Monday, 13 November 2017

Coral spawning and the hope of resurrection

"It's like the coral is being blessed!" said my 8-year old, as we watched the latest episode of Blue Planet 2. Coral spawning. It happens once a year, when the moon is full in spring and when the coral is ready. It is synchronised across the reef, with all the coral spawning at once; and many of the other creatures that live on the reef spawn along with the coral.

That night, that holy night. Because I agree with my son - this is an act of blessing. It's a natural act, that happens annually. But it is an act of blessing and mystery, a gift from God. It has been laid into the coral's DNA to ensure new life and growth.

But there is more: it also ensures rebirth. The episode also talked movingly about the widespread bleaching of coral due to global rises in sea temperature (due to human-made climate change), leading to the coral being unable to grow. Many coral reefs around the world are suffering hugely - 2/3 of the Great Barrier Reef has become bleached - and it's possible there may not be any coral reefs by the end of the century.

But there is hope - slim but real. The spawning of the coral gives these complex ecosystems the chance to be renewed each year, creating a new community in a different place as the spawn sails through the ocean. And maybe, just maybe, coral reefs can be renewed and reborn in different places and in ways that can withstand the worst that humans are throwing at them. Because hope springs eternal, and resurrection happens everywhere. One day a year in spring can be Easter for the coral reefs - and hope is always and everywhere for the rest of the world also.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

What would Jesus do? Practising what we preach

Sermon preached at Duston URC on 5th November 2017. Main text: Matthew 23:1-12.

So this week I had a choir practice. We’re less than three weeks away from performing a brand-new piece, commissioned by the choir, and the conductor is getting a bit nervous. More than once during the rehearsal, he lost his temper – 0-60 in three seconds, from quiet and calm to BOOM. Justified enough since we don’t know the piece as well as we might, but all a bit scary. I do it myself with my children from time to time – that 0-60 in three seconds thing, and they find it alarming too.

And we know perfectly well that Jesus had a temper on him. The money-changers in the temple is the incident everyone remembers, but from time to time he got angry or grumpy or even sarcastic. Gentle Jesus meek and mild is not something you’ll find in the gospels. The sheer level of anger in this passage is something to behold, and the rest of the chapter gets even angrier – he uses the phrase “woe to you” no less than seven times. It’s the same sort of anger as Micah used against the ‘prophets who lead my people astray’.

So that’s the first important point to make about what Jesus says. This is one of a series of passages which on the face of it seem very hostile to the scribes and Pharisees, the interpreters and keepers of the Jewish law. And indeed this kind of passage fed the appalling history of Jewish persecution by the Christian world. But it’s not justified by the passage. This is not an anti-Jewish piece at all. These are words spoken from within the Jewish prophetic tradition of calling out bad practice by leaders and authorities. Jesus is speaking here with a strong prophetic voice. Notice also the respect to which he gives the teaching, although not the lifestyle, of the scribes and the Pharisees. And of course elsewhere he says more than once that he’s not come to abolish the laws or the prophets.

So this has to be understood in its Jewish context, but also in the context of when the gospel of Matthew was written. Most scholars believe this to have happened in the city of Antioch in Syria, in the years following the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. The Christian community in Antioch was largely Jewish, but straining to find its own identity and getting more separated from the Jewish people; and after the destruction of the temple, the Jewish people were looking for a new direction, and Christians and Pharisees were very much doing battle for who would take prominence. So the writer of the gospel wasn’t well-disposed towards Pharisees, and that needs to be borne in mind.

With that said, let’s look at the two models of discipleship that are presented here by Jesus. The first is based on law, on practice and on status. As I’ve said, as an observant Jew, Jesus had great respect for the law. The law was given to the Jewish people, starting with the ten commandments, not as a way to control them but as a way to lead them to a good life. They had come out of a place of chaos and control, with no ability to worship God in their own way and no power over their own lives. So the question during the Exodus from Egypt was: what does it mean to live under the power of God? And the answer was the Torah, the law. So respect for the Law was, and still is, at the very heart of what it means to be Jewish, the people set free from slavery in Egypt, the people of the Exodus and the people of the Torah. Listen, for example to a single verse of Psalm 119: “I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word”. That psalm runs to 176 verses, all in praise of the Law, and there’s plenty more like it in the Old Testament. And that’s the significance for me of Jesus talking of the scribes and Pharisees sitting on Moses’ seat, as Moses was one to whom the Law was given as well as the one who freed the Jewish people from slavery. So to sit on Moses’ seat is to carry on that tradition of Law.
Image: Wikipedia
But important as is their teaching, the scribes and Pharisees fall short in three important ways: in their showiness, in their expectations of others, and in their love of status. Here Jesus uses this mysterious phrase about making their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. This is a way of calling them spiritual show-offs. These are phylacteries, a Greek word – all Jewish people call them tefillin. They’re prayer cubes, which contain four small passages written on parchment. Observant Jews, only the men, wear them for morning prayer, a practice required by a few verses in the Torah; and it’s still something done today. They’re worn on the forehead and the arm, with leather straps wound around the arm. Along with the phylacteries is worn a prayer shawl with dangling fringes or tassles. Making these things especially prominent would be a way of saying: look at me! I’m really holy! Now plenty of that goes on among today’s religious leaders, among the higher echelons of the Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox traditions, but also in more subtle ways among Protestants, wearing black gowns or big crosses or headscarves or whatever. But Jesus is very clear that it’s not the right way – be faithful, he’s perhaps saying, but do it modestly and sensibly. That doesn’t mean that religious leaders, or Christians more generally, shouldn’t wear smart clothes to worship, even beautiful clothes, as they can be a celebration of God’s glory and the importance of the occasion, but it should be intended not to indicate the holiness of the wearer but rather the holiness of God.

The next is about overloading others with your burdens. This is a familiar refrain from the gospels. As Jesus says elsewhere, the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. As well as the many commandments of the Torah itself, by the time of Jesus there were centuries of interpretation and extra rules. Life for the Jewish people had become bound up in myriad different rules, and it was quite difficult to follow all the expectations. So what was designed as the final part of the Jewish people’s liberation from slavery had become its own sort of bondage. In addition to this was what we’d today call corruption – the scribes and the Pharisees were part of a religious and political elite which enriched itself through taking money from the people and by colluding with the occupying Roman authorities. They might themselves be holy men, but their effect on others was pretty negative.

And that takes me to Jesus’ last complaint, that all the actions of the scribes and Pharisees sought to increase their own status in the community. They wanted to receive titles, and places of honour, and to be greeted with respect. That’s a human response, and in some ways understandable, but it strips away from their dignity as religious figures. It’s inappropriate. The theologian Tom Wright observes that the people Jesus was taking about were social and political leaders as much as religious figures. He asks the question:
What are today’s equivalents? Some might be the leaders, whether elected or unelected, in our wider societies, who give themselves airs on the media, who rejoice in their ‘celebrity’ status, who make grand pronouncements about public values while running lucrative but shady businesses on the side, who use their position to gain influence for their families and friends, and who allow their private interests secretly to determine the public policy of their country.
This is highly applicable to today’s society. We see it in political figures such as Donald Trump, puffed up with their own self-importance; but also with the sexual abuse scandals around Harvey Weinstein and a growing band of politicians who think that their positions enable them to breach human decency. It’s horrible. Of course we’ve seen sexual abuse scandals in the church, all too frequently. These people think that their positions protect them, give them status. It must not do so.

In summary, as the Lutheran scholar Karoline Lewis puts it, “Jesus’ admonition here is a rephrasing, a re-languaging, if you will, of the Beatitudes. The behavior of the scribes and the Pharisees is what anti-Beatitude living looks like.”

Now, we need to be a little bit careful not to point the finger too readily at others, without looking at ourselves. These are messages for each of us as much as they are for others. Jesus is laying out a way of living which falls into the traps of the scribes and Pharisees, and an alternative view of discipleship, another way of living in the way of the gospel, one based on humility, equality, integrity and service to others.

Listen again to the way he lays out this way of living.
But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
There are echoes for me here of Jesus’ message throughout the gospels. We can see in these words his idea that ‘the last will be first’; where he says that ‘my yoke is easy & my burden is light’; where he washes the feet of the disciples; and even his urge to ‘pray to your Father in secret’.

Constantly through the New Testament we can see Jesus as a champion of humility – of taking risks, but for others’ gain not his own; of not just supporting the poor and downtrodden, but living and eating with them; never seeking status or power, and often explicitly rejecting those things. And he calls us to the same path of humility. He explicitly says that the greatest among his disciples shall be the servant of them all.

You’ve perhaps come across the phrase What Would Jesus Do? It was fashionable a few years back when lots of people in some Christian circles wore wristbands with WWJD on them. It’s sometimes had a rather questionable interpretation. But as an idea it goes back at least as far as a widely-read book called The Imitation of Christ, written about 600 years ago by Thomas à Kempis. How should we live our lives as Christians? It is by asking ourselves how Jesus lived, and seeking to follow his example as much as possible. And perhaps this applies more than anything else to humility. To be full of pride in our own achievements, to be focused on material possessions – we know perfectly well that this is not what Jesus did, and nor is it what he calls us to do.

Next we see Jesus championing equality. He says that nobody should be called Rabbi, that is to say teacher, or father, or instructors, because we have also those things through God and through Jesus. I don’t think we should read this as saying that teachers or spiritual guides or church leaders are worthless – Jesus doesn’t say that. Rather he’s saying that they’re important but they’re roles which exist equally to any other roles in the church community. To be the preacher is no less important than to be the cleaner – but it’s also no more important. But this also puts a responsibility on all of us, to take seriously the idea of the priesthood of all believers. We are all called to be priests, to be channels of God’s message and God’s grace, to ourselves and to the world.

Again we see Jesus as a champion of integrity. One of his great criticisms of the scribes and Pharisees is that they don’t practice what they teach. That phrase, sometimes rendered as practising what you preach is a clear call to integrity. It’s all very well to say fine words, even inspiring words, but do we actually follow the words that we say? This is a particular challenge to those of us who preach or teach, who claim to have some message that we think others should follow. But do we follow the message ourselves? Put another way, do we walk the talk? I find this a real challenge myself. For example: I talk a lot about social justice, about God’s preference for the poor and the oppressed. I preach on it often, I write blog posts about it, it’s an important part of my theology. But how much do I live out that social justice in my own life? I live comfortably, I don’t spend much time hanging out with very poor or homeless people. On the other hand, I do a day job which has an element of social justice, in the university where I work, and I try to make more of that aspect and encourage my colleagues, but not all my work helps the oppressed. But is that enough? Do I walk the talk? That’s my particular concern, which I’ve wrestled with for years, and I don’t have a good answer to it. You may well have your own questions around integrity, your own wrestling to ask whether you practice what you preach.
Image: Maximino Cerezo Barredo
So Jesus presents these two models in this final picture – the way of life of the scribes and Pharisees, who weigh others down with their piety, status and unachievable rules; or the way of Jesus himself, the way of humility, integrity and equality within a community of believers. The one brings frustration, the other life, and as Jesus said, he has come that we might have life, and have it to the full.

I want to close with the words of the preacher and author Brian Maclaren, writing about this passage, who draws together the implications for us all much better than I can do. He writes:
The Spirit of God leads downwards. Downwards in humility. Downwards in service. Downwards in solidarity. Downwards in risk and grace. You used to strive to be cool, but the Spirit makes you warm. You used to strive to climb over others, but the Spirit leads you to wash their feet. You used to strive to fit in among the inner circle, but the Spirit dares you to be different on behalf of the outcasts and outsiders. You don’t find God at the top of the ladder. No, you find God through descent. There is a trapdoor at the bottom, and when you fall through it, you fall into God. It happened to Jesus. It will happen to you too, if you follow the Spirit’s lead.


Monday, 9 October 2017

Love is made the cornerstone

Sermon preached at Kilsby URC on 8th October 2017. Main text: Matthew 21:33-46.
Photo by Rebecca Calcraft
What do we found our lives upon? What is at the heart of our lives? How do we live out our relationship with God? In terms of practical day-to-day living that’s the subject of the Ten Commandments, and more figuratively it’s the subject of this extraordinary parable. Like all parables it has many layers and many meanings, and many possible interpretations – and this parable is especially complicated. But as American theologian Ched Myers said, “a parable is a way in which prophets speak to kings – reframing issues so the hearer is roped in, thinking it’s not about them, and then wham, it gets you”. And I think that’s how Jesus was talking, and I hope that’s how it’ll work for us.

I have one word of caution. One reading of this parable that has been popular in the past is that it’s about the unfaithfulness of the Jewish people, or perhaps the Jewish leaders, and their supplanting by Christians. I find this reading really objectionable. As well as being grossly anti-semitic, and having been a contributor to persecution of Jews by Christians over centuries, it’s a complete misreading of the text. Because Jesus was a pious Jew, deeply knowledgeable of the Hebrew Bible and of rabbinic thought – and this parable is absolutely full of deeply Jewish ideas. You can certainly say that he was arguing against a particular way of thinking, but he was speaking from and within the Jewish tradition.

When he was speaking is an interesting bit of context. In the gospel of Matthew, this parable occurs among a set of teachings that Jesus gave in Jerusalem between Palm Sunday and Good Friday. He had showed the form of king that he was, riding on a donkey to challenge the Roman authorities; had confronted the corruption of the Temple authorities in turning over the money-changers’ tables; and was challenging the ideas of the Pharisees and rabbis through his teaching. Jesus was not in a safe place, and the cross loomed as a very real possibility. And this is not a safe parable.

We hear it at harvest-time, with many churches observing harvest services. The full moon of the past few days has been the harvest moon, all wide and bright as the cold air comes. So the parable begins by talking about the harvest time for the vineyard. That’s the phrase in my translation but the literal phrase in Greek is ‘the time of the fruits’, and that word time is the unique Greek word Kairos. You might know that the Greeks had words for two kinds of time, the cyclical time which recurs again and again, like the seasons – that was Chronos. And the unique time when great events happen, when change occurs, the time above all times when only one thing could happen – and that’s Kairos. So the parable is set in a time of great significance, just as Jesus was talking in a time of great significance.

Now let’s look at those tenant farmers. At first glance the story is written hugely against them. They’re tenants, hired to do the work of looking after the vineyard and making it ready for production. And their treatment of the owners’ slaves and son are horrendous. But I think we have to read it as the reaction of an oppressed people against their circumstances. Jesus was talking in a place where the people were deeply oppressed – their land had been stolen by the Romans, who demanded huge taxes from them and had a whole series of unjust laws; but the local kings and religious authorities were also money-grabbing and unjust. And the result, as has happened throughout history, when people have been oppressed, was a series of rebellions and violent acts. That doesn’t make them right, it doesn’t make them justified by God as sometimes people try to make out, but it does explain them somewhat. And I think it’s part of the idea behind the parable.

I read this week an amazing poem by the African-American poet Langston Hughes, which he wrote in the 1950s at a time when the black people of the United States were treated horrendously by their governments. It captures that feeling of hopelessness and what can come out. It’s called Harlem and reads like this:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Of course black people in the US achieved something like equality – though they have a long way to go for that – without mass violence, not least because of the power of Christian witness from preachers such as Martin Luther King, but only after great despair and hopelessness. The tenants’ scheme to kill the heir and take his inheritance sounds daft – wouldn’t the owner notice, or return violence with violence? – but it’s the kind of hard bargain that oppressed people try to make. In the days when this country had an empire, we oppressed people in so many countries – took their money and labour, mistreated them and gave them unjust laws and hierarchies – but just as bad was the legacy of colonialism, in setting one group against another, so that when the British left, the idea of conflict and scratching out a little advantage was left really entrenched. In biblical times, we can see an echo of this in the story of Jacob and Esau – the younger twin, less loved by his father, who found a way to weasel his way into the inheritance and created a huge rift with his brother as a result.

Not all violence that involves oppression comes from below. Just as bad can be the violence of the powerful upon the powerless. This week, look at the photos of the police in Catalonia beating people on the streets for coming out to vote – whatever the rights and wrong of the referendum, it’s a terrible sight of violent power exercised upon the powerless. Or the scenes from Las Vegas, of gun violence which is enabled by the Americans’ love of weaponry and inability to control their violence; and which as many commentators have said was also about race and thus about power – because if the murderer had been non-white, the response would have been hugely different.

And both kinds of violence were deeply present in the history of the people of Israel. There had been plenty of revolts and rebellions – the founding story of Israel was the escape from oppression in Egypt through God’s help; just 150 years before Jesus’ time there had been the rebellion of the Maccabees which is commemorated in Hannukah, and there were regular rebellions against the Romans. But likewise the people of Israel had perpetrated some horrendous crimes, of mass killings of their enemies, of keeping of slaves, and of oppression of their own peoples. It was the latter kind of violence which the prophets spoke against so often, and so powerfully, in their message that God seeks justice for all and mercy to everyone, rather than retribution and violence. And it was in that prophetic tradition – that in more modern times we call speaking truth to power – that Jesus was speaking so often, and I think including in this parable.

Because one of the key images for the prophets was the idea of Israel as a vineyard. Almost certainly Jesus’ listeners would think of an early part of the book of Isaiah, which parallels the start of this parable very clearly. It begins:
Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones, planted it with choice vines;
he built a watch-tower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.
After a few verses, the prophet talks of the injustice of God’s people in the vineyard:
For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice, but saw bloodshed;
righteousness, but heard a cry!
Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field,
until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone
in the midst of the land!
This is pretty clear stuff. The people of Israel are likened to a vineyard, but their oppression of others, their injustice and mistreatments, are condemned utterly. And I repeat – this is not an anti-Jewish message. This is a message from within the Jewish tradition to the whole world. God is on the side of justice. God is on the side of mercy. God is NOT on the side of violence. God is NOT on the side of those who take others’ land and livelihoods, whether with weapons or with law-courts or with money-lending schemes or with slavery or with concentration of wealth in the hands of elites. That’s a message for the time of Isaiah, and for the time of Jesus, and it’s a message for today. Our God is a God of justice and of love.

Now as I said, all parables have layers and multiple meanings, but most people read the vineyard owner as God in this parable, and the son as Jesus. And there’s an important note here. Jesus asks his listeners how the owner might react, and they reckon he’ll do further violence. But there’s no evidence of that in the story – instead we see a vineyard owner, we see a God, who loves and loves and loves some more. He sends slave after slave, he sends his son. His goal is an extravagant wish to bring more love, and to give more and more chances. This story is sometimes called the parable of the wicked tenants, or in more old-fashioned terms the parable of the wicked husbandmen, but as some have said, we could call it the parable of the long-suffering God.

So instead of supporting more violence, Jesus quotes from Psalm 118, the culmination of the Hallel Psalms which give especial praise to God and which were and are recited on all great Jewish occasions. He alludes to the rejected stone and how it becomes the greatest of all stones. There was a story that would be known to all Jesus’ listeners, of the building of the temple in the time of King Solomon, which was linked to Psalm 118. It said that the temple was carefully planned, stone by stone, and each stone carved out in its right shape for the temple, some distance from the temple site. The first stone to be delivered but the last to be used was the capstone. So when it arrived, the builders didn’t know what to do with it, putting it to one side and forgetting about, as if they rejected it. And eventually the temple was all but finished so they sent to the quarry for the capstone and received back the word ‘we already did’ and only then did they remember that funny-shaped stone way over in one corner of the site.

And so in humility Jesus pointed out that God’s way of responding to violence is by love, and by picking out the most unlikely person from the most unlikely place. And his great intervention in the world came in the shape of a peasant born in a stable to an unmarried mother who had to flee as a refugee, who lived with people on the margins and died an enemy of the state on the town rubbish dump. But on that basis, on that wonderful marginal basis, God changed the world.

Because this is the message of the parable of the tenants in the vineyard. God is against oppression, and God is against the violence which comes against oppression. But God uses the most unlikely tools to change the world. And so he can use us, in the words of the first letter of Peter to become living stones, to let ourselves be built into a spiritual house and to be a holy priesthood. We won’t do this by perpetuating the cycle of violence, by retribution and punishment and war. We do this in the way that Jesus did – by coming from nowhere, but by being everything and by sacrificing everything. And in that way we overthrown the rule of domination, the rule of violence, and bring in the kingdom of God and the kingdom of peace. And in that way love is made the cornerstone of the temple of God, now and for ever.


Sunday, 10 September 2017

Resolving conflict: reconciling ourselves to each other through Christ

Sermon preached at Daventry URC on 10th September 2017 - recording available. Texts: Matthew 18:15-20, Romans 13:8-14.

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.

Image: XPastor
 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 it comes up as today’s reading in the lectionary, and it’s a really important topic. 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. 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 not cosy places if you stepped out of line with the community. And there’s the frankly quite odd statement that if the offender should be treated like the Gentiles or tax collectors, who elsewhere in the gospels Jesus is very tolerant towards. So is there really anything to be taken from this?

Well yes, if you look at the passage in the context of Jesus’ other teaching. Matthew 18 is a whole workshop on forgiveness. First of all, the immediately preceding passage is the parable of the lost sheep and the shepherd’s joy in finding it. And the passage is followed with Jesus telling Peter that we should forgive something not just seven times (which was the Jewish law) but seventy-seven times, or in some versions seventy times seven times; and after that another parable, that of the servant who is forgiven his debts by his master but then refuses to forgive a much smaller debt to another servant.

So I don’t see this as a passage about discipline, about the best way to chuck out a recalcitrant church member. I see it instead as a passage about forgiveness, about reconciliation, about rebuilding relationships. 

We often talk about the members of a church as a church family. Some translations talk about ‘if another member of the church sins against you’, but the Greek word is adelphos, literally brother but given the misogyny of the Greek, better understood as brother or sister, which is what other translations say. And that family link is important. For most of us, if we are hurt by a sibling, we don’t seek to have them expelled from the family. We might struggle with connecting with them, but eventually our goal is to restore our relationship. 

Remember also that the gospel of Matthew is thought by most scholars to have been written in the years following the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, in the city of Antioch in Syria. The communities called here ‘churches’, are the word ekklesia which had been used in Greek-speaking Jewish circles for some time to mean assemblies of believers. Almost all of these were small groups, perhaps 15-20 people. Think house churches rather than a church of this size, and certainly not the numbers found in a large parish church, cathedral or American-style mega-church. Moreover, they were tightly bound together, persecuted by the mainstream Jewish community out of which they had come, and increasingly also persecuted by the Roman state. In such a body, close relationships really matter. A rupture between two people could lead to a big problem for the entire community. It had to be healed for the good of all.

So this is a passage about love rather than law. It fits so well with the lovely words of St Paul in our reading from Romans that “Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law”. Now I’m not a big fan of St Augustine’s theology, but he had a phrase that you may know, often put in this way: “Love God, and do what you will”. In other words, if you are filled with the love of God, if your life is oriented towards loving God as the most important thing you can do, then your actions will always be pure. So I’d like to quote more from St Augustine, in a modern rendering by Stephen Tomkins. Augustine was preaching on the 1st letter of John, in the section which says that ‘whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love’, and he wrote:
If you hold your peace, hold your peace out of love. If you cry out, cry out in love. If you correct someone, correct them out of love. If you spare them, spare them out of love. Let the root of love be in you: nothing can spring from it but good.
So Jesus says, here are the steps to follow. 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. 

There are cases where even this first stage is too hard, especially where there’s a big disparity of power balance between the people – if the person doing wrong is a church leader of some sort, for instance; and likewise if the wrong-doing was abusive in some way, emotionally or physically. In these cases it may not be possible to confront the wrong-doer directly, without additional support of some sort. Indeed, there are horror stories of churches where this very passage is used to justify further abuse by powerful people who insist upon their ‘Matthew 18 rights’. I read some awful cases online in the past week, preparing for this service.

But even if it’s possible to talk directly to someone, 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.

Although even then you don’t cut somebody off. “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” has to be read in the light of the company Jesus kept. He ate with Gentiles, in defiance of pious Jewish custom. He touched and healed those who were considered unclean. He had tax collectors, those frequently-corrupt collaborators with Roman occupation, among his dining companions and disciples. The traditional author of this very gospel, Matthew, was himself a former tax collector. So again even at this extreme stage, the person has to be treated with love and respect. 

And the process has to be carried out at all times in a spirit of love and in a spirit of worship. Jesus reminds us that when two or three are gathered together, he is there among us. That’s a pretty salutary reminder for any gathering of Christians. We hopefully think in those terms in our worship, but do we act in that way when we have business meetings? I’ve been to church meetings, even elders meetings, which to put it politely would have been conducted somewhat differently if we thought of them as places where Christ was present among us. And this is all the more important where we’re talking about great hurts that may have been carried out by one Christian upon another.

So does Jesus mean us? This group of people gathered today in his 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, the process of listening for the will of God through the Holy Spirit.

What the sequence of steps for dealing with someone who’s done you wrong reminds me of, is the process of progressive 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 their work with the ambulance brigades in the world wars began, and how their 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.

This matters well beyond the church. We live 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. The places change but the conflicts remain. 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. There’s a hymn from Zimbabwe which is based on today’s passage - I know it through the Iona Community. 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.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Come to Jesus to find shalom: a sermon on rest

Sermon preached at Duston URC on 9 July 2017. Text: Matthew 11:16-30. Immediately preceded by listening to a recording of John Bell's hymn "Come to me, come to me, weak and heavy laden".
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. We’ve talked a little about burdens already. We are all carrying burdens in our lives. For some of us these are physical burdens – our health, a disability, the health of someone we love. For some these are emotional burdens – a relationship in turmoil, deep unhappiness or anxiety, worries about the future. For others they are practical burdens – problems about housing, jobs, money. Whatever our particular burdens, Jesus invites us to find rest in him.

My own burdens are often self-inflicted. I was writing this sermon yesterday, after a busy week at work, with a long to-do list, and reflecting on the irony of preaching on rest while feeling busy. So this sermon is directed to myself in the first instance, and I hope might be useful for others too. Now I’ve long been fascinated by the beginning of the 23rd Psalm. It begins: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures”. Note that verb ‘makes’. The psalmist doesn’t say that God invites us to have a quick lie-down, just for a few minutes, if we’re not too busy. God does not invite, God insists.

So this is a verse of great comfort and encouragement, as well as quite a challenge to those of us who live otherwise. But of course it’s unwise to take a single verse from the gospels out of context and construct a whole sermon out of it, not that it’s stopped me or other preachers in the past. Let’s go back to the start of the reading and see what light it can shed on what it means to come to Jesus in our weariness and heavy ladenness.

Image: St Joseph the Worker
This is the continuation of a passage earlier in Matthew chapter 11, where Jesus receives a message from John the Baptist in prison, and then talks to the crowd about John, his message, and the kingdom of God that he pointed the way to. When this passage begins, Jesus is talking about the difference between the way he’s treated and the way John is treated. He’s cross. Whatever prophets do is wrong, it seems. John gets mocked for his asceticism, his fasting and simple clothes; whereas Jesus gets mocked for his incarnational ministry, his eating and drinking with all kinds of people. One has a demon, the other is a glutton.

Jesus’ comparison of the people of his time is to children, and he’s normally very positive about children, so I think we have to think of unruly teenagers on the street corner, or perhaps that stage in a birthday party where too much sugar has been eaten and drunk and the kids go haywire. Not the sort of thing that any children associated with this congregation would do, but you get the drift. Spoiled brats, complaining and criticising whatever they’re offered.

Actually what it reminds me of is Prime Minister’s Questions, with its awful weekly braying, points-scoring and constant negativity. The sort of thing which gives politics, and the country as a whole, a bad name. Now I’m tempted to say that in the face of all this horribleness, Jesus simply gets grumpy and lashes out in response with his exhortations against Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum. Remember that these were the places Jesus knew and where his ministry was centred. Home turf. But the theologian Tom Wright makes a fascinating point – that it could be seen as warning as much as threat – that he was saying, if you continue on your current path of point scoring and petty name calling, then it leads to violence, and worse violence, and ultimately your destruction. There is only one way to peace and full life, and that is the way of non-violence, of acceptance, of sacrifice, that Jesus proclaimed as the kingdom of God. So if we hear the words about “this generation” and wonder how that applies our generation, or rather to generations living today, then it’s this message which comes out clearly.

There’s another part of this early passage which really interests me – the phrase “wisdom is proved right by her deeds”. Now in some ways that might be linked to the idea that Jesus says elsewhere, that ‘by your fruits you will know them’, yet it goes beyond that in a way that it’s important to understanding the end of the passage. That word wisdom is the key to a large body of Jewish literature such as the books of Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, known as the wisdom literature, which has a deeply spiritual but also practical way of talking about ways to God and ways of living. Wisdom, often seen as female, is described in this literature as a mysterious and ethereal being, which brings shalom, which is to say peace but also well-being, wholeness and flourishing. In later Christian writing close parallels have been drawn between Wisdom and the Holy Spirit. In this passage Jesus clearly draws a direct parallel between himself and wisdom and seems to be saying that you can see this wisdom through the deeds that he has performed.

And this distinctive and unique character of Jesus carries on as he thanks God for the way he reveals himself – not through big words and theories, but in everyday ways which can be understood by infants. A few chapters earlier, Jesus said that blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth; and blessed are the poor in heart, for they will see God. And I think this is in a similar vein – the core of his message is not only a simple one, but it’s also one that comes from experience. Live like Jesus, and you become his follower, and will gain the life he promises us – not just in some future existence after death, but right here and now.

Having said that, he presents us with a complex verse that takes a whole host of biblical scholars to unpick, about nobody knowing the Father except the Son, and nobody knowing the Son except the Father. We could have an entire sermon on that verse, but that would be exactly the sort of intellectualism that we’ve just heard spoken against. But I will say that it’s a verse that speaks a lot to me of the Trinity, and a sense from a growing number of writers that the Trinity, the nature of God as three-in-one, is not an abstract philosophical puzzle but is about relationships, about living. At the heart of the Trinity, at the heart of God, at the heart of the universe, is a loving relationship - God knowing God in God’s different aspects. And this verse tells us of God inviting us into that relationship – we know the Son and the Father and the Holy Spirit together as one.

There’s a wonderful Irish writer by the name of John O’Donohue, now dead, who combined spirituality and deep theological depth in his writing. On the theme of the Trinity he wrote some amazing words. He wrote [in Anam Cara]:
The Christian concept of God as Trinity is the most sublime articulation of otherness and intimacy, an eternal interflow of friendship. This perspective discloses the beautiful fulfilment of our immortal longing in the words of Jesus who said, Behold, I call you friends. … In friendship with Jesus, we enter the tender beauty and affection of the Trinity. In the embrace of this eternal friendship, we dare to be free.
And it’s that daring to be free that Jesus presents us with, as we come back to the end of the passage, where he offers us to come to him if we’re weary and carrying heavy burdens. I talked earlier about the implications of that offer, but the way it works it also important.

Jesus asks us to take his yoke upon us, promising that he is gentle and humble, that his yoke is easy and his burden is light, and that he will bring rest for our souls. For one who is asking others to take up a new way of living, he’s presenting it in a calm and reassuring way. Elsewhere he tells people to take up their cross, foresees that they will be persecuted in his name, and so on. But here he is being reassuring.

Now the word yoke is not widely used in today’s urbanised society, but for people of Jesus’ time, it was very familiar. For those who don’t know, it’s the harness used to enable an animal to pull a plough, cart or similar object. In Jesus’ time and the centuries before, it was also a metaphor – being put in a yoke was to be enslaved. To take up the yoke of the Torah, the law, was a positive thing, though as the New Testament writers commented, extremely difficult to get right.

However interpreted, a yoke was a hard thing to take up. So Jesus offering it at all to his followers as a positive metaphor would be a surprise, and to emphasise that it was light an even more striking comment.

But there’s an important aspect to this image. Although some of the yokes of the ancient world were for a single animal, many were for a pair of animals – Jesus is offering to share our loads with us, to take on his tasks, but only with his support all the way. That’s such a powerful image to me. We are not called to labour on Jesus’ behalf, doing his bidding as servants.
Image: aaaComputerforChrist
Instead, we are called to take the yoke alongside him, to work with him in the building of the kingdom of God. We are invited to learn from him, to follow his path, to become his disciples. As he says in John’s gospel, “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.”

And as we learn from Jesus how to be his disciple, to be his friend, we will be supported all the way, as he takes the yoke next to the yoke that we take, and as he ensures that the yoke is no heavier than we can manage, and much lighter than the burdens we carry by ourselves.

Jesus twice promises us rest, and to me that’s not just an offer to stop and sit down, but it’s a promise of the same kind of shalom that comes out from the wisdom tradition. Jesus promises us wholeness, peace, integrity, deep joy in all parts of our lives. Just as the Trinity is about relationship, so shalom is about relationship – it’s about integrating all the parts of our life into one, and making it all shine with God’s love.

So we are invited to take up Jesus’ yoke, to learn and work alongside him, and we are promised rest for our souls. Sounds like an excellent way to spend the summer!


Sunday, 25 June 2017

Bringing peace and a sword: following Christ in a divided world

Sermon preached at Creaton URC on 25 June 2017. Text: Matthew 10:24-39. Followed an earlier talk which discussed the banishing of Hagar and Ishmael as refugees into the desert.

To say that this passage from the gospels is a challenging piece would be putting it mildly. Practically every verse has some sort of challenge to our easy life. If we see ourselves as followers of Jesus, we will be called nasty names, we must shout truth from the rooftops, we are to be threatened bodily, we will have our families separated, we are called to take up a cross, and told to lose our lives. To be sure there are plenty of reassurances, phrases that ring down the ages such as all sparrows falling to the ground being seen by God, and all the hairs on our head being counted. I have to say that even these are difficult enough, set in the context of suffering and hardship that they imply. Going back to the earlier story, we are all Hagar and Ishmael – God hears us in our hardship. But in following Jesus, we are called to hardship.

Of course, the gospel of Matthew was written at a time where Jesus’ contemporary followers knew about suffering, doubly so. Scholars believe that Matthew was written after the fall of the temple at Jerusalem, to Jewish followers of Jesus living in exile in Antioch, who in recent years had seen terrible things. But not only were they Jewish, as followers of Jesus they were cut off from the mainstream of Jewish thought and increasingly persecuted by their own people. So talk of not fearing those who could kill the body was a reasonable fear.

And they knew about division, about being families being torn apart. Because to me the toughest thing in this passage isn’t just the challenge of being a disciple – ok, yes that’s a pretty big challenge. But the stuff about division is hard. For me, I’ve spent a lifetime as a pacifist, and dedicated to reconciliation, and to hear from Jesus that he’s come not to bring peace but a sword – that’s a tough message.

And at first sight it feels uncharacteristic. Isn’t this the Jesus who walked through Galilee in his sandals telling people to love their enemies, to turn the other cheek, to forgive seventy-seven times, and that love of neighbour was equivalent to love of God? And isn’t this the Jesus who willingly wen to his death on a cross rather than fighting against the state, who forbade his disciples to lift a sword in his defence? Well yes, it’s that Jesus. But it’s also the Jesus who stood up against the state, who taught his followers ways of resistance, who parodied and undermined Roman power and temple power – and it’s the Jesus who faced with injustice in the temple, threw down the tables of the moneylenders. Yes he was a man of peace. But gentle Jesus meek and mild he most certainly was not.
Image: James Tissot, Cleansing of the Temple
And amongst all the things he says to his disciples, one thing rings out clearly: if you are going to live out the gospel, if you are going to spread the kingdom of heaven, then you will cause division. If you are going to bring about true peace, then you will be divided from those who profit from war. If you are going to be a champion of justice, then you will be divided from those who promote injustice. If you are going to love, you will be divided from those who hate. If you are going to lift up the poor and the oppressed – the people Jesus lived with and lifted up – then you will be divided from those who cast down the poor and the oppressed.

But a sword is perhaps an unhelpful image. Jesus doesn’t bring something that does violence, he brings something that splits apart those who need to be divided. The Message bible puts these verses like this: “Don’t think I’ve come to make life cozy. I’ve come to cut—make a sharp knife-cut between son and father, daughter and mother, bride and mother-in-law”. And John Bell of the Iona Community builds on this same idea: “The word and person of Jesus are a sword intended to cut through the lies with which we comfort ourselves and to reveal the truth we avoid at our peril”.

These knife-cuts which reveal the truth are hard. Followers of Jesus throughout history who have stood up to injustice, and sought to bring about the kingdom of God, have experienced the divisions which come to their lives as a result. They have challenged injustice, worked for peace, put themselves on the side of the poor and the oppressed. And they have suffered for it, sometimes at the hands of families who rejected them, sometimes at the hands of the governments and systems which they challenged, sometimes alas at the hands of the church which should have known better.

Two people in the past century who experiences were well-known wrote about their struggle through the lens of this very passage: Martin Luther King and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

To start with Dr King. On the night before he was on trial in Kentucky in 1956 as part of the segregated bus boycott, he preached a sermon under the title “When peace becomes obnoxious”, about a case at the University of Alabama who had admitted their first black student. She was attacked and threatened in multiple ways, and eventually the university asked her to leave again for her own safety. The local paper printed a headline that “There is peace on the campus of the University of Alabama”. We know the falseness of this kind of peace. It’s the sort of the so-called peace that occurs when people are pushed down and too afraid to respond. It’s the peace of the Roman Empire, the Pax Romana, that happened because anyone who stood out would be crucified. We see this false peace today in all sorts of places around the world. It’s that sort of peace that Jesus came to bring a sword to cut against. Dr King put it in his wonderful eloquent way:
In a very profound passage which has been often misunderstood, Jesus utters this: He says, “Think not that I am come to bring peace. I come not to bring peace but a sword.” Certainly, He is not saying that He comes not to bring peace in the higher sense. What He is saying is: “I come not to bring this peace of escapism, this peace that fails to confront the real issues of life, the peace that makes for stagnant complacency.” Then He says, “I come to bring a sword” not a physical sword. Whenever I come, a conflict is precipitated between the old and the new, between justice and injustice, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. I come to declare war over injustice. I come to declare war on evil. Peace is not merely the absence of some negative force–war, tension, confusion, but it is the presence of some positive force–justice, goodwill, the power of the kingdom of God.
Something of the same spirit ran through the life and witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who resisted Nazi dictatorship and genocide during the 1930s and 1940s, from a strongly-grounded theological position of discipleship, and despite the willingness of many others in the German churches to support the Nazis. Bonhoeffer’s theology as well as his founding with others of the Confessing Church were very influential during the Nazi period, and in the decades since; and of course he was executed as part of his resistance. He knew well about discipleship – one of his books is entitled The Cost of Discipleship and he wrote much about the subject. He was firmly of the view that a Christian must be engaged with justice in the secular world. Some of his most vivid writing was composed while in prison before his eventual execution for his part in a plot to kill Hitler (though he himself committed no acts of violence). Bonhoeffer also wrote about this part of the gospel of Matthew, as follows:
The peace of Jesus Christ is the cross. The cross is God’s sword on this earth. It creates division. The son against the father, the daughter against the mother, the household against its head, and all that for the sake of God’s kingdom and its peace – that is the work of Christ on earth! No wonder the world accuses him, who brought the love of God to the people, of hatred toward human beings! Who dares to speak about a father’s love and a mother’s love to a son or daughter in such a way, if not either the destroyer of all life or the creator of a new life? God’s love for the people brings the cross and discipleship, but these, in turn mean life and resurrection.
King and Bonhoeffer are just two names of those who have followed Christ’s words to live out the gospel in a way and be his disciple, and if it causes division, that is what will happen. Many other names, some famous and some less known, could be mentioned. But what of the impact for us? How does this affect us?

I believe that whenever Jesus speaks in the gospels to his disciples, he speaks to all of us who continue to follow him, who seek to bring about the kingdom of God. He is very clear – in chapter 25 of Mathew’s gospel – if we see others hungry or thirsty or strangers or unclothed or in prison, and do not help them, then we will be rejected. Sometimes division is inevitable, if we are to speak as Jesus did for the downtrodden and the oppressed.

There are plenty of places in our world where oppression happens. To return to the subject of refugees, the way they have been treated and made unwelcome by country after country, including our own, is simply shameful. Then there are people in this country who are treated shockingly by society - those who are homeless, who are forced towards food banks, who receive benefit sanctions, who are disabled and see their benefits cut, and many more. To speak up for these people might be called political, though it may or may not be in the service of a particular political party. And politics causes its own divisions. But to speak the truth of the gospel of hope, whatever its cost, is the nature of discipleship.

We might also be called to speak this truth in our everyday lives. At work, many of us encounter issues of injustice at a big or small scale – standing up to it can be really difficult and might cause division and get us trouble with colleagues or management. And yet this may be the right thing as a form of discipleship. In personal lives, arguing that your family or friends should do what you see as the right thing can cause division. And in church lives, standing up for your understanding of the gospel causes division. Yet in all these cases Jesus commands us to hear things whispered and to proclaim them from the rooftops; and he promises us that even the hairs of our head are counted, and everything we do is watched over by a loving God.

To close, I want to return to peace, and to read a poem by the hymn writer Brian Wren. He wrote:
Say ‘no’ to peace
If what they mean by peace
Is the quiet misery of hunger
The frozen stillness of fear
The silence of broken spirits
The unborn hopes of the oppressed.

Tell them that peace
Is the shouting of children at play
The babble of tongues set free
The thunder of dancing feet
And a father’s voice singing.

Say ‘no’ to peace
If what they mean by peace
Is a rampart of gleaming missiles
The arming of distant wars
Money at ease in its castle
And grateful poor at the gate.

Tell them that peace
Is the hauling down of flags
The forging of guns into ploughs
The giving of fields to the landless
And hunger a fading dream.
May we all be given strength to follow this kind of peace, whatever its cost, as disciples of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Knowing me, knowing you: following the way to truth and life

Sermon preached on 14th May 2017 at Stamford URC. Main text: John 14:1-14. [I have previously preached on this passage, and blogged on John 14:6.]

When I was a teenager on the edge of Glasgow, I delivered newspapers from the local paper shop. The shop owner, George, was a Catholic, and in the habit of going to Mass on a Saturday evening so was always there on a Sunday morning. The local Presbyterian churches all had a reputation for good scholarly preaching but rather longer and weightier than the average Catholic homily – so George would tease people popping in on their way to church with “are you off to church then? Make sure you have a good big tube of peppermints to get through the sermon!”

I was reminded of George because to get the full sense of this passage from John’s gospel, we need to look at the context and the Greek and the theology in some detail, so it’s a multiple-peppermint sermon today. But I’m not apologising, because this is stuff that really matters, and it deserves proper attention.

I was reminded of George in another way – this passage, and especially verse 6 about “no one comes to the Father except through me” has been responsible for a huge sense of exclusivism in the church. It leads to divisions between Christians and people of other faiths, and it’s led to divisions within the church. It’s this attitude which led to Catholics like George being regarded as less than Christian by Protestants like those I grew up with in Glasgow. Exclusivism and division led to the decades of violence in Northern Ireland. It led to the wickedness of the Crusades and the Inquisition, and to the so-called clash of civilizations between Christians and Muslims which has done so much damage in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places. Those who think they have the only way to truth, and are willing to discriminate against, or persecute, or even kill others because of it, are a menace. They are a menace whether they’re Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, communist or fascist. But here within the Christian church, I’m sad to say that the claim to exclusivism, the engine that fuels division and hatred, often rests on this lovely passage. And it doesn’t deserve it.

The irony is that the whole of this passage is intended by Jesus to be deeply reassuring and comforting to his disciples. It sits early in the section of the gospel of John known as the farewell discourses – the last words of advice, comfort and wisdom that Jesus spoke to his disciples before his trial and execution. The setting is around the table at the Last Supper. Judas has left to betray Jesus to the authorities. Jesus starts to talk about being with them only for a little while longer and says that where he’s going they cannot follow now but later will come. All of that rather alarms the disciples – in turn, Simon Peter, Thomas and Philip ask him about his destination and route.

And Jesus’ response is developed in three parts. First he urges his disciples to trust him; then he tells them to follow his way; then he tells them that if they know him, they know the Father.

So this is a passage all about how we know things, or more specifically how we know God and how to find our way to God. Now, it’s a commonplace that there are many different ways of knowing. There are things we know with our heads – the square root of 4, or the capital of France. There are things we know with our hearts – the way we love our family, or how we feel about politics. There are things we know with our bodies – how to ride a bike, or play an instrument. And so on. You can categorise this in lots of ways and there are plenty of academic terms for the categories. But the basic difference perhaps, at least in our culture, is between what we know with our heads and what we know with our hearts or bodies. And far too often we confuse the two. Worse, ideas which relate to heart knowledge have been thought of in terms of head knowledge.

We can see an example in the first verse of the passage. Jesus tells his disciples: “Believe in God and believe also in me”. Now today when we’re asked whether we believe in God, whether by Christians or not, we sometimes take that word believe to refer to head-knowledge. Do we believe in the existence of God, in the same sense that we believe that 2+2=4? Or do we feel it with our hearts, our bones, our guts? Likewise do we believe in Jesus’ existence, in a set of intellectual propositions about him such as a creed, or do we feel his existence, his love, his mission, his sacrifice, in our heart and our guts? It’s a crucial distinction. The word that’s translated believe in verse 1 is pistuein in the Greek, and it really is more to do with trust than with head-knowing. So Jesus begins by telling his disciples to trust God and to trust him. They had done plenty of that in following him – they had left families and jobs, wandered around with him, taken his word for many things, followed him into danger. The disciples didn’t just know things about Jesus. They knew Jesus for who he was. They put their trust in him.

So the first question is whether we can do the same – can we put our trust in Jesus, not in terms of ideas about him, but in terms of the example he gives us, of the person he was and is and will be?

Thomas asks him if he can know the way to the place Jesus is going – this place with many dwellings, which is to say many place to abide, to rest in the love of God. Thomas is asking for head-knowledge of this place. Bear in mind that this scene takes place before the crucifixion, but you’ll perhaps remember the most famous scene in John’s gospel relating to Thomas, when the other disciples had seen the risen Christ and Thomas said that “unless I see the mark of the nails in his hand, I will not believe”. Well that word see in the later encounter is related to the word know here. Both times Thomas is asking for facts, for concrete head-knowledge.

And Jesus isn’t giving it to him. He makes it very clear: it’s not about head-knowledge. It’s about Jesus’ example, about Jesus’ very person. He’s not there to give them a creed, a set of ideas about God. He’s there to show them a way, which will show them truth and give them life. But that way, that truth, that life, is embodied in Jesus himself. The American theologian Mark Davis talks about the difference between propositional truth, which is the sort that Thomas was looking for; and incarnational truth, which is the sort that Jesus brought.

Jesus does not say “you must believe with your mind that I am the only begotten son of the Father, come to lead you to personal salvation through my atonement, you must sign up to a creed about me”. He says “I AM the way”. He says “I AM the truth”. He says “I AM the life”. He showed us these things in his own life. If we want to know the way to the Father, we need to look to the life and character of Jesus. It is by following the way he shows us that we find the way to God. And what is the way that we are shown? It’s the way that Jesus lived his life. Jesus’s way is a way of openness to all, of inclusiveness of all – Jesus never turned away anyone and spoke and ate with those society found to be lesser beings or outcasts. Jesus’ way is a way of showing others that another world is possible, of giving them new insights and new hopes – this Jesus turned the world upside down with his teachings about turning the other cheek, loving enemies and doing good. Jesus’ way is a way of giving, of feeding the poor and healing the sick whatever the authorities think of it, of caring for those he met regardless of their economic or racial or religious status. And Jesus’ way is a way of sacrifice, of giving from himself so abundantly that it ended in him losing his life. Openness, insight, hope, transformation, giving and sacrifice – this is the way of Jesus. It is the truth of Jesus. And through it, Jesus brings us life and life to the world.

And so this idea of the way became the marking-point for Jesus’ followers. Remember that their own name for themselves, we’re told by the book of Acts, was the people of the Way – the word Christian was an insulting nickname. The idea of the Way wasn’t a new one – it’s in the book of Proverbs, where Wisdom is described as the way, a pattern of behaviours, a path worn by constant treading. And it’s a term used in other faiths – the word Tao in the religion of Taoism likewise means way. But it’s this incarnational idea that is so unique to Jesus – not just that he brought a way to people, but that he himself is the way. In the words of Eugene Peterson, “only when we do the Jesus truth in the Jesus way do we get the Jesus life” [quoted by Carl Gregg].

Of course, Jesus also said that no one goes to the Father except by him, and as I said earlier, that bit of the verse is used in a very exclusive way by some Christians, what is sometimes known as a clobber text. If any other faith is mentioned, any alternative way to God – ah, comes the reply, but Jesus said he alone was the way to the Father. I think this is a huge misreading of the text. It mixes up the different kinds of knowing we’ve discussed, and to me this verse is all about heart-knowing and gut-knowing. We are called to follow in the way of Jesus, to live the same life of service and openness and insight and sacrifice that he lived. He doesn’t say anything about belief, he talks about being. Jesus was God-made-man, the incarnated one, and the church as the body of Christ continues in that incarnation. St Teresa of Avila said that “Christ has no body but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours”. It is our calling as Christians, as the church as a body, to follow in the way of Jesus and carry on his mission. And just as his mission was about openness to all, it makes no sense for us to follow his way by excluding others.

To use this verse as a tool for Christian exclusivism is to miss the point about what it’s saying. It’s addressed to the disciples, not to the world at large. This has nothing to do with Muslims or Hindus or other faiths – they have their own way, which maps on to the way of Jesus. But this is about who we are as Christians – we are people of the way, called to follow Christ’s example. An extended quote from the late theologian Marcus Borg puts this really clearly:
There is a way of understanding the claim of John 14:6 that does not involve Christian exclusivism. The key is the realization that John is the incarnational Gospel; in it Jesus incarnates, embodies, enfleshes what can be seen of God in a human life. To say, "Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life," is to say, "What we see in Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life." It is not about knowing the word Jesus and believing in what is said about him that is "the way." Rather, the way is what we see in his life; we see a life of loving God and loving others, a life of challenging the powers that oppress this world, a life radically centered in the God to whom he bore witness. [from Speaking Christian, 2011]
And by following this way, Jesus promises us, we will see the Father – because even after this teaching, another disciple, Philip, wants more. He says that he’ll be satisfied if Jesus shows them the Father. In Jewish tradition, nobody could see God and live – even Moses saw God from behind when receiving the Ten Commandments. But Jesus confirms that he and the Father are one, that God is made flesh in Jesus, and through his example, through the way Jesus embodies, that God is made known to us.

The incarnation means that God is not abstract. It means that God’s experience of suffering is not conceptual, that God’s thirst for justice is not removed from the world. It means that God lived in the same kind of body as we do, had the same joys and hopes as we do, the same anger and frustration that we do. It means that God suffered pain, physical and mental, as we do. The Hebrew scriptures are full of God’s hunger for justice, but the incarnation meant that God, in the person of Jesus, felt injustice in his body. God walked with the oppressed in Palestine – lived the people held in subjugation by an alien empire, talked with women whose society treated them as nothing, ate with tax collectors and prostitutes and other outcasts of society, debated with people of other faiths and treated them with respect, touched and made well the lepers and the blind and the lame and the haemorrhaging and the disabled.

And towards the end of this passage, Jesus promises his followers that the works he has done, of all these kinds, will be followed by these and by greater works. We are called to carry on Jesus’ mission, to embody his thirst for justice. Wherever we see oppression, he is the way. Wherever we see injustice, he is the way. Wherever we see systems that put people down, that rob them of their dignity, that remove benefits for petty money-saving reasons, that put banks before people, he is the way. Wherever we see the planet despoiled in the name of profit, he is the way. Wherever we see hatred expressed against people because they are black, or Muslim, or gay, or transgender, or female, or refugees, or disabled, he is the way. And if we follow in this way, we are promised that we will do great things.

So remember this in Christian Aid Week. Remember this in the time of the general election. Remember this whenever you deal with others. Jesus has perfectly shown us the way to the Father, and the truth and the life, and it is Jesus himself. It is the life and example and teaching of Jesus. And if we do not follow his way in our dealings in the world, we are not on the path to the Father.

And so we come to the table of our Lord. Because just as Jesus was God made flesh, at this table we remember Jesus’ experience by taking symbols of his body and his blood into our own being. Communion is saying yes to the incarnation, yes to the physical presence of God in our world through Jesus, yes to Jesus as the way, and the truth, and the life. We come to the table, and we experience knowing in our body, and coming together as the body of Christ.

May we all in this communion experience the incarnated Christ, and may we all live out the way and the truth and the life of Christ in our everyday lives. Amen.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Saved to do good: true godliness & living generously

Image: Joey Bonifacio

Sermon preached at Abington Avenue URC, Northampton, on 26 February 2017. Texts: Titus 3:1-15, Matthew 17:1-9.

What’s the point of being a Christian? Why do we show up each week to church? What’s the purpose of us being called into God’s kingdom, into membership of God’s people? Is it just about our individual experience with God, our experience of Jesus’ redemption, our personal experience of the Holy Spirit? Or our need for community, for something to do on a Sunday morning?

All these things are important, but to me the message of the gospels is a deeper one: that Jesus came to call us, and the world, into a radical transformation. He came to show us love and mercy, richer and more generous than we could imagine. And he calls us to a path of showing that generous love and mercy to others. We love, because he first loved us. And to complete that love, we must show it to others, in the way we do good in the world.

We reach the end of the letter to Titus that has been the subject of several sermons over the past few weeks. As others have said in this sermon series, the letter probably wasn’t written by St Paul – the vast majority of biblical scholars agree on this, and say it was written by a later author in his style, a common practice in the ancient world – so we can pass over the greetings at the end of the letter. But this chapter has some real gems in it, and it contains some deep truths about the nature of the Christian life. And even if it wasn’t by Paul, it has the lawyer-like complexity and detail of argument that we often find in his letters. So we need to follow through carefully what the author is saying.

The chapter falls into three parts, as well as those final greetings. There’s a rather beautiful and poetic piece about salvation through the mercy of God, sandwiched between two sections on how to live a good Christian life. The presence of this theological piece about salvation illuminates and gives power to the rest: we live a good life in response to God’s goodness; we act in mercy and love because of God’s love for us.

So in the first few verses we see a contrast between the old life & new life. It’s framed rather like one of those personal testimonies that some people may have heard or indeed given in churches – the author gives a list of negative characteristics with a statement that “at one time we too were…” and then lists foolishness, disobedience, malice, hate. By contrast he begins the chapter with a list of the way we’re told to be as Christians – peaceable, considerate, gentle, slandering nobody, being obedient. This chapter doesn’t contain the word ‘godliness’ as such but that’s a constant theme of the letter to Titus, and this could be considered a list of ways to lead a godly or an ungodly life. Now there are those here who came to Christian faith as adults, and might characterise parts of their former life in that way. Others have been Christians all their lives and so experience it differently. I’ve never myself had a conversion experience, but I can readily see ways in which my own life exhibits those ungodly patterns at time, as well I hope as the more godly ones. Others may feel the same way.

And then we move on to this much more poetic passage. It has a different style to the rest, and there’s reason to think that it may well be a quotation of some sort, perhaps from an early hymn or liturgy. The author writes that “when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy”. Now there’s an interesting thing about this passage, which is that it mentions Jesus’ birth, it mentions baptism and the Holy Spirit, but it doesn’t mention his death. The letters of Paul, in whose tradition this letter was written, are full of passages about Jesus bringing salvation through his death and resurrection, but that’s not in this chapter. Here we see the important factor being the kindness and love of God of Saviour appearing. It’s for this reason, by the way, that these verses from the letter of Titus are set in the lectionary to be read on Christmas Day. They’re deeply concerned with incarnation, with enfleshment, with God being born among us in human form.

That word ‘appeared’ is important. It’s a translation of the Greek epephane, from which we get the word epiphany. It refers to the breaking-through of God into the human world, the sudden and profound experience by us human beings of the divine presence. Now epiphanies can happen in all sorts of ways, but two of the ways we see them in the Bible and that they’re experienced by Christians today are mentioned in this passage: through the ‘washing of rebirth’, which is to say baptism, and through the coming of the Holy Spirit.

And that’s the relevance of the other passage we heard this morning, the disciples’ experience of the transfiguration of Jesus. Today is the day, the last Sunday before Lent, where many churches celebrate the transfiguration. Lent leads up to Jesus being lifted up on a cross on the mountain of Golgotha, and the world being transformed by his death and God’s transformation of his suffering by bringing him back from death. But here we see a different sort of transformation up a different mountain – Jesus appearing in dazzling white, surrounded by the great figures of Moses and Elijah, with his ministry affirmed by the voice of God saying “this is my son, the beloved, with him I am well pleased”, the same words spoken at Jesus’ baptism. That baptism was an epiphany, a breaking-through of the divine presence; so is this moment on the mountain.

Can we experience the same sort of transformation? I don’t think it’s an impossibility for any of us. It’s a different thing from the conversion experience – it can happen whether we’ve been a Christian for 80 years or never at all. I’m reminded of the words of the French-American monk Thomas Merton, who wrote of an experience of God in the everyday, walking down a street in Kentucky:
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. … I have the immense joy of being human, a member of a race in which God himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.
Merton remained as a monk after this experience. But it led him to realise that holiness, that profound experiences of God, push us into the world rather than taking us away from it. He became an activist as well as a mystic, writing and speaking about peace, racial tolerance and social equality.

And that takes me back to the letter to Titus. In the third section, after the description of how Jesus’ coming has transformed us through the mercy of God, we see the way that we respond to this. Again there are specific instructions, but they come down to one phrase: “that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good”. If you’ll permit me a bit more Greek, the word ‘good’ appears three times in most English translations of this chapter, but it actually translates two different Greek words. The first time we’re told to do good, it’s the Greek word ‘agathos’, which refers to moral and practical goodness – doing good things. But when we’re told to do good in the section after the depiction of the transformation Jesus brings, it’s a different word which appears twice – ‘kalos’, which carries the same sense of moral goodness but also a sense of beauty. This kind of goodness shines out in the world like a beacon. It’s the shining radiance of the transfiguration. It’s the image Thomas Merton had of people walking around shining like the sun.

Because this is the thing which most makes us shine in the world – by doing good. Acting to change the world for the better is the true sign of godliness. Jesus said that by their fruits you will know them. The 17th century Quaker William Penn, founder of the American state of Pennsylvania, put it beautifully, and it relates to the theme of godliness found throughout the letter to Titus. Penn wrote: “True godliness does not turn men out of the world, but enables them to live better in it and excites their endeavours to mend it”.

Now, doing good will vary for each of us. And the gospels are not short of definitions. Those who were here last Sunday heard the version Jesus told us in Matthew 25 – giving food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, welcoming in the strangers, clothing the naked, healing the sick, visiting prisoners. The same sorts of lists are repeated throughout the teachings of Jesus.

For some of us, this means specific work to help those in immediate distress, like support for food banks or to care for the homeless. For others, it is done through acts of generosity like Christian Aid’s Count Your Blessings campaign or by following 40 Acts. For still others, it comes more locally, with looking after old people in need, or visiting people in hospital, or welcoming strangers into your home. All these are good works. They are works which will shine in the world like the sun.

Others are called differently. We live in dark times, full of injustice and prejudice. Sometimes we are called to stand up against this injustice. There is an idea that the church should stay out of politics, that politics has no place in the pulpit. This is mostly said by those who are comfortable or in power. Those who are suffering need the church to act on their behalf. They need Christians to confront laws which would bar refugees because they come from supposedly wrong countries and to say: this is not the love of God. They need Christians to confront policies which shut down health care, or put people on benefit sanctions for trivial administrative errors, or close day centres for people with dementia and say: this is not the mercy of God. They need Christians to confront warmongers and environmental destroyers and robber-baron banks and say: this is not the transformation of God. None of this involves telling people how to vote, but it does involve politics.

The letter to Titus tells us that we were saved “not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy”. We are not called to do good works in the world, to act as agents of God’s shining transformation, because it will gain us salvation. Only the grace and mercy of God can do that. But we are called to do good works in the world because it continues the love and mercy of God. The theologian and former bishop Tom Wright writes that “what we see, in a life transformed by the gospel, is the direct result of God’s lavish, generous love. And that’s why he wants us to be generous, kind and gentle in turn.”

We love because he first loved us. By loving others, we show the depths of God’s love for us; by showing generosity to others, we demonstrate the generosity of God’s mercy for us. And then we will become part of God’s transform love, we will transform others and we ourselves will be transformed, and we will shine out like the sun.

May it be so for us all, in the name of the life-giving Father and the redeeming Son and the ever-transforming Holy Spirit. Amen.