Sunday, 27 November 2011

Armageddon out of here!

Advent Sunday

Many millions of people over two millennia have thought they were living in the end times of the world. They are all united by one thing – they were all absolutely wrong! The world has not come to an end.
Looking at it from a slightly different perspective though, you could say that  they were all absolutely right, because their world, their lives did come to an end, as everyone’s will – they died.
When talking of “the end” we all have a very definite personal end time – our own deaths – so I would say that the best and most relevant way to interpret apocalyptic literature nowadays is not to try and discern any end date for the universe because you will certainly be wrong but concentrate your mind on your own personal end time;
Because to live your life as if this were your last day on earth, is no bad thing. When people have been given a definite time before their death, perhaps when diagnosed with a terminal illness, when they know they are going to die, first of all this can frighten and grieve us to distraction obviously, but what it can also do is concentrate the mind wonderfully, and you gain a wider perspective on life.
For example, that row that has kept you from speaking to your sister for twenty years, because of your and her  pride, can look pretty pathetic when pitched against your impending death.
All the things you really worried about, like your image and status, suddenly will seem profoundly unimportant in the greater scheme of things.
The things you used to strive for, like money and possessions suddenly lose their allure. They appear as they are – absolutely useless
Your focus may shift from yourself and be more focussed on others, especially your family, and you may wonder what legacy you leaving behind, in the sense of how loved you are and how much you loved, and whether your family is provided for. You may ask yourself whether  your life made a positive difference to the world?
If you have never really thought about the question of God before you may start asking some serious, searching questions for the very first time about the nature of life and death itself. You may indeed start looking for God.
You may realise that all the things you should have done and said, like telling someone that you love them and appreciate them, that you really must do these things before you just can’t do them any more. 
In such circumstances most people become much more rounded and gentler and better human beings faced with their own demise, with a focus naturally shifting away from material things to the less tangible but, in the final analyses, far more important things.
I think the biblical imperative here is to say “ Don’t wait until you know you are dying to start thinking and acting in these ways.”
 Forgive now. Love now. Be as concerned about others as you are about yourself now. Find God, meaning and purpose now. Be more generous. Be a better person now.
 When faced with a gospel passage like this urging us to keep awake, to be alert, I can think of no better interpretation of that , than to start living your life as though every day were your last, because one day, I assure will be. 

Monday, 21 November 2011

All for one and one for all.

The parable of the sheep and the goats is well known one yet how people decide who is a sheep and who is a goat has usually been decided without any reference to the actual parable itself.
People have decided who is a sheep or a goat based on what religion you follow, or whether you follow particular cultic laws or observe certain prohibitions. Others have decided that the difference between sheep and goats is how much faith you have, and at the more fundamentalist catholic and evangelical ends of the Christian spectrum, you are a sheep or a goat determined by what kind of Christian faith you follow. Human beings as a whole get endless fun from deciding who is in or who is out, and traditionally Christians on the whole haven’t been much different
The problem with all of these is that they are human projections onto a parable that says nothing of the sort about what club you belong to.
The only criteria by which God knows who is a sheep or a goat, and conversely the only way you really know God, is whether you have compassion or not.
In the examples given, which are by no means exhaustive, just representative examples, God knows whether you know him or not on the basis of whether you fed a hungry person, offered a drink to a thirsty man, welcomed a stranger, clothed the naked, took care of the sick, or visited prisoners.
Whether you are a sheep or a goat is determined by how compassionate you are towards your fellow man. That’s what the parable actually says.
But for me, the far more interesting point, is why should we be compassionate at all? What premise is our compassion based on?
The way Jesus describes why we should be compassionate indicates an innate interconnectedness and in a beautifully poetic phrase he says “Just as you did it to the least of these, who are members of my family, you did it to me”. At a very deep and very real level what you do for one, you do for all, including yourself and including God. Separation from God is the illusion, communion is the reality.
The premise Jesus gives, if you understand him properly is that all creation, including all the people in the world are a part of the divine being – that nothing is separate from the divine being, and as such we are all one, we are interconnected. That is the true state of our existence.
This is exactly the point of what Paul, (or at least one of his followers), is saying in this letter to the Ephesians. In a beautiful phrase Paul prays that “God our father, may give us a spirit of wisdom and revelation that our heart may be enlightened”.
So you see, enlightenment is not the sole preserve of the Eastern religions. Paul prays that we may be enlightened. Enlightened about what?
Well Paul then goes on to laud this great and immeasurable power of God, a power which he notes he put to work and revealed in the life of Jesus. This power of immeasurable greatness, which raised Jesus from the dead, is within all of us, which connects all of us.
That is the only basis by which Paul can call the church “the body of Christ”, because the church here represents the extent, humanly speaking, in which this revealed truth is known and realised – that God fills everything and connects everything. Paul puts it like this, “the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all”
Compassion has its source in connection and empathy. Jesus and Paul both point out that “connected” is what we most truly and deeply are. Realising the fact is a work of God’s power working within you and leading you to this enlightened state. From darkness to light, from spiritual death to life in all its fullness.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Remembrance Sunday - Lest we forget

Death is the great leveller both in peacetime and in times of war,
In the first world war, when the mustard gas drifted over the trenches, death didn’t ask whether you were an officer or a private, a hero or a coward, whether you had a degree or left school at 14.
When the bombs fell on this country in world war two, the bombs didn’t care if you were a man woman or child, rich or poor.
In Iraq, the snipers in Basra didn’t care if you were black or white, whether you were religious, agnostic or an atheist.
In Helmand province in Afghanistan the IED that blows your legs off doesn’t ask if you are American or British or an Afghan child.
Remembrance of people that died in warfare is especially poignant because without exception all these deaths were premature.
The church of England in its role as the National church, takes its duty seriously, as acting as a spiritual framework in which all people, whatever their religion, class or colour can come together to mourn and remember those who whatever their differences in life are now all united in death.
What is an act of remembrance? Is it just merely remembering or does it go any deeper than that.
Well here I think Christianity has something to offer, some insight that may help.
Every week I stand at the altar and recite the words at the Holy Communion “Do this in remembrance of me”. The original word which translates into English as remembrance is in the original Greek actually much stronger. More than merely remembering the word actually means to make present. The act of remembrance implies bringing to mind something so very powerful that the person and the act itself are almost palpable. It is as if you can touch it, and indeed in the Communion we make that real by sharing bread and wine.
In the act of remembrance of the war dead it is an act that brings their sacrifices, their blood sweat and tears, their bravery and fear so close to the forefront of our minds that we can almost taste it and feel it.     
But why do that at all. What’s the point? The point, both in the Communion service and in this act of remembrance is the hope that this very act should change us or move us in some way, perhaps to make us more aware of the frailty of humanity, make us determined to try and emulate all that was good in their actions and sacrifice, to allow their tragedy to teach us something vital about the sanctity of life, about bravery, about loss, about waste,  about love and hate, about duty and responsibility, about war and the causes of war. Perhaps also to make us consider questions concerning the meaning and purpose of life itself. It could lead us to question our politics and the way we approach geo-political problems.  These are all positive things, but..
On the negative side, our very natural regrets could also trigger bitterness  and recrimination and re-kindle old enmities and rivalries. The Christian insight here though is that in indulging that side of things only ultimately harms ourselves and poisons our own minds and makes future deaths in future wars even more likely. Forgiveness and acceptance is the key to countering these negative thoughts. 
Remembrance is more than a simple act of remembering, it is an action that can potentially move the heart, to move a person from one place to another, better, place.
Finally, let’s address that great largely unspoken question that hangs over all deaths – where are they now? Here we speak of mystery and see only through a glass darkly as St. Paul said. But the spiritual intuition is that nothing that is good is every really lost and in a Christian sense “nothing, neither death nor life can separate us from the love of God”.
But for both believer and non believer, one certain way that they can live on is if some or all of the positive qualities that they lived and died for; a sense of duty, responsibility, sacrifice, bravery, the courage of their convictions were actually to be embodied in the lives of each one of us, if in fact we were moved to change by the act of remembrance, the world would automatically be a much better place than it was before and in a very tangible way they would be living on; their example embedded in our lives. 

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Give me oil in my lamp

Matthew 25: 1-13

I’m glad there is a baptism of an infant today because the very fact we are going to baptise a child who cannot yet make a personal assent to any faith is of vital importance to getting a deeper understanding of God and God’s grace, which is love. I’ll return to that thought later.
First of all, let me explain what the oil in the bridesmaids lamps symbolise. Oil symbolises good deeds. The oil in your lamp is the positive loving response in your life to a very personal knowledge of God. The bridesmaids are all believers in God or (anachronistically) Christian disciples waiting for Jesus’ return.
Oil in your lamp is loving your neighbour, forgiving people, helping when you can – a demonstrable working out of your faith in your life.
The parable says that 5 of them had oil and 5 didn’t. They all professed faith, but for only some of them had that faith been translated into a living response, a life that had actually been changed by their faith.
The brutal truth the parable conveys is that faith alone cannot save you. And when I say “save” I don’t mean life after death, I mean the quality of our lives in the here and now. Sometimes we need to ask ourselves some pretty harsh questions like, do my beliefs actually make much difference to my life.
Do I really have the inner peace, joy and contentment and completeness that my faith promises or do I actually find it quite elusive? Because it is only out of that joy that transformation can start to take place.
The real underlying difference between the wise and foolish bridesmaids is this, Do they just believe in God or do they actually know God. Knowing in a way that transcends our minds. All the bridesmaids could assent intellectually to God, but only some felt any real connection where it would then started to dramatically alter their way of life.
That is why in the dramatic last act Jesus says “Truly I tell you, I don’t know you”. I would say that the truth is the flipside to that statement  which is “You don’t know me”.
The reason all the established churches baptise infants before they can ever say yes no or maybe is making a dramatic and important theological point.
It says quite boldly and straightforwardly. “God knows this child already”. God loves this child already  whether or not any response ever comes. The child may grow up and reject God for all any of us know. But what we affirm here today is that whether he does or whether he doesn’t God will never reject him. God loves this child now, he loved him before he was born and he will love him on the other side of life, and it’s the same for every one of us.
The parable of the 10 bridesmaids tells us that true peace and completeness only comes when we discover that simple but elusive fact for ourselves, not just through intellectual knowing, but at a deeper level, a level of knowing that is so hard to describe- an intuition -that we are not actually alone, but we are held. That is why infant baptism is so important. It confirms the constancy and magnitude and closeness of God’s love for us that is not dependent on our response and out of this beautiful love, once known, is where our transformation begins.
It says boldly and proudly that God’s love for us always precedes any response to that love that may come from us. That response from us even when it does come will be imperfect, may come in fits and starts, will be half hearted at times and at other times may be full on, sometimes resulting in a permanent state of inner peace or just giving us brief glimpses. In others it may never happen at all. But whichever category you think you belong to, wherever you are in your relationship with God, infant baptism affirms that God is with you and loves you regardless.