Different Gifts.

January 20, 2013

Mum&DadPwedd copy

(Isaiah 62, 1-5: I Corinthians 12, 1-11; John 2, 1-11) 

We’re getting ready for another wedding in our family – our younger son is getting married next year.

And like our elder son, he’s chosen to marry someone from the other side of the Atlantic – so it will be an American ceremony, with a celebration for the English side later; and we are  learning how different wedding customs are in the United States from the UK.  There seem to be lots more formal events to include – things like Bridal Showers and Rehearsal Dinners – which we don’t go in for here, and there’s a different etiquette for who makes speeches and when. Another interesting wedding experience to add to our previous one!

I’ve spoken before about the way my experience of leading Marriage Preparation courses  highlighted many similarities between a couple getting married and two different churches entering an ecumenical partnership.  There are similar tensions over what might seem, on the surface, to be very minor differences of family or church customs, but which nevertheless seem to carry enormous emotional weight, and lead to difficulties out of all proportion to their apparent importance. What family customs and religious practices have in common is that they are often deeply rooted in our early family experiences, in the things that provide us with part of our sense of identity and security, and that, as a result, they are extremely difficult to discuss in a rational and detached way.

Our Gospel reading today describes a wedding feast – and in the Bible, a wedding feast is always a symbol for the great Messianic Banquet at the end of time, celebrating the triumph of God’s Kingdom and the covenant between God and his people. In the Old Testament, as we heard in the reading from Isaiah, the ‘bride’ of God was the people of Israel. In the New Testament it is the new people of God, the Church. The marriage feast metaphor speaks of the love God has for his people, and the joy that they have in being joined to God. So, it is a very appropriate image to have before us in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, when we rejoice in the covenant relationship that God established with all Christians through Jesus, and the joy that we all share in serving God in the world.

It’s easy to get depressed by the difficulties of ecumenical co-operation, particularly by participation in the numerous committees that seem to be necessary to organise services and events. But we should not forget the enormous advances made in ecumenism since the week began in Catholic churches in 1908. I can remember in my childhood how members of different churches regarded each other with suspicion, and co-operation was especially difficult between non-conformist churches and those from a more catholic tradition. And I was saddened in the 1970s by hearing from Cardinal Hume, when he came to address Churches Together in a Lent Lecture, that, as a trainee Catholic priest, he was not allowed to attend his own father’s funeral, because it took place in an Anglican Church. How things have changed! As an Anglican woman, I have twice preached from the pulpit of a Roman Catholic Church – not something that I could ever have imagined happening as a child – and I know I can take communion in the churches of most denominations without any questions being asked.

The establishment of Local Ecumenical Partnerships, like those in this circuit at St Mary’s Rickmansworth and All Saints Berkhamstead, has enormously expanded lay people’s experience of worshipping with those of different church backgrounds, and occasions such as this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and the Women’s World Day of Prayer provide opportunities for planning liturgy and attending worship with those of different denominational backgrounds.

But progress towards full visible unity, sharing not only buildings and worship, but theology, ministry and church organisation has been achieved only in a few cases – the Methodist Church and the United Reformed Church being the only two major denominations to have achieved it in this country. It seems to have been easier to achieve in places where Christianity is not the dominant religion – there have been united churches of several Protestant denominations in India and Pakistan since 1970.

Recently, while movements for closer covenant relationships between churches have failed, or been relegated to the background, disputes within churches, over issues such as sexuality and gender roles, seem to be leading to greater disunity, and more obstructions in the road to visible unity. It is very sad, like contemplating the probability of marriage breakup in your own family, or in the families of other people you love.MumDad, Granma&Dad?Wedd copy

Maybe what we should be celebrating today is the enormous amount of practical work to serve the vulnerable, the marginalised and the poor which is undertaken by Christians working together, both nationally and locally. The Fairtrade movement and Christian Aid are shining examples of Christians working together nationally and internationally to secure justice and wellbeing for others. Locally, joint efforts by churches over the last 50 years have established Wensum Court homes for the elderly, the Care Scheme, the Credit Union in Rickmansworth and the Foodbank in Mill End and Maple Cross, soon to be extended to Rickmansworth Town Centre.

As St Paul explains in his letter to the Corinthians, God has given different gifts to different people in the Church, but they are all given to be used for the common good. Some gifts may be used in the worship of God, one sort of ‘service’ which can have great differences in style, in order to accommodate differences of taste or personality. Other gifts may be used in teaching, or administration, but the most important are used in practical service to others.

If we listen to St Paul, we learn that we should value all these different gifts equally, just as we value all the different parts of our body equally; and especially that we shouldn’t put a greater value on intellectual gifts than practical ones. The only standard by which we may evaluate gifts is that of love, for God gives us gifts because of the divine love for us, and we share them with our neighbour, because God’s Spirit within us inspires us to love our neighbour as ourselves.

The marriage image we find in the Old Testament and Gospel provides further support for the celebration of our unity in service to others: just as a married couple share their lives and their possessions as a token of their love for each other, so we Christians share our lives and possessions with everyone, and especially the needy and the dispossessed.

wcc_logoSimilarly, I think all today’s readings encourage us to share in companionship and service not just with our fellow Christians, but with all people of faith. It is an encouragement to interfaith as well as ecumenical unity.

I’ve recently dipped into a book called ‘Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road’. It takes its name from a variation of the ‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’ joke. The author, Brian McLaren, asks “How do you think Jesus would treat (them) if they took a walk across the road together. Would Jesus push Moses aside and demand to cross first…would he trade insults with Mohammed…Would Jesus demand the Buddha kneel at his feet? Or would he walk with them and, once on the other side, welcome them to the table of fellowship, ….maybe even taking the role of a servant…making sure each felt welcome, safe and at home?”

McLaren continues: “I have no doubt that Jesus would actually practise the neighbourliness he preached rather than following our example of religious supremacy, hostility, fear, isolation, misinformation, exclusion or demonisation. It seems ridiculous to imagine that he would be insecure among them, considering them his rivals, or that he would find it necessary to extract from them explicit agreement on fundamental doctrines before condescending to cross a road with them.”

And as Jesus does, so must we do, as we are called to be Christ’s Body in the world. True Christian Unity is not about reaching agreement on the minutiae of theology, or the exact details of church order, or who may preach or be ordained. It is about working together with the common purpose of bringing in the Kingdom of God through serving our neighbour and transforming the world. And we can do that not just with our fellow Christians, but with all people of goodwill.

Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed – and the Methodists and Anglicans and Baptists and Presbyterians and Roman Catholics – cross the road?Book cover

They were going to take their different gifts to the marriage feast, where all are welcomed to celebrate the glory of God and the joy of the covenant God makes with all who were once Desolate and Forsaken, and who now know themselves married to the Divine and who love and share and serve the Kingdom of Heaven, to the delight of God.

Let us pray:

A prayer by Ruth Gee, Chair of the Darlington District, fromThe Methodist Prayer Handbook. Day 13.

God with us, Emmanuel;

you cross the chasm of time and space,

you break down the walls of fear and prejudice,

you span the waters of chaos,

you come to us in love.

Sending God;

help us to cross the chasm of hurt and painful memory,

help us to break down the barriers that divide,

help us to bear your peace in a troubled world.

Send us in love,

go with us.

Amen

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

“What do you want me to do for you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And will you be prepared to do what God asks?

Watch your Tongue!

September 16, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

certain what was the divine intention in any particular passage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah 9, 2-7; Luke 2, 1-14.

A sermon for Christmas  Day with visual aids.

Have you ever sung the song about the 12 Days of Christmas?

Did you know it has a secret, religious meaning?

Everything mentioned in the song stands for something else:  4 calling birds are 4 Gospels, 2 French hens are the Old Testament and New Testament, & partridge in a pear tree is Jesus; & ‘my true love’ who gave all the gifts to me over the 12 days of Christmas is God.

I thought I might do a version of the song with you today – with presents in this Christmas stocking which stand for 12 of the gifts we are given at Christmas with the coming of Jesus.

“On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me:” a baby boy – a son; as Isaiah prophesied in Jesus we are given the Son of God. (baby doll)

“On the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me:” a royal child. Isaiah said, & the angels said baby would be Prince of Peace, King of Jews, reign on throne of his ancestor David. (crown)

“On the third day of Christmas my true love gave to me:” a Saviour. The name Jesus means ‘God saves’ and angels told shepherds baby born would be their saviour. (St Bernard dog with brandy. This might not look like a saviour to you, but if you were buried in an avalanche in the Swiss Alps, it would!)

“On the fourth day of Christmas my true love gave to me:” the Messiah, the Christ. The angels told the shepherds that the Messiah would be born. Messiah or Christ means anointed one. Priests and kings anointed with oil (jar of oil)

“On the fifth day of Christmas my true love gave to me:” a light. Isaiah said people who walked in darkness would see light when the special child was born, and John’s Gospel proclaims Jesus as that light. (torch)

“On the sixth day of Christmas my true love gave to me:” the Word. John’s Gospel says Jesus was the Word or Wisdom of God made flesh. Gospels and NT are words about the Word of God. (New Testament)

“On the seventh day of Christmas my true love gave to me:” A shepherd. The prophets foretold  a shepherd King like David, and in John’s Gospel, Jesus calls himself “The Good Shepherd” who gives his life for his sheep. ( model sheep & crook)

“On the  eighth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:” A vine. In John’s Gospel, Jesus calls himself the True Vine, of which we are all branches. If we remain in him we bear fruit. And in this Holy Communion we drink the fruit of the vine to remember him (grapes)

“On the ninth day of Christmas my true love gave to me:” some bread. Bethlehem where the Gospels tell us Jesus was born means ‘House of Bread’  & in John’s Gospel, Jesus says he is the true Bread, the Bread of life. In this Holy Communion we share bread to remind us we are the Body of Christ. (roll)

“On the tenth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me”: A Lamb. John the Baptist called Jesus the Lamb of God, and we remember that in this Communion service, when we give thanks for the Lamb of God who died to save us from the wickedness of this world. (lamb)

“On the eleventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:” a Redeemer. In the olden days, money was paid over to redeem people from slavery. Today we celebrate the birth of Jesus, whose life and death redeems us from slavery to evil (money)

“On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love gave to me:”

Emmanuel, God with us. The Christmas stories tell us that Jesus was both human and divine, the Son of Man and the Son of God. (Rubik’s cube puzzle)

That’s a mystery, that Christians have spent 2000 years thinking about, trying to puzzle out what exactly it means for us. And we will go on trying to puzzle it out throughout this coming year.

I hope you will enjoy your material presents this Christmas, and the spiritual presents that God gives us in the birth of Jesus. I hope you will go on trying to puzzle out what exactly the birth of Jesus means for you and the world, and that you will be here with us during the year to help us unwrap all the gifts that God gives us.

Who do you say that I am?

August 21, 2011

Isaiah 51, 1-6; Matthew 16, 13 – 20.

It’s a normal question to ask when you meet a person for the first time. “Who are you?” Sometimes you probe further, “What do you do for a living?” “Where do you come from?”  Whatever the answer, it will have to be couched in terms the questioner will understand. It would be no use telling a native of an Amazonian rain forest tribe that you’re a computer programmer; it would mean nothing to them. That occupation only has meaning in the context of a modern technological society.

It’s most unusual, on the other hand,  for someone to ask you, as Jesus is shown doing in this morning’s Gospel reading, “Who do people say I am?” and almost unheard of for someone to ask “Who do you say I am?”. Which is a sure indication that what we are dealing with here is very unlikely to be a record of an actual historical conversation, but is actually a statement of the belief of the early Church.

The Jesus we know from the Synoptic Gospels did not seem to be at all interested in what people thought about him. He didn’t talk much about himself. What he talked about was God, and God’s Kingdom, and how people should act in order to serve God’s Kingdom on earth. He didn’t ever claim to be the Messiah, he didn’t ever claim to be the Son of God. When his followers, or those he healed, or the demons he was exorcising gave him those titles, he commanded them to be silent.

Yet, within a generation of his crucifixion, when the Synoptic Gospels and Acts were written, he was being proclaimed as Messiah – in Greek ‘the Christ’, in English ‘The Anointed One’. It had become so much associated with him that it had changed from being a title – ‘Jesus, the Christ’ to being something like a surname, ‘Jesus Christ’ or even to being a name on its own, ‘Christ’. Then, by the third quarter of the first century it was being used as a way of describing his followers, who became known, as we are, as ‘Christians’.

But what did these titles mean to those who first used them?

In the Judaism of the time of Jesus, there was a hope for a Messiah, a person appointed by God to save Israel, defeat her enemies, and restore the Jews to freedom and pre-eminence. It was not a major element in their faith, but it was an expectation among ordinary people, and a subject of speculation among some of the sects, such as those who lived at Qumran, and whose writings we have in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The main expectation was of a Messiah who would be a king in the line of David. This King Messiah would defeat the Gentiles in battle, would restore the fortunes of Israel, would instil the fear of the Lord in the people, lead them in holiness of life, and administer justice with righteousness. Other ways of referring to this person were ‘Son of David’, ‘Branch of David’ and ‘Star of Jacob’.

There were claims that this person had come, especially during the time of the last uprising of the Jews against the Romans in 135-137 AD, when the leader of the rebels, Simon bar Kosiba, was renamed bar Kochba, ‘Son of the Star’ by those who thought he was the promised Messiah.

There were other expectations. Because the royal line of David had died out, the High Priests exercised political as well as religious power. So some groups expected a Priest Messiah rather than a King Messiah. Simon Maccabeus, who lived about 150 years before Jesus,  was praised in Messianic terms which spoke of his star rising, and the Dead Sea Scrolls speak of the Messiahs of Aaron (a Priest-Messiah) and of Israel (a King-Messiah).

There was an expectation that one of the great prophets would return to herald the coming of the Messiah, as we read in the New Testament;  but there was also some expectation of a Prophet Messiah, either alongside the King and Priest Messiahs, or as one facet of a person sent from God who would combine all these roles. The historical Jesus came closest to the role of Prophet-Messiah.

Some texts especially after the 1st century AD spoke of a pre-existent Messiah, whose name and essence were known to God before he came into the world, but this person remained only an idea until he was actually born. Other texts said he would not know he was the Messiah until God anointed or appointed him. However, the one characteristic of all these Messiahs was that they would be human, and like all other humans, they would die.

It is perhaps because Jesus’s view of his mission was so very different from all these expectations, and the reality of his life and death did not in any way fulfil popular ideas of the coming of the Messiah that the New Testament shows him as commanding his disciples and the demons to keep their ideas secret, and moving immediately to speak about his coming passion and death.

Similarly, the title ‘Son of God’ would not have had the overtones of divine status that it does for us, influenced by nearly two thousand years of church dogma. Several sorts of people in the Jewish society of Jesus’s time might have been known as ‘son of God’. The Jewish Bible called three groups of beings ‘sons of God’: angels, the people of Israel as a whole, and particularly the Kings of Israel. Psalm 2 calls the Davidic King ‘God’s son’ and the Dead Sea Scrolls also say the Messiah will be God’s son. Therefore, it was natural to combine this title with that of the King Messiah. But in the inter-testamental period, it was also a designation of a just or good man, or one who worked wonders, or one who healed. The Book of Ecclesiasticus says “be a father to the fatherless and God shall call you his son and deliver you from the pit”. Jewish charismatics at the time of Jesus believed that saints and teachers who were especially close to God were acclaimed in public by a Divine voice which called them ‘my son’. This voice was heard only by spiritual beings, evil as well as good, which was why demons are shown in the Gospels as recognising Jesus as God’s son.

Another feature of the holy men, or Hasids, of Judaism at this time is that they called God ‘Father’, using the Aramaic term ‘Abba’ which Jesus also used.

All these traditions would have fed into the disciples’ belief that Jesus was, as Peter proclaimed, ‘The Messiah, the son of the Living God’. Some strands of early Christianity saw his Messiahship as beginning with his resurrection and Ascension, others from his baptism, and others from his birth or before. There was a need make major adjustments in their thinking to cope with a Messiah who did not fulfil any of the expectations of the King/ Priest/ Prophet Messiah, but who was condemned as a criminal and died on a cross.

Eventually, the Jewish understanding of the terms was lost in the Christian Church, as its Jewish element grew smaller and smaller and eventually died out all together. The move into the Gentile culture of Greece and Rome, and nearly three centuries of  Hellenistic philosophical and religious debate ultimately transformed the meaning of these titles of Jesus, until eventually the Church acclaimed him as the second person of the Trinity, the ‘only-begotten Son of God, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God’ that the Nicene Creed proclaims.

The understanding of Jesus as a divine being, sent down from heaven to live and die among us, and returning to heaven to reign with God until he comes again to judge the world, is one that was full of meaning for people in the centuries since Nicea. But it doesn’t seem to have much meaning for many people in our time. It has often been pointed out, by Bishop John Robinson among others, that whereas at one time the heavenly realm was more real to people than a foreign country, nowadays the exact opposite is true. Nowadays, to speak of heaven and divine beings is seen by many as talking about something that is unreal, on the same level as fairy stories. If we are to convince people outside the Christian community  that the spiritual world is a real and relevant as the material one, then we need to present Jesus in a way which means something  to them.

It is obvious from the New Testament that when people came into contact with Jesus, they knew they were in the presence of someone special, someone whose words and actions opened their eyes to the reality of the Living God. People today are just as much in need of that encounter as they were then. Our mission and ministry, the mission and ministry for which we were commissioned at our baptism, is to enable that encounter to take place. Through our words, and even more so, through are actions, proclaim the Kingdom. It is not just Peter who was given the keys to the Kingdom; we hold them to, and we need to open the gates to the people of our time. But to do so, we will have to find new answers to that age old question of Jesus, “But who do you say that I am?” answers that are true to the life and teaching of Jesus, but which will resonate with the hearts and minds of people today.