Majesty and Meekness


Christ in gory

( Daniel 7, 9-10 & 13-14; Revelation 1, 4b-8; John 18, 33-37)

Religious jokes usually circulate in a number of different versions. Here’s a version of one I’m particularly fond of.

There was once a tornado in the Southern United States so strong that it blew down an angel from Heaven. The folk who found the angel immediately began asking questions. “Tell me,” said one” you have seen God. What is he like?” The angel looked at them and smiled. “SHE is BLACK”, it replied.

If you have read ‘The Shack’ by William Paul Young, you will find it partly reflects the thrust of that joke in its portrayal of God. ‘The Shack’ is a novel, but also a work of theology. It concerns a man called Mack, whose youngest daughter was abducted during a family holiday in the Oregon wilderness. She is never found, but there is evidence in the shack of the title, that she was murdered. Mack’s grief at this destroys his faith in God. Then, one day he slips on an icy driveway when he is going to collect the mail. When he opens the mailbox, there is only one item – a note from God (who the family call Papa) inviting him to go back to the shack. When he gets there, he encounters God the Trinity in the form of three people, and Papa (God the Father) is female and black!

I won’t spoil the book for you if you haven’t read it. But do read it, if you can; it’s one of those life-changing books, that everyone should know.

Black motherWe are told in many places in the Scriptures, and in the tradition, that God is not a being like us. If you want to talk properly about God, you have to use abstract philosophical concepts, because the use of any human categories limits God in ways that are unacceptable. But human beings are not very good at imagining things in the abstract, and are even worse at relating to abstract concepts, in the way our faith expects us to relate to God. So all of us fall back on creating pictures in our minds to help us to try to grasp what God is like.

Genesis 1 tells us that human beings were created in the image of God. Human beings in turn tend to ‘create’ or imagine a God made in their image, a God who is like them or like some category of human being they know.

Today, the last Sunday before Advent, is known in some churches as ‘Christ the King’. The readings direct our thoughts to one human category through which we express what we think God is like, that of a human monarch.

Daniel imagines God holding court in a throne room of a monarch of one the the many empires that conquered the Hebrew kingdom, surrounded by thousands of servants, and acting as both judge and jury, dispensing justice. Before him comes ‘one like a son of man’ a human being who is given power and authority over a major part of the monarch’s dominions.

The book of Revelation also portrays God as an earthly monarch, holding court in great glory and sending out his commanders to fight and defeat his enemies. Jesus is God’s lieutenant, whose enemies shake in fear as he approaches in power through the clouds. In the reading from John, we have a passage which talks about the monarchs of this world, but which contrasts those with the kingdoms of God and Jesus.

When the community who composed the Gospel of John reflected on their experience of the life, death and teaching of Jesus, they realised that the picture of an all-conquering earthly ruler was not the right one to convey the reality of the Kingdom of God. So, when they imagined the confrontation between Pilate, who held earthly power, and Jesus, who embodied the Kingdom of God, Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world”.

That’s not a thought that has had a great deal of influence on the Christian tradition. Most have continued to imagine God the Father, and Christ the Son like secular monarchs, and the coming of God’s Kingdom as an event that will violently destroy all human power systems, punish God’s enemies and install the faithful in positions of earthly power.

We tend to ignore the hints in the Scriptures that the reign of God is something quite different. Daniel says that God’s ruler will be one like ‘a son of man’, that is with the limitations of human beings, not overwhelming power.

Revelation says that Jesus Christ brought us into the Kingdom as priests (all of us, not just the ordained!) through his faithfulness, and through the shedding of his blood. Jesus in John rejects secular definitions of power and authority, and stands by Truth, even when it means his own death.

Jesus came to show us the truth about a different kind of God and a different way of being a monarch.

The way we think about God and Christ and the nature of their kingdom is not just theory. It affects the way we think it is right to act, in everything from the nature of our ministry, what sin is and how we escape its consequences, to the way we conduct our civic relationships and settle our differences.

Another book which I found life changing is one by the American theologian, Marcus J Borg, called “The God We Never Knew”. It is all about how he 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 King or Judge, or an authoritarian patriarchal father, 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, and abased ourselves enough about the sins we committed, 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 Borg 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.

But as he grew older, studied theology and read the works of theologians such as John Robinson and Paul Tillich, he came to a different understanding of God, panentheism. 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 says: “I was struck by the difference: an image of God as a male authority figure, shaking his 357431_1.jpgfinger at us versus the image of God as a beautiful loving woman bending down to feed us”.( p.71)

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 argues that supernatural theism is becoming more and more difficult to maintain alongside a modern world view. Throughout history, the male, distant, King and Judge model has been the dominant one, at times the only one that was allowed. This has had consequences for our church organisation, particularly the insistence that you had to be a human male in order to speak for and represent this ‘male’ God.

But the loving, nurturing, female model is there, in the Scriptures and the tradition too, if you look for it. One of the names used for God in the Old Testament, El Shaddai, can be translated as the all sufficient one, the providing one, God as a mother who feeds us from her own substance – an image taken up again in the 1st Epistle of Peter and the writings of Julian of Norwich.

In different places in the Bible God is spoken of as a mother bear, a mother eagle, a mother hen, and as a caring parent, leading her toddlers with reins to keep them safe.

When you come to think of Christ the King according to this model, you get a very different picture from the rather triumphalist image of the commander of armies of angels who will come in power to defeat and punish the wicked. You get a picture of a servant ruler, who sustains and nurtures and comforts her people, who works to repair relationships and reconcile the divided parts of her realm. You get the Scandinavian welfare monarchy rather than Henry V.

And if that’s the image you carry in your mind of our divine monarch, then you will have a very different picture of what living under God’s sovereign rule is all about. If Christ is our authority, then Christ’s agenda takes priority – striving for peace and justice for all, turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, sacrificing your good for the good of others, even your enemies.

If we are living in Christ’s Kingdom, it’s not about conquest or power, it’s not about saying one group of people are better or holier or better able to represent God than another; it’s about sacrifice and service; it’s about rejecting systems that oppress and reject people; it’s about a completely different reality that works within human secular systems to subvert them and transform them into systems of justice, peace and love.

What we celebrate as we think of Christ the King is the foolishness of God, who redeems through sacrifice and servanthood, who lifts our humanity to the divine, who leads us with infinite tenderness to fulness of life: the monarch whose majesty is shown through meekness.

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Waiting for the End Times

cranach_lucas_luther_bible_revelation(Advent -2. Year B. Hebrews 10, 11-25; Mark 13, 1-8)

Do you like watching disaster movies?

One of our children was devoted to the film ‘The Towering Inferno’. I lost count of how many times we saw all those different people escaping from that sky scraper! There are other lots of other films about these smaller disasters, caused by ships sinking or aircraft crashing. Then some of the most popular science fiction films, like The Day of the Triffids, and Independence Day and Judgement Day  predict the end of the world coming as a result of something arriving from outer space. There seems to be something in human beings that enjoys being scared silly by contemplating the awful things that might happen to them unexpectedly.

A look into the Bible and other ancient writings will show that such ‘disaster stories’ are nothing new. In Jewish extra Biblical writings we have passages in Ezra and Enoch, in the Old Testament we find them in the Book of Daniel, and in the New in the book of Revelation, and some parts of the epistles attributed to Paul. Today’s Gospel reading, and the rest of chapter 13, and the parallel passages in Matthew and Luke, like those writings, speak about the awful trials which will come at some time in the future, in The Last Days, or The End Times or The Day of the Lord, as it is variously known, when the world as we know it will be destroyed. Similar stories are found in Muslim writings, in the Koran and the Hadith, with descriptions of the troubles that will announce the Day of Judgement, and the great final battle. Some commentators think these writings are what drives Islamic State.

Prophecies about the End Time are part of a theme that runs through the Scriptures, a theme  which pictures the world being created in perfection, then being spoilt by the Fall; then a long period of moving towards redemption, with the coming of Christ at the centre; and, finally, a period of great trials and testing before the faithful are saved, creation is transformed, and God makes a new heaven and a new earth.

The technical term for these disaster scenarios is ‘apocalyptic’, which means revelation or unveiling. The apocalypse reveals to the faithful what is to come, in order to strengthen them to endure the tribulation, in the sure hope that right will eventually prevail, the righteous will emerge triumphant, the evil people will get their just deserts and the good will be rewarded.

Biblical scholars are divided about whether Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet, who actually spoke these passages, or whether they reflect the views of the early believers, who saw Jesus’ death and resurrection as ushering in the End Times and the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God on earth.

Whether they were spoken by Jesus or not, they were not meant to be crystal ball predictions, or a timetable to help us spot when the end of the world was coming. Unfortunately, some Christians have tended to treat them this way; Many of us will have heard several announcements that the end of the world is going to happen at a date in the near future. These have become so common recently, that someone on Facebook suggested those of us who have survived all these ‘apocalypses’ should be entitled to some sort of badge or loyalty reward!

What these passages actually describe is not the future, but the present reality for the persecuted community, be it the Jews of Daniel’s or Ezra’s time, or the Christians of the post-resurrection community. The purpose of apocalyptic is not to allow believers to predict the exact time of the coming of God’s Kingdom, but to strengthen them to remain faithful no matter what happens.


Mark’s description of war, famine, rebellion, killing, the destruction of holy sites, and the preaching of false prophets reflected what was happening in his community’s time. But they are things which happen in every age, including our own. Think of Syria and Iraq and the Lebanon. Think of Afghanistan, India and Pakistan, Nigeria and Kenya. Think of Paris. The message of New Testament apocalyptic passages is not just meant for the believers of the post-Resurrection community, they are meant for us too. What do they tell us?

Hebrews assures its readers that the destiny of those who are faithful to God is already decided. Rather than using the metaphor of battle that we find Mark, it uses the imagery of the sacrificial system, which was used in the Jerusalem Temple to put the people right with God. It compares the daily sacrifices made on behalf of the people by the human High Priests, with the one, perfect sacrifice made by Jesus through his death, which gains access to God’s presence, not only for himself, but also for all who follow him. Again, the image of warfare comes in, when Jesus is envisaged as a favoured companion of God, waiting in glory with him until the last enemies have been destroyed. Because of Jesus, Hebrews tells us, we can all look forward with hope, no matter how bad things are now, since he is already in the place where we are destined to be.

Mark 13 also uses the Jerusalem Temple as a symbol, but not a symbol of the place of encounter with God. Rather it symbolises  a system where religion is allied with wealth and power. He tells his disciples that before the End Times arrive, and the Kingdom of God is fully established, that alliance of religion and power must be destroyed. That is a significant message for us to hear today.

When religion gets mixed up with secular power systems, there is a tendency for them to adopt the secular ways of persuading people to conform, including physical force and persecution. Jesus demonstrated in his life and death that this was not God’s way.

The Bible passages we heard show us that what people of faith should be relying on to counter evil is not war and violence but Jesus’ path of self-sacrifice, non-retaliation, forgiveness and loving to the utmost. The way of the cross is to abandon power, absorb pain and violence and to engage in the work of reconciliation, rather than retaliation. Non-violent peacemaking is the only way of life that brings us into the right relationship with God that Jesus enjoyed and demonstrated. It provides a sharp contrast to the power plays of the world, but it is something which has been all too rarely demonstrated by the Church.

These apocalyptic passages urge us to take the long view and preserve confidence in the way of the Kingdom which Jesus taught, rather than taking a short cut by using the worldly solutions of force and violence. This is a lesson the Christian church has to learn again and again. It is particularly relevant as we face terrorism and violence from individuals and groups rather than attacks by foreign nations. It is also something to keep in mind as we commemorate the damage done by warfare at this Remembrance season.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, wears as his epsicopal cross a Coventry Cross, formed from 3 nails. This stands both for the nails of the cross of Christ, and also for the nails retrieved from the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, and formed into crosses which were sent by the Cathedral to the cities of Kiel, Dresden and Berlin as symbols of forgiveness, reconciliation and hope while World War 2 was still being fought.

Justin Welby was once part of Coventry’s ministry of reconciliation, which continued from its war time beginnings to become a network of partners all over the world, committed to working for peace and reconciliation in some of the world’s most difficult and longstanding areas of conflict.

The Centre for Reconciliation is also committed to resourcing the church in the practical outworking of reconciliation as an integral part of Christian worship, witness and discipleship. We may not be in a position to do very much except pray about reconciliation in the large political conflicts of these ‘End Times’, but all localities and human institutions have their conflicts and power-plays, and, as followers of Christ, we are called to walk the Way of the Cross to bring reconciliation there too.

This will mean accepting that the old situation in which the church had an established and respected place in the community, both physically and traditionally, is no more. Our fine constructions of stone, like the Jerusalem Temple, are being broken down, and we have to find a different way of engaging with the people who need to learn about Christ’s way of peace, love and reconciliation. We can no longer expect them to come to us, nor to learn about our beliefs through the public education system.

We are being challenged, many believe, to try new ways of living the way of the Kingdom without the security of buildings and support of the state and traditional culture. That will mean not just exploring new ways of teaching and worshipping, like Messy Church, but also thinking again about what is the real core of the Christian message, and how that can be expressed in the language and concepts, and through the media in which the majority of people nowadays are at home. We cannot speak peace to our communities unless we are part of our communities, both physically and theologically, and in order to do that, we will almost certainly find ourselves having to let go of things that we value, or at least see them gradually take up fewer resources than those things which speak to those who need our ministry. There may need to be changes not only in the way we do things, but also in the way we express our beliefs, in the concepts we use and the way we interpret scripture, if our faith is to be of use in this post-modern world.

The people for whom the authors of Hebrews and Mark wrote were waiting eagerly for the End Times, expecting God to intervene in history in some dramatic way, with legions of angels, and geological and planetary disruption.

I don’t think many people expect that sort of End Time any more. We know now that we are always living in the End Times, and that if the conditions of the End Times –violence, killing, deceit, famine and so on – are ever going to cease, it will only be when we live as Jesus showed us how to live – generously, lovingly, sacrificially, so that we and everyone else can experience that life in all its fullness which is the life of the Kingdom over which Christ the King reigns.

Christ the King

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What do you want me to do for you?


(Proper 25. Yr B. Jer.31, 7-9; Mark 10, 46-52)

“What do you want me to do for you?”

The question which Jesus asks of the blind beggar, Bartimeus; Bartimeus asks to be allowed to see again.

Just before this incident, Jesus has asked the same question of his disciples, James and John. They had been walking behind him on the road to Jerusalem, arguing amongst themselves. Their answer to the question was “When you sit on your throne in your glorious kingdom, we want you to let us sit with you, one at your right and one at your left.” Jesus’ reaction to this was not very encouraging. He asked them if they were prepared to suffer with him, and then, when they said they were, replied that it was not for him to choose who would sit with him in heaven. Then he reminded them again that he was not like an earthly king or master, and his fellow rulers would not be like earthy rulers. If they wanted to be first in the kingdom, they would have to become like slaves, the last in line, ready to give their lives to redeem others.

He was much more encouraging to Bartimeus. “Go, he said to him, “Your faith has made you well.” And immediately, Bartimeus was able to see again, and he followed Jesus ‘in the Way’.

When you read these two passages together, you discover that the narrative can be read on two levels. On the surface they are about a discussion between master and disciples, and a simple healing. But underneath, they are about the call to discipleship, and about understanding what that really means.

James and John are already disciples. They are insiders. They have already been called, and they think they know what this means. They think they can see, both physically, and spiritually. They think they are ‘on the way’. But, in reality, they are blind to the true nature of Jesus’ Messiahship. They think it is about power, and prestige and status. They don’t really understand that the way to the kingdom is through service, humiliation, even death. They’ve lost their way.

Bartimeus is not yet a disciple. His poverty and his disability mean he is an outsider and powerless. All he has is his faith, but that is strong. Like the woman with the haemorrhage he is prepared to do anything to make contact with Jesus. So, he shouts – and in spite of discouragement and disapproval from the people on the inside, he keeps on shouting. And Jesus calls him; in verse 49, the verb call is used three times. When Jesus asks him what he wants, Bartimeus answers that he wants to see again. But, ironically, because he has such faith in Jesus, although he cannot physically see, his spiritual sight is much better than that of the so-called disciples.

Jesus responds with a phrase that, again, can be understood on two levels: “Your faith has made you well” or “Your faith has brought you salvation”. Then the outsider becomes an insider; the beggar becomes a disciple; he throws away his only possession, his coat, leaps up and follows Jesus ‘in the way’ – on one level, the way to Jerusalem – but on another ‘The Way’ of the Christian life.

Every time we come into church, every time we pray, Jesus is asking us, too, “What do you want me to do for you?” What is your answer? Are you here because you like flower arranging, or church music, or you enjoy the quiet? Are you here to escape from the outside world, to find refuge in something that doesn’t ever change much? Are you here because you can feel someone important in this small community ? None of these things is wrong. Jesus calls us first of all in order to heal us, so that we are free to follow in his Way.

But are you here in the hope that it will ensure you get one of the thrones beside Jesus in his kingdom (or at the very least your own cloud and a harp and a halo!)?That was James’ and John’s mistake, for which they were strongly reproved by Jesus. It is not what disciples are called for.

Or are you here to learn about being a disciple, to practise being a servant, to learn what it means to take up your cross and follow Jesus ‘in the Way’? Are you here to have your spiritual in-sight restored, to be strengthened through word and sacrament, to give your life and your time and your talents for other people? Are you here to have your life turned upside down, if that is what God is demanding of you? This is what these stories of discipleship say is Jesus’ purpose when he calls us.

The Anglican Bishop of St Albans, Alan Smith, when he began his ministry,  gave the diocese three priorities to work on “Go deeper into God; transform your communities; make new disciples”. Going deeper into God involves placing prayer and worship at the centre of the life of our church, exploring what it means to pray, and ensuring our worship is of the highest quality and attractive to all those who experience it – insiders and outsiders. Worship is important because it transforms us, and gives us the inner security that enables us to turn outwards.

God-centred worship allows us to go out into our communities and transform them in the name of Christ. The faith of the Christians of the Victorian age prompted them to transform their communities in the physical sense. They built schools and hospitals, they struggled for social and political reform. They left a real legacy. What are we going to leave as our legacy? How far is our congregation a blessing to the community we live in?

Bartimeus was made whole because Jesus called him. Each one of us is here because someone, a parent, or a friend, or a teacher, or a neighbour, called us to come and explore the faith with them; and we have stayed because others have called us to discuss with them when our faith has been challenged. Those people made us ‘new disciples’. How equipped are we to present the faith to other thoughtful educated adults like us? How confident are we to share our faith with our children, and our teenagers, who are constantly challenged to deny their faith in the world outside? How ready are we perhaps to be converted again ourselves (as James and John needed to be converted again) before we are ready to go out and evangelise others?

In our Old Testament reading we heard the prophet Jeremiah speaking words of encouragement from the Lord, proclaiming God’s promise that a time was near when the sad and the sick in body and in mind, the young and the old would return. Could we make that passage part of our inspiration for our efforts to renew and revive the church?

“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked his disciples – and they gave him the wrong answer.

“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked blind Bartimeus – and he was made whole again.

This week, as you say your prayers, can you hear Jesus saying to you “What do you want me to do for you?” – and will you give him an answer?

And will you also say to God “What do you want me to do for you?” And will you be prepared to do what God asks?

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Eye of a Needle


(Hebrews 4, 12-16; Mark 10,17-31)

(Proper 23 Yr B)

An ordained colleague once told me about the discussions she had been having with the two churches for which she was responsible about where their Harvest gifts would go. The plan was for them to go to support the local Food Bank.

One church was situated in a prosperous area. The congregation there normally gave little in proportion to their income, and they didn’t think food banks were necessary: ‘No-one is in that much need in this country,’ they said.

The other church served an area of social housing. They had little money, but were generous with what they had. They supported the food bank because they knew it was necessary – some of them had to use it.

Jesus said: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God’.

The Old Testament prophets spoke words of judgement against those who trample on the poor and needy; and as we heard, the writer of the letter to the Hebrews warns us that the Word of God is not just theory, but is living and active, and reveals all to the One before whom we are judged.

The contemporary church seems to spend an awful lot of its time talking about sex, marriage, divorce and sexuality; it doesn’t appear to spend as much time talking about the use of money, although Archbishop Justin seems to be trying to change that.  Yet, while there are comparatively few verses in the Bible which talk about sexual morals and marital relationships, it has been estimated that there are anything between 2000 and 2500 that talk about wealth and money. It would seem from that statistic alone that how we deal with money is more relevant to our life in the Kingdom of God than our sexual morality, important though that is.

Some of these Bible verses state the commonly held belief that earthly riches were a sign of God’s favour. That’s a thread that runs through the Old Testament, especially the Deuteronomic history, and is still current today in those churches that preach a ‘Prosperity Camel:needleGospel’ which says if you give your money to the church (or more often, to a particular evangelist) you will find favour with God, and he will give back to you one hundred fold. You can even find justification for that view in verse 30 of today’s Gospel reading.

But alongside that is another thread, also found in Deuteronomy, which warns that earthly riches bring responsibilities for those living within God’s covenant: responsibilities to those who have little and to those who are unprotected and economically vulnerable, like widows and orphans, and the landless poor. If you claim to be part of God’s holy favoured people, if you live under the covenant, it reminds us, you are obliged to share its benefits fairly.

The Mark passages is made up of four separate sections: the story of the rich young man, sayings about wealth, promises of future good fortune to faithful disciples, and the saying about ‘the first shall be last,’ which is found several times in different contexts in the Gospels.

The story about the rich young man is likely to be more challenging to us than it was to the disciples, or to the people of Mark’s community. Not many of them, we understand from Acts and the epistles, were well off, or influential. But we live in one of the wealthiest nations of the world, and, however limited our income, however little property we own, we are still far wealthier than the vast majority of the world’s population.

We are the rich young man. How does his story challenge us?

His question was asked as Jesus and the disciples travelled on the way to Jerusalem. Perhaps that is just an insignificant detail; but perhaps it indicates that this is actually a story about how we follow the Way of Jesus. The same Greek word (odos) is used for both, and it was as ‘The Way’ that the first disciples described their faith.

The young man begins by flattering Jesus, by calling him ‘good teacher’. Wealth is always useful for gaining access to people of influence, for buying attention. But as James pointed out in the reading we heard from his letter a few weeks ago, it is how wealthy Christians speak and act towards the poorest members of their fellowship that is the real test of their commitment to Kingdom values.

How do we rate ourselves against that standard?

Jesus’ reply turns the focus away from himself, and points the young man towards God and the divine.

He reminds his questioner about the commandments; not all of them, but the six concerned with relationships between humans. But he changes the final commandment from ‘don’t covet’ to ‘don’t defraud’, recognising that the desire for wealth can often leads to criminal activity, especially  against the vulnerable.

The young man proudly boasts that he hasn’t broken any of these. We would probably say exactly the same; but Jesus makes clear, that is not enough to meet Kingdom standards and issues the young man a devastating challenge: “O.K. If you really want to be part of the Kingdom life, give it all away and live as I do”.

The story tells us that the man went away shocked, because he was very rich; and we don’t know how the story ends. Mark tells us that Jesus issued his challenge in love, to help the young man to find his true path in life, to recall him to true covenant and Kingdom values. The story leaves open the possibility that, after the initial shock, the man in question did change his values and his way of life. We don’t know, and it is not up to us to judge. Jesus said that, with God, even the most unlikely change of heart is possible.

But we do have to ask ourselves, how would we measure up in that scale of things?

Jesus is probably not meaning anyone to take his answer literally, just as he didn’t really expect us to cut off our hands or tear out our eyes if they lead us in to doing wrong. He is using exaggeration to shock us into considering what our basic values are, and whether they measure up to life under the sovereignty of God; because this story is not talking about what happens to us after we die; we are not supposed to live this life with our eye on the next. The Kingdom of Heaven is a present reality!

The Gospel is about how we live now, how we put into practice the petition in the Lord’s Prayer which asks “Your Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven”.

In particular this passage asks us how we view our wealth. Is it something we regard as a gift to be shared with others, and to be used for the enhancement of other people’s lives as well as our own? Or is wealth our true security, to be clutched to ourselves, to be increased no matter who we trample on as we do so, to be preserved for us and for our heirs?

Do we posses our money, or does it posses us?

Our world is full of poor people. Poor in monetary terms, without food or clean water or secure homes or proper sanitation; poor in terms of security, subject to warring factions, or climate change, or natural disasters or corrupt legal systems; poor in educational terms, without access to education or opportunities to use the education they have been given; or poor in emotional terms, lonely, frightened, confused or in the grip of addiction.

In relation to them, we are wealthy in all those aspects. Our wealth can so easily blind us to their needs, and to the truth that they are our brothers and sisters in the Kingdom.

Through Jesus, God asks us to share our wealth with them. Wealth is not a bad thing in itself; it is bad when it functions in a way that insulates us from the realities others live with, and blocks our empathy for those who lack what we have been given.

We don’t have to give away everything. We don’t even have to give away all our financial resources. We do have to use it not just for ourselves and our own comfort and security, but to advance the comfort and security of all our brothers and sisters in Christ.

We can give time and sympathy and friendship as well as money. We can stand alongside those who are voiceless, and use our position and our access to communications to be advocates for change. We can be for those who are poor what Jesus was for us according to Hebrews “one who sympathises with our weakness”.

The thing that prevents some of the rich from living in the Kingdom is not their wealth, but the way they use it. The encounter between Jesus and the rich young man challenges us to decide how we will use the wealth we have – for the common good, or to trample on the poor.

A final image to take away with you.

Jesus illustrates the problem by using what was probably a well known saying of the time, Camelabout the impossibility of pushing a camel through the eye of a needle. It’s a memorable image and an amusing one. One interpretation of it says the ‘eye’ was not in a literal needle, but was a narrow gate in a city wall. That spoils the humour doesn’t it, and diminishes the impact of the saying?

But I also read in Morna Hooker’s commentary on Mark, that it is possible that the word ‘camel’ (camēlon) was a mistranscription of the word camĭlon, which means a rope.

At first I thought that too would spoil the joke; but then I thought it could provide a good illustration of the point the story was trying to make. If you try to push a rope through the eye of a needle, it won’t go. It’s like a rich person whose wealth ties him or her up in their own interests. But if you unravel it, and push the individual strands through one by one, it will go. It’s like a rich person who is not bound by their wealth but is prepared to unravel it and share it.

So which is our wealth? A camel or a tightly bound rope, which will never get through the eye of a needle into Kingdom life? Or the individual threads of a rope unravelled, shared between many, so that all can go into the Kingdom through the eye of the needle of God’s sharp word?


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One flesh.

images one flesh

(Proper 22. Yr B. Genesis 2, 18-24. Mark 10, 2-16)


In the discussions the churches are having over whether to approve blessings of partnerships or even marriages between people of the same gender, there are certain passages (colloquially known as ‘clobber passages’), which are often quoted against gay marriage. Then there are others which, although they don’t mention homosexuality, are often quoted to support the idea that marriage must be between a male and a female. The passages in the lectionary for today are two of the latter, so it’s useful to be able to look at their background, and what they actually tell us about human relationships, and particularly, about marriage.

The Old Testament passage contains part of the second creation story in Genesis. This one came from the Judaean tradition, and was probably written down in the time of King David. In contrast to the story in Genesis 1, written much later, after the exile in Babylon, where God is distant, and creates by word of mouth, in this creation story God is much more ‘hands on’, and creates like a potter, forming things out of the clay of the earth. First God creates a human being, an adam or earth creature, and breathes life into it. Then God makes a garden for the adam to live in, and trees and streams to enjoy, and commands the adam to cultivate it.

womanThen as we heard, God decides that it is not good for the adam to be alone. God in this creation story seems to work by experimentation. So first God creates animals to see if any of them are a suitable ‘helper’ for the adam. But none of them is. So then God creates a woman from the rib of the adam, and brings them together, and the man acknowledges with delight that she is a suitable companion for him.

An understanding of Hebrew makes this story read quite differently from the way it has often been understood. Adam is not a personal masculine name: until the creation of the helper, it just means ‘earth creature’, who doesn’t have a gender. The language of ‘man’ and ‘woman’, ‘male’ and ‘female’ doesn’t come into the story until after the creation of the helper from the adam’s rib. Then the man, ‘ish’, recognises the woman, ‘ishshah’, as being a suitable helper and companion for him. The Hebrew also makes it clear that she is not his inferior; the term used, ‘etzer’, is also used in the Psalms about God as the helper and saviour of humanity. The woman is not actually given her name ‘Eve’ which means ‘life of all’ or ‘mother of humanity’, until after the expulsion from Eden.

Like so much of the early part of Genesis this story is a myth. Myths are not history (few creation2_1people nowadays believe there was originally one male and one female from whom all humans are descended) neither are they science (women are not created from men’s ribs!). They are explanatory stories, evidence of how people tried to make sense of what they observed about human life, and related it to their understanding of God.

The first creation myth deals with the observation that humans are somehow similar to the divine, “made in the image of God”. The central point of this creation story, however, seems to be that human beings are sociable creatures, who need to be in relationships, especially intimate ones. Although animals can provide companionship, they can’t provide the deep intimacy that a lifelong marriage relationship does, when one spouse recognises the other spouse as the same, yet different, and their union makes them in some way ‘one flesh’.

In the passage from Mark, Jesus quotes this passage in a conversation with the Pharisees about divorce. There is another version of the conversation in Matthew 19. In Mark, the question the Pharisees ask doesn’t make much sense. Everyone knew that according to Deuteronomy 24.1 a Jewish man could divorce his wife. In Matthew, the Pharisees’ question makes more sense, since there they ask about the grounds for divorce. This reflects a disagreement between two influential rabbis at the time of Jesus, about whether adultery was the only grounds for divorce, or whether a man could put away his wife for trivial reasons, like being a bad cook, or a nag, because she hadn’t produced children, or simply because he’d gone off her.

This mattered to both husbands and wives. Only a woman (and her lover) could commit adultery against a husband in Jewish law. A married man having an affair with a single woman was not adultery. A wife convicted of adultery could be stoned to death, or the husband could divorce her without forfeiting her dowry or the marriage settlement in goods she brought on their marriage. If he divorced her for another reason, he had to return her dowry and her marriage settlement to her family. The certificate of annulment, specified in Deuteronomy, was therefore an important document, which assured an innocent woman of her rights and property, gave her some protection and might allow her to remarry (though she would always be ‘damaged goods’ and therefore not an attractive wife).

Jesus answers the Pharisees by asking what “the law” contained in Deuteronomy specified. He doesn’t, in Mark, pronounce on the controversy over the grounds for divorce, or disagree with the standards set by the law. As so often happens, he goes beyond the legal position to talk about deeper questions of human relationships. By quoting from the two creation stories, he takes the question back to the situation in the Garden of Eden, to that myth of perfection, to God’s original intention for human beings, to the ideal society that we long for, and which we believe will be realised in the new creation; to a relationship that is permanent, faithful and stable.

as one

His answer recognises that the intimacy of marriage creates a deep bond between the spouses, and that family breakup inevitably leads to pain for all the people involved. Divorce may be necessary, given that human beings are fallible creatures; it may be the least bad option; but it is not the ideal. Therefore, once people are married, no ‘man’ (i.e. no husband) should be eager to break the bond. Divorce, according to Jesus, is not to be regarded as a ‘right,’ as many Jewish men thought of it; it is always a concession, a result of ‘hardness of heart’, the failure on the part of husband, or wife, or both, to live up to the best that they are capable of.

The second part of the passage, describing when Jesus and the disciples go indoors and he explains things further to them, is something that commonly happens in Mark’s Gospel. Many commentators think it shows Mark expanding the original story to apply it to the situation of his community, and so does not contain the original words of Jesus.

This section doesn’t actually address divorce, but talks about remarriage after divorce. If it reflects Jesus’ thoughts, it shows him being very radical about marriage relationships compared with his contemporaries He says if a man remarries after divorcing his wife, he commits adultery against her. But in contemporary Jewish understanding, a husband couldn’t commit adultery against his wife, who was his possession. This statement places both man and woman on an equal footing.

Then, the second statement applies the same standards to a woman, if she instigates the divorce. This is likely to be a Markan extension, to cope with the situation in Roman society where women could instigate divorce, but still it pronounces absolute equality between the sexes.

The conversation indoors is with the disciples, and so can be seen to be setting standards for the Christian community. Jesus always sets higher standards for his followers, standards which go beyond merely obeying the law to living out the life of sacrificial love that he showed us.

The final section which Mark adds about children reinforces this. Children, like wives, had no rights in the society of his time. Everything they were given they received as a gift. This is what the disciples, who set themselves up as gatekeepers, deciding who could or couldn’t approach Jesus, had to realise. Nobody has a right to be part of God’s Kingdom, since we all fall short of the standards required. Nobody therefore has the right to exclude others. Only when we accept that being included in the Kingdom is the gift of a loving God can we truly be part of it.

Since the time of Jesus, his followers have struggled to live up to his standards, in marriage and sexual conduct as well as in other areas of life. We try to do so, knowing that we will fail, but also that Jesus showed us a God who loves us in spite of our failure, and who forgives, and always allows us to try again.

As we seek to apply his teaching based on these passages in our own lives, we carry before us the perfect vision of human relationships contained in the story of creation, to which we aspire. But we also remember the warning contained in his admonition to the disciples when they tried to prevent God’s children from coming to him, that no-one has the right to set barriers which prevent God’s children from receiving the divine blessing on their deepest relationships.

“What God has joined together, let no human separate.”

two hearts


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Who’s the Greatest?


(Proverbs 31.10-31, James 3.13-4.3, Mark 9,30-37)

Twenty-nine years ago today, I was licensed as a Reader in the Church of England. Over those twenty-nine years, one of the questions I’ve most frequently been asked is, “Are you going to go on to become a priest?”

The assumption behind the use of the words ‘go on’ seems to be that in ministry, as in all other spheres of work, everyone is on a career path, in which everyone’s aim is to rise up the hierarchy.  You may start off at the bottom, in a role which has little status, power or influence, but your aim will be eventually to ‘progress’ to a position with more status, more power, and more influence. And in the church, lay people (and lay ministers) are at the bottom when it comes to power and status, and ordained ministers are at the top.

The answer to the question, for me, has always been ‘No’ (even before the time when I became too old to be considered for ordination, which I am now!). I feel no call to ordained ministry. I feel I have a vocation to lay ministry, and to be a lay preacher and theologian. I value the position of an unpaid lay minister as a bridge person between the world of church and the everyday world – even when one frequently has the experience (only to be expected of a bridge!) of being walked over!

I also value the fact that, in Reader ministry, there is no hierarchy – you cannot become a senior Reader in any way, and there is no difference between men and women Readers. That unfortunately is not the case is in the world of Anglican clergy, in which there continues to be distinctions based on gender, and differences of power and status.

When I was licensed, 29 years ago, the question about becoming  a priest would only have been asked by selectors, as they did of me at my selection. Women were unable to be priests, and the first women weren’t ordained as deacons, the lowest level of clergy, until the following year. Until 1969, mind you, women were not even allowed to be Readers. These rules were based both on the Victorian middle-class image of woman as the one whose true sphere of influence was in the home; but even more on centuries of Christian misogyny, which, drawing in particular on a very partial reading of St. Paul and other sections of the Bible, characterised women as unspiritual creatures, totally unsuited for religious leadership or any public activity.

There is a passage in the book of Proverbs, chapter 31 which gives a very different picture of the activity of women. The Good News Bible entitles this section, ‘The Capable Wife’ but actually the woman described there is active in business, investment and commerce as well as in the home She is a woman of power and responsibility. Perhaps some people would find her an intimidating figure – an impossible act to follow; but, as elsewhere in the Bible, she may have been drawn as an ideal figure, a perfect example to aspire to. But actually the reality for many women in Biblical times was that they had little power or status; they were the property of men, first their fathers and then their husbands.

Another interpretation of this passage is that it is a description of the divine Wisdom at work; in this sort of literature, Wisdom is almost always described as a female. However we interpret it though, this passage doesn’t at all support the idea that the female cannot be spiritual and cannot reveal what God is like.

In the context of our other readings today, it is important to note that the woman of Proverbs exercises her considerable talents, not in the interests of a career of her own, but in the service of others for whom she is responsible, her husband and family. This is still the way of life for many women in the Third World today. Women are often  the ones who work to provide food and clothing for their families, as well as carrying out the practical tasks of caring for children, but have no power or authority.


We find it very difficult to prevent ourselves from projecting human ideas of leadership onto God. In the Gospel reading, Jesus is again telling his disciples what sort of a Messiah he is: one who came to serve, to suffer and to be killed. The disciples can’t take it, either with reference to Jesus or for themselves. Instead, they turn to arguing about which of them is the greatest; who will have the positions of  greatest power, status and influence in the coming Kingdom, whether it be established in this world or the next. And if we read Acts and the epistles carefully, we see that this sort of quarrelling about ‘who is the greatest’ continued in the early church, with rivalry between those following Peter and James, those following Paul and those who looked to the Beloved Disciple, and ever since!

Jesus could have taken a woman as his example of a person of little power in his society; instead he took a child. Some commentators think that he did so in order to make a play on the Aramaic word ‘talya’ which means both ‘servant’ and ‘child’.

We, who live in such a child-centred, even child-indulgent culture, find it hard to recapture the full impact of what Jesus was saying. We need to remember that in the ancient world, children were the property of their father: property which could be misused and harshly disciplined, who were expected to work as hard as slaves for the benefit of their father,  who could be sold if necessary to augment the family income, and who would be married off to the family advantage. We only have to look to other parts of the world to see the same things, child labour and early marriage,  happening today.

Child slave images

We have heard the teaching of Jesus about children so often, that it has become commonplace – but do we take it seriously? We tend to laugh at the story of the disciples jockeying for position – but it still goes on today in the church. People are still often seek positions of influence for themselves. Within the church there are many who insist on the distinctions of different orders and offices. In the Church of England it can be seen most obviously during worship, where there is a clear order of precedence in processions, an order which says the most important person (the priest or the bishop) has to be at the back. This is ironic, since, as Paul points out in Corinthians, that was the position where the slaves and captives came in a procession – but now in church it is the place of honour!

Even if we don’t hold office ourselves, we may rank people who minister to us in a hierarchy, and feel offended if we get a visit from a lay person rather than a member of the clergy, or if an ordinary member of the congregation, rather than a trained minister, takes a particular part of the service.

We all of us, clergy and lay, licensed minister and person in the pew,  find it hard to accept that the call to Christian service is a call to do whatever is asked of us, no matter what. In the words of the Methodist Covenant Service, which are so difficult to say and mean:

Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for you or laid aside for you, exalted for you or laid low for you; let me be full, let me be empty, let me have all things, let me have nothing.


The reading I referred to from the Book of from Proverbs comes at the end of a section containing teaching about Wisdom. The reading we heard from the Epistle of James is also about wisdom. It contrasts two sorts of wisdom. First, the wisdom that comes from above, which is shown in right living; and second worldly wisdom, which, taken to extremes is demonic.

None of us can escape being exposed to both sorts of wisdom; but we, as individuals and as a church, have to choose which to follow. If we choose to follow the path of heavenly wisdom, the result will be right relationships with God and with each other.  If we choose the path of worldly wisdom, the result will be strife and quarrels in our relationships with others; it will also distort our relationship with God.

We heard this week that the Archbishop of Canterbury is planning to invite the Primates of the Anglican Communion to a meeting next year, in a last ditch attempt to hold the quarrelling Communion together. Canon Giles Fraser wrote yesterday that he thought it was too late; it was already too divided, since the world wide web had allowed people across the communion to share ideas and build alliances at a grass-roots level, without passing through some sort of central control – a second Reformation, which would finally do away with hierarchy.

Who knows whether he is right. The struggle to follow Christ’s way is ongoing. We have constantly, as individuals and as a Church , to remind ourselves of Christ’s challenging definition of Christian service:

Whoever wants to be first must be last, and the servant of all.

And we need constantly to be reforming ourselves and our institutions, to reflect the image of a God who was revealed to us as a servant and a child.


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Watch Your Language!


(James 2, 1-10 & 14-17; Mark 7, 24-37)

There’s been a lot of comment in the media recently about the use of language. David Cameron and Nigel Farage were roundly condemned for talking about ‘swarms of migrants’ and the need to ‘protect’ our borders from them, as if they were a plague of wasps or locusts. The Defence Secretary referred to towns in the East of England being ‘swamped’ by migrant workers’ and feeling themselves ‘under siege’, as if they were facing an armed incursion. And only on Thursday, the death of a small Syrian child, Aylan Kurdi, drowned while trying to reach Kos on an unseaworthy boat, was blamed by UKIP PPC Peter Bucklitsch on his parents being ‘greedy for the good life in Europe’ and ‘queue-jumping’.

Many people were profoundly shocked by the use of such language about people who are, most of them, fleeing from countries torn apart by civil war, where education, health care and justice have collapsed, and where they are constantly at risk of violence and death because of their ethnic background, or their religion, or their gender or their sexuality.

I wonder if we are equally shocked by the language Jesus uses in the passage from Mark we heard this morning. The Gentile woman in the story also came from Syria. Like the refugees we have been hearing about in the news, she was at the end of her tether, desperate to find help for her sick child. She lived in an area where there was a mixed population, but where ethnic groups kept strictly to themselves, but in her desperation, she decided an appeal to someone from another community was her only option. So she approached a celebrated Jewish healer with her request for help.

Not only was her request refused, but she was rebuffed with insulting language. To put it bluntly, Jesus called her a bitch, comparing her people to the dogs who scavenged for the scraps thrown out after the meal, animals that the Jews regarded as unclean.

Any church leader who used such language today would immediately be exposed and condemned in the media. But I doubt any of Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries would have found it shocking. That was simply the way they thought. All Gentiles were unclean, just like the animals Jews were forbidden to touch or eat. God wasn’t actually concerned with them. The salvation that the Messiah would bring, the new creation that arrive after this world was destroyed would be for faithful Jews to enjoy, not any other people; and, from this exchange, it seems that Jesus initially thought the same.

The woman’s persistence and her witty answer, which acknowledged that his own people must be his first priority, but asked for a share of the left-overs, seems to have changed his mind. So Jesus extended some of the benefits of the Kingdom to her daughter; and the gospels record a handful of other occasions when he healed Gentiles, almost always at a distance.

The second miracle story in the Gospel is less striking, but still speaks to the human fear and exclusion of those who are different. No doubt the man who was deaf and suffered from incomprehensible speech was difficult to cope with. As someone who suffered from a disability, he would have been excluded from full participation in Jewish religious rites, which were closed to anyone who was considered imperfect. When Jesus healed him, he was restored to a full and honoured place in the community.

The lesson that the benefits of God’s Kingdom were meant for all, that the divisions of race and status and gender and ability did not apply in the divine economy were lessons that the Early Church had to learn again and again. We hear James reminding his community not to give the best place and the warmest welcome to the well off. We hear about Peter being taught in a prophetic dream that the division his religious tradition made between clean and unclean people was not one that God subscribed to. We hear about Paul’s arguments with the leaders of the Jerusalem church about how far Gentile converts had to adhere to Jewish food rules, and admission ceremonies before they could be included in the community of the saved.

And this is a lesson that the Christian Church has had to relearn again and again as it has grown, and moved into new situations and new parts of the world. Again and again, the Church has fallen back on what seems to be a natural human instinct, to prefer and prioritise ‘people like us’ and to demonise and exclude those who are different.

Migrants on boatsThe Church has not only tried to exclude those of a different race or different religious tradition. It has also excluded those of different genders from leading in the church; it still tries to exclude those of different sexualities. It has even excluded those who are sick or handicapped from full participation in church, preferring those who are ‘perfect’ according to worldly standards.

God speaks to us today, through the miracle stories which Mark records and through the letter of James to his early church community, as God speaks to us through many of the Old Testament prophets, reminding us again that this is not the way the heavenly Kingdom works. And this message is not just theology or theory, it demands practical action from us.

The Old Testament prophets were forthright in their condemnation of religious practice that wasn’t accompanied by practical action to relieve the suffering of our fellow men and women, both those of their own community, and aliens and refugees. Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy urge the Israelites to give food to the aliens within their land, and not to discriminate against them and apply different legal standards to them, reminding themselves that they were once aliens in Egypt. Isaiah and Micah preach that God is not at all interested in religious rites and sacrifices; what God wants of us is that we love kindness, seek justice and walk humbly before our God.

James reminds his community, and us, that faith without works is useless. He reminds them, and us, that the heart of God’s law is loving our neighbours as ourselves, and that demands practical action to meet their desperate needs. It’s no use, in God’s eyes, to say “Go in peace, keep warm and eat your fill’ and do nothing to provide those in need with peace, shelter, clothing and food.”

migrant on railwayAnd the Gospel stories remind us that in God’s economy it’s not acceptable to say “My first priority is for my own people. No matter how desperate your need, I can’t do anything that means they get a smaller share of the good things of this life”. It’s not acceptable to leave people without a voice or unable to hear the Christian message of reconciliation. It’s not part of God’s plan to exclude people from full participation in community and religious life because of physical or mental handicap.

In God’s kingdom, there is no such thing as ‘us’ and ‘them’, ‘our people’ and ‘others’; no one has a higher status, or a superior claim to be be first in the queue, or to occupy the best seats; there are no such things as aliens, migrants, illegals; nobody is a threat, nobody is to be compared to an invasion of insects, nobody is to be regarded as unclean. Nobody is to be left to suffer, or denied human love and companionship, simply because of where or how they were born. Everyone is simply a child of God, everybody is a brother and a sister, everybody is entitled to a share in all the good things of life that God has provided for us.

As we look at the pictures of that small boy lying lifeless on the shores of the Mediterranean, and boatloads of refugees crossing the oceans of the world, and desperate men and women fighting to board trains to get to places where they can build a new life in peace and security for themselves and their families, may the words of the Scriptures echo in our ears and influence our thoughts. May our worship this morning prompt us to watch our language as we comment on the situation; and may we be be prompted to show our faith in works to help the least of these, our brothers and sisters; and may we demonstrate that our faith is living and life-giving, not dead.

Humanity-washed-ashoreWays you can help:

Map of drop off and crowdfunding points for aid

Facebook page for help to Calais and Kos

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