Covenant Relationships

golden-anniversary-france

 

(Romans 13, 8-14; Matthew 18, 15-20)

 

I always read the accounts in the local paper of couples celebrating their Golden or Diamond (or sometimes these days, their Platinum) wedding anniversaries. I’m interested in their recipes for a long marriage. But if they say, as they sometimes do, “We’ve never had a cross word,” I have to admit to a moment of disbelief. I simply can’t conceive of a relationship between two fallible human beings in which there has never been any disagreement or conflict. Or, if it is true, then I wonder whether one of the partners has sacrificed his or her own personality and needs in order to conform to what the other demands.

 

Marriage is a covenant, and our readings today are about covenants, and in particular, relationships within the covenant community of religious belief. The New Testament reading, from Paul’s letter to the Romans reflects on how the Old Covenant, based on the law given to Moses, is still applicable to the community of the New Covenant; and the Gospel reading is about relationships within that new covenant community, the Church.

covenant

In this passage from Matthew 18, it is not the historical Jesus talking. It refers to an organised church or congregation, a thing which existed only long after Pentecost. It is the absence of Jesus which brings the need for procedures to settle disputes between members of the church. The advice, arrived at after prayer and thought, is then given the authority of Jesus by being placed in the context of his teaching about relationships in the kingdom, including two parables.

 

We know from Acts and the Epistles that the early church, even in the apostolic age, was riven with conflict, just as today’s church is. That’s a normal part of any human relationships. Conflict is not bad or a sign of failure. David Ewart says: “Real churches have – or should have – real conflicts. The only real harm that will come to a church community is to refuse to deal with conflicts. Conflicts do not kill churches. Refusing to deal with conflicts kills churches”.

 

What is important is that we deal with conflict with Kingdom values guiding our actions. That means loving others as you love yourself. It means never giving up on anyone. It means wanting the best for others, even if you don’t particularly like them, or if what they want and need may make life more difficult for you. It means having a special care for the weak and the outsider. It means being honest with one another, even when that is difficult, acknowledging differences and not pretending everything is fine when it isn’t. Andrew Prior says: “Christians have been particularly good at replacing honest open love with being nice”.

 

I think that is true, particularly in the Church of England. But it is also true that Christians can behave in a very nasty way when a member of the congregation, or a group, disagrees with those in authority. This passage from Matthew has been used in such circumstances as a sort of legal process for disciplining dissident members, and eventually, for getting rid of them. That is why it is so important not to take this text in isolation, but to read it in context.

 

The first verses of Matthew 18 recount the disciples’ question to Jesus about ‘who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?’ Jesus replies by taking a child and telling them they must become like a child – without power, without legal status, vulnerable – if they hope to enter the Kingdom. He is emphasising the need for humility.

 

Then he talks more about children, or perhaps those who are new to the faith, or vulnerable, and says if anyone leads them astray, they will be condemned (reflecting the responsibility of leaders to take particular care of children, young people, and those who are new to church attendance). Then follows the passage about it being better to lose a hand or foot or eye, rather than offending others.

 

The third section of the chapter is the parable of the lost sheep. This highlights the importance of making every effort to keep all the members of the Christian community together, no matter how awkward or foolish they may be.

 

After the passage we heard today, Matthew includes the parable of the unforgiving servant, who is shown mercy by his master, but is eventually condemned for failing to show equal mercy to others. This comes in answer to Peter’s question about how many times he should forgive a brother who has offended him; to which the answer is ‘seventy times seven’, meaning endlessly.

 

So, the passage on conflict resolution is surrounded by others which outline the context in which disputes among Christians should be resolved. It is a context which highlights humility, mercy, forgiveness, community and making every effort not to offend others, and to keep everyone within the fold. Within the Christian community, resolution of differences is never to be conducted outside the grace of God. We have to recognise that we act as members of the Body of Christ; and that body includes an awful lot of people who are as difficult to live with as we are ourselves.

 

Read within its context, the instructions about how to deal with someone who sins against us personally is not telling us, “This is all you have to do before you get them thrown out of the church”. It is saying “This is just how hard you have to try, (and some!) to effect a reconciliation.”

 

Read within this context, the harsh saying about “Treat them as though they were a Gentile or a tax collector” is not giving you permission to regard those you think are sinners as outsiders. Jesus said the tax collectors would be among the first into the Kingdom of Heaven. So this is saying it is your duty to try even harder to bring them back into full fellowship with you and everyone else. Read within this context, the crucial verse is not this one about cutting people out, but the verse about the joy of regaining a member for the community. As Paul reminded the Romans, love is the fulfilling of the Law.

 

Reading this passage within its context also changes the way we hear the final two verses of the passage, about how our requests and our decisions will be received by God. ‘Gathered in my name’ means gathering and acting in a way that imitates Jesus, and following his example. This makes it clear that these verses are not about requesting things for ourselves; rather they are about how God will receive our prayers and decisions about seeking and reconciling those who might otherwise be lost. Those prayers and decisions should be characterised by God’s extravagant forgiveness, God’s endless search for those who may be lost, God’s loving-kindness for everyone, and  particularly for the weak and the vulnerable: the characteristics of the God who Jesus revealed to us.

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Reading this passage within its context makes us realise how often it has been misused during the Church’s history to persecute those groups whose ideas differ from those of the people who exercise power; and to justify the abuse of individuals, through institutions such as the Inquisition and during various inter-denominational conflicts.

 

Nowadays, we might think it’s not very relevant to the church. When was the last time a local church you were part of formally disciplined anyone? But at the institutional level, in national Anglican churches, and at the international level, in the Anglican Communion, it has become more and more common for one group to demand that another group or individual be disciplined, and expelled from the church over certain issues, especially over different approaches to gender, sexuality and marriage. And for me,  in the way that this is being done, there doesn’t seem to be much reference to the words and the example of Jesus we read in our Gospel passage today.

 

What is more relevant to us at the local level is not the formal legal processes which happen at the level of the national and international institutions of the church, but how we resolve differences between individuals and groups in our congregations, between PCC and clergy, and in multi-church parishes such as ours, between different church communities.

 

Our passage from Matthew (written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) makes it clear that reconciliation, not exclusion should be the aim of any procedure for resolving differences within a Christian community. Whether it is individuals or groups or even whole provinces that disagree, the ability to forgive and to tolerate difference is the mark of true discipleship in the Kingdom. Making sure that not one member, not one sheep from the Master’s flock, is lost and not one little one is damaged, is much more important than being right. The only thing that is really important is that we act in the name (that is with the character) of Jesus, and that love for all is the guiding principle of anything that we do.

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What is a cross?

Scan 6

Children’s Address for Trinity 12, Year A.

The cross is a very simple shape – the first shape a toddler draws and the shape a very sick or dying person makes to sign their name. But like all simple symbols, has a wealth of meaning.

It is the symbol of our faith, traced on forehead in oil or water at baptism. But if you look, can see lots of other meanings.

A sign post, or cross roads – Jesus showed us we have a choice in life – to follow the wide easy road that takes us away from God – or the steep, narrow road that leads to heaven.

A ‘T’ for truth – Jesus came to show us the truth about God – that he loves us so much he sent his Son so that everyone who believes in him has eternal life

A letter ‘I’ crossed out – We are naturally selfish beings. Jesus showed us how to live for others, not put ourselves first.

A person with open arms – on the cross Jesus was raised up with arms outstretched to draw everyone into a loving relationship with God. Our faith is a relationship, not a set of rules.

A sword – not to harm people with but to fight for right, and truth and justice.

A letter ‘X’ – this stands for nothing and it also the sign for when something is wrong (when your books are marked at school) For our sakes, Jesus made himself nothing; he was treated as though he was the one who got it wrong.

A vertical line and a horizontal line – the vertical line takes our thoughts to heaven, and reminds us of our relationship with God. The horizontal line points out to the world and the people round us. Both are essential to our faith. You cannot just worship God and ignore the needs of others; but you cannot just do social action and not relate to God. Jesus’ summary of the law – love God, love your neighbour.

xxx – kisses, the sign of love. Jesus came to show God’s love for us.

x a multiplication sign – Our job as Christians is to multiply that love and spread it around the world to people who don’t yet know it.

A walking stick – to remind us that Jesus is always with us, to support us when the journey of faith gets difficult.

A letter ‘J’ – for Jesus.

A shepherd’s crook – reminding us that Jesus said ‘I am the Good Shepherd’ and watches over us and cares for us and seeks us out when we’re lost.

A flag or banner – to wave in celebration of Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Day.

Empty – although the cross reminds us of the death of Jesus, it is an empty cross. This reminds us that though he died, Jesus was raised by God to new life, to show he did teach the truth, he was right, he did point the way to God.

Any more ideas?

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Follow Me

Take up your Cross

(Romans 12, 9-21; Matt. 16, 21-28.)

There’s a version of the Gospel that is preached by some evangelists, particularly some of the tele-evangelists in the United States, which says that if you live according to what the Bible teaches, pray regularly and tithe your income in  gifts to the church, you will experience material prosperity in this life. Pastor Ike in the 70’s said “Don’t wait for pie-in-the-sky by and by. Get yours now with ice cream on top.” The Lord does not want anyone to be materially poor, they say, and they deny the traditional picture of Jesus as a poor person. They argue that he was wealthy enough to support his 12 followers. Rather than having a special concern for the poor, they say, God wants all his followers to be rich, and if they obey him, they will be given the power to become wealthy (and the limousines and private jets of the tele-evangelists are proof that this is right).

There is some support for this view of faith in the Old Testament, particularly in the Book of Deuteronomy and in the history books that follow, and in some of Proverbs. They constantly reiterate warnings to obey God and be faithful to the covenant, so that “your life may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you” and Deuteronomy 8.18 specifically promises “Remember that it is the Lord your God who gives you the power to become rich”.

The belief came into prominence again, to a certain extent, after the Reformation. Some groups taught that you could tell ‘the elect’, those pre-destined to God for salvation, by their material possessions. This lead to what the sociologist Max Weber called ‘The Protestant Work Ethic’ credited by him with promoting the rise of capitalism in the West.

There is also a version of the Gospel that is taught which maintains that those who have true faith will never get things wrong, and never encounter doubt or despair. If you really believe and trust in God, this version of Christianity says, you will sail through life in peace and confidence.

But the view that God rewards those who are faithful with peace of mind and prosperity in this life did not even hold sway throughout the whole of the Old Testament period. As early as the prophet Elijah, we find him complaining that doing God’s will has brought him only misery and danger – and we get similar complaints against God in Jeremiah, in the Psalms and the Book of Job. Elijah, Jeremiah and Job are driven to complain to God about the divine treatment of them which, they feel they have not deserved.

Perhaps we find it strange that some of the major Old Testament figures berate God so vigorously in their prayers. We are more used to hearing about God’s dependability from those who have faith. But very often the God who replies is not a comforting God. “Stop complaining” the divine voice often says. “You can’t understand the big picture. Life as my servant is not meant to be all honey. Just get on with the task I have given you, and trust me for the future.”

I imagine that in the euphoria of accompanying Jesus on his ministry in Galilee, witnessing the success of his preaching, his miracles and the large crowds who followed him, the disciples must have believed in a version of the ‘prosperity gospel’: that Jesus was the promised Messiah who would throw out the Romans, re-establish the Kingdom of Israel, and that his loyal followers would have pride of place in his administration. No wonder Peter reacted so badly when Jesus began to predict his arrest and crucifixion. That didn’t fit in with his dreams for the future at all.

And, just as God reacted with bluntness to Jeremiah, Elijah and Job, so Jesus answers Peter with a sharpness that we find surprising, calling him by the name of the Devil. Why? Because Peter was doing Satan’s work for him, in preaching the idea that there is a way of doing what God wants us to do which is guaranteed to bring us peace and prosperity, whereas it is much more often the case that, in following God’s commands, people get hurt.

Just as God did with those who complained in the Old Testament, Jesus urges the disciples to get back on the right track, to face up to what is coming for him, and possibly, for them. “Follow me” will not lead to guaranteed peace of mind and prosperity. It may lead to persecution, it may lead to death.

But again, there is a reassurance at the end.

Although sometimes we may feel that God has deserted us, and at times, our faith is not strong enough to get us through the hard times without complaint, there will be justification for those who are faithful, Jesus says; but in God’s time, and in God’s Kingdom, not necessarily on earth.

I find it very reassuring that sometimes the giants of the faith, like Peter, can get discouraged and get things spectacularly wrong. It puts the problems we experience as a follower of Christ into perspective. I am sure that many of you will have experienced times (as I have) when doing what we believe to be the work of God has brought us frustration, exclusion, hurt feelings and problems in life. I am sure, because it is a common experience of the great spiritual writers, that many Christians experience a period, sometimes called ‘The Dark Night of the Soul’ when prayer seems dry, God seems to be absent, and our faith is severely challenged.

I have known many faithful Christians who have gone through periods in their lives when everything seems to go wrong for them: a string of people they love have become ill and perhaps died; they themselves have experienced loss of employment or major health problems; relationships have gone wrong; everything seems to be against them. In these circumstances ‘carrying your cross’ is not just a phrase, it is an ever present reality, and what they really want to do is to shout at God that life is unfair. As St Teresa of Avila is quoted as saying: “Dear Lord, if this is how you treat your friends, it is no wonder you have so few!”

It can be hard to be a member of a church community when you are going through this sort of experience. The dominant atmosphere in the majority of our churches (perhaps as a reaction to the doom and gloom of previous generations) is joy and praise. If you are depressed, if you are going through a period of doubt, if your faith is not bringing you any comfort, if you are bearing heavy burdens, it can be hard to admit it, especially if you have a position of responsibility in the church and are expected to be an example to others.

Our readings today should reassure us that no-one is infallible, and no-one should expect to be happy and confident in their faith all the time. But they also reassure us that, despite appearances, God is not absent.

Hardship, troubles and depression may be part of the road God asks us to tread when we answer Jesus’ call to “Follow me”. But God is there with us, even if we can’t feel the divine presence.

In all circumstances, in times of joy and in times of sorrow, when things are going well and when we seem to have come to a dead end in our faith, the words of Paul in his letter to the Romans give good advice. They tell us to be sensitive to the moods of our fellow-Christians, to be happy with those who are happy, but to mourn with those who are sad.

They encourage us to think the best of what is happening, to be patient in times of trouble and to persevere with prayer, even when it does not give us satisfaction. They encourage us to be humble and to work hard, and not to expect riches and success to fall into our laps just because we are faithful Christians.

They encourage us to love sincerely both our Christian friends and those who may think about things quite differently from us. Above all, they teach us that we need to trust God to sort things out, even through times of persecution, conflict, trouble and failure. God will not reject us if we rail against the divine will – after all, the one whose Son bore the cross for us is not going to be too offended by a few human complaints. But as Paul reminds us, we should strive always for the best in life, for others before ourselves, so that good overcomes evil. That is what we are called to do when we respond to Jesus’ call to “Follow me”.

Many crosses

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Feed the children or go to the dogs?

Canaanite woman(Isaiah 56, 1 & 6-8; Rom. 11, 1-2a & 29-32; Matt. 15,21-28)

 

What are we here for?

What is the task of the Church?

 

The standard answer, if you look on a lot of church websites, is that we are here for mission and evangelism. We are sent out (our mission from God) to share the Good News (the evangel) with the world.

 

That may seem obvious to us now; but our readings indicate that this was not always obvious to the Early Church, or to the disciples, or even to Jesus himself.

 

The story we heard from Matthew’s Gospel (which also appears in Mark, but not in Luke) is a very disturbing one. Jesus travels to the border country where his native Galilee meets the non-Jewish territories of Tyre and Sidon. There, he is met by a non-Jewish woman, who needs his help for her sick child.

 

She does not ask quietly; she shouts! And when she is ignored, she keeps on shouting!

 

His disciples clearly find her a nuisance, and ask him to do something to make her stop: either to exorcise the demon, or to send her away (the Greek word could mean either). But Jesus does neither; he simply states his belief that his mission is only to the Jews, and specifically to the ‘lost sheep’ of Israel, those who have fallen away from their true allegiance to the Kingdom of God.

 

The woman then changes tactics. She comes closer and kneels in front of him. She addresses him as ‘Lord’ and ‘Son of David’, titles of honour. She begs humbly for his help.

 

Jesus’ answer to her is not only negative, it is blatantly insulting. He compares the message he brings to ‘food for the children’ and her race to the dogs that scavenge around outside the house. Now, many of us keep dogs as pets; they live inside our houses with us, are fed special food, and are loved and cared for. It wasn’t like that in the Palestine of Jesus’ time. Dogs were unclean animals, not allowed in houses; they had to find their own food wherever they could, among the floor coverings that would be swept out of the house into the yard

.Canaan dog

 

And even though our attitudes to dogs have changed, to call a human being a dog is still an insult. Just imagine for a moment if a Pakistani Muslim woman came to the house of a Christian minister asking for help, and the minister refused and called her a bitch into the bargain. It would be headline news and the minister would undoubtedly face disciplinary proceedings.

 

Yet, instead of taking offence and giving up, the unnamed woman persists, and uses the same insulting language to press her case, arguing that she is not asking for the whole loaf that would be shared by the master and his family, merely the scraps and leftovers.

 

And then comes the most surprising and challenging element in the story. Jesus, who has been so definite about his mission, appears to change his mind, and grants the woman’s request. As with other healings of Gentiles in the Gospels, he heals at a distance; but he commends the Gentile woman’s faith, in an implicit contrast with the lack of faith of many of his fellow Jews who have rejected his message.

 

In Matthew’s Gospel this story comes between a passage where Jesus answers criticism of his disciples from the Pharisees and scribes, because his followers do not observe the strict laws of ritual cleanliness; and the second ‘Feeding of the Multitude’ miracle, where he feeds 4000 men, plus women and children, which scholars take to represent the mission to the Gentiles.

Taken together, these passages Illustrate the struggle that was going on among the apostles at the time that the Gospels were written about what they were there for; to whom were they sent; who were they supposed to evangelise?

 

By the time the Gospels were written, the mission to non-Jews was already a reality. After the Jewish revolt in AD 67-70, the Jewish centre of the Church in Jerusalem disappeared, and by the middle of the second century, the Jewish part of the Christian Church was beginning to be regarded as inferior, even heretical. Eventually, it disappeared altogether, and centuries of Christian anti-Semitism took over.

 

It was not meant to be like that. In our Old Testament reading we heard the prophet known as Third Isaiah speaking to the Jewish people after their return from around 60 years of exile in Babylon. He urges them to live according to the commandments of their God, pursuing right and justice for all. Through that means, he says, foreigners, even the ones who oppressed them, will come to know the one true God. Eventually, they will even come to the temple at Jerusalem to join in worship there. Through the faithful witness of the Jewish people, even in suffering, the whole world will be evangelised and all people will be united in the truth.

In the Letter to the Romans, we hear Paul struggling to reconcile prophecies such as this with the fact that the majority of his fellow-Jews seem to have rejected Jesus, God’s chosen Messiah. Does this mean that God’s plan has changed, he asks. Paul is proud of his Jewish ancestry, he has been brought up to believe that salvation for the world will come through the Jews, but it doesn’t seem to be happening. Yet, he cannot believe that God will reject the Chosen People. The salvation that comes through Jesus is for the Jews first, but through them it is offered to the whole world.

 

Paul’s letters, and the Book of Acts, show the enormous struggle that the Early Church went through to decide exactly how non-Jews should be absorbed into the fellowship of Christ’s followers. They show the apostles going to the Jewish communities first with the Gospel, but being forced through circumstances to take it to sympathisers (God-fearers) among the Gentiles, and finally to take the Good News directly to non-Jews. The Book of Acts portrays this is in a vivid way in the story of Peter’s dream, an incident of such importance that the story is repeated three times.

 

The Gospel story we heard portrays this difference about the path that our mission should take as going right back to Jesus himself. He starts out, as did the first apostles, with a mission directed only to Jews; but through the persistence of Gentiles who have faith, he is persuaded to offer the healing and salvation he brings to non-Jews too.

 

The final words of Matthew’s Gospel describe Jesus sending his disciples out on a mission to evangelise the whole world. How do we live out that commission today, in our own churches and our own communities?

Do we live it out?

 

The Gospel reading faces us with hard questions about whether we still operate with ideas of mission which involve feeding the favoured children first, leaving only the crumbs for those we regard as second-best human beings, or even ‘dogs’.

 

Who are those that Christians regard as ‘dogs’ in our world today? The events in Charlottesville in Virginia last week, show that there is still a strand of Christianity that thinks people are excluded from God’s mercy on the grounds of race, or skin-colour, or religion or sexuality. The posters held up by the marchers show that the anti-Semitism which has been such a stain on Christian history is still very much alive today.

 

And who are those we would like to exclude from our fellowship, or shoo away, or silence, as the disciples wanted to silence the Canaanite woman? Isn’t that how the Church tends to treat those who disturb its peace by demanding to be listened to, given equality and a place at the table? Which groups of people tend to be left to pick up the crumbs, rather than being fed?

 

Children?

Those who like noisy modern music?

Those who question traditional ways of interpreting the faith?

The poor (as some of the bishops have said this week)?

The very elderly?

Travellers and asylum seekers and refugees?

People with disabilities?

People who are LGBTI+, gay or lesbian, or bisexual, or transgender, or intersex, or who don’t conform to what the majority thinks is ‘normal’ in some other way?

Jews and Muslims, and those of other religions and none?

 

Can we, as the Body of Christ hear God talking to us through such people as these, as Jesus heard God talking to him through the Canaanite woman, and demanding not just the crumbs, but an equal place at the Lord’s table for all of these?

 

Only if we can, will these ‘dogs’ be seen God’s children, part of God’s Chosen People, members with us of God’s Beloved Community.

 

 

 

 

 

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Coming Down from the Mountain

Transfiguration

 2 Peter 1, 16-19; Luke 9, 28-36

I once read an article  about a man who had been the youngest member of the team that climbed Mount Everest for the first time in 1953. He had high hopes of being part of the group that made the final assault on the summit; but just as he was ordered to lead a team of Sherpas to beyond Camp 4, the final jumping off place for the attempt on the summit, he contracted ʻflu, and was sent back to lower altitudes to recuperate. However, he recovered in time to be back up on the mountain as Hillary and Tenzing returned from the summit; and in later years, he went on to climb other unconquered peaks like Kangchenjunga in the Himalayas, technically a harder climb than Everest.

Apart from the exhilaration of being so high, these climbs engendered a tremendous sense of comradeship between the members of the climbing teams – and every year, the surviving climbers met up to relive the experience in a Victorian hotel at the foot of Mount Snowdon in Wales.

We are doing something similar here today, remembering the Transfiguration.

mount-everest-1   I donʼt go in for mountain climbing, but I have taken many holidays in mountainous regions, especially the Alps.  We usually go up to the peaks by railway, with lots of other people, but almost everywhere we have been, it is possible to get away from the crowds, to enjoy the silence and the glorious views. I remember one very special moment, when we were on the top of a peak near Luzern on August 1st, the Swiss National Day. As we stood looking over the snow capped peaks, and the green mountain side going down to the lake, we heard a group begin to play music on Alpenhorns – haunting harmonies that re-echoed around the peaks – heavenly music indeed!

Mountains in the Old Testament were very often places of encounter with God. Moses, as we heard, went to the top of a mountain to receive the Ten Commandments, and Elijah was on Mount Horeb when God spoke to him in the ʻstill small voiceʼ. These were two major figures of the Jewish faith, representing the self-disclosure of God through the Law and the Prophets, and they were expected to appear again on earth at the end of time.

In the New Testament, some of the high points in Jesusʼ ministry – the great sermon, the Transfiguration and the Ascension – all take place on mountains.

We can see why people who believed in a ʻthree-decker universeʼ – heaven above, the earth in the middle, and hell or the abode of spirits beneath – would feel closer to God at the top of a mountain. There is also the fact that mountain tops were often covered in cloud; to be within the cloud makes you feel small and lost and vulnerable – and the cloud or shekinah was a sign of the presence of God in the mind of the Jews. But all of us who have been up mountains can appreciate that the view from a mountain, of creation spread out before you, is a powerful illustration of the glory of God. Whatʼs more the silence and the thinness of the air there are conducive to religious ecstasy.

IMG_2606

View from Snowdon

So it is not surprising that three of the Gospel writers (Matthew, Mark and Luke) set the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus from his earthly form into the glory of heaven on a mountain top. In this experience, witnessed by his three closest companions among the disciples, Jesus is shown conversing with Moses and Elijah, and is acknowledged, as at his baptism, by a voice from the cloud, as ʻMy beloved Sonʼ.

It must have been a thrilling moment for  those who witnessed it. No wonder Peter suggested that they should build some shelters on the mountain, and stay there.

But human beings cannot live for long on the top of very high mountains. The air is too thin, and there is not enough food or water there to support life. Human beings always have to come down from the mountain top, and get on with life at ground level.

And that is just what happened to Jesus and his disciples. All three Gospel writers put the story of the Transfiguration at the turning point of their Gospels. From this moment, literally and spiritually, Jesus begins his journey to Jerusalem and the cross. From this time onwards, his teaching is about the suffering and opposition the Messiah must suffer, and the certain death that is to come.

The disciples resist this process of being brought down to earth with a bump. They argue against Jesusʼ interpretation of his Messiahship. They have seen his glory; surely, they only have to tell others of their experience for them to believe. Or perhaps they think, the transfiguration can be repeated at ground level, to force people to believe. Only later, perhaps, will they look back and see that the mountain top experience was what gave them the strength to carry on through the agony of the cross to the experience of resurrection. The people of the Apostolic Church, as we heard in our first reading, were sustained through times of trial by the memories those first disciples shared of their mountain top experience.

Many of us will have had ʻmountain top experiencesʼ in our religious life – though not necessarily at the top of a mountain. There are, for most of us, times when our faith is strengthened, and we are encouraged to carry on by an overwhelming experience. Perhaps it is the experience of worship, in a large crowd as at Taize; or in a quiet spot imbued with centuries of prayer, like Holy Island or Iona; or supported by glorious music, such as you find in at Evensong or Carols at Kings College Cambridge. Or perhaps a course of teaching prompts us to see our faith in a completely new and exciting way. Perhaps we may have experienced an unexpected healing of body or mind; or perhaps a kind act by someone, or an encounter with a person of spiritual depth brings revelation and a deepening of faith.

But few of these experiences last for long. Sooner or later, we all have to come down from the mountain top, and get on with life in the valley , life in all its ordinariness, and with all its problems. Most of us, like Peter, would much rather stay on the mountain, where the glory of God is right in front of our eyes, and there is no room for doubts. However, the voice of God from the cloud will not allow us to stay there. It tells us to listen to Jesus, and Jesus is leading us down again, and along another path to glory, one which goes through the depths, through failure and death, rather than along the heights.

We cannot stay on the mountain top. But we can carry the mountain top experiences with us, to inspire us when the going is tough, and to give us a goal to work towards.

IMG_1501Those of you who have visited the fjords or other parts of Norway may have been told that during the winter months the sun doesnʼt reach the settlements at the base of the mountains for months at a time. Sometimes, living the Christian faith can feel like living in one of those settlements on the edge of the floor, in perpetual gloom.

When we feel like that, we need to treasure our memories of the peaks of faith to give us hope that the glory is there, though hidden from our sight. And we need to build into our spiritual lives opportunities to visit the mountain top on a regular basis, either through reading the Scriptures, through prayer, through being part of the Churchʼs campaigns or through contact with people through whom the glory of God shines, so that our belief in the possibility of Transfiguration is maintained when we come down from the mountain – as we must.

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Wisdom, Word and Parables

Wild flowers at the top station, Brambrüesch

(Wisdom of Solomon 12, 13 & 16-19; Matthew 13, 24-30, 36-43)

 

The Church of England’s General Synod has just met in York; and like so many meetings of that body recently, the most contentious items on the agenda were 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.

 

In 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).

 

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 our first reading came from, 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) 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 parable, 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.

 

The allegorical explanations for some of the parables were very probably added by the Early Church, to apply them to current situations in their community life. This is certainly the case with the explanation to the parable of the Weeds and the Tares we heard. This belongs to the situation of the Early Church, and its preoccupation with what would happen at the Second Coming (which they expected to come very soon after the resurrection.)

 

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 the parable 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 this particular parable is making. This explanation is based on the work of C.H. Dodd, who wrote a seminal book on the parables.

 

Tares were a form of edible grass which gave a very small yield. Because, as the parable of the Sower shows us, the Palestinian farmer didn’t go in for elaborate preparation of the ground before he sowed seeds, there would inevitably be some of its seeds growing among the good seed. But it would be dangerous to try to pull it up while the wheat was growing, because that would risk destroying some of the good crop.

 

One part of Jesus’ teaching talked about a Judgement in the future. However, other parts imply the Kingdom of Heaven was already here. One objection to the idea that the Kingdom of Heaven was here was that there were still many sinners around; in this parable, Jesus may be telling his listeners not to worry about those who they regarded as sinners, even if they were members of the people of God (Israel or the Church). Any judgement and sorting was for God to do, in God’s good time, not for human beings. Attempting to cast out those who you regard as evil does more harm than good.

 

But this is only one possible explanation. The whole point about parables is that they were vivid and memorable, yet at the same time they left sufficient doubt about their precise teaching to prompt people into continued questioning, 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?’

If there is any element of compulsion in that decision, it is not Jesus’ way.

 

And, for those of us that follow the news about Synod and its decisions, that is a very relevant point for today’s Church of England, which some seem to be trying to turn into a church where only the ‘pure’ are allowed. It 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.

 

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!

 

Unknown

 

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Choosing a Leader

Unknown

(Romans 7, 15-25a; Matthew 11, 16-19 & 25-30)

“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 all be met by once 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 spouse and 2.4 children.

 

Part of our Gospel reading for today is concerned with the characteristics of leaders.

 

Jesus, in the passage from Matthew’s Gospel, is commenting on how the people of his time reacted to two very different leaders, John the Baptist and himself. Neither of them seemed to fit the current ideas of what a prophet should be like.

 

But Jesus 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 in 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.

 

St Paul wrote his letter to the Roman Christians to prepare for his first visit to them in person. He regarded himself as a leader of the Church, an apostle, one especially chosen by God to take the Gospel of Christ to the Gentiles. This letter sets out his understanding of that Gospel, and in particular of its relationship to the Torah, the Jewish Law.

Earlier in the letter, Paul talks about his understanding of the Law: how it had a good purpose, but yet seemed to tempt human beings to sin, because of the human tendency to want what is forbidden.

 

Then, in the passage we heard this morning, Paul gets personal, and talks about his own struggle to do what is right, and how he constantly fails. It’s a situation we all recognise from our own lives, isn’t it? It shows Paul admitting to very human failings, not claiming to be a perfect leader at all.

 

In the past year, we seem to have been constantly reading about or taking part in elections, in this country and elsewhere. The tendency nowadays seems to be to concentrate attention on those standing for office, their religion, looks, race and personal attributes, rather than on the policies they are putting forward. Each side seeks to discredit the leaders of the opposing parties, often dragging up incidents from the past, to show them as untrustworthy, or stupid. But, in view of some of the results, it doesn’t seem to be a very good way of influencing how people vote.

 

At this time of year, we also 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. In the Church of England, it’s the time when parishes receive their newly ordained deacons, curates who will be training with them for the following three years.

 

And because curates only tend to stay for three years nowadays, it’s also the time when we have to say farewell to those curates who have now been appointed as vicars of parishes of their own. And at this time the dioceses will be beginning to consult about the placement of deacons who will come in twelve month’s time.

 

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

 

Some will ask for a pastor, good at helping people with their problems; some for a person  who can work with people from other Christian traditions and other world faiths. 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 also 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; or someone who can encourage people to dream dreams and explore new ways of ‘being church’.

 

Some people are looking for moral perfection in their religious leaders. But we are all fallible humans, and as Jesus said, and Paul admitted, “No-one is good but God alone”. Some people are looking for a leader who will give them 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 a leader who will give a moral lead, and condemn the sinful (usually those whose behaviour they disapprove of); but Jesus ate and drank with such people, and welcomed them into the company of his followers.

As our reading from Matthew indicates, it is impossible to find a leader who will please everyone!

 

The Revd. Colin Coward wrote in a recent blog that when he attended an ordination service, he found much of what was said about the role of the priest unhelpful and uncomfortable.

He said “The purpose of priestly ministry expressed in the ordination service is, among other objectives, to bring people to know Christ, to seek out the lost, to teach the truth and rebuke error, to pray, to lead worship, to preside at communion, and to maintain orthodoxy and tradition – to conform, control, and discipline.

In contrast, I think the role of a priest is to help people discover, in the words of my spiritual director, the God they already know. It is to help people discover within themselves the light of Christ, the unconditional, infinite, intimate love that is innate, infused into the heart and soul of every human being. Many seem to be unaware of the divine presence in their core, while others seem to have a natural affinity with their divine centre. The priestly role is to help people discover and nurture within themselves and their community Jesus’ most profound truth: that he has come that we may have life, life in all its fullness.”

 

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 humble and a person of peace. We need someone who sits light to authority, like Jesus, and who does not impose too many conditions on those who seek to come to God through the church.

 

And 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 priests and deacons, they will have their particular experience and training to offer to the church; but others, the lay members, will have experience and training which many of the clergy don’t have. In particular, they might not have 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 the other talents and skills which lay Christians offer.

Any new leader will need to 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 some who hear his words with a bunch 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 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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