Metaphors for God

May 26, 2013

Rublev_OT_Trinity(Proverbs 8, 1-4, 22-31; Romans 5, 1-5; John 16, 12-15)

Today we mark the one festival in the Church’s year which celebrates a doctrine, rather than an event or a person. Belief in God as Trinity is one of the cornerstones of our faith – yet it is something that most preachers find it difficult to preach about. So much so that JHR, a previous Vicar of mine, later a Bishop, once told me ‘the wise preacher always arranges to be away on holiday on Trinity Sunday’; and someone else advised the preacher on Trinity Sunday to “say nothing and just show pictures of kittens” to make everyone feel good.

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Why are preachers so reluctant to preach on Trinity Sunday? Because it is almost impossible to do so without falling into explaining it in a way that has been denounced as heretical at some time in church history. Belief in the Trinity is set out in the three Creeds – the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, and most comprehensively, in the Athanasian Creed (which Anglicans are supposed to use on Trinity Sunday, but rarely do nowadays!) But these are felt to be too complicated for ordinary folk in the pews to understand. So preachers resort to metaphors to try to explain it more simply.

I’m sure we’ve all heard them at some time or other: God the Trinity is like a shamrock, one plant with three leaves; God the Trinity is like a person who plays different roles in their life (mother, daughter, sister), but is the same person; God the Trinity is like water, which can exist as solid, liquid and gas but is still H20; God the Trinity is like an egg, shell, yolk and white, which together make up a complete egg; God the Trinity is like an electric cable,which consists of positive, negative and earth cable; and so on. But all of these fall into the trap of committing one heresy or another. If you can find it, there is a funny cartoon film on the internet  called ‘St Patrick’s Bad Analogies” in which St Patrick tries to draw simple analogies to explain the Trinity to two Irish peasants, only to be told they are all heretical; so he gives up and quotes the Athanasian Creed to them instead!

So how did we end up with a central doctrine so difficult to explain?

The doctrine of the Trinity was something that developed slowly, out of the experience of the first disciples. As they reflected on their life with Jesus, and as they lived on after the Resurrection, inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit, they came to realise that both Jesus and the Spirit shared the character of the God of Israel they had been taught about in the Torah. So all three were ‘God’ to them.

As the New Testament was written, its authors drew on images from the Hebrew Scriptures (and later also from contemporary Greek philosophy) to try to express their experiences. Our Old Testament reading, from Proverbs, speaks of Wisdom, as something which is of God and from God, but is somehow distinct from God, working alongside God in the creation of the world. Wisdom came to be identified in Christian thought with Jesus, especially in John’s Gospel as the Logos or Word; and with the Holy Spirit.

Though a developed doctrine of the Trinity is nowhere spelt out in the New Testament, there are hints of it. In the letter to the Romans, from which our epistle reading comes, all three persons of the Trinity are present. Paul says that through God, Jesus and the Spirit working together, the believer experiences peace. In John’s Gospel, written towards the end of the first century AD, the writer reflects the experience of the apostles – that what the Spirit teaches follows on from what Jesus has already taught them about the Father. The Spirit’s role is not to dominate but to point beyond itself to Christ, and so to glorify God. Yet, the way which the Spirit leads them is the same way Jesus led them – so Father, Son and Spirit are one.

This recognition of a divine unity of teaching, action and purpose runs through all the New Testament writings. It was not problematic for those first believers, even though they came from a monotheistic background. It was only when the Christian faith moved out into the Graeco-Roman world, and people who didn’t know the historical Jesus began to speculate on how exactly Jesus and the Spirit could be God; and exactly when Jesus became God; and which bits of him were divine and which bits human; and whether there was a hierarchy of divinity within the Godhead; and when philosophers began to try to define exact answers to these questions, and to insist that everyone had to believe the same things, that the doctrine of the Trinity became problematic. Which is not surprising, because such questions are unanswerable, especially several hundred years after the event.

The doctrine of the Trinity uses a metaphor to try to encapsulate the disciples’ experience of God, which is also the experience of those who lived the faith after them.

Jesus taught his followers to call God ‘Abba’ – Daddy. The New Testament writers followed his lead, and used the metaphor of ‘father’ and ‘son’ to describe the relationship between Jesus and God. They were as similar to each other as family members often are – yet were different beings. The same ‘Spirit’ or breath breathed through them, and was part of them both.

The Greek speaking fathers of the church used the term ‘hypostasis’ which means being or manifestation, or underlying reality to refer to each part of God the Trinity. When the creeds and other theological documents were translated into Latin, the word used was ‘persona’, which originally meant a mask worn by an actor, and then came to mean the role played by an actor. Translated into English, the word became ‘person’, which means a human being. Hence our tendency to imagine the Trinity as three people, or two people and a bird, which can be a severe limitation on our concept of God, who is beyond all our  imagination, and not to be limited by human concepts of what a person is and can do.

The language we use about the Trinity is metaphorical. Metaphors point beyond themselves to something that is incomprehensible. That is why to explain the Trinity (a metaphor about God) with other metaphors simply makes a bigger muddle. A metaphor is not an explanation, it is something which helps us to explore, which cannot grasp the whole truth, but which encourages us to keep engaging with the mystery.

But metaphors are limited. The metaphor of the Trinity imagines  God as three – persons, identities, modes of being or whatever. But the Bible, and Christian spiritual writing since speak of God in many more ways than just Father, Son, Spirit, or even Creator, Redeemer, Comforter.

In the Old Testament, God is much more than creator; other names for the divine include, Lord, King, Shield, Rock, Shepherd, Redeemer, Light to the Nations, The Most High. Jesus is is not just Son; he is Saviour, Bridegroom, High Priest, Bread of Life, Head, Teacher. The Spirit also has many names and roles.  The Trinity is just a shorthand for the multitude of  ways that Godself is revealed to us and the infinite number of ways through which we may come to know God.

There is also a tendency for people to confuse the metaphor with the reality. So, because we speak of two of the persons of the Trinity as Father and Son, some people imagine that they can only be spoken of in masculine terms, and represented by males. To speak of God or Jesus as Mother, and feeding us with milk from herself, makes some people uncomfortable, as does referring to any part of the Trinity as ‘she’. But God is not a being, and so is beyond gender, so it should not do.

Perhaps it might be better not to use words, but to use pictures or diagrams. In some churches you will find triangles, representing the Trinity. I like the Rublev icon, known as the Hospitality of Abraham, which represents the Trinity as three androgynous figures, gazing at each other; but it perhaps falls into the trap of making God seem like three human persons. Another representation I find it helpful to meditate on is this ancient Irish symbol, where a continuous line unites the three parts, without ever ending, so illustrating unity in eternity.

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The Greek fathers spoke of the relationship between the persons of the Trinity as ‘perichoresis’ or indwelling – a relationship of perfect unity of will and harmony of action. Some modern scholars have proposed a social doctrine of the Trinity, which reflects perichoresis, saying that that the unity of the Trinity consists in loving relationships. This implies that the doctrine of the Trinity is really all about relationships: the relationships within the Godhead and the relationships between the divine and the human. Within the Godhead there is difference (reflected by the theological language about ‘persons’) but a perfect unity. It speaks against the individualism of our culture for the importance to human flourishing of life in community.

So, perhaps we are just called to accept that the Trinity is part of the mystery that is God, and simply to live it. And that means working out how to reflect, in our individual and church lives, a God who reveals the divine through the Spirit, through the life of Jesus and through the created world.

If we are to live in accordance with our belief in God who is a Trinity of perfect love, unity and co-operation, then we need to find a way of being church that reflects God’s love unity and co-operation.  We are finite corporate beings, living in different environments and with different personalities, so we will all experience God in different ways, and will tend to think that our way of knowing God is best. Living in love and unity will mean not insisting on that.

Trinity Sunday is a yearly reminder to us that if we want to be true to our faith in our lives and our church, then we need to minimise the differences between us and other Christians and concentrate on the relationship with God we share, a relationship of love, of self-sacrifice, of unity of purpose. If we concentrate on that, then perhaps neither the  complicated theological arguments about the doctrine of the Trinity, nor the inadequate metaphors which try to help us understand the doctrine need worry us too much.

And wouldn’t that be a relief?

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Into Temptation…

February 17, 2013

SERMON FOR LENT 1 (YR. C)

(Psam 91, 1-2 & 9-16; Romans 10. 8-13; Luke 4, 1-13)

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When the ICET (International Consultation on English Texts) was working to translate the services of the Church into modern English, one of the phrases which caused them most difficulty was the last but one petition of the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Lead us not into temptation’.

Part of the difficulty stems from the possible meaning of the original Greek of the text in Matthew and Luke, and even of the Hebrew behind that. For instance, the Greek verb translated ‘lead’ could mean taking in an active sense, to lead by going before, or simply to announce. And depending on the understanding of the Hebrew  behind this clause, again it could be active, meaning to cause something to happen; or permissive, to allow something to happen. So, the Syriac version of the New Testament translates this “Do not make us enter into temptation”.

Modern Lord's PrayerAgain, the preposition ‘eis’ and its Hebrew original could imply simply ‘into’ or ‘as far as’ but, more strongly ‘to be placed under the power of’. So, one translation could be “Do not allow us to fall under the power of temptation” that is, be overwhelmed by it.

However, the word which gave the translators most difficulty was the word translated ‘temptation’. The Greek original is found rarely in secular Greek, but very often in Biblical Greek, both in the New Testament and in the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, with a variety of meanings. It can mean simply an attempt; it can mean a test in the sense of testing a metal or testing somebody’s competence or conviction (and in this sense it is often used of God testing human beings). It can mean a malicious attempt to trick someone, and is used in that way of the attempts of the Scribes and Pharisees to catch Jesus out by asking him trick questions. It can be used to mean the seduction into sin which is the usual modern meaning of ‘temptation’.That’s how it is used to describe Satan’s temptation of Jesus in the desert. It can mean a trial or ordeal. It can mean to tempt God. In all of these meanings, the form of noun used implies a continuing process, not a one-off event.

Some interpretations of the text are more difficult for us to accept, not because of they don’t translate the original Greek correctly, but because they run counter to our beliefs about the nature of God, and of human beings.

For instance, we believe that God is good, and wills happiness and good for human beings. So how can we even think that God would deliberately seduce us into sin or put us under the power of evil?

Secondly, it is nonsense to pray that we won’t be tempted, because temptation is part and parcel of the human condition. God gave us free will – but there would be no point in having free will if there were no circumstances in which we were tempted to choose to sin. It is  a mark of being a real human being that we can be tempted to do wrong – and that is why the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is important: it shows that Jesus was, as Hebrews says, “one who in every respect has been tempted as we are”. (Heb. 4.15) The one difference is, as Hebrews goes on to say, “yet without sinning”.

So, if we are not asking God not ever to put us into a situation where we are tempted, and we cannot conceive of God deliberately trying to make us commit sin, what are we asking in this part of the Lord’s Prayer?

Modern translations of the New Testament have used a variety of phrases, most of them designed to express the hope that God will not test us beyond what we can cope with, or allow us to be overwhelmed by temptation.

The Good News Bible has “Do not bring us to hard testing” and the New English Bible “Do not bring us to the test”. The Jerusalem Bible has “Do not put us to the test” and the NRSV “Do not bring us to the time of trial”.

Most of the denominations have used a variation on that last phrase in their modern language Trad Lord's Prayerservices, and pray: “Save us from the time of trial”. You will find this version in the Methodist, the URC, the Roman Catholic and other Anglican churches, such as the New Zealand Church. The Church of England could not agree to use the internationally agreed text, and kept  “Lead us not into temptation”  in their modern language Lord’s Prayer as well as in the traditional language one.   I rather like Jim Cotter’s free modern translation of the Lord’s Prayer, which  has: “In times of temptation and test, strengthen us; from trials too great to endure, spare us; from the grip of all that is evil, free us.”

When we pray this petition, we are asking God to be with us as we face the everyday temptations of human life. We are asking for divine protection when we face situations where the urge to sin becomes overwhelming. We are asking for divine guidance when the prompting of our own nature, or the urging of others, bring us to situations where we may be tempted to flirt with sin. We are asking God not to abandon us when our faith, or our bodies are under assault.

When we face these situations (as all of us will) the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness shows us how God answer this petition of the Lord’s Prayer.

We do not have to take this story literally. Jesus may have had an experience like this when he spent time in the desert after his baptism by John, but since he was alone, and the conversations went on inside his head, how would anyone else have known the details? Mark has the simple statement that ‘he was tempted by Satan’; it is only Matthew and Luke who provide details of the threefold temptations. But these are temptations which Jesus would have faced during his whole ministry, as they are temptations which face any of us who try to bring others into the Kingdom of God. So it is perfectly possible to see the story of the time in the wilderness as a word picture of the temptations of ministry for Jesus and for ourselves.

The first is the temptation to bring people into faith by providing for their material needs alone. Perhaps there are secondary temptations also; to provide the basic necessities of life, but only to those of ‘our’ faith; or the temptation, which is so prevalent in our society, to believe that the accumulation of goods will bring happiness, or is a sign of God’s favour. Jesus answers this by affirming the supreme importance of the spiritual – the Word of God – rather than the material – bread.

The second temptation is to use political power, including force, to bring people to faith. We can all think of examples of Christians giving in to this temptation throughout history – from the way the final texts of the Creeds were arrived at, to the Crusades, and the wars of religion that so disfigured Europe during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Jesus rejects this by quoting from Deuteronomy a verse that insists that worship must be given to God because of God’s character, and not in response to political power or force, which are seen as works of the Devil.

Finally there is the temptation to encourage faith by demonstrations miraculous power, which is, in effect, to tempt God. Again, we can all think of times when churches have tried to prove that they have the one true faith by appeals to signs and wonders, or miraculous cures to which they alone have access.  Jesus again quotes from the Hebrew scriptures which forbid testing out God’s support in this way. During his ministry he always refused to provide miracles ‘to order’ to prove his credentials.

Jesus was saved in his time of trial, and delivered from  evil because of his close relationship with God, and his total reliance on God’s love and support. Psalm 91 assures us that God’s love and support is with us through the difficult times too. For Jesus, his relationship with God was founded on his deep knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures and the tradition (in his case the Jewish tradition), his constant reference to God  through prayer, and his submission to God’s will in humility.

As we face the tests and temptations of our lives, these same resources and this same relationship with God can  save us too from trial and temptation and deliver us from all evil.

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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

Eye of a Needle

October 14, 2012

(Amos 5,6,7,10-15; Hebrews 4, 12-16; Mark 10,17-31)  (Proper 23 Yr B)

An ordained colleague was telling me recently about the conversations he had been having with the two churches he was responsible for, about where their Harvest gifts would go. The plan was for them to support the local Food Bank. One church is situated in a prosperous area. The congregation there gives little in proportion to their income, normally, and they didn’t think food banks were necessary: ‘No-one is in that much need in this country,’ they said.

The other church serves an area of social housing. They have little money but are generous with what they have. They support the food bank because they know it is necessary – some of them have had to use it.

Jesus said: ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God’. The prophet Amos spoke words of judgement against those who trample on the poor and push aside the needy. And the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews warns us that the Word of God is not just theory, but is living and active, and reveals all to the One before whom we are all being judged.

The contemporary church seems to outsiders to spend an awful lot of its time talking about sex, marriage, divorce and sexuality; it doesn’t appear to spend as much time talking about the use of money. Yet, while  there are comparatively few verses in the Bible which talk about sexual morals and marital relationships, it has been estimated that there are anything between 2000 and 2500 that talk about wealth and money. It would seem from that statistic alone, that how we deal with money is more relevant to our life in the Kingdom of God than our sexual morality, important though that is.

Some of these Bible verses state the commonly held belief that earthly riches were a sign of God’s favour. That’s a thread that runs through the Old Testament, especially the Deuteronomic history, and is still current today in those churches that preach a ‘Prosperity Gospel’, which says if you give your money to the church (or more often, to a particular evangelist) you will find favour with God, and he will give back to you one hundred fold. You can even find justification for that view in part of today’s Gospel reading.

But alongside that is another thread, also found in Deuteronomy, which warns that earthly riches bring responsibilities for those living within God’s covenant – responsibilities to those who have little and to those who are unprotected and economically vulnerable, like widows and orphans, and the landless poor. If you claim to be part of God’s holy favoured people, if you live under the covenant, you are obliged to share its benefits fairly.

The prophet Amos pronounced judgement on the people of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the 8th century. They were living in a time of unprecedented prosperity, which allowed some of them to expand their landholdings at the expense of poorer people, and to build themselves houses of stone. It was an unequal society, in which the rich held all the cards and used their wealth to enrich themselves further, cheating the weak by perverting the justice system, taking bribes, and overtaxing the landless poor. Their wealth had blinded them to the needs of their fellow Israelites and hardened their hearts. This was causing the breakdown of society, as it became divided into the haves and the have-nots.  The punishment Amos decreed in God’s name, was that the nation would be defeated by a foreign army, its leading citizens deported, so that they would no longer enjoy their prosperity, and their land would be taken over by strangers; and that is precisely what happened when the Assyrians invaded and occupied Israel and deported its aristocracy in 722BC.

The Mark passages is made up of four separate sections: the story of the rich young man, sayings about wealth, promises of future good fortune to faithful disciples, and the saying about the first shall be last, which is found several times in different contexts in the Gospels.

The story about the rich young man is likely to be more challenging to us than it was to the disciples, or to the people of Mark’s community. Not many of them, we understand from Acts and the epistles, were well off or influential. But we live in one of the wealthy nations of the world, and, however limited our income, however little property we own, we are still far wealthier than the vast majority of the world’s population. I read this morning that around a billion people woke up hungry this morning, not knowing where their next meal would come from. That’s more than the population of the US, Canada and the EU combined.

We are the rich young man. How does his story challenge us?

His question was asked as Jesus and the disciples travelled on the way to Jerusalem. Perhaps that is just an insignificant detail; but perhaps it indicates that this is actually a story about how we follow the Way of Jesus.  The same word  (odos) is used for both, and it was as “the way” that  the first disciples described their faith.

The young man begins by flattering Jesus, by calling him ‘good teacher’. Wealth is always useful for gaining access to people of influence, for buying attention. But as James pointed out in the reading we heard from his letter a few weeks ago, it is how wealthy Christians speak and act towards the poorest members of their fellowship that is the real test of their commitment to Kingdom values. How do we rate ourselves against that standard?

Jesus’s reply turns the focus away from himself, and points the young man towards God and the divine.

He goes on to remind his questioner about the commandments; not all of them, but the six concerned with relationships between humans. And in an echo of the Amos passage, he changes the final commandment from ‘don’t covet’ to ‘don’t defraud’, recognising that the desire for wealth so often leads to criminal activity against the vulnerable.

The young man proudly boasts that he hasn’t broken any of these. We would probably say exactly the same – but Jesus makes clear, that is not enough to meet Kingdom standards and issues the young man a devastating challenge: “O.K. If you really want to be part of the Kingdom life, give it all away and live as I do”.

The story tells us that the man went away shocked, because he was very rich; and we don’t know how the story ends. Mark tells us that Jesus issued his challenge in love, to help the young man to find his true path in life, to recall him to true covenant and Kingdom values. The story leaves open the possibility that, after the initial shock, the man in question did change his values and his way of life. We don’t know, and it is not up to us to judge. Jesus said that with God, even the most unlikely change of heart is possible.

But we do have to ask ourselves, how would we measure up in that scale of things?

Jesus is probably not meaning anyone to take his answer literally, just as he didn’t really expect us to cut off our hands or tear out our eyes if they lead us in to doing wrong. He is using exaggeration to shock us into considering what our basic values are, and whether they measure up to life under the sovereignty of God. Because this is not talking about what happens to us after we die; we are not supposed to live this life with our eye on the next.

The Kingdom of Heaven is a present reality!

It’s about how we live now, how we put into practice the petition in the Lord’s Prayer which asks “Your Kingdom come on earth as in heaven”. In particular it asks us how we view our wealth. Is it something we regard as a gift to be shared with others, and to be used for the enhancement of other people’s lives as well as our own? Or is wealth our true security, to be clutched to ourselves, to be increased no matter who we trample on as we do so, to be preserved for us and for our heirs?

Do we posses our money, or does it posses us?

Our world is full of poor people. Poor in monetary terms, without food or clean water or secure homes or proper sanitation; poor in terms of security, subject to warring factions, or climate change, or natural disasters or corrupt legal systems; poor in educational terms, without access to education or opportunities to use the education they have; or poor in emotional terms, lonely, frightened, confused or in the grip of addiction.

In relation to them, we are wealthy in all those aspects; and our wealth can so easily blind us to their needs, and to the truth that they are our brothers and sisters in the Kingdom, and through Jesus, God asks us to share our wealth with them. Wealth is not a bad thing in itself; it is bad when it functions in a way that insulates us from the realities others live with and blocks our empathy for those who lack what we have been given.

 

We don’t have to give away everything. We don’t even have to give away all our financial resources. We do have to use it not just for ourselves and our own comfort and security, but to advance the comfort and security of all our brothers and sisters in Christ.

We can give time and sympathy and friendship as well as money. We can stand alongside those who are voiceless, and use our position and our access to communications to be advocates for change. We can be for those who are poor what Jesus was for us according to Hebrews “one who sympathises with our weakness”.

The thing that prevents some of the rich from living in the Kingdom is not their wealth, but the way they use it. The encounter between Jesus and the rich young man challenges us to decide how we will use the wealth we have – for the common good, or to trample on the poor.

A final image to take away with you. Jesus illustrates the problem by using what was probably a well known saying of the time, about the impossibility of pushing a camel through the eye of a needle. Its a lovely image and a striking one. One interpretation of it says the eye was not a literal one, but a narrow gate in a city wall. I understand that such a gate is pointed out to tourists in Jerusalem. But I feel that spoils the humour, and diminishes the impact of the saying.

But I also read in Morna Hooker’s commentary on Mark, that it is possible that the word ‘camel’ (camēlon) was a mistranscription of the word camĭlon, which means rope.

At first I thought that too would spoil the joke, but then I thought it could provide a good illustration of the point the story was trying to make.  If you try to push a rope through the eye of a needle, it won’t go. It’s like a rich person whose wealth ties him or her up in their own interests. But if you unravel it, and push the individual strands through one by one, it will go. It’s like a rich person who is not bound by their wealth but is prepared to unravel it and share it.

So which are we? A camel or a tightly bound rope, which will never get us through the eye of a needle into KIngdom life?

Or the individual threads of a rope unravelled, shared between many, so that all can go into the Kingdom through the eye of the needle of God’s sharp word?

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.

All you need is Love?

May 13, 2012

Easter 6 Year B     (Acts 10,44-48; 1 John 5,1-6; John 15,9-17)

Some of the older ones among you may remember the Beatles song “All you need is Love’.  It was first performed  on June 25th 1967 as the UK contribution to the first live global TV broadcast, made possible by a new satellite link. John Lennon, who wrote it, said he thought it had a message which everyone around the world could understand.

It was a very ’60’s’ sort of song! In the church, the same sort of attitude that inspired the song led to the advocacy of something called ‘situation ethics’. This said that when you face a moral decision, you don’t need set rules – all you need to do is decide what course of action would be the most loving thing to do. Paul Tillich, the theologian wrote “Love is the best law” and one of my great heroes in the faith, John Robinson, the radical Bishop of Woolwich, also supported situation ethics at first, saying this was the only sort of ethics appropriate to ‘man come of age’ – though he later withdrew his support, saying that the use of situation ethics would lead to a descent into moral chaos.

The sort of love which this theory was talking about was ‘agape’ – absolute, unchanging, unconditional love for all people, regardless. This is precisely the sort of love we see demonstrated in the life and death of Jesus.

When you read the writings of the community of John the Evangelist in the New Testament – the Gospel and the three Epistles – you might think that “All you need is Love” was a summary of their teaching on the faith. But would that be true?

Certainly agape love is very important in their theology. It forms the main topic of the first Epistle  which is the third reading for today. For John’s community, God is love, and those who live in loving relationship with everyone in their community, live in God.  It is only when we love God that we can love the children of God; and we show our love for God by obeying his commandments, which when carried out in love, are not burdensome.

The gospel passage, which  continues from last Sunday’s reading, and continues to use the metaphor of the Vine to describe the relationship  between Jesus and his followers, also talks about love – the sort of love that leads a person to lay down their lives for others. This is  what should be the distinguishing characteristic of Jesus’s disciples.

And how do we learn about this sort of love?  Most modern psychologists would say that we learn first from our families, and they are right. In an ideal family (an ideal that few of us achieve, because we are human and fallible!) children are given from birth that absolute, unchanging, unconditional love, which enables them to grow into whole, confident adults, able to love everyone else with the love they were once given. But that sort of love is ‘family love’ and only a few people learn to extend it to those outside their families.

We also learn to love from our communities, especially, we would hope,  our church communities. But church communities are made up of fallible humans too, and it is not surprising that they tend have exactly the same quarrels, disagreements and rifts that secular communities suffer from. But, at their best, churches can be schools of love.

The message of the Johannine writings, however,  is that we learn best about this sort of love from God – and in particular from his Son, Jesus Christ, who was sent into the world to live out a life that was all love.

Because agape love comes from God, John’s community indicates that we do need more than just ‘love’ if we are to be faithful members of Christ’s body on earth – and in that they are supported by other New Testament writers.

The Gospel passage we heard came from the part of John’s Gospel known as the Farewell Discourse. Jesus is about to be betrayed and crucified – and in this last address to his disciples, John’s community portrays him as trying to prepare them for life without his physical presence – trying to prepare them for a situation in which they will be his body on earth – a body dedicated to loving action and service.

So, first of all, Jesus emphasises the importance of community. He speaks of himself as the Vine. Not just as the trunk, or the stump, you notice, but the whole Vine – roots, trunk, branches, leaves and fruit and all. His followers, he says are the branches – so they are intimately a part of him – and it is these branches which will bear fruit to feed the world. Christ will bear fruit through us, the metaphor says – but only if we remain connected to him, and through him to God,  and only if we stay connected to everyone else in his fellowship of love.  It is a major challenge to the individualism that is so prevalent today.

A second important element ensuring that we remain in Jesus is his Word. The Gospel passage  we heard and the Epistle we didn’t hear say that if we love God we will obey God’s commandments. These are not a burden, like the Law of the Old Testament. Rather, they are a series of guidelines which set out the way of love which Jesus lived, and therefore the way we should live.

Prayer is another important element emphasised by John.  In prayer we listen to God’s word, and in prayer we are able to share our concerns with God. We are not meant to be Christians on our own – we need to be in communication with God and with each other if we are to bear fruit. Keeping in touch with Christ and with God our Father and our fellow Christians through prayer is another channel through which we are nourished in the faith.

Our human, imperfect love is fed through the gift of the Holy Spirit. John’s Epistles and Gospel  emphasise that it is the Spirit who enables Christians to testify to the Truth; and in Acts we hear how the Spirit led Peter to Cornelius. Then we hear how the gift of the Spirit to Cornelius and his household, even before their baptism,  persuaded him that these Gentiles should be admitted to the Christian community. In other passages in the New Testament we hear how the Spirit inspires us to speak and act with courage and with love. Through remaining in the Vine, we are fed by the Spirit and our faith and love are strengthened. The Spirit gives us constant assurance as we act and as we serve that we do so ‘abiding in God’s love’.

Finally, as well as love, we need the discipline of confession, repentance and renewal. Through the metaphor of the Vine, the Johannine writers remind us that in viticulture, fruitfulness is ensured by the cutting away of branches that have ceased to bear fruit, or are growing in the wrong direction. Though it may be painful, loss and renewal are a necessity if we are to continue to do God’s work. We all of us – individuals and communities  – go wrong sometimes, take courses of action which turn out to have unforeseen destructive consequences, or lead to different results which were not what we hoped for.  We sometimes have to accept this, allow ourselves to be cut off from course of action which is no longer fruitful, and start again.

Loving does not always mean preserving what we love. Sometimes, we need to let  go, even face situations that feel like death, if we are to experience renewed life and fruitfulness. Repentance and confession, reflection and renewal  should not be things which Christians fear – as John’s Epistle reminds us, perfect love casts out fear – because through the life and death of Christ we have confidence that when we abide in God, we will be renewed.

The agape love which John’s writing speaks of, and which Jesus practised, is not a wishy-washy, ‘anything goes sort of love’. It is ‘tough love’  – which makes demands and requires sacrifice  and discipline of those who undertake to practise it. It is divine love in action; too difficult for ordinary humans to achieve unless they are as closely and completely open to God as Jesus was; unless they live in God, and God lives in them.

It is love which goes beyond what ordinary human love is capable of, the sort of love that Jesus demonstrated in his life and death. John’s Gospel says “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Many of us think we might be able to do that, and we remember with honour those in our community who have done so. John’s Gospel defined ‘friends’ as those who are like us, those who believe the same things as us, those who belong with us. But the Jesus we hear teaching in the Synoptic Gospels redefined who ‘friends’ are. He taught us that our friends and neighbours are people very different from ourselves, people with different views, even people who regard us as enemies He told us we must love and do good to such ‘friends’ and even give them more than we would give to those who are our natural ‘friends’. How many ordinary people are prepared to give their lives for ‘friends’ defined in that radical way?

So, can we say as Christians “All you need is love?”

No – not if it is ordinary human love, restricted to the good, the deserving and those we regard as friends.

But ‘Yes!’ only if it is the love of God, which goes beyond human understanding, to that love which encompasses all creation as God’s children and God’s friends.

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!

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

A sermon for Christmas  Day with visual aids.

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

Did you know it has a secret, religious meaning?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wild flower seeds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sower. Van Gogh