Friday, 23 December 2011

Christmas Day : Walking away from power


Titus 3:4-7
But when the goodness and loving-kindness of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

Luke 2:1-14
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’


I want you to think first of some really powerful things that have changed the world by their existence, whether for better or for worse.
(Eg a jet engine).

Did they change the world in a positive or negative way?

Some of us get really drawn to big powerful things. Big old steam locomotives do it for me. I know, I know, it’s a bit of a caricature, being a vicar and all that, but when I stand near a large express steam engine, and there is steam coming out from everywhere, from all these different copper pipes, and this beautifully oiled machine slowly backs on to a whole load of coaches weighing hundreds of tons, and then smoothly and almost effortlessly moves off in a riot of smoke and steam and noise, I find something awe inspiring in that use of power. So we’re drawn to power.

Now have a think about the names of some really powerful leaders who have made a difference, either for good or evil, in the world through the years.
Eg Winston Churchill,
Were they good or evil people? And those who were evil, did they start out with good intentions and just get corrupted?

Each of these people used power to change the world. Personally I find this to be quite the reverse of what I said about being drawn to mechanical power. I think that it’s because, for me, the desire for power is a terrible temptation that I could give in to all too easily. Having power always changes us, and it can corrupt us into wanting more of it, of being able to control or influence the destinies of other people.

I think that some people want power because they want to act for good in the world, and I find myself wondering how many of the evil rulers started out like that, wanting to do good, but becoming corrupted by the power, so that it became a drug they were addicted to, always craving more.

And then we come to Christmas and we find that God’s story is the total opposite of this story. The story of Jesus is the opposite of the story of most great leaders. Let me give you a little background to show you what I mean.

St. Luke is the only Gospel writer to give us a historical background, and actually that background is usually a little lost on us because we don’t understand what he’s trying to say about Emperor Augustus, and that’s because we weren’t there and our history is a little weak. So let me briefly fill you in.

Judea was not an independent country like Israel is today. Instead the Jews were a conquered nation who were now just a minor province in the huge Roman Empire, of which Augustus was emperor. Augustus was actually not his original name, but an honorific that was granted him after he essentially took over the Roman Republic, and through political subterfuge and the use of military power became it’s sole leader and changed the republic into an empire. Augustus, meant “the illustrious one” and it was a title of religious rather than political authority.

But, and this is the key thing that St. Luke is getting at. Augustus was the adopted son of Julius Caesar, and Julius Caesar had posthumously been declared a Roman divinity. And so Augustus, in his slow and sustained journey towards absolute power, claimed for himself the title of , ‘son of god’. Does that sound familiar?

Luke is trying to tell us that in the centre of power was a great man who called himself the son of god. Caesar Augustus was viewed by many as having saved Rome and had ultimate political and religious authority, and all the Roman Empire believed in him, but they were wrong.

Instead, here in the backwater province of Judea, a baby was born, and it was he, not Augustus, who was the saviour, and it was he, not Augustus, who was truly the Son of God. But unlike Augustus, Jesus did everything in reverse. Augustus had started from relative obscurity and went on to take power, bit by bit, until he had absolute authority in both political and religious life.

Jesus, on the other hand, did quite the opposite. He was the Word of God through whom the Father had spoken all things into being. He had absolute power and authority throughout the universes, and he stepped away from it, emptying himself, and being born of Mary. And what’s more, time and time again his Jewish followers tried to give him political power and every time he stepped away from it.

And in doing so he changed everything and pointed us in a new direction, and so he gives us a choice in how we’re going to live our lives. Do we want to live the life of Augustus, of a gradual accumulation of power? No one can deny that Augustus made a radical difference to Roman life, but his was a power amongst the powerful.

Or do we want to be like Jesus who gave up his throne to be born of a peasant woman and her carpenter husband, and whose birth was announced not to kings and rulers but to shepherds, the lowest of the low in social terms, just one step up from convicts. The Roman Empire is gone, but Jesus continues to change the world.

If you feel powerless, unable to change anything or make a difference, remember this: Jesus came in the same way, with no power, and he stands alongside you, and he can make a difference to the world with your hands and lips. And if, on the other hand, you are tempted to try and become more powerful, to have more influence, then remember this: In order to really change things for the better Jesus gave up more power than you can ever imagine having.

The true message of Christmas is this: The humble and meek are the ones who really change the world, and Jesus, the true Son of God, showed us the way. In our ambitions and desires, let us remember that we serve the Servant King, and he shows us the way to live. Amen.

Christmas Midnight: Mystery...

Hebrews 1:1-4
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

John 1:1-14
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

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.

CSI, in all of its different guises, has become one of the greatest TV hits that channel five has ever had. Actually it might be the only hit they’ve ever had! Do you ever wonder why it’s so popular? I think it’s because we all like a good mystery. We like to watch it with the cops and the scientists, and try and figure it out with the information we get fed in the hope that we can work it out before they do. And that’s the key thing; we like to figure it out. We like to solve the mystery. We all like to solve mysteries.

Or at least we did, but now I’m not so sure. And I’m not sure because I find myself wondering if we’ve got mysteries all wrong. You see a mystery is different from a problem, but the reality is that we treat them as if they’re the same thing, as if they’re interchangeable. We live in a scientific age, and having been a scientist myself for a good few years before becoming a priest, I know how much enjoyment the human race gets out of solving problems.

We’re tool makers and tool users, far more so than any other animal. We get a real kick out of being presented with a problem, and then figuring out how to solve it. The trouble is, we then lump problems and mysteries together and we assume that they’re the same thing, but they’re really not. However, even the church has failed to distinguish between the two for the last few hundred years.

We’ve looked at ‘mystery’ and we’ve seen ‘problem’, and have tried to solve the problems with answers that we call ‘theology’. But mysteries can’t be solved liked problems, and to do so just cheapens them and pulls all of the wonder out of the universe. When was the last time you looked at something and realised it was completely unexplainable in the deepest terms? When was the last time you were caught up in wonder?

When was the last time you looked into the face of your beloved, and I mean really looked, long and hard? You know that way in which you get caught up in the gaze of each other? It’s as if your heart seems to swell with something that transcends joy. The scientists will try and explain that in terms of hormones, but that’s like treating love and desire as a problem to be solved rather than a mystery to be wondered at.

Or, or how about your children, those of you who have them? Isn’t it an amazing wonder, a true mystery, that the look between two people, that deepens into love and wonder, can lead to the joining of two bodies and the conception of a completely new life, of someone who has never existed before. And yes, once again the scientists can tell us how it happens, but I am caught up sometimes in how the mystery of my own existence came from the love between my two parents.

I wonder, then, given how important mystery is to our humanity and our sense of wonder, why is it that we so quickly reduce mystery to being a problem which we then try and solve? Is it because we don’t like mystery? Is it, perhaps, because mystery is humbling? Is it because if we cannot understand something then it means that there is at least one thing greater than us, and because of our own desire to be in control of our own destinies, we don’t like that?

Yet here we all are again, gathered once more at midnight, as we prepare to celebrate the greatest mystery of them all, that God was born as a human.
When I say it, even the words themselves almost sound preposterous. “God, was born, as a human”. Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that God really does exist. You’re probably here tonight because, at least on some level, you know that there is something greater than us. It’s a mystery that you hold in your deepest places, and you may not want any vicar telling you what to believe about it. You just know there is something. But just how big must this God be?

To put it on some sense of scale, if you wanted to walk around the earth at a constant three miles an hour it would take you almost a year. What if you wanted to go to the moon? Well it would take a little too long to walk there, so let’s say you drove there in your car doing 80mph for eight hours a day. That would also take you a year to get there.

If you wanted to use the same car to drive to the planet Pluto, you’re looking at something in excess of 5,000 years. And that’s without even reaching the limit of our solar system. Do you get the idea of how big this God must be? Let me go on: We’re in orbit around one star in our galaxy, yet there are something like a hundred, thousand, million stars just in our galaxy.

And then if we take into account the observable universe, we can see something like a hundred thousand million galaxies, all containing a similar number of stars. And that’s only the visible universe. Science is now suggesting that this is only one universe out of many.

So the magnitude of what we’re saying tonight is that we are gathered here tonight to celebrate that the one who created all of that emptied himself of all that power and was conceived and born as one of us. When I say it, it probably sounds preposterous to some of us, and that is precisely what makes it a mystery.

Yet I wonder whether there is a greater mystery than that. We can, if we like, treat that as a theological problem: how can the all-powerful God empty himself and be born as one of us? But there is something even deeper than that to engage with.

I think that the greatest mystery is not how he did it, but that he chose to do it, and he chose to do it out of love. And even more, that on some level the fact that we can even begin to comprehend his reasons is a huge mystery to me. All of those love relationships and wonder that I began by speaking about, he knows that these are ideal cases, but that the reality is that over and over again we screw up our relationships, we screw up our lovers and we screw up our children, and somehow, on some level deeper than we can understand, God said, ‘This cannot go on - I must help’. And so he came. Born as one of us.

Do you think that Jesus, as a small boy, had any less wonder in the universe than our children do? It was, according to the reading we heard from John’s Gospel, through his hands that the Father created all that there is. Yet this was the first time he had experienced it as one of us, seeing his own universe from the inside, and wondering at it.

So it is a mystery that we cannot understand that gathers here on this holy night, and I’m not going to try and explain it to you. The joy of the deepest mysteries is in their existence, and the invitation from God to embrace them. That’s why we’re here tonight. As we celebrate the Christ-Mass, we partake of the mystery of Holy Communion, in some way receiving God into the depth of our beings through the bread and wine.

We can’t explain it, nor should we. The love we receive from God is to be received as a gift that it will take all your lifetime to unwrap. And that, I guess, is what church is all about. It’s not being told what to believe, but being invited in. It’s not about trying to be good enough to be acceptable but recognising that whatever baggage we bring, the door to the stable is wide open.

These are places where we don’t seek to explain, but instead we simply learn to walk deeper into the forest of God, being caught up in the wonder that a new life could form the bridge from heaven to earth. If you want to explore this more there are details in your notice sheet of a space we’re creating for spiritual explorers. Call me or email me via the church website if you want to know more.

So may wonder be reborn in our hearts, like the wonder of Mary as she looked down at her new-born son, knowing that something new was coming. And while it may be near midnight now, Mary knew then that a new dawn was breaking on earth. May we embrace the mystery of God’s love made flesh, who saw wonder in his own creation through the eyes he gave to us.

May the joy of this Christ-Mass lead you into wonder, and into a deeper exploration of truth.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Fourth Sunday of Advent: God messing up lives

Romans 16:25-end
Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory for ever! Amen.

Luke 1:26-38
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.

When I came to faith it all seemed very black and white. There weren’t many greys at all, although I can thank my parents for the way they asked me difficult questions to try and introduce me to a more three-dimensional belief. But in those first few years it was all very clear. If we came to Jesus, God would guide our lives and everything would be ok.

I wish, way back then, that someone would have introduced me to Mary. Of course I knew the Christmas story - in my generation who didn’t? We may not all have believed it, but we knew it. Mary the sweet young girl, all dressed in blue. Jesus the smiling baby boy with blonde hair and blue eyes, and Joseph the understanding and meek husband who takes care of his family but doesn’t get any lines to say.

I wish someone had properly introduced me to Mary’s story back then because just maybe I’d have appreciated something about God that we don’t tell new Christians because partly we don’t want to scare them and also because, well frankly it would be bad PR. You see we like to give the impression that when God comes into our lives he fixes it all, but I don’t think that would have been what Mary said.

Picture it if you can. When Gabriel went to see Mary she was betrothed but not yet married to Joseph. That would suggest, given what we know of the customs of that time and place, that Mary would have been twelve. Betrothal tended to last a year with a girl being married soon after she was thirteen. It was a whole different world to ours.

So Mary was inside, with the Greek making it clear that the angel went in to her, minding her own business, perhaps doing some household chores for her family. At that point in time maybe she would have been daydreaming about her life to come, about becoming married to Joseph, a skilled builder and craftsman, and bearing children with him.

For a peasant girl in the middle east at that point that would have been the general direction of her life, as a good Jew living in the northern reaches of the country. Her life would simply have been ordinary, and if it had continued as expected then she would have been like the thousands of other girls of her time and place, and we would never have known about her.

But that wasn’t what happened. In that one instant, when Gabriel arrived in her room, everything changed forever. But, and this is my key point, I think we would be hard pushed to say that in real terms it changed for the better. But this is what God does when we get serious with him. He changes lives, and sometimes it feels like he messes it all up for us.

Mary was one the cusp of womanhood. Think of the teenage girls you know. We may think that they have grown up a lot quicker than in the past, but trust me, even they are a long way behind Mary’s generation. Most of the people I marry are at least in their late twenties with many more being in their thirties and forties. She was just about physically capable of bearing a child.

And so that is what God asked her to do, to bear his child. But she wasn’t yet married. And this is what I mean about God messing it up for us.
You see for a twelve or thirteen year old to be pregnant in our age still makes the tabloid headlines, but for Mary the threat was more potent because you can’t hide pregnancy, and for an unmarried woman to be pregnant risked her being stoned. At the very least she would be shunned. And think of poor Joseph.

Even if he believed her about Gabriel he would either have to live with the stigma of people thinking he had married an adulterous woman, or letting people believe that he and Mary had had sex before they were married, that he was incapable of self-control. Whatever happened, Joseph Mary’s betrothed, was also going to have to live with the consequences.

Rick Morley (who inspired some of this) asks the question of what must have been going through Gabriel’s mind before he pushed open that door. He must have known what he was going to ask her to do, and what the implications of that were likely to be. This poor young girl whose life had barely started was about to have its course radically redirected by the message from God he was about to convey.

But perhaps the most remarkable thing is that she did agree with what God asked of her. No ifs, buts or excuses. She simply said yes. Her assent to God meant that she faced the ignominy of being pregnant outside of wedlock, a long and harrowing journey to Bethlehem in the south, an even longer journey to Egypt to escape from the horror of Herod’s massacre, a lifetime of rumours about the background to her firstborn’s birth, and the awful witnessing of his cruel torture and death by crucifixion.

That was what God asked of her. But what does it have to say to us? What can we learn from this? I guess the first and most important point is that God is not some distant deity, but is instead active in our lives. If we give ourselves to him as Christians we should be prepared for him to ask things of us, and when he does so, it will be because he thinks we are the right people for what he wants.

A vocation isn’t just for the clergy; it’s something for all of us. It’s not very easy to tell people that though, particularly when you’re trying to explain why the Christian faith is Good News. So we tend not to. But if we’re honest, what we should say is come to God through Christ, but be aware that if you take him seriously, then he will take you seriously, and he may ask you to do something that you could never have imagined doing.

What I can tell you is, despite how it can sometimes be a difficult path to tread, I have never felt so fulfilled and so in the right place as I have being here as a priest, and I wish someone had had the foresight to ask Mary what it felt like to see whether, at the end of the day and with all the difficulties she had been through, did she feel it was worthwhile. I suspect she would have said yes. Despite everything she went through, it was still worth letting God mess up her plans.

You see I think that there is one thing which is far more important than happiness and that is that we should be able to say that our lives counted for something, however hard it may have been, and I think that’s a really important part of the good news. God wants to be involved in our lives, and if we let him then he may ask things of us, small or big, and if we do his will then something is changed in the world. May we learn to echo Mary’s words; let it be with me as you have said.’ Amen

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Third Sunday of Advent : Praying all the time?

1 Thess. 5:16-24
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.

May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.

John 1: 6-8, 19-28
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’
And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ He said,
‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
“Make straight the way of the Lord” ’,
as the prophet Isaiah said.

Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’ John answered them, ‘I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’ This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

A couple of months back one of the members of Rhythm of God, our monthly drumming service, brought along a friend who was staying with her but who lived some distance away. She joined in and really enjoyed this way of praying, and after the service, as is our usual practice, we adjourned to the Bell. She and I struck up a conversation and after a while she asked me if I used to live in Welwyn Garden City.

I said that yes, that was where I was brought up. ‘And did you go to Crusaders?’ was her next question. (Crusaders was a non-denominational youth group in the days before political correctness changed the name). I replied that I did, and then she asked me if I remembered her, and after a few moments the penny dropped.

She was three or four years younger than me so as teenagers we hadn’t quite moved in the same social circles, but yes, I definitely remembered her, particularly the way in which she spoke which, strangely enough, had changed very little in the intervening twenty seven years since we last saw each other. But for both of us, that was more or less the only thing that hadn’t changed.

She had had an amazing life so far, doing things I would never have had the courage to do, and she was now married with children. As a teenager I don’t think I would have imagined the kind of life she would go on to have, but it was so nice to catch up and so she came back to the vicarage and we dug out my old photos from that era and compared notes.

I guess that all in all we probably spent two hours catching up that evening, and even then we barely scratched the surface. It would all have been so very different if, instead of allowing the vagaries of chance to bring us back in contact, we had stayed in touch throughout. I would know, for instance, the name of her children and her husband. I’d know how the Lord had called her from one place to another.

I’d have been able to rejoice with her in the joyful times and pray for her in the darker times, but none of that had happened simply because we hadn’t kept in touch. Quite simply we weren’t in tune with each other’s lives.

Now on the other hand I have some friends who I’ve had for years and who I still see very regularly. I know them and they know me. When we’re together they barely need to ask how I am, nor I them because our very demeanor gives us away, such is the depth of our knowledge of each other.

I might wish to ask what had happened to buoy up their spirits, or what had taken place to make them downcast, but as to how they actually are, by and large it’s written all over them simply because I know them, much as they know me and can always see how I’m feeling even before a word has been spoken.

And that brings us to our reading from 1 Thessalonians. Now those opening words are ones that I might wish to take issue with St. Paul over. We might wish to make the excuse for him that this was the first ever letter he wrote, which we think it was, and maybe he hadn’t seen enough life as a Christian to have got the wisdom of suffering, but I don’t think that’s true. So when he says, ‘Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.’ I think we should take him seriously, provided we understand the whole of the message and don’t just think of this as an isolated verse. You see if we were to take it on its own it would be an unjust, unfair and impossible command.

The only part of it I can imagine being remotely something I could comprehend is to pray without ceasing. I’m not for a moment suggesting that I do, although in fits and starts I feel like I’m being drawn in that general direction. But to rejoice always and give thanks in all circumstances, well that’s an impossible and unfair thing for any Christian leader to command. Life’s just not like that.

As I’ve sat with friends going through divorces, or at the bedside of a dying loved one, how could I possibly tell them to rejoice or to give thanks? It would be unethical to that, although I have been exposed to Christians who have done precisely that and caused untold psychospiritual damage by demanding people try to be happy in the midst of abject misery.

But what if there is something deeper there? What if we were to think of those two apparent commands to rejoice always and give thanks in all circumstances to actually be the two ends of a perfectly balanced see saw that pivots on the command to pray without ceasing? Or what if we were to imagine that to pray without ceasing is the engine that pulls the other two along with it?

Praying continually is the one spiritual discipline that has the potential to change absolutely every other aspect of our lives and the reason for that is that is that it keeps us in touch with the One with whom we are communicating, contrary to what I had done by not seeing this old friend for twenty seven years. When we see friends regularly, we sense things about them that we simply don’t sense in people we haven’t seen for a long while.

The same thing is true of prayer. Now when I say we should think about praying without ceasing, what I don’t mean is that we should keep up a continuous internal dialogue with the Holy Spirit. What I mean is that we should practice a sense of awareness of God’s presence, of being mindful that he is alongside us and within us.

The more time we spend learning the discipline of becoming mindfully aware of God and our place within the Spirit and the Spirit within us, the more we are in touch with God and in tune with what’s going on around us and how the Lord feels about it. That, in turn, leads to a steadily deeper knowledge and awareness of God continually at work in the world around us and in the lives of the people with whom we share our time.

I should add that it is important to compare our experiences back with scripture because we’re complicated beings and it is easy for us to be misled by our feelings whereas scripture contains a far more complete revelation of God’s nature than any one of us on our own can know.

A classic opening line from many forms of traditional prayer is, ‘Open our lips’, to which everyone responds with something like, ‘And our mouths shall show forth thy praise’. But I’ve found in recent times that I also want to pray, ‘Open my eyes to see you at work. Open my ears to hear what you’re doing. Open my spirit to perceive you surrounding me and within me.’

And slowly, almost imperceptibly, I sense the Holy Spirit beginning to answer my prayer. I do not for a minute think that I am anywhere near being able to rejoice always and give thanks in all circumstances. I wear my heart on my sleeve to those who have got to know me, so there’s no point in me saying anything that might suggest I can rejoice always, because you all know that’s not true.

But in my years as a believer I’ve met and observed others who do seem to spend an awful lot of their time simply aware of God’s presence, and from that I think I can perceive where St. Paul was coming from, that with just the first glimmerings in my own life, and I mean the first, I can imagine that if someone becomes so wholly aware of God’s presence surrounding them the whole time, of not being continually distracted by that tv show or this whatever, then there would be space to rejoice in that sense of closeness.

And this, I believe is what St. Paul was actually driving at. We cannot force people to be rejoicing at all times and in all circumstances; that would be unethical. But, if we follow his command to pray at all times, to be aware of God alongside us in every aspect of life, then I believe it will reframe our experiences and shed new light on the paths we should tread.

Mindful awareness of the presence of God, in combination with holy scripture, helps us continually to discern how the Lord feels with respect to any given situation and this must surely be better at shaping us than the model of prayer where we occasionally talk to God and are continually trying to catch-up, as with an old friend we’ve not seen for a while.

All of which directs us to the Gospel reading and the person of John the Baptist. John, as he is portrayed by the Gospel writers, is a prophet who truly seems to be aware of his mission, his calling. I imagine that through living as an undistracted hermit in the desert, being in God’s presence by day and by night, he found a sureness of vision that we would find difficult to grasp.

If someone asked you about what God was calling you to do, do you think that your likely response would consist of a lot of ums and arrs? Or would you feel able to respond confidently? John, it seems, was so aware of his calling, through the prophetic life of prayer that would have been his, that when asked why he was baptising he was able to quote old testament prophecy with the words:
‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
“Make straight the way of the Lord”’

How many of us might feel we could claim that? Yet John lived his life as a prophet who was in tune with God and so sensed what God was saying to him.

So today we have a call to pray. Not just in the morning or before bed, but to learn the discipline of becoming aware of God being present in every aspect of our lives. Out of that awareness may flow rejoicing because we will perceive the world differently. But for sure we will have a greater sense of what God is doing around us, and what he wishes to do with us, and within us. Amen.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Second Sunday of Advent: Using our imagination to learn

2 Peter 3:8-15
But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.

Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.

Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.

Mark 1:1-8
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight” ’,
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’


Do you remember the high winds we had on Tuesday? During those I was sitting at a third floor window waiting for someone to arrive for a meeting when I watched a bird fly past. It struck me that as it tried to fly across the wind so the poor thing got flung this way and that by the strong gusts, and then it turned around in the direction of the wind and got such a boost that it probably ended up flying faster than it had ever flown before.

My first thought was that is a great metaphor for how we deal with the Holy Spirit’s guidance. The Spirit blows in the direction of God’s choice and if we try to tread a path in a different direction we are easily blown around and possibly spiritually buffeted for going in the wrong direction.

But if we allow ourselves to be turned to go in the direction that the Spirit leads, then we might suddenly find ourselves filled with passion for something new and achieving that which we might never before have dreamt of. So that was my first thought. But my second thought was more conceptual. I found myself thinking about what I had just done with what I’d observed.

You see when you see something like that you can do one of two things with it. With a purely observational hat on you can say something clear and scientific. If a bird tries to fly across the direction of a high and gusting wind it will be blown off course. If, however, it turns into the direction of the wind then the power of the wind will be added to the power of its own flapping wings and it will fly much faster. That’s the scientific view.

But what I had done, without realising, was perhaps a more artistic, symbolic approach. I had observed the same thing but tried to learn something symbolic from the physical reality. I’d stepped away from the obvious description into a more symbolic meaning. And that then got me wondering as to which approach we normally use when we read scripture.

Do we normally look for the clear and obvious teaching, the ‘Thou shalt not’ approach. Or do we look for something deeper, more symbolic and artistic and see if there may be more that the Spirit can teach us from what is written than the obvious surface meaning. And with that in mind I looked at today’s Gospel reading.

Mark’s Gospel, which is the Gospel we’ll be studying for the next year, is quite different from Luke and Matthew in the way that it begins. For Mark there are no stories of how Jesus was born or anything from his adolescent life. Instead we get this great proclamation, ‘The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ the Son of God’.

It’s meant to take our breath away, and indeed that is exactly Mark’s style. Throughout the opening chapters of his Gospel one sentence after another begins with, ‘And then’, or ‘And immediately.’ It has sometimes been called, ‘The Action Man Gospel’ because of this style of one thing Jesus does crashing in to the next thing that he does.

But the action actually begins with John the Baptizer. The Good News starts with a baptism of repentance and so I want us to think more symbolically about what we read there. I want us to rediscover a sense of wonder, awe and mystery, of layers waiting to be discovered, of God as an artist painting symbols for us to ponder.

So let’s think in those terms about the sacrament of baptism. Firstly what do we think baptism is actually about? Well with the scientific mind set we look for the obvious explanations:-

Baptism in water is symbolising a washing clean, and indeed that is exactly what John’s baptism was primarily meant to be indicating. If someone had repented, then when they were washed in water it was symbolic of a greater washing that God was accomplishing within them. It is also sacramental in that it is symbolising outwardly what God is doing inwardly.

But there is more to baptism than that. A second, deeper symbol, is of death and resurrection. In the Church of England our general practice is not to immerse people fully in water, although for adults that can be arranged if so desired. But in the Baptist and other non-conformist churches the practice is to use a large baptistry rather than a small font, and for the person being baptised to go deep under the water.

There we see another symbol, which is one of death and resurrection, that the person is being baptised into Christ’s death and resurrection, that they die with Christ and are raised with him, and this too is sacramental, as it makes real what it is symbolising. But there is more to baptism if we allow our imaginations to run riot with the artistic imagery.

You see the baptism picture can also be one of freedom from captivity, from slavery. Looking back through Jewish ancient history we come to the story of how the Israelites were set free from captivity and slavery in Egypt. The words came to them from Moses that God wanted to bring them out of Egypt to their own land, the Promised Land.

And so, following the plagues and the death of the firstborn of Egypt, still remembered each year at the festival of the Passover, the Israelites left Egypt. In order to make their escape from slavery they had to pass through the waters of the Red Sea which parted for them, and this too is an image, a symbol, of baptism.

So with our artistic pallet we can see how someone who is baptised is also being set free from slavery. What do we mean by slavery? Again it’s not the obvious scientific description but more the symbolism of slavery to a particular kind of behaviour, or to a way of thinking, or to having to be like modern culture tells us we should be. The list goes on, and once we start to let our artistic side paint pictures we find all sorts of potential in the image of baptism.

I think that another deep symbol in there is one of childbirth. All children are born as through ‘water’. A common expression that childbirth is immanent is when, for the mother to be, her waters break. What might that have to say of baptism? The obvious one is that of being born again, born from above, born of the Holy Spirit, all of which are descriptions of being a believer.

But I think there is more to it than that. Childbirth is very rarely easy, so I’m told. It’s a process and sometimes, perhaps often, it’s a very painful process. I think this too is an effective baptism imagery because it reminds us that the journey into faith is rarely an easy one and usually requires a lot of effort from us, some of which may be painful.

We are squeezed in ways we don’t want to go and our first breaths of the Spirit, the wind of God, may even be accompanied by tears. As an imagery of baptism I think childbirth has a lot to teach us about the pathway into belief and discipleship.

So what I want you to take from this morning is an inquisitive spirit; to leave here with a determination to look for symbols of God in the world around us and ask yourselves what God may wish to teach you, not just about baptism but about anything. Look at the world with new, artistic and imaginative eyes and ask God to reveal himself to you by the Spirit. You may be surprised at what he may wish to teach you. Amen

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Advent Sunday: Preparing in quiet or waiting for divine fireworks?

Isaiah 64:1-9
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you,
who works for those who wait for him.
You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways.
But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.
We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity for ever.
Now consider, we are all your people.

1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Luke 12:35-48
‘Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.
‘But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.’
Peter said, ‘Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for everyone?’ And the Lord said, ‘Who then is the faithful and prudent manager whom his master will put in charge of his slaves, to give them their allowance of food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions. But if that slave says to himself, “My master is delayed in coming”, and if he begins to beat the other slaves, men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk, the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know, and will cut him in pieces, and put him with the unfaithful. That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating. But one who did not know and did what deserved a beating will receive a light beating. From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.

What do you do when God seems a long way away, or even totally absent? Does it really get to you when you hear preachers talk about knowing the presence of God or hearing God speak? When I was a teenager there was a popular Christian T-Shirt with the slogan, ‘If God seems far away, who moved?’

When I reflect on that now it seems simplistic and judgmental, designed to make you feel guilty if you don’t sense the presence of God, and yet so many dedicated believers talk to me about how it feels to sit in the pew, Sunday by Sunday, talking to what feels like a closed heaven.

Advent is about waiting and preparing. It’s about making ourselves ready once again to remember the visible presence of God incarnate in Christ, and to wait and prepare for his return in glory. But that’s the past and the future. What does it mean to live in this meantime, this in-between time, in a world where he seems so absent? What does it mean when he seems silent?

I want to examine this question and to think about waiting and preparing in the light of the reading from Isaiah, and to get the best out of it we need to know a little of the background to that reading. Isaiah’s an interesting book of prophecy because we can say with some conviction that it was not the work of one prophet. We’re pretty sure these days that there were at least two writers or groups of writers, and quite possible three, because the book appears to refer to three periods of history.

The first writer, known as Isaiah of Jerusalem, or simply, First Isaiah, was writing during a period of turmoil in the nation. Babylon’s empire was expanding in their direction and Isaiah of Jerusalem was convinced that the small kingdom of Judah was soon going to be in trouble. He laid the blame for that firmly at their own door, believing that God was going to judge them because they had not kept God’s laws.

Judgement was coming and the phrase, ‘We’re doomed’, pretty much summarises this section of the book which basically covers the first thirty nine chapters. Then at chapter forty we get a big turn around with the opening words from God, ‘Comfort, comfort my people.’ This next section of the book, penned by Second Isaiah, was written in Babylon while the ruling parties of the nation were in exile there after the nation had indeed been invaded as First Isaiah had predicted.

This second part of the book is a complete turnaround. Instead of a message of doom it is all about hope and a return to the promised land. Isaiah even goes so far as to name their saviour, King Cyrus of Persia, who indeed invades Babylon as Isaiah predicts, takes over, and then sets the captives free and allows them to return home to rebuild their nation. There is great hope of the fullness of God dwelling with the people again as the nation returns to its former glory.

Except it doesn’t quite happen like that. Many scholars now add a third division in the book, beginning at chapter fifty six, believing that there was a Third Isaiah, probably a group of several writers, who spoke into the post-exilic Jewish community, now back in their own land, but it was not turning out as they expected.

Instead of the nation’s former glory being restored and the presence of God dwelling visibly among them, there were questions amidst the ruins and a nation divided between the ruling parties who returned from exile and the ordinary working people who had remained in the land. And so we come to today’s reading which is part of a longer lament about the state they found themselves in.

As we ponder the poetry we uncover a huge yearning for it to be back like it used to be, with a new temple and the visible presence of God back in the Holy of Holies as in the days of old, leading up to that opening statement,
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!

This is what they expected God to be like; the mighty power who overturned everything in his way. This is how the stories of their nation had described their former relationship with God. But then it goes a lot further and we begin to see the prophet actually blaming God for their current predicament.
But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.
We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.

Basically the writer is saying, ‘If you, O God, had stayed with us, we would never have sinned. It’s your fault that we’re like this. If you had stayed around we’d have remained righteous.’

Now in one sense this is laudable because it recognises that age old truth that apart from God we can accomplish nothing, and that anything that is of lasting value is accomplished through God. But it doesn’t quite sound like that. There is, instead, a petulant sound to this prophet’s voice. He sounds rather like a teenager saying to his parents, ‘You don’t like me the way I turned out? Well you’re my parents - it’s your fault I’m like this. If you’d been there for me as a child I might have become a better adult’

God seemed to be totally absent from them. There was no thunder and lightening, and so they blamed his absence for causing their bad behaviour. Now whilst I’m not for a minute suggesting that those of us who yearn to feel God’s presence actually blame him for our bad behaviour, I do know for sure that many of us, when we look at the suffering in our world, wonder why God doesn’t do something about it.

The opening words on the lips of the prophet resonate within us.
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down...
And so we feel that absence deep in our hearts, both for ourselves and for the world. ‘God, where are you? Why don’t you answer our prayers? Can’t you see what your absence is doing to us?’ Our voices may not quite have that petulant edge, but rather than taking responsibility as people supposedly changed by God and ready to do his work, we blame God for not coming down and changing things directly.

And that brings us to Advent, because whether we are looking at our own personal experience of the absence of God, or the suffering in the world that we may well blame on his perceived absence, the message of scripture is very clear: Wait and prepare, because you do not know when he is coming.

I’ve stood in this pulpit and told you about some of the times in my own experience when it’s seemed as if the veil between heaven and earth has been drawn apart and God has been very close, but I would also have to be honest and say those occasions are always unexpected and unpredictable. These are the times we think we’re waiting for, just like the explosive presence that the Jews of Isaiah’s time waited for. But it’s not just about waiting for the sound and vision special effects version of God, it’s also about preparing ourselves, about doing some work to help us hear God in a different way.

You see there is another way of knowing God’s presence in a more all-pervading sense, and this is more, I think, to do with learning how to perceive him. It requires our work rather than God surprising us, and depends on spending time learning the disciplines of stillness and waiting. As we do this so we begin to grow in the awareness of God’s continuing presence. There is a simple immanence, a ‘thereness’ of God. I believe that this, far more than the surprising presence, is how we are changed.

In those quiet times God doesn’t necessarily say anything, and sometimes it simply feels like the Holy Spirit brooding. From the Isaiah reading it seems to me that there was little of this sense of preparing themselves to be alongside God amongst that particular community. They just wanted the thunder and the lightening, the special word that comes out of nowhere, the unpredictable timing of God’s speaking to us. But it sounds like they were not willing to do any of the hard work of learning to listen. I wonder if we’re like that too.

It’s interesting what we find in the next chapter because we get God’s answer to their accusations when he replies:
I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask, to be found by those who did not seek me. I said, ‘Here I am, here I am’, to a nation that did not call on my name.
I held out my hands all day long to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good,
following their own devices; a people who provoke me to my face continually,

We can blame God for not being there, for not giving us some amazing experience, but what if he’s actually holding his hands out saying, ‘But you’re not searching for me. I am here if only you would put away the noise and listen.’ Advent is about waiting and preparing. Waiting for the future to be born. Waiting for the past to be reborn within us. And all the while preparing ourselves to be able to perceive God’s continuing presence with us.

If we turn to our Gospel reading we get more of the same kind of urging. Jesus calls us to be dressed and ready, to be waiting. And he warns us against letting our behaviour slip, that’s the on-going preparing. We have been given the truth, that God did indeed come to his people. Just as they yearned for him to rend the heavens and come down, that is precisely what he did, but not in the way they expected.

He tore open the heavens and came silently to be born as one of us. And when he returned to the temple in physical form, God coming as a man, although some accepted him most of the nation rejected him again, just like they had done so many times. God had not come in the way that they demanded. They had set the rules but God hadn’t kept to them, and so they were disappointed. They wanted power, and through his birth and death he came in powerlessness.

So what do we want, the fire and the lightening and sound, or the stillness? Power or gentleness? Christ comes to give us his peace. We may be waiting, but are we preparing? Amen

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Christ the King: What about other faiths?

Ephesians 1:15-end
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.

Matthew 25:31-end
‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’

Not all of my friends are believers, and I expect you’re the same. Yet by our nature it is unlikely that we will have many, if any, close friends who look out mainly for their own needs, who live selfishly. For true believers, whilst we may have colleagues, acquaintances and neighbours who seem like that, our closest friends tend to be people who are like-minded. It therefore follows that even if we don’t share the same faith, we do at least appear to share the same values.

It will come as no surprise, therefore, that I often have people coming up to talk to me about friends or relatives who don’t believe yet seem to live lives with good moral values. The question that is usually raised is, if they don’t believe in Jesus, is there any eternal future for them? Surely God won’t abandon them will he?

The same kind of concern is raised by those who have dear friends that belong to other faiths. Living in a more global culture has had a profound effect on how we view other religions. It once used to be easy to consider other religions as heathen and without hope because we had never met any of them, but now we will often find ourselves working alongside or knowing people of other faiths, at least in this country.

And what we find is that, far from being heathen, other religions also have believers who are faithful, moral, ethical and spiritual people. They don’t believe what we do, and yet they seem to have lives that are touched by the presence of God. How can this be? Is there hope for them too, even though they don’t call Jesus, ‘Lord’, or believe what we do in our creeds?

An answer to these issues can be found in today’s Gospel reading about the sheep and the goats. Now this parable can be read on many different levels. For example, as you probably know, Middle Eastern sheep and goats look very similar. The difference is that the sheep are much hardier and can be outside on a chilly night in winter whereas goats cannot.

It is necessary for the shepherd, therefore, to divide them up so that he can take the goats back under cover whilst leaving the sheep out to pasture. But the only way you can tell them apart by eye is that sheep’s tails hang down whereas goats tails stick up. So there you have the story behind their division; this is just what a shepherd would do.

Then we have the usual interpretation, that this parable is aimed at people who say that they are believers but whose lives show no impact of their faith. These are the people who call themselves Christian but if they didn’t you’d be hard pushed to see anything about their attitudes to the needs of others that suggests they believe. It rather ties in to the letter of St. James who talks about faith and works, saying that faith without works is dead.

But there is another interpretation of this passage which comes from looking closely at the words Jesus himself uses. You see it seems likely that this passage says very little about judgement of Christian believers. If you read the parables immediately preceding it you find there references to the judgement of those who call themselves believers and who think of themselves as God’s servants.

But if you look at this passage what you find is that the people responding to the judgement seem to have no idea who Jesus is. ‘When did we see you hungry, naked etc...?’ is what we hear from their lips. It seems highly likely, therefore, that previous passages were about the judgement of believers and this may actually be about how those with no faith, or perhaps a different faith will be treated.

The issue revolves around how we interpret Jesus when he says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” In order to understand the meaning of the passage we have to understand what he means by the members of his family. One interpretation was that he was referring to us, as believers. We are the family of Jesus.

So on this interpretation this passage is actually all about encouragement for those going out on the mission field. That was harrowing and dangerous work. Remember that only one of Jesus’s apostles lived in to old age. The others, excluding Judas Iscariot, were all martyred. They ended up sick, in prison, hungry, naked or thirsty, and Jesus seems to be suggesting that how people who did not believe in their message treated them would determine the listeners eternal destination.

Another way of interpreting Jesus’s reference to his family is simply that he is thinking of all humanity, and so those who do not have specific faith in him may nevertheless demonstrate morality, justice and good ethics by how they treat other people who are in need. But whichever way we interpret this, the thing which most stands out is the way that Jesus refers to the sheep as, ‘The righteous’.

Remember that the sheep are often taken as a metaphor for those who follow Jesus the Good Shepherd, and yet what we have here suggests that there may even be those who are of his flock, and yet do not even realise it, either because they have never heard the Gospel message, or because they have heard it in such a distorted way that they have seen fit to reject it.

This passage, therefore, seems to speak of hope for those who do not share our faith and can underline just how vital interfaith work simply in terms of expanding our own vision to be able to see God’s hand everywhere. But it does raise a question: Why, if people can be counted as righteous even if they do not follow Christ, should we bother with evangelism?

Part of the answer to that is that any one of us can survive on bread and water, but we thrive when we have a balanced diet. Jesus said that no one comes to the Father except through him. That doesn’t discount other ways of knowing God, but the intimacy of being a beloved child of God must surely be justification enough of wanting to share this good news with others. I would like others to have the same shaped relationship that I have with God simply because it is good.

Evangelism is not just for the future, for saving people for heaven, it is also about helping people to live this life well, and surely the best way to live is as people who know and experience God as a loving parent, intimately involved with our lives. The miracle of the Gospel is that Jesus is able to transform the hearts of the selfish so that they become righteous.

But this is also a message of hope for those who seem righteous to us. God does care, and he cares far more than the fundamentalists who seek to put limits on his love and mercy. Even if people don’t yet believe as we do doesn’t mean that they might not be righteous. Amen

Friday, 11 November 2011

Remembrance Sunday - Reasons for Accepting Responsibility

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.

Matthew 21:28-32
Jesus said, ‘What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.


I want to talk about responsibility on this Remembrance Sunday. We live in an age and culture which has been defined by many as being dominated by people concerned about their rights, not their responsibilities. In a world where people tell us what we can have, we have come to expect that it is our right to have what we want, and neglect the other side of the coin, the responsibilities that we have.

It hasn’t always been that way in this country. Less than a hundred years ago, in 1914, teenage boys lied about their age in order to go and fight for their country. Many died nameless, and that’s important to know. Then again in 1939, more young people put their lives on the line for generations that were not yet born, and the familiar words of the Kohema Epitaph bring us up short:
When You Go Home, Tell Them Of Us And Say,
For your Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today,
They received little reward except our gratitude, a gratitude that we meet here to continue to express.

The sacrifices that they made mean that I am able to speak to you today with the freedom to say what I think is right in public, rather than what some totalitarian government would permit. We only have this freedom because they took responsibility for their country, but what a price they had to pay. Nevertheless they did so because they loved this country and they took responsibility for it.

So what I want to do this morning is think about how we deal with responsibility, with reference to what Edward read about being taught the ways of God, and from what Leonard read from Matthew’s Gospel. Let me briefly explain what that parable is about, because it shows how the issues of human nature haven’t changed in two thousand years.

The parable is about two sons and their father. One of the sons is told to go out into the vineyard to work and he says he will, but then he doesn’t. The other son is asked to go out into the vineyard to work and he says he won’t but then he does. With the first son who neglected his responsibilities Jesus was pointing at those who called themselves religious, yet did not take responsibility for living righteous lives. They wouldn’t live up to the responsibilities they claimed were theirs.

On the other hand you had all the outcasts, those at the bottom of the pile, the ones who the religious people thought of as worthless. These were the ones who accepted the message of Jesus and who began to work for the kingdom. These were the ones who accepted God’s responsibilities.

Reading this got me thinking about how we deal with responsibilities. So what I want to do for you is to paint a few word pictures of our different approaches to responsibility. Please understand that these are most definitely not modelled on any one person. If we are honest we will see bits of ourselves in each of them, but in order to learn about the right way to be responsible, we first have to be honest with ourselves about why we take on responsibility.

The first reason we might do so is simply because we don’t know how to say no. Whenever anyone asks us to do something, if we are this kind of person we find that we can rarely do anything other than say yes. We might wonder why that is, and I suggest that it is probably because of a deep need we have to be accepted by other people, and saying no can be quite hard for fear that it might count against us, meaning that we may have to face someone’s displeasure or dislike.

If we are predominantly like this when it comes to responsibility then we are apt to be exploited by other people, and end up taking responsibilities by the dozen until we buckle under the stress with the only consolation prize being everyone telling us how good we were to have worked so hard, even if it made us have a breakdown.

The second type of approach is when we take on responsibilities because of a need to feel a hole inside where we need to have some sense of being needed, that our lives actually count for something, that we are able to give enough to make sense of our reason for existing. When we give like this we can find ourselves ensnared by fear of no longer being able to contribute, and then losing a reason to exist.

This type of person needs to hear the message that the love of God is given freely; it cannot be earned, and that they matter to God solely for who they are, not because of anything that have achieved. They matter to God like a child matters to their parent, simply because they exist.

The third reason we might take on responsibility is because we have a deep seated need to be seen because responsibility is a way to having greater influence. This third way of dealing with responsibility is the most dangerous because it gradually leads us down steadily more selfish paths, always seeking to improve our public standing.

At its extreme you can see this way of behaving take hold of members of parliament when they pounce on each other during debates if a mistake has been made, and it makes me wonder why they are there if all they want is for their own star to rise. Aren’t they supposed to be serving us?

And then I look at all three of these approaches, all of which I find in myself, and I expect if you’re honest you’ll find them in your own selves, and I contrast that with what I see in my Lord, the one who is also known by the name ‘The Servant King’. How did he deal with responsibility?

Throughout the Gospels what we see in the stories of Jesus is that he knew who he was and he was secure in his identity. He knew he had value, not because of anything he had done, but simply because of who he was. He knew that he was loved by God, and because he was secure in himself he had no need whatsoever to try and get the respect of other people.

He is perhaps the only person ever who had no need of other people’s opinions to help him decide what he should do. It is from this place of security that he serves, even though he the Word that spoke the universe into being. That’s why he’s called the Servant King.

Now we are never going to be that perfect. When we serve, when we take on responsibilities, if we are honest with ourselves we are always going to have mixed reasons for doing what we do. That is just human nature.

Some of those reasons will be selfish gain and some will be because we need approval, but if we can only begin to appreciate that, if we can only be honest about our mixed motives, then we can take a step along the path to holiness because we can kneel before God and say,
‘I am sorry. I know that this is the right thing to do, but I’m not sure that my reasons for doing it are all that noble. Help me to serve people like you do.’

And then gradually, in our honesty with ourselves, we can begin to take responsibility out of a desire to give, truly and honestly because we can see that there is a need. We will develop servant hearts. In those hearts we will find the need for recognition or justification giving way to the noblest of desires; wanting to serve others out of gratitude for how God has served us, and what he has given us.

So that’s the right way to take responsibility, but now comes the hard question. If there is nothing in it for us, no public respect and no motivation to be loved by doing it, are we far enough down the path of holiness simply to serve, to take on responsibility because there is a job to be done, and in recognition that we should give out of gratitude for what we have received?

That’s what so many of our war veterans did. That’s what so many of those fallen in combat did. For many of those buried in French cemeteries there is just a grave saying, ‘An unknown soldier’. Yet still they took responsibility and fought so that we could have freedom. What about you? Will you take on responsibility even if there is nothing in it for you?

There are many organisations that need your time, if you would give up perhaps one pastime to spare some energy for them, but there is one today that I especially need to bring to your notice, and that’s our branch of the Royal British Legion. You all have a sheet of paper that says something about what we need, but the situation is this:

Numbers have dwindled so much through the ravages of age, and despite our repeated adverts in the parish magazine no one has come forward to join. None of you have been willing to take responsibility. You don’t have to have served in the forces, you need only wish to support those that do. So here’s the situation:

Unless we have new members our branch will have to close and become a sub-branch of another branch. Do you want that to happen? It’s your branch, and only by taking responsibility for it can it survive. Who knows what it could achieve with new blood and new ideas. So this is basically your last chance to save it by taking responsibility.

Don’t do this, or anything, because you need the limelight or because you can’t say no. Do it because it’s the right thing to do. Do it out of gratitude for what was done for you. Hard times are coming on our nation and the only way through is if we re-learn how to serve each other as Christ served us. Here’s one way you can start. Amen.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

3rd Sunday before Advent: Being Prepared

1 Thessalonians 4:13-end
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, [fallen asleep] so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. [fallen asleep] For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. [fallen asleep] For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.

Matthew 25:1-13

‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.


Two weeks ago we looked at a passage that many people thought was about the second coming of Christ, and we showed how it was actually more about the ascension and return of Christ into heaven after Easter. I told you then that there were other passages that genuinely speak about the second coming and that we would deal with them when they come up in the lectionary, and today that is exactly what we have before us.

The return of Christ seems to me to be one of those pieces of our theology where Old Testament imagery, prophecies and beliefs have been drawn together into the story of Jesus to help produce a more coherent picture of an event that was both longed for and feared. In the Old Testament it was called ‘The Day of the Lord’, and by the New Testament it was understood that this event was the same thing as their understanding of the return of Jesus. It was the end of the age and the dawn of something new.

However, this passage from Thessalonians has been abused by fundamentalist theologians, often with a self-righteous political agenda, to describe a time when Jesus will come and snatch away all the Christians from the world in an event they call ‘The Rapture’. Their belief is that after this event the world will be left in the power of the devil for a period of seven years, known as the great tribulation.

At the end of that time they believe Jesus will return to judge the world, but that the Christians get off scot free from all the hard times because the angels will have snatched them out of the world. You can see that it’s a very nice middle class vision of people who really don’t want to get their hands dirty. And I also don’t believe it’s what’s in the text.

So what I’m going to do here is try and unpick the Thessalonians reading and then apply that through the Gospel message to our daily lives and how we live now. So let’s begin with the Thessalonians reading.

Now I know I always talk about contexts, but it is important that we understand something of the background to any reading. What makes this one more interesting is that there are actually two contexts to be considered. The first one concerns why St. Paul wrote these words, and for that it’s interesting to note that this is probably the earliest written document in the New Testament, and was written before the Gospels probably around about AD52, so we’re thinking in terms of within twenty years of the death of Christ.

So in case you were thinking that St. Paul was responding to people who had read what St. Matthew had written about Jesus coming again, you need to recognise that this was written before St. Matthew put ink to parchment. The teaching that Jesus was going to return was well established in the church from early on, presumably because people remembered Jesus saying it and passed it on.

Yet despite this teaching being well established even before St. Matthew wrote his Gospel, something had obviously happened which had sent a shiver of worry through the Thessalonian church, and that was why St. Paul was writing to them. His use of language suggests that he was responding directly to a question he had been asked.

You see essentially it came down to this. They believed that Jesus was coming back, and that his return was imminent, but in the intervening twenty years since his ascension some of the believers had simply died. And so the Thessalonians were confused. Jesus had said he was coming back, but before he had returned a number of followers had died, and so what would happen to them. Were they lost forever?

There is a not-yet-fully-formed theology of the resurrection here. We sometimes forget that the beliefs that we all take for granted now was being worked out in the first few hundred years. In fact the theology that we believe in now continues to be worked on, but that’s another sermon! Anyhow, there was a very genuine concern about those who had died.

And so it’s very interesting to note the word that St. Paul uses when he refers to those who have died. You see the usual greek word for death is thanatos and that is exactly the word St. Paul uses when he refers to the death of Jesus. But when he talks of the believers he uses a different word, koimaƍ, and what makes that interesting is that it is a euphemism for death which can also mean someone being asleep.

So Jesus’s death before his resurrection was real death, but the death of a believer, well that is still death, but not in the same absolute sense, which is why some translations still refer to it as ‘Falling asleep’. It clearly means death, but euphemistically. So by his language St. Paul was trying to give them hope; theirs was not a final death.

Then he begins to unpack what will happen when Jesus returns, and here is where the second contextual argument is vital. As I said when I began, many people believe that this passage is about an event they call the rapture, when Jesus will come and collect all the believers and take them away to safety in heaven. And a face value reading would agree with that interpretation.

But you should always be cautious about basing theology on face value readings. If you put it in the context of their society you find something else. When a Roman leader, or perhaps the Emperor himself, arrived near a city the people who lived there would go out to meet him, and then escort him into the city.

And so the description that St. Paul is giving of the second coming is akin to their culture of how one went out to meet someone important. There would be a fanfare and the people would go out to meet him and accompany him on his arrival.

So rather than being about a rapture event, this recording of the end of this age seems to be about the believers, dead and alive, being caught up to meet Jesus and then escorting him to the earth. It’s not about running away from this planet, but about Jesus returning here. The word for this is parousia which literally means a revealing.

For the last two thousand years Jesus has been present on earth through his Holy Spirit in the heart of the believers, but at his return he is revealed in his fullness. The description St. Paul uses draws on his cultural imagery to describe the indescribable. The core teaching is that, however we understand or experience it, when Jesus returns we will be caught up in order to return with him, to be fully present to this world at its recreation.

John’s Gospel, which he ties to the start of Genesis, opens with, ‘In the beginning was the Word.’ It was through Jesus that God the Father spoke creation into being. Is it any wonder, therefore, that when we start talking about the second coming of Christ, what we’re talking about is the new creation, and of God once again speaking this new creation into being through Christ?

The joy of what St. Paul is writing about is that whereas at the first creation it was just the Son, the Word of God, through whom the Father was speaking creation into being. But with the second coming Jesus is accompanied by those he has saved and redeemed; us.

And it is this motif of being caught up with him and accompanying him on his arrival which ties this reading to the Gospel reading. You see what we find there is the description of a wedding tradition from the Middle East. Now in this country we have laws that mean you have to have been married by 6.00pm for the wedding to be legal.

But in the Middle East it was, and still is, quite possible for the wedding to take place in the evening, or for the bridegroom to be delayed on his journey to the wedding. But when he arrived the bridesmaids were expected to go out and accompany him on a torch lit journey to the venue of the wedding. That was why they needed the oil, to keep their lamps alight so that when the call came to go out to meet the bridegroom, they were ready for it.

Can you begin to see now how this ties to the Thessalonians reading? Jesus is often referred to as the bridegroom. And when he arrives, at his second coming which is thought of as the wedding feast, Christians are to be caught up to go and meet him, which is the bridesmaids being ready with their lamps still lit. St. Paul and Jesus, as recorded by St. Matthew, are describing the same event.

So what then does this passage have to say to us? Well even after just twenty years the Thessalonians were worried about whether Jesus was coming back. We’ve been waiting another two thousand years. Is it ever going to happen?

Jesus warned the disciples that the Bridegroom might be delayed. By telling us this parable what he was trying to say was that we need to be alert, because we don’t know when it’s going to happen. But there is something even more immediate than that. None of us really have a clue what may happen today, let alone tomorrow. How prepared are we spiritually?

Last week, on Wednesday, we had our annual All Souls Day service when we remembered before the Lord those who have died, and bereavement is always a reminder of the truth that not one of us knows how long we’re going to live. We might hope for years yet, but those of us who have felt death breathing across our collar knows that it can arrive at an unexpected time.

This is not in any way meant to be threatening. This is about grace. I think the Lord gave parables like this out of love not power. He wants the best for us, and the best is for us to be travelling with him, and so he tries to encourage us that we need to live lives the whole time that are dedicated to him, and not to become lax in our spiritual journeys.

It’s so terribly easy to stop working at growing as a Christian. I can’t tell you how exciting it is to give spiritual direction to someone over the course of several years and watch how they grow and change spiritually, and I yearn that we should all take that approach, because it’s the right thing to do.

When we put our feet up and stop trying, like the bridesmaids we risk running out of oil, and not being prepared. We need to be alert, spiritually growing, because not just the second coming, not just death, but pretty much any kind of crisis can come at us without warning. As the Lord said, be ready, therefore, because we do not know the day or the hour.

So at it’s core this passage teaches us two things. The Lord will return at the time of his choosing, and we should be ready. But also any number of events can come upon us at an unexpected time, and if we are to be able to deal with them we need to be spiritually prepared by growing in the Spirit. Amen

Thursday, 3 November 2011

The Anglican Covenant

In putting this document together I am indebted to Revd. Martin Stephenson who collaborated on this. I say from the outset that neither of us are in favour of the Covenant but we tried to look for what was potentially positive about it as well. These are our thoughts. For any factual errors I take responsibility.

What is the Covenant and why do we have it?
In order to talk about the Anglican covenant we first need to understand the reasons behind why some people think we need it, and that requires a little history.

Western culture has undergone huge changes over the last fifty years, and the sexual revolution in the 1960's, combined with the loss of influence of the church, has meant that we have had to grapple with a massive cultural shift across Europe and the US. In the midst of that we have had to do some pretty serious thinking about our religious approaches to sex.

This has required a close reading of the scriptural texts and some deep theological thought. We still haven’t reached any kind of consensus, and it would be fair to say that the breadth of Christian belief in these matters is probably wider now than it has ever been in history.

On the one hand we have those who believe in a face-value reading of English translations of the limited number of verses about human sexuality in scripture which have led them to a raft of prohibitions.

On the other hand there are those who seem to think that scripture has nothing of value to say on these matters and who seem to have almost reached a point of universal permissiveness. The result has been a polarisation of opinion between those with the loudest voices whilst the rest of us inhabit the ground somewhere in the middle, which is probably where God’s truth can be found.

We have to recognise that there will always be such cultural differences between the various churches within the wider Anglican church in terms of theology since we operate in different cultures and face different challenges. However, in the past we have been able to plaster over them, and allow the distances between us to mean that, in real terms the right hand often doesn’t know what the left is doing, whereas modern communications and media have changed that forever.

Now it is very clear what one wing of the Anglican church is doing compared with another, and the differences of opinion in our theology and practice concerning sex have come into a sharp focus.

Probably the defining moment was the consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire in the Episcopal Church of the U.S.. Robinson was the first openly gay bishop living in a non-celibate relationship.

Around the same time the Canadian church published an official order of service for the blessing of same sex relationships. These two things, more than anything else, precipitated a crisis in the worldwide Anglican communion because they highlighted massive differences in approach to theology, particularly with respect to sexuality, between the global south and north. The Covenant has been designed to address these differences and how we cope with them.

What are these differences?
In a presentation like this it would take rather a long time to discuss these in detail. It seems to me that we are presented with different cultural approaches to scripture, and it is truly vital that we accept that our theology is not worked out in a social and cultural vacuum. A great deal of our theology is strongly influenced by our country of origin and God’s mission in one place is likely to be worked out differently from another place.

This is not the time to have a debate on the rights or wrongs of the church’s different opinions on human sexuality. Our job this is solely to determine whether we think the proposed covenant is a good way of coping with those differences. But we do first have to recognise that there are differences.

My understanding is that Anglicanism is meant to adhere to three principles;
scripture, reason and tradition. We’ve rather followed the Methodists in more recent years by adding a fourth category, experience.

In order to have a balanced faith we need to work out what we believe by keeping a tension between those different elements.

Naturally, different groups within the church will be drawn towards different elements. The evangelicals tend to begin with scripture, the liberals with reason, the anglo-catholics with tradition and the charismatics with experience. But in order for us to be a well-rounded church we need all of them working together, and each different sub-culture within Anglicanism needs to value the input of the others as having a part of the truth.

I believe that at least a part of our current situation is because of the disagreements between different parts of the Anglican church on which of these three or four principles is most important. It would, I think, be fair to say that our brothers and sisters in the Anglican denominations in Africa tend towards a more ‘scripture first’ model whilst those in the US Episcopal church tend more towards reason.

I suspect that there may be a more hierarchical structure present in some of the dioceses of the Southern cone, alongside an openness to the church disciplining those who fall into a defined category of sin in a way that is rather different from much of the Church of England. It is not to say that either approach is more correct than the other; they are simply different because we are called to be God’s ministers in different cultures and so we respond differently in those cultures.

So immediately we can see a tension between the Southern provinces and the European and North American provinces. I should add that this is a bit of a simplification as there are liberals in the South and conservative evangelicals in Europe and the US, but you get the basic idea.

The proposed Anglican Covenant is a way of trying to resolve those differences. So let’s have a look at what’s in the Covenant.

What is the covenant?
The biggest problem with the Anglican Covenant is that it would take us a week’s work to wade through it and digest everything that it says! But let me see if I can briefly outline it and summarise the different parts.

Essentially the idea of the Covenant is to make the bonds between the thirty eight different churches of the Anglican communion more concrete, formal and explicit in such a way as to set limits on what Anglicans can believe and still be called ‘Anglican’, and to establish a procedure for enforcing discipline on churches which sign the Covenant and then don’t keep to the Anglican consensus.

Anglicanism has traditionally been characterised as an informal bond of love between churches, and so the changes proposed under the Covenant will make a massive change in church governance, some say the biggest change since the reformation. Instead of being a group of affiliated churches there would be a centralised body set up to govern in cases of dispute or where progressive or reactionary theological ideas are being examined.

What’s in the covenant?
Essentially there are four sections plus an introduction. The first two sections describe the beliefs and goals of Anglicanism. It doesn’t make easy reading but there is little there of great concern to us. It is in section three that the difficulties begin since it is about each church within the denomination essentially committing itself not to act unilaterally without the approval of the other churches in the covenant in any matter which could cause offence to said other churches.

This is quite a broad brush. Clearly the current matters causing offence are the different approaches to human sexuality, but who is to say what else might be of offence in the past or in the future. New Zealand has had women Diocesan Bishops since 1989 whilst we’re still working our way towards that position. In contrast the Diocese of Sydney will ordain women only as deacons, and not even to the priesthood.

These are matters which could all be taken as causing offence in other areas of the Anglican Communion. Everyone can quote scripture to support their position. I am offended at the unilateral decision by Sydney to bar women from the priesthood, just as I am sure they are offended by their near neighbours who recognise the episcopal ministry of women and have done for more than twenty years. You can see there is a problem.

The following section in the Covenant, section four, is about the mechanism of enforcement. Commentators seem to suggest that this is not terribly clear, but the suggestion is that those who sign the Covenant and then act contrary to it will have to face consequences in terms of their relations to the other signatory churches .

What’s good about the covenant?
When Martin Stephenson and I were looking closely at this we came up with five good things about the Covenant.
1) It commits the worldwide Anglican communion to cultivating virtues of prayer, study and debate.
2) It commits us to debating until we get to an answer. Some parts of the church, notably parts of the Southern Cone, do not appreciate this as a positive, thinking that all we do is talk without ever making a decision.
3) The Covenant expresses the need for mutual recognition and consultation. We are one communion, and all are equally valued.
4) By signing the Covenant, churches are making a freely chosen commitment to share discernment.
5) The church is meant to be universal, and so by committing to the Covenant we would be expressing a commitment to act in ways that are not merely local. We are not congregationalist.

What’s bad about it?
1) It looks like it’s creating a disciplinary body with power in the hands of the Primates.
2) It could be easily used as a tool of exclusion and tyranny rather than love and inclusion.
3) It is too Bishop centred. Bishops should be a focus of unity, not a focus of judgement.
4) It is self-indulgent in that it is seemingly about maintaining our unity rather than about God’s mission
5) It will inhibit new thinking. Progressive theology could be restricted.
6) If it had been in place, would we have been able to move towards women priests and bishops - a controversial issue without broad agreement across the communion.
7) It hands the right of veto to the Lambeth Conference, the Primates meeting, the Anglican Consultative Council and the Standing Committee (an elected body from the ACC and the Primates)
8) Cultural interpretations of scripture could be over-ruled in favour of the Anglican council’s interpretation. In all humility we need to recognise that Scripture is always interpreted culturally. Remember how recently we had slavery in this country, apparently with scriptural backing. As I said at the beginning, each church faces different cultural challenges and must prayerfully respond in ways which may be different.

Three important questions
We should feel at liberty to ask questions of the Covenant. Here are three but I’m sure there are many more.
1) What recognition is there of scripture, reason and tradition (and experience)? These are the foundations of Anglicanism, yet most of these arguments have broken out because some areas of Anglicanism have put too much emphasis on one foundation.

2) What might have happened to the debate about women priests and bishops if the Covenant had already been in place?

3) At a time when our western culture is rejecting anything remotely hierarchical, is this yet one more impediment to God’s mission by making the Anglican church even more hierarchical than it already is?

What happens if we reject it?
Some would argue that the Anglican church will split if the Covenant is not signed, but one can equally make the argument that the Covenant will precipitate the very split that it seeks to avoid. It’s worth noting that many churches look like they are going to reject it or have already done so.

Some of the conservative provinces are already going their own way (such as GAFCON) and many have already said that they won’t sign up to it.

What is the current global position?
The Episcopal church in the US has rejected the Covenant on the grounds that it is not sufficiently welcoming of diversity.
In contrast the Sydney Synod has also rejected the covenant, only this time on the grounds of its theology.

Those who have accepted the Covenant are the Church of Ireland, the West Indies and the Province of South East Asia.

Those who have rejected it in addition to the US and Sydney include the Philippines and the Maori Central North Island Diocese of New Zealand. Two other areas in New Zealand have also rejected the Covenant. It’s interesting to note that the Maori diocese gave as a part of its reason for rejection that the Covenant is un-Anglican.

Making a decision
It seems ironic that a document that was created to bring about and enforce unity has become divisive and a focus of disunity. This observation itself raises questions about whether it is even possible to legislate unity in the face of such a variety of different opinions.

The Church of England has historically been associated with owning and maintaining a variety of opinions, but the Anglican Covenant seems to challenge the presumption that this is a valid position. It seems to me that the question the Covenant asks is us in this country is, is it possible to be traditionally Church of England and Anglican at the same time under the Covenant?

The Covenant also challenges us as to whether each culture can be given the freedom to interpret scripture from their own cultural contextual perspective, in the humility that comes with recognising that they might or might not be correct. One could argue that the Covenant actually precipitates arrogance in terms of one interpretation being correct over another, with the Bishops having the final say.

Anglicanism, and Christianity as a whole, should treat disagreements by coming together in humility to explore under God what the Spirit is saying to us, and agreeing to disagree in love. Where there is genuine love there cannot be an imposition of power, and likewise, imposing power drives out love. If God is love, what do our human power structures have to say when they dominate the church?

Let me finish with a section of Mark’s Gospel:

Mark 9: 33-35
Then they came to Capernaum; and when Jesus was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But the disciples were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and the servant of all.

The Covenant seems to be about imposing power and authority from a centralising body, despite the cultural differences across the world. If we think that is in line with the Gospel, then we should support the Covenant. Otherwise we should reject it.