No longer servants but friends

This is the sermon I delivered this morning at Putney Methodist Church (and indeed this afternoon at Minstead Gardens Methodist Church!). The text was John 15:9-17.

We started today with the opening credits and theme song to the very popular American television series, ‘Friends’:

So no one told you life was gonna be this way
Your job’s a joke, you’re broke, your love life’s D.O.A.
It’s like you’re always stuck in second gear
When it hasn’t been your day, your week, your month, or even your year, but

I’ll be there for you
(When the rain starts to pour)
I’ll be there for you
(Like I’ve been there before)
I’ll be there for you
(‘Cause you’re there for me too)

What does it mean to be a ‘friend’? The immensely popular American television series, Friends, which ran from 1994 to 2004, and its very catchy theme tune give us a few ideas. In particular, perhaps, that friendship is about being there for others in good times and bad – when “your love life’s DOA” – and that it involves a level of reciprocity – “I’ll be there for you (‘Cause you’re there for me too)”. Given that the series finale of Friends was one of the most watched television programmes in global history, perhaps we should treat its views as authoritative!

Friendship may be a subject, though, upon which we simply do not often reflect in our everyday lives. It may be that we consider it something more relevant to the playground. One of the questions we will often ask young children at a new school is, “Have you made any nice friends yet?”. However, we are arguably living through a time when the very concept of friendship is changing. The internet and social media have arguably helped transform what it means to be a friend. As many of you know, Facebook has given us a new transitive verb: “to friend” someone. That is, to ask someone via the application to become your ‘friend’, allowing you to view one another’s personal details and exchange information. Importantly, one person makes the request to be a ‘friend’ and the other person has to accept it. This in turn has led to a complicated new field of ethics and etiquette. When is it acceptable not to accept someone’s friend request? Should you accept such requests from colleagues, old classmates, or even ex-boyfriends? This, in turn, has given us another new verb – to ‘un-friend’ someone; the ultimate mark of social rejection and the end of a relationship.

This development has in turn shaped, and been shaped by, other developments in the phenomenon of friendship, as detailed by a number of social scientists. Some of these have argued that friendships are becoming ‘thinner’ in the internet era, with less substance to them (Digby Anderson, Losing Friends, 2001). Many people would indeed make a clear distinction between friends in real life and friends on Facebook. Others have argued that friendship, in the West at least, has come to replace more traditional ties of kinship, family, tribe, guild, even nationality (Ray Pahl, On Friendship, 2000), to become the cement that holds society together. One danger of such a change is, of course, the implication that we divide the world effectively into ‘friends’, whom we are willing to trust, believe and help, and ‘non-friends’, or even ‘enemies’, whom we are not.

antonio_ciseri_ecce_homoIn the light of all this, what do those intriguing words of Jesus from our lesson mean to us today? “You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends” (John 15:14-15). We get a little clue of the significance of what Jesus is saying a few chapters later in John. Here the authorities in Jerusalem are using every means possible to make Pontius Pilate submit to their will and crucify Jesus, and threaten him with the ominous words: “If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor” (John 19:12). Friendship in the ancient world, in this context, meant someone who held a particular status with a ruler. They were his closest confidants, his most trusted advisers. In the Roman emperors’ case, they were described as his amici, and people – including client kings like Herod – would expend a great deal of time and effort to secure that status. It was the ultimate access to wealth and power. No wonder that Pilate was so afraid of the high priest’s threat: he was risking being ‘un-friended’ by the emperor, they were effectively saying, if he refused to execute this trouble-maker, with all sorts of terrible consequences for himself and his career.

In the context of our passage today, there is something of that sense of meaning in Jesus’ words. His disciples were indeed his amici – his closest confidants and advisers; the people with whom he spent most time and whom he trusted thoroughly. There is more to it than that, though, and there are things we need to learn about what it means to be a friend of Jesus.

Apostles - Eight apostles (Raphael, c.1516)First, true friends know what is really going on in a person’s life. Many people nowadays, as I have said, make the distinction between ‘Facebook friends’ and real friends, and one of the key differences is the information one shares with these two categories. I know myself that there is a temptation to put a positive spin on your life on Facebook, only recording happy incidents, or things that cast you and your life in a positive light. It’s often an air-brushed version of reality that in turn can actually make others feel worse about their own life. (“Why’s everyone else out partying, and I’m sat at home doing the ironing?”, etc., etc.) Of course, you don’t need to be on Facebook for this to happen. There have always been people to whom we feel it necessary to put on a front and say “everything’s fine”, when it is very clearly not.

A true mark of friendship as Christ described it, though, was someone with whom we have no secrets. It is a relationship where we can know someone fully and in turn be fully known. Just as Jesus and the Father knew each intimately. We know what they have been through in life, positive and negative; we know their joys and their sorrows; we have been present at some of the most important events in their life. In the gospels, we are repeatedly told that Jesus made the effort to share everything he could with his disciples. When they failed to understand the parables, he would patiently sit down and try to help them understand (e.g. Mark 4:33-34). When they had questions, he would answer them. In this final discourse in John’s gospel, we hear him trying to tell them everything they needed to know about himself, in order to face the future without him. And this offer of friendship is open to us, if we choose to accept it. In prayer, we are given the opportunity to share all that we are with Christ Jesus: not to put on a brave face and deceive ourselves and him, but to come to him, as the hymn says, “Just as I am”. In scripture, Christ offers us the same in return. The ability to know him truly, to understand who he is and what his mission on earth was. If we choose to read and study our scriptures, then that knowledge, that privileged relationship, can be ours as well.

the_calling_of_saint_matthew-caravaggo_281599-160029The second point is that friendship, in Jesus’ terms involves choice, and choice on both sides. Many commentators note the difference between how Jesus’ disciples behaved and how those of other contemporary rabbis did. In the latter case, disciples would usually shop around and find the rabbi whom they most liked and admired. Not so with Jesus. Instead, as we read in the opening chapters of the gospels, Jesus actively goes out and chooses his disciples. As he reminds them in today’s passage: “You did not choose me but I chose you” (15:16). There is a stunning painting by Caravaggio of The Calling of St Matthew (Matt. 9:9-13), with Jesus, bathed in a shaft of sunlight, standing at the doorway of a tavern pointing directly at the unsuspecting tax collector, and clearly saying “It’s you I want.”. There is a direct contrast here with that terrible experience in school playgrounds, where teams are picked based on how good you are at football, or how tall and strong you are, or indeed where relationships are formed based solely on looks and appearance. Here the offer of friendship goes to the most unusual people, to the unloved and unlovely as well as to the popular and handsome.

In the scriptures, we read how Christ invites all sorts of people – men and women, Jew and gentile, kind and unkind – into a relationship of friendship with him. And they in turn are invited to respond: to accept the obligations and responsibilities of friendship. Responsibilities that we all understand well, especially if sadly we have ever been let down by someone we thought a friend. The invitation to friendship with Christ, and ultimately with God our creator himself, is one that is offered to us all, just as to Peter and John, and one we are invited to accept. It is not a relationship that we deserve or have earned, it is one that is freely given by a God who seeks out his people in every corner of the world – like a shepherd with a lost sheep. But we cannot say that we are a friend of Christ, if we ignore his teachings, neglect his words and reject those who have been made in his image. True friendship with Christ is both an inestimable blessing and a solemn commitment.

Washing feet - DuccioFinally, we should note that our reading today makes clear that being a friend of Jesus also involves being a servant for Jesus. Many of us may worry about the language of friendship in relation to Jesus. We find it in many of our hymns. We may worry that all this talk of friendship makes us too ‘chummy’ with Christ, and fails to acknowledge his holiness and power. Yet, as with so much of our scriptures, context is crucial here. We need to ask ourselves what has gone on before? We turn back a few pages and find Jesus, the Lord and Saviour of all the World, on the floor, washing the feet of his disciples. We skip a few pages ahead and find Christ on his cross, bearing the sins of humanity upon his broad shoulders. As we read in Stainer’s Crucifixion:

Then on to the end my god and my friend
to suffer, endure and die.

Being a true friend to someone will always involve a level of servanthood. It will involve listening to the same stories and jokes again and again. It will involve helping to look after them when they’re sick or ill one day. It will involve helping them to put together a garden shed, a wedding or even a broken life. True friendship involves cost and sacrifice, and that is why we value – or should value – real friends so highly.

The friendship that Christ offer us in these verses is not a ‘thin’ one: a Facebook friend, a nodding acquaintanceship. It is the most perfect and life-giving of relationships; the genuine desire to know another person wholly, and in turn to be fully known by them. It is a relationship that is freely offered by one who has done everything he can to seek us out, wherever we are. It is a friendship built not on the desire for gain or control, but on the loving sacrifice of one who calls us to follow his example of selfless love. It is ultimately the offer to us all that, “my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (15:11) Amen.

Walking with others

This is the sermon I preached today at Barnes Methodist Church. The text was Acts 8:26-40 (Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch).

 

86544522“Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’” (Acts 8:29)

All of us walk at a particular pace. Some of us stride boldly along, swinging out our arms and leg. Others prefer to take life a little more easily, and amble along at a gentler pace. Whichever we prefer, we know that if we wish to walk with another person – and even more so with a group of people – then we probably need to change our speed to suit theirs.

After ten years of living in Brighton and working in London, I developed something of a ‘commuter’s walk’: head down, speeding along, determined not to let anything get in my way. (It’s the kind of walk you can see every morning and evening in central London!) By the time I finished commuting, I knew that it took me exactly twelve minutes to get to the station in the morning and, on good days, I would reach my chosen spot on the platform just as my train pulled in. This was fine on Mondays to Fridays but it did mean that I found it hard to moderate my pace at other times, and was unaware of how fast I was walking. Often, when I was out with her, my mother would simply stop and state clearly: “I cannot walk at that speed!”. I needed to learn to change my pace to suit others.

The  baptism of the eunich, by RembrandtIn the story that we have just heard read from the Acts of the Apostles, that is precisely what Philip is called to do. Philip is one of the seven deacons ordained by the apostle to serve the Early Church (Acts 6:1-7), and is not to be confused with the apostle Philip. Previously, he has been preaching the good news in Samaria (Acts 8:4-13). Now, though, he is called by the Lord, essentially, to stand beside an ‘A’ road and wait for an important person to pass by.

We do not know a huge amount about the Ethiopian eunuch is person beside what the scriptures tell us. He is an important official at the court of an African monarch, perhaps in Ethiopia or modern-day Sudan. He is wealthy and a man of influence, travelling in his own “chariot”. He is also clearly attracted to the Jewish faith, travelling a long way to visit the Temple and Jerusalem and knowing his scriptures well, notably Isaiah. There is a tradition that this man helped bring Christianity to Africa but we cannot know this for certain.

What we do know is that Philip is called to accompany this man on both his physical journey, along the road to Gaza, and on his journey of faith. To do this, he needs to change his pace to suit the Ethiopian’s. God calls him to join the chariot (8:29); to run to catch it up (8:30) and, presumably, to keep his pace up, so that he can engage the eunuch in conversation. The Ethiopian is doing what many people did in the ancient world to while along the long, dull journeys: reading. And Philip matches not only the speed of the Ethiopian’s physical journey but also his journey of discovery. He does not demand that the eunuch slows down to match his desired speed; he does not insist that he start with a preconceived discipleship course. Instead, as instructed by God, he starts where the Ethiopian is – in this case, with the prophet Isaiah – and acts as his guide and companion on the road of revelation that lies ahead. In this case, a road that leads to enlightenment and baptism.

1292-1-doop-kamerlingThis story, like so many others in the book of Acts, speaks directly to my experience as a minister and my reflections on the future of our churches. Like many commentators, I believe that the climate in which our churches operate today is increasingly similar to the world of Acts. Far more similar indeed than it is to the world of, say, the Georgian or Victorian Church. Some of those similarities are obvious. Like the apostles, we operate in a multi-faith / multi-ethnic / multi-religious context. (Although before we feel too sorry for ourselves, we should note that Christianity still occupies an extremely privileged position in our nation.) Like them, we work as ‘pockets’ of Christianity – individual, often small, churches working as a network – rather than as ‘Christendom’.

Crucially, like the Early Church, we encounter people who are at very different stages of their Christian journey and who are walking at very different paces along ‘the Way’. Some – like the Ethiopian eunuch – already have a lot of information about the scriptures and are striding along the journey of faith; they need to have their detailed questions answered. Others are walking at a snail’s pace, and have only just begin to discover Jesus for themselves. Still others, have no knowledge whatsoever and seem to be on a completely different road altogether!

Like all ministers, I am continually challenged by this need to match the pace at which others are walking. The young teenager who is preparing for confirmation at Pentecost is walking at one speed. The folk who came to our Lenten Bible study, taking a detailed look at Mark’s gospel, were bowling along at another. And the people who read the weekly Bible notes that I am writing for the Methodist Church’s national website are at yet another.

I was brought face to face with this challenge most acutely a few months ago. A woman whom I did not know came to one of our evening services at Putney. Unfortunately, it was the second in a series on the letter of James in the New Testament that I was leading. I knew that most of the folks who come to that service are life-long Christians, who need to be challenged, and so we were looking in detail at a few verses. Afterwards, she confessed that this was the first time that she had ever entered a church to worship, and that she had, in fact, received no formal Christian education since the age of seven! She had had a personal crisis, which had led her to our doors. However, the speed at which we were moving was light years ahead of where she needed to be – and she confessed that she almost ran out, because we seemed to speaking another language! Luckily, she gave me another chance and we were able to engage in individual conversation on a number of occasions. I was able to lead her to some more suitable material that we could discuss together, looking at the most basic (and most important) elements of Christianity. I needed to slow my pace right down, though, to walk with her on those first, tentative steps along the path to faith. The whole experience felt rather like speeding along at 70 mph in the fast lane on the M4 and then suddenly putting the car into first gear!

menologion_of_basil_006.jpgThis is the challenge that both the Early Church and our modern churches face. How to accompany people at the right pace for them? How do we walk alongside the chariot both of young children and life-long Christians? Of those educated to a postgraduate level, with deep questions about evolution, artificial intelligence and scriptural authority, and those who are simply uninterested in such issues. Of those who have been listening to sermons for forty-odd years and have ‘heard it all before’ and those who have come for a baptism of their friend’s child and have not stepped into a church since they were a child themselves?

The challenge can leave many of us gasping for breath, desperately trying to change our pace to suit the needs of our listeners. More often, sadly, it leads us simply to adopt a ‘one pace fits all’ attitude. To settle for some sort of average that suits the majority of our members, and leaves the rest to take care of themselves. To produce sermons and worship that neither help those new to faith, nor truly challenge those whose faith has grown old and staid. As the alternative words to ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ appositely bemoan:

Like a mighty tortoise
moves the Church of God.
Brothers, we are treading,
where we’ve always trod.

We are not adapting our pace – as Philip did – to suit that of the people we are trying to help. Instead, we are expecting them to match our own.

The challenge for us a church is to determine how we follow Philip’s example and walk alongside those in our community whom we are called to serve, and who want to engage with our faith. Of course, we cannot be ‘all things to all people’ and we need to recognise the limitations of our resources. But we need to be conscious of our calling and to be deliberate about our pace. We need to be sacrificial in our life as a church, perhaps moving at a pace that we personally find uncomfortable, in order that we can walk alongside others. Who is the Ethiopian eunuch of our own day whom God is calling us to accompany?

In doing this, we are seeking to follow the example that not only Philip, but God has set us. For that is precisely what we celebrate in the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ. It is God choosing to walk alongside us, at our pace, in order that we might have life in all its fullness. As Brian Wren’s Easter hymn puts it so eloquently:

Not throned above, remotely high,
untouched, unmoved by human pains
but daily, in the midst of life,
our Saviour, with the Father reigns.

Jesus walked at the pace of all those he met: encouraging, cajoling, leading them on. And he continues to walk beside us all, every day of our lives, matching his pace to suit our own: sometimes striding ahead in the full confidence of faith; at others, patiently waiting at the roadside for us as we are overcome by doubt and sin. Without that accompanying presence, without that selfless act of love and grace on God’s part, we would all be lost. It is a selfless, sacrificial example that we are called to follow. I pray that – as a church and as individuals – we might not only know that presence in our lives always but be inspired to walk along others that they might the good news of Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

 

Writing the next chapter

This is the sermon I preached this morning at Putney Methodist Church. It was the day of our Annual Church Meeting, where we considered the past and future of our congregation. The text was Acts 6:1-7

probably_valentin_de_boulogne_-_saint_paul_writing_his_epistles_-_google_art_projectThe Acts of the Apostles is one of those books of the Bible that we often over-look, sadly. We all know the stories from Luke’s gospel very well and many of them are the most popular in our scriptures: the shepherds and the angels at Christ’s birth, the parable of the Prodigal Son, the Supper at Emmaus, to name but a few. When we come to the second half of Luke’s gospel, though – and we should always remember that that is precisely what the book of Acts is – our knowledge tends to peter out a little.

We almost certainly know the story of Christ’s Ascension and the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost from its opening chapters. We also know, I am sure, at least some of the details of the conversion of St Paul and some of St Peter’s experiences. There is so much more to the book, though. So many more of the first disciples’ fascinating adventures – and there is no other way of describing them – as they begin to tell all sorts of people the good news of Jesus Christ.

Perhaps most importantly, in these 28 chapters of scripture we see more clearly than anywhere else the beginnings of what will become Christ’s Church on earth. As so often in life, they do not start with a clear blueprint of what they are seeking to create; they did not begin by saying, “We want something that looks a bit like that Putney Methodist Church”! They knew what they wanted to do – tell people the story of Jesus, and especially his death and resurrection – but how to do that remained the key question. In the book of Acts, we see them proceeding by that ancient method of trial and error. We read of people like Paul and Barnabas, going from place to place, sometimes being heard and accepted and sometimes being driven out of town. We read about early congregations being established across the eastern Mediterranean, and facing challenges both from within, and without, as they established a pattern of worship, prayer and evangelism that worked for them. We hear of councils and controversies, as they sought to discern what it truly meant to follow Christ, often taking incredibly hard and brave decisions. It is an incredible story of people faithfully building God’s Church up from nothing, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Apostles church RomeWhy I have chosen this particular passage today, and why I am speaking about this subject at all, is, of course, because today is our Annual Church Meeting. This is the occasion when we, as a congregation, have the opportunity to look back at all that God has done for us in the past, and to renew our trust in him for the year that is to come. It is also traditionally an opportunity for us to undertake some necessary business and to engage in that traditional pre-occupation of church navel-gazing!

From long experience, I know that many of us cannot stand such meetings and will make a bolt for the door as soon as the notes of the last hymn die away! If you possibly can stay, though, I would strongly urge you so to do. Why? Because just as Luke’s Acts of the Apostles is a continuation of the story he began in his gospel, so is our Annual Church Meeting merely another chapter in that glorious story. It may not feel like it is, and it is certainly not as adventurous as Paul’s shipwreck off Malta (Acts 27), say, but it is unquestionably part of the same narrative. It is the same story of God’s people trying to serve him in this time and place. The same story of people from all sorts of backgrounds and nationalities coming together to glorify Christ’s name. Working out, through the same method of trial and error, how we can best worship him, serve him and his people, and share the good news of Jesus Christ with all who will hear it. The same story of God’s Holy Spirit at work amongst his people, if we but look for it.

seven-deaconsCrucially, the passage that we just heard read – like so many others in Acts – reminds us that that story belongs to us all. The church of Acts was struggling to cope with its mission both to preach the Word of God and to serve those in need, in this particular case the widows of the two communities. The apostles were learning that vital lesson, which all pastors have to learn, that no one can do everything that needs to be done. That while individuals like Paul and Peter might, rightly, hog the limelight, their work is ultimately in vain, if it is not taken up and championed by the entire community. It reminds us of so many other passages in the New Testament, perhaps particularly 1 Corinthians (12:12-31), where churches realised the Spirit moved among them all, and that all had vital gifts and graces with which to bless the community and one another. That God called, and calls, all kinds of people to bring about his Kingdom on earth.

Today is not just about ‘keeping the show on the road’ or the usual call for people to ‘fill the jobs’. This is about us recognising our part in God’s story of salvation. Then as now, this is a counter-cultural message that we often struggle to hear. Today we live in what is often described as a consumerist society, where we have a huge variety of goods and services at our disposal. When we go to a shop, we expect it to have what we want immediately, in the colour, size and at the price we desire. If it does not, then we will go elsewhere. Often, we feel very little loyalty to those providing the goods or services, and will now happily shop around online until we find the best deal for us. To some extent, this was just as true of the marketplaces of ancient Jerusalem and Antioch as it is of Westfield today. The difference is that many people today have come to apply the same philosophy to nearly all their dealings, even seemingly to the field of friendship. On Facebook, and other social media, we can simply delete someone from our lives, if we no longer believe we are getting good ‘value for money’ from our friendship. Relationships are in real danger of becoming solely consumerist transactions: “What do I get out of this? What’s in it for me?”.

A macro detail of the book of Acts in the Christian New TestamentSadly, many people are applying the same philosophy to churches. We encounter that attitude occasionally here, with people shopping around, trying to find the ‘perfect church’. The one that does things exactly the way they like; that provides the services they need; and the one that makes no demands on them, apart from occasional attendance on Sunday mornings. If it fails so to do, then they will simply go elsewhere. In many respects, I fully understand that attitude. All of lead busy lives today, with enormous pressures on our time and resources – people simply do not have the leisure time to devote to church life that once they had. I also feel that some pressure of this kind is useful to churches: it makes us reflect on whether we are simply pleasing ourselves with the way we worship and function, or are actually meeting the genuine need for people to encounter God in the most appropriate way for them.

There is a real barrier to cross here, though. Because the church – our little church here and all congregations everywhere – simply cannot operate in that manner. We cannot be ‘all things to all people’ without a responding commitment from those who attend. On one of my first Sundays here at Putney, I encountered a couple with a young family, who were clearly disappointed by what they had found here. They had come from a large, thriving church in the USA, with a flourishing choir, children’s work, etc. Typically, they had come on a Sunday when there were very few people here – as periodically happens – and at the door the woman effectively told me off because the church had not met her expectations. As always, I humbly accepted the criticism and I had a lot of sympathy for her critique. But part of me also wanted to say, “Well, why not join us and be the change? You can see the need and the potential here. Why not make a commitment to help us become the church you want us to be?”

Now, I know the reasons why that was an impracticable suggestion: they were both busy parents, with demanding careers and many calls on their time. It is the same for so many of us here today. But as we read the book of Acts, we see time and time again how one person can make a huge difference to the life of God’s church. We know that from the life of this church. How one person – someone “of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (Acts 6:3) – choosing to make a commitment, to do one thing well, can have such a huge effect on the lives of so many others. The book of Acts tells me that I cannot fill this church with the Holy Spirit by myself, no minister can. That requires the ministry of the whole people of God, working together, bringing their different gifts and graces to serve us all, and enrich the life of our community. As Christians, we are not called to be solely consumers of church: picking the bits we like and which serve our needs, and rejecting the rest. We are called to be integral parts of the one body of the church.

So, I make my appeal today, brothers and sisters. The same appeal that Peter and the apostles made to the church two thousand years ago. Can you be part of the 2,000 year story of God’s church? Can you help shape its next chapter? Is God calling you today to be part of that glorious story and that fascinating future? We have so much work to do here, and I see so many promising signs of hope and growth. Truly, the harvest is great but the workers are few (Matt. 9:37). Can you spare just a few hours each month to serve your church – by committing to prayer, to helping with worship, by working with our young people? Is God calling you today, in the same way that he called the seven in the time of Peter? If so, I believe fervently that our future, by God’s grace, can be as bright as its past. That the word of God can continue to spread and the number of the disciples increase greatly. Together, let us write the next chapter of Christ’s story in this place. Amen.

Peter anointing seven deacons

Section of a fresco in the Niccoline Chapel by Fra Angelico, depicting Saint Peter consecrating the Seven Deacons. Saint Stephen is shown kneeling. Source: Wikimdeia.

Not so Super Jesus

This is the sermon I preached today at Holy Trinity Roehampton. The text for today was John 20:24-29 (Jesus and Thomas), often referred to as ‘Doubting Thomas‘.

unnamedI am sure that all of you here today are completely addicted to superhero movies. No doubt, you are all familiar with the most recent cinematic outings of Superman, Wonderwoman and Spiderman. You know your Captain America from your Thor; your bedrooms are full of Hulk posters; and you are on the edge of your pews in anticipation of the latest Avengers’ film. Well, perhaps not!

Whatever our views, though, it is clear that superhero movies are, once more, all the vogue. Every few months, a new film is released, detailing the exploits of the latest creation from DC Comics or Marvel. These are accompanied by endless comic books, action figures, duvet covers and other merchandising opportunities. And they are all incredibly popular. I, for one, know that, if I wish to have an extended conversation with my godsons, I must have at least a passing knowledge of some of these characters.

For some children, though, we know that this passion for such superheroes goes beyond a mere passing interest. Many commentators have observed that for certain children – and perhaps more than we might think – these characters speak to a deeper psychological need. They provide a beacon of hope in a constantly changing and potentially dangerous world. For children who see their mothers being abused, for example, or who are themselves being bullied at school, it is understandable that some of these characters’ stories would speak deeply to theirs. The sudden acquisition of enormous strength or super powers, like Peter Parker in Spiderman, would be a dream come true for many children, who long to be vindicated and see their own tormentors – and the tormentors of the ones they love – receive their just desserts. No need for a trial, or for the slow process of human justice. Just a quick punch up in a back alley, and ‘Pow!’ – everyone gets what they truly deserve.

f17b5e7157caf51a86acd4d921123e74Unfortunately, many Christian organisations that work with children and young people discover that they hold similar beliefs about Jesus. To some extent, we in the mainstream church are responsible for that through the way we often talk about Christ. ‘Jesus’ is the answer to all questions; he can perform any miracle; he can triumph over any foe, even the arch-nemesis himself, Satan. As the popular children’s song goes: “My God is so big, so strong and so mighty, there’s nothing that he cannot do.”

This is especially true in the story of the resurrection perhaps. Indeed, the Easter story could, arguably, be an episode straight out of a comic book, in many respects. The misunderstood hero is hated by those he came to serve; his true identity is hidden from even his closest friends and family; and the bad guys have their moment of triumph, when it looks like our hero is down and out for good, unable to use his powers. The cross is his kryptonite. Yet, just when everything looks bad, and it seems that evil has indeed triumphed, the Man of Steel rolls away his own tomb stone and confounds his enemies.

alonso_lc3b3pez_de_herrera_-_the_resurrection_of_christ_-_google_art_projectTraditional depictions of the Resurrection in Christian art arguably aid this interpretation of events. Jesus is usually portrayed as literally bursting out of his tomb, with the previously smirking guards now quivering in fear at his feet, and his grave clothes artistically fluttering in the breeze behind him, much like Superman’s cape. He is ‘Super Jesus’: faster than a speeding bullet; more powerful than a locomotive; able to escape even the most gruesome of deaths in a single bound!

Today’s reading from John’s gospel, though, puts the lie to that interpretation of Jesus and his death and resurrection. While the traditional focus of the passage is poor Thomas and his – arguably understandable – doubts, for me the crucial part of this passage is what Jesus tells us about himself:

Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.” (John 20:27)

Jesus does not emerge from the experience of Easter unscathed. He is explicitly unlike the superheroes of our comic books and films, because he still bares the scars of his torture and execution. Bullets, or nails in this case, do not bounce off his skin, like Superman’s. His wounds do not miraculously heal themselves, like one of the X-Men. Even after his glorious resurrection, and his triumph over the grave, he is still able to say to Thomas, and the other disciples, ‘Look upon my scars.’.

the_incredulity_of_thomas2c_who_places_his_finger_in_the_wound_28f-_142v29_croppedJesus, as one commentator has observed, is not an ‘Etch a Sketch’ Messiah. His wounds do not disappear but will remain with him, for the rest of his earthly life. And not only the physical scars, but the mental and emotional ones too: the experience of betrayal, loneliness and despair in the days and hours leading up to his crucifixion. They do not vanish overnight, either.

That is what is so important about this story of Thomas for me, and speaks deeply to my own experience. On several occasions, and one in particular, I, as a minister, have been called upon to lead my congregations in Easter praise and joyful celebration. To sing the inspiring, upbeat hymns and to deliver a positive, smiling sermon, to a church full of families and daffodils. Yet, in all honesty my heart has still been in the tomb. I have still been contemplating my own sadness and worries; and I have known that many members of my congregation are there too. The rolling over of the calendar from Holy Saturday to Easter Sunday has not changed their lives. It has not taken away their grief, their pain, their anger. They have still been in the Garden of Gethsemane, weeping with Christ, or on the cross of pain, writhing in agony.

The reality is that, even in the face of Easter joy and the good news of death overcome, we still bear the scars of life on our bodies, in our hearts and in our minds. And that is what makes Jesus our true superhero. Because he bears them too. He cannot simply brush aside the crown of thorns and nails; he cannot forget what his best friends did to him on that night, he still bears those wounds now. Yet because of what God did through his supreme sacrifice, he gives all of us the courage to believe that these scars are not the end of the story. That pain, and terror, and loss shall not have the final word. He is not like a false friend telling us to ‘buck up’ or ‘pull yourself together’ – ‘everything’s fine now!’. He is our closet companion, telling us, ‘Yes. I know what it is to hurt, and to suffer, and to fear death. I know the absolute reality of grief, anguish and loss. We can sit down and show one another our scars. But when you are in a place to hear it, I have good news for you: those wounds are not the end of our story.’ Truly, the prophet Isaiah was right when he said: “by his bruises we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). For it is through the scars of Christ, borne for Thomas and for us all, that we know the true love of God. Not a false superhero, impervious to pain and want, but a true Saviour and friend, who shows us how to live the best life we possibly can, and who waits to welcome us all into eternity. Alleluia. Amen.

caravaggio_-_the_incredulity_of_saint_thomas

April Fool?

Happy Easter! This is the sermon I preached today at Putney Methodist Church. The set reading was the account of the resurrection from Mark’s gospel: Mark 16:1-8.

Today is, as you all know, April Fool’s Day. The day when people traditionally play pranks on one another, and our newspapers drop in a few fake stories to try to fool us into believing that there are such things as spaghetti trees, and the like. It also happens to be Easter Sunday, as I am pretty sure you also all know. Given that Easter can fall on any Sunday between 22nd March and 25th April, that is not terribly shocking, and indeed – according to Wikipedia – it will happen again in 2029. I shall be sure to save this sermon for re-use then!

Resurrection (St John's, Cambridge)This coincidence of dates has already given rise to much comment and some mockery in the media and online. There will no doubt be several commentators today who suggest that the billions of Christians across the globe celebrating Easter with us are, in fact, being taken for April fools. We will be told again that the resurrection story is just an elaborate prank or myth. Nothing more than “a conjuring trick with bones”, as a former Bishop of Durham allegedly said.

This is nothing new, of course. Similar suggestions have been made ever since the time of Jesus and, while untrue, they challenge all of us to reflect upon our own understanding of the Easter story. Many of our hymns today speak of the absolute triumph of faith on this day. As we shall shortly sing:

No more we doubt thee,
glorious prince of life

Yet the truth is that we all have doubts and questions about the Easter story and exactly what happened.

One of the passages of scripture that gives me such faith in the Easter story, though, is that curious ending from Mark’s gospel – or the lack of an ending really – which we have just heard read. Some of us have been studying Mark’s gospel this Lent and I hope that we all found it a very useful and fulfilling experience – I certainly did. We are so used to hearing a conglomeration of the gospel stories, especially in Holy Week, that it is helpful occasionally to focus in on one particular evangelist’s viewpoint and style.

codexaureus_21Mark, as most of you will know, was almost certainly the first gospel to be written, perhaps 30 or 35 years after Jesus’ crucifixion. Perhaps unsurprisingly therefore, as one participant in the Lent course observed, it often has the feel of a first draft. This is not to deny its wonderful narrative style and pace, often breathlessly driving the action on, where the other gospels linger awhile. We also highlighted those places where we seem to detect the extra details about a scene that only an eyewitness could have given, and many of us felt that the stories often feel like they were transcribed from someone speaking aloud, rather than an author sitting alone at his desk. Perhaps they come from the apostle Peter himself, who has often been associated with Mark’s gospel, telling and re-telling the stories to the first Christians as he travelled across the Mediterranean. It really is a wonderful and endlessly rewarding text. Yet for all that there is an undeniable rawness and lack of polish to the text. Matthew, when he copied large sections into his own gospel, even had to correct Mark’s grammar and syntax!

For me, though, this is a wonderful strength of the book not a weakness. If he had been setting out to deceive, to trick, to make April fools of us all, he simply would have done a better job! He would have spun his ‘fake news’ better – smoothed out the wrinkles, omitted all the embarrassing facts, and provided ready-made answers to some of the contentious issues of his own day. Instead, he provides us with a ‘warts and all’ record of the ministry of Jesus, including a devastating critique of the men who came to hold positions of great importance in the early church, the apostles.

sargis_pitsakThere is no better example of this than the Passion narrative in Mark’s gospel. At our last session, we read through this whole section, from the beginning of chapter 14 to the end of today’s reading, in one go. Despite its familiarity, we were deeply moved by what we read. Mark does nothing to hide the despair and loneliness of Jesus in these last few hours before his death. One by one his friends desert him, starting with Judas and ending with his closest companion, Peter. All those whom he has come to serve and whom he has helped so willingly, turn their backs on him at this hour of need. And finally, even God seems to abandon him. That heartbreaking cry of dereliction on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 14:34). A troubling and disturbing cry for one who claimed to be the true Messiah, the Son of God. A verse that a cleverer and more deceitful editor would simply have removed.

Then we have that strange and mystifying ending. Not the glorious vindication of this rejected Christ but merely an empty tomb and a few women running away, seized by “terror and amazement” (16:8). If you were going to start an international deception, that is not how you would record it – and you certainly would not have based your testimony upon that of a few foolish women, whose word counted for very little at that time. Were you seeking to make April fools of a third of the population of the planet, you would have done a much better job of hiding your tracks!

Now the truth is that the ending of Mark’s gospel most likely got lost somehow, as often happened to ancient documents. It almost certainly originally ended with some of the same incidents as Matthew and Luke record. Yet, there is something wonderfully reassuring about these verses, and the fact that they were not suppressed by the early church. They record the genuine human emotions of people encountering something completely beyond their understanding. The terror and fear of the women are real, and Mark seems to have no qualms whatsoever about recording them. He does not seek to edit out their reactions and put them into a ‘stained glass attitude’ instead. He would only need to have done that, if he had had something to hide or if he wished to deceive us. And that was not his purpose in writing.

800px-Fra_Angelico_-_Resurrection_of_Christ_and_Women_at_the_Tomb_(Cell_8)_-_WGA00542He was not seeking to make April fools of us all. Instead, he wished to set down honestly and without omission the record of what his first readers knew to be the truth. The story that they knew so well, and which they had heard from the lips of eyewitnesses for decades, who had become the first preachers of the early church. The story that the tomb was empty. That the women did see something amazing. That Jesus had truly risen from the dead.

Whatever the women and the apostles saw in that tomb – or perhaps more importantly did not see – changed their lives forever. It made them abandon homes and families and careers, and become itinerant preachers, travelling thousands of miles between them and dependent upon the charity of others. It made them give up some of the most central tenets of their faith: their dietary laws, their Sabbath, even their belief that God could never have a son. It made them willing even to put their own lives on the line, so that you and I may hear this good news today.

This is no April fool, brothers and sisters. It is incredible. It is astounding. It is world-changing, and it seems unbelievable. If it had not been, then the women in our story today would have just neatly folded up the grave clothes and calmly walked home. Yet it is the truth. Pure and unvarnished by Mark. That somehow, in a mystery that we shall never fully understand in this life, God raised Jesus Christ from the dead on that first Easter Sunday, and that through that action, the power of sin and death over us all was vanquished forever.

This is no April Fool. This is no ‘fake news’. This is no ‘conjuring trick’. It is the truth; and it is good news for you and for me, and for everyone, forever. Alleluia. Amen.

Rafael_-_ressureicaocristo01

Why, Nicodemus?

This is a reflection based on Jesus’ famous encounter with Nicodemus in John 3, but it also brings in ideas from his other two appearances in the gospel. The readings are: John 3:1-17; John 7:45-52; John 19:38-42.

“Why did you go, Nicodemus?

Why did you go to see this strange character, Jesus of Nazareth? Did you really think that he was a prophet? Search the scriptures you know so well, and you will see for yourself that no prophet comes from Galilee. He does look a bit like a prophet, it’s true. And sounds like one on occasions. He certainly acts like one sometimes, come to think of it. Whipping up that storm in the Temple, driving out the dove sellers and money changers: that was risky. Just the sort of thing that Isaiah or Amos might have done, I suppose. But we have no prophets now and if we did have any, they certainly wouldn’t come from Nazareth.

henry_ossawa_tanner_-_jesus_and_nicodemusPerhaps you went to see a miracle? He certainly has quite a few tricks up his sleeve, doesn’t he? Lepers claiming to be healed, the lame leaping for joy, sight restored – there’ll be no beggars left soon! And there was that strange talk about the wedding he went to in Cana: a good man to have at a party, by the sounds of it! Even that old fox Herod seems intrigued by him, so they say, although apparently he’s just petrified that it’s John come back to haunt him. Like Samuel rising from the witch’s fire!

Did you go on your own account, or because others sent you? You called him ‘rabbi’, I hear; a bad place to start, if I might say so. It gives the man too much credence – and then you said, “we know that you are a teacher”. Who’s this “we” then? Are there others on the Council who feel the same way? I find it hard to believe that a group of such distinguished men could be so gullible. These are hard enough times to be a good Jew, without our leaders losing their heads too. Romans or no Romans, blasphemy is always blasphemy!

Why do did you go by night, Nicodemus?

Night time is a time for sleeping; for lying safe in your bed beside your wife, knowing that all the household and animals are safely locked up. Why, even a group of dis-organised brides searching for lamp oil wouldn’t raise me from my slumbers! What on earth possessed you to go out into the dark streets and seek the company of cutthroats and drunkards? Maybe it was because you did not want to be seen by anyone consorting with this strange Nazarene. He’s certainly not popular with some of your fellow Pharisees, is he? He seems to possess a real knack for getting under their skin: even you lost your cool a bit with him yourself, didn’t you – when he started talking about being born again. His habit of answering a question with another question really is infuriating, isn’t it? No wonder your friends, the chief priests, get so riled: no one else would dare talk to them like that. Or are they your friends, I wonder?

Crijn_HendrickszPerhaps, though, I am thinking of this like some strange gentile might in the frozen north. All their streets – if such barbarian settlements have streets – may be deserted by sunset. We are a warm-blooded people, though. Only fools would sit and talk about important matters in the heat of the day, when sensible folks seek the shade and their beds. Night time is the time to come alive, to ponder the deep things of life in the cool of the evening: just as when God walked with Adam in the Garden, in fact. It is then, with a welcome breeze slowly swaying the branches of the trees – and no, I don’t know where it comes from or goes to, either – it is then that we can think clearly, and talk through the deep things of life.

For this is a very deep thing that you are discussing, is it not? Matters of faith and belief, of orthodoxy and heterodoxy, of life and death. For who is this “Son of Man” of which he speaks? Is he talking about the one that Daniel – a proper prophet, and most definitely not from Galilee – of the one that Daniel said would come at the end times? Or is he – horror of horrors – talking about himself, in that strange elliptical way he has of speaking? If he is, then this is blasphemy pure and simple: to suggest that he has come down from heaven, that he will be lifted up again and, worst of all, that belief in him will lead to eternal life! You should have run away then, Nicodemus; this stuff is too hot to handle! This is the sort of thing that will get him into trouble, and you too, if you’re not careful. Performing a few miracles is one thing but this is blasphemy, and you – a teacher of Israel – know that only too well, don’t you?

Why did you go back, Nicodemus?

That wasn’t very sensible, was it? Going to Pilate, with Joseph of Arimethea and asking to have the body. I mean, really, what were you thinking of? You saw how angry the High Priest was and the rest of your fellow Council members. What a fuss, and all just before Passover as well: Passover of all times, I ask you. With the city full to bursting and the Romans on edge. No wonder it all got out of hand. Did you really have to make a scene with that other old man and get the body? I mean he’s dead now: he won’t mind whether he’s dumped on the heap with all the other felons, will he?

This is not the end of the matter for you; you know that, don’t you. People saw you ask for the body, and Caiaphas and the rest have very long memories. You won’t be trusted again – though perhaps you haven’t been properly trusted since you went the first time. But this. This seemed utterly pointless. “Let the dead bury their dead.” Now, where did I hear that phrase? Never mind.

Entierro_de_Cristo_(Tiziano)What did you hope to achieve by doing this thing, by putting him into that tomb? Poor old Joseph had that specially cut for himself, and now he’s not even going to be the first tenant. Was it out of respect? Of admiration? Or was it out of hope? Did you still believe that he might have been a prophet, or perhaps even more than a prophet? Did you want him to be proved right?

That’s the frustrating thing about faith, isn’t it? Unless it’s tested by doubts and uncertainties then it’s not faith at all: it’s just knowledge. But to have faith – true faith – you must know doubt too. The deep, unsettling doubt that robs us of our sleep, and haunts us during the small hours of the night: perhaps that’s why you went to see him when you did? Did this strange man from Nazareth provoke in you feelings of wonder and awe that you thought had died long ago? Did what he say actually make perfect sense to you – once you had had time to digest it properly? Did you recognise the truth of what he was saying, and what he taught – did you see fulfilled in him the prophecies you know so well of the Messiah who is to come? Did he show you a better, more perfect way of being; did he reveal to you the deepest things of life – things you didn’t even know that you didn’t even know?

Wait, Nicodemus. Have faith, Nicodemus. Come back again in the three days, Nicodemus. Come and see that your faith is not in vain.”

Jesus Christ is raging

This is the sermon I delivered today, the Third Sunday in Lent, at Putney Methodist Church. The set text was John 2:13-25 (Jesus cleanses the Temple). 

 

el_greco_-_the_purification_of_the_temple_-_wga10541Sadly, we seem to be a very angry generation, even an angry world, at present. One cannot turn on the television, seemingly, without seeing images of people rioting or screaming at one another. The internet – a tool designed to connect people and allow the free exchange of ideas – is too often hijacked by angry streams of abuse, directed at anyone who thinks or looks differently to the abuser. Our roads, our politics, our news seems to be dominated by angry people.

In this context, it seems hard to praise Jesus’ outburst of anger in the Temple two thousand years ago. What makes his violent outburst different from the rage we see directed at Brexiteers and anti-Brexiteers, feminists and anti-feminists, Corbynites and anti-Corbynites, and so on and so forth? Surely, the rest of scripture has it right, when it urges restraint from anger. From the days of Jacob and Esau’s fraternal frustrations (Gen. 27), to the wise word of St Paul who urges his readers never to “let the sun go down on” their anger (Eph. 4:26). And those of us in relationships, are often told to ‘bite our tongue’ or ‘keep a lid on it’ in order to preserve harmonious living conditions – and that applies to church life, just as much as domestic life!

Yet, if that is the end of the story, then we have forgotten something. We have forgotten that sometimes ‘righteous anger’ is just what the world needs. In the case of our reading today, this is not Jesus simply flying off the handle because he’s had a bad day, and his donkey got a parking ticket in the marketplace! Jesus has seen what has been happening in the Temple ever since his first visit there, so many years previously with his parents (Luke 2:41-51). He has seen how the Temple was re-built not so much to the glory of God, but for the glory of the Herodian kings, who wished to buy the popularity of their people and cement their hold on power. He has seen the traders move from outside the Temple to inside its courts, at the behest of – and for the financial gain of – those in authority. And he has seen poor and faithful pilgrims fro across the Jewish world being systematically fleeced by money changers and animal sellers, who are exploiting the Temple’s purity laws to make a very large profit. This is anger that has built up over the years and now boils over, in this symbolic act of defiance. It is, to employ an often misused phrase, truly ‘righteous anger’.

This righteous anger, of course, has excellent precedents. In this passage, Jesus alludes to the prophet Zechariah (as he does on several occasions), who foresees the day when the Messiah shall come and, “there shall no longer be traders in the house of the Lord of hosts” (Zech 14:21). And the prophets were no stranger to this kind of righteous anger – displaying the “zeal” for God that truly “consumed” them (Psalm 69:9). Delivering unpopular judgements on the rulers and evil practices of their own day; standing up to corrupt and failing monarchs, false religion, and the neglect of the poor, and often paying the ultimate price for their righteous fury.

mission-1986-1170x776Such righteous anger still has a place in our world today. One of the most challenging lines from a film that I have ever heard comes at the end of the 1986 film, The Mission. I am sure most of you know the film a little and are aware that at the end, the Jesuit missionary, played by Jeremy Irons, is ultimately unsuccessful in protecting his Christian mission of indigenous Indians from the rapacious grasp of the Portuguese slave-owners. Because of the machinations of international politics in Europe, the people are all either killed or sold into slavery. One of the slavers, Señor Hontar, at the end of the film, remarks to the Cardinal who has reluctantly found himself dragged into this sordid business:

We must work in the world, your eminence. The world is thus.

To which the weary Cardinal, struggling with his conscience, replies:

No, Señor Hontar. Thus have we made the world.

“The world is thus.” How often has that excuse justified inaction and acceptance of every horror and injustice under the sun, from slavery to the Nazis and on to the refugee camps of Syria. We shrug our shoulders and simply say that nothing can be done, so what’s the point in even trying. The money changers and dove sellers will simply gather up their coins and set up their benches again, so what’s the point of making an effort today?

As the Christian writer Timothy Radcliffe has observed, “There is a difference between hopeful anger which believes that things need not be as they are and will struggle to ensure that they are not, and just moaning.” “The world needs anger. The world often continues to allow evil because it isn’t angry enough.” Jesus’s anger wasn’t just moaning, or having a rant on a Facebook page. It was anger that was designed to stir people out of their apathy and to point to the truth that the world can be different; indeed, that God wants his world to be different. And, thank God, people have shown just that over the years.

rosaparksMany of you will know the story of Rosa Parks better than I. She was the brave black woman who refused to give up her seat in a segregated bus, and so started the Montgomery Bus Boycott: a vital chapter in the Civil Rights Movement of the USA. I had often been told that Rosa Parks failed to give up her seat that day because she was simply tired from a long week’s work but, as so often, when you dig a little deeper, you find the truth is far more interesting.

The story actually started many years earlier, in 1943, when Rosa had boarded a bus and paid the fare. She had got on at the front of the bus, though, and the city’s rules ordered that black people had to get on by the rear door, and the driver, James Blake, told her to get off and board the bus again from the back door. This she reluctantly did but before she could re-enter, Parks had slammed the doors shut and driven off without her, leaving her in the rain.

More than ten years later, in December 1955, Rosa again paid her fare to the same driver, James Blake (whom initially she did not recognise), as she boarded another bus in central Montgomery, Alabama. She sat in an empty seat in the first row of the rear seats reserved for blacks in the “coloured” section of the bus, directly behind the ten seats reserved for white passengers. As the bus travelled its regular route, all of the white-only seats in the bus began to fill up. At its third stop, several more white passengers got on and Blake moved the “coloured” section sign behind Parks and demanded that the four black people there give up their seats so that the white passengers could sit. Years later, Parks said, “When that white driver stepped back toward us, when he waved his hand and ordered us up and out of our seats, I felt a determination cover my body like a quilt on a winter night.”

rosaparks_busAccording to Parks, the driver, Blake, said, “Y’all better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats.” Three of them complied but Parks refused. After an argument with the driver, the police were called and arrested her. Her defiance triggered the Montgomery bus boycott, which started on the Monday after this incident and lasted for a year, until the law was changed.

In her autobiography, My Story, Parks wrote:

People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. … No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.

Rosa Parks, as far as I know, was not an angry woman. Hers was not the kind of anger that makes people scream at each in the London traffic or write hate-filled, racist tweets to one another. It was the righteous anger of a good Christian woman – a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church – who refused to be part of the injustice of the world anymore.

It was the same righteous anger that inspired the fight against slavery, and apartheid, and the oppression of women and gay people. It is the anger that inspires the determination to save our environment and to protect God’s planet. It is the anger that denies the lies that “the world is thus” and we can do nothing to save it.

At the end of today’s passage, Jesus’ opponents ask him for a sign to justify his actions. He points ahead to his death and resurrection: ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ (John 2:19). The world told Jesus that his rage was impotent and his fury pointless – “thus is the world” and there is nothing you can do to change it. Jesus proved them otherwise. Even death itself does not have to be “thus”.

In a moment we shall sing John Bell and Graham Maule’s excellent hymn, Jesus Christ is waiting. The second verse reads:

money-changers-templeJesus Christ is raging,
raging in the streets,
where injustice spirals
and real hope retreats.
Listen, Lord Jesus,
I am angry too:
in the Kingdom’s causes
let me rage with you.

In the power of Jesus Christ and his resurrection, we can be part of God’s wonderful plans for his world. Let us be angry in his name, and change our world forever! Amen.

 

Quote: Timothy Radcliffe, What is the point of being a Christian, 80.

Hymn: John L. Bell (b. 1949) and Graham Maule (b. 1958). Reproduced from Singing the Faith Electronic Words Edition, number 251. Words: From Enemy of Apathy © 1988, WGRG, Iona Community, Glasgow G2 3DH Scotland. http://www.wgrg.co.uk

 

 

 

Do you wish to be healed?

This is the sermon I preached this morning at Barnes Methodist Church. The texts for today were 2 Kings 5:1-14 and Mark 1:40-45. Both passages refer to the healing of lepers. In the book of Kings, we meet a powerful general called Namaan, who crosses from Aram (very roughly, modern-day Syria) to Israel for a cure. In the New Testament passage,  Jesus heals a leper at Capernaum, a town on the shores of the Sea of Galilee where we believe Jesus lived for some time. 

 

41_00141890“Are not … the rivers of Damascus better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be cleaned?” (1 Kings 5:12) Naaman wished to be healed; but he did not wish to be healed like this. Given the context, his reluctance and anger were perhaps understandable. He was a very important man, a great warrior and a favourite of the king. He had come from a more important and more powerful nation than Israel. He had come bearing gifts with a grand retinue, and no doubt cut an imposing figure. And here he was in this one horse town, and not only could the local prophet not even be bothered to see him but the remedy he was proposing seemed utterly contemptuous.

It is perhaps too easy, though, to contrast the general’s pride and seeming reluctance with the ready faith of the leper whom Jesus encountered at Capernaum. In truth, Naaman too had been incredibly brave in seeking out the prophet Elisha. You will recall that the original suggestion for his visit had come from his servant – and not only a servant, but a young girl and a foreigner. He then had to undertake an arduous and lengthy journey to find this Samaritan prophet. And ultimately, with a little cajoling from his servants, he did do what he was told and bathed seven times in this second-rate foreign river, and was indeed cured.

Perhaps, instead of contrasting the stories, we should seek the similarities and note that in both cases desperation drove these two men to find a cure for their illness. A cure that for neither of them was easy nor cheap.

leprosy_deformities_handsThe leprosy we frequently encounter in the Bible is not quite the same as the modern disease, usually referred to as Hansen’s Disease, which agencies such as the Leprosy Mission do so much to combat. The Biblical condition seems to have included a wide range of skin conditions, including psoriasis, lupus and ringworn, that could involve discoloration or flaking of the skin. It was not as contagious as is often believed and could indeed be cured in some cases. However, whatever the name, the effect of both the modern and ancient diseases was the same: social exclusion and rejection of the sufferers.

The Levitical Law – the law laid down in the book of Leviticus – was clear: the disease made a person unclean and that they had to live apart from the rest of the community. This may explain why Elisha was unwilling to meet Naaman, in fact. It was the priest’s role to assess the nature of the afflicted person’s condition and undertake the necessary rituals and sacrifice once the illness had cleared up. This is what Jesus refers to when he tells the leper to show himself to a priest and offer what Moses had commanded. Only in this way could the leper re-join his society.

1920px-leprosy_bell

A medieval leper bell

Leviticus 13 makes clear, though, that the sufferer could not hide their condition or their shame, if the disease persisted:

The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be dishevelled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ (Leviticus 13:45)

Even for the mighty general Naaman, who was not a Jew, leprosy meant not being a whole person. The first few verses of our OT reading tell us that clearly: he was a great man, he was in high favour with the king, he had achieved a great victory … but he was a leper. In other words, it didn’t matter what else he did or achieved, it was his leprosy by which everyone ultimately judged him. The comparisons to modern sexism, racism or homophobia are easy to make. “She’s an excellent brain surgeon … for a woman.”

If this were true for the rich and powerful Naaman, how much more so then for the poor leper who approached Christ. We are told almost uniquely in Mark that Jesus looked on the man “with pity” or “compassion” – something that we are not otherwise told about Jesus’s other acts of healing. Perhaps this was thought noteworthy because so few people had ever looked on this man with ‘pity’ before – revulsion and fear, possibly – but not pity.

Brooklyn_Museum_-_Healing_of_the_Lepers_at_Capernaum_(Guérison_des_lépreux_à_Capernaum)_-_James_Tissot_-_overall copyLike Naaman, he was in fact desperate and had nowhere else to turn. And this desperation drove both men to seek a cure, however costly or risky that might be. And we encounter many such people in the gospels. In Mark alone, we could think perhaps of Jairus, the respectable local synagogue leader, whose daughter was dying and who literally flung himself at the feet of Jesus, the wandering healer, in desperation. Or perhaps, the woman who had been subject to internal bleeding for 12 years, something which again made her ritually unclean. She knew that just by touching Jesus – or any other member of the crowd that pressed around him – she would make them unclean too, and risk their wrath. But she reached out for the hem of his garment regardless – in desperation. And we could name others.

In contrast, though, we could think of the story that we read later in Mark, of the Rich Young Man. He too comes to Christ. He too, we are told, kneels before him. He too has a demand to make on Jesus: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”. Is this a cry for healing too? A desire to be made whole? A recognition that, though like Naaman he has wealth and power, there is something missing in his life?

Jesus does provide a remedy for the young man; one as shocking as Elisha’s response to the visiting general – “go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor”. But, unlike Naaman, the rich young man refuses to take the medicine prescribed. It is too bitter a pill to swallow. The cure seems worse than the disease.

cleansing-of-naamanTo how many situations and challenges in our world and in our lives could we apply that lesson, I wonder? As I reflected on the readings this week, and the story of a powerful general from Damascus, perhaps inevitably my mind turned to what is currently happening in Syria. To the terrible destruction of that ancient country, the bitter and brutal civil war, and the millions who seemed destined to spend the rest of their lives in refugee camps. There are things we as an international community could have done, and could do still, to help the people of Syria but the cost seems too high.

We could purge the oceans of plastic and halt global warming, if we wanted. But are we willing as a world to pay the price of changing our habits? We could tackle the housing crisis that is gripping our city and country. We could fix our NHS. We could ensure that our older people are properly cared for at the end of their lives, and that all young people receive a proper start in life. We could – on this Racial Justice Sunday – set aside all the instruments of racial oppression and mistrust. We could cure so many of our world’s and our society’s ills, IF we wanted. If we – and crucially those who hold the reins of power, money and authority in our world – wanted to and were willing to pay the price of the cure. And not just the monetary price but the price too of saying we were wrong, the price of national pride and honour, the price of changing our ways and our prejudices. Too often, though, like the rich young man, the cost of the cure seems worse than the disease, especially if you have to pay the price of the cure but others are suffering the consequences of the disease.

The challenge of these readings is not just about global challenges and domestic politics ‘out there’, though. The challenge is for ourselves as well. In our own lives, are we too afraid of being healed, at the cost it may involve? When I was in South Africa several years ago on a placement, I visited several townships near Durban with a local Methodist minister. Many of the people we met had been infected by AIDs and they spoke of how they had effectively been treated like lepers – shunned by their families and communities as unclean carriers of disease. I am delighted to report that it was the churches there who have been at the forefront of the attempts to bring relief and understanding. But those victims, and in fact all of the folk I met there, put my faith to shame. It was a living, visceral faith – a faith of an often desperate people, fully aware of their own shortcomings and their need for Christ. I am reminded of a verse from ‘Rock of Ages’, which we often sang there:

Nothing in my hand I bring,
simply to the cross I cling;
naked, come to thee for dress;
helpless, look to thee for grace;
foul, I to the fountain fly;
wash me, Saviour, or I die.

This is ‘old time religion’ indeed, and it, and the trusting faith I so often encountered in South Africa, seem a million miles from our modern, sophisticated lives here in Barnes. Yet, have we lost something vital as a result of our supposed sophistication? Have we forgotten to be honest to God, and honest with ourselves, about our own need for healing? Have we let ourselves be fooled into thinking that we are just fine as we are, with no need to change our habits and preconceptions in any way?

The challenge of these stories is not just to associate ourselves with Christ or Elisha. To say that we too would reach out our hand and touch the unclean – be they lepers or AIDs victims – important as that is. It is to recognise that we too need healing. We too need to recognise that we are desperate people, who need to be made whole again. We too need to be released from our pride and our fear, so that we may contemplate the radical healing which our world, our church and our communities need. We too are desperate for a cure that ultimately only Christ can give.

For it is in Christ alone that we are made whole. By him alone that our fears are destroyed. It is through his life, death and resurrection alone that we may make sense of an often senseless world. Let us be desperate for the cure, brothers and sister; not just for ourselves but for our world. And if we seek the cure honestly and fervently, then the cross of Christ assures us that he will do everything possible, and impossible, to give us and our world the healing we so desperately need. Amen.

All things to all people

This was the reflection I gave this morning at a service of holy communion at Putney Methodist Church. The set readings for today were: Mark 1:29-39 and 1 Corinthians 9:16-23.

1corinthians9-22-660x371“I have become all things to all people” (1 Cor. 9:23). It often surprises me as a I read the Bible to discover where particular sayings come from. I either didn’t know or had forgotten that it was St Paul who gave us the expression, “all things to all people” – or “all things to all men” as some of us may know it. I am reminded of an old lady who read Hamlet for the first time at the end of her life and complained that Shakespeare had just strung together lots of other people’s quotations!

What does that phrase mean to you? I think for many of us, it carries negative connotations, often meaning that we can’t trust a person’s sincerity. They will happily say one thing to one person, and something quite different to someone else. Most often perhaps, it is a saying that we have often applied to untrustworthy politicians. That is certainly what Abraham Lincoln seemed to imply when he said that, “It is easiest to be all things to all men, but it is not honest. Self-respect must be sacrificed every hour in the day.”

To Paul, though, it meant something very different. For him it was most definitely a positive attribute, suggesting that he could reach out to a much wider range of people, in all situations. To Jew and Gentile, slave and free, rich and poor. He was breaking down the traditional barriers that divided up the world in which he lived. He was ultimately seeking to live out the true meaning of his wonderful promise that, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

IMG_2151.JPGWhen I read the passage, it immediately reminded me of an experience during my ministerial training. While at college, all the trainees were expected to spend a short time engaged with some form of chaplaincy work – hospital, industrial, prison, etc. With a group of others, I spent time with those engaged in military chaplaincy. Specifically, I spent time with the RAF chaplains at the Marham air base in East Anglia. It was a fascinating experience and I learned a great deal from the humility and quiet witness of the chaplains I met.

480x480_branch_chaplaincyI learned that the military chaplains in the three services operate in a slightly different way, though. Chaplains in the army and the RAF take a rank – captain, major, squadron leader, etc. – and are gradually promoted over time, to reflect their experience and service. They subsequently wear the insignia and marks of rank on their uniforms. Naval chaplains, however, do not have any rank. They take on the rank of the person to whom they are speaking. So, if they’re speaking to a mechanical officer in the engine room of a submarine, they take on hir or her rank. If they’re chatting with a rating in the galley, they are a rating. If they’re addressing the Admiral of the Fleet, then they are an admiral! They truly are “all things to all people”.

Now, of course, this system – like all systems – has its positive and negative aspects, and the chaplains from the different services will argue each one’s merits. It’s very hard, if not impossible, for any of us to set aside our identity and background completely. It is a constant challenge for those involved in all aspects of ministry. How can I put aside all my own preconceptions and prejudices to engage with someone absolutely honestly, while retaining my own sense of self?

pauls4missionaryjourneys-01Yet, to my mind, the system adopted by the naval chaplains is the one that most closely seems to resemble Paul’s example. If we think about Paul’s extensive missionary journeys round the Mediterranean, after his conversion, as recorded in Acts and the epistles, that is what he tried to do. To the faithful and pious Jews he encountered, he was a strict and faithful Jew, able to engage in deep and learned debate about the holy scriptures (Acts 22:3). To Gentiles, seeking out the truth of Jesus and his gospel, he was open and friendly, willing to eat and share their food and engage in table fellowship (Gal. 2:11-13). To slaves, he was willing to treat them as his equals and to share the gospel with them freely – reminding them of his status as a slave of Christ (Phil. 1:1). To other folk, he was simply another stallholder – a tentmaker – in the marketplace of Corinth, always willing to chat with people who came to his bench and tell them stories about Jesus (Acts 18:1-4). To the women washing clothes outside the city in the river, he was someone who took an interest in their lives and their work, and was willing to engage with them – to great effect (Acts 16:11-15). He tried to meet everyone where they were and to treat them as his equals.

duccio_maesta_blinde_grtIn his turn, of course, Paul was treading in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. In our reading from Mark this morning, we heard how Jesus engaged with people where they were and met their particular needs and expectations – a preacher, a teacher, a healer. In the gospels we read how he engaged with different people in different ways: how he helped Peter’s mother-in-law was not how he challenged Nicodemus, the learned pharisee, and, in turn, not how he spoke to the Roman Centurion. Most importantly, in all of Jesus’ ministry, we see God engaging with people as they were. God made flesh and blood, so that he could talk with us as an equal, and we might understand his message. As Paul wrote elsewhere, in the letter to the Philippians: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” (Phil. 2:5-7)

The challenge for us as followers of Christ is how can we, like Paul, follow that example. It is a constant challenge for all Christians, and all churches, to be all things to all people yet retain our identity. How also do we serve God’s people when their needs are so diverse and diffuse? During our recent Bible study on James, I was extremely conscious that we had some people in the same group who had been studying and reading the scriptures all of their lives, while others had never opened a Bible! When our church and community, contain so many different backgrounds and needs, how can we manage to be “all things to all people”?

st_paul_preaching_in_athens_001One answer is that we have to “bear with one another” (Col. 3:13) and “encourage one another and build up each other” (1 Thess 5:11), as Paul advises the early churches. We need to recognise that while we may need deeper scriptural engagement and opportunities for theological argument, other brothers and sisters may need something far more basic. We also need to recognise that this cannot be the job of the minister or pastor alone. That each of us have different gifts and graces, and different backgrounds and experiences. Together, as a church, we can be many things to many people, because we are fortunate enough to be so different and diverse.

Most importantly, we need to remember that our small community need not necessarily be “all things to all people” all the time. We are part of a much, much greater universal church that exists in every corner of the globe. There are churches that specialise in ministry to refugees, to migrants, to inner cities, to prisons, and so on and so forth. Collectively, we can be “all things to all people”, therefore. The challenge for us is to ask ourselves, which bits of God’s world are we meant to serve? As we discuss our mission plan in the coming weeks and months, we can ask ourselves, if we are not called to be all things to all people, can we be ‘something to some people’? Who is it that we are meant to serve here and now? What opportunities has God given us to serve the Kingdom?

Perhaps the key phrase we heard today, though, comes a few sentences earlier in the passage, where Paul says, “woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:16). We all know that there is a constant danger of churches turning inwards on themselves, and forgetting the calls of mission and evangelism. I am often asked the question whether the world needs the gospel at all, whether we even need to attempt to be “all things to all people”. My answer is always an emphatic ‘yes’! Like those first Galileans who flocked to hear Jesus, people today need the hope, the love and the joy that the gospel brings. Open up your newspapers, watch your televisions, speak to people on the bus, and you will hear the same need. The need to know that we are loved and cherished by a God who cares more for each one us than we can begin to imagine. Let us, therefore, take up Paul’s challenge today and every day, to be “all things to all people” so that we might be a blessing for God’s world and people. Amen.

Taming the tongue

This is the sermon I delivered this morning at Putney Methodist Church. We have been studying the book of James in the evenings at Putney this month. The texts were: Matthew 12:33-37 and James 3:1-12

maxresdefault“How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.” (James 3:5-7)

These are strong words from the book of James, and they may disquiet us somewhat. We are not really used to anyone talking about ‘fire’, ‘iniquity’ and ‘hell’ these days. Even if we agree the general drift of James’ argument about the potential evil caused by reckless talk, we may think he is over-egging the pudding somewhat. However, James is in good company with this hyperbolic, extreme language. His brother – and we have good reason to believe these words were written by Jesus’ brother, James – often did the same, when he wished to get his message across. We might think of Jesus’ warning about the perils of being tempted by what we see:

“if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire.” (Matthew 18:9)

Was Jesus really in favour of people wandering round with one eye just because they had cast an envious eye on their neighbour’s new house? No, I don’t think so, and as always we must hold such verses in tension with those where Jesus speaks of the unconditional love of God. What he did want to us to do, though, is to take his message seriously and to reflect deeply on what it is in our lives that caused us to sin, thereby separating ourselves from God and our neighbour. Like many contemporaries, therefore, he used extreme language to grab his hearers’ attention and to ensure his words were remembered.

In the same way, we can hear his brother James using this kind of extreme language to grab his readers’ attention. He doesn’t just use extreme language to do that, though, he also produces some of the most wonderful mental images in the New Testament. Metaphors that immediately conjure up pictures in our minds, and again ensure his words are remembered. Think of the three we heard this morning in the third chapter of James:

“If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies.” (James 3:3)

“Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.” (James 3:4)

“How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.” (James 3:5-6)

62c63bf4f6191ae369c3a806da71b48cAll of these were meant not only to drive the force of James’ point home but to ensure it was remembered too: the terrible damage that can be caused by the tongue.

In using these images and strong language about the tongue in particular, James was very much following a strong tradition from the Old Testament. As we have studied James this month in our evening services, one of the points that has come across repeatedly is how James acts as a bridge between the Old and New Testaments, reminding us of the continuity of God’s message in our holy scriptures. In particular, James follows very closely in the great Wisdom tradition of the Bible. In the book of Sirach, a book that is found in the Apocrypha in Protestant Bibles, we find these words, again conjuring up very clear mental images:

“The blow of a whip raises a welt,
but a blow of the tongue crushes the bones.
Many have fallen by the edge of the sword,
but not as many as have fallen because of the tongue.”
(Sirach 28:17-18)

Or a little later in the same book:

“As you fence in your property with thorns,
so make a door and a bolt for your mouth.
As you lock up your silver and gold,
so make balances and scales for your words.”
(Sirach 28:24-25)

In our call to worship today, we heard words from Psalm 15:

“O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?
Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,
and speak the truth from their heart;
who do not slander with their tongue,
and do no evil to their friends” (Psalm 15:1-3)

Or from that great repository of God’s wisdom, the book of Proverbs, we again find another fiery image:

“Scoundrels concoct evil,
and their speech is like a scorching fire.” (Proverbs 16:27)

Turning back to the book of Sirach – a book written around 200 years before the birth of Jesus – we find my favourite image:

“When a sieve is shaken, the refuse appears;
so do a person’s faults when he speaks.
The kiln tests the potter’s vessels;
so the test of a person is in his conversation.
Its fruit discloses the cultivation of a tree;
so a person’s speech discloses the cultivation of his mind.
Do not praise anyone before he speaks,
for this is the way people are tested.” (Sirach 27:4-7)

And all of this brings us back to Jesus, and the gospel reading we heard to today, where our Lord echoes Sirach’s metaphor about the tree and its fruit:

“Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit. … I tell you, on the day of judgement you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.’” (Matt. 12:33-37)

These concerns about the perils of the tongue and the dangers of ill-considered or hateful speech, therefore, are not something new to James. They run through almost our entire Bible.

Really, that should not surprise us, because James’ message is truly a timeless one. Ever since people have been able to speak, I am sure, they have been able to upset or hurt others by what they have said. We all know from our own lives that the old adage, “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,” simply does not ring true. We have all been hurt by what people said – and our children here today will sadly know all about this – and we have seen the damage that words have done to people. The same sins about which James, and the other Biblical writers, were so concerned still persist today: gossip, slander, lies, back-biting, name-calling, prejudice. The only difference today seems to be that we have found yet more and more ways of spreading this “restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8): tabloid journalism, Facebook, Twitter and so forth. Sadly, these innovations perfectly illustrate James’ concerns. They possess the power to do great things: to bring people together, to inform, educate and entertain. Yet, as we all know, they also possess the potential to promote lies, hatred and anger. As James observed, “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing” (3:10).

9534apocalypse_is_30_seconds_closer_say_doomsday_clock_scientistskkjpgThis week we were forcibly reminded of how a little thing like the tongue can set whole countries ablaze and create a “world of iniquity” (3:6). On Wednesday, Atomic Scientists moved their symbolic ‘Doomsday Clock’ forward by 30 seconds, to two minutes to midnight. This clock is re-set annually and the position of the hands is meant to indicate how grave these scientists perceive the risk to global civilisation to be. In 1953, the hands stood close to midnight after the US and the then USSR detonated their first thermonuclear weapons. In 1991, with the end of the Cold War, it went back to 17 minutes to midnight. This year, worryingly, the hands have returned to two and half minutes to midnight, indicating how dangerous they perceive our current situation to be. They cited a number of reasons for their decision, including the actions of North Korea, the failure to act over climate change and the lack of effective 99752187_mediaitem99752186arms control negotiations. However, they also singled out specifically the tweets and statements of President Trump – something we are all too familiar with but now – as an important factor in their decision. His highly personal attacks on North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, using the childish nickname ‘rocket man’, have threatened “fire and fury” against the nation, and vowed to “totally destroy” Pyongyang, while bragging that his nuclear arsenal was bigger than anyone else’s. If we wanted a better example of “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!” (3:5), then I cannot think of one!

btep0dbiaaaxzqYesterday, we had another example of the global impact of the power of the tongue, as we marked Holocaust Memorial Day. This is the day we recall all the genocides of the Twentieth Century. That is not only the Holocaust, or Shoah, that involved the death of six million Jews, and thousands of communists, homosexuals, Roma, trades unionists, and others. It also urges us to remember the tragedies in Armenia, Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. Genocidal acts where millions of people were killed, solely because of their ethnicity or identity. Crimes against humanity whose scale and brutality we can scarcely begin to understand. Crimes which we, as a global community, daily stand the risk of repeating, as the situation of the Rohingya in Burma demonstrates.

the_ten_stages_of_genocide_poster.pdf copyThere is a real temptation to regard all of these events as things too big and too distant for us to contemplate or understand. Yet, the words of James ring true in reminding us that evil of this kind begins with our tongues. That such a small instrument as our tongue is capable of shaping the events and history even of a whole planet. The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust has produced a most useful illustration of how genocides happen: ‘The Ten Stages of Genocide’. As it goes on, it involves increasing levels of sophistication and organisation: the arming of militias, the setting up of death camps, etc. But note where it begins: it starts with ‘Classification’ – “The differences between people are not respected. There’s a division of ‘us’ and ‘them’, which can be carried out using stereotypes, or excluding people who are perceived to be different.” As we have been so often reminded, genocide and mass slaughter never begin with gigantic military parades or concentration camps. They begin with the sin of a single human heart. They begin with the lies of a single tongue – a tongue that “sets on fire the cycle of nature” (3:6) and turns good people into crazed maniacs, willing to kill, maim and destroy people who only a few days ago were their neighbours. Again, we are reminded of the prescient words of James, who makes it clear that we can never say we love God with our heart, while we hate our neighbour with our tongue: “With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.” (3:9)

Now more than ever, brothers and sisters, we need to heed this ancient text of James, for its message is all too modern and contemporary. I hope you would now agree that the force of his language is truly justified, given the deadly consequences of ignoring his words. The words of a man who had seen his own brother hailed by the crowd on Palm Sunday with shouts of ‘Hosanna’, only to witness his unwarranted condemnation a few days later by the same tongues crying, “Crucify!’.

All of us must recognise that we way we speak about one and another reflects who we truly are. If we claim to follow Christ with our hearts, then we have to demonstrate it with our tongues. If, as James reminds us, we have been given tongues capable of both blessing and cursing, then let us bless one another. Let us use our tongues to build one another up, not knock each other down. Let us use them to encourage and offer words of consolation and hope to one another, not backbite or complain. Let us think before we speak and recall the terrible examples from human history, where lies – like a forest fire – have leapt too easily from tongue to tongue, and nearly devoured the world. Let us recall our high calling as disciples of Christ to reject all prejudice, all name calling and discrimination. Let us listen with humility to James’ words, and use our tongues solely to the glory of God and to the service of all his people. Amen.