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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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)

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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

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(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

Mad or Bad?

June 10, 2012


(Genesis 3, 8-15; 2 Corinthians 4,13 – 5,1; Mark 3, 20-35)

The trial of Anders Breivik, going on in Norway at the moment is not being held to decide whether he carried out the murders in Oslo and Utoya Island last year. He has already pleaded guilty. It is really to decide whether he is sane or not, whether he is bad or mad. In the eyes of contemporary European law, if he is found to be mad, he is not responsible for his actions, but will be incarcerated for public safety; if he is found to be sane, he will be held responsible, and will be punished; but since Norway does not have the death penalty, the outcome will be much the same.

The same question “Is he mad or bad?” is being asked about Jesus in our Gospel reading today.  Jesus’s family come to take him home, after hearing that his teaching and miracles have attracted huge crowds. They say he is ‘out of his mind’, and seek to take him  under their protection. They are, in effect, maintaining that he is not responsible for his actions.

This is frequently said about religious people, especially those whose words and actions don’t fit the conventional mode. It was said initially about Joan of Arc, whose feast day the church celebrated ten days ago, because she had visions which led her to dress up in male clothing, and to lead an army against foreign invaders of her country. It was only when her efforts brought success that this charge was dropped by her countrymen.

There are some people who say that any religious person who claims to hear voices or see visions must be out of their mind. They are usually people who believe that the material world is the only reality there is, denying any reality to a spiritual realm beyond what we can see and touch. They have a point, when often the voices that people hear instruct them to do dreadful things.

So, how are we to judge?

In our Gospel reading, the scribes don’t want to have Jesus judged as mad. They want to hold him responsible for his actions. They believe in a spiritual realm, composed of powerful beings, both good and evil. Their judgement is that Jesus is obeying the wrong spiritual beings, the evil ones rather than the good, Beelzebub or Satan and his demons, rather than God and God’s angels. They want him declared bad.

This happened to Joan of Arc too. When she was successful, she was hailed by the French Royal forces as sent by God; but when she was captured by the Burgundian forces, the allies of the invading English, they tried and convicted her of heresy, that is, serving the forces which opposed God.

After her death, and after the war between France and England was over, the trial verdict was reversed and she was declared a martyr (although she was not made a saint until the early twentieth century).

The resurrection and ascension of Jesus convinced many of his contemporaries that he was neither ‘mad’ nor ‘bad’, but doing the work of God on earth. Changes in social, religious and political circumstances did the same in the case of Joan of Arc. But how do we judge whether what we feel impelled to do by our religious beliefs comes from God or not? And how do we judge whether, when others behave in strange ways in pursuit of their religious beliefs, they are insane or evil?

Jean Pierre de Caussade (who wrote ‘The Sacrament of the Present Moment’) gave a simple rule of thumb for such judgements, which I have used before:

“The masters of the spiritual life lay down this principle to distinguish the true inspirations of God from those that emanate from the devil; that the former are always sweet and peaceful, inducing to confidence and humility, while the latter are intense, restless and violent, leading to discouragement  and mistrust, or else to presumption and self-will”.

The accusations of his family and the scribes lead Jesus to make his statement about the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit. There has been endless debate about what exactly this means. The commentary on the readings I read suggested the unpardonable sin is to state with absolute conviction that the work of God is the work of the Devil, and vice versa. Such people leave no room for doubts and rely totally on their own judgement. (This incidentally links with the origin of the term ‘heresy’, which came from a root meaning  a division resulting from individual self-will).

We can see the mythical representation of that action in our Old Testament story from the beginning of the Book of Genesis. You don’t have to take the story literally to perceive the truth in it. The details are unimportant; the tree and the fruit are just symbolic of any actions of human beings (in other cultures the ‘fruit’ is translated as a pomegranate or a coconut, rather than an apple). It doesn’t matter whether the woman or the man made the first move towards disobedience, no matter how the story has been used since to deny women equality.  Both Adam and Eve choose to follow their own desires, rather than listen to the voice of God.

One result is that the community they were created to inaugurate is broken. Rather than remembering their common origin as created by God, bone from the same bone, flesh from the same flesh originating from and returning to the dust of the earth, the man blames the woman and the woman blames the snake. The unity of male and female and of human and animal kingdom is destroyed, with the disastrous consequences we still see.

The blame game we see portrayed in the Genesis myth is still being employed to create divisions in society, and to allow people to avoid taking responsibility for their own actions. Anders Breivik has done this repeatedly. He wants to be declared sane, but he does not want to be declared evil, so he blames his actions on his victims: his hatred of Muslims on perceived slights to him in by Muslims in childhood, his opposition to immigration on the political party his whose members he attacked. Those are his judgements alone, and he is claiming that his judgement is the only thing to which he owes allegiance.

Jesus always took responsibility for his own actions, at the same time as claiming that he did what he was sent to do by God. He came to assure everyone, both those inside and those who were outside his community, that they could receive the forgiveness of God for the sins they had committed and took responsibility for. He extended the meaning of ‘family’ to include those outside his own biological family; he expanded the meaning of ‘community’ to embrace even all those whom his own religious community excluded. His sole allegiance was to the Kingdom of God.

As we move from an emphasis on the life of Jesus during the seasons of Lent and Easter, into the season of Pentecost, we are faced with the challenge of how we follow Jesus, and how we are called to work to live out our allegiance to the Kingdom of God, and to building community in our own situations. Is our ultimate loyalty to Christ, and to his radical way of creating community; or is it to our own racial or religious community, or to our own biological family – or ultimately, only to ourself?

It is not an easy challenge to accept, and no doubt we will find it difficult to make those decisions, and be faced with doubts, when perhaps, the path we choose seems to be going wrong. We will constantly have to return to the questions: “Is what we (or others) are doing mad, or bad, or following the will of God?”

In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul provides encouragement as we attempt to live our our allegiance to God. He acknowledges that it can often seem a waste of time; that it can cause us pain; that it can look to others as if we are giving our loyalty to something that is a fantasy, because it cannot be seen, or proved scientifically.

But, he reassures us, what we are placing our faith in, and basing our judgements on, is ultimate reality, and is eternal, and will endure far longer than any of the judgements of this world as to what is mad, or bad, or the will of God.

Speaking with Authority

January 29, 2012

(Deut. 18, 15-20; 1 Cor. 8, 1-13; Mark 1, 21-28)

When I was licensed as a Church of England Reader 25 years ago, the Bishop handed me a New Testament and said “Receive authority to exercise the ministry of a Reader in this diocese”. Very similar words are used when a Local Preacher is admitted and commissioned in the Methodist Church. What we are given is the delegated authority of our particular church to preach and lead worship in their name.

Max Weber, the sociologist of the late 19th and early 20th century, identified three sorts of authority. The first was traditional authority – the sort that is exercised by monarchs or tribal chieftains, which goes with a particular rank and tends to be hereditary. The second is rational-legal authority, in which the rules define who should be obeyed. This is the type of authority exercised by the government and police and judiciary in a modern society, and also in voluntary organisations, such as a church, where the participants agree to obey people who have been elected or appointed to certain positions.  The last is charismatic authority, found in a leader who inspires others by their personality and their vision. Very often, new religious movements begin with a charismatic leader, but when that person dies, their successors – either immediately, or in the long term, tend to be appointed through a system of traditional or legal-rational authority, or a mixture of both.

These different sorts of authority may overlap – and there is also the sort of authority based on knowledge or skill, to add into the equation.

The Bible readings we have heard this morning face us with the question of who or what authority we should obey.

In Deuteronomy, we read of the Israelites in the desert, who have been led by Moses in their journey from slavery in Egypt. As the people approach the Promised Land, Moses authorises various leadership roles, which will guard the distinctive faith of Israel once they are living among pagan neighbours. There will be judges, priests, kings as well as prophets; and we can see each of these groups taking over the main leadership role, and failing in it, during the history of the Jewish nation.

The authorisation of the prophets contains two warnings. First a warning to the people to obey the prophets, who, though human, will be speaking the true word of God, and communicating the divine will to the nation. No matter how uncomfortable or inconvenient the prophets’ words, they must be heeded above the voice of the military leaders, the monarchs or the priests. The later history of Israel demonstrates how often the people ignored this authoritative voice, and the Old Testament spells out the consequences.

The passage, also contains a warning to anyone who is called to be a prophet. They must remain faithful to the voice of God which was heard at Sinai. They are not to moderate the covenant when life gets difficult, or be tempted by the easier or more seductive rules of the pagans among whom they settle. They are not to give up when things get difficult, when they are persecuted, or when people refuse to listen to them. Authority must remain true to the one who gave it, and is not to be abused.

Behind the reading from 1 Corinthians is a question about which authority should take precedence. Paul’s converts, and especially the Jewish ones, are struggling with the question of whether they are still under the authority of the Jewish Law code, especially in relation to what sort of food they may eat, or whether salvation in Christ has released them from that obligation. Paul usually stoutly defends the authority of freedom in Christ, but in this instance, he reminds the church that there is a higher authority: that of love and concern for their individual fellow Christians. Though some may know that the gods to whom the meat was sacrificed before being sold in the marketplace are non-existent, others may be troubled by any association with pagan practice. Concern for them must always take precedence over individual freedom or principles. Later in the same letter, Paul spells out in details just how love is shown in Christian behaviour (1 Cor. 13)

This is a guide to what has ‘authority’ when Christians disagree. It ensures that the Christian community can stay together even when members disagree over interpretation. It argues that the diversity of the church is to be maintained even when its members have deep differences. It is not saying that injustice should be tolerated, or conflict avoided, or difficult discussions shelved, nor that no-one should ever expect to be offended by what another Christian believes or does. It does say that the opinions of each individual Christian are to be taken seriously, and that even if you consider another Christian weak in faith, or misguided in interpretation, they are to be treated with respect as a person for whom Christ died as much as he died for you.

And perhaps there is also a message for us as we modern Christians struggle with the question of whether the Bible, or reason, or the guidance of the Holy Spirit speaking to us now has the highest authority.

At first sight, the Gospel reading appears simply to describe a healing miracle. The healing is from demon possession, and that makes some modern day Christians feel uncomfortable. We are not very sure that demons exist, and tend to think that healing of the symptoms described as ‘demon possession’ are actually the province of doctors and psychiatrists, not religious professionals. That is perhaps a question for another time, although it is also about who has ‘authority’ in different areas of healing.

The Gospel writer, however, shows very little interest in the healing. What Mark is concerned with is authority. The story contrasts the authority of the scribes, the religious teachers of the time, and guardians of authority based on knowledge and tradition, with the authority of Jesus. Those who hear Jesus teaching acknowledge his charismatic authority, and the contrast between his teaching and those who have ‘book knowledge’. The crowd’s appreciation of his authority is reinforced after he heals the demon possessed man. His authority has been shown to be greater than that of a servant of Satan.

The story demonstrates that the unclean spirit knows the source of Jesus’s authority, but not all the people who hear him teach, or who witness his miracles, do so. They don’t make the connection between the teaching, the actions and the God from whom they come.

The Galilean crowd had to decide whose authority to obey. The people of Israel and the early Church had to do the same; and so do we, as we try to live as Christians and as citizens and as individuals in contemporary society. The communities to which we belong can give us guidance.  Some may even try to force us to make certain choices. It’s not easy and ultimately, it’s up to us.

We have to make these choices about things which are external to us, political choices and choices about who we associate with and how we behave.

We also have to make choices about things which are within, moral and spiritual choices, where our own desires, and even sometimes our own demons, drive us one way, and God, through the teaching of Christ and the influence of the Holy Spirit, drives us the other.

We will differ in the weight we assign to traditional, knowledge-based, and legal-rational authority, and no-one else can make our decisions for us. I offer two thoughts that you may find helpful as you decide what and whose authority  speaks best to you of God’s will.

The first is a traditional native American story.   A chief was telling a gathering of young braves about the struggle within.   “It is like two dogs fighting inside of us,” the chief told them.   “There is one good dog who wants to do the right and the other dog always wants to do the wrong.  Sometimes the good dog seems stronger and is winning the fight. But sometimes the bad dog is stronger and wrong is winning the fight.”

“Who is going to win in the end?” a young brave asks.

“The one you feed,” the chief answered.

The second is based on language and the origins of words. The words authority, authentic, authorise and author all derive from a Latin word, ‘auctor’ which means origin or creator. True authority comes from the Creator; that’s how we recognise it.

Amen.

Slaves to Freedom

June 26, 2011


Proper 8. Yr A. Romans 6, 12-23: Matthew 10, 40-42.

 

Can you imagine yourself as a slave? Can you imagine living in a situation where you have no rights at all, where you are obliged to do everything someone else tells you to do, where you have no home or clothing or possessions or food that does not belong to someone else, where even your children may be taken away from you and sold to work in another place, where you can be abused without any recourse, where you can even be killed, and no-one will object, because you are simply a possession, to be disposed of at will?  That is the sort of situation Paul is talking about in his letter to the Romans, a society where everyone is either free or enslaved.

 

It’s almost impossible for us to conceive of living in such a society. We tend to complain about even minor restrictions on our our freedom to do what we want and go where we wish, when we want. But that was a reality for many of the new converts in Rome to whom Paul was writing, and even those who weren’t slaves would have known what life would be like as a slave. And yet Paul uses slavery to illustrate what it is to belong to Christ.

 

Our society values freedom highly. We celebrate when we think people have won their political freedom, throwing off the shackles of totalitarian systems or absolute monarchies or theocracies. But experience tells us that freedom is difficult to obtain and even more difficult to maintain. So often, as we watch events unfold, we realise  that the ‘revolution’ has simply replaced one sort of tyranny by another. The rule of the Shah is replaced by that of fundamentalist clerics, the army takes over from a corrupt dictator, or a dictatorship, often of one tribe or ethnic group, takes over when an imperial power withdraws. Again and again we see the pattern of dictatorship, followed by anarchy, followed by another dictatorship. Jesus made a point about this in Luke 11: when an evil spirit leaves a place, he said, he often returns, and finding the place swept clean invites seven more evil spirits to come and occupy it (Luke 11, 24-6).

 

These illustrations seem to indicate that human freedom is something of an illusion; we are always under the power of something. That is something that sociology and psychology tends to confirm – the way that our actions are strongly influenced by the spoken or unspoken customs and conventions of the society we live in. Some social systems may be less directive than others; but human beings need to be equipped to handle freedom, and it is not easy. I expect most of us can remember a time when we were suddenly given a new freedom to make decisions for ourselves: perhaps when we went from school to university, and had to discipline ourselves to turn up to lectures or hand in work; or when we first left home, and found that the flat and the oven didn’t miraculously clean themselves.

 

So when Paul wrote to the Romans about the choice between being a slave to sin or a slave to righteousness, he was not speaking theoretically, but about a real dilemma in which new Christian found themselves, and in which we still find ourselves. Believers are converted or make a commitment to Christ. They are justified and saved. But while salvation brings forgiveness for sin, it doesn’t bring freedom from sin. What Christians then experience is sanctification, a long process of growing in grace, but in which they continually struggle against the power of sin.

 

It’s important to realise that when Paul talks about ‘sin’ he is not talking about the occasional lapse into wrongdoing. He sees ‘sin’ as an external power, a spiritual force to be contended with, and one which humans could not defeated in their own strength. Only the power of God was strong enough to overcome the power of ‘sin’.

 

This view of sin helps me to make sense of the concept of original sin. It says it has nothing to do with our being born as a result of sexual intercourse. Rather, it speaks of the reality that we are born into a world where the pressures of society incline us to put ourselves, our desires, our family or our social group first. It is a real struggle to escape from that inclination, a struggle in which we need to put ourselves under the direction of a spiritual power that is as strong as our inclination to be selfish and do evil.

 

In chapter 6 of the letter to the Romans, from which we heard, Paul is talking about justification, the process of being put right with God. In the first 11 verses he talks about baptism, and uses the analogy of dying and rising again with Christ. In the passage we have today, he uses the analogy of slavery to show how we have a choice about who is to ‘own’ us and direct our lives. In the next chapter, he uses another analogy, that of marriage, to show how we are bound in union to Christ, and must obey him, as a Roman wife was bound to obey her husband.

 

So he says, Christian believers are like slaves, who have been bought by a new master, and must commit themselves wholly to the service of their new owner. But, the reality is that we are constantly tempted back to serve our previous master. That, he argues, is stupid. We may not wish to feel enslaved, but we have no choice about our enslavement. All we can choose is what sort of master to serve. If we choose sin, we are enslaved by a cruel master, in a life which is humiliating, exploitative, and exhausting. Slavery to sin is like an addiction, more and more difficult to escape from the more we obey it. It leads, Paul says, to spiritual death and separation from God.

If we are enslaved to righteousness, though, we have a loving master, who offers us not wages, but a free gift of salvation, freedom, and eternal life in the presence of God. And both this death and this life are to be experienced here and now. We are are not talking about what will happen to us after death, but about what happens to us as we live our lives on this earth.

 

This is not to say that being a ‘slave of righteousness’ is an easy life. Like any slavery, it demands obedience, and is costly, particularly because our previous master, sin, is still trying to direct our lives. Jesus warned us that we cannot serve two masters, but often we try to do so, with great cost.

 

The reality of slavery is that your whole body is at the disposal of your master; and Paul talks in this passage about putting our whole selves, bodies as well as minds, into the service of righteousness. Our society tends to emphasise the freedom of each individual to do what they like with their bodies; so this instruction of Paul’s goes against the cultural norms of our time.

 

Unfortunately, when we talk about bodies and sin in our society, the emphasis tends to be on sex.  This is sad, because it limits our conception of sin to just one part of us. As the letter to James tells us, our tongues are capable of inflicting great damage on others and doing many evil things. Our use of our bodily strength can inflict real physical damage on others, and our minds lead us into all sorts of wrongdoing. Desire for food, for water, for money, for living space, for all sorts of physical comforts lead people into many more evil acts than their sexual desires. When we think about surrendering our whole selves to Christ, we are committing every part of our bodies and every part of our lives to the service of righteousness.

 

In this passage, Paul presents us with three pairs of choices: to choose righteousness over sin; to choose freedom over slavery; to choose the gift of God over the wages of sin.  In the letter to the Romans he also indicates the resources we can draw on in order to have the strength to continue to be obedient to our righteous master.

 

The first resource is our baptism, when we are incorporated both into Christ’s death, but also into new life through him in fellowship with God, and are given the gift of the Holy Spirit to strengthen us.

 

The second is the Christian community of which we are part, which, when it is truly working as one body, enables each of us to offer our particular gifts in the service of Christ, and strengthens us when we are weak. The third is the Holy Spirit, given at baptism, inspiring the Christian community, which controls the minds and spirits of those who are committed to Christ, and helps them to overcome the evil desires of their human nature.

 

Committing ourselves to obedience does not come easily to us in our society. We live in a culture that tends to think that sin is exciting and liberating, whereas commitment to a belief system is limiting and stupid. We are urged to grasp the freedom to do whatever we like – but which so often is just conformity to a passing fashion or to something which eventually damages our minds or our bodies. It requires an act of faith to commit ourselves to struggling for a righteous life, in faith that it will bring the peace and perfect freedom that Paul promises us. But as he says in the letter to the Corinthians, to chose righteousness is to chose the foolishness of God over the wisdom of this world.

 

The choice which the non-believing world presents us with is obedience versus freedom. The choice which Paul presents us with is to be freely obedient to righteousness which will eventually bring us real freedom, or enslaved to the illusion of freedom which will eventually kill our spirits.

 

Which one will we choose?

 

 

 

 

 

Do this to remember me.

April 21, 2011

Maundy Thursday Eucharist.

Exodus 12, 1-14. 1 Cor. 11, 23-26; John 13, 1-17, 31b-35

“Do this  to remember me”.

Today we remember and give thanks for the gift of the Communion service.

What are we remembering?

We are remembering a life: the life of the one who revealed God to us, who was our window into God, yet who lived his life as a servant. That life of service is symbolised in John’s meditation on the Last Supper by the washing of the disciple’s feet.  we remember that washing of feet which were dusty and smelly from walking outside was  an unpleasant  task which would normally have been done by the lowliest servant. I once heard a priest say that the nearest modern equivalent would be emptying bed pans. Yet at the Last Supper, we remember that it was Jesus, the Teacher, the Master, who did this menial task.

We are remembering meals: not just this last meal that Jesus ate with his disciples, but the many meals he ate during his life and the people he shared them with: Pharisees and rich members of the Council, family and friends, women of the streets, outcasts and crooked tax men. We remember he even dipped his bread into the same bowl as the man who was about to betray him and contribute to his death.

We are remembering a death: for the disciples as for us, never again would bread be broken, without the memory of his beaten and broken body walking through Jerusalem and hanging on the cross; never again would wine be poured out, without the memory of the blood flowing from his wounded head, hands, side and feet. Paul says: “as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes”.

“Do this to remember me”.

So do we just remember, just look back?

No.

The Last Supper may have been a Passover meal. The point of the Passover Seder was that the ritual was repeated to make every Jewish person present, from the eldest down to the youngest child, feel as if they personally were present at the Exodus, they personally had been freed from slavery. So that they personally would commit themselves to maintaining that freedom for themselves and everyone else.

The point of Holy Communion is that it becomes a New Passover, not just the Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples, but the First Supper of the new age of freedom from sin and at-one-ment with God.

As we share the bread, we too become part of the body of Christ. So we commit ourselves to living a life like his – a life of service, a life which will remember and honour him.

As we take part in the meal, we commit ourselves to share as he did in his meals,  to ensure that our political, social and religious lives become inclusive – to remember and honour him.

As the bread and wine are shared, we commit ourselves to doing as he did, to forgive and re-establish relationships with those who hurt and betray us – to remember and honour him.

As the bread is broken and the wine is poured out, we open ourselves to the possibility that we may be broken, we may be destroyed, we may have to die – to remember and honour him.

As we share in Communion, we remember and give thanks for the one whose gift of a life freely laid down brought healing to our relationship with God, and we give ourselves to do the same – to remember and honour him.

As we eat this meal we anticipate the coming of the Kingdom, the Wedding Feast of the Lamb and the resurrection to eternal life, opened to us by the life and teaching and death of Jesus  – and we remember and honour him.

“Do this to remember me”.  Amen.

Being God’s Temple

February 20, 2011

Leviticus 19, 1-2 & 9-18; 1 Cor. 3, 10-11 & 16-23; Matthew 5, 38-48.

This week I found out a little bit about the history of this church. I learnt that the first Methodist Chapel was opened in 1852 near Clay Hill, and was replaced by a building in The Rutts in 1883. Then there was another building in the High Road which lasted from 1891 until 1967, and then this building was opened in September 1968. So, as with many places of worship, there was a continual process of renewal, refurbishment and replacement, to create a suitable ‘temple’ in which the Methodist people of this area could worship and encounter God.

 

It was the same for the people of Israel. Their first centre of worship and encounter with God was the Tabernacle, a large tent which could be moved around with them. That was replaced by the Temple, built by King Solomon, and one of the most magnificent buildings of the ancient world. The second Temple which replaced it after the return from Exile  was not so grand, but King Herod the Great was determined to equal the glories of Solomon and rebuilt and extended it from 19 BC. This was the Temple which Jesus visited, and which he called ‘my Father’s house”. But it too was destroyed in AD 70.

But even before that destruction, for the followers of Christ  the place where they encountered God had already changed. It had become not a place, but a person. The Gospels have Jesus speaking about himself as ‘the Temple’, and the heart of Christian belief is that in Jesus we see and encounter God. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, the apostles Paul and Peter speak about the Christian community as ‘the Temple’ where God is both found and worshipped on earth. In the passage from the letter to the Corinthians we heard today, Paul tells them (and us) that we are God’s Temple, built on the foundation of Jesus Christ, filled with God’s Spirit, and holy.

 

So, if we are collectively and individually God’s Holy Temple, how can we ensure that we remain ‘holy’, truly  a place where people may encounter the living God?

 

The ancient Jews came to believe that if you were to encounter God, you had to be ritually pure. So they forbade anything they considered ‘impure’ from approaching the Holy of Holies. Unfortunately, some Christians have also adopted that approach. Paul’s words about ‘being a temple of the Holy Spirit’ have been interpreted as referring primarily to sexual purity, because in another part of 1 Corinthians he refers to the human body being the temple, which should therefore not be used in immoral ways. As a consequence, Christians, too, have tried to ban those they consider to be sexually impure from the Christian community and Christian leadership. This is one argument that has been used for the exclusion of women from Christian leadership roles, and for excluding gay and lesbian people.

 

We don’t often read the Book of Leviticus in church, and we tend to think about it as being totally concerned with obscure issues of ritual and sexual purity. Passages about mixing two sorts of crop in a field, or two sorts of fibres in a garment and how you deal with mildew don’t seem to have much to say to 21st century Christians.  But, as our reading this morning shows, it does have some passages which, like Deuteronomy, interpret the Covenant with God as being about more than ritual and exclusiveness; and what is more, it has passages which were directly quoted by Jesus.

 

The passage we heard tells us that if we are to be the place in which God is encountered, then we need to be concerned about relationships: relationships with God and our our families first(verses 3 & 4 which we didn’t hear reiterate the commandments about honouring parents, keeping the Sabbath and not worshipping idols); but equally important are relationships with our neighbours, and especially those who are poor or vulnerable. So the well-off farmers are reminded to leave gleanings and windfalls for the poor to gather; the commercial sector is warned not to defraud the vulnerable, or use economic power to leave the workers without daily sustenance, and the judiciary is reminded that they judge in God’s name, so should not favour the rich or take bribes.

 

And just like Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, Leviticus extends obedience to the commandments to what is going on inside people’s minds and hearts. You cannot be ‘holy’ simply by doing the right things; you need to have an internal attitude like that of God: you need to be forgiving, and just, and to love your neighbour as yourself.

 

That phrase was taken by Jesus to be used as part of his Summary of the Law. Loving and worshipping God is important: but it is not enough if your aim is to be “perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”. Paul reminds us that, as Christian disciples, we must be ‘in Christ’ as Christ was ‘in God’. That is, we must be as much like God as it is possible for a human to be; and Christ shows us the way.

 

So, Jesus tells us that if we want to be like God, then when someone injures us, we don’t retaliate, and  we even give the person the opportunity to hurt us again. When someone sues us for half of what we have, we voluntarily let them take the other half as well.  We are supposed to co-operate when government oppresses us, give to beggars and lend to anyone who asks.

It may seem to us to be  madness, a recipe for economic collapse and social anarchy; and we could debate whether Jesus meant us to take these commands literally, or whether he was exaggerating to make his point. The point Jesus is making is the same point Paul makes to the Corinthians – God’s wisdom seems like foolishness to those who live by worldly standards. So, if we want to be the place where God is encountered, we are going to have to be thought foolish by the world too.

 

The passages we have been hearing over the past few weeks from the Sermon on the Mount remind us  what a high standard that sets before us. The sort of ‘love’ it demands is not romantic love, or the love we have for family and friends; nor even the love it is easy to feel for those who like us and treat us well. It’s love that compels us to put the needs and preferences of others first, even of others who hate, injure and oppress us.

 

God doesn’t distinguish between friend and foe, righteous and unrighteous, those who acknowledge the divine commands and those who don’t. The good things of the earth, and the chance of salvation are equally open to everyone. That’s what being ‘holy’ means. That’s the difference that becoming the ‘temple of God’ demands of us.

 

When you read the Sermon on the Mount through in it’s entirety, from Matthew, Chapter 5 through Chapter 7, it is easy to become discouraged. There are 27 or more different injunctions about how you are to behave and think, each one demanding that you go beyond what is usually considered good behaviour.  I don’t imagine Jesus actually ever sat down on a mountain and listed all of them at the same time – he was much too wise a teacher to do so. Matthew however wanted to present Jesus as the new Moses, and so created a new ‘Book of the Law’ to equal the books found in the Old Testament, by gathering the precepts Jesus taught into one place. It’s a daunting list!

 

But the Sermon on the Mount is only discouraging if you read it apart from the rest of the New Testament, and make the mistake of imagining we are supposed to do all this in our own strength.  We’re not!

The Temple we are building with our own minds and bodies is constructed on the foundation stone of  Jesus Christ, who has walked the path of human life, and suffered, and died, even for those who hated, persecuted and harmed him. We build it in company with many other  believers, through time and across the world who have tried that way and found it possible, so long as they remain ‘in Christ’. We build it, strengthened by the Spirit of God, who lives in us and loves through us, and empowers us to do what ordinary human beings think foolish and impossible.

 

The building of a Temple made up of humans who live out the message of Christ signals a new era in God’s relationship with humanity, the breaking in of the Kingdom of Heaven. It is the sign that God is truly active on earth, in the living Temple, where any human being may encounter and participate in that divine perfection of love.