Take up your Cross

Carrying Cross imagesGenesis 17, 1-7, 15 & 16; Mark 8, 31-38

Imagine two job advertisements side by side in the ‘Appointments’ section of a national newspaper.

One specifies that to do the job you must move from your own country, but you’ll be able to take your family and all your possessions with you. When you arrive in the new country, the inhabitants will be subdued by a major force, and your people will take over the land. You will become exceedingly prosperous, your son will be the ancestor of several royal families and you will receive international acclaim.

The second says that to do the job you have got to give up the occupation you have been trained for, leave your family and your home town, and become a homeless vagrant in your country, which is occupied by a foreign empire. Relying on charity, you will try to sell a product which threatens the interests not only of the occupying force, but also of the native leaders who collaborate with it. The rewards of the job will be that you will be arrested, tortured and killed. After your death, however, you will be vindicated in the eyes of some people and you will enjoy a new life, in ways not specified.

Which would most people choose?

It’s fairly obvious. As Jesus says in the Gospel reading, most people would be moved by human values, and would choose the first.

The first job ad is a summary of the Old Covenant, offered to Abraham. The second is what we Christians accept when we enter the New Covenant. At the heart of the New Covenant is Mark 8.34, in which Jesus says:”If anyone wants to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.”

Scholars are divided over whetherJesus actually said these words, or whether they were written back into the Gospels by the early church after the crucifixion. Doubts are raised by the precision with which Jesus predicted the details of his death, which makes the apostles’ continued lack of understanding during the journey to Jerusalem, Holy Week and the trial and passion difficult to accept.

On the other hand, Jesus would have been well aware of the hostility of the authorities, both Jewish and Roman, and of the particular dangers of going to preach in Jerusalem at a major festival. He would have known how the Romans treated those they regarded as rebels and criminals, for crucifixion was a fairly common occurrence in the occupied Judea and Galilee at that time. The Romans used this punishment against those caught up in Jewish rebellions against Roman rule in 4BCE and 6CE, and during the Jewish revolt in 63-70 CE.

What would “taking up their cross” have meant to those who originally heard or read these words? Crucifixion was a common form of execution used in the ancient world, and particularly in the Roman Empire. It was used to punish criminals, and in those cases crucifixion would often take place at the site of their crime. More commonly it was used to punish those who took part in rebellions against Roman rule, so was more often used for men than women, and for slaves and members of occupied territories than Romans. It was a method of punishment that was designed to be humiliating, since it took place in public and the victims were naked. It was painful, since the victims were usually flogged beforehand, and had to carry the cross beam to the place of execution. It could be quick, but was usually performed in such a way that death did not take place immediately, but after hours or even days of pain and humiliation. It was designed as much to be a deterrent to others as a punishment for the condemned.

So, in telling us followers of Jesus that we must ‘take up our cross’ and follow him, the Gospel is saying that we must be prepared to be branded a criminal and a rebel against the secular power, be beaten, tortured, publicly humiliated, and killed.

That fate became a reality for many Christians in the early church, particularly for those blamed by Nero for the great Fire of Rome in 64 CE. Others in early church history, or later when the Gospel was taken across the globe, suffered equally painful, horrifying and humiliating deaths as a consequence of following Jesus. In some parts of the world, following Jesus still means running the risk of persecution, injury or death.

We heard only in recent weeks of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians who were beheaded by ISIS in Libya simply because they were Christians. In some countries run by atheistic religions, or where the majority of the population follows another faith, Christians may be imprisoned, their churches bombed and some of them may be killed. Even in countries with a strong Christian tradition, like Nigeria and Zimbabwe, being in the wrong place, or being the wrong sort of Christian may mean persecution, discrimination and danger. And in other places, Christians have to maintain their faith, and their trust in the goodness of God in the face of natural disasters, widespread poverty and disease, which must feel to them like the weight of a cross they carry every day of their lives.

4553But what does it mean for us, Christians in 21st century England, today? Some individual Christians may have to carry a cross of life-threatening illness, or disability or constant pain.

But for most of us, that is not the case. Unlike those who carried their crosses in 1st century Galilee, we are not living under foreign occupation by people who practise another religion.

Christianity is built into the fabric of our nation, and holds a position of enormous privilege. Our monarch has to be an Anglican Christian, our bishops sit in the House of Lords, There are a number of Christian schools of different denominations which are supported by the state and Collective Worship and Religious Education in our schools must by law be wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian content. There are Christian chaplains in most of our hospitals, prisons, legal and government institutions. There is no restriction on our freedom to follow our religion.

We can build churches where we want to, subject only to the same planning restrictions as everyone else. We can publish our books freely and preach our faith openly, subject only to the same laws that everyone else has to obey. There is no restriction on people’s right to convert to the Christian faith, if they wish to, or to leave it, if they no longer believe. There are even exemptions for Christians in some legislation: nurses and doctors don’t have to perform abortions if this is against their consciences, Church of England clergy, who are automatically registrars, don’t have to perform marriages for divorcees or gay couples, and churches are allowed to opt in or out of equality legislation, like other faiths.

Yet, in spite of this, there have been claims that Christians have suffered for their beliefs, and even suggestions that they are being persecuted, or discriminated against in this country. Some of the cases that have given rise to these perceptions have been taken as far as the European Court: Staff working in various organisations have been disciplined for wearing crosses with their uniforms; a Christian counsellor was sacked for refusing to work on sexual issues with a gay couple; teachers and nurses have been disciplined for offering to pray with pupils and patients; and there have been cases reported in the media of the hotel owners who have been prosecuted under equality legislation for not offering the same facilities to gay couples as they do the heterosexual ones; a registrar sacked for refusing to officiate at civil partnerships; and a care home worker sacked for refusing to work on Sundays.

Three years ago, a Parliamentary Committee of Enquiry reported on its investigations into these cases. The inquiry was overseen by Christians in Parliament, an official all-party Parliamentary Group and was sponsored by the Evangelical Alliance. It concluded that “Christians in the UK are not persecuted. To suggest that they are is to minimise the suffering of Christians in many parts of the world who face repression, imprisonment and death if they worship, preach or convert.” Their main conclusion suggested something far less dramatic was happening: “Christians in the UK face problems in living out their faith and these problems have been mostly caused and exacerbated by social, cultural and legal changes over the past decade.” In other words, our society has changed and is changing, and Christianity no longer has quite the same privileged position it once had.Celtic Cross

Their enquiry suggested some ways in which legislation, and the way legislation is applied, might be modified to take account of the way some Christians wish to practice their faith. But they also said: “Some of the legal activity, associated campaigning and media coverage has been unwise and possibly counter-productive to the positive role that Christians play in society. Ahead of bringing cases to court, Christians need to consider the potential impact their actions might have on politics, public opinion and the confidence of other Christians in their mission.”

So the question remains, how can Christians today take up their cross and follow Christ?

For some Christians, who feel some issues are fundamental to their faith, ‘following Christ’ may mean they have to accept some restriction on the employment opportunities open to them. They can’t work for public bodies if they wish to discriminate against certain people; they can’t work for organisations that require them to wear uniforms if they are not prepared to abide by the same uniform regulations as everyone else; and they cannot offer services to the public unless they are prepared to offer them to everyone on an equal basis. But I would question whether any of this is really equivalent to “carrying a cross”.

In a situation where we live in a society where we are not occupied by a foreign power, where we are free to practice our religion, where indeed our religious faith is supported by the dominant organisations in society, we as Christians need to think deeply about how exactly we can ‘forget ourselves, carry our cross and follow Jesus’, to the extent that we lose our everyday human way of life, and experience the divine, eternal way of life.

This Lent gives us an opportunity to do that. I pray we may all take it.

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In the mire.

Ash Wednesday/ Lent 1 Sermon  (2 Corinthians 5, 20b -6.10; John 8, 1-11)

 Unknown

For the last two years of her life, my mother lived in a residential home near here. One morning in February, one of the staff rang to say Mum had fallen, possibly broken her wrist, and had been taken by ambulance to A & E. So I drove to the hospital to be with her during the long process of being assessed and treated.

 

Just when I thought we might get out of there before lunchtime, the curtains to our cubicle were suddenly closed, extra trolleys were parked in front of it, and all the staff stopped attending to us. Four ambulances had arrived at once, including one containing a man who had fallen six feet from a platform while cleaning an empty sewage tank at the  Sewage Works.

 

Through the curtain, I could hear the staff talking about him. They were concerned about the man’s injuries, since he had fallen onto a concrete floor, meaning possible broken bones or internal injuries; but they were even more concerned about his general state. He had been lying for over an hour outside in the winter cold before he was rescued, in a layer of sewerage sludge. Their first priority was to get him clean, dry and warm.

 

The nurses asked the paramedics about the actual rescue. “How did you get him out?” “Two of the fire crew went down into the sewage tank and put him on a cradle” a paramedic answered. “They got absolutely filthy – and so did we when we put him in the ambulance. I was so glad I didn’t put on my clean, new uniform today. It would have ruined it”.

 

Every time I hear lines from today’s reading from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, I am back in A & E, and I hear that conversation again.

 

“At an acceptable time, I have listened to you,

    and on a day of salvation I helped you.”

“For our sake, he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

 

When we fall into sin, we are like the man who fell into the sewage tank. We lie helpless and disabled by our fall, damaged even more by the cold and dirt and infection that surround us. Sometimes there is nothing we can do to get ourselves out of the situation – we need outside help if we are to escape. But that help can only come from someone who is prepared to come into the mess we are in, and risk getting fouled up themselves as they rescue us.

 

Christ is the firefighter who comes down to us in the sewage in his clean new uniform and carries us out. ‘On a day of salvation, I have helped you ‘. Jesus is the paramedic who gets himself in a mess to make sure that we are safe and warm and free from risk. For our sake, God made him to be sin who knew no sin’.

 

And he does so without fuss, without complaint, without blame. He doesn’t moan about the mess he’ll get into as he provides the way out for us. He doesn’t berate us for getting ourselves into trouble. He doesn’t side with those who blame us for our problems, in order to make themselves feel better, and refuse to join in with the rescue, in case they mess up their own perfection. He just draws with his food in the mud, and says “Only those who have never created any sewage themselves are excused”.

As Julian of Norwich reminds us, God’s eyes look on us with pity, not with blame.

 

During the season of Lent, we think particularly about our human tendency to get ourselves into a mess, and our need of help to avoid it. But we do need to be realistic about this. Often the church’s penitential material seems to proclaim that we are all permanently in the sewage sludge. Hymns like Wesley’s ‘Jesu, lover of my soul ‘ which says: ‘Just and holy is thy name, I am all unrighteousness; false and full of sin, I am; thou art full of truth and grace’. Or the BCP confessions stating “There is no health in us” which is simply not true.

 

Just as the man in casualty didn’t spend his life in a sewage tank, we don’t spend our life in mortal sin. I am sure God does not require us to exaggerate our sinfulness, and go in for what my tutor used to call “grovelling before God’, and Jesus caricatured as the actions of dismal hypocrites. Some of us may occasionally be deep in the mire: more often we have merely fallen into one of the cow pats that litter our lives, or are just permanently a little smelly and grubby about the edges.

 

Exaggerating our sinfulness and our penitence can be just a way of drawing attention to ourselves, like people who make false 999 calls to the emergency services. But it can also be a way of avoiding our responsibilities. For in the Kingdom of Heaven, those who are rescued by God’s emergency services take on the responsibility to become rescuers in their turn.

 

Not all of the rescues we are called on to share in will be as dramatic and life threatening as the man in the sewage tank. We will not all be called upon to exorcise people from demon possession, or meet with those who have committed major crimes, or become chaplains in prisons or counsellors for those addicted to drugs or other compulsions. We won’t all have to endure the hardships Paul describes to the Corinthians in our Christian lives – though we need to be trained and ready to do so, if those challenges come to us. Some of us will be called on mainly to work with our own families, and in our own neighbourhood, dispensing the odd sticking plaster, and lots of TLC. Others will be like the Red Cross or St John’s ambulance volunteers, working at the ‘first aid’ level of rescue from sin; and most of the time, even God’s mostly highly trained paramedics will be called to carry out to routine, clean and safe operations, like picking my Mum up off the floor, rather than things which make the headlines in the local paper.

 

Lent is the annual opportunity for us Christians to get into training for the rescue missions we will be called on to carry out in our world of sin, through realistic penitence, self-discipline, reflection on the Gospel, and through prayer. Now is the time for us to consider and finalise plans for what exact form that training will take.

 

Lent is often experienced as the gloomiest season of the Church’s year, with more than its fair share of dirge like hymns, and churches devoid of colour and flowers. Getting back to the basics, and concentrating on the essential can often help us to concentrate on our training, and become more aware of how much we have still to do.

 

Of course, if we are truly penitent, there will be times when we are saddened by the extent of our sin, the extent to which we continue to be stuck in the messes of our own and others’ making. But as Christians, we always live in the certain knowledge that help is never far away, and it will never be long before we are cleaned up our injuries treat and we are back in action for God again. Through the gloom of Lent we can always see the light of Easter, the greatest rescue of all time.

 

A very wise priest, who I was privileged to have for a time as my Spiritual Director, said to me that because of the confidence that Christ was always there to help us in times of trouble, and the certainty of resurrection, Lent could never be a gloomy time for him. So, may I wish you, as he always wished me, a very happy Lent. Let us rejoice together in the hope we have in Christ that we will always be rescued from the deepest pit we could fall into, and let us train with enthusiasm to become part of God’s rescue mission in our turn.

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Transfiguration.

Sermon for the Sunday before Lent. Yr B.    (2 Cor. 4, 3-6, Mark 9, 2-9.)

transfiguration

Every so often, I’m given a voucher for a beauty salon as a present, and I spend an hour or so being pampered!

 

As I sit there waiting for my treatment to begin, I often look around me at the displays advertising products and procedures. These promise to remove wrinkles and lines from face and eyes, restore plumpness to hands, tighten chins, taken away fat, in short, to restore youthfulness to bodies that had lost it through the ravages of time.

 

What is on offer at these beauty salons is transfiguration, a change of form, or, at least, the visible aspect of form, from one which shows the signs of age back to a more youthful form which has been lost.

 

This was not what was on offer at the Transfiguration of Jesus.  What happened there was a metamorphosis: a complete change not just of the outward aspect, but also the inner essence of Christ, from the human form of his earthly life into the form he would possess after being raised to heaven; the form of glory, which in Jewish understanding was a shining ethereal substance of which all heavenly beings, including angels and God, were made. So this transfiguration was not looking back but forward, to the resurrection, ascension and the second coming of Christ, and to the end of the world, when all the faithful would experience the same transformation themselves.

 

In Mark’s Gospel in its original manuscript, no resurrection appearances of Christ are recorded. So the transfiguration story is the only picture Mark’s readers are given of the glory that is to be Jesus’ after his passion and death, and which will be theirs if they follow Christ faithfully.

 

The Transfiguration story comes in chapter 9, at a turning point in Mark’s story. The first half of the Gospel has told of Jesus’ baptism, temptation, and ministry in Galilee as teacher and healer, proclaiming in word and deed that the Kingdom of God was near.  Then, in chapter 8, Jesus asks the disciples: “ Who do people say I am?” and Peter makes his confession, “You are the Messiah.” After this confession comes the first of three times in chapters 8, 9 and 10 when Jesus teaches the disciples about the sort of Messiah he is to be, and speaks about his rejection by the people and religious authorities, his suffering and death. When this awful prospect is rejected by the disciples, he goes on to teach that those who follow him must be humble like him, and suffer like him, but will also share in his glory. From chapter 10 onwards, Jesus sets his face towards Jerusalem, and begins his journey to death on the cross.

 

Thus, the transfiguration comes in the centre of this change of focus from Galilee to Jerusalem, from active ministry to passion.  It is obviously a story designed to encourage those who are called to follow that journey of their Master.

 

Did it actually happen?  Was it an experience given to Jesus to strengthen him with the Father’s approval for the coming Passion?  An experience where his aspect was transformed, as stories tell of the saints being transformed by intense spiritual experience? Was it a vision given to the three members of Jesus’ inner circle of disciples in order to reinforce Jesus’ teaching about the nature of his Messiahship and to fortify them for the trials ahead? Does it mark the inauguration of the Kingdom, the fulfilment of the promise given by Jesus, that some of the disciples will not see death until they have witnessed the Kingdom coming in power? Or is it an account of a resurrection appearance, written back by Mark into Jesus’ earthly ministry, in order to provide a suitable turning point for the story, as some biblical scholars think?

 

We can’t know.

 

What we can know, if we read the story carefully, is what Mark is telling us through this incident about Jesus the Christ, and about us as his followers. For that to happen, it doesn’t matter whether this is a true story in the sense of an actual historical incident or not. The Jews tended to express their theology in the form of story, not abstract theories. Jesus revealed the deepest truths about God in parables, story form, and all the NT writers saw the reality of the nature of God expressed through the story of Jesus’ life.  The picture of Jesus given in the Transfiguration remains true, whether you believe it happened at the particular time and place and manner described by Mark, or not.

 

Through the details of the story, the transfiguration is linked backwards and forwards to incidents in Jesus’ life, particularly his baptism and his passion and resurrection; but in addition it is linked backwards in the history of Israel, to Moses and the Exodus and the time of Elijah, and forward to the vision of the resurrection of all believers and the coming of the new Jerusalem, we read about in Paul and the Revelation of John.

 

So, what do the details tell us.

The story begins with a time: six days later. Why ‘six days’. Probably because, in Exodus, 24, Moses and the children of Israel waited six days at the foot of Mount Sinai, while the cloud of God’s presence covered it, before Moses was told by God to go up the mountain to speak to him; and possibly, because at the end of the Gospel, Jesus rises after three days, and then tells the disciples to journey to Galilee, which is when they see will see him, three days after that.

 

The transfiguration takes place on a mountain, the traditional place of an appearance of God.  We don’t know which mountain it was. Perhaps Mark didn’t know; but since Mount Hermon is only 14 miles north of Caesarea Phillipi, that is the traditional site of the Transfiguration.

 

Jesus is transfigured. The Greek word is ‘metemorphothe’, from which our word metamorphosis comes. So it is more than a temporary, transient change.  St Paul uses the same word in 2 Corinthians 3, when he speaks of Christians reflecting the glory of the Lord, and being transformed by that glory into his likeness. So it is a foretaste not only of the transformation of the risen Christ, but also of the resurrection body of the faithful Christian. The transfiguration extends not only to Christ’s face and body, but also to his clothes, which become dazzling white. It was a belief of the Jews that a person who came face to face with God (as Moses did on Mount Sinai) would reflect the glory of God in their face.  Jewish tradition  also believed that the glory of the heavenly body would extend to a person’s clothing.

 

Next, Elijah and Moses appear. These two figures represented two of the strands of the Old Testament, the Prophets and the Law. Moses and Elijah were the only people who were granted the privilege of speaking to God face to face. Their preeminence was reinforced by the manner of their death. Neither had a known resting place on earth. So, both these people prefigure Jesus, who speaks to God face to face, who is prophet and lawgiver, and who will be taken up to heaven in glory. What is more, in contemporary Jewish eschatology, the expectation was that Moses and Elijah would appear on earth before the ‘Day of the Lord’ the expected day of salvation. Their presence with Jesus at the transfiguration said that day was near.

 

Then Peter, who so frequently seems to play the role of the fool in Mark’s Gospel, makes his suggestion that the disciples construct three dwellings, or tents, for the heavenly figures. Why tents?  The Greek word, skene, means tents or booths or tabernacles. In Jewish salvation history, the idea of the tent or tabernacle had rich overtones. Throughout the Exodus, and in the early Hebrew kingdoms, until the Temple was built, God’s presence with his people was signified by the ark in the tabernacle.  Peter’s response shows an awareness that, in the presence of Moses, Elijah and Jesus, God is again present with his people, and he wishes to make appropriate dwelling places for them, as his ancestors did. Moreover, there was an expectation that after the Day of the Lord, God would again live among his people. This was taken up in Christian expectation of the Second Coming. Paul spoke of Christians being “tented’ in resurrection bodies: and the passage in Revelation 21 about the new Jerusalem says literally: “God will make his tabernacle among humans and he will pitch his tent among them”. So Peter’s question shows that he interprets the Transfiguration as the inauguration of the Day of the Lord.

 

The way that the story continues however indicates that  (in the evangelist’s eyes) Peter has got the wrong end of the stick again. The voice of God comes from the cloud to tell the disciples to listen to Jesus, the Beloved Son. That is, listen to what he tells you about the Messiah’s path to glory, that it goes through rejection, passion and the cross. The full arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven is not yet. It cannot be brought in or preserved that easily.

 

The voice of God comes to the disciples out of a cloud. The technical term for this cloud of glory is the shekinah. Mark uses the same Greek word for the overshadowing of the figures at the Transfiguration as was used in the Greek Old Testament. In the Old Testament, at Mount Sinai and around the Tabernacle, the cloud always signifies the presence of God. Luke’s account of the ascension in Acts says ‘a cloud received Jesus from their sight’; the equivalent of saying he was received into the presence of God.  But the cloud too was a foretaste of the end of time; for Christian expectation was that Jesus would return to earth on the clouds of heaven, and that the saints would be taken into heaven on clouds.

 

The words which God speaks from the cloud are a repeat of the words spoken at Jesus’ baptism. However, in Mark’s account, they are heard at the baptism only by Jesus himself. Now they are heard by his closest followers, too. So the voice from the cloud confirms that Jesus is the Messiah: King, prophet and Suffering Servant; all the expectations of the Jews contained in one person.

 

As the voice speaks the two great figures of the Old Testament disappear, and Jesus is left alone.  Moses and Elijah, like John the Baptist, belong to the old order, which is passing away. Symbolically, the Old Covenant embodied in the Law and the Prophets is superseded, and only Jesus remains, as the one to whose teaching we are to listen.

 

So, what are we to make of the story of Jesus’ transfiguration? If we read it with all its echoes of the Old Testament and all its anticipation of the rest of the New Testament, then it speaks to us of the true nature of Jesus, who reflects the glory of God in this world. It speaks to us of that mysterious intersection of our time ‘chronos’ with God’s time, ‘kairos’, where the Christ partakes eternally of the glorious nature of God himself. It speaks to us of our future hope, that, when the trumpet shall sound, we too will be changed and clothed with that imperishable body in which the disciples saw Jesus.

 

But the story tells us, as it told Peter, James and John, that the glory is not yet ours to rest in. The Kingdom of Heaven is nearby, it is being brought in by Jesus’ life on earth and his death and resurrection. But for now we have to come down from the mountain top, carrying with us that vision of future glory, and follow Christ faithfully on the road to Jerusalem, Gethsemane and Golgotha, which is the only Christian way to glory.

 

That is why the story of the Transfiguration is placed for us to read on the Sunday before Lent, to encourage us as we prepare ourselves to relive the Passion and death with Jesus, So that we may, in God’s good time, experience with him the transfiguration into our resurrection body.

 

Which will be a lot more permanent and glorious than anything a beauty salon can provide!

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A Word in Time

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(Colossians 1,15-20; John 1,1-14)

“In the beginning was the Word”.

 

In John’s theology, before the coming of human beings who measured time, before the creation of the earth, and the planets and the sun and the other stars by whose movements humans count the passing of time, before the light of the stars of the furthest galaxies came into being, the Word of God already was. The memra, the creative power, the reason, the wisdom, the Sophia, the Logos existed before and outside time.

 

And once the universe came into being, the Word is the creative force behind it, the Word is the pattern that underlies it, the Word is what gives it light and life.

 

The Word had the character and quality and essence of God. According to the author of the letter to the Colossians, the person who embodied the Word was the image, or ikon of the unseen God; in the Word the fullness or pleroma of God was contained.

 

Our western part of the world is hung up on the word – but not on the Word of God. For most of the last 2000 years it has been obsessed with human words, written and spoken. It delights in definitions and reasons. It tries to control human bodies and minds by laws, by creeds, by articles of religion. It seeks to contain God within written scriptures – a selection of the sacred writings of pre-Christian Jews and an even smaller selection of the writings of first century Christians. But, as a civilisation it has largely lost contact with the living Word of God.

 

Our Western civilisation has tended to replace faith in the Word of God with the idolatry of the human word. The French sociologist and anthropologist, Jean Danielou, writing an introduction to a study of Hinduism, said that the West accuses Eastern religions of idolatry, because they have images that humans have made to represent the divine; but he accuses the Semitic religions – Judaism, Christianity, Islam – of being equally idolatrous, because they worship the words which represent the divine.

We in the West find it so easy to forget that our words are just approximations, representations of reality as we understand it. They are one means by which we seek to impose order on our experience – but they are not the experience itself. All words are human constructions, we share them with others, and we come to them with the assumptions of our own time and our own people. We cannot do otherwise.

 

Words from other times and other peoples may be translated for us – but translations are inevitably imperfect, because people in different times and in different places do not think in the same way. We never have perfect understanding of others. So there is always a tendency for us to be like Humpty Dumpty in Alice Through the Looking Glass – “When I use a word, it means just what I want it to mean.” Which is why it is dangerous for any of us to try to impose the words that convey our understanding of experience, especially religious experience, on others.

 

The Word of God is outside all of these human limitations – but we can only understand it through human words.

 

Words are only of significance when they are embodied, enmeshed in human lifein a particular place and a particular people. This is what the evangelist John asserts happened in the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

 

“And the Word of God became flesh, and lived among us.”

 

The eternal power and reason and wisdom of God became a human being, and so part of the human world in all its reality – messy, sinful, confused; subject to the influences of human psychology, social forces, illness, imperfect knowledge, and mortality. Above all, the word became subject to change. All living things are subject to change – both renewal and decay and death. They cannot avoid it. Those humans who seek to deny change become ridiculous – mutton dressed as lamb – or dangerous. The main thing that has stayed with me from my first teaching practice are some words of the teacher in whose class I worked. “Some teachers”, he said, “say they have had twenty years experience; but what they have really had is one year’s experience twenty times over”.

That is not just a danger for teachers. It is also a danger for other professions, and for societies, for religions, for any individual. In the Greek of the New Testament there were two different words for time, conveying different understanding. First there was chronos – clock-time, weeks, months and years time, time like an ever-rolling stream, which had no significance except to mark human mortality. But then there was kairos, significant time, eternal time, the time for decisions, the time that can change things.

In the understanding of the Gospel writers, the life of Christ was when chronos and kairos intersected.

 

We are all subject to time, to chronos, which faces us with a series of kairos events, when we have the opportunity to change or to stagnate. And because “The Word became flesh” it is true also of the Word of God.

 

I once saw a notice outside a church, which said: “Happy New Year! Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and for ever.” I don’t believe that is true. Christ is no longer embodied in the same way as he was. Two thousand years ago, he was embodied in the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth; now he is embodied in a multitude of different people, who believe that he carries the Word of God for them. That belief will be affected by the understanding of all those who have embodied the Christ down through two millennia, from Jesus himself, through the first disciples, the theologians of the Patristic Age, the Reformers, and by their experience of life in the modern age. All those understandings will be subtly different, and it is a mistake to try to confine valid understanding to the words of one time, as people have tried to do through Scriptures and Creeds.

 

“The Word became flesh, and lived among us. And we saw with our own eyes his glory, full of grace and truth”.

 

We will only see the glory of the eternal Word of God if we see it with our eyes, the eyes of our own flesh and our own time. We will only share the glory and truth of the Word with the world if we speak of them with the words of our own time, with our own understanding of what it is to be a human being, and of what brings life and light and love. The only way the eternal Word of God will make an impact in our world is through those who receive the Word, meditate on it and reflect it in their own time.

But it needs to be a reflection in kairos not just in chronos. John the evangelist recognised the coming of the Word as a challenge to our understanding of time and of words, a challenge that demanded change in those who received it.

 

The Biblical writers understood the Word of God not just as sound, but also action. If we really receive the Word of God, it demands action from us, action to embody the Word, and reflect it in what we say and do in the world. The epistle of James warns us against being just hearers of the Word, and not doers.

 

It is only when we act in obedience to the Word that we can ensure that God’s time and God’s eternal Word have entered once again into our time and our world, and that we are receiving still its grace, and truth, and light, and life.

 

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Service of Light for Candlemas

A short liturgy for Candlemas used at Breakfast Church this morning.

(adapted from http://www.limerickdiocese.org/uploads/File/PastoralDevelopmentFiles/liturgy/candlemas%20for%20children.pdf)

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Leader: Today is the feast of the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple.

It is also called the feast of Candlemas.

We gather to ask Gods blessing on us,

that we might walk in the light of God’s love all our lives.

 

Light

Leader :

I light a candle to say thank you for the sun, which brightens our days and shows us all the beauty of your world
We thank God and say: Thank you for the light.

I light a candle to say thank you for the moon and stars which light up the night sky and once showed travellers the way.
We thank God and say: Thank you for the light.

I light a candle to say thank you for Jesus, the Light of the World, who came to show us the way to God our Father.
We thank God and say: Thank you for the light

 

Darkness

Some people in our world today don’t have a lot of light in their lives. Perhaps they experience the darkness of bullying, of hunger, of loneliness, or of violence.

 

Leader:

We bring to mind any part of our own lives that feel dark or lonely.

Blow out one candle

We think of people who have dark and sad times in their lives.

Blow out one candle

We remember how our world sometimes judges people, discriminates or ignores people, leaving them alone and in the dark

Blow out final candle

Without the love of God, we can too easily live in darkness

 

Reading: Luke 2, 22-40 (Light ‘Jesus’ candle at appropriate point)

 

Thoughts on the reading.

 

Song: Like a candle flame (StF 176)

  1. Like a candle flame, flickering small in our darkness

uncreated light shines through infant eyes.

God is with us, alleluia. Come to save us, alleluia. Alleluia!

 

  1. Stars and angels sing, yet the earth sleeps in shadows;

can this tiny spark set a world on fire?

God is with us, alleluia etc.

 

  1. Yet his light shall shine from our lives, Spirit blazing,

as we touch the flame of his holy fire.

God is with us, alleluia etc.

©1998 Graham Kendrick/Make Way Music Ltd.

 

Light small individual candles from the ‘Jesus’  candle.

 

Prayers:

Leader : Our friendship can bring the light of Jesus love into the lives of others. We pray now for all who need our help.

 

Help us to bring light to those who live in countries where there is war. May all live in peace. Response: Hear us, O Lord

 

Help us to bring light to those who are starving. May everyone have enough to eat. Response: Hear us, O Lord

 

Help us to bring light to those who are homeless. May everyone have safe and loving homes. Response: Hear us, O Lord

 

Help us to bring light to those who are sick. May all receive the medical help they need when they are sick. Response: Hear us, O Lord

 

Help us to bring light to those who live in poverty, and especially those who are not able to go to school. May all have access to education. Response: Hear us, O Lord

 

Prayer of St. Theresa

Christ has no body now but ours
No hands, no feet on earth but ours
Ours are the eyes through which He looks in compassion on this world.  

Let us go now to reflect the light of Christ in our world.

Amen

 

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Fishing

 

ichthys

(Mark 1, 14-20)

 

One of the great writers of the early church, called Tertullian, referred to the newly baptised as ‘little fishes’ who follow the Fish (with a capital F) our Lord Jesus Christ.

 

Our Gospel reading today tells how Simon and Andrew and their neighbours, James and John, were called by Christ to help him ‘fish for people’. So, I thought we might spend a few moments thinking about fishing, and the different ways Jesus might be calling us to fish with him, that is, to draw people into believing and trusting in him.

 

Now, I’m not a person who has ever done a lot of fishing. The most I’ve ever done is to fish around in the rock pools at the seaside, or to catch sticklebacks in jam jars in the local streams. And I almost always tip whatever I catch back into the water. And I suspect that is the level of expertise at ‘fishing for people’ that most ordinary Christians would claim for themselves!

 

Most commercial fishing nowadays is carried out by vast trawlers, with nets many miles wide, and backed up by factory ships which process the fish before it ever gets to port. The Christian equivalent of fishing in that way might be the nationwide campaigns, like Billy Graham’s in the 50’s which brought many people into the church, or Alpha, backed up by lots of money and media expertise; or evangelism through television, radio or the internet. Not many of us here are likely to be involved in that sort of ‘fishing for people’; but it may be that some people here have skills and talents which could be used in ‘catching people for Christ’ using these methods, and could offer them to the national church authorities.

 

In former times, fishing with nets involved smaller groups of people, working in a co-operative way. We know about this sort of fishing from the Bible, from the stories in the gospels of Jesus and his disciples on the Sea of Galilee, letting down their nets and bringing their catch to shore. Often, it seems to have been most successful when there was someone on the shore who could spot the shoal of fish, and direct the fishermen where to drop the net for best effect.

 

Local churches engage in this sort of ‘fishing for people’ when they put on events or services for particular groups of people, for children or teenagers, like Messy Church; or for the bereaved, or for those who are attracted by a different sort of spirituality, like Taizé services. All of us, as part of the fishing team in our own congregation, have our part to play in contributing to the success of this kind of ‘fishing for people’.

 

Most of the fishing that we see around here, along the banks of the canal, for instance, is done by people working alone: one person, catching one fish at a time. There are various levels of expertise at this, from the fly fishers, where the design of the fly, the sophistication of the equipment and cast of the line are all important, to the weekend fisherman, who goes off to sit by the canal with a box of maggots.

 

But we can all engage in this sort of one to one ‘fishing for people’ in the ponds and rivers we know best – the places where we live and work and spend our leisure time.

 

This is the sort of ‘fishing for people’ that all the research shows is the most effective nowadays – the personal contact, the loving patient concern for people at significant times in their lives, the gentle drawing in of ‘little fishes’ after the first contact has been made; and I hope that all of us are prepared to engage in this sort of fishing for Christ whenever the opportunity arises. Some fish will need more expert and skilled fishing, where there are particular problems or intellectual doubts to be addressed; but some will be like my sticklebacks, which even the smallest and least expert Christian fisherfolk will be able to draw those into Christ’s net.

 

But most a lot of the fish we eat nowadays is not caught at sea, or by individual fishermen, but is raised in comfortable conditions on a fish farm, And that is the way that Christ the fisherman raises his ‘little fish’, those newly baptised into Christian families, keeping them safe within the pens of his fishery, and feeding them with his own self in Holy Communion, until they are large and strong enough to cope with the rough conditions of the open sea. As ‘fishers for people’, many of us will be involved in this process of caring for the little fish; and since research shows that we tend to lose these ‘little fish’ when they become teenagers, maybe we could spend some time thinking about how to keep them faithful until they are old enough to become ‘fishers’ themselves.

 

And what about bait? Real life fisherfolk use many different kinds – but Christians have just one kind.

 

Many of you will know that the early Christians used the sign of the fish as a secret sign, to identify believers to each other. It is thought this was because the word for a fish in the Greek language they spoke ICTHYUS – spelt out the beliefs they had about Jesus, a very simple, basic creed.

christian-fish

I or J – Jesus

C – Christ

Th = Theou = God’s

U= ‘Uios = son

S = Soter = Saviour.

So Icthyus said to them

Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Saviour – the Gospel in a nutshell. That is our bait, and that is our fish food and we grow and feed on Christ and his word.

 

God calls us to use it now, to fish for people on his behalf.

 

Amen.

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Who’s Calling?

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(Revelation 5,1-10; John 1, 43-51)

In the early 1980s, I was doing a job that was making me very unhappy. It was only part time, but it was stressful; my immediate superior was frequently unwell and I had to help covering her job as well as my own; I didn’t feel my colleagues and the senior staff were supportive of my particular job; and I didn’t think I was achieving much by doing it. So, when I’d had yet another day which ended with me in tears and unable to cope with my own small children, I went to see my Vicar, to ask him “Do you really think God wants me to carry on with this?”

He not only reassured me that he didn’t think God wanted me to carry on, he gave me an alternative. “You know I’m not good with paperwork,” he said. “The churchwardens think I ought to have a secretary. Why don’t you come and set up a Parish Office and become the Parish Secretary. I think I could work with you”.

So I did, and it was very fulfilling. I learnt lots and lots about the Church of England and its rules and regulations, I was able to have pastoral contact with many of the congregation and to get to know the local clergy and diocesan officials, and was very happy doing the job. Then, as time went on, my Vicar asked me to research and draft first courses and then addresses for him. I remember doing one about Nelson for a Trafalgar Day Service at the local Sea Scouts!

But one Lent I prepared a course of sermons on the Eucharist for him– and my Vicar lost his voice on the Sunday the last one was due to be preached, so I had to do it. I had already given informal addresses at Family Services, but I’d never spoken at the Eucharist. So at this point I decided I needed to be properly authorised. I applied for training as a Reader (women were not allowed to be ordained at that time), was accepted, and after a couple of years was admitted and licensed; and this particular ministry has felt right for me ever since.

I am not the sort of person who has visions or who hears voices from God in my head or in dreams. There was never a particular moment when I can say I was converted or ‘gave my life to Christ’. I was baptised as a baby, taken to church and sent to Sunday school from time to time as a child, was confirmed when I was about 12 or 13, and have never given up on church as others in my family did.

Was that series of events 34 years ago my call to the vocation of Reader? Prosaic and undramatic as it was, I think so.

Our readings today, in their different ways, explore the idea of being called by God.

The first, from the Book of Revelation, is a vision of the call of the Lamb (who is obviously identified by the writer as Jesus) to open the seals of the scroll held by God, which reveal what is to come – the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, bringing plagues and persecution to the earth, and the ultimate triumph of God’s servants. It is very obviously written in the strange language and symbolism of apocalyptic literature, and requires a lot of study to work out what it was saying to the people for whom it was originally written; and even more study to decide whether it has anything useful to say to us today!

In the Gospel passage we hear John’s description of the calling of two disciples, Philip and Nathanael. Previously (according to John) Andrew has been called from being a disciple of John the Baptist, and has brought along his brother, Peter. Now, having returned from the Jordan to Galilee, Jesus calls Philip, possibly a Gentile, who in turn brings along his friend Nathanael.

The passage seems to reflect a certain amount of rivalry between the towns of Galilee. Philip, Peter and Andrew are natives of Bethsaida (which means ‘house of fishing’) and Nathanael is from Cana, where the first of the seven signs which John describes takes place. Nathanael clearly doesn’t think anything worthwhile can come from Nazareth, and particularly not the expected Messiah! Since Nazareth was located right on the border with Samaria, you can understand why those from other parts of Galilee might consider it a dodgy place!

Since this is John’s Gospel, the simple story is full of hidden meanings. It’s not obviously in code, like Revelation, but it is telling its readers more than it seems to be doing on the surface. Jesus describes Nathanael as an Israelite, a son of Israel. The former name of Israel was Jacob, and Jacob means ‘trickster’ or ‘deceiver’. But Jesus says Nathanael, a son of Jacob, is not a deceiver, not a trickster.

Jesus says he saw Nathanael sitting under a fig tree. The fig tree is often a symbol of peace and prosperity, and is also a symbol of the Jewish nation. Was Jesus then calling Nathanael from his old life as a faithful Israelite to a new life as a disciple of the Messiah?

Nathanael certainly thought so. He acclaimed Jesus with the Messianic titles, ‘Son of God’ and ‘King of Israel’.

But then Jesus immediately refers back to Jacob again, with his reference to a ladder along which angels pass from heaven to earth, a ladder which connects the human and the divine. Jesus’ ministry will be one where heaven and earth are open to each other, where God and human beings are connected. But whereas, when Jacob saw the ladder, it marked a holy place, Bethel, where God was encountered, now it marks a person where God is encountered, Jesus.

None of the Gospels tells us much more about Philip or Nathanael. In this story of their call, they seem to represent the disciples in the post-resurrection church. They have seen the miracles of Jesus; they are aware of his supernatural knowledge. The only proper response to this person’s invitation to follow him, is to do just that.

Follow Jesus

That invitation comes to us too. It may come through a vision or a dream. It may come through a friend or a church leader, or a series of circumstances, as it did for me. It could come through someone extremely unlikely, as it did for Nathanael, someone from a place or a community we don’t think much of. It could come through something we read in the pew sheet, or in the parish magazine; or in the newspapers, or online. It is a call to go deeper into God. We just have to be alert to the call whenever and however it comes.

But that is not the end of the story. The disciples are to follow Jesus, and to believe. But disciples are also to extend the invitation to others to “Come and see”.

This section of John’s Gospel emphasises the important role of personal connections in the making of new disciples. It is an invitation to us, as well as to those first disciples. We who have witnessed the Epiphany of Jesus, who have seen the Word made flesh, we who have heard the Word of the Lord, are not supposed to keep it to ourselves. We are to go and invite others to come, and to see, and to hear for themselves.

That may mean a call to full time ordained stipendiary ministry. It may mean a call to voluntary licensed 2ministry within the church, as it did for me. Or it may mean a call to use your God-given skills and talents in mission: whether that be within the church, or within the community, or within your workplace. It may mean learning new skills, going into places which are out of your comfort zone, unfamiliar and maybe even frightening. It may even be a call to follow Jesus on the path of rejection and suffering and sacrifice, as it did for those first disciples.

You won’t know until you open your ears, your hearts and your minds to hear the call, to see God’s glory revealed in the most unlikely of people and places, and respond.

Who’s calling? God is!   Come and see!

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