At-one-ment

MustardSeedSermon for Passion Sunday Yr B ( Jeremiah 31, 31-34, John 12, 20-33)

Today is Passion Sunday, when we turn our minds yet again to the Passion of Jesus, which we believe brought redemption and eternal life to us, and to everyone who is willing to believe and trust in him and follow his way of sacrificial love. Our readings today explain how that redemption is achieved.

It is not achieved because of some sort of heavenly bargain between God and Jesus, in which God says “O.K. son, you suffer horribly and give up your life, and I’ll forgive everyone else all their sins and let them into heaven”. That, rather crudely, is the interpretation of Jesus’ Passion which is given the technical name of the ‘Penal Substitution Theory of the Atonement’. This says that God is a God of justice and demands that someone has to pay in blood for all the sins and rebellion of humanity, and Jesus did that for us.

The Dean of St Albans, Jeffrey John, got into a lot of hot water a few years ago by explaining, in a talk on Radio 4, just why this explanation of the atonement was so repulsive. He said (and I agree with him) “It made God sound like a psychopath. If any human being behaved like this, we’d say he was a monster. It just doesn’t make sense to talk of a nice Jesus down here placating the wrath of a nasty, angry father God in heaven. Jesus is what God is: he is the one who shows us God’s nature. And the most basic truth about God’s nature is that he is love, not wrath and punishment”.

Our readings point us to a different understanding of the Atonement – one which enables us to read the word a different way – as ‘At – One – Ment’.

The Old Testament reading shows us the prophet Jeremiah speaking God’s message of a new beginning after the destruction of Judah and Israel by the Assyrians and Babylonians. Instead of a relationship based on laws and compulsion and penalties, the renewed covenant will be characterised by intimacy, forgiveness and faithfulness. The initiative in this relationship comes from God; he will forgive and forget everything that his people have done wrong. The intimacy will come because no longer will they keep the covenant because society forces them to: the law of God will be written on their hearts. It is important not to misunderstand this. It is not saying they will keep the law because they love God; for the ancient Hebrews, the heart was not a metaphor for the emotions, it was a metaphor for the will. So, to say God’s law would be written on their hearts was to say their wills would be one with God’s. God’s law would be known by them , not because anyone had taught them, but because they were wholly and completely open to God.

And that total oneness with God, that total obedience and submission to God’s will, no matter what the personal cost, that complete dedication of everything to the glory of God is what we see in the life and death of Jesus. The Gentiles who came said, “Sir, we want to see Jesus,” and when he was lifted up on the cross, all people, both Jews and Gentiles were able to see Jesus as the one whose life and teaching and pain and passion proclaimed and glorified the God whose name is Compassion and Love.

Sometimes John’s Gospel can be quite difficult to understand and interpret, and this passage is no exception. I find it helps to remember that John was not writing a historical account of Jesus’ life, or an accurate record of his words. Rather he was writing a theological, mystical and philosophical reflection on what the life and death of Jesus had come to mean to him, after many years of meditation. So, he compares Jesus’ death and resurrection to the wheat seed falling into the ground. In one sense the seed is destroyed in the ground; but in another its death produces abundant new life. This comparison says that Jesus’ human body is destroyed by death; but death also frees him from the restrictions of the body, which limit him to one place, one time and one culture, so that he is available as the way to oneness with God for all people in all places and all time. As Brian Wren’s Easter hymn proclaims it: “Christ is alive! No longer bound to distant years in Palestine, but saving, healing, here and now, and touching every place and time.”

There is also the passage about those who love this life will lose it, but those who hate their life in this world will keep it for ever. Are we meant to hate life, when it has been given to us by God? No, that is not what this means. The contrast is being made between those whose whole life is devoted to worldly pleasures, who will lose everything in the end; and those who pay less attention to such things, who sit light to the pleasures of this world, who can separate themselves from worldly pursuits and give more attention to the things of the spirit. It is they who are being promised eternal life.

And there is the puzzling assertion that “Now is the judgement of this world and the ruler of this world is being driven out.” How does judgement fit with a God of love? How can we believe that Satan has been driven out when there is so much evil and tragedy in the world? The judgement this speaks of is not on individuals, as it is so often portrayed, but on the evil forces that bring darkness to people. Jesus’ death inaugurates the victory over Satan, but that victory still has to be claimed by Christians as they follow Jesus’ way in their lives and struggle in his name against the forces of darkness.

As we Christians do that, we will find that obedience to God, oneness with God, and glorifying God may bring us our own experience of passion. We will live through that passion, though, with the knowledge that God in Christ has been through such an experience before us, and lives through it again beside us; and with the faith and trust that God’s gracious activity in Jesus has already secured redemption for us.

It’s not a comfortable or easy path. Just as putting a new physical heart into human beings requires painful surgery, so putting a new spiritual heart into us may require a painful process of letting go of our old life and ways of thinking and the slow growth of new ones. Just as the seed cannot produce fruit unless it dies and changes, so we cannot get to resurrection, to the new life that is within us, without walking the way of the cross.

Atonement is at the same time very complicated and very simple. The more I read the Scriptures, and think about the life and death of Jesus, and the more I am helped to understand what they teach by the writing of wise and spiritually gifted teachers like our Dean, the more often I am humbled by the realisation of how little we humans understand about the Divine Love who is at the depth of our being. And the more I am driven to accept that, as Paul said in his 1st letter to Corinth, the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of this world.

God doesn’t do what we expect a divine and omnipotent God to do. God doesn’t come down to earth with power to force people to do what is right. Rather, God becomes vulnerable and demonstrates through the lives of individuals how we can become one with the divine through suffering, through passion.

We see it in the story of Christ’s Passion, and we see it reflected again and again in the lives of other people who achieve redemption, perhaps through one act of sacrifice, even sometimes after a lifetime of self indulgence or agnosticism.

Today, in our readings, we are being led to understand the ‘New Covenant’ with God that was inaugurated through the life and death of Jesus the Christ. As we live through the seasons of Passiontide and Holy Week, may we not only understand it, but live it, and find a new way of life, a new relationship with God, the world and ourselves at Easter.

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Mothering Sunday God

img004When my mother was alive, I used to spend a lot of time in card shops at this time of year. She was a lifelong traditional Anglican, and to her this Sunday was Mothering Sunday, not Mothers’ Day, so that is what her card had to say; and there are not a lot of them about!

And that set me thinking: “What is the difference between Mothers’ Day and Mothering Sunday?”

I came to the conclusion that Mothers’ Day is about our own human mothers and what they do for us; and of course there is nothing wrong with a special day to celebrate human mothering and say thank you to our own particular mothers. But Mothering Sunday is a church festival and there needs to be something more to a Christian festival than simply celebrating something good about human life; it has to teach us something about God.

For me, Mothering Sunday reminds us that mothering is an attribute of God.

One of the great joys, when you have small children, or small grandchildren, is to receive card on this day which they have made themselves, especially if this includes an attempt to draw their mother or their grandmother – sometimes not a flattering picture to adult eyes, but done with love! And  usually the figure is recognisably female. But if you ask most people to draw God, whether a child or an adult, if they draw a human like figure, it will almost always be obviously male – often old, and with a beard, just to avoid any doubt.

Yet Genesis 1 says that God created humankind both male and female, in the image of God. God is not male or female, this passage says, God encompasses both male and female. The writers of the Old Testament, Jesus in the Gospels, and Paul in his letters all use images of mothers,  birds, animals, and human, to describe aspects of God’s care for us, and the pain and struggle of bringing us into newness of life.

Mother Julian of Norwich wrote in the 14th century: Just as God is our Father, so God is also our Mother. Who showed me this truth in all things, but especially in those sweet words: “It is I”.

As if to say, I am the power and the Goodness of the Father, I am the Wisdom of the Mother, I am the Light and the Grace which is blessed love, I am the Trinity, I am the Unity, I am the supreme Goodness of all kind of things, I am the One who makes you love, I am the One who makes you desire, I am the never-ending fulfilment of all true desires.

 

Marcus Borg, who died recently, wrote in his book “The God we never knew” of how his picture of God changed during the years. As a child he saw God as distant, stern, and constantly judging and reproving him. The image he carried of God was based on the minister of his church, an unsmiling man with grey hair, dressed in a long black robe, who shook his finger at the congregation when he preached and even when he pronounced the forgiveness of sins. But as Marcus Borg studied, and read the scriptures and some of the classics of the Christian faith, and prayed, his idea of God changed. Instead of a distant, powerful, king-like God, he came to believe more and more in a God who was close and all encompassing, who was within us as well as beyond us, who dominant characteristic was forgiving and loving and affirming; and the image that matched that best for him was of a woman minister, bending down at the communion rail to hand bread to a small child.

Two contrasting images of God – a male authority figure, shaking his finger at us; and a loving woman, bending down to feed us.

In spite of the fact that seeing God as Mother as well as Father is not a new insight, but goes back to the Bible and to the spirituality of the Middle Ages, many people still feel uncomfortable about it. And, if you are one of those people, I apologise. But I think it’s important to struggle with the idea, because it helps us to have a more complete understanding of the mystery which is God; and Mothering Sunday is a good day to do that.

What we know about human mothering tells us that it is incredibly important, especially to the smallest and most vulnerable among us. For the newborn baby, a mother gives everything – food, warmth, safety, company, comfort, education. Psychologists tell us that to the newborn, the person who gives them day by day care is their whole world. From them the child learns the beginnings of speech, and learns to interact and have empathy with other people, and to trust other people. Child psychologists also tell us that children who are not mothered grow up to have great difficulty in relating in a loving and trusting way to others. That’s an insight of modern scientific research – but it’s an insight also found in the scriptures, in the first letter of John; but there it is talking about our relationship with God. John writes “We love, because God first loved us”. God’s love, he says, the love that is like that of a mother for her infant child, is what enables us to love one another.

And mothering is not just important at the beginning of our lives. If we are to grow into the people God wants us to be, we will continue to need mothering throughout our entire lives. That mothering will not always come from our natural mothers; it will come also from our fathers, and our friends, our wider family and our spouses, and from everyone else who supports us with the unconditional, affirming, sacrificial love that mirrors God’s motherly love for us. And if we’re extremely lucky, we may even receive it from the church community!

It is the task of the church to reveal God to the world, through its words and also through its example. Mothering Sunday is a good occasion to remind the world, and ourselves that God is not just the transcendent King, Creator and Father, but also the immanent Mother, life-giver and source of love.

So, on Mothering Sunday, we celebrate and give thanks for not only our own mothers, but all those who, in whatever way, reveal to us the mothering of God – and they could be male or female, young or old, married or single, clergy or lay. And it’s a day when we remind ourselves of our commission to live God’s maternal love in the world, and pray for grace to do so.

So, if you’ve ever been inspired by the example of Jesus and the saints, and strengthened by the Holy Spirit to live out this vocation of nurturing, unconditional, sacrificial, motherly love, walk tall today! You have been privileged to play a small part in the revelation of God!

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Hear the Word of the Lord!

temple(Psalm 19; Exodus 20, 1-17; John 2, 13-22)

 How do we know God? How do we hear what God wants of us?

The psalm, Old Testament reading and Gospel passage for today all provide answers to those questions.

Psalm 19 begins by talking about knowing God through the majesty of creation. Many people have come to a belief in God in that way. It is often said that the natural world was humanity’s first scripture. Through wonder at the glory and intricacy and balance of the natural world, which allows human beings to live and prosper, they have come to believe in a loving creator and sustaining force outside and within creation. The belief in the unity of nature is the foundation of modern science; contrary to a prevalent modern belief, science and religion are not in opposition. Properly applied, they support and feed one another.

 

Creation speaks to us silently. The psalm reminds us it has no speech or language. We are left free to interpret it in our own way, as the Spirit of God moves us.

 

Psalm 19 then goes on to talk about the law, the wisdom and the statutes of God. Like the reading from Exodus, this part of the Psalm sees the Word of God, spoken through the prophets and enshrined in law codes, written in the Torah, as a second way in which God is revealed to us, and through which we hear what God wants of us.

 

The Ten Commandments found in Exodus 20, and repeated in Deuteronomy, are at the heart of the Torah, the Old Testament book of the law. They fall into two parts: the first three concern human relationships with God. They specify that the Chosen People shall worship only one God. They prohibit them from attempting to limit and control God by making images to represent the divine, or by using the divine name in magic rites.

 

The remaining seven formulate the conditions for the Covenant Community to prosper. The fourth demands that the community respects the rhythm of life that God has set down, with one day of rest from labour for everyone, from the highest to the lowest. Then there are two concerned with preserving strong family relationships, which form the foundation of the larger community: one concerned with honouring the elders of the family, the second concerned with honouring the marriage bond, which forms the nucleus of each new generation of family.

 

Then there are four about more formal relationships in the community – prohibiting murder, stealing, lying in a court of law, and desiring your neighbour’s property (which includes his wife!). If the last seems rather strange, we need to remember that, unlike other ancient law codes, this one applied to everyone equally. There was no different law for the rich and powerful. So this last one prohibits rich and powerful members of the community from simply taking what they wanted from the poorer and weaker community members. Under God’s covenant, all members of the community were equally subject to the law.

 

The writer of Psalm 19 sees the law of God as sweet and joyful; but over time, that was not how it was experienced, especially not by the weaker members of the community. The regulations became more and more elaborate, and became divisive, rather than promoting community, a burden rather than a liberation. The emphasis in worship of God changed to a concern about the right performance of ritual, rather than honouring the Creator and Guardian of the people, and hearing what God wanted of humanity. Some of the prophets, notably Isaiah, Micah and Jeremiah, protested that God was not interested in ritual, festivals and sacrifice. What was really required of the covenant people, they said, was justice for the poor, concern for the needy, mercy and humility.

 

Religious buildings, and particularly the Temple came to be seen as the symbol of this distortion of true worship. Instead of being the place where everyone was able to encounter the divine, it became a place where rules and regulations kept the vast majority of people at a distance from God, where people were divided into categories, and only the powerful few could approach the Holy of Holies.

 

There was an expectation by the time of Jesus that, when God’s Messiah came, one of the things he would do was reform the Temple. So the actions of Jesus in the temple were in effect, a claim to be God’s Messiah, and to be showing the priests and the teachers of the Law what was God’s will.

 

His particular action had a wider significance. The Temple consisted of a number of areas or courts. The closer one got to the Holy of Holies, the more restrictions there were about who could enter. So the closest court was that of the priests, then the court of Israel, which only Jewish men could enter. Next came the court of the women, and furthest out, the Court of the Gentiles.

 

It was the Court of the Gentiles where all the commercial activity took place. This was necessary for the worship of the Temple. The Temple Tax couldn’t be paid in Roman money, because it had images on it; so the money the pilgrims arrived with had to be changed; animals and birds without blemish were required for the various sacrifices and offerings: travellers could not be expected to bring them from home, so they had to be bought on site.

 

Of course there were many opportunities for fraud and exploitation in these commercial activities; but that doesn’t seem to be what Jesus was protesting against in his action. Rather, it was the fact that the commercial activity filled the Court of the Gentiles, making any sort of worship there impossible. Isaiah and other prophets had looked forward to a time when the people of all nations would be drawn to Jerusalem, and be able to worship the one true God there. The commercial activity made that impossible.

 

The Jewish leaders then asked Jesus for a sign to confirm he was authorised to speak in God’s name. Jesus’ reply points backwards, to his life of humility and service, and forward to its inevitable conclusion – death on the cross. To those who really hear God speaking through creation and through the Scriptures, Jesus proclaims, his life and death are the only evidence needed that God speaks through him.

 

The Temple authorities cannot accept this. Their religion has become defined by ever expanding law codes and elaborate rituals. They have come to believe that they can only encounter God in a particular building, or through a particular interpretation of certain written documents. It was much too challenging to believe that an ordinary insignificant human being could reveal to them what God wants. As St Paul commented in his letter to the Corinthians, in the passage which is set for the New Testament reading this Sunday, such a claim is “a stumbling block to Jews, and foolishness to Gentiles”.

It goes against all previous understanding of the way God communicates with humanity.

 

But, we who claim to follow Christ as God’s revelation to us, should be wary of feeling too superior to the Jewish authorities of Jesus’s time, or the Gentiles who executed him. During the centuries of Christian history, and still today, we find it very difficult to follow Jesus as our guide to how to live as God wants us to live.

 

We too find it much easier to govern our lives (and to seek to govern other people’s lives) according to a set of written laws, without asking ourselves what sort of society these rules were designed to achieve, and questioning whether they still do that. Like the Temple authorities, we still try to divide humanity into groups, judging some more worthy than others to approach and represent God. We so often demonstrate our allegiance to God through constructing beautiful buildings, through rituals, and special festivals, and through the exercise of political and military power to force people into conformity, rather than by replicating Christ’s life of humility, service and love for the weak and the outcast, and by challenging the powerful, even when it brings difficulty and disaster to us, as Jesus did.

 

It takes a real openness to God and a deep faith in God’s revelation through the life of Jesus to seek to hear God speaking in our own situations, rather than confining God to rules or buildings, or even to seek God through the glories of nature. It is easier to take codes from the Bible and apply them to our very different context to condemn and exclude people, rather than offer our time and our money and our political voice to serve the disadvantaged, and to agitate for change, as Jesus did.

 

Donating money and food to the Food Bank, spending time helping the homeless, listening to a lonely migrant worker who seeks comfort in alcohol, visiting the elderly widowed and spending time listening to their troubles, advocating for the rights of refugees who fall foul of our rules and prejudices may not seem like obviously religious acts.

 

But those are the building blocks of God’s new Temple, the Body of Christ, which embodies God’s Word for us now.

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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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