Abandon hope?

This is the sermon I preached today at Holy Trinity Roehampton, an Anglican church in an ecumenical relationship with minstead Gardens Methodist Church. It was the last Sunday in Advent, usually called the feast Christ the King, when the Christian church usually reflects on the ‘last things’ – heaven, hell and the last judgement. The set text was Matthew 25:31-46.

michelino_danteandhispoem“Abandon hope all you who enter here.” I hope that this was not your immediate reaction when you learned that I was preaching here today! Those well-known words actually come from one of the most detailed descriptions of heaven and hell in Christian literature: Dante’s Divine Comedy. This very long, narrative poem was written in the 14th Century by the Italian poet, Dante Alighieri, and describes his imaginary journey through the three realms of the dead: hell (over whose gates my opening quote was carved), purgatory and heaven. When I finally read the work earlier this year during a holiday in Italy, I, like most other commentators, found the first part of the journey, the Inferno, the most interesting. Perhaps that reflects the fact that we take much greater interest in the lives of the wicked than we do in those of the saints!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs I read, I was struck by how influential this work, and the art and literature it helped to spawn, has been in shaping the common view of the heaven, hell and the last judgement. The so-called ‘last things’ that we are thinking about today on this the feast of Christ the King. Perhaps most notably, the concept of ‘circles of hell’, where sinners are divided up according to the wickedness of their deeds, with the lustful receiving the mildest punishment and the lowest circle being reserved for traitors and the treacherous. (Over the years, many others have suggested that there are other, special circles of hell reserved for everyone from US presidents to Methodist ministers who preach too long!) Within these circles, we meet many famous and infamous names, and a large number of Dante’s contemporaries from the world of Italian politics: popes, princes, priests, and others. What may appeal to us about this rather gruesome picture is that each is receiving their ‘just desserts’; they are being repaid in fullest measure for the evil they have done. Hypocrites are forced to wear lead cloaks; the proud must walk around bent double, literally kissing the dust; flatterers are to be found up to their necks in an eternal pool of what, in present company, may only be called sewage.

This is all very satisfying to those who have been wronged, no doubt, and it unquestionably makes for a wonderful narrative. It was also clearly influenced by, and in turn influenced, the huge amounts of art and literature about the end times that has been produced by Christians over the last two millennia. 500 years ago, for example, as you left nearly every church in this country, you would have been confronted by an enormous ‘doom painting’ on the western wall: a giant depiction of the last judgement, with the world being divided into the saved and the damned, with appropriate illustrations. Just the sort of image with which you wanted to go home!

Like so much of what we think we know about the Last Judgement and the end times, though, it has very little basis in what Jesus actually said. Our reading today from Matthew’s gospel – chilling though it undoubtedly is – does not speak about demons with pointy forks, pools of sewage or even circles of hell. That has come from our vivid human imaginations, and in some cases the desire to control and manipulate people. Instead, therefore, of fruitlessly speculating about the “furniture of heaven or the temperature of hell” (H. Richard Niebuhr), I would suggest that we concentrate our thoughts on two key points today.

fra_angelico_009

First, we must acknowledge that, as Christians, we believe in judgement. As we state in our creed, we believe that Jesus,

ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

If we are honest, it is probably part of the creed that we either think little of or ignore completely. Such feelings are entirely understandable. The concept of Christ as a stern and inflexible judge presiding over the division of families and loved ones into two opposing camps for all eternity seems to have little to do with the Jesus who played with little children and washed the feet of his disciples. Yet if we ignore it then we run the risk of simply editing our Bibles and our tradition to suit our own wishes. As the theologian Richard Niebuhr observed, we create an alternative gospel:

A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.

The Bible is clear: there will be a final judgement. We will be called to account for how we have led our lives. For the evil we have done and the good we have not done.

But we must be clear. This is divine justice we are speaking about, not human justice. This is not the verdict of one man, like Dante in his Inferno, deciding what is a fit punishment for all those who have wronged him. This is not the findings of a jury swayed and tricked by clever lawyers, as in the infamous trial of O J Simpson. This is not even trial by the media, where newspaper hacks and Twitter trolls determine an individual’s fate in a few lines of text. This is the judgement of God.

ratko_mladic487_courtSuch things are beyond all human comprehension. Yet, like the Kingdom of Heaven of which Matthew writes elsewhere, we may occasionally catch of glimpse of what we are talking about today here on earth, and I believe we saw such an instance this week. On Wednesday, Ratko Mladic, the man who commanded the Bosnian Serb army during the war in Yugoslavia and became known as the ‘butcher of Bosnia’ was finally given a life sentence by an international court. That sentence was the culmination of nearly 20 years of hard work to bring the man responsible for the horrific massacre at Srebrenica to justice. The court had sat for four years, had heard testimony from nearly 600 people and had examined millions of pages of evidence. And all this after an international manhunt that lasted over a decade to find him. Finally, though, justice has been done.

Too many evil people have escaped such justice in their lives and too many of their victims never lived to see the sentences carried out. But in this case, I believe we catch the tiniest glimpse of what we are talking about in the last judgement. A justice that knows no limits of time or geography. A justice that examines every fragment of evidence with minute care. A justice where the voices of the most marginalised in our world – the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the prisoner; voices so often ignored by the great and the good – are given centre stage. It is a justice that cannot be swayed or bribed; a justice that truly knows all and sees all; a justice free of all impartiality and bias.

This is hard for us to comprehend and perhaps even harder to accept. Yet we need to hold the truth that there will be a final judgement in tension with another truth – my second and final point. That is the truth of the identity of our judge.

230533-pAlthough the language in Matthew’s gospel is a little enigmatic – “the Son of Man” (Matt. 25:31) – it is all too apparent that it is Jesus who will be our ultimate judge. As the World Council of Churches stated in a document about the end times: “We do not know what is coming, but we know who is coming”. In that, the medieval doom paintings and suchlike were correct. Christ will ultimately return as king of all the nations, to judge the living and the dead. But when he comes, it will be the same Jesus Christ we encounter in our gospels. It will be the same Jesus who wept over the death of his friend Lazarus; it will be the same Jesus who walked with his friends on the road to Emmaus; it will be the same Jesus who forgave the thief his sins on the cross. The same Jesus who cured the lame, laughed with his friends, sat at supper with saint and sinner alike. It is the Christ of infinite mercy, grace and love who will be our judge. And that gives me the confidence to hope and trust in that judgement.

People often ask me the most difficult questions about this subject: “What about heaven and hell?”; ‘What about my friends and family who don’t go to church?”; “What about Buddhists, or Muslims, or Hindus?”. Or the one I genuinely hear most often: “Will my dog go to heaven?” In all these cases, I respond with all honesty, “God knows.”. And God does know.

Crucifixion - DuccioThe God who lived among us in the person of Jesus Christ will take care of all these matters. We are not called to dwell upon them endlessly, or even to write a lengthy narrative poem about them in Italian. We are called to be the best people we can be, here and now. We are called to try our hardest to be a good neighbour. We are called to do our best to follow the example of Jesus in all that we say and do, and share the good news of his life, death and resurrection with all who will listen. And the rest we can leave to Jesus, knowing that he has all these things – and many more – in his hands. Let us live and die, therefore, as people who know that there will be judgement one day. But that that judgement will be carried out by the most merciful, most understanding and most loving of judges. A judge who loved the defendant in the dock so much, that he gave up his innocence, his freedom and even his life for the sake of each one of us. And on that truth, our hope – our eternal hope – may rest secure. Amen.

Trouble with talents

This is the sermon I preached this evening on the Parable of the Talents, as it is generally called, at Putney Methodist Church. The text was Matthew 25:14-30. It challenges us all to reflect on the multiple meanings we find in the parables that Jesus told.

Parable_of_the_Talents._MironovThe meaning of this parable is clear. It’s all about stewardship. We can see clearly this when we understand the double meaning of ‘talent’. Like many ancient monetary units, such as a ‘shekel’, it originally meant a unit of weight. (In Revelation 16:21, we read of hailstones the weight of talents raining down in the apocalypse.) By Jesus’ time, though, it also referred to a specific amount of money. It’s fairly hard to quantify ancient amounts of currency in modern terms, but it would have been roughly enough to allow someone to live at a very basic level for 15 years. So, no mean amount of cash. In English, however, the Greek talantov has become our word ‘talent’, a word that carries a very different meaning to a simple sum of money. In fact, it is a meaning that is directly derived from this Biblical passage: “a special aptitude or faculty” (OED).

We can see, therefore, that this parable is a challenge to all Christians to consider not only how they use their money and resources but also their God-given talents and abilities. This powerful story – often used by churches during their stewardship campaigns – should make all Christians pause and reflect on how they spend their time and money. Ultimately, we believe that all things derive from God and his generous bounty; we owe our very existence to him. This powerful story reminds us very forcefully that we will be called to account for how we have used these gifts. It calls us to consider whether we should be supporting the work of Christ’s church more generously with our own resources. Are we being called to increase our giving? To volunteer to help with Sunday School? Even to commit our whole life to Christ’s service? It also reminds us, like the story of the widow’s gift (Mark 12:41-44), that the more resources and talents we have been blessed with, the more will be expected of us. “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Luke 12:48).

But perhaps not.

The meaning of this parable is clear. It’s all about subversive economics. We can see this clearly when we grapple with one of the most challenging elements of the parable: the figure of “the master” (25:19). We encounter many similar figures of authority in the parables that Jesus told – a father, a king, a vineyard owner, etc. On most occasions, we interpret these as allegorical representations of God the Father, and they tell us something about his character or nature. So, for example, the incredible act of forgiveness by the father in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) tells us a great deal about what the love of God really means.

51srzghscrlIn this case, however, we really struggle to see how the master can possibly represent God. What does a “harsh” landowner (25:24), who reaps where he does not sow, have to do with the loving creator we encounter in Jesus Christ? This challenge has led many Biblical commentators to seek a different interpretation. One of the most novel is that of William Herzog II, who argues that the story, like many others Jesus told, is actually a searing indictment of his contemporary social and economic situation. Notably, the power of the aristocratic elite, who have gradually taken control of all the land and turned subsistence farmers into day labourers. Men who, like those we encounter in the parable of the vineyard workers (Matt. 20:1-16), are now utterly dependent upon the landowners for their daily bread. How did the landowner in this parable make his money, Herzog urges us to ponder? Through exploitation of his fields and workers; by squeezing every penny out of them and crushing any sign of dissent. And how did the first two servants earn such handsome returns for their master? Through exactly the same processes, or perhaps by charging outrageous interest on loans to desperate families. This is what he suggests that the poor third servant should have done (Matt. 25:27), even though this was strictly against the commandments of the Jewish faith (Exodus 22:24 and elsewhere).

Jesus told this parable, Herzog suggests, not to teach his first listeners but to evince understanding grunts of sympathy from them. They would have been only too familiar with characters like these, he suggests, exploitative masters and their paid lackeys. In this interpretation, the landowner praises the first two servants for being “effective exploiters of the peasants” and allows them to enter into his “joy”, i.e. share in the luxury of his court and benefit from the poverty and pain of others (Herzog II, 163). If this is true, then the speech of the third servant Matt. 25:24-25) is not a whining excuse but an incredibly brave and powerful piece of rhetoric. He denounces the cruelty and rapacity of his master in front of the entire household. Herzog argues that he is in fact enunciating what everyone else thinks about their cruel master. The Lukan parallel (Luke 19:11-27) arguably brings this out even more, making clear that the master’s subjects “hated him”. The third servant is, in modern parlance, a whistle-blower, exposing the cruelty of the system and its master. He is the “hero” of the piece: “By digging a hole and burying the aristocrat’s talent in the ground, he has taken it out of circulation. It cannot be used to dispossess more peasants from their lands through its dispersion in the form of usurious loans.” (Herzog II, 167) Sadly, the other members of the household refuse to see what they could achieve, if they united against this unjust tyrant. Instead, they throw him out into the cold, where the other landless peasants wail at their poverty and their teeth chatter through hunger (25:30). The parable urges all its listeners to resist such tyranny.

But perhaps not.

AAAThe meaning of this parable is clear. It’s all about eschatology – the end times. We can see this clearly when we examine the context of this parable in Matthew. It’s the third of four stories about the ‘eschaton’ (Greek for the ‘end times’ – hence eschatology) and the last judgement. All these passages dwell on the theme of being prepared and ready for a character who could return at any moment, a master, a king, a bridegroom. Don’t be caught sleeping, the stories warn their listeners.

empress-and-cardinal-with-versesIn our parable, the “man going on a journey” who only returns after “a long time” (25:14, 19) is clearly Jesus. He is preparing the disciples for his imminent ascension back to heaven. He is warning them that they need to be ready for his return at any time, though. It reflects the early church’s near obsession with the Second Coming of Jesus (or ‘Parousia’), which they thought could happen at any minute. Many disciples could not understand why Jesus did not come back sooner (see Matt. 24:48, 25:5) but all the parables warn against becoming complacent. The Parable of the Talents warns them in unequivocal terms that Jesus – the master – will return, and when he does there will be a reckoning. Each disciple will be called to account for how he has used the talents and gifts he has been given, and judged accordingly. It is reminiscent of medieval doom paintings that show popes, princes and peasants at the last judgement, all being judged on the basis of the opportunities they had for doing good (and bad). It is a stern reminder to us all that none of us can escape a final judgement on our lives: on the evil we have done and the good we have not done. However long we live, however delayed the master’s return may be, we can never escape that final reckoning. Be warned, the parable warns its listeners, the master is coming!

But perhaps not.

The meaning of this parable is clear. It’s all about evangelism. We can see this clearly when we understand the over-arching call of Matthew’s gospel, which is summed up in its final verses: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). The precious treasure with which the servants have been entrusted is not gold but the gospel: the words of Jesus that hold the key to life itself. This treasure is not ours to keep, though, it is to be used for the benefit of the whole world, to liberate and enlighten everyone.

evangelismIf we recognise this, we can see that the third servant’s sin is not laziness or neglect, rather it is fear. The fear of talking about the good news of Jesus Christ. It speaks directly to the modern church and our modern age, where so many Christians feel the temptation to treat faith and religion as a purely personal matter. It completely contradicts the notion of Christianity as a retreat, or an escape from the risky life around us.

It also reminds us that love and passion demand risk – be that in commercial endeavours, romance or becoming a parent. If we truly believe in the mission that has been entrusted to us, then we will risk everything for its sake, even being shunned by our friends and family. In so doing, we are emulating the risk that Jesus Christ took in his own ministry. As Jesus observes earlier in Matthew’s gospel:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?” (Matt. 16:24-26)

Only by being risk-takers, like the first two servants, may we hope to enter into our master’s joy and experience the full release of his liberating message. If we remain timid and uncertain, then we too shall find him a hard task-master indeed. As one commentator on this passage has observed: “The greatest risk of all, it turns out, is not to risk anything, not to care deeply and profoundly enough about anything to invest deeply, to give your heart away and in the process risk everything.” (John M Buchanan, Feasting on the Word)

But perhaps not.

Which interpretation do you prefer? Which do you dislike, or reject? Do you have another interpretation?

This parable, like all those Jesus told, has been the subject of intense debate and discussion ever since he told it. And, of course, that is the point of a parable. If Jesus had wanted to be clear, he would have left us commandments and a precise manual on life, rather than a set of stories. They are meant to challenge and confuse us. They are meant to speak to us differently at different times and in different stages of our lives. How I read this parable today is not be the same as how I will read it in ten years’ time. Perhaps the answer is to ask ourselves which interpretation troubles us most? Which challenges my assumptions and prejudices? Which would I rather not hear? Arguably, it is precisely that interpretation that should be the starting point for our own understanding.

Remember!

This is the sermon I preached today at Barnes Methodist Church on Remembrance Sunday. The set texts were Micah 4:1-7 and Matthew 5:43-48.

Remembrance is a theme that runs through the whole of scripture. Indeed, arguably the Bible was written precisely so that people should remember. And as with our service today, the purpose of remembrance in scripture is always two-fold:

thiepval-anglo-french-cemeteryFirst, remembrance is commanded in order that we should look back with thanks. In the Old Testament, the people of God are continually being called to look back and remember the events of the past and see how God had delivered them. Most importantly, numerous passages in Psalms and elsewhere encourage God’s people to remember how he delivered them from slavery in Egypt and led them to freedom over the parted Red Sea. (See Psalm 77, for example.) However bad things are or seem now, the people are called to remember what God has done for them in the past, and to take courage and confidence from that remembrance.

The Israelite festivals that we read about so often in the Old and New Testaments were specifically designed to encourage such remembrance. Most importantly of course the festival of Passover, with its unleavened bread, encouraged the faithful to re-enact their story of redemption. And in our church today, our worship centres round an act of remembrance, holy communion, where we are called to remember what God has done for us in the person of Jesus Christ. In all of these cases, and many others, we are meant to tell the tale to each other and very importantly to the next generation, so that the story should not be forgotten. And, of course, this is a vital part of what we are doing across the nation and Commonwealth today with the countless acts of remembrance that are taking place: encouraging people to look back with thanks for all the sacrifices that have been made on our behalf.

There is another reason for Biblical remembrance, though, which is that we should be changed as a result of our remembrance. In preparation for today, I looked up the word ‘remember’ in my concordance, and one of the most regular uses of the word comes in the prophets and the Law, when God’s people are called to ‘remember’ that they were slaves and foreigners in Egypt. (See for example, Deuteronomy 15:15.) They are called to remember what it was like to taste the bitterness of that experience. And crucially this remembrance was meant to change their ways and specifically to change the way they treated their own slaves and the foreigners in their land. Each year, they would celebrate the Festival of Booths, something that faithful Jews still celebrate in the festival of Sukkoth today. Essentially, it was, and is, a harvest festival but the people were also commanded to erect temporary booths – or tabernacles – in the streets and live in them for the week of the festival, to remind them of what it was like to sleep under the stars during the Exile. It was meant to remind them of being homeless and, at least in part, to encourage them to be more compassionate to those who suffered similar exile. And as Christians, we come to the table of our Lord not just to enjoy a rather insubstantial lunch but to be changed. We come to become better people, more Christ-like because we have remembered how God loved us. To be more willing to hear God’s Word and to follow his example – loving even our enemies, for example, as we heard in our lesson today.

IMG_1376.JPG

Commonwealth Cemetery outside Ypres

One of my concerns about the way we sometimes mark Remembrance Sunday in this country is that we are arguably very good at the first but often struggle with the latter. Whenever I have had foreign friends in the country at this time of year, they often comment on how well we observe this annual time of remembrance. They will often remark on the beautifully-kept war memorials that we find in practically every village and town, on the immaculately-kept Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries in Flanders and across the world, on the number of poppies sold and the solemnity of our ceremonies. We are very good now at teaching children about the sacrifices made by countless British and Commonwealth families during the first and second world wars, and of conjuring up the horrors of war both on the battlefield and the home front. My parents recently visited the Menin Gate in Ypres and were astounded by the huge numbers of British people there, the young children laying wreaths and the absolute silence that was observed during the Last Post ceremony. We are good at remembering and saying thank you.

But are we so good at changing our ways? Do we really heed the lessons of the past and turn our swords into ploughshares? If you look at the number of village war memorials that were obviously built to commemorate the dead of WW1 and then had to squeeze in the extra names for WW2, then perhaps not. And sometimes our remembrance itself is even limited, and we remember only those bits of the past that we want to.

march-statue-of-sir-nicholas-winton-lyn-perkinsOne good example of what I am talking about comes from my home town, Maidenhead. If you alight at Maidenhead train station now, you are greeted by the statue of a friendly-looking man on a railway bench. The statue was unveiled a few years ago by the local MP, Theresa May, and is of Sir Nicholas Winton. He is rightly famous for his part in initiating and organising the Czech Kindertransport: the series of trains that managed to bring 669 Jewish children from Central Europe to safety in Britain in the months before the Second World War. Visiting Switzerland in 1938, he volunteered to help a friend working for the International Committee for Refugees. Remarkably, he never really spoke about what he did afterwards. It was only much, much later, when his wife was searching for something in the attic and came across some documents relating to this remarkable

02wintonobit3-master1050

Sir Nicholas Winton in 1938 with a young Czech refugee

episode that the truth finally came to light. Without telling him what she knew, she arranged for Nicholas to join her at a recording of the television programme That’s Life. At a certain moment, though, the presenter related his story and invited anyone in the audience who had been saved by the Kindertransport to stand up. Every man and woman around him stood up. It is an incredibly powerful moment as grown women and men weep and hug this bespectacled elderly man, many proudly showing him photographs of their own children – the families that he had effectively spared from the gas chambers.

682px-Kindertransport

Frank Meisler, KindertransportThe Arrival (2006) outside Liverpool Street station

That is a wonderful story and one we should remember. But what about the bits of the story we don’t choose to remember? Why don’t we remember that even after the horrific events of Kristallnacht in Nazi-ruled Germany, the House of Commons still only allowed the entry into Britain of Jewish refugees younger than 17, provided they had a place to stay and a warranty of £50 was deposited for their eventual return to their own country? Why don’t we talk about the headlines and editorials in British newspapers that condemned proposals to accept Jewish refugees in the years before the war, often declaring the country was already ‘full up’, and who expressed often barely veiled sympathy for Hitler’s policies? Why don’t we remember the anti-Semitism and coldness that so many of the children encountered upon arrival? Why don’t we remember the parents, uncles, aunts, cousins and friends of these children, whom Britain and the other western nations refused to accept and left to the terror of Nazi rule and certain death?

At this time and in this place, I feel it more important than ever for me as a Christian minister to call us back to the true Biblical meaning of remembrance: a remembrance that truly changes us for the better. A remembrance that reminds us of the call for forgiveness, even in the face of death. A remembrance that calls us all to pursue and protect peace in Christ’s name, with every fibre of our being. A remembrance that continually calls to mind the teachings and most importantly the example of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Now, more than ever, I believe we need to remember what it is that causes war and suffering in our world, and what is required for the peace of which Christ spoke so eloquently to come about. When I was a child, one of my favourite films was the ‘Indiana Jones’ series. Amidst the many characters and plot lines we encountered there, there were nearly always nasty Nazis ready to take over the world with some diabolical plot or another. And it’s so tempting to think that that is how wars come about – with arch-villains plotting in underground bunkers, surrounded by secret maps and armies of henchmen.

More recently, though, I was reading a non-fiction book about a small town in Germany in the 1920s and 30s. It wasn’t really about the war or the Nazis, it was about a family that lived in that town, with the momentous events of history merely as a background. It spoke about the lives of individual people, local tradesmen, the mayor, the doctor, the pastor, and their struggles to carry on with life in that incredibly difficult period. It was primarily concerned with the minutiae of life in a town like any other. It reminded me that war and terror don’t start with secret plans and underground bunkers. They begin with people forgetting the basic commandments of Christian life: forgetting to love, forgetting to break down barriers instead of building them up, forgetting to prefer truth to lies. It begins with people saying, “Well, of course, I never really liked Jews.” Or Muslims, or refugees, or Poles. It begins with people preferring to keep their heads down and say nothing about the injustice and the lies they see around them, because they want an easy life. It begins with people believing that the foundations of our society – democracy, the rule of law and human rights – can be treated as optional rather than absolute: “I believe in justice, provided it does what I want it to do.” “I believe in human rights for the humans I like, but not for others.” “I believe in democracy when the vote goes my way.”

crucified-tree-formToday, of all days, we must remember that war and peace begin, not in parliaments or command bunkers, but in our hearts. This is where terror, hatred and avarice come from – the building blocks of war. But it is also where love, compassion and mercy come from – the foundations of peace.

Today of all days, we must learn the lessons of the past and change our ways accordingly. We must not accept an edited version of history that edits out all the bits we don’t like and superimposes on it the gloss of contemporary dogmas and creeds.

Today of all days, we must recall the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace. For the sake of our world and his Kingdom, we must follow his example of selfless love, of forgiveness and of a complete rejection of all that leads to hatred. On this Remembrance Sunday, let us not just remember, but let us be changed through our remembering too. Amen.

Standing on the shoulders of giants

This is the sermon I delivered today at Putney Methodist Church today, reflecting on the themes of remembrance and the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. The text was Hebrews 12:1-3.

martin-luther-9389283-1-402We are now well and truly in the season of remembrance. On Wednesday, Christians across the world marked All Saints Day, the day we traditionally remember those who have gone before us to glory. Next Saturday and Sunday, we shall be marking Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday, when we recall the sacrifice made by all those who have been killed in conflict and recommit ourselves to work for God’s peace in our world. And today, of course, is Bonfire Night or Guy Fawkes, when we “remember, remember the 5th of November, gunpowder, treason and plot”.

There is another occasion for remembrance this year, though. The 31st October marked 500 years since the traditionally starting date of the Protestant Reformation: the day on which Martin Luther allegedly nailed his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg. This anniversary has been widely marked across the world, and I am sure that you have seen at least one article or television programme about some aspect of the Reformation this year. Perhaps David Starkey’s recent television series on television, for example. Naturally enough perhaps, the celebrations have been most marked in Luther’s home nation, Germany. There, the country has been celebrating ‘Reformation 500’ for the last twelve months – and my German pastor friend, for one, is looking forward to its conclusion! My favourite tribute to Luther probably comes from the German toymaker, Playmboil, who not only produced a lovely Martin Luther play figure but also an animated version of the great man’s life (here)!

Playmobil-Luther ging schon 400.000 Mal wegLuther’s legacy is, of course, not entirely straightforward. We rightly remember him as a man of his time, with many faults and failings. His views on Jews are wholly unacceptable, for example, and we always need to remember that any human we put on a pedestal will inevitably have feet of clay. Many would also question whether his division of the Christian church into Protestant and Catholic is a legacy worth remembering. A division that continues to provoke violence and misunderstanding down to our own day. They might also argue that too much of our Christian heritage and tradition was lost and destroyed by Luther and his followers, which should have been retained.

Yet it is noteworthy that the 500th anniversary celebrations in Germany have been co-organised by both the Protestant (Lutheran) and Catholic churches. After centuries of ‘wars of religion’, it seems that all Christians are finally able to find something to celebrate in the life of Martin Luther. To different Christians this will mean different things, and many would argue that Luther merely rediscovered aspects of faith and practice that others had already discovered. Nearly all might agree, though, that Luther’s great emphasis on a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour and the true acceptance of God’s forgiveness were vital for all Christians. They would also agree – and this is where many Catholic historians might argue that Luther wilfully misunderstood traditional doctrines – that it is only by the grace of God that any of us are ultimately reconciled with God; we can never earn our salvation. Perhaps most importantly, nearly all Christians today would emphasise the importance of knowing our scriptures and having ready access to them in our own language, in order that we might “hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them”, as another reformer, Thomas Cranmer, wrote. If Luther had done nothing else than produce his monumental German translation of the Bible, thereby encouraging others to follow suit, then he would be worthy of our remembrance. Drawing on his vast intelligence and scholarship, but also his love for ordinary people and his passion for the scriptures, he produced a text that was immediately accessible and incredibly powerful. When we pick up a Bible in our own mother tongue it is arguably Luther, most of all, to whom we need to be thankful.

luther95thesesI could go on at much greater length about Martin Luther, his life, achievements and legacy but there is neither time nor the need. I strongly encourage you to take advantage of the plethora of material available about him at present in the media and elsewhere. (Not least the free exhibition at the British Library.)

What I do wish to emphasise, though, is that we must always remember that God has not left us alone in our struggles with life and faith. As the writer of Hebrews urges us to remember, “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1). As good Protestants here today, I know that many of us when challenged by problems in life or when in need of guidance, would immediately turn to our scriptures. That is right and proper, but we all know only too well that very often the Bible can supply as many questions as answers. How do we interpret difficult passages? How do we reconcile texts from different parts of the Bible that seem to contradict one another? How do we discern the truth about nuclear weapons, artificial intelligence, stem cell research, or a host of other subjects about which our Bible appears to be completely silent?

The answer is always to recall that we are not facing the challenges on our own. We are never the first people to ponder these issues. In each and every generation, God has raised up women and men to guide and encourage us. Some of these bear the title ‘saint’ but many, many others – such as Martin Luther – do not! Some were scholars and academics; others were pastors or bishops; some lived lives separated from the world, while others lived amid its hustle and bustle; most were simply good Christian folk trying to lead their lives in the most challenging of times. This great “cloud of witnesses” constantly surrounds us all; they join us at our communion table; they provide our hymns and liturgy; they enlighten and guide our preachers and teachers. And when we study our scriptures and wrestle with matters of faith, they provide the example and guidance we so often need.

The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and MartyrsThe great physicist, Sir Isaac Newton famously observed that, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. This is as true of theology as of physics. As I stand here today, I am conscious of that great cloud of witnesses who support and uphold me, and on whose shoulders I metaphorically stand. Of those who have sweated over ancient texts that I might have the Bible in such an easy form that I can grasp its meaning immediately. Of those who have argued and debated for days upon end, that I might have some access into the mysteries of the nature of God and his world. Of those who have braved the fires and bullets of persecution that I might be able to speak to you today in peace and safety.

All of us here today need to give thanks for that great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us and to draw strength from their presence. We need to learn more about women and men like Martin Luther, and never believe that we have been left as orphans without guidance or support. As we face the “challenge of tomorrow’s day” (to quote the hymn writer), let us stand tall upon the shoulders of the giants who have gone before us. And let us with renewed confidence and hope take up our own calling to be saints in this world. As the writer of Hebrews urged his first readers: “lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us”. I doubt many of us will be called to translate the Bible nor to nail our theological ponderings upon the church door but never doubt that you and I are part of God’s purposes for his world – just as much as Martin Luther. The challenge for us is to discern OUR place in that great race. What is OUR role in that magnificent “cloud of witnesses”? Whatever it may be, I pray that we may all run OUR race with the same faith, courage and resolution that Luther did. Amen.