Sunday, 21 December 2014

Waiting for Jesus to arrive

Sermon preached at Abington Avenue URC on 21st December 2014. Recording available on church website. Main text: Luke 1:26-38.

The Annunciation - Henry Ossawa Tanner
Wait. The time is not yet here. Stop. Take a deep breath. Christmas is coming, but it has not yet arrived. We are still in Advent – however much the shops and the telly and the manic preparations and even the nativity plays tell you otherwise, Christmas has yet to arrive. We wait in anticipation for the coming of Jesus into the world.

And so in today’s gospel passage we go back in time in terms of the Christmas story, to events nine months before the birth of Jesus – back to March as it were. Back to the time of Mary’s waiting, for something genuinely new to happen, for something amazing to come into the world through her.

Now waiting and babies go hand in hand. They never come when you expect them. Doctors and midwives like to give due dates, but they’re estimates at best, even though they shape our expectations. Both our children were born about ten days after their due date, and I vividly remember the time we were waiting for our son Gregory to arrive. Everything was on hold, my parents were staying to be with our daughter when the baby was born so the house was full, Becky was getting increasingly uncomfortable. We were ready. I kept thinking of Jesus’ teaching about being watchful and not knowing the day or the hour of his coming (dads can think about that sort of thing, not actually having a huge baby inside them) – and as an aside it was only after we’d chosen his name that I found out that the word for watchful is where we get the name Gregory. So we watched. We were ready. We waited.

I can well imagine that was how things were for Mary when she was waiting for Jesus to be born. Was that how it was for her before she heard about the news of the birth? Going by Luke’s account, we don’t know anything about her life up to that point, except that she was betrothed to Joseph but not yet married, which took place a year after betrothal. Given the pattern of the times, she was probably a teenager. There are plenty of later thoughts about her. The early church had the tradition that her mother Anne had been barren, prayed to God for a child and became pregnant in her later years, whereupon she dedicated Mary to life in the temple – so that according to this tradition Mary grew up surrounded by the ideas and practices of the temple. This isn’t an idea you’ll find in the Bible, but it’s found in a number of written works from the first few centuries after Christ and subsequently in the Muslim holy book, the Qu’ran, which has a lot to say about Mary.

So she might have been deeply reflecting on God’s calling for her, preparing for something to happen in her life. But that’s speculation. She might just as much have been doing the everyday stuff, or planning for her wedding, or having a bit of a rest. And then, all of a sudden, an angel comes to her. How did she know he was an angel, not just some bloke? She didn't, and we don’t. There’s no mention of miraculous appearance, or wings, or heavenly lights, the kinds of things we associate with angels. In the first place, an angel is a messenger from God, and earlier in Luke we’re told in rather lovely words that he stands in the presence of God. We’re told by Luke that the angel’s name was Gabriel, which partly because of this passage is a name that Christian tradition (and indeed Jewish and Muslim tradition) has run and run with. Quick one for your next pub quiz: how many times does the name Gabriel appear in the Bible? Four times is the answer – here, earlier in Luke where Gabriel appears to Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, and twice in the book of Daniel. Really, he’s not a major character. And he doesn’t announce himself to Mary by name anyway.

So Mary doesn’t know a lot about this person who greets her. Which makes it not so very surprising that when he calls her favoured one, and says the Lord is with her, and even (according to some translations) says that she is blessed among women, her first reaction is “y’what?”. She is, to put it more politely, perplexed. Flummoxed. Surprised. Incredulous. Because this is turning out to be a far from ordinary day.

But notice this: before she gets any news of her great task, she’s told that she is blessed and favoured by God. And she hears this straight from the source, from a messenger who stands in the presence of God. Now how good is that? It’s news we all need to hear. But of course it’s news that we can find throughout the Bible. We are blessed by God, we are God’s favoured ones. Genesis tells us that we are made in the image of God, that we have life breathed into us by God. Much of the Old Testament is about God’s blessing upon a people who do or don’t want to know. And it’s absolutely the central message of Jesus. He tells us that he came so that we might have life, and have it to the full. He showed us in his life, through his teaching, through his death, that we are blessed by God. So if you feel sad or worried or are losing hope, remember that the words of the angel to Mary apply to you, apply to me, apply to us all: “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you. You are blessed by God.”

And Mary – Mary waits. So the angel goes on. And now he tells her the news that to us, 2000 years on, is incredibly familiar, but to her must have been mind-blowing. She’s going to have a baby. And not just any baby, but one who is going to be truly great, to sit on the throne of David, to reign forever, to be called the son of the Most High, even to be holy and to be called the Son of God. These are royal titles, they’re the kind of titles that the Roman Emperor gave himself. To us, the term Son of God is associated solely with Jesus, but emperors were forever being called son of God. But very clearly these are not the sort of titles you expect for the baby of a young woman from nowhere in particular.

And then finally Mary reacts – from incredulity about the greeting to incredulity about the mechanism. Because of course, she says, she’s a virgin. Now the idea of a virgin birth is something totally outside of normal human experience. For many people throughout church history, it’s a central idea for seeing Jesus as fully human and fully divine, and to question it is heresy of the worst sort; for many people today, it’s too bizarre to be taken seriously. There are also sound biblical reasons to doubt it. I don’t really know what I think about how Mary conceived Jesus. Maybe it’s just a metaphor for an ordinary conception given especial holiness. But if God is going to carry out an extraordinary act, he certainly could have chosen to do it by extraordinary means.

And actually, I don’t think the mechanism is the interesting part about it. In ancient Jewish teaching, the question about any story was not “what actually happened?” but “what does this teach us?” And the angel gives us the clue – that the Holy Spirit is acting especially in the world, is breathing life into this child just as God has always done, but a life that is fully divine as well as fully human. The angel in Matthew’s gospel quotes the book of Isaiah, and gives the child the title of Emmanuel, which means God-with-us. That is the reality of the incarnation – God is taking on human flesh. This baby is to be a human being, but he is also going to be God.

And that brings me to a deeper layer of meaning. By taking on human flesh, God fundamentally changed the nature of the world. And by giving us the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, he fundamentally changed the nature of those who follow him. Our ridiculous, vulnerable, frail human flesh has been given the greatest possible seal of approval by God: he chose to wear it. But we, the church, the followers of Jesus, are the now the body of Christ, that self-same incarnated body. So we have a responsibility continually to bring about that incarnation in our own lives. I really like the words of the German 14th century mystic, Meister Eckhart, who in a Christmas sermon once proclaimed:
What good is it to me if Mary gave birth to the Son of God 1400 years ago, and I do not also give birth to the Son of God in my time and in my culture?  We are all meant to be mothers of God.  God is always needing to be born.
I find that an amazing calling – to be part of bringing God into the world, here and now, continuously. To be a mother to God, whether or not you’re a mother (or even capable of being a mother) to human life. In the Eastern Orthodox church, Mary is referred to as the God-bearer. We are all called to be bearers of God. Just as heaven is not something to be experienced after death but in the here and now, so too the incarnation is not something that happened once and never again, but goes on happening again and again.

Of course what Mary did was to give birth to God in a very particular and unique way. She was the pioneer, the one who went before us all to make it possible for us to come to know God. Mary was not a passive vehicle. She was an active agent in all this. Her response might sound quite passive in some ways, quite submissive. And many of the classic images we have of Mary do show her as quite submissive. But I think her response is more like a shout of acclamation. Let it be so! Yes I will! This thing is going to happen!

And there’s something important going on here in how she is addressed and responds. Many scholars observe that the structure of what the angel says to Mary exactly parallels the way in which the prophets in the Old Testament were called. There is a greeting, a startled reaction, an exhortation not to be afraid, a divine commission, an objection, a reassurance, and the offer of a confirming sign. This is the way Moses was called by God, it’s the way Isaiah was called, it’s the way Samuel was called. Mary’s response to the angel of “Here I am” even echoes the response of Samuel. There’s really compelling evidence here that Mary’s encounter with the angel is a prophetic calling, that Mary herself is a prophet.

And the next words we hear from Mary are undoubtedly prophetic words – the extraordinary song that we call the Magnificat, where Mary speaks of God’s power and his justice, of the world turned upside down, of the powerful brought low and the hungry fed. These are a vision of an alternative kingdom. It is a vision which Jesus brought into being fully, with the coming of the kingdom of God through him, but it is a vision which was first given to Mary.

Now Protestants rather under-rate Mary – she’s such a major figure in Catholic spirituality that many Protestants have put her to one side, just to be brought out at Christmas time, and maybe Easter, as a rather peripheral figure to the story. But this passage shows us Mary can be our model, our teacher – the one who heard the angel’s assurance that she was blessed by God, the one who was perplexed at first and asked searching questions, but then understood her calling and responded to it with a great YES! The one who participated with all her body and her heart and her soul in bringing God to earth. And the one who was willing to see God’s coming kingdom in all its fullness of life.

And Mary waited, ready for the time to come.

And so this is my hope and my prayer: that we all, this Christmas time, might be willing also to act as bearers of God, as agents for bringing God into the world through our lives and our actions, and that we might be willing to listen to the angel, and to see the upside-down kingdom of God in all its glory. That we might wait as Mary did, and might participate in the incarnation of our Lord, here and now, in this place and in everything we do. Let us all be willing to say with Mary: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word”.


Sunday, 23 November 2014

The coming of the kingdom: judgement and justice

Sermon preached at Paulerspury URC on 23 November 2014. Text: Matthew 25:31-46.

Imagine a preacher, a man who has inspired great crowds with the power of his words, with the depth of his spirituality, with the strength of his actions. But he’s angered the powerful, and he knows his time is short before they come for him. So he gives one last set of instructions to his followers. He’s often been a bit obscure, asking questions and telling stories, but now he speaks clearly and directly.

And that was the situation Jesus found himself in, when he spoke about the sheep and the goats. According to the gospel of Matthew, it’s the last thing Jesus says to his disciples. Thereafter the gospel is all about betrayal and trial and death. So in some ways it’s not that surprising that what he teaches them is about judgement, the coming of the King in glory. Endings must have been much on his mind.

But what he talks about isn’t so much about what happens THEN. It’s about what happens NOW. It’s about how we, Jesus’ disciples past, present and future, are called to live our lives. It’s about the nature of the kingdom of God, and it’s about how we live out the values of the kingdom of God in the here and now.

Because so much of the time when Jesus talks about the nature of kingdom of God, he’s talking about the present reality, about a place and a way of being that we can access now, rather than what we will encounter after death or the last judgement. We heard this in the call to worship, where Jesus talked about the kingdom being among us now. And this passage seems to me anyway to fall into the category of apocalyptic writing, like the books of Daniel and Revelation, where the last things are presented with striking and often quite odd imagery, but the message is really about the here and now.

Part of Jesus’ apocalyptic language is to talk about judgement. Now judgement, in some circles, is Not Cool. Modern liberal society doesn’t quite like taking sides, of saying this is right and this is wrong. And for laudable reasons. Jesus reminds us in the Sermon on the Mount not to judge others so that we are not judged ourselves.  But here he powerfully presents a king that judges. The king judges not according to some arbitrary law, not according to his whims, but also not according to what the sheep and the goats believed. He judges them by their actions. He judges them by how well they have feed the poor, welcomed the stranger, visited the prisoner and so on.

And so he follows the route of so many Jewish prophets and shouts out for justice. Because if there is no judgement, ultimately we can’t have justice. At some point, you need to come off the fence and say, these people are being treated shamefully. I will treat them differently. That’s what Jesus calls his followers – what he calls us – to do. Those who follow this will have eternal life.

It’s worth saying that the phrase translated as ‘eternal life’ at the end of the passage is argued by many scholars to refer not to living for ever after death, or not only that, but rather to living fully within this world. It’s the same idea as the kingdom of God being among us. It’s the same idea as Jesus saying in the gospel of John that he had come to bring us abundant life (that was about sheep as well). Jesus is saying that if we want to live a rich and abundant life, full of joy and satisfaction and spiritual uplift – that we can only do this if we also look after those who are in need.

And so the King separates the sheep and the goats. A famous image. You can buy a pair of socks in all good cathedral bookshops where the left one has goats on it, and the right one has sheep on it. I’ve been puzzling about the difference here between the two species though. Images of sheep and shepherds are everywhere in the scriptures, but what’s so wrong with goats? Did the people of Jesus time hate goats so much? The strange answer is that they didn’t really. Both animals were kept for milk, meat and their hides. Both were ritually slaughtered in the temple. The most curious thing about them is that the varieties of sheep and goat in Israel of Jesus’ day were very hard to tell apart. They behaved rather differently, but looked the same.

And that seems to be the basis of the distinction Jesus is making between the two species here. They look so similar, but act so differently. The sheep are those who don’t think about it very hard, who care for God’s people without really being told to do so. The goats – they might be leading moral lives in some sense, but they’re basically those who when faced with human need, give the answer of Cain: “am I my brother’s keeper?” Probably most of us are a little bit of sheep and a little bit of goat, but Jesus is very clear about which one he prefers.

Both sheep and goats, though, are really surprised to be told that their actions or inactions towards the poor and needy have to do with their response to Jesus. But that idea, that doing good deeds towards strangers, has a long history. Abraham met and welcomed strangers and later found that they were angels. In the letter to the Hebrews we are told “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it”. And many traditional cultures, from the Celts to the Russians, have stories of people meeting strangers. The Celtic blessing known as the Rune of Hospitality ends with the lovely words: “often, often, often,  goes the Christ in the stranger's guise”.

This idea of surprise, of seeing Christ in the most unlikely people, was spoken about beautifully by Oscar Romero (archbishop of El Salvador), in a sermon he preached just ten days before he was killed by government agents because he was a champion of the poor and the oppressed in his country. Romero said:
What terror has been sown among our people that friends betray friends whom they see in trouble. If we could see that Christ is in the needy one, the torture victim, the prisoner, the murder victim, and in each human figure so shamefully thrown by our roadsides would see Christ himself cast aside, we would pick him up like a medal of gold to be kissed lovingly. We would never be ashamed of him.
How far people are today, especially those who torture and kill and value their investments more than human beings, from realizing that all the earths millions are good for nothing, are worthless compared to a human being. 
The person is Christ, and in the person viewed and treated with faith we look on Christ the Lord.

And with that I would like to say Amen and sit down. Except that there’s one more thing that to me is crucial about this passage. It’s a passage about justice. And it calls us clearly to act. But I believe it calls us not just to feed the hungry, but to ask why they are hungry and to fight for justice that means they are no longer hungry. It calls us not just to welcome strangers, but to stand up to racists and those who would persecute immigrants. It calls us not just to visit people in prison but to ask whether prison is the right place for them, and whether they’re being treated properly there. As we enter Advent next week, we’re once again reminded of Mary’s song about the God who “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly [who] has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty”. I believe Jesus is calling us to seeking that kind of justice as much as he’s calling us to individual action.

Consider foodbanks. They’re an act of Christian compassion. They’re feeding the hungry, they’re recognising the person of Christ in one individual at a time. It’s important that churches up and down the land are organising them, staffing them, giving food to them. But they’re also, in the memorable words of Liz Dowler, a professor of food policy, "an inadequate plaster over a gaping wound". That food banks exist in a hugely affluent society is a scandal and a disgrace. They shouldn’t have to exist.

Or, to take a different story, I was shocked to read yesterday that Walmart, the largest supermarket chain in the US, puts out boxes so that their poorly paid staff can feed each other. Which I find horrible. Colleagues giving to each other, friends recognising those who are poor and feeding them –those are acts of Christian compassion. But the question first is why Walmart are paying their staff so badly that they have to do such things.

Jesus calls us to be sheep, caring for the needy, and calls us to do it in the here and now. And by doing that we will know the kingdom of God in the here and now. Thanks be to God.


Thursday, 13 November 2014


I'm a townie, or at least a suburbanite. I've lived most of my life in (often on the edge of) cities and large towns. I've never had an urge to live in the countryside or a village. Countryside for me means mountains and big lakes, not low rolling hills and thatched cottages.

Moreover, I've never much liked pastoral music (apart from Beethoven's 6th Symphony and even that is far from my favourite of his symphonies). The continued popularity of Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending, long topping the Classic FM annual listeners' poll, has always baffled me.

However, I've been powerfully affected by the pastoral sentiments of Frostiana, Randall Thompson's setting of seven poems by Robert Frost. The OU Choir, of which I'm a member, performed the suite today, and I've got a lot out of learning the piece. Our conductor, Bill Strang, talked us (and the audience) through the subtle history of the poetry and the music.

The poems are very much pastoral in theme, and the musical setting fits it. They talk of woods, farms, flowers, paths, pastures, cows, stars and villages. They're small scale pieces, local in intent. Many almost feel impressionist: they capture a moment in time and display the scene in detail. Only in a few places do they explicitly address big themes.

The big themes are most prominent at the start and the end of the piece, with settings of the poems "The Road Not Taken" (Frost's famous poem about decisions, of roads diverging in a wood) and "Choose Something Like a Star" (the most abstract piece, about the voice of a star). The latter seemed very appropriate to sing the day after the first human spacecraft had landed on a comet (including several OU scientists). These themes are strong and clear ones, although The Road Not Taken is often misunderstood. There are subtler themes in the five poems in between, and many layers to each of them.

But the overwhelming feel of the piece for me is its pastoral sensitivity. The countryside in question is that of New England - Frost and Thompson both lived much of their lives in New England and were both associated with the town of Amherst, Massachusetts, for whose 200th anniversary the piece was written. And yet it's really striking that several of the poems were written in (old) England, when Frost was seeking to establish himself as a poet (and under the influence of the English writer Edward Thomas with whom Frost formed a close friendship); and that Thompson wrote most of the music while living in Switzerland. So the pastoral scenes are wider than they first appear.

I can't say that Frostiana has made me want to move to the countryside, certainly not around Milton Keynes or Northampton. But it has certainly given me a more sympathetic sense of the value of pastoral life.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Loving God and loving our neighbour

Sermon preached at Abington Avenue URC, 26 October 2014. Recording available (misses first few minutes) on church website. Main text: Matthew 22:34-46.

Love. It’s a four letter word. And like a lot of four letter words of everybody’s acquaintance, it’s dreadfully overused and largely misunderstood. Our culture is saturated with trite little songs about love. All you need is love. I love you baby. Love is all around. The power of love, a force from above. And so on and on. It’s perhaps a good thing I’m not preaching this sermon around Valentine’s Day.

Because what Jesus was talking about, and likewise what the writers of Deuteronomy and Leviticus that he quoted and we’ve heard read this morning were talking about – it’s a very different kind of love from the trite songs. It’s about something quite different from romantic love. You’ll probably know that the Greeks had multiple words for love, and the word here is agape, the kind of love that God is described as showing throughout the New Testament. It’s the love that CS Lewis described as the highest level of love known to humanity, a selfless love, a love that is passionately committed to the well-being of the other.

And it’s that kind of love that the Shema, the words we heard from Deuteronomy, calls us to love God with. To me, that’s why it’s so very important. I think as Christians we do a disservice to this kind of love by trying to bracket it into a quasi-romantic framework. Let me put it plainly, at the possible risk of offending some people. There’s a lot of expressions of worship, in prayers and especially in modern praise songs, which some people have called “Jesus is my boyfriend” worship. They take the trite emotions in the pop songs and apply it to the deepest possible relationship that any human being can have, with our triune God, creator, redeemer and sustainer. They bring Jesus down from the cross and into the soft focus of a teenage crush.

But we are called to something very much deeper than those teenage crushes. And it’s deeper even than the love we have for a partner, or for a child or a parent. The love between human beings and God that we are called to is an experience of the divine. It’s a taste of heaven in the here and now. It’s what Jesus meant when he promised us life to the full, and eternal life. Because God is love, as the epistle of John reminds us. And so by loving God we are coming face to face with God in the very fullness of God’s self.  As the epistle of John also says, “God is love, and those who in abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them”.

How do we do this? Well it’s not easy. Love never is. Relationships of any kind are not easy. They have to be worked at. God doesn’t have to work at loving us, God is complete as love in himself. Speaking for myself, I think God must have quite an effort to love the likes of me, with all my imperfections and all my faults and all the things I do wrong. I could make you a list of all the things that make me unlovable, but it wouldn’t teach you much because everyone here could probably make a similar list for themselves. But God loves us, and remarkably that gives us strength to love God in return.

A few years ago, some of us in this church read Rob Bell’s book Love Wins. Some people like it, some people can’t stand it. I’m not going to address the central tenets today. But Rob Bell has a marvellous turn of phrase at times. He writes: “God is love, and love is a relationship. This relationship is one of joy, and it can’t be contained. … Jesus invites us into that relationship, the one at the centre of the universe. He insists that he’s one with God, that we can be one with him, and that life is a generous, abundant reality. This God whom Jesus spoke of has always been looking for partners, people who are passionate about participating in the ongoing creation of the world.”

Love is a relationship. We are enabled to love God because he first loved us. He has inscribed us on the palms of his hands. We can respond by loving him in return, with all of our being, by bringing everything we’ve got to him. I really find the song Bring It All to Me very powerful in the way it expresses that invitation.

So how do we strengthen that love for God? The 17th century bishop of Geneva, Francis de Sales, put it this way: “You learn to speak by speaking, to study by studying, to run by running, to work by working; and just so you learn to love God and man by loving. All those who think to learn in any other way deceive themselves. If you want to love God, go on loving Him more and more.”

And there’s another way that we have to follow, and that brings me on to the second half of what Jesus said we should do – not just to love God, but also to love our neighbour as ourselves. To me, this is one of the most important things Jesus says. It goes to the very heart of his teaching, his insistence that while love for God is just as important as it had always been in the Jewish faith, but that to be fully worked-out it also requires love for those around us, for those referred to here as our neighbours.

Now, this passage is so well known and widely perceived to be central to Jesus’ teaching, that it’s sometimes perceived as being quite radical, an extension of Jewish teaching. I have to say I’m not convinced by this. There’s plenty of evidence that what Jesus was saying was a familiar idea in his day. Both his phrases were quotations from the Torah, and we heard them read earlier from Deuteronomy and Leviticus. Others seem to have also made the connection between the two phrases, and to have suggested that they summarised the Torah in these two ideas. Indeed it’s striking that when Luke tells of this scene in his gospel, he puts the ideas not into Jesus’ mouth but into the mouth of the person he’s talking to. In Matthew, it’s framed in terms of the Pharisees trying to catch Jesus out. It’s said that there were 613 commandments in the Torah. How could Jesus bring these down to just two?

Whether or not this was something original to Jesus, it’s certainly an idea that’s absolutely central to Jesus’ thinking, that we can only love God if we love those around us.

So we come to the question that was put by Jesus’ interlocutor in the gospel of Luke: but teacher, who is my neighbour? This was something the scholars of his day discussed at length. Who are we obliged to love? What is the boundary upon which we should place our love? In Leviticus, the phrase appears as part of what we might call social teaching – the establishment of a fair and just society, of right relationships. The book of Leviticus has a rather bad name today, as a set of rather harsh and unbending rules, applicable to the people of the day but not to us who live under grace rather than law. Indeed, in just the previous chapter of Leviticus to our one day, we find the text which has been used by some Christians to justify prejudice against same-sex relationships. It’s not an easy book to like. And yet we can see in this passage the start of a very clear statement: for society to work, it needs us to treat those around us well, in the same way that we’d like to be treated.

Jesus answered the question about who is our neighbour, as so often in the gospels, by telling a story, the parable of the Good Samaritan. Now there are many ways to interpret that parable, but to me it’s clear that Jesus is saying that the answer is: everybody, who is in need of help. Our neighbours are not just those who live next door, or in our little area, or in our town or our country. Nor are they just those who are like us. We are called to love everyone, regardless of their politics, or their skin colour, or their nationality, or their wealth, or their sexuality, or whether we even like them very much. We are called to love everybody.

Going back to loving our neighbour, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes this wider still – we are called to love our enemies. Now I used to believe quite fervently that I didn’t have enemies, that even if my country chose to fight wars in my name it didn’t make the people of those countries my enemies. But as I’ve got older I’ve come to understand that there are those I disagree with at such a fundamental level that I would have to say that I hate them, at least in terms of the ideas they represent. I hate racism, I hate homophobia, I hate those who seek to choke off immigration, I hate those in power who destroy people’s lives in the name of austerity. My list goes on, and you’ll have your own list. It’s not too big a stretch for me to call those who embody and champion those beliefs my enemies. I was a teenager in Scotland in the 1980s, and we really did hate Margaret Thatcher for what she was doing, or letting happen, to the Scottish industrial economy. Of course, in some ways that was a nice safe hatred. Elsewhere in Glasgow there were Protestants like me, who would have counted me among their number, who hated other Christians simply because they were Catholics, and vice-versa of course. It might not have been as violent as in Belfast, though woe-betide you if you wore green in Ibrox. Loving those neighbours is something that took a long time coming, and it’s not entirely healed. The Orange Order is still marching in Scotland, and they’re really horrible and frightening even if you’re a Protestant. And even if you reckon you’re above all those things, there are those who may well choose to define you as their enemy.

We are called by Jesus to love all these people, to love them to the same extent as we love God, as part of our loving of God. The first epistle of John again puts it clearly:  “Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”

So who does Jesus call us to love as our neighbours? Everyone. And how does Jesus call us to them? Fully, abundantly, in just the same way that God loves us. Ignoring their faults and even ignoring whether we like them or whether they like us. And by coupling it with the Shema, the central idea of Jewish thought, Jesus says clearly: this really matters. How you treat others really matters. If you treat others badly, you’re not just failing in the code of reciprocity, of the self-interest in treating people as you’d like them to treat you – you’re failing in a religious duty.

How you do it – that varies, of course. For some people it might involve campaigning against injustice, or volunteering at a practical project such as a food bank; for others it might simply be about the way we relate to others, about treating everyone with respect and as a child of God, made in the image of God. And indeed it might involve how we relate to those nearest to us. Knowing how we can and should love our neighbour is a matter of discernment. There’s a Quaker phrase, part of a longer passage, which has been in my head this week preparing for this sermon: “attend to what love requires of you”. Love might require very different things of you to what it requires of me. But it requires us both to see the image of God in those around us, nearby and far away.

Of course we can’t manage it. Loving all these people, all the time, to the extent that God does? Even if they’re horrible, or irritating, or offensive, or smelly, or just because you’re a bit grumpy? Because if this is the summation of the law, then that’s the thing about the law, as St Paul said again and again – we’re going to break the law of God, and yet we’re going to be forgiven again and again. And this applies to loving our neighbour as much as anything else. But we still need to see it as our basic calling as Christians.

Kahlil Gibran wrote that “work is love made visible”. I think it applies to this passage. Relationships take work, and love takes work, but also to show that love, both of God and of our neighbour, takes work, it needs to come out in action.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind; and love your neighbour as yourself. Bring everything you have to him, and he will use it to create unimagined goodness in the world. What a challenge, but what a joy. Amen.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

What's in a word? On debts, sins and trespasses

Words matter. Human life is lived very largely through language. It's perhaps the single most important thing that distinguishes us from the apes. Dennis Potter once remarked that "the trouble with words is that you never know whose mouth they’ve been in".

Now if you're a spiritually-minded person, a key part of any interaction with the Divine, the Transcendent, is prayer: a conversation, a meeting between the individual and God. Some people have experienced this in silence or through wordless interaction: mystics, Quakers, Sufis. But for very many people, their prayer life happens through words. We are told at the start of John's gospel that "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God".

Over the past year, a church I value (but have never visited), Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has been preaching through a series of 12 words which sum up 12 seasons of the spiritual life. The series is based on a book by Brian Maclaren, "Naked Spirituality". I've heard most of the sermons through the year. A constant theme has been the interplay between words and the place beyond words, of a deliberate statement of what we mean by God and how we talk to God, and the total inability of human beings to do that explicitly. It's been a very worthwhile and inspiring series of sermons.

I recently heard the final sermon, and it ended with a single prayer - THE prayer, the one Jesus taught his disciples when asked "how do we pray", and which has since become known as the Lord's Prayer. It's an interesting end-point for an examination of the spiritual life, because it's a set of words which contains all the key themes of any prayer: calling God holy, thanksgiving, asking for things we need, saying sorry and asking forgiveness, seeking protection, and looking towards action in the world. I'm not convinced Jesus necessarily meant it to be spoken word-for-word in every church service (as is the case in very many Christian traditions), but it does serve as a great summary.

There's a word in it (or a pair of words) which I've wrestled with for many years, for cultural reasons as much as theological ones. I learnt them as "debts" and "debtors", and that's how they appear in many Bible translations, including both the New Revised Standard Version and the New International Version: "And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors" (Matthew 6:12, NRSV).

The word in Greek for "debts" is "opheilemata", literally "that which is owed". In the Latin version, prayed in so many Western churches for so many centuries, it's "debita" (the same root as the word "debit" in banking). In the Church of Scotland I learnt the Lord's Prayer as "debts" and "debtors", it remains the standard Scottish use and also that of Presbyterian churches in North America. To the modern ear, it has a slightly financial air, a little too close to the English stereotype about Scots and their over-emphasis on money perhaps, but understandable enough.

But of course in the English tradition, the word is most often said as "trespasses". (This word appears in the King James Version, in a brief commentary Jesus gives on the prayer after it, in Matthew 6:14.) To me it's long seemed an alien word, not part of my tradition. And I still don't find it very meaningful. If the 'Scottish' version is a bit over-financial, this seems to suggest land-rights, going into places where you shouldn't be - not really a metaphor for wrong-doing.

Although I've now lived in England for 25 years, I spent a big part of that time as a Quaker and not using the Lord's Prayer, so it wasn't a big issue. Every now and then when I was in another church and the Lord's Prayer was used, I either mumbled the word or used "debtors". In the United Reformed Church where I'm now a member, we most often use the modern version that renders the word simply as sin ("forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us") and that suits me fine. The Iona Community uses the same version in its daily worship, and I like it there too. Some older people prefer to use the older version, complete with trespasses, and that's their right. But I think 'sins' suits the meaning well, and fits our modern understanding of the words.

However: while on placement last year in my training as a lay preacher, I was in a church that used the "trespasses" version. And as I was leading worship from the front, I couldn't avoid it. So I taught myself to say "trespasses". There was no thunder from the sky, I didn't collapse. It's just a word. I continue to find the word a bit alien, and it was a relief to return to my own church and say "sins" again at that point. Except on a recent Sunday, when we had a visiting preacher who invited us to say the Lord's Prayer in the 'traditional version', so I followed my own tradition, and said "debts"... (It was a few days before the Scottish independence referendum, so I was feeling mildly patriotic or perhaps sentimental.)

There's something to be said for everyone using the same words at the same time - it has a powerful bonding effect. But for me the meaning trumps that. On occasions my wife and I have used the 'modern' version of the Lord's Prayer with its 'sins' standing next to each other while others around us said the version with 'trespasses', and that separated us from others around but was a moment of bonding for us. Our daughter can happily say the modern version from memory but gets little from the old one.

And perhaps for me the key thing is the concentration on the words - that by questioning what words we use in prayer, they become active and aware rather than passive and recitation by rote. So I continue to wonder, continue to examine the question, continue to ask myself each time "will it be debts, or sins, or trespasses"?

So what's in a word, when we come before the Divine presence in prayer? Nothing much, but also everything.

Monday, 22 September 2014

The Unbreakable Vow: on Death Eaters and political promises

One of the great things about being the parent of an almost nine year old is that you get to read (or re-read) children's classics along with them rather than to them. My daughter is reading the Harry Potter series for the first time, and I'm re-reading them in turn after she finishes each volume, so we have something to talk about. She's reading the last one just now, so I've been reading the sixth, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Which contains an interesting commentary on current political events...

Early in the book, the evil sisters Narcissa Malfoy and Bellatrix Lestrange (say what you like about Rowling's ability to write dialogue, but she has a great way with names) visit Severus Snape to enlist his help in assist the former's son, Draco Malfoy, in the task that Voldemort has set him. (We later find out that this is to kill Professor Dumbledore.)  Snape swears a mighty vow, magically sealed to be an Unbreakable Vow, and with Bellatrix as the 'Binder' (magical guarantor) that he will protect Draco and if needed carry out the deed himself. I've not seen the movie from this book but clips are available of the vow-casting online - they make for a chilling scene.

The point about an unbreakable vow is that it's (doh) unbreakable. If you break it, you die. It's a big undertaking. Not to be taken lightly. Not to be used as a bargaining chip in an argument you're afraid you might be losing.

And so to politics. A vow was solemnly made this week by three political parties leaders, sealed not by a magical spell but by their own reputations, and guaranteed not by a wizard but by a former Prime Minister of the UK. But they did promise faithfully that "all three main parties will deliver change for Scotland".

Such a vow is not unbreakable in quite the same way as Snape's vow. Cameron, Miliband and Clegg will not die if they renege on this vow but their reputations will be in tatters if they do. Moreover, the whole basis on which they finally turned around the referendum, persuaded the Scottish people that voting No wasn't just a resumption of the status quo, would be in tatters. Moreover, it would fuel the cynical belief across the whole UK that You Can't Trust Politicians. And fuelling that belief doesn't just threaten the Scotland-England relationship, it risks letting in the anti-politicians, the populists like Nigel Farage and worse ones further right than him, who currently are just a nuisance but given a measure of power could be extremely dangerous.

So in a way this vow is just as unbreakable as Snape's vow. Except that if they break this, what they risk destroying isn't just their own reputations - it's the future of the United Kingdom as a viable polity, and even of democracy itself within these isles.

The vow must be kept.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Conflict in our midst & Christ among us

Sermon preached at Creaton URC on 7th September 2014. Text: Matthew 18:15-22

I hate you!
If he tells that story again, I shall hit him, I swear it.
If she says one more thing about my flowers, I’ll tell her what I think of her.

Conflict. It’s a part of any human community. John doesn’t like what Rosemary said, and he’s in a huff about it. John’s friend Bill gets drawn in, and Bill’s wife Jane, except that Rosemary’s sister Judith is already in an argument with Jane. And ten years later, the arguments remain, the hurts stay. The community is diminished, but nobody can quite address it.

And in churches, conflict can simmer and remain around for many years, because people stay in the same churches for many years, even sometimes generations. I was part of a church once where thirty years earlier there’d been a big argument over the use of the building, a group of people had left to worship in another part of town, and progressively the people who had left got old and died off, with just a small number of them remaining. But the rift hadn’t healed. And it was still a hurt that people didn’t want to talk about. That was in a town far from here, but I know of similar stories of churches in this area, where splits haven’t healed after years, or where people carry on together in the same church community but are unreconciled to each other.

If conflict isn’t addressed, it can get worse and worse. I’m reminded of William Blake’s poem “A Poison Tree”. The first verse is quite well known. It runs:
I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

However, the poem gets darker and darker. The unquenched anger becomes something real and tangible. Eventually the poet kills his foe.

So what do we do about this kind of conflict? That’s the subject of the reading from Matthew today. It’s not a cheery topic, not one many of us would like to think about, but really important. I need to say something directly before I continue. As someone who’s not been to this church before, let alone preached in it, I want to emphasise that what I have to say today is not loaded, it’s not based on particular conflicts between people here. I’m sure there are some, but I don’t know about them. So rest assured that any anecdotes aren’t aimed at specific people here – though that does mean I might unintentionally hit on a raw nerve or two.

And Jesus presents us with a solution of sorts, though it’s an odd kind of solution. The process Jesus outlines can sound incredibly harsh, like a recipe for a disciplinary committee of the sort practised by our Reformed forebears in places like Geneva and Edinburgh in the days when these were far from cosy places if you stepped out of line with the community. In fact it’s such a difficult passage, and so oddly out of joint with Jesus’ style (not to mention its use of the term ‘church’ when no such thing existed) that the great Scottish biblical scholar William Barclay argued that it couldn’t possibly be the authentic words of Jesus. And there’s the frankly quite odd statement that if the offender should be treated like the pagans or tax collectors, who elsewhere in the gospels Jesus is very welcoming towards. So is there really anything to be taken from this? Well (deep breath), I do believe it’s a passage that sits alongside Jesus’ other teaching, if you look at where he’s saying it.

First of all, the immediately preceding passage is Matthew’s version of the parable of the lost sheep and the shepherd’s joy in finding it. And then the passage is followed with two verses which aren’t linked with this passage in the lectionary, but I thought were so helpful that we needed to hear them today: Jesus’ statement to Peter that we should forgive something not just seven times but seventy-seven times, or in some versions seventy times seven times. That’s a lot of forgiveness. And it chimes in with a saying of Jesus in the Sermon on Mount, that:
“if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-24, NRSV)

So to me the passage needs to be seen in the context of forgiveness, and of St Paul’s statement in our reading from Romans, saying “to love is to obey the whole Law”.

If someone does wrong to you, you don’t kick back, you don’t nurse a grudge. First thing, you go and talk to them. You need to say straight out “you’ve hurt me, you’ve done me wrong”. That’s a shockingly difficult thing in itself to do. Very often I don’t have the courage to do it myself if someone has done me wrong. But it’s a necessary first step. And it acknowledges the other person’s humanity, that they too are a child of God whatever wrong they’ve done you. So there’s a lot of forgiveness needed in being willing to do that. And it may be sufficient by itself.

But it may not be enough, and in that case we’re presented with a couple of further steps: to bring along a couple of others to talk it through with the wrong-doer, and then to take it to the whole community. That last step is incredibly difficult – to tell everyone what has happened. And this isn’t about gossiping, it’s about openly stating the issue. Imagine raising a long-standing personal dispute as an item at the next church meeting. It’s would be tough, unpleasant. But if it was done in the right way, in a spirit of openness and loving forgiveness, and if the other person could hear it in that spirit, and if the church could support you both through the process – that could be the sort of thing that really heals wounds that fester over decades within a community.

And if it still doesn’t work, Jesus advises, we are best to openly acknowledge that the community is broken, to be public about it. It has to be done in love and care. Religious communities have treated transgressors really badly in the past, calling them excommunicated or expelled. But if we can openly acknowledge that the person who has done wrong is looking in a different direction from the rest of the community, perhaps with fault on all sides, then that’s perhaps another way towards eventual healing. And it’s a way to avoid blaming the victim, which I’ve not mentioned but can be a real risk in some cases – where wrong is done to someone, but the community closes ranks to support the wrongdoer and it’s the victim who is driven out of the community. That’s happened far too often to women who have been raped, it’s happened far too often to children who have been abused by people they trusted. What Jesus is talking about is a way to love everyone and forgive everything, but to trust the victim of wrong rather than blaming them.

Now I’m going to pass over the bits about permitting and prohibiting in heaven and on earth, which
are a whole different sermon, because I want to talk about this wonderful statement, that “where two or three come together in my name, I am there with them”.  There’s such a lot of richness in that statement. Does he mean us? This group of people gathered today in Jesus’ name? Yes he does. And he means every church everywhere worshipping today, wherever in the world in whatever ways. He promises us that he is there with us, holding our community together. And that brings me to discernment.

What the sequence of steps that Jesus describes reminds me of, is the process of discernment. I was a Quaker for fifteen years, and Quakers have long talked about an individual having a ‘concern’ – a matter that presses deeply on their heart. Often that’s the way that real change begins, from one individual’s concern. Among Quakers, it’s how the campaign against slavery began, how many peace-making efforts began, and how their current witness for same-sex marriage equality began. If such a concern is really strong, you might believe that it’s God telling you to do something. But how do you know it’s from God? You pray about it individually, deeply, at length. Then you bring together a small group to pray together and to discern the leadings of the Holy Spirit on the topic. If that group believes that this is something coming from God, you take it to the whole church to seek their discernment. You might even go to another level within the denomination to seek further discernment – in the URC that would be synods and the general assembly. And what Jesus is saying here is a similar thing, but about handling conflict.

If we want to restore community, if we want to restore wholeness to our broken relationships, we have to seek the will of God together, in wider and wider groups. We have to listen prayerfully to the still small voice of the Spirit, and we have to be prepared to forgive each other and to rejoice in the return of the lost one to our community.

We live in a world where the word community has become grossly over-used. We hear talk of online communities, of communities based around identity, communities based around lifestyle, even communities based around what kind of gadgets you buy (the iPhone community or the Android community). Yet we’re also in a world where community feels quite a long way from many people’s lives. And we’re in a world where conflict and separation are everywhere. Tensions may have reduced slightly in Ukraine, but they could start up again any time. Syria is a constant sea of conflict and division, likewise Israel and Palestine. So many of these sores are to do with ancient hatreds that never healed, because nobody put in the work to make them heal. What Jesus offers us here is a way of doing that, which if we practice it in our own local hurts and conflicts just might offer a beacon of hope to a world that is suffering so much from conflict.

One example of this working out in practice is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, which practiced forgiveness on a daily basis as it sought to bring out into the open the many terrible acts committed during the apartheid years. Desmond Tutu, who chaired the commission, says that “forgiving is not forgetting; it's actually remembering and not using your right to hit back”. I heard his daughter Mpho Tutu, herself an Episcopal priest in South Africa, speak last month at Greenbelt. She spoke very powerfully about forgiveness. There is no one, she said, who cannot be forgiven – nobody is beyond forgiveness. Moreover, it is possible to forgive someone even if they show no remorse, and indeed by not forgiving someone you allow the one who injured you to dictate who you are. This fits so well with the compassionate as well as the uncompromising nature of Jesus’ teaching.

Sticking with the wisdom found through injustice in southern Africa as we come to an end, there’s a song from Zimbabwe, brought to this country by the Iona Community, which is based on today’s passage. It runs:
If you believe and I believe
And we together pray
the Holy Spirit shall come down
and set God’s people free.
And set God’s people free, and set God’s people free,
The Holy Spirit shall come down and set God’s people free.

If we gather authentically in the name of Jesus, if we are able to forgive one another, if we can rebuild relationships that are bruised and battered – then the Holy Spirit will move among us, and God’s people will be set free. Amen.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Thoughts on Caravaggio's Supper at Emmaus

I’ve talked and thought and heard a lot lately about Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus, but never actually seen the real picture. As I’m in London for a meeting, I thought I’d make a trip to the National Gallery where it hangs, and take a look. Here are my thoughts while I was in front of it. (I've deliberately not looked at any art history websites to see how they compare to others' views.)

It’s a very physical picture. The light and the shadows behind Jesus are often remarked upon, and they’re stunning, but equally obvious is the food on the table – chicken and fruit and water, portrayed in great detail, as well as bread and wine. This is not a ritual re-enactment of the Last Supper with cubes of white sliced bread or tasteless little wafers. This is real food, a real meal.

Then there’s the people. They are not picture postcard people. They are not symbols or abstractions. They’re real, grounded people.

There’s Jesus. He’s strikingly pretty, a young girlish face. Composed yet tender, flowing locks. Yet he’s not the tender-Jesus-meek-and-mild of Victoriana. There’s power in him, and a really strong sense of sadness.
The two disciples are much older than him, a whole generation older. The gospel names one as Cleopas, and while modern biblical scholarship suggests that the other might be Cleopas’ wife, both figures are male in this picture, both with ample beards (Jesus is clean-shaven).

One has arms stretched wide, a gesture which the National Gallery interpretation sign suggests is astonishment, but is also an echo of Christ’s arms outstretched on the cross. He’s wearing a scallop shell, later the symbol of pilgrims. He could be about to pronounce a blessing himself, or to emulate Christ’s sacrifice (as so many of the disciples did). Flippantly, his gesture also reminds of the fisherman showing how big was his fish that got away – though of course Jesus’ disciples knew a thing or two about fish.

The other disciple has his back to us, and is rising from his chair. Not so much to say about him. He looks more dishevelled than his friend – his clothes are slightly torn, he has a sense of disorder about him. The troubles of the past few days must weigh heavy on him.

And then there’s a third man, standing behind Jesus. He’s younger, wears a cap, with just a small beard. He’s listening just as intently as the other two, though gives the impression of not being so much part of the meal, if only because he’s not sitting at the table. Perhaps he is the innkeeper, a sudden extra witness to the teaching and the blessing and the revelation?

I don’t know which of the three figures are actually intended to be the two disciples mentioned in the gospel story, and why Caravaggio portrayed three figures. But the gospel story is never complete. There were always things going on not discussed in the story. Why should there not be a third figure?

Caravaggio shows us an ordinary scene, with ordinary food being eaten by ordinary people in an extraordinary situation. Emmaus was a revelation, but it was a revelation within the everyday, that happened to people who had other lives and other stories. Life continues, and the amazing things happen in its midst.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Jonah and the Whale song - an extended version

The song "Jonah and the Whale" is much beloved at Sunday Schools. It's jolly but (like lots of Sunday School versions of the Jonah story) ends when Jonah came out of the fish, and misses out most of the interesting parts of the book of Jonah. In particular, there's no mention of the tree that Jonah shades under and is subsequently eaten by a worm, a strange little parable wrapped inside the whole strange parable that is the book of Jonah.

Here's the original song (written by Hugh Mitchell in 1957 - it's often uncredited but is listed by the Churches Copyright Licensing Authority). The tune can be found in various places online and in an organ version by Canon Quentin Bellamy:
Come listen to my tale
Of Jonah and the whale
Way down in the middle of the ocean.
Now how did he get there
Whatever did he wear
Way down in the middle of the ocean
A-preaching he should be
At Nineveh, you see -
To disobeys a very foolish notion.
But God forgave his sin
Salvation entered in
Way down in the middle of the ocean.
And here's our second verse (written by myself and my daughter):
God sent Jonah a tree
He said hip-hip-hooree
He sheltered neath its broad and shady branches.
But God sent down a worm
It wriggled and it squirmed
Deep down in the middle of the desert.
The worm ate up the tree
Near Nineveh you see
And Jonah got all hot and tired and bothered.
But God said to Jonah,
Dont you be a moaner,
Deep down in the middle of the desert. 
Original - copyright Hugh Mitchell, 1957; second verse copyright Magnus Ramage & Alice Calcraft, 2014. (Images: Jonah Journal by Rabbi David Paskin)

Friday, 23 May 2014

Living the Way of Jesus

Sermon preached on 18 May 2014 at Duston URC. Text: John 14:1-14. See also my blog post from 2013 on John 14:6.
So I began talking with the children about what it means to walk along with Jesus, and I want to go into that a bit more – about what it means to live in the way of Jesus. This is a long and quite complex passage, rich with imagery and ideas. There’s material for a whole series of sermons in these 14 verses. So as I did earlier, I’m going to mostly focus on one single verse – though drawing on ideas from the rest of the passage.

Now there are probably bits of the Bible you like more than others. Some parts really hit the spot for you, other parts make you much more uncomfortable. And for me, verse 6 of this passage – “I am the way, the truth and the life, no-one comes to the father except through me” – puts me straight into the discomfort zone. I’ve carried this verse with me for perhaps twenty years, looked at it again and again from different angles. I find it really fascinating but also quite disquieting, with this sense of exclusivity in the second half. It’s a verse beloved of tracts and those posters you used to see at railway stations. It could be seen as closed-minded, creating an in-group and an out-group, rather self-satisfied. Does that mean all the Muslims and the Hindus and Jews, not to mention the atheists, have no chance of finding their way to God? Some Christians would say yes, that’s exactly what it means; others would want to interpret it differently and point to the fact that Jesus said that there are many dwelling places in his father’s house. I’m not sure what I think about this subject, but I think the verse as a whole and indeed the passage as a whole is so rich and interesting that it’s worth working with it for a while to see where it takes us.

Let’s step back a moment. This passage is part of John’s gospel in what’s sometimes called the farewell discourses. It happens at the Last Supper, soon after Judas leaves the others to go and betray Jesus. Before the events of the Passion unfold, Jesus gives his disciples a long set of final teachings, interspersed with dialogue from the disciples. They begin with Peter’s declaration that he would lay down his life for Jesus, and Jesus’ prophecy that Peter will betray him three times. And immediately follows the passage we’ve just heard. Jesus says he’s going to his Father, that there’s plenty of space for the disciples to come too, and that they should put their trust in him.

And then comes Thomas, the original TomTom. Good old Thomas, just as much of a believer and a follower of Jesus as the other disciples, but who was always keen to have things nailed down and certain. The man who’s become known in history as Doubting Thomas, but really was just a bit too keen on clear evidence. Here he’d like a satnav please, telling him the way and when he’ll reach his destination. And in response, Jesus speaks two words, which for a Jewish ear are incredibly resonant.

What Jesus says is “I AM”. John’s gospel has several of these I AM sayings – I AM the light of the world, I AM the bread of life and so on. In Greek, the phrase is particularly emphatic, a strong way of saying who you are; but for Jews it’s dynamite, because it’s exactly God said to Moses from the burning bush in the book of Exodus. When Moses asked God his name, God said “I am who I am” and to tell the Israelites that “I AM has sent you”. It’s the basis for the Hebrew name of God, Yahweh, so holy that to this day devout Jews won’t say it aloud. So in using this phrase, Jesus was making a really strong claim about himself, and his connection to God.

And then he goes into more detail about what he’s saying about himself, in these three words. He says that he is the way, that he is the truth, and that he is the life. I’m not entirely convinced these are separate ideas, or even that they’re meant to be. But they’re individually very interesting, and so I want to look at each in turn and what they can tell us about being a follower of Jesus.

So the first thing he calls himself is the Way – the path, the road. He doesn’t say he’ll tell people the way to where he’s going, he doesn’t say he’ll show it to them. He says that he himself is the way. The first Christians were known as the people of the way, and the idea of the ‘way’ was a familiar one in Jewish thought; Moses used it, as did the prophet Jeremiah when he said “Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it,  and find rest for your souls”. As I said to the kids, choosing the right path is very important. But these are all about the way as something external, something physical. By saying that he himself is the way, Jesus makes the idea very personal. We will know the way to the Father by following his example, by living our lives as he did. It’s not about what you believe, or pious statements of faith. It’s about how you live your life.

There’s a wonderful poem by a Spanish poet, Antonio Machado, who wrote: “Traveller, there is no road. We make the road by walking.” Paths are fragile, like the one across these sand-dunes I saw once in California. And Jesus tells us that the only path that matters is one that we can’t see, that we make ourselves by the way we lead our lives. So how do we live our lives? Another quote from a traveller, this time the founder of the Quakers, George Fox, a travelling preacher who did a lot of walking, and told said that we should: “Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.”

And then we move on to Jesus’ second word. He says he is the Truth. Now we live in a postmodern world where truth is a slippery concept, where my version of the truth is just as good as your version of the truth. We have more information than ever before in history, and that information sometimes clouds what is the truth. But in the past, uncovering the truth about something has always been important. And again Jesus doesn’t say he’s going to show us the truth, or bring us the truth, or lead us to the truth. He says he is the truth. Many people proclaim that they have a message of some sort which is true for the world, and yet they live quite a life which shows that is not true within their own lives. It’s something we’re all guilty of at times. But Jesus proclaimed that he was the truth, and he lived a life of truth and integrity. And he said something else amazing about truth: “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free”. So much that goes wrong in the world comes from half-truths, rumours and outright lies that people tell each other or we tell ourselves. But truth brings freedom in it, and by following the one who embodies truth, we find freedom.

The third of Jesus’ words is my favourite of all. He says he is the Life. Again, not that he shows us life, or tells us about life, but that he himself is Life. The word ‘life’ is absolutely central to John’s gospel. It opens with the statement that “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people”. Jesus tells us that he is the bread of life, that those who follow him will have the light of life, that those who believe in him will have eternal life. And it’s in what to me is perhaps the most important verse of the whole Bible [slide 12], also in John’s gospel, where Jesus says “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly”. Jesus didn’t come to bring us rules, he hasn’t come to convince us of our sin, to rub our unworthiness in our faces. He has come to bring us LIFE.

But this is not just any old life. This is not the boring and mundane life, the grey life of the 9-5 drudge with little sense of life. This is life in abundance, life lived to the full. Nor is it about greed or excess. It’s not about taking from others. It’s about living a life that is full of joy, that is suffused with an awareness of God’s love. The American preacher and author John Ortberg talks about becoming the people God created us to be. He asks the question: “what do you do that makes you feel fully alive?” This isn’t about momentary pleasure, the sort of kick you get from eating chocolate or drinking your favourite tipple or watching a mindless but fun television programme. It’s about deep satisfaction. What makes us feel fully alive differs for each of us, but I believe that Jesus came to show us that this kind of life, and richer and deeper, is possible right here and right now.

So Jesus tells us that he is the way, the truth and the life. He is the one who in his own person embodies the generosity, abundance and integrity that he promises to the disciples and to any who are prepared to follow him. Because he asks us at the start of the passage to put our trust in him. Sometimes that verse is translated as “believe in me”, but really it’s better seen as putting our trust in Jesus, like one of those trust exercises where you lean backwards and let go and trust that someone will catch you.

So how can we live like this? How can we put our trust in Jesus as the way, the truth and the life? How can we really be followers of Jesus? Isn’t it rather presumptuous of us? Well, I think we need to start by remembering who we are. We are creatures who are made in the image of God. George Fox talked about answering that of God in everyone, which to me means loving each person we encounter and working for their good, as well as for the good of all others around the world. But it also means seeing that of God in ourselves, of recognising the image of God inside ourselves, of being prepared to be called into that abundant life which awaits all of us who choose it.

The Protestant reformers talked about the priesthood of all believers. They believed passionately that we don’t need intermediaries between us and God, that every Christian is able to find their way to the father through following the way of Jesus and with the assistance of the Holy Spirit. We started the service with the words of Peter that “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people”. This is an amazing promise, but it’s also a bit scary and I think we often dodge around it and don’t take it quite seriously. If we are made in the image of God, if we are followers of the way of Jesus, then we really can trust that it is possible for us all to be priests. And Jesus promises us that if that happens, then we will do the works that he did, and even more.

To follow Jesus is to be in relationship with the one who in himself personified the way, and the truth, and the life; and who calls us to have those things now with him and for ever more.


Sunday, 11 May 2014

Life in abundance – now and for ever

Sermon preached on 9th May 2014 at a residential weekend of Gateways into Worship, part of the Training for Learning & Serving programme of the United Reformed Church. Text: John 10:1-10
I listened to a talk earlier in the week by someone who works for Google. He recounts that the software engineers there, in the plain-speaking way of engineers everywhere, have what they call the “WTF question”. If someone presents an interesting but obscure idea, then they’re presented with the WTF question. Jesus could be disarmingly direct and to-the-point, but he also had a liking for parables and complex images, and his disciples seem to have done a fair bit of asking of the WTF question, including in this passage. And as I read on a blog recently, explaining a parable is like explaining a joke: even if you do it really well, you’ve still missed the point.

So it is here. The image of Jesus as a good shepherd is found in all four gospels, and the fourth Sunday after Easter is often called Good Shepherd Sunday. It’s a well-loved image, much preached on and much portrayed in art. The people of Jesus’ time knew about sheep and shepherds, so Jesus kept coming back to stories about shepherds.

Like most of the rest of the gospel of John, this passage is rich in imagery. There are sheep, a shepherd and his voice, gates and sheepfolds, thieves and bandits, strangers. It’s a strange cast of characters. And when we’re told that the disciples didn’t understand it, Jesus introduces another layer of images. What are we to make of it all?

I don’t intend a full verse-by-verse exegesis of this passage. I have two observations to make about the context of the piece, and then I want to skip ahead to the end, the final verse which is the one that really fascinates me. On the context, then. Sheep in 1st century Judaea were mostly kept for wool, not meat – so that the shepherd kept a herd together and developed a close bond with the sheep over a number of years. So Jesus is describing a long-term relationship, not a short bit of guarding then off to the slaughterhouse. The second bit of context concerns gates and sheep-folds. In the town, sheep were guarded with a proper locked gate. But when out in the country, sheep were kept in a simple pen with walls and one entrance. It didn’t have a gate – instead the shepherd sat or lay across the entrance to keep the sheep in and the predators out. So in saying he is the gate, Jesus is being less obscure than you might think – it was what shepherds did. He knows his flock, he protects his flock.

But on to that final verse, or indeed its second half. “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly” – or have it to the full, in some translations. I genuinely believe that this may be the most important sentence in the entire gospel. Elsewhere we are told of Jesus’ actions, of his preaching and life and death. But here he sums up for himself the core of his purpose. He hasn’t come to bring us rules, he hasn’t come to convince us of our sin, to rub our unworthiness in our faces. He has come to bring us LIFE. It’s the great theme that runs throughout John’s gospel. It opens with the statement that “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people”. Jesus tells us that he is the bread of life, that those who follow him will have the light of life, that those who believe in him will have eternal life.

But this is not just any old life. This is not the boring and mundane life, the grey life of the 9-5 drudge with little sense of life. This is life in abundance, life lived to the full. The word in Greek, perissos, has a sense of surplus, of something that is more than enough. My cup overflows. This is not about greed or excess. It’s not about taking from others. It’s about living a life that is full of joy, that is suffused with an awareness of God’s love. The American preacher and author John Ortberg talks about becoming the people God created us to be. He asks the question: “what do you do that makes you feel fully alive?” This isn’t about momentary pleasure, the sort of kick you get from eating chocolate or drinking your favourite tipple or watching a mindless but fun television programme. It’s about deep satisfaction.

What do you do that makes you feel fully alive? It differs for each of us. For me, I feel at my most fulfilled when I’m really properly spending time with my wife and children; when I’m singing a complex piece of music in a choir that I’ve got to know really well and which engages my soul as much as my voice; when I’m writing (whether it’s a sermon, a blog post or an academic paper) surrounded by books and websites and full of ideas in all directions which somehow come together; or when I’m worshipping and totally carried along by the experience. For other people it’s a different combination.

These things are a tiny taste of heaven. But I believe that Jesus came to show us that this kind of life, and richer and deeper, is possible right here and right now. Now the church hasn’t always been very good at recognising this. To paraphrase St Paul, I stand before you as a Presbyterian and the son of Presbyterians. My people are famously dour and joyless. There is a wonderful photo in the biography of John Reith who founded the BBC, and in late life was the Queen’s commissioner to the Church of Scotland general assembly. Reith was a serious man, and he’s shown processing in solemnity into the assembly, under a statue of John Knox looking even more serious. Not much sense of life in abundance. And in their own ways, other churches have been just as bad about denying life. For centuries decent Christian folk supported slavery and persecuted members of other faiths, or the wrong branch of their own faith. There are many churches today who still think it’s acceptable to deny acceptance of those in a loving relationship simply because their partner is the same gender. I believe that Jesus would stand against all these denials of life and lovingly affirm that he has come into the world that all may have life, and live it to the full.

To follow in this abundant life is not to be selfish or materialist. On the contrary. It includes enabling others to have life in abundance. It is focused on others, outward-looking and generous. Jesus’ words here closely follows a healing he conducted of a man who was blind from birth, to whom he gave sight. We are likewise called to heal and help those in all sorts of need. We are participants in bringing about the kingdom of God here on earth, the upside-down kingdom where the last shall be first, where the mighty shall be humbled, and where the meek shall inherit the earth. You may remember the Christian Aid slogan from a couple of years ago which read “we believe in life before death”. That’s the kind of life we’re called to lead and to help others to lead.

And to me, this is our role as preachers – to bring life and hope to those we lead in worship, to show them the way to find abundant life through a relationship with Jesus. To show them that however difficult is their life today, there is a way into a life of joy and satisfaction. Rob Bell writes: “God is love, and love is a relationship. This relationship is one of joy, and it can’t be contained. Jesus invites us into that relationship, the one at the centre of the universe. He insists that he’s one with God, that we can be one with him, and that life is a generous, abundant reality.”

In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. He came to bring that life to the world. He came to bring that life to us, to offer us the chance to live in abundance – right here, right now, and then for ever more.