Saturday, December 30, 2023

It's all meaningless!

A sermon at the turn of the year - 2023/2024.  Based on the Book of Ecclesiastes.

We mark the turning of the calendar year together – here in prayer and, in a short while, in covenant to the future….to God’s future, for ourselves, and for our churches.  Others will ignore the turn of the calendar, entirely, preferring to sleep their way into the next orbit round the sun.  Still others will be partying hard, drinking their regrets away, and drunkenly singing ‘auld lang syne’.  Few will, of course, understand what that phrase, auld lang syne, actually means.  Directly translated from old Scots, it can be rendered as ‘old times since’, meaning ‘times long ago’ or times past.  It is, I suppose, a way of honouring the past as we move forward into the future.  It is a call to remember, and cherish, the good things of the past – like ‘old acquaintances’ – friendships which have sustained us on our journey; or perhaps those we have lost through the cycle of the years.

But as the Teacher of Ecclesiastes grimly reminds us, nothing actually changes in reality.  There is a time for everything under the sun, and just as the earth orbits the Sun for another year, so the time for all things will come again.  Time to sow, time to reap, time to live and time to die.  

The Book of Ecclesiastes is a puzzling inclusion in the canon of Scripture.  But it is well worth considering at the turn of a year.  It starts with those strident lines, ‘Vanity, vanity, all is vanity!’ and the startling statement, by a biblical text, that ‘there is nothing new under the Sun’.  The translation of the Hebrew word hevel as vanity is somewhat disputed.  It literally translates as “breath” or "vapour".  Figuratively, it can be translated to mean “vain”, but also "insubstantial", "futile", or "meaningless". 

So much of Scripture has a trajectory through time.  Its grand narrative is of a Universe created from nothing, then the coming of life, the arrival of sin, then its redemption and ultimately the completion of all things in a new heaven and a new earth.  There is a direction of travel, through the pages of Scripture.  We are encouraged to hold on to the coat-tails of history as we traverse a part of that great road to the future.  But the writer of Ecclesiastes, who may have been King Solomon, has an entirely different view of history.  For him, history repeats itself.  It goes round and round.  And none of it really matters.  It’s all meaningless, futile; vanity.  He underlines his view with some really dark comments.  Like these, (from chapter 1):

“What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun” (verse 9).

“Is there a thing of which it is said ‘See, this is new’?  It has already been, in the ages before us” (verse 10)

And then, even more bleakly, “The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them” (verse 11).

Even more bleakly, the writer of Ecclesiastes notices the reality of oppression in our world.  In chapter 4, he says this:

“I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun.  Look, the tears of the oppressed – with no-one to comfort them!  On the side of their oppressors there was power – with no-one to comfort them.  And I thought of the dead, who have already died, more fortunate than the living, who are still alive; but better than both is the one who has not yet been, and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun”!

As we look back over the awful events of the last year, especially in Ukraine, in Israel and Palestine, in the Yemen, and in many other places – we can see exactly what The Teacher means, can’t we?  He is right that power often leads to oppression.  He is right that the most fortunate person is perhaps the one not yet born – the one who has not had to witness the evil deeds that are done under the sun.  He is also right about the circularity of these things – the present wars and conflicts are but the latest examples of such battles in, quite often, the self-same lands.  The quest for power – to have it, to exercise it, to use it for one’s own benefit is at the heart of all such conflict.  It is all futile.  All vanity.  For every tyrant will die.  Every state will crumble.  Every political movement will founder on the rocks of time and reality.

So what is there for us to cling to, amid such a bleak assessment of the passing of time.  Only God.  At the very end of his book, the Teacher offers us this thought:

“[This is] the end of the matter, all has been heard.  Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone.  For God will bring every deed into judgement, including every secret thing, whether good or ill”.

In the end, God. God is the author of all, the perfector of all, the judge of all.  God is the yardstick against which every human action is measured – however often that action is repeated in the cycle of history.  God may be a real, living entity, the source of all things, the ground of all being.  Or God may be an idea, an insistence upon the human condition, a constant story against which all human action can be weighed, measured and judged.  But what history demands of you and I, what the ceaseless round of orbits round the Sun teaches us, is that only that there is only one constant presence, one constant idea, one constant Word worth our attention, our commitment, our effort and our life.  It is God.  In the end, it is God.


Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Murdering Children - The Holy Innocents

Texts:  Deuteronomy 11: 26-28, 31-32 & Matthew 2: 13-16

In the midst of the joy of the Christmas season, today’s Lectionary Scripture can feel rather perverse.  While we celebrate the coming of our Lord, as a baby, Matthew describes a horrific irony of the story…that Jesus’ birth inadvertently caused the murder of every male child under two years old in Bethlehem.  The church refers to these children as ‘the Holy Innocents’.

That mass slaughter was, of course, ordered by Herod the Great, who wanted to defend his throne from the threat of Jesus, the King of Kings.  Tragically, Herod did not realise that Jesus had no interest in earthly thrones.  As he later said to Pilate, his Kingdom was not of this world.  But Herod did not know this.  Like so many men of power, he saw a potential threat, and reached out to crush it.  He killed defenceless children, in order to defend his own throne.

Suffering is one of the greatest obstacles to people who search for faith.  Stephen Fry, a committed atheist, once said that if he was wrong, and if one day he found himself in front of God, his first question would be ‘what about childhood leukaemia?’ How could a ‘good God’ permit such awful suffering? 

That question is especially sharp, perhaps, for those who have lost a child. Perhaps there were mothers and fathers in Bethlehem who had seen the star, and then the shepherds and the wise men arrive.  Perhaps they understood that this child born in their stable was indeed a special, holy child.  I wonder what they thought of God when the soldiers arrived and murdered their sons.   

And I wonder what the parents of Palestinian and Jewish children think of God, as they continue to mourn their children slain by conflicts of recent weeks.  I wonder what the parents of Holy Innocents of the war in Ukraine think of God.  Suffering from disease.  Suffering from wars.  Suffering from natural disasters.  Where is God in all this suffering?  If he is a good God at all, how could he stand by and let all this suffering go on?  

The Archbishop of Canterbury was confronted with this same question some years ago, when he was interviewed on ‘Desert Island Discs’ on Radio 4.  The interviewer asked him to talk about the time when he lost his 7 month-old daughter in a tragic car accident.  He was asked whether that gave him a point of connection with other people who have lost loved ones in unexplained suffering.  His response was fascinating.  He said (and I paraphrase from memory) that he didn’t claim to understand the reasons why such suffering is permitted by God.  But instead he tends to point people to the young man who was nailed unjustly to a Cross.  

There’s a parallel story, about a Jew in a Nazi death camp.  The Nazi soldiers taunted him, saying ‘where is your God now?’  The old Jew pointed to a line of dead bodies, hung on gibbets, and then said:  ‘there he is’.  For the Archbishop, and for the old Jew it seems, God enters our world with all its messiness and ugliness.  He shares in our suffering.  He identifies with it.  He takes it on.  In the Christian story, he ultimately defeats it.

Is that then the purpose of suffering?  Does God allow suffering in order to use it? Is it a way of demonstrating his power over even death?  Perhaps that is part of the picture.  But the issue of suffering is like one of those jigsaws that many of us received on Christmas day.  We’ve already begun to put the pieces together…we might have already found the edge pieces and stuck them in place…but the main picture itself is only just beginning to become clear.

But there is a danger that we must guard against in any discussion about suffering.  It’s the danger of believing, as some in Christianity and other religions sometimes do, that everything which happens is ‘the will of God’.  Was it God’s will that Herod should order the murder of the Holy Innocents?  No.  That was Herod’s will. Was it God’s will that Hamas would attack Israel, and that Israel would retaliate with such overwhelming force?  No.  That is the will of the politicians and war-lords of the Middle East, as they compete for power with their guns.   

It is our will, not God’s, that causes so much of the suffering in the world.  God gave humanity a simple choice at the time of the 10 commandments, between a blessing and a curse.  We either choose to live God’s way, and to be blessed beyond measure.  Or we choose to live our own way, and up cursing ourselves.  Why does he give us this choice?  Quite simply because, like any parent, our Father wants us to choose to love him.  Any other kind of love would be unreal, and pointless – we’d be no more than puppets or pets if we didn’t have free will.  But the gift of free will is risky – as any parent knows.  It always carries the risk of things going horribly in the wrong direction.

The doctrine of free will is perfectly adequate to explain evils like the murder of the Holy Innocents.  Evil King Herod murdered them because he had the free will to do it.  But does the doctrine of free will it explain the suffering of disease, or of natural disasters like the Boxing Day Tsunami of 20 years ago?  I think it can – or at least it can begin to.  You see, it is not natural disasters themselves which cause suffering…it is the human response to them.  The Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004 killed so many people because the affected nations lacked early warning systems, or the wealth required to defend their homes and cities against a known threat, or the wisdom to build settlements away from the ocean’s edge.  People die in earthquakes for much the same reason.,  We now know how to build earth-quake-proof buildings.  But most nations lack the wealth and the wisdom required to do so.

Holy Innocents across the world are dying today, of disease and malnutrition, caused by their immense poverty.  That poverty is not the fault of those children or of their parents…it is the fault of all human beings who refuse to share the world’s resources.  What about Stephen Fry’s child with leukaemia?  The doctrine of free will says they are dying because human beings have spent their entire history fighting each other, instead of working together to find cures for common diseases.  

Natural disasters, disease and malnutrition continue to make Holy Innocents today because of the failure of human-kind to follow the call of God.  We have brought a curse upon ourselves, instead of the blessing which God offers.  If only we would learn how to love, how to share and how to act wisely!

 The choice which God has always given his people remains our choice today.  It’s the choice of all human beings everywhere…on the international stage, as well as in the local parish.  It’s the choice which you and I face every moment of every day.  Will we live God’s way?  Or will we choose our own?  And how many more ‘Holy Innocents’ do there need to be before we make up our minds?  Amen.

Friday, December 15, 2023

John the Baptiser - Prophet and Sceptic

This is certainly the week for thinking about John the Baptiser – he’s the focus of readings all through this week.  Today, I’d like to home in on one particular facet of John’s character – a facet which speaks directly to us today…and it’s this:  John was a sceptic.  After being thrown into prison, by King Herod, John sent a message to Jesus asking ‘Are you the Messiah?  Or are we to expect another?’.  This is the same John who didn’t become one of Jesus’ own disciples.  After having so enthusiastically announced Jesus’ coming, after formally recognising him by pointing at Jesus and declaring ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ – John, weirdly, carried on ploughing his own furrow…doing things his own way.  Some of John’s own disciples left John, and joined up with Jesus: but John himself, carried on angrily calling people to repentance with dire warnings.  He became such an annoyance, to the likes of the King, (over the King’s incestuous marriage) that he ended up locked up, and then beheaded. 

Jesus, on the other hand, preferred the tactic of Love.  John was all about winnowing forks and the baptism of fire.  Jesus was all about loving your neighbour.  John lived on the margins of society, shouting his warnings from the desert.  Jesus entered into the day to day lives of those he came to save.  So, John, it seems, was sceptical about Jesus. 

Scepticism is all around us, isn’t it?  We are – perhaps justifiably - sceptical about the Government’s promises to ‘stop the boats’ or ‘rebuild the NHS’.  We are sceptical even about the great national organs of balance and truth that we’ve trusted for generations, like the BBC or the great newspapers of our nation. 

Scepticism doesn’t just pervade our national life though.  It also pervades our thinking about God.  Just like John the Baptiser, we wonder whether Jesus’ claims to be God’s Son, indeed God himself, can really be true.  And, if we are not careful, our scepticism can drive us to throw aside everything we believe, and on which we have based our lives.

But scepticism is not, in itself, a bad thing.  Scepticism is part of a process of growth.  It’s part of ‘putting away childish things’ (as St Paul so memorably said – see 1 Cor.13).  For a sceptical mind is ultimately a questioning mind.  It’s the kind of mind which asks ‘where does this information come from?  Is it trustworthy?’  Philosophers and theologians have a long name for this kind of enquiring thought – they call it ‘epistemology’ – which essentially asks the question ‘how do we know what we think we know?’.  It’s a question that intelligent sceptics ask about the Bible, for example.  We are taught, by some parts of the church, that the Bible is the inerrant word of God.  But is it?  Really?  Or is it, rather, a collection of writings, by ancient ancestors, who were wrestling with the reality of God, just as we do?

Sceptical thought should lead us to deeper thought, and to greater understanding.  When John asked, via messengers, whether Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus said this to the messengers:  "Go your way, and tell John what things ye have seen and heard; how that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, to the poor the gospel is preached". (Lk 7.22). 

Notice how Jesus doesn’t get angry at John for his sceptical, doubting question.  Instead, he answers the question with a powerful illustration.  And invites John to arrive at a new understanding.  Sadly we don’t know what the results of Jesus’ answer to John’s question were….not least because the poor fellow literally lost his head a short time later.  But we can see that expressions of doubt, and scepticism, were not rejected by Jesus.  Instead, he confronted the sceptic head-on, and gave him new facts to consider.  And this is how the healthy work of scepticism should work for all religious people.  We should never be afraid of doubt, because doubt is part of the process of digging for truth.  Scepticism, used wisely, is the shovel we use to unearth the gold nuggets of real truth. 

Of course, like any human characteristic, it’s possible to take scepticism too far.  At the far end of religious scepticism, for example, we find the ultra-atheists, like every preacher’s ‘boogie-man’, Richard Dawkins.  I genuinely feel sorry for such atheists.  They become SO sceptical of religions, and of religious thought, that they lose all objectivity.  They fail to understand the simple truth that atheism is a faith position, too.  To state, categorically that God does not exist takes just as much faith as stating that God is real.  Both are faith positions.  Neither can be proved objectively.  Sadly, for the most prominent atheists, scepticism is no longer a shovel with which to dig for truth, but a bulldozer to cover over any view which is not his own.

When I was a child, I thought like a child.  But now I am a man, I have put away childish things.  But even now, I still can only see through a glass darkly…and therefore I need to embrace the grown-up, adult-brained task of being sceptical about my faith, and about my own political and world views.  That’s the adult thing to do.   As the Christmas story unfolds around us again, perhaps you might find yourself sceptical about any number of things.  Does it matter whether Jesus was born of a virgin?  What is an angel, anyway?  Why on earth would the civil authorities tell people to go back to the town of their birth to be counted in a census?  Why was the astrology of the Wise Men rewarded when the Bible commands us to ignore astrology? These (and many more) are all good questions to ask. 

And if you honestly seek answers to honest sceptical questions, I promise you that those answers will lead you into a much more profound, much more meaningful understanding of the truth.  You too can unearth – with your sceptical shovel - new understandings of the depth of the story about when God came to town.  A little town. Called Bethlehem.  Amen.

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

The mess and the madness of Christmas

 Text: Matthew 11.2-15

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, those with a skin disease are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What, then, did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What, then, did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,

‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,

    who will prepare your way before you.’

“Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist, yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and violent people take it by force. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John came, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. Let anyone with ears listen!


So here we are, in the middle of Advent – the time of waiting, and preparing for the coming of the Lord.  Not that you’d know it from the Christmas displays all over the place!  Yesterday, as I drove our new friends from Pakistan back from the airport, they were amazed at all the Christmas decorations festooning shop windows throughout the town.  Coming, as they do, from a strict Islamic society, such displays of Christmas are really unusual to them.

Of course, I explained to Naveen and his family that I really don’t approve of all this pre-Christmas celebration.  According to the church calendar, Christmas doesn’t start until the 25th of December.  Christmas trees and Christmas decorations absolutely should not be taken out of the boxes until Christmas Eve!  And, of course, they should all come down again on the 12th night after Christmas.  But such traditions mean nothing to the world around us, do they?  The merchants of the world can’t wait to start selling all the presents and Christmas tat we want to buy.  This year, adverts in our local pubs, inviting us to book our Christmas dinners, were displayed in August!    

But, woe betide the grumpy Vicar who tries to push against this tide of commercialism and profit-making!  There’s a story about a predecessor of mine, here at St Faith’s, who once made the grave error – or so it is said – of banning the playing of Christmas carols in the church until Christmas Eve.  This, I’m told, was not a popular decision with the members of the Mothers Union, who wanted to put on a Christmas market in early December.  But I confess to having some sympathy with my predecessor’s instincts.

History tells us, that both I and my predecessor are by no means the first Christian leaders to be suspicious of it all.  During the brief years of the English Republic, under Oliver Cromwell, Parliament passed a law, in 1647, which banned the celebration of Christmas altogether.  The Puritans, who were in a period of brief control, thoroughly disapproved of all the drunkenness and frivolity.  They disliked the waste and the racking up of debt for the purchase of Christmas presents which poor people could barely afford.  Special services and feasting were banned, and fines were imposed on anyone who ignored it.  This was not a popular measure with the general populace, though.  Riots took place in Kent and elsewhere.  In 1652, the Government re-inforced the ban with even tighter rules.  But ultimately, the Puritans lost the battle, and after the restoration of the Monarchy, the full excess of Christmas returned with a bang.

Commercialized Christmas has become a millstone around many families’ necks.  This is even more the case at a time of the steeply rising cost of living.  There are families all over this country who seriously worry about how they can afford to give their children the mountain of plastic toys that children expect today.  Some will go into considerable debt, so that their little darlings won’t think that Santa loves them less than the child next door.  Worse still, at time of environmental crisis, Christmas requires the cutting down of millions of trees, for wrapping paper and cards, crackers and party hats, let alone actual trees to display in our churches and homes.  No doubt huge quantities of oil are used in the manufacture and shipping of all those plastic toys, wrapped in yet more cardboard, to be played with once on Christmas day, and then donated to charity shops and rubbish tips a few weeks later.

But there is little I can do to shift the public mood.  Like John the Baptiser, I feel like a voice crying in the wilderness: “Make straight the highway for the coming of the Lord!”. In other words, “make your path towards Christmas one of increasing holiness, increasing charity, increasing reflection on the deep truths of the earth-shattering, paradigm-shifting Nativity of our Lord.”  But I know that I am wasting my breath.   

So, like many who feel like me, I shrug my shoulders, switch on the Christmas lights, and attend the rolling carousel of pre-Christmas school concerts, turkey dinners, and festive concerts.  Until, with everyone else, I slump exhausted in my chair on Christmas day.  People are rarely ready to hear the radical message of Christmas – the uncomfortable truth that Christmas doesn’t arrive with Santa, and stockings, and mince pies, and turkey and plastic toys, and mulled wine and Christmas trees, and concerts and greetings cards and crackers and lights.  It arrives in the depths of darkness, with the cry of a baby, utterly dependent on the love of his parents.  Born in poverty. Born to die.  “Born to raise the sons of earth, boprn to give them second birth”; the birth of the Spirit of God within every human soul.  Christmas arrives with the attempt of a King – Herod - to kill God’s revolution in its cradle – just as Palestinian children are being killed right now in the same streets, in the land called Holy.  Christmas arrives with a radical message of peace on earth, sung by angels, calling humanity to a new way, a better way, the way of radical forgiveness and the constant quest for peace.  “Oh hush the noise, ye men of strife, and hear the Angels sing!”

Perhaps this is why Jesus later said of John the Baptiser that he was greater than any other person of woman born.  By his choice to live apart from the world, eating locust and honey in the desert, calling the people to radical change, to repentance, to baptism, John was planting his radical ‘no’ to the customs and the waste of his own time.  But, as we heard in this morning’s gospel, as great as he was, John is less than the least in the Kingdom of Heaven.  John’s response to the waste, and the violence, and the greed of his time was to stand apart from it all – to disappear into the desert, and to live off the meagre offerings of the land.  But Jesus brought the Kingdom of Heaven into reality…and he didn’t do it in the desert.  Jesus arrived in the midst of humanity, in a town so crowded that he had to be born in a stable.  He lived alongside people, feasting with them, celebrating with them, being one of them, but also apart from them.

This then, is the trick that we inheritors and progenitors of the Kingdom need to learn.  Being a grumpy old moaner about the waste and frivolity of Christmas actually gets us nowhere.  Running away screaming from the silly season may be very appealing, just as it was for John the Baptiser in the desert.  But joining in, embracing the madness, and finding ways to turn eyes away from the darkness, and towards the light of the world….that is the way of Jesus, and the way of the kingdom.  Being born into the muck and the chaos of humanity – that’s the way of Jesus.  Being present for the poor shepherd, the misguided wise man, the homeless drunk, the struggling parent: that is the way of the Lord.  And that, my friends, is the true message of Christmas.     


Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Schism in the Church of England - Part 2

Two weeks ago, as some of you may remember, I preached about the impending schism in the Anglican church, over same-sex blessings.  I won’t repeat what I said then – you can look it up for yourselves online.  But just for a little context, let me repeat my main points.

I talked about how the recent decision of the General Synod had led to a stern response from the Church of England Evangelical Council – and some actions on their part which are likely to lead to a permanent schism.  The core issue, I suggested, is the view that different Christians hold about the authority of Scripture.  I said that there are some who hold the Bible in very high regard, and call it ‘the Word of God’.  There are others, like me, who believe the Bible to be an important collection of Scriptures, inspired by God and the story of God, useful for teaching and instruction, but ultimately pointing towards the true Word of God, Jesus.  I went on to suggest that Jesus is our ultimate authority on all matters of doctrine – and that if Jesus was silent on a particular, specific issues (like permanent, faithful, same-sex unions) we would be wise to turn to his more general principles of love, forgiveness, and tolerance – ‘charity’ in other words.

So far so good.  No-one who heard that sermon here in church seemed to have any difficulty with it.  At least no-one tackled me at the door, afterwards, and told me that I was mistaken.  But the same could not be said of when that sermon hit the internet, a few hours later.  Since then, the sermon has been viewed about 3,000 times, and I have been pilloried by a very vocal and angry sub-section of the Christian church.  I have been called a heretic, and godless.  I have been repeatedly commanded to repent of my apostate views.  Multiple single phrases of Scripture have been posted on my YouTube page, intended to imply that I am a wolf in sheep’s clothing, an unworthy teacher, and an enemy of Christ.  It’s been quite a challenging fortnight – I can tell you!

It is clear that I have touched a raw nerve among a certain section of the wider church who cling persistently to the idea that the Bible is the sovereign, immutable, inerrant Word of God.  Why this may be, I’m not certain.  No doubt there are a number of reasons – and each person who has so pointedly struck out at me will have their own reasons for doing so.  For some, it may be a semi-autistic need for certainty – and an inability to live in the grey theological world of mystery, between black and white immoveable statements about the things of God.  Others may be hiding a unconscious belief in patriarchy, or they perhaps have misogynistic tendancies – since the Bible clearly defines the superiority of men over women (for all practical purposes). If we no longer consider the Bible to be the Word of God, this means radically re-evaluating our views about male headship of churches and the family – and that’s a challenge to some people.  Some, no doubt, hold their firm views as a result of the teaching they have received from loved and respected pastors – without ever having tested such teaching against the wider wisdom of the church, through the discipline of theology.  Some people are intellectually lazy, and are quite happy to have others do their thinking for them.

The saddest part of the debate for me is that lack of historical knowledge among my detractors. They do not seem to realise, for example, that the status of Scripture has been a real and live debate in the Christian church throughout its history.  The early church councils and synods wrestled with it, constantly – including centuries-long debates about which books should be considered ‘in’ or ‘out’ of the Bible.  Those debates have continued right through the church’s history – and even today, different version of the Bible, with different books included or excluded, are published by different sections of the church.  

With regard to same-sex unions, my detractors are ignorant of something called ‘adelphopoesis’ – or ‘brothering’.  That was a formal liturgical ceremony in which two people of the same sex could be legally and formally joined together as ‘brothers’ (nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more).  It was a common ceremony up until the Reformation, and shows that historically, the church was rather more tolerant of same-sex unions than many, today, suppose.  

Today, we are invited by the Lectionary to consider St Ambrose.  He was a Bishop of Milan, in the 4th century, who was prominent in the battle against a heresy known as Arianism.  Arianism was a theological view held by many clergy and bishops of the time.  It was centered on a discussion about the divinity of Christ.  Essentially, Arians believed that Jesus was the son of God, begotten by God, but not God himself.  He was not, in other words, a member of the Trinity – but rather, a created being, through whom God then brought the world into being.  Arianism is strongly reflected in Islam, in which Jesus is highly venerated, but not treated as God.  Muslims reject the concept of the Trinity.

It was – and remains - an important distinction – especially in discussions around the exact purpose of the Crucifixion.  If one believes that God himself went to the Cross to redeem us, that’s a rather different picture from the idea of God sending his son to the Cross.  If it is God who hung on the cross, taking upon himself the sins of the world, then we know that we have a God who loves us literally to death.  But if God only sends his son, as a ransom for sin, then God is open to the accusation of being some kind of distant deity, and angry judge who needs appeasing, and at worst a cosmic child-abuser.  

These were vital issues for the early church.  They argued about it constantly.  Various edicts were issued by Bishops and Emperors for the burning of books on Arianism, and even the execution of anyone found in possession of such materials.  And it is a debate which still rumbles on in theology today – especially (as I’ve already mentioned) in the treatment of the divinity of Christ by Islam, but also by Unitarian Christians.  

Doing theology seriously, you see, requires us to live in the grey world of mystery.  As I’ve often stated, our tiny brains are simply not up to fully comprehending the mystery and majesty of God.  Any of us, at any time, might consider that we’ve reached firm and unassailable knowledge about God.  We may be utterly certain that we are right about, for example, the authority of the Bible.  Or we might imagine that we have completely comprehended God’s opinion about same-sex unions, or the divinity of Christ, or the efficacy of prayer.  But serious students of God, who’ve read the history of the church, and thought hard about the theological questions of the ages, soon come to the conclusion that all our supposed knowledge is provisional.  At any moment, the Holy Spirit is likely to shake us out of our certainty, rattle our complacency, and knock down the ivory towers of certainty that we love to battle over. 

We can never stop peeling back the layers of knowledge about God.  That’s part of the great beauty, and also the deep frustration of theology – once called the Queen of the Sciences.  And its why, despite the slings and arrows hurled at me by people lucky enough to be completely certain they are right, I will continue to call myself an honest and continual seeker after Truth.  And I hope you will continue to seek that Truth with me.  Amen.