We are the Resurrection

ImageActs 2:42-47
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

 

1 Peter 1:3-9
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

 

John 20:19-31
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

I was looking for a story to launch this sermon, and I came across this, from an American Conservative Christian website:

One lady wrote in to a question and answer forum. “Dear Sirs, Our preacher said on Easter, that Jesus just swooned on the cross and that the disciples nursed Him back to health. What do you think? Sincerely, Bewildered.”

“Dear Bewildered, Beat your preacher with a cat-of-nine-tails with 39 heavy strokes, nail him to a cross; hang him in the sun for 6 hours; run a spear thru his side…put him in an airless tomb for 36 hours and see what happens. Sincerely, Charles.”

I am not so confident in a literal Jesus-gets-up-after-three-days-of-being-dead type of resurrection.  But I hope none of you will want to crucify me in response to my theology…

The resurrection is the one Biblical miracle that I am tempted to take literally – I’m tempted, but I’m not quite there.

Whatever happened to the defeated, disillusioned, disciples of an executed leader must have been truly extraordinary.  To go from hiding from the authorities to shouting about Jesus in the market square is remarkable.  To go from betrayal before the cock crows to being prepared to die for their faith in the risen Christ is truly miraculous.

There are only two things I can say with absolute certainty: firstly, you do not have to believe in a literal, physical resurrection to be a good Christian; second, you do not have to disbelieve in the resurrection to be intellectually and theologically sound.  There is certainly room for both perspectives.

It’s almost easier to believe in a literal, physical resurrection than it is to imagine what else could cause this turn around…
The sightings of Jesus after the resurrection are strange and dream-like:

  • He appears in locked rooms…
  • He shows his wounds…
  • He eats fish…
  • He mysteriously vanishes…
  • He is mistaken for the gardener…
  • He walks with some of his disciples for a day before they realise it is him…

It is clear there is some note of uncertainty in how Jesus appears:  Thomas doesn’t believe it, and we know that Thomas wasn’t alone – in Matthew 28 we read that:  “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.”

If Jesus rose from the dead in a straightforward, literal way, surely no one would doubt him?   A physical resurrection would be a certain, utterly convincing end to the argument.

The resurrection seems to have split Jesus’ followers, some didn’t accept it; but others, including the original disciples, we so passionate about continuing to preach the message of Christ that they were prepared to give their lives for it.

The resurrection, whatever it was, was not a trick or a lie.  People who built their lives around a message of love and truth would not die for a lie.  It was a profound reality that changed lives and continues to change lives today.

In our reading from Acts we hear what kind of new community was created in memory of Jesus:  “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”
But it was not just about practicalities – they were awe-struck:  “Awe came upon everyone… …they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts”

This new life led to a community where everyone shared their possessions: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”

Christ lived on because the Church became the body of Christ.

Perhaps Mary discovered a love a presence in the sympathy of a gardener by the graves in Jerusalem and realised that the Spirit of Jesus was not constrained by the single person of Christ.

Perhaps the disciples on the Emmaus Road realised that there was still wisdom in the world even after their dead teacher was buried – that the wisdom of Jesus lived on, no longer confined by the single person of Christ.

If the resurrection is the traditional view of a physical body reanimated after death – that is amazing and gives us hope that God can fix the world’s ills because sometimes God steps in to sort things out.

However, if the resurrection is about finding the presence of Christ in the disciples – that is a challenge.  We have to find Christ’s presence in usWe have to be the resurrection in the world today.

The resurrection is not some two thousand year old magic trick – the resurrection is something that we are called to make real in the world.

We are the resurrection.  We are the Body of Christ.  Without us there is no resurrection hope, without us there is no Easter.

The great prayer of Teresa of Avila expresses this profound truth:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

Jesus’ message of radical, inclusive love was too strong to be contained by the grave.  He calls us to be his resurrection in the world today.  To prove that love and hope are stronger hate and fear.  We are the resurrection, and we can resurrect Christ today.  I close with the even older words of the Song of Songs, which we have been reading this week at Morning Prayer:

Put me like a seal over your heart, Like a seal on your arm. For love is as strong as death, passion is as fierce as the Grave; It’s flashes are flashes of fire, the very flame of the LORD.  Many waters cannot quench love, Nor will rivers overflow it; If a man were to give all the riches of his house for love, It would be utterly despised.

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Nicodemus must be Born Again after dark

ImageJohn 3:1-17
Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

The story of Jesus is the story of the poor and the oppressed, it is the story of the marginalised and the outcast, the story of the lepers and misfits.
This morning’s reading introduces Nicodemus. And Nicodemus just doesn’t fit in.
Nicodemus must have been wealthy: after Jesus died he brought expensive balms to anoint Jesus body, so he was financially secure. The name Nicodemus appears in secular histories of the age. In the year 63, when there was open war between the Jews and Romans, the Jews sent a man called Nicodemus as their ambassador to plead before the Roman Emperor. In the last days of the war history records that a man called Gorion, the son of Nicodemus negotiated the Jewish surrender. It’s just about possible that all these Nicodemuses were the same; it’s very possible that they all belonged to the same influential and wealthy family.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee. Pharisee has come to be synonymous with hypocrite – but the Pharisees were the clergy of Jesus’ day and like the clergy of today they were a mixed bunch – the holy and the hypocritical, the gentle and the unforgiving, and most a mixture of qualities good and bad.
But Nicodemus was not just described as the equivalent of a first century Jewish Vicar – he was described as ‘a ruler of he Jews’ – he was a member of the Sanhedrin – the ruling council of seventy people that were the supreme court of the Jews.
Nicodemus does not fit in with the profile of Jesus first followers: he is wealthy, influential, respected…
He doesn’t summon Jesus to his house – Some Pharisees did this – Luke records Simon the Pharisee inviting Jesus into his house – that dinner didn’t go too well – a woman (who was a notorious sinner) burst in and anointed Jesus’ feet.
Nicodemus has a very different approach – he comes to Jesus by night.
It’s possible that he came to Jesus by night because he wanted peace and quiet to talk to Jesus without the crowds that constantly surrounded Jesus by Day. However, I think the obvious reason, is the most likely: Nicodemus, this distinguished V.I.P., didn’t want anyone to see that he was interested in the disreputable teaching of the scruffy upstart, Jesus of Nazareth.
Jesus presents Nicodemus with a puzzle that, if we are honest, is still puzzling today. Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born from above – or, in some translations, he just be “born again.” This passage has been so influential that it has inspired a whole tradition of “born again Christianity.”
In this tradition the moment of conversion is important – there is a moment at which you are “saved” before which you are “lost.”
Just as there is a fixed moment of birth, so in the life of faith there is a fixed moment of “second birth.”
For born again Christians this moment is typified with the word “Repentance.”
The Christian idea of repentance has a bad press. Christianity is often seen as ‘peddling guilt’ and preachers stereotyped as rabid bible-bashers, foaming at the mouth and screaming “repent or burn!”
Repentance has come to mean “being sorry for your sins.” But the word literally means to “turn around.” Repentance is not about listing our sins to God (or a priest) and saying “I’m really, really sorry.” Repentance is about turning our lives towards God.
Interestingly the Jesus doesn’t talk about the “saved” and the “lost” he does talk about those who are “being saved” and those who are “being lost.” That’s isn’t a quibble about Greek grammar tenses – it is an important distinction. “Salvation” is not a “club” that you are either in or out of. “Salvation” is the journey that we care called to join in. It is not a fixed event, it is a direction of travel. It is not about arriving anywhere, it is about embarking on a journey.
Returning to Nicodemus, Jesus does not tell everyone who wants to follow him to be “born again” nor does he call everyone to “repent.” Some people, especially the poor and the outcast and simply welcomed with open arms. Jesus approach to Nicodemus is similar to his approach to a rich young ruler who was told to sell all his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. Strangely that instruction never caught on in quite the same way as Nicodemus’ more esoteric command to be ‘born again.’
Nicodemus had a full and interesting life, he was respected and admired, he had reached the top of the ladder. But Jesus tells him that in matters of faith he needs to become like a new-born and start all over again. His fine clothes and finer position are the things of the flesh that Jesus compares to the things of the Spirit – which are love and joy and peace.
Nicodemus had it all – he even had a little element of danger coming to hear Jesus by night – but Jesus said that was not enough – he had to start over again.
It is not enough to ‘be interested’ in Jesus, it is not enough to read a few books and say a few prayers and do it all behind closed doors. It is not enough to ‘come to Jesus by night’ only risking being seen coming to church by the early morning joggers
Just like it’s not enough to be interested in poverty, and watch “Comic Relief” on telly when it comes round again. We have to dip our hands into our pockets to raise money and raise awareness.
Its not enough to be interested in human rights, read the Guardian and the Amnesty International website – we have to act, to write letters and campaign.
If we keep our religion in our heads it will be an interesting academic exercise, but that’s not the religion of Jesus. Jesus calls us to new life, he calls us to action, to change the world, beginning with ourselves.
Some are called to totally change their selfish lives, to be born again, some are called to accept themselves and recognise that they are already “close to the Kingdom.” One of the great challenges of being a Christian is to work out where our lives are and what is the Good News that we need to hear…?
The tragedy of Nicodemus is that he does overcome his need for secrecy, but too late! Only after Jesus has been arrested, tried (tried in front of the Sanhedrin, in front of Nicodemus’ eyes), only after he has seen Jesus tortured and executed does Nicodemus stand up and make himself visible. Only when it is too late, does he act.
Nicodemus works out Jesus’ message to him; let us pray for the grace to work it out in our lives, today.
Amen.

What is the Church?

Image

Readings: Isaiah 49:1-7;  Psalm 40;  John 1:29-42

 

Today I want to ask question “What is the Church?”

 

Please close your eyes for a moment, and with your eyes closed I want you to visualise the Church of the Ascension.

 

Take a few moments to form a mental image…

 

How many of you imagined the building?

 

I think most people, most of the time, I’d asked to imagine a ‘church’ will imagine the building.  Which is fair enough – this building has “the Church of the Ascension” written on the front of it.  Our logo is an image of the front of the building.

 

Google’s Dictionary defines “Church” as “a building used for public Christian worship.”

 

And offers the synonyms:     “house of God, the Lord’s house, house of prayer; kirk.”

 

It’s only the second definition that gets to the nitty gritty: “a particular Christian organization [sic.] with its own clergy, buildings, and distinctive doctrines.”

 

The building is not what the church is.

 

The Church is you and me.

 

The word “Church” (or in the original Greek, “ecclesia”) is an interesting word, it was deliberately chosen by the first Christians who could have called their places of worship “temples” like the pagans or “synagogues” like their Jewish forbears, but instead chose “ecclesia” translated “church.”  “Ecclesia” is used 115 times in the New Testament, but only two or three times is it usually translated as “Church” because the word simply means a gathering of people or an assembly.

 

The Church is the people, not the place where they gather.

 

We are the church. Without us it’s just a building (an interesting & historic building, but just a building nonetheless).

 

In the same way that your family (if you live with one or more other people) is not the house or flat you live in.  Your home may be very important to you, but your house is not your family….

 

Our building is important, it is a sign to our neighbourhood that we are here, and it is a great resource for our community, but it is not the Church.  The church is us.

 

 

 

What does it mean to be the church?

 

I wonder what we think we are doing when we come together as a church?

 

What secular activity is it most like?  What is a good metaphor for coming together to be the Church.

 

For some services (a Choral Evensong springs to mind) a service can bear a lot of resemblance to a concert.  We listen to a sermon and we pray, but we spend most of the time sitting and listening to music.

 

But this is not what we are about – for several reasons.  If worship is like a concert, it makes us passive receivers.  It means that Worship is something other people do (the choir and clergy); the congregation’s role is just the audience.  The congregation are an audience to be entertained.

 

If we look for a better metaphor, I have heard church described as a time to “recharge our spiritual batteries.” …This places church as something like a “battery charger,” or perhaps a “spiritual health spa” where our favourite hymns are a pedicure and the prayers an exfoliating body scrub…?

 

This is a better metaphor than a concert because we are changed by the process, we are not simply entertained, we are healthier, feel better and maybe look better (I’ve never actually been in a spa, so it’s possible I’m talking nonsense !)

 

However, the idea of the church as a spa still has the problem that the religion is “done to us” by the professionals.  The experts do their work and the customers lay back and enjoy it.

 

I attended a lecture last year that said the best metaphor for the church was a gym – St. Ignatius described his system of prayer as “Spiritual Exercises” – so perhaps Church is best described as a “Soul Gym.”

 

Unlike a concert or spa, everyone actively participates in the gym; it makes us fitter and better able to do things (like climb stairs and run for the bus).  There are trained experts around to help, but everyone works at their own level and does their own exercise.

 

Perhaps like going to the gym we may not jump up with excitement at the idea of a trip to church, but hopefully, like the gym we feel better for going, and the cumulative effect of regularly attending gym or church is improvement in our physical or spiritual health.  The more often you go and the more seriously you take it the more marked the results.

 

(It is also worth mentioning that if every church member paid like people pay at the gym (by a standing order that comes out of your account wether you attend once a year or seven times a week) all of our financial concerns would be over!)

 

I like the gym metaphor, but it is also flawed.  At the gym everyone is doing their own thing.  Everyone may be in the same room, but they are all pursuing their own aims.

 

The problem of all these metaphors is that they place the congregation in the place of “consumers” of one sort or another.  In the church we are not “consumers” of religion.  We are “citizens” of the Kingdom of God.  We are the Body of Christ.

 

If we were consumers we have religion done to us.  We pay the clergy to do our religion for us, and then buy whatever slice or flavour is to our taste.

 

As citizens of the Kingdom, as the body of Christ, as people who are the church we don’t just consume faith, we live it out in our lives

 

We gather as a church in order to be sent out again to change the world and proclaim the Kingdom.

 

So church may share some superficial similarities with a concert or spa or gym, but none of them do justice to what we are about.  To my mind the best metaphor for the church is a family meal.

 

Like family meals it is wonderful – it’s fantastic to share time with people who matter to us.  But it is also a challenge, some of the children may be noisy at inappropriate times and uncle Jim’s sense of humour is alarmingly unreconstructed.  But we are family, children of the same Heavenly Father.

 

But we have a responsibility for each other in church. 

 

If there is someone new next to us looking lost with the handfuls of service sheets and hymn books, if we are consumers it’s none of our business, but if we are the church we have a responsibility to help them out and guide them through…

 

If we are consumers if we run out run out of service sheets the only thing that matters is that we get our own sheet, as citizens we must share with our neighbours…

 

If we were consumers we would see tea and coffee after the church as an experience similar to a quick visit to Starbucks.  (With cheaper coffee.)  If we are consumers all that matters is our coffee and our conversations with our friends, but if we are citizens we need to look out for folks who are on their own or looking left out.

 

I have heard from people who started coming to church because of the wonderful welcome they had at the door.  I have, also, recently received an email from a potential new member who decided not to come back because they felt someone was rude to them because they weren’t looking at them directly during the Peace!

 

How we behave to each other really matters.

 

We are the church, and the church will thrive or decline according to how we act.

 

If the church is going to grow their is no outreach programme or activity that could even come close to “word of mouth” from all of us.  Evangelical churches have run all sorts of studies on what makes churches grow: door-to-door evangelism?  Billy-Graeme-style rallies? singing in market squares? giving out pamphlets…?  and every single study I have read comes to the same conclusion: the congregation telling their friends, neighbours and families about the church, and inviting them along is by miles the most effective means of growth.

 

If we are consumers then church growth has nothing to do with us – we just attend to buy a fresh slice of religious observance.  However, if we are citizens then we all have to play our part in building the church.

 

I think every Church service should end with the famous words of St Teresa of Avila:

 

Christ has no body now on earth but yours,

 

no hands but yours,

 

no feet but yours,

 

yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion

 

is to look out to the earth,

 

yours are the feet by which He is to go about doing good

 

and yours are the hands by which He is to bless us now.

 

Advent I (Why Advent is more grown-up than Lent)

Image   Advent is here again, the season of chocolate filled calendars and trying to work out when is the best time to go shopping and the best time to put up our Christmas trees.  According to the tradition of the Church, it’s also a time to take stock of our lives, a time of self-examination.  It’s a bit like Lent, but with tinsel.

   The story of Advent is actually more grown-up than Lent:  The central metaphor for Lent is Jesus fasting for 40 days in the wilderness.   During this time Jesus faces temptations (colourfully described as a symbolic encounter with Satan) but if we read on we find Jesus overcame the temptations and spent most of the 40 days with the wild animals being ‘ministered to’ by angels.  In my imagination this has always been a ‘Disney Princess’ moment with birds chirping sweet tunes to entertain Jesus while meerkats bring some berries and a cup of water and two funny angels sing a song about enjoying life’s simple pleasures.

   That’s Lent.  Advent has a much sharper edge.  The Central metaphor for Advent is the defeated and persecuted people of Israel longing for deliverance from their oppressors.  And in parallel to that, it has traditionally also been a time to think about the so-called Second Coming of Jesus, which for many Christians pretty much means ‘the Apocalypse.’ 

   So we have two times of self-examination in the Church: one when we think about Jesus and the cute desert creatures, and one where we think about political oppression and the End of the World.

   Advent is all a bit difficult if we take it seriously.  I can see why popular culture prefers to put chocolate in Advent Calendars and focus on Santa preparing for his epic journey rather than the oppression of the Israelites.  I can see why we’d rather think of snow covered countryside and the ‘red red robin bob bob bobbing along’ rather than the Apocalypse.

   But the themes of Advent are central to putting the joy of Christmas into context.  Christmas is just one small part of a much larger story.  In the latest Inclusive Church Newsletter Dianna Gwilliams (Dean of Guildford and Chair of Inclusive Church) wrote:

   “It’s interesting to note that if Christmas was removed from the Bible we would lose a few paragraphs but if we were to remove Advent we would lose all the New Testament and most of the Old. Advent invites us into a consideration of an in-between time – both knowing that the light has come, but acknowledging that we also wait in the dark.”

   Some people believe in a literal ‘Second Coming’ of Jesus “Lo he comes with clouds descending” says one of my favourite (if slightly barking mad) Advent Hymns.  But Jesus returning in the clouds is not my vision of the Advent hope.  I think Jesus returns whenever his teaching of love is followed; Jesus returns whenever we feed the hungry; Jesus returns whenever we talk to our lonely neighbour; Jesus returns when we campaign for justice; whenever we are kind to the least of God’s children.

   The Apocalypse as described in Scripture is not actually the End of the World.  If we manage to read through the hallucinogenic nightmare of the book of Revelation (and get past the beasts with seven heads and the cavorting with the whore of Babylon) we find that all the crazy stuff, and all the turmoil, are just the birth-pangs of a better world.  The important message of Revelation is that no matter how bad things get, if stars fall from heaven and the moon turns to blood, if warfare engulfs the world, there is still hope.

   Advent is the season when we look at the darkness, and we chose to respond, not with despair, but by lighting a candle.

   Advent is a time when we renew our hope in a better world, and commit ourselves to try and bring it about.

   When we talk about the Kingdom of God we celebrate a present reality.  The Kingdom is here, but we also long for its fulfilment when the world is filled with justice and we have peace at the last.  We live with the tension of the ‘both now and not yet’ of God’s Kingdom.

   We look for signs of the Kingdom, and I see them in our slow but inevitable process towards women bishops, in the Pilling Report on Human Sexuality (which contains sone of the sanest things the Anglican Church has said about sex for a long time – but there is still a way to go).  I see the signs of the Kingdom in the work of London Citizens, bringing together people of all faiths and none to make our society more fair and just.  I see the signs of the Kingdom in the faith that keeps fighting to keep the Wash House youth group going despite losing funding, in the commitment to our ESOL classes, in the work of LEWCAS.

   This week some of us were at the Greenwich London Citizens Assembly, those who were there please forgive me for repeating the reflection that kicked-off the event; it is very appropriate to this season of Advent.  It is adapted from ‘You Have to Pick Your Team’ by Sonya Vetra Tinsley:

   ‘Every day presents infinite reasons to believe that change can’t happen, infinite reasons to give up. But I always tell myself, you have to pick your team’.

   It seems to me that there are two teams in this world and that you find evidence to support the arguments of both. The trademark of one team is cynicism. They’ll tell you why what you are doing doesn’t matter, why nothing is going to change, why no matter how hard you work, you are going to fail. They seem to get satisfaction out of explaining how we’ll always have injustice. ‘You can’t change human nature,’ they say. ‘It’s foolish to try.’ From their experience, they might be right.

   Then there is another group of people who admit that they don’t know how things will turn out, but have decided to work for change. I see Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela on that team. I see many of my friends. They’re always telling stories of faith and hope being rewarded, of ways things could be different, of how their own lives have changed. They’ll give you reasons why you shouldn’t give up, testimonials why we’ve yet to see our full potential as a species. They believe we’re partners in God’s creation, and that change is possible.

   There are times when both teams seem right, both have evidence. We’ll never know who’s really going to prevail. So I just have to decide which team seems happier and more fulfilled – which side I would rather be on. And for me that means choosing on the side of faith and hope. Choosing to organise for social justice rather than disorganising for despair. Because on the side of cynicism, even if they’re right, who wants to win that argument anyway? If I’m going to stick with somebody, I’d rather build a team of people who have a sense of possibility and hope. I just know that’s the side I want to be on.

Angels to Some…

A Sermon for St. Michael & All Angels:

ImageOne day God was looking down at earth and saw all of the naughty behaviour that was going on. So he sent one of his angels to go to earth for a time. When he returned, he told God, “Yes, it is bad on Earth; 95% are misbehaving and only 5% are not.”

God thought for a moment and said, “Maybe I had better send down another angel to get a second opinion.”

So God called another angel and sent him to earth for a time, too.

When the angel returned he went to God and said, “Yes, it’s true.  The earth is in decline; 95% are misbehaving, but 5% are being good.”

God was not pleased. So he decided to get his angels to email the 5% who were good, because He wanted to encourage them, give them a little something to help them keep going.

Do you know what the email said?

No?

Okay, just wondering. I didn’t get one either.

Today we are thinking about Angels because today the Church is celebrating St Michael and all Angels.  The saints and Martyrs have many days throughout the year, today is the turn of the angels.

But what is an angel?  Is it the same as a fairy?  Do they have wings?  Are the mythical beings?  Do they have any relevance to us?

In the early Church angels of the winged variety were more or less ignored, with the surreal exception of the book of Revelation and also the stories of Jesus’ birth and death.

The Hebrew Scriptures tell us a bit more.  They even name three of them:  Michael (Daniel 10.13), Gabriel (Daniel 8.16) and Raphael (Tobit 7.8).

As the tradition of the Church developed Angels were very popular in the middle ages.  Scholars debated their form (whether they had or could have a physical body as well as a spirit) their mission (the clue being in their Greek name ‘aggelos’ meaning ‘messenger’) and their abilities (one of the most famous questions being how many angels could dance on the head of a needle – this was a question that taxed the philosopher Duns Scotus – answers on a postcard please!)  If you think that kind of theological question is a bit daft you are not alone.  The scholar who led the debate on angels and pin heads was called Duns Scotus, his name became an insult when it was shortened to become ‘Dunce.’  It’s a little unfair as Duns Scotus was a very intelligent theologian, my lecturer in theology always told us that the angels and pinhead debate actually was trying to work out the nature of infinity. 

But it was not only medieval Dunces interested in these matters: Anders Sandberg wrote a paper in 2001 called “Quantum Gravity Treatment of the Angel Density Problem’” in the “Annals of Improbable Research.”  He presented a calculation based on theories of information physics and quantum gravity, establishing a maximum number of angels as 8.6766×1049.

Although this modern calculation is a physics-based mathematical game, not a serious inquiry and despite my professor’s protestations  I was not convinced that arguing about angels and pinheads is irrelevant, at best.

So what exactly is an angel?

I have already given you the clue when I told you what the word angel means.  The Latin angelus or the Greek Greek aggelos come from the Hebrew for “one going” or “one sent”; a messenger. The word is used in Hebrew makes no difference between divine or human messenger.

In all but a very few passages of Scripture we are given a choice of how to interpret events: the aggelos at Jesus’ empty tomb could be a heavenly being or a human messenger that Jesus arranged to pass on the message.

It’s up to us how we want to read the story.

However, how we view angels in the ancient texts of the Bible is not nearly as important as how we view angels today.

If aggelos are God’s messengers then the really important question is who are God’s messengers today.

Conservative Christians often criticise liberal Christians for making faith too easy: we don’t ask people to believe in impossible things (like a six day creation or virgins giving birth); we don’t force people to deny their sexuality or shoehorn people into outdated gender roles.  But here is the cost of liberal faith, here is where it is so much tougher of liberals than conservatives…

If we take the theologically conservative view that God’s work is done by heavenly beings, all we really have to do is ask for God to send some angels.

If we take the liberal view that God’s angels are human messengers, that means it’s up to us.

God’s not going to send a bloke in a frock with wings to solve the problems of the world – God is going to send you and me.

If that seems daunting then the good news is that we are not simply called as individuals, but as a Christian community, where we all work together to make a difference.

To be a Christian is to be one of God’s messengers.  Jesus told all his followers in his last words to them

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,

teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo,
I am with you always, to the close of the age.”

We are commanded to spread the good news of God’s love for us and teach the world what Christ has taught us.  We are to be the messengers of God.  Angels.

God has not given his work to heavenly creatures with wings and harps.  (At least not usually – in exceptional cases you never know…)  But the majority of God’s work on this planet is carried out through his earthy messengers, his human angels.

I close with one of my favourite quotations from one of my favourite saints, St Theresa of Avila that illustrates out role as angels, messengers of God and God’s kingdom:

Christ has no body now on earth but yours;
no hands but yours;
no feet but yours;
yours are the eyes through which is to look out Christ’s compassion to the world;
yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good;
yours are the hands with which he is to bless us now.

Oh my Goddess! Holy Wisdom & Female imagery for God…

Image

 

Holy Wisdom – A Talk to the ‘Blackheath Wives Group’

 

In our reading we find one of the neglected themes of Scripture that has become important to me in recent years.  Our first lesson told us about ‘Sophia’, or Holy Wisdom.  I will hopefully be building on what Juliet was talking about when she came to your group a few months ago.

 

1 Does not wisdom call,
and does not understanding raise her voice?
2 On the heights, beside the way,
at the crossroads she takes her stand;
3 beside the gates in front of the town,
at the entrance of the portals she cries out:
4 To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live.

 

Our first reading this morning uses some interesting imagery for God.  God is Wisdom.

 

What of course I find most striking about Wisdom, is that the Wisdom literature of the Hebrew Scriptures uses explicitly female imagery for God.  As soon as words ‘female’ and ‘God’ start appearing in the same sentence, some people start to prickle.  We think of what we may feel are the excess of ‘political correctness.’  This has nothing to do with political correctness.  This is not about being modern, or even post-modern.  This is not about new-fangled feminist thought.  (Though I have nothing against feminism or post-modernism.)  It is about looking at the images of God that we find in the Bible.  It is about taking the Bible seriously.  It is about taking the vastness of God seriously.  Taking seriously God’s ‘un-pin-downability’ – that God is much, much bigger that any one image we can use.

 

The books of Proverbs and Ecclesiasticus reveal divine Wisdom as feminine.  The Hebrew word for Wisdom, ‘hokmah’, is grammatically feminine, and feminine pronouns are used to refer to wisdom.  

 

In Ecclesiastes 24 we read:
Wisdom praises herself,
and tells of her glory in the midst of her people.
In the assembly of the Most High she opens her mouth,
and in the presence of his hosts she tells of her glory.

 

And in Proverbs chapter 1, we read

 

Wisdom cries aloud in the street; in the markets she raises her voice…  Give heed to my reproof; behold, I will pour out my thoughts to you; I will make my words known to you…  Those who listen to me will dwell secure and will be at ease, without dread of evil.

 

Wisdom is a feminine image of God, just as Logos, God’s Word, is an image for God in the Gospel of John (traditionally read at the end of Carol Services “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…”).  Later in chapter 4 of Proverbs we are encouraged to

 

Get Wisdom; get insight.  Do not forsake her, and she will keep you; love her and she will guard you…  Prize her highly, and she will exalt you; she will honour you if you embrace her.  She will place on your head a fair garland; she will bestow on you a beautiful crown.

 

The Wisdom of Soloman, chapter 10, describes the works of God:

Wisdom freed a holy people and a blameless race
from a nation of oppressors.
She entered the soul of a servant of the Lord
and withstood fearsome rulers with wonders and signs.
To the saints she gave the reward of their labours
and led them by a marvellous road;
She was their shelter by day
and a blaze of stars by night
She brought them across the Red Sea
and led them through mighty waters.
She swallowed their enemies in the waves
and spat them out from the depths of the sea.
Then, Lord, the righteous sang the glories of your name
and praised together your protecting hand;
For Wisdom opened the mouths of the silent
and gave speech to the tongues of her children.

 

Other female images for God in the Hebrew Scriptures include Mother (Hosea 11.3; Isaiah 66.13), and Mother Eagle (Deuteronomy 32.11-12; Psalm 57.1).  God is like a woman in travail (Isaiah 42.14), God is frequently ascribed a womb (Job 38.30; Isaiah 46.4 and 49.15) and God gives birth to her people (Deuteronomy 32.18; Numbers 11.12).  God is both the master and mistress of the house (Psalm 123.2).  God is a midwife  (Psalm 22.9-10).

 

In Genesis 1.27 God is described creating humankind with the words ‘in the image of God he created them, male and female, he created them.’  The image of God is as much in women as in men.  Women and men reflect God’s image equally.

 

Also the Sprit of God in the Hebrew Scriptures, what we, in Christian New Testament terms describe as the Holy Spirit, is the Hebrew word ‘Ruach’, which is feminine in form.

 

One of the Hebrew words for God, ‘Elohim’ is thought to be the combination of the female ‘Eloah’ and the male ‘El’.  Another phrase, ‘El Shaddai’, usually translated ‘God Almighty’, could also be translated ‘the Breasted God’, the God who feeds her people from her breasts.

 

People often feel threatened by female descriptions of God.  We feel that it could take away from our liturgical life.  Disrupt our long-cherished pattern of prayer.  Many of us are still smarting from losing some of our favourite prayers in the new liturgies, must the same now happen to our vision of God?  And, after all, we may object, Jesus did teach us to pray ‘Our Father in Heaven…’

 

To consider, and embrace into our spirituality, Holy Wisdom, and other Hebrew Scripture images for God, will take nothing from our walk with God.  It would, of course, be utter nonsense to try and stop using masculine images for God.  But, if we take Scripture seriously, we must see that God has revealed his and herself, in many many more ways than just Father.  Our vision of God can be enlarged.  The only thing we have to lose is the limits we have set on God.

 

God is our Father, our Lord, our King, our Brother, our Friend, our Lover.  God is a Rock, a Shield, a Fortress, a Strong Tower, a River.  God is Saviour, Redeemer, Deliverer.  God is a Consuming Fire, God is Power, Strength.  God is our Mother, the one who labours, and brings her people to Birth.  God is Wisdom.

 

These are just a few of the Biblical images of God.  The Bible and the tradition of the Church has produced many more.  St. Anselm, Julian of Norwich, and too many contemporary writers to list have used feminine imagery for God.  As we journey deeper into God on our Christian journey, let us not limit God by limiting the metaphors and images we use.  Let us drink deeply at the well of our tradition, and of Scripture.  And let us grow in God, as we explore all of the images we find there.

Inclusive Church Sunday 2013

Today is the first Inclusive Church Sunday.  As a Church we are very involved in Inclusive Church and are very committed to its cause.  However, as as a white married man I have been asked by several people (including more than one Bishop!) why this maters to me.  So I hope you will forgive my self indulgence of explaining why it matters.

My story in brief: 
I was brought up as a Baptist in Northern Ireland.  I was a Protestant, lived in a Protestant area, I went to a Protestant school.  In the Protestant world the most obvious form of exclusion was of Roman Catholics.  (In Northern Ireland both communities feel like the persecuted minority: Catholics are the minority in Northern Ireland, Protestants the minority in Ireland as a whole.  Seeing a first had the result of fear and suspicion was how I grew up…)  
So I started my spiritual journey as a Baptist, then I left the church for a while, before getting involved in a Pentecostal Church.  The forms of exclusion at work here were obvious: people who smoked, drank, used bad language or slept around were excluded…  (I must also add that women were excluded from from leadership, as were the divorced, gay men and lesbians… but remember I was a teenager… so it was the drinking and sleeping around that attracted my attention…)
I never understood Christian teetotalism – after all Jesus turned water into wine, and the one act of worship Jesus gave us involves sharing wine… I also never understood swearing – why one word for sex or genitalia is allowed and one is not… I also read the Bible a lot at this time and I found that the bible was concerned with justice, with usury and gluttony, and none of these seemed to get a mention…
Then while I dithered about what I wanted to do with my life I spent  year working for Scripture Union in Zimbabwe.  Here I encountered issues of race – I was the minority (but also the uber-privileged).  I lived in a huge township called Mkobo, just outside Gweru, where I was the only white person – people were amazingly friendly, but I was always a novelty…  I couldn’t have a single conversation for more than two minutes without the subject of how different I was coming in to it…
Then I studied theology at Kings College London.  I hadn’t thought much about issues of sexuality up to this point, but I ended up sharing a house with several people, including three gay men, two of whom were called to the ordained ministry, and I saw their difficulties as they approached a homophobic institution.
Yet at this time I became an Anglican.  I became an Anglican because of the diversity of the Anglican Church.  It contains both Protestant and Catholic spirituality, it contains both liberal and conservative theology, it contains different races, different social classes, and many other forms of difference…

I felt that the Church of England had been conservative on issues of gender politics and sexuality, but so had society as a whole, and like society as a whole the Church was changing.

But then came the scandal of a good and holy man called Jeffrey John being forced to resign as Bishop of Reading because of his sexuality.

As a result Inclusive Church was born on 11th August 2003 at St Mary’s Putney, at a Eucharist attended by over 400 people. 

An on-line Petition was set up requesting assent to the following Declaration of Belief:

 “We affirm that the Church’s mission, in obedience to Holy Scripture, is to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ in every generation.
We acknowledge that this is Good News for people regardless of their sex, race or sexual orientation.
We believe that, in order to strengthen the Gospel’s proclamation of justice to the world, and for the greater glory of God, the Church’s own common life must be justly ordered.
To that end, we call on our Church to live out the promise of the Gospel; to celebrate the diverse gifts of all members of the body of Christ; and in the ordering of our common life to open the ministries of deacon, priest and bishop to those so called to serve by God, regardless of their sex, race or sexual orientation”

I believe that “being inclusive” has nothing whatsoever to do with being ‘politically correct’ or ‘feminist’ or ‘left wing’ – it has everything to do with living out the Gospel.  There shouldn’t have to be an organisation called “inclusive church” because to be the church should necessarily mean we are inclusive.

As this morning’s Gospel Reading made clear, Jesus whole ministry is about including the outcast, and it’s a theme throughout Jesus’ ministry: 

  • Jesus speaks to woman as equals
  • He accepts Zachaeus and Matthew the collaberating tax collectors
  • He accepts Simon the revolutionary zealot
  • He invites the rough, uneducated fisherman to follow 
  • He accepts and befriends prostitutes
  • He ministers to a Roman Centurian
  • He ministers to slaves and servants
  • He embraces lepers
  • He helps the ‘demon possessed’

So why do we need inclusive church?  Why do we have to argue for what many of us see as the bleedin‘ obvious? Because the Church, the institution that hands these stories down, has so often got it wrong.

The church’s mission is to bring people closer to God. But all too often we see ourselves as ‘gatekeepers’ and ‘guardians’ who keep certain individuals out, rather than the prophets and priests that bring Christ out to everyone.

When I was training at Ripon College Cuddesdon we were told that he motto of the college used to be “guard he deposit” – but the motto had fallen from use, and the only place the archivist could find it inscribed was on an old college bed pan.  (Don’t think about that too much!). 

But our job is not to guard, but to proclaim.  This lager mentality, of circling the wagons, and refusing to engage with the best of secular thinking, is what allows outdated prejudices to flourish, and could kill the church…

Inclusion is the Gospel.  The Good news is that every one of us is invited to live in God’s kingdom.

Jesus said: “Come onto me all who are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”  Jesus did not say “Come onto me you heterosexual people (and men only if you are interested in the episcopate…)”

“Come onto me all who are heavy laden…”  “all

Jesus “all” goes beyond the superficial boundaries of gender, sexuality, ethnicity & social class…

Yet so often the Church of England has become a straight, white gentleman’s club.

This does involve a change in our thinking, because the Church, for most of its history, has condemned homosexuality, and denied women leadership roles.  We can argue that the church tradition has not been quite as uniformly sexist and homophobic as most people imagine, but we could not say the church has ‘led the way’ in these issues.

The Church has a long tradition of homophobia, just like it has a long tradition of anti-semitism.  I think if we want to see how the church can turn around, a good example is how we have changed is the Christian approach to slavery.

For most of the Church’s history it accepted slavery.  The Bible allows slavery – we must be fair to our slaves, says Scripture, but slavery is explicitly allowed.

“Slavery was established by decree of Almighty God…it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation…it has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilisation, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts.”
So said Jefferson Davis, President, Confederate States of America

But the Church was able to see beyond the letter of Scripture to the spirit

The spirit that showed that all people are created in God’s image, that human life is of infinite value, and taking that to its logical conclusion, slavery, buying and selling God’s children, is an affront too their creator.  And now no sane Christian would see slavery as anything other than an evil, a grave sin…

Equality on the basis of gender and sexuality is legally enshrined – the Church’s position on this looks like we are still accepting slavery.  At best we look laughably out of date, at worst we  are seen as a force for evil…

Homophobia is still out there in society- but so is racism, and just like racism, it is seen as a moral evil.  Except in the Church!

This argument is long won.  What Inclusive Church is campaigning for is not simply inclusion, it is the future of the church.  Holding homophobic views is is not just toxic to our common life, it is toxic to the survival of the institution (it is toxic publicity).  To the general public not have women or gay bishops is no different to refusing to have black bishops.  And if I am honest I think the comparison is a good one…

A Bible story to help us see how to deal with this:  The Parable of the Weeds (Matthew 13):

 24 Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.
   27 “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’
   28 “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.
   “The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’
   29 “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”

At first I used this passage to argue that we should not try and remove gay and lesbian clergy from ministry or hinder their progression to high office in the Church.  But no, this parable is the one I tell myself to check my rage against the homophobia and prejudice I see in the Church, from the House of Bishops and many others…  I can’t understand how some prejudiced attitudes could be described as ‘Christian’ or how exclusive practices could have anything to do with following Christ.  But we let God be the judge.

Our message to the institution is:

Isaiah 54.2
  “Enlarge the place of your tent,

    stretch your tent curtains wide, 
   do not hold back; 
   lengthen your cords, 
   strengthen your stakes.

God’s Kingdom already stretches out beyond the boundaries of the Church, we must now run to catch up.

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