Christ the King 2015

Daniel 7.9-10;13-14
As I watched, thrones were set in place, and an Ancient One took his throne, his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, and its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued and flowed out from his presence. A thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him. The court sat in judgment, and the books were opened.
As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.

Revelation 1.4-8
Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.

John 18.33-42
Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ 

Today is the feast of Christ the King.  By a fluke of the rota Margaret has preached on this Sunday for three years in a row!  While Margaret Is now quite an expert on the subject, she did ask to have Christ the King off this year.

I promise you (and Margaret) that it is coincidental that it’s pure chance that placed her on this Sunday three times in a row, but I have to confess that I do struggle with the celebration of “Christ the King.” I’ve never been happy with the idea of monarchy.  I was lucky enough to be brought up by a mother who would regularly tell me that I could ‘be whatever I wanted to be’ in life.  I was the first person in my family to go to university, and although my mother may have preferred I took Business Studies rather than Theology, she was very proud.

But some jobs are closed to all of us here regardless of our skills and expertise and qualifications and talent…

Monarchy is one of those jobs.

The hereditary principle seems unfair to my Lefty principles, but I can understand how someone who works hard wants to pass on the benefits of their labours to their children…

However, today’s monarchs tend to be descended from the most brutal and scheming bullies from ages past.  Study history if you doubt it.

If you look at the Bible you can see how, through the thousand years it took to write the text, the vision of God develops:

I’m over-simplifying, but basically –

  • when the nation were made up of nomads God was one among many local gods, their provider and guide.
  • When they were ruled over by Kings God was the Great King.
  • When the nation was in moral and political turmoil God was the great Judge and righter-of-wrongs,
  • and then Jesus adds the idea of God as a loving Father.

Surely too much emphasis on Christ as “King” is a backward step in our understanding of God and one that alienates republicans…?

Can we make sense of this celebration for today?  Let’s start with this morning’s reading, where we find our King on the cross.  Our King seems to have been executed, as a King, but without ever having ruled a Kingdom.  He had a handful of men and women who followed him closely – though these were made up of illiterate fishermen, political agitators, collaborators with Rome and prostitutes – not a Title or public school education between them; and scarcely a penny to rub together.  Jesus also moved in larger circles than these: crowds turned up to hear him speak.  Again, here the crowds were not the scrubbed and polished folk that come for Royal visits today:  the sick, the leperous, the mentally ill, the poor and the outcast came to hear.  I think it was Billy Connolly who said that the Queen must think that the whole world smells of fresh paint, because wherever she goes, the day before the decorators were in, making the place spick and span for her Highness.  Jesus did not visit newly opened business centres and shopping malls, he preached on hillsides and on the shores of lake Galilee.  The crowds were not sycophantic social-climbers, they came to be impressed by the new teacher in town, they felt no need to impress him.  They were fickle, and would call for his crucifixion in time.  Definitely no trappings of a Monarch as we would understand them.

For these, and some of the reasons I opened with, many modern Christians shy away from the language of ‘Kings’ of ‘Kingdom’ and ‘Majesty’.  A popular prayer book (which we used to use for Morning Prayer here each day) includes the line ‘Oh Lord, our Governor’.  To call God ‘Governor’ is a perfectly acceptable interpretation, but it sounds unfamiliar, and strange.  Some modern prayer books go further.  The idea of ‘Kingdoms’ is too undemocratic for this age of ‘constitutional reform’.  In some prayer books the ‘Kingdom of God’ becomes the ‘Realm of God’, or even the ‘Commonwealth of God’.

This squeamishness about the language of ‘Kingship’ is not without foundation in the Gospels.  Jesus does not claim the title ‘King’, the nearest equivalent to ‘Christ the King’ in the Gospels is ‘Jesus the Messiah’.

‘Messiah’ was the term used for Israel’s deliverer.  The nation of Israel had suffered a series of occupations:  Babylonian, Assyrian, Greek and Roman.  They awaited a deliverer – a Messiah.  It is clear that Jesus saw himself as a ‘Messiah’, but his attitude to the title is interesting.

If we read carefully through the Gospels, and in particular Mark’s Gospel – the first to be written – we find that Jesus seems to shy away even from the title Messiah.  When the demons possessing a demoniac recognise Jesus as a Messiah, Jesus commands them to be silent.  When Jesus heals, he often also enjoins the healed, and witnesses, to secrecy.  The leper is commanded to go to the Temple to be declared clean, but to ‘tell no one’.

It seems strange that a Messiah should want to spend his life incognito.  But Jesus’ reasoning becomes clear when we remember what was expected from a Messiah.  The Messiah was to bring political freedom and independence to Israel.  The Messiah would vanquish the occupying armies, and establish a Kingdom that would sit in judgment over all the other nations of the world.

A Messiah would be the most powerful person who ever lived.  A mighty warrior, an inspired leader, a Monarch beyond compare.

Jesus was certainly a Messiah, but his idea of what Messiahship was all about was so different from the understanding of Messiahship of those around him, that he avoided the very word.  If Jesus had stood on the hillside and shouted ‘I am your Messiah’, he would have been instantly surrounded by zealots and agitators, ready to riot and cause mayhem to overthrow the Roman overlords.  Not long after the revolutionaries had thronged to his side, the Roman authorities would step in, and a premature crucifixion would have followed.

If we look at the titles that Jesus himself preferred to be called rather than ‘Messiah’, we find that he refers to himself as ‘the son of man’ – an elaborate phrase for ‘I’ – or ‘this mother’s son’ is the nearest equivalent that I can think of.

The way of Jesus was not the way of merely political power – he did not impose his Kingdom on anyone.  He talked to whoever would listen.  The citizens of his Kingdom were volunteers, inspired by his teaching.  The power of his Kingdom was not the ability to force obedience, to control vast numbers of citizens; the power of the Kingdom of God was, and is, the power of love.

The Kingdom of God is a Kingdom of love.  When that is said ‘the Kingdom of God is a Kingdom of love’ it seems very nice and cosy.  It would seem like it is unalloyed joy to enter this Kingdom.  But remember our reading – The King of this Kingdom is executed on a cross.  There is tragedy in the very nature of love.  We are called to love God, love ourselves, and to love others.  If we truly try to love others we will be hurt.  We will be hurt by those we try to love, and we will be hurt by those who don’t want certain people to be loved.  If we love the exploited and the despised and the abused, those who do the exploiting, despising and abusing will not be pleased.  To love is to be unpopular.  To love truly is to know death.  Not just the death that signals rest at the end of a long life, but the untimely, cruel death of crucifixion.

I believe that we are right to be cautious about the language of Christ the King, but not because Christ is not a King, rather because Christ is a different kind of King to all earthly Monarchs.

The Kingdom of God, is not a Realm that throws its weight around imposing its rule on other nations.  It does not vie for power and wealth and influence.  The Kingdom of God is what gives value to the cup of water given to the thirsty, it gives value to the words of kindness to the homeless wanderer, it gives value to our work for the Church.  These are the things that build God’s Kingdom.

The paradox of true faith is that it brings peace and crucifixion, comfort and challenge, it is the paradox of a Kingdom with a crucified King, a God who is a human being.

The rule of our King is not political or military, this Kingdom is of love, and those who love are its citizens.  The benefits of being a citizen of this Kingdom are pain and crucifixion, but also life, meaning, wholeness and hope.

As we celebrate the feast of Christ the King, let us commit ourselves to the Kingdom, and to serving Christ our King in living, and loving, after his example.

Amen.

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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?

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.

The Mystery of the Holy Trinity fully explained

ImageA sermon for Trinity Sunday

 

The Trinity were planning a holiday. The Spirit, manifesting the creative part of the divine nature, was coming up with the ideas. “Let’s go to Los Angeles,” the Spirit suggested.
“No, no, no,” said the Father, “They’re all so liberated, they’ll spend the whole time calling me ‘Mother’ and they will just do my head in.”
So the Spirit sat back and thought. “I know, what about Jerusalem?  It’s beautiful and then there’s the history and everything.”
“No way!” the Son declared. “After what happened the last time, I’m never going there again!”
At this point, the Spirit got annoyed and went off in a huff. Sometime later he returned and found that the Father and Son had had a idea they both thought was excellent:
“Why don’t we go to Canterbury?” said the Son.
“Perfect!” cried the Holy Spirit. “I’ve never been there before!”

This idea of three persons, able to chat to each other and maybe even argue is just one way that we can interpret or misinterpret the doctrine of the Trinity.

The Trinity is one of the most challenging Christian theological concepts.  

The story is told of St Augustine of Hippo, a great philosopher and theologian who devoted years of his life to study to understanding the doctrine of the Trinity and to trying to explain it logically.  One day as he was walking along the sea shore and reflecting on this, he suddenly saw a little child all alone on the shore. The child made a hole in the sand, ran to the sea with a little cup, filled her cup, came and poured it into the hole she had made in the sand. Back and forth she went to the sea, filled her cup and came and poured it into the hole. Augustine went up to her and said, “Little child, what are doing?” and she replied, “I am trying to empty the sea into this hole.” “How do you think,” Augustine asked her, “that you can empty this immense sea into this tiny hole and with this tiny cup?” To which she replied, ” And you, how do you suppose that with this your small head you can comprehend the immensity of God?” With that the child disappeared.

John Wesley famously said, “Bring me a worm that can comprehend a man, and then I will show you a man that can comprehend the Triune God.”

If we try to see the Trinity as an explanation of God, then we are going to tie ourselves in knots.  It is much healthier to see the Trinity as the question, not the answer.

The question is how do we experience one God three different-yet-connected ways?  

We experience God as our Creator; we experience God in life of Jesus; and we experience God in other people and in ourselves.

Creator, Jesus, Spirit, one God three experiences.

We believe in God the Father, who created us.  We sometimes miss the importance of our Christian view of creation.  Perhaps we are anxious in case some Darwinian biologist comes and strikes us down with scientific insights.  But, of course, understanding evolution no more disproves the doctrine of creation, than understanding how a telephone works disproves the existence of British Telecom.  As Christians we believe in a God who creates.

The chief rival to creation during the time of the first Christians was the view of the Greek Philosophers.  They thought that matter was eternal, it had existed forever in the past, and would exist forever into the future.  Matter was shaped into its present form by a god (that is definitely a god with a small ‘G’) who Plato called the ‘Demiurge.’  This god, the ‘Demiurge’ was not very bright, and simply operated according to blueprints, called ‘Forms’; and it was these blueprints or Forms that were really sacred.  Matter was seen as something base and unimportant, it was shaped by a the most undivine of deities, into objects that were only interesting because of what they told us about ‘divine blueprints’ for life.

The Jewish and Christian God who created a world, and ‘saw that it was good’ was a radical departure.  Christianity sees creation as ‘good’ and we should rejoice in our createdness.  It is somewhere that we can encounter God.

We believe in God the Father, and we believe in God the Son.  God does not only create us, God is a part of that creation, and enters into a relationship with it.  God loves creation, and has shares in its joy and in its sorrow.  God walks along side us the path we walk, has knows our temptations, our loneliness, our pain and doubt.  And in the teaching of Jesus we experience comfort, inspiration, challenge.  If we are honest sometimes we can struggle to encounter Jesus when we read the Bible – it was written almost two thousand years ago, and the meaning can sometimes be a little opaque to us.  Although I do recommend sitting down and reading through Luke’s Gospel – it’s a much easier read than most of the Bible and very compelling.  But if you do find scripture opaque I recommend getting a commentary or book to help you through – it’s not just ‘a good read’ it’s a place where we can encounter God.

We believe in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit does not get as much ‘Press’ as the other two.  She is altogether more ‘Ghostly’ than the Father and the Son.  We all know about Fathers, we all now about Sons, but ‘Spirits’ are outside of most of our experiences.

As I have said before the word for the Spirit in the Hebrew Scriptures is ‘ruach’ a feminine word – the Holy Spirit should be a ‘she’.)

The Holy Spirit is just as important for our Christian view of life as her consubstantial, coequal and coeternal colleagues in the Godhead.

We have been created by God, we have God before us.  God is revealed in the  human life and teaching of Jesus, we have God beside us.  God has come and made her home in us, we have God within us.

To have one human being, Jesus, in whom God dwelt, is profound.  To know that our species, with its many faults and failings, with its capacity for hatred, war, and genocide, to know that our species is capable of being the place where God touched the earth, is an awesome thought.  The species that produced Hitler, Stalin and Rupert Murdoch, has produced Jesus Christ, who we call the Son of God.

This is an awe-inspiring idea, but there is more…  To know that God, the Holy Spirit lives inside us all, must change the way we see ourselves and our neighbours even more.

And so we encounter God in three distinct-yet-united ways.  And The Church over centuries developed the idea of the Trinity to explore this fundamental experience of God.  And as the threeness and yet oneness of God developed theologians started to describe how at the very heart of God there is a relationship – the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  The Christian God is not only loving, our God is love.

And we are made in God’s image, some say that image is our free will, or our ability to create, or our ability to reason.  But where I believe God’s image can be found more than anywhere; where God’s imprint is most vividly seen, is in between people, in relationships.  In the places where people meet, form bonds, interact.  In community.  In the love Christians should have for each other, and in our love for the world.

Like all theology, the idea of a Threeness to God is not scientific but artistic truth – a human construction, but it is one that speaks of the profoundest and deepest Christian truth.  We find this truth time and again in the teaching of Jesus, but it finds powerful expression in the idea of the Trinity:  God is all about relationships.  If we want to honour God we do that in our relationships.

Trinity is a perfect working model for Christian faith.  A faith that is, more than anything, an invitation to relationship, relationship with God and with all humanity.

Pentecost – a sermon not THAT good

Acts 2.14-21

ImageThe Vicar was saying goodbye to folks at the door after the service.  A woman said, “Vicar, that was a marvellous sermon.” The Vicar said, “Oh, I have to give the credit to the Holy Spirit.” “It wasn’t THAT good!” she replied.

Today we are thinking about the Holy Spirit, and as we do, “Happy Birthday to us!”  Pentecost is traditionally seen as the birthday of the Church.

If we conflate the stories in the Gospels and Acts we read how the disciples, who were the Church ‘in embryo’ had been traumatised by Jesus death, become ecstatic at Jesus resurrection, and were astounded by Jesus ascension.  They have been on an emotional roller-coaster for months, and now they gather, and are literally aflame with inspiration and passion for the Gospel.

Something remarkable happened after Jesus death – the disciples moved from despair to hope, their faith in Jesus, once shattered, changed into a courage and a faith for which they were prepared to die.  Jesus is transformed from a historical human being, to spiritual being, to God, Godself.

The early Church found it hard to put this experience of Jesus-after-the-crucifixion into words, so they started to put the experience into the language of resurrection, ascension, and Pentecost.  

Death was not the end of Jesus: so they talked of Resurrection

But we still have to say goodbye to Jesus: so there was an Ascension

We are changed by the experience of Jesus – the Spirit of Jesus now lives in us: so the story of Pentecost. 

Whatever we believe, it is certainly true that after the crucifixion of Christ the disciples had been cowering in secret, but now the doors are flung open and they enter the streets, they are so full of Joy and excitement, that bystanders accuse them of being drunk.

Though we can not know for sure, tradition has it that all of the disciples went forward from this day to face martyrdom.  The flames of Pentecost were not quenched by death and persecution.

All this, the book of Acts tells us, because of the Holy Spirit.

The ‘Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church’ describes the ‘Holy Spirit’ as ‘…the Third Person of the Trinity, distinct from, but consubstantial, coequal and coeternal with the Father and the Son, and in the fullest sense God.’

This description of the Holy Spirit won the argument that had raged for the early centuries of the Christian Church.  It was formally accepted in terms similar to these at the Council  of Constantinople in 381.

The Bible does talk about the ‘Spirit of God,’ and the ‘Holy Spirit.’  And as Christians pondered the mystery of God as revealed in Christ, and in the workings of the Spirit, a theology developed that placed the Holy Spirit in the context of a Trinity.  

That is the theme of next Sunday, Trinity Sunday.  (When I will explain the Trinity and clear up any questions you may have about it!!)

Today, as we think about the Spirit I want us to consider that the Spirit 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.  God is beyond human gender and beyond human language, but in the same way that “God our Father” is a male metaphor for God, so “Holy Spirit” is a female metaphor – the Spirit’s gender is literally lost in translation.

Spirit is not the only female image for God in the Bible.  One of my favourites is Holy Wisdom:  For example 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…”). 

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.

And it is tho idea of God-in-us that leads us back to the Spirit.  The Spirit is the spark of the divine that lives in each one of us.

This is a magnificent Church.  But of infinitely more value and worth, is the Church that St. Paul calls ‘the Temple of the Holy Spirit’, and that is you, and me.

God the infinite Creator of the universe, the Saviour who came down to earth as the most inspiring figure in human history, this is the God who has chosen to make her home in us.

How else could a small group of mostly uneducated, poor, ragged disciples of a Lord executed in the most horrific manner, turn the world upside down?  

If you continue to read the book of Acts you will find them persecuted, on trial, in prison, flogged, stoned, despised by the authorities of the day, but always coming back for more.  They were unstoppable.  It is not long since Jesus was executed, their lives were still in danger, but they could not contain themselves.  The Holy Spirit was amongst them – they ran out into the street deliriously telling the world the Good News.

They devoted their lives totally to God.  They shared a common purse, giving to each according to their needs from a pooled fund.  They were inspirational characters, apostles, saints and martyrs.  We hold feasts in their honour, depict them in stained glass.

But I  strongly believe that the Holy Spirit was not in them more than she is in us, nor was the Holy Spirit stronger in them than She is in us.

On the day of Pentecost they became aware of truth, that is just as true today as it was back then.  The Holy Spirit is in you.  God is to be found in the human heart and mind.  We are temples of the Holy Spirit

Let us live like the people who know it.

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