All Human Life is Here

1 Kings 19.1-4

Galatians 3.23-29

Luke 8.26-39

One day the zoo keeper noticed that the orangutang was reading two books, in one hand he held Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” and in the other he held the Bible.

Naturally surprised, the keeper asked the orangutang, “Why are you reading both of those books?”

“Well,” said the orangutang, “I just wanted to know if I was my brother’s keeper or my keeper’s brother.”

Of course it is quite possible to be both, and scientific information about how life evolved does not contradict a religious view of what life is for, and vice versa.

The Bible is an extraordinary book, or rather a collection of books.  It contains everything from ancient myths to erotic poetry, from the first recorded novel to a collection of wise sayings, from an hymn book to some letters.  It contains material written in circumstances varying from triumph to despair.  From a secure land to refugees in exile.  All human life is here, and this morning’s eclectic selection of readings illustrate that perfectly.

You may or may not be aware that I don’t choose the readings, they are chosen by a committee and printed in a lectionary that is shared by Anglicans, Roman Catholics and United Reformed Churches (with a few local variations).  Most mainstream Christian Churches in the world are looking at these texts today.

So what are the texts that the Church has given us today?

Our first reading, from the 1st book of Kings, continues the story of the prophet Elijah, we focussed on that a few weeks ago when we heard how he was saved from starvation by the hospitality of the poor widow.  In our latest instalment Elijah is in despair, he is being hunted by Jezebel’s followers, hiding in the wilderness, and just longing to give up and die.

It’s a cliffhanger ending, and we will return to Elijah in a few weeks time…

Then our Gospel reading is equally dramatic, and features a dramatic exorcism.  As a fan of horror movies, this is one of the best and most referenced stories in popular horror culture.

We have the great privilege of Ethan’s baptism in todays service, and as I told Ethan’s parents, Robbie and Anna, here at the Ascension we use the New Zealand Baptism service as it leaves out the line on the English Prayer Book about rejecting the Devil.  Most of us no longer believe in a literal being called the Devil who is out to get us, but we use the devil as a metaphor for all that corrupting, life-denying, abusive, selfish and cruel.

Jesus turned people’s lives around, and still does today.  Not by saving us from a being with horns and hoofs, but by finding the goodness and godliness that exists in us all and bringing it to the surface.

I don’t chose the readings, but if I did the one we had from Galatians would be read every few weeks, it is one of the foundational texts for Inclusive Christianity.

St Paul was writhing to a divided church:

  • the Church was divided by race and religious background – some of the Jewish Christians who followed the Jewish Law felt that you had to convert to Judaism as part of being a Christian, some Gentile Christians (including St. Paul) thought that all that was needed was to follow Christ.
  • the Church was divided by social status – the Church contained members from the educated, wealthy elite, and also slaves and outcasts, people on the edge of society.
  • the Church was divided by gender – Jesus gave women key roles in his ministry, reading between the lines we can see than the males are trying to reassert truadional roles of authority.

The Church today is divided by theology and politics, and the early church was just the same, and into all these divisions St Paul throws an outrageous, revolutionary and for many an unthinkable text:

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

The truth at the heart of Christianity is that God loves every one of us – every human being alive.  And that how we judge our differences – of age or gender or race or sexuality or social status do not matter at all to God.

There is an old saying from the Baptist Church I attended at my youth – the pastor used to say “the ground is level at the foot of the cross.” Meaning that we all stand on the same level – in our encounter with God the poor have the same status as the rich, the uneducated with the educated, the outcast and the respectable…

In our church, in our lives, in our dealings with others let us try and live out this message and show true Christian love…

*  *  *

1st Reading:  1 Kings 19.1-4

Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”

2nd Reading: Galatians 3.23-29

Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with  Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

Gospel Reading: Luke 8.26-39

Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”— for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

Someone else’s mail

Galatians 1.1-12
Paul an apostle—sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— and all the members of God’s family who are with me, To the churches of Galatia: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!
Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ. For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

Gospel Reading: Luke 7.1-10
After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.

Aunt Maud received a letter one morning, and upon reading it burst into floods of tears.
“What’s the matter?” asked her companion.
“Oh dear,” sobbed Auntie, “It’s my favourite nephew. He’s got three feet.”
“Three feet?” exclaimed her friend. “Surely that’s not possible?”
“Well,” said Auntie, “his mother’s just written to tell me he’s grown another foot!”

Letters can lead to misunderstandings.

My best friend as a teenager was a young man called Evan, while our peers were interested in sports and study we were interested in Doctor Who and writing bizarre folk songs.  When he left school Evan went on to work for the Post Office.  His job was to open the letters that could not be delivered and see if there was a return address inside.

At Christmas there was a glut of undelivered and unreturnable Christmas Cards that led him and his colleagues to setting up an “Ugliest Jesus” competition, trying to find the strangest looking depiction of the Christ Child in the lost cards…

To me this job seemed like the most interesting and exotic thing ever – pouring over someone else’s mail, trying to reconnect people who had lost touch with each other (or at least lost each other’s address), and most fascinating of all – delving into other people’s secrets…

Evan shattered my illusions, he said that it was true that in the first week he read some letters, but he soon realised that most of what people said to each other was really quite dull and there was no time to search through the masses of paper for the interesting stuff…

Reading someone else’s letters is a strange thing and full of traps and potential for embarrassment and misunderstanding.

Letters are not like emails, you can’t scroll back to see what the previous message said (and then the one before that…) so you can fully understand the conversation.  When you read a letter the best you can hope for is half an understanding of what is going on.  If you don’t know the people involved you will understand less than half…

Why am I talking about letters?

A large chunk of the New Testament is made up of someone else’s letters.

Most of the letters (or “Epistles”) of the New Testament were written to deal with an immediate situation – they were a response to a particular crisis or question.  I’m sure they were written prayerfully and thoughtfully, but they were definitely not written to become timeless Scripture that would be read by many generations in many different circumstances.

St. Paul (and the other writers of the Epistles) were not thinking about us as they wrote, they were thinking about the Church in Corinth or Galatia, or Thessalonica or Phillipi or Rome.

That doesn’t decrease the value of the Epistles – it just gives them a context, and helps us understand the spirit in which we must read them.  All the great love songs of the world were written for just one person, but they live on and touch the hearts of millions of people.  James Taylor didn’t write “Fire and Rain” for Juliet and I, but yet for us it is “our song.”

So in our reading today when St. Paul writes “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” he is not addressing us directly, but to the Galatians.  But even so, something in the situation in the Church in Galatia may speak to our situation and the ancient letter could change our way of thinking today.

So what is the context?  St Paul is under attack.  Some of the Christians in Galatia have denied that he is a true Apostle and have denied his view on Jesus message.  (You may think that a first century theological debate has nothing to do with you and I, but if Paul had lost the argument Christianity would have become a Jewish Sect and we wouldn’t be here today!)

St. Paul believed the Gospel is for everyone and it is about love.  His opponents believed that the Gospel is for a select few and it is all about rules.

The specific rules that the Galatian Christians thought were important were the Jewish law.  Jesus had lived and died a Jew and the early Church had to work out its relationship with Judaism.  Was Christianity a movement to reform Judaism, or a whole new faith?  If a Gentile wanted to follow Jesus did he or she have to become a Jew first?  For the men the issue was circumcision – something that Gentile Christians did not greet with enthusiasm!

The earliest Christians were all Jewish and they went to the synagogue on Saturday and then met in each other’s houses for a shared meal of bread and wine on a Sunday.  As a pattern for spirituality that’s actually pretty hard to beat – a formal gathering with liturgy and teaching followed by informal discussion.  It’s something many Churches today try to replicate with “House Groups” – people have Church on Sunday and then meet for coffee and informal discussion midweek in someone’s house.  It’s something common in a lot of growing churches, and maybe worth considering for the Ascension… But I’m digressing – that’s not the subject of this Sunday’s sermon…

The early Christians were also practicing Jews and working out their relationship to the Jewish faith was complicated.  There were many of these earliest Christians who thought Christians had to obey the Jewish Law.

So how does this first century theological debate relate to us today?  No one, even in the craziest of today’s churches want us to convert to Judaism before becoming Christians.

The battle for the soul of Christianity started with the Apostles bickering and has rumbled down through the centuries until today.  The argument takes many forms, but the same one turns up over and over again…

Like St. Paul to we believe the Gospel is for everyone and it is about love.  Or do we (without even realising it) believe that the Gospel is for a select few and it is all about rules.

“You have to follow all the rules…” “You have to believe these doctrines…” “You must worship only in thus way”

While we do need rules to live by in the Church as in all areas of life, we must never see the rules as divinely instituted or as important in themselves.  The other rules are only there to help us follow Jesus only rule: to love God, love our neighbour’s and love ourselves.

Rules are easier, you know where you are with rules, to place love as our ideal is a lot more challenging.  But this love is not just an excuse to break the rules, this love is a deep soul-changing challenge.  As G.K. Chesterton wrote, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”

I finish with another quote, this time from Elizabeth Cady Stanton: “Love is the vital essence that pervades and permeates, from the center to the circumference, the graduating circles of all thought and action. Love is the talisman of human weal and woe –the open sesame to every soul.”

Apocalypse now? a sermon by Margaret Offerman

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Margaret Offerman, Reader at the Ascension

Apocalypse now?

We’re absorbing the news of another ghastly attack on groups of people having what should have been a normal Friday evening enjoying themselves.  If you Google ‘terrorist attacks’ since 2001, the year of the bombings in New York and Washington, you will find a huge grim list of towns and cities that have been the victim of these outrages against humanity.  In Bali, Madrid, Moscow, Kampala, Istanbul, on and on goes the catalogue of places where large numbers of people have been shot or blown up by what the press, more often than not  call them  Islamic extremists.  They call their victims crusaders.  Does this mean it’s a holy war?

In the 70s and 80s we experienced bombings and threats of bombings quite frequently as the IRA attacked British cities.  On the whole they were small scale.  Now we’re much more aware of the universality of these episodes to the extent that sometimes they barely get a mention.  Analysis after the event often emphasises the alienation of the perpetrators.  They resort to terrorism because they have no attachment to the societies where they now live and which they’re attacking.  They’re almost invariably killed, either by suicide or by the armed police who close in on them.  They’re young.  They’re people without hope.

Our readings this morning were both about the apocalypse in the 2nd c. before Christ and the 1st c. after.  Jesus’s prophecy was fulfilled about 40 years later when the rising against the Roman occupation failed, the Temple was demolished and the Jews were scattered.

It’s tempting when we hear the news, of masses of refugees fleeing civil war, of  the re-growth of nationalism and its demands that we fragment internationally rather than unite, of natural disasters which are headlines for about a week and then slip out of consciousness, to feel that the apocalypse is approaching.  We feel impotent, daunted by the scale of the world’s problems.

I want to narrow the focus, since the season of Advent is nearly here.  The end of the church’s year is traditionally a time for taking stock.

In consecutive weeks in the middle of last month, the Guardian featured articles and reports related to the future of the church.  Three were negative, verging on apocalyptic.  Giles Fraser’s was the first I read.  He’s an Anglican priest.  He  argued that as custodian of  15,700 churches, many of them, like ours, Grade 1 or 2 listed, the C/E is struggling to swim with a huge millstone round its neck.  Its energy is sapped because it’s allowed itself to become a  buildings department of the heritage industry.  He claims that if every single one of these churches were to be blown up tomorrow,  England would be a much more Christian country in 10 years time.  His reasoning is that if the C/E were to be freed from its self imposed responsibility to be a universal service provider it could concentrate  its resources on its mission to become a high-morale bundle of energy,  a campaign HQ for the re-evangelisation of England.  At present, and this is his final paragraph, its buildings are so loved by those who take no interest at all in its message that it doesn’t have the nerve to do what Dr Beeching did to the railways in the 1960s.  Moses didn’t have to worry about holes in roofs.  He worshipped in tents, not temples.  And we must learn to do the same.

Simon Jenkins, whose article appeared the following week, is  a journalist and author.  He has edited the Times and chaired the National Trust.  His  headline read:  Churches can survive – but the religion will have  to go.  He argued that parish churches are the nation’s grandest social resource.  What he called ‘the fact’ that the church is failing in its original purpose doesn’t prevent its achieving  its potential. The essence of most churches is their beauty and physical prominence.  They should recover their status as the community’s social and cultural focus.  However this will never happen while they retain their aura of religious exclusivity.  Their role as places of prayer, peace and consolation is no longer relevant.

Its’ frustrating to read this kind of caricature by someone who admits that,  though he visits churches,  such beliefs as he has find no outlet in attending church.  How can he judge its relevance if he chooses not to experience what it offers?   (Though it was unfortunate that on the day his article appeared, two footballers announced that they were offering shelter to homeless men in Manchester,  and that same day Manchester’s bishop was reported as saying that he couldn’t possibly house refugees in his 6 bedroomed house because ‘it’s pretty smallish by bishop’s standards’. )

We in the C/A had an alarm call at the beginning of the year with the introduction of a new way of raising money for the diocese, no longer based on an imposed quota system assessed centrally on an estimate of the wealth of the congregation.  Instead we had an appeal to the prayerful generosity of individual congregations, accompanied by a warning that if that didn’t produce enough money to meet the needs of the diocese and of individual churches, ‘hard decisions would have to be made’.  Implicit in those words was the threat that churches would be closed down and clergy posts would be cut.  Dr Beeching will be reborn as an archdeacon.

Are people like Giles Fraser and Simon Jenkins right?  Are we approaching the end time in the church?  Would we mind if our churches became  architectural archives?  Museums of church history?  Gyms?  Wholefood restaurants?  Carpet warehouses?  Luxury flats?  Those of you who read the ‘ Nooks and Corners’ page in Private Eye will recognise these as the fates of many former churches.  I’d be very depressed if this were to happen to the C/A or even to churches of no particular aesthetic merit or historical significance.  However I recognise a serious risk that many churches are like  stopped clocks which are  satisfied that twice a day they tell the right time.   I’m not suggesting for a moment that we’re a navel gazing little clique here.  We’re outward looking, involved in activities that make a difference to our neighbourhood and our world.

But it’s possible, here at the Ascension, that unless we move forward, we may not stand still but move backwards.

An unlikely champion of the church appeared, also  last month,  in the shape of Ai Wei Wei, the Chinese artist.  He asked Lego to supply him with large quantities of plastic bricks which he was going to use in one of his pieces of conceptual art.  Lego refused on the rather odd grounds that they never allowed their product  to be used to make a political statement.  Ai Wei Wei posted this  on the internet and immediately he was inundated with parcels of Lego.  He did then make a statement:  The internet is like a modern church.  You go and complain to a priest and everyone can share your problems.  It may not be a totally realistic view of the church but it’s a shrewd recognition that one of the strengths of the church is that it’s a community.

We need to build up the strength of our community.  This can take very tangible forms – increasing our contribution to the refugees’ boxes and the begging bowl, committing ourselves to more frequent attendance at church, on Sundays and during the week, signing up for our planned giving scheme, now that we have a cashless collection, joining rotas  eg of Sunday School helpers or leaders of the intercessions, becoming a Friend of the Washhouse Youth Project, praying regularly for our fellow members – thanking God for them and interceding for those in need.  If we’re serious about offering ourselves as a more effective community resource we should be  putting more effort into raising the money to reorder the interior of our church.  This would transform our lives here and signify our intention to be a power-base for our area.  These may sound like very prosaic, small scale  suggestions and rather ominously self-centred.  And they’re not on the whole the kinds of activities that are exclusive to a church.  Rotary clubs raise money for good causes.  Very successful youth projects are run by non-religious people up and down the country.

There’s  another dimension to our life here.  We do what we do, not because it’s an interesting hobby or because we feel it’s our civic duty.  We do it because we try to obey the love comandment.  We do it because we won’t allow events to lead us to cynicism or despair.    We do it because we live with hope, hope that the kingdom we’re striving to create will come on earth as it is in heaven,

Love is the Answer – but not an easy answer

Jesus

Gospel Reading:  

Mark 10.2-16

Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” ButJesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

It never ceases to amaze me how people pick and choose which bits of Scripture to get excited about.  Some fundamentalists get very excited about the creation story in Genesis 1:1-2:3 and take it as historical and scientific fact, but are happy to ignore the fact there is another account of creation in Genesis 2:4-3:24  In the first creation story, humans are created after the other animals, In the second story, humans were created before the other animals.

The ancient people who compiled the Bible from different local myths and parables knew that they were not literal accounts, sometimes the twenty first century does not seem so advanced in its thinking!

Christians also get excited about Scriptures that could be interpreted as condemnations of gay sex, but ignore Scriptures that condemn sex during menstruation or eating shellfish in exactly the same terms.

Christians get excited about the condemnation of fornication but ignore the hundreds of times that usury (charging interest on a loan) is condemned.

In fact it seems that Christians tend to get excited about the few bits of the Bible that talk about sex and ignore the swathes of Scripture that talk about money and justice and care for the poor.

What we do with our genitalia is significant, but I strongly suspect that God is more interested in what we do with our wallets…

This mornings reading is one that gets some Christians excited – the prohibition of divorce.  But those who get excited about this absolute condemnation of divorce are rarely the same people who get excited for verse 21 where Jesus instructs those who want to follow to sell their possessions and give the proceeds to the poor, because, he continues, “it is as hard for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle for some who is rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”

I’m not saying divorce is good.  At a wedding vows are taken and a divorce breaks those vows.  Divorce is a falling short of the ideal, but it must never be regarded as an unpardonable sin.

The prohibition of divorce was more than an issue of sexual morality in Jesus time, it was an important matter of justice.  In first century Palestine women were not allowed to engage in many forms of money making, and legally they were pretty much regarded as property.  If a man divorced he was free to build a new life and start again.  A divorced woman would have to hope her parents would take her in again or she would have to become a beggar, or worse…

Strict divorce law was about protecting the vulnerable in a patriarchal society.

The same law that was used to protect the vulnerable has been used in history to trap vulnerable women in abusive marriages.  I suggest that allowing divorce in cases of abusive partners is actually more in keeping with the spirit of Jesus’ teaching, even if it goes against the letter of what he said.

Jesus condemned those who followed the letter of the Law in such a way that excluded or exploited the vulnerable in society.

That is made clear in what immediately follows this.  Jesus lets the children come to him.  We have a sentimental, protective view of childhood and children.  This was not the culture of Jesus time.  In a poor nation under Roman occupation life was hard, children were often seen as burdens until they were old enough to work; and with a shockingly high child mortality rate you simply could not invest the kind of emotional energy into children as we do today.  Children were on the margins of society.

Jesus was being countercultural by placing a high value of children.

Let’s return to how Jesus viewed the Law.

Usually he seems to disregard its strict rules – a few weeks ago we heard how he allowed his disciples to eat with unwashed hands, and when challenged that his actions were “work” on the Sabbath “day of rest” Jesus shocked the devout by saying “the Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath.”

And that seems to be how Jesus treats all of the Jewish Laws – “the Law is made for humanity, not humanity for the Law.”

For Jesus all of the Law is summed up in the command to love – it is so central that we hear it ever Sunday “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.”

So we don’t have to follow the letter of the law anymore…

It’s really all about love…

So as liberals we heave a sigh of relief – we don’t have to be strict…

But there is a catch here that as liberals we often forget…

Laws are quite easy to follow – most people could refrain from eating prawns and sleeping around if they felt God commanded it…

But we have a much tougher spiritual discipline to observe – we are called to love…

What’s the last thing you did that could be described as an act of love for God…?

What’s the last thing you did that could be described as an act of love for your neighbour…?

What’s the last thing you did that could be described as an act of love for yourself…?

We love God in prayer in worship, in supporting the work of God’s church with time and money and energy…

We love our neighbour in reaching out to the poor and the outcast, those in need who are near and far – refugees, the homeless, the outcast and marginalised…

We love ourselves by respecting the bodies that God gave us, by trying to develop ourselves and by just resting and enjoying life…

The command to love is so much more challenging.

Take the idea of coming to Church on a Sunday morning.  As Christians do we have to do that?  Well my liberal sensibilities say that visiting family or friends or getting away for some rest after a busy week are also morally and theologically good things to do, and we shouldn’t be afraid to sometimes do that…

But we still have to wrestle with the command to love God.  I don’t think that Christianity (or at least Liberal Christianity) demands that you attend every Sunday – but it does demand that you love God and that means if you can’t make Church you should think how else you could express your faith this week – maybe calling in to a midweek service?  Maybe spend extra time in prayer, or an hour reading the Bible or a spiritual book.

Life has a meaning.  That meaning is found in a God who loves you and your life really matters to God.  All that we own and all that we are is gift from God.

Our response to that amazing truth cannot possible be expressed in one hour on a Sunday morning – but sometimes we don’t even manage that!

Liberal faith is so much more challenging than a conservative one – because there are no easy answers.

I can’t tell you come to Church X amounts of times and pay Y sums of money to church funds.

But I tell you what Jesus said “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.”

And if it’s not challenging I’m pretty sure you’re not doing it right

But if it’s nor exciting and joyful and life-enhancing I’m pretty sure you’re not doing it right either!

Dare we follow the greatest commandment to love?

The Syrophoenician Woman shows Jesus the Way

Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman

Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman

Mark 7.24-30

From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.
Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.
He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go– the demon has left your daughter.”
So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Sartre said “hell is other people.”  This week we have seen images and read news reports about the hell that is other people.

For a generation the phrase “asylum seeker” has become a dirty word.  We forgot the Jews that we turned away from our boarders as they fled the Holocaust before the Second World War, and David Cameron wanted to turn away all but a handful of those fleeing Syria (a nation that Britain and America have destabilised in an area we deliberately kept in turmoil for decades.)

The moral cowardice is staggering: a government unmoved by people in desperate need, heeding only a public outcry – it’s profoundly depressing.

But what is the Christian response?

Reflecting on how many Syrian refugees should we take, Giles Fraser wrote in the guardian this week: “…why not all of them? Surely that’s the biblical answer to the “how many can we take?” question. Every single last one. Let’s dig up the greenbelt, create new cities, turn our Downton Abbeys into flats and church halls into temporary dormitories, and reclaim all those empty penthouses being used as nothing more than investment vehicles.”

Giles quoted Emma Lazarus’ famous words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty to illustrate than an open door can build, not destroy nations:  “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp! Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Our Bible reading also talks about a foreigner in need, and a foreigner who does not receive a warm welcome.  This story from Mark’s Gospel is a fascinating one.  Jesus is becoming famous in Palestine, people wanting healing, people wanting to hear his teaching, and the Pharisees wanting to trip him up, were all after him.  He escapes into the region of Trye and Sidon, Gentile country (the modern day Lebanon).

If you read this passage as a literary work it is unique in the Gospels.  In every other story like this (scholars call them perecopes) the words or deeds of Jesus are the climax – but in this passage it is the woman’s words that are the climax:

Jesus calls her a dog, but the turning point is when she replies to Jesus, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

As we look at the harrowing images of the lengths refugees will go to to escape violence and how they are turned away, the words echo down the ages “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

The question of Jesus harsh words to the woman have provoked much debate:

We must wonder why Mark decided to records this event – it doesn’t portray Jesus is a very good light – he calls the woman who comes to her in need a ‘dog’ – ‘for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs!’

Up to now Jesus Ministry has been to the Jews only, so he thought foreigners (Gentiles) would not bother him.  But a woman comes up to him in distress, a Gentile woman, her daughter is ill, and she begs Jesus to act.  And Jesus seems astoundingly and uncharacteristically rude.  He is often rude to the scribes and Pharisees, the hypocritical religious authorities of his time.  But this is the only place in the New Testament where he is rude to someone in need.

There must be a good reason for including this bizarre little story, in the middle of lots of rather exciting tales of miraculous healings.

Some scholars have tried to reinterpret the Greek, but if anything ‘dog’ was a bigger insult in first century Palestine than it is today.

Some scholars have suggested it was a test of the woman’s faith.  But that too seems cruel, and beneath the loving Jesus we read of in the rest of Scripture.

He seems to me that Jesus meant what he said.

The idea of the incarnation is a complicated doctrine, but whatever our interpretation of it, Jesus was fully a human being.  Jesus was not God walking around in disguise.  Jesus has to learn, like any of us, and Jesus had to learn his mission.  Being brought up a Jew it is quite probable that up to this point Jesus thought his mission was to the Jews only.  This Gentile woman comes along, and he dismisses her – she is not part of his plan.

But then the most startling thing of all happens:

Jesus allows himself to be corrected.

He realises that his mission is not only to the Gentiles, but to all people, this poor woman and her daughter included.

Jesus definition of moral responsibility is expanded to include the foreign woman.

Perhaps Mark recorded this story because it was a turning point.  God spoke through this Gentile Woman.

Jesus allows a woman to correct him.  The Rabbis of Jesus’ day would never teach a woman, never talk theology to a woman, some would not even look at a woman.  Yet here and elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus teaches and talks, and even allows himself to learn from women.  Other Rabbis would never allow a woman to win an argument over them in public, it would be instant disgrace, their ability would be discredited.  Yet Jesus knows what is right is more important than what looks right, so he allows himself to learn.

Perhaps even more shocking is that Jesus allows himself to be corrected by a Gentile!  Gentiles were those who were of no religious significance, who were seen as unclean, and in error.  But Jesus is open to learning not just from the learned Rabbis in the Temple, where he discussed the Law as a young boy, Jesus is open to hearing from God in all people.  Even in those others hated, even in those who would tarnish his image by even speaking to.

We all need to learn from Christ’s humility, and be ready to lean from those we, or others, disdain.  And live as Christ lived, a life of love.  We need to expand our definition of moral responsibility, it is more important today than ever, as we see those fleeing Syria.

The idea of hospitality is at the heart of Jewish and Christian ethics.  The ethics of our Jewish roots are summarised in the two words “remember Egypt” – the Jewish people are called to remember when they were poor slaves, oppressed, exploited, who fled seeking asylum in the Promised Land.  Remembering the past we must today care for the poor, oppressed, exploited, those who flee seeking asylum

This week Justin Welby quoted from Leviticus, saying we must “break down barriers, to welcome the stranger and love them as ourselves.”

This is our challenge, in our personal interactions and in our national life.

Amen.

Jesus and the Bacon Sandwich

Bacon Sandwich

Mmmmmmmmm Bacon!

The following notes are from a discussion-based ‘sermon’:

I’m going to start with a question.  There is no certain right or wrong answer to it (it’s not like the question of the Labour Party leadership – clearly Jeremy Corbyn is the correct answer – just sayin’) so don’t be afraid to say what you think…

It’s not “all age” but there is a visual aid…

A bacon sandwich is presented to the congregation…

My question is:  If it was handed to him, would Jesus eat this bacon sandwich?

We will go deeper in a moment, but let’s just ask for a show of hands on your initial response…

As a good liberal congregation let’s start with the ‘don’t know’s…?
Now the ‘yes’s…?  (the Majority at the Church of the Ascension thought yes)
And finally the ‘no’s…?

Take two minutes to discuss…

What are the issues?

  • Jesus was forbidden to eat pig as a Jew
  • What if someone was being deliberately offensive to Jesus…?
  • What if Jesus was innocently offered it by a Roman child…?
  • What if someone was trying to test Jesus…?
  • What if it was today…?
  • What is cultural and what is God’s Commandment and what is Human Tradition…?
  • If we think Jesus’ wouldn’t eat the sandwich… What does that mean for us…?

For what it’s worth I suspect Jesus wouldn’t have eaten the bacon sandwich.  As a follow of Jesus shouldn’t I then do the same?  Well no actually, because I think that Jesus was a product of his culture and some of his actions were conditioned by that culture, but some of his actions, like the command to love speak to universal truths of the human condition.

Deciding which are which is the biggest challenge of Christian Theology.

Jesus was a progressive thinker in his age.  Do we honour him best by trying to be progressive thinkers today, or by crystallising everything he said into permanent immutable truths and leaving progress in first century Palestine?

The way I asked the question reveals my answer…!

A little bit of background to the reading:

The basis for hand washing in Judaism was originally related to the Temple service and sacrifices as outlined in Exodus 30:17-21. Before going into the tent of meeting, Aaron and his sons were to wash their hands and their feet. After the destruction of the Temple, however, everything changed. Still, the rabbis did not want to lose the importance of hand washing, so they moved it to the dining room table or home “altar.”  They attempted to bring the holy into everyday life.  However, at some point, what was meant to be a life-giving practice became a means of designating insiders and outsiders and for many it became an empty ritual which no longer led people closer to God.

Then we see Jesus’ disciples, who were a band of itinerant preachers, begging for their upkeep, and unable to follow all the ritual cleansings of the Law demanded.  But Jesus says it’s not what we eat that makes us unclean,  it’s not what enters our bodies – it is what comes out of us.  Jesus has a list:

fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly

We can apply our thinking about the bacon sandwich to this list: Fornication, for example, is condemned in the context of women being the property of men… Any sexual relationship with a woman who was not protected by marriage put the woman in an extremely vulnerable position.  Some people use the command to condemn all sex outside of marriage including equal marriage for gay and lesbian couples. But I believe that it’s nearer the spirit of the command to try and prevent sexual exploitation – to work against sex trafficking, child abuse, the excesses of the sex industry…  That’s more in the spirit of Jesus than inquiring about what consenting adults do in private.  Jesus message was to refrain from judging others and that love is the most important religious practice.

I chose fornication from the list because the theme connects us to the first reading, and I don’t want to finish today without mentioning it:

Our first reading is from one of my favourite books of the Bible.  The Song of Solomon is an extended love poem or collection of poems, a dialogue between a lover and the beloved with an occasional chorus that gives a kind of commentary on the love story.   But the Song of Solomon is not universally loved nor universally understood.  As far back as third century the theologian Origen thought that the book was an allegory describing the love of God for Israel and/or the love of Jesus for the church.

Origen is not the most reliable of scholars.  His interpretation of Matthew’s Gospel “if your eye offends you, pluck it out” led him to castrate himself.  But his was not a lone voice and much later Reformers like Calvin accepted Origen’s view.

But the most sensible interpretation of the text is that it is what it appears to be: an erotically charged love poem.  The only reason to attempt an allegorical interpretation is a mistrust of sexuality – something that increased in the Christian Tradition as it became more influenced by Greek Philosophy.  But that is another sermon.

This is one of only two biblical books, Esther and Song of Songs, where there is no mention of God.  Also, unlike the majority of the Bible (with the exception of the books of Esther and Ruth) the woman’s voice is clearly heard.  The voice of the woman is about 75% of the book.  She is feisty, frisky, and sees the lover as an equal: she affirms, “my beloved is mine and I am his.”

So having traveled from bacon sandwiches to erotic poetry via Jesus and contextual theology…  What does this mean for us?

Firstly I hope it made you wonder if you know Jesus as well as you think you do… We need room for doubt and uncertainty and questioning if we want our faith to grow.  The faith that thinks it knows all the answers is not only dangerous, it’s a faith that clearly hasn’t fully understood the questions.

As Richard Feynman said, “I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.”

So firstly I hope it has made you think about your assumptions about Jesus.

Secondly I hope it’s helped shed light on how we can use scripture to reflect on our life today.

The only Gospel is an Inclusive Gospel

All Are Welcome

Collect (prayer) of the Day:

God of inclusive love, who knows us each by name: we thank you for the woman, who stood out of the crowd and defied her uncleanness to connect with you; we praise you for the leader of the synagogue, who faced the mockery of others to give his daughter hope; may the flowing power of Christ bring healing and acceptance to the rejected and abused. Through Jesus Christ, giver of life.  Amen.

First Reading:  Psalm 130

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.  Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!
If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered.
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.
O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
and with him is great power to redeem.  It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities.

Gospel Reading:  Mark 5.21-43

When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea.  Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet  and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”
So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

A man walked into a Private Hospital for a Brain transplant. The doctor showed the patient 3 brains and asked the patient to choose:

A White man’s brain £500
A Black man’s brain £500
A Racists man’s brain £2000

The patient was shocked and asked why the Racist brain costs so much?

Doctor replies “Oh, it’s because that one’s never been used”

We are going to be thinking about prejudice, and about using our brains in this service.

And later in this sermon (to give away the ending) I’m going to talk about how the fundamental teaching of Jesus was that God loves everyone, regardless or race, gender, sexuality education or social status… and that everyone, without the help of a religious elite, can have a direct experience of God.

But if we don’t need a religious elite what is the point of Church?

I believe that the point of the Church is not just that we gather with like-minded people to explore faith together; the point is not that we encounter people like us, the point is that we encounter people who are different, with different experiences and different insights who can challenge our comfortable ways of thinking and help us to grow.

I was on the receiving end of a challenge this week, that has really made me think, and I’m not quite there with a conclusion yet, but maybe you’ll be interested in some of my journey.

I was deeply challenged last week when a member of the congregation wondered why we made no mention of the murders in Emmanuel Church in South Carolina.  When Islamic extremists attack white middle class people it dominates the news and our thoughts and prayers.  But not when back people are murdered in a church.

It’s worth asking ourselves why a white supremacist killing black people in church is not seen as terrorism in the same way as white tourists being killed on a beach.

I think if you compare time on the news and column inches in the newspapers you will see that there is something amiss.

Is is simply because white supremacists are so clearly idiots?  Maybe, there is some truth in that, but I don’t think violent religious extremists are necessarily any more intelligent.

More likely it because our press is dominated by white middle class professionals who find it easier to identify with white middle class victims; these reporters and editors don’t feel threatened by American rednecks picking on black people but find radical Muslims (who are potentially threatening people like them) utterly terrifying.

I have to confess that I didn’t even notice the problem until it was pointed out to me.

My instinct was to get all defensive and try to justify myself and the church.  But that is not the way to grow and the life of faith demands that we keep our hearts and minds open even when it is uncomfortable.

Keeping all this in our minds let’s look at our reading from this morning in the hope that we can find some wisdom in the words and actions of Jesus.

Jesus was about to preach.  He was beginning his ministry, so gathering a crowd would have been an achievement.  Just as Jesus was about to begin Jairus, the ruler of the Synagogue, came and fell at Jesus’ feet pleading for healing for his daughter. The Bible simply says, “So he went with him.”

It is interesting to note how Jesus changes his plan instantly.

The late Henri Nouwen, the Catholic scholar and writer, said in the prime of his career that he became frustrated by the many interruptions to his work: he was teaching at Notre Dame and had a heavy workload and didn’t like to be disturbed. Then one day it dawned on him that his interruptions were his work. As John Lennon said, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans!” Often we find that the interruption is what life is all about.

Jesus was open to the interruption, to the voice of the outsider.

Jairus daughter was an outsider.  We have a culture that has a strange relationship to childhood, we elevate childhood in a way that would bewilder most of our forbears and certainly come as a shock to people in time of Jesus.  What we often fail to grasp is that in a culture with such a high infant mortality rate people could not invest the same kind of emotional energy in children as we do today.  Children were obviously important to their parents, but they were not especially valued, and childhood was not seen as an almost sacred time of innocence to be protected.  Childhood was not valued in its own right – it was just a stage on becoming an adult when they become a fully valuable member of society.

When Jesus cares for the children, he is valuing those that society did not think were important.

Jesus was revolutionary in his thinking because he valued everyone.  He welcomed prostitutes, tax collectors, zealots, children..

The Gospel, the “good news” is that God loves everyone, God loves you.

It is not the Gospel of Jesus if it isn’t for everyone.

The woman that came to Jesus was ceremonially unclean, she wasn’t able to practice her faith because of her issue of blood.

She touches Jesus clothes, making him ceremonially unclean, her religion a mix of superstition and desperation.

But Jesus does not patronise her, he does not scold her for spreading her uncleanness.  He includes her and welcomes her and heals her.

Here is inclusive Christianity in action.  The child of the synagogue official and the unclean women are both included.

“Being inclusive” as we term our tradition, has nothing whatsoever to do with being ‘politically correct,’ it has everything to do with living out the Gospel.  We should not have to call ourselves an “inclusive church” because to be the church should necessarily mean we are inclusive.

The story of the woman with an issue of blood is not an isolated incident, Jesus whole ministry is about including the outcast:

  • Zachaeus and Matthew the tax collectors
  • The invitation to the rough fisherman to follow
  • The conversation with the gentile woman at the well
  • The acceptance of prostitutes
  • Ministering to a Roman Centurion
  • Welcoming slaves and servants
  • Embracing lepers
  • Helping the demon possessed

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.

I’ve told you before how 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,” or “as special welcome for white, middle class people with plenty of money…”

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

Jesus “all” goes beyond the superficial boundaries of gender, sexuality, ethnicity & poverty… Yet so often the Church of England has become a straight, white gentleman’s club.

If people are excluded or undervalued because of their race, it is not the Gospel of Jesus.

If people are excluded or undervalued because of their age, it is not the Gospel of Jesus.

If people are excluded or undervalued because of their education or intelligence, it is not the Gospel of Jesus.

If people are excluded or undervalued because of their gender, it is not the Gospel of Jesus.

If people are excluded or undervalued because of their sexuality, it is not the Gospel of Jesus.

The fundamental teaching of Jesus was that God loves everyone, and everyone, without the help of a religious elite can encounter God.  Jesus savagely criticised the religious leaders of his day, they were ‘whitewashed tombs’ and ‘broods of vipers’ who declared who was clean and who was unclean, who acted as gatekeepers of God’s love.  But according to Jesus, that love was freely given to all humanity.

But if we don’t need a religious elite what is the point of Church?

As I said at the beginning, I believe that the point of the Church is not just that we gather with like-minded people to explore faith together; the point is not that we encounter people like us, the point is that we encounter people who are different, with different experiences and different insights who can challenge our comfortable ways of thinking and help us to grow.

Maybe we do need to address how we think about race, or how we think of people who we work with on the estates, or people from other churches.

We embrace the interruption of someone in need and we accept the challenge to change our way of thinking.

I close with a traditional African prayer that we use every Monday at our service of Morning Prayer:

From the cowardice that does not face new truths,
from the laziness that is content with half truths,
from the arrogance that thinks it knows all the truth,
deliver us today, good Lord.

Amen.

Adam vs Eve

First Reading:  Genesis 3.8-14
8They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.

9But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” 10He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.”
11He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” 12The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” 13Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.”
14The Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. 

Adam and Eve, Lucas Cranach the Elder

Eve & Adam

The early chapters of Genesis are some of the most controversial in the whole of Scripture.  It’s not just the strange anti-science of creationists that bring this text into disrepute.  Although it is worth pausing briefly to point out that a Creationist reading of the early chapters of Genesis is not just unscientific – it is barely literate.  The story of creation is told twice in Genesis first from Genesis 1.1-2.3 and then again 2.4-3.24.  You will recognise both stories, but you may not have recognised that they are different.  In the first are the six days each ending with “and it was good.”  the second has Adam and Eve.

In the first story God created humans (male and female together) after all the other animals; in the second, God made one man (“Adam”) and then created all of the animals in order to find a companion for Adam. God brought all of the animals to Adam, but none were good enough, so God made a woman from one of Adam’s ribs to serve his companion.

Any serious reading of the early chapters of Genesis show that the ancient people who created the text did not take the stories literally – they saw these two contradictory stories, and decided that both were worth preserving.  They saw that these were parables of deep and profound and life-changing wisdom, not science or history.

But its not just confusion over science that has brought Genesis into disrepute.  Valid feminist criticism has said that these texts are dangerous and damaging to women.  In the creation narratives:

  • woman’s subordinate status is reflected in her being created second
  • woman is created to be a ‘helper’ to the man and cure his loneliness
  • woman tempted man to disobey and so is responsible for sin in the world; she is also gullible and simpleminded
  • woman is cursed by pain in childbirth

Our reading is the conclusion of the story, but at the heart of the story of Adam and Eve is a dialogue between the serpent and Eve… There is more to this story than meets the eye.  For example, the serpent addresses the woman in the plural, she is seen as he spokesperson for the human couple and therefore spokesperson for the whole human race!

The serpent and the woman discuss theology.  They talk about God.  The theologian Phyllis Tribble describes the discussion “reveals her as intelligent, informed, and perceptive. [She is a] Theologian, ethicist, hermeneut, rabbi, she speaks with clarity and authority.”

But it is true that the woman is tricked.  But it does not appear that Satan tempts the weakest of the couple – he tempts the one with brains, the one he knows the other will blindly follow.

Eve makes a mistake, but Adam is not the hero of the tale.  Adam is a passive nonentity.  The contrast that he offers to the woman is not strength or resolve but weakness.  He isn’t a patriarchal figure making decisions for his family, he follows his woman without question or comment.  She gives fruit to him, “and-he-ate.”

Eve is tricked by the serpent, by the Devil incarnate.  The most cunning of the angels leads her to question God’s instructions.  And to be fair the knowledge of good and evil is a step forward for humanity, albeit an uncomfortable one.  Eve is led astray by Lucifer.  What does it take to lead Adam astray?  His wife saying “would you like a bite of my apple?”

When the mistake is revealed the woman takes responsibility for her actions, the man blames the woman and blames God.  Adam is weak and wheedling, “the woman that you gave me” he says to God.

It is interesting to note that story does not even say that Eve ‘tempted’ Adam; Adam isn’t reluctant or hesitating, he doesn’t theologize, he doesn’t contemplate.  Instead, his one act is eating: Eve offers and he munches without a second thought.

If this story deals in archetypes, the woman is intelligent, sensitive, and ingenious, the man is passive, dim-witted, and inept.

There is more than one way to read this text.

The story of he Fall is subtle and deep and in the best possible sense of the word it is ‘true.’

There never was an Adam there never was an Eve, and there certainly was no talking serpent.  This is not a story about the past, it is a profound millennias old reflection on what it means to be human.

What is a human being?  Are we good?  Are we evil?  Are we Animals?  Are we angels?

This is what Genesis teaches us:

The deepest and most profound truth about humanity, is that we are good.  We contain the ‘image’ of God.  There is nothing so extraordinary in the world (and probably in the universe) than a human being.  Yet we are not Gods, Genesis tells us that we are made of the same dust as the rest of creation.  In modern terms, we are part of the same evolutionary process as giraffes and dolphins and dogs and cockroaches.

Another truth from the story is that the purpose of humanity is to “tend and care for” the Garden – we are created with a responsibility to care for the planet that we are part of.

But before this sermon becomes a party political broadcast for the Green Party lets get back to humanity.

Humanity is good, in God’s image.  But (and it’s a big but!) Eve represents the brightest and best of humanity, and yet she goes astray.

There was one rule, and she broke it.

We are good, but we have a tendency to cock things up.

The Fall describes human alienation in a way that beggars the greatest talents of psychologists and sociologists.  The human condition is described to a tee, and is as relevant today as it was nearly three millennia ago when it was first written, from an even more ancient oral tradition.

Humanity is good, but Fallen.

We all have the potential to be a St Francis or a Mother Theresa or a Gandhi.  We are made of the same stuff as they were.  They were people with the same doubts and fears and insecurities as the rest of us, but their lives shone with the brilliance of God’s image within them.  Even they were fallen, St Francis had masochistic tendencies, Mother Theresa refused to look at the political reasons why people were in need, Gandhi was not a good husband.  But they are heroes of faith and humanity.  Looking at their lives we can hear God’s words echo over creation ‘and it was good.’

But then we are made of the same stuff as Hitler, and Stalin and Myra Hindley.  We look at the devastation we have caused as a species, of the planet and of one another.  Islamic State, the Inquisition, two world wars, the Holocaust.

It is a mistake to put these heroes and villains too far away from us.  They are us.  People just like you and me, yet their deeds for good or evil are extraordinary.

We are full of contradictions.  Edward Young wrote;

“How poor, how rich, how abject, how august,
How complicate, how wonderful, is man!”

We human beings contain God’s image, but are Fallen.  None of us live as we could.  As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “a man is a God in ruins.”

The image of God that we bear is tarnished, but it is still there.  Most people never find it within themselves.  “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” (Henry David Thoreau)

We are bogged down in our falleness, as we fall every day.  We live in ‘quiet desperation’, the song of our true nature never sung.

The Fall is a skewing of perspective.  God comes down to walk in the Garden with Adam and Eve and they are worried about what they are wearing!

Our perspective on life is distorted – we treasure what is worthless and ignore what is truly precious.

I close with a quote from Robert Fulghum about perspective:

“If you break your neck, if you have nothing to eat, if your house is on fire, then you’ve got a problem. Everything else is an inconvenience. Life is inconvenient. Life is lumpy. A lump in the oatmeal, a lump in the throat, and a lump in the breast are not the same kind of lump. One needs to learn the difference.”

The ‘Truth’ of the Ascension

I have had a complicated relationship with the Ascension.  I am talking about Ascension Day rather than the Church of the Ascension  – perhaps that’s another sermon there…

As our regulars will have heard before, I was brought up a Northern Irish Baptist.  Northern Irish Baptists make the sandal-wearing guitar-strumming Baptists of England look very tame.  Belfast Baptists are hardcore!  I brought up to believe the Bible was given by God – that God dictated the text of the Gospels to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.   And so, if the Bible was so God-given then it was true in every way that it is possible to be true: spiritually, historically, scientifically…

So the story of the Ascension was difficult because it is just so hard to believe as a historical event.  It works OK (just about) if you believe in the classical 3-tier universe: earth in the middle, the underworld below, and heaven above…  But we know the earth is round, to quote John Lenon there is “no hell below us, above us only sky.”

As a youth I was not only a fundamentalist Christian, I was also a science geek (I was a glutton for punishment, and not very popular with the girls), and I worried about Jesus body.  I worried because with our current knowledge of science we know that any human body would burn up on trying to leave the atmosphere, and even if God was able to protect Jesus body in a bubble of oxygen, there would be nowhere in space for Jesus to go once he was out there.  (I worried about a lot of things as a youth – I was very neurotic – its a wonder I’m so well-balanced and ‘normal’ today!)

There were other things I struggled to believe, but this one just seemed so very odd.

Added to this I felt the Ascension was a strange day to celebrate, as it was a miserable occasion – it is a sad goodbye – a ridiculous day for a festival, and a ridiculous event to name a church after…  You will be glad to hear that my opinions have changed.

So we have this strange story of a seemly rocket-propelled saviour.  You may wonder what really happened to make the first Christians tell this extraordinary story?

Well get ready, brace yourselves, for tonight I will reveal the truth.

First lets look at the Bible:

The early manuscripts of the earliest Gospel, Mark, do not have any resurrection sightings of Jesus at all, and so no ascension either.

Matthew has Jesus make a lovely farewell speech “remember I am with you to the end of time…”  But he also has no account of Jesus departure.

The ending of John is my favourite, because it keeps us humble, “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”  John has no ascension story, just an assertion that there is a lot we do not know.

In the letters of Paul and other New Testament writes Jesus is described as “exalted to Gods right hand,” or “raised up” or even, “ascended on high.”  But all of these could be spiritual rather than historical statements.  It seems in the New Testament only Luke had heard the story of Jesus taken up into the clouds.

Turning to our readings for tonight, we must note that the Ascension does not feature of some of the earliest manuscripts of Luke.  In some of the earliest manuscripts it just says that “Jesus parted from them” later versions add “and was carried up into Heaven.”

So if Luke is in doubt, then the book of Acts has the only solid account of the Ascension.

So what do we make of this tale, seemingly known only to Luke?

The key line for me is “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”

The truth is that it doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter.  Now, I can already hear people bristle.  How can the historical truth not matter?  Isn’t truth important?

Personally, I don’t take this story literally.  I don’t think this story presents itself as literal, historical fact.  If you need proof of the non-literal nature of the story, just look at the two accounts, both written by Luke, one at the end of his Gospel, the other at the start of Acts.  In Luke the Ascension happens in Bethany.  In Acts it happens in Jerusalem.  There are narrative reasons for that – the sort of reasons that makes Game of Thrones nerds sit up and point at the screen when the TV series changes locations and merges characters that are in the books.  (I speak as a Game of Thrones nerd.)

It is fascinating to reflect on what made the early Christians (or Luke, at least) come up with this story of Ascension.  I could regale you with theories.  But that is to miss the point.

I am not being anti-intellectual here, I am not saying just “I don’t believe this, but its best not to think about it too much.”

As a liberal Christian I have to insist on the orthodoxy of non-literal interpretation of the Bible.  As an Anglican Christian living in our wonderfully diverse tradition I also have to insist that people are free to interpret Scripture differently to me.  Bishop Richard Holloway put it very well in his marvellous book Doubts and Loves when he said that while Christians are free to believe whatever they like it is not the church’s job to “preserve antique mental furniture…”

The Flat Earth Society still exists.  They claim that the idea the earth is round is a hoax and a conspiracy (and they sometimes use the Bible to back up their claims).  It is not the job of the Church to try and eradicate the outdated and bizarre views of the Flat Earthers. People are free to believe whatever they like, but it must never, ever be the job of the church to “preserve antique mental furniture.”

Every time I have led an adult confirmation class someone has asked me something like: “I don’t have to believe in this Virgin Birth thing to be confirmed do I…?” or “I believe in evolution, can I still be confirmed…?”  The idea that we have to believe the impossible to be Christians is out there, and it damages the Gospel.

“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”

I believe that the Ascension is not about doctrine, it is about a challenge.

That is true of Christianity.  The greatest enemy of orthodox Christianity, from the earliest days of the Church, was Gnosticism.  Gnosticism taught that salvation was all about having special sacred knowledge.  With knowledge of the secret truths you drew closer to God.  This was in stark contrast to orthodox Christianity which was often called “the Way.”

A Way of life, following Jesus teachings of a radical, inclusive love, versus a set of sacred truths.  We are not to gaze into heaven, but roll up our sleeves here on earth.

This has been the battle the Church has fought and refought over the centuries.  The Creeds were drafted to combat Gnosticism (and other heresies) and then became exactly the kind of thing they were created to defeat – a set of sacred truths that measured your Christian faith.  I believe that modern day Fundamentalism is just a new manafestation of the ancient Gnostic heresy.  Our oldest and most insidious enemy.

We follow a Way, not a set of dogmas.

“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?.”

And so the Ascension, this strange story of a flying saviour is not to be a statement we have to believe, to tick off on a list of dogmas that make up a true Christian.

The Ascension is not a story of a sad goodbye but a happy festival – it marks a coming of age.  Christ trusts us with his mission, as he disappears from our sight.  We can stare up into heaven no longer, its time to follow on the Way…

Christ has to go, so that we can grow up to spiritual adulthood.

The truth of the Ascension, the truth that I think this Church of the Ascension has at its heart, summed up in the famous words of Teresa of Avila:

“Christ has no body now on earth   but ours.
no hands   but ours,
no feet   but ours.
Ours are the eyes through which must look out Christ’s compassion on the world.
Ours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good.
Ours are the hands with which be blesses now.”

We have to decide how we understand the will of God, and then it is up to us to do it.  The Wash House youth club, offering free ESOL classes, our involvement in Holy Trinity Centre, in LEWCAS, our involvement with Majority World charities, our Visiting team, our commitment to Christian Aid, are just some of the manifestations of our commitment to the only truth of the Ascension that matters:

Christ has no body now on earth   but ours.
no hands   but ours,
no feet   but ours.

And as we trudge around our neighbourhood with a bundle of Christian Aid leaflets, or we attend a really dull meeting about financing one of our community projects we must remember that we are doing this to follow Christ.  This is the message of Ascension.  Perhaps it is the most challenging of all the celebrations of the Christian Year.  Perhaps the most fitting day for a patronal festival.  The Ascension reminds us that we have a responsibility.  The truth of the Ascension is that the work of Christ is now up to us.

Christ has no body now on earth   but ours.
no hands   but ours,
no feet   but ours.

Amen.

Angel or Devil?

Angel or Devil; Devil or Angel?

Angel or Devil; Devil or Angel?

Matthew 16.13-20

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

In our reading this morning Jesus congratulates Peter warmly.  He says:  “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”  Jesus praises Peter’s insight and gives him a job.  “And I tell you, you are Peter [the name ‘Peter’ means ‘rock’] and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.  I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Peter must have glowed with pride.  He has been give praise and authority in the Kingdom of heaven.

However, if we read just a few verses on from this, and Peter receives an astoundingly ferocious telling off:  “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

One minute Peter is given the keys of the Kingdom, the next he is actually called ‘Satan’

When I read passages like this, I cannot help but wonder what Jesus would say to me.  Would he say “Blessed are you Trevor, son of Albert,” or would he say “Get behind me, Satan!”

If we can answer that question of ourselves quickly or easily, I suspect our answer would be wrong.

We need to look at why Peter was praised, and why he was criticised if we are to understand where we lie.

First, why did Jesus give Peter such high praise?  Peter had said to Jesus “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  Peter had recognised something in Jesus that was beyond outward appearance.  Peter realised that their mission was not just the mission of a penniless wandering preacher, but the mission of God.

Peter is given the keys of the Kingdom.  And I think the reward is part of what causes the problem:  Peter is told he is part of God’s plan, and he has visions of triumph, glory and power as the Kingdom of God rules over all, and he holds the keys.

But what Jesus said after that must have been a shock: (Verse 21)  “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

“Hang about!” I can imagine Peter saying, “What about the Keys, and the binding things on earth and in heaven…?”  We read that Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

Peter wanted the position in the Church – he wanted to be the keeper of keys, but he didn’t want the cross.  He didn’t want to be challenged.  He didn’t want struggle or suffering or uncertainty or conflict.

This is the greatest dilemma the church has faced throughout it history – it wants the position of being the place that we can find God.  But it does not want the mission that goes with it.

We want to be a special place – of serene spirituality.  We want the keys of the Kingdom, but we do not want the cross.  Too often the Church  doesn’t want to make a stir.  The Church does’t want to have to engage in difficult issues like human sexuality, asylum seekers, the Middle East or Global Warming.

Yet these are these are precisely the sort of issues that the Bible is full of teaching about.  We are inward looking, like Peter, interested in what is in it for us.

I have heart it said (and quoted before) that fishermen who don’t fish fight:  if we don’t get about the mission Jesus calls us to do, building God’s Kingdom out there – outside the walls of this comfortable church, we will end up fighting about the flower arrangements and the size of the Altar candles.

The danger we face is much more serious that simply becoming trivial or irrelevant.  The danger is that we become opponents of Christ.  Jesus didn’t just say to Peter “get behind me, you’ve missed the point” or “get behind me you naughty boy!”  He said “get behind me Satan!”  Peter was siding with the forces opposing Jesus when he wanted an easy religion of privilege.

Remember that it was the religious leaders who opposed Jesus, the religious people who called for his crucifixion.  Every time I put on my Chasuble, symbolising the priesthood, I remember that it was the priests of Jesus day who had him killed.  I wonder if my ministry is closer to the ministry of Christ, or closer to the ministries of those who fought him.  I wonder if my work is in the spirit of Jesus, or the spirit of the Scribes and Pharisees and Saducees.

Would Jesus say to me “Blessed are you Trevor, son of Albert,” or would he say “Get behind me, Satan!”

The Spirit of Jesus is not about buildings or money or liturgy or vestments (although all these things can be used as valuable means to an end).  The Spirit of Jesus is about just one thing – Love.  Love for God, love for our fellow human beings (meaning all people) and love for ourselves.

Love is the only thing we do that really matters.  St Peter may have wanted to sit around polishing his key, but Jesus demanded the difficult, sacrificial, painful way of love.

We need to work for Christ, we need to build the Kingdom.  The real work of our Christianity does not take place during this hour each Sunday morning.  Although this time is vital to give us a focus and a vision for the work.  The truest expression of our faith is how we live outside the doors of the Church: how we try to love all those we meet, give words of kindness and support to those who need it, how we share the good news of God’s love and invite our friends and neighbours to Church; how we use our gifts of time and money to help those in need and build God’s Kingdom.

We want the keys of the Kingdom.  But we must also take the cross.

What side we are on will take some more puzzling through, but I close with the words of Jesus, after his rebuke of Peter.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

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