Wisdom, Word and Parables

Sermon for Proper 12A

(I Kings 3, 5-12. Matthew 13, 31-33, 44-52)

Mustard seed oncarpetWe’re just coming to the end of the season of church annual synods. Many of them – the Methodist, the Church of England, and the United Reformed Church among them – have been considering contentious issues to do with gender and sexuality.

On the surface, these issues are about ethics and church practice; but actually, what lies beneath the ethical and theological arguments are questions about the Bible, and more specifically the use, abuse, status and authority of Scripture. This is not a new issue (though some commentators would have us believe it is a 21st century phenomenon) It is an issue which comes up again and again in the history of the church. It is a perennial question, which takes an enormous amount of unravelling, because it is so closely entwined with culture, and varying concepts of what constitutes authority.

Anglican belief has always been based on a combination of Scripture, tradition and reason. Methodists add ‘experience’ to those three. But some parts of our traditions insist that Scripture takes precedence, or even that it is the only basis on which we make judgements about what is right to do. But even if you accept that, how do we judge which bits of Scripture to obey?

If we are to deal intelligently with the debate over the use of Scripture, we need to understand the way different parts of scripture came into being, the different forms it takes, and the cultural and religious context in which it was formed.

Our readings today give us the opportunity to look at two different forms of Biblical teaching – wisdom literature and parables.

pearls-of-wisdomIn the Old Testament tradition all wisdom literature, and particularly the Book of Proverbs tends to be ascribed to King Solomon (just as all Psalms are ascribed to David and all Law to Moses). Hence the significance of our Old Testament passage, where the young king asks God to grant him wisdom.

Wisdom literature is a distinctive strand in the Israelite tradition. In our Old Testament it is found in not just in Proverbs, but also in Ecclesiastes, in most of the Book of Job, in Psalms 1, 32, 34, 37, 49, 112 and 128 and in the Song of Songs. In the Apocrypha, it is found in Ecclesiasticus and in the book entitled ‘Wisdom of Solomon’.

However, modern scholarship has shown that it is highly unlikely that all of this writing was the work of King Solomon. Wisdom writings were common across the ancient Near East, and there are numerous parallels in the Book of Proverbs to the Egyptian ‘Instruction of Amen-em-opet’. The Apocryphal book called the Wisdom of Solomon was almost certainly written after the Exile in Babylon. The Wisdom literature of the Old Testament and the Apocrypha , in fact, comes from across the whole time span of the pre-Christian period.

Wisdom literature was able to cross cultural boundaries because it was chiefly interested in the individual, and the problems of human existence, and because its teaching drew on observation of the natural world and human life to make its point.

One strand of wisdom consists of practical advice, expressed in short memorable phrases about how to get on in life and run your family. Much of the Book of Proverbs is like this. There are lots of proverbs about bringing up children – and several about living with a nagging wife! There are proverbs about being lazy or stupid or being wise and hardworking, and others about how to deal with powerful and rich people.

Another strand however, is more philosophical and ponders on the deeper meaning of life: what is the point of existence, why do good people suffer, where does true wisdom come from? The link between the two forms of wisdom writing, the practical and the philosophical, was the belief that both the moral world and the natural world reflected the mind of God

In Jewish tradition, wisdom was seen as a gift from God, and later wisdom writing saw Wisdom (who became almost a separate divine person, and who was female!) as the companion and agent of God in the process of creation. In the New Testament, Wisdom became identified with ‘The Word’ and therefore with Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity.

Then, in our Gospel reading we have a collection of parables, another form of Biblical writing. The Hebrew word for proverb, ‘mashal’ was also the word for parables. Both were memorable ways of teaching. Both drew on observation of the natural world to cast light on the spiritual world. Both could be quite short.

There is a lot of discussion among biblical scholars about what passages in the Gospels are the actual words of Jesus, and which have been added by the Gospel editors. One thing on which they are all agreed is that the parables are the original teaching of Jesus, and that parables were the characteristic mode of teaching which he used in his public ministry.

There’s a comment in Mark’s gospel chapter 4, which says that Jesus taught in parables so that some people who heard him wouldn’t understand. That is almost certainly an addition by the writer of Mark, designed to explain to his readers why the Jews who heard Jesus did not accept him as the Messiah. In fact, the opposite is true. Jesus taught in parables precisely because this concrete, pictorial teaching would be accessible to anyone, no matter what their education or intellectual ability. Since the parables, like the wisdom literature, drew on observations of the natural world and human society which anyone could make, the parables have continued to be accessible across cultures and across time. Though we may no longer live in a predominantly agricultural society, we still have sufficient contact with the natural world, and with largely unchanged human nature, to understand what the parables are describing.

book bread of lifeThe allegorical explanations for some of the parables were very probably added by the Early Church, to apply them to current situations in their religious life. Originally, however, most of the parables were designed to make one particular point. Some of them were just a couple of lines; others were full blown stories with a cast of characters. In all of them, the hearers are presented with a situation, asked to make a judgement on it, and then (either explicitly or implicitly) challenged to act on that judgement in their own lives.

One big difference between wisdom teaching and parables is that, whereas wisdom taught generalities, which could be applied in any situation and any culture, parables were about a specific situation. So, to understand Jesus’ parables, we need to understand the context in which they were told. Very often, as in several of the parables in today’s Gospel reading, we are given the context. Jesus tells us he is talking about the Kingdom of Heaven, (better translated as ‘God’s Sovereign Rule’) which is being ushered in by his ministry. He is challenging his hearers to recognise that, and to act on that recognition.

With that in mind, we can make an attempt to guess the particular point each parable is making. The Parable of the Mustard Seed refers back to passages in Daniel where a great tree sheltering birds stands for the reign of God, and so perhaps challenges us to recognise that although Jesus and his disciples are few, the Kingdom of God will come through their ministry.

mustardTree-300x200Leaven works from inside the dough, so the Parable of Leaven is perhaps teaching that the leaven of Jesus’ presence is bringing new life to the Jewish faith.

The parables of Treasure in a Field and the Pearl of Great Price are perhaps emphasising the supreme importance of following Jesus and making enormous sacrifices for the Kingdom. The Parable of the Drag Net, seems, like other parables to be promising that the consummation of the Kingdom is coming soon, but also gives the message that it is up to God, not us, to sort out who will be admitted into the Kingdom and who rejected. And then there’s the parable at the end of the passage – which some might not recognise as a parable at all – about the householder who brings both old and new things out of his store; is this, perhaps, urging the teachers of Israel to be ready to learn about and incorporate into their faith new insights from Jesus into what the Kingdom is all about.

But these are only possible explanations. The whole point about parables is that they were vivid and memorable, yet at the same time they left the mind in sufficient doubt about their precise application to prompt people into continued questioning of the stories, trying to tease out what exactly they meant. That was Jesus’ chosen way of teaching. He didn’t give rules; he didn’t provide set answers; he said ‘This is what I believe the Kingdom of Heaven is like; what do you think?’

This is something we need to remember when certain sections of the Church try to tell us “You have to believe this” or “You have to subscribe to that” if you are to be counted as a Christian. If there is any element of compulsion in that decision, it is not Jesus’ way.

The Word, in his wisdom, chose to teach us about the Kingdom of Heaven in parables, inviting us to walk with him, alongside others who are seeking the way, and to explore and question and decide, each one for ourselves, what God wants of us. Let those who have ears to hear, listen!

 

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The Message of the Kingdom

IMGWildflower

(Matthew 13.1-9 & 18-23)

I’m not the gardener in our family, but the parable of the sower still rings bells for me. Over the years, I’ve grown things from seed, most recently a small patch of wild flowers to encourage the birds and insects. I had to clear the patch of weeds and stones before I sowed the seeds, but it was still impossible to tell the weeds from what I had sown when they came up! (But that’s another parable!)

 

Judging by the number of gardening programmes on the television, this parable will ring bells with other people too. We may no longer be a nation of farmers and agricultural labourers – but many of us are interested in growing things, even if only on our own small plots. So we will all identify with the sower in his problems.

 

And this, of course, was Jesus’ intention when he spread the message of the Kingdom through parables. As many of us were taught in Sunday School, a parable is ‘an earthly story with a heavenly meaning’. As a good teacher, Jesus told stories about familiar things, which people understood. Their first reaction would be, “Oh yes, I know all about that” but then, “I wonder what he’s really getting at?”

 

Most recent Biblical scholars have taught that parables were meant to make one point only. In the case of the parable of the sower it is a message of encouragement. The farmer ‘broadcast ‘ his seeds, as was the custom in Palestine. His ground was of mixed quality, with some very shallow soil with rocks underneath, a path around the edge, and although it had been cleared of thistles, their roots hadn’t been dug up. Lots of the seed went to waste – yet his sowing still produced an abundant crop (even allowing for the oriental exaggeration in the story, for Galilee was a very fertile area.) So Jesus is telling his hearers not to worry if their work seems to fail in some areas; God will bless their work and make it fruitful as they proclaim the Kingdom in word and deed.

Jesus ends the story with an enigmatic comment “Listen then if you have ears”. This is his sign that there is something more to what he has been saying than just a story. Jesus seems to have followed the old military precept ‘Never apologise, never explain’ when he preached the message of the Kingdom. He expected his listeners to do some work for themselves and work things out, so he didn’t give them the solution to the meaning of the parable.

Sower modern

So how, then, do we account for the next section of Chapter 13 verses 18-23, which interpret this particular parable?

 

This section probably comes from the stage in the growth of the Christian community, before Matthew wrote his Gospel, when the faith was spreading into the Gentile world. As Geza Vermes reminds us, in his book ‘Jesus the Jew’, in using parables, Jesus was using a typical teaching method of the Jewish rabbi. Jews accustomed to Palestinian teaching methods would have needed no explanation – but non-Jews would have needed every detail spelt out. Indeed, they might have expected it, since interpreting stories as allegories, when every detail meant something, was the fashion in the Greek world of the time.

 

Hence the allegorical interpretation of the parable in verses 18-23. The explanation completely reinterprets the parable. The seed changes from standing for the good news, to standing for different sorts of people who receive the good news. Some are unresponsive and easily tempted, and the message never takes root in them. Others have a shallow faith, make a start, but then give up when things get hard. Some cannot withstand temptation; but there are still enough whose faith takes root to bring great results.

 

Now, I know that some people are worried by being told that parts of what is written in the Gospels may not be the original words of Jesus. They imagine this is equivalent to accusing the Gospel writers of telling lies. But this is not the case.

 

We believe that the Holy Spirit inspired Jesus when he taught. We believe that the Spirit inspired the writers of the Scriptures when they wrote. We believe, that if we ask, the Spirit will inspire and guide us when we read. But the Spirit’s inspiration will not override the normal and natural processes of our human minds.

 

So, whenever we read anything, what we understand is the product of a complex interplay between what was originally said, how the writer interpreted and recorded that, and what we bring to our reading of the passage from our own culture, education, experience and situation. So, people from different cultures and from different times are bound to ‘hear’ different things.

It is the task of Biblical scholars (inspired also by the Holy Spirit) to unravel the different layers of interpretation contained in the Bible, to help us in our reading and understanding. This is not just a modern practice. The scholars of the Jewish nation said of their Scriptures that they had several layers of meaning: first of all there was what was called Pshat - the plain and obvious meaning; then there was Remez – or hint – the implied meaning, referring forward to the Torah and Jewish history; thirdly, there was Drush - the meaning found by philosophers; and lasting there was Sod – the hidden meaning, accessible only to the mystics. So we should not be surprised that God’s Word, conveyed to us through the pages of Scripture, has a new message for each generation of the Church.

 

So as we read the Bible and receive the message of the Kingdom, we may be led by the Spirit to reinterpret it anew for each new age.

How we do so will depend on our outlook and our personality; but our reading will always be limited by our understanding that the primary message is about God and the kingdom.

So I want to offer you a reading of the parable of the sower, informed by our situation in the world today, to guide us in the way we should spread the Word of God – our seed – today.

 

Some of the seed falls on the path. Paths are made of earth that is trodden hard. For me, this ground stands for the down trodden peoples of the world; for nations where there is no freedom, for groups in society that are discriminated against. In this sort of situation, the forces of evil find rich pickings. Before the seed of the gospel can take root in this ground, the soil needs to be dug up, turned and loosened – so that the air of freedom and the water of encouragement can circulate, and the plants that come from the Gospel seed can send down roots. In these situations, the work of sowing the seed of Gospel truth will involve first preparing the ground by working for social justice.

 

The shallow soil with rock beneath speaks to me of those people who are dead inside – who are unable to receive the good news of God’s love because their spirits have been killed by self-hatred, low self-esteem, shame and past abuse. On the surface, these people may seem to be fine, fertile ground – but though their relationships may begin well, they always self-destruct, as their roots come into contact with the dead area inside. There will need to be long, patient works of preparation, often by carefully trained experts, before the Gospel seed can take root here: breaking down the hard rock, clearing the remaining stones away, then enriching what is left with a new topsoil of unconditional love and compassion and acceptance.

 

The seed which fell among thorns represents perhaps the most common ground in which present day evangelists try to sow the gospel seed. People nowadays lead busy lives, crowded with demands , distractions and temptations – from work, from their social life, from the media and the internet, from within their family. Often they can find no space for the seed of the Gospel to take root. It will not be much good just hacking at these ‘weeds’ when they show above the ground. That would be to do as the Palestinian farmer did, destroying the obvious weeds above ground, while leaving the roots to sprout again, grow up and take over. We need to dig deeper, into the fabric of society, and help to clear away the roots from which these social weeds spring. Also, we can provide – perhaps at first only bit by bit – areas and times of peace and freedom from demands, where the Kingdom can take root a few seeds at a time, and the crop can begin to bear fruit.

 

But, even this interpretation of the parable of the sower comes back ultimately, to the central message of the Kingdom that Jesus preached. God’s kingdom will come! Our efforts may seem small, our results unspectacular in the eyes of the world. But where God is at work through us, nothing, nothing, can prevent a glorious harvest.

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Choosing a Leader

5b211e94bcdee3a1ec4723456fb0e751-d26a0vl “Rejoice, daughter of Zion. Your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey.”

 

“For John came neither eating and drinking, and they say ‘He has a demon’; and the Son of Man comes eating and drinking and they say, ’Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners’.”

 

Human beings find it very difficult to choose their leaders. At one time, of course, they had little say in the matter. The most powerful person got the job. But now, in our more democratic age, people can influence the choice, and are free to say what they do and don’t what. But this hasn’t made life any easier, because different people want different things from those who lead.

 

The tendency is to ask for too much, for qualities that can’t possibly be met by one person. I once heard an Archdeacon say that every parish who prepared a profile of the new vicar they wanted, asked for the Angel Gabriel, but with a wife and 2.4 children. I am sure Methodists churches look for similar things in their new ministers!

 

Our two readings today are both concerned with the characteristics of leaders.

 

The Zechariah passage comes from the time when the Jewish exiles had returned from Babylon, and were rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem. The royal line of David had disappeared – but there were still some people who hoped for a king of David’s house, who would lead them to military glory. Zechariah promises them a different kind of king – one who would triumph through negotiation and peacemaking; one who would end the need for arms and armies; one who would build community, and be a servant king, symbolized by the fact he would enter his capital on a donkey, not a war horse.

 

To some extent, the expectations of a king Messiah who would lead the Jewish nation to conventional victory persisted into New Testament times. But gradually other expectations were formed, fed by meditation on the Scriptures. As the Dead Sea Scrolls have shown us, there were hopes for a prophet Messiah and a priest Messiah, as well as a king Messiah.

 

Jesus, in the passage from Matthew’s Gospel, is redefining all those expectations. He claims to know the mind of God, not as God’s servant, but as closely as a child would know the mind of its parent. What God wants of us, he says, is that we should rely on God and rest on God; then we will find that the yoke of religion is light, not repressive, and will bring peace to our souls. Obeying God is not a matter of following a host of rules, but of being close to God and being true to what God made us to be.

 

At this time of year, we tend to be thinking quite a lot about our religious leaders. In both the Anglican and Methodist churches, ordinations take place around the end of June and the beginning of July; and for Methodist churches, July and August are the months when ministers move from one station to another, and when congregations may have to adjust to different styles of leadership. At the Methodist Conference, the new President and Vice-President take office, and the ones for a year’s time are elected. In the Anglican Diocese of St Albans, we will shortly be looking for a new Suffragan Bishop of Hertford, as the present holder of that office moves on to become Bishop of Liverpool.

All of these ordinations and changes involve consultations and decisions about what sort of leader churchgoers want nowadays. Different groups have different ideas!

Some ask for a pastor, some for someone who can work with people from other Christian traditions and other world faiths, and who can hold together groups with differing views. Some ask for a person who is good with youth, as numbers of young people attending our churches diminish. Others think it is important to have someone who can hold onto the older people we have got! People ask for someone who can inspire more realistic giving; or a pioneer minister, who can reach out to people who don’t find their spiritual needs met in conventional churches, who can encourage people to dream dreams and explore new ways of ‘being church’. Most ask for a person of prayer.

Some people are looking for moral perfection in their religious leaders. But we are all fallible humans, and as Jesus said “No-one is good but God alone”. Some people are looking for a leader who will give us all the answers; but Jesus rarely set down rules and regulations about beliefs or morality; more often he told a story and asked his listeners to draw their own conclusions. Some people are looking for someone who will give a moral lead, and condemn those whose behaviour they disapprove of; but Jesus ate and drank with such people, and welcomed them into the company of his followers. As the reading from Matthew shows, it is impossible to find a leader who will please everyone!

 

I want to suggest to you that the sort of leader that the church needs at the beginning of the 21st century is one who is, like the Messiah promised in Zechariah, humble and a person of peace. We need someone who sits light to authority, as Jesus describes himself as doing in the Gospel, and who does not impose too many conditions on those who seek to come to God through the institutional churches.

 

Our modern religious leaders no longer need to be people who do everything themselves. Rather, they need to be enablers and encouragers of others. As presbyters and deacons, bishops and superintendents, they will have their particular experience and training to offer to the church; but others, the lay members, will have experience and training which the clergy don’t have; in particular, the experience of living as a Christian in the world of work, and also perhaps, training in current management and personnel practices. A wise leader will value and make use of these, as well as other talents and skills, which lay Christians offer.

 

Any new leader will act as a focus for the local church where they serve, but he or she will be a focus in a church which is increasingly diverse. If they attempt to impose their own views on the church, whatever they may be, they will fail. I believe, that the primary task of any Christian leader nowadays will be to hold the church community together, and to teach its many factions how to live with disagreement, and how to talk through their differences without splitting the body.

 

In the passage from Matthew, Jesus compares those who hear his word with two different groups of children. One group he compares unfavourably with children who complain when they can’t get their own way, and refuse to play. There are groups in the church who all too frequently act like that.

 

Jesus compares others to children who accept whatever is offered to them with enthusiasm, their minds untrammelled by prejudice or convention. This group gains his approval.

 

All those in positions of Christian leadership will need our prayers, as they face the enormous responsibility and the enormous opportunities of leading each part of the church into the future. Let us pray that all Christian leaders will find, as our Lord promised, that God’s yoke is easy and his burden light.

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Mission Impossible?

 

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(Jeremiah 20, 7-13; Matthew 10, 24-39.)

 

In spite of the fact that there is still a fairly high level of unemployment, and jobs can be difficult to find, advertisements for them still try to make them sound as attractive as possible.

 

Recent teaching vacancies in this area offer inducements like this to applicants:

“We can offer you children who are well motivated and keen to learn, supportive and friendly staff and spacious well equipped classrooms.”

“We can offer you a supportive and friendly team and excellent professional development opportunities in a positive environment that encourages growth, whatever the stage of your career.”

So, the rewards offered are not just money, but also support from colleagues, a pleasant environment to work in, and good career prospects.

 

No human resources department nowadays would consider describing a job in the terms used in this Sunday’s Gospel. As they are sent out on their mission, what the disciples of Jesus are told to expect in this reading from Matthew’s Gospel is opposition, denigration, family conflict, and even execution. Not at all an enticing prospect!

 

It’s easy to jump to the wrong conclusions about what Jesus is saying here. He’s not commanding Christians to use physical force to impose their beliefs on others, or even to defend themselves against persecution. He’s not telling Christians to separate themselves from unbelievers, especially not if those unbelievers belong to their close family. He’s not saying that some people are destined to ‘get to Heaven’ and others are ‘condemned to Hell’.

 

Rather this passage paints a realistic picture of the consequences of submitting yourself to God’s sovereignty, of living by Kingdom values, of proclaiming the Gospel in word and deed. This picture applies both during Jesus’s lifetime, in the time when Matthew’s Gospel was written, and today. It says, in short, if you follow Jesus faithfully, whatever happened to Jesus is likely to happen to you.

 

So, Jesus was accused of being a servant of Beelzebub, the embodiment of evil. So were his disciples, so will we be. Jesus was disowned by his family, and his mission was opposed by his relatives. They came to take him home, alleging he was mad or possessed. His followers were accused of being mad in New Testament times, and still are today. So may we be. The radical message of Jesus provoked a strong reaction from those whose position and security it threatened. That continues to happen today.

 

Faith in the truth of what Jesus taught and the way he lived provoked deep divisions within his society, within the Roman Empire and within many, many societies since. Those divisions led to armed conflict, and death and injury to those on opposing sides. It still happens today. Jesus was put to death by the political and military rulers of his age. For the last two thousand years, people who attempt to follow him have been executed, sometimes in the name of Jesus himself. This passage predicts, though it does not endorse, that violence.

 

This passage says the denigration, the conflict, the violence is not something for Christians to fear. The body can be harmed, the body can be killed, but what is really important, the core of our being, our soul, cannot be destroyed. While isolation, injury and death are frightening, far more terrifying is to lose our faith in the God shown to us by Jesus, because that way lies spiritual death.

 

Jesus lost his life, but (in the picture language used in the Bible) was raised by God to Heaven, as a justification of the way he lived and what he taught. When we follow Jesus, we stand beside Jesus before God; when we deny Jesus, we separate ourselves from the God who raised him from death.

 

If we try to avoid the pain and conflict by compromising on Christ’s values, we may save our lives in human terms; but we will lose our connection with God’s Kingdom, in which we experience eternal life. It’s only when we make God’s sovereignty the priority in our lives and our decision making, that we experience the fullness of life that Jesus came to bring us.

 

This is the absolute opposite of the so-called ‘prosperity Gospel’ which assures us that following Jesus will being us wealth, status and personal happiness. That is not what we should expect.

 

The Old Testament reading today is a passage from the book of the prophet Jeremiah, which has a similar message. Jeremiah describes the consequences for him of speaking the words that God gives him. He complains that he has become a laughing stock; he moans that everyone mocks him. His prophesy of coming violence and destruction is so unpopular that everyone criticizes him for it. He is denounced for his message, even by his friends. Yet, if he tries to keep silent, to avoid speaking what he believes to be God’s truth, he is in torment; the words are like a burning fire shut up in his bones. Yet, his message ends on a note of hope: he has confidence in God’s ultimate triumph. He trusts that God will justify him in the end.

 

Today’s Psalm, number 69, also complains of strong opposition to the psalmist’s mission. He reports he has become a stranger to his kindred, that drunkards make up songs about him, that his enemies are more numerous than the hairs on his head. Does that sound familiar?

 

Yet, the passage from Matthew, while being entirely realistic about the possible unpleasant consequences of living the Gospel faithfully, also contains assurances of hope and comfort. Jesus assures us that the God in whom we trust has such a care for the world, that even the death of a sparrow is of concern (though there is no divine intervention to prevent it!) Jesus tells us that even the hairs on our heads are known to God; (but again, God does nothing to stop them falling out!) In bearing our cross in the service of the Gospel, we are assured of eternal life.

 

Bearing in mind that reassurance, what is the message that this passage from Matthew has for us in today’s church?

 

I think they stand as a reminder that the Christian life was never meant to be measured by worldly standards of success. We tend to speak of large churches, with lots of people in their congregations as ‘successful’ churches. But Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his book ‘The Cost of True Discipleship’: “Don’t put your hopes in large numbers, for true disciples will always be few”. Matthew is here teaching us that it is more important to be true to the Gospel than to be popular; and that is not likely to lead to large, rich churches. Most people prefer their comfort to the radical challenge of Jesus’s message. They don’t want to give up everything they have in order to follow Jesus. They don’t want to invite in the thieves and the tax collectors and the prostitutes to share their feast, and they don’t want to believe that such outcasts will be in the Kingdom of Heaven ahead of them. They don’t want to face the prospect of crucifixion, metaphorically or literally, for their faith. Perhaps, in view of this passage, some large enthusiastic congregations, if they are committed only to their own growth, and not to service of others, should be seen as a sign of failure, not success?

 

Lots of Christians today complain that Christianity no longer enjoys the support of politicians and the judiciary that it once did and so-called ‘Biblical values’ are not accorded a privileged position in the laws of our country. Christians in business or trade are subject to just the same anti-discrimination provisions as are those of no faith. This passage warns us that we should not expect that sort of privilege if we are serving the Kingdom of God. When the church holds a privileged position in society, and is supported by its powerful elites, it is more than likely that its values have been compromised.

 

The last suggestion I would like to make is on the personal level rather than the level of church or society. It is about how we should judge our family lives in the light of this passage. We tend to judge families as good or bad Christian ones according to how united they are in their faith. But in fact there are very few ‘united families’ in the Bible. Most of them were riven with conflict. When you read the Gospels carefully, Jesus was not very supportive of family life. He told his followers to expect division within their families (even more scandalous a thing in his society than in ours) and demanded that his disciples put their loyalty to God above their loyalty to their families. This is of course difficult for us to accept, since we tend to want to be on good terms with our families. But we shouldn’t feel ourselves to be failures as Christians if our families disagree over faith, and over how best to serve God. After all, that was the situation with Jesus, who we follow.

 

Matthew tells us here that the Kingdom values which should guide our lives are not, and never have been, popular or the norm. Submitting ourselves to the sovereignty of God is unlikely to bring us comfort, or peace, or success in worldly terms. The only promise to those whom Jesus calls to work with him is that they will stand alongside him in the light of God’s approbation – and that is eternal life.

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Metaphors for God

(Isaiah 40, 12-17, 27-end; 2 Cor. 13 11-end; Matt 28,16-20)

Today we mark the one major festival in the Church’s year which celebrates a doctrine, rather than an event or a person.

 

Belief in God as Trinity is one of the cornerstones of our faith – yet it is something that most preachers find it difficult to preach about. So much so that JHR, a previous Vicar of mine, later a Bishop, once told me ‘the wise preacher always arranges to be away on holiday on Trinity Sunday’; and someone on Twitter advised the preacher on Trinity Sunday  heresykitten

Why are preachers so reluctant to preach on Trinity Sunday? Because it is almost impossible to do so without explaining it in a way that has been denounced as heretical at some time in church history. Belief in the Trinity is set out in the three Creeds – the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, and most comprehensively, in the Athanasian Creed (which Anglicans are supposed to recite on Trinity Sunday, but rarely do nowadays!) But these creeds are felt to be too complicated for ordinary folk in the pews to understand.

So preachers resort to metaphors to try to explain it more simply. I’m sure we’ve all heard them at some time or other: God the Trinity is like a shamrock, one plant with three leaves; God the Trinity is like a person who plays different roles in their life (mother, daughter,sister), but is the same person; God the Trinity is like water, which can exist as solid, liquid and gas but is still H20; God the Trinity is like an egg, shell, yolk and white, which together make up a complete egg; God the Trinity is like an electric cable,which consists of positive, negative and earth cable; and so on.Trinity Shamrock

But all of these fall into the trap of committing one heresy or another. If you can find it, there is a funny cartoon film on the internet called “St Patrick’s Bad Analogies” in which St Patrick tries to draw simple analogies to explain the Trinity to two Irish peasants, only to be told they are all heretical; so he gives up and quotes the Athanasian Creed to them instead!

So how did we end up with a central doctrine so difficult to explain? The doctrine of the Trinity was something that developed slowly, out of the experience of the first disciples. As they reflected on their life with Jesus, and as they lived on after the Resurrection, inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit, they came to realise that both Jesus and the Spirit shared the character of the God of Israel they had been taught about in the Torah, and in the prophets like Isaiah. So all three spoke to them of ‘God’. As the New Testament was written, its authors drew on images from the Hebrew Scriptures (and later also from contemporary Greek philosophy) to try to express their experiences. For example, Proverbs speaks of Wisdom, as something which is of God and from God, but is somehow distinct from God, working alongside God in the creation of the world. Wisdom came to be identified in Christian thought with Jesus, especially in John’s Gospel as the Logos or Word; and with the Holy Spirit.

Though a developed doctrine of the Trinity is nowhere spelt out in the New Testament, there are hints of it. In his epistles, Paul speaks of being “in Christ’ as the same as being restored to the image of God, lost in the Fall. He also writes as if the experience of the Spirit is inseparable from the experience of the Father or of Christ. So Father, Son and Spirit are one. This recognition of a divine unity of teaching, action and purpose runs through all the New Testament writings. It was not problematic for those first believers, even though they came from a monotheistic background.

It was only when the Christian faith moved out into the Graeco-Roman world, and people who didn’t know the historical Jesus began to speculate on how exactly Jesus and the Spirit could be God; and exactly when Jesus became God; and which bits of him were divine and which bits human; and whether there was a hierarchy of divinity within the Godhead; and when philosophers began to try to define exact answers to these questions, and to insist that everyone had to believe the same things, that the doctrine of the Trinity became problematic. Which is not surprising, because such questions are unanswerable, especially several hundred years after the event.

The doctrine of the Trinity uses a metaphor to try to encapsulate the disciples’ experience of God, which is also the experience of those who lived the faith after them. Jesus taught his followers to call God ‘Abba’ – Daddy. The New Testament writers followed his lead, and used the metaphor of ‘father’ and ‘son’ to describe the relationship between Jesus and God. They were as similar to each other as family members often are – yet were different beings. The same ‘Spirit’ or breath breathed through them, and was part of them both.

The Greek speaking fathers of the church used the term ‘hypostasis’ which means being or manifestation, or underlying reality to refer to each part of God the Trinity. When the creeds and other theological documents were translated into Latin, the word used was ‘persona’, which originally meant a mask worn by an actor, and then came to mean the role played by an actor. Translated into English, the word became ‘person’, which means a human being. Hence our tendency to imagine the Trinity as three people, or two people and a bird. This can be a severe limitation on our concept of God, who is beyond all our imagination, and not to be limited by human concepts of what a person is and can do.

It is important to emphasise that the language we use about the Trinity is metaphorical. Metaphors point beyond themselves to something that is difficult to understand. That is why to explain the Trinity (a metaphor about God) with other metaphors simply makes a bigger muddle. A metaphor is not an explanation, it is something which helps us to explore, which cannot grasp the whole truth, but which encourages us to keep engaging with the mystery.

But metaphors are limited. The metaphor of the Trinity imagines God as three – persons, identities, modes of being or whatever. But the Bible, and Christian spiritual writing since speak of God in many more ways than just Father, Son, Spirit, or even Creator, Redeemer, Comforter. In the Old Testament, God is much more than creator; other names for the divine include, Lord, King, Shield, Rock, Shepherd, Redeemer, Light to the Nations, The Most High. Jesus is is not just Son; he is Saviour, Bridegroom, High Priest, Bread of Life, Head, Teacher. The Spirit also has many names and roles. The Trinity is just a shorthand for the multitude of ways that Godself is revealed to us and the infinite number of ways through which we may come to know God.

There is also a tendency for people to confuse the metaphor with the reality. So, because we speak of two of the persons of the Trinity as Father and Son, some people imagine that they can only be spoken of in masculine terms, and represented by males. To speak of God or Jesus as Mother, and feeding us with milk from herself, makes some people uncomfortable, as does referring to any part of the Trinity as ‘she’. But God is not a being, and so is beyond gender, so it should not do.

Perhaps it might be better not to use words, but to use pictures or diagrams. In some churches you will find triangles, representing the Trinity. I like the Rublev icon, known as the Hospitality of Abraham, which represents the Trinity as three androgynous figures, gazing at each other; but it perhaps falls into the trap of making God seem like three human persons.

Rublev_OT_TrinityAnother representation I find it helpful to meditate on is this ancient Irish symbol, where a continuous line unites the three parts, without ever ending.Irish Trinity

 

The Greek fathers spoke of the relationship between the persons of the Trinity as ‘perichoresis’ or indwelling – a relationship of perfect unity of will and harmony of action. Some modern scholars have proposed a social doctrine of the Trinity, which reflects perichoresis, in that the unity of the Trinity consists in loving relationships. This implies that the doctrine of the Trinity is really all about relationships: the relationships within the Godhead and the relationships between the divine and the human. Within the Godhead there is difference (reflected by the theological language about ‘persons’) but a perfect unity. It speaks against the individualism of our culture and for the importance to human flourishing of life in community.

So, perhaps we are just called to accept that the Trinity is part of the mystery that is God, and simply to live it. And that means working out how to reflect, in our individual and church lives, a God who reveals the divine through the Spirit, through the life of Jesus and through the created world.

If we are to live in accordance with our belief in God who is a Trinity of perfect love, unity and co-operation, then we need to find a way of being church that reflects God’s love unity and co-operation. Since we are not divine, we will not be able to mirror exactly the unity of the Godhead. Since we are human, we will never be able be able to understand the infinite mystery of God’s being. Since we are finite corporate beings, living in different environments and with different personalities, we will all experience God in different ways, and will tend to think that our way of knowing God is best.

Trinity Sunday is a yearly reminder to us that if we want to be true to our faith in our lives and our church, then we need to minimise the differences between us and other Christians and concentrate on the relationship with God we share, a relationship of love, of self-sacrifice, of unity of purpose.

If we concentrate on that, then perhaps neither the complicated theological arguments about the doctrine of the Trinity, nor the inadequate metaphors which try to help us understand the doctrine need worry us too much.

Last year’s sermon, slightly amended.

 

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Swimming with the Spirit.

Sermon for Pentecost.

Holy Spirit dove flameActs 2,1-21; John 20, 19-23

I wonder if you’ve noticed how swimming pools have changed. When I was a child, they were fairly quiet places. Maybe the fact that a lot of them were in the open air had something to do with it: only the hardy went swimming in them, unless it was as warm as it’s been the last week. It was fairly easy to find a time when you could swim out into the centre of the pool, and just relax, let the water hold you up, and drift with its support.

Modern swimming pools are quite different. The great draws nowadays are wave machines, flumes or water chutes, and swimming pools are places of noise and activity, screams and rushing water. Even if they don’t have all these extras, you will usually find lanes marked out for different speeds of swimming, as people go there to keep fit. If you tried to float quietly in the middle of most modern pools, you wouldn’t be very popular!

This contrast came into my mind recently when I was reading some words of John Wesley, describing the experience of the Holy Spirit, in a letter to Mary Cooke (1785) She was worried that she didn’t have an overwhelming experience of the Holy Spirit at her conversion, as others had.

Wesley said “There is an irreconcilable variability in the operations of the Holy Spirit on the souls of men, more especially as to the manner of justification. Many find him rushing upon them like a torrent, when they experience ‘the overwhelming power of saving grace’… This has been the experience of many. But in others he works in a very different way: ‘He deigns his influence to infuse, sweet refreshing as the dews’ and it is not improbable he will continue working in a gentle, almost insensible manner.”

Anyone hearing the story of the coming of the Holy Spirit from the Book of Acts, as we did this morning, could be forgiven for thinking that her activity is always full of noise and action, like a modern swimming pool. The commentary in Friday’s Church Times spoke about ‘God’s noisy life bursting on the scene’. But if you read about the Holy Spirit in other parts of the New Testament, and particularly in the Gospel of John, as we also did this morning, then another picture of the Spirit’s action emerges – one in which her activity is much more like the calm supporting strength of my quiet swimming pool.

Christian history has shown that the Spirit has continued to reveal herself in both forms – as an overwhelming force, which turns everything upside down; and as the quiet, sustaining strength, giving invisible support. But, as with swimming pools, sometimes one sort of action of the Holy Spirit is more fashionable than the other.

For a long time, the quiet, supporting mode of the Holy Spirit was in favour, especially with those who ran the churches, for they could then claim that they controlled, or were the channel for such activity. You could only receive the Holy Spirit through the sacraments of the church, particularly baptism, confirmation and ordination.

Nowadays, the wheel of fashion has turned, and we live in world where activity is favoured over passivity, and individuality over organisations. Now, some people seem to be claiming that the only authentic activity of the Holy Spirit is the dramatic form, which results in speaking in tongues, miraculous healing, prophecies, words of knowledge, sudden conversion, and all those experiences which go under the general label of ‘charismatic’. Sometimes, people who haven’t had such a dramatic experience of the Holy Spirit seem to be regarded as ‘not proper Christians’.

We need to beware of having our ideas restricted by fashion, in the church even more so than in the secular world. The Holy Spirit, the ‘bird of heaven’ as Sidney Carter referred to him in his less well-known hymn, is not to be confined to one mode of operation. As John Wesley concluded his letter: “Let him take his own way. He is wiser than you; he will do all things well. Do not reason against him, but let the prayer of your heart be ‘Mould as thou wilt thy passive clay’.

It may be that our characters make us more receptive to one mode of influence by the Holy Spirit than another. Or that our experience demands either a gentle growth or a sudden transformation as her way of converting us to a deeper faith.

It is not up to us to judge, nor to demand that the Holy Spirit works in us in one way rather than another. What we do have to judge, however, iswhether the spiritual influences we obey come from the Holy Spirit, or from somewhere else.

Jean Pierre de Caussade (who wrote ‘The Sacrament of the Present Moment’) gave a simple rule of thumb for such judgements:

“The masters of the spiritual life lay down this principle to distinguish the true inspirations of God from those that emanate from the devil; that the former are always sweet and peaceful, inducing to confidence and humility, while the latter are intense, restless and violent, leading to discouragement and mistrust, or else to presumption and self-will”.

We all pray, especially at this season of Pentecost, for the Holy Spirit to come upon us in greater power, to inspire us, to strengthen us and to renew us. But even when we think our prayer has been answered, we still need to exercise the discernment of which de Caussade spoke, and to check constantly that what we do and say in the name of the Holy Spirit does indeed bring forth the fruits of the Spirit in love and joy, peace and long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, fidelity, meekness and self control.

Holy Spirit, waterFor whether the water comes upon you as a rushing torrent, or as a gentle flow, its effects in cleansing and nurturing the inner life should be the same: to produce in us the image of God, revealed to us in the life and death of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.

Melt me, mould me, fill me, use me,

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.

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Ascension and Cognitive Dissonance

Acts 1, 6-14; John 17, 1-11

 

When I studied for my first degree in Sociology, one of the elements in the course was a unit on Social Psychology; and in the course of that unit I was introduced to the concept of ‘cognitive dissonance’.  Now, you may think that you don’t know what ‘cognitive dissonance’ means; but you have almost certainly experienced it at some time during your life.

 Cognitive dissonance refers to the discomfort we experience when we find a discrepancy or conflict between what we already know or believe and another piece of information, or interpretation or action. So, you might experience it if, for instance you believe you are an honest person, yet you take an opportunity which is presented you to steal; or if you have always maintained you are a pacifist, but find yourself hitting out at someone who’s just beaten you to the last parking space at the supermarket.

Cognitive dissonance also occurs when your prejudices or principles are challenged by some new piece of information, or by someone’s actions. Jesus made use of this in many of his parables: characters in them behave in unexpected ways – the Samaritan treats a Jew as a neighbour, the owner of the vineyard pays the late arrivals as much as those who have worked since dawn. Jesus’ intention in presenting people with these dilemmas is that they should resolve the psychological tension they feel from the dissonance by abandoning their prejudices or changing their beliefs.

 According to Festinger, who first put forward the theory, people feel most comfortable when there is consistency between their beliefs. Therefore, when they experience cognitive dissonance they will deal with it in one of three ways (or a combination of these). They can change one or other of the beliefs which are inconsistent; they can try to acquire more knowledge which may reduce the apparent inconsistency, or allow them to accommodate both belief systems; or they can try to isolate themselves from the information that conflicts with their own beliefs, or to denigrate the source of the conflicting information, so that they don’t have to change.

Religious belief can be a rich source of cognitive dissonance. The very first research on the concept was a study of a group of believers in the US whose prophet had told them that the earth was to be destroyed by a flood in December 1954, but that the faithful believers would be saved by aliens in a space ship sent by extra terrestrial Guardians. When the flood didn’t happen, some of the less committed believers gave up membership of the cult; but the most committed members remained, convinced by a new prophecy which said that their faith and good works had saved the earth from the planned flood.

 

We twenty-first century Christians, who belong to one of the ancient world faiths, find ourselves constantly experiencing cognitive dissonance, because the scriptures and other foundation documents of our faith were written by people from a pre-scientific culture, whose way of understanding the world was very different from our own. And this season of Ascensiontide is one of the times when that dissonance becomes most acute. We read the biblical accounts where, apparently, a human body is transported up through a cloud, to be with God above the sky. We sing hymns which say things like ‘Now above the sky he’s king’ and ‘Hail the day that sees him rise, glorious to his native skies’. Yet, we have watched on TV as people walk on the moon, we have seen pictures from spacecraft of the distant planets, and even images from radio telescopes of galaxies, far distant from us in space and time, colliding, exploding and re-forming into new stars and galaxies. 

If we believe in a physical universe like this, then where is there for the body of Jesus to go to? Perhaps that is why so many in the modern church tend not to celebrate Ascension Day. The fact that it always falls on a weekday makes it easier to ignore it. Yet, our faith ought not to be something we just pick up on Sundays, and ignore the rest of the week; and the Ascension is a major festival of the Church, which means it should have something important to teach us about the Christian faith. So how can we deal with this particular instance of cognitive dissonance.

You will remember the three strategies Festinger suggested people used to deal with cognitive dissonance. Employing the first we could abandon one or other belief system. Many of our contemporaries have abandoned their religious faith because they find it incompatible with a scientific understanding of the world – it is what those who argue so loudly in books and the media against religious belief, like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, believe is the only possible course for a rational modern person to take.

 

At the other extreme are people who won’t accept any of the scientific understanding of the world, or who reject the bits of that understanding that conflict with what they believe the  Bible says – the people who are, to a greater or lesser extent, religious fundamentalists. Many of these will also try to denigrate the sources of scientific knowledge as a further protection against dissonance.

 

Or, you could compartmentalise your beliefs – and a lot of people do this unconsciously. So you operate with one set of knowledge about how the world works during your normal daily life – and you slip back into a pre-scientific understanding when you pray or come to church or discuss religious faith. But splitting your life up into sealed compartments is not a very satisfactory way of living – and if our faith is worth anything, it should be something that informs the whole of our lives.

So I believe that the only satisfactory way of dealing with dissonance  between the thought systems with which we operate in everyday life, and those in which our faith is expressed, is to seek more knowledge and greater understanding, so as to reduce the conflict we feel between them. The question we need to ask is one posed by Leonard Hodgson and quoted by John Robinson in his book, ‘The Human Face of God’: “What must the truth have been if men who thought and spoke as they did put it like that?” And following on from that, John Robinson says we should ask, “What must we say for it to mean what they meant when they said things like that of Christ?”

When we read the Biblical accounts of the Ascension, we need to understand the hidden meanings, the ‘code’ as it were behind the language of the stories. 

The Jews of the time used ‘body’ to stand for the totality of a person – their mind, spirit, soul, personality and history. So, for the Gospel writers, the body of Jesus encompassed his personal history, his teaching, his actions, and the feeling which his followers had about him: that in him they had met God in a new and complete way. The passion stories tell us that Jesus was killed and buried; the Easter narratives tell us that the ‘body’ of Jesus was raised by God from the realm of death, and that this raised body (recognizably Jesus, but different) was seen by many of his followers. This was a resurrection body, part of a new creation, and, Paul says, not flesh and blood.

 Now, for the writers of the Bible, mountain tops were places of interaction with God, and the cloud signified the presence of God. So, when Luke tells us that the ‘body’ was taken from their sight into the cloud, he is sharing the disciples’ belief that the human being whom they knew as Jesus of Nazareth, was now being taken into God, and in future would be part of their understanding of what God was. 

Included in that understanding was the belief that God reigns over the people of the earth from a place that is hidden from our sight and understanding – for the people of that time, this was the sky – so ‘the heavens’ became ‘Heaven’, the spiritual realm.

The Ascension story also looks forward to Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit. From now on, the story  tells us, (through the angelic messenger, another metaphor for the presence of God) the disciples will no longer encounter Jesus through his physical body, confined to a particular time and place, but through the Holy Spirit; and that Spirit will empower all who follow Christ to continue his ministry through the whole world and through all time. Through it, Christ will always be available to everyone, in a way that the human Jesus was not.

 

What then is the Ascension story telling us? It is telling us that there is a dimension to life beyond that which can be seen and touched and measured by scientific means, a spiritual dimension which believers know is as real as the physical world. The Ascension story describes a moment when that spiritual world, is for a moment, more open than usual to our human understanding. 

 

It completes the story of the Incarnation, by telling us that Jesus of Nazareth, a human being who was so completely open to God that those who met him believed he had in some way come from the spiritual world, was, after his death, absorbed into God, so that our knowledge of him becomes part of our understanding of God.

 

It is a story that tells us that the physical body of Jesus is no longer of any importance. From this moment on we will know him, relate to him, and be empowered by him through the Holy Spirit – unseen, but nonetheless, real – which is the Spirit both of Jesus, and of God the Father and Creator.

 Because we struggle to understand and express all of these deep truths about God, who we know and experience as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we are probably always going to have to fall back on the picture or code language in which the Bible and the Creeds are written. But so long as we remember that they are just pictures, to help us express the inexpressible reality which is God, we shouldn’t be too much troubled by ‘cognitive dissonance’.

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