Sunday, 25 September 2011

Life in all its fullness

I want to take a brief look at the reading from Philippians (2:1-13) today instead of the gospel reading. It is interesting in two ways. First, it may be the last extant letter that Paul actually ever wrote, and secondly, the received academic wisdom is that the main body of this passage that starts “Though he was in the form of God.....etc” is actually an early Christian Hymn and as such is a beautiful example of poetic theology that is quite far reaching.
It mirrors John’s prologue in proclaiming the pre-existence of Christ, his acceptance of earthly life and death, and his exaltation to the right hand of God.
We should have no problem with pre-existence, at least physically, for Christ or for you or me or anything else. The first law of Physics is that nothing can be created and nothing destroyed. The same amount of matter exists now as it did at the moment of creation – just existing in different form. In terms of the physical stuff our bodies are made of, we have always been here and we always will be!
You and I did not come from nothing, we come from something. When we die, we do not go to nothing we go to something. Physically that is the truth of the matter, and the religious minded person would also say the same about our essence, our spirit, our “soul” if you prefer to use that word. 
If you believe in God, you might want to say that we come from God and go to God – however you want to imagine God. Because you see, the concept of “eternal life” transcends mortal existence.
We talk about eternal life without necessarily understanding it. Eternal life is not a prize waiting for us if we have been good little boys and girls after we die. Eternal life is instead a natural state of being. We have it though we don’t realise it. We have it because we are made in the image and likeness of God, which is what the hymn in Philippians means when it speaks of Jesus “being in the form of God”.
Because Jesus was a human being, not innately different from any of us, he is a template for human existence – a revelation of who we all truly are. Like Jesus, we came from God, will live and die, and then return to God. We are of course bound by language, so we have to use phrases like “sitting on the right hand of God” (as in the creed), even though we know that God is not a person, has no right hand and there is no place for Christ to sit, and yet we kind of get what is meant by it.
“Sitting at the right hand of God” means for me, being with God for ever and knowing that consciously. That is as good a description of heaven as I can muster. Knowing that we come from God, live in God, and go to God as a continuum is “eternal life”. Knowing it and living it from the heart, eternal life becomes a quality of life that comes from realising that you are continually held. That for me is the meaning of the phrase “life in all its fullness”.
The alternative the “life in all its fullness” is a degraded limited understanding of existence that is bound by your physical birth and death, and also life here on earth is truncated and flat – the materialist view – with no spiritual dimension. i.e. no depth. Comprehending the meaning of eternal life means seeing your life against an infinite horizon. The boundaries provided by birth and death and atheistic materialism are broken. The length, breadth and depth of life become infinite.
Again, bound by language and metaphor, a favourite Christian image is of a child held in the palm of God.   Eternal life though means that we know God knew us even before we were born as a child.
Jeremiah 1:5 says it beautifully “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you”
Jesus as the revelation of what it means to be human, that what is true and possible for Jesus is true and possible for us is the essence of what it means to say that Jesus is Lord. It then follows that the way he lived, his nature and character lived in the knowledge of his intimate walk with God is the way that we should attempt to follow.
Such exalted ideas are exciting and liberating. They produce a kind of inner peace that we also call joy. When concepts like life and death, being born and dying have been transcended by the notion of eternal life we are set free.  As John says  (8:32) “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free”
Let me end with some more words of Paul in this same vein taken from his letter to the Romans (8:38) and which are truly inspirational and have helped me  enormously. Eternal life is to know the God who is love. What I am about to say is the best description of eternal life that I know of in the Christian canon; 
“For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”. 

Monday, 12 September 2011

Mary, Mary quite contrary...

Well today is our Patronal festival. Now I always try to be aware that we often use words and phrases in the church and just assume that everybody knows what they mean so just to be clear – that just means that the person the church is named after – so we are St. Mary’s, named after the mother of Jesus – when one of her feast days comes around we push the boat out a bit and really do want to celebrate the person our church is dedicated to. So instead of coffee after the service we have wine for example, and this really should be an occasion to celebrate.
But we do have a tiny problem here in the west for churches that are named after Mary!  Because unfortunately Mary is no longer a person that inspires unity but division. We have some Roman Catholic friends with us this morning, and a warm welcome to you, and in the Roman Catholic church the faithful are officially required to believe some specific things about Mary such as she too was born without sin, and when she died her body was assumed whole into heaven, and Mary is venerated in that Catholic tradition. In the reformed traditions in an extreme reaction to the Catholics, the default position is that we routinely ignore Mary as far as possible. The only time she really gets a mention is at Christmas time, when we really can’t avoid it, because if Jesus was born, then he had to have a mother.
But I truly want to celebrate Mary, so how can we do that? To our rescue comes the Orthodox church. As a point of reference if you ever are caught on the horns of a dilemma in any church matters always try and find out what the Orthodox say. Even if you don’t agree with them, you’ll find what they have to say always profound and always interesting. 
The first thing to say is that in the East, Mary is routinely referred to, not as the “virgin Mary” but as “God bearer” – a subtle change of emphasis. And in their iconic representation of Mary, another subtle change of emphasis is that she is almost never represented alone but always holding the infant Jesus. Mary and Jesus are inseparable. In icons the way to read the relationship between Mother and child is as a symbolic representation of the relationship between God and humanity.
The default understanding of God in many people’s mind is still that of a bit of an ogre. An old man with a white beard, imperious, detatched and stern with a fierce temper. He might mean well, but you wouldn’t like to cross him.
But when you contemplate Mary and Jesus in an icon that default position is severely tested.
God is not an ogre but a child. Dependent, grasping, frail, needing the nurture and cooperation of Mary (representing humanity) to bring Him to maturity. It is a picture of mutual love and dependence.
Human beings are the Mother, God is the child. The child is often depicted nuzzling up to Mary, grasping her cloak with one hand while the other is raised in a gesture of blessing. Mary supports the child and her eyes invariably stare out at us , the viewer, imploring us to understand, her hand often held in a gesture towards her child. She is saying “Behold, look, understand”.
If anything can add to our understanding of the nature of God and his relationship to mankind, it is in the iconic relationship between Mary and Jesus. If your view of God is one who is distant and fierce, I would invite you to spend a few minutes in front of an icon of Mary holding the infant Jesus and see where it leads you.
Just quickly, another of the sources of division between Catholic and reformed views of Mary is that Catholic veneration often looks like worship. While I don’t support that I do understand it. Because what I believe this is doing is fulfilling a very real need in people for completion. Intellectually we know that God is beyond such categories and is neither male nor female, but people crave a female aspect of God to balance the very male understanding that we mostly all have. This could have been fulfilled by the Holy Spirit, which is a feminine word in both Hebrew and Greek, but we have lost that emphasis in English anyway because we don’t use masculine and feminine words. That role in evening up a very lop-sided view of God has been largely filled by the very concrete figure of Mary.
But there is another equally important aspect of Mary that we truly must celebrate - that Mary is the very symbol of the Christian life, so in a way does represent the church. And when I say the “church” I mean the people of God. I mean what it is to be a Christian.
Mary said “yes” to the Holy Spirit. She said “yes” to God and in the fullness of time she gave birth to God in the world. Mary “God bearer”.
When you think about it, this is the very template of the Christian life, for our Christian walk with God – this is “the way”.
We, each of us, say “yes” to the Holy Spirit and let that Spirit work and grow within us until we too grow to maturity in the faith and give birth to God in the world in the way we act, talk and think and see. We are to become “God bearers” too.    
So let us celebrate what Mary has given us today. With Jesus, a symbolic profound insight to the relationship between humanity and God, and also the very template of the Christian life.  

Father, forgive them........

A sermon based on Matthew 18: 21_35

Let me start by saying this. Forgiveness is very hard.  As Christians it has been drummed into us that we should always forgive people. Forgiveness is one of the few things still rightly associated with Christians in our secularised society. Everything, from passages like this one and including the Lord’s Prayer, urges us to forgive people who wrong us.
I know and you know that we should forgive. Intellectually I also know – I expect we all know -  that forgiving people will also usually offer us some psychological release. I know that being unable to forgive will leave me feeling bitter and twisted and I would be much better off just forgiving and letting things go. Being unable to forgive I actually end up just punishing myself.
But I still find it hard, don’t you?
We all of us, I am absolutely sure, have suffered terrible wrongs and hurt at the hands of other people. We may have been cheated on by a spouse, swindled by a friend or family member, ripped off by a faceless corporation. Someone we love or ourselves may have been seriously injured by a drunk driver or attacked by a kid high on drugs who shows no signs of remorse at all. In extreme cases a loved one may have been killed. In a thousand different ways we will have been belittled and stripped of our dignity, hurt, and left feeling wronged and vulnerable.
All of us here who have been wronged and harbour unforgiveness in our hearts – well...being told by some pious prig in a pulpit that you really ought to forgive you know – just adds insult to injury.  We know we ought to, but just knowing that we ought to, doesn’t make us forgive.
Does this passage today help at all? Well let’s take a closer look. The first part is an exchange between Jesus and Peter about the extent of forgiveness. When Jesus says “seventy seven” or seventy times seven” in some translations He is making the point that forgiveness is not a commodity that can be quantified. By giving such a huge number He is saying that forgiveness is limitless when it comes from the heart – and it is not a numbers game.
Yet the parable that follows could cause us great consternation. If you read the end literally it says that if you don’t forgive someone, God will not forgive you and will torture you! Is that what it really means then or can it mean something else? Does that mean then that God’s forgiveness is conditional?
If we look at this parable with a little more insight and with truly acknowledging the difficulty of genuine forgiveness I believe we can glean a more positive aspect that is much more helpful.
The first thing to say is that Christian forgiveness is grounded in divine forgiveness which is absolutely limitless. In our English translation we lose the full force of what Jesus says. The servant owed the king Ten thousand talents. That means little to us, except that we probably know it is quite a lot. In Jesus’ day that sum represented the wages of a labourer for 150,000 years! With full force Jesus wants to convey the supreme generosity and mercy of God. It is limitless.
The message of the parable lies in the reaction of that first servant. The fact is, there is no response, no gratitude, no rejoicing, no celebrating that he and his wife and children are not going to be imprisoned after all. In fact the first thing he does is refuse the pleas of an indebted colleague and refuses to forgive him a trifling amount.
You see, he had been dealing with the king on the basis of Justice – quid pro quo. Even though he could never in reality have repaid the debt he still says to the king “I will repay you everything”.
But in forgiving the debt the King was not dealing in Justice, He was dealing in Mercy. This is the cornerstone of this parable. Mercy, not Justice. Very different things.
Forgiveness is very different from Justice.  The first servant still thinks of Forgiveness as some kind of power game and to do with “just desserts”. Because he cannot see himself as a beneficiary of the gift of mercy he is unable to show mercy to his fellow servant.
The final verse of this parable wants it made clear that forgiveness is a matter of the heart, a transformation of the inner disposition that the first servant has not yet discovered. A transformation I only discover intermittently and then forget again soon afterwards as well . How about you?
How does this parable help us who are struggling with forgiveness, battling with shame and rage and wanting revenge?
It demonstrates the incredible kindness of God, who surprises us constantly, not by dealing with us on the measure of justice, but by showing mercy.
It invites us to see ourselves as forgiven debtors, being given not what we deserve but what God wants to give us. We are forgiven debtors and it invites us to see everyone else, including the people who have wronged us as no more than  forgiven debtors as well.  And that the difference between ourselves and the other debtors, even the ones who have wronged us terribly is only slight. It is about giving up the power game of “innocent and guilty” and to come together as a community of forgiven debtors.
In the final analysis it means that God’s grace forgives you everything – which is not justice, but it is mercy.
And the person you can’t forgive. They are also forgiven by God.  Again, it is not justice. It is mercy.
“Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy”.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011