Sunday, 25 March 2012

Eternal life

“He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life”.
A key to unlocking the spiritual treasure in this enigmatic statement may be discerned I think by a deeper understanding of the phrase “eternal life”. Whilst the natural understanding for a modern audience is solely a life beyond the grave, it is also used, particularly in John to denote a quality of life in our mortal life. I’ll give a couple of examples;
In John 5:24 John has Jesus saying “Very truly I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgement, but has passed from death to life”
And in 17:3 “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent”.
In those two statements, also from John’s gospel eternal life is now in this life and is a matter of belief or perception or perhaps we should say  enlightenment.
Indeed eternal life could be called spiritual “life” as opposed to spiritual darkness or “death”. Jesus in a famous saying reported in both Matthew and Luke said “Let the dead bury their own dead” talking of people who were very much alive in that they were walking about but spiritually they were dead. They were walking in darkness. “Let the dead bury their own dead”. But you, those who see, those who are spiritually alive, come and follow me”.
So if eternal life is understood as a quality of life, otherwise called “fullness of life”, then the truth of the statement hangs on our attitude to life – how we perceive it.
A person “loving their life” as Jesus puts it, I interpret as a selfish, inward looking existence; lived apart from and in competition with everybody else. A person that sees their own life as the very centre of their own universe in a dog eat dog world. The impulse to live in this way is very pervasive and is one of the major influences in modern western culture. The cult of the individual is very strong.
I would interpret the person “hating their life” as a person who sees that their individual life is not the absolute centre of the universe. It would be a life lived in communion with others and with God, the very source of their life.  A life lived with a certain humility and graciousness towards others, who sees their life as part of an interconnecting web of cause and effect, dependent on others for just about everything and is grateful for it.  
This  person who lives this kind of life had found Life in all its fullness. Because in finding your life bound up with the eternal God at your centre, then death loses its sting in the sense that instead of complete oblivion when you die – a change from being to non being – your life, your essence, your Spirit, or your soul, whatever you want to call it transforms and continues.
A life freed from the confines of birth and death is a life that can be lived freely and openly, with consideration for others instead of in an antagonistic competition with others.
The two meanings of eternal life then have a bearing on each other.  Finding one leads to the other.
Finding eternity in the heart of your very self begets eternal life as a quality of life we yearn for – a life of peace. At peace with ourselves, at peace with each other, at peace with the world and all predicated on being at peace with God.
But it’s not easy. I’m certainly not there yet. At least I get fleeting glimpses of it in my life. Converting those fleeting glimpses into a permanent state is the job at hand. For most of us it is a life work involving prayer and meditation. But being on the right path and walking in the right direction means that at least we have started the process and a community of faith is vital as it provides company on the way, people to confide in, to draw strength from and pick us up and dust us down when we fall because God will come to us and help us in other people.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Mother Love

Where does a child first learn, first experience, love and support?  From our parents of course. It is the first and absolutely primal relationship anyone ever has and in the formative years in most circumstances it is the most important relationship anyone has, but as we all know this is a relationship that never ends. No matter what – your mother is always your mother.
And while not wanting to underplay the role of Fathers, especially as a father myself, and technically a single parent, this is a different kind of role. Mothers and fathers are complementary to raising children but not exactly the same.
It is parents who set the guidelines, who determine on your behalf what is good and not so good for a child and their development and flourishing. The family is the soil in which a child grows.
I’ve said many times before that it was from my parents that I learned and experienced Grace, which is unconditional love, decades before I learned the word in theological college.
One of the most distressing periods of my life as a troubled teenager was being picked up in the middle of the night by my parents from a police cell. Without going into the gory details, things could have gone in two very different ways. Everything that culminated in me being in that cell was never spoken of ever again. The unconditional love and support from both mum and dad that goes on to this day was an experience of Grace that has coloured my understanding of love ever since. A classic case of hating the sin while loving the sinner.
All children learn their first lessons about life and love from their parents – not in an intellectual sense, in an experiential way. No-one has love explained to them – you just experience it and luxuriate in it.
So when things go a bit wrong, or in some instances go very wrong indeed the trauma is severe. On mothering Sunday we have an opportunity not just to laud perfect motherhood but also to empathise and cry alongside those who struggle and sometimes fail in the role. It is also a time when we can perhaps come to forgive our own mothers and fathers for any shortcomings they had, whether they are real or imagined. A time to pray for strength for current mums and dads who sometimes feel inadequate. No-one trains you for this role, except in the sense that the only pattern we have to copy in usually our own mums and dads.
So let us bring to mind our own mothers and Fathers, to celebrate the fact that they gave us life, brought us up, and hopefully provided us with the tools to forge a life of our own. But also forgive where we think there was any lack, but most of all, thank God for the love that they were able to give us – like God’s love – unconditional and free. 

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Find yourself

I think I need to start with Paul’s letter to the Corinthians where he describes the message of the cross as foolishness, and describes God’s foolishness as being wiser than man’s wisdom and God’s weakness as greater than human strength.
To many people including both Jews and Muslims Jesus ending up on the cross cannot be of God because it ends in suffering and apparent defeat. It does look very much like a failure rather than a success.
And in worldly human terms it is hard to disagree. But it is in spiritual terms that this is a victory. For one thing, the chain of events fits the prophetic profile exactly. Everyone in Jewish history who stands up for the spiritual path tends to be attacked, vilified, ignored, arrested or killed.
And by a spiritual path I don’t mean a way that simply retreats to the wilderness to stay there and contemplate our navels but a path that retreats in order to advance, to retreat in order to gain the strength to be the change you want to see in the world and to walk a path that wants to see transformation. Personal transformation certainly, but also political, social, economic and environmental transformation.  For Christians all transformation has its root in personal transformation.
When personal spiritual transformation (or personal enlightenment, or the raising of our own consciousness) is neglected, there is no impetus or energy for any other kind of transformation.  When personal spirituality is neglected in the church, the soul of the church dies. The rituals, words and buildings are still there but without a lively spirituality it can become a legalistic empty shell.
Only ourselves can change our own consciousness. Others can be a great help but we need to have at least an iota of personal commitment in order to do it. We might think of ourselves as inadequate to the task and lacking all sorts of gifts including the one of having very little faith to begin with but Jesus knew that.
He also said that even if your faith – or trust – in God is as small as a mustard seed, which is very small indeed, that is a starting point and from something you think is totally insignificant, can blossom and grow into something quite magnificent. Lots of people together with trust as small as a mustard seed can achieve even greater things when we work together.
Changing our level of consciousness is a tremendous task and a wonderful opportunity. It is one that I have been charged with as an ordained man. In practical terms what does this mean?
In practical terms I want to raise both my and your consciousness of God from being an exterior being outside of creation to an interior being at the heart of all living things. We need to realise that we are a Temple of God because God resides in us.
I want to raise our consciousness from seeing all things as entirely separate from each other to having an underlying unity – and that principle of unity is God, the ground of all being.
I want to raise people’s consciousness from seeing human life as being framed by birth and death to being concurrent with all creation.
I would like my and your consciousness to be raised to see that personal peace can be ours because it is ours already underneath. We need to acknowledge what is already ours as a divine gift. To know we are loved and therefore held at all times in all circumstances is the gift of peace that we need to cultivate and live out. This peace is not determined by our circumstances in life and cannot be bought or traded.
We need to raise our consciousness to accept our limitations – which is humility – but also our extraordinary potential, which is a potential for life in all its fullness. The potential that when we are changed we can change the world around us.
Engaging with the divine mystery as we are here this morning, we need to surrender ourselves to, or immerse ourselves in the mystery. We don’t control it – we live in it and under it.
But surrendering ourselves to the mystery is not something we have been trained to do in modern society. We are trained in modern society to retain sovereignty over all my affairs in my life, to trust no-one fully, to keep my cards close to my chest, to not show weakness because that will be exploited, and perhaps the biggest fear of all, largely unarticulated, is that in abandoning myself I will lose sight of myself and change into someone else.
The witness of religious people down the ages though is that in losing yourself by immersing yourself in the mystery, you in fact find your true self. As Paul puts it “It is not I who live but Christ who lives in me”. This is a Chistocentric way of saying that at the centre of all life is the life of God. 
And this revelation is perhaps the greatest of all leaps of consciousness for modern Western people who have been taught, or have gleaned, that life is a two dimensional mechanistic thing without meaning or purpose.
We are engaged in all those things this morning. We can take our courage in our hands and take the plunge or give in to our fears and splash around in the shallows afraid of getting wet. But church, if in no other place, should be a safe house, a place where we should be able to lower our guards and explore in safety. I think it is everybody’s responsibility to help someone more fearful than we are to take those tentative few more steps over a period of time until as many of us as possible are able to swim confidently. 

Sunday, 4 March 2012

A passion for Justice

What was Christ’s passion? I don’t mean the travails of Holy Week which are normally called his passion from the Latin for suffering as in Mel Gibson’s film the “passion of the Christ”, I mean what was Jesus’ passion, his overriding all consuming obsession that led him on the path to his execution.
It becomes clearer and clearer as you read the gospel and learn more about the context of 1st century Palestine that Jesus’ overriding passion was for Justice for the poor and oppressed of the land. The Temple collaborators with Rome were corrupt and as far as Jesus was concerned was finished as a means of true communion with God. They exploited the poor and reduced the peasant farmers, who constituted the bulk of Jesus’ support to tenants or day labourers after confiscating their land when they defaulted on their debts.
The Temple, in Jesus’ estimation, no longer bore fruit for God and was therefore rendered irrelevant. This stands as a stark warning to the churches of every age.
Jesus set himself the task of opposing and exposing to public ridicule the depths to which the Temple had sunk and it was this deliberate stance that led inevitably to his death. The few corrupt wealthy land owning families that ran the Temple knew exactly who Jesus’ rage was aimed at – he called the Temple at one point a “Den of robbers” fleecing the poor for their own enrichment – and the shorthand phrase for describing the whole rotten system was the “elders, the chief priests and the scribes”.
Peter knowing all too well where this deliberate confrontation with the authorities would end tries to obstruct Jesus, wishing in a very human manner, that this man who he admired so much and followed so faithfully should not be harmed or even killed, by putting his head above the parapet like this.
For his trouble Jesus calls Peter “Satan” – appropriate because before medieval Christianity invented the strange figure of the man in red with horns and a tail, the stem of the word Satan in Hebrew  means to obstruct or oppose. Jesus knew that if he were to follow God he had to expose and oppose the Temple and their collaboration with their Roman masters no matter where that led. What the Temple had become was not God’s way – Jesus was in fact modelling God’s way.
Jesus reportedly says that anyone who wants to follow him must also “take up their cross” and follow me. The cross had a very specific meaning in Jesus’ day. It didn’t mean generalised suffering then – in those days it was a punishment reserved for sedition – those who opposed Imperial authority and Imperial theology.
In their context, “to take up your cross”, means to oppose injustice and stand up for the rights of the poor and marginalised of society against powerful vested interests no matter who they are.
That was Jesus’ passion that led to his death. His passion for Justice. And Justice is begotten by Love. The passion for Justice emanated from a love of all mankind. It has its roots in a belief that we are all created equal – all made in the image and likeness of God – and therefore all deserve a fair share of the fruits of the earth.
As Paul interprets the story of Abraham in Romans, faith, which in ancient times meant “trust” and not believing in creedal statements – he argues that we should trust in God’s grace, which is indiscriminate and unearned. And given to all.
Jesus’ eventual death followed on from his putting in practice his belief that Justice was of God and that this sense of Justice naturally emanated from a belief that God’s character is essentially love which is indiscriminate, unmerited and eternal.
To rest in God, being itself, to trust that there is a depth to life, that holds and sustains ourselves and everything that exists is the source of the strength of Character that drove Jesus to do what he did. Everything he did with his life he did out of a close and personal sense of relationship with the sacred. The source of Jesus’ courage and verse is to be our source also. Therein lies the importance of worship like this morning. This morning’s service is designed to be an encounter with the sacred, an encounter that might beget trust, that may then beget courage and strength to live out of that trust and make a stand for love and everything that flows from that love like Justice and forgiveness, peace and unity.