Mad or Bad?

(Genesis 3, 8-15; 2 Corinthians 4,13 – 5,1; Mark 3, 20-35)

 

Whenever we hear the news of some terrorist activity, or an act of mass killing, someone is bound to say: “How could they do that? They must be mad!”

 

If a person who commits such a crime is caught, before they can stand trial in modern legal systems there is usually a process to decide whether they are sane, and therefore can beheld responsible for their actions. The trial of Anders Breivik, who murdered members of the youth wing of a Norwegian political party in Oslo and Utoya Island three years ago, was not held to decide whether he was guilty, since he admitted that, and there was film of him doing it. It was to decide whether he is sane or not, whether he was mad or bad.

 

The same question “Is he mad or bad?” is being asked about Jesus in our Gospel reading today. Jesus’s family come to take him home, after hearing that his teaching and miracles have attracted huge crowds. They say he is ‘out of his mind’, and seek to take him under their protection. They are, in effect, maintaining that he is not responsible for his actions.

 

This is frequently said about religious people, especially those whose words and actions don’t fit the conventional mode. It was said initially about Joan of Arc, whose feast day the church celebrated a week ago, because she had visions which led her to dress up in male clothing, and lead an army against foreign invaders of her country. It was only when her efforts brought success that this charge was dropped by her countrymen.

 

There are some people who say that any religious person who claims to hear voices or see visions must be out of their mind. They are usually people who believe that the material world is the only reality there is, denying any reality to a spiritual realm beyond what we can see and touch. They have a point, when often the voices that people hear instruct them to do dreadful things. So, how are we to judge?

 

In our Gospel reading, the scribes don’t want to have Jesus judged as mad. They want to hold him responsible for his actions. They believe in a spiritual realm, composed of powerful beings, both good and evil. Their judgement is that Jesus is obeying the wrong spiritual beings, the evil ones rather than the good, Beelzebub or Satan and his demons, rather than God and God’s angels. They want him declared bad.

 

This happened to Joan of Arc too. When she was successful, she was hailed by the French Royal forces as sent by God; but when she was captured by the Burgundian forces, the allies of the invading English, they tried and convicted her of heresy, that is, serving the forces which opposed God.

 

After her death, and after the war between France and England was over, the trial verdict was reversed and she was declared a martyr (although she was not made a saint until the early twentieth century).

The resurrection and ascension of Jesus convinced many of his contemporaries that he was neither ‘mad’ nor ‘bad’, but doing the work of God on earth. Changes in social, religious and political circumstances did the same in the case of Joan of Arc. But how do we judge whether what we feel impelled to do by our religious beliefs comes from God or not? And how do we judge whether, when other people behave in strange ways in pursuit of their religious beliefs, are insane or evil?

 

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

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

 

The accusations of his family and the scribes lead Jesus to make his statement about the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit. There has been endless debate about what exactly this means. The commentary on the readings I read suggested that the ‘unpardonable’ sin is to state with absolute conviction that the work of God is the work of the Devil, and vice versa. People who make such statements leave no room for doubts and rely totally on their own judgement. (This incidentally links with the origin of the term ‘heresy’, which came from a root meaning a division resulting from individual self-will).

 

We can see the mythical representation of that action in our Old Testament story from the beginning of the Book of Genesis. You don’t have to take the story literally to perceive the truth in it. The details are unimportant; the tree and the fruit are just symbolic of any actions of human beings (in other cultures the ‘fruit’ is translated as a pomegranate or a coconut, rather than an apple). It doesn’t matter whether the woman or the man made the first move towards disobedience, no matter how the story has been used since to deny women equality. Both Adam and Eve choose to follow their own desires, rather than listen to the voice of God.

 

One result is that the community they were created to inaugurate is broken. Rather than remembering their common origin as created by God, bone from the same bone, flesh from the same flesh, originating from and returning to the dust of the earth, the man blames the woman and the woman blames the snake. The unity of male and female and of human and animal kingdom is destroyed, with the disastrous consequences we still see.

 

The blame game we see portrayed in the Genesis myth is still being employed to create divisions in society, and to allow people to avoid taking responsibility for their own actions. Anders Breivik did this repeatedly. He wanted to be declared sane, but he didn’t want to be declared evil, so he blamed his actions on his victims: his hatred of Muslims on perceived slights to him in by Muslims in childhood, his opposition to immigration on the political party whose members he attacked. Those were his judgements alone, and he was claiming that his judgement is the only thing to which he owes allegiance.

 

Jesus always took responsibility for his own actions, at the same time as claiming that he did what he was sent to do by God. He came to assure everyone, both those inside and those who were outside his community, that they could receive the forgiveness of God for the sins they had committed and took responsibility for. He extended the meaning of ‘family’ to include those outside his own biological family; he expanded the meaning of ‘community’ to embrace even all those whom his own religious community excluded. His sole allegiance was to the Kingdom of God.

 

As we move from an emphasis on the life of Jesus during the seasons of Lent and Easter, into the season of Pentecost, we are faced with the challenge of how we follow Jesus, and how we are called to work to live out our allegiance to the Kingdom of God, and to building community in our own situations. Is our ultimate loyalty to Christ, and to his radical way of creating community; or is it to our own racial or religious community, or to our own biological family – or ultimately, only to ourselves?

 

It is not an easy challenge to accept, and no doubt we will find it difficult to make those decisions, and be faced with doubts, when perhaps, the path we choose seems to be going wrong. We will constantly have to return to the question: “Is what we (or others) are doing mad, or bad, or following the will of God?”

 

In his second letter to the Corinthians, (the New Testament reading set for today) Paul provides encouragement as we attempt to live our our allegiance to the Kingdom of God. He acknowledges that it can often seem a waste of time; that it can cause us pain; that it can look to others as if we are giving our loyalty to something that is a fantasy, because it cannot be seen, or proved scientifically.

 

But, he reassures us, what we are placing our faith in, and basing our judgements on, is ultimate reality, is eternal, and will endure far longer than any of the judgements of this world as to what is mad, or bad, or the will of God.

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Stones.

Sermon for Bereavement Service.

(Ecclesiastes 3, 1-8; Matthew 11, 28-30)

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Some of you may know the story of Oscar Schindler, the Czech /German business man, who saved over 1000 Jews from the gas chambers by employing them in his factories. Most of us know about him through the Steven Spielberg film, ‘Schindler’s List’.

The part of that film which I find most moving comes at the end, when it suddenly turns from black and white into a colour film. It is the scene showing the survivors of Schindler’s List and their children, placing stones on Oscar Schindler’s grave, after he had been declared by the State of Israel one of the ‘Righteous among the Nations ‘ – the Jewish equivalent of a Christian saint.

In placing stones as a symbol of remembering a person or an experience, those Jews seemed to be following an instinct that goes back a long way in human history. We read in the Old Testament of the patriarchs like Jacob, setting up stones to mark the places where they encountered God, or where significant people were buried. The Celtic peoples, too, followed the same custom. In Scotland, Wales and Ireland, you will find stones carved in the shape of crosses, marking sacred spots, and piles of stones, or cairns, often at the top of a hill, to mark the place where someone died climbing, or fell in battle.

Somehow the placing of stones seems to symbolise both the heaviness of remembering, and the necessity of letting go. So I want to suggest to you that today, you make in your mind a cairn, a mound of stones, in memory of the person you are here today to remember; and let each stone that you place represent some emotion that you may have experienced as you have mourned them in this last year or so. As you place each stone on your cairn, look at it, then ask God to share the weight of it with you and help you to let it go.

The first stone you lay down will undoubtedly be grief. If you lost your loved one fairly recently your stone of grief may be sharp, like this stone, and cause you pain as you handle it.

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Other stones may represent feelings that give you pain as you pick them up and look at them. These are the stones of painful memories, guilt, regrets for things done or left undone, things said or left unsaid. Many, many of us also feel anger at the death of people we love, especially if the death was sudden, or premature, or the result of accident or violence.

You may feel that rather than placing this stone quietly down, you want to throw it at someone – at the person you feel responsible for the death, at the doctors, at relatives and visitors who say the wrong thing, or even at God.

Don’t worry if this is how you feel; if you need to let your anger out at someone, God is far better able to receive it than most humans. A comforting story I once read tells of a man who went to hospital to visit his sick daughter, carrying a gift of a chocolate cake. When he got to the ward, he was told by the nurse that his daughter had suffered a relapse and died. In anger he went down to the hospital chapel, where earlier he had knelt to pray for his daughter, and flung the chocolate cake at the crucifix.

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Robert Llewelyn, who tells the story comments “May we not say that he who bore the nails found it not that difficult to absorb a chocolate cake. And it could be that in that little chapel there was poured out the resentment harboured secretly for so many years, and that God, who knows us so much better than we know ourselves, welcomed the outburst as breaking up hard and fallow ground, making it possible for the waters of healing to flow and the seeds of new life to germinate”.

These sharp and painful stones will probably be the first you set down, and will form the bottom layers of your cairn.

In the natural world, stones become smoother, like this one, worn down by water and contact with other stones. If it is longer since the person died, it is possible that your stone of grief may now be like this, not so sharp, worn down by the passage of time and the water of your tears. But you may still, from time to time, feel its heaviness in your heart.

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Other smooth but heavy stones will represent a number of emotions you may have felt in your time of mourning; perhaps anxiety or panic, numbness or restlessness, depression or fear. You may have been weighed down with tiredness, the experience of sleepless nights, a sense of helplessness or apathy; you may feel the heavy weight of loneliness, and the constant reminders of your loss as you go through familiar routines, and have to change your habits.

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We all experience bereavement differently, and some of you may now be past the time when these feelings weigh you down. Others of you will still be feeling them. But when you are able to let go of them and set them down, I hope you will find there will be other, lighter stones to place on top of them.

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Hopefully, among them will be bright and shining stones, like jewels which reflect light back to you. These stones represent the gifts given to you and skills taught by the one who is gone, and happy memories of experiences shared. These will be the stones which crown your cairn, and when they are placed there, you may be able to revisit your cairn, and see only them; and seeing them there, you may feel that you can leave your cairn, and turn from mourning into new life.

In our reading from Ecclesiastes, the preacher tells us that there is a time to collect stones, a time to build, a time to mourn; but that a time comes also to throw away stones, to laugh, to dance, to live again. Only you will know when that time is, when your cairn of mourning is complete.

You will need to choose in your imagination, where you build your cairn. For myself, I know that my cairn would need a firm foundation lest it collapse, and the stones hurt me again. So I would always begin my cairn in a place where I find Jesus – because as the Scripture tells us, Christ is the one sure foundation stone on which we can rely.

Christ says “Come to me all you who are weary and carrying heavy stones, and I will give you rest “. Christ invites us to lay our heavy weights on his shoulders, and he will bear them with us; Christ invites us to build on him as we would on a firm rock; and he assures us that what we so build will never collapse around us. All these images tell us that God in Christ is not outside our grief and pain, but there in the middle of it, bearing the weight of it alongside us.

In a saying recorded in a gospel that is not part of our Bible, Jesus says “Lift up a stone, and you will find me”. As you lift the stones to build your cairn of remembrance, may you find there the Christ who gives us hope that death is not the end; who gives us faith that life is eternal; who gives us joy in the assurance that love lives on, and even death cannot erase it; and casting all your cares on Christ, may you find peace.

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Swimming with the Spirit.

Sermon for Pentecost.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.

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

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.

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From the World, in the world, to the world.

 

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Acts 1, 15-17 & 21-26; John 17, 6-19.

“They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world” (John 17, 16).

Some of you may know that I regularly take primary school assemblies for a neighbouring parish. I’ve got one this coming week, so I went online to find a visual aid to help children understand this Gospel passage.

I found this.

IMGP1188You take a clear bottle, putting water in the bottom (made visible with food colouring) then a layer of cooking oil on the top. When the bottle is shaken, the oil and water become mixed up and the oil is invisible. But if you leave the bottle to stand for a while, the oil separates out, and floats to the top. This shows that, though even when they were all mixed up, the oil and water were never really one.IMGP1187

The script says that Jesus prayed for his disciples, that as they lived in the world, they would not become part of the world. It continues that this prayer is for us too. As Jesus was sent by his Father into the world, so Jesus has sent us into the world. We must live in this world, but Jesus has called us to be separate. Just as the coloured water remains separate from the oil, Jesus wants us to be separate from the world, as he is.

IMGP1186Like any sensible teacher, I tried it out at home first! Lessons and assemblies can be ruined by visual aids that don’t do what they are supposed to do! And this turned out to be one of them! Once they are vigorously mixed up the oil and the water don’t ever separate completely. Bits of the oil stay caught in the water, and the food colouring in the water permanently stains the oil.

It’s as if it was saying the divine is always in, through and with the world; even when the IMGP1185divine rises or ascends the divine carries the colour of the world with it.

I was quite relieved that it didn’t work, actually; as I’d thought about this illustration, I had questions in my mind about the theology behind it.

The first question is about a view of God and of Jesus which sees them as separate from the created world, a view which tends to come particularly to the fore when we use the metaphorical, or picture language about the process of incarnation and ascension, as we have been doing this last week.

I’ve read several comments this week about seeing the Ascension as the reverse of the Incarnation. This view says that at Christmas, Jesus, a divine being, comes into this world. He lives a human life, is killed, raised from death, and eventually, at the Ascension, returns to his home in heaven, to reign with God.  So, the Ascension is seen as a sort of ‘return to HQ’ by someone who was an alien in the created world.

This sort of explanation however, risks tipping over into heresy, especially Docetism which says Jesus’s body only seemed to be human, whereas actually he was a divine being, and so couldn’t be hurt, and didn’t actually die. Even if it doesn’t go that far, it makes Jesus and God separate from the human world, and implies Jesus left the human part of himself behind when he ascended.

Alan Wilson, the Bishop of Buckingham, wrote a blog which challenged that interpretation. He said that any depiction of the Ascension as the shedding of physicality makes it less than good news. The way he sees it, Jesus blazes a trail we all follow towards our destiny. The Ascension illuminates our present humanity.

He says that classical Christian theology calls Jesus eternally Incarnate, and the Ascension is not the reversal of the Incarnation but a radical extension of it beyond time and place. And in case you think that is a modern interpretation, he quotes a hymn of 1862 by Bishop Christopher Wordsworth:

He has raised our human nature 

in the clouds to God’s right hand;

There we sit in heavenly places,

there with him in glory stand:

Jesus reigns, adored by angels;

man with God is on the throne;

Mighty Lord, in thine ascension

we by faith behold our own.

This is an interpretation of the meaning of the Ascension which is much more common in the Eastern Orthodox tradition than in the Western Church. Instead of seeing Jesus coming into the world to rescue fallen humanity, then returning to his natural home with God in heaven, it sees Jesus as raising humanity with himself to its natural home in Heaven with God at the Ascension, thus uniting earth and heaven, humanity and divinity. The word the Eastern Church uses for ‘salvation’ – theiosis = divinization – strongly expresses this belief.

The writer of the Letter to the Ephesians shares a similar idea when he writes: “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places…And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things, and of the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”

So we in the church are Christ’s body, which is both incarnate and ascended. How then are we supposed to work in the world? Do we belong to the world and in the world, or are we supposed to keep ourselves separate in order ultimately to escape from the world?

In the past, and even today, there are Christian groups who try to keep themselves as separate as possible from normal human society. Groups like the

desert hermits, who escaped from civic society in the ancient world and practised extreme asceticism (Simon Stylites who lived on top of a pillar for 36 years is one of my favourites among these!). There are Christian groups who refuse to vote, or serve in armed forces, and who, like the Amish, resist all modern inventions.

Other groups reject only certain activities as being ‘of the world’ and so unsuitable for Christians. The Puritans rejected music, dancing, and celebrating festivals like Christmas. Other Christians have forbidden alcohol and gambling, and even playing cards for the same reason.

The mainstream Anglican tradition, to which we belong, has however seen its mission as being in the world, ministering to people where they are, adapting to the local and current culture, in order to reach people more successfully.

But are there limits to that?

Morality and ethics is one area in which there has been constant disagreement within the church about how far it should conform to ‘the world’s’ understanding of what is right and wrong. The campaigns over slavery, women’s emancipation, divorce and contraception are just some examples of where this tension had to be worked out; and the question marks continue, particularly at the moment over the issue of how far homosexual relationships are acceptable in Christians.

One group thinks (to quote a previous  Archbishop of Sydney) “The world has invaded the church. So the contest we have, as Bible-based, Bible-believing Christians, is on two fronts. It is against the world, but it is also against those in the church who have come to terms with the world, who have made their peace with the world, who have compromised with the world, who have given up biblical standards in order to be thought well of in the world.”

Others (including the Bishop of Buckingham and our own Dean, Jeffrey John) would argue that in fully accepting both gay and straight people into the church on equal terms we are following Christ’s example of placing love and faithfulness as the defining characteristics of the Kingdom, rather than making rules and regulations which exclude people.

How can we judge which one of these approaches is of God, and which one is ‘of the world’ in its worst sense?

It is not an easy judgement to make. It involves listening to the Spirit speaking to us through the Scriptures, but also through the community of those who follow Jesus, both throughout history but also in the contemporary world. It involves judgements about what best reflects the love and glory of God, what most inspires human beings to grow into their true destiny as children of God, and what limits and diminishes the humanity of individuals or whole groups of people.

It involves trying to decide what the writer of John’s Gospel meant by ‘the world’. I don’t think the writer meant the created world – Christians are not Gnostics who believe that the created world is inherently evil. I am convinced that for this writer ‘the world’ meant everything that obstructs God’s purpose for us, the purpose which Jesus demonstrated in his life, everything that prevents us from enjoying that oneness with God and each other that Jesus showed to us.

If that is the truth that Jesus came to show us, this farewell discourse doesn’t point us to a church which is other-worldly; it doesn’t point us to a church waiting to fulfil its destiny in another dimension, after death or after the Last Judgement. It points us to a church which is fully involved with everyday life, bringing to it a life rooted in and sustained by the love of God, recognising and nurturing the seeds of the divine in others, a church which is the vanguard of God’s resistance movement against the transitory and dehumanising nature of so much that characterises human society today and always.

Yes, Christians and the Church are meant to be different from those aspects of ‘the world’ which are hostile to God; but they are also tasked with bringing light and life to that world in the name of Jesus, who embodies God’s Truth and God’s Word and whose glory is destined to fill the world.

The ascended Christ, human and divine, eternally one with the God who is the ground of our being, invites us, his body, to continue his work in his beloved world, sharing the Way of Truth and Life which leads to perfected humanity, and raises us all to share in God’s glory.

But this is a daunting prospect. We would often far rather not ascend with Christ to a life of holiness, preferring to live on in the dark aspects of the world, isolated from one another and from God.

So, may the Holy Spirit, whose work we celebrate next Sunday, call us, strengthen us and inspire us to follow Christ in the way he pioneered.

Let us pray:

God our Father,

make us joyful

in the ascension of your Son Jesus Christ.

Ascended Christ, present at all times and in all places, make us brave in following your way;

Holy Spirit, guide us as we follow Christ into the new creation, for his ascension is our glory and our hope.

We ask this in his name and for his sake.

Amen.

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All you need is Love?

 Easter 5 Year B (Acts 8, 26-40; 1 John 4, 7-21; John 15, 1-8)

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Some of the older ones among you may remember the Beatles song “All you need is Love’. It was first performed on June 25th 1967 as the UK contribution to the first live global TV broadcast, made possible by a new satellite link. John Lennon, who wrote it, said he thought it had a message which everyone around the world could understand.

It was a very ’60’s’ sort of song!

In the church, the same sort of attitude that inspired the song led to the advocacy of something called ‘situation ethics’ This said that when you face a moral decision, you don’t need set rules – all you need to do is decide what course of action would be the most loving thing to do.

220px-Paul_TillichPaul Tillich, the theologian wrote “Love is the best law’ and one of my great heroes in the faith, John Robinson, the John Robinsonradical Bishop of Woolwich, also supported situation ethics at first, saying this was the only sort of ethics appropriate to ‘man come of age’ – though he later withdrew his support, saying that the use of situation ethics would lead to a descent into moral chaos.

The sort of love which this theory was talking about was ‘agape’ – absolute, unchanging, unconditional love for all people, regardless. This is precisely the sort of love we see demonstrated in the life and death of Jesus.

agape

When you read the writings of John the Evangelist in the New Testament – the Gospel and the three Epistles – you might think that “All you need is Love” was a summary of his teaching on the faith. But would that be true?

Certainly agape love is very important in his theology. It forms the main topic of his first Epistle from which we heard this morning. For John, God is love, and those who live in loving relationship with everyone in their community, live in God. For John too, love was the reason that Jesus was sent into the world, and God’s love is the reason why we can be confident we are redeemed, and have no fear on the day of judgement.

Vine

The gospel passage, which uses the metaphor of the Vine to describe the relationship Jesus and his followers, continues ( in the passage set for next Sunday) to talk about love – the sort of love that leads a person to lay down their lives for others – as what should be the distinguishing characteristic of his disciples.

And how do we learn about this sort of love? Most modern psychologists would say that we learn from our families, and they are right. In an ideal family ( an ideal that few of us achieve, because we are human and fallible!) small children are given from birth that absolute, unchanging, unconditional love, which enables them to grow into whole, confident adults, able to love everyone else with the love they were once given. But that sort of love is ‘family love’ and only a few people learn to extend it to those outside their families.

We also learn to love from our communities, especially, we would hope, our church communities. But church communities are made up of fallible humans too, and it is not surprising that they tend have exactly the same quarrels, disagreements and rifts that secular communities suffer from. But, at their best, churches can be schools of love.

The message of John’s writings, however, is that we learn about this sort of love from God – and in particular from his son, Jesus Christ, who was sent into the world to live out a life that was all love.

Because agape love comes from God, John indicates that we do need more than just ‘love’ if we are to be faithful members of Christ’s body on earth – and in that John is supported by other New Testament writers.

I am the Vine

The Gospel passage we heard came from the part of John’s Gospel known as the Farewell Discourse. Jesus is about to be betrayed and crucified – and in this last address to his disciples, he is trying to prepare them for life without his physical presence. He is trying to prepare them for a situation in which they will be his body on earth – a body dedicated to loving action and service.

So, first of all, he emphasises the importance of community. He speaks of himself as the Vine. Not just as the trunk, or the stump, you notice, but the whole Vine – roots, trunk, branches, leaves and fruit and all. His followers, he says are the branches – so they are intimately a part of him – and it is these branches which will bear fruit to feed the world. Christ will bear fruit through us, the metaphor says – but only if we remain connected to him, and through him to God, and if we connected to everyone else in his fellowship of love. John’s image of the Vine is a parallel to Paul’s image of the Body, with its emphasis on the necessity of everyone remaining connected to everyone else, and honouring and loving everyone else. It is a major challenge to the individualism that is so prevalent today.

praying_hands_bibleA second important element ensuring that we remain in Jesus is his Word. The Gospel passage speaks of the Word as cleansing us. And our reading from Acts also emphasises the importance of the scriptures in keeping us connected to God and to Christ. In traditional Judaism, the Ethiopian Eunuch could have no place in the covenant community – he was foreign and castration rendered him damaged and imperfect. But the scriptures of traditional Judaism also contained hope for him – in the prophecies of Isaiah, which in chapter 56 verses 3-5, speaks of the time when the foreigner and the eunuch would also be incorporated into God’s people. The Ethiopian needed more than love to bring him to the point where he was ready to ask for baptism. He needed the exposition of God’s Word which Philip was able to bring to him. That Word is one element in the nourishment in the faith which we receive through the Vine.

Prayer is another important element emphasised by John. In prayer we listen toPraying_Hands God’s word, and in prayer we are able to share our concerns with God. We are not meant to be Christians on our own – we need to be in communication with God and with each other if we are to bear fruit. Keeping in touch with Christ and with God our Father through prayer is another channel through which we are nourished in the faith.

Holy Spirit dove flameOur human, imperfect love is fed through the gift of the Holy Spirit. John emphasises that it is the Spirit who enables Christians to testify to the Truth; and in Acts we hear how the Spirit led Philip to speak to the Ethiopian; and in other passages in the New Testament we hear how the Spirit inspires us to speak and act with courage and with love. Through remaining in the Vine, we are fed by the Spirit and our faith and love are strengthened. The Spirit gives us constant assurance as we act and as we serve that we do so ‘abiding in God’s love’.

Finally, as well as love, we need the discipline of confession, repentance and renewal. Through the metaphor of the Vine, John reminds us that in viticulture, fruitfulness is ensured by the cutting away of branches that have ceased to bearpruned vine fruit. Though it may be painful, loss and renewal are a necessity if we are to continue to do God’s work. Loving does not always mean preserving what we love. Sometime, we need to let it go, even let it die, if we are to experience renewed life and fruitfulness. Repentance and confession should not be something which Christians fear – as John’s Epistle reminds us, perfect love casts out fear – because through the life and death of Christ we should have confidence that when we abide in God, we will be forgiven and renewed.

The agape love which John’s writing speaks of, and which Jesus practised, is not a wishy-washy, anything goes sort of love. It is ‘tough love’ which makes demands and requires sacrifice and discipline of those who undertake to practise it. It is divine love in action, too difficult for ordinary humans to achieve unless they are as closely and completely open to God as Jesus was, unless they live in God, and God lives in them.

So, can we say as Christians “All you need is love?”

No – and Yes!

Beatles-AllYouNeedIsLove

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The Good Shepherd

Easter 4. Year B.

Psalm 23. John 10, (1-)11- 18

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I don’t suppose many of us know much about sheep. We live in a suburban environment. We may see a few sheep on the hillsides in the green belt from time to time, but they’re not part of the reality of our daily lives. I suspect that, for most of us, sheep only come into our consciousness as part of our holiday mindset. We think of tranquillity, of fat sheep and cuddly lambs, grazing in green fields, surrounded by hedges, watched over by a weather-beaten shepherd and his faithful sheepdog, who drive the sheep from their pretty farm to safe pasture. We don’t ever get close enough to know the reality.

 

I only once came nearer to the reality of sheep rearing. A friend of mine became vicar of a country parish, and discovered that this gave him the right to graze sheep on the churchyard. Since the parish could not afford a large lawnmower to keep the grass in the churchyard down, he decided that each year he would buy a couple of lambs and rear them. First of all he allowed them to graze in his large vicarage garden, and then he put them into the churchyard to keep the grass short, and then he had them slaughtered to use for meat in the winter.

 

When we visited them one spring, the lambs were in his garden. I discovered that their coats were not soft and clean, but wiry and oily. They were surprisingly strong, and could knock you over, rather like an over enthusiastic labrador. They also ate everything, including the daffodils and the young shoots of the garden plants, so they were very quickly moved to the churchyard, where a square of electric fencing kept them where they were supposed to be.

 

sheep-3I’m not sure whether that experience demonstrated that sheep are stupid, which is the image that most of us have of them.

Many people would be insulted if you called them ‘sheep’. They like to think of themselves as individualists, who make up their own minds, and don’t just move with the flock, as we see sheep doing on the hillside.

 
In spite of that, ‘Jesus the Good Shepherd’ is a favourite image of Christians. Think how often you see Jesus portrayed with a lamb across his shoulders or Good-Shepherdcuddled in his arms in stained glass windows or oil paintings. Think of the hymns that are sung at weddings and funerals, and how often one or other version of the 23rd Psalm is included. We obviously find the image deeply reassuring. We don’t need to worry, it says.  Jesus the Good Shepherd will keep us safe from all the nastiness of this world.

 

But, as our readings today make clear, the reality of life for a Palestinian shepherd and his sheep was far from tranquil and safe.

 

The Palestinian shepherd had to find safe grazing for his sheep in an often barren landscape. That might mean walking miles and miles, so his sheep, far from being fat and cuddly, were lean and hardy.

He had to find a safe path for them through rough country and rocky places before they could settle in any green pastures they were lucky enough to find. The sheep needed still water to drink. They couldn’t cope with swift running water, in which they could get swept away. So the shepherd might have to form a pool in a mountain stream before they would have the water they needed to drink.

 

There were numerous predators, both animal and human, against whom the shepherd had to fight to defend his sheep: wolves and bears, thieves and robbers. His rod and his staff were his weapons and his tools, to defend the sheep and to rescue them. His life, and theirs were often in danger. When they were injured, he had to care for them, anointing their wounds with oil to help them heal.

 

There was no ‘pretty farm’ to return to each night. There might be a sheepfold in Sheepfoldthe village, but on any night they were too far away to return to it, the shepherd had to build a temporary sheepfold from rocks and branches to protect the sheep. Once they were inside, he lay down across the entrance, to prevent them from wandering, and to stop predators from entering. His own body was their security.

 

The shepherd was an honoured figure in the Old Testament, because the Jews had originally been a nomadic, pastoral people, whose wealth was in their flocks and herds. Abraham was a shepherd, and so was Moses. David, the ideal king, started life as a shepherd, so that is how it came to be a metaphor for the rulers of Israel. But by the time of Jesus, the Jews had been a settled people for hundreds of years, with a lot of their wealth coming from agriculture and trade, and shepherds were now considered as rather disreputable, especially if they were hired to care for sheep they didn’t own.

 

Religious people saw them as outsiders, particularly because their nomadic lifestyle and contact with animals meant they could not keep the rigid rules of cleanliness before eating. The pictures of Jesus the Good Shepherd show him as clean and well groomed. In reality a shepherd at that time would not have had the time or facilities for personal grooming, and would have smelt of sheep, and dung and the outdoors.

 

This is the sort of person Jesus is claiming to be in our gospel reading – an outsider, an adventurer, a fighter, a pioneer. And the question this passage poses to us is “Are we one of his sheep? Are we part of his flock?”

 

It might seem a strange question to ask, if we have the image in our minds of an English flock of sheep being driven by a sheepdog. But the Palestinian flock was not like that. The Palestinian sheep followed their shepherd – nobody drove them. They knew his voice and followed it. The shepherd went ahead and found the path. His sheep followed him because he called them by name and they trusted him. They relied on him to lead them safely through the dangers, to provide for their every need, to rescue them when they were in trouble.

 

And as the earlier part of this passage showed, if they were to have the ‘abundant life’ they needed they had to follow the shepherd out of the sheepfold, away from safety and into hardship and danger. That was the only way to find enough food and drink to enable them to grow. The Good Shepherd is not able to shield his sheep permanently from the troubles and dangers of the real world. What he can do is to face those dangers with them, at the cost of his own life, if necessary.

 

One of the verbs used in the earlier section of the passage talks of the sheep being “cast out” of the sheepfold. Understandably, they are reluctant to leave the safety of the sheepfold, and only go because they trust the shepherd. Following Jesus, the passage reminds us, may involve becoming an outcast, or at the very least associating with the outcasts, who Jesus tells us are also part of his flock.

 

In the time when the Gospel of John was being written, Jewish Christians were being cast out of the synagogue. Following Jesus meant they had to find abundant life away from the security of the religion that had nurtured them up to that time. The same is true for us. The safety of the sheepfold could be stunting our growth, and preventing us from experiencing the abundant life that Jesus calls us to. We may need to hear Jesus’s voice calling us out of our comfort zone, leading us into the valley where death threatens us, where we have to meet up with those who don’t belong. Who are they?

 

Who are the ‘sheep’ who are cast out from our church communities in our own time, yet who still seek their salvation in following Jesus, the Good Shepherd? How can we demonstrate that we are part of that flock too?

 

The story of the passion of Jesus, which we heard in the weeks leading up to Easter, tell us that Jesus was a shepherd who made the ultimate sacrifice, who laid down his life for his sheep. But the story of Easter assures us that, although he and his sheep go through the valley of the shadow of death, evil will not ultimately triumph; they will come safely home, to enjoy the celebration feast together in the Kingdom of Heaven.

 

The Christian story tells us that, whatever Jesus our shepherd asks us to do, he’s done before. He’s been cast out of the sheepfold, he’s been let down by his fellow shepherds, he’s faced the worst that life can throw at him; he’s been there, he’s got the T-shirt.

 

“I am the good shepherd’ is the slogan on Jesus’ T-shirt. But are we prepared to risk being one of his sheep? Will we follow him, no matter where he leads?

T shirt images

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The Resurrection

(Acts 3, 12-19; Luke 24, 36-48)

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Around Easter time, some of the newspapers remember it’s actually a Christian festival, and run a story which relates to faith or the Church.

Several years ago, on Good Friday, The Times reported on a survey in which the diocesan bishops of the Church of England were asked the question: ‘Do you believe in the physical Resurrection of Christ?’ Rather to the surprise of the author, two thirds of them answered ‘yes’. However, about a quarter of the bishops declined to answer (sensible men!) and a further three bishops gave what were called ‘more subtle answers’. This survey prompted The Times journalist to conclude that ‘At least three quarters of the Church of England’s bishops still proclaim a belief in the literal truth of the story of Easter and the physical resurrection of Jesus as described in the Bible.’

However, when you read what the Bishops replied, things are not so clear. One said: “I believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus for both historical and theological reasons. The fact that Jesus appeared to over 500 people at one time shows that it was not a subjective but an objective experience”.

A spokesman one of the Archbishops said:

“The Archbishop believes that the physical body of our Lord was raised from the dead on the first Easter morning and that it assumed a spiritual form which continued to sustain the Apostles and the early Church until the Ascension”. And a spokesman the other Archbishop said: “Jesus Christ is risen. That is a fact”.

Another bishop said: “It’s immaterial whether Christ was resurrected in body or spirit”, and yet another: “I stand by the tradition of the church and St. Paul in particular, that we celebrate at Easter the rising of a spiritual body”.

The article did not record what other comments these bishops made. However, it gave results of another survey, of the general public, which showed that one third of 1000 people questioned believed in ‘the biblical version of the resurrection’, and half believed there was another explanation. I was not one of the 1000, but if I had been, I would have been a rather uncooperative respondent. Before answering I would have asked, “Which of the biblical accounts of the resurrection do you mean?” and “What exactly do you mean by resurrection?”

My problem is that we communicate our beliefs about the resurrection of Jesus in words; but words are inadequate to describe any transcendent experience, like Easter. Whenever you put an experience into words, you are already beginning to interpret it, but you must use words which reflect your thought forms and already existing beliefs, and those of the culture from which you come.

The biblical accounts of the first Easter began with the experiences of 1st century Jews and Jewesses, whose world view was very different from ours, expressed in Aramaic, within a Palestinian Jewish culture. When these experiences were written down, it was in ancient Greek, within a Hellenistic Jewish culture. The Bible as we know it was then translated into Latin, and finally into English. Each of these translation processes affected the way the experience was described, because there is very rarely an exact correspondence between the words of different languages.

Let me just give an example of how translation affects our understanding of the Easter story. The Greek noun ‘resurrection’ (anastasis) appears hardly at all in the New Testament, and mostly in connection with the general resurrection at the end of time. When what happened to Jesus is described, verbs are used, and mostly verbs in the passive. That is, the New Testament does not talk about Jesus’s ‘resurrection’ or even ‘rising’ from the dead, but ‘being raised’ by God. But when we proclaim our faith, we never say ‘Jesus was raised’, always ‘Christ is risen’. Interpretation and translation have altered our understanding.

In the New Testament, there are a number of accounts of the raising of Jesus, and his appearances, and these are contradictory. The earliest account, in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, written about 54 AD, speaks of Jesus dying, being buried, and being raised on the third day. He appears to Cephas (Simon Peter), to the twelve (12 – not 11- even though Judas was supposed to be dead by now!) then to 500 people at once, then to his brother James, to all the apostles, and lastly to Paul himself. Paul doesn’t mention the women, the tomb, or any demonstration of a physical body, and he gives his own appearance of the risen Lord (at least a year after the crucifixion) exactly the same status as the earlier appearances to the disciples and family of Jesus. What’s more, in the same epistle he argues that the body which is raised is a spiritual body, not a physical one, since ‘flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God’.

Mark, writing between 55 and 80, records that Mary Magdalene and two other named women go to the tomb in Jerusalem, find the stone moved away, and are told by a young man that Jesus is not there, has been raised and they are to tell the disciples to go to Galilee to see him. No appearances are described. Matthew has Mary Magdalene and another Mary going to the tomb. They see the stone being moved away and are told by an angel that Jesus has been raised and the disciples are to go to Galilee. They then meet Jesus, worship him and the message is repeated. The eleven disciples go to Galilee and Jesus comes to them on a mountain and commissions them to go and baptize in his name.

Luke has a number of women going to the tomb, to be told by two angels that Jesus has been raised. They tell the disciples. Mary Magdalene and others are now named. The disciples don’t believe them. Peter goes to see the tomb, and the grave clothes lying there, but no body. The first appearance of Jesus is to Cleopas (a hitherto unknown disciple) and his companion on the way to Emmaus. He explains the Scriptures to them, but they don’t recognise him. They know him only in when he breaks bread. An appearance to Peter is talked of but not described. As we heard in today’s reading, Jesus then appears on the same day to the disciples and others in Jerusalem and tells them to touch him and see he has flesh and bones, then eats a piece of cooked fish. He tells them to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit (no trip to Galilee!) and then takes them to Bethany, from where he is carried up to heaven. This story of the Ascension is repeated in the beginning of Acts, except there it is on Mt. Olivet near Jerusalem, and happens 40 days after Easter. The coming of the Spirit happens 10 days later, on the feast of Pentecost.

In John’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene alone goes to the tomb and finds the stone rolled away. She calls Peter and the Beloved Disciple who run to the tomb. Peter enters and sees the grave clothes, as does the Beloved Disciple. It is specifically said that the disciples did not yet understand the scripture that he must rise up (John uses the active verb). Jesus then appears to Mary, and tells her he is ascending to God (not that he has risen!) That evening, Jesus appears to the disciples in Jerusalem through a locked door, and shows them his feet and side. He then breathes on them and gives the Holy Spirit (no separate Ascension or Pentecost). He appears again a week later through locked doors, and convinces Thomas to believe. The final chapter of John (which many scholars believe to be a late addition) records an appearance of Jesus by the Sea of Galilee to Simon, Thomas, Nathanael, James and John and two other disciples on a fishing trip. The disciples do not at first recognise Jesus. They share a meal of fish and bread. This is described as the third appearance, but seems very like a first encounter with the risen Lord. Peter is then forgiven for his denial, commissioned to lead the church, and the manner of his death is predicted.

So, when people say they ‘believe in the physical resurrection of Christ as described in the Bible’, which of these accounts are they referring to? Given discrepancies in the appearances, and in the descriptions of the burial, the tomb, the ascension & the giving of the Holy Spirit it is inconceivable that what is being described is an objective historical occurrence.

I believe, as do many Christian theologians whose judgement I trust, that the New Testament attempts to communicate, in symbol and myth, the experience of the first disciples of Jesus, men and women, that we know as ‘the resurrection’.This experience was real. We know that by its effects: the change in the people who were the first members of the Christian Church from frightened men and women who ran away and hid, to those who were prepared to face persecution and death for their faith in Jesus as their Lord; by the change in them from orthodox Jews who held that the ‘Lord our God is one’ to followers of a new ‘Way’ who preached that Jesus of Nazareth had been taken up into God; by the change from people who shunned contact with non-Jews to those who preached the Jewish Messiah to all the known world; from those who saw death on a cross as a sign of separation from God to those who saw it as the symbol of reconciliation.

For me, the proper question to ask of the Easter narratives in the Bible is not ‘Did it really happen?’ expecting answers in terms of things that could be recorded by a video camera. Rather the questions to ask of the Scriptures are: “What was the experience of those first disciples, especially Peter, Mary Magdalene and Paul, that led to the dramatic change in them? What was the experience of those first disciples that enabled them to communicate their beliefs with such conviction to people from the Greek and Roman cultures of their time, and for that same conviction to be passed on to other people from totally different cultures down two thousand years and across the globe until our own time?” These are questions that go beyond the arguments about what literally happened into the realm of the eternal and the transcendent – the world of the Spirit.

If I am asked: Do you believe in the Resurrection? I would answer: Yes. I believe that Jesus was raised after his death to glory with God. If asked if the disciples saw the risen Lord, I would again answer: Yes. I believe that at some time after the crucifixion (not necessarily on the third day, since that is ‘religious time’) the disciples saw Jesus in his exalted and glorified body, and that this was an experience shared by many people, some of whom are named in the New Testament and some of whom are anonymous.

What I do not believe in is that somehow the corpse of Jesus was resuscitated after lying in a grave for about 36 hours. I do not believe that his physical body left a sealed tomb, passed through closed doors, ate fish and bread and was finally removed from this planet to an existence in some other part of this universe or outside it. I cannot believe that because it is meaningless in terms of my beliefs about human life and death, the physical universe and the nature of God and God’s interaction with human beings.

At one time, language of angels, tomb, the stone rolled away, stories of the body revived on the third day, conversations with disciples, the touching of wounds, eating bread and fish, expounding the scriptures, passing through doors, being in two places at the same time were powerful vehicles of the truth of the resurrection for ordinary people. I don’t believe that, if we insist on taking them literally, they are any more.

For those of us brought up within the Church, these symbols may still carry a powerful message of the truth about God which Jesus showed us. But if we are to bring that truth to many in our generation and the generations to come, I believe we will need to engage once again in the task of translation, not just of the language but also of the symbols, so that new generations will be able to say: We believe in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ’ and be empowered by their belief to live his resurrection life.

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