Monday, 24 September 2018

One church, one faith, one Lord

Sunday the 23rd: Trinity 17: Proper 20

Wisdom of Solomon 1:16 - 2:1, 12-22. A foray into the Apocryphal* books of the Bible today. The ungodly translate their nihilistic philosophy of life also into an active persecution of those who seek to be loyal to God. The existence of the godly is a profound challenge to everything they stand for.
James 3:13 - 4:3, 7-8a. "Draw near to God and He will draw near to you". We return to the understanding of "Wisdom" being a divine entity and in drawing near to God, selfish ambition is put to the sword. The process of sanctification is in turning from Self-centredness to God-centredness. 
Mark 9: 30-37. The nihilism of the ungodly spelled out in Wisdom of Solomon is countered by this introduction of a "life after death". This also provides the root material for James' treatise against selfishness.

This first reading from the Apocryphal book called wisdom or sometimes “The wisdom of Solomon” is a powerful piece of writing that articulates the frame of mind of those unconvinced of the existence of God.

Their beliefs are that all life is a chance event and life is short with too much suffering, and when we die we turn to dust and there is no life after death. Therefore they say, we must seize the day for this short life is all there is, enjoy ourselves. As there is no outside arbiter for what is right or wrong – these are just social constructs – we’ll make our own rules.

That nihilistic, purposeless and meaningless approach to life is nothing new. It was alive and well in 100BC when this book was written and it is alive and well now.

But it notes and introduces an extension to that frame of mind. Having a nihilistic philosophy of life is one thing but unfortunately it is then translated into an active persecution of those who do believe in God and try to follow in his way.

Verse 11, left out by the lectionary compilers, says “But let might be our law of right, for what is weak proves itself to be useless”.

Force and aggression against believers is the result of their philosophy but why?

Well, it seems, from their point of view that the existence of goodness and the Godly is a profound challenge to everything they stand for.
They cannot let it go unnoticed and are moved to persecute God’s people.

Of course it is possible to believe in the apparent purposeless of life and still believe that goodness and kindness are worth pursuing, but this passage does throw up the “problem” of people who continue to believe in God and goodness in this ambiguous world.
Because the godly don’t believe in God purely to gain a prize at the end. That would be no threat at all, if that belief had no concrete consequences for our lives now.

Our lives, how we live them, and what they stand for are evidence that this ambiguous world need not be understood in an entirely negative and pessimistic way.

And for the Christian today, how are we to manifest our belief in a world ruled by God – a life with meaning and purpose?

Certainly we try to submit to the Lordship of Christ, his values and direction which Jesus himself described as a narrow path that few find, and part and parcel of this submission is to seek God’s presence and guidance in prayer. What do we pray for?

In our letter from James one of the things, if not the most important thing we are to pray for Wisdom. Now don’t forget that as I pointed out some weeks ago, that Wisdom is divine and Jesus can be referred to as “Wisdom made flesh” so praying for wisdom is praying that you are continually being formed into the likeness of Christ which is the entire work of a Christian believer.

Wisdom is the only gift that God will always give if it is prayed for.

James writes
“You do not have because you do not ask” and in relation to other prayers,
“You ask and do not receive because you ask wrongly”.

God will not answer any prayer that emanates from selfish ends and prayer must be made with conviction and wholeheartedness.

Wisdom will create a character of complete integrity and the characteristics that James mentions of purity, peaceableness and mercifulness mirror the teachings of Jesus in the Beatitudes.

So we turn to the gospel to speak about God’s ultimate riposte and challenge to the unbelievers. He sent his son to live among us.

Of course we know the story. He too was rejected and killed.

Rejected and killed yes, but Jesus also refers to what will happen on the third day.

Speaking about himself in the third person “he will rise again”

Son of man has at least two meanings. It means that Jesus is identifying himself as the Son of man “coming on the clouds of heaven, to whom all dominion, glory and a kingdom was given” (Daniel 7:13)

But this phrase also means simply “a human being”.

Human beings are raised to eternal life.  Eternal life, understood properly is not only final resurrection from the dead but is a quality of life in the here and now.

Even after the resurrection of Jesus and the testimony of the apostles and all the eye witnesses to the fact, those old doubts, those old reservations, about the nature, power and even existence of God rear their head even amongst the Christian churches who begin to question the whole nature of life and the possibility of eternal life.

Christianity depends totally on faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and what that means for us.

To the doubters in Corinth Paul writes;

1 Corinthians 15:12-19 
12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in Christ we have hope[a] in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.
That pearl of great price, the knowledge that God exists, is powerful, loves us enough to send his son to die for us, and raised him and will raise us is the antidote to where we started in the “Wisdom of Solomon”

Our lives are written against an infinite horizon. We have meaning and purpose. Created in love to reflect God’s love and truth, and the mission to tell others that they too are loved, have meaning and purpose and have eternal life.   

Monday, 17 September 2018

Christ has no body but yours

Sunday 16th September: Trinity 16: Proper 19

Isaiah 50: 4-9a. The word "servant" does not appear here but this is reckoned by most to be the third of the so-called "servant songs" and it is the most intensely personal mentioning the tongue, ears, back. cheeks, beard and face, emphasising that God always uses real human beings to fulfill his purposes. 
James 3: 1-12. A great piece whose main thrust is personal integrity and the equal treatment of others, all made in the image of God.
Mark 8: 27-38. Peter is dismissed as "Satan" for standing in the way of the will of God for Jesus. The essence of true discipleship comes in verses 34-38. Taking up your cross and laying your life on the line is the kind of devoted allegiance that Jesus is looking for. 

How does God’s will and purposes get carried out on earth?
The answer, pre-eminently of course, is through human beings.

The Bible stories are, in the main, stories about how human beings have heard and responded to God, from Abraham onwards, all the way through the kings and prophets of Israel, reaching their climax in Jesus Christ, and then through Jesus’ followers since the Jesus event.

True, God has also used people who were outside the fold to fulfil His will, perhaps most famously King Cyrus, a pagan, who nevertheless was absolutely necessary to the story of the people of Israel, who ended their exile in Babylon, so God can use absolutely anyone at any time but in the main He needs to use conscious followers of God, who have spent time in prayer and study of God’s word to purposely do His will in the world.

But as this famous prayer asserts;

Teresa of Avila (1515–1582)
Christ Has No Body
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

The servant songs in Isaiah are a wonderful example of this from the Old Testament and when you read them you are left in no doubt that being a servant of God is not an easy ride.

You have serious decisions to make and these decisions can often result in a certain amount of suffering and opposition. These are not willed by God but are a natural consequence of the world’s opposition to God. But such is the nature of the spiritual battle that these sacrifices are necessary and happen as a direct result of following God’s will.

The suffering servant in Isaiah, whose back was struck, who had his beard pulled out, endured insults and was spat at in the face, was of course attributed to Jesus himself of course, but as they and the early church were to find out, included them as well.

Such outright violent opposition is almost unknown to us in this country though many millions of Christians live under similar opposition, especially in many Muslim countries, but the opposition in the West comes in a much more hidden and subtle form.

You can be belittled, called stupid, ostracised by some circles, called a bigot or a fascist. Made to feel that your input is not wanted or needed by intelligent, polite society to the extent that so many Christians are left feeling that they don’t have a voice in modern society.
We are too old fashioned and our ideas are outmoded so the opposition from the liberal secular elite is to silence us not by violence but derision and social exclusion.   

Pushing us to the margins in a social and intellectual sense has been far more productive than violent oppression.

The response from Jesus and therefore expected of ourselves as found in the words of Isaiah is to stand firm “and set our faces like flint” against our accusers.

Our best defence is personal integrity. In this wonderful piece from the letter from James on both the damage and the good that our tongues can do, James implores us to train our tongues to bring forth fresh not brackish water, and for this to be a reflection of our internal disposition.

If we can train ourselves to do and speak well of people, and to stand firm in defence of our faith despite all provocations we provide a much better example to everyone and will make even our detractors think twice about what we have, and what motivates our lives.

Jesus, in the gospel story knew what was coming to him for daring to stick to his guns – “setting his face like flint” against his accusers.

He knew that His actions would defeat evil and win salvation for the whole world so He could not be sidetracked.

This is what drew that stern response to Peter for trying to deflect Jesus from his path.
Jesus called him “Satan” for even suggesting that Jesus should not suffer at the hands of his enemies.

Here, what might be characterised as “evil” came not beating him, spitting at him, pulling out his beard, but in a velvet glove, with good but misguided intentions.

Proverbially we know that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Often, we don’t understand, we don’t know what to do or say, and Peter’s tongue earned him a stern rebuke from Jesus.

He needed to be less impetuous, show a greater understanding of God’s will, and intuit a greater knowledge of the realities of life in this world.
As Jesus said; 
In this world you will have trouble but take heart for I have overcome the world.(John 16:33)
But also as Paul notes; 
And if God is for us, who can be against us. (Romans 8:31)

Monday, 10 September 2018

Internal and external relations

Sunday 9th September - Trinity 15: Proper 18

Isaiah 35: 4-7. A beautiful poetic account of salvation. Before salvation can be experienced, evil must be defeated.
James 2: 1-17. All followers of the "way" have the same rank in God's eyes. We are all children of God, which means that all other ways of distinguishing between ourselves (in particular wealth) are worldly logic and unbecoming to a Christian.  
Mark 7: 24-37. What binds the two separate instances of healings together in our passage of scripture is that one explicitly happens to a gentile (the Syrophoenician woman) and the other happens in the region of the Decapolis, gentile cities mainly inhabited by Greeks, so is implicitly means that the deaf and mute man was a gentile. Ethnic partiality is challenged here. Although the Jews are God's chosen instrument for revelation and disclosure of His will, He is and always will be Lord of all.

There is an intrinsic tension between the fact that the Jews were “God’s chosen people” and the fact that God is the Lord of all creation, and so all the different people’s of the world are loved equally by God.
In fact being “chosen” is often seen as a burden as much as it is a privilege.
I often think at this point of Tevye, the father in the film “fiddler on the roof”, who after yet another pogrom raises his eyes to heaven and says,
“Lord, I know we are your chosen people, but just once in a while, couldn’t you choose someone else?”
Chosen to be a light to the gentiles, a light to the whole world, as a revelation of god’s will and purposes, but it was inevitable perhaps that many Jews just so themselves as
“chosen, special, better than everyone else, blessed by God”
And it is that underlying tension that underpins the gospel reading today.
The first woman is explicitly named as a foreigner, and the second healing takes place in the region of the Decapolis, which were ten Greek cities of a mostly Greek or mixed population, and was therefore a shorthand way of saying non-Jewish people.
The first healing miracle of the woman’s daughter is a masterclass in addressing that tension I spoke about.
When the woman came on behalf of her daughter Jesus said,
“Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and feed it to the dogs.”
Now Jesus’ expression and tone isn’t recorded, but I can picture Him with a big grin on his face, because the word he uses for dogs is actually a diminutive form and means “doggies” and he is teasing her with this outwardly stern understanding of Jewish privilege.
But she was a quick-witted person and joined in with the analogy,
“Sir, even the doggies under the table eat the children’s crumbs”
And Jesus, underlining the fact that he is just teasing, does so in the most direct and straightforward way he can and He heals her daughter”
The message for the church is plain.
We are the new Israel. We too are to be a light to those outside the church, so while we too are chosen; we are in no way to think of ourselves as superior. Our role is to model the love of Christ in our lives so that it is attractive to those outside the church, drawing people back to God.
Just like the Jews, we have discovered that this can prove a mixed blessing sometimes, and I’ll leave the question open, and for you to ponder as to whether we have been any better than the Jews were in modelling that vocation. 
So for Jew and non-Jew in that instance, read Christian and non-Christian today. Our vocation is to model the new creation in Christ and make it so attractive that people are naturally drawn to us no matter who they are or what they currently believe.
And everyone believes something. Atheism is a belief system as much as Hinduism or Buddhism or Islam.
When we move to the letter of James, we move to one of the characteristics that should define Christian communities. Our internal disposition towards each other.
The example used by James is the issue of wealth. We are not to show partiality towards any other Christian because they are wealthier than another Christian.
Why? Well there is a lovely phrase that I think sums it up, and which also has a much wider application.
“Don’t hold any man in contempt for whom Jesus was content to die”.
As Christians we have a new identity. Who am I? I am a child of God.
And so are you.
We are brothers and sisters in the same family. God is our Father and Jesus is our adopted brother.
Unfortunately, we act less like a family and more like a business sometimes, and even when we do resemble a family we enflesh the worst traits of dysfunctional families such as rivalries, endless bickering, always looking to be the favourite in God’s eyes and taking advantage of each other; instead of modelling the unmerited support and love of our brothers and sisters, and always looking to encourage each other and build each other up.
If we to model it in our church communities it would provide such a contrast to the febrile, shouty, dismissive and cynical world of social media that seems to define modern society nowadays it would help create an oasis in our churches.
There used to be a saying “If you’ve got nothing good or constructive to say, don’t say anything at all”
As Christians of course, our burden, should you choose to see it that way, is to go far beyond that and be and say constructive things that build us up and encourages us to be better people and better and stronger communities.
It is this, as a basis, and developing that to be of practical help to people that I think James means when he says that faith by itself, if it has no works (or outcomes) is dead.
I believe that the fruits of the Spirit are a work of God and when I read works I see fruits as they are grown in individual lives as they grow into God.
The capacity for growing into the full stature of Christ is and always was here.
Accepting Jesus into our hearts by his Holy Spirit is an act that must see results in the way we see and treat each other, and also others outside the fold. Otherwise says James, our faith is dead.
We have something precious, the pearl of great price that is the knowledge of God and the experience of his goodness and love for all his “potential” children out there.
In modelling how this affects our lives, we become that light on a hill offering both a direction and a destination for people’s souls.

Monday, 3 September 2018

Unwrapping the gift.

Readings for Sunday 2nd September: Trinity 14: Proper 17

Deuteronomy 4: 1-2, 6-9. Don't forget about God's goodness and wisdom which is self-evident even to outsiders, rehearse them in your mind and relay them to your children.
James 1: 17-27. Belief and action in unity is the hallmark of much of the epistle of James. People who "hear" the word and even ascent to it but don't act upon it - their religion is useless.
Mark 7: 1-8, 14, 15, 21-23. The difference between man-made traditions and the Christian tradition has long been a hobby horse of mine and here is the scriptural warrant for it. Once we elevate human traditions above God in our minds we are guilty of idolatry.

“In vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

One of the starkest warnings to the modern Christian church in the west, if we think we can ride roughshod over God’s laws and precepts, believe they are outmoded and replace them with our worldly logic, traditions and customs.

I firmly believe that the reason so many children of Christians don’t follow their parents in "the way" is that those children have only ever come into contact with man made church traditions and a certain churchy sensibility, which they largely see as irrelevant.

They have never been captured by the Christian tradition, the rock on which all shifting man made church traditions are based.

We must be able to tell the difference.

I wrote recently about being asked about the choice between staging “traditional” or so-called “happy clappy” worship in our churches.

As I wrote at the time - this is a false choice. The only real choice is between authentic and inauthentic Christianity.

Both authentic and inauthentic forms come wearing both robes and jeans, kneeling piously and waving arms in the air, stressing both silent contemplation and raucous praise choruses.

When you get to the position where the most important question is whether the priest is wearing a chasuble or not, or whether the minister refers to himself as a priest, minister or pastor, you know we have travelled a long way up a no-thru-road.

Something has gone very wrong indeed when who reads the gospel is more important than the content of the gospel itself.

The history of my own engagement with Christianity and the Christian tradition as enfleshed within our own Anglican tradition I could say is “learning to see the wood from the trees.”

And please don’t misunderstand me. I am not playing down the relevance of our man-made traditions as far as they lead people into the Christian faith.

But I am saying that we must recognise which is which.

Jesus denounced the Pharisees as hypocrites, which as you probably know is a Greek word meaning “actors”, people simply playing a role, reading their lines and dressing up!

When they don’t believe what they are saying or carry out what they are saying into their daily lives. It is a charade; dead religion.

Jesus famously said, and as a Christian minister this always brings me out in a cold sweat;

 Matthew 7:21-23 

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

This is essentially the very thing that James is saying in his letter today. James was Jesus’ brother and it was because of this blood connection to the Lord himself that I suspect that James became the first leader of the Jerusalem church after the crucifixion.

You’d have thought it would be Peter, or one of the other disciples but no. James, a part of Jesus’ family who hadn’t really followed Jesus in life but had obviously repented after his brother rose from the dead led the early church.

He saw straight into the heart of Jesus’ teaching and wrote;

“But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves”

True religion, James asserts is to care for orphans and widows in their distress. Note that he doesn’t mention prayers, dressing up, or making sacrifices, he just concentrates on how the faith is made real in our lives outside of the church or synagogue.

Too much modern church in all its church traditions is a triumph of form over substance. The two need each other and should reflect each other. Form and substance in unison

This is our goal as Christians. The goal of every Christian service I preside is to lead people more richly into the Spirit of God.

It my fervent prayer no matter what form the service takes; high, low, eucharistic or non-eucharistic, formal or informal.

It maters not what state you are in when you receive the Spirit of God;

Joyful or bloody minded
Looking forward or depressed.

God will meet you where you are at this very moment. And he will help you deal with whatever state you are living with.

Let us open ourselves to the Spirit of God and let Him lift us up and give us wisdom, peace and insight. Insight into our faith,
Insight into our worship
Insight into our community
And insight into our very selves.