Christmas figure; someone who will grant favours in return for the right prayers.  It’s the same mistake that the Israelites made in the wilderness when they started to worship a golden calf.  It’s the same mistake that all religions make when they erect statues of gods and then ply those statues with gifts of food or riches, in an attempt to receive a blessing.

When we make Jesus our foundation, or ask him into our lives, we are actually saying that we want to become more like Jesus.  He is the model, the pattern, for the perfect human life.  He is the image that we need to copy, or to emulate, in order to attain the promise of a fully lived life, in sickness and in health, in poverty or in plenty.   From the life of Jesus we learn how to live simply, to love extravagantly, to forgive constantly and to rest frequently.  From his death, we learn the value of sacrifice.  From his resurrection, we learn that all deaths and disasters can be overcome, transformed and reshaped by God’s power.  By making Jesus our foundation and focus, we learn how to live life to the full. 

When I was a young Christian, I used to wear with woven hippy-bracelet with the letters WWJD on it.  ‘What would Jesus do?’.  It’s a really good question to ask ourselves in every circumstance of life.  If I’m feeling angry, or afraid, what would Jesus do?  If I’m feeling greedy or lazy…what would Jesus do?  If I’m suffering, or if I’m celebrating, what would Jesus do?

But there is a danger to navigate when we ask this question.  The danger is that, unless we KNOW Jesus, there is always the danger that we will create him in our OWN image.  That’s what happens when people who claim the name of Christian say or do hateful things.  Nationalism, for example, is not a Christian idea.  Hatred of foreigners, is not Christian.  Trolling people we disagree with, on social media or in person, is not Christian.  Refusing to forgive someone who has wronged us is not Christian.  Oppressing women, causing the poverty of others, exploiting the planet’s resources for our own pleasure and convenience, is not what Jesus would do.  The accumulation of vast personal wealth is not what Jesus would do.

But how shall we know?  How shall we tell which attitudes and decisions we make are really Christian, and which are not?  Only, my friends, by spending time with Jesus.  The main way we have been given to do that is through the pages of the Gospels.  Only by soaking ourselves in the attitudes, teachings and life of Jesus in the Gospels can we ever hope to be wise enough to know what Jesus would do.  So, let me ask you this:  when did you last open a Gospel and read it – and really soak yourself in it?  I suspect that for many of us, the answer to that question might be a bit challenging.

I’d like to suggest a tiny change in the language we Christians use.  The work ‘Christian’ gets banded about a lot in our society.  We are told that we live in a ‘Christian’ country (though some argue that actually we live in a post-Christian one).  The word Christian is, to our shame, associated with all sorts of horrible things.  At best, Christians are perceived as na├»ve fools who think that prayers to an invisible deity will be answered.  Or we are associated with gluttonous levels of spending on fine buildings, gold and silver ornaments, and the wasteful refurbishment of crumbling ruins, while millions starve.  At worst, the word Christian is associated in the public mind with hateful anti-gay rhetoric, or the oppression of women, or at the very worst, awful cases of sexual abuse within the church.

But I want us to reclaim the word.  So, whenever the topic comes up, I choose to use the phrase ‘CHRIST-ian’ (with the emphasis on Christ).  I won’t say that I’m a ‘Kristjen’ – no, I’m trying to be a CHRIST-ian – someone who is deliberately and diligently aiming to base my life on the teachings of Jesus Christ.  That takes work.  It takes a willingness to continually renew my knowledge about Christ, through the Gospels, so that the question of what Jesus would do becomes easier and easier to answer.  It takes effort to build a strong foundation for my faith, and for my life.  Will you join me in that effort?  Amen.

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

The Kingdom of Heaven IS advancing!

 Acts 5.27-33

“We must obey God rather than any human authority”.  So says Peter and the apostles, when they are dragged before the ruling council of the Jewish Temple in Acts Chapter 5.  Obeying God, rather than human authority, has been a constant theme of religious struggle over the centuries.  Jesus himself was challenged on this point.  You might remember the occasion when someone asked him whether it was lawful, under Jewish law, to pay taxes to the occupying Romans.  We might ask the same question today if we were living in the Donbas region of Ukraine.  Would it be lawful, or morally right, to pay taxes to the occupying forces of Vladimir Putin?

Jesus’ answer, when he was asked the question, was typically enigmatic.  He said that we should pay to Caesar what was Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.  He seems to imply, with this statement, that it is normal for religious people to live in two worlds, simultaneously. We live on earth (or ‘in earth’ as the Book of Common Prayer so poetically puts it, implying that earth is a state of mind, as much as a physical place).  We are subject to the society in which we live.  We have to conform, to at least some extent, to the rules of that society; or chaos and anarchy would ensue.  But, says Scripture, we are also citizens of heaven – an altogether different way of being, with its own rules and norms.  It is when these two states of being collide – earth and heaven, that religious people have the hardest task of all.  Shall I obey God, or the human authorities?   It is a question (for example) with which conscientious objectors have to wrestle at times of war.  It’s a question that Christians opposed to abortion have to wrestle, when they realise that at least part of their taxes pay for abortion clinics.  It’s a question that Christians who disagree with the socially divisive policies of any government must wrestle.  With the Coronation of our new King coming up soon, with all its pomp and inevitable appeals to our sense of UK citizenship, this is a pertinent question for us too. 

Shall we obey God, or human authority?  It’s a particularly sharp point to contemplate at times of great changes in church doctrine and teaching.  It was something with which the proponents and opponents of slavery had to wrestle, for example.  For centuries, slavery was considered a perfectly normal and natural human condition.  The Bible even gives rules on how slaves are to be treated humanely.  The only time that the Bible seems to reject slavery was in the context of the Israelite’s Exodus from Egypt, and their return from Exile in Babylon.  In other words, a strict reading of the Bible suggests that slavery is perfectly normal, except for the God’s chosen people!  For centuries, Christian companies and nations exercised slavery in the honest belief that God had decreed it to be a normal way of structuring human affairs – albeit with some tight rules about how slaves should be treated, humanely. 

However, among the leading Christians of their day, certain minds began to change.  The likes of John Newton, a former slave-ship Captain, began to see slavery for the evil it was.  His own conversion led to his remarkable hymn, Amazing Grace.  “I was blind, but now I see”, he wrote, in testament to his change of heart and mind over slavery.  Senior Christian politicians, like William Wilberforce, began to lobby the church and the government of the day.  Eventually, the human authorities of the day were persuaded to see slavery for what it was, and to change the law of earth to reflect the laws of heaven.

Today, a similar battle is underway, especially in the Anglican Communion around the world.  This time, it’s a battle for the Bible’s view of issues around human sexuality.  We are in the middle of that battle – with both sides claiming that they are the ones following God and not human authority.  Those who oppose gay marriages, for example, claim that the Bible is explicit about the wrongs of any union outside the conventional one between one man and one woman.  Those, like me, who have perhaps a more historical perspective, look back into history and note the many times in the past when the Bible’s apparently clear and unambiguous teaching has been overturned and transformed into something new.  For example, the Bible teaches that slavery is normal, as we’ve already seen.  It also teaches that if your child blasphemes the Lord, you shall take him to the City gates and have him stoned to death.  The Bible teaches that you should not wear cloth made of two types of material – so woe betide anyone who is wearing polyester-cotton today!  It prohibits the eating of pork and shellfish, which if still in place today would be a great barrier to success for the farmers and fisher-folk of Chichester Harbour.  With regard to marriage, the Bible explicitly supports polygamous marriage – many of the Fathers of the faith had more than one wife.  But we, today, would never countenance such a thing.

You see my point, I’m sure.  The Bible’s teaching, straight off the page from thousands of years ago, can seem unambiguous.  But wrong, for today.  Context is everything, as I always teach.  The context of a small middle-eastern tribe, struggling to define themselves against the world which repeatedly conquered them in battle, is a very different context to ours.  We live in a world which, step by painful step, is becoming just a little bit more like heaven on earth.  For two thousand years, Christians have prayed in obedience to Jesus, ‘thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven’.  Have those prayers been in vain, or are we at last beginning to glimpse what that heaven on earth might look like?

We have many challenges, not least the climate catastrophe, the collapse of nature, and the horror of continuing wars around the globe.  But, we also have systems of justice in which you are innocent until proven guilty.  We have individual human rights; slavery (though still practiced) is universally illegal.  In this country, for all its many faults and challenges, we have education and healthcare that are generally free at the point of delivery.  For all its problems and challenges, we have a universal welfare system, to offer succour to the least fortunate among us.  Most of us have flush toilets, easy access to food and a miracle of technology in our pockets that connects us to the whole world.  The average human lifespan has almost doubled in a century.  And as far as the issues of human sexuality are concerned, we have an increasing openness to loving and accepting people as they are, rather than forcing them to conform to ideas, from a previous context, about what God might require of them.

The Jewish ruling council gave strict orders to Peter and the other apostles not to teach in the name of Jesus.  But Peter and his friends felt that they had no choice but to proclaim the incoming of the kingdom of heaven on earth.  I pray that we might have the courage to do the same.  For we, like Peter, are ‘witnesses to these things,' (these advances of the kingdom of heaven) 'and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him’.  Amen.

Saturday, April 8, 2023

Easter Sunday - It matters what what we believe

 Easter means many different things to many different people.  A sign of new life.  The defeat of darkness.  I like to help our school visitors to remember that the word Easter contains the word East.  We look to the East, to the rising Sun, to remember the  Son who rises.   Or perhaps the word Easter is based on the pagan goddess Eostre (that’s what the 7th century historian Bede believed – although later scholars have debunked him).   It is therefore, perhaps, a celebration of the return of the sun, with all the fecundity of new life, celebrated through bunny rabbits and eggs.  What do you believe, I wonder?

It turns out that what we believe is a rather subjective thing.  And when beliefs clash, things can get pretty dicey, as we’ve seen horrifically this week in Israel, Palestine and Lebanon. What we believe about the death and resurrection of Jesus matters.  But in our incredible shrinking world, we are bombarded with competing truth claims. 

On Good Friday, during the reading of the St John Passion, we heard how Pilate asked Jesus, philosophically, “what IS truth?”.  Even then, 2000 years ago, there were many different truth claims in the world.  How shall we peel away the layers of history, myth, belief and story, to arrive at a truth that matters; a truth we can live by?

There are of course a whole range of views about the actual truth of the Resurrection.  Frankly, we cannot tackle the sceptics’ questions with anything other than the answer of faith.  We were not there, and all we have is the somewhat variable accounts of those who wrote about these events some decades later.  What matters most, to all followers of The Way, is not whether or not something happened, but that it happens, still, today (as theologian Rob Bell has memorably said).   In others words, all of the stories of Scripture have the power to speak into our lives, right here and right now.  There is truth within every story, whether or not it can be scientifically or historically proved.

There is one historical fact on which we can rely – and that’s that the ancients who wrote our Scriptures were much less concerned about literal, historical truth than we tend to be.  They were much more concerned with the power of story – its inner power, its deeper truth, its potential to shape and direct our lives.  So when the Gospel writers tell us of the death of Jesus, they are pointing to a deeper truth…which is that God died.  This is a way of saying there is no situation which God cannot inhabit and embrace.  Even in death, God holds us, walks with us, along our human road.

The resurrection story, on the other hand, points us to the rejuvenating potential of all life, in and through God.  St Paul used the example of a seed, pointing out that just as Jesus died and then rose, so a seed has to die in the soil before it is transformed into a mighty tree.  In doing so, Paul points us to an even deeper reality than the miracle of raising Jesus from the dead. 

Paul teaches us a truth that science has since proved to us: the fundamental truth that all matter in God’s universe is constantly in flux, constantly being reshaped and reformed and given new life.  Dust from the Big Bang coalesces into stars, from which new elements are then blasted out into space.  Those elements get formed into planets, and new suns, from which we and all life finally emerge.  Our own bodies, when we’ve finished with them, are absorbed back into the earth, and become nutrients for the creation of new life.  One day, science teaches us, our world will be consumed by our Sun, which will then explode into space, and our dust will be gathered by the forces of gravity into a new existence, from which new life can once more emerge.

The even deeper truth of the Resurrection is that as the divine presence behind all the universe, God also transcends creation.  He is able to call us beyond creation, into a realm as yet undiscovered by science; the realm we call heaven.  Let us not forget, in our quest for truth, that there is a lot that science doesn’t yet know about the Universe.  There are hints of particles that can exist in two places at once.  There are mysterious theories about multiple universes, or different planes of existence.  Did you know that the biggest brains in science believe that 85% of the Universe is filled with something called ‘dark matter’.  They call it that, because they have no idea what it is, and they cannot detect it, or see it.  They just know dark matter must be there, from their calculations and observations.  The deep truth of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus is that people of faith have always sensed, always known deep down, that there is more to life than the dust we can see, even dust which can be regenerated into new life.

The resurrection then, as the infamous David Jenkins, Bishop of Durham once said, is more than a ‘conjuring trick with bones’.  It points us to a deeper and more profound reality – the reality that the life God gives to the Universe never stops being created and recreated anew.  Out of all deaths comes new life.  Life goes on, constantly being reshaped and reborn, and even drawn into new realities, new realms, whatever Death tries to do.  And so with St Paul, we can indeed stick out tongues out at death, and cry ‘Where, O Death, is thy sting?  Where, O grave is thy victory?’. 

This then is the deeper truth of the Resurrection – a truth that goes beyond the sceptical questions we might have about the competing biblical stories.  The resurrection shows us Creation, and re-creation, through God’s eternal eyes.  Indeed, the whole trajectory of Scripture is that all life, all creation, all re-creation and re-birth finds its culmination in the Divine energy at Creation’s heart, and in the person of Jesus Christ. 

For it is before him, as the closing chapters of the Bible declare, that one day every knee will bow.  Every tongue will confess that Jesus, the divine man, the God made human who finds his way back to eternity, and draws us with him into the as yet unseen realm of heaven: HE is LORD, and rightly the source of our joy, when we declare….Alleluia...Christ is Risen!  He is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Wednesday, April 5, 2023

Maundy Thursday

Maundy Thursday is one of those feast days that cram 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. 

Another suggestion that ‘maundy’ derives from the French, ‘mendier’ (pronounced ‘maundy-ay’) – meaning ‘to beg’.  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 – just as our King does today, as an act of charity. 

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 our Diocesan Bishop, Jonathan. 

But Maundy Money, and the Chrism Mass are really 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 that stands at the heart of our worship, week by week.  It’s a good opportunity because, whilst we celebrate the Lord’s Supper at least twice a week at St Faith’s, its deep meaning 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.  

According to Paul’s account, 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 remember the totality of his life, teaching and example.  We draw hope and inspiration from his death on the cross, where his life was ‘poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’, whatever that phrase may mean, theologically.  We bring these and many other remembrances together in our minds, prompted by the beautifully simple words, ‘this is my body’.  ‘This is my blood’. ‘Do this in remembrance of me’.

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.  We believe that Jesus intended the Lord’s Supper to be 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, the words of which will be very familiar to us all, from the Communion service.  But today, we are also offered John’s account.  John reports this occasion very differently.  Intriguingly, John (the most theological writer of the Gospels) makes no mention of the words of Institution at all.   Instead, John re-members how Jesus started the whole evening off, by washing his disciples’ feet.

In doing so, John shifts our focus.  He wants us to perhaps focus a little less on what we might personally receive from the Eucharist. 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.  John tells us the story of Jesus washing his disciples feet.  He prompts us to ask what service WE can offer to the world that Jesus calls us to transform in his name.

What if John’s Gospel was the only one we had?  How different would the church be if our primary ceremony was not the receiving of bread and wine, but rather the washing of each other’s feet.   What if our most prized possessions, as a church, were not a silver chalice and patten, or even a cross, but a jug of water and a towel?  What message might that communicate to the wider world about our mission to Love God, and love our neighbours?

So, Maundy Thursday comes at us with a blizzard of meanings.  I hope these last few minutes have opened up some of them.  Maundy Thursday hasn’t quite finished with us yet, though!  At the end of this service, we will strip the Altar bare, and carry off the consecrated body of Christ into the lonely seclusion of the Lady Chapel.  By 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, wash their feet, metaphorically, and offer them a touch of God, and sense of communion too?  Amen.