Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Jesus saves!

The  parable of the sheep and the goats is about salvation but let’s backtrack a little and start at the beginning.
 First of all God wants us to be sure of one thing as Christians. There is life after death. Ours is a resurrection faith, based on the fact that God raised Jesus to a new transformed mode of existence. Jesus, when debating life after death with people who did not believe in it said “You are quite wrong, you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God”
Secondly  We also know that we are all sinful to some degree and need to repent of our sins and if we do then we are absolutely  assured of forgiveness. Of this fact a Christian should be secure. We believe in a merciful and forgiving God.
Thirdly, regarding the wider purposes of God We also know (Ezekiel 18:23 & 27) that God desireth not the death of any wicked but that he should turn from his ways and live”
The eternal message of God as enshrined for us most potently in the parable of the prodigal son is “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you” no matter how estranged and distant from God and his righteousness we have strayed. Jesus himself said “I come not to judge the world but to save it so the disposition of God is absolutely clear. He doesn’t want to condemn anyone so it stands to reason that people condemn themselves.
That much is clear. We are secure. We are saved and like the penitent thief on the cross we can be sure that when we die Jesus will say “This day you shall be with me in paradise”
But that still leaves a vast ocean of people. What about people who never knew anything about Jesus, or whose exposure to Christianity was so poor that the message never had a chance to settle in their souls?
Here too, our default position is that we have to believe that God is a perfect judge – a God of Justice willing to forgive, not wanting anyone at all to perish.
This is where the parable of the sheep and the goats comes in. By what criteria are people like that conceivably judged? The answer is by by their acts of goodness and mercy
There is also of course evil people committing evil acts with the question hanging over them “So what happens to them?” What about people and systems whose unrepentant crimes are worn as a badge of honour – what happens to them? Well by the same token, by their fruits.
Simply because he is currently in the news I will ask us to consider the fate of “Jihadi John”. In our Christian worldview, what happens to him if he does not repent?
From all the Biblical evidence we can muster, I can say with confidence that he will pay for his crimes and he will suffer for the evil he has done.
And this is what I interpret the parable of the sheep and the goats to actually say to us.
We have already heard in our first reading that God’s redemptive scope is cosmic and that his presence is all in all. So in this way, our actions towards others can legitimately also be seen as actions towards Jesus himself because Christ is in all things.
“Just as you did it to the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me”(25: 40)
When Jihadi John decapitated Peter Kassig, a man completely under his power he was in a real Christian sense doing that to Jesus himself.
Yet the impulse of God is still to forgive John. Remember on the cross Jesus said “Father forgive them, they know not what they do”
As an act of faith I believe that in the end as Peter Kassig’s parents said, eventually there will be a healing of the whole world and our merciful God the perfect judge will transform all things and set things right and we have to believe that it is at least possible that a repentant and transformed John will have a part to play in that new heaven and new earth.
But until then I think that without wanting to second guess God the Biblical record is pretty clear that unrepentant sinners of that magnitude will experience much torment, punishment and wailing and gnashing of teeth. This punishment will not be physical of course because the physical body will have died but their soul, the essential part of them that makes them “them” and not someone else, will be separated from God, not by God himself, who desires not the death of a sinner, but condemned by their own hand – their own actions.
The final comment on this for ourselves is this; Life after death means that what we do now has eternal consequences so what we build in our life, in the shape of good deeds matters. St. Paul as ever says it much better 

Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— each one's work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.(2 Corinthians 3:12-15)

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

We have a gospel to proclaim

When I was a fresh faced young curate my training vicar took this parable very literally and every year on a certain day everyone who wanted one came to the front of the service to receive a £1 coin. The idea being that they take that coin, putting it together with other money do something novel with it to make it grow and six months later bring the money that had been made back to church in a special service.
Now I have to admire his pluck and entrepreneurial spirit but actually that is about as far away from the meaning of the parable of the talents as you can get unless you continue to use the money as a metaphor for something else.
It is admittedly a very strange parable and difficult to interpret without prior knowledge of the context and the wider Biblical canon but suffice to say here that the subject of this parable are the Pharisees. In particular the hapless third servant who hid his talent in the ground who had even what he had taken away from him.
The way of the Pharisees had resulted in a spiritual exclusivity that had resulted in the light and goodness of God that had been entrusted to them being hoarded so what had been meant as a gift for the whole of mankind lay withering on the vine.
So you can see how Jesus equated this attitude resulting in God making metaphorically "no interest on his capital". It was tantamount to defrauding God. Through their very zeal for the purity of their religion they had inadvertently sterilized it and kept God’s light from the people.  
That may have been the original context but as I noted in my weekly email the gospel only ever comes alive when we ask the question - what does God want me to hear through this passage today? 
Well once we understand the original intent it becomes rather obvious.  it means that our faith in God is to be shared and not hoarded.
As we sometimes sing “We have a gospel to proclaim” But do we? Do we, when we look honestly at our manner of life and in what we say and do proclaim the gospel to others?
I think that when all of us, myself included, ask ourselves that question and seek to answer it honestly we might be a bit embarrassed by the truth of the matter.
It is at those times that I am glad that when I became a Christian I didn’t become a Saint, I became a forgiven sinner.
We have a gospel for the whole world, not just for people who happen to come to church. God’s salvation is for all people. As St. Paul wrote "As in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive" (1 Corinthians 15: 22). We have a responsibility to share the good news and the spiritual treasure that we have been given to enrich the lives of others.
We have to sow seeds. I seem to remember a parable about that somewhere! Of course not all or even most of what we sow will result in a good crop as that parable informs us but we don’t sow anything at all then we guarantee that nothing will grow.

The parable of the talents is not about money or “talents” as we understand the word in modern English, it is about having an open evangelical heart, unashamed of  God and willing to share what we have known and experienced and believed about Him. If we don’t the church of England will certainly die.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

We will remember them.

This is an act of remembrance. “Remembrance” in the Christian tradition means far more than a simple recollection of past historical events - it means to make those events present  to us by immersing ourselves in those events and the people and their experiences  in order that they may have an impact on us today – to move us, to challenge us, to affect us emotionally and to inform and change us.
An act of remembrance such as today involves engaging with the events that took place around a hundred years ago and make them present in our hearts for a purpose.
That is a tall order, because the magnitude of those events is so huge. Trying to connect fully with the pain, suffering and sacrifice, the fear and the loss, broken bodies and broken hearts is a huge task.
And that is before we also engage with the heroism, nobility, self-sacrifice and bravery. All those are huge concepts and they can only really be engaged with when they become personal.
When all those names carved into cold stone on that war memorial have flesh put on them and they become real people with real and remarkable tales to tell. An awful lot of work has gone into the task of investigating the real lives of all those names on our war memorial and eventually I trust that all that research will soon provide a permanent exhibition of their lives here in St. Mary’s.
In a personal trip to France this Summer we visited the grave of a relative of my wife, a certain Corporal Thomas Brook who died aged 21 on 12th September 1916. His grave had as far as we know never been visited by a member of the family in all these years so it felt like a very special moment laying flowers on his grave in a beautiful little Commonwealth war cemetery near Albert on the Somme.
As we did so I couldn’t but help remember those famous words “A corner of a foreign field that is forever England.”
Standing amongst those rows and rows of tombstones  is a haunting experience – an immersiion in the enormity of it all – much like the display of poppies at the Tower of London – and is deeply affecting
Where does this act of remembrance lead us I wonder?
It leads some to pacifism. I respect their decision but the Christian church has never gone down that path.  To use what might sound like an old fashioned term to many, humanity is sinful, we know that evil exists – evil people with evil motives and so regrettably but inevitably there will be wars and there will be occasions when it will be necessary to fight to defend ourselves, our civilisation and protect all that we hold dear. 
I believe the maxim -All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. When evil raises its head it must be confronted. And when we do - that is when we turn to the brave, heroic, sacrificial service of the men and women in our armed forces.
What our remembrance tells me is that when we ask our young men and women to risk their lives on our behalf we must be sure that the cause is just, and that our reasons for going to war are not trivial or governed by vanity and that all reasonable attempts to avert war have been taken, and if despite all those precautions we are taken into war we go regardless we go with heavy hearts but with heads held high, well trained, motivated and well equipped for the fight.
We have to go with our eyes wide open and will be saddened but not be surprised at the death and destruction that will inevitably result.  Our remembrance if it tells us nothing else tells us there is no such thing as a clean war without loss and heartache. They are inevitable.
Waste of young life, Grief, hatred and recrimination will all be there. We know that. But so will honour, nobility and bravery and mercy.
And let us not entertain for a moment the notion that this nation of ours is not worth fighting for. Our nation, our people, freedom, democracy and culture is worth defending, worth fighting for and ultimately worth dying for.

This act of remembrance should bring us face to face with the reality of war and its consequences. We should allow the reality of the sacrifice of all those names read out outside to affect us. We know that war is brutal and costly. But we also know that their backbone and resolve, their bravery and sacrifices made by countless men and women to confront the evils that we face in this dangerous world is something to be proud of and seek to emulate.