Thursday, 30 July 2015

John's Gospel series. One - the value of spiritual encounter

We begin a series on John's Gospel this week, looking at the passages which, for some reason or another, have been left out of the three year cycle of readings.  That means you will probably never have had a sermon on them before and those of us who preach will probably have never preached on this before.

John 3:22-36

After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he spent some time there with them and baptized. John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim because water was abundant there; and people kept coming and were being baptized— John, of course, had not yet been thrown into prison.

Now a discussion about purification arose between John’s disciples and a Jew. They came to John and said to him, ‘Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him.’ John answered, ‘No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, “I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.” He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease.’

The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks about earthly things. The one who comes from heaven is above all. He testifies to what he has seen and heard, yet no one accepts his testimony. Whoever has accepted his testimony has certified this, that God is true. He whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. The Father loves the Son and has placed all things in his hands. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath.

A philosophical conundrum...
I'd like to tell you what it's like to be me. I'd like to, but I can't. I'd like to show you what the colour green looks like to me because I truly want to know if it looks the same to you as it does to me. I'd like to but I can't. I cannot show you because you cannot be inside me and therefore cannot experience my reality.  And the same difficulty exists with the things of earth and the things of heaven. I have many friends who I would like to show these spiritual things to, this God whom I encounter, but I can't because they have no experience, no ultimate frame of reference. The only way they can find out what I'm talking about is to encounter for themselves the Ultimate Frame of Reference. And that's what this reading is about; the gap that exists between the things of earth and the things of heaven.

I think this reading probably falls into the category of difficult to understand, but once we break it down it becomes far easier to see that there is a deliberate structure to what the Gospel writer has crafted here, the way it builds on what he's already written and the point that he is trying to make, which is to do with the greater importance of spiritual things over material things.

So if we break the structure down the passage falls into three chunks. The first gives us the context of the events, the second tells us what actually took place and what John the Baptist said, and the third is the author's own commentary on the events.

At the outset we have some interesting information from John that you won't find in any of the other Gospels, that the beginning of Jesus' ministry was running concurrently with the work of John the Baptist. In fact this looks to be at odds with Mark's Gospel which seems to imply that Jesus began his ministry in Galilee after John the Baptist had been arrested.  Matthew seems to suggest the same thing, with John the Baptist's arrest triggering the movement of Jesus to Galilee and his initial message being the same as John's: 'Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.' But the author of John's Gospel suggests that there was an interim period, when they were ministering at the same time.  In fact he goes so far as to apparently link his Gospel to Mark's Gospel by making the rather over-obvious point that this was in the period before John the Baptist was arrested. So already we have learnt something new about Jesus, that for a short while he and John the Baptist were active at the same time. But the balance was changing, and as we move into the second paragraph we pick up the story that the Gospel writer is going to use to make his point.

It opens in a confusing way, that a discussion about purification arose between John's disciples and a Jew. What makes this so confusing is that the author tells us absolutely nothing about what was said in this discussion. However we can speculate that it was probably something to do with baptism and that the writer includes it here to reinforce a point he made earlier in the Gospel about the superiority of Jesus and the baptism he brings.  In the Jewish tradition one would immerse oneself in a mikvah, a bath of running water from a natural source, either as a purification rite or because one was converting to Judaism. John the Baptist was using this as a basis for his baptism of repentance; making the people clean for the coming of the Messiah.  Now it may be that the Jew who was debating with John's disciples was making a point that he felt clean and didn't need to undergo this purification ritual. Or it may have been more to do with something that Jesus and his disciples were doing concerning purification that was different from John.

I suspect that the author is leading us towards this second idea, that it is to do with something extra taking place amongst the baptism offered by Jesus and his disciples because that would be in the context of what has come so far in this Gospel. Let me remind you that when John the Baptist first appears in chapter one he declares that he baptises with water but Jesus will baptise with the Holy Spirit.

That narrative is followed by the wedding at Cana at which Jesus transforms water intended for purification rites into high quality wine, again giving the impression that the purification offered by Jesus is something new, something far reaching on a deeply spiritual level, that in some way he fulfils the law, Torah, in a way that we are unable to. Immediately after that story the author places Jesus in the temple, overturning the tables of the money changers, an event sometimes referred to as the purification of the temple.  Remember that the synoptic Gospels place that Temple event in the last week of Jesus' life but John uses it right at the beginning, once more, I think, as a literary device to keep his readers' awareness on this whole purification motif. And all of that has been building up to the comments that the Baptist makes in this second paragraph.

So his disciples come to John declaring, 'That man about whom you testified; everyone is going to him.' The implication at the end of that sentence is, '...and not us.' The ministry of John the Baptist seems to be winding down and his followers are worried about it. Are they perhaps even jealous? A new preacher comes to town who seems better than the old one and so everyone follows him instead.
But John, in an act of humility that illustrates the depth of his spirituality, declares that this is exactly right. He knows that he was sent to get things ready for Jesus and that now Jesus has begun, his own ministry should decrease. The story of the bridegroom, the bride and the delight shown by the friend of the bridegroom, or best-man as we would call him, is a very touching one.

There are several suggestions given as to what the Baptist means when he declares how the best man rejoices at the sound of the bridegroom's voice. It could be that sense of deep happiness that a best friend feels for his intimate friend as he listens to him make his wedding vows. It could be simply hearing his voice as he arrives for the ceremony. It could even have been the exultant joy that he would hear from the wedding chamber after he leads the couple to it following the ceremony for the consummation! Remember, this was a very different society from ours. But whichever way we look at it this is John making it clear that he plays second fiddle to Jesus, and that now the groom has arrived on the scene it's getting near the time for the best man, having completed his role, to vanish.

The third paragraph marks a subtle but important change. When you hear it read you assume that it is the Baptist continuing in his thoughts about Jesus, but actually, even though there is no punctuation in the original, most commentators and translators are convinced that this last part is the words of the author of the Gospel as he explains to us, his readers, what this all means.

It's clear that he is harking back to the account of the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus just before today's narrative. You may remember that Jesus told Nicodemus that he had to be born from above, born a second time; born of the Spirit.  So the Gospel writer begins by asserting once more that if someone is of the earth then they can speak only of earthly things, but that Jesus is from heaven and so he can speak of heavenly things from his own experience. He can bring to us a spirituality which we cannot find here because it is not derived from here.

And actually this shouldn't come as any surprise to us, if, like me, you get frustrated with the kind of things we hear from the so-called 'New Atheists' such as Stephen Fry, Richard Dawkins et al. They speak with an earthly logic which currently seems to depend on a rationalism that has no room for, and consequently no understanding or comprehension of the spiritual.  It seems to me that they must surely be utterly ignorant on a deep level about what it is we celebrate. I don't blame them for this, but I get upset that they can use logic to explain away the mystery they haven't experienced and which I can't even begin to put into words.

The Gospel writer is just telling us what we know, that once we have encountered Christ for ourselves we can see the colossal gulf between earthly and heavenly reality. I think this is one of the reasons why we can rarely reason someone into the Kingdom of Heaven. C. S. Lewis is among a handful of people who became believers after weighing all the evidence and making a choice.

That wasn't my way. I encountered Christ first and was left in no doubt by the experience that this was who I should follow. Subsequently I went on to develop a deeper understanding and theology, but it began with an encounter with the one who, as the Gospel writer puts it, is above all things.  It's a little like the first time you meet your soul-mate.  You can't explain why, you just know there is something special about them.  In time you discover more about them, but to begin with there is just *something* that you long to be near.  Then we get this giving of the Spirit without any limits which is also my experience, that the more I open myself to the things of the Spirit, the deeper I can go. There comes no time when God seems to say, 'Nope, that's your lot.' It always seems to be a beckoning deeper that I encounter. 'Come this way; there is more.'

Now I admit that I am uncomfortable with the last verse but I also think it's important that I state that this is not the last word on judgement. The writer only offers two categories; those who believe in Christ and those who disobey him. There is a vast array of other spiritual conditions between those two positions that are simply not dealt with here.

What, then, does this reading mean for us? I think it asks us a question about the focus we have on life. What do we put our energies into? Where are we seeking the answers to our spiritual questions? Is it through rational argument? Well there's no problem with that provided we realise that it can only go so far.  Our beliefs and theologies are useful because they frame for us some of what we can and should expect to find in God. We learn about the character and nature of God, about goodness, perfection, love and light. All of these things are good. But they pale in comparison with an encounter with God, and that, therefore, should be the aim of our spiritual practice.

How will you do that? Well at least a part of it is in meeting together, but  I suspect that the best place is in silence where there are no words, just an invitation of our hearts which says something like, 'Come Lord Jesus and reveal to me who you are.'  May we find the time in our busy schedules for dedicated waiting, stillness and silence; of time to listen and receive.

Friday, 17 July 2015

The Road to Freedom - thoughts about slavery

Last week our choir led a special service, aided by members of the school choir, to help us consider slavery and our response to it.  What follows is from my address in that service

Luke 4:16-19
When Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’


Lots of religious hymns and worship songs have sentiments like 'Here I am Lord. Is it I Lord?' Or 'Lead me Lord'. These are lovely things to sing as we convince ourselves of our willingness to do what God asks of us. But what happens in the real world when God actually comes calling? In the cold light of day, away from the emotional beauty of the evocative music, we tend to be a little more reluctant.

What difference can I make? Send someone else.” 

I love the story of Moses and his calling because it is so brutally honest, and if you read the whole of Exodus chapters 3 and 4 you find that Moses doesn't just protest to God that he will stumble over his words. Oh no, it's far more than that.  In the Hebrew he protests, “I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue.” Many Jewish commentators think that this means Moses had a stammer. Think about what that means. God, almighty God, who knows everything about everyone including our deepest thoughts, who is wise beyond description, chose someone to be his mouthpiece and speak his words who had a stammer and was already guilty of murder.

Not someone who'd be chosen to be a bishop then... 

Surely he was hardly the first person that we would have chosen in God's place. “What difference can I make? Send someone else.” “No Moses. It's you.” In the midst of all the professionalism of the modern church it is heartening that God has a different agenda.  You see we tend to think of God choosing big heroes, which is why it's quite disturbing to read what he actually does, because suddenly that places us in the potential line of people God might call. God works with people who are broken, aware of their shortcomings and their failures. God always seem to choose people who begin by saying, “No”. I speak here from first-hand experience!  

“What difference can I make? Send someone else.”

How about William Wilberforce, the man credited with achieving the abolition of slavery? It took him forty six years to get the slavery laws repealed right across the then British Empire. It took such a toll on him and his health that he died just three days after he received assurance that his final bill was going to make it through parliament. Yet right back at the very beginning of the campaign he came extremely close to giving up.  He was a Christian and I can imagine him saying, in the face of massive opposition from the rich and the powerful in parliament, 

“What difference can I make? Send someone else”. 

 God's response was to speak through his fiance, Barbara, who encouraged him, telling him that she believed he could do it. With her help he changed the world with regards to slavery.  He did what God knew he could do even though he thought it was too much for him. “What difference can I make? Send someone else.” “No. It's you.” But thank goodness slavery is now in the past and none of us need to be worried about being called to do the same kind of work.

Unfortunately, that's not true on either count. Slavery is not in the past and we need our eyes to be opened otherwise how will we know when we are called to change something? Slavery is an outrage and it still continues, even in the west. At its worst are the young women who are trafficked from eastern Europe and sold for use by men in the west.  But as we open our eyes to the world in which we live, so we need to question whether our definition of slavery needs to be wider than this.
Maybe it should also includes those who enslaved in other ways and not simply those who are owned by others. For example there can be the desire by someone who wishes for power to gradually exert it until they have a stranglehold on the direction of the lives and choices of others.

So slavery can be slavery to our own desires, slavery to someone else's need to have power over us, slavery because someone has genuinely bought us, right through to slavery to someone else's idea of how to run an economy where we run out of ways to climb out of poverty. The list is long and we need our eyes to be opened to that.  As Christians, what is our response going to be when God says, “I want you to be a part of the solution”? If we're anything like all of the other major heroes in the bible, it's likely that the first thing we will say, in the cold light of day, is “What difference can I make? Send someone else.”

Throughout the bible are the stories that show how God is always on the side of the oppressed and the enslaved. The Old Testament prophets are littered with warnings and threats by God against the powerful because of the way they treat those over whom they have power.  And then comes Jesus, and in this very short passage we get nothing less than his manifesto. Now my experience with the modern church is that we have a strong tendency to spiritualise everything and to put all scripture into the ideal of personal spiritual growth in our relationship with God. But over the last couple of years I have been progressively more challenged about this.  So it is that with this manifesto pledge of Jesus some of it is deeply spiritual, but some of it is very practical. As he quotes from the Old Testament he begins with a very clear affirmation of why he is about to do what he is going to do. It is because the Spirit of God is upon him, as we know from his baptism when the Spirit of God came down on him like a dove. So Jesus is affirming that he is here because of the action of the Spirit. This manifesto comes right from the heart of the Father.

In the next line he claims he has been anointed to preach good news to the poor. This is one of those places where we automatically assume he means the spiritually poor so that we can include ourselves. That interpretation is not invalid, but at the same time what the passage says is 'Good news to the poor'. We can interpret it any way we like but, at face value, the message of Christianity should also be good news to those at the bottom of the social scale.

So what is good news for the poor? 

 Isn't it that they will have enough? So that suggests to me that the effect that the gospel has on the rich should be to ensure that they share from their excess so that the poor are no longer enslaved by their poverty, and that they act to bring about the end of the causes of poverty. In other words the gospel should have a practical effect on the world.

How about freedom for the prisoners? We're back to slavery here. On one level many of us feel ourselves to be imprisoned by events in our lives and personal histories. Our present actions and fears seem enslaved to what happened in the past. Christ comes to set us free. But this is also about how we should be good news for those in the world who are genuine prisoners of conscience. What are we doing to set them free?

Recovery of sight to the blind may well be about healing, but it's also about spiritual blindness. This is about when we look at other people and judge how they behave when the reality is that we need to be looking at our own behaviour. It's that moment when you feel that sense of conviction that actually you are the one who needs to sort their life out, not everybody else. That's when we can say, “I was blind to my own failures, but now I can see.”

But then we get to the big one, to let the oppressed go free. What kind of oppression? Slavery by being owned for sure. What about the memories of how we were treated in the past oppressing our present behaviour? Can this be about being set free from that too? I believe so.

And what about the people at the bottom of our economic ladder who feel oppressed by the policies of their government? I did an experiment this week by putting my details into the BBC's online calculator to see if I would be better or worse off under the new budget. When I varied my salary I discovered that the break even point was about £18,000. If I earn above that ceiling I am better off.
But when I put my details in but with a lower wage I became catastrophically worse off, in one instance by well over £1,000! I think that those who say they are oppressed by the financial decisions currently being made have a point. And what was Jesus' manifesto? To let the oppressed go free.  

What are we going to do about it?

This is the manifesto of Jesus, and boy is it wide ranging! It also means that, if we are his people, then it is also meant to be our manifesto. This is what Wilberforce did. It's what Moses did even though he pre-dated Jesus. It's what God's people do, to help those who are in need of help, whose needs may have become so severe that they are enslaved.

So what about us? 

What might you be being called to do? It might be something that is going to change the direction your life takes. It might require a completely new way of seeing life by looking at the real lives of other people and undergoing a massive shift in how that means you're going to live. Or it might be something that seems small to you, at least to begin with.

It might simply be leading the prayers in such a way that God's Spirit moves through you to change lives through your prayers being answered. Or it could be working for a charity as a volunteer, writing letters for Amnesty International, and so on. It could be giving lifts to someone who can no longer run a car, or visiting those who can't get out.

So when God calls, and I believe he is calling each one of us to something, how will we answer? Will it be, What difference can I make? Send someone else.” Or will we trust God that he knows what he's doing, and even though we think that we're the absolute last person for the job, God thinks we're absolutely the right one.

The manifesto of Jesus is to pave the way of the road to freedom. That must be our manifesto too. That means we have to do something when we are asked. And we will be asked. All Christians are tasked with a part of being Good News. How will we answer?

Saturday, 11 July 2015

A social Gospel - breaking the taboos.

Fourth Sunday after Trinity

Mark 5:21-43
When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered round him; and he was by the lake. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, ‘My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.’ So he went with him.
And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him.

Now there was a woman who had been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, ‘If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.’ Immediately her haemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my clothes?’ And his disciples said to him, ‘You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, “Who touched me?” ’ He looked all round to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’

While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, ‘Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?’ But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, ‘Do not fear, only believe.’ He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, ‘Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.’ And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha cum’, which means, ‘Little girl, get up!’ And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.


Not long ago I, along with all of the other clergy of the diocese, were privileged to have a morning listening to a talented lawyer, Shami Chakrabarti, who is the director of the British human rights organisation, 'Liberty'. Formed in 1934 by key public figures such as Clement Atlee and H. G. Wells in response to the appalling treatment by the police and the government in their response to the hunger marches of that year, Liberty campaigns for civil liberties and human rights in the UK.
Just to give you an idea of how important this work is considered to be by the British population, on their website they give specific information on how to volunteer to offer your time to help at their London offices. Embedded within that information are these words:

“Unfortunately we don’t have enough space to take on everyone who would like to volunteer, so there is competition for places. We ask everyone to complete an application form, provide a reference and attend a short interview.”
 Just think on that for a moment. The British population take human rights, and the need to maintain them, as being so important that you have to compete to be a volunteer, applying for a position as if it were a job. Now compare that to the church where we continually struggle to get people to volunteer for roles. I wonder why that is? Is it maybe because our work is seen as irrelevant? And is that maybe because, to most of the British population, it is? I wonder how it would be if, by the way we are church, human rights and dignities and their maintenance were counted as far more important than it currently is when compared to our various so-called 'strategies' for growth?

The reason I mention this is because of the way Jesus behaves in this Gospel passage. The context here is of Jesus breaking social, legal, political and religious taboos in order to help those in need. Just before today's story he has been exorcising the man who called himself Legion, the man who was living amongst the tombs, feeling so wretched and rejected that the only place he feels he belongs is in the most unclean place, amongst the graves.  So Jesus goes to the unclean place to give him back his life, his rights, his liberty and his place in the community. Jesus values him when no one else did. Then when we come to the next two stories, the ones in today's Gospel reading, we find Jesus continuing to do the same thing, confronting taboos, being amongst the unclean in order to restore them to community.

The two woman bear no similarities, and that's probably the point. One is a little girl on the edge of adulthood from an important family. We even get the name of her father, Jairus, a local religious leader. The other woman is far older. She is nameless, unclean, ashamed, embarrassed and shunned by her community because of continual bleeding in a society that was even more uptight about gynecological problems than ours.  There is no one there to go to Jesus on her behalf because she has fallen out of the bottom of society. In fact she is even breaking the law by being amongst the crowd, and she certainly should not, under religious law, have touched even the hem of Jesus' robe, because in doing so, technically, she had made him unclean too.  Yet when she touches him with intent, she is healed. But Jesus won't let it go. He knows something has happened, and so he asks, “Who touched my clothes?” The poor woman is terrified, knowing that the game is up, so she collapses in yet more shame at his feet as she pours out her whole sorry story.

I can imagine the concern on his face, the sorrow at what she has been through and the way the legal system has been used against her to ensure her ostracism from society. And so he publicly says, in front of the whole community, “Your faith has healed you.” It doesn't matter to him that she's broken the law by breaking a taboo of touching him though unclean herself.  What matters is that she is restored to her community and the only way that can happen is to be pronounced clean in front of everyone, using the title 'Daughter'. She is given her life and her liberty back, just like Legion was. But then comes the news that Jairus' daughter has died in the time it took Jesus to heal the older woman. Jesus, however, is undeterred and presses on to see her. Ignoring the ridicule of the crowd he goes in to her room, taking her parents and their supporters with him.

The little girl is dead, and Jesus breaks another taboo by taking her hand, and he tells her to get up. Now we might think, 'Well maybe he was right, maybe she wasn't dead after all', but the language that Mark uses is the same as he uses to describe Jesus' rising from the dead. Even at this early stage he is showing that he is even Lord over death.

So what then does this have to do with my opening remarks about Liberty? I think it is because all too often we miss the social side of what Jesus did. We assume that it was all about people's spirituality. The church works to bring the salvation of Christ but, for the most part in this country, we treat that as saving people so they go to heaven.

One of the things I say to baptism families is to ask the question, 'What is Jesus saving your child to do?' It's not just about saving from, it's also about saving for. Salvation is about this life too. So much of the work of Jesus, as in this passage, revolved around valuing the people that everyone else cast out and restoring these people to community.

So that is what we should be doing too. We might find it difficult in our minds to even imagine that the government and the police would take away the civil liberties of people in this country, yet our government is seeking to abandon the European Human Rights laws in order to put in place a much weaker British bill of rights which will give the government far more power over the lives of those at the bottom of community.

Where is the work of the church in all this? People often say we shouldn't be involved in such things, but if Jesus was openly flouting and challenging the taboos and laws of his society in order to restore the unwanted, unnamed and unclean to community, then so should we. I would urge you to allow yourselves to be challenged.  Read a different newspaper from the one you read.  Hear the real life stories of people who are forgotten by society. Perhaps visit the Liberty website, or look at other organisations such as Amnesty International. The needs and the rights of people were paramount to Jesus, so they should be to us too.