Wednesday, 27 July 2011

7th Sunday after Trinity: Caught between terror and glory

Isaiah 6:1-8
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.’
The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’
Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’

Matthew 14:22-33
Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’

Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’

Tom Daley is one of our brightest hopes for the Olympics next year. Although he’s still only seventeen he is already a world diving champion. According to a story in the Times on 24/7/11, he started diving when he was just seven years old, progressing quickly from diving off the poolside to diving from the one metre board and then the three metre board. The ten metre board, however, was a source of terror.

He was eight before he managed to walk along that long bendy plank, and he was so scared that he felt like he wanted to crawl along it. When he stood at the end, and it took him three or four attempts just to get there, he had a choice. He could have walked back down, or he could jump. He was caught in a point in time between the terror and the glory.

With everyone standing at the poolside encouraging him, finally he jumped and he described it like this, ‘I got this feeling of being free and falling through the air. It was amazing and it seemed to last forever; the weightlessness, the adrenalin rush. I just wanted to do it again and again.’

But what would have happened if he hadn’t jumped? Caught between the terror and the glory he could have chosen submitting to the terror and none of us would ever have heard of him. So much hinges on the choices we make in moments like that.

In our Gospel reading we are confronted with a story of Peter being challenged by what he saw in Jesus. He, too, was caught between the terror and the glory, but was wanting to do quite the opposite of Tom Daley, by coming into contact with water and not breaking through it. Now I think this walking on water story was probably quite a lot to ask a first century person to believe, but now, twenty centuries on, it seems almost impossible.

Yet this story is one of only a handful that not only appears in two of the synoptic gospels, but also appears in John’s Gospel too. The reason that’s significant is that Matthew, Mark and Luke all have Mark’s Gospel as a common point of reference. It seems that Mark wrote his first and then Matthew and Luke used that as a basis for their own gospels. John, however, wrote completely independently.

What that suggests to me is that this was such a pivotal moment in their lives together that the disciples all remembered it clearly and related it to the gospel writers. Now I know that we’re supposed to believe that all of the gospels are word-for-word truth, but it somehow adds a little extra credence when something appears in the synoptic gospels and also in John because it means that either Matthew or Luke didn’t just copy it from Mark.

But there’s something more here as well. Each of the stories have slightly different emphases, and the account we have before us today is the one with the most detail and the only one which includes the account of Peter walking on the water too, so that’s what I want us to focus on, and then we’ll turn to the reading from Isaiah.

Although the story covers only two paragraphs it seems to develop over the course of several hours. Firstly we see Jesus sending both the crowds and his disciples away. He wants some alone time to pray, so the disciples depart in a boat while he goes up a mountain to pray; and so the day passes. The next comment is about the evening, and Jesus us up the mountain praying but the disciples are struggling with their boat because the wind is against them and they’re being battered by the waves.

Lake Galilee may only be seven miles across, but its position, surrounded by hills with a mountain range at one end, means that the weather can make it a very dangerous stretch of water to be caught on in a storm. And then the clock flashes forward to the early morning, and so we can only imagine how exhausted the disciples must have been from fighting with their boat all night.

That’s when they see Jesus walking across the lake. Now I’ve often pictured a serene calm lake and a misty sun rising, but they’ve just been in the midst of a storm, so it strikes me that the water wouldn’t have been all that still. So if Jesus was walking on the water he would have been going up and down quite a lot with the swell.

When the disciples saw him, they were terrified. Well I guess you would be wouldn’t you. From a distance they didn’t know it was Jesus and probably thought they were seeing either a ghost or a demon. And then Jesus calls out to them, and we have a pivotal moment in the life of Peter as he, too, is caught between terror and glory.

Unlike Tom Daley though, it is not his own glory but the glory of God that awaits his next decision. So he cries out to Jesus, ‘If it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ What an interesting way to phrase it, ‘...command me to come to you.’ Peter is not asking to be given supernatural powers to walk on water like Jesus is.

He is recognising that if he can overcome his terror he can dwell in something of God’s glory. He’s caught between the terror and the glory and so he asks Christ to command him to come, because he knows that only then we he be able to. There is no self-sufficiency in this, and nor is there any attempt at self-aggrandisement, just a request in the midst of terror for help to step out of the boat.

What we can learn here from Peter is what we are capable if, caught between terror and glory, we are willing to risk it all on God, and this is one example of what faith looks like, and it bears a remarkable resemblance to courage. It is a willingness to look at the terror of what surrounds us, and then look at God and step towards him, getting out of the boat.

The remarkable thing, I believe, is the honesty we see when, caught between terror and glory, Peter takes his eyes of Jesus, off glory, and terror begins to reassert itself and he starts to sink. He cries out to Jesus and is immediately rescued. Peter is not a sceptic who is overwhelmed by doubts, but a man who, in a place of terror amidst the waves stacked up around him, needs help.

Caught between terror and glory, he chose glory and therefore, even when the terror began to reassert itself, the Lord came to his rescue and didn’t let him sink.

Let’s have a brief look at our Old Testament reading here for a moment because we can see the same kind of thing taking place. Although this passage is in Isaiah 6 it is actually the commissioning of the prophet. The previous five chapters are more of an overture to the symphony that begins in this chapter.

Isaiah is caught up in a terrifying vision of God’s glory. The Lord is filling the temple in Jerusalem with merely the hem of his robe and he is surrounded by angels. As the angels speak their voices are so powerful that the whole building begins to shake so that smoke and rubble begins to fill it. And remember, this is just the voices of the angels; God himself hasn’t spoken a word yet.

What we hear from Isaiah are two responses. Caught between the terror and the glory, it is first the terror on which he focuses. God is so perfect, so awesome, so beyond description that Isaiah realises how terribly far short he falls of what can survive in God’s presence. Even the magnificent angels are covering their faces, and yet he has glimpsed the face of God, and so he cries out in terror at what must come next, surely his complete destruction.

And then in steps one of the angels who collects a live coal from the altar fire which is so hot that even he has to use tongs. With that purifying fire he touches the lips of Isaiah to burn away his uncleanliness. This is important too because, when caught between terror and glory, being cleansed of our terror can be painful in its purification. Purgatory can be as much about this life as the next.

Isaiah then hears the voice of God, calling for someone that he can send to the people of Judah to proclaim what is going to happen to them. Caught between the terror and the glory Isaiah now turns to glory, the glory that is of God, and declares, ‘Here I am. Send me.’

And so to us. How often have you dwelt on this boundary layer, caught between the terror and the glory? Which way did you turn? Throughout our lives God puts us in positions where we may have to make decisions. It is interesting that Peter wasn’t alone in the boat, yet caught between terror and glory, he seems to have been the only one to have seen the possibilities of glory.

And Isaiah, caught up in that vision of God’s glory, did not have to speak out when God asked, ‘Whom shall I send?’ He could have remained silent in terror. He had complete freedom as to how to respond.

So where are you now? Or where have you been? If, sometime ago, when faced with the choice between terror and glory, and you succumbed to the terror, it is not too late to turn back to the glory now. Was it a job change, or thinking about moving, or stepping out to do something you had never considered doing before. As with Peter, the Lord continues to hold his hand out to us when we think we’re going to sink, that the terror will overtake us.

But I really need you to hear this. I’m going to be writing about this in more detail for the parish magazine but the truth is that over the next ten years there will be a net 10% reduction in the number of priests simply because not enough people are coming forward. God may be calling you to think about priesthood, but I’m pretty certain he’s going to be calling you all to look at what you can do to shoulder the mission of the church in this place, because if the Lord still has me here in ten years time, all the signs are that I won’t just be doing this one job.

If the church is going to continue to grow, it can only do so if people like you agree to get involved in its life and ministry and mission. People often say to me, ‘I’m not good enough’, to which I will direct you to the purifying work done to Isaiah. Others will say, ‘I don’t have enough faith’, to which I will direct you to the hand of the Lord stretched out to Peter as he began to sink.

In fact, saying, ‘I’m not good enough and I don’t have enough faith’ are pretty much a prerequisite for serving God in ministry. It’s only when we recognise our shortcomings that we are remotely ready to serve, because it’s only then that we serve in God’s strength rather than our own.

Caught between the terror and the glory we must trust God and step out of the boat using the words of Isaiah to say, ‘Here I am Lord, send me.’ Are you ready to step out?

Saturday, 23 July 2011

5th Sunday after Lent: Hell...

Romans 8:26-end
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

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

Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52
Jesus put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’

He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’

‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
‘Have you understood all this?’ They answered, ‘Yes.’ And he said to them, ‘Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.’

At the end of the eight o clock service last Sunday I was approached by a member of the congregation who said that he had appreciated the sermon but noticed that I had completely dodged the issue of hell and judgement. I had to agree, although in my defence my usual eight minute homily would have been rather longer had I tried to mention that as well.

I also promised that I would preach about hell the next time it came up. That was, of course, before I read this Sunday’s readings and realised that hell and judgement came up again, and this time with the added complication that the new testament reading is all about predestination. So, with knees trembling, I’m going to try and answer the question, ‘What is hell and are some people predestined to go there?’

But first a story to set the context. In the Baptist denomination they usually choose their ministers by what they call, ‘Preach-with-a-view’. In other words the elders of the church will interview prospective candidates for the minister’s position, and if they thought they had someone who might be right they would invite them to preach. After they left, the church would meet and decide together whether to call them as the new minister.

And so it was that a certain church had interviewed two candidates and couldn’t decide which one to invite to preach, so they invited them both and gave them the topic of hell to preach on. They both preached amazing sermons that kept people on the edge of their seats, but in the end the choice was quite easy to make. They chose the one who preached with tears in his eyes...

Whatever conclusions we come to about hell, the devastating thoughts that there may be some who will never experience the presence of God, and that there are evil people who never manage to ask for forgiveness should be uppermost in our thoughts. Talk of hell should never be one of our judgementalism and hope that someone in particular should go there. With that in mind let’s think about the subject.

Hell is not a clear-cut biblical concept. Throughout the bible, just as with the devil, hell is an evolving picture. In the earlier parts of the Old Testament there is no mention of either heaven or hell. Instead there was just Sheol, the grave, a grey place of no hope where what was left of a person resided after their life on earth was over. It also seems unjust to us because that was all there was in their beliefs; there was no distinction in what would happen to the good or the evil.

So let’s think about what hell might actually be. It’s a curious thing that in almost every religion there is some kind of doctrine of hell. What that hell looks like depends a great deal on whether the religion is primarily judgemental or whether it is full of forgiveness.

This difference is quite important for us as we consider Christian beliefs because it strikes me that what we say about hell is more likely to say something about ourselves than it is to say something about the truth. We all know, for example, that medieval Christianity went to great lengths to depict all sorts of horrible and permanent tortures that took place in hell and were inflicted by demons.

Yet none of that has any foundation whatsoever in scripture. In fact the one or two references to demons in hell strongly suggest that hell was actually originally created for them, not for humanity at all. In the parable of the sheep and the goats we get this at the end:

Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire that was prepared for the devil and his angels.’ Matt.25:41
Demons are most definitely not God’s torturers, so please abandon that concept. This depiction actually tells us that fear was at the root of institutionalised medieval Christianity, not love.

And I think the same is probably true today. If you look at fundamentalist Christianity you will see that it has a very firm teaching that hell is for sinners who will burn forever in eternal torment, and we all know that fundamentalist teachings are very judgmental, and that is true of fundamentalist religions whatever faith they are, simply because they are based on fear, not love.

Now we in the modern western world declare that God is love and that he wants all people to reside with him forever, yet we also have this belief that God, who is love, willingly sends people to hell be perpetually tortured in flames for all eternity, un-ending, simply because they got it wrong over the course of seventy years, for whatever reason, with no excuses permitted.

And in fact it’s even worse than that, because in the reading from Romans we have the concept of predestination built in, and there are plenty of Christians who recognise, quite rightly, that if you go all-out for a doctrine of predestination then you are left concluding that God predestined a vast multitude to hell. So they never had a chance! How can this possibly tally with our declaration that God is love?

Well quite simply it can’t. We also need to be aware that as well as the letter to the Romans which included that passage on predestination, St. Paul also wrote this to Timothy when writing about how to live a quiet and godly life:
This is right and acceptable in the sight of God our saviour, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 1 Tim.2:1-4

So clearly God wants people to be saved, and that desire, it seems to me, stands in opposition to the idea of God predestining anyone to hell or, for that matter, to heaven. Yes, I’m afraid I don’t agree that you can take what St. Paul says in Romans about predestination at face value - but that’s another sermon for another time, and I promise I will deal with that in due course.

What we do have to acknowledge, though, is that this parable of Jesus and many other places in the New Testament indicate that there are some who, through their actions in this life, will be excluded from God’s presence, and that is primarily what hell is. The absence, entirely, of God.

But that throws up a philosophical question. Acts 17:28 quotes a sermon from St. Paul where he refers to God saying:
‘In him we live and move and have our being.’
So if God excludes people from his presence because of choices they have made, can there be any existence apart from him?

This, I think, is where the images of the flames of hell come from. Our word for hell comes from the Greek, Gehenna, which means the Valley of Hinnom. This was a valley just outside Jerusalem where once the practice took place of child sacrifices in fire being made to the god Molech, a practice utterly condemned by God.

By Jesus’s time this accursed place had become the rubbish tip where a fire permanently burned and the rubbish from Jerusalem was tipped in and burnt, and I think that this is actually what Jesus was getting at. I do not believe that hell is a place where God sends people to be burned in eternal torment.

Instead, and this is where hell becomes a great sadness, I believe it is a place where those who, however many chances they are given, both this side and the other side of the grave, refuse to be a part of the kingdom of God. I believe God may give many opportunities, and I believe that those who, through chance, have never been in a place to have encountered God or heard about God in this life will be given that chance after their earthly death.

But the weight of scripture seems to suggest that, whatever lengths God goes to out of the love that he has for us to draw us into his family, there will be some who reject him, firmly and finally. If they will not be in God’s presence, and if we only have our existence because we are in God’s presence, what can there possibly be that is left to them?

St. Paul wrote these words to the church in Philippi
For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction... Philippians 3:18-19

Hell is destruction. The reason it is eternal is not that it goes on forever, but that its effects do. What I’m saying is that God, in his mercy, rather than condemning people to live forever without him, brings their existence to an end. They simply cease to exist. The theological term for this is annihilation.

I don’t think the Bible gives us a clear enough teaching about hell to say conclusively from scripture that it’s this or it’s that, but scripture, reason and experience make it absolutely clear that God’s love goes beyond anything we can imagine. Ultimately though, there may be those who refuse to accept that love.

For them there can only be a complete cessation of being. I think the reason we get this picture of flames is because a valley outside Jerusalem where the rubbish was burnt until it was burned up and ceased to exist was the best picture Jesus could come up with for hell.

I realise that this is not going to satisfy everyone, but for me it is the only picture that seems to make sense of what scripture says about the love of God and about the eternal choice he lays before all of us. We can only exist because we are in God’s presence. If we choose, finally, that we will not be with him, then there can be no where else to go. In his absence nothing can exist, and that, finally, is hell.

So if you have lived all your life fearful that God is looking for how you mess up so that he can justify sending you to hell, then maybe this is a time to breathe easy. It’s quite the reverse. God is love, and love is about togetherness, not destruction. Destruction is sadly the final option when every single other option has been tried.

If we refuse to be with God, there is nowhere else we can be, and God knows that eternity spent in his absence would be far more cruel than anything else that could be imagined. In the end hell, annihilation, is about mercy for those who refuse love. Amen.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Patronal Festival - 4th Sunday after Trinity: a many coloured church


Luke 8:1-3
Some Women Accompany Jesus
Soon afterwards Jesus went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
The Parable of Weeds among the Wheat
Jesus put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’

Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, ‘Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.’ He answered, ‘The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!’

The parable of the wheat and the tares is another one of those stories which cause us to pause and ask ourselves, ‘Which side of the fence am I on?’ If you remember from last week we had the question of whether we set our minds on the things of the flesh or the things of the Spirit and the challenge to ask ourselves whether we were asking , ‘What do I want?’or, ‘Who am I?’

But here the reading seems to be making it clear that even within Christ’s pilgrim people there are those who are not the real thing, but have been placed in the church by the devil, and we might find ourselves looking around and wondering, ‘Is it him? Is it her?’ or even, ‘Is it me?’

Let me give you a couple of examples to make you think. A colleague moved away from the West Country where he was working in a small village parish. He only stayed there a short time because the local squire basically ran the parish and nobody dared defy him. Consequently it was impossible to move the church on.

Another colleague moved churches after just two or three years. She was in a group of parishes where the same kind of thing had happened. In three out of the five churches for which she was responsible there were a group of powerful men who had taken over, become the churchwardens, and made all of the decisions. They made her life steadily more difficult until, on the edge of a breakdown, her senior clergy moved her to where her talents could be more appreciated.

Is that a case of the wheat and the weeds? Well it might be. The trouble is that once we begin looking what we risk is a ‘witch hunt’. In the Church of England we don’t have formal steps for church discipline, although churchwardens have legal right to expel someone from a service if they are causing disruption, but other non-conformist churches do have disciplining structures and can expel people from their fellowship.

At another church at which I have worked, exactly that had happened in one of the local churches. The first we knew about it was when a middle aged man started attending who asked if he could talk to us. He had been told to leave his previous church because the elders there disagreed with how he lived his life.

Naturally we welcomed him in and became good friends and he became an important part of our church family. This, I believe, is precisely the point that Jesus is trying to make with this parable. Elsewhere Jesus tells us not to judge or we will be liable to judgement and I think the reason he makes that command is because of the ease with which we get it wrong when we do judge.

We simply don’t have the right yardstick. It’s as straightforward as that. If we start looking around the church and saying, ‘That person’s not right here, they should leave’, it’s quite possible that what we’re actually saying, without realising it, is ‘That person’s not like us.’ We rarely judge someone in a pure way because, not only will we not know the entire reason for their actions, but our own preferences and baggage will get in the way.

Let’s go back to the parable for a moment. The weeds or tares are actually a plant called darnel. The whole point of this parable is that darnel looks like wheat when it’s sown and when it’s growing. If you try and pluck it out you’re just as likely to pull up something that’s actually wheat. Or in other words someone who appears different from you in church may be a part of God’s harvest of wheat, and someone who seems outwardly to be like you may be darnel.

It’s only when the field is ripe for harvest that you can see the difference, which refers to the end of the age when the Lord returns in judgement. He knows the difference and his angels will be able to remove the darnel from the wheat, separating out the true believers from those who cause evil amongst us.

Now, on this our patronal festival, you may be wondering why we’ve had this parable. I think that if we look at Mary Magdalene we have a classic example of someone who might have been classified amongst the early disciples as someone who was a weed growing up among them.

Now we don’t know exactly what Luke means when he says that Jesus cast seven demons out of Mary, but there was clearly something deeply amiss with her when they first met. Something had gone very badly wrong in Mary’s life. We could speculate that maybe she had been an abuse victim, or maybe she had made bad choices and been involved with the occult, which is indeed a way for someone to become oppressed by demonic forces.

Whatever it was, on a deeply spiritual level Mary had been very disturbed and it had taken the direct intervention by the Son of God to set her free. But I find myself wondering what she might have been like in those early few months or even years. Perhaps she made a complete and instant recovery, or perhaps, like many who have been victimised, even though they’ve been set free it can take an awful lot of love and acceptance before they find their way back to wholeness. Maybe the disciples had, behind her back, thought of her as ‘Mad Mary’. We simply don’t know.

But I certainly suspect that she wouldn’t easily have fitted in, and I can imagine Jesus doing a great deal to help her feel accepted and that she had a place. I can picture her gradually beginning to grow and blossom as she experienced the freedom that he had brought her. But imagine if she had been treated as darnel and expelled. How wrong that would have been!

Jesus ultimately chose her to be the very first person to see him after his resurrection. She became known as the ‘Apostle to the Apostles’, because she was sent by Jesus to bring the good news of his resurrection to the remaining eleven and the others with them. Had she been judged by human standards they would have got it so very wrong.

So ultimately what this parable does is make us consider all the many different shapes and sizes of God’s people, all of whom have been accepted. This is a warning to us not to judge others simply because their outward appearance may not be in agreement with what we think is appropriate. God’s church, and this local church, is meant to be a many-coloured thing in which we celebrate the colour and the diversity rather than fear it. Amen

Friday, 8 July 2011

3rd Sunday after Trinity: Who are you? What do you want?

Romans 8:1-11
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!’

‘Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.’

I have heard people declare that Romans 8 is not just one of the pinnacles of scripture, but that it is the best chapter that St. Paul ever wrote. Well I’m not sure about that, but I think it’s certainly one of the most difficult ones to understand, which is why I’ve wrestled with it for several days this week while trying to figure out how to unpack it.

I think of it as a little like one of those suitcases that someone else has packed for you. They had to get everything in, but then they had to really force the lid down in order to lock it, but that leaves you with a problem. When you open it there is a real risk that your clothes are going to be launched, cartoon-style, all over the room.

I cannot hope to do justice to the entire passage in one sermon, but maybe I can at least open the suitcase enough to take a few clothes out for us to wear, without creating too much mess! So with that in mind, let’s have a look at this first section of the chapter.

It’s only a few weeks since we celebrated Pentecost Sunday, the day when the Lord sent the Holy Spirit to dwell within his people. However on the ground at least twenty five years have passed between that event recorded by Luke and the time St. Paul wrote to the church in Rome. That’s enough time for people to begin to think about what this spiritual life means.

The result of that comes in this chapter in the letter, a chapter that mentions pneuma, the word for Spirit, twenty one times, which is more than one finds in 1 Corinthians 14, the chapter that is most normally associated with the things of the Holy Spirit. However it is not as clear cut as that. This is not a chapter about Holy Spirit theology. Instead St. Paul is writing about the effect of the presence of the Holy Spirit.

What he sets out before us is actually quite disturbing. Now you will often hear me talking about how our Christian walk is one of shades of grey. Some commandments we are better at keeping than others, but for most of us there are always at least a couple of aspects to our lives that we struggle with; things that we know are wrong yet seem powerless to deal with.

But here St. Paul seems to offer us a very black and white distinction. We either live our lives according to the Spirit or according to the flesh; there is no middle way. He seems to be saying that we either live spiritual lives or we obey our own desires for what we want.

What are we to make of that? You see I don’t know about you but at first reading that makes me think that I must be walking according to the flesh because I know how often I give in to temptation, and if you’re honest you will know exactly what I mean. If we read it like that then this passage will be quite condemnatory.

So let me first set your minds at rest. This quote comes from the end of the immediately preceding chapter in Romans:
For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.
For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me...
Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.

Basically St. Paul is saying that his experience of the Christian life is just like ours. He knows what is right but keeps doing what is wrong. But if that’s what he says he finds in his own life, what then does he mean when he talks about living according to the flesh or living according to the Spirit? It’s clearly deeper than a behavioural matter, but what exactly does he mean?

I think our first clues comes in this verse:
For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.

The key word in there is ‘mind’. What is our mind set on? What does it feel like to have our minds set on the things of the flesh, or to have it set on the things of the Spirit? The reason I ask this is because I’m fairly sure that some of us will be struggling with guilt and self-condemnation because we’re sure that we’ve got our minds set on the flesh. So let’s think a little about what this means.

Those of us who are married or who have long term partners may be worried that the desire we feel for our other halves means that we have our minds set on the flesh, so let me reassure you first that this is not the case. Physical desire in the context of a covenant relationship such as marriage is a gift from God.

It’s meant to be there because it is all about the couple, and indeed those who have been together for many years may well have discovered the spiritual side to their physical relationship. Strangely, something that we may think of as being of the flesh is actually of the Spirit. But it can be of the flesh too. Those who go looking for sex as a primary means of self-fulfilment have got it the wrong way around, and they have their minds set on the things of the flesh.

In other words, in the context of our physical, sexual relationships, the act is the same but the meaning behind it is different. In the context of relationship it can be of the Spirit, but if it is about getting what ‘I’ want, then it is about the ways of the flesh.

A similar thing applies when we start focussing on ambition: it can be of the flesh or of the Spirit. For example, over the years I have seen two types of ‘climbers’ within the priesthood. There are those who recognise, in all humility, that God has given them gifts which will enable them to take on senior leadership roles. They have, with their servant hearts, allowed themselves to go forward and apply for senior roles. That is the way of the Spirit.

I have also seen those who have needed recognition for their own selves. They have also gone forward for senior roles, but that is to set the mind on the ways of the flesh. Are you beginning to see, therefore, that it is not what we do, but how we approach what we do?

To set the mind on the flesh is to set the mind on personal wants for the greater good of me. To set the mind on the Spirit is to aim for what is for the greater good. That may mean prayerfully, cautiously, permitting oneself to be in a senior position because, in all humility, you know you are the right person for the job. But if, then, you see someone else’s job, and you covet their responsibility and their public visibility that is a sure fire way of knowing that your mind is set on the things of the flesh.

When we are considering our life journey the question we should be asking over every decision is, ‘Is this purely because I want it, I need it, or can I lay it aside?’ Ambition and desire can be the ways of the Spirit in those who are spiritually self-aware. But they can also be our undoing.

I remember watching a sci-fi series many years ago called Babylon 5. It had a deeply spiritual side to it and I’ve never forgotten the episode in which the two characters who were being called to lead a number of species through a crisis were put through an almost desert like experience where they were asked if they could lay down their leadership and die, trusting that there may be someone else who was better qualified to lead the people.

It was only when they reached that point that they became qualified to lead. It was, in effect, a very Christlike thing to do. Jesus’s quality of leadership came by the way he was willing to lay down his life because that was what was asked of him.

That series, I believe, distilled this question of the ways of the flesh and the ways of the Spirit down to two questions: ‘Who are you?’ and ‘What do you want?’ Which one of those questions are you continually asking yourself? ‘Who are you?’ is to set your mind on the way of the Spirit. ‘What do you want?’ is to set your mind on the way of the flesh.

But now let me finish with some good news. St. Paul began the chapter with these words: ‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.’

We’re going to sin, all of us. We’re going to get things wrong. You probably already have before you got here. But if we’re on a spiritual path in Christ Jesus, then listen again to that opening phrase, ‘There is no condemnation’. There is no condemnation. There is no condemnation.

I recently read an article by someone who imagined what kind of response a church may get if they hung a banner outside the church with just those two words, ‘No Condemnation’. If you walked past that, wouldn’t you be interested? Trouble is, that’s not the message most people hear from the church. Instead they think we say, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that, don’t do the other - yes definitely don’t do the other.’ Why? ‘Because Jesus loves you.’

But here, this is the good news. There is no condemnation if we have our minds set on the things of the Spirit and are in Christ Jesus. And if you’re not sure what your mind is set on, ask yourself, ‘What is my primary question? Is it, “Who are you?” or is it, “What do you want?”’ Knowing the answer to that will help you decide what your mind is set on, and if you don’t like the answer, you can always change your mind. Amen

Friday, 1 July 2011

2nd Sunday after Trinity : The importance of doubt


Ephesians 2:19-end
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God.

John 20:24-29
But Thomas (who was called the Twin, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

Today we celebrate the saint’s day for St. Thomas, or ‘Doubting Thomas’ as we have all known him, and for that reason I want us to think today about doubt.

How does you favourite creed begin? Is it, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty...” Or maybe it’s. “We believe in one God...”. The Nicene Creed was probably the first of the popular creeds, originally written in 325CE and then revised in 381CE. The Apostles Creed, which is the Prayer Book creed has less clear dates, possibly originating earlier but not appearing in written form until 390CE.

The one thing that they all have in common is that they were written to describe what is normative Christian faith; that is they are there to set boundaries on what people who call themselves Christians should believe. They were forged in the fire of philosophical deliberations over what constituted heresy and who should therefore be excluded from the church.

But there’s one other thing that they all have in common. Many Christians, when they say one of the creeds, will feel it necessary to metaphorically cross their fingers when they reach one of the lines because they’re not sure whether actually they do believe that. The reason for that is that we live in an age of reason, and consequently if something does not make sense then we may well struggle to affirm our belief in it.

For example, someone once confessed to me that they went very quiet at the line, ‘He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.’ His reason for that, and I use the word ‘reason’ on purpose, was that he was a scientist and he ‘knew’ that the only way a child is conceived is through sex. Consequently he couldn’t say that line.

But then he came back to me a few years later and said that he had taken a good long look at the universe and reasoned in his own mind that if God had created all of this from nothing, however he had done it, and if he had raised Jesus from the dead, then how hard could it have been for him to have had Jesus conceived through a miracle instigated by the Holy Spirit?

He therefore felt able to affirm this part of the creed too. But can you see what he did? He had a problem with a particular line in the creed because of reason, but then he had used further reason to surmount his original objection to bring him to a point of affirmation, a point of faith, and this is typical of our era in the church.

Faith walks hand in hand with reason, and we therefore feel that if we’re not sure about something, then we are not a very good Christian, if indeed we can call ourselves Christian at all! So the first thing we need to do is positively affirm that doubt is a vital part of faith. Listen to this from the very end of Matthew’s Gospel, from Matthew 28:16-17. Bear in mind that this is after the resurrection.
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him they worshipped him; but some doubted.

These were men who had been in the presence of the risen Christ, yet still they doubted. Now our first inclination is to examine their reasons for doubting, and there we go again, typically 21st century westerners, looking for a reasonable explanation, or reasoned explanation so that we can solve the problem. But we don’t need to solve it; just accept it. Listen to these three quotes:

‘You can only apprehend the Infinite by a faculty that is superior to reason.’ - Plotinus
‘Faith which does not doubt is dead faith.’ —Miguel de Unamuno
‘Doubt isn't the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.’ - Paul Tillich
‘Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.’ – Voltaire

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve begun to wonder about doubt and I think that a large part of the problems we have with it is because on a very deep level we are realising that whatever we say about God cannot be the whole truth.

Let me put this another way. Some of you know that, in common with a lot of clergy, I’m building a model railway. Don’t ask me why; I’m not sure. But imagine if all of the little plastic figures that will populate the platform came alive and started wondering about me, their creator. Anything that they say must be in terms of what they know about. So I would be compared to the malleability of the plastic, the strength of the metal, the vibrant colour of the paint and so on.

Whilst those things would be helpful from the point of their reasoned faculty in working out what I am like in terms of what they know, eventually they will realise that there is actually very little that they can truly say about me because all of their language is based on what they know, and everything that they know is what has been created.

But as for me, their creator, their language would not go far enough, and that I think is the important role that doubt has to play in theology. Think of it like this: Psalm 18:2 says:
‘The LORD is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer.’
God is also referred to in the same verse as a shield. But God is not a rock, nor a fortress, nor a shield. Those are just things that God is like.

And that is the key role that doubt plays. It causes us to ask things about God that we think we know, and then, if we are wise, it teaches us the limits of language. It shows us that God goes so far beyond language that sometimes our creeds will seem useless to us, and that is absolutely fine, because there is a deep wisdom here in the humility that we find.

Doubt exists to help us realise how much we don’t know and that should teach us to spend more time in God’s presence, just quietly, with all of our senses wide open for what we can learn. Reason is helpful up to a point, so long as we remember that eventually it will run out of words and descriptions, and God still goes on because our words and descriptions will always be inadequate. Then there is silence, and there we may find God. Amen.

This is all about apophatic and cataphatic theology. Those two phrases are worth searching for on here. Wikipedia has a couple of good articles. I’ve also drawn here on the blog by this remarkable PhD student at Durham
and for more on what these types of theology are, the wikipedia articles are worth a look: