Friday, 16 August 2013

Flawed Heroes

It has always been a bit of a thing in some Christian circles to get someone to come and talk about their conversion.  Usually it's better if it's someone famous, and if they were famous and really bad beforehand, even better.  It's like we need these amazing heroes, people who we can never match up to.
Oh really?......

Hebrews 11:29-12:2

By faith the people [of Israel] passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.

And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.

Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, without us, be made perfect.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

No More Heroes
The writer of this New Testament letter to the Hebrews, who incidently was not St. Paul, although we don’t know who it actually was, does not make faith easy for us.  He was originally writing to very early Jewish Christians, and because they were Jews long before they were Christians he uses their own stories, stories from the Old Testament, to give them heroes to emulate.  If you read the whole of the chapter he names, amongst others, Abraham, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson and so on and so on.  And that, I think, is what makes it difficult for us because I think that actually we have a problem with heroes.  In the late 1970's the punk band The Stranglers had a hit with No More Heroes, and that’s illustrates the problem we have.  It’s not that we don’t have heroes, it’s just that they don’t stay heroes for very long.  You see we live in an information age where it’s very difficult to keep secret the private lives of the famous, and so what we find is that all of our heroes turn out to be deeply flawed women and men.  One by one all the people we love and look up to have turned out to be far less perfect than we thought they were.  It’s interesting to watch how sponsors swiftly abandon a sporting star when their errant love-lives or some other aspect of where they don’t live up to expectations are spread across the front pages of the tabloid press.

The most recent example of this was Papiss Cisse, the Newcastle footballer who refused to wear a shirt with the name of their sponsor, the payday loan company Wonga, on it because he felt that money lending to make a profit was usury and was condemned by Islam.  For a short time he was a hero for Muslims for taking a stand, until pictures emerged of him laying bets in a casino.
No more Heroes...

So instead the writer to the Hebrews gives us all these amazing Biblical heroes of faith who we’re supposed to look up to, but the reality is that actually it weighs us down, because we think, ‘Moses?  Abraham?  What’s the point of even trying in the face of those amazing people?’

I don’t know about you but I look at some of my peers who are Christians and they seem to be so holy, so together, such faith-filled and faithful people that it’s easy to feel quite inferior.  And that’s just thinking about the ordinary Christians who I know, never mind these Biblical superheroes.  But we don’t need to feel that way, because actually, far from being superheroes, all these Biblical heroes were also flawed people.  Let me tell you the other side to the stories that the writer to the Hebrews tells.  Abraham tried to pass off his wife as his sister in order to save his skin.  (Actually it was a half-truth, because Sarah was also his half-sister...)  Moses outright refused God’s calling on his life in the first instance, and he was also guilty of murdering an Egyptian. 

Rahab was a prostitute, Barak was actually led by Deborah - she was the real hero (so why didn't she get a mention?); Samson was capable of inhuman cruelty and clearly had a borderline psychotic personality disorder, and so it goes on.

This same idea about flawed heroes even happens with some of the heroes of the Christian faith from the New Testament.  Some people look to St. Paul as a man of resolute faith, yet there are several occasions in scripture when he completely loses his temper with people.  We sanitise some of what he wrote in our English translations but in the original language he got pretty ripe with his retorts to those who criticised him.

Or how about St. Peter?  He was the one about whom Jesus said, ‘You are Peter the Rock, and on this Rock I will build my church.’  What a great hero of the faith!  Yet this was also Peter who went on to publically disown Jesus and lose the courage of his convictions later on when he stopped playing with his non-Jewish Christian friends as soon as some Jewish Christians came along.

Or there’s Mary, Jesus’s mother.  Gentle Mary, who some denominations think of as the encapsulation of what a woman should be like, well at least that’s what some of the men think.  They forget that in John’s Gospel Mary utterly strong-armed Jesus into his first miracle of changing 180 gallons of water into wine at a wedding reception.  A great miracle but when she first suggested he do something Jesus had basically said, ‘Look mother - it’s their problem, not ours.’

Shall I go on?  Our church's patron saint, Mary Magdalene was a raving demoniac, Thomas wouldn’t believe anything unless he saw it with his own eyes, James and John wanted to call fire down out from heaven on anyone who disagreed with Jesus and so on and so on.

Heroes?  Really?

Every single one of the Biblical heroes apart from Jesus was flawed.  And do you know what?  It doesn’t matter.  Or at least it didn’t matter to their faith that they were imperfect people.

The writer to the Hebrews says, ‘Let us lay aside every weight and the sin that easily distracts us.’  Trying to live up to the lives of heroes is a big weight that I think we should be able to lay down.  We look at them and we think, ‘I could never be that good.’  But that’s OK, because neither were they.  All of the heroes that you will ever find in the Bible were flawed people who just did the best that they could and simply kept going.

So what I’m trying to say is simply this: There are many reasons why faith can be tough going.  There are many reasons why people quit their spiritual journeys.  But please don’t let that reason be, ‘I’ve given up because I’m not good enough’.  The only biblical hero who was actually good enough was Christ himself.
The whole point of the Christian message is that actually, we’re not good enough, but he is.  Being a Christian is more or less a person saying to God, ‘When you look at me God, I want you to see Jesus, not me.’

So how do we get around this?  I think we do it by honesty.  I think we need to recognise that the people who look like they are really amazing powerful Christians have just the same struggles and inabilities to cope as the rest of us.  In other words we need each other, and we need to be honest with each other. 

Let us be each other’s heroes because we are ordinary men and women of struggling and faltering faith who are here for each other.  May we never desert someone who is struggling.  Faith is not for superheroes - it’s for ordinary men and women like us. 

Saturday, 10 August 2013

What is this so-called 'Kingdom of God'?

Funerals and death are a part of life.  The hope that most of the people I meet with when planning a funeral is that their loved one is now in heaven, in the Kingdom of God.  But is that all there is to the Kingdom of God?  Is it just 'pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die'?  Or is there more to it than that. 

Luke 12:32-40

Jesus said ‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

 ‘Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.   ‘But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.’

An armful of presents to be dropped
Imagine, if you will, what it’s like to be a child on your birthday in a well-off family.  You’re sitting in the living room and you have your arms literally filled with unopened presents.  And then your parents stand at the door and tell you that they have a really special present for you, but it’s in the dining room.  However the only way you can have that present is to put down all the presents you currently have, but that’s ok because this is better than everything else put together.

Now you don’t know what to do.  Is this present really better than what you already have?  Can’t they bring it to you and place it on the top of the mounds of presents you’re already carrying?  You can’t see it, so you just don’t know.  All you have is their assurance that there is this amazing present which they really want to give to you, but that you can’t have it at the same time as everything else.  You have to put your faith in them that they will deliver what they promise.

That, I think, is the kind of scenario that our Gospel reading places before us.  It begins with Jesus saying, I think with a joyous smile on his face, those reassuring words that God our Father really wants to give us the kingdom of God.  But it’s a bit of an unknown.  It’s clearly something special, but we can’t see what it is.

Then comes the catch.

In order to make room for the kingdom of God, we have to divest ourselves of everything else.  In other words, if you’re going to have this really big present, the kingdom of God, then you have to put down all the other presents that you’re already holding.  So the big question for us this is:

What is this kingdom of God?

You see no one has actually agreed on a definition.  It’s obviously pretty important, but it might help if we could define it.  So let me see if I can do that for you by making some suggestions as to what the Kingdom of God might be.

Perhaps we ought to start not with what the kingdom of God is, but where the kingdom of God is.  That starts out by seeming a little easier because the kingdom of God is also used interchangeably with the phrase the kingdom of heaven.  Heaven, we believe, is the place that is filled with angels and those who have left this world to be in the place where God rules.  And that’s probably the best definition of where heaven is.  It’s the place where God is the king; the reigning monarch.  Now if we look at the stories of the Old Testament we discover that early on in Israel’s existence that country was a theocracy.  That is, unlike other nations it didn’t actually have a physical human king.  God was their king.

In other words early Israel was intended to be an extension of heaven on earth.  Only that didn’t work too well.  Eventually they begged for their own king and from there on in things went downhill.  Their first king, Saul, turned into an unmitigated disaster.  His successor, David, was their most celebrated king, even though he was convicted of adultery.  He was followed by his son, Solomon, who despite his wisdom, gradually led the country into disarray, and civil war.  From then on it got worse.  So the kingdom of God pretty much stayed in heaven.  At least that’s what we thought until Jesus said to his followers, ‘The Kingdom of God is within you.’


What then does it mean to have the kingdom of God within you?  I think it pretty much comes down to this, to live in this life, on this planet, with these people as if you were in a theocracy.  In other words living with God as your monarch and living by God’s rules.  Most of the time people will appreciate that because God’s rules pretty much boil down to loving God with all your energies and loving your neighbour as if they were as important to you as you are.  People who live like that are usually good to be around because they proactively put other people first.  Sometimes, however, they can also be difficult people to have around because they are also willing to tell people when they are being unjust.

The other thing we need to remember is that Jesus also prayed these words in the Lord’s prayer: ‘Your kingdom come.’  In other words there is a kingdom of heaven; we are a part of that kingdom of God in heaven and should be living as such, and our prayer is that one day that kingdom of God will also be on earth.  The kingdom of God therefore has an already-but-not-yet sense to it.  It exists already in heaven, and it exists already within each of us as we try to live out here on earth what it means to be obedient to God.  And one day it will be realised in all its fullness.

So let’s go back to my original picture of the child with an armful of presents.  What makes the kingdom of God so good that we should want to shed everything else for it?  I mean some of you have big houses, expensive cars and second homes.  Why is the kingdom of God so good that we will be willing to divest ourselves of everything else?

You see this is really the big question.  If the kingdom of God is not all that good, why would we be willing to lay everything else down?  What is so good about it?  You may have heard the phrase, ‘Pie in the sky when you die’.  Some people think that the kingdom of God is all about living a good life so that you get to go to heaven.  So this life may be miserable, but that’s OK because it’s worth it to get into the next one.  But for me there is far, far more to it than that.  The kingdom of God being within me, and the decisions that I’ve made to be a part of it has meant that my life has been much more challenging, and consequently fulfilling than it would otherwise have been.  Now I am not in any way some kind of adrenalin junkie.  I’m nervous enough to sometimes be scared of my own shadow, let alone tomorrow.  But I also know that the things that I count dearly in my life, my wife, being a musician, becoming a priest, having a deepening appreciation of the natural world and its spirituality; they can all be traced back to saying yes to the invitation from Christ many years ago to be a part of the kingdom.  Now I am in no way a good citizen of heaven, and thus far this life has had its fair share in difficult struggles, but there is a very real sense that he has kept his promise, and that the present I received has made more of me than I would otherwise have been, even though I probably still have far too much 'stuff'.

So is it worth it?  Is it worth putting down that armful of presents in faith that the one being promised that you can’t see is worth it?  Yes, I would say it is.  It’s worth more than any possessions that rust and rot.  So have a look at what you’ve got and ask what you need and see what the difference is between the two.

But there’s one more thing about this Kingdom of God within us that was pointed out by someone else in a discussion, and it’s the comment Jesus makes about moths being able to destroy treasure.  If you put an expensive garment away in a wardrobe and forget about it, and there happens to be a moth in the wardrobe because you haven’t taken care of it, then the moth will gradually eat away at your expensive garment.  When you take it out, you find it’s ruined - full of holes and worthless.  So it is when we don’t nurture the kingdom of God within us.  It is not enough simply to come here once a week and take the worship out of a closet before sealing it back up again.  This is what Jesus meant about being ready when the kingdom of God is finally revealed.

The kingdom of God on earth should look, as much as we can, like the kingdom of God in heaven.  So the church should be full of people nurturing the kingdom within them and shining with its light.  It’s my belief that the church goes wrong when it starts concentrating on itself, on the institution, rather than on the kingdom of God.

So... is it time to put some, or maybe all of the parcels down to free up some space for an eternal kingdom?  Or is it time to buy something else? 

Sunday, 4 August 2013

St Paul, sex, betrayal and faithfulness...

I realised that in ten years of preaching I don't think I've ever preached anything about sex.  Maybe it's because I get fed up with the way people assume that all Christians ever want to do is tell everyone that they shouldn't be doing 'it', apart from under rather proscribed circumstances.  But when this week's reading came out, with the big word FORNICATION in the middle I thought, 'hmm, maybe I ought to say something about this for a change.'  This was rather complicated by realising that I didn't actually know what fornicate actually means.  So I thought I'd better do a little homework.  This is what came out...

Bible Reading
Colossians 3:1-11
So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.
Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!

Betrayal and Faithfulness
My friends have occasionally poked fun at me when I’ve slipped up, muttered something under my breath or sworn at another driver, with the phrase, ‘And you... A vicar....’  If you're religious, it wouldn’t surprise me if you have had similar experiences where people have judged you perhaps because you call yourself a Christian (or some other path - but I'm going to focus on Christianity here) but then often don’t live up to their standard of what being a Christian should entail.  In other words their understanding of being a Christian is entirely based around ethics.  It’s not what you believe but how you live that counts in their eyes, and I suspect often in our eyes too.  I have sometimes heard people say, ‘I try to be a Christian’.  I don’t try to be a Christian.  I am one.  It’s a bit like saying I try to be a man.  Genetically I have no choice in the matter.  Every cell in my body has x and y chromosomes.  I might try to be a good man, but I can’t help being a man.  But people in general don’t view Christianity like that.  They think trying to be a Christian means trying to be 'good', assuming that Christianity means you have high ethical values and always do the right thing, usually feeling morally superior for doing so.  That’s one of the reasons why people call us hypocrites because they tell us we say one thing and then do another.

Actually, if we’re wise, we don’t tell other people how they should live.  But perhaps we ought to think sometimes about how we are supposed to live as Christians.  I don't often preach about morals because it's such a cultural minefield (and I really don't want to be accused of hypocrisy myself because I'm not a particularly 'good' person).  And then every so often I read a passage and it’s simply focusing on ethics.  That’s what we find in the Colossians reading where it’s not so much about what we believe, but how we live as a result of what we believe.

This last bit, the ‘as a result of’ bit is really important. 

This, and I’d like to underline what I’m saying here, is not about Christians telling other people how to live.  This is not about us moralising to the world in general.  Instead what we find in this passage is a series of prohibitions that I think are all linked by one common theme, the choice between faithfulness or betrayal. This is not so much about rules, but about the ethics that flow from what we believe, and why those ethics should flow.  It is therefore not our place to tell other people how they should live.  That is up to them and to their beliefs, but for those of us who call ourselves Christians, St. Paul is trying to tell us some important truths about how he thinks we should be living.  What I want to do with this is ask, 'Why?'  Why should we live like this?

So let’s have a think about the context of the letter as a whole and then see what is being said to us as Christians.  Now the funny thing about this book is that the backdrop to it seems to be just what I’ve described, that the Colossian church had become rather caught up in moralism as opposed to spirituality.  They were metaphorically putting the cart before the horse.  Morals should flow from spirituality, but they were beginning with the moralising.    If you were to read the previous chapter you can see St. Paul saying that they must not be taken captive to people telling them strict rules about how they had to live and about self-abasement, rules, self-imposed piety and severe treatment of the body.  His main argument is that Christ died literally to these things, and in him we should also be dead to them because he is living within us.  Rules on simply appearing pure by living according to strict religious piety are not in St. Paul’s book.

Or so it seems...

But then when we read this passage what we get is what looks like a whole series of rules.  But appearances can be deceptive.  What St. Paul is saying, what his essential message is, is that as Christians our minds should be turned towards the things of God and away from being held captive to cultural standards.  In other words our ethics should flow naturally out from what we believe and how it liberates us to be free, and faithfulness or betrayal feels like the choice we are offered.  To my mind everything in this list is about betrayal.

So we get the list, that from our spirituality should flow a desire to turn our backs on fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).  I think all of these need some unpacking.  After all, what is fornication?  If you are conservative in your beliefs you’ll probably have a very wide understanding of the word, so that it refers to pretty much every sexual possibility other than what takes place between a husband and wife that could lead to conception!  The reality is that actually this is one of those words which is really difficult to get the correct interpretation.  It seems most likely that people will say what they want it to mean in order to provoke feelings of guilt in those who don’t behave the way their leader thinks they should.  So in order to try and help those who feel eternally guilty because of normal human drives, let me say that fornication appears to mean one of three things, it is first and foremost tied linguistically to mean visiting a prostitute because the root meaning of the word fornication comes from the Latin word, fornix, which means an arch which was a euphemism for a brothel. The other two meanings are either adultery or incest.

Let me see if I can make it fairly clear then.  Fornication is basically the sexual betrayal of the one to whom you are committed, usually through what was then an illegal act, and for Christians it shouldn’t happen because our spirituality should be moving us towards faithfulness in all our dealings.

The betrayal theme continues with the prohibition against impurity.  Again, what does he mean by impurity?  Sometimes this is translated as uncleanliness but remember that Jesus and his disciples violated a number of Jewish purity laws.  So St. Paul probably means something different from that and perhaps the closest we can get to it is sexual indecency, because the word he used, akatharsia, was normally used by St. Paul in a sexual context.  Whereas fornication referred to illegal sexual acts in that culture you could probably say that uncleanliness referred to immoral or questionable sexual acts in that culture.  Now this one is much more difficult to define but I think that again you need to ask the question, is the action you’re contemplating going in some way to betray the person to whom you are committed?  If the answer is yes, then that falls into the category of uncleanliness.

How about passion then?  How on earth does that get into a list of improper behaviour for a Christian?  After all, shouldn’t I feel passion for my wife, and don’t we talk about the Passion of Christ?  Well once again we’re in the realm of sex and this time it is not the proper appropriate desire for our beloved, but unrestrained passion.  Once again it is the betrayal of the person closest to us by directing the passion that is properly theirs towards another. 

How about evil desire?  Well at last we get away from sex, (at least a little).  Desire in itself is morally neutral.  In a good relationship the couple naturally desire each other, but St. Paul clearly gives it a moral compass by referring specifically to evil desire.  What makes it evil?  When you desire something that is not yours to have.  It is basically about not being content. 

And once again we have a sense of betrayal. 

Now it is about betraying God by being discontent with what God has provided.  There is a subtle tension here with right and proper ambition which is to make the best use of your gifts and abilities, which can sometimes involve striving and working hard, as opposed to the desire to have more and more...

...which leads naturally to greed which is more of the same but rather more intense, being an insatiable desire to have more; more power, more money, more sex.  Why is this idolatry?  Simply because of what I have already said, that it is not being content with what God has provided and choosing to try and get more.  By doing so one is saying to God, ‘You are not enough for me.’

Now there is a second list here, of anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth, but to be honest I think I would be repeating the same message.  In the first list the failure is one of betrayal, either of your spouse or partner, or of betraying God.  The same could be said about the second list except that now they are very clearly tied to outward and mainly verbal expressions, but the same thing applies - each one is a betrayal.

So what then can we say about this passage?  I think its key message is this.  If you are a Christian then you are someone who recognises the love of God and God’s faithfulness to us by coming to demonstrate his nature in the person of Christ.  St. Paul is saying that since God is faithful to us we should naturally reciprocate by being faithful to him and to each other. 

If the Holy Spirit is living within us, then God’s natural actions should begin to flow through us.  So if God is faithful to us then we should be becoming faithful to God and to each other.  This then is basically a passage about how being a Christian means that we should be faithful to God in exactly the same way as God is faithful to us.  This is about reciprocal behaviour.

Of course it’s not easy.  Everyone of us, at some point in our lives, and perhaps at many points, will be confronted with the temptation to be unfaithful by our words or our actions to those who love us, either our family, our friends, our beloved, fellow Christians, or our God.  More or less what St. Paul is saying here is, God lives in you.  God is faithful.  So do likewise and let God’s likeness live out through you.

Or more simply - God is faithful to us.  We should therefore be faithful to God and each other.