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!






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!


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.


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.


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.’


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.



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.


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.


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.