Saturday, 31 March 2012

Palm Sunday: Fact vs Mystery

Philippians 2:5-11
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Mark 11:1-11
When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, “Why are you doing this?” just say this, “The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.” ’ They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, ‘What are you doing, untying the colt?’ They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!’
Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.


Have you been watching the planetary dance unfolding in our western skies these last few weeks? The planets Venus and Jupiter have been chasing each other towards the sinking sun whilst in the East Mars has been soaring into the heavens. And in the midst of them, this week, has been a bright new moon.

Now the moon is one planet that we know an awful lot about. We’re able to weigh it, and its mass is 7.3459 x 1022 kg, which is quite heavy. Its surface area is14,658,000 square miles or 9.4 billion acres, and it would take 4 days to drive around it by car, once you’ve built the motorway that is. We’ve even sent men there to visit and they’ve brought 382kg of moon rock back.

So apart from the earth it is the planet in our solar system about which we know the most. Yet not one of those facts explain why we look on it in awe every time it rises and shines in the sky. None of those facts explain why lovers find the moon so inspiring. None of those facts explain why some people refer to the moon as symbolic of a Goddess.

And that’s the difference between fact and mystery. Facts are interesting, and they might inspire you to want to know more information simply because you are of the kind of mind set that simply likes to know. But facts will rarely take you on any kind of inward journey. It is only mystery that inspires us to do that.

So today I want to talk with you about mystery and how Jesus used it. We’ll glance briefly at our New Testament reading, but for the most part we’re going to stay with Mark. What I want specifically to do is to challenge you about how you use mystery. We need to become aware that there is a time and a place for mystery and that in its place it can be a good thing.

But we also need to be aware that we have a responsibility to be straight talking too, when the time is right to do so, but with an awareness of what will happen when we do so. When we speak in those terms there are consequences - some good and some not so good.

You see the Gospel reading shows us the consequences for Jesus of when he, if you like, comes out. And we need to be aware that there are times and places where we need to say what we mean, and at the same time be aware that we may have to pay the price for doing so and, and this is the hard part, God may actually be requiring of us that we do indeed pay that price.

So let’s turn to the Gospel because in this section of Mark’s Gospel something completely new has happened. Up until now there has been something very significant about the miracle stories that Mark tells; something unique about his Gospel that we don’t find anywhere else. Over and over again Jesus does something that could draw attention to himself but he then instructs the people around him to tell no one.

There is an air of mystery around him. No one knows exactly who he is although many have their suspicions. Let me give you some examples. In Mark 1 Jesus starts casting out demons, but he won’t permit any to speak in verse 34 because they know who he is. In verse 44 he heals a leper and tells him to say nothing to anyone.

In chapter 3 verse 11 and 12 Jesus is confronted by evil spirits trying to shout out ‘You are the Son of God’, but he sternly silenced them. Again in chapter 7 we see him healing a deaf man and ordering him to say nothing, and the same thing happens again in chapter 8 when he heals a blind man in Bethsaida.

Now you can see a probable reason why he does this because a lot of the time his instruction to say nothing is ignored and it makes it hard for him to move around because everyone wants to see him, but nevertheless, for more than half of Mark’s Gospel this secrecy theme is quite clear. Jesus won’t say who he is and he won’t let the evil spirits declare who he is. He simply plays his cards close to his chest.

It is as if he cannot help but heal people because he wants to set the world right, or at least the parts of it he can touch. That internal imperative to love which is a mark of the Godhead drives him to try to relieve suffering. But he is also aware that if word gets out then he will simply be known as a healer when there is so much more he wishes to give.

The effect this has on human nature is to make us inquisitive. Some people will indeed have come to seek out Jesus because they had heard of the miracles, but many will come because they don’t know who he is or what drives him, but simply that there is something about him to which they are drawn. And Jesus himself won’t let on who he is. He simply lets them get on with trying to figure it out.

That is until the day we have come to call Palm Sunday arrives. And then it all changes, and it looks like Jesus may well have been planning this, that the act of making a statement about coming into Jerusalem has been on the cards for a while. Many people have speculated that Jesus had already arranged for the colt to be ready for when he needed it, so all he had to do was to send word via the disciples that it was time for the colt to be used.

Others believe it was another show of his miraculous knowledge about the world. But all that really matters is that now Jesus shows himself to the people of Jerusalem, their capital city, the centre of power. Jesus enters visibly this time, not in secret, and his actions and the actions of the crowd declare his regal yet servant status.

The words of the crowd leave little to the imagination. Hosanna means, ‘Save us!’ He is blessed because he is a descendant of David, a part of the regal line, and they were sure this meant the new kingdom was coming, and Jesus says nothing. On this occasion he allows himself to be defined, and he says nothing to the crowd to quieten them down. The secrecy of his earlier works is shed and the mystery fades.

And then what happens? Within just a few days he is crucified. Why? From an earthly perspective you could argue that it’s because Jesus didn’t live up to the expectations that they had of him, and that’s what happens when you let yourself be defined by others. It was inevitable that Jesus would be killed because this time he let the crowd define him, except they got it wrong.

So when he didn’t live up to their expectations they discarded him. It could have been different, of course. Jesus could have gone along with the crowds and become the kind of king they had wanted. But he didn’t. He carried on being the kind of King that he was, but because he didn’t fit with their definition of monarchy they allowed the jealous religious rulers finally to have their way.

And this is what happens when you allow something to be defined. As soon as it’s defined it’s no longer a mystery. That much is obvious. But what if you’re wrong with your definition? And what if a large proportion of people have accepted your definition? You the once a mystery has been defined it loses its power to change things in other ways.

That, I think, is a part of what Jesus feared throughout his ministry. If he allowed people to put him into a box then he would be strait-jacketed, no longer able to challenge people on a multitude of levels. He would simply be Jesus, the miracle man. Before long it would be a case of, ‘Do something new Jesus, we’ve seen it all before. We know who you are and we’re bored now’.

This is exactly what Christianity has done with the cross of Christ. Since the beginning we have tried to define what exactly Jesus did. But Jesus never told us. All he said was that when he was lifted up from the earth he would draw all people to him. He never told us how, just that his death and resurrection would draw people to him.

So for the last two thousand years we’ve treated it like a problem to be solved. A current interpretation is that sin deserves the punishment of death, and we’ve all sinned so we all ought to die, but God killed Jesus in our place. For a vast proportion of Christians that is exactly how the cross ‘works’. They have defined it, and in so doing have drained it of some of its power.

It is precisely because it is a mystery that the cross has such power. We cannot define exactly what Jesus did. That’s why every Good Friday I preach a new sermon about the cross, and I will again this week. Its meaning is wreathed in layer upon layer of mystery and there is always something new to explore.

So I believe mystery is vital. But also there is time for plain talking. In the events leading up to his death Jesus did a lot of plain talking. He stepped away from mystery and told it like it was and so they arrested him and crucified him, and it was necessary for our sakes that they did, but Jesus was still in control.

And that is what I meant when I said that at some points in our lives we have to step away from mystery but to be prepared to count the cost when we do so. For the most part, in our culture, it is better to share the Gospel in terms of a journey into God’s presence because then people will be inquisitive about making that journey. If we tell people what they can expect; if we define the mystery, they may be uninterested in exploring, and we may be wrong.

But sometimes we have to say the facts. Sometimes, and usually it is to do with issues of prophecy or justice, we have to simply state the truth. And like Jesus, we may be being called to accept the cost of our honesty. Mystery and fact walk hand in hand, one in light and one in shade. May God give us the wisdom to tell them apart and the courage to speak out when we must do so. Amen.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Mothering Sunday. God's fierce protectiveness and we, God's midwives

Gen1:1-2, 26-7
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while the spirit of God swept over the face of the waters.

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.

John 3:1-8
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “you must be born from above.” The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’

On this Mothering Sunday I want us to think about birth and what we can learn about God from our human experiences. You see although our Bible is male dominated, right back at the beginning there is a very clear piece of teaching in Genesis that God created us in God's image as both male and female. In other words if we want to know what God is like it is insufficient to look just at men, and specifically those who are fathers, and declare that only they are in God’s image.

This of course throws us the question, if God is mother, why did Jesus call him Father? And why is God so masculine throughout scripture? I wish I had more time to deal with this, but there are perhaps a few pointers. Firstly God revealed Godself to Abram and Moses and many others in the midst of religions that were pantheistic.

The Canaanite pantheon included male and female deities. Initially the people of Israel saw Yahweh simply as being the god of their people rather than as being the only God. As protector of their nation he was perceived as a mighty warrior. There were also clashes of ideals with the feminine deity Asherah and so you could argue that Yahweh remained male in order to have some clear water between what the Hebrews believed and what the other local nations believed.

It’s only much later in their history that this idea of monotheism begins to be revealed to them and it is quite possible that the first chapter of Genesis was written in that later period. And in this passage we begin to find some startlingly feminine images. The description of the Spirit of God brooding over the waters would seem familiar to a pregnant mother sitting with her hand over her swelling belly, pondering what the future was going to hold for her unborn child.

It is this imagery that I want us to use to think about both the love of God for us, and the responsibilities we share. Thinking first of the love of God, if we consider that our feminine gender is also equally in God’s image, then I wonder whether some of the experiences of childbirth may give us a very gentle insight into the brooding nature of the Holy Spirit over the unformed creation in the moments before ‘Let there be light.’

I asked some of my friends if they would tell me what pregnancy cost them. One of them, Ruth, wrote something for me that I’d like to share with you. As a bit of background I trained with Ruth and remember her struggling with ill health which she met with an amazing determination. She married a few years ago and had a bit of a miracle in being able actually to conceive for the first time. Ruth is now in the last stages of her second miracle. She wrote this.

Not quite sure what you want- but given that I am writing this with a wriggling unborn babe leaping up and down on my bladder I guess I'm the sort of responder you want..... Today is the equivalent day in my pregnancy that her brother was born- very prematurely, and she herself is going to be born prematurely in 2 weeks time if not before, as my body doesn't seem to do too well at the later stages of pregnancy.

For me last time as a sudden shock, this time after weeks of trying desperately to hang on to a precarious pregnancy to give my baby a chance at survival, motherhood begins in fear, trauma, my own desperate illness, a kaleidoscope of incubators, tubes, machines that bleep, and then terrifyingly stop bleeping, the whole world focussed onto the tiniest scrap of humanity willing it simply to breath, to grow, to survive.

There is no magical moment of 'falling in love' with your baby, no 'bonding' no excited phone calls telling the good news. Simply a gut wrenching fierce protective instinct, which physically takes over but which is helpless in the face of the dangers which beset your child. The miracle of new life is delayed, and only observed really in retrospect, at twelve weeks finally getting a smile, at six months marvelling that the scrap of humanity of just a few short weeks ago is scoffing weetabix and giggling. The one year old who walks, and starts to talk. How did we get here? From there? Blood, sweat and a lot of tears. And the humbling knowledge that we are the lucky ones, my child made it. I made it.

I think what Ruth captured there was summarised in one line, ‘Simply a gut wrenching fierce protective instinct, which physically takes over but which is helpless in the face of the dangers which beset your child.’ When God looks upon us, at the mess we make of our lives, of the lives of others and of the world, I believe God feels that kind of motherly protectiveness.

I remember once hearing someone say that they imagined that God perhaps looked at humanity and wondered if it had all been worth it. I no longer believe that can possibly be the case. If you mothers think of your own children and the mistakes they’ve made, never once will you have wondered if it was worth it. Instead you go on feeling fiercely protective of them whatever decisions they make

You may also feel powerless, knowing that they have to grow up, make their own decisions and become adults in their own right, but that never takes away the lioness instinct from you. And that, I believe, is God’s nature that you’re feeling. God feels fiercely protective of us. Too often we get caught up in the male dominated imagery of having to live up to our Father’s expectations, but Motherhood doesn’t work like that. A good mother will lay down her life for her children.

And doesn’t that sound familiar? Doesn’t that sound similar to the words of Jesus about greater love has no one than to lay down their life for those they love? Which segues neatly into what flows out of these ideas of the Motherhood of God when we look at the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. Here there is again talk of birth, a birth from above, a new birth, a birth of the Spirit.

We cannot surely get much more feminine in our imagery of God than Jesus gets here. We must be born of the Holy Spirit as well as born of our earthly mothers. God must give birth to us. We must submit to being born a second time, born of God who is also our Mother, and who must be our Mother because if not, how else could God give birth to us?

But there is here a responsibility for us, for we who have already been born from above. As Jesus said to Nicodemus there is a need for people to be born a second time and being born is rarely a solitary activity. There are very few mothers who go it alone, and so there are very few children born who did not arrive with the help of a midwife.

So it is for people being born from above of the Spirit. There are very few who meet God like this on their own. Most people meet God through the help of someone else showing the way and enabling the birth to take place. And that means that as well as recognising the feminine imagery of God, so we need also to recognise the responsibilities that we all carry to be midwives of these new births. That is what witnessing to what we believe is ultimately about, being a good midwife.

And a good midwife is very caring for the child about to be born and knows not to hurry the process, but simply to be there with encouragement, advice and love. May that be the model that we base our lives on as Christians, as people who love with the love of God, both masculine and feminine, and are always on hand to help a new child to be born from God who is also our Mother. Amen

Friday, 16 March 2012

Third Sunday of Lent - Are we pointing or just obscuring?

1 Corinthians 1:18-25
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,
‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

John 2:13-22
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’ His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’ The Jews then said to him, ‘What sign can you show us for doing this?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.


I believe that what we find in John's Gospel today conveys to us priorities for our direction and mission, not just as a church but as individuals who are called to bear the light of Christ in the community.

So let’s think about what’s going on when Jesus overturns the tables in the Temple. Now before we look at anything else in this passage we need to be aware of its peculiar placement in John’s Gospel. This story appears in all of the Gospels. It’s clearly not a manufactured story but the recounting of a widely attested historical incident. However John does something very different with it simply by where he places it.

For the other writers it’s the event that follows on from Palm Sunday, when Jesus clears out the Temple and really gets up the noses of the powers that be, thus setting himself on a path towards being arrested. It comes in the last week of his life. But if you look at the reference you’ll see that John has put the same story right at the beginning of his Gospel in chapter 2. Why? Why not put it at the end like the other writers?

Well this is a question that people have asked for a long while, and there have been some interesting answers. Some of the more conservative Biblical scholars who are keen to preserve their understanding of the inerrancy of the Bible have declared that Jesus must have cleared the Temple twice. Personally I don’t buy that and nor do many people outside the conservative wing.

No I think that John has deliberately taken an incident from near the end of Jesus’s earthly ministry and put it at the beginning in order to make a point. We should remember that John’s Gospel is probably more likely to be a form of meditation on the meanings of some of the key events in Jesus’s life rather than a form of reportage of what took place.

So if John put the incident right at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry, we have to ask ourselves why he did that. There are some key differences between what Matthew, Mark and Luke say, and what John says. One of those is the quote from Psalm 69, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’ The psalmist is being interpreted prophetically here with the zeal for the Temple consuming Jesus with anger at what he sees.

But what about the Jews who ran the Temple? The Temple was run beautifully. Everything worked as it should. It wasn’t disorganised. People arrived with their Roman coins and swapped them with the money-changers for the special Temple coins which did not bear the idolatrous image of Caesar. Then they went to where someone was selling the correct sacrificial animal for the sacrifice they wished to make and bought the animal.

Then they would have taken it deeper into the Temple where it would have been given to the priests who would have sacrificed it according to the strict laws laid down in scripture. Everything was done exactly as it should be done. So what was Jesus’s problem?

It was this. The money-changing and the sacrifices were all taking place in the one and only part of the Temple that the Gentiles, the non-Jews, could get to and use for worship. Let me remind you of a quote from the prophet Isaiah, which Mark actually uses in his story of this incident. Isaiah 56:7-8 includes these words:
‘For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples’. Thus says the Lord God who gathers the outcasts of Israel, ‘I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.’

I believe that the evidence shows us that Jesus was angry with the way the religious system, well oiled as it was, was now excluding those who didn’t belong to it, and by turning over the tables of the money-changers he was making way for the gentiles to be able to re-enter the Temple to worship God.

And I believe that by putting this story right at the beginning of his narrative John is trying to tell us that this is a pointer as to what Jesus’s whole ministry was about. The position of the story in his Gospel was for emphasis to show that everything that follows this was about Jesus trying to unmake the religious exclusions that the Jewish hierarchy had put into place. Jesus’s ministry was one of making the worship of God accessible to all people. That includes us.

That was the will of Jesus two thousand years ago, and I think that his will in this regard hasn’t changed. So what does he see when he looks at the Church of England in 2012? How accessible do we seem to him? Is the worship that we offer of a kind that will allow people outside the church who want to engage with Jesus to be able to do so?

And do our lives and our actions in this community attract or repel people? I have lost count now of how many people I have met who want to believe but have been turned away by the actions of people who call themselves Christians.

Let me draw you back to an idea from the Lent study this week. The reading was taken from the previous chapter of John’s Gospel where Jesus is passing by and John the Baptiser draws the attention of two of his disciples and say to them, ‘Look, the Lamb of God.’ They then follow Jesus and ask him where he’s going, with his response being, ‘Come and you will see.’

In our Tuesday study group we agreed that in many ways John the Baptiser was being an archetype of the mission of the Church. So let me tell you a great mystery. Jesus is passing by. Right now Jesus is passing by. In your hearts, in the Church, in the school, in the pub, in the streets, in your homes, in your schools, in your workplaces, at your universities.

Jesus is passing by. Our role as individuals and as the church is to point towards him and make him accessible. Jesus was angry with the Temple authorities because they were obscuring the mystery and making it impossible for people who were not insiders to engage with it. The space given for the outsiders was being used to change money. God invited them in. Worship leaders kept them out.

I don’t believe that God’s anger in this has abated. If by the way we treat people we turn them away from God, then woe betide us. And if we don’t reach out as a church to allow people space to come in and meet God within the boundaries of their own culture, then woe betide us.

Jesus is passing by and many people are searching for him. Are our lives, and is our worship welcoming them in or making them feel excluded? Is our approach to each other welcoming them in or making them feel excluded? Do they see real love here or just a community of people with the same interests in common, like the gardening club or the film club?

This, for me, is at the hub of what I have been trying to do here as your vicar; to make it possible for people to engage with this great mystery that Jesus is passing by, that he is present, and we simply need to be able to say to people, in whatever cultural language they’re speaking, ‘Look, the Lamb of God.’

On Palm Sunday we’re going to have a different kind of procession at the 10.30 service. We normally process through the village to church but on Palm Sunday, because it’s the first Sunday of April, we’re going to process from the Church at the end of the service down to Messy Church in the school. I’m so grateful to those who had the vision for this service and have worked tirelessly to make it happen.

And I want you all to be able to see a new way in which the Church is saying, ‘Look, the Lamb of God.’ And I promise you this: many of you will watch what’s going on with puzzlement because it is completely at the opposite cultural extreme of a service of Morning Prayer, and that’s the whole point. For many of us it is not a place where we would feel able to begin to engage with God, but I think that for some of those who come it represents important steps on their journey.

Every time I have been there I have had conversations with people I would not normally see. And little by little the team are beginning to make relationships with the broad array of those who attend. In many ways the closing ten minute worship service is not where the real engagement is going on. It’s vitally important, but it’s in the quiet one-to-ones, the conversations, the prayer requests and the like which is where we find ourselves, in one form of words or another, gently saying, ‘Look the Lamb of God.’

And at the other end of the spectrum in our Celtic Night Prayer service, The Well, we are seeing other lives changing as in a quiet reflective environment another different group of people approach the mystery of the presence of God, of Jesus passing by.

We do Choral worship very well, and it’s well established thanks to Anne and the work of the choir as a form of worship which says, Look, Jesus is passing by. But just as some people are completely turned off by the mayhem of Messy Church, so we also need to understand that a different group of people are completely turned off by Choral worship. The Church of England can no longer fulfil its mission by offering a one-size-fits-all approach to worship.

Jesus was concerned that so called worship was excluding those who most needed it, and so he acted to show God’s displeasure. Likewise we must continue our mission of maintaining and developing traditional worship for those who find that such forms are ways into God’s presence, whilst developing and encouraging new ways of worshipping for those of a different culture.

So let us continue to look closely at how we live, what we do, how we worship, and ask whether it reveals the mystery that Jesus is passing by. Behold the Lamb of God. Let us be people who point in the right direction and make sure we don’t stand in the way of those searching for the Truth.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

2nd Sunday of Lent: exposing some myths about faith


Romans 4:13-25
For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.

For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations’)—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations’, according to what was said, ‘So numerous shall your descendants be.’ He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith ‘was reckoned to him as righteousness.’ Now the words, ‘it was reckoned to him’, were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.

Mark 8:31-38

Then Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’


What does faith look like? I think it depends a great deal on who you ask, but one thing I am fairly sure of is that it doesn’t look like St. Paul’s description of Abraham, despite what he says, and I know I am on dodgy ground here but I think that St. Paul’s description of Abraham as a man of faith is more an idealist description of an archetype of absolute faith than it is a description of the reality of Abraham’s actual life.

Let me remind you of what St. Paul said about him:
He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.

Now I’m sorry, but when you read the story of Abraham most of that just isn’t true. Let me briefly recount some of the lowlights. Yes, when he was called at the beginning of Genesis 12 he left his country and went to the land that God was promising him. But as to whether he really had complete faith in God at that point, I would want to raise a few questions.

Later on in that chapter he passes his wife off as his sister for the sake of his own safety. Not exactly an act of faith. God returns to him later and reconfirms his promise to make him the father of a nation, but since there is no sign of any children he eventually capitulates to his wife’s wishes and takes her slave girl, Hagar as another wife.

Now Hagar clearly had no say in this because she was a slave. In modern culture we would probably think of this as rape, and forced marriages of young women of eastern cultures in our own time is a source of great concern for us all. So rather than trusting in God to fulfil his promise, Sarah and Abraham conspire to literally use Hagar in order to help the promise along a bit. Once again that is not exactly what we would term as an act of faith.

By Genesis 20 there is still no sign of the promised child, and once again, for the sake of his own safety Abraham passes Sarah of as his wife. It’s not until the next chapter that Isaac is finally born to Sarah, but I am not truly convinced that we have seen that great archetype of faith that St. Paul describes in the letter to the Romans.

Finally, In Genesis 22, in a gruesome act of almost child-sacrifice that raises more questions than it answers, we see Abraham prepared to kill the child of the promise on God’s say-so, showing a faith and trust, however distasteful it seems to us, that if Isaac were to die then God would still fulfil his promise.

So when I look at Abraham’s life as it was recorded in Genesis I’m afraid I don’t see a great figure of faith. What I actually see is a man displaying all the weaknesses and errors of humanity who slowly but surely managed to get himself to a point where he trusted God, but it took him years to do so.
Now the reason I’m telling you this is because I think that we are very easily disheartened by some of the stories of Biblical faith that we are told about, and we therefore assume that we are nothing special, and capable of nothing special, simply because we can’t live up to those claims. I think it’s actually really important for us to understand that they couldn’t either!

St. Peter, spoken about in our Gospel reading here, is another excellent example of this. Peter, the rock on whom Christ said he would build his church, does not come over terribly well in many of the Gospels and here we have a prime example of him not understanding Jesus and rebuking him for all his talk about how he would have to suffer.

Peter didn’t get it. And remember Peter was the one who disowned Jesus when he was put under pressure at Jesus’s arrest. And although we assume that the Peter became a man of true faith who was filled with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and spoke to a crowd of thousands in Jerusalem that same day, St. Paul writes later about how he had needed to oppose Peter when Peter stopped associating with Gentiles in the presence of Jews out of fear for what the Jews might say.

Yet eventually Peter laid down his life for Jesus, and in his humility refused to be crucified like Jesus because he wasn’t worthy, asking instead to be crucified upside down.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not wanting to paint these heroes of our faith as failures. What I think we all need to do is recognise that they were people just like us who made slow progress in faith. I think that we look at their lives and assume, from the great things they accomplished, that they were people of great belief who were rock-solid and had no doubts.

And in so doing we assume that there is no way that we could accomplish works of faith, and that there is no way that we can really make a difference because we don’t really believe enough. I cannot tell you how important it is that we realise that all God’s people are flawed. When Moses was called he came up with all sorts of excuses as to why he couldn’t do what he was asked.

Jonah ran in the opposite direction. Isaiah said, ‘Woe to me for I am a man with unclean lips’ and Jeremiah said ‘I can’t go, I’m only a boy’. Yet look at what they eventually accomplished.

And I know the truth of this too. When I was called to come here, maybe six years ago, I lived in fear for months before I arrived, absolutely sure that I couldn’t do it, leaving behind the diocese I had always known to come somewhere else completely new. It was a huge struggle, and sometimes it still his.

Faith is not about having doubts, it is about pressing on despite those doubts. It is not about being fearless, it is about slowly learning to trust God despite the fears. It’s not about believing the right things, it’s about doing what you’re told to do, despite being sure that you can’t.

So this Lent, as you pray through what God may be calling you to do, believe that he may indeed be calling you to do something, and if he is calling you it’s because he believes you can do it, and because he knows you don’t need to wait until you’re prefect before you start.

The heroes of the Bible were not great masters of faith who never doubted. They were people just like us with all our flaws. So if they could do what God asked of them, then so can we.