June 2, 2013
Ordinary 9. Proper 4C
1 Kings 8,22-23 & 41-43; Galatians 1,1-12; Luke 7, 1-10
Last weekend there were a number of demonstrations against Islamic extremism in reaction to the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby on the streets of Woolwich the previous Wednesday. There was a march through the centre of London on Bank Holiday Monday organised by the English Defence League and also in Newcastle on Saturday and York on Sunday. These came after 10 mosques around the country had been subject to arson or graffiti attacks and there had been a further 193 anti-Muslim incidents reported to the police.
In Newcastle , a prominent Muslim political and social commentator, Mo Ansar, confronted the EDL leader, Tommy Robinson, but at the end of their discussion was photographed with a smile on his face, being hugged by the person whose policies he opposes. For this he was criticised by many Muslims and anti-fascists, for compromising with the promotors of prejudice and evil. When they learnt that the EDL march was targeting their mosque in York, its leaders decided to have an open day. Helped by members of other faith communities, they served tea and cakes to the marchers, invited them into the mosque for discussion, and played an impromptu game of football with some of them. The Archbishop of York praised them for meeting anger and hatred with peace and warmth.
In each of these incidents, those who followed a faith refused to treat a non-believer, and those who oppressed and harassed them as ‘outsiders’. They opened themselves up to them and invited them to become, in some sense, ‘insiders’.
This is the message that we are meant to hear from our Bible readings today.
The passage from 1 Kings is part of the description of the dedication of Solomon’s Temple. Unlike the later Temple, built after the exile and expanded by Herod the Great, the first Temple did not have different courts and barriers to keep Gentiles and women away from the central sanctuary. Solomon’s speech showed that he hoped his magnificent Temple would become a place of prayer to the one true God for people of every nation. Its magnificence would draw people to become insiders.
In the reading from the letter to the Galatians, we hear one half of a correspondence between Paul and the church he established in Galatia, which consisted largely of Gentiles.
After he had left, it seems, Jewish Christians visited the churches, and insisted that, before they could truly become Christians, the pagan converts had to subject themselves to Jewish ceremonial law, including, in the case of male converts, circumcision. This appalled Paul, who taught that everyone was equally welcome as a Christian through the grace of God in Christ, regardless of their previous background, and that no action was needed apart from an acknowledgement of Jesus as Lord.
The challenge to treat all people as insiders in the name of Jesus is brought out most strongly in the story of the healing of the centurion’s servant, which we heard in today’s Gospel. This was clearly an important story to the early Christian community; there are slightly different versions of it in three of the four gospels (Matthew, John and Luke).
The centurion was in more than one way an outsider for Jesus and his companions. He was a Gentile; entering his house, eating with him, having any physical contact with him or his possessions would have rendered an observant Jew ceremonially unclean. He would not have been allowed to approach the holiest part of the Jerusalem temple; he would have been confined to the outer Court of the the Gentiles.
Then, he was a Roman soldier, a representative of the hated enemy that was occupying the sacred land of the Jews. There had been a large military presence in Galilee since the uprising that followed the death of Herod the Great in Jesus’s early childhood; an uprising that led to savage reprisals and multiple crucifixions, events that were still raw in the memory of many of Jesus’s fellow Galileans. The rebellion centred on Sepphoris, four miles north of Jesus’s home town of Nazareth. After the rebellion was crushed, Sepphoris was razed to the ground and its inhabitants taken into slavery. Roman legions remained in the area to deter any further rebellion, and the centurion was part of this army of occupation; it is possible the slave was a Jewish child, taken into slavery after the rebellion.
Any Zealot would have taken the first opportunity to kill the centurion. Religious Jews would have seen him as a representative of the ‘principalities and powers’ against which the faithful believers should struggle.
Third, the anxiety and effort which the centurion expended over the healing of his slave implies that the relationship between them was more than that of master/servant. This was something that was quite accepted in Roman society; but the Jews saw such homosexual relationships as evidence of the depravity of Roman society and further proof of its alliance with evil.
Yet the centurion did not act like an outsider. He did not keep the usual distance between occupier and occupied. He did not automatically treat every member of the subject people as a potential terrorist. It is possible that he was a “God-fearer’, a Gentile who was attracted to the ethical teaching of Judaism, but who would not go the whole way and become a convert. Luke reports he had paid for the construction of the synagogue, and he was friendly enough with the elders to ask them to approach Jesus on his behalf. He was sensitive to Jewish religious beliefs – although he wrapped it up in comparisons between his own authority and that of Jesus, his second message was designed to avoid placing Jesus in the position of becoming unclean by entering a Gentile house.
And although he was a member of the occupying power, he asked for help from a Jewish holy man. He treated him with respect, using the honourable title ‘Lord’. This was an amazing act of humility – equivalent to a member of the British Raj asking for help from a Hindu Sadhu or a colonial official in Africa approaching a witch doctor.
The Roman centurion didn’t act like an outsider – and Jesus didn’t treat him like one. He responded immediately to his request, seems to have been prepared, as on other occasions to risk making himself ritually unclean to help, and commended his faith as being greater than that of any insider.
This story anticipates the inclusion of Gentiles inside the community of the redeemed that we read about in Paul’s letters and the book of Acts. It highlights the irony, that the Jewish leaders failed to recognise the authority of Jesus – but a Gentile outsider did, and was commended for it. In the end, the healing of the servant was not important. The important thing is the greater healing proclaimed in this miracle – the healing of the barriers against a hated and excluded group, who are now included.
The Roman centurion would still be considered an outsider by some in our society today: the wrong religion, the wrong nationality, the wrong sexuality.
Our world today seems to revel in dividing itself into hostile groups based on many different characteristics. We love to label people according to their race, colour, religion, gender, sexuality, country of origin, location within the country, political affiliation, and so on and so on; and give that as a reason to justify competition, conflict and exclusion. Even locally, even within one faith, we can separate ourselves from others on the basis of differences of interpretation of faith and churchmanship.
Today the scriptures challenge us to reject the worldly way of building up our own ‘insider’ identity by hostility to those we label ‘outsiders’. It tells us that, to the God revealed in Jesus, there are no outsiders. God is the God of all people and all creation, both those who worship as we do, and those who don’t, those who identify themselves as believers and those who don’t. Our Spirit inspired mission is to invite the turn the world outside in, to invite the outsider in and offer acceptance and healing, knowing that in the all encompassing love of God, there are no outsiders.
May 5, 2013
(Acts 16, 9-15; Revelation 21,10 &21,10-22.5; John 5,1-9)
Paul really didn’t want to go to Philippi.
He and Silas had plans to evangelise known territory in Asia Minor (present day Turkey), where they knew there were synagogues and Jewish communities where they could preach easily, but every time they tried to turn North and East, the Holy Spirit blocked their way.
They crossed to Macedonia, homeland of the hated Alexander who had imposed Greek culture on their nation 300 years before, only as a result of a compelling vision of a man from Macedonia begging them to come and help him.
Philippi was possibly the most unattractive place on earth to begin a religious mission. It was a colonial city, established by the Emperor Augustus to control that part of the Roman Empire, and populated by discharged veterans from the legions, who were each given a square of land on which to support themselves. It didn’t seem to have much of a Jewish population: there weren’t even the ten adult Jewish males you needed before you could establish a synagogue, so the Jews and the Gentile God-fearers who worshipped with them, gathered by the side of the river to pray on the Sabbath.
The leader among the women who met Paul and Silas there was also a stranger in the place: Lydia came from Thyatira in the region they’d just left. She wasn’t Jewish, it seems, though she was drawn to Jewish beliefs, and worshipped with them. She was probably a widow, and was a successful businesswomen, so was probably quite wealthy. She dealt in purple cloth, which was a luxury item, though since the snails from which the purple dye was extracted were considered unclean to Jews, she was probably not considered someone strict Jews ought to associate with.
But it was her heart that was opened to Paul’s preaching, her household that became the first European residents to be converted to the Christian faith, and her home that provided hospitality to Paul and his companions, and the centre of the church that Paul always remembered with joy and thankfulness. The core from which the Christian faith grew on the continent of Europe was composed of women, outcasts and foreigners.
Paul took a risk in preaching the Gospel and accepting hospitality from these women. Lydia took a risk in opening her home to this group of men. Yet, the strength of her faith showed itself in the hospitality and generosity to these strangers. The Letter to Timothy says such hospitality is the hallmark of a church leader, and Paul commended this in the church communities he founded.
‘Hospitality’ is an interesting word. The Greek from which it is translated – philoxena – is composed of two words meaning ‘love’ and ‘foreigners’ – it it literally love for strangers. The Latin root of our word hospitality, ‘hostes’, also means ‘stranger’.
That tells us ‘hospitality’ is not about having a nice time with people like ourselves. It is about offering safety, comfort, nourishment, security, healing and friendship both to those who are different and alien from us, as well as to those who are like us. This was an absolute obligation in the world of the Old Testament; to fail to offer security and sustenance to a stranger was the worst social offence. It is this, not gay sex, that Sodom and Gemorrah were condemned for
We Christians offer hospitality because that is what God in Jesus offers to us; we have done it as ‘hosts’ (another related word) in hostels, hospitals and hotels throughout the Church’s history; and it is what the best Christian communities continue to do today.
The readings from John and Revelation also speak, in their different ways, about hospitality. What is on offer in the Gospel passage is healing. The story speaks of Jesus going to a place where the sick gather, all hoping to to be healed by some sort of magic. He picks a stranger at random, and offers him true healing. The person who is healed is not particularly deserving, he doesn’t express faith in Jesus, he doesn’t even seem to be particularly grateful for his healing. It certainly doesn’t appear to provoke faith in him.The miracle demonstrates the generous, indiscriminate character of God’s grace. This story show that it is not true that faith is a precondition for healing; God doesn’t only reward those who have faith. on the contrary, God’s hospitality is offered to all, even the undeserving.
Revelation speaks of a God who accepts the hospitality of humankind, coming to live among them in a renewed Jerusalem, and then, in that holy city, offering hospitality to every race and people. The picture it paints is of a renewed creation: the tree of life stands at the centre, and the river of life flows through it, reflecting the situation in the Garden of Eden. In a parallel with the Gospel story, those who find sanctuary there are offered healing through the leaves of the tree of life. There will be absolute security for everyone within the city, with no darkness to provide cover for wrongdoing. It will be so secure that the gates will never have to be shut to keep out attackers. It is portrayed as the place of perfect hospitality, where everyone is comfortable, befriended, secure, healthy and at home.
There is no need for a place of religious hospitality in the city, because the presence of God and of the Lamb pervades the whole. Until that consummation comes, each of our churches is called to be a microcosm of that heavenly city in our own towns and communities. How can we be that city and offer that community?
As you wait to move into your new church building, it’s a good question to ask yourselves. How can you offer safety, comfort, nourishment, healing and friendship to both committed members and strangers? How can your church community and your worship be more welcoming to the friendless and the newcomer, in both practical and spiritual ways? Perhaps, like Philippi, this area doesn’t look like a very easy place in which to do mission; but God has a task for you here, just as he had for Paul.
Like Paul’s mission to Europe, the new chapter in this church’s life you are about to embark upon will be a continuation of the old. There will be things you will continue to do, like Messy Church, and hosting meetings for younger and older folk; but the new premises may also offer opportunities to open your doors to welcome other groups, with different interests and different needs, to feel at home as your guests.
But, as citizens of a democratic nation, we all have an obligation to offer hospitality and healing in the name of God, to those far beyond our local communities. John’s vision of the heavenly city in Revelation sees it as a place of security and refuge for all nations, and our Christian calling is to do that through our votes and making our opinions felt, as well as through our practical activities.
John’s vision of a hospitable world is a vision of hope, and also a challenge to the ways in which we fall short of this ideal. In so many ways, our world has developed a culture of suspicion and inhospitality. But, one of the obvious characteristics of Jesus’ first followers as they sought to live out the Gospel was hospitality, reflected in feeding the hungry , inviting strangers into their homes, and serving and praying for the sick, the widow and the orphan . What might be the present day equivalent of those? Perhaps global debt relief and removal of unjust trade restrictions;humane and just immigration laws and fair treatment of ethnic and other minorities; freely available equitable health care and social services? For those of us who seek to follow Christ, our vote, and our voice in public debate against those who would deny them, could be a significant influence in creating a more hospitable world.
As we draw to the end of the Easter season, we are reminded again through our readings that the new life unleashed through the resurrection demands that we share God’s love in practical ways. Last week we were shown how the first apostles included those who were once considered unclean in the covenant community. This week we are shown how they offered and accepted hospitality and healing in different and not obviously receptive situations, and so laid the foundations for what would become Christendom, the centre of the world wide missionary activity of the Church. Our calling as Pentecost approaches is to do the same, to welcome in and offer healing and comfort to all, without distinction, and to do our best to create the community and safety of the heavenly city wherever we have influence on this earth.
April 28, 2013
EASTER 5. (Acts 11,1-18; Rev. 21, 1-6; John 13, 31-35)
Some years ago, I watched a programme about Victoria Wood visiting parts of the British Empire. When she was in Hong Kong, she had a conversation with a dog beautician, who told her that one way rich residents demonstrated their wealth was to buy expensive and rare breeds of dogs as pets – and then serve them up as gourmet meals to their friends. When she visited Borneo, she was presented with another gourmet meal of bird’s nest soup – which she did not enjoy because she had previously visited the caves where the ingredients of the soup were collected – one of which was bird spit.
The expressions of disgust and horror I can see on the faces of some of you must be very like the reactions of members of the Jewish Christian community in Jerusalem when they heard the description of what Peter had been ordered to eat in his vision. (Acts 11, 1-18) All the foods in the sheet that was lowered – birds of prey, reptiles, and insects – were unclean according to Jewish dietary rules, and observant Jews were forbidden to eat them.
Many religions, like Judaism, have rules about what their members may or may not eat. As Peter’s experience shows, it is a discipline, but also a way of keeping a holy people separate from nonbelievers, since you can only socialise in a limited way with people you cannot share meals with. The food laws were one important strand in defining who was Jewish and who was Gentile, and keeping them apart, so that the Jewish religion was not watered down or compromised.
Most societies have conventions about food – for instance the French eat horse-meat- which we tend not to; and they eat snails, which we don’t although we do eat whelks. Many of these are breaking down as societies become multi-cultural, and restrictive food laws are often the first things to be jettisoned when a religion undergoes a liberal reformation.
This is what happened after the death and resurrection of Jesus. It ushered in a new era, in which the restrictions and regulations of Old Testament Judaism were no longer appropriate. The fact that this event is described in more or less detail three times in Chapters 10 and 11 of Acts, shows how important a decision it was. The Book of Acts shows the disciples struggling with the implications of the new age. This particular extract seems to show that the inclusion of the Gentiles was accepted once and for all after Peter’s explanation. But further reading in the Book of Acts and in the Epistles show that the issue continued to cause division in the Early Church, especially after St. Paul’s missionary journeys brought many more Gentile converts into the church. It took a long time to decide whether those Gentiles who wanted to become Christians had to keep all the food laws or just some of them, had to undergo circumcision if they were men, and had to observe Jewish religious festivals. We tend to think that deep and bitter divisions about what is essential and what is peripheral to the Christian faith are a relatively modern phenomenon. A careful reading of the New Testament soon demonstrates that divisions were part of the Christian experience from the very beginning.
The food we eat is no longer a major cause of dispute within the Christian Church. But then, it was not really the issue at stake for Peter and Paul in their missionary activities. What was really in dispute was who could be admitted as full members of the covenant community, and that continues to divide Christians. In the past people have been denied full participation (which includes full participation in worship and sacraments and being able to occupy positions of leadership and authority) on the grounds of their race or ethnic origin, on the basis of their age, and on the basis of their gender. Now the burning issue on which some parts of the church wish to exclude others is the issue of sexuality.
The church is both a divine and a human institution, so it is not surprising that sometimes human limitations take over. But God has no such limitations, and the Spirit (as the reading shows) is constantly breaking through those barriers which human beings construct around themselves to make themselves feel safe or comfortable. As faithful Christians we will find our selves constantly being challenged (as Peter was) to follow the Spirit’s lead to situations and places we would rather not go, and our minds constantly being opened to new possibilities of inclusion in our fellowship.
If we take on board fully the implications of this story, perhaps we will feel afraid. It makes it abundantly clear that the Spirit of God is free to bring about the will of God for the world, to transform it into a new heaven and earth, in unlooked for ways. It makes it clear that we cannot use our conventional short cut of categorising people by race, gender or sexuality in making decisions about them. It makes it very plain that the life and death of Jesus brought about salvation for everyone, and all sorts of people who we may not like, or approve of, are going to be grafted into our community whether we like it or not. It shows that to discriminate n against those to whom God has given the gifts of the Spirit is to oppose God – the worst of sins.
It is hard for human beings to keep up with God. And though we may believe that we will follow wherever the Spirit leads, putting this into practice its not always easy to do. We need always to be asking ourselves; “ Do we put limits on God’s offer of salvation? Are there groups of people that we regard as ‘impure’ and unworthy to be part of our fellowship? How can we tell if it is truly the Spirit leading us, and not our own desires, or human fashion?
God does not leave us without guidance, however, The gospel reading, taken from John’s account of the Last Supper, gives us one means of judging whether people are truly Jesus’ disciples or not. The guidance is placed just after the moment in the story where Judas leaves to betray Jesus and the others to the authorities, thus demonstrating that people who betray their friends are not true disciples. Jesus warns his disciples of his imminent death, and gives them a new commandment – to love one another as he has loved them; then he adds that they can tell if others are his disciples by the quality of their love for one another.
This is a very practical yardstick for us to use. It means we do have to judge each person individually, rather than relying on human categories. It is also a yardstick by which we know we all fall short – for none of us is able to show the boundless, sacrificial, all-inclusive love which Jesus did when chose to he died on the cross rather than resist with violence. So we are all included in the community of the Church by grace, and we have to be very, very careful about excluding others without good reason.
Inevitably, Christians will continue to be divided, as the Jerusalem Church was divided, over where the limits of inclusion and exclusion should be set. The story from Acts gives us some guidance about how we should deal with those divisions. Peter didn’t indulge in a long discourse about the theory behind the dietary laws and how things had changed; he didn’t bandy passages of Scripture with those who challenged his actions. He was honest about his own reservations, but detailed clearly how after prayer and being open to the Spirit’s leading, a new and unexpected experience had changed his deeply held opinions.
Peter’s experience is a real challenge to many in the Church, who seek to keep themselves in little enclaves of orthodoxy and supposed purity, and refuse to allow themselves to be open to the ministry of those – be they women or gays, or whoever – whom they seek to exclude.
Of course, being open to the leading of the Spirit is not without risks – but risk-taking love is what Jesus was all about.
April 7, 2013
(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.
March 31, 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!
March 3, 2013
Lent 3 Yr C. (Isaiah 55, 1-9; Psalm 63, 1-8; 1 Cor. 10, 1-13; Luke 13, 1-9)
How’s Lent going for you? Have you managed to avoid all the things you resolved to give up? Have you done that extra praying or Bible reading, or attended the Lent groups you promised to take up? Now we’re nearly at the mid point of Lent, it may be good time to review.
There’s an ongoing discussion about what Lent is for. Most of us know that it began in the early church as a period of preparation for Easter, when new members were admitted to the Church in baptism, and those who had been excommunicated for serious sin were allowed back into communion. It was then extended to be a period of discipline for everyone, to prepare them for the greatest feast of the Christian year, the celebration of Christ’s resurrection at Easter.
Alongside the idea of disciplined preparation, there was also the idea that Christians should attempt to walk alongside Christ, and try to identify with his sacrifice, in imitation of the 40 days in the wilderness.
The ‘giving up’ part of the discipline was based on the concept that what got in the way of identifying with Christ were ‘sins of the flesh’ particularly sex, eating and drinking. It reflected a very gloomy idea of God, as one who disapproved of everything that made life enjoyable, and whose reaction to human wrongdoing was to come down strongly with devastating punishment. The message was that you could only please that sort of divinity, or try to avoid the punishment that was coming to you, if you made yourself thoroughly uncomfortable and miserable.
We can see hints of that idea of God in the reading from 1 Corinthians. Paul sees the disasters that fell on the Israelites in the wilderness as punishments sent by God for their idolatry and sexual immorality, complaining and pleasure seeking, and highlights them as a warning to the followers of Jesus who might be tempted to do the same.
The same idea of God is found in the first part of the Gospel reading from Luke. The idea was frequently expressed that illness or disaster was a sign of punishment for wrongdoing, or just of God’s disfavour. Other people’s misfortune, says this bit of Luke, is a warning to mend our ways. It’s almost as if we believe God trying to frighten us into being good, and if we make ourselves thoroughly miserable, along with saying sorry, he won’t be so hard on us.
But parts of the readings give us another, rather different picture of God. The passage from 3rd Isaiah, pictures a God who is eager to give people the richest food, wine and the best of meals at absolutely no cost to themselves. It pictures a God who is eager to reward his people, in keeping with the covenant made with them, and is ready to forgive them their wrongdoing the moment they turn back to follow him. It makes the point that God ‘s ways are very different from human ways; he doesn’t automatically strike out at those who disobey, as a human ruler would. God is love, not power. God builds up, rather than destroys. Psalm 63 also reflects the picture of a God who fills those who follow him with good things, and offers protection to them, rather than punishment.
And the second part of the Luke passage again challenges the idea of a divinity whose first instinct is to punish and destroy those who don’t live up to the divine standard. The fig tree and the vineyard are both Biblical images for the people of God. The master is all for giving up on those who fail, and destroying them. The gardener, however, the person who truly cares for what is growing, however, is willing to give them another chance.
Lent gives us ‘another chance’ each year to repent in the proper meaning of the word, to turn our minds and our lives round, and to live more authentically the lives that Jesus showed us how to live, under the sovereignty of God.
There’s been a lot of rethinking recently about how we can best use the season to do that.
Giving up things, like chocolate, cake, alcohol, TV or cigarettes has tended to go out of fashion, in Christian circles at any rate. There’s come to be a feeling that it has more to do with a desire for the body beautiful than spiritual discipline. I read a remark recently that giving things up for Lent is sometimes just having another go at keeping the New Year’s resolutions you’re failing to keep by the time February comes round.
There is also the tendency for humans to turn even good exercises into competitions, which means they end up being about ourselves, and our own pride, rather than bringing us closer to God.
Mark Sandlin, a minister in the Episcopal church in America, wrote recently how he got caught up in this ‘devotional one-upmanship’ one Lent. Sacrificing just one pleasure seemed too little a sacrifice – so each year he added something else, till one year he gave up all beverages except water, all meat, all TV and all sweets except his birthday cake, as well as adding extra exercise, daily devotions and charitable giving. And he admits that part of the reason was that when people asked (as he knew they would) what he was doing for Lent, he’d come out looking really holy and righteous.
So, one year, he gave up Lent for Lent. He took a careful look at the things that most people give up for Lent, and concluded that they weren’t actually the things that really get in the way of our right relationship with God. Such obstacles are very unlikely to be alcohol, or chocolate, or television, unless we are really addicted to them. It is much more likely to be our desire to come first, to keep up with the Joneses, and our inability to treat those who are different from us a fellow children of God. It’s a lot harder to give up that sort of socially reinforced behaviour than to give up biscuits, so if you resolve to try during Lent, you are bound to fail, over and over again. So, when Mark did try, and inevitably failed, he just kept on trying, through Easter and the rest of the church year, and he was still trying when the next Lent came round. So, he didn’t need a special season of Lenten discipline any more – he was living in it all the time.
Giving things up has been replaced by a trend for taking things up – using Lent to improve your knowledge of the faith by reading, or joining a Lent discussion group; or by setting aside time to pray or just be silent. Some think it would be a good thing to encourage people to attend extra mid-week worship, or to make a specific commitment to give more to charity during the Lenten season. But many of us lead very busy lives anyway. Trying and failing to do extra reading, or attend more worship or discussion groups, can just leave us feeling guilty, rather than helping us to grow spiritually.
A new initiative this Lent has been the ‘I’m not busy’ challenge, which asks people to spend a limited amount of time each day – between 10 and 30 minutes – just doing nothing. The challenge has been issued because the instigator, Stephen Cherry, sees busyness as a disease of the developed world, one which is ruling our lives and eating away at our souls. He feels it is bad because it distorts our perceptions, makes us feel self-important, makes us rude and impatient, burns us out, and prevents us from considering what is really important in our lives.
Church people are not immune -indeed some of them constantly complain of how busy they are. Busyness is seen as a virtue in our society – but in fact is a corrosive vice. Doing nothing for 10 – 30 minutes each day is just the start: it should lead on to a re-evaluation of what is really important, and implementing some ‘time wisdom’ to make better use of God’s gift of time. Again, this is a Lenten discipline that is designed to continue even after Lent has finished.
Even this Lent discipline, though, can be turned into something that is about us, and what is good for us (for busyness is very bad for our mental and physical health) rather than being undertaken because it brings us closer to God. An obsession with our work, even our work for the church, can get in the way of listening and understanding what God wants of us. But as John Van de Laar writes: “Worship can easily be a good way to hide from ourselves and from God. It’s easy to sing and dance in order to silence the still small voice”. Being an active church member can also get in the way of our openness to God.
This is not as strange as it sounds. He explained that, when he was at college, his philosophy lecturer explained to him the difference between God as an ‘eikon’ and God as an ‘eidos’. The first is the Greek word for image or icon and refers to God as something wholly other, as our OT reading says – one whose thoughts are not our thoughts and whose ways are not our ways. The second ‘eidos’ is the Greek word for ‘idol’ and refers to the God many religious people believe in – a God who we think we can fully explain, using human categories, a God who we’ve created in our own image, who thinks as we think, and whose ways are our ways.
It is the ‘eidos’ God that Ambrosino resolved to give up during Lent: the God of rigid ideologies, who silences questions with threats of Hell, who separates the world into manageable divisions of the approved and disapproved, whose ethical decisions were fixed by age-old writings which cannot be discussed, who gave human beings brains, and then punishes them for using them.
He gives this up in order “to reflect not on the God who rules by power, but a god who leads by love; who identifies with the weak; whose foolishness upsets omniscience; a God who reveals Himself in many ways, who reveals Himself in a first century peasant named Jesus; a God who empties Himself of God, and offers Himself to his enemies in submission and servitude; who is concerned with the plight of widows and orphans, the least among us, and the disadvantaged; who sends Jesus to go after the marginalized and the misunderstood, and to bring back home again those who have been ostracized and forgotten.
I am giving up God for Lent to make room for God. I am prying open my fingers, and letting all of my theological idols crash to the ground. And I am lifting up my empty hands to Heaven in anticipation of God’s arrival, and quietly echoing the unsettling words of Meister Eckhart: “I pray God to rid me of God.”
This is another ‘giving up’ that will continue after Lent is over, in order that we may be open to receive the God who is always arriving unexpectedly, always being born in obscurity, always being raised from the dead. It is a challenge to be a pilgrim follower, always searching for God revealed in new situations, always checking that we haven’t settled for an idol instead of struggling with the amazing, mysterious reality of the divine icon. It’s a giving up that would be a real challenge for many of us. Is it something that feels right to you – or not?
So, take a moment this week to consider: what are you ‘giving up for Lent’ and why?
February 3, 2013
(Jeremiah 1, 4-10; 1 Corinthians 13, 1-13; Luke 4, 21-30.)
Sometimes St Paul gets things wrong, as he does when he engages in obscure Rabbinic arguments to try to make his point; or when he forgets that being in Christ is about grace, and tries to set up rules and regulations about who God accepts and what different people may or may not do.
But sometimes he gets things gloriously, spectacularly, wonderfully right, so right that it takes your breath away! And today’s reading from his first letter to the Corinthians is one of those moments.
The hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13 is one of the best known and best loved passages of the whole Bible. Any of us could probably quote bits of it, and so could a good many other people, even those with little church connection. Even Richard Dawkins quoted a bit in his debate with Rowan Williams in the Cambridge Union last week!
It is a favourite to be read at services which celebrate family events, especially weddings. Yet how many of those who hear it read realise that it is not really talking about married love, or the love within a family at all; it is not, as it sounds, a celebration of a loving situation that already exists. It is a sharp reminder to people who are failing of just how far short they fall of the ideal they should be aspiring to. This is not written to a dewy eyed couple, talking about the sort of love that is celebrated by red roses, teddy bears and candlelit dinners. It is written to a community riven with differences about the love that is faithful to death, even death on a cross.
Corinth was a major city of the Roman Empire, a crossroads of trade between north and south, east and west. It had many extremely wealthy people, some of them among the Christian community. It had people of many races, including Jews like Paul, Prisca and Aquila. There were very poor people and slaves and former slaves. It contained adherents of many different religions and philosophies. They had been drawn to the Christian faith for a number of different reasons, and by a number of missionaries apart from Paul.
After Paul left Corinth and travelled to Ephesus, he received disturbing news about how the community was being broken apart by arguments about all sorts of things, which he details in the previous chapters of this letter. The passage about love comes as a climax, contrasting their quarrelsome behaviour with that which should spring from true Christian love for one another.
He reminds them that they should be kind to those who differ from them, and patient with different ways of doing and seeing things; that they should not envy others their good fortune, or make a great fuss about their own. He reminds them not to think themselves better than others and that nothing excuses rudeness. He reminds them that their way is not necessarily the only, or the right way, and they shouldn’t insist on it, or become irritated or resentful if others don’t fall in with their understanding. He reminds them not to be constantly on the look-out for others doing wrong, but to be ready to celebrate what is good. He reminds them to take difficulties on themselves, rather than pushing them onto others to bear, and to persist however difficult that may seem.
Many commentators see the hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13 as a pen picture of the Jesus that Paul believed in, the Jesus he had seen in a vision and which had converted him from adherence to the rule-keeping religion of the Pharisees to what he described as ‘the glorious liberty of the children of God.’ We see Jesus proclaiming that liberty in the passages from St Luke’s Gospel we heard read last week and this. Luke shows us that the people who heard it in the synagogue at Nazareth at first found it as attractive as Paul did, and as we do; but then they turned against Jesus, even to the extent of plotting to kill him. Why?
After all, hey saw him as one of their own. They were proud of his preaching ability and his healing powers. They rejoiced at his proclamation of the time of God’s favour, of healing for the lame and the blind, of liberty to the captives and good news for the poor. What they weren’t pleased about was that Jesus said all this wasn’t just for them, just for the Jewish nation, just for the good, just for the believers. Jesus, like Jeremiah, like Paul, was sent as an apostle to the nations; the good news he brought, he told them was not just for US – it was for THEM, for the OTHER, too. And because they found this message unacceptable, they rejected him. “He came to his own and his own would not receive him.”
Opponents of religious faith very often say that religions cause most wars. That’s not true, but what is true is that religion is one of those things, like race and class and wealth, which is often used to draw lines in societies between US and THEM, between those with whom we co-operate and to whom we do good, and those who we believe are wrong, or even evil, and with whom we are prepared to fight and even to kill. Why is this so?
Why does a religion which starts out preaching the unconditional love of God for all humankind, end up urging its adherents to fight and kill members of other paths to God, and even members of its own faith who see things differently? Why have the conflicts of Corinth been played out again and again through history? Why is it that we seem only to be able to have a strong religious identity of our own at the cost of hostility to those of other faiths?
I have recently been reading an inspiring book by Brian D McLaren called “Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed cross the road?” Its title, of course is based on the old joke about the chicken, but McLaren uses it to bring us up sharp before an image of the great religious leaders of the world doing something as ordinary as crossing a road together, and making us ask ourselves whether they would do so in an atmosphere of respect and friendliness; and if, as he thinks, they would, then why is it that their followers, and particularly so many Christians, seem incapable of doing the same. From this he goes on to argue for a new vision of Christianity as both strong and confident in its faith, but also benevolent, respectful and cooperative to other faiths.
All of this is based on acceptance that the core message of Jesus is that the Kingdom of Heaven is for everyone, that God made all human beings in the divine image and loves them without exception, and that the only commandments that really matter are the commandments to love – to love God, and to love our neighbour, who is everyone made is God’s image, whether like us or not, whether Christian or not.
To work for this reformed vision of Christianity is not an easy task. As Jesus and Paul and so many of the prophets found, to stand up for the ‘other’ means risking being identified with the other and suffering the same hostility as they suffer. Jesus sided with the outsiders – so eventually, he suffered the fate of an outsider: But the more Christian strength is build on hostility to those who are different, McLaren believes, the less it reflects the message of Christ.
If we follow McLaren’s vision, it will require us as Christians to look honestly at our history, and see how much our faith has become distorted by being bound up with the dominance of secular empires, first of all Constantine’s, but many others since.
It will require us to look carefully at what our core doctrines really say about creation, about original sin, about the uniqueness of Christ, about the Trinity, about election and predestination and about the Holy Spirit, to see how they can be expressed as healing doctrines, which create harmony and allow for difference, rather than as weapons to divide and exclude.
To arrive at this reformed and benevolent Christianity will also involve looking carefully at the Bible, and recognising that is speaks with many diverse voices. It will need Christian leaders to take up the authority Jesus gave them to bind and loose, and to proclaim the strands that portray God’s universal love as more authentic to Jesus’s message, and therefore more binding on us who follow him, than others which preach a God of vengeance and war. McClaren points out that both Jesus and Paul quote selectively from the Bible – Jesus even does so in the passage from Isaiah quoted in Luke 4 – so there is no reason why modern Christians should not also do the same.
As we struggle to free Christianity from its toxic elements, those which engender and perpetuate hostility between us and those of other faiths, we may also have to look again at our liturgy, our hymns, the way we frame our missionary activity and our sacraments, to check that they too are helping us to walk alongside those of other faiths, to listen to them and to appreciate their treasures, rather than perpetuating hostility.
Of course, this is not just something for Christians to do, if religious faith is to become something which brings peace and harmony to the world, rather than war and hostility. It will need brave people of other faiths who are prepared to look with unprejudiced eyes at current expressions of their own faith, and criticise where they see it has departed from its original ideals; and who will be open enough to listen to those of a different faith, and appreciate where it is good, and reflects their experience of God. It will need people of goodwill and deep faith from all religions to be prepared to cross the road to talk and listen to each other, convinced that is the way to meet more deeply with the God who is wholly Other but in whose image we are all created. It will need people who are prepared to witness what to what they believe in without needing to be hostile to what others believe in, in the faith that the Spirit of God is not bound by our human limitations and categories.
I have never been able to believe in a God of love who condemns others to eternal torment simply because they didn’t believe the right things (which is so often simply the result of being born in the wrong place or the wrong time).
I could never say, as some Christians do, that Gandhi must be in Hell, because he was not a Christian. I appreciate the beauties and insights of other faiths as well as my own, while being only too aware of the evils done the names of all of them. In the vision of renewed strong, benevolent Christianity reaching out in witness and friendship to other faiths that McLaren sketches out, I see the possibility or faith becoming the blessing to the world that it ought to be. And that’s the sort of faith I want to be part of.
When I hear the words of 1 Corinthians 13, I don’t picture the love of married couple, or a family, or a national group, or even a church for those who think and worship like themselves. I see the love of Jesus, as he strides out from the synagogue in Nazareth, transcending in God’s name the limitations of loving only people like himself, in order to offer God’s new covenant of love to anyone who is willing to accept it. That is what he was chosen before his birth to do. That is what I believe we have pledged ourselves to do in our new life in Christ. That is what we come to re-inspire ourselves to do each time we come to worship God. Amen.
January 20, 2013
(Isaiah 62, 1-5: I Corinthians 12, 1-11; John 2, 1-11)
We’re getting ready for another wedding in our family – our younger son is getting married next year.
And like our elder son, he’s chosen to marry someone from the other side of the Atlantic – so it will be an American ceremony, with a celebration for the English side later; and we are learning how different wedding customs are in the United States from the UK. There seem to be lots more formal events to include – things like Bridal Showers and Rehearsal Dinners – which we don’t go in for here, and there’s a different etiquette for who makes speeches and when. Another interesting wedding experience to add to our previous one!
I’ve spoken before about the way my experience of leading Marriage Preparation courses highlighted many similarities between a couple getting married and two different churches entering an ecumenical partnership. There are similar tensions over what might seem, on the surface, to be very minor differences of family or church customs, but which nevertheless seem to carry enormous emotional weight, and lead to difficulties out of all proportion to their apparent importance. What family customs and religious practices have in common is that they are often deeply rooted in our early family experiences, in the things that provide us with part of our sense of identity and security, and that, as a result, they are extremely difficult to discuss in a rational and detached way.
Our Gospel reading today describes a wedding feast – and in the Bible, a wedding feast is always a symbol for the great Messianic Banquet at the end of time, celebrating the triumph of God’s Kingdom and the covenant between God and his people. In the Old Testament, as we heard in the reading from Isaiah, the ‘bride’ of God was the people of Israel. In the New Testament it is the new people of God, the Church. The marriage feast metaphor speaks of the love God has for his people, and the joy that they have in being joined to God. So, it is a very appropriate image to have before us in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, when we rejoice in the covenant relationship that God established with all Christians through Jesus, and the joy that we all share in serving God in the world.
It’s easy to get depressed by the difficulties of ecumenical co-operation, particularly by participation in the numerous committees that seem to be necessary to organise services and events. But we should not forget the enormous advances made in ecumenism since the week began in Catholic churches in 1908. I can remember in my childhood how members of different churches regarded each other with suspicion, and co-operation was especially difficult between non-conformist churches and those from a more catholic tradition. And I was saddened in the 1970s by hearing from Cardinal Hume, when he came to address Churches Together in a Lent Lecture, that, as a trainee Catholic priest, he was not allowed to attend his own father’s funeral, because it took place in an Anglican Church. How things have changed! As an Anglican woman, I have twice preached from the pulpit of a Roman Catholic Church – not something that I could ever have imagined happening as a child – and I know I can take communion in the churches of most denominations without any questions being asked.
The establishment of Local Ecumenical Partnerships, like those in this circuit at St Mary’s Rickmansworth and All Saints Berkhamstead, has enormously expanded lay people’s experience of worshipping with those of different church backgrounds, and occasions such as this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and the Women’s World Day of Prayer provide opportunities for planning liturgy and attending worship with those of different denominational backgrounds.
But progress towards full visible unity, sharing not only buildings and worship, but theology, ministry and church organisation has been achieved only in a few cases – the Methodist Church and the United Reformed Church being the only two major denominations to have achieved it in this country. It seems to have been easier to achieve in places where Christianity is not the dominant religion – there have been united churches of several Protestant denominations in India and Pakistan since 1970.
Recently, while movements for closer covenant relationships between churches have failed, or been relegated to the background, disputes within churches, over issues such as sexuality and gender roles, seem to be leading to greater disunity, and more obstructions in the road to visible unity. It is very sad, like contemplating the probability of marriage breakup in your own family, or in the families of other people you love.
Maybe what we should be celebrating today is the enormous amount of practical work to serve the vulnerable, the marginalised and the poor which is undertaken by Christians working together, both nationally and locally. The Fairtrade movement and Christian Aid are shining examples of Christians working together nationally and internationally to secure justice and wellbeing for others. Locally, joint efforts by churches over the last 50 years have established Wensum Court homes for the elderly, the Care Scheme, the Credit Union in Rickmansworth and the Foodbank in Mill End and Maple Cross, soon to be extended to Rickmansworth Town Centre.
As St Paul explains in his letter to the Corinthians, God has given different gifts to different people in the Church, but they are all given to be used for the common good. Some gifts may be used in the worship of God, one sort of ‘service’ which can have great differences in style, in order to accommodate differences of taste or personality. Other gifts may be used in teaching, or administration, but the most important are used in practical service to others.
If we listen to St Paul, we learn that we should value all these different gifts equally, just as we value all the different parts of our body equally; and especially that we shouldn’t put a greater value on intellectual gifts than practical ones. The only standard by which we may evaluate gifts is that of love, for God gives us gifts because of the divine love for us, and we share them with our neighbour, because God’s Spirit within us inspires us to love our neighbour as ourselves.
The marriage image we find in the Old Testament and Gospel provides further support for the celebration of our unity in service to others: just as a married couple share their lives and their possessions as a token of their love for each other, so we Christians share our lives and possessions with everyone, and especially the needy and the dispossessed.
Similarly, I think all today’s readings encourage us to share in companionship and service not just with our fellow Christians, but with all people of faith. It is an encouragement to interfaith as well as ecumenical unity.
I’ve recently dipped into a book called ‘Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road’. It takes its name from a variation of the ‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’ joke. The author, Brian McLaren, asks “How do you think Jesus would treat (them) if they took a walk across the road together. Would Jesus push Moses aside and demand to cross first…would he trade insults with Mohammed…Would Jesus demand the Buddha kneel at his feet? Or would he walk with them and, once on the other side, welcome them to the table of fellowship, ….maybe even taking the role of a servant…making sure each felt welcome, safe and at home?”
McLaren continues: “I have no doubt that Jesus would actually practise the neighbourliness he preached rather than following our example of religious supremacy, hostility, fear, isolation, misinformation, exclusion or demonisation. It seems ridiculous to imagine that he would be insecure among them, considering them his rivals, or that he would find it necessary to extract from them explicit agreement on fundamental doctrines before condescending to cross a road with them.”
And as Jesus does, so must we do, as we are called to be Christ’s Body in the world. True Christian Unity is not about reaching agreement on the minutiae of theology, or the exact details of church order, or who may preach or be ordained. It is about working together with the common purpose of bringing in the Kingdom of God through serving our neighbour and transforming the world. And we can do that not just with our fellow Christians, but with all people of goodwill.
They were going to take their different gifts to the marriage feast, where all are welcomed to celebrate the glory of God and the joy of the covenant God makes with all who were once Desolate and Forsaken, and who now know themselves married to the Divine and who love and share and serve the Kingdom of Heaven, to the delight of God.
Let us pray:
A prayer by Ruth Gee, Chair of the Darlington District, fromThe Methodist Prayer Handbook. Day 13.
God with us, Emmanuel;
you cross the chasm of time and space,
you break down the walls of fear and prejudice,
you span the waters of chaos,
you come to us in love.
help us to cross the chasm of hurt and painful memory,
help us to break down the barriers that divide,
help us to bear your peace in a troubled world.
Send us in love,
go with us.