Be (Un)Prepared!

July 7, 2013

Harvest

Isaiah 66, 10-14; Galatians 6, 1-16; Luke 10 1-11.

I recently read a story online about a couple and their daughter who emigrated from Hull to Australia after watching a TV documentary about the luxurious life there – and then returned to the UK two months later because of the high cost of living they encountered, the difficulty of getting their favourite foods, and missing their families. It cost them £10K to move to Australia – and now they are back without their furniture, and without a permanent place to live.

I just can’t imagine making a major decision like moving house, let alone moving continents without a lot of research beforehand. Even when we go on holiday, we look up hotels on TripAdvisor and make sure we have somewhere to stay; we make lists for what we pack, and plan out routes  before we set off.

So, the Gospel passage for today, which has been described as ‘The Owner’s Instruction Manual for Christian Mission’ is really rather daunting for me. I tend to follow the Scout motto ‘Be Prepared’, but this passage seems to be saying “Be UNPrepared”. It seems to go against everything that our society regards as sensible – planing things out, taking out insurance, making sure you’ve got the resources to finish something before you start, relying on yourself and your abilities, and so on. What is God saying to us through this passage?

This passage comes in the second half of Luke’s Gospel, after the Transfiguration, when Jesus has set his face towards Jerusalem. It parallels the sending out of the 12 Apostles in Luke 9, and reflects Luke’s special interest in mission to the Gentiles (in the Bible 12 is the number of Israel and 70 or 72 the number of the whole earth). So this passage is telling us about the wider mission of the church.

Jesus doesn’t minimise the challenges of mission activity – then, as now there will be plenty of resistance to the Good News, fuelled by fear, by indifference, by self-interest as the message of the coming Kingdom challenges the prevailing power structure. Jesus warns his disciples that they will be going as “sheep among wolves”. He warns them that the work will be hard: “The harvest is ready but the workers are few”. He doesn’t give them impossible targets; their job is simply to prepare the ground for his arrival. They are to speak words of peace, heal the sick and announce the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God. The implication is that he will do the rest, building on their preparatory work, when he comes.

Some of the instructions Jesus give seem familiar to us as we plan church activities. First of all he instructs his disciples to pray – but the prayers are not for success, but for each other, and for more and more people to become involved with the work of mission. That’s a good reminder for us that mission is not the work just of the ordained, or of trained mission workers, but of every Christian.

Second, Jesus instructs them to go out in pairs, a sensible instruction when we go out into hazardous environments; but it’s not just about our personal safety – it reminds us also that we are part of a Christian community, made up of members with many different skills and talents, all of which may be useful in bringing different sorts of people into fellowship. In today’s world, when there is so much cult of personality, we tend to focus on individuals and what they achieve; it is all to easy to forget the people who support and co-operate with the front line workers, and so play their part in the harvest of mission.  The church has tended to do that too: this story is a useful counter to that. We know the names of the 12 apostles who were sent out, and have made them into saints, and named churches after them. We don’t know anything about these 70 or 72 disciples, not even their names. They stand for the thousands, even millions of faithful Christians who have worked to bring in the Kingdom of God throughout history and continue to do so now.

Jesus also gives them a script to follow. He tells them what to say: “Peace be on this house. The Kingdom of God has come near to you.”  It’s a very simple slogan – short, to the point, affirming. It would even fit into a Tweet!

Modern evangelism courses often try to equip ordinary Christians with a script; but they are rarely as simple and affirming as that. How often have Christians gone into situations speaking words of peace and affirmation? If you look at the media today, the impression given is that Christians are against things and people, and condemn rather than affirm. Perhaps we would do better at bringing in the Kingdom if we went back to Jesus’s script!

These instructions are easy to follow. It is the rest of the manual that goes against our instincts. Every mission initiative that I’ve heard about has involved lots of preparation, lots of expenditure and lots of equipment. But Jesus says: take nothing with you, not even any money, rely on strangers for food and accommodation, accept whatever you’re offered without complaint – in short, travel light!

That might have seemed less strange in Jesus’s time than it does now. Hospitality to strangers was a social obligation in Biblical society in a way it is not for ours. To mistreat visitors brought condemnation of the harshest kind. Later, in a continuation of the passage that we don’t get in the lectionary, Jesus says that it will be better for the town of Sodom on judgement day than for any town that rejects his disciples, reminding us that the sin of Sodom had nothing to do with homosexuality – it was mistreatment of strangers and abuse of hospitality that brought punishment and destruction upon them, not gay sex.

What was Jesus really saying to the disciples with these instructions? I think he was asking them to rely on God, and not on themselves. In our Old Testament reading, through the words of the prophet Isaiah, we hear God’s promise that he will nurture those who serve him as a mother nurtures her children, and protect them as they would be protected in a walled city like Jerusalem. It is that sort of total trust that Jesus asked of his disciples and asks of us. He asks them to make themselves vulnerable when they are engaged in evangelism – and he asks the same of us.  He tells them to eat whatever is put in front of them; that would have been a much harder instruction for observant Jews, with their complex food laws, to accept than it is for us, but it reminds us that we are instructed to rely not just on those who are like us, but also, perhaps on those from a very different culture and with very different tastes from those which the Church has traditionally endorsed.

So how do we interpret these instructions for mission in today’s world? I don’t think it is really telling us to be unprepared in the sense of not spending money or using modern equipment with us when we engage in mission. But it is telling us to keep things simple and to concentrate on the essential of the Christian message and not get sidelined onto peripheral things. It reminds us that often it is the small things, not the grand gestures that advance the Kingdom – things like speaking words of peace and comfort, bringing healing into a tense situation, accepting the hospitality of those different from us, and not making a fuss when things are not done as we think they ought to be done. And things like helping at a foodbank, buying Fairtrade goods, twinning your toilet, or demonstrating for peace and justice.

It reminds us that we must be prepared to work with all sorts of different people to build the Kingdom; in our society that might include government agencies, atheists and humanists and even people of other faiths.

Above all it reminds us that the only equipment we need for mission is trust in the grace of God revealed through the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. This is the message that Paul gives to the Galatian Christians in the letter from which our Epistle reading came. He is advising them to rely on the Holy Spirit, and to live a life based on mutual love and service, rather than relying on the keeping of the Jewish law to bring them salvation. He acknowledges that this path will not be easy: it led Christ to the cross, and may well lead his followers to the same place, but it is the only way to serve God faithfully. What Christ’s followers must trust in is not their own individual talents, or earthly power-structures or miraculous demonstrations, but in God’s commitment to peace and justice, which will ultimately prevail.

So, however little it may seem we have available to us to fulfil the missionary task that Jesus gave us, we are not really unprepared. As Paul assures us, doing what is right, working for the good of all, trusting in the way of the cross will bring the harvest and bring in the new creation for which we hope.

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Led by the Spirit

April 28, 2013

 

20-Peters-Vision_Adam-Anderson

EASTER 5. (Acts 11,1-18; Rev. 21, 1-6; John 13, 31-35)

Some years ago, I watched a programme about Victoria Wood visiting parts of the British Empire. When she was in Hong Kong, she had a conversation with a dog beautician, who told her that one way rich residents demonstrated their wealth was to buy expensive and rare breeds of dogs as pets – and then serve them up as gourmet meals to their friends. When she visited Borneo, she was presented with another gourmet meal of bird’s nest soup – which she did not enjoy because she had previously visited the caves where the ingredients of the soup were collected – one of which was bird spit.

The expressions of disgust and horror I can see on the faces of some of you must be very like the reactions of members of the Jewish Christian community in Jerusalem when they heard the description of what Peter had been ordered to eat in his vision. (Acts 11, 1-18) All the foods in the sheet that was lowered – birds of prey, reptiles, and insects – were unclean according to Jewish dietary rules, and observant Jews were forbidden to eat them.

Many religions, like Judaism, have rules about what their members may or may not eat. As Peter’s experience shows, it is a discipline, but also a way of keeping a holy people separate from nonbelievers, since you can only socialise in a limited way with people you cannot share meals with. The food laws were one important strand in defining who was Jewish and who was Gentile, and keeping them apart, so that the Jewish religion was not watered down or compromised.

Most societies have conventions about food – for instance the French eat horse-meat- which we tend not to; and they eat snails, which we don’t although we do eat whelks. Many of these are breaking down as societies become multi-cultural, and restrictive food laws are often the first things to be jettisoned when a religion undergoes a liberal reformation.

This is what happened after the death and resurrection of Jesus. It ushered in a new era, in which the restrictions and regulations of Old Testament Judaism were no longer appropriate. The fact that this event is described in more or less detail three times in Chapters 10 and 11 of Acts, shows how important a decision it was. The Book of Acts shows the disciples struggling with the implications of the new age. This particular extract seems to show that the inclusion of the Gentiles was accepted once and for all after Peter’s explanation. But further reading in the Book of Acts and in the Epistles show that the issue continued to cause division in the Early Church, especially after St. Paul’s missionary journeys brought many more Gentile converts into the church. It took a long time to decide whether those Gentiles who wanted to become Christians had to keep all the food laws or just some of them, had to undergo circumcision if they were men, and had to observe Jewish religious festivals. We tend to think that deep and bitter divisions about what is essential and what is peripheral to the Christian faith are a relatively modern phenomenon. A careful reading of the New Testament soon demonstrates that divisions were part of the Christian experience from the very beginning.

The food we eat is no longer a major cause of dispute within the Christian Church. But then, it was not really the issue at stake for Peter and Paul in their missionary activities. What was really in dispute was who could be admitted as full members of the covenant community, and that continues to divide Christians. In the past people have been denied full participation (which includes full participation in worship and sacraments and being able to occupy positions of leadership and authority) on the grounds of their race or ethnic origin, on the basis of their age, and on the basis of their gender. Now the burning issue on which some parts of the church wish to exclude others is the issue of sexuality.
The church is both a divine and a human institution, so it is not surprising that sometimes human limitations take over. But God has no such limitations, and the Spirit (as the reading shows) is constantly breaking through those barriers which human beings construct around themselves to make themselves feel safe or comfortable. As faithful Christians we will find our selves constantly being challenged (as Peter was) to follow the Spirit’s lead to situations and places we would rather not go, and our minds constantly being opened to new possibilities of inclusion in our fellowship.

If we take on board fully the implications of this story, perhaps we will feel afraid. It makes it abundantly clear that the Spirit of God is free to bring about the will of God for the world, to transform it into a new heaven and earth, in unlooked for ways. It makes it clear that we cannot use our conventional short cut of categorising people by race, gender or sexuality in making decisions about them. It makes it very plain that the life and death of Jesus brought about salvation for everyone, and all sorts of people who we may not like, or approve of, are going to be grafted into our community whether we like it or not. It shows that to discriminate n against those to whom God has given the gifts of the Spirit is to oppose God  – the worst of sins.

It is hard for human beings to keep up with God. And though we may believe that we will follow wherever the Spirit leads, putting this into practice its not always easy to do. We need always to be asking ourselves; “ Do we put limits on God’s offer of salvation? Are there groups of people that we regard as ‘impure’ and unworthy to be part of our fellowship? How can we tell if it is truly the Spirit leading us, and not our own desires, or human fashion?

God does not leave us without guidance, however, The gospel reading, taken from John’s account of the Last Supper, gives us one means of judging whether people are truly Jesus’ disciples or not. The guidance is placed just after the moment in the story where Judas leaves to betray Jesus and the others to the authorities, thus demonstrating that people who betray their friends are not true disciples. Jesus warns his disciples of his imminent death, and gives them a new commandment – to love one another as he has loved them; then he adds that they can tell if others are his disciples by the quality of their love for one another.

This is a very practical yardstick for us to use. It means we do have to judge each person individually, rather than relying on human categories. It is also a yardstick by which we know we all fall short – for none of us is able to show the boundless, sacrificial, all-inclusive love which Jesus did when chose to he died on the cross rather than resist with violence. So we are all included in the community of the Church by grace, and we have to be very, very careful about excluding others without good reason.

Inevitably, Christians will continue to be divided, as the Jerusalem Church was divided, over where the limits of inclusion and exclusion should be set. The story from Acts gives us some guidance about how we should deal with those divisions. Peter didn’t indulge in a long discourse about the theory behind the dietary laws and how things had changed; he didn’t bandy passages of Scripture with those who challenged his actions. He was honest about his own reservations, but detailed clearly how after prayer and being open to the Spirit’s leading, a new and unexpected experience had changed his deeply held opinions.

Peter’s experience is a real challenge to many in the Church, who seek to keep themselves in little enclaves of orthodoxy and supposed purity, and refuse to allow themselves to be open to the ministry of those – be they women or gays, or whoever – whom they seek to exclude.

Of course, being open to the leading of the Spirit is not without risks – but risk-taking love is what Jesus was all about.

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

The Resurrection

March 31, 2013

 IMG_0739

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


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.

Majesty and Meekness.

November 25, 2012

 

( Daniel 7, 9-10 & 13-14; Revelation 1, 4b-8; John 18, 33-37)

Religious jokes usually circulate in a number of different versions. Here’s a version of one I’m particularly fond of.

There was once a tornado in the Southern United States so strong that it blew down an angel from Heaven. The folk who found the angel immediately began asking questions. “Tell me,” said one, ” You have seen God. What is he like?”  The angel looked at them and smiled. “SHE is BLACK”, it replied.

If you have read ‘The Shack’ by William Paul Young, you will find it partly reflects the thrust of that joke in its portrayal of God. ‘The Shack’ is a novel, but also a work of theology. It concerns a man called Mack, whose youngest daughter was abducted during a family holiday in the Oregon wilderness. She is never found, but there is evidence in the shack of the title, that she was murdered. Mack’s grief at this destroys his faith in God. Then, one day he slips on an icy driveway when he is going to collect the mail. When he opens the mailbox, there is only one item – a note from God (who the family call Papa) inviting him to go back to the shack. When he gets there, he encounters God the Trinity in the form of three people, and Papa (God the Father) is female and black!

I won’t spoil the book for you if you haven’t read it. But do read it, if you can; it’s one of those life-changing books, that everyone should know.

We are told in many places in the Scriptures, and in the tradition, that God is not a being like us. If you want to talk properly about God, you have to use abstract philosophical concepts, because the use of any human categories limits God in ways that are unacceptable.

But human beings are not very good at imagining things in the abstract, and are even worse at relating to abstract concepts, in the way our faith expects us to relate to God. So all of us fall back on creating pictures in our minds to help us to try to grasp  what God is like.

Genesis 1 tells us that human beings were created in the image of God. Human beings in turn tend to ‘create’ or imagine a God made in their image, a God who is like them or like some category of human being they know.

Today, the last Sunday before Advent, is known in some churches as ‘Christ the King’. The readings direct our thoughts to one human category through which we express what we think God is like, that of a human monarch.

Daniel imagines God holding court in a throne room of a monarch of one the the many empires that conquered the Hebrew kingdom, surrounded by thousands of servants, and acting as both judge and jury, dispensing justice. Before him comes ‘one like a son of man’ a human being who is given power and authority over a major part of the monarch’s dominions.

The book of Revelation also portrays God as an earthly monarch, holding court in great glory and sending out his commanders to fight and defeat his enemies. Jesus is God’s lieutenant, whose enemies shake in fear as he approaches in power through the clouds.

In the reading from John, we have a passage which talks about the monarchs of this world, but which contrasts those with the kingdoms of God and Jesus. When the community who composed the Gospel of John reflected on their experience of the life, death and teaching of Jesus, they realised that the picture of an all-conquering earthly ruler was not the right one to convey the reality of the Kingdom of God. So, when they imagined the confrontation between Pilate, who held earthly power, and Jesus, who embodied the Kingdom of God, Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world”.

That’s not a thought that has had a great deal of influence on the Christian tradition. Most have continued to imagine God the Father, and Christ the Son like secular monarchs, and the coming of God’s Kingdom as an event that will violently destroy all human power systems, punish God’s enemies and install the faithful in positions of earthly power.

We tend to ignore the hints in the Scriptures that the reign of God is something quite different. Daniel says that God’s ruler will be one like ‘a son of man’, that is with the limitations of human beings, not overwhelming power.

Revelation says that Jesus Christ brought us into the Kingdom as priests (all of us, not just the ordained!) through his faithfulness, and through the shedding of his blood. Jesus in John rejects secular definitions of power and authority, and stands by Truth, even when it means his own death. Jesus came to show us  the truth about a different kind of God and a different way of being a monarch.

The way we think about God and Christ and the nature of their kingdom is not just theory. It affects the way we think it is right to act, in everything from the nature of our ministry, what sin is and how we escape its consequences, to the way we conduct our civic relationships and settle our differences.

Another book which I found life changing is one by the American theologian, Marcus J Borg, called “The God We Never Knew”. It is all about how he moved from the image of God he was taught in his childhood, which became increasingly unsatisfactory as he grew up and studied, to a way of thinking about God and living with God that he never knew as a child, a way that was consistent with the Bible and the tradition, but which made sense to a 21st century mind.

The concept of God with which Borg (and perhaps many of us) grew up was of a supernatural being ‘out there’ far away, who created the world a long time ago. The best metaphors for this  being are King or Judge, or an authoritarian patriarchal father, totally different and separate from us, all knowing and all powerful. Sometimes, he (this being was always thought of as masculine) intervened in the world, in the sort of events described in the Bible. But essentially this God was not here, but somewhere else. If we were good enough, and believed strongly enough, and abased ourselves enough about the sins we committed, we might be allowed to be with this being after death.

Borg calls this way of thinking about God ‘supernatural theism’ or ‘the monarchical model’. Because human beings need something concrete to speak to, when Borg worshipped or prayed, his picture of God was based on the Lutheran pastor who led the services in his church each Sunday – a big man, with grey hair and a black robe, who always shook his finger as he preached. So Borg saw God as the big eye-in-the-sky, always watching, always disapproving, always judging.

But as he grew older, studied theology and read the works of theologians such as John Robinson and Paul Tillich, he came to a different understanding of God, panentheisim. This thinks of God as all around us, within us, but also more than everything. What is more, we are within God. God is constantly creating, constantly nurturing, constantly present in the world, but is infinitely more than the world. In this model, the best metaphors for God are Abba/Daddy, lover, mother, Wisdom, companion on the journey. Borg calls this way of thinking about God ‘The Spirit model’. The concrete image which sums up this picture of  God for him is of his wife, a priest, bending down to give a small child who is kneeling at the altar rail the consecrated bread. He says: “I was struck by the difference: an image of God as a male authority figure, shaking his finger at us versus the image of God as a beautiful loving woman bending down to feed us”.( p.71)

Borg emphasises that both the monarchical model of God and the Spirit model are true to the Bible and to the tradition, and have nurtured Christian belief and worship through the ages; but he argues that supernatural theism is becoming more and more difficult to maintain alongside a modern world view.

Throughout history, the male, distant, King and Judge model has been the dominant one, at times the only one that was allowed. This has had consequences for our church organisation, particularly the insistence that you had to be a human male in order to speak for and represent this ‘male’ God.

But the loving, nurturing, female model is there, in the Scriptures and the tradition too,  if you look for it. One of the names used for God in the Old Testament, El Shaddai,  can be translated as the all sufficient one, the providing one, God as a mother who feeds us from her own substance – an image taken up again in the 1st Epistle of Peter and the writings of Julian of Norwich.  In different places in the Bible God is spoken of as a mother bear, a mother eagle, a mother hen, and as a caring parent, leading her toddlers with reins to keep them safe.

When you come to think of Christ the King according to this model, you get a very different picture from the rather triumphalist image of the commander of armies of angels who will come in power to defeat and punish the wicked. You get a picture of a servant ruler, who sustains and nurtures and comforts her people, who works to repair relationships and reconcile the divided parts of her realm. You get the Scandinavian welfare monarchy rather than Henry V.

And if that’s the image you carry in your mind of our divine monarch, then you will have a very different picture of what living under God’s sovereign rule is all about. If Christ is our authority, then Christ’s agenda takes priority – striving for peace and justice for all, turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, sacrificing your good for the good of others, even your enemies. If we are living in Christ’s Kingdom, it’s not about conquest or power, it’s not about saying one group of people are better or holier or better able to represent God than another;  it’s about sacrifice and service; it’s about rejecting systems  that oppress and reject people; it’s about a completely different reality that works within human secular systems to subvert them and transform them into systems of justice, peace and love.

What we celebrate as we think of Christ the King is the foolishness of God, who redeems through sacrifice and servanthood, who lifts our humanity to the divine, who leads us with infinite tenderness to fulness of life: the monarch whose majesty is shown through meekness.

Waiting for the End Times.

November 18, 2012

 

( Daniel 12, 1-3; Hebrews 10, 11-25; Mark 13, 1-8)

Do you like watching disaster movies?

One of our children was devoted to the film ‘The Towering Inferno”. I lost count of how many times we saw all those different people escaping from that sky scraper! Some of the most popular science fiction films, like The Day of the Triffids, and Independence Day and Judgement Day predict the end of the world coming as a result of something coming from outer space. Then there are films about those smaller disasters, caused by ships sinking or aircraft crashing.

There seems to be something in human beings that enjoys being scared silly by contemplating the awful things that might happen to them.

A look into the Bible will show that such ‘disaster stories’ are nothing new. Both in the Old and the New Testaments we have passages, like those in today’s readings, which speak about the awful trials which will come at some time in the future, in The Last Days, or The End Times or The Day of the Lord, as it is variously known. You’ll find passages like chapter 13 of Mark in the three synoptic gospels, and in some of Paul’s epistles and in Revelation.

The technical term for these disaster scenarios is ‘apocalyptic’, which means revelation or unveiling. The apocalypse reveals to the faithful what is to come, in order to strengthen them to endure the tribulation, in the sure hope that right will prevail, the righteous will emerge triumphant, the evil people will get their just deserts and the good rewarded.

Biblical scholars are divided about whether Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet, who actually spoke these passages, or whether they reflect the views of the early believers, who saw Jesus’s death and resurrection as ushering in the End Times and the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God on earth.

Whether they were spoken by Jesus or not, they were not meant to be crystal ball predictions, or a timetable to help us spot when the end of the world was coming, as some Christians have tended to treat them. What they described was not the future, but the present reality for the persecuted community, be it the Jews of Daniel’s time, or the Christians of the post-resurrection community. The purpose of apocalyptic was not to allow believers to predict the coming of God’s Kingdom, but to strengthen them to remain faithful no matter what happened.

Mark’s description of war, famine, rebellion, the destruction of holy sites, and the preaching of false prophets reflected what was happening in his community’s time. But they are things which happen in every age, including our own. So, the message of apocalyptic passages like Daniel and Mark 13 are not just meant for the believers of the post-Resurrection community, they are meant for us too. What do they tell us?

The book of Daniel provides assurance that, at the End Time, ‘those whose names are written in God’s book’ will be saved, those who have died will be brought to new life and all will be judged on the basis of their deeds. It is those who do God’s will whose names are written in God’s book, and Daniel promises justification for them.

Hebrews also assures its readers that the destiny of those who are faithful to God is already decided. Rather than using the metaphor of battle that we find in Daniel and Mark, it uses the imagery of the sacrificial system, which was used in the Jerusalem Temple to put the people right with God. It compares the daily sacrifices made on behalf of the people by the human High Priests, with the one, perfect sacrifice made by Jesus through his death, which gains access to God’s presence, not only for himself, but also for all who follow him. Then  the image of warfare comes in, when Jesus is envisaged as a favoured commander of God’s army, who has scored a decisive victory and is now waiting in glory with him until the last enemies have been rounded up. Because of Jesus, we can all look forward with hope, Hebrews says, since he is already where we are destined to be.

Mark 13 also uses the Jerusalem Temple as a symbol, but now not of the place of encounter with God, but of the system where religion  is allied with wealth and power. He tells his disciples that before the End Times arrive, and the Kingdom of God is fully established, that alliance of religion and power  must be destroyed.  Violence, war and ridicule are weapons which the secular powers often use against those who seek to follow Christ’s example.  There has been a tendency for religious groups to respond in kind; and  when religion gets mixed up with secular power systems, they tend to adopt the secular ways of persuading people to conform, including indoctrination, physical force and persecution. Jesus demonstrated in his life and death that this was not God’s way.

The Bible passages we heard show us that what we should be relying on is Jesus’s path of self-giving, non-retaliation, forgiveness  and loving to the utmost. The way of the cross is to abandon power, absorb pain and violence and to engage in the work of reconciliation, rather than retaliation. Powerless peacemaking is the only way of life that brings us into the right relationship with God that Jesus enjoyed and demonstrated. It provides a sharp contrast to the power plays of the world, but it is something which has been all too rarely demonstrated by the Church.

These apocalyptic passages urge us to take the long view and preserve confidence in the way of the Kingdom which Jesus taught, rather than taking a short cut by using the worldly solutions of force and violence.

Bishop Justin Welby

This contrast was illustrated for me by the pictures of the Archbishop of Canterbury designate, BIshop Justin Welby, last week. He wears an ordinary black clerical shirt, not an episcopal purple one, a sign of humility and servanthood, and around his neck he wears a Coventry Cross, formed from 3 nails. This stands both for the nails of the cross of Christ, and also for the nails retrieved from the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, and formed into crosses which were sent by the Cathedral to the cities of Kiel, Dresden and Berlin as symbols of forgiveness, reconciliation and hope in 1940,while World War 2 was still being fought.

Justin Welby has been part of Coventry’s ministry of reconciliation, which continued from its war time beginnings to  become a network of partners all over the world, committed to working for peace and reconciliation in some of the world’s most difficult and longstanding areas of conflict. Bishop Welby’s work took him into dangerous situations in the Middle East and in Africa.

The Centre for Reconciliation is also committed to resourcing the church in the practical outworking of reconciliation as an integral part of Christian worship, witness and discipleship. We may not be in a position to do very much except pray about reconciliation in the large political conflicts of these ‘End Times’, but all localities and human institutions have their conflicts and power-plays, and as followers of Christ, we are called to walk the Way of the Cross and bring reconciliation there too.

This will mean accepting that the old situation in which the church had an established and respected place in the community, both physically and traditionally, is no more. Our fine construction of stone, like the Jerusalem Temple, is being broken down, and we have to find a different way of engaging with the people who need to learn about Christ’s way of peace, love and reconciliation from expecting them to come to us, and to be taught about our beliefs through the public education system.

We are being challenged, many believe, to try new ways of living the way of the Kingdom without the security of buildings and support of the state and traditional culture. That will mean not just exploring new ways of teaching and worshipping, like Messy Church, and food banks and debt counselling, and help for refugees, but also thinking again about what is the real core of the Christian message, and how that can be expressed in the language and concepts, and through the media in which the majority of people nowadays are at home. We cannot speak peace to our communities unless we are part of our communities, both physically and theologically, and in order to do that, we will almost certainly find ourselves having to let go of things that we value, or at least see them gradually take up fewer resources than those things which speak to those who need our ministry. There may need to be changes not only in the way we do things, but also in the way we express our beliefs, in the concepts we use and the way we interpret scripture, if our faith is to be of use in this post-modern world.

The people for whom Daniel and the author of Hebrews and Mark wrote were waiting eagerly for the End times, expecting God to intervene in history in some dramatic way, with legions of angels, and geological and planetary disruption.

I don’t think many people expect that sort of End Time any more. I certainly don’t. Rather, we know now that we are always living in the End Times, and that if the conditions of the End Times – war, deceit, famine and so on – are ever going to cease, it will only be when we all live as Jesus showed us how to live – generously, lovingly, sacrificially, – so that we and everyone else can experience that life in all its fulness which is the life of the Kingdom.

Amen

(Proper 25. Yr B. Jer.31, 7-9) Mark 10, 46-52)

“What do you want me to do for you?”

The question which Jesus asks of the blind beggar, Bartimeus. Bartimeus calls him “Teacher” and asks to be allowed to see again.

Just before this incident, Jesus has asked the same question of his disciples, James and John. They had been walking behind him on the road to Jerusalem, arguing amongst themselves. Their answer was “When you sit on your throne in your glorious kingdom, we want you to let us sit with you, one at your right and one at your left.”

Jesus’ reaction to this request was not very encouraging. He asked them if they were prepared to suffer with him, and then, when they said they were, replied that it was not for him to choose who would sit with him in heaven. Then he reminded them again that he was not like an earthly king or master, and his fellow rulers would not be like earthy rulers. If they wanted to be first in the kingdom, they would have to become like slaves, the last in line, ready to give their lives to redeem others.

He was much more encouraging to Bartimeus. “Go, he said to him, “Your faith has made you well.” And immediately, Bartimeus was able to see again, and he followed Jesus ‘in the Way’.

When you read these two passages together, you discover that the narrative can be read on two levels. On the surface they are about a discussion between master and disciples, and a simple healing. But underneath, they are about the call to discipleship, and about understanding what that really means.

James and John are already disciples. They are insiders. They have already been called, and they think they know what this means. They think they can see, both physically, and spiritually. They think they are ‘on the way’.

But, in reality, they are blind to the true nature of Jesus’ Messiahship. They think it is about power, and prestige and status. They don’t really understand that the way to the kingdom is through service, humiliation, even death.
They’ve lost their way.

Bartimeus is not yet a disciple. His poverty and his disability mean he is an outsider and powerless. All he has is his faith, but that is strong. Like the woman with the haemorrhage he is prepared to do anything to make contact with Jesus.

So, he shouts – and in spite of discouragement and disapproval from the people on the inside, he keeps on shouting. And Jesus calls him; in verse 49, the verb call is used three times.

When Jesus asks him what he wants, Bartimeus answers that he wants to see again. But, ironically, because he has such faith in Jesus, although he cannot physically see, his spiritual sight is much better than that of the so-called disciples.

Jesus responds with a phrase that, again, can be understood on two levels: “Your faith has made you well” or “Your faith has brought you salvation”. Then the outsider becomes an insider; the beggar becomes a disciple; he throws away his only possession, his coat, leaps up and follows Jesus ‘in the way’ – on one level, the way to Jerusalem – but on another ‘The Way’ of the Christian life.

Every time we come into church, every time we pray, Jesus is asking us, too, “What do you want me to do for you?” What is your answer?

Are you here because you like flower arranging, or church music, or you enjoy the quiet? Are you here to escape from the outside world, to find refuge in something that doesn’t ever change much? Are you here because you can feel someone important in this small community ? None of these things is wrong. Jesus calls us first of all in order to heal us, so that we may be  free to follow in his Way.

But are you here in the hope that it will ensure you get one of the thrones beside Jesus in his kingdom (or at the very least your own cloud and a harp and a halo!)?That was James’ and John’s mistake, for which they were strongly reproved by Jesus. It is not what disciples are called for.

Or are you here to learn about being a disciple, to practise being a servant, to learn what it means to take up your cross and follow Jesus ‘in the Way’? Are you here to have your spiritual in-sight restored, to be strengthened through word and sacrament, to give your life and your time and your talents for other people? Are you here to have your life turned upside down, if that is what God is demanding of you? This is what these stories of discipleship say is Jesus’ purpose when he calls us.

Our new Bishop, Alan Smith, as he began his ministry among us three years ago, gave the diocese three priorities to work on. If we were to ask him “What do you want us to do for you?”, his answer would be: “Go deeper into God; transform your communities; make new disciples”.

Going deeper into God involves placing prayer and worship at the centre of the life of our church, exploring what it means to pray, and ensuring our worship is of the highest quality and attractive to all those who experience it – insiders and outsiders. Worship is important because it transforms us, displaces our own selfish egos, exposes our lust for power and our own self-aggrandisement, and gives us the inner security that enables us to turn outwards.

True, God-centred worship allows us to go out into our communities and transform them in the name of Christ.The faith of the Christians of the Victorian age prompted them to transform their communities in the physical sense. They built schools and hospitals, they struggled for social and political reform. They left a real legacy. What are we going to leave as our legacy? How far is our congregation a blessing to the community we live in? Each church needs to connect prayerfully with the communities in which they are set, and become increasingly open to welcome others to share the journey into God. Just because other people in our communities have different cultures or different religious beliefs, it doesn’t mean we can’t work with them to build up social cohesion and transform our communities into better places for everyone to live in.

Bartimeus was made whole because Jesus called him. Each one of us is here because someone, a parent, or a friend, or a teacher, or a neighbour, called us to come and explore the faith with them; and we have stayed because others have called us to discuss with them when our faith has been challenged. Those people made us ‘new disciples’. How equipped are we to present the faith to other thoughtful educated adults like us? How confident are we to share our faith with our children, and our teenagers, who are constantly challenged to deny their faith in the world outside? How ready are we perhaps to be converted again ourselves (as James and John needed to be converted again) before we are ready to go out and evangelise others?

And if, though God’s grace working through us, we were to become more successful in calling new disciples, how ready will we be to meet their needs? How ready are we to ask those who come though our doors “What do you want us to do for you?”. Will we actually be as disapproving and discouraging as the bystanders were to Bartimeus?

Bishop Alan spoke at some length about the importance of welcoming people properly when they come to church, and gave us some pointers about how to do that. He told us not to assume that everyone wants the same thing of us – or wants what we want. He urged us to be sensitive to the body language of newcomers. Some will come in quietly, and want to leave with just a smile and a handshake, and an expression of interest, especially if they have been bereaved or are going through a personal crisis. Others will want to talk – and be listened to, not talked at! Others come ready to get involved – but we need to train ourselves to distinguish the different needs of different people. He also warned us that new disciples will change our church – and if we don’t want that, we shouldn’t go recruiting them!

In our Old Testament reading we heard the prophet Jeremiah speaking words of encouragement from the Lord, proclaiming God’s promise that a time was near when the sad and the sick in body and in mind, the young and the old would return. Could we make that passage part of our inspiration for our efforts to renew and revive this church?

“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked his disciples – and they gave him the wrong answer. “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked blind Bartimeus – and he was made whole again.

This week, as you say your prayers each day, can you hear Jesus saying to you “What do you want me to do for you?” – and will you give him an answer?

And will you also say to God “What do you want me to do for you?”

And will you be prepared to do what God asks?

Watch your Tongue!

September 16, 2012

(Isaiah 50, 4-9a; James 3, 1-12; Mark 8 27-38)  (Yr B proper 19)

“Sticks and stones can break my bone, but words will never hurt me”. 

It’s a rhyme we teach our children in an attempt to help them to stand up to verbal bullying and name calling in the playground. But they know it’s rubbish and so do we; words can and do often hurt deeply. Just think of the furore this week over the words published in the newspapers and repeated by politicians about the football fans involved in the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. The hurt from those words has lasted for 23 years.

Words can cripple. We know now that if you tell someone often enough that they are stupid, they will stop trying to learn. If you are blamed for abuse committed against you, eventually you feel guilty.

And words can sometimes kill. We all know about bullying of children at school, and especially now cyberbullying, which can lead to the suicide of vulnerable young people. And in some parts of the world, like Pakistan, North Africa or Uganda, an accusation of insulting the Koran or the Prophet Muhammed, or of being homosexual, can lead to imprisonment, execution or lynching.

Words are powerful. Words can and do cause enormous hurt.

All three of our readings today have something to tell us about words. Second Isaiah the author of the Old Testament reading has been given the vocation of a teacher. He tries to speak God’s word of comfort and warning to the exiles in Babylon. His words don’t hurt others, but they bring him opposition, persecution and disgrace. We know from history, and especially the history of our church, that is often the fate of prophets and teachers who say what the powerful don’t want people to hear. It was the fate of Jesus, and it is the fate of radical teachers still.

The writer of the Letter of James also comments on the role of the teacher (and the preacher!) He warns them that they will be judged by their words. As you will see if you read the Letter of James in full, he is very sceptical about a faith that is just words. He instructs all servants of God to demonstrate their faith in action; and since teachers of the faith are the most visible followers of the Lord, he is especially insistent that they do. Since Christians are so often accused by their opponents of being hypocrites, it is a warning we should all take to heart!

He realises how very important preaching is, and how much influence it has over those on the fringes of faith, and outside. As a lay preacher, I wish that some churches realised this too. Some make a great deal of fuss about who may preside at communion, but allow untrained and  unauthorised people to preach and teach, which in my view can be much more damaging to the faith of people who hear them.

James uses typical Jewish exaggeration to make his point about the dangers of the tongue. This is a passage which repeats warnings found in the Wisdom literature in the Old Testament, in Proverbs and Eccelsiasticus, about the dangers of speaking without proper thought. Although at the end of the passage he says that the same small organ can be used for praise and cursing, in the rest of the passage he paints the tongue as all evil, like a tree that bears a mixture of fruit, a spring that gives both good and tainted water, and an uncontrollable animal.  In verse 6 especially, ( a verse which translators have great difficulty with) he says the tongue is the root of all evil.

He speaks of the tongue as like a spark which starts a forest fire. How true we can see that is, in a week where enormous damage has been done, and lives lost, because of the words broadcast on You Tube in a film about Islam. James reminds us about the difficulty of controlling our tongues. It is a lesson we all would do well to learn, and to revisit frequently.

Although James says here that there is no controlling the tongue, in the following verses he does suggest what can control the tongue and rash speech – and that is Wisdom. Wisdom in the Old Testament was an attribute of God, and the early Christians linked Wisdom with the Word of God, embodied in Jesus. So, following Jesus is the way to gain control over the tongue.

But what exactly does that mean? The gospel passage is the famous conversation on the way to Caesarea Philippi, where Jesus asks his disciples who they and other people think he is, and Peter replies “The Messiah”. This may be an actual conversation which took place, but is more likely to be a reflection by the gospel writer of the theology that the disciples arrived at following the death and resurrection of Jesus.

We follow Jesus as God’s Messiah or Christ. But that is not as simple as it sounds.‘Messiah’ or ‘Christ’ can mean different things to different people. As the story illustrates, Peter understood something different  about the mission of God’s Messiah from the vocation that Jesus had. Peter seems to have seen it in terms of a victory over the Romans and the other forces of oppression, perhaps through military might, crowd violence or even divine intervention. Jesus’s life and death taught quite clearly that the way God’s Christ would triumph over evil and oppression was through suffering and death, through the cross; and the message for us is that that is the way we too must oppose evil.

We learn our faith partly through the spoken word, and through our own experience of the church and the world; but one primary source for our faith is the Bible, the written word. That has been a source of increasing problems for faith in our time, because of the different ways in which the words of the Bible can be understood.

During the summer, I have been reading a book called ‘The Bible made Impossible’ by Christian Smith. This is a critique, by an evangelical, of the way which the Bible is read by some Christians, who he calls ‘biblicists’. Among the tenets of biblicists which he criticises are that the best way to understand biblical texts is by reading them in their explicit, plain, literal sense, and that the meaning of the words can be understood by anyone without any knowledge of creeds, or tradition, the culture in which they were written or the literary genre, that all words in the Bible say the same thing about any given subject, and that all you need to do to discover Biblical truths (which cover everything you need to know about anything) is to sit down and read the Bible.

Smith’s book shows how this approach falls down, in particular because there is no agreement about what the Bible says on key beliefs among biblicists, even without taking into account the conclusions of the dreaded theological liberals.

Particularly relevant for the lectionary readings today is Smith’s illustration of the fallacy of treating words and simple and straightforward. He describes first of all the ‘locutionary act’ the action of writing or uttering a word. Behind the locutionary act is the ‘illocutionary act’ what you intend to do when you speak or write. You may intend to command, promise, warn, offer, challenge, speak poetry, tell a story, dream or question. Anyone who hears may decide what you intend from your tone of voice and your body language; anyone who reads had to decide via punctuation, context, and literary genre – but this is difficult, and even more so when the words were originally written in another culture, a foreign language or a different alphabet.

Finally there is the ‘perlocutionary act’ the effect the words have on the hearer or reader. It is obvious this may or may not be what the original speaker or writer intended, and depends as much on the recipient of the words as their author.

Let me give you an example which Smith uses: if someone says ‘Let him have it’ it could mean very different things, according to the tone of voice and the situation. Just consider the difference between a parent saying this to squabbling children, a spouse discussing the allocation of the marital home after a divorce, or an criminal speaking to an armed accomplice when face by the police.

When we read the Bible we don’t have a simple way of deciding what ‘illocutionary act’ the original speaker or writer intended. Even if we believe, as many biblicists do, that the Bible is the direct speech of God, transferred without error into the pen of the writer, we do not have sufficient knowledge of the mind of God to know for

certain what was the divine intention in any particular passage.

In interpreting the Gospel passage today, we need to reflect on the very different understanding that the early church, especially the Jewish part of it, had of the title Messiah. We need to recognise that the Christian faith, and especially its understanding of who Jesus was, developed over time, through the experience of the resurrection and of the Holy Spirit working through the earliest followers of Jesus, and was changed by its contact with the Greek and Roman world. By the time the Gospel of Mark came to be written in 60 or 70 CE, 30 to 40 years after the crucifixion, Messiah/Christ had quite a different meaning to the followers of Jesus from the one it had during his lifetime.

What’s more, by the time that the definitive canon of the New Testament was agreed, at the beginning of the 5th century of the Christian era, the development of the church as an institution, closely allied to the Roman Empire; and the decisions of the Councils which resolved heresies and persecuted those who disagreed, there was a very different understanding again of what those words meant.

We seek to follow Jesus the Christ. We believe that he is the living Word and Wisdom of God, as someone once said ‘the window through which we see God’. We seek to know him better through the written word in the Scriptures, as well as through openness to his inspiration through the Holy Spirit.

But our knowledge can only ever be partial and tentative. Jesus didn’t write anything himself, and there were no video cameras or tape recorders in 1st century Palestine to capture his exact words for us. Therefore we need to exercise humility when we teach or preach about him, and when we describe others as correct  or misguided in their understanding of what it means to speak of him as God’s Messiah.

We must never forget just how much pain and misery, how many crosses, literal and metaphorical, have been placed on innocent people, by disputes over words about him.

May today’s readings remind us, as we live our lives, that our words as well as our actions must be under the authority of the God whom Jesus showed us, and of the need always to watch our tongues, so that they reflect clearly his authority over us.