Doubting Thomas?

April 7, 2013

Thomas. by Carl Heinrich Bloch

Thomas.
by Carl Heinrich Bloch

 

(John 20, 19-31. Easter 2, Yr C)

How do you feel about the apostle Thomas, whose story we have just heard from the Gospel according to John? Do you identify with him? Or do you condemn him, as the Christian Church has tended to do for most of its history, as ‘Doubting Thomas’?

Jesus gave some of his disciples additional names: Simon became Peter, the Rock, and James and John were called Boanerges, the Sons of Thunder; but we don’t usually remember the meaning of these nowadays. We don’t remember any other of the disciples by a name that commemorate one incident in their lives.   Simon Peter is not remembered as “the Denier” or James and John as “those who asked for the best positions”. The name of Judas has become a synonym for betrayal; but only slightly less reprehensible than being a ‘Judas’, it seems, is to be a “Doubting Thomas”.

The reading we had was one of the three ‘resurrection appearances’ of Jesus recorded in the Gospel according to John. Each of the four gospels has a very different record of the ‘appearances’ of Jesus after his death and burial, and St Paul’s gives yet another account in his letters. This makes it clear that what we are dealing with here is not historical fact, but myth or parable – stories which are meant to convey meaning and truth. The truth of a parable does not depend on whether the story describes something that really happened. So we should leave aside the question of whether what John the Evangelist describes actually occurred. The question we need to ask  is “What is he trying to convey through this story?”

In John’s account, the first appearance is to Mary Magdalene, in the garden beside the tomb. She doesn’t recognise Jesus until he calls her name. She is forbidden to touch him because ‘he has not yet ascended to the Father’. For John, resurrection, ascension and coming in glory are not events separated in calendar time; they all happen on Easter Day.

So, the appearances in the locked room in Jerusalem are of the ascended and glorified Jesus, although a Jesus who still bears the visible scars of crucifixion. He shows the disciples the marks on his hands and side. John’s resurrection parable tells us very strongly that it is the crucified Jesus who is raised to glory and whose life and death are vindicated by God. Resurrection does not cancel out the crucifixion.

Then he commissions them to continue his mission, to go to teach the world as he taught the world. As he was the agent of the Father in his earthly ministry, the disciples, and those who will come to belief through their witness, become the agents of God in their turn, speaking the message of new birth, new life and hope by the Spirit to those who are broken and fearful, hiding behind locked doors in their particular world.

Having revealed his glorified self to them, and commissioned them to continue his ministry, Jesus then empowers them for the task, by breathing the Holy Spirit on them. Again, the sequence of events in John’s account is very different from the synoptic gospel accounts, where the gift of the Holy Spirit comes later. John’s resurrection narrative has many echoes of the second creation narrative in Genesis: new life begins in a garden; God breathes into human beings to give them life. In other places in the Old Testament, God gives life through breath or spirit, for instance in the valley of dry bones which represent Israel in Ezekiel.

Although John’s  Gospel speaks of several different ways of entering new life (through rebirth to Nicodemus in Chapter 3 and through living water, perhaps meaning baptism, at the Festival of Shelter) the gift of new life through the Holy Spirit is particularly significant. In his farewell discourses at the last supper, John’s Jesus says he will be away from the disciples and they will not see him for a little while. Then after a little while they will see him. He promises he will come again to them, and give them another advocate, to replace himself, who will lead them into all truth. The gift of the Spirit fulfils these promises.

It is only after the gift of the Holy Spirit that Jesus gives the disciples the authority to forgive sins. John teaches that is only those who are united by the Spirit with the God of love revealed through Jesus who know the truth, and can judge what is sinful and what is not. It is only those who are at one with the God through the Spirit, as Jesus was, who have the authority to act in God’s name.

Sunday evening was one time when Christian communities in the Apostolic Age gathered to share worship and eat a fellowship meal together. So the messages in the two appearances, a week apart, are clearly directed to the communities for which John is writing.

The statement by Thomas that he will not believe until he has seen the marks of the nails and put his hand into the spear wound in Jesus’s side leads into the second appearance. ‘Believe’ is a very rich word in the gospels, and has quite a different meaning from the way it is usually used in religious circles today. As Marcus Borg points out it does not mean believing a whole lot of statements about God and Jesus, such as those contained in the creeds. It comes from the old English word ‘be love’ and is more about love, trust, faithfulness and commitment, than intellectual assent to a number of propositions. It is more about ‘believing in’ than ‘belief’.

Thomas is not prepared to make his commitment to the Risen Son at second hand. But note what he asks to see – the marks of the nails and the spear – the wounds. He is clear that ‘belief’ involves identifying with the crucified Lord in his suffering. He is not one of those disciples who wants the glory without the suffering. Easter without Good Friday.

Jesus grants Thomas his wish by appearing the next Sunday evening. John makes clear that the appearances in Jerusalem are not of a physical body – it can appear and disappear at will through solid walls. Although invited to touch, Thomas doesn’t need to. Once he has seen the wounds, he pronounces the standard Christian confession of faith: ‘My Lord and my God’.

Jesus’s response is usually translated as a question, and as accusatory. “Have you believed because you have seen?” But the Greek in which the gospel was written does not reverse word order in order to indicate a question, nor did it have punctuation marks. Just as Jesus’s response to Pilate’s question ‘Are you the King of the Jews” can be translated “I am” or “Am I?” so this can also be translated not as a question, but a statement. “You have believed because you saw me.  Blessed are those who have not seen, yet come to believe.” This combination of statements gives equal affirmation to those who believe because they have visions in which they see, hear or touch Christ, as Paul says he did; and those who believe because of the witness of others, as most of us will have done. The first witnesses have no privileged place over those who follow.

Thomas, likes the other disciples, is now transformed: joyful where before he was fearful, and at peace, whereas before he was disturbed by the apparent failure of Jesus’s mission. The final sentences of our reading (which most scholars believe was the original end of John’s Gospel) explain that the account of the signs has been written to inspire belief and commitment to Jesus as Messiah and Son of God. It implies that John’s communities of Christians will be ‘people of the book’. They will no longer rely on visions, nor on the oral tradition, but on John’s account of the signs and his explanations of their meaning to know the truth.

Thomas, the account shows us, was not a doubter. He knew what had happened to Jesus on the cross and that he was dead. He didn’t want a happy ending, but evidence that God had approved and glorified Jesus for the path of service and suffering he had followed. Once he was assured of that, he was a faithful disciple, passing on through word and his own example that the way to be at one with God was through the path of service to others, and non-violent resistance to the forces of domination and oppression.

John’s account of the resurrection challenges us in turn, people who have come to faith through the witness of those who wrote the gospel accounts and the other books of the New Testament, to have faith in that same path. It tells us that the opposite to faith, which is belief as commitment, is not doubt, but fear, cynicism and despair. It tells us we are called to be communities of hope, committed to Jesus and the way of life he taught. We are called to bring that hope to places and people where it is absent – even to those who don’t share our particular way of commitment to God. We are called to move out of our comfort zones, out of the familiar and the safe, to follow our Lord and God into the new life he promises, accompanied by the Holy Spirit, who is our Comforter and Advocate.

May we hear and respond to this message of the Resurrection, as Thomas did.

Amen

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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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GIMP fridge_magnetAddress for WWDP Service 2013.

(Leviticus 19, 1-2,33-37; Matthew 25, 31-40)

 

When I was a teenager, I had a number of pen-friends from abroad: one in the USA, one in Norway, one in Germany and two in France. In the summer holidays before my O level exams, I spent 4 weeks with my two French pen-friends to improve my knowledge of the language.

 

I remember two things very distinctly about that holiday in France. The first was how home-sick I was. It was the first time I had been on holiday on my own without my family. The food, the money, the customs, even the toilet facilities were very different from those I was used to at home, and, although I was thinking in French by the end of the four weeks, at the beginning every conversation was a real effort. I can remember how I used to pretend not to have woken up, in order to delay starting the daily effort to understand, and make myself understood.

 

The second vivid memory was walking through the streets of Rouen with my friend Sylviane. In order to get from her home in an old apartment block to the tourist area around the cathedral and the Old Market Place where Joan of Arc was burned, we had to go through the immigrant quarter. I still remember the atmosphere of hostility and fear from both sides as we walked through that area. When I look back now, I realise that some of those immigrants were probably as homesick as I was, especially the Muslim women. At the time, though, all I absorbed was the fear of my hosts at the different and the new.

 

Later on, when I did French for A level, I had to learn about French culture and politics as well as studying their literature, and I learnt that citizens from the French overseas colonies were supposed to be treated as as French as those born in mainland France. The history of the French colonial empire especially in North Africa and IndoChina showed me this ideal was rarely realised, and explained the tense atmosphere I’d experienced in Rouen.

 

Current newspaper reports, and the testimonies we have heard in this service from women living in present day France, would indicate that things are not much better for strangers and immigrants to France than they were back when I was at school. But France has a long and proud history of being a place of asylum. Their political tradition – as the land of liberty, equality, and brother and sisterhood – as well as their dominant Catholic faith should prompt them to welcome the stranger as an equal.

 

The life-stories of women we have just heard – Vera, Françoise and Marie-Léonie, give us hope that things are improving In France. But are things any better in the United Kingdom?

 

Anecdotal evidence – remarks made to someone I know by people from overseas he sees at a charity he worked for, that they prefer living in London to other major cities, including Paris, because no-one takes any notice here of what you dress like, or what you do; and our own experience of welcoming people from overseas into our own family and church circles, could convince us that we are doing well.  But our news bulletins, the headlines in our newspapers and the demonstrations targetting immigrants and asylum seekers in some of our towns and cities should shake our comfortable assumptions of superiority. We have women and children who end up as sex slaves in this country too, we have people who have to work in the black economy, we have children torn from the place they regard as home and deported, just like those we heard about in France.

 

The first readings the women of France chose to guide our thoughts and prick our consciences today come from the book of Leviticus. We tend to think of Leviticus as a book that doesn’t concern us modern believers much – all about obscure regulations about what the Israelites could and couldn’t wear, or eat or have sex with, regulations designed to keep them pure and separate from anyone else. But the passages chosen here show that parts of it remind the Jews (and us) that a holy life involves justice and fairness for the strangers living within your country, that holiness involves actions as well as a state of mind. We must remember that Jesus took part of his summary of the law from Leviticus “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Lev 19.18).

 

The New Testament reading again challenges our beliefs about what makes us a good Christian. The parable of the Sheep and Goats tells us that it’s not what church we belong to, or  what we believe about God, or Jesus, or morality, that we will be judged on in the final instance; it’s how we act, and particularly how we act towards the homeless, the hungry, those without adequate clothing, those who are in prison, the strangers within our communities – in other words, all those who are the most vulnerable in our society and our world. We don’t usually behave as though that is what we will be judged on; it’s not what people outside the churches hear most about from us. How do we respond to that challenge?

 

In the hymn we will sing in a moment, we will commit ourselves to serving our brothers and sisters, to being Christ for them, in the ways which the parable of Matthew 25 outlined. In the prayers of intercession which follow, we will dedicate ourselves to reaching out to those who come to our country looking for asylum and work, to welcoming the stranger into our communities, and to caring for those who find themselves in vulnerable situations.

 

How can we make this not just a prayer, but a practical reality?

 

We can do it first of all by choosing who we listen to.  When we are confronted with scare stories about the strangers in our midst in the media, and especially in the tabloid press, and at election time, do we believe them, or do we listen to the voice of the scriptures, which tell us these newcomers are members of our own family, children of the same God, Christ in our communities?

 

We can do it by choosing carefully what we say. Do we repeat the scare stories that reinforce the suspicion and fear between immigrants and native born, between different classes and religions, between those of different customs, between those who live in relative security and those who are going through hard times? Or do we counter those experiences with our own positive experiences, however unpopular that may make us, and remind  our fellow citizens of the core Christian teaching about welcoming the stranger  – the teaching that really underlies our culture and our history.

 

We can make welcoming the stranger a practical reality by offering our help to the strangers and the vulnerable. There are so many opportunities to do so in our immediate area as well as further afield. We can make donations and offer time to the Food Banks and the Credit Unions; we can donate supplies to the Catholic Worker Farm here in Maple Cross which cares for female and child asylum seekers who would otherwise be homeless; we can join the volunteer hospital and prison visitors schemes; we can volunteer for Care; we can volunteer and donate to the Watford and Three Rivers Refugee Project; we can support projects for the homeless like the New Hope Trust and Herts Young Homeless. We can make our churches places where newcomers feel welcome.

 

WWDP logoThe WWDP service this year is not, as it often is,  about something that happens in a country far away – something we can pray about this afternoon, and then forget.  It is about something that affects us, in our own homes and neighbourhoods, as much as it affects the people of France who put the service together.

 

Can we see in these strangers in need Christ himself needing our help? Do we really accept that ‘just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it unto me’?

Covenant Relationships

September 4, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wheat and Weeds?

July 17, 2011

(Wisdom 12,13 & 16-19; Matthew 13, 24-30.) (Family Communion + Baptisms)

I’ve just planted a patch of earth in our garden with wild flower seeds. I cleared the earth of weeds before I sowed the seeds, but now they’ve germinated, I don’t know whether what is growing are flowers or weeds. I’m going to have to wait until they’re much bigger, perhaps even until they flower, before I do anything about the weeds.

And if I did then decide to remove the weeds what could I do? Well, I could use weedkiller. Trouble is, I would be likely to kill off all the flowers I’d planted as well. Or, I could use a hoe. That’s O.K. when you have clear rows of sturdy plants, but, with flowers, you are likely to chop off things you want to keep. Or, I could pull up the weeds. That would be very time consuming; and I would risk disturbing the roots of the flowers, so they might die. So I think I’ll just enjoy whatever grows in that particular patch – and hope the bees and the butterflies enjoy them too.

When Jesus told this story about the man who planted wheat in his field, and then found weeds growing up, he knew what he was talking about. The decision of the farmer not to try to separate the two until harvest time was the right one. In a field of wheat, it would be extremely difficult to tell the weeds, which would probably be a form of wild grass, and would look exactly the same as the wheat until the ears of corn were formed. Much better to wait until harvest time to sort them out.

The story says the man’s servants thought someone had come deliberately and sown the weeds in the crop. But of course, in an open field, or even in a garden, it’s very easy for weed seeds to get mixed in with the good seed. They are brought by birds or on the fur of animals, or blown by the wind. In any open piece of ground, it is inevitable that both the good things you want to grow and the weeds you want to get rid of grow up together.

I don’t know whether you saw a TV programme recently which featured the Blue Peter gardener, Chris Collins, talking about weeds. He made the point that many of our garden flowers started out as weeds. Then someone thought they were attractive, brought seeds to grow in better soils, cross-pollinated them and selected plants for their best characteristics, and so produced garden flowers.

But he also pointed out that some garden plants have now become weeds. Things like Japanese knotweed, buddleia and rhododendron were introduced as ornamental plants, but then their seeds spread into the wold, and now those who maintain woodland and look after railway lines spend millions trying to eliminate them. He also pointed out how useful some weeds are – for dyeing cloth, and as medicine. So it does seem that the old adage ‘A weed is merely a plant growing in the wrong place’ has some truth in it.

Jesus, of course, didn’t just tell stories to entertain. His stories, which we call parables, usually had a deeper meaning, which he left people to work out for themselves. This story is about the world, and the way the Good News of God is sown like a seed in a field. It grows and produces a good harvest in spite of all the evil around it. God, who is the farmer, will sort out the good and evil when the time comes. No matter how many weeds there are around, they can’t prevent God’s abundant harvest of good.

Because Jesus didn’t explain what his stories meant  we are free to find other meanings in them too. The church community for which St Matthew wrote saw the wheat and weed seeds as representing two different sorts of members of the church community. Some of them were inspired by Jesus, and their work was good. Some they thought were inspired by the devil (the enemy) and what they produced was evil. They hoped that the ‘good seed’ would be gathered in to God at the harvest on Judgement Day; but they expected that the ‘bad seed’ would be punished by being thrown into the fire.

In the story, Jesus warns his followers not to be too quick to judge which of his followers are ‘good’ and which are ‘bad’. He doesn’t want them pulling people out and sending them away.  In the story of the farmer, he is telling them they are like the servants, not skilled enough to judge. Judgement, he says, should be left to God. His church should be tolerant of different ways of expressing faith, and leave God to decide which is right. That’s something some people in today’s church need to realise too.

Jesus also didn’t talk much about God punishing people. Like the writer of our Old Testament passage from Wisdom, he talked about a God who was kind and forgiving, who never gave up hope that bad people could be turned into good people, and who was patient enough to wait for however long it took for people to accept the Gospel and turn from weeds into productive wheat. Jesus talked about a God who, like the farmer in the story, will spare everyone punishment if possible. In the story, even the weeds have some purpose. When they go into the oven they produce heat to cook the bread made from the wheat; and they ash to spread on the ground as fertiliser for the next crop.

The story of the weeds and the wheat is a very good one for today, when we are going to baptise R and M, make them members of the community of the church, and ask God to send the Holy Spirit upon them to strengthen them to live good lives in the service of the Gospel. We hope and pray they will grow up to be wheat, rather than weeds in the world.  It will be the task of their parents and godparents, supported by all the rest of us, to nurture them and to promote their best characteristics, so that their lives are good and fruitful. Baptism and membership of the community of the church is one way that we are strengthened to grow as good seed and defended against the competition of the bad seed.

But of course, the reality is that all of us are sometimes good and sometimes bad, sometimes wheat and sometimes weeds. That is why we need God’s mercy, to forgive us when we go wrong, to patiently leave us growing and changing in the hope that we will all turn out to be fruitful members of the church and community, and to gently separate out the good and bad in us when judgement time comes.

Today as we support R. and M. and their family as they come to baptism, we will thank God for his mercy and pray for them and ourselves that we may grow into fruitful  plants, which help to spread the Gospel of God’s love and contribute to an abundant harvest of good things for God.

Amen.

Prayer for ‘weeds”

A prayer for those who do evil:

O Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will, but also those of ill will.

But do not remember them for the suffering they have inflicted;

remember the fruits we have bought, thanks to that suffering:

our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this;

and when they come to judgement, let all the fruits which we have borne be their forgiveness. Amen

Wild flower seeds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sower. Van Gogh

Sermon for Palm Sunday    Psalm 118, 1, 2 & 19-29; Matthew 21,1-11.

I don’t know if any of you are planning to be in London on Friday week to watch the Royal Wedding. I only did it once, for the wedding of Princess Alexandra in 1963! Somewhere at home I have a set of black & white photos  that I took, which are the only memories I really have of the occasion, apart from seeing many of the Royal Family as they swept past my corner of Horse Guards Parade in their big shiny cars.

It’s not something I’ve ever done since. It was a great feeling at the time, but as I’ve got older I’ve got less keen on being present in large crowds on such public events. It’s too easy to get lost in that sort of crowd: not lost in the physical sense, but lost in the sense of losing control of emotions, and sometimes of common sense. And nowadays these occasions are almost always a magnet for groups bent on highjacking them for their own purposes, or causing damage to people and property, as we have seen from numerous protest demonstrations in recent years.

I’ve enjoyed sometimes being present in large groups of Christians for services – there is something about singing hymns, and receiving communion in a really large crowd that lifts the spirits and makes you feel closer to heaven. That’s the sort of atmosphere I imagine on that first Palm Sunday.

But what, I wonder, was it really like?

Although the story of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem on a donkey is told in all four Gospels, what actually lies behind the story remains a puzzle. When you hear the story read after hearing Psalm 118, as we did this morning, it’s very obvious that the psalm has had an influence on the way it’s been recorded. That is even clearer when you hear the citation from Zechariah 9, which Matthew has included in his version. Matthew is so keen to make every detail of Jesus’s entry fit the prophecy that he has Jesus riding on a she-donkey and her foal at the same time!  (A physical impossibility, and a totally unrealistic scenario to anyone who’s ever tried to lead a donkey with a foal; it’s hard enough to get them to go in in a straight line, let alone ride them!)

As so often happens, the account has been written with hindsight, from the point of the post-Resurrection community, who believed that Jesus was the promised Messiah, and searched the Hebrew Scriptures for passages to support this understanding. In Matthew and John the citations are explicit, but they are there just under the surface in the other Gospels too. The Evangelists see the entry into Jerusalem on a donkey as Jesus’s way of proclaiming himself as the Messiah foretold by the prophet Zechariah, a humble Messiah with a message of peace,  who would nevertheless free his people from oppression by foreign powers. They portray him as being recognised and welcomed by large enthusiastic crowds, acclaimed as ‘the Son of David’ (a royal title) and causing an upset in the entire city.

But there are problems with accepting the Gospel accounts as a record of what might actually have happened. Scholars tell us that, at this period, the Zechariah passage was not seen as a Messianic prophecy; it only became so when Christians used it to support their belief that Jesus was the Messiah, though not one who behaved in a way many of his contemporaries expected. If there had been that understanding of what entry on a donkey meant, and the whole city had been in the uproar that Matthew describes, then Jesus would have been arrested by the Romans that same day.

The great pilgrim festivals were times of extreme tension in Roman occupied Jerusalem, especially during the Procuratorship of Pontius Pilate. The Jewish authorities knew they had to crush any nationalistic demonstrations, or they risked a backlash which would destroy the fragile  balance of power they had negotiated with the Roman authorities. Jewish writers of the time recount a number of incidents whenPontius Pilate reacted with severity to popular demonstrations, resulting in deaths and executions. The Jewish leaders would be quite prepared to sacrifice one prophet from the provinces to prevent any such incident during a major religious celebration.

So if we try to reconstruct what happened, when and why, on the basis of the Gospel accounts and biblical scholarship, what might we arrive at? If we’d been there what might we have seen? What might have been in Jesus’s mind when he entered Jerusalem?

Biblical scholars agree that Jesus never claimed to be the Messiah. So his entry on a donkey wouldn’t have had that in mind. There is always the possibility that, although pilgrims usually entered the Holy City on foot, he used a donkey because he was tired, or unwell, or someone provided him with one. But Jesus (like the Old Testament prophets) sometimes did things as an acted parable, to make a point. His entry on a donkey, surrounded by the ordinary people from Galilee that he lived among and associated with, might well have been done to point the contrast between a procession of the Kingdom of God which he proclaimed, and one of the Roman Empire. God’s Kingdom was one where the poor were blessed and the meek would inherit, the sort of people who used donkeys as to carry goods and themselves; the Roman Empire was maintained by force and celebrated by triumphal processions of horses and chariots, weapons and captives and the booty of war.

All the Gospel writers place the entry into Jerusalem in the week before the Passover Festival. But many scholars think they may be telescoping together an number of events from different visits to Jerusalem in their account of Holy Week (just like the writers of today’s docudramas do for dramatic effect). The descriptions of Palm Sunday don’t fit very well with what happened at Passover; but they do fit very well with the rituals of the autumn festival of Tabernacles. On that festival the pilgrims approached Jerusalem waving branches of palm, myrtle and willow. Psalm 118 was recited during the approach to the Temple and while pilgrims circled the horned altar. Like Passover, it was a celebration which commemorated the liberation of the Hebrew people from Egypt; in the psalm the pilgrims are blessed as those ‘who come in the name of the Lord’ and they in turn shout ‘hosanna’, which means ‘God save us’.

Rather than disturbing the whole city, this incident may well have been of significance only to those who  accompanied Jesus. He and his disciples might well have been part of a large group from Galilee, who would have been excited at the prospect of introducing ‘their’ prophet to the big city, a noisy and exuberant  group.  But as long as it did not pose a challenge to the religious authorities, or a threat to the Romans, no-one else would have taken much notice.

What did alarm the Temple authorities and eventually bring Jesus to the notice of the Romans was what the Synoptic Gospel writers say he did next, which was to go into the Temple and overthrow the tables of the money-changers.  He couldn’t have cleared them all out, as the Gospels claim. The trading area of the Temple covered many square feet, and no one person or group of people could have destroyed them all. It is likely that Jesus was again making a symbolic protest, as the Old Testament prophets did, against the misunderstanding of the covenant faith represented by Temple worship, which placed the main emphasis on sacrifice and celebration, not on justice and righteousness.

But what he did, and what he said about the coming destruction of the Temple, and its replacement by a ‘spiritual’ temple, were a direct challenge to the political, religious and economic elites of Jewish society. In acting in this way Jesus did the wrong thing, in the wrong place at the wrong time. Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin were perfectly willing to sacrifice one person to save themselves and the Jewish people from a Roman clampdown. We can only speculate whether Jesus  knew that his action would end with his arrest and death; but anyone with any sensitivity to the political realities of the time would have been naïve to expect any other outcome.

When we look back on something, we often see things in quite a different way from the way we did originally. When we look at the film of Charles and Diana’s wedding, we can’t feel the same optimism as we did at the time. We know how it all turned out. When we look back at the first Palm Sunday, we can never recapture the joyous anticipation of the Galilean’s entry into Jerusalem, whenever it took place; we know the story of the rest of Holy Week, as our Palm Sunday hymns testify; we know it ends badly. Our joy will always be tinged with  dread.

But we also know about the resurrection, and so we look at the scene through the eyes of the Evangelists, and we too hear the people’s shouts as greeting Jesus as God’s Messiah. ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’ means something quite different to us now from what it meant to those who shouted it on the way down from the Mount of Olives.

That’s one reason why I’m not too keen on Palm Sunday processions. Acting out the story, pretending that 21st century English people can  feel like first century Jews just doesn’t work, and sometimes can be a means of avoiding the hard work that is necessary to tease out the many layers of meaning behind the story that the evangelists tell. Too often people come and take part in the joyful festivities on Palm Sunday and Easter Day, but avoid the hard realities in between.

And so often people get hung up on the donkey, especially trying to find a real donkey, as if having a real donkey somehow makes the whole experience more real.

It’s not about the donkey! It’s about the person who rode the donkey and what he was trying to tell us, in his life and in his teaching, about the nature of God, and what it meant to be committed to the Kingdom of God. It’s about how we live, how we serve, how we cope with political and economic reality in all its potential for evil, and how we can accept suffering and come through it to experience resurrection. It’s about looking back after the events and seeing new significance and new meaning in something that didn’t seem to be anything unusual at the time.

Palm Sunday is about starting Holy Week and the journey to the cross with Jesus – but always with God’s assurance that it leads not to death, but to life.

Essentials of Prayer

October 24, 2010

(2 Timothy 4, 6-8 &  16-18; Luke 18, 9-14)

Imagine the scene. It is either dawn or mid-afternoon and the sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people of Israel is being offered in the Temple in Jerusalem. As the proper time arrives, the great gates are opened and the people stream in to witness the sacrifice and to offer prayers to God.

There is the smell of many people; of the lamb who is sacrificed; of warm blood as it is splashed on the altar, then the smell of smoke and burning meat as the sacrifice is burnt on the altar, and of the incense as it is placed on the coals and rises towards the heavens.

There are the sounds of the animals  and birds used for sacrifice, of cymbals and bells and trumpets that punctuate the ritual, of many voices speaking their prayers aloud as the incense rises.

Into this scene walk two men. They are both well dressed. Both take care to stand apart from all the other worshippers. But their attitudes are very different.

One man is a Pharisee, a leader and teacher of the faithful. He is careful to stand a distance from all the other worshippers. He must be careful to keep himself untainted by any contact with ‘the people of the land’, those who cannot or do not keep themselves ritually clean; even to brush his coat against their clothes would destroy his state of ritual cleanliness.

He stands erect and full of confidence as he addresses his prayer to the Almighty. As he looks around him, he notices the the other man also standing apart, and uses him as an example. He makes his own assessment of his morality, and it is not a kind one; he brands him a rogue and a swindler – and then throws in adulterer for good measure. He is attacking a stereotype, and does not see beyond his own prejudiced image.   His prayer turns into a statement of his own religious superiority to everyone else there. He thanks God briefly, but then goes on to distinguish himself from  the ‘great unwashed’ around him, boasting of doing more than the law demands by fasting and tithing more than is required.

The other man, the tax collector, stands apart from the others, not to keep himself unsullied, but because he feels himself unworthy to be among the faithful of Israel. As he too prays aloud, he doesn’t dare lift his eyes from the ground, even to watch the incense ascending, or the priest blessing. He beats his chest (a gesture which was usually done only by women as they mourned a death) to show his anguish and distress at his own unworthiness to offer any prayer to God. When he finally voices his prayer, it is a simple cry to God: “Lord, have mercy on me” or “Lord, make atonement for me”. He has come to pray at the time of the sacrifice, because he believes only the sacrifice of a perfect creature can atone for his sins.

At the end of the ritual, the two men leave, along with everyone else. Perhaps outwardly there is no difference. But, as Jesus tells their story, he reverses the order in which he describes them. The tax-collector, who showed contrition and humility is spoken of first. His prayer has been answered; he has been forgiven and he is justified and judged righteous. The Pharisee who felt himself so superior, is placed second now; his own self-righteousness has hardened his heart; because he is so confident in his own actions, he is not open to God’s grace. HIs attendance at the sacrifice was a waste of time. He returns in exactly the same state as he went up, unjustified and unforgiven.

As Luke’s introduction to the parable makes plain, it is first of all about our the inner attitude of the disciple. The attitude of superiority to others shown by the Pharisee in this parable was criticised by others in Jesus’ time. The Assumption of Moses contained similar sentiments to the parable and Rabbi Hillel wrote: “Keep not aloof from the congregation and trust not in thyself until the day of thy death, and judge not thy fellow until thou art thyself come to his place.”

According to Luke, this parable was told to the disciples on the way to Jerusalem. Throughout this journey, Jesus is shown as trying to teach his disciples about Kingdom values. Chief among those values is an attitude of humility, of service to others, of acknowledging everyone’s equal reliance on the grace of God. In the parables he uses to highlight these values, he uses some strange chief characters – a Samaritan, an unjust steward, a nagging widow – and now a tax collector. A faithful Jewish male would have considered himself superior to all of these – but Jesus uses each of them as an example of what God regards as worthy.

Perhaps in Luke’s church there were also people who regarded themselves as more righteous, more worthy of God’s ear, more certain of salvation than others in their congregation. We know that the early church was made up of Jews and Gentiles, of men and women, of rich and poor. This parable may have been included by Luke to bring them up short and make them think again about their attitudes.

And what of today’s Church? In churches, as in all human institutions, there is a tendency for people to reject others, and to try to keep themselves separate from those who  (they think!) fail to meet the standards that God requires. We seem to have particular problems with this in the Anglican Church at the moment. We have provinces in the worldwide Anglican Communion who refuse to attend meetings with representatives of other provinces where gay people have been elected as bishops by their congregations, or where gay couples have been offered church blessings on their partnerships. In the Church of England itself, we have groups setting up ‘societies’ within the church, to ensure they can worship separately from those who wish to admit women to the role of Bishop, as well as from those who won’t accept women bishops for different theological reasons.

Aren’t these actions the modern equivalent of standing by yourself before the altar of sacrifice and pulling your cloak tightly around you lest you become contaminated by those you have judged to be wrong? Are not these groups in danger of basing their confidence on their own right actions, as the Pharisee did, rather than acknowledging that all our hopes are based on the life and death of Christ and the grace of God? Kierkegaard said  “The self-assured believer is a greater sinner in the eyes of God than the troubled disbeliever”.

But the parable is also about the right way to pray. The rabbinic  documents of the time gave instructions about how a worshipper should pray at the time of the morning or evening sacrifice. He should stand with his hands crossed over his chest and his eyes to the ground, in an attitude of submission to a master or lord. He should first of all articulate praise to God for all his gifts, and then present his own needs.

The Pharisee did neither. He praised God only that he wasn’t like other less worthy people; he didn’t present any petitions to God, since he obviously thought he had everything already. He boasts about his own actions, which go way beyond what is required by the Law. He is the man who has everything – so he really has no need of God. His prayer, though on the surface a thanks to God, is in fact just a request that God confirms his own assessment of himself as righteous.

What’s more, he judges others by their outward appearance, and projects his own prejudices on to them.

In contrast, the tax collector has no illusions about himself. He knows his occupation automatically puts him outside the circle of the faithful. He beats upon his chest, the place where evil thoughts and emotions were thought to come from at the time, and requests nothing based on his own merits. He does not criticise others, not even the Pharisee who is publicly humiliating him in front of a crowd of worshippers. In his prayer he presents just one petition to God and throws himself entirely on the divine mercy; and because God is merciful, his petition is granted.

Luke places a great emphasis on prayer in his gospel. At every significant moment in the story, prayer is offered to God. He also places great emphasis on the outcast and the sinner, alerting us to Jesus’ message that they are often closer to God than those who think themselves ‘religious’.

How does this story relate to our practice of prayer? Do we begin each time of prayer with giving praise and thanks to God for all we have been given – or do we rush immediately into asking for what we want. Do we recognise our own inadequacies and need of mercy, or do our prayers assume that God operates with the same prejudices and stereotypes as we do? It is a particular danger in public prayer; we often pray only for ‘people like us’. In our prayers we sometimes act like the Pharisee, condemning those who are different. This can have a devastating effect on those who hear us: I recently read an article by a non-believer who put aside her own feelings to attend a family christening, only to be confronted by someone leading the prayers who asked God to help ‘fight against the rise of secularism and aggressive atheists’, who wanted to stop him worshipping and destroy Christianity – which was far from what this woman wanted.

But such attitudes also have the effect of taking us further from the presence of God, rather than closer, as prayer should do. Self-righteousness, particularly when it involves projecting the darker side of ourselves onto others, closes our innermost being to the grace of God. The essence of prayer is to stand before God  in a state of spiritual nakedness, to acknowledge what we have been given by God’s grace with heartfelt thanks, to reflect how far we still are  from what God would have us be, and to trust only in the justice and mercy of God, and in the justification that has been won for us through Jesus Christ.

With that attitude, Jesus’ parable tells us, the tax collector went home justified, made right with God. With that attitude, our reading from 2 Timothy tells us, Paul faced his coming trial and death with confidence and equanimity.

With that attitude, we have begun to master the essentials of prayer, and with it, we can go on learning to become closer and closer to God.

Persisting in Prayer

October 17, 2010

(Proper 23. Year C. Genesis 32, 22-31; Luke 18, 1-8)

Noel Coward wrote in one of his plays: “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is”. I think many of us know the truth of that. A line from a popular song can take us back instantly to our childhood or adolescence, or remind us of a particular event. But it works the other way too; something we see or read brings a song into our mind, and we struggle to get rid of it.

I’ve had a particular song on the brain this week, as I’ve been preparing to preach on the parable of The Judge and the Widow. It’s not a proper pop song, but a take off by the Two Ronnies of a Status Quo hit ‘I’m a Wanderer’. They turned it into a song about a nagging wife, with lines like “She nags at me in public so I feel a proper berk. She likes to nag me lunchtimes, so she rings me up at work” and the chorus goes “I’m fond of her, so very fond of her, but she goes on and on, and on, and on, and on and on and on”.

You can see why a story about a woman who nagged at a judge until he gave her justice brought that song back into my mind!

This parable has parallels with a passage in the Book of Ben Sirach in the Apocrypha, or Ecclesiasticus as it is often known.(35, 15-19).There the writer speaks of a widow who cries for justice, and affirms that the prayers of the righteous will be heard by God, and the prayer of the humble will be answered. Ben Sirach also promises that God will come without delay and describes the punishment the Almighty will inflict on the unmerciful and the Gentiles. But although Jesus may have had this passage in mind when he told this parable, his version concentrates on the petitioner, and lacks any description of vengeance or punishment for the unrighteous.

This is another of the parables with very strange central characters. There is the judge who has the reputation (and admits it himself) of having no fear of God or respect for man.  He had no fear of God, although judges were supposed to be administering justice on behalf of God, because he did not keep the tradition which said in Israel a judge should always hear the cases of orphans first and widows next, because they had no family to plead their case for them. He had no respect for people (the adjective used says he felt no shame before people) because like so many judges at the time, he was corrupt. A  contemporary of Jesus wrote that the judges in Jerusalem were known as Dayyaney Gezeloth, which means robber judges, instead of Dayyaney Gezeroth, the proper name, which means judges of prohibition. This judge could be bribed, and gave justice to the person who paid him most, rather than administering the law fairly.

On the other hand, there is a widow, who nags at the judge until she gets the judgement she wants. She would not have been a respected figure in Bible times, since she did not behave as a woman was supposed to. In the first place, women did not go to courts or take any part in public life. Ordinarily, there would have been a male relative to plead her case for her, a son or brother or cousin, but obviously in this case she was totally alone.

But even so, she should have found someone to act for her, or quietly accepted her fate. A woman who spoke loudly, and especially one who nagged, was often criticised in the Scriptures. Proverbs 21.9 says “It is better to live on the roof top than share a house with a nagging wife” and 27.15 “a nagging woman is as annoying as the constant dripping on a wet day”. But this widow was destitute and alone: not only did she have no-one to plead her cause, she obviously had no money with which to bribe the judge. It is likely that the case concerned money or inheritance, since that was the only sort of case which one judge could hear alone. This widow had nothing but her voice to make her case known and get justice for herself. Like the judge, she had no shame, and was prepared to suffer social disapproval to achieve her ends.

And, eventually, her nagging wore the judge down. He did not fear violence from her, but her persistence convinced him that she would never give up – so in order to get himself some peace and go back to his comfortable life, he gives her justice. Although at the beginning of the parable the widow’s situation seemed hopeless, because she never gave up she got what she wanted.

The introduction to the parable tells us that is  about persistence in prayer. The message is, if this poor and powerless woman’s needs are met because of her persistence, so also will the appeals of the faithful believers, if they continue to pray to God.

But the parable is still puzzling. Are we meant to conclude that God is an unjust judge, who will only hear our prayers if we bribe him or nag him continually about what we want him to do for us? That is clearly not the picture Jesus gave us of God, our heavenly Father.

Sometimes in parables there is a direct parallel between the earthly and the heavenly. These are often introduced with the formula “The kingdom of Heaven is like”. But other parables draw a contrast between the two, as in this case. If even an unjust judge will eventually give a persistent petitioner what she needs, the parable says, how can we doubt that God, who is a loving and merciful judge, will act in the best interests of those who believe in him, if they continue to have faith and pray.

The last two verses of the passage expand on this. ‘Will God not grant justice to his chosen ones?” “Of course he will” the faithful need to answer. “Will God delay in coming to help”. “No, he won’t” is the answer of faith.

But then comes the usual sting in the tail. The parable is meant to bring comfort and encouragement to those who have faith in God – but it also challenges them: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”.

So we come back again to the question of faith, as we do so often in the Jerusalem document, (the teaching which Luke places during the final journey of the disciples with Jesus to the Holy City where he will suffer and die). And now it is coupled with a  question about prayer.

Many of us have problems with prayer. For many, perhaps, the picture we get from the Old Testament reading, of Jacob struggling with God all night, and ending up battered and wounded, is a fairly accurate picture of our experience of prayer.  For some it is a struggle with no obvious beneficial outcome, so in the end they give up.

Prayer,  and particularly intercessory prayer, is an enormous topic, and it would be impossible to cover it adequately in this address.  But in the light of the parable, perhaps I can share some thoughts  about what intercessory prayer is, and is not.

It is not a shopping list of demands that we present to God. So often, we never get beyond the concept of prayer that sees it as a heavenly version of a child’s letter to Father Christmas, or an Amazon wish-list. Persistent prayer is not nagging at a reluctant relative till they eventually give in. It is sharing our needs with a loving parent, who knows already what they are, and is more than ready to help us.

It is not an emergency phone call. Many people only turn to prayer when they have exhausted everything else. Persistent prayer is something that we practise all the time, not something we save for when we are in dire straits.

It is not a one-way conversation. Jacob is pictured as struggling with God, because the reality of prayer is that there are two wills involved – God’s will and ours. But often prayer only seems to involve us trying to influence God’s will. We pray as if God is like the unjust judge, and we need to offer bribes (“if you will only let me pass this exam. I’ll go to church every Sunday”) or make as much noise as we can (“if only we can get everyone in your church/town/country joining us in this day of prayer, God will hear us”) for our prayer to succeed.

Prayer is a two way conversation. We share with God our needs and anxieties and those of others; and we listen to God speaking to us about the divine perspective on these concerns, and what he expects us to do to help resolve it. We will hear God speaking to us through Scripture, through the words of other people of faith – and through the silence when when we allow ourselves to encounter the Divine in the deepest and darkest parts of our being. And all of those channels through which God speaks to us may involve us in intellectual and emotional struggles, and we will need to persist in praying, even when it seems barren and pointless, if we are ultimately to hear God speaking to us through them.

Prayer is not ultimately about us and what we want. It is about hearing God, and what God wants, and aligning our will to that. it is about training ourselves to trust God, and the ultimate triumph of the divine purpose for the world, even when there seems to be little hope of it ever being realised. That is what Jesus did, and why he is able to be ‘God for us’. We need to persist in prayer, in imitation of Christ, until  what we want is at one with what God wants for us and for the world, so that we may be ready to recognise and welcome the Kingdom of Heaven when it comes.

Mustard Seed Faith

October 3, 2010

(Habakkuk 1,1-4 & 2,1-4; Luke 17, 5-10)

Today our gospel reading urges us to have ‘mustard seed faith’.

The mustard seed is used several times as an image by Jesus in the gospels; first as a metaphor for something that starts small but grows to enormous size; and as an image of faith that can move mountains, or a mulberry tree into the sea.

It’s become a favourite Christian symbol as well. If you do a Google search you will come up with Mustard Seed Project, Mission, Ministries, Homes, Bookshop, a Mustard Seed restaurant (in a disused church) and even The Order of the Mustard Seed (motto: True to Christ; Kind to People; Gospel to the Nations).

But what does it mean to have ‘mustard seed faith’?

Nowadays we have a problem understanding, because most of us don’t have much experience of mustard seeds. Very few people make their own mustard from scratch, blending different seeds, grinding them into a powder and mixing them up with oil or wine or vinegar. Most of us will buy the powder ready ground, or the whole condiment ready made.

And we have even less experience of mustard plants. For most of us ‘growing mustard seeds’ means helping our children to grow a mixture of mustard and cress in a shallow tray on dap cotton wool or  tissue. It grows easily, but the resulting plant  isn’t big enough for a tiny insect to find a home in, let alone all the birds of the air.

So what was Jesus trying to say?

He was probably talking about the black mustard plant, which could grow to up to 9 feet tall and very wide. In Palestine it was not cultivated in gardens but grew wild . Although it was useful for cooking, it eventually came to be considered as a weed – once you had it growing in your field you could never get rid of it, because the plant produced strong roots,  lots of flowers and the seeds germinated easily. A modern parallel might be the giant hogweed, introduced to this country as an ornamental garden plant, but which is now considered an invasive weed, difficult to eradicate because it too produces so many seeds and has tuberous roots which are difficult to destroy.

In the parable of the mustard seed (Luke 13, 18-19) Jesus is talking about how great things can come from small beginnings; but in the comment we heard from Luke 17, combined with the parable of the slave and the master, he seems to be making a different point.

The comment comes in response to a request from the disciples: “Lord, increase our faith”. It’s not surprising that they feel the need for greater faith: during the journey up to Jerusalem, Jesus has been telling them what is probably going to happen to him, and outlining the nature of their ministry: a ministry where outcasts will be welcomed into their fellowship; where the normal social order will be reversed; where they have to have a special care for children; where they will have to forgive people who wrong them an infinite number of times. No wonder they feel their faith is inadequate to the task!

When Jesus replies to them, as so often happens, he is trying to change their way of thinking. He talks about ‘mustard seed faith’ not in terms of the quantity of faith, but the quality. The mustard seed doesn’t go on about how small and insignificant it is, or how it can’t make any difference, or how the problem of growing a new plant is too much for it: it just gets on with what it was created to do. It blows away in the wind, falls into the earth – and leaves God to deal with the conditions to make it germinate. The mustard seed doesn’t need larger quantities of faith for God to work through it. Neither do we.

Faith is not something that is doled out in smaller or larger quantities. It is a free gift from God to humanity. If we offer ourselves as God’s servants, Jesus is saying, and trust in the divine faithfulness and promise, then God will work through us to do amazing things.

The parable  of the master and servant which follows reinforces this message. Again, our different cultural context makes it more difficult for us to hear Jesus speaking through it. We live in an individualistic enterprise culture; working for someone else , especially as a ‘servant’, tends to be seen as demeaning. That’s why foreigners do most of the work in our hotel and catering industries. But in the ancient Middle East, to be a servant who did the job well gave one a sense of worth and security. And how could anyone regard being a servant as demeaning, when Jesus said he came among us as one who serves?

When Jesus asks the question ‘Which one of you when your servant came in from working outside would sit him down and serve him dinner?’ he asks it in a form which anticipates the answer ‘None’. That isn’t how things work in a traditional society. There are masters and there are servants and each has their place. The servant knows that his job is both to work in the field and to serve in the house, and that is what he does.

Our understanding is not helped by the difficulties of translation. The Greek adjective ( achreios) which is translated as ‘miserable’ or ‘useless’ or ‘unworthy’ can also mean ‘one to whom nothing is owed’. It is that meaning that makes sense in the context of the parable. ‘Is there any credit due to the servant for doing his job properly?’, Jesus is asking. ‘Should he expect a tip or special treatment?’. Again, ‘no’ is the expected answer.

So it is with the disciple and faith. We don’t have faith in order to work miracles, and to prove ourselves special. We are given faith by God, in order that he can work through us for the salvation of all. We are created for that purpose, just as the mustard seed was created to produce new plants. There is no such thing as being ‘further along the path of faith’ or stronger in faith than anyone else. None of us earns salvation by the strength of our faith, or by our good works. Neither serving God faithfully nor strength of  faith gives us any claim on God’s favour (that’s partly what the Reformation was about – a rejection of the idea that God operated a sort of book-keeping system of good works which could be set against sin to buy our way into heaven). To have faith means to serve God without the expectation of any reward.

And what is faith?

In the Christian Church, we’ve come to understand it as assenting to a series of propositions. When anyone is licensed as a Reader or ordained, they are required to ‘declare their belief in the faith which is revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds and to which the historic formularies of the Church of England bear witness’. Now, worthy as they may be, I can’t see anyone moving mulberry trees or changing their lives because of the historic formularies or the catholic creeds.

And people who don’t share the faith can’t either. It is why the atheists and humanists who are so critical of believers at the moment think of faith as ‘believing six impossible things before breakfast’ (to quote the White Queen from Alice through the Looking Glass). They think faith  is about believing in books that come from God via angels, in a world created in six days 4,00 years ago and children born to virgins, rather than adopting a life changing attitude to God and the world. We recite them often, but I don’t think historic creeds are really much help in reminding us what faith is actually about.

When Jesus spoke about faith he was not talking about intellectual belief, or theological definitions. He was talking about values and relationships, actions and a way of life. He meant a profound trust and confidence in God and the divine purpose for the world. It’s the sort of confidence that the prophet Habakkuk is urging the people of Israel to find in our Old Testament reading. ‘Never mind that the world seems to be in moral chaos and financial crisis’ the prophet says. ‘Have faith  in God’s promise that eventually the righteous will live and that goodness will triumph and the earth will be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea’.

When Jesus spoke about mustard seed faith, he was also hinting that faith involves a willingness to be broken in God’s service. That is what happened to him, and what he was trying to prepare the disciples for as they travelled on the road to the Holy City. The seed does not grow until it has fallen into the ground and been broken open. Only then can it be transformed into something incredible, new and fruitful. The same may be true of us.

So what is mustard seed faith? It is faith which is a gift from God. It is faith which is prepared to be self-sacrificing, and which allows us to be broken and transformed to serve God’s purpose. It is faith in a different way of living and relating to others. It is faith that we are God’s servants and that God will work through us to bring in the Kingdom of Heaven. It is faith that, no matter how chaotic and evil the world appears to be, the ultimate triumph of God is assured. It is faith that through us, God can do marvellous things.