Monday, 26 November 2012

For thine is the kingdom

I think it might surprise and shock some of us to learn that you are taking part in a subversive political act today; We are more used to thinking of ourselves as pillars of the establishment – though it really shouldn’t.
Jesus himself was executed because he was a political threat to the status quo. One of the things that is firmly attested in the gospels is the charge against him that led to his execution – “The King of the Jews”
The logic is obvious. If you owe your loyalty to God – if you believe that the final authority in your life is vested in God and the person who lived that belief out most fully in his life, Jesus, who then bids you to do the same and follow him down the same path, then warning signs go off in the corridors of the worldly powers.
Because if Jesus is your Lord, if Jesus is your king, then Caesar is not, the high priest and the Roman overlords are NOT. Their power and authority is undermined. You can appeal against their dictats because your source of authority lies elsewhere.
The same is true today. To say that Jesus is Lord or that Christ is King means that your ultimate loyalty lies not to Queen Elizabeth II or to any political party or to any Nation or political ideology but to the God revealed in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. A God who commands love. To say that Christ is king is a dangerous subversive act. To some that may be shocking news.
Centres of worldly power have been trying to deal with and accommodate and neuter this challenge ever since. Communist countries usually just tried to ban all religion. Another ploy is to say that politics and religion don’t mix – that Christianity is not political and politics and power must be allowed to operate without any interference in their schemes and Bishops are always getting told to stay out of politics.
What we have tried to do in Britain is shackle state and religion together as we have done in the UK where the head of state is the supreme Governor of the C. Of E. and our Bishops are part of the law making establishment because they sit in the house of Lords. Effectively they are trying to say that the state is God’s mouthpiece so you must give that loyalty you might otherwise give to God, you must give to us because we are doing God’s will. Because God and the state are one and the same thing.
The ramifications of that uneasy relationship may become apparent very soon if parliament legislates to force equality onto the C of  E and force us to accept women Bishops. Interesting times.
In declaring himself Christ’s representative on earth and declaring his pronouncements infallible that is exactly what the Pope does. He usurps God’s role and his religion becomes a wordly power in its own right in direct competition with the Kingdom of God. One of the prime movers of the reformation and the breaking away from Rome wasn’t so much Henry 8th’s desire to re-marry – that was just a symptom, but the far bigger question. Who has authority in this country – the king of England or a foreign potentate? It was the rise of the Nation state in Europe that led all European countries to re-define their relations with the Pope, even loyal catholic ones.
The Orthodox accomodate themselves to earthly state power with their theology of “symphony” where they are allied very strongly with a people or Nation and their leaders. You see that very well in Russia nowadays where the church becomes fiercely nationalistic – one of the uglier traits of the Orthodox church. Churches in the East are very definitely Russian. Greek. Serbian, Romanian etc. and fiercely support their ethnicity.  You cannot slide a piece of paper between Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox church nowadays.
But all of those contingent forms of relationship between Christianity and earthly power are plainly not what Jesus stood for. They all seek to avoid what Jesus really meant.
So If we want to take the title “Christ the King” at all seriously then we are a collection of subversives whose final loyalty lies with the way of divine love rather than the contingent authorities of Monarchy, country, parliament, nation. It lies in the character and nature of God as revealed in Jesus.
This topic caused one of the few major falling outs and source of tension I had with the British embassy in Bucharest.  One very thoughtful man in particular was challenged by this notion. He been one of Tony Blair’s advisors in the run up to the Iraq war and now works for NATO in Brussels. The tension is real and current.
One of the best hymns that sum up this odd state of affairs is the hymn “I vow to thee my country”
The first verse is standard stuff about loyalty to the nation, and there is another verse rarely seen that is even more militaristic and Nationalistic but the last verse introduces the concept of a higher authority than Queen and country.
The second verse goes like this.
And there's another country, I've heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.
We all have competing loyalties in our hearts. The question is, when we say Christ is King – do we really mean it?

Sunday, 18 November 2012

We are the second coming

Today I’m going to tell you a secret. It is a secret kept fiendishly hidden from us by the fact that it is completely out in the open and is so obvious we don’t even notice it. That is sometimes the best way to hide things.
“Christ will come again” we say and then we say “We are the body of Christ”. But we have the utmost difficulty putting those two things together and coming up with the obvious truth and realising “My God, we are the second coming”
The words “Second coming” by the way never appear in the new testament. They are derived from a Greek word “Parousia” which means presence.  We are the continuing and future presence of the spirit of Christ in the world.
 God is everywhere of course but as a focussed presence where God’s presence is revealed and unveiled in the world, just as it was in Jesus, is now located in us. And it is because there are so many of us that Jesus says in John 14
“Truly truly I say to you, he who believes on me will do the works that I do, and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father”
This second birth, being born again, this re-incarnation of the Spirit of Christ is symbolised in the well known parable of Pentecost. When the Spirit is poured out on everyone who believes in and follows in the way.
Christians have tried to interpret the Prensence of Christ in two other main ways.
First, the very early church of the first generation of Christians believed that the end of the world was nigh – literally; and Christ would re-appear to take the righteous to heaven.  Paul was amongst them which colours his attitudes and early letters. 
Once it became clear that Christ wasn’t going to return, the belief had to be modified to mean that he would come back at some indeterminate time in the future and this view was still potent enough to make it into the Nicene creed written in 325 AD and which we recite to this day despite 2000 years of our increase in knowledge and perception – so the belief that he will literally appear one day  persists.
Another modification of the notion of the presence of Christ when he didn’t return was to say that his real actual flesh and blood became truly present in the bread and the wine at the Eucharist. This came originally from the words of Jesus at the last supper – “This is my body”.  Spiritually, this sense that there is “oneness of being” – that Jesus in his own body say to people holding a piece of bread “This is my body” was a huge spiritual step forward because the Spirit that animated Jesus was then at least incarnated in matter and not located somewhere else and carried with it the added theological benefit that we then ate and drank his presence, taking it into ourselves.
The drawback with this approach though was that the Eucharistic prayer came to be seen mechanically rather than spiritually as a magic spell that could literally change bread to flesh and wine to blood – another idea that has doggedly persisted in our consciousness. The other drawback is that the burden of change is transferred to bread and wine rather than ourselves
It was Paul who realised the truth of the matter that when the Spirit of Christ is recognised and revealed in the hearts of individual Christians we collectively become the “Body of Christ”. “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12: 27).
All three understandings of Presence exist rather uneasily in the church of today but when you think about it, the perception that we are the “second coming” is a far more beautiful, though daunting, and personally empowering concept than all the others. It comes down to trusting our understanding of who and what God is and using that to be the change we are looking for in the world.
For Christ to come again into the world he needs our co-operation to be co-creators with God. This was never put so beautifully as it was by the 16th Century mystic  Theresa of Avila who expressed this understanding in her poem  called “Christ has no body”.

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

Sunday, 11 November 2012


There are so many scattered thoughts and emotions on such a day that it can be hard to know what to think.  I’m going to read a poem now by a woman who lost two sons to warfare. Every year in Canada at the war memorial in Ottawa one mother is chosen to lay a wreath representing all mothers who lost children. One such recently, in year 2000, was Clare Stewart who had lost both her sons in war and in this poem she records her thoughts standing at the memorial that year, just as we did today, like this;

She stands in the cold
Her black cloth coat
Suits the occasion
But fails to keep her warm
Despite the gleam of silver
At her breast.*

Her thoughts circle round:

“Why did we have another war?
Didn’t we lose enough men already?
Why did my sons have to die?
O God, keep me upright.
Help me not to scream
Out their names.

“What will we have for dinner tonight?
What would Joey and Bill have wanted?
It’s so hard to have faith…
It’s so hard to have hope…
Why did my sons have to die?
Jesus, you comforted your mother
As she stood and watched you die.
If I pray hard enough
Will you bring comfort to me?

“If that preacher says ‘Noble Sacrifice’
One more time I’ll scream…
I’ll scream out their names
So hard the dead will hear me.
Only this time, I’ll scream out loud
Instead of in my heart.”

But she doesn’t scream…
She stands beside the Honour Guard
Who are older than her sons
Were when they died.

The people nearby watch her,
Wondering how she can stand
So still, so calm,
Knowing she lost two boys,
Thinking she has lost her grief
After all these years
When to her it might
Have been today.

It bears asking the question why do we do it? Remember and ponder. What good can come of it?
Well if an occasion like this can curb our enthusiasm for war by just a small amount I think it is worth it. If it can make our search for peaceful solutions that bit more earnest I think it is worth it. If it can bring the reality of the pain misery and human waste of war closer, rescuing war from Hollywood and jingoistic headlines I think it is worth it. If it reconnects us with the emotional pain of having lost a loved one to war and makes us think twice about our current actions I think it is worth it.
Death is the great leveller. It doesn’t ask your name, your religion, your politics, your race or gender. A mother’s tears over the death of her sons or daughters don’t sting any less because they happen to be British or Afghan, Israeli or Palestinian, Iranian or Iraqi. The pain is shared in common because we are human beings, and if an occasion like this can in any small way help to curb the madness I think it is worth it.
Exactly one month ago on the 10th October David Cameron gave a speech at the Imperial war museum, which was screened live and I happened to watch it. I am not a conservative and nor do I have any  particular liking for the Prime minister but I was very impressed that day by his genuineness and passion for his subject that actually gave me hope.  He said this;

 "For me, one of the most powerful things I have ever seen is the monument erected by the Turks in Gallipoli.

Think of the bloodshed.

Think of the tens of thousands of Turkish dead.

And then listen to the inscription to our boys and those from Commonwealth countries that fell.(words by Kemal Attaturk)

“Those heroes who shed their blood and lost their lives, you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country.

Therefore rest in peace.

There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side in this country of ours.

You, the mothers who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears, your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace.

After having lost their lives on this land they become our sons as well.”

For me those words capture so much of what this is all about.

That from such war and hatred can come unity and peace.(like blood red poppies growing out of the mud fields of devastating blood letting)

More than anything it should give us a confidence and determination never to go back.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

For all the saints.

One of the best descriptions of a saint I’ve ever heard is contained within this probably apocryphal story.
Sitting in a church a minister asked someone to describe a saint – and one little girl pointed to all the figures represented in their stained glass windows and said.
“Saints. They’re the people the light shines through”.
What a beautiful description of a person who walks so close to God that the light shines through in the way they act and live, in their capacity to love and be loved.
How they lived is the main point. The popular saints in the Christian calendar weren’t generally popular for anything they’d ever written or believed. They became popular as examples of how to live.
 As with so much in Christianity what was originally intended has changed out of all recognition over the last 2000 years. Saints, nowadays are more commonly thought of as people with miraculous powers who you pray through or sometimes to, in superstitious fashion to get something in return, be it good luck or a child, or protection or even to find something.
Originally it was not like that. Originally saints were just ordinary people like you and me, who because of what we believed had started to let some of the light through in our lives in the way we lived and loved.  We all have the light of God within us, but most of us have a dimmer switch which is usually set to a low light with occasional flashes of radiance – me included.  A saint is simply someone who allows more of the current, the energy of God through into our daily life. The switch is turned on higher throwing out a more consistent light.
The word “saint” means a witness, which is of course a legal term - someone whose life is a character witness for the divine mystery.
A great modern example of difference between what Sainthood was and has become is Mother Theresa of Calcutta. There is an official commission that gathers information for a process that pronounces whether she qualifies as an official “saint” or not. There is even a team of people that gathers information on whether she had ever performed a miracle, because the Roman Catholic church insists that a saint must possess the power to make miracles in order to qualify to become an official saint. Where and how did it all go so wrong and muddle headed?
Mother Theresa doesn’t need a team of religious bureaucrats to decide whether she will become a saint or not. Mother Theresa is a saint solely and simply because of the way she lived and loved and let the light shine through in her life. It was a life marked by compassion for others. It is the kind of lived example that led the Indian government to give her a state funeral, even though she was a foreigner and from a small minority faith, Christianity, in that country. That was a testimony to the impact her life had in India.
You don’t become a saint after you die, you live as a saint when you are alive and those things you did and said become an inspiration to others who try and walk the path of faith...
We all have the potential to let the light shine through us. We can all be examples of love and compassion. As Saint Francis said in words attributed to him. “Go preach the gospel. Use words if you have to.”
Keeping close to the source of the light is a great start and then allowing ourselves to live in that light rather than try and block that light out from our lives. It is through being close to love, and knowing love that one learns to love. In the love and security of God’s love for us – called God’s grace - that we learn to have the courage to love ourselves and others.
Today, Sophie Ann Hebdon has been purposely brought here today to come close to the light and symbolically be incorporated into the love and care of God. We are demonstrating something that we believe and trust to be true. That she is loved by God, the light that already shines within her. The light that enlightens every person.