True reconciliation

This is the sermon I preached this morning at Barnes Methodist Church on the first Sunday in Lent, on the theme of reconciliation. The texts were Matthew 5:21-25 and Romans 5:6-11.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAReconciliation is much in the news at the moment. Recently, Prince William joined the Queen, and many others, in urging the nation to ‘come together‘ at a time of deep divisions, revealed by the never-ending Brexit debate. Both the Labour and Conservative parties are seeking to reconcile different strands of their party, after a number of MPs formed an independent group. And across the world, we are seeing desperate attempts at reconciliation both between nations, such as India and Pakistan, and within them, as in Venezuela.

These calls for reconciliation chime very well with the season of Lent, which started this week. The liturgy for Ash Wednesday reminds us all about the origins of the season:

At first this season of Lent was observed by those being prepared for Baptism at Easter and by those seeking restoration to the Church’s fellowship.

In other words, Lent was a time when people who had become estranged from the Church for whatever reason, could return to full fellowship through observing a season of penitence and fasting. It was a time for encouraging people to be reconciled to each other as well, to put aside old disputes and bitterness, and come together at the foot of the cross.

As our readings today demonstrate, though, the theme of reconciliation is not limited to Lent but runs right through our Bible. In our gospel reading from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, Jesus reminds his hearers that they cannot be at peace with God, unless they are at peace with their neighbour (Matt. 5:21-25). In Romans (5:6-11), and in our call to worship from Colossians (1:19-20), Paul is clear that in Jesus, God was seeking to reconcile humanity, and indeed all creation, to himself, saving us all from the deadly effects of sin. All of these themes come together, additionally, in our celebration Holy Communion today, where we are celebrating that gracious act of reconciliation between God and his creation, and by extension between ourselves.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI have had cause to reflect upon this theme of reconciliation in the few last week: upon how it can work, and why it so often does not. My thoughts began during my half term holiday the other week, when I was lucky enough to visit Madrid. While there visited the ‘Valley of the Fallen’. This is a vast site, about an hour’s drive from the city centre. It was clearly visible when we flew over on our way into Madrid airport and the complex includes an enormous underground basilica, a monastery and the world’s largest cross, reaching 500 feet into the sky. The site was created following the conclusion of Spain’s violent and bloody Civil War (1936-39), which was waged between the Republican / Socialists on one side, and the, ultimately triumphant, Nationalists / Fascists, led by Franco, on the other. This is a conflict that will be known to many of us through the enormous amount of literature and art it inspired, not least George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and Picasso’s Guernica, among many others.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFranco directed the construction of the site as a “national act of atonement” and reconciliation but sadly it failed to achieve this lofty aim. Visiting the site is a somewhat chilling experience. Everything is built on a monumental scale, not least the vast, industrial-looking concrete Pieta above the entrance door and, of course, the enormous cross. The basilica itself can only be described as ‘sepulchral’ – vast and empty, with no natural light. At the very heart of the worship space, you find the tomb of the great Caudillo himself, Franco – with fresh flowers seemingly laid most days. It is shocking to see it, and remember that this man was a direct contemporary of Hitler and Mussolini, sharing their views and happily murdering thousands of his fellow citizens.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe truth is that as an act of reconciliation, this site is an abysmal failure. Built largely by Republican prisoners of war, it is utterly unrepentant about the crimes of the Franco regime and makes no real attempt to reach out to those who fought on the ‘wrong side’. The adoption of so much Christian iconography and narratives, such as the frightening scenes from Revelation depicted on the basilica’s walls, seem not so much to be an attempt at reconciliation, as an assertion that ‘God was on Franco’s side’. It is little wonder that since its construction, the Valley has been a source of contention, rather than reconciliation. Most recently, there is a vigorous national debate about the Socialist government’s attempts to exhume Franco’s body and remove him from the basilica. The debate has illuminated the deep, unreconciled, tensions within Spanish society over how it commemorates and understands the Civil War – tensions that show few signs of abating at present.

When I returned to work the following Monday, one of the first tasks I faced was reconciliation on a slightly smaller – and less historic stage – when I attended a meeting of the District Reconciliation Committee. This group of lay and ordained Methodists, from across London, meets together to share the work of bringing individuals together in our local churches. Most often, we are dealing with cases referred to us, when a complaint has been made and attempts are being made to avoid formal processes and encourage the different parties to talk through their difficulties together. I often reflect that the situations with which we deal are remarkably similar to those that Paul writes about in his epistles to the early Christians: strong personalities within churches, the temptations of sex and money, and the misuse of spiritual authority!

As I sat in the meeting, having read the morning’s newspaper, full of stories of our total failure to reconcile as a nation over Brexit, I reflected upon what makes true reconciliation possible. There is much I could say on this subject, but I will just briefly mention three requirements this morning.

The first is truth. In our gospel reading, Jesus describes a true worshipper of God as someone who is honest before God and with themselves. If you have a disagreement with another, he states, admit it freely and go and do something about it (Matt. 5:23-24). Elsewhere, Jesus famously said, I have come that you might “know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32). So often, though, we shy away from the truth because it is to hurtful and painful.

In the District Reconciliation Committee, as with all reconciliation work, our first step is always to allow people to tell their truth independently and uninterrupted. Only when this has been done, if it is appropriate, will we try to bring people together and listen to the others’ truth. Often, of course, we will have to help people sort out the lies from the truth but very often what you hear is actually truth from two different perspectives.

First Be ReconciledThat recognition that the truth must be heard is the vital foundation of reconciliation. It is no surprise that the post-Apartheid government in South Africa did not establish a Reconciliation Committee but a Truth and Reconciliation Committee. It is also why the Valley of the Fallen fails as a tool of reconciliation – because there is space for only one side of the truth. That is not to say that all Republicans were heroes and all Nationalists evil: it is to allow space for an honest re-telling of the past from different perspectives.

It is also why our current Brexit debate has become so poisonous. The first casualty of the campaign seemed to be the truth, and the campaign itself was the culmination of years of denial and a refusal to hear certain voices within our nation. I am so desperately sorry that we seem never able to raise up leaders and politicians who can say sorry or acknowledge faults. Nor seemingly raise up journalists who are interested in presenting a rounded view of our world. Nor, perhaps most importantly, raise up people who are interested in having their views challenged by the truth of others.

Coming to our communion table today, we come ‘just as we are’: fully known by God, with no falsehood or deceit possible. We come unable to hide the truth about ourselves from God, yet miraculously knowing that we are somehow still fully loved. That is the beginning of true reconciliation.

bread-and-wineThat brings me to the second vital aspect of reconciliation: a genuine desire to be reconciled. Again, our gospel reading speaks of someone who wishes to be at peace with God and his neighbour, and therefore is willing to run across town to attempt reconciliation (Matt. 5:25). And again, reflecting on the work of reconciliation within our churches, I am reminded of how, too often, we have to shake our heads with sorrow because one or either of the parties simply has no desire whatsoever to be reconciled. They want to go straight to the complaints process and be vindicated, even when it is quite clear to everyone else that there is fault (and truth) on both sides.

As we look at our world and its history, we see very clearly that reconciliation and true peace come about only when those involved genuinely want it and are willing to make the sacrifices necessary for it to come about. In our modern age, we have seen it with France and Germany after the Second World War. To a considerable extent, we have seen it in Northern Ireland too, but even in both these cases there are always those who would rather turn the clock back. Reconciliation can happen after conflict, when people have seen the horrors of conflict and division, and want something different for the future. But they must want it to happen. One of the deeply challenging questions hanging over the Valley of the Fallen is whether this can ever be considered as a genuine attempt at reconciliation. Did it ever represent a real desire to be reconciled or merely a bold testament that one side of the conflict ‘won’. At its inauguration in 1959 (nearly 20 years after work had started), Franco, according to his biographer Paul Preston:

gloated over the enemy that had been obliged ‘to bite the dust’ and showed not the slightest trace of desire to see reconciliation between Spaniards.

Here, and elsewhere, it would seem that there is little desire to pay the heavy price that true reconciliation requires.

As we turn our hearts to the communion table this morning, we recall that the sacrifice it represents is an open invitation to be reconciled with our God and with each other. To be reconciled, though, involves a genuine desire from us – to take that all important first step toward reconciliation.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis leads me neatly to my third and final point this morning. As Christians, we believe that the intervention of Jesus Christ is essential for true reconciliation. As I mentioned earlier, I felt somewhat sickened at the Valley of the Fallen by the adoption of Christian iconography for something that seemed to have so little to do with Christ. In our human life together, too often reconciliation seems absolutely impossible – be that within our world, our nation or even our own families. The feelings, the history, the pain is too strong. As we look at the conflicts and divisions of our world, not least in our own nation at present, we could perhaps be forgiven for just shaking our heads and believing that reconciliation is simply impossible.

What is required is a mediator. Someone to show us a better way; to set us an example that we may find impossible to follow. But follow it we must, if our world is to have any future at all. As Paul reminded his listeners, 2,000 years ago (Romans 5:8-10):

But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. … For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.

In Christ, God took the initiative to reach out across the chasm that had come to separate humanity from its creator, and from one another. Through love, pain and sacrifice, Christ made reconciliation possible; he broke the chains of sin and division that bind humans to a never-ending cycle of violence and death; he spread wide his arms on the cross to show the depths of God’s love for each one of us.

It is that example that we must follow today, if we are to have any hope for the future. It is that reconciling love we celebrate in our communion today. It is that work of reconciliation, in his name, to which we pledge ourselves today. It is that divine intervention, opening human hearts and minds to the possibilities of peace and reconciliation, for which we pray today. Let us lift high the cross of Christ. Not as the symbol of factional triumph as in the Valley of the Fallen, but of true reconciliation with God and with each other, brought about by the precious blood of our Lord and Saviour. As we shall sing in a moment in Charles Wesley’s hymn Jesus, Lord, we look to thee:

Free from anger and from pride,
let us thus in God abide;
all the depth of love express,
all the height of holiness.

Amen.

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Blessings and woes

This is the sermon I delivered today at Barnes Methodist Church. The set text today was Luke 6:17-26 but I added Matthew’s account of the same passage (the Sermon on the Mount) to it, Matthew 5:1-12.

brooklyn_museum_-_jesus_teaches_the_people_by_the_sea_jc3a9sus_enseigne_le_peuple_prc3a8s_de_la_mer_-_james_tissot_-_overallIntroduction

This year, our lectionary gospel readings are generally taken from Luke. For many Christians, his is the favourite gospel. It is full of wonderful stories, like the Prodigal Son, and many Christians have found a radical inclusivity in his re-telling of Christ’s ministry and life. It is a gospel that makes clear the inclusivity of the Kingdom of God, with women, children, the poor and the foreigner all given central roles.

The reading set for today, though, is far more familiar to us from Matthew’s gospel, where it is known as the Beatitudes. This in turn comes from the first Latin translation of this passage in the Vulgate, where each phrase begins with the word beati, which can be understood as meaning “happy” or “blessed”. In Matthew’s gospel, the author reports nine such blessings pronounced by Jesus – and it is this version which has become beloved to Christians everywhere, ever since (as seen in the Chinese version below). In Luke’s gospel, we find a very similar sermon, given on another occasion, but not only does it have fewer blessings (just four), but we also find four corresponding woes. It is this latter passage that will be the focus of our reflections today

Relationship SynopticsBefore we start, we should note that the differences between the two passages should give us no cause for alarm at all. We know that both Matthew and Luke relied on the gospel of Mark, which had been written earlier, for a large proportion of their material. However, we also know that they had independent sources for what they wrote – eyewitnesses from the life of Jesus, oral traditions and even written material, Like all good preachers, Jesus would almost certainly have repeated himself, and edited the material for his audiences, so Matthew and Luke are probably reporting what he said on different occasions. What we can be absolutely sure of is that these are the words of our Lord, reliably passed on to us by generations of faithful Christians, and we are called upon to grapple with them now.

Let us hear the two readings consecutively, and as we do so, I would invite you to note the similarities and differences in the texts.

The readings

Reflection

So, what similarities and differences did you spot this morning? Let us work through the easier ones to begin with:

A mountain or a plain?

tissotbeatitudesThe most obvious difference between these two sermons is obviously the location in which they were delivered. In Matthew (5:1), Jesus is “up the mountain”; in Luke (6:17) , he is “on a level plain”. As I said earlier, this is really no cause for concern and the two writers are almost certainly reporting two separate addresses. In Matthew, the passage forms part of a block of teaching that follows on from Jesus choosing the first disciples and (as in Luke) ministering to the sick. It is followed by a number of important lessons and parables from Jesus, including the Lord’s Prayer. Arguably, Matthew is choosing to emphasise Jesus’ resemblance to Moses here (Exodus 19-24), as he does elsewhere in his gospel.

Interestingly, Luke may be doing the same. In his account, Jesus has just gone up the mountain to pray and choose the 12 apostles. In our passage, he descends, like Moses after conferring with God, to bring guidance and teaching to a people in need. It’s important to note that this is not secret teaching of the kind we occasionally encounter in the gospels, meant solely for the disciples and a select few. Rather, as one commentator put it, it is: “plain speech in plain view on the plain” (Garland, 275).

Kingdom of Heaven or of God?

This is another straightforward difference that should not delay us long. In his gospel, Matthew consistently uses the phrase ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ because of a traditional Jewish reluctance to speak the name of the Almighty. This is one of the important clues that has led many to see Matthew’s as a gospel produced by, and for, the Jewish Christian community (perhaps in Antioch). Luke, on the other hand, who often seems much more at home in the Graeco-Roman world of the 1st Century AD, is happy to use the phrase ‘Kingdom of God’ to describe exactly the same thing.

‘Yours’ or ‘theirs’?

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Chinese version of Matthew’s Beatitudes

We come onto a matter of more substance when we begin to consider what at first sight may seem to be a mere grammatical point. To be precise, Matthew consistently uses the third person plural genitive in his beatitudes: “theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:3). Luke, on the other hand, (somewhat) interestingly uses a mixture of the vocative case (“you poor”) and the second person singular form: “yours in the kingdom of God” (6:20). Now, this is the sort of thing that may excite grammarians but apart from possibly provoking nightmares from our primary school English classes, what use is such analysis?

Well, for me, there is a danger of reading Matthew as something close to poetry, with its beautiful language and wonderful cadence. Jesus here could be talking about people in a very general and abstract form: “Motherhood and apple pie are good things.” And we could nod in vague agreement. In Luke, though, it is clear that Jesus is addressing the people immediately before him in a very direct and clear way – both in his blessings and his woes. He is not giving a learned lecture or presenting an academic paper. He is addressing the folks who are sitting immediately in front of him. He knows that his audience consists of poor and rich alike, those who are full and those who are empty, and he speaks to them directly and unashamedly.

Jesus is not worried in the slightest about making his audience squirm in their seat. Through them, he speaks to the generations of Christians who came after those first disciples, including us here this morning. This is not an abstruse point of grammar, therefore, but a potent reminder to all preachers and all Christians that when we speak in the name of Christ, our job – as someone very aptly put it – is indisputably to “comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable”. One of our challenges this morning, is to decide into which category we fall!

‘Poor’ or ‘poor in spirit?

Perhaps the difference in these texts that strike us most keenly, and which has arguably attracted most comment, is Luke’s omission of those two key words “in spirit” when talking about the poor. Matthew is clear that Jesus speaks about those who are “poor in spirit” (5:3). Those two crucial words are open to a wide range of interpretations but we could easily think of this in a much more ‘religious’ sense (and Matthew here is clearly drawing on the psalms and Isaiah 61, in particular), referring to the meek and the righteous, who have humbly turned their hearts to God. Luke, on the other hand, is unequivocal that Jesus is talking directly to the poor (6:20) in the simplest sense of the word: those who have no money! Similarly, Matthew speaks of those who “hunger … for righteousness” (5:6), while Luke speaks simply of those who are who are hungry, full stop (6:21).

Woes or no woes?

Jesus teachingIn addition, we of course have the most obvious difference between the two texts: Luke’s addition of four woes to Jesus’ four blessings. They give a nice symmetry to the passage but they present a deeply discordant note, especially when we have got so used to Luke generally being the ‘nice’ gospel writer, with stories like the Good Samaritan. No wonder that so many people over the centuries have preferred Matthew’s friendlier version: all blessings and no woes!

Yet the challenge they present to us cannot be ignored. Luke’s rendering of Jesus’ sermon seems to undermine everything that both his ancient contemporaries and our modern world regard as success: wealth, absence of want or need, happiness, and popularity or public admiration (Luke 6:24-26). Such direct language can leave us with a bitter aftertaste, and prompt a number of responses.

The easiest is just to ignore it – and that is how most of the world copes! Another, popular among those who wish to honour the sanctity of the scriptures but struggle with its message, is to spiritualise the passage. That is, to prefer Matthew’s rendition and argue that Jesus was not really talking about the actual poor but those who have not yet seen the light of Christ, or been born again, or any number of other definitions. Such interpretations, though, ignore the long Biblical tradition in which these words of Jesus stood. To quote but a few examples:

For he stands at the right hand of the needy,
   to save them from those who would condemn them to death.
(Psalm 109:31)

I know that the Lord maintains the cause of the needy,
   and executes justice for the poor. (Psalm 140:12)

When the poor and needy seek water,
   and there is none,
   and their tongue is parched with thirst,
I the Lord will answer them,
   I the God of Israel will not forsake them. (Isaiah 41:17)

We must also not forget those revolutionary words of Mary, which starts Luke’s gospel (Luke 1:52-3):

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty.

Nor the troubling story of Dives and Lazarus, again unique to Luke (Luke 16:19-31). It is very hard, in fact, to argue that these words of Luke mean anything other than good news for the poor, and worrying times for the wealthy and comfortable.

A great reward in heaven

An obvious way to conclude my remarks today, and to square the circle that Matthew and Luke have seemingly left us, is to concentrate on one of the most important things that unites our two readings. That, of course, is Jesus’ promise to his audience that those who suffer now, on his behalf, will be rewarded greatly in heaven (Matt. 5:12 / Luke 6:23). These words have rightly brought enormous comfort to Christian martyrs and saints throughout the millennia, as they have witnessed to the gospel of Christ in the most difficult of circumstances. That promise is indeed the greatest hope that God offers to all his people everywhere, and one that should give us all the courage and confidence to face each day. If I am honest, though, they also give preachers like me a nice straightforward way to conclude my comments on a difficult passage that leaves everyone with a warm glow as we go out to coffee.

thepowerofbiblereadingThese words in Luke cannot let preachers off by simply offering “pie in the sky when you die”. Or as Moses, the Raven in Animal Farm, put it, Sugarcandy Mountain – the paradise he promised the poor, deluded animals, who were destined for a lifetime of hard labour. Such simplistic solutions let us all off far too easily. It provides no real answer to the millions in our world today who, no matter how hard they work, how long they toil each day, how often they read their Bibles will almost certainly face grinding poverty for the rest of their lives. The same could be said of the millions of innocent Syrian migrants in refugee camps across the Middle East, and countless others in our own country and abroad. It is little wonder that passages like this one in Luke have long led priests and ministers working in contexts like the one I described to challenge the simplistic interpretations that leaves all the hard work to God I am, of course, speaking about Liberation Theology, which emerged among Catholic theologians working in the slums of South America, who refused to be silenced when they saw innocent people suffering unrelenting poverty because those with money and power simply did not care. It led Christians like Oscar Romero to lay down their lives, as the Beatitudes predicted, because they spoke up for Christ.

These words of Jesus in Luke’s gospel are not meant to leave us feeling comfortable and complacent. If we think that the Bible has any importance whatsoever in our lives and in the life of our world today, then we have to take their challenge seriously. They are not simply meant to make us feel guilty for living in an affluent western country, with plenty of food and fresh water. They are meant to shock and provoke us, to re-examine our lives, our attitudes, our prejudices. To be a voice for those who suffer unjustly and to be a representative of Christ himself in our world today. These are disturbing words, for disturbing times, and if we are not disturbed by them, then we are not reading them correctly. Amen.

Singing from the same hymn sheet

3499120-web_800xThis is the sermon I preached today at Putney Methodist Church. Today, we were thinking especially about the music we sing and exploring some of the newer hymns in our latest hymn book, Singing the Faith. The Bible texts was Luke 5:1-11, the call of the first disciples.

Christians have been singing about their faith since the earliest days of the Church. The first disciples continued the tradition of psalm singing and it quickly became part of all Christian worship. We know that the earliest churches also sang other hymns, several of which seemed to have been preserved in Biblical texts like Philippians 2 (2:1-11), although sadly without the music. The writer of Ephesians, hopes that his readers will:

be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts (Eph. 5:19)

In the subsequent 2,000 years of Christian history, church music has gradually changed and developed in an incredible variety of ways, as Christianity itself has spread across the globe. Chant, plainsong, polyphony and countless other ways of praising God were found.

In our corner of the world, the biggest change perhaps came at the Reformation, where hymns began to look much more like those we would recognise today, with a musical note being allocated to each word or syllable. In turn, that tradition came to be developed by the great hymn writers of the 17th and 18th Century. People like Isaac Watts (the author of ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’, ‘O God our help in ages past’, and many others greta hymns). Allegedly, he complained about the dullness of some psalm singing and was told to write something better, if he was so unhappy – and he promptly did! Along with people like John Newton, charles_wesleyCharles Wesley (of course) and many others, he wrote hymns that explored every aspect of faith and human life. They often used vernacular language and made direct appeals to the singers’ emotions and senses. Their hymns bore witness to the incredible power of music to inspire and encourage people. Many were very controversial in their time, and even considered rather vulgar and sentimental. My favourite example is perhaps Charles Wesley’s hymn ‘Jesu, lover of my soul, let me to thy bosom fly‘, which his brother, Jesus, thought far too risqué (because of the offending word ‘bosom’) and refused to publish!

Amazing as it seems, though, the history of hymnody did not end with Charles Wesley! The following 200 years have seen an enormous flourishing of hymn writing, covering every conceivable subject and area of human life. There is far too much to talk about here but two of the most encouraging trends have been the growth in the number of published female writers, and the greater appreciation of hymns from around the world and from different Christian traditions. (One of our most popular hymns ‘I the Lord of sea and sky’ in fact comes from an American, Catholic writer, Dan Schutte.)

Sadly, although perhaps inevitably, none of these changes and developments in the life of our church music have been without controversy. Thomas Hardy’s beautiful novel Under the Greenwood Tree, reminds us that change is always hard and usually unpopular: the new vicar earns the ire of many in his congregation by the introduction of a new-fangled pipe organ!

However, although I have no evidence whatsoever to support this claim, the last 50 years or so of Christian music have arguably been some of the most controversial.

worship_leaders_5_things_your_worship_band_isne28099t_telling_youGrowing up in church, the music we sing together has probably given rise to more arguments than any other subject of which I can think. (With the possible exception of pews!) Nearly every congregation in the last few decades has seen real tension between different traditions: choruses versus hymns; old versus new; worship bands versus organs. The conflict has led to stereotyping and caricature on both sides, with some claiming that, “All choruses are boring and repetitive.”, while others opine that, “All hymns are boring and fuddy-duddy”. I know of churches with delicately worked-out compromises and, sadly, congregations where all-out war has broken out, and members have felt that they have no option but to leave.

The reasons behind this are numerous and multifarious. Inevitably, musical taste and preference play a part, as do the quality and style of what is being offered. In part, though, the differences bring us back to our gospel reading this morning and the challenge of embracing the new, and leaving behind what is comforting. We have all heard many sermons on this passage, emphasising the enormity of what Peter and the first disciples did that day: “they left everything and followed him” (Luke 5:11). Today, though, it is also worth noting two other aspects of the story.

Calling the first disciples - DuccioFirst, Jesus managed to keep all twelve apostles in the same boat! They clearly were very disparate personalties, from a range of backgrounds. It included not only people like Peter and Andrew, but also Matthew, a hated tax collector, and Simon the Zealot, who may well have been associated with a quasi-terrorist organisation. Somehow, they recognised that what united them in Jesus was worth setting aside their many  differences and divisions.

Second, while they embraced a new life in Christ, they took the very best of their old tradition with them: their belief in the one true God; their knowledge of his great works in creation and throughout history; and, not least, their wonderful tradition of psalm-singing.

singing-the-faith-sidebarWonderfully, I believe that our newest hymn book Singing the Faith (from which nearly all our hymns come today) attempts to do the same. Finally published in 2011, the book’s compilers and editors had an horrendous job, trying to preserve the best of the old, while also introducing some wonderful new material to Methodist congregations. Crucially, they tried to keep us all in the same boat, singing from the same book. While many will bemoan the loss of old favourites, there is undoubtedly something here for everyone, if we are willing to engage with it.

As we look at the state of our nation, and the world around, I feel there is so much we could learn from the attitude of those disciples, and the example of this hymn book. We are all only too well aware that we are increasingly only singing from our own hymn book these days. With Brexit, attitudes to immigration, and many other issues, there seems to be no mood for compromise or a common meeting place. Instead, we are occupied by hurling insults at each other about our choices and, perhaps even more worryingly, arguing that different styles and choices cannot even co-exist anymore. It is perhaps the greatest challenge facing our nation and planet at this time: how do we live with difference? How do we keep everyone in same boat, singing from the same book?

If we are to succeed, then we will need to learn some lessons from Jesus and those first disciples. We will need to acknowledge that we do not possess all truth, and reject arrogance and pride. Think of Peter, believing that he knew far more about fishing than Jesus ever could (“we have worked all night long but have caught nothing”! – Luke 5:5). Only by recognising that he did not have a monopoly on the truth, could he begin to grasp the infinite horizons Jesus was opening up for him. In the same way, generations of Christians have had to learn that the Spirit never stops inspiring new outbursts of creativity in our music. And in the same way, we must recognise that God has new truths to reveal to us each day about God and our world.

Like the disciples, we must also move beyond the kind of prejudice that closed so many minds to Jesus.  Think of Nathaniel’s shocked response to the idea that Jesus could be the Messiah: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). How much church music has been similarly condemned out of hand because it came from the wrong tradition, the wrong singer or the wrong instrument? Actually, we have some wonderful old hymns in our hymn books, and some great new music being written every single day of the year. And we similarly have so much to learn from voices to whom we may not immediately wish to listen.

Finally, like those first disciples we too need to be brave, stepping out of the familiar to take up the way of Christ. It was not easy for them and it is not easy for us. Fear of the unknown and the different has led to such terrible violence and hatred in our world, and continues to do great harm today. We need to witness, through our hymnody and every aspect of our lives, that the words of Jesus are as true for us as they were for Simon so long ago: “Do not be afraid”.

As we sing these new songs this morning, let us bear witness to the faith of those disciples and be an example to our world. Let us show that we can come from every corner of the globe yet be united by our love for God and one another. As one of our older, and my favourite, hymns so beautifully puts it: “singing songs of expectation,
marching to the promised land.” Amen.

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Thanks, Jim

Last Friday, we said goodbye to a wonderful man and a great friend to the churches in Putney and Roehampton, Rev’d Jim McKinney. Jim served for over twenty years as the vicar of Holy Trinity Roehampton, part of the ecumenical parish of Roehampton. We worked very closely together and his sudden death a few weeks ago was an enormous shock to everyone who knew him. This is the tribute I delivered at his funeral on Friday. We continue to hold Jim’s wife and family in our prayers at this incredibly difficult time.

Scan 2019-2-5 10.11.53Friends, I should like to give thanks very briefly for the life of our brother Jim in three overlapping capacities.

First, as minister of Roehampton Methodist Church – the other half of Jim’s ecumenical parish – I want to give thanks for a wonderful colleague and an excellent pastor. This ecumenical parish is a strange, and possibly unique, creation. We have two churches, here and at Minstead Gardens; two traditions, Anglican and Methodist; and, until very recently, two ministers. But we work so closely together that it is often hard to tell where one begins and the other ends. Making it work relies on willing individuals, and there was none more willing than Jim. He welcomed me and a succession of Methodists, including Kathy, Ali, Megan, Keith, and many more, and was utterly committed to our joint vision of sharing the love of Christ in this place.

Second, as a minister in the Richmond and Hounslow Methodist Circuit, I want to give thanks for Jim’s work across our local churches. It is not only our congregations here that were shocked at Jim’s sudden death. The good folks of Putney, Richmond and especially Barnes will greatly miss his preaching and leading of worship. I know that Jim hoped to continue his work with the Methodist Church into retirement.

Third, and finally, as the current chair of Churches Together in Putney and Roehampton, I want to express our deep gratitude for all that Jim did to contribute to the excellent ecumenical relations that we enjoy here. He was a tireless advocate for working across all divisions, and served for several years as our chair. He was always willing to contribute and encourage.

In all of these contexts, and many more, Jim brought the warmth, generosity of spirit and wisdom of which so many here have already spoken. He was a wonderful colleague, a good friend and a man who was able to see far beyond the narrow confines of any single denomination to the glorious all-encompassing kingdom of God. I pray that we may retain his vision and insight. He will be deeply missed.

Scan 2019-2-5 10.12.55

A sign of the times

This is the sermon I delivered today at Barnes Methodist Church. The readings were Jeremiah 1:4-19 and Luke 4:16-30.

Introduction

false-prophet-perform-miraclesWhat do these various objects and animals have in common?

  • a basket of summer fruit,
  • a pan boiling over,
  • a plumb line,
  • figs (good and bad),
  • a scroll to be eaten,
  • an almond branch,
  • sheep without a shepherd,
  • a model of a city under siege and
  • a soiled loincloth.

The answer is that they are all found in the visions of Old Testament prophets, and we shall look at them in a little more detail shortly. In some cases, God uses them to teach the prophets a lesson about the present or the future – often in a dream or vision – and in others the prophets use them in their warnings to the people.

I am sure that you could think of other examples from the Old, and New Testament. What they all have in common is that they are highly memorable images, designed to shock and provoke (and often anger) the prophet’s audience. They are meant to illustrate the problems with contemporary society, and to present a radical vision of God’s alternative.

In today’s readings, we shall hear verses from the opening chapter of Jeremiah, where two of these examples come from. They speak of Jeremiah’s call to be a prophet and the message which he is commissioned to deliver. We shall then hear from Luke’s gospel, continuing the story of Jesus’ reception in his home town of Nazareth. He has gone to the synagogue, as usual, but after reading a passage from Isaiah, he dares to suggest that the prophecy may be referring to himself. A suggestion that does not go down well with his home crowd!

The readings

Reflection

During his ministry, Jesus was regularly compared to the prophets we encounter in the Old Testament. Sometimes favourably, as when the woman at the well at the gospel acclaimed him as one (John 4:19); sometimes unfavourably, as when the soldiers mocked Christ before his crucifixion (Luke 22:64). Jesus was much more than a prophet, as we know, but there were undoubtedly many similarities in the way that they behaved and were treated, as our readings today show.

800px-almond_blossom02_aug_2007First, they often behaved and spoke in very strange and even shocking ways. Let’s look at our table of objects again and work our way through them. The two we have just heard about were visions given by God to Jeremiah to pass on to his contemporaries. The almond branch (Jer. 1:11) relies on wordplay that cannot easily be translated: almond in Hebrew is shaqed, which sounds remarkably similar to shoqed, which means watching. The branch is a symbol that God is watching and their sins will not go unpunished. The pan boiling over (Jer. 1:13) is perhaps easier to understand. From the north, i.e. Babylonia, destruction shall come upon the people.

These are just two, though, of the signs we have here today. The others are:

  • a basket of summer fruit (Amos 8:1-14) – again, a pun based on the Hebrew, indicating that the ‘end is nigh!’;
  • a plumb line (Amos 7:1-9) – “See I am setting a plumb-line in the midst of my people Israel”;
  • figs (good and bad) (Jer. 24:1-10) – an indication of how God would treat those who fled Judah before the wrath that was to come, and those who would remain at the court of the corrupt King Zedekiah;
  • a scroll to be eaten (Ezekiel 2:1-10) – a prophecy to be ‘digested’ by Ezekiel!;
  • sheep without a shepherd (1 Kings 22:13-18) – a vision given to the prophet Micaiah about the fate of the people when the king went out to battle;
  • a model of a city under siege (Ezekiel 4:1-3) – the prophet was told to sit in the market place and act out the siege of Jerusalem that would soon take place; and
  • a soiled loincloth (Jeremiah 13:1-11) – Jeremiah was ordered to bury a new loincloth in the banks of the Euphrates and then return months later, its ruined state indicated the Judah’s destiny.

I am sure that you could think of others. (I decided to refrain from trying to bake bread over human dung, as Ezekiel was ordered to do (Ezek. 4:12)!) Some are fairly easy to understand, others require interpretation and a great deal of personal endurance on the part of the prophet. In each case, the vision or action was designed to be shocking and memorable – and that is why we are still talking about them today.

Jesus was not required to do anything with plumb lines or loincloths but he certainly inherited that tradition of shocking behaviour from the prophets. In our reading today, he made an outrageous claim in his hometown – almost certainly to the deep embarrassment of his own family – that Isaiah’s prophecy about the Messiah had been fulfilled in him (Luke 4:21). We could think of many other examples, where Jesus flouted social convention or norms, and the exaggerated, often shocking, language of some of his parables and sayings. Lessons, for example, that seemed to encourage people to cut out their own eyes or throw themselves into the sea with millstones tied round their necks!

The second connection between Jesus and the prophets that I would highlight this morning (and you will be pleased to hear these are much briefer!), is the reaction they provoked in their audiences. Both Jesus and Jeremiah were given hard messages to deliver to their contemporaries. Messages about sin and the need to turn back to God. They were called to criticise their leaders and even their own family and friends. Unsurprisingly, the messages did not go down well, and both knew the pain of rejection and much worse.

d09fd180d0bed180d0bed0ba_d098d0b5d180d0b5d0bcd0b8d18f2c_d09cd0b8d0bad0b5d0bbd0b0d0bdd0b6d0b5d0bbd0be_d091d183d0bed0bdd0b0d180d0bed182d182d0b8Jeremiah’s story is a seemingly desperately sad one. Commissioned to be a prophet at the very worst moment in Israel’s history, in the years running up to the Babylonian Exile. A time of appalling government and a stubborn refusal to heed the obvious warning signs all around them. Jeremiah would live to see his prophecies burned before his very eyes, the destruction of his beloved Jerusalem and his own forced exile.

Jesus’ story is, of course, even better known to us. The reception he received in our reading today in Nazareth was just a tiny foretaste of what was to come: anger, hatred, and accusations of blasphemy and fermenting revolution. No wonder that later in his ministry, Jesus would link himself so clearly to the apostles and prophets that God had sent before to his people and, in a foretaste of the crucifixion, speak so passionately about:

the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. (Luke 11:50-51)

Third, and finally, we come back to those strange signs with which we started today. Because what they, and the prophets and Jesus, all have in common, is that they were signs pointing to a greater truth. I have mentioned before that John in his gospel never talks about miracles, instead he always uses the word ‘sign’ (John 2:11, for example). In the same way, this random collection of allusions and metaphors were not an end in themselves. They were the means by which God’s people might be given a glimpse of the much larger truth behind the universe. The truth that God ultimately holds the fate of nations and empires in his hands, and that we – bounded by limitations of time and space – can only ever understand a tiny part of God’s eternal vision.

35f25ee1965776ec68e538232e103f74Jeremiah and the prophets were all great examples of being such signs in their own lives, pointing the way back to God and his commandments. Jesus, though, was God’s ultimate prophetic sign to his world. A cross-shaped sign that pointed to the greatest truth about God, humanity and the world: the true love of God. A love that not even the death could extinguish. But a love that also called us to be the kind of people that God created us to be. A people living in harmony with our creator, with our fellow humans and with the world around us. The power and relevance of that sign has continued undiminished ever since.

The challenge for us all here today, both individually and collectively as a church, is to ask what are we are signs of? Where do our lives and our church point? Do they point people to ourselves or to God? To our own fears and prejudices, or the limitless love of Jesus? To bricks and mortar, or the great spiritual truths that our world is longing to hear? Our world, just like Jesus’ and Jeremiah’s, is in desperate need of the good news that Christ has to offer: news of hope, of purpose and a different way of living. Yet do we as Christians and our churches point the way, or do we just go along with the flow because it is easier simply to nod politely, rather than upset people by challenging their behaviour?

As a church here in Barnes, we are considering our future and what work God has for us to do in this place. At our next Church Council meeting, we shall be considering our mission plan again. Is God calling us to do something radical? Perhaps not involving loin cloths and almond branches, but are we being called to be a sign of the shocking story of God’s grace in our little community? We know from the prophets and the example of Christ that to stand out, to be different, is not an easy place to be, either individually or collectively. But we should take heed of those words of comfort he gave to Jeremiah. Words that are as relevant for us, as they were to him: “They will fight against you; but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, says the Lord, to deliver you.” (Jer. 1:19) Amen.

The super-abundance of God

This is the sermon I preached today at Putney Methodist Church. The set texts were John 2: 1-11 (the wedding at Cana) and 1 Corinthians 12:1-11 (the gifts of the Spirit.)

wedding at cana 2The passage we have just heard read to us – the miracle at the wedding at Cana – immediately presents several challenges to the listener.

First, there is the challenge that it recounts a miracle: water being turned into wine. All of the four gospel writers who recorded their accounts of Jesus’ life – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – give us stories of miracles, which are rightly famous. Many are connected with healing, while others involve the natural world. And yet others, like the one we have just heard read, see physical objects changed or multiplied beyond all measure, such as the Feeding of the 5,000, with which this passage has many similarities.

All of these stories present great challenges for all Christians, because they contradict what we observe to be the normal rules of nature. Many witnessing Christians today, faithfully serving the Lord in their daily lives, would offer alternative explanations to many of Jesus’ miracles, while not denying that he was the Son of God. And we respect that right to interpret the scripture individually as the Holy Spirit guides.

This particular story – this particular miracle – also presents us with some specific challenges. Why does Mary involve Jesus in this domestic crisis? Why does he speak to his mother as he does? What does Jesus mean when he says his hour has not yet come? I am afraid that if we explored all those questions, our Sunday lunches would be quite ruined by the time we had finished!

The challenge we cannot ignore, though, is the outcome of this miracle. Nobody was ill, nobody was dying, nobody was really suffering. Yet Jesus, the Son of God, apparently used his divine authority to produce free alcohol for his friends and family. This strange miracle has challenged Christian theologians ever since and they have come up with a great variety of interpretations. Some have turned to the field of allegory, with, for example, the “water jars for the Jewish rites of purification” (John 2:6) somehow representing the Jewish law (Torah), which Jesus has come to replace. Others have focussed on the contemporary social world of the gospels, with Jesus stepping in to save the groom from potentially disastrous social embarrassment. None of these explanations are satisfactory, though, and they leave us with the same question: why did Jesus perform this miracle, and how are we meant to respond?

raising of lazarus - jesus as magician (sarcophagous, roman catacombs, 4th century)

4th Century depiction of Jesus as a sorcerer, raising Lazarus

Let us start with the word ‘miracle’ because John never uses that word in his stories of Jesus. He always uses the word ‘signs’. He wants to be absolutely clear that Jesus is not a magician (even though he was occasionally depicted as a sorcerer in ancient art – see left). The miracles were useful and brought many people to hear Jesus, but they were never an end in themselves. They were always for some greater purpose: a sign pointing to some greater and deeper truth.

Where then is this sign pointing? Well, I believe the key lies in some rather hard maths! The passage tells us that there six stone jars at the wedding and that each contained 20-30 gallons (John 2:6). If we say 25 gallons for argument’s sake that gives us a total of 150 gallons. There are about 4.5 litres in a gallon (4.546 to be exact), so that makes about 675 litres of wine (681.9, in fact). Given that the average bottle of wine contains just 0.75 litres of wine, we discover that Jesus incredibly produced the equivalent of about 900 bottles of top-quality wine!

Royal I E.IX, f.276Nowadays, we hear much about binge drinking but I think that even if we were having a very good night with our friends, we would struggle to tackle 900 bottles of wine at a single sitting! It was completely unnecessary and over-the-top, and out of all proportion to what the wedding guests needed. And for me, that is the message of this miracle. Just as we use bread and wine as symbols at holy communion, so the over-flowing vats of wine symbolise what Christ is going to do for his people in John’s gospel. Remember this is the first miracle John records; arguably, it is like those trailers which you get for the next series of your favourite programme or box set on TV, giving us a brief glimpse of what is to come. Here Jesus is telling his disciples, telling all those who will listen and telling us today, that he is going to give us so much that we will not know what to do with it.

This theme of the ‘super-abundance of God’, was a crucial part of Messianic expectation at the time of Jesus. So much of the messianic material we find in the gospels takes place at weddings, like the parable of the bridesmaids with their lamps (Matt. 25:1-13), and they speak of the idea that God will return to his creation, like a pure and spotless bridegroom, ushering in the new age. A Jewish messianic text roughly contemporary with the gospel of John makes this clear. It has Baruch, the companion of Jeremiah, giving a prophecy that says:

the earth also shall yield its fruit ten-thousandfold and on each vine there shall be a thousand branches, and each branch shall produce a thousand clusters, and each cluster produce a thousand grapes, and each grape produce a vat of wine. (2 Baruch 29:5)

img_3517It is important to note that the wine produced at the wedding was not just any old wine, it was the best wine. The old wine could not satisfy; only the Messiah, the chosen one of God, could provide what his people truly needed. Crucially, though, he will not just provide them with what they need – the bare minimum, a simple ration. God will provide it in super-abundance: more than we could possibly need.

We see this theme of super-abundance in Paul’s letter as well, when he is writing to the Corinthians about the gifts of the Spirit. There he speaks about gifts of the Holy Spirit: prophecy, tongues, healings, miracles, wisdom, etc. We find these gifts repeatedly referred to in the book of Acts and in the epistles; the Holy Spirit fills people’s lives and overfills them! We can see even see that today in the lives of ordinary Christians, if we look hard enough

This message of the super-abundance is, I believe, a vital one for us all today. Too often, we act as though God’s love and gifts are doled out and strictly limited – if someone else has something from God, then it means less for me. We see that attitude in the church of ancient Corinth and sadly in many of our churches today. This Week of Prayer for Christian Unity calls us all to recognise that God’s Spirit spreads its gifts and graces far and wide, and if another tradition or church has been blessed then that does not mean less blessing for us. It means God’s grace overfills his Church, like the wine vats at Cana. As we shall in a moment, in the hymn There’s a wideness in God’s mercy:

But we make his love too narrow
by false limits of our own;
and we magnify his strictness
with a zeal he will not own.

We see something very similar in our attitudes towards the world’s resources, with a desire to control and possess more and more. We must challenge the false gospel that says that we must cling ever more tightly to what we have, lest someone else takes our little lot away: life is a ‘zero-sum’ game, and the only way others can improve their lives is by ours getting worse. The miracle at Cana speaks clearly of the super-abundant generosity of God, who has given us an entire universe as a gift, and everything we need to flourish and prosper as humans.

The over-flowing wine at Cana reminds us all that the love of God knows no bounds. The grace of God is not limited. The desire of God to reach out and be in a relationship with his creation cannot be restrained. These things will not run out, like the old wine at the wedding; if someone else gets a bit of God’s love, then it emphatically does not mean less for you or me. There is so much love, so much grace flowing from the throne of our Creator that, just like the guests at Cana, we will not know what to do with it all. It is a glimpse of what the Kingdom of God is really like: a radical alternative to the world we know, which too often seems to know the price of everything and the value of nothing. And we are witnesses to that Kingdom: we need to be the examples of God’s boundless generosity, and not fear that the jars will go dry. Let us put our faith not in the miserly half measures of this world, but the super-abundance of God and the limitless love he showed us all in our Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.

wedding at cana (lavenham)

An unequal covenant

Happy new year! This is the sermon I preached at BarnesPutney and Roehampton Methodist Churches, as we marked the start of the year with our Covenant Services. The texts for all three services were: Genesis 17:1-7; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Mark 14:22-25.

union-handshake-art-bf475c83f072bd2aIntroduction

For many years, Methodists have begun the year in a very distinctive way with the Covenant Service. It draws on the important concept of covenant that can found throughout the Bible, celebrating God’s gracious offer to Israel that, “I will be their God and they shall be my people”. This offer was then extended beyond Israel to all women and men in Jesus Christ, who also provides the supreme example of what it is to live in such a relationship with God.

This idea of Covenant was basic to John Wesley‘s understanding of Christian discipleship. He saw the relationship with God in Covenant as being like a marriage between human beings on the one side and God in Christ on the other (Ephesians 5.21-33). His original Covenant Prayer involved taking Christ as,

my Head and Husband, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, for all times and conditions, to love, honour and obey thee before all others, and this to the death

1246px-John_Wesley_preaching_outside_a_church._Engraving._Wellcome_V0006868Wesley recognised that people needed not just to accept but also to grow in relationship with God. He therefore emphasised that God’s grace and love constantly seeks to transform us, and so we should continually seek and pray to grow in holiness and love.

Over a number of years Wesley gradually saw the need for some regular ceremony which would enable people to open themselves to God more fully. He first created a distinctive form of service in 1755, drawing on Puritan examples. It emphasised both the individual and corporate nature of the covenant, and the earnest response required of all those who participated. From its earliest days, it was celebrated alongside Holy Communion.

Sermon

Thank_you_001Christmas is now long gone but we are still in the season of Epiphany, when we recall the visit of the Magi to the infant Christ child, and the gifts they brought. Sadly, we are unlikely to be the recipients of any gifts so late after the festive season. If we are lucky, though, we may be recipients of a thank you note for the presents we have given, especially to children. I have already received a number from my godchildren, and their conscientious parents.

Speaking personally, I always found writing thank you notes the very worst part of Christmas! My mother was very strict with my sisters and I, and insisted that letters had to be written promptly, offering fulsome gratitude for any gifts received. She was right, of course, but I used to dread the hours sitting at the dining table desperately trying to think of things to say to an elderly great aunt! As my mother would observe, though: “If you don’t want to write the thank you letter, then you’ll have to send the present back.”. In many ways, the gift and the letters illustrate a sort of covenantal relationship. The gift requires a response on the part of the recipient. If we are honest, many of us will make judgements about the quality or absence of letters when we send a gift, and they may determine how we act in the future. No thank you letter this January, no Christmas present next year!

rembrandt_harmensz-_van_rijn_079Within our scriptures, we can see something similar in the understanding of covenant. One of the challenges in studying and understanding Biblical covenants, ranging from the time of Noah to that of Paul, is that the concept develops over time. There is always a moral component to them, making an appeal to values like integrity and loyalty. Especially in the Old Testament, though, they are undeniably influenced by models of treaties and the legal language of charters from contemporary cultures. In these, a powerful king or overlord commits himself to meet certain obligations, in return for the continued loyalty and service of a lesser ruler or people. They are often couched in high-flown, diplomatic language but the basic relationship is a contractual one, imposed by a stronger power on a lesser one. This understanding, for better or worse, perhaps inevitably affected how the Israelites viewed their relationship with their almighty God: they must meet follow the laws given by God, if they are to retain their cherished status as the ‘chosen people’.

Despite what we know about the new covenant inaugurated by Jesus, it is still tempting to think of covenant in those terms – like the unwritten covenants of presents and thank you letters, a relationship of obligation that places commitments on both sides. On the one hand, we can feel that we are under an obligation to be worthy of this covenant with God. To fulfil our side of the bargain, we must be perfect people, never falling by the wayside, and thereby ‘earning’ our place in heaven. It is not, in fact, unlike that other great January tradition – the new year’s resolution, whereby we vow never to slip up even for a day on our promised ‘new start’. Such thinking has led numerous great Christians in history astray, Augustine, Luther, Wesley to name but three. All of whom tried to ‘earn’ their salvation by fulfilling their side of the covenantal ‘bargain’ to the letter.

On the other hand, there can be a temptation to place the obligations on God. In a few moments I will invite you to read again those beautiful expressions in the Covenant Service so loved by Methodists: “put me to what you will”, “put me to suffering”, etc. But is there an un-stated sub-text? “And in return, Lord, you will grant me my prayers, not actually ask that much of me, and give me eternal bliss after a long and happy life…” One of the most frightening features of 20th / 21st Century Christianity has the been the rise of the so-called ‘prosperity gospel’. Wikipedia provides a good, simple definition of its teachings:

a religious belief among some Christians, who hold that financial blessing and physical well-being are always the will of God for them, and that faith, positive speech, and donations to religious causes will increase one’s material wealth. Prosperity theology views the Bible as a contract between God and humans: if humans have faith in God, he will deliver security and prosperity.

This theology ignores large parts of the Bible, which teach something directly contrary, not least the book of Job. Such teaching almost seems to assume that we could take God to an ombudsman or regulator if he failed to keep his side of the supposed contract!

CovenantInterestingly, even in the Old Testament we find writers who are unhappy with this legalistic understanding of the term covenant, like the prophets Isaiah, Ezekiel and, as we heard, Jeremiah. As we heard, he famously spoke of a covenant that would be written on people’s hearts, not scrolls of paper or tablets of stone (Jer. 31: 33). That understanding of covenant is the one of which Jesus speaks: an organic covenant, we might say. For the new covenant that Christ ushered in was not an agreement carved in tablets of stone but a living, breathing covenant; a thing of the spirit, daily renewed and incapable of being pinned down by scribes and lawyers – then or now. At the heart of this new covenant was not a new set of rules and obligations, but a gift. And that, for me, is what lies at the heart of our covenant service – the response to a precious and costly gift, lovingly given.

The introduction to the Covenant Service in our worship book states that the service should be followed by a celebration of Holy Communion, and we shall do precisely that shortly. it is perhaps this latter part of the service that helps us understand the former, and illustrates what I am trying to say. For this is an unequal covenant, where one partner has given so much more than the other. As it states elsewhere in the Worship Book, in the service for baptism:

for you Jesus Christ came into the world;
for you he lived and showed God’s love;
for you he suffered death on the Cross;
for you he triumphed over death,
rising to newness of life;
for you he prays at God’s right hand:
all this for you,
before you could know anything of it.

In renewing our covenant promises today – or indeed making them for the first time – we are not signing up to a credit agreement or writing a thank you note, in the hope of gaining a better present next year. We cannot take God to court for failing to provide what we expect, nor can the gift we have been given be taken away from us, because we did not pen a good enough letter. Nor are we engaging in a ‘box-ticking exercise’ – telling God what we have done and reminding him to keep his side of the bargain. We are making an inadequate response to the greatest gift anyone can ever receive: the gift of God himself in Jesus Christ. Our Covenant is but a fumbling and wholly inadequate response to that gift. It is an aspiration to be worthy of Christ’s great sacrifice. It is a reminder of our high calling as Christians to be like Christ to all whom we meet. It is a token of our earnest effort to be the person that God truly wants each one of us to be.

I have no doubt that each of us shall fail to live up to that aspiration – I shall probably lead the way. I have no doubt that our response will often resemble my grudging, ill-written, childish thank you letters. But I also have no doubt that God shall keep his side of the bargain regardless. And that, brothers and sisters, is good news indeed. Amen.

wesley-covenant-prayer

“How silently, how silently”

Merry Christmas! This is the sermon I delivered at Midnight Communion at Putney Methodist Church. The texts were Isaiah 9:2-7 and Luke 2:1-14.

800px-Bernardo_Daddi_001One of the pleasures of Advent for me every year is to tell the stories of the season to children in schools and in our churches. To talk about our advent traditions, our wreath with its ‘four candles’, the nativity scene and all the things that make this season so special. I always begin by asking the children what the word ‘advent’ actually means – and sometimes I interrogate the adults too! – and I’m always impressed by the variety of responses I receive. Often, they have been very logically worked out by children, who observe the season from their own particular perspective.

One of the best answers I received was from a thoughtful young man at a primary school near my last church in Watford, who said he thought it meant ‘Countdown’. The more I thought about it, the more I thought how intelligent his response was. Because we all know that Advent, and the run-up to Christmas, can all feel precisely like that: a countdown to the last posting dates, the last chance to find the perfect present, the last chance to buy a pint of milk, and so on. It’s little wonder that so many of us find this season so stressful as a result!

There can be a temptation to think that it was the same with the first Christmas. Our Advent ring counts us down neatly to Christmas day: 4, 3, 2, 1, blast off! – it’s Christmas! We sing hymns like ‘Come thou long-expected Jesus’. We read very selectively from the prophets in the Sundays of Advent, all speaking of the coming Messiah – like the passage we just heard from Isaiah. We can come to imagine that Jesus’ birth was scheduled or even on a timetable.

Gaddi_Taddeo_AnnouncementNow, we know that there was certainly some messianic expectation around the time of Jesus’ birth from sources like the Dead Sea Scrolls. In reality, though, Jesus’ contemporaries had relatively un-defined ideas of what the Messiah would look like and where he might come from. I often reflect that it was definitely not like the X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent or similar programmes, which I used to watch occasionally in years gone by. If you have ever seen such shows, you will know that the most interesting episodes are the early ones, where you see huge numbers of contestants – with very different levels of talent – and we are meant to think that any of them could be the next ‘big thing’. Somehow, though, the camera always seems to know which people to linger a little longer on; with whom to spend more time, learning their back stories. And you immediately think, “We’re going to see more of them later.” It’s almost as if the programmes were heavily edited with the benefit of hindsight!

In our case, the truth is that if anyone had been filming in Judea in O AD they wouldn’t have been in Bethlehem despite the well-known prophecy from Micah that we hear each Advent (Micah 5:2):

But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
    though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
    one who will be ruler over Israel

On the contrary, note how the Wise Men went straight to Jerusalem looking for the new-born “king of the Jews”. You also would not have picked out Mary and Joseph, the simple couple from Nazareth: remember Nathaniel’s first reaction to being told Jesus was the alleged Messiah in John’s gospel: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). You certainly would not have picked the shepherds to be the first recipients of the good news – unclean, loutish men, who lived on the very outskirts of human society, in every sense of the word.

After Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection, of course, it was a different story. Christians reading back in the Old Testament were able to see where prophets like Isaiah and Micah had indeed caught glimpses of the truth: that salvation would come through a child and he would be born in Bethlehem, for example. However, at the time, there were no camera crews waiting like ‘Springwatch’, or perhaps we should say ‘Messiah-watch’, in the borrowed stable in Bethlehem. Some Early Christians thought that this was shocking and felt that the world must have noticed this incredible event and they invented all sorts of elaborate background material, like the Protevangelium of James, detailing the lives of Mary’s parents, her courtship with Joseph, and the incredible infancy of their new child. None of these ever made it into the Christian canon and were quickly seen as forgeries. They demonstrated, though, that same interest that we now see in modern biographies in the early life of famous people after they are famous.

Lorenzo_Lotto_017The truth is that Jesus, the long-expected Messiah, the person who would turn BC into AD and whose birth is being celebrated this night in every corner of our globe was born in poverty and utter obscurity. There was no fanfare or pomp. No great master like Reubens or Rembrandt waiting in the corner of the table with his easel to capture the great moment. Jesus was a refugee child born in a borrowed bed, with no timetable or schedule, and not even Mary probably knowing exactly when he would arrive. As the carol we shall sing shortly, ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ puts it so beautifully: “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given”.

And in my experience that is how God mostly works in our world. God almost invariably chooses the still small voice over the earthquake. The poor peasant woman to the local celebrity. The inclination of a human heart instead of divine lightning bolts.

At Christmas, we are remembering how God works through the everyday and the mundane to reach out to his creation. Through kinds hearts and deeds of simple generosity. Through patient acts of pastoral care and neighbourly support that go unnoticed by the television cameras. Through heartfelt, simple prayers. Through the everyday goodness of millions of individuals, trying to make their little corner of the world slightly better. Through bread and wine. Through you and me.

Like the prophets, and like Mary and Joseph, we usually have no idea what our actions or our words will lead to. We may feel ignored by the world and believe that what we are doing is pointless. But the message of Christmas – the supreme message – is that when we labour in the name of Christ, he walks by our side and gives purpose and meaning to everything we do. God works through the everyday and the normal with us, silently bringing in his Kingdom, like a child born in the night: unnoticed, ignored, in obscurity. But it is God himself, in the person of Christ Jesus, who dwells with us and within us, and I pray that you may know and feel him at work this holy night, and every night. Amen.

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Looking backwards and forwards in Luke

St_LukeAmid the excitement of advent and the busy activity of nativity plays and carol concerts, it is good sometimes to reflect more deeply on what our Biblical texts actually tell us about the birth of Jesus. To think about how the two different evangelists who chose to write about Christ’s nativity presented their material. What they included and what they did not; their style and mode of presentation; and what these opening chapters tell us about their larger stories about the life of Jesus.

This is precisely what we did tonight at Putney Methodist Church, as we listened to, and then reflected upon, the opening chapter of Luke’s gospel. We heard it read by David Suchet, in his excellent audiobook version of the NIV, to allow us the opportunity to really soak in the text. We then spent time discussing our thoughts and questions. What follows below is my summary of our discussion, with some editing and additions.

The first thing that we noted was how much of this chapter felt quite ‘Old Testament’. There are fewer explicit quotations than Matthew, who seems almost obsessed with the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy but allusions abound. Perhaps most notably to the story of Abraham (Gen. 11-21).  Mary, like Abraham, is described as a “servant” of the Lord (Gen. 17:17, 18:11-12 / Luke 1:38, 48); she shows humble obedience, like so many faithful Israelites before her (e.g. 1 Sam. 1:11, 25:41); and has found favour with God, like Noah, Gideon and other scriptural heroes (e.g. Judges 6:17 or 1 Sam. 1:15).

Fra-Angelico-The-Naming-of-John-the-BaptistElizabeth and Zechariah are also very similar to both Abraham and Sarah (Gen. 18), and Hannah and Elkanah (1 Sam. 1). All faithful Israelites, older in years, and longing for a child. God hears their prayers and responds with a seemingly miraculous birth, bringing forth a child destined for a vital role in God’s plan of salvation.

There are other important links to the Old Testament as well. A significant portion of the action takes place in the Temple, where Zechariah serves as a “descendant of Aaron” (Luke 1:5). There is no questioning here of the role of sacrifice or predictions about the destruction of the Temple (as we find in Luke 21:20-24). Instead, we seem to be in the same world as the high priests of the Old Testament, with Zechariah carrying on an unchanging tradition dating back centuries.

We also noted the beautiful songs within this opening chapter: the song of Mary, the Magnificat (1:46-55), and that of Zechariah, the Benedictus (1:68-79). Songs do not really feature much in the New Testament but they abound in the Old Testament. Someone has listed them all here, and they include songs sung by Moses and Miriam (Exodus 15), by Deborah and Baruk (Judges 5), by David (2 Sam. 1:17-27) and many others. The books of Psalm, Lamentations and the Song of Songs are literally full of songs!

Crucially, this chapter serves as a vital bridge between the Old and New Testaments in the role it gives to prophecy. The experience of Zechariah, named after one Old Testament prophet, seems to have been clearly foreshadowed by another, Malachi:

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. (Malachi 3:1)

The prophecy then goes on to describe someone who acts in a very similar way to that of the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, John the Baptist, whose fiery ministry will be like “a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap” (Mal. 3:3). The age of the prophecy was meant to have ended, but here, Luke clearly shows us, it is active once more. Even an old man like Zechariah is now prophesying, like the sages of old (Luke 1:67).

199ad6ac18206f61989ede7cedf74a0b copyFinally, Luke emphasises the continuity between his gospel and the Hebrew scriptures in a way that is hard for us to spot in our English translations. That is his use of Greek. Luke was clearly a very well-educated and literate man, whose grammar and syntax is amongst the best in the New Testament. His opening prologue (Luke 1:1-4) is a highly polished and stylish piece of writing that would place him in the same literary league as many of his famous Graeco-Roman contemporaries. However, from 1:5 to 2:52 he switches style, and his Greek becomes deliberately anachronistic, aping the Greek of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures that was widely used at this time by Jews). It is as if I suddenly started dropping ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s into my blog post!

This was a very deliberate decision by Luke – a skilled, and careful author. He wanted his first readers / listeners to treat his opening chapters as a continuation of the Hebrew scriptures, with which they were so familiar. This was the same story, of the same God, he seems to be saying, intervening in the life of his world, just as dramatically and forcefully as he had done before, with a very similar cast of characters. Only at 3:1 does he slip back into the Greek of his own day, and many scholars have noted how you could quite easily start Luke’s gospel at that point. He is emphasising that now a new chapter has begun in the story of God’s people; one with a glorious new central character – the long-promised Messiah, God’s own son, Jesus!

We also noted, though, that this opening chapter very much anticipates what is to come in the rest of Luke’s gospel. It acts as a ‘taster’ for many of the themes we shall encounter again in the book. For example, Jesus begins his life in a backwater hamlet, Nazareth (1:26), born to a lowly woman of no family (1:27). Throughout Luke’s gospel, God’s chosen Messiah will continue to demonstrate a great concern for the poor and those on the fringes of society, clearly demonstrating that salvation has come to all.

We also see clear evidence of Luke’s especial interest in the role of women in the ministry and life of Jesus. Unlike Matthew, he emphasises Mary’s role in the story, actively saying ‘yes’ to God and being a vital part of his plan for universal salvation (1:38). Women will continue to play an important role afterwards: funding Jesus’ ministry (8:1-3); caring for him (10:38-42); acting as virtuous examples (15:8-10); and remaining with him faithfully to the end (23:27-31, 24:1-12).

ANGELICO,_Fra_Annunciation,_1437-46_(2236990916)It is through the agency of the Holy Spirit that Mary will conceive (1:35) and the chapter also reflects the vital role that the Holy Spirit plays in Luke’s account of Jesus. It fills John the Baptist (1:15, 17, 80), Zechariah (1:67), Simeon (2:25-27); and the early church (e.g. Acts 2:1-4), and supremely Jesus is a man of the Spirit – conceived by it, empowered by it (3:22) and baptised in it (3:16).  Mary’s over-shadowing by the Spirit (1:35) also links her not only backwards to some of the dramatic appearances by God in the past (e.g. Ex. 16:10, 24:15-18) but also forward to the Transfiguration (Luke 9:34) and Pentecost (Acts 1:8).

Crucially, though, in this passage Luke makes his Christology – his answer to the key question ‘who is Jesus?’ – clear in a number of ways. He establishes that Mary’s child is much greater than John the Baptist.  There are obvious parallels between the two annunciation stories (Luke 1:5-25 / 1:26-38). While John may be destined to be “great” (1:15), though, and both will be filled with the Holy Spirit, the titles and relationship applied to Jesus far outstrip those attached to John. He will be David’s true successor, but also much greater than him. David was an adopted son of God (Ps. 2:7) and beloved of YHWH, but Jesus is the actual Son of God. Not just a “Son of the Most High” (1:32) but explicitly the “Son of God” (1:35); a unique relationship to God.

Luke also makes clear that Jesus is the Messiah anticipated in scripture. Specifically, we see Jesus being connected to the great Davidic line of kings, a crucial part of contemporary Messianic expectation.  Gabriel is explicit that he will be given “the throne of his ancestor David” and that he will reign over Jacob forever (1:32-33). In Jesus, the promise made to David of a throne that will be established forever is fulfilled (2 Sam. 7:12-16; cf. Dan. 7:14).

Finally, he makes a clear distinction between the virgin birth of Mary, on the one hand, and Elizabeth and other miraculous births in the Old Testament (Gen. 18:14, 1 Sam. 1:20, Jdgs. 13:3, Luke 1:5-25). In the latter cases, God intervenes to help those who are struggling to bear a child, while Luke makes clear that Mary is not only young but capable of producing children with Joseph of her own (Acts 1:14). More than that Joseph, will play no part in the child’s conception, a point underlined by his virtual absence from Luke’s narrative (see 3:23 and compare with Matt. 1:18-25).

There is much more we could say about this one, fascinating chapter of Luke. However, I hope that what I have written has demonstrated the riches of our scriptures and how there is so much we can learn from the Bible by studying it together. Most importantly, I hope that these few paragraphs have demonstrated how the story of God’s salvation cannot be broken down into neat ‘halves’ or chapters. The Old and New Testaments are all part of our stories. The story of how God has never left his people alone in the darkness but has kept sending prophets and guides to show us the way, most importantly in the person of his son, Jesus Christ. That story continues today, as women and men across the world continue to be filled with the same Holy Spirit that filled Zechariah and Mary, challenging injustice and bringing joy and hope. I pray that we may know our place in that great story, and know the power of the promise of the coming Christ in our lives, this Advent season and always.

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The Bible Course: a review

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

The problem

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

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

The course

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

The course divides the Bible into eight sessions:

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

Each session is then presented in the same format:

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

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

Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

Amen to that!

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