Thursday, 30 December 2010

The Second Sunday of Christmas : Predestination


Ephesians 1:3-14
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; who is the pledge of our inheritance towards redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

John 1:10-18
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” ’) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.


All of us, if we are honest, have parts of the Bible that we are uncomfortable with. If we know our scriptures well, there will be sections that we find hard to stomach. A classic example of that may be that famous Psalm 137 which begins, ‘By the rivers of Babylon where we sat down, and there we wept when we remembered Zion.’

So far so good. But then it becomes a cry for retribution when the composer writes, ‘Happy shall they be who pay you back for what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!’

Shocking stuff, and I simply cannot believe that to do so is God’s will. Instead I read it as the heartrending cry of a people who have lost everything, but not that this is God’s will, that anyone who kills the children of an oppressor will be blessed.

OK, now this is a fairly extreme example, but once we are honest enough to admit that there are passages of scripture that cause us difficulties, then I think we can begin to wrestle with God’s word in a way that he fully intends us to do. Our problem is that we tend to decide what the passage means without knowing the background to why it was written.

Then if we don’t agree with what we’ve interpreted the passage to say, then we tie ourselves up in knots of guilt because we don’t like what God’s word appears to say whilst feeling that actually we ought to agree with it because it’s the Bible.

However, what God intends, I believe is that we should wrestle with such texts to see a) whether they actually say what we think they say, and b) even if they do, is that still relevant to our modern culture or has it been superceded by the grace that Christ brought. God does not treat us as children to be mollycoddled but as adults who have to grow up to maturity.

All of this is a way of saying that this text from Ephesians is one that I find hugely difficult. Taken at face value it seems to suggest that before God even began to create, every Christian had already been chosen to be a believer, that we were all predestined to be here and to be adopted as his own children, and the trouble with that it’s not fair and we expect that a God of love ought to be fair.

What about those he didn’t choose? What about all the lousy things that happen in the world? Were they predestined too? Do we really want to worship that kind of God?

For a number of years now I have made quite a point of preaching about collaboration, that God works with us through prayer, and that the future is reached through God initiating plans and redrafting them when we get it wrong. That seems to me to be so much more Godlike, loving and parental, than this vision that St. Paul seems to paint here of our salvation having been decided for us long before even our species existed, let alone we ourselves.

So this is one of those difficult texts for me, and that, I believe, is one of the reasons why it is so important. The Bible has plenty of texts like this and they are intended by the Holy Spirit to kick us, to drive us out of our complacency, and so that is what we’re going to do this morning.

Firstly I need to map out why I think individual predestination is an incorrect interpretation. Secondly we need to look at what this passage therefore really says, which may not be quite what we think it says at face value, and thirdly we need to therefore decide on what we need to address in our own lives as a result of wrestling with this as God the Holy Spirit intends us to do.

So firstly, why do I disagree with predestination, the belief that God has specifically chosen those who will believe in Christ and accept him as saviour? You see I am well aware that there may be plenty of you for whom this is not a difficult doctrine to believe in, and that’s absolutely fine. After all, ever since about the period of Augustine, something like three hundred years after this was written, it has been a part of church history and doctrine based on verses like the ones we have before us today.

I am also aware that the very fact that I am disputing what appears to be clearly and straightforwardly written in the word of God may be quite disturbing, but that is part of my function as a priest, and it is why we sometimes pray, ‘Lord bless us and disturb us’.

So for me the issue with predestination is that it seems to me that it takes away your free-will. If God has foreordained that you be here today, then is there any way that you could have done otherwise? No, of course not. If the future is set in stone then that is what will happen. If it is God’s will, then it must take place, at least according to the doctrine of predestination.

But we don’t treat our children like that do we. We help them to grow to maturity by instructing them into making wise free choices as they reach adulthood, and living with the consequences when they get it wrong. That is the role of a parent. Therefore if God is meant to be our Father, and we are created in his image, then surely he must be doing the same thing with us, enabling us to grow as believers who become mature in Christ. We must be offered genuine choices or we cannot grow into mature believers capable of making wise decisions.

I believe that the bulk of the story-arc of the Bible is of God growing a nation for himself of people who would choose to follow him. Yet that seems to be in complete contradiction to what the Ephesians passage says, but is it really?

Actually, no I think the problem is with how we read the passage, not with what St. Paul wrote. You see we are doing what we so often do which is to read the passage having already made up our mind what it says from a modern perspective without realising the cultural nuances that were present in the original.

You see although St. Paul was writing to a group who were not Jewish in background or heritage, this section has a very Jewish feel to it. It is one long hymn of praise in a Jewish style, and so we need to read it in that context. The reason that is so important is because the Jews did not believe in the predestination of individuals by God, and this is the key point:

They believed that God chose Israel to be a nation of servants. Individuals like the prophets were of course important but they fulfilled the roles of calling all God’s people back to repentance. What I therefore mean is that this passage does not refer to you each as individuals. When St. Paul writes about us he does not mean us as a collection of individuals but us as a group.
That comes over loud and clear at the end of the passage when he uses the plural word for ‘you’, as in ‘you also, (you - all of you collectively)... were marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit.’

Let me put it another way. I completed this sermon on Wednesday with the intention of preaching it on Sunday. Now you could, at this point, say that I predestined you to hear these words today. However that wouldn’t be fully true. By planning this sermon I predestined that I would preach it, but you came here of your own free-will. You might have stayed in bed.

I was always going to be here to preach it - my choice, but you’re here because you made your own choice. The sermon was predestined, but not those who heard it, nor how they choose to respond to it.

And that, I believe is what the passage is really saying. It’s like this. Before God began this creation he always knew that the likelihood was that sentient creatures in this universe, if given real choices, would probably rebel and choose their own will. That’s God in God’s wisdom knowing in advance what was likely to happen rather than foreordaining it to happen.

Therefore God has always known that he would have to come to save us in order to have a people who chose to love him rather than people who had to love him because that’s what they were predestined to do. God planned to do this from the outset so that there would be a people in Christ who he would regard as being holy and blameless, but that is not the same as our westernised individualistic view that God chose me specifically, or you specifically.

I don’t think the passage is saying that, and I think that kind of interpretation flows out of an inflated sense of our own personal importance which is derived from the secular western individualistic mindset that the individual, or rather ‘I’ am the vital component to God’s plan, rather than the biblical standpoint that the community is what is of greater importance.

So when we’re reading difficult texts like this we must try, in so far as we are able, to read them from the cultural perspective of the writer rather than from our own cultural perspective. If we do that in this case what we find is one great long hymn of praise for the way in which God’s plan has come to fruition in the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ.

It is this movement from heaven to earth, from earth through mortal life to death, from death to life and from life back to heaven which has gathered up together the things of heaven and the things of earth. All this has been accomplished by the Word of God, our Lord Jesus.

How then are we to respond to this? Surely it must be exactly as St. Paul did, by being caught up in wonder and praise that God should have planned, long before the human race, or even this planet, was in existence, that he would come to offer salvation and achieve the mechanism by which that could be accomplished.

If we think on it from that perspective then the focus is on God’s initiative rather than our inflated sense of self-importance. That’s vital and I think it’s one of the key reasons for why the Church of England is in a perpetual battle within itself. We are caught up in trying to get our own way in how we should worship, who should lead that worship, who is acceptable as a priest or bishop and who isn’t.

If we could only put aside these petty, stupid and insignificant quarrels and start instead to see that we are only here because God himself came to earth to open the way back into heaven, then just maybe we would be lost in praise and respond to him in worship. Then we might have a church he could be proud of. Amen.

(And basically anything written by Greg Boyd, John Sanders and Clark Pinnock on the Openness of God, and of God as one who takes risks with us.)
Also see writings by John Polkinghorne on this subject who approaches it from a scientific standpoint to reach the same conclusions.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Christmas Midnight : Hope

When it says that Mary wrapped Jesus in bands of cloth, do you know what ‘bands of cloth’ are? They used to be called swaddling bands. Basically it’s strips of cloth that are wound around and around the new born baby so that they are all wrapped up tightly and can’t move. It sounds cosy, if you’re a baby. But you’re not babies.

So what does it sound like for us? To me it sounds terribly constricting, and I think that’s the problem. The church, the culture and the media have unwittingly worked together to contrive this limp and rather effeminate version of faith that it is about something constrictive, robbing it of its life, and more importantly, robbing us of the hope that the church is supposed to bring.

And I think that hope is really why we’re here, because there is something about Christmas that deep, deep down, way down in our psyche, inspires us to hope. But what is hope? This Christmas night I want to think about this question, and I want to change your perception on hope, just as mine has been changed in recent months.

The social activist Jim Wallis said these words, ‘Hope is not the same as optimism. Hope is believing in something despite the evidence, and then watching the evidence change.’ Wallis goes on to tell a story of being in South Africa back in the days of apartheid, and he was in St. George’s Cathedral when white South African police broke into the cathedral during a service at which Archbishop Desmond Tutu was preaching.

They lined the walls with their notepads and pens and their recording equipment. Their presence there was to demonstrate that the powers of the government were stronger than the anti-apartheid movement. They wanted, dared, Archbishop Tutu to say something that would give them grounds to arrest him.

So, Wallis said, he watched this little archbishop look around the cathedral, taking it all in, bouncing up and down on his heels like some preachers do, looking at all the police who were waiting to arrest him if he dared defy the regime, and pondering his next words carefully. And then Archbishop Tutu said these words:
“Yes you are powerful, but I serve a God who will not be mocked. Since you have already lost we invite you today to come on over and join the winning side!”

Of course nobody believed it. Who would have done? But Archbishop Tutu believed it, and look at where we are today. Apartheid has been confined to history. Hope is not optimism, it’s much more powerful than that. Hope is believing despite the evidence, and then watching the evidence change.

Now when I first heard that saying I thought it was mind-blowing. And then I thought about it some more, and then I began to be somewhat troubled about it, because that’s not what we necessarily see is it. Every one of us, every single one of us, will at some time in our lives have hoped for something; hoped for it with all our worth, only to have that hope dashed.

For some of us those have been defining moments in our lives. Those are the times when maybe we finally lost the childhood faith that we clung on to, and maybe we’ve never been able to rebuild an adult one. The job we lost, the partner who left, the relative or friend who died young. I could go on, but every single one of us will know of hope stalling... dying.

How dare I stand up here and say, ‘Hope is believing in something despite the evidence and then watching the evidence change’!? I dare to say it because it’s the gospel truth, but the trouble is we only read one gospel.

Tonight, as through much of the Christmas season, we have focussed on the Gospel of St. Luke, which is great, but it’s only told from one perspective, and that is the perspective of Mary. It’s beautiful because it’s a mothering story, but it’s also a very passive story. The initiative is taken by God, which is usually the case whatever Gospel you read, but Mary’s role is pretty passive.

When the angel Gabriel spoke to her nine months earlier and told her what was going to happen to her she said, ‘Let it be to me according to your word’, and the trouble is, that’s the Gospel which has got so deeply ingrained in us. And so for us when we hope for something, we sit back and see whether what we’re hoping for is going to happen. We have a Luke’s Gospel faith, but the trouble with a passive faith is, when what we want to happen doesn’t happen, then we risk ending up having no faith at all!

‘Let it be to me according to your word’, is what we’ve grown up thinking is proper Christian doctrine, but it’s only half the story, and it’s because we haven’t read the other half of the story that we have let hope die and replaced it with cynicism. But if you read Matthew’s Gospel, like we did last Sunday, you get a whole different picture of hope, because Matthew’s Gospel tells the story from Joseph’s perspective, and Joseph’s faith was anything but passive.

When Mary is found to be pregnant by the Holy Spirit, Joseph’s hopes die and he decides to break off the engagement, that is until an angel tells him what’s really going on, so instead Joseph acts. And when they get to Bethlehem, and after the baby is born, the angel returns and tells Joseph to take Mary and Jesus and flee to Egypt because Herod is going to try and kill Jesus.

And then, after some time in Egypt, the angel returns and tells Joseph to bring his family back to their homeland because Herod is dead. To fulfil Joseph’s hopes, the key thing is that he has to do something. Joseph’s model is fundamentally different to Mary’s. It is an active ‘get up and do what God is telling you to do’ kind of faith.

Or to put it another way, Hope is believing in something, despite the evidence, and then watching the evidence change because God has called you to actively change it!!

Look, remember back to the story about Desmond Tutu? In that story we saw the evidence change as apartheid was dismantled, but did Tutu sit back and say to God, ‘Let it be to us according to your word’? Of course he didn’t. He knew that what he hoped for was what God intended for the cause of justice and righteousness, and so he responded to God; he worked with God, and together with so many others they changed the evidence.

And this is what Christmas is all about. The other name given to Jesus from the Old Testament is ‘Emmanuel’, which means ‘God is with us.’ The whole point of this is that the birth of Jesus means God has been let loose in the world. We are in this with him. He is in this with us. The promise of God is not, ‘Let me take away this pain’. The promise of God is, ‘Wherever you are; whatever you go through; whatever I call you to, I am right there with you: Emmanuel’.

So my message to you this Christmas is, don’t let yourself be wrapped up in spiritual swaddling clothes so that you have to sit back and be passive. That is not God’s intention for you. That’s what we do to babies, not to adults. God works with us. Hope is believing in something despite the evidence and watching the evidence change, and sometimes that’s because you are called by God to change it.

So what are you hoping for, and I pray your answer isn’t something as shallow as ‘A new car’. What are you really hoping for? What is really important for the future, perhaps for your children’s future? Or your company’s future? Don’t be passive about it. Don’t sit back and wait for it to happen and then complain when it doesn’t. Yes, sometimes God does expect us to wait, and if you ask him he’ll show you when you have to wait, but that’s only half the story, because often he expects us to work with him like Joseph did.

Emmanuel, God with us, means exactly that. God isn’t meant to be confined within these walls and visited occasionally. The whole point of Christmas is to underline that Jesus is loose in the world, your world, every part of it; your marriages, your families, your jobs, your divorces, your hang-ups. There is no longer sacred and secular, there is simply God let loose in the world, and that changes everything because that means there is hope, but it’s not a passive hope.

Hope is believing in something despite the evidence and then watching the evidence change, and the message at Christmas is, you might be the one who is called to change the evidence. Amen.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

4th Sunday of Advent - Joseph the Humble


Isaiah 7:10-16
Isaiah Gives Ahaz the Sign of Immanuel
Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. Then Isaiah said: ‘Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.

Romans 1:1-7
Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,
To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Matthew 1:18-end
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’
When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son and he named him Jesus.


Although it’s still a week to go before Christmas it’s important that we pick up the first of the birth narratives this week because it gives us a new perspective. Over Christmas itself we tend to use the deep mysticism of John’s Gospel; ‘In the beginning was the Word’, or the beauty of Luke’s account showing the passivity of Mary in terms of receiving God’s call to bear the Son of God and agreeing to do so.

But here in Matthew’s Gospel we get a very different perspective as we meet Joseph and see his point of view which is far more action dominated. Matthew’s nativity is full of testosterone and underlines that our role in God’s plan is not just to sit back and let God do his thing, but to be deeply involved.

What do I mean by that? Well if we read this narrative alongside the ones that follow we find that three times Joseph is visited by an angel, and each time the angel asks him to do something. On this first occasion the angel asks Joseph to take Mary as his wife despite her pregnancy. Later on in the nativity the angel asks Joseph to take Mary and Jesus to safety in Egypt because Herod was about to try and kill Jesus...

...And finally the angel visits Joseph once more when they are in Egypt to call them home again once Herod has died. In each case Joseph responds with obedience. What this highlights for us is the holiness of the man and his willingness to do what is right. Indeed that desire for righteousness comes over even in the way he intended to treat Mary when she was found to be pregnant. But what we find here may not be what we have always supposed. Let’s see if I can explain.

According to Jewish law, as you will find in Deuteronomy 22, Mary was guilty of a capital crime. Now under the Romans, no one could be executed unless it was on their say-so, hence Jesus himself having to be tried by Pilate even though the Sanhedrin had already found him guilty of the capital crime of blasphemy.

We often think of Mary’s pregnancy outside of marriage as being akin to the shame that was perhaps felt back in the 1960's if such a thing happened, but in first century Jewish culture it was a far graver issue than an embarrassment to the family. It is with that in mind that we interpret Joseph’s decision to quietly call off the betrothal.

We assume that Joseph was deeply hurt at Mary’s apparent adultery, yet because he was a kind and merciful man he didn’t wish to cause her even more agony by calling attention to her crime by a public dismissal. ‘Good old Joseph’, we think; ‘What a good man.’

But what if it was more than that? Certainly that is the usual interpretation that we have, and it’s called the ‘suspicion theory’. However, in my reading around this passage I’ve found that this is not the only reading, and there is another way that alters our perception of Joseph still further, that not only is he active in the early of life Jesus, ensuring his survival, but perhaps he was deeply holy in a way we might never have considered before.

This other interpretation is called the humility theory. Let me remind you what the text says, using a modern translation: ‘When Jesus’s mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.’

Those final three words are vital. It’s not that Mary was found to be with child, but that Mary was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. We usually assume that Joseph discovered her pregnancy, immediately jumped to the wrong conclusion and was then talked out of divorce by the angel. But what if instead that Joseph discovered that she was with child by the Holy Spirit and was so humble that he dared not marry someone who was carrying such a holy child?

In essence her womb had been made sacred by the work of God, and who was he, a mere man, to marry and have sex with a woman whom God had chosen? Now if this is a true interpretation it makes us realise just how holy and humble Joseph was. He was right there with Mary, supporting her, knowing that she carried a very holy child within her.

This would probably make sense of why Matthew includes the sentence, ‘...Joseph took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son and he named him Jesus.’ If he was that much in awe of what God had accomplished inside Mary he would not have wanted to have embarked on a physical marital relationship with Mary until the child was born.

So this different understanding suggests to us that, far from being the silent partner in the relationship that we normally assume because of our traditional use of Luke’s Gospel which focusses on Mary, instead Joseph was a hugely holy and deeply God-fearing man whose humility and servanthood were integral for the plan of God.

He would have fathered Jesus with great care, tenderness and awe, knowing that God had entrusted to him a supreme burden, of caring for the child in his care and for his young wife.

Now you may be wondering where this new interpretation of events comes from. Well in fact it’s not new, but is very ancient and supported by Origen who was perhaps the first Christian theologian, Thomas Aquinas and Bernard of Clairvaux.

And it also issues us a very deep challenge. Mary’s model is one of passivity, of a type of holiness which allows God to have his way. Joseph’s, however, is of a radical, humble holiness, and a deep regard of the things of God, desiring always to do that which is right, and willing to change his intentions according to the command of God.

So I wonder, how do we compare to that kind of holiness? How carefully and reverently do we value the things of God? Yet more questions to add to our advent self-examinations. Amen.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

3rd Sunday of Advent: playing with branding irons

James 5:7-10
Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.

Matthew 11:2-11
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.”
Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

“Beloved, do not grumble against each other so that you will not be judged.” I love the letter of James and commend it to anyone as an antidote to false religious piety because over and over again he gives practical wisdom about how to live as a Christian. “Beloved, do not grumble against each other so that you will not be judged.” Be positive about each other, only, where’s the fun in that?

Six months ago in Canada a company decided to launch a newspaper that would only report good news. An online poll asked people if they would read it. One of the answers that jumped out at me was this one: “...if it's anything like the community paper in my town, it will be horribly, horribly boring. I think it's grand when a group of school kids launches a penny drive for cancer research, but I really don't need to read about it.”

In fact I seem to remember something like this was tried back in the 1980's in this country. It sank without a trace. We don’t, it appears, want to read good news. If you look at the comments pages on your usual newspapers what you will see is plenty of grumbling and negativism. The tabloid magazines like Heat are even worse in their incessant digging for juicy and negative gossip. ‘Disgraceful’, we might say to each other, but the question today’s reading throws at us is, are we, in the church, any different?

When writing his letter James, it strikes me, seems to be reacting primarily against impatience in this section, but elsewhere he warns against most of the petty mindsets that catch us out as believers. Let’s be honest, we do struggle with each other’s failings, but why is that such a problem? I think the answer is that judgementalism stems from using ourselves as a yardstick.

In essence, when we grumble against someone else it is because we have seen the way that they have acted and decided that we are better than they are. We have put ourselves in their shoes and made the decision that we would have done it better than they did. We have judged them against our own measure and decided that we are better than they are and are therefore justified in moaning about them.

The problem is that the Lord made it clear that if we do this to other people, then we can expect him to do the same with us, except that his measure is one of perfection. If we grumble against each other then we can expect to be judged against his perfection. So the command is simple, ‘Don’t grumble about each other.’ End of story.

Now, you may be thinking that I am asking too much of you, to expect you to never grumble. But actually I don’t think I am. There is a well known clergyman in this diocese who has a bit of a reputation amongst other clergy, and it’s a well deserved one. This particular gentleman will simply never say anything nasty about anyone else.

Yes, I know, I didn’t believe it either, but I worked alongside him for over four years before he moved to a new parish recently, and it’s absolutely true. He has learnt this lesson and applied it in his life and consequently he is perhaps one of the most trusted vicars in the area because we all know that he will never, ever betray us or say something unkind about us.

We may not agree with him, and he may disagree with us, but he will never be petty about it, and he will never grumble about us. And I don’t think it’s just in his nature. I think he has had to work at it just like any of us would have to work at it, but he’s succeeded. It can be done! It is possible! Grumbling about other people need not be a part of human nature.

I think what makes this particularly interesting is that we see the alternative in our Gospel reading and we see how much it is praised by the Lord. Matthew picks up the story from when John the Baptist had been imprisoned. John’s ministry had been a fiery prophetic one, declaring that he was coming to prepare the way for the Messiah whose sandals he wasn’t fit to untie; the One who would bring judgement. You may remember these words from last week:
“...he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

That was what John was expecting Jesus to be like. But then reports began to reach John in prison of how the Messiah was eating and drinking with tax collectors and prostitutes. This was not what he expected. Now what would you or I have done? Would we have started to declaim this so-called Messiah as being a worthless sham? Would we have started rumours about him and asked questions in public hearing regarding what was really going on when he invited children to sit with him?

Those are the kind of reactions that can completely undermine a person’s reputation. We decide that we don’t like what we’re hearing, and so in our judgemental way we try and bring down the one we disagree with. And because of human nature the rumour mill catches fire and before you know it all sorts of untrue things are being said. It’s every teacher and vicar’s nightmare because it can destroy a lifetimes work, and in village communities like this one it is a huge temptation that many succumb to.

But that wasn’t how John the Baptist played it. He was confused because Jesus was not doing what he expected him to do, and so he sent some of his disciples to ask Jesus a simple question,
‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ In that question was a huge weight of confusion and maybe desperation that John’s work had landed him in prison, and had it all been for nothing?

But Jesus’s response was to ask John’s disciples to look around at the fruit of what he was doing. Yes it may well have seemed unorthodox for the Messiah, the Holy One, to be hanging around with the kind of people he was with, but look at the result:
‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’

There was a gentle rebuke in this too; a sort of loving cousinly reassurance. ‘Don’t worry John, this is how it has to be. Unless I go among these people I cannot call them back into the family of God. We must share at their tables for them to trust me. This is how it must be because love and acceptance is offered before judgement.’

So what then is the message for us in this? Let me give you a mental image. A farmer has some cattle to be branded so he takes out his branding iron and heats it up. When it’s red hot he pushes it on to the rump of the animal. That animal is marked, it’s burned by the heat of the branding iron. On and on the farmer goes, relentlessly marking his cattle.

Then when he is finished he plunges his red hot branding iron into a tub of cold water. There is a cloud of steam as the cold water robs the iron of all its heat. If the farmer were to push the branding iron on to the rump of another animal, it would make no mark because all of it’s heat has been quenched. The tub of water took away its heat.

Our role in the world is to be like that tub of water. We cannot stop people branding others with their gossip. Ask yourself how many of your opinions of people in this church, the parish or amongst your workmates have been formed by other people’s grumbles. People will grumble about others, but we don’t have to join in.

By refusing to grumble with another we take the heat out of their complaint. In so doing we are like a tub of water, quenching gossip instead of passing it on. Grumbling only hurts if it’s passed on, but if it stops with us, we take its power out of the world.

This is such a Christlike behaviour. In fact you can make a very good argument that this is exactly what Jesus accomplished on the Cross by saying, ‘The buck stops here. I will take the consequences of sin out of the world.’ It’s also rather like John the Baptist, because in stopping the grumble, we help prepare the way of the Lord.

Advent, like Lent, is a time of self-examination as we prepare to receive again the message of the Son of God being born into the world, and look forward to his return. The readings today challenge us about our own behaviour, so let us consider carefully our conversations and our responses. Amen

Saturday, 4 December 2010

2nd Sunday of Advent - Revolution


Romans 15:4-13
For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,
‘Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles,
and sing praises to your name’;
and again he says,
‘Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people’;
and again,
‘Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
and let all the peoples praise him’;
and again Isaiah says,
‘The root of Jesse shall come,
the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope.’
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Matt. 3:1-12
The Proclamation of John the Baptist
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.” ’
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’

For many children and teenagers there is a very uncomfortable moment that occurs at some point before they’re sixteen, and it’s that moment when they realise that one or both of their parents might be wrong about something. Now I’m not talking about abusive or broken backgrounds; just your average family, but there will come a point in every young person’s life when the penny drops and they realise that their parents have flaws.

What happens next depends a great deal on how the situation is handled. At one end of the scale an insecure parent who has a child lacking in wisdom could suffer a great loss of authority as rebellion becomes steadily more of an issue, whereas at the other end of the scale it may be just a simple acceptance that things were not as once thought and the child makes a mental adjustment and decides that, in this instance it genuinely does know better but doesn’t need to make an issue out of it which will disrupt the home.

In the latter case we see a triumph of accepting love, that parent and child are able to accept their flawed natures but love each other despite that. In the former case a complete breakdown may occur that takes an eon to repair, if indeed it can be repaired. But it all comes down to what is always a revolutionary idea, that something (or someone) that was once thought to be correct has been shown to be wrong and a response is demanded by the person who has uncovered the error.

And that is what we find in both of our readings today. So I want us to think about revolution, how we deal with it, particularly if our beliefs are entrenched, and how it may apply to the modern church.

Let’s start with Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. Now in order to understand the context of this you need to be aware of the situation of the Roman church. When the early church began it sprang out of Judaism. It was initially another sect like Sadduceeism or Phariseeism, but that gradually began to change, largely through St. Paul’s group, as they found the Holy Spirit leading them to preach to Gentiles, non-Jews like us.

The church in Rome was probably started as a result of Jews from the day of Pentecost taking their new found faith back to the city, rather than from any direct mission by any of the apostles since they began their church before any missionary activity spread. There was a widespread Jewish population in Rome and had been for about a hundred years or so.

The pivotal action, though, was in AD49, the on-going dispute between Jews and Jewish Christians resulted in emperor Claudius expelling all Jews, both Christian and Judaistic. Now the expulsion only lasted about five years because Claudius died in AD54, but that was enough. The Gentile Christians were left alone for just a few years, and in that time the character of the church would have changed.

Imagine, then, what it was like for a Jewish Christian to be able to return to the city only to find that the essential style and nature of worship in church had changed dramatically and lost a lot of its Jewishness. It would be like you going away for a few years and when you come back and rejoin this church you discover that this service has become a charismatic one with lots of singing and dancing.
[Note - this sermon was preached at Prayer Book Communion and Evensong!]

You can quite easily put yourself in their shoes. There had been a revolution because the Gentiles who had been left behind had concluded that Christianity was not predominantly Jewish. Now there had to be a reckoning. Would there be love or a split? So Paul writes to try and show them that this had been foreseen by the prophets, quoting the prophets and showing that even the early Jewish patriarchs had seen this coming.

He was instructing them that Jesus was making the Father available to everyone, and that it was right that Gentiles should come into the church, and that the Jewish Christians should rejoice with them because this was part of God’s plan for the Jews to lead this mission. You can truly sense the pouring of oil on troubled waters as he exhorts them to worship together and be mutually filled with joy and hope in believing together.

And there is a similar kind of revolution going on in Matthew’s Gospel. Here we find Jews relying on their heritage for salvation only for John the Baptist to declare how worthless that is, and that God can make new followers out of stones if he wants to, and that what is really needed is repentance. Once again we have a revolutionary teaching, that being born a Jew isn’t enough; one had to live a life that was bearing fruit to be counted as a child of Abraham.

Over and over again, throughout church history there have been revolutions overturning the old order, or attempting to do so. Was the Gospel also for non-Jews? Did not-Jews have to be circumcised? Was slavery appropriate? In every case the revolution has stood or fallen depending on whether it was deemed correct to reject a previously held teaching and accept a new one.

Those who sometimes declare a wish to return to how the church used to be when it first began should note that we have grown in Christ a great deal, and perhaps it would be unwise to return to a time when Christians accepted slavery, that circumcision was demanded and only ‘clean’ foods could be eaten in accordance with Torah.

But the question I think this raises for us is, what are we to do with the revolutions that are currently facing us? If you follow the news about the Anglican Communion you will be aware that we are facing a difficult time ahead as we try to decide whether or not it is right for women to be consecrated as bishops in the Church of England.

For me I find that, if I apply all the rules and tests for how we have made decisions in past church history, then I can see every reason to go ahead, that this is indeed the will of God, but I recognise that there are many who would disagree. At some point, when the readings suggest it, I will go into this in far more detail and explain why I believe in the consecration of women bishops, but in terms of today’s readings I think the more prominent issue is therefore going to be, how do we live with each other in the face of the revolution of ideas that are coming through?

Jesus said that people would know who we were by our love for each other. I don’t see a great deal of evidence of love amongst disagreeing parties in the church. We seem to be far more concerned with being right than with expressing brotherly and sisterly love for fellow believers. In this time of Advent preparation, then, the question it raises for us to consider is, when we disagree with other believers, will we regard loving unity as being more important than theological correctness, or is that we’re no different from the rest of the world, and all we really want is to get our own way. Amen

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Advent Sunday - Submission:why men don't come to church...maybe


Isaiah 52:7-12
How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’
Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices,
together they sing for joy;
for in plain sight they see
the return of the Lord to Zion.
Break forth together into singing,
you ruins of Jerusalem;
for the Lord has comforted his people,
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
The Lord has bared his holy arm
before the eyes of all the nations;
and all the ends of the earth shall see
the salvation of our God.
Depart, depart, go out from there!
Touch no unclean thing;
go out from the midst of it, purify yourselves,
you who carry the vessels of the Lord.
For you shall not go out in haste,
and you shall not go in flight;
for the Lord will go before you,
and the God of Israel will be your rearguard.

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, ‘There is peace and security’, then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labour pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then, let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

John 3:1-21
Nicodemus Visits Jesus

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’


‘Every journey begins with a single step’. It’s not an uncommon saying that’s meant to encourage us simply to make a start. However, about ten years ago I discovered just how wrong this statement can be if it’s not qualified. I was in Israel on a study trip, and myself and a bunch of friends were in the market place in the Arab part of Jerusalem. We’d just popped into a shop and I was quite taken with what we found there.

I can’t remember exactly what it was, probably some drum or other, you know me, but I said to them to go on and I would catch them up. I left the shop a few minutes later and set off after them. It probably took me about 100 metres before I realised I was walking in the wrong direction, back the way we had come! In order to find my friends I had to go back the way I came, past the shop I’d been in and off up the hill where I duly caught up with them, bemused as to what had taken me so long.

So let me qualify that saying with this: ‘Every journey begins with a single step provided it is in the right direction! The point of this address tonight is to make sure that, as we begin our Advent journey, we are indeed heading off in the right direction, and that direction is towards the Kingdom of God, not back the way we came.

This whole season of Advent is directed towards preparing for the coming of Christ, much as Lent is about preparing to celebrate his death and resurrection, but that preparation has two possible directions, and we normally only go off in one direction. For most of us the direction that we take in Advent is the route that is marked, ‘Christmas this way’.

I guess that in an advertising dominated consumerist culture where many of our thoughts are directed by what we’re going to buy for Aunty Mabel, it’s not surprising that our preparations can’t stretch beyond thinking about events just a month in advance. But Christmas is truly only one destination for an Advent journey. Our reading from 1 Thessalonians reminds us that there is something else that we need to have uppermost in our minds and that is following the route which is signed, ‘The return of Christ.’

This is one of the hardest doctrines to fathom in the whole New Testament, made even more difficult by our fundamentalist brothers and sisters who have developed all sorts of extra-biblical ideas about this. But from the perspective of what I want to talk about tonight we need only recognise one thing, that writ large across the New Testament is a belief, held by Jesus himself, that he will return to establish his kingdom here on earth.

This other Advent destination, then, towards which we must be aiming, is the route that prepares us for this kingdom to come. Our faith declares that we are already a part of it, but there is a world of difference between saying we are a part of something, and living as a part of it. For example, 70% of this country’s population declares itself to be Christian. So where are they.

Our faith must be one of action, not just words, and being a part of the Kingdom of God therefore requires that we live as subjects of that kingdom, and I choose that word ‘Subject’ very carefully. We are not members of an organisation that we have joined; we are subjects of a kingdom, and so should live as such. This idea of living as a subjects is something you will hear more about over the coming weeks and months.

But to live as a subject requires that we begin with a particular attitude. We cannot live as subjects of a kingdom unless we first consider our willingness to submit to the rule of Christ as he comes in his kingdom. Are we ready to submit our wills to his? I suspect that for many of us the answer is probably, ‘Yes but not yet.’

The difficulty I think we face is with this whole concept of submission. I spoke a little about this at 8.00am last Sunday, and that sermon is online if you want to read it. In essence I said that if Christ is King, then we must subject ourselves to his rule. Advent is about preparing for his kingdom to come, and so we must be examining our hearts to see if we are in submission to his rule.

However submission is not an easy concept in the 21st century. It reeks of an ancient hierarchical and patriarchal system, one that I am happy to leave behind if we’re thinking about the church. But submission to Christ is not the same as submission to the church. Submission to his rule is not the same as doing what Patrick or I tell you to do. We’re just priests. He’s Christ the King.

But one cannot hope to be subjects of a kingdom unless we begin our Advent journey by submitting to our King. So what should our submission look like?

It’s a little cold so let’s warm ourselves up with a summer image. Imagine you’re back on the beach and watching the children making their sandcastles. Now children have never really understood something vital about sandcastles. They always build them below the high tide level. It is inevitable that when the sea comes in it will roll over their sandcastle and level it.

Usually, particularly on the north Atlantic coast, it takes three, maybe four waves, and then that sandcastle is gone. It’s completely flat. All of its character has been wiped away. Is that what we mean by submission? Well I’m horribly afraid that vast swathes of the church think that it is, with the result that no one dares step out of line and do anything creative, because our submission is not submission to God, it’s about appeasing people.

So what do we end up with? A flat, boring, featureless level ground. There’s no danger and no trouble; just blandness. And do you know what, I think that’s half the problem that the Church of England faces. For generations we’ve tried hard not to upset anyone. We’ve become one of the blandest organisations in existence. Instead of submitting to God we’ve submitted to the world and it’s rolled over us like a high tide and stolen our character. We have equated Christian with niceness.

Have you ever wondered why the proportion of men is so much lower than that of women in church? Men are fuelled by their God-given testosterone. It’s a gift that drives us on to make and do and achieve and be. St. Peter was full of it! But the church of England is perceived as emasculated, submissive to the world and not wanting to upset anyone. It’s no wonder that men won’t join.

And nor will they until we start to become something more, when we start to submit to the will of Christ and begin living as we are supposed to. So what should submission really look like? I think we find it in the Gospel reading that Patrick read to us. This is one of the alternative Advent readings for today and I chose it because of what Jesus said to Nicodemus.

To really get the drift of this you need to understand that the word for Spirit in the New Testament is identical to the word for wind.

We who are born again, or born from above, the Greek has both meanings, are born of the Spirit which can also be translated as being born of the wind, and that’s the kind of submission I’m thinking of. If you stand on the coast path of North Cornwall and look at the trees around you, you will immediately notice something distinctive about them: they all slope away from the sea.

You cannot miss it, and you will only see it so clearly on the coast. They have been blown by the wind since the day they first emerged above the ground. It has shaped them and moulded them throughout their lives. And they look distinctive and unique. They are wind-trees, and it makes them interesting. You look at them and notice their distinctive shape. You ask yourself why they look that way, and the answer comes back, they are shaped by the wind.

Or let me put it another way. They have submitted to the wind. They have submitted to the wind and it has given them character and interest. It has also made them tougher and stronger. Submitting to the wind has given them a strength. Their roots have gone down deeper.

And that, I believe, is what submitting to the reign of Christ is about. It is about becoming a child of the Wind, submitting to the Spirit, being blown in the direction that She wishes to take us, and choosing to go and to do what is asked of us.

Advent is about preparing ourselves for the Kingdom of God. Advent is therefore about learning to submit to the reign of Christ, the King who has come and will come again; the One who we will all have to face eventually and to whom we will all have to give an account of our lives to.

Yes he is loving. Yes he is full of grace and forgiving. But he is also King, and so we should be learning to submit our wills to his, that by the Holy Spirit we may be shaped, and our roots may go down deep, and that through us the Lord can bring hope to a world that so needs him.


Saturday, 20 November 2010

Christ the King - but what kind of monarchy?

Colossians 1:11-20
May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Luke 23:33-43
When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’ And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’ The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’ There was also an inscription over him, written in Greek and Latin and Hebrew (that is, Aramaic)');‘This is the King of the Jews.’

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’

Today we celebrate Christ the King, but what do we actually think of when we consider Kingship? You see for a 21st century western culture, the idea of an absolute monarchy is rather dated, if not completely alien and rather disagreeable to us. In the few countries where an absolute monarchy remains, such as Brunei and Saudi Arabia, we feel a sense of distaste and unfairness, that the people have no say in how they are governed.

In the UK, the Queen is our head of state and the head of the Church of England. But if you took away the monarchy in this country we would continue to function as a nation, albeit with perhaps rather less colour. In truth the church is run by the Bishops under the leadership of Canterbury and York whilst the country is led by parliament, and therein lies the crucial difference.

Unlike an absolute monarchy, our system of government is led from the ground up. The prime minister is one of us. He or she could be anyone provided they were well qualified enough and had the right talents for the job. They receive their power from below, from the people, and just as we have given them the power to govern us, so at the next election, if we so choose, we can take it away again.

But in an absolute monarchy, the system is reversed. The Monarch rules over the people as one who is separate from them and receives their power by inheritance. If we trace it back far enough we will find that monarchs have power because their families took it from someone else and then handed it on to their own children. They are not, in any way, accountable to the people. The people are, instead, accountable to them.

So the prime minister receives power from below, from the people, but the monarch receives inherited power. Or to put it another way, the prime minister belongs to us, but we belong to the monarch, and that’s a huge difference because of accountability.

In a 21st century democracy the prime minister is accountable to us. But in an absolute monarchy, we are accountable to the King or Queen and that should make us think carefully about what the implications are of celebrating Christ as King.

First and foremost, he is not King because we made him King. Nor was his kingship a result of it having been taken by force from a previous monarchical line. No, his Kingship is received from the Father who has always had power, and that means that we are accountable to him.

The reason I think this is important is because we cannot escape the way that our culture affects everything in our lives. That means that our understanding of Christ as King will be affected by our democratic ideals. In other words, if our government tries to do something that we don’t agree with, then we will vote them out. That is the right of a democratic citizen.

In fact that system of government has permeated almost every sphere of our lives. Many of us sit on various committees and are well versed in electing chair men and women. We’re used to people sitting for a term of office and then stepping sideways, or being ejected if they won’t go.

But subjects of a King do not have that right. If we don’t like the decisions they make we have only one choice, to leave the kingdom and go elsewhere. But the question I think this poses for us is whether we acknowledge the difference. Do we treat Christ as the King, or do we treat him as prime minister? Do we recognise ourselves as part of a kingdom or as sitting on a committee?

It seems to me that the important question is one of submission to the will of God, or more specifically, are we willing to submit to the Kingship of Christ? Over how much of our lives have we given him dominion? And over how much do we keep power for ourselves? It all comes down to authority. Do we recognise the authority of Christ as divinely given? If we do, if we really do, then that must surely have an effect on how we live and the decisions we take.

I personally feel constantly challenged by this issue, and I think that’s because for me I have always had difficulties with people who like to rule over others. But there is a huge difference between Christ’s rule and ours. I think of it like this. I have a friend, well she’s more a friend of a friend, who still lives at home even though she’s well into her thirties. But it’s not out of choice or financial hardship.

Instead it is because she is in submission to the will of her parents. She also has a sibling who is favoured over her and to whom she is expected to defer. I fear for this lady because her parents rule her life and she may not get the chance to grow into a person in her own right. I also find myself hugely angry at her parents for treating her like that. Their rule is for their own good, and they appear to be grooming her to be their carer.

I contrast that with an episode in my own history. When I was about sixteen I very briefly dated a girl who I had got on well with at junior school and then we had by chance met up again in our mid-teens. She came home with me after some church function and met Mum and Dad. After she’d gone Mum quietly took me to one side and explained that she felt very uncomfortable me seeing this girl. She couldn’t explain why, but just said she didn’t like her.

Now my mother has a highly tuned sense of intuition and she only ever said that about two people. It was enough for me. I got the message and we split up. The difference though wasn’t that my mother was trying to control me, but that she was seeking my best interests and she saw something that I, as a teenager, had missed. My parent’s rule was there to help me to grow towards safety and maturity, to a point where I was capable of making wiser decisions.

Now when we think of Christ as King, I think that is the kind of rule we should be considering. His rule is one of drawing the best out of us, that we should grow to maturity, that by submitting to his will it is not for his own good; he doesn’t need us or our obedience, but that by doing his will we should grow. However, there is one final caveat to this. Ultimately this is not just about us and what we receive from Christ.

We are also subjects of a kingdom, and that means that sometimes we will be called upon to do things or go through things for the sake of the kingdom, and for the sake of others. That is also a part of being a part of Christ’s kingdom. It is not always going to be about us, but, just as Jesus himself had to, there will be times when we will have to go through hardship for the sake of others.

You see it’s an upside down kingdom. Jesus went through crucifixion to bring us into his kingdom. He suffered for his subjects; not something you see much of in earthly rulers, and so if he asks the same of us, then we should be prepared to walk in his footsteps. He is, after all, Christ, the King. Amen.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Remembrance Sunday - Don't just enter through doors that open


Micah 4:1-5
In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised up above the hills.
Peoples shall stream to it, and many nations shall come and say:
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more;
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid;
for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.
For all the peoples walk,
each in the name of its god,
but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God
for ever and ever.

Romans 8:31-end
What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.


Picture the scenario. A nation is in conflict. It looks as if any day it might be invaded. It’s already lost a major land battle and had to retreat with its tail between its knees, and it’s desperately in need of a good leader of its air force to try and patrol its skies. So who are you going to put in charge of that air force?

Let me give you two choices. The first not the best communicator and indeed is given the nickname, ‘Stuffy’ by his men. He’s a military man who also believes in ghosts and fairies, and believes that fairies "are essential to the growth of plants and the welfare of the vegetable kingdom". He also believes in reincarnation and thinks he was a war leader in a previous life. That’s choice number one.

Choice number two is physically strong and very capable, nicknamed, ‘Powerhouse’ by his men. He’s intelligent and very stable with a military background. He’s not married, has no dependents and looks like a born leader. He warms everyone’s hearts by being able to say exactly the right kind of thing to make people give their best.

Your nation and its future may well depend on you making the right choice. So who would choose Stuffy, the man who believes in fairies and reincarnation, and that he’s already led battles but in a previous life? And who would choose Powerhouse?

Well the second man, Powerhouse, is a figure I’ve just made up. The first man describes Air Chief Marshal Hugh Caswall Tremenheere Dowding, the man whose leadership of the RAF during the Battle of Britain is widely believed to have saved us from invasion in 1940. And so, given that this year is the seventieth anniversary of the Battle of Britain, I want us to think a little about what Dowding may teach us about our capabilities.

Let me give you a brief bit of history about Dowding. He was a Scot who had been born in 1882. He had a military education and served abroad in the first years of the twentieth century before joining the Royal Flying Corps and became a squadron commander.

However, and this is a key theme for us, he clashed with the head of the Royal Flying Corps because Dowding believed the pilots needed adequate rest whereas it was felt by the powers that be that they should carry on regardless of how exhausted they were. The result of sticking to what he believed in was that Dowding was sent back to England, safely away from where he could have any effect.

After the first world war Dowding joined the newly formed Royal Air Force. He became vice marshal in 1929 and then air marshal in 1934. This was the period when Dowding made his mark. He could see that war with the Nazis was becoming a probability and so he pushed hard for a modernisation programme.

The RAF’s slow biplanes would be no match for the Luftwaffe and so he drove through a programme of design and construction resulting in the Hurricanes and the Spitfires.
He also recognised the need for an integrated air defence system which resulted in the combined use of radar and spotters, those who filled in the gaps in radar’s knowledge simply by using binoculars.

He was due to retire in 1939 but with the advent of war he remained in post. Huge pressure was put on him to commit large numbers of the force to stop the Nazi advance through France but he refused, believing that the RAF would need to hold back the planes for Britain’s own air defence. Again he was proved correct despite having to hold his own even against Churchill himself.

When the Battle of Britain was fought in earnest he once again came under pressure from above, this time to fight the battle over the channel before the bombers were over British soil, and again he refused believing it would be too costly in pilot’s lives. Basically in the 1940s if you bailed out over the channel you had little chance of being rescued before you drowned, and experienced pilots were what Britain needed to hold on to. Airplanes they could build. Pilots were in shortage.

Over and over again, the man who became known as Stuffy, as a term of endearment by his pilots who recognised him as a somewhat fatherly man who would make good and steady decisions, would choose a course of action and hold tight to it despite the opposition. If he had not been so careful in his preparations, and so prudent in the use of his resources, and if he had not stood up to other leaders, then the outcome of the Battle of Britain could very well have been an invasion of the UK.

Dowding was an individual who refused to be broken down by a system. In this country we have always been proud of our eccentrics, the free-thinking individuals who make a huge difference by not going the way of the herd. Dowding was just such a man, and whilst we may question or even ridicule some of his personal beliefs, he was driven to greatness because he was a visionary who wouldn’t give up.

So what about you? What is the vision you have for your life? Do people mock you for being different from them? Great! Because that means you are willing to use the gifts God has given you even if it means going in an unproven direction, and if you are such a person then, although your life may not be all that easy, you will live a life that can make a radical difference to the lives of others.

Have you ever heard people give this kind of advice? When you are trying to decide what to do at a certain point in your life, and you are presented with a number of possible options, treat them like doors and push them all and see which door opens? It’s a common bit of advice, but I don’t think I agree with it. It’s far too easy.

It always insures you do the easy thing, not the difficult thing. What you need more than anything is wisdom to see what the right thing to do is; wisdom born by experience, listening and prayer, and then you push, push, push. Make that door open. Batter it down if you have to. That’s the hard way, and that’s the way Dowding lived out his life as a military man.

He really did have some very odd beliefs, but he was also a wise tactician. He looked for the right thing and ensured that that was what was done. If he had taken the route of just pushing on a few doors to see which one opened, then half of the Royal Air Force would have been wiped out in trying to hold on to France. Dowding could see what the right thing was and pushed for it and got the job done!!

And in this way Dowding followed, believe it or not, in the footsteps of Christ. Think about it for a moment. Imagine if Jesus had lived his life by pushing at doors and walking through the ones that opened. He would never have gone to the Cross, and he would never have stayed nailed to it. In fact he wouldn’t have got past the temptations.

You can almost hear the devil saying, ‘If you are the Son of God, then command these stones to become bread’, and Jesus saying, ‘Oo, that door’s opening, and I am a bit hungry. Yes, why not.’ Of course that wasn’t what he did. Jesus had spent time preparing for his life and ministry and he had a vision for what he was called to do, and he pushed doors open in order to accomplish what he was called to do.

For communities and churches to thrive we must have men, women and children who are filled with vision, with the Spirit of God, and who are willing to stand out from the crowd. That is what some of you are called to. You who are young are just setting out on life; don’t be afraid. A relationship with God is not about conforming to some boring existence; it is about God calling you into a life more exciting than you could have imagined.

And you who feel that perhaps you are a bit past changing, don’t ever forget that Dowding, the man largely responsible for winning us the Battle of Britain, was about to retire when circumstances pushed him back into the battle. Young or old, we are always capable of saying yes to God when he calls us to stand out and be different. Those who say yes to God can make a huge difference. Will that be you? How willing to push, push, push are you to accomplish what God calls you to do?

And especially on this day, we must remember that we are not here to celebrate a great battle, but to remember those who gave their all to bring a great battle to an end. And it may be that there are some here whose calling in this life will be to bring war and terror to an end, so that the prophecy in our Old Testament reading may come true, that one day our soldiers shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks;

If that is you, then get a vision for it. Pray about it. Seek wise counsel from others. Don’t just push on doors and see which ones open. If God is calling you to a job, be like Dowding, or much better, be like Jesus, and batter the doors down so that God’s will may be done. Amen.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

3rd Sunday before Advent - Hope

2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
The Man of Lawlessness

As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here. Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God. Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you?

But we must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth. For this purpose he called you through our proclamation of the good news, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.
Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.

Luke 20:27-38
The Question about the Resurrection

Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, ‘Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.’
Jesus said to them, ‘Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die any more, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.’

Have you ever wondered what the world would be like if there was no such thing as a hypothetical question?...

A hypothetical question is what today’s Gospel reading is all about, but Jesus uses it to teach us something very important about the future. What makes this extra special for us is that this last week has had quite a focus on death and bereavement with All Hallow’s Eve last Sunday, and then All Souls on Tuesday with a service at which we remembered the lives of many of those who have died in recent times. In the face of fear and confusion about the future on the other side of death, today’s reading should inspire hope in us.

But let me first give you a little background to the situation Jesus is facing. We’re in the period leading up to his arrest, and he’s in Jerusalem for the last time. His arrest is probably only a matter of days away. Those who are in power are well aware of this upstart from up in the northern province who’s not a part of their political system.

They are well aware of all the people who are following him, and so they do what the rich and powerful have always done to those they call, ‘The Little People’, by asking him a series of questions in public that are specifically designed to reveal their ignorance.

Think of it a little like this, and you might even have observed it for yourself; who knows, you might even have done it! A wealthy and intelligent man’s daughter brings home the new boyfriend. It’s seems apparent to the girl’s father that this man is a bit of a nobody and clearly not good enough for his daughter.

So when they sit down to supper he begins asking the new boyfriend a series of questions that are clearly intended to embarrass him, show him up for being a bit thick, and reveal to the daughter that the new boyfriend isn’t good enough for her. Imagine the shock then when the scruffy new boyfriend with the unkept hair turns out to have a PhD in particle physics after doing a Masters in Philosophy.

You see that’s more or less what happened to the Religious leaders when they started questioning Jesus. They wanted to show him up to be a charlatan so that the popular vote would turn away from him. What they discovered was that intellectually, philosophically and theologically Jesus was streets ahead of them.

Today’s reading centres on the Sadducees asking a question. Now this group were, if you like, the traditionalists of Judaism. They had no time for the Pharisees and their new fangled theological ideas of resurrected life after death, which, at that time had only been an emerging strand of Jewish thought over the previous two hundred years. When you’re dead, you’re dead; that was what the Sadducees thought. They were also politically very powerful at this time.

And so they threw a very hypothetical question at Jesus. In the Jewish culture of that time the law stated that if a man married a woman and then he died before they had children, then his brother would have to marry the woman and give her children. Initially it sounds quite laudable, that the woman’s needs are being looked out for, although the real reason was so that the original husband’s property would have a lineage to be passed down to.

Effectively the children had by the second brother would be acknowledged as the children of the first brother, and the first brother’s property would therefore stay in the family. It was the way in which they managed property and succession. But in this hypothetical situation the second brother died. So, again following the law, the woman was married off to the third brother, who then died, and then to the fourth, and so on until everyone was dead and there were no children.

Then comes the question, and remember that the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection. They ask, at the supposed resurrection, who will the poor woman be married to? Now obviously being married to all of them was not permissible under law, since only a man could have more than one wife; a woman could not have more than one husband. Therefore, logically the idea of a literal resurrection from the dead was illogical.

What Jesus does is to undermine their logic completely. Yes, they would be correct if after the resurrection we are just like we are now, that we’ve been through death and we’re simply alive again, but Jesus makes it absolutely clear that that’s not what it will be like. It will be a whole new order completely.

When I was twenty five Alison took me on holiday up to the highlands of Scotland. Now to put this in context, I was a city boy through and through. I was brought up in a London overspill new-town, and Ali and I lived in Watford. Holidays had always been in Cornwall. Nothing prepared me for the impact that the Western Highlands were going to have on me.

I will never forget pulling up into Glen Nevis, in the shadows of some of the most awesome scenery in the British Isles, and getting out of the car, closing the door and just standing there, almost breathless. Not only was it the most unutterably beautiful thing I had ever seen, but, for almost the first time in my life, I couldn’t hear any cars. The sun was shining, it was mid-May, and the only sound was the birds singing. I was awestruck. This was reality of a whole new order.

And that, I believe, is just the tiniest taste of the kind of thing Jesus was trying to say to the Sadducees. If I were to paraphrase Jesus it would be something like this, ‘Everything you think you know about the afterlife? Forget it. You have no comprehension, not even the beginnings of an understanding, because it is so far beyond anything you have experienced that your feeble philosophical ideas and traps bear no resemblance to the reality of the resurrection.’

You see the Sadducees were mocking something that they didn’t understand. They were imagining heaven to be like this, but it isn’t; not even close.

Now there is something very important for us to learn here, and it flies in the face of received wisdom. We have a culture of belief that when we die our soul leaves our body and goes to heaven where it joins other souls in the presence of God. Then it all becomes a little unclear because we’re used to having a body, and, well what will it be like to be in heaven without a body?

Yet inherent in what Jesus is saying is that this is not the final state of affairs. When we die here, there may be someway in which there is a spiritual continuity, but that is all a prelude to a literal resurrection into something infinitely superior to what we are now, and that’s what we saw at Jesus’s own resurrection.

It’s one of the things that makes the Easter story so very important. In some strands of Christianity you will find churches full of crucifixes, celebrating the death of Jesus; Jesus dying on a cross. In the Anglican Church you are far more likely to see an empty cross. Why? It’s because the empty cross reminds us that the story didn’t end with the death of Jesus.

The miracle of Easter wasn’t just that Jesus died a death which in some way brought us into the Father’s family. The miracle was that Jesus was then raised from the dead in a body that was clearly his but was also obviously so much more than his earthly body. By his resurrection Jesus led the way. He was the first, but he won’t be the last.

The whole joy and hope of the death and resurrection of Jesus is that he showed us what we could hope for; not floating around on a cloud playing a harp, but a life which is more real, more tangible, than this one. What Jesus experienced is what we shall, in time, experience. That’s the gift he promised us, and since hundreds of people saw him after his resurrection, I am inclined to believe him.

But if the Sadducees got it wrong, well, the question on all our hearts is, ‘What will it be like then?’ Clearly even Jesus himself struggled to find a way to describe the indescribable. It’s not that we will become angels, because they are a different kind of creature from us, but we will be like them in some ways. There will no longer be procreation, because no one will die; but that doesn’t preclude intimacy and love.

God is love, and so we can expect the afterlife to have far more love in it than this world does; infinitely more! But as to what it’s going to be like, well the best we can do in heading towards truth is to use story and metaphor.

C.S. Lewis probably put it most clearly in his book, ‘The Great Divorce’. It was nothing to do with marriage, but was instead about excursions from hell to the outskirts of heaven where the dead could, if they wished, stay if they were willing to leave behind their old ways of doing things. But what they found was that everything was so real, so solid, that it hurt them to walk on the grass. They were insubstantial compared to the realm of the resurrected.

And this is what I think I want us to take with us today: We will, at the resurrection, receive new bodies, and they will be more real and more substantial than these ones are. I think that after the final resurrection, and when we find ourselves in the new creation we will discover it to be more solid and more real than this one is.

You know how, when you try to remember a dream it seems insubstantial and maybe disconnected? The solid nature of our reality compared to the insubstantial nature of a dream probably mimics the insubstantial nature of this world compared to the post-resurrection world.

So be filled with hope. Whatever you are going through now, it is not how things will always be. There is a future, if we want it, that is immeasurably more real and beautiful than this reality. Let St. Paul have the last words, and this is from the first reading:
Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.

Friday, 29 October 2010

All Saints - Blessed are the poor, woe to the rich...


Ephesians 1:11-end

In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance towards redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love towards all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

Luke 6:20-31
Blessings and Woes

Then Jesus looked up at his disciples and said:
‘Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
‘Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
‘Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
‘But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
‘Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
‘Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
‘Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

I love running. I’ve never been able to go very far; about three miles was my limit, perhaps a little less, but I especially used to enjoy running it as fast as I could, and I could just about manage eight minute miles around the hills of Tanworth. Not brilliant, but OK for a man in his forties. So I love running, except that perhaps I should put it in the past tense.

I loved running, not just because of how good it made me feel, and how virtuous I though I was, but also because everyone tells you how good it is for you, and that if you run you will be healthy. Except that wasn’t what happened. What actually happened was that I pulled my Achilles tendons, and that’s not healthy. In fact it was very painful and for a while I could barely even walk.

Sometimes our expectations of a particular activity get turned on their head. I’m not running at the moment, and I may not ever run for pleasure again; I’ll just have to see. Everyone says running is good for you, but it wasn’t good for me.

So what do people say about religion being good for you? I often hear it said that my generation and the one which is following it are the most spiritual generations for years, as we really search for truth. But I think I want to ask us all, not just the younger generations, just what it is we are expecting and why we are searching? I think that the question we may be asking is, when it comes to the spiritual, what’s in it for me?

You see I am horribly afraid that we’ve got it all wrong when we think religion is good for us, that we should be seeing its benefits. I think that might be completely the wrong way around.

It’s what we might call the Principle of Reversal, where the outcome you get is the polar opposite of the one you expect. I expected good health from running and got injury, so what do we expect from what we believe? You see I think that for many people they expect their beliefs to help them to cope with the stresses and strains of life, and indeed that’s what we all do isn’t it?

When we have a sick member of the family, we pray hard for them. We may even ‘phone our friends and ask them to pray as well. After all, isn’t God supposed to be there to help us? Well, yes, in as much as those who are good parents would always feel that they are there for their children. But that’s only half of the story when it comes to families. Being a member of a good family also carries responsibilities, not just rights.

And that is where Luke’s Gospel in general, and today’s Gospel in particular, can make us feel very uncomfortable because, throughout his writings, Luke highlights the way in which the Kingdom of Heaven is founded on the Principle of Reversal, and given that today is All Saints Day, and I take that to include all those who call themselves Christians, we had better take note of what that means for our responsibilities as a part of this family.

In this reading we see first the good news that those who are poor, hungry, in anguish or rejected because of their beliefs will be blessed. This is the upside of the Principle of Reversal. Those who are comfortable find it far too easy to turn a blind eye to the plight of others, but God doesn’t, and he affirms that their eternal future will be very different from their present.

That’s the Good News. However, it doesn’t stop there. The four woes follow on from those whose positions are the exact opposite of the four blessings.
Woe to the rich, the well fed, those filled with mirth and those about whom everyone speaks well. The heavenly Principle of Reversal is not Good News for these people, and that’s why it’s so challenging.

It’s not that we should be aiming to be in sorrow, reviled, poor and hungry. Those are not held up as examples. That is just Jesus giving them hope. But for us it should be very challenging because we are the well off, the comfortable, and those who know how to say and do the right things in public so that people speak well of us.

It challenges us because it shows that being a Christian is not about making an adjustment with our lives so that we don’t feel too uncomfortable with passages like this. No, being a Christian means that we have to live counter-culturally. We have to live and do and say the things that are right, even if they make us unpopular and misunderstood by our neighbours.

Now this is not a message I take lightly. Even the story I began with was challenging. I boast about how I used to be able to run three miles in under twenty five minutes, and complain that it hurts a little now for me to run. So what! It makes a good sermon opener, but it begs the question, how aware of the needs of those who can’t even walk am I; are we?

For those who have been crippled by disease, a story like that illustrates all too clearly that we take our riches and our good health for granted, not realising that for a huge proportion of the world’s population don’t even have access to clean drinking water, let alone running shoes.

Passages like this should not be ignored because they remind us that we cannot simply ignore the fact that, as some of the wealthiest people on the planet, God expects us to look out for the needs of the poorer members of our Family.

How much do we give? Do we give just enough to salve our consciences or do we give until it really has an effect on our lives? You may have heard this phrase before, ‘Live simply so that others might simply live.’ The new car/dishwasher/computer/stereo - did we need that more than a hundred people who could have had cataract operations in the developing world if we’d given the money away?

This is hard stuff to preach, and trust me it was hard to write too, because in telling you this I am having to face up to it more in my own life. Over the last couple of weeks we have been thinking about wrestling with God, and our possessions and bank accounts have to be some place where we wrestle with God, because we are potentially the kind of people that Jesus is saying woe to.

I know it’s not all plain sailing for us. I know that many of us carry deep burdens of responsibility that keep us awake at night crying out to God for help, and here Jesus speaks the words of hope that there will be a better future.

But in terms of our financial well-being, we need to be very aware of the message here, that there is in the Kingdom of God there is a principle of reversal in operation, and we need to live up to our responsibilities.

Today is All Saints. I want to be numbered as one of those Saints, and since you’re reading this, it’s likely you do to. Then we’d better make sure we look out for the needs of those entrusted to us. Amen