Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Darkness and Light - the beginning of comprehension

Sorry I've not been posting as much up here as I have in the past.  It's been a little hectic these last few weeks.  But here we are at Christmas, and some thoughts about what might have been accomplished through the birth of Christ.  But first some readings...

1 Kings 8:10-15
And when the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord.
Then Solomon said,
‘The Lord has said that he would dwell in thick darkness.
I have built you an exalted house,
a place for you to dwell in for ever.’
Then the king turned round and blessed all the assembly of Israel, while all the assembly of Israel stood. He said, ‘Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who with his hand has fulfilled what he promised with his mouth to my father David.'

1 Timothy 6:13-16
In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will bring about at the right time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honour and eternal dominion. Amen.

John 1:1-14
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

Darkness and Light
Preaching at midnight, heading into the deep darkness of a village with few street lights, is an ideal time to preach this sermon. I love the stillness and silence of darkness. As a child it terrified me, yet now I will happily walk or run up the mile towards Children's Farm in the dark. But then I know my way around the mile walk, and let's be honest, it's not exactly easy to get lost. The poplars guide our feet and the owls accompany our path.  But what about being lost and alone in a woodland at night? Imagine the noises, the rustling in the undergrowth, the something that brushes against your face as you stumble and trip over unseen tree roots. How long would it be before you curled up tight and wished and waited for the clear light of daybreak?

Darkness and light are two key images throughout the Bible. The model that most people speak of in church circles is that Jesus came into a dark world to save us from our sins. We use images of darkness to describe our state as being deeply sinful and in need of salvation. That's exactly the kind of thing that we find in the Gospel reading we had from St. John when he writes:
What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
All the way through the New Testament we get this imagery of light = God, darkness = sin. When something appalling happens in the world around us it gets referred to as 'A dark day', giving the impression of the absence of the light of hope, of decent humanity, or of God.

But this isn't the only use of the imagery of the absence of light. Right back at the beginning of the Bible the very first words that we hear God say are, 'Let there be light', and some scholars have suggested that at least in part the intention of the writer of this part of Genesis may have been to express God's desire, 'Let there be understanding.' That's why we say, 'I see' when we understand. I believe that this is and always has been the desire of God; that we would be able to be in a close and intimate relationship. And it is this desire that leads us to an alternative way of thinking about darkness. It is not simply about the absence of God; it is also about an absence of an understanding about the nature of God, and nowhere is that summed up better than in the first reading we had from the Old Testament.

This story comes from the blessing of the first temple that Israel built for God, and when the presence of God came and dwelt within the holiest inner sanctum of the temple it was as if a great thick cloud filled the place.  The most telling words are when Solomon says, 'The Lord has said that he will dwell in thick darkness.' Now it's vital that we understand that this is not a metaphor for evil; it is a metaphor for being unknowable. And why is God unknowable? It is simply because if God is who we believe God to be, the one through whom all things have come into existence, then God is far, far, far beyond the comprehension of beings whose brains are smaller than the average football.

Why does God dwell in darkness in the Old Testament? Why does he hide in a thick cloud? I suspect that it's because if he showed his true nature then anyone who drew near would be overwhelmed. An example of this is the practice that Jewish priests developed that whenever the High Priest entered this holy inner sanctuary, he would have a piece of rope tied around his waist.  This meant that the other priests could pull him out with the rope if he was overcome by the presence of God. I suspect that this may also be why sometimes the nature of God in the Old Testament seems quite harsh compared to the New Testament. It is not God who has changed, it is our understanding of God's nature, and hence our interpretation of God's actions.

And that leads us to the second reading we had, one which comes in the New Testament and which declares a very different truth about the nature of God. In the Old Testament the nature of God is so hidden that it is as if he dwells in deep unknowable darkness. Yet in his first personal letter to Timothy, St. Paul declares a different truth about God. No longer is God hidden. Instead he dwells in unapproachable light. The power and glory of God is utterly overwhelming. Maybe some of you have had one of those experiences when just for a moment the veil between heaven and earth is drawn back and the sense of the presence of God is so strong that it is difficult to bear.  I have had an unexpected encounter where that presence has inspired fear because of its power, and another where I felt so loved it was beyond anything I could have imagined. But the clear contrast is that in the Old Testament there is a darkness shrouding God and in the New Testament we have instead a great, bright, glory-filled appreciation of his nature.

What changed?

I want to suggest that it was the coming of Jesus, born as one of us yet born from above, somehow both fully and completely human and yet also fully and completely divine. We call him the Son of God but he also called himself the Son of Man. Both are vital and both are essential. Were he just the Son of God then we would be in no better state – God would still be unknown and dwelling in darkness. But as the Son of Man, Jesus was essentially the metaphysical translator of the nature of God. If you want to know what God is like, look at what Jesus did: 

He hung out with the people everyone else rejected. 
He spent time praying with and healing lepers, the untouchables of his age.  
He called the religious and political authorities to account and told them they had no comprehension of the real nature of God.
He overturned the tables of those who tried to make money out of religion, spoke in great depth as a twelve year old to religious teachers, wept tears of sadness at the death of his friend Lazarus and put his arms around Peter after Peter had denied ever even knowing him and drew him back into the fold. He treated women as important, spent time with prostitutes and told the meek, the scared, the fearful and the timid that they would inherit the earth.

And he started the whole ball rolling by being born as a pauper in the midst of cow dung of an unmarried mother and was laid in an animal's feeding trough.

And maybe we get it. 
Maybe we can understand.  

By everything that Jesus did we finally comprehend that God chooses to close the gap between us and to be known by us through knowing Jesus.

And that's what makes Christmas so special, because it is the moment that God steps out of the deep, unfathomable darkness and says to all those who want to know, 'Look, this is what I am like, and I will always be here for you, and there is nothing you can ever do that could make me love you less.'

The Gospel reading we had ended at verse 14. I want to end this by reading verse 18 to you, because John summarises the whole Gospel for us in this one sentence:
No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
Jesus has made God known. May we find time to step outside the tinsel and the alcohol to say to God, 'You have made yourself known to humanity. Now I want to get to know you myself.'

Sunday, 16 November 2014

The parable about talents may not be about 'talents....'

Second Sunday before Advent

Matthew 25:14-30
'For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Here we're going to be thinking about the parable of the talents, a parable that is well known to many people.  We're going to allow ourselves to be honest with the Bible and not gloss over any issues. We're not going to be polite about what we read, but in our honesty we may find a deeper truth.  But first I wonder what we think the parable of the talents is all about? People usually assume that this is all about the end of the world when everyone will stand before God and there will be a final reckoning about whether we have done what is right with the gifts we have been given, or whether we have squandered our talents and not used them. Certainly that it one way of thinking about it. And I think it is quite possible that this was Matthew's intention because it is placed with other end of the world parables. But I think there are some problems with that, and if we allow ourselves permission to be uneasy with this parable then maybe there is a different and deeper truth to this.

You see we need to remember that parables may have been placed out of the context in which Jesus told them in order to highlight another point that the Gospel writer is trying to make. The Gospels are not necessarily told in a historical order. For example Matthew, Mark and Luke place the cleansing of the temple at the end of Jesus' ministry just before he's arrested.  John, however, puts it at the beginning to make a different point. So I think that Matthew might have done the same thing here because what Jesus appears to be teaching from our traditional interpretation doesn't make sense.

Let me ask you a question about the nature of God. When we think of God's characteristics, what do we normally assume they are? We say that God is loving an caring, slow to anger and quick to forgive. Yet what did the slave who buried his talent in the ground and covered it up say about his boss?  In my Bible it says this, 'Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.'  A harsh man who reaped what he didn't sow? Does that sound like Jesus, especially in the light of the parable of the sower where the farmer scatters seed absolutely all over the place?

And what do you make of the man's words about his punishment of the slave when he says, 'For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.' Does that sound like the Gospel message?

I think that what he has said is actually a rather good description of the economics both of his country then and most of the world today, which always favours the rich and leaves the poor with less and less. I don't think Jesus is telling a parable about using our talents; I think he's actually saying something quite different, and the reason I say that is because the harshness of the characters in the story simply do not add up to what we believe about God.  So the old interpretation, that this is all about what happens to people when they don't use their time and talents properly, is one we ought to ask questions of.

What, then, might it actually be about? What might this parable be saying if the one who buried his talent was actually the only good guy, and that the parable is making some kind of point about society and money?

Well here's my suggestion. I believe that this parable is about an evil slave-owning land owner. He's already so rich that he's got enough money to give to three slaves to go and play with to see if they can make some more money for him. Just to remind you some idea of how rich he is, one talent is the equivalent of six thousand days wages!  So one talent is probably more than half a million pounds. In other words he's just dished out several million! And that's just play money for the slaves to see what they can do with. If he's got this much money to throw around then it's no big deal if they don't make much from him; he wouldn't have given it to three mere slaves if he couldn't afford to do lose it. This is just a game to him.  Well two of the slaves play along. Who knows, they think to themselves, maybe if they can prove that they know how to play the system and make him some more money then he'll give them more responsibility. So they take the money they have and use it to make more money.

But the third slave is a righteous man. He refuses to be a part of an economic system that enslaves some and keeps the poor penniless for the sake of the rich. And so he takes the money and just buries it. He's not dishonest, he's just going to keep it safe.  He didn't even put it in the bank. Why? Well here's the clincher – usury, the making of money by charging interest, is forbidden for a Jew, so he wouldn't commit that sin. But the other two slaves had no problem with making loans with interest rates that payday loan companies would raise their eyebrows at, and enforce collection with threats and prison.

And so the rich man lost his temper with the honourable man and then said the words which challenge our economic system in ways that should make us all stop and think: “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

This is sadly the description of what so often happens to those at the bottom of the economic pile. They are labelled as scroungers when the reality is that they would rather work, but even what little they had has been taken from them.  I have friends who have been through this and others who are still there, when circumstances overtake them.  I'm told we are all no more than three steps from homelessness.

Far from being a parable about what we should do with the gifts we have, this parable is actually more likely to have originally been told by Jesus in a different context against the economics of creating wealth for the rich by exploiting the poor.  And so it challenges us to think about our attitudes to the poor in our society and whether we live in ways that make their opportunities better. It challenges us to think twice about the comments made in many of our papers about welfare cheats, building the impression that everyone who has to claim for welfare help is a scrounger when the reality is that most of them would rather work.

What then are our attitudes to the poor, and would we risk becoming poor and being cast out for choosing to live differently?
You might also like to be challenged by this report from the Guardian:

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Remembrance Sunday

Proverbs 21:1-8
The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord;
he turns it wherever he will.
All deeds are right in the sight of the doer,
but the Lord weighs the heart.
To do righteousness and justice
is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.
Haughty eyes and a proud heart—
the lamp of the wicked—are sin.
The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance,
but everyone who is hasty comes only to want.
The getting of treasures by a lying tongue
is a fleeting vapour and a snare of death.
The violence of the wicked will sweep them away,
because they refuse to do what is just.
The way of the guilty is crooked,
but the conduct of the pure is right.

Romans 12:17-13:5
Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience.

A Just War?
I always struggle with what to say at remembrance, and perhaps more this year than on any previous occasion because of the momentous nature of it being one hundred years since the worst war in the modern period. But it's not just about the first world war; it's about the second world war and the numerous other conflicts. And whilst we may have no doubts in our own minds that Great Britain had to fight in the world wars, and whilst we rightly gather to remember with gratitude those who laid down their lives for us and our nation's freedom, how do we feel about the other conflicts where the clarity of reason hasn't been so clear for us? Many people have doubts about Britain's involvement in other conflicts.  If we are going to engage with everyone's opinions, then as Christians it is our duty to understand something of why a nation like ours goes to war because the consequences will always be devastating.

So that's what we're thinking about here.  We back our soldiers to the hilt, supporting them and praying for them as they do one of the most difficult tasks that a country can ask of its people, but in the midst of the questions that many voice about going to war, what are we going to base our decisions on? How do we know when to fight and how to fight? I want to try and equip us with some biblically based ideas about war this morning. You see whilst our response in 1914 and 1939 to the threats posed then were necessary, even some who fought in those conflicts have raised questions about some of the decisions made regarding some of the ways in which the allies waged war. So the question I want to ask this morning is, 'How should we make the decision of when to go to war and how to wage war?'

After all we're only human. But is applying human standards to our decisions to fight sufficient? We have to ask whether the standards that we set are far too closely based on flawed human standards rather than on God's standards, because our standards might not be good enough. Let me give you an example, one that will be familiar to the experience of many of you, especially perhaps the men, in terms of how we wait before we respond.

I'm not a violent person. This hopefully doesn't come as a surprise. But I do have a slow burn temper. It takes a very long while to get going and I can take an awful lot being thrown at me, but eventually I react. I recall how as a teenager I was bullied by one particular individual. It went on a very long while, but eventually I lost my temper. He got bruised. The bullying stopped.

I don't think I'm unusual in this. I think most ordinary people would tell a similar story of retaliation in the face of extreme provocation. For the most part the average normal person gives up throwing temper tantrums if they don't get their own way by the time they've hit the age of five, yet somehow we keep some anger in reserve for when we are consistently wronged, or more importantly when someone who we love or feel responsible for is hurt by a third party. And it strikes me that it is precisely this reasonable human nature that is what lies behind what we call 'Just War theory'. But as Christians we should be obligated to ask ourselves if that is a sound moral basis and a high enough moral standard. Just War theory is essentially the yard stick that the government of a country like ours uses to tell it when to fight. In theory the idea of a just war should stop a nation like ours from becoming an aggressor.

Whether we're always correct in our actions is a matter for debate, but what should concern us more is whether the standards we set for choosing to go to war are high enough. The idea behind a Just War is the recognition that not to go to war, but to continually avoid it, may actually be a morally worse option than to engage in conflict; that although war is always, always, always a terrible option, sometimes the alternative, not going to war, is worse. If a nation has turned into a bully and will not respond to diplomacy, then there may well be no other actions that can be taken. But have our standards always been high enough?

The thirteenth century theologian and philosopher, Thomas Aquinas, first outlined three criteria for a Just War. Firstly a Just War must be waged by a properly instituted authority such as the state, which is why we had the reading from Romans 13. The governmental authorities are there to act as God's authority. Secondly a Just War must be for a good and just purpose rather than for self-gain, and thirdly the motive for going to war must be to bring back peace.

That second motive is the crucial one, because it is all about a 'Just' purpose. A Just War must be about Justice, and this all seems very reasonable, and something that we could agree with, I hope.
That is until we start to look at the word 'Justice' in the Bible and what it actually means, and this is where we have to raise questions about moral values because I want to suggest that this Biblical yardstick is different from the modern western human one. If we're going to use justice as our yardstick for entering conflict, then we'd better know what it is!

When it comes to justice in the Bible we find something rather surprising, which may challenge us to think about modifying our reasons for entering conflict. Two words from the bible stand out: 'Tsedaquah' and 'Dikaios' (spelt here phonetically). The first word is an Old Testament Hebrew word and the second is a New Testament Greek word, but they both mean the same thing, they both mean 'Justice'. But here's the surprising thing; they don't only mean justice. Despite being two very different languages, they also have a second word which they mean just as much. They both also mean 'Righteousness', the capability of living the right way. This means that for both the Jewish people before Jesus, and the church and much of the Greek-speaking world afterwards, Justice and Righteousness were the same thing.

And here, then, is the problem: Modern westerners tend to think of justice as being equated with fairness, and we tend to think of justice as meaning punishment for something wrong that has been perpetrated by one against another. But that is not the biblical understanding. Unfortunately, not recognising that and thinking of justice as punishment allows us to enter a 'Just' war to punish someone. In fact it says the same thing about any conflict, which is why what I'm saying here applies to all aspects of our lives. A battle between two people can begin because one has been unreasonable and the other wants to punish them. But in biblical terms justice is not linked with punishment, it is linked with righteousness, and that's what ought to inform our reasons for entering a battle of any kind. It also means that those of us who think justice is the same as fairness have an incomplete understanding. Justice is the same as righteousness, and that therefore means that justice is all about living according to the righteous standards of God, and so those standards are what we must apply when we think about entering into a conflict. Those are the standards that lie behind the idea of a Just War.

What then do we actually mean by justice and righteousness in God's understanding? I suggest that both mean to live life and make your decisions according to God's standards. It's exactly the same as when we say we do something in the name of Jesus. That means we are doing something in accordance with his will and his way of doing it. Justice and righteousness therefore mean we have to ask ourselves 'Is this action one that is consistent with living according to the moral obligations of saying that we follow Christ?' 
Now that is a far more difficult criteria to apply to conflict and a Just War simply because although the Bible makes it clear that ultimately there is going to be a reckoning between God and humanity, we also have to recognise that love, mercy and salvation are central to the nature of God. So if we are going to set the moral standard of a Just War as being living out the obligation of God's moral nature we also have to apply love, mercy and salvation. Those three mean that if we go to war, or if we enter into conflict, there must never, ever be such a thing as total war, and that war must cease as soon as the objectives have been met. I know of people who fought in the last world war who believe, for example, that the raid on Dresden by bomber command should never have happened. To that we might wish to add the annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki because all just war theories say that we should leave civilians out of the conflict. Raining down terror on a population is exactly what we criticise IS and other fundamentalist jihadist groups for. But that should raise questions for us about the methods that we and our allies eventually resorted to. Yes of course the terrorists are acting as aggressors and must be stopped, but it nevertheless forces us to ask whether the terror of carpet bombing or nuclear annihilation of civilian populations morally acceptable according to the standards of God? Is that righteous? You decide.

Yes those actions may well have brought the second world war to an earlier end, but were they morally justifiable? Were they righteous actions? You see why God's standards are so challenging. The biblical standard for a Just War is that it must also be a righteous war. Are we sure that all our actions always had God on our side? Or were there angels weeping in the firestorms? When we act, if we call ourselves Christians then we had better act in ways that are consistent with God's standards.

War brings the worst out of human nature. My grandfather would simply never talk about what he did and what he saw, and the longer we go at it the further we risk slipping away from justice and righteousness. The same applies to any conflict, even just between neighbours. If an aggressor continues for long enough, even the most just response will eventually slip towards retribution and punishment.

So what I want us to take away from this is not merely a commentary on the last two world wars. Just war theory, when we equate justice with the righteousness of God, has a direct bearing on how we live our lives when conflict takes place, because sadly, conflict is inevitable. It happens on the school playground and it happens in the boardroom and it happens between neighbours. At some point in time someone will pick on you because they think they can get away with it. How will you react? If it is to be a Godly response then that requires that you have sufficient experience of the nature of God to know how to respond. Otherwise all you will do will be a human response. As I did as a teenager, you will simply retaliate. That is not necessarily the wrong response, but it is also not necessarily the right one.

What I do know is that war as punishment is always going to be wrong, because we can never have high enough moral standards to think that we might be instruments of God's vengeance. I do believe in a final judgement, but what happens then is up to God. When we fight, I believe that it must always be to bring peace back as soon as is possible.

And so not just in the wars that we fight, and the people who we remember with gratitude who fought for us, but also in our day to day conflicts in ordinary life, let us remember that to God justice is the same as righteousness, and so may our just actions also be righteous ones.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

The use and abuse of discipline in churches

Romans 13:8-10
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

Matthew 18:15-20
‘If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’

Church discipline?
I realised, as I was putting this together, that I have consistently dodged a bullet in all my years of ordained ministry. Alison and I are normally on holiday at the beginning of September, so I have never preached on these words about church discipline before. So there is a sense of trepidation and crossed fingers about what follows...

How we read these words from Jesus will depend on whether we have read the rest of the chapter in which they fall and on whether our understanding of Christianity is one of radical hospitality or of excluding those we deem to be beyond the pale. Note the emphasis on the word 'we'. God may have other ideas. Let me give you an example of what I mean by that.

At another church that I used to belong to we became aware of a newcomer. He was a quiet man who kept himself to himself but was always pleasant yet with that sense of not being terribly sure that it was OK for him to be there. Gradually the vicar and I got to know him a little better and eventually he said to me, 'Paul, can I speak to you Would you come and visit me?'  So we made a date in our diaries and around I went. We did the usual small talk and then he told me quite simply that he wanted to be honest with me and tell me that he was gay and was that going to be a problem with him coming to church. I assured him that of course it wouldn't be, and my apologies if he had ever thought that might be an issue for us.  He explained that he had been a Christian for many years and used to belong to another church, but when he had spoken about his sexuality to the minister he was immediately made subject to church discipline. Ultimately he was told to repent or leave. Knowing that sexual orientation is not something that can be changed, he left, and for some time had nowhere to worship until he came to us.

The church that had thrown him out had a clear policy on what was acceptable, and they therefore felt that they could essentially excommunicate anyone who didn't stay within those boundaries. The question I would want to ask is, where is the grace in that? You see in reality this passage is not about exclusion but about love and grace.  This is not about giving us carte blanche to judge people as having behaviour unbefitting a Christian and therefore exclude them in a fit of self-righteousness. If we know any history at all we should be aware that many of our so-called Christian values are little more than cultural norms. Look at the people who have been excluded in the past, such as those whose marriages have failed, and who we include now and you'll see what I mean.

Instead, when we see the context of this chapter we realise it's to do with love, community, humility and grace. Chapter 18 begins with the disciples asking who is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven. Jesus responds by putting a small child in front of them and telling them that this is how they should be if they want to enter the kingdom of heaven.  And perhaps the key point in the verses that lead on from that narrative are about how we should not be putting stumbling blocks in the ways of others but examining our own lives very carefully.

And then after the story in this section we have the Jesus answering a question Peter has about how often he should keep forgiving someone by telling him that if it's forgiveness then he shouldn't be keeping score. Finally in chapter 18 we have the story of the slave who was forgiven an enormous debt but couldn't find it in his heart to forgive a small one of a fellow slave.

So the church is meant to be a place of care, of love and of hospitality, especially for those in need, with children being the example Jesus uses to illustrate this.With that as the backdrop, what then are we to make about these verses regarding church discipline?

Well firstly this is meant to be about restoration. If we believe we are the injured party then we should seek out the person who has hurt us and try to sort it out. Not in an accusing way, but simply so that a matter can be laid to rest. I can't tell you how grateful I have been for those who, when not sure if they agree with something I've said, have asked to talk it through with me. There is no space left here for us to just leave a wound to fester.  We are supposed to take it seriously when there are problems, and we are meant to seek out a way for there to be a reconciliation. 

 If the person who has wronged us won't listen we are to take a couple of witnesses. The reason for that is that we are a part of a community of believers. Something that happens to one of us happens to all of us.  We might also think in terms of the two witnesses being there to provide wise counsel. Most of us will be aware of situations when we have perceived a slight against us, only to discover it to have been a complete misunderstanding. And sometimes it takes a trusted and wise friend to say, 'Hold up. Before you go off on one, are you sure that's what so-and-so actually meant?' Even in our anger at how we are treated we are to be a part of the community so that wise members can guide us.

And finally, if two witnesses cannot resolve the problem, then maybe we need the help of the whole church. But all the way through this, what remains at the heart of the process is love. As St. Paul put it in the first reading, 'Love is the fulfilling of the law'.  All the way through this has been about loving someone. But what happens if that love isn't reciprocated? What if someone doesn't get it? What if someone is just simply using you, or us for their own ends?

Many years ago I was in a youth group. We were multi-denominational with United Reform, Anglican, Baptist and Roman Catholics all mixed in, and the leadership drew from across the churches too. The provided us with wise counsel and did their best to adhere to Biblical principles.  So when a new person came along and tried to become a leader they treated him with grace and listened to him, until that point that it suddenly became clear that it wasn't leadership he was wishing to offer, but the attention of the younger women that he wished to attain. In very short order he was dismissed as the leaders exercised their duty of care for us.

Church discipline is extremely difficult to manage, and so for me it has come down to love and grace. From time to time I hear stories of how people might talk of someone in a position of responsibility in church who perhaps doesn't live up to their ideal of a good Christian. My response to that would be, 'Well maybe they're just simply less good at hiding their faults than you are!'

None of us deserve a position of responsibility, and I promise you this, anyone who thinks they do is not worthy of it. All of us minister to each other under grace. I'm not 'worthy' of being a priest. I'm not more holy than anyone else in the congregation. It is simply the calling that God has given me, but I stand in the pulpit or behind the altar because of the grace of God in the midst of my own mess.
But when someone has self-interest or maliciousness in their heart, rather than just plain old sin-in-need-of-grace, then we need to ask questions, and that I think is what Jesus is giving us space for.

If there has been a misunderstanding or misspoken word or careless deed, then a gentle approach will usually fix it. But if there is malicious intent, then even a whole church won't be able to put it right, and then the community needs to protect itself and I think that's what Jesus leads up to.

I read an interesting story about a minister who had a conman come to the church she led. So she pulled him to one side after a service and took him out for a drink. She told him that she knew exactly who he was and what his track record was, and so he was welcome to come and be a part of the church and to be a loving and loved member of the community. But if he tried to use people he would be in deep trouble.  He actually responded to her tough love and toed the line she told him not to cross. Love requires honesty.

However, it's not always going to be like that and so I now want to add a caveat to this. Jesus makes it clear that ultimately there are limits to how far we can go in seeking reconciliation. If someone will not accept responsibility for what they have done or are doing, then we may need to take a step back from them for our own sake.

Many years ago, when I was in training, I was linked with a group of people who were looking at the relationship between psychology and Christianity. They were based at the Divinity Faculty at Cambridge University and together produced a series of videos under the name of 'Beta' about how who we are affects what we believe.  One of the videos was about forgiveness and they made the point that the old saying 'Forgive and Forget' has potential to be psychologically damaging. God may well be able to do this, and indeed this is what divine forgiveness is actually like, but for the rest of us we need to consider how we might actually need to remember what has been done when someone has deliberately hurt us in order to protect ourselves from it happening again.

Sometimes, if we are wise, we can see that it is not always as simple as forgiving someone, because that person may well have it in their heart to hurt us again, and again, and again. And you or I may well, by the grace of God, be able to forgive that person, but we may well also have to walk away from them and have nothing more to do with them.  With sadness and a heavy heart I've occasionally had to do this for the sake of my own sanity, and I'm saying this because I want you to know that after having read this passage, I believe it is OK to do so. If you have a family member or a friend or acquaintance who just keeps hurting you, in whatever way it is, by all means try and forgive them, but for your own sake, allow yourselves to walk away if you can see no way to resolve it.  Ultimately we have to be responsible for our actions.

So with the grace and help of God we can forgive, and go on forgiving. But there are limits to our ongoing involvement with a destructive personality. And ultimately I think this may have echoes in how God treats us too.  Thankfully God forgives, and goes on forgiving us, and there is nothing we can do to hurt God. But we can grieve the Holy Spirit. So we need to look to ourselves because if we deliberately we hurt another, and go on hurting them, we should not be surprised if the voice of God goes quiet in our own hearts. Sometimes, as a last resort, a shock like that is the last tool God has available to bring us back to our senses.

But in the weave of everyday life, let us talk,let us love and let us forgive, because that is the higher path.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Serving an Institution or serving Christ?

Many thanks to Nadia Bolz-Weber and Sara Miles for some of their recent comments which helped me put flesh on some thoughts that have been wandering around in the echoing space between my ears for some time.  This especially applies to questions about who our friends are...  (see below)


Matthew 16:21-end

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘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 will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
‘For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.’

Serving who?

Get behind me Satan’. 

 You know, as a vicar I'm sometimes really tempted to say that to someone with a very straight face after they say something inappropriate just to see what kind of reaction it provokes. But then how would you react if someone said that to you? How would you respond if you thought you were doing the right thing, only to have someone respond with such strong wording that you wanted to curl up and die of shame?

'Get behind me Satan', are some of the most powerful and disturbing words of Jesus in any of the Gospels. Their power lies not in the words themselves, though, but in who it is that Jesus is speaking to since we would never in a million years have imagined that he would say such a thing to Peter.  It's one thing to call the Scribes and Pharisees, ‘Whitewashed tombs’, because we know that Jesus hated hypocrisy and despised the way they would try and look good on the outside whilst deliberately hiding their rottenness away, being filled with death and decay on the inside.

Peter, on the other hand, wore his heart on his sleeve. He said exactly what he thought, and sometimes seemed to engage his mouth long before he engaged his brain. I'm not sure I'd think of him as guileless, but at this point in time he doesn't come across as someone who tries to pretend he's better than everyone else in a way that the Scribes and Pharisees that Jesus criticised did.  So as a narrative it doesn’t get much more shocking than this astonishing turn around with Peter going from being called blessed to being labelled as Satan, the one who stands in opposition to Christ, and that shock value is, I am sure, exactly what Matthew intended as he constructed his Gospel. He had a very important point to make about being a follower of Jesus, and Peter’s mistake gave him the dramatic device to make it.

So what was Matthew trying to teach us? 

I think that we should begin by recalling the kind of changes that Simon Peter has been undergoing. When we first meet him he is simply a fisherman, but he is also the first disciple Jesus called, according to Matthew. When the twelve disciples were given Jesus’s authority, Simon Peter’s name was at the top of the list.

When it comes to the story about  Jesus walking on water, do you remember that it was Simon Peter who asked Jesus to command him to walk out to him? Not only did none of the other disciples think of this, but when Simon Peter got out of the boat, no one followed him, even though at first they saw him doing what Jesus was doing.  And then we had the climax of Simon Peter being the first disciple to recognise for himself who Jesus actually was, that he was more than simply another Rabbi. Peter’s faith in Jesus was slowly but surely changing him. He appeared to be becoming someone who was willing to take risks for the sake of his Lord.

Then suddenly we find this complete turn around as Jesus calls him Satan; the opposition. What on earth has happened? What triggered that outburst from Jesus?  Knowing what that certain something was should unlock this passage. And I think it's this: Peter didn’t actually do anything wrong or sinful, he just started thinking the wrong way. Charles Cousar retranslates the offending words from Peter to Jesus, and renders them like this: ‘Certainly God will be gracious to you, Lord, and will not let this happen.’ 

And that’s where it all went wrong.

Peter’s theology of the Messiah did not include the idea of him being vulnerable. For Peter, as Jesus’s right hand man, it was his job to ensure, in so far as he could, that Jesus had a successful ministry. The problem was that Peter’s definition of a successful ministry and Jesus’s definition had become radically opposed, and Jesus needed to shock Peter into seeing that.  Cousar puts it like this, Peter’s imagination had become domesticated, trained, safe. 

There are times when we might want to add, dare I say it, Anglican... 

Or to put it another way, I think Peter had gone from being the disciple of a radical Messiah to being a disciple of someone who he hoped would become an Establishment figure. And although that sounds like a strange thing to suggest it's very easy to see how it has happened.

Jesus has recently told Peter that he will be the Rock on which Jesus will build his church, a word that means 'Gathering'. People will be gathering together because of Jesus, and Peter is going to be at the heart of it, and so in Peter's mind you can see how maybe he has mentally shifted from being a follower of a movement to being a leader in an establishment, an institution.  The question we have to ask ourselves is, whose vision do we have; Peter’s or Jesus’s? How we answer that question will dictate what we do with our resources and our time.

In Peter’s vision you have to protect something called the Establishment, the Organisation, the Institution. In an institution it's possible to follow Jesus without it causing too much hurt. In an Institution it's possible to get to Easter Sunday without going through Good Friday.  In an Institution we are protected by the mass of other people and so it's possible to have the right answers, and believe all the right things, without it setting us on the path to confrontation with the prevailing culture. Peter’s vision was safe.

Jesus’s vision was more radical, and it wasn't safe. Jesus demands of his followers that, like him, we become vulnerable, recognising and embracing that if we cling to life and what we want, then we will lose our lives to meaninglessness. Sometimes that way is hard and can lead to misunderstanding and rejection.  

To be a follower of Jesus means to embrace his way of life. That means engaging with people who are outsiders and not being put off when someone misunderstands what you’re doing. To be a follower of Jesus means that you try to be his presence in places and amongst people where otherwise he would be absent.

To be a follower of Peter at that point in time would have meant taking the safe option, of backing down when doing the right thing risks being hurt or made a fool of, of doing whatever it takes to protect the established institution.

Thankfully Peter eventually saw the error of his ways and followed his Lord all the way to his own martyrdom, but this has got me thinking, which path are we on?  Are we truly following Jesus and going to places where he isn't otherwise present, or are we preferring to play it safe, to be the establishment, the institution which we invite other people to join?

The Church of England is at the moment working hard to stop the steady outflow of people. And who can blame them/us? The things that our institution says and does are often far removed from the radical hospitality of Christ who took risks and was more than happy to upset people in power on behalf of the powerless.  Our response has often been to try and make things more appealing to young people, but I can't help having a nagging worry, a voice that keeps whispering that we're out of balance in our thinking; that we're putting the cart before the horse.

You see what concerns me is that too often our evangelism looks like trying to get more people to join our institution; to be a part of our club. It seems to be about reinventing the institution of the Church of England so that more people will feel they want to be a part of it. It seems to be about waving our hands and saying, 'Come and join us.'  Yet that didn't seem to be what Jesus was about. Instead he seemed to be about going into the places where the religious leaders wouldn't go and engaging with the people that no one else would engage with. It was never about starting a new religion; it was about loving the people that God loves with no ulterior motive of getting them to become a part of the institution.

Look, here's another way of thinking about it. How many of the people that you spend time with make you feel socially awkward, especially when you have a gathering with all your other friends at home? How many of the people that you spend time with have values that are fundamentally different from yours? How many of the people that you choose to spend time with believe something very different from you?

If the answer to that question is none, then the plain fact of the matter, and I'm sorry if this offends you, is that you're not living like a Christian. 

If all of our friends and acquaintances are like us then we have never taken seriously the stories Jesus told about inviting in the outcasts and we have not understood radical hospitality. We equate being a Christian with niceness, but if everyone thinks we're nice then we're not challenging anyone by how we live.  If you're anything like me you'll find this particularly hard because we don't like to be disliked, so we tend towards being agreeable. 

But do we risk just becoming insipid?

Here then is the question I have about evangelism; if it's just about trying to get people to join our institution, then how is that about them engaging with Christ in a radical life changing way? Isn't it just about getting them to join our club? And people will only join a club with like-minded people, so we all have to be nice to each other when deep down we're seething because it's all so false.  What I want to offer people is a connection to a God who acts towards us as a wise parent who is there for us whatever we have done wrong and however stupid we have been. If in making that connection with God people want to meet with others who believe the same things as they do, or at least some of the same things, then that's great; that's the order it should be.  But for goodness sake let's lose this attitude that the institution has to be propped up. Christ doesn't want an institution, he wants a family. 

But if all we can offer is bricks and mortar and plenty of seats for people to sit down on, provided they pay their share, then all Jesus will say to us is 'Get behind me Satan'.