Monday, 27 February 2012

The Kingdom of God is within you

In the gospel we return to the very beginning of Jesus ministry, to that pivotal and life changing spiritual experience of the presence of God, that he experienced at his baptism.
This was the very start of Jesus public ministry, but he didn’t just go straight out, he first had to discern what this experience meant and how he would allow this experience to form him and mould his message to the world.
So he retreated to the wilderness to meditate on what had happened to him and so he could discern what direction his life would now take and what would constitute the content of his message. Mark says he was tempted to use this profound experience not for good but for ill.
Mark’s original description of this episode is terse. So terse that both Matthew and Luke felt the need to elaborate and come up with stories of temptations or testing.  The time in the wilderness – the highly symbolic forty days – recalls the time of testing for the Jewish people in the wilderness – before reaching the promised land. 
How he was going to use this experience is made clear in the last verse. He says “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the good news”.
His central message to mankind after his experience of God and his time of testing and discernment is that the Kingdom of God has come near – and this is the good news.
His message to us is that God is near, much nearer than you imagine. Notice he didn’t say, “I am the son of God, begotten, not made”. He didn’t say “I will be crucified for the sins of the world”. He didn’t say “believe all I tell you and you will go to heaven”. His essential message to the Jewish people was.” The Kingdom of God is at hand”.
To unpack Christianity we need to unpack that phrase the “Kingdom of God”. Jesus did an awful lot of the unpacking for us of course. We know that the content of the good news of the Kingdom is Love, and in fact always was. All of the law and the prophets is about love of God and love of neighbour. And love begets justice, the great preoccupation of the prophets who like Jesus were trying to reform Judaism by getting people to return to the straight path. We know that the good news of the Kingdom involves a new close relationship to God, who Jesus called Father. That wasn’t entirely new. Rabbis before had also referred to God as Father but nevertheless Jesus was a part of the Jewish spiritual tradition that saw God as up close and personal.
We also know that for Jesus the forgiveness of God did not need the mediation or sacrifices of the priests in the temple. He followed John the Baptist on that one. We forget how radical John was in baptising and forgiving sins quite apart from the Temple. In fact the other reading set for today, 1 Peter 3: 18-22 proclaims a message of endless forgiveness that stretches backwards in time. According to Peter, in a dramatic symbolic flourish, he writes that all the people who were drowned in the flood in the time of Noah are also forgiven!
Perhaps it might help to state the obvious here, but sometimes it helps to say it out loud. Jesus was not a Christian. Jesus was a Jew – he was born a Jew and died a Jew and never renounced Judaism but his message to the Jewish people was that they had to repent – to turn back – to the spirit of Judaism, to find what was already there but had been corrupted. For Jesus the Jewish religion was no longer bearing the fruit of the Kingdom, it had withered and died.
So the good news of the Kingdom of God is premised on a deep relationship with God whose essential nature and character is love, a love which incorporates Justice for all, a love which is endlessly forgiving.
Love, relationship, Justice, forgiveness. These are all bound up in that phrase the Kingdom of God.
These together are “the way”. Repentance is turning around and re-finding that way. To follow Jesus on the way is to find and live out love, justice and forgiveness, but was all predicated, as Jesus’ own enlightenment was,   on an encounter with God and knowing his presence within him.
How we encounter God is the thing. This entire service is designed for people to be able to encounter God – to see him revealed in bread, wine, and each other and in ourselves, which is the meaning of us all eating a shared meal together. We can encounter God in nature, we can encounter God in silence.
I think it is meaningful that Jesus retreated to a deserted place for a long period, and during his ministry often retreated to a lonely place to be by himself with God. We are not good at being silent. We are not good at listening, and waiting to be prompted. We need to work at it, to practise it. In silence we have direct communion with God. One of the more popular modern hymns is Be still for the presence of the Lord, but the question I want to leave you with is, how often do we actually do it? 

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Be the change

In the year 2000 I organised a parish pilgrimage to Israel. Now one of the obligatory stops is Mount Tabor, the reputed sight of the Transfiguration of Jesus.
Mount Tabor is a steep sided conical mountain and the road that goes up to the summit is narrow and twisting – so narrow and twisting that coaches can’t go up there. At the bottom of the hill is a fleet of Mercedes taxis that ferry people up and down the hill.
As you can imagine at busy times this can create quite a bottle neck at the bottom. The day we were there we arrived at the same time as a coach party of Russians and a coach party of Americans. Us and the Russian party had arrived slightly before the Americans, so we had three large groups of people converging on these few taxis to take us up. It was hot – it had already been a long day.
The first sign of trouble came when the American pastor, a big fat clown, started remonstrating with the taxi drivers, trying to push his party to the front of the queue and then shouting and bad mouthing us and the Russians. Well I don’t think he knew we were English and could understand him and we heard him tell all his party what bad, bad people we all were, pushing our way to the front. This unleashed a tirade from our Palestinian guide Bassam, (and me I’m afraid), and there was then a bit of pushing and shoving and glaring and swearing on all sides with a few bemused Russians joining in as well.
You know its only just occurred to me, all these years later, the complete incongruence of what had happened and that it is in fact a parable in itself. We were all queuing to see a place where a man shone white, illuminated from within with the light of God’s spirit, and we three coach parties of Christians were shouting and swearing at each other, all trying to push the others out of the way.
Us Brits, the Americans and the Russians were Peter, James and John, not getting it, not understanding, not enlightened at all. Nothing much had changed in 2000 years. We still don’t get it.
In my own spiritual journey I now see that far from worshipping a man who was lit up with the spirit of God, we please God by following Jesus and should seek to become enlightened ourselves. That is our true worship.
The way forward for mankind is not to be beguiled by bearers of divine commands like Moses or bearers of divine prophesy like Elijah but to shine ourselves with the light of God.
We are to be Moses and Elijah by being the divine command to love God and to love our neighbour as ourselves and by being divine prophesy by putting those words into action in our thoughts words and deeds.   
In retrospect It now makes me smile Zen- like at these three parties of irate, disgruntled, partisan, swearing pilgrims travelling up the mountain to what? An unlovely modern catholic church on the top. The really spiritual thing up there was the view and the relative peace that you get from these places. 
Christianity suffers I think from displacement. Instead of worshipping someone who was whatever you think he was or is, the way, the Jesus way, is to be the change we are looking for. That’s what we completely missed at the bottom of Mount Tabor. We have to be the enlightened change we are looking for. There is a Christian prayer, I’ve forgotten where it comes from, but which says.....
“Lord change the world, and start with me”. Amen.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Divine Wisdom

All the readings set for today have the common golden thread running through them of divine wisdom.  The OT reading today is from Proverbs and talks of lady wisdom being there at the dawn of creation and because neither Winston nor Gainford would otherwise hear it I’ll end with it this morning.
Psalm 104 set for today starts “O Lord how manifold are your works, in wisdom you have made them all”
John’s gospel starts in the beginning was the word – and word here (Logos in Greek) is associated with divine wisdom.  The piece from Colossians also complements John’s prologue in identifying Christ as an embodiment of pre-existent divine wisdom.
I looked Wisdom up in the dictionary to find out what it actually meant and in the concise Oxford dictionary Wisdom is defined as “experience and knowledge together with the power of applying them critically or practically”
So there are two facets to wisdom – yes there is the experience and knowledge but also the power to practically apply that knowledge”
The Biblical wisdom tradition of which the book of Proverbs is one such example is clear that Wisdom was involved in the creative process. The poetry of Proverbs is written with a lovely light touch and shows us a designer working hand in hand with a female accomplice (wisdom in the Hebrew Bible is female) who expresses her approval by playing with creation and delights in the human race.
The world, the universe as a whole, is shown not as a machine left to run on its own after it had been made but  as something in which God is intimately, playfully, involved with.
So you see how natural it was for early Christians to associate Christ with Wisdom. Jesus was seen as embodying in his life that knowledge, or knowing, and experience born of a spiritual experience (at his baptism in the Jordan). His words then became to them the words, or wisdom, of God, the parables became for them the wisdom of God applied to real life, his life given in loving devotion to divine justice and love, a giving that led to his execution, an embodiment of divine wisdom in the way he lived his life.
To follow Jesus on the way became synonymous with following divine wisdom. How can we summarise that divine wisdom? Jesus told us to love God with all our mind heart and soul and to love our neighbour as ourselves – that is the divine wisdom. All else flows from that love.
Does not wisdom call,
   and does not understanding raise her voice?
The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
   the first of his acts of long ago. 
Ages ago I was set up,
   at the first, before the beginning of the earth. 
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
   when there were no springs abounding with water. 
Before the mountains had been shaped,
   before the hills, I was brought forth— 
when he had not yet made earth and fields,
   or the world’s first bits of soil. 
When he established the heavens, I was there,
   when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, 
when he made firm the skies above,
   when he established the fountains of the deep, 
when he assigned to the sea its limit,
   so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth, 
   then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
   rejoicing before him always, 
rejoicing in his inhabited world
   and delighting in the human race. 


Sunday, 5 February 2012

The message.

These few verses in Mark’s gospel  exposes a conflict in people’s expectations of Jesus and in Jesus’ own mind I suggest, of the priorities and direction of his ministry.
In short – what was his mission for?
Let’s take the healings at face value. Let’s not worry about whether some or all of them happened or not, or whether demons exist or not.  The important thing is that many people believed he could. And if so......If Jesus could heal your ailments and those of your children, even your mother-in-law, it’s a fair assumption that this would be what people wanted you for, and any underlying message would be lost.
If a mystery man turned up in Gainford or Winston tomorrow and could demonstrate that he could cure painful afflictions just by touching you, I’m sure we would be queuing in the streets to be cured.
We wouldn’t necessarily care whether he was a Christian, Buddhist, atheist or whatever he was – it would be the healing we were after and any underlying message he had, however true, however deep, however meaningful, would be entirely secondary.
I can picture it now “You believe this and that – brilliant – could you just cure my kidney stones for me – keep talking I’m listening – honest.”
This essentially was the dilemma. The message behind and underpinning the healings was being drowned out. That the physical healings themselves were symbols of a much more dynamic, permanent  and spiritual healing – which is the core message of the gospel – was being missed.
The healing of Peter’s mother –in –law was in private and known to only a few people. But word got out, as word always does in villages and people started flocking to him to be healed.
I like to think that this dilemma played on his mind and he got up very early while it was still dark, went to a deserted place to pray for guidance, for a sense of direction, for some clarity.
He could have stayed there permanently healing people, if we take the story at face value, but after communion with God, he became clear about what was truly necessary.
He had a comfy job for life there in Capernaum. Simon and his companions were hunting for him to bring him back to satisfy the crowds that were forming, but after communing with God he was clear that his mission lay in proclaiming the imminence of the kingdom of God – of which healing is integral, a greater healing that the physical healings point to but don’t fully encompass.
The physical healings were signposts to a greater healing – the healing of the division between God and man and between people and their neighbours and between people and their environment.
Healings were portents of the great healing which in Biblical shorthand is also known as the Kingdom of God. Preaching the kingdom of God was what Jesus was about. If a few signs and symbols helped to smooth the path along the way, all well and good, but they couldn’t be allowed to overshadow that one central message.
When the disciples found Jesus they wanted to take him back to Capernaum for more healing – because crowds had gathered, but Jesus knew where his destiny lay. Instead of returning to the circus He said “Let us go to the neighbouring towns, that I may proclaim the message there also, for that is what I came out to do”
It was the message that he deemed important. So there was a tension in Jesus’ ministry according to the Bible between his essential message and the fact that a lot of people actually just had heard that he could cure people, and they wanted him purely for that.
His essential message was that Love was central to life and Loving God and loving our neighbours was the way we should seek to walk this path of life. Love and forgiveness heals broken relationships whether they be between you and God or you and your neighbour. Love can be stretched to breaking point but it cannot be broken. Love casts out fear, loneliness, low self esteem, brutality and injustice and restores us to a healthy peace filled frame of mind which allows us to flourish as human beings. This is the message Jesus was desperate to preach. If the healings helped draw attention to the message, all well and good, when they overpowered the message and became an end in themselves the message is lost.
When anything comes between the human being and the kingdom of God and becomes a distraction or an end in itself, the Bible calls this idolatry. But it is not just idols of bronze or stone that come between people and God.  Religion can mask the face of God very effectively. Take just a cursory look at the hundreds of thousands of people slaughtered in God’s name, from the crusades to the rivalries between Christians to find that out for yourself. The message of  God’s love can easily get crowded out
How many idols have we set in place that comes between us and God? What part of our life and religion, none of them bad things in themselves (church, doctrine, creeds, churchmanship, denominations, buildings, rituals etc.), have conspired to drown out that essential message and become more important than the message itself?