The Bible Course: a review

This is a personal review of a recent resource produced by the Bible Society called ‘The Bible Course‘. I hope it’s helpful to others either considering running it, or those looking for new teaching material for their churches. 

The problem

https_2f2fcdn-evbuc_-com2fimages2f470966182f209564212222f12foriginalOne of the greatest challenges I face as a preacher and small group leader is helping people to ‘join the dots’ of the Bible. The sad truth is that many Christians simply do not know their Bibles as well as they should, and many only experience it on Sunday mornings in worship. This is far from ideal. The lectionary can be a great aid to preachers but it can also leave people feeling confused, wondering what on earth is happening in the readings. Generally, we are all right with the gospels, because the stories are fairly well-known and come in nice bite-sized chunks. However, I am repeatedly told that people simply do not understand the Old Testament passages, without a great deal of explanation. Even the epistles – which were, of course, really meant to be read in one sitting – can be hard. Someone described hearing parts of Paul’s letters as like walking into a pub halfway through a fight!

I was delighted, therefore, to learn that the Bible Society had produced a new resource expressly designed to give people the ‘big picture’ of the Bible: ‘The Bible Course’. Instead of focussing intensively on a few verses or even a single book, it takes people through the scriptures from Genesis to Revelation. It aims to show them the arc of its narrative and how the different parts inter-relate. I have just finished leading the Course for the first time at Barnes Methodist Church and am delighted to report that it really exceeded all my expectations.

The course

s_thumbnail_v1The course is based around a high-quality video presentation by Dr Andrew Ollerton, who apparently developed it originally to help people in Cornwall new to the Christian faith. He is a very well-informed and engaging presenter, who greatly helps the whole course to come alive. It is accompanied by a booklet (also good quality), which contains useful notes, an overall plan of the series and a series of daily readings for participants. The films can be downloaded free from the Bible Society’s website after you register but the booklets must be ordered by post. They are not expensive, though, and our church simply footed the bill for everyone.

The course divides the Bible into eight sessions:

  • Introducing the Bible
  • Creation & Covenant
  • Exodus & Promised Land
  • Judges & Kings
  • Exile & Prophets
  • Jesus & the Gospels
  • Acts & the Church
  • Revelation & Review

Each session is then presented in the same format:

  • a welcome from the host (in this case, me), with suggested ‘warm-up’ questions
  • a 15 minute teaching video
  • discussion time
  • another 15 minute teaching video
  • time for personal reflection

In practice, we did not always follow this strictly. We found that the video prompted so many questions that we generally had another discussion time at the end as well!

Review

At the end of the course, our group had a feedback discussion, where we reflected on what we had learned and our feelings about the course as whole. The response was overwhelmingly positive.

A good overview – Everyone (including me) felt the course had definitely achieved its stated purpose. It had really helped give folks an overview of the Bible as a whole, “not just a random collection of books,” as someone put it. The timeline of the Bible that Dr Ollerton had created, and which was used throughout the series and the booklets, really helped people put the different parts together and understand the genres of literature we find in the Bible (prophecy, history, etc.).

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Excellent for the Old Testament – People felt the course had particularly helped their understanding of the Old Testament. This is undoubtedly the part of scripture that confuses people most and about which I tend to get the most questions. It was inevitably quite a challenge to fit everything into four sessions and the latter half of session 5, which had to tackle everything from the Exile onwards, was the only part of the course that felt hurried. However, people definitely emerged from the course with a much greater understanding of how the Old Testament was created and how it relates to the New Testament.

Good for all levels / ages – The course is primarily aimed at those who are newer in faith and, as the writers say, it would be good for those who had recently done an Alpha Course or similar. The group I led was mainly composed of people who had attended church for most of their lives. I wondered if the course would be too easy for them but apparently not. They all found a great deal in it that consolidated existing knowledge and extended it. They liked the tools the course gave them to interpret scripture on their own, and to think about things like context and application. One participant, who has studied her Bible for decades, stated that she could, “happily watch it all again,” which I thought was praise indeed!

Conviction – We all felt that one of the greatest selling points of the course was the infectious enthusiasm for the Bible that Dr Ollerton and his co-host brought to it. They were clearly absolutely convinced of the importance of scripture and of its message of good news, and they convinced us! The stories and examples Dr Ollerton gave were relevant and  accessible. There were also a number of good personal testimonies about the power of scripture to change people for the better.

l_buy-manualGood quality – Vitally for me, the whole course looked and felt professional. Sadly, so many church publications look rather dated and cheap, but this one was unashamedly modern and attractive. To paraphrase General Booth, I see no reason why the Devil should have all the best publicity!

Different interpretations – My greatest fear starting the course was about the particular interpretation of the Bible that the course might carry with it. Coming from a liberal background, and knowing the general tenor of some Bible Society productions, I wondered if it might be theologically very conservative, with unhelpful assumptions about certain controversial aspects of faith and practice. I am pleased to report that, with a very few exceptions, this was not the case. Dr Ollerton clearly comes from a different place on the theological spectrum to me, and to many of my church members, but he spoke with great enthusiasm about his own convictions and did not attempt to denigrate others’ views.

The only warning point I would really make about the course, flowing on from this, is the important role of the host. My group felt that it had been very helpful to have a course leader who made it clear from the outset that different people had different views on some subjects, and encouraged free-ranging discussion. We actually found the videos helpful for provoking debates about issues such as miracles and faith healing, which revealed a range of responses. It was vital, though, for people to be given permission to disagree with the presenters’ views and with one another, while recognising that we all valued the Bible in our own way.

It also might have been helpful for the course to have mentioned how different interpretations of the Bible have arisen over the millennia. The course unashamedly presented the Bible through a particular hermeneutic, reading all scripture through the lens of Jesus. Had time permitted, it would have been good to have mentioned some of pitfalls of such an approach, and to have mentioned some modern perspectives on Biblical interpretation, notably perhaps feminist readings and the insights of Liberation Theology. I recognise, though, how easy it is to criticise, and how hard the producers had worked to squeeze everything into only eight episodes.

Conclusion

Overall, I would thoroughly recommend this to all churches and Christians. So many house groups and Bible study groups I know struggle desperately for good material, and I think this could be a real God-send for them. I would even say that every church should consider running a course like this at some point, if they are serious about helping people understand their own scriptures. I shall finish with the response of one of my older members, who gave the course his highest praise:

So many courses are like the Doxology. During, it’s all, “Glory be to the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit,” but afterwards it’s, “As it was in the beginning…”. This one, though, will really change us all, I think.

Amen to that!

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Our everyday (Advent) God

Lighting a candleThis is the sermon I preached today at Putney Methodist Church. It is Advent Sunday today, traditionally the start of the Christian liturgical year. The set readings were Jeremiah 33:14-16 and Luke 21:25-36.

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars.” (Luke 21:25) Our readings this morning are a vivid reminder that we are very firmly entering the season of Advent – and not Christmas. The season of the year when we remember a two-fold ‘coming’. Not just the birth of the coming of the Messiah as a child two thousand years ago in Bethlehem, but also the promise that Christ gave his followers that he would come again.

This two-fold nature of Advent is a perennial problem for preachers. At one of my old churches, we always used to have an Advent parade service with the local Scouts and Guides on this Sunday. Of course, they did not want to hear dismal readings about prophets and waiting for the Second Coming, they wanted stables, carols and Christmas right now!  Sadly, the readings and hymns for these first Sundays in Advent are so full of portents and worrying language, that they can seem completely unappealing to most children and, if we are honest, adults too!

This Sunday is no exception. Over the last couple of weeks, as I have worked my way through the lectionary, I have had to speak at length about some very difficult passages. I have talked about the nature of apocalyptic literature, which we find in Biblical books like Daniel and Revelation. I have spoken about the historical context of these passages and the disturbing nature of their message. Don’t worry, though, I promise not to repeat myself today!

I will just simply note that we have the same kind of literature this morning. Today, it comes from the gospel of Luke, a book that is usually much ‘fluffier’ and gentler than this, with its stories about shepherds, prodigal sons and so forth. Here, though, Luke is recording some of Jesus’ last words before his death. As with the other gospel writers, he records Jesus using that same kind of apocalyptic language at this point in his ministry – language full of mystery, awe and wonder.

Yet importantly, even here, in this most mysterious and apocalyptic of passages, Jesus uses the language of the everyday. He does not speak in the language of systematic theology or complex philosophy. Instead, he picks the most simple and straightforward of metaphors:

Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. (Luke 21:29-30)

00-159-167_ps1He tells his disciples to look at the trees, for signs of the coming of the Kingdom of God. Just as we might look to the bulbs poking their heads through the ground to give us hope of spring. Jesus urges us to see his promise that the Kingdom of God is truly coming with power in the everyday things of life.

That is exactly what we need to do too this advent season. I would not urge you to gaze across the stars, looking for signs and portents, comets and apparitions. Instead, let us look at the world around us. Look for God in the mundane and everyday. Fig trees are not as common in Putney as they are in Palestine but I firmly believe we too can catch a glimpse of God’s coming in the everyday things of life. In the world of nature around us. In the kindness and generosity of strangers for people whom they will never meet (as shown by our donations to the Foodbank today). In the simple pleasures of our life together.

Earlier this week, I met up with a man who is contemplating a complete change in the course of her life. He is a father with three children and has a very demanding job in the City of London, and we actually had to meet in a café near to his work in order to find time for the chat. He asked me questions and I told him a little about life in the full-time ministry. I urged him, though, to reflect fully on the nature of ‘vocation’. Too often when we think of Christian vocation, our thoughts immediately turn to people in dog collars and funny clothes! Yet all Christians have a vocation. We all have a calling to witness to the love of God wherever we are. Be that in the office, at home or wherever. We have a calling to bring God into the everyday of life, not just Sunday mornings. So many of the problems in our world and in our history have come about because folks have forgotten that fact. I would be delighted if he entered a process of discernment and found out that he was meant to be a minister in God’s Church. But I would be equally delighted if he discovered a vocation to work in a city bank, or a solicitors’ firm, or a care home, so that people could see signs of God’s coming in the everyday business of life.

IMG_0687One person who has witnessed to this profoundly is the Christian writer, Paula Gooder. She is not an ordained priest and writes profoundly about our ‘Everyday God’, in her book of the same name:

The God who came to earth to live among us was not, and is not, afraid of the ordinary things of life. He does not need find settings or loud noises. He came to earth not offering abstract ideas or fancy theology but the essentials we need to survive. He came yearning to draw us back into relationship with himself, and with one another, and used every means possible to achieve this … The every day God whom we worship was not squeamish and calls us similarly not to steer clear of the ordinary things of life but to embrace them, and through them to bring transformation to the world.

[Paula Gooder, Everyday God: The Spirit of the Ordinary, London: Canterbury Press 2012, p 85.]

Those words were drawn to my attention this year by another Christian writer, and someone who preached here at Putney not long ago, Rev’d Dr Philip Richter. He was leading a wonderful retreat I went on in May, entitled ‘Photography and Spirituality’. Of course, it helped greatly that the course took place in Rome during a wonderfully warm May! But the challenge he gave us was very similar: to find God in the lens of our cameras. Not just in the grand ecclesiastical and imperial buildings of Rome, but in the everyday things of the city. We were mostly Methodist ministers on the course and he encouraged us to do the same when we returned to our places of work. To find God in Putney, in Croydon, in north Wales and everywhere. It’s a challenge I have tried to reflect upon whenever possible.

So, I would like to finish my reflection today with a hymn and some images. The images are a few of my snaps from over the last year, which speak to me, but may not speak to you, about finding God in the everyday The hymn is a relatively new one in our books by the Christian writer and musician, Bernadette Farrell. And I leave you with the same challenge this Advent season. This season of signs and portents. Where do you see our everyday God in your lives? Where is God’s Kingdom breaking through into our own? And if you do not see any signs, is it because God is not there, or because we are not looking?

Earth’s creator, everyday God – Bernadette FarrellOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Earth’s creator,
everyday God,
Loving Maker,
O Jesus,
you who shaped us,
O Spirit,
recreate us,
come, be with us.

In your presence,
everyday God,
we are gathered,
O Jesus,
you have called us,
O Spirit,
to restore us,
come, be with us.

Life of all lives,
everyday God,
love of all loves,
O Jesus,
hope of all hopes,
O Spirit,
light of all lights,
come, be with us.

In our resting,
everyday God,
in our rising,
O Jesus,
in our hoping,
O Spirit,
in our waiting,
come, be with us.

In our dreaming,
everyday God,
in our daring,
O Jesus,
in our searching,
O Spirit,
in our sharing,
come, be with us.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGod of laughter,
everyday God,
God of sorrow,
O Jesus,
home and shelter,
O Spirit,
strong and patient,
come, be with us.

Way of freedom,
everyday God,
star of morning,
O Jesus,
timeless healer,
O Spirit,
flame eternal,
come, be with us.

Word of gladness,
everyday God,
word of mercy,
O Jesus,
word of friendship,
O Spirit,
word of challenge,
come, be with us.

Gentle father,
everyday God,
faithful brother,
O Jesus,
tender sister,
O Spirit,
loving mother,
come, be with us.

20180525_154450Our beginning,
everyday God,
our unfolding,
O Jesus,
our enduring,
O Spirit,
journey’s ending,
come, be with us.

Alleluia,
everyday God,
now and always,
O Jesus,
alleluia,
O Spirit,
through all ages,
come, be with us.

Bernadette Farrell (b. 1957). Reproduced from Singing the Faith Electronic Words Edition, number 45
Words and Music: © 1996 Bernadette Farrell.  Published by OCP Publications, 5536 NE Hassalo, Portland, OR 97213, USA.  All rights reserved.  Used with permission.

 

 

Not fake news, but good news!

newspaperThis is the sermon I preached at Putney Methodist Church on Sunday, 25 November. This is the Sunday usually called ‘Christ the King‘ in the Christian calendar. It is the day when we reflect on the Kingdom of God, about which Jesus preached so often, and what it means for us as Jesus’ followers to acknowledge him as our Lord and King. The set readings were Revelation 1:4-8 and John 18:33-38a.

“Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’” (John 18:38). Like some of you, perhaps, one of my pleasures in life is to sit over my breakfast in the morning, listening to the radio and reading the newspaper. I now read the paper on my iPad but little else has changed since the days when we were not allowed to disturb my father until he had worked his way through The Telegraph every morning as children. It is one of the little morning rituals that allows me to face the day ahead!

On Thursday, though, I did something that I have not done for a long while, and that was skim through the paper and then simply put it down. I simply could not face the seemingly endless articles about the state we were in as a nation, and the lies that seemed to be routinely accepted as the truth in our mixed-up world. Instead, I did what I should have done beforehand anyway and began to reflect on the Bible readings for this Sunday. What, if anything, I wondered have they to say to our age of ‘Fake News’?

The truth is often hidden

The first thing I think they have to say is fairly obvious: the truth is often hidden from us.

On Friday, we finished the ‘Bible Course’ at Barnes Methodist Church. This excellent course has taken us through the entire Bible in eight weeks (no mean feat!) and in the last session we looked at the book Revelation. I had been slightly dreading this section but the course actually gave a very good introduction to a very difficult book.

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Patmos

Revelation is probably the best example of apocalyptic literature in our Bible. The key to interpreting it, is to understand its context. It was written by someone called John in exile on the Greek isle of Patmos during a time of severe repression in the Roman Empire, probably under Nero or Domitian. It was written in a climate of fear and a time of repression. It was an era too of ‘fake news’ – Christians were used as convenient scapegoat for a whole raft of empire’s ills and lies about this strange cult were commonly accepted as truth. For example, that Christians were actually cannibals, eating flesh and drinking blood in strange night time rituals in the catacombs of Rome.

In this febrile atmosphere, John does what all apocalyptic writers sought to do: to reveal the hidden truth about the world. As the Bible Course reminded us, ‘apocalyptic’ actually  comes from Greek apocalypto meaning ‘revelation’. It is meant to be like drawing back the curtains, a revealing, showing the truth behind the facade (like the reading from Daniel we had last week). In this case, John was seeking to show his readers that the world was not as they immediately saw it. Despite the immense power of the emperors and the Roman imperial system, it was not Caesar who was Lord, but Jesus: “Jesus Christ … the ruler of the kings of the earth.” (Rev. 1:5). It was Jesus Christ, the spotless lamb upon the throne, who actually held the fate of nations in his sway and who judge the nations with justice and grace.

“Hold fast!” he says to his persecuted readers. “I will show you the real truth about this world. Fix your eyes not on the things of this world, but on the world to come.” And he goes on to show them the real truth about their future. Not more oppression and fear but of an end to bloodshed and tears, and a time when women and men will live in harmony with their God (Revelation 21:3-4):

God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.

This is the truth of how the world really is, John is saying to his first readers. This is the eternal truth and hope to which we cling, and which will remain when all the powers and dominions that you now see have passed away.

Christ before Pilate (Duccio, 1311)Although coming from a different part of the Bible (and almost certainly a different John), we see something not wholly dissimilar in our gospel reading. There again, things are not what they first seem to be. Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, seemingly represents power and authority in this scenario and the penniless, itinerant preacher in front of him should be grovelling for his life. Instead, of course, it is actually Christ who holds the balance of power here; he is in charge of his own fate and the confusion in the conversation is only too clear: “Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. … Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ (John 18:36-7)

On this Sunday, ‘Christ the King’, we are recalling that Jesus is a very different kind of king to the one that Pilate, Herod, and even the disciples envisage. The truth is hidden from them all and will only be fully revealed on the first Easter Sunday morning, when the curtain is drawn upon the empty tomb

In our own day and age, the hidden nature of truth is only too evident, and I could have picked a hundred news stories from the last few days to illustrate my point. Too often, the truth is hidden from us, often because those in power do not wish us to have a moment of revelation, sadly. Many of you will have read or seen news items about the visit of the UN Special Rapporteur, Professor Philip Alston, who recently undertook a 12-day tour of the UK, examining poverty and its causes in this nation. Like John in the book of Revelation, he drew back the curtain on the true condition of some of the poorest in our own country. A country that simultaneously boasts of being one of the largest economies in the world, whilst one in four of its parents admit to having skipped meals in order to feed their children. Shocking truths that shame us all. (See the churches’ response to the UN report here.) No wonder that many people in authority have preferred to shoot the messenger, and have criticised Professor Alston or telling us the truth rather than engaging with his report.

Good people, on all sides of the political spectrum, wish to reveal the truth to us. We – like Pontius Pilate – must decide whether or not we wish to stay to hear that truth.

Christ wants us to know the truth

The second thing that I think these readings have to say to us today is that Christ wants his followers to know the truth.

The book of Revelation, and apocalyptic literature in general with its strange language and complicated imagery, has always given rise to some, shall we say, esoteric interpretations. If you Google most passages of Revelation on the internet (and I strongly advise you not to!), you will come up with some truly bizarre web pages that tell you how Barack Obama is the Antichrist and the world will end next Tuesday teatime! This is nothing new and for centuries people have been using the book of Revelation to peddle their distorted version of the truth.

One of the earliest, and most persistent Christian heresies was indeed based on this idea of secret knowledge. It is generally referred to as Gnosticism, from the Greek gnosis meaning ‘knowledge’. It’s actually a portmanteau term referring to numerous beliefs and cults in the first centuries after Christ. They nearly all shared a common characteristic, though, and that was the idea of secret knowledge, or hidden meanings within scripture, or private information passed down orally, outside of the Bible. If you joined the cult and took the prescribed actions, you too could share in this knowledge. The same thing has happened for 2,000 years with similar cults and conspiracy theories, ranging from the interpretation of the Dead Sea Scrolls to the Da Vinci Code. And all of them are, of course, complete nonsense!

Alpha and OmegaBiblical writers like John the divine and John the evangelist actually wrote with the express purpose of giving people the truth, not hiding it. That’s why the last book of the Bible is called “Revelation’ not ‘Hidden’! John, writing on Patmos, wanted us to know the truth, that we worship the one who is “the Alpha and the Omega … who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (Rev. 1:8). And when people came to Jesus seeking guidance and healing, he did not offer them secret words and amulets. He did not insist they pass through a series of trials, each more difficult than the last. Nor did he force them through complicated initiation rituals. He simply said ‘follow me’. He taught and spoke using simple language and memorable stories about everyday things. Jesus did not write theological tomes but gave us all the information we ever need to know about how to live a good life in two sentences: “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind … [and] love your neighbour as yourself.” (Matt. 22:37-38). Jesus wanted people to see the truth about our world: to see that life is more than what we eat and drink, and our possessions; to see the possibilities of healing and forgiveness; to realise that God wishes to be in a relationship with each one of us.2560

Sadly, though, in our own day and age, too many people seem to want to prefer the route that the Gnostics took and believe that we are not meant to know the truth. One newspaper reported this week that 60% of us believe at least one conspiracy theory. This ranged from conspiracy theories about alien contact to Muslim immigration. The results underlined the sad truth about how little we seem to believe those in authority, especially our politicians, journalists and company bosses. The article reminded me of nothing so much as the 1990s television series ‘The X Files’, with its strap-line: “the truth is out there”!

The real truth, though, is that just like the Gnostics’ claim to secret knowledge and all the mad cults throughout history, these theories are all lies and nonsense. What is worse they give people the excuse to do nothing about the state of the world and instead just pander to all their worst and most sinful prejudices. Instead of attempting to make the world a better place, we can just hold up our hands and say there’s no point even trying because it’s all the fault of the Jews / the Muslims / the Socialists / the Bilderberg Group / or whomever.

As Christ’s followers, we are called to pursue the truth and to seek it out with all our heart and soul, for as Jesus said, elsewhere in John’s gospel: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:31-32) Christ does not want us to sign up to crazy conspiracy theories or shirk our duty to learn the real truth about our world for ourselves. Christ wants us to know the real truth about our world – the truth that is often staring us in the face – so that we may be truly free.

The truth will cost us something

That leads me to my last, and final point: the truth is a precious commodity and greatly to be valued. But like all precious commodities, it will cost us something.

We see this very clearly in the book of Revelation. It is a book written by a man forced into exile, taken from family and friends, and from his Christian community. He is a man living in fear of his life in a time of terror and persecution. A man who took enormous personal risks in order that we might know the truth about our world, and hear the good news of Jesus Christ. Revealing that truth cost John dearly, just as it cost Peter and Paul, and so many Christian apostles and missionaries over the last two millennia.

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Paved street in ancient Laodicea

Learning the truth, though, did not just cost John the author something, it cost his readers something too. Earlier this week, we celebrated the installation of the new vicar at St Margaret’s Church, Rev’d Dr Brutus Green. Rather bravely I thought, one of the Bible readings for the service came from a few chapters later in this book of Revelation, when John is writing to the seven churches in Asia. There he tells them the honest (and often brutal!) truth about themselves – and, as we all know, the truth can be painful. Perhaps most famously, he was unafraid to pass on the Almighty’s damning verdict on the church in Laodicea: “‘I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” (Rev. 3:15-16). That was a hard truth and to accept it would have cost that church a lot. Far easier to ignore it and, as with the UN rapporteur I mentioned earlier, simply shoot the messenger! Down to our own day and our own community here, how costly it is for churches to hear and accept the truth about themselves

antonio_ciseri_ecce_homoThis truth is perhaps best illustrated by our gospel reading, though. Jesus is in chains, facing torture and execution because he has brought the truth to his contemporaries. He is ready and willing to pay the ultimate price in order that we might all know the truth and, through it, be free: the truth that even death cannot separate us from the love of God. Unwillingly into this scene comes Pilate. “Jesting Pilate” as Francis Bacon famously described him, who asked that most timeless of questions, “What is truth?” but who “would not stay for an answer”. Pilate knew the truth – that Jesus was an innocent man, facing trumped up charges from the petty politicians who wanted this troublemaker out of their hair. They speak a different language and wore ‘funny’ clothes, but they are no different to the Mafia or the drug lords of our own day, bringing innocent women and men to the corrupt local police chief to silence them. Pilate knows all this and desperately tries to get out of having to make a decision that he knows to be wrong – to execute an innocent man. Upholding the truth will cost him something, though, and he knows it. The chief priests and his cabal threaten him with an appeal to Rome, an appeal that could lose him his job and his position (John 19:12). Pilate is not willing to pay such a stiff price for the truth and washes his hands of the responsibility. Better to let a falsehood stand, than risk your career, seems to be the moral of his sordid tale.

Would we have acted differently, I wonder? What value do we place on the truth? Are we really willing to hear the truth about ourselves, our nation, our politics? One good friend of mine still reads a newspaper whose views he stopped agreeing with a long time ago. When I ask him why he still puts up with all its lies and mistruths, he always smiles and replies, “Well, I’ve got used to the way their crossword compilers work now, and it would be very hard to start again elsewhere.” For him, the cost of learning how to do a new crossword puzzle is too high a price to pay for reading something closer to the truth each day! What is too high a price for us to pay, I wonder?

Conclusion

The challenge of today’s readings is what value do we place upon the truth?

  • do we really want to pull back the curtain to reveal the truth about the world in which we live?
  • do we prefer to live with half-baked truths and conspiracy theories?
  • are we willing to pay the price of learning the truth – of sacrificing long-held preconceptions and habits in order to open our minds to the reality of our world

As Christians, the answer to all those questions must be ‘yes’. We believe in ‘good news’ not ‘fake news’! Too many women and men have died in order that you and I might know the truth and that that truth might set us free. Free form hatred and malice. Free from envy and prejudice. Free from fear itself. For we know the greatest truth of all, brothers and sisters, that this world is not all there is. That one day heaven and earth shall pass away but we shall not. That we are forgiven, loved and free because of what God has done for us in Christ Jesus. Let us not be afraid of the truth, as Pilate was, but lead our lives bearing witness to it, and sharing its power with the whole world.  Amen.

Truth will set you free

Texts for troubling times

Are these the ‘end times’? Despite appearances, probably not! This is the sermon I preached today about some of the apocalyptic writings we find in our Bible, at Barnes Methodist Church. The texts were: Daniel 12:1-13 and Mark 13:1-8.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIntroduction

“There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence.” (Dan. 12:1) Reading those words on Thursday, as event unfolded at Parliament and in the Cabinet, I began to wonder if our reading from Daniel was referring to Brexit. But then I read on and knew it definitely was not: “Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky [and] lead many to righteousness”! Instead, our two readings today take us to two very dark periods of Biblical history, times that might even make Mrs May believe that things could always be worse!

Both readings come from times when the very existence of God’s people seemed in doubt and when the future was very uncertain. Both come from what is called the ‘apocalyptic’ genre of Biblical literature – from the Greek ‘apocalyto’ meaning ‘to reveal’ – and they sought to provide some insight into the heavenly truth behind the grim earthly reality faced by their first audiences. We shall seek this morning to understand a little of what lays behind these confusing writings, and discern whether they have anything to say to our own, troubled times.

The Temple

Solomons TempleWe need to begin with a little history and particularly the history of the great Temple in Jerusalem, which is central to the interpretation of both passages. I promise to be as brief as possible, though, and to illustrate what I am saying with some photos from my own time in Jerusalem a few years ago.

The first temple in Jerusalem was, the Bible tells us, built by Solomon, perhaps around 1000 BC or so. The scriptures provide a fairly detailed description of its dimensions and what it looked like, and there are numerous ‘artist’s impressions’ of its appearance on the web. By the time of the last kings of Judah it had become the centre for the worship of the one true God, Yahweh (or Jehovah). Around 586 BC, however, the Temple was destroyed by the invading Babylonians and left a pile of smouldering ruins, where faithful Israelites came to weep and lament (see Psalm 79).

After the return from Exile, the Temple was rebuilt, and is often referred to as the ‘Second Temple’. What it looked like we do not know, because no descriptions from that time have come down to us. All we can say is that the lack of money and resources after the disaster of defeat and exile meant that it was certainly not as impressive as its predecessor. As we read in Ezra, at its dedication, “old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house” (Ezra 3:12). Not the greatest architectural review! However, worship resumed and Jerusalem was once again the centre of the Jewish religion.

The ‘desolating sacrilege’

Antiochos_IV_EpiphanesA degree of mystery also surrounds what happened in the Temple a few hundred years later around the year 168 BCE. This is important because it is these events that lie behind much of the book of Daniel. At that time, Judea and a large part of the Middle East was under the rule of King Antiochus IV Epiphanes (here seen on one of his coins), the ruler of the Seleucid Empire. (The Seleucids are most easily described as the descendants of Alexander the Great and his army.) Judea had lived peaceably under their Hellenistic overlords for many years by this point, and had been allowed to live and worship their strange god in relative obscurity. For various reasons, though, they seemingly rebelled against this particular king. In turn, he sought to crush their insurrection and, we are told, in a fit of anger effectively tried to eradicate the Jewish faith. The inter-testamental book of 1 Maccabees tells us that he ordered the Jewish people to “profane sabbaths and festivals … to build altars and sacred precincts and shrines for idols, to sacrifice swine and other unclean animals, and to leave their sons uncircumcised” (1 Macc. 1:45-48). All who refused to obey were threatened with execution.

The king also, we are told, defiled the great Temple in some way. The book of 2 Maccabees tells us that he polluted it by re-dedicating it to “Olympian Zeus” (2 Macc. 6:2). Our reading from Daniel today adds to this by telling us that he caused “the abomination that desolates” to be set up in the Temple (Dan. 12:11, cf. 9:27, 11:31), also known as the ‘desolating sacrilege’. Now, the trouble is that whatever was done in the Temple was so distressing, so blasphemous and so ‘abominable’ that no Biblical writer could quite bring himself to actually record exactly what the king did in the Temple that was so awful. Most people assume that the king ordered a statue of the Greek god Zeus to be erected on the temple mount but we are not completely sure. All we do know is that whatever the king did was considered so bad that the whole temple had to be purified and re-dedicated afterwards (2 Macc. 10:1-8).

Understandably, all of this caused great distress throughout the land, and it was against this background that much of the book of Daniel seems to have been written. Not the earlier stories in the book with which we are most familiar – Daniel in the lions’ den, the fiery furnace, etc. – but the later chapters, like the one we heard from today. Chapters that are written in strange-sounding language, often using allegory and complicated imagery to describe what is happening. I could go into much greater details about all this, but suffice to say for now that, for Daniel’s first audience, this was indeed, “a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence” (Dan. 12:1). A time when their lives were threatened and their very existence as a separate people seemed in doubt. Ultimately, though, the popular rebellion was successful and, against all the odds, the little kingdom of Judah managed to regain its independence for some time.

The Temple in Jesus’ day

Second_Temple_viewIf we fast forward two hundred years or so to the time of Jesus, then the Temple in Jerusalem looks very different. It has been enlarged, enriched and greatly beautified by King Herod the Great. (Famous from the story of the Three Wise Men, of course.) In a bid to win popular support, he had initiated a massive building project on the Temple Mount some years before Jesus’ birth, which would not be completed until long after his death. It is this Temple that may be most familiar to us through pictures of reconstructions and models, like this famous one at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Arch_of_Titus_MenorahAs you can see, it was indeed an incredibly impressive structure and no wonder the disciples marvelled at it as they wandered through its precincts in Mark’s gospel (Mark 13:1). As we heard, though, Jesus warns them that all of this will soon be destroyed and in 70 AD that is precisely what happened. Once again, Judea is under the rule of a foreign empire, this time the Romans. Once again, the people rebel but this time ultimately unsuccessfully. And so, once again, the Temple is destroyed – this time never to be rebuilt. Whether Mark wrote his gospel before these terrible events or afterwards, we are not sure. It seems hard not to believe, though, that Jesus’s words on the Mount of Olives took on a much greater significance once his prophecy about the Temple’s destruction had come so distressingly true.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAToday in Jerusalem, it is possible to get some idea of how the Temple may have appeared and glimpse some of the destruction wrought by the rampaging Romans. The most famous surviving part of the Temple is, of course, the Western, or Wailing, Wall. This was not the wall of the Temple itself – which stood on top of what is now called Temple Mount – but the great supporting wall, built under King Herod to enable the massive extension of the Temple complex. Soon after the destruction of the Temple, scholars believe, this became a site for Jewish pilgrimage and prayer, primarily to lament the destruction of the Temple and the dispersion of the people, and it continues this function OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAtoday. You can also catch sight of part of this wall underground in Jerusalem – a fascinating place to be in such an ancient city! – where the tour guides will happily show you some of the “large stones” that Jesus’ disciples marvelled at, one of which is allegedly the same weight as two fully-laden jumbo jets! You can also see the some of the stones of the Temple that were pushed off the mount by the Romans during its destruction and which have lain undisturbed ever since. It brings home vividly the scale of the devastation that Jesus warned his hearers about in our passage from Mark.

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How long?

That is more than enough history and holiday photos for one Sunday morning, you will be delighted to hear! I hope, though, that that has given you some insight into the realities that lay behind our two passages today. And it is vital to stress that word, ‘reality’. What we have heard about today are not picture book fantasies. These were real people, living in real times and places, and facing real times of terror and persecution. Just because we do not have live footage from the BBC or CNN of their suffering does not make it any less real. These passages are clear examples of God’s Word breaking through into the reality of our won word, and it is vital we recognise that.

It also vital that we recognise how both passages are linked in so many ways. Both speak of the Temple. Both talk about times of terror and persecution. Both are addressed to audiences living in fear of the future. Both centre upon the seeming survival of the people of God. And both are also written in the strange, elliptical language of apocalyptic literature, which is so hard to understand.

1200px-Jerus-n4iCrucially, in both people want to know how long their suffering is going to last. The disciples quiz Jesus on the Mount of Olives: “when will this be”? (Mark 13:4). In Daniel, one of the mysterious figures standing by the river asks, “How long shall it be to the end of these wonders?” (Dan. 12:6). How long until a Brexit agreement is signed, ask our newspapers and commentators? In all cases, the answers are unclear and confusing!

In Mark, Jesus does not give the disciples a precise date and time, as perhaps they had hoped. Instead, he warns them about false teachers and describes some of the signs of the tribulation that is to come: “wars and rumours of wars …. earthquakes … famines” (Mark 13:7-8). Words that have been applied to every nation and every age since.

In Daniel, we come across a regular feature of apocalyptic writing: the use of numbers with apparently hidden meaning to denote individuals, events and particular time spans. The most famous example of this is ‘666’ in the book of Revelation. At times, this seems to have been used as a sort of code to protect the authors and readers at times of persecution. At others, though, we simply do not understand what lies behind verses like those we heard today from the end of the book of Daniel, and its references to 1,299 days and 1,335 days (Dan. 12:12). It has not stopped endless speculation, though, and I strongly discourage you from Googling these references on the internet. If you do, you will immediately discover that they refer to the Pope, Hitler, President Obama, the EU or pretty much anyone else you could imagine, and that the world ended last Thursday tea time! Instead, we need to echo Daniel’s prophetic words: “I heard but could not understand.” (Dan. 12:8). These are deeply mysterious writings, whose full meaning we shall not discover in our own lifetime, I believe.

Abiding hope

What on earth, then, are we meant to take from this confusing mess of history, temples and strange writings? Well, we take the other factor that links our two readings today.

What is most important in that passage from Daniel is not the talk about strange figures beside the river or the bewildering numbers. It is the hope that is given to Daniel of ultimate deliverance – the hope of the resurrection:

There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake” (Dan. 12:1-2)

For the first time in the Old Testament, a prophet is offered the hope that the dead shall not simply descend to Sheol, never to see the light of God’s brilliance again. (See, for example, Job 30:23.) Instead, there is the promise of eternal life: “Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky … like the stars for ever and ever.” (Dan. 12:3) We see clearly the unfolding revelation that is granted to God’s people in our scriptures; a God who continually reveals new truths about his plans for his people: “plans to prosper you and not to harm you” (Jer. 29:11, NIV).

resurrection-pieraThis promise to the prophet Daniel is realised and fully revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. The same Jesus who sat on the hillside of the Mount of Olives, gazing down upon the splendour of the Temple. Who, like the martyrs of Daniel’s day and the good people of Jerusalem when the Romans destroyed the city, faced the reality of terror and murder at the cruel hands of those in authority. But who took the horror of the cross and turned it into the glory of the resurrection, by triumphing over the grave on the third day. An event as historical and real as any we have discussed this morning.

The writer of Hebrews, in one of the other set texts for today, expresses it far better than I ever could:

when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, “he sat down at the right hand of God,” … And the Holy Spirit … testifies to us …  saying … “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus … let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith … Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds … encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:12-25)

Daniel’s confidence, Christ’s confidence, and our confidence does not lay in our knowledge of history or of secret numbers. It does not lay in temples, buildings or institutions, for as we shall sing shortly: “Tower and temple fall to dust.”. It lays in the promise and the reality of what God has done through his only Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ. In his life, death and resurrection. It is that which allows us to speak to all peoples, in all times, in all places, offering hope in seemingly hopeless situations. It is that hope which allows good people to oppose evil and fight for justice even today in our world, where the tyrants are no longer kings and emperors but presidents, generals and dictators.

We are not meant to know the future, brothers and sisters. We are not meant to scan the pages of our scriptures or the distant horizon, looking for “wars and rumours of wars”. We are not meant to be prophets of doom, warning people that now, truly, the ‘end times’ are upon us. We are meant to point to the hope that Daniel offered his contemporaries and which Mark offered to his. The hope that lies in a God who is faithful and just, and who will ensure that in a world that often seems so violent, confusing and fallen, ultimately justice, truth and grace will always triumph. Let us seek to follow Daniel’s example, therefore, and in a dark world “shine like the brightness of the sky … like the stars for ever and ever.” (Dan. 12:3) Amen.

Subversive God,
deconstructing
temples of power
in which we would keep you
trapped and tamed:
lead us through violent times,
unafraid to speak for peace,
untempted by those
who promise easy answers;
may we follow him alone
who renews the world in love;
through Jesus Christ, who sits at God’s right hand.
Amen.

(Prayer taken from ‘Prayers for an Inclusive Church‘.)

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Have we been moved?

This is the sermon I delivered today at Putney Methodist Church. Today is Remembrance Sunday and, of course, the hundredth anniversary of the end of World War One. The set texts were: Micah 4:1-7 and John 15:9-17.

2010, May 23 Iarmaroc Fest-13As a church here in Putney, we should be very grateful to one of our members for his hard work in ‘breathing life back into our war memorial’. He has spent a huge amount of time and effort researching the 22 names on our war memorial, and shedding new light on their lives and their service for this country. The results are fascinating, and you will have a chance to see the fruits of his labour after the service in the exhibition he has mounted. I commend it to you.

War memorialEarlier this week, I spent an afternoon taking David’s hard work and putting it onto our church website, making it a resource for a much wider audience. (See here.) I found the experience of reading through the stories of these young men – the vast majority of whom died in the first world war – a profoundly moving one. I was amazed at how our little war memorial here was at one and the same time so local and yet so global. The men came from houses that are mostly still standing today and in streets that are largely a few minutes’ walk from here – Oakhill Road, the Upper Richmond Road, Fanthorpe Street, Hotham Road (literally a few hundred feet from where I am standing now). They walked along the roads we shall take as we leave church today, with their packs on their back, waving goodbye to loved ones perhaps as they left, probably heading to Putney Railway Station, which most of us know so well, to begin their journey to the war. Yet they served across the world: by land, by sea and by air. They died in the mud of the Western Front, the deserts of Mesopotamia, the icy cold depths of the North Sea. They served in battles whose names we know so well – Ypres, Gallipoli, Jutland – alongside some of the most famous names of their day – General Allenby, Lawrence of Arabia, Admiral Jellico. Their service covered the entire length of the war, with one, Gerald Chick, dying a few months after Britain entered the war in November 1914, and another, John Rogers, dying just 17 days before the armistice was signed, in October, 1918.Austin T C

Inevitably, individual stories stand out. The youngest casualty on our memorial: Henry Gee, who died aged just 17, along with his entire ship’s company of 900 men, at the Battle of Jutland, and who has no grave but the North Sea. The families who lost not one but two sons to the conflict: the Chicks and the Heaths. Ernest Heath’s body was actually retrieved from no man’s land during the Battle of Loos by two other members of this church, we believe: men who had enlisted together, like so many “pals’ divisions”. A particularly poignant story for me is that of the first name on our list, Captain Thomas Austin, the son of the then minister of this church, Rev’d George Beesly Austin. He died in one of the greatest military disasters of a disastrous war, the siege of Kut in what is now Iraq. I can only imagine how his father and mother must have felt as the messenger, bringing the fateful telegram that so many families received, stopped outside the manse.

As I said, a deeply moving experience, and a deeply poignant snapshot of a global conflict. A moving experience that stands alongside so many moving experiences associated with this time of commemoration, as the focus of our remembrance focuses, rightly, on that terrible ‘war to end all wars’.

11_poppy-(Read-Only)For some of us, it have been personal research projects on members of our own family who served in the war, and I am sure that many of us will have seen numerous stories about research projects like David’s across the nation. For others, it may have been engaging with some of the numerous events, talks and television programmes over the last four years. Perhaps we watched the Festival of Remembrance last night from the Albert Hall, or plan to go to the special concert this afternoon at St Simon’s. We may have visited the Tower of London, either a few years ago, with the ceramic poppies marking each casualty of the war, or this year, with the sound and light display: ‘Beyond the deepening shadow’. We may even have witnessed one of the numerous local displays 171090128about today’s anniversary, like this one at Etherley Methodist Church in Bishop Aukland, where members decorated 2,000 plastic bottles to make this stunning poppy display (right). All moving displays of personal commitment to remember the events of a hundred years previously, and the sacrifices made.

For me, my most moving remembrance experience took place a few years ago, when I went with a number of other clergy in training to tour the battlefield and cemeteries around Ypres in Belgium. The tour was organised by the successor of the Toc H movement, which some of you may be familiar with, and aimed to help ministers reflect upon the themes of peace and reconciliation. Any of you who have travelled to the sites of the old Western Front will know that you cannot help but be moved by what you see and experience there. As you come across the cemeteries dotted around the Belgian countryside and the seemingly endless rows of neatly-arranged graves, it brings home – as nothing else can do – the huge number of casualties experienced by both sides in the war. So often, they bring home the futility of it all too. Tyne Cot, the largest Commonwealth war cemetery on the Western Front, contains graves from both the opening months of the war and its last, reflecting how little the front lines moved over the entire four years of the conflict.

IMG_1292.JPGAll of us on that trip were deeply moved by what we saw and experienced but we also were changed by it. All of us had at least some of our preconceptions, and perhaps even prejudices, challenged by what we encountered. We all noted how Christians crosses on the tombstones, mingle with Stars of David, Muslim crescents and other religious symbols, reminding us of the vast multinational and multi-religious effort involved in the war. We noted the age of so many of the war dead, so often not even seeing their 21st birthdays. We visited the place of execution for so-called cowards, and stood in the condemned cell, where they had spent their last night. We noted how even in death, divisions of race and ethnicity still seemed to prevail. In the corner of many cemeteries, you will find graves like this one (above, left): a Chinese ‘coolie’, brought across the world to fetch and carry. And perhaps most striking of all the distinction between the Commonwealth and German war cemeteries. The former being immaculately laid out with as much space as was needed for each body: the land made as a perpetual gift to the dead. The latter being buried in mass graves, containing up to 10,000 dead.

Crucially, though, we were not just emotionally moved by what we saw. By moving in time and space, by undertaking this pilgrimage, we also moved our viewpoint upon war, conflict and the world. We were different people from those who had begun the journey together from Cambridge. Our opinions, attitudes, even beliefs were not quite the same because of that shared experience. Because we had come face to face with the reality of war and its consequences. And that is the journey that all of us are called upon to take this day, and each Remembrance Sunday, if we are to create the vital space necessary for peace and reconciliation in our world. It cannot just be an emotional response – just to be moved for a moment and then carry on as if nothing had changed – Christ calls us to move, to shift our viewpoint and be changed by what we have experienced.

81P6suQo84LSadly, that transformative journey is one that too few people seemed, or seem, willing to take. Four years ago, as we marked the centenary of the outbreak of war, I read this fascinating tome: The Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to war in 1914 by Christopher Clark. In incredible detail, it sets out how Europe slid into war without seemingly intending to. It goes beyond the old clichés about Prussian militarism and British heroism. It sets out how the leaders of Europe placed concepts like national honour, economic gain and territorial ambition, over the interests of their own flesh and blood. It reminds us how demagogues and newspapers were able to exploit and enflame racist stereotypes and ethnic divisions to justify conflict and hatred. It points the finger of blame for the deaths of the young men listed on our war memorial firmly at all the nations of Europe and their leaders.

1001004001820890This year, as we prepared for the centenary of the armistice, I took up another book that I would heartily recommend to you all: Peacemakers by Margaret Macmillan. It describes the bizarre world of the Paris peace talks in 1918-19, which culminated with the signing of the disastrous Treaty of Versailles. What is utterly depressing, is how seemingly nothing had changed between these two dates. We meet different leaders, and we encounter some half-hearted idealism, but there seems to have been no recognition that anything was different. We find the same unbridled nationalism and imperialism, the same racist prejudices and stereotypes, the same belief that an elite group of white men in Paris could draw lines in the map of the world and claim ownership of peoples they have never even heard of. The same ignorance, the same justifications for war and domination. There seemed to be no self-awareness nor even the slightest desire to move perspectives and opinions. No desire to reflect meaningfully upon the terror that had been unleashed upon the world. Little wonder that so many of the problems we face today – from Israel and Palestine to unrest in the Balkans – can be traced back to this war to end all wars. What makes it even more distressing is that neither book, in describing the ‘golden age’ of Christian Europe, when our churches were full and nearly everyone was nominally a Christian, indicate that faith in the risen Christ affected our leaders and their actions one jot!

Too often, as people over the ages, and today, gather to remember conflict they make the same mistake. They may say prayers, and hear words from holy books, but they move not one inch from the prejudices and opinions that launched the conflicts in the first place. The fact that this week we celebrate not only the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One but the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht should teach us something.

imgID10398964By contrast, I hold up the example of ‘Woodbine Willie’, a man known by reputation to many of you, I am sure. Properly titled the Rev’d Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy, he was one of the numerous clergy who volunteered for the army chaplains’ department during the war. He soon became a familiar sight at the front line and elsewhere, dispensing Bibles from one haversack pocket and Woodbine cigarettes from another, hence the nickname Woodbine Willie. Like too many clergy, Studdert-Kennedy embraced the war with enthusiasm in 1914. He wrote in his parish magazine in Worcester:

I cannot say too strongly that I believe every able-bodied man ought to volunteer for service anywhere. There ought to be no shirking of that duty.

(Quoted from Woodbine Willie: An unsung hero of World War One – Bob Holman (2013), 31.)

If we are honest, Christians like Studdert-Kennedy had not done enough to speak out about the horrors of war and Christ’s call for peace and reconciliation in the years before 1914, and too many effectively became recruiting sergeants once war had broken out. People remembered this fact in the years after the war, and it is little wonder that many commentators trace the beginnings of the decline in church attendance in this country to 1918.

Studdert-Kennedy followed his own advice, though, and served throughout the conflict, as close to the front line as possible. Unlike the politicians at Versailles, though, he was a changed man by 1918. He had not only been deeply moved by the horrific suffering and senseless slaughter he had encountered but his whole outlook on the world had moved. One of his most famous poems sums up the change in his perspective since his days in Worcester:

Waste

Waste of muscle, waste of brain,
Waste of patience, waste of pain,
Waste of manhood, waste of health,
Waste of beauty, waste of wealth,
Waste of blood and waste of tears,
Waste of youth’s most precious years,
Waste of ways the saints have trod,
Waste of glory,
Waste of God.
War!

Like so many of those who served in that war, and wars ever since, he had been moved in a way that went far beyond a mere emotional response. He was not just moved; he had moved.

IMG_1277.JPGAnd that is what is required of us today, if we are serious about a belief in peace in our world. If we wish truly to turn our backs on the lies and half-truths that created the conditions for the conflict that took those 21 men from their families in this church a hundred years, and indeed most conflicts. We must be moved – not just emotionally but mentally. We must undertake a journey, whereby we see the world from a different perspective. As we look at the history of peace-making in our world, and think about the end of conflicts such as that in Northern Ireland, we see that peace does not come about when the warring sides think and act in exactly the same manner as when the trouble began. Real peace comes about because those involved have been changed by the conflict, and have begun  shift their perspective and perhaps just begun to glimpse the world from the viewpoint of their sworn enemies. As one of the canons of Coventry Cathedral, Sarah Hills, wrote recently – a place which has chosen to become a centre for reconciliation – it is a long journey that is so often required. A journey involving “truth, acknowledgement, remembering, story-telling, lament, repentance, forgiveness, justice” and restitution.Jerusalem War Cemetery

As I bring my remarks today to a close, I should like to return briefly to our own list of war dead here in Putney and to one name in particular: Private Clifford Marels, who died in November, 1917. He served with General Allenby and T E Lawrence in the Palestinian Campaign against the Ottoman Empire, a campaign made famous by the film ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. He died during the first British attack on Jerusalem, trying to seize a hill that at the time was of enormous tactical importance but which is now just a hill outside Jerusalem. When I Googled an image of his last resting place, I discovered this photo. It shows the usual immaculately-kept Commonwealth War Grave Cemetery but this time in the blazing heat of Israel, and with an incredible view over the Old City of Jerusalem. From here, I think you could glimpse the sites for many of the mast famous incidents from the life of Jesus Christ, not least the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. I wonder how a local lad from Putney would have reacted to that view.

As Christians, we are invited to share Private Marels’ perspective on the world. To see the world through the vision of the life, death and resurrection of our Jesus. To reflect upon the magnitude of Christ’s suffering;  to recognise the magnitude of what God has done for each one us through Jesus’ voluntary sacrifice; and, most importantly, to be changed by that experience. If we come here to worship today, if we encounter Jesus in our reading of scripture, if we meet him at the communion table, and are not changed by that experience, then it means nothing. Just as if we come to our war memorial with the same prejudices and hatred and ignorance then it means very little. The invitation this Sunday, and indeed every Sunday, is not just to be moved emotionally by what we have seen and heard: to have a form of sensory experience that temporarily moves us to tears or uplifts us to joy. It is to be transformed heart and soul: to be moved in our whole being – our thoughts, our opinions, our hopes and joys. To see the world from the perspective of Christ’s cross, and to open our arms wide in embracing all of God’s creation, just as Jesus did.

This Remembrance Sunday, let us not just be moved by what we have seen and heard. Let us be transformed through the power of Christ’s love and resurrection, offering hope and the possibility of reconciliation and renewal to a world that so desperately needs to hear good news this day. Be moved today but move as well, and see this world through the eyes of Christ, the prince of peace and God of love.

Heavenly Father, whose heart is selfless love,
Take pity on our divided world
And grant that we may follow in the steps of your Son
In giving ourselves to the service of others
And reaching out to the marginalised and despised,
That peace and justice may triumph
And your kingdom come on earth.
In Christ’s name we pray.
Amen.

 

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Sabbath rest

Can some of the most ancient texts in our Bible still speak to our modern culture about the need for rest and renewal?

SabbathOver the last few months, I have explored with various congregations in my area the meaning and importance of ‘the Sabbath’. This is a concept referred to throughout our scriptures, which has been a prominent part of Jewish and Christian religious practices for thousands of years. But what relevance, if any, does the idea of a ‘day of rest’ still have for us today in our 24/7 world? Well, quite a lot, I believe.

In the beginning … was the Sabbath

The idea of some sort of sabbath rest appears on practically the first page of our Bible, when we read about God’s work of creation. In six days, we are told, God has created the world and all that is in it. On the seventh, though, God does something different (Genesis 2:1-3):

By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.

adam_s_creation_sistine_chapel_ceiling__by_michelangelo_jbu33cut-0Whatever our views on the creation narratives in Genesis, the belief that somehow God rested on the seventh day of creation had a profound effect on the Israelites’ understanding of themselves and their deity. How God could ‘rest’ at all is, of course, a profound mystery. How can an omnipotent, eternal God, who stands outside all human notions of time and space, possibly take the day off? This is a debate that has raged for millennia, and was an active intellectual topic at the time of Jesus. (Indeed, it probably lay behind some of the stories in the gospels that centre on sabbath controversies.)

We should be careful about reducing God to the status of a created being, who needs time to potter round the garden or have a Sunday afternoon nap in front of the TV! Yet, we are clearly told that God somehow chose to rest after his work of creation. As one member of my congregation in Roehampton observed, in an inspired moment: “And God created rest!”.

Crucially, this single verse reveals a wonderful piece of good news for us all. It means that humans should have a time of rest too because we are made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27). This is the most important truth of the Genesis narrative. Not the trivial sideshow about evolution vs creationism, but the fact that we are made in the image of our creator and have something of God’s divine spark within us all. And that means we need to take God’s message about rest seriously!

Sabbath rest for everyone

A few pages later in our Old Testaments, we find one of many passages that speak about how the Sabbath should be observed, which flow directly from the creation of that seventh day of rest in Genesis. Here we find it enshrined in one of the most important of the Israelites’ legal codes, the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:8-11):

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

The people were commanded to remember God’s great gift of creation by setting aside one day a week and making it special – “holy” –  for the Lord. It was a day for remembering all that God had given them: plants, animals, even the very air they breathed. It was a day to remember their special place in creation, and their status as creatures made in the very image of God.

rembrandt_harmensz-_van_rijn_079What is so remarkable about this injunction, though, is its all-encompassing nature. It was not just rich, religious men who were to enjoy sabbath rest. It was everyone: women, children, slaves, servants, foreign visitors, even the animals! Time and again, in fact, the Old Testament makes clear that all parts of God’s creation, including the animal kingdom, should enjoy the blessings of God’s gracious commandments.

Importantly, we know that this commandment was obeyed. We not only have the evidence of the New Testament – where Jesus repeatedly got into trouble for breaking the sabbath in minor ways – but written records from non-Jewish sources (Greeks, Romans, etc.). Many of them remarked about the extraordinary practice of the Jews in not working on one day a week and how it marked them out from their contemporaries. Indeed, in the inter-testamental book of 1 Maccabees, we even find Jewish armies getting into terrible trouble because they refused to fight on the Sabbath! (1 Macc. 2:28-38)

Sabbath of sabbaths

The Bible does not stop there, though, when speaking about sabbaths. In Leviticus, we find the same concept applied to ‘sabbath years’ (Leviticus 25):

The Lord said to Moses at Mount Sinai, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you enter the land I am going to give you, the land itself must observe a sabbath to the Lord. For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops. But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to the Lord. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards. …

Count off seven sabbath years—seven times seven years—so that the seven sabbath years amount to a period of forty-nine years. … It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan. The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines. For it is a jubilee and is to be holy for you; eat only what is taken directly from the fields.

jubilee2b1The regulations go on to detail how this concept of sabbatical and jubilee years will work in practice. It includes provision for those who have had to sell their family land or property because of debt or misfortune. They must have the opportunity to reclaim it in the year of jubilee. Similarly, anyone who had had to sell themselves into slavery or indentured labour (something that still happens today) should be made free in the jubilee year.

Biblical scholars are unsure whether or not any or all of these regulations were ever put into practice, unlike those relating to the sabbath day. However, as with the verses from Genesis, the theological truth behind the text is much more important than the historical details. It speaks, again, of God’s desire that creation should have rest but in this case, not just humans and animals – the land should have rest too. And not only should people have rest from their labours, but rest from their debts and rest from their misfortunes too. These are truly radical verses!

Sabbath over time

The sabbath has remained a vital part of Jewish life up to the present day. I spent some time in Jerusalem a couple of years ago and was amazed at how rigidly it was observed there. As sunset on Friday approached, you could see people rushing home to enjoy shabbat with their families. Shops closed, the trams stopped and on Saturday morning the streets were absolutely deserted. My flight home from Tel Aviv airport was actually on Saturday afternoon and I had enormous difficulty even getting there!

In the Christian world, Sunday soon became regarded as the ‘Lord’s Day’ after Christ’s resurrection on the first Easter Sunday. For some time, many faithful Christians continued to observe the Jewish Sabbath but gradually, most came to regard Sunday as the new sabbath day. Cæsarius of Arles (470-543) observed that:

the whole glory of the Jewish Sabbath had been transferred onto Sunday, so that Christians had to keep it holy in the same way as the Jews had their own day of rest.

Most of the rigid dictates of the Old Testament regarding working on the sabbath, though, were not regarded as applying to Christians.

a057a6dd3b959c50da58d55c9a2c8f74The major change in Christian teachings about the Sabbath in fact came during the Reformation in the Sixteenth Century. It was then that ideas about Sunday being treated in the same way as the Jewish sabbath – with businesses and shops closing, and an abstention from all forms of work and ‘unsuitable’ activities (drinking, theatres, etc.) – really began to emerge. This ‘Sabbitarianism’ would have a massive effect on Protestant Christian culture down to our own time.

Many older members of my congregations grew up with this kind of reality. For most of them, they reported, Sabbath conjures up memories of the days when nearly all the shops were closed on Sundays and the only forms of entertainment permitted were visiting relatives, sleeping off the Sunday lunch or attending church (at least twice!). When we discussed this practice many expressed regret about the way in which Sunday had become “just like any other day”. They spoke about their sadness over the loss of this day of rest and relative calm, and the busy-ness of Sundays now, with grandchildren engaged in numerous activities that took them away from church.

wa_1940_1_92-aThere were, however, those who admitted that Sundays could be extraordinarily dull when they were young. They were days when there was little to do, and all sorts of ‘fun’ activities were prohibited. Many were also well aware that they had been sent off to afternoon Sunday Schools by parents keen for a bit of peace and quiet! One, when asked to describe Sunday afternoons in his childhood, said it could be summed up by the Sickert painting Ennui – boredom!

It is certainly arguable that some of the Sabbath observances of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries came close to the legalism that Jesus railed against. When he and his disciples were criticised by some Pharisees for the seemingly innocuous picking of a few heads of wheat on the sabbath (Mark 2:23-28), he gave his famous epithet on their stiff-necked judgement:

The Sabbath was made for the good of human beings; they were not made for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.

As a faithful Jew, Jesus observed the Sabbath but clearly felt that the spirit of the festival was more important than its minute regulation. In the same way, hearing some of my older folks’ stories, I find it hard to believe that the Lord would be truly offended by children playing games on a Sunday, or even having a good time! Too often the focus on ‘Sabbatarianism’ seemed to miss the larger point. For example, as we observe the centenary of the end of World War One, it is interesting to note that amidst the mass carnage and horrendous suffering, one of the military padres’ chief concerns was flying on Sundays by the newly-formed RAF!

The Sabbath today

What does this mean for us today? Arguably, nothing at all. Ancient commandments about a day of absolute rest do not sit comfortably with our 24/7 – 365 day a year culture. We live in a society that increasingly relies upon people working on Sundays, and indeed actively expects them so to do. Most people are no longer paid extra for working on Sundays and regulations limiting the Sunday opening of shops have been steadily eroded in recent decades. Mobile apps and the internet do not observe a Sabbath: why should we?

what-is-sabbath-should-we-keep-the-sabbath-day-or-the-lord25u2019s-dayInterestingly, though, almost all of the people to whom I spoke in my congregations agreed that the concept of rest as being somehow ‘sacred’ remained important. Several made the link between the words ‘rest’ and ‘reset’: the Sabbath functioning as a much-needed opportunity to pause and reflect in a hectic world. They were impressed too at the extension of the concept to other parts of creation in the Bible, and many immediately saw the relevance with so modern concerns and scientific discoveries about the human body’s need for regular rest.

We discussed how, in so many ways, we have had to rediscover ancient truths about the need for rest. Matthew Walker, a professor of sleep, presented an unanswerable case for the absolute necessity of proper rest for human welfare in his 2018 best-seller, Why we sleep?. Agriculture has rediscovered ancient ways of letting the land rest in order to replenish its essential nutrients and the dire consequences of simply exploiting it without interruption. The Jubilee 2000 movement, and subsequent Jubilee Debt Campaign, was directly inspired by the teachings of Leviticus and its message of hope for those enslaved by debt. Working across boundaries, it successfully liberated thousands of people from the curse of unfair debt in the developing world.

Together, we thought about what the concept of sabbath rest might look like for all of our creation:

  • low-paid workers – struggling to make ends meet and either unable to take a proper break or not allowed proper time off by companies desperate to maximise returns and minimise overheads.
  • people in debt – desperate for a break from excessive interest rates, stuck on a treadmill of ever-increasing indebtedness.
  • families – coping with ever-lengthening work days, with women and men often holding multiple jobs or working on insecure ‘zero hours’ contracts, desperately trying to keep food on the table and a roof above their heads.
  • children at school – facing more and more testing and homework, with teachers leaving the profession everyday owing to overwork.
  • refugees – desperate for a place to lay their head and a chance to rest in peace and security.
  • animals – factory farmed to produce ever greater yields.
  • the land – pumped with chemicals and artificial agents in order to allow ever greater exploitation.

I am sure you could add many more to the list, and could think of new applications. In my role as a minister, I meet too many people who desperately need a rest – from work, from worry, from guilt and so much more. More than ever before, I feel it vital that we as Christians affirm wholeheartedly God’s gracious gift of rest. Even if we could, the stories in our Bible tell us that we are not meant to work every hour God gives. We are made in the image of God and are meant to enjoy the rest that he has hard-wired into his creation. Let us reject contemporary notions that base people’s worth solely on what they produce and how many hours they work. The Lord of the Sabbath offers all his creation the precious gift of rest. Let us treasure it and share the good news with all the world!

Sabbath

 

 

 

 

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)

IMG_0543

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.