Saturday, 29 October 2011

Celebrating the 400th Anniversary of the King James Bible

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

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

Matthew 28:18-20
And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

I take preaching very seriously. In fact I would have to say that I think it’s one of the most important things I can do for you as your parish priest. But in order for my preaching to have any value whatsoever it utterly depends on me reading the text in the Bible and spending time getting to know it and understand it, and almost every sermon I have ever preached begins with the text that has been set for the day.

Even today as we celebrate the King James Bible and its 400th anniversary I am drawn to the words from Romans 15 which says that whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of these scriptures we might have hope. And alongside that I have the command from the Lord himself to teach.

Yet I think that for the most part we have come to take the Bible for granted and we have lost sight of what an incredible gift it is. We have only had an authorised version in English for four hundred years. That’s not actually very long. Lady Burman is 97. So in the year she was born we’d only just had the three hundredth anniversary. We’ve only had the Bible in our own language for four long lifetimes.

You’ve already heard how many people gave up their lives for it. They could see how vitally important it was for the spiritual health of the English speaking world that everyone would be able to read it, and yet within four lifetimes we have lost sight of just how incredibly special this book is.

When was the last time you sat down and really studied or meditated on a passage? If people were willing to lay down their lives for you to be able to have that text in your hand, don’t you think it must warrant your time?

So let’s have a think. What actually is the Bible? As I was writing this I was also engaged in an on-line debate with a friend from the Nick Drake gathering who was talking about how confusing the Bible is, and I think he put his finger on it for us. One of the reasons people don’t read the Bible is because they find it difficult. But is that really a good excuse? There are plenty of things in life that are difficult yet worthwhile.

One of the reasons clergy and the established powers in the church fought against having the Bible in everyday language was because they thought that the ordinary person shouldn’t have access to it because it was too difficult for them to understand. Yet people like Tyndale stood out against them. It is the height of arrogance to say that only intelligent people should have access to it. But it does require of us that we take care when we read it.

The first thing we have to do with the Bible is recognise that it is not a book. Seriously. I know it looks like a book but it isn’t. It is in fact a library, and it’s important to know what genre each book in this library belongs to. That takes a little study, but it’s really not hard. It is however vital.

Imagine going into a library to look for a historical record and going into the science fiction section. It’s possible you might find something that is quite prophetic, but you’re not going to find anything that tells you what really happened. The same thing applies to the Bible. Some books are meant to be histories. Some are meant to be poems. Some are meant to take a story from history and develop it into a morality tale.

It’s important to know what genre the piece you’re reading comes from. But having said that you also need to be aware that the beauty of the Bible is the way it’s written by its many different authors with styles that allow deeper and deeper meanings to be found there under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. For example the Song of Solomon is clearly meant to be an out and out erotic love poem with talk of breasts like gazelles and, well you get the idea...

Yet at the same time, on a deeper level it also says something about the desire and tenderness that Christ has for the church. Or look at some of the Old Testament prophecies and see how they keep coming true in a repeated fashion. The classic example is the Isaiah prophecy of the young woman who will give birth to a saviour called Emmanuel, God is with us. It was written for a people in turmoil needing a political saviour, yet came into an even deeper truth when the Gospel writers applied it to Jesus.

And on an even deeper level some of the writers used their chosen language in such a way as to conceal layer upon layer of truth. Consider this from John’s Gospel. You’ve already had some Greek from Margaret; let me give you a little more from John 1:9. In Greek it says
En to phōs to alēthinon, ho phōtidzei panta anthrōpon, erchomenon eis ton kosmon.

We usually translate that as ‘The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.’ But John was very clever, because he wrote the Greek in such a way that it also means this, ‘He was the true light that enlightens everyone coming into the world.’ He also does it with the classic line from John 16 where Jesus says to Nicodemus, ‘You must be born again.’ But the language he uses also means, ‘You must be born from above.’

I could go on giving you examples, but suffice it to say that our Greek teacher found something new in the text every single year he taught the course. Now if he could find that, after all of his years of scholarship, how much more are we going to find it as beginners? The depths that are there for us to fathom are truly amazing.

Yes it can be difficult to read, and that’s one of the reasons I promised myself years ago that I would not shy away from the difficult subjects in the Bible but try and make them clear to any congregation God called me to. I do that to inspire you that as a book the Bible is interesting and worthy of your study. It is so good that it has the potential to utterly change your life.

So let me finish by saying that there are three equally valid ways of reading scripture, and two of them are easy. The first is to read it for its surface meaning. What is the text literally saying? That’s called text centred reading. With some passages it can be difficult when the text seems confusing, but those confusing passages are no excuse for not reading the vast majority of the texts that are straightforward, particularly in the New Testament.

The second valid way of reading it is to try and understand what the author was trying to convey. This is the hard one, referred to as author centred reading, because it requires more in depth study. This is what I try and do for you in sermons, but you can do it too. It just requires reading what other people say about what they think the author was trying to convey.

The third way is perhaps the most important way, and it is centred on reading the Bible prayerfully. This is called reader centred reading because what you are looking for is what the text is saying to you personally.

This is the way in which the Holy Spirit can use a piece of scripture to speak directly to you. My favourite verse in the Bible is from John chapter 10 where Jesus says, ‘I came that they would have life, and have it in all its fullness.’ To me as the reader what that says is that, as a priest I must always ask myself if what I am doing is bringing life, because that is in keeping with the Gospel of Christ. It’s not necessarily what Jesus intended from the context of the story, but it is how the Holy Spirit has challenged me in my ministry.

The Bible is the most life changing, challenging and wonderful book in creation. People died so that you could have access to it in our own language. People continue to translate it to keep modern translations in step with modern culture. It is worthy of study. It is worthy of prayer. And it is the primary way in which God will speak to you. Please read it, and read it, and read it some more. Because if you do, your life will be changed. Amen.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

18th Sunday after Trinity: Not the second coming...

18th Sunday after Trinity

Col. 3:12-17
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Matthew 24:30-35
Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see “the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven” with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.

‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

I want to deal, today, with a subject that is very close to the hearts of many Christians around the world, the return of Jesus Christ, also known to many as, ‘The Second Coming’. Whether we believe in it or not is almost inconsequential because some of the most powerful people in the world, particularly on the republican side of the USA, do believe in it, and it is quite possibly behind some of the political decisions being made, particularly with respect to the ongoing US support of Israel.

This is theology with a real world application which is why we need first to understand it and secondly to be able to deal with the theological misunderstandings that it is centred on and which have predominantly grown out of this passage.

Let me begin by first reminding you of what we think we know. There are sections throughout the New Testament, but specifically in Thessalonians and Revelation, which seem to indicate that at some future time Jesus is coming back and that the Father is going to put all of creation in subjection to him.

It is natural that we assume, therefore, that all of this section, indeed this entire chapter in Matthew’s Gospel, is also to do with the return of Christ. It seems to suggest to us that at some point the whole world will see Jesus coming back in great power and glory. The Americans and many evangelical Europeans often call this, ‘The Rapture’, with the idea that as he comes Jesus will send out his angels to collect Christians from everywhere.

Books have been written and films have been made about those who will be left behind in a time of great tribulation and suffering caused by the absence of Jesus’s followers and by God letting the devil have his way on earth, totally unfettered. Those who watch the news will know that a prominent American evangelical predicted all this would take place om Friday last week. Yet here we all are still.

You see the trouble is, I’m not sure how much of this is theology and how much of it is wishful thinking by those who relish being separate from the world, or maybe even pure fiction. In fact this particular passage may actually have nothing to do with the second coming, and if we don’t recognise that then we could end up doing some very bad theology, as has indeed happened.

Now I use that word, ‘...may’, with great caution. This is a very difficult passage to deal with, and I’m not going to use it to say that there is no such thing as the second coming. But if we have been thinking about this passage in the wrong way then that will, of course, affect our theology of the end times. Most of the modern ‘Rapture’ interpretations revolve around a belief that Jesus is about to return anytime.

It strikes me that they are in fact based on a false belief that ours is the most important generation in history. From a social point of view I think one could argue that they stem from people wanting to feel they are the most important people to live because they are living at the end of time. But actually it seems likely to me that this passage is saying that all of the important work necessary to our salvation happened two thousand years ago.

The line which should make us stop and think is this one:
“Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”
You see if this passage refers to the second coming of Christ, and he said that this generation will not pass away until these things have happened, what are we still doing here nearly two thousand years later, may years after that generation has in fact passed away?

One of the standard ‘wiggle-interpretations’ is that once the things Jesus was prophesying about actually started to happen, then they would happen quickly, within a generation, it’s just that they haven’t started to happen yet.


I am not convinced that’s really a proper way of looking at it, and having read what some biblical scholars have to say on the subject of this passage, I am more or less convinced that Jesus was referring to something much more imminent which actually has far more real life application in our lives today.

In order to get at what Jesus may actually have been saying we have to look at the context of his words. He was speaking in response to a question that the disciples had asked him right back at the beginning of this chapter. The disciples had been marvelling at the amazing temple in Jerusalem, and it truly was astounding, significantly larger than the Muslim Dome on the Rock which stands in its place now.

But Jesus had told them that the temple would fall. Their response was to ask him when this would happen and what would be the signs that he would appear as king and the end of the age would be upon them. So the context is one of the temple falling, and the reason it had to go was because the reconciliation of God with his people was to take place through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

In other words he was the new temple, and the work which was accomplished in part in the temple through the system of sacrifices would be accomplished in full through him by the laying down of his life once and for all: the two were tied together. If we hold that in mind then we can see a series of events that took place two thousand years ago, and about which Jesus had a degree of foreknowledge that they were coming.

Firstly he saw that there would be a time of great turmoil. The events immediately preceding this passage are described in a quote from Isaiah that refers to the heavens being shaken, the stars falling from the sky and the sun and the moon not giving their light. It seems likely that this is apocalyptic language for a time of great turmoil in the world rather than a literal description.

It’s a little like phoning someone to cancel an appointment with the words, ‘I’m sorry, but something’s come up.’ We don’t literally mean that a big pointy thing of unknown definition has just reared up through the ground in front of you. It’s just a manner of speaking.

So what then does it mean when Matthew refers to the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven. In order to understand that we need to realise that Jesus is quoting from Daniel chapter 7. Let me read you the full quote:
I saw one like a Son of Man coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him.

That second line is vital. Jesus is not referring to the Son of Man, of he himself, returning to earth on great clouds of glory. He’s actually referring to the Son of Man returning to heaven. This then is all about the ascension of Christ, not the second coming. It’s actually a remarkable vision because in the Old Testament clouds are often associated with the presence of God, so for it to be someone who is in the appearance of a man says something special. This is an allusion to the divinity of Christ and yet also his humanity.

This also puts a context on the fall of the temple as being the sign of the Son of Man in heaven, that Jesus had predicted that it would fall, and its falling was the sign that everything about Jesus being the saviour was true.

What then about Jesus sending out his angels to collect the elect? Once again right wing conservative theology has declared that this is about the miraculous disappearing of Christians from the earth as a part of the rapture, but that is probably not what is being said here. Our word angel comes from the Greek angelos which literally translates as messengers.

This verse about gathering is not necessarily about a supernatural and unmistakable disappearance of Christians. Instead it could well be a prophetic word about the church. After all, as well as the supernatural angels, all Christians are also in that category of being a messenger of Christ. The church is engaged in living out this verse because it is our job, as Christ’s messengers, to be gathering the elect from all over the world.

So this passage, it appears, is not a description of a future event. I am not for a moment saying that Jesus will not return, it’s just that this passage is about something entirely different; his victory over death and sin two thousand years ago, and his ascension into the presence of the Father, and about the coming destruction of the Temple as a sign of what Jesus had accomplished.

If this interpretation is correct, and I wouldn’t be preaching it if I didn’t think it was, then it changes our approach to this life. Many people, many Christians, live their lives as people who are focussed on the next life rather than this one. They make decisions founded on the belief that Jesus is coming back any day now, and this world is for the chop, and so they don’t care much for what takes place here.

But the writer to the Colossians had a different and far more valuable perspective.
...clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

This is about having a focus on this life, this world, this fellowship, these neighbours, this community. Scripture seems to suggest that there will one day be a Day of the Lord, a return of Christ, but this Gospel passage isn’t about it. Instead it should be encouraging us to give thanks for what Jesus has already achieved, and that he already stands, vindicated, in the presence of the Father, and that we are his messengers, called to gather the elect. We have been given rules for living this life. Let us not be too eager to escape it, because it is now that we can help gather in the elect. Amen

17th Sunday after trinity: Whose image?

1 Thess. 1:1-
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
Grace to you and peace.

We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of people we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place where your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.

Matthew 22:15-22
Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

In my family I used to have a bit of a reputation with a game called Connect 4. If you’ve not seen it, it’s a game where you drop counters into an array of holes, taking it in turns with your opponent, to try and get a line of four counters of your own colour in any direction; horizontal, vertical or diagonal.

The best way to achieve this is to put your opponent into a no-win position by carefully building your game plan so that at some point you make a move that leaves you with three counters in a row and a space at either end. Whatever counter-move your opponent makes, they can’t beat you because you have out-maneuvered them. You have put them into a lose-lose position

This week’s Gospel reading follows on from last week’s and we are therefore still following Jesus around Jerusalem as the religious authorities try to trap him in exactly the same way. They were aiming to put him in a position where his response would damn them, whatever it was. The reason this question about paying taxes to Rome was a trap was because it was designed to leave him with two options, either denouncing the Romans or denouncing the Jews.

You see the Jews didn’t believe that it was right to pay taxes to Rome because Rome was the occupying country. If a country comes in, takes over your land, and then demands you pay taxes to live there, then you are justifiably going to be a little tetchy about it. There had been riots and uprisings about paying the tax, and of course the Romans had put these down with their usual brand of brutal efficiency.

But if Jesus sided with this anti-tax point of view then the Romans could arrest him. However, if he said that Jews should pay the Roman tax, then the Pharisees would succeed in discrediting him in front of all of his followers. How could a Jewish Messiah possibly countenance the idea of paying a tax to the Romans? It seemed that they had designed a perfect lose-lose situation for Jesus. So how did he get out of it?

The first thing that Jesus did was to ask them for a coin. That was a wonderful opening move from him because it accomplished two things. Firstly he would have succeeded in embarrassing them because it showed he was too poor to have a coin of his own, whereas they had plenty. Secondly it showed that he was being a good Jew because he didn’t carry any of the despised Roman currency.

Then comes the masterstroke when he asks them whose image is on the coin and they reply that it is the emperor’s; Caesar’s, and he succeeds in embarrassing them even further because according to Jewish law no Jew should be in possession of anything with an image of a deity on it, and according to Roman belief, Caesar was a god.

Jesus then gives the answer that teaches a deep truth. He declares that if something bears the image of someone, then it should be counted as belonging to that person. So if the image is of Caesar, then the coin must belong to him, so give it back to him. It’s a masterstroke by Jesus, but there is also an unspoken comment that he has implied, and that’s what we’re going to think about now.

Cast your mind back to when you first looked in the mirror this morning. It probably wasn’t the best you have ever looked, but it would have been a fair reflection of what you look like without your hair brushed, your face washed, a shave for the men or perhaps without make-up on for the women.

If you looked for it, you could probably see similarities with your parents, your brothers or sisters; and for some of us, the thing that caught our eyes might have been our wrinkles or our latest grey hair! I know that I look a very different person when I have first woken up from the one you see before you now!

For most of the time a look in the mirror is just a cursory glance or a check that everything is in place before we face the world. But it isn’t always like that. Our reflections are not neutral. Our reflections can make us feel great, or can make us critical of ourselves. When we look in a mirror we often see things that we do not like about ourselves.

Those who are very thin but are convinced they have a weight problem will look at themselves and see a fat figure where there is really one of skin and bone. Those with little self-esteem will see someone that they dislike. People of any age who grew up with demanding parents will probably see the reflection of someone who never tries hard enough. Mirrors can often show us exactly what we do not want to see.

Now let me add into this mix a very short reading from Genesis 1:26-27
Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

Now let me take you back to what Jesus said. If a coin bearing Caesar’s image belonged to Caesar, whose image do you bear? It must be the image of God. And if the coin bearing Caesar’s image belongs to Caesar, then if you bear God’s image, you belong to him.

You. Belong. To. God. And there is nothing you can do, no sin you can commit, no piece of work you could have done better that can ever change that rock-solid unchangeable fact. You are his, and he is yours to be adored for all eternity.

Every single one of you are created to be like God in some way. I’m not saying that God has two eyes, a nose and mouth, but there is something about your very nature which means you are like God. Different parts of your personalities will reflect different parts of God’s personality.
And if St. John can write that, ‘God is love’, then everyone of you has the capability to use your gifts lovingly, because that’s what God does and you are like him.

Now if God is good, and you are in God’s image, what does that say about the possibilities for the people who share your life? Without doing anything other than being yourself you have the capability to change people’s lives for the better. You can make a difference.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

16th Sunday after Trinity: Being Changed

Philippians 4:1-9
Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.

I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

Matthew 22:1-14
Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, “Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.” But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

‘But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” For many are called, but few are chosen.’

The story that Jesus tells in this parable is a fairly simple one, yet with a message that we really struggle to deal with today. You have heard me preach about my concerns on the doctrine of hell and about what judgement might really be about, and then we get a story like today’s which seems to indicate that there is finally a group that is in and others who are out.

But please don’t think that this is a simplistic tale. There is more to this parable than meets the eyes, and there is a better way of understanding it than we have done historically, so let’s go back and think about it from the position of someone listening to it for the first time.

First of all, remember the context. Jesus isn’t just talking to peasant farmers or fishermen trying to grow their businesses up in the rural Galilean area that most of his ministry has taken place in. By the time we get to this part in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has just entered Jerusalem. In the overall story cycle we’ve reached the last few days of Jesus’s earthly life and he’s now in the midst of Jerusalem.

It seems likely that his audience is going to be a far more mixed bag. There will be plenty of rural people who have travelled to Jerusalem for the Passover, but remember also that Jerusalem was the capital city, and cities like that are where the rich and powerful people gravitate to, and where the wannabee rich and powerful will go in order to better realise their dreams.

It is to this mixed, and more cosmopolitan, audience that Jesus addresses this parable and I think that we should be cautious about how we imagine this taking place and the way in which Jesus told the story. Firstly we need to recognise that a parable is a story meant to get you thinking about a number of things; it’s not the same as an allegory.

If this was an allegory we could clearly say that ‘This character is meant to represent so and so, and this character is someone else’. Instead we are presented with a number of word pictures which in some cases bear on the ludicrous, leaving me with the impression that Jesus might have told this as a tall-story, the kind of thing that might have meant he had a wry smile on his face, that is until he reached the punch-line at the end.

So let’s, first of all, have a quick look through the parable at the way the story unfolds. It begins with a royal wedding and there is a suggestion that the king and his son refers to God the Father and Jesus the Son, but remember it is a parable, not an allegory; it’s not meant to be an exact match. So it’s a royal wedding and the upper social classes have been invited, and this immediately changes our perspective on the story.

We naturally assume that this parable is about Jews having been called to be God’s people but that they turned down the invitation, and so non-Jews like us get invited instead and God creates the church to replace Israel. But no, that’s not the way Jesus is telling it and that’s a much later and rather more dubious interpretation. Instead he is talking about the upper social classes having been invited to a royal wedding and coming up with excuses not to attend.

Remember it’s a parable, not an allegory. It’s not saying that God first of all invites the rich and powerful and only when they wouldn’t come did he invite the downtrodden. But what it is doing is pointing out how the rich and powerful often scorn the humility required to be in God’s presence and the readiness of the outsiders to accept the invitation. It also highlights the way God’s prophets have so often been mistreated or murdered by the rulers to whom they were sent.

It also has this ludicrous edge to it of how events get out of control, and those who took the wedding invites were killed by those who had been invited, leading to this ridiculous escalation in which the king burns their city to the ground, all because of a wedding invite. There is also an ironic edge to it, because in reality the social climbers would never in a million years turn down an invitation to a real royal wedding, but that they had ignored God’s invitation which was actually a far greater honour, but one which did not carry anything like as much public kudos.

As I say, I can imagine Jesus telling this like a tall story with a faint smile on his face as he draws his listeners in, reminding his listeners, many of whom were rich and powerful, that God calls the nobodies too, and they’re often the ones who respond. They’re the ones who recognise the honour in being called by God. I think this is probably an example of Jesus’s humour, with a sense of the ridiculous.

And then finally we get the sucker punch, that one of these guests, one of these nobodies, wasn’t wearing a wedding gown, and because of that he is thrown out into the outer darkness, a picture of hell, and we’re left floundering wondering what on earth that last part meant. I probably ought to mention that the Greek for, ‘...Many are called...’ can also be rendered as, ‘...All are called...’

Well here’s my ideas. Have you ever received a party invite that says, ‘Come as you are’? The idea is that whatever you’re wearing when you open the invite is what you wear when you go to the party. God’s invitations into the kingdom of heaven are rather like that, but he adds another line to them:
‘Come as you are, but then let me dress you.’

The wedding gown would have been a gift from the King to those who attended the banquet and the intention of Jesus was to suggest to people that everyone is invited to come to join God’s Kingdom, but we would have to allow God to change us because we’re not suited for heaven in the people that we are now.

‘Come as you are, but let me dress you’, could just as easily be God saying, ‘Come as you are but let me change you.’ And that’s the part where our hackles begin to rise because we’re not all that sure we want to be changed, or need to be changed. God is saying, ‘There are standards of behaviour, ways of being human, and you need to keep them.’

That is not saying that we can’t be forgiven when we slip up and get it wrong, but the ejection of the guest who refused to wear a wedding garment makes it clear to us that unless we are willing for God to change us, we cannot be a part of the kingdom of heaven. It’s quite a harsh message really, and not at all in keeping with our sensibilities of how God welcomes everyone in.

Yes, he does welcome everyone. His arms are spread far wider than our petty doctrines allow us to perceive, but he also makes it clear that part of the deal is that we allow ourselves to be changed, to become more like Jesus. Or to put it another way, God loves you exactly as you are, but he loves you so much that he doesn’t want to leave you that way.

We have to be prepared to change, to be changed, but I think we make excuses for ourselves so that we don’t have to put in the effort. It’s much easier to point the finger at someone else’s behaviour than to think about our own, because if we can say to ourselves, ‘I’m not as bad as that’, then we can kid ourselves that we’re ok and don’t need to put in the effort to change.

For example, if a child molester came and joined our congregation we would expect them to change or we would throw them out into the outer darkness. But in a sense that’s nice and easy - that’s a sin that everyone can loathe and that we can make ourselves feel better about. But what about a liar? Or a gossip? What about someone who spreads rumours about someone else or someone who cheats on their taxes?

What about someone whose parents need them to be there more often? What about someone who has never taken the trouble to get to know their neighbours so that they can help them when they need it? What about the person who thinks that their way is always the right way and isn’t humble enough to listen to another’s ideas? But about someone who doesn’t give very much of their income away? What about someone who makes excuses not to give their time to help?

It’s nice and easy to hate the big sins and demonise the sinners, but the truth is that every single one of us has no right to be a part of the kingdom of heaven. We shouldn’t be comparing ourselves to the obvious loathsome sinners and saying, ‘Well I’m better than them’. Instead we should be comparing ourselves to the perfection of Jesus and realising, in humility, how far short of God’s standards we actually fall.

And God says, ‘I love you and I forgive you. Come as you are. Come - but let me dress you, let me change you.’

So how can we be changed by God? There are many ways, and simply being an active and giving part of the Christian community is helpful, but we can also make wise decisions about training our minds and attempting to learn some discipline. We know when we’re doing something wrong, and I think we also know when we’re allowing our minds to go to places they shouldn’t.

St. Paul gives us wise counsel in his letter to the Philippians when he says this:
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

I’m not telling you to become fluffy, out-of-touch, culturally unaware Christians, but I am suggesting that we should learn to guide our imaginations wisely. We are influenced by our surroundings, so we need to make an effort to give God space to change us by making wise decisions about what we fill our time and our heads with, whilst learning to give God thanks for his gifts to us. Gratitude is a way into humility.

We have to be very careful here that we don’t end up in a self-condemnatory, ‘I’ll never be good enough’ state of misery. Actually we have to face the truth that, yes, we can’t make ourselves good enough, but we can make space for God to begin to change us, to leave behind some of the actions of our past.

And remember, the Lord says, ‘I love you, just as you are, but I love you too much to let you stay that way. Let me dress you. Let me change you.’

Saturday, 1 October 2011

15th Sunday after Trinity: Nailing up the curtains

Philippians 3:4-14
even though I, too, have reason for confidence in the flesh.
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

Matthew 21:33-46
‘Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watch-tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.’
Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read in the scriptures:
“The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes”?
Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.’
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

Many years ago, when we first met, Ali and I had a mutual friend, I’ll call her Ruth. Now Ruth was a very intelligent scientist, but ironically she was not the world’s most practical person, and I have never forgotten going to supper with her and her then new husband, who I’ll call John. Now Ruth and John, like most young couples in their first years together, had very little money.

They had just bought their first house and were trying to decorate it on a shoestring budget, which meant they were doing it all themselves. They did all the painting together, they chose the curtains together, and they even chose the curtain rails because the previous owners of their house had taken the rails with them.

Now Ruth was not very hot on DIY, but the next Saturday, when John went to work, she decided she would surprise him by putting up the curtain rails and curtains. However, Ruth didn’t know that in order to put something on a wall you first have drill a hole, put a rawlplug in it and then screw the fixing, in this case the curtain rails, into the plug to make them secure. No, Ruth knew none of that, but she still put the curtain rails and the curtains up.

So when John came home from work he was wonderfully surprised at how enterprising his new wife had been. But his surprise turned to horror when he looked more closely and discovered that Ruth didn’t know about screws, so instead she had simply got a hammer and nails and nailed the curtain rails to the wall.

Why am I telling you this? It is simply this, to an outward view that didn’t look too closely Ruth had done a good enough job, but the reality was that her work was useless because she had simply used the wrong tools for the job, and that’s what I want to talk about, mainly in the context of the letter to the Philippians.

St. Paul was writing about his journey towards heaven and pretty much half this portion of the reading is about all the wrong tools that he had been using. In trying to get into heaven he had been relying on all the wrong things, and he lists them for us: He had been circumcised on the eighth day after his birth; he was an Israelite of the tribe of Benjamin; he had been a Pharisee and so was an expert in the Jewish law, Torah, and how to keep it.

He had persecuted the church because he was sure they were doing the wrong thing, and as far as keeping the law went, he had never broken it. According to everything that he knew he had been using all the right tools in order to be holy. Until he met Christ on the road to Damascus he had, as far as he was concerned, already arrived.

And then Jesus changed everything and made it clear to him that all of these outward things, all these outward trappings of religion, were worthless. As far as becoming a part of the kingdom of God these were totally the wrong tools for the job. The work he had accomplished may have looked good, just as Ruth’s curtains looked good, but they were actually worthless.

Let’s pause for a moment and think about that. Do St. Paul’s tools of religion look anything like the tools we have tended to use? They were all very outward displays of things he had done. How much do we depend on being in church, saying our prayers, receiving communion regularly and all those outward trappings as being our way into heaven?

If we look at what Jesus said about the Pharisees we can see how little regard he had for the outward and visible displays of religion, and that actually they were worthless as tools for holiness and salvation.

Now I want you to be clear of what I’m saying here, that if we come to church and pray in order to get into heaven, then we’re on a hiding to nowhere. Religion as a tool for getting into heaven is simply the wrong tool. Our responses in church must be precisely that, responses. We are here to worship the Father through the Son in the power of the Spirit as a response to what God is doing in our lives.

But if we’re doing it to get into heaven, that’s using the wrong tool. Worship is a response, church is a response to God’s initiative, and that’s what was wrong for the Pharisees, they thought that all the outward stuff, the keeping of the law, the praying in a particular way, being pure, would earn them a place in the kingdom of God, but St. Paul realised that was the wrong approach.

What we see in his writings is a complete change from his original position of trusting in the law. He regarded all of what had gone before as a total loss, and instead of coming from a position of having already arrived, what we find in his writings are the words of a man who realises that he is on a journey.

Rather than saying, ‘I know’, he says, ‘I want to know’. Instead of the language of arrival through religion what we get is the language of journeying through faith, and that is the element that has been missing. The tools he was formerly using, the useless tools, were the outward practice of religion, but what he now knew was that the right tools for the job were having faith, and it wasn’t faith in what he had accomplished himself through purity but were instead faith in what Jesus had accomplished by his death and resurrection.

And that is the whole point. That’s why he was able to write, ‘Not that I have already obtained this or have reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own.’

We have not arrived in heaven, but we are on a journey there, but the most important thing we can do is recognise that there is nothing that you or I can ever do to earn our place there. Our place in God’s kingdom comes entirely from putting our faith in the work of Christ and that’s what we should put our trust in.

That’s why church worship can be in so many different styles with none of them being the correct or right way of doing it. Worship is meant to be a response to God, not a tool of salvation. We come here to respond and grow in faith in what Christ has accomplished. We should never put our trust in church or being righteous, because those are the wrong tools.

The only tool for the job of salvation has already been wielded, Jesus on the cross. Let us put our faith in that and respond in worship, for that is the only tool for the job. Amen