Monday, 27 January 2014

Go preach the gospel

In this season of revelation known as Epiphany we have heard of the surpassing nature of the religious experience that propelled Jesus into ministry, and John’s proclamation that Jesus’ life would reveal God’s purpose for humanity, a liberator of the human spirit – the lamb of God – and now we come to the crux of Jesus’ preaching.
If you were alive in 1st century Palestine and had gone out to hear Jesus preach what would have been the core message?
Well we know pretty well from the gospels that his core message was recorded as this;
“Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”  That was the “good news” that Jesus had for the world.
As an observant Jew sensitive to Jewish readers Matthew shied away from using the word God – Yah weh – and used the word heaven instead of God but “kingdom of heaven” and “kingdom of God” are interchangeable.   
That phrase is the “Good news”. This is the gospel of the Lord!  This is made more explicit in Mark’s gospel where it is written “that Jesus preached the gospel of God, and saying “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel”.
Indeed, later on in Matthew’s gospel when Jesus sent the twelve disciples out to preach he gave them this instruction “And preach as you go, saying “The kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 10:7). The apostolic message was to be, and still is the same. If we are to remain true to the Jesus revelation we must get to grips with and understand this message that was central to Jesus and to his whole movement.
The main claim then is that the kingdom of God “has come near” (NRSV) or “is at hand”(AV),  or “is close at hand” (New Jerusalem) or “is upon you” (New English).
To discern what all of these things mean we have to use joined up thinking and peruse the whole Biblical record. Of particular interest here is Luke 17: 21 where this exchange of views is recorded.
“Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, he answered them “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed nor will they say “Lo, here it is” or “there” for behold the kingdom of God is in the midst of you”. Or in other translations “The kingdom of God is within you”.
If you put this together with Jesus’ insistence that you must be born again by the Spirit of God in John 3 where Jesus tells Nicodemus “You cannot see the kingdom of God unless you are born again” which refers back to Jesus’ own revelation at his baptism we edge closer and closer to the core message of Jesus which is this;
God the Father is close, upon you, in you. You are his child. Therefore repent.
My favourite concept in the Bible, because the word translated “repent” is that wonderful word “Metanoia”. This word has been called by some theologians the “greatest word or concept in the entire Bible and the essence of Christianity. It has also been called, and I quote “the most extraordinary mistranslation”.
Because repentence, i.e being sorry for our sins” as we understand the word, is absolutely not what Metanoia means. Metanoia means a change of heart, a going beyond your mind and seeing the world through different eyes.
The mistranslation of metanoia as repentance began in the 2nd century when the Greek (metanoeĊ) was mistakenly translated into the Latin as poenitentiam agite, which does indeed carry the meaning of being sorry for our sins
In biblical Greek,  metanoia expresses that mighty change in mind, heart, and life wrought by the Spirit of God.
Biblical scholars say that, in Metanoia, there is none of the sorrow or regret contained in the English words repentance and repent.  Repentance denotes “sorrow for what one has done or omitted to do; especially, contrition for sin.” Repent primarily means “to review one's actions and feel contrition or regret for something one has done or omitted to do”  In fact Tertullian, the great 2nd century Father of the church protested the mistranslation stating even then that “In Greek, Metanoia is not a confession of sins but a change of mind”, but the mistranslation persists to this day subtly changing the entire focus of Christianity away from Joy and towards contrition.
This transformation of the heart  is what happened to Jesus at his baptism and that same transformation of the heart is what Jesus wants for us.
To be able to see the divine within life rather than apart from life, to see the world ablaze, glowing with the glory of God, and have our heart turned and perception changed by this revelation of God the Father’s unconditional love and forgiveness. Why?  To exact a change in our quality of life which will bear fruit in our actions. This is the core of Christianity and everything within our religion flows from that core. Know that you are loved forgiven, accepted and safe in this life that is eternal. This is the message of Jesus.

This IS the gospel of the Lord.    

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Behold the lamb of God

We are in the season of Epiphany – revelation – and the main revelation of this week’s gospel is this;
John the Baptist is standing with two of his disciples and says “Look, here is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”.
There are many different ways to interpret the sacrifice of Jesus and the “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” is one of the most enduring.  The Agnus Dei is still a part of our modern Eucharistic service.
Identifying Jesus as the Passover lamb that the Jews slaughter at Passover is ancient and made explicit by St. Paul in his letter to the Corinthians where he says “Christ, our Passover lamb has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7)
It is Important to recognise here that oddly the Passover lamb did not actually take away sin in the Jewish ritual scheme of things. If you remember the story from the Old Testament the significance lay in that the blood was smeared on the doorposts which steered God away from the Jews only killing Egyptians and averting death from the children of Israel that led to their release from captivity. The observance of Passover then is a rite of liberation – it commemorates and remembers the deliverance of the Jewish people from oppression.  
As an annual ritual commemorating liberation then it renews the community freeing them from evil to serve God. This is the background to the phrase “lamb of God”
The most natural way to read John the Baptist’s observation then is not that Jesus’ death was an appeasement for sin to an angry God that demands recompense ( a common enough interpretation) but something much more nuanced and richer. It implies that Jesus’ death , and more importantly the offering of his entire life (his blood) will be a means of liberating the whole world from sin, not just one people – the Jews.
Jesus is not the appeaser of an angry God that saves a few select people through faith. God liberates everyone through the life of Jesus, because that life is a true sacrifice, an offering of love, devotion and obedience. Metaphorically speaking, Jesus’ blood is the blood smeared on every doorpost in the world symbolising the liberation from bondage of the entire human race.
Sacrifice has three main components in the Bible. First they are offerings of love and devotion. Secondly they are a means of celebrating restoration of fellowship with God (atonement) requiring repentance and faith, and thirdly sacrifice is the passover liberation of the world from evil. 
A truly biblical understanding of the sacrifice of Jesus includes all three components. Jesus, as fully transparent to God  becomes a vehicle for revealing God’s will – and God wills the liberation of the whole world from Sin.
Ad what is Sin? Sin is separation from God in its purest sense. Sins in the sense of wrongdoing or evil is what results from separation from God.    

What is revealed  to John the Baptist here is that Jesus is a vehicle that reveals  God’s will for the world and God’s will for the world is that we know that through Jesus we are set free from all that binds us and not separate from God. We are not estranged orphans we are children of a living God. Our Sunday Eucharist is our weekly Passover reminder of these things. 

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

The truth will set you free.

What is a blessing?
The clue comes to us in the Latin root of the word which is Bene Dicere – to speak well of you. To be blessed by God is to hear and know that in God’s sight you are loved, affirmed, cherished.
In knowing we are loved we know security and warmth, comfort and in knowing and accepting this blessing we have the freedom and courage to simply be ourselves within the security that comes from being loved to go and live fully.
As recipients of God’s love, people who know God’s blessing – because we are an incarnational, enfleshed religion – not just a religion of words and ideas but a religion of action – our response will be as far as we are able to be a blessing to others – to pass that blessing on – to our biological families and the greater family of the church, and to all humanity. To affirm, to encourage, to accept, to take delight in someone is a non-exploitative way for who they are and what they do.
But the reality is that for all too many people, they have lived their entire lives unblessed. They have never heard or experienced anyone ever taking a pure delight in them just for who they are. They hear it neither from others or from God. When they do, they are transformed. – they are set free to be themselves, because love is transformative. As John says in his gospel  “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free”
For me the greatest sadness of all is that many Christians themselves remain unblessed and therefore unable to know and accept God’s love and unable to pass it on either. Religion for them is an intellectual affair, simply a series of doctrines and creeds to be believed.
On the day of his baptism – Jesus heard these words of blessing that transformed his life and started his ministry to be a blessing to others.
“You are my son, the beloved. With you I am well pleased”.
This blessing is not reserved for one man in one time and one place. To hear and know this blessing – to know that it applies to you is the beating heart of the Christian faith. Christianity would never have happened without it. To hear these words spoken to you and know they are meant for you is the whole meaning of the phrase “born again”. Jesus himself was re-born that day and says to us as he said to Nicodemus – “You must be born again”. That terribly misused phrase, hijacked by fundamentalist literalists, is meant for us all. It is normative for being a Christian. It means hearing those words and knowing they are meant for you. A direct blessing from God to you.
At the end of every service I pronounce God’s blessing on all people present, but one of my greatest fears is that the words just fall on stony ground.
Why am I an ordained priest at all? What is my function? Thinking about this deeply I suggest that my whole ministry and any priest’s ministry is an exercise in passing on what Jesus knew and making sure that you know that you are all children of God. That you are loved, you are secure, you are free.
Close your eyes and hear these words of God spoken to you directly and clasp them close to your heart and let them transform you.    
Whoever you are, hear these words of God directly to your heart. “You are my child, the beloved, with you I am well pleased”
“You are my child the beloved, with you I am well pleased”.
Hold these words close to you, remember them, know them to be true, and like Jesus, you now know the truth and you can let the truth set you free.  

Know you are blessed so that you can be a blessing to others.