Power of the Holy Spirit

Assembly for KS 1 & 2, comparing the power of electricity with the Holy Spirit

Aim: To show that the Holy Spirit has always been at work in the world, but was known in a new way at Pentecost.

Bible Passage: Acts 2, 1-8

Preparation and materials:

You will need several devices that work by electricity – some with batteries and some which plug in to power source.

You will need to know something of history of harnessing of electricity.

http://www.wisegeek.org/who-discovered-electricity.htm

Assembly

Ask what powers all devices?  Electricity. If not connected to it, (by plug or battery) won’t work. Expand that electricity used to help us keep warm (fires) do difficult tasks (power tools) help us see and communicate (phones, radios etc.)

Ask who invented electricity? You may get several answers, including that no-one invented it, but several people discovered how to harness it and use it.

If appropriate give brief history of use of electricity.

Emphasise that electricity a natural force, in the universe since the very beginning of time, which humans became aware of and able to use .

Tell the story of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon friends and followers of Jesus with great power, enabling them to do things they couldn’t do before, to communicate Good News of Gospel to all sorts of different people, and giving them comfort when they were in trouble.

Point out that power of Holy Spirit in some ways like power of electricity.

Say Holy Spirit came in renewed strength at Pentecost, but had always been at work in world. Bible tells us that Spirit active in creation of world, animals and humans, and inspired words of prophets who taught Jews about God before the coming of Jesus. Also there at Annunciation when Mary told she would have Jesus and at baptism of Jesus.

Say Christians believe they need to be open/ connected/ plugged in to Holy Spirit in order to do the work in the world that Jesus did, and which he taught them God wants them to do also

Time for reflection

Switch on a torch/ electric light.

Jesus’s disciple John said he was the Light of the World. The Holy Spirit gives power to his followers to be light like him.

Think how you can be like a light to people around you today.

Prayer: 

Dear God,

We thank you that your Holy Spirit is always at work in your world,

bringing strength and comfort, words and light to those who receive it.

Through your Spirit, help us to live as Jesus did,

to bring light to your world,

and to live in the way that you want us to live.

Amen

 
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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’?

Loving the Other

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.

Wordle_1Cor13-758388

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?

Book cover

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.

world-religion

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.

Waiting for the End Times.

November 18, 2012

 

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

Do you like watching disaster movies?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bishop Justin Welby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

Watch your Tongue!

September 16, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

certain what was the divine intention in any particular passage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who’s Calling?

January 15, 2012

Who’s Calling?

(1 Samuel 3, 1-10; Psalm 139, 1-6, 12-17; John 1, 43-51)

I’m not the sort of person who has visions; and I can’t say that there was a distinct moment when I was converted, as some people have: I was simply brought up in a Christian household, and continued to attend church when I was an adult. Nor can I identify a moment when I was ‘called’ to the ministry of Reader (or Local Preacher in Methodist terms). I began by speaking at family services, and ‘ghost writing’ some sermons for my then Vicar, and one day I had to take over and actually ‘preach’ one at a Parish Communion. It was at that point I decided that I ought to get myself properly trained and authorised if I was going to continue. So I did! And this particular ministry has felt right for me ever since.

Was that experience a calling from God? I don’t know!

Our readings today, in their different ways, explore the idea of being called by God.

In the first, from the Book of Samuel in the Old Testament, the boy Samuel is called to the life of a prophet, speaking ‘The Word of the Lord’ to the people of Israel. The second, from Psalm 139, explores the relationship with God to which we are all called, from before our birth to our death. The passage from John’s Gospel describes the calling of two disciples, Philip and Nathanael.

The passage from 1 Samuel can be heard as a rather sweet story, of a small child coming to personal knowledge of God for the first time. But, set in its context, it is a much more frightening and serious tale. The previous chapters of I Samuel have interwoven the story of the birth of Samuel with a description of sins of Eli’s sons, and therefore the failure of his role as a father and a priest. Eli’s sons have exploited their hereditary position to satisfy their greed and their lust, by taking the best meat of the sacrifices for themselves and using the women of the temple as prostitutes.

The beginning of our passage shows that, at first, Eli fails to discern the Lord speaking to Samuel; but eventually, he does recognise that this is the divine voice speaking, and he not only teaches Samuel how to respond, but demands to hear what Samuel has been instructed to prophesy, however bad it may be for him and his family.

The following verses of 1 Samuel describe the fate that God has in store for the priestly family: the death of the two wicked sons, Eli’s blindness and his eventual death, and the descent of his family into poverty.

Yet, they also describe Eli’s acceptance of all this as “what is good to the Lord”. No matter how much he has failed God, no matter how much his family has misused their position of privilege, he has not departed so far from his original calling as to fail to recognise the voice of God calling, nor to reject the truth when he hears it.

God’s call to the young Samuel is to a ministry that proclaims the replacement of the old, failed order of priests, represented by Eli and his sons, with a new order, of prophets, who hear and proclaim the true Word of the Lord. Samuel is to become the first representative of that new order.

Psalm 139 (a favourite psalm of many people) describes how God calls us: how God searches us out and knows every one of us from the first moments of our existence in the womb. It is because God knows us in such an intimate way that we can know God. As the end of our passage reminds us, the knowledge is not equal: God will always know much more about us than we can ever know of God. The psalm reminds me of the theology of Paul Tillich, who speaks of God as both transcendent, existing outside and beyond all that is, but also as immanent and intimate, ‘the Ground of our Being’.

Perhaps we may be alarmed by the idea of a God from whom we can never escape, no matter where we run to, and who knows every detail of our lives before we live them. We all of us have our ‘dark side’, the bits of ourselves that we prefer others not to see, lest we be judged wanting. But there is no sense in this psalm of judgement, simply of a God who understands, loves and provides for us from before birth until after death. It speaks of what Martin Buber called the ‘I-Thou’ relationship.

In our New Testament passage we heard John’s description of the calling of two more disciples, Philip and Nathanael. Previously Andrew has been called from being a disciple of John the Baptist, and has brought along his brother, Peter. Now, having returned from the Jordan to Galilee, Jesus calls Philip, possibly a Gentile, who in turn brings along his friend Nathanael.

The passage seems to reflect a certain amount of rivalry between the towns of Galilee. Philip, Peter and Andrew are natives of Bethsaida (which means ‘house of fishing’) and Nathanael from Cana, where the first of Jesus’s seven signs which John describes takes place. Nathanael clearly doesn’t think anything worthwhile can come from Nazareth and particularly not the expected Messiah! Since Nazareth was located right on the border with Samaria, you can understand why those from other parts of Galilee might consider it a dodgy place!

Since this is John’s Gospel, the simple story is full of hidden meanings. Jesus describes Nathanael  as an Israelite, a son of Israel. The former name of Israel was Jacob, and Jacob means ‘trickster’ or deceiver’. But Jesus says Nathanael is not a deceiver.

Jesus says he saw Nathanael sitting under a fig tree. The fig tree is often a symbol of peace and prosperity, and of the Jewish nation.  Was Jesus then calling Nathanael from his old life as a faithful Israelite to a new life as a disciple of the Messiah?

Nathanael certainly thought so. He acclaimed Jesus with the Messianic titles, ‘Son of God’ and ‘King of Israel’.

But then Jesus immediately refers back to Jacob again, with his reference to a ladder along which angels pass from heaven to earth. His ministry will be one where heaven and earth are open to each other, where God and human beings are connected. But whereas, when Jacob saw the ladder, it marked a holy place, Bethel, where God was encountered,  now it marks a person, Jesus, where God is encountered.

None of the Gospels tells us much more about Philip or Nathanael. In this story of their call, they seem to represent the disciples in the post-resurrection church. They have seen the miracles of Jesus; they are aware of his supernatural knowledge. The only proper response to the this person’s command to follow him, is to do so, and to worship him as King and Messiah.

But that is not the end of the story. The disciple is to follow Jesus, and to believe. But the disciple is also to extend the invitation to others to “Come and see”. This section of John’s Gospel emphasises the important role of personal connections in the making of new disciples. It is an invitation to us, as well as to those first disciples. We who have seen the Word made flesh, we who have heard the Word of the Lord are not supposed to keep it to ourselves. We are to go and invite others to come, and see, and hear for themselves.

And what are we inviting our family, and friends, and workmates and neighbours to come and see? We are inviting them to meet a God who knows us intimately, and who is present in everything we do; who is with us in the bad times as well as the good, who accepts our dark side as well as the light in us.

We are inviting them to meet a God who accepts us as we are, who chooses the most unlikely people to bear the divine message: a small child, being raised by an elderly failed priest in a corrupt environment; a foreigner; a cynical adult, deeply prejudiced against people from a rival town, and supremely, a man from a rough border town.

We are inviting them to meet a God who is transforming the world, replacing the old order of evil and corruption with a new one, led by those who hear and proclaim the true Word of the Lord. We are inviting them to meet a God who is not distant, but who comes to us in human form, who invites us into the relationship of intimacy and co-operation with the divine for which we were created.

We are inviting them to meet a God who calls human beings to become agents of the divine in changing the world and making transforming it into the Kingdom of heaven.

Who’s calling?

God is!

Come and see!

Who do you say that I am?

August 21, 2011

Isaiah 51, 1-6; Matthew 16, 13 – 20.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

What’s in a Name?

December 19, 2010

(Isaiah 7, 10-16;Romans 1,1-7; Matthew 1, 18-25)

May I speak in the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

You can sometimes tell when a person was born by their name. I don’t just mean the time of year – we have probably all met people called Holly, or Noel, or Natalie because they were born on Christmas Day -but the decade.  There are names like Herbert, Hilda, Ada, and Elsie that were typical of my parents’ generation – and others like Tracy and Darren which came into fashion in the Sixties and Seventies.

 

When we chose names for our children, we tried to choose names that were timeless, and that wouldn’t identify them as being born in a certain era. We also tried to find names that wouldn’t be easy to shorten, though we failed in that – schoolchildren can manufacture a nickname no matter what name you choose!

 

What we didn’t give any consideration to was the meaning of our children’s names. I only found out this week that the name of our son means exactly the same as the (different) name of our grandson. Both their names mean ‘God has heard’. I wonder if any of you know what names they are?*

 

In Bible times, the meaning of a name was very important. This was unfortunate if you were the child of a prophet, since you were likely to be given a name which was in itself a prophecy – and some of them could be very long and complicated. Hosea called his first child Jezreel, meaning God plants, but when his wife was unfaithful and he saw that as a metaphor for Israel’s unfaithfulness to God, he called their next two children Loruhamah (no more mercy) and Loammi (not my people) as a warning to the nation.

 

Isaiah (whose own name means Salvation of God) also gave his two sons prophetic names. The first was a hopeful name: Shearjashub, meaning a remnant shall return; but the second was called Mahershalalhashbaz, which can be translated ‘quick to plunder, swift to spoil’ a prophecy about the actions of the kings attacking Judah.

 

It is no surprise, then, in our O.T. passage today, to find him advising on the name of a baby soon to be born. Ahaz, King of Judah is terrified by the prospect of being attacked by the combined forces of Syria and Israel. Isaiah says that a child soon to be born (probably in the royal family) should be called Immanuel, meaning God is with us, and that before he is old enough to be weaned, the threat from Syria and Samaria will have vanished, as both kingdoms will be destroyed by the Assyrians.

 

In English (as in most of Northern Europe) surnames often come from the occupations followed by our ancestors, or from their personal names. Hence the large numbers of Smiths, Bakers and Cooks, and the Johnsons, Jacksons and Richardsons, descended from people in those occupations or with those names.

Names help us to recognise, identify and explain people – and the names given to Jesus are no exception.

 

In the opening of the Letter to the Romans, our N.T. lesson, Paul defines Jesus as the Son of David according to the flesh. So he identifies his place among the rulers of the Jewish people, and argues that he is a continuation of God’s provision for his people. Then he calls him Son of God, identifying his coming as a new initiative on God’s part, since he is proclaimed Son of God by being raised from the dead, something which has never happened before. Paul also gives Jesus the surname, which is really a title of Christ, the Greek form of Messiah, meaning ‘anointed one’; kings and priests are anointed, and Jesus was both.

 

Finally, Paul gives all of us a name: those who belong to Jesus Christ, or Christians. In that name we receive the gifts of faith, obedience and peace.

 

Our third reading, from the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, also centres around the giving of a name.

 

Usually, on the fourth Sunday in Advent, we concentrate on Mary, the mother of Jesus; but Matthew’s account centres on Joseph.

 

He and Mary were betrothed when she conceived Jesus. In Jewish law, this meant that they were already considered to be a married couple, even though they had not yet started to live together. When she was found to be pregnant, Joseph would have been entitled to accuse her of adultery, and have her and the father of her child executed. At the very least, he would have been entitled to divorce her. Joseph seems to have been a man who knew his Bible, so he was very clear about the options open to him.

 

But Joseph was also a man whose knowledge went beyond the written law; he knew the name of God, which is another way of saying he knew  the character of God, and because he believed that God was merciful, he resolved to be merciful too, and to divorce Mary quietly. Of course, that would have spared her from death, but it would have left her with very little in the way of life. In a small town, everyone would have known he had rejected her, and when the child was born, no-one would have been prepared to marry her or care for the child.

 

Joseph’s name means ‘one who adds’, that is, one who goes beyond the minimum that is necessary. He shared the name with a major character from Israel’s past: Joseph of the coat of many colours, Joseph the dreamer, Joseph who saved the people of Israel from famine and kept them in safety in Egypt.

 

The New Testament Joseph is also one who hears God speaking in dreams, and who acts to save those of God’s people who are vulnerable. His dream contains an instruction to take Mary as his wife, and an assurance that her child is not the result of sin, but the work of the Spirit of God. He is given a personal name to give to her child: Jesus, or in Hebrew, Joshua, which means ‘God saves’.

 

Joseph married Mary and gave her son the name announced by the angel. But in marrying Mary, he also gave Jesus  a family name. In the Aramaic which they all spoke, Jesus would now be known as Yeshua bar Yoseph: Jesus the son of Joseph. Joseph gave to Mary and her son not just a name, but a home, respectability and a place in society.

 

The Bible and the Christian tradition have given many names to Jesus, as well as those he bore during his lifetime. They look both backward into Jewish history and forward to his unique role. From the Old Testament, he has been given the names from Isaiah’s prophecies; Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. In the New Testament he is known as Messiah, Saviour, Word, Light, Redeemer. In this same passage, Matthew applies to him the name given in Isaiah’s prophecy that we heard earlier, Immanuel, God with us.

 

One of the hymns we sang this morning, contains another list of names, taken from the Advent Antiphons, traditionally sung during the last days of the season from 17th to 23rd December at Evensong. Jesus is called Adonai, or Lord of Might; Rod of Jesse, from another of Isaiah’s prophecies, which predicts that a new shoot will rise from Jesse’s stock. He is named Key of David, a reference to another passage in Isaiah, where the Key stands for royal authority, a reference taken up by John the Divine in Revelation; and finally he is called Day Spring or Day Star, reflecting Zechariah’s prophecy in the Benedictus, that he will initiate a new dawn, a new beginning in the history of God’s people.

 

Some of the names given to Jesus in the New Testament have more importance for his earliest followers, since they look back to his Jewish heritage, and proclaim the continuity of God’s provision for them; but others have a more universal appeal. Jesus is the Day Spring, whose coming initiates a new dawn in the relationship between God and the human race. The name Jesus reminds us that God comes to us, not as a ferocious judge of our failings, but as one who saves us from our sins. the name Immanuel tells us that, no matter how dark and difficult our life seems, God is with us.

 

Names are so much more than just labels. They can be full of riches if we think about them carefully. In these last few days before Christmas, as we prepare to greet our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, at his birth, may we meditate on his names, and so come to know and love him better, and be ready to receive him more fully into our hearts and lives.

 

* Simon and Samuel

 

 

Isaiah 11, 1-10; Matthew 3, 1-12.

In the time in which our Old Testament passage was written, there were three groups of people through whom God communicated with the Jewish nation.

 

The first were the monarchs, descended from David, the son of Jesse. By the time First Isaiah was writing, the high hopes raised by the reigns of David and Solomon had diminished, the early promise of the dynasty was unfulfilled. The kingdom had split into two, the Northern Kingdom was about to be destroyed by Assyria, and there had been a number of kings who ruled badly and served foreign gods as well as the one true God. The kings were supposed to defend the people from attack, and administer justice in God’s name, according to the laws set out in the Mosaic covenant. The later Jews also believed in another covenant, between God and the House of David, which promised that his house would rule for ever.

 

The second group were the priests, from the tribe of Levi, descendants of Aaron. Their task was to serve in the Temple, offering the daily sacrifices, and the sacrifices for sin and of thanksgiving, as set out in the covenant. They also offered prayers on behalf of the people and the nation, and,  initially, they were also responsible for teaching the people about the law of God. By the time of Isaiah, there was also  some disillusion with their role as mediators between God and his people, and some criticism of the cult. Later their role of explaining the law was taken over by the Scribes.

 

Some of the original prophets were associated with the temple, and were ‘seers’ using methods of divination to try to foresee what would happen; but the great prophets whose words are recorded in the Bible were those who spoke to the people as the messengers of God. Their Hebrew name comes from a root meaning ‘hollow’ or ‘open’, indicating they were completely open to be filled with God’s Spirit, and to offer warnings, rebukes and commentary on events as God’s mouthpieces.

 

Some  may have come from within the religious establishment, but some (such as Amos, the shepherd) were outsiders. All of them tended to end up as outsiders, because they frequently voiced criticism of the king and the cult as they recalled the people to the full implications of the Covenant. Some of them, as well as speaking and writing, acted out their messages, performing often bizarre actions to make their point. Many of the prophets suffered ridicule, persecution, abuse, and some were even killed, since their messages inevitably disturbed those who were in power, and sought to change the old ways of doing things. Their message was sometimes about the religious practices of Israel; but more often they criticised kings, judges and politicians, for acting unjustly, and oppressing the poor and the weak. Social justice was as important to them as ritual purity.

 

Our passage from Isaiah begins by looking at the reality of the moment – that the royal house of David is now so degraded that it is no more than a stump or a root. But then the prophet looks forward, to anticipate the reign of a new king, another descendant of David, who will fulfill the promise of the covenant. Like a prophet, he will be filled with the Spirit of God. He will rule not with physical force, but through the power of his words.

 

He will carry out the traditional roles of the king and administer justice without favour, giving justice equally to the poor and the rich. He will be both righteous and faithful.

 

This is a picture of an ideal monarch, one who follows so closely the will of God that the conditions of the Garden of Eden will be restored on the earth – traditional enemies in the animal kingdom such as the lion and the lamb will be reconciled, and even the snake, symbol of the Fall, will no longer injure human children. The benefits of this king’s rule will be enjoyed not just by his own people, but by the whole world.

 

No one king of the House of David ever lived up to this ideal – and the portrait of the ideal ruler came eventually to be applied to a heavenly Messiah who would be sent from God to save and rule his people – and Christian writers naturally applied the prophecy to Jesus, which is why we hear these Messianic passages from Isaiah during Advent and Christmas.

 

By the time of Jesus’ birth, it was felt that prophecy in Israel had ceased – but then along came John the Baptist! You can see him as the last of the Old Testament prophets, recalling people to the Covenant; or the first Christian prophet, preparing the way for the ministry of Jesus; but either way, he is a difficult character to understand, with a fairly unpalatable message for his people. If Luke’s account is to be believed, he came from a priestly family, but he rejected that vocation to become a prophet.

 

His way of life was an acted parable: he lived in the desert and ate food from the wild, as did the people of Israel during the Exodus, when they found God again and entered into the Covenant. His dress recalled that of the first great prophet, Elijah.  He baptised people in the Jordan, a ritual which carried two messages. First, it was the rite through which Gentile converts entered Judaism, so he was saying that Jews could not rely on their birth to make them children of God: they had to repent and make a new start. Second, the Jewish nation passed through water to  escape slavery in Egypt and to take possession of the Promised Land: so, to be ready for the Kingdom of God which was coming, they needed to pass through water again.

John’s proclamation of the coming of God’s Kingdom was an disconcerting message for those  who were comfortable in the existing religious regime. His picture of how God would judge his people was far from reassuring: he used images of violence – the winnowing fork, the threshing floor and the fire. And, like Isaiah, John also looked forward to the arrival of a major figure, a servant of God endowed with the Spirit, who would separate out the righteous and punish the wicked.

 

Like the Old Testament prophets, John warned people that something new was about to erupt into their world, something that would disrupt all that was old and destructive in their religious, social and political lives. He warned them that they needed to make concrete decisions to re-order their lives in accordance with the rules of God’s Kingdom. He told them that they didn’t have much time to do this. He instructed them not to rely on their traditions, or their previous religious practices, or their birth, but only on God, his Spirit and his Anointed One to bring them salvation.

 

That is also his Advent message to us, as we prepare to welcome Jesus, God’s Messiah.

 

Our monarchs don’t really have much influence on our religious lives today, although the Queen is still Supreme Governor of the Church of England. That simply means that she opens new sessions of General Synod, speaks to the assembled delegates, rubber stamps the appointment of bishops and signs any church legislation that goes through Parliament. Some people want to get rid of even that slight involvement and disestablish the Church of England.

 

The priesthood disappeared from the Jewish religion with the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. Christianity, however, adopted priestly leadership, and was run exclusively by priests for most of its first 2000 years. The Church of England may now give the laity a voice through synods, but they are still outnumbered two to one by clergy representatives in the houses of priests and bishops. A religion run by priests tends to be traditional and conservative. This can bring stability and comfort in times of change – but can also lead to inertia and ossification.

 

And what of prophets? There has been no recognised role for prophets within the Christian Church since the time of Paul. But of course, there have been prophets, people who have spoken out in God’s name, criticised the church’s practices both ritual and social and urged it to return to the teachings of Jesus. Like the Old Testament prophets, like John the Baptist, many of them were persecuted, punished and killed by their monarchs and priests and their representatives. Some of them, however, were heard, and they became the great reformers of the Church, like the founders of monastic movements and leaders of the Reformation and social reform.

 

And do we need prophets in the church today? Not if we want a quiet life! Prophets are always disturbing and disruptive. They call us out of our comfort zone, and challenge us to listen anew to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.

 

There are several voices claiming to be prophets within the church today, from very different parts of the theological spectrum. One such is a website run by fundamentalist Christians, which seems simply to be promoting hatred of Muslims, gays and women. Other groups see themselves as prophets, calling Anglican Christians back to what they claim is orthodox belief and practice. But from the other end of the theological spectrum, there are people who claim that attempts to define and impose orthodoxy will stifle the prophetic voice in the church; they would say the voice of prophecy is coming from those who want Christians to go back to the example and practice of Jesus Christ, rather than the written word, and include everyone within the covenant people.

 

 

But, as in Old Testament times, the voice of prophecy may sometimes come from outside the religious establishment. Those of my age will remember a Simon and Garfunkel song from the 1960s, which contained the line “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls, and tenement halls”. John the Baptist spoke his prophecy from the wilderness, outside the limits of society. God is not confined to speaking through official channels; the word of the Lord may come to us from a place we don’t expect. We need the guidance of the Holy Spirit to discern the true from the false prophets.

 

As we prepare to welcome again the One who is both Prophet, Priest and King, may we always be alert to hear the words of the prophets, no matter how they come to us, no matter how disturbing they may be.