Am I Bovvered?

June 16, 2013

The_Anointing_with_Oil_and_Tears_1979,_Sadao_Watanabe( Galatians 2 15-21. Luke 7 36-8.3 )

Soon I will be off on holiday, and staying at a couple of different small hotels we haven’t used before.  We know that at each we will have to get used to a new set of customs or rituals – especially concerning meal times. When do you come down for dinner? Do you go straight into the dining room, or do you order over drinks in a bar or lounge? Is there a table reserved for you, or if you get down early, can you make a beeline for the seat by the window? Are you expected to talk to the other guests or preserve a proper English reserve? Is coffee served at the table or in the lounge? and so on. And then of course, in the morning, there are another lot of new rules to suss out about breakfast.

All this goes to illustrate that, though eating is one of the basic human needs, the process of eating is surrounded by rituals. Most of us go in grave fear of ‘doing something wrong’ whenever we share a meal with people we don’t know very well. One faux pas can turn the whole thing into a disaster.

The meal described in today’s Gospel reading became just such a disaster, because none of the main participants – host, guest or gatecrasher – observed the conventions of the time. It was a small incident in a fairly commonplace occurrence – such meals must have taken place over and over again in the course of Jesus’ ministry. Yet it is seen as having major significance by our four Gospel writers, since it is one of the few incidents to be included in all four.

So, perhaps we ought to ask ourselves ‘why’?

One way of studying the Bible is to try to put yourself into the shoes (or rather, the mind) of one of the characters  in whichever story you are reading – to try to think what they were thinking, feel what they were feeling, say what they might have said. If you were to do that with the three main characters in today’s Gospel – Simon the Pharisee, the woman with a bad name, and Jesus – in whose mind, I wonder, would you feel most comfortable?

Take the host first of all – Simon the Pharisee. In Matthew and Mark’s Gospels he is described as Simon the Leper – so it is possible Jesus had healed him of his leprosy, and the meal was a celebration or a thank you for the healing. But this doesn’t seem to fit with the way he treated Jesus. More likely is that this was a meal given to entertain and impress his friends, with a special celebrity guest – Jesus the Prophet from Nazareth. Jesus doesn’t seem to have been treated as a guest of honour, since he was extended none of the usual courtesies – his dusty feet were not washed, he was not greeted with a kiss, he was not anointed with oil to cool his forehead. Quite clearly Simon thought of him as just ‘the cabaret’.

We may be surprised that Simon did not keep the rules, because if there’s one thing Pharisees knew about, it’s rules! But perhaps, for him, rules were only kept in public. What he did in his own home was a different matter.

It is interesting that when his party is ruined by a gatecrasher, his anger is expressed not against her, but against Jesus. Why? Because his celebrity guest will not play  according to the usual rules. Jesus refuses to recoil from the touch of a strange woman, to condemn her extravagant display of emotion, or the use of expensive ointment to clean feet. On the contrary, he expresses approval of her actions and takes the opportunity to point out the shortcomings of his host – something a polite guest would not dream of doing.

Because of this, Simon turns on his guest and mentally demotes him from his star status, reasoning that no truly religious person would react in the way Jesus did to such a scandalous act. We can easily imagine how shocked and angry, even frightened, Simon must have been. Not only was his splendid party ruined; not only was his precious social status threatened by association with a woman of ill-repute; not only were all his guests ritually defiled by her presence in his house; but Jesus – the hope of many Jews – refused to act in accordance with the established rules.

We know that he had completely misunderstood what Jesus’ mission was all about. So, of course, none of us will feel at ease in his shoes – or will we?

Perhaps we have more in common with Simon the Pharisee than we like to think. Do we not prefer our religious occasions to be respectable? Don’t many of us cringe at displays of emotion or enthusiasm in our services? Don’t our churches try to exclude from ministry and membership those whom some sections of society regard as having a ‘bad name’? And when someone we respect in the religious field does not react in the way we expect or when our religious group challenges rather than reinforces our own prejudices, are we not inclined to downgrade the person or the group, and withdraw our support from them?  There is more than a little of Simon the Pharisee in most of us, I fear!

And what of the woman? Do we feel at ease with her unconventional behaviour, her extravagant gesture, her emotion?

Sister Margaret Magdalen, in her book “Transformed by Love” writes about a spirituality workshop when a group of people were invited to role play this scene. The young woman who was asked to play the gatecrasher listened in silence while ‘Simon’ berated her and ‘Jesus’ for their behaviour, and ‘Jesus’ defended himself and her. Then she blazed out with these words:(pp 42-43 )

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All right, she said, Let me tell you how it feels to be a woman in this situation. You men can approach Jesus without impediment, whenever you like. There are no rules to say this is ‘not done’. Those who love him, such as his disciples, are free to be with him night and day. They enjoy his company, sit at his feet, drink in his words, watch him at prayer, accompany him on his travels, witness his miracles, act as his agents, share in some of his most intimate moments with his Father…. Apart from the times when he seeks solitude, they have him the whole time. But when can a woman get near him to enjoy his company? .. A woman’s life can be totally changed by an encounter with Jesus, but from then on she is expected to keep a respectable distance from him.

Women may love him with a burning devotion, but what avenues are open to them for showing it?

Don’t you understand my crying need? Yes literally crying need. What is so embarrassing about that? Why can’t you men cope with tears or understand their language? Don’t you realise what I was saying by them?

And the gesture, the pouring out of the ointment? Why were you so uptight about this? Do you not understand anointing and its implications?

If you want the truth, this was a baptism of love. I longed for him to baptise me, but that was not appropriate, for he didn’t baptise people himself. Yet I knew I was bound to him in bonds of covenant love for life. So I decided to reverse the act and baptise him, in the water of my tears; to pour oil over his head, and to show by this act that I renounced evil, that I turned to him, that I believed and trusted in him; to show that I intended to make a lifelong commitment to him; to assure him that I would suffer with him, die with him if need be, and follow him to my life’s end.

Love has to be expressed. You cannot dam it up by conventions and rules. I don’t care how people interpreted my act and what insinuations they chose to make. He understood and that is all that matters. He accepted the expression of my love as a pure thing. He saw the heart that longed to be united to him. He interpreted my tears as sacramental and the anointing as symbolic. He saw me not as a prostitute, but as a priest.

Do her words ring bells with you? The book was written in 1989, when women were excluded from priestly ministry in many denominations. Both the story of the gatecrasher at the dinner party, and the passage that follows, describing the women who followed and supported Jesus in his ministry, remind us Jesus did not practise such exclusion – so why did we in the churches for so long, and why do we still do so for some orders of ministry?

Actually, the only shoes in which we Christians should feel at ease in this incident  are those of Jesus.

Jesus was the only person in this incident who could say (in Catherine Tate’s catch-phrase) “Am I bovvered?” Jesus didn’t seem to be worried by conventions. If they were kept, he accepted them; if they were broken, he accepted that too. It made no difference to his peace of mind or his self-image. His host failed to show him the normal courtesies when he arrived; Jesus didn’t make a fuss. He accepts Simon for what he is. A strange woman, her hair loose and obviously in distress, bursts in upon an all-male gathering, and Jesus calmly goes on with his meal. The woman weeps at his feet, anoints them with ointment, wipes them with her hair and covers them with kisses, and Jesus is not in the least disturbed. He accepts her and her ministry to him as he has accepted the ministry of other ‘unclean’ people before her.

The only thing that Jesus won’t accept, it seems, is Simon’s hypocrisy and total lack of sympathy for the woman. If Simon had been a leper, he knew what it was like to be shunned by religious people, excluded from normal society, and treated as less than human. However, now he was safely back in society and in control of his situation again, he could not extend to another the compassion he must have longed for when he was an outcast. His only security was in insisting the rules must be kept – and Jesus condemned that in the parable he told.

Both our Gospel and the passage we heard from Paul’s letter to the Galatians remind us that in the Kingdom of Heaven we are accepted by grace, not law. For those who are ‘in Christ’, rules, rituals, conventions and worldly standards have no place. The only thing that matters is that we love God, and respond to his acceptance  of us with the same extravagance that Jesus showed in living and dying for us.

It is love, not keeping to the rules that allows our sins to be forgiven. It is love, not ritual that allows us to join Christ at his table. And it is the depth of our love. not law that makes us Christ’s ministers, prophets and priests.

“Am I bovvered?” by this. Are you?

Given to Hospitality

May 5, 2013

(Acts 16, 9-15; Revelation 21,10 &21,10-22.5; John 5,1-9)

St. Lydia

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.

Baptistry Philippi

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.

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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.

Led by the Spirit

April 28, 2013

 

20-Peters-Vision_Adam-Anderson

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.

The Resurrection

March 31, 2013

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Easter  2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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GIMP fridge_magnetAddress for WWDP Service 2013.

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Majesty and Meekness.

November 25, 2012

 

( Daniel 7, 9-10 & 13-14; Revelation 1, 4b-8; John 18, 33-37)

Religious jokes usually circulate in a number of different versions. Here’s a version of one I’m particularly fond of.

There was once a tornado in the Southern United States so strong that it blew down an angel from Heaven. The folk who found the angel immediately began asking questions. “Tell me,” said one, ” You have seen God. What is he like?”  The angel looked at them and smiled. “SHE is BLACK”, it replied.

If you have read ‘The Shack’ by William Paul Young, you will find it partly reflects the thrust of that joke in its portrayal of God. ‘The Shack’ is a novel, but also a work of theology. It concerns a man called Mack, whose youngest daughter was abducted during a family holiday in the Oregon wilderness. She is never found, but there is evidence in the shack of the title, that she was murdered. Mack’s grief at this destroys his faith in God. Then, one day he slips on an icy driveway when he is going to collect the mail. When he opens the mailbox, there is only one item – a note from God (who the family call Papa) inviting him to go back to the shack. When he gets there, he encounters God the Trinity in the form of three people, and Papa (God the Father) is female and black!

I won’t spoil the book for you if you haven’t read it. But do read it, if you can; it’s one of those life-changing books, that everyone should know.

We are told in many places in the Scriptures, and in the tradition, that God is not a being like us. If you want to talk properly about God, you have to use abstract philosophical concepts, because the use of any human categories limits God in ways that are unacceptable.

But human beings are not very good at imagining things in the abstract, and are even worse at relating to abstract concepts, in the way our faith expects us to relate to God. So all of us fall back on creating pictures in our minds to help us to try to grasp  what God is like.

Genesis 1 tells us that human beings were created in the image of God. Human beings in turn tend to ‘create’ or imagine a God made in their image, a God who is like them or like some category of human being they know.

Today, the last Sunday before Advent, is known in some churches as ‘Christ the King’. The readings direct our thoughts to one human category through which we express what we think God is like, that of a human monarch.

Daniel imagines God holding court in a throne room of a monarch of one the the many empires that conquered the Hebrew kingdom, surrounded by thousands of servants, and acting as both judge and jury, dispensing justice. Before him comes ‘one like a son of man’ a human being who is given power and authority over a major part of the monarch’s dominions.

The book of Revelation also portrays God as an earthly monarch, holding court in great glory and sending out his commanders to fight and defeat his enemies. Jesus is God’s lieutenant, whose enemies shake in fear as he approaches in power through the clouds.

In the reading from John, we have a passage which talks about the monarchs of this world, but which contrasts those with the kingdoms of God and Jesus. When the community who composed the Gospel of John reflected on their experience of the life, death and teaching of Jesus, they realised that the picture of an all-conquering earthly ruler was not the right one to convey the reality of the Kingdom of God. So, when they imagined the confrontation between Pilate, who held earthly power, and Jesus, who embodied the Kingdom of God, Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world”.

That’s not a thought that has had a great deal of influence on the Christian tradition. Most have continued to imagine God the Father, and Christ the Son like secular monarchs, and the coming of God’s Kingdom as an event that will violently destroy all human power systems, punish God’s enemies and install the faithful in positions of earthly power.

We tend to ignore the hints in the Scriptures that the reign of God is something quite different. Daniel says that God’s ruler will be one like ‘a son of man’, that is with the limitations of human beings, not overwhelming power.

Revelation says that Jesus Christ brought us into the Kingdom as priests (all of us, not just the ordained!) through his faithfulness, and through the shedding of his blood. Jesus in John rejects secular definitions of power and authority, and stands by Truth, even when it means his own death. Jesus came to show us  the truth about a different kind of God and a different way of being a monarch.

The way we think about God and Christ and the nature of their kingdom is not just theory. It affects the way we think it is right to act, in everything from the nature of our ministry, what sin is and how we escape its consequences, to the way we conduct our civic relationships and settle our differences.

Another book which I found life changing is one by the American theologian, Marcus J Borg, called “The God We Never Knew”. It is all about how he moved from the image of God he was taught in his childhood, which became increasingly unsatisfactory as he grew up and studied, to a way of thinking about God and living with God that he never knew as a child, a way that was consistent with the Bible and the tradition, but which made sense to a 21st century mind.

The concept of God with which Borg (and perhaps many of us) grew up was of a supernatural being ‘out there’ far away, who created the world a long time ago. The best metaphors for this  being are King or Judge, or an authoritarian patriarchal father, totally different and separate from us, all knowing and all powerful. Sometimes, he (this being was always thought of as masculine) intervened in the world, in the sort of events described in the Bible. But essentially this God was not here, but somewhere else. If we were good enough, and believed strongly enough, and abased ourselves enough about the sins we committed, we might be allowed to be with this being after death.

Borg calls this way of thinking about God ‘supernatural theism’ or ‘the monarchical model’. Because human beings need something concrete to speak to, when Borg worshipped or prayed, his picture of God was based on the Lutheran pastor who led the services in his church each Sunday – a big man, with grey hair and a black robe, who always shook his finger as he preached. So Borg saw God as the big eye-in-the-sky, always watching, always disapproving, always judging.

But as he grew older, studied theology and read the works of theologians such as John Robinson and Paul Tillich, he came to a different understanding of God, panentheisim. This thinks of God as all around us, within us, but also more than everything. What is more, we are within God. God is constantly creating, constantly nurturing, constantly present in the world, but is infinitely more than the world. In this model, the best metaphors for God are Abba/Daddy, lover, mother, Wisdom, companion on the journey. Borg calls this way of thinking about God ‘The Spirit model’. The concrete image which sums up this picture of  God for him is of his wife, a priest, bending down to give a small child who is kneeling at the altar rail the consecrated bread. He says: “I was struck by the difference: an image of God as a male authority figure, shaking his finger at us versus the image of God as a beautiful loving woman bending down to feed us”.( p.71)

Borg emphasises that both the monarchical model of God and the Spirit model are true to the Bible and to the tradition, and have nurtured Christian belief and worship through the ages; but he argues that supernatural theism is becoming more and more difficult to maintain alongside a modern world view.

Throughout history, the male, distant, King and Judge model has been the dominant one, at times the only one that was allowed. This has had consequences for our church organisation, particularly the insistence that you had to be a human male in order to speak for and represent this ‘male’ God.

But the loving, nurturing, female model is there, in the Scriptures and the tradition too,  if you look for it. One of the names used for God in the Old Testament, El Shaddai,  can be translated as the all sufficient one, the providing one, God as a mother who feeds us from her own substance – an image taken up again in the 1st Epistle of Peter and the writings of Julian of Norwich.  In different places in the Bible God is spoken of as a mother bear, a mother eagle, a mother hen, and as a caring parent, leading her toddlers with reins to keep them safe.

When you come to think of Christ the King according to this model, you get a very different picture from the rather triumphalist image of the commander of armies of angels who will come in power to defeat and punish the wicked. You get a picture of a servant ruler, who sustains and nurtures and comforts her people, who works to repair relationships and reconcile the divided parts of her realm. You get the Scandinavian welfare monarchy rather than Henry V.

And if that’s the image you carry in your mind of our divine monarch, then you will have a very different picture of what living under God’s sovereign rule is all about. If Christ is our authority, then Christ’s agenda takes priority – striving for peace and justice for all, turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, sacrificing your good for the good of others, even your enemies. If we are living in Christ’s Kingdom, it’s not about conquest or power, it’s not about saying one group of people are better or holier or better able to represent God than another;  it’s about sacrifice and service; it’s about rejecting systems  that oppress and reject people; it’s about a completely different reality that works within human secular systems to subvert them and transform them into systems of justice, peace and love.

What we celebrate as we think of Christ the King is the foolishness of God, who redeems through sacrifice and servanthood, who lifts our humanity to the divine, who leads us with infinite tenderness to fulness of life: the monarch whose majesty is shown through meekness.

Pattern for Discipleship

July 22, 2012

 

St. Mary Magdalene. 22nd July

2 Cor. 5, 14-17; John 20, 1-2 & 11-18.

Mary Magdalene, who the Church remembers and celebrates today, has always been a favourite saint of mine. I’ve known the date of her feast day since I was a small child: when my parents were married, my father was RC and my mother wasn’t, so they weren’t allowed any of the trimmings for their wedding in a Catholic church – but because it was the feast day of Mary Magdalene, they got flowers, since the church was decorated in honour of her.

Then, as a grown up woman, I came to have a special affection for her, because, among all the female saints, she is one of the few who seems human enough to be person whom women today could try to emulate.

Even if Mary Magdalene is not the same person as the ‘woman who lived a sinful life’ of Luke 7.37 (and modern scholars say she’s not), she is clearly a very different sort of person  from the virgins, mystics, queens and wives and mothers who have usually been seen as suitable female candidates for canonisation. Her story offers hope and encouragement  to those who may have experienced the darker side of life, and yet who have been transformed and saved by encountering the love of God in Jesus. She is truly our sister in Christ.

Mary Magdalene is a particular inspiration to women ministers such as me, since in her we have the strongest evidence that Jesus accepted and used the ministry of women. If the qualifications for being called an apostle are that you were a companion of Jesus in his earthly life, an eyewitness of the resurrection, and were sent by Jesus to proclaim the good news to a specific group of people, then Mary Magdalene has a strong claim to the title of the first apostle. The Eastern Orthodox Church gives her that title: ‘Apostle to the Apostles’. How then can anyone say that women can’t be part of the apostolic succession?

By virtue of our baptism, we are actually all called to be apostles – to proclaim the gospel – and Mary Magdalene has important things to teach us about how we do that.

She shows us who Jesus calls to proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven – not the clever, the rich, the respectable, the influential; he called the poor, the broken, the outcasts. He turned the world’s standards of who was suitable upside-down.

Mary Magdalene wasn’t a prostitute, as she has so often been portrayed in art and literature; but the New Testament tells us that Jesus cured her of seven devils. Since, in biblical language, seven is the number of totality, these stories tell us she was regarded as completely possessed, completely in the power of evil, so far gone as to be beyond the reach of ordinary help, and so, completely separate from normal society.

Jesus wasn’t deterred by this. He touched her, he talked to her, he let her accompany him on his journeys, he gave her work to do for him, as he did with so many others who were sick, sinful and outcast. His total loving acceptance of all these damaged, rejected people, while they were still sick, sinful and outcast, transformed them into saints and messengers for him.

We are called to do the same. But do we?

It is so easy for us to fall back into the attitudes of the Scribes and Pharisees described in the Gospels; to try to make sure that only the pure and the perfect are admitted to our fellowship, and given authority in our churches. If we found in our congregation a woman who has achieved a high position in business or education, and another who shouts out during the service and eats all the biscuits in coffee time – which would we welcome, and which would we try to persuade to worship elsewhere? But which is the Magdalene?

Let me give you another example of what this means: http://www.episcopalcafe.com/daily/faith/why_are_youth_in_church.php

The the story of Mary Magdalene shows us how we should respond to the love of God in Christ. Jesus gave Mary freedom – from possession by evil and enslavement to Satan. Her response was immediately to give up that freedom, and to become his devoted slave. We are told in Luke 8.3 that Mary and other women who had been healed by Jesus, used their own resources to support him. She was clearly quite a wealthy woman, perhaps a widow or someone who ran her own business. Being exorcised from her demons would have allowed Mary to return to her normal life, to make money, to build a home and have a family, all the sorts of things a woman in her society was supposed to do. Instead she became a sort of ‘camp follower’ of Jesus and his disciples, so putting herself straight back into the category of the excluded again.

The total commitment that Mary Magdalene showed is what God in Christ demands of us. Again and again, in his teaching and in his parables, Jesus says that the only proper response to the call of the Kingdom of heaven is total commitment and unconditional obedience; “Go, sell all that you have, and follow me!”.

In baptism, we become the adopted children of God; but we also promise to be Christ’s faithful servants until the ends of our lives – and servants have to do as they are told, and go where they are sent. That is something we find hard to do. We want to do what we want with our lives and our property, rather than what God may want us to do with them.

Mary Magdalene give us a pattern of self-sacrifice and obedience to imitate. She continued in loving service to Jesus, even when she believed him to be dead and buried. What could such devotion and obedience mean in our lives? What have we got to offer, that God wants to use to build the Kingdom?

The final lesson we can learn about discipleship from Mary Magdalene is perhaps the hardest of all for us to accept. Mary gave her life to Jesus totally. Even after his death, that devotion continued. We can only imagine the extravagance of her joy when she heard his voice saying her name, and found he was no longer confined to the tomb. All she wanted to do was to hold on to him.

But then came the apparent rejection: “Don’t touch me. Don’t cling on to me . Go and tell………”

Mary was told to leave everything that was familiar to her about Jesus behind, and to go away in faith to take the message of the new life that was available in him. How hard she must have found that to do.

Her story shows us that, before we can take the Good News to others, we may have to stop clinging to things that prevent us from getting the message across. Many things may do this: traditional church structures, familiar music, buildings, the way we’ve always done things. The words Jesus spoke to Mary in the story in John’s Gospel, warn us of the danger of holding on too tight to things that are not central to the Gospel. Jesus says to us that we must be ready to let go of such things, however much they seem to be a part of how we know him. Only when we let go of these peripheral things will we find him, alive and already at work in the world around us.

Welcome as disciples those who don’t quite fit the usual pattern; respond with everything you’ve got; and don’t cling to things that limit God’s mission: the pattern for discipleship that Mary Magdalene offers us today.

Eternal God, Mary Magdalene was sent to proclaim the resurrection: in your mercy give us the courage to proclaim your forgiveness and peace.

Hymn for Mary Magdalene

Sonnet 

Mad or Bad?

June 10, 2012


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

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

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

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

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

So, how are we to judge?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surprise!

April 8, 2012

(Acts 10, 34-43; Mark 16,1-8.)

Last month all the ministers of the Watford churches received a bag of goodies from the young people of  ‘Love Watford’ with an offer to pray for them and with them during Holy Week. Among the other delights in the bag was a Kinder Easter egg.

I always used to appreciate it when people gave my children or me one of these eggs. With it, you get the pleasure of a chocolate fix, but it doesn’t stop there.  The experience goes on, because inside the egg there is a ‘surprise’, which you have to extricate from its tomb like capsule. Then you have to think about it, and, more often than not, you have to construct the toy or puzzle for yourself from all the bits inside. Only then can you really recognise what your ‘surprise’ is.

It seems to me that the story of the Resurrection which we find in chapter 16 of Mark’s Gospel (the first 8 verses written by Mark, not all the other bits that people dissatisfied with Mark’s version added later) is very like a Kinder Surprise egg. You get the joy and sweetness of the proclamation that Christ has been raised; but then comes the surprise and the puzzle.

The account contains a number of surprises. The women who witnessed the crucifixion and the burial of Jesus go to the tomb. They are worrying about who will be available to move the heavy stone that seals the tomb entrance for them. But ‘Surprise!’,  the stone has already been rolled back, They go with spices to anoint the body; but ‘Surprise!’ there is no body. The women expect the tomb to contain a dead body; but ‘Surprise!’ it contains a living person, the young man in white. He gives them a message for the disciples; and ‘Surprise!’ they are told Jesus has been raised, and will be seen back in Galilee, where they first got to know him.

Mark’s narrative also contains a number of puzzles. There is the puzzle of the women going to the tomb 36 hours after the burial, to anoint the body with spices, when it has already been wrapped in linen, and would have begun to smell. There is the puzzle of why they did not think to take someone stronger with them to deal with the stone.

Then there is the young man in white they find in the tomb. Who is he?  A young man in white appeared in Mark’s account of the arrest of Jesus. Is this meant to be the same young man? Some commentators think this is the writer of the Gospel himself, who ran away like the other followers during the arrest, but was the first to understand and experience the resurrection. The other gospel writers turn him into an angel, or even two! Or is he symbolic? – of those who are baptised and clothed in white, but run away, deserting their baptismal faith at the first sign of trouble; but later come to experience the forgiveness of the resurrected Christ, and return to belief and discipleship.

There is no detailed explanation of how Jesus has been raised;  Mark just says the tomb is empty. The women are told to inform the disciples, and instruct them to go to Galilee where they will meet him. Why Galilee? The other Gospels have resurrection appearances in Jerusalem for the most part. The early church, as we see from Acts, was based in Jerusalem. So what is the significance of Galilee?

More puzzles: there are no appearances of Jesus to give clues as to what sort of resurrection, physical or spiritual is taking place; and the story tells us the women ran away in terror, and told no-one. So how did the news of the resurrection spread, and how did the disciples find out about it?

Mark’s resurrection story is not one for people who like everything explained, everything cut and dried, all the i’s dotted and the t’s crossed. It  is a resurrection story for those who want to ponder and puzzle about faith, and to work things out for themselves, and with their faith community, and keep coming back to find deeper meaning in the story.

Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan suggest that it is helpful to treat the resurrection account as a parable. This approach does not require us to pass judgement on whether any of the elements of the story are historical or not. It simply looks at what meaning the story is trying to convey.

So Mark tells us that Jesus was laid in a tomb – but the tomb could not hold him – the stone was removed and he was not there. The tomb is a place for the dead – and Jesus is not to be found there. Jesus has been raised. Mark reminds us that the body was of a person crucified by order of the authorities. Jesus was rejected by the Jewish religious authorities and executed by the Roman political power; they said ‘no’ to Jesus’s way of living. God, however has raised Jesus; God says ‘yes’ to Jesus and vindicates him.

In Mark the disciples are told they will see Jesus again and in order to do this, they have to go back to Galilee – back to the place where it all started, back to the beginning, back to the proclamation of the way and the Kingdom. That is where they will see Jesus again, this is where their faith will be renewed, this is where they will know the forgiveness of Jesus and be able to start again, knowing that Jesus is alive and always will be, without limitation of time or space.

We simply don’t know what happened  in those first few weeks and months after Jesus was executed. We don’t know how long it was before all the remaining disciples and followers of Jesus came to the realisation that the crucifixion was not the end, but the beginning of a new life in which Jesus was seen and known through the Spirit. The New Testament uses picture language to describe the  Resurrection, the Ascension, and the coming of the Holy Spirit. It uses sacred time scales: ‘after three days’,  ‘after 40 days’ to speak of the coming of the Holy Spirit, through which the followers of Jesus knew his presence and strength to be with them again.

We do not know how soon the sharing of bread and wine (as we shall do in a few moments) became the defining moment of communion with the Risen Lord. We do not know who searched the Hebrew Scriptures to find passages and prophecies to illuminate and express their experience of the life and death and resurrection of their crucified master, and to affirm their belief that he was God’s Messiah and God’s favoured Son.

We do know that the questions were answered in several different ways, and that the pieces of the puzzle that were discovered in the tomb were put together by different groups to give slightly different answers; and we know that some of those answers were collected together in what we now know as the New Testament, to inform and guide our thinking about the significance of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for our time.

We do know that the followers of Jesus were transformed by their experiences of meeting the Risen Lord, from frightened men and women, into a congregation fired by the power of the Spirit, which enabled them to proclaim their faith in life and in death, and which gave birth to the Christian church which spread throughout the entire world, and is still growing.

We know that, however we understand what happened in Jerusalem and Galilee two thousand years ago, it continues to provide inspiration and meaning to us and our fellow Christians, and to reveal the surprise and puzzle of the love and forgiveness of God to us, again and again.

That inspiration enables us to face the pain and suffering and abuse of power that still scar the lives of so many people in the world today, and to affirm that if we face them without resorting to violence or hatred, as Jesus did; if we continue to follow in the way that Jesus showed us; and to affirm the values of the Kingdom that Jesus lived and died for, we too will be raised by God from the old selfish life that ends in death to the life that never ends.

So we can say, as we say every year:

‘Surprise!’

‘Christ is risen!’

‘He is risen indeed!’

‘Alleluia!’

‘Amen!’

All Saints. Fra Angelico

(Daniel 7, 1-3; Luke 6, 20-31)

I don’t think we’re supposed to have favourites among the Christian festivals – we’re supposed to approach them all with the same anticipation. But, being human, I suspect that we all have our favourites, and All Saints is one of mine.

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I was baptised, confirmed and married in churches dedicated to All Saints (or All Hallows in the case of the last two). I know it has something to do with the good hymns we get to sing on the festival, particularly the All Saints hymn, ‘For All The Saints’, with its splendid Vaughan Williams tune, and inspiring words by Bishop How.

But I think that most of my fondness for the festival comes from the fact that this commemoration of all the ‘little’ saints – those not considered important enough to have books, or days, or even in most cases, churches, named after them – does lead me to believe that the name of ‘saint’ could really be applied to all of us, as it was to all members of the congregations of the early church. That somehow through persistence and through God’s grace, and perhaps because of one particular act, we too could attain that ‘blest communion, fellowship divine’ of which today’s hymns and prayers speak.

For the great saints – the giants of the church who wrote gospels or major works of mysticism, or founded religious orders or reform movements – do seem so very distant from the rest of us mere mortals, don’t they? How well Bishop How sums up our feelings when we read about them: “We feebly struggle, they in glory shine”!

The ‘little’ saints we remember today seem much more in our league; achieving sanctity perhaps by one act of courage, one supreme time of witness for their faith, or a lifetime of holy ordinariness. Now remembered only in the small communities in which they lived, and by the wider church on just this one festival.

It is therefore ironic to remind ourselves that the commemoration of saint began, not with the great leaders of the early church, but with these little local saints.

From about he second century, the inspired pastors and martyrs of the early Christian communities began to be remembered by services at their tombs on the anniversaries of their deaths. Then churches were built over these tombs and dedicated to them; but these festivals were all local ones. The first patron saints of churches were remembered only by their friends, families and local communities – as most of us will hope to be after we die.

It was only later that the major church figures were allotted their ‘feast days’ and the celebrations extended to involve the whole church. This continued until the church calendar became choked with these feast days, with one or more saints to be remembered on every day of the year.

All these early saints were ‘patron saints’. They served as an example and an inspiration to those who worshipped in the place that bore their name; and if saints have a function in the life of the Church, this task of inspiring and exemplifying would seem to be it.

One of the  things the Pope did on his recent visit to the UK was to declare Cardinal John Henry Newman ‘blessed’, the first step on the road to sainthood. Since the Reformation, the Church of England has had no machinery for canonising its leaders and heroes. However, the need to designate those who were felt to provide a proper example for others to follow continued to be felt.  In 1958, a commission reported to the Lambeth Conference on what should be taken into account when choosing those who might be commemorated in the official calendar of the Church. Apart from stating that they ought to be people whose lives and histories were well attested (that’s when we lost St George, who turned out to be largely mythical!) and of whose sanctity there was no doubt, the commission also advised that they should be people whose lives have ‘excited other people to holiness’ people who so manifested the light of Christ in their lives and achievements that the Christian community can learn about it from them.

Those early church communities had their ‘patron saints’ chosen for them by the fact that he or she lived and sometimes died among them. But how, I wonder, should we go about choosing a patron saint for ourselves today?

At one time  especially in Roman Catholic countries, a child would be named after the saint on whose feast-day it was born – and that saint would automatically become its patron saint.  When a French penfriend gave me a full list of saint’s days, I discovered that under this system, I should have been called ‘Honoré’ – a saint of whom I was not able at that time to discover anything further! I now find (thanks to Wikipedia) that he was a 6th century bishop of Amiens, and patron saint of bakers and pastry chefs. Not really much like me, I have to say!

St Honoré Cake

Using the same system with the ASB and Common Worship calendar, my birthday saint turns out to be

George Herbert

George Herbert – priest, poet and pastor, 1633 – again, not a very appropriate role model for a twentieth century working wife and mother!

If you are given a fairly traditional name, you can adopt the saint with the same name as your patron saint – even if, as in my case, it turns out to be someone whose life story is wholly apocryphal. But what of the Tracys, Emmas and Darrens – where are the saints for them to follow?

Another traditional way of choosing a patron saint was through your occupation. All the mediaeval trade guilds had their patron saints, and some of the connections are still remembered today. I attended a school founded by a member of the Haberdashers’ Company, whose saint was Catherine of Alexandria, and we were told the story of her martyrdom each year on her feast day, 25th November. Doctors can look to St Luke and carpenters to St Joseph, and tax collectors to St Matthew, musicians to St Cecilia. But what of more recently invented trades and professions? A review I read of Butler’s ‘Lives of the Saints’ suggests some appropriate choices. St

St Basilissa

Basillissa martyred in the third century, and patron saint of those with chilblains, might serve for chiropodists; and St Appollonia, and aged deaconess, who had all her teeth pulled out, and who is usually depicted clutching a pair of pincers which hold a tooth, might be appropriate for dentists; and since carpenters are now not so common, perhaps St Joseph, who is also, I’m told, the patron saint of house hunters, might be persuaded to transfer his patronage to estate-agents!

All very entertaining! But this rather light-hearted survey of possible patron saints does highlight a serious difficulty for us in making the choice. If the function of saints is that their lives should ‘excite us to sanctity’ then surely there needs to be some real point of contact between their lives and ours. Yet, the problem  with most of the saints who we are offered as role-models is that they lived so long ago, and in such a different world from the one we inhabit, that those essential points of contact are lacking.

This is particularly so for women. If you look through the old calendar of saints almost all the handful of women mentioned there were either nuns or virgin martyrs. The ASB improved things a little: its calendar had 10 women out of 76 saints; Common Worship

St Appolonia

has 47 women out of 238 individuals worthy of being commemorated as examples of sanctity by the church. Are men really that much more saintly than men?

The ASB calendar had only three women who were not either virgin martyrs or celibate religious: Anne the mother of the Virgin Mary ( whose live is entirely legendary); Margaret, who was queen of Scotland as well as ‘wife and mother’, so not much of an example to commoners, and the most recently introduced, Josephine Butler, social reformer, wife and mother – the only person in that calendar of saints and heroes of the faith whose life style was anything like what modern  working wives and mothers might experience. It was no surprise to learn she was the most modern of the ASB women saints – she died in 1907. Common Worship added more women to the list – but still very few modern married women or mothers: Mary Sumner, founder of the Mothers’ Union and Henrietta Barnett, social reformer alongside her husband Samuel are two of the few who lived in the early 20th century.

The commission who completed the list was instructed that no-one should be included who had not been dead for at least 50 years; but this

Josephine Butler

attempt to preserve the list of heroes and heroines of the church from ‘the cult of the passing moment’ has also left it bereft of role models for working mums, employees of multi-national corporations, and all those who try to live the Christian life in an era of mass-communication, the internet, multiracial societies and space travel.

For some, perhaps most Christians, this is not a problem, and they do find man and women whose lives ‘excite them to holiness’ in the official approved lists of saints and heroes of the church.  But for others, including me, the official ‘saints’ are almost all too remote to be inspirations for our Christian pilgrimage.

Perhaps we should, then, go back to the example of those second century congregations, whose festivals and dedications began the whole business of ‘saints’ and pick our ‘patron saints’ from among those who live our sort of life in our sort of community, in our own time – with or without the official blessing of the church.

What do you think?

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