Tuesday, 17 December 2013

The least in the kingdom

John the Baptist is now in prison and his confidence is shaken. In Last Sunday’s reading he was the confident man in the wilderness denouncing the Pharisees and proclaiming one to come who will “baptise with water and with fire”.
Today we meet him again, but this time speaking from his prison cell, and we hear a man suddenly full of doubts. 
Doubt is of course a natural thing and I think that it would have been entirely natural that sitting in chains, a prisoner of a murderous erratic king like Herod fears and doubts would come crowding in on anyone. Of course we know that John was soon beheaded and his head served up on a silver platter  - so any fears he had were well founded (!) – but knowing something drastic might happen at any time he needed to know for sure about Jesus.
But there was another reason implied in the text. John like most Jews was expecting a very particular kind of messiah. They were expecting a political figure, a warrior king who would fight and defeat the Romans and re-establish an independent Israel by force. His rule would be fierce – a cleansing fire that would burn through not just Rome but all the rich corrupt political and religious Jewish hierarchy as well. Anyone not bearing good fruit would be cut down with an axe. As John foretold and expected the messiah would baptise with water and with fire.
But Jesus’ ministry wasn’t like that at all. Of course he was a challenge to the establishment – that is why eventually they felt they had to crucify him – but his challenge was a peaceful one. He challenged people’s perception of what a Messiah might look like as well as challenging the Status Quo, challenging people’s personal morality and challenging their understanding of God.
He reaches out to the margins of society to heal rifts, he brings healing to those who need it in the widest possible sense. The message he gives to John’s disciples to take back to John to try and convince him that yes, he really is the one is a quote from Isaiah that illustrates just those kinds of qualities.
After John’s disciples had gone when addressing the crowd, Jesus says plainly that John the Baptist is indeed a great man in Israel’s present scene – a necessary precursor to what was going to happen next but the very least in the kingdom of God ( new order of understanding and revelation) was greater than John.
You see at that point, Jesus is saying that John the Baptist stands outside the Kingdom of God.   I always used to have great trouble in understanding this.  This great icon and necessary ingredient in the Christian story lying outside the Kingdom of God.
The only way I have been able to understand this is to understand that to be inside the kingdom of God is about the quality and nature of our relationship with God, and the nature of the God we know and the perception of God’s presence and character.
To be born again to a different understanding of God, his purposes and our relationship to him puts someone in the kingdom of God. It also entailed coming to a different understanding of the nature of the Messiah to the Jews of the 1st century.
Probably my greatest objection to the idea of a literal second coming is that the Jesus that is expected is exactly the same kind of Messiah that John was expecting in the first place. The avenging angel, saving the faithful, taking an axe to the root of those who don’t bear good fruit, toppling the kingdoms of this world and reigning as king in their place.
But that kind of messiah God did not provide. I believe that the way of Jesus is the decisive revelation of the character and will of God. God has already revealed in the life death and resurrection of Jesus, the revelation of the first coming, that what the Jews (including John) were expecting was not what God would provide.  That might be what you desire, but it isn’t what you are going to get.
What we got wasn’t a warrior king, but a man of peace who rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. Not a man who would defeat the armies of Rome, but a man who suffered and died at their hands. His victory is of a very different order revealed in the mystery of the resurrection.
There was nothing deficient in the first coming. There is nothing left to be completed. Everything that needed to be done was done. The rest, as I never tire of repeating, is down to us.

If we want God’s kingdom to come we have to, in God’s help and strength, bring that kingdom in ourselves as God’s agents, the body of Christ using Jesus’ methods and his example.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Born again

Are we bearing good fruit worthy of repentance or a brood of vipers ? And what exactly is that good fruit?
Helpfully in Galatians Paul famously comes up with a list. He writes “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy peace,  patience,  kindness,  goodness,  faithfulness,  gentleness and self-control.
He goes on to say “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us have no self-conceit, no provoking of one another, no envy of one another”.
Walking by the Spirit means how we actually relate to and deal with one another. Both John the Baptist and Jesus are agreed that the only sure way of knowing whether someone is living out of God’s Spirit is in the way we live and act.
You can have as many hard core Christian beliefs as you like – but believing them doesn’t make you a follower of Jesus. How you speak and act make you a follower of Jesus. Jesus says “By their fruit you shall know them”
We all have know that it is possible to have all the right beliefs and still be a cold, unhelpful impatient person – a mass of fears and anxieties. The Pharisees were like that. We are all a bit like them at times.
Common sense tells us then that just holding right beliefs is not enough – through our own experience. But we have Jesus’ seal of approval on that as well.
Nicodemus had all the right beliefs and was very drawn by Jesus and came to meet with him in secret. Jesus even acknowledges him as a “teacher of Israel” – a very learned man when it came to religion (as were all the scribes and the Pharisees) yet he is missing the most important ingredient of all and he tells Nicodemus that he must be born again from above.
Now I more than most am aware that the phrase “born again Christian” has been hijacked and misused and come to be associated with a very particular and not very attractive kind of Christian. But this just means that we have to take the phrase back and make it our own again and apply it more commonly than they might allow.
The phrase “born again” is not the property of a particular kind of Christianity that comes with a particular set of beliefs. “Born again is biblical and is placed on the tongue of Jesus himself. To be born again is a normative state for a follower of Jesus.
The fact is that holding a right set of beliefs has surprisingly little effect on how we act. It has some, but actually the effect on our behaviour can actually be counter- productive as well as positive. 
We may even know ourselves lovely people who on “becoming religious” have changed but not in a good way. They may have become judgemental, harsh, drawn in on themselves, exclusive. In fact they exhibit qualities quite far removed from Paul’s list of the fruits of the Spirit. They have become religious believers yes, but more of a pharisaical kind than a Christian kind. Religion has the potential for both kinds of change.
The change heralded by John the Baptist and Jesus involves a change of heart as much as a change in belief. It is so easy to forget that Jesus was a Jew who came not to start a brand new rival religion but to fulfil the one that was already there by appealing to the Spirit of Judaism, by re-emphasising certain aspects of their faith, by negating and fulfilling other aspects of Judaism – in short by asking Jews to look deeply  into the letter of the law to discern the Spirit of the Jewish religion.
Paul knew this. He would I think be appalled by some of the ways that his letters to young church congregations are now used to supplant one version of the law with a new law. He recognised the dangers all too well when he wrote himself about the way we approach the written word. “The letter kills, it is the Spirit that gives life” he writes in 2 Corinthians. (2 Corinthians 3:6).
In his greatest theological treatise the letter to the Romans, especially in the 8th chapter we have a tract that explores Paul’s understanding of what it means to walk in the Spirit of God.
“For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of sonship or daughtership. When we cry “Abba Father” it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our Spirit that we are children of God”
There is the biggest clue of all to what living in the Spirit is and how it is different from law. It is about “relationship” as between a Father and his son or daughter. This is God to you.
When you can call God Father and not just with your head but with your heart and know his presence within you by his Spirit.
Being born again is realising that you have another Father other than your biological earthly Father. Your other Father is in heaven. When you can believe this in your heart you are born again. To be a Christian is to be born again. It is about your internal relationship with God. You are born again when you know you are loved by a heavenly Father whose love knows no bounds and is present to you by his Spirit.
To be a Christian is to be born again to a relationship with a Father whose love for us is described like this at the end of that chapter 8 in Romans;.

“For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate  us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Monday, 2 December 2013

The gift that keeps on giving

It is December the 1st and the anticipation and excitement is growing. The Christmas season get’s longer and longer. Last Saturday – the 23rd November I was in B & Q and what what was playing over the tannoy...
“And here it is merry Christmas everybody’s having fun.....” The dulcet tones of Saint Noddy Holder of Walsall.
Now obviously commercial businesses use the excitement and anticipation of Christmas just to sell things but they wouldn’t do it at all if there was no excitement and anticipation there to tap into in the first place.
Christmas is the nation’s favourite Christian festival by a million miles.
Who is looking forward to Christmas? It is exciting.
Today we will send off Mary and Joseph on their journey around the village. Over 2000 years ago they would have been very excited as well. Looking forward to the birth of their first child.
But Christians look forward to something else as well. Of course we look forward to the celebration of Jesus’ birth as much as anyone but we also look forward to a better, happier world.
Of course Christians aren’t the only ones to look forwards to an end to hunger, thirst, war, and hate but in this special season of Advent we are given the opportunity to think about it more than others.
But Christians have not just been given a special time to think and hope for a better world. We have been given much much more.
We have also been given the instructions, and the means to actually bring this better world about.
The New Testament of the Bible is a record of one extraordinary man’s vision of what the world could be. And in the way Jesus lived and the guidance he left with us, we have something to copy.
His advice to us was simple. Be the change you want to see in the world yourself. There is no point is sitting back and hoping that things will get better as if by magic. We can change the world one person at a time and we must start with ourselves.
And from that change in yourself the change ripples outwards because you will affect other people by that change.
Of course you don’t have to hold any specific faith to want to help people but the fact is that even today the voluntary and charitable sector that underpins our society would collapse if it wasn’t for the involvement of tens of thousands of Christians giving their time and energy to help people.
They do it because their faith has changed them. That is what we want. That is what we are looking forward to – but not just hoping or praying for change but being that change.
Being able to change things for the better is what excites us and motivates us and fills us with hope – the hope of a better tomorrow for all of the people of the world.
This hope, this excitement, this anticipation for Christians is not just crammed into a month before Christmas but is a constant presence with us.
And that is why we constantly invite people to join us. We call it a fancy name – evangelism – but it is simply an invitation to join us in something life enhancing and life giving. It is like giving someone a gift  because with an active faith you gain something, and it is free. You gain a sense of love and compassion, a sense of acceptance and forgiveness, but also you gain that sense of hope and excitement and anticipation that is a constant companion. We call that the Spirit of God.
Anyone can have this gift for free if they really want it.
Be the hope,
Be the anticipation,

Be the change. 

Monday, 25 November 2013

Will you come and follow me?

Christ the King is a title and concept that sits uncomfortably in a society that prizes democracy and autonomy. In fact there are precious few absolute monarchs left in the world, a state that is probably seen as entirely desirable by the vast majority of people who instinctively know that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Our own constitutional monarchy is a curious half way house where the trappings of power and authority are there for all to see but that power is more theoretical than real. The real power lies with parliament. In fact many might say that real power and authority lies not even with our own parliament, but with Brussels and still others with the banks and unelected massive corporations who wield enormous power in all countries and impinge on everybody’s lives.
So while the title may be anachronistic the sense of it is still clear. It is a question of who or what do you accept as having a final authority and influence in your life? Who or what do you defer to and allow to modify your actions?
And even as I pose the question I am aware that I have used two words that have been steadily eroded during recent history. Authority and deference are two very unfashionable concepts nowadays.
Perhaps “influence” is the most neutral and acceptable word nowadays. Who influences your life? That may be the best way of asking the question that the gospel writers would have framed as “Who is your king”.
What is interesting to me is that Jesus himself never claims to be a king. That is a title thrust upon him. Jesus only ever spoke of the “Kingdom of God” a divine reality he referred to as “Father” and urged us to do the same.
Whose authority did Jesus follow? It was God the Father’s. “Yet not my will but your will” prayed Jesus in the garden of gethsemene.
So Jesus in his actions, as transparent to the will of God, is the reason we follow him, because he is a revealer of the will of God, a man transparent to the character and will of God, so therefore commands authority. It is a devolved authority that mirrors the will and authority of the Father so this is why we can say that “Christ is King” because he is in step with the Spirit of the Father.
It is in following the Spirit of God that we come into communion with Christ and can therefore also call ourselves sons and daughters of God. When we too follow the Father’s will, a will revealed in the life of Jesus.
But why should we follow his will at all, in this age where all authority is suspect? Well if it were simply the case of following the dictats of a cruel and angry despot like the kings of old it would simply be a case of duty with the constant threat of sanctions if we step out of line. But Jesus revealed a different way of relating to God – not as a distant and wrathful king but a close familial relationship as between a Father or mother and their children. Straight away the relationship is changed. It is not cold duty, however benign a king he may be but a relationship born of love. And love really does change everything. If God is our Father and Jesus is our brother and friend, then their influence in our lives is one of mutuality and gratitude and forgiveness and love.

Yes Christ is king in terms of moral authority, but he is also our teacher, our guide, our inspiration, our brother and friend on a journey that leads into the heart of God.  

Monday, 18 November 2013

Move yourself lazybones!

In his second letter to the Philippians Paul is using his own conduct as an example to the young congregation.
He notes that he works hard and pays for himself even though he is entitled to expect some material or financial support. He is determined not to be a drain on the congregation.
Everything Paul says and does and indeed writes is done to build up the Christian community.
Here in 2 Thessalonians 3: 6-13 Paul is concerned with “idleness”, being carried by the other members of the group. Paul has an image of the Christian group as an organic unity. Don’t forget it is he that coined the phrase “the body of Christ” to describe the group. We are made up of different parts and strengths and abilities but we will only be a dynamic body when all the different parts pull their weight so to speak.
And idleness can be not just of the body but also of mind and Spirit.   
This brings to mind a humorous description of many churches as being like a football match.
20,000 people badly in need of some exercise watching 22 people badly in need of a rest running around.
Now while that is quite funny, you can’t stretch the analogy too far it makes the point that in the church typically the more people who are actively involved makes any group, not just churches far more dynamic.
On “All Saints Sunday” I talked about every one of us being a witness for the faith. Every one of us, in our relationships and our work and play has the opportunity to be an open and unashamed voice for this church – our community of faith right here in Gainford/Winston.
And initially that is all that is required. Each of us has a reason or reasons to be here this morning, and that reason or reasons is the one that we can all talk about to others with complete confidence. It might be an intuition, or a feeling of community, a sense of duty perhaps. It might be intricate and well thought through and involve notions like communion with God and devotion to certain gospel truths. It may be about love, forgiveness, a sense of a shared journey with all its struggles to a destination we call “God”
Whatever they are, they are our reasons. They might not collude exactly with what the church says is the official reasons you are here (whatever they are) but they are your truth.
A great man called Harry Williams who was a monk at Mirfield, where I trained said “Truth, only has the power of truth when it becomes true for you”.
If someone were to ask you why you come to church, or if we more bravely initiated the conversation and tried to tell someone the reasons we attend church on Sunday unsolicited it is really no good trying to find out what you are “supposed” to say. Say what it actually means to you. What church means to you will change over time. It is after all a journey of faith. What God and Jesus and Spirit mean to you will ebb and flow and change over time. You should never be ashamed of your own truth. That is what is true for you and therefore the only thing that has the power to affect and change you.
In this community I try to affect change in perception by sermons, weekly emails, and the way I  conduct myself. I try to do so with the utmost integrity and honesty. I try to persuade people to a specific view of God and the faith. All we can do is sow seeds. That is all any of us can do.
You never know if a seed is going to take root and prosper or not – I do believe Jesus told a parable about that somewhere!! But the point is, if the seed is not sown in the first place there is obviously no chance at all that anything will ever grow and flourish.
I wouldn’t worry too much if any attempt to talk about faith is a bit faltering. Harder than that is not to get too upset and flustered if what you say is rubbished or ridiculed. That just shows a complete lack of respect for you and your perception of truth. We do need a bit of courage and backbone to withstand brickbats as well. In my experience, that soon subsides to be replaced with a grudging respect for your position anyway.
However many people are in church today that is how many evangelists we have in this church. That is the number of witnesses, that is the same number of pilgrims we have all trying in our own way to follow the way of God as revealed in the life of Jesus.

Together we are strong and can withstand anything. 

Monday, 11 November 2013

We will remember them.

“We will remember them.”
Well, we certainly remember them in the sense that we read their names out every year at this service – but every name was a life, a story, with a host of real characters, and personalities.
Which is why I was so heartened when I learned of a local couple who have made it their mission to find out as much about all those names written on our war memorial as humanly possible and to visit every grave of all those servicemen wherever they may be.
Of the 25 service men from WWI, 13 have been researched and visited, 8 have been researched and yet to visit, 4 are left still to find.
Eventually when finished all this research will be gathered and collated as a permanent record and will be kept in this church. I spoke to them briefly to garner a few snippets of information for today’s service.
However much or little we can find out about all of them, these are not just names they are lives. Some we only know a little about.......
There was Harold Dean Tenneck who lived in that little cottage next to the church wall who left his house in uniform with his pack, walked to Gainford station to go to Darlington in 1916 and never came back.
Frederick Heron, who won the military medal for gallantry, William Humblestone who was killed on the very first day of the battle of the Somme on the 1st July 1916.
Some we know quite a lot more about like George Edward Gent, who worked for North East Railways and lived in 8, Tees view. His dad had a plumbers shop there. He was a second lieutenant in the Royal Field artillery and he died on the 14th September 1917 struck by a shell which rendered him unconscious and he died within a few minutes. The two signallers who went to his aid under heavy fire and recovered his body both received the military medal. He is buried in a war cemetery in France near Armentiers but he is also mentioned on the black headstone next to the war memorial. Look for him as we leave this morning.
The enormity of loss can only be fully appreciated once the names have faces. They had lives, mums and dads, wives, children, brothers and sisters.
The brutality and waste of war comes home to us more fully when the lists and statistics become human beings.
But not only brutality and waste, but also heroism, service, self-sacrifice, comradeship. Even in the darkest nights there are flickers of light.
We can argue until the cows come home about the morality of war, about its causes and justifications, but what has happened can’t be undone. Today we are called simply to remember the sacrifice of millions, in this very particular context that is Gainford. To remember specifically those local men who would have been our neighbours if we had been living then. In fact if we had been living then, it might well have been us. Our name might have been on that war memorial.
Let us do them the honour of remembering them in a manner that is fitting and we would have wanted if we had been in their place – if it had been our names carved into that stone.
It is in remembering that we become more committed to not repeating the mistakes of the past. I am sure that sometimes war is unavoidable for many complex reasons, but must be avoided if it possibly can be. Surely the names, the lives recorded on that memorial should act as a constant reminder of the reality of war and its consequences and guard us against a gung ho attitude to war. As St. Paul wrote, “If it is anything to do with you, live at peace with everybody”.
I will end with a prayer by Robert Runcie, former Archbishop of Canterbury.  Archbishop Runcie earned a commission in the Scots guards during World War II, serving as a Tank commander and earning the Military cross for two feats of bravery in March 1945: he rescued one of his men from a crippled tank under heavy enemy fire, and the next day took his own tank into an exceptionally exposed position in order to knock out three anti-tank guns. As a result, he is unique among modern Archbishops of Canterbury in having killed fellow human beings. In May 1945, he was among the first British troops to enter Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. He knew war and death and he wrote this prayer;

Eternal Father, source of life and light,
whose love extends to all people, all creatures, all things,
grant us that reverence for life
which becomes those who believe in you,
lest we despise it, degrade it,
or come callously to destroy it.
Rather let us save it, serve it, and sanctify it,
after the example of your son,
Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen


Monday, 4 November 2013

For all the saints

Paul starts his letter to the Ephesians like this;
“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God. To the Saints, the faithful in Ephesus in Christ Jesus”
The worshipping community in Ephesus were all termed Saints for a very good reason. The word saint is a translation of a Greek word which means a witness.(Greek stem – Martyr)
To be a saint is to be a witness to the Christian way, so all Christians were witnesses, all are saints.
Contrast that earlier meaning with what the church did with it. Through historical reasons due to terrible persecution in the early years, the term started to be used more exclusively for those Christians who were killed for their faith. Eventually the original meaning was sidelined and the term was used exclusively for those Christians who were dead, and then only those who were reckoned to be special enough to be definitely “in heaven” as determined by Rome.
So historically the term has progressively narrowed from including all Christians who were alive and worshipping and witnessing in the manner of their life – then restricted to those who had died and subsequently then those who had died who were definitely in heaven.
But if you want to be faithful to the Bible and understand what St. Paul was saying then his letters are addressed to “all the saints” – that is US! We are the witnesses to the Christian revelation.
Paul then goes on in that piece we heard today from Ephesians to describe in soaring language the special gift we have been entrusted with – the gift of salvation made known (revealed) to us and the universal scope of the church (that would be us – his witnesses – his saints) who are Christ’s body. Cue Teresa of Avila again....He has no hands, or feet or eyes in this world except ours.  We are a body that consciously recognises God’s universal presence, as Paul puts it “the fullness of him who fills all in all”
To be a witness for Christ, who revealed the way of God is an enormous responsibility. That may explain the gradual narrowing down of the meaning of the word “saint”. People don’t like responsibility. Far better to abdicate our responsibility to be a witness ourselves and to transfer that responsibility to others, a small band of “super Christians” who can be a Christian for us, or perhaps instead of us.
It is understandable. Because when you read things like Luke’s beatitudes we heard in our gospel reading today, living up to what Jesus would like from us is bound to make any of us shrink from our responsibility.
Luke’s beatitudes are far less well known than Matthew’s sermon on the mount. In fact in Luke, Jesus comes down from the mountain to preach the sermon so is known as “the sermon on the plain” and it is much shorter than Matthew’s beatitudes.
Luke has four blessings that reflect his concern for the poor and marginalised. Blessed are the poor, those who are hungry, those who weep and those who are hated for being Christians.
They are balanced by four woes, those who are rich, those who are full, those who are laughing, and all who are spoken well of.
That last one is particularly interesting. Popularity is not the be all and end all for a church. To have a prophetic ministry the church will upset people.
Then Luke writes some instructions that make most of us recoil a bit and want to abdicate our responsibilities, because it is just so hard.
Love our enemies, do good to those that hate us, bless those that curse us, pray for those that abuse you, offer your other cheek to someone who hits you, give away even more than was asked from you, give to everyone that asks. My God, it is little wonder that we shrink from it and look for someone else to do those things instead of us.
But there is some solace here. Alone we haven’t got much of a chance. But you might remember that last week I also stressed the communitarian nature of both the people of Israel and the new Israel – the church.
Alone we haven’t a chance. Together well at least we will stand or fall together. And when we fall we can console each other that we are still forgiven and accepted. Of course we are all individuals, but part of a much greater whole. We need the support and encouragement of our church community, we need to act as a church community to even begin to follow such high and noble ideals. You might look as those instructions in Luke and want to run a mile. But we all do. We need to stick together in these things and get strength from each other’s practical, moral and spiritual support. We have a much better chance of walking that difficult path together than we do alone. And we are not alone.

We believe in the communion of saints don’t we? That is the word “saints” still retaining its original unadulterated meaning. We are surrounded by saints both alive and dead – a cloud of witnesses. Death cannot separate us from our loved ones because everything is held together in Christ who is all in all as Paul says. So in our prayers today we will pray for the living and for the dead and know that in Spirit we are all connected in God.

Monday, 28 October 2013

Biblical interpretation

As well as being the 22nd Sunday after Trinity this Sunday is also designated “Bible Sunday” in the church of England.
The Bible is a magisterial collection of books that are central to Jewish and Christian religion. In fact the Law (the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures) and the psalms are also reckoned to be part of the Muslim canon of Holy Scripture.
I have written and so have thousands of others about the Bible but what was the purpose of it?
I would say that the whole purpose of the Hebrew scriptures was to galvanise a community, to teach them how to live together in harmony, to live according to the will and purpose of God. In that respect the Christian New Testament carries on that raison d’ĂȘtre.
The community, the people of God, Israel, the people that struggled with God was all important to the Jews. Salvation itself was communitarian. Israel was saved together or not at all, a completely different approach to our highly individualised understanding of salvation (the “I am saved” approach, which is our modern individualistic approach of Western society being projected onto the Bible) and this community emphasis is carried on in the ministry of Jesus. In fact you could say that Jesus didn’t bring anything new to the faith but amplified various teachings already there in the Bible.
The two instructions that make up the Jesus Golden rule of Loving God and loving your neighbour were already there in the Bible in different places, but Jesus brought them together.
The Bible is a book that can attract or repel. In modern times it has repelled as many people as it has attracted, especially with its bloodthirstiness and supposedly God ordained violence and arcane laws.
For example one of the favourite stories that we tell to children is Noah’s ark - a homely tale of God ordained genocide against the entire human race when everyone in the world was deliberately drowned apart from one family – and we tell it complete with lovely pictures of smiling giraffes and hippos walking happily two by two into the ark. Once a child starts to reason, what are they to make of that?
Taken too literally, or without insight, The Bible is a powerful book which cut off from the community and the context in which it was written has the potential to be a very dangerous book. Many a lunatic from David Koresh at Waco to Jim Jones in the Jungle, to organised religions like the Jehovah’s witnesses and the Moonies to us and the Salvation army and everything else in-between; we all draw our inspiration from the same book.
So you see interpretation is absolutely key. Interpretation is everything. When he read the scroll from Isaiah in the synagogue Jesus was interpreting the Bible by applying it to himself. Because the Bible is so important and central to Christianity how we read and interpret it is the most important question for us all.
And central to that question is “Where is God in all these tens of thousands of words?” How can you discern the Word amongst all the tens of thousands of words?
Does God sit down and read the Bible story of the flood and reminisce and chuckle and think, “Yea, that was a good one – I did well there”
Or dare we think that the flood was not ordained by God as a punishment for sin in the first place despite that interpretation given by the original writers, but that a possibly actual event deep in the race memory banks – one already written about in an even older book “the epic of Gilgamesh” is being used and interpreted by the writers of Genesis to provide a symbolic story that says something about the human condition?
And what that something is...is also open to interpretation.
Words are symbols that have a hinterland that can represent a world of ideas. The same word or phrase can be heard differently by a dozen different people because what they hear is filtered through their own world view and understanding.
The reason we have someone like me speaking about the readings on a Sunday morning is that the meaning of most texts are rarely plain and clear but require an interpretation.
In my interpretation what am I trying to uncover? Well, no matter what genre of writing I am looking at – a parable, History, poetry, a letter, the law, a prophesy or whatever it may be I am trying to discern that still small voice of God, gently speaking to us in the words, through the words and sometimes beneath and behind the words. I am trying in Biblical interpretation to discern the Holy Spirit of God speaking to us today. A living active presence. The breath of God beneath the surface of the stories.
It is that breath that raises dead inert words and gives them life and makes them useful to a community that is gathered around God and seeks to see his face and hear his voice. The Hebrew word for Spirit is the same as for wind or breath – ruach.
When scripture is read in this church the reader is speaking words that have the capacity to reveal God’s Spirit to people – a living presence that is not always clear, because God is not so easily pinned down and neatly packaged.
God is wild and free as the winds we are expecting this evening. Trying to nail Him down is like trying to catch the wind.  You’ll never do it but you can feel the power in the wind. You know the life giving properties of every breath you take, but if you try and trap your breath by holding it you’ll die. Neither can we trap God and cage him or prod him and examine him, but we can try and discern his presence through nature, through sacrament and through the words brought to us in the Bible Sunday by Sunday.


  

Monday, 21 October 2013

How does God answer prayer?

There are certain parables that describe the kind of people that are required for the Kingdom of God, and this is one of them.
We could miss the point of the parable altogether of course if we imaging that the point is that God is a lazy God that doesn’t immediately answer prayer but has to be bludgeoned into answering prayer by persistent nagging, because In another place (Matthew 6:7) Jesus says that God doesn’t hear because of our “much speaking” or babbling like the pagans do.
This particular parable is meant to stimulate, not so much perseverance in prayer, but faith that our prayers will be answered. Jesus sometimes teaches by contrariness. In this parable He is  saying  that if even this ineffective useless judge will eventually act because of the incessant badgering by the widow, then how much more will a just God who loves us want to answer our prayers.  
This raises the pertinent question – how does God answer prayer?
This is a delicate area that needs intelligent thought, because God can be seen as a cosmic slot machine where you put your requests in and they are automatically answered.  But if I pray for a warm sunny day tomorrow, that won’t happen
 If I pray for a Mercedes, that doesn’t mean I’ll get one. Just because an unemployed person prays for a job, doesn’t mean that God will find them one.  
Much more seriously When we pray for peace in Syria in our intercessions what happens to that prayer? How could it be answered?
Well, when we intercede for things like that, at the very least what we are doing is aligning our wills and aspirations to those of God. We presume that God is a God that wants peace in Syria and we pray for that, because that is what God would want. I do not presume to know what happens to those prayers beyond that because I just don’t know.
I don’t want to take a reductionist approach. Prayer may be much more than my experience allows, but I can only start with my experience and say what I absolutely know it to be true. If prayer is much more than I know it to be – fantastic – but I can only say what I have experienced and seen and have taken from that experience.  Prayer may be much more than this but it is at least this.
Prayer, for me, is fundamentally about consciously bringing your entire self, which includes your hopes and fears and wishes into communion with God. It is primarily about “being with” God rather than a chance to present a  list of requests, though that in itself may be a valuable exercise in aligning our wills to the divine will.
But consider this. Who or what in this world do you have the most influence over? Who can you most influence? It is yourself. Prayer, for me is about changing the world and starting in the only place you can start – starting with yourself. If the results of prayer are about looking for change things for the better – then be the change you are looking for in the world.
Because God works through us, not apart from us. God worked through Jesus, not apart from him.
For example if we pray for an end to a drought in Ethiopia. Is God going to answer that prayer by causing it to rain in Ethiopia, or might he more feasibly work through people to change the way that aid is delivered, or to educate and change a country’s mentality and ways of doing things, or by inspiring scientists to develop better more drought resistant forms of grain, or inspire better water storage and irrigation systems, to inspire nations to work together more effectively. These are all answers to prayer, and they all have their locus in a change that happens in the heart of individuals – changing the world one person at a time.
I have used this example many times before because it was so personal. But it was looking into the eyes of a young Romanian girl, severely physically and mentally disabled, and dying of AIDS that I had a Damascus road experience that told me that no amount of prayer was going to change anything for that girl or anyone else in that children’s hospice. But God was present and was answering prayer through the nurses that worked tirelessly with precious few resources to allrviate their suffering.  I asked the question then – where was God in that orphanage in Cernavoda, where was prayer being answered? Where God was, where Christ was, where prayer was being answered was in the very concrete human form – a lady called Lorna Jamiesson. She was Christ in that place, she was the answer to prayer.
When  change happens in a human heart based on a strong loving relationship to God that is an answer to prayer. Our faith rests on the assumption that things can be changed by Love and that starts right where we are. In giving it away, showing love to another we become Christ for others and only through changing ourselves can we begin to try to change others. As I say, because this is experience of how God works in the world isn’t to say that he doesn’t work in other ways. Your experience may tell you something different, but surely prayer is at least this, and doesn’t exclude other explanations – they are just beyond my experience.
In speaking o prayer I will end with a prayer that is very dear to me. I printed this prayer in my weekly email before I knew what I would be talking about today and I want to end with this well known prayer by Theresa of Avila morning. What is so profound is that it is a Christian prayer for God to change things in the world but the locus of that change is in ourselves. The way  that God  affects the world around us in answer to prayer  is for  God to change us and work  through us just as God worked through Jesus. 
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.

Amen

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Life's incessant longing

All life is fired by longing. The simplest of plants and the highest of human love have this in common – yearning, restlessness, a certain inate insatiable pressure to eat, to grow, to breed, , to push beyond self, and people also experience this yearning as a pressure to build, to learn, to experience.
Longing, this insatiable life force that lies at the centre of all living things but is rarely examined.
What is this insatiable unconscious pressure within us to eat, drink, make love, to make our mark, to go beyond ourselves, our desire for immortality?
This pressure we see in plants. I’ve read about a man who after buying a house wanted to get rid of a bamboo plant. So he cut it down, chopped deep into its roots, and then poured a poison on top of them. He then filled the hole with gravel, and then paved the area with cement. Two years later, the cement heaved and cracked as that bamboo plant broke its way through that cement. The life principle was not so easily snuffed out by axes poison or cement. 
Now I’m trying to get rid of my ground elder in the vicarage garden, I know how the guy felt.
The life push is felt by all living things, us included. All of nature is driven to eat, grow, breed and fight for its space. We see it in the hormonal drives in babies and teenagers. In adults we see it in our restlessness, in our greed for experience, our hunger for sex, our insatiability, and even our escapes into day dreams, alcohol and drugs.
We are forever that bamboo plant, blindly pushing outwards, the baby crying for milk.
For anyone that believes in the divine, the source of that incessant longing is that the earth is ablaze with the fire of God. This basic life principle, is experienced as a burning longing, 
What is it all for? Well from a theistic viewpoint, all this longing and desire is not really blind at all. We may experience them as blind pressure, driving our lives to eat its way through food, sex, friendship and creativity, but they are the primal Spirit of God  groaning and praying through us.
We are infinite Spirits trapped in finite bodies. We are built for consummation with everything and find only partial satisfaction.
The comedian Russell Brand, in one of his most serious interviews with Jeremy Paxman, having stunned Paxman already by saying that he believes in God and prays, then said something quite profound. He said that all desire was actually a desire for God.
We are finite beings who want to embrace the infinite to find completeness, peace, shalom, complete happiness – all the things that elude us in life that can only be found in the wholeness, the unity of God. This unconscious desire is for communion with all things, and all things subsist in God.
Where do we look for this God with whom we wish to commune? Well, where does your longing, your desire, your restlessness, your insatiable life principle come from?
In comes from within you doesn’t it?
And I have already affirmed that in our tradition that life principle is the Spirit of God – so to find this God you look within, the know yourself and in knowing yourself you come to know God the source of all your longings and desires.
Jesus knew it. He said. “The kingdom of God is within you”.
It is perceiving that we all of us, and not just us human beings, but all life has this same force within it that we find out what we have in common.   WE find out that we all share the same source and the same longings, the life principle has the same source so that is our link to all other things.
We are finite and located in a time and place, but the Spirit within us all is infinite and not bound by time or space. Believing in God means we take both of those realities seriously.  
Jesus took that realities seriously and lived his life in a manner that flowed from that. One of the commonest and earliest ways of describing Jesus is as “Fully man and fully god”.
In western Christianity we tend to reserve that exclusively for Jesus. Here the Eastern Christian church retains a fuller interpretation – that this description of Jesus is actually a description of the human condition. For the Orthodox, the goal of the Christian life is to become what we already are at heart, to become like God.  To realise our own human reality.  That we too have two realities, we are the finite, clumsy, inarticulate person with feet of clay that I see in the mirror every morning, and we are also an infinite Spirit yearning for unity with all things.

Jesus knew it. And Jesus is our exemplar and guide as to how knowing this reality will work in your life, how we channel and manage our drives, our yearnings and desires for good, how we attune ourselves to the Sprit so that as a human being we can flourish and bear fruit. 

Monday, 7 October 2013

No pushing in now!

To modern people the mere mention of slaves without any moral indignation whatsoever sounds strange to our ears, but they were such an omnipresent feature of life in the ancient world and Jesus always drew his examples from life to make them relevant and recognizable to his audience so they are included without embarrassment.
This is not to condone slavery of course. As I’ve said before, a parable usually just has one main point and the rest of the story is there to provide colour – to make the lesson memorable.
So what is the main lesson here in this parable? Last week’s parable was about how to treat the poor. This week’s parable because it is addressed to the apostles, when translated to a modern context might best be seen as a lesson to church leaders.  
Just because you work for the church and have achieved a high position within it, don’t think for a second that this entitles you to any special treatment, or special favours or preferment at my table. In a sense it is an extension of last week’s parable that reveals God as showing no partiality – and working against the grain of the world’s values.
In the world we live in, the normal thing, the normal expectation, is that position and power buys influence and preferential treatment. That’s how it works in the world. But the Kingdom of God turns these normal rules upside down. Position and power in the church might buy you some deference and respect from others here on earth, but not from God.
In your service of the faith, you are doing no more than is required of anyone – to love God and love your neighbour as yourself. That is simply what is required. In fact the same commitment is required from all followers of the way of Jesus no matter where we see ourselves in relation to the church. The same demands, the same responsibilities extend to all people who call themselves Christians, whether they be the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Pope, me, you, or anyone else sitting in church on a Sunday morning. If we identify in any way with the aims of the way of Jesus then the responsibilities are common to us all.
We talk often don’t we about the balance between rights and responsibilities in our society, mostly that the balance has been tilted too far in one direction. Nowadays it is said that everyone knows their rights but are unaware of their responsibilities.
In the church that balance is tilted in exactly the opposite direction. We all have the same responsibilities, and none of us have any absolute rights.   Certainly no right to preferential treatment. God is the God of all or no-one.
Which brings me to the first part of today’s reading that sees the apostles asking Jesus to give them faith, or to increase their faith. I have always had a bit of a problem with the word “faith”. I’ve never really been able to grasp exactly what it means. It has long since stopped being for me a list of beliefs, doctrines and creeds that I am required to believe in before I can qualify to call myself  a Christian. For me, faith has become synonymous with the word Trust. Do we trust that God, however we understand that concept, truly loves us? Do we trust that he wants the best for us – to flourish in our life – this gift of life that we have been given? Do we trust that God wants the best for us, and that in the way revealed by Jesus this is the way to achieve fulfilment? Do we trust that the way of love is the best way the God given way to approach life?
Well, sometimes on this measure my faith is strong, but also, quite often my faith can be weak. My levels of faith fluctuate, and I’m sure yours does as well.
Thankfully as a human being Jesus knew full well that this is the case, and he makes the point that with even a tiny bit of trust you can do amazing things. And to ram home the point he gives a deliberately ludicrous example.

Our faith, our trust might well be wavering, it may currently be strong or perhaps currently lost because of a personal trauma, but even then if you dare to step out with what little faith you can muster, as a co-creator with God you can do amazing things.      

Monday, 30 September 2013

If I were a rich man........

There is such a thing called the “prosperity gospel” which trades on the assumption that if and when you become a “real” Christian God will bless your life with money, possessions and good health.  These kind of churches flourish in the poorest parts of Africa, and have found a home in certain U.S. and British locations but you don’t need to delve too far under the surface of mainstream Christianity to discover variations on the same theme.
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus, if used as a parable of who goes to heaven or not (which I believe is a misuse of it) then it leterally means that those who are relatively rich in this life go to hell and only the poor and destitute go to heaven. Apart from being hopelessly dualistic, it is totally lacking in love and forgiveness.
Rather, the parable is about how comfort and wealth can provide a false sense of security and self-sufficiency in regards to our relationship to God and other people, and can blinker us to suffering, and lead us to treat others as lesser beings if they are not as rich or successful as us.
It is, like all parables a parable about how to approach life and our relationships with others. Usually a parable has just one main thrust with other details providing colour. They are lessons in how to walk the way of Jesus.
The lessons are simple yet profound.
Don’t let your good fortune and prosperity lead you to believe that you are more favoured in God’s eyes because you are not – God has an equal concern for all of his children.
There is also an associated  lesson on actually “seeing” the poor and distressed. Lazarus begged at the gate of the rich man and had probably done so for years so he would have been aware of his existence I’m sure, but he never really “saw” him.  He never connected with him or was interested in his life or condition. The first time he really acknowledged his existence was when Lazarus was standing next to Abraham after death, and his first response was to use him as a servant to do his bidding to alleviate his own suffering. Or if not that, then as a messenger to warn his five brothers against acting in the same way that he had.
But Abraham reminds him that the Bible is chock full of instructions  and warnings about treatment of the poor in society and exploitation, and if you don’t take any notice of those why would you take any more notice even if someone came back from the dead? A prophetic statement if ever there was one.
Perhaps the most damaging spiritual consequence of wealth is that it can blind us to real need, we feel cocooned and self sufficient and specially blessed, and so therefore superior to others.  We acquire a sense of entitlement, and feel really affronted when our every whim isn’t attended to immediately.
The reality that Jesus wants to confront us with and be challenged by is that no man is an island. Wealth cannot shield us forever, and we will all succumb to the ravages of age, illness and that great leveller death.
Death doesn’t care how much money you have, or where you live, or what you do. Death treats everyone as an equal.

It is good to ruminate on why Jesus told this parable? What do you think he was trying to achieve, and probably most importantly how did he think that by telling it we might change our attitude and way of living because of him having told it? The ball, as ever, is in our court.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Get yourself a backbone!

The gospel passage today if taken literally reads like this;
You must hate your family, be prepared to fight the authorities even if you are executed in the process , oh yes, and just for good measure give away all your possessions as well, if you want to be a true disciple of Jesus.
If ever there was a candidate passage needed as evidence that we cannot use the Bible in isolation, uninterpreted, then this one would rank highly. All those Christians who say that they follow the plain meaning of the text – well  let’s just say that not many are usually poor in my experience.
On a philiosophical, historical and theological point, the church did not originally form around the Bible, the New Testament did not exist for 300 years after Jesus died, the church coalesced around an experience of the Spirit of a person that led them to live their lives in a certain way. In short, the church wrote the New Testament, not the other way around.
And all things however benign and helpful can be misused. The Bible, like Bishops and the creeds were devices eventually used by the Roman state to forcibly impose order on a nationalised church.
There are also cultural differences.  Jesus was a Jew and that Semitic forms of speech are much harsher than we would use and we have a problem as to how to translate these hard sayings into an understandable and realistic form for today.  
The very heart of this text, given all that I’ve just said is that following Jesus is not a soft option. It demands dedication and not a little bloody mindedness, strength and courage – in fact traits that have always been thought of as more masculine traits (traits obviously not limited to men of course) Traits that many would say that have been eclipsed in mainstream Christianity as the church has become feminised over the centuries to the point where it is a real turn off to many ordinary men. As in everything there has to be a balance.
I often relay the story that when I announced that I had become a Christian in the warehouse where I worked at the time, some friends did inquire privately if I’d turned gay. They weren’t being nasty – it is just that this is how they perceived the church. That is another issue for another day.
The point today is that following the Jesus way is hard, and the costs may be great. And Jesus advises us to count the cost with a sober realism. He is being sensible and pragmatic. There may in our comfortable surrounding be much less of a cost that in Jesus’ time, but don’t assume so.
The costs today are very different to the costs in first century Palestine. In Britain we don’t run the risk of being crucified for being enemies of the state. Our cross is more likely to be things loss of profit because we refuse to exploit people, loss of friends because we refuse to exclude people, a certain ridicule in the media or more hurtful from our friends. The cost may be being thought gay by your workmates, an uncool goody two shoes by your peers at school when you refuse to be railroaded into shoplifting, drink or drugs or promiscuity.
Peer pressure is one of the strongest pressures there is, and young people in particular are desperate to fit in (and more to the point - not to be excluded and bullied) leads young people especially, to try and dress the same, speak the same, act the same. For any of them to break ranks and say something as currently uncool as “I am a Christian”, or more simply “I go to church” can be a harrowing experience that takes enormous courage and there can be costs.
Jesus says, be aware of those costs. Can you bear them? If not, I suggest you think twice. As we mature and grow, we become less vulnerable to these pressures and more confident, but even adults can feel very self-conscious and a little embarrassed about saying where they stand – that they are a Christian, and they go to church.
I return then to the qualities of mental strength and courage. A certain Assertiveness and confidence is nowadays needed in the face of a strident atheism. We need to be more determined not to be seen or used as a doormat – a determination to fight back when criticised or challenged. A chance to man-up and show some backbone.
I am going to end with a verse of a poem written by the envangelical humourist Adrian Plass. In it a man is giving all sorts of excuses for not choosing to commit to the faith and in the last verse he says what he has probably been scared of all along – that it is not a manly thing to do. I have always thought these lines were quite magnificent.
I’m very sorry Lord, I said, I’d like to follow you,
But I don’t think religion is a very manly thing to do,
He said forget religion then, and think about my son,
And tell me if you’re man enough to do what he has done.
Are you man enough to see the need and man enough to go,
Man enough to care for those who no one wants to know,
Man enough to say the things that people hate to hear, to battle through Gethsemene in loneliness and fear.
And listen! Are you man enough to stand it at the end, the moment of betrayal by the kisses of a friend,
Are you man enough to hold your tongue, and man enough to cry, when nails break your body – are you man enough to die?
Man enough to take the pain and wear it like a crown, man enough to love the world and turn it upside down.
Are you man enough to follow me, I ask you once again, I said. Oh Lord I’m frightened, but I also said Amen.  


Monday, 2 September 2013

Self awareness.

I looked up humility in the dictionary and the first definition was “to be aware of our failings” and the second one was “unpretentious”.
In the general confession and absolution every Sunday we are encouraged to be aware of our failings - to recognise where we fall short. So we are constantly being asked to be self aware, to know ourselves, to know our strengths and weaknesses – not in order to be punished for them but to name them, to confess them. Once our failings have been consciously identified we then at least have a chance to resolve to improve the way we are.
If we think we are perfect just the way we are then we live in a state of denial and will never move forward – unless like me, you really are perfect of course!
The inherent danger is that this constant confession and acknowledgement of our faults can descend into self-flagellation and guilt with the result that we have an irretrievably negative view of ourselves. This is a result that developed in certain areas of classical Western  Christianity that sees us all as evil and forever grovelling on the floor. It is about balance. A much healthier Eastern Christian view is that we are certainly all flawed but not irredeemably evil. We are after all, made in the image of God are we not, according to Genesis. We are made in his image and strive to be in his likeness as well, but know we fail often.
As a dinner guest Jesus it seems was a bit of a nightmare, hauling his host and fellow guests over the coals, deriding their own sense of worth and position in life relative to the other guests, when they all chose to sit in “places of honour” whatever they were.
But Jesus says, rather than assume they are the most honoured guests, they should assume the opposite and wait to be invited to the best seats.
It can’t be emphasised enough that the meal or banquet is in Jewish and Christian imagery a metaphor, a picture of the Kingdom of God, often a picture of heaven itself with God as the host.
This is the same for our Sunday Eucharist – which is a meal of bread and wine where the host is God.
The values that Jesus extols in his parable today hold true for us as well. There is no dinner guest here today intrinsically closer to God than anyone else. All are welcome and if approached with a certain self knowledge, a little humility, God will reach out and invite you close to him. “Friend, move up higher” as it says in the parable.
The parable turns the social status quo upside down – because all those who are generally intrinsically humble, because they have their shortcomings  made clear by society all the time characterised in the parable “as the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind”. Jesus says they will be accepted and exalted. Whereas the rich and self-confident and those with a higher opinion of themselves will need to be taken down a peg or two.
Jesus notes how when we give parties we generally only invite who we consider our social equals who share our values and worldview. In our everyday lives I suggest that will always be the case.  But in church, at our weekly dinner party, we strive to make this a welcoming place for all, regardless of their social background, education, or wealth.
In acknowledging that we all have shortcomings of one kind or another, the playing field is levelled. From a divine perspective I am no better than you who is no better than you who is no better than you.  From a divine perspective we are no worse than each other either.   

We are assured that when we approach the ritual where we act out the indwelling of the divine and share the bread and wine, no-one is excluded.  All are welcome at the banquet of the Kingdom unless we exclude ourselves. At this banquet we are all on an equal footing – blessed though flawed, and loved. 

Monday, 26 August 2013

Seeing the wood from the trees.

In the gospels a healing miracle can be inserted to achieve a number of different goals.  Sometimes their function is highlight the presence of faith – sometimes the sovereign power of God regardless of personal faith, and sometimes they act as a way of introducing controversy with the religious authorities. Always they point to a more than just physical healing – the physical healing is an outward sign of a greater healing – which is three fold. The fundamental healing of any perceived rift between yourself and God, and based on that fundamental and most important healing follows the healing of the divisions between yourself and your neighbour and the healing of any internal divisions, so that you are at peace with yourself. All of these different aspects of healing are covered by the Hebrew word “Shalom”.  
In today’s offering from Luke, the primary reason for the miracle is to precipitate the dispute between Jesus and the leader of the Synagogue. The title “leader of the Synogogue” was like the office of our church warden today. The leader of the Synagogue managed and regulated the life of the Synagogue and kept order etc.
What this dispute highlights is the primacy of the current work of the Spirit which overrides even the written law. The leader of the Synagogue was holding so tightly to the written tradition, in particular the fourth commandment to “do no work on the Sabbath day”. Jesus was highlighting how these laws, not just this particular one can be so strictly enforced as to render them ridiculous.
The extent of how ridiculous they could get is brought alive in the healing of the crippled woman where Jesus doing this was deemed to be “work” which was clearly banned on the Sabbath day in the mind of the Synagogue leader. Jesus is saying, which is most important, the following of a written law which points to a greater purpose or that greater purpose itself actually demonstrated in front of your very eyes.
In concentrating on the law the Synagogue leader was in effect worshipping a signpost to God rather that God himself.
The greatest and highest purpose of the monotheistic faiths is that we should be at one with God. The root of the word “salvation” itself is “salve” to heal. And the goal of the cross, however you understand it is “atonement”” which means to be made one with God. When we perceive and realise this salvation or atonement the result is a restoration and it is felt as a holistic peace – shalom.
How this works out in our lives in a lifelong journey of discovery. As St. Paul writes in Philippians 2:12, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling for God is at work in you”
So salvation or atonement, is not the end product, it is the beginning of how you work out, how you live your life in accordance with this truth that you now own.  
Another way of putting it is that salvation is not something after which we have to work or grasp after, it is the very ground on which we stand.  As it is the ground on which we stand, all else, good deeds, virtue, the fruits of the Spirit flow out of us as we stand in God’s grace.
The log jam for most Christians is that we find it very hard to recognise our oneness, we find it hard is practice to know that we are infinitely loved. – so we live as strangers to God most of the time.
The aim of all spiritual practices, coming to church, praying, meditating, doing good deeds, is not to try and achieve some higher goal that always lies just out of reach, but to realise what we already have as a divine gift. Salvation is already ours, atonement is ours, shalom is ours, if we could only believe that. Spiritual practices are the art of mining our deepest selves and discovering what was there all along, but hidden – “veiled from our eyes” to use an O.T. phrase.

The invitation this morning is to discover what we already possess  - and allow the Spirit to work through the words, the actions, the hymns, to shine a light inside you to discover and learn to know yourself – your true self in relation to God.  

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Keeping it real.

There are many tensions involved in having a religious perspective on life. We have to hold many different things in a dynamic tension.
The fact that all is one and creation – including us of course - is all of a piece has to be held in tension with the fact that we are individuals with an independent will and ego.
The belief that God is omnipresent – is through all and in all - has to be held in tension with the fact that in our everyday existence God can feelsvery far off.
For a Christian the invitation to know what God is like through following the example of Jesus has to be held in tension with the prior contention that fundamentally, God is unknowable.
Jesus in his teaching this morning notes correctly that his message of peace and goodwill to all men will paradoxically bring not peace but discord and family breakdown.  He is not saying for one second that this is the purpose of his coming but that it will be the natural and realistic result of his teaching, as some will want to follow and some will not.
Contained within the teaching is another great tension that Christians have to deal with.
Our Christian contention that we are all one massive family sharing the one heavenly father and mother has to be held in tension with our social need for loyalty and support for/from our biological human families.
This tension has always been there.
On the first point, it is true that in any Christian congregation there will be people whose partner sits resolutely at home while the other half comes to church. This is a tricky area and has to be carefully negotiated with the other partner. The issue is usually one of time – and the church like any organisation can be quite a draw on our time.
On the issue of our tension between being part of a biological human family and at the same time all being children in the one big human family that Christianity teaches one has to balance priorities.
How I work out that tension is like this. For societies to not just function but to flourish, I am convinced that we need strong families. Strong families provide the framework for us all to be supported and loved especially children of course.  What form that family takes has been under the microscope and has been changing since at least the 1960’s. I am more than aware of all the changes in attitudes that have taken place.
I accept that as you get older you don’t necessarily get any wiser but I have become more sure over the years that the traditional form of marriage has a primary and very important place in society.
Part of the preface to the marriage ceremony that I say at every wedding is that
“Marriage is a sign of unity and loyalty which all should uphold and honour. It enriches society and strengthens community”.  Marriage in the Christian view enriches society and strengthens community.
Pragmatically the family also provides a strong bulwark and safe space for children to be nurtured. This allied to the complementary natures and gifts of a man and woman, we have in my view the best formula I know of for a healthy society.
How does that rest though with Jesus’ teaching on the primary calling to be children of the one heavenly father?
Well the Church of England has always had the reputation of being a pragmatic and realistic church. Too pragmatic and too realistic for many of the other more purist expressions and  denominations of Christians of course.
It is about boundaries I think. Often, families can put an iron barricade around the family – people are either very definitely in or definitely out. Love, support and nurture are reserved exclusively for immediate family to the exclusion of others.
I think a pragmatic Christian response is to soften those boundaries – to change it from being a barrier to a semi-permeable membrane that allows a freer flow of love and support.
It is an expanding of family values rather than a shrinking of them. It is extending all those strengths we associate with our family ties like loyalty, mutual love and support and extending them to others beyond our immediate horizons.
Just as we are called to love others as ourselves so we are called to love the extended family as we love our own. Love here is of course not the pink and fluffy western notion of romantic love, but gritty and realistic support and nurture - even when it is inconvenient – the sort of support that we normally reserve for family members. Going the extra mile for others, not just our own.
More generally, the application of any faith tradition to inform our actual lives is always a matter of negotiation and degree.
The extreme violence in Egypt is actually between varying intensities of Islam - Muslims who have a very different interpretation of how far Islam is to be a part of national life.  Different interpretations in that religious family has led to civil war with the poor Christians caught in the crossfire.
I know that often the church of England is derided as being soft and wishy washy on Christian doctrine and morals but actually I would say we are being true to real life – the world as it actually is.
I think we are unique in the Christian world in that we don’t solely take the Bible as our way of doing theology, nor do we take just tradition as our way of doing theology or even both together, we famously add another ingredient – reason or experience. We hold the Bible, tradition and reason together in a dynamic tension when we deliberate on the way forward. This three legged stool  is our gift to the Christian debate. We respect the Bible and its input, we respect church tradition and its input but we also respect common sense and reason our own lived experience and we let each inform the other and hope the Holy Spirit prompts us to apply the faith in a realistic way..

 It is hard to accommodate religious absolutes onto actual life but all religion is inculturated and we are a specifically English form of the Christian faith and long may it continue. We are at our best, a quiet, reasonable, sometimes contradictory (like life) church trying to find a path through the moral maze of life, helping people to negotiate and integrate faith and life.  

Monday, 12 August 2013

How is Christ made present in the world?

In Luke the “treasure” he speaks of is the Kingdom of God and is reminiscent of a parable in Matthew when he writes “The Kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field” (Matthew 13:44).
Note: Matthew, being more “Jewish” than the other gospel writers always substitutes the word “heaven” for” God” because traditionally “God” is too holy to us, but the meaning is the samee.
Kingdoms of this that or the other really tell us where final authority rests. So if you are a conscious subject of the Kingdom of God – this is a way of saying that you acknowledge the authority of God in your life so it is incumbent upon you, as a willing part of that kingdom that you will follow and act in accordance with God’s will and character.
What is God’s will and character and how should we act? Well of course in Christianity we say that God’s way of doing things and character has been revealed and modelled by Jesus, in what he did and the way he did it. Following the way of life modelled by Jesus is therefore the same thing as being a part of the Kingdom of God.
That way of life of self sacrifice, forgiveness and compassion has been modelled by other religious figures I’m sure but we are culturally Christian so Jesus is our model of how to live in the light of a close relationship with God. That is my definition of what it is to be a Christian.
We follow as best we can with varying levels of success, and when we see our failures we ask for forgiveness and carry on.
Being ready, alert, watchful etc which comes up a fair deal in the gospels is expressed again in our parable today.  Keeping the light of God burning in our lives through prayer and good deeds despite all that assails us is the task at hand, because if we relax – thieves can break in and steal our treasure away. In real terms this means we will backtrack and become again more self serving because we will replace God at the centre of our lives with something else – usually our own ego, or power or possessions.
Passages like this one have also traditionally been associated by the church as exhortations to keep the faith while we waited for the second coming of Jesus – a second coming, the final judgement and the end of the world usually understood in starkly literal terms.  Historically when the “second coming” did not happen the idea of the presence* of Jesus with his people was sublimated into the Eucharist – he was with us – truly present - that way.
*Note: The phrase “second coming” is not Biblical and is simply an English extrapolation. The Greek word is “Parousia” and means “Presence”. The theology of presence is very close to my heart
Later on, that view has developed and conflated so whenever the Spirit of God is present and acted on in our lives we can say that Jesus is present. When we emulate the Jesus way it is as if Jesus himself were doing it. Jesus becomes present – he returns – when we act like Jesus. We become Christ for the other person.
So it is circular. When we acknowledge God as our Father and act in his Spirit, as Jesus did, we become Christ, and God’s presence and character are revealed and made known. The Kingdom of God has come near. Christian acts or deeds are the oil in our lamps, keeping the light of God shining in the world. With no good deeds, with no oil, the lamp goes out.
And just to be clear – doing good does not buy anything from God. Doing good doesn’t make anyone more loved or move anyone further up any sort of pecking order. Instead, doing good is a natural outflowing from within, flowing out of a knowledge of God’s love and presence within us.
When we talk of building the kingdom of God, or as in that famous hymn, building Jerusalem in this green and pleasant land we want people to acknowledge the fruits of the Kingdom but also to acknowledge the source of the fruitfulness.  The two must go hand in hand I’m sure.
My training vicar in Margate always used to say. We are only called to the faithful not successful. But what does faithful really mean? When I read the New Testament what I see is a call to bear fruit. It’s a call to change and transform. That for me is what being faithful really means.  

Following the way of Jesus – doing what he might have done – we make Christ present in the world.

Monday, 5 August 2013

Wake up and smell the coffee!

The truth of the parable in Luke – that life hangs by a thread and death is only ever a heart beat away is brought home to us massively by tragedies like the train crash in Santiago and the coach crash in Italy.
Yes, we do know that 100,000 people have been killed in Syria and that scores of people will die of malnutrition and disease today, but the truth is they don’t have the same effect on us as those first two tragedies.
In this country we are not in a civil war and we generally all have enough to eat, and so it is the very ordinariness and familiarity of the two situations that makes it more real to us. We all take trains, we all ride on coaches. The lives that the Spanish and Italian passengers led were far more recognisably like our own.
That could have been us.  It could have been our mother, father, sister, brother, husband, wife or friend who said good bye that morning, closed the door behind them, never to return ever again.
When we are brought face to face with our own mortality in such an abrupt way, it can cause us to take stock of our life, determine what is and is not important, and try to amend our lives accordingly. At least for a while, until the shock wears off and we drift back to how we were living our life before.
In the parable Jesus told, the rich man is still planning his business expansion right up until the day he dies suddenly – leaving all his wealth and money behind.
Now what this parable is not, is any dig at wealth creation itself, a good and necessary thing for societies to grow and flourish. It is a parable that seeks to alert us to what is important in our life. Money in itself is neither good nor evil – it is neutral – simply a means of exchange.
But when money, and the amassing of more and more of it becomes your overriding passion, Jesus says your life and soul suffers. Your life of your family and friends and your own internal peace and well being can be eclipsed by the single minded pursuit of wealth.
My whole understanding of Christianity is that it is primarily concerned with this life. Our lives are written against an infinite horizon, but that is the backdrop to this life, in this form, in this time. The good news of Christianity is primarily one based in a close personal relationship with the divine – a divine entity that is nurturing and wills our flowering and flourishing in this life – to enable us to live this life more fully.  So when death does come like a thief in the night we leave with no regrets and knowing we have lived this life as it was given to us – as a gift.
No-one asks to be born. We are given our lives and the best way to live it, is gratefully, as a gift that has been given freely to us.  Life is the gift that keeps on giving. There is so much in life to discover and explore – people places, experiences but also our own selves. Each human being is absolutely unique. There has been no one like us before and there will be no one like us ever. This is an extravagantly life filled universe of which we are an integral, irreplaceable part. Whatever hand life has dealt us, we can only live it as best and fully as we can.
This entails in part something I have mentioned before - Living life in the present moment. Most of us most of the time live distracted restless lives always wishing they were somewhere else, with someone else, in a different situation. We don’t appreciate what we have. We don’t savour it enough – we take it all for granted and ignore it.
The antidote to this way of living that deadens us you can find in all of the world’s great religions. The Buddhists call it mindfulness. In the New Testament Jesus calls it watchfulness.
St Paul wrote “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2)
Jesus is the example presented to us of someone who had a renewed mind and sucked every ounce of life out of every minute. To imitate Christ  - in Biblical language to “put on Christ”  which might lead us to bear fruit in accordance with the renewing of our mind – is our spiritual task.
That, as far as I can see is the whole mission of the church, the only reason for its existence is to renew our lives and through us, as salt and light to renew or transform the world. In its truest sense Christianity should be life enhancing and life giving or it is of no use at all.
The invitation to be watchful – or aware – appears across the New Testament. The practices involve fostering a deeper awareness of the world around us and the world within us.
This is what new life is all about. It is about waking up from our sleep and becoming more conscious to more fully appreciate the life we already have. To build this appreciation into our lives takes  self discipline and spiritual practice.
And rather than just talk about it we will now observe a simple three minute exercise in stillness and awareness. Everything here is completely natural; no effort is required. If you feel yourself straining at any time just try and relax and let go.
Sit up straight, feet on the ground and your hands resting on your knees. Be comfortable, relaxed yet alert.
Connect to your senses and be open to anything and everything without judgement.  Truly be present in this place. Let your eyes roam. Look around. See things, notice them, people,  things, colours and contours. See the beauty and complexity of this place around you in which you are a part. Connect with any sounds – the sound of my voice, the person shuffling near you, someone shouting at their dog outside.  Notice how your body feels, notice how your back and bottom are touching the pew, notice the pressure points. Be aware of your thoughts and feelings as they pass through your mind – whether good or bad – let them just pass through. The sum of yourself is much greater than your thoughts and feelings.
Now in this state of awareness notice your breathing. Don’t try to alter it, just be very aware of it. Breathing in and out as you have done from the moment of your birth as yourwill do till the moment of your death. Breath in Hebrew is the same word as Spirit. Ruach. As you breath in and out imagine you are breathing in God’s Spirit and it is enlivening you and feeding you.  It is actually thought that the Hebrew words for God – I AM – Yahweh - pure consciousness or pure being is taken from the sound of the breath that sustains our life. Yah Weh Yah weh. See, feel, notice, breathe, rest in God be aware and hold this for another minute.....................................


Monday, 29 July 2013

The Lord's prayer

The gospel reading today centres on prayer – and not the set liturgical prayers for a Sunday morning but our personal prayer life.
Very personal as we are encouraged to address ultimate reality, as Father. I think it is always right at this point to say that this term can be as much a hindrance as a help, but the point here is that God is close and connected. God is family.
Within the Godhead itself, the divine has attributes to which we can ascribe male and female characteristics for sure, but the point here is closeness and a bond that cannot be broken. Many families can be described as dysfunctional but nothing can ever alter the fact that your mother and Father are always going to be your mother and father. It is a given – you are forever connected to God your Father.
What follows is Luke’s very short version of the Lord’s prayer that I feel I’m on pretty safe ground in saying nobody uses any more, if they ever did, all preferring the longer version in Matthew – which is the version we use in our services with another ending to that one as well taken from another very early Christian source called the Didache.
But the form of words is unimportant in many ways.
The essence of the Lord’s prayer , in whatever form it takes, is to affirm the nearness of God, to ascribe due worth to God’s essence and character, and to ask that the qualities and character of God be embedded in the world.....starting with us
In the Christian tradition we ascribe to God the qualities of Grace, mercy and forgiveness leading to wholeness, the ability to create and re-create – to metaphorically bring life out of death in any given situation. Resurrection is not so much a once for all historical event, it is the stuff of life that results in hope that even in our darkest hours, even out of death itself, something good can and will emerge if we keep faith.
These are the qualities of the kingdom that we are praying will come. 
We pray for our basic human needs – our daily bread. We are real life human beings and need the basic stuff of life - Food, water, shelter.  Without these, nothing else much matters. Everything else pales into insignificance.
Knowing how leaden footed and how far from perfection we are we pray for forgiveness for all the times and situations we could have done better and contributed to the common good instead of making the world a poorer place through our words and actions.
Mindful of how easily led we are, compromised humans with feet of clay, we even pray that that we’ll be guided away from all temptations to be self serving and selfish rather than a God centred approach to living. It is a difficult road in a complex life. No better example of the complexity of modern life is the example that Archbishop Justin Welby’s foray into the world of finance provided.  A just and well meaning determination to give the poor a better deal, compromised the very next day by revelations that the church indirectly funds Wonga.com. That is just a temporary embarrassment that will be addressed, but you see just how complex and compromised both the church as an institution and us as individuals can be. We have to live “in” the world and negotiating a path that does justice to our principles while having to survive and thrive is a tricky and complex one – which is why we need to keep returning to God in prayer.  
What follows this example of how to pray in Luke are two little parables.
The first one, we can call it the persistent friend or the churlish householder has always perplexed me. It surely doesn’t mean you can twist God’s arm through persistent nagging does it, because as Matthew has Jesus say in his prelude to his version of the Lord’s prayer.
“And in praying do not heap up empty phrases like the Gentiles do; for they think they will be heard for their many words”    
Both parables seem want to engender faith that their prayers will be answered.
And here we enter a very difficult area. We all of us have seen so much unjust suffering and death in our lives, so much hurt and failure that to say that all our prayers will be answered sems very glib indeed.
I am not going to open up the can of worms that asks whether it is possible or even desirable that God can intervene to change a situation or third party because we ask for it.
But I will say that the primary reason we pray at all is that we are communing with God, simply resting in his presence and trusting despite many signs to the contrary in the end “All will be well, and all manner of things will be well”.
But of course a close second is that we praying for something to change. We are praying for a situation to be transformed. I will say this; the primary objet of that change has to be the person or people doing the praying. The change we are looking for in the world must start with us, the individuals doing the praying.
If you pray for a famine in Africa, does that mean that God will answer it by making crops grow in answer to our prayers.  Perhaps but I say that if the effect of the prayer is to change and motivate the people doing the praying to physically and pragmatically get involved to contribute to aid programmes, to fight corruption in these countries and change the world’s attitude to trade then that prayer has been answered. God works through us – in cooperation with us.
Both my sister and brother have cancer. Do I think that praying for them constantly will twist God’s arm to cure them? I might want that to be the case with all my heart, but actually I hope that God will work through the surgeons and consultants and perhaps motivate me to phone them more often and at least let them know that someone else cares and is with them and make me more aware and compassionate than I have been before, then the prayer is active and working. It is transforming us more into the likeness of God – more compassionate and loving.
Transformation is the key. Challenging us to walk in the light and avoid the shadows.  Prayer keeps us on the path or at least reminds us that the path exists and where we should be walking even when we aren’t. 

Personal prayer is the key to transforming the world – starting with yourself. Jesus encourages us to do it often and in trust.