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.

Advertisements

A Place with no Outsiders or Believing the impossible

The Canaanite Woman

The Canaanite Woman

Isaiah 56:1-8

Thus says the Lord: Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed.  Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.” For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant— these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.

Matthew 15:10-28

Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

Nearly two and a half thousand years ago Isaiah spoke to a broken nation about an age of joy to come, an age when eunuchs will find their lives fruitful and rich, that the immigrant would be fully accepted and adopted into the community.  He wrote as the Children of Israel’s long exile in Babylon was coming to an end.  The Exile is traditionally described as seventy years, historians and Biblical scholars now paint a more complex picture of the Exile, but the the fact that many Israelites were enslaved in Babylon for a generation is not contested.

For that generation captivity was all they knew, a generation born in captivity would not know or understand any other reality.  The accepted wisdom would be that they were a people who were born in slavery and would die in slavery.

When I was growing up in Belfast the accepted wisdom was that there would never be peace in Northern Ireland, that there could never be peace.

Other pieces of accepted wisdom in our time include that the Cold War could never end (or if it did end it would be in nuclear war); that Berlin wall would never fall; that the white population would never give up power in apartheid South Africa.  And that’s only the impossible that has happened in our lifetime, before that we ended slavery, an institution as old as civilisation itself…

As Nelson Mandela once said: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

There are hundreds of not thousands of things that accepted wisdom has said were impossible, but which still happened.

I have a very amateur interest in science, and science is littered with things that one generation of academics said was impossible that was confounded by the next:

For example – ‘heavier-than-air flight:’

Just 130 years ago he universally accepted wisdom of scientists and engineers was that heavier-than-air flight was impossible.  Just eight years before the Wright brothers’ flight Lord Kelvin (In 1895) stated that “heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.”

But that is just one example of doing the impossible:  Even after the breakthrough with flight, the idea that we might one day send any object into space was seen as preposterous.  To be fair this scepticism was well-founded – the necessary technologies were simply not available. To travel in space, you must reach the escape velocity of 11.2 kilometres per second. (To put that figure into perspective, the sound barrier is a mere 1,238 kilometres per hour was only broken in 1947.)  The first artificial satellite, Sputnik, was eventually launched in 1957, and the first manned spaceflight followed four years later.

In 1934 Albert Einstein said, “There is not the slightest indication that [nuclear energy] will ever be obtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will.”

“So many of our dreams at first seem impossible, then they seem improbable, and then, when we summon the will, they soon become inevitable.” so said the actor Christopher Reeve.

Thomas Carlyle  said that “Every noble work is at first impossible.”

“There is nothing impossible to him who will try.”  So said Alexander the Great.  We may have to admit that there are some things that are literally impossible, but the spirit that led Alexander to say “nothing is impossible” certainly got him a long way.

So why am I talking about the impossible?

The Church is often accused of believing the impossible – that Virgin’s can give birth, that the universe was created in six days…  It’s OK to believe those things if you want to, but it is not the Church’s ministry or duty to promote belief in supernatural events in the distant past.

Our duty is to, in the words of Isaiah “Maintain justice, and do what is right…”

We are called to live a life of love here and now.  But we do so looking to the future:  “To the eunuchs …who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house… a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; …an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, …to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants …these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer”

Not a belief in the supernatural, but a belief that despite the impossible situations we read about in the newspapers, despite the harrowing images we see of Gaza, Iraq, Syria, despite the problems of the Ukraine there is hope for change, hope for peace, hope for an end to poverty.

Time and again throughout history humanity has done the impossible.  All our small efforts – raising money through our monthly appeal, twinning toilets, our collecting for LEWCAS, our involvement in our local community through ESOL and the Wash House, all this is part of a tide that will change the world.  The Kingdom will come and we can be a part of it.

This sermon has a post script.  I can’t resist talking a little bit about our Gospel Reading:

Our Gospel reading is a unique story in the Gospels.  In the story a Gentile woman came to Jesus – so far so unremarkable, but the unique thing about this story is that the words of Jesus are not the climax – the climax is the woman’s speech.

This story of the Gentile woman throwing herself at Jesus feet begging for mercy on her daughter, and receiving a, frankly rude, rebuff from Jesus is striking.  “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  Words very uncharacteristic of the Jesus we read throughout the rest of the Gospels:

Jesus was often very rude about people, but generally it was the Pharisees – “You brood of Vipers…” he called them.  But they were in power, they had authority and prestige, they were public figures, and fair game for a satirist.  This woman was in desperate need, and vulnerable.

Jesus response was totally within the culture of his day.  Having suffered greatly under Greek and Roman occupation, the anti-Gentile feelings were at an all-time high.  In his frail humanity Jesus was acting how we all would in the culture of the time.

The disciples want Jesus to send her away, and Jesus adds “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”

Perhaps Jesus thought his mission was only to the Jews, and this woman showed him that his message was for all people!

The most remarkable and unique thing of all is seen in the humility of Jesus.  In front of all his followers, his disciples and friends, he allows himself to be corrected by a Gentile woman.  Women were not allowed to study the faith – their opinion was invalid; Gentiles were outside of the faith – their opinions were dangerous.  Yet Jesus allows himself to be corrected by a Gentile woman.

Surely this is a profound lesson for us all – Jesus did not care about looking silly in front of his disciples – he realised the right thing to do and he did it.

And perhaps here is where the Gospel connects to our earlier reading – a world where the outcasts are accepted and even the brightest and best accept that the poor and outcasts are not just recipients of charity, but people who can teach us profound truths.

When all are included and listened to the Kingdom is not just faintly glimpsed, it is unstoppable.

We are the Resurrection

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fulfilling the Law – a sermon by Margaret Offerman

ImageThe Law of Moses, the Jewish Law is contained in the first 5 books of the Hebrew bible and it’s both detailed and comprehensive.  Some of the detail is quite extraordinary and suggests that the Israelites saw their God as above all a God of control.  This is Leviticus chapter 11 verse 20:  You may eat among all the [b]winged insects which walk on all fours: those which have above their feet jointed legs with which to jump on the earth. 22 These of them you may eat: the locust , and the devastating locust,  the cricket, and the grasshopper. 23 But all other [c]winged insects which are four-footed are detestable to you.  The passage which was part of this morning’s lectionary is much more of a broad sweep, a comprehensive way of living.  Keep God’s commandments, stay faithful to the monotheistic tradition  you have inherited and you will enjoy the material rewards that God has in store for those who obey him.  

The Law breaks down roughly into 3 parts, the ceremonial, the civil  and the moral law, though sometimes there are overlaps when a particular section is relevant to more than 1 area.  When you build a new house you are to give your roof a parapet, then your house will not incur blood vengeance through anyone falling from it.  This law emphasises our moral duty of care for each other’s safety.  It also contains a practical warning about the legal repercussions  of committing a criminal act.  A priest may not eat an animal that has died a natural death or been savaged by wild beasts for he would contract uncleanness from it.  This may be a simple matter of hygiene and the avoidance of disease but it’s also part of the purification that must underpin the life of a priest involved in the sacred  rituals.  

The Law was made for a people living  in the Bronze Age, on the edge of history,  groups of nomadic descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who were beginning to settle in a land and make it their own, having displaced  its former owners, the Canaanites.  They were surrounded by peoples who worshipped many gods, notably Baal and in order to keep them faithful to their one true God, Yahweh, they needed the Law to cover every eventuality.  It’s a Law of threats and promise – the law-abiding will enjoy material prosperity;  the lawless will feel the weight of God’s anger.   It seems a vast volume but of course compared to the law of any Western country, it’s a pamphlet.

The gospel passage  reminds us that although Jesus was brought up to obey the Law, he saw the need to interpret it for his generation.  Jesus moved from a prohibition  law to a much more positive  sense that it must be  supportive of men and women who are trying to act in a just, loving, sensitive way.  He  realised the importance of  obeying  the spirit of the law, sometimes instead of, sometimes as well as the letter.  In fact, in the passsage which follows our gospel reading, he goes much further than the demands of the Law – 38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. And he antagonised the Law-abiding Jews by occasionally rejecting it altogether, as when he ridiculed their anxiety about plucking ears of corn on a walk on the Sabbath.  He was not afraid to  overturn the Law.  In Deuteronomy the Law is clear: 18 If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, 19 then [they]shall ……bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. 20 They shall say, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” 21 Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death. So you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel will hear, and be afraid.  In Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son,  the rebellious young man who had committed every kind of social sin, eventually returned to his father’s house in destitution and  despair.  His father saw him coming from a great distance and abandoned what he was doing, abandoned his dignity and the constraints of old age and ran out to meet his son and bring him home to a celebration.  

I wish the church could find a united prophetic voice to interpret for our age what the Law says about the materialism that is affecting and infecting our society, afflicting  rich and poor, and which sociologists define as a value system that is preoccupied with possessions and the social image they project.   In chapter 3 of the epistle to the Corinthians St Paul  expresses his  regret at  the fact that he has been unable to speak to them as people of the spirit.  Paul would be the last man to deny the importance of the Law.  Over and over again he tells the churches he writes to that inevitably they live in the material world.  (Indeed when Jesus celebrated the meal we know as the last supper, he was enshrining the principle that we will meet him in bread and wine, in  shared food.)  But, Paul says, in the last instance the values that we must live by are moral, spiritual, metaphysical, beyond the physical.  

The 10th commandment reads: you shall not covet your neighbour’s house, his wife, his manservant or maidservant, his ox, his ass, nor anything that is your neighbour’s.  Materialism is the direct opposite of the 10th commandment.  Materialism says you can’t be happy, you can’t have peace of mind,  unless your status, your dignity, your  sense of your own identity are represented in the material possessions you are surrounded with.  However,  researchers, drawing on data available since the 1980s, have shown that as people become more materialistic, their well being as it is reflected in good relationships, sense of purpose, autonomy, diminishes.  They ranked the importance of different goals – job, money, social standing on one side against self-acceptance, fellow feeling and belonging on the other and found that the happier people were those who were less materialistic.  

We are mourning the deaths of 2 women who were models of Christian living in this church..  Stella Grosse and Jean Bennett lived by moral principles of giving – of their time, their energy, their money, their talents and their wisdom, wisdom which was filtered through long lives of varied experience, not always blissfully happy but always used to inform their faith and support  their way of life.  They had comfortable homes but were not defined by their possessions.  They mixed easily with a wide range of people and were not seduced by wealth or privilege.  

I’m not advocating an abandonment of all the material pleasures of life.  But I’m saying that the Jesus message is clear.  If our treasures are the ones we  lay up for ourselves  on earth, we  must be ready to accept their transitoriness.   And we need to remember the onus on us to live more simply so that others may simply live.  

When a few of us questionned members of our parish a few months ago about what they wanted from us as a church, many responded by expressing their yearning for a greater sense of community.  Materialism creates social atomisation.  For most of my lifetime we in the West  have been pursuing an economic model based on perpetual growth.  And it has had its effect in greater prosperity for a significant mass of the people.  But it has also fostered an aggressive individualism which sets us apart from each other.  Boris Johnson was characteristically straightforward about this in a lecture he gave before Christmas.  He said that he didn’t believe that economic equality is possible , (and few of us would disagree with that on the present evidence).  He went on: Indeed, some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy, …….that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity.  

I listened to the radio news and I scanned the newspaper but couldn’t find  a speech putting  the church’s case for another world view.  

I suspect that few of us in this church would be happy with the idea that the main fact of our identity is that we are consumers.  Somehow we have to find a way of communicating to those outside  that worldly ambition and  material aspiration are not  a formula for happiness or ultimate fulfilment.

What is the Church?

Image

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

 

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

 

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

 

Take a few moments to form a mental image…

 

How many of you imagined the building?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The building is not what the church is.

 

The Church is you and me.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

What does it mean to be the church?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

But we have a responsibility for each other in church. 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

How we behave to each other really matters.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Christ has no body now on earth but yours,

 

no hands but yours,

 

no feet but yours,

 

yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion

 

is to look out to the earth,

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“One Size Fits All” Spirituality

ImageThe Tax Collector and the Pharisee

Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Luke 18:9-14 

A Catholic priest, a Rabbi, and an Anglican minister were discussing sin, and the Anglican asked, “Tell me, gentlemen, have you ever sinned and broken the laws of your religion?”

“I must admit,” responded the Rabbi, “I was always very very curious about how pork tastes, so once, just once, I stopped at a bar-be-que restaurant when I was on a holiday and ate a pork sandwich. In fact, it was so delicious, I ate four of them, knowing I’d never have the nerve to sin again like that.”

  The Catholic joined in, “Well, I had the same curiosity about sex, and that being forbidden, I didn’t know which sex would appeal to me more, so I once, while in seminary, had an affair with a married couple, husband and wife at the same time. I was so overcome with feelings of guilt that I’ve never done anything like that again. Well, what about you, Reverend?”

  The Anglican said, “My besetting sin is GOSSIP, and I just can’t wait to tell everybody in town what you guys have said!”

  Guilt is a powerful emotion, often used (and abused) by religion.  It’s the starting point for my sermon and one of the themes of our Gospel reading.  Unfortunately, I have a problem with this morning’s Gospel reading.  It doesn’t fit easily into how I want us to see ourselves before God.  I’m not one to encourage bowing and scraping and beating our breast.  I think guilt is often needlessly piled on us by religion.  I believe that God calls us to stand stall, to rejoice that we are a wonderful part of God’s wonderful universe, to celebrate the amazing gift of life.

  I think that spirituality that flows from guilt is not healthy.  To my mind the truest spirituality must flow from love.

  Yet our reading has the poor wretched tax collector bowing his head, beating his breast and repeating ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’

  [It reminds me of a traditional prayer that I refuse to say.  It’s a famous one, and many people’s favourite – it’s called the ‘prayer of humble access’ from the 1662 Prayer Book:

“We do not presume to come to this your table, merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your manifold and great mercies.  We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table.  But you are the same Lord whose nature is always to have mercy.  Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of your dear Son Jesus Christ and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.”

  This prayer misquotes a bible story where the point it that we were more worthy than the dogs that licked the crumbs, and I see this prayer as an exercise in spiritual masochism – to me the message of Christ is that we are worthy – even the tax collectors and sinners, the prostitutes and demon-possessed are worthy of God’s love.  Our service for God springs from love, not from guilt.]

  But in our reading the tax collector comes to God wracked by guilt.  This approach to God means that the snivelling tax collector leaves the synagogue justified before God, whereas the Pharisee who stands tall is condemned.

  I don’t think Jesus is telling us to always be like the tax collector.  Jesus is showing us extremes of behaviour and his listeners would have assumed that the Pharisee was pleasing God by his worship, but Jesus is saying, no, even the tax collector, who is aware of his faults is closer to God than the pompous, self-righteous Pharisee.

  Tax collectors were collaborators with the invading Roman authorities.  They were well-rewarded for exploiting the poor.  He was a sinner – that was his genuine approach to God.  The Pharisee was a respected pillar of the community, he was also arrogant, and snobbish, and felt superior to those around him – his prayer was an opportunity to show off – and was far from genuine.

  When I worked as a prison chaplain approaching God as a sinner in need of repentance and forgiveness was exactly the right approach.  Here in Blackheath, I’m sure we all get things wrong from time to time, but the central message most of us need to hear most of the time is about God’s love for us, and his invitation to join in the work of the Kingdom.

In truth, there is no ‘one size fits all’ way to approach God. 

  I spent the week before last on a course with London Citizens, learning alongside Rabbis, Imams, Priests, Ministers, lay workers, community leaders and trade unionists about community organising.  It was clear that there was no one way to live a good life and do good works.  Here were Christians, Jews, Muslims, Humanists, and those-who-would-not-be-pinned-down-to-any-ideology wanting to work together to make the world a better place.  If I can just be a religious and cultural imperialist and use Christian language to describe their deeds, here were Christians, Jews, Muslims, Humanists, and those-who-would-not-be-pinned-down-to-any-ideology wanting to work together to build the Kingdom of God.

  I’ve seen the work of the Kingdom in other places too, closer to home.  I have spent some time with the people of St. John’s over the last few weeks as they prepare to advertise for a new Team Rector.  Those of us who have been to St. John’s have found it, to be honest, a mixed experience.  Their exuberant style of worship, which sometimes includes clapping, dancing and hands raised to God has both delighted and appalled members of our more reserved congregation.

  I confess I struggle with the theology of some of the words of the hymns and songs, but I have no problem at all with the clapping, dancing and raising of hands.

  The Bible exports us to ‘make a joyful noise to God,’ and clapping our hands is fine by me.

  The Bible also describes the posture of prayer as raising our hands to God.  That’s why I follow the old tradition of raising my hands during the Eucharistic Prayer.  But if, as they do in many more evangelical churches, someone wants to raise their hands to say that they are making the words of the hymn their prayer, a way of saying “I really mean this” – that’s ok with me too.

  But I don’t want to just stand up for evangelical worship – there is no ‘one size fits all’ – the Catholic tradition has a lot to offer us too.

  Those who cross themselves do so for a variety of reasons, to me it is about saying ‘this ancient story of Jesus and his cross is part of my story too, I place the cross on myself because I have a personal connection to it…’

  Genuflecting or kneeling is another traditional poise for worship – although one I would handle with more care.

  I believe God calls us to stand up tall, so kneeling isn’t a posture for prayer that comes easily to me.

  We have been talking at the worship committee and decided that we need to make it clear that kneeling is not compulsory when it comes to taking communion.  You can come up to the altar rail and stand if you prefer.

  (The only thing I would say is that you must help guide the chalice if you are standing – because the person giving you the wine can’t see the level when she or he is giving it!)

  But there is no ‘one size fits all’ if you want to stand or kneel, cross yourself of raise your hands, clap or sit quietly, that is fine (although it may not work if you clap disputing the prayers and stand up and cross yourselves during the sermon – but hopefully you get my meaning).

  In our Gospel reading we see two approaches to God.  Standing bold and proud, and kneeling in humility.  What matters is not the stance, what matters is that we find an approach to God that is genuine. 

  Wether you sit or stand or kneel or cross yourself or raise your hand is up to you – but do it because you have chosen it, not because it’s what you have always done it…

  I end my sermon with the words from John’s Gospel, often used to introduce Book of Common Prayer Evensong:

  God is Spirit, and those who worship God must worship in spirit and in truth.

  Amen.