May 5, 2013
(Acts 16, 9-15; Revelation 21,10 &21,10-22.5; John 5,1-9)
Paul really didn’t want to go to Philippi.
He and Silas had plans to evangelise known territory in Asia Minor (present day Turkey), where they knew there were synagogues and Jewish communities where they could preach easily, but every time they tried to turn North and East, the Holy Spirit blocked their way.
They crossed to Macedonia, homeland of the hated Alexander who had imposed Greek culture on their nation 300 years before, only as a result of a compelling vision of a man from Macedonia begging them to come and help him.
Philippi was possibly the most unattractive place on earth to begin a religious mission. It was a colonial city, established by the Emperor Augustus to control that part of the Roman Empire, and populated by discharged veterans from the legions, who were each given a square of land on which to support themselves. It didn’t seem to have much of a Jewish population: there weren’t even the ten adult Jewish males you needed before you could establish a synagogue, so the Jews and the Gentile God-fearers who worshipped with them, gathered by the side of the river to pray on the Sabbath.
The leader among the women who met Paul and Silas there was also a stranger in the place: Lydia came from Thyatira in the region they’d just left. She wasn’t Jewish, it seems, though she was drawn to Jewish beliefs, and worshipped with them. She was probably a widow, and was a successful businesswomen, so was probably quite wealthy. She dealt in purple cloth, which was a luxury item, though since the snails from which the purple dye was extracted were considered unclean to Jews, she was probably not considered someone strict Jews ought to associate with.
But it was her heart that was opened to Paul’s preaching, her household that became the first European residents to be converted to the Christian faith, and her home that provided hospitality to Paul and his companions, and the centre of the church that Paul always remembered with joy and thankfulness. The core from which the Christian faith grew on the continent of Europe was composed of women, outcasts and foreigners.
Paul took a risk in preaching the Gospel and accepting hospitality from these women. Lydia took a risk in opening her home to this group of men. Yet, the strength of her faith showed itself in the hospitality and generosity to these strangers. The Letter to Timothy says such hospitality is the hallmark of a church leader, and Paul commended this in the church communities he founded.
‘Hospitality’ is an interesting word. The Greek from which it is translated – philoxena – is composed of two words meaning ‘love’ and ‘foreigners’ – it it literally love for strangers. The Latin root of our word hospitality, ‘hostes’, also means ‘stranger’.
That tells us ‘hospitality’ is not about having a nice time with people like ourselves. It is about offering safety, comfort, nourishment, security, healing and friendship both to those who are different and alien from us, as well as to those who are like us. This was an absolute obligation in the world of the Old Testament; to fail to offer security and sustenance to a stranger was the worst social offence. It is this, not gay sex, that Sodom and Gemorrah were condemned for
We Christians offer hospitality because that is what God in Jesus offers to us; we have done it as ‘hosts’ (another related word) in hostels, hospitals and hotels throughout the Church’s history; and it is what the best Christian communities continue to do today.
The readings from John and Revelation also speak, in their different ways, about hospitality. What is on offer in the Gospel passage is healing. The story speaks of Jesus going to a place where the sick gather, all hoping to to be healed by some sort of magic. He picks a stranger at random, and offers him true healing. The person who is healed is not particularly deserving, he doesn’t express faith in Jesus, he doesn’t even seem to be particularly grateful for his healing. It certainly doesn’t appear to provoke faith in him.The miracle demonstrates the generous, indiscriminate character of God’s grace. This story show that it is not true that faith is a precondition for healing; God doesn’t only reward those who have faith. on the contrary, God’s hospitality is offered to all, even the undeserving.
Revelation speaks of a God who accepts the hospitality of humankind, coming to live among them in a renewed Jerusalem, and then, in that holy city, offering hospitality to every race and people. The picture it paints is of a renewed creation: the tree of life stands at the centre, and the river of life flows through it, reflecting the situation in the Garden of Eden. In a parallel with the Gospel story, those who find sanctuary there are offered healing through the leaves of the tree of life. There will be absolute security for everyone within the city, with no darkness to provide cover for wrongdoing. It will be so secure that the gates will never have to be shut to keep out attackers. It is portrayed as the place of perfect hospitality, where everyone is comfortable, befriended, secure, healthy and at home.
There is no need for a place of religious hospitality in the city, because the presence of God and of the Lamb pervades the whole. Until that consummation comes, each of our churches is called to be a microcosm of that heavenly city in our own towns and communities. How can we be that city and offer that community?
As you wait to move into your new church building, it’s a good question to ask yourselves. How can you offer safety, comfort, nourishment, healing and friendship to both committed members and strangers? How can your church community and your worship be more welcoming to the friendless and the newcomer, in both practical and spiritual ways? Perhaps, like Philippi, this area doesn’t look like a very easy place in which to do mission; but God has a task for you here, just as he had for Paul.
Like Paul’s mission to Europe, the new chapter in this church’s life you are about to embark upon will be a continuation of the old. There will be things you will continue to do, like Messy Church, and hosting meetings for younger and older folk; but the new premises may also offer opportunities to open your doors to welcome other groups, with different interests and different needs, to feel at home as your guests.
But, as citizens of a democratic nation, we all have an obligation to offer hospitality and healing in the name of God, to those far beyond our local communities. John’s vision of the heavenly city in Revelation sees it as a place of security and refuge for all nations, and our Christian calling is to do that through our votes and making our opinions felt, as well as through our practical activities.
John’s vision of a hospitable world is a vision of hope, and also a challenge to the ways in which we fall short of this ideal. In so many ways, our world has developed a culture of suspicion and inhospitality. But, one of the obvious characteristics of Jesus’ first followers as they sought to live out the Gospel was hospitality, reflected in feeding the hungry , inviting strangers into their homes, and serving and praying for the sick, the widow and the orphan . What might be the present day equivalent of those? Perhaps global debt relief and removal of unjust trade restrictions;humane and just immigration laws and fair treatment of ethnic and other minorities; freely available equitable health care and social services? For those of us who seek to follow Christ, our vote, and our voice in public debate against those who would deny them, could be a significant influence in creating a more hospitable world.
As we draw to the end of the Easter season, we are reminded again through our readings that the new life unleashed through the resurrection demands that we share God’s love in practical ways. Last week we were shown how the first apostles included those who were once considered unclean in the covenant community. This week we are shown how they offered and accepted hospitality and healing in different and not obviously receptive situations, and so laid the foundations for what would become Christendom, the centre of the world wide missionary activity of the Church. Our calling as Pentecost approaches is to do the same, to welcome in and offer healing and comfort to all, without distinction, and to do our best to create the community and safety of the heavenly city wherever we have influence on this earth.
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.
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?
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.
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.
September 30, 2012
(James 5, 13-20; Mark 9 38-50. Proper 21B)
“The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective”. (Jas 5.16)
What does that mean?
To some it means Christians should rely on prayer to heal them. Last month there was a debate in the media about the ethics of cases where parents of seriously ill children insisted on the continuation of invasive medical treatments, which medical professionals considered pointless, because of their belief that the child would be cured by divine intervention prompted by their prayers.
And until relatively recently, members of the Christian Science sect refused normal medical care because of their belief that prayer alone would heal them. These cases are very problematic for those concerned with medical ethics, especially when they concern children who are too young to have consciously adopted religious beliefs for themselves.
However, the passage can be a problem even for those who don’t refuse modern medical treatment. All churches pray for the healing of their sick members. What do we expect to happen? How do we react to those who say: “I prayed for my loved one who is ill, but they didn’t get better. What went wrong? Was I not righteous enough for my prayers to be powerful?” There are no simple answers to these questions.
This passage can also be used to support teaching that I believe is a distortion of Christian teaching. When I was a secondary school teacher, a speaker came to our lunchtime Christian Union to talk about prayer. One of the teenagers asked why her aunt was continuing to suffer from her illness, even though she had prayed for her. The speaker answered that this was because the prayer was not ‘in the Holy Spirit’; the Holy Spirit obviously wanted something different to happen to the child’s aunt, and because those who prayed for her weren’t praying for the same thing, God was making her aunt continue to suffer. I think that answer probably destroyed the child’s faith in a loving God; I believe the visiting speaker was profoundly wrong in his analysis and was himself not speaking ‘in the Holy Spirit’. I don’t believe in a God who heals or sends illness on people according to whether they or their family prays in the right way, or prays at all. That is not the God who was revealed through the life & teaching of Jesus.
So how do we decide on the relationship between belief, prayer and scientific medical treatment? Is prayer for healing a waste of time, as many prominent atheists would have us believe?
Most of the evidence about the relationship between prayer, faith and healing is anecdotal. Some people believe that prayer has healed them – I have a friend who sincerely believes that the prayers of her church caused a cancer to disappear in between its discovery and the beginning of treatment. Others, and I am among them, feel that the prayers of others, while not curing their illness in the medical sense, helped them to cope better with the diagnosis and treatment and life-changes which that illness involved.
There is some limited scientific evidence to support the beneficial effects of faith and prayer. Studies show that religious faith, on average, increases length of life, reduces physical and mental ill-health and that sometimes people who are prayed for recover better than those who are not. But against that, you have to put the fact that the most prayed for people are probably our Royal Family, and they are not noticeably healthier or happier than the general population, although some of them, the women in particular, seem to live a long time!
If we look at the passage from the letter of James, we can see that it is not giving us a systematic guide to prayer for healing. Our passage needs to be taken in the context of the whole letter, which is actually about Christian speech and its connection to Christian action; and the section on prayer is found among other sections which talk about expressions of faith, the evils that the uncontrolled tongue can cause, swearing, prejudice and confession.
It is not saying that the only way to deal with human suffering is to pray. Earlier sections of the letter say just the opposite to that – that words without actions are not the Christian way. James gives guidance on the way that believers should express themselves in different circumstances: to sing when they are happy and to give praise to God even in bad times. The advice to pray when you are sick forms part of a section addressed to the whole church, which advises that when someone is sick, the elders should go to visit them, not only to pray but also to anoint them with oil. Oil was a medicine in New Testament times, so the elders’ prayer involve practical medical help as well. It is typical of James to link words with actions.
The passage also reflects a belief in the connection between a person’s mental and spiritual state and their physical health, which has been endorsed by modern psychology. A person who is anxious or wracked with guilt is less able to recover than one who is calm and optimistic. The prayers of the elders, their visit which gives the sick person human contact, the power of human touch in anointing, the easing of conscience through the confession of sins, and assistance from fellow church members in reconciling broken community relationships are all things that may contribute to the healing of the sick.
It is important also to recognise that this passage is not just talking about physical illness. In New Testament Greek the same words are used for ‘healing’ and for ‘saving’, and for both ‘saviour’ and ‘physician’. Healing for the first Christians was about much more than physical health; it encompassed the whole person, body, mind and spirit, being brought into balance and communion with God. That, I believe, is what Christian healing and Christian prayer should be concerned with.
Our two readings should also prompt us to question the belief held by some in the church that the only healing that can be ascribed to God is ‘miraculous ‘ healing which goes against the expectations of the medical profession, and that comes as an answer to the prayers of the faithful.
This belief reflects the attitude of the disciples in our Gospel passage, who complain to Jesus when someone who is not a disciple cures someone in his name. (Perhaps, as one commentator suggested, they are especially cross about this as earlier in the same chapter Mark shows them as failing to perform a similar exorcism). Jesus, however is very relaxed about it, and tells them that whoever is not specifically speaking against the work of the Kingdom is for it. This reflects the teaching in Matthew 25, that it is good deeds that address human need which are the criteria for approval by God, not signing up to a church or to specific beliefs about God.
Mark links this incident to several disconnected sayings about what encourages and what can provide barriers to those who are on the fringe or new to the faith. Jesus uses the typical exaggerated Jewish speech of his time to make it very plain just how serious this problem is for the growth of the Kingdom. We are not really expected to cut off our feet or hands, or tear out our eyes if they lead us or others astray, but we are supposed to be self-critical, and very aware of how our words and actions affect the way the Christian faith is seen by others. What we may need to amputate in order to improve the church’s image is not part of our physical body, but our exclusiveness, our sense of being ‘the chosen ones’, our criticism of others, and our hypocrisy.
Often (and even in the New Testament) Jesus’s words have been turned round to say that anyone who is not for Christ is against him. But that was very clearly not Jesus’s attitude. Other writers in the New Testament, like Luke and Paul, recognise the power to heal as a gift of the Spirit; but we don’t need to assume that it is a gift which is linked only to healing through prayer, or even only to practising Christians.
Christians in the medical professions, or who work as counsellors or therapists or in projects that build and heal communities, are assisting in God’s work of healing; but so are non-Christians who do this work. All of them, whether they acknowledge it or not, are helping to build the Kingdom. People who try to limit God’s work to Christians, or even worse, to one sort of Christians, are, in my judgement, working against the Kingdom, because that sort of attitude actively deters others from hearing the Gospel message. There is so much good being done in the world, by all sorts of different people; it is tragic when Christians refuse to co-operate in that work with others because of denominational, theological or religious differences. It is equally tragic when Christians are prevented from taking the opportunities that come their way to bring healing because of rules and regulations, hierarchies or church structures.
It is tragic when Christians become known as people who are always speaking against other people, because they are of a different faith or a specific gender, or sexuality, or because they choose to live in certain ways, rather than being known as people who are for things, like whatever is pure, just, honourable and worthy of praise, as Paul recommends to the Philippians.(4.8) If Christians followed this advice, we would be known as a very different sort of religion.
Brian McClaren wrote about his dream that Christians would be part of that sort of religion in his book “A Generous Orthodoxy”. He wrote: ‘I am more and more convinced that Jesus didn’t come merely to start another religion to compete in the marketplace with other religions. If anything I believe he came to end standard competitive religion (which Paul calls ‘the law’) by fulfilling it; I believe he came to open up a new something beyond religion – a new possibility, a realm, a domain, a territory of the spirit that welcomes everyone, but requires everyone (now including members of the Christian religion) to think again and become like little children. It is not, like too many religions, a place of fear and exclusion, but a place beyond fear and exclusion. It is a place where everyone can find a home in the embrace of God”.
I believe that the prayers of the righteous which are powerful and effective are prayers in which we try to align our wills with the will of the God who loves every human being, and with divine grace, forgives all sins. I believe that the prayers of the righteous which are powerful and effective are prayers which mirror Jesus in rejoicing in what is good, what reconciles, what builds community, what brings peace, no matter whoever is doing it. I believe that the prayers of the righteous which are powerful and effective are those which ask the help of the Holy Spirit to bring healing and salvation to people in need, whether that means physical recovery, or calm acceptance of continuing illness and coming death, or reconciliation, lifting of guilt and peace of mind. I believe that the prayers of the righteous which are powerful and effective are those which are not just words, but are followed by action, by those who known themselves to be the Body of Christ on earth.
May we pray and work to become a community of powerful and effective prayer of that kind. In the name of Christ
February 19, 2012
(Isaiah 40, 21-31; Mark 1, 29-39)
If you type the words ‘refresh’ and renew’ into a computer search engine you will get a wide range of results, from instructions how to refresh your various computer sites, to advertisements for health spas, face cream, and exercise sessions, to a conference about developing worship at a Christian University in the USA.
Isaiah 40, from which our first reading came, begins with a hymn of praise to the majesty of God, who created the universe, stretched out the heavens, governs the seasons, and knows everything that goes on in human society. Yet it ends with an assurance that this almighty deity is not detached from human need, but involved and supportive: “He gives power to the faint and strength to the powerless.” His strength is available to human beings, if they need it, to renew and refresh them: “They that wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”
That’s a great affirmation to those of us who are getting older, who do often feel weary and faint, and as if our strength gives out too quickly. If we rely on God, we can (metaphorically!) fly! We can run marathons! We can go where we need to and not be worn out when we get there!
There is also encouragement for those of us who feel worn out in the gospel reading. Mark tells us of the healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in law. At the touch of Jesus, she is renewed and able to get up and carry out the work she wants to do. Many others come to Jesus that evening for healing of whatever restricts their enjoyment of the fullness of life. And, most encouraging of all, we read that even Jesus needed to take time out after a demanding day to renew his strength.
On this occasion, Jesus sought renewal and refreshment by getting up before everyone else, going out to a deserted place and being alone with God to pray and reflect for a while. It didn’t last long. His disciples hunted for him, found him, and through them the demands on him were renewed. He took up his tasks again, moving out from the towns where he was already known, to serve and teach the whole of the rest of Galilee.
We have a much smaller area to serve and to reach out to in mission – our parish, our families, our personal networks of friends and workmates. It can still demand much of us, though, and leave us feeling weary and exhausted. The lectionary passages challenge us this morning to consider, how and when do we meet God, feel the touch of Jesus and so ‘renew our strength’?
Like Jesus, the most obvious way of renewing our strength is to wait on God regularly in prayer. As with any relationship, if you don’t maintain communication, the relationship will wither and die. Once a week for an hour in church really is not enough to build up our relationship with God to the point where we can be renewed and refreshed and strengthened whenever we need to be.
Of course it is difficult! Of course we all have times when we appear to be talking to ourselves, and feel we are getting nothing out of it. But we do need to persevere through those barren times. We will all have different ways of praying. Some people use a prayer book with set prayers, or resources on the internet; others find it easier to be spontaneous, and to share their concerns, weaknesses, doubts and questions as if they are having a conversation with a good friend. Some use Bible passages to prompt prayers; other use music, or visual stimuli like pictures, candles or stones. Others simply sit in silence and try to empty their minds and allow God to enter.
Some are able to set aside a regular time of prayer every day; others find they need to snatch odd moments out of a busy routine to rest in God. It doesn’t matter how you do it, so long as you do it! And if you find it difficult to find enough time during the working week to pray as often and as deeply as you would like, then setting leisure time aside to go on quiet days or retreats can give you the chance to experience God’s refreshment and renewal,
to read and to pray.
Even an ordinary holiday can be a source of R & R from God, if you set out with the intention of being renewed in spirit as well as in body and mind.
Lent, which begins in a couple of week’s time, is a period in which Christians are traditionally encouraged to renew the spiritual discipline of prayer. Our diocese is once again providing resources to help us pray more effectively and regularly, and is calling it ‘Live the Challenge’. If you are into social media, then you can sign up to receive a daily text or email or Tweet with a text to meditate on and respond to with comments or pictures or music if you want. Or if you don’t live that way, then your church can download the texts and print them out for you to follow. If you think you would find that helpful in encouraging you to meet God in prayer, then have a look at the publicity material available online http://www.livethechallenge.co.uk/home/ or in church.
A second place where we should expect to meet God and find refreshment, renewal and strength is in worship. Live the Challenge also provides material for a weekly act of worship with a short liturgy to pray together, recipes for a meal to eat together (from our partner diocese in Belize), and a reflection to think through together. Then, having been refreshed there is a challenge to act together.
But we already have an opportunity for that refreshment and renewal as we worship together here week by week, and particularly when we meet together as a community round the Lord’s Table each Sunday. The physical strengthening we get from eating and drinking reflects the spiritual strengthening we get from worship, word and sacrament. After worship, we should, as one of the final prayers of the Eucharist reminds us, feel renewed to go out in the power of the Spirit to live and work to God’s power and glory.
And if you don’t feel that on a regular basis, then Lent, and particularly this Lent as we finalise our parish Mission Action Plan, is a good time for you to spend time considering why, and play your part in planning what we as a church can do differently to help more people go deeper into God through worship, and find renewal and refreshment there.
The traditional Protestant way of encountering God and finding refreshment and strength is through reading the Bible. There are Lent schemes and courses to assist you in doing this, including the diocesan Lent Course which takes you through the Old Testament readings for the Sundays in Lent and relates them to the Living God’s Love theme of Transforming Communities.
If you do choose to find refreshment in the Scriptures, I would encourage you to go beyond reading them devotionally, and take time to study them with the aid of a good modern commentary. Otherwise, the difference between the language and culture in which the Bible was originally written, and our language and culture will mean you will have difficulty in understanding what God is really saying to you through the scriptures.
Some people , like Jesus, find they need to be alone to drink deeply from the well of God’s strengthening and renewal. Others don’t find solitude helpful, and feel closer to God, and experience divine encouragement more, when they meet with other Christians to study and discuss. If that’s your preference, then you may find yourself strengthened and renewed this Lent through taking part in the Ecumenical Lent Course ‘Handing on the Torch’ which will be running in this church, and in other places in Watford at different times during Lent. There is publicity for that at the back of church too.
Whichever path you choose for renewal and refreshment, take courage from the promise of Isaiah and the Gospel, that if you wait on the Lord, you will find strength for the tasks you have been given, and will be ready once again for service and mission to the world.
We finish with the Living God’s Love prayer.
Living God, draw us deeper into your love;
Jesus our Lord, send us to care and serve;
Holy Spirit, make us heralds of good news.
Stir us, strengthen us, teach and inspire us to live your love with generosity and joy, imagination and courage;
April 3, 2011
(John 9, 1-41)
We heard last week, in John’s story of the Samaritan Woman at the well, how our prejudices and preconceptions can get in the way of our being open to, and bringing others to receive God’s grace.
John’s Gospel gives us another story this week on a similar theme.
On the surface, the story is about the healing of a man who was blind from birth; but the accompanying dialogues make it very clear that what is really being discussed here (as so often in the New Testament) is spiritual blindness, and what can be done to cure it.
Spiritually, all of us are like the man in the story – born blind, because of the world we are born into. I don’t believe in the concept of original sin in the way it’s usually presented. I don’t think it has anything to do with the Fall, or the Garden of Eden, or sex. But I do believe in original sin as a description of the situation we all find ourselves in, born into an imperfect world, to imperfect people. A world where some societies and some people have more than their fair share of the world’s resources, and with a history of enmity between peoples which infects children from birth; with institutions which use power and violence to settle disputes and achieve dominance. It is extremely difficult to escape these influences and the blind spots they create in us; and it is almost impossible in our own strength to begin to live in a different way.
We may also be blinded to the humanity and the needs of others by our upbringing. However good our parents, however much they try, they are imperfect human beings like us, and all of us make mistakes which prevent our children growing into the complete human beings God meant them to be. All of us have blind spots which are a result of our upbringing.
Our blind spots are major road-blocks on our spiritual journey; but we have a choice about what we do about them.
First of all, we need to acknowledge that we are blind. Then we need to go and find a way to heal them, or at the very least, respond to offers of healing when they come our way. Healing may not come immediately – the man in the story went through several stages of belief in Jesus as a prophet, and as one sent from God, before he worshipped him as the Son of Man; but unless we know that we have blind spots the healing process won’t even start.
We also need to remove those things that get in the way of healing – our fear of coming into the light, being more comfortable in the dark, sticking to our prejudices and preconceptions. We also need to be ready to part company with those who don’t realise they have blind spots, or who are happy to remain with incomplete sight. The old proverb “There’s none so blind as those who do not wish to see” remains true.
The Pharisees in the story stand for such people. They were so committed to their spiritual blindness that they were prepared to call good evil – to pronounce that someone who was manifestly doing the work of God must be a sinner. That sort of blindness to the Holy Spirit at work continues today – in those sections of the church who maintain that no matter what good they do, some people will be condemned to eternal punishment because they don’t sign up to the right doctrinal formula. The leaders of the synagogue were happy to dismiss the views of those who were just ordinary members of their congregation, who were ignorant or who weren’t as holy as they thought themselves. Doesn’t that sort of thing still go in between some of the ordained leaders of the hierarchy of the church and the laity? Jesus warned us against ‘the blind leading the blind’; we still don’t always take notice of his warning.
Ultimately, the Pharisees in the story were so committed to their particular form of spiritual blindness that they threw anyone who challenged their view out of their fellowship. How often has that scenario been repeated in the history of the Christian church? How much is it still happening with the splits in the Church of England over the ordination of women as priests and bishops, and the attempts to enforce conformity in the Anglican Communion by the Anglican Covenant?
For those of us who have committed ourselves to the Christian faith, it is to Jesus that we must go to heal our blindness. We need to learn from him how to open our eyes to the Holy Spirit at work through other people, no matter who they are and what faith they profess. We need to learn from him about the real nature of the God we profess to believe in. Even the disciples, who had spent years in Jesus’ company, still thought of God as one who would strike a person blind because of their own sin, or their parents’ sin. People continue to ask “Why me?” when something bad happens to them, as though God sends illness or disability or natural disaster as a punishment for wrongdoing. Jesus points us to a world where sickness and disability and disaster, which happen because of the way the world is and has to be, become opportunities to show the love of God and give God glory by doing so. That is what it means to walk in the light, and to bring the light of God to others.
Helen Keller, who lost her sight at the age of 19 months, was once asked if blindness was the worst thing that could happen to a person. She say no; the worst thing was not to lose your sight but to lose your vision.
May the story of the healing of the man born blind inspire us today to go to Christ, and to allow his teaching to heal our blindness, so we may walk in the light and bring that vision to others.