Doubting Thomas?

April 7, 2013

Thomas. by Carl Heinrich Bloch

Thomas.
by Carl Heinrich Bloch

 

(John 20, 19-31. Easter 2, Yr C)

How do you feel about the apostle Thomas, whose story we have just heard from the Gospel according to John? Do you identify with him? Or do you condemn him, as the Christian Church has tended to do for most of its history, as ‘Doubting Thomas’?

Jesus gave some of his disciples additional names: Simon became Peter, the Rock, and James and John were called Boanerges, the Sons of Thunder; but we don’t usually remember the meaning of these nowadays. We don’t remember any other of the disciples by a name that commemorate one incident in their lives.   Simon Peter is not remembered as “the Denier” or James and John as “those who asked for the best positions”. The name of Judas has become a synonym for betrayal; but only slightly less reprehensible than being a ‘Judas’, it seems, is to be a “Doubting Thomas”.

The reading we had was one of the three ‘resurrection appearances’ of Jesus recorded in the Gospel according to John. Each of the four gospels has a very different record of the ‘appearances’ of Jesus after his death and burial, and St Paul’s gives yet another account in his letters. This makes it clear that what we are dealing with here is not historical fact, but myth or parable – stories which are meant to convey meaning and truth. The truth of a parable does not depend on whether the story describes something that really happened. So we should leave aside the question of whether what John the Evangelist describes actually occurred. The question we need to ask  is “What is he trying to convey through this story?”

In John’s account, the first appearance is to Mary Magdalene, in the garden beside the tomb. She doesn’t recognise Jesus until he calls her name. She is forbidden to touch him because ‘he has not yet ascended to the Father’. For John, resurrection, ascension and coming in glory are not events separated in calendar time; they all happen on Easter Day.

So, the appearances in the locked room in Jerusalem are of the ascended and glorified Jesus, although a Jesus who still bears the visible scars of crucifixion. He shows the disciples the marks on his hands and side. John’s resurrection parable tells us very strongly that it is the crucified Jesus who is raised to glory and whose life and death are vindicated by God. Resurrection does not cancel out the crucifixion.

Then he commissions them to continue his mission, to go to teach the world as he taught the world. As he was the agent of the Father in his earthly ministry, the disciples, and those who will come to belief through their witness, become the agents of God in their turn, speaking the message of new birth, new life and hope by the Spirit to those who are broken and fearful, hiding behind locked doors in their particular world.

Having revealed his glorified self to them, and commissioned them to continue his ministry, Jesus then empowers them for the task, by breathing the Holy Spirit on them. Again, the sequence of events in John’s account is very different from the synoptic gospel accounts, where the gift of the Holy Spirit comes later. John’s resurrection narrative has many echoes of the second creation narrative in Genesis: new life begins in a garden; God breathes into human beings to give them life. In other places in the Old Testament, God gives life through breath or spirit, for instance in the valley of dry bones which represent Israel in Ezekiel.

Although John’s  Gospel speaks of several different ways of entering new life (through rebirth to Nicodemus in Chapter 3 and through living water, perhaps meaning baptism, at the Festival of Shelter) the gift of new life through the Holy Spirit is particularly significant. In his farewell discourses at the last supper, John’s Jesus says he will be away from the disciples and they will not see him for a little while. Then after a little while they will see him. He promises he will come again to them, and give them another advocate, to replace himself, who will lead them into all truth. The gift of the Spirit fulfils these promises.

It is only after the gift of the Holy Spirit that Jesus gives the disciples the authority to forgive sins. John teaches that is only those who are united by the Spirit with the God of love revealed through Jesus who know the truth, and can judge what is sinful and what is not. It is only those who are at one with the God through the Spirit, as Jesus was, who have the authority to act in God’s name.

Sunday evening was one time when Christian communities in the Apostolic Age gathered to share worship and eat a fellowship meal together. So the messages in the two appearances, a week apart, are clearly directed to the communities for which John is writing.

The statement by Thomas that he will not believe until he has seen the marks of the nails and put his hand into the spear wound in Jesus’s side leads into the second appearance. ‘Believe’ is a very rich word in the gospels, and has quite a different meaning from the way it is usually used in religious circles today. As Marcus Borg points out it does not mean believing a whole lot of statements about God and Jesus, such as those contained in the creeds. It comes from the old English word ‘be love’ and is more about love, trust, faithfulness and commitment, than intellectual assent to a number of propositions. It is more about ‘believing in’ than ‘belief’.

Thomas is not prepared to make his commitment to the Risen Son at second hand. But note what he asks to see – the marks of the nails and the spear – the wounds. He is clear that ‘belief’ involves identifying with the crucified Lord in his suffering. He is not one of those disciples who wants the glory without the suffering. Easter without Good Friday.

Jesus grants Thomas his wish by appearing the next Sunday evening. John makes clear that the appearances in Jerusalem are not of a physical body – it can appear and disappear at will through solid walls. Although invited to touch, Thomas doesn’t need to. Once he has seen the wounds, he pronounces the standard Christian confession of faith: ‘My Lord and my God’.

Jesus’s response is usually translated as a question, and as accusatory. “Have you believed because you have seen?” But the Greek in which the gospel was written does not reverse word order in order to indicate a question, nor did it have punctuation marks. Just as Jesus’s response to Pilate’s question ‘Are you the King of the Jews” can be translated “I am” or “Am I?” so this can also be translated not as a question, but a statement. “You have believed because you saw me.  Blessed are those who have not seen, yet come to believe.” This combination of statements gives equal affirmation to those who believe because they have visions in which they see, hear or touch Christ, as Paul says he did; and those who believe because of the witness of others, as most of us will have done. The first witnesses have no privileged place over those who follow.

Thomas, likes the other disciples, is now transformed: joyful where before he was fearful, and at peace, whereas before he was disturbed by the apparent failure of Jesus’s mission. The final sentences of our reading (which most scholars believe was the original end of John’s Gospel) explain that the account of the signs has been written to inspire belief and commitment to Jesus as Messiah and Son of God. It implies that John’s communities of Christians will be ‘people of the book’. They will no longer rely on visions, nor on the oral tradition, but on John’s account of the signs and his explanations of their meaning to know the truth.

Thomas, the account shows us, was not a doubter. He knew what had happened to Jesus on the cross and that he was dead. He didn’t want a happy ending, but evidence that God had approved and glorified Jesus for the path of service and suffering he had followed. Once he was assured of that, he was a faithful disciple, passing on through word and his own example that the way to be at one with God was through the path of service to others, and non-violent resistance to the forces of domination and oppression.

John’s account of the resurrection challenges us in turn, people who have come to faith through the witness of those who wrote the gospel accounts and the other books of the New Testament, to have faith in that same path. It tells us that the opposite to faith, which is belief as commitment, is not doubt, but fear, cynicism and despair. It tells us we are called to be communities of hope, committed to Jesus and the way of life he taught. We are called to bring that hope to places and people where it is absent – even to those who don’t share our particular way of commitment to God. We are called to move out of our comfort zones, out of the familiar and the safe, to follow our Lord and God into the new life he promises, accompanied by the Holy Spirit, who is our Comforter and Advocate.

May we hear and respond to this message of the Resurrection, as Thomas did.

Amen

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The Resurrection

March 31, 2013

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Easter  2013

Acts 10, 34-43; 1 Cor. 15, 19-26; Luke 24, 1-12.1

Some years ago, on Good Friday, The Times reported on a survey by The Spectator  in which the diocesan bishops of the Church of England were asked the question: ‘Do you believe in the physical resurrection of Christ?’ Rather to the surprise of the author, two thirds of them answered ‘yes’. However, about a quarter of the bishops declined to answer ( sensible men! ) and a further three bishops gave what were called ‘more subtle answers’. Nevertheless, this survey prompted the Times’  journalist to draw the conclusion that ‘At least three quarters of the Church of England’s bishops still proclaim a belief in the literal truth of the story of Easter and the physical resurrection of Jesus as described in the Bible.’

However, when you read what the bishops are said to have replied, things are not so clear. The Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones said: “I believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus for both historical and theological reasons. The fact that Jesus appeared to over 500 people at one time shows that it was not a subjective but an objective experience”.

A spokesman for the Archbishop of York said: “The Archbishop believes that the physical body of our Lord was raised from the dead on the first Easter morning and that it assumed a spiritual form which continued to sustain the Apostles and the early Church until the Ascension”.

A spokesman for the Archbishop of Canterbury said: “Jesus Christ is risen. That is a fact’.

The Bishop of St. Edmundsbury and Ipswich said: “It’s immaterial whether Christ was resurrected in body or spirit” and the Bishop of Bristol said: “I stand by the tradition of the church and St. Paul in particular, that we celebrate at Easter the rising of a spiritual body”.

The article did not record what other comments these bishops and others may have made. However, it recorded the results of another survey, of the general public by another journal, which showed that one third of 1000 people questioned believes in the biblical version of the resurrection, and half believed there was another explanation. I was not one of the 1000, but if I had been, I would have been a rather uncooperative respondent. Before answering I would have asked ‘Which of the biblical accounts of the resurrection do you mean?’ and ‘What exactly do you mean by resurrection?’

The problem is that we communicate our beliefs about the resurrection of Jesus in words; but words are very inadequate and often misleading things to describe the transcendent reality that is the Easter experience. Whenever you put an experience into words, you are already beginning to interpret it. Moreover, you have to interpret it according to words which reflect your thought forms and already existing beliefs, and those of the culture from which you come.

The biblical accounts of the first Easter began with the experiences of 1st century Jews whose world view was very different from that with which we operate. When these experiences were written down, they were written in Greek, within a Hellenistic Jewish culture. The Bible as we know it was then translated into Latin, and finally into English at different periods of English history.  Each of these translation processes would inevitably have slightly affected the way the experience was expressed and understood, simply because there is very rarely an exact one for one correspondence between the words of different languages.

Let me just give you one example of how it affects our understanding of the Easter story. The Greek noun  ‘resurrection’ amastasir appears hardly at all in the New Testament, When what happened to Jesus is described, verbs are used, and mostly verbs in the passive. That is, the New Testament does not talk about Jesus’s  ‘resurrection’ or even ‘rising’ from the dead, but  about Jesus ‘being raised’ by God from death to heaven. But when we proclaim our faith, we never say ‘Jesus was raised’, always ‘Christ is risen’. Interpretation and translation have altered our understanding.

What is more, there are a number of accounts of the raising of Jesus, and appearing to people, and these have a number of differences, more than would be expected if these were just different witnesses to the same event.

The earliest account, in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, speaks of Jesus dying, being buried, and being raised on the third day according to the scriptures. He then appears to Cephas (Simon Peter), to the twelve (note 12 – not 11- even though Judas was supposed to be dead by now!) then to 500 people at once, then to James, then to all the apostles (who are they?) and lastly to Paul himself. There are several things to note about this account. Paul does not mention the women, the tomb, or any demonstration of a physical body, and he gives his own appearance of the risen Lord (at least a year or more after the crucifixion) exactly the same status as the earlier appearances to the first followers and family of Jesus. What is more, in the same epistle he argues that the body which is raised is a spiritual body, not a physical one, since ‘flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God’.

The Gospel of Mark records that Mary Magdalene and two other named women go to the tomb in Jerusalem in order to anoint the body and are told by a young man that Jesus is not there, he has been raised and they are to tell the disciples to go to Galilee to see him. No appearances are described. Matthew has Mary Magdalene and another Mary going to the tomb (no Salome) to be told by an angel that Jesus has been raised and to tell the disciples to go to Galilee to see him. They then meet Jesus, worship him and the message is repeated. The eleven disciples go to Galilee and Jesus comes to them on a mountain and commissions them to  go and baptize in his name.

Luke, as we heard, has an unspecified number of women going to the tomb, to be told by two angels that Jesus has been raised. They are reminded of Jesus’ predictions of his resurrection, and go back to tell the disciples. Mary Magdalene and some others are now named. They tell the disciples, who don’t believe them. Peter goes to see the tomb, and sees the grave clothes lying but no body.  The first appearance of Jesus is to Cleopas (a hitherto unknown disciple) and his companion on the way to Emmaus. It comes in the context of the exposition of Scripture and the breaking of bread. Jesus then appears to the disciples and others in Jerusalem and tells them to touch him and see he has flesh and bones, and he then eats a piece of cooked fish. He then tells them to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit (no trip to Galilee!) and then takes them to Bethany, from where he is carried up to heaven. This ascension story is repeated in the beginning of Acts, except there it is on Mt. Olivet near Jerusalem, and happens after 40 days. The coming of the Spirit happens several days later, on the feast of Pentecost.

In John’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene alone goes to the tomb and finds the stone rolled away. She is not going to anoint the body, since Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea have already done that before the burial. She calls Peter and the Beloved Disciple who run to the tomb. Peter enters the tomb and sees the grave clothes, as does the Beloved Disciple, who believes (in what is not specified). There are no angels.  It is specifically said that the disciples did not yet understand the scripture that he must rise up. (John unusually uses the active verb ).

Jesus then appears to Mary, and tells her he is ascending to God (not that he has risen!) That evening, Jesus appears to the disciples in Jerusalem through a locked door, and shows them his feet and side. He then breathes on them and gives the Holy Spirit (no separate Pentecost gift). He appears again a week later the same way, through locked doors, and convinces Thomas to believe. The final chapter of John (which many scholars believe to be a later addition) records an appearance of Jesus by the Sea of Galilee to Simon, Thomas, Nathanael, James and John and two other disciples. This involves a fishing trip similar to one described before the calling of the disciples in Luke’s gospel. The disciples do not at first recognise Jesus. They share a meal of fish and bread. This is described as the third appearance, but seems very like a first encounter with the risen Lord. Peter is then forgiven for his denial, and commissioned to lead the church and the manner of his death is predicted.

So, when people say they ‘believe in the physical resurrection of Christ as described in the Bible’  which of these accounts are they referring to? Quite apart from the discrepancies in the appearances, there are inconsistencies in the descriptions of the burial and the tomb that make it inconceivable to me that what is being described is an objective historical occurrence.

I believe, as do  many Christian theologians whose judgement I trust, that these Scriptures are attempting to communicate,  in symbol and myth, reworking the religious traditions of Judaism in the form known as midrash, the experience of the first disciples of Jesus, men and women, that we know as ‘the resurrection’. John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg describe these accounts as ‘parable’, and point out that the truth of a parable does not depend on it having a basis in fact or history. What matters about a parable is its meaning.

This experience was real. We know that by its effects: by the change in the people who were the first members of the Christian Church from frightened men and women who ran home and hid, to those who were prepared to face persecution and death for their faith in Jesus as their Lord; by the change in them from orthodox Jews who held that the ‘Lord our God is one’ to followers of a new ‘Way’ who preached that Jesus of Nazareth had been taken up into God; by the change in them from those who shunned contact with non-Jews to those who preached the Jewish Messiah to all the known world; from those who saw death on a cross as a sign of separation from God, to those who saw it as the gateway to eternal life in God’s presence.

So the proper question to ask of the Easter narratives in the Bible is not ‘Did it really happen?’ expecting answers in terms of things that could be photographed and  videoed if they happened now. Rather the question we need to ask of the Scriptures is: What did the experience mean to those first disciples, especially Mary Magdalene Peter, and Paul, that led to the dramatic change in them?   This is a question that goes beyond the arguments about what literally happened into the realm of the eternal and the transcendent – the world of the Spirit.

Crossan and Borg suggest several things that the Easter stories tell us. The first is that Jesus is not to be found among the dead, but among the living. He is to be experienced through the Holy Spirit and in people living out his teaching in every age. The second is that, in raising Jesus to Heaven, God expresses his approval of Jesus and his way of life. He vindicates him against the power systems of the Roman Empire that killed him, and all such power systems, and those who collude with them. The resurrection asserts that these systems will not ultimately triumph over God’s Kingdom. Third, the Easter stories tell us that Jesus is Lord and Son of God, not the Roman Emperor. We follow his way, not the way of power and violence, when we live in God’s Kingdom; and that way will bring us life that is eternal.

If I am asked: Do you believe in the Resurrection?, I would answer: Yes. I believe that Jesus was raised after his death to glory with God. If I was asked if the disciples saw the risen Lord? I would again answer: Yes. I believe that at some time after the crucifixion (not necessarily on the third day, or after 3 days and nights, since that is ‘religious time’ ) the disciples saw Jesus in his exalted and glorified body, and that this was an experience shared by many people, some of whom are named in different parts in the New Testament and some of whom are anonymous. If I am asked if I believe that Jesus is alive? I would answer: Yes, in the same way that I believe all of us who have faith in his revelation of God are transformed, renewed and alive in a way physical death has no power to extinguish.

Christ has been raised. We may be raised with him. Alleluia!

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Opening Music: Schubert. Death and the Maiden (arr Mahler) 

Introduction 

This afternoon, we will hear the last chapter of Mark’s Passion Narrative. Mark’s Gospel has been described as a Passion Narrative with an extended introduction. One eighth of its 16 chapters cover the Passion.

It has a different emphasis from the Passion narratives in the other other three Gospels. Like the rest of Mark’s Gospel, it presents Jesus as the Suffering Servant of God, and as the misunderstood and unrecognised Messiah. He is powerless from the moment of his arrest in the garden. He does nothing; things are done to him. He says very little. From the moment he answers Pilate saying “You say I am” he is silent until his final cry from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

In Mark’s Passion, Jesus is totally forsaken. His disciples all run away and deny knowing him. The woman who love him stand far off. Passers by mock him, and even the insurgents crucified alongside him taunt him. At the end he feels that even God has deserted him.

Try to hear Mark’s Passion story without any echoes of the other Gospels – as Mark intended you to hear it.

Why does Mark say Jesus died? There is no hint of a sacrificial death or penal substitution. Mark says Jesus died because he was obedient to the will of God, following what he believed was God’s will, even if it meant his own death. He died because of the wickedness of his enemies in Jerusalem and Rome, because he stood up  against the religious and political power systems that oppressed ordinary people, and these reacted in the way they normally do. He died because of the sinfulness of his world, which is still our world. He died as a ransom for many and to effect a new covenant with God, open to all.

So how is this Good News for this Good Friday? This passion appeals to those who are oppressed or suffering or depressed, because it tells them that the way they are treading, Jesus has trodden before them. It says that through his acceptance of suffering and death, Jesus is vindicated as King of Israel and Son of God. It says that all those who are his disciples and follow him on the Way of the Cross will, like him, be vindicated by God and raised to glory.

Hymn:When I survey the wondrous Cross

Reading: Mark 15, 1-15. Jesus before Pilate

As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. 2Pilate asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ He answered him, ‘You say so.’ 3Then the chief priests accused him of many things. 4Pilate asked him again, ‘Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.’ 5But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed.

6 Now at the festival he used to release a prisoner for them, anyone for whom they asked. 7Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection. 8So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom. 9Then he answered them, ‘Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?’ 10For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over. 11But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead. 12Pilate spoke to them again, ‘Then what do you wish me to do* with the man you call* the King of the Jews?’ 13They shouted back, ‘Crucify him!’ 14Pilate asked them, ‘Why, what evil has he done?’ But they shouted all the more, ‘Crucify him!’ 15So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.

Silence

Music: Henry Purcell. Funeral Music. 

Confession: 

Merciful God,

For the things we have done which we regret, forgive us.

For the things which we have failed to do which we regret, forgive us.

For all the times we have acted without love, forgive us.

For all the times we have reacted without thought, forgive us.

For all the times we have withdrawn care, forgive us.

For all the times we have failed to forgive, forgive us.

For hurtful words said, and helpful words unsaid,

for unfinished tasks and unfulfilled hopes,

God of all time,

forgive us and help us to lay down our burdens of regret.

Holy God, holy and strong, holy and immortal, have mercy on us. Amen.

Hymn:  My song is love unknown (463)

Reading: Mark 15, 16 – 20  The soldiers mock Jesus

16 Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters*); and they called together the whole cohort. 17And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. 18And they began saluting him, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ 19They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. 20After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.

Silence

Music: Karl Jenkins, Sanctus from The Armed Man: a Mass for Peace

Prayer:

Thanks be to you, our Lord Jesus Christ,

for all the benefits you have won for us,

for all the pains and insults you have borne for us.

O most merciful redeemer, friend and brother,

may we know you more clearly,

love you more dearly,

and follow you more nearly,

day by day.

Amen

Hymn: Praise to the holiest

Reading: Mark 15, 21-32 Jesus is crucified

21 They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus. 22Then they brought Jesus* to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull). 23And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it. 24And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take.

25 It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. 26The inscription of the charge against him read, ‘The King of the Jews.’ 27And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left.* 29Those who passed by derided* him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, 30save yourself, and come down from the cross!’ 31In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. 32Let the Messiah,* the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.’ Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.

Silence

Music:  Karl Jenkins. Benedictus from The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace

Prayer:

Merciful God,

Creator of all the peoples of the earth,

have compassion on those who do not know you

and on those who have hardened their hearts against your love.

May the grace and power of that love gather us together

in your presence.

We pray this in the Spirit of the One who forgave them

for they knew not what they did.  Amen

Hymn: Drop, drop slow tears

Reading: Psalm 22 1- 31

1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.

3 Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
4 In you our ancestors trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
5 To you they cried, and were saved;
in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.

6 But I am a worm, and not human;
scorned by others, and despised by the people.
7 All who see me mock at me;
they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;
8 ‘Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver—
let him rescue the one in whom he delights!’

9 Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
10 On you I was cast from my birth,
and since my mother bore me you have been my God.
11 Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help.

12 Many bulls encircle me,
strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
13 they open wide their mouths at me,
like a ravening and roaring lion.

14 I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
it is melted within my breast;
15 my mouth* is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
you lay me in the dust of death.

16 For dogs are all around me;
a company of evildoers encircles me.
My hands and feet have shrivelled;*
17 I can count all my bones.
They stare and gloat over me;
18 they divide my clothes among themselves,
and for my clothing they cast lots.

19 But you, O Lord, do not be far away!
O my help, come quickly to my aid!
20 Deliver my soul from the sword,
my life* from the power of the dog!
21   Save me from the mouth of the lion!

From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued* me.

22 I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters;*
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
23 You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him;
stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
24 For he did not despise or abhor
the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me,*
but heard when I* cried to him.

25 From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
my vows I will pay before those who fear him.
26 The poor* shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek him shall praise the Lord.
May your hearts live for ever!

27 All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the Lord;
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before him.*
28 For dominion belongs to the Lord,
and he rules over the nations.

29 To him,* indeed, shall all who sleep in* the earth bow down;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
and I shall live for him.*
30 Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord,
31 and* proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
saying that he has done it.

Anthem: Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Prayer:

God of compassion,

have mercy on all who cry out to you

out of darkness and despair,

and strengthen us as we face the cost of discipleship,

in union with your Son,

our Redeemer, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Reading: Mark 15, 33-47 Jesus’s death and burial  

33 When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land* until three in the afternoon. 34At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’* 35When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, ‘Listen, he is calling for Elijah.’ 36And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.’ 37Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. 38

Silence

And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 39Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he* breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’*

Silence

40 There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. 41These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.

42 When evening had come, and since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath, 43Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. 44Then Pilate wondered if he were already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he had been dead for some time. 45When he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the body to Joseph. 46Then Joseph* bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body,* wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock. He then rolled a stone against the door of the tomb. 47Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where the body* was laid.

Silence

Music: Fauré In Paradisum from Requiem.  

Prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ, crucified for us,

help us to see and know your love for us.

Help us to see the cost of our forgiveness,

so that we may be made new through your love.

Amen.

Hymn:  O dearest Lord, thy sacred head

Final Prayer

Jesus, Lord of the Cross,

We thank you that you went into

the heart of our evil and pain, along a way that was both terrible and wonderful,

as you kingship became your brokenness

and your dying became love’s triumph.

We bow down before the cross in wonder and sorrow.

Holy God, holy and strong,

Holy and immortal,

Have mercy on us.

Music. Elgar. Cello Concerto. Adagio


Giving Up…….

March 3, 2013

Lent 3 Yr C. (Isaiah 55, 1-9; Psalm 63, 1-8; 1 Cor. 10, 1-13; Luke 13, 1-9)

fig tree

How’s Lent going for you? Have you managed to avoid all the things you resolved to give up? Have you done that extra praying or Bible reading, or attended the Lent groups you promised to take up? Now we’re nearly at the mid point of Lent, it may be good time to review.

There’s an ongoing discussion about what Lent is for. Most of us know that it began in the early church as a period of preparation for Easter, when new members were admitted to the Church in baptism, and those who had been excommunicated for serious sin were allowed back into  communion. It was then extended to be a period of discipline for everyone, to prepare them for the greatest feast of the Christian year, the celebration of Christ’s resurrection at Easter.

Alongside the idea of disciplined preparation, there was also the idea that Christians should attempt to walk alongside Christ, and try to identify with his sacrifice, in imitation of the 40 days in the wilderness.

The ‘giving up’ part of the discipline was based on the concept that what got in the way of identifying with Christ were ‘sins of the flesh’ particularly sex, eating and drinking. It reflected a very gloomy idea of God, as one who disapproved of everything that made life enjoyable, and whose reaction to human wrongdoing was to come down strongly with devastating punishment. The message was that you could only please that sort of divinity, or try to avoid the punishment that was coming to you, if you made yourself thoroughly uncomfortable and miserable.

We can see hints of that idea of God in the reading from 1 Corinthians. Paul sees the disasters that fell on the Israelites in the wilderness as punishments sent by God for their idolatry and sexual immorality, complaining and pleasure seeking, and highlights them as a warning to the followers of Jesus who might be tempted to do the same.

The same idea of God is found in the first part of the Gospel reading from Luke.  The idea was frequently expressed that illness or disaster was a sign of punishment for wrongdoing, or just of God’s disfavour. Other people’s misfortune, says this bit of Luke, is a warning to mend our ways. It’s almost as if we believe God trying to frighten us into being good, and if we make ourselves thoroughly miserable, along with saying sorry, he won’t be so hard on us.

But parts of the readings give us another, rather different picture of God. The passage from 3rd Isaiah, pictures a God who is eager to give people the richest food, wine and the best of meals at absolutely no cost to themselves. It pictures a God who is eager to reward his people, in keeping with the covenant made with them, and is ready to forgive them their wrongdoing the moment they turn back to follow him. It makes the point that God ‘s ways are very different from human ways; he doesn’t automatically strike out at those who disobey, as a human ruler would. God is love, not power. God builds up, rather than destroys. Psalm 63 also reflects the picture of a God who fills those who follow him with good things, and offers protection to them, rather than punishment.

And the second part of the Luke passage again challenges the idea of a divinity whose first instinct is to punish and destroy those who don’t live up to the divine standard. The fig tree and the vineyard are both Biblical images for the people of God. The master is all for giving up on those who fail, and destroying them. The gardener, however, the person who truly cares for what is growing, however, is willing to give them another chance.

Lent gives us ‘another chance’ each year to repent in the proper meaning of the word, to turn our minds and our lives round, and to live more authentically the lives that Jesus showed us how to live, under the sovereignty of God.

There’s been a lot of rethinking recently about how we can best use the season to do that.

Giving up things, like chocolate, cake, alcohol, TV or cigarettes has tended to go out of fashion, in Christian circles at any rate. There’s come to be a feeling that it has more to do with a desire for the body beautiful than spiritual discipline. I read a remark recently that giving things up for Lent is sometimes just having another go at keeping the New Year’s resolutions you’re failing to keep by the time February comes round.

There is also the tendency for humans to turn even good exercises into competitions, which means they end up being about ourselves, and our own pride, rather than bringing us closer to God.

Mark Sandlin, a minister in the Episcopal church in America, wrote recently how he got caught up in this ‘devotional one-upmanship’ one Lent. Sacrificing just one pleasure seemed too little a sacrifice – so each year he added something else, till one year he gave up all beverages except water, all meat, all TV and all sweets except his birthday cake, as well as adding extra exercise, daily devotions and charitable giving. And he admits that part of the reason was that when people asked (as he knew they would) what he was doing for Lent, he’d come out looking really holy and righteous.

So, one year, he gave up Lent for Lent. He took a careful look at the things that most people give up for Lent, and concluded that they weren’t actually the things that really get in the way of our right relationship with God. Such obstacles are very unlikely to be alcohol, or chocolate, or television, unless we are really addicted to them. It is much more likely to be our desire to come first, to keep up with the Joneses, and our inability to treat those who are different from us a fellow children of God. It’s a lot harder to give up that sort of socially reinforced behaviour than to give up biscuits, so if you resolve to try during Lent, you are bound to fail, over and over again. So, when Mark did try, and inevitably failed, he just kept on trying, through Easter and the rest of the church year, and he was still trying when the next Lent came round. So, he didn’t need a special season of Lenten discipline any more – he was living in it all the time.

Giving things up has been replaced by a trend for taking things up – using Lent to improve your knowledge of the faith by reading, or joining a Lent discussion group; or by setting aside time to pray or just be silent. Some think it would be a good thing to encourage people to attend extra mid-week worship, or to make a specific commitment to give more to charity during the Lenten season. But many of us lead very busy lives anyway. Trying and failing to do extra reading, or attend more worship or discussion groups, can just leave us feeling guilty, rather than helping us to grow spiritually.

A new initiative this Lent has been the ‘I’m not busy’ challenge, which asks people to spend a limited amount of time each day – between 10 and 30 minutes – just doing nothing. The challenge has been issued because the instigator, Stephen Cherry, sees busyness as a disease of the developed world, one which is ruling our lives and eating away at our souls. He feels it is bad because it distorts our perceptions, makes us feel self-important, makes us rude and impatient, burns us out, and prevents us from considering what is really important in our lives.

Church people are not immune -indeed some of them constantly complain of how busy they are. Busyness is seen as a virtue in our society – but in fact is a corrosive vice. Doing nothing for 10 – 30 minutes each day is just the start: it should lead on to a re-evaluation of what is really important, and implementing some ‘time wisdom’ to make better use of God’s gift of time. Again, this is a Lenten discipline that is designed to continue even after Lent has finished.

Even this Lent discipline, though, can be turned into something that is about us, and what is good for us (for busyness is very bad for our mental and physical health) rather than being undertaken because it brings us closer to God. An obsession with our work, even our work for the church, can  get in the way of listening and understanding what God wants of us.  But as John Van de Laar writes: “Worship can easily be a good way to hide from ourselves and from God. It’s easy to sing and dance in order to silence the still small voice”. Being an active church member can also get in the way of our openness to God.

Brandon Ambrosino, another US Christian, wrote recently about an even more radical form of ‘giving up for Lent.’ He gave up God!

This is not as strange as it sounds. He explained that, when he was at college, his philosophy lecturer explained to him the difference between God as an ‘eikon’ and God as an ‘eidos’. The first is the Greek word for image or icon and refers to God as something wholly other, as our OT reading says – one whose thoughts are not our thoughts and whose ways are not our ways. The second ‘eidos’ is the Greek word for ‘idol’ and refers to the God many religious people believe in – a God who we think we can fully explain, using human categories, a God who we’ve created in our own image, who thinks as we think, and whose ways are our ways.

It is the ‘eidos’ God that Ambrosino resolved to give up during Lent: the God of rigid ideologies, who silences questions with threats of Hell, who separates the world into manageable divisions of the approved and disapproved, whose ethical decisions were fixed by age-old writings which cannot be discussed, who gave human beings brains, and then punishes them for using them.

He gives this up in order  “to reflect not on the God who rules by power, but a god who leads by love; who identifies with the weak; whose foolishness upsets omniscience; a God who reveals Himself in many ways, who reveals Himself in a first century peasant named Jesus; a God who empties Himself of God, and offers Himself to his enemies in submission and servitude; who is concerned with the plight of widows and orphans, the least among us, and the disadvantaged; who sends Jesus to go after the marginalized and the misunderstood, and to bring back home again those who have been ostracized and forgotten.

I am giving up God for Lent to make room for God. I am prying open my fingers, and letting all of my theological idols crash to the ground. And I am lifting up my empty hands to Heaven in anticipation of God’s arrival, and quietly echoing the unsettling words of Meister Eckhart: “I pray God to rid me of God.”

This is another ‘giving up’ that will continue after Lent is over, in order that we may be open to receive the God who is always arriving unexpectedly, always being born in obscurity, always being raised from the dead. It is  a challenge to be a pilgrim follower, always searching for God revealed in new situations, always checking that we haven’t settled for an idol instead of struggling with the amazing, mysterious reality of the divine icon. It’s a giving up that would be a real challenge for many of us. Is it something that feels right to you – or not?

So, take a moment this week to consider: what are you ‘giving up for Lent’ and why?

Cornucopia

GIMP fridge_magnetAddress for WWDP Service 2013.

(Leviticus 19, 1-2,33-37; Matthew 25, 31-40)

 

When I was a teenager, I had a number of pen-friends from abroad: one in the USA, one in Norway, one in Germany and two in France. In the summer holidays before my O level exams, I spent 4 weeks with my two French pen-friends to improve my knowledge of the language.

 

I remember two things very distinctly about that holiday in France. The first was how home-sick I was. It was the first time I had been on holiday on my own without my family. The food, the money, the customs, even the toilet facilities were very different from those I was used to at home, and, although I was thinking in French by the end of the four weeks, at the beginning every conversation was a real effort. I can remember how I used to pretend not to have woken up, in order to delay starting the daily effort to understand, and make myself understood.

 

The second vivid memory was walking through the streets of Rouen with my friend Sylviane. In order to get from her home in an old apartment block to the tourist area around the cathedral and the Old Market Place where Joan of Arc was burned, we had to go through the immigrant quarter. I still remember the atmosphere of hostility and fear from both sides as we walked through that area. When I look back now, I realise that some of those immigrants were probably as homesick as I was, especially the Muslim women. At the time, though, all I absorbed was the fear of my hosts at the different and the new.

 

Later on, when I did French for A level, I had to learn about French culture and politics as well as studying their literature, and I learnt that citizens from the French overseas colonies were supposed to be treated as as French as those born in mainland France. The history of the French colonial empire especially in North Africa and IndoChina showed me this ideal was rarely realised, and explained the tense atmosphere I’d experienced in Rouen.

 

Current newspaper reports, and the testimonies we have heard in this service from women living in present day France, would indicate that things are not much better for strangers and immigrants to France than they were back when I was at school. But France has a long and proud history of being a place of asylum. Their political tradition – as the land of liberty, equality, and brother and sisterhood – as well as their dominant Catholic faith should prompt them to welcome the stranger as an equal.

 

The life-stories of women we have just heard – Vera, Françoise and Marie-Léonie, give us hope that things are improving In France. But are things any better in the United Kingdom?

 

Anecdotal evidence – remarks made to someone I know by people from overseas he sees at a charity he worked for, that they prefer living in London to other major cities, including Paris, because no-one takes any notice here of what you dress like, or what you do; and our own experience of welcoming people from overseas into our own family and church circles, could convince us that we are doing well.  But our news bulletins, the headlines in our newspapers and the demonstrations targetting immigrants and asylum seekers in some of our towns and cities should shake our comfortable assumptions of superiority. We have women and children who end up as sex slaves in this country too, we have people who have to work in the black economy, we have children torn from the place they regard as home and deported, just like those we heard about in France.

 

The first readings the women of France chose to guide our thoughts and prick our consciences today come from the book of Leviticus. We tend to think of Leviticus as a book that doesn’t concern us modern believers much – all about obscure regulations about what the Israelites could and couldn’t wear, or eat or have sex with, regulations designed to keep them pure and separate from anyone else. But the passages chosen here show that parts of it remind the Jews (and us) that a holy life involves justice and fairness for the strangers living within your country, that holiness involves actions as well as a state of mind. We must remember that Jesus took part of his summary of the law from Leviticus “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Lev 19.18).

 

The New Testament reading again challenges our beliefs about what makes us a good Christian. The parable of the Sheep and Goats tells us that it’s not what church we belong to, or  what we believe about God, or Jesus, or morality, that we will be judged on in the final instance; it’s how we act, and particularly how we act towards the homeless, the hungry, those without adequate clothing, those who are in prison, the strangers within our communities – in other words, all those who are the most vulnerable in our society and our world. We don’t usually behave as though that is what we will be judged on; it’s not what people outside the churches hear most about from us. How do we respond to that challenge?

 

In the hymn we will sing in a moment, we will commit ourselves to serving our brothers and sisters, to being Christ for them, in the ways which the parable of Matthew 25 outlined. In the prayers of intercession which follow, we will dedicate ourselves to reaching out to those who come to our country looking for asylum and work, to welcoming the stranger into our communities, and to caring for those who find themselves in vulnerable situations.

 

How can we make this not just a prayer, but a practical reality?

 

We can do it first of all by choosing who we listen to.  When we are confronted with scare stories about the strangers in our midst in the media, and especially in the tabloid press, and at election time, do we believe them, or do we listen to the voice of the scriptures, which tell us these newcomers are members of our own family, children of the same God, Christ in our communities?

 

We can do it by choosing carefully what we say. Do we repeat the scare stories that reinforce the suspicion and fear between immigrants and native born, between different classes and religions, between those of different customs, between those who live in relative security and those who are going through hard times? Or do we counter those experiences with our own positive experiences, however unpopular that may make us, and remind  our fellow citizens of the core Christian teaching about welcoming the stranger  – the teaching that really underlies our culture and our history.

 

We can make welcoming the stranger a practical reality by offering our help to the strangers and the vulnerable. There are so many opportunities to do so in our immediate area as well as further afield. We can make donations and offer time to the Food Banks and the Credit Unions; we can donate supplies to the Catholic Worker Farm here in Maple Cross which cares for female and child asylum seekers who would otherwise be homeless; we can join the volunteer hospital and prison visitors schemes; we can volunteer for Care; we can volunteer and donate to the Watford and Three Rivers Refugee Project; we can support projects for the homeless like the New Hope Trust and Herts Young Homeless. We can make our churches places where newcomers feel welcome.

 

WWDP logoThe WWDP service this year is not, as it often is,  about something that happens in a country far away – something we can pray about this afternoon, and then forget.  It is about something that affects us, in our own homes and neighbourhoods, as much as it affects the people of France who put the service together.

 

Can we see in these strangers in need Christ himself needing our help? Do we really accept that ‘just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it unto me’?

Into Temptation…

February 17, 2013

SERMON FOR LENT 1 (YR. C)

(Psam 91, 1-2 & 9-16; Romans 10. 8-13; Luke 4, 1-13)

Christ-In-The-Wilderness-Ivan-Kramskoy-small

When the ICET (International Consultation on English Texts) was working to translate the services of the Church into modern English, one of the phrases which caused them most difficulty was the last but one petition of the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Lead us not into temptation’.

Part of the difficulty stems from the possible meaning of the original Greek of the text in Matthew and Luke, and even of the Hebrew behind that. For instance, the Greek verb translated ‘lead’ could mean taking in an active sense, to lead by going before, or simply to announce. And depending on the understanding of the Hebrew  behind this clause, again it could be active, meaning to cause something to happen; or permissive, to allow something to happen. So, the Syriac version of the New Testament translates this “Do not make us enter into temptation”.

Modern Lord's PrayerAgain, the preposition ‘eis’ and its Hebrew original could imply simply ‘into’ or ‘as far as’ but, more strongly ‘to be placed under the power of’. So, one translation could be “Do not allow us to fall under the power of temptation” that is, be overwhelmed by it.

However, the word which gave the translators most difficulty was the word translated ‘temptation’. The Greek original is found rarely in secular Greek, but very often in Biblical Greek, both in the New Testament and in the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, with a variety of meanings. It can mean simply an attempt; it can mean a test in the sense of testing a metal or testing somebody’s competence or conviction (and in this sense it is often used of God testing human beings). It can mean a malicious attempt to trick someone, and is used in that way of the attempts of the Scribes and Pharisees to catch Jesus out by asking him trick questions. It can be used to mean the seduction into sin which is the usual modern meaning of ‘temptation’.That’s how it is used to describe Satan’s temptation of Jesus in the desert. It can mean a trial or ordeal. It can mean to tempt God. In all of these meanings, the form of noun used implies a continuing process, not a one-off event.

Some interpretations of the text are more difficult for us to accept, not because of they don’t translate the original Greek correctly, but because they run counter to our beliefs about the nature of God, and of human beings.

For instance, we believe that God is good, and wills happiness and good for human beings. So how can we even think that God would deliberately seduce us into sin or put us under the power of evil?

Secondly, it is nonsense to pray that we won’t be tempted, because temptation is part and parcel of the human condition. God gave us free will – but there would be no point in having free will if there were no circumstances in which we were tempted to choose to sin. It is  a mark of being a real human being that we can be tempted to do wrong – and that is why the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is important: it shows that Jesus was, as Hebrews says, “one who in every respect has been tempted as we are”. (Heb. 4.15) The one difference is, as Hebrews goes on to say, “yet without sinning”.

So, if we are not asking God not ever to put us into a situation where we are tempted, and we cannot conceive of God deliberately trying to make us commit sin, what are we asking in this part of the Lord’s Prayer?

Modern translations of the New Testament have used a variety of phrases, most of them designed to express the hope that God will not test us beyond what we can cope with, or allow us to be overwhelmed by temptation.

The Good News Bible has “Do not bring us to hard testing” and the New English Bible “Do not bring us to the test”. The Jerusalem Bible has “Do not put us to the test” and the NRSV “Do not bring us to the time of trial”.

Most of the denominations have used a variation on that last phrase in their modern language Trad Lord's Prayerservices, and pray: “Save us from the time of trial”. You will find this version in the Methodist, the URC, the Roman Catholic and other Anglican churches, such as the New Zealand Church. The Church of England could not agree to use the internationally agreed text, and kept  “Lead us not into temptation”  in their modern language Lord’s Prayer as well as in the traditional language one.   I rather like Jim Cotter’s free modern translation of the Lord’s Prayer, which  has: “In times of temptation and test, strengthen us; from trials too great to endure, spare us; from the grip of all that is evil, free us.”

When we pray this petition, we are asking God to be with us as we face the everyday temptations of human life. We are asking for divine protection when we face situations where the urge to sin becomes overwhelming. We are asking for divine guidance when the prompting of our own nature, or the urging of others, bring us to situations where we may be tempted to flirt with sin. We are asking God not to abandon us when our faith, or our bodies are under assault.

When we face these situations (as all of us will) the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness shows us how God answer this petition of the Lord’s Prayer.

We do not have to take this story literally. Jesus may have had an experience like this when he spent time in the desert after his baptism by John, but since he was alone, and the conversations went on inside his head, how would anyone else have known the details? Mark has the simple statement that ‘he was tempted by Satan’; it is only Matthew and Luke who provide details of the threefold temptations. But these are temptations which Jesus would have faced during his whole ministry, as they are temptations which face any of us who try to bring others into the Kingdom of God. So it is perfectly possible to see the story of the time in the wilderness as a word picture of the temptations of ministry for Jesus and for ourselves.

The first is the temptation to bring people into faith by providing for their material needs alone. Perhaps there are secondary temptations also; to provide the basic necessities of life, but only to those of ‘our’ faith; or the temptation, which is so prevalent in our society, to believe that the accumulation of goods will bring happiness, or is a sign of God’s favour. Jesus answers this by affirming the supreme importance of the spiritual – the Word of God – rather than the material – bread.

The second temptation is to use political power, including force, to bring people to faith. We can all think of examples of Christians giving in to this temptation throughout history – from the way the final texts of the Creeds were arrived at, to the Crusades, and the wars of religion that so disfigured Europe during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Jesus rejects this by quoting from Deuteronomy a verse that insists that worship must be given to God because of God’s character, and not in response to political power or force, which are seen as works of the Devil.

Finally there is the temptation to encourage faith by demonstrations miraculous power, which is, in effect, to tempt God. Again, we can all think of times when churches have tried to prove that they have the one true faith by appeals to signs and wonders, or miraculous cures to which they alone have access.  Jesus again quotes from the Hebrew scriptures which forbid testing out God’s support in this way. During his ministry he always refused to provide miracles ‘to order’ to prove his credentials.

Jesus was saved in his time of trial, and delivered from  evil because of his close relationship with God, and his total reliance on God’s love and support. Psalm 91 assures us that God’s love and support is with us through the difficult times too. For Jesus, his relationship with God was founded on his deep knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures and the tradition (in his case the Jewish tradition), his constant reference to God  through prayer, and his submission to God’s will in humility.

As we face the tests and temptations of our lives, these same resources and this same relationship with God can  save us too from trial and temptation and deliver us from all evil.

Loving the Other

February 3, 2013

 

(Jeremiah 1, 4-10; 1 Corinthians 13, 1-13; Luke 4, 21-30.)

Sometimes St Paul gets things wrong, as he does when he engages in obscure Rabbinic arguments to try to make his point; or when he forgets that being in Christ is about grace, and tries to set up rules and regulations about who God accepts and what different people may or may not do.

But sometimes he gets things gloriously, spectacularly, wonderfully right, so right that it takes your breath away! And today’s reading from his first letter to the Corinthians is one of those moments.

Wordle_1Cor13-758388

The hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13 is one of the best known and best loved passages of the whole Bible. Any of us could probably quote bits of it, and so could a good many other people, even those with little church connection. Even Richard Dawkins quoted a bit in his debate with Rowan Williams in the Cambridge Union last week!

It is a favourite to be read at services which celebrate family events, especially weddings. Yet how many of those who hear it read realise that it is not really talking about married love, or the love within a family at all; it is not, as it sounds,  a celebration of a loving situation that already exists. It is a sharp reminder to people who are failing of just how far short they fall of the ideal they should be aspiring to. This is not written to a dewy eyed couple, talking about the sort of love that is celebrated by red roses, teddy bears and candlelit dinners. It is written to a community riven with differences about the love  that is faithful to death, even death on a cross.

Corinth was a major city of the Roman Empire, a crossroads of trade between north and south, east and west. It had many extremely wealthy people, some of them among the Christian community. It had people of many races, including Jews like Paul, Prisca and Aquila. There were very poor people and slaves and former slaves. It contained adherents of many different religions and philosophies. They had been drawn to the Christian faith for a number of different reasons, and by a number of missionaries apart from Paul.

After Paul left Corinth and travelled to Ephesus, he received disturbing news about how the community was being broken apart by arguments about all sorts of things, which he details in the previous chapters of this letter. The passage about love comes as a climax, contrasting their quarrelsome behaviour with that which should spring from true Christian love for one another.

He reminds them that they should be kind to those who differ from them, and patient with different ways of doing and seeing things; that they should not envy others their good fortune, or make a great fuss about their own. He reminds them not to think themselves better than others and that nothing excuses rudeness. He reminds them that their way is not necessarily the only, or the right way, and they shouldn’t insist on it, or become irritated or resentful if others don’t fall in with their understanding. He reminds them not to be constantly on the look-out for others doing wrong, but  to be ready to celebrate what is good. He reminds them to take difficulties on themselves, rather than pushing them onto others to bear, and to persist however difficult that may seem.

Many commentators see the hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13 as a pen picture of the Jesus that Paul believed in, the Jesus he had seen in a vision and which had converted him from adherence to the rule-keeping religion of the Pharisees to what he described as ‘the glorious liberty of the children of God.’ We see Jesus proclaiming that liberty in the passages from St Luke’s Gospel we heard read last week and this. Luke shows us that the people who heard it in the synagogue at Nazareth at first found it as attractive as Paul did, and as we do; but then they turned against Jesus, even to the extent of plotting to kill him. Why?

After all, hey saw him as one of their own. They were proud of his preaching ability and his healing powers. They rejoiced at his proclamation of the time of God’s favour, of healing for the lame and the blind,  of liberty to the captives and good news for the poor. What they weren’t pleased about was that Jesus said all this wasn’t just for them, just for the Jewish nation, just for the good, just for the believers. Jesus, like Jeremiah, like Paul, was sent as an apostle to the nations; the good news he brought, he told them  was not just for US – it was for THEM, for the OTHER, too. And because they found this message unacceptable, they rejected him. “He came to his own and his own would not receive him.”

Opponents of religious faith very often say that religions cause most wars. That’s not true, but what is true is that religion is one of those things, like race and class and wealth, which is often used to draw lines in societies between US and THEM, between those with whom we co-operate and to whom we do good, and those who we believe are wrong, or even evil, and with whom we are prepared to fight and even to kill. Why is this so?

Why does a religion which starts out preaching the unconditional love of God for all humankind, end up urging its adherents to fight and kill members of other paths to God, and even members of its own faith who see things differently? Why have the conflicts of Corinth been played out again and again through history? Why is it that we seem only to be able to have a strong religious identity of our own at the cost of hostility to those of other faiths?

Book cover

I have recently been reading an inspiring book by Brian D McLaren called “Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed cross the road?” Its title, of course is based on the old joke about the chicken, but McLaren uses it to bring us up sharp before an image of the great religious leaders of the world doing something as ordinary as crossing a road together, and making us ask ourselves whether they would do so in an atmosphere of respect and friendliness; and if, as he thinks, they would, then why is it that their followers, and particularly so many Christians, seem incapable of doing the same. From this he goes on to argue for a new vision of Christianity as both strong and confident in its faith, but also benevolent, respectful and cooperative to other faiths.

All of this is based on acceptance that the core message of Jesus is that the Kingdom of Heaven is for everyone, that God made all human beings in the divine image and loves them without exception, and that the only commandments that really matter are the commandments to love – to love God, and to love our neighbour, who is everyone made is God’s image, whether like us or not, whether Christian or not.

To work for this reformed vision of Christianity is not an easy task. As Jesus and Paul and so many of the prophets found, to stand up for the ‘other’ means risking being identified with the other and suffering the same hostility as they suffer. Jesus sided with the outsiders – so eventually, he suffered the fate of an outsider: But the more Christian strength is build on hostility to those who are different, McLaren believes, the less it reflects the message of Christ.

If we follow McLaren’s vision, it will require us as Christians to look honestly at our history, and see how much our faith has become distorted by being bound up with the dominance of secular empires, first of all Constantine’s, but many others since.

It will require us to look carefully at what our core doctrines really say about creation, about original sin, about the uniqueness of Christ, about the Trinity, about election and predestination and about the Holy Spirit, to see how they can be expressed as healing doctrines, which create harmony and allow for difference, rather than as weapons to divide and exclude.

To arrive at this reformed and benevolent Christianity will also involve looking carefully at the Bible, and recognising that is speaks with many diverse voices. It will need Christian leaders to take up the authority Jesus gave them to bind and loose, and  to proclaim the strands that portray God’s universal love as more authentic to Jesus’s message, and therefore more binding on us who follow him, than others which preach a God of vengeance and war. McClaren points out that both Jesus and Paul quote selectively from the Bible – Jesus even does so in the passage from Isaiah quoted in Luke 4 – so there is no reason why modern Christians should not also do the same.

As we struggle to free Christianity from its toxic elements, those which engender and perpetuate hostility between us and  those of other faiths, we may also have to look again at our liturgy, our hymns, the way we frame our missionary activity and our sacraments, to check that they too are helping us to walk alongside those of other faiths, to listen to them and to appreciate their treasures, rather than perpetuating hostility.

world-religion

Of course, this is not just something for Christians to do, if religious faith is to become something which brings peace and harmony to the world, rather than war and hostility.  It will need brave people of other faiths who are prepared to look with unprejudiced eyes at current expressions of their own faith, and criticise where they see it has departed from its original ideals; and who will be open enough to listen to those of a different faith, and appreciate where it is good, and reflects their experience of God. It will need people of goodwill and deep faith from all religions to be prepared to cross the road to talk and listen to each other, convinced that is the way to meet more deeply with the God who is wholly Other but in whose image we are all created. It will need people who are prepared to witness what to what they believe in without needing to be hostile to what others believe in, in the faith that the Spirit of God is not bound by our human limitations and categories.

I have never been able to believe in a God of love who condemns others to eternal torment simply because they didn’t believe the right things (which is so often simply the result of being born in the wrong place or the wrong time).

I could never say, as some Christians do, that Gandhi must be in Hell, because he was not a Christian.  I appreciate the beauties and insights of other faiths as well as my own, while being only too aware of the evils done the names of all of them. In the vision of renewed strong, benevolent Christianity reaching out in witness and friendship to other faiths that McLaren sketches out, I see the possibility or faith becoming the blessing to the world that it ought to be. And that’s the sort of faith I want to be part of.

When I hear the words of 1 Corinthians 13, I don’t picture the love of married couple, or a family, or a national group, or even a church for those who think and worship like themselves. I see the love of Jesus, as he strides out from the synagogue in Nazareth, transcending in God’s name the limitations of loving only people like himself, in order to offer God’s new covenant of love to anyone who is willing to accept it. That is what he was chosen before his birth to do. That is what I believe we have pledged ourselves to do in our new life in Christ. That is what we come to re-inspire ourselves to do each time we come to worship God. Amen.

Different Gifts.

January 20, 2013

Mum&DadPwedd copy

(Isaiah 62, 1-5: I Corinthians 12, 1-11; John 2, 1-11) 

We’re getting ready for another wedding in our family – our younger son is getting married next year.

And like our elder son, he’s chosen to marry someone from the other side of the Atlantic – so it will be an American ceremony, with a celebration for the English side later; and we are  learning how different wedding customs are in the United States from the UK.  There seem to be lots more formal events to include – things like Bridal Showers and Rehearsal Dinners – which we don’t go in for here, and there’s a different etiquette for who makes speeches and when. Another interesting wedding experience to add to our previous one!

I’ve spoken before about the way my experience of leading Marriage Preparation courses  highlighted many similarities between a couple getting married and two different churches entering an ecumenical partnership.  There are similar tensions over what might seem, on the surface, to be very minor differences of family or church customs, but which nevertheless seem to carry enormous emotional weight, and lead to difficulties out of all proportion to their apparent importance. What family customs and religious practices have in common is that they are often deeply rooted in our early family experiences, in the things that provide us with part of our sense of identity and security, and that, as a result, they are extremely difficult to discuss in a rational and detached way.

Our Gospel reading today describes a wedding feast – and in the Bible, a wedding feast is always a symbol for the great Messianic Banquet at the end of time, celebrating the triumph of God’s Kingdom and the covenant between God and his people. In the Old Testament, as we heard in the reading from Isaiah, the ‘bride’ of God was the people of Israel. In the New Testament it is the new people of God, the Church. The marriage feast metaphor speaks of the love God has for his people, and the joy that they have in being joined to God. So, it is a very appropriate image to have before us in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, when we rejoice in the covenant relationship that God established with all Christians through Jesus, and the joy that we all share in serving God in the world.

It’s easy to get depressed by the difficulties of ecumenical co-operation, particularly by participation in the numerous committees that seem to be necessary to organise services and events. But we should not forget the enormous advances made in ecumenism since the week began in Catholic churches in 1908. I can remember in my childhood how members of different churches regarded each other with suspicion, and co-operation was especially difficult between non-conformist churches and those from a more catholic tradition. And I was saddened in the 1970s by hearing from Cardinal Hume, when he came to address Churches Together in a Lent Lecture, that, as a trainee Catholic priest, he was not allowed to attend his own father’s funeral, because it took place in an Anglican Church. How things have changed! As an Anglican woman, I have twice preached from the pulpit of a Roman Catholic Church – not something that I could ever have imagined happening as a child – and I know I can take communion in the churches of most denominations without any questions being asked.

The establishment of Local Ecumenical Partnerships, like those in this circuit at St Mary’s Rickmansworth and All Saints Berkhamstead, has enormously expanded lay people’s experience of worshipping with those of different church backgrounds, and occasions such as this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and the Women’s World Day of Prayer provide opportunities for planning liturgy and attending worship with those of different denominational backgrounds.

But progress towards full visible unity, sharing not only buildings and worship, but theology, ministry and church organisation has been achieved only in a few cases – the Methodist Church and the United Reformed Church being the only two major denominations to have achieved it in this country. It seems to have been easier to achieve in places where Christianity is not the dominant religion – there have been united churches of several Protestant denominations in India and Pakistan since 1970.

Recently, while movements for closer covenant relationships between churches have failed, or been relegated to the background, disputes within churches, over issues such as sexuality and gender roles, seem to be leading to greater disunity, and more obstructions in the road to visible unity. It is very sad, like contemplating the probability of marriage breakup in your own family, or in the families of other people you love.MumDad, Granma&Dad?Wedd copy

Maybe what we should be celebrating today is the enormous amount of practical work to serve the vulnerable, the marginalised and the poor which is undertaken by Christians working together, both nationally and locally. The Fairtrade movement and Christian Aid are shining examples of Christians working together nationally and internationally to secure justice and wellbeing for others. Locally, joint efforts by churches over the last 50 years have established Wensum Court homes for the elderly, the Care Scheme, the Credit Union in Rickmansworth and the Foodbank in Mill End and Maple Cross, soon to be extended to Rickmansworth Town Centre.

As St Paul explains in his letter to the Corinthians, God has given different gifts to different people in the Church, but they are all given to be used for the common good. Some gifts may be used in the worship of God, one sort of ‘service’ which can have great differences in style, in order to accommodate differences of taste or personality. Other gifts may be used in teaching, or administration, but the most important are used in practical service to others.

If we listen to St Paul, we learn that we should value all these different gifts equally, just as we value all the different parts of our body equally; and especially that we shouldn’t put a greater value on intellectual gifts than practical ones. The only standard by which we may evaluate gifts is that of love, for God gives us gifts because of the divine love for us, and we share them with our neighbour, because God’s Spirit within us inspires us to love our neighbour as ourselves.

The marriage image we find in the Old Testament and Gospel provides further support for the celebration of our unity in service to others: just as a married couple share their lives and their possessions as a token of their love for each other, so we Christians share our lives and possessions with everyone, and especially the needy and the dispossessed.

wcc_logoSimilarly, I think all today’s readings encourage us to share in companionship and service not just with our fellow Christians, but with all people of faith. It is an encouragement to interfaith as well as ecumenical unity.

I’ve recently dipped into a book called ‘Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road’. It takes its name from a variation of the ‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’ joke. The author, Brian McLaren, asks “How do you think Jesus would treat (them) if they took a walk across the road together. Would Jesus push Moses aside and demand to cross first…would he trade insults with Mohammed…Would Jesus demand the Buddha kneel at his feet? Or would he walk with them and, once on the other side, welcome them to the table of fellowship, ….maybe even taking the role of a servant…making sure each felt welcome, safe and at home?”

McLaren continues: “I have no doubt that Jesus would actually practise the neighbourliness he preached rather than following our example of religious supremacy, hostility, fear, isolation, misinformation, exclusion or demonisation. It seems ridiculous to imagine that he would be insecure among them, considering them his rivals, or that he would find it necessary to extract from them explicit agreement on fundamental doctrines before condescending to cross a road with them.”

And as Jesus does, so must we do, as we are called to be Christ’s Body in the world. True Christian Unity is not about reaching agreement on the minutiae of theology, or the exact details of church order, or who may preach or be ordained. It is about working together with the common purpose of bringing in the Kingdom of God through serving our neighbour and transforming the world. And we can do that not just with our fellow Christians, but with all people of goodwill.

Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed – and the Methodists and Anglicans and Baptists and Presbyterians and Roman Catholics – cross the road?Book cover

They were going to take their different gifts to the marriage feast, where all are welcomed to celebrate the glory of God and the joy of the covenant God makes with all who were once Desolate and Forsaken, and who now know themselves married to the Divine and who love and share and serve the Kingdom of Heaven, to the delight of God.

Let us pray:

A prayer by Ruth Gee, Chair of the Darlington District, fromThe Methodist Prayer Handbook. Day 13.

God with us, Emmanuel;

you cross the chasm of time and space,

you break down the walls of fear and prejudice,

you span the waters of chaos,

you come to us in love.

Sending God;

help us to cross the chasm of hurt and painful memory,

help us to break down the barriers that divide,

help us to bear your peace in a troubled world.

Send us in love,

go with us.

Amen

( Isaiah 60, 1-6, Matt. 2, 1-12)

Where did the Magi come from?

The answer to that depends on where you are looking.

If you are looking at the story in Matthew, then the answer is “They came from the East”. Due East and North East of Jerusalem were Babylon and Assyria, the ancient enemies of Israel. The Jews knew from their own history of the existence of a class of ‘wise men’ or magi in these countries, and especially in Babylon. These were priest-magicians, interpreters of the stars and of dreams – practices that were frowned on by a strict interpretation of Jewish law. Later on the same class of magi were found in the societies of the Medes, Persians and Parthians, and were probably the forerunners of the Zoroastrian priests

If you are answering the question from the point of view of biblical source criticism, then the answer is “They came from the Old Testament, and in particular from the story of Balaam in the Book of Numbers chapters 22-24.”

In this passage we hear how Balak, King of Moab, is alarmed at the approach of the Israelites under Moses, and summons a magus called Balaam from Babylon to put a curse on them. Balaam comes, like Matthew’s magi, ‘apu anatolon’ – from the East. Balaam, however, is influenced by messages from God, ( dreams, angels and a talking donkey!) and far from cursing the Israelites, prophesies that a King of Israel will arise like a star or a comet and defeat Israel’s enemies. This picture of the magi who listen to God is further elaborated by other passages, especially Isaiah 60 which we heard as our OT lesson and Psalm 72, which refer to the kings of the nations drawn by the light of the Jews, travelling to pay homage to Israel and bring gifts, including gold and incense.

If we are looking from a theological viewpoint, however, the answer to the question is “They came from the needs of the community for which Matthew was writing”. Matthew’s Gospel is often referred to as the most Jewish of our four Gospels. It seems that there were a very strong group of Jewish Christians in the community for which he wrote, who saw Jesus both as a second Moses and also as the promised Messiah and descendant of King David. They adhered to the Jewish Law and traditions, and saw Jesus as part of that. However, by the time the Gospel was written in the later part of the first century, Jerusalem and the Temple had been destroyed in the aftermath of the Jewish revolt of AD70, and Matthew’s part of the Christian community was in exile, perhaps in the East in the countries where magi priests operated. There the community had been joined by Gentile believers, and throughout Matthew’s Gospel we see a struggle going on to reconcile the beliefs of the Jewish and Gentile Christians about who Jesus is, and to whom he brings salvation.

In the story of the magi, Matthew gives his community a picture of strangers and foreigners, members of another religion and culture, who nevertheless recognised Jesus as king, priest and saviour. Their revelation from God comes through the natural world, the rising of a star. They ask the advice of Jesus’ fellow-countrymen, who do as they should, and consult the Scriptures. But having done so, Herod and his advisers get it wrong – while the strangers from the ancient oppressor, led by natural revelation, get it right, and pay homage to the new born king. A further contrast is provided by the story of the slaughter of the innocents which follows in Matthew; the Jewish rulers attempt to destroy the infant – who finds refuge in the country of another ancient oppressor, Egypt.

Matthew’s tale of the magi, therefore can be seen as apologetic for the pagans and foreigners in his Christian community. His magi, like Balaam, are good, listen to God, and work for the benefit of the covenant community. The incense and myrrh they once used for their pagan incantations are now dedicated to God’s saviour. But they don’t become Jewish. When they have paid homage, they return to their own country ( like Balaam) and there is no indication that they change their ways or their religion. They remain different. So, Matthew is saying ( as Luke says in the Nunc Dimittis) the light of Christ is meant for the Gentiles as well, and the presence of Gentile worshippers – who remain different from their Jewish brothers and sisters in the community of the New Covenant – is part of God’s plan too.

And where are they going to? Do the magi have a message for our generation too?

I have recently been reading a book by the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks. It is called ‘The Dignity of Difference’ and subtitled ‘How to avoid the Clash of Civilisations’. In the book Sachs reflects on the dangerous state of the world in the 21st century, and in particular on the way in which the clash of different belief patterns – whether they belong to world faiths or to atheism against religious belief threaten to destroy the freedom and prosperity painfully achieved over the preceding centuries. He argues that the only way to deal with this is to make space for difference. This is something stronger than the toleration of religious difference that came after the European wars of religion and as a result of the Enlightenment. This toleration, he says, represented a move from the statement ‘Faith is supremely important, and therefore everyone must have the one true faith’ to ‘Faith is supremely important and therefore everyone must be allowed to live by the faith which seems true to them’.

Toleration followed by pluralism allowed for difference, but still allowed people to maintain the belief that theirs was the only truth. The power of the nation state kept the peace between those whose conception of truth differed. Now, in the global era, he says, that is no longer possible, since the ease of travel and communication in the modern age mean that very small groups of people attempting to impose their vision of truth on everyone can cause major disasters.

Sachs argues that difference is not something to be worked against, but something to be celebrated and recognised as part of God’s plan. It goes further than toleration or pluralism to assert the positive value of difference. Just as in our attempts to preserve the natural ecology of the earth, we try to preserve all the different species of God’s creation, so in the social ecology, we should try to respect and preserve the differences of faith and culture.

This will demand a major shift in attitudes, particularly amongst adherents of the major Abrahamic faiths, who tend to believe that they alone have the whole truth. Sachs argues that truth on earth can never aspire to be the whole truth, and when two truths are in conflict, it is not because one is true and the other false, but because they give different perspectives on reality.

It is hard for us to see God, or good, in those of another colour, faith or ethnic group. But the reality that is God has to be above all religions, because only such a God can be transcendent. God is greater than any religion, and only partially comprehended by any one faith. God is universal, but religions are particular. God is the God of all humanity but no single faith is the faith of all humanity. The one God, creator of diversity, Sachs says, commands us to honour his creation by respecting diversity.

Sachs uses the traditional religious language of ‘covenant’ to argue for an agreement between believers to respect the dignity of difference. Covenants, he says, can only exist between parties who are different ( man and woman in the marriage covenant. God and humanity in the Old and New Covenants of Judaism and Christianity). In a covenant the two parties agree to respect each others’ different characteristics, but to work together for good. Such a covenant has to be based on mutual trust, and not on the threat of enforcement from any outside agency; it has to be made to work through compassion, creativity, responsibility and forgiveness.

Sachs talks about the recognition of the dignity of difference between different faiths. But it seems to me to be an important principle also in this present time between those people who have faith and those who have none; and within faiths and within denominations. In particular, it would make an enormous difference to the Anglican communion at this time if all the warring groups could recognise that no one of them has the whole truth, that God reveals the divine purpose through other channels than the scriptures, and that we don’t all have to worship God or behave in exactly the same way in order to recognise our common loyalty to God and to Christ.

So, as we follow again the particular star by which God brings us to meet with the Christ child, and depart again to our own homes, may we ask ourselves:
Can I recognise God’s purpose in the diversity of belief and practice in the world? Can I be a magus – a wise person – and acknowledge that everyone knows something that no-one else does – and be willing to learn from them? Can I recognise the good, and see God, in one whose faith and ideals are different from mine, while still remaining faithful to the inheritance of truth which my faith gives me?

Can I, like Matthew in the story of the Magi, uphold the dignity of difference?

(Jonathan Sacks. The Dignity of Difference. Continuum. 2002.)

The Gentle Revolution.

December 22, 2012

(Micah 5, 2-5a; Luke 1 39 – 55) (Advent 4 Year C)

Windsock-Visitation.McGrath

Today on the last Sunday of Advent, as we light the fourth of the Advent candles, our thoughts turn to Mary, the mother of Jesus; and this year, our readings remind us also of the role of another mother, Elizabeth, in preparing the Way for the coming of God’s Kingdom.

Both of them were mothers of prophets who preached about the coming Kingdom of God, and urged people to respond to that coming by changing the way they lived. Both of them must have had a significant influence on the thinking and actions of the children they raised. Both of them are heralds of the Kingdom. Elizabeth, we are told, had her child in her old age, Mary had hers as a young woman.

I wonder how you picture Mary? Most of the pictures and statues of her show her as very imagesMaryyoung, very pretty, dressed in blue or white, with her eyes either cast down to the ground, or raised to heaven, sitting or praying, cradling her baby or her dead son. She is portrayed as a passive participant in the drama of salvation. That’s the way she has been portrayed in a lot of Christian literature too, starting with the gospel of John, which shows her as the perfect disciple, following her son without question.

Walking MadonnaIn complete contrast is the statue of her by Dame Elizabeth Frink, known as the Walking Madonna. This is the description of it by Elspeth Moncrieff: This is no conventional, modest Madonna lurking in the security of a Cathedral alcove. She strides with singleness of purpose oblivious to the distractions of those around her. There is an integrity in her gaze, a sense of purpose and iron strength in her gaunt frame. Most importantly, she has turned her back on the sanctuary and security of the Cathedral; choosing instead to stride out into the town to meet the world full on and grapple with the fundamental condition of mankind.

This is a mature Mary, who has been touched and changed by the experiences of motherhood and the Crucifixion. This is an active Mary. This is the Mary that Luke presents us with, who questions the angel who announces she is to bear the Saviour and challenges Jesus about his disappearance in the Temple; she is the one who ponders the events of his life in her heart, and is included by Jesus among those who hear the word of God and do it (Luke 8.21) This is the Mary who speaks the words of the Magnificat, proclaiming the coming of her son as the fulfilment of the Old Testament hopes and prophecies, the inaugurator and executor of God’s decisive intervention to transform the world. This is Mary, the gentle revolutionary.

It is sometimes difficult for us to hear the radical message of the Magnificat, especially when it is so often set to beautiful music, and frequently sung by a small choirboy. Perhaps we might appreciate its revolutionary message better if we sang it in the modern version by Fred Kaan, especially when one of the tunes you can sing it to is “O Tannenbaum’ also known as “The Red Flag”

Sing we a song of high revolt;
Make great the Lord, his name exalt:
Sing we the song that Mary sang
Of God at war with human wrong.
Sing we of him who deeply cares
And still with us our burden bears;
He, who with strength the proud disowns,
Brings down the mighty from their thrones.

By him the poor are lifted up:
He satisfies with bread and cup
The hungry folk of many lands;
The rich are left with empty hands.
He calls us to revolt and fight
With him for what is just and right
To sing and live Magnificat
In crowded street and council flat

This is the call to change our ways represented by the Mary who turns her back on the safety of traditional religion and strides out into the messiness of the world, just as her son did, and just as Elizabeth’s son did.

The Magnificat proclaims a religious revolution: that God has chosen a woman to be the vehicle which inaugurates his decisive revelation to the world, and a young, unmarried mother at that. As the prophets have proclaimed, but reality has rarely echoed, God’s favour is shown not to those who hold high positions in the religious hierarchy, nor to members of a Chosen People, nor to those who keep themselves pure and untouched by the world but to those who hear and obey his commands, whatever their background and circumstances.

It proclaims a social revolution: that the proud, those who think themselves better than other people, will be brought down, and the humble, the despised and the outcast will be seen as the true recipients of God’s favour.

It proclaims a political revolution: that the powerful will be defeated and the oppressed will be freed and given fullness of life. It proclaims an economic revolution, that the hungry will be fed, and those who are rich now will feel what it is like to go short.

All this, Mary proclaims, is the fulfilment of everything that God promised, through the prophets of  the Old Testament, to those who love and obey him.

Why do we not often hear this revolutionary message?

Perhaps because the Church through the ages has tended to turn this into the proclamation of a spiritual revolution, the exaltation of the spiritually poor, and humble; but it has not lived even that revolution. Once the Christian faith became the state religion of the Roman Empire, and the dominant faith in Europe and Northern Asia, and the lands they colonised, most people in the church reverted to the previous status quo, serving and associating with the rich, the powerful, the wealthy, and reversing the values of the Kingdom. Most used the weapons of the old order to support secular rulers, and to enforce conformity with one interpretation of the faith. The institutional church sidelined the quiet revolution, and forsook the teachings of the gentle revolutionaries who proclaim the values of the Kingdom of Heaven.

I don’t believe the Magnificat and the Gospel of Luke are just speaking about a spiritual revolution; nor that the reversal of the old order is just something that will come after death, or at the end of time. I believe it is speaking about a change that Jesus urged his followers to work for in the 1st century; that he and John the Baptist  urged the people who came to hear him to put into practice, challenging the rich, the powerful, the soldiers and the tax collectors to repent and change their ways, working for change through peaceful means. I believe it was a revolution that Jesus lived, as he  touched the unclean, women, lepers and the sick, as he associated with those outside genteel society, and as he allowed himself to be abused and killed, rather than physically resisting violence.

I believe the Magnificat is speaking about a gentle revolution that the Church should be proclaiming and living today, and that the yearly observation of Advent reminds us about.

It is a reminder that our Christmas is not like the world’s Christmas. It is not an escape from the world of poverty and violence and conflict, it is a commitment to do something about it, in Jesus’s name. It is not about tradition or about buying and getting, it is about change, and giving away possessions and privilege. It is not about getting away from struggle, it is about struggling in the right way to change the way people see the world, about leading people to ‘repent’ in the proper Biblical meaning of the word, and about seeing the world through God’s eyes.

Today Christians often complain, especially in the USA, that there’s a ‘War on Christmas’. But I give you the words of a minister who recently wrote that he would sign up to support the War on Christmas because: I’d make the argument that the dominant face of Christianity, as it is seen on television and promoted through news programming, is itself far from what Christianity is supposed to be. It is a sort-of white-washed, sanitized version of Christianity that every year presents an increasingly cleaned up version of the Christmas story to the viewing public.

You see, the baby we remember this time of year was not part of the dominant culture the way the religion he started now is. The religious stories that were told in those days were told under the shadow of the dominant culture. They were stories of oppression and hardships, stories of overcoming unthinkable odds, stories of hope for a people living in times and cultural positions that, quite frankly felt hopeless.

But today, our stories are told from places and positions of power. Today, Christianity is the dominant culture. So, instead of story of a olive skinned middle-eastern, unwed, pregnant mother, who was seen as little more than property, giving birth to what the world would surely see as an illegitimate child who was wrapped in what rags they could find and placed in a smelly, flea-infested feeding trough in the midst of a dark musky smelling animal stall, we end up with a clean, white-skinned European woman giving birth to a glowing baby wrapped in impossibly white swaddling clothes and laid to rest in a manger that looks more like a crib than a trough, in the midst of a barn that is more kept and clean than many of our houses.

So, “War on Christmas?” Sure, sign me up. I’m pretty sure I’d prefer the elimination of what our modern “celebration” has become to the increasingly white-washed version we hear every year.

The Christmas story has been hijacked by a dominant culture. Places of power and positions of prestige have warped the comeuppance sensibilities of the original Christmas story. 

God’s vision of liberating the oppressed, the downtrodden, has been slowly replaced year after year with a story that no longer brings fear to the Powers that Be, but rather supports the big business agendas of profit and mass consumerism.

 

Perhaps many of you would not go as far as Pastor Mark Sandlin; and the celebration of the traditional Christmas does give a lot of joy to families, and promote a good deal of charitable giving. But if the coming of Christ into the world is supposed to be a life changing experience, and if what we are celebrating is not just that Christ has come 2000 years ago, but also that Christ is coming now to change the world, we ought to open our ears and minds to hear the challenge of the words of the Magnificat anew, and ask ourselves how we can join Mary and Elizabeth and their sons to become God’s gentle revolutionaries to bring in his Kingdom afresh this Christmas.