Prayer of the Righteous

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

Advertisements

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.

Sermon for Pentecost.

 Acts 2,1-21; Romans 8, 22-27; John 15, 26&27, &16, 4b-15

I wonder if you’ve noticed how swimming pools have changed. When I was a child, they were fairly quiet places. Maybe the fact that a lot of them were in the open air had something to do with it: only the hardy went swimming in them, unless it was as warm as it’s been the last week. It was fairly easy to find a time when you could swim out into the centre of the pool, and just relax, let the water hold you up, and drift with its support.

Modern swimming pools are quite different. The great draws nowadays are wave machines, flumes or water chutes, and swimming pools are places of noise and activity, screams and rushing water. Even if they don’t have all these extras, you will usually find lanes marked out for different speeds of swimming, as people go there to keep fit. If you tried to float quietly in the middle of most modern pools, you wouldn’t be very popular!

This contrast came into my mind recently when I was reading some words of John Wesley, describing the experience of the Holy Spirit, in a letter to Mary Cooke (1785) She was worried that she didn’t have an overwhelming experience of the Holy Spirit at her conversion, as others had.

Wesley  said “There is an irreconcilable variability in the operations of the Holy Spirit on the souls of men, more especially as to the manner of justification. Many find him rushing upon them like a torrent, when they experience ‘the overwhelming power of saving grace’… This has been the experience of many.  But in others he works in a very different way: ‘He deigns his influence to infuse, sweet refreshing as the dews’ and it is not improbable he will continue working in a gentle, almost insensible manner.”

Anyone hearing the story of the coming of the Holy Spirit from the Book of Acts, as we did this morning, could be forgiven for thinking that her activity is always full of noise and action, like a modern swimming pool. The commentary in Friday’s Church Times spoke about ‘God’s noisy life bursting on the scene’. But if you read about the Holy Spirit in other parts of the New Testament, and particularly in the Gospel of John, as we also did this morning, then another picture of the Spirit’s action emerges – one in which her activity is much more like the calm supporting strength of my quiet swimming pool.

Christian history has shown that the Spirit has continued to reveal herself in both forms – as an overwhelming force, which turns everything upside down; and as the quiet, sustaining strength, giving invisible support. But, as with swimming pools, sometimes one sort of action of the Holy Spirit is more fashionable than the other.

For a long time, the quiet, supporting mode of the Holy Spirit was in favour, especially with those who ran the churches, for they could then claim that they controlled, or were the channel for such activity. You could only receive the Holy Spirit through the sacraments of the church, particularly baptism, confirmation and ordination.

Nowadays, the wheel of fashion has turned, and we live in world where activity is favoured over passivity, and individuality over organisations. Now, some people seem to be claiming that the only authentic activity of the Holy Spirit is the dramatic form, which results in speaking in tongues, miraculous healing, prophecies, words of knowledge, sudden conversion, and all those experiences which go under the general label of ‘charismatic’. Sometimes, people who haven’t had such a dramatic experience of the Holy Spirit seem to be regarded as ‘not proper Christians’.

We need to beware of having our ideas restricted by fashion, in the church even more so than in the secular world. The Holy Spirit, the ‘bird of heaven’ as Sidney Carter referred to him in his less well-known hymn, is not to be confined to one mode of operation. As John Wesley concluded his letter: “Let him take his own way. He is wiser than you; he will do all things well. Do not reason against him, but let the prayer of your heart be ‘Mould as thou wilt thy passive clay’.

It may be that our characters make us more receptive to one mode of influence by the Holy Spirit than another. Or that our experience demands either a gentle growth or a sudden transformation as her way of converting us to a deeper faith.

It is not up to us to judge, nor to demand that the Holy Spirit works in us in one way rather than another. What we do have to judge, however, is whether the spiritual influences we obey come from the Holy Spirit, or from somewhere else.

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

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

We all pray, especially at this season of Pentecost, for the Holy Spirit to come upon us in greater power, to inspire us, to strengthen us and to renew us. But even when we think our prayer has been answered, we still need to exercise the discernment of which de Caussade spoke, and to check constantly that what we do and say in the name of the Holy Spirit does indeed bring forth the fruits of the Spirit in love and joy, peace and long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, fidelity, meekness and self control.

For whether the water comes upon you as a rushing torrent, or as a gentle flow, its effects in cleansing and nurturing the inner life should be the same: to produce in us the image of God, revealed to us in the life and death of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.

Melt me, mould me, fill me, use me,

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.

 

Acts 1, 15-17 & 21-26; John 17, 16-19.

“They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world” (John 17, 16).

What does this mean?

I found a an illustration you might use to demonstrate this verse to children, in Sunday School or a school assembly.It suggested taking a clear bottle, putting water in the bottom, then food colouring, (to make the water visible) then a layer of cooking oil on the top. When the bottle is shaken, the oil and water become mixed up and the oil is invisible. But if you leave the bottle to stand for a while, the oil separates out, and floats to the top. The text says this shows that, though even when they were all mixed up, the oil and water were never really one.

This is then linked to our Gospel reading for today: the text says that Jesus prayed for his disciples, that as they lived in the world, they would not become part of the world. He wanted them to add the gifts he had given them to the world – just as the water added some colour to the oil – but he did not want them to become stained by the world.

It continues that this prayer is for us too. As Jesus was sent by his Father into the world, so Jesus has sent us into the world. We must live in this world, but Jesus has called us to be separate. Just as the coloured water remains separate from the oil, Jesus wants us to be separate from the world.

I see problems with this passage from John’s Gospel which you might like to think about and discuss. The first is a view of God and of Jesus which sees them as separate from the created world. This view comes particularly to the fore when we use  the metaphorical, or picture language about the process of incarnation and ascension, as we have been doing this last week.

I’ve read several comments this week about the Ascension being the reverse of the Incarnation. This view says that at Christmas, Jesus, a different sort of being, comes into this world. He lives a human life, is killed, then is raised from death, and eventually, at the Ascension, returns to heaven, to reign with God.  So, the Ascension is seen as a sort of ‘return to HQ’ by someone who was an alien in the created world. This sort of explanation however, risks tipping over into the Docetic heresy, which says Jesus’s body only seemed to be human, whereas actually he was a divine being, and couldn’t actually be hurt, and didn’t actually die. Even if it doesn’t go that far, it makes Jesus and God separate from the human world.

This week Alan Wilson, the Bishop of Buckingham, challenged that interpretation. He said that any depiction of the Ascension as the shedding of physicality makes it less than good news.In the way he sees it, Jesus blazes a trail all follow towards their destiny. It illuminates our present humanity.

He says that classical Christian theology calls Jesus eternally Incarnate, and the Ascension is not the reversal of the Incarnation but a radical extension of it beyond time and place. And in case you think that is a modern interpretation, he quotes a hymn of 1862 by Bishop Christopher Wordsworth:

He has raised our human nature 

in the clouds to God’s right hand;

There we sit in heavenly places,

there with him in glory stand:

Jesus reigns, adored by angels;

man with God is on the throne;

Mighty Lord, in thine ascension

we by faith behold our own.

This view sees God being present in and through the world, as God was most perfectly in Jesus. Humanity is raised to divine levels through following the Way of Jesus. The writer of the Letter to the Ephesians expresses the same idea when he writes: “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places…And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things, and of the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”

So we in the church are Christ’s body, which is both incarnate and ascended. How then are we supposed to work in the world? Do we belong to the world and in the world, or are we supposed to keep ourselves separate?

In the past, and even today, there are Christian groups who try to keep themselves as separate as possible from normal human society. There are the desert hermits, who escaped from civic society in the ancient world and practised extreme asceticism (Simon Stylites who lived on top of a pillar for 36 years is one of my favourites among these!). There are Christian groups who refuse to vote, or serve in armed forces, and who, like the Amish, resist modern inventions.

Other groups reject only certain activities as being ‘of the world’ and so unsuitable for Christians. The Puritans rejected music, dancing, and celebrating festivals like Christmas. Other Christians have forbidden alcohol and gambling, and even playing cards for the same reason.

The mainstream Anglican tradition, to which we belong, has however seen its mission as being in the world, ministering to people where they are, adapting to the local and current culture, in order to reach people more successfully.

But are there limits to that?

Morality and ethics is one area in which there has been constant disagreement within the church about how far it should conform to ‘the world’s’ understanding of what is right and wrong. The campaigns over slavery, women’s emancipation, divorce and contraception are just some examples of the working out of this tension;  and the question marks continue, particularly over the issue of how far homosexuality is acceptable in Christians.

Last month the Archbishop of Sydney preached a sermon at St Mark’s Battersea, a church in South London that is part of a group of churches in the Diocese of Southwark planning to withhold their parish share money from the diocese and pay it into a ‘company, administered by people who believe themselves orthodox Christians. The Archbishop said (using very Johannine language)  “The world has invaded the church. So the contest we have, as Bible-based, Bible-believing Christians, is on two fronts. It is against the world, but it is also against those in the church who have come to terms with the world, who have made their peace with the world, who have compromised with the world, who have given up biblical standards in order to be thought well of in the world.”

But last month again a group of bishops and senior churchmen, including the Bishop of Buckingham and our own Dean, signed a letter to The Times, saying that the church has nothing to fear from gay marriage and should respond pastorally to gay couples.

The church is divided between those who sign the Coalition for Real Marriage’s petition and those who sign the Coalition for Equal Marriage’s one. How can we judge which one is of God, and which one is ‘of the world’ in its worst sense?

Liturgy is another area in which there is disagreement about how far the church should conform to the ways of the world. Yesterday, 19th May, marked the 350th anniversary of the Act of Uniformity, which enforced the use of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer as the only prayer book allowed throughout the Church of England. It was not a new book, but the culmination of 120 years of discussion and change to translate the liturgy of the Anglican church into ‘a language understanded of the people’, as its originator, Thomas Cranmer put it.

But then, naturally, the Prayer Book itself became entrenched, and the liturgical history of the 20th century was punctuated by moves to bring what had become worship in archaic language and out of date theology into line with modern understanding. The ASB and Common Worship were the results.

But for some people they don’t go far enough in adapting the church to contemporary culture. The report ‘Mission Shaped Church’, published in 2004, advocated a move away from the parish based system and traditional church buildings, into what were called ‘Fresh Expressions of Church’, congregations set up in cafés and leisure centres and skate parks, or only for people with common interests, such as embroidery or sport. This approach has driven much of the mission initiative in the Church of England over the past eight years, and has led to the introduction of a new sort of Pioneer Minister, to encourage and lead these ‘fresh expressions’.

But for some people, ‘fresh expressions congregations’ are a step too far in conforming the church to the world.

For the Parish’ is a book which sets out to critique fresh expressions and defend the traditional parish and liturgy.

It says that the Christian Gospel needs to be embodied in a certain form, and that the inadequacies of contemporary culture are unsuitable for mission which is true to the gospel. It argues for the parish church as providing ‘sacred space’, the church calendar as providing a different understanding of time from that which the secular world follows, and liturgy as  one of a series of practices and disciplines of the Christian life in which we learn to love God and our neighbour and learn the ways of heaven. It argues for the occasional offices of marriage and funerals as opportunities for pastoral mission and the daily offices of matins and evensong as a way of consecrating time. It doesn’t argue for a church which is other-worldly; just  a church which is part of God’s resistance movement against the transitory and dehumanising nature of so much that characterises ‘the world’ today.

Christians and the Church are meant to be different from ‘the world’ (as used in John to mean human life separated from and hostile to God.) But they are also tasked with bringing light and life to that world in the name of Jesus, whose glory fills the world. Engagement with the world demands discernment about where in human society God is already at work, and where God is not.

That discernment is the task of the God the Holy Spirit, whose coming we will celebrate next Sunday.

All you need is Love?

May 13, 2012

Easter 6 Year B     (Acts 10,44-48; 1 John 5,1-6; John 15,9-17)

Some of the older ones among you may remember the Beatles song “All you need is Love’.  It was first performed  on June 25th 1967 as the UK contribution to the first live global TV broadcast, made possible by a new satellite link. John Lennon, who wrote it, said he thought it had a message which everyone around the world could understand.

It was a very ’60’s’ sort of song! In the church, the same sort of attitude that inspired the song led to the advocacy of something called ‘situation ethics’. This said that when you face a moral decision, you don’t need set rules – all you need to do is decide what course of action would be the most loving thing to do. Paul Tillich, the theologian wrote “Love is the best law” and one of my great heroes in the faith, John Robinson, the radical Bishop of Woolwich, also supported situation ethics at first, saying this was the only sort of ethics appropriate to ‘man come of age’ – though he later withdrew his support, saying that the use of situation ethics would lead to a descent into moral chaos.

The sort of love which this theory was talking about was ‘agape’ – absolute, unchanging, unconditional love for all people, regardless. This is precisely the sort of love we see demonstrated in the life and death of Jesus.

When you read the writings of the community of John the Evangelist in the New Testament – the Gospel and the three Epistles – you might think that “All you need is Love” was a summary of their teaching on the faith. But would that be true?

Certainly agape love is very important in their theology. It forms the main topic of the first Epistle  which is the third reading for today. For John’s community, God is love, and those who live in loving relationship with everyone in their community, live in God.  It is only when we love God that we can love the children of God; and we show our love for God by obeying his commandments, which when carried out in love, are not burdensome.

The gospel passage, which  continues from last Sunday’s reading, and continues to use the metaphor of the Vine to describe the relationship  between Jesus and his followers, also talks about love – the sort of love that leads a person to lay down their lives for others. This is  what should be the distinguishing characteristic of Jesus’s disciples.

And how do we learn about this sort of love?  Most modern psychologists would say that we learn first from our families, and they are right. In an ideal family (an ideal that few of us achieve, because we are human and fallible!) children are given from birth that absolute, unchanging, unconditional love, which enables them to grow into whole, confident adults, able to love everyone else with the love they were once given. But that sort of love is ‘family love’ and only a few people learn to extend it to those outside their families.

We also learn to love from our communities, especially, we would hope,  our church communities. But church communities are made up of fallible humans too, and it is not surprising that they tend have exactly the same quarrels, disagreements and rifts that secular communities suffer from. But, at their best, churches can be schools of love.

The message of the Johannine writings, however,  is that we learn best about this sort of love from God – and in particular from his Son, Jesus Christ, who was sent into the world to live out a life that was all love.

Because agape love comes from God, John’s community indicates that we do need more than just ‘love’ if we are to be faithful members of Christ’s body on earth – and in that they are supported by other New Testament writers.

The Gospel passage we heard came from the part of John’s Gospel known as the Farewell Discourse. Jesus is about to be betrayed and crucified – and in this last address to his disciples, John’s community portrays him as trying to prepare them for life without his physical presence – trying to prepare them for a situation in which they will be his body on earth – a body dedicated to loving action and service.

So, first of all, Jesus emphasises the importance of community. He speaks of himself as the Vine. Not just as the trunk, or the stump, you notice, but the whole Vine – roots, trunk, branches, leaves and fruit and all. His followers, he says are the branches – so they are intimately a part of him – and it is these branches which will bear fruit to feed the world. Christ will bear fruit through us, the metaphor says – but only if we remain connected to him, and through him to God,  and only if we stay connected to everyone else in his fellowship of love.  It is a major challenge to the individualism that is so prevalent today.

A second important element ensuring that we remain in Jesus is his Word. The Gospel passage  we heard and the Epistle we didn’t hear say that if we love God we will obey God’s commandments. These are not a burden, like the Law of the Old Testament. Rather, they are a series of guidelines which set out the way of love which Jesus lived, and therefore the way we should live.

Prayer is another important element emphasised by John.  In prayer we listen to God’s word, and in prayer we are able to share our concerns with God. We are not meant to be Christians on our own – we need to be in communication with God and with each other if we are to bear fruit. Keeping in touch with Christ and with God our Father and our fellow Christians through prayer is another channel through which we are nourished in the faith.

Our human, imperfect love is fed through the gift of the Holy Spirit. John’s Epistles and Gospel  emphasise that it is the Spirit who enables Christians to testify to the Truth; and in Acts we hear how the Spirit led Peter to Cornelius. Then we hear how the gift of the Spirit to Cornelius and his household, even before their baptism,  persuaded him that these Gentiles should be admitted to the Christian community. In other passages in the New Testament we hear how the Spirit inspires us to speak and act with courage and with love. Through remaining in the Vine, we are fed by the Spirit and our faith and love are strengthened. The Spirit gives us constant assurance as we act and as we serve that we do so ‘abiding in God’s love’.

Finally, as well as love, we need the discipline of confession, repentance and renewal. Through the metaphor of the Vine, the Johannine writers remind us that in viticulture, fruitfulness is ensured by the cutting away of branches that have ceased to bear fruit, or are growing in the wrong direction. Though it may be painful, loss and renewal are a necessity if we are to continue to do God’s work. We all of us – individuals and communities  – go wrong sometimes, take courses of action which turn out to have unforeseen destructive consequences, or lead to different results which were not what we hoped for.  We sometimes have to accept this, allow ourselves to be cut off from course of action which is no longer fruitful, and start again.

Loving does not always mean preserving what we love. Sometimes, we need to let  go, even face situations that feel like death, if we are to experience renewed life and fruitfulness. Repentance and confession, reflection and renewal  should not be things which Christians fear – as John’s Epistle reminds us, perfect love casts out fear – because through the life and death of Christ we have confidence that when we abide in God, we will be renewed.

The agape love which John’s writing speaks of, and which Jesus practised, is not a wishy-washy, ‘anything goes sort of love’. It is ‘tough love’  – which makes demands and requires sacrifice  and discipline of those who undertake to practise it. It is divine love in action; too difficult for ordinary humans to achieve unless they are as closely and completely open to God as Jesus was; unless they live in God, and God lives in them.

It is love which goes beyond what ordinary human love is capable of, the sort of love that Jesus demonstrated in his life and death. John’s Gospel says “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Many of us think we might be able to do that, and we remember with honour those in our community who have done so. John’s Gospel defined ‘friends’ as those who are like us, those who believe the same things as us, those who belong with us. But the Jesus we hear teaching in the Synoptic Gospels redefined who ‘friends’ are. He taught us that our friends and neighbours are people very different from ourselves, people with different views, even people who regard us as enemies He told us we must love and do good to such ‘friends’ and even give them more than we would give to those who are our natural ‘friends’. How many ordinary people are prepared to give their lives for ‘friends’ defined in that radical way?

So, can we say as Christians “All you need is love?”

No – not if it is ordinary human love, restricted to the good, the deserving and those we regard as friends.

But ‘Yes!’ only if it is the love of God, which goes beyond human understanding, to that love which encompasses all creation as God’s children and God’s friends.

Surprise!

April 8, 2012

(Acts 10, 34-43; Mark 16,1-8.)

Last month all the ministers of the Watford churches received a bag of goodies from the young people of  ‘Love Watford’ with an offer to pray for them and with them during Holy Week. Among the other delights in the bag was a Kinder Easter egg.

I always used to appreciate it when people gave my children or me one of these eggs. With it, you get the pleasure of a chocolate fix, but it doesn’t stop there.  The experience goes on, because inside the egg there is a ‘surprise’, which you have to extricate from its tomb like capsule. Then you have to think about it, and, more often than not, you have to construct the toy or puzzle for yourself from all the bits inside. Only then can you really recognise what your ‘surprise’ is.

It seems to me that the story of the Resurrection which we find in chapter 16 of Mark’s Gospel (the first 8 verses written by Mark, not all the other bits that people dissatisfied with Mark’s version added later) is very like a Kinder Surprise egg. You get the joy and sweetness of the proclamation that Christ has been raised; but then comes the surprise and the puzzle.

The account contains a number of surprises. The women who witnessed the crucifixion and the burial of Jesus go to the tomb. They are worrying about who will be available to move the heavy stone that seals the tomb entrance for them. But ‘Surprise!’,  the stone has already been rolled back, They go with spices to anoint the body; but ‘Surprise!’ there is no body. The women expect the tomb to contain a dead body; but ‘Surprise!’ it contains a living person, the young man in white. He gives them a message for the disciples; and ‘Surprise!’ they are told Jesus has been raised, and will be seen back in Galilee, where they first got to know him.

Mark’s narrative also contains a number of puzzles. There is the puzzle of the women going to the tomb 36 hours after the burial, to anoint the body with spices, when it has already been wrapped in linen, and would have begun to smell. There is the puzzle of why they did not think to take someone stronger with them to deal with the stone.

Then there is the young man in white they find in the tomb. Who is he?  A young man in white appeared in Mark’s account of the arrest of Jesus. Is this meant to be the same young man? Some commentators think this is the writer of the Gospel himself, who ran away like the other followers during the arrest, but was the first to understand and experience the resurrection. The other gospel writers turn him into an angel, or even two! Or is he symbolic? – of those who are baptised and clothed in white, but run away, deserting their baptismal faith at the first sign of trouble; but later come to experience the forgiveness of the resurrected Christ, and return to belief and discipleship.

There is no detailed explanation of how Jesus has been raised;  Mark just says the tomb is empty. The women are told to inform the disciples, and instruct them to go to Galilee where they will meet him. Why Galilee? The other Gospels have resurrection appearances in Jerusalem for the most part. The early church, as we see from Acts, was based in Jerusalem. So what is the significance of Galilee?

More puzzles: there are no appearances of Jesus to give clues as to what sort of resurrection, physical or spiritual is taking place; and the story tells us the women ran away in terror, and told no-one. So how did the news of the resurrection spread, and how did the disciples find out about it?

Mark’s resurrection story is not one for people who like everything explained, everything cut and dried, all the i’s dotted and the t’s crossed. It  is a resurrection story for those who want to ponder and puzzle about faith, and to work things out for themselves, and with their faith community, and keep coming back to find deeper meaning in the story.

Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan suggest that it is helpful to treat the resurrection account as a parable. This approach does not require us to pass judgement on whether any of the elements of the story are historical or not. It simply looks at what meaning the story is trying to convey.

So Mark tells us that Jesus was laid in a tomb – but the tomb could not hold him – the stone was removed and he was not there. The tomb is a place for the dead – and Jesus is not to be found there. Jesus has been raised. Mark reminds us that the body was of a person crucified by order of the authorities. Jesus was rejected by the Jewish religious authorities and executed by the Roman political power; they said ‘no’ to Jesus’s way of living. God, however has raised Jesus; God says ‘yes’ to Jesus and vindicates him.

In Mark the disciples are told they will see Jesus again and in order to do this, they have to go back to Galilee – back to the place where it all started, back to the beginning, back to the proclamation of the way and the Kingdom. That is where they will see Jesus again, this is where their faith will be renewed, this is where they will know the forgiveness of Jesus and be able to start again, knowing that Jesus is alive and always will be, without limitation of time or space.

We simply don’t know what happened  in those first few weeks and months after Jesus was executed. We don’t know how long it was before all the remaining disciples and followers of Jesus came to the realisation that the crucifixion was not the end, but the beginning of a new life in which Jesus was seen and known through the Spirit. The New Testament uses picture language to describe the  Resurrection, the Ascension, and the coming of the Holy Spirit. It uses sacred time scales: ‘after three days’,  ‘after 40 days’ to speak of the coming of the Holy Spirit, through which the followers of Jesus knew his presence and strength to be with them again.

We do not know how soon the sharing of bread and wine (as we shall do in a few moments) became the defining moment of communion with the Risen Lord. We do not know who searched the Hebrew Scriptures to find passages and prophecies to illuminate and express their experience of the life and death and resurrection of their crucified master, and to affirm their belief that he was God’s Messiah and God’s favoured Son.

We do know that the questions were answered in several different ways, and that the pieces of the puzzle that were discovered in the tomb were put together by different groups to give slightly different answers; and we know that some of those answers were collected together in what we now know as the New Testament, to inform and guide our thinking about the significance of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for our time.

We do know that the followers of Jesus were transformed by their experiences of meeting the Risen Lord, from frightened men and women, into a congregation fired by the power of the Spirit, which enabled them to proclaim their faith in life and in death, and which gave birth to the Christian church which spread throughout the entire world, and is still growing.

We know that, however we understand what happened in Jerusalem and Galilee two thousand years ago, it continues to provide inspiration and meaning to us and our fellow Christians, and to reveal the surprise and puzzle of the love and forgiveness of God to us, again and again.

That inspiration enables us to face the pain and suffering and abuse of power that still scar the lives of so many people in the world today, and to affirm that if we face them without resorting to violence or hatred, as Jesus did; if we continue to follow in the way that Jesus showed us; and to affirm the values of the Kingdom that Jesus lived and died for, we too will be raised by God from the old selfish life that ends in death to the life that never ends.

So we can say, as we say every year:

‘Surprise!’

‘Christ is risen!’

‘He is risen indeed!’

‘Alleluia!’

‘Amen!’

Speaking with Authority

January 29, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The one you feed,” the chief answered.

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

Amen.

Living the Word

October 23, 2011

Sermon for Bible Sunday 2011 (Nehemiah 8, 1-12; Matthew 24, 30-35)

I’m going to read you some bits of the Bible.

En archê ên ho logos kai ho logos ên pros ton theon kai theos ên ho logos.

houtos ên en arche pros ton theon. Panta di autou egeneto kai choris autou ou di hen.

And here’s another bit.

In principio erat Verbum et Verbum erat apud Deum et Deus erat Verbum. Hoc erat in principio apud Deum.

Omnia per ipsum facta sunt et sine ipso factum est nihil quod factum est.

Did that make any sense to you? Well, that was the first three verses in the Gospel of John – “In the beginning was the Word” etc. first in NT Greek, and then in Latin.

And if it didn’t make any sense to you, you now know something of how the Jews assembled in the square before the  Water Gate in post-exile Jerusalem felt. They had been in exile in Babylon for between 50 and 150 years.  Many of them had lost the ability to understand Hebrew, and were unfamiliar with the traditional Jewish Law. So, when Ezra the scribe read the Law to them, they needed the other scribes to explain what it said in a language they understood, probably Aramaic, which was the common language of Babylon. Following on from this initial reading of the Torah, Aramaic translations were written, called Targums, so that those who never regained fluency in Hebrew, were able to understand what was read.

Although Jesus and his disciples spoke Aramaic, the literature of the New Testament was written in Greek, and most of the early Christians would have understood some of that. Later it was translated into Latin for the Western Church, and most people would have understood a little of that, at least until the fall of the Roman Empire. But from then on, until the Reformation and the translation of the Bible into the languages people actually spoke, most members of the congregation were in exactly the same position as many of you were when I read those passages at the beginning – hearing something they really didn’t understand.

You may think we’re in a much better position than those ancient Jews, or pre-Reformation Christians in this country, since we have the Bible in the language we speak, and freely available in a number of forms. But understanding a written document is not just about understanding the words. You also need to understand the sort of writing you are dealing with and the context in which it was written if you are really to get the message. Many Christians don’t have that knowledge and their understanding of the Bible and how to use it is weakened because of this.

Much of the Bible in its present form was put together around 2000 years ago; some of it was written down about 1000 years before that, and much of that contains oral traditions that were in circulation for many hundreds of years previously. We need to understand that, if we are to judge how applicable the actions and attitudes they advocate are to our 21st century world. Added to this is the fact that the words of the Bible are all translated from the original language in which they were spoken or written, sometimes many times, and each translation will be subtly affected by the assumptions of the translators. I have put some copies of a passage from the New Testament in Greek as it was originally written at the back for you to see – all in capitals with no punctuation and no spaces between the words. So think how difficult that makes it to understand what was being said and to recapture the original meaning of the text.

In primary school, our children are now taught to recognise different genres of writing, so that they can better understand what they read. We believers need to do the same with the different genres of writing in the Bible. It contains many different sorts of literature – stories, legal documents, history, prophecy, poetry, myths, letters, philosophical questioning – and we are failing to show it proper respect, and in danger of misusing it, if we don’t recognise this.

So, on this Bible Sunday, I would urge you to take every opportunity of getting to know the Bible better; not just the text, but also the background and the genre and the context of each of the books, and especially of the books of the New Testament. You will not truly be able to hear God’s Word speaking though its pages unless you do this.

One common mistake is to treat everything in the Bible as if it is direct instruction from God, as if it was all preceded by the words: “Thus saith the Lord”. In fact, very little of the Bible is written as direct words from God.  Most of it is human reflection on the mystery of God, or accounts of people trying to understand and communicate God to their contemporaries. They do this both by their words and their actions. Some groups of Christians say only the words matter; in the presentation at Deanery Synod on Women Bishops, one of the speakers said his group in the church would always take a direct command in the Bible as more authoritative for our conduct than an action, even when the action was by Jesus. I can’t understand that. Would we judge by what a person said, rather than by what they did? I don’t think so.

Another common mistake is to take single sentences or passages out of context, and demand that they be applied to quite different circumstances. Whole theologies have been based on this sort of selective reading of texts. For instance, one of the ‘proof texts’ for those who says the whole Bible is literally true, inspired and infallible is 2 Timothy 3, verse 15. This says (depending on how you translate the original Greek) either ‘all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching etc.’ or ‘every Scripture inspired by God is useful for teaching the truth and rebuking error, etc.’. This passage is someone (probably not the Apostle Paul) writing to Timothy to give him advice about how (in his opinion) to use the Jewish Scriptures in his teaching and pastoral work. It is not making an authoritative statement about everything contained in the Christian Bible, some of which probably hadn’t even been written at the time the letters to Timothy were being circulated. Other passages, which are more definitely written by the Apostle Paul, criticise the written Scriptures, saying only faith in Christ brings life, whereas the Torah brings death. Jesus himself challenged those who followed the letter of the law rather than its spirit. Which of these is the example for us to follow?

The Bible is not so much a text book or a code of conduct for us to slavishly follow, as a continuing conversation between human beings and the divine. Like all conversations, things can be misunderstood, and misheard, particularly when we are listening in to someone else’s conversation from some distance away. And people may express different opinions at different times ( that certainly happens with the Bible).

When we read the Bible, we need to think of it as like a conversation with a group of trusted friends, whose advice and experience may inform our decisions about important things. We will need to think about which friend we ask about different problems – some may have something valid to say to us; others, we know, may not have any experience at all of what concerns us. On some issues we may have to consult other people outside this circle, who have more expertise in the subject of concern. Finally, we will need to weigh up all the advice before we make our decision, based on all we know about God’s will for us from many different sources.

On this Bible Sunday, we honour the Bible and the insights of previous generations that it shares with us. At the same time we remember that we are not, as Jews and Muslims are, ‘People of the Book’. The Bible is not the Word of God for us: the Word of God is embodied in a person, Jesus of Nazareth. That person is part of God the Trinity, the God who continues to be revealed to us through the Holy Spirit, day by day and in our own time. We need to recognise that some passages in the Bible most definitely do not reflect the God revealed to us through Jesus Christ.

Anglican theology is not based on ‘sola scriptura’, Scripture alone. It is based on scripture, reason and tradition. This is often spoken of as ‘a three-legged stool’, which is a useful analogy to keep in mind, since a three-legged stool is no use at all if one of the legs is a different length to the other two. Only if all three are equal is it stable enough to bear the weight of what is placed on it!

So, when we read the Bible, we need to take account of the tradition of the Christian church, which is still evolving, and use our God given reason when we interpret it.

We need to remember that we are called to live the Word of God, but that Word is a person, not words on a page.

Jesus Christ, the Word of God

Covenant Relationships

September 4, 2011

(Ezekiel 33, 7-11; Matthew 18, 15-20)

I always read the accounts in the local paper of couples celebrating their Golden or Diamond (or sometimes these days, their Platinum) wedding anniversaries. I’m interested in their recipes for a long marriage. But if they say, as they sometimes do, “We’ve never had a cross word,” I have to admit to a moment of disbelief. I simply can’t conceive of a relationship between two fallible human beings in which there has never been any disagreement or conflict. Or, if it is true, then I wonder whether one of the partners has sacrificed his or her own personality and needs in order to conform to the other .

Marriage is a covenant, and our readings today are about covenants, and in particular, relationships within the covenant community of religious belief. The Old Testament reading, from Ezekiel, is about the covenant with Israel and the New Testament reading is about relationships within the Christian community, the New Covenant.

In this passage from Matthew 18, it is not the historical Jesus talking. It refers to an organised church or congregation, things which existed only long after Pentecost. It is the absence of Jesus which brings the need for procedures to settle disputes between members of the church. The advice arrived at after prayer and thought, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit,  is then given the authority of Jesus by being placed in the context of his teaching about relationships in the kingdom, including two parables.

We know from Acts and the Epistles that the early church, even in the apostolic age, was riven with conflict, just as today’s church is. That’s a normal part of any human relationships. Conflict is not bad or a sign of failure. David Ewart http://tinyurl.com/42pkgd3 says:  “Real churches have – or should have – real conflicts. The only real harm that will come to a church community is to refuse to deal with conflicts. Conflicts do not kill churches. Refusing to deal with conflicts kills churches”.

What is important is that we deal with conflict with Kingdom values guiding our actions. That means loving others as you love yourself. It means never giving up on anyone. It means wanting the best for others, even if you don’t particularly like them. It means having a special care for the weak and the outsider. It means being honest with one another, even when that is difficult, acknowledging differences and not pretending everything is fine when it isn’t. Andrew Prior http://tinyurl.com/3swqpfz says: “Christians have been particularly good at replacing honest open love with being nice”.

I think that is true, particularly in the Church of England; but it is also true that Christians can behave in a very nasty way when a member of the congregation, or a group, disagrees with those in authority. This passage from Matthew has been used in such circumstances as a sort of legal process for disciplining dissident members, and eventually, for getting rid of them. That is why it is so important not to take this text in isolation, but to read it in context.

The first verses of Matthew 18 recount the disciples’ question to Jesus about ‘who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven’. Jesus replies by taking a child, and telling them they must become like a child – without power, without legal status, vulnerable- if they hope to enter the Kingdom. He is emphasising the need for humility.

Then he talks more about children, or perhaps those who are new to the faith, or vulnerable, and says if anyone leads them astray, they will be condemned (reflecting the responsibility of leaders which is also emphasised in our reading from Ezekiel). Then follows the passage about it being better to lose a hand or foot or eye, rather than offending others.

The third section of the chapter is the parable of the lost sheep. This highlights the importance of making every effort to keep all the members of the Christian community together, no matter how awkward or foolish they may be.

After the passage we heard today, Matthew includes the parable of the unforgiving servant, who is shown mercy by his master, but is eventually condemned for failing to show equal mercy to others. This comes in answer to Peter’s question about how many times he should forgive a brother who has offended him; to which the answer is ‘seventy times seven’, meaning endlessly.

So, the passage on conflict resolution is surrounded by others which outline the context in which disputes among Christians should be resolved, a context which highlights humility, mercy, forgiveness, community and making every effort not to offend others, and to keep everyone within the fold. Within the Christian community, resolution of differences is never to be conducted outside the grace of God. We have to recognise that we act as members of the Body of Christ – and that body includes an awful lot of people who are as difficult to live with as we are ourselves.

Read within its context, the instructions about how to deal with someone who sins against us personally is not telling us, “This is all you have to do before you get them thrown out of the church”. It is saying “This is just how hard you have to try”,  (and some!) to effect a reconciliation.

Read within this context, the harsh saying about “Treat them as though they were a Gentile or a tax collector” is not giving you permission to regard them as outsiders. Jesus said the tax collectors would be among the first into the Kingdom of Heaven, so this is saying it is your duty to try even harder to bring them back into full fellowship with you and everyone else. Read within this context the crucial verse is not  this one, about cutting people out, but the verse  about the joy of regaining a member for the community.

Reading this passage within its context also changes the way we hear the final two verses of the passage, about how our requests and our decisions will be received by God. ‘Gathered in my name’ means gathering and acting in a way that imitates Jesus, and follows his example. This makes it clear that these verses are not about requesting things for ourselves; rather they are about how God will receive our prayers and decisions about seeking and reconciling those who might otherwise be lost. Those prayers and decisions should be characterised by God’s extravagant forgiveness, God’s endless search for those who may be lost, God’s loving-kindness for everyone, but particularly for the weak and the vulnerable, acting according to the  characteristics of the God who Jesus revealed to us.

Reading this passage within its context makes us realise how often it has been misused during the Church’s history to persecute those groups whose ideas differ from those of the people who exercise power, and to justify the abuse of individuals, through institutions such as the Inquisition and during various inter-denominational conflicts.

Nowadays, we might think it’s not very relevant at the institutional level of church. When was the last time a church you were part of formally disciplined anyone?

But it has recently become more relevant to the Church of England, because of the current debate about the Anglican Communion Covenant. The Dioceses of the C of E are at the moment considering whether to approve this, and in this deanery the subject will be considered at the next Deanery Synod, which will be open to everyone.

The Anglican Covenant was drawn up after some provinces came to the conclusion that some actions of other provinces were not acceptable within the Church, in particular the acceptance remarriage in church after divorce, the opening of  priestly and episcopal orders to women, and most recently, the acceptance of faithful gay relationships as valid covenants like marriage, and so not a bar to ordination. Sections 1 and 2 of the Covenant attempt to define what it is to be ‘Anglican’ (something that has always been left rather vague in the past). Section 3 proposes that certain bodies (like the Primates Meeting and the Anglican Consultative Council) which had previously been forums for discussion, should  have the task of maintaining order in the Communion. It also commits those who sign up not to do anything which another province objects to. Section 4 describes ‘relational consequences’ for those provinces who don’t sign up, or whose actions offend another province.

Although the Covenant is being promoted as a means of maintaining the unity of the Communion, much of the history of the process indicates that it is seen by those who argued most forcibly for it as a means of excluding those provinces (especially the Episcopal Church in the United States and the Anglican Church in Canada) from the Anglican Communion. Some of the provinces that were most vociferous about the need for the Covenant have since decided it doesn’t go far enough to exclude the offending provinces and have already refused to attend any meetings where their representatives are present. There is now something like an ‘alternative’ Anglican Communion, known by the acronym GAFCON, where these dissenting provinces meet. This raises a large question mark over the Anglican Covenant and whether it is now going to achieve anything, other than preserving an illusion of unity while destroying the tolerance of diversity which has up to now been the hallmark of the Anglican Communion.

Whatever is eventually decided about the Anglican Covenant, our passage from Matthew (written we must believe under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) makes it clear that reconciliation, not exclusion should be the aim of any procedure fro resolving differences within a Christian community. Whether it is individuals or groups or even whole provinces that disagree, the ability to forgive and to tolerate difference is the mark of a true disciple in the Kingdom. Making sure that not one member, not one sheep from the Master’s flock, is lost and not one little one is damaged, is much more important than being right.

Wild flower seeds

( Isaiah 55, 10-13, Matthew 13.1-23 )

The parable of the sower certainly rings bells for me at the moment. I don’t do a lot of gardening, but I’ve recently sown some wild flower seeds in a small patch of earth. First of all I had to clear it of weeds and stones to give the seeds any chance of growing. Then I had to net the patch, to stop the birds taking away the seeds before they had a chance to germinate.

Judging by the number of gardening programmes on the television, the parable will ring bells with other people too. We may no longer be a nation of farmers and agricultural labourers – but many of us are interested in growing things, even if only on our own small plots. So we will all identify with the sower in his problems.

And this, of course, was Jesus’ intention when he spread the message of the Kingdom through parables. As many of us were taught in Sunday School, a parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. As a good teacher, Jesus told stories about familiar things, which people understood. Their first reaction would be ‘Oh yes, I know all about that’ but then ‘ I wonder what he’s really getting at?’

Parables were meant to make one point only. In the case of the parable of the sower it is a message of encouragements. The farmer ‘broadcast ‘ his seeds, as was the custom in Palestine. His ground was of mixed quality, with some very shallow soil with rocks underneath, a path around the edge and had been cleared of thistles, but the roots hadn’t been dug up. Lots of the seed went to waste – yet his sowing still produced an abundant crop (even allowing for the oriental exaggeration in the story) for Galilee was a very fertile area. So Jesus is telling his hearers not to worry if their work seems to fail in some area; God will bless their work as they proclaim the Kingdom in word and deed.

Jesus ends the story with an enigmatic comment “Listen then if you have ears”. This is his sign that there is something more to what he has been saying than just a story. Jesus seems to have followed the old military precept ‘Never apologize, never explain’ when he preached the message of the Kingdom. He expected his listeners to do some work for themselves and work things out, so he didn’t give them the solution to the meaning of the parable.

So how, then, do we account for the next two sections of our passage: verses 10-17, which are an explanation of why Jesus used parables, and verses 18-23, which interpret this particular parable?

The second section tells us about how the message of the parable was received in the next generation of Christians, the time just before the gospels were written. Scholars think that Matthew’s church contained a mixture of Jewish and Gentile Christians. Matthew was very keen to emphasise the Jewishness of Jesus, and his continuity with Israel. He was also interested in how prophecy shed light on the ministry of Jesus. One of the questions that obviously puzzled the Jewish members of his community was why had so much of the Jewish Nation failed to accept Jesus’ message about the coming Kingdom? Why did the parables no longer speak to them with the power that they had when Jesus first told them? Matthew found an answer in the prophecy he quotes from Isaiah 6.

Matthew interprets this prophecy in a certain way, understanding it to say that it was God’s intention that the people of Judah before the Exile, and in the time of Jesus, should not listen to him and be healed. But it is not necessary to interpret the ‘otherwise’ in that way. Indeed it goes against all that we know of the nature of God revealed by Jesus, and the intention of Jesus himself, to suppose that he told parables to confuse all but his closest followers. The strong message of the Gospels is that he taught about the Kingdom to anyone who would listen, and in a way that everyone could understand.

This section, too, ends with a message of encouragement for the believing community, another beatitude: blessed are you whose ears hear, and eyes see what many of the prophets looked forward too.

The final section probably comes from the next stage in the growth of the Christian community, when the faith was spreading into the Gentile world. As Geza Vermes reminds us, in his book ‘Jesus the Jew’, in using parables, Jesus was using a typical teaching method of the Jewish rabbi. Jews accustomed to Palestinian teaching methods would have needed no explanation – but non-Jews would have needed every detail spelt out. Indeed, they might have expected it, since interpreting stories as allegories, when every detail meant something, was the fashion in the Greek world of the time.

Hence the allegorical interpretation of the parable in verses 18-23. The explanation reinterprets the parable. The seed changes from standing for the good news, to standing for different sorts of people who receive the good news. Some are unresponsive and easily tempted, and the message never takes root in them. Others have a shallow faith, make a start by then give up when things get hard. Some cannot withstand temptation; but there are still enough whose faith takes root to bring great results.

Now I know that some people are worried by being told that parts of what is written in the Gospels may not be the original words of Jesus. They imagine this is equivalent to accusing the Gospel writers of telling lies. But this is not the case.

We believe that the Holy Spirit inspired Jesus when he taught. We believe that the Spirit inspired the writers of the Scriptures when they wrote. We believe that the Spirit will inspire and guide us when we read, if we ask her to guide us. But the Spirit’s inspiration will not override the normal and natural processes of our human minds.

Whenever we read anything, what we understand is the product of a complex interplay between what was originally said, how the writer interpreted and recorded that, and what we bring to our reading of the passage from our own culture, education, experience and situation. So, people from different cultures and from different times are bound to ‘hear’ different things.

It is the task of Biblical scholars (also inspired by the Holy Spirit ) to unravel the different layers of interpretation contained in the Bible to help us in our reading and understanding. This is not just a modern thing. The scholars of the Jewish nation said of their Scriptures that they had several layers of meaning: first of all there was what was called Pshat – the plain and obvious meaning; then there was Remez – or hint – the implied meaning, referring to the Torah and Jewish history; thirdly, there was Drush – the meaning found by philosophers; and lasting there was Sod – the hidden meaning, accessible only to the mystics. So we should not be surprised that God’s Word, conveyed to us through the pages of Scripture, has a new message for each generation of the Church.

If we go back to the parable of the sower, we will read it with our modern knowledge of agriculture. We do not sow seeds and grow plants in the same way that a Palestinian farmer would. God has given us knowledge through science and technology which has changed the way we grow things – mostly for the better.

So also with the Bible and the message of the Kingdom; we are free to read and reinterpret it anew for each new age.

How we do so will depend on our outlook and our personality; but our reading will always be limited by our understanding that the primary message is about God and the kingdom. So I want to offer you a reading of the parable of the sower, informed by our knowledge of the world today, to answer our questions about the way we should spread the Word of God – our seed – today.

Some of the seed falls on the path. Paths are made of earth that is trodden hard. For me, this ground stands for the down trodden peoples of the world; for nations where there is no freedom, for groups in society that are discriminated against. In this sort of situation, the forces of evil find rich pickings. Before the seed of the gospel can take root in this ground, the soil needs to be dug up, turned and loosened – so that the air of freedom and the water of encouragement can circulate, and the plants that come from the Gospel seed can send down roots. In these situations, the work of sowing the seed of Gospel truth will involve first preparing the ground by working for social justice.

The shallow soil with rock beneath speaks to me  of those people who are dead inside – who are unable to receive the good news of God’s love because their spirits have been killed by self-hatred, low self-esteem, shame and past abuse. On the surface, these people may seem to be fine, fertile ground – but though their relationships may begin well, they always self-destruct, as their roots come into contact with the dead area inside. There will need to be long, patient works of preparation, often by carefully trained experts, before the Gospel seed can take root here: breaking down the hard rock, clearing the remaining stones away, then enriching what is left with the new topsoil of unconditional love and compassion and acceptance.

The seed which fell among thorns represents perhaps the most common ground in which present day evangelists try to sow the gospel seed. People nowadays lead busy lives, crowded with demands , distractions and temptations from work, from their social life, from the media and the internet, from within their family. Often they can find no space for the seed of the Gospel to take root. It will not be much good just hacking at these ‘weeds’ when they show above the ground.

That would be to do as the Palestinian farmer did, destroying the obvious weeds above ground, while leaving the roots to sprout again, grow up and take over. We need to dig deeper, into the fabric of society, and help to clear away the roots from which these social weeds spring. Also, we can provide – perhaps at first only bit by bit – areas and times of peace and freedom from demands, where the Kingdom can take root a few seeds at a time, and the crop can begin to bear fruit.

But, even this interpretation of the parable of the sower comes back ultimately, to the central message of the Kingdom that Jesus preached. In the church, ‘small is beautiful’. Our efforts may seem small, our results unspectacular in the eyes of the world. But where God is at work through us, nothing can prevent a glorious harvest.

The Sower. Van Gogh