Oscar Romero: an outspoken saint

This is the sermon I preached today at Holy Trinity Roehampton Anglican Church, part of the Roehampton Ecumenical Parish. The set texts for this this day were Hebrews 5:1-10 and Mark 10:35-40. It was inspired, though, by the recent canonisation of the Central American priest and martyr Oscar Romero.

James and John in our lesson today dream of glory and power. They have seen the enormous crowds that Jesus draws, witnessed his miracles and can bask in the glow of his popularity. Like too many women and men over the centuries, they think too much of the benefits of following a great leader and too little of the costs. Jesus warns them, though about the realities of what they are asking for (Mark 10:38):

But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptised with the baptism that I am baptised with?”

Ceremonia de Canonización de Monseñor Romero.Last week in Rome, enormous crowds gathered in St Peter’s Square to celebrate the life of a man who sought to follow in the footsteps of Christ but who paid the ultimate price for his discipleship. A man who truly drank the cup of sorrow and suffering that Christ drank from, and who, in so many ways, gave “his life [as] a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). I am, of course, talking about the Central American priest and martyr, Oscar Romero, who was formally canonised last Sunday by Pope Francis. Saints and priests do not always figure highly in Methodist theology but Romero is a truly inspiring figure, from whom I believe we have much to learn.

Archbishop Oscar Romero, as he would eventually become, was born in 1917 in the impoverished Central American country of El Salvador. Before he was born, and during his lifetime, El Salvador endured chronic political and economic instability characterised by coups, revolts, and a succession of authoritarian rulers. Ultimately, this culminated in the devastating Salvadoran Civil War (1979–1992), which was fought between the military-led government and a coalition of left-wing guerrilla groups. Needless to say, it was, as always, the poor and marginalised who suffered most during these conflicts and even today the country continues to struggle with high rates of poverty, inequality and crime.

Picture2Romero was born in a poor, eastern province of El Salvador, and was one of seven children. He had a very basic schooling and his father taught him the noble skill of carpentry, as he thought he should have a trade in life. Early on, though, he displayed a vocation to the priesthood, and entered a seminary aged 13. After studying in Rome during the Second World War, he took up a simple parish priesthood and then served in the large city of San Miguel for 20 years before becoming a bishop, and ultimately Archbishop of the capital, San Salvador in 1979.

When he became Archbishop, many people in El Salvador were disappointed. They thought he was too bookish, too intellectual, too conservative. This may have been true but but his experiences among the poor and needy had changed him. In particular, one incident affected Romero deeply just a month after his appointment. That was the assassination of Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit priest and personal friend of Romero, who had been working diligently among the poor. Romero later stated: “When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead, I thought, ‘If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path’.”. Grande’s murder led to Romero revealing an activism that had not been evident earlier, speaking out against poverty, social injustice, assassinations and torture. A little later he would he make a famous speech that included words which still challenge all of God’s Church – including us here – today:

In less than three years, more than fifty priests have been attacked and threatened. Six are already martyrs – they were murdered. … But it is important to note why [the Church] has been persecuted. Not any and every priest has been persecuted, not any and every institution has been attacked. That part of the church has been attacked and persecuted that put itself on the side of the people and went to the people’s defence. Here again we find the same key to understanding the persecution of the church: the poor.

(Óscar Romero, Speech at the Université catholique de Louvain, Belgium, 2 Feb 1980.)

Picture3Meanwhile, national events were rapidly over-taking Romero and his country. In 1979, the Revolutionary Junta came to power amidst a wave of human rights abuses by paramilitary right-wing groups and the government in an escalation of violence that would soon become the Salvadoran Civil War. Romero criticized the United States for giving military aid to the new government and protested to President Jimmy Carter personally, but in vain.

Picture4Whilst others would have kept their heads down in such a difficult situation, Romero spoke out more and more about the terrible injustices he witnessed every day. In particular, he used the Catholic Church’s national radio station to preach a weekly sermon that soon garnered audiences of around 60% of the population. One reason for the sermons’ popularity was the fact that it was one of the very few places where people could actually hear what was going on in their nation. In these sermons, he would list disappearances, tortures, murders and much more each Sunday. The only time he stopped was when the radio station itself was bombed off the air, which happened more than once.

assassination_of_oscar_romeroUltimately, those in power decided that they had had enough of this ‘turbulent priest’. On the 23rd March, he gave a public sermon in which he called on Salvadoran soldiers, as Christians, to obey God’s higher order and to stop carrying out the government’s repression and violations of basic human rights. The following evening, he was celebrating communion at a tiny chapel in a Catholic hospital in the city, when armed militia men burst in and shot the Archbishop, while he was holding the chalice to bless the wine. The blood of Christ and Romero’s blood mingled together on the altar. His murderers were never – and have never been – brought to justice.

Romero’s life and sacrifice have not been forgotten. His words and his example continue to inspire people across the world. Not long ago, St Alban’s Abbey – a place that I am fairly sure Romero never even knew existed – unveiled seven new statues of martyrs on their rood screen. (The first such statuary to be installed in an English Cathedral since the Reformation.) Oscar Romero is one of those martyrs.

Picture1In 2014, he was officially beatified by the Catholic Church in a ceremony in San Salvador that attracted a congregation of a quarter of a million people. To the people of El Salvador, he was already known as ‘San Romero’ – Saint Romero. As I said, last week in Rome that status was officially confirmed, when he was canonised in an open-air ceremony presided over by his fellow South American, Pope Francis. It is interesting to note, though, that this ceremony has been a long time coming. For too many in the establishment, his words about the church’s responsibility to the poor and his attacks on the rich and powerful remained simply too controversial.

Like many other martyrs, Romero had a choice about the direction of his life. As I said earlier, he was by nature a quiet, bookish man. It would have been very tempting for him to stay in his study or at the university, reading and writing, and leading a quiet life. Even as archbishop, it would have been relatively easy for him to remain quiet – to ignore quietly the wicked deeds perpetrated around him and stay on good terms with the various political leaders of the day.

That same choice has faced God’s leaders and people ever since the day of James and John. Too many church leaders – not least in the 20th and 21st centuries – have preferred the easy path of glory and power. They have forgotten the stern words of Jesus in today’s passage (Mark 10:43-45):

whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.

Picture5In Oscar Romero, we see someone who took those words to heart. A man who, in the words of our other passage from Hebrews, was “subject to weakness” (Hebrew 5:2) as we all are. But who, as a faithful priest in the order of Melchizidek, was not afraid to witness with his very lifeblood to the liberating message of Christ Jesus.

If any person deserves the accolade of saint, then I think Oscar Romero does. I pray that we may be worthy of his example and follow in his footsteps of fearless witness and Christ-like sacrifice. I close with his words now:

A church that does not provoke any crises, a gospel that does not unsettle, a word of God that does not get under anyone’s skin, a word of God that does not touch the real sin of society in which it is being proclaimed – what gospel is that?

And the people say: Amen!

Picture6

Forgiveness and repentance

This is the sermon I delivered at Barnes Methodist Church on Prison Sunday. This is the Sunday each year that churches of all denominations are invited to reflect upon the life and work of our prisons, and all those affected by crime – both victims and perpetrators.

methode2ftimes2fprod2fweb2fbin2f400f9442-bbc7-11e6-a53a-ca2ad7b229f9Introduction

On this Prison Sunday, there are many text to which we could turn but I have chosen one from the Old Testament and one from the New that are linked by theme of forgiveness and repentance.

The first is from the prophet Jeremiah, who for once he is not being a complete misery! Throughout most of the book, Jeremiah has consistently been warning those in authority (both civil and religious figures) that disaster is imminent and the Babylonians will descend up Jerusalem and destroy it. Like so many speakers of truth to power over the millennia, he was consistently ignored. In fact, he had his prophecies burnt in front of him by the king and thrown into prison! Of course, though, he was proved right. The Babylonians invaded, sacked Jerusalem and took all of those in authority into forced exile.

In our reading today, Jeremiah writes to these exiles, after the disaster, and offers them words of warning and consolation. He warns them not to believe false prophets and rumours: they will remain in Babylon for seventy years – they must serve their sentence for their failure to heed God’s commands and prophets. At the end of that period, though, there shall be relief and redemption, as we shall hear.

The second reading, as so often, is much more familiar. Relatively early on in his ministry, Jesus, who has made a name for himself by preaching and healing, is invited to the house of a Pharisee, Simon. We must be very careful with our, often stereotyped, view of Pharisees. They were generally good, devout people, who wished to take their religion and their charity seriously. In fact, Jesus often behaved like a Pharisee himself – but that is the subject of another sermon! Instead, the focus here is upon Jesus’ attitude toward a sinful woman. Who this woman was and what she had done precisely are not important, else they would have been recorded by the gospel writer. The focus here is Jesus’ explicit comments about the need for forgiveness and the opportunities for redemption.

Readings

Jeremiah 29:10-14 (Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles)

For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfil to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.

Luke 7:36-50 (A sinful woman forgiven)

30194a_31b73c173d534b9b9f6ffbbd01edd620mv2One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment.

Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.’ Jesus spoke up and said to him, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you.’ ‘Teacher,’ he replied, ‘speak.’ ‘A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?’ Simon answered, ‘I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You have judged rightly.’

Then turning towards the woman, he said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.’ Then he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’

 Sermon

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen

A few weeks ago, I enjoyed one of those excellent guided walking tours of London. There are many different themed walks one can enjoy: spies, Harry Potter, Dickens, etc. This one was all about the grisly subject of ghosts and murders around the Lincoln’s Inn area – most enjoyable! The one fact that remained with me from this tour was that there used to be a place of execution near the site of Holborn Underground Station, where gallows were periodically erected throughout the year and criminals strung up. On such days, all the apprentices of the City of London were given the day off and encouraged to watch the execution, in order to learn a good moral lesson about the perils of wrong-doing. Such a day off was a welcome break, of course, and was known as a ‘gallows day’ – or as it soon became known a ‘gala’ day. So, next time you read about, or even attend, a gala concert or event, remember the gruesome origins of the word!

small_tyburn_tree_1Strange and morbid as it may seem to us, we know from literature and other sources that public executions throughout history have been incredibly popular events. From the crowds thronging the streets of London to watch prisoners strung up at Tyburn tree, to the mob gathered round the guillotine in Paris during the Terror of the French Revolution.

Indeed, when I taught English in China – many years ago now – I remember one of my students telling me how their entire class at secondary school had been bussed to see an execution in the local sports stadium. Not much of a school trip!

We may consider ourselves to be far removed from such ghoulish tourism but we cannot disguise the all too human feelings of satisfaction at wrong-doers receiving their just desserts. We may not wish to see them strung up, but it is deeply satisfying at the end of a book or film to know that justice has been done and the villain has come to a suitably gruesome end. As Miss Prism observed in The Importance of Being Earnest: “The good end happily; the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.”

We see such emotions very clearly in the Bible. At the minute we are studying the book of Psalms in the evenings at Putney, and repeatedly there we find the psalmists expressing their desire for God to punish those who are oppress them, including those incredibly difficult verses at the end of Psalm 137.

Our feelings are greatly amplified, of course, if we ourselves have been the victims of the crime perpetrated. To have had our home burgled, our identity stolen online, or worse. As Christians we are called to stand in absolute solidarity with such victims, and to uphold the commandments of a God whose primary characteristic is absolute justice.

Yet the all too understandable human desire for punishment and the divine imperative of justice, are always balanced in scripture by the call for repentance and forgiveness. And it is vital that we understand the difference and the relationship between the two.

 Our story from the gospels, perfectly illustrates the call to forgiveness. It is a message with which we are very familiar with, and chimes with so much of what we know of Christ’s teaching. Jesus told numerous stories and parables to illustrate his teaching, and the injunction that we must repeatedly forgive those who wrong us, “even seven times seventy.” (Matt. 18:22). On the cross itself, Christ asked God to forgive those who had crucified him, even as he suffered the full agonies of that particularly horrible form of public execution, thereby setting us the ultimate example to emulate (Luke 23:34).

JeremiahThat final example, in particular, illustrates that the forgiveness of God is always available to all. We find such teachings repeatedly in our Bible and our reading from Jeremiah is a good example. The people and their leaders have sinned against God and against one another, and are duly punished. Repeatedly, though, Jeremiah and the other prophets hold out the offer of God’s forgiveness. They will not be estranged forever, he promises: “Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me” (Jer. 29:12-13).

However, it is clear that the offer of forgiveness requires a response. “When you search for me, you will find me”. It requires repentance. At its simplest in the Bible, ‘repentance’ simply means ‘turning round’ or choosing a different path. It is a deliberate and conscious response to the offer of forgiveness. A turning away from the sin that separates us from God and one another. It is the decision that the woman in our gospel reading made: a conscious decision to turn to God and seek forgiveness for her unnamed sin. It is the decision that the exiles in Jeremiah’s Babylon must make for themselves – to turn back to God.

repentance-turning-around-1021x1024A more contemporary example of what I am saying might be that wonderful organisation, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). It has often been said that the church should be more like an AA meeting and I would agree wholeheartedly. Indeed, AA meetings, with their patterns of self-regulation and mutual accountability, resemble nothing so much as an early Wesleyan class meeting. I once accompanied an alcoholic whom we had been trying to help at one of my churches to an AA meeting. They welcomed us both but it soon became clear that the man I had brought was not ready to be there. He had not made that crucial decision, which is vital for anyone suffering from addiction, to ‘repent’ – i.e. to turn his life around. As they explained to him and me afterwards, they can accompany and help him as best they can (and their pattern of pastoral support for one another puts ours to utter shame) but without that crucial decision on his part to turn and be changed, no one could help him.

In that case, by God’s grace, he was fortunately able to make that decision and so began what the AA calls the ‘12 Steps’ programme (something you may be familiar with). This is a well-trodden and much respected pathway out of addiction and back to wholeness. It calls upon people to recognise the true nature of the situation they are in and turn their lives around. Steps 8 and 9 specifically involve acts of repentance, demonstrating that their commitment to the decision they have made. “We …

  1. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  2. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”

To be truly forgiven, there must be a sincere attempt to undo some of the harm that we have done through our actions.

One of the challenges, the church has often faced is the confusion between these two concepts of forgiveness and repentance. When I lead safeguarding training, it is regularly identified as one of the barriers to good practice and one of the reasons that the Church has too often got things so badly wrong. Individuals and Christian communities have recognised that someone has done something wrong – often against the most vulnerable and needy in our society – but through misplaced notions of forgiveness have simply ignored the problem or covered it up. “We must forgive, as Jesus forgave,” they have said, allowing the perpetrator to continue doing what they are doing and effectively silencing their victims. The scriptures are absolutely clear, though, that the universal offer of forgiveness does not mean that people can get away with doing whatever they want. In the most extreme example, it is not God’s will that we say to a serial killer, “You are forgiven,” when the person has shown no indication that he wishes to stop murdering people or any remorse for his victims!

forgivenessTo take a practical example of what I am trying to say, I would cite a young woman whom I counselled on one occasion. She had had a terrible childhood and stepparents who should have cared for her, abused their position horrendously. They left scars through their mistreatment that will never disappear – an all too familiar story, sadly. Fortunately, she had found a loving church community who supported her as best they could, and she made a decision to turn to Christ and embrace a new life through baptism. As part of that process she made a conscious decision to forgive those who had harmed her so badly. She did this, at least in part, in order that she should be able to get on with his own life – and we all know people who have lived with hatred and bitterness all their life, and it is has ended up doing them more harm than the offender. She wished to try, at least, to empty her heart of the anger and bitterness that she so justifiably felt against them. But this was no ‘get out of gaol free’ card. These people had done terrible things and this young woman could not offer them the free forgiveness of God, without any sign of remorse or repentance on their part. Nor did her decision take away the possibility of legal proceedings in the future, if there were sufficient evidence to prosecute. God’s forgiveness was on offer to even them but there needed to be true repentance first and, potentially, a facing of the consequences of their actions before true reconciliation would ever be possible.

On Prison Sunday, what does this all mean for us? Well, we have to say that Christians believe in prison, because they believe in justice. We must be careful not to misquote or misinterpret passages or verses – like Paul’s imprisonment in Acts 12:3–19 – which speak of prison doors being opened for those wrongly prosecuted or those imprisoned for their faith. In a modern democracy, such as the one we are lucky enough to live in, prisons serve an important part of our justice system, protecting the innocent and punishing crime. We should pray this day for all those who work in prisons and for those who administer justice on our behalf.

BUT on this day we also need to state emphatically that Christians believe in the potential for forgiveness and repentance too. As Jeremiah offered hope to the exiles in Babylon so long ago, so must there always be the eventual offer of redemption for all those imprisoned, however unpleasant their crimes may be. We can never join those baying crowds round the gallows, revelling in the suffering of others nor resort to the simplistic cry of, “Lock ‘em up and throw away the key!”. We must support all those who seek to work for the genuine rehabilitation of offenders, giving them the opportunity for real repentance: prison chaplains, education services and charities like the Wandsworth Community Chaplaincy Trust (which this church supports), to name but a few.

UK - England - PrisonSadly, this will put us into conflict with many in our society and many in power. Understandably, very few people wish to spend money on prisoners or prioritise their needs over those of the NHS and education. Yet, if we are serious about the possibility of repentance, then we have to put our money where our mouth is. We must recognise the ungodly waste of human life that too often results from a total lack of concern for prisoners or an unspoken desire for them never to have even the possibility of repentance.

All those involved in our prison service – even the government minister in charge – have long recognised the massive problems caused in our prison system by over-crowding and under-funding. Too many people are simply being thrown on the rubbish heap of life, with no chance whatsoever of turning their lives around. Education services, health and counselling services, and prison libraries are all facing devastating cuts, and prison chaplains are being overwhelmed as they desperately try to support both prisoners and staff.

If we are serious about our faith, then we can never simply let people rot in prison. Even Jeremiah’s exiles knew the hope of eventual forgiveness and redemption. On this Prison Sunday, we must make our voices heard as Christ’s followers to speak out for those who have no voice in our society. To speak out both for the need for justice for the victims of crime, and the possibility of repentance and forgiveness for those who offend.

We are a people who believe in second chances. We are a people who know that the forgiveness of Christ is always on offer. We are a people who believe that repentance is possible for everyone. The woman kneeling at Christ’s feet 2,000 years ago found that out for herself. Let us lead lives that reflect that glorious hope, this Prison Sunday and always.  Amen.

magdalenejesusfeethair

 

One flesh

staying-married-is-not-about-staying-in-love-part-1-6v1g54bgThis is the sermon I delivered today at Putney Methodist Church. The set text, which is reproduced below, was Mark 10:2-16.

Introduction

The lectionary is the name that we give to the scripture readings appointed for regular acts of public worship across the Christian Church. Every Sunday of the year, there are set passages from the Old and New Testaments that are meant to be read and upon which preachers are expected to expound. It is a good system, generally, and one which should ensure that you do not just hear the preacher’s favourite passages time and again, and that we gain a more complete picture of our Biblical canon.

However, it does mean that on certain Sundays, preachers and ministers across the country will look at the set readings and groan inwardly at the readings about which they are expected to produce a sermon. Today is definitely one of those Sundays!

Today’s reading from the gospel of Mark needs to come with a pastoral health warning because it tackles a very sensitive issue. As we will hear in a moment, Jesus is asked by some of his contemporaries for his views on divorce, and he responds in extremely robust terms. I know only too well that this is an issue which will affect many in this congregation today, either directly or indirectly. For many, I also know that it will provoke painful and disturbing memories.

For that reason, I was sorely tempted to change today’s reading and tackle an easier, and less offensive, passage. During our time of prayer here on Wednesday morning, though, when we usually read the passages for the coming Sunday and then spend some time in silence, I changed my mind. I reflected that these scriptures belong to us all, and as Christians we have a responsibility to wrestle with them, whether we like it or not. Jesus’ responses raises real questions about real people’s lives, and if we cannot discuss them here, then there is little point in our time together. With that health warning in place, let us hear from the gospel of Mark.

Text – Mark 10:2-16 (NRSV)

jesus-is-asked-questions-in-the-templeSome Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ He answered them, ‘What did Moses command you?’ They said, ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.” “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’

Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

Sermon

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Wedding rings on wooded backgroundShortly after I was ordained as a minster, I was approached by a couple – as I am from time to time – asking to be married in my church. I did not know them and so over the phone I asked for a few details. It transpired that they were an older couple, and that while the groom was a bachelor, she was a divorcee. At that time, I knew very little about marrying people, except what I had been taught during an hour’s class at theological college. One of the key messages I remembered, though, was that it was fine to marry people who had been divorced but that you needed to probe them a little more deeply about the circumstances of their life, than you would do with people who had never been married before.

So, the couple duly came round for a conversation in my front room and we had a very pleasant chat about their hopes for the big day, how they had met, etc. I knew, though, that at some point I would have to do as I had been told and ask the bride to be some probing questions. I duly put on my serious face, therefore, and asked about her previous marriage, why it had ended in divorce and, crucially, whether or not the gentleman sitting next to her on the sofa had played any part in that process. She replied with great honesty and humility, explaining how the marriage simply had not worked and how they had very sadly just ‘drifted apart’, several years before she had met her new fiancé.

I heaved an internal sigh of relief and with a smile on my face turned to the would-be groom: a much more straightforward case. “So, what’s made a bachelor like you, decide to tie the knot then?” I enquired. “Well, Reverend,” he replied, “I was sat with my two of my grandchildren the other day, and they wanted to know why I had lived with so many women and not married any of them.” My chin almost hit the floor!

I had made the mistake of doing what we so often do, and judging people by the labels we attach to them: bachelor, divorcee, single, unmarried. I had made assumptions about these individuals based on the limited information available to me. I had forgotten that when talking about relationships, nearly all of us could use that Facebook status update: ‘It’s complicated’!

Our passage today brings together the complications of human relationships – with all their beauty, ugliness and subtlety – with another deeply complex challenge: the interpretation of scripture. In both cases, there is the temptation to produce neat, simplistic solutions or trite statements: divorce is always wrong, scripture is always right. But in both cases, the minute we scratch beneath the surface – as in the case of my wedding couple above – then we realise that things are immediately more complicated.

Thinking about the scriptures first, our text from Mark very neatly illuminates the immense challenges of prioritising certain verses of scripture over others. Here, we read Jesus in one part of the Bible, the gospels, quoting from another part of the Bible, Genesis (Mark 10:6, quoting Gen. 2:24), saying that a third part of the Bible, Deuteronomy (10:4, quoting Deut. 24:1-4), is wrong. This is in addition to the fact that elsewhere in Mark’s gospel, Jesus explicitly endorses the teachings and traditions of Moses (Mark 1:44, 7:10).

cropped-the-holy-bibleVery often, when we interpret scripture, what we are actually doing is saying that one part of our Bible is more important than another, and we must be aware of the consequences of such an approach. Over the millennia, this sort of ‘selective fundamentalism’ has been used to justify the slave trade, the burning of synagogues and the persecution of nearly every minority under the sun. If we aspire to be a ‘people of the book’ and wish to claim the name of Christian, then we have a duty to know and understand our own scriptures. To appreciate their complexity and to study them diligently and humbly.

When we turn to the seemingly even more complex field of human relationships, then the situation appears even harder. If we concentrate on the single issue of divorce that is raised by our passage today, then each of us here will have multiple insights and responses. On the one hand, many of us will have great sympathy with Jesus’ resolute response that divorce is wrong. All of us here will know people who have suffered from divorce, families that have been torn apart and individuals who have been wronged – perhaps ourselves. Before training for the ministry, I worked as a civil servant at Parliament. Some of my colleagues were regularly involved with initiatives to engage the public with the legal and democratic process, and one year they had a competition for children to suggest the piece of legislation they would most like to see made law. They were expecting rather silly suggestions like making chocolate free or banning school. Instead, the overwhelming winner was a bill to outlaw divorce. The result troubled my colleagues deeply, and should make us all pause for thought. Our passage brings together Jesus’ apparent views on divorce and children, and the sad truth is that it is innocent children who almost invariably suffer most in family breakdowns.

On the other hand, all of us here will also know situations where divorce was the right thing to do for all concerned. Marriages that involved abuse, harm, deceit, the complete breakdown of communications, to name but a few circumstances. The Methodist Church has recognised this for many years now – indeed it agreed to allow some divorcees to remarry under certain circumstances in 1946. By the 1990s the vast majority of people getting married in our churches were divorcees. More recently, it has – like all major denominations – held a number of consultations on how it should respond to requests for same-sex marriage. During the most recent one, when I helped to convene a number of focus groups in Hertfordshire, what was interesting was how many people when talking about the subject of marriage believed that the church had “got it right” on the question of divorce. In each group, and indeed in nearly every Methodist chapel that I visit, I can almost guarantee that there will be one couple who are there because, “The Methodists would let us get married in church, when no one else would.”. The Church had responded sympathetically to their pain and sense of rejection, and given them the fresh start they needed. Surely, the gospel of Christ is a gospel of second chances.

How then are we to respond to today’s texts? Can it provide us with any clues to how we tackle to the other thorny issues we face today? Well, let me leave you with three suggestions.

First, we must always recognise the context in which our scriptures are written. As the popular adage reminds us: ‘a text without a context is just a pretext’. Jesus is not here being asked to write a theological summary of his views on marriage and divorce. Instead, people are trying to drag him into a contemporary dispute about the interpretation of traditional Jewish law and practice. They either wish to trick him into saying the wrong thing – much like Jeremy Paxman on ‘Newsnight’ – or get him to support their own preconceived views. Jesus refuses to fall into their trap. Instead, as he so often does, he draws our attention to those outside the conversation. In this case, many commentators believe, to the innocent women who risk being reduced to poverty and even prostitution because they no longer please their husbands. Note that in our passage today, no wife or woman is present at Jesus’ discussion with the pharisees. Even though they have most to lose from the practice of a “certificate of dismissal” (10:4), their voice is not represented. There are no clever divorce lawyers here: the men would always retain the home, the children and the money, no questions asked. There is no social security, and precious little opportunity for women to prosper outside marriage. This is the context into which Jesus speaks and we must recognise it.

We could say something similar about the verse from Genesis that Jesus quotes – “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” (10:7-8, quoting Gen. 2:24). Fairly simple stuff and easy to interpret, we could say. Except of course that this text is to be found amidst a book that specifically permits polygamy. Would anyone here wish to apply that ruling to our own time, I wonder? The truth is we cannot simply bring complex questions about human relationships, artificial intelligence, nuclear weapons or indeed any other subject, without recognising the context in which we are now living, and the context in which the texts we hold sacred were written.

Second, we need to acknowledge that Jesus gives individuals an individual answer, and we need to do the same. The straightforward answer we find to this question about divorce is not the same one that Jesus gives to the woman caught in adultery whom he encounters in John’s gospel (John 8:1-11). A woman caught committing a crime that none of Jesus’ contemporaries believed to be permissible and which is completely contradictory to all of the teachings of the Bible, yet whom Jesus seemingly acquits. The straightforward answer we find to this question about divorce is also not the same one that Jesus gives to the Samaritan woman he meets at the well (John 4:1-42). A woman who has had, “five husbands and the one you have now is not your husband” (John 4:18). She is not charged with adultery and thrown into the outer darkness where there is a wailing and gnashing of teeth: instead she is effectively commissioned as the first apostle to the Samaritans.

Jesus told people what they needed to hear. As his followers, we need to do the same. Sometimes, it is our job as Christians to challenge moral and ethical misbehaviour, and say very clearly and emphatically, “No, that is not right.”. “You should not get divorced, just because you fancy a younger, sexier wife.” “It is not right to abandon your partner when they become ill or lose their job.” “It is not right to place your own desires above the interests of your children.”

On others, though, we will need to say, “Yes, I understand.” “You made a mistake.” “You deserve a second chance.” Only through studying the scriptures as a whole – not just a few verses here and there – and by honest prayer and humility of heart, may we discern which path we are meant to take.

let_the_little_children_come_unto_jesusThird, and finally, we must recognise that the key to understanding this passage, and arguably all passages in the Bible, lies in those last four sentences of our reading today. We are told there that if we wish to be part of God’s Kingdom of Heaven, then we must receive it “as a little child” (10:15). In other words, we must receive God and his Word with the humility to admit that we do not have the monopoly of God’s truth and cannot begin to comprehended the wonders of his grace. We must receive it with the willingness to admit that we make more mistakes and hurt more people through our ignorance and selfishness, than we ever would like to admit. We must receive it with the recognition that, whatever age we may be, we still have so much to aspire to, in order to become the people that Christ wishes us to be. And as all children should, we must know deep in our own hearts that however imperfect our world may be, Christ meets us where we are, with all our faults and flaws, embraces us, just as we are, and wishes to take us by the hand and lead us on to a newer and deeper understanding of his grace and love.

Brothers and sisters, let us approach this table today with the humility of a child. Let us acknowledge our all too human weakness before the God who made us. Let us seek the divine guidance of the Holy Spirit who fills us with his power. And let us receive the unconditional grace of our Saviour, Jesus Christ, who died upon a cross of pain for each one us – just as we are – to bring all of his children into the Kingdom of God. Amen.

To whom can we go?

This is the sermon I preached this morning at Putney Methodist Church. The set readings were Psalm 84 and John 6:52-69. Sorry that there have not been too many blog posts lately: my colleagues have all been on sabbatical or holiday lately, and it has all been a bit too much at times!

img_1703Our readings today come from two very different places within the canon of our Bible. They come from different times – they were written something like 500 to 1,000 years apart. They come from different places – Jerusalem and probably somewhere in Asia Minor. And they come from two very different Biblical genres – a Hebrew hymn of praise for use in the great Temple of Jerusalem (a psalm) and a Greek-style biography of Jesus Christ, written when that Temple had already lain in ruins for decades. In the extracts we have heard today, they also represent two very different responses to the challenges of following the same elusive God.

The psalmist (whomever he may be) speaks of the sincere joy of pilgrims as they crossed the threshold of the great Temple in Jerusalem. We think this psalm would have been sung as part of a festival, perhaps one associated with the harvest in autumn. Those of you who have travelled to Jerusalem know it is a long and dusty climb up to the city and that the ancient Temple, in all its glory, dominated the surrounding valley and city. In Jesus’ time, the pilgrims, we are told, were literally dazzled into near blindness by the blinding white of the marble and the brilliant gold decoration that covered the building, as it caught the dawn’s rays.

This psalm of praise represents in so many ways, therefore, a high point – both literally and metaphorically. After a long and arduous journey, the pilgrims ascending Mount Zion can sing with absolute assurance of their faith and joy in the Lord:

For a day in your courts is better
   than a thousand elsewhere.
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
   than live in the tents of wickedness.
For the Lord God is a sun and shield;
   he bestows favour and honour.
No good thing does the Lord withhold
   from those who walk uprightly.
O Lord of hosts,
   happy is everyone who trusts in you. (Psalm 84:10-12)

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The Tent of the Ungodly?

There is no doubt or scepticism here. No fear or confusion. No room for questioning. Even though we are poor and lowly, the pilgrims sing, we would still rather be here, than enjoying all the privileges of wealth and rank in those ungodly tents!

I hope that, at least once in our lives, we have known that same ‘high point’ of faith. A moment when we were absolutely sure of ourselves and our beliefs. A moment when we knew the comforting presence of God. A moment when we could truly say that, “God is in his heaven and all is right with the world”. Perhaps we might think back to our confirmation as such a moment. For me, one such instance would be my ordination, when the presiding minister laid his hands upon my head and I seemed genuinely to feel the Spirit descend upon me. It is those times of which many of our hymns speak: “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine. O what a foretaste of glory divine!” or “Knowing you, Jesus, knowing you. There is no greater thing,” to name but two examples.

From our own experience, though, we also know that those moments are seemingly the exception and not the rule. Doubt, uncertainty and even envy are perhaps more commoner states of mind. We know this from scripture. A few pages before Psalm 84 in our Bibles, we find a startlingly different confession:

For I was envious of the arrogant;
   I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
For they have no pain;
   their bodies are sound and sleek.
They are not in trouble as others are;
   they are not plagued like other people. (Psalm 73:3-5)

This is one reason, I think, why the Psalms are so many Christians’ favourite part of the Bible. They are full of honesty, and we can truly say that all human life is there.

Jesus teachingThis honesty and doubt are precisely what we find at the end of our reading from John’s gospel. Here, as elsewhere, John provides us with added details, and the benefit of hindsight. Reading some of the other gospels, we could get impression that Jesus conducted some sort of triumphal presidential campaign tour through Galilee and Judea, enjoying uninterrupted success and endless praise. Here, though, we read about the difficulties he faced. Unlike a politician, he wasn’t telling people just what they wanted to hear. Rather, he was telling them the truth about himself, his relationship with God and some rather unpalatable home truths about themselves. The reaction was muted, to say the least:

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ … Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. (John 6: 60, 66)

If the psalm represents an absolute ‘high point’ of faith, then this is the corresponding low point. The reality of doubt and disbelief. Those moments in all our lives when we question what we think we know, and having any sort of faith or belief seems ridiculous. How foolish to believe in something that we cannot touch, or see, or even prove: the existence of God! Like the psalmist, we too see those who commit terrible crimes, or who exploit others, or who lie and cheat for a profession, not only getting away with their misdeeds but flourishing and prospering. The tents of the ungodly seem as attractive as ever, and we can question ourselves, and ask ‘well what is the point of doing right?’, of being kind to others, of going to church?

As followers of Jesus, we need to be clear that such low points are as much a part of every Christian’s journey as the high points. Indeed, numerous Christian writers have been explicit over the millennia: faith and doubt are two sides of the same coin, and one cannot exist without the other. Those who wrote the psalms knew both; the disciples in John’s gospel knew both; and even Christ himself knew both.

It is arguable even that if we have never experienced such moments of doubt nor the temptation to walk away from our faith, then we have not really understood the cost and challenges of discipleship. Those first disciples in John’s disciples who walked away were quite right: this teaching is difficult. The gospel challenges all the basest human instincts we often dare not name yet which still lurk within each heart here: greed, selfishness, envy, prejudice, pride. It is a teaching that calls for a wholehearted commitment to pursuing good, and serving our neighbour, whatever the cost to ourselves. It demands sacrifice and courage, to stand up for what is right and to deny what we know to be wrong. Who can accept it indeed? The wonder for me is not that those members of the crowd walked away from Jesus but that anyone stayed to listen to him at all!

nature backgroundI was thinking about all this on Friday, when I began to write this sermon on the train home from Harrogate, where I’d been for a couple of day’s break. An essential part of all train journeys now seems to be mass confusion about what is happening at any time, and this one was no exception. When I boarded the train, there was something of a mini stampede – I later discovered that (inevitably) a previous train had been cancelled – and as I struggled aboard I was asked repeatedly, “Is this the train to London?” or, “Is this platform 6?”. And then when you are aboard, you can hear people asking each other the same question and other ones: “Does this one stop at Stevenage?”; Is this coach B?”; “Is that MY seat?”. After we pulled away, a rather flustered woman came and sat in the seat opposite me: she was going to Wakefield but this train didn’t stop there, so collectively we had to work out how she was going to change and get there. She also told me about how she had done a similar thing before and got on a train that didn’t stop at her station, and had ended up doing a three-hour detour! It was all terribly complicated, but at least on this occasion the conductor took pity on her and let her stay on the train, and change at Sheffield. All of us, I am sure, have had similar experiences with train travel, involving cancelled trains, rail replacement bus services and the like. Indeed, one of my friends on her way up to Harrogate even had to take a completely different route owing to a ‘tractor on the line’ – a new one to me!

On such journeys, it seems as though there are only two things of which we can be certain: where we have come from, and where we must inevitably end up – however long or short it takes to get there. We know that there will be high points and low points; good moments and bad. There will be unexpected diversions and delays; we may end up travelling on a route we could never have possibly imagined before we set off. Yet those two points – our start and our finish – remain fixed and unchanging. And in between, how do we make sense of our experiences along the way? Where do we find purpose and meaning to the journey of our life? Like the apostles, we are inevitably drawn back to Christ:

So Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.’ (John 6: 67-69)

We follow in the footsteps of Peter, Andrew, and the rest of the disciples; following the ‘Way’ of Christ – as indeed Christianity was first known. And as we follow, like them, we stumble and fall. We are distracted and lose our path. Like them, we experience those high points of absolute faith and assurance; and those black moments of doubt and despair. Yet, in it all, I hope and pray that we too keep deciding for Christ: keep coming back to the only truth that can make sense of a world that too often seems senseless. Keep coming back to the cornerstones of our faith: our status as a created being, made in the very image of God; the unquestioning love of God, who sent the most precious thing he had in order that we might know the depths of that love; and, perhaps most importantly, the knowledge that there is nowhere we can go, not even the grave, where that love cannot and will not find us. Those are the words of eternal life that Christ offered to Peter and the disciples in John’s gospel, and which he offers to each one of us today. As we face the highs and lows of our life together, brothers and sisters, let us cling on to them this day and evermore. Amen.

Jonah 3: Jonah in perspective

This month, two of my churches are joining with hundreds of others across the country to mark Bible Month. This is a joint initiative by the Bible Society and the Methodist Church to encourage greater Biblical literacy and understanding. Each June, churches and individuals are being invited to study one book of the Bible in much greater depth than is usually possible in normal worship.

6979159895_8a8f4be133_bThis year, we are looking at the short – but very important – book of Jonah in the Old Testament. Over three weeks, in Bible study at Barnes and in evening worship at Putney, we are looking at three aspects of this fascinating part of our scriptures:

  • week 1: ‘Jonah in the whale’ (Jonah chapters 1-2)
  • week 2: ‘Jonah in Nineveh’ (Jonah 3-4)
  • week 3: ‘Jonah in perspective’ (considering Jonah’s impact on the New Testament and its broader themes)

 

After studying the text of Jonah in some detail, this week we are examining the over-arching themes and message of Jonah, as well as its impact upon the New Testament.

Key themes: what we learn from Jonah …

… about God

The most important things we learn from Jonah are really about the character and nature of God. There are a number of lessons that the reluctant prophet has to learn but we might highlight four of them:

jonah_mapFirst, you cannot run away from God! “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?” writes the psalmist (Psalm 139:7). Jonah has to learn this lesson for himself as he attempts to flee from God by taking a ship headed for the end of the world, or so it was thought (Tarshish). Yet, Jonah discovered what so many others have learned over the millennia: there is nowhere we can go – not even the realm of death itself – where God cannot find us.

Second, God is Lord and Maker of all creation. As we read through our Old Testament in chronological order (i.e. the order in which we believe it was written, not the canonical order in our modern Bibles), we can see a developing understanding of this fact amongst God’s people. When the author of psalm 86 writes, “There is none like you among the gods, O Lord,” (Psalm 86:8) we are left wondering a little about their theology! Monotheism actually developed gradually over time, as the Israelites slowly realised that their God was not just a local or national god, but the sole God of all time and space.

We can see this developing understanding in Jonah, in the wonderful conversation on the boat between the mariners and Jonah. The captain exhorts Jonah to “Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.” (Jonah 1:6). Note, “your god”. Eventually, both these mariners and the inhabitants of Nineveh, seemingly, will realise that Yahweh is their God too. Crucially, Jonah must come to realise that Nineveh is a city belonging to God too (Jonah 3:3): he is the God of the Assyrians as well.

Kennicott_Bible_305r.lThird, God continually holds justice and mercy in balance. The story of Jonah arguably rests upon this “theological crux” as one commentator puts it (Youngblood, 153). For God to be God he must be just. God cannot be arbitrary or vindictive, and God is not. In this story, both Jonah and the inhabitants of Nineveh act in ways that defy God and his commandments (although the exact sins of the Ninevhites are unclear); both deserve to be punished. Yet in both cases, God also shows them mercy. He does not carry out the sentence of divine judgement by drowning Jonah or destroying Nineveh. Instead, he offers them a second chance. One of Jonah’s chief complaints, and the central irony of the book, is that he does not believe that God should show the same mercy to Nineveh as God has done to himself!

Fourth, in a related point, God seemingly is capable of changing his mind. This idea is very shocking to many Christians and many would argue that this is a mis-reading of the text. As good students of our Bible, though, we cannot deny the fact that we repeatedly read of God seemingly changing his mind throughout the Old Testament: in fact, he does so about 27 times (Genesis 6:6, Exodus 32:14, 1 Sam. 15:11, etc.). How are we to understand such divine indecisiveness?

There are a number of facts to remember here, of course. We believe that God is omniscient, i.e. all-knowing, and so, it could be argued, God knows exactly what his creation is going to do before they do it. In this case, therefore, he already knew that the people of Nineveh were going to demonstrate true repentance, therefore they would be spared. We also believe that God is eternal, something that we find almost impossible to comprehend. God operates outside our notions of time and space, and cannot be confined to simplistic linear notions of causality. What the people of God understood as a divine change of mind, therefore, was simply their mis-perception of the divine nature, arguably.

Perhaps more significantly, though, it demonstrates that everyone has the opportunity to change their future. We often read in fiction about the power of ‘fate’ and ‘destiny’, and how people are trapped into a particular way of acting, or a pre-determined end to their lives. The story of Jonah – along with many others – demonstrates that that is a fallacy. With God, and most importantly with Jesus Christ, we all have the ability to change our destinies. There is always the opportunity to repent, to seek forgiveness for things we have done wrong, to escape from the evil situations in which we find ourselves. Everyone gets another chance with God.

… about insiders and outsiders

schlanger_jonah_prison_090913_820pxAs we have already noted, Jonah is very upset that God seems to be treating other nations with the same mercy that he extends to Israel. When we appreciate something of Assyrian history and the violence they meted out to their enemies (including Israel), then we may have some sympathy with the prophet’s perspective! The Assyrian kings conquered a huge empire with fire and the sword, and they showed little mercy to their own enemies. Yet the message of Jonah is that even these bloodthirsty warriors were somehow part of God’s creation and as worthy of his attention as Israel.

We have to be very careful how we interpret this point, though. There is absolute no denying that Israel has a special purpose and role in God’s divine plans for humanity in the Bible. To take but three examples at random:

  • Genesis 12:1-3 – “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’”
  • 7:6 – “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession.”
  • Psalm 135:4 – “For the LORD has chosen Jacob for Himself, Israel for His own possession.”

There is no Biblical basis for denying the unique role that Israel had, and arguably has, in God’s purposes. To do so risks an anti-Jewish, even anti-Semitic, interpretation of scripture.

However, it is also clear that in the Old Testament we see a developing role for Israel as a “light to the nations” (Isaiah 49:6) among the gentiles:

‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’

How Israelites should treat and regard gentiles, and the nations round about them, is often a controversial topic in the Old Testament. After the return from Exile in Babylon, some in Israel argued that they should be completely separate from all gentiles, including the foreign wives that some people had married:

The people of Israel, the priests, and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations, from the Canaanites, the Hittites …. For they have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and for their sons. Thus the holy seed has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands, and in this faithlessness the officials and leaders have led the way.’ When I heard this, I tore my garment and my mantle, and pulled hair from my head and beard, and sat appalled.” (Ezra 9:1-4)

As we said in the first session, we are not completely sure when Jonah was written but it may well have been during this period. It may have been an attempt to present a contradictory opinion to such views, arguing that God had a role for gentiles and Jews. The book of Ruth may have had a similar purpose.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes repeatedly of the need to recognise that God has plans for both Jews and Gentiles in his Kingdom. Writing about his fellow Jews, he writes: “as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” (Romans 11:28-29). We must always recall that Jesus and all the apostles were faithful Jews, and that the history of the Church has too often been stained with the blood of persecution and anti-Semitism. The message of Jonah, though, is a reminder to everyone – Jew, Christian or whoever  – that no one has a monopoly of God’s truth and love!

… about creation

1280px-Pieter_Lastman_-_Jonah_and_the_Whale_-_Google_Art_ProjectFinally, it is worth noting what a crucial role the animal kingdom plays in the book of Jonah. Fish, worms and plants all are central characters! God shows his concern not only for the people of Nineveh, but also its animal inhabitants. They even get the last word in the book (Jonah 4:11)!

This reminds us how inter-dependent humanity and the rest of creation are. Jonah’s fellow ‘minor’ prophet Joel writes movingly of how the animals of Israel share the nation’s suffering, when disaster falls upon Israel (Joel 1:18):

How the animals groan!
   The herds of cattle wander about
because there is no pasture for them;
   even the flocks of sheep are dazed.

This is something that, again, Paul picks up in his letter to the Romans:

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God … We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:19-23)

Jonah in the New Testament

For such a short book, Jonah seems to have had a surprisingly big impact on the New Testament and its world. It seems to have affected how the gospel writers record the story of the storm on the Sea of Galilee, which Jesus calmed (Mark 4:37-41). There are several similarities between this episode and that of Jonah: a terrible storm; the danger of death; and someone sleeping in the bottom of the ship, who is rudely awakened:

  • The captain came and said to him, ‘What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.’ (Jonah 1:6)
  • …they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’” (Mark 4:38)

Crucially, though, Jesus displays the faith and confidence in God that Jonah so disappointingly lacked. We may also see parallels with Paul’s nautical misadventures in Acts 27.

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Jonah depicted on an early Christian sarcophagus (Vatican Museum, Rome)

In Matthew’s gospel, Peter is described as “Simon son of Jonah” (Matthew 16:17). This may be a misunderstanding of ‘John’ (see John 21:15) but it is tempting to see some parallels and contrasts between the faith of Jonah and Peter.

Most importantly, though, is the ‘sign of Jonah’, to which Jesus referred to on at least two occasions:

Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, ‘Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.’ But he answered them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was for three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth. The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgement with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here! The queen of the South will rise up at the judgement with this generation and condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here!” (Matthew 12:38-41)

The Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test Jesus they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, ‘When it is evening, you say, “It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.” And in the morning, “It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.” You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.’ Then he left them and went away.” (Matthew 16:1-4)

Jonah - Roman fresco

Jonah depicted in early Christian wall painting

(See also Luke 11:29-32.) The interpretation of these passages is not entirely clear-cut and deserves a whole post in its own right. Jesus repeatedly declined to perform signs – like a travelling wonder worker or fairground sideshow. Instead, he seemingly alludes to Jonah 1:17: “Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights”. Jonah, who seemed to be dead, was rescued by the hand of God and returned to life. In the same way, Christ foretells that he would spend three days enclosed in the darkness of the tomb, actually dead, but would return to life on Easter Sunday. This was the ‘sign of Jonah’, greater than all other signs and miracles. It was the only one people needed to witness and comprehend in order to understand who Jesus truly was.

This is certainly how early Christians understood it, and we find repeated allusions to the prophet’s story in early Christian arts, particularly in the decoration of sarcophagi. For them, this Old Testament story about a prophet who refused to do God’s will pointed the way to the much greater truth that God was going to reveal to his people in Jesus Christ. A true prophet who would show, once and for all, the depths of God’s love and power – and his determination to save all creation.

Suggested commentaries

I have relied heavily on the following commentary for this series, which I found to be excellent:

The following are also available:

  • Baldwin, Joyce, ‘Jonah’ in T. E. McComiskey (ed.), The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary: Volume 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993), pp.543-590
  • Limburg, James, Hosea – Micah (Atlanta, Georgia: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998)
  • Nixon, Rosemary, The Message of Jonah (Nottingham: InterVarsity Press, 2003)
  • Peterson, Eugene, Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1992).

Jonah - Ketos

Jonah 2: “The quality of mercy is not strained”

This month, two of my churches are joining with hundreds of others across the country to mark Bible Month. This is a joint initiative by the Bible Society and the Methodist Church to encourage greater Biblical literacy and understanding. Each June, churches and individuals are being invited to study one book of the Bible in much greater depth than is usually possible in normal worship.

schlanger_jonah_prison_090913_820pxThis year, we are looking at the short – but very important – book of Jonah in the Old Testament. Over three weeks, in Bible study at Barnes and in evening worship at Putney, we are looking at three aspects of this fascinating part of our scriptures:

  • week 1: ‘Jonah in the whale’ (Jonah chapters 1-2)
  • week 2: ‘Jonah in Nineveh’ (Jonah 3-4)
  • week 3: ‘Jonah in perspective’ (considering Jonah’s impact on the New Testament and its broader themes)

After considering Jonah’s attempts to run away from God last week in Jonah chapters 1 and 2, today we are considering what Jonah 3-4 has to say to us today.

The text: Jonah 3

As with last week, this is not an attempt to provide an exhaustive commentary on the book of Jonah. There are numerous such books out there, some of which are listed below. Here are just a few points that we might wish to note when examining this part of the text:

  • repeating ourselves – readers with a good memory will note many similarities between the language, structure and contents of chapters 1-2 and chapters 3-4: gentiles respond favourably to God’s word, three days, role of animals, God’s mercy, etc. Both halves of the book begin with the same words: “The word of the Lord came to Jonah…”. Repetition and parallels are important tools in good story-telling, and we often find examples of their use in the Bible. In such cases, the narrator is emphasising the minor changes in the story, which we are meant to notice. In this case, the key change is that Jonah actually does what God asks him to do this time! (Although in both cases, Jonah seemingly makes no reply to God.)
  • 78be3df7e0b83f7b8aea79f28479a3c7belonging to God – “Nineveh was a great metropolis belonging to God” (3:3 – Youngblood translation). This statement, which Kevin Youngblood brings out in his translation of the original Hebrew text, is a vitally important one. It asserts unequivocally that all of creation belongs to God; YHWH is not just God of Jerusalem, but God of Nineveh, and all of the other cities on the face of the earth. This is a revolutionary statement and one which Jonah seemed unprepared to accept.
  • a good prophet? – we really have to question how committed Jonah is to his role as prophet! As we noted last week, some scholars even question whether Jonah really belongs to the Biblical genre of ‘prophecy’. We only have half a sentence of actual prophetic utterance from him (3:4) and then he relies on word of mouth for his message to reach the king (3:6). How unlike those great prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah, who boldly confronted their monarchs with the word of God. We have to question whether Jonah really wished his message to be heard.
  • IMG_0392

    Assyrian king, as depicted on the walls of the palace at Nineveh (British Museum)

    40 days – 40 days is always an important timescale in the Bible but here it reflects two other significant periods when God’s mercy and justice are in the balance: the 40 days of the Flood in Genesis 6-9 (a part of the Bible to which Jonah frequently alludes); and the forty days that Moses interceded with God, after the people had turned to worshipping the Golden Calf (Exodus 34:28). In this case, this is the opportunity for the people of Nineveh to turn from their sinful ways and return to God.

  • a city overthrown – linguistically, the word used to describe the ‘overthrow’ of the city is related to the word used to describe the fate of Sodom in Genesis 19:21. What it actually leads to, interestingly, is an over-turning of its hierarchy, with the proud and mighty Assyrian king brought down to the dust.
  • “all creation groans” – one of the most striking features of this passage is the role that the animals of the city have in displaying the true repentance of the people. It may seem rather far-fetched to our eyes (a “fairy story” as someone at the Bible study observed!) but it demonstrates a truth that we find in the opening chapters in Genesis, and which we are re-learning now: the inter-dependence of God’s creation. All creation suffers from the sinfulness of one of its parts. The animals will suffer too from the destruction of the city (Jonah 4:11). In the nearby book of Joel, the prophet records how all creation suffered from the destruction and de-population wrought by the invading Babylonians (Joel 1:18):

How the animals groan!
   The herds of cattle wander about
because there is no pasture for them;
   even the flocks of sheep are dazed.

  • 1024px-Rembrandt_Harmenszoon_van_Rijn_-_The_Prophet_Jonah_before_the_Walls_of_Nineveh,_c._1655_-_Google_Art_Project

    Jonah before the walls of Nineveh (Rembrandt)

    crying out / relenting – here is another parallel between the two halves of the text. Once again, it is the supposedly faithless gentiles who urge people to ‘cry out’ to God (1:6 / 3:8), while Jonah is silent, and in both they retain the hope that God may relent (1:6 / 3:9).

  • changing your mind – shockingly, in 3:10 God seems to change his mind! He relents about the destruction he had foretold to Jonah. Interestingly, this is not the first or last time this seems to happen in the Bible:
    • Genesis 6:6 – “And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.”
    • Exodus 32:14 – “And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.”
    • Judges 2:18 – “Whenever the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge, and he delivered them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge; for the Lord would be moved to pity by their groaning because of those who persecuted and oppressed them.”
    • 1 Samuel 15:11, 35 – “‘I regret that I made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me, and has not carried out my commands.’ Samuel was angry; and he cried out to the Lord all night. Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the Lord was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel.”

In fact, there are 27 examples in the Old Testament of God apparently changing his mind. But there are also nine where God does not change for example: “Moreover, the Glory of Israel will not recant or change his mind; for he is not a mortal, that he should change his mind.’” (1 Samuel 15:29)

What are to make of such examples? One option is to say that this cannot possibly be what the Bible means, because we know that God never changes his mind, and ignore them. Another – and my preferred option – would be to recognise the need for us to wrestle with such passages and to recognise the inability of confining God to the pages of even so holy a book as the Bible. We shall return to this vital question later. 

The text: Jonah 4

  • angry with God – many of us may have found ourselves being angry with God, for any number of reasons. Jonah’s excuse seems somewhat flimsy, though: he is furious with God for being too merciful! In 4:2 he even uses the divine characteristics expressed in Exodus as an insult: “The Lord passed before him [Moses], and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:6-7).
  • IMG_0390

    Assyrian soldiers collecting the decapitated heads of their enemies after battle (British Museum)

    justice and mercy – as Youngblood observes, we now reach the theological crux of book: “this conflict was about Jonah’s perception of an imbalance in the divine character. Divine justice was eclipsed by an indiscriminate mercy.” (Youngblood, 153) Jonah is angry that God extends same mercy to Assyria as he has done, and will do, to Israel. This is really the crucial theme of this book, and one that will be explored further: how do you properly balance the demands of justice and the call of mercy?

  • prophetic contrasts – there are numerous allusions to other prophets in the book of Jonah. In 4:3, we might contrast Moses’ behaviour in Exodus 32:32, where Moses offers his life to save his people, while Jonah offers his life to ensure the destruction of the people of Nineveh! At 4:5, we could note the parallels to Elijah under the broom tree in 1 Kings 19:3-18. Again, though, Jonah comes off badly by comparison because Elijah is complaining because people failed to relent!
  • moving away from God – at 4:5, Jonah symbolically moves east of the city. In the Old Testament, eastward movement often indicates moving away from God and his word, most famously of course Cain in Genesis 4:16, who headed “east of Eden”.
  • a lesson in humility – in 4:6-4:8, God provides Jonah with an object lesson in humility, in a parable-like episode (compare with Nathan’s story about the lamb before David, 2 Sam. 11:27-12:15). When God extends mercy to Jonah, he is pleased, but not when offered to other people. The plant is a symbol of mercy and the worm of God’s judgement (see Deut. 28:36-39, Job 25:4-6, etc.).
  • bible-month-2018-4-jonah-in-shadesymbolic numbers – 120,000 (4:11) is a number used elsewhere in the Bible to signify a large number of people (e.g. Judges 8:10).
  • right and left – again this is Biblical shorthand for ignorance of Torah (e.g. Deut. 5:32, 17:11, 20; 28:14). In this case, God reminds Jonah that, unlike his people, the Assyrians have apparently not enjoyed the blessings of God’s guidance in the past.
  • and the animals… – note that the final word in this intriguing book is reserved to record God’s concern for the animals of Nineveh, recalling, again, the inter-dependence of creation.

 

For reflection

For such a short book, Jonah raises a huge number of deep theological questions! Next week, we shall reflect on the book as a whole, and its key themes and concerns. In the meantime, here are a few questions upon which we might wish to reflect:

  1. Is Jonah a here or an anti-hero?
  2. What does Jonah teach us about Israel’s role in God’s plan of salvation?
  3. How should we understand the concept of God seemingly changing his mind in this text?
  4. How do we strike the right balance between mercy and justice? In our own life, in the life of our church, and the life of our nation?

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Suggested commentaries

I have relied heavily on the following commentary for this series, which I found to be excellent:

The following are also available:

  • Baldwin, Joyce, ‘Jonah’ in T. E. McComiskey (ed.), The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary: Volume 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993), pp.543-590
  • Limburg, James, Hosea – Micah (Atlanta, Georgia: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998)
  • Nixon, Rosemary, The Message of Jonah (Nottingham: InterVarsity Press, 2003)
  • Peterson, Eugene, Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1992).

Jonah 1: Running away from God

1280px-Pieter_Lastman_-_Jonah_and_the_Whale_-_Google_Art_ProjectThis month, two of my churches are joining with hundreds of others across the country to mark Bible Month. This is a joint initiative by the Bible Society and the Methodist Church to encourage greater Biblical literacy and understanding. Each June, churches and individuals are being invited to study one book of the Bible in much greater depth than is usually possible in normal worship. Last year, we looked at the fascinating letter of James in the New Testament.

This year, we are looking at the short – but very important – book of Jonah in the Old Testament. Over three weeks, in Bible study at Barnes and in evening worship at Putney, we are looking at three aspects of this fascinating part of our scriptures:

  • week 1: ‘Jonah in the whale’ (Jonah chapters 1-2)
  • week 2: ‘Jonah in Nineveh’ (Jonah 3-4)
  • week 3: ‘Jonah in perspective’ (considering Jonah’s impact on the New Testament and its broader themes)

Inevitably, it is hard completely to separate out all these different aspects but at least it gives us a starting point!

Background

(n.b. There are lots of excellent commentaries out there about Jonah – a few recommended ones are listed below – so this is not intended to be an exhaustive introduction to every aspect of the book’s contents and history.)

Kennicott_Bible_305r.lIn the Jewish scriptures, Jonah is one of the ‘Minor Prophets’. This is not indicative of the book’s importance rather the fact that it is one of much shorter books of prophecy in the Bible, compared to, say, Isaiah or Jeremiah. Theses twelve short prophetic books are sometimes collectively referred to as the ‘Book of the Twelve’ and contains material written from 8th C BCE to c. 450 BCE. Whether or not Jonah should truly be treated as a book of prophecy is open to debate, since he barely produces a single sentence (Jonah 3:4) of what most people would consider true prophecy! In many respects, it reads much more like the life of the prophet Elijah, which we find in the books of Kings and Chronicles.

The question of when Jonah was written is also controversial. The short biographical information we gain in Jonah 1:1, tells us that this prophet Jonah was the same one we encounter in 2 Kings 14:23-27: “Jonah son of Amittai”. He was active during the reign of Jeroboam II, King of Israel, whom we can date accurately to around 786-746 BCE. Despite the bad press he receives in 2 Kings, he seems to have been quite a successful monarch, re-establishing Israel’s borders and security at a time when the major Asian superpower, Assyria, was experiencing a period of internal unrest.

However, most scholars would argue that the text we have in our Bibles was actually written down (or at least re-edited) later than this – certainly after the Israelites had returned from exile in Babylon (c. 539 BCE). They believe this for several reasons. Jonah is written in Hebrew, but just as English has changed over the years, so did ancient Hebrew, and the language here is much like later Hebrew. It contains Aramaic expressions, reflecting the popular language of the Middle East that many people actually spoke day to day (and in which Jesus and his contemporaries would later converse). The text makes mistakes about certain things that we would expect a person writing in the 8th Century BCE to have got right, notably that Nineveh was not a capital city at this time. It also seems to have been written from much more of a (southern) Judean perspective, rather than a (northern) Israeli one: for example, we would not have expected Jonah to have travelled south to have boarded a ship at Joppa, if he were travelling from Israel (1:3). Finally, the text makes a number of allusions to other Old Testament texts, especially Genesis 1-11, Exodus and the stories about Elijah, that we do not think reached their final form until later.

Taking all this into account, it seems sensible to suggest that the book we possess today may well have had its origins (perhaps an oral tradition) in the time of King Jeroboam II but that it was not finally written down until much later. This actually makes the text more interesting, arguably, as it means it should very much be read as a ‘dialogue’ with other books in our Old Testament that its final author / editor already knew about. Inspired by God, he perhaps wished to challenge some of his contemporaries’ perceptions of, and prejudices about, a number of things, not least the nature of God and the divine relationship between God, Israel and the other nations of the earth. We shall explore more of this as we go along.

The text: Jonah 1-2

As we read the text of the first half of Jonah, there is so much to explore and so much to interest the reader, that it is hard to know where to begin! Here are a few of the major points that we might wish to note:

  • irony in the text. Sadly, there can be a tendency to read the Bible in a rather ‘po-faced’ manner, thinking that it is never acceptable to smile or even raise an eyebrow at the text. This is completely wrong. There is a lot to laugh at in our Bible, not least in the Old Testament, where its writers wanted us to catch their deeper meanings. The text of Jonah is often deeply ironic and full of pathos, not least its opening sentences. We are used to hearing the “word of the Lord” come to other great prophets, like Samuel, Isaiah and Elijah (1 Kings 17), all of whom promptly obey. Instead, Jonah promptly heads off in the other direction! Throughout the book, look out for places where the author wants us to roll our eyebrows in exasperation at this poor prophetic role model!
  • a unique mission. Jonah is the only prophet in the entire Old Testament sent to a gentile town, city or nation. No other prophet is called upon to travel voluntarily across borders to proclaim God’s Word. No wonder perhaps then that he seems so unwilling to go. Elsewhere in the Bible, though, we read the solemn responsibility that prophets were given by God, and the consequences of not warning those in peril:

But if the sentinel sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, so that the people are not warned, and the sword comes and takes any of them, they are taken away in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at the sentinel’s hand.

 So you, mortal, I have made a sentinel for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, ‘O wicked ones, you shall surely die’, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at your hand. (Ezekiel 33:6-8)

  • Nineveh, Joppa and Tarshish. The map opposite indicates the approximate locations of these places. Nineveh was one of the oldest and greatest cities of the ancient world, and part of numerous empires. Joppa was an important port on the coast. We are not exactly sure where Tarshish was but it may have been in southern Spain (2 Chron. 9:21). In the Bible, it often symbolised somewhere impossibly far away – the way that ‘Timbuktu’ or ‘Outer Mongolia’ sometimes functions in British speech or literature.

jonah_map

  • ups and downs. This can be hard for us to see in some modern versions of the Bible, but Kevin Youngblood’s excellent, more literal, translation of the Hebrew text allows us to see the number of ‘ups and downs’ in these chapters and their importance:
    • “Up! Go to Nineveh…” (1:1)
    • “He descended to Joppa.” (1:3)
    • “he descended into it” (1:3)
    • “he had descended into the bowels of the ship” (1:5)
    • “Up! Cry out to your god!” (1:6)
    • “You had cast me down to the deep” (2:4)
    • “the deep had enveloped me” (2:6)

‘Up’ is symbolic of God, and following God’s purposes. ‘Down’ is a rejection of God and his mission. Jonah’s disobedience leads him further and further down, and away from his maker. This will become synonymous with ‘Sheol’ – the land of the dead – in the psalm that Jonah prays in chapter 2.

  • faithful gentiles. In this opening chapter, and throughout the book, we come across gentiles who seem to know and fear the Lord more than a faithful prophet like Jonah! The helmsman’s words in 1:6 seem deliberately to echo those of God in 1:1. The mariners even do their best to save Jonah from the disaster that he has brought about (1:13-14).
  • casting lots. The Old Testament is full of prohibitions against sorcery of all sorts but intriguingly lot casting was one of very few acceptable forms of divination in ancient Israel (Prov. 16:33).
  • bible-month-2018-1-jonah-fishone god or many? The discussion on board ship during the storm accurately reflects something of what we know about ancient belief systems. It was usual for people – especially a multi-national ship’s crew – to each have their own gods, and at a time of disaster to try to find out the most powerful one who needed to be placated or worshipped. Note how Jonah has to be very specific about the exact god whom he is worshipping to identify him properly: in Hebrew, he uses the divine name revealed to Moses (Exodus 3:14) – YHWH (often written Yahweh, or in English ‘Jehovah’).
  • digging in. In the Hebrew text, the author does not use the usual word ‘to row’ in 1:13. Instead, a better translation is that the sailors “dug in”. Again, the implication being that they were digging their way to Sheol! (Amos 9:2)
  • crying out. Note that in 1:14 it is still the gentile sailors who are doing all the praying. Jonah has not spoken to God once so far, it seems!
  • a fish not a whale! While we often talk about ‘Jonah and the whale’, please note that it’s actually a fish that swallows him whole (2:1).
  • three days and nights. The time of ‘three days and nights’ is a significant one in the Old Testament, as the time it was traditionally thought it took for a soul to descend to Sheol (Hosea 6:1-2). It would of course assume an even more important resonance after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.
  • a strange psalm. In 2:3, Jonah begins to pray a psalm. This is like many of the psalms that we encounter elsewhere in the Old Testament, in structure and form. It seems quite an odd break from the narrative in some respects and some commentators have wondered if it was a later addition. There is no real evidence for this, however. It also seems odd that this is a psalm of thanksgiving, rather than one of lament or a plea for forgiveness, but it clearly is meant to reflect Jonah’s relief at not drowning.
  • Sheol. From the Hebrew ‘to extinguish’ / ‘to have misfortune’, Sheol is often synonymous with death itself in the Old Testament (1 Kgs 2:6,9). It is a place of shadows and gloomy half existence in the depths of the earth (Job 11:8). Only much later in the post-Exilic and inter-testamental period would Sheol really come to mean something akin to later understandings of ‘hell’.
  • deeps and mountains. Much of Jonah’s prayer reflects ancient Israeli understandings of cosmology and the natural world: subterranean mountains, rivers flowing under the sea, etc. What is important for us to understand is that Jonah recognises how far he had gone from God: if God dwells in the Temple on the mountain of Zion, then his disobedience took him to the very depths of the sea, metaphorically.

bible-month-2018-2-jonah-ashore

  • more irony. Note the irony of 2:9-10, where Jonah boasts of his superiority over idol worshippers. Idol worshippers like the sailors from chapter one, no doubt, who prayed to God long before the prophet did! One is reminded somewhat of the prayers of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke’s gospel (Luke 18:9-14).
  • the final insult. As a final symbol of Jonah’s humiliation, we are told that the fish vomited him back onto dry land (see Jeremiah 48:26).

 

Reflection

Personally, I believe that the Bible is worth studying for its own sake and I love the treasures you can unearth by digging a little deeper into the text. It’s important to recognise, though, that all of our knowledge needs to be applied to make it worthwhile. We will be able to do this more thoroughly when we have finished studying the text, as many of the book’s most important themes only really emerge when we can consider the story as a whole. It might be worth reflecting on some of the following questions now, though:

  1. Who comes out well of the opening chapters of Jonah? What may this teach us about those who believe they have a particular status or special knowledge in God’s creation?
  2. What does this story teach us about God’s mission for us, as individuals and as a church?
  3. If we feel separated, or distant, from God, is it entirely God’s fault?
  4. Do we sometimes need to journey to ‘rock bottom’ to find ourselves?

We will continue to reflect on many of these questions in the coming weeks.

 

Suggested commentaries

I have relied heavily on the following commentary for this series, which I found to be excellent:

The following are also available:

  • Baldwin, Joyce, ‘Jonah’ in T. E. McComiskey (ed.), The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary: Volume 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993), pp.543-590
  • Limburg, James, Hosea – Micah (Atlanta, Georgia: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998)
  • Nixon, Rosemary, The Message of Jonah (Nottingham: InterVarsity Press, 2003)
  • Peterson, Eugene, Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1992).

schlanger_jonah_prison_090913_820px

“Join the hands of age and youth”

Lectionary:       MHA Sunday

Date:                  10th June, 2018

Place:                 Barnes Methodist Church

Text(s):             

This is the sermon I preached this morning at Barnes Methodist Church. Today we were marking Methodist Homes for the Aged (MHA) Sunday, when we celebrate the wonderful work of that organisation and its work with older people – both in residential homes and in the community. We used this as an opportunity to reflect on the role of older people in our society more generally. The text was Luke 2:25-40, which tells of the infant Jesus’ encounter with two elderly prophets, Simeon and Anna, at the Temple in Jerusalem when he was brought there by his parents. 

Join the hand of friend and stranger;
join the hands of age and youth;
join the faithful and the doubter
in their common search for truth.

Those lines come from one of my favourite new hymns: Jesus calls us here to meet him. Like many in our new hymn book, it comes from two of the Iona Community’s leading musicians, John Bell and Graham Maule. I love the way that those words remind us of how diverse the followers of Jesus are – worshipping today in every language under the sun – but how we have all something so fundamental in common. Our common search for the truth in Christ.

On this MHA Sunday, as we reflect on the work of that wonderful organisation, and the role of older people in our church and society more generally, I would like us to reflect particularly on the challenge of that second line: “join the hands of age and youth”.

rembrandt_lofzang_simeon_1669This deceptively simple statement presents us, as God’s church and people, with an enormous challenge. How to bring young and old together, “in their common search for truth”. This is, of course, exactly what we see happening in the reading we have just heard from Luke’s gospel (Luke 2:25-40). An incident depicted by many great artists, including Rembrandt. The elderly prophets, Anna and Simeon, come together with the young, innocent parents, Mary and Joseph, to point the way to the ultimate revelation of God’s truth in the world: the infant Christ child. Age and youth truly joining hands to demonstrate the unending story of God’s desire for a relationship with his creation.

Sadly, God’s creation has struggled over the years to emulate this excellent example and, as in so many other fields, has too often preferred discord to accord. We cannot even seem to bring the hands of age and youth together in the praise and service of the same Jesus Christ whom Anna and Simeon welcomed into the Temple so long ago. For as long as I can recall in church life, we have been wrestling with the challenge of how we manage the different demands, needs and desires of young and old in worship. I can remember – and I am sure you can too – seemingly endless running battles and open arguments in church meetings about different preferences for music and the style of worship. The word ‘chorus’ – referring to a certain type of praise music – was tantamount to a swear word in many churches. One of my colleagues even recounted how – happily some years ago now – an unfortunate young preacher had a copy of the new hymn book, Mission Praise, physically hurled at him in the pulpit, for daring to choose a chorus from its pages! In return, many cherished and much-loved hymns, rich in theological depth and meaning, were ignored or dismissed wholesale because they were ‘old’ or ‘fuddy-duddy’. And that is only music in worship. We have not got time to discuss the arguments about style of worship, times of service, the challenges of having young children in church, pews vs. chairs, etc., etc.

One result of those discussions has been that in many cases, efforts to “join the hands of age and youth” in worship have simply ceased. Many new churches were and continue to be founded effectively for young people alone, with a particular style of worship and music, leaving other churches – many of them Methodist chapels – to become effectively bastions of older people’s worship. One District Chair indeed described ministry in parts of East Anglia as being ‘chaplain to the over 60s’!

In recent months, there have been an increasing number of news reports and studies that have highlighted a seemingly similar phenomenon in our wider society. An increasing divide between young and old, that is in danger of becoming – if it has not already become – as severe as that between different genders and ethnicities. We have seen articles about the increasing gap in wealth and prosperity between some older people and some younger people (often described as ‘millennials’); sharp differences between age groups in relation to the chance of owing their own home, their age of retirement and even their life expectancy. In turn, this has led to expressions of anger and resentment about a status quo that seems to advantage one age group over another. Resentment that has provoked intemperate name-calling and angry exchanges from both sides.

On the other side of the coin, there is real fear among many older people to whom I speak about what is often called the ‘digital divide’. Despite the prodigious number of ‘silver surfers’, many older people feel increasingly cut off from the unceasing pace of technological development, which is permanently changing the way we work and live. Cherished ways of life and institutions are being replaced daily and many older people are effectively being driven out of work by their lack of skills and their inability to match the pace of change.

Cls7vB7WkAATVNIWe see this divide too in matters of belief and outlook. This was perhaps demonstrated most palpably by the recent Brexit debate. Now, I must confess that I mention this subject with extreme hesitation because, as we all know, this particular topic is so toxic and so divisive that many of us would rather run a mile than even mention it! Whatever our personal views, though, it cannot be denied that age seemed to be an incredibly important determiner in how people voted. There were many other influences as well – where people lived in the country, gender, political background, and so on – but age seemed to be a remarkably significant factor, as this chart demonstrates.

Whatever our views on this issue – and we all are lucky enough to possess the democratic right to vote for whom or what we wish – I am sure that we all share the concern about this age-based schism within our society. From numerous conversations I have had during the campaign and since, I know the damage that this debate has done to inter-generational relations. Children and grandchildren at war with parents and grandparents over the dinner table. Families engaging in shouting matches at what were meant to be convivial gatherings. Claims and counter-claims of intolerance, arrogance and prejudice. Two years after the result, the inter-generational scars are still present in too many families.

I had a very interesting experience of this at my old church in Watford, a part of the country that voted almost exactly 50:50 in the referendum. On the Sunday after the vote, I chatted to many members of my, generally, older congregation before and after the service, who expressed a variety of views to me – fear about the future, confidence in the future, regret, and unashamed triumphalism, to name but a few. Meanwhile, I later discovered, the Sunday School teachers had had a virtual riot on their hands in the back hall, with the teenagers in particular venting genuine anger at what “those old people in there” had done to their future. There was precious little prospect of joining the hands of age and youth that day!

Sadly, there seems to have been very little work done, or even interest in, this demographic divide from our politicians – or any real sense that this is a problem at all. Yet I believe it is. It is not God’s will that his church – or indeed his creation – should be divided from one another by age. It is not God’s will that one age group should believe that it has a monopoly on the truth. It is not God’s will that differences in age should be used as yet another insult to hurl at one another, as we have so long used gender, ethnicity and sexuality. Instead, it is the example of Anna and Simeon in the Temple so long ago that is the desire of God’s heart for his creation: young and old coming together to seek a common truth, so that all may grow and flourish.

As God’s church, we need to witness to that truth, and I believe we have two particular roles to play as God’s Church on earth. First, we are meant to be a place of encounter. The aged Simeon and Anna met the infant Christ child at God’s Temple, and we need to ensure that we fulfil the same role. Like many people who grew up in church, I really enjoyed that mixture of ages around me as I grew into adulthood – it always felt like having lots of aunts and uncles, especially as we did not live near our extended family. I grew up being able to chat to people of all ages and backgrounds, and knowing that older people were genuinely interested in my life and development. There are actually precious few places in our society where that happens nowadays, and many children grow up not knowing any older people beyond their own family. This helps perpetuate the divisions in our societies, where we only meet and spend time with those of our own class, background and age: all of us living in our own, separate silos too often.

There have been numerous reports recently about successful experiments that have deliberately created places of multi-generational encounter. Nurseries in old peoples’ homes. After school clubs for teenagers run by older people. Young people who are struggling to find accommodation choosing to live with older people who have spare rooms but no company. MHA is part of some of these initiatives and is keen to bring younger people into their homes, and to create opportunities for those older people who are being supported in their own homes to have meaningful encounters with different generations.

What these schemes demonstrate is that ALL ages benefit from living regularly engaging with one another, if they are open to genuine encounter. Younger people can gain a sense of perspective and wise counsel; older folks can often gain a broadening of their horizons and a renewed interest in life. As a church here in Barnes, we are pondering our future mission and I would very much like us to consider whether this is an area in which we might like to engage: providing opportunities for different ages to come together for their mutual benefit, and to help break down some of the barriers that we have helped to create in our society.

The second thing that we can do, as God’s Church, is to be clear about how such mutual flourishing can happen and how such barriers can be broken down. And that is by pointing to the Christ child, as Simeon and Anna did, and specifically his example of sacrifice.

What makes Simeon’s encounter with Mary and Joseph in the Temple so poignant, of course, is his all-too accurate prediction of what the future holds for this tiny infant. This child is undoubtedly the salvation which God has prepared: “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (2:32). But he is also “a sign that will be opposed” (2:34) and his work of redemption will not be complete until his mother’s heart is broken by witnessing the death of her own son. The work of God cannot be completed without sacrifice and loss.

So it is for us, for our church and our society, if we wish genuinely to “join the hands of age and youth”. Healing and understanding can only come about through sacrifice and loss. By being willing to set aside some of our own pre-conceptions, our own prejudices, our own certainty in how things ‘should be done’. In church life, as in all life, if we say “it’s my way or the highway” then genuine encounter is impossible. If we create meeting places for young and old, and both groups see it as an opportunity merely to re-create the other in their own likeness, then there is no hope of reconciliation. True encounter can never be about domination and control.

age_and_youth_by_williamdaros-d658ymjIn the sacrament of holy communion, we are recalling God’s desire for genuine encounter with his most cherished creation, humanity. We are remembering how God wished to engage with his people, to break down the barriers that we had built up, and God’s desire that we should be reconciled one to another. But we recall too that that reconciliation only came about through sacrifice, by God giving up his divinity in the person of that vulnerable child from Bethlehem; of God giving up his immortality to dwell amongst us. Communion is a symbol of our desire to break down the barriers between ourselves and God, and between ourselves and one another. It is a symbol of our desire to emulate that example of sacrifice: our desire to live in harmony with all God’s creation.

In our worship as a church, in what we say and in how we treat one another, and in every aspect of our lives let us bear witness to God’s desire for a world free from division. Through encounter and sacrifice, let us strive to “join the hand of friend and stranger; join the hands of age and youth; join the faithful and the doubter” in our common search for truth. Amen.

 

 Hymn words: John L. Bell (b. 1949) and Graham Maule (b. 1958). Reproduced from Singing the Faith Electronic Words Edition, number 28. Words: From Love From Below © 1989, WGRG, Iona Community, Glasgow G2 3DH Scotland. <www.wgrg.co.uk>

 

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.