Tuesday, 29 April 2014

In praise of doubt

At our church, we're doing a study course during the liturgical season of Easter - from Easter Sunday to Ascension Day. That's 40 days, and the course is entitled 40 Days with Jesus. It's very good - written by Dave Smith, founder and pastor of an independent church in Peterborough. The author is clearly evangelical in his background, but manages to present an open-minded account of some of the people Jesus met and interacted with in the 40 days we are told (Acts 1:3) that he spent on earth after his resurrection. (The book is published by CWR.)

I really like the idea of taking the season of Easter seriously. In our society we have a problem with over-preparation for events which are then over in a moment. Of these, the most notable is Christmas, where "Christmastime" or the "festive season" takes up most of December, sometimes spilling out to November, but more or less ends on 25th December. In many Protestant churches, we follow this trend in society with Christmas, for which our celebrations are great on 25th Dec but end there. It's even more so with Easter. Many of us have started to follow Lent quite arduously, giving things up and following study courses and the like. And many Reformed churches are taking Maundy Thursday and Good Friday quite seriously (much more so than a generation ago when celebrating either would have been considered 'Papist'). And of course Easter Sunday is the great celebration in all churches everywhere. But afterwards - nothing. Nada. Back to normal life.

The Catholics do these things better, taking the liturgical year much more seriously, and this is something the Anglicans kept when the Church of England had its partial Reformation, and have nurtured well for the past several hundred years. But in other Protestant traditions, not a lot happens between Easter Sunday and Ascension (perhaps even skipping that one and going straight to Pentecost). So I really welcome Forty Days with Jesus.

We're on Day 10 of the course. It takes one encounter with the risen Christ each week, and has daily study material for each encounter (supported by other resources). This week, it's the meeting of Jesus with the disciples on the road to Emmaus. It's a great story, and one which has teased and intrigued Christians throughout history. Why didn't the disciples recognise Jesus? What kept them from realising who he was? What did he tell them on the road? How did it feel when they realised who he was? Why did he disappear after they realised this? It's been the subject of many artworks as well as scholarly works - this is Caravaggio's version, one of my favourites.

Today's reading is entitled "Vision blurred by doubt". Dave Smith writes: "[I]t is worth being alert to how doubt can prevent us from 'seeing' Jesus, wherever we are in our spiritual journey. It seems as if the main reasons why the disciples failed to recognise Jesus on the Emmaus Road, even though He was standing right there with them, was because of their unbelief" (p.40 of the book). The experience of Thomas, often called the doubter, follows next week - we'll see what Dave Smith has to say then.

I really don't agree with him on this one, either in the case of Emmaus or generally about doubt. Here's what I'd say about Emmaus. It was the third day after Jesus had been executed. The disciples were bewildered, depressed and fearful. And then there were these strange stories that he had been spotted. Cleopas and his companion must have been besides themselves, unable to recognise anything much going on. And they knew Jesus was dead, so why would they expect him to be there? It wasn't a matter of doubt or unbelief but simply normal expectation.

But what if it was about doubt? Is that so wrong? Oliver Cromwell, not a man we associate with doubt or a lack of self-esteem, famously said: "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken", which minus the bowels bit has been preserved to this day in British Quakers' Advices and Queries. And a bit of healthy uncertainty is extremely important. It's the basis of the scientific method and the Enlightenment - Immanuel Kant summed up the entire thesis of the Enlightenment in two words, Sapere aude (loosely translated, 'dare to question').

Those who are certain about the truth of something are the most dangerous people in the world. It's that certainty which causes wars, conflict, persecutions. The cause might be an excellent one, or it might be a repellent one, but if you believe it with no room for doubt, you're left with no room to change, and no room to compromise with those you meet.

We might have excellent reasons for believing something. I have excellent reasons for believing, variously, that: the sun will rise tomorrow; if you hit yourself with a large object it hurts; I will die within the next century; we were created by a loving God. My reasons for believing these are different kinds of knowledge. Nonetheless, it is appropriate to doubt each of them.

But this kind of doubt is essentially about intellectual belief in the truth of abstract propositions. Faith is a different matter. As has been written by various Biblical scholars, the Greek word "pistuein", often translated as "to believe", really means more like "to trust". Faith is about relationship, it's not about believing intellectually that your partner will come home to you each night but rather trusting it with all your heart. And that's the kind of thing we can do without doubting.

Shakespeare discussed doubt and trust as follows (in Hamlet):
Doubt thou the stars are fire;
Doubt that the sun doth move;
Doubt truth to be a liar;
But never doubt I love.
The disciples on the road to Emmaus were right to doubt that the person they met on the road was Jesus. It didn't come from lack of faith in him. But they were equally right, once their eyes had been opened, to put their full trust in what they had seen and experienced - the risen Christ.

Friday, 25 April 2014

Is 'free' a lie?

Just listened to a great talk given at the RSA by Aral Balkan, about the reality of free data. Quite a bit of it is the usual line of "if you're not paying, you're the product not the customer", but it's put in a pretty hard-hitting and punchy way, and it contains some genuinely new insights. Didn't agree with it all, and a certain level of salesmanship (he's a social entrepreneur founding a company called IndiePhone) but well worth a watch for those into digital issues. 

My favourite quote: "The business model of free is the business model of corporate surveillance". (He extends this idea at some length in his Indie Tech Manifesto.) In a moment of irony, I copied down this quote on Evernote via voice recognition on my Android phone...

I'm getting more and more interested in the ubiquity of information, as enabled through portable devices, and its positive and negative impacts, so this is very timely. 

Sunday, 13 April 2014

The Triumph of the King? A sermon for Palm Sunday

The Triumph of the King. It sounds rather ponderous, like one of the bits of Tolkien that only hardcore geeks read. Or worse, it sounds presumptuous. Because we all know what happened in this triumph. Decent preacher from the north country, comes sweeping into the capital city, gets arrested by the authorities for sedition, put to death in a really nasty way. Some triumph. Of course, we also know happened two days later, on the great day that we’ve come to call Easter Sunday, when he rose from the dead.

Nobody knew this was going to happen on a Sunday morning when that preacher, the firebrand from Galilee who went around preaching the kingdom of God, and performing healings, and opening people’s eyes to God, when that man Jesus entered the gates of Jerusalem. And while what happens next really matters, and many of us here will spend the coming week remembering it and mourning it and celebrating it, I want to invite you to think yourself into the minds of the people in the crowds that Sunday morning. Forget what you know about the events of the following week. What kind of strange event was going on that morning?

As a way into this, I thought we might start with a quiz. So, a show of hands please. What does Hosanna mean? Is it: A. Hail, O Lord! or B. God be praised! or C. Save us, Lord! or D. Give me oil in my lamp.

And the answer is… C: Save us, Lord! I was genuinely surprised to find the answer to this one when I read it a few days ago. You know the word hosanna. You’ve sung it many times in different songs [including this morning??]. But have you stopped to think what it means? I hadn’t done so before I started reading about this passage. I guess I thought it meant something like A or B, something similar to the word ‘hallelujah’. But it doesn’t. It refers back quite explicitly to the psalm we spoke together, with its line: “Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!”. So it’s not a cry of praise at all, it’s a cry for help. It’s a cry from the heart, like the psalm which says “out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!”

And the people of Jerusalem needed help. They needed to cry out to God. They were living under an oppressive ruler who was the puppet of the world’s largest empire, noted for its brutality. And yes, God answered. He sent them what they were asking for. But it wasn’t quite what they were expecting. They expected a very different triumph from the one they received.

Let’s talk about that word Triumph a bit more. The cities of Europe, old and new, are full of arches like this, set up by victorious military leaders to celebrate their victories. They’ve been around for millennia. This one, the Arc de Triomphe, was put there by Napoleon. There are at least two in London. But they were perfected by the Romans, as a way of celebrating the victories of their generals and rubbing it in for the defeated people.

These Roman triumphs had similar features. There was a victorious leader, riding on a war-horse or in a chariot, accompanied by his troops. The local dignitaries would make grand speeches about the leader’s achievements. The leader and his party would go to the grand temple to give thanks to their gods. And they would bring the spoils of the war – the treasures they had looted, the slaves they had captured, often killing those captives at the end of the process to show their power.

Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem was certainly celebrated and was triumphal in its own way. But it was different from the Roman triumphs in almost every possible respect.

First, he didn’t come in on a war-horse or a chariot, like the Roman leader in the picture here. He came into the city on a colt, a young donkey (so young that its mother came along with it). Now, there was a prophecy involved, which Matthew quotes from Zechariah. But there was also the basic fact in that region that donkeys were humble animals ridden by simple folk. You might know the hymn to the tune of Drunken Sailor, which goes “We have a king who rides a donkey… and his name is Jesus”.

Next, he didn’t get lots of grand speeches. Of course there were palm branches and those shouts of hosanna. But there were no local dignitaries telling us of his great deeds. Instead there were people openly saying “WHO? FROM WHERE?” Not so much scorn as plain bewilderment.

And then there was Jesus’ actions when he entered. As I said, the Roman generals went straight to the temple. They brought animals to sacrifice, gifts to give to their gods. Jesus also went straight to the temple. But not to sacrifice. He went to turn things upside down – he drove out the money-changers and salesmen, he cured the blind and lame. He took away the petty acts of exploitation that the temple brought upon those who came to worship there, and he healed people instead. In other words, he fulfilled that cry of hosanna, save us, straight away – but to save the people from the ways they were exploited and oppressed by their own people.

So how did the people respond? Let’s look at that a bit more.

They waved palm branches of course. That’s the famous thing about the day. It was traditional to wave palm branches on Sukkot, the Feast of the Tabernacles, which was a harvest festival which also remembered the way the Israelites lived during the Exodus. But they were also the symbol of Judas Maccabeus, celebrated as the man who liberated the people of Israel two centuries earlier. And for the Romans the palm branch was a symbol of the goddess of victory. So there was celebration in the waving of palms but there was a political statement too.

And of course the very next thing the people do, according to Matthew, is to cry “Hosanna” – save us, Jesus. Save us from the people who oppress us. Deliver us from our enemies. They call him the son of David, and they say that he comes in the name of the Lord. Again these are quotes from the psalm, but they are strong statements about the kind of king they want, the kind of king they see Jesus as. This is a moment of transformation, of change. If you know the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, perhaps you remember the moment when the crowds are singing “Hosanna, hey sanna, sanna sanna ho”, and at the same time the priests are singing “Tell the rabble to be quiet, we anticipate a riot – this common crowd is much too loud”. This is a triumph of a very kingly sort, albeit a Jewish triumph rather than a Roman one.

And then he’s in Jerusalem and something strange thing happens. The tone of the crowd changes. It’s no longer “hosanna” but rather it’s “who is this man?”. They don’t know what to make of Jesus, this strange radical figure. One reason for this, perhaps, is that there are two crowds – the palm-wavers are the people who have followed Jesus from Galilee, while the ones asking who he is, are those who live in Jerusalem. But it’s still a great question, and one we might spend our whole lives answering: who is this Jesus for us?

And if that’s how the people responded, can we respond today?

Two thoughts. The first is from Helder Camara, long-time archbishop in Brazil and a man of great spiritual wisdom. He was once asked how he kept his humility in the face of all the wealth and power that comes with being an archbishop. He said that he imagined himself entering Jerusalem in triumph – but not as Jesus. He imagined himself as Jesus’ donkey, carrying him to where he needed to be.

And the other thought is a bit like it. I mentioned earlier the hymn “We have a king who rides a donkey”. It ends with the following words: “What shall we do with our life this morning? Give it up in service!” 

Because that’s what Jesus did. The road through the gates of Jerusalem led Jesus to Calvary, and to giving up his life for others. Palm Sunday is a triumphant time, but it’s not the kind of triumph that the Romans expected, or that the Jews expected, or that the disciples expected.

Jesus came into Jerusalem in an act of triumph, but it was a triumph that turned everything upside down just as much as his earlier preaching and actions had done. He came to proclaim a victory of the humble over the mighty, of the weak over the strong, of the oppressed over the oppressors. Now that’s what I call a triumph.