All Human Life is Here

1 Kings 19.1-4

Galatians 3.23-29

Luke 8.26-39

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

St Paul was writhing to a divided church:

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

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

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

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

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

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

*  *  *

1st Reading:  1 Kings 19.1-4

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

2nd Reading: Galatians 3.23-29

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

Gospel Reading: Luke 8.26-39

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

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.

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.

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.

 

Midnight Mass – Advertising Christmas

Image

I’m going to disturb our quiet reflective mood with a very short Quiz.  I spent half an hour on YouTube looking at the most popular Christmas television adverts of 2013, and if I give you the tag-line I wonder if you can give me the product or store that used it in its advertising this year: 

Who suggested we “Give someone a Christmas they’ll never forget”

(John Lewis – I’ll come back to this campaign…)

Who said “Believe in Magic and Sparkle!”

(M&S)

“The moments that make Christmas Special
brought to you by _ _ _ _ _ _ _”

(Sainsbury’s offered a selection on home videos of family Christmastimes)

The taste that unites

(KFC – I hadn’t seen this advert on television, but it is very funny!)

There’s nothing better than Christmas

(Tesco – showing someone go from youth to old age
fortified by Tesco-bought Christmas dinners!)

“This Christmas lets make the people that make us feel good, feel good”

(Boots showed a yoof in a hoodie acting as a modern Santa
with Boots-bought goodies)

Whatever you wish for this Christmas, make it fabulous with _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

(Debenhams trying to look classy)

Go on… it’s Christmas

(Morrisons – with Ant urging Dec to eat a living Gingerbread Man)

With their “Sorry I spent it on myself” collection which store had the tag line “I little something for them; a bigger something for you.”

(Harvey Nichols)

Some of you may be bracing yourself for an anti-consumerist diatribe now.  “He’s going to rant about the irrelevance and triviality and kitsch that dominates our modern celebration of Christmas.”

It’s right that I passionately believe the truth expressed in that work of genius ‘The Grinch who stole Christmas’ – the Grinch, who hates Christmas decides to destroy it by dressing up as Santa and breaking into every house in Whoville on Christmas Eve to steal all the presents, decorations and food.  Then he stands on the hill overlooking Whoville to look down on his work and hear the howls and cried on Christmas morning.

But then:

Every Who down in Who-ville, the tall and the small,
Was singing! Without any presents at all!
He HADN’T stopped Christmas from coming!
IT CAME!
Somehow or other, it came just the same! 
And the Grinch, with his grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow,
Stood puzzling and puzzling: “How could it be so?
It came without ribbons! It came without tags!
“It came without packages, boxes or bags!”

And he puzzled three hours, `till his puzzler was sore.
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!
“Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store.
“Maybe Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!”

So I’m just going to take it as read that we all believe Christmas is more than presents (otherwise we wouldn’t be in Church at midnight!)

But I was interested by the theme of the adverts this year:  There were clearly divided into two categories – firstly ‘family’ was explored by several including KFC, Tesco,  and Sainsbury’s.  Christmas is often a time to get together with the people we love, but if that is now we define the season it becomes a very exclusive celebration.

Wendy Cope wrote the following short Christmas Poem, entitled ‘A Christmas Poem’

At Christmas little children sing and merry bells jingle,
The cold winter air makes our hands and faces tingle
And happy families go to church and cheerily they mingle
And the whole business is unbelievably dreadful, if you’re single.

I don’t want to criticise families getting together, but I want Christmas to include the single and the lonely and the bereaved and those whose family lives are complicated or unhappy. 

So I turn to the other major theme in this year’s Christmas adverts: fairy tales!  Morrisons enlisted the Gingerbread Man (and Ant and Deck); Baileys went for a sexy Nutcracker theme; M&S Christmas Advert borrowed from Alice in Wonderland, Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, Aladdin and the Wizard of Oz, and was the second most viewed advert on YouTube.  However, the most popular advert online (by quite some way) was John Lewis’ “The Bear and the Hare:”

“There once was an animal who had never seen Christmas” it begins, and ends with the Hare giving the Bear an alarm clock to wake him up in the middle of his hibernation so that he can enjoy his first ever Christmas.  If you watch the advert on YouTube (as I did when I was preparing this sermon) it ends with the message “Click here to continue the story” so I thought I’d see what happen next.  I wondered what adventures they might get up to next – the bear awake for the first time in the midwinter…  Did they meet a funny Robin Redbreast, go ice-skating on a frozen lake, visit Father Christmas…?  I clicked on the link full of expectation: But, as the more cynical (or perhaps realistic) of you may have realised, what actually happens next is John Lewis’ online store.  The adventure ‘continues’ by me buying lots of stuff.

But the fairy tale is sweet.  There is something in this season that makes us want to believe in magic.

As a species we are hungry for the mysterious – earlier this month my son and I were queuing up to see “The Hobbit, Part 2: The Desolation of Smaug” – with elves and Dragons and Wizards.  Harry Potter was a phenomenal success in book and movie format. We also explore the fantastical in modern myths, like Spiderman, Superman and the Avengers, and myths are mixed with science in Star Wars, Star Trek, and my personal favourite – Doctor Who!

But at the same time as we enjoy ever more extraordinary tales religion is viewed with increasing cynicism:

The same people who thrilled to the tale of Bilbo Baggins and his magic ring object to the story of a Virgin giving birth or Wise Men telling the future by star gazing.  It’s strange that we are perfectly happy to be entertained by stories of Hobbits or Wizarding Schools, Jedi or Daleks but something about Jesus makes us uneasy.

The story of Jesus Birth was written almost two thousand years ago, describing events that happened just over two thousand years ago, in a world where demonic possession and miraculous healings were commonplace, a world where the Roman Emperor was seen as a god-in-human-form.

These stories of angels, Magi and stars that stop over stables and are profound stories which contain a truth more profound than history. 

There are some stories so profound that they can only be expressed in a story – ‘second chances are always possible’ is true, but those words do reach the deepest aspects of this truth in the way the Parable of Prodigal Son manages; ‘we are all one human family’ is true, but the Parable of the Good Samaritan goes deeper and can challenge and inspire us in more profound ways.

The stories of Jesus’ birth are puzzles to us, if we try to work out the history behind the piously written myth and legend we will find a fascinating academic study.  However, trying to discover the history behind the story is in danger of missing the point.

The point is that God cares about what happens here on earth.  That a young couple living in poverty, surrounded by scandal, giving birth in squalor are of infinite value to God.

The message of this story is that God or the deepest Reality is not about some supernatural Heaven, removed from human experience; God, the deepest and profoundest Reality is found in human experience.

And that baby grew up to teach that every human being – the poor and the outcast, rich and poor alike, and you and I, are of infinite value to God.

And that we live by these teachings our lives can be transformed.

Christmas is only the starting place, it’s the advert for Christianity the rest of the year.

Perhaps “There is nothing better than Christmas,” a time to “Believe in Magic and Sparkle!” we should let the story take root in our lives “Go on… it’s Christmas!”

“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.

Soul Gym?

Image2 Timothy 2.3-15

 

            Once there was a man who went to play golf with his priest.

            He was on the third hole and only 3 feet away from the hole. He putted his shot and missed. “Damn it, I missed!” the man yelled. The priest replied that it was a sin to say “Damn it!”. The man thought that his priest was correct and apologised.

Later he was on the 15th hole and only 2 feet away, when he missed the shot and yelled “Damn it, I missed!” The priest replied that it was a sin to speak lightly of damnation. The man realised his mistake and that his Father was right and apologised.

Later after that he was on the 18th hole and if he made a 6 inch put he would win the entire game. He of course missed and as before yelled “Damn it, I missed!” The priest was disturbed as times before and angrily shook his head as he was about to speak.

Just as the priest was correcting the man and said, “It is a….” A huge bolt of lightning came down from the skies and struck the priest dead on the spot. Then came a huge rumbling voice that shuck the ground as it said, “Damn it, I missed!”

            I found that joke while searching for “anti religion humour” on the Internet – that was extremely mild compared to a lot of what I found.

            I don’t want to sound like I’m ‘going all Daily Mail’ but it is a difficult time to be a Christian.  Maybe ‘difficult’ is overstating it – we are not likely to be fed to lions or arrested by the Secret Police, but the intellectual climate is certainly hostile to Christianity.  In the 1970s lazy comedians would make jokes about mother-in-laws and foreigners; today religion is the shortcut to laughter.

            It would be a mistake to blame media bias or look for an anti-Christian conspiracy… I think the root cause of this hostility is the Christian Church itself.

            The medievalists who believe in a six-day creation shout loudly and gain attention because what they are saying is so crazy.  But the liberals are too unassuming and quiet to call the crazy people out.

            It’s the same with women bishops and homosexuality.  Those who oppose women bishops say “you could no more make my dog a bishop than a woman” (something that was said to me in all seriousness).  And the progressive Christians wring their hands and say “it’s all terribly difficult.”  It’s not terribly difficult.  In society it used to be impossible for women to be M.P.s or doctors – we realised this was wrong and changed. 

            Wider society sees Christianity as an outdated, superstitious, misogynistic, homophobic institution.  People think they know what Christianity is about, and because we see our faith very differently, we have to explain that they haven’t got it…

We live in a society that sees religion as irrelevant and unnecessary; to most people it doesn’t seem to offer anything useful.

            Why is society so ambivalent or hostile to religion?  Partly because we live in a society that is dominated by consumerism.  Politicians have been introducing the ideals of consumerism into healthcare and education.  And not just politicians of the Right – it was under labour that ‘choice’ in healthcare became a central theme.  I don’t want choice in healthcare, I just want the closest hospital to be able to fix me.

            Consumerism has replaced religion in many ways.  It’s done so quite blatantly:  Supermarkets style themselves as Churches for the twenty-first century, they have aisles and music and surprisingly often the buildings even have spires.  If people are feeling low they are likely to think of ‘retail therapy’ before prayer or meditation.

            Another factor working against faith in world is what some commentators have called ‘a crisis of Character.’  We are no longer sure what “the Good” is.  Some of these commentators (returning to the Daily Mail) will blame our crisis of Character on how pluralistic our society has become.  In our pluralist society there are many different visions of “the Good:”  Liberals value tolerance; Muslims value submission; Buddhists value detachment; some flavours Christians value humility & sacrifice.              But submission, detachment, humility come from those with a clear sense of “the Good” and if we pursued there there maybe some disagreement, but our society would be a better place.  The problem is seen clearly if we consider who our heroes are today.  Fame is seen as an achievement, an end in itself, rather than a side effect of doing something amazing.  We value celebrity and people who are ‘famous for being famous.’  I know I sound like a curmudgeonly kill-joy to some and to others I’ll sound like I’m picking on easy targets, but vacuous nature of our press and television is a real sign of a vacuum of morality.  I have seen Heat magazine run as a story that a picture was taken of a celebrity with sweat under her armpits.

            We live in a society where its OK to be a celebrity because of drunken antics at society parties, but you are vilified for sweating, developing a bald-patch, or worst of all – a V.P.L. (a visible panty line for the uninitiated). 

            So along comes Christianity, like a prudish maiden aunt, and says stop buying Heat magazine, reject consumerism, and you’ve got to start working to build the Kingdom of God.

            It’s a hard thing to sell.  It’s made even more difficult because we basically have the whole of the advertising industry trying to tell the opposite story.  The multi-billion pound advertising industry exists to tell us that we will be happier, fitter, more attractive, have more sex, live longer or be more intelligent if we buy this magazine, eat that ice cream, spray on this deodorant, buy that car, or wear these clothes…

            But we need to reject greed, it’s not fulfilling us as human beings and our planet cannot sustain it…

            Asceticism is out of fashion.  Self-denial is hard to sell.

            But asceticism does exist in out culture and in fact it thrives… …in fitness centres!

            We all recognise the image of a perfect body:  Slim, toned and more-or-less hairless.  The gym exists to bring about this ideal of physical fitness & health.  And like the life of faith there is cost: time, money, and effort.  Gyms are successful because if people can see the value they will pay the price; fitness allows you to do all kinds of things: run, play tennis, attract a partner…

            When we think of Church and how to attract more members we often think of the primary metaphor for our worship as ‘entertainment’ – but on a better ‘show’ with better hymns, better music, better prayers, better sermons (!)…   And while we should find ways to do worship better if we can… a much better metaphor for what we are doing this morning is a trip to the gym:

            We heard this metaphor in our reading from Timothy (it’s also used in 1 Corinthians 9)

            The Church is not a ‘show’ or an ‘entertainment,’ it is a school for character, where you learn what to do to lead a good life.

            There is an old monastic story:

            Two monks who had been brothers and friends for many years were talking.

            “Brother” said the first, “let’s have a fight”

            “Why?” asked the second.

            “Other people do,” explained the first, “and we cannot understand them unless we experience what they do.”

            “Ok, what shall we fight over?”

            The first walked off and found a brick.  He put the brink in the between them and said,  “Let us fight over who owns this brick.”

            “OK,” his friend said, “This brick is mine.”

            “No” he replied, “it is mine.”

            “OK then, you have it.”

            The commentary on the story ends: “And so they were unable to fight as other men do.”

            Our aim is to become people to whom violence is alien, and love and peace are natural.  Our aim to to grow as people – using the story of Jesus life and his teaching as the example and inspiration for how to live.

            Returning to the idea of a current crisis of character, Allan Bloom wrote: “Students have powerful images of what the perfect body is and pursue it incessantly.  But… They no longer have an image of a perfect soul, and hence do not long to have one.”

            Church is our soul-gym, teaching us the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, tolerance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

            And just like none of us would do the training programme of Mo Farah, we work to find our own level, then work to get better.

            To live this life brings fulfilment and joy and will change the world around us.

And here is where the gym metaphor breaks down.  Church is not solitary like the gym – we need each other. We only grow and change together, we need the local community of faith.

            We work at our soul-gym to grow as individuals, to grow together, and to change the world around us.  Amen.

The Lord’s Prayer – A sermon by Margaret Offerman

A Sermon at the Church of the Ascension by Margaret Offerman

There are several pivotal moments in our sacred story when his people reached a new perception of the nature of their God. An obvious one occurred when Moses ascended Mount Sinai and received the ten commandments. From this point, the Israelites worshipped one God (though they sometimes lapsed and took on the belief system of their neighbours). And they obeyed the law their God had delivered to Moses. The law of Moses, the law of God, was extremely detailed and prescriptive. There could be no doubt about what Yahweh demanded of his people in return for his protection from their enemies and their rights to the Promised Land. Exodus 20 vv 5b – 6,
Yahweh………..commandments.

We read a few weeks ago of the encounter between Yahweh and Elijah, when Elijah was so preoccupied with his struggle to divert the Israelites from the worship of Baal that he didn’t realise the significance of God’s still small voice. Yahweh appeared to Elijah, not as a manifestation of his power over the natural world, the God outside, but as an impulse, an awareness from within himself. From then on, the Hebrew scriptures present us with a God we can begin to relate to, not the lawgiver God or the warrior God or the nature God, but a multi-dimensional, companion God. This God is presented in poetic passages of elevated language such as we find in the psalms:
Where could I go to escape your spirit? Where could I flee to avoid your presence? If I climb the heavens you are there.
If I were to take wings and reach the sunrise, or travel westward across the ocean, your hand would still be guiding me, your right hand holding me.

The book of Job is the story of Job’s anguished confrontation with the God who has ceased to be the benevolent champion, the deliverer of Israel, but has turned his back on his own people and connived at their suffering. God is a detached presence again, as he was in the Garden of Eden, a force which must be obeyed, conciliated, feared.

The ambiguity in the bible between the God within and the God outside is encapsulated in the lord’s prayer, our reading this morning. Jesus tells his disciples to pray to God as their father. This God will be a provider of their physical needs. He ‘ll be full of mercy, on condition that they in turn show mercy to those who have done them wrong. There’s no reference to the angry, domineering tendencies that he showed when he appeared to Moses or tested Job. We recognise these qualities of the benevolent father figure as they come to life in the parables that Jesus told. Think of the prodigal son and the unconditional love shown by the father to this disobedient but repentant child. When he saw the prodigal son coming home, the father abandoned dignity and forgot the constraints of old age as he ran across the fields to welcome him home. It’s not by chance that when we talk about the fatherhood of God, it’s this story of the prodigal son that we turn to but we mustn’t ignore the problem of the limitations of our language when we quote this story – attributes we claim for God are often human qualities which we’ve extended beyond the normal human limits.

As well as having all the ideal human qualities of a perfect father, the God Jesus worships is holy. And his name must be hallowed. This ‘other worldly’ aspect of God is supremely important. It’s the transcendent attribute of God which Jesus imbibed from the Hebrew scriptures and it lifts God beyond the image of an old man high above his creation which we see in great works of art such as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

The book group spent an evening recently explaining their various reactions to ‘the Case for God’ by Karen Armstrong. This is a difficult book because it deals with a difficult subject – the nature of God.

The members of the book group don’t represent anyone but themselves, but there was an implicit unanimity in most of the comments made about God. Theism is belief in an external being to whom sacrifices and prayers can be made in the expectation that this divine being will change the course of events, interfere with natural law. The theme of ‘the Case for God’ is that theism, this traditional view of a superhuman, supernatural God, has lost its meaning and power for the vast mass of people. It began to lose its meaning with the discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo. The process continued with the publications of the work of Charles Darwin. It was caricatured by Yuri Gragarin, the first man in space, whose statue now stands outside the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. He talked after his return to earth about the stupendous experience he had had and in an aside, he observed that he hadn’t seen God up there. His audience laughed.

Many of our hymns and prayers still use language that suggests that theism is alive and well. We pray to almighty God and we sing of [one] whose almighty word chaos and darkness heard and took their flight. But outside the church these images and this language are empty. And even within the church, as those of us who choose the hymns will testify, it’s hard to find appropriate words to express our perception of God and our relationship with him in a way that makes sense.
‘In his hands he gently bears us,
Rescues us from all our foes’
Without intending to be flippant, I want to know what he was doing a week past Wednesday when 24 Indian children were poisoned by their school dinner. Where is he when thousands of people lose their lives or their livelihoods in tsunamis or earthquakes? The suffering of the innocent is one of the great questions that confront us, as it confronted Job in the 6thc BC or God’s chosen people during the holocaust.

However, in our scepticism about belief in a God as a supernatural being who invades the universe sporadically and arbitrarily, we mustn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. There’s a depth dimension to human experience, a core to our life, both individually and in the life of the world, which is never apart from what we are and yet it’s beyond us, it transcends us. So we ask: WHAT is God? Rather than WHO is God?

Paul Tillich, a refugee from the holocaust, said that God is the presence in which all personhood can flourish. God is the ground of our being.

This is a long way from clear definitions about God – God the creator, God the lawgiver, God the champion of his people. Tillich talks of an internal reality that opens us up to the meaning of life itself. But this sounds nebulous, ungraspable. (David Jenkins, former bishop of Durham, wrote of Tillich that his writing was obscure and that the obscurity concealed not profundity but muddle.) Thinking about the nature of God is not an easy ride. We have to recognise once again the limitations of language and use words like energy, vitality, creativity, the sublime. We have to think of examples of sacrificial self-giving, compassion, a thirst for justice, and see that they transcend self-interest. They are not the product of the selfish gene. They represent the highest ideals in life. They are the sum of all values. They exist and we can call them God, without having to believe in an independent, supernatural being. And the greatest of these qualities and attributes is love. David Jenkins said that God is as he is in Jesus. Jesus was and is divine love incarnate. As we heard in our epistle this morning: in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.

We are one body made up of different parts. We must use the language of a search, an exploration, a journey, a pilgrimage to describe our need to know God, know his nature and worship his holiness.

This is Paul’s prayer for the church in Ephesus: 3 vv 14 – 21.

Pentecost (and Songs of Praise)

Verses from Acts of the Apostles. Ch.2
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language speaking about God’s deeds of power?” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

From John 15.
Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

I have been thinking about hymns this week.  We have our Songs of Praise service tonight so my sermon this morning is not only a reflection on Pentecost, but also a prelude or introduction to tonight’s service.

Our reading from John today is one that makes me a little uncomfortable:

I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth;

That text has been used to give divine authority to the Church.  Jesus could not say everything that needed to be said while he was alive – so his successors in the Church, and particularly the Spirit-led Clergy.

If the Church acts with the authority of the Holy Spirit then its authority is unquestionable.  And too bad if you disagree, are a women, or are gay.

“Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely; ecclesiastical power corrupts diabolically.”

However, the passage from John is valuable because it reminds us that Jesus did not think his words stitched up every ethical, moral and religious issue, that there is room for development and growth.

I actually don’t believe that Church or its leaders have any spiritual authority at all.  I believe in the disestablishment of the Church of England, and think the sooner Lords are reformed and the Bishops evicted the better.  The church has a practical authority to maintain an institution, it needs its rules and regulations.  But this is a secular authority, it does not speak for God, and if any religious leader claims to be speaking for God I suggest you walk away, or maybe run…

The authority of the Church is purely charismatic, if what the church is saying resonates in your life then listen for some more.  If it doesn’t resonate there is no reason to listen further.  That was Jesus’ approach.  He preached, and people listened or walked away.  He did not insist that people listen or obey.  He talked about Judgement, but judgement was not based on obedience to him, accepting him as saviour, or joining the church, judgement was based solely on our love for our God’s children, our sisters and brothers in need.

I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth;

As long as we see Jesus words as allowing a diversity of opinion through time and not giving the Church some sinister authority.

This diversity, and the charismatic authority of religious teaching and words has been illustrated in the selection of music for our Songs of Praise Service.  When I suggested tonight’s service I had no idea what sort of hymns would be chosen.  I wondered if there were any dentists in the congregation who would choose “Crown Him With Many Crowns.”   I thought some keen golfer might select “There is A Green Hill Far Away” or some shopaholic might want “Sweet By and By.”   The Geologist’s Hymn is of course “Rock of Ages” whereas a tax collector likes to hear “I Surrender All.”

You may have heard before the recommend hymns for speeding in your car:

AT 75 miles per hour: “God Will Take Care of Me”
AT 85 miles per hour “Guide me, O Great Jehovah”
AT 95 miles per hour “Nearer My God to Thee”
AT 105 miles per hour: “Lord, I’m Coming Home”

Jokes aside Hymns resonate deeply within our spirituality.  Sometimes, the words move us, sometimes the tune, sometimes the time when we heard it.  Often they sum up comfort we received from God at a certain point in our life.  Often what we love someone else will hate and visa versa – tolerance in our worship is important.

Music itself is an amazing gift from God.  To me it is a sacrament.  In communion ordinary bread and wine become for us the body and blood of Christ – the normal becomes the sacred.  In music the sound of wind through pipes, or strings struck or plucked, or the vibration of vocal chords become something that defies description.  Music is a sign of the Kingdom of God – that the ordinary can become the sacred.

In essence this is the hart of Christianity, that an ordinary human life, the life of a wandering penniless preacher, who lived in a small county under Roman occupation 2000 years ago could reveal to us God, in all God’s fullness.

That also, bread and wine can reveal to, today God’s presence with us still.

And, perhaps most significant of all, that our lives, can be transformed, by the presence of God’s Spirit.  A hymn not chosen tonight, but which makes the point of this sermon more eloquently than I could is “Teach me, my God and King”

All may of thee partake;
nothing can be so mean
which, with this tincture, “for thy sake,”
will not grow bright and clean.

A servant with this clause
makes drudgery divine;
who sweeps a room, as for thy laws,
makes that and the action fine.

This is the famous stone
that turneth all to gold;
for that which God doth touch and own
cannot for less be told.

“nothing can be so mean which, with this tincture, “for thy sake,” will not grow bright and clean.” – bread and wine can become for us the body and blood of Christ, as sound waves can become music, so can our lives be lifted, transformed, made into a sacrament of God’s love and presence

Finally, as a postscript to this sermon: a cautionary tale about hymns…  I have a curious inability to remember numbers, phone numbers, house numbers, dates, bible chapter-and-verses and hymn numbers.  I can forget a hymn number in the time it takes for me to look up from my notes and announce it.

A man went to a friend’s wedding and was impressed with the choice of hymns, especially ‘Love Divine’. He was due to be married himself a few months later, so he made a note of the number: 343.

When he next met with the minister who was to conduct his wedding, he told him he would like hymn 343.

‘Are you sure?’ asked the minister. ‘It is rather an unusual choice!’

‘No, I am certain. I heard it at my friend’s wedding, and it is just what I want to say,’ insisted the man.

What he had not realised is that his friend was married in a Methodist church, using the Methodist hymn book, whereas at his wedding they were using Hymns Ancient and Modern.

Imagine the surprise of all – not least the bride – when they started to sing:

HA&M 343:
Come, O thou traveller unknown
whom still I hold, but cannot see;
my company before is gone
and I am left alone with thee;
With thee all night I mean to stay,
and wrestle till the break of day.

The Truth of the Ascension

On Ascension Day we had Bob Callahan from Inclusive Church come to preach.  He said lots of lovely things about the Church of the Ascension.  He also talked about the Chapel of the Ascension in Walsingham where in the plasterwork of the ceiling there is a cloud sculpted, and disappearing into the cloud are two feet…  It makes me think of Monty Python, but it is supposed to be Jesus’ ascending.

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

I was brought up a Northern Irish Baptist – 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 no where in space for Jesus to go once he was out there.  (I worried about a lot of things as a youth – I really want very popular with the girls…)

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, here is 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 don’t 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 today, we must note that the Ascension does not feature of some of the earliest manucrips of Luke.  In some of the earliest manuscrips it just says that “Jesus parted from them” later manuscrips add “and was carried up into Heaven.”

So 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 truth not matter?

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.

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 the latest 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 “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.

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.

This story of a sad goodbye, is also 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…

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 name for a Church.  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.