Escaping the ‘Finger-pointing’ God

(James 1, 17- end. Mark 7, 1-8,14-15, 21-23)

 

How do you imagine God?

When you worship, when you pray, what picture do you have in your mind of the Being you are addressing?

I have spoken before about a book by Marcus J Borg, called “The God We Never Knew”, which has had an influence on the way I think about God. It is all about how Borg moved from the image of God he was taught in his childhood, which became increasingly unsatisfactory as he grew up and studied, to a way of thinking about God and living with God that he never knew as a child, a way that was consistent with the Bible and the tradition, but which made sense to a 21st century mind.

The concept of God with which Borg (and perhaps many of us) grew up was of a supernatural being ‘out there’ far away, who created the world a long time ago. The best metaphors for this being are  an authoritarian patriarchal father, or King or Judge, totally different and separate from us, all knowing and all powerful. Sometimes, he (this being was always thought of as masculine) intervened in the world, in the sort of events described in the Bible. But essentially this God was not here, but somewhere else. If we were good enough, and believed strongly enough, we might be allowed to be with this being after death.

Borg calls this way of thinking about God ‘supernatural theism’ or ‘the monarchical model’. Because human beings need something concrete to speak to, when he worshipped or prayed, his picture of God was based on the Lutheran pastor who led the services in his church each Sunday – a big man, with grey hair and a black robe, who always shook his finger as he preached. So Borg saw God as the big eye-in-the-sky, always watching, always disapproving, always judging.

finger wagging

But as he grew older, and studied theology and read the works of theologians such as John Robinson and Paul Tillich, Borg came to a different understanding of God, panentheisim. This thinks of God as all around us, within us, but also more than everything. What is more, we are within God. God is constantly creating, constantly nurturing, constantly present in the world, but is infinitely more than the world. In this model, the best metaphors for God are Abba/Daddy, lover, mother, Wisdom, companion on the journey. Borg calls this way of thinking about God ‘The Spirit model’. The concrete image which sums up this picture of God for him is of his wife, a priest, bending down to give a small child who is kneeling at the altar rail the consecrated bread. He wrote: “I was struck by the difference: an image of God as a male authority figure, shaking his finger at us versus the image of God as a beautiful loving woman bending down to feed us”.(p.71)

Spirit

Our image of God matters! It affects not only what we believe about God, but also what we think the Christian life is all about, how we think about sin and how we think we achieve salvation. Borg emphasises that both the monarchical model of God and the Spirit model are true to the Bible and to the tradition, and have nurtured Christian belief and worship through the ages; but he also says that supernatural theism is becoming more and more difficult to maintain alongside a modern world view.

In our readings today, from the Epistle of James and from the Gospel of Mark, we get two different pictures of the requirements of the religious life, of what constitutes sin, and how we achieve salvation.

For the Pharisees who challenge Jesus in the Mark passage, the religious life is about keeping the rules. Over time, the basic rules of the 10 Commandments and the Torah had expanded into a multiplicity of rules about every aspect of life and worship. Salvation is only possible for those who manage to keep all of these rules, or who make proper sacrifice to appease the ‘finger-shaking God’. This view of the religious life became one which was adopted by Christianity, with the added refinement that salvation was possible for many who couldn’t manage to keep all the rules, because the sacrifice of Jesus had been provided to make up for their disobedience – but this was only possible if they acknowledged their sinfulness, and believed all the precepts of the Christian faith without doubt or question.

For the writer of the Epistle of James, the Christian life is less about keeping the rules, and more about living in the right relationship with God and with each other. It is not beliefs that are important but actions. People can study religion and think themselves holy, but unless that results in a life lived for others, their religion is worthless. James ends with a statement that echoes the prophets Micah and Isaiah, saying that what God requires of us is to care for the weak and vulnerable, and not to adopt worldly values. James indicates that the way to salvation is to live a life of compassion, in imitation of the God who gives us birth and who nurtures us with gifts.

There is a danger in taking this view of the Christian life, which is that we can end up believing that we earn our place in heaven ourselves through our good works. It is what Luther seemed to be arguing against when he condemned the idea of justification by works. The counter balance to this is the teaching that our salvation comes as a gracious gift from God, regardless of how good we are. All we have to do is to accept that, and to demonstrate that we are ‘doers of the word, not just hearers’, by living in the light of that belief. This puts us in a right relationship with ourselves and with our neighbours and with God, such that we begin to experience salvation in this world.

With the monarchical model of God, religion is all about sin. Sin is disobedience to God and breaking his rules. In this model, Jesus came and died so that we could escape punishment for our sin. Our part is to believe that, to acknowledge ourselves as miserable sinners, to feel guilty and to repent.

The problem is that the dynamic of that way of religion is hard to live with. It just becomes impossible to keep all the rules, or even to decide which rules we ought to be keeping in different circumstances. We end up not loving ourselves, and so cannot love others, The only way to escape the overwhelming sense of our own unworthiness is to project the nasty bits of ourselves onto others, usually those who are somehow different from ourselves, people of another race, religion, culture, class, gender or sexuality. This results in a fracturing of society and church, and to the blame culture, which seeks to apportion responsibility for our own unhappiness to others. It can also lead to a conviction that everyone needs follows our particular way to God if they are to be saved.

With the Spirit model of God, sin is about unfaithfulness, or idolatry in Old Testament-speak, putting other things like the desire for money, power, prestige, possessions, food or physical gratification before our desire for God. Sin is also failure in compassion and inflicting harm on God’s creatures (human and other species) and on God’s world. Sin is not breaking laws, it is betraying relationships, and what it results in is not punishment but estrangement – from our fellow beings and from God. As such, we feel the consequences not in the life to come after death, but in this world.

The central dynamic is not guilt and blame with the Spirit model, but nurturing relationships. If we do not say sorry, and do something to mend the hurt and show our change of heart, the relationship will be harmed.

One element in every service of Christian worship is the Confession and Absolution, when we say sorry as individuals and as a congregation. Some confessions are difficult to say. I always disliked leading the confession in the Prayer Book Evensong service, in which we called ourselves ‘miserable sinners’ and asserted that ‘there is no health in us’ – largely because I just didn’t believe that was true. God made us, God’s Spirit lives in us, so of course there is health in us! I remember the priest who was my tutor when I trained as a Reader, disapproved strongly of what he called ‘grovelling before God’ and sometimes omitted the Confession from services altogether, in the belief it was unhealthy!

I agree, confession can be unhealthy if you are working with the model of the ‘finger-wagging God’, if you are trying to earn God’s approval and avert punishment by wallowing in a sense of unworthiness and guilt.

But if you are working with the Spirit model of God, then reflecting regularly on where we have fallen short of reflecting the image of God within us, as individuals and society, saying sorry and resolving to do better, can only be good for us and for our relationships. And hearing what Methodist liturgy calls ‘the Word of Grace’: “Your sins are forgiven” does, I believe, make a real difference to our ability to live the Christian life. This assures us that, no matter what we do, we are loved the way we are, by a God who is with us, around us and within us; and that makes a real difference to the way we see the world and other people. This model of confession and absolution is not a power relationship, but a dynamic of mutual support, expressed most obviously in the confession of the Iona Community, where both minister and congregation confess and are absolved by each other.

Knowing we are forgiven and accepted enables us to forgive and accept others. Knowing that our failures do not condemn us enables us to be less quick to condemn others. Experiencing the compassion of God prompts us to be compassionate to others.

There is a great deal in the media over the past weeks that demands that we don’t just hear this message but live it. At the moment, the allegations about abuse by former politicians and celebrities; the actions of terrorists in Syria and Europe, and people traffickers across the world; the enquiry into the runaway refuse lorry in Glasgow,  all face us with the question: do we believe and trust, and live our lives in the Spirit of the God who is all compassion; or do we continue to be representatives of the finger-wagging God?

Which image of God drives your life?

 Animated-swirling-question-mark-picture-moving

(The God We Never Knew. Marcus J Borg. Harper One. 1998.)

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The Bread Man.

 bread-of-life

(Readings John 6, 56 – 69)

 

Preparing for today’s service has felt a bit like watching one of those endless Hollywood sequel films – you know the sort of thing – Jaws lll and Police Academy VI. I don’t expect many of you have the Common Lectionary as your bedtime reading, so you may not have noticed that we have been having readings from chapter 6 of St. John’s Gospel for the past 5 weeks. Today is the last – Bread of Life V!

One might ask why the compilers of the lectionary thought this chapter of John so important that they used up 5 weeks worth of Gospel readings on it, especially in a year when the focus is supposed to be Mark. One reason may be that this is the only passage of eucharistic theology in John; his account of the Last Supper has no narrative of the institution of Holy Communion, merely a description of the feetwashing and discourses about the vine and the Holy Spirit; but all the Christian churches now place great emphasis on the Eucharist.   But this passage also contains a detailed exposition of Johannine Christology,the Gospel’s understanding of who Jesus was; and since most Christians, even if unconsciously, have had their views of Christ shaped by John’s Gospel, it is not surprising that it is given a central place in this year’s lectionary.

Many people, however, assume that John’s understanding of Jesus is that of the whole New Testament; but this is not so. If we think of the human and the divine Jesus as two sides of a balance, in John’s Gospel the balance is tipped very much to the divine side, to the extent that his humanity almost disappears. Jesus is not only shown as the pre-existing Son of God, he knows he is, and talks freely about his life before his physical birth into this world. He also talks constantly about himself and his relationship with God the Father, and about the Holy Spirit, in Trinitarian terms. He speaks in a way far removed from the language patterns of a Galilean Jew, such as we find in the Synoptic Gospels. He talks in eucharistic language, even before the Last Supper. And, in contrast to Mark’s Gospel in particular, in John, Jesus is always in control of events and has superhuman knowledge, especially of how people will react, and what will happen in the future.

In contrast to the Synoptic Gospels, where Jesus uses picture language in the form of parables to speak about the Kingdom of God, in John’s Gospel, Jesus uses picture language in the form of metaphors to speak about himself. Many of these begin with the formula “I am… “ (in Greek “ego eimi’,) which both John’s Jewish and Greek readers would recognise as a formula used by divine beings; so making even clearer John’s understanding that Jesus was divine, and knew it.

Several interrelated themes run through John’s Gospel, and in chapter 6, many of them appear. John wrote his Gospel as something like a film script, where the plot is advanced by action and dialogue, by misunderstanding, explanation and allusion. We sometimes find it hard to understand, because we no longer share the culture of Jesus’ world, nor of the world of John’s community, so we miss many of the allusions.

John’s community appears to have consisted of people who were equally at home in the Jewish and the Greek worlds. More than any other Gospel writer, he gives us a Jesus who can be understood through the cultures of both Judaism and the Hellenistic world. The Logos (Word) imagery of the Prologue, which can be interpreted both in terms of Jewish Wisdom theology and Greek philosophy is but one example of this.

One major theme of John’s Gospel is that Jesus is the giver of life. This is referred to in the Prologue: “in him was life”, and it is expanded in the Gospel using several images which refer to the basic necessities for life: water, light and in this passage, bread (food). This would have made sense to both Jews and Greeks.

In his telling of the story of the feeding of the 5000, John clearly refers back to the significant events of Jewish history, especially the Passover and the Exodus. This reference is expanded in the ‘Bread of Life’ discourse which follows, where there is reference to Moses and the manna which fed the Israelites in the wilderness. But there is also reference forward, to the Last Supper, a Passover meal, and to the Christian community’s experience of the Holy Communion, when Jesus takes bread, gives thanks (eucharistaysas) and distributes the bread and wine personally to his followers.

For the Jews, the Law given to Moses, and the prophecy and Wisdom given in the Hebrew scrolls were the Bread of Life. In John’s understanding, Jesus not only gave Law and Wisdom and Prophecy, he was them. He was The Word, he was The Bread of Life. His coming meant the end of the old order of Law and Temple and festivals. John’s Gospel constantly shows him reinterpreting these things and replacing them with an emphasis on belief and faith in himself. Those who could not accept this, like the leaders of the Jewish people, remained in the darkness and were destined to die. Those who did believe, however, walked in the light, and were already experiencing eternal life.

This talk would have seemed blasphemous to the traditional Jewish believers who heard it. Even more horrifying to a people who drained the blood from the meat they ate, would have been talk of ‘drinking my blood and eating my flesh’. If we do not find it so, it is only because long years of hearing eucharistic language have inoculated us to the overtones of what Jesus is shown as saying.

Scholars believe that John’s Gospel was written towards the end of the first century. It was written for a community facing a crisis of confidence. The first disciples, including the beloved disciple around whom the community had gathered, were dying, and there was a risk that the Christians who remained would lose touch with the memory of what Jesus taught. Jesus had not yet returned in triumph, as they expected he would. After the fall of Jerusalem, the exiled Jewish community was drawing lines around itself, demanding strict adherence to the Pharisees’ understanding of Judaism, and excluding as heretics those who saw things differently, including Christians.

In response to this situation of crisis, John’s Gospel provides a picture of a supremely confident Jesus, who was misunderstood by the Jewish leaders of his time, but knew he would replace their religion with one centred on himself. It provides a picture of a community which is united to the source of life through faith, and which continues to be taught by the Spirit as it was taught by the human Jesus. It provides a picture of a community that does not have to wait for the Second Coming in order to enjoy eternal life, because through baptism and the Eucharist, it has entered into eternal life already.

It is not surprising that this understanding of Jesus appealed to the Church, which adopted it in its creeds and hymns. It is also an understanding of Christ that continues to appeal to many Christians, especially to those who are undergoing times of trouble, for whom John’s confident assertions provide comfort.

But many Christians today find John’s Gospel difficult to take. There are always three contexts in which we read the Gospels (or watch a film, for that matter.) First of all there is the context of the original event, what actually happened. The Jesus of John is far removed from the Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels, and scholarly opinion inclines to the view that the Synoptic Jesus is likely to be closer to the real historical Jesus. This, for some Christians would disqualify John’s Gospel as a source for belief about Jesus.

Secondly, there is the context of the evangelist and the community for whom he wrote. Scholars can make educated guesses about this community. In many ways, what they describe has parallels with our own. They think it was an urban community (because of the emphasis on the Jerusalem ministry of Jesus ); they think it was a community of many cultures; they think it was a Christian community set in an alien or hostile environment. This should help to make its message relevant to us. But, the Old Testament and Greek cultures to which it constantly alludes are less and less familiar to the people of our day, and its emphasis on the divine rather than the human side of Christ, and its certainty, are alien to many in our society.

The third context is that of the reader. We always read a text from the point of view of our own time, and reinterpret it according to our own assumptions. As I have said, the work of Biblical scholars has meant that many people can no longer read John’s Gospel as a record of the historical Jesus. It may still, however, appeal to those who prefer to explore their faith intuitively, through metaphor, poetry, symbolism and allusion.

But for those who do not find that John’s symbolism and allusion means much to them, perhaps we just need to follow the example of John’s freedom with the original script of Jesus’ ministry, and to rewrite it for our own time. As an example of how this might look, I’m going to offer you three pieces of writing, what we might call the outlines for ‘Bread of Life VI and VII and VIII’. The first is a worship song, that I learnt many years ago when I taught in a Roman Catholic school;  It’s called ‘The Bakerwoman’ and it looks at the Bread of Life image from the point of view of Mary; perhaps you can understand why I like it.

mary-the-baker-woman-small

 

The Bakerwoman

 

The bakerwoman in her humble lodge

received a grain of wheat from God.

For nine whole months the grain she stored:

“Behold the handmaid of the Lord”

Make us the bread, Mary, Mary,

Make us the bread, we need to be fed.

The bakerwoman took the road which led

to Bethlehem, the house of bread.

To knead the bread she laboured through the night,

and brought it forth about midnight.

Bake us the bread, Mary, Mary,

Bake us the bread, we need to be fed.

She baked the bead for thirty years

by the fire of her love and the salt of her tears,

by the warmth of a heart so tender and bright,

and the bread was golden brown and white.

Bring us the bread, Mary, Mary,

Bring us the bread, we need to be fed.

After thirty years the bread was done.

It was taken to town by her only son;

the soft white bread to be given free

to the hungry people of Galilee.

Give us the bread, Mary, Mary,

Give us the bread, we need to be fed.

For thirty coins the bread was sold,

and a thousand teeth so cold, so cold,

tore it to pieces on a Friday noon,

when the sun turned black and red the moon.

Break us the bread, Mary, Mary,

break us the bread, we need to be fed.

And when she saw the bread so white,

the living bread she made at night,

devoured as wolves might devour a sheep,

the bakerwoman began to weep.

Weep for the bread, Mary, Mary,

weep for the bread, we need to be fed.

But the bakerwoman’s only son

appeared to his friends when three days had run

on the road which to Emmaus led –

and they knew him in the breaking of bread.

Lift up your head, Mary, Mary,

lift up your head, for now we’ve been fed.

Words: Marie Noel. Additional words, translation and  music: Hubert J Richards. Copyright Kevin Mayhew Ltd.

Then there’s a poem that sees God as a Bakerwoman, forming us humans and testing us in the fire.

italian_bakerwoman[1]

Bakerwoman God

Bakerwoman God, I am your living bread.

Strong, brown Bakerwoman God.

I am your low, soft and being-shaped loaf.

I am your rising bread,

Well-kneaded by some divine

and knotty pair of knuckles,

by your warm earth hands.

I am bread well kneaded.

Put me in the fire, Bakerwoman God,

Put me in your own bright fire.

I am warm, warm as you from fire.

I am white and gold, soft and hard,

Brown and round. I am so warm from fire.

Break me, Bakerwoman God.

I am broken under your caring Word.

Drop me in your special juice in pieces.

Drop me in your blood.

Drunken me in the great red flood.

Self-giving chalice, swallow me.

My skin shines in the divine wine.

My face is cup-covered and I drown.

I fall up, in a red pool in a gold world

Where your warm sunskin hand is there

To catch and hold me.

Bakerwoman God, remake me.

Alla Renée Bozarth

Womanpriest: A Personal Odyssey, Paulist Press 1978,
rev. ed. Luramedia 1988, distributed by Wisdom House;
Gynergy, Wisdom House 1990;
Water Women, audiocassette, Wisdom House 1990;
Moving to the Edge of the World iUniverse 2000;
This is My Body~ Praying for Earth, Prayers from the Heart,
iUniverse 2004.To listen to the musical composition of “Bakerwoman God” by retired Northern Illinois University professor of music, Tim Blickhan, performed by the Augustana College Jenny Lind Vocal Ensemble, Michael Zemek, director, on All Saints Day 2013, go here: http://www.mediafire.com/listen/3nrh3kt1a03u6q7/2012+Bakerwoman+God.mp3

kneading

Last is a poem by the Cornish poet, Charles Causley, called ‘The Bread Man’. It is a retelling of the story of Jesus in modern dress, and with modern doubts and ambivalence. You may find the imagery used shocking; if you do, remember how shocking the words which John shows Jesus using, in Bread of Life I-V would have been to his contemporaries, and then see if this sequel appeals to you more or less than the previous scripts!

baker

Ballad of the Bread Man

Mary stood in the kitchen

Baking a loaf of bread.

An angel flew in through the window.

‘We’ve a job for you,’ he said.

‘God in his big blue heaven,

Sitting in his big gold chair,

Wanted a mother for his little son.

Suddenly saw you there.’

Mary shook and trembled,

‘It isn’t true what you say.’

‘Don’t say that,’ said the angel,

‘The baby’s on its way.’

Joseph was in the workshop

Planing a piece of wood.

‘The old man’s past it,’ the neighbours said.

‘That girl’s been up to no good.’

‘And who was that elegant fellow,’

They said, ‘in the shiny gear?’

The things they said about Gabriel

Were hardly fit to hear.

Mary never answered,

Mary never replied.

She kept the information,

Like baby, safe inside.

It was election winter.

They went to vote in town.

When Mary found her time had come

The hotels let her down.

The baby was born in an annexe

Next to the local pub.

At midnight, a delegation

Turned up from the Farmers’ Club.

They talked about an explosion

That made a hole in the sky,

Said they’d been sent to the Lamb and Flag

To see God come down from on high.

A few days later a bishop

And a five-star general were seen

With the head of an African country

In a bullet-proof limousine.

‘We’ve come,’ they said, ‘with tokens

For the little boy to choose.’

Told the tale about war and peace

In the television news.

After them came the soldiers

With rifle and bomb and gun

Looking for enemies of the state.

The family had packed and gone.

When they got back to the village

The neighbours said to a man,

‘That boy will never be one of us,

Though he does what he blessed well can.’

He went round to all the people

A paper crown on his head.

Here is some bread from my father.

Take, eat, he said.

Nobody seemed very hungry.

Nobody seemed to care.

Nobody saw the god in himself

Quietly standing there.

He finished up in the papers.

He came to a very bad end.

He was charged with bringing the living to life.

No man was that prisoner’s friend.

There’s only one kind of punishment

To fit that kind of a crime.

They rigged a trial and shot him dead.

They were only just in time.

Bread man

They lifted the young man by the leg,

They lifted him by the arm,

They locked him in a cathedral

In case he came to harm.

They stored him safe as water

Under seven rocks.

One Sunday morning he burst out

Like a Jack-in-the-box.

Through the town he went walking.

He showed them the holes in his head.

Now do you want any loaves? he cried.

‘Not today,’ they said.

Charles Causley.

loaves

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Real Bread

bread-of-life

(Eph. 5, 15-20; John 6, 51-58)

Today we come to week four of the lectionary readings from Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel, which contain the story of the Feeding of the 5000, and the reflections on them by the gospel writers around the theme of The Bread of Life.

 

This week, the emphasis changes from looking back into Jewish history, linking the feeding with the Exodus and the manna in the wilderness, to looking forward into Christian liturgy, and linking it with the Communion. As the account of the Last Supper in John’s Gospel doesn’t have a description of the institution of Holy Communion, this is where we find John’s Eucharistic theology.

 

A line from today’s gospel: “My flesh is true food and my blood is real drink”.

 

In the Greek of the New Testament, the word for ‘true’ is also the word for ‘real’ and the ‘real’ is something that our age values highly. People are prepared to pay vast sums for works of art, whose value drops dramatically if they are discovered to be copies of an original, deliberate forgeries, or the work of less famous artists. They are then judged not to be ‘real’ or ‘true’.

 

With food also, we are engaged in a search for the real. We have campaigns for real ale, and manufacturers advertise their food as ‘free from artificial additives and colourings’, illustrating their belief that what we want is what is natural,what is real.

 

This morning we have come together to celebrate  Holy Communion. We will receive a wafer of unleavened bread and a sip of wine, in the belief that we are experiencing the real Presence of Christ; but how ‘real’, how ‘true’, how ‘genuine’  will that experience be?

 

To most people outside the church community, the answer to that question is obvious. The things we do in church have nothing to do with reality. Religion is at best an irrelevance, at worst a deliberate escape from reality, ‘the opiate of the people’ as Karl Marx called it.

 

But for those of us who do believe, who find that following Jesus enables us to make contact with that reality which is at the depth of our being, how can we judge if what we do, including a celebration of the Eucharist, is ‘real’ or not?

 

Traditionally, debates about whether a celebration of Holy Communion is valid or not have concentrated on the externals. Was the person who presided validly ordained and authorised to celebrate? Some years ago, when I belonged to a church that was shared between Anglicans and Methodists, I was distressed to learn that some Anglicans would not take communion if the rite was presided over by the Methodist minister: he was not acceptable as he was not ordained by a bishop; and of course there are still some in the Church of England who don’t believe a service presided over by a female priest is a ‘real’ communion, since women cannot (in their eyes) be ‘real’ priests.

Were the right elements used? Some of you may remember the situation a few years ago when there was a great fear of an epidemic of bird ‘flu, and churches were advised to administer elements in one kind, the bread, only. There was a lot of angry comment on this in the church press, since many believed that it was only a ‘true’ communion when they received both the bread and wine; in fact the rubrics make it clear that the whole of the Communion is contained in both elements, and is received even if you can only take one kind.

 

Other questions that churchgoers of different traditions tend to get worked up about are were the right words said at the right time; and were the right actions performed by the president and the communicants?

 

All this is really strange, because Jesus, who we believe we receive in the sacrament of Holy Communion, was a person who in his earthly life sat very light to externals. He was much more concerned with what was within, with people’s attitudes, motivations, beliefs and faith. He was constantly urging his followers to see beyond the externals, and penetrate the deeper meaning within.

 

So I want to suggest to you today that what makes a Eucharist real or unreal, true or untrue is not how close the externals are to what Jesus said or did, but how close these internal elements are to his practice.

 

The overriding characteristic of Jesus that comes across in all four gospels was how open he was to everyone. It was this that was such a stumbling block to belief in him for pious Jews. He was free with his time and his teaching; he taught people like Mary of Bethany (who really ought to have been in the kitchen, helping with the meal preparation), and the Samaritan woman at the well (who was doubly unclean), and he welcomed little children when the disciples wanted to send them away. He shared meals and accepted hospitality with notorious sinners like Levi and Zaccheus. He was free with his body, allowing himself to be touched by those whom others considered polluting, like the sinful woman who anointed him at Simon’s house, and the woman with the haemorrhage, and even Judas, who betrayed him with a kiss.

 

So I want to suggest that our Eucharists are ‘real’ and ‘true’ in as much as we experience in them the openness to others that Jesus showed, and are ‘unreal’ and untrue’ insofar as we use them to erect barriers – barriers between ourselves and others, between God and others, between God and ourselves.

 

In Acts and the Epistles, we see the first disciples having to learn this openness again and again: the truth that Jesus’ Body and Blood are available to all. Think of Peter’s meeting with Cornelius and his family, of Paul and others taking the gospel to the Gentiles, of James warning against discriminating against poorly dressed worshippers, of the Corinthians failing to treat the poorer members of the community with generosity in the agape meal.

Yet how many barriers do we present day disciples erect to prevent others sharing ‘the bread of life’ with us? Denominations bar one another from receiving; people have been, and still are barred from the communion rail because of their race, or age, or intellectual ability or marital status. People are excluded from taking certain roles within the Communion service because of gender or sexuality. Like the Corinthians and those whom James criticised, don’t we still try to ensure that those who share the communion elements with us are dressed properly, behave nicely, come from the same class as us, and hold the right theological beliefs.

 

We try to exclude those whose words or actions make us feel uncomfortable and disturb our peace. This is partly because the sort of openness that Jesus practised is very frightening, very disturbing. Such openness may bring us to face the death of what we have always believed was ‘real’ and true’.

It feels – and it is – dangerous. If we adopt such openness, we face the prospect that we might be, as Jesus was, broken, deserted, reviled, rejected. But Jesus’ example says that only when the ‘real bread’ on our supper table is open to all people, as his was, will our Communion be real.

 

And that openness includes being open to ourselves; not just to our good bits, but also to the unworthy bits that we would rather forget, and that other people didn’t know about. So often, when we come to church, we leave that part of ourselves behind, or cover it up with special clothing in the vestry. But Jesus accepted, and accepts people just as they are. He did not demand that people repent before he helped them or shared a meal with them. He received them as they were.

 

So if we set different standards from his, for ourselves or for others, when we come to receive him, how can we receive the ‘true bread’?.

 

George Herbert, the 17th century priest, pastor and poet, expressed this in his poem, called ‘Love’:

 

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back

Guilty of dust and sin;

But quick-eyed Love, discerning me grow slack

From my first entrance in,

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning

If I lacked anything.

 

‘A guest’, I answered, worthy to be here’

Love said, ’You shall be he’.

‘I the unkind, the ungrateful? Ah, my dear,

I cannot look on thee’

Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,

‘Who made the eyes, but I?’

 

‘Truth, Lord, but I have marred them Let my shame

Go where it doth deserve’

“And know you not,’ said Love, ‘Who bore the blame?’

‘My dear, then I will serve.’

‘You must sit down,’ said Love, and taste my meat.’

So I did sit, and eat.

If our Communion is to be true, and real, and if we are to feed on the true bread that comes from Heaven, then we must come accepting others, good bits and bad bits, without conditions; accepting ourselves as God made us, and committed into growing into the people God meant us to be; and accepting the character of the God who invites us to sit and his table and eat with no conditions, no masks, no restrictions.

 

We come with only our trust in Christ’s promise, that he is the true bread of life. When we take him into ourselves, when we are strengthened and empowered by his presence within us, when we live as he lived, then we will be satisfied, and experience eternal life.

 

The table is set. The host awaits us. Come let us celebrate the feast.

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The Gift of Bread

bread-of-life

(Exodus 16, 2-4 & 9-15; Ephesians 4,1-16; John 6,24-35)

If you invited me to dinner, and I turned up on your doorsteps with a loaf of bread as a gift, rather than the customary flowers, or wine, or box of chocolates, I don’t think you would be very impressed.

Yet today’s Gospel reading (along with that for last week, and those for the next three weeks) are from the long sixth chapter of John’s Gospel which is entirely concerned with a gift of bread: bread given to the multitude in the miracle of the feeding of the 5000, and the Bread of Life given to the world in the coming of Jesus.

That says a gift of bread is something special.

At the heart of today’s Gospel reading is the saying: “I am the bread of life”, one of the ‘I am’ sayings in John’s Gospel that are so comforting to many Christians. They are not, of course, words of the historical Jesus. John’s Gospel was probably composed by a community of Christians late in the 1st century, based around a book of miracles or ‘signs’ of Jesus. The ‘I am’ sayings are part of the discourses that the Gospel writers composed and placed on the lips of Jesus as a profound theological reflection on the person and mission of Jesus which the signs demonstrated.

In this, the writers of John were helping us to look at the miracles in what the Dean of St Albans says is the proper way. In his book ‘The Meaning in the Miracles”, Jeffrey John illustrates from his own schooldays our modern tendency to get hung up on explaining what happened in the miracles. He tells of two contrasting RE teachers: Mr Davies, who insisted the miracles happened exactly as described, and were demonstrations of Jesus’s divine power (i.e. the bread and fish were changed into enough food for everyone); and Miss Tomkins, who insisted nothing supernatural happened, but that the miracles were a demonstration of the influence of Jesus which brought out the best in everyone (i.e. people were prompted by the small boy’s example to share their food).

In contrast to these approaches, with their concentration on what happened, Jeffrey John guides us to look at the setting and background which informed the creation of the miracle stories, in order to try to understand what the writers are trying to tell us about what God is doing through Jesus, his words and his actions.

The Old Testament is the primary background for the Gospel writers, and, just as with the birth stories in Matthew and Luke, the stories of Jesus’s miracles are ‘midrash’ or ‘haggadah’ – writings which weave incidents from the Old Testament into the story of Jesus, to illustrate how he continues and perfects the work of God described in them. So the Feeding of the 5000 links back to the stories in Exodus of the manna in the desert, and in 2 Kings 4 of Elisha feeding 100 prophets with 20 loaves of bread, and shows that Jesus is both a new Moses and a new Elisha, but is also greater than both, and that his coming fulfils both the Law and the Prophets.

But there are richer meanings too.

In Deuteronomy, bread is used to stand for the Word of God, so the gift of bread for all also means the preaching of the Gospel to all. That is why the Synoptic Gospels contain two stories of the feeding of the multitude, one with symbolic numbers which show it refers to the preaching of the Gospel to the Jews, and the other referring to taking the Gospel to the Gentiles.

For the gospel writers, the bread in the miracle also refers to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, so the gift of bread is also the gift of the continuing presence of Jesus in the sacrament. For Christians today, depending whether their church tradition places more emphasis on meeting Christ in Word or in Sacrament, one or other of these will be more important – but both meanings are there in the richness of the story.

But the meaning in the scriptures is not confined to those that were seen by those who wrote them. As we continue to read them, inspired by the Holy Spirit and informed by two thousand years of Christian thought and study, we continue to find meaning in them related to our lives in the church and in the world today.

In the story we heard from Exodus, the Hebrews have been freed from slavery in Egypt by the power of God under the leadership of Moses. Their initial joy, however turns to grumbling when they realise they no longer have food and water readily available. So they complain, and wish themselves back under the yoke of their slavemasters, where they were at least guaranteed a regular food supply. God however provides for them in the form of quails and manna. The message for us too is that God will provide enough to satisfy our basic needs on a daily basis. There is no need for us to store up supplies, or exclude others to guarantee we have enough.

Spiritually, also, some of us are afraid of the freedom to study and interpret God’s word in the light of modern insights. Some would rather remain in  the comparative security of slavery to someone else’s interpretation, rather than risk the freedom of the unknown.

The letter to the Ephesians also talks about resources, this time for the Christian community. This writer, too, repeats the message that God has provided enough for the needs of each church community. All that is needed is for people to make the resources available, with generosity and humility, in a way that builds up the unity of the community. This is what it means to “live a life worthy of our calling”.

If we view this letter through the lens of the discourse on the Bread of Life, we can see how we offer ourselves, as ordinary people, ‘bread’, and God takes what we offer and transforms it into the Bread of Life for those we serve and share the Gospel with.

This message is not just meant for those called to ordained or licensed ministry. All of us have a Christian vocation, though, as the letter points out, for each of us it will be different. When we offer our gifts to be used by the Body of Christ, and allow them to be used as the body decides is best for all, then our gifts will help to build up the church, and bring it to that maturity, that total obedience to the will of God we see in Jesus Christ.

What bread do you have to offer to build up the body today?

The reading from John’s Gospel, as always, speaks to us on two levels. The story tells how God, through Jesus,   provided for the physical needs of the people. They come to demand, as did the Hebrews of old, that he does it again. But Jesus is reluctant to do so. Although in the gospels Jesus does do miracles, he is scathing about those who demand a supply of them before they will accept who he is.

So we can see that the bread of life is a metaphor for the complete trust we should have that God will meet all our needs  both physical and spiritual. Within the physical world, God has provided enough to meet the physical needs of everyone. We just need to share it.

The majority of wars are not fought  over religion (as so many people believe nowadays) but over control of resources: land and water, oil, minerals and transport routes. When we compete to control these resources, and keep them for ourselves and when we fail to care for the resources God has given us, some of us go hungry. It is only when we imitate Christ, in his life of simplicity, generosity and self-sacrifice that we find there is, in fact, enough to allow for everyone to flourish.

And in our personal lives, the gift of bread encourages us to reflect on what we need to satisfy us. We are encouraged by advertising to accumulate more and more ‘stuff’, the shiny technology, the latest thing, the newest miracle device. But do we actually need that? Could we not find more satisfaction in the simpler things of life, in simplicity of ‘bread’ and in sharing what we have with others, as Jesus did?

The Gospel also speaks of the way, through Jesus, God provides for our spiritual needs. The purpose of these signs is not to demonstrate God’s power over the physical world, but to bring people back into a relationship of faith, trust, and acceptance of God’s rule in their lives.

Through Jesus, God offers us a pattern for the way we should live in order to be satisfied spiritually. Jesus gives himself as the bread of life – an ordinary human being, transformed into something extraordinary and miraculous by the grace of God. He gives himself without limit. He gives himself without restriction, to the sinful and unworthy as much as to the faithful. He gives himself sacrificially, allowing himself to be ignored, abused and broken without retaliation.

If we adopt that way of living and believing, if we take Jesus into ourselves and feed on him in faith, then we will become like him, a gift to the whole world, the bread of life for others.

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Feeding of the 5000.

bread-of-life(Ephesians 3, 14-21; John 6, 1-21)

Do you think about food a lot? Are you already thinking about what you will be having for lunch today?

If an alien were to come from another planet, and land in the North Western parts of our planet, it might be forgiven for thinking that the human race is obsessed with food.

It would find endless advertisements on billboards, in magazines, and on TV, for all sorts of food. It would see vast supermarkets, filled with an infinite variety of things to eat; numerous cookery programmes on TV; and in any reasonable sized town, it would find streets full of restaurants, pubs and fast-food outlets, offering dishes from different countries and cultures, or based on different ingredients.

Our alien might also conclude that, for humans, the need for food is all about being healthy, living a long time and (especially for the female of the species) being attractive to the opposite sex. It would find that magazines and newspapers are full of articles about food, what it can do for you, or the harm eating the wrong things can do. For instance in one issue of a Sunday paper, I found a booklet about how to eat for health; an article entitled “How to live to 140” by a man who believes a special very low calorie diet will extend his life span by 60 years; and a photo feature in the colour supplement about overweight Americans who pay out up to $1400 for “A Cruise to Lose” – a Caribbean cruise with a guru who will teach them how to lose weight.

And of course, magazines and TV are full of stories about how young women, especially rich and famous ones, contract food-based illnesses like anorexia nervosa and bulimia, because of their unhappiness with their lives and their bodies.

Now, if our alien had landed 2000 or more years ago, in the world in which the Bible was written, it would have found a very different attitude to food. There would be concern about food, but not about health, or slimness or variety. What it would find would be a very basic concern with getting enough food to survive.

There is a lot in the Bible about food; and for those who wrote the Bible, and for Jesus, food, and especially the most basic food, bread, was a symbol of God’s generosity and care for creation. It stands for the provision God makes to meet the basic needs of the human race – physical, emotional and spiritual. And a feast or a banquet – enough food to meet our hunger and more to spare – stands for the ultimate provision for all our needs that we will find in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Jesus himself used the basic everyday food of his culture – bread and wine – to stand for himself in the Last Supper which we repeat in our service of Holy Communion. The bread reminds us of Our Lord, taken by God, blessed by the Spirit, broken by betrayal and death on the cross, and raised to share himself with the whole world throughout time. Today’s Gospel story of the feeding of the multitude is linked with that supper and that symbolism, and was considered so important by the Gospel writers that it appears in all four Gospels – in some of them in two different versions.

Now, if you were a Biblical scholar, you would look at this story and find links with the Old Testament stories of the giving of manna in the wilderness and Elisha’s miracle. You would seek find deep symbolic significance in the fine detail of the number of loaves and fishes, the number of people present, and the amount of crumbs left over; and you would seek parallels with the story of the Last Supper, the institution of the Eucharist, and our present day services of Holy Communion. Now, although these scholarly investigations may be very fascinating, I am not sure that it makes things very interesting for us.

I also don’t think it is very profitable to try to decide what actually happened on the occasion our Gospel story describes. There are two basic approaches to the interpretation of miracles. One takes a literalist approach, and says everything happened just as it is described, and we must accept this as the Word of God. The other is a reductionist approach, which dismisses anything supernatural as unscientific, and attempts to find a rational explanation for any miracle. Thus, the first approach would say that what actually happened was that the loaves and fishes were multiplied by an act of God’s power to provide food for everyone; the second would say that when the little boy generously offered his food, everyone else was shamed into sharing the food they had brought, so there was again enough for everyone.

Both of these approaches actually miss the point of the Gospel, which is not to give a historical account of what actually happened, but to demonstrate who Jesus was, and to inspire faith in him. We have to read behind the actual incident to understand this. So, when Jesus repeats and goes beyond what Moses and Elisha did, the story is telling the reader that Jesus is greater than, and the fulfilment of, the Law and the Prophets.

But there are always many levels of meaning to Bible stories, and the more we read them the more meanings we find. So, let us look at this story another way. It talks about a very basic human need – to be fed – and asks, “How do you deal with this?”

Jesus asks his disciples this question, and receives different responses. Philip stands for the attitude – very common today – that you need lots of money to solve any problem. But, as he soon realised, even the largest amount of money he could think of – a whole years wages – would not be sufficient.

Andrew stands for the practical approach – what you need are the proper resources. But he wasn’t very keen to offer his own resources, and what was available was clearly not adequate, in his opinion.

The small boy, however, stands for a response of uninhibited generosity, which gives everything you have to meet the needs of others. Jesus’ response to this generosity – which stands for God’s response – is to take what is offered sacrificially, and to use it to far greater effect than we could do on our own.

That the passage is not actually about physical hunger is made clear in the following passage (which you may hear over the next four weeks ) in which Jesus speaks of himself as “The Bread of Life”. It is talking about people’s spiritual hunger, that hunger which Mother Theresa said is the real hunger of the Western world, and which is becoming more and more acute. It is the hunger to be needed, to have our talents and our selves valued, to be loved and appreciated just as we are.

Jesus’ response tells us that God is not the least bit interested in how young or old we are; whether we are fat or thin, sick or healthy, poor or wealthy, nor whether the rest of the world thinks we are fashionable or attractive. God accepts us the way a good parent values his or her child, for what we are and what we have the potential to be; but most of all, for what we are prepared to give of ourselves in love and generosity to others – because in that way we imitate our heavenly Father.

And if we offer what we have – our material and spiritual resources, however limited – then as our reading from Ephesians tells us, through the Spirit God will be able “to accomplish abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine”.

I have a tape of songs, which we used for a Parents and Toddlers service, and on it there is a song about the feeding of the multitude. It’s not as profound as the meditation I used earlier – but it is more memorable. The words go like this:

More than five thousand men plus their wives and kids -how could they feed so many?

I’d a hunch – use my lunch. Crunch, crunch, crunch, they ate my lunch!

 

Next time you find yourself looking at the food in front of you, and worrying about whether it is healthy or not; or whether it will help to extend your life span; or make you more attractive or fashionable – just remember the little boy on the hillside and his generous act. Think to yourself “crunch, crunch, crunch, they ate my lunch” and remember what God can do with you, just as you are, if you are prepared to offer yourself sacrificially. But most of all, remember the boundless generosity of God, and that what matters in God’s eyes is the way in which we imitate that – and that God doesn’t care one tiny bit what the giver looks like.

And thank God for it.

Amen.

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Take Time

(Ephesians 2, 11-22; Mark 6, 30-34 & 53-56)

turkey-sandwich

Do you like sandwiches? I like having them as a meal, because I don’t usually have to prepare them. Either we buy them, or my husband makes them, because his sandwiches are tidy and don’t tend to fall apart when you lift them up as mine do!

But what really makes a sandwich is the filling! We all have our favourites. Though I remember once curling up with embarrassment at an infant school Harvest Service when one of my children said their favourite was ‘banana and Marmite’; “Not in the same sandwich”, I wanted to add, as the other Mums all gave me strange looks!

Our Gospel reading today is like two parts of a sandwich without the filling.

We hear in Mark 6, 30-34 about the disciples returning from their first foray into ministry without Jesus, full of excitement; and how Jesus plans a time of quiet debriefing for them and a recharging of batteries in a desert place; but his plans are thwarted when the crowds arrive, hungry for spiritual and material food. Then, in verses 53-56, we find Jesus and the disciples again searching for a quiet space across the lake – but again being overwhelmed by the demands of the crowds seeking teaching and healing.

The ‘filling’ in the sandwich is Mark’s account of the feeding of the 5000, and Jesus walking on the water – miracles designed to show Jesus exercising divine control over the material world. You will get the flavour of that filling (and may well get very tired of it!) over the next five weeks, as the lectionary sets passages from John’s account of the feeding of the 5000 and the discourses on ‘The Bread of Life’ as the gospel readings for those Sundays.

Perhaps we may wonder why those who planned the lectionary gave us these two passages for this Sunday’s Gospel, the bread on the outside of the sandwich, rather than the more interesting ‘filling’. But the resulting passage does give us important pointers, both as individuals and as congregations, to the way we should exercise ministry in Christ’s name.

In our readings today we recognise many familiar features of Christian life and ministry.

In Ephesians we are reminded of the work of evangelism and reconciliation. May of you are involved in taking the Good News to people from many different classes and cultures in this locality and throughout the world, and some of you may also be involved in trying to build bridges between people from different religious and cultural backgrounds.

The passage from Mark is a snapshot of busy parish life. We hear of the disciples reporting on their mission activity, of Jesus reacting to the needs of his ‘flock’ and of the apostles and their master travelling from one place to another, meeting the spiritual and physical needs of those they meet. It gives the impression of lives full of activity, meeting the diverse needs of everyone who approaches.

What it doesn’t show is how this busy life of service and ministry is sustained, or how it is related to the will of God, or what is the cost of it.  Sometimes a busy life can be driven not just by a desire to serve others, but also by a need to avoid facing the big questions of life, even a need to avoid meeting with God, for fear of what that might mean to us.

About twenty years ago, I studied for a Masters Degree in Applied Theology. The course was open to anyone in any kind of Christian ministry, ordained and lay, whether working for the Church or in the secular sphere. One of the things we were taught was how to be ‘reflective practitioners’: how to take time out from the everyday practice of ministry to think and be self-critical, to read and study both the Bible and secular writers, in order to judge whether what we were doing was effective, how it could be improved, and whether it was what God would want us to be doing.  It taught me that being a good Christian minister did not necessarily mean filling every moment of the day with activity; the quiet times before God were an essential part of effective ministry too.

Of course, it is not always as easy as that. Every Christian minister will recognise the scenario in this passage of Mark. After a particularly busy time – Christmas or Easter, or even just the weekend – you are in desperate need of time to yourself, to unwind and to prepare for the next sermon or round of duties. But your carefully planned time disappears,  as the phone rings, people call at the door, and parish and domestic crises demand your attention.

And I am sure that people who are not in official ministerial positions find the same thing happens to them. Whatever good intentions they may have about regular time for prayer or Bible Study, other things intervene and they find their ‘time with God’ has disappeared.

One of the consequences of failing to take time out to reflect is that we stop listening to God. God can speak to us through other people, and especially through those we try to serve in Christ’s name; but God also speaks to us through the Scriptures, through the tradition, and in our times of prayer; and if we are so busy ‘doing good’ that we don’t have time to test our actions against those ways that God addresses us, the result can sometimes be that we take a wrong path; and sometimes that our bodies give out on us, or even lead us astray, into sin or addiction. Sometimes we can expend so much time and energy on building and maintaining a physical ‘temple’ or church for God that we forget that the real temples in which God dwells  are our own bodies.

That point is made in the passage from Ephesians, which speaks of the members of the church as citizens with the saints, members of the household of God, growing together around Christ the cornerstone into a holy temple in the Lord. That passage also reminds us of the ultimate cost of ministry – that our power to minister comes through the cross and the blood of Christ.

The Ephesians passage also reminds us that we exercise ministry together.  It is all to easy to imagine that we are the only people who are doing the work of God, and that if we re not constantly active, God’s purposes will not be fulfilled. But no one person can do everything. Paul often speaks of the church as a body, with different people exercising different, but equally essential functions. So, some people will preach, others will sing, others will beautify the building, others will maintain it; some will look after administration, some teaching, some care of the young and old, some will simply be available as a listening ear and a comforting arm. But all will need time out to listen for God’s word to them if they are to minister effectively in Christ’s name.

We don’t hear, in the passage that was read from Mark’s Gospel today, of how Jesus provides an example to us of the proper balance  between active ministry, and waiting on God. We simply hear of him being constantly available, showing, no matter how much he is interrupted and how often his plans have to change, the faithfulness and steadfast love that is characteristic of God his Father.

But in the missing ‘filling’ of the sandwich, in Mark 6, verses 45 & 46 we read: “At once, Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go ahead of him to Bethsaida, on the other side of the lake, while he sent the crowd away. After saying good-bye to the people, he went away to a hill to pray”. Those ‘times out’, of prayer and waiting on God, were the source of Jesus’ power, when he was renewed and filled again with the Holy Spirit. If we want to be his body on earth and to carry on his ministry, we must build occasions like this into our lives too, when we can be healed, taught and recreated in his image.

Of course, we will want to be busy about God’s work whenever we can. Preaching, and teaching, and worship, and discussion and pastoral care are the ‘bread and butter’ of the Church’s ministry. But unless we make time for God, to listen for the divine voice through reading and study, reflection and prayer, the ‘filling’ of our ministry sandwich will be without flavour, and will not nourish the people of God as it should.

This anonymous poem makes the point well, I think:

Take time to think;
 it is the source of power.


Take time to read;
 it is the foundation of wisdom.


Take time to play; 
it is the secret of staying young.


Take time to be quiet; 
it is the opportunity to seek God.


Take time to be aware;
 it is the opportunity to help others.


Take time to love and be loved;
 it is God’s greatest gift.


Take time to laugh;
 it is the music of the soul.


Take time to be friendly; 
it is the road to happiness.


Take time to dream;
 it is what the future is made of.


Take time to pray;
 it is the greatest power on earth.

R & R (Rest and Recreation) is an essential component of serving Christ well.

So, this summer – and regularly – make sure that you take ‘time out’ for God.

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Storm Tossed

Saga Ruby in Torshaven

( 2 Cor 6,1-13. Mark 4 35 – 41 )

 In the name of God, who was, and is, and is to come. Amen.

 

Sometimes the Church of England lectionary appears to play strange tricks with those who preach.

 

As some of you will know, I  spend some of my holidays on cruise ships. We’re off on our first holiday aboard this year in a few week’s time, and here I am faced with preaching on the stilling of the storm. Is somebody trying to tell me something, I ask?

We’re sailing across the North Sea, which can be quite a rough crossing sometimes. I remember once when the ship was like the Marie Celeste in the morning as we went up for breakfast; almost everyone else was still in their cabins after a very choppy night. On the other hand, we’ve come back across the North Sea when it’s been so calm that we were sailing through thick fog, and a helicopter couldn’t get near enough to pick up a sick crew member to transport to the nearest mainland for treatment.

However, we’ve always been in a fairly modern cruise ship, with stabilisers, sea sick pills and medical attention to moderate the effects of the winds and waves. All of which made me appreciate just how brave were those explorers who set off in the tiny ships we’ve seen in the maritime museums in Scandinavia and Portugal, to discover new lands. We had comfortable cabins – they slept on the wooden deck. We had delicious food to eat – if we felt like it – and iced fresh water; their food and water gradually ran out or went bad on a long voyage. Our ship had engines, electronic direction finding equipment and stabilisers; they were entirely at the mercy of the winds and currents. Our ship had a steel hull – theirs was made of planks which gradually came apart during a long voyage, or were eaten from within by woodworm, so that if they did not reach land within a certain period, the ship simply disintegrated beneath them. We knew that we had 48 hours at the most to suffer the heaving seas; they often had no idea when they would reach land, nor what their reception would be when they arrived.

viking long boat

So no wonder that, in the world that our Bible was written in, the sea stood for danger, evil and chaos. Many of the peoples of antiquity, including at one time the Jews, shared a creation myth which said that the world was the result of God’s victory in a desperate contest with the forces of evil and chaos, which were identified with the waters of the sea. Just as demons who took up residence in the human body were believed to be responsible for physical or mental disease, so demons resident in the sea were believed to be responsible for the storms which destroyed life and property. The Jews were not a seafaring nation, and their literature, especially the Psalms, continued to use the image of unrestrained great waters, the sea or storms, as a metaphor for the evil forces active in the world.

The ability to control the waters, or to subdue storms, was believed to be a sign of divine power; and the ability to sleep peacefully in the face of such forces was a sign of complete trust in God. But when evil forces seem to triumph, the Psalms express this as ‘God being asleep’ and they urge God to wake up and rescue them.

It is against this background that we must read the story of the stilling of the storm in Mark chapter 4. Of course, this story may be based on a real incident in Jesus’ ministry. The Sea of Galilee, an inland lake, is situated in a deep rift valley, and sudden storms do blow up on the lake, and just as suddenly die down. But it is rather unlikely scenario that the disciples, whose number included at least four experienced fishermen, would have panicked, while the landlubber, Jesus, slept peacefully on. The story we have appears to have been shaped by constant retelling in the early church, and there are echoes in it of the Psalms, and particularly of the story of Jonah. Its present form clearly reflects its religious significance, as a story which showed who Jesus was, and the initial failure of his disciples to recognise him; and very probably indicates that it was retold to give encouragement to later Christians who were encountering opposition to their new-found faith.

At this distance in time, we do not know which of the details of the story are there for religious purposes, and which were details of the original story; for instance, the ‘other ships’ which set sail with Jesus’ boat, and then disappear from the story. Did they contain some members of the crowd who had listened to the parable of the sower immediately before setting sail? Or do they symbolise groups of converts whose faith founders when the storms arise, like the seeds in the parable that failed to bear fruit?

The storm is described in terms which echo Psalm 107 and the beginning of the story of Jonah. Like Jonah, Jesus is asleep while the storm rages: but whereas Jonah, the reluctant prophet, is asleep down in the hold of the ship, hiding from God, Jesus, God’s obedient servant, is asleep on the deck, with his head on the helmsman’s seat – even asleep, the story seems to say, he is in control. But the disciples (portrayed by Mark as men of little faith) mistake his calm for indifference, and arouse him with words that echo the complaints of the Psalmist to a seemingly uncaring God: “Lord, do you not care that we perish?”

fishing boat

Once awake, Jesus rebukes the demons of the sea in the same way that he has already rebuked unclean spirits several times, telling them to be silent. It is another exorcism. Then, he sadly reproves his disciples for their continuing lack of faith and trust in him. The disciples are then filled with a different kind of fear, and ask themselves again the question that is repeated throughout the first half of Mark’s Gospel; ”Who is this, that even the winds and waves obey him?”

The readers of the Gospel, in the post-resurrection Church, know the answer. He is the Christ, the Son of God, God’s agent in the salvation of the world. The story reassures Christians that, however much the Ark of the Church is buffeted by persecution and opposition, and however imperfect the faith of those who appeal to him, Christ will stand with them before the hostile forces arrayed against them, and bring them internal peace once more.

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians provides us with details of the sort of troubles that the members of the early Church faced: beatings, imprisonment, riots, labours, sleepless nights, hunger, dishonour, poverty, death. In the face of all this, Paul quotes the promise of God: “At an acceptable time I have listened to you; on a day of salvation, I have helped you”. Christians were to expect a rough passage, say Paul and Mark; but Christians should always remain confident that God in Christ would preserve them from eternal harm.

This is a message that we also need to hear. In some parts of the world, especially the Middle and Far East and Sub Saharan Africa, Christians still face imprisonment, torture and death for their faith. We in the West are not persecuted in that way; but our religious life is not as straightforward as it once was.

Sometimes the Christian faith is presented as a passport to worldly comfort and prosperity. If only we are doing things right, if only we are obeying God’s commands, we will have a smooth passage, some Christian evangelists say. There is an implied promise that those who have faith will not suffer “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”. Some of these evangelists also say that if we get it wrong, God is the sort of deity who will send natural disasters to punish us, and even innocent bystanders. Even today, that sort of explanation is seriously put forward to explain earthquakes, floods and tidal waves in various parts of the world.

That is far from being Mark’s message. He presents us with a Christ who is the Suffering Servant, the secret Messiah, who doesn’t apparently triumph over those who oppose him, but is destroyed. Mark challenges Christ’s disciples – and challenges us – to expect the storms, and expect to have to follow our Master into them; and to face what ever dangers that brings us with the same calm confidence he showed.

Mark gives us a picture of the church that is far from being a comfortable cruise ship with stabilisers and all mod cons; for Mark the church is a tiny boat, buffeted by storms, filling with water to the point of sinking, but a craft in which we can have confidence, so long as Jesus is at the helm.

Ship in harbor

I used to have a poster on my wall, designed by Argos communications, Christian publishers. The caption says: “a ship in a harbour is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” That is a good message to take out with us, as we leave the harbour of this church and sail on this week, across the rough seas of the world, in the ship of faith.

Let us pray for Christ’s presence and protection as we sail (in a prayer by David Adam, that was sent to me by a friend when I was facing storms in my life) :

Circle me O God,

Keep peace within, keep turmoil out

Circle me O God,

Keep calm within keep storms without

Circle me O God,

Keep strength within, keep weakness out

Circle me O God

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