The Resurrection

March 31, 2013

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Easter  2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Introduction 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hymn:When I survey the wondrous Cross

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

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

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

Silence

Music: Henry Purcell. Funeral Music. 

Confession: 

Merciful God,

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

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

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

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

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

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

For hurtful words said, and helpful words unsaid,

for unfinished tasks and unfulfilled hopes,

God of all time,

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

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

Hymn:  My song is love unknown (463)

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

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

Silence

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

Prayer:

Thanks be to you, our Lord Jesus Christ,

for all the benefits you have won for us,

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

O most merciful redeemer, friend and brother,

may we know you more clearly,

love you more dearly,

and follow you more nearly,

day by day.

Amen

Hymn: Praise to the holiest

Reading: Mark 15, 21-32 Jesus is crucified

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

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

Silence

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

Prayer:

Merciful God,

Creator of all the peoples of the earth,

have compassion on those who do not know you

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

May the grace and power of that love gather us together

in your presence.

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

for they knew not what they did.  Amen

Hymn: Drop, drop slow tears

Reading: Psalm 22 1- 31

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anthem: Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Prayer:

God of compassion,

have mercy on all who cry out to you

out of darkness and despair,

and strengthen us as we face the cost of discipleship,

in union with your Son,

our Redeemer, Jesus Christ. Amen.

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

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

Silence

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

Silence

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

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

Silence

Music: Fauré In Paradisum from Requiem.  

Prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ, crucified for us,

help us to see and know your love for us.

Help us to see the cost of our forgiveness,

so that we may be made new through your love.

Amen.

Hymn:  O dearest Lord, thy sacred head

Final Prayer

Jesus, Lord of the Cross,

We thank you that you went into

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

as you kingship became your brokenness

and your dying became love’s triumph.

We bow down before the cross in wonder and sorrow.

Holy God, holy and strong,

Holy and immortal,

Have mercy on us.

Music. Elgar. Cello Concerto. Adagio


Waiting for the End Times.

November 18, 2012

 

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

Do you like watching disaster movies?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bishop Justin Welby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

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

“What do you want me to do for you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And will you be prepared to do what God asks?

Eye of a Needle

October 14, 2012

(Amos 5,6,7,10-15; Hebrews 4, 12-16; Mark 10,17-31)  (Proper 23 Yr B)

An ordained colleague was telling me recently about the conversations he had been having with the two churches he was responsible for, about where their Harvest gifts would go. The plan was for them to support the local Food Bank. One church is situated in a prosperous area. The congregation there gives little in proportion to their income, normally, and they didn’t think food banks were necessary: ‘No-one is in that much need in this country,’ they said.

The other church serves an area of social housing. They have little money but are generous with what they have. They support the food bank because they know it is necessary – some of them have had to use it.

Jesus said: ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God’. The prophet Amos spoke words of judgement against those who trample on the poor and push aside the needy. And the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews warns us that the Word of God is not just theory, but is living and active, and reveals all to the One before whom we are all being judged.

The contemporary church seems to outsiders to spend an awful lot of its time talking about sex, marriage, divorce and sexuality; it doesn’t appear to spend as much time talking about the use of money. Yet, while  there are comparatively few verses in the Bible which talk about sexual morals and marital relationships, it has been estimated that there are anything between 2000 and 2500 that talk about wealth and money. It would seem from that statistic alone, that how we deal with money is more relevant to our life in the Kingdom of God than our sexual morality, important though that is.

Some of these Bible verses state the commonly held belief that earthly riches were a sign of God’s favour. That’s a thread that runs through the Old Testament, especially the Deuteronomic history, and is still current today in those churches that preach a ‘Prosperity Gospel’, which says if you give your money to the church (or more often, to a particular evangelist) you will find favour with God, and he will give back to you one hundred fold. You can even find justification for that view in part of today’s Gospel reading.

But alongside that is another thread, also found in Deuteronomy, which warns that earthly riches bring responsibilities for those living within God’s covenant – responsibilities to those who have little and to those who are unprotected and economically vulnerable, like widows and orphans, and the landless poor. If you claim to be part of God’s holy favoured people, if you live under the covenant, you are obliged to share its benefits fairly.

The prophet Amos pronounced judgement on the people of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the 8th century. They were living in a time of unprecedented prosperity, which allowed some of them to expand their landholdings at the expense of poorer people, and to build themselves houses of stone. It was an unequal society, in which the rich held all the cards and used their wealth to enrich themselves further, cheating the weak by perverting the justice system, taking bribes, and overtaxing the landless poor. Their wealth had blinded them to the needs of their fellow Israelites and hardened their hearts. This was causing the breakdown of society, as it became divided into the haves and the have-nots.  The punishment Amos decreed in God’s name, was that the nation would be defeated by a foreign army, its leading citizens deported, so that they would no longer enjoy their prosperity, and their land would be taken over by strangers; and that is precisely what happened when the Assyrians invaded and occupied Israel and deported its aristocracy in 722BC.

The Mark passages is made up of four separate sections: the story of the rich young man, sayings about wealth, promises of future good fortune to faithful disciples, and the saying about the first shall be last, which is found several times in different contexts in the Gospels.

The story about the rich young man is likely to be more challenging to us than it was to the disciples, or to the people of Mark’s community. Not many of them, we understand from Acts and the epistles, were well off or influential. But we live in one of the wealthy nations of the world, and, however limited our income, however little property we own, we are still far wealthier than the vast majority of the world’s population. I read this morning that around a billion people woke up hungry this morning, not knowing where their next meal would come from. That’s more than the population of the US, Canada and the EU combined.

We are the rich young man. How does his story challenge us?

His question was asked as Jesus and the disciples travelled on the way to Jerusalem. Perhaps that is just an insignificant detail; but perhaps it indicates that this is actually a story about how we follow the Way of Jesus.  The same word  (odos) is used for both, and it was as “the way” that  the first disciples described their faith.

The young man begins by flattering Jesus, by calling him ‘good teacher’. Wealth is always useful for gaining access to people of influence, for buying attention. But as James pointed out in the reading we heard from his letter a few weeks ago, it is how wealthy Christians speak and act towards the poorest members of their fellowship that is the real test of their commitment to Kingdom values. How do we rate ourselves against that standard?

Jesus’s reply turns the focus away from himself, and points the young man towards God and the divine.

He goes on to remind his questioner about the commandments; not all of them, but the six concerned with relationships between humans. And in an echo of the Amos passage, he changes the final commandment from ‘don’t covet’ to ‘don’t defraud’, recognising that the desire for wealth so often leads to criminal activity against the vulnerable.

The young man proudly boasts that he hasn’t broken any of these. We would probably say exactly the same – but Jesus makes clear, that is not enough to meet Kingdom standards and issues the young man a devastating challenge: “O.K. If you really want to be part of the Kingdom life, give it all away and live as I do”.

The story tells us that the man went away shocked, because he was very rich; and we don’t know how the story ends. Mark tells us that Jesus issued his challenge in love, to help the young man to find his true path in life, to recall him to true covenant and Kingdom values. The story leaves open the possibility that, after the initial shock, the man in question did change his values and his way of life. We don’t know, and it is not up to us to judge. Jesus said that with God, even the most unlikely change of heart is possible.

But we do have to ask ourselves, how would we measure up in that scale of things?

Jesus is probably not meaning anyone to take his answer literally, just as he didn’t really expect us to cut off our hands or tear out our eyes if they lead us in to doing wrong. He is using exaggeration to shock us into considering what our basic values are, and whether they measure up to life under the sovereignty of God. Because this is not talking about what happens to us after we die; we are not supposed to live this life with our eye on the next.

The Kingdom of Heaven is a present reality!

It’s about how we live now, how we put into practice the petition in the Lord’s Prayer which asks “Your Kingdom come on earth as in heaven”. In particular it asks us how we view our wealth. Is it something we regard as a gift to be shared with others, and to be used for the enhancement of other people’s lives as well as our own? Or is wealth our true security, to be clutched to ourselves, to be increased no matter who we trample on as we do so, to be preserved for us and for our heirs?

Do we posses our money, or does it posses us?

Our world is full of poor people. Poor in monetary terms, without food or clean water or secure homes or proper sanitation; poor in terms of security, subject to warring factions, or climate change, or natural disasters or corrupt legal systems; poor in educational terms, without access to education or opportunities to use the education they have; or poor in emotional terms, lonely, frightened, confused or in the grip of addiction.

In relation to them, we are wealthy in all those aspects; and our wealth can so easily blind us to their needs, and to the truth that they are our brothers and sisters in the Kingdom, and through Jesus, God asks us to share our wealth with them. Wealth is not a bad thing in itself; it is bad when it functions in a way that insulates us from the realities others live with and blocks our empathy for those who lack what we have been given.

 

We don’t have to give away everything. We don’t even have to give away all our financial resources. We do have to use it not just for ourselves and our own comfort and security, but to advance the comfort and security of all our brothers and sisters in Christ.

We can give time and sympathy and friendship as well as money. We can stand alongside those who are voiceless, and use our position and our access to communications to be advocates for change. We can be for those who are poor what Jesus was for us according to Hebrews “one who sympathises with our weakness”.

The thing that prevents some of the rich from living in the Kingdom is not their wealth, but the way they use it. The encounter between Jesus and the rich young man challenges us to decide how we will use the wealth we have – for the common good, or to trample on the poor.

A final image to take away with you. Jesus illustrates the problem by using what was probably a well known saying of the time, about the impossibility of pushing a camel through the eye of a needle. Its a lovely image and a striking one. One interpretation of it says the eye was not a literal one, but a narrow gate in a city wall. I understand that such a gate is pointed out to tourists in Jerusalem. But I feel that spoils the humour, and diminishes the impact of the saying.

But I also read in Morna Hooker’s commentary on Mark, that it is possible that the word ‘camel’ (camēlon) was a mistranscription of the word camĭlon, which means rope.

At first I thought that too would spoil the joke, but then I thought it could provide a good illustration of the point the story was trying to make.  If you try to push a rope through the eye of a needle, it won’t go. It’s like a rich person whose wealth ties him or her up in their own interests. But if you unravel it, and push the individual strands through one by one, it will go. It’s like a rich person who is not bound by their wealth but is prepared to unravel it and share it.

So which are we? A camel or a tightly bound rope, which will never get us through the eye of a needle into KIngdom life?

Or the individual threads of a rope unravelled, shared between many, so that all can go into the Kingdom through the eye of the needle of God’s sharp word?

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

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.

Mad or Bad?

June 10, 2012


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

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

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

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

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

So, how are we to judge?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!’

Take up your Cross

March 4, 2012


Genesis 17, 1-7, 15 & 16; Mark 8, 31-38

Imagine two job advertisements side by side in the ‘Appointments’ section of a national newspaper. One specifies that to do the job you must move from your own country, but you’ll be able to take your family and all your possessions with you. When you arrive in the new country, the inhabitants will be subdued by a major force, and your people will take over the land. You will become exceedingly prosperous, your son will be the ancestor of several royal families and you will receive international acclaim.

The second says that to do the job you have got to give up the occupation you have been trained for, leave your family and your home town, and become a homeless vagrant in your country, which is occupied by a foreign empire. Relying on charity, you will try to sell a product which threatens the interests not only of the occupying force, but also of the native leaders who collaborate with it. The rewards of the job will be that you will be arrested, tortured and killed. After your death, however, you will be vindicated in the eyes of some people and you will enjoy a new life, in ways not specified.

Which would most people choose? It’s fairly obvious! As Jesus says in the Gospel reading, most people would be moved by human values, and would choose the first.

The first job ad. is a summary of the Old Covenant, offered to Abraham. The second is what we Christians accept when we enter The New Covenant.

At the heart of the New Covenant is Mark 8.34, in which Jesus says:”If anyone wants to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.”

Scholars are divided over whether Jesus actually said these words, or whether they were written back into the Gospels by the early church after the crucifixion. Doubts are raised by the precision with which Jesus predicted the details of his death, which makes the apostles’ continued lack of understanding difficult to accept. On the other hand, Jesus would have been well aware of the hostility of the authorities, both Jewish and Roman, to him, and of the particular danger of going to preach in Jerusalem at a major festival. He would have known how the Romans treated those they regarded as rebels and criminals, for crucifixion was a fairly common occurrence in the occupied Judea and Galilee at that time. The Romans used this punishment against those caught up in Jewish rebellions against Roman rule in 4BCE and 6CE, and during the Jewish revolt in 63-70 CE.

What would “taking up their cross” have meant to those who originally heard or read these words?

Crucifixion was a form of execution used in the ancient world, and particularly in the Roman Empire. It was used to punish criminals, and in those cases crucifixion would often take place at the site of their crime. More commonly, it was used to punish those who took part in rebellions against Roman rule, so was more often used for men than women, and for slaves and members of occupied territories than Romans. It was a method of punishment that was designed to be humiliating, since it took place in public and the victims were naked. It was painful, since the victims were usually flogged beforehand, and had to carry the cross beam to the place of execution. It could be quick, but was usually performed in such a way that death did not take place immediately, but after hours or even days of pain and humiliation. It was designed as much to be a deterrent to others as a punishment for the condemned.

So, in telling us followers of Jesus that we must ‘take up our cross’ and follow him, the Gospel is saying that we must be prepared to be branded a criminal and a rebel against the secular power, be beaten, tortured, publicly humiliated, and killed.

That fate became a reality for many Christians in the early church, particularly for those blamed by Nero for the great Fire of Rome in 64 CE. Others in early church history, or later when the Gospel was taken across the globe, suffered equally painful, horrifying and humiliating deaths as a consequence of following Jesus.

In some parts of the world, following Jesus still means running the risk of persecution, injury or death. In some countries run by atheistic regimes, or where the majority of the population follows another faith, Christians may be imprisoned, their churches bombed and some of them may be killed. Even in countries with a strong Christian tradition, like Nigeria and Zimbabwe, being in the wrong place, or being the wrong sort of Christian, may mean persecution and discrimination and danger. And in other places, Christians have to maintain their faith, and their trust in the goodness of God, in the face of natural disasters, widespread poverty and disease, which must feel to them like the weight of a cross they carry every day of their lives.

But what does it mean for us, Christians in 21st century England, today.

Some individual Christians may have to carry a cross of life-threatening illness, or disability or constant pain. But for most of us, that is not the case.

Unlike those who carried their crosses in 1st century Galilee, we are not living under foreign occupation by people who practise another religion. Christianity is built into the fabric of our nation, and holds a position of enormous privilege. Our monarch has to be an Anglican Christian, our bishops sit in the House of Lords, there are a number of Christian schools which are supported by the state and collective worship in our schools must by law be ‘wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian content’ and and Religious Education must take account of our Christian heritage; and both collective worship and RE are compulsory. There are Christian chaplains in most of our hospitals, prisons, legal and government institutions.

There is no restriction on our freedom to follow our religion. We can build churches where we want to, subject only to the same planning restrictions as everyone else. We can publish our books freely and preach our faith openly, subject only to the same laws as everyone else has to obey. There is no restriction on people’s right to convert to the Christian faith, if they wish to, or to leave it if they no longer believe. There are even exemptions for Christians in some legislation: nurses and doctors don’t have to perform abortions if this is against their consciences, Church of England clergy, who are automatically registrars, don’t have to perform marriages for divorcees or civil partnerships, and the Church of England doesn’t have to treat men and women equally in ordinations.

Yet, in spite of this, there have been claims that Christians have suffered for their beliefs, and even suggestions that they are being persecuted, or discriminated against in this country.

Some of the cases that have given rise to these perceptions are detailed in the first session of our Lent Course: staff working in various organisations have been disciplined for wearing crosses with their uniforms; a Christian counsellor working for a secular organisation was sacked for saying he might not work on sexual issues with a gay couple; teachers and nurses have been disciplined for offering to pray with pupils or patients. And more recently there have been cases reported in the media of the hotel owners who have been prosecuted under equality legislation for not offering the same facilities to gay couples as they do the heterosexual ones; a registrar demoted for refusing to officiate at civil partnerships; and a care home worker sacked for refusing to work on Sundays. In many of these cases, Christians have been supported by the Christian Legal Centre.

In the last week, a Parliamentary Committee of Enquiry reported on its investigations into these cases. The inquiry was overseen by Christians in Parliament, an official all-party Parliamentary Group, and was sponsored by the Evangelical Alliance. It concluded that “Christians in the UK are not persecuted. To suggest that they are is to minimise the suffering of Christians in many parts of the world who face repression, imprisonment and death if they worship, preach or convert.” Their main conclusion suggested something far less dramatic was happening: “Christians ( I would say, some Christians) in the UK face problems in living out their faith and these problems have been mostly caused and exacerbated by social, cultural and legal changes over the past decade.” In other words, our society has changed and is changing, and Christianity no longer has quite the same privileged position it once had.

Their enquiry suggested some ways in which legislation, and the way legislation is applied, might be modified to take account of the way some Christians wish to practice their faith. But they also said: “Some of the legal activity, associated campaigning and media coverage has been unwise and possibly counter-productive to the positive role that Christians play in society. Ahead of bringing cases to court, Christians need to consider the potential impact their actions might have on politics, public opinion and the confidence of other Christians in their mission.”

So the question remains, how can Christians today take up their cross and follow Christ? For some Christians, who feel some issues on which society at large feels differently from them, are fundamental to their faith, ‘following Christ’ may mean they have to accept some restriction on the employment opportunities open to them. They can’t work for public bodies if they wish to treat certain people differently on the basis of gender or sexuality; they can’t work for organisations that require them to wear uniforms if they are not prepared to abide by the same uniform regulations as everyone else; and they cannot offer services to the public unless they are prepared to offer them to everyone on an equal basis. But I would question whether any of this is really equivalent to “carrying a cross”.

In a situation where we live in a society where we are not occupied by a foreign power, where we are free to practice our religion, where indeed our religious faith is supported by the dominant organisations in society, we as Christians need to think deeply about how exactly we can ‘forget ourselves, carry our cross and follow Jesus’, to the extent that we lose our everyday human way of life, and experience the divine, eternal way of life.

This Lent gives us an opportunity to do that. I pray we may all take it.