Monday, 26 December 2011

The bread of life

Names of people and places in the Bible often have a special resonance, a resonance we lose in translation.
Jesus himself – of course Jesus wasn’t his actual name – this is just a Greek translation of his real name which is Joshua. And Joshua means literally “God is salvation”
Place names too can lose their symbolic impact.  Bethlehem means literally in Hebrew,”the house of bread”. As an adult Jesus had these words put into his mouth, “I am the bread of life”.  So the bread of life was born in the house of bread. Another nuance lost in translation is that “I am” is actually the Hebrew name for God (Yahweh) so it means “God is the bread of life”
So what is significant about bread? Well it was an important and essential  staple food at that time, and is important because bread fills you up and bread sustains and bread satisfies. Bread was essential to life.
My faith or trust if you like in God, is based on what satisfies me at a very deep level.
Those who were at Midnight mass heard me talk about how atheism and materialism just doesn’t satisfy me. It doesn’t explain to me why all the things I hold dear are important. Quite the opposite in fact. Atheism says to me that everything in my life that I hold dear and is important to me is actually an illusion and there is no real substance to my love and relationships at all.  That doesn’t work for me.
What about your own loves and your relationships. Do you think they are real? I think that anyone who has loved and lost and suffered the pain and grief of loss knows far more about the realities of life than any purely scientific mechanistic understanding of life.
Love is real. And God is love. And love is God. For me, to say you don’t believe in God is the same as saying that you don’t believe in love.
Love, life, bread. That which satisfies, fills, sustains, that which gives life meaning and purpose. That is God.
And where is this God. Right here, right now, in our life. And it is this very fact that is symbolised by the nativity scene. Not a distant God of wrath. An intimate, vulnerable God who is with us and present to all of us – a fact represented by this depiction of a birth in Bethlehem 2000 years ago. 

The light of the world

The theme of the gospel is light.
The light that enlightens everyone was coming into the world. And the light is LIFE.
It is not that the source of light and LIFE were ever absent. The source of all LIFE and light was always here – just hidden from our sight.
The light that enlightens everything and everyone in the world needed revealing by a special person so that the previously hidden presence and nature of God could be seen and experienced and better understood.
The essential message of Christmas is that if you have a mind to go looking for God, you don’t have to go anywhere special to find him. You don’t need to look for God in Rome, or Jerusalem or a Tibetan mountaintop because he was here all the time – in you, in me, in the ups and downs and joys and sorrows of everyday life.  
To look for and find God you do actually need to take a kind of journey, but it is an inner journey. It is a relatively short journey. You have to journey from your head down to your heart, down to the depths of who you really are beneath the masks that we all wear.
It is a short journey but a profound one. What you will find there is the real you and God who was within you all the time.
But what prompts someone to even attempt such a journey? Well everyone has their own belief system. Even atheism is a belief system.
What prompted me to start looking in my mid thirties was this. I examined my life and thought about everything that was important to me. The love I felt for my wife and daughter, my parents and my brother and sister, the beauty of the natural world, my friends, my love of music and art.
I saw that there were two ways of interpreting all the things that were important to me. The atheistic materialist way and a different way that held a place for the divine.
I discovered that everything that I thought was important and meant everything to me, in the atheistic materialist scheme of things – actually meant absolutely nothing. I learnt that love didn’t really exist. That all the people I thought I loved it was really all just chemicals and electrical impulses. I felt these things only because it aided my personal survival.  Beauty is just a human construct, music just waves, nothing has any real intrinsic value – just what we make up ourselves. There is no such thing as right and wrong. They are just names we attach to things to suit our own selfish purposes. My love is truly empty. I found that truly depressing. The atheistic model didn’t satisfy me.
So I then put everything I valued and held dear and held it up to the light of a belief in God and my world and my life was transformed.
My love for my family is then not just chemical reactions built in to ensure my personal survival – it actually has value – eternal value. It has an objective reality.
There were things that were objectively right and things that are wrong. Beauty and music and words and symbols were transformed from meaningless human constructions into things that were real and had true substance. They were transformed from being nothing to having true meaning.
Far from my life being purposeless. With God I had purpose. My and your purpose is to be a co-creator with God. To live, love and flourish and create to our full potential. And that this is good.
A belief in God transforms the universe around you. No longer meaningless and two dimensional, and we humans are not just an amoral collection of animated meat clinging to a purposeless dying planet in a dying universe –  to being a wonderful awe filled creation where love and relationships are real and have eternal importance.
People are free to believe whatever they like of course but my intuition led me to faith in God as being the far more convincing and satisfying explanation of my life. What about yours?
Once you have crossed that bridge and decided that faith or trust in God is the most satisfying option, that is the motor you require to then search him out.
And as I started by saying - You don’t have to travel far to find him.  He is here is your life right now if you would but realise it.
That God is here, a part of us, within the world, not apart from it, is symbolised by the birth of a baby in Palestine 2000 years ago – a symbol of love, relationship, new life, meaning and hope.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Amazing Grace

The annunciation is a beautifully put together story that can evoke strong emotional reactions.
The main theme of the annunciation as it is called – literally the announcement to Mary that she had been chosen to be the mother of a baby who would change the world – is Grace.
Where the traditional translation of the words of Gabriel to Mary says “You have found favour with God” the word favour has the same root as the word for Grace – Charis.
“You have found grace with God”. The defining characteristic of Grace is that it is completely unmerited – completely unearned.
What was special about Mary, what had she done to merit being chosen? The answer is, absolutely nothing. Mary does not earn or deserve the honour of bearing Jesus any more than any other woman. That is the whole point.
Mary was an ordinary young girl from a non-descript town in Northern Israel, who was engaged to be married like most young girls of her age. More is said about Joseph than about Mary.
That the point is God’s grace of course reveals doctrines like the so called immaculate conception of Mary (trying to convey specialness) as the ill thought out pious irrelevance that they are.
Why was she chosen? Well God chooses who God chooses.
There is a lovely scene in the film “Fiddler on the roof” when the village is cleaning up after a pogrom in Tsarist Russia where the main character Tevye raise his eyes to heaven and says. “Lord I know we are the chosen people, but once in a while, couldn’t you choose someone else?”
If the main theme of this story is Grace then the second great theme is Mary’s response to God’s Grace – God choosing her and not others.
Mary says “Let it be to me according to your word”.
Without knowing where saying “yes” to God would lead her though probably having a strong hunch that it wasn’t going to be easy Mary says yes.
She is obedient to her calling. Feminist theologians have often complained that Mary is depicted as too passive, especially as she later became a kind of religious model of ideal womanhood, but Mary here is an idealised role model of human response to God’s grace, not specific to men or women. It is a model of how we all should respond to God’s call. To stop continually fighting against God because it is inconvenient or socially uncomfortable, and abandoning ourselves to him. To let God work in us, so that we, all of us, men and women can metaphorically give birth to Christ in our lives, made real in our attitudes and sense of compassion and service.
In the original Greek Mary says “Here I am, the slave of the Lord”. Not an image that sits well with people nowadays. This was modified to “Here I am, the servant of the Lord”. But in more modern times still, this too doesn’t sit well with people.  
I suggest that a better wording for modern times, replacing both slavery and servitude might be something like “Here I am, the willing agent, or the vessel of God’s Grace”.
In my view, Mary is actually not passive at all, she is an active participant with God. She collaborates with God to achieve God’s ends. After all, what would have happened if Mary had said “No”. Well presumably eventually someone else would have been chosen.
God chooses who he chooses. He has chosen us to be active agents of his Love and Grace in this world. Agents as Neil said last week of God’s salvation. The question is, do we “no thank you” and stifle God’s work or like Mary, put ourselves at his complete disposal to use as He sees fit and say “Yes. Here am I. Let it be to me according to your word”

Sunday, 4 December 2011

We all have our father's eyes.

A sermon based on Mark 1: 1-8

The most important phrase in this piece from Mark is the last line – “I have baptised you with water but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit”. If you can unpack that statement I think you have pretty much unpacked Christianity.
Therein lies the fundamental Christian experience.
The word Christ commonly applied to Jesus as in Jesus Christ means – “anointed” which means to be covered in oil. To be anointed with the Holy Spirit is to be covered with God. To be baptised with the Holy Spirit is to be immersed in God. You see how similar they are?
But what does being immersed in God’s Spirit feel like? What that meant for Jesus Mark then goes on to explain.....
Being anointed by God for Jesus was like hearing the words “You are my beloved son, with you I am well pleased” spoken to him personally. It was relational – it was about feeling an intimate connection. From then on he started referring to God as Father.  So being baptised in the Holy Spirit produces a revelation of interconnectedness.
But being anointed in God’s spirit isn’t restricted to Jesus is it? In this morning’s reading  Mark has John promising that all of us can be baptised in the Holy Spirit. We too are to hear those words “You are my beloved child, with you I am well pleased” spoken to us and received by us in our hearts. When asked how they should pray Jesus taught us to pray “Our Father”. His Father is our father too. It is why Christians often refer to each other as brothers and sisters.
But do you know and relate to those words? Do you feel them? Do you believe them?
That we are “children of God” is attested throughout the New Testament, in Matthew, Luke, John, Romans, Galatians, Philippians and 1 John.  But the neatest definition is given by Paul in Romans “For all who are led by the spirit of God are children of God” (Romans 8:14)
I suggest that most people understand the word Christian to mean a mere follower of someone who was uniquely anointed with God’s spirit but I say that its true meaning and importance lies in ourselves being anointed bearers of God’s spirit.
What is it to be a child of God? Well it obviously means there is as intimate a connection to God as you have to your human parents.  Your parents are in a funny but very real way a part of you even while you have a separate existence from them.
We are all a product of our mothers and Fathers. There is nothing in our genes that did not come from them. We bear a family likeness that we may sometimes try and disown but to no avail. As a song once said, “We all have our Father’s eyes”
As it is on the level of human generation so it is on the grand stage of our relationship with the divine being. We all have our Father’s eyes.
We share the family likeness but many of us don’t know the intimacy – the kind of intimacy that Jesus discovered when he was anointed with God’s spirit – that is, he felt immersed in God, just as in his baptism he was immersed in water and felt himself for the first time to be a child of God.
Being a Christian is far more than following a man who died two thousand years ago. It is about being anointed with the same living spirit that Jesus was himself anointed with – imbuing us with a kind of spirit that might allow us walk the same way that Jesus walked. In essence that we may know God
It is about restoring the intimate relationship that we have lost – something that in theology is called atonement. Atonement just means being at one with God and each other.
To be a true follower of Jesus I suggest that we have to first know what he knew, feel what he felt, to be anointed – to be Christs ourselves. To feel connected.
Each of us, if we are to flourish, needs to hear those words of intimate affirmation spoken to us and to be received by us. “You are my child, the beloved. With you I am well pleased”.